2005 Snapshot Archive: Karen Miller

Interview by Ben Peek

Karen MillerKaren Miller’s first fantasy novel, Kingmaker Kingbreaker Bk 1: The Innocent Mage, will be published by Voyager this August, with Bk 2: Innocence Lost, out next January.

1) If it’s one thing that the speculative fiction likes to say, is that it doesn’t get much respect. But within the spec fic community, what often doesn’t get any respect is high fantasy, the genre within the genre that is, arguably, keeping spec fic alive on the bookshelves. What then is the attraction to you to write it?

First of all I have to say I don’t write it to get respect from any particular tribe within the spec fic community. But I think you’re right, there is a real sense of elitism and disparagement from some sections of the spec fic community. Not the reading public, mind you, but the other writers. The reading community loves high fantasy just fine. As for the grumblings within the spec fic community, you’d have to ask them what is so offensive.

As to why i write it … well, I don’t choose the story, the story chooses me. I’m also not sure that high fantasy is the only fantasy I’ll write … but certainly it’s fair to say my first fantasy duology is high fantasy. But for whatever reason it’s a coincidence … this is the story that came to me, these are the characters, and this is how it wanted to be told. I’m attracted to emotionally lavish stories, with big stakes and big emotions and big consequences. I like fantasy because it can be so completely based in history, in humanity. The main thrust of sf is science, and given that I am beyond incompetent when it comes to science and science related matters, and absolutely adored Ancient History in high school, I figure follow my passion. Also, fantasy generally means you don’t have to worry about stuff like maths and that makes me smile.

2) You ran your own fantasy/mystery bookshop called Phantasia, which must give you an insight into trends of bookshelf movement. What would they be, and do you think they have influenced what you write?

If my bookseller experience taught me anything it was that people will happily read most books if they’re well written, and provide a satisfying emotional experience. The thing I liked best about bookselling was getting my hands on all the new releases each month, finding a book/writer I really loved, and then introducing that writer to all my regulars customers. Plus the oldies and goodies that newer readers hadn’t read yet.

Consistently, whether it was horror or sf or fantasy, the stuff that sold well were the books that entertained and took the reader on a roller coaster emotional journey with great characters and exciting events. I read all 3 genres, and I regularly recommended books in all 3 genres. The key for me as a reader is in being able to lose myself in the author’s world, and not get jerked out of it through the reading experience. Any writer who can do that will sell, regardless of the genre.

If you’re kind of asking me why I think fantasy outsells sf, well, partly I think it’s because a lot of the sense of wonder is missing in sf. We live such an sf life now, in our everyday society. Much of our technology is as sf-y as anything that was thought up twenty, thirty years ago. I also think that fantasy, generally speaking, tends to tell more emotional stories, and that really connects with the reading public. Now, perhaps that has something to do with the fact that more women write fantasy than men, and more men write sf than women. But there are enormously successful women sf writers — Lois McMaster Bujold, Karen Traviss — who coincidentally have a very strong human/emotional component to their work. Orson Scott Card also writes sf, but it’s very emotional sf, very grounded in humanity as opposed to machine.

Fantasy tends towards the emotional and the exotic, and for whatever reason that seems to be important to people at the moment.

3) The small press scene in Australia is always trying to reach new readers. Hence, you know, this blog stunt. Still, with your store experience, what would be your suggestions and insight?

You’re looking at two issues — content and marketing.

A lot of people forget, I think, that publishing is a business, and the large publishers can’t afford to do too much speculating on books that might be really well written but are destined to only appeal to a narrow segment of the reading public. This is why small press is so important — there must be a place for the off beat, the unusual and the kind of stories that are still important but resonate less widely. Publishing is by its nature conservative, and is largely controlled by people whose daily imperative isn’t artistic expression but the numbers at the bottom of the bank statement. And it’s a bit of a vicious cycle — if the publishers don’t make money they can’t produce books, so no writer gets published. So they err on the side of ‘more of the same’, because that means a guaranteed return, which then gives the impression that nothing new is ever published.

In come the small presses, who have a better chance of experimentation and boundary stretching because they have more freedom. But they also have to stay in the black, which means they often face the same dilemmas as the large corporate publishers. The small presses still have to produce books/stories that resonate with the public. They have to be a good read, they have to have a wide appeal, or they won’t sell.

I think small press publishers need to talk to the reading public wherever and whenever they can, and they have to listen long and hard to what is said. You can’t impose your own tastes and agendas on your audience — well, you can, but chances are you won’t get far. Find out what it is that people really enjoy reading, and then look to filling that need. That’s the marketing/research part. You then have to accept the public’s verdict. You can’t make people buy stuff they don’t want to read. Talk, talk, talk, ask questions, find out what readers enjoy — and then look at what the big publishers are doing, see where there are gaps and leap swiftly in to fill them.

And then you have to forge relationships with your specialist and helpful local booksellers. But don’t expect them to support your product just because it’s small press, or trendy, or cutting edge or whatever. They work in a very tough economic environment and they have to think hard before spending their dollars on your product. If they don’t think it can sell, they won’t buy it. That’s why small press publishers have to focus on producing quality stories that the booksellers can get behind and promote. And if it’s good, they will.

Sadly, it really does often come down to money. But, at the end of the day, a good story is a good story. If you keep in mind that most people read fiction because they want to be entertained, not educated or lectured or harangued or indoctrinated, then you’re on the right track.

4) You’re dead. Tiles were hurled at your head by a monkey. He escaped an animal testing program and, after he finished with you, actually took over NASA. Still, you’re dead. Why worry about the monkey. You go to Heaven (assuming you believe) and you see God. You say?

Have you got a minute? We need to talk …

5) Favourite swear word?

Bugger.

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