An interview with Melissa Scott:
1996 photo of Melissa Scott, by Ryan Mercer
Photo by Ryan Mercer (1996)
from Melissa's website

Melissa and Her Friends

Melissa Scott is an Award-winning author of science fiction stories which often feature gay/lesbian characters. Her achievements include Lambda Awards for Trouble and Her Friends (1994), Shadow Man (1995), Point of Dreams (2001), and the John W. Campbell Award in 1986. We are privileged that she took the time to be interviewed for our newsletter. Our questions are in bold type.
    -- the Editors.

What attracted you to science fiction?

I got hooked on SF back in the 7th grade. Looking back, the attraction seems fairly clear: I was 11 years old, it was 1971 in the American South (as you probably saw on my website, I'm from Little Rock, Arkansas), and I was too young to leave any other way except via the pages of a book. And SF took me further and into more interesting places than just about anything else I was reading. Plus even then I could get hold of SF writers who wrote about women and girls (I read a lot of Andre Norton!) as protagonists of their own stories that didn't involve romance, something that was hard to find in most other genres.

I was lucky in a lot of ways. First of all, a sympathetic junior high school librarian steered me to Heinlein and Norton, and then the local public library had a wonderful SF collection, funded by the "A Son Gout" Trust, which existed to allow the library to purchase "books people like to read" like SF, fantasy and westerns - all the things that libraries usually aren't able to buy in times of tight budgets! But the LR Public Library had a fantastic collection, and let me have an adult card, too.

Cover of the Game Beyond A lot of what has always appealed to me in SF is the way that good SF can completely change your understanding of the world. (I suppose that really should be good writing - the same thing can happen in any genre! But SF does make it easier to spot exactly where the change took place.) I remember reading The Left Hand of Darkness for the first time, and realizing that it was possible to imagine a world with changeable gender; Babel-17 allowed me to see language, and poetry, in a completely different way; Mission of Gravity suddenly made me understand a whole set of physics questions in a totally visceral and concrete way - and there are so many more.

What work do you do?

Writing has been my primary work since I was in graduate school (I have a PhD from Brandeis University in their Comparative History program), but I've held, and still hold, a patchwork of part-time jobs to even up an irregular income. The weirdest one was the 6 weeks I worked for a (heterosexual) video dating service; it's also the only one I've ever been fired from, but that was because the owner didn't want to pay the temp agency through which she hired me.

I've also worked for a theatrical costumer as both a stitcher and as their copywriter, and have held a lot of different secretarial jobs - one thing I can do is type! I also teach writing and in fact will be offering an on-line master class this fall, my first venture into on-line teaching. Over the summer, I'll be a guide in 2 different historical houses: finally making some use of my academic training!

There seem to be many issues in your writing, such as war, conflict, culture clash, the effects of technology and technological change. What messages do you see in your work, and what messages do you hope to convey?

Probably the theme that runs most consistently through all my books is the question of who gets to define themselves as "people" - who gets to be the norm. And, by being the norm, set the rules, hold social and economic power, and never have to justify their own existence or their own ambitions.

I suppose it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see why a gay woman would find those issues compelling.... :)

But, seriously, I think that reminding people that "the norm" - mainstream society, the dominant classes and cultures - is a construct of time and place, not something that just is, that just happens, is vitally important, and I hope some of my books will make people think about that issue. Cover of the Shapes of Hearts

What do you think will be the biggest technological changes ahead for humanity and what social changes do you believe these will cause?

I don't think the computer revolution is played out, despite Bruce Sterling's announcement of the death of cyberpunk. Cyberspace no longer seems to be a frontier, requiring arcane technical knowledge to navigate; just about anybody can homestead there now - but I'm not sure yet where that's going to take us. (I'm pretty sure there's a story in there, though.)

I also think that current developments in biology - not just cloning, but all the implications of being able to decode human DNA - are going to be huge. SF hasn't been doing too much with that lately, it seems - maybe because we've been writing about cloning for so long that it feels like old hat? - but I think that's the place that individuals and societies are going to see the most drastic changes. I am personally toying with the notion of storing patented genes inside otherwise ordinary people, who get a fee for making them available to the patent-holders at need. I've also been wondering just how the first human clone will be made - I'm sure it will be a situation that only the most hard-hearted person could refuse (a dead child, or an attempt to save a desperately ill child), but that's going to open up the floodgates. And, yes, I think it's going to happen, unless the animal evidence turns out to be a whole lot worse than it already seems to be.

But beyond that.... SF writers tend to be lousy prophets, not least because we're so obsessed with the current technology and society that we miss the big changes that are right under our noses.

What successes or problems have you had as a writer of science fiction?

In many ways, I've been lucky, in that - despite making no bones about my being a lesbian and writing gay characters - my writing is fairly traditional SF. The style is familiar to most editors (and readers), and the way I handle science and society falls within the normal range of variation, if you will. I may come to unfamiliar conclusions, but I'm starting in familiar territory - and, of course, I'm telling stories. A good story - I firmly believe - will intrigue even those readers who totally disagree with your political and social conclusions, and, anyway, only a good story earns a writer of fiction the right to express those conclusions.

As for problems, a lot of them have to do with general market conditions, which, with the mergers among the big publishing houses and the purchase of publishers by companies who have nothing to do with books, have made it more difficult for anyone who is not a best-seller to see their books reach any market. More and more, it seems that to be successful (at least in the eyes of the publishers) a writer has to reach an enormous and broad market, and the books that do so, with rare exceptions, reflect a very mainstream view of the world. The voices that are being squeezed out are the non-mainstream voices, those that are perceived as having a narrower appeal. Certainly books with queer protagonists seem to fall into that category.

Cover of The Jazz by Melissa Scott That said, of course, you find yourself getting paranoid. When a queer-themed book by a straight writer gets critical attention, you find yourself wondering (no matter how good the book is!) whether it's getting that attention because the author credits her husband, 2.5 children, and 8 cats in her back-of-the-book bio. On a more serious level, I do feel that I hit a wall recently that my editor was unwilling to help me get through - but I don't know whether it has to do with market conditions, my insistence on dealing with queer ideas and characters, or his assessment of my ability as a writer. I have seen other writers who dealt with the same themes hit the same wall, so I don't think it's just me, but I honestly don't know what's happening.

Why do you include gay and lesbian characters in your stories?

The simplest answer is that I wanted to see more characters like me. But the more I think about it, the more I think there's something useful and powerful behind that fairly naive statement. Even in SF, you actually have a limited budget for new things; if you're creating something really new in one part of the novel, other parts must of necessity be more familiar, just so readers have a way to get into the story. (Ellen Kushner came up with this idea at a convention some years ago, and it's one of the most useful things I've ever heard - you can call it the "strangeness budget" or "conservation of weirdness", but it really works.) But it also works for writers: when you're concentrating on new stuff, you fill in with familiar things. In most of my novels, the technological and social changes are the new things, and so I draw on the people and culture in which I live to make up the balance. It's that culture, people "like me," that provides the emotional background of my novels. And I have an added bonus - in some sense, anyway! - in that my reality looks exotic to a lot of readers, without being completely unfamiliar.

Science fiction does not often include GLBTI characters. Why do you think that is the case?

There was a period in the early and mid 1990s when there was a lot of queer-themed SF - I was actually involved with a review 'zine then, and there was tons of stuff out there, much of it very good. But it seems that we've gone out of fashion since then.... I do think some of it has to do with the changing market. As I said earlier, books are having to make bigger profit margins than ever before, and that changes what kind of books are published and promoted. The unfortunate assumption seems to be that "mainstream" people don't want to read about anything except themselves. I hope it's not true - but publishers do seem to believe it.

How does your own sexuality influence your writing? What other influences are in your stories?

Enormously - I have such trouble writing straight characters! :) And, as I said before, it's in some ways easier to write from that part of my experience. I'm also a southerner - born and raised in Arkansas, with family in Mississippi - and that has been an unescapable influence, both in the style of storytelling I've chosen and the ways that a sense of place influences my writing. I think that my academic training as a historian probably shows, too - I spend an inordinate amount of time building up what I hope will be plausible backstory that never gets used - and I think the kinds of issues I'm interested in certainly are affected by my education.

How have your stories been received in the science fiction community? How have members of the GLBTI community received your work?

I thought I'd answer these two together, because they're two sides of the same coin. In general, reaction has been positive, but there have been what you might call translation problems in dealing with the two communities. First of all, there's a small issue of terminology. Only at an SF convention, for example, would anyone refer to gay lit - or gay folks - as "mundane." And only gay lit would consider SF - or its fans - "mainstream."

My novel Burning Bright was reviewed in both the SF and the gay press, and the contrasting reviews are a good illustration of the culture gap. Both reviewers basically liked the book, but Locus criticized me for including a mention of safer sex: too trendy, too contemporary, broke the suspension of disbelief. Lambda Book Review, on the other hand, ho-hummed the "sci-fi elements" as "too close to reality" and complained that there wasn't nearly enough sex for a lesbian novel. I've also occasionally run into the perception among the gay literary set that genre fiction is "starter fiction," something you read - or write - only until you move on to "real" fiction, but I'm hoping that's dying out.

Cover of Proud Helios by Melissa Scott I think in general it's been harder for non-SF readers in the GLBTI community to get into my books than for straight SF fans, but I think that has more to do with the nature of the genre than with any intrinsic prejudices on either side. I do think it's hard for a lot of non-SF readers to figure out what to do with an SF novel.

Back when I was in a (not good enough for the garage) band, the drummer, also a lesbian, picked up a copy of Trouble and Her Friends, and finally admitted that she "didn't know enough to be able to read the book." So I asked what she meant, and she explained that she didn't know enough about the technology to be able to follow it. To which I said, "But, Tricia, I made it up." And I think you run into that with people who don't read SF: they don't realize that all this is pure invention - after all, the genre convention is to present it as though it is absolutely real - and people get nervous and give up without ever realizing that all the clues are there to figure out what's actually going on.

Straight SF fans are, I think, more used to looking at different ways of structuring relationships in fiction, so GLBTI characters aren't exactly a surprise to them. After all, these are the folks who gave a Hugo to Courtship Rite, a novel in which - for good and carefully worked-out reasons - human beings are food animals until they reach the age of about 5. (You can imagine what that does to early childhood development....) By comparison, queerness is fairly uncomplicated. On the other hand, I'm not sure how - or if - this translates into beliefs and behaviors outside the narrow confines of the SF convention circuit.

Some people might see the science fiction concept of 'aliens among us' as the perfect allegory for GLBTI people in society. Do you agree?

Cover of ConceivingTheHeavens by Melissa Scott In one sense, definitely. I think an awful lot of us feel at one point or another that we're aliens in an alien world, particularly when for whatever reason the people surrounding us assume that there is no other perspective but that of the straight world. And certainly that has always been one of the most effective tools SF has has for dealing with difference, particularly differences that are contested in contemporary society, like race, sexuality, gender, or class: create an alien species to stand in for the different group, and explore the problem at one remove. This has the advantage of letting readers (and probably writers, too) look at something controversial and scary without having to commit themselves too deeply to that vision - without having to explore all of its contemporary manifestations because, after all, it isn't "really" about that.

On the other hand, there is a danger that defining GLBTI people - or any other non-dominant group - as aliens can in some sense be read as also saying that that group isn't human. The very safety that allows readers to let themselves be drawn in can also keep them from fully engaging with the question. I've personally been more interested in posing the question of who, precisely, each fictional society considers to be "people" - in the sense of full, functioning members of that society - and then looking at the situation from the point of view of a "non-person." That's one of the reasons that, in Shadow Man, Warreven is one of the 2 main point of view characters: there are a lot of books - very good books - that deal with hermaphroditic characters who are seen exclusively from the outside, and I always found myself wondering what it would be like to be that person - to be the subject, the speaker, not the object observed.

And that is as much an aesthetic prejudice as a political statement! But since what I have always loved best in SF (and in most other kinds of writing, too) is the ability to go somewhere and be someone I never could have imagined before I read the book, it's something I feel strongly about.
Cover of Trouble and Her Friends by Melissa Scott
Do you see science fiction as an innovative genre or as a more conservative medium? Why?

I think SF is inherently radical, in that it begins with the assumption that something has changed. I think you have to work a bit harder to write a truly conservative work - the "nothing important has changed, it's just the toys are better and I'm in charge" kind of book - because once you start questioning the nature of reality, it's hard to pretend that there were be no further consequences of those changes. Not that people don't do it, of course, but I think that starting from the assumption of difference makes SF of necessity innovative.

How did you come up with the title 'Trouble and Her Friends? As a lesbian, does the title in any way symbolise your presence or active participation within the science fiction community?

Cover of Armour of Night by Melissa Scott and Lisa A Barnett The title literally popped into my head as I was walking the dog one foggy noontime. We were halfway around the South Mill Pond, the tide was out, the air smelled of fog and saltwater and tidal mud, I was thinking about the book (much of which takes place a few miles down the coast from here), and - wham! It was obviously the only possible name for the book. I've never really dared examine the symbolism too closely - I have such a terrible time coming up with titles generally that I don't want to jam the mechanism. :)

How much of yourself have you written into the character, Trouble?

Trouble is a lot of who I wish I could be. I wish I were as competent as she (true competence is just enormously sexy to me); I wish I were as strong and brave and tough-minded. I hope, if I were ever tested, that I'd be able to walk away from that kind of stupid risk, but I suspect I'd be like Cerise, and have to go back just one more time....

How important is your partner in influencing your work?

Lisa's enormously important. First of all, she's a superb editor, and is kind enough to be my first reader most of the time. But, more than that, she's someone who likes fiction, likes talking about stories, and is capable of being at the same time incredibly supportive and constructively critical. She's got a knack for pointing out a potentially fatal flaw in an idea without making you feel like the idea itself is unsalvageable, and then helping you spot the various possible solutions. It's a little bit like improvisational theater: the key (or so I've been told) is never actually to refuse what the other actor offers, never to say no. And Lisa's really good at listening to an idea that may or may not viscerally appeal to her, and finding ways not to say no to it.

Plus we've written 3 novels together (hopefully soon to be 4), which has really been fun. Writing is normally so solitary that it's great to be able to sit down at the end of the day and gloat a little about the joint project. Or when one of us is on a roll, you get instant feedback to support the natural high from knowing you've done something well. And when the writing isn't going well, having another person to pick out the useful bits is so much nicer than staring at a day's work and feeling as though your time was totally wasted.... Our shared style isn't like anything either one of us does separately, which I know has broadened my solo writing.

Cover of Dreamships by Melissa Scott What is the favourite story you have written? Why?

I don't have any one favorite, since I can usually find something I wish I'd done differently in everything I've written. I like Dreamships because of the way I was able to make the story seem integral to the world and its technology, and the way the characters grew out of their world and their situation; I also liked that the solution hinged on a linguistic issue. I felt as though I'd made a real step forward there as a writer. I think Trouble is probably the most completely successful of my books, characters, plot, and setting (though there are a couple of things I'd change for sure, like not leaving plot ends hanging!). I wrote it very quickly, which is unusual for me, and ended up, because it was near-future and set near where I now live, using far more of my own experience in that novel than I had ever done before. I really liked Burning Bright because I think it's the book in which I most successfully handled multiple points of view, and I think the Carnival imagery worked. Shadow Man I like because I think Warreven's transition from thinking of himself as a man to thinking of  3erself as a herm was something complicated to capture, and I think I did OK with it. It's also the book in which I did most with invented languages and dialects, and I'm pretty pleased with how that worked out.

So I think those four, at least at the moment - though I'm working on a project based on a short story I just sold, called The Sweet Not-Yet, which right now feels as though I'm going to get all those things right. But, of course, that's the way I always feel about a project at the beginning stages!

Cover of Night Sky Mine by Melissa Scott Who are your favourite created characters? Why?

I have a real fondness for Reverdy Jian, in Dreamships, because I had one of those writerly revelations while I was working on the book. I had started to put down that she bit back something that she wanted to say and suddenly realized, no, Reverdy would never do that. She'd always say what she's thinking. And that was enormously fun to write. Trouble and Cerise, of course: I loved doing that buddy thing, except with women and explicitly queer. I liked the unresolved class conflict between Sein Tarasov and Justin Rangsey in Night Sky Mine - liked the way they hung on despite it. And I particularly like Nico Rathe and Philip Eslingen in the Points books. I've never done continuing characters before - never done a series - and it's been really fun letting the characters grow. Though they owe as much to Lisa as they do to me! And, as I said above, I like Warreven a lot. I put a lot of my own adolescent ambivalence about being female into that character, and I think it worked out well.

How long have you run your web site? What reaction has it received?

I've had the website for several years - maybe as many as five? I haven't had a lot of comment on the site itself (it's almost embarrassingly simple in its design) but it has been a good way to let people to get hold of me. I've gotten some great convention invitations and met some really neat people through it, and that's been the real bonus.


Melissa Scott was Guest of Honour at the recent Diversicon 11, a science fiction convention held in Minnesota between 8 to 10 August 2003. Diversicon proudly promoted itself as a convention that was, "...woman-and-man-friendly, gay-lesbian-&-straight-friendly, liberal-&-conservative-friendly..."

Further information on Diversicon can be found at http://www.sfminnesota.com/diversicon/index.


Further information about Melissa and her work can be found at: http://www.locusmag.com/1999/Issues/01/Scott.html
Her novels are available from www.anybooks.com.au or www.amazon.com or www.fantasticfiction.co.uk or any good book shop!

Melissa Scott's website can be found at http://www.rscs.net/~ms001/mainpage.html

   

   

Melissa Scott bibliography:

Cover of the Garden by Melissa Scott A bibliography of Melissa's work can be found on her website or at: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?Melissa_Scott

The list below is assembled from both these sites.