Wednesday, December 02, 2009
An Interview with Shauna Roberts
Shauna Roberts’ first novel has just been published. It’s called Like Mayflies in a Stream and I reviewed it previously on my blog. Shauna has graciously agreed to be interviewed here on Razored Zen. So without further ado, here’s Shauna Roberts.
Shauna: Thank you for inviting me to visit your blog.
RZEN: Why historical fiction? What is it about history that fascinates you so much that you had to write about it?
Shauna: History appeals to me for the very same reasons that science fiction and fantasy do: the chance to immerse myself in a different world with different customs, different clothes, different rules; to get away from the mundane modern world. When I was little, my aunt (a writer) gave me a child’s history of the world, and I’ve been reading about history ever since.
RZEN: Why did you pick the particular historical period that you did to write about?
Shauna: I’ve been fascinated with ancient Mesopotamia in general and Sumer in particular since high school, when I read History Begins at Sumer by Samuel Noah Kramer. Until then, I had not realized how much of our modern culture dated back thousands of years. I also had never wondered how civilization first began. I started reading everything I could about ancient Mesopotamia and attended the University of Pennsylvania because it had a top Near Eastern Studies program.
I didn’t end up a Near Eastern archaeologist, as I had planned. But when the chance arose to write a novel for Hadley Rille Books’ new Archaeology Series, I didn’t have to think twice about a setting. In fact, I had been gathering background material for a fantasy novel set in a land much like Sumer, so I already had some research done.
RZEN: Historical fiction must require a lot of research to get right. Did you enjoy doing the research for Like Mayflies in a Stream? Do you think it would have been easier if you’d chosen a better-known historical period, such as the Renaissance?
Shauna: I loved doing the research for this book—so much so that I continued buying research books after I had finished Like Mayflies in a Stream.
A better-known time period would have been easier to write about in some ways and harder in others. Easier because, obviously, so much more is known. Another benefit would be that some popular time periods, such as Tudor England, have large, built-in audiences.
But a difficulty with well-known time periods is that the research burden is huge. If, for example, one decided to write a historical novel about someone who lived to be 80 years old and traveled often between England and France, one could spend months just researching the clothes and furniture. Learning the history that occurred, the manners of the period, and all the important personages who lived during those 80 years would be quite a job. If one gets even a minor detail wrong in a historical novel, the reading experience is spoiled for some readers.
With the era of Gilgamesh, we have too little information, not too much. My challenge in writing Like Mayflies in a Stream was to fill in data holes in an intelligent manner, based on my knowledge of other cultures at that level of technology and extrapolating from what is known about earlier and later periods of Mesopotamian history. Scholars may disagree with some of the choices I made, but their disagreement would be a matter of interpretation, not of fact.
RZEN: How did you feel when you held your first published novel in your hands?
Shauna: Relieved, mainly. Although Like Mayflies in a Stream, was my first published novel, it was my third published book. I jumped up and down for the first two books. With Mayflies, I just wore a big grin, happy to be a novelist at last.
RZEN: Every writer interview includes a question such as, what is your writing regimen like? So here it is.
Shauna: I try to be in my office Monday through Friday from 9ish to 6ish. Ideally, I work on nonfiction (I’m a medical writer and editor) Mondays and Tuesdays, fiction on Wednesdays and Fridays, and chores and leftover work on Thursdays. Ideally, I work evenings and weekends only when I fall behind.
In practice, dividing up tasks by day of the week often doesn’t work (editors’ schedules don’t always mesh with mine), and enough disruptions usually occur that working outside “work hours” is the rule, not the exception.
I write up a schedule for each month and for each week so that I can make sure everything that needs to get done gets penciled in somewhere.
I’m a big believer in BICHOK (butt in chair, hands on keyboard). No waiting for a muse to visit or inspiration to strike—I write when I’m scheduled to write.
RZEN: You’ve also written short stories. How do you feel about working on stories versus novels?
Shauna: I enjoy both, I find both rewarding (in different ways), and both feel natural to me.
Many people seem to gravitate to one or the other. At World Fantasy Con, I was talking to Ted Chiang, and he told me his preferred working length was 10,000 to 20,000 words because the stories he wants to tell almost always take that many words to tell them.
In contrast, I get tiny story ideas, medium story ideas, big story ideas, and huge story ideas. Some day I may discover my forte or settle into a particular length, but it hasn’t happened yet.
RZEN: Before you started publishing fiction, you wrote and published a lot of nonfiction, mostly medical and science articles. How do writing fiction and nonfiction differ? Do you find one easier than the other?
Shauna: I find them very different and could write a whole blog post on that topic. (In fact, I think I may have.) So I’ll just mention a few things I like about each.
Nonfiction is easier to write than fiction. Nonfiction pays much better (unless one is a bestselling novelist). The type of nonfiction I usually write—news about new medical research for patients and doctors—is spiritually satisfying because people benefit. They may feel better or live longer or keep a foot that otherwise would been amputated. And what a rush to know that most of my articles have been read by hundreds of thousands of people.
Fiction is more fun to write than nonfiction. I don’t have to suppress my natural voice in favor of the magazine’s house voice. I don’t have to write in simple, declarative sentences at the eighth-grade reading level. I can experiment with style, with voice, with different lengths, types, and genres of stories. I can be bawdy or snarky or politically incorrect. Watching the plot unfold on the screen—when it does—is exhilarating.
RZEN: What are you planning to work on next? Any other historical periods that you might be exploring?
Shauna: Task 1: Revise the short stories I wrote at Clarion this summer and submit them to magazines. Task 2: Write one to three more short stories that I have ideas for while also working up an idea for a novel. Task 3: Start said novel.
If I write another historical novel, it might also be set in Mesopotamia, possibly in the time of Sargon the Great. I’d also be interested in writing about one of the African kingdoms or the Pueblo Indians of the American Southwest. The “hobbits” (Homo floresiensis) of Indonesia would be fascinating to explore, but I’m waiting for more research to be published.
For the novel I want to start soon, I may pursue my old idea of a fantasy set in an alternative Sumer.
RZEN: Where can people get your work?
Shauna: Like Mayflies in a Stream can be ordered from any bookstore and can be purchased online at Amazon.com (hardcover and trade paperback) and Barnes & Noble (hardcover and trade paperback).
RZEN: The Links are below:
Shauna: People can find a list of my published short stories here. My two nonfiction books are out of print.
My nonfiction articles have appeared in Diabetes Forecast, The Diabetes Advisor, Diabetes Care, Diabetes Self-Management, The Journal of NIH Research, Science, The FASEB Journal, Analytical Chemistry, Modern Drug Discovery, Veterans Health System Journal, Ocular Surgery News, Oncology News International, Caring Today, Zaghareet!, and The Bark, among other hardcopy and online publications. If someone has patience, Googling “by Shauna S. Roberts” will pull up over a thousand links to tables of contents, citations, and occasional full-text articles).
RZEN: Thanks so much, Shauna, for appearing on my blog. Good luck with your writing.
Shauna: Thank you again, Charles, for having me. I’ve always enjoyed reading “Razored Zen” and have learned a lot from it. I’m glad I can make a small contribution in return.