Seanan mcguire – “I tend to develop the rules organically and write them down as I go, then make sure I don’t contradict myself. I do want to stress that this is how things work for me. That doesn’t mean it’s how things will work for you. Everyone is different, and that’s the way things are supposed to be. So please don’t take my process as a commandment.”
Seanan McGuire, an author of multiple Hugo, Nebula, and Locus award-winning books, was kind enough to interview with me, where we discuss her past, writing, and her different series.
Could you tell me about your beginnings as a stand-up comedian and an animal rescuer? You had mentioned that stand-up comedy and writing are things where you are constantly throwing yourself into ridiculous situations? What kind of effect did comedy have on your creative pursuits, obviously writing, but writing music and cartooning as well.
I think that everything you do will influence who you grow up to be–or don’t grow up to be, as the case may be. So stand-up and animal rescue both taught me that it’s better to risk looking ridiculous in the moment, if it means you get the laugh, or the lizard…or, in my current life, the story. The only real downside of having started where I did is that I’ve had to stop telling stories about animal rescue and rehab, because anyone who hasn’t worked with animals would then promptly call me a liar. Animals don’t know when they’re being ridiculous. They’re just animals. And you can’t always get photographic proof. The phrase “pics or it didn’t happen” makes me grind my teeth, so my dentist says stop.
I love that on your website you said, “She […] can be amused for hours by almost anything. “Almost anything” includes swamps, long walks, long walks in swamps, things that live in swamps, horror movies, strange noises, musical theater, reality TV, comic books, finding pennies on the street, and venomous reptiles” If you got more hours in the day, what are some other “almost anythings” you would like to be amused by and learn more about?
I’d like to be amused by more of my local area–I’m charting it a little bit at a time, with long walks through swamps and forests, but I have to write, and that means I can’t constantly be out there in the wilds. I’d like to learn how to bake really fancy cakes, and I’d like to run more D&D, not just play it and strain my local network of DMs, and I want to see the parts of the world I haven’t seen yet, of which there are quite a few.
You have emphasized the importance you place on having clearly defined rules for your worlds. When creating a new story, horror, fantasy, urban fantasy, or other, do you list out for yourself the rules of how the magic or science fiction works in that world and go from there? Or do the rules develop organically.
I tend to develop the rules organically and write them down as I go, then make sure I don’t contradict myself. I do want to stress that this is how things work for me. That doesn’t mean it’s how things will work for you. Everyone is different, and that’s the way things are supposed to be. So please don’t take my process as a commandment.
In your Fifty Rules for Writing, you talked a bit about how writers ought to talk about writing as much or as little as they need to. You suggested to “find tolerant friends,” and have said, “If I tried to work everything out in the privacy of my own head, I would explode, and nothing would ever get done. You may be on the opposite side of the spectrum. There is no wrong answer.” Do you think that due to the pandemic, authors are utilizing social media to get more of their ideas out and communicate with other writers more so than before?
Not really, because the fear that someone will steal their ideas, or that they won’t be able to accurately articulate something, or that their idea will turn out to be inherently problematic in some way–I once had an editor propose a Mira Grant book to me that was built on an inherently racist premise, who hadn’t realized that the premise was racist until I echoed it back at him very carefully (and no, the editor was not white). So there’s still an aspect of caution when it comes to talking things through with people we don’t know well. I think a lot of writers have taken to Zoom and Dischord for necessary talk-through spaces.
I read an article where you talked about the research you did for your Paristitology series where your study of tapeworms was – incredibly – empirical. It is a fantastic story! Could you talk a little about what you learned from Timmy the Tapeworm and how it (he?) impacted the Parstitology series? Have you gone to similarly extreme lengths in your research for other books?
Timmy was technically neither male nor female, being a tapeworm, but I use male pronouns for him, because it seemed to fit, and Timmy didn’t care. Feeling like I really understood what it was like to share my body willingly with something non-human made the trilogy easier to write, and a lot more fun, if only for the horrified expressions. Sadly, most of my books haven’t leant themselves easily to that level of hands-on research. I’ve been vaccinated against unusual diseases, visited medical facilities, and gone to university for a folklore degree as part of book research, but that’s about it.
Your novel Feed is a zombie medical thriller whose premise was that a zombie plague breaks out, and accurate information was disseminated, not from news agencies, but from micro-bloggers. Do you see a shift in the publishing world now, ten years after publishing relying on microblogging more to get the word out for books?
I mean, yes? Because micro-blogging wasn’t really a thing yet when I wrote those books, and so they couldn’t be using those channels. Now, if you don’t have at least a little micro-blogging in your channel of distribution, people won’t notice your book exists. There are a lot more platforms involved in successful book promotion than there used to be.
When I first read the Newsflesh series, one of the things that I appreciated was the realism. Often when you read a zombie novel, the zombies are just there for the sake of being zombies; the dead get up and walk because that’s what zombies do. It makes no sense from a biological standpoint. Instead, you created a plausible backstory of two viruses coming together and making a virus baby named Kellis-Amberlee. Do you think that adding that element of realism changed the universal zombie mythos?
Not really, because there hasn’t been a movie yet, and without a movie, we don’t get the penetration we need to be fully assimilated into the gestalt. I hope there will be a movie someday, but if there’s not, I needed that realism to accept that the world I’d created could actually function, and without that functionality, I couldn’t spend four books and multiple short pieces there. I needed the virus to make sense in order to accept my own zombies, if that makes sense outside my head?
Ten years after Feed was released, the world is now struggling through a plague. Some of the plot details that you wrote into the world-building in the Newsflesh series included things like blood tests to enter buildings, a change in architecture to be more defensive, and the importance of being very aware of your virus load at all times. How did you come to those remarkably prescient details?
I talked to a lot of the people currently involved in trying to manage this pandemic; I did the reading and I did the research, and I am very, very good at putting pieces together. It’s sort of like being a television medium. Can they talk to the dead? Probably not. Can they put together all the clues they get about someone’s life and find a shape that fits in the holes? Yes, absolutely. So I just found the holes and made something that fit into them. None of what’s happening right now is a surprise. The doctors told us it was coming.
October has developed quite a bit throughout the series. When you started writing October, did you have a plan for her character arc?
Historically, myths, tales, and folklore weren’t the warm, happy fluffballs that Disney would make them out to be. One of the best aspects of the Wayward Children and October Daye is its more classical balance of dark and light. Characters can be beautiful but also terrifying in that beauty. Have you ever gotten backlash for the stories being too dark?
I’ve gotten people saying that Toby’s troubled relationship with her mother and her own daughter is unrealistic, and that she has no reason to be depressed at the start of the story. As a person who grapples with depression and has a very complicated, strained relationship with my own mother, I found those comments troubling, because for me, those are the most realistic aspects of the story. They’re not always fun, but they’re always true.
Across the Grass Green Fields, your newest Wayward Children story features a child named Regan who finds a door to the Hooflands, a land of centaurs and unicorns. How did you decide on the Hooflands as the newest realm for a child to visit?
That’s where Regan went, and so that’s the world I wrote. Regan is something of a gift to a friend of mine who complained, as people sometimes do, that they never got to see themself in story. (Regan is she/her, my friend is they/them.) And since that friend is a friend from the My Little Pony community, it was time for the Hooflands.
The Wayward Children series is written as books that can be read as standalone novels or read as a series. For someone new to The Wayward Children, would you recommend that they start with book one? Or could they jump right into Across the Grass Green Fields?
I will never recommend reading anything but in order, and the books are not actually written as stand-alones, ever. Some of them require more or less background, but all are informed by what comes either before or after. I don’t know why people keep saying the series contains stand-alone installments. It’s a series.
Regan was a joy to read as she developed as a character. Without going into spoiler territory, is there anything you’d like to say about her emotional arc throughout the story?
She needs to figure out who she is, learn to like that person, and come to accept that liking who she is isn’t wrong. Writing that took a delicate hand, and it was very important to me.
As long as we’re having fun with unicorns and magic horse worlds: who is your favorite My Litte Pony? I am also a huge My Little Pony fan.
My all-time favorite is Little Flitter, a Summerwing Pony from year six of Generation One. She was the original October Daye in my bedroom Pony games.
This interview was originally published in Grimdark Magazine Issue #25.