Watching, Dreaming, Writing
An Interview with Tricia Sullivan
by Nick Gevers
Tricia Sullivan is one of the most important new American SF novelists to have emerged in the 1990s; and by making her home in England, she has brought additional lustre to the British SF scene. Her first novel, Lethe, published in 1995, attracted immediate critical acclaim, and plaudits from writers such as David Brin and Ian McDonald; she quickly confirmed her stature as an author of bold, intense, and thoroughly contemporary SF with a powerful neo-cyberpunk novel, Someone To Watch Over Me (1997), and an enormously innovative and entertaining tale of dysfunctional planetary colonisation, Dreaming In Smoke (1998), a deserved winner of the Arthur C. Clarke Award.
I interviewed Tricia Sullivan by e-mail in June 2000.
NG: You're quite a precocious writer: your first novel, Lethe, was published when you were in your mid-twenties. Does this mean you were intent on being a writer from the beginning? Or did you drift into authorship?
TS: I was intent on being a writer from the beginning--from about age seven, I guess--but once I got into my teens I developed the opinion that I wouldn't be capable of writing anything worthwhile until I was older. I had a vision of going out there and living this very exciting life, and then by age 40 sort of settling down and having something to write about.
This, of course, is not what happened. Not only didn't I go off and have lots of adventures, I started writing much younger than I'd planned. I think this is because when I was in college I met and lived with Todd Wiggins, who was always working on two or three novels at any given time, and I started to feel competitive urges to do the same. Also, I'd gotten hooked on music while in my teens, but after a few years of messing around with it I saw that there wasn't going to be a good career for me there, and when I left college I decided to turn whatever creativity I had towards an area where I knew I had some ability and experience; i.e., writing fiction.
NG: You've commented elsewhere on how useful the fact of a publisher's deadline was in completing Lethe. How, as a young author who hadn't first published short fiction, did you attract Bantam's interest? And would you recommend deadlines as a general spur to literary productivity?
TS: I couldn't possibly recommend anything to anybody because everybody's different in how they work and how they motivate themselves to work. When I think of the number of Self-Help Books for Writers I've read over the years to no avail, I want to cry. I say this with sincere respect to the people who write such texts--they can't be easy to compose, and as a consumer of such material I'm pretty much a basket case, anyway, because I'm like, "Help, help, tell me what to do," and then I totally reject the advice I get. I think of deadlines as a kind of "kill or cure" approach. Philosophically I'm opposed to the thought of imposing external structures on a process that is essentially internal and unpredictable. But I use deadlines all the same, because without them, I get lost.
In the case of Lethe, I must have re-written the first chapter or two about a hundred times. I could never get past the beginning, or beyond the point of writing little snippets of what might occur in the substantive parts of the book. It would go like this. I'd read what I'd written so far and, depending on my mood that day, I'd either go, "Wow, this is really cool, this is really good," and be so intimidated by myself that I couldn't imagine possibly carrying on; or else I'd be like, "This sucks. I'd better start over," and I'd start over. You've never seen such a rat in a box as me trying to get that book off the ground. Outlining it was like trying to wrestle a wet hippo. I'd just never outlined anything in my life. In school I always wrote the outlines after I'd written the papers. It was easier that way.
Publishing Lethe goes back to the fact of my living with Todd Wiggins again. Just to lay out the facts, Todd and I were together for about eleven years. He worked for Al Zuckerman at Writers House, a major New York literary agency, and he published his own first novel shortly after Lethe came out. While he was at Writers House, he was always bringing home projects, usually thrillers or other mainstream fiction, in manuscript form. I was completely intimidated by the idea of publishing a novel. I'd never gotten a short story published, after all, and I thought novelists occupied some kind of special plane of existence. But when I saw these things in manuscript I kept thinking, "Well, it's not that good. I could do as well(ish) as that." So I kept trying to write, and whining about my unfinishable book, and finally Todd just said, "Give me a proposal and shut up already." I gave him a couple of chapters and a synopsis, he submitted it to four or five houses, and within two weeks he had two editors who were interested. It went to Bantam. When I look back on it, the whole thing was really silly. I find it harder to get stuff published now than I did then. I'm sure there had to be a major element of luck.
NG: Moving to one of your extraliterary interests: you've been involved in the martial arts, haven't you? This has certainly influenced your fiction, hasn't it, as in your characterisation of Adrien Reyes in Someone To Watch over Me?
TS: When I was in my early teens, my brother started training in karate. I mistakenly thought that if I got to be a "karate expert" my parents wouldn't be so overprotective and would let me go out and do things. I started training at 13 and when I was 16 I went to Okinawa with my local school. In Okinawa I was flabbergasted by the traditional training I saw, but when I got back to America I ran afoul of karate politics. This is a whole area that is very hard to explain to people outside the martial arts. Basically, in my experience, karate teachers are always doing everything they can to keep their students, to get them to be instructors for free and to spread the system, and to sit on top of the pyramid and rake in as much dosh and prestige as possible while doing the least amount of work. Also, they make a kind of religion out of the martial practice. When I came back from Okinawa, I was as religiously devoted to karate as anybody, but I made the "mistake" of objecting to the instructor's dividing the class into men on one side, and "women and children" on the other. I was prepared to sacrifice my feminist ideals and shut up about the iniquity, but on a practical level I simply couldn't get good training with the women and children and I wanted to train with the guys. I tried to go to another instructor and for that I was brought up on charges, as it were, within the karate organization and kicked out for "insufficient karate attitude" or something like that.
When I started writing Adrien, it was out of a deep nostalgia for what I believed I had found, and then lost, on Okinawa. I'd tried going to other clubs and doing other styles, but nothing seemed to have the intensity of the Okinawan training. With Adrien, I was trying to recapture that feeling I'd had on Okinawa, but at the same time I'd subsequently become conscious of the fact that all that karate hadn't really taught me how to fight. I'd seen the Ultimate Contests on American TV and realized that a good wrestler could destroy a karate proponent easily. And my confidence in my ability to defend myself was comprised, I now suspected, of more bravado than truth. So I tried to bring Adrien into a real fighting situation and make him make his "art" work for him. At the time, I believed the mythos of Eastern martial arts.
However, when the book was in its final draft, I met Steve Morris, and everything I thought I knew about martial arts was totally stood on its head. Steve is an outlaw personality in British martial arts who, although unpopular, is universally respected both verbally and physically for his knowledge and experience of hand to hand fighting. Essentially, Steve had already been to all the places I wanted to go, figuratively speaking, and the Eastern legends had let him down hard. When he started to explain what was really going on in martial arts (historically, politically, biomechanically, bioenergetically, psychologically) I realized that I had been looking at one tiny part of a much bigger picture. My perspective changed radically. In a rush I tried to alter some of the karate stuff to make it more realistic, but as I had already written into the story the concept of karate kata as codes for information and Adrien finding some hidden truth in them, it was hard to squirm out of it without changing the whole book. The result represents a compromise that I'm not happy with.
NG: Music is very evidently important in your fiction; what sort of music do you most enjoy, and is it a part of your literary inspiration?
TS: For me, music is deeper and better than language. It's more direct and physical, and because it's a system of thought that isn't tied to the rational in the same way as language, it lets you access different states of consciousness and movements of consciousness. I'm not interested in categories or types of music. I get into what interests me, which could be just about anything on a given day. Practically speaking, I use sound a lot when I work, in that I'll put on headphones and work with the music going into my head on a subconscious level. I don't think about listening to the sound, I don't try to listen to it, I just kind of let it come over me. What I find, personally, is that it shuts out the other noise in my head and helps me to focus. I listen when I'm exercising, too; it's a major motivator when you're trying to squeeze in another 20 minutes of endurance work. These might seem to be quotidian applications, and people who are "serious" about music probably wouldn't consider that to be "real" listening. But it is unselfconscious listening, and sometimes that's better than you think.
NG: Like Pat Cadigan, you're an American writer resident in the UK; and you've impressed Britain's SF establishment, to the extent of winning the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Dreaming In Smoke. Is Britain an advantageous literary environment?
TS: Britain has been good to me in terms of providing a serious SF readership. In general, I think, writers get more respect in Britain than they do in the US, which is nice but I do find it a little surprising. SF in the States seems to be more media-oriented. In the States, if I tell someone at a party that I'm an SF writer, I find myself being told I look like Buffy the Vampire Slayer (which I don't!)--as if that were a logical connection. Here, at least, people still seem to have heard of things like books.
NG: As I mentioned earlier, you haven't produced much short fiction; in fact, I know of only one short story by you, "The Question Eaters", in Full Spectrum 5 (1995, and available elsewhere in infinity plus). That story is very impressive; why (pleadingly) don't you write some more?
TS: Thanks! It took me years to get that story right. For some reason, I find short fiction very difficult. You have so little margin for error. You have to know where you're going and you can't really digress. I have kind of a headlong approach to writing, a Jackson Pollack type attitude, and it doesn't make for tightly constructed short fiction. It makes for weird elliptical things that nobody quite knows what to make of. "The Question Eaters" was rejected several times before Janna Silverstein bought it for Bantam shortly after she bought Lethe. All my other short fiction has also been rejected in the major American markets. My ego being as fragile as it is, I've more or less given up.
NG: Do you associate yourself with any particular school of SF writing? Have any particular SF authors influenced, or helped inspire, your own SF?
TS: I'm having to wrack my brains to answer this question. I don't associate myself with a school of SF, and there's a lot that I haven't read. I'm not trying to duck the question, but I don't really know what influences me. A lot of my reading was in the past tense. These days, I hardly read science fiction, or any fiction at all (I just can't "lose myself" in it because I'm usually too caught up in whatever I'm working on), and sometimes I don't even remember what I've read unless someone calls it to my mind. When I was a teenager I read Childhood's End which had a deep effect on me, but whether it influenced my writing, I couldn't say. Similarly, I used to read Anne McCaffrey's early dragon books when I was young. I loved them to pieces and I still drag them out in times of severe PMS or flu--but I don't think you'd see much of an influence in my stuff. Conversely, I read Gravity's Rainbow twice and tried really hard to be influenced by it, I thought it was so magnificent, but again, I don't think anybody in their right mind is going to go comparing me to Thomas Pynchon!
NG: But a hallmark of your writing does seem to be the reinvigoration of SF cliches, by means both of their novel treatment and their juxtaposition with fresh and surprising textual elements. In Lethe, for example, you portray disembodied brains, a hoary cliché, but in an original context (telepathic dolphins, crazy genetic alterations). Is this rejuvenation of genre standbys a conscious technique, or simply an inevitable result of being an inventive contemporary (postmodern?) SF writer?
TS: I'm embarrassed and chagrined to say that the cliches are an inevitable result of being really badly-read in SF and watching too much Star Trek. I would like to be able to say I was being postmodern and clever, but I wasn't. I thought that science fiction was about stuff like disembodied brains, so I used them. Sorry. I feel like the Wizard of Oz, exposed in all his puny and pot-bellied glory.
NG: Well, what about a specific area of revisionism: one could see your books as cyberpunk novels, but they always seem to subvert that sort of SF. Instead of conventional ventures into consensual cyberspace, you emphasise telepathic communion, as in "The Deep" featured in Someone; and in Smoke cyberpunk materials are disorientingly transplanted to an alien world, where they battle to cope. What is your attitude towards cyberpunk and post-cyberpunk forms of writing?
TS: I want to qualify everything I say with the caveat that I don't know very much about either cyberpunk or post-cyberpunk. I've read very, very little of it. After I wrote Someone I read this really cool book by Raphael Carter called The Fortunate Fall and it made me want to do Someone all over again, because Carter's version of mind implants and identity/memory crises was so unbelievably hip. I could see how that book associated itself with cyberpunk and then subverted it by being deeply emotional. Then I read Fools by Pat Cadigan and again I felt like a git. Because I started to see how I had gone barging into an area that other people had already explored, and explored much better than I could, without even knowing it.
Part of the reason I knew so little about cyberpunk was that I had only tried reading William Gibson and Neal Stephenson. I didn't really "get" Mona Lisa Overdrive and when I read Snow Crash I thought it was terrific, but it wasn't really looking at the things I was interested in, fortunately, which meant I didn't have to go stick my head in an oven in despair. Instead my work became a problem of trying to create interfaces and things that were reasonable conventions, without getting caught up in the slickness of the hardware or even of the society. I was much more interested in feelings.
Aha! Another classic female moment! As I said that, I realized that I am playing right into the stereotype of soft and squishy female writer. But it's true. I'm just not that interested in the specs of the guns involved. It's what makes people shoot them that I care about. How depressing. Here I thought I was so "different". Excuse me while I go get some chocolate.
Don't get me wrong. I wish I could write all that nifty technical Stuff in a convincing way. I'm sure if I could, I would. But it's not my metier.
NG: Lethe begins very strongly, and then relaxes somewhat--or at least that's the perception of some of your readers. In retrospect, how satisfied are you with Lethe? Do you feel your literary technique has improved in your subsequent works?
TS: Yeah, that strong beginning is because I rewrote it seventeen billion times (see second question, above)!! It certainly does relax--and this is the downside of a deadline, because I wrote it in under 5 months strictly on the weekends and during school holidays and I had to just keep ploughing ahead. The deadline was liberating because it gave me a "what the fuck" attitude that made the juices flow. But I never had time to sit down and read Lethe for pace, because it was always too raw and fresh in my head. To this day, I haven't read it cleanly. I proofread it, sure, but I've never read any of my books as novels, as a reader. I'm afraid to. Every time I open one up to any given page, I find something icky.
I did learn quite a lot from Lethe, but I think I learned more from Someone To Watch Over Me. I had so many different points of view and subjective truths flying around in that book, that when it came time to do Smoke I made the conscious decision to stay in Kalypso's head the whole time. This created some sags and lags in the movement of the story, where in another novel I might have felt tempted to slip into a different character for a fresh perspective, but it was a necessary exercise because I felt I'd been guilty of writing sloppily in the past and I wanted to place some limitations on myself.
NG: In analysing your novels, I've been struck by how difficult it is to assign any conventional feminist significance to them. Both Sabina in Someone To Watch Over Me and Kalypso Deed in Dreaming In Smoke undergo admittedly rather unusual violations, Sabina through the invasion of her consciousness by another, Kalypso through being employed as a captive tissue culture laboratory of sorts; yet these violations appear ambiguous, even acceptable, in view of their ultimately beneficial, or at least not entirely reprehensible, outcomes. Isn't this in a sense a palliation of rape, and a reversal of the trend towards strong female characterization in much SF of the last few decades? Are you rejecting the SF cliché of the competent, self-sufficient protagonist, in your depiction of women, and of course men as well?
TS: Hmm. I don't think it's a palliation of rape, although possibly this theme could be read as an exploration of pregnancy as in both of these cases, something new and unique is created through a woman's body being "taken over" by another entity. I'm not too sure of any trends in SF, so whether or not I would react to them is hard to say, but since my characters do come from within me without a whole lot of intervention on the part of my intellect, I'd have to say that I'm probably writing these women from out of my own experience. It's possible that I perceive the greatest threats and challenges to my existence and identity to be ones that I cannot hope to conquer or even control. Ones that ultimately have to be negotiated with, maybe even surrendered to.
However, when it comes to what I am up to in this area, I have to say that your guess is as good as mine. Another interviewer recently asked me very much the same question as this and I was totally shocked. Me, boot-wearing, cursing, spitting and ass-kicking me guilty of weak female protagonists?
Well, maybe. But it's not so much about sexual politics as all that. I suppose everybody has something that makes them feel helpless, and I get interested in what those things might be and in how we humans react when we are in over our heads.
NG: Your plots involve surprising dialectical reconciliations: the antagonists C and Sabina (in Someone) are reconciled in a psychological merger, and through them, both women with Adrien; and in Smoke the strange rapprochement of Kalypso and her kidnapper, Azamat Marcsson, is a token of a wider, very odd and very promising, reconciliation between human colonists and the seemingly hostile planet they've settled. Would you identify such transcendent resolutions to conflicts as a major theme of your work?
TS: I do have a soft spot for transcendence, yes. I feel like I'm confessing a drug addiction when I say that, because intellectually I have come to expect nothing of the kind from the larger shape of the world. I seem to spend a fair bit of time shopping at Tesco's or watching inconceivable/unprocessable bits of information about "the world" on Sky News, and that kind of existence doesn't lend itself to romantic ideas about human meaning. But I do think a kind of personal transcendence is possible, which is why in Smoke Kalypso (I think) says that a human being is the biggest thing there is. This is arguably sentimental, but in the context of the story in which dreams are made concrete and the language of the mind develops a physical analogue or at least synalogue in the surface of the planet, it takes on a wider significance. I mean, I'm on well-trodden territory in saying that the world we perceive through our senses is just a negotiation of our biological structure with its environment, each of which has shaped the other. We are the laws of nature. So I guess that counts as transcendence, and I dig it.
NG: But transcendence, an extreme condition, entails existential and perceptual confusion. Thus the altered states of consciousness and uncertainties of identity in your books: communion of minds across species barriers, the merging of minds, the startling oneiric passage at the opening of Smoke and the chaotically inaccurate and conflicting perceptions of the people in that novel. What are you saying about the nature of human perception in all this? Do we see, think, and read in smoke as well as dream in it?
TS: We see indirectly, through our senses, which are primed by evolution to pick up some things and ignore others. It makes me feel crazy to try to imagine how another species in another environment might perceive and react to its world. I'm bound to try to imagine it, because the possibility exists, but I don't have the equipment to construct such a vision. So that's the friction I'm always working with. Wanting to go that little bit beyond the edges of what I can understand, but realising that the only way to stretch past yourself is to become something that isn't yourself. I think that's the point at which things get spooky and interesting for me.
NG: On a lighter note: Smoke describes certain groups of people--the matriarchs known as "the Mothers" and as "the Dead", and the "Grunts", male scientists and technicians--in a very amusing spirit of caricature. Do you have literary targets in mind here, or does this jaundiced standpoint reflect your real-world attitudes?
TS: I'm just playing around. It was such a nasty and unpleasant book, I had to amuse myself somehow.
NG: Are you at work on a fourth novel? What should we expect from your future work?
TS: I know I was a bit gawky about answering the "SF influences" question, but I can say one thing for sure here: my next SF novel is a direct answer to Sheri S. Tepper's The Gate To Women's Country which I read years ago while I was in college. I'm saying this very loudly because I don't imagine anybody will pick up on the influence unless I make a fuss about it, and this is one rare case where in thinking about a story I felt very strongly that I was working off what someone else had done before. Subverting it totally, to be specific!
This is my coy way of saying I'm writing something about gender. Or partly about gender. It seems to be about a lot of weird things. I've been working on it for ages and there are various problems with it, leading me to believe I will only finish this novel if someone actually flogs and beats me and deprives me of food until I do it. (Any takers?)
In my defense, I've been busy moonlighting in fantasy. I needed some dosh, and I've got caught up writing fantasies the past couple of years.
Theoretically, they were supposed to be light and fluffy, and also they were meant to finance the new SF novel, but in practical terms, they have eaten up all my time and energy, and they are not as light and fluffy as I'd planned.
NG: This fantasy series sounds intriguing. Can you give any details?
TS: The fantasy is a series called Everien under the name Valery Leith. The first book, The Company of Glass, came out last year, and the second, The Riddled Night, is coming out in November, both by Gollancz / Millennium. The stories are set in a world where the remnants of an ancient and highly advanced civilization cause all manner of trouble for a group of iron-age equivalent warring tribes. There are strange and inscrutable technologies, unconventional monsters, and warped layers of reality; but there are also swords and quests and magical horses. There will be one more book in the series, which I'm wrestling with at this very moment!
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© Nick Gevers 7 July 2001