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An Interview with Karen Traviss

by Gregory Frost

City of Pearl by Karen TravissGregory Frost: How did your experiences with government, with the RN auxiliary and Territorial Army shape your perspective on Shan Frankland and on the persona of the reporter Eddie Michallat?

Karen Traviss: I create all the characters from scratch (real people with the serial numbers filed off aren't fiction, and they're not fun) but real life incidents and cultural tendencies do underpin the books. Maybe warped is more accurate than shaped, because my working past has bent me well out of shape, I can tell you. But it's more about events than the personas. Eddie doesn't respond like me at all when I put him in some positions I've been in, and in others he does. I've found he's been therapy for me in examining what responsible reporting actually means.

In all my books, including the Star Wars ones, the incidents -- and the reaction of governments and individuals to them -- have their roots in real ones. Some really are real. I think it's come as a surprise to some readers who've managed to avoid the mire of working in that kind of environment that cock-up is far more common than conspiracy. Trust me -- and if you do, then you've not been listening carefully enough -- when I say that I've got a PhD in examining balls-ups, both to expose them and to stop journalists like me finding out about them.

People in big important jobs do stupid things. Then they try to cover them up, which is even more stupid. Real Machiavellian planning from start to stop is rare. More often than not it springs from arse-covering and panic. Military kit doesn't always work and soldiers die because some desk-jockey didn't do their job right, even down to not working out that troops can freeze to death if you don't issue cold weather kit. And yes, scientists are not all clever, responsible and motivated by the purity of knowledge. And journalists are often in denial, irresponsible or blissfully ignorant about the role they play in events: it's what Eddie Michallat calls "quantum reporting" -- the act of observing changes the outcome.

What makes this Reign of the Bureau-Morons interesting is when humans -- whose tendency is to treat knowledge as a currency -- meet cultures who have a radically different mindset on everything; ownership of knowledge, sanctity of life, guilt and responsibility, and even the concept of "rights".

We do not play well together.

GF: Okay, so you say "it's more about events than personas." I was on a convention panel recently with Jack McDevitt and Judith Berman, where the ostensible topic was "plot-driven vs. character-driven" and we immediately dismantled this approach as just wrong-headed. Judith approached it by splitting fiction into "idea stories, where the characters might in effect be interchangeable -- that is, not essential for the story to happen" and "character-in-a-situation stories, where the specific character must be there or the story would not happen." If you take that frame of reference, then, do you see the wess'har books as the former or the latter?

KT: Ooh, don't start me off on character v plot. Characters drive plots. If your plot drives your characters, you need to download Causality Service Pack 2. Plot is what characters do. If you build your characters right, you need never worry about another plot ever again. You just let your cast loose and they do the rest. I think of it as a computer model; once I realised that, and that I had to take my hands off the steering wheel, it made all the difference.

I might be talking through my hat here, because I don't read -- I've never made any secret of the fact that I hate reading. Maybe there are purely plot-driven books that are terrific. All I know is that I don't know how to write one.

If you like the kind of story that's more events and ideas, fine by me, but my market research (boring, ain't I?) suggested that readers keep buying books by an author because they like the characters and the worldbuilding, and half the time they don't recall the plot detail. Characters let you immerse in the story.

I'm fanatical about getting into characters' heads -- thinking how they think and what they think -- even when it's repellent to me or just plain weird. I get mail from readers who say they find themselves thinking in the POV of a character and it just hijacks them, and sometimes it disturbs them because they're thinking thoughts they never wanted to. (Hey, no refunds, okay?) That's the idea: I want you to really, really feel what it is to be a cloned soldier or a washed-up mercenary or a desperately lonely alien or a ruthless bitch or a mediocre officer out of her depth who's making it up as she goes along. Writing characters has the same personality-shift effect on me as it does the reader -- I'm not immune. If someone doesn't know what I think as Traviss, K., then they won't guess it from my books. That's not what I'm there for. Like I say, I have one groove, and that's reporting. Everyone has their right of reply in my books, even people I'd shoot on sight in real life. See? I can be liberal if I try.

GF: You've blogged on the way you write and your approach to the business and logistics of writing does seem a little extreme. Are you trying to scare off aspiring writers?

KT: No, I'm just a loony, and a very impatient loony at that.

Writing fiction is part of the entertainment industry. I don't see it as art: it's a business, even if I'd rather write than do anything else. I'm pretty damn sure that if I hadn't treated it as a business -- five-year plans, workflow, market research, project management -- then I'd still be humming and hawing about starting my first novel now

Writing fiction is the third career I've had, and I'm not getting any younger. This sounds crazy, but I needed -- in my own head -- to "catch up" to the point where I would have been if I'd been writing all my life. If you've had a high-octane job, then starting over from the bottom in a new field does make you nervous. You want that solidity back, the sense of having a critical mass of achievement behind you. It wasn't so bad when I went from news journalism to political spin doctoring, because all you're doing there is jumping the fence and looking back at yourself, poacher turned gamekeeper: and I went into that at a management level, so I had less catching up to do.

But when I drew up my first five year plan for fiction -- I know, it sounds horribly soviet, but it's an effective tool to focus yourself -- I had 25 years of not writing to explain away to my ego. How many books does the average writer churn out? Maybe it's one every two or three years, allowing for all genres. I did the maths on my fingers. I'm a fast writer, so I pounded away and I have -- at the time of writing -- eleven books either on the shelves or due out by 2008: that's been since 2004. So eleven times two or three years is 22 or 33 -- voila, instant career! I caught up, at least in my own head. Job done. I feel satisfied now. I can die happy. My biggest fear was that I left it too late in life, and fear of running out of time is a powerful motivator.

I write every day, and all day, except when I physically can't manage to type. (Then I grab a pen.) I mean at least 12 hours a day, often 16 to 20. I usually end up with between 5K and 10K words each day post-deletions; but I found my physical limit in writing Matriarch, which I changed so many times in three months that I ended up writing 36,000 words in 48 hours, and feeling like crap afterwards. My shoulders can't take it. I'm doing the equivalent of four books a year, which should be comfortable for me if I didn't keep going off on tangential ideas, plus short fiction and related features. But I've worked out now that my optimum is a 150K book in five or six weeks. Any longer, and I just keep rewriting it; any faster and my shoulders give out.

Note that I don't say that tiredness is a problem. Tiredness, I've found, is my friend. Fatigue strips away my inhibitions and I write much more vivid and emotional stuff under the influence of exhaustion; it's the same logic behind interrogating people using sleep deprivation. I'll tell you anything. So I do it deliberately now. If I feel what I've just written hasn't got that certain something, I'll delete it and work through without sleeping until I hit the zone. Yes, I know this is bad for my health. Yes, I'm stupid. But it works, and I love it. I'm a lot more tolerant now of people who abuse substances. I can't help feeling we're both doing the same thing, except I get paid for it.

Crossing the Line by Karen TravissGF: Four books a year, 12 hours a day until your shoulders give out on you. Are you working, then, from extensive outlines made in advance, or are you outlining in the morning and then writing it in the afternoon...or...well, just what is your secret?

KT: It's only pain. I'm from Portsmouth! We're all well 'ard, you see. Seriously, I just write. Apart from the formal outlines I have to do to get publishers to send me the money, I don't really outline any longer. I binned the three by five cards and whiteboards. (Taps head: "Eet eez all up here! In mein arse!") I just type and I don't stop until I'm finished -- usually in the sequence of opening scene, end scene, plot pivot scenes and then back to the start and infill.

Half my problem is that the longer I have to do a book, the more versions I write, and I don't mean careful revision. I mean ooh-I've-got-a-great-new-idea-let's-rip-up-the-last-version. I need a time corset to stop me doing that or I'd be blathering on until doomsday.

My secret is that I'm prepared to accept no life and the impact it has on my health as the price for doing what I like best and making up for lost time. Lots of people have to put up with no life and poor health doing a job they hate, so what have I got to gripe about?

GF: So then what's the biggest hurdle for you?

KT: My big barrier in writing was letting go. Journos are trained to detach. Whatever the trend for more subjective reporting these days, hacks of my generation were conditioned to stand back. But the worst thing you can do in fiction is detach -- to reach the reader through the distance of a book, you have to use really vivid colours when you write and get into characters' heads and feel everything. Otherwise it's just writing words, not storytelling. It took me a while to do that and not feel guilty.

And I wasn't sure I would actually find my own voice. I was used to writing anything in any style, whatever was called for. Like most journos, I can mimic any style, fiction or non-fiction. I know how to write in someone's voice, too, because I wrote presenters' scripts when I was a TV producer and you have to be able to capture someone's style of speaking if they're not going to stumble through the autocue as if they're reading a foreign language.

So the temptation for me was to style-wank, and just indulge in language, but it felt thin and superficial to me. In the end, I aimed for no style -- which sounds weird, but if a reader notices my style and not the story, then I've failed. I want to be invisible as an author, at least in the book. This is going to sound arrogant, but less really is more, and you have to know your craft first to be able to strip down your style to its basics. No frills; just something that pulls the reader through the story and doesn't distract them.

Most readers get that and by the end of the book they realise why I did it. I had one Eng lit student think I didn't use big words because I didn't know any, because they couldn't imagine a writer not using their whole armoury. But it's about balance -- enough to make the point and no more.

Okay, I'm new to writing fiction, I know that. But I've been writing for a living, more than 30 years. You get to know what works.

GF: I've told students -- based on a comment of Justin Cronin's -- that if they want to write good fiction, they should write, solidly, daily, for ten years. And here you come saying "thirty." I think I'll stick with Cronin.

KT: Well, no, I said thirty years was the equivalent time I felt I had to make up personally when I changed careers. I'm saying that you can do the opposite if that's the way you're wired. Actually, it doesn't matter how long you take to do it; you can write a book in 20 days or twenty years, and it's got no bearing on the finished product. Everyone's got their own pace. I'm just telling folks how I went from my first novel to a full-time career in one year. You can wait to get lucky and have the block-buster, or you can get writing. Nobody held a gun to my head and made me do it, but if you decide on a career, you have to ask how important it is to you and what you're prepared to give up to get it. I gave up everything: but I got plenty back, too. I can't complain. Good deal, if you ask me.

GF: The wess'har wars books were obviously begun as a series -- that is, you deliver the sense of a long story coming. For someone who might be contemplating tackling a series, how did you approach the notion of writing a series vs., say, a single book like a Star Wars book where you know the story wraps in one volume?

KT: Well, I don't wrap up any book in one volume, and when I started writing I knew I would want to do series. I admit I can't face completely ending a book. When I wrote Hard Contact for Lucasfilm, I decided to set it up for sequels if they wanted them, and, well, that's just what happened. I'm a journo. A story is never finished. It's just awaiting a follow-up. I create a huge backstory, map the characters out from birth to death and -- in the case of Star Wars -- I even developed a fully-functioning language that fans are learning. (Now that was wonderful fun. Where else could I get to do that?) I know I bang on about this technique, but I'm reporting: so I need to know as much as I can about a universe, in which case it's not going to be a standalone.

Even my short fiction has sequels. Seriously. I'm not even sure how to spell THE END. Thank the Lord for spellchecker, eh?

GF: How much did you sketch out in advance the sequels up the line? How does a writer keep from discovering in book 4 that she needed to reveal something in book 1, and, oh, damn, it's too late now?

KT: I do a main story arc and accept that some detail might not work out as I planned, because the characters run the plot. So my outlines don't resemble the finished novel -- Matriarch, book 4 of the wess'har wars series, is a perfect example. The characters were heading a certain way and I thought, "Okay, I'll do whatever you want, just get on with it..." and abandoned the outline. I'm lucky that I have an editor who trusts me to do that.

With Star Wars books, the outline has to be agreed by Lucasfilm, because deviating from it without warning screws up a lot of other people when you're working in a shared universe. But even then I'm able to call LFL and Del Rey -- or the other authors if I'm on a joint series -- and say, "Look, this part of the outline -- it just isn't gelling, so can I change it to this?"

Hard Contact by Karen TravissAnd here's another wonderful part of the craft that Star Wars has taught me -- retcon, retroactive continuity. It's impossible to avoid the need to do that in a big, complex, shared universe. But by finding work-rounds, you come up with superb new unexpected twists: my whole Mandalorian culture and language strand was a result of having to fix something that came from the movies but didn't work so well in a book. I've now learned to use that technique in my own universe, which is getting pretty complex too, and it's given me some of the best plot lines. I love retconning. There's a sense of revelation and excitement about making things fit, and you can still do it by letting the characters have their heads. I was taught to do it by Ryan Kaufman, the continuity minder at LucasArts when I was writing Hard Contact, and I hope he never bills me for it. It was a priceless lesson.

Now, I'd like all those who still think that tie-ins are a waste of my time to raise their hands...

GF: You're now known for being very active with fans and readers -- two blogs and a string of forums -- and they have to shoot you to stop you doing panels at cons. Relentless PR? Or what?

KT: On my planet, readers and fans are known as customers. The deal is that I write, they buy what I write, and then I eat. I think it's part of my job to interact with them: not only that, I love doing it. They're interesting, kind, funny, supportive and generous. I know most writers don't spend that much time with readers, and many can't, and I respect their reasons; it's a massive time commitment, and once you start, it's hard to stop without crashing expectation.

I respond to every letter or e-mail I receive. If I choose to write under my own name, and I like the attention and the money, then how can I complain about the admin workload? Fans have been fantastically kind to me. Some have become very good friends. That's not to say I kiss arse, because if anyone abuses me over perceived heresies -- only about ten have in all, so let's get it in perspective -- folks see the less charming side of my personality. But 99.9999% of fans -- and that's a genuine number, not comic exaggeration for once -- make my life worthwhile. I owe them.

The bottom line is that I'm a storyteller. I need an audience. I want them to join in around the campfire and debate and speculate with me. This is what humans have done since the year dot: we need a tribal storyteller to entertain us and myths to help us make sense of the world. And I need to tell stories. That storytelling dynamic works equally powerfully in journalism.

I think this is why I'm so hard on the philosophy of authors producing a piece of work that's self-contained and independent of the reader, like the proverbial tree falling in the forest and possibly not being heard but still certain it's a tree making a noise. The reader may gaze upon the opus in awe but not interpret it any way but the way the author intended. That to me suggests that it's not about communication, which is a two-way process. It can, of course, lead to the comment I hear occasionally: "Readers just didn't get my book." Well, mate, here's the bad news: as an author, it's your job to communicate, not the readers' job to work out what you mean or else fail your exam. They might also understand something you didn't even see when you wrote it; I've had that happen, and it's a good reminder for any writer.

Yeah, I'm very pro-reader. But then I also encourage fanfic, because as long as it isn't dicking with my copyright or taking bread out of my mouth, I love seeing everyone join in and write. Writing is the most joyous thing I can imagine, so the more people who try it, the better.

Like I said, nobody held a gun to my head and made me write. It's not exactly an essential occupation; if all the novelists in the world were wiped out by a strange virus, life on this planet would struggle on somehow, I'm sure. It'd be obscene to suggest that the work I do is as important socially or as hard as that of the armed forces, the police, transport workers, health care staff and all the other people who do dirty, dangerous, thankless work that might not exactly be their first choice. I've been able to do the jobs I love and get well paid for them; if I can help people with real, heavy jobs to enjoy their leisure and get through the week, then I've served some genuinely useful purpose. So readers validate me, and I don't forget that. The best reward is the mail I get from troops. If I do right by them, and make their off-duty hours a bit brighter, then I feel I'm not wasting oxygen that a more useful person could be breathing. That's why I try not to indulge in angsty self-analysis and navel-gazing and all that shite: this job is a privilege. Nothing it throws at you can possibly be as hard as the crap other folk face in their work each day.

GF: One of the things most upsetting for me about your series (spoiler alert) is that the bastard Mohan Rayat wasn't dead and dismembered by the end of book two....

KT: I know people who like Rayat, and I can see why. He's not a snivelling coward. He believes in what he does. He's tough. Maybe he's as tough as Shan. We'll see. Actually, I like Rayat. (It's that whiny bitch Lindsay I can't stand.) The point about real people who do bad things (or bad according to our societal norms) is that they don't wander around twirling their mustaches, cackling evilly and thinking what evil people they are. Not even serial killers. Their world view makes sense to them. So it has to make sense to your fictional antagonist too. But I don't actually have protagonists and antagonists in my stuff. I don't set out to write them because I can't manage it. I think the one personal angle I can't strip out of my writing is the need for psychology to make sense to me in real-world terms.

I always want to hear the other bloke's viewpoint, the guy nobody ever asks. I was the kid who got upset for the monster in Frankenstein, and wanted to see the shark clamp on a few more legs in Jaws. (Am I the only person who watched those films yelling, "Well, stay out of the frigging water, then, dickhead!") I've never found a real-life nice guy who didn't have a black side, and I've never met a nasty piece of work who didn't have at least one redeeming feature. This isn't some touchy-feely view of human decency; I just think the assessment of character traits is highly subjective and I don't always agree with what most people think is a good person anyway. I like to show each character from a number of angles -- the way they see themselves, and the way others see them, which end up being very different. The reader gets to choose.

So Rayat, bless him, has his good points. Is he really that much different to Shan Frankland? Maybe readers like Shan because they see her inner logic, her thoughts, the way she sees the world. What if you never saw her internal POV? How would she look then? She looks judgemental, humourless, violent, and self-righteous from the outside. And she's a bent copper, for Chrissakes. Aras is a war criminal by human standards, but people pity him because they see that inner torment. I find that fascinating in the light of one of my previous incarnations -- making politicians look credible. Of course, you haven't seen Mohan Rayat's POV yet. When you see Shan or Aras, you see their motivation too, but you don't see Rayat's. Like the wess'har say, humans are too hung up on motivation. It doesn't change outcomes.

It's exactly the same with Ghez Hokan in Hard Contact. If there's anywhere a writer could have fun with a really bad bastard, an irredeemable villain, it's in archetype-oriented fiction like Star Wars. And yet I still couldn't do it. Hokan meets a sticky end, yes, but it's the bit of him that believes in Mandalorian honour that causes it. I liked him. I understood why he did what he did. His motives made sense to me.

But then I see Vader as a tragic character who's been betrayed by everyone, and I can't help thinking of the Jedi as self-serving unelected elitist spoon-benders making whoopee on Republic taxpayers' credits. It's an iconoclastic journo world-view. Believe me, Order 66 was long overdue. I have a couple of Jedi that I don't want to shoot on sight, but they're my own creations, so I could make them a little humbler and more aware of the consequences they create for others.

Yeah, I like Rayat. No, I am not a Marxist. No, I don't fantasize about having a real lightsaber, but I'm looking forward to getting my suit of stormie armour and having a ball with the fans in the 501st.

Triple Zero by Karen TravissGF: I note that you've been a tad outspoken on Amazon about Republic Commando: Triple Zero being your favourite book. Not many authors would rate their tie-in books above novels that have been nominated for serious awards. Or if they did, they'd never say so in public.

KT: Well, I'm not ungrateful for the attention the award juries gave City of Pearl; I just treat all my books the same when I write them, and I felt Triple Zero was my best effort. Readers might not agree, because there's nothing to say that the book you like writing is one they'll like reading.

But thank you, it's high time I did some book plugs here. I've got a fair few coming out in the next two years and I have to eat. Triple Zero is out on February 28 in the US. I loved it. I loved every single second spent on it. I put all my internal organs into it and a large chunk of my eternal soul, which is pretty tattered these days. One of my first readers commented that it was a ferociously emotional book and a lot better than my wess'har stuff. It's a war story. Okay, all my books are, but this is more uncomfortable than anything in City of Pearl. It saddens me that there are people out there who'll read my other stuff but not the Star Wars books simply because it's tie-in work. Like I say, SW forces me to explore ideas I would otherwise have avoided or missed completely. When I checked the galley proofs of Triple Zero a few weeks ago, I'd finished two other books in the interim, and so I looked at it cold. It really took me by surprise. If you want to explore extreme ideas about the politics of identity, totalitarianism, commercial corruption and human delusional behaviour, then Star Wars is the perfect universe in which to do it. And if you want to see political delusion and arrogance, take a look at Legacy of the Force: Bloodlines, out in September. I don't base characters on real people at all, but I couldn't ignore the real-life political examples I have to draw upon. Star Wars really stretches me.

But there are people who won't give my SW books a chance whatever I say, and that's okay because a few hundred thousand other folks will, but it still saddens me. All I'm saying is that if you like my writing, you'll like the SW books as much if not more. If you don't like my writing -- then who you lookin' at, pal?

The World Before by Karen TravissThe World Before, the third book in the six-book City of Pearl arc, has been on the shelves for a few months. Spoiler alert: if you didn't like Rayat in the first two books, I suspect you won't learn to love him in the third. But you might admire his guts. I daren't say any more. I had a letter from a reader who was going through a harrowing time in their life when they read it, and they said it helped them enormously. Now, everyone knows by now that I ain't exactly Patience Strong. I don't do uplifting and inspirational. But the Ade Bennett character hit them hard, and whatever they got from seeing him cope helped them. That's a good feeling. (Yes, even for a sour old hack like me.) Book four, Matriarch, is out this autumn. Task Force, book five, comes out in the summer of 2007 and the final book is autumn 2007. I haven't settled on a title yet.

I suppose if I'm worried about anything, it's the reaction to my Star Wars Legacy of the Force books that scares me. I've got three in that nine-book run, starting with Bloodlines, and I'll be treading on the sensitive areas -- Luke and Han and Leia. I swear to God I haven't made Luke a crack dealer. But I didn't cause civil war with my take on Vader in earlier stories, so with any luck fans won't stone me in the streets for what I've done with the other characters from the movies. I can only call 'em as I see 'em. Boba Fett was sheer bloody joy to write, of course; my Mando boys never let me down. Getting into Jedi heads was that much harder. But I swore I could get into the most repellent characters' heads and see them as they see themselves, so I had to. I still wouldn't trust the Jedi Council with my wallet, let alone with running my country, but you won't spot that in the books. I keep my spoonbenderist views to myself.

GF: I hear you gave a talk to the British Science Fiction Association and a member of the audience asked you if there was anything you wouldn't write for money. You didn't exactly dispel the "Have Gun, Will Travel-Wire Paladin" image.

KT: True. I was asked that question, and I said there wasn't much in non-fiction, and nothing in fiction: as long as it isn't outside my personal bounds of morality (I do have some) I'd do it. I'm a jobbing writer, and that means that if I want to eat I might have to do things that wouldn't be my first choice, even though I'll go hell for leather to make the best job of them.

But right now I have the perfect deal. I get to write what I want. I can write my own stuff, I can write Star Wars exactly as I see it, I can have fun with fiction-related features, and I can write short fiction when I feel like it. That might not last. I'll make the most of it while I can and make sure I'm the kind of writer that editors want to work with and that readers want to read for as long as I can.

When I finished City of Pearl, I thought that was it and that I'd peaked. Then I finished the next book, and the next, and I found I hadn't plummeted down the cliff. (Cue my mother: "I bloody well told you so. Everyone learns more as they go along.") When you get to my age, you've been through that can-I-can't-I curve many, many times before and you know that if you can do it once, you can do it again and again -- all you have to do is be aware of how you did it the first time. I also remind myself that I can learn to do new things even though I'm older than Yoda, so I'm not actually afraid of failure now. I'm just aware, in a pragmatic and detached way, that things change, and markets change, and if I see the waterline rising in the bilges I'll be the first off the ship and pushing the rats out of the way. Journos are like that.

GF: So, you're writing 12, 16, 20 hours a day AND you're carrying on extensive conversations on, is it me or are you messing about with the laws of relativity?

KT: Just watch me warp the space-time continuum, folks. I wouldn't recommend this way of working to anyone with a life and functioning brain cells. It causes arguments in my family and it has a high personal price.

But remember you're a long time dead. This is the only life you get and it's not a dress rehearsal. I've had the kind of life and experiences that no kid from my background could ever have dreamed of, and by God I'm going to cram in as much as I can before they nail the lid down. I go balls-out for everything (I had to borrow someone's balls, but he didn't seem to be using them anyway) and whatever befalls me, at least I haven't sat around on my arse waiting for something wonderful to happen. Just do it. To excess.

© Gregory Frost 2006.

Karen Traviss's The World Before was published by Eos in November 2005; Triple Zero (Star Wars: Republic Commando) was published by Del Rey in February 2006.
Triple Zero by Karen Traviss Hard Contact by Karen Traviss
City of Pearl by Karen TravissCrossing the Line by Karen TravissThe World Before by Karen Traviss

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