Ann Leckie’s three books in her Imperial Radch trilogy–Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword, and Ancillary Mercy–racked up a stack of awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, and Arthur C. Clarke awards. Two long years after the publication of Ancillary Mercy (long, that is, for her readers who’ve been impatiently waiting for more), Leckie’s newest science fiction novel, Provenance, reached shelves last week.
At the very beginning of her 11-city tour that concludes at New York Comic Con, we spoke with Leckie about Provenance, what she’s been reading, and the effect of a shelf full of awards on her writing life.
Book Store PD: Provenance is in the same universe as your Imperial Radch series. When you came off of writing your last trilogy, did you know that your next book would still be in that same universe?
Ann Leckie: I was pretty sure that it would be. I put so much construction into the universe—into not just things that appeared in the book but the sort of extraneous things that were a support system for all the things that were in the book. And the idea of starting over from scratch with a new universe was a bit daunting. And the universe is a really big one, so I can tell pretty much any kind of story.
When people ask you to describe Provenance, how do you describe it?
Oh, I have a tough time. I’ve never been good with that sort of elevator pitch. What I’ve been saying is it’s about a young woman dealing with family and with explosions and political maneuvering. I intend it to be a fun book and lighter than the trilogy.
Do you have beta readers?
Sort of. I have some friends who look over the manuscript in various stages. I have a couple of friends who I will send early chapters to, especially if I’m feeling insecure about what I’m doing—which happens on a new project. Because I’d been working on all the same thing for years and now I’m working on something new, and I’d say, “I don’t know. I don’t know if this is working.” And they can say, “Yes,” or they can say, “No, actually, Ann, this thing isn’t working here,” and I can go, “All right, let me think about that.”
When I started out, especially when I was doing short fiction, I would definitely run everything through three or four or five people, and I would think hard about their comments. I don’t do that so much now. I just send chapters to one or two of my friends.
Do you think that change in getting feedback is because you’ve developed more self-confidence as a writer or because you’ve developed your own ways of doing things?
Some of it is more self-confidence—though I don’t have so much self-confidence that I don’t check with anybody. I did [writing workshop] Clarion West back in 2005. I really enjoyed it; it was an amazing experience. But what that meant was that every week there was a story of mine getting critiques from about fifteen people. You get this big mass of really good critiques. One of the challenges was figuring out what of that advice to take and what not, because very often they will contradict. Or you’re like, “What, really?!” because it will feel like it came out of left field. But they might be right. I got a sense of what various kinds of advice meant, so I don’t need masses and masses of it to get to the same result. I can fine-tune it just by getting a few. It doesn’t mean I’m necessarily right about that, of course!
Reading is so subjective. Everyone who reads your book will read a completely different book from the next person.
Exactly. And none of those is wrong, because that’s the book that they experienced. You experience what you experience.
One of the really interesting things about seeing a lot of people talk about my work is exactly that. Some people will have read it and have an odd interpretation that I would not have had of it. Some people seem to have a really good grasp of what I was going for. And then every now and then there will be somebody who, it’s like, “Did you read my book? Or did you read a different Ancillary Justice by a different Ann Leckie? Because even what you’re talking about, I don’t understand where that came from.” And yet they got that reading my book.
That makes me think of when you’re in English class, and the English teacher says, “Well, obviously William Shakespeare meant this.” My experience suggests that actually maybe very few of us are coming anywhere near what William Shakespeare was thinking. But we’re all very convinced that we know what it is that we’re reading when we’re reading his stuff.
As you’ve written these four books, is there anything you’ve learned about yourself as a writer or a person?
Hmm, that’s hard to say. Someone asked me recently, “Some writers say that writing makes your soul grow. Do you think that’s true?” I said, “Ah, I am not going to presume to say how big my soul is or how well developed it is.” [Laughs] I certainly have grown more confident in my writing, and I have to admit a shelf full of awards does produce a certain level of confidence. Writers have to find an internal source of confidence and validation because so often so much of what you get is rejection, rejection, rejection. That shelf full of awards is an amazing external, sitting-right-there-in-my-living-room validation. I’ve definitely learned that a lot of the anxieties that a lot of writers have are not necessarily realistic but they can hang you up as a writer. One thing I had to learn early was to work past those, and say [to my anxieties], “You sit there in the corner and you be anxious and be convinced this is pointless. I’m going to write anyway.” Learning how to do that—that has gotten easier over time. Over the course of writing the trilogy, my writing has definitely improved. And my ideas about what I was writing about has changed a lot. My view of gender when I started the trilogy was one way. In the course of writing the trilogy, I came to think very differently about gender, and that’s been a really interesting process.
What have you read that you’ve been recommending to people?
Yoon Ha Lee’s Ninefox Gambit is fabulous. On the one hand, Nora [Jemisin] absolutely deserved to win her second Hugo for The Obelisk Gate. On the other hand, I wish that Yoon had taken something home for his book somewhere along the line. Ninefox Gambit and its sequel, Raven Stratagem, are fabulous. I recently read Fonda Lee’s Jade City [November 7, 2017], which is a fantasy, and which I thoroughly enjoyed. Oh! And Martha Wells’ Murderbot novellas are wonderful. They are marvelous.
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