An Interview with Elizabeth Bear*

This article has been reprinted from Apex Publishing’s archives. It was originally published there on April 10, 2014.

Author Elizabeth Bear dropped by Apex today on her way to share her latest book, Steles of the Sky, with the world.

Along with award-winning short stories, Elizabeth Bear has written over twenty five novels and short story collections. John Scalzi has said of Bear that she is “One of this generation’s best science fiction and fantasy authors.

Today, she brings with her a challenge for Apex readers: the opportunity to win a copy of Steles of the Sky from her publisher, Tor Books. Read on to find out how.

Apex: Steles of the Sky, the third book in the Eternal Sky series, is out! How are you celebrating? 

EB: With endless publicity. Conventions, blogging, interviews–oh! Hi!

Also, Sarah Monette and I are hard at work on the third Iskryne book, An Apprentice to Elves, after many unavoidable delays. And Emma Bull and I are hard at work on the Shadow Unit series finale, which rejoices in the playful title of “Something’s Gotta Eat T. rexes.”

I suppose maybe I should consider something actually celebratory. Huh. That’s a good idea.

Let me talk to my boyfriend.

[One talk with boyfriend later]

Dinner out! And Captain America II. You are a good influence, Fran. (Author note: d’aww. Thanks.)

You are a known mixologist.  

There are wanted posters in every cocktail bar in America.

What would be the perfect beverage to enjoy with Steles?

Buttered tea, I think. Since it’s a little hard to get fermented mare’s milk in most of the English-speaking world.

People in the Eternal Sky lands drink an awful lot of tea. But then, I drink an awful lot of tea. My current favorite is Upton Tea’s gen-mai cha, which is a green tea with puffed rice in it.

I will personally probably be enjoying a New Glarus Wisconsin Belgian Red cherry ale. Which is impossible to get, outside of Wisconsin, so I hesitate to mention it, but I’m going to anyway. I’m a huge ridiculous fan of everything New Glarus does. (Massachusetts, my primary home and the place where I actually vote, is also replete with fine microbreweries. Opa Opa and Berkshire Brewing are personal favorites.)

We first talked about the Eternal Sky series when you did a Cooking the Books interview about food and worldbuilding (the infamous roasted marmot interview). How is worldbuilding different for the third book in a series vs. the first? 

It’s important, for me at least, not to fill in all the mysteries, because a totally known world is a small world. To show more of the world, and deeper layers of the existing places. But I also try in general to manage my worldbuilding on the fly. To do what Jo Walkon calls “incluing.” What the reader figures out from implication will always mean more to her than what the writer just up and tells her.

I love blocks of exposition when they’re written well. The whaling chapters are the most interesting part of Moby Dick, if you ask me. But good exposition–the artful infodump, as my friend Charlie Finlay says–is basically good nonfiction writing. It needs to be disciplined and maintain narrative drive.

So in the first book, you’re laying a lot of foundations of expectation. And then in later volumes, you have the options of reinforcing or subverting those. And of course there’s always the stuff that I know that there’s no room for, because it would bog the story down. Worldbuilding is like icebergs–the most dangerous bits are under the surface.

So there’s always new stuff. New places to go, new technologies and cultural quirks to explore. Being married to somebody often means learning something new about them every couple of days, and working on an epic fantasy canvas isn’t all that different.

So in this book, I finally got to show the Hasitani, the female scholar-priests and mendicant scientists of the Caliphate. And I got to show Cho-tse–they’re sort of badass monk anthropomorph tigers–other than Hrahima.

In epic fantasy, the world itself is a character. And the more complicated and interesting and complex and surprising you can make it, the better. Worldbuilding is characterization for planets.

Speak to me, please, of megafauna in the world of Eternal Sky.

“Charismatic Megafauna” is the name of my next band.

One of the awesome fun things I got to do in this world is play with megafauna. There’s some fantastical megafauna–Rukhs, for example, for which I invented a completely weird fantasy biology. And then I made the fortuitous discovery that Indricotherium, my favorite extinct rhinoceros, is named after a Russian mythical creature, the Indrik-zver.


Nothing would do, at that point, except to mount cannons on the backs of indrik-zver and send them stomping all over battlefields.

The awesome thing about fiction writing is the size of the special effects budget.

You’ve written on livejournal and elsewhere about being a kinesthetic learner. How does muscle memory translate to the page? Are there elements of Steles you needed to experience physically before you could write them?

I don’t know what it’s like to be any other kind of learner, so I have no idea how to answer that question. It’s just how I write.

I could talk at length about getting visual stuff on the page, because I have had to learn that. There’s one early book where I got so exhausted by trying to think up descriptions of places that every single building on the planet has a slate floor. It was my own private rebellion against coming up with visuals.

I’ve gotten better at it since. John Gardner talks a lot about observing for the writer in On Becoming a Novelist. I recommend it.

In addition to being a prolific, award-winning pro writer, you’ve been a longtime instructor at writing workshops including the OWW, Viable Paradise, Clarion, and more. Why do you teach? What do you love about teaching? What’s difficult about teaching?

I love teaching. It makes me make sense of what I’ve learned, organize it, codify it. And it’s not like it’s of any use to the world if I don’t try to share it. We get better–our craft, all art, all science–improves because we can learn from each other. If somebody in twenty years writes a great book and in the process uses some chip of information I figured out how to express in a useful fashion and put in a blog post, that’s the most awesome thing ever.

What is next on the horizon for Elizabeth Bear?

Well, as I said above, Sarah Monette and I are finally getting some traction on An Apprentice to Elves, the long-delayed third Iskryne novel. That and the series finale of Shadow Unit, which I am writing with Emma Bull, are my current big focuses.

But! I just handed in a standalone Wild West steampunk novel for Tor. It’s called Karen Memory, and it concerns the adventures of a mettlesome parlor girl–which is to say a high-class prostitute–and her friends and allies as they take on a corrupt plutocrat.

On the horizon, however, I’ve just signed two deals I’m incredibly excited about. One involves two linked big-canvas space operas for Gollancz. The first is called Ancestral Night. We don’t have a series title yet, but Simon Spanton basically came to me and said, “Why don’t you take everything that you think is cool and awesome about big idea space opera and put it in a book, and then I can edit it, and we will both be very happy?”

So I’m going to take everything I think is cool and awesome and huge and put it in a book. The aesthetic I want to evoke is… C. J. Cherryh and Iain Banks and James White and Andre Norton, by way of Chris Foss.

Big ideas, spaceships, some lovely really alien aliens, stretching the fabric of space and time. But with a solid, fast-paced, adventury plot and some nice crunchy characters–a couple of hardscrabble protagonists trying to make a living off a very. very dangerous form of salvage operation.

Ambitious, yes, but I’m feeling like I’m at a point with my skills where I can pull it off.

The other great big announcement is that there are going to be more novels set in the world of the Eternal Sky. We don’t have individual titles yet, but the subseries is “The Lotus Kingdoms.”

So I’m going to be writing at least three more novels for Tor. These will take place about fifty years afterSteles of the Sky, and they’re going to follow the two protagonists of my short story “The Ghost Makers,” which appeared in Jonathan Strahan’s Fearsome Journeys anthology. They’re both masterless warriors. One is a magical construct, a sort of metal golem with a soul–called a “Gage”–whose sorcerous creator has died; the other was a sworn bodyguard to a Caliph who has been deposed and now finds himself in a position analogous to what our world would call a ronin.

They’re tasked to make a delivery to the queen regnant of a tiny, threatened principality in the Lotus Kingdoms, and while they’re there they become embroiled in intrigue, court politics, family drama, romance, war, magic, ancient secrets, swordplay, and dragons.

Because everything is more awesome with dragons.

Thank you so much to Elizabeth Bear for visiting Apex! I can’t wait to read Steles of the Sky! 


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