Kameron Hurley is an author who needs no introduction. If you don’t know her from her groundbreaking Hugo Award winning essay “We Have Always Fought,” then you know her from her unapologetically outspoken The Geek Feminist Revolution (which does include “We Have Always Fought”). Those of us who have been following her career for quite some time remember the avant-garde bugpunk of the God’s War Trilogy, her daring and fearless Worldbreaker Saga, and we are in awe of the challenging power that lies with her most recent novel The Stars Are Legion.
Kameron Hurley’s short fiction and essays have appeared in Uncanny, Lightspeed, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, EscapePod, Strange Horizons, Tor.com, Popular Science, and multiple anthologies, and she is a two-time Hugo Award winner, and has also won the Locus, the Kitchies award, and the Sydney J. Bounds award. You can get an insider’s view of her newest work through her Patreon page, and learn more about her on her website kameronhurley.com, or by following her on twitter where she is @KameronHurley.
Every so often, you come across an author who is the embodiment of that famous Hemingway quote “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Kameron Hurley may not use a typewriter, but when you read her work you know you are reading her vulnerabilities, her strengths, her fears, her dreams, and everything she is willing to bleed for. If you have never read her fiction and nonfiction articles, I’ll warn you now, the sheer density of passion will blow you away. Not passion in the romantic sense, but raw passion in the “this is what I stand for, go ahead and try to take this away from me” sense. Her writing has weight, and you need to go into her work aware that you will carry this weight the whole time, and come through the experience all the stronger.
Storytellers like Hurley do not talk or write about comfort, they do not write about how easy and wonderful life is. They write about sharp edges, the uneasiness and discomfort of everyday life, and that life is not fair. What shapes do we force ourselves into, so that other people are comfortable around us? That question tastes a little like the idea of tolerance. Taken by itself, tolerance simply means to tolerate something—such as pain. You’ll tolerate pain, but you don’t enjoy it, or look forward to it. Do you want society to tolerate you, or to accept you? In “Tumbledown,” society tolerates Sarnai, but it isn’t sure how to accept her. She cannot be herself, she cannot do the things she is comfortable doing, because it would be awkward for the people around her. So she straps her paralyzed legs into easily recognizable braces, as a visual signal to the masses of what has happened to her body. She trades her own comfort for the comfort of strangers.
Tightly written, “Tumbledown” whizzes by so quickly your hindbrain is caught up in the action before you even realize what this struggling colony is experiencing on a large scale and what Sarnai experiences on a daily basis. Inspired partly by the time she spent in Alaska, “Tumbledown” is about how society treats the disabled, what some people will do to save the lives of others, children paying the price for their parents’ hubris, and having the iron will that allows you to stand tall and tell your fears to fuck off and die.
Sarnai faces one struggle after another, and her response to each one is “fight me,” and we witness first hand her literal life or death fight with the bear. Every time I read this scene, I think of Jacob wrestling with the angel. My preferred interpretation of those Old Testament verses is that Jacob did not wrestle with an angel or with God. He wrestled with himself. Faced with his true nature—with his entire nature that included the good parts of himself and the bad parts, he could either accept himself for who he was, or he could continue lying to himself. Sarnai can accept herself for who she is—a paraplegic with a will of titanium, or she can imitate the strangers who tolerate her and look at her with pity. It’s funny, and sad, that people’s tolerance (but not quite acceptance) of Sarnia blinds them to her true strengths. Sarnia sees this, but it doesn’t stop her from doing what needs to be done.
APEX MAGAZINE: A deadly planet covered in ice and mercury, colonists who may never see the fruits of their labors, plagues, and crop failure. The planet Narantu sounds like a horrible place. What inspired this story and your decision to place the action in such a desolate, dangerous place?
KAMERON HURLEY: I lived in Fairbanks, Alaska for a couple of years, and it was one of the best times in my life. Knowing you could freeze to death in the winter is harsh, but it also brings life into sharper focus. You appreciate it more. And summers! Summers in Alaska are amazing, in large part because the winters are so awful. I had initially wanted this to be an environment full of frozen methane for the added “boom” element, but it turns out the freezing point for methane was just too low to make a lot of the action possible. We all love to see stories about human beings overcoming amazing things, and I enjoy writing harsh northern landscapes.
AM: Sarnai is such an incredible character! I like how right up front you tell us about her disability, how she has shaped her private life around her physical needs and wants, and that she wears her leg braces not because she needs them, but to make other people feel more comfortable around her. What’s terrible is that people see the braces, they don’t see Sarnai. In a way, getting away from the colony and being isolated helps her become comfortable in who she is, not who other people think or want her to be. How did you develop Sarnai, and how did her character change as you drafted and honed the story?
KH: I have a chronic illness, and there are issues related to that and how to get along in a world built for other people, that I find very interesting to explore in fiction. That said, writing stories about my own illness feel … navel gazy. It’s too close to home. Instead, I use those feelings as a jumping off point for creating characters who struggle in a very similar way, but for different reasons.
I am also very interested in combating this myth we have in “survival of the fittest.” Many chronic conditions we have today actually helped our species survive. Sickle cell anemia is the one most people are familiar with, but there are many more. Diabetes—pumping more sugar into the blood—made it harder for people to freeze to death. It’s theorized that those with hemochromotosis—which means they don’t process iron and basically die of too much iron in the blood—made it easier for them to survive the bubonic plague, which had trouble infecting those with higher levels of iron.
I wanted to write a story with a paraplegic heroine, and I wanted her condition to be caused by something from the environment. I spent a lot of time reading up on the experiences of paraplegics and watching hours and hours of first-person accounts and videos. Much of the experience of being differently abled in a society where you make people uncomfortable not only comes from my own experience (people freak out when I take out syringes at the lunch table) but also, of course, through listening to the experiences of others, many who get around in the world the way Sarnai does.
AM: Let’s talk about the scenes with the bear. No one wakes up in the morning and smiles while saying “I’m gonna fight a bear today! This is gonna be fun!” (Ok, some people might, but I don’t, and I don’t think Sarnai does either). But Sarnai has to face the bear. Like the bleak hopelessness of her trek, the bear can easily kill her without a second thought. Yes, she is in a physical fight, but she is also fighting her own despair and hopelessness. While you were writing this story, you could have had Sarnai face a variety of challenges (and the bear is actually the least of her problems!), so why the bear?
KH: There’s a great story from a woman who lived in Alaska up in a remote research station. She went out to the river one day during the winter and got mauled by a bear. It gnawed her up, slashed her scalp, and she had to drag herself back to her station and sew herself up and give herself antibiotics. The weather was bad enough that nobody was going to fly up there and save her. She had to do it herself. I loved that story, because it was just so bad-ass. Some of us are capable of incredible things.
I also very much liked this idea of the bear as, of course, a symbol of what Sarnai was fighting against: the expectations and limitations put on her by others, her own fears and concerns, and even the bear as the world itself, this great deadly thing that they were all trying to tame and overcome in order to survive. It worked on so many levels, for me.
AM: There are some fantastic creatures in “Tumbledown,” the sled dogs that aren’t quite dogs, the bear that has a beak and feathers. Among other themes, your novel The Stars are Legion deals with how humans will have to change and evolve to survive in space, and part of your research for that novel was extensive study of biology and symbiotic and parasitic relationships. There is mention in “Tumbledown” of the dog-like creatures of Narantu that have huge, fox-like ears, feathers, and forked tongues. These animals evolved this way because their environment demanded it if the species was to survive. As humanity designs livable habitats in our local neighborhood of the Moon, Mars, and elsewhere in the solar system, what permanent biological changes do you think the people living in those new locations might experience as the generations go by?
KH: It will really depend on the environments we choose. More and more I see us being tailored specifically for the planets that we will colonize, instead of just relying on terraforming the planet to fit us. This mix of terraforming and genetic fiddling is what’s most likely going to make it possible to spread among the stars. Genetically, we are just way too tied to Earth to make space-faring workable without directly manipulating our DNA. There are many moral, ethical, and biological concerns with doing that. I mean, human beings don’t even agree on how to govern themselves, but here we are, messing with human brains and bodies that we barely understand! But if we want to carry on elsewhere, we are going to need to get much better at genetic manipulation.
And, as noted earlier—we are also going to have to allow for what may look like “mistakes” in our code if we want to survive. I have a whole host of stuff “wrong” with me that, if taken out of my genetic code, would have meant the death of my ancestors. And if something were to happen to my descendants, say, like civilization implodes and we experience a nuclear winter … a lot of those things either won’t matter or could be beneficial, even. We just don’t know what’s going to turn out beneficial to our survival, in the long run.
AM: I’ve always been very impressed by how you relentlessly market your own work. When Mirror Empire came out, I think you went 30 or 40 days in a row having a guest post, book review, or interview posted somewhere online, not to mention the accompanying quantity of tweets and retweets. The Geek Feminist Revolution flew off bookstore shelves and ignited another massive round of guest posts and interviews. Your space opera The Stars are Legion prompted yet again, an internet flurry of book promotion. I’ve organized small scale blog tours, and even the small ones can be brutal on the author. Fifty or more interview questions to reply to, who knows how many 2,500 word guest posts and articles to write, it is exhausting for an author who is probably also looking publishing deadlines in the eye. Kameron, you are a book promotion machine!! Where do you get the energy, and do you psychologically prep yourself for these promo tours?
KH: My energy basically comes from a “do or die” mentality when it comes to my writing. Blog tours like those don’t directly result in massive sales; they are purely done to help with awareness. Your hope is that you get the book onto the radar of a mover/shaker and they read it and like it. I know from creating marketing campaigns at my day job that when you’re releasing a widget you want to do all your hardest work there up front, during those first few weeks. After that, though, you can step off the gas because it has either worked or it hasn’t and you have to move on and you know, go write some other stuff. My most successful campaigns as far as blog tours go were the ones where I had help from an in-house or contracted PR firm that my publisher hired. Us working in tandem was great, because they could open doors at publications for content that I couldn’t, and I could write things quickly and (mostly) on time.
The way I get through this is to just remind myself that it’s for a finite amount of time. During this set period, my life is just book promotion and guest posts. Then it’s over. This is also one reason why I’m not all that keen on publishing more than a book a year, even if I write more than a book a year. Two promotion flurries a year is just too much.
AM: You write standalone novels, series, novellas, short stories, and nonfiction essays, so I imagine you have a stack of active projects going all at once. How do you keep it all straight? And when you get an idea for a story, or a character, or a something, how do you know if it should be a short story, a novel, or a series of novels? When tackling a huge project like your Worldbreaker Saga, what was your writing process like?
KH: Honestly, every project is different. I have been working hard to outline my stories and novels more rigorously so I can write more quickly. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn’t. It often takes me a year or more to get the first half of a book done, but then the last half or last third comes in a week or six weeks or so, because I’ve built up the momentum, I’ve created the world, and I know where the story is going. The best advice I ever got was from a fellow marketing creative, who said that when she felt overwhelmed, she simply made a list of everything she had to do and then started with the thing at the top of the list. This sounds simplistic, but there is something about setting down in writing everything you have to do that turns these nebulous fearful things into concrete obstacles and discreet tasks that can be overcome.
As for ideas, I generally start with a couple of ideas for a short story and if I feel it’s a world that could support a novel, I simply keep adding ideas to it. If I’m looking for a short story, I take stuff away. The more short fiction I’ve written, the more experience I’ve gotten in figuring out if an idea is large enough or interesting enough to add stuff to make into a novel or not. My short story “The Light Brigade” has such a compelling voice and so much interesting world building and so many different emotional touchpoints that it totally made sense to turn it into a novel, which will be a military SF standalone for Saga Press.
AM: I’ve enjoyed your comments and blog posts about how failure can be a necessary part of the creative process. Failure is actually a terrible word for a story, idea, or project that doesn’t work out, we need a better word. For our readers who aren’t familiar with the joys of failing in creative pursuits, can you give us the quick rundown on why failing can actually be a good thing?
KH: This idea of failure as a good thing actually came to me from the marketing and advertising world. In my day job business, the process of creating a compelling campaign that resonates with an audience is really difficult. I enjoy writing marketing emails because you can test every aspect of the send–low open rate means fix the subject line; low click thru rate means fix the call to action; low conversation rate at registration page means fix the reg page. But in order to get to the best-performing email, then, you have to test multiple versions of subject lines, calls to action, reg pages. Testing, by its very nature, requires failure. It’s like running a bunch of scientific experiments. None of them are failures if you learn something from them. That’s what experimenting is meant to do: figure out what it isn’t so you can determine what it is.
These are all creative projects that adhere to the creative process, just like fiction. If your first novel doesn’t work, it’s useful to spend time figuring out why so you can do better the next time. The truth is that most people who hear about as some magical “overnight success” spent years grinding away in obscurity, failing all over the place. The Hunger Games was the fourth book Suzanne Collins wrote. Robin Hobb had written an entire other series under her real name before the Assassin books hit. None of that time beforehand was “wasted.” Those other books are not only worthwhile in themselves, but also worthwhile in that they gave these authors the chance to hone their craft and work toward their breakout books.
AM: You’re very active through Patreon, delivering short fiction to your fans and providing behind the scenes looks into your writing. What can you tell us about your experience with Patreon? Is it something you’d recommend to other authors?
KH: It’s a very good place to experiment! I love that I can go straight to fans and get the support I need to try out new ideas and new worlds. I do often recommend Patreon to creators, but right now it’s probably better for creators who already have a following. If you are trying to start a following on Patreon itself, that’s much more difficult. Discoverability is still difficult on that platform. That said, I would often hear from fans who’d bought the eBook, paperback, and hardcover of my book, plus the audiobook, plus copies for their friends, and they were like, “I still want to help! What else can I do?” And Patreon is a really great way to channel that enthusiasm. Many fans really do want to support creators so they can do more work. I’ve produced far more in the last couple of years than I ever did before.