An Interview with Nancy Kress

 Salutations, lecteur. Aujourd’hui, voici un article un peu spécial, puisqu’il s’agit non pas d’une chronique, mais d’une d’interview.

En effet, grâce à mon partenariat avec les éditions ActuSF, que je remercie au passage, j’ai eu la chance de pouvoir réaliser une interview par mail de l’autrice américaine Nancy Kress, dont je vous ai déjà parlé sur le blog à plusieurs reprises.

Je lui ai donc posé plusieurs questions en anglais, et elle a eu la gentillesse d’y répondre ! Je la remercie encore une fois d’en avoir pris le temps !

L’article que vous lisez est la version originale (en anglais donc) de l’interview de l’autrice. Une version traduite en français est également disponible sur mon blog. Je tiens également à préciser que l’expression « auteur engagé » au sens politique n’existe pas en anglais, j’ai voulu la traduire en anglais par « committed writer », mais l’expression n’a pas du tout le même sens, ce qui fait que la réponse de Nancy Kress est assez confuse. Il s’agit d’une erreur de ma part dans les termes de ma question et je tiens à m’en excuser.

An Interview with Nancy Kress


Marc : Hello, I am Marc, a blogger from France. I also am a student in Literature at Paris-Sorbonne and this year, I am writing a memoir about ecological questions in SF and Fantasy Literature. I am very pleased to interview you, as I admire your work a lot, and would like to thank you for accepting to answer my questions.

Marc: Can you present yourself for the readers who don’t know you?

Nancy Kress: Je m’appelle Nancy Kress.  I wish I could do the rest of this interview in French, but my schoolgirl French is very rusty!  I have been writing science fiction for forty years and have published thirty novels, four collections of short stories, and over 100 stories and novellas.  My work has won six Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, the John W. Campbell Award, and two Grand Prix de l’Imaginaire awards, for Danses aériennes (2018) and “l’Une rêve et l’autre pas” (1995).  Much of my work is about genetic engineering.

That is the factual description of me as a writer.  I am also a mother of two grown sons, a very bad chess player who nonetheless loves to play chess, a wife to writer Jack Skillingstead, a lover of Jane Austen novels, an occasional teacher of writing, and the owner of the world’s most pampered toy poodle, Cosette, who is unfortunately very old and has gone deaf.  Computers baffle me but I struggle bravely with my Microsoft Surface Pro, asking digital help from anyone who will give it to me.  Born in New York, I live now in Seattle, in a house near the Pacific Ocean, and love my adopted city.

Marc: It’s known that the first science-fiction book you read was Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke. Do you still read science-fiction books? Which authors do you like to read?  What are your sources of inspiration?

Nancy Kress: I do still read science fiction, although now I also read a lot of non-fiction, especially about science.  SF authors I especially admire include Ursula K. LeGuin, Bruce Sterling, Chinese writer Wang Jinkang, Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Pinkser.  LeGuin was indeed an early inspiration for me; I admired her work extravagantly, and still do.  However, I think that it’s very difficult to identify a writer’s specific “sources of inspiration.”  Everything that any writer reads, hears, sees, experiences all drop into the unconscious, mutate and cross-breed and change, and then become new in new work.

Marc: You often speak of genetic and ethical problems in science in your stories. Why do you choose to explore these themes? How can you deal with them from a different perspective each time? Do you read scientific papers to prepare your stories?

Nancy Kress: I explore ethical problems because all good fiction explores ethical problems, including Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (the ethical perils of romantic imagination), Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (the ethics of love versus duty), Martin’s Game of Thrones (the ethics of power), and Asimov’s Foundation series (the ethics of manipulating history).  Science begets technology, and technology begets ethical problems: who gets access to the tech and who does not?  Who controls it?  Who profits from it?  Who is hurt by it?  The day that cavemen discovered fire, the crime—and ethics—of arson came into existence.

I explore the ethics of genetic engineering because this is the future, and the future is already here.  We genetically engineer microbes to produce medicines, and crops and animals to make them more useful to us.  A Chinese scientist claims to have genetically altered human embryos.  There are both good and bad aspects to genetic engineering (one example: pathogens can be weaponized).  Those circumstances make genetic engineering a natural for fiction writers looking for conflict and innovation.

I am not scientifically trained, alas.  Therefore I do read a lot of science, trying to educate myself and what is happening in the scientific world.

Marc: Would you say that you are a hard science-fiction writer?

Nancy Kress: Yes. Hard SF extrapolates from existing science to create possible believable futures.  I try to do that.

Marc: You also often treat political problems (social fractures, environment, the fall of civilization…) in your stories. Would you describe yourself as a committed writer? Have you ever been qualified as a committed writer?

Nancy Kress: I am confused by this question because I don’t know what you mean by “a committed writer.”  Committed to what?  I try to explore many different futures, as seen through the eyes of many different kinds of characters.

Marc: Is science-fiction a political literary genre to you?

Nancy Kress: Yes, because it creates new societies, future or alien or fantastical.  Any work of fiction that imagines a new society is imagining answers to political questions: who has power, how is power being used, what is acceptable behaviour for this society and what is criminal behaviour, what social divisions exist and how are they enforced.  These are political questions.  They don’t need to be considered by, for instance, an intimate story of two lovers set in contemporary France or the United States.  But SF has a wider canvas than that, and even a simple story of good and evil like the first Star Wars movie is political because it considers who has power (the Empire) and who should have it (the Jedi knights).

Marc: Your novella Beggars in Spain (translated in French under the title L’Une rêve, l’autre pas) has two sequels, Beggars and Choosers and Beggars Ride. Can you present them to the readers? Why did you choose to make sequels to this novella?

Nancy Kress: First I wrote the novella, and it seemed to me that the story was not done.  So I wrote the novel (also called Beggars in Spain) to complete that story.  But still it did not seem finished, so I wrote the next two books.  Frankly, I don’t think the two sequels are entirely successful.  I did much better with my other two trilogies, the Probability trilogy (Probability Moon, Probability Sun, and Probability Space) and the Yesterday’s Kin trilogy (Tomorrow’s Kin, If Tomorrow Comes, Terran Tomorrow).  For those two trilogies, the story gets stronger, not weaker, in the sequels.

Marc: Can you present your new trilogy, Yesterday’s Kin?

Nancy Kress: The Yesterday’s Kin trilogy concerns aliens who show up on Earth to warn us about a spore cloud drifting through space toward Earth.  The first shock is that these are not aliens at all, but rather humans taken from Earth 140.000 years ago.  Since then, theirs and our evolutionary paths have diverged a little (140,000 years is not long enough for much diversion).  The two cultural paths, however, shaped by environment and genes, have been radically different.  In the first book, Tomorrow’s Kin, Terrans and Worlders are both allies, trying to find a vaccine against the spore cloud, and antagonists, since many groups don’t trust the aliens’ motives.  Those groups are both right and wrong, with major international consequences.

In the second book, If Tomorrow Comes, a small group of humans travel to the alien planet, World.  They encounter many unexpected situations, starting with a time dilation of 14 years.  There are both medical and military crises to contend with, and the protagonists face difficult professional and personal choices.

The third book, Terran Tomorrow, starts with a group of Terrans and Worlders returning to Earth.  They have been gone only a few months, but twenty-eight years have passed on Earth. Biological warfare has left Earth largely depopulated and radically changed.  The survivors are still at war, both with the microbe-contaminated environment and with a strong terrorist group called New America.  Much of the book takes place in a shielded military base in California that houses 700 survivors and, now, the starfarers from World.

Some characters continue through all three books, notably geneticist Marianne Jennings.  Some appear in books one and two, including Marianne’s son Noah.  Some are in books one and three, including Marianne’s grandchildren Jason and Colin, who by Terran Tomorrow are leaders of two competing survivor colonies.  Both allies and rivals, bound by affection and divided by philosophies, U.S. Army Colonel Jason Jennings and eco-pacifist Colin Jennings each seek to implement what they consider the best means to rebuild a shattered United States.

Marc: In addition to your science-fiction works, you also have written fantasy novels. Is there a difference when you write fantasy and science-fiction? Do you plan to write again fantasy novels?

Nancy Kress: Fantasy changes the world as we know it by adding magic.  Science fiction changes the world as we know it by adding science or its results: biology (aliens, genetic engineering), physics (AI, space ships), astronomy (new planets), etc.  What is the same across genres is that fiction happens to people, who should be the focus of the story.  People, however, are shaped by their societies, which includes magic or science or, sometimes, both.  I have no plans to write any more fantasy because now science interests me more than magic.

Marc: In your opinion, is there a difference between being a science-fiction author at the time you started (at the end of the seventies) and being an author now? How would you describe this difference?

Nancy Kress: There are more women and more people of color writing SF now, and getting recognition for it in both sales and awards.  This is good!  Also, self-publishing has changed the field, enabling new writers to get their works out there (sometimes to great success, sometimes not), and established writers to make their backlist available and to build new audiences.  Finally—and this is a big change, which I am on the wrong side of—when I began writing, science fiction outsold and got more attention than did fantasy.  In the 1970’s, that reversed.

Marc: In your opinion, has the science-fiction and fantasy public changed?

Nancy Kress: There are more fantasy readers now.  But the core readers for hard SF has never been huge, and that has not changed.

Marc: You give writing masterclasses. How your experience as an author serves you when you teach how to write? What advice would you give to beginner writers?

Nancy Kress: When I teach, I make clear to my students that I can tell them what has worked for me, and it may or may not work for them.  Every writer is different.  I can teach some aspects of craft, but I cannot give students more imagination, passion, or empathy for their characters.  Master classes are valuable, and in a good class, a writer can learn faster things that he or she would, eventually, discover on their own by writing hundreds of thousands of words.  But a class cannot substitute for actual trial and error.  My advice to new writers is boringly predictable: Write.  Do it often, with attention.  Get feedback (rejection by editors is feedback), be open to hearing what is and is not working, revise.  Do it again.  And again.  If you wanted to be a concert pianist or a soccer star, you would practice, wouldn’t you?  Writing is the same.  Native talent will only take you part of the way; you must do the work.

Marc: Do you live from your writings?

Nancy Kress: From writing and occasional teaching, yes.

Marc: Do you give importance to literary prizes in SF (Hugo, Locus, Nebula…)?

Nancy Kress: Prizes are fun.  They provide attention, validation (someone is actually reading my stuff!), a bit of prestige.  But only a small group of readers follow awards in science fiction, so prizes don’t increase readership or affect sales very much.  Still…. I’m happy to have won the ones I have!

Interviews are also fun.  Thank you for the opportunity to do this one.

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