An interview with Kage Baker, Summer 2009

Kage, being a natural storyteller, can go on at length, as you'll see in ther delightfully detailed answers to the varied questions posed ny the staff here. (Compilation and editing was done by one of the Several Annies here, under the watchful eye of Iain Nicholas Mackenzie, our Librarian.) So grab a pint of your favourite ale from the Green Man Pub and get ready to enjoy a master storyteller at her very best!

So tell our readers about yourself. How did you come to be a full-time writer of really terrific sf and fantasy? Is writing, as Theodure Sturgeon once said, one percent inspiration and ninety-nine perspiration?

With respect, I think it was Thomas Edison who said that. What Sturgeon said. . . . The story goes that some up-and-coming young voice on the SF scene met Sturgeon at a party and told him "90% of everything you write is crap". Sturgeon's reply was "90% of everything is crap, kid."

But to take the original premise, I'd have to say that the ratio in writing is more like 50% each way. A book begins with a blinding flash of inspiration, days of obsession with working the plot details out, and is followed by weeks and months of the daily slog of getting the words down. The slog is punctuated by little flashes of additional inspiration, as one comes up with new ways to work out bits in the story. For example, you may have decided that your hero and heroine are going to find the book's villain in a city at the end of a very long river. You've made it plain during the course of the story that the river leads back into the depths of increasingly empty country, and yet the mechanics of the denouement call for the guy to be tracked down in a good-sized city. You begin to sweat as you realize you've written yourself into a hole.

But then! You see an online article on emerald mining and you think, of course! This city is in the middle of nowhere because it's near to emerald mines! It's a boomtown at the end of the river, on an inland lake fed by the muddy streams that come down from the mines. And then you can see the city, the bustling lakefront wharfs where there are prospectors coming and going. There are hookers and pushcart peddlers and shady people trying to sell rough emeralds and shadier people trying to sell cleverly cut bits of green glass. There are mansions built by the people who found emeralds and huddled shacks put up by the people who weren't as lucky. You can see the big white houses climbing the ridges of the mountains all around the lake, steep streets disappearing in the fog and dense forest. You can see the shacks on the adjoining ridges, hanging over canyons full of trash. You can see the yachts and the barges on the lake. You can smell the fish fried by street vendors. You can feel the steamy heat. Wealthy people are being hauled around in palanquins, because you know they aren't going to climb those hills themselves. There are, of course, a lot of taverns for all those disappointed miners to get drunk in. It's all luxury and squalor huddled up together, you can see exactly how it all works and what its economy is like. This gives you the inspiration to write the finish of the book without sweating. 

How did I come to be a full-time writer? Easy! I was laid off my day job, after thirteen years of honest if low-paid toil. I worked for a small advertising magazine, and Craigslist just killed us. As for how I became a writer in the first place . . . as I've often said, my mother wanted me to be a writer, and prodded me in that direction. I think she must have noticed I had a predilection for narrative, though . . . as a busy mother with a mass of toddlers, she used to drop us all together in the playpen and turn the TV on to a cartoon program while she painted. Ah, but this was 1954 and the only cartoons were the really good ones, the Warner Brothers classics and UPA and so forth, entertainment that had been made for adults. I remember seeing some of the wartime Bugs Bunny cartoons for example, with caricatures of Hermann Goering and Hitler. Or the intensely strange Fleischer Betty Boop and Popeye cartoons. Cab Calloway singing the St. James Infirmary Blues. Imagine being two or three and trying to sort out the grownup world on those terms.

And our parents did read to us, too. I had most of the books memorized in short order and used to correct my mom if she left any bits out in her haste to get back to her easel. Even when we got the full versions, though, there was always a lot of frustration for me when I wanted to know what happened after the last page. What happened to Uncle Wiggly next? Were those all his adventures? What about the nymph Daphne, did she ever get turned back from a laurel tree into a girl? What about Hades and Persephone, how did their marriage work out and did they have kids? Did those Martians in that comic book ever make it back from the moon? Was it really possible to fix up a hollow tree with a bed and stove, like Pogo? I think there was a moment when my mother said, "If you want to know what happens so badly, you tell the damn story".

Which I did, primarily to an audience of babies. I remember my little sisters and I were playing in a vacant lot at the back of our house, and we found a ballpoint pen lying in the weeds. I improvised this whole bizarre epic about how the ballpoint pen had got there. It had belonged to a heroic doctor, and he had traveled into the jungle to take care of the Indians, only there was a war between the tribes and he got chased out, paddling a canoe up the river even though he was stuck full of arrows, and he finally reached California and staggered away to die, but as he staggered along his ballpoint pen fell out of his pocket and landed in our yard. My sisters just nodded solemnly. They were two and three, what did they know? It might have been true.

I was an early reader -- got my first library card when I was still too short to see over the librarian's desk -- and read compulsively for years. Loved series books -- the Moffats, the Melendies, the Spaceship Under the Apple Tree, Freddy the Pig, the colored Fairy Books. When I like something, I like a lot of it. Was desolated there was only one Wind in the Willows book. Detested Dr. Seuss, or any other books that stank of grownup whimsy. Didn't care for the stories about nurses or horses that teachers were always shoving at one. Didn't care much for Alice in Wonderland; too much like real life. Adored Treasure Island. But there did come a moment when I started producing as well as consuming, writing in blue ink on lined school paper in a ring binder. Maybe when I was nine? And never really stopped after that.

There you are!

Though known as a brilliant sf writer, you now have an ongoing fantasy series with two novels, Anvil of the World and The House of the Stag (2008), plus a pirate novel with magic realism tinges, Or Else My Lady Keeps the Key. Some sf writers have told me that find writing fantasy to difficult at best? Do you approach them differently form a research and writing viewpoint?

I do, yes. Plus two mixed collection with fantasy and horror.

I think if you don't get fantasy in the first place -- if you haven't enjoyed the genre, if Heinleinian hard science is your thing and you think all fantasy is Tolkienian -- then you're going to find writing fantasy a very difficult task indeed. And the fact is that most SF stories are set in our own world, possibly in the future, but our own pre-existing universe where we know all the rules and physics and the story has only to extrapolate an adventure based on some sort of technology. What Verne did, what Wells did, to greater or lesser degrees. The difficulty with SF is getting the science right, and then threading your way through the minefield of infodumps. Oh, and you can't put in humor and you can't put in relationships, because the fanboys don't like that! But basically you're free to tell a great story, if you have one, with a what-if slant involving space travel or what have you.

Do you see a difference between the genres?

Hell yes! The one has rocket ships, the other has dragons. Science versus magic. Fantasy is much the more complicated of the two. You have to come up with your own world, with all its details and geography and economics (and if you're going to write Urban Fantasy, which builds upon the frisson of seeing an Elf driving a Lexus, you still need to integrate the Elf's world into the one we know). If magic exists, it has to work on a consistent basis within a system with limits. Anyone who thinks he can just write a fantasy by taking Tolkien, peeling off the labels and sticking new names on all the elves and orcs and making the Quest Object a slightly different piece of jewelry -- well, he's going to write crap. Doesn't matter if he's the best prose stylist in the world. It's going to be utter derivative crap. Tolkien produced a miracle. You can't photocopy a miracle and expect your copy to be a miracle too, no matter how many books you sell. And Tolkien's shadow has blotted out so many great fantasists, at least in the public perception. We inside the genre know about Lord Dunsany, about Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber and Mervyn Peake, but the average reader not so much if at all.

Do you approach th em differently from a research and writing viewpoint?

I do indeed. If you're going to write science fiction, you had damned well better understand the science behind your chosen subject, because if you get it wrong, readers will let you know. Same as if you were writing a historical novel, really: if you have your Grania the Pirate Queen drinking rum, someone's going to let you know that rum hadn't yet been invented in Grania's time and, oh, yeah, ships had tillers instead of wheels in that era, dumbass. And even if you're dealing with a technology that doesn't yet exist, like faster-than-light drive or time travel, you need to be able to make it plausible. (Though there is a school of thought -- very close-minded, unimaginative, puritanical thought -- that says we shouldn't be imagining technology that doesn't exist, but only writing extrapolations based on what is now definitely known. Which is a damned medieval attitude.) When I'm writing an out-and-out fantasy, the principal challenge is to keep it consistent and then to be able to write about the magic in a similarly plausible way. For example, detailing how when a mage is sculpting a body for a demon he's calling up, he needs to remember to do things like give it nostrils with which to breathe and legs of equal length lest it walk with a limp. Though it's worth noting that some notable fantasies dispense with magic altogether -- the Gormenghast Trilogy, for example. If I'm writing fantasy set in our world but working in magic or mythology, I always study the mythology a good long time before I presume to write about it. Some mythologies I know by heart -- Greek and Roman, for example -- but it never hurts to steep yourself in another culture for a while.

Do tell our readers about Elizabethan English, the Green Man Pub, and why the Food Network featured your Christmas Pudding.

Many, many years ago a lady named Phyllis Patterson created the first-ever Renaissance Faire. She was a teacher who wanted to find a way to make history interesting for her class of kids. So she organized a little event at a school in Laurel Canyon, where the kids dressed up and pretended to be Elizabethans and there was a Commedia dell Arte wagon where some of the kids put on little plays. And, because she knew a lot of grown-up actors and actresses who were grateful for the work, they joined in as costumed ticket-takers, strolling players, et cetera. The event was such a success that Phyllis put on another one, but because it had expanded the next Faire was held on an empty stretch of land along Ventura Boulevard, and finally moved to the old Paramount Ranch site, which was 50 acres or rolling oak savannah in a secluded valley far enough north of Los Angeles that you couldn't see a single artifact of modern civilization anywhere once you were in the valley. In spring it was green, green green, and some of the oaks were at least 500 years old. 40 years of steadily encroaching luxury tract housing have made it somewhat less idyllic, but that valley's still there.

Phyllis being a teacher, the original Faire remained an educational event, and she founded the Living History Center to manage that aspect of it. It wasn't at all like an SCA event where everyone is a lord or a lady and people get together for tournaments, the way a lot of Faires are now. We built an Elizabethan village in that valley and lived there. Much more like a portable Historic Jamestown, really. Or Brigadoon. We held the Faire on weekends but during the weeks (The Faire ran 6 weeks) schoolkids were bused in and got to learn about Elizabethan life in the age of Shakespeare by costumed re-enactors. There were a couple of lords and ladies but most of us were peasants, and ALL of us were lowly actors in reality. During the month of rehearsals that preceded Faires we had to learn to how to speak, how to move, how to dress, we had to immerse ourselves in becoming Elizabethans. An actual language scholar had done a seminar for us on the way the Elizabethan accent sounded, and we taught from his work. I was a just-post-adolescent who loved Shakespeare, especially A Midsummer Night's Dream, and I was good at picking up accents but bad at dealing with people. Kate was less dogmatic about the language than I was, but much better at dealing with people. After a couple of years of coming up through the ranks we got tagged to team-teach Elizabethan as a Second Language for the Stage. And we did, pretty much continuously for the next twenty years and then on and off until just a couple of years ago. Two Faires a year (one north of LA, one north of San Francisco), 6 weeks a Faire, plus four weeks each Faire of rehearsal, and then we did a four-week Dickens event in San Francisco every December with a three-week rehearsal . . . so half my year was spent in fustian, obviously, and only slightly less than that was spent teaching and speaking Elizabethan.

How does it sound? Not like Cockney; no 'Enery 'Iggins 'Ed nor Blimey, guvnor! Not like modern received uppah clahss drawling, pronouncing Castle as Cossle or Father as Fothah. It was a hard, flat accent spoken in the back of the throat and the corners of the mouth. The short A was the flat a of words like cat, wax, hat, that, and not at all an ah. "Water" rhymes with "Flatter." Long A is sounded as a slightly lengthened short e, as in the name of the river Thames. The long I sound is pronounced as a dipthong, as uh-ee. The ou sound used in about, around, down becomes ow-oo. So down becomes a two-syllable word. You end up sounding like a slightly countrified pirate, actually. Don't say "Milord"; it's "Muh-ee Loooord." But wait! There's more! You have to learn the grammar, of course: how and when to use thee rather than thou, and to whom, and why sirrah is not a proper form of address to anyone but a bad boy or a lazy manservant, and No, you may not speak Medieval English like Robin Hood and No, you may not speak Regency English either!!! And NO, you can't play a Viking and swear by Thor or Odin! We're in 1578! You've been dead for 800 years and everyone you see in the village is a practicing Christian anyway! I don't give a rat's ass whether you're a Wiccan in your real life, we are in pre-Puritan England and happily unaware that the Maypole around which we dance is a pagan artifact. Fall out, you bunch of poser maggots! You call yourselves ACTORS?

Ahem. Sorry. Old habits and all that.

Needless to say, the actors were never paid much, but as most of them were grateful to be working at all they kept on with the company year after year. Sometimes we were paid with food tickets redeemable for some of the lower-priced concession items like meat pies, but most of our after-hours sustenance came from a kind gentleman who only this morning was flown to Paradise by flights of houris. Peace be with him. He ran a kind of gypsy teahouse by day and a stew-and-soup kitchen by night, and he was open all night and always there and you knew he would feed the hungry, employ the hapless, shelter the sleeping-bagless and, at need, give you a cup of Turkish coffee on credit. After hours actors stood in long lines at the counter, gossiping, juggling, going over lines. He had a dining area under a burlap canopy; the tables were makeshift, the seats were haybales, and the lighting was by Coleman lamp. The musicians would set up in a corner and, as each one finished his supper, the fiddles would be brought out and tuned, the concertinas exercised, the drum heads warmed up, and the music would start: Elizabethan dance music, 19th-century French waltzes, gypsy tunes. I used to love to lean back and listen, watching the late stars through the holes in the canopy.

But he didn't serve alcohol. The actors needed a watering station for the hours during the Faire, when we were often performing our hearts out in all-wool costumes in 103-degree heat. Others came up with the idea first but Kate was the one to actually build a half-timbered cottage that became the village pub for the actors. It had a gated yard and tables in the shade, and dispensed tea and lemonade free, and very good beer at reasonable prices. Any actor (the audience could watch, but was not admitted) was entitled to come in and drink, but Kate was, er, quite firm that the yard was A STAGE and actors were NOT to come in there and talk about their comics or Star Wars or anything else non-period. We were a living Breughel painting at all times, dammit. The front tables hosted acts like singing groups and jugglers and the occasional fencing match. The yard was shaded by one of those ancient huge oak trees whom we called the Old Man, and so the pub was quite naturally called the Green Man Inn. Kate played the Innkeeper, Mother Bombey, to generations of actors. Think a younger version of Nanny Ogg, red boots and striped stockings and all. She smoked a clay pipe for the role, could bandage a Morris-man's knuckles or heft a 50-pound sack of ice and change out a keg of Bass with the best of the lads, and is pretty much the exact inspiration for Mary Griffith in The Empress of Mars. Even now when I'm at conventions in someplace unlikely -- New York, Boston, Las Vegas -- someone will approach her with a disbelieving cry of "Mother????" The Inn's front yard being large, Kate also hosted the twice-yearly Morris Ale. Beer flowed freely late into the night, lanterns glimmered in the boughs of the oak tree, many many sets were danced and next morning many many musicians came wandering back to ask whether they'd left their fiddle cases or shawms in the taproom. They usually had.

And then in the winter we moved forward in time to Victorian England for the Dickens Fair (held indoors) and Mother Bombey became her descendant Mrs. Ariadne Bombay, a genteel widow in purple satin and reduced circumstances, obliged to open her residence as, ahem, a public house. Still called the Green Man. This is built on an indoor set, thankfully. I play her sullen old Cockney cook/housekeeper, Mrs. Drum. Being in the habit of getting into roles, I learned to make steamed suet puddings. They're actually rather nice to eat and not as bad for you as you'd think. The Dickens Fair publicists at one point held weekly contests, inviting the public to enter: costume contests, waltz contests, and one year a food contest. You made a Victorian-era dish and brought it out to be judged. A lot of actors are food historians but not, apparently, many of the audience, because that particular year almost nobody entered and the publicity department was frantic, because they'd made arrangements with the Food Network to come out and do a feature on the contest. So we, the actors, were all drafted to enter the contest, which we happily did. And I made a Spotted Dick, er, Dog, because that's always good for a laugh and tastes all right, even if it looks like a big lump of . . . Spotted Dog. But there were several of the better-dressed actresses who had made perfectly beautiful things, rose jellies and cakes and the like.

I don't know if you've ever been on a film shoot but sometimes the cameraman will just need someone to stand in place under the lighting so he can see how a scene is going to look when it's shot. So I was drafted and up I came with my little Spotted Dog and a saucepan of Bird's Custard, you know, just sort of joking while I thought they were getting the toff ladies ready to interview with their grand dishes and all. I did the whole thing in East End Cockney, and to make matters worse I stuck a little Union Jack in the pudding at the end and saluted our brave boys at sea, hurray and Rule Brittania! I never thought they were going to use that footage. Much less rerun it every bloody Christmas.