An Interview with Mary Robinette Kowal

Below is one of the interviews we conducted with the fabulous featured guests at Nerdcon: Stories 2015 in Minneapolis, MN. Originally, there was audio for all of our interviews but our engineer (Kal) is a schmuck and some of them didn’t turn out very good. So, transcribed here, is the text of our interview with Mary Robinette Kowal, which Kal was forced to type with 1000 monkeys as punishment. You can check out some of the interviews that *did* work elsewhere on the site or on iTunes @ The Just Enough Trope Podcast. Enjoy! (whip cracks) Keep typing, monkeys! Rehearsal for Hamlet starts in an hour!

Kaliban: You have a theater background, don’t you?
MRK: Yes.
K: So, you must have taken improv classes before…
MRK: Not since high school.
K: That’s a little while.
MRK: Yeah.
K: But do you find those muscles…I have an acting background, too, and I find that, when I’m doing improv or doing it often, it comes really easy.
MRK: Yes.
K: But, I don’t know if it’s the day after or the week after, but those muscles begin to immediately get stiff.
MRK: Absolutely.
K: And when I have to do it again, it’s like “…all right, ok, ‘yes and’…”
MRK: (laughs)
K: But then you work it out and it’s like “Oh! I remember this!”
MRK: Yeah, that’s very much it, which is why I’m so glad that I *just* had taken a workshop.
K: Because it made the show better.
MRK: Yeah. “Look at me being able to draw these skills in from other places!”
K: Did you go to the open mic (ed. note: on Thurs. night @ Nerdcon) at all?
MRK: No.
K: Yeah, I didn’t either, although I kind of wanted to.
MRK: I wanted to but I had puppet rehearsal.
K: Oh! What are you rehearsing for?
MRK: We have a show here at Nerdcon. (ed. note: which was *awesome*, btw)
K: Oh! Of course. Ok. And you had to rehearse.
MRK: Yes…you know. It’s a thing we do.
K: (laughs) I should say that we are here with Mary Robinette Kowal, Hugo award-winning author of Shades of Milk and Honey amongst other works. You are a voice actor and a puppeteer; how did you get started with puppets?
MRK: The short story version is that I was already doing puppets in high school and by the time I got to college, I was one of those kids who wanted to do everything, so a career in Art Education with a minor in Theatre and Speech was the closest I could come to doing everything I wanted to do. I was doing Little Shop of Horrors as the giant man-eating plant and a professional puppeteer came to see the show and I was like “Wait, people give you money to do this?!” and pretty much changed career choices on the spot. Because it does combine everything I want to do. You have to sing, you have to act, you have to lift giant heavy things…
K: (laughs)
MRK: …there’s sculpture, there’s painting, there’s writing, it’s everything I want to do.
K: I had a similar experience; I was pre-med in college but I had acted as a kid and it wasn’t until I got to college and saw other kids who had gone to arts high schools and who had thought about this and done it their whole lives, that I realized, ”oh, this is a career, people actually get paid to do this!”
MRK: Yeah!
K: My mom would drive me in on Saturdays, just to be in a little show or something like that…of course, I’m not an actor now, but those tools…I enjoyed that sort of thing and that world.
MRK: Yeah.
K: Tell me more about puppeteering in general. I understand performing, but when you’re being a puppeteer or you’re being a character, how do use those acting skills?
MRK: One of the things about puppetry is that a lot of people make the mistake of thinking that it’s not acting and it totally is. It’s just that we’re using a different tool. A “meat” actor or “fleshie”
K: (laughs)
MRK: —uses their own body. Whereas a puppeteer is using an external thing. Because of that, one of the advantages that we have is that we can see the body language of our character very clearly. But the other thing is that we cannot do things on instinct quite as much as a fleshie actor can. Like we have to sit down and break apart “what is it that makes a person look scared? What is the body language?” So, because of that, in a lot of ways, we’re able to use our tools much more deliberately and make more conscious choices…not always, because there are some fleshie actors who think about it that deeply. But it’s something that is just inherent in puppetry.
K: What’s Iceland like?
MRK: Iceland is amazing! Everyone needs to go to Iceland.
K: You worked on a show there.
MRK: I worked on a show called LazyTown…it’s still on television. I’m not on the show anymore because my writing career took off, which is lovely. Iceland is the most magical place I have ever lived. It is like stepping out of Earth and into another realm altogether. The landscape is ethereal; there aren’t trees, so you can see the raw, rugged power of the land and you can see to the horizon line.
K: But it isn’t just blasted landscape…
MRK: No, no…it’s…well, parts of it are. Some of the inland is, but the other places are like Middle-Earth. There’s this area that I call the Land of a Thousand Throw-Pillows.
K: (laughs)
MRK: It’s a lava-scape, so it’s old lava but it’s all been covered over with moss and the moss is four knuckles deep. So you can stick your hand into it all the way, so all of your fingers are completely hidden and it looks like someone has come and upholstered the entire landscape with green shag throw-pillows.
K: Luxurious!
MRK: Yes.
K: How did you get set up with LazyTown? How did you get the job?
MRK: I auditioned!
K: Oh, really?
MRK: Yes, I know it’s a strange thing…
K: When you auditioned, did you know that it was—
MRK: In Iceland?
K: Yeah.
MRK: What happened was, I had auditioned when they were originally casting and to do an audition, you send in a tape and then you go and if you get to the next level, you do a live audition. I was not picked for one of the parts but they had to do a mid-season replacement and so they called me on a Thursday and said (Icelandic accent) “Hello. We would like to ask you to come. Can you be here Monday?” And I was like “YES. Of course! Absolutely!”
K: “I’ll start swimming now!”
MRK: Yes. “Iceland? Check!”
K: (laughs)
MRK: But it was a two week trial, so I had to pack not knowing if I was coming back at the end of two weeks or if I would be there for another six months.
K: Right.
MRK: So it was six months…we had about a year off and then we went back. So it was a year and a half in Iceland.
K: Nice.
MRK: The second time, my husband went with me.
K: I hear the upholstered rocks are *lovely*.
MRK: Yes. The hot springs are better, though.
K: Oh, yeah!
MRK: Yeah.
K: Let’s talk about writing: when you write…I’m sure you get this a lot, having started so recently and having been so prolific in such a short time…what aspects of your process have helped you accomplish that? There are authors who struggle to push out one book within a certain amount of time.
MRK: Honestly, coming from a theatre background.
K: Oh, good! That’s good news for me…
MRK: Yeah, isn’t it?
K: (laughs)
MRK: Because one of the things about working in theatre, is that I can’t wait to be creative. I have to be able to turn it on on demand. There are deadlines in which I am collaborating with other people, so when I’m designing something or creating anything, it’s like “Nope. I have to be creative right now.” And as a result of that, I learned a different work ethic which is “I’m in this place and now I will sit down and do this creative thing. Because it’s due.” I’ve spent my entire adult life as a freelancer, juggling multiple different projects and different deadlines, so that has been enormously helpful. The other thing…again, because I had to actually, consciously think about how to convey an emotion with an inanimate object to an audience…and I’ve spent 20+ years honing that audience/storyteller relationship. When I went to go translate that to prose, I found that a lot of the puppetry skills translated directly into prose, in terms of the ways that you manipulate an audience, in terms of the body language a character uses to convey things, how you use focus, what your character is thinking and looking about to convey stuff to the audience. A lot of that translated directly across.
K: That’s a very particular sort of tool or set of skills or sensorium. People who act are used to probing their own emotional spectrum and reactions to things. Whereas, somebody who just wants to write might set the scene or the plot but wouldn’t think about that. The few times I’ve tried to write stuff, I feel like I focused on the dialogue a lot, how people talk back and forth and people’s emotions. But then I have to write…”The trees were…something. I hate this part!”
MRK: That was the other thing that, again, coming from not just the performance background but also as an art major in college, the process was always about layering things; you never jump straight to the finished product. For me, it’s very natural…there’s times when I will, in fact, just write the dialogue in a scene and then go back and add the action. Because, I’m like “ok, I can follow this emotional through-line straight through the scene” and then when I go back in and I’m using the description, part of what I’m doing with that is not just setting the scene, but I’m also using it to control the pacing. I’ll have a spot where it says “she paused” and I’ll take that out and put in a physical pause. “What is she doing in that pause?” and I can use that to describe the scene. So, for me, I wind up layering stuff, which is also, I think, what allows me to write fairly quickly because I don’t labor over each individual word as I go along. I go back and I polish the ones that need to be polished.
K: How do you edit? Now that we’re talking about process…
MRK: The way my process works is I do an outline first and the reason I’m mentioning this in response to the editing question is that my first layer of editing actually happens then; it’s where I’m getting my structure right. After I’ve got that, I write the thing and I write it fairly quickly. When I go to edit, the first thing I do is I’ve had beta readers reading along and I incorporate the notes that I’ve been given from them that I know how to fix. Then I go through and I read, making notes in the manuscript about changes that I need to make but I don’t immediately make them. Because, sometimes I’ve found that I will make a change and there will be an unintended cascading effect…
K: Sure.
MRK: …and sometimes I’ve found that if I get farther into the work, that I can fix it later much easier than an earlier fix. So I just make notes and then I go back through and fix those. Once I have that structural pass, I give it to a different set of beta readers to make sure I’m structurally sound. Then, I go through and do a language pass where I smooth out the language.
K: So, the readers are an integral part of the process…
MRK: For me, absolutely.
K: How early do you give it to the people and say “check this out”?
MRK: I give it to the people in the raw. And again, this is because I come from a theatre background. I’ve tried not doing that and that is the only time I go into the ‘neurotic writer head-space’.
K: It’s like rehearsal.
MRK: Exactly.
K: You’re not just going to see the finished show. Let’s get notes.
MRK: Exactly, and I train my readers…“I’m going to be giving this to you in the raw. All I’m worried about is the structure. Is this playing for you? Do not give me any notes about dialogue or about line-level stuff.”
K: “Oh, this is spelled wrong” or whatever.
MRK: Yeah, none of that “this sentence is awkward” because I will obsess on that and that will stop the forward…it’s like you don’t go into someone’s rehearsal and say ”well, I don’t like your costume very much” and you’re like “I’m wearing my street clothes”.
K: Right. “Get a haircut.”
MRK: “I don’t wear a costume until dress rehearsal.”
Mika: A lot of your books, like Shades of Milk and Honey, are based on Jane Austen but with a magical, sci-fi bent to it. How did you come up with that idea in general? I’m a huge Jane Austen fan, I love the stories and the premise and adding magic to it is just awesome.
MRK: Well, that’s basically why.
M: Ok. (laughs)
MRK: I was a huge Jane Austen fan; Persuasion is my favorite. I had just finished reading a giant, epic fantasy and I’m a lifelong science fiction and fantasy reader. I was doing a reread of Persuasion as a palate cleanser and get to the proposal scene and I’m weeping, which I do every time I get to that scene and I’m like, “why is it that Jane Austen can move me to tears when nothing is at stake here except ‘are these two people going to get married?’’’…
M: (laughs)
MRK: Not even Anne Elliot…she’s got another marriage offer on the table, she’s beloved of her family, she maybe doesn’t have the best father, but nothing is at stake for her except is she going to get married to that particular guy. And yet in fantasy, the fate of the world is at stake and evil overlords! I enjoyed that but it didn’t move me in the same way. So, I was like what I want to see is “can I take fantasy, which I love, and shove it into a Jane Austen plot mold and have an intimate family drama, which is what I want. I also started trying to think of intimate family dramas in fantasy and I was striking out and I’m like “is there something inherent about fantasy that doesn’t allow that?” or is it just that we love our evil overlords so much?
M: (laughs)
MRK: The second book was great because I had Napoleon so I did get to have my evil overlord AND my Jane Austen. It was great. But that’s basically why; it was a book I wanted to read and it didn’t exist and so I wrote it. Now I’m finding other books that are kind of in that vein, but it was a book I wanted to read.
K: You’re a podcaster as well on Writing Excuses. Your shows are 15 minutes long…
MRK: In theory.
K: How? How do you do it? Our shows go on forever and ever.
MRK: We pre-plan a little bit. We use a timer.
M: We tried that a couple of times…
MRK: And we’re also only dealing with a single topic, a single question.
K: Ok.
MRK: If you picked one of the questions we’re talking about and we just spent time drilling into my life as a puppeteer…
K: Right.
MRK: But that’s basically what we do is we pick a single, very specific, very tiny point about writing and drill into it.
K: And there’s 4 hosts?
MRK: 4 hosts.
K: But that’s 4 people…15 minutes…is it like one of those cable news shows? Does everybody have to have their blurb?
MRK: We don’t always all chime in on every single point, but it’s a conversation. We do it live, not in front of an audience all the time, but we don’t do it over Skype so we can see each other and can jump in and over the years have learned “someone has already made this point so I do not need to”.
K: We’re coming to the end here…we had a bunch of questions about the SFWA flap (ed. note: covered by us at but I’m sure you’re sick of talking about that and I can throw them away. But I did want to say that, with everything that went on, how composed you were and I admire your poise and how you dealt with it.
MRK: Thank you. Which “flap”?
K: Everything that went on with the controversy over the Bulletin—
MRK: Oh, that.
K: —yeah, and everything that lead into what was going on with the Hugos this year…
MRK: That’s why I wanted to check, because the Hugos have nothing to do with SFWA.
K: Right, but the whole conversation of Diversity in SFF.
MRK: Yeah, let me talk about that just a little bit.
K: Please.
MRK: The thing for me about this that I really think is important for people to understand is that the sexism, misogyny, racism…all of these things are part of the larger fabric of society. They are not any worse in science fiction and fantasy. The reason it is so vocal and prominent right now is because in science fiction and fantasy, that behavior is no longer acceptable and it’s being called out. People who have been getting away with behavior for a really long time feel like the rules are being changed and in some ways it’s true but in other ways it’s like “no, it’s actually never been acceptable to grope a woman”. It’s just now you’re getting caught and you’re getting called out.
K: The light’s being shined on it.
MRK: Yes, and that is the thing that I really want, especially women, to understand and people of color who feel like science fiction conventions are not safe spaces for them, that we are in a transition period right now and that the reason that they’re hearing so much really ugly stuff is because it is being called out and because it will be called out and it is not acceptable and that these spaces are in fact safer than a lot of other spaces because we won’t let that happen anymore.
K: Yes. I don’t know if we’ve earned it but…I hear you have a story about Sting?
MRK: (laughs) I do. It’s not nearly as…
K: (laughs)
MRK: I will make it sound fancy.
K: Dress it up.
MRK: (adopting affected English accent) So…
K: (laughs)
MRK: Back when I was in college…
K: Here we go…
MRK: I met Sting and taught him a song…
K: (laughs)
MRK: …and then later I saw him again…I went to the opening night cast party after the premiere of his new show “The Last Ship”…I’ll just say that Sting has very warm hands.
K: (laughs) *ahem* You heard it here…
MRK: So, the way this story actually goes is that I went to go see Sting’s show when I was in college and knew somebody who was working on the show and went backstage with them afterwards and was waiting for them to get ready to go. And Sting was standing like, right there. (mimics wide-eyed surprise)
K: (laughs)
MRK: And I’m like “I’m cool. I’m cool. Totally fine.” For his curtain call, he had done…this is in North Carolina…he had sung “Nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning…” (as Sting) “Next time I’ll know the rest of the lyrics when I’m here.” And we all laughed because that’s a good way to pay homage and not have to actually sing the entire song. But he’s backstage and he’s going (sotto voce) “nothing could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning…nothing could be…da da da dum da da…nothing could be…da da da dum…” And so I just turned to him and I said “Nothing could be sweeter than your sweetie when you meet her in the morning.” And he sings it back to me and he says “thank you”. And the warm hands is that I did get to go to the cast party because I had a friend, again, who was working on the show and I shook Sting’s hand. And he had, obviously no memory of meeting me before. But it sounds much fancier…
K: “I’m the Carolina girl!”
MRK: Yeah! “Don’t you remember? ‘Nothing could be sweeter’? We had a moment!”
K: “I helped you!”
MRK: “I taught you a song…”
K: I feel like you have to…if Sting is struggling, you have to help him. I’ve seen…I love The Police and Sting’s one of my favorite artists and I’ve seen so much film of him and I feel like so much of that film has been him screwing around or trying to ‘work through’ something…
MRK: Yeah.
K: So I almost feel like “I have to help him” but then “Maybe I shouldn’t help him”. Let him learn. Let Sting learn.
MRK: That’s why I only gave him that one line.
K: (laughs)
MRK: I stood there and let him struggle with it for a while until it was obvious he was not going to get the next lyric. And this was in the days before google so he couldn’t just pull out his phone.
K: He’s at a cultural disadvantage.
MRK: Exactly.
K: Mary, thanks so much for talking with us today.
MRK: Thank you. This was a great deal of fun.

Mary’s most recent novel Valour and Vanity is available online and wherever books are sold. She can be found online at

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