Tuesday, September 4, 2007

A Brief Conversation with Cat Rambo

I haven’t performed introductions with my previous interviewees, but since Cat Rambo is a relative newcomer to the f/sf field, I thought a few words of introduction are in order. I first met Cat two summers ago, when I was teaching at Clarion West. She was one of several feminists in the class but stood out for her air of calm, good-humored competence and always struck me as utterly unfazed by the stressful demands and wild intensity of the workshop. Since then, I’ve had the pleasure of numerous encounters with her here in Seattle. Although her hair color is subject to radical change without notice, everything else about her seems remarkably constant. She’s made numerous sales over the last two years. Just to mention a few: her letter to William S. Burroughs appeared in Aqueduct’s Talking Back (Conversation Pieces Vol 11),; “The Surgeon’s Tale,” which she wrote with Jeff VanderMeer, is available at
Subterranean Press
; “The Dead Girl’s Wedding March” appeared in Fantasy Magazine; and she recently sold "Kallakak's Cousins" to Asimov's SF.

Timmi: You were a student in the MA writing program at Johns Hopkins before you started writing science fiction; and then you stopped writing for more than a decade until you decided to begin writing science fiction and attended Clarion West (Class of 2005). Such a hiatus is unusual. Was it difficult picking up after such long disuse of your writing chops? And why did you decide to write science fiction instead of literary fiction? Do you think the classes you took at Hopkins provided you with the narrative skills and tools you need to write science fiction? Or have you had to acquire a whole new set of skills and tools?

Cat: I got sidetracked after Hopkins and ended up in the network security field over the course of a long and winding story. Writing kept nudging at the corners of my brain, though, usually in the form of poems at first, and then eventually as full blown stories and ideas for novels connected with the online game I work with. Coming back to writing fiction felt tremendous, like one of those good long stretches where you can feel your bones and muscles pop into place.

I had actually been writing what some would consider genre fiction at Hopkins: stories about talking chickens and dolls, Bigfoot, and a novel about superheroes that was pronounced unmarketable by several publishers. It also made sense to go with the field that I most enjoyed reading. I've always been an f/sf reader—it was The Hobbit in 2nd or 3rd grade that first got me hooked on reading, and I knew that was the sort of thing I wanted to write.

In my experience, f/sf workshops teach students a great deal more about the nuts and bolts of writing basics than graduate lit workshops do. I've told non-genre beginning writers to take an f/sf workshop just so they get exposed to that sort of hands-on talking about things like the effect of the present tense vs. the effect of the past tense on the reader. I enjoyed the Hopkins workshops and I did learn a lot from them, particularly from John Barth and Steve Dixon who were both amazing. But there was also a certain amount of wankery of several flavors.

There is a weird rancor between sf workshops and lit workshops, though, that I am loathe to fuel, so I will hastily add that I think anything that gets you writing and thinking is fine, and that such things come in different shapes/compositions/textures for different people. The smartest single thing I heard at Clarion West was Syne Mitchell saying "Find out what works for you and do it. Lots."

Timmi: Since attending Clarion West in 2005, you've attended several other workshops. Do you also have a writing group you meet regularly with? I know it's not unusual for writers to make workshops an important part of their writing lives, but as someone who'd been writing fiction for more than twenty years before attending my first workshop (Sycamore Hill in 2003), I am always a little surprised to find that many people begin their writing lives with the classes and workshops and then continue to attend workshops and form writing groups with other writers. Clearly, workshops work for you. Do you think it makes writing a less lonely, isolated art? Could you talk, please, about how and why workshops work for you?

Cat: I do have a face-to-face group in the form of some local Clarion West graduates, and I've recently started meeting with a small group of local writers who have a lot more writing credits than I do. Workshops force me to produce, both due to the pressures of producing something to be critiqued as well as fueling my own competitive nature. And while I get fabulous critiques from my group, I think the most important aspect of workshop is giving critiques, because it makes you articulate your stance on things like adverbs or foreshadowing as well as making you examine why you like one piece of writing but not another.

One piece of wisdom I've heard and agree with is that it's important to find a group that is at your level (or higher, and gracious enough to let you leech off their experience while you work at scrambling upward)—and by level, I mean (a) skill at critiquing, (b) talent, and (c) knowledge of how words and story elements work.

Workshops and reading groups can be great for fueling writing—for example, when Escape Pod recently had a contest for flash fiction, someone mentioned it on the message board for my CW class. A slew of us wrote flash pieces to submit as a result of that, which ended up with several selling pieces to Escape Pod. I belong to Codex Writers as well, which is a neo-pro group, and they have constant internal contests going on—right now there's a Halloween one and a collaboration one—whose sole purpose is to spur people on to write. And there's something about hearing about other people's sales that gets me to go open my submission spreadsheet and make sure everything's out that can be.

Timmi: Does the sociological and/or ideological composition of the workshop group make a difference, and if so, what kind of difference? Does gender make a difference? Genre? Race? Class?

Cat: It's important to find a group that is open to your work. Feminism, for example, informs my writing, and it would be hard to have to start every crit session arguing about whether or not being feminist made me humorless.

Myself, I like a good mix of people because I want to have my ideas and assumptions challenged when they're going astray. I think I would have a difficult time in a group that was nothing but male, but I value Mark B., who has been our only male member up to date VASTLY because he can see things from an angle that I have a hard time with. The other day he was talking about how men make overtures of friendship to other men and what that's like in a way that made me go back and look at some of my stories to see how I could make them ring truer in that regard. My group has something approximating a range of class levels but could be a lot better.

Unfortunately, that points to the fact that here in the f/sf world, there aren't as many class and race differences as there could be. One of the phenomena that I find very problematic is the idea of cons. Don't get me wrong, I love going to them-—but they are available only to people who can spare the money and time, and they do provide valuable networking that has the potential to affect someone's career in a way that isn't there for the people who can't make it to them. To some extent, the Internet compensates for that, but even there the group is limited to people with computers who are relatively Net savvy.

At the same time, while f/sf has at least made stabs at exploring issues of gender and race, it has been less eager to explore class. And the ongoing f/sf vs. literature debate I mentioned earlier is, in my opinion, a symptom of that. It could be read as a class-motivated sort of knee-jerk anti-intellectualism where the speaker is trying to position themselves as working class/part of the masses in a way that may or may not be justified and may or may not be a mechanism for avoiding examination of where they are in the system.

This is an attitude I sometimes see expressed-—and it comes from all manner of spec-fic writers, high fantasy to military sf to hard science--that what the "literary" writers are doing is creating Art that can be appreciated by only a small group of highly-educated readers. And sometimes that gets pushed further and loaded with intimations of effete snobbery. There are all sorts of class undertones at work in this discourse that I think are just fascinating.

It's certainly entertaining to maintain that literary writers hack up words in hairball-like fashion onto the page and don't actually do much beyond that and that they're as nude as a newly-clad Emperor. But I can testify, having at least attempted to work at that level, that it's pretty frickin' hard. All writing is hard, and good writing on any side of the genre fence is extra hard because it means an intense effort at examination of the self and the world.

There is some interesting class-examination work going on in spec-fic, though, and I'm really curious to see how the Plunkett Award will affect that. Your Marq'ssan cycle is a good example of that. I just finished Morgan Howell's Queen of the Orcs, which takes some classic high fantasy tropes and turns them inside out in a really interesting way. China Mieville. Sarah Monette. Michael Swanwick. Parts of the Mundane SF movementthere's increasing amounts of good stuff out there that takes class issues into account.

Timmi: Was it difficult to develop a sense of your own, particular aesthetic judgment, or do you think your workshop experience has helped you to do that?

Cat: (imo) Developing a sense of one's own, particular aesthetic judgment is an on-going, laborious, joyful challenge that we work on all the time, because it's the creation/amplification/redefinition of the ideals we hold our own writing up to. Workshop experience has been only peripheral to that in the past for me, but who knows? Maybe the next workshop I'm in will be the one that leads me to a major redefinition. Which might be fun.

Timmi: Thanks, Cat. I appreciate your taking the trouble to articulate all this.


Sue Lange said...

NIce interview, Cat and Timmi. I hadn't realized mundane sf had actually been elevated to a movement.

Cat Rambo said...

Yuppers, it's on wikipedia and everything. :)