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Author Spotlight: Altering History with Nisi Shawl

Festival Staff / February 15, 2017

  • (Photo credit: Caren Corley, 2012)

Nisi Shawl is an astoundingly prolific writer of science fiction and fantasy, often with a steampunk bent. She writes novels, short stories, and nonfiction.

Shawl's latest novel Everfairis a neo-Victorian alternate history that questions what may have happened in the Belgian conquest of the Congo, if the native population had already learned about steam technology. Her short story collection Filter House won a James Tiptree, Jr. Award. And, Stories for Chip: A Tribute to Samuel R. Delaney, an anthology she edited with Bill Campbell, was a finalist for the Locus awards.

Nisi Shawl recently took some time to answer questions for the Tucson Festival of Books.

What inspires you to write?

Everything inspires me to write: dreams, songs, my cat. Most often I take interest in clashes, unresolved questions such as what’s the difference between animate and inanimate matter, nagging feelings such as anger at a former babysitter for insulting me in ways I’m only now able to understand.

Quite a few of my stories arise in response to invitations to address an anthology’s theme. That’s how I came up with “Deep End” and the four other stories (so far) in my Making Amends series: Nalo Hopkinson wanted me to write a post-colonial story, so I extrapolated the Australian penal colony model of settlement into outer space.

How does your approach to writing a novel differ from your approach to writing a short story or nonfiction piece? Do you find that you prefer one over the others?

You have to have a better idea of where you’re going when you write a novel, I find. Though not necessarily a better idea of how you’ll get there. I use outlines when writing novels, though primarily to clarify what’s going on as I progress. When writing nonfiction I type out ideas I want to include, very often in a different order than I wind up including them. For short stories I usually ask and answer questions about what’s going on, engaging in a sort of Socratic dialogue with myself. What is the love interest doing? What does the sidekick want, and conversely, what does she get? That sort of stuff. I explain the story’s action and the characters’ motivations to myself. I don’t always stick to those explanations in the body of the actual story, though.

As to which of these three forms I prefer, it’s all good. Nonfiction’s probably easiest; novels are probably hardest. But difficulty levels don’t translate directly into preference. There are also the rewards of each to consider.

Why are alternate histories, as in your novel Everfair, so interesting to read and write about?

Well, I *hope* Everfair is interesting to read. That’s what most people are saying. It was interesting and fun to write. I have long loved many of the historical figures on which some of the characters are modeled, and long wanted to depict them. Another joy of the genre is having a sort of armature to work off of--reality functions as frameworks for my fiction, doorways from which to spin my story webs.

The many-worlds hypothesis says that anything and everything that ever could have happened *has* happened--in a parallel universe. So somewhere, Everfair exists.

What does the day-to-day business of being a writer actually look like for you?

My mother says she never realized till she came to live with me that I work really, really hard. Basically, I’m pretty much always working. When not actually drafting texts, I must promote my work on social media; perform publicly; read materials I’m editing or reviewing; contact publishers, contributors, collaborators, event organizers, and so on about projects in which I’m involved; research background for upcoming stories; and respond to interview questions like this one! I also practice turns of phrase and consider ideas before committing them to the page. I generally reserve afternoons and evenings for what most people would call writing, though in my mind these activities are as one. That leaves mornings for the rest of it.

There are no weekends.

What advice would you give to aspiring authors?

Get a firm grasp on grammar, vocabulary, etc. Write. Get non-relatives, strangers, and friends whose opinions you respect to read what you write and give you honest feedback. Listen to them. Revise. Send your writing to publishers. If they bother to give you detailed feedback, it’s honest, and it’s valuable. Listen even harder. Revise again. Send your writing to publishers again. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

There are always more firsts.

What are you working on right now?

I’m working on a short science fiction story about life post-Trump.

And finally, where can we buy your books?

I believe the closest independent bookstore where Everfair is available is The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale. Barnes & Noble carries it, and Amazon as well, if you want to look online. I’ve also spotted it at Hudson’s, an airport-based chain.

You can find Nisi Shawl at the following sessions at the Tucson Festival of Books:

  • "Writing the Other" workshop on Sunday at 10 AM
  • "Ladies of Steampunk" panel on Sunday at 2:30 PM

Nikki VanRy is a freelance writer in Phoenix, AZ. She writes about books at BookRiot.com. Connect with Nikki on Twitter at@nnsteele.

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