Kameron Hurley’s debut novel, God’s War, has been storming awards all year. It’s had a hugely impressive run, made all the more so by the fact the book was released in the US a couple of years ago and has only just made it over here.
Whilst God’s War didn’t quite make it to the Hugo shortlist, Hurley, a frequent, eloquent critic, has. She’s been shortlisted for Best Fan Writer and her non fiction, like her fiction is often brutal and crammed with ideas, character and a unique perspective that is clearly hitting home with many fans. I talked to her about her career, God’s War and her upcoming novels for Angry Robot books…
What first inspired you to write?
I had one of those avid kid imaginations where you really, truly believe you have imaginary friends. I’d lock them in the bathroom so they could take a bath, enough times that my parents felt they needed to have a stern talk with me about the difference between imagination and reality, because they were tired of unscrewing the bathroom door to get in and turn off the tub before it flooded.
Once I could put words on paper, I thought it was pretty cool that I could record all the crazy stories I was already making up in my head, and recall them for later. It didn’t occur to me to “be a writer” until I was 12, when I realised it was an actual profession. That’s about the time I started writing stories with the intention of being a writer. By 15 I was submitting to SF/F magazines, and I published my first nonfiction story when I was 16 and my first fiction story at 17.
I’m one of those folks who’ve been doing this forever. It means I have a deep an abiding jealousy of the occasional write I meet who says their first published book was the first thing they ever wrote (my first published book was actually the ninth novel I’d completed) or who just got high with their friends and came up with a book idea, wrote it, and sold it.
What I’ve learned in this business is that some aspects of storytelling are easier for some folks than other. I’m one of those folks who’s had to really bang my head against it to get good.
I’d say I come out of New Weird tradition; I was reading a lot of Jeff VanderMeer, KJ Bishop, Angela Carter, and China Mieville about the same time as I went to Clarion at 20. I also went on an Isabel Allende, Mary Renault, and Toni Morrison kick for a while – I fell in love with their use of language.
Before that I had a fondness for strong fantasies with great worldbuilding from folks like Jennifer Roberson, Gene Wolfe, Paula Volsky, and Octavia Butler. I also really enjoyed a lot of science-fantasy stories, like Paul Park’s Starbridge Chronicles.
These days I take a lot of plot lessons from folks like Joe Abercrombie and Lauren Beukes. But stylistically, I’d say I’m still most drawn to weird, lush books over plot-centric political thrillers. I need to read something that takes me someplace really different. Those are the types of worlds I like to read and write.
Tell us a little about God’s War.
God’s War is the first in a science-fantasy noir series about a former government assassin tasked with bringing in a rogue alien. The alien’s got information that might end her country’s centuries-long war. There’s technology powered by bugs, boxing magicians, and some of the scariest, bloodiest assassins you’ve ever seen.
It’s a really well defined, unusual world with lots of layers to the characters and details. How much of that occurred organically during writing, and how much was planned?
As with anything, the inspiration for the characters and setting came from all over the place. I started writing it after I came home from living in Durban, South Africa for a year and a half, going to sleep to the sound of the muezzin and bedding down with cockroaches every night.
I’m more a gardener writer than an architect, which means I make things up as I go. I did a lot of heavy research before, during and after I finished the book, everything from biblical history to ancient Babylonian assassins.
In general, I made stuff up as I went and justified them in revisions. So there are mutant shape shifters, giant cicadas, and weird green-glowing guns that just got stuffed in there during the first draft and worked into the overall fabric of the work using my copious research notes later.
A lot of the worldbuilding nuance – the really cutting details – came during the final passes of the book. The first draft was primarily dialogue and fight scenes, with the aforementioned occasional cicada or glowing gun. The best stuff always gets added in revision.
These were all extras I wrote as tie-ins for folks who weren’t ready to commit to the book but wanted a taste of the world. I offered them all for free when they initially came out so folks could circulate them. I wanted to write a little bit about my bounty hunter’s mother to open up the society she lives in a bit, and explore how one of her brothers might have spent the war.
Most of what you see in the books are poor and working class folks, in particular in the first book. The short stories were about broadening the scope of that. The novelette, The Body Project, was my first attempt at writing a straight action-mystery story; it’s a prequel where my crazy assassin tries to figure out who killed a man she served with in the war who was supposed to have died five years before – and a thousand miles away – from where she finds him.
What’s the approach you’ve taken there? Have you put them out yourself or through a publisher?
I self-pubbed all of them, which made sense because I did them as marketing pieces for the larger works. For The Body Project, I hired my own copyeditor and I also created all my own covers. My UK publisher was kind enough to host The Body Project on their blog, but I retained all the rights to it.
Have they been successful? And is it a model you’d recommend to other authors?
They were successful in the sense that they drew attention to my books, but I don’t make much money off them. When it comes to bang for your buck, novels are always the better bet. Short fiction sales outside of big mainstream mags won’t make you more than a few hundred dollars.
Whether or not I’d recommend them depends on the definition of “success” the write is looking for. If it’s money, then no. Short fiction isn’t that profitable. But if you’re just looking to get eyes on a larger work, it doesn’t hurt.
One of the best things about God’s War is your lead, Nyx. She’s a nuanced, grounded, interesting character and yet she’s one of the few female leads in modern SF. What do you think the issue with getting more female protagonists is? How do you think it can be changed?
It’s not that there aren’t a lot of women heroes; it’s that many of them have either been forgotten, or moved out of mainstream SF/F along with their authors. You see them in urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and YA all the time.
Some of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Lots of women writers get into SF/F and folks assume they’re writing romance and urban fantasy, so after a couple books nobody picks up because of that assumption, they go off and write YA or paranormal romance or some other genre that’s more welcoming to both women writers and women heroes.
If you want to talk straight SF folks writing women heroes, though, there’s Elizabeth Bear, Lois McMaster Bujold, Lauren Beukes, and Ann Leckie just to start. Linda Nagata, Chris Moriarty, Tricia Sullivan, Nalo Hopkinson, Nicola Griffith, Pat Cadigan, Karen Lord, Louise Marley, Maureen McHugh, and old-school folks like Joanna Russ and Naomi Mitchison. I mean, I could go on and on. There’s whole lists with hundreds of names. It’s just that people forget them, even when asking questions like this one. Where are all the women writers? Where are all the female heroes?
I mean, even the dudes write women heroes sometimes; I’m pretty fond of Tobias Buckell’s ass-kicking heroine in his book Arctic Rising. There may be problematic women heroes, too, like Heinlein’s Friday, but they’re there. Much of the issue of “fixing” this is simply fixing how we talk about it. It’s seeking out and remembering women writers in particular and women heroes in general, and actively citing them in conversations, on panels, and as recommendations, not just in “women in” conversations that prompt us, but just when we generally talk about what we’re reading.
Women, and women heroes, have always been here since the beginning, from Mary Shelley to Rokeya Sakhawat Hussain and her all-women future from Sultana’s Dream.
It’s about active memory, and fighting the erasure of our own genre’s history. And if we’re going to ask this question continually, it’s important that we’re asking it of both women and men writers, as everyone’s responsible for representing the full measure of humanity.
I’d love to write more God’s War books. I actually have the idea for another trilogy set 25 years after the end of the third book, Rapture, bubbling about, but it really just depends on demand. As with anything, the market will only bear what it will bear. I love the books, but I’ll need a massively passionate following to keep them up. Or a really great movie deal.
And, of course, after Rapture I needed a break. It’s a pretty brutal, busted world – like Mad Max on fire – and spending too many years there (I spent nearly eight!) can get to you. Even if I wrote them forever I’d have to take breaks between trilogies for other work.
Tell us a little about Mirror Empire, your Angry Robot book series. How did that come about?
The Mirror Empire is the first book in the Worldbreaker Saga, an epic fantasy about three unlikely champions who have to unite a fractured world on the eve of a recurring cataclysm. There’s bonus blood magic, and flesh-eating plants, because I do love marvellous worldbuilding.
It’s set in a world I initially came up with a long time ago, back in my late teens, which I modernised over the years into this crazy world that breaks itself every 2,000 years, literally and figuratively. I wanted to know what would happen if you have massive invasions of people every couple 1,000 years, and they were from worlds not your own. What did the mythology look like? How would people prepare for it? How would the hierarchies and power structures change?
Those are some of the questions I explore in this series, as well as slavery, power, control, genocide, and consent. I’m interested in how people organise themselves, and how societies with very, very different social mores and assumptions react when forced to band together against a greater evil.