An Interview with Kage Baker (01 June 2005)

Kage Baker, author of 'The Company' series and other wonderful works of fiction, has joined me here in the Robert Graves Memorial Reading Room here at Green Man to discuss her works. We're having tea and quite delicious nibblies as provided by the kitchen staff as we discuss various matters. . . .

Please tell our readers about yourself. I know that you teach Elizabethan English, make a mean Spotted Dick, and love all sorts of music. What should our readers know about you?

I'm a fat, middle-aged, red-faced spinster aunt who lives with a demanding parrot. I have, in my time, been a character actress, bartender, director, mural painter, clerical worker, and educational program assistant. I have a Jolly Roger hanging over my bed and require sea air in order to breathe. I have been effectively blind in my right eye since the age of two, but have seen a lot with the left one.

As for teaching Elizabethan English as a Second Language, you put it to excellent use In the Garden of Iden. Is there a demand for such teaching outside of acting circles?

No, though there ought to be; I have sometimes thought of putting an advertisement in Locus along the lines of:

Hey, sci-fi historical novelist! Ready to write YOUR Shakespeare time travel story at last, but stuck on all those antique verb endings? Haven't a clue whether Will would love, loveth or lovest the Dark Lady? Confused by all those Thees and Thous? Auntie Kage's Crash Course for Liberal Arts Slackers will teach YOU how to write perfect Elizabethan dialogue! Also suitable for many other rousing subjects, including: Mary Queen of Scots -- Sir Walter Raleigh -- Puritan Colonists in the New World -- Richard III -- Sir Francis Drake -- the Faerie Court. Don't embarrass yourself with dialogue that sounds like it was written for a Daffy Duck cartoon! Write for my FREE price list today!'

And actually Stanley Schmidt over at Analog did direct one writer to me for advice.

(If you're interested in knowing more about how Kage can work with you on learning Elizabethan English, e-mail her here!)

How did the idea of The Company series, with its chocolate loving immortal cyborgs looting history for treasure for Zeus Inc., come to be? Stross in his blog says the root sources of his Merchant Princes series were Roger Zelazny and H. Beam Piper. Which authors, if any, influenced you?

Let's take the question inside out. Which authors influenced me? In general I'd have to say Shakespeare and Robert Louis Stevenson, as my earliest influences. A Midsummer Night's Dream! Fairies and moonlight! When I was five, I wanted more than anything to escape into the Wood Near Athens. Later on I would have dearly loved to escape to an island somewhere, or possibly sack a city. Cannons, flames, chasing people with cutlasses, taking loot. We all have our sociopathic sides, I suppose. . . .

Later I loved a whole host of other grand old Dead White Males like Kenneth Graham, Thorne Smith, Somerset Maugham and O. Henry. When I began reading Science Fiction/Fantasy, I'd say I was most influenced by Fritz Leiber, Ted Sturgeon, and Richard Matheson.

I think the earliest origins of the Company came about the time I first learned animals could go extinct, but also might be thought extinct and turn out not to be. The survival of coelocanth impressed me a great deal. Stories about cataclysms that took out whole human communities always gave me the horrors as a child -- learning about Pompeii, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Port Royal. The idea of a group of people that went around mitigating the effects of human disasters began to form very early on, possibly as my way of dealing with the idea of so much horrific loss.

Certainly I owe Kuttner and Moore's story 'Vintage Season' a debt -- I think I must have been eleven when I first read it. It gave me my first inkling that people might not use time travel for particularly nice purposes, or save things just for virtue's sake.

The idea that immortal cyborgs are susceptible to chocolate came from the fact that Theobroma cacoa is, actually, pretty potent stuff, and has a greater effect on the human body than is generally understood. There's a reason its name means the Food of the Gods!

When you started writing this series, did you have a rough idea of where you were going with it? Or has it evolved as you've been writing?

I had a general idea, but it branched off into all kinds of unexpected directions. Originally it was simply going to be Mendoza's story, this misanthropic wretch of an immortal with a dreadful love life, and her eventual salvation and reconciliation with humanity through the Big Englishman. But her father-figure Joseph took on a life of his own immediately, so there was his story to tell, and then the other characters took on lives of their own. And the canvas is so huge! You can't just paint one little love story down in the corner and leave the rest blank. You've got a whole bloody universe of possibilities, and a decent paintbox. Why not tell the whole story?

From one of your publishers is the question, 'you should ask her about her interest in pirates or her renfaire activities'. Given Captain Morgan, the lovable (mostly) AI who's one of the main characters in the newest Company novel, that's a question worth hearing an answer for. And having seen you on the Food Network all dressed up as a saucy maid, I shouldn't be surprised you're involved in Ren Faire activities!

Pirates?

I think the pirate thing started when I was two and had to have eye surgery. While I was recuperating, my mother read to me from Peter Pan -- rather a grim story, if you actually read it, and this one had somber black-and-white line illustrations. Plus I had to wear an eyepatch after the surgery, for years on and off as various doctors tried to give me binocular vision. The whole experience left me with a certain anger, shall we say. I definitely sided with the pirates. Adored pirate movies and TV shows. Robert Newton, here's a glass to your immortal soul! And another to yours, Johnny Depp.

Children generally love pirates anyway -- probably they appeal to the little savage in all of them. Halloween is the only time a child can run around the streets at night trespassing on other people's property and demanding loot from strangers. There's a pirate festival on the East coast that culminates in a re-enaction of Blackbeard's final battle with the British Navy, and after the battle Blackbeard's head is paraded through the streets. But the pageant organizers discovered that they had to use an oversized, obviously phony severed head for the parade -- otherwise all the children in the crowd wept and had hysterics, appalled at the idea that Blackbeard had actually been killed. The actor portraying Blackbeard actually had to emerge and explain that he was all right.

Captain Morgan, Alec's AI, comes out of this in part. He's more like Long John Silver than Blackbeard, though -- sane, sensible, fatherly, and nonetheless deadly and completely ruthless about fulfilling his programming.

Let's follow up on Captain Morgan for a minute, as that raises an interesting point about the writing of this latest Company novel. Prior to this one, the novels were written as novels, but this one is (in good part) a re-writing of tales -- including the first appearance of Captain Morgan -- that were collected in White Knights, Black Projects. What was the process like of taking these tales, all of which were just right as short stories, and making them an aspect of a novel?

Actually, The Life of The World to Come was written first (1997-98), before the short stories. But, due to that little glitch with Harcourt deciding it didn't know how to market the series, LWTC sat unpublished for about six years. Now, needing as I did to pay my rent, I cast about in desperation for some readily sellable stuff. It occurred to me that Alec's initial meeting with the Captain would make a pretty decent story on its own, so I excerpted it, cut it down a bit and sold it to Gardner at Asimov's. Voila! Most of a month's rent.

An awful lot of artistic decisions are made because somebody had to eat.

That first sequence, 'Smart Alec', is the only part that appeared elsewhere, by the way. You will not find the other Alec stories from Black Projects, White Knights in LWTC.

The action in the novel moved fairly quickly from Alec being a small child to Alec being seventeen, as the requirements of the book dictated. After I had written it, though, it seemed to me it would be interesting to explore further the way the Captain mentored Alec through his pre- and post-adolescence. How, in that insanely invasive society, do you conceal the fact that this child isn't technically human? There's a story that came out in the June '05 Asimov's called 'Bad Machine' that answers that one. When do Alec's other talents and proclivities begin to manifest? There really wasn't time to explore all that in the context of the novel. So I wrote the other stories ('The Dust Enclosed Here', 'Monster Story', 'The Likely Lad' ,'Bad Machine' ) to play with those ideas.

And pay bills, of course.

Having made 24th-century society so suffocating, it did make sense to have a protector for young Alec who was the antithesis of all that PC Big-Brother-Knows-Best ideology, without getting boringly Ayn Rand about it. Who better than a pirate? Chaos, blood, fire, mayhem, rum! Dionysus opposing Apollo. The Captain's conflict, of course, is that he comes to realize Alec has a self-destructive streak a mile wide, so he has to keep his boy free, but not so free he destroys himself.

Switching to your work in fantasy, is The Anvil of the World -- which I'm reading for reviewing purposes now -- the beginning of another long series? Are you the next Terry Pratchett? (Just kidding!)

Ooooooh, no indeed. No more long series EVER!!!! I be through with them 8-book story arcs. Or nearly through.

Having said that, this does not mean there won't be more books set in Lord Ermenwyr's universe. I've been writing stories set in that world since I was 12. But every single book henceforth will be a standalone, this I vow.

I don't want to be the next Terry Pratchett; I'm taller than he is, so I'd have to stoop, and I could manage the hat but the fake beard would be so uncomfortable. And actually I want to him live to be a hundred and keep turning out a book a year, because he just keeps getting better. I'd certainly love the money, though.

So please tell us about what it was like to write The Anvil of the World as it has that's been nominated this year for a Mythopoeic Fantasy Award in Adult Literature which suggests, and I strongly agree, that it's a damn impressive novel . Is it easier or harder to write fantasy? To date, I believe, it's your only novel outside of 'The Company' series.

Yes, it is my only published non-Company novel to date.

So what's the unpublished non-Company novel you've written?

The unpublished book was about a world in which civilization had broken down, not as the result of a nuclear war but from the cumulative effects of wars, disease, pollution, famine, climate change et al. Still a few cities where life went on nearly as before, but outside of them, almost all the infrastructure worn away. Against this backdrop, two powerful rival religions still finding it worthwhile to take potshots at each other. One of them somewhat resembled the Ephesian Church of the Company series.

A book is found in a remote library attached to one of this church's Mother Houses, a cheesy work of science fiction with a story remarkably like the mythology of the rival church. Since it pre-dates the rival church by quite a few years, this effectively proves that the rival church's founder was a plagiarizing liar. The Mother Superior decides to publicize the book. The only remaining big city with any media presence is a continent away; however, so she sends the book there in the care of two nuns -- one the librarian who found the book, the other the only nun who can drive the Mother House's single car. They set out across the wilderness just as another, more virulent plague is breaking out, and civilization seems to be ending at last. They have several adventures on the way. And the librarian tells the other nun the stories of Lord Ermenwyr's family.

I thought about calling it Nuns on the Run, but Eric Idle beat me to it.

She returned to her comments on Anvil after asnswering my digressive question. . . .

How Anvil Came to Be: As I said, I'd been writing stories set in that world for years. Sometime in my twenties I produced my first novel, a rambling thing alternating between the stories of Lord Ermenwyr's family and one person telling the stories to another person as they traveled across a post-holocaust landscape. It did not sell, though it generated enough mild encouragement for me to try something different, hence the Company.

But, a few years back, I found the old hand-typed manuscript and, while most of it's hopeless, one or two bits seemed actually not half bad. I pulled out one of the stories and retooled it a bit, and sold it as the short story 'Desolation Rose'. Gardner Dozois thought well enough of it to mention it favorably in his Year's Best summing-up, and I thought: Oooo, I'll bet I could sell some more of this.

But on reviewing it, I realized that stories written from an adolescent's point of view are pretty common out there in Fantasy Land. It seemed to me something a lot more original could be done with making the hero middle-aged, ordinary, tired, and slightly defeated by life. So I started something set in that same world, but utilizing my 50-year-old experience as opposed to my 14-year-old lack of same. That was 'The Caravan from Troon', the first part of the Anvil tryptich. And the story just flowed, once I started writing. I don't remember much about the actual writing process except that I'd alternate bouts of writing with pulling weeds in my garden in the rain. I worked out a lot of plot points while yanking up spearmint that had overgrown its bounds and was colonizing the lawn.

Troon got good enough reviews that I was emboldened to write more. The second section, 'The Hotel Grandview', I worked out while camping in Big Sur. I had laid it aside and was writing the third section, 'The Kingfisher's Nest', when my agent told me that David Hartwell was interested in seeing a fantasy novel.

Is it easier to write fantasy than SF? Hell yes. No historical research involved. At least, nobody else's history, but for good fantasy to work, your world needs to have a coherent, consistent, detailed history of its own, as well as languages, trades, politics and furniture. That's what made LOTR work so well. And it's true also that real-world history frequently hands one the damndest characters and stories -- truth being stranger than fiction and all that. I just finished a story involving the notorious Sir Francis Dashwood, Baron leDespencer, founder of the best-known Hellfire Club; in fact he seems to have been rather a kindly old Enlightenment humanist and sort of proto-neopagan.

So what are the influences on Anvil as regards its content and style, as I noted it has an offbeat sense of humor, i.e. the emphysema reference. Somehow the Princess Bride leapt to mind when I wasa reading it.

Probably the biggest literary influence on Anvil would be Thorne Smith (Topper, The Night Life of the Gods, Turnabout, et cetera), the father of modern supernatural comedies. After him, I suppose, Fritz Leiber and Lord Dunsany, for content and style respectively. The whole opening section was an attempt to do a Dunsany riff and then offset it, at the end, with the emphysema joke. Some Dickens in there too, a big canvas full of characters.

I enjoyed the Princess Bride a lot . . . he does the same thing with taking literary conventions and playing with them. The closest anyone comes to PB is George Macdonald Fraser's THE PYRATES, which is howlingly funny. And which also treats Theobromos as a drug, now that I come to think of it!

Some writers I've talked to prefer writing novels over writing shorter works, some are just as adamant that the short form is their preferred way of writing fiction. Do you have a preference. If so, why?

No . . . the stories dictate their own lengths, I just go along for the ride. But I seem to be better at the short form. If I can choose, I will probably focus on stories over novels in the future.

Since you work a full-time job to pay your bills -- not an unusual situation for many of the writers I know -- how do you find time to write and have a sort of life outside of being a writer? I know that Heinlein made the comment that writers needed to be locked away for extended periods of time from all other people so they can write, but it seems to me that a healthy writer is one who listens to music, reads books, eats chocolate, and has a social life! So how do you write as much as you do?

I go to work, I come home, I sit down at the keyboard and write until I'm so tired I can't see the keys anymore. Then I sleep. Then I wake and repeat the process. Nothing matters but the Work, as the Company cyborgs say.

I did garden, but I lost my garden when the house I rented was sold. I do sometimes work the shows put on by the current incarnation of the old Living History Centre -- in which capacity I made that recent TV appearance as a cockney cook on a Food Channel special on Victorian Christmas celebrations. Mostly, though, I just write. And watch the sea. Every now and again I do need to get away from even the phone and the Internet, and I flee to somewhere like Big Sur and write in a tent or a motel room for a few days.

I don't find much time to read, but I'll make an exception for Pratchett.

One of your more impressive shorter works in The Angel in the Darkness chapbook which Golden Gryphon Press published. What's the story behind this? Other than The Empress of Mars, none of your works have been published this way. Why this particular work? It is a story so good that it makes me wish more short stories were done as chapbooks!

Well, one of the ways independent presses raise money is by publishing limited-edition chapbooks-- novella-length preferably, in an extra fancy limited edition, signed by the author and all. After Black Projects worked out so well, Golden Gryphon approached me about doing a chapbook. At that point the only unattached, unsold novella I had was the Hearst story, but on reading it, Marty decided it wasn't right for GG. He asked if I could come up with something else.

I had known that I wanted to do more with the character of Porfirio and his mortal family, and pieces of the story sort of came together on a trip down to LA to deal with various of my own family matters. A tremendous amount of personal anger came out in that story from senior health care issues, issues with manipulative alcoholics who endanger children, issues with Los Angeles in all its self-destructive glory, issues with my own aging process and time and being a survivor. The story starts with a scream of rage; it's my scream.

Interesting that you like it; Jeff Vandermeer thought it wasn't particularly good. I made a mental note never to put quite so much of my own angst into a work again.

But I looooved the GG cover for it that JK Potter did. Interestingly enough, if you check out the gallery of new work for the artist Paul Youll, you can see the cover he's done for the next book, Children of the Company . There's a figure standing behind some kind of console that's a dead ringer for Porfirio, though he doesn't appear in the book at all.

One final question. I note, in hindsight which is sometimes a pain, we didn't touch upon Empress of Mars. Care to make some comments on what is without doubt one of the finest novellas ever written?

Dude! Have a care for my ego!

Touching on Empress of Mars. . . .

I went out to breakfast one Sunday at a cafe down the street, and began to block the plot out over my coffee; by the time my check came I had most of it done. It derived a certain amount of its action from a real-life situation involving Corporate Evil and the struggle of the lowly to provide hard-working actors with good beer at affordable prices. Certain of the characters in it are portraits of friends and relations of mine.

Also, by that point I had already written The Life of The World to Come, and I wanted to provide some backstory for what happened at Mars Two. There's increasing evidence that there is, in fact, volcanic activity on Mars; utilizing arethermal energy by drilling into a magma pocket seems like a good colonization strategy. The idea that someone might later set off a bomb in the power plant which would then blow out the side of the magma chamber seemed dreadfully plausible to me, especially post-911. Though I got a lot of flak (actually a big braying guffaw) from one reviewer over this, who thought it far too improbable to happen. Oh well.

I've been following the careers of Spirit and Opportunity with tremendous satisfaction. Nice to know we Yanks didn't drop the ball completely on Mars. In one evening, while surfing the net, I was able to watch NASA footage of dust devils moving across an alien world and, on another site, listen to a sound file of a recording of Sir Arthur Sullivan's voice made around 1889. Wonderful juxtaposition.

Et voila! The questions, they are answered.

They certainly are. Thank you for taking the time to visit us here.

[Cat Eldridge]