Interview with Karin Lowachee

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[Karin Lowachee is an award-winning SF-novelist. She has published three novels - Warchild (2002), Burndive (2003) and Cagebird (2005). This interview was conducted via email for wotmania's Other Fantasy section, and can also be found on the Wotmania Other Fantasy Message Board and the Other Fantasy Blog of the Fallen.]

For those of us not familiar with your work, could you tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

Well, I draw a line between my background as a person and my work in general, mostly because there aren’t any straight lines as to why I write what I write, at least not in the superficial aspects. I was born in Guyana, South America and moved to Canada when I was about 2 years old. I graduated from York University’s Creative Writing program with an Honours degree, but what that all says about me as a writer is pretty slim. I do tend to prefer that people read my work without knowing anything about me as a person, because frankly I don’t think it’s important, or should be, to understand the books themselves. I can say that for some reason in early high school I became very interested in issues of war and devoured a lot about Vietnam and WWII in particular, and that probably carried through to when I began to write publishable stuff. I’m interested in all aspects of history, science, art, film…you name it and I’d like to learn about it, generally. I suppose that makes me the ‘right’ personality for a writer. You have to find fascination with the world from all angles. That may be, perhaps, the most important aspect of me that’s relevant to my writing.

Without giving away major spoilers, could you introduce your three novels for those of us unfamiliar with your writing?

The 3 novels – Warchild, Burndive, and Cagebird – chronicle the beginnings of an arduous peace process between warring species, from 3 different points of view, one per novel. It’s a macrocosmic tale about the ramifications of war on children told through the very specific and internal experiences of 3 young men who have been impacted in different ways. I sometimes think of them as ‘anthro-psychological military science fiction’, with the emphasis being on the first part of that phrase.

What literary influences might have shaped your writing? And – this might be the same question, really – do you have any particular favourite novels and authors as a reader?

The ‘marker’ books that I remember being influenced by, consciously, were books like: The Outsiders (and all the works by SE Hinton), The Chocolate War, Watership Down, Lord of the Flies, A Separate Peace, Psion, Cyteen, Tigana, For Whom the Bell Tolls, As I Lay Dying, China Mountain Zhang, Ride With the Devil, Lonesome Dove, Fight Club, Shakespeare, as well as many poets…the list goes on. I was drawn to them for different reasons and at different stages in my development as a writer, where I was noticing technique and things like that. I still do that, I’m still influenced by great writing and try to learn from them. All the works listed above are favourites of mine.

Your first novel, Warchild, won the Warner Aspect First novel award back in 2002. I believe this means a shortened wait before the novel was published? How was the experience of writing and publishing different for your next two novels?

The WAFN contest really allowed a young, unpublished writer like myself to get their novel read by a big house publisher, with no agent and no contacts. It’s really incredible for me to think, to this day, that my book won and was given the opportunity to be read by the public. I’m really grateful it happened, obviously, because it’s so difficult to get your foot in the door. I began to work with some fantastic editors who have faith in me. The process was pretty much the same for all three novels, except there was a lot less stress in the last two because at least I knew the process through the first book. Doing anything for the first time can be harrowing and though being a published writer has pretty much been my dream since I was a kid, it was still nervewracking because I didn’t want to screw up. Once I realized that as long as you hand things in, communicate, and work hard on your stuff, it turns out all right. It excites me still. I love the process of writing, from my computer to publication. I’m not one of those writers that actually really hates any part of the process, maybe because I still walk around in wide-eyed wonder that I’m given the chance to do what I love. It’s hard work but I love it.

Of the three novels you’ve written, do you have a personal favourite?

I don’t. This is cheesy, perhaps, but they really are like children and I love them all for different reasons. Burndive and Cagebird took longer to warm up to, though, I have to admit. Probably because they put me through hell. I often need time and distance from my writing to actually see it objectively enough to appreciate it for what it is at the time. I always think I can improve but I don’t think any of it is total trash, mainly because I did the best that I could do with what I had at the time, and I have to accept that. That balance seems to keep me motivated and sane.

Cover art is, in some ways, a major hot topic at the moment. What did you think of art for your three novels? And now that (if I understand correctly?) Orbit has taken over the Warner Aspect imprint, do you have any concerns about new cover art? (My personal favourite would be Cagebird – Yuri was so beautifully rendered!)

I liked the cover art for the novels; Warner was pretty open in the second and third books to ask me my opinion which was very gracious and an interesting process – though of course the final word came from the Art Department, Editor, and artist (Matt Stawicki). I understood how Warner was marketing the books. I think if Orbit reprints them I really won’t have any issues with the art because so far all of Orbit’s covers are absolutely beautiful. They are swaying away from the ‘typical’ SF artwork and breaking new ground, and I think it’s fantastic.

I’ve been noticing a trend in your three novels to, well, examine the male body as something that can be wounded, invaded, trapped – the male body as vulnerable. (As someone on wotmania put it, Why a Graphic Male Rape Scene?) I found it interesting that each of the three novels looks at this issue from such a different point of view. It makes for phenomenally thought-provoking reading. I’m trying to make this as open-ended as possible, so I’ll just ask for your thoughts on the matter? Is this an issue you consciously decided to explore through three (and more?) novels, or was it a side-effect of the world and the world-views each character represents?

I’ve read your commentary on that ‘issue’ and I suppose in general the reasons were a bit of both and a bit of other things. It began to be conscious by Cagebird, the fact that I was drawing contrast among the three protagonists (Jos, Ryan, and Yuri), but I never put agenda before story/character, so the things that they went through grew organically out of their lives and points-of-view. For me, I was very specifically writing or exploring 3 very different people in a microcosmic way in order to tell a macrocosmic story. And because of that there could be no excessive puppeteering from me. I write from a psychological standpoint, I plot from a psychological standpoint, and if there are any ‘themes’ or ‘issues’ that manifest from that I run with it on the second or third pass of the book, but I don’t go into it thinking I am Making A Point, and I certainly didn’t go into it thinking I was Making A Point about the male body.

What happens when you decide to write about young men in war? Or disenfranchised children in general? Many common themes will manifest no matter what. I did have in mind that I needed to be as honest as possible with these guys and not cut corners just because it’s unpleasant or just because it’s science fiction and the focus tends to be on whizbang. This is stuff that happens in real life, science fiction for me is a metaphoric literature, and in fact through my research it seemed that reality was far more horrendous than what I was even writing. By the second and third book I was conscious of the fact that I was interested in examining specifically young men in a way that I did not necessarily see a lot in science fiction, but that didn’t mean that the realization dominated what I was doing from a character standpoint. Rather than say they are young guys vulnerable or survivors or any sort of label, I approached them as human, reacting as humans do in those specific situations, and taking into account that their gender holds specific complexities…just as writing a female would.

As a corollary, I wonder if you have any thoughts on what it is to be a female writer, writing about male sexuality, and how it relates to the male victim of rape. Do you think that female authors address this issue more readily than male authors do? (Would it be fair to ask why?)

I don’t think of myself necessarily as a female writer; I think of myself as a writer who has specific interests, many of which have yet to be explored. I think as soon as I start boxing myself in and thinking of outside issues then those outside issues might influence what I do unduly. I do not want to be the Female Canadian Writer Who Writes About Male Sexuality. Because that isn’t true, really. I write about aspects of humanity as I see it. My protagonists so far have been male; I wrote about war. War tends to be a male sphere, but I wasn’t interested in writing gung-ho, alien slaughtering, macho men. Whether my choice to explore further than that is because I’m female, who knows. I rather think it’s because I’m the sort of person who prefers to dig way beneath the layers of people, regardless of gender, race, sexuality or geography, and be as honest as possible with what I might find.

I understand the need to classify or label themes or things that are found in my books, but I didn’t write a male rape because it was something simply interesting to examine for whatever reason. In fact I really hated writing those scenes. They are not things you do for fun or on a whim or just because you might have an agenda, or heaven forbid because it’s ‘edgy’ — at least that’s not me. I dealt with the issue because it was important in order to tell the character’s story, for people to understand what they went through, and perhaps to realize that this isn’t fiction in that sense. This happens to people: males and females. It happens in war, it happens to exploited children, it impacts those children into adulthood. If I was going to write about a child slave ring and didn’t at least discuss that rape happens it would be insulting and dishonest. But these realizations were all byproducts to the character exploration. I begin with the character, always. This is his story, this is her story. This isn’t my story.

I don’t know why female authors in particular do anything. I can only speak for myself and I’ve always felt a little off-center to what others generally do. I really don’t tend to pay attention to what others do either, at least not in a comparative way. Of course I read female writers and appreciate them but I’m not going to necessarily clump myself in with them as some sort of subset. I’d rather concern myself with myself and be as individual as I am. Other people do a fine job of compartmentalizing my writing, which is inevitable and not wholly unappreciated, but it’s not something I think much about beyond being aware of it.

I hesitate to make generalizations about other writers of whom I know nothing of their processes or their interests and approaches to their work. Everyone is different and I respect that in other writers. I have rather strong views about how I approach my work, but not so much about others because I simply don’t know enough about other writers and their approaches. Perhaps if I were writing a dissertation on female writers in this particular ‘issue’ I would feel the need to explore it. It’s interesting but it’s not something I overly concern myself with; if there is a trend of female writers exploring male victimization, well…I wasn’t aware of it when I wrote my books and it doesn’t influence what I choose to write. If women tend to deal with these issues more readily than men, I’m sure I could conjure some psychological generalizations as to why, but I’m not convinced that would be all that helpful or even enlightening coming from me.

Speaking of children in times of war, I’ve been wondering about the three protagonists’ relationships with their chosen and unchosen mentors – Jos with Niko the Warboy; Ryan with his bodyguard, Sid, and his mother; Yuri with Estienne who is both sexual peer and mentor; and all the three of them with Cairo Azarcone – and I’ve been thinking about the delicacy of a relationship where a child depends on an adult, the power dynamic where an adult can betray you, exploit you. How much of such betrayal factor into the war situation? Would the violent personal exist without the violent political?

The relationship between an adult or anyone who is older and holds that mentoring position (unconsciously or not) with a kid has the potential for damage on the younger person. Though it wasn’t wholly conscious at the time of writing, in the first draft anyway, I think there is a parallel that can easily be drawn between that personal, microcosmic situation of the characters and the macro situation of the war, where vast governments direct things that ultimately filter down to individuals and affect them for good or ill, especially in a war situation. There is a responsibility that oftentimes gets forgotten by the dominant power, when selfish needs (like Falcone’s) override the good of people in general.

All three novels feature Battlemech Bear in some form or the other – books, toys. In some ways it feels like Battlemech Bear is the only form of entertainment the children get, Soldier Barbie for the children of war. Is this the commercialisation of war, or the politicisation of commerce, or “just” the infiltration of both into playspaces that should stay innocent of either?

If it came across as the only form of entertainment, that was unintentional. Ryan does play sports, go to ‘movies’, and that sort of thing, but Battlemech Bear was supposed to be a pervasive toy or children’s cultural icon that spanned genres: art, games, vid, plushies, robots, books … sort of like a war-influenced Winnie the Pooh with a continuing saga behind him and his friends (there were other characters in his platoon, after all). It’s definitely a character that EarthHub would support, but in my mind there were subversive aspects to him too, depending on which part of his marketing you looked at. In the manga or some of the vids, there would be underlying messages that hardly supported the war. As the kids grew older they might’ve picked up on that.

The EarthHub government is at war with the striviirc-na, ostensibly over an inability to share resources and acknowledge territorial rights. And it’s fairly obvious that in the most important of ways those are not the things that are being fought over at all. The three novels seem to chart for a middle course, but negotiations with the other can be very difficult when half your own species doesn’t want to negotiate at all. Jos, Ryan and Yuri aren’t all technically “symps”, but they all do stand on the margins. Is marginalisation the key to sympathy? To looking beyond “Otherness” into communication?

It’s very true what you said. On the outside it seems to be about territory and the like, but there is a deepseated xenophobia, resentment, and perpetuating revenge that is driving much of the war as we see it in the books. And this is speaking for both human and alien sides.

I think standing on the outside of anything can give you a better perspective and hopefully garner compassion. This isn’t always the case, of course, because Falcone and pirates in general are also outsiders who look on things in a very different way — they feel entitled. I think for people like Falcone, standing on the outside of something just perpetuates a cold distance and with that a lack of compassion. But I think there is something to having the shoe on the other foot, so to speak, or walking in someone else’s shoes. That was very much the thrust of Ryan’s narrative. He had a very limited view from where he was, but put into the middle of something unfamiliar and uncomfortable, he gained a better understanding. And that understanding isn’t about dismissing your own situation, but putting it into perspective. This was his father’s hope by hauling him onto Macedon, aside from keeping him safe. This was the captain’s way of educating his son in some harsh realities in as much of a controlled environment as he could manage, as a parent.

They all went through specifically terrible things, and because of those trials they saw the wider situation from a different angle, a more enlightened one. Because I do believe if you’re open to it and get out of your own sphere, you can better understand things and through understanding hopefully gain some compassion. And with compassion does come a desire to make things better for people. People like Falcone wouldn’t necessarily gain that enlightenment, it’s an individual thing…which of course is manifested in any war. There are plenty of people who may understand the plight of others because they’ve been through the same thing, but they simply do not care. Then again, the line of that thinking has its own specific origins. There is personal damage in some way with people when they stop caring about the needs of others in even the most broadest sense. Who knows where it begins?

We see the striviirc-na from three very different points of view in the three novels – the reader needs to filter the striviirc-na through these individual lenses (and obviously it is easiest with Jos) – to walk that delicate path towards compassion. What was it like, writing a well-developed alien species through the eyes of young men who weren’t fully assimilated within that alien culture? (Or their own!)

That was a lot more conscious of a process than some of the other things. Early on I really was aware that I was writing an alien species through some specific filters, and that was the point. They’re aliens and unless we see things through Niko’s eyes or someone similar, there wasn’t going to be any grand, near-complete understanding of the striviirc-na. They’re alien in every sense of the word, from how they look to the reasons they do things, and I pretty purposely did not explain some of their actions because I think, realistically, even with Jos who had the most contact, he simply would not understand and maybe even more realistically, he or Ryan or Yuri wouldn’t always want to. Not everyone would go around with a burning desire to be empathetic toward aliens. This was reflected in how Jos interacted with Niko as well. Some things about Niko he didn’t get and would never get, and understandably so, because Niko grew up among the striviirc-na and Jos simply doesn’t agree with how he does things sometimes. Without spoilering the first book, we see that illustrated specifically at the end.

It was a fun challenge to write because it was like dealing with an extra layer of distance. We’re already filtering the story through the point-of-view of the character – we are always in their heads. So seeing an alien species through those specific biases was a lot of fun, it requires writing and thinking in layers. You are still trying to project to the reader a general, truthful impression even if your point-of-view character doesn’t know what you know and won’t see what you see. How do you tell a macro story through a micro point-of-view? I found that extremely fun to write. It makes the reader work, to leave their own biases at the door the best they can. Some people do and others don’t, and that to me is an interesting thing to elicit in readers. Hopefully it makes them question their own points-of-view about some of the issues raised in the books.

Will there be more novels in the Warchild universe set around the lives of young men? Or will we be looking at the ways in which war can affect, and be affected in the exploitation of young women as well?

Ideally I would like to, but that is not for certain.

That last question was a cheating way of asking what’s next in the works, to be honest. Will your fourth novel be set in the Warchild universe? Or will you be looking to break new ground from what you’ve done before?

I don’t like to talk too much about works in development, but it is safe to say that my next book won’t be in the Warchild universe. I will be breaking new ground with myself and hopefully it will also be something interesting and fresh for readers. If it’s not apparent already with what I’ve written so far, I don’t like to take the easy ways out. My next stuff
will challenge me and hopefully challenge readers too.

Thank you for being so kind as to answer these questions for us! We wish you the best for your future work.

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