Ideas for stories come from everywhere. That’s what any good sci fi writer will tell you — and Charlie Jane Anders is no different. Author of the 2016 genre mashup, All the Birds in the Sky, Anders also served as a writer and editor for many years at the sci fi/fantasy site, io9. We spoke to her recently about writing, science fiction, All the Birds in the Sky, and her upcoming projects. Here’s part 1 of our interview. (Find part 2 here.)
RECURSOR: What inspires you as a sci fi writer (other fiction, real life situations, current events, something else)?
ANDERS: I’ve always been interested in writing. I got interested in writing initially because when I was little kid, I had a learning disability that made it hard for me to do writing and math. I worked through that by writing a lot and making up stories.
I think that stories are an interesting way to look at the world, to step back from the world around us and imagine different perspectives. Stories are a powerful way to process reality.
We know it’s a cliché but… Where do your ideas come from?
They come from all over the place. I think, “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” And then I noodle on the idea for a while. The challenge is to make it into something I can personally connect to and find a story in.
I also think about my own life and things in the world that are concerning me and try to find the fictional version of them. Some of my most successful stories have come from taking a personal situation or emotion, and taking it to a new place.
Your novel, All the Birds in the Sky, is so lyrical and beautifully told, with intriguing and deeply drawn characters. What inspired this particular story?
Writing about growing up and becoming a fully formed person is what made this an interesting book to me. It is about a mad scientist and a witch, and their relationship. I thought the meeting of these two genres (fantasy and sci fi) and the fun ideas that came with it — the magic and the mad science — all that stuff is super interesting and adds a layer of fun stuff.
The challenge was to add emotion, to find the emotional story. This is a story of a relationship. It opened up a lot of emotional territory by making it about a friendship and the complicated territory between these two characters.
The story covers a lot of ground. Did you ever think about breaking it up into more than one novel?
I did think at one point of telling it as two different books and splitting it up that way. But I like having it in all one book and showing how things that happen in childhood affected these characters as adults, and the baggage that comes with them. I was taking the coming of age story and showing what happens after you come of age. You never stop coming of age; you never figure everything out. You have to keep understanding the same lessons. A lot of my favorite books — Dickens, Harry Potter, Doris Lessing — share that element of growing up.
All the Birds in the Sky has been called cross-genre for blending elements of sci fi, fantasy, young adult, and mainstream. Was this your intent? How do you think about genre?
Originally, I thought of this book as a fun mashup with all the genre elements I could come up with — aliens, magical creatures, spell books , spaceships everything. But it got a little boring because all the elements didn’t have a chance to breathe. I realized that what makes those elements powerful is the world they exist in, and the background that makes them possible. So, I dialed things back and just kept what I needed to make the story stronger. I tried to balance the genre elements with the emotionally grounded stuff so you could imagine living in this world. That was what I was aiming for. I was interested in creating a real, grounded world that people would want to visit.
Were you making some parallels to the real world? It seemed like some of the story could be about tech companies, for example.
Laurence and his lab partners — that was definitely explicitly like a tech company. Originally I thought, what if they have a lair, and things are bubbling everywhere? Then I thought, no, if you had a mad scientist in 2016-17, they would be working in a loft and have investors and have young people in hipster clothes doing welding.
I wanted the witches to reflect bohemian San Francisco. The witches have strong principles they believe in, like balance with nature and using their powers responsibly I wanted them to feel real and feel like they had social cohesion, and I put a lot of time into the history of the witches —such as their schism in the past and [how they] had tried to repair that.