Interview with Elizabeth Bear

by on Nov 1, 2011 in Interviews | 0 comments

Elizabeth BearElizabeth Bear was the winner of the 2005 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, the 2008 Hugo Award for Best Short Story for “Tideline,” and the 2009 Hugo Award for Best Novelette for “Shoggoths in Bloom.” “The Leavings of the Wolf” marks Bear’s first appearance in Apex Magazine.

Stephanie Jacob: Interspersed in your story “The Leavings of the Wolf,” are vignettes of Dagmar’s marriage, allowing readers to really get a sense of her pain. Many people can identify with Dagmar, her sense of loss and the deep emotional scars of a failed marriage. What inspired you to write this sorrowful tale?

Elizabeth Bear: Well, in all honesty, I have a failed marriage of my own. Writers are well-known vultures: we go through our lives with a little part of our brain on “record,” soaking up experiences, thinking “remember this, remember what it feels like” as we fall in love or are bereaved or witness a terrible accident. It’s an open secret among writers I know.

And that remove, that analysis–is a rich source of material. So in some respects, I have been waiting for some six or seven years to get the sense of perspective to write a story about divorce. Our own personal triumphs and tragedies are where emotional investment comes from. That’s the real secret of the old chestnut, “write what you know.”

Anyway, there was a confluence of events. I happened to have two conversations within a week of each other with various acquaintances about wedding rings and weight gain–either gaining so much weight you couldn’t wear a beloved ring, or having gained so much you couldn’t get one off. And I was teaching at Clarion, and needed to write this story to a fairly tight deadline with a lot of travel between here and there. One of the students had been feeding some crows, which took to waiting for us outside the dining hall… and one morning I went for a run and found the trail that Dagmar explores in the story.

I’ve also been reading with interest a lot of the current research in animal communication, intelligence, and facial recognition, some of which involves crows and ravens, which is what Dagmar is involved with professionally in the story.

I was also, at the time, in the initial stages of a new love affair–my first serious relationship since my divorce (a love affair is currently thriving, much to my consternation and delight)—and that was causing me to assess a whole lot of the old trauma I was still carting around, sort of unexamined.

And thus, the story.

Most of my stories are like that–they arise out of a fortuitous synchronicity–or serendipity–of events and themes. They are emergent properties, as it were, of everything I study and experience and think.

SJ: This passage is our first true indication just how dejected Dagmar has become. “But there have been too many defeats. Cutting it off is one more, one more failure in the litany of failures caught up in the most important thing she was ever supposed to do with her life.” Why do you think she is compelled to keep the ring? Is she holding on to what should have been or would removal of the ring symbolize defeat?

EB: Well, I think it’s open to interpretation.

To me, at least, what’s going on there is that she’s trying to hold on to some aspect of the marriage. She’s not ready to let go of it, and because of that, she’s stuck. So she has to make that sacrifice in order to move on with her life.

SJ: What kind of research did you do if any for “The Leavings of the Wolf” which contains references to Norse Mythology?

EB: Well, I’ve been reading Norse myth for years–I have two fantasy series that deal heavily with it: The Edda of Burdens books (starting with All the Windwracked Stars) and the Iskryne books (starting with A Companion to Wolves) which I am writing with Sarah Monette. It’s a quarter of my heritage, after all, so it interests me. And I hate a little bit that this aspect of my heritage has been co-opted by, not to put too fine a point on it, Nazis and racists, when it’s really as beautiful and complicated and nuanced a story cycle as you find anywhere in the world.

I love Tyr–he’s a fascinating god. You can see the layers of history and revision in Norse mythology in fascinating ways, and Tyr and Loki may be the two most obvious case studies of that. It’s pretty obvious that at one point Tyr was probably the central figure of the mythology, and over years and use, Odin eventually co-opted him in the hearts and minds of worshippers.

But that doesn’t change the fact that Tyr is the guy who sacrificed his hand in order to lie to a demon wolf long enough that the wolf could be bound, and the end of the world delayed for a little while. And it seemed to me that that sacrifice–and his kenning, “The Leavings of the Wolf,” which provides the title of the story–is a powerful metaphor for so many acts of faith in life.

One of which is falling in love. Because nothing you ever do in your life has more potential to do you emotional injury, with the possible exceptions of becoming a parent or becoming a soldier. And yet… we do it. Even knowing what it could cost us, or will cost us… we do it anyway.

That’s courage, isn’t it?

SJ: The genres of science fiction and fantasy have long been dominated by men. Has there been a noticeable change in the acceptance of female authors since you began your writing career?

EB: Not really. But I sold my first novel in 2003, and it was published in 2005; I’m still a relative newcomer to the world of the professional writer. It’s… interesting. There is definitely bias against female writers, both conscious and unconscious, and there is definitely sexual harassment of women in fandom–some of which, I am sad to say, comes from people who should be engaged in crushing such behavior and exploitation, rather than furthering it.

On the other hand… I’ve worked in television, and in construction. I’ve certainly experienced a hell of a lot less professional discrimination in print science fiction than I did working in the roofing industry.
Please note, that’s a pretty low bar. “Woo hoo, we’re doing better than… Hollywood. Oh, crap.”

The most bias I’ve encountered, I am sad to say, is from readers. And there’s no way to address that except to raise a generation of readers who know better than to assume that a book by a female writer is necessarily less interesting than one by a man. Professionals are educable. Readers answer to nothing but their own taste.

SJ: Do you have any novels or short stories I the works that you can tell us about?

EB: Well, just published in August was the second book of the Iskryne series, The Tempering of Men. And coming out in March is the first book of what I think may be my coolest project yet, a central-Asian-themed epic second-world fantasy called Range of Ghosts. I’m currently hard at work on book two, Shattered Pillars.

It has assassins and horse-clans and sweeping empires and sorcery and pretty much everything that makes me love Conan, hopefully with a more modern sensibility.

I have a lot of friends of Asian and North African descent, and one thing that I find they often say is how hard it is for them to find fantasy that reflects their heritage the way most western fantasy reflects a sort of not-exactly-western-Europe. And as a part of my heritage that is not Swedish is Cossack, and as one of my best friends and the mother of my godsons is a male-line descendent of Genghis Khan… well, I talk about synchronicity above. So I wound up writing the first book in part for my godsons, who are still way too young to appreciate it!

And the epic fantasy world–the idea of creating this sweep of cultures and people and events–was something I hadn’t done before, and it really inspired me.

SJ: Where can we find out more about you and your work?

EB: Your best bet is probably my LiveJournal, which is at matociquala.livejournal.com–as my web page is in the middle of a major redesign and migration, and currently a bit derelict.

**Photo credit Staffan Vilcans


More from Elizabeth Bear:

Stephanie Jacob is an interviewer for Apex Magazine who resides in Eastern North Carolina. She graduated Chowan College with a degree in Commercial Art and Converse College with a degree in Studio Art. She worked for years in the publishing industry in pre-press, design and layout. In her spare time she reviews books and writes a seasonal column for a popular paranormal website.

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