September 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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Sharon Lee and Steve Miller Interview by Edward Carmien
SFRevu Interview: 09/03
Photo: Sharon Archer

Feature Review: Low Port

The Liaden Universe™ – if you haven't heard of it, what rock do you live under? – is the brainchild of Sharon Lee and Steve Miller who have authored eight novels (with number nine due in early 2004) in the far-future setting. Low Port, however, is an anthology of 20 short stories not part of the Liaden Universe™, stories gathered together by Lee and Miller, authors turned editors, under a common rubric of the low port, the rough part of town where the people of the fringe live (and die).

This email interview digs into the background of the project, their thoughts on the nature of the science fiction short story, the three P's (pets, politics, and prognostications), Meisha Merlin Publishing, and who knows what else.

Edward Carmien: The introduction to Low Port describes the genesis of the idea for the anthology as coming over dinner as you discussed a Liaden Universe™ setting that contained a "low port," a place where marginal lives are lived and lost, a place far away from swashbuckling heroes and square-jawed astronauts. What was for dinner that night?

A simple repast – leg of baby salmon on a nest of jasmine macaroni, removed by a catnip sorbet.

Sharon Lee: A simple repast – leg of baby salmon on a nest of jasmine macaroni, removed by a catnip sorbet.

Steve Miller: Dinner likely included pasta, Pinot Grigio, and whole wheat rolls dipped in olive oil.... more than that I'm not sure of.

EC: No, but seriously, what spurred you to come up with a proposal for a project that took you away from authoring and put you into the editor's seat?

SL: We've both been editors, after all. I worked on night-side news as a copy editor and occasionally filled in as local editor. Steve will probably tell you about his editorial experiences. Granted, being a newspaper editor is ...somewhat... different from being a fiction editor, but it wasn't entirely untrammeled territory for either of us.

Besides, we thought the idea had legs, as they say – for which we had some reason. Back in the swirling mists of time, I was employed as the administrative aide to the dean of the University of Maryland School of Social Work and Community Planning. This would have been back around the time that the idea of gentrifying the inner cities to make them "more viable" – read, "safe and comfortable for middle-class people" – was getting a running start among community planners. That this gentrification would mean that the people currently living in the places to be upgraded would no longer be able to afford to live there and would have to move along to ...somewhere else... seemed to bother the planners and the social workers not very much at all. It bothered me, though – and has, for going on twenty years now.

That...gentrification would mean that the people currently living in the places to be upgraded would no longer be able to afford to live there and would have to move along to ...somewhere else... seemed to bother the planners and the social workers not very much at all.
So, we thought the idea of writing about those people, who lived in places that weren't necessarily either safe or comfortable, was wide enough and deep enough to elicit a number of interesting stories from interesting writers – and we were not disappointed.

SM: As to what brought it up in the first place? I think it was because I'd had a story idea floating around in the back of my mind for some time and as it was working it's way to the forebrain I was trying to figure out what seemed different about it. What was different was that I was looking at the someone who was talented -- but not anywhere near the top of the heap economically or socially, the kind of person who would end up living in Low Port all their life without extreme luck. Eventually that story appeared as "Phoenix" in our SRM Publisher chapbook Loose Cannon, but by then we'd pitched the idea to our publisher, and he liked it enough to go for it.

Also, I should mention that we've both been newspaper editors, and we'd both worked on some electronic fiction projects when it was neither popular nor profitable to do so -- you can find the BPLAN Virtual reviews in back issues of Analog from around 1990. So editing came relatively painlessly to us.

EC: I'll admit right off that while I'm familiar with the Liaden Universe™, I'm not up to speed on your work in the short fiction field. Did you start off writing the short stuff, and if so, what were some of your markets?

SL: I started off writing very short stuff, indeed – maybe 300-500 words. The stories got longer, and eventually one of them – " A Matter Of Ceremony," weighing in at a whopping 2,400 words – was published in Amazing Stories in 1980. Sales followed to Owflight, to Dragon Magazine, and to Fantasy Book. Our first published collaboration (not counting some classified ads for a science fiction newspaper) –"Kinzel The Innocent"– was published in Fantasy Book in 1984. We still do write short stories – sometimes singly, sometimes collaboratively. Recent short stories have appeared in Absolute Magnitude, 3sf, the Stars anthology edited by Janis Ian and Mike Resnick, Catfantastic V, Low Port, and The Best Of Dreams Of Decadence. We'll also have a fantasy/mystery crossover in Murder By Magic, edited by Rosemary Edghill and due out from Warner in October 2004.

SM: I think almost everyone starts off with short stuff -- I started writing short fiction when I was 8 or 10! My first published short fiction piece happened the year I turned 18 for a literary zine called Junto; I was also a pretty active poet then and spent some years on the poetry trail (coffee houses, litmags and etc. while the fiction got going). But... St. Toad's Journal accepted and published "The Inventoried" (one of my oft-reprinted short stories) in 1976; Amazing accepted a story that year, too -- "Charioteer" -- which was the first of three or four pieces I sold them -- but it didn't get published until 1978. In the meantime I'd sold short stuff to quite a few of the old SPWAO (Small Press Writers and Artists Organization) zines Like World Lost, Time Forgotten and places like Owlflight. Later, when we started writing together we sold the original Kinzel stories to Fantasy Book.

EC: Are the stories you accepted for Low Port the kind of stories readers will likely find in currently publishing short fiction markets? Or did you have an editorial intent to strike off in a direction different than the mainstream sf/f short fiction magazine market?

SL: We had an editorial intent to allow the stories to speak for themselves. Insofar as the editors had An Idea, the stories we picked reflect and enhance that idea. The same is true for the SF/F magazines, which tend to reflect the personality and biases of the editors – I think that's inevitable. As readers, writers, and as editors, I think we have a strong bias for character-driven stories, and the Low Port guidelines called for stories about the people to be found there, their lives, aspirations, successes, failures. I don't think we bought any story that could not have found a home in another professional publication.

SM: I think we felt that the stories we wanted weren't mostly going to go to Analog, Asimov's, or even F&Sf or Absolute Magnitude -- but some of the stories we turned down because of space limitation Did end up published elsewhere, so maybe we were wrong. Markets are so diverse (and so fleeting!) these days that it's hard to know what'll get printed. We wanted to read the kind of stories we asked for. A good thing we wanted to read that kind of story -- we had more than two million words to sift through!

EC: I imagine the process of collecting 20 stories for your anthology led to at least one thigh-slappin’ funny story. Changing names to protect the innocent (or guilty) as necessary, can you share with SFRevu the funniest, oddest, strangest, or somethingest tale that cropped up during your work on Low Port?

SL: We had a writer submit the same story several times, which was ...odd.

SM: No, can't think of much thigh-slapping. We had a couple people send us the same story several times (I guess in the hopes we'd forget we'd seen it -- but databases are wonderful things!) but for the most part everyone treated us professionally, and we tried to do the same.

EC: Have any pets you want to brag (or moan) about?

SL: Rush hour. I purely hate rush hour. Oh, wait....

We have three cats – Patia, the Maine Coon diva, who practices her singing at 2 a.m. Kodi, who rules the roost with a seven-toed paw, blind as she is. And Max! who is gorgeous.

SM: we've got three cats now; our fourth, Nick der Fluffer died about the time we got finished with Low Port. Sometimes we put our cat pictures up on the website....

EC: Politics these days is proving to be stranger than fiction. The California recall election, America's adventure in Iraq, ongoing tensions with North Korea – have you drawn any inspiration or energy from these situations for your current work?

SL: No.

SM: Can't say so. If I wanted to write about that stuff I'd go back into newspaper work full-time. We draw our energy mostly from characters and from ideas we've been talking over for the past 25 years -- current politics makes for really boring, agenda-ridden stories.

...the purpose of science fiction is to entertain, and that it happened to be predictive, that was fine, but it was far more important that it give the reader some place else to go, something new to experience...

By the way, a long time ago I heard Damon Knight's speech to a Maryland Library Association annual convention, and it helped shaped my writing after that. One of his essential points was that the purpose of science fiction is to entertain, and that it happened to be predictive, that was fine, but it was far more important that it give the reader some place else to go, something new to experience -- even a safe break from reality! -- than to try to pre-write history.

EC: You appear to have started publishing novels with ACE, one of the oldest sf publishing houses, while your recent work has come out from Meisha Merlin Publishing. Has working with a different publishing house (and editor) allowed you to do different things with your Liaden books?

(SL) Ace is doing mass market reprints of the books that Meisha Merlin published in hard cover and trade paperback. Since MM chose to release several of the novels in omnibus, it may look as if Ace has more – or different – books on the shelf. In fact, there are currently seven published Liaden Universe™ (R) novels: Local Custom, Scout's Progress, Conflict Of Honors, Agent Of Change, Carpe Diem, Plan B, And I Dare. These Were Released By Meisha Merlin As: Pilots Choice (Including Custom and Scout), Partners In Necessity (Including Conflict, Agent, And Carpe), Plan B, And I Dare. Meisha Merlin Has Also Published The Tomorrow Log – first novel in a space opera series set on the other side of the galaxy – and will be publishing Liaden Universe™ (R) novel Balance Of Trade in February 2004. We're pleased to be under contract with MM for two more Liaden Universe™(R) books, tentatively scheduled to be released in 2005 and 2006.

SM: Actually, we started out with Del Rey in the late 1980s -- also an old publishing house -- and then went to Meisha Merlin. Ace came to us after the Meisha Merlin books started hitting the Locus bestseller list. We have very good imaginations but we never expected to have publishers come after us as they have! Meisha Merlin came to us when we were already looking for a new publisher and we're glad they did, then Embiid and Ace both came looking for various of the sub-rights, and Meisha Merlin has sold some of the overseas rights as well.

EC: Is Low Port the kind of anthology you could have sold to one of the older publishing houses, or was newcomer (born in 1996) Meisha Merlin the only publisher you could imagine taking on the project?

SL: Historically, anthologies are a tough sell – especially anthologies that may be a touch... controversial. We knew that Stephen Pagel, Meisha Merlin's publisher, wasn't afraid of controversial material. He had, with Nicole Griffith, edited the award-winning Bending The Landscape anthologies, and published Lee Martindale's size-positive anthology, Such A Pretty Face. It was natural for us to pitch an anthology which would potentially be dealing with the painful issues of homelessness, drug addiction, street gangs, and the working poor, to him first. We thought he'd understand the idea and be excited by it. We weren't wrong.

EC: Who knows what else? Any other projects in the pipeline you'd like your readers to know about?

SL: Oops. I think I sort of answered this one above.

SM: Balance Of Trade (a Liaden Universe™(R) novel) is due out in February 2004; after that we have two more Liaden Universe™ novels contracted, one for February 2005 and one for February 2006. We're also looking around at another anthology idea, and we've got a list of "must write" Liaden books for down the road, and another "must-do" project that's on hold temporarily because we can't fit 93 hours worth of doing into 24 hours worth of clock time.

Scheduled? Likely another Lee-Miller SRM Publisher chapbook at Christmas, in and around the new invitational chapbooks we're doing for others (most recently Ru Emerson and Lawrence Schoen) at SRM.

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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