Wednesday, March 12, 2008

An Interview with Sandra McDonald!

Sandra Mc Donald has had a great start to her career. Her first novel, The Outback Stars, came out last spring and was very well received. It was one of two debuts to make it to the Nebula Preliminary Ballot, and now it has been nominated for another prize, this one for debut novelists. (She has told me which prize it is, but has not authorized me to repeat it. Since she has not made it public on her blog, I'll be mysterious and keep quiet as well.) Her second novel, The Stars Down Under, comes out in hardcover in March and she's slated to have a third novel published in 2009. Her short fiction has been published over twenty times.

Here she answers questions on her novels and on writing.

FD: I loved the little twists in THE OUTBACK STARS. Instead of having some glamorous position on the bridge, Jodenny is a supply weasel, stuck in the bowels of the ship, far from any potential action. Rather than having some cute space jock as a romantic love interest, Terry is one of her subordinates. Please tells us about your inspiration for THE OUTBACK STARS.

While I was serving in the U.S. Navy as a commissioned officer, many of my friends were Star Trek fans. And many were officers in the Supply Corps. And some were both! When I sat down to write my tales of adventure in deep space, I knew I wanted military characters -- but I wanted the men and women who did the behind-the-scene jobs that no one ever noticed until things went wrong. I wanted to tell the story of people doing the tedious, unrecognized work that keeps the military going day to day.

FD: Tell us a bit about your military background. Were you a supply officer or something similar? Did you serve on a ship? Did you have any malingering subordinates to deal with (loved that!)

When I graduated from Ithaca Collge after studying television and radio, I had a lot of dreams but also a lot of student loans. My dad and brother and both been in the Navy, and I had uncles who served in the Marines and Army, so I joined, too. Because of my speciality, I served overseas instead of on ships. Though I did spent some time on an exchange program with a Canadian destroyer, and their customs of dressing for dinner and allowing beer on the ship eventually made it into THE OUTBACK STARS. As for malingers, every supervisor has them -- in the military and outside it!

FD: Rather than an American-centric future, THE OUTBACK STARS features a future based on the Australian Navy. No seamen (or worse, "spacemen"). Instead we get "regular technicians" and "able technicians". What made you decide to focus on Australia as the cultural basis for your novel?

I love Australia! I find the whole history fascinating -- transported convicts thrown into a wild new land without the resources or skills to survive, and still they survived anyway. I admire the Australian national spirit and their long-term opposition regarding nuclear power. And, okay, my favorite character in Space: 1999 was the Australian, Alan Carter. (The "able technician" comes from Canada -- their "able seaman" and "leading seaman" etc.)

FD: You managed to steep your novel in Australian culture without resorting to the use of cliched dialect. Nary a "g'day mate!" to be found! Have you been to Australia? Do you know any Aussies? Or was this all just the result of great research?

It's mostly research. And wishful thinking. I've been to Sydney and the Blue Mountains, and hope to get back soon to the Barrier Reef and Melbourne.
All the Australians I know are in the blogsphere, but I would love to attend a sf convention down under or teach at Clarion South in Brisbane.

FD: What was your favorite scene in THE OUTBACK STARS?

I love all my scenes :-) But when Jodenny and Myell are trapped in the cargo tower facing certain doom, I had a lot of fun.
FD: Which scene gave you the most trouble?

There's one scene I really hate, really really hate, but I could never get it to work properly and finally had to just move on. Wild dingoes couldn't make me tell you what it is, though!

FD: Can you give us a teaser about the sequel, *The Stars Down Under*, and any future Jodenny novels?

THE STARS DOWN UNDER is more adventure, more romance, and more space travel. It's got crocodiles and epic treks across the Outback and aliens, which I had a lot of fun creating. There's a scene where someone gets to climb naked up a tree full of spiders; that was fun to write! Though I refrained from trying it myself for research purposes. In book 3, THE STARS BLUE YONDER, I get to use some of that great Australian history in a time-travel plot. That's been a blast to write.
FD: You have spent some time attending writers' workshops and retreats. Which ones have you attended? Can you tell us a bit about what they are like?

My favorite workshop was Viable Paradise, which is held every autumn for one week on Martha's Vineyard. There I met my fabulous mentor, James Patrick Kelly, and my now-editors, Patrick Nielsen Hayden and James Macdonald. The workshops, symposiums and general chit-chat convinced me that to be a professionally published writer I had to really up my commitment level -- no more writing when I "felt inspired," no more letting fear of rejection get in the way. After VP, I ended up enrolling in a writing graduate program at the University of Southern Maine, where I got to study with best-selling author Dennis Lehane and other amazing writers.

The best thing about any workshop is getting and giving feedback -- no workshop or program can make you a better writer, after all. Only you can do that. But an effective workshop teaches you to become a better reader -- to approach the text, whether its your own or someone else's, with a critical yet helpful eye.

FD: How helpful do you think these workshops were to your growth as a writer?

Enormously. Plus, for several years I was part of a writer's group in Boston and I have one now in Florida; these monthly commitments keep me on track and focused, and I love helping other writers the same way they help me.
FD: You have quite an extensive short story publication list. Most of the authors I've interviewed have very scanty bios. Please tell us how you broke into short story markets and how (if) that led to a novel publication.

Short fiction is a lot of fun for me to write and read. I think it's horrible how short fiction has declined as a national reading experience. When you look at post-WWII America, and the magazines that were publishing back then vs. now, it's a huge letdown to be a short story afficionado in our era. Still, there's a lot of great work being down in short fiction, and as a writer you have more freedom to experiment with ideas, themes and characters without having to commit to a an 80,000 word novel.

I broke into short fiction the way most do -- writing, sending stuff out, experiencing the sting of rejection, send out again, repeat, repeat, repeat. I've had twenty-something short fiction sales and two hundred or so rejections to get there. Writing and publishing shorts didn't lead me to novel sales per se, but definitely improved my writing skills. I know I'll still be learning as a writer fifty years from now; that's what keeps it all interesting.


Maria said...

Really great interview!

Thanks for posting it.


Tia Nevitt said...

Thanks, Maria. It's the interviewee who makes the interview.

Angela said...

Thanks much for the interview. I really enjoyed getting a peek into her writing process.

Robert said...

A well done interview :) I just got the new book, so I need to find the first one so I can read them both...

Tia Nevitt said...

It's out in paperback. Loved it.