Karen Lord’s Redemption in Indigo draws the reader in from the get go. The author’s voice is strong and confident and engages the reader. Both Weng and I enjoyed reading this book.
Just recently, Karen was the writer-in-residence at the Shared Worlds Writing Camp. Here, she talks about her experience at Shared Worlds, writing, and influences.
I wanted to start by asking you about your Shared Worlds Experience. Is this your first time teaching at Shared Worlds or have you taught there before? Would you like to share some of the insights/experiences from the workshop?
It was my first time at Shared Worlds, and I loved it. After building the world, there are so many stories to tell and so many ways of telling those stories – using music, games, art, film, the oral tale and of course literature. There’s no one best way, and real excellence can be found not by merely imitating what you think is good, but by finding and developing your own unique combination of skills and strengths and using them to full effect.
A good number of writers were/are bookworms. When you were a teen, did you have any idea that you wanted to be a writer? What were you like as a teen?
Yes, I was a bookworm, and yes, I knew I was going to be a writer. But there were a lot of things I wanted to do first because I wanted to have something to write about. My teen years weren’t particularly exciting – just a lot of schoolwork and exams and focus on doing well.
Who were your favorite writers?
I really enjoyed Ray Bradbury then, and I have an even greater appreciation for his work now. Tolkien and Lewis were standards – a teacher read them to us in primary school. My friends and I read a lot of Asimov and Clarke. Some friends were also very much into Stephen King and James Herbert, but I could only handle some of the milder King novels. Robert Ludlum, at least his earlier work, was another favourite. X-Men and New Mutants comics were popular at school and I borrowed a lot from friends. I can’t recall the names of the writers and artists of that period, but Mohawk Storm is the definitive Storm for me.
When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer and what made you decide to be a writer? Would you like to tell us what your early forays into writing were like? ( Were they also sf/f or were they realist in nature? )
I never know how to answer that kind of question. I didn’t decide to be a writer. I enjoyed telling stories. I wrote poetry as a teenager (almost an obligatory phase). I did some world building in my late teens and tried a short story or two in my twenties (both SF). I focused on other things, learning science and history, learning to write non-fiction well.
Who would you say were your major influences?
I usually cite Bradbury, C. S. Lewis (the later works, fiction and non-fiction), and Dorothy L. Sayers. I love seeing how Lewis and Sayers developed from their earlier work to later work (I enjoy the earlier work of Sayers as well, but I’m not that fond of early Lewis.), and Till We Have Faces is my all-time favourite book. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark is one of those ‘perfect’ books for me – economically slender, non-linear, nuanced and rich, truthful yet forgiving. The middle part of Asimov’s The Gods Themselves, where he writes aliens better than he ever wrote humans, is another work that I return to again and again.
Realism in SF is more than the depiction of evil, mayhem and destruction. I’ve read scenes of torture and loss that bored me. For me, if a story has depth and truth, the author can wound and daze you with the description of a sunny day. I pay attention to authors who can do that, find the truths that you didn’t even know could hurt you.
Since Redemption in Indigo, you’ve come out with The Best of All Possible Worlds which is so very clearly a different novel from Redemption in Indigo. Was this a conscious choice you made? And if so, why?
It wasn’t a conscious choice, but I’m glad it turned out that way because I don’t like to be stuck in a category box. It is a different novel, but the more that I look at it, the more I see the similarities. I’ve encountered a lot of different reactions from readers, and some of those reactions do appear to be culturally determined. It’s become a bit of a Rorschach test.
Also, was there a difference between working on Redemption in Indigo and The Best of All Possible Worlds?
Every book is different. I drafted Redemption in Indigo in 2003. Then I completed an MPhil and a PhD, won a prize for Redemption, and wrote Best in 2009. That’s a gap of over five years in time, writing and life experience. There had to be difference in approach and content.
What were some of the challenges you’ve come up against as a writer of color? How have you dealt with or overcome these challenges?
I don’t know if that question is the right one. Perhaps it would make more sense to ask what challenges I’ve encountered as a Barbadian writer in a US/UK-dominated field. I don’t find it possible to separate my Barbadian identity from my identity as a member of the African diaspora in a country where I am not a minority. The challenge there is the obvious one … few people know my background. I have to write with a little translation programme running in my head. I tend to write two books in every novel – one that most UK/US readers will understand, and one for readers like me.
I was intrigued by what you wrote about writing two books. One for US/UK readers and one for readers like yourself. Would you like to elaborate on this more? What are the differences that exist between these two kinds of readerships and how much do you need adjust for the US/UK readership?
The differences are too many to list, ranging from the rhythm of the speech to cultural references and in-jokes. I don’t adjust specifically for the US/UK reader. I try write so that anyone from anywhere in the world can understand what’s happening, and I leave it to the editors to adjust anything that they think I’ve overlooked.
What encouragement/advice would you give to a writer coming from a non US/UK background who wants to break into SF/F?
Be very very good at it. Don’t quit your day job. Seek validation from your peers first, and your peers are more likely to be in your own country and of your own culture, not overseas. They know the sources you draw on, the training you’ve had, and the traditions you’re building on. Appreciate your literary influences and genre tropes, but don’t imitate. Imitators may be more easily accepted, but they are also more easily replaced and forgotten.
Are you working on anything new now? I heard that you’re working on a sequel to Redemption in Indigo…
I’ve been working on that for a while, but right now The Galaxy Game, which is the sequel to The Best of All Possible Worlds, is taking precedence.
Where on the web can we find you?
On twitter: @Karen_Lord
**Photo credit goes to: Russell Watson of R Studio