Interview: Delia Sherman
Author and editor Delia Sherman returns to Odyssey, in tandem with author and editor Ellen Kushner, to deliver a guest lecture at the 2014 summer Writing Workshop. Delia writes short stories and novels for adults and young readers. Several of her short stories have been nominated for the Nebula and World Fantasy Awards, and her most recent YA novel, The Freedom Maze (2011), received the Andre Norton Award, the Mythopoeic Award, and the Prometheus Award. A collection of her short stories is coming out in 2014 from Small Beer Press. Delia has been a judge for the World Fantasy Award, the Crawford Award for Best First Fantasy Novel, and has served on the Motherboard of the James Tiptree Jr. Award. She is a founding member of the Interstitial Arts Foundation.
As an editor of books and anthologies, Delia’s continuing quest is to get more of the kind of fantasy she likes out to readers. She has been a contributing editor for Tor Books and has co-edited several anthologies, including Interfictions Online, for which she is Executive Editor, working with Christopher Barzak, Meghan McCarron, and Sofia Samatar. Delia has taught many writing workshops, including Clarion, the Hollins University Program in Children’s Literature, and six previous Odysseys. She has also worked in a book store. She can write almost anywhere, but prefers cafés and comfy sofas near a source of tea. She lives in New York City with Ellen Kushner and many fine books, most of which at least one of them has read. Besides writing and reading other people’s manuscripts, favorite occupations are travel, knitting, cooking, and having fun adventures, as long as they don’t involve dragons of any kind.
As a guest lecturer at next 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?
Keep writing. Even if you’re only managing 100 words a day, even if your idea doesn’t seem to be as brilliant as you thought it was when you had it, even if your sentences read like they’ve been typed by a drunken chimpanzee, even if your characters refuse to do anything, even if nobody understands what you’re trying to do, keep writing. There will be days—even weeks and months—when you and your WIP [work-in-progress] aren’t on the same page. There will be days of existential despair. You’ll get through them (we all do, sooner or later). But not if you stop writing.
What’s the biggest struggle you face in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?
Uninterrupted writing time. There’s always something to lure me away from my WIP—business, students, laundry, friends. The Evil Internet. Depending on what’s going on in my life, I cope with it better some times than others. What works best, though (when I can manage it) is to have a Sacred Writing Time, when I go to my beloved cafe (without my computer, because I draft and edit old-school—i.e., longhand), order a chai latte, and write for at least 3 hours—more if I’m under deadline. Or on a roll. The two salient points here, I think, are no internet and a minimum time.
Write what you love. The stories I’ve immediately fallen for as an editor were the stories of their writers’ hearts. I feel as if I could tell when someone was tailoring something to my perceived tastes, and that’s never a good thing. Write what you love, and figure out the market for it afterwards. I have also learned not to take it personally if an editor bounces a story because it’s just not right for them. It could be that it doesn’t fit with the rest of the stories in their anthology, or they have an overstock of selkie with daddy issues, or stories based on ballads just give them hives.
As an editor, what are the most common problems in the manuscript submissions you receive?
Mostly, I’ve done solicited anthologies, so I haven’t had to read a lot of slush. What can put me off is manuscripts that have obviously been run through a spell check without the writer reading it over afterwards to find out whether their misspelling of “there” has been turned, somehow into “they’re” or “their.” A couple of typos in a manuscrpt are not a hanging crime, but too many looks like you don’t care. In which case, why should I? Of course, if the story is transcendent, it doesn’t finally matter, but why take the risk?
You and Ellen Kushner both have written some really memorable and distinctive characters. How do you start thinking about characters, and what elements of characters help you to bring them to life?
If I answer this at the length it deserves, there will be nothing left for the lecture. So I’ll just say that I try to know more about the character than what appears on the page, and that the facts of a character’s life are no more important to me than whether s/he likes music, what colors s/he prefers, what s/he likes to eat for breakfast, whether s/he finds it difficult or easy to make what kind of decision, or how s/he feels about animals. There’s this game we like to play that helps with this process—we’ll teach it to you. You’ll enjoy it. Really.
Can you describe your process when you collaborate with Ellen on a writing project? What is your favorite joint project?
Well, we’ve only done three—a short story, a novella, and a novel. For each of them, one of us was responsible for one character or set of characters. In The Fall of the Kings (which is my favorite), Ellen took the lead (and wrote the first draft) of all the Theron and Campion family and society plot, while I was in charge of Basil St. Cloud and the University plot. We discussed everything before writing, traded pages and files, overwrote each other’s scenes and dialogue, and generally mixed up the original material so thoroughly that we can no longer remember, all these years later, who was responsible for any given sentence. Although I take total credit for “Seven seditious swordsmen sailed in exile to Sardinapolis.”
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects? Will you collaborate again soon?
I’m in the middle of more projects than I can comfortably cope with. I’m just finishing the last draft (I hope) of a new story to anchor my first collection of short stories from Small Beer Press. The story is called “The Great Detective,” the collection is to be called Young Woman in a Garden, and I don’t yet know when it is going to come out, but I’m guessing late in 2014. I’m also finishing up a middle-grade novel called The Evil Wizard Smallbone (unless whatever editor buys it changes the title), about a boy who runs away from home and ends up as an evil wizard’s apprentice. In rural Maine. More or less now. It involves selkies and were-coyotes on motorcycles, and it’s very different from anything I’ve done before. In some ways, anyway. And then there’s a Clockwork-punk novel involving a mechanical Sherlock Holmes and a ghost and a couple of mad scientists. And then maybe a sequel to The Freedom Maze. No collaborations on the horizon as yet, but you can never tell about these things, can you?