Geeks of Note: Mary Robinette Kowal

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Mary Robinette Kowal © 2010 Annaliese Moyer, used with permission.

You may not have heard of her, but you’ve probably seen her work. Mary Robinette Kowal is a puppeteer. She has been working in the puppetry arts since 1989, but since then has also voiced audiobooks for the likes of John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow, served as secretary and now vice president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, wrote short stories and, more recently, penned long works of fiction. Her novel Shades of Milk and Honey comes out in August, and creates a world similar to that of Jane Austen, except with magic. I can’t wait to read it. She is currently using her mad puppetry skills to create a trailer for the book, so we’ll share that with you when it is ready.

Puppetry seems to be Kowal’s main focus, and she has worked with such notable groups as the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta and Jim Henson Productions, and has also formed her own production company, Other Hand Productions. She also worked as a puppeteer in Iceland for two seasons on the show LazyTown.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Mary Robinette Kowal, and she had a lot to say about many subjects.

About Shades of Milk and Honey

GeekDad: How is your book different from Austen‘s books?

Mary Robinette Kowal: The most obvious difference is that Shades of Milk and Honey has magic in it. Beyond that, I tried to write a book that I thought Miss Austen might have written if she had lived in a world where magic worked. I also tried to keep in mind that the book would be read by people for whom 1814 England is a foreign place, which meant that I had to put in more clues about social settings than I would have if it were contemporary. For instance, in one scene I have a character realize that she is alone with a man. A reader from Miss Austen’s time would have instantly understood what that meant, but I can’t count on that knowledge in a modern reader.

GD: How do you integrate magic into a very non-SF/Fantasy time period?

MRK: Actually, it’s not a particularly un-SF/Fantasy time period but the genres didn’t have names at that point. In fact, though we talk about this as being the novel Jane Austen would have written if she’d written fantasy, it’s not really. If she’d written fantasy, she’d have been writing Gothic ghost stories like The Mysteries of Udolpho, by Ann Radcliffe (1794) which she references in Northanger Abbey. Books like these were essentially the urban fantasy of their day.


Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was published in 1818, so SF and Fantasy were definitely happening then, they just hadn’t been moved into their own genres yet.

So what I tried to do was to figure out what magic — which I call glamour — would look like in the Regency and still have the period be the Regency. If I made the glamour too powerful then it could have been used for warfare, which would have changed history. I kept having to rein the glamour in so that it could do less. Glamour is an almost entirely illusionary form of magic the effects of which are somewhat like doing trompe l’oeil paintings using light.

GD: How was writing a full length novel different for you from the short fiction you have written?

MRK: Mostly it’s different in the details. The idea of what makes a satisfying character arc remain the same, but when working in novel length I can add more characters, locations and plot elements. The thing that is nice about that, for me, is that each element allows me to explore a different aspect of my characters. In theater we sometimes say that “acting is reacting.” In other words, you understand someone based on how they react to a given situation. Novel length gives me more situations which, in turn, allows me to see more facets.

GD: Why did you decide to make a trailer for the book?

MRK: I had worked for a small press magazine, Shimmer, and had explored trailers as a way to give teasers of the magazine. I noticed that people seemed more likely to embed the trailer than to embed a banner. It’s not a sure thing but trailers do seem to offer a way to reach an audience that I might not normally.

And of course, with my career in puppetry it’s hard for me to avoid thinking of ways to perform the story. In fact, one of the early incarnations of Shades of Milk and Honey was a radio play.

From the trailer for Shades of Milk and Honey, (c)2010 Annaliese Moyer, used with permission.

About Lazytown and Puppetry

GD: What are the puppets on Lazytown made of?

MRK: Their heads are foam latex with fiberglass skulls. Their bodies are cloth and foam. Each puppet weighs around five to ten pounds, depending on the puppet. That’s like holding a half-gallon of milk over your head and lip-syncing with it.

GD: Do you have a favorite episode, either for watching or because of your experience making it?

MRK: I very much enjoyed Secret Agent Zero, in part because I love the music that Mani Svavarsson wrote for it. I also got to do a lot of fun work in that one. I’m an assistant puppeteer on Lazytown, which means that I do the characters’ live hands. In that episode, Bessie Busybody did this dance that was just loads of fun to perform.

GD: What made you get into puppetry?

MRK: I was one of those kids who want to do everything. I started puppetry in high school through a puppetry troupe at a friend’s church but didn’t think it was something that anyone could do for a living. When I got to college, I was an art major with a minor in theater and speech, still trying to combine everything I loved. The opportunity came up to perform Audrey II in Little Shop of Horrors and a professional puppeteer came to see the show. It never occurred to me before that this was something you could get paid for. I pretty much changed career choices on the spot and have never looked back. Most of my work has been on stage, because I love the interaction with live audiences but I don’t think that there’s a style of puppetry that I haven’t loved performing.

GD: What have you done with the Jim Henson Company?

MRK: I was in the film Elmo in Grouchland. For that I was one of the background puppeteers but did get to do a couple of fun things. There were two shots where Elmo needed to be a marionette. Kevin Clash, who is Elmo’s voice and puppeteer, isn’t a marionettist so the asked me to be Elmo’s stunt double and work him in those two shots. It was fun but somewhat stressful to perform someone else’s character, even for the two seconds that it is visible on screen.

The other thing that is fun in that film is that you can see me, as an actor, at the beginning of the film. They hadn’t called extras one day because it was going to be a special effect shot with Elmo floating down with his parachute. As soon as they got the shot set up they realized just how much of Sesame Street would be visible so they pulled all the puppeteers in to be extras. As Elmo is floating down, if you look behind him, there’s an icecream cart. I’m the woman in the hat.

GD: What’s the most interesting or surprising reaction you have gotten when you tell people you’re a puppeteer?

MRK: This is sad, but I’m most surprised when someone asks me “What kind of puppetry do you do?” I’m so used to getting the response, “Oh, how cute” or “I used to love that when I was a kid” that I’m never prepared when someone actually recognizes that it is a larger art form and has some knowledge of it.

Coraline, made out of paper, one of three commissioned by Subterranean Press as gifts for Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean. Photo: Ellen Datlow, used with permission.

Science Fiction and Fantasy

GD: What are your duties as Vice President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America?

MRK: In truth, I’m only a week into the role, after having spent two years on the board as Secretary. For both positions, the primary work was being an active board member and participating in discussions and decisions. The specific duties have changed a bit though. According to the president, John Scalzi, my number one job is “to keep the President from making an ass of himself.”

In all seriousness though, my job is to shadow Scalzi, in case he gets run over by a bus. Also, to act as his second because the President’s job is very time intensive. The VP exists to help manage the workload.

GD: How did you get involved with the likes of John Scalzi and Cory Doctorow?

MRK: I met them at different times but in pretty much the same way. Scalzi and I met at a convention because we had friends in common. We just started talking and hit it off.

At another convention Cory and I were on a panel together and then later realized how many friends we had in common. At some point, Subterranean Press asked me to narrate a short story for Cory and I think that was when we started chatting. In case you hadn’t noticed, both of them are very smart people and fun conversationalists.

GD: I read that the idea of world building helped to integrate some of your interests. How do you use world building in your work?

MRK: World building is a short hand way of talking about all the puzzle pieces that go into making a story consistent, from the characters to the way the cultures are presented. In puppetry, my training was to look at the parameters of the show and decided on the style of puppetry based on that. For me that carries over into the way I approach fiction.

For instance, with Shades of Milk and Honey, I’d been reading Persuasion, by Jane Austen, and wondered why there weren’t many intimate stories like that in fantasy. So I sat down trying to come up with a story that didn’t involve saving the world from Certain! Doom! and a giant quest.

That led me to the style choice to attempt to emulate Miss Austen’s prose. In order to write a quiet sort of story, I needed a quiet sort of magic. A wild magic would have led to a story that wouldn’t have been quiet which wouldn’t have matched her prose style. If you change one thing, it affects everything else. The thing that I find fun is shifting the pieces around to make them fit together.

General

GD: Do any of your passions rise above the others, or do you thrive on doing a variety of things?

MRK: Clearly, I thrive on the variety but puppetry will probably always be the first love. The thing it and speculative fiction have in common for me is that they are both the theater of the possible. I love that anything can happen in both forms.

GD: How did your upbringing or education shape the direction of your work?

MRK: My mom is an arts administrator. She sent me to classes on everything that interested me. Dad is a programmer and a very dedicated amateur musician — fiddle and musical saw. The fact that he finds joy in his day job and still pursues the music with equal amounts of enthusiasm made it very clear to me that you didn’t have to love doing just one thing.

Also, both my folks have been tremendously supportive of my decision to have a career in the arts. I’m very lucky.

GD: Other than your sequel to Shades of Milk and Honey, what are you working on for the future?

MRK: I continue to write short stories and have a science fiction story set on a generation ship, “For Want of a Nail” coming out in Asimov’s in September. I’m doing puppet and production design for a film called Rose. It’s in 3D, which is my first time doing that. And of course, a new novel — an urban fantasy set in the South in the early part of the 1900s. I’m still in the research phase for that one.

GD: What advice do you have to inspire creative people just starting out?

MRK: Remember to value your time. The artist’s time is the biggest expense in almost any creative project and so many people forget to charge for it. Learn the business side of the arts which means taking the time to write a proper business plan. If you don’t know how, find someone to teach you. It’s no fun but you’ve got to do it if you want to have a career.

GD: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

MRK: If you love what you are doing, look around and see if there’s a way you can make a living at it. Because it never occurred to me that puppetry was a career choice I didn’t look for colleges that offered that degree. Turns out there are quite a few, like University of Connecticut. Even if there’s no formal process doesn’t mean that you can’t be the first professional whatever. I mean, I’m a professional puppeteer AND a science fiction and fantasy writer. How cool is that?

Mary Robinette Kowal is an excellent writer, a fantastic puppeteer and a very funny and intriguing person. I hope we continue to see much more from her in the future.

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