sfr3d.gif (19860 bytes)September 2002
2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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I could never have imagined the triumphant Hwyn when I was sixteen; I daresay Hwyn couldn’t have, either.

Photo by Bruce Wallace

SFRevu Interview: Pauline Alama 
Conducted by Sharon Archer

Feature Book: The Eye of Night  by Pauline Alama 
Review by Amy Harlib

Pauline and I have both been members of the premier fan club of Northern New Jersey, The Science Fiction Association of Bergen County for many years. Other SFRevu regular and occasional contributors who have been members over the years include Ernest Lilley, Asta Sinusas, Bruce Wallace, Don Smith, Dave Goldfeder and Tony Tellado.  A number of successful writers and SF endeavors have roots in fandom.  SFRevu itself grew out of an affiliation  that began at this same club.  We welcome Pauline's success and assure you all she has always been a perfect fit to fellow fans. - Sharon Archer

Be sure to visit Pauline's Website: http://www.geocities.com/paulinejalama/paulinealama.html

SFRevu: You’ve had a long time involvement in SF&F fandom from your days with Columbia University Science Fiction Society through your many year membership in the SFABC. Has this experience influenced /inspired your development as a writer? Besides the knowledge and exposure gained in what ways have you been encouraged and assisted by fellow fans?

... it was OK to write what I liked rather than ...the sort of stories they print in the New Yorker

Pauline Alama: The Columbia Science Fiction Society (CUSFS) helped me realize that it was OK to write what I liked rather than trying to write the sort of stories they print in the New Yorker -- the goal of the creative writing course I dropped out of in college.

I spent my college years writing a serialized story called “Phoenixfire” for the club fanzine, CUSFuSsing. It was a great experience, even though I never finished the story. One of my friends in the club, Elizabeth Edersheim, used to give me a very gentle and constructive critique before I published each episode. She made me read Ursula LeGuin's "From Elfland to Poughkeepsie" for pointers on heroic language in fantasy, and I still consider that essay the cornerstone of my approach to style. 

Liz also gave me a lot of encouragement, and once even submitted one of my poems to a contest on my behalf, because she was frustrated that I didn't do such things myself. About six years after we graduated, when I had been drifting apart from my CUSFS friends, Liz died, still in her 20s. I moped around for a long time, feeling guilty for having drifted away from her, ranting about the injustice of a world where the good die young, and generally getting myself into a tragic state. Then it dawned on me that moping was never Liz's style -- she had long known she would have a short life, but she was always relentlessly upbeat -- and that if I wanted to honor her memory, I should get off my butt and submit some of my writing to magazines.

SFR: Has your family also been supportive? Your husband is a history teacher; does he share your interest in the medieval ages? Does he get first look at your manuscripts? What kind of feedback does he provide? 

PA: Paul's specialty is twentieth-century American history & politics, so we're complementary. He sometimes gives me helpful ideas of historical or contemporary political parallels to fictional situations I want to create. But mainly he is a great first audience because he shares my enthusiasm, and helps me feel confident about going on with a story. I'm not one of those writers who thrive on criticism -- I think you need a cast-iron ego for that, and I have an ego of Kleenex -- and it helps to have a first reader who generally looks for the same things I look for in a story, and cheers me on when I produce them. 

We both love stories full of passionate idealism

We both love stories full of passionate idealism; characters you can really care about; well-written, often witty dialogue; a good balance of action, character moments, and big ideas; a touch of humor; and a touch of romance. For example, we both loved Babylon 5 for those qualities. That's the sort of effect I'm aiming for when I write, and so Paul, sharing my tastes, generally responds well to my stories. When he doesn't go for something, he doesn't fake it, but he's not a harsh critic. And when something seems incomplete, he asks great, thought-provoking questions that help me fill in the gaps.

SFR: There are a lot of readers who are fans striving to become professionals themselves.   Could you tell us a little about the process of going from writing for e.g. a writer's critique group like the SFABC's to actually getting a story published professionally as you did with "Heartless" which appeared in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Fantasy Magazine.
 
PA:
Getting published was mainly a matter of keeping on trying until I got accepted. That meant dealing with a lot of rejections. I can't really say that practice has made me any better at handling those. For a couple of years, all the rejections made me so depressed and unsure of myself that I couldn't write.

I think having a sympathetic writers' group can help you through the rejection blues by giving you some immediate positive reactions to your writing that you're unlikely to get from editors at the outset. The SFABC writers' group is very supportive and constructive, and I really appreciate that. When I was expanding Eye of Night, I brought the first chapter to the group to get their reactions, and came away with lots of constructive ideas about what people would have liked to see in the original draft, but didn't. It helped me fill out the chapter. I didn't have time to bring in the rest of the draft, because the revisions were going so fast and the group only meets once a month, but I appreciated their input on Chapter 1. I really should have included them in the Acknowledgments.

On the other hand, I've heard that some writers' groups can be nasty, back-stabby, competitive little circles of hell. Some people enjoy competition, but I think many writers (myself, for one) are so introverted that this sort of atmosphere must just drive the Muse into a closet. A lot of people who give advice about writing are big on the salutary effects of criticism, and I think it's oversold. If you tend to be an overconfident, cocky, irrepressible optimist, then, I imagine, criticism provides a necessary counterbalance, and harsh criticism may be bracing exercise. If you're one of the Charlie Browns of the world -- self-doubting, self-critical, prone to depression -- take criticism with caution, as you would a medicine with potentially harmful side effects.

One of the hard lessons I learned with "Heartless" was that getting your first short story published isn't necessarily the big break you are waiting for.

One of the hard lessons I learned with "Heartless" was that getting your first short story published isn't necessarily the big break you are waiting for. After "Heartless" I went into a flurry of writing and submitting, and got rejection, rejection, rejection. With short stories you don't get positive feedback with an acceptance, either: you just get a contract and, later, a check. The same editor that would go to a lot of trouble to tell you what was wrong with a story they rejected won't say, "I bought this story because I really loved the way you did so-and-so." So your first sale doesn't necessarily give you the little boost that the fragile writerly ego may need. That's what friends -- and writers' group buddies -- are for. 

I would also like to say that the editor of my novel has been very generous with positive feedback, which I truly appreciate.

SFR: Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword & Sorceress XVIII (DAW 2001) published "Raven Wings on the Snow," which received a second-place Sapphire Award from Science Fiction Romance (SFROnline.com). Do you consider what you write as Romantic Science Fiction? How do you feel about genre labels?

PA: Which part of the label are you questioning -- science fiction or romance?

I write fantasy, often with a romantic strain thrown in the mix. But if a different genre label will help readers consider trying my novel, you can call it anything you like.

I think it's a bit funny that fantasy is considered a subset of science fiction, when it could well be argued the other way around:

I think it's a bit funny that fantasy is considered a subset of science fiction, when it could well be argued the other way around: science fiction is a specialized type of fantasy that uses technological rather than mythological means of creating an alternate reality. But the real reason is that science fiction has a better reputation than fantasy, so fantasy authors don't object to be classified under science fiction, the way I suspect many science fiction authors would object to being classified under fantasy. Really, I think the bum rap on fantasy is unfair. Shakespeare's THE TEMPEST and MACBETH were fantasies -- are those lightweight children's literature?

As for romance -- I've been surprised and delighted by the positive response of fantasy readers and publications to my work. I am not primarily a romance reader, but I like a love subplot as part of a tale about characters who have other passions besides their passion for each other. One of my favorite movie romances is the one that ends with the lovers deciding that "the troubles of 2 or 3 little people don't amount to a hill of beans" beside the imperative of saving the world from the Nazis.

I was pleased that romance readers could appreciate the love story in Eye of Night, because it's so unconventional, with an ugly heroine and a hero who's basically a nerd. I use the term "nerd" in the most loving sense imaginable. I'm a nerd. I have some trouble relating to non-nerds.

500 years from now, when scholars look back at the great literature of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, they won't be looking at the sort of thing that today's inbred critical establishment regards as Serious Literature. They'll be studying genre fiction and TV.

SFR: Science Fiction in general has often been typed as dealing with bug-eyed monsters and space opera and been relegated to pulp fiction status.  Yet  there have been numerous examples of Science Fiction as relevant social commentary, which I understand was the subject of an undergraduate course you taught while pursuing  your doctorate in English literature.
 

PA: I'm biased, of course, but I think that 500 years from now, when scholars look back at the great literature of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, they won't be looking at the sort of thing that today's inbred critical establishment regards as Serious Literature. They'll be studying genre fiction and TV. After all, Shakespeare's plays and Dickens' novels weren't considered Serious Literature in their lifetimes: they were popular entertainment.

Where much so-called serious art today is self-reflexive and inward-looking, science fiction and fantasy take on the big issues of politics, society, philosophy, and religion. They are the epic literature of our time.
 
SFR: What have been your literary influences - SF and/or mainstream? Who
has provided inspiration? Who do you consider as role models?

PA: When I'm asked about my influences, I usually think first of the medieval texts I read in graduate school, or the fantasy authors I read as an adult. But recently, I re-read Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles, the story that first hooked me on fantasy when I was in fourth grade, and I was stunned to see how much I had been unconsciously influenced by it after all these years. Not only in certain details of plot and world-building but in my overall approach -- cultivating a semi-poetic style to evoke the sense of another, older world without actually using archaic language -- I haven't fallen far from my first exemplar of fantasy. I sent a copy of the book to Lloyd Alexander with a letter thanking him for opening the world of fantasy to me. He wrote back with some very kind words about The Eye of Night, though I can't help wondering whether, like my favorite Prydain character, Fflewddur Fflam, he might have been "coloring the facts" a little, just to be nice to a long-standing fan.

SFR: The Eye of Night is your first novel. Reviewers have commented on the evident scholarship. How much research went into inventing a world to set this story in? Were you well served by your experiences in your studies of medieval literature at the University of Rochester?  How much did that influence your writing style, choice of subject matter and your choice to write Fantasy?

PA: The Eye of Night is set in an imaginary world, and I haven’t scrupulously modeled it on any real historical society. Nonetheless, I drew on my graduate studies in medieval literature to flesh out the setting.  Medieval literature supplied some of the everyday details: for example, Jereth makes notes on a wax tablet, not paper. Sharing a bed with someone isn’t necessarily sexual; one bed per person is a luxury. The characters have little in the way of clothes, and no one has special sleeping attire. Women don’t wear underpants; this nice little fact isn’t directly stated, but implied by the ease with which Trenara gets herself into compromising situations.

In larger social matters, too, I am somewhat influenced by medieval studies. Swevnalond is a loose gathering of warring small kingdoms united only by language, like Anglo-Saxon England before King Alfred, or medieval Ireland. There’s a legend of a High King who once ruled all Swevnalond, but Jereth, with the authority of scholarship, debunks this story as apocryphal – a unifying myth used to rally opposition to the Kettran empire. In our world, the legends of King Arthur and of the ancient High Kings of Ireland have been similarly harnessed to political purposes. 

But I can’t claim to be entirely authentic in my portrayal of a quasi-medieval world. I studied medievalism — the creative and rhetorical use of the Middle Ages in later periods – and I always have a soft spot for some of the most ahistorical uses of the Middle Ages. I particularly love the faux Middle Ages of William Morris, the Victorian poet, fantasist,
socialist spokesman, artist, and designer. 

I simply cannot resist the William Morris Middle Ages. I know it's not  the real middle ages but simply Morris's reaction  against nasty, polluted, Industrial Age England; but it's  a powerful myth, the Middle Ages as they should have been

When I created the isolated mountain community called the Folc, I was partly thinking of the quasi-democratic assemblies of medieval Iceland or Switzerland; but I was more deeply influenced by the William Morris Middle Ages, a time that never was, when lords were not so high nor subjects so low but all lived simply and nobly in brotherhood, enjoying the bounty of nature and the joy of creating beautiful things for everyday use. I simply cannot resist the William Morris Middle Ages. I know it’s not the real middle ages but simply Morris’s reaction against nasty, polluted, Industrial Age England; but it’s a powerful myth, the Middle Ages as they should have been, and it tells the truth in a different way, the truth about human longings for a just and humane society. That’s the fun of writing in an imaginary world: you can have the William Morris Middle Ages if you want to – as long as you can serve it to your readers with enough reality to make them believe in it, at least for a while.

I did some research, however, to handle wilderness and rural landscape. I didn’t have Tolkien’s rural childhood memories to draw on. I grew up in northeastern New Jersey, an area so densely settled that you can rarely see more than a dozen stars because of light pollution. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand it when stories talked about going “into town.” If you weren’t in one town, you were in another town: I had no notion of a place
that wasn’t a town. So I had to research wildcrafting and farming in the public library. A seventeenth-century “farmer’s calendar” book was a great help. So was my e-mail pen pal Kendra Adema, an Anglo-Saxon scholar I met on AnSaxNet who happened to be raised on a farm, and patiently answered my questions about cows and sheep and such exotic creatures.
 
SFR: How much of your own experiences are reflected in your writing? Do you find autobiographical elements entering your fiction? Our reviewer Amy Harlib noted that in The Eye of Night the protagonists are literally forced to confront the ghosts of their pasts. Do you find your writing has enabled you to work through issues in your life?
 
PA: Absolutely, I work through my own issues in my fiction – but they come out sideways, as it were, not literal. Having said that, I must hastily and emphatically state that, although both Hwyn and Jereth were abused as children, I was certainly not. However, other aspects of their experience are autobiographical.

Like both Jereth and Hwyn, I’ve been a misfit most of my life. And I had to write a story with an ugly heroine, a heroic spirit trapped behind a deformed face, because that was my melodramatic self-image in my teens.

When I was 15 or 16, I wrote the beginning of a really awful fantasy with a sort of proto-Hwyn, an ugly, abused girl on a quest. But the ugly heroine I would have written at sixteen wouldn’t have been nearly as satisfying as the one I wrote in my thirties: she would have been a victim, helpless, hopeless. Hwyn is triumphant, because by the time I wrote her story, I knew that my destiny wasn’t defined by the perceptions of kids in my high school. Even at the start of the story, when Hwyn still believes she is destined for lifelong loneliness, she knows her own wholeness: she has a quest, a vision, and if she’ll never know intimacy, she’s not sure she has time for it anyway. And yet, when she least expects it, she does find love.

I could never have imagined the triumphant Hwyn when I was sixteen; I daresay Hwyn couldn’t have, either.

I needed Hwyn, and from some the responses I’ve gotten, I think a lot of other women needed a character like that, too. By and large, literature and movies have been very cruel to less-than-beautiful women – even crueler than they have been to beautiful ones. The beautiful woman in a typical movie is cold and heartless if she fails to love a Cyrano who falls for her; but the ugly woman who falls in love with a handsome man is a comic character, ludicrous, laughably grotesque. Of course, from the inside, the ugly woman’s story is anything but funny, and I still take it personally when movies laugh at her expense. Like Hwyn, I was once the deformed jester singing secret love songs to an uncaring prince – and some corner of my mind always still feels that way.

More autobiographical threads came into the story when it was accepted by Bantam on the condition that I add new adventures to the middle of the plot. The new issues that I began working through in the story were issues of creativity and personal vision, as I struggled to meet editorial demands without losing touch with the vision that had begun the story. Until then, I’d been used to two kinds of writing: business writing, like grant proposals and press releases, which I did on demand, on a deadline; and creative writing, which I did when inspired, at my own pace. Like all new pros, I guess, I had to learn to combine the two modes and write creatively on demand.

That was when I got to know the Bright Goddess. Until then, I’d been mostly interested in the Hidden Goddess, the unconscious, irrational, mysterious force; I had thought of the Bright Goddess as blandly “nice” and uninteresting. But during the expansion and revision phase of writing, I discovered the Bright Goddess as a force of generativity, increase, growth, cultivation, creativity. I guess both goddesses have their role in creativity: the Hidden Goddess representing unconscious inspiration, the Bright Goddess representing conscious know-how and craft.

I think the strength of fantasy is that it is inherently spiritual, without necessarily belonging to any particular orthodoxy.

SFR: Religion and spirituality are major factors in The Eye of Night.  What mythologies did you draw upon in creating the Wheel of Gods? In what ways
are your own religious experience reflected?


PA:  I think the strength of fantasy is that it is inherently spiritual, without necessarily belonging to any particular orthodoxy. It enables us to explore religious ideas in a safe space, a play space, where we need not believe literally but can try on different beliefs till one rings true.

Some of the mythology in Eye of Night is borrowed from various sources — no doubt subconsciously I borrowed more than I realized. The Upside-Down God was consciously modeled on the Hanged Man of the Tarot Deck, and both he and his counterpart across the Wheel, the Upright or Rising God, have some aspects of Odin.

But for the most part, discovering the Four Great Ones on the World Wheel was a voyage of spiritual discovery for myself. Like Jereth, I have been on a pilgrimage, leaving a version of religion that no longer fits the world I know; I search for new truths in my stories, trying on possibilities to discover what I really believe.

When I was writing the first draft of Eye of Night, I had long had an up-and-down relationship with the Catholic faith in which I was raised, but the death of my old friend Liz Edersheim ratcheted up my doubts to a new level. I needed to yell at God a little, and it was easier to yell at a god I had made up. I was reading Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People, which presents the idea of a God who does not  willingly permit evil but sometimes fails to prevent it, and some of those ideas found their way into my story. Because it draws on Kushner’s ideas, which come from a Jewish perspective, maybe the “pagan” spirituality of the story is part Jewish.

It is also, of course, part Catholic. I’ve always thought of Jereth, the ex-priest of the Rising God, as an ex-Jesuit, with the same restless questing spirit as the most interesting Jesuits and ex-Jesuits I’ve known. The Hidden Goddess may be partly Hekate, but also the Holy Spirit, the mysterious, unseen, holy fire within us all, the in-dwelling God of the Quakers. The Upside-Down God may be part Odin hanging from a tree, a sacrifice to himself, and part Dionysus, god of wine and irrational ecstasy, but he also bears a strong resemblance to Jesus as seen through the eyes of liberation theology: persecuted by his own priests, mocked and beaten, turning the world upside-down so that the high and mighty are cast down and the lowly lifted up.

My Catholic consciousness also shows up in themes of sacrifice and forgiveness. Ultimately, my narrator, Jereth, must learn to forgive a lifetime of wrongs: to forgive his family, his enemies, and himself; even to forgive the gods for the tragedies they have failed to prevent. Only by forgiving can he escape the stagnation that has swallowed his life. I needed to write the story to tell myself that; in a sense, I needed to create my own cosmology to rediscover Christianity.

At one point in the story, Jereth hears a myth about the Bright Goddess and the Hidden Goddess that he considers blasphemous, because in it the Bright Goddess makes mistakes. Still, he finds wisdom in the story, and muses that “even in blasphemy there could be a hidden truth.” That more or less capsulates what I’m hoping to do in the story: inventing gods to find the God that speaks in the depths of the heart, spinning lies to catch the truth.

Creating the book’s imaginary religion was a voyage of discovery on which I learned more about what I really believe. The Gods of the World-Wheel don’t really care about being worshiped: they care about life. They created the world, and continue to create it, out of love for each other and for all that lives. They don’t need worship for their own sakes; rather, human beings need it, because by worship, humans can attune themselves to the love of the gods and share in their life-giving power. In the end, that is what I believe God must be like: not a ruler who demands to be loved and respected above all others, but a source of love inviting all to share in abundant life.

SFR: Recently when describing the creative process you spoke about how most of your writings start with a concept and then follow a general pattern of development but you found outlining a story doesn’t work well for you. I was amused to hear you say that you often start with the ending but sometimes find the middle a bitch to write. (A sentiment shared I’m sure by many writers). What was the concept you began with for The Eye of Night? What stages of development followed? Was there any time when felt stymied? How did you work through it?

PA: The Eye of Night
really started with a constellation of characters: first, two women, one a fool who seems wise, the other a seeming fool who is really the dreamer, the schemer, the prophet who drives their quest; then, a man who is at first taken in by the women's appearances, then gets to know them better and joins them on their journey. I did not know, when I started out, where these characters were going, and why. They told me the rest. My best plotting happens when the characters get up and do things I didn't expect. That's why outlines don't work well for me: they impose a plot on the characters, instead of letting plot flow from character.

SFR: The narrator, Jereth is male. Why did you choose to tell the story
with his voice? How difficult was it to write from a man’s viewpoint?


PA: I started telling The Eye of Night through Jereth's point of view chiefly because I wanted the reader to initially be fooled by Hwyn and Trenara's ruse, so I needed a point-of-view character who would be taken in and then enlightened. I quickly decided this had to be a male character, to let me have some fun with men's perceptions of women -- a topic central to my first published short story, "Heartless."

I don't find it difficult to write from a man's perspective because I don't always think of myself as a woman. In many ways, I feel like I wasn't raised to be a woman; when my fellow female graduate students, the ones for whom Feminism was a personal crusade, talked about their experience growing up female, learning early that they were less important than their male peers, I really couldn't relate to it. 

My parents were anything but revolutionary -- my mother took 13 years off to raise 2 kids and considered it a moral obligation never to leave us with a babysitter -- but all the same, they never made me feel like my aspirations were any less important than my brother's, or like I existed to take  care of other people. It's almost as if my mother, a very bright and self-motivated career woman, invested all her taboo ambition in me. She'd be the caretaker, the homemaker, but I'd be a lawyer or a Nobel Prize winner or something grand.

Sometimes I find it easier to identify with male characters than female ones, because it's easier to give the men interesting challenges. In my as-yet-unfinished Arthurian epic, I identify most often with Gawain and Lancelot, and only secondarily with Gwenever and Elaine.

SFR: Speaking of looking at things from a different orientation, why does the map at the beginning of the book have South at the top and North at the bottom?

PA:  In the cosmology of the World-Wheel, south is the direction of the Bright Goddess, associated with the sun and sky. North is the direction of the Hidden Goddess, associated with the depths of the sea and the hidden places underground. If the map really looked the way it looked in my mind, it would have an icon at each compass point: the Bright Goddess embracing the world at the top, for South; the Hidden Goddess turned away  from us at the bottom, for North; the Rising (or Upright) God leaping skyward at the left,
for East; and the Turning (or Upside-Down) God hanging from a tree-branch at the right, for West.
 
SFR:  We've just returned from this year's Worldcon in San Jose, California where Bantam gave out 1,000 free copies of The Eye of Night (which seems like quite an endorsement from your Publisher.) This was your first Worldcon, indeed the first convention you've attended in a while and you came across country to do it. Was the experience all you hoped/feared it would be?  What impressed you most?  Do you have any war stories to relate or did all go smoothly?

PA: Wow. What a grand experience. I met people whose names have been on my bookshelves for years, and they totally did not act like they were too important to talk to me. Connie Willis is really nice. So is Liz Williams, author of Empire of Bones, whom I "met" on BroadUniverse.com before the con. And Rod Garcia y Robertson, who was on the panel I had to moderate, was very sweet to me -- he even tried to draw me in from the audience in a panel he was moderating, which I think was a kind gesture. And it was so much fun to go back to the heady atmosphere of fandom, the masqueraders wandering around in costume all day, the air of carnival that pervades a con. I hope to go to many more (and yes, those readers who are planning cons on the East Coast, here I am, fishing for a spot on programming! Please! I'll bring bagels!).

SFR: You’ve seen fandom from both sides now. How are you enjoying the experience? 

PA: It's a little scary to have my dream come true. Like Jereth, I'm fundamentally a pessimist, so it's hard to believe something I've wanted so badly could be true.

sfr3d.gif (19860 bytes) 2002 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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