Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

In the Company of Julie Czerneda

Interview by 
Lazette Gifford
©2003, Lazette Gifford  

anadian author Julie Czerneda (CHUR-nay-duh) is more than a new rising star in the SF world. She has burst into the genre with the power of a nova, bringing back the wonder and excitement of genre stories that meld both science and adventure. Her first book publication in 1997 began the Trade Pact Trilogy with A Thousand Words for Stranger, making her a finalist for the John Campbell Best New Writer Award; the trilogy now also includes Ties of Power and To Trade the Stars. Her popular Web Shifters Trilogy (Beholder's Eye, Changing Vision, and Hidden in Sight [April, 2003]) has garnered equal notice and praise, along with several award nominations. Her standalone, In the Company of Others, has won an Aurora Award, RT Reviewerís Choice Award, and a Finalist for the Philip K. Dick Award, and is on the Nebula preliminary ballot.

Julie's books are filled with unusual humans and exotic aliens coexisting in a universe brimming with danger and surprises. With the publication of six (soon to be seven) novels and a handful of short stories, she has won a legion of fans eager for every snippet she posts in her newsgroup, and haunting bookstores as release days approach.

Julie Czerneda is also one of the most approachable writers in the SF community. Her very popular Sff.net newsgroup gets several hundred posts a day, and she attends many conventions during the year. You can find her website at http://www.czerneda.com.

She kindly took time out of what is obviously a very busy writer's life to answer a few questions for Vision.

Vision: You are from Canada and live in Toronto, which I believe has a very large SF community. Do you feel that being Canadian has influenced your themes in any way?

Julie: I actually live 2 hours due north of Toronto, but you are quite right about the wonderful and active SF community there. When we get together at conventions (Toronto has several), thereís often talk about what being Canadian brings to our work. In my case, I believe itís influenced me to create characters who seek compromise rather than victory, who find it vital to accommodate distinctiveness, even if that isnít always comfortable or safe. And, of course, thereís hockey in one of my novels and beer in pretty well all of them. I canít help that.

Vision: Tell us about the Aurora Awards, and the books you've written that have won this award.

Julie: The Prix Aurora Awards are Canadaís version of the Hugo Awards, in which works are nominated in a variety of categories, then those attending or supporting the Canvention are able to cast a vote. To win, your work has to be noticed, enjoyed, and remembered by those who nominate, then your work has to successfully compete among the nominated works. Itís a great honour. Iíve won two thus far: Best Long-Form English in 2002 for In the Company of Others, DAW Books, and Best Short-Form English in 2002 for ďLeft Foot on a Blind ManĒ an sf story that appeared in Silicon Dreams, ed. by Martin H. Greenberg and Larry Segriff, DAW Books. Both Beholderís Eye and Changing Vision made the final Aurora Ballot in their respective years. You can find information about the Aurora Award at http://www.sentex.net/~dmullin/aurora/

Vision: You attribute your love of writing to your mother giving you a typewriter when you didn't like the ending of a book, and telling you to write your own. This started you writing -- but has it also affected the way you end your own stories?

Julie: Interesting question. I hadnít thought of it, but Iím sure it must have. I want to be satisfied at the end of a book. That doesnít mean the ending has to be happy, although I tend that way in my novels, but it does mean I want a strong feeling of closure, that enough has been finalized to fulfill the promise of the story. So yes, I try to provide that. Hopefully with success. No oneís told me -- yet -- that they feel I should have changed an ending.

Vision: Are there any specific writers who have influenced you?

Julie: I think youíre always influenced by those authors whose work seems to speak particularly to you, whose books you reread and continue to enjoy. As I was growing up, I loved an eclectic bunch, and still do. Andre Norton. Mary Stewart. Isaac Asimov. Gordon R. Dickson. Keith Laumer. Rex Stout. Edgar R. Burroughs. John Creasey. J.R.R.Tolkien. John Wyndham. Alastair McLean. Ray Bradbury. Many more, believe me. Iím something of a reading glutton. When I consider those I truly treasure, though, they are the suspenseful storytellers whose characters were far more than plot holders. That set my taste, Iím sure. Of course, there are writers today of whom I am in complete awe, such as Patricia McKillip, C.J. Cherryh, and Terry Pratchett. Is awe an influence?

Vision: Your science background includes research in animal communications. What has that brought to your stories?

All the problems Esen ever faces in the Web Shifter books! ::chuckle:: Seriously, that background, and my continuing interest, provides me with both the fundamental plot of my stories and informs the world-building. For example, the Trade Pact series is an exploration of one idea: how far would an intelligent species go to promote an inheritable advantage in its population, given that the final cost could be their own extinction? Within that series are an assortment of aliens, and their homes which are quite definitely based on what I know of life here. The Web Shifters? Reeks of biology. Quite literally. My science is my playground as well as passion.

Vision: What suggestions do you have for new writers who would like to write material that has a science background when they don't have an education in science?

Julie: Thereís two parts to this. First, if you want to write a science fiction story, then there must be a scientific speculation at its heart. A Ďwhat if ...í the author cares to investigate. For example, What if cell phones could be implanted in peopleís heads? What if people were born who could only see in the dark? Youíll need to learn enough of that science to speculate plausibly. That doesnít mean obtaining a degree in neurology, but you might want to read about what we are capable of implanting today, the risks and problems. Or you might want to walk around your neighbourhood to see if it is ever really dark, and research how much light the human eye requires for normal image formation. Golden rule: know the science that matters to your story.

Which brings us to my second part. World-building. Whatever you do, donít let your world violate what your readers know already. Science fiction readers Ė and editors Ė are interested in science and its consequences. You can use that to your advantage, because they will follow your speculation. But nothing discourages such readers faster than distrust, so your science must be consistent within the story. If your story must take place on the Moon, find out what being on the Moon would be like before you write it.

Readers will accept what you make clear is your speculation in science. They wonít accept a setting that disobeys natural laws. (Unless thatís part of the story.)

Iím being long-winded. Sorry! I encourage every writer to try science fiction. Itís wonderful, meaningful stuff and you shouldnít be dissuaded by being a non-scientist at all. You can find out what you need to know. You can ask someone with a science background to check your facts. The point is to tell a story in which a science concept matters, in which you show your reader the consequences, the issues, and perhaps a bit of the wonder. We need all such stories we can get.

Vision: You have written books from the first person point of view of an alien. How do you get inside the alien mind?

Julie: Very carefully and with smidge of lubricating jelly.

Sorry, Zette. Of course I can only make my best guess at what it would be like, but we do that, as writers, every time we write about a person other than ourselves. In my case, with aliens, itís also a different biology. I use that as my starting point. How would things appear to alien senses? How would that appearance affect ďmeĒ the character? For example, would a loud sound be startling or pleasant? The more differences from human, the more the reader Ė and I Ė will believe the character isnít human.

Motivation matters, too. When I write from Esenís viewpoint, I have quite a bit thatís not-human right from the start. Part of her essential nature is a very different sense of time. The other aspect I particularly enjoy is her combination of knowledge and inexperience. It allows me to provide credible information about a situation, while having a character who can make mistakes.

Thereís also being able to ďseeĒ a human character as alien. It reinforces the sense that the POV character isnít human, for one thing, while letting me explore what it means to be human. I really enjoy this. Iíll use the alien POV to point out what is silly about being human Ė and what is wonderful, too.

Vision: You have created intricate worlds filled with fascinating characters, both human and alien. Any worldbuilding hints on how to create such complexity? Where do you start? Characters? Plot? World?

Julie: Thank you. Hints, huh? Well, I start with the problem I want to explore in the plot. Thinking about that seems to give me a strong sense of the overall tone of the story. Then, I think about the sort of character who would logically be affected by that problem. Until I have that framework in my head, I donít do any worldbuilding beyond my usual stuffing of folders with cool information. 

Where does the complexity come from? Layering, I suppose. I write from start to end, and do much of my world-building as I go, but Iíll add more details as I reread. I like to make the settings part of the plot, as much as possible -- Drapskii, from the latter two Trade Pact books, being the ultimate example. Sometimes that part is to help establish a mood, but always itís to tell the reader more about the species or culture involved. 

But the real reason? Iím very curious. Very. I get sidetracked by that all the time. I made Ret 7 a planet suited to an amphibious species for no particular reason except I wanted a slimy character. Having done that, I immediately wanted to see what such a species might be like. Where would they live? How? What would please or disgust them? And I love trivialities. I really do. Downspouts that funnel rainwater into their homes, not out. Mobile fungi instead of rats to scurry away from garbage. An aesthetic that prefers flooring and walls curved like waves. See what happens to me? Itís really a problem sometimes.

The end result, however, becomes a richer palate to use as the book grows. Humanoids donít like the irregular floors Ė or moving fungi, for that matter. It adds to the uneasiness of such characters when dealing with Retians, while adding credibility to their different moral approach. Complexities suddenly abound.

Vision: You are also involved in editing anthologies. Do you have any suggestions that might help new writers based on things you have seen in stories sent to you?

Julie: How about a list?

Check that youíve put your name and contact information on it. Please. Iím not kidding.

Triple check the submission guidelines before you send it. Have you done *all* the seemingly inane things you were asked? If not, do them. The editor has a reason and yours is not to wonder why. And make sure your story really does fit the theme of the anthology (or intended readership). Saves everyone time.

Story basics matter. Point of view. In a short story, keep to one unless you have a very good reason to flip into another head. Real characters. If thereís any common failing Iíve seen in first stories, itís the absence of physical description of the main characters. The next would be creating characters with no past and very little present. The more whole you make your characters, the more whole your writing. Make sure you are writing a short story. Yes, people do go on to write novels from their short stories, but you donít think that way at the start. It shows. Iíve rejected many stories because the author set up a novelís worth of plot only to have to force an ending to the story by either ignoring most of the threads or trying to resolve everything at once. Short stories are hard to write for a reason. You must accomplish everything inside that word count, including a satisfying resolution.

A couple of thoughts on reacting to rejection. (If youíve been accepted, you donít need any, yes?)

If your story is rejected and the editor had time to give you comments why, pay attention. First, this is a sign the editor was interested enough in your writing to say something. Submit more work to this person in the future. Second, even if you donít agree with the comments, think about them calmly. Use them. What you wanted to say with your writing didnít make it inside that personís brain Ė why?

If your story is rejected, it may have nothing to do with its perfection. Iím careful to restrict the number of submissions I accept to an anthology. I still receive more wonderful stories than I can put in that book. Iíve been able to use three so far in later projects, but I have the luxury of more time than most editors, because I only do one or two anthologies a year. Frankly, Iím cutting down the number of invitations more each time. I hate saying no.

Vision: One of your projects is No Limits: Developing Scientific Literacy Using Science Fiction, a resource for teachers to use SF in the classroom. I believe that Orbiter is the latest in this series. Can you tell us a bit about this project?

Julie: While my first novel was swimming in the slush pile, I was doing workshops with teachers and students on various aspects of science. (Iíve an extensive background in educational publishing.) Science fiction was a tool I loved to use for many reasons, from its ability to excite students as a genre to the issues it deals with, societal as well as scientific. The schools I visited had limited resources, with their sf collections being either immense classic works unsuited to the timeframe of a teacherís program, or shorter works that didnít feature the type of science or issues relevant to the curriculum. (And yes, there were many fun reads that were sf only in having a space ship on the cover.) I approached my non-fiction publisher with the notion of commissioning short stories that would be based on science topics being taught in schools, by authors who could write imaginatively and interestingly for younger readers. Packing Fraction and Other Tales of Science & Imagination was the first, containing five stories, poetry, and illustrations all tied to high school science. No Limits is the teacherís guide I did to show how to use the stories. It was great fun and has been exceptionally well received.

In fact, educators liked it so much, we decided to move into elementary grades next, with the Tales from the Wonder Zone series. These have a more deliberate language arts aspect as well, with the books varying in reading level and the stories within each book ranging in difficulty as well. For example, the Stardust authors chose from grade 4 science topics, and those stories are for beginning independent readers. Explorer slots into grades 5/6, with more challenge in the reading. The Orbiter and Odyssey (in production) authors could play with any grade 7/8 science topic and those books contain stories an adult sf reader would definitely enjoy.

Annette Griessman and I co-authored teacherís materials for the first three Wonder Zone anthologies, focusing on science more than language arts. Because of the (rabid) interest shown by language arts teachers, weíre redoing those to include more activities allowing the books to be used in both classes. Science fiction literally seems to have no limits on what can be accomplished with it.

Vision: You are also involved in the Webs of Wonder project. Can you tell us about that as well?

Julie: This was an initiative of David Brin (who financed the contest), Analog, and several others (including the fine people involved in Developing Young Readers and Readers for the Future) concerned about declining literacy among young people. The idea was to offer a $1000 prize for web-based teaching materials that used science fiction stories, then build a wonderful online resource for educators from the winners. Unfortunately, despite our considerable efforts, the number of entries was so dismal the contest has now ended. Iíve been talking to David about a different format, because the underlying concept is an excellent one.

Vision: You have attended many conventions in the last few years, and I see that you have several more planned. Do you think conventions are important assets for writers? What do they offer to you?

Julie: In our genre? Very important for writers. Before I was published, I met people at conventions who were in publishing, from agents to publishers. I met authors. I attended panels and workshops. In sum, conventions provided me with invaluable, credible information as well as business contacts.

Today, I meet friends and colleagues, interact with my readers, and continue to learn from other writers. And, interestingly, I still do my face-to-face business with my own publisher at conventions, having not yet made it to the DAW office in New York City.

I admit, I get a huge creative boost from every convention. Itís a tremendous thing, to be among people who share oneís love of wonder, and to see how they express it. I attend as many as I can afford, in terms of time and loot. Itís always been worthwhile.

Vision: Your news group at SFF.Net (sff.people.julie-czerneda) is extremely busy, and filled with snippets of stories (both yours and other writers), contests, and discussions. You seem to really enjoy the contact with others, both fellow writers and fans. Does this help your writing? Or is it just fun?

Julie: ::chuckle:: Thereís fun, of course. But the newsgroup has become immensely important to my writing on several levels. The obvious is being able to suck the brains of all these bright and talented people. What, you thought I was selfless here? They are a marvelous resource and Iím grateful for all the help Iíve been given. And plan to ask more questions. Itís also been helpful to learn which aspects of my writing readers enjoy most. I pay attention. Thatís fun too.

Less obvious? Writing can be solitary. My newsgroup is a gathering of like minds I can reach with a click of my mouse. More than a gathering. There is a real sense of community here. We share each otherís joy and success. We support each other through failure and loss. Iíve made and expanded friendships here I know will last a lifetime (if they can put up with me that long). I know, beyond doubt, the enthusiasm I encounter in my newsgroup makes it easier to get to writing every day.

When I first ventured into the newsgroup world, it was because I consider it to be my responsibility as a writer to be accessible to my readers and this seemed a more interactive means than individual emails. Certainly itís been far more successful than Iíd ever imagined, something I attribute to the generous nature of the people whoíve adopted it. From snippets to kindnesses beyond words, theyíve proved that you donít have to meet face-to-face to enjoy one anotherís company. This being said, thereís now a delightful trend at conventions for newsgroup folks to gather in order to meet one another. I admit to loving that part, especially when I can be there too.

Vision: DAW has purchased two new science fiction novels to be published hardbound in 2004/5 along with two prequels to The Trade Pact Universe, entitled The Stratification: Books I & 2. I also see that you recently sold a short story. You appear to be a very busy writer. How long does it take you to write a novel? How do you arrange your time?

Julie: Writing is my full-time job, so my time Ė on those days under my control Ė is organized thus: I get up at dawn, breakfast and check mail, then exercise. In the summer, I run, do weights, and garden; in the winter I have an exercise machine in the basement. Iím usually back at my desk and writing by 9 am. My husband works at home too, so we meet for coffee breaks and lunch. We both tend to drift back to work for an hour or so after supper as well, in winter. In summer? More gardening then reading on the deck! YUM!

However, I probably get three, maybe four days out of seven that go as planned. There are visits from family, for one thing. The need to make a mail/shopping/Tim Hortonís run to town. Those amazing days when one has to go biking, canoeing or fly ... You get the drift. Roger and I donít take weekends or holidays as such. We take our opportunities for fun when they arise, then work the rest of the time to make up for it.

Mind you, everything changes when I get to about the halfway point of a novel. From then until the finish Iím hard to pull away from my desk, tend to miss meals, and pretty well ignore everything around me. Thank goodness Rogerís here to make sure the house doesnít burn down. I still exercise before Iíll sit at my desk, though. Iíve learned the hard way that it lets me write longer and better. (And still stand up when done!)

How long does it take me to write a novel? Hmmm. Under six months. Short stories? Probably three weeks to do a short story from scratch, less if I work solely on it Ė which I rarely do. Until Iím devoted to the next book, Iím prone to having a few things underway at once. Okay, even after Iím devoted to the next book, I canít help dabbling. The more I write, the more writing demands to be done. It seems inevitable.

Iíd be remiss if I didnít mention something else here. I earn my living as a writer. The more I write, the more my family benefits Ė both financially and, hopefully, as I become a better writer through practice. Simple as that. So being this busy isnít all about the desire to create. It has its very practical side as well.

Vision: Would you like to tell us a bit about your upcoming projects, like those you've sold to DAW?

Julie: Twist my arm. ::smile:: What I have under contract from DAW will keep me happily busy for a couple of years. I take it as a milestone in my career, and DAWís confidence in my work, that these next books will come out in hardcover editions first. ::bounce:: Species Imperative, Books 1& 2, will be two halves of a whole, as will Stratification 1 & 2. The former will be another big stretch for me. I enjoy those. Really. The latter will add an immense amount of backstory to the Trade Pact series. I have several other books planned for the future as well. You should, all things being equal, see Esen again in the not-too-distant future.

Meantime, Iíve expanded my young adult anthology editing into a new series. Tentatively called ďRealms of Wonder,Ē these will be fantasy stories, written around a theme such as the quest. The first book is well underway and Iím looking forward to readersí reactions.

Vision: Anything else that you would like to add?

Julie: I do have a couple of anthologies coming from DAW Books. The first, Space Inc., comes out July 2003 The authors explored what it would be like to have a regular job, but in space. I think readers will enjoy the result. The second, with Isaac Szpindel, is ReVisions, in which the authors have been asked to speculate on what might have changed had a particular scientific discovery or event happened in a different time, or in a different culture. The first stories in are fabulous, so Iím looking forward to the rest.

What else would I like to add? Only my sincere thanks to those whoíve taken the time to try my stories. I have a wonderful time writing them, and I hope you have an equally wonderful time reading. Merci!

 Find out more information about Julie Czerneda 
and her work at her website:

http://www.czerneda.com