|Line drawing of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head |
and its helper, the Worker Twa'sei
At the end of my interview of A Walker Scott, I mentioned that he was going to interview me in turn, but since he doesn't have a blog or a website, I would post the interview on my Ki'shto'ba blog. So ... here it is!
To read my interview of A Walker Scott, go here
You make no secret of your age or your gender, and the science fiction community of today is very inclusive, has many examples of well-respected female authors, and a lot of older authors. But most fans I have known became interested in this genre as a teenager. When you were a teen, science fiction was NOT a high-profile genre, it was almost exclusively a young male fan-base and almost all male authors. When and how did you become interested in science fiction? When did you decide to write in this genre?
I always say that I got into science fiction through the backdoor of fantasy. As a teenager, way back in the 1950s, I never read any SF. I remember reading part of one book when I was 13, and I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on! In my teens I didn’t even read fantasy; the era was pretty much pre-Tolkien. I read lots of historical fiction – every Alexandre Dumas novel he ever wrote – Samuel Shellenbarger (The Prince of Foxes) – and I also read a lot of Shakespeare and loved most of the literature we read in school. And I mustn’t leave out my very favorite, The Prisoner of Zenda. It may be illustrative to point out that what fascinated me about that book was the fact it was laid in an imaginary country. (And I refuse to engage in a semantic discussion of what the word “imaginary” means – you’ll know what I’m referring to, Walker!) After that, I started making up my own imaginary countries and worlds, and dabbling a little in their languages.
Then I grew up and went to college and got serious. I really believed that adults didn’t do things like that and this delusion persisted until I read Tolkien at the age of 29. It was a revelation! Here was this brilliant scholar who created his own worlds and languages not just as a child but for his entire life! I immediately wanted to do that, too, so I started writing a version of high fantasy. The setting was really another world or planet. This milieu shared the characteristics of Earth, although it had no connection with our planet and was not particularly well defined. This always bothered me – can I talk about oak or willow trees or the moon when this isn’t really our Earth?
I also started reading fantasy, and I read it for years. At that time Ballantine Books had begun republishing a lot of classical fantasy authors, including Evangeline Walton. Anybody who has read The Termite Queen will recognize the influence she had on me. I also read writers like Patricia McKillip (The Riddle Master is my favorite thing), Miriam Zimmer Bradley, Terry Brooks, Fritz Leiber (LOVE Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser), Michael Moorcock, Ann McCaffery, Roger Zelazny, Katherine Kurtz, Andre Norton, Stephen R. Donaldson, and on and on.
But I also read Ursula K. LeGuin, C.S. Lewis, Ray Bradbury, Charles Williams, and other authors who bridge the gap between fantasy and science fiction, and who have a more literary style. I have an academic background in literature, and I’m just beginning to understand what a large influence literary fiction has had on me.
This means that I’ve never read much of the stock SF writers of earlier times – people like Robert Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. Most of those earlier standard authors leave me cold – flat characters and too much emphasis on technology (although I recall liking Asimov’s Foundation Series).
In later years I was influenced by a lot of TV science fiction: Star Trek, particularly The Next Generation; Babylon 5; Farscape; StarGate: SG1; etc. (I didn’t care much for Battlestar Galactica– too gloomy! I like a good injection of humor in my scifi!
I wrote until 1983, making some unsuccessful attempts to publish. Then family problems forced me to stop writing. When I started again in the year 2000, things took a different turn.
I first met you sometime back, when you first joined the CONLANG-L mailing list and started posting about your alien languages which you use in your novels. I found your posts interesting enough that I decided to give your stories a try, even though I harbor some fairly strong prejudices against self-published work. Your stories are causing me to rethink some of my opinions, but what made you choose this route for your work?
Yes, it’s not a good idea to condemn all self-published works just because a lot of them aren’t well done or are published prematurely.
When I started writing again in 2000, I had a lot of pent-up creativity and the stories just poured out without my making any attempt to publish anything. Then I got bogged down in The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, until I realized that I was probably never going to able to finish it. I also turned 70 and it hit me that if I didn’t want my books to die with me, I’d better get cracking. So I whipped The Termite Queen into shape and started querying agents. After a few months I realized I would definitely be dead before that search bore any fruit. Self-publishing was just getting big and so I started looking into it. I decided I had nothing to lose by going that route, since Amazon and other sites like Smashwords make it so easy. It also helped that I was retired, had an income, and didn’t have to worry about making money from my writing. By this point, I’m not at all sure I would want to tie myself to a bottom-line publisher who prevents you from doing what you want to do, doesn’t really do much promotion anyway, and hedges your royalties around with all kinds of rules. It helps that I’m fully qualified to edit my own books, or anybody else’s for that matter.
You have mentioned that you are a retired librarian. How does you former career influence your writing?
I think my academic background (a Master’s in English and some additional work toward a PhD) plus my second Masters in Library Science left me with some understanding of how to do research. However, when I returned to writing in 2000, I discovered what a great research tool the internet is. I have to confess that while I have the greatest respect for libraries and librarians, I never use libraries these days. For one thing, I have a lot of arthritis and I no longer drive, so I have no transportation and I can’t lug books around the way I did most of my life. I was a catalog librarian so I was responsible for subject-indexing the library’s holdings, but I have to say, one or two subject headings per book can’t hold a candle to a good search engine on the internet! I’m a traitor, alas!
I know some people have seemingly been turned off by the idea that these stories are about giant bugs. Obviously the biology of termites does play a role in these stories. The fact that termites, like ants and bees, are social insects plays a part in how you can construct the cultures of the Shshi, and their biology determines some things they can or can't do. But you really do create individual characters, people who just happen to be termites. Why did you choose to use termites rather than some other social insect as the basis for your alien culture?
Back in the 1970s, when I was reading all that SF/fantasy, I saw the documentary “Mysterious Castles of Clay,” about the castle-building, fungus-growing African termite. I was blown away! And I thought what a great foundation these insects would make for creating a species of intelligent extraterrestrial lifeforms. You could extrapolate from termite behavior to intelligent behavior and really come up with an interesting culture. At that time I had the germ of the idea utilized in The Termite Queen – a off-world expedition brings back a specimen of giant termite and a female linguistic anthropologist thinks she can detect intelligence. She proceeds to decode the creature’s language even though it is blind and deaf.
I retained that idea over the years and when I started to write again, I decided it was time to put it into words. I also wanted to write positively about giant insects – I was tired of seeing them portrayed as clichéd, evil, apocalyptic monsters. I know some people will be turned off by the idea of anything insectile, but they shouldn’t be any more than they should be turned off by a slimy cephalopod like an Alelliawulian. If we ever do make first contact, the ETs aren’t likely to be humanoids.
As for other social insects, of course it would be possible to do something based on them, but a lot of ant species are carnivorous and very warlike. And while the lifestyle of bees may be even more complex than termites’, a quintessential attribute is their ability to fly, and really big insects would be too heavy to fly. Termites are fungivores or eat cellulose, and they are basically peaceful, even though they have powerful soldiers who can fight in defense of the colony (against ants usually). One last quality that appealed to me: termites are just about the only insect that is (usually) monogamous and where the Queen and King mate for life!
The idea of giant termites and retelling the Trojan War or the Twelve Labors of Hercules isn't the sort of thing just anyone thinks of. How did you come up with the idea of retelling Greek myths in a Shshi context?
Blame it on Xena: Warrior Princess and Hercules: The Legendary Journeys! I purposely didn’t mention them with the other TV influences because I knew this question was coming! Those series do exactly the same thing – take myths, twist them around, and adapt them to what is essentially a created world. In Xena, Julius Caesar is contemporaneous with the Trojan War, for goodness sake! – and yet it’s quite easy to suspend disbelief. When I was writing the end of The Termite Queen, it hit me that I had a ready-made, bona fide heroic Champion in Ki’shto’ba and I had a ready-made bard in Di’fa’kro’mi. Why not send them out on a quest across the land – a wandering Champion-knight and its bard companion – and then let them have picaresque adventures along the way? And the oversized Ki’shto’ba seemed perfect to be Hercules or a variant of him. So I added a bit of dialogue to the end of TQ to set up that premise.
Have you published or written any works not set in the universe where your termites live?
All my early high-fantasy material is laid other-where, and there are a couple of pieces that might be publishable, particularly one that forms a prequel to what I started out with. Then I switched gears and wrote about a blue world with sorcerers and spirit beings as well as blue humans (this predated Avatar by a lot of years). I did publish one little piece from this – “The Blessing of Krozem,” a novelette available only on Smashwords (it’s FREE!) If I ever get a scanner, which may happen when I have to get a new computer, I’ll scan in some more of that early stuff and see if I can do anything with it.
I’ve written other books not laid on the termite planet. The first thing I wrote in 2000 was the novella “Monster Is in the Eye of the Beholder,” which I don’t believe you’ve read, Walker. Kaitrin Oliva is a character in that one, about thirty years into the future. After I invented her for “Monster,” I thought she was the perfect person for the linguistic anthropologist who deciphers the termite language.
Then I wrote the impossibly long story, The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars, a biography of the starship Captain who makes the first contact with the Krisí’i’aidá (the Bird people). It’s laid in the 28th century, over 200 years before the time of The Termite Queen. And I have a number of other books in my head that I want to write. A must-write is a 7th volume of The Labors of Ki’shto’ba Huge-Head (or rather a sequel to the series). When you reach v.6, you’ll see why.
I know you said you were taking a brief break before releasing the next volume of the Ki'shto'ba series. When do you expect to release the final volume?
I’m working on both final volumes and have pretty much completed everything for v.5 except formatting for publication. I’m still editing v.6 and have done the front cover, but I still have to do maps and the back cover. I really hope I’m able to get both published by the end of the year and then start writing the sequel.
You mentioned that you wanted to contact other conlangers because you had constructed languages for some of your extraterrestrials, but what made you want to invent languages for your aliens and how did you hit upon the idea since your conlanging predates your contact with the conlanging community?
I’ve always been interested in language. My mother was a Romance language major in college and she taught Spanish (and English – in small high schools, a foreign language teacher has to teach something else). Before I even reached kindergarten age, I can remember being fascinated when my mother would spout in Italian the inscription over the Gate of Hell from Dante’s Inferno, as well as the “Prologue” to the Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Later, when I got so deeply into Dumas, my mother taught me how to pronounce the French. In college, I took three and a half years of French and two years of German, and I was able to pass my graduate language exams right off when I went to Cornell for my Master’s.
Now, to me it only makes sense that if you write about extraterrestrials, they aren’t going to speak English. A first contact will require much more effort than to simply fall back on a Universal Translator gizmo. The Termite Queen is based on the premise that somebody has to figure out how the termites speak, and so I wrote their language – what else could I do? Of course, I had the example of Tolkien – I thought his constructed languages were wonderful – and then there was Klingon. Those were the only precedents I had, though. I did have a little contact with another author who writes conlangs, but that person was not at all encouraging, and so the contact fell through. But learned from that person that the world was full of conlangers! I never dreamed so many other people were fabricating languages, and pretty much just for the fun of it.
After I started self-publishing and joined Twitter, one of my early contacts was with Christophe Grandsire Koevets and I believe it was through him that I discovered the Language Creation Society. I was trying to identify people who might be interested in what I wrote and other conlangers seemed like a good bet.
I have read several of your volumes now, (both volumes of The Termite Queen, and I'm working my way through six volumes of The Labors of Ki'shto'ba Huge-Head) and so far I have come across bits of the Shshi language used by the Shum'za and the Da'no'no Shi and some few words of the Nasute languages—all from your termite peoples – and short bits of !Ka<tá – spoken by some of your bird peoples, and Glin Quornaz—the language of your lemur people. How many languages do you have, in at least sketch form? Do you have any that don't relate to thisuniverse?
Only two of those languages are quite fully developed – Shshi as spoken by the plains peoples and !Ka<tá (I needed more of that for The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars than I did for TQ). I have material on Northern Nasute (as spoken by Sa’ti’a’i’a’s people), and then there are the Southern Nasute languages and the Y/G (Yo’sho’zei/Gwai’sho’zei) spoken by the Tramontanes – the peoples who live on the coast. Ju’mu is a Tramontane, one of the Yo’sho’zei (Ancient Ones, equivalent to the Centaurs), and its language is considered the oldest form of Shshi. I even have some comparative tables with roots.
I did a much more thorough job on !Ka<tá than on the Shshi languages because I thought it through better instead of simply improvising. I’ve also done some work on the other two basic languages of Krisí’i’aid (the Bird planet) – Towewa (spoken by the Wéwana, the Stork people) and Gro’at (spoken by the Gro’á’ata, the Grouse people). I also needed those languages for MWFB.
I attempted to model the lemuriform language, Glin Quornaz, on Latin to a degree, i.e., there are four declensions and five cases of nouns, three orders of infinitives, and no set word order. I’ve never worked out all that in detail – I’ve only done what I would need to write a particular sentence. As an example, Mae! zokam laziqua rival shima expresses good wishes, can be translated as “May fate sing sweet music to you,” and means literally “To you fate sing music sweet.” Lazoim is “to sing”; lazoiis “I sing”; and laziqua is present subjunctive
I’ve done even less work on Poz-até, the language of the monotreme people (the Pozú). I tried to give it more agglutinative characteristics, although it also has inflections. For example, the blessing phrase Trant-intusórama means “Trant (the Great Goddess) love you.” Intu is the infinitive for to love, sora is added to make the 3rd person present subjunctive and ma is objective singular of the second person pronoun. I also utilized elisions, e.g., yi-inta (I love) becomes yinta.
In my early writing days, I did a little work on a language called Demran for my first world, and then for my blue world (in “The Blessing of Krozem” and related stories), I got into the language of the Kairam, but it was more a naming language. I never constructed any grammar beyond a couple of verb tenses, but I did fill up a file box with vocabulary cards.
Your languages exhibit some really interesting, very non-English, features. Where do you get your inspiration for your languages?
You really think the features are non-English? One person in the Yahoo Conculture group told me my languages were based too much on English! Since my non-English language knowledge consists mostly of the Romance languages with a shorter foray into Germanic and some familiarity with Slavic when I was cataloging books, I tend to use elements from what I know of those languages. But I also try with each language to introduce non-English (or non-standard) elements. For example, in Shshi I worked out a peculiar word order and a system of linkages (the infamous WingDings), which I’ve always been doubtful about. Would a people as intellectually unsophisticated as the illiterate Shshi really have an instinctive grammatical sense powerful enough that they would distinguish predicate adjectives from the objects of verbs? I don’t think I really thought it through sufficiently, but only you linguistic experts would pay close enough attention to quibble.
With the Birds’ more advanced culture, I figured I could do pretty much what I wanted grammatically. The interest here is in the musical and tonal elements that fit very well with avian vocal apparatus. I made it an inflectional language, SVO, adjective following the noun, three types of articles – and everything has number, including the articles (all plurals are formed by prefixing a warble [♫] and possessives and adjectives are made using a trill [♪] so you get all these fun musical notes scattered through!) The language can’t really be articulated with the human throat.
I do have a blog that deals only with my languages. I haven’t added anything to it for maybe a year and a half and some of the posts are not finished, but still there is a lot of information in there. http://remembrancer.conlang.org