The Privilege of the Sword

John Scalzi Interview, July 26, 2006

Your Wednesday Author Interview: Ellen Kushner

I’m very excited in this week’s author interview to introduce you to Ellen Kushner, a terrific writer with a really delightful new fantasy adventure called The Privilege of the Sword, which is – dare I say it? – fantasy’s answer to The Catcher in the Rye. (Aside from being a not-inaccurate statement of the book, this phrase will have more resonance as you read the interview. Trust me).

But Ellen is not just a writer; indeed, if one word sums her up, it would be “polymath.” Ellen writes, hosts a weekly radio show which covers a dizzying amount of cultural territory every week, and is an active player in the arts community, working to expand borders in arts and beyond. She’s going to chat a little about each of them here today.

1. Quick! Tell us a little bit about yourself and The Privilege of the Sword.

I have the distinction of being the only living fantasy writer (that I can think of) whose career is largely based on fantasy novels in which there is no magic whatsoever. And yet, my work seems to scratch the same itch that certain fantasy and/or historical novels do.

The new novel is about a teenage girl, my narrator, Katherine, who’s very conventional. She wants to grow up to be normal: wear pretty clothes, go to dances, get married . . . . She certainly doesn’t want to dress as a boy and change the world. But the adults in her life have their own agendas, and in manipulating her, they unleash all that is extraordinary in her – so slowly she hardly knows what’s happening herself. That’s the fun of a first person narrator: they can be so innocent of what’s really going on!

In the course of the book, she and her best friend witness all sorts of decadent adult behavior, and they’re both very clear-eyed about it, in that way that teens can be. Also, Katherine starts out knowing there are all sorts of weird secrets in her family’s past, reasons her relatives are being very destructive – and in the course of the book, she finds out what they are. I’m waiting for some reviewer to call The Privilege of the Sword “fantasy’s answer to The Catcher in the Rye” – but I bet they never will!

2. This book marks a return to a nameless city (colloquially called “Riverside”), a place you created in your earlier book Swordspoint. I know that when you originally finished that book, you were content to leave that world behind. What brought you back to that world? And as a writer, how do you balance the challenge of introducing this established world to new readers while finding new things to thrill your long-time fans?

OK, let’s get it straight: I make a point of never naming my city. It’s just “the city” – kinda like Manhattan, which nobody calls “Manhattan.” When you say, “I’m going to the city,” everyone knows which city you mean (at least, east of the Mississippi. I’ve never lived in Seattle or California; maybe it’s different there). Anyhow, in this unnamed city, there’s a Bad District down by the river, inhabited by fringey people – not the utter destitute, more like the road company of Oliver! (the musical based on Oliver Twist) meets Damon Runyon (whose 1930’s stories of Broadway lowlives inspired the musical Guys and Dolls). (Yes, I love musicals. I’m actually writing one, called The Bone Chandelier, with composer Ben Moore – we call it a “Ruritanian Jacobean Revenge Tragedy with some Really Good Tunes.”) And the district is called Riverside.

To answer your actual question: I’ll be honest: I wasn’t really happy to leave the place behind. I love it there. I just felt it would be trashy and repetitive to keep going back there. Swordspoint was my first novel, after all. I didn’t want to get stuck, and I didn’t want to get typecast. I wanted to see what else I could do! So I wrote Thomas the Rhymer (which won the World Fantasy Award), a very different sort of story, and then I was up to my eyeballs in a new career in public radio (at WGBH in Boston). I kept thinking about my Swordspoint characters, I kept thinking about their world . . . and I decided, I made a sort of pledge to myself, that as long as what I was writing didn’t repeat anything – as long as it wasn’t the same little ponies doing their same cute little pony tricks in the ring – that I could write about them some more. The first short story I wrote about those characters, “The Swordsman Whose Name was Not Death” (reprinted in the new Bantam edition of Swordspoint) took my same two main guys, being thorny and amusing as always, but rubbed their noses in something I’d never had them confront in the original novel – and the reader also finds out more about their past. I thought that was fair.

And as I myself got older, and had new experiences myself, and watched the world change around me (as it will: your favorite restaurant closes, your scuzzy neighborhood goes upscale . . . ), I thought: Let’s go with this. Go back to that city, and see what happens next. Cities are big; just as you can’t see all of Rome or Paris or New York on one 5-day vacation trip, so you can’t see all of mine in just one novel. I’ve actually published another novel, a collaboration with Delia Sherman called The Fall of the Kings, which takes place nearly 100 years after Swordspoint. We wrote that one partly so we could explore a section of the city that’s only hinted about in the other two, the city’s University.

I absolutely mean Privilege to stand alone: you don’t need to have read the previous book to know what’s going on; indeed, I think it would be fun to read it first, to meet the Swordspoint characters as 30- and 40-something adults, and then go back to the first novel and read about them as wild young 20-yr-olds! But I do know that a lot of Swordspoint fans, who are very invested in those characters, are looking at this as the book that’s finally going to tell them what happens next. It’s all in there for them, including some biscuit treats, little in-jokes you’ll only get if you’ve read the first novel.

It’s not at all hard to introduce the world all over again in this book: my protagonist is a young girl coming to the city, seeing it herself for the first time. And since twenty years have passed since the events of the first novel, things have changed there, too! It’s almost as if Riverside itself were a character, aging and changing with the other characters.

3. You’re not only a writer but the host of the public radio show “Sound & Spirit.” Speak a little about the idea behind the series and how you put it together. Do you find that working on the show is complementary to your work as a fiction writer? Or does it exist in a separate creative sphere all together?

The program started a little over ten years ago, when an executive at Public Radio International (who already knew my other work on radio for WGBH in Boston) asked me to tell her about all the things I was most passionate about – myth and world music and culture and folklore and comparative literature and humanities and traditions and classical music and border-crossing – and about six months later called and asked me if I could do a weekly show about it all! It plays on stations all over the U.S. – but it’s also available online, so we have listeners everywhere now.

We pick a different topic every week, and explore it in words and music, with no holds barred on what kind of music we play: you can have J.S. Bach, Indonesian Gamelan, African chant and Richard Thompson all in one hour, as long as they’re all addressing the same human concern. My friends immediately started calling it “Joseph Campbell [author of The Power of Myth] meets Ellen’s Record Collection.” I wish PRI had gone with that description! Instead, we explain each week that we’re “celebrating the human experience around the world and through the ages.” I feel very strongly that if we are interested in exploring multiculturalism, we should extend that to the past as well: after all, as novelist L.P. Hartley wrote, “The past is another country; they do things differently there.”

It’s very much a novelist’s show. Unlike most of the people you hear on public radio these days, I’m not primarily a journalist, and I don’t approach my material as a reporter would. Certainly, when I speak of other cultures, of historical events, whatever, my staff & I do make sure my facts are correct. But I want the listener to have an imaginative experience. I don’t just say, “People in Zimbabwe think their ancestors come and dance when they play mbira.” I set the scene, I try and take you there, not just to what it looks like, but what it feels like to be someone who believes that. (You can listen to the entire show on Mbira)

But is writing a Sound & Spirit show like writing a novel or short story? Not at all! It’s a lot more like writing a term paper – every week! Well, not every week, because that pace would kill us; we have a huge archive of shows, and we do run repeats. When I was writing The Fall of the Kings with Delia Sherman, I would frontload a bunch of S&S shows every month, and then take a week away to work on our novel. It’s a very different kind of experience, writing fiction. Saved my sanity. But I do have to say, what I LOOOOOVE about this radio show: it is supercool getting to create a music soundtrack to your words!! We once figured out that there are an average of 100 sound cues in each 59-minute show. I adore working with my producer on letting the music take you where the words can’t go.

I should add that my novel Thomas the Rhymer comes the closest in spirit to Sound & Spirit –both celebrate/investigate folklore, tradition and music. Thomas was published a few years before the radio show happened –but, as they say, “my roots are showing.” I even got to read a little bit of Thomas in the show we did on Harps – you can hear it at here. But the other Riverside novel, The Fall of the Kings, was definitely written in reaction to the material I was working with in Sound & Spirit: it’s largely about what happens when a society tries to ignore its mythic underpinnings.

4. Share a piece of writing advice that you’ve been given.

Writing advice is a dangerous beast: what’s perfect advice for one sort of person can be deadly for another. So if you’re the sort of person who cranks out page after page of clunky prose and never edits themselves, ignore this. But if, like me and lots of people I know, you obsess about every comma and agonize over the sound of every sentence, put this up on a card above your desk:


This was advice I got from my friend the writer Clea Simon (author of Mew is for Murder ) who got it from her friend, journalist Brett Milano (author of Vinyl Junkies – who apparently got it from rocker Nick Lowe…). You can always go back and rewrite – indeed, you should! You must! But don’t over-edit yourself as you write your first draft. Just let it flow, warts and all. I’m fascinated by all the things that keep people from writing; one of my favorite talks to give is on “Fooling the Watcher” – the title comes from an article I read years ago, that I thought was lost forever – but someone who was at my last lecture sent me the link, and here it is, as useful as it ever was!

5. The city of Privilege is set in an indeterminate time (and for that matter, in an indeterminate place) but it’s clearly meant to evoke thoughts of times past. As a matter of building a world, how do you choose what eras to model your city (and your characters) from? Can you pick and choose freely? Or do you find yourself having to make some tough choices as to what’s allowed and what’s not?

Do you remember the story of “Stone Soup”? where this guy walks into a village and says he can make a soup out of nothing but stones – but, oh, it would be even better with a little onion? and maybe a carrot…? and one by one the villagers drop stuff into the pot – and in the end, they all agree it was the best stone soup they’d ever had?

My brain is like that. I’ve done a lot of reading – fiction and nonfiction – about pre-industrial lives and times and cultures, and I’ve walked in a lot in old cities, getting the feel of the stones under my feet and the width of the streets . . . . and it all goes into the pot – all that history, all that cultural mishmash – right along with my own experiences in my own world – like the kinda-bad neighborhood I lived in in New York when I wrote Swordspoint, that was thrilling and edgy and took some savvy to negotiate (and is now so gentrified it’s almost unrecognizable – you can see that starting to happen with Riverside in Katherine’s day). I do feel that I can pick and choose freely – but what makes it mine, my world, and, hopefully, a believable place, is that I choose well. I have a gut sense for what feels right and what doesn’t. It has to follow a genuine logic – but for me, it’s not an intellectual logic, it’s a gut logic. Ursula Le Guin, author of the Earthsea series, talks about that in her essay “The Language of the Night”: “There are words,” she says, “like rushwash tea, for which I can offer no explanation. They simply drink rushwash tea there; that’s what it’s called…. If you press me, I will explain that it comes from the rushwash bush, which grows wild and cultivated everywhere south of Enlad…. I did not know this before I wrote the foregoing sentence. Or did I know it, and simply never thought about it?”

So it’s not that I don’t do research. I simply put it all in the pot, and let it cook for a long time over a really slow fire. And when something challenging comes up – say, when I’ve already established one rule for my society, but I need to get around it somehow to make the plot work – well, that’s when I get really creative! And some of the best parts of each novel can come from those moments.

6. You are active in the Interstitial Arts Foundation. Tell us a little bit about it, and why (and if!) these “interstitial arts” are important in our culture today – and how they relate to your own artistic expression.

Interstitial Art is art that falls in the interstices between recognized artistic and – more importantly – commercial genres. So many writers and musicians and artists that I know are doing wonderful work that falls between the cracks of what people who distribute and market the arts are comfortable with! So a bunch of us got together to create an organization that could support and encourage this kind of work. The very first thing we did was to create a huge website, where many people – including writers Holly Black, Terri Windling, Theodora Goss, artists Charles Vess and David Lasky, even academics like U. of Berkeley linguist Eve Sweetser – have posted thoughts, feelings and recommendations of Interstitial work. My own introduction to the whole concept is up there too.

The world today is all about marketing product to consumers. If you don’t fit a neat marketing category, you’re screwed. We are increasingly shoved into categories, whether we fit them or not – and if the marketing department can’t figure out a way to fit you into one of its prepackaged genres, your stuff may never get out there. But this isn’t just for a bunch of whiney artists! There are so many “consumers” of art who love work that is uncategorizable, but have trouble finding it because the world of marketing doesn’t know how to sell it to them – or doesn’t care. Meanwhile, Art Happens. Gregory Frost talks about the cross-pollination of genres, with the wind blowing from field to field without regard for boundaries.

I have this trouble with my own stuff all the time (including the radio show, which many stations weren’t sure they wanted to take because it fell between the boundaries of “Talk” and “Music” shows!). In one sense I’m very lucky to have my work published in the Fantasy genre, because there is such a loyal, active and (dare I say?) discerning bunch of readers there. But it also means that a huge group of people who might really enjoy my work will never read it, because they’re afraid to go into the section of the bookstore where it’s shelved, ’cause they might get icky Fantasy or “Sci Fi” cooties! I can’t tell you the number of times that radio colleagues of mine, or listeners, have read one of my books because it’s mine, and come back to me with, “I don’t usually like This Sort of Thing – but this is good!” And I want to jump up and down on their heads and say, “Come with me to the Scary section of the bookstore; I’ll give you 10 more that are just as good! Try it!”

There’s also the issue of reviews: I’ve seen so many great novels – published as Fantasy, Mystery, whatever – where the reviewer spends so much time talking about whether or not the novel fits the category, they never actually engage with the book itself! For them, for the readers, we want to offer the term “Interstitial” – so they can just say: “A terrific (or problematic) interstitial work” – and then get on with it!

Thanks, Ellen, for such a wonderful conversation! If you’d like to know more about Ellen, check out her personal site, and also her blog.