Gareth Powell is a speculative fiction writer from the UK whose work has been published in the United States, Europe and the Middle East. In January 2007, his novelette The Last Reef was nominated for a BSFA award; the novelette also placed in the 2006 Interzone Reader’s Poll for best short story. His first printed collection of short stories will be published in August 2008. Powell recently participated in the ongoing discussion of gender and genre on BBC Radio 4 and at Eastercon. Here, he talks to Pink Raygun about gender and sci-fi, smart dust and what he’d name his space ship.
PR: You seem to have become a “go-to guy” in the debate about gender and genre in the UK. How did that come about?
GLP: It happened completely by accident. Back in February, I got an email from a producer on BBC Radio 4′s Today programme, asking if I’d like to appear on the show the following day to talk with Liz Williams about “whether or not science fiction is a purely male preserve”. And so of course, I said yes. After all, it’s not every day you get invited to give your opinion on national radio. And then, just before Eastercon (the British National Science Fiction Convention) in April, I was asked to be on a panel – again with Liz Williams – discussing pretty much the same topic.
PR: So, does SF’s reputation as a literature for boys create an unconscious supply and demand?
GLP: I think it used to. Publishers tend to opt for books that appeal to their target audience. If you read something like Heinlein’s Have Spacesuit, Will Travel, it’s obvious that he’s writing for young, scientifically-minded male readers. Couple that with the lurid pulp magazine covers and the green-skinned, bikini-clad women in Star Trek, and it’s easy to see why a lot of women readers may have been put off the genre at an early age – and hence why some publishers then stopped catering for what they mistakenly saw as a non-existent female audience.
PR: What is your perspective on that argument?
GLP: If you look at the genre today, you’ll see just as many female readers and writers as male. But those pulp origins are hard to shake off – and there still seems to be a lingering perception in the British media that women writers are better suited to soft fantasy, while hard SF remains an exclusively male preserve. I personally disagree – but I’d like to see more examples of women writing the kind of fiction that Stephen Baxter and Charles Stross are writing at the moment.
PR: Which writers do you look up to or admire?
GLP: My all-time favourite book is On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Every time I read it I see something new, and I’m struck again by the rhythm and poetry of the language, and the immediacy of his description – when he writes about sleeping on the hot car roof in the sticky jungle, and the soft rain of bugs falling on his skin, you’re right there with him. I also have tremendous respect for the work of Ernest Hemingway, Samuel Delany, William Gibson, Ursula Le Guin, Alfred Bester, Pat Cadigan, Raymond Chandler, Douglas Coupland, and Harlan Ellison.
PR: What drew you to science fiction?
GLP: I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t interested in SF. Some of my earliest memories are of the Soyuz-Apollo link-up, and Star Trek re-runs on my grandparent’s old black and white television. When I was four years old, I was certain we’d all be living on the moon by 1980.
PR: OK, so you have an idea for a story. Where do you go from there?
GLP: I have hundreds of ideas for stories. The trick is finding the characters to breathe life into those ideas. However intriguing the concept, you have to have flawed human characters at the heart of the story in order to engage the reader. You have to have someone they can identify with. And, whatever situation you put those characters into, you have use them in order to say something about what it means to be human
PR: How have you been able to balance your writing life with your family and other aspects of so-called “real” life?
GLP: I’m not a full time writer; I have a day job. I work 5 days a week as Assistant Marketing Manager for a major European software company – and it’s a demanding job. My writing gets done in stolen moments at the weekend, or late in the evening when my wife and young daughters are asleep. My daughters are both under three years old. If it wasn’t for my wife’s patience and understanding, I wouldn’t have time to write anything at all. Without her, none of it would be possible.
PR: New writers face a lot of rejection from publishers. How do you deal with those rejection letters, if you’ve received them?
GLP: Every writer receives piles of rejection letters, especially when they’re starting out. And – if you’ve truly put your heart and soul into your work – each one hurts. The trick is learning to see each rejection as a positive experience – to use the feedback to strengthen your writing. Instead of cursing the editor who rejected your work, you should ask yourself why they rejected it – why they didn’t “get” what you were trying to put across. And then look back at your story and try to address those issues.
PR: What are your thoughts on “smart dust”? Is it actually going to be used for space exploration or will it be manipulated by bad guys to the point where Bruce Willis has to be brought in to deal with it?
GLP: I read recently that according to the BBC, UK engineers are saying that tiny “smart” devices that can be borne on the wind – like dust particles or grains of sand – could soon be used to explore other planets. And that got me thinking: what if we’re not the first to exploit this concept? What if some of the dust motes drifting in the light from your window are actually alien probes? Now, that’s got to be a great starting point for a story…
PR: What would you name your space ship and where would you go cruising with it?
GLP: I’d call her “Ingrid” because I promised my wife that’s what we’d call our third daughter, if we ever had one. And, given a blank slate, I’d head out to the Pleiades first – a cluster of hot, young stars less than 500 light years from Earth, and visible to the naked eye. And then I’d head inward, to the galactic centre.
PR: Who shot first at the Mos Eisley cantina?