Award-winning author Nisi Shawl will be a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop. She wrote the 2016 Nebula finalist and Tiptree Honor novel Everfair, and the 2008 Tiptree Award-winning collection Filter House. In 2005 she co-wrote Writing the Other: A Practical Approach, a standard text on inclusive representation in the imaginative genres. Her short stories have appeared in Analog and Asimov’s magazines, and many other publications. Shawl is a founder of the Carl Brandon Society and a Clarion West board member.
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?
Listen to your inner bell. That’s a maddeningly vague tip, I know, but it’s the closest I can come to describing what it’s like to understand when something just is not working, or when something needs a little tweak to make it work smashingly well, or when you’re laboring over something that is not going to ever work, no matter how you tweak and nudge and sweat and polish it. I’m an aural writer, so I think of it in terms of sound; others may metaphorize the idea differently, but most of you will recognize it. For me, it’s “clunk” versus “bonggg.”
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?
I’m not sure I was doing anything wrong technically. I started writing seriously in college; by then I’d become proficient with the tools of my adopted trade. What I heard back from others was that my writing failed to communicate my stories’ actions unambiguously. I had to reset my standards of description, etc., to what seemed to me an obscene level of obviousness.
Why do you think your work began to sell?
I think my work began selling because of connections I made with editors and publishers, particularly through Clarion West, the writing workshop I attended. Hopefully that’s going to happen with those in my classes.
You teach a course with K. Tempest Bradford called “Writing the Other,” which is meant to help authors write inclusive fiction. What are the most common problems writers have when writing inclusive fiction?
The most common problem writers have when writing inclusive fiction is not accepting that they have blind spots. Can’t help someone who doesn’t think they need help. Or who believes they may have a problem in area A, when actually their problems appear in areas B and C. This is why sensitivity readers are a boon—they can tell you your drawers are showing when you didn’t realize you were wearing them outside your trousers.
How has teaching helped you with your own writing?
Sometimes I’ll tell a student how to do something and then realize I could take that advice myself. It’s usually a bit more circular than that, though: I come up with an exercise or lecture based on how I write, then apply it to my own work when it seems to have good results for others.
You have edited and co-edited several anthologies of speculative fiction. How has being an editor helped you with your own writing process?
Editing gets at how a story does to you what it does. It lifts up a story’s hood (bonnet to readers in the UK) and shows you what’s missing, what’s strong, what needs to be left alone, what needs to be revved up. I’m always happy when I can approach what I’ve written in the same way.
Your debut novel Everfair is a steampunk/alternate history/fantasy set in the Belgian Congo and featuring a diverse cast of characters. How did you meld together multiple genres and characters?
Mashing up the genres seemed quite natural to me. I’ve always thought of steampunk as a form of alternate history. And the fantastic elements of the books are quite realistic, based on my personal experience. As for the characters? Several were based on real people I’d always wanted to write about—Colette, Edith Nesbit, J.M. Barrie—and others on people I’d found interesting when I came across them in my research, such as George Washington Williams. When I read that Chinese railway builders had escaped from labor camps to settle in the region I was writing about, I had to create Tink to personify their viewpoint. Honestly, diversity was all around me. I only had to represent it.
What’s next on the writing-related horizon? Are you starting any new projects?
I’m currently working on a novella in conversation with The Subterraneans, Jack Kerouac’s fictionalization of his three-month romance with a black woman. I’m calling that The Day and Night Books of Mardou Fox. I’m also compiling a nonfiction collection for Aqueduct Press. And I’ve written an outline for a sequel to Everfair. The working title is Kinning.