I have been obsessed with Mary Robinette Kowal ever since I read Ghost Talkers (you can read my review here). I was blown away by the originality within a historical fantasy setting. Her characters grabbed hold of me immediately and would not let go.
When I saw Mary was publishing a new science fiction duology, I jumped at the chance to talk to her. The Calculating Stars, the first of the Lady Astronaut titles, is out now. The Fated Sky will be released on August 21st.
Much of your work involves alternate histories, putting women at the forefront. How do you pick a historical period to tackle and how much is complete invention as opposed to highlighting women’s involvement in our histories that are otherwise sidelined?
Generally speaking, I pick my eras because something I’ve read has piqued my curiosity. Sometimes that’s because it is already women-centred and other times because I’m sure that women were there and then left out. A story idea will noodle around in the back of my head and then I dive deeper.
In every case, I’m highlighting women who were really there. In fact, on one project, I went looking for a job that a woman couldn’t have so that I could have the First woman to [x] in 1907. I had to abandon that as a core concept because I couldn’t come up with anything. You know when the first Black woman lawyer was in the US? Charlotte E. Ray in 1872. Mary Anning, born in 1799 is the first professional fossilist. There are a ton of documented women blacksmiths in the 18th century. Granted, many of these women were exceptions, but there are also great swaths of women who are regularly left out of history.
My basic assumption when I start writing is that the women were there and left out of the histories. So I go looking for them.
What is it about fantastical alternate histories that you love so much? Why do you like to incorporate the fantastical into history?
For me, fantasy offers an opportunity to take the real world and tip it to the side so that people can look at the interconnecting tissue. Historical work allows writers to talk about contemporary issues – because none of these problems actually goes away – without making the reader feel threatened. What tends to happen with both is that the reader will draw the parallels between the fiction and the real world on their own. That’s more powerful than any essay that I could write. For instance… in the Glamourist Histories, glamour is a woman’s art. But the top professionals in the field are men. That’s exactly the way it is today with fashion and cooking. Both are “women’s work” but when you look at the top designers or chefs, they are all men.
Also, I like the clothes.
You are about to publish your first science fiction novel. Have you encountered any unexpected difficulties in moving from fantasy to science fiction? What made you decide to switch things up?
Honestly, no unexpected difficulties. I write science-fiction in short form all the time and you handle science the same way you handle a magic system. The difference is that with science, I can look up the answer. With magic, I have to think it through. Conversely, if I get the science wrong… it’s wrong. No one can tell me that I’m wrong about my magic system.
As for why I decided to switch things up… I write all over the map in short form. Before I wrote Shades of Milk and Honey, I wrote an SF murder-mystery novel. I switched things up because there was a story I wanted to tell. It happened to be SF.
What are the most exciting trends in the representation of women in genre fiction you’ve seen in recent years? What negative tropes do you wish would be dropped for good?
This shouldn’t be a hard thing but… novels that pass the Bechdel–Wallace test. Novels that are written by women, for women. And novels that don’t have a romantic sub-plot. Mind you, I love me a good romance novel but I do want stories that allow women to be friends with a guy without wanting to get into his pants. We’re not solely defined around the axis of having sex.
I can really do without the trope of a woman who cheerfully accepts a stalker as her One True Love.
You have both The Calculated Stars and The Fated Sky coming out this year. Why should we be excited to read them?
Why should you be excited to read them? Space! Women-centred, Apollo-era space! And a happily committed married couple! Doing science! Together! Also, space! Maybe I should use fewer exclamation points…
Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of The Glamourist Histories series, Ghost Talkers, and the forthcoming Lady Astronaut duology. She’s a member of the award-winning podcast Writing Excuses and has received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer, three Hugo awards, the RT Reviews award for Best Fantasy Novel. Her stories appear in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld, and several Year’s Best anthologies. Mary, a professional puppeteer, also performs as a voice actor (SAG/AFTRA), recording fiction for authors including Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow, and John Scalzi. She lives in Chicago with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Visit maryrobinettekowal.com
Buy The Calculating Stars now.