Of Preachers and Storytellers: An Interview with Sheri S. Tepper
By Neal Szpatura
21 July 2008
Sheri S. Tepper is unapologetic about the label "ecofeminist." Author of nearly forty novels, she creates complex, well-rounded characters in elegant blends of science fiction, fantasy, ecological alarum, and feminist fable. She writes what she cares about deeply, hoping to awaken readers to the hard realities of history and our times. She argues for a truly long view regarding our use of the Earth and its creatures—including each other—if we mean to survive.
On the phone, Tepper is warm, kind, and gracious, and laughs easily, as might be expected of someone who owns a guest ranch near Santa Fe, New Mexico. But she is unflinching as she describes inequities she has seen, stupidities she perceives, and the remedies she recommends.
Tepper's work has won the Locus Award for Best Fantasy (Beauty) and received twenty Locus nominations. She was a Hugo finalist for best novel (Grass), and has been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. She has also been a multiple finalist for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award.
This interview was conducted by phone and email.
Neal Szpatura: When we scheduled our interview, you said, "In my reviews, I'm accused of being a writer who preaches. Actually, I'm a preacher who writes!" So, what is your Gospel?
Sheri S. Tepper: Was the universe created intentionally?
If we say yes, then creation is important to something or someone in and of itself and we can call that something God if we want to.
If there were no intention, then the universe might be inconsequential except, perhaps, to creatures that have arisen within it. Give those creatures enough time and they may figure it out. Then we can call them God if we want to.
If creation is important to something or someone or is going to become important, then all subcreations of it are also important. Everything is important. There is nothing so unimportant you can ignore it or destroy it with complete impunity. Your senses are part of the "everything." Seeing is important. Smelling is important. Hearing is important. Everything is important and you have to look at, study, get involved with everything, and you have to believe what you find out, and test, and finally prove! None of this nonsense about not believing in fossils because God was just playing around in order to confuse us. If you ignore the evidence of your (dare one say God-given) senses, if you define myth as reality, and if you claim divine revelation allows you to destroy any part of creation, you have committed absolute evil.
Do we have any way of knowing exactly what is intended for the universe to be or become? No, but given the age and complexity of the whole shebang, we can be fairly sure creation is important.
If we look at our world, our own natural creation, what do we see happening?
We see development of intelligence, language, and a continuing search for information.
Are these things merely accidents?
Possibly, but the indications are that natural laws select for such things. We have several races of beings that speak on this one planet. We have many and varying types of intelligence on this one planet. Therefore, tendencies that encourage intelligence, language, and a continuing search for information may very well be in accordance with the purpose of the universe.
And contrariwise, all systems that discourage intelligence, language, and a continuing search for information are anti-existence, death-dealing, and evil. Any religion that says, "This is the creed, you have to believe this, you have to accept it regardless of the fact it makes no sense, or you are a heretic!" is an evil religion that commits evil things like overpopulating the planet, groping little boys, torturing people to make them confess, and marrying thirteen-year-old girls off to men old enough to be their grandfathers.
The Inquisition, by defining and limiting knowledge, was evil. The Taliban, by defining truth and refusing girls an education, is evil. Any religion that says it knows the one and only truth is evil, because it limits knowledge. Any political body that says it owns the truth is evil. Same reason.
Any repressive regime that seeks to control exploration and experimentation is evil. Same reason. Any regime that defines truth as a set of beliefs and occurrences that cannot be questioned, that can neither be demonstrated nor proven is not only evil but ridiculous. This includes all mythologies, miracles, etc. because, if creation happened for a reason, if it was done by God, you'd better believe every part of it, including intelligence, was done for a reason ascertainable, eventually, by intelligence. We would not follow and adore a ruler who lied and tortured. Why would we worship a God who did either? God doesn't lie and he/she/it doesn't fool around!
Shutting down inquiry is evil. Causing pain purposefully for no reason is evil. Enjoying causing pain by shutting down inquiry is an absolute evil. Every generation has its Galileos. Every generation has its repressive popes. A lot of the Galileos are scientists; a lot of the popes are politicians. Just try talking about population limitation now. Can't talk about that. Might offend the Mormons, offend the Catholics, offend Saudis with their several wives and several dozen children, offend the absolute leaders of Evil Empires. Can't have that.
NS: You've worked for CARE and been Executive Director at Planned Parenthood. Does that contribute to your fiction?
SST: CARE and Planned Parenthood didn't contribute to my fiction. My fiction (in embryo) contributed to my desire to work for those people, at least initially.
NS: Your novels, especially the most recent one, The Margarets, remind me of Tolkien in their rich, mythopoeic nature.
SST: Is mythopoeic really a word?
NS: Umm. Must be. It's in my Effete Person's Guide to Literary Interviews. Anyway, how were you first captured by myths and fairy tales?
SST: Fairy tales and myths almost always come out right. The bad things are beaten, the good things are elevated. Even ordinary stories about children are often fairy tales, because it is rare for them to end in tragedy. Children cling to fairy tales and myths as they cling to a loved parent because they represent security. Everything will be okay. Really. It really will.
Even today, I love mystery stories and even some "thriller"-type books that don't break my rules. My rules demand that no one be held and tortured on the page, though one may refer to it having happened. The bad guy always has to get what he deserves. The good guy or gal may be injured, but he or she or spouses and children may not be killed. If I know I can trust certain authors I'll go ahead and read these terrifying five pages because I know it's going to be okay. I never read an author twice if I can't trust him or her to make it come out right. I never read an author twice if he writes the kind of books where everyone and everything is in tension from page one to the last paragraph of the last page, like that dreadful TV show, 24. Tension is something I have plenty of in life. I don't need it elsewhere.
Which brings us to the subject of "literary" writing. The kind that wins prizes. The kind that people who teach literature use as examples of fine writing, you know. There are literary writers and there are storytellers.
We preachers are usually among the storytellers. Sometimes the two overlap, but in general the literary writer will sacrifice every character, every virtue, every goodness or purity to the needs of the writing. Much "great writing" is tragedy. Much "great writing" is depressing. The storyteller doesn't usually indulge in either tragedy or depression because the storyteller wants the reader (hearer) to enjoy the telling. The storyteller may not even know what the needs of literature are. The storyteller (the preacher) wants to elevate the heart, not revel in technique. Chances are the storyteller doesn't even have any technique.
NS: Yeah. I've had editors say something like that. Going back to myths and fairy tales, what were your favorite sources back then?
SST: My favorite sources were anything I could lay hands on: Oz books; A. Merritt (The Moon Pool; Burn, Witch, Burn!; The Ship of Ishtar) I loved. Anybody writing fantasy or sci-fi in the '30s and '40s was probably someone I was reading. I bought used magazines. When I had a little money, I subscribed to Fantasy and Science Fiction, to the old Astounding, to whatever. I had all the Lang Fairy Books of every color. I still have them. I read The Hobbit and learned what high fantasy is.
NS: Do you continue reading them now?
SST: Do I continue reading those same books? Well, now it's a choice. Do I reread Tolkien again (every year since the trilogy came out) or do I watch the DVDs? Both, probably.
NS: Anything in particular at the moment?
SST: Lately, I've been reading mysteries, mostly. I'm currently lost in adoration of Lindsey Davis (the Falco mystery series) and Ellis Peters (the Brother Cadfael mystery series), who are really kind of fantasy writers because they're writing mysteries about first-century Rome and the twelfth century in England. They're amazing. And they always come out right.
NS: You dedicate The Margarets to "my friend of sixty-three years, Lambert J. Larson, without whose encouragement I would never have written a word." Can you please tell us about that relationship?
SST: Lambert Larson and I were friends in junior high and high school. We lived near one another out in the country. We used to walk back and forth to school together. We were both nerdy kids, and we became very close friends. I was the sister he wished he'd had, he was the brother I wished I'd had. We talked about stuff, all kinds of stuff. We read stuff, all kinds of stuff. When the other kids were at the Saturday afternoon football game, Lambert and I took the bus into Denver to see Olivier do Hamlet. I adored his stepmother; she was the only adult who ever talked sense to me. Anyhow, he went off to the Coast Guard Academy and I went off in other directions.
Thirty or so odd years later he retired and returned to Colorado. My husband and I had a ranch south of Denver. It had a spare house on it. Lambert came to live on the ranch and help out, then later moved down to Santa Fe with us. My husband Gene had promised we would retire to the country, but he hadn't told me he didn't intend to retire until he was 110. So, Gene stayed in town Monday through Friday, and spent weekends at the ranch, and then later he spent half his time at Santa Fe. All this time I wrote.
Lambert was the guy who listened and found the flaws and helped figure out what to do about them. He had a fine analytical mind. He couldn't write a sensible prose sentence, but he could detect a plot flaw at half a mile. When I got absolutely bogged, we'd get in the car. He'd drive; I'd talk about the problem. Maybe fifty miles later (or a hundred and fifty), we'd figured it out. He was just a great friend.
He died because the tobacco companies helped out our fine servicemen by giving them free [or government-subsidized] cigarettes, thus guaranteeing lifelong consumers. He couldn't admit he was hooked and he couldn't give up tobacco. He refused to admit he needed oxygen. He died of emphysema. I find it interesting that the tobacco people have killed more of our servicemen than all the wars we've ever fought.
NS: In The Margarets, as in other works, you portray worlds that are post-apocalyptic and/or post- or mid-holocaust. That's a pretty grim place to have to go on a daily basis. How do you find the courage to hold yourself there? How do you help yourself recover from it?
SST: Post-apocalyptic, post- or mid-holocaust? You say that's a grim place to go on a daily basis, yet we both do it every day, don't we? We're living in it, Neal. Did you think it was still in the future? Read the daily paper. How do I hold myself there? I read the daily paper. How do I recover? I don't. Do you?
NS: Hmmm. Not the way I used to think I did.
The Margarets portrays several species and cultures that literally feed on pain, fear, and agony. Remind you of anyone?
SST: Every villain or villainous activity I have ever written about is a person or an activity that has actually lived or taken place. I invent nothing. When I wrote in Raising the Stones about the slavery practiced by one race and their reasons for it, those reasons were taken verbatim from arguments written in defense of Negro slavery by southern slave owners. Watch bullies at school. See how they delight in causing pain. See how little is done to change them. Imagine them grown, elected, put into power. They do grow, they are elected, they are put into power. When I write about forced pregnancy, it happens. (Look at today's paper concerning the lovely complex [of Warren Jeffs's so-called Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints] in Texas and remember the very similar people in The Gate to Women's Country.)
NS: In one scene in The Margarets you write, "The expression of divinity is in variety."
SST: The expression of divinity is the universe (I said something about that earlier) in infinite variety. No subset of that variety is complete. Only the infinite entirety expresses the "everything" that is possible. No divinity could be limited, could it? Infinity would have to encompass even evil, but divinity might choose to make it impotent (except in the afterlife, where some literary writers could choose to go so they could revel in describing the awful).
NS: Is a goal in creating realms and stories like these to foster ecological justice? Social justice? And what would that mean to you?
SST: Is a goal in stories like these to foster justice? Does a preacher try to convert the wicked? What was Elijah trying to do, influence literary scholarship? I am a voice crying in the wilderness!
NS: Your creations often deal with tremendous displacement and homelessness, with outcasts and disposable persons. How did this element come to your writing?
SST: Displacement, homelessness, outcasts, disposable persons . . . Without getting into personal history, many young women of my generation felt all those things very much. They saw their brothers sent to better schools, they saw men given better jobs than women, they saw their male colleagues elevated over them with promotions that women better deserved. It's better now. That doesn't mean it's gone.
NS: In one little episode, Margaret reviews the history of the transport ships given to Earth by the Gentherans, their space-traveling mentors. The ships are named the Ninja, the Piñata, and the Santa Claus, but nobody knows why.
SST: Ninja, Piñata, and Santa Claus. Well, the Gentherans came to discover a new land. They found a race of savages. They came bearing gifts. And they were a lot stronger and meaner than they looked. They had a sense of humor and they found the Nina, the Pinta, and the Santa Maria delightfully comparable.
NS: In Margaret's world, "the Earth biome is terminal." Do you believe ours is?
SST: Yes, the Earth biome is terminal. Most scientists who really understand the situation know that. That doesn't mean we can't live in cities like ants and eat algae soup for centuries, but the Earth of infinite variety and beauty will be dead and, once that has happened, nothing we do will mean very much.
NS: So many of your stories revolve around a crisis fostered by blending materialistic greed and spiritual myopia. The situation is summarized in a few lines from The Margarets. There were
four types of creatures: civilized, semi-civilized, barbarians, and animals. . . . Barbarians know about their environment but don't care about their worlds. . . . Too many Earthians were in fact barbarians who didn't care what happened to Earth because they'd be off in some lovely afterlife by that time.
How do you see that playing out today?
SST: When the judges arrive to see how we've done, I don't think they'll rate us as "keepers." I believe there will be judges who will decide which races deserve to go on existing to accomplish whatever the universal task is. I also believe that all of us—the human race—have at most one shared human soul. It is what we do as a race, not what we do as individuals, that counts. Accepting one racial soul as a fact immediately turns us toward brotherhood and away from tribalism. Unless we change enormously, we simply won't merit a soul. They won't necessarily destroy us. They'll just leave us alone to destroy ourselves.
We all see how the afterlife bit is playing out today. One doesn't destroy the Earth if one thinks one's grandchildren are going to need it, unless one can figure out a way to live in total profligacy and still have surviving grandchildren. If one's ego, or religion, or both, demand having seven children, all consuming oil and meat and electricity, one simply invents a rapture or a paradise where everyone can have ceaseless procreation and unlimited oil.
NS: Do you believe in reincarnation? That would at least serve the bastards right.
SST: Do I believe in reincarnation? What's to reincarnate? We are the sum of all the electrical impulses stored in our brains: some memories, some responses, some preferences, some sensory enjoyments or hates. Where are you going to put that if you reincarnate? If, however, reincarnation is real, I will come back as an octopus. I have arthritis and am very healthy except for my bones, which I could do without.
NS: Would I interpret you correctly to say that except for the "One who sets all into motion then waits," gods are created in the image of humankind as personal, empowering helper-buddies who run on the energy worshippers provide?
SST: No, I say the entities that are named as gods by Earthians are imagined into being by Earthians as personal helper-buddies, justifiers, threateners (my god can beat up your god). They don't "run on" anything any more than a mirror image "runs on" anything. They merely reflect what people want them to be. "I want to have more children than my brother does, thus proving I'm a better man than he is, so my god tells me I should have a big family." "I want to screw women, so my god is going to give me seventy virgins I can screw for all eternity." The "gods" in The Margarets who could really do anything were actually an old, highly evolved race of real people. The others were only reflections. The real God, who may really exist, is outside all that, perhaps watching closely, perhaps merely asleep for a few trillion years while the experiment runs out.
We—thee and me as individuals—will never know that God, though after a few trillion years, the universe as a whole may come to understand that God.
NS: One of the major themes of The Margarets is that humans foul their planet(s) over and over because they have no permanent racial memory of what has come before, that history is too easily manipulated or discounted. Do you believe it's possible to recover or begin to instill that "mother memory"?
SST: If we taught history the way we teach popular music, it might serve as a kind of racial memory. We focus too much on people and dates and not enough on movements and consequences. Nowhere, as a young person, did any teacher tell me that the human race had spent most of its history in senseless killing of one another. Instead, we learned that wars were "righteous." Soldiers were "valiant," etc.
NS: Throughout your works, there are guardian or helping races (what one character calls "galactic social workers"), whether ETs, fairies, angelic beings, magical predecessors, or whatever.
SST: I think galactic social workers are possible. The universe is old, a lot older than we are. There could well be races out there who have decided it is their job to help younger, sillier folk. If they show up, we'll think they're gods, which they won't be. They'll be vaguely embarrassed by that misapprehension until they realize they can use it to make us shape up. Somewhat.
NS: There are also aspects of hard science throughout The Margarets, as in what and how long it will take to restore a single acre of rain forest once it has been destroyed. What sources keep you current on science?
SST: I read Scientific American, Science News, Discover, books that attract my attention on current issues.
NS: In The Song of Mavin Manyshaped, one "galactic social worker-type," Ganner, says, "Ah. Sad. So sad, such longing for holiness." How so/why so?
SST: Longing for holiness. Well, look at Mother Teresa. She spent her whole life being holy. She didn't benefit anyone in any real sense. She didn't work on stopping disease, helping poverty, doing anything that would relieve the condition of her countrymen. She just went around the city, picked up dying people, and took care of them while they died. It was a good thing, no doubt, but it meant no betterment, no progress, no help, no relief from pain. She longed to be holy. She wanted to be a saint. Now she's a saint.
[Jonas] Salk [inventor of the Salk polio vaccine] isn't a saint. But he did more for the human race than Mother Teresa did. He didn't long to be holy, which meant having faith, not asking questions, doing something unpleasant without thought or complaint. He longed to do good, which meant finding things out, asking hard questions, and thinking hard, deep thoughts. Goodness and holiness are two different things, unfortunately.
NS: The Visitor opens with a dream sequence. Is dreamwork part of your writing practice or personal practice?
SST: Only once in my life did I dream anything that went into a book. One of the early Marianne books (of The Marianne Trilogy) had a sequence in which someone planted grass seed on a dog because he'd lost all his fur. I dreamed that. My own theory about dreams does not admit to their being significant. The seeded dog wasn't significant. He was just funny.
NS: Of the religion that grows up in The Visitor's city of Bastion, you write, "the only answers permitted were those that grew ever more tortuous and convoluted. . . . Until, some say, God turned his back on them for their failure to use the minds they had been given." Are we talking about how eating shellfish and wearing clothing of mixed fiber are abominations unto God?
SST: Have you ever read any of the books written by theologians concerning various points of doctrine? A Roman Catholic book, for example, on sexual sin? Any of the books written by rabbis, over the centuries, on the Talmud? These books govern the lives of real people but they have absolutely nothing to do with reality. Mother Teresa would have done more for humanity by convincing the poor of India to use birth control than she did by being sainted. Staying in balance with our environment is real. Holiness isn't real. Theology isn't real. Being required to believe that the founder of your religion had a revelation about having plural wives isn't real. Screwing virgins in paradise isn't real. Eating or not eating shrimp isn't real. Marrying or not marrying someone of another religion or color isn't real. Fossils are real. Stars are real. The red shift is real. Planets around other stars are real. This Earth dying beneath us is real. And God, if God is real, may well have turned away from us for choosing to believe in self-serving revelations about sex instead of using the eyes, ears, and minds we were given to learn about reality.
NS: In Beauty, the heroine is literally under a curse. Do you believe in the efficacy of curses in our reality? If so, what form(s) can they take, and how can they be undone?
SST: Curses? Sure. Women have lived under a curse for centuries. It's a real curse, designed and imposed by churchmen, mostly. The lower castes in India live under a curse, a real curse, imposed again by the higher-ups, religiously speaking. Do I believe in bat's wings and frog's liver curses made at midnight under a blasted oak? No. I tried it. Didn't work.
NS: Beauty says, "Words bubble up in me like water. It is hard to shut them off." Are you telling on yourself?
SST: When I write well, the words go directly onto the page without my being aware of them. They go from mind to page. My greatest regret now is that I have to take a lot of pain meds to keep functioning, and I can't write well when I take them. It's like dropping a curtain.
NS: There are some wonderful names in Beauty, especially for some religious orders: "Sisters of the Immediate Conception at St. Mary of Perpetual Surprise"; "St. Frog at the Cathedral of Helpful Amphibians." (After reading that one, I had a dream in which I was telling Paul McCartney about the good works of the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Night Soil. So thanks a lot!) There's obviously some room for humor in all this. Yes?
SST: Humor, especially in Beauty? Oh, yes. I had a lot more of it in the book originally. The editor just didn't get it. I finally got my agent to hire, at my expense, a good editor to read the book and give me suggestions, which I followed. One of them was to cut a lot of the section where the Cathedral of Helpful Amphibians could be found.
NS: You often create alternate realities, and comings and goings between them. Do you believe in them yourself? And do you believe in the Faery realm, which you portray both beautifully and sadly in Beauty?
SST: Sorry, don't believe in the Faery realm. That is not to say that it might not exist on some other world. There's nothing intrinsically impossible about it. It just requires a slightly different reality. If some greatly advanced people came to visit, they would probably seem magical.
NS: Do you consider your writing to be a means to help others connect with realms of spirit or "non-ordinary reality," as Carlos Castaneda called it?
SST: My writing as a way of connecting others to realms? Nope. A way of living for a while in an alternate reality? Sure.
NS: You write of Grumpkin, Beauty's cat: "Fairy things don't impress cats. Fairy things and holy things. Cats are, perhaps, a separate creation." Cats, and cat-like creatures, seem to hold a special place in your world, and worlds.
SST: I have four cats, five as of today. Jefe is my bed cat, a rescued abandoned cat who adopted me to live with. Over the last few days we've acquired Mauser. He was a tomcat (looks like half Siamese, half tabby) who lived in our barn and we found him scavenging for food. We trapped him, took him to the vet, checked him for feline leukemia (which we do not want to fool with—bad stuff), neutered him, got him all his vaccinations and everything, and let him go back to living in the barn, only now he gets daily rations. Bothersome, Troublesome, and Ginger Peachy are three kittens I fostered for the local animal rescue society. They live in the office. I have four dogs, ten goats, twenty sheep, fifty or sixty chickens, three burros, and a whole bunch of rabbits. I also have about ten people, only one of whom is actually related to me.
NS: Some of your writing has a Shakespearean beauty, like, "spring had miraculously occurred. In the corners the lilacs hung in royal purple trusses, and roses filled the air with a fragrance deep as smoke." How do such images come to you?
SST: Shakespearean? Gee. I guess sometimes I get lucky.
NS: In fact, there's a sort of Shakespearean quality to much of your work. You blend present-day mundane with the fantastical and the mythical and the historical and the adventurous and the beautiful, as he did. Perhaps your pulpit should be the screen (large and small), where a greater audience can come for entertainment, edification, and catharsis.
SST: The screen. I wish Peter Jackson, who directed Lord of the Rings, would do Grass. He'd do a wonderful job of it, and it was a really good book and there are too few really great roles for women.
NS: You write, "There's no magic left today. The fairies are all gone, and there's no magic left." How close are we to that reality today?
SST: Well, the case could be made that there once was magic, but the church usurped it and used it all up doing miracles and stuff. I really sort of like that idea, which does not mean I necessarily believe it.
NS: From Beauty, "Things done in Faery have meaning in the world. . . . Promises made here are transferable." That's a very shamanic concept. Please say more?
SST: Things done in imagination have meaning in the world. Faery is imagination, right? Things done in imagination are transferable to reality. Promises made there can become real. In our minds we can have Faery. In our minds we can have anything we want. We can move it, change it, love it, hate it. If, in our minds, we promise to be faithful to a particular ideal, that can have reality.
NS: You also have a very shamanic take on some of the dark-side creations that are so popular now. "There was a time, I remember a time, when certain things were said to be unthinkable. Persons did not dwell on these thoughts, they cast them aside." "[I]t did not do to dwell upon such things. The darkness was too close." We did not foster "the playtime of the beasts." There's a shamanic teaching: what you give focus to, and energy to, you give life to. What would you say to those who create perversions for delectation?
SST: Those who create perversions for delectation are detestable! I wish they could be held responsible for the actual evils they cause. If I were ruler of the Earth, I would dictate that no man who creates an evil may have his picture or name published. Shoot ten kids at school, it can be reported on an inside page in small letters, but the name and face of the person who did it is anathema. Somewhere today you may be sure there is an idiot conspiring to shoot teachers and fellow students so "people will notice me," "people will take me seriously," "people will know who I am." Children raised on the worship of notoriety have no limits. They have only desire to be known. There is absolutely no difference between a writer doing a book about torture and pain for the delectation of perverts and a Roman emperor ordering a few dozen or hundred slaves into the arena to be tortured and killed by gladiators or beasts for the delectation of perverts, which, at that time, most of the population were because they had been taught to be. They had been taught what entertainment was. Our children are also taught what entertainment is. Rap singers teach. Horror and dismemberment movies teach. Horror writers teach. School assassins teach. Judges who let drunk drivers off with a slap on the wrist teach. Religions that "forgive" murder with no requirement for public confession and trial teach.
NS: It's edifying to see whom you perceive to be the elevated ones among humans, and how they become so. Puck tells Beauty, "when a man or a woman climbs, Beauty, he or she can end up as high as the angels or higher. . . . Gardeners climb. And farmers. And painters. And poets. People who build beautiful things without destroying to do it. . . . And people who live with animals and learn of them until they know every twitch of a tail or an ear. And those that study atoms and how they move, and stars and how they move. Those who learn about the Holy One by reading his own book of nature and creation, that's who climbs." Has that perception changed over the fifteen or so years since you wrote it?
SST: My perception of those of value to the world has not changed in fifteen years, or twenty-five, or fifty, or seventy. I feel now as I did when I was ten and first saw a neighbor chopping down old marvelous trees so he could build a go-cart track for his kids. I feel as I did when I was eighteen and first introduced to the reasoning of Malthus. I feel as I felt at twenty when the farm where I grew up was destroyed—river, mire, birds, trees—all to put in another suburb. I feel as I felt at twenty-six when five million Hindus left what is now Pakistan, and five million Muslims left what is now India, in order to avoid religious war, which is still going on anyhow [with the most recent escalations in Kashmir being the Kargil War in 1999 and the military standoff in 2001-2002]. I feel as I felt at twenty-nine, when I was told to interview for my replacement when I'd left the job I'd been doing for five years for CARE. They told me to give it to a male applicant at a certain salary with these words: "I know that's more than you were making, but he's a man." The fact that I was supporting two children and that he was a retired army major on full pension, supporting no one but himself, made no difference. There are those who climb and there are those who hang about the necks of those who climb, claiming a height for themselves although they could not achieve it on their own.
I'm angry. Thinking of this makes me angry.
NS: Much of your writing has a shamanic context or element to it; there are even shamans riding in spacecraft. Have you had personal experiences with shamanism and the shamanic [multi-]worlds view?
SST: Shamanism connects nature, animals of all kinds, trees, rivers, everything. It has its rituals. It is as valid as any religion is valid, being any rite or form that allows us to calm down and take a deep breath and resolve against wounding others of whatever shape, size, or kind. Shamanism would not espouse destruction of living beings except within a natural framework in which all living things eat and are eaten by others. I approve of that: both the eating (without cruelty) and the being eaten (without cruelty).
I personally detest authoritarianism, which means there are some religions I find abhorrent, particularly those in which the authorities are almost invariably old men. They all have certain things in common: they rule women and children; they tend to sequester women; they focus to a great degree upon "purity" of womenfolk, which really means that they have the sole right to grant women's sexuality to whomever they choose; they have a nasty habit of killing women who become "impure," even through no fault of their own; they treat women as livestock and children not much better; they are sex obsessed and procreation obsessed; and, they are tribal. Tribal religions, languages, and cultures are bad news. No one with any sense would ever start a war with a tribal country because you would never have any way of knowing who the enemy is at any given time. It took Bill Clinton a few short weeks to figure this out. Bush will never figure it out if he lives to be a hundred. You can conquer and dominate a tribal country, as "the Raj" did in India, but you cannot "work with it" to instill democracy or any other "-cracy." And if you turn over a country to a tribal people, it turns overnight into a tyranny with one tribe dominant.
NS: Can you talk about any specific personal spiritual experiences that have colored or shaped your work?
SST: Spiritual experience? Please, I have yet to have anyone define for me what "spiritual" means. What is a "spiritual experience"? I have met people who tell me seriously that they are working on "spiritual development," which seems to involve doing nothing most of the time while reciting words in an ancient language or focusing upon the timing of their breathing or which nostril the air goes in or out of. Some spiritual people "commune," which is the same thing without the chanting. Others make, buy, or use scented candles for "spiritual enhancement." Please define it for me. I find the whole split between the real world and the "spiritual" world terribly confusing. I don't think you can split them. Sorry. They're indivisible.
NS: Your works often weave together stories that are happening across vastly different times, in different realities and faraway places. In The Margarets, the story is told by seven different persons. How do you keep all that organized?
SST: Organizing a story? I keep notes, maps, sometimes diagrams.
NS: Do you work on character development as a separate issue from writing the story?
SST: I don't work on any part of a story as a separate thing. Plots, people, characters all grow up together. When I am writing, which I am not right now as pain meds tend to cloud one's ability to concentrate, I simply sit down at the computer and write until I run out of ideas, words, time, or patience. Then the next day I do the same thing over again.
NS: Do you do plot outlines?
SST: I do not do plot outlines because I keep changing my mind.
NS: How do you work with an editor? How would you like to work with an editor?
SST: I've found all the editors I've worked with to be very pleasant. I would have liked a bit more help, sometimes. I think if I were a "big seller," editors might be able to justify spending more time. Almost all the ones I've known have been overworked and (I'm sure) underpaid.
NS: Do you have any favorite books?
SST: Of course I have favorite books. Which ones are which vary with the seasons and the circumstances.
NS: When Sheri becomes Head Queen, what three things will get changed first?
SST: 1. A Court of Equity will be set up that can overrule the Supreme Court. The judges will have to know history and science and ethics. They will pay no attention to the law. Their job will be to decide not what is lawful, but what is just. Or, failing that, what is least unjust based on reality, not on theory. If a law doesn't work, the Court of Equity can abolish it, just like that. They can act in any case where injustice is believed to exist.
2. The Court of Equity shall define humanity more strictly. Merely being born to human parents in a reasonably human shape will not be sufficient. Human beings have to have certain attributes: most importantly, being a humane creature. Humans cannot purposefully injure others. They have to be capable, once adults, of controlling what they do. Persons who look human but who are uncontrollable or who habitually hurt other people will no longer be defined as human. Every person born of human parents is not necessarily human. Those born to other parents might be, however. Probably the bonobos are human. Whales and dolphins may very well be human. I have met some very humanlike dogs and cats. Mere language does not define humanity.
3. The idea that a term in prison "pays a debt to society" shall be stricken from the vocabulary. Persons who are not human must be perpetually separated from society. People who purposefully hurt others may not—ever—be released to move about in society. This includes crazy people, alcoholics, and addicts who cannot be permanently cured. None of this, "Oh, he's fine when he's on his meds, but he forgets to take his medicine." People who traffic in arms and drugs, wife beaters, serial rapists, pedophiles, and their ilk are included. Walled cities will be built in the wastelands and all nonhuman persons will be sterilized and sent to live there, together, raising their own food. There will be no traffic in, no traffic out, except for studies that may be done which might lead to a "cure." There will be no chat about this sequestration being "inhumane," because the persons so confined are not human by definition. (Aren't you really sick of reading about some guy who's been arrested six times for driving drunk and finally jailed after killing a family of five, and now he's getting out because he's "paid his debt to society"? Who thought up that idiocy?) The cities for nonhumans will not get overcrowded because the inhabitants will probably kill each other off fairly regularly.
Thus concludeth the reading of the scripture. If you consider it ungodly, reread the Old Testament concerning the conquest of Canaan.
NS: Whew! Wow! Wow.
Sheri, thanks so very much. Best wishes out on the ranch.