- How To Make A Spaceship
- Sense And Sensibility
- The Dispossessed
- Tomorrow's Kin
- Big Magic
C. G. Cooper: Welcome to Books In 30 with me, C. G. Cooper. Here at Books In 30, we discuss great books with some of today's top authors. Don't forget that you can snag the full list of books we discuss in this episode at cg-cooper.com/podcast, along with the full transcript of the episode. Welcome to our listeners, and a big Books In 30 welcome to today's guest Nancy Kress.
Nancy is the author of 33 books including 26 novels, four collections of short stories, and three books on writing. Her work has won six Nebulas, two Hugos, a Sturgeon, and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award. Much of her work concerns genetic engineering. Kress' fiction has been translated into, get ready, Swedish, Danish, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Polish, Croatian, Chinese, Lithuanian, Romanian, Japanese, Korean, Hebrew, Russian, and Klingon, none of which she can read. In addition to writing, Kress often teaches at various venues around the country and abroad, including a visiting lectureship at the University of Leipzig and a recent writing class in Beijing. Kress lives in Seattle with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead. Did I pronounce that correctly, Nancy?
Nancy Kress: Yes, you did.
C. G. Cooper: All right, and Cosette, the world's most spoiled toy poodle. Welcome, Nancy. How are you today?
Nancy Kress: Fine, and I'm delighted to be here. Thank you for asking me.
C. G. Cooper: Absolutely. Well, 20, or no, 33 books, 26 novels. Can you give the listeners a quick snapshot of why you became an author?
Nancy Kress: Yes, but it was not necessarily planned. When I was a kid and I was reading fiction by Louisa May Alcott and Zane Grey, I thought that all writers were dead. I didn't realize that more writing was actually being produced. I considered it a finite resource like oil. Then when I learned better, eventually, I started to write when I was pregnant and at home with a baby and expecting a second child and going pretty nuts, so I started writing while the baby was napping. Eventually, that grew to displace the career I'd originally had, which was a fourth grade teacher.
C. G. Cooper: Wow. You thought-
Nancy Kress: That's the snapshot.
C. G. Cooper: That is fantastic. That is a first. You thought that everybody was dead. That's fantastic. You were just going to step out-
Nancy Kress: When I was eight or nine, yes.
C. G. Cooper: Were you going to be the first living writer? Is that what you told your parents that you want to be when you grew up?
Nancy Kress: No. I didn't tell them I was going to be a writer at all because I thought that, I didn't know that was possible. I grew up in a very conservative Italian-American household, and it never crossed anybody's mind that anybody would be a writer. We lived way out in the country. I didn't have access to a bookstore, and all the books in the library look sort of old, so I just assumed there was no more writing being produced.
C. G. Cooper: That is fantastic. Have you, by any chance, written a story about that because I feel like there's a novel in there somewhere.
Nancy Kress: No, I have not. Not yet. Now I'll have to think about it.
C. G. Cooper: Exactly. I love it when authors dive back into their childhood for story ideas. I was recently reading Shonda Rhimes' book The Year of Yes, and she talks a lot about her childhood and why she became a writer. That's always fascinated me, and it's the reason it's one of our questions on the podcast; everybody's got a completely different story, so thank you for sharing yours. Hopefully we can hear a little bit more in the coming minutes. Let's jump to the meat of it, what everybody wants to hear about. What are you currently reading, or what's a book that you've finished that you think the listeners would love?
Nancy Kress: Well, what I'm reading right now is a nonfiction book, I read a lot of nonfiction, called How to Make a Spaceship, and it is by Julian Guthrie. It's about Peter Diamandis winning the prize, the space X Prize with his ship, SpaceShipOne. You probably remember this.
C. G. Cooper: Yeah.
Nancy Kress: A prize was offered of 10 million dollars, and there was a lot of competition, and this is really an important book because not only is it well-written, but this is where space travel is going. Governments seem to be too tangled up in budget problems, political problems, regulations, and private industry is forging ahead with space travel. This book tells exactly, starting with Peter Diamandis' childhood, you mentioned childhood - boy, his was a doozy - moving forward to the point where he eventually decided he was going to go for it. There's a foreword by Richard Branson and an afterword by Stephen Hawking, and the writing in this book is very good. For anybody at all interested in the future of space travel, I think this book is something they would absolutely enjoy and should read.
C. G. Cooper: Wow. See, and again, I've said this on other episodes, and I probably, I will keep saying it until the end, until people tell me to shut my mouth, that this is why I love talking to other authors about new books because I've never heard of this. Last year, I read Elon Musk's biography, which kind of jumps into that, and obviously, he tells that story, or the author does, but it's fascinating. It's like you said, it's where everything is going. Because governments are so bloated and there's so much red tape, it's amazing to see what people like Musk and like the author of How to Make a Spaceship have done to advance that technology in the private sector. Walking away from that book, what was that main "holy cow" that you walked away with?
Nancy Kress: Well, partly, a feeling that I don't want to go. My husband would absolutely love to go into space, but I'm the kind of a person who throws up after being on a rollercoaster, and I don't think weightlessness would work at all for me, so I want everybody else to go, and then send back pictures to me.
C. G. Cooper: I'm with you. I can't do the tea cup ride at Disney World with my kids because my stomach is just, I don't know. Then there was that movie with Sandra Bullock where she was out in outer space, and that just confirmed my dislike for anything, me, personally, going into outer space.
Nancy Kress: Well, I had a lot of trouble with that movie, but then I have a lot trouble with almost all science fiction movies. I write science fiction, and I object to what Hollywood usually does, which is they just completely ignore the actual science and turn it into either magic or just blithely change the parameters of what's possible in order to make the story better. While I'm all in favor of making the story better, I think there are limits, and that science itself, real science, is exciting enough that you don't have to do some of the really dumb things that movies, science fiction movies do.
C. G. Cooper: Absolutely. No, I agree. I agree. All right, well, then that's a perfect segue, I think, into the most loaded question of the podcast, and that being: what is your favorite book of all time?
Nancy Kress: Well, I have two. When I was thinking about this, I decided I absolutely could not choose, and you're just going to have to endure hearing both of them-
C. G. Cooper: That is fine.
Nancy Kress: ... because, on the surface, they look wildly different, but I'm going to explain why I think they are not. One is Jane Austen's Sense and Sensibility. I did my master's work on Jane Austen, and I have been a lifelong fan. I can practically recite entire sections of those six novels. The other one is a science fiction novel called The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin about a group of anarchists settling a small planet.
Now, you're going to say, even if you're too polite to have to say it, you're going to think it, "What the hell could they possibly have in common?" Here's what it is: Both novels are about people who are struggling to reconcile the practical and the ethical. In Sense and Sensibility, the main character, Elinor, who is the most sensible person in her family, is trying to reconcile the fact that she needs to keep this family afloat financially, and she is in love with someone who is engaged to someone else, and in those days, an engagement was an absolute promise, so there are ethical problems with pursuing that, which she doesn't do. She's wrestling with those issues. She's also wrestling with issues of emotional truth versus practical truth.
The same is truth of Shevek, the protagonist of The Dispossessed, who is dealing with capitalism versus a very ideal socialism in which nobody owns anything. Actually, it's anarchism, but it reads a little bit more like an idealized version of socialism. He is also wrestling with ethical issues. That's what interests me, Carlos, about fiction, books where the main character has some kind of ethical problem, and although Regency England or Jane Austen and the setting on a small planet in the far future don't seem to have much in common, those are my two favorite novels, and it's because of the characters, which is what I'm always interested in when I read.
C. G. Cooper: That's fantastic. Do you go back and read those novels multiple times? We've had authors on that every time they read they're starting a new book, they read a certain novel again or they read it every year. Are these ones that you keep going back to?
Nancy Kress: Yes, I do. Whenever I get a little bit stuck, I pick up The Dispossessed, and I read it because Le Guin's prose is so good that sometimes, that gets me moving. Whenever I'm feeling distressed, I go to Jane Austen because her sensible approach to things always cheers me up a little bit and lifts me out of any depression.
C. G. Cooper: Awesome.
Nancy Kress: Yeah, I reread. I reread a lot. I had this conversation once with a friend who never rereads. She said, "Well, why would you want to reread a book when you already know what happens?" I said, "Well, do you ever listen to a song again even though you know what the music is going to do?" and he said, "That's different," but, you know, it's not. It's like going back to music that you love. You know what it's going to sound like and you know what the book is going to sound like, but you still want to hear it again.
C. G. Cooper: I completely agree. For me, I kind of equate it to that familiar blanket that you had as a child. It's super cozy, you can wrap yourself in it and just enjoy it once more. I've read, there's a few books that I continuously go back to, and whether it's finding that little detail that you didn't notice the 20 other times that you read it or just that familiarity of those characters that they feel like family, and it's just, they're part of who you are.
Nancy Kress: They do. They really do, although I'm not crazy about the blanket anthology, because very few blankets pose ethical dilemmas.
C. G. Cooper: I guess it depends on what kind of blanket it is, then.
Nancy Kress: I don't know what your blankets are... Blankets don't pose ethical dilemmas.
C. G. Cooper: Well, I guess it depends on what part of the world you're in too. Well, cool. Well, let's move on to your work. I'm fascinated. I would love to know if you brought a snippet for the listeners to listen to of your work.
Nancy Kress: Yes, I did. My novel Tomorrow's Kin came out in July. It's the start of a trilogy. It's from Tor, which is the science fiction imprint of Simon and Schuster. It concerns a dilemma that's about to hit Earth, but the opening takes place at a faculty party, and that's what I want to read. My main character, Marianne, is a scientist. She's also on the faculty, and she does not really want to be at this party. As a veteran of a whole lot faculty parties, that's what inspires this.
C. G. Cooper: Great.
Nancy Kress: I hope everybody out there who's on a college faculty isn't going to get mad at me.
C. G. Cooper: No. No, they should take it in stride.
Nancy Kress: [reading from Tomorrow’s Kin] "The publication party was held in the dean's office, which was supposed to be an honor. Oak-paneled room, sherry in little glasses, small-paned windows facing the quad, the room was trying hard to be a Commons, some place like Oxford or Cambridge, a task for which it was several centuries too late. The party was trying hard to look festive. Marianne's colleagues, except for Evan and the dean, were trying hard not to look too envious or at their watches. 'Stop it,' Evan said to Marianne from behind the cover of his raised glass. 'Stop what?' She said. 'Pretending you hate this.' 'I hate this,' Marianne said. 'You don't,' Evan said.
"He was half right. She didn't like parties, but she was proud of her paper, which had been achieved despite two years of gene sequencers that kept breaking down, inept graduate students who contaminated samples with their own DNA, murmurs of "Lucky find" from Baskell whom she'd never gotten along with. Baskell, an old-guard physicist saw her a bitch who refused to defer to rank or to back down gracefully in an argument. Many people Marianne knew saw her as some variant of this. The list included two of her three grown children.
"Outside the open casements, students lounged on the grass in the mellow October sunshine. Three girls in cut-off jeans played Frisbee, leaping at the blue flying saucer and checking to see if the boys sitting on the stone wall were watching. Feinberg and Davidson from physics walked by arguing amiably. Marianne wished that she were with them instead of at her own party. 'Oh, God,' she said to Evan, 'Curtis just walked in.' The president of the university made his ponderous way across the room. Once he had been a historian, which might be why he reminded Marianne of Henry VIII. Now he was a campus politician, as power-mad as Henry, but stick at a second-rate university where there wasn't much power to be had. Marianne held against him not his personality but his mind. Unlike Henry VIII, he was not all that bright, and he spoke in cliches. 'Dr. Jenner,' he said, 'Congratulations. A feather in your cap, your paper is an accredit to us all.'"
That's the opening of the book.
C. G. Cooper: The Henry VII and how you described that is fantastic. I love it. How much of that did you draw from personal experience?
Nancy Kress: More of it than I care to admit.
C. G. Cooper: Got it, but it's fiction, so it's not really real. Right, Nancy?
Nancy Kress: It is. It is. The story's not really real. I think, like good fiction writers try to do is, the story is made up, and if you're writing science fiction, it can be very made up, but the details and the psychology of the characters and what makes us human, that has to stay real.
C. G. Cooper: Amen. Amen. Well, tell us about what drew you to that focus of genetic engineering within the science fiction genre.
Nancy Kress: Carlos, I'm not exactly sure. I started out a million years somewhere back in the early Jurassic writing fantasy. My first three novels were fantasy, and then, for some reason, science fiction became more interesting, and then, as time went on, genetic engineering became really interesting. This is the future. This is where we are going to go because once the genie is out of the bottle, you can't put it back in, and we are going to need this. I'm going to give my stem speech for genetic engineering because that's not what this podcast is about, but let me just say that if we're going to feed the nine billion people that the planet is going to hold in another couple of decades, we're going to have to genetic engineer at least crops and possibly animals, or we just can't do it.
Yes, and there is already incredible advances in medicine from genetic engineering, and there will be even more. I'm not trained as a scientist. I wish I were, but the more that I read about it, the more excited I get, and I hope that some of that excitement transfers itself into my novels.
C. G. Cooper: I'm sure it does. I know it's a subject that fascinates me because it has, there are so many possibilities, and I love to see when fiction brings in that reality. I'm a big fan of the old saying "ripped from the headlines." I love being able to take reality and throwing it into a world that we can make up at a whim. Genetic engineering, you're right. It's here. It's not going anywhere. I'm fascinated to see where it goes. It's very cool that you're not a trained scientist, and yet you love diving into that. That's one of the fascinating things to me about being a creative is you could do that as much as you want.
C. G. Cooper: Let's move on to a very fun part of our show, the mean reviews. Did you happen to bring any mean reviews or interesting reviews of your work?
Nancy Kress: When I first moved over from fantasy to science fiction, I had a reviewer, and I'm not going to name him, who reviewed a story of mine. He said ... I'm really not going to name him, despite the temptation. He said, "Kress has written books of fantasy that have been very well-received. They have a lot of raw passion, and I think they're good, but she should not write science fiction because she doesn't understand the genre at all."
Well, in the years after that, I have won a lot of major awards in science fiction and educated myself more, but I think it underlines some of the short-sightedness that reviewers can have because it's fine for them to review the work that they're talking about. It's not fine to predict the future of what a writer can and cannot do. They don't know that.
The other kind of review that always startles me, and there have been a number of these, is when they say, "Kress is doing some interesting variations in works by X, Y, and Z," (and I will never have read works by X, Y, and Z). They'll say, "She's very influenced. The influence that is exerted by so-and-so in her work is obvious," and I will never have read so-and-so.
Do you encounter that with other writers?
C. G. Cooper: Oh, absolutely. Those assumptions that, "Oh, yeah. He took that from this," or, "She was definitely influenced by so-and-so," and you've never heard of that person, or maybe you have or ... But yes, I ... This is why it's interesting to have this segment within the show because everybody's had, if you've been doing this for a while, you have these reviews that you just kind of sit there, and you scratch your head, or, as I've done a few times, you lay on the ground, and you kind of cry inside for a little bit because somebody was really mean to you. But it's the ones that are confused and they make a certain assumption about who you are or where that inspiration came from ... I'm so glad that there are so many mind-readers out there because I wish I had that talent.
Nancy Kress: Yeah, me too. Me too. There are some very good reviewers, but I have to say, there are also a whole lot of abysmal ones.
C. G. Cooper: I love the good ones. I love the ones that are, and we've had some doozies on here that were, they were not very nice about other authors, but holy cow, could those people write. I mean, I wanted to read a book of those reviews if they would just sit down and, "Hey, write me a book of all those reviews because you are super creative," but maybe we'll get that at some point.
Nancy Kress: Yeah, you should. You should get reviewers who've written books of reviews on there. You don't want to follow followism though.
C. G. Cooper: Yeah, exactly. Well, Nancy, Let's move on-
Nancy Kress: I was offered a reviewing gig on a major science fiction magazine a few years ago, and they said, "Would you like to review science fiction novels for us," and I thought about it, and I said, "No," because even though I may have decided opinions, I also don't want to make that many enemies. Science fiction is a very small and insular world. We all know each other because there are so many science fiction conventions. We all know each other, we marry each other, we divorce each other, we publish each other, we aid and shift each other, we edit each other. If I were to review and give my actual opinion of a lot of books, I would end up with many more enemies than I really want, so I said, "No."
C. G. Cooper: It's probably a good call. It's like, as much as I would love to be a food critic, I really don't want to be that guy that wants into a restaurant, and everybody cringes. I mean, I love food, don't get me wrong, but that's just, that's stepping into, I feel like it's a karma swamp. That's going to come back and get you at some point and drag you under.
Nancy Kress: Not only that, you inspire fear. They get, "Oh my God, the food reviewer is here. What have we got that's good? How can we get him to order it?"
C. G. Cooper: Yeah, I'd rather they just gave me free food, and I could just keep my mouth shut. Do you think anybody would do that for me?
Nancy Kress: You could go heavily disguised.
C. G. Cooper: Maybe I could. Maybe I could. Well, Nancy, how about we move on to the speed round, but we've got some time, so don't feel like you gotta speed through these answers because I am fascinated by ... I keep using that word with you, fascinated, so Nancy Kress is fascinating. I'm not usually a repeater of too many words. Let's go on to the first question. I can't wait to hear your answer. What's your favorite thing about being an author?
Nancy Kress: My favorite thing about being an author ... This does not happen every day. I try to work most days on writing, and this doesn't happen every day, but when it does, this is the best thing: when you are so deeply into the writing that the room around you disappears, the world around you disappears, and in fact, you disappear. You're not you anymore. You're the character, and you're in the world that you created, and then when you get interrupted, if the phone rings or my husband comes in and the dog barks, there's a genuine moment of physical disorientation as you get jerked back from that other place to this place. I love that because it's like having other lives, not just a simulation of other lives, but actually being there in that way that is so intense, it seems just as real as reality.
I once was a subject, one of the many subjects, interview subjects for a book that a PhD candidate was writing about, flow state. That's what that is. It's a flow state. You can get into it with anything that you are intensely committed to, but you can't summon it, or at least I can't. It happens when it happens, and when it does, that's my favorite thing about writing.
C. G. Cooper: Gosh, you put that so well. I'm not even going to try to top that other than to say: getting in that flow, there's something about it, though, isn't it? I mean, you wish you could snap your fingers and get there in a moment's notice, but sometimes, it just surprises you when it hits, and you have to go with it. If you don't, like you said, there's that moment of disorientation if you're interrupted, and it's like you just want to get back. It's like that best dream that you want to go back to sleep and get part of it again.
Nancy Kress: It doesn't happen with every story. I think the stories that I write in three classifications: There's the very rare gift story. Usually, they're very short where the whole thing comes to you at once, and you write it down, and you don't have too many changes. Then there's the usual writing of the story, where you're trying this and trying that, and sometimes, that's where the flow state happens. Then there's the third class of stories, which I think of as, and please excuse the vulgarity, as the shit-and-rocks story. You have to push and push and push to get the damn thing out, but what I'd noticed is that the quality of the story is not necessarily dependent on which kind they are.
C. G. Cooper: Yeah, it's the work you put in, right?
Nancy Kress: Well, sometimes, but sometimes, you just get a gift story, and it's almost no work. My first award-winning story was a gift story. The whole thing just came to me, and I sat down, and I wrote it, and it was a success. Other stories that's happened to have been abysmal failures, even in my eyes. You just never know. I guess what I'm saying, Carlos, is that I don't feel I have a lot of control over this creative process.
C. G. Cooper: I wish we had more control sometimes. Have you read Elizabeth Gilbert's book Big Magic?
Nancy Kress: No. Tell me about it.
C. G. Cooper: It kind of delves into that. There are ideas floating around everywhere, and inspiration is, it's in the air. It's up to us to grab it, and if we let it go, then it kind of flies the coop. It's just, it's a fascinating look into inspiration, into creativity. I highly recommend it. I've recommended it to a couple of authors we've had on, but you, especially, because you've been a creative for so long, I think you could probably write most of the book anyway, but you'll sit there and shake your head like, "Yup, that's happened to me. That's definitely happened to me."
Nancy Kress: All right, I'm writing it down. Elizabeth Gilbert, and what was the name?
C. G. Cooper: Big Magic. I'm looking at it on my shelf right now.
Nancy Kress: Okay, I just wrote it down.
C. G. Cooper: Fantastic book. All right, next question, and this one, I can't wait to hear your answer, what is the best advice you ever received?
Nancy Kress: When I saw that this was going to be a question, I was thinking about it, and I think that the best advice that I ever received wasn't about actual writing. It was more about being a writer. It was that some stories are going to fail. I know that it sounds very simple but when you're starting out, and you've written a story, and everybody rejects it, and it doesn't go well, and even you see it isn't good, the big temptation is to think, "Oh my God, I can't do this. I'm never going to be a writer," especially if you get two or three of them in a row, but then somebody said to me, a much more established writer, "Look. Some stories fail. It doesn't mean that all your stories are going to fail. Even if you have a string of failures for a year, it still doesn't mean that all your stories are going to fail. As long as you're out there doing it, you have a chance of succeeding. If you stop doing it because you think you failed, then you don't have a chance."
Because I teach all the time, I have students sometimes who back me into a corner, their eyes all shiny with eagerness, and they say, "Do you think I can make it as a writer?" The only honest answer is, "I have absolutely no idea. I can look at the work you just gave me, and I can evaluate it. I can tell you whether I see signs of talent there, but I don't know how persistent you're going to be. I don't know how much rejection you can take. I don't know if you have the capacity, or the willingness, to change and learn and grow and experiment. I don't know if you're willing to tolerate the financial uncertainties that go with most writers' life. I don't really know anything abut you, and so I have no idea whether you're going to make it as a writer." Then they look very disappointed.
C. G. Cooper: Nancy. I think we could talk about that for about three hours if we wanted to,. Okay, I'm going to have to have you back on the show, and we will, maybe we'll just talk about that because that, I think there's a lot of writers out there that they struggle with that. They want the rubber stamp for somebody to say, "You're going to make it," or, "You are a writer," rather than to step up and say, "I am a writer, and I'm willing to do the work and go through all those trials that you mentioned." It can be a lonely career, but that's the great thing about what we're doing right now. It's two creatives, two artists that are talking, and we're always trying to get better. Do you feel this way that you can always improve, especially with your teaching. I'm sure you're super critical of maybe everything you do, maybe you're not, but do you always feel that there's something that you can do better in your writing?
Nancy Kress: Oh my God, yes. Whenever I have to reread a book that I wrote a couple of years ago, and I really don't like to do this, but sometimes, it takes that long for the galleys to come in or something like that, or somebody wants me to write an ancillary story, so I have to reread the novel, I'm always cringing because I'm thinking, oh, I could've done that better, I could've changed this, I wish I thought of that. Yeah, you do, you're constantly aware of the gap between the story that was in your head and the story that actually ended up on the page.
C. G. Cooper: I love that. You're always aware of the gap. That, okay. That one, I'm going to use, and yes, I will give you credit for that as well, but, well, we just went out of time, but Nancy, thank you so much for joining us. Could you give our listeners a few last words and let them know where they can find you and your work?
Nancy Kress: Well, my latest novel, Tomorrow's Kin, which is the first of a trilogy, is out from Simon and Schuster from Tor, and it's available on Amazon. You can order it at any bookstore. Ask for it. Most of the rest of my work is also available on Amazon. Not all of it, but some of it is. That's one place you can do it, or you can ask your bookstore to order it.
C. G. Cooper: Fantastic. You heard it here. Check out Tomorrow's Kin by Nancy Kress. This has been Books In 30 with C. G. Cooper. Thank you for listening, and don't forget to email me at cgc@cg-cooper. com to say hello or let me know of an author you'd like to see as my guest. Thanks for tuning in. This is C. G. Cooper, out.
BOOKS IN 30 Podcast