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Jun  2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Bitter Waters by Wen Spencer
Roc / Penguin Putnam PPBK: ISBN 0451459229 PubDate: May 6, 2003
Review by Ernest Lilley

320 pages List price 6.99
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Wen Spencer Interview with Ernest Lilley

Wen Spencer's Ukiah Oregon stories owe more to the Detective genre than to Science Fiction, which is what makes them so compelling. Oh, sure Ukiah is half alien, a hundred or so years old, once lived as an Indian, ran with wolves and can't be killed short of incineration, but every PI has baggage. That's what makes them so loveable. Gumshoe guys are always on the wrong side of the system trying to do the right thing against impossible odds. How can you not dig 'em?

This is the third book in the series, but the author brings you up to speed painlessly with a certain amount of reflection and a certain amount of demonstration.  Ukiah's fallen into a good life, or the makings of one, using his super-senses to find missing persons as part of a team with Max Bennet, an older PI who supplements Ukiah's talents with wisdom and perspective. He's found out where he comes from, and retrieved the memories of his time as an un-aging Indian child, and he's got a pretty good idea of where he wants to be going, with a "son" of his own and a woman he loves. Not that it's an easy road, him being alien, her being FBI, and all.

So, after a harrowing adventure in the Northwest in the last book (see our review of Tainted Trail) you'd think that it would be time for Ukiah and Max to put their feet up and drink scotch in a smoky office for a while. The only problem with that (besides their office being in Max's mansion and my serious doubt that alien-human hybrids drink scotch) is that there's been a series of child abductions and they're all to close to home for comfort, even if finding missing children wasn't his strong suit. Way too close to home when his own son (we'll just drop the "" and let you get the details from the story) is taken, violently, from their home/office. Way too close to home.

What ensues is an action packed chase led by Ukiah, and pulling in the FBI, Homeland Security, his partner's new PI girlfriend, his Lesbian parents, and um...the alien biker gang known as the "Dog Warriors", all to track down a computer savvy cult that seems intent on torturing infants. I know, I know...that's a lot to swallow if you're just joining the program, but it's not that bad. Really. Certainly this setup is no worse than the X-Files, and Wolf-Boy Ukiah is a lot more engaging than Fox Whiny Boy Mulder any day. You can even get attached to the alien bikers. Ok, they're only part alien, but it's got a great ring to it, doesn't it?

The Bikers are part of an alien mission to stop life on earth from being taken over by another alien spoor, and they spend their time (when not playing alpha wolf games) hunting down humans that have been taken over and killing them. They're very direct people. Now we find out that the ship that brought the aliens here had bio-weapons stuff on it, and some of the products of the alien bio-weapons lab are starting to show up. So it's up to Ukiah and his friends to find his son, the bio-weapons gizmo, the missing children, and the computer cult. Without blowing the cover on the alien presence on earth.

The SF aspects of it are fun, though there's not a lot of depth to the alien tech side. More human tech makes its way in to the story, what with PDAs, GPS tracking systems, Humvees, motorcycles, guns and all the Kevlar body armor you can eat. But take away the alien parts and you've still got a great action/detective story, which is why you should pick up Wen Spencer's trail wherever her literary muse takes her next.

Wen Spencer Interview with Ernest Lilley

SFRevu: How is Bitter Waters doing? Has Ukiah developed a following?

Wen Spencer: Being a writer is a bit like the early years of the SETI program – the book goes out and you wait forever to hear back.  I believe the series is doing well, but my only measuring stick is Amazon’s daily sales rank and the number of hits on my web sites. 

I believe Ukiah is slowly developing a following.  It seems if I can get someone to READ the book, they become a fan.  Just about every day I get email from someone who just finished one of the books and wants more.   

SFRevu: I see you’re nominated for the 2003 Campbell Award and that you’ve picked up some others already. How does it feel?

Wen: It’s really great to win awards!  Alien Taste won the Compton Crook Award, placed in the Sapphire Awards, had an honorable mention in Spectrum Award, and was on the preliminary ballot of the Nebula.  For a first novel, that was really stunning.  Tainted Trail is currently nominated for the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Best SF Award. 

There’s an extreme sense of validation in your work when you receive a nomination.  When friends and family tell you that your work is great, there’s the sense that they ‘have’ to say that.  An award tells you, without any doubts, that you’re doing it right.        

SFRevu: This is your third Ukiah Oregon story, and he just keeps getting better. How did the character come about, and are you enjoying writing about him?

Wen: I grew up on a farm and we were a wild bunch of girls.  I didn’t realize how wild and wooly we were until I moved to Pittsburgh and started telling stories about my childhood.  One day, I was telling a friend about how my father would knock us down and chew on our ears.  “That explains everything,” she cried. “You were raised by wolves.”  Shortly after that, she asked me to make up a character for a role-playing game she was going to run called Stalking the Night Fantastic.  I made up a boy raised by wolves named Ukiah Oregon. 

Very little of that original character remains in what is now Ukiah – the RPG character was a newspaper photographer without any family and no alien blood – but it was the seed.  When I decided to write about him, I stripped away all the game stuff and then built on it the concept of ‘raised by wolves.’ 

I really love Ukiah as a character.  After I finished Alien Taste and hadn’t sold it yet, I was playing with lots of ‘what if this happened’ ideas and friends of mine teased me that I was writing my own fanfic.  Those ‘what if’ snippets were the starts of Tainted Trail, Bitter Waters and Dog Warrior..

SFRevu: Is Dog Warriors the next title in the series? Do you have the whole story arc plotted out, and if you do, do the characters care?

Wen: Yes, I’m working on Dog Warrior right now and it’s scheduled to be out May 2004. 

I don’t have the whole story arc plotted out as much as the plot threads keep leading to new things.  When I got to the end of TAINTED TRAIL, I originally planned to leap right into Dog Warrior but I realized I really needed to do the whole ‘Sam comes to Pittsburgh’ and ‘Ukiah deals with being a LOT more grown up than when he flew out to Oregon two weeks earlier.’  Alicia keeps surprising me.  Every time she gets near a book, her part expands tenfold; she really was supposed to be a walk on character.   

Wen: Currently Ukiah is begging that if I do a fifth book that he gets to stay home and not be shot at.

SFRevu: Ukiah is a one man crime lab, do you watch CSI? Any SF or Fantasy on TV?

I watch tons of true crime TV shows which covers how the police solved actual murders, where they often show the real evidence gathered and talk to the police that solved the crime.   I try not to watch TV, as it can be a huge time sink, but I do catch occasionally DEAD ZONE episodes and SG-1.  What I watch a huge amount is Anime.  

SFRevu: I love junkyards and girls with attitude…do you have anything in the works that I might enjoy?

Wen: Ha!  What a great loaded question!

In November, Baen is releasing Tinker.  The heroine is a girl with an intellect the size of the planet, steel toe boots, and kick butt attitude.  She runs a junkyard in Pittsburgh -- only Pittsburgh visits the lands of the elves on a regular basis.  I really stuffed this book with everything.  It’s a female coming of age, a romance, a fantasy with tons of real science set in the near future -- elves, Japanese mythology, hoverbikes, machine guns, magic – it’s got everything.  It really rocks. 

SFRevu: What else is in the pipeline?

Wen: Well, Baen is buying the sequel to Tinker.  Roc also has A Brother's Price.  I tend to read stuff and go ‘no, no, no, they totally missed the point,’ and write what I think how the story should have gone.  I’d read many books – and saw a few TV shows -- where woman rule the world, and in these stories, there’s never a ‘good’ explanation why the women are running the show, and usually the place is Utopia.  I really believe that the genders are different but equal, not that either is better.  A world run by women wouldn’t be a utopia.  Humans are humans, regardless of sex.  So in A Brother's Price, I have a world where, because of genetic defects in the race, ninety percent of the population is female.  So of course, women run the world, and the men are the protected sex that stays home.

Not to say, it’s a stuffy tirade about gender issues.  It’s more like Mark Twain meets Jane Austin, or a regency romance turned on its head.  Jerin Whistler is a young man just reaching the age where he’ll be ‘sold’ off by his sisters so they can afford a husband when he rescues a wounded Princess.  When she and her sister fall in love with him, their mothers, the Queens, sponsor Jerin’s Season for his coming out.  While he’s being courted by the five sisters who will all marry him, the heroine, Princess Ren, is tracking down gun smugglers who are behind the murder of her older sisters. 

I was listing out the characters the other day and discovered that while the cast runs several hundred names long (the families often have thirty children) only four men make an appearance, and yet I have gun boat battles, fighting, murder, and mayhem. 

SFRevu: You’ve got an excellent website, and a pretty cool Blog. How did you get into blogging, and who does the webwork?

Wen: Well, my husband is a senior director at Lycos.  We sat down together and designed my website.  He did the initial setup, and then showed me how to update the pages using FrontPage.  At first it was real simple, since I just had the Ukiah books.  Now that Tinker is going to be a series, we’re going to be redesigning it so she has more of a presence on the front page.

The blogging developed because I’m home alone all day, day in and day out, so I drop in on lots of newsgroups.  Lots of them have newbie writers that ask me questions.  I decided that when I answer a question with a long detailed answer that I should have someplace that I could keep them together instead of having them age off and lost.  Again, my husband did the initial set up and I do the updates.   

SFRevu: Are there any other blogs you recommend?

Actually, I try to stay away from surfing the web and reading lots of other people’s stuff.  Most of the newsgroups I frequent (Julie Czerneda’s SFF.NET NG and Holly Lisle’s Forward Motion and the Rumor Mill are some of the ones I visit) I just scan the posts and answer questions.  It gives me the sense of ‘chatting’ but pulls double duty of promoting me as a writer.

SFRevu: How did your first book sale come about?

Wen: I’d written a novel and then killed it in revisions.  Then I wrote a second novel, which had flaws, but I still hope to sell once I get around to revising it.  That novel I mailed around to everyone who would look at unagented manuscripts.  They all loved the first three chapters but didn’t want it once they saw the whole thing.  As I tell new writers, once you establish yourself as a writer, publishers are willing to buy something that’s not done or perfect, because they know you can finish the work, revise it and polish it.  That’s three skills.  If you don’t have a record and mail in a flawed work, they know you can finish a book, but can you revise and polish the revision?  Normally publishers won’t – and realistically can’t – gamble by putting money down for a first novel that has problems.  The manuscript in hand might have taken the author twenty years and fifteen workshops to get it to that stage – and might not be willing to change a single word.

After five or six publishers rejected my second novel, I decided to stick it in a drawer for a few years.  I was too close to it to be able to make the needed gut and revision without setting fire to it.  (Yes, you do get to hate a story after so many revisions.)

I wrote Alien Taste then.  (Tip to new writers.  As soon as you finish one novel, start the next.)  Since each rejection from the publishers had taken anywhere from a short three months to two years, I decided to just start with agents.  I spent like a month researching how to do submissions and writing up a kick ass query letter and synopsis.   I mailed that out to like forty agents.  Around six got back to me, wanting to see more.  (Some of the others merely rubberstamped my letter ‘this does not fit our needs at this time’ and mailed it back.)  I picked Jim Allen (who later died) out of the six, and sent him the full manuscript.  He accepted it in April and by the end of August sold it to Roc.    

SFRevu: What's your most popular book? Is it your favorite? Was it because of the idea, the characters, your life situation while you wrote it, the way it turned out, something else?

Wen: Currently, I think Alien Taste is my most popular book, just because it starts the Ukiah Oregon series.  It’s like a marriage.  That first ‘wow’ when you fall in love outshines what comes later.  The later books are better written, but people like the first best.  I think for the same reason Dog Warrior, which introduces a new POV for the series, will be some people’s favorite.

Usually it’s the book that I’m currently writing is my most favorite; I’m in love with that character and that situation.  When it’s done, it’s done and on the shelf and left behind.  Usually.  Dog Warrior is being a pain, so Tinker, which I just finished in February, is currently my favorite.

I really love Tinker.  She’s intelligent, inquisitive, and incredibly brave, but she has a habit of acting without thinking ahead, which gets her into trouble.  Everything in the book came so easy, it just flowed, and when I got to the end, I was dancing around going ‘Yes!  Yes!  Yes!’   I think – I hope – it’s going to knock everyone’s socks off.

SFRevu: Growing up, when did you first get interested in SF/Fantasy? Do you remember the first genre book that you read?

Wen: Oh gee, no, I don’t really remember that first book.  I know it was in like second or third grade.  I was reading at college level before I hit sixth grade.  I had read the Narnia Series, and Lewis’ space trilogy, and then tried to read the Screwtape Letters.  It’s actually comical in that it was the first time I’d ever read anything where I understood all the words, and had not a clue to what the book was about.  And I know I in seventh grade when I was trying to plow through that.  In high school, I just read just about everything in the library.  After finishing SF&F, I did classics, mysteries, and historical.

SFRevu: Were you a writer as a child?  That is, did you make up your own stories?

Wen: I always made up stories.  In kindergarten, my hero was Bob West.  It wasn’t until recently I realized that he was ‘Jim West’ of Wild Wild West, slightly twisted.  In fourth grade I wrote a play for my class to put on: Rudolph the Reindeer Saves the Night Before X-mas from the Grinch.  The Grinch poisoned the family who had sugar plums dancing in their heads and people had to clap at the end of the play like Peter Pan to save the day.  Hey, I stole from the best.

SFRevu: Why do you write genre?  Do you feel a stronger affinity for one genre or another?

Wen: I write genre because I read genre.  I like SF, fantasy, mystery and romance.  It has a point and a plot.  I suffered through literature in college.  It was always stunning to me that I could recognize that this was great writing, but the story telling was so awful that I could never finish the book.

Wen: When I write, the stories come out as a blend of everything I like to read.  My fantasy tend to have a strong SF tone to them, and the SF rides the edge of fantasy and they both have mystery and romance in them. 

SFRevu: What do you read these days?

Wen: Not as much as I used to.  I won an ARC of First Rider’s Call, the sequel to Green Rider by Kristen Britain, which was a fun read.  I read Lovely Bones, by Alice Sebold, which just made me cry and cry, it was so sad but well written.  I just got in the Wildside reprint of Suzy McKee Charnas young adult Valentine Marsh trilogy to reread; I’d took these out of the library over a decade ago and could never find them again.  I was pleased to discover Wildside reprinted them.  I’m a huge Dick Francis fan, and I read a lot of regency romances, especially the Geogrette Heyer reprint ones coming out.  I also read lots of manga.

SFRevu: What other writers do you feel you have something in common with?

Wen: Hmmm.  I’m not sure I know of anyone that writes like me.  I loved Kipling, and I tend to echo Ukiah back to him at times.  People tend to lump me a bit with Laurel K. Hamilton, but she’s a lot more graphic in the terms of sex and violence. 

SFRevu: Who is your ideal reader?

Wen: Someone who loves great characters.  People that like to see cool stuff with action and romance, all mixed with a touch of humor. 

SFRevu: How do you write? Do you plan out your books before you start? Do you write every day?

Wen: I write every day, often from the time I wake up and until I go asleep, and occasionally getting out of bed in the middle of the night to write some more.  Writing seems like an addictive drug.  I can’t stop. 

Books suddenly bloom out of nowhere for me.  They open up, with characters chattering, and I scribble like mad to catch up the first twenty or thirty thousands words.  And then the characters pause, glance at me, and go “ahem, shouldn’t you like do world building and figure out where this is all going so we know what we’re doing here…or we can go on talking but that’s going to get boring quick.”

So I do some world building, which often requires me to jump back to the beginning and rewrite parts to fit some kind of logical order.  And then I jump all over place as I try to keep up with the characters and still make sense of what’s going on.  It’s a very disorderly process that I have little control over.  If someday I manage to do it in some logical manner, I probably will get much faster at writing. 

SFRevu: Where is Science Fiction going, now that we live in the future? What does Fantasy offer that Science Fiction can't?

My husband talks a lot about singularity but I hit him to make him stop.  The reality of where we’re going isn’t as fun as the fantasy of Space Opera, which is why I think it’s growing.  The whole contemporary fantasy, which Harry Porter kind of falls into, is people wanting the fantastic in their life.  Back in the fifties, what was fantastic was the SF pulp, the ‘Have Spacesuit, Will Travel’ kind of here but not here feeling.  Science is so filling our lives -- the PDA wristwatch, the video games that always you to certify for real military ranks, military planes that fly via remote controls, and high energy plasma force field technology looming on the horizon – that it’s not fantastic anymore.  

SFRevu: How do you feel about the future? What makes you the most hopeful and the most fearful?

Wen: I am, by nature, an optimistic person.  The future, however, seems determined to challenge my innate optimism.  What I like to see as a good thing is the ‘shrinking’ of the world as the Internet ties us together into a closer-knit community.  One newsgroup I post on occasionally is the writers-bbs.com’s Young Writers: Speculative Fiction Forum.   After 9/11, the kids from all around the world were deeply affected – because kids they knew via the board lived in the shadow of the World Trade Towers and hadn’t reported in.  To kids in Australia, it wasn’t something that happened to strangers ‘over there,’ it was to ‘the kid I’ve been talking with for years.”  And I think when it gets that close and personal, you don’t let it happen, you take a stand, and that’s the way to world peace.    

SFRevu: Does writing have a role in shaping people's worldview?

Wen: I think it does.  I’m not out to shape people’s views, but it happens subconsciously.  When I created Ukiah’s family, I wanted him to have a family so he wouldn’t be a loner.  As a feral child on the edge of manhood, I didn’t want him ‘with it’ enough to be able to live alone.  Yet I wanted to keep Max as his partner acting as a father figure, not as his true father.  So Ukiah needed a family.  A father would have interfered with Max’s role, so Ukiah’s mom isn’t married to a man.  But if she was single, then it would be natural for her to be a love interest for Max, something I didn’t want.  That leaned back to the ‘true father’ problem.  Making Jo a lesbian married to woman just balanced out all the forces in the book to me.  What kind of lesbian couple would take in a teenage wolf boy?  Ones who are desperate to have kids.  I wrote his family in what I saw as a natural outcome of thinking in these checks and balances.  I infused his family with my own experiences of knowing homosexuals – they’re just like everyone else.  I had no statement in mind, yet it is my perception of the world. 

When someone reads my book, they have sympathy for Ukiah as the hero.  When I present his family who are different but just as loving and stable as any other family – without beating the reader with it because it isn’t a statement on my part – I think that they can’t help but feel some sympathy for the fictional family that might transfer to reality.  If nothing else, it might open their eyes and say ‘hey, this is how it can be, and it’s not as icky as you thought.’  

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