A Moment with Aliette de Bodard
Interview by Z.M. Quynh
I’m super juiced to present this interview with Aliette de Bodard, who was recently awarded the Nebula for Best Novelette for her story “The Waiting Stars” (also been nominated for the 2014 Locus Award as well as a Hugo award). You can read the story at Aliette’s website.
Fiction Vortex’s “A moment with…” series will highlight the author’s take on the creative process and views on some of the current issues in the genre. This first edition of “A moment with..” shares a private conversation with Aliette who, in addition to the winning the 2012 Nebula and 2013 Locus Award for her short story “Immersion,” and the 2014 Nebula for her novelette “The Waiting Stars”, was awarded the 2010 British Science Fiction Award for Best Short Fiction for “The Shipmaker.”
I was able to nab — intercontinentally — a moment of precious time with Aliette to provide our readers (and writers) with some valuable insight on Aliette’s writing process. Aliette, who hails from Paris, France, has long been recognized for her work, which brings the voices of diverse cultures to the genre. As a Franco-Vietnamese writer, she has woven Vietnamese, Chinese, and Aztec culture, among others, into her work, bringing a new dimension to looking at our world through the lens of her characters.
Her website, aliettedebodard.com, also hosts essays on science, culture, cultural appropriation, and other genre-related issues. I’ve often visited her site while researching various issues for my stories.
As a Vietnamese American writer, I have to confess that I’m a huge fan of Aliette’s work. So you get the benefit of it by sharing a moment of time with me and Aliette:
FV: Congratulations on winning the Nebula for Best Novelette. You previously won for Best Short Story for “Immersion.” I know you’ve written short stories, novels, and novelettes in the past. Which form do you like the best, and what inspires you to select a story for any particular length — short story, novelette or novel?
Aliette: Aw thank you! I think all forms have advantages and drawbacks — in general, I find the short forms lend themselves better to experimentation (different persons to tell the story, different structures), and the longer forms are better for immersing the reader in an environment and making them care about the characters. A novel has lots of space for world building, but less space for being brashly innovative in form and plot — not saying you can’t write innovative novels, but you do have to be careful to hold reader attention for a few hundred pages.
Regarding length choice: I tend to pick the length first and the story afterwards. I think that a couple ideas or a couple characters make a short story; three characters and a longer time span, or a handful more ideas, make a novelette; and a large cast and several dozen ideas thrown together probably won’t fit into anything less than a novel!
FV: What was the inspiration behind “The Waiting Stars”?
Aliette: Like many of my Xuya stories, it grew out of Vietnamese myth, in this case the story of Mị Châu and Trọng Thủy. Mị Châu unwittingly betrays her father’s people because she loves Trọng Thủy and causes the fall of her father’s citadel. It was only an inspiration, so there obviously is a lot of difference between that and the final story; though you find the same theme of choosing between love for a husband and love for your kin.
The more obvious inspiration was the forced enrollment in boarding schools of First Nations people, in an attempt to cut them from their roots and “anglicize” them, a policy that did untold amounts of damage.
FV: “The Waiting Stars” seems to have some of the same concepts or science as your previous novelette — “On a Red Station Drifting.” Are the stories related? Are they from the same world?
Aliette: They’re actually set in the same world — Xuya is a persistent universe of mine where Asian countries became spacefaring powers ahead of the Europeans, and where the Chinese reached America first, resulting in the safeguarding of First Nations political structures. My future universe has a Mexica (Aztec) dominion and an Empire of the Four Regions (Inca). “The Waiting Stars” is set in a different corner of the universe than “On a Red Station Drifting,” where the huge Dai Viet Empire is rubbing against other civilizations.
There is a more detailed chronology at my website.
FV: “The Waiting Stars” lays out some impressive technical details (without delving in too deep) in the science and technology of your world. I have had mixed reactions from readers about pieces that I’ve written when I tried to make them hard sci-fi. Some readers love it, and other don’t care for it — choosing to skip over the scientific explanations. I’ve ended up cutting hard sci-fi from my writings as a result of workshop feedback. What has been your experience with this?
Aliette: I tend not to go overboard with the scientific details, for several reasons. The first is that too much detail can end up sounding like I’m writing a scientific article for a journal, and I don’t think this sort of thing is appropriate for a piece of fiction (I don’t much enjoy reading long scientific paragraphs in novels either, but I know other people do!). The second is that my characters, by and large, aren’t scientists, and they would have no reason to think about the way things work: You don’t think about the way your car works when you’re driving it, and likewise my characters wouldn’t think about how the space station was built — unless, of course, something goes wrong with the car or the space station. The third is that science changes. It’s actually quite unlikely that many centuries into the future, people would have the same understanding of, say, space travel or even the setting-up of networked communications (assuming there is still such a thing as networked coms). I don’t want to go too deep into scientific explanations, because it would make it crystal-clear that I’m writing them from a 21st century perspective. Of course, this is fudging — everything about my stories probably screams that they were written in the 21st century, just as it’s obvious that Victor Hugo was writing in the 19th. But I like to have at least the illusion of plausibility in that regard.
FV: What is your creative process like when you are writing? Do you live in these worlds in your mind as you write the story? You thanked Ken Liu as a reader for the story — does your process include workshopping your stories with other writers first?
Aliette: I have a very variable creative process, but recently it’s gone like this: I do a lot of brainstorming and preparatory work to get the shape of the story right in my head — as much as 75% of my time can be spent not really writing anything resembling a scene. This is because I’m inherently lazy, and it’s much easier to modify a rough outline than a complete novel, and also because it seems I am constitutionally incapable of writing a story when I don’t have an idea of where it’s going.
When I have a draft I feel comfortable sharing, I ask a couple trusted readers to take a look at it (I’ve used Ken and Rochita Loenen-Luiz quite a lot; they’re both fantastic folks). When I get their feedback, I then do a revision pass (or several) before sending the story out.
FV: How long did it take you to write “The Waiting Stars” from concept to end?
Aliette: Uh. I’m afraid I don’t remember. I would say a month or so, but that’s a rough guess. I don’t really keep track of that kind of thing. The time from beginning to end has ranged from a few days to a few months for short stories (and years for novels). It’s highly variable.
FV: I’m really intrigued by the Vietnamese culture that is present in “The Waiting Stars.” What was your research process for creating the story and when does fact lean into fiction in terms of creating this world?
Aliette: The basic idea behind the Xuya stories was to have a Vietnamese culture that leaned heavily on Imperial Vietnam — much more influenced by China than by the French (though there are some French influences that I use, notably in the cuisine). The culture is slightly more formal than today’s Vietnamese culture, though it’s not quite that obvious in the story itself.
Another notable feature was the use of mindships who would be respected family members (especially because they’re much longer-lived than humans). I used the family feasts as an example of a harmonious society where ship-minds and humans lived together. For this story, I drew mostly on research I’d done for “On a Red Station, Drifting” for the culture. Most of the research I did was on boarding schools for Natives (which included some truly horrendous descriptions, as well as the sinking feeling that it was still going on under other guises).
FV: What are you working on now?
Aliette: I’m doing a revision pass on my novel, a sort of weird post-apocalyptic urban fantasy set in Paris, with fallen angels, Vietnamese dragons, and the aftermath of a magical war; and simultaneously working on a novella project, a loose follow-up to “On a Red Station, Drifting” that will be based on the legend of Chử Đồng Từ and Princess Tiên Dung. I’m not too sure yet what it will be about, but I’ve started researching it and uncovered lots of cool possibilities.
FV: We have a wide range of writers that are published on Fiction Vortex — many have been published elsewhere and some have never been published. I believe that almost all writers on our website have to juggle their day job or careers and probably a family life. Do you have any advice for writers in attempting to carve out writing time — physically, mentally, and emotionally?
Aliette: I’ve been very lucky so far to be able to manage my career and family life simultaneously, thanks to a very understanding husband who is always ready to go play with our child when I have a spot of inspiration. The best advice I’ve had is to plug away at it — even if it’s just 100 words and you don’t feel you’ve done very much, it adds up. I’ve never been able to follow the advice to write a little every day. I tend more towards the “making the most of what time I can find” school of writing. Some days I don’t write anything, and that’s okay. Some days I write 3,000 words and my husband doesn’t see me until I emerge from our bedroom for tea and biscuits, and that’s okay, too.
I have a commute on public transport that I’ve also found very useful for typing first drafts. I know they don’t make them anymore, but I have an Alphasmart Neo, and it’s possibly the best writing tool that I’ve ever found. The battery lasts forever, it’s so clunky no one will steal it from you, and you have about 6-8 lines of text on it, so there are no distractions (the 6-8 lines of text make it really crap for editing, though). I wrote about 30,000 words of my novel over a 6-week period that way; I know other people use their phones with a keyboard, or their tablets with a keyboard, and have had equal success.
FV: We’d like to thank Aliette de Bodard for her advice, and for taking the time to talk. Go check out her website for more information and fantastic stories.
Great interview! “I am constitutionally incapable of writing a story when I don’t have an idea of where it’s going”– It’s nice to know I’m not the only one. I sit terrified in front of the computer screen if I’m trying to write something without having outlined at least a little.