Catherine Asaro Interview


by Terry Hickman


Remember Jane Curtin's Saturday Night Live ad sketch, where she's the marine biologist/mother of six/Cub Scout den mother/church choir director/jazzercize instructor/etc/etc/etc-and she says smiling into the camera as she unloads five bags of groceries: "How do I do it? I take Speed!"?

Jane could have taken a lesson from Catherine Asaro, who achieves even greater--and real--wonders, with her own *natural* energy--no drugs, thank you! Lots of other interviews have described her accomplishments: physicist (PhD in Chemical Physics and MA in Physics, both from Harvard, and a BS with Highest Honors in Chemistry from UCLA), ballerina (founder, the Mainly Jazz Dance program at Harvard, teacher at the Caryl Maxwell Classical Ballet Maryland), wife, mother, and author of eight published and one more soon-to-be-published hard science fiction/ romance/action novels, various Nebula and Hugo nominations; Homer Awards, RWA Awards, Analog Awards, and many others.

On top of all that, she attends Cons and workshops all over the country, sharing her experiences and wisdom and warm humor with writers, editors and fans, and collecting awards right and left from both the science fiction and the romance fields. I met her last March at WillyCon II, at Wayne State College in Wayne, Nebraska. She graciously consented to give me a telephone interview when both our schedules permitted.

The first thing I wanted to know was, "How do you do it?"


TH: Are you by nature an ultra-organized person?

CA: <laughing> No, I have an ultra-organized assistant. Actually, I prioritize; the things that have to get done, get done. Unfortunately, that leaves a long list of things I don't get to for a long time. I was finally able to hire an assistant; she comes for about eight hours a week to help with appointments, mail, things like that. So more of the "other stuff" gets done now than before.

TH: How would you describe your writing habits, ritualistic or adaptive? Do you have to sit down at the same time, the same desk, with the same candles lit ... ?

CA: Oh, no, I write any time I can find the time. I used to use a PC; now I have a laptop, so I can write when I'm traveling, and at any odd moments when I'm home. I also write at night, when it is quiet.

TH: It's ironic, isn't it, that your writing success now makes finding the time to write even more difficult?

CA: Well, time was always a problem. When I was a professor, I had to squeeze the writing in around those responsibilities. I love writing, though, so it's like a reward and I look forward to it. And really, doing it full-time does leave me more time for actual writing -- though that includes a lot things, like checking galley proofs, doing copyedits, going to signings and cons ... it's all "writing" even though it's not all pounding at the keyboard.

TH: Some writers struggle with giving characters and places the right names. You use interesting names: Khal, Dahl, Calanya, Viasa, Coba, Quis (a game). Do you work at names very hard?

CA: Yes! It's fun. I do a great deal of world-building, with notes, diagrams, tables, and equations. I fill up entire folders with it all. Coban names come from the "history" of Skolia. The background: an unknown race took humans from Earth about a thousand years ago, from Mesoamerica, North Africa, and India. The aliens moved them in time and space, dumping them on another planet about six thousand years in our past. Then the aliens skeedaddled, stranding the humans. That's the mystery: who were the aliens and why the blazes did they relocate humans?

The humans eventually develop star travel and search for Earth. Although they never find it, they establish an interstellar civilization. But it is based on poorly understood technology and collapses after a few hundred years. Its colonies are isolated for five millennia, until humanity returns to the stars.

Coba is one of the lost colonies. The name is Mayan (Mesoamerican). Other names have North African or Indian roots. Languages evolve, of course, so the words in the book shouldn't be exactly like those they derived from on Earth, at least not most of them. We get the Ahl Majeb

River in the west (from Al Maghrib/Morocco) and the Raajastan Cliffs (from Rajasthan, India). Mesoamerican influence shows in the Teotec Mountains, Jatec River, and Olamec Desert.

When writing SF, you have to pick what language the story is supposed to be told in. For The Last Hawk, I decided on the modern language of the Coban people. So some names are in the language of the story, such as Forest of the Mists or Lake of Tears; others, like Calanya, derive from the older languages. It's similar to what we have in this country, with names drawn both from other languages (e.g., Sierra Nevada or Lafayette), and English (Great Smoky Mountains). Sometimes we combine English with another language (e.g., New Mexico). Likewise, on Coba they have names like the Little Jatec River.

Working it all out makes for a delightful puzzle. You don't want the words to derive from too narrow a base, or they all sound the same. It wouldn't work that way for a culture with any complexity. Just consider our own country and language. When I started with The Last Hawk, I had Khal, Dahl, Kehsa, Vahl ... (yawn). As I worked on the culture-building more, a richer, more complex tapestry took form. Many of the names and traits of characters also have subtle references to mythological characters (e.g., Ixpar's gray eyes). I get a real kick out of coming up with such systems. It's a great brainteaser.

Although you don't want to limit your world building in too narrow a scope, it does need a consistent set of basic concepts. In The Quantum Rose, I use languages from several Earth cultures, but the largest influence is Mayan. Four made-up languages appear in the book: Bridge, spoken on the world Balumil; classical Iotic, which was spoken in the ancient empire; modern Iotic, spoken by descendants of the ancient noble houses; and Iotaca, a corrupted version of classical Iotic that evolved on Balumil during its millennia of isolation. Other languages are in the story, too, but these are the most important.

Then it gets even more complicated! Many names in The Quantum Rose refer to physics, because the story is an analogy to coupled-channel quantum scattering theory applied to multi-particle collisions. But of course the Mayan language had no words for such things when the humans were taken from Earth. So what does an author do? Two possibilities: the people in the story would either create new words or give new meanings to those already in their language. As a writer, I needed to distinguish those two cases. Also, I didn't want nuances of the quantum analogy to be lost in the linguistics.

For old words that took a new meaning, I started with Mayan words and changed them to account for evolution of the languages. Argali is a name of the main character. I wanted it to refer to a quantized energy level of a bound molecular system. In physics we call it a bound level. So I started with `ak'il tz'i`, which means leash in Tzotzil Mayan, and had it "evolve" into akil tz'i and then into Argali. Of course in the real world, Tzotzil is itself evolved from whatever the Mayans spoke a thousand years ago, which is the actual language that would have given rise Iotic, the language I made up for the book.

Researching Tzotzil was fun. I got hold of The Great Tzotzil Dictionary of Santa Domingo Zinacantan, by Robert M. Laughlin with John B. Haviland (Smithsonian Institution Press). Robert Laughlin was even kind enough to help me with some details when I wrote Catch the Lightning.

For "modern" words with no Mayan equivalent, I needed a different method. If you imagine that an SF writer "translates" the language of the characters into that of the reader, one choice is to put modern words into the reader's language, to distinguish them from those derived from ancient languages. So we get the name Lyode, for example, contracted from "light emitting dyode." The characters in the story shorten it because for them the name is ancient, even though it is modern compared to pre-Tzotzil Mayan. That way, I didn't have to keep explaining the origin of words, as I did with Argali. Without such explanations, the scattering analogy wouldn't have made sense, but constantly stopping to expound on names would have been tedious. This allowed the flexibility the story needed.

I've been impressed by how many of my readers pick up on such details, including even the most subtle aspects. One reader of Catch the Lightning caught a really abstruse reference. In a sentence on p. 323 of the hardcover, I have the sentence, "The Abaj stood by their mounts like narrow statues." Abaj refers to the Abaj Tacalique, who have been the ceremonial body guards of the Ruby Dynasty for thousands of years. The name comes from Abaj Takalik, the ruins of a Maya city near Guatemala that are over two thousand years old. Abaj Takalik means ... the standing stones. The man who caught it had done scholarship on the Mayas. That is one of the pleasures of writing for such an audience; my readers are really smart. I receive great emails from folks with insights into the world-building, characters, commentary, and science. Some even work out the equations.

TH: How do you keep up with astronomy and physics? Doesn't it take a lot of time with all the current discoveries and theories?

CA: Oh, no, I love reading those things. You can never cover everything, of course, but it is fun learning new things. I enjoy doing research.

TH: A little light reading, eh? What else do you read for fun?

CA: When I want to relax, I read romances.

TH: If you could never write again, what would you do?

CA: Oh, dear. Physics, I think. But that's a tough question. After my family, the writing is the most important thing in my life.

TH: Does your husband read your books?

CA: Sometimes, not always. He's a very busy himself [NASA Astrophysicist and administrator John Kendall Cannizzo]. He once asked me if I would prefer him to read books or make dinner. Guess what I said! <g> He's very supportive that way, doing things like laundry and shopping. He makes sure I have the time to write.

TH: Getting into the path your writing career has taken, did I understand you correctly at WillyCon, you took your very first novel to a major publisher and it got published? No struggle?

CA: Oh, no! I sent The Last Hawk, the first book I wrote, to a publishing house. They returned it saying, "No thanks on this one, but try another." Then a friend of mine recommended me to her editor. The editor had The Last Hawk for about two years and expressed interest in pursuing publication. Then his job changed and he could no longer acquire all the rights. So he returned it with regrets. Although it was disappointing, I was encouraged that such a preeminent editor (David Hartwell) was interested in the work.

Just before my husband and I were moving to Germany [to work at the Max Planck Institute], I asked David if he could advise me on my writing career. He suggested I do hard science fiction. I liked that; science was my living and I thoroughly enjoy it. While we were in Germany, I wrote Primary Inversion, based on a short story I had done. David had gone to Tor Books by then, so I sent it to him. He liked it and had it for about two years. During that time, I wrote Catch the Lightning, also based on a short story. In the meantime, we moved back to the US. Tor published Primary Inversion, then bought both Catch the Lightning and The Last Hawk.

TH: So it was a fairly lengthy and complex process.

CA: Yes. But one well worth it.

TH: Your mix of hard SF, romance, adventure, and space opera seems unique. In your view, is anyone else doing this kind of writing these days?

CA: Lois McMaster Bujold, for one. She does wonderful work. Anne McCaffrey. Marion Zimmer Bradley. McCaffrey and Bradley may be softer science, but it is great, solid SF. Sharon Shinn is another.

TH: These are all women. Don't men write "romantic science fiction"?

CA: I think women tend to write romantic stories more, and in ways that would appeal to other women. But science fiction has always had a romantic vein. Half of my readers are men. Rod Garcia, who writes as R. Garcia y Robertson, has a wonderful time travel romance coming out soon from Forge. It's called Knight Errant.

TH: As you go around the country and spend time with all sorts of audiences at book signings and conferences, do you see whether science fiction's readership is dwindling, or growing?

CA: Growing. But the demographics are shifting. More and more women are reading SF. They're not necessarily reading the same books as men, but overlap exists. The genre has a great deal of diversity. It isn't really possible to generalize, but I have noticed some trends. What women define as quality often differs from the "traditional" SF canon. It makes for interesting discussions! I've heard debates where what one person thinks is fluff in a book is exactly what another believes gives it real depth.

But it doesn't necessarily break down along gender lines. I think differences in individual taste often vary more than those between any two groups, whether those groups are male and female, young and old, new or long-time reader, or otherwise. A lot of heterogeneity exists now, both in the writing and the readers. It's exciting! I think this is a good time for SF. So much is happening. It causes a lot of debate, though.

TH: So there's controversy in the ranks sometimes?

CA: Look at Vonda McIntyre's The Moon and the Sun. I thought it was brilliant. It won the Nebula. But it evoked controversy. It's set in the court of Louis XIV, it's science fiction of First Contact, and it has the feel of a romantic historical fantasy. I wrote an essay about it for the SF Site [].

Another example is The Golden Key, by Melanie Rawn, Jennifer Roberson, and Kate Elliott, which was nominated for the World Fantasy Award. That is another superb book that established new genre boundaries. Ground breakers are often controversial. I also wrote about that one for SF Site.

TH: Do you think that if you were male -- and wrote the very same books -- they would be perceived as more "hard SF" than "romance"?

CA: That's a good question. I'm not sure. I've talked about the romance myself, so that naturally affects the words people use. I made a conscious decision not to downplay the romantic elements. I like them. A great deal of good romantic literature exists. So I decided to talk about that as well as the other aspects of the books. That is the only way to counteract negative stereotypes.

Would I have written the books the same way if I were a man? Probably some difference would exist. Male authors don't tend to extol the beauty and sexual desirability of the hero, for example. I might have had a different slant in how I wrote about some other subjects. It's hard to say.

[Asaro explained that if you look at the cover art of her earlier books, you'll notice a change with each one, reflecting changing marketing approaches. The first book's design and colors and subject matter were very much "hard science fiction." With each new book, the layout and design and content had changed slightly to less "nuts & bolts" and more humanistic treatments.]

CA: The marketing choices were deliberate. You can see a progression from the first books to the most recent. I like it. I've been lucky to have wonderful artists for all my books. Ron Walotsky did my first covers, Peter Bollinger did Catch the Lightning, and Julie Bell does the covers now. I really like her work. The cover of my latest, The Quantum Rose, is gorgeous. It almost has a fantasy feel, except for the clothes on the woman. She looks like she shops at Lord and Taylor! <g>

TH: Moving into more specific discussion of your stories, let's talk about the Traders. The situation you've set up there, where they derive sexual pleasure from the suffering of others...that's kind of...sick.

CA: Yeah. In the early books, I didn't like writing the Traders much. They were just plain evil. In later books such as The Radiant Seas, and Ascendant Sun, I had the opportunity to introduce more complexity into the characters. As they age, they develop compassion and a conscience. Some have their brains surgically altered so the drive to brutality is gone. If the potential for both evil and redemption exists, the tension between the two creates a more nuanced situation. That's when they became more interesting to me as a writer.

TH: Have you gotten much flack for the nature of their evil -- the sexual aspect of it?

CA: Much less than I expected. It's ironic; objections came up when the hero in Catch the Lightning experienced violence with the Traders, but almost none when the heroine did. Is it because we're more used to seeing female characters in such situations? Sometimes reversing the roles makes us look at cultural assumptions that need to be reevaluated.

The Traders don't appear in The Last Hawk. So in that sense, it doesn't have really evil villains (though two characters get pretty nefarious). In that one I had expected comment over the role reversal. It's a matriarchal society where men are in harems and prohibited from many occupations. But it stirred almost no controversy. Although the protagonist in The Last Hawk has little control over what happens to him, his situation has both good and aspects. Heck, he becomes the most coveted male on the planet. It's a role reversal of the Helen of Troy story. That one received a Nebula nomination.

Speaking of reversals... the Ascendant Sun controversy started because the cover is a role reversal of the classic babe-in-bronze-bra from the old SF pulps, bare-chested hunk and all. Although that cover has evoked the word "romance," it isn't a romance image. Those usually show the man in charge. He may be bending over the woman or holding her, or he might be staring straight out of the cover. Or he and the woman might be looking at each other. In science fiction and fantasy covers with both men and women, the male character often controls the scene. In The Ascendant Sun cover, the woman is thoroughly in charge, and the sexy, scantily clad male looks disconcerted. So it caused a hullabaloo. It also outsold all my other books up to that point!

The Veiled Web caused controversy because it included an interracial, interfaith, intercultural marriage between a Catholic Latino ballerina from America and a Muslim computer genius from Morocco. It is a gentle relationship between two people who respect each other, yet that aspect of the book has received much more controversy than the Traders in my Skolia books. However, The Veiled Web has also won the most awards of my books, including the Homer, Prism, and National Readers' Choice Award, and it is currently on the Nebula Preliminary ballot.

TH: You've answered all my questions. What would you like to say to writers?

CA: Write, write, and write! Don't get bogged down in one story. Be willing to send your work to editors. Rejection hurts, but it is worth the effort. Also, be willing to listen to criticism (thoughtful criticism). A good critique is invaluable. The hard part is learning to separate the good stuff from the chaff. A critique should never involve comments about the writer, for example, only about the writing.

Most importantly, believe in yourself and in your writing. Don't give up. The passion that a person has for their story comes through to the reader, and that is what makes the tales we create special.


The Saga of the Skolian Empire

Primary Inversion (1996)

The Radiant Seas (1999)

The Last Hawk (1997)

Ascendant Sun (2000)

Catch the Lightning (1997)

The Quantum Rose (2000)


Near future science fiction suspense:

The Veiled Web (1999)

The Phoenix Code (2000)



  • Posted by Admin
  • August 15, 2012 5:12 PM PDT
Catherine Asaro Interview by Terry Hickman, from The Market List archive




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