The Poison Apple: Shared Worlds All Over the World – A Q & A with the Dynamic Duo, Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman
Authors Ellen Kusher (left), Delia Sherman (right), 2017. Photo by Elizabeth Crowens
Ellen Kushner is a former editor at Ace Books and Pocket Books, hosted the national public radio series Sound & Spirit via WGBH in Boston and was the winner of the 1991 World Fantasy Award, 1991 Mythopoeic Award and 2007 Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel, has won Audie Awards, etc.
Delia Sherman is a former consulting editor from Tor Books. Her novel The Freedom Maze won the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction & Fantasy, a Prometheus Award, was a SWFWA winner, and made the Tiptree Honor List. She won the Mythopoeic Award for The Porcelain Dove, etc.
You were married in 1996 and are one of the long-time couples of speculative fiction. How did the two of you meet?
Ellen: Actually, we were married many times — illegally in 1996 and legally in the State of Massachusetts in our backyard there in 2004. Jane Yolen introduced us at Boskone — not for any romantic reasons, but because Delia had taken a course in writing fantasy at the U. Mass, Amherst.
Delia: I had a short story based on a ballad and supposedly Ellen was editing an anthology.
Ellen: Then I confessed that I wasn’t doing the anthology, because I couldn’t sell it but offered to read her story, anyway. I thought it was really good, referred her to Terri Windling, and Terri ended up buying it to be made into a novel as Terri’s first Ace Fantasy special. It was based on the ballad The Famous Flower of Serving-men but Ace changed the title to Through a Brazen Mirror. Meanwhile, Delia and I kept having coffee when I came to Boskone, became friends, then I moved to Boston and we fell into each other’s arms in the summer of 1992 and never looked back.
How would you define the specific genre you write in? From our off-the-record conversation, I misclassified it as High Fantasy.
Delia: Everything I write is based in the real world and frequently in a historical setting. It’s fairytale and folklore-based fiction. I’ve almost never had stories in worlds that are completely made up except the first novel I started that will never see the light of day.
Ellen: To be fair, Delia and I wrote The Fall of the Kings together. That’s the only place where she had to enter my imaginary world.
Delia: You had hit my “teacher button” when you mentioned the term High Fantasy, which isn’t used much any more. Secondary World Fantasy is Tolkien — where you make up Middle Earth or some other kind of place that has an internal logic to it, but you cannot travel far enough to get there. Ellen’s The Fall of the Kings is a historical novel about a place that never existed. It’s realistic and might have a mythic background but it doesn’t have any magic in it like Terri Brooks’ or David Eddings’ works. The tone is also different. High Fantasy is adventure-oriented with a lot of fighting. What characterizes our work is more myth-based.
One of the feelings I got when I read Swordspoint was a feeling for a time period that could’ve existed but didn’t quite exist. You gave great details as to what the characters ate, the clothes they wore and their mannerisms. That was depicted so realistically.
Ellen: (laughs) That’s because I’m good. I’ve been collecting this type of material all my life, because I love it. For Delia in The Porcelain Dove, she had to focus her research on a specific time period in France. In my Riverside books, Swordspoint, The Privilege of the Sword, The Fall of the King and now my new series, Tremontaine, they are all set in “places Ellen likes in historical periods that Ellen really likes all mushed together and baked in the oven.” As long as it’s physically credible — such as, you can’t grow oranges in your backyard if you live in Northern England — these are all time periods of which I’m familiar.
Delia: I’ve read a lot of history but not taken a lot of actual courses in it.
When you were young and impressionable, did you know what you were going to be when you grew up?
Ellen: I’d have teachers in high school say, “I can’t wait to see what you do, Ellen. You’re interested in so many things. What are you going to do with your life?” Throughout college and in my early twenties I worked through all sorts of things. By the time I graduated from college I knew I wasn’t going to be an actress because I’d never be able to endure the life. Singing was nice, but not something I wanted to do full-time, though I enjoying singing in coffee houses from time to time and putting on a show. Writing was the only thing that I really cared about, so my whole determination was to be a writer.
When I got out of college I knew I couldn’t be a longshoreman or a lumberjack, and I’d be a really bad waitress. So all the traditional writer’s activities were closed to me, and I really didn’t know what to do! I was in New York City and everyone told me to go into publishing; I didn’t really want to do that, but that’s where I was offered a job [as editorial assistant at Ace Books]. This job was great, because it gave me confidence, contacts and insight as to how the industry worked. Then I went off to write an unsellable book, Swordspoint. It was finally acquired, but it was a very hard sell, because it was so off the charts for its time.
How long did it take you to sell it?
Ellen: You know, it could’ve been forever but my old boss whom I had quit on, David Hartwell, wanted to buy it. Actually, I tell a lie. That’s the story I always tell people, but I sold the novel in England before I sold it in the States, to an editor that I met at the World Fantasy Convention in Ottawa. It was the same publisher that published Tolkien, Allen & Unwin, so you can imagine how thrilled I was!
What about you, Delia?
Delia: When I was in my twenties, I knew I was never going to be a writer, because there were enough writers of bad fiction in the world, and the world did not need me. When I took my first creative writing course in college and turned in my first fantasy story, my teacher was extremely dismissive and said, “I think this is all right if you feel this kind of thing is worth doing.” Being young and impressionable, I decided that was it. Then I wrote my obligatory “dead grandmother stories” or domestic realism or some meditation about the leaves dropping off the trees on her grave so I could get a reasonable grade.
At that point, I decided that I was going to be a scholar in non-Shakespearean Renaissance drama. That’s not what you would call a saleable thing to do, and I was perfectly guaranteed to get nothing but a job teaching freshman composition where I did end up teaching at Boston University. When I received my Ph.D., there was one job in the United States that fit my credentials and probably a thousand people applying for it. One of the things that I did was to read a lot of science fiction and fantasy because there was more of it being published in the late seventies and early eighties than there had been for a long time. Finally, I felt I had read enough to the point where I felt, “I can do this and probably better than what I was reading at the moment.” So I started writing short stories.
I’m also never going to stop teaching, because I have a passion for that too. Ellen and I have taught at both the Odyssey Workshop and at Clarion, and for a while every other year we’ve taught at Hollins University ‘s summer MA/MFA program in children’s literature. I also love to teach at science fiction conventions such as Wiscon and Worldcon.
I read something once that the two of you were doing a workshop on a cruise.
Delia: Mary Robinette Kowal, Brian Sanderson and friends have a podcast called Writing Excuses, so they started a workshop called Out of Writing Excuses. It originally started out small and out of Mary Robinette’s parents’ house. When its popularity outgrew the space, and she realized she couldn’t put everyone up and cook dinner for them anymore, Mary Robinette organized this with a larger staff. Her thought was, “What has all the food you want and all the rooms you want? A cruise ship.”
They had over one hundred people sign up after that. With every additional thirty students they’d acquire a new teacher. Besides us, Nalo Hopkinson and Daniel José Older were on that first cruise. It was awesome.
Swordspoint characters in costume
Photo by J.R.Blackwell (jrblackwell.com)
People actually got writing done on a cruise ship?
Ellen: No! We told our students: This is the only time you’ll be in such a rich environment, so talk to your teachers and other students. The point of this writing workshop was not to write while you were at the workshop. That’s not the point, unless it’s a six-week workshop, but this was one week at sea.
Delia: My best experience with my students was that we were on a little island sitting in a hut looking over the Caribbean looking over the sea. The fact that we weren’t directly looking at each other was similar to having a conversation in a car where you feel free to say more intimate things.
Ellen: One night we had Costume Night, and it was so much fun. We marched from where we had cocktails to the dining hall wearing our costumes, and everyone else on the ship watched us like a parade. The little kids… they thought they were seeing a fairy court.
Delia: Many women made their own period dresses. Then there were the swashbucklers. One woman was dressed up as the Queen of Hearts. Mary lent the two of us Regency gowns, and I went on YouTube to figure out what to do with my hair.
Photo by Liz Duffy Adams
Of all the authors I’m familiar with, the two of you travel the world more than most. I want to assume that some of this is for conferences and other travel is for research.
Ellen: We almost never travel if it isn’t attached to some kind of professional gig. When we first moved to New York City, it took us forever to get settled and unpacked, because we were almost never here. The most exciting travels we do are often connected with an event that we’ve been invited to. Around 2006 when we both had books out, we put the word out that we liked to travel and especially to foreign countries. We started to get invitations to countries where our books were being published. It’s not like we never pick up and visit friends, but it’s not as often as you think.
Delia: Most of it is writing-related in one way or another.
Ellen: We’re super-duper into travel, and we’ve been very fortunate that we can take the extra time after an event and are not on such a tight schedule.
Do you have any particular locations that you’re drawn to that have helped or inspired your work?
Delia and Ellen: France, France, France!
Delia: I just like France, but I wouldn’t have written a book about Maine if I didn’t have a friend who has a house up there. Really, I’ll go almost anywhere.
Ellen: She really will. Let me tell you a Cute Couples story: When I first knew Delia, before we were romantically linked, she never went anywhere. She and her partner back then had this gorgeous, restored Victorian house in Newton, Massachusetts. When Delia wanted to research The Porcelain Dove, she was nervous about traveling by herself, and I grew up knowing how to travel cheap and had done so in the back roads of France. So we had this adventure together. However, it wasn’t until we were involved in our relationship that I learned the truth that as a girl she had traveled all over the world with her mother!
Illustration of Ellen and Delia in Venice, by artist Jessica Bigi
Delia: That was because my father worked for Pan American Airlines. We’d go everywhere for free, and my mother lived to travel. She had gone around the world four times before there were planes doing it, because she’d gone around by boat, car or train. She’d pull me out of school two weeks early and send me back a week late. We’d be gone all summer.
Ellen: I’d ask Delia, “Darling, have you ever been to the Avignon?” and she’d reply, “Oh yeah, I went with my mom.” Or if I asked her if she’d ever feed the pigeons in Rome, she’d say, “There’s a picture of me doing it when I was fourteen.” There was nowhere I’d been that she hadn’t already been! … but it’s much better when you’re with your girlfriend.
When I wrote Thomas the Rhymer, I’d never been to Scotland. No internet then, so I couldn’t just go online to do research. The way that I compensated for that was: I went to a fancy travel bookstore in Boston and found a large coffee table book that had photos of the Lowlands of Scotland, sat on the floor and stared at all the pictures. That was it. Once the book was in to my publisher, I went to a World Fantasy Convention in London and decided to take a train up to Edinburgh where I went to stay with Jane Yolen, and she drove me out to locations where the book is supposed to take place. After making a few mental notes, when I went home a made minor changes in the manuscript, but it wasn’t like I spent a lot of time there.
Delia: What was really weird was when we took this huge trip to France to research the location for The Porcelain Dove; I hadn’t actually been to that particular area of the country. I knew that it was mountainous, but I had made up an elevated plain surrounded by mountains with a hill in the middle of it on top of which was built a castle. This was very fairytale-like to me, and how I wanted it. So, we were driving through the Jura Mountains. We came around a bend in a forest, and we looked out over this bowl with a hill in the middle of it on top of which was built a town.
Ellen: Delia let out a strangled yelp and said, “There it is! I made that up!”
Delia: “What’s that doing there?”
Fisheye shot of Ellen and Delia,
with the author of this article in the mirror
So you didn’t even know this place existed?
Delia: That has happened more than once where one of us has written something and afterwards have walked into a place or a house or a forest and…
Ellen: One of us would say, “Oh my God! There it is.”
Like déjà vu?
Delia: Or a not-yet-vu. It’s really weird — but the more you read and certainly the more places you visit, it helps, and I did grow up going to Medieval castles knowing the feel and layout knowing, for instance, that you are really far away from the kitchen compared to what we’re used to in a big house in America. My mother also made me memorize all the parts of a cathedral.
Ellen: My father took a sabbatical, and I lived outside of Paris for about a year when I was seven. My parents were big culture vultures. One Saturday afternoon, my parents said they were going for a drive to see a chateau, and I said, “Oh no, not another chateau!” The big joke was that it was Fontainebleau, which is this gorgeous place outside of Paris and I fell hard for it. Then the running joke in my family was that anything Ellen said she was going to hate she was going to love, and it’s true to this day. But anyway: if you imprint on that stuff early that you really get a feel for it.
Delia: I think one of the reasons why people in this country find it difficult to write fantasy set so far back in the past is that they don’t know what it’s like to be six hundred years ago in the very spot where you are walking and buying things at a corner store that doesn’t look exactly like the corner store where you are buying things now. But the original bones still remain there. Also in either a Medieval or Renaissance city the streets are much smaller than we are used to.
Delia at the Caffè Florian in Venice, Italy
Ellen: One of our favorite places is Amsterdam. I figured out that one of its attractions is that its center is a 17th century city! In terms of your kinesthetic experience, the width of the streets or the height of the buildings haven’t changed. So one of my favorite things to do there is to just walk. I think this is because you get the feel from this time period that it’s people-scaled — but it’s not a museum, it’s a living city. There’s just a physical pleasure to that and nothing like it in the States except a bit in Colonial Williamsburg or Plymouth Plantation outside of Boston.
On your bucket list, is there some place that you’ve never been that you’ve always wanted to go?
Delia: Up in Finland I wanted to go to the Samiland or what used to be called Lapland, because I always loved Hans Christian Anderson’s, The Snow Queen… especially the Robber Girl! There’s an ice hotel near the Arctic Circle, and I’ve never seen the Northern Nights. I don’t like the cold or the dark, but for two days I can do it. We’re also planning on going to Bali.
Ellen: What’s hilarious is that we end up going to places that we thought we’d have no interest in going. Because of Delia being born in Japan, I’ve been to Japan tons of times now and love it. It’s “another chateau!”
Delia: What I’ve wanted to do is to spend a year abroad in Paris and have wanted to do this for decades. And now we’re finally going to do it this fall.
Ellen, you have a book coming out related to the Tremontaine series. You’ve also utilized an interesting media concept with that series through Serial Box. Let’s discuss that, because you have other writers involved with your story almost like fan fiction.
Ellen: The recent article on me in Locus Magazine explains a lot about my current project. But regarding fan fiction — it is, and it isn’t . . . I’ll tell you how it worked: Julian Yap, whom I’ve known for years, spearheads Serial Box. He and another writer, Max Gladstone, wanted to take the pleasure of watching a really good TV series and turned it into something you could read, instead. Serial Box calls itself “the HBO of literature!” But it produces its “seasons” only as e-stories. Another thing that propels book readers these days is a series that keeps on giving. Once you fall in love with characters or a setting, you just want more and more and more of it. Writers are then asked to turn out product related to their series faster than anyone can really write.
Their idea was, “Why don’t we follow the way TV works, and create a writers’ room of people who are all writing about the same world and the same characters?” You have a bible, and someone thinks of a story and a setting. The first one they did was set in the modern world, called Bookburners. Then Julian approached me. He needed more than one and wanted to know if he could do something set in my Swordspoint world and would I want to be involved. After some thought, I agreed — if we could set the time period before any of the books started, like fifteen years before, because I wanted the other writers to have to opportunity to make stuff up without conflicting with anything I’d already written. When the search for writers began, I chose people who had already read and loved the books and knew them well. Then we put together a team.
Julian thought he’d want to make Tremontaine be five seasons. We’re now entering season three. The writers get together for about three straight days of doing nothing but white boarding the season. Then we go our separate ways, consulting with each other, constantly showing each other outlines and first drafts… refine, refine, refine.
The really exciting thing for me, having created this world a long time ago, is that we agreed to open the story up to where the non-white cultures and characters would be and realizing that it would’ve been perfectly logical to include them. I have to say that as that has continued to grow it’s been affecting the current novel I’m writing and it’s extremely exhilarating. Getting to have writers on my team such as Malinda Lo and Alaya Dawn Johnson really opened things up. They were very passionate about it and did a great job.
Every year the writing team changes a bit. For season three, I have two members that have been with me for at least one other year of this writing process: Joel Derfner and Tessa Gratton. This is great because it takes a while for someone to get how it works. These are thirteen-week seasons. You get one a week, and they take about an hour to read on your phone app or wherever you’re going to read it. I generally write the first and last ones, others write three episodes each and then we have guest writers. This year, I’m only writing one episode.
How does this tie in to the physical books?
Ellen: ….Why is your recording device sitting on a big fat book that says, Tremontaine? (laughs) Fortunately, a traditional paper publisher bought the rights to Bookburners and to Tremontaine, which came out May 2, 2017!
What’s next for the two of you?
Delia: My last four books have been Middle Grade. Years ago I wrote a short story called “La Fée Verte” about the Franco-Prussian War in 1871. Previously, the novel never gelled, but I think I have a reasonable idea now how to write it. I’m also working on a YA project called The Great Detective, about a clockwork Sherlock Holmes in late 19th century London.
Ellen: I’ve been working on a novel set in the Swordspoint/Tremontaine world, about Alec’s bastard daughter, the angriest teenager in the world. It’s set fifteen years after The Privilege of the Sword. What I’ll do after that I’m not sure. There will also be more seasons of Tremontaine. I really love what the writers are doing. At this point I feel really good about having the writers take over more of it.
Delia: And, we’ve also talked about doing another historical book together, but it’s too early to talk about that.
More information can be found on Ellen at ww.ellenkushner.com
Additional information on Delia is on her website at www.deliasherman.com
Elizabeth Crowens is a Hollywood veteran, journalist and author of Silent Meridian, 19th century X Files / alternate history novel series. It won First Prize for Chanticleer Review’s Goethe Awards in Turn of the Century Historical Fiction and was short-listed as a finalist for their 2016 Cygnus Awards in Speculative Fiction, Paranormal and Ozma Fantasy Awards. www.elizabethcrowens.com, Facebook: @BooksbyElizabethCrowens, Twitter: @ECrowens
Great interview; and the pictures (especially of Ellen & Delia on the couch) filled me with much joy.
I love long-read writer interviews like this. Thanks Elizabeth!