A few months ago Louise Marley gave a reading at Village Books, in my hometown of Bellingham. I had known Louise, largely in an online capacity, from our time spent judging the Philip K. Dick Award together, but I enjoyed the opportunity to attend the reading, and to watch her interact with those attending.
Louise Marley has a friendly, balanced presence when reading, an ease of presentation that one might assume comes from her career prior to her life as a writer. Marley has a Master of Music degree and spent over two decades singing professionally, appearing with the Seattle Opera and touring to sing in places such as Italy and Russia. A lifetime reader (and watcher) of science fiction and many other things, Louise started studying writing in the early 1990s and attended Clarion West in 1993, where she studied with, among others, Pat Murphy and Connie Willis.
Since attending Clarion, Marley has published a string of novels, beginning with a trilogy of science fantasy novels about singers: Sing the Light (1995), Sing the Warmth (1996), and Receive the Gift (1997). She's addressed political topics in The Terrorists of Irustan (1999) and The Maquisarde (2002) and dipped into historical SF with The Glass Harmonica (2000). One theme that runs through several of these books is compassion, which is a determining emotional thread in her most recent novel The Child Goddess (2004).
Before, after, and in between reading sections of The Child Goddess, Marley spoke about her writing; this interview was conducted via email, building on points raised during that discussion.
Greg Beatty: Let's start with the basics. Why do you write?
Louise Marley: I love the process of creation, whether it's writing a story or cooking a meal or singing a piece of music I love. In a way, I almost love it too much, because I expect to have fun doing it and once in a while it turns into real work—deadlines, pressure of sales, market worries. But writing, especially writing speculative fiction, has become a lifestyle I find richly satisfying. The work, the community, the readers all give me great joy. And there's that lovely benefit of spending a significant amount of time each day living in the world of the fantastic!
GB: You have a substantial background in music. How does that affect your writing process? Where does it help, and where does it hurt (if there is any place?)
LM: This topic is dear to my heart at the moment, because I'm in the process of developing a workshop in interdisciplinary arts. Music taught me a great deal about story: form, voice, theme development. And opera, which was where I spent a good deal of my working life, taught me character development, scene structure, dramatic tension and release. I haven't found any downside to having been a musician for many years before I began to write. The business is slightly different, and the SF/F community is much more accessible (and friendly, frankly) than the musical community at a national level.
GB: And just to clarify—how long did you sing?
LM: I was a professional singer from the time I graduated from college, when I worked for three marvelous years as a folk singer, until I retired from my cathedral position at the end of 2003. So that's more like twenty-five years! I had wanted to be a singer from the age of five. It was the driving force of my life for a very long time. I still get a great thrill when people have something nice to say about my concert or opera performances. It's wonderful that they remember them.
GB: This book, The Child Goddess, grapples with spiritual issues—the nature of identity, compassion, love, responsibility, etc. What draws you to such issues?
LM: I've been intrigued by all issues of the spirit since I was very young, and I find that most people are, though their interest takes different forms. I'm a person of overt faith, as a practicing Roman Catholic (who also believes in reincarnation and studies Buddhism) but I find that lots of people who say they have no faith per se are still deeply spiritual beings, fascinated by those things we can't explain, even by death. Of course, writing SF and fantasy means we can travel down any road we wish, as long as we tell a good story while we're doing it.
In The Child Goddess I set out to write about a priest who happens to be a woman, and about the issue of extending life, and found myself writing (as so often happens with me) about children. Mother Isabel Burke's motivation, in the story, seemed so self-evident to me that it hardly needed to be touched upon, but delving into Oa's drive to grow up, to become a fully functional human being, surprised me. We learn so much about ourselves as we write and read, and the experience of writing Oa's story helped me to integrate my feelings about my own son growing up, going to college, and one day, moving on to his own life.
GB: Is it challenging to write works with religious main characters in science fiction?
LM: It's risky! One of the writers I most admire said, "Well, I don't usually like books with religious characters, but I liked this one . . . ." On the other hand, Connie Willis writes religious themes (her Christmas collection is a jewel). No one objects to that, as far as I know. Again, she tells great stories, whether or not you care about the religious underpinning of some of them. Now, don't misunderstand me: I wouldn't presume to compare myself to Connie. But her example gives me courage to include religious characters in my stories.
What person lives without contact with people of faith? Even if you're not a church-goer or a believer in some spiritual system, we meet men and women all the time for whom some brand of religion is a way of life. It would be arrogant to create a world in which all those people have disappeared. I'm doing research for a novel which draws on the Marian myths (Mary Magdalene and the Virgin Mary, and the connection to the myths of Inanna, or Ishtar) and I'm reminded that every culture has some sort of faith practice. And the cultures that tried to outlaw them failed miserably, as I saw myself when I sang a tour in Russia and saw bullet-ridden churches being reopened, the people flocking back to them. So, in long-winded fashion, I'm saying that spirituality belongs in a lot of stories, because it's a part of being human.
GB: Ah, thank you. Do you read other spiritual/religious writers? And if so, in or outside of genre fiction?
LM: In answer: I do read other spiritual writers—most notaably Madeleine L'Engle, whose fiction I read, of course, but whose other books I also read. They're not so much religious as meditative, in my view, but her warmth and peaceful outlook are a comfort and often an inspiration.
GB: Ditto on writers working from a base of music, like L. Timmel Duchamp, who seems to build stories around musical structures?
LM: Now, music—that's harder. I'm sorry to say I haven't read Duchamp yet—guess I'd better do that. I'm a hard sell when it comes to books or stories that use music. For example, when I was asked to read and blurb a new novelist's musical fantasy, I couldn't do it. There were simply too many details that were wrong, that didn't fit. I have read, and enjoyed, Lee Modesitt's work, because he really knows what he's doing. His wife sort of has the life I did—she's a singer and a college teacher of singing. Greg Bear's marvelous fantasy "The Infinity Concerto" makes perfect use of music. Again, he knows what he's doing. As does K.W. Jeter, when he uses music in his work. The inner workings of a musical life are hard to attempt if you haven't had one, frankly. I don't mean to be arrogant, and I hope it doesn't sound that way, but it's true.
GB: And one last subtler question about music: different types of music have different structures. Do you find musical structures appearing in your work?
LM: Yes! And you're right, of course, about different musical forms. In my mind, short stories loosely model what we call "song form," which is of course more compact, even simpler or more spare, than the full symphonic form, or even "sonata form." But all of this is almost subconscious, because my musical awareness is such a deeply ingrained habit. I don't set out to imitate a musical structure when I'm plotting a novel or a story. It helps, though, to have that old habit. It's an organizing aspect I'm grateful for.
The greatest thing music has taught me, though, in terms of my writing career, is discipline. And to try to work without fear! Someone said that singers have to "have the brain of an Einstein, the voice of a nightingale, and the skin of a rhinoceros!" Guess which is the hardest part? Right. The rhinoceros skin. It's the same for writers, or any artist, I think. It takes guts to create something and then let others criticize your creation. It's awfully close to the heart.
GB: Let's come back to spirituality for a moment. You mentioned that spirituality takes different forms for different people. One common claim for spirituality is that it addresses ongoing issues—that the spiritual challenges of ancient humanity are the same as ours, whatever form it may be expressed in. Certainly something similar is claimed by religions (few say, "God changed"). Yet science fiction often deals with change. How do these two factors work together for you? Is there a challenge? A useful tension? A synthesis?
LM: I agree that the issues of spirituality are timeless, but the ways in which we perceive and address them are not. First, the morality stories that people used to teach and advise their societies were passed on orally. Later, they were written down, by (in my opinion) sometimes seriously impeachable sources. The Torah, the Bible, and the Koran all have issues of contradiction, of cultural relevance, of conflicting details. These weakness are attributable (again, in my opinion and that of many theologians smarter and better educated than I) to the weakness of the human memory. In the current day, instant communication, sometimes accurate, sometimes not, affects our moral, spiritual, political, and social decisions. Science fiction addresses that very well, because the parameters in which the issues are treated are so much wider in a speculative story. And we SF writers dig into a greater panoply of moral challenges, because we envision an even wider and more fluid world than the one we're all living in now. At the end of the day, I hope, our convictions hold, but we still deal with an almost infinite variety of choices.
GB: The Child Goddess focuses on a woman who is both spiritual and religious. Most of the main characters are female. Do you perceive a difference in male and female spirituality? Or, given your travels, do you see regional differences in spirituality?
LM: Well, first I must protest that there are two sacrificial figures—martyrs, if you will—in the novel, one female and one male. And there is at least one seriously heroic male, the anchen Micho. All the anchens, male or female, have the same attitude toward their spiritual lives, and the same wish to be fully human. In general, no, I don't perceive a difference between male and female spirituality, or a regional difference, either. Spirituality can be expressed differently by different people, but I don't believe there's a gender component to it. And often people who I think of as spiritual would actually deny it. It would be a question of definition. To me, the spiritual person is one who makes moral choices—service, perhaps, as in Doctors Without Borders, or sometimes gifts of charity, or simply being kind to someone for the sake of kindness. Honestly, I don't think I've met very many people who don't fit the profile, even when they may identify themselves as agnostic or even atheist.
GB: You referred to the anchen Micho as male. I found the anchens rather (and I assumed intentionally) sexless, and didn't really see much gender distinction among them. In fact, I'd say part of what Oa is missing is the challenge of dealing with mature sexuality. Did you see the anchens as functioning as male and female?
LM: The anchens were only sexless in the sense that they were prepubescent, by definition. Mature sexuality was one of the things they were denied, although I was more interested in other aspects of maturity—emotional and spiritual aspects, which of course, in time, would be affected by sexuality. I guess that's another book.
GB: I'm also not sure I can buy the idea that Mother Isabel Burke's is "a priest who happens to be a woman." Her spiritual challenges seem very maternal—she's grappling with what it means to be a mother, even if the child in question is older than she is. Or am I missing something?
LM: Ah ha! Not a father yet, are you, Greg? I absolutely agree that Isabel's instincts are deeply maternal, but I can tell you in all honesty that Isabel is modeled after a priest I know and love and admire, and he's a man. I suppose you would call his concern for his parishioners paternal rather than maternal, but I don't find a great deal of difference. And my own husband's devotion to our son, although expressed differently, is every bit as intense as my own. And yes, as Isabel says, she loves Oa as if she were her own child, and she also has to allow her to grow up—perhaps the hardest thing for a parent to do.
And now I'm thinking further about the wording of your question: If Isabel is not a priest who happens to be a woman, then what is she? Is the old notion correct, that priesthood is essentially a gender-based calling? I don't really believe that. I think that slowly, slowly, our culture is growing past those limitations, expanding our vision of gender roles, so that all of them will be available to all of us. That includes women or men choosing what we think of as tradition roles, like women cooking and men doing yard work, if that's what we prefer.
GB: Fair enough. Let's turn to another aspect of your work. You've shared the Endeavour Award once (the 2001 award), and have been a finalist other times (for the 2000 and 2003 awards). This award is given for a distinguished book of science fiction or fantasy written by a Pacific Northwest author. In what way is your work regional, or in what way does it speak to regional concerns?
LM: I've had so much fun using Seattle as a venue for some of my work. It's a colorful city, with distinctive weather patterns (you know that, of course) and quite a forward-looking city. In The Child Goddess, I could also use St. James Cathedral, where I worked for twenty-one years (dear me!) as the alto soloist/section leader. I dare to hope one or two readers might want to come and look at this beautifully restored old building because they read about it in my novel.
GB: How much of this regional aspect is intentional?
LM: It's just fun, really. I know the city, I know the cathedral, the geography, the flora and fauna. In The Glass Harmonica I actually invented a new concert hall, naming it after one of my favorite conductors, but otherwise I've used existing landmarks, tweaking them as I saw fit. And I suspect a good deal of my readership is from the Pacific Northwest, and they enjoy finding their own city in fiction.
GB: I had a shock of recognition at several points in The Child Goddess, and suspect others will enjoy it as well. Thank you for taking this time to talk about your work.
LM: Thank you! This was fun.