Interview: Delia Sherman

Delia Sherman is a writer who transcends definition. Her stories weave in and out of genre lines with gleeful abandon, always reminding the reader that it’s the story that matters, not the box we want to place it in. Coming from the world of academia, Sherman taught herself to write fiction while teaching, breaking out of the gate with a Campbell Award nomination for Best New SF Writer in 1990. Yet she wields her extensive academic background with a subtlety that draws the reader into her world while stretching your expectations and worldviews in a way that is sly and easy. Her stories can be historical, fantastical speculative, and science–fictional. She embraces the interstitial nature of her work and is a founding member of the Interstitial Arts Foundation. But Sherman doesn’t shy away from hard issues such as race, gender, and class as evidenced in her middle–grade novel, Freedom Maze, which won the Andre Norton, Prometheus, and Mythopoeic Awards. Writing rollicking, intelligent stories that capture your imagination and stay with you long after the chapter closes, Sherman continues to be a writer who surprises, delights and never fails to deliver the sort of story you want to immediately re–read.

Uncanny Magazine: In the past you’ve stated that your writing is “old fashioned” and one can’t argue that “Young Woman in a Garden” has a very classic ghost story feel, but it’s a story with the very modern edge of the lost (and reclaimed) history of women.  When pondering this story, what was the first element that fell into place and was there a particular inspiration that started the creative process?

Delia Sherman: Even though I feel aesthetically more at home in the 19th Century in many ways, I’ve read enough history to know that, for a woman, anyway, the Past is best viewed from a distance.  For better or for worse, I am the product of the 20th Century and live in the 21st.  I am a, what—First Wave, second set of Ripples?—Feminist, vintage 1970, constitutionally focused on the women standing behind the Great Men of Art and History.  When I wrote this story, I’d been researching the Impressionists for a novel set in 1870’s Paris.  I’d been reading biographies of Mary Cassatt and Berthe Morisot and Suzanne Valadon, so I was thinking about women painters and their relationships to the more famous men anyway. And then I fell in love, which created a certain amount of personal drama, since I was in another relationship at the time.  Somehow, this is the story that came out of all that—largely unconsciously, I have to say.

Uncanny Magazine: The structure of this story has such an authentic, academic feel in both structure and tone. In particular, there is a passage where Theresa states that the better known and deeply researched Manet would never be hers but that Beauvoisin would be all hers. Balancing the joy of discovery with the very real need to create something relevant adds a nice bit of tension that mirrors Luna and Mme Beauvoisin’s desire to have their truth be told. As someone with an extensive academic and research background, what is the benefit (or pitfall!) of applying these ideas and techniques to fiction?

Delia Sherman: I don’t think I could have written this story if I’d still been active in the academy. I wrote it maybe 10 years after I’d decided I wasn’t going to go for a tenure–track position or continue to write academic articles. This freed me to research anything that interested me without committing to becoming an expert or limiting myself to a single place or period or discipline or approach.  I didn’t have to read any theory (although I found the New Historicists very helpful), remember any dates, or read anything about politics unless my story led me there. I was free of the necessity to justify, footnote, and develop a logical argument, and I reveled in my freedom. Yet, as your cogent analysis of one of the threads of the story makes clear, once you’ve learned to think like a scholar and a critic, you can’t really unlearn it.

In other words, I didn’t realize I was dramatizing that particular balance (I don’t think—I wrote this story over 20 years ago, after all). But I did it anyway, because seeing that kind of pattern is now part of how I process narrative. It is also fair to say that when I try to do it on purpose, the result tends to be more artificial than artful.

Uncanny Magazine: You also delved into historical SF/F territory with your middle grade novel Freedom Maze. Like all fiction, YA seems to be cyclical, with dystopian being the current flavor. There has been some criticism that, despite all the other positive elements, this type of story gives readers a bleak view of the future. Other than a great story, what value do you think historical SF/F brings to young readers?

Delia Sherman: I’ve always thought that history contains clues to the present. Human culture is shaped by its past, just as an individual’s personality is. Cultures, like individuals, deal with pride, greed, anger, hunger, and feelings of inferiority. They fall into patterns of behavior, repeat past mistakes, and are influenced by the beliefs of their parents. In my opinion, it’s impossible for anybody—young readers especially—to understand the world they’re living in without some knowledge of where it came from. I like to invite readers into past lives and past ways of thinking in ways that point up the similarities between the past and the present, to make them think about how attitudes towards women and minorities have changed over time and how they haven’t and why. And tell a great story with a lot of cool clothes in it.

Uncanny Magazine: “Young Woman in a Garden” is the perfect amuse–bouche of a story—pulling the reader in with both structure and rich language for one perfect bite. Yet, you’ve stated you are not a natural short story writer nor can you write for a specific market. How does the structure and length of a story settle to you?

Delia Sherman: By repetition. I just write it over and over again until it works. Usually, it starts out much too long, and I have to remove scenes and words and sentences and characters and descriptions that would be fine in a novel, but clog a short story with details that aren’t essential to my purpose. As I’ve done it more (and studied it more and taught it in writing workshops), I’ve gotten better at seeing when I’m about to fly off into Novel–Land and refocusing. It used to take me months and dozens of drafts to write a story. Now it takes about a month and only nine or 10 drafts. Depending on the story.  As I recall, “Young Woman” took me about six months. It would have taken longer if I hadn’t already done a lot of the research already.

Uncanny Magazine: Your writing is the very definition of interstitial, a movement for which you are great champion and advocate. What sort of story pleases you most to write? Are there certain types of story elements that call to you strongly?

Delia Sherman: It’s odd you should say my fiction is interstitial, since I don’t think of it that way. My brand of historical/fantastical/comical/tragical/mythical/social commentary with feminist overtones feels very old–fashioned to me, like the stories written when whatever wasn’t theology or poetry or drama or news was just stories—ghost, fairy, erotic, realist, crime, romance, allegory, comedy, historical, all mixed up together under the heading of Prose Narrative. When I first started writing, I never sat down intending to mix genres consciously. I just wrote what interested me. Looking at the evidence, what seems to interest me most are the places where the real and unreal meet and overlap. After all, every good realistic novel, even the most autobiographical, is full of fictional, but convincing, characters and situations. So is every good fantasy. My joy is making the fantastic as real and the factual as fantastic as possible—to me, and I hope to my readers as well—without worrying too much about markets and trends and age groups and genres. Which I guess is kind of interstitial, at that.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you so much for your thoughtful—and thought–provoking—responses!

Deborah Stanish

Deborah Stanish is the co–editor of the Hugo Award–nominated Chicks Unravel Time: Women Journey Through Every Season of Doctor Who and Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon by the Women Who Love Them. She’s had essays published in Chicks Dig Time Lords; Time, Unincorporated Volumes II and III; Outside In: 160 New Perspectives on 160 Classic Doctor Who Stories by 160 Writers; Famous Monsters of Filmland; Apex Magazine, and The Liverpool University Journal of Science Fiction, Film, and Television. Deborah is also the moderator of the Hugo Award–nominated podcast Verity! where six women from around the globe debate and discuss Doctor Who.

One Response to “Interview: Delia Sherman”

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