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Ann Leckie: LibraryThing Author Interview

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St. Louis, Missouri native Ann Leckie is a woman who's worn many hats over time, among them that of waitress, receptionist, and recording engineer. She began writing short fiction a number of years ago, but it is was with her 2013 debut novel, Ancillary Justice, that she added award-winning author to that list. In August 2014, it became the first novel ever to win the Hugo Award, the Nebula Award, and the Arthur C. Clarke Award.

Loranne caught up with Ann this month to talk about the fascinating world she's created, and new developments in the second installment of the Imperial Radch trilogy, Ancillary Sword (out October 7, 2014).

For our readers who haven't yet had a chance to read Ancillary Sword, or its predecessor Ancillary Justice, can you give us the story in a nutshell?

Basically, the main character is the last remnant of a starship that's been destroyed. She spends most of Ancillary Justice looking for revenge on the person who destroyed her, and in Ancillary Sword she is beginning to deal with the fallout of that revenge—including the very unexpected fact that she survived it.

Where did the Imperial Radch trilogy begin for you? What inspired this world?

I'm not sure there was a single thing. I spent a lot of time just playing with things, putting them together in different ways and seeing what they made, and eventually the world resulted from that process. Ancillaries—and the basic outlines of Justice of Toren's fate—were pretty early in that process, though.

These are such fascinating books in terms of exploring identity and the self. In Ancillary Justice, we met protagonist Breq Mianaai (the solitary individual), One Esk (the single body as part of a whole military unit), and Justice of Toren (the ship itself) in all three incarnations. These latter two identities having been destroyed, it's clear that, in Ancillary Sword, Breq is still grieving this massive loss. How did you find Breq continuing to grow as both a character and an individual in this novel?

Breq never did think she would survive the events of Ancillary Justice. I think for the twenty years leading up, it was as though she was walking on a broken leg. It didn't matter much if it hurt, or if it got fixed, or if the injury got worse as she went along, because she had one thing to do and once she did it that would be it for her.

But having actually survived, and finding herself with a ship, and its crew, not to mention Seivarden's clear loyalty to her, she has to find a way to navigate actually living a life, with people she isn't just passing by on her way to some other ultimate goal.

Everyone in the Radch empire uses feminine pronouns to refer to other individuals. It's a cultural distinction for the Radch: while it is clear that individuals present as one or the other of a gender binary, everyone is "she." I read in another interview that you hadn't originally planned this as you began writing Ancillary Justice. What led you to this decision, and did it present any challenges during the writing process? Did it change the way you viewed your own characters?

A number of things led me to my decision to use "she" for everyone. But basically, I had tried to write in this universe using all "he" and was really unsatisfied with the result. The more I thought about it, the more I decided that what I disliked was the way it reinforced the idea of a masculine default, and did nothing at all to make the world seem gender-neutral or uncaring about gender. It just made it sound like a world full of men, and how is that different from a zillion other science fiction stories?

Some time during the process of drafting Ancillary Justice I read Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, which features people who are ungendered, for whom she had decided to use the pronoun "he." Later she wrote fiction set on the same world using "she" and the effect is quite different. That solidified in my mind my reasons for preferring "she" for Ancillary Justice.

It certainly did change how I viewed the characters. I had begun the very first draft assigning gender to characters and using "he" and "she" as appropriate. So characters from very early in the process were in fact assigned a gender—but as I rewrote them using "she" and as I got farther into the book, their gender and the way I visualized them began to slip around a bit in my mind, which I thought was interesting.

Military unit One Esk (now contained solely within Breq) has long been a singer, much to the confusion—and sometimes annoyance—of those within earshot. I've read that you're an enthusiastic shapenote singer, yourself, which clearly influenced Breq's musical proclivities. How did you select the songs featured in Ancillary Sword? Did you write them to fit the story?

There's only one "real" song in Ancillary Sword. It is, of course, one of the Valskaayan songs (pretty much all the real world songs in the books so far are Valskaayan, for whatever reason). The rest I wrote to fit the story.

The real one—I knew I wanted it to be a real song, but I also had kind of a problem. The Valskaayans (at least the ones we see in Sword) are, as I mention below, more or less Catholics in Space. I went to a friend of mine who also sings Sacred Harp and who also grew up Catholic, and said, "You know that thing Sacred Harp singers do, when you'll call a song for someone because someone has died, or they've been sick or having a hard time, or something traumatic has happened, and it's a particular song with a particular meaning? And it can be a gesture of comfort, because other singers know what the song means, what calling that song is saying. In my experience Catholics don't do that quite that way." Shapenote isn't really a Catholic thing, though people who sing shapenote come from all kinds of traditions. "So if I wanted Sort of Catholics in Space Way Far in the Future (who for some inexplicable reason also have a tradition something like shapenote because I want them to)—if I wanted them to do something like that, for someone who's had a death in the family, what song would it be?" We kind of talked back and forth about that, and settled on a particular song. It's the only "real" song in the book.

So that's kind of a nod to shapenote singing—the way many of the songs have a particular weight and meaning, and choosing to sing a particular one can communicate quite a lot, and carry a fair amount of emotional heft. No song I could make up could actually do that, and even a "real" song will only have anything like that effect on people who recognize it and are used to it in that particular context. Still, I wanted it to be a real one.

In Ancillary Sword, we finally meet some Valskaayans, of whose musical traditions Breq is a fan. They're remarkable among the societies the Radch has absorbed, in that their own religion has remained fairly distinct. Who or what inspired the Valskaayans?

The Valskaayans are from quite early in the world-building process, actually, and so they have very strong roots in this "real" world—as suggested by their music, in fact, which is real world music. Or at least some of it is. They're basically Catholics in Space, actually, though of course over such a long time a lot will have changed—as would be the case for other present day religions that have survived so far into the future, so far away from Earth. (And those certainly exist, in one form or another.) I started with Catholicism because I grew up Roman Catholic, and I felt I could play with that tradition in a way that I didn't feel comfortable with when it came to other religions.

They've lucked out by being annexed near the end of the Radch's expansionist phase. If they had been annexed much earlier, they wouldn't have remained distinct for long, and in fact on Valskaay itself things have already begun to get muddled with Radchaai religion, at least among certain groups—there's actually some conflict around that, the question of members of Valskaay's dominant religion accepting Amaat as just their own god under another name, and ones who absolutely refuse to do that. But of course we don't see that in this novel.

The rise and fall of the action in Ancillary Sword, compared to its predecessor, felt very different to me. In Justice, everything is obviously building toward a final and definitive confrontation at the end. Sword completely caught me off guard. While there was an undertone of "something's amiss," on Athoek and Station, things seemed to move along more or less calmly through most of the book, and you really turned the chaos dials all the way up to 11 near the end. Was this shift in tone and pacing intentional, or more a result of the events of Justice?

Well, for one thing, I wanted to write a different sort of book. But also, space is big, and war that's moving across such a big space is going to take a while to get where it's going. Even here on Earth, war can sometimes be a matter of quite a lot of waiting for the action to start.

In this case, it's going to take weeks (at least) for anyone to get to Athoek from where the fighting is. And Breq has a lot of personal issues to deal with, now that she's potentially got an actual life in front of her.

What surprised you most about this story during the writing process?

Hmm. Probably the way that minor characters took on a life of their own, or influenced the plot in ways I hadn't predicted. Kalr Five's love for fine china, for instance, began as just part of who she was, but as I went forward dishes and tea sets became a very important strand in the story, thematically and plot-wise. In general the propensity for minor characters to suddenly gain more weight and influence is something I've noticed, and to a certain extent I not only welcome it, but actively hope for it to happen. I figure when characters do that, it's my own subconscious making that happen, and so much writing happens in the back of my mind that I figure I should at least listen to the suggestions that come from there.

Perhaps as a result of the aforementioned relaxation I felt in reading Sword, I also found a lot of humor. Certain moments had me giggling in my seat—like the bit in chapter one about Breq running into a bulkhead while trying to walk and receive data simultaneously. How much are these dashes of humor the result of Breq's becoming slightly more "human" and less detached ancillary?

I guess I think Breq's always had a certain wry humor to her—though granted it's hard to see sometimes. But things are a bit less grim for her in Ancillary Sword, and I think being with Mercy of Kalr, and being surrounded by her crew, does make quite a difference for her.

What was your favorite scene or character to write in Ancillary Sword?

Oh, gosh, that's hard to say. There are several scenes that were high points during my writing, and many of them would be serious spoilers. Certainly I enjoyed writing Tisarwat, particularly the scene in Chapter 3, you know, that one. And Translator Dlique is a definite favorite of mine, she was very fun to write. And I definitely very much enjoyed writing the scene where, as you say, the chaos gets turned up to 11.

But very often, in general, I enjoy writing stress and mayhem. I remember while I was at Clarion West (which is a six week writers workshop in Seattle, you're supposed to at least try to turn in a story a week, which is awfully fast paced for me) I was working on something particularly difficult and getting close to deadline, and I had gotten up early to try to get some work done. I came down to breakfast and everyone said, "Ann, you're in such a good mood and it's so early!" And I said, happily, "Oh, I just dismembered my protagonist!" And of course they were all writers so they understood exactly what I meant. (I eventually sold that story to Electric Velocipede, and it was reprinted recently by Tor.com, "Night's Slow Poison," and I'm still quite fond of that scene!) So with that in mind, you can probably pick out my favorite bits without my even naming them.

Ancillary Sword takes place in a galaxy far removed from our own, but the denizens of this universe you've created still grapple with some issues that are very much present in the here and now: institutionalized racism, class warfare, and the frequently stark contrast between the ideals the law is said to uphold, and the reality of its enforcement. Is the presence of these issues in your work indicative of concerns that are near and dear to you in your life, or simply the result of the history of the world you've created in your books?

I guess I don't see those as separate things. You can't build something out of nothing—science fictional and fantasy worlds are built out of our own, present-day world. So I guess it's not surprising that the pieces make a lot of similar patterns, or that the patterns I'm drawn to are ones that I'm concerned with in real life.

I also don't believe there's any such thing as fiction that isn't political. All fiction has something to say about how the world is, or how the world ought to be, or ought not to be. And when I look at standard SF stories and tropes—many of which I love to pieces—I can't help but notice the similarities and differences in how events have played out in the real world, with real people. And it's hard not to notice how much SF tropes like the Galactic Empire and the Alien Invasion have their roots in late 18th and early 20th century colonialism. I still love those stories. But once I noticed that, I felt like I couldn't pretend it wasn't there.

Loss and grief are major themes (among others) in both Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Justice, but I would describe neither as particularly sad books. In Sword, we even get to see the funerary traditions and rites practiced by the Radchaai. Was it difficult to balance the prevalence of these themes with writing a book that's not, at its core, about being sad?

One of the advantages of a first person narrator is their own emotions (and their own particular ways of dealing with their emotions, or not dealing with them as the case may be) pretty much determine the emotional register of the piece. In this case, Breq's pretty used to being sad—in fact, she's used to being in much more emotional distress than she is in Ancillary Sword—so that's going to color her reactions to it.

When and where do you do most of your writing?

I do the vast majority of my writing in my basement office, which my husband built for me. Generally I write in the morning, unless I'm really far into a project, very near the end, and really want to finish. Then I'll continue on through evening if I can.

I've read that you grew up a big fan of sci-fi literature yourself. Are there particular authors or books that have influenced your own work, or that you keep returning to over time?

There are plenty! And they can shift over time. Andre Norton is a long time favorite, ever since I was in my early teens. And I'd have to namecheck C.J. Cherryh—fans of her Foreigner books will probably have noticed a strong influence—and Jack Vance.

I know that Ancillary Sword is only the second volume in what will eventually be a trilogy. Can you give us any hints as to what's coming next for the Radch, or what other projects you have coming up?

I honestly don't know! I'm hoping to do more in that universe, though. It's a nice big one, with plenty of room to play.

Ancillary Justice recently became the first novel to ever win the science fiction "triple crown": the Nebula Award, the Arthur C. Clarke Award, and, most recently, the Hugo Award. Congratulations! I'm sure you've already answered this question a dozen times, but, please tell us, how does it feel?

Unreal! I can turn my head and see the Hugo award, and the Nebula, and the Clarke bookend, and it makes me feel like I must be dreaming. It's amazing and wonderful!

—interview by Loranne Nasir

Books by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice (2512 copies)
Ancillary Sword (1219 copies)
Ancillary Mercy (920 copies)
Science Fiction: The Best of the Year, 2007 Edition (87 copies)

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