Interview with Esther Friesner
Nebula Award Winner and Queen of the Hamsters
Friesner, who is well known for her humorous stories, has published more than 25
novels, appeared in over 65 anthologies, and has had about as many appearances
in magazines. Esther has also
written and published poetry and nonfiction articles, as well as having had an
advice column (Ask Auntie Esther, Pulphouse Magazine).
She was Toastmaster for the 2001 World Science Fiction Convention, and
subjected the crowd to the Hugo Rap...
if that wasn't enough, Esther is also co-editor of the infamous 'Chicks in
has twice won the Science Fiction Writer's of America's Nebula award, first for
her short story 'Death and the Librarian' (Asimov's SF Magazine, December
1994) and again for 'A
Birthday' (Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1995).
In November 1995 White Wolf published 'The Psalms of Herod,' a stark look
at a future society, followed by the sequel, 'The Sword of Mary' -- novels that
surprised some of her long-time fans with the darkness of the storyline.
if you want to know about the hamsters, you'll just have to check out her web
site at http://www.sff.net/people/e.friesner.
You've written novels, short stories, articles, and poetry. You've written serious material and humorous material.
Is there any type that you prefer to do?
I can't say that there's one particular sort
of writing I prefer over another. Funny,
serious, what-you-will, as long as I'm deriving satisfaction from the work at
hand, it's good for me.
What drew you to write in the sf and fantasy genres?
Is there anything that you haven't written that you'd liked to try?
I started writing fantasy because a friend of mine in
Yale grad school (Shariann Lewitt, who publishes some excellent SF as SN Lewitt)
showed up in the Hall of Graduate Studies dinning room one day with a big pad of
yellow legal paper and when we asked what she was doing she said "I'm
building a world." Well, that
sounded like fun, and so with a merry "I can do
that!" I started building one of my own.
During classes when I should have been taking notes.
But I got my Ph.D. anyway and I got the novels published that were
based on that first go at worldbuilding, all of which makes this a very bad
moral example for the children.
for writing something I have not yet tried, well, there's always a best seller
for the New York Times list, or something nice for Oprah. <G>
Anyone who has met you, or spent time in your newsgroup on sff.net, knows
that humor seems to come naturally to you.
When you sit down to write, do you intend to create humorous stories or
do they just 'sort of' turn out that way?
Esther: This is a toughie to answer. Stories come from all sorts of places, for me.
Sometimes I have an idea for a situation that's the story seed, sometimes
it's something as small as a bit of wordplay that hits my ear and strikes my
fancy just so. Sometimes I know
that a story is going to be funny and yes, there it is.
OTOH sometimes I start out with one of those story seeds I mentioned,
something I expected to yield a funny story, and guess what?
The seed decides that no, it's going to grow up to be a serious
story. That's what happened with
"Death and the Librarian." Terry
Pratchett gave me two miniature figurines from the Discworld game, one of Death,
one of the Librarian. I said,
"Oh, neat! Death and the
Librarian! Thanks!" and the
phrase sounded like a perfect title, but when I started writing what should
have been a funny story (I mean, come on, it was based one something connected
to Terry Pratchett, for gosh sakes!) the story itself decided otherwise.
By the way, just so we're clear, a piece can be funny and
serious too. The best humor makes
Do you have trouble switching off your sense of humor to do darker
Esther: It's not a matter of switching anything off.
I'm not a funny writer or a serious writer or a fantasy writer or a poet
or a playwright. I'm a writer.
Either I write in the vein that a particular story demands or I wind up
writing a less than satisfactory (for me) story.
You spend a great deal of time interacting with fans, both on the
Internet and at numerous conventions. Do
you feel this is an important part of being a writer in today's world?
Esther: I never thought of my interactions with fans as anything
but interesting and fun. I don't do
it because it's good business or because I hope it will advance my career.
I do it because it's enjoyable and a lot of what I take home from
conventions is real food for thought. When
it stops being fun and interesting and starts being stressful, I'll stop doing
When you want cheered up, whom do you go and read? Which genre writers do
you enjoy reading?
Esther: Oh dear. When
I want to be cheered up I go out of genre to a whole lot of. . .dare I say it?.
. .comic books. Although, well,
let's face it, I read a LOT of Terry Pratchett's work. He's wonderful. I
can't say enough good things about his work, and the fact that he's a great
person too is icing on the very tasty cake.
as for comic books, I think Larry Gonick's THE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE WORLD is
priceless. I also enjoy Rumiko
Takahashi's RANMA 1/2, Kobayashi's WHAT'S MICHAEL and CLUB 9, Frank Cho's
LIBERTY MEADOWS, and plenty of other titles.
wish Walt Kelly were still with us. POGO
was the best. I was raised on POGO.
How has writing changed who you are or how you see the world? Are there
themes that matter most to you?
Esther: Well, I'm a lot less likely to turn off my Inner Editor
when I go to the movies. I don't
nit pick, but I do notice flaws in the story's logic more than I used to.
the earlier days of my career I suffered from a common ailment, namely the
conviction that I had to turn every life experience into fodder for a
story. That took all the fun out of
things like vacations. Now when I
go to the beach, I enjoy the sun and the sea without feeling the driving urge to
plot out a story set at the beach. That's
a great relief!
can't narrow down themes I care about. It's
a case of "I know it when I see it, or when it gets me angry/upset."
I suppose a lot of what does matter to me is doing what I can to make
others understand that you do not need to stand on someone else's face in order
to make yourself feel bigger. Much
hateful behavior in this world comes from people whose Words To Live By seem to
be "Well, I may not be attractive, or successful, or well-liked, but at
least I'm not a <fill in the blank with the racial/religious/ethnic/whatever
group that the speaker feels superior to>!"
Has your personal background and experiences played a significant role in
what you write?
Esther: The writer is always the last to know this.
It's the readers, critics included, who are best at pointing out where
the writer's life clearly influenced her work.
Who am I to deprive them of their honest employment? <G>
When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Has your career progressed the way you thought it would?
Esther: I was three when I knew I liked to make up stories.
When I found out I could get money for doing so, my fate was sealed.
<G> I can't say whether my career is progressing the way I
thought it would or not because I never really had a Five Year Plan thought
through. I had some goals I thought
would be nice to achieve, like actually selling a novel (I swear, there was a
time I was convinced I would never, ever, ever sell one) but I didn't have a
preconception of my career as a thing unto itself.
Do you think today's genre market is harder on new writers just trying to
Esther: Wow. That's
another toughie. I haven't got the
information to give such an important question the sort of answer it deserves.
One thing, though: The
problem of mail contamination has definitely made things a lot harder on
everyone. This may or may not be the end of unagented submissions, but
again, I can't make any call on this because there is nothing worse than an
How did you become co-editor of 'Chicks in Chainmail' and the following
books? Do you enjoy the work of
Esther: Pretty easily. I came up with the idea behind "Chicks in Chainmail"
at a Boskone years ago, pitched it to my editor at Baen Books, Toni Weisskopf,
and when I got the green light I contacted Martin Greenberg of TeknoBooks to
handle the administrative side of the editorial work involved.
We'd already co-edited two other anthologies.
anthologies can be very enjoyable. It's
great to discover new writers (though the "Chicks" anthologies are
invitation-only, with the invitation list generated in-house as opposed to open
anthologies) but it's also sometimes frustrating when you get more good stories
than you can buy. Contracts state
that the finished book can only contain so many words, after all, and you can't
go over the limit. I am consoled
when stories which I could not buy are sold in other markets.
I like to see other writers succeed.
Can you give us an insight into what the editor of an anthology of this
Esther: Pretty much what any editor does:
Read what comes in, first seeing if the story meets the guidelines of the
anthology (i.e. in the case of the "Chicks" books a story must be
funny and must involve women and armor of some sort).
That settled, I must say that I'm one of those intuitive editors of the
course it doesn't hurt if a story makes me laugh more than it makes me say
As an editor, is there anything you can tell upcoming writers that would
help them in their careers?
Learn the craft of writing as well as the art.
Follow directions (Do Not Send Complete ms. means just
Follow requests. (If an editor says "No unicorn
stories!" do not decide that your unicorn story is so wonderful it will
make him change his mind.)
Follow professional manuscript format.
A rejection slip has nothing to do with you as a person;
it just means that one of your stories was not the proper fit for one particular
Go to panels where editors speak and heed what they say
about such things as good cover letters (short and to the point) and other such
Learn from the mistakes of others (which editors will
speak of on these same panels) some of which are "cute" cover letters,
writers who send abusive replies to rejections, and so on.
What is the most important advice you can give to a new writer?
Esther: Don't give up. But
don't persevere blindly, either. If
one person tells you that a story is not working for Reason A and you disagree,
fine. But if one reader after
another mentions Reason A, be willing to accept the fact that maybe, just maybe,
they are right and you should look into Reason A for a rewrite.
Is there new material you have coming out that we can look for?
Esther: I just turned in the novelization for MEN IN BLACK 2,
said novelization and the movie upon which it is based will be out in the summer
Any final thoughts you'd like to pass on to new writers?
Esther: Love to write. Value
what you have to say and the way you choose to say it.
Work to make it as good as it deserves to be.
But again and above all, love to write.