Continuing from yesterday’s paper, this article is Part 2 of Reads desk editor Shana Hadi’s interview with acclaimed speculative fiction authors Becky Chambers, S. L. Huang, and Yoon Ha Lee, who have written “The Vela” (a Serial Box Original story first released on Wednesday, March 6th) alongside Rivers Solomon; the concept was created by Lydia Shamah.
A direct link to Serial Box’s stunning 11-episode first season of “The Vela” is available online.
The Stanford Daily (TSD): What are some of your favorite authors and/or works (speculative fiction or otherwise) that have influenced you and your craft? Alternatively, what is one work that has significantly impacted your life and/or storytelling, and perhaps even influenced “The Vela”? (For example, Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Left Hand of Darkness” is one of my most cherished books, hands-down.)
Becky Chambers (BC): “The Left Hand of Darkness” was the book that made me want to write science fiction, and Le Guin is my biggest SF influence overall, no doubt. Her book “Changing Planes” had the biggest effect on the direction I went in. It’s this beautiful collection of short snippets of alien lives on other worlds, and I read my copy to pieces. She taught me how powerful science fiction could be, and that there was value in examining the quieter moments.
S. L. Huang (SLH): Oh, I’m so bad at this question! There’s too much to choose from. I would say one of my gateway science fiction books as a kid was “A Wrinkle In Time” and its sequels, which I read for the first time in second grade and then reread like clockwork every two years. (I also walked into class as a seven-year-old and took it upon myself to explain to my teacher what the fourth and fifth dimension were.) I read everything I could get my hands on as a kid, but science fiction and fantasy were consistently my favorites.
Yoon Ha Lee (YHL): The book that introduced me to science fiction was Anne McCaffrey’s “Dragonflight,” which I first read in elementary school. A friend of mine had gotten into McCaffrey’s Harper Hall trilogy, so I was intrigued and for whatever reason ended up picking up “Dragonflight” instead. (I did later read the Harper Hall books too!) I mean, yes, dragons, but I was entranced both by this vision of life on another world and the use of time travel as a plot device.
TSD: Did you always want to be an author, and did you ever doubt its feasibility? How do you know when a story is “ready” to be sent to publication? And what motivated you to continue writing and submitting stories, especially when you were first getting started?
BC: I always wanted to be an author (my fourth-grade autobiography says so), but I detoured for a while. I studied theater, and I worked in that field until I realized that the stories I was most interested were happening in print instead of on stage. I never doubted that it was feasible, but I did know that a lot of it comes down to dumb luck. Shaking the right hand, landing on the right desk, that kind of thing. That was certainly the case for me.
This is such a callous answer to the question of motivation, and it’s certainly not what drives me to write stories, but as far as submitting stories goes, putting yourself out there is the only way to turn writing into a career. This is the job I wanted to have, and I worked hard to get to the point where I could do it full-time (and, again – got very lucky). If I was writing stories just for fun or for my friends, I’d work at a slower pace, for sure. But if I want to keep the lights on and have groceries in the fridge, I have to keep putting stuff out there and hitting deadlines. I’d be writing even if I wasn’t doing it for a living, but it’s my job. It’s the same thing that gets everyone out of bed in the morning.
SLH: I completely agree. Now that I’m a full-time writer, my motivation is commitments to deadlines and paying my bills, which sounds awful, but . . . well, if it wasn’t my job, I’d still be writing, but I’d definitely be doing it in a much less systematic way! And yes, I’ve been writing since before I can remember, and similar to Becky, my eighth grade yearbook calls me out as a future author. But for a while, I deliberately decided I was only going to do it as a hobby; I was determined it would be the one thing in my life without pressure or deadlines. That worked out well for me for a while . . . but my journey toward becoming a full-time writer has had some convoluted bends, in that I coincidentally had started publishing just when I had to take a hiatus from working as a full-time Hollywood stuntwoman, thanks to getting cancer. It was a pleasant twist of fate that my writing career started to take off right when my movie income was tapering, but I do feel like I fell backwards into doing it as a profession without quite meaning to! I have no regrets, though.
YHL: Because nobody ever gives third graders sound career counseling, I decided to become a writer when I was eight years old! I got started by writing “books” for my kid sister, by which I mean we would make up book titles and one-line descriptions in cockamamie “book catalogues,” order “books” from each other, and write them for each other on typewriter paper folded in half and stapled. Some of those stories got finished, some didn’t.
I started submitting to professional magazines when I was in sixth grade, which makes me cringe to remember. I collected a lot of justifiable rejection slips! I feel really sorry for the editors who put up with my juvenilia. My parents thought that writing, especially writing science fiction and fantasy, was a complete waste of time. But they continued to provide me paper and postage and access to a computer or typewriter, so I persisted. I’m just stubborn, I guess. All this effort paid off when I got my first acceptance letter from “The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.” I’d submitted the story before going off to my first year of college, and the acceptance actually went all the way to my parents’ address in Korea, so they had to forward it on to me in the USA!
I have to admit that there’s always something that I can improve about any given story, but eventually you have to say things are good enough and kick the sucker out the door so you can write the next story. I hate looking at my published works because I think of things that I would do differently with what I’ve learned. But that’s just the nature of things — once something’s published, you can’t fiddle with it anymore. You can only take what you’ve learned and apply it to the next thing you write.
TSD: Any last words or advice for devoted speculative fiction fans and aspiring speculative fiction authors? (Especially in regards to reading recommendations, or how to write and finish a story and get it published!)
BC: To jump off of what Yoon said to the budding authors out there: there is a lot of garbage advice that perennially circulates the internet about how being a writer means you must toil and you must never sleep and you can’t possibly be a good writer if you’re not chaining yourself to your desk and avoiding your friends and never seeing the light of day. All of this is a first-class ticket to burning out, and despite what you may hear, burning out is not some badge of honor. Burning out means you’re no longer able to do the work. I won’t sugarcoat it: writing a book is hard, and it takes discipline, and it’s not always (or even often) fun. But if you treat writing like some sacrificial pyre you have to hurl yourself on, you won’t be able to last through the long-haul marathon that is writing as a career. Yes, I write most days, but I don’t write every day, and I don’t drink coffee, and I typically roll out of bed around ten, and I allow myself plenty of time for hugs and hobbies and goofing off. We’re only human. So, take good care of yourself. Not only does that matter far more than any book ever will, it’s the only way you’ll be able to finish a book (and keep finishing them).
YHL: The only constant is that to write you must write. We do not have technology that lets you telepathically beam words from your head onto the page. How you write varies from writer to writer. It doesn’t really matter what method you use so long as it works for you. There’s a ton of advice out there for budding writers. Use what works; discard what doesn’t.
The other two things I will say, which maybe you won’t see so often: First, read things that are outside your chosen genre. If you want to write speculative fiction, read romances, or mysteries, or food catalogues, or superhero comic books. Definitely read nonfiction if you can bring yourself to do it. Any technique you learn from outside the genre can be used within it. Hell, there was that anthology a while back in which the gimmick was that all the stories were written in the format of a Kickstarter project. You never know what’s going to be useful.
Second, take care of your body. Whether this means exercise, or eating well, or getting a better ergonomic setup for your computer — do it. Writing is a physical act. (Remember: you can’t telepathically beam words onto the paper.) You only get one body. You don’t get to replace it with a better body if you mess it up. I gave myself an RSI typing too hard and I’m trying to make sure I don’t screw up my wrists even more. Don’t be me!
SLH: Like they said: no writing advice out there is gospel. Take what works for you, and ignore the rest.
Two things have been surprisingly important in my journey as a writer, though: critique and community. Critiquing other writers’ work leveled me up so much it shocked me. Back when I was first getting into publishing, I beta read between 30 and 40 novels and critiqued countless short stories, and it taught me so much about craft and structure and prose. So if anyone is looking for a way to improve, I’d say critiquing others is a great thing to try.
And I can’t overstate how vital community has been for me. We tend to think of writers as hermits in our caves, and though I really like being a hermit in a cave, I also lean hard on my writing communities constantly. The support, advice, and perspective I get from my writing friends, from day-to-day cheerleading to sharing the highs and lows, has been invaluable. And I try to pay forward all the excellent business advice and help that people have always so generously offered when I needed it.
These following questions are directed towards Yoon Ha Lee, a Stanford alumnus who earned a master’s degree in secondary mathematics education at the Graduate School for Education.
TSD: What is one major takeaway from your Stanford experience (educational and otherwise) that has significantly affected your writing career, general mindset or outlook on the world?
YHL: I was in Stanford’s teacher education program (STEP) even though I had to stop teaching for health reasons. One of the things that really stuck with me from that year was STEP’s emphasis on diversity and democratic access to education. I don’t really work in a classroom setting anymore, but when I write, I try to write in a way that’s mindful of the fact that the world is diverse, that readers come from all kinds of backgrounds and that readers all deserve to see themselves represented in fiction.
TSD: I’ve noticed that you pursued a non-English degree (an MA in Secondary Mathematics Education) while at Stanford. What factored into this decision, and does it characterize your writing? (For reference, as you may already know, Ursula K. Le Guin studied Renaissance French and Italian literature and some anthropology, and she’s often said that this non-English background helped her in worldbuilding.)
YHL: Oh, it was cold practicality in my case. I have wanted to be a writer since I was very young, but I also figured out around middle school that there was no way I could make a living as a full-time writer. (Ironically, right now I am doing exactly that. The odds were against it, though.) My original plan was to get some kind of day job that would give me some free time to write novels. Since I got a BA in mathematics from Cornell University and didn’t want to go into academia, following it up with a teaching degree seemed like a reasonable compromise; I’d be able to write during the summers while earning a living wage during the school year. I wasn’t able to keep teaching due to health problems, but it was a nice plan while it lasted?
TSD: Any Stanford-specific advice or last words tailored toward Stanford students? And any interesting stories from your time here?
YHL: It’s a beautiful campus! Some of my favorite memories are of biking around the campus just taking in the sights and enjoying the exercise. Just be wary of the bike thieves! I got my bike light stolen two nights in a row, and consider myself lucky that at least they didn’t make off with the bike itself. Also, take advantage of the university bookstore and libraries. I bought, borrowed, and read so many delicious books while I was there.
This transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.