If you like any sort of Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction or whatever you want to call it, check out the work of Jennifer Pelland, whose book of short stories, Unwelcome Bodies is amazing, and who has now released a novel, Machine (review here). Her work has earned two Nebula nominations.
We asked Jen a few questions about writing and her work.
First of all, you've done so well with your short stories, being twice nominated for the prestigious Nebula Award of Science Fiction. So how did this novel come to be? Was it envisioned from the start as a bigger canvas, or did it expand organically out of an idea? Please tell us a bit about the origin of Machine.
This started like most of my stories do -- with me getting a random idea that I wanted to explore. But the more I explored this one, the more I realized that it wouldn't fit in a short story. I figured novelette at first, or novella, but then I realized that it was too big for that and that it had to be a novel instead.
Novels take an entirely different mindset than short stories. Was it difficult to make the switch?
Machine is actually the second novel I've written, so I went into this knowing that I'd done it before and could do it again (that first novel was never published). But even with that, I did occasionally find it difficult sustaining my enthusiasm for the project for as long as I had to to finish it. It helped that I was really invested in my protagonist and wanted to see her story through. I think that's been what's doomed subsequent novel attempts on my part. I need to find another protagonist that I care this much about.
Along those lines, what were you able to do here that you maybe couldn't do with a shorter work? Did the result change how you look at future projects?
I think the main thing I could do here was have my character go through a much more complete arc than any of my short story protagonists. Plus, I got to take more time with it. It's downright luxurious compared to how quickly I need to move things along in a short piece. I wish it had changed how I look at future projects, but since I haven't finished another novel since then, it apparently hasn't.
Do you normally start with the germ of an idea and start writing to see where it leads, or map a good deal out in your head (or even outline) before crafting?
My writing style has changed over time. I used to be a germ writer, then moved to being a plotter, then got to a point where plotting ruined the fun of writing for me, then moved to a place where if I didn't plot in advance, I didn't know what to do next. So I've been all over the map. Right now, I'm still in the "plot in advance so you know that the story has somewhere to go" mode, but as history shows, that could easily change.
While some authors suffer from a dearth of ideas, you have so much going on in the book-- explorations of identity, humanity, gender, sexuality, prejudice, society, etc., so what do you feel is the main theme(s)?
The theme of loss is what drove me as I was writing it -- losing your love, your anchor, your humanity, your connection to the world. All those other things are definitely in there, but to me, they're secondary to the whole notion of overwhelming loss. To me, this is the story of a woman who thinks she has lost everything, but keeps finding that she has more to lose.
Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading this book?
Hmm, that's an interesting one. I suppose that I hope that people come away realizing that I didn't invent the expressions of sexuality and gender in the book, but was just looking at real people in the world around me and making sure they were represented in my fictional world. So many of us don't realize that there have always been people living beyond the so-called binaries in our world (female/male, gay/straight, etc). I've been privileged to know many brave people who don't hide who they are, despite enormous societal pressure to do so, and I wanted them to be in my book.
And how does that tie in with the rest of your work? Artists sometimes do studies for larger works. Did you have shorter works that were studies for this broader canvas?
Not specifically. But it's definitely part of a pattern. When setting up protagonists for a piece, I spend a fair amount of time trying to determine what kind of person a story calls for, and if that means going outside of society's comfort zones, then that's what I have to do. For instance, in "Captive Girl," the first thing I knew was that the main character had to be female. Then I realized her caretaker had to be her lover. Then I realized the story only worked if she'd had this caretaker since she was a young girl. Then I realized her lover had to be female as well. The story wouldn't work any other way. That's so far outside of most people's comfort zones, but it's what the story demanded. And it's one of my most commercially successful pieces, so there's a lesson there.
Do you want to share your personal views on what makes identity? If a person's consciousness were put into a completely artificial support system, would they still be human, or something else? Are we entering a time when most of what we think we are is a matter of choice?
I've never really tried to define identity. Whatever you think makes you who you are, that's cool with me. I'll leave that definition for the academics. As for consciousness transfers, friends of mine who understand neurobiology look at stories like mine and dub them fantasy. As cool as I think the idea is, I know it's likely an impossible dream. So when I write about it, I do it as a "what if?" experiment. What I actually think is more likely is that we're going to enter an age of elaborate body-hacking. People are already making themselves look mildly inhuman with tongue-forking, horn implants, and other non-surgical body mods. I have a feeling that as medical technology progresses, we'll be hacking our meat rather than hacking our brains. And it'll be fascinating to see how our brains handle that.
Are there writers with similar themes? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?
The writers who leap to mind are Octavia Butler and James Patrick Kelly. Butler wrote from an unabashedly female perspective, and there was nothing girly about it. In fact, when I started reading her, I don't think I'd seen anything darker. I'm fascinated by the way she played with identity and with the lengths that a human being will go to to survive in a nightmare scenario. Jim Kelly, on the other hand, showed me how a writer could be gritty and cool while writing about the worst of humanity. When I was a student at Viable Paradise, he critiqued my story "Dazz," which is about a junkie who's sold her legs to pay for drugs and totters around on cheap mechanical replacements. He gave me a great piece of advice on it that I've taken to heart for all my stories: leave the vomit in. He was concerned that other critiquers would be too grossed out by the piece and ask me to tone it down, and he wanted me to know up front to ignore that. So you can blame the nastier bits of my writing career on him.
Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?
My main goal is entertainment, but if I can toss in characters that reflect a reality that most people don't see (or don't want to see), then that's a bonus. The world is far more interesting than people realize.
Any other goals you've set for yourself, professionally or personally?
I haven't been writing a lot lately, and I'm trying to get back on the wagon. I started working on a novel, but it stalled out, so I'm walking away for a bit and trying to get out a short story or two before turning back to it. I need to fall in love with my protagonists, and I need to get them into more trouble. Hopefully, beating up on a couple of short story protags will help.
Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?
This novel was started in 2004, so I am damned well sick of it. It's been revised extensively for several years, first to try to attract an agent, then again at the agent's suggestion, then again for the publisher. Yeah, I'm about at the point of reading other people's stories at my convention readings. I don't usually go over my shorts that much, although I am very much a reviser. My rough drafts come out very lean, and need to be bulked in revisions. I used to be a fast writer. I miss those days. Then again, I didn't sell much those days, so there's a lesson there.
Do you have good editors, and if so, how do they help you? Do they look for particular things? Do you have different people for different editing levels?
I just have whatever editors buy my work. I've dealt with some who've just wanted minor tweaks, and some who've asked for major revisions. So far, I haven't had an editor ask for more than I was willing to give, so that's nice.
If a writer came to you for advice, how would you help?
I suppose it depends on what they asked for. I don't have a ton of spare time, so I try to be helpful in controlled environments, like in panels at conventions, or as a writing workshop leader (which I do every year at WisCon). I'm very happy to point people to resources that have been put together by people far more knowledgeable and successful than me. But I'm not in a place where I can mentor someone or where I can offer critiques to strangers, alas. Between the day job, writing, belly dance, and trying to have some semblance of a social life, there's not a lot of time left over.
Stories can be told by using a different medium. Can you see Machine as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?
Well, there is an audio book in the works, so that should be interesting. As for a film, I don't know how that would work unless it was NC-17. The sex feels like an integral part of Celia's journey. But if someone offers me a nice fat check, I'll be happy to let them have at it. The adaptation of Jumper, as awful as it was, still resulted in a lovely payday and a lovely sales spike of the novel for Stephen Gould.
What's the next step in your writing world?
Getting back on that damned horse. Stupid horse. Why must you be so difficult?
Any other information you'd like to impart?
Just that I've got a fun event coming up that'll make my two creative worlds collide. On St. Patrick's Day, I'll be belly dancing to Irish music at Annie's Book Stop in Worcester, Massachusetts from 3:00 to 5:00 while selling my book. Well, I'll alternate dancing and signing, because my writing is illegible enough when I'm standing still. But when else will you get a chance to have a book signed buy a sweaty belly dancer who's likely to shed glitter on the pages in the process?
Web page: www.jenniferpelland.com (also has the info on Annie's Book Swap)
Where to buy: www.jenniferpelland.com/machine.html, or link right to Apex: http://www.apexbookcompany.com/products/machine-by-jennifer-pelland