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Julie Czerneda

Julie Czerneda burst onto the science fiction scene in 1997 with her novel, A Thousand Words for Stranger, and as a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer; her second novel, Beholder's Eye, (1998) made the preliminary ballot for the Nebula Award and was a finalist for the Prix Aurora Award. In the Company of Others (2001) was the winner of the 2002 Prix Aurora Award, as well as a finalist for both the Philip K. Dick Award and the Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award for Best Science Fiction Novel. Julie is also editor for Tales from the Wonder Zone from Trifolium Books, as well as for the anthologies Space Inc. and ReVisions, co-edited with Isaac Szpindel. Her latest novel, Species Imperative: Survival, is just out from DAW.

Julie is also a biologist and has worked as a researcher in animal communication. Her non-fiction work includes biology texts, as well as a book on the use of science fiction in developing scientific literacy. More information about Julie and her writing can be found on her website.

Leah Tribolo: Julie, tell us a little about yourself. When did you begin writing and what sparked the interest?

Julie Czerneda: I'm Canadian, friendly, taller than some, shorter than others, enjoy most things and people. I'm intensely curious.

The writing? That's more specific. I was eleven and a voracious reader. When I reached the end of Tarzan of the Apes, the conclusion infuriated me; so Mom, in her wisdom, gave me blank paper and her old typewriter instead of the sequel. I wrote a fabulous and satisfying ending as far as I was concerned. I was hooked.

LT: When did you start writing professionally, and what motivated you to begin writing fiction?

JC: I started writing professionally in 1985. Biology textbooks. The fiction was a private hobby. After several texts, my editor, who had become a good friend by that point, urged me to send out my fiction. It took me a while to be convinced, but between my husband Roger and my editor, I gave it a try. The first issue was finishing something to send out. I wrote fiction for fun, which meant I had 23 or so "novels" underway at once. A Thousand Words for Stranger was simply the longest file in my drawer, which made it seem easier to finish.

Stranger cover

LT: How did it get published?

JC: I did everything wrong. Instead of choosing the publisher who published my favourite authors, I picked one who was looking for new authors. Instead of finding others in the genre who might advise me, I knew no one else. Instead of. . .well, the list goes on. Suffice to say, I bundled up my book, sent it off, only then to find out about conventions, meeting other authors, and so forth. As a result, when it was eventually rejected, I knew where to send it next. Its ultimate home? Yes, with the publisher who publishes my favourite authors.

LT: How has your science/educational and writing background influenced your fiction?

JC: The science of my background (note I don't say science writing) has led to the questions I ask, which become the stories I write. Satisfying my own curiosity, as it were. The educational writing I've done? It's taught me the process, how to work with criticism, how to edit myself and others, what's involved in publishing. It's also helped me know how to behave professionally, given me sales experience. However, nothing, as far as I know, of that type of writing translates to my fiction. If anything, my fiction kept peeking over my shoulder as I wrote the educational stuff.

LT: Your love of biology comes through in your writing, especially in your Web Shifters series (Beholder's Eye, Changing Vision, Hidden in Sight). What do you think of today's bioethics?

JC: I think about it a great deal. I'm often shocked by the lack of understanding and knowledge the general public seems to have about the natural world and their own bodies. Attempts to establish ethical standards without that knowledge -- or without valuing that knowledge -- terrify me, because we are part of the biology of this planet. Many of the questions I pose in my work relate to that. I try not to hammer at it, because I'm a storyteller, not a moralist, but my feelings on the topic are pretty clear.

LT: Has your experience in the field of animal communication helped you give greater depth to your aliens and their motivations?

JC: I use what I know about the mechanics and motivations of animal communication when building my aliens, definitely. For example, Esen, the main character of my Web Shifters books, typically finds herself either at an advantage or disadvantage due to a form's ability to communicate. I also like to put humans into situations where they have to communicate with the non-human, then show the potential for misunderstanding. Such fun. One of my favourites has been the Drapsk, from the Trade Pact books (A Thousand Words for Stranger, Ties of Power, To Trade the Stars). I loved finding ways to make communication technology for beings who smell meaning.

LT: Tell us more about the Drapsk, and their role in the Trade Pact series.

JC: In book one, Sira learns to appreciate the power of friendship. A new concept to her species. In book two, she learns the power of teamwork through the Drapsk, an even more foreign concept to her. So their role was to demonstrate a societal structure that was the complete opposite to the Clan, yet very successful. They also served as a means to expand the understanding of the M'hir, the "outside-space" dimension the Clan had believed was their personal territory. Another life lesson, as it were.

Last, but not least, I've wanted to write about a species reliant on chemical communication for quite some time. The eyeless Drapsk were marvelous fun to do.

LT: Where did the original idea for A Thousand Words for Stranger come from?

JC: I was researching the evolution of reproductive behaviours in minnows, in particular the biological cost of secondary sexual features in the males, such as large ridges on their heads and pheromone glands. They need these to make nests and to attract females, but they do take energy that could be used, for example, to be faster and escape predators. So it's a risk/benefit balance.

In my story, I took this to an extreme. What if an intelligent species (the Clan) had something genetic that was key to their reproductive success (the Joining) -- but this became linked to something that was both incredibly valuable to them as a culture (the ability to move through space) yet very dangerous (the death of mates during choice)? The story begins with at the point where the benefit may be huge, but the cost is already starting to be the end of the species.

LT: Sira's hair is very expressive, almost independent of the character. Was this meant to bring Sira's unconscious thoughts or feelings to the readers' attention?

JC: Not her thoughts. I needed a way to let her flirt and touch that didn't involve her hands, having established that hand/hand contact was how Joining and Choice were initiated. Plus, it was a little fun on my part to have a character with stereotypically gorgeous hair that had a mind of its own.

LT: Huido is dear to many of your readers and fans. He feels real and believable. Throughout the Trade Pact series, he provides not only comic relief but also another way of looking at things. How did he evolve as a character?

JC: Huido was my homage to a dear friend of ours. A larger-than-life Russian, who loved literature, the woman in his life, his friends, and almost above all food. Generous to a fault but challenging. Kind but ready and willing to embarrass you at any time. I'm not surprised Huido has come to feel real. He is a person, to me. Of course, having a restaurateur who is essentially a lobster was also deliberate. One has fun as often as one can!

Trade cover

LT: Esen, from the Web Shifters series, is a very interesting character. What was the creative process that led to the creation of Esen?

JC: Another biology question. I was looking at population dynamics. Biologists use a system where you can rank species from those who produce as many young as possible, give them no care, and themselves live a short time to those who live as long as whales, elephants, some plants, and humans, giving birth to very few young and caring for them for years. I'd graphed data for two such extremes, then extended the line. What if a species was physiologically capable of living almost forever?

I sketched out ideas of how that could be, such as the ability to modify and repair the damage of aging at the cellular level. Such beings could reproduce only rarely. Otherwise they'd fill the universe. Since I'm never bored, I didn't expect them to be either, so I made them archivists, collectors, shy and secret folk. Then, because where would the story be in that, I tossed in Esen, youngest, least, and totally unexpected. She, well, she took off from there.

LT: In the Company of Others is darker than your other work. Was this intentional? What inspired this novel?

JC: It was intentional. It's a dark topic. It was inspired by the damage done to the ecosystems of New Zealand by various organisms brought -- often with the best of intentions -- by early settlers. I wanted to project this into a future where we were dealing with entire planets. What would happen then? What would be the cost to us, those worlds, and what we had unleashed.

I do feel much of this book is a celebration of how we cope, as humans, with the most dire circumstances. We are an adaptable group, given any chance at all. So that part isn't so dark.

Company cover

LT: Does Dr. Gail Smith bear any resemblance to you and your experiences as a researcher?

JC: We're both short and stubborn?. . .otherwise, the only resemblance is likely that I've always valued cross-fertilization in any field of study. I love learning. At the same time, I'm wary of specialization that excludes other bodies of knowledge. We need people who will step outside their expertise, bring their tools to other areas. A biologist's look at history. An artist's look at physics. That sort of thing.

LT: Tell us about the Quill.

JC: Ah, the Quill. I needed an organism that even an experienced and cautious biologist would overlook as a potential problem on the terraformed worlds. That was the starting point. Then, I needed an organism that could have a devastating effect on those worlds -- sudden and nasty enough that it would stall colonization in its tracks. Lastly without spoiling the story, I wanted to incorporate the search for other intelligent life and its consequences for our movement into space.

LT: Your stories are filled with memorable characters, detail, and complex worlds. Where do you start?

JC: Thank you! Starting points vary a great deal. Often, as I write an initial description, something in it will trigger other aspects. The amphibious aliens on Ret 7, for instance. That entire world, species, culture, and architecture came about simply because I wanted a slimy, untrustworthy car rental agent.

LT: Do you have specific goals when writing a book -- issues you want to explore?

JC: My stories start with a problem, or a question I have about something. For example, Hidden in Sight let me ponder what would happen if two or more species thought they were successfully communicating with one another, but because of their biological natures misunderstood one another to the point where there was a real threat of annihilation. I go at my short fiction the same way. I've a story in Mike Resnick's New Voices in Science Fiction about using DNA as a building material in nanotechnology, "Bubbles and Boxes." It doesn't end well.

I also like to include various ways of looking at that problem or question. Sometimes it's through different human characters. Often it's through a combination of alien viewpoints. Many of the science and societal issues that interest me have no "right" answers, only "best at the time" answers. My stories tend to explore that aspect, too.

LT: What's been your biggest challenge in becoming a full-time science fiction writer?

JC: The hard part was the decision to refuse more non-fiction work, so I could keep up a pace of a book per year or better on the fiction. I was making excellent money and was a senior editor for a major publisher. Turning my back on that was something I had to think about. Not for myself. Trust me, I couldn't wait. But for the family. They, on the other hand, thought it was for the best I go full-time. Looking back, I'm glad to say they were right.

LT: What have you learned about science fiction and writing in general from your work as an editor?

JC: That I've much more to learn about both! Certainly I wasn't as aware as I am now of the breadth of science fiction. Being a judge for the Philip K. Dick Award was a true eye-opener. (Judges read every new science fiction paperback for that year.) We should be proud of our field -- it's amazingly diverse and complex, with room for every aspect of literature, from comedy to thriller, from romance to cautionary tale.

As for writing in general? As an editor, I knew firsthand that someone, at some point, has to take responsibility for finishing every tiny detail. That sounds simple, but believe me, it isn't. [Amen! -- Eds.] I don't know how many times I would send work back to an author -- whether for a part to be completed, to check a name, correct format, spelling, etc. -- only to have that task eventually land on my desk anyway, usually at my busiest moment. I think that's why, as a writer, I'm compulsive about sending in only my most polished, complete work. I know I'm not the only person who has a job to do. Book publishing in any format is a team effort. I hope, by doing my part to the best of my ability, I make it easier for those who handle my story next. From a selfish point of view, I know this also reduces mistakes. Then there's the time aspect. If it doesn't need to be done twice, I get a little longer for my part. So it's a win/win situation.

I've also learned to value professionalism. I'm sure every editor, like me, has worked with one or more authors whose approach to work made them vow "never again." Life's too short. And, as an author, I find being professional gives me courage in difficult situations, such as the infamous "cold call." It's also an approach that helps separate personal life from work, something authors who work at home sometimes forget to do. What do I mean by professionalism? It really comes down to acting and communicating as if you were at work, in an office, rather than meeting friends for drinks. Courteous, but on-task. Clear, but without excuses. Reliable and timely. All the stuff that people who work at home think they won't need any longer. Sorry. You need it more than ever, and to your benefit as well.

LT: Do you have any thoughts for aspiring writers on how to give a valuable critique?

JC: The most valuable critique, in my opinion, is when the reader notes "this doesn't work for me" and gives a specific reason. For example, "when X shoots M in the back, it seemed really out of character. You built X up as someone who would want to see his enemy's face as he died." That kind of comment. The other valuable types of critique involve pacing. "Things seemed to move too quickly here, or too slowly there." The key is not to rewrite for the author, or to pass judgement. It's to inform the author when the reading experience fails to convey what the author intends.

LT: What do conventions offer? Are they valuable investments for the new/aspiring writer?

JC: They're valuable for new, aspiring, and professional alike. Depending on the convention, you could simply be recharged with ideas from talking to like-minded, creative people, or you could conduct business with editors, agents, or other writers. In between is a vast spread of opportunities including writing workshops, dealers selling hard-to-find books, panels on every aspect of writing, publishing, art, and self-promotion.

LT: Any other hard-earned advice?

JC: Look after your health. Be outgoing and friendly. Be positive. Meet people in the business. Too many authors-to-be feel they have to isolate themselves. It's not a model for success. Perhaps above all be patient. This is a business that crawls until you could tear your skin, then suddenly everything takes off and you can't breathe.

LT: You are involved in promoting the use of science fiction and scientific literacy in the classroom. What is scientific literacy?

JC: Scientific literacy, as educators use the term, is defined as "the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity," National Science Education Standards (1996).

In short, by the time you leave school, you should be able to critically assess what you hear or read about the science behind any issue. It doesn't mean being an expert in every aspect of science or technology -- no one could be. It means being aware of what science is, and isn't, being able to judge the credibility of a source, and knowing how to check further for yourself. If this sounds familiar, it's probably because most science fiction readers tend to be scientifically literate. They know to ask questions and to think about consequences. That's why this literature is such a powerful tool for schools.

LT: Do you feel the human race will try to use sciences such as genetic engineering and nanotech to alter ourselves?

JC: There is no "try" here. It's being done, and has been done since we began interacting to control life around us, including our own. What's new are some of the tools and the speed. Should we? I think that's a question long overdue to be considered by society, but we are so fragmented both in how we view life and what we know about it that the answer will be very hard to determine. I think it's going to be crucial that we pay attention to what's happening and think about it, not panic or be reactive. The genie is already out of the bottle. It's what we ask it to do for us that will affect humanity in generations to come.

LT: Which book has been your favourite to write, and why?

JC: It's always my current one. Why? Probably because I don't know how it ends yet. I write above all for my own pleasure. While I'm writing, it's like reading a new story for the first time.

Survival cover

LT: Tell us about Species Imperative: Survival, just out in May 2004. What sparked the idea for this novel?

JC: The idea echoes back to my interest in encouraging scientific literacy, particularly in biology. I mean, if we don't understand ourselves as living things, how can we hope to make informed choices? I wanted to write about a situation where there are many intelligent species, coexisting in space, all sure the big problems have been solved as long as everyone pays their bills, but. . .my "but" is that one of those species has an unsuspected biological drive, a "species imperative" that will come to threaten all the others. I chose migration, because staying on your side of the fence is part of being a polite neighbour. If you must migrate, rules of territory and property are lost. What happens then? Not to mention, I've made that migration a little more dangerous than most.

LT: What comes after Species Imperative: Survival?

JC: I'm presently writing book #2, Species Imperative: Migration. Basically, solving the mystery of "who is the true threat?" has made things worse, by setting in motion the movement of this species. In Migration, the characters must not only deal with the impact of that movement, but also make decisions on how to deal with it. Is there a choice?

I'd originally planned two books, but when writing Survival I added another species to the mix which in turn added another level of plot and mayhem. To handle that, it was necessary to either drop them or finish up with a third book. Once I made that decision and began blocking out the main events, it felt perfect. Things you don't know until you try. Book #3 will be called Species Imperative: Regeneration, and will come out the year after Migration.

LT: Is there anything you would like to tell your readers and fans about Migration?

JC: Mac is back. Other than that? New aliens and old. Funny bits. But, above all else, be ready for some seriously nasty stuff. Don't say I didn't warn you. I'm scaring myself this time. And I don't know how it ends. . . .

LT: And then? What other projects do you have underway or in the pipeline?

JC: I've two more novels contracted to DAW, prequels to the Trade Pact trilogy called, at the moment, Stratification #1 and #2. I'm hoping to do another Esen novel in there as well. And other stuff. As editor, I have an anthology coming out this August, co-edited with Isaac Szpindel, called ReVisions. The stories are alternate science history, and look at what might have happened if certain discoveries had been made by different cultures or at different times.

Also as editor, I've moved into fantasy to do a series called "Realms of Wonder" with Fitzhenry and Whiteside. These are original stories, with each book's theme matched to the language arts curriculum, so they will be used in schools as well as be great reads. The first of these, Summoned by Destiny, comes out in August 2004. I'm very excited about them, as you can imagine.

After that? Some short fiction to keep me busy, and definitely some wilderness camping to keep me sane.

 

Copyright © 2004 Leah Tribolo

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Leah Tribolo

Leah Tribolo is a freelance writer currently residing in France. She has been working abroad in various countries for the last ten years, which has led to her being comfortable almost anywhere and finding nowhere to be home. She shares her time and sanity with three cats, three kids, a plethora of papers, and one patient husband. Her first short story, "The Plum," was published in Pronto! Writings From Rome in October 2001. To contact Leah, email her at leah_tribolo@yahoo.com.



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