It’s hard to be a writer in the Bay Area and not know Charlie Jane Anders. Besides being a prolific writer, she is an incredibly generous networker and runs an absolutely awesome reading series called Writers With Drinks. So we thought we’d check in with her and pick her brain about novels, writing, reading, and all that jazz.
The Book Doctors: In some ways, your book defies categories. To us, it felt like magic realism, but it has elements of fantasy, cyber-steam punk, and coming-of-age. When you sat down to write this book, did you think about what category it would be in? Did this make it more difficult to sell the book and find an audience?
Charlie Jane Anders: When I started to write All the Birds in the Sky, I was attracted to the idea of smushing together fantasy and science fiction by having a witch and a mad scientist in the same story together. I thought of the book initially as sort of pastiche or spoof. I would have all these standard fantasy tropes and these science fiction tropes, and they would be colliding in a funny way. That turned out to be very, very boring. Instead, I had to think more about what these two genres meant to me and how I connected to each of them personally. I was terrified that this genre confusion would make the book a hard sell — but it turned out the bigger problem was the fact that it starts out with the characters as little kids and then we see them grow up about 100 pages in. It seemed like some people could not quite wrap their minds around the idea of a book that feels like a young-adult novel at first but then becomes an adult novel. I was so grateful that my agent and publisher were willing to roll with it and didn’t try to get me to restructure the book, with flashbacks or whatever.
TBD: David has, because of many personal experiences, felt like an outsider most of his life. So he especially related to the main characters of this beautiful book, and we wondered if your experience as an outsider helped shape these characters, who are fighting against a world that sees them as different, unusual, bizarre, and ultimately, threatening.
CJA: The theme of feeling like an outsider kept coming up in this book, in part because of the decision to start out with the main characters as kids. I think a lot of people can relate, one way or another, to the sense of not fitting in or being misunderstood. I had a rough time in grade school and middle school for a bunch of reasons, and I felt like writing honestly about growing up meant that I had to capture some of that emotional and physical insecurity that so many of us have lived with. And yet, having the kids grow up and live as twentysomethings meant that we got to see them as powerful adults, with control over their own lives and agency and all that goes with that. They can’t escape from being shaped by their childhood experiences, but they can choose how they deal with it.
TBD: You have put a lot of time and effort into reaching out to a community of writers. We suggest this to our clients all the time. How did you do this, and has this helped you in your writing career?
CJA: I can still easily remember when I felt totally isolated as a newbie fiction writer, and how hard it was to find people to connect with. Whatever point you’re at in your career, writers really need to stick together, to help deal with the pressure and insanity of the creative process and the publishing biz. I’ve had a blast curating Writers With Drinks, the reading series that I organize and (usually) host in San Francisco. I have gotten to meet a whole bunch of amazing writers — including David! — and hear them read. And it’s been a thrill to expose people to a new audience, especially since Writers With Drinks usually has as many different genres and styles as I can fit into one event. So you might come to hear the science fiction author, but discover a new favorite poet. But just as valuable has been the social aspect — an event where we’re all creating something together and nobody’s competing has been great for helping me (and hopefully others) make friends. I think being around these awesome, talented people has helped me raise my game as a writer, because I get to hear/read some of the best examples of the craft every month.
TBD: David has read several times at the fantastic reading series called Writers with Drinks, at the deliciously named Make Out Room in San Francisco, and he always has a blast. What have you learned by watching the hundreds of writers that you have wrangled into this wildly successful series?
CJA: Ha, see above. To add to what I wrote up there, I think that part of the fun of Writers With Drinks has been the thing of combining different genres and getting to see how a stand-up comic, a slam poet, a science fiction author and a literary memoirist are using some of the same techniques and approaches — just with different end goals. Plus you get to see how each genre is powerful in its own particular way. I love when you get people laughing their ass off one minute and then being moved to tears the next.
TBD: Tell us about io9 magazine.
CJA: Getting to be involved with the creation of io9 was one of the greatest opportunities of my life. Annalee Newitz, who founded io9, wanted to blend science and science fiction in a kind of homage to Omni Magazine, and it was really inspirational to see how the two things informed each other. After eight and a half years, I came away with a really strong sense that we are 100 percent living in the future. And I basically got paid to geek out about storytelling, and sometimes my half-baked ideas about books, movies and TV shows led to some of the most fascinating conversations with our readers and other folks. It was like getting paid to go to grad school.
TBD: You’ve been published in tons of small magazines and journals, like Tin House, McSweeney’s, and Zyzzyva, to name a few. How does a writer get published in these places, and how has this helped you in your publishing career?
CJA: When it comes to Tin House and McSweeney’s, I was only published on their websites, but it was still a major honor to be featured there. And getting into ZYZZYVA was one of the coolest things that ever happened to me. This super well-respected literary magazine chose to publish me way, way back when I was just starting out and barely getting my stories into tiny zines and the occasional website. In general, I published tons and tons of fiction in small publications, many of which have gone under or never received any exposure to speak of. Early on, I would publish stories pretty much anyplace that was willing to consider them, including one of those adult newspapers that’s mostly a vehicle for stripper ads. I didn’t make a lot of money from doing that, to say the least, but it was good to get the experience of having my creative writing appear in a lot of places and dealing with editors and readers. The whole process of making up a story — and having it turn into something that other people read and take in and form their own relationship with — is so weird, it might be kinda good to get used to it before you start reaching a bigger readership.
TBD: You won an Emperor Norton Award. First of all, what is that exactly, and how did you end up becoming a winner of this prestigious award?
CJA: Oh ha ha ha… the Emperor Norton Award for Extraordinary Invention and Creativity Unhindered by the Constraints of Paltry Reason is something that Tachyon Publishing and Borderlands Bookstore were doing for a while there — I don’t know many of them they gave out, but I was so thrilled. I think something about the weird, silly intros I cook up for the authors at Writers With Drinks, plus my bizarre fiction, struck someone as unhinged, in a good way. I was very flattered — hinges are good for doors, but I think a lot of people could stand to be a little less hinged. I’m always kind of scared of how many people seem to think they have everything all figured out.
TBD: You are a self-described “female geek.” What does that mean to you? And tell us about the anthology you put together that embraces this particular demographic.
CJA: Way back in 2006, Annalee and I were both approached about editing anthology projects for Seal Press, and we decided to collaborate. Our book was called She’s Such a Geek, and it was a collection of essays by women in science, technology and other geeky fields. We put out a call for submissions, and we were just blown away by the hundreds of submissions we received. There were a lot of heartbreaking stories by women who had been at the top of their class as undergraduates but then got treated horribly in grad school. A lot of geeky women of color shared stories of hearing subtle (and not-so-subtle) messages about their ability to keep up and contribute. There were also a ton of uplifting, thrilling stories of geeky triumph and discovery, from women who discovered a love of science, math, tech, gaming or science fiction and found that it changed their lives. It was an eye-opening, intense experience. Since that book came out a decade ago, we’ve seen way more women celebrating their geek identity, and venues for female geeks to come together. There’s an annual event called GeekGirlCon and a ton of other stuff. It’s been so awesome to see that happen.
TBD: In All the Birds in the Sky, Patricia the witch forms a really strong bond with her cat, Berkley. What happens to the cat after she goes off to magic school?
CJA: A ton of people asked me what happened to Berkley, who’s very important in Patricia’s life when she’s in middle school. I learned the hard way that you can’t leave any loose ends where cats are concerned — unless they’re loose ends in a ball of yarn, in which case go ahead. So I wrote a story called “Clover,” which is available at Tor.com, to explain what happened to Berkley later on. This turned out to be one of those things where you start pulling on one thread — to continue the ball of yarn metaphor — and then all sorts of interesting things start coming out. I ended up getting a chance to explore a bit more about the use of magic in my fictional world, and approach it from a very different direction than I did in the book, thanks to a different protagonist. Plus this story absolutely stands on its own — so if someone hasn’t read the book yet, this is a good way to dip into that world.
TBD: We hate to ask you this, but since you do have a column in which you give writing advice, what advice you have for writers?
CJA: The main advice I have for writers is to hang in there and keep writing. And also, to be kind to yourself. A writer — especially a beginning writer — has to keep two contradictory mindsets in order to keep going. You have to believe that you’re a flippin’ genius, your ideas are brilliant, and you’re a fantastic storyteller, or you won’t be able to summon the audacity and stamina to create the big, ambitious stories you want to tell. But you also have to be aware that your writing is going to have huge flaws, it’s easy to screw up, the craft takes a long time to learn (and you really never finish learning it), and when people criticize your work they’re probably on to something. That combination of hubris and humility can be hard to sustain and can easily drive you nuts. So be nice to yourself, and just keep writing even if you think you’re churning out garbage sometimes.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of All the Birds in the Sky. She organizes the Writers With Drinks reading series, and was a founding editor of io9, a site about science fiction, science and futurism. Her fiction has appeared in Tin House, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, ZYZZYVA, Pindeldyboz, Tor.com, Asimov’s Science Fiction, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Lightspeed, and a ton of anthologies. Her story “Six Months, Three Days” won a Hugo Award and her novel Choir Boy won a Lambda Literary Award.