A Conversation with Jane Fletcher and Nora Olsen

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Congratulations to Vera! She is the winner of Swans & Klons. Good luck to everyone else in the next drawing.

Check it out! Nora Olsen and Jane Flecher stopped by to share part three of their conversation on speculative fiction. And, as an extra bonus, Nora is giving away a copy of Swans & Klons! Winner’s choice between a signed paperback or ebook! Want to enter? Leave a comment in the box and I’ll post the winner on Friday, 5/24/13.

Jane Fletcher and Nora Olsen began their conversation at the Bold Strokes Books Authors Blog on May 14 and continued it at UK Lesbian Fiction. Here is the final installment!

Jane Fletcher: Can you remember what got you into the speculative fiction genre? Was it a book, a story, an particular author?

Nora Olsen: Honestly, I think a lot of classic (pre-1970s) children’s books could be classified as spec fic (the Narnia books, The Diamond in The Window by Jane Langton.) One children’s/fantasy book that had a huge impact on me was The Maze In The Heart of the Castle by Dorothy Gilman, which is an amazing adventure tale about a boy journeying through a mystical land that is hidden inside a haunted castle. Sadly, it’s now out of print. As a kid I also read a lot of William Sleator, Lloyd Alexander, Madeleine L’Engle, Susan Cooper, and Alexander Key, other children’s writers who are also spec fic. (I was a big book worm. Clearly.)

I remember thinking that time travel could only take place in England because most of the time travel stories I read were by British writers. I read them over and over—Charlotte Sometimes by Penelope Farmer (girl at boarding school travels back in time on alternate days), Mirror of Danger by Pamela Sykes (girl is brought back in time through a magic mirror by an evil ghost girl), and Another Fine Mess by Jan Needle (brother and sister travel to Shakespeare’s time in malfunctioning time machine.)

Jane Fletcher: Maybe the prevalence of time travel stories in the UK comes from being surrounded by more history. I know part of my desire to write about castles comes from a childhood spent clambering over every example of ancient masonry that didn’t have a barrier around it – and when I was a child, barriers were far less common. I can remember Stonehenge when my dad could just pull off the road and park on the grass around it, and we could jump all over the stones – with nobody else there!

The castles are mostly in ruins. I wanted to see them as they were. That’s why I’m rebuilding them in my books. Actually, my favourite author when I was young was not spec fic but historical fiction – Rosemary Sutcliff – which is the other way to fictionally repair castles.

Nora Olsen: Yeah, we don’t have a lot of old buildings over here, let alone castles. My girlfriend is Irish and she always chuckles whenever we visit a historical spot and the plaque is bragging about how terribly ancient the thing is—200 years old! She thinks that’s nothing.

Jane Fletcher: The Narnia books I also devoured as a child, marking the start of my sidestep from mythology into fantasy. Are you familiar with the quote from Terry Prattchet “There’s certainly prejudice in some quarters against fantasy, but this tends to be from people who think it’s all swords and dragons. It seems to be suggested that fantasy is some kind of fairy icing when, from a historical point of view, it is the whole cake.”

I love the big epic worlds, and playing games with might have beens, and could bes, and should bes. I love the way speculative fiction can make me think.

Nora Olsen: I like that Terry Prachett quotation. I never heard it before.

Probably the children’s/spec fic writer who made the biggest impression on me was John Christopher, also English. He died just last year. He wrote dozens of amazing books, and yet no one I talk to has ever heard of him. Everything about his writing is terrific except that he’s a bit misogynist. Doesn’t think very highly of girls. It was obvious to me even as a kid, and I remember thinking that I would like to write something just like his books, except where girls were the protagonists. I would say I blame him the most for making me love spec fic and making me want to write.

Jane Fletcher: You can chalk me up as someone who has not only heard of John Christopher but read him. Possibly he is better known over here. His Tripods trilogy was made into a TV series, although I confess that I did not watch it.

Nora Olsen: Yay! Truly, you are the first person I’ve met who’s read John Christopher (who is not a member of my family.)

Jane Fletcher: So what do you say to the lesbians who won’t read any spec-fic, because they don’t like Star Trek? Or the Xena fans who tell you they don’t like fantasy?

Nora Olsen: There’s no pleasing everyone! I’m sure I have some terrible nonsensical literary prejudices that I don’t even know about. What I would do for these picky lesbians is give them a spec fic novel with the cover torn off, so they wouldn’t know they were reading spec fic. They would get so sucked in that they would be on the last page before they realized what had happened. They literally don’t know what they’re missing.

Jane Fletcher: What draws me to the genre, both as a reader and writer, is the way spec fic can deal with complex issues without grinding the plot to a snail pace. I love when a book can make me think, or even change my opinion about something. But I don’t like being lectured, – nobody does – and especially not in an intense, humourless way.

The main reason I prefer the name speculative rather than science fiction, is that, for me, it’s all about asking “what if” rather than having anything to do with scientific advances. Spec fic can take a subject, strip it of all its usual baggage, stand it on its head and then ask the reader if they still feel the same way about it.

It’s about the author asking questions, rather than using the character’s as a mouthpiece to spout her views. The points can be made, not by pages of people talking in a totally unrealistic fashion, but by working the issues into the action. These more scope for excitement and humour and – something I noticed in Swans and Klons – some beautifully pointed irony.

Nora Olsen: For Swans & Klons, I really wanted something that, although it is action-oriented, would be funny and light-hearted. I wanted to shine a gentle satirical light on gender roles and the concept of a gender binary. Also people have found the whole idea of “Cretinous Males” extremely humorous, which I actually did not expect. (In this fictional world, males have died out because they began to be born with irreversible brain damage.)

I like the name speculative fiction, too, because so many novels are hard to categorize as science fiction or fantasy, but are, as you say, speculative. In speculative fiction, you can set up the world and the ethical dilemmas, and then let the characters bring out the complications in their actions. I’m really interested in seeing how I can try doing that with non-speculative fiction too: taking our ordinary world and make it seem like science fiction by showing how crazy it really is. My dream is to make the reader question everything. My favorite thing is when my characters actually don’t have the same viewpoint as I do, but I can allow the reader to see even more than the main character herself can see.

OK, so Jane, this is embarrassing, but I actually haven’t read any of your Lyremouth Chronicles series (YET!) Do you want to describe it a little bit so I’ll know what I have in store for me? (If only I could just read all day. . . !)

Jane Fletcher: There is never enough time to read everything I want to read.

The background to the Lyremouth series was me wanting to play around with gender roles, and also to have my stab at upending some common elements in fantasy.

The series starts on a group of islands where our sex-roles are completely reversed. This has been attempted many times before, but it always leaves me unconvinced. Although the women in these stories are the ones with the power, the men are still seen as a threat, and significant to the plot, and treated vindictive aggression by the women.

I wanted to try a complete reversal. So the men are irrelevant, and the women treat them with patronising kindness – or at least in their own minds, they think they do. So for example, when the brother of a neighbouring Queen is kidnapped, nobody views it as anything other than an insult to her. He is not the target – targeting a man would be the action of a coward, and pointless.

The action in my book then moves to the mainland where there are no sex-roles at all. However, here I wanted to play around with the political implications of magic.

I remember hearing on the radio, some years back, somebody talk about the relationship between King Arthur and Merlin as the conflict between privilege with talent. The only thing on Arthur’s side is that he’s the previous King’s son. Merlin is the brilliant bastard – and would undoubtedly make a better ruler than Arthur.

But the stories were devised to comfort the ruling elite with the idea that no ‘good’ commoner would challenge their God-given status. So the talented Merlin only uses his power to support the privileged Arthur.

From my knowledge of the world, I don’t think things would go like that. And it’s not a bad thing. Personally, Merlin would get my vote every time. Anyone with a hankering to be ruled by a monarchy has a limited knowledge of history. Or, as I’ve said on numerous panels – royalty is the romantic face of the most evil idea in the world, that some people are innately superior to others.

The themes of sex and power are though, mainly just background to the world building. I play games with the concepts, but in the main the stories are about right and wrong, and life-threatening adventure, with swords, spells, a romance, and one confusing dragon thrown in.

Nice talking to you!

Nora Olsen: Likewise! It was really fun.

fletcherJane’s BIO: Jane Fletcher is a GCLS award-winning writer and has also been short-listed for the Gaylactic Spectrum and Lambda Literary awards. She is author of two ongoing sets of fantasy/romance novels: the Celaeno series and the Lyremouth Chronicles. As a child, her resolute ambition was to become an archaeologist when she grew up, so it was something of a surprise when she became a software engineer instead. Born in Greenwich, London, in 1956, she now lives in southwest England where she keeps herself busy writing both computer software and fiction, although generally not at the same time.

You can find Jane at on the Bold Strokes Books website, her own website, and on Facebook.

best professional nora picNora’s BIO: Nora Olsen was born in 1975 and raised in New York City. Although her mother, a prize-winning author, warned her not to become a writer, Nora didn’t listen. Swans & Klons is her second YA novel. Her short fiction has appeared in Collective Fallout and the anthology Heiresses of Russ 2011: The Year’s Best Lesbian Speculative Fiction. Nora lives in New York’s Hudson Valley with her girlfriend, writer Áine Ní Cheallaigh, and their two adorable cats.

You can find Nora on the Bold Strokes Books website, her own website, and her Facebook page.

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8 thoughts on “A Conversation with Jane Fletcher and Nora Olsen

  1. Excellent conversation. I’ve honestly never had an interest in reading speculative fiction before, but after reading this conversation realize I need to expand my interests. Thanks for the enlightenment!

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  2. Love the idea of letting people read books coverless, take away any prejudices and preconceptions the reader may have, but please don’t tear off the cover 😉

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  3. thanks for promoting spec fic,it’s very underappreciated
    now no covers,that would be great as seeing the covers of most books are terrible

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  4. Other classic books from the 1970s that could be considered speculative fiction are Freaky Friday and A Billion for Boris, by Mary Rodgers.

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  5. I had seen some listings for speculative fiction but didn’t really grasp the concept. I like the explanation above. Thanks for sharing. I’ve enjoyed the interviews!

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