Interview: Suzanne Palmer

Suzanne Palmer, AW’s own zanzjan, won 2018’s Hugo Award for Best Novelette for “The Secret Life of Bots.” Her short fiction has won readers’ awards for Asimov’s, Analog, and Interzone magazines, and been included in the Locus Recommended Reading List. Palmer has twice been a finalist for the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and once for the Eugie M. Foster Memorial Award. Her debut novel Finder will be released by DAW on April 2, 2019.

What’s your elevator pitch for Finder?

Fergus Ferguson is an interstellar repo man who has gone off to a backwater, deep space settlement to find and take back a stolen spaceship, and gets caught up in the middle of an escalating feud between a crooked junk merchant and a family of lichen farmers. Plus: mysterious marauding aliens!

Did you have a playlist for Finder?

I need very different music when I’m working on a first draft versus while revising, and the first draft of Finder feels like ages ago now and I can’t remember what I was listening to back then, but certainly something high-energy like Florence & The Machine, Snow Patrol, etc. My go-to music in revision is usually Bonobo, along with Euphoria, Thievery Corporation, and other fairly mellow, largely instrumental music.

Were there any surprises for you as you wrote Finder? Character developments or plot twists that you didn’t expect?

Hahaha, the whole thing? But seriously, I am not much of a planner, and when I start a new project I usually only have a few tiny “seeds” of what I want — a character, or a setting, or a small scene — and I just throw it down on the page and see where it goes. I can usually tell within a few paragraphs from how the story language wants to pace itself, and from how quickly more idea bits are accumulating onto the growing mass how big it’s going to be, and with Finder I thought early on I was heading into novella territory, but I was nervous about letting it go longer. In the end, the story insisted, so I went along with it.

What’s your writing process like?

First drafts are an absolute chaotic mess, with a lot of back and forth and dead-end alleys I need to back out of and find a better path forward, and I often have only a vague idea where I’m going until I get there. The joy of discovery, of finding that you left yourself perfect breadcrumbs without even realizing it, is for me not only one of my favorite parts of the experience, but a necessary part of it. If I know too much about the story I get bored trying to write it.

Once I get to the actual end, and I have the big picture of what the story is and I start to revise, if it’s a longer piece I’ll usually build an outline retroactively as I work my way through, which then gives me a handy roadmap for a lot of the fiddly but critical work making the whole thing come together.

What’s your writing environment like (your work area and tools of choice)?

I do almost all my writing at home, in a small home office where my chair looks out over the woods in the back yard. I’ve seen moose, barred owls, coyotes, and a lot of wild turkeys out there, though I’m perfectly happy with just the clouds and trees. Inside, my writing buddies are a pair of lovebirds named Beetle and Boo, who are noisy as hell but adorable. I do my writing on a Mac, using MS Word, because despite its occasionally aggravating flaws it’s just easier for me. (I write very linearly, so more complex tools which are often wonderful for other writers don’t do much for me.) I will also often leave myself notes or doodle elements from whatever I’m working on, be it aliens or ships or maps of where things are, so there tends to be bits of paper everywhere and up on the bulletin board behind my monitor. I don’t write much longhand because my handwriting is horrible and gets exponentially worse the more I’m trying to write at once.

Back in 2012 your story “Mandrake’s Folly” was published in Absolute Write’s Absolute Visions anthology. I really loved the characters and world building. Any plans to return to any of it?

Actually, a lot (although not all) of my science fiction is set in the same contiguous universe, and there are characters and/or places that drift through multiple stories. “Mandrake’s Folly” has several connections of that sort with other stories, although the closest tie is to “Surf”, which was my first sale to Asimov’s (also in 2011) and which has a character in common, although there’s a time gap between them.

I think about it a lot like the pointillist paintings of Seurat, one dot of color at a time, except probably I work in a much more ADHD way than Seurat did. As a viewer/reader, the dots maybe don’t connect yet in apparent ways, but *I* know that, dammit, those two dots are part of a tree and that dot is a monkey, and that informs where the next “dot” goes.

One of the things I loved the most about Finder was the world-building. It’s very clear that you know a lot more about the peoples and places you’re writing about. How are you keeping track of all you know about your universe?

I have a wiki! Seriously, as soon as I had written enough stuff with shared universe elements that I found myself having to dig through old manuscripts to remember how I described something or when something happened or where, I decided it was easier to just start keeping details in my own personal wiki. It’s not a perfect solution because I’m not always sure what *is* an important detail except in hindsight, or how in the long term I want things to connect, and sometimes I’m lazy about keeping it updated, but I do eventually manage to keep up. I also have a lot of sketches and maps, some scanned in, some in notebooks, that I can go back to when needed. Do you have plans to write more about Mattie “Mother” Vahn and the Vahn clan? I would love to revisit Mattie Vahn some day, and I’m open to the idea, but so far the right story for her hasn’t come my way. There are other Vahns we will certainly see again. I’ve got about half a short story set in the Sunshields, because I fell in love with the Shielders and wanted to spend a little more time with them on their own terms, and hopefully I’ll have that finished this spring. I think for me one of the ways I know a character is working is when they start demanding their own stories, and there were quite a few secondary and minor characters in Finder that are still trying to get my attention — too many to get to, and their numbers keep going up, but I’d never say never on any of them.

I know that you built an incredible “book alley”. Would you tell us a little about that?

The Book Alley! I have, unsurprisingly, way too many books, and I made the mistake of buying a house where the entire downstairs is an open floorplan filled with windows — great for sunlight and looking out at the gardens in the summer, but absolutely miserable for trying to put bookshelves in. So I built the Book Alley, a 10′ wide room the length of the back of the house, and for the first time in my life all my books and magazines are shelved and out and there whenever I want to curl up in a comfy chair and read. Which I don’t do nearly often enough, but I’m trying.

Entry way to the book alley
The Book Alley entrance Image: © Suzanne Palmer

 

The book alley with books in place Image: © Suzanne Palmer

 

Book alley with shelves and furniture
The Book Alley in use Image: © Suzanne Palmer

What have you read lately (in the last year or so) that you really liked?

It is a truly sad thing that writing comes directly out of my reading time, so I’m always behind the curve on what’s new, especially novel-length stuff. But last year I found and totally fell for Martha Wells’s Murderbot series, which I just can’t recommend highly enough. Right now I’m reading Charlie Jane Anders’s The City in the Middle of the Night, which is brilliant so far.

Do you have any particular favorite books about writing?

This may seem an odd choice, but Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. While it’s ostensibly focused on visual, sequential narrative, there is so much information in there about storytelling and pacing and engaging with your material that it’s a phenomenal resource for almost any kind of creative pursuit, and certainly looking at comics through that lens has impacted how I approach and engage with many other kinds of narrative as well.

You’re a Viable Paradise graduate (VP IX 2005). What advice do you have for prospective VP students?

When I attended VP, I was in a place where I wasn’t sure if I was serious about writing, or more importantly, if I was brave enough to be serious about it. Imposter Syndrome has always been a steady (and super-clingy) companion, and I think I spent too much of the first few days of the workshop feeling like I couldn’t possibly belong there. And that’s the thing about VP — if you’re there, it’s because they believe you belong there, and then it’s up to you to make sure you don’t get in your own way taking full advantage of what the experience has to offer. Even with my own hangups going in, it was a life-changing experience for me, and I wish I’d been more centered in it from the start. So leave the insecurity (or overconfidence!) behind, plenty of time for those later (-:

What’s your favorite charity?

I support my local animal shelter, because they’re really good people, and my local library which is teeny-tiny and trying to raise funds to expand. I also donate regularly to Médecins Sans Frontières, aka Doctors Without Borders, because I can’t imagine more difficult or more vital work.

Is there a question that you’ve never been asked that you’d really like to answer?

Why “zanzjan” ? (My nickname almost everywhere.) The very first thing I wrote, as an adult, was a novel that was set on a planet named Zanzjan Minor. Although that novel never quite made it, it was the central hub of much of my subsequent story world, and it has showed up in small ways and in the background of a bunch of stories. Going back to my Seurat analogy earlier, there’s a blank space in the cluster of dots of my worldbuilding where that novel originally fit. Someday — possibly when I’m done with Fergus Ferguson — I’m going to take apart that old manuscript, steal back the important bits and elements, and build a whole new novel to fit in that space.

Having read Finder, I can tell you it is a funny, bodacious space opera with quality world building and characters. Palmer has just turned in the sequel, and I can’t wait to read it.

Suzanne Palmer has a Website, and is active on Twitter and Facebook. You can find her debut SF novel Finder at your local independent bookstore, buy it from Amazon.com | Amazon Canada | Amazon UK | Barnes & Noble  iBooks | Kindle | Kobo | Powells.

 

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