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Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Aliette de Bodard on writing, science, and language

The first time I read about her was on the SFWA website. She was the featured author and she instantly drew my attention because here was a young, very talented writer, whose mother tongue was French but who wrote in English. Well, turns out, that's not the only amazing thing about Aliette de Bodard. A Hugo, Nebula, and Campbell nominee, Aliette has won the BSFA Award for Best Short Fiction, as well as Writers of the Future. Her short fiction has appeared on Asimov's, Interzone, and other prestigious magazines, and her novels, Servant of the Underworld, Harbinger of the Storm, and the forthcoming Master of the House of Darts, are published by Angry Robots.

Needless to say, I am so honored to have Aliette on my blog today!

EEG: I'm truly impressed by your bio: you're half French and half Vietnamese, you were born in the US and grew up in Paris. You're a computer engineer and you write beautiful, lyrical stories about fantastic worlds that mix Aztec, Chinese, and Vietnamese cultures. And, may I add, you're a fabulous cook, at least judging from your blog! If you were to define yourself in only a handful of words, what words would you choose?

ADB: Urk, what I am not is concise... I'm a very intensely curious and open-minded person, and a bit of a contrarian (if there is a majority vote, you can be sure I'll be looking for good reasons to set myself against it). Also, occasionally, I write speculative fiction!

EEG: From your bio: "Aliette admits to being a proud maths geek, though most of that hasn’t seeped into her fiction." First of all: math geeks rock! I do understand the need to "step away from it," but I also wonder if it goes out one way and comes back the other way around, meaning: has it ever happened to you that you were sitting at your day job desk and you came across a concept that spurred a great idea for a story?

ADB: I don't think it's actually happened--I do try to keep my day job separate from my writing, both for my serenity of mind, and also because I don't want to run into confidentiality issues that might become problematic later. I do get a lot of exposure to scientific articles, and that provides a lot of the background that goes into my stories--the edge of "tech-speak" and the confidence that I know what I'm talking about, both of which might not seem like much but are actually crucial to establishing reader trust. I think the last time the wires crossed was a couple years ago, when I was reading an article on remotely-distributed computers; and I immediately had this vivid image of a computer gestalt spread across several ships--and, because I'm a nasty person, I immediately imagined what would happen if the radio communications that kept the gestalt together were cut... (this later grew into the short story "Horus Ascending," which was published by IGMS).

EEG: In general, do you think that the two worlds -- writing and engineering -- are two completely different compartments in your life or do you feel you couldn't do one without the other?

ADB: I definitely couldn't do one without the other: for one, I have this hankering for science, which I don't think writing would satisfy; and for another, I'm a moderately social person, and I think I'd go insane if I didn't have a day job where I'm regularly asked to interact with other people. Writing is tremendous fun, and something I could let go of as easily as, say, breathing, but it does need something in the way of a complement for me, and that's what engineering provides.

The two worlds do interact with each other, except it's not in terms of ideas crossing the boundaries (OK, I lie. Sometimes I'll write scientists in a lab, and it's good to know how scientists really function by virtue of having been there. Also, it helps to have a grounding in basic and not-so-basic science when writing science fiction, if only because it speeds up the research by several orders of magnitude: a lot of time when I'm looking up stuff in an encyclopaedia, I just skim to get the gist, because most of them refer to stuff I either know or have touched upon). Mostly, what I get from the engineering is a sense of method: I will build my stories fairly methodically, on something closely approaching a V-cycle of development. I.e., try to do as many substantial modifications to the story outline, rather than to the first draft, because the more developed the story is, the harder it is to fix. I think a lot of the analytical mind I picked up from science is something I use in my writing, and especially when I'm taking stories apart to see why they don't work.

I do have a set of different compartments for both activities, though, because I strongly need them to be separate. My day job is my day job, and I'm not going to start brainstorming my novel in the middle of a meeting; similarly, the work stuff is all well and good, but barring leftovers or emergencies, I need my mind to be clear of it when I write. I also have a need for this because of the language problems: so much of what I do in my everyday life is in French; but, in order to write, I have to think exclusively in English. I need to be in what I call "the bubble" in order to call up the English language faster, and the bubble thing won't work if I start crossing wires with my French-speaking day job. So, by necessity, I have to keep them both separate, and anything I can do to reinforce separation actually helps my writing. It sounds a bit counter intuitive, but that's just the way my mind works...

And, of course, it always helps to have writing skills when you have to write an engineering proposal with convincing arguments.

Fascinating. I am myself bilingual, but I never thought about that problem because luckily my everyday language is also my writing language. It's truly amazing that you can isolate yourself that way and create such beautiful, magical worlds. Thank you for sharing your stories with us and thank you for answering my questions.

To find out more about Aliette's books, visit her webpage, where she blogs about writing and, among other things, yummy Asian dishes that make you wanna ask, "Can I come over for dinner tonight?"

Photo: Canon 40D, exposure time 1/30, focal length 80mm.


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