Fantasy that is more than Farm Boys: A Chat with Elizabeth Bear


Sci-Fi and fantasy writer Elizabeth Bear has won four Hugo awards. Her latest novel is Karen Memory. Credit: Kyle Cassidy.

One of my highlights from the Tucson Festival of Books was the time I spent chatting with Elizabeth Bear. The Hugo-winning author of one of my favorite books of the year, Karen Memory, was gracious and talkative. She also introduced me to her boyfriend, Scott Lynch, with whom I also had a wonderful chat (coming soon!). So here are Bear’s thoughts on women in the Old West (and in the sci-fi industry) and why we should look beyond the “Chosen Farm Boy” in fantasy.

Michael: So what was the genesis of Karen Memory?

Elizabeth: I don’t remember what gave me the idea of this character — I remember there was an unholy collision I’d had for a while of heroic prostitutes in the Wild West in a Science Fiction setting. I was talking about it in an elevator at WisCon and a YA editor overheard me and said to send a proposal. So I did and she passed on it.

Well, prostitutes and YA…

But there’s almost no sex in the book!


Elizabeth Bear's new steampunk western

Elizabeth Bear’s new steampunk western Karen Memory features the diverse cast of prostitutes in a Seattle brothel battling a rival pimp armed with a mind-control device and a steam-powered submarine.

I ended up sitting on it for a while and eventually turned the proposal into a short story “Madame Damnable’s Sewing Circle”, which is available in a John Joseph Adams anthology called Dead Man’s Hand. I kept kicking the idea around — I wanted to do more with it. And then my regular adult editor, Beth Meacham, took a look and said “I want to publish this.”

I started developing the world — a friend of mine said something that became a version of the opening line of the book, “You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway.” And her name was Karen Memery Bruce, so I asked if I could name the character after her. I felt if I was appropriating her dialogue she should get some kind of credit for it!

Any plans for more adventures with Karen?

We did it as kind of an experiment. One book contract, standalone novel. There may someday be more Karen Memery stories, but they will be standalones, readable in any order. Like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books. Where you can pick up any of them and get a complete story.

One of the things I liked the most about the novel was how you took characters who are essentially social outcasts and made them heroes. You don’t see these characters in westerns — lesbians, transsexuals, east Indians…

But the outcast has always been the hero of westerns. It’s just always the white male outcast. The American West was an incredibly diverse place — this is the thing that you see when you look at period photos. The character of Miss Francina, whom I had no idea would be terribly controversial, is what we would call today a transwoman. That term hadn’t been invented yet, but there were certainly people in the Old West who lived their lives as the opposite sex from what they were assigned at birth. There are photographs in existence of prostitutes who would be what we considered today as in drag or transwoman. These people existed.

That people are getting upset and saying “She’s reinventing history!” Um, there were these people. They’ve just been erased from the narrative. I don’t think it’s a radical act to put them back in. But apparently it is.

Yeah, I got some pushback on my review of the book from certain circles.

I’m sorry!

No worries, I got a lot of hits from it and no one left any nasty comments.

Well, they need a hobby. I have a career, they have a hobby.

Where do you see the state of women authors in sci-fi and fantasy right now?

I honestly think it’s very strong in a lot of ways. We are roughly 50% of the genre, and our sales are pretty good too. And for every male author that sells a pile of books there is a woman author who does just as well.

But where there is the difference is that the women don’t get the media coverage, they don’t get fussed over. Which can be a blessing actually because you can get the work done! I haven’t run the numbers, but from looking at bookstore presence and seeing people reading books on the train and such, I’d say Diana Gabaldon sells as many books as George R.R. Martin but doesn’t get the attention he does. All of her sales are word of mouth. That woman sells an incredible number of books. And her readership is mostly female.

That’s one thing about fiction. If you look at the people who buy books, more than half of readership is female, and women buy more books per year! There’s a huge demographic that (fantasy and sci-fi writers) should be catering to as well.

And that’s one way I think Karen Memory succeeds. I think female readers will find a lot to love, but male readers will as well, despite the fact that it has a girl on the cover. Even though it’s about a girl, and books ABOUT girls get pigeonholed as books FOR girls. I don’t think there’s any reason why anyone who likes action stories and murder mysteries and steampunk submersibles can’t enjoy Karen Memory regardless of their gender.

And that’s what I was trying to convey in my review. That yes, this is a book about these characters, but that’s not why I liked it. I liked it because it’s fucking fun! It’s got a giant hot-rodded sewing machine in it. That’s awesome.

That’s Scott’s favorite part. He wants the sewing machine to have its own series!

range of ghosts

2012’s Range of Ghosts kicks off Bear’s Mongol-influenced “Eternal Sky” trilogy.

So what is next?

I’m working on a second “Eternal Sky” trilogy. The first one did well enough that the publisher wants three more. They’re set in the same universe but they aren’t direct sequels. There is one character from the first trilogy (Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars and Steles of the Sky) whom I think might show up. But these are a thousand miles away and 50 years later so there isn’t much room for crossover.

I’ve just started on Range of Ghosts. Again, it’s nice to read something that’s different. I’ve read the farm boy with a sword and destiny, I’d like to see something else. And that seems to be what upsets people now.

The thing I don’t understand about people getting head up about that, it’s not like Rand al’Thor and his clones are going away any time soon. Farm boy isn’t going away. He’ll always have his magic sword — those books will still be there for you. So why get upset that someone else has a book where they see themselves reflected in the protagonist? I have a hard time identifying with the farm boy with the magic sword personally.

When I was 12 they were wonderful. But sometimes I want something else, so when I find a book like Karen Memory, or Range of Ghosts, it’s refreshing. Even something like Scott’s Locke Lamora is a change of pace.

The radical thing there is that the protagonists are a weedy little ordinary guy and a big fat guy with glasses! That’s the level of variation that’s considered “outside the norm” in epic fantasy these days.

One final question. With Terry Pratchett’s passing do you have any thoughts or memories you would like to share?

I never actually met Sir Terry, but I’ve been in the audience for many panels he sat on. And the nature of this industry is that I was one degree of separation from him. A number of good friends of mine were also good friends of his. It’s devastating. The whole industry is in mourning. I was sitting when the news broke, just reading Twitter and I saw Marcus Gipps, a Gollancz editor, say something like “Oh shit, Terry”, and I knew instantly what had happened. I don’t consider myself a hardcore fan, but it just hit me so hard. I just sat and watched the whole industry mourn publicly. We all knew it was coming, but still. It was like losing Jay (Lake) last year — you know it’s inevitable but you don’t want it and you wish you could change it.

— Michael Senft

About Michael Senft

I am a freelance writer and critic from Phoenix Arizona. I spent 10 years covering music, the arts and pop culture for the “Arizona Republic” before life circumstances took me away from newspaper. But I never lost my joy at writing. Or reading.
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1 Response to Fantasy that is more than Farm Boys: A Chat with Elizabeth Bear

  1. Pingback: Elizabeth Bear Recommends… | Relentless Reading (And Writing About It!)

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