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Author Q&A: Malka Older

Malka Older is a writer, aid worker, and PhD candidate.  Her science fiction political thriller, Infomocracy, was named one of 2016’s best books by both Kirkus and BookRiot, and the sequel, Null States, will be published in September 2017.  You can find links to her writing, which has appeared in at Tor.com, Sundog Lit, Capricious, Reservoir, Inkscrawl, Rogue Agent, and Wired, among others.  Named Senior Fellow for Technology and Risk at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs for 2015, she has more than a decade of experience in humanitarian aid and development. She is currently pursuing her PhD at the Center for the Sociology of Organizations at SciencesPo.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Malka Older

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

I’ve always wanted to be a writer, I think mainly because I was always a reader. It seemed like a natural way of interpreting and interacting with the world. I had some encouragement along the way but plenty of discouragement too. But writing was (and is) the thing I did – after work or around school – that made me feel like I’d accomplished something that day, like I’d figured out something new or pushed myself in an interesting way, so I kept doing it.

You’ve published a book (with another on the way), numerous poems, several articles, and have contributed to a couple of anthologies — what can you tell us about the publication process for these different presses? How was it different for the different mediums in which you chose to publish? Have you evolved from publishing in one medium into many, or from many into one? 

Most of this happened in a fairly organic way. In my writing I’ve mainly focused on novels and poetry, but sometimes I had ideas that made more sense as short stories, and then I just queried and submitted – and I did that for many years before anything was published. Once something was accepted, more seemed to follow. The novel came about because I followed up with an editor who had accepted one of my stories, and then worked very hard to take advantage of the opportunity. For the anthologies, it was usually serendipitous: I read a call and had something that fit and submitted it.

You’ve obviously shot into the spotlight with your recent novel, Infomocracy: once you’ve finished with that series do you see yourself staying in the novel medium or transitioning into other presses? What factors might influence your decision?

I love writing (and reading!) novels and always have at least two going, sometimes at a very low level (slow, low word count), sometimes more aggressively. I enjoy the complexity, the space that gives me time to learn something I didn’t know about the story and characters. I also write poetry fairly regularly, because some ideas or emotions just don’t work in prose (for me). I’m interested in pushing out of my comfort zone, either with new forms or new genres.

Can you discuss the themes and topics that entice and inspire you most? What themes have you always been drawn to and what ones have you moved away from, and why? How has your writing evolved throughout your career?

My themes tend to adapt along with whatever is going on to my life at the time. Sometimes they are intellectual, other times more emotional – a complex feeling that I try to find a way to evoke through narrative. I also try very hard for my books to be in some way surprising: I don’t want the plot or the characters to be predictable.

Infomocracy obviously has some very blatant political themes and undertones to it; can you share what inspired you to write the novel and what main ideas or themes you hope readers take away from your book?

Infomocracy came out of a number of specific frustrations, some based on my work and experiences overseas, some based on the 2012 US presidential election. More than pushing a specific viewpoint (although I’m sure I ended up doing that, it’s impossible not to let some of my opinions through), I was interested in getting readers to think about the processes of democracy and in particular the assumptions we take for granted. So, for example, I’m not saying that micro-democracy is absolutely the best way forward; I’m hoping that people start to think about that and other possible options and wonder what’s stopping us from doing something different, from working more proactively to improve our governments and our democracies.

Infomocracy, as you mention in your article ‘Are We Headed Towards An Infomocracy?’, seems to be making an argument about representation in certain governmental systems. For our readers who haven’t read the book, can you expand a little bit on what that argument is?

In a nutshell: democracy, wonderful and important as it is, isn’t finished. One of the difficulties with democracy is the potential for oppression by majority. Many countries have designed their systems to try to avoid this through proportional representation or other means of giving minorities (ethnic, religious, or ideological) a voice, but it’s usually not enough to satisfy those groups that their interests are being properly represented. That’s why you see separatist movements, of varying degrees of seriousness, in almost every country in the world.

Infomocracy suggests that with the technology we have we can do better. We can offer people more choice, and customize governments closer to the community level. Ideally, we could forgo historical borders – many of which have little relationship to the way people group themselves – and find new ways to organize ourselves, but that is challenging because there are so many vested interests in keeping the map more or less as it is now.

Unsurprisingly given the topic of your works, you have a background in politics and sociology. You earned a BA in literature from Harvard and a Masters in international relations and economics from John Hopkins and you are also a PhD candidate in sociology of organizations from Institut d’Études Politques de Paris. What compels someone with such an education and background to go into creative writing?

Really the writing came first as the early literature degree attests. But I was interested in a lot of other subjects, and I always thought that the more I could learn about the world, the better it would be for my writing. Also, since it took me a long time to be published, I had to do other things. I’ve been very fortunate to have the opportunity to do lots of fascinating jobs.

What/who are some of your greatest literary influences?

Too many to easily name.

What tools would you say are some that every writer must have?

Books. Time to think, sometimes purposefully and sometimes aimlessly. Observation.

What would you say is the most important element for crafting a book or poem or short story, or for discovering a new medium of creativity?

An idea and the commitment to it to follow it through.

You’ve been published in numerous publications from Inkscrawl (“Alien Baby”) to Tor Books (Infomocracy). What factors go into choosing which presses you publish your work in, and is there a reason you’ve chosen the ones you have over your years of writing?

Honestly, it’s the ones that accept my work! Maybe at some point I’ll be able to be choosy, but mostly I submit anywhere reputable. I find venues on Twitter (following Submittable, or through other writers), by reading the bios of other writers, or of course by reading.

What was the hardest part of breaking into the publishing industry and why?

I found the agent query process really difficult, not just because of the rejection, which is hard, but primarily because I felt like it was so hard to learn from or progress along. The lack of feedback on even the query letter makes it hard to know how to improve. I’m not blaming the agents: I understand that with the number of queries they get they can’t provide personalized feedback. But it makes it hard to know whether you should adjust, stick with it, or turn your attention to something else.

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

Selling my book seemed to open up all sorts of opportunities. It is a terrible catch-22: supposedly you can’t sell a book without an agent, and yet it’s pretty hard to get an agent without selling a book—especially for someone like me, who writes relatively few short stories. But it does happen!

What guidance might you give to fledgling writers/artists?

Get out of your comfort zone in your life—try to do something that gives you a different perspective on your accepted assumptions. Read (or ingest your chosen art form, whatever that may be) a lot. Expose yourself to other art forms. Write or create for yourself, but once you’re ready submit often. Follow up on opportunities or interest but – and this is absolutely key—WITHOUT BEING CREEPY or entitled in any way. The system isn’t perfect and it isn’t fair, and the fault may not be in your work, but a given agent or editor is probably a decent person and it’s probably not their fault either – and if it is, you don’t want to be working with them in any case.

How long did you take to write each your books or poems, and then how much time was spent editing and finalizing them for publication?

I started Infomocracy in 2012, but I was doing lots of other things – including writing and querying other books and short stories and poems – and I wasn’t in any particular rush. I had about 30k done in January 2015, when I had the opportunity to pitch it to an editor as a novella-length excerpt; when he told me he was interested in the full novel, I got it up to 80k in about two or three months, and then added another 20k in edits before the end of June when it was sent for copy edits. Having an opportunity I’d been working towards for so long was a great incentive to write quickly! It was released in June 2016. We started talking about book two a few months after that; that one probably took roughly a year all told, although again I was doing other things at the same time. Poems similarly vary; I just wrote one in an hour or so for a call I saw, spent a few days coming back to it occasionally and revising, then sent it in and had it accepted, but I have other poems that have been in limbo for years as I occasionally add (or subtract) a line or two or rearrange until I feel like they are finished.

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

Since I almost always work on multiple novels at the same time – on no strict schedule whatsoever, sometimes just dabbling with different ideas – I usually have several projects bubbling. I read and therefore write in a lot of different genres, so as much as I’m enjoying science fiction – and have some new things coming in that area – I am hoping that publishing recognition is somewhat transferable and that I can get some different kinds of books out into the world. At some point, I’d like to work up to a poetry chapbook but that feels less immanent.

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