Charlie Jane Anders

Interview by Einar Leif Nielsen

Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky which was one of Time Magazine’s “Top 10 Novels” of 2016 and is nominated for a Nebula Award. She’s the organizer of the Writers With Drinks reading series in San Francisco, and a founding editor of io9, a website about science fiction, science and futurism. Her stories have appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Tor.com, LightspeedTin House, ZYZZYVA, and several anthologies. Her novelette Six Months, Three Days won a Hugo award in 2011 and was shortlisted for the Nebula and Theodore Sturgeon awards. You can follow Charlie Jane online @charliejane or on her website http://allthebirdsinthesky.tumblr.com/.

I have been following Charlie Jane’s career ever since I started reading her writing advice columns on the blog io9. The blog will always be very special to me because it introduced me to the SFF community which has influenced me greatly in my writing and in my life in general. So, I owe Charlie Jane a lot of gratitude for her work at io9. Her book All the Birds in the Sky was one of the most anticipated in 2016 in the science fiction and fantasy community and was very well received. I read it recently and loved it. Also, as part of my research for this interview, I read Six Months, Three Days which is accessible online; I definitely recommend everyone check it out. So I was excited to get a chance to interview Charlie Jane and ask her about her career as a writer.

Do you have any moment or a piece of writing that inspired you to become a writer and do you ever revisit that moment or piece to remind yourself how and why you began to write?

There are a lot of books that made me want to be a writer. But in particular, I remember that around the same time, I read Consider Phlebas by Iain M. Banks and Geek Love by Katherine Dunn, and those two incredible books made me feel like I really wanted to try writing speculative fiction. I felt like, even after having read a lot of SF before that, the one-two punch of those two very different approaches to the genre kicked me in the head and made me see a whole bunch of new possibilities. I knew I could never come anywhere remotely close to equalling either of those writers, but I wanted to see what I could do anyway.

Most authors talk about getting a lot of rejection before finally being published. Was this also your experience and where and when did you publish your first short story?

Yeah, I’ve written a lot about the fact that I was rejected over and over. I kept a running log of all my short fiction rejections, and there were hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them, before I finally started getting somewhere. Also, I wrote a few novels that were never published, and I racked up an amazing number of rejections from literary agents and publishers along the way. It just takes a lot of persistence. I published short fiction in a lot of tiny magazines early on in my career, but the first places that gave me any kind of platform were a literary magazine called ZYZZYVA and a speculative fiction mag called Strange Horizons. I’m still super grateful to both of them for taking a chance on a totally unknown writer.

You have published a lot of short fiction, more than a hundred stories, and even won a Hugo for your novelette Six Months, Three Days (2012). Do you think that authors benefit from creating an established record of published short works before trying their hand at a novel?

I definitely found it useful to write a lot of short fiction before trying novels, and I still learn a ton from doing short stories. Apart from anything else, short stories let you practice writing beginnings and endings, and creating worlds and characters with a lot of economy. And because you only have to sustain it for a shorter time, you can try a lot more weird experiments in short fiction. I still have insane amounts of fun writing shorter works.

Your first novel Choir Boy (2005) was more magical realism but your latest novel All the Birds in the Sky (2016) and your 2012 Hugo award winning novelette Six Months, Three Days are science fiction and fantasy. Would you like to back to some more literary centered pieces in the future or do you plan to continue writing mostly SFF?

I’d like to try and blur the lines of genre as much as I can — I feel like “literary” and “SF” are useful labels for finding works that you might enjoy, if you’ve enjoyed other stuff with those labels in the past. I find that super helpful and also nurturing, as someone who loves to write stuff that appeals to, for example, SF readers. But I like to try to stretch myself as much as I can get away with, and use genre in as conscious — and tricky — a way as I can. I always want to make sure I’m doing whatever makes the story as interesting and honest as possible. That often means dipping into more than one genre, by necessity.

You were the founder and co-editor of the blog site io9 from 2007 until April 2016. How did your work there, especially your writing advice columns, help you grow as an author?

Actually, the founder of io9 was Annalee Newitz, and she hired me to work on it before the site was launched. But I was lucky enough to be involved from the beginning, and it was an amazing ride. I felt like working at io9 was like getting paid to go to grad school. It was an incredible opportunity to geek out with a lot of smart people — including io9’s erudite commenters — about what makes stories work, and why they sometimes go very wrong. I learned a ton from just spending a lot of time paying attention and getting schooled.

Your latest novel All the Birds in the Sky wonderfully mixes both fantasy and science fiction in our modern world setting. The novel made me curious about your writing process. Are you a plotter or an edge of your seat writer? I’m especially curious about themes and character arcs. Do you plan them out beforehand or work them into the story after you have finished the first draft?

I’m a little of both. I try to have some stuff worked out at the start, but often I’m making it up as I go along. With All the Birds in the Sky, I was definitely changing a lot of stuff as I went along, and some of the latter half of the book was in flux until pretty late in the process. I had a whole extra storyline that had to be dropped because it was just too much in an already overstuffed book. The big thing I do is that I write the book and then I outline it, over and over. I outline what I’ve already written to make sure it flows right, and to figure out what the important story beats are so I can give them the right weight in revision.

On your way to becoming a published writer did you encounter any memorable obstacles and in connection to that is there something that you would want to warn emerging writers about?   

Every writer’s challenges are different, I think. The most important thing is not to become too isolated, if you can avoid it. Go to conventions. Enter writing workshops. Join a writing group. Talk online with other writers. Participate in online forums. Etc. etc.

I read your farewell post on io9 and it said that you were going to “spend some serious quality time working on my next novel, without any distractions.” Does this mean that you are so lucky that you get to write full time? What advice do you have for emerging writers that dream to get this chance someday?

I’m currently trying to write full time. We’ll see how it goes! A lot depends on how things go with this next novel, I guess. Fingers crossed…

Einar Leif Nielsen is an Icelandic fiction writer. He has a degree in applied mathematics and worked in the Icelandic finance industry for seven years before deciding to follow his dream and study creative writing. He has published one novel and ten short stories in Iceland. You can follow Einar @einarleif on Twitter or on http://www.einarleif.is.

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