This is part two of Carrie's interview with Mary Robinette Kowal during Carrie's jaunt to the Nebulas. You can read Part I and jump back here, or read out of order – it's a fab interview either way. Enjoy!
Carrie: Who are your favorite authors?
Mary: One of my favorite authors is Steven Brust, who I think is one of the best first-person writers going. I love his books. And then Guy Gavriel Kay. He writes secondary world fantasy, but he's a historian, so he always bases it very strongly on the existing time on earth. Nancy Kress! And newer writers…Diana Rowland – I'll read anything she writes! John Scalzi. Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells.
Carrie: I very much admired your cover that you did with Jim C. Hines! Excellent use of props, masterful pose!
Mary: Thank you! I was sore for two days after that. It was very funny. There was a lot of hilarity, because a couple of us could not hold our poses for very long, so the photographer would say, “OK, get in position!” and then one of us would fall over. My position was…picture someone who is crouched on a stool, and then you remove the stool from them. It was a very deep squat.
On marketing books by male versus female writers:
You know, if Jim C. Hines were a woman, I have no doubt that his book, Libriomancer ( A | BN | K | S | ARe | iB ), would have been marketed as a romance novel. I mentioned Guy Gavriel Kay before, and you should pick up Tigana ( A | BN | K | iB ) and A Song for Arbonne ( A | BN | K | iB ). Read those, and tell me that they are not romance novels. They are such beautiful love stories. Heartbreakingly beautiful love stories. And because they're written by a man, that's not how they are marketed. But I look at those books, and I think that if a woman had written them, they would not have received the critical acclaim that they did, and they would have been marketed very differently.
Every time a guy talks about how he doesn't like romances, and then they start listing the books that they read, I think, “Have you not been paying any attention to the books you read?” Because all of those books have very strong romances in them.
Carrie: Do you like to be called 'Mary', or 'Mary Robinette'? ['Robinette' is Mary's middle name]
Carrie: I noticed on your website, you mentioned that you have some relatives who call you 'Mary Robinette', and I related to that, because I used to have some older relatives who called me 'Carrie Ellen'. Now I only have one cousin left who calls me that, and I love it when she does.
Mary: I could call you Carrie Ellen! [SQUUUUUUEEEEEEEE] I grew up in the South, and my Southern relatives call me 'Mary Robinette'. My Dad's grandmother was the 'Robinette' . She's the one who went to Egypt and rode the camels. So on Dad's side of the family it's a double -barreled name, you know, like 'Maryrobinette'. But my parents always call me 'Mary', and my husband calls me Mary. I went through a phase where I tried to get people to call me 'Mary Robinette', because I like it, but everyone I introduce myself to hears it as a first and last name.
Mary: We will see more of her. I really hope that people will want to go back and re-read Shades of Milk and Honey ( A | BN | K | iB )after they read Without a Summer ( A | BN | K | iB ). Without a Summer is modeled on Emma pretty heavily. One of the things that I really like about Emma is that it is about someone who deals with class prejudice, and the moment when she recognizes it. So that's what I have Jane doing, as she makes all these quick assumptions and jumps to conclusions.
If you go back to Shades, this has been part of her personality all along, but here, in Without a Summer, is where she recognizes it. And what I'm hoping is that if people go back to Shades, that the book will read differently now. I've tried to set it up so that you can jump into Without a Summer, and then go back and read the previous two books as prequels, and that things will resonate differently.
Carrie: Do you have siblings, and if so, do you find that having a sibling has informed your writing about Jane and Melody?
Mary: Yes! I have one younger brother. I hated my brother growing up, but I was incredibly protective of him, too. He does not recall that I hated him. But I was two years older than he was.
But then, I went to college. There was this day, freshman year, my brother called me up. His girlfriend had a brother that was two years younger than her. So he called me up and said that he had just gotten off the phone with his girlfriend, and while they were trying to talk, the girlfriend's brother kept picking up the phone, and breathing in it, and making clicking sounds, and doing all the things that my brother used to do to me. He said, “I now realize what a jerk I was, and I'm sorry”. It totally changed everything about our relationship.
So with Jane and Melody, I wanted them to have that “You are so annoying, and yet I am deeply, deeply protective of you” relationship, and then I wanted to describe the moment when that changed, when they became not “older sister/younger sister”, but peers.
On writing about romantic relationships:
The things that fascinate me most are relationships. I'm interested in the way people interact with each other. Which I think is one of the reasons why I am drawn to works with a strong romantic element. That is the most intimate relationship. There are always relationships in which you are letting someone else in, inside the barriers that you erect to keep yourself safe. And there are friends with whom you may have a great degree of intimacy, but it's not the same. Although I do not write sex scenes for these books, because they're not appropriate for the period, that is also one of the places at which characters are at their most intimate and vulnerable.
Carrie: I did notice that in Without a Summer, even though you don't describe the sex, you hint at moments where the characters are physically intimate, and that helps the characters become more emotionally intimate. That came across really well without actually showing us exactly what happened.
Mary: Good! I think there are other books in which explicit sex scenes make sense, but they didn't make sense for these books. Although I have written them! I took an erotica writing class, because I feel like as a writer, I should be constantly expanding my toolbox, and exploring things that I'm not comfortable with or don't know much about. I had a friend, Shanna Germain, who taught a class on writing erotica. She's brilliant. My thought was that even if I'm not going to write an actual sex scene, the biggest difference between romantic love and platonic love is the physical attraction. And even if I'm fading to black, I need to know about that arc of climax, and where it's leading to. I still want that romantic tension, and that sensuality.
So I took the class, and it was fantastic. For my homework assignment, I wrote erotica about Jane and Vincent, which you can read on my website. I wrote their first kiss, and their wedding night. You can tell a lot about a married couple's relationship and your own relationships by how much physical intimacy is happening.
On Regency fashions and sewing:
I kept reading that young women of the Regency didn't drink claret or port, because it would be too strong for them. They drank white wine, which was considered more appropriate to their delicate constitutions. I had commissioned a dress to wear to the launch party, and the first time I put on that traditional, little white Regency dress, I was like, “Oh no, that is not why they did not drink red wine! It's because you're wearing yards and yards of white muslin! It's very simple to understand why they did that! But saying, “Oh no, red wine is too strong for me” reinforced the feminine ideal in a way that “I don't want to stain my dress” did not. It was very clear that whoever said that stuff about port being too strong for women had never put on a white dress!
I really enjoy making my own dresses, which surprises the heck out of me! It surprises me because I spent twenty years in theater, where dressing up was the same as going to work. So the idea of doing reenactment or cosplay has always sounded like work. My first dress really was for research. I wanted to see what it was like to spend an evening in short stays and dance. And I discovered that I just loved it! It wasn't like work! It was getting to do all the things I love about my job – the craft, the hand sewing, making something, and having an idea in my head and ending with a tangible object – without having deadlines, or a client to please, without doing anything except having fun. I have seven dresses now that I have made for, you know – research purposes! And the hand stitching is very meditative. When I'm done I have a dress. I have a clear success.
Mary Robinette Kowal in one of her hand-sewn Regency dresses. Photo by Carrie Sessarego.
Carrie: Do you ever feel like your books are done? Do you ever go back and try to change them?
Mary: Since I just finished adding two chapters to the UK version of Shades of Milk and Honey – No! I always hope that I'm a better writer today than I was yesterday. I'm also realistic, though. My philosophy is always that you should shoot for 100%, and learn to be happy if you achieve 80%. I don't go back to look for things to change. Shades of Milk and Honey is a book where I think my short story roots really show. When the UK editors asked if I'd like to change anything, I said, “Well, yes, actually”. I wrote the book in 2006, so I'm a better writer by six years than I was then.
Carrie: I had a hard time reviewing Glamour in Glass, because I kept spending all this time playing around on your website. I love it that you made a card game! How do you have time to be designing card games and hand sewing dresses and still write actual books?
Mary: Thank you! I give credit for the website to Jeremy Tolbert. I just had the website revamped and I'm very happy with it. I write fast, and my life has always been about juggling due dates, so I function with structured procrastination. I do stuff like games on the website because they allow me to do productivity through non-productivity. You have to recognize that if you are a procrastinator, you are going to procrastinate. So when you have a big project due, and you know you're going to procrastinate, you try to have a whole list of other projects that you can procrastinate by doing, that are actually productive. You're avoiding one thing, but you're actually getting work done.
I expect that if I had been young today, someone would have tried to diagnose me with ADHD, because I have a lot of different interests, and want to try different things all the time. I like to go from thing to thing. But it makes me very productive. I worry sometimes that we are going to have a whole generation of people who don't know how to balance a whole lot of different activities. I don't think there's anything wrong with being a person who goes from thing to thing, if you can find a job that fits that way of being. I've been very fortunate in that I've found two different careers that support that (puppetry and writing). I think it becomes dangerous when we try to define 'normal' as being one state. I think what we should look at is whether people content and productive and reasonably happy.
Some last thoughts on romance:
It was very important to me to portray romance between a married couple, because romance doesn't stop when you get married, and if it does, that's when marriages start to fail. Vincent is heavily based on my husband. Certain aspects of him – not his back-story, because unlike Vincent, my husband has completely wonderful parents. But you can tell what a crush I have on my main character's husband, and how closely in line he comes with my husband, by how often I have him take his shirt off. I read a review that said that they thought the romantic moments between Jane and Vincent were really cheesy, and I'm like, “Sweetie, I just write stuff my husband and I do. If they're cheesy, so am I”.
Thank you to Mary Robinette Kowal for her time, and to Carrie for the interview and the picture of that dress! The books in Kowal's Glamourist Histories series are as follows:
Shades of Milk and Honey is an intimate portrait of Jane Ellsworth, a woman ahead of her time in a version of Regency England where the manipulation of glamour is considered an essential skill for a lady of quality.
But despite the prevalence of magic in everyday life, other aspects of Dorchester’s society are not that different: Jane and her sister Melody’s lives still revolve around vying for the attentions of eligible men.
Glamour in Glass continues following the lives of beloved main characters Jane and Vincent, with a much deeper vein of drama and intrigue.In the tumultuous months after Napoleon abdicates his throne, Jane and Vincent go to Belgium for their honeymoon.
While there, the deposed emperor escapes his exile in Elba, throwing the continent into turmoil. With no easy way back to England, Jane and Vincent’s concerns turn from enjoying their honeymoon…to escaping it.
Jane and Vincent go to Long Parkmeade to spend time with Jane’s family, but quickly turn restless. The year is unseasonably cold. No one wants to be outside and Mr. Ellsworth is concerned by the harvest, since a bad one may imperil Melody’s dowry.
And Melody has concerns of her own, given the inadequate selection of eligible bachelors. When Jane and Vincent receive a commission from a prominent family in London, they decide to take it, and take Melody with them.
They hope the change of scenery will do her good and her marriage prospects—and mood—will be brighter in London.