Interview: Nancy Kress

Hi all…

When I reviewed Nancy Kress‘ recent novel Dogs, I was offered a chance to interview her and she was kind enough to respond.

Nancy Kress, photo from her websiteQ: It’s quite obvious that you are a dog lover from the way you handled the dog owners in “Dogs”. And you, like one of your main characters, Tessa, have a toy poodle which figures prominently in your life. Was it difficult to approach the crisis in the book from the perspective of a dog lover as well as someone wanting to take a more hard-nosed avian flu approach?

A: Actually, it was not difficult to kill off all those dogs, no (although you notice that I did not kill off Tessa’s toy poodle). I guess that means I’m either calloused or able to remember that — ahem! — these dogs are imaginary. However, I will say that I was flabbergasted at how much other people minded this idea. Three different publishers — count ’em, three — turned down the book because “the content would offend dog lovers too much.” And my cousin Sue, who has three dogs she loves passionately, won’t read the book at all.

Q: As a follow-up question, how does Cosette (under the pseudonym Minette) feel about being written into a biological threat-themed thriller? Has she accompanied you to Europe while you’re teaching in Leipzig?

A: Cosette, although very smart, is illiterate. I’ve tried to remedy this, but she has simply refused to learn to read (also to roll over and to stop barking frantically at the pug down the street, Sadie). A willful beast. No, she is not in Germany with me. She’s staying with a friend, which she loves to do because he takes her to McDonald’s for a hamburger.

Q: You tend to focus on common themes of biological or genetic engineering in your stories. You also tend to inject characters into situations allowing you to explore a given issue from multiple perspectives. What draws you to those themes in your writing?

A: I have no idea. What makes anyone interested in any particular thing? I could say (and do, often) that biological engineering is the future and we need to come to grips with it, and that’s true. But it’s also true of many other phenomena that don’t have the same grip on my imagination. So why this? I don’t know. It just does.

Q: You’ve explored many different aspects of manipulating mankind through biological and genetic engineering over the years. The common tie in your stories always seems to be the human element. For mankind, where do you think the greatest benefits of this type of science will come from? Changing our own genetic code? Creating sustainable crops to thrive in the harshest of conditions? What about the greatest pitfalls of this type of science?

A: The short-term benefits will indeed be in crop engineering, if we can get past the horrendous political and legal problems (patent issues, trade protectionism, alarmed public ignorance, etc.) Right now scientists are working on genemod crops that can increase yield, reduce blight without pesticides, grow in marginal areas (such as brackish water). For much of the Third World, this could mean the difference between starvation and life.

The long term might or might not include modifying the human genome. Certainly it’s possible — we could do some of that with current technology. But SF is not a predictive literature. It portrays not THE future but many possible futures, positive and negative. So I don’t know what the benefits of germ-line tinkering will be until we get there, nor the actual dangers. Most likely, however, dangers will include unexpected side effects, tragic accidents, and social prejudice.

Q: Even while you’ve continued your career in fiction, you’ve been helping other authors learn their craft by contributing articles to Writer’s Digest and a series of books on various aspects of characters, viewpoint, and plot development. If you could boil down your experience into tips for budding writers, what would be your top three?

A: Boy, you ask a lot! But, okay, the top three:

  1. Write. Do it regularly, not only when you feel “inspired,” and do it on as regular a schedule as you can manage. The unconscious cooperates better that way. Countless writers have noted this: Flannery O’Connor, Norman Mailer, Richard McKenna.
  2. Read. Everything — nonfiction, genre fiction, non-genre fiction, news, magazines, the backs of cereal boxes. You need to stock the mental storehouse.
  3. Don’t get defensive when you are critiqued, rejected, or reviewed. This is hard, but learn to sift through the negative stuff so you can separate stupid comments from ones that will improve your writing. There’s useful stuff among the chaff.

Q: With all your successes, are you more careful with what you publish these days for fear of offending your fans? Or are you still experimenting and exploring writing and stories for the fun of it?

A: I never think about offending my fans. If they’re offended by what I write, then they’re not my fans. I do think about pleasing them, in the sense that I am not writing just for myself, but to tell a story to someone else, the mythical Ideal Reader in my mind. But yes, I write mostly for the joy of writing. It’s too much work, for too little money, to do it for any other reason.

Q: With the Internet in all its forms (blogs, websites, Twitter, wikis, etc.), what role does it play in how you pursue your writing?

A: Not very much (I don’t even know what Twitter and wikis are). I do have a blog, and I enjoy blogging about writing and the teaching of writing. I have a website but am negligent about updating it. Some of my stories have been podcast. I guess for me, paper is still the “real” mode of communication. It’s a generational thing, maybe.

Q: If you were going to tackle the adaptation of one of your works as a television series, mini-series, or movie (on television or on the big screen), which of your works would you attempt and why?

A: STINGER was almost sold as a movie. I think it would work well So would DOGS, because both have a lot of action and externalized conflict. But the work most optioned is BEGGARS IN SPAIN, which baffles me a little. What are you going to film — people not sleeping?

Q: I’m guessing that as prolific a writer as you are, you have precious little time for pleasure reading. However, I’m wondering who some of your favorite authors are currently?

A: Actually, I read all the time. I’m a full-time writer (as my mother points out, “without a real job”), so I can afford this luxury. In mainstream fiction, I like Anita Shreve, Anne Tyler, Phillippa Gregory. I’m rereading all of Somerset Maugham. I read popular science — Matt Ridley is a favorite. In SF, I just finished HUNTER’S RUN (Dozois, Martin, and Abraham) and enjoyed it a lot. I read ASIMOV’S regularly.

Q: Based on your website, I’m guessing you’re already in Europe for your Picador Guest Lectureship. How do you find teaching at the University of Leipzig? It sounds like a fascinating experience to broaden not only the minds of European students, but to broaden your own experience as you live and work in a new place for an extended amount of time.

A: I’m enjoying it a lot — and blogging about it every day. Go to http://nancykress.blogspot.com/

Q: Finally, what’s next on your horizon? I saw that “Steal Across the Sky” will be available in February 2009, and it appears to have a very interesting science fiction twist. Beyond that, are there any new writing books or novels you’re working on?

A: I’m writing a YA fantasy, a thing I thought I’d never do. But this scruffy kid hung around in my mind for several months, insisting, “Write me! Write me!” You really can’t argue with these people.

I would like to thank Nancy Kress for agreeing to the interview and Matt Staggs for arranging it!

–Fitz

p.s. Check out some of Nancy Kress’ great novels and writing books:

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