Interview with Eugie Foster
Interview by Amy Brozio-Andrews
This is an interview from several years ago. Eugie K. Foster was an award-winning writer of short fiction and children’s books. Eugie Foster, author, editor, wife, died on September 27th 2014 of respiratory failure from cancer at Emory University in Atlanta. In her forty-two years, Eugie lived three lifetimes. She won the Nebula award for her novelette “Sinner, Baker, Fabulist, Priest; Red Mask, Black Mask, Gentleman, Beast” in 2009. She had over one hundred of her stories published. She was an editor for the Georgia General Assembly. She was the director of the Daily Dragon at Dragon Con, and was a regular speaker at genre conventions. She was a model, dancer, and psychologist. See Eugie Foster’s Website for more.
Looking at all you do—editorships, active membership in SFWA, conference attendance, writing workshops, your own writing for magazines and books-in-progress—how do you maintain the discipline and motivation to keep it all going?
Seriously, I love what I do—writing, editing, and everything associated thereof—which makes it easy to stay on track. When I was an IT cubicle monkey, weeks would go by where I would procrastinate on a project because I was so unmotivated. Nowadays, I’m pretty gung-ho about my daily writing/editing agenda. Occasionally, when it seems my “to do” list has acquired sentience and is campaigning for world domination or I’m stymied by my current work-in-progress, I may go AWOL for a day—just randomly surfing or letting my brain leak out of my ears in front of the TV. But, the day after, I’m so stressed about the time I lost and how much farther behind I am, I inevitably freak out, which is to say I launch into a desperate-panicky flurry of work. It’s the quiet implosion strategy for productivity. I quit worrying about how much I have to do because I don’t have the time to worry.
When that fails, I hook up the caffeine IV.
What’s a typical day like for you?
Pretty typical. I wake up, go to work, come home, go to sleep. Lather, rinse, repeat.
On weekdays, I wake up at around 6AM, get ready for work, and hop the metro train downtown. I love my day job (I’m a legal editor for the Georgia legislature), but the commute bites. The trip is over an hour, one way. Fortunately, the train lets me use that time to write or get some editing work done. My trusty laptop goes everywhere with me; it’s a tiny ultraportable—weighs less than 3 lbs. and has a battery which can go for eight hours on a charge. (Is it wrong to love a piece of hardware?)
My job has a cyclic work calendar, busier than God during the legislative session—about three months at the beginning of the year—and laid back the rest of the time. It allows me time to write during the day, pre- and post-session, and no time at all during. It’s a decent trade-off.
After I get home, I eat dinner, catch up with husband and skunk, then read, write, or catch up on editing work until bedtime.
Weekends are much the same, except without the commute or any day job duties. I haul self and laptop upstairs to my home office and stay there until husband and/or skunk start making plaintive noises.
Could you tell us a bit about how you got started writing?
I’ve always been a fanatical reader, pretty much ensconced in a library and buried in one book or other throughout my childhood. I always wanted to be a writer; even during my “I wanna be a ballerina” and “I wanna be a veterinarian” phases, there was “and a writer” tacked on. I started writing seriously—that is, trying to get published—after Ann Crispin’s Writers’ Workshop at Dragon*Con 2000. It galvanized me to really work on improving my craft and to treat it like a profession, not a recreation.
Has your work as an editor influenced your own writing at all?
Mostly, it’s cut into my writing time!
As an editor, what are some of the biggest mistakes you see short story writers making? Are there any science fiction, horror, and fantasy topics that you as an editor see as completely oversaturated?
Honestly, the biggest mistake for new writers is simply not paying attention to the basics: grammar, spelling, punctuation. While it’s fundamentally true that if you write a really compelling, fresh, and entertaining story, an editor will forgive your inability to spell or your penchant for creative capitalization. But they’ll be irritated. And why irritate your editor? And if the foundation of your wordsmithing is that bad, an editor might not make it to the “compelling, fresh, and entertaining” part before sticking a form rejection in your SASE.
As far as overdone tropes, I think the magic’s in how ideas are presented. If you take an old idea and spin it into something new, then it doesn’t matter that it’s an old idea. If you have a new one and fail to interest the reader with your storytelling, then it doesn’t matter that you had a good idea. The best stories are both interesting—either with fresh ideas or fresh takes on old ones—and entertaining.
But, on a personal note, I’m really jaded on stories about serial killers.
I’d always understood it that writers of short fiction generally didn’t have or need agents; is that actually untrue? How did you go about getting your agent? Can you suggest some of the elements that writers should look for in a good writer/agent match?
No, actually, that is true. Very few agents will represent short fiction, and most short fiction markets will accept submissions over the transom, which essentially removes the need for one. I and my agent aren’t an exception; he doesn’t represent my short stuff.
As far as how I got my agent, it was by and large the traditional way. I spent some time researching reputable agents online (I highly recommend Preditors & Editors as a good starting place: www.anotherealm.com/prededitors/) and then sent off a batch of queries and synopses of my middle-grade novel to my top picks. William Reiss requested the full manuscript, read it, liked it, and then called me with an offer of representation (which I wasn’t home to receive, so ended up hyperventilating at my answering machine). The only remarkable thing is that it took me less than two weeks from when I first started looking for an agent to receiving an offer of representation, which I continue to be somewhat agog about.
On your website, you write, “I’ve discovered that the best motivation and improvement resource a burgeoning writer can have is an audience.” When getting one of your short stories critiqued by fellow writers, how do you decide what’s valid and what you’d rather keep as is? Are there any factors that influence you one way or the other?
It’s instinct. Or zen. Phases of the moon?
Um, well, if it’s black and white—I made a typo or got a fact wrong or suchlike— then it’s a no-brainer; I make the change. Otherwise, if a suggestion resonates with me, I’ll implement it. If it doesn’t, then I won’t. I pretty much trust myself to know what a valid criticism is and what isn’t. There are exceptions, like if a whole slew of critiquers make the same suggestion which I don’t agree with, I might go against my gut feeling and make the change. But generally, I trust my instincts.
It’s a sort of weird line with critique groups. While on one hand, I have a manuscript that I believe could be improved but don’t know how, so I’m beseeching help, but on the other, I have to have enough confidence in myself and my writing to be able to say “no, I don’t agree with your suggestion.” It’s a precarious equilibrium, one that some writers can’t maintain, either getting defensive and hurt when they receive criticism or laboring under the belief that every single suggestion is valid and should be implemented—kind of a pickle when you get contradictory feedback.
You’re on MySpace and blog on LiveJournal; how important do you think it is for writers to stay on top of technology for the purposes of keeping in touch with readers and fellow writers?
Very. While I frequently rail against the reality and necessity, it’s inescapable. You have to network.
Editors choose what they publish on the basis of quality. That’s a truism. They will publish the very best stories they can. However, if two equally good stories get submitted and they only have one slot, and they’ve gotten drunk and sung sea chanteys in Klingon with one of the writers but don’t know the other from navel lint, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out which writer’s story will get bought. Likewise, an editor solicits stories to invitation-only projects from writers whose works they admire, but they’re more likely to go to writers whose works they admire and who they also know.
It’s not as bad as, say, the film industry, where you must schmooze and network if you expect to get work. But it’s still important to maintain a presence with other writers, publishers, and editors, and the best and easiest way to do that is with the Internet.
On the readership side, anything which will improve a writer’s name recognition and accessibility to readers is just good sense.
What’s one question you’ve always wished someone asked you in an interview? Here’s the perfect opportunity to ask and answer it for AW readers. 🙂
“Would you like to sign this book deal with a $1 million advance?” Me: Yes, please!
Amy Brozio-Andrews is the former managing editor for Absolute Write.