Interview: Elizabeth Hand

Elizabeth Hand will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey workshop. As a writer and critic, she is the author of eight novels, including Generation Loss (2007), winner of the inaugural Shirley Jackson Award for best work of psychological suspense, and three story collections. Her fiction has received three world Fantasy Awards, two Nebulas, two International Horror Guild Awards, as well as the James M. Tiptree Jr. and Mythopoeic Society Awards, and in 2001 she was a recipient of an Individual Artist’s Fellowship in Literature from the Maine Arts Commission/NEA. Since 1988, she has been a regular contributor to the Washington Post Book World, and her reviews and essays have appeared in a number of other publications, including Salon, DownEast Magazine, Fantasy & Science Fiction (where she is a columnist) and the Village Voice Literary Supplement.

Illyria, her World Fantasy Award-winning novella, will be published in 2010 by Viking. Wonderwall, a YA novel about poet Arthur Rimbaud, will be published by Viking in 2011; Available Dark, a sequel to Generation Loss, will also appear in 2011, from St. Martin’s Press.

Glimmering, her prescient 1997 novel about a perfect storm of global climate change, terrorism, and environmental collapse, will be reprinted by Underland Press later this year. She has also written numerous novelizations and a popular series of Star Wars juveniles.

She has two teenage children, Callie and Tristan, and lives on the coast of Maine with her partner, UK critic John Clute.

Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?

Well, I’d written since I was very young, and wanted to be a writer for almost as long as I can remember. So from that perspective it took me about twenty-five years. I was in my late twenties when I was finally published, in Twilight Zone Magazine, and I definitely felt like a late bloomer–my role models were prodigies like Truman Capote, who never received a rejection slip and sold his first story to the New Yorker at nineteen, and Noel Coward, whose first play was produced in London when he was about the same age (I went to university to study playwriting, the road not taken). So I had all kinds of remnants of novels and stories and plays, unpublishable juvenilia, though I did write four one-act plays for young people that were produced by a small theater troupe in New York state when I was a teenager.

But I didn’t really seriously set about trying to write a short story till I was in my twenties, and then I spent years on it. I was fortunate to have a boyfriend who was a very good editor, who helped me a great deal. I collected a lot of rejection slips for that one story–I guess I thought you had to sell one story before starting another.

And I was doing everything wrong–I really had no clue as to how to write. I thought it was all intuitive, and that the story would just present itself and I’d follow its lead. And that finally did begin to happen with short fiction–I’d see the entire arc of a story, and write until I had it down on paper.

Why do you think your work began to sell?

It almost didn’t sell. My first published story was actually rejected by the same magazine that ended up publishing it, when my friend Paul Witcover presented it to the editor a second time, claiming to have found it in the slush pile. So part of it was just a lucky fluke.

As far as actual craft goes, I think I just finally caught on, as in that famous saying, “Success is just hanging around until you catch on.” I didn’t give up, though I never got any encouragement from editors. I received one handwritten rejection letter from the editor at Cavalier, a men’s magazine, who said he liked my story very much but was interested in more sex-oriented material. That was it as far as editorial feedback went.

I started out wanting to write supernatural fiction, what we now call dark fantasy. I felt like it was a good match for my talents–I was terrible at plot, and my strengths were atmospheric and to a lesser extent stylistic, which can be good for writing spooky stories. I over-wrote then, which a lot of people liked, but over the years I’ve tried to wean myself from the purple prose, or at least deploy it more mindfully. I did have a good eye and ear for character, one of the few things I was able to grasp in playwriting and carry into fiction.

How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?

I write very slowly, a combination of lifestyle (I have two kids, now both pretty much launched to college) and a type-A personality. I want everything to be perfect–I spent a lot of time on that purple prose! I have a friend who’s a plumber, and his boss used to tear his hair out at how slowly he worked. He’d say he’s down there in the basement polishing the pipes! I spend a lot of time, maybe too much, doing the literary equivalent, making sure everything works on a sentence-by-sentence level. I’m not so good at the big picture, plot.

I spend a huge amount of time revising–I do it constantly. Because I’m not good at plot, when I’m working on a novel I tend to go back and fix things as I figure them out. And I’m hyper-conscience of wanting to avoid all the problems I come across in other people’s books as a reviewer. That’s probably the downside of doing so much reviewing over the last twenty-three years. I believe that everything in a novel or story’s action should derive from character–everything should be a result of choices your characters make. So I also spend a lot of mental time creating my cast, and sometimes I have to re-cast a certain role, because my original conception of someone isn’t right. I suspect I spend more time revising than writing.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

Plot. As I said, I’m not good at seeing the big picture in novels. It’s a problem that’s dogged me throughout my career. I try to manage my tendency to over-write, and I think I do a better job at that now. I always want to try something new in my fiction, which can be a liability in marketing terms. I’ve done horror, dark fantasy, science fiction, mimetic fiction, historical fiction, suspense, kids’ books, a YA novel, but there’s a learning curve with each of those, and so I’ve had to start from Go to figure out how to write according to a particular set of reader expectations. It’s kind of risky, but I guess I like that–I’m extremely risk-averse in every other part of my life, so this is where I like to push myself.

Your young adult novel Wonderwall will be published next year. What was the process like writing for a younger audience? What kind of themes did you choose to explore?

A lot of my books feature younger protagonists, so in that sense I had a fair grasp of YA characters. My novel Illyria was written and originally published as an adult novel, but will be released in May (by Viking) as a YA title. My learning curve with Wonderwall came mostly from getting the voice right–initially it was far too young. Fortunately I have a great editor in Sharyn November, and she helped me immensely. As for themes, I dealt with the same things I do in my adult fiction, the risks and rewards of being an artist. The artist’s journey, to crib from Joseph Campbell.

In addition to your works of fiction, you are also a frequent contributor to several nonfiction publications. How do you divide your time between your fiction and reviews and essays? How has nonfiction writing helped you with your fiction writing?

I’ve been reviewing pretty much nonstop since 1987. I read review books at night and on weekends, taking copious notes, then usually take a day to write the review. Essays take longer. As I said above, reviewing makes me hypercritical of my own work, though it doesn’t necessarily keep me from screwing up.

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

To read constantly. I’m often taken aback by how little would-be writers actually read. We live in a post-literate world, so I guess it’s not that surprising, but still. With all due respect to Jeanne and other writing instructors, you’ll learn as much by reading critically and widely as you’ll learn in a classroom. The biggest challenge to an emerging writer is finding your own voice, and one of the ways you do that is by measuring it against those of established writers, and trying to do something different.

What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?

I’m finishing a follow-on to Generation Loss called Available Dark. After that, I’m not sure what I’ll do next. Probably write some short fiction, which I love but don’t have the time for when I’m working on a novel. I have a few ideas for novels, so I’ll just let the dust settle and see which one looks the most promising.

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