Talking with Ti
with Ti Mikkel
Q&A with Laura J. Mixon
TI: Hello Laura! Thank you so much for taking the time to talk today.
LAURA: Hi,Ti! Thanks for inviting me.
TI: Let’s start with your WILD CARDS origin story. Melinda Snodgrass and Walter Jon Williams invited you to join a group of science fiction writers to play RPGs in 1984, and that’s where you met George. But it wasn’t until later that you ended up pitching for the Card Sharks trilogy.
LAURA: That’s right. I met Walter in 1984, shortly after I got back from the Peace Corps. We had a mutual friend—another New Mexican science fiction writer named Terry Boren; she and I had attended Clarion together back in ’81 (who by the way is a terrific short-story writer; you should check out her works!). Walter in turn introduced me to Melinda, and I’m thinking I must have met George—along with Parris, Vic, John, Gail, Chip, and the rest—at a party Melinda held at her place sometime that summer (Weeds throws the best parties). Somewhere along the way, I think it was Walter who invited me to join a SuperWorld campaign he was about to launch. Loads of fun! I really missed our RPG sessions when I moved away from New Mexico a few years later, chasing work. It wasn’t till the early ‘90s, after I’d sold my second book, that I managed to work up the nerve to pitch George a story for one of his upcoming Wild Cards anthologies. By that time I’d met and married another SF writer, Steven Gould (who—fun fact—had asked me out shortly before I moved east in ’87. And there’s a Wild Cards connection there as well! Melinda was a friend of Steve’s before I knew him. A few weeks before I left for the east coast, he came into town on a ski trip and stayed with Melinda. On day two, I think it was, he injured his knee on the slope and decided to take a day off to let it mend. So he called me and asked if I was free for lunch. The rest is history…) A couple years later, Steve and I were (a) married, and (b) living in NYC. I’d stayed in touch with Melinda and George and the rest of the NMSF crew, of course, and George liked my pitches for Joan and Clara van Renssaeler.
TI: Was that nerve-racking? You were pregnant at the time too, right?
LAURA: Yes! I was pregnant with my first child, Em, when I wrote “The Lamia’s Tale” for Card Sharks, the first book in the trilogy, and Em was an infant when I wrote my half of Clara’s story, “A Dose of Reality,” in the second book, Marked Cards. Writing “TLT” while pregnant wasn’t so hard to do. Adding a baby into the mix made things more complicated, though, and finishing Clara’s story was more of a challenge. When George called for pitches for the second book, I didn’t see how I could do it, what with the job and a baby. But the character and her story—about a young woman who had grown up in a cult, and was horrified to learn how she’d been lied to about the Wild Card virus all her life—that was one I’d really wanted to write. I told George I didn’t think I was going to be able to do it given all that was going on in my life at that time. He must have had a conversation with Melinda about it, because she called me up not long afterward and suggested we co-write a story. She came up with this idea for the world’s unlikeliest love story to blend with the caper I’d been noodling around with. The story morphed into this romance between Clara, the xenophobic, brainwashed mad scientist who developed the virus, and Bradley Finn, the charismatic centaur physician who won her heart…
TI: I have to interrupt you here…I imagine writing a sex scene between a centaur and a human female would have its challenges, logistically speaking.
LAURA: Right?? But you gotta figure that where there’s a will, there’s a way… I had a great time writing that story. First of all, Melinda is a terrific collaborator. Working with someone so intimately knowledgeable about the series helped me make it over the finish line. They were both incredibly supportive of my desire to get the story done, and George is one of the best editors I’ve ever had, honestly. But I was sure sweating it at the time! I wanted to do a story from Clara’s perspective for Black Trump as well, but by that time our second child, Carita, was on her way. And we were busy packing and moving back to New Mexico, so there was just no way to pull it off.
TI: I think it’s amazing that you were raising a small kiddo and writing at the same time. As someone who hopes to procreate one day…any tips?
LAURA: Oh my God! I could write a whole book about this question. I always knew I wanted kids someday, and I knew it would be a big responsibility. What I didn’t expect was how much fun it was! Right from the git-go. I never expected to turn into this big baby-masher, but I found out I love babies. And they just get better and better as they grow.
Not to say that it isn’t a big commitment, and demanding and painful and scary at times. Parenting really forces you to confront your limits as a human being. Because dang; where’s the operating manual?? So much of it is guesswork. You’re in the trenches all the time, and you can’t bail just because you’re feeling cranky and tired and can’t cope. But kids are fascinating. Baby humans! There’s just something utterly cool about watching them figure things out, watching them learn and grow. It also taught me how to do a better job of “parenting” myself.
TI: Tiny humans for the win! Did you write before the 3AM feedings or after?
LAURA: HA! Both. It’s a balancing act. I cut myself some slack, those first six months…mostly wrote in the afternoons during naps, and gave myself permission on the days I needed to nap, too. In a larger sense, for me it’s all about patience, persistence, and flexibility. Learning how to be a marathoner, when my strength had always been sprinting. Before we had kids, I’d been a hard driver and could get things done in a crunch. But once the kids came, I couldn’t just stay up all night and figure I’d catch up on my sleep on the weekend. Both of my kids were pretty good about settling into a sleep schedule early on, and that helped. But there were plenty of times I just couldn’t write. Too many different demands on my time; not enough sleep; not enough energy left at the end of the day or the week to string five words together, much less five pages.
So learning that it’s OK not to have to be everything all at once, for your writing and your family and job; that’s an important lesson. I’d wanted to have it all—I was going to be the superlative mom and the best environmental engineering manager and the most productive writer…. I would get frustrated with myself all too often, when I dropped balls. It was a good lesson to figure out I needed to accept that I was going to screw up sometimes, and so were others, and it wasn’t the end of the world. Having a supportive partner. That was huge. I had the day job, and so Steve was great about taking the night shift with Em. I’d feed her and get her settled, and then write for an hour or two, most evenings.
But with all those differing demands on you, writing can slip through the cracks despite your best intentions. So establishing work habits that work for you and sticking with it are also big determinants of long-term success.
TI: That’s wonderful advice. I’m bookmarking it for my future self. Let’s get into more questions about the craft itself. What are your top tips for aspiring writers?
LAURA: I can mention a few things that have helped me. Take these for whatever they’re worth…
#1. Read read read! Read what you love, and figure out what the writer is doing that works so well for you. Read what you don’t love, and figure out why what they’re doing doesn’t work.
#2. Write write write! Write what you care about. Follow your passion. Embrace your weird. Think about each scene as a mini-story of its own. What does the scene do to advance the plot, and-or tell us about the characters or theme? What is this interaction telling us? How does the scene relate to the bigger arc?
#3. Find your people. Most writers I know have a group of supportive fellow travelers they can tag-team with. It can be a tough gig. No one can go it alone, nor should you feel like you have to. In my view, it’s much better to have buddies you can talk to, vent with, and share resources and ideas, than to try to go it alone. That said…
#4. Leave situations or groups that aren’t helping. Some writers do well with writer’s groups; others not so much. And some groups have an element of toxicity. If you’re feeling torn down or insecure, it may be that you’re not in the right group, or it’s not the right time. It’s always OK to walk away from a situation that’s not working. Life is change!
#5.Learn how to handle rejection. This was a big one for me. I started out so thin-skinned! Writing isn’t for the faint-of-heart. It took me a long time to learn how to deal with criticism and rejection—but it’s a must. It’s an essential skill in any writer’s toolkit.
#6. Persist. Figuring out how to write a good story gets easier, but it never gets easy, and there are never any guarantees. Don’t get discouraged when it gets hard. Keep going!
#7. Last but decidedly not least, when it comes to the stories you write, you have the final word. No one else on the planet can tell the stories that you can, in the way they need to be told. Somewhere out there is a reader who’s going to come across your words at the moment when they need it most. At the end of the day, trust in the story you have to tell, and find joy in the writing itself.
TI: “Somewhere out there is a reader who’s going to come across your words at the moment when they need it most.” I love that. Somewhere out there is someone who can’t wait to read what you’re writing…
LAURA: I’ll never forget the first time I had that lesson brought home to me. I want to say that it was in 1997, at Armadillocon in Austin. Steve and I attended as pro guests. They had these kaffeeklatches, where they pair up two writers, and readers can sign up to sit down with them in small groups of about six or eight, to chat and ask questions. Steve and I signed up for one of them, as a pair. So we arrive at the kaffeeklatch space, and we’re both relieved to see that the slots for our klatch have filled up and our klatchees are waiting for us. And as I was seating myself, one of them, a young man, introduced himself to me. I saw he had a copy of my first book in his hands, that he wanted me to autograph. He told me he’d read the book when he was a kid, and that it had been a really important book to him. That it had been one of the first science fiction novels he’d read, and had been a gateway for him into science fiction, or something along those lines. That he’d been thrilled at the thought of getting to meet me. I was utterly flabbergasted. I’d been so busy preparing myself mentally for the possibility that everyone was there primarily for Steve—after all, he’d had a recent book release while my own next book wouldn’t be out for another year, and Texas was his stomping grounds, where he’d had a fan base from well before our marriage—that I hadn’t prepared myself for the possibility that my own fans would show up, too!
I mean, in hindsight, it’s ridiculous, and I don’t think it’s entirely healthy, to be unwilling to give ourselves permission to believe we can touch others with our stories, the way we have been touched. It’s easy for writers’ insecurities to get the better of us, when we put our stories out there for others’ consumption, and I’m no exception. Due to the circumstances of my life, I haven’t been able to spend as much time and energy connecting with my readership and cultivating my own public presence as I’d have liked. I’m committed to changing that, now that my kids are grown. But SFF literature and the fan community that has grown up around it and sustained it are so much more to me than where I fit into the picture. SFF makes up a part of my core identity that goes way back to my childhood. I think we have something deeply precious and worth preserving.
TI: How about your writing schedule today. You mentioned your kids are grown. Do you write seven days a week?
LAURA: My two are in their twenties now, and I had the great good fortune to be able to leave the day job a few years back, when Steve’s writing started bringing in enough income. So my time is my own! UN-fortunately, over the intervening years, I’d developed the world’s most boring and annoying chronic illness (vestibular migraines), and they still plague me. There are plenty of days in any given month that I’m not well enough to write. It’s been really debilitating. That said, I’m a stubborn cuss—and a creature of habit. I have a regular writing schedule; contingent on my health, I typically get 3-5 days of writing in a week, barring a major migraine stretch, and I track word counts and other project milestones for my writing sessions. The goalposts help me stay on track. I’m writing steadily now. Not at a breakneck pace—and I won’t lie; I still get massively frustrated with my illness when it takes me down for long stretches. But learning to accept my limitations has been a useful lesson, like I said, and one that has allowed me to reclaim my love of writing again.
TI: I’m so sorry to hear about your migraines! I hope you’re able to get relief soon. Is there promising science on the horizon?
LAURA: Thanks, Ti! I really appreciate that. In fact, not one, but three new medications have been released for migraine sufferers over the past eight months. They’re the first drugs FDA-approved specifically to treat migraines, using monthly injections of monoclonal antibodies. I just got my second injection, and already I’m having a significant lessening of my symptoms. This breakthrough already seems to be helping a lot of migraineurs, and it’s a really big deal. About 40% of the US population has migraines, and prior medications haven’t made much of a dent in that. When you have them most or all of the time, it’s utterly disabling. But medical researchers recently learned that people having a migraine have more of a neurotransmitter known as gene-related calcitonin peptide, or GRCP, in their brains, and the new medications target GRCP with monoclonal antibodies. They’re showing a lot of promise. The shots are a treatment; not a cure. But wow, do they ever increase my ability to function. I feel like I’m getting my life back, bit by bit. I have a lot more stamina now. Mixon and the Monoclonal Antibody… It’s got a nice ring to it, don’t you think?
TI: Oh, absolutely. How do you deal with writer’s block?
LAURA: When I was at Clarion back in ’81, one of my classmates asked Joe Haldeman about writer’s block, and he replied, “Writer’s block? Don’t worry about it. It goes away.” Then he corrected himself with a laugh: “It goes away, or you die.”
TI: Ha! Oh dear.
LAURA: Joe has always had a way with words. In its most intense version, writer’s block can be a source of real suffering. I know, because I have had my share. And the words that helped me the most came from a friend of mine who described her own experience of writing as like being a gardener. She told me that for her, ideas are like seeds you plant—only you don’t know what they’re going to be when they reach their full growth, and you don’t know how much time they need to bear fruit. So often, when a story doesn’t emerge from a seed you’ve planted, it might be simply that it hasn’t finished germinating yet.
That image, that a seed has been planted deep down in the loam of my spirit, and that if nothing else works, I needn’t despair. I need only be patient, and give the seed nourishment, sunshine, and time. That helped me not to give up when I couldn’t find the words to tell a story that needed to be told. But fortunately, it’s much more common have to deal with less intense forms of writer’s block, and for those I have quite a few tricks that have worked for me in the past.
I can get stuck for different reasons. Sometimes it’s because what I think happens next isn’t what actually should happen next. In that case, it feels like my characters go on strike. They refuse to do what I tell them to do, until I have this epiphany: I was trying to drag the story in the wrong direction with that idea, and here’s what I need to do instead. Writer’s block can also be just a case of performance jitters. Like any creative profession, writing has its own version of stage fright, and it’s an occupational hazard—especially because many of us are introverts. Performance anxiety doesn’t care how well you’ve done in the past; in fact, prior success can make the fear worse. We heap these high expectations on ourselves and then freeze up. Perfectionism is the writer’s enemy.
To learn and grow, we need to be willing to try new things. And that means we might fail. Scary stuff! So it has helped me when I feel stuck to give myself permission to “write crap.” To just throw words at the page, if that’s what I need to do, to get the process moving again, and not worry about how they’ll be viewed by others. I give myself an assignment to write something freeing, even if the idea seems inconsequential or silly. Maybe especially if!
TI: I like that. Write the bad version.
LAURA: Exactly! Getting feedback from a group of writer peers has been helpful as well. When writers whose work I respect can see value in my own drafts, it helps me feel seen and validated. It reassures me I’m not wasting my time. Here are a couple of other practical tips that have helped me. First, I take notes and do related side-projects, to give my writer-brain more grist for the dough, if I’m bored or feeling muddled and can’t figure out what to do next. For instance, I had a secondary character in one story who just was not into his role. He was a total grump. He walked on, said his lines, and walked off again like a robot. Dude, he was totally phoning it in! I realized I had to get to know him better, so I had him write these little ditties that never showed up in the story, a couple of poems written for another character he was in love with, whom he’d never told about his feelings. The poetry never made it onto the page, nor did the relationship between him and this other character come to light or have anything to do with what was on the page. His feelings lay far outside the story’s bounds. But shining that spotlight into his inner life helped me understand him better.
Another time, I had to build a model of the physical space my characters occupied, because I was having trouble visualizing where and how the action occurred. Not every writer needs this, but I tend to. Placing my characters in a space I’m familiar with—grounding myself in its sights and smells and weather, helps me ground the story’s events in space as well as time.
TI: Oh, that’s cool. Do you sketch something out by hand, or do you go full-tilt and bust out the clay?
LAURA: Nothing nearly so awesome as that! I mostly do drawings and sketches, blueprints of structures, descriptive notes, and so on. Or I visit locales I can use as an analogy, or search online for images, and try to visualize from there, or find recipes and cook them. Stuff like that. What I’m looking for is details or oddities. Things that evoke a sense of place and time. I also try to think about the science or logistics of things, and how those would affect the characters’ experience. That helps ground my sense of place and time as well.
For instance, my book Burning the Ice takes place on a moon orbiting a gas giant. My main character spent a lot of time out in the elements, so I spent quite a bit of time trying to understand what the skies would look like from her perspective. I calculated orbits and did sketches and diagrams of where she and others would be standing on the world, where the sunlight was coming from, and what the other moons would look like, and figured out how the skyscape would change with time. Things like that. Not that the reader is going to be able to tell any of that, but it made the world more real to me, which helps me deliver the experience to the reader better, I think.
Another example… in Up Against It, there’s a language called Tonal-Z that has become a human-AI creole (not because artificial intelligences can’t understand natural human language, but because a mathematically-based language is more precise and easier for them to use, plus a multi-tonal language can be used to pack more concepts into in a shorter amount of time, which I think AIs would be all about doing…). I wanted to have the language to feel real, so I created a set of grammatical rules and composed a few tunes that were also sentences. (I really could’ve gotten lost in that one, if I’d had a MIDI board back then…) I will say, research can help, if your writer-brain needs more grounding in your milieu, but it can also be a trap, if you get too caught up in it, and I think ma-a-a-aybe I’m a bit prone to that. The heart of the story is what matters, and sometimes you just need to push through and write whatever, and fix settings and tweak subplots afterward.
TI: You’ve created three characters—Lamia, the Candle, and Clara van Renssaeler. If you could have dinner with one of them, who would it be? Probably not Lamia…
LAURA: Oh, I don’t know—I quite like the Lamia! Her transition to joker was probably one of the best things that could have happened to the state of her soul. She was a much better version of herself as a lamia than she had been as a snooty, bigoted, upper-crust debutante…
TI: Oh, absolutely. I’m only worried about what she’d choose off the menu…and whether or not it would come to the table alive.
LAURA: Hmmm. Good point! Poor little Fido… Although…since Joan had been brought up with excruciatingly correct manners, I’m sure she’d try not to inflict her more outré dietary constraints and digestive habits on the other dinner guests. (“Pardon me, darlingssssss, I’m just going to ssssslither out for a sssssmoke…” says she, and two minutes later she’s out in the alley, coughing up big knotty clots of bone and hair and claws, the poor dear.)
Honestly, I would hate to have to pick among the three. Joan’s a delightful conversationalist, with all kinds of stories about the secret, scandalous lives of the titans of industry. Clara may be incredibly clueless and manipulatable when it comes to relationships with individual humans, but she is a brilliant genetic researcher, committed to bettering humanity and with lots of interesting opinions about politics and joker moons. And the Candle? He is an utterly charming, deranged goofball, a creative spirit with serious depths and badass powers… Hard to pick! Maybe I’d have them all over for dinner sometime.
TI: Speaking of The Candle aka John Montaño…before American Herohe rescued an 8-year-old girl on the ski slopes of Durango. Any similarities to your character and your own self in this sense? Do you ski?
LAURA: I don’t know that I’m very much like him, but I adore John! He’s brave and good-hearted but not very self-disciplined, and has never been into following the rules for the rules’ sake. He can be hotheaded (no pun intended) and has made some big mistakes in his past that have defined him in ways he’ll never be able to escape. Like me, he’s bi, and falls in love easily, but he’s afraid to let any relationship get too serious, and that’s not like me at all. And yes, I did used to ski, when I was younger—on my honeymoon, in fact! I learned on the very slopes where John’s Colorado vignette occurs. Fortunately, there was no injured child involved. But that’s a whole other story…
TI: One more question about John, not least because he can shoot flames out of his butthole. You’ve mentioned that he has a little sister he hasn’t seen in years. Can you give us any insight as to why? Or at least tell us where she is?
LAURA: I have a big chunk of a novel on the Candle and how his past comes back to haunt him after his American Hero appearance in Inside Straight. He has some big secrets he has never been able to share, and the existence and location of his little sister is part of it. This is part of why he never lets anyone get too close. I hope to finish his story once I’m done with my current project—either as a standalone novel, or a series of novelettes/novellas. We’ll have to see!
TI: Please do! Now I’m even more curious.
LAURA: The story I’m working on started out as a novelette for Mississippi Roll, as I think I’ve mentioned elsewhere. The Candle is an art-and-antiquities investigator and security lead for a major insurance company. He’s been tasked with taking Louis Armstrong’s most famous golden trumpet on a commemorative steamboat tour. On the eve of the mission, he develops a sleep disorder and his power starts leaking again, like it did when he was a teen. Turns out there’s a link with his secret past and a very real danger in the present as well… When it ended up as a 45,000-word short novel instead of a novelette, which clearly wouldn’t work for the anthology, so I switched things up. The novel is now set on the RMS Queen Margaret,which is a fictional steamship inspired by the Queen Mary (since in the WILD CARDS milieu, as our readers know, Elizabeth died of the virus and Margaret was coronated in her place), and the riverboat tour is now a cruise down the eastern US seaboard to Cuba. But I’ll stop there, because I don’t want to spoil it for you.
TI: I’ve toured the Queen Mary! It’s permanently moored in Long Beach as a tourist attraction and hotel now. It has a fascinating history…from ocean liner to troopship during WWII. And as a bonus, it’s “haunted” by the spirit of someone murdered in their stateroom, and of course there’s that third class cabin which has been described as “notoriously haunted”. All of that’s well and good, but it doesn’t make sense to me. In 1942, the Queen Marys liced through the hull of an escort ship off the coast of Ireland—killing 239 people. There’s your ghosts. And they’re probably still pissed—I would be. I digress. Here’s to Queen Margaret…and her ghosts?
LAURA: I’ve done the tour as well! I booked a cabin on the QM2 last summer, speaking of research, to get a better sense of the setting for the Candle’s story. It was fabulous! I loved the art deco.
TI: You’ve described the wild cards virus as a disruptive and terrifying lottery…that after it was released, nature itself became terrifying and unpredictable—like climate change. In addition to being a writer, you’re also a chemical and environmental engineer. So considering your background and expertise, what impacts do you see global warming having in our future?
LAURA: Wow, thank you so much for this question, Ti. This is a topic very close to my heart. Honestly, climate change is terrifying. It’s our generation’s greatest existential threat. I remember when I first encountered the concept. It was back in 1987 or 1988, when I was doing research for the first two books of my Avatars Dance trilogy. I read up on it extensively and spoke to some NOAA (the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency) scientists, and the more I learned, the more alarmed I got. It was unimaginable to me, the thought that thirty years later, we’d still be guzzling fossil fuels and some people would say we shouldn’t act, despite the growing risks.
Fortunately, more and more people are paying attention now, and understand what a risk unchecked carbon emissions pose to everything we care about. A majority of Americans want to see action. And frankly, we owe it to our kids not to delay. What exactly is called for? We need to switch from energy and processes that produce greenhouse gases like coal and oil to newer, cleaner sources of energy—the sooner the better. We need become a carbon-free civilization. And we can! The solutions are out there. There’ve been tremendous advancements in renewable-energy tech over the past ten years. And now a big, decisive push is needed, to make a complete transition to clean energy and a green economy.
I believe we can take lessons from the times Americans did think big in a crisis, and responded decisively. Look at how we did in response to the Great Depression and the Apollo moon landings, for example. I was thrilled when our representatives in Congress began promoting climate-protective proposals like the Green New Deal and other initiatives Congress has been putting on the table since the midterm elections. My take is that the most important thing any one person can do can do right now is not to get caught up in dumb arguments about how many carbon molecules can dance on the head of a pin. Right now, we need to team up and build momentum for the big changes needed. We need our political leaders to step up. They must start treating carbon pollution like the existential threat that it is. No more excuses! No more delays! The time has come to act. Let’s MacGyver the fuck out of climate change. That’s what I say.
TI: I think that belongs on a T-Shirt.
LAURA: I’m in! Now all we need is someone to do the design…
TI: Tell us a little bit about your childhood. Did you know when you were a kid that writing was the job you wanted or did that come as a surprise?
LAURA: Oh, yes, I knew from a very young age. It grew out of my favorite game, “Pretend.” I loved making up stories and adventures and acting them out. My mom says I got the whole neighborhood involved—cardboard swords, paste-jewel crowns, and all! But I would get so frustrated when we’d reach a reach a major plot point, and everything would stall out while everyone argued about what should happen next. “Bang; you’re dead!” “No, I’m not!” and so on. Understandably, they had their own ideas! But the arguments killed the momentum. Very frustrating. I remember thinking, You know, I simply can’t have all these characters running away with the story all the time, if I want to get to a satisfying ending within an average human lifetime. So I started writing my stories down. I wrote my first “novel” when I was eight—a five-page wonder, crayon-illustrated, and complete with purple-yarn binding. And I wrote my first real science-fiction novel when I was eleven. Katie, bar the door!
Little did I know that characters don’t have to exist outside your head, for them to run away with the plot…
TI: What did your parents do for a living? Did they encourage your writing?
LAURA: Honestly? I think they didn’t know quite what to make of my penchant for storytelling. They were both readers, especially my mom, but I practically livedin storyland—I read all the time, told stories all the time, and it was hard for them to get me to focus on much else. I have a vivid memory of telling my mom, as a pre-teen, that I wanted to be a professional writer, and she said, “Laura, do you have any idea how many people out there want to be professional writers?” To be fair, I believe she was trying to protect me. She was aware that very few who write stories go on to publish them—much less earn enough to support themselves with their writing. She and my dad had grown up during the Great Depression, and they both grew up in small Texas towns, on the “wrong side of the tracks.” So she knew all too well what it felt like to be worried about where your next meal would come from.
And while we weren’t poor, we weren’t exactly well-off. My dad was a salesman for Kraft Foods, and my mom was an elementary-school teacher, and we needed both their incomes to get by. I wore hand-me-downs, and hand-made clothes she sewed for me, and I remember being teased about it by the girls in my class, when I was in fifth grade. There were times when we had to make the food stretch to the end of the month. For the sake of my own financial security and independence, she made it clear multiple times during my youth that she wanted me to pursue skills that would enable me to be financially independent. It’s one of the big reasons I chose chemical engineering when I entered college, in fact.
After I started publishing, though, my mom became my biggest supporter. She had always been an avid reader—in fact, I first caught the reading bug from her. She had shelves and shelves of books! When I sold my first novel, she said it really opened her eyes. She (the whole family, but especially my mom) would go into book stores, pre- order (and re-order) copies of my works, talk them up, and make sure the bookstore owners kept them in stock. Not too long ago, she confessed to me that while cleaning out the attic she had come across a diary she kept in the eighth grade, in which she’d written that she wanted to be a writer when she grew up. She said that she hadn’t even remembered her dream until she saw that. After retirement, she picked her own dream back up and started writing middle-grade chapter books. I’m very proud of her!
TI: That’s incredible! Go, mom!
LAURA: Yep, she’s pretty freakin’ awesome. I won the mom lottery.
TI: You were in the Peace Corps and spent two years in Kenya. Tell me a little bit about that.
LAURA: Wow, so much to unpack here! I can’t even figure out where to start. I guess the short version is, it’s the smartest thing I ever did. I’d always known I wanted to volunteer, but while I was in college my ChemE advisor talked me out of it. He said that my skills were honed for working in post-development industrial processes, and wouldn’t be useful in the developing world where they needed STEM professionals like civil engineers, forestry and fishery scientists, and the like. So I set it aside. But after a year and a half in industry, I regretted not going. That spring of 1981, I applied to both Clarion and the Peace Corps, and was accepted to both. After my Clarion summer, I trained for four months in the languages and as prep to teach high school math and science. Then I went to Kenya and taught among the waGīkūyū people (or, in the Anglicized version, the Gikuyus) in coffee-growing country, in the mountain ranges north of Nairobi, in a small town called Maragua, about 60 km north of Nairobi.
I got incredibly homesick, my first few months there. An attempted coup happened the summer of 1982, and that was terrifying. (Derek, the other non-Kenyan teacher at my school, had been in Nairobi during the coup, and he was trapped in a hotel with no food or clean water for at least a couple of days. He finally decided to risk it, and walked to the bus station with his backpack over his head, through streets with bodies lying around, while trucks filled with soldiers wielding rifles drove past.) There was a lot of corruption in government, and inter-tribal rivalries whose impacts we PCVs were mostly insulated from, but our Kenyan friends and neighbors were not. And I think I must have been mugged at least 20 times, before I stopped counting, and hustled even more. Those were all big eye- openers.
TI: That’s scary. In the daytime?
LAURA: Mostly. And yeah; it was scary the first time or two. Fortunately, I was never in any real danger. They had no weapons, and I wasn’t injured; only jostled or grabbed or tugged off-balance, as a distraction. It quickly became obvious what was happening: young men looking for a quick payoff would target tourists in certain parts of town in the big cities, and make off with their wallets or purses. The police weren’t much help, either, to be honest—law enforcement was thin on the ground, you had no way to call for them in an emergency, and by anyone could respond, the thieves would be long gone. There was a lot of bribery and corruption on the police force, as well, so there wasn’t a lot of point to it, for that kind of minor stuff.
So I figured out the thieves’ methods and worked out my own adaptations—ways to subvert and circumvent them. It became kind of a fun challenge. I got quite good at it! But I fell in love. With Kenya, with the people I met, and the countryside and cities, and the wildlife, and the many languages, artwork styles and traditions. The food and stories. The deep kindness I was shown. I loved my students. The experience completely transformed my understanding of the world, myself, and how important it is to be open to new experiences, other cultures, and other ways of being in the world. One of my favorite early memories happened during my second teaching term.
First, a bit of background. (Bear in mind, all this was back in the early eighties, and things have almost certainly changed a lot since.) Kenya bases its educational system on the British model in place during their colonial occupation. They also use a trimester cycle—or at least did, when I was there—because the main occupation in rural Kenya, where most people lived, is/was agricultural work. They have two rainy seasons: the short rains in the spring, and the long rains in the fall. School terms are scheduled such that two of the school breaks fall after rainy season, during harvest, so kids can help their families gather the crops. (Also remind me to tell you sometime about the lovely open-air markets they had! Maize roasting over barrel fires; delicious fresh veggies and legumes and fruit! The red-clay termite caverns and chimneys in the roads that appeared like magic during rainy season on the way to the market, and were gone a day later! So many fond memories. I digress.)
The upcountry school where I taught, Dr. Kiano Girls’ High School, was in fact co-ed, though they had plans to build a girls’ dormitory if and when they got funding to do so. We had somewhere between 100 and 110 students, if I’m remembering correctly, with six teachers and four classrooms. I was slated to teach math and science, but they already had another science teacher, a British volunteer. What they needed was another English teacher. During the first teacher’s meeting, my headmaster, Mr. Njema, asked me if I was willing to split up the math and science classes with Derek, and to teach English grammar in addition. None of the other teachers wanted to teach it—they were much more interested in teaching literature. But I’m a word nerd as well as a math nerd, so I said yes. And it turned out to be lots of fun, for me and my kids. Word games! By the time my students had reached Form I (the equivalent of seventh grade), they spoke three languages: English and Swahili, which were the national languages; and their own vernacular language, which in my area was Gikuyu. Given that, and that I’d learned Swahili and a bit of Gikuyu during training, I had some good grammatical fodder to ply for analogies, commonalities, and differences.
TI: That’s pretty impressive. For you and the students. Are you still fluent?
LAURA: I wish! I didn’t have anyone to speak it to when I got back, so all I have left are a few words and phrases. And whenever I try to speak it, Spanish words end up coming out with it (Nimesahau…er, casi todo…um, ki-Swahili yangu!). Some habits have stuck, though. The greetings, of course: “Hujambo?” and “Sijambo!” and “Habari za asubuhi?” (Hello! How’s it going?) And when people leave my place after a visit, I often say, “Safiri salama!” (Farewell! Travel safely!) Even now, whenever I knock on someone’s door and it’s ajar or it’s an interior door and they can hear me through it, I always have a strong impulse to say “Hodi?” (meaning, may I come in?) The response is supposed to be “Karibu!” (Welcome; come in!) Of course, no one ever, ever says that in these parts—unless I run into someone from Africa who speaks Swahili, or another Westerner who’s spent time in Africa. It’s happened once or twice, and I nearly jump out of my skin every time. I also tend to leave just a bit of tea or coffee in my cup when I’m done, or a bit of food in my bowl. In Gikuyuland, it’s the polite way to tell people you don’t want any more. Otherwise, they’ll assume you’re just being polite when you say no more, thanks, and keep plying you with food and beverages till you pop! For a while after I got back, I used to pour that last portion of beverage out at the threshold—in Gikuyu tradition, it’s how people honor their ancestors. I also remember a few words of my Gikuyu, but not many. I loved the parables and aphorisms my fellow teachers would use. They were always telling Gikuyu parables. One of my favorites was: “Wealth begins when your belly is full.” I’ve always found that to be a useful one. (Thanks, Thondu!)
Back to my students and our language lessons. The grammar assignment my Form II’s hated the most was vocabulary exercises, so to hook their interest, I came up with a way to make it more fun: a game-show format I called “Guess the Meaning.” Basically, it was Mad Libs, using the week’s vocabulary words.
They didn’t have television or anything like that—there weren’t phones or even electricity in most rural schools or homes. Back then, nobody had social media or even email. They knew a fair amount about western popular culture; still, they were unfamiliar with game shows and it seemed pretty strange to them at first. But they caught on fast. I would kick things off by choosing one student as the week’s contestant. They would come up to the front of the room and sit in a chair there, and I did the whole game-show patter: “Welcome, to our next contestant! What’s your name? Tell us a bit about yourself!”
I’d written a sentence on the board and left a gap where the given word choice would go, with the three possible choices under it. The student would have to choose which word made the sentence make sense. Each student got to keep going until they made a mistake, and then the next one would get a turn. I cycled through them alphabetically, and the one who got the most right answers each week won a certificate to receive a chocolate bar at the end of the term. I started “Guess the Meaning” the second week, so by the end of the eight-week term, there were seven winners out of twenty-three students. Seven certificates and seven chocolate bars, in other words. I doubt any of them had had even a bite of chocolate in their lives. The kids who won were really excited. The weekend before our final class of the term, I traveled into Nairobi and bought seven Cadbury’s chocolate bars. After the final class of the trimester, I asked the winners to come up and present their certificates in exchange for their prize. The kids who won were really excited. You should have seen it! Then I went to my house to take my morning break and collect my materials for my next class.
Fifteen minutes later, I’m heading back down the hill to the classrooms, and I happen to pass one of the other teachers, Mr. Macharia. He’s just swallowed something, and he’s smacking his lips. “Nice chocolate, Mixon! Thank you!” I thought, Huh. That’s odd. One of the chocolate winners must have been a relative of his or something, and given him a taste. I keep walking down the hill.
And there’s Mr. Thondu, heading to his next class. He waves. “Mixon! Hi! Thanks for the chocolate. It was delicious!” OK, now I’m really confused. I keep going and reach the walkway beside the Form I classroom. As I walk along, I see through each window that on every student’s desk is a tiny square of Cadbury’s chocolate. Maybe an eighth of a segment, if that. The same with Forms II, III, and IV. All the students in every class are sitting at their desks waiting till class starts before they eat their chocolate.
I learned later that every student, every teacher, the headmaster, and the school administrative assistant, each had been given a tiny morsel of chocolate. All 100 or 110 of them. Now that everyone has a piece, everybody eats it together. It’s this huge, schoolwide party, a celebration of their classmates’ success. And I’m pretty sure the winning students also took more tiny morsels home to share with their families. I remember thinking how unimaginable it was that an American student or coworker or anyone, would ever think to go to that kind of effort, to share something so precious as those chocolate bars were to my Form II “Guess the Meaning” winners with all those around them. Every time I think about it, I shake my head in wonderment.
The hardest part of living in Kenya for me wasn’t the lack of electricity or running water, or the bare concrete floor or the rats in the rafters. It wasn’t even the loneliness I felt when I first became immersed a culture so different from my own, so far from home. It was witnessing day in and day out how hard those kids worked, how big a struggle it was for their families—especially their moms. How little they all had. They had the good fortune to live in an area that had predictable rains, clean water, and a thriving ecosystem—which was not trivial, by any means! But they still had to contend with so many challenges far beyond the typical American’s experience. Poverty; deadly illnesses like malaria and schistosomiasis and giardia and AIDS (though we didn’t know it back then, the disease was already spreading through the population, and has robbed most African countries of an entire generation—a devastating loss). There’s so much pressure on women to bear as many children as they can. Childhood illnesses that have been nearly eradicated in the West.
Their families knew the value of education. They made huge sacrifices, every term, to get their kids into school and keep them there. I’m not sure how it is now, but back in the early 80s, Kenya had only a very few publicly-funded schools, and most of those were in the cities, while 80 percent of the population was rural. Most kids attended these community-funded “Harambee” schools that the families paid to build, maintain, and run.
At my school, the school library had enough textbooks for maybe half the students, and maybe 40 or 50 books for pleasure reading. No science equipment. They were issued textbooks each trimester, but had to share them, not only with each other but with their older and/or younger siblings who might be studying for national standard exams. Sometimes they didn’t have school supplies, not even enough to take notes on or with. I remember how they filled every millimeter of paper with words, because their families couldn’t afford to buy them more than one notebook per year, each of which was about the size of a paperback, and with no more than 20 ruled pages in it.
They used ballpoint pens for their assignments (though they called them biros, I think) to do their work. Every morning they would remove the inkwell from the pen’s shell and roll it between their palms. This was to warm each drop of ink up enough that it would flow down toward the tip and be usable for one more page. Otherwise, they couldn’t complete their assignments. It was an agricultural community, so the kids’ days were really long. They had to haul water up from the river for their family before school, and then go home and help tend the fields or care for their younger siblings, or help cook or chop wood and make charcoal. There was no electricity, no running water. These kids worked really, really hard just to be able to attend school past grade six.
I was only six years out from my own high school days when I taught there, so the difference between how hard my Kenyan kids work and how much they craved learning, and how much I and my fellow high-school students had taken for granted, was so stark! Knowing, too, that I could leave any time and return to a much higher standard of living, but they had so few options other than marriage and babies and a tough farm life, no matter what they wanted for themselves—that was hard, too. I wanted so much more for my Dr. Kiano kids than I could deliver. And don’t even get me started on the challenges the girls had to face, simply by virtue of being girls. That’s a whole separate book’s worth, right there. FGM; discrimination; sexual harassment and assault; obstetric fistulas (a devastating condition women face due to too many pregnancies, too young). The list goes on. Of course, my students were all still teenagers. A couple of my students gave me big headaches. Puberty! Sigh… And I shouldn’t have been surprised by this, but when I got back to the US, I also had a big reverse-whiplash culture-shock reaction, and got desperately homesick for Africa. Melinda, George, and the rest of the gang were among the first new friends I made on my return, in fact, and they were part of what grounded me, and helped me get my feet back under me again. I guess my biggest takeaway from my stint in Kenya was that I found out that I knew a whole hell of a lot less than I thought I did—not just about who I was but about what the rest of the world was like. About women’s role in society, and America’s role in the world, and our responsibilities to each other, as well as to other nations and cultures. I really had my eyes opened on so many levels. I still remember my kids at Dr. Kiano and think that if young people who had so little could find it in themselves to share a precious gift with so many—and if their families could be so generous to me, an outsider from a wealthy nation and who they knew had had so many opportunities that they and their kids would never know—how much more could we Westerners accomplish, with all our wealth and knowledge, if we could find in ourselves that same generosity of spirit?
TI: Have you gone back since, or do you have plans to? It would be really cool to get back in touch with some of your former pupils!
LAURA: I have not! I’d love to go back, sometime.
TI: Any interesting projects in the pipeline?
LAURA: Funny you should ask! It so happens I do… First of all, I have a contract for two additional books in the worlds of Wave. It’s an SF series I kicked off in my book Up Against It, the book I mentioned earlier. This is the one that came out under my now-retired byline, M. J. Locke. The series is set in a populated solar system about 400 years from now. The first book happens in the asteroid belt. The main characters are Jane, a middle-aged woman who manages the colony’s resource systems, and Geoff, a teen whose brother dies when a methane-ice harvest goes awry. The attack on the colony is led by Martian agents who are threatening to kill all of them. And while the Stroiders are busy trying to fend off these attacks, a feral machine intelligence gets spawned in life support systems, and starts mucking around in the clockworks, so to speak. Fun times…
The next two books feature most of the same characters and a couple of others. It’s set elsewhere in the system: Mars, the moon, Earth, and possibly a couple of other places. I’m eager to get back to them! Also, while discussions were ongoing with my publisher about more books in that series, I started work on a different SF milieu, a series I’m calling The Patchworks. The first book is a near-future space-race intrigue set on Earth, where at a time when the ravages of climate change are worsening rapidly, and US and China are in a race to settle the first permanent Mars colony. It’s about two young people who get caught up in their power struggle.
The viewpoint character is Hannah, a young woman whose parents left her with her grandparents as a child, when NASA chickened out at the last minute and wouldn’t let her go with them. The story starts thirteen years later, when she learns that her parents, and everyone else at the base is killed in a massive explosion at their power plant—except for her little brother Michael, who was born up there. Michael survives the blast, barely—and lives long enough for a Chinese taikonaut mission to rescue him. But he shouldn’t have been able to survive, and the Chinese government want to know how he did. So he becomes this political football caught in a tug-of-war between two world powers. Hannah is the only person in the world who cares about his fate as an individual and she hates his guts, because he got everything she’d been denied.
I just finished a rough draft and am working on revisions now. Its working title is Child Left Behind. Then, as I mentioned, there’s my Wild Card ace, John “the Candle” Montaño. I’ve got over 60,000 words’ worth of material on his adventures, and George and I are mulling over what we want to do with it. So watch this space. I have more I want to share about him, for sure!
TI: Thank you so much for your time, Laura. How do you say goodbye in Swahili?
LAURA: Kwaheri! Kaa salama ya kuonana tena. 🙂
TI: Kwaheri! Here’s to you and the gift of chocolate.