Martha Wells is the author of nine original novels, two media tie-ins (Stargate Atlantis), and various short stories and essays. Her latest novels are the first two Books of the Raksura, The Cloud Roads and The Serpent Sea (reviewed here and here). You can find her online at www.marthawells.com. She recently took a few minutes to sit down and answer a few questions.
AF: Why do you write?
MW: I think it’s a need for communication because when I was a kid there was that feeling that no on listens to you. I felt very isolated. There was organized fandom, but it was very difficult to find. The internet didn’t exist then, so it was very hard to find people who also liked science fiction and fantasy. I found science fiction and fantasy sections in bookstores and libraries but I never seemed to find any other people who read it. I think it comes from a need to communicate and express yourself.
AF: Why science fiction and fantasy as opposed to some other genre?
MW: I don’t really know. I always was attracted to it. One of the first books I tried to read as a kid was The Time Machine because it had our name on it. My parents had an old paperback copy with a pulp cover and it had our name on it. And also the library I grew up in had a children’s section and you were supposed to make a turn into the shelves for the rest of the children’s section. The science fiction and fantasy section was there along the rest of the wall, and I just went along it instead of taking the turn. So I ended up reading a lot of even though I was too young for it. Even so I think there were a lot of children’s books back then that were fantasy.
AF: Are you willing to say when “back then” was?
MW: I was born in 1964.
AF: Then we’re about the same age. I was born in 1966, so we probably read a lot of the same stuff.
MW: The one thing back then, I remember there being very few female characters. They were either the baby sitter type person or the person who had to be rescued or the person preventing the protagonist from going on the adventure kind of thing. So I think one thing in science fiction and fantasy, especially in Andre Norton’s books, there’s a lot more female protagonists. Even if there’s a male protagonist, there’s usually a woman or women to go along on the adventure, so I was probably looking for something like that. I like the boys’ adventure books, too, but I was feeling like this is not something you’re part of, this is something you’re looking at the outside of.
AF: So other than Norton, what writers have influenced you?
MW: Judith Tarr. F. M. Busby, who is a science fiction writer. Robert Heinlein. I read all the Heinlein juveniles. I read a little bit of Anne McCaffery, but not as much. I think she was coming in later for that period. There was a lot of children’s authors that I read that I’ve never seen anything by, I found them in the library, science fiction and fantasy authors that I never saw much of later. A whole bunch of those. I run into one of those, you see them in the used bookstore, and say “I loved that as a kid.” And Lord of the Rings, and Dune, too. I read those when I was way too young. A lot of the languages in my work comes from reading Lord of the Rings and getting the idea early on that yeah, there should be different languages here.
AF: That’s not the first time I’ve heard you say “I read that when I was too young.” How does going back and rereading some of those later as an adult, what’s that experience like?
MW: Sometimes you don’t really know why you liked the book, and sometimes you went right over your head. Like Malevil by Robert Merle, He wrote The Day of the Dolphin, I think that’s his most famous book. It’s a post apocalyptic novel set in France about a man who owns a small medieval castle. A few people are living there, and a nuclear bomb hits Paris. It’s about them ttrying to survive and recreate civilization It’s not one of the easy post apocalyptic novels, either. When they come out of the castle, everything is just burnt. They’ve got to try to get crops, and they’ve got just a few animals that have survived. At first they think they’re the only people, and later they find there’s another walled medieval they’re eventually able to get to. People survived in there. It was one of my parents’ books, and all I had was the Reader’s Digest condensed version, which they bowdlerized. I knew they were shorter, but I didn’t realize how much they bowdlerized. When you go back read the real book, you go, “Wow, there’s a lot of stuff in here.” It’s like 200 pages longer. They’ve taken out all the sex and a lot of other stuff. There’s a large section at the end. The book is told from the point of view of the man who owned the castle, Emmanuel, and there’s a guy who becomes a really good friend of his, who after Emmanuel dies, he’s got Emmanuel’s diary. He goes back through Emmanuel’s diary and puts in all the stuff that Emmanuel left out. That’s an interesting storytelling technique I’ve not see before. That was left out of the condensed version for sure. The other shoe hasn’t dropped on the rest of the story. That’s almost an illustration; you read the book and so much goes over your head. All the parts that would have gone over my head had been taken out. I didn’t see them until I got a copy years later.
AF: Congratulations on selling the third Raksura book.
MW: Thank you.
AF: I’m looking forward to it. Like I said a minute ago before we started recording, it’s going to be a long year because I really enjoyed those. I know you’re going to have edits and stuff to do. Are you working on anything now? Are you planning another book, or are you going to take a break? What can we look for from you or with your name on in the next few years?
MW: I can’t really afford to take much of a break. I have a young adult novel that’s been going the rounds for about a couple of years now. It’s on a new round of submissions, so I’ve got my fingers crossed for that. I’m trying to decide what book I want to write next. I’ve got a short story I’ve been asked to writer for an anthology, so I need to write that. At this point I’m kinda trying to figure out what I want to do next, if I want to do another Raksura book or if I want to do something different. Right now my head is in that world, so I’m kinda interested in doing something there, but I have another set of characters that I came up with for a short story I could work with. I’m afraid people will be really disappointed. It’s like when you go back to a series set in a world but with different people. So I’m debating what I want to do.
AF: In a post on, I think it was The Night Bazaar, you talked about trying to get several novels started. And you talked a little bit about almost quitting, and I’m glad you didn’t. Thank you for not quitting. What were some of the other novels, and do you think you would ever go back to some of those, or previous series, or previous works, not necessarily series, but other novels.
MW: Parts of them went into The Cloud Roads. Not really parts, but actual elements. And elements of some of them went into Emillie and the Hollow World, which is the young adult novel I haven’t sold yet. There’s one part, it’s about 25,000 words, I’d really like to do something with it, but so much of it is now part of other books, it had to be thrown out. Some of them never developed very far. There were only three that did, and they ended up in different books.
AF: Shifting gears just a little bit, Adventures Fantastic tends to focus on heroic fantasy, historical adventure, and barbarians tend to be central characters in a lot of those stories. What qualities do you look for in a barbarian?
MW: In a barbarian? I don’t know. I dislike characters that are too unlikable. I mean the character can be snarky and obnoxious to a certain extent, but if they’re actually a bad person, I don’t tend to like that. I respect people’s right to write it, but it’s not something I care for too much. That’s why I like the Imaro books by Charles Saunders. I like that feel. Imaro is one of the few barbarian quote unquote characters who is actually a nice person. That’s what I like about those books. I guess I look for someone who is more like a Robin Hood type character who is sort of outside the law but whose actions I can read about and support and like. The gritty fantasy and stuff doesn’t grab me. It’s too much like reality.
AF: Last question: If you were conducting this interview, what question would you ask that I haven’t?
MW: That’s a hard one.
AF: Some people think it’s hard; some people think it’s easy.
MW: I’m not terribly good at self-promotion. That’s why when I write a blog post, I often have people ask me question. I don’t know what to write about. Give me a topic, and I’ll write.
AF: Okay, let me ask you this, and we’ll make this the last question. Who are the up and coming fantasy writers do you think people should be reading?
MW: Oh, Ben Aaronovitch wrote, it’s called Midnight Ride in the US, but the British title is Rivers of London. Moon Over Soho is the second one, and there’s a third one. I think it’s Whispers Underground that’s coming out in a few months. I really enjoyed his books. They’re kind of labeled as urban fantasy, but they’re more like fantasy and British procedurals like Frost and Morse. It’s a great combination. I really enjoyed them. I thought his take on mythology and the supernatural elements in London was really neat, and I had not seen that before. Saladin Ahmed. His book has just come out, Throne of the Crescent Moon. N. K. Jemisin.
AF: I was expecting you to say that because I knew you really liked her stuff.
MW: Yeah, the first trilogy has come out, and a duology is about to come out.
AF: Is it set in the same world, because I’ve not read her work.
MW: No, it’s a completely different world. I really liked Courtney Schafer’s book. I gave her a blurb for her fist novel called The Whitefire Crossing.
AF: I loved that one. It was one of the best I read last year
MW: It was really different. I’m really interested to see what she does later. And there’s a bunch of people I have on my stack that I haven’t read yet.
AF: Thank you very much.
MW: You’re welcome.