Hey! It’s our interview with the incomparable Kameron Hurley! Enjoy!
Just Enough Trope: You famously have a ‘day job’. What conditions, pie-in-the-sky or no, would be necessary for you to write fiction full-time? Do you feel “successful” and what does writing success look like to you?
Kameron Hurley: “Success” and “writing full time” aren’t actually the same thing, for me. Now that I’m in the publishing game and understand how difficult it is to stay in the game, I don’t tie success to money so much as I tie it into my ability to continue selling books that keep me in the game. As long as I’m still writing and publishing regularly, I consider myself a success. You’d be amazed at how difficult it is to keep doing this past book one, let alone over twenty or thirty years. I’ve been doing this for about ten years now, and I’ve watched a lot of people sink instead of swim. And most just tread water.
As for what it would take for me to quit my day job, that involves a lot of financial trickery. If all goes well (knock on wood) I should be out of all debt but my mortgage in the next 18 months. When that happens, that opens up a lot of potential doors for me. Pair that with a three-book, six-figure deal someday soon (one can hope!) and I’d have a lot of options. But we all know how rare even the three book six figure deal is these days.
I’d love to have just one job some day. But I also like having money. Living in a garret eating cockroaches isn’t nearly as romantic as it might sound…
JET: You’ve lived in Africa, in Alaska, Ohio…how have your travels and experiences shaped your identity as an author? Have they? What would you write about if you’d never left the country?
KH: People ask me a lot about where my ideas come from, and the simple answer is that ideas come from everything you experience in your life. That can be going to the grocery store, watching a movie, getting a degree, traveling abroad, or hotwiring a car. Garbage in, garbage out. You are what you consume. So look for the best stuff. What you bring to the table is your ability to remix and rework these events into a new narrative.
I was advised to travel as much as I could in my 20’s, and I did. Doing that whole round the world thing certainly influenced my perspective of my own country and challenged my assumptions. I can’t say what I would or wouldn’t write about if I hadn’t traveled as much as I have (or as much as I continue to travel. I’m writing this from NYC right now), but I can say that it would be very different.
JET: With the aforementioned day job and manuscripts to finish, not to mention contract work, you’re always unbelievably busy. Yet, you still manage to blog regularly, interact reliably with fans on Twitter and you’ve even won a Hugo for your online writing (twice). What drives you to be so vocal and present online and how does it help or hinder your fiction writing?
KH: I’ve been blogging since 2004. Before that, I was writing long emails to friends about my travels, weaving together events into emotional narratives. It was good practice for what would come later – sharing essays online that people loved and that I was eventually paid for.
I enjoy writing online because it’s very much part of being in the science fiction and fantasy community. You meet a lot of people, you dig into a lot of interesting topics, and it’s good writing practice to boot (if you think about it, it took me 10 years to hone what could be called my signature blogging style – the personal essay with the meaty topic sandwiched in the center).
Essay writing is also a very different type of writing than fiction. It can be much more formulaic. I can write a blog post in an hour or two, whereas the fastest short story takes three days, and the fastest novel, 9 to 14 months. So when people say, “Why are you wasting time blogging?” or “why would you spend all that time writing guest posts?” I think they have this expectation that they take me longer than they do. Even “We Have Always Fought,” which went viral and went on to win a Hugo, only took about six hours to write, at most. These are not huge time commitments, but they are hugely cathartic, if that makes sense. Essay writing is how I make narrative from the nonsense, disconnected and chaotic mess that is life. Humans tend to look for order in chaos because they find it deeply comforting. It’s why we see faces on Mars. We see images in static. Our overworked brains are primed for pattern recognition. So essay writing soothes me in a way that novel writing doesn’t. Novel writing engages a whole other part of my brain.
As for what drives me to be so engaged and to work so hard, well – I almost died when I was 26, and I have a chronic illness now that’s doing me no favors. I’m very much aware that I’m running on limited time. Might as well be productive with the time I have!
JET: I’ve seen your work described as “dense”, “immersive”, even “frustrating”. You undeniably don’t do a lot of “hand-holding” for your readers which is a bold choice, especially considering the alien and unique settings of the Bel Dame Apocrypha and the Worldbreaker Saga. What was your thought process in consciously developing your particular style and are there any authors who influenced you or that you look to when trying to flesh out your worlds?
KH: I adore books that make you figure shit out. There’s something very satisfying about knowing you’re in the hands of a competent author who trusts you to figure things out. I was reading a book recently called Elysium by Jennifer Marie Brissett that does this – you just launch full in, and the characters morph places and genders and relationships for pages and pages and it doesn’t start coming together into something that makes sense until halfway through. I find that fun.
I like a little bit of mystery and magic in what I’m reading, and that carries over into what I write. Books that tell you everything or tie it all up in a neat bow at the end, don’t leave the reader with anything to think about afterward. I want to be thinking about and talking about the meaning and implications of a work well after I’ve read it. I don’t just want to get to the end and go, “Well, that was nice,” and forget about it.
I got an email once from a fan who read a short story of mine and had been talking with a friend about it and coming up with all of these elaborate theories about the world and what had really happened, and it delighted me to no end to see that so much thought and debate had gone into it. That’s the story of story I want to write – a story that lives outside the page.
I read a lot of New Weird books, from KJ Bishop to China Mieville, and those really impacted how I approached writing. When I read Perdido Street Station I thought, “Wow, this has seriously raised the bar on epic fantasy worldbuilding,” and I’ve tried to surpass that level with everything I’ve done. Similarly, KJ Bishop does a great job throwing you into this weird world with rules that you never quite understand, and that’s perfect, because magic isn’t science. Magic should always contain a bit of mystery and uncertainty.
JET: “Social justice” as a concept has become both a rallying cry and an pejorative epithet in recent days on the Internet and elsewhere. How do you think your books (which feature wildly shifting gender power dynamics and religious and political zealotry) contribute to the gender and belief debates? Are your works a personal statement, Juvenalian satire, escapism, one or more or all three?
KH: I’d hope it’s all of that, really. Even the juvenile satire, at times! I write for pure escapism, myself – I write to go somewhere else, where things are really different. I write what I want to see. I write out thought experiments that I don’t feel anyone else has done yet. I write societies I haven’t seen. I love to take disparate characters and images and tropes and smoosh them all together and see what happens.
Am I here to change the world? Ultimately, sure, that’s what you hope to do. But you can only do that by telling real, powerful, fun, page-turning stories. If you’re just a ranting didactic writer, that’s super boring. I’m first and foremost a teller of tales. What a lot of folks don’t want to admit is that being a teller of tales is also a very powerful position. You get to show people how the world is, or could be. You get to inspire change, or inspire people to question what’s normal. Every storyteller has that power, whether or not they want to admit it. I just own up to it, and I’m very aware of the images I put on the page, and the people who power my stories.
JET: If, tomorrow, the King of Writing said you couldn’t write any more, what could you see yourself doing and what would take the place of writing for you?
KH: Well, I would probably kill the King of Writing and take his place, really. I was once asked that old hypothetical question – whether or not I’d take a hundred million dollars if I would stop writing, and I said no. Oh, sure, I’d take the money and stop publishing my writing, but I could not give up the actual writing part and stay sane. As I said before, writing is how I make sense of the world. It’s how I make sense of my life, my thoughts, and what’s happening around me. If I cease to do that I’d have no outlet for my Crazy, and would probably descend into madness. No joke! We all have stuff we love, or habits, or whatever, that keeps us sane, and writing is mine. No matter where I am, if I can write, I can survive. Take that away, and I quickly succumb to the pitter-patter of clutter in my brain. And no one wants that.
So if I’m writing and blogging and jabbering on Twitter, that’s all a good thing – it means I’m locked and loaded and ready to fire off my next great book.
JET: Thanks for your time!