Interview with Rosemary Kirstein with Laurie J. Marks
SFRevu: It's been a while since your last book, so people who aren't familiar with your work might want to know what you've done in the past, what those books were like, and what you've got coming out in September.
RK: The first two books that I wrote, The Steerswoman in 1989 and The Outskirter's Secret in 1992, have been re-issued and are now available again from Del Rey in an omnibus volume, The Steerswoman's Road. That came out in July 2003, and has been pretty healthy with its reception. Interestingly, The Lost Steersman is actually even out-selling The Steerswoman's Road. The Lost Steersman hasn't even been released yet.
SFRevu: So these books are part of a series that you know is going to be seven books, is that right?
RK: There's a point in writing each of my books that I think "This is going to have to be two books." But then it turns out not to be the case... At this point, yeah. I have The Steerswoman, The Outskirter's Secret, The Lost Steersman, and The Language of Power, Book 4, which I've just sold to Del Rey and it's complete...
SFRevu: And you're just starting on Book 5 now?
RK: Yes. Book 5 will probably be called The City in the Crags. [After books 6 and 7] I'll do the prequel -- which is a proper prequel and...should be read after the series, because otherwise, half the fun of figuring things out from reading the series is lost. The prequel explains how many of the issues that play out in the series came to be.
SFRevu: You mentioned that there's a certain element of figuring things out involved in reading the series. Can you explain what you mean by that?
RK: Rowan [the protagonist] has a very analytical mind, in a kind of non-technological world. Things there are not quite what they seem, and should be looked into for alternate interpretations -- and that's a lot of fun. They hook up to each other, and they link into a back-story that isn't quite what one would expect. Also, in many ways, especially with the first book, I play around with every fantasy trope you can think of, and the reality is exactly the opposite. And that's fun too, a mental exercise in itself.
SFRevu: One thing that strikes me as really appealing and unusual about the books is that a lot of what you do seems to be focused on exploring the ways that a person's presumptions or world view limits the way you understand something.
RK: Our presumptions limit, but not permanently. We see what we expect to see, in general -- but we ought to keep looking, to see more. I want to head off the assumption that you're stuck, that you're determined by what you expect. But your first reaction, when you see something unfamiliar, will be that you'll couch it in some term that's familiar to you. Essentially, the book is about epistemology, which I dearly love.
SFRevu: Well, I think it's about the effort to understand -- especially the psychological aspects of it. Would you agree with that?
RK: The effort to understand, yes, and...the hunger to understand. There are some people who just accumulate the knowledge they need and then function with that, and that's OK. Not everyone has to need more. But some people are just naturally bent towards trying to work it out, trying to think what's next and where it comes from, how it hangs together. And here I have an entire order of people, Steerswomen, who essentially are that kind of people...
I have a scene in the book where Bel is talking to Rowan. Bel is the "barbarian sidekick" who is not quite a barbarian sidekick. Rowan is trying to explain what's going on in this town, how townsfolk live, and she says, "To a goldsmith, gold is life." And Bel asks Rowan "What is life to a Steerswoman?" And Rowan has to think, then she says, "The World." And that's the thing -- it's the world, and as soon as she thinks of it as a planet, it's the universe itself. The more we know, the more we are in contact with it. You can't physically touch every corner of the universe, but you can try to comprehend nature, or you can come to comprehend nature, or you can enjoy the attempt to comprehend it, as you get closer and closer to actual reality. Which is an odd thing for a writer of fiction to say, but that's the thing about the scientific mode of thinking: it brings you into contact with the most wonderful thing, which is reality itself.
SFRevu: Rowan comes to be both frustrated and excited by a process of discovery.
At various points in the books, what I see is that when she really comes to insight, that it's really almost a joyful, transcendent experience.
RK: Absolutely. I think there's more than one moment where there's that sudden grasp of reality, and you do transcend. And that's exactly the thing I want to convey. Because so many people think of intelligence and reason as Mr. Spock-like, cut off, machine-like. It's the thrill of discovery, or even comprehending something really difficult, of getting that much closer to the nub of existence -- it's a joyful experience.
SFRevu: Do you have those experiences as well, when you're writing a book?
RK: Oh, yeah!
SFRevu: Rowan, your protagonist, is also a person who is both engaged in an intellectual inquiry and a person who has deep, though not traditional emotional commitments.
RK: ...The Order of the Steerswoman takes the place of a family, of an extended family...There's a point in the first book where I mention Rowan having felt as she grew up all alone that she was a child who looked too closely and understood too much, and had no one who felt the same way. And when she came to the Academy, she suddenly realized there were many people like her, and she felt like an exile coming home.
That kind of recognition is the same kind of recognition you get from science fiction fans, who come to a convention. They've been sitting in Oshkosh, and haven't met another science fiction fan. Then they come to a convention and say, "Hey there's people like me, interested in the same ideas." Or if you go away to school and really meet people who are interested in the same sort of thing. It's that kind of bonding, and it's real easy for the Steerswomen, because the aspect of their bonding is the thing that's most important, which is learning knowledge as it happens. How can you not love someone who loves the same thing you love, in much the same way?
SFRevu: Why are they called Steerswomen?
RK: They're called Steerswomen because way back in the misty deeps of time they began the discipline of learning things with this precision from navigation. The helmsman of a ship is sometimes called a steersman -- so the name stuck. And then ,of course , you make a map of the shores, then as much as you can you go beyond that. The Steerswomen in society are best known for their maps, because the average person in Rowan's world gets the most use of the information the Steerswoman gather in the maps. And only secondarily, the general information that they accumulate.
The steerswomen's mission is knowledge, although the average person will not think of Steerswomen in quite that way. They'll think they're the mapmakers; they're sketching out the countryside. In fact that's not the only thing the Steerswomen do; it's just the most visible thing...
SFRevu: It seems like part of the challenge of writing books like these would be in altering your own world view enough so you can see the familiar as alien, as something you've never seen before.
RK: More than once in early drafts I would perceive an error, in which I was assuming something that should not be assumed, because Rowan does not have that context. And it's hard to do that realistically, because the reader is coming from a full context of knowledge. And to keep the reader interested in someone who doesn't have the full context of knowledge, and is exploring something that the reader knows backwards and forwards in her own life. But on the other hand, it makes it easier to make the process of discovery the focus, rather than the object itself.
SFRevu: It's been awhile between books for you, and people have been desperately waiting for the next one.
RK: I know! I love them so much. Before The Lost Steersman was finished, they kept asking when it was coming out, and they were very persistent. It was great to know, through the difficulties I was experiencing, that they really wanted it. A number of things happened to cause the great gap. Things got tight financially and I needed a full time job. I was in New Hampshire and my family was in Connecticut. And that wouldn't be such a problem, but my father got sick -- and I ended up traveling almost every weekend across two states to take the load off my mother. Eventually he did pass away, and that took some years to get through. And then her health began to fail and she passed away in 1997.
So it was actually when my mother passed away that I started thinking, Oh my God, life is brief, what am I doing programming computers? I had been trying to write during all that time and coming up with a lot of stuff, none of which hung together very well. I'd write a lovely scene but the entire story was not very clear. So when I quit my job and devoted myself to The Lost Steersman, I had quite a mish-mash. With the assistance and encouragement of my writers group, the fabulous Genrettes, I was able to stay on track, put it all down, and figure out what the story really means. That's part of the delay, and the other part of the delay is that, having been out of the pipeline at Del Rey for a while, after I handed in the book it took a long time for them to get to it, because so many people were ahead of me in urgency of needing attention. But I have to say that once they read it and communicated to me how much they liked it, I was really pleased.
SFRevu: Given that the difficulty of writing and managing your life and paying your way is such a challenge, as it is for many of us, why do you write? Why not just quit?
RK: At the job I was working when my mother died, I was doing that, living as if I were not a writer. And I became more depressed than I have ever been in my life. It is an extremely miserable existence! Computer programming is great stuff, and you can have a hell of a lot of fun doing it, but if you're miserable and gray and depressed doing it, there's something else you need to be doing. It was obvious to me that I needed to write. Once I made that decision I was happy. If you have that kind of mind then there is no greater joy than writing.