Improbable Interviews: Tricia Sullivan

I have recently edited a new anthology of science fiction and fantasy stories about fantastical flora. The book, Improbable Botany, features authors who between them have won the Arthur C Clarke, British Science Fiction Association, John W. Campbell Memorial, Philip K. Dick, Nebula and Prometheus Awards, and been nominated for many more. The writers are: Cherith Baldry (co-author of the New York Times best-selling Warrior Cats series), Eric Brown (The Kings of Eternity, the Langham and Dupré crime novels, the most recent of which is Murder Take Three), Ken MacLeod (Intrusion, The Corporation Wars), Simon Morden (the Metrozone series, Down Station / The White City), Adam Roberts (The Real-Town Murders, The Thing Itself), James Kennedy (The Order of Odd-Fish), Stephen Palmer (The Factory Girl Trilogy, Memory Seed, Beautiful Intelligence), Justina Robson (The Quantum Gravity series, Natural History, Switch), Tricia Sullivan (Occupy Me, Dreaming in Smoke, Maul), and Lisa Tuttle (The Curious Affair of the Somnambulist and the Psychic Thief, The Mysteries, Windhaven (with George RR Martin)). As part of the project I have interviewed all ten of the contributing authors, not just about Improbable Botany but about their writing in general and much more besides. Below is my interview with Tricia Sullivan, whose latest novel, Occupy Me, is nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke Award. Her novel Dreaming in Smoke won the Clarke Award in 1999. Other works include Maul, Double Vision and lightborn. Improbable Botany is being published by Wayward, a London-based landscape, art and architecture practice, and funded via Kickstarter. The book is illustrated by Jonathan Burton (The Folio Society, Penguin Books, Random House). One of the Kickstarter bonuses is a free e-book which will include all the interviews, though they will also be published individually in various places. The only time they will ever appear all together is in the Kickstarter e-book. The Kickstarter also offers the opportunity to acquire A2-sized art prints of all six of Jonathan Burton’s interior illustrations, as well as his breathtaking cover art. *   Gary Dalkin: Your story for Improbable Botany, ‘Who Lived in a Tree’, offers an unusual perspective on a radically transformed London – it is narrated by a tree. Without giving too much away could you explain something of how the story came together? Tricia Sullivan: I’ve been a tree freak since I was a kid. I just love them, and I spent a lot of childhood time around trees and up in their branches. I considered trees friends, so maybe in some ways the story was a wish fulfillment fantasy. I wrote it in the fall of 2012, and I’d been reading about ideas for the greening of London (plant walls, etc) and also about the ‘internet of plants’ from Stefano Mancuso. I wanted to play with the idea of a symbiosis between humans and plants in which the connective talents of trees could be exploited for mutual benefit, so I took a big stretch with the research and let my imagination go. I think it would be much nicer to inhabit a living London than a stone one. At the same time, I was going through a lot of anxiety about my parents’ ageing. I wrote the first draft while my father was alive and more or less OK, but I was very aware of the increasing frailty of both parents, who lived 3500 miles away and would have nothing to do with the Internet. So it’s a story of the rise of the plants, but also of the decline and death of old creatures and old ways. When I came to revise the draft for submission a few months after my father’s unexpected death, I was struck by how personally prophetic the piece felt. Gary Dalkin: The notion of human-plant symbiosis, and of the ‘internet of plants’ is so intriguing, and such advances are being made bio-engineering, that I wonder if you have any thoughts about why botanical SF remains so comparatively under-explored? It would seem fertile soil for the imaginative writer … Tricia Sullivan: Well, Sheri Tepper did The Family Tree and I think Kameron Hurley has done some SF with plants. And of course, Jeff VanderMeer has done fungi. I’m sure there are others. I suspect the lack is down to commercial viability. A lot of SF nowadays stands on the shoulders of older generations. History provides a cultural shorthand that means  writers don’t have to work too hard conceptually if they don’t want to; they can focus on e.g. their thriller plot, or other aspects of the work that interest them. However, if you break into a whole new region–like plant symbiosis–you’ve got the full weight of socio-scientific speculation to carry all by yourself, in addition to working all the party tricks of commercial writing. Novelists, anyway, have got to have all the storytelling and worldbuilding solid as rock if they want to sell their work, because publishers are extremely risk-averse. So it would be a fantastic challenge to writers to have a go, but not a small one. Gary Dalkin: Any publisher which operated without any consideration of risk would presumably not stay in business long, but to be extremely risk-adverse would seem to be contrary to the very nature of truly imaginative fiction. Have you personally found problems with this conservative (with a small c) tenancy in publishing, and would you say this risk-aversion has been consistent throughout your time as a published novelist, or have things become better or worse? Tricia Sullivan: I’m lucky in that I’ve never had a big problem selling my SF to UK publishers, and I’ve never had a publisher try to tell me what to write in the sense of ‘we want to see space opera’ or something. Every SF book I’ve written, I’ve sold to a major house, no matter how bad the sales figures that came before. The failure of my work to pull in readers is where I suffered for a lot of years, thinking, ‘If only I could write something easier and with broader appeal…’ because I desperately needed the money. But the breadth of appeal of one’s work isn’t something one can control, necessarily. For me that was tough to accept, more so than anything publishers did or didn’t do. The state of the industry is a bewildering topic and publisher risk-aversion is the least of it. I’ve had no choice but to decide to write for love, in the cracks of my life, and forget the money. There is no money, for most of us. Gary Dalkin: Where do you think genre publishing might go now, in a commercial sense, and can traditional publishing survive when readers are rapidly becoming accustomed to 99p, or free, self-published e-books, and even e-books by name authors regularly being sold for next to nothing? Tricia Sullivan: I think anybody who could answer that question would get a pie, and they should certainly tell the rest of us post haste. From the author’s point of view the rise of crowdfunding offers another way to get paid, and many authors are going hybrid (mix of self and trad publishing). Social media opens new avenues. Take Kameron Hurley. She has built by hand the platform she stands on, and that’s above and beyond her skill as a novelist. That’s a lot of work, and not everyone has those extra skills or the sheer determination to keep making noise. I reckon it helps to be extroverted or to be able to fake being extroverted–or, as in Kameron’s case, to be driven by strong emotion. Aliette de Bodard is another luminous newer writer who is beginning to achieve name recognition by sheer hard work: years of writing copious short fiction, blogging, working social media, networking, late nights, no pay, hard hard work–and she, too, is burning with a drive for something larger than herself. Again and again, I’m seeing risk-takey writers bootstrap themselves into their careers. Gary Dalkin: You’ve blogged about being inspired by Michio Kaku’s Physics of the Impossible to let go of your ‘various science fiction induced hang-ups’ about what you ‘could or could not write’. And the result is Occupy Me. There is a sense that real science is outstripping where most SF is prepared to go, and now you are now considering a PhD in physics. If it came to a choice, can you see yourself leaving SF completely behind for a career in physics? And where next for your fiction, given that you wrote ‘Kaku takes the attitude that the impossible is a set of shifting goalposts’? Tricia Sullivan: I love writing, and when it comes to science fiction I am the real deal. At the same time I’ve already flipped a switch in my head that assumes I’m finished insofar as publishing goes. With that acceptance comes a great sense of freedom. My mojo is high. Full-time study plus part-time work plus family plus writing is my reality. If I do a PhD will it make more demands on my energy than that? Probably it will slow my writing down. I’m fairly difficult to stop. Doing science and/or teaching science means playing a part in human progress, no matter how small or devalued a part (and I have no illusions there). I want use my abilities in service to the world in the years that I have here. I’m writing a super girly SFF mystery right now for Gollancz, Sweet Dreams Are Made of This. After that I’ve got a fair chunk of my intergalactic breastfeeding novel on deck. This is the Sea builds on the cosmology I started setting up in Occupy Me and will be therefore completely whacked-out. It’s dirty work but I feel like someone has to push the envelope. I haven’t figured out the mechanics of the science/story interface because I’m dealing with technologies that are really, really different from the ones we have a narrative shorthand for. I try to write from angles that are underexploited, that yield insights you don’t otherwise get. I will go on bewildering people as long as given licence to do so. It’s good for me and them, bit of brisk exercise never killed anyone. * Improbable Botany is a brand-new science fiction anthology about alien plant conquests, fantastical ecosystems, benevolent dictatorships and techno-utopias This is the book plants don’t want you to read… Improbable Botany features newly commissioned short stories by ten multi-award winning science fiction authors: Ken MacLeod, Cherith Baldry, Eric Brown, Simon Morden, Adam Roberts, James Kennedy, Stephen Palmer, Justina Robson, Tricia Sullivan and Lisa Tuttle.