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Ignyte Interview Series: Mary Robinette Kowal

The Ignyte Community Award celebrates the Outstanding Efforts in Service of Inclusion and Equitable Practice in Genre. Nominated in this year’s Ignytes, Mary Robinette Kowal is a Hugo Award winning author, SFWA President, and an educator in the speculative community. We are honored to have her as one of our finalists and have interviewed her here about her endeavors.

You’ve recently taken on the role of SFWA President. Why was taking on that role important to you?

As an organization, SFWA can improve things within the industry in ways that individuals cannot and volunteering for it allows me to “pay it forward” by helping to make the field stronger, more inclusive and safer.

We’ve had a history of being part of the gatekeepers and I want to see more focus on our ability to be gate-openers. Look, SFWA’s real white. I’ve been telling people since I became president, that my secret not-so-secret agenda was to help the organization reflect and include the wide swathe of people who are actually part of our field. So the board and I have been working to staff people of color in positions where they have voices and the power to make change within the organization.

What do you hope to accomplish in the role?

When I ran, my platform included access to affordable health care. I started working on that almost a decade ago during my first tenure on the board. Other people, Sarah Pinsker and Michael Damien Thomas, picked up that challenge and in June of this year, SFWA was able to announce the Book Industry Health Insurance Partnership (BIHIP), which helps navigate the wide array of insurance options available. 

2020 has made my role as President into something I didn’t expect and is giving us the momentum to make five years of change in a single year. Thanks to a hard-working board and so many amazing volunteers, the shift to a virtual Nebulas Conference was a bright spot in an anxious and exhausting spring. That has given us a platform to have the online education center that SFWA has wanted to create. For creative artists, in particular, the pandemic has brought the cancellation and suspension of much of our usual access to revenue, and we’ve been able to address that with our Covid-19 Relief Resources, which in turn forced us to really get our fundraising efforts going.

Genre fiction, and SFWA specifically, has historically ignored and, too often, reinforced the systemic barriers and racism towards Black people and other BIPOC.  It is not enough to have an anti-harassment policy and call that good. So SFWA has committed to specific actions to make sure that underrepresented voices are heard, to increase inclusion in the genre of science fiction and fantasy, in the larger ecosystem of publishing, in our writing community, and in life. I wish it hadn’t taken the Black Lives Matter movement to propel these changes but I’m grateful that the SFWA board is strong and committed to lasting change.

You’ve been a part of the speculative writing community for many years. What are the things you have learned about equity and storytelling?

Because I write historical fiction so often, I know that women, people of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and people with disabilities have always been there, but have been erased from media representation. Even knowing that, I’m always surprised at just how deep the erasure goes. There have been so many pivotal people who are left completely out of the conversation. That creates a cyclical thing, in which writers parrot “common knowledge” that they’ve internalized from the media they consumed. For instance, my first two Glamourist Histories novels are all white, all the time because I had internalized the idea of a white Regency England. I was very, very wrong. Now, I try to not perpetuate that erasure in my fiction and also to interrogate it and interrogate my own default assumptions.

 

You’re also a teacher of creative writing. One way that you do this is through your work with Writing Excuses. Why did you decide to provide education this way?

I guess … I guess I just think, on a very deep level, that this is what one does. The mantra “pay it forward” is such a central tenet of the science fiction and fantasy community that it doesn’t feel like I’m doing anything odd. So, my role in the community? I’m a member of the community. Communities help each other.

It also helps me. One of the benefits of teaching is having to put my own process into words, which always helps solidify it. I often know WHAT I am doing, but teaching helps me figure out why and that allows me to push at my own boundaries as a writer. For example: I started doing a spreadsheet to look at various axes of power that my characters existed on and realized that I tend to default to straight people and people who are cis. That’s an internal bias that I keep working on.

 

What legacy do you hope you’re leaving through your teaching?

Legacy is an interesting word. When my husband and I decided not to have children, it was a difficult decision because I felt like it was disconnecting me from the next generation. Teaching allows me to help shape that, so it’s a conscious reason I began running workshops. What I hope for is what I would wish for a child of my family — I want them to shape the world to be kinder. Not “nice.” Sometimes kindness means being angry. Sometimes it means being generous. Sometimes it means being kind to yourself, which is often the hardest thing to learn. But kindness comes through connection and care. It comes through letting people in, rather than keeping people out. It also requires privilege, because it implies that you have the freedom to make the kinder choice. If I have a legacy, a kinder world for everyone what I want.

 

Many of the stories that you tell feature powerful women, and that power manifests in different ways. What draws you to write a specific character? A specific plot?

It varies, constantly. One of my favorite pieces of advice to newer writers is that “you are a reader who has honed your taste over your entire life. Your taste is valid – what you like is a useful metric.” Honestly, I’m just writing what I want to read. 

My short stories are all over the place while my novels have tended to be historically driven, usually around an era that I already have an interest in. Being an author is basically a license to make my natural curiosity socially acceptable. 

One thing I particularly enjoy about using an historical frame is that it allows me to talk about contemporary issues in a way that is more accessible to readers. I deal with gender and race in the Regency. I dealt with them in World War I with Ghost Talkers. And those same issues are still present in the 1950s with the Lady Astronaut books. It would be nice if we weren’t so consistent about systemic biases.

Also to be frank, a lot of it is about the clothes. Look… I love a good cos-play, so why set something in an era where I don’t like the clothes? And if I need to hand sew a Regency ball gown or try on an actual space suit, that’s just research, right?

 

What does it mean to you to be considered for the Community award?

Very serious imposter syndrome. The community work that I’m being recognized for, I think, is largely SFWA and it’s a group effort. This board is very committed to making a safer, more equitable environment for writers. The work that I do as an individual… 

There’s the person that I want to be and the person that I am. I’ve spent much more of my life being the nice white lady than I have as — heck. I’m still the nice white lady and am only saved from being deeply obnoxious by  friends who put in a ton of emotional labor over years to make me closer to who I want to be. So, being nominated? What you’re really honoring is their efforts.