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Interview: Something About Mary, An Interview with Mary Robinette Kowal by Alethea Kontis

I met Mary Robinette Kowal in my driveway on the first Friday the 13th in 2006. She got out of her car and gave me a hug. The door closed behind her, locking the keys in while it was still running—something that on any other day would undoubtedly have happened to me—and we laughed. 

I have loved her with all my heart ever since that moment. 

I didn’t know much about Mary at the time, apart from the fact that we were both alumni of Orson Scott Card’s writing boot camp and had subsequently joined the same online writer’s group. Rumor had it that she was a puppeteer of some caliber (she had recently auditioned for Sesame Street). She had a goal of submitting one new short story every month to various markets. I had listened to her reading of “Rampion” at The First Line and was already a fan of both her words and her mad voice acting skillz. She was the art director for a pretty little magazine called Shimmer. 

I had just started a blog; she had just launched a website. In addition to my birthday, we celebrated her first pro sale to Strange Horizons. I had a nightmare about Big Bird chasing me through a library, and Mary was going crazy with the science behind this story she was writing called “Waiting for Rain.” Needless to say, we hit it off. 

Two and a half years and many trials, tribulations, and triumphs later, in a city exactly one mile above sea level, I jumped up and down on blistered feet and screamed along with the rest of the Codex Writers while a beautifully flustered Mary made her way to the stage to accept the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. I could not have been more proud had it been my own sister, dressed like a fairy princess and donning that tiara. It will forever be one of my favorite memories, ranking right up there with a similarly flustered Mary and I standing outside that obstinate car in my driveway. 

What will our future hold? Well, that’s the exciting part, isn’t it? More puppets. More short stories. Outer space and almost-dead dogs. New books on the nightstand, and old slang in the vocabulary. Webslinging? Maybe. Climbing walls? Definitely. And always accompanied by a fabulous menu and a closet full of ball gowns. Tiaras optional.  

Alethea Kontis: What would be the title of your memoir?

Mary Robinette Kowal: Yes, A Puppeteer. Really”

AK: If you were a celestial body, which would you be?

MRK: I would be a Saturn like planet in the habitable zone around another planet. I would have several moons, at least one which had a breathable atmosphere and on that planet there would be sentient life, which would one day contact Earth.

AK: Describe your perfect day.

MRK: My perfect day might be too intimate. It would start as a day in which I did not need to be anywhere and had no deadlines. I would sleep in with Rob. I’m thinking the temperature would be in the mid-sixties that morning, to make snuggling apropos. He would get up first and make me waffles.

I would read, lounging on the sofa with one of the cats curled up in my lap. Rob would be at the dining room table reading the newspaper.He shakes his head at the news. Can you see him?

We’d ride our bikes to the farmer’s market, and by this point the temperature has risen to the low 80s, but without humidity so our clothes don’t stick to us. The apricots are in season. And I think we also get chantrelles and arugula, because I’m going to cook that evening. Some of our friends come over, I think you are there. Rob has picked some wines for the meal and I make a wild mushroom risotto. We’ll have the apricots for desert, with a goat cheese and some honey. The evening is cool enough that we decide to eat in the back yard. There are fireflies, but no mosquitoes.

When everyone goes home, we’ll stay up doing the dishes. Whichever of us is washing will receive a backrub from the other; that’s what we always do. We’ll laugh and then go to bed. And the rest is private.

AK: How would you rewrite “Banana Split” in decadent restaurantese?

MRK: Cavendish Banana Farfalla

AK: Of all the exotic places you’ve lived and visited, which was the most interesting? The most surprising?

MRK: I would say that India fits that, because it completely shifted the way I thought about poverty and also made me realize how many things I thought were basic human nature were more likely to be regional social structures. Take marriage, for instance. I had conversations with young men and women there all of whom seemed fairly appalled at the idea of finding a spouse through dating. Now I know that’s not a universal thing, but it did make me reset my expectations about arranged marriages. And the generosity of India.

As we were leaving, after having been there for a month researching a show, one of us made a comment regretting that we hadn’t found a place to buy a mask. Before we knew what was happening, one of the people we had been working with spoke to his son, who hopped on his motorbike and took off. He was back fifteen minutes later with a gorgeous mask from their home.

Another time, we’d been invited to dinner and there was an odd chemical smell in the air. My tour partner touched the wall and it was tacky. He realized that they had painted their dining room because we were coming to visit.

It was humbling. 

AK: What are your 5 favorite naughty words in Victorian slang?

MRK: Cauliflower, Arbor Vitae, Miss Laycock, Nebuchadnezzar, the Exchange

AK: What’s the most complicated prop you’ve ever constructed?

MRK: I could answer this in two ways, the most time-consuming or the most-technically challenging. Time-consuming was the dead dog that I built for a production of “Bad Jazz.” It needed to look real, but was otherwise straightforward construction, at least in terms of problems I had solved before.

Technically-challenging was the blood-squirting chair that I had to build for a production of “Rag and Bone.” There are process shots on my website, which might be fun to swing by and look at.

AK: In what ways are set design similar to and different from writing?

MRK: Both involve world building. In an ideal situation, the set supports the story utterly, much like the language supports the story. In both cases if you notice the set or the words above the story, the designer/writer has done something wrong.

AK: Some say that short fiction is a dying market. What’s your opinion on the subject?

MRK: I think that short fiction is a changing market, but it is far from dying. It might well be that print magazines need to take a hard look at how they relate to their audiences, but short fiction itself will be around for a long time.

AK: What was your favorite book as a child?

MRK: A Wrinkle In Time. I was Meg, except without the crazy math skills.

AK: After attending Launchpad, do you think you could fly a spaceship to Mars?

MRK: Heavens, no. But I could spot it in the sky.

AK: What first drew you to genre fiction?

MRK: Just like with puppetry, it is the theater of the possible. Anything can happen, but more than that it allows us to stand just to the side of ourselves and look at the human condition. The opportunity for metaphor, layers of reality, and sheer wonder cannot, I think, be found as easily in any other field.

AK: What books are currently on your nightstand?

MRK: Zoe’s Tale, by John Scalzi, Acacia, by David Anthony Durham andThe House at Pooh Corner, by A. A. Milne

AK: What’s your number one tip for authors when reading their own work?

MRK: Just one? Speak clearly.

AK: What is the history behind the famous Campbell Dress? Will you ever wear it again?

MRK: It’s from the early 1960s, and I picked it up in Portland, OR at Ray’s Ragtime. Every year, Rob and I throw a formal dress dinner party for Christmas. I have a small collection of ballgowns for that because I firmly believe that everyone should be allowed to dress up if they want to and I’ll be darned if I wait around for someone else to make the occasion.

Oh heavens, yes. I love that dress. I’ll wear it again, but I’ll probably try not to wear it to an event with the same crowd.

AK: Rumor has it that you will be fashioning a box for the Campbell Tiara. Can you give us any hints as to what it might look like?

MRK: It’s a secret. (Translation: I haven’t got a clue)

AK: So what is the funny story behind “Waiting for Rain”?

MRK: It goes like this. I asked Bill if I could send him a story. He said yes but asked me to convert it to .rtf before sending it in. Please note, that I’m totally blaming this on the conversion. I grabbed the file and sent it over. When he accepted it, he asked me to make one change and commented on my use of the word “bolt” as in, “the plants in the garden were bolting from the heat.”

I made the change and then on a whim decided to look for “bolt.” Except it wasn’t in the story. Not anywhere. I thought. “Oh crap. What did I sent him.”

When I opened the file that I sent I realized that I had accidentally grabbed the only other .rtf in that folder, which just happened to be my very first draft. Not just a first draft, mind you, but a version that I had written in a flash fiction contest at Liberty Hall in a hour and a half. It had been spell-checked, but that was it.

I fessed up. He read the longer version and liked both, so suggested that I run one on my site and he run one on his and that I talk about the differences. Brilliant! I thought. Until I realized that the reason I had made the changes was because the science didn’t work in the one I first sent him.

AK: If you were stranded on a deserted island with one bottle of wine, which would you have it be?

MRK: The one with the shortwave radio built into it.

AK: You’ve got novels in the works, podcasts all over the internet, blogs aplenty, copious short stories, and a neverending slew of appearances. What *won’t* you be doing in the next few months?

MRK: Skiing. I skid instead of ski.

AK: Whom do you admire most?

MRK: George Latshaw. He was one of my mentors as a puppeteer. He once said, “I’ve stood my entire life with one foot in theater and one foot in puppets and what I want is to stand with both feet under me.” I feel the same way. He was generous, kind, had an unending sense of humor and worked until he was in his eighties. He was always vital and never lost his sense of curiosity or wonder.

AK: If you could be any superhero, who would you be and why?

MRK: Spiderman, except as a girl. Hello! Clinging to walls? Webslinging? Incredibly strong, plus that spidey sense. It’s a perfect combo for puppetry. Plus, I’d be able to photograph my own shows, because I’d have a darkroom and a good camera. What’s not to love?

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