Author Interview with Carolyn Ives Gilman

Author interview with Carolyn Ives Gilman

Author bio:
Carolyn Ives Gilman has been publishing science fiction and fantasy for almost twenty years. Her first novel, Halfway Human, published by Avon/Eos in 1998, was called “one of the most compelling explorations of gender and power in recent SF” by Locus magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in magazines and anthologies such as F&SF, Bending the Landscape, The Year’s Best Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, The Best From Fantasy & Science Fiction, Interzone, Universe, Full Spectrum, and others. Her fiction has been translated into Italian, Russian, German, Czech and Romanian. In 1992 she was a finalist for the Nebula Award for her novella, “The Honeycrafters.”

In her professional career, Gilman is a historian specializing in 18th and early 19th-century North American history, particularly frontier and Native history. Her most recent nonfiction book, Lewis and Clark: Across the Divide, was published in 2003 by Smithsonian Books. She has been a guest lecturer at the Library of Congress, Harvard University, and Monticello, and has been interviewed on All Things Considered (NPR), Talk of the Nation (NPR), History Detectives (PBS), and the History Channel.
Candle in a Bottle Aliens of the Heart


Hi Carolyn, welcome to The Book Plank and for taking your time to answer these few questions for us.

CG:          It’s a pleasure.

BP: First off could you give us a short introduction as to who Carolyn Ives Gilman is, what are your hobbies, likes and dislikes?

CG:          I’m a person with two identities.  At times, I’m Carolyn Ives Gilman, science fiction writer.  In this guise, I’ve written four novels and many shorter works.  The ones people are most likely to have heard of are my novel Halfway Human and my novellas Arkfall and The Ice Owl, which got nominated for three awards--two Nebulas and one Hugo.  My newest book, Dark Orbit, is set in the same universe as these three stories, though on a different planet.  It’s a good universe for a writer like me, who is always getting distracted by shiny new ideas. 

By day, I’m Carolyn Gilman, a mild-mannered museum exhibit developer at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian.  In this persona, I’m a historian who has written seven books on the frontier, exploration, and Native American history.  I moved to Washington from the Midwest three years ago, and I still love the pinch-me feeling of being in the middle of things.  My office is on the Mall near the Capitol, just like all those people on TV, except I don’t solve crimes, avert war, or scheme to be president.  That’s why I write books, to pretend that I do.

I was about to deny that I have hobbies, but I guess I do—playing my faithful piano and going to the gym, which involves another persona of sorts, the tattooed gym rat.  Kickboxing is my favorite.  I didn’t say I was good at it.

BP: Your first short fiction story was published in 1987 and your first book in 1998, do you still know when and where you decided that you wanted to write stories?

CG:          I have always wanted to write stories, but I remember when I decided to write science fiction.  I was an English major in college, struggling to write the kind of literary fiction I was studying, when it occurred to me: What am I doing?  I don’t read this stuff.  I read science fiction and fantasy.  I ought to write it, too.  At that moment I changed over, and I have never looked back. 

BP: You have written many stories since your first publication, where do you get your inspiration from?

CG:          From life.  It’s a mystery to me why anyone would think that the way to learn how to write is to go to graduate school and live an isolated, sheltered existence in academia.  If you aren’t out in the world making observations about people and events, accumulating experiences, encountering unlikely things, you won’t have anything worthwhile to say. 

BP: The Science Fiction we read today is not the same as it was years back, what changes have you experienced over the years? And has it influenced your writing?

CG:          The science fiction of my youth was the New Wave, and it laid down the bedrock of what I look for in a good book, my own included.  The trends since then have reflected the changes in the world we live in—the obsessions of our times.  Cyberpunk, urban fantasy, military SF, steampunk, dystopias.  Since I often feel at odds with the world around me, fantastic fiction either helps explain it to me or heightens my alienation and puzzlement. 

            What doesn’t change is what I look for in a good book.  I want a world that I enjoy spending time in, and people I enjoy being around, but I also need something to tickle my brain and make me say “wow.”  

BP:  Dark Orbit is your latest book, where did you got the idea from for this story in particular?

CG:          Dark Orbit didn’t start with one idea, but with many.  It grew by accretion of ideas over many years.  It is partly an exploration adventure inspired by all the classic science fiction of my childhood.  It is also inspired by cutting-edge science on the nature of space and dimensionality, by research into the neuroscience of how sight works, and by the intersection between quantum physics and mysticism.  Even my colleagues at work inspired it with their quirky personalities and obsessions. 

BP: You have already written numerous stories, do you still find it hard to begin writing a new story? What is your most valuable experience that you gained from your previous stories that you use when writing a new one?

CG:          My problem is never ideas; I have enough of them to last me a lifetime.  My problem is finding the time.  It has become increasingly difficult for me to write in disconnected snippets of time—two hours here, half an hour there.  I really have to block out time, and that is harder than it used to be. 

            In starting a story, it’s essential for me to find a voice to tell it in.  But sometimes that doesn’t come right away; you just have to start writing and feel your way into it.  The critical thing is to get out of your own way.  Stop worrying what people will think of you and write for fun. 

BP: Dark Orbit will be released July 12th, if you would have to sell the book with a single sentence how would it go?

CG:          In Dark Orbit, a mismatched group of scientists exploring a strange and dangerous planet find that they need to travel into the world of the blind in order to come back alive. 

BP: Even with your repertoire, did you still encounter any particular problems in writing Dark Orbit?

CG:          Of course.  It was nothing but problems.  I actually abandoned the book several times because the problems seemed so insoluble.  The hardest thing was figuring out my two viewpoint characters.  Or rather, figuring out that they were two people, and not one.  Once I realized that, they took on very distinct personalities and voices, and the story fell into place. 

BP: besides the troubles and hard parts of writing, which chapter, scene or character did you enjoy writing about the most?

CG:          The parts written from the point of view of Sara Callicot were very easy for me.  She has an ironic, satirical personality that made her parts lots of fun.  The chapters written from the point of view of Thora Lassiter were harder.  She is an introspective person who is always questioning herself.  And yet, now that I reread it, I am proudest of Thora’s sections.

BP: if you would be able to make one final change before the book publishes, would you do so? If yes, which part and why?

CG:          Once I’m done with a book, I’m done with it.  I rarely look back, because I’m on to the next shiny object in my imagination. 

BP: Now that Dark Orbit is published, do you have any other plans that you wish to pursue? What can we expect in the near future?

CG:          I’m currently working on a story that may turn into a novelette or novella; I’m not sure which.  It’s set in the near future on Earth.  I needed a break from the Twenty Planets universe where Dark Orbit is set.

BP: Everyone enjoys fantasy and science fiction in their own way, what do you like most about it?

CG:          I like that F and SF will take me completely out of everyday life, but still teach me something about it by the time I get back.

BP: if you would have to give your top five favorite authors, which would they be?

CG:          I can’t do that because they’re always changing, and I’m pretty sure I haven’t yet discovered my favorites.  For example, last year I might not have mentioned Ann Leckie, Jack McDevitt, Iain Banks, or C.J. Cherryh, and now I have to mention them all.  Next year, who knows?

BP: And just lastly, can you give us a short sneak peek of what will be in store for the readers of Dark Orbit?

CG:          In Dark Orbit, an irrepressible ethnologist named Sara Callicot gets recruited to join a scientific expedition investigating a newly discovered planet.   Only she knows that she has a secret assignment—to spy on fellow explorer Thora Lassiter, a disgraced member of the interstellar elite.  Thora’s past has been covered up so thoroughly, even she does not know it, as a result of false implanted memories.  When they arrive on the ship orbiting the planet Iris, a grisly murder seems to prove that someone has brought the plots of their home planet to this new frontier.

But assassination soon proves to be only one of their problems, because the planet Iris is extraordinarily dangerous.  Here, the leaves cut like razors and the forests are mazes of mirrors.  Space itself is unstable, apt to fold like five-dimensional origami.  When Thora disappears, it is up to Sara to solve a mystery that may be scientific or may be political, and to rescue Thora before the spatial instabilities destroy them all.

BP: thank you for your time Carolyn and good luck with writing your future books!


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