Author Q&A: Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer is an author of science fiction and fantasy, a historian, and a composer. Her first science fiction series “Terra Ignota” (published by Tor Books) mixes Enlightenment-era philosophy with traditional science fiction speculation to bring to life the year 2454, not a perfect future, but a utopian one, threatened by cultural upheaval. The first volume, Too Like the Lightning, received the Compton Crook award and is a finalist for the Best Novel Hugo Award, and Ada has also been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. She studies the long-term evolution of ideas and the history of religious radicalism, science, and freethought, especially in the Italian Renaissance, Enlightenment, and Classical Greece and Rome. She teaches in the History Department at the University of Chicago, and did her Ph.D. at Harvard University. She composes close harmony folk music with mythological, science fiction and fantasy themes, and performs with the a cappella group Sassafrass. She also studies the history of manga anime, especially the “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka, blogs for Tor.com and writes the history/philosophy blog ExUrbe.com.


TBL Author Q&A Series: Ada Palmer

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

How did you writing career began? Was there a certain event, person, intuitive impulse that guided you to forge your own literary path?

I’ve wanted to write fantasy and science fiction longer than I can remember. One of my very earliest memories is going to my Dad’s office to use their high-tech new dot matrix printer to print out my first written story—a one paragraph story about blue-and-silver alien raccoons. I just loved the stories I read, or had read to me when I was tiny, and always came up with stories and wanted to tell them. After so many authors working so hard to give me good stories, I wanted to pay that generosity back—or rather pay it forward.

You have written two novels (Too Like The Lightning and Seven Surrenders) but you have also published academic/historical books.  Can you talk about the differences in approaches you’ve had to take to these diverse projects?  Also, what can you tell us about the publication process? How has finding publishing homes for your academic work differed from finding homes for your fiction? 

Writing academic works and fiction are extremely different, especially the publication process. Academic writing has so many set rules and guidelines, a very circumscribed style, and set of expectations that have to be met, because it isn’t just about the readers, it’s about proving you have a specific set of skills to be recognized as an authority. And when you produce a good dissertation and polish it into an academic book, there’s really no doubt it will be published—there are tons of academic presses and they need good books.  The question is never if it will be published, only by whom, whether you can get the publisher you want or whether you’ll need to go to another. With a novel it’s completely different; less than 1% of fantasy and science fiction novels that get written get published, so you put all that love and labor in never knowing whether you’ll manage it, whether you’ll be good enough to ever reach an audience. And indeed, with my academic book the first one I wrote was accepted by the first publisher I sent it to, whereas with fiction it was actually my fifth novel project which was the one that was finally good enough to catch the publisher’s eye and be part of that  less than 1%.  Academic publishing (even though it’s famous for being slow) was faster. I finished my academic book nearly three years later than the novel, but it still came out a full year earlier.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? In what ways has your writing evolved throughout your career?

I think the theme which unites both my fiction and my academic work is my interest in ideas, how they evolve over time, and are different in different times and places. What I love about science fiction and fantasy is how they create other worlds, or other situations, that no one has faced before but that people could face, and look at the different decisions, mindsets, actions, personalities, and convictions that people would develop in those new circumstances. That’s how science fiction and fantasy are a lot like history, since history too is a huge assortment of worlds very alien to our own when people faced situations and held views we don’t hold now and took actions which are alien to what we would do in a similar situation.  I’m fascinated by those differences, and how events changing and worlds changing make people, and their ideas, change. So my fiction looks a lot at history’s evolution; my world building doesn’t just involve imagining a world but imagining how it developed, what the earlier stages were, and how they shaped people’s thoughts. And my nonfiction is about that too. My favorite professor in college, Allen C. Kors, once said in class that if we had a time machine, and could go back in time to the Enlightenment, we could get used to a lot of things: the language, the customs, the food, the daily habits; but the thing that would be hardest, that we probably could never adjust to, that would be most alien would be people’s beliefs, what they assume is true, so different from what we hold to be true. As I’ve written many different things, fiction and nonfiction, I’ve tried to explore this theme, and let my readers share journeys into alien mind sets, and an understanding of how those alien minds operate, and why.

Too Like The Lightning takes place in a fascinating and fully-developed fictional world. What was the process of developing this world?  Do you have any tips for emerging writers about how to effectively build and invite a reader into such a fantastical place?

I go about world building by starting with my training in history; I want to be able to ask this world the kinds of questions I ask about a historical culture if I’m introduced to it for the first time. I think this helps me not take things for granted, since it’s so easy to just go with what’s expected. Let’s say a character has a cloak. What fiber is it made of? Linen that can be worked at home? Wool that has to be processed on a large loom? Is the cloth dyed? What dyes does this culture have? Does it produce them or import them from far away? Let’s say it produces a vivid red dye: is exporting dye a big part of the town’s economy? Does this dye need a chemical like alum to help make it colorfast? If so, who has the alum? An allied nation, or an enemy? Have they had wars over the alum? Suddenly pieces of a history are filling in. What if this city’s economy used to be based on this dye, but a new better dye has been developed elsewhere, so now they’re struggling, and need help from the neighbors who hate them because of an earlier war over the alum?  What people can we invent here?  The wealthy merchant who is suddenly going bankrupt? The sullen mercenary who lost an eye in the alum war?  The war widow who remarried someone from the other town and forms a cultural bridge?  Suddenly many layers of plot, history, and character have been filled in from answering just one question: what is the cloak made of?  Now we can ask what metal the clasp is made of, what kind of animal leather the shoes are? Is this person eating a meal? What is the staple grain? Is it something like rice that produces a huge yield per acre but is labor intensive, resulting in a dense population in the countryside? Or something more spread out like corn or yucca which yields little per acre and a sparsely-populated countryside? The more questions you ask, instead of just assuming “red cloak” and moving on, the more you can arrive at original answers which will build up a world.  And science fiction can build up much the same way if you invent a future technology and ask yourself, not just one effect it would have, but lots of effects. Superfast flying cars: how will they affect sports? Restaurants? Tourism? Citizenship? The distribution of ethnic groups? The experiences of kids growing up?

If anyone struggles with world building I also strongly recommend reading some good cultural and social histories, it doesn’t matter of where or when, to get immersed in a different culture, to see how different cultures can be, and how much weirder the past is than we give it credit for. Opening the book next to me at random (Guido Ruggiero, The Renaissance in Italy a Social and Cultural History) I just flipped it to a page discussing how a banquet in the southern side of Rome in the sixteenth century served a life-sized statue of Helen of Troy made of pasta. I would never have come up with that trying to imagine a Renaissance banquet, but it’s true—real history is much more diverse and bizarre and full of surprises than we think it is.  When you’ve read a bunch of them you start broadening your mind about how cultures can work.  That makes for really exciting imagined worlds.

You are quite the Renaissance woman.  In addition to your writing, you have a Ph.D. in history, and compose folk music.  How do these other disciplines influence/materialize in your writing?  How does studying history or composing a song affect your writing process?

Tidbits and concepts from my history work enter my fiction all the time as world building guides and details. But for my process, each project is a break from the others. I do one for a while and then switch.  When I come to each one I’m always refreshed and excited to work on it, so I never work on a project when I don’t want to, I’m always fresh and eager. It makes me more productive, since I write more words per hour when I’m excited and coming fresh to something than when I’m forcing myself.

As a busy history professor, how do you make time for your creative writing?  Can you speak to any routines or schedules you may have that help you create time to write?

The most important thing is to give my best hours to writing. Some times of day you’re really operating at 100%, but other times you’re tired, hungry, distracted, stiff, stressed, so you’re only operating at 80% or 50%.  There are lots of tasks we have to do on a regular basis—e-mail, laundry, paperwork, dishes—that don’t need you at 100%, that don’t need your best self. But writing really does. So my top recommendation is to find out when your best hours are by experimenting with writing different times of day, and in different ways. Some people are most productive writing for long periods, several hours or all day. Others are most productive in the first hour and get diminishing returns after that, so it makes more sense to write for one hour every day. Some write best late at night, others first thing in the morning. But you don’t know which will work best for you until you try them all. I used to think that I wrote best by working hard to get all my other work done so I had a clear day, and then having a long luxurious day of writing. But when (as an experiment) I tried getting up early and writing for one hour in the morning every day, to my astonishment I wrote substantially more in a week then I had in my one-day binges. And I was never a morning person, but somehow those hours were the most productive.

For anyone who is struggling to find time to write I highly recommend several weeks of experimenting with different schedules to learn which works best. And you should never say “I’m not a morning person” or “I could never write for only one hour at a time” without trying it—you never know what you’ll learn about yourself.

Is there a particular achievement or experience that has opened up the most opportunities for your writing?

I wrote an essay about how I sold Too Like the Lightning for The Usual Path to Publication, an awesome anthology of authors’ stories about how we sold our first novels. I can’t recommend it enough to anyone who’s interested in seeing how it works, or rather the zillion different ways it works, since the main message of all the disparate essays put together is that no two first book stories are ever alike. You can read my essay and find the anthology via my blog: http://www.exurbe.com/?p=4241

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?

To keep producing, and beyond that to keep producing things that are new and different. When I finished a project, I never lingered on it, I always moved on to the next one, to challenge myself in new ways and learn new skills. When I sent a manuscript to publishers I never sat back with just that, but always started on the next project, so I’d have something even better by the time they got back to me, whether it was an acceptance or a rejection. I think, after completing one project, a lot of factors can encourage one to stop, or at least to stop pushing one’s self. Sometimes it’s being really excited by the current project and waiting on that one, putting all one’s eggs in one basket and waiting and waiting for a publisher to choose it.  In that case it’s better to move on and write something new, to have a second thing to shop, and so you’ll be an even better writer when they do say “yes” to the first thing, and you’ll be able to polish it to be even more excellent.  Sometimes it’s feeling bitter, resenting the fact that the first project isn’t selling, since you know it’s good. Here writing a new thing is good too, since maybe the first thing was good but didn’t have the good luck of getting in front of the right editor, and maybe the second thing will, and then you can go back and publish the first thing too.  Or sometimes, and this is hardest in a way, it’s having friends who really like what you’ve produced and encourage you to write more of the same thing, to create sequels, or similar pieces, possibly to self-publish them or post them on line, and keep asking for more of the same. Continuing to produce more of the same can be enjoyable, and can get enthusiasm and positive feedback from friends, but it doesn’t tend to push you to become better at your craft. That requires doing different, new things, challenging things.  In this case if the acclaim of friends is all you want that’s fine, but if what you really want is for your art or story to be on the shelves of Barnes & Noble, then moving on writing something new, something that will challenge you and make you grow, is again better, since it will both please your friends and give you another shot at professional publication. For all these reasons, I recommend not only persevering and finishing the first project, but starting the second, and the third, and, in my case, the fifth, with the confidence that every project makes you better.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?  What are your next steps?

Right now I’m finishing the last book of Terra Ignota. I have several fully world built stories planned after this.  The first one I’m planning to plunge into is a series based on Viking mythology, which asks the question: if the Norse gods are real, and only the Norse gods are real, why did they let the only culture that worshipped them fade away?  I’ve been looking forward to this one for a long time. I’m also working on a nonfiction project on the history of censorship, which will draw on my research on the history of books and censorship and the Inquisition and such, trying to use our knowledge of the print revolution and how censorship affected it to try to understand the digital revolution and how censorship is likely to affect it as well. Should be intense!

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