The Bujold Nexus

Mike Houlahan of the New Zealand Press Association talks to Lois McMaster Bujold
Interview 1 April 2003

MH> Hello again Lois

MH> Through the Vorkosigan saga and now into Chalion, it's obvious you greatly enjoy creating the detail of the worlds your characters live in. To what extent do you work on those small added value touches before you set hand to keyboard (to rework an old metaphor for the present day), and how much of the detail emerges from the act of writing?

LMB> I work in a continuous feedback loop. I do a lot of pre-planning and outlining, down to the scene and even paragraph level, before I take my penciled notes to the computer to commit first draft. There is no way I could remember it all, else. I do not, however, outline the whole book in advance, but rather, take it in small bites, clearing my mental buffers of one section before turning to the next. My personal shorthand for these sections is "event horizons"; they mark the limits to which I can write without knowing in detail what happens next. So at every level, there are opportunities for new ideas to slide in.

LMB> Some details come from historical source material or my own experiences, transmuted by my reflections; others emerge from the characters as they take life. In nearly every scene, some bit I never thought of before pops out as that first draft is going down. Sometimes I just say to myself, "Oh, cool!" and carry on; sometimes, I have to stop, go away, and think about how it's going to affect the piece before continuing. The old details have to be committed to the page before there is room in my head for the new ones to emerge, and new notions beget more new possibilities, all the way along. It certainly keeps the process exciting for me.

MH> On a related topic, how fully-realised have the chronologies of your worlds/universes been before you started out? How far into the future can you see ahead?

LMB> To answer the second question first, sometimes less than half a chapter. Some fundamental decisions about a universe -- its ground rules -- are made early in the process of the first book of any series, and whatever follows must either be kept consistent, or explore new possibilities in fair ways that don't violate what's been established. But the futures of my fictional worlds are fluid. Even their histories, somewhat more fixed, can supply new pockets for exploration, all those interstices and white spaces on my maps. Making up back-story -- what went on before the book opened -- often takes up more room in my notes than the plot in progress. I do my world building rather backward: I usually start with the characters, and make up the plot and the setting to fit them as the story moves along. Someone once called it "just-in-time world building". I am currently tempted by the structural notion of making the Chalion series five books, one for each of that world's five gods, but then what if I come up with a really entrancing idea for a sixth volume? Although I am a slow enough writer that the dilemma, if it ever arises, is years away. For now, the problems of the next chapter are plenty to wrestle with.

MH> Your characters (thankfully, from a personal point of view) tend to avoid the trap of being too noble for their own good. How important to you is that your characters be ``real'' people with readily identifiable flaws -- human, if you will, rather than fantasy heroes.

LMB> I think it's vital. If there is any meaning at all in any work of fiction that can be transposed back to real daily life, it lies in the characters' lives and moral dilemmas. "All great deeds have been accomplished out of imperfection," as one of my characters remarks. The human condition is a mess and always has been, and visions of perfecting it are a snare and a delusion, but we can all grab for great moments -- for one floating instant, to do better than we think we can. Heroes are just people who are lucky or determined enough to match the moment -- and at least once, to get it right when it matters.

MH> You've given me the impression of having a great deal of affection for Caz, and I'm sure Miles wouldn't have lasted 10 books if you didn't like him too. This is a crucial factor for you as a writer? No intentions of creating a venomous villain for a change of scene?

LMB> I could stand a villain for the space of a short story or a few scenes in a multi-viewpoint novel -- and I have; Bruce Van Atta, the villain of Falling Free, gets the viewpoint in several scenes. But when I select a character for a single-viewpoint novel, I'm making a commitment to live in that character's head for the better part of a year. I think the worst sorts of real villainy are banal -- stupid or sociopathic people doing selfish things -- rather than interestingly venomous, so that also shapes my choices. It's a state of mind I can access all too easily, but it's not a headspace I care to linger in.

MH> Where (and some -- especially Miles -- may ask why?) did the butter bugs come from?

LMB> Heh. The butterbugs have several sources. First, I was a biology major back in my college days, and my faculty advisor was an insect toxicologist. He raised various strains of cockroaches in his lab to test poisons and resistances. (For some reason, the animal rights people never hassled him...) The most interesting was a strain which, when one sprinkled roach powder in their plastic boxes, would stand up on their hind two legs with their front four legs on the sides, a behavioral adaptation. I also did a great deal of insect photography during that period. Second were some wonderful old Robert Sheckley tales read in my youth about a pair of down-on-their-luck spacers and their misadventures with live cargo. Thirdly was the movie Joe's Apartment, and fourthly, at about the same time, was a trip to the Minnesota State Fair where I saw, among other things, a large apiary exhibit. I was scratching around for an idea for a short story when the notion of entrepreneur Mark's adventure in bioengineering with Dr. Borgos and his yogurt-barfing bugs first began to take shape. It quickly became apparent both that the idea could not be crammed into the length, and that it was much too good to waste on a mere short story, and so the Vorkosigan House butterbug scheme was born. Or hatched.

LMB> The butterbugs have proved very popular with the readers, generating butterbug hand puppets, at least two fan-written songs, and a great deal of speculation as to their future. (Fans have written well over a hundred songs about my stories, to date. And then there are the limericks...)

MH> Has Miles surprised you, the way he and his worlds have become so rich with detail and history? Do you know where he's heading to next?

LMB> I was already thinking in terms of an open-ended series back as far as 1986, although I wasn't yet sure, then, that the books would prove successful enough to allow it. I had a structural model from the Hornblower books, which I'd read back in my teens, of many separate books forming an arc of a character's biography, which struck me as really artistically roomy. The details of Miles's universe have been built up story by story, so in that sense they were a surprise. The accumulation was brought home to me recently when I proofread text for an upcoming gaming book (GURPS Vorkosigan) that will allow role-playing gamers to play in my universe. There was a whole book's worth of material just on my books' background!

LMB> No, I don't know where Miles is heading next. Although I do try not to repeat myself. Someday, some fresh or powerful idea for him will ring my chimes more loudly than any competing ideas then running around in my head, and we'll be off.

MH> In The Curse Of Chalion religion is a principal theme. What drew you to create your own pantheon and theology? Particularly, the choice of the theme of sainthood interested me -- your definition seems to be deliberately at odds with a 21st century Western view.

LMB> Although Chalion has some roots in 15th century Spanish history, I wanted the book to be set in its own world. I wanted Chalion's Temple to carry out many of the vital social functions performed by real religions in our history, but I also wanted to come up with a theology that was non-dualistic, as I think dualism is a mistake. Although we can imagine good and evil as pure extracts as a thought experiment, they are never actually found that way in reality. So the five gods of Chalion were selected as a number that could not be divided evenly, because the moment you give human beings more than one of anything, they immediately try to set things in some hierarchy of value and position themselves on the "best" side, whether that actually makes any sense or not. Best for what? Of course, this immediately suggested a Chalionese heresy, where people re-invent dualism by selecting the most ambiguous of the gods to be the "evil" one, and they're off and running again. I play quite a bit in the novel with human nature versus reality, best two falls out of three. Also, in Chalion, I reverse the standard dualism of matter and spirit; their theologians are very clear that matter comes first and spirit grows from it.

LMB> Sainthood in Chalion has a peculiar definition, which does not quite map to real-world models from historical Catholicism. One of the ground-rules of the universe is that the gods may not violate free will. The gods of Chalion have no physical powers, only mental or spiritual ones. They cannot enter the world of matter except through the mind of a living being, if and only if that person can set their own free will aside enough to give the gods room (which is actually not so far from the more profound versions of mysticism in our world, after all.) So a saint in Chalion is not, necessarily, a "good" person -- we're not doing dualism here -- but one whose spirit is open to their god. Some interesting plot consequences flowed from this.

MH> Will the next Chalion novel be Caz-focused, or will you be moving further afield to explore more of the planet?

LMB> The second Chalion book, to be published this October by HarperCollins in both the US and the UK, is titled Paladin of Souls, and follows a new story of a character introduced, but not fully explored, in the first book: Dowager Royina Ista, the heroine's mother. I don't really explore worlds in my best books; I explore the insides of people's heads. Ista was a fascinating figure in the first book, but she didn't get much time on stage. A middle-aged woman of high family going on a quest doesn't have the option that the poor orphan boy does, of just grabbing a sack and hitting the road, so Ista solves that one by going instead on a pilgrimage. But the danger of seeking the gods in the world of Chalion is that one may actually find them... and, in Ista's case, a great deal more adventure than she anticipated. Some very peculiar things happen to the standard quest tropes when such an altogether non-standard character takes them on. The young man's "hero's journey" in myth and folklore has been much discussed and analyzed; the older woman's journey turns out to be something rather different.

LMB> This year, I have embarked on a third Chalion novel, which will take place in a loose analogue of medieval Germany, with an all-new cast of characters. I've just sold it to HarperCollins US, and I've reached the end of Chapter 5. I'm anxious to get back to it -- I want to find out what happens in Chapter 6!

MH> You've explained in some detail elsewhere how you drew on the history of Spain for this book? How often has real life provided you with an idea more inspiring than anything you could have imagined? (Bearing in mind, of course, having an idea is one thing, being able to tell it in an entertaining way is quite another!)

LMB> I pick up a lot of ideas from historical reading -- to paraphrase, history is not only stranger than we imagine, it is frequently stranger than we can imagine. Nevertheless, in fiction, as has been pointed out, things have to make sense. Real life provides jumping off points for my fictional ideas, but they are frequently turned inside out or upside down before they land on the page, re-visioned, revised. Reading, observation, music and songs, experiences people tell me about, my own life and emotions -- it all goes into the stew. But inspiration isn't just knocking into an idea -- everyone does that all day long. It's hitting the idea, or more often cross-connection of ideas, that sets off some strong resonance inside one's own spirit, that hot pressure in the solar plexus that says, Yeah, this is it; this matters!

LMB> So, for example, the idea for the character of Teidez in The Curse of Chalion came from Isabella of Spain's ill-fated younger brother Prince Alfonso, and the notion of the encounter with the menagerie from a footnote about Alfonso in an academic biography about his elder half-brother Enrique IV. But Teidez's personality came from my own observations of teenage boys, and his ultimate fate from the needs of the plot crossed with his character as created on the page. I was stalled for five weeks until I figured out precisely what chain of events consistent with his character would arrive at that crisis point; I even had one wrong choice elaborately outlined. There ought to be a name for that reverse-inspiration, that restless discomfort that says an idea is just wrong for a story. In the end, I had to plain sit down and think it through till the right idea appeared. Sometimes inspiration falls freely from the heavens; sometimes you have to hunt it down and kill it yourself.

MH> Switching to a few more general questions, I read with amusement your description of your first literary effort, the LOTR meets Spenser epic. (I have one of those in my own dark past, but without the poetry). If it was as ``first draft'ish'' as your description implies, what kept you from being discouraged? (As, for example, a certain wannabe writer turned journalist not too far from here was)

LMB> Obliviousness? Being 15? In any case, that piece was never conceived as being for anything but my own amusement, so there was no question of its failing any external test of "success", or even the test of "being finished". I wasn't trying to be a writer back then; I was merely trying to write.

MH> A writer friend of mine has what he calls ``the biscuit box of broken dreams'', a carton where all his failed stories pile up. Is there any idea you've had which, no matter how hard you tried, would just not take flight?

LMB> I don't do much short work, and novels only require one compelling main idea a year. I've had a number of ideas that didn't take flight, but the ones that do, so rivet my attention that I just tromp through the detritus of the rejects. All of which, granted, have been rejected by me, before the editors ever see them. In other words, I don't think of the discard pile as the failure of a story, I think of it as the success of my quality control protocols. But sometimes ideas do come around for another pass, when their time is right.

LMB> I first tried to write in my teens, but this was followed by a long hiatus in my 20's. I think this fallow period was when I would have been penning all my un-salable stuff. When I returned to writing in my early 30's, I had somehow arrived on a whole new plane without crossing the intervening space. The improvement wasn't on the sentence level -- I'd been pretty good back then, though I still had a great deal of work to do to bring myself up to professional standards. But somehow, my intuitive sense of story structure had improved while I wasn't watching, and my own original observations of the world had grown in breadth and depth.

MH> I know you were a reader of SF magazines in your youth (I was an F&SF man myself)

LMB> Me, I read Analog -- F&SF when my dad couldn't find Analog in the airport kiosks...

MH>-- were you also involved with fandom and conventions, or did that come with your graduation to the professional ranks?

LMB> I first found fandom, or it found me, in the fall of 1967, just after I'd graduated from high school and was working in the book department of a downtown department store. I met a fellow from the local (Columbus, Ohio) SF fan club, who invited me to a meeting. (The guys vastly outnumbered the girls, back then.) I went to a few local conventions, and attended two Worldcons -- my first was BayCon in '60-hum-something, 68 or 69. I drifted away from both fandom and the idea of writing in my 20's -- that hiatus again -- but when I returned to the convention scene in the mid-80's as a wanna-be pro, it was a fairly socially comfortable milieu for me. I understand some writers who first encounter fandom after they are published are a little baffled how to go on there, as it doesn't really fit expected commercial, literary, or academic models of writer-reader relationships, though it partakes of all of them. But most writers seem to learn pretty quickly. Note, fandom is not a unified body so much as an alliance of varied special interests; you have to locate your own kindred spirits in the array.

MH> It must be satisfying to be an award-winning author, especially when recognition has come from both readers and writers. Did it seem somewhat unreal as the Hugos piled up? (A happy ``problem'' to have I'm sure!)

LMB> Both real and unreal. The validation was enormously gratifying, of course. This is what a career in SF is supposed to look like, isn't it? If you ignore the grinding efforts of the several-year run-up -- or perhaps that's part of the story, too. Part of why I hit where I was aiming may be that I never let myself be diverted from the target, though it came close a few times; discouragement, wrong projects narrowly avoided, wrong turns not taken. But due to the subjective nature of reading, literary awards are never won as a prize in a race; they can only be given, and received, as gifts. It is well for a writer's sanity not to become confused about this. I can only choose what words go on the page; what happens afterward is really mostly beyond my control.

MH> Other than the Con and your other promotional activities, what else do you have on your schedule for your trip down under?

LMB> I am actually going to take a real, bona fide week's vacation that has nothing to do with writing, publishing, or promotion. Since I couldn't work up the courage to attempt to drive on the left, I've signed up for a guided tour around the South Island. I've never done one of those. Yes, of course I'll be watching out for The Movie scenery!

© 2003 by Mike Houlahan and Lois McMaster Bujold

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Last updated: April 5th 2003