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Kameron Hurley Interview

Kameron HurleyI conducted this interview before the Hugo Awards ceremony. Back then, Kameron Hurley was “merely” a Hugo-nominated author. Now, she is a multiple-Hugo winning author! So congratulations are definitely in order as well as a big thank you for making time during the hectic publication period. In this interview, we talk about her upcoming book The Mirror Empire, her active rebellion against a lot of fantasy tropes, and the response to her Hugo-winning essay.

I suppose the best place to start is what is your elevator pitch for The Mirror Empire?

The Mirror Empire takes you to a world where magic is ruled by ascendant stars: those whose stars have risen wield great power, and those with stars in decline find themselves engaged in humbler politics. We step into this world on the eve of the rise of Oma, a star which only appears once every 2,000 years, and brings with it major shifts in power. Invaders fall from the sky, assassins take down great leaders, and the genocide of a people begins. Amid this devastation Lilia, daughter to a slain blood witch, begins a personal quest to find the mother who abandoned her, only to discover the people hers are fighting are darker versions of themselves. Plus: living swords, semi-sentient flesh-eating plants, and blood magic. What’s not to love?

I saw on Twitter that you said (Sales/Marketing Manager at Angry Robot Books) Michael Underwood called it “the Ancillary Justice of epic fantasy,” which I thought was very clever. Could you explain that a bit–did you draw comparisons because of the complexity, the role of gender, both, more?

The Mirror Empire (cover)For many people, Ancillary Justice challenged some of the social and gender assumptions inherent of what we think of as SF while delivering a solid space opera adventure of the sort people have always loved. In many ways, The Mirror Empire (I hope!) does the epic fantasy version of this—it’s all the stuff you love about epic fantasy, without all the lazy gender and social structures. It rebuilds the world and its people from the ground up.

I do think one of its greatest strengths is in its deep worldbuilding and character-driven plots that follow folks from wildly different societies. And they aren’t societies that are just the same feudal medieval stuff you’re used to, with folks maybe wearing some different hats. I worked hard to totally re-imagine them, so you’ve got a pacifist, consent-based culture of vegetarian cannibals; a brutal, slave-owning matriarchy; and a feuding, empire-building patriarchy with three genders. And that’s just the ones in the first book.

You recently posted on your blog about your love of mapmaking, and how you’ve been working in the world of The Mirror Empire since you were young. Is that where your worldbuilding typically begins—with a map? Or was this the world/story you just couldn’t shake?

My science fiction noir books, the God’s War trilogy, started with a character more than a map. I then worked backward, trying to figure out what sort of world would produce that type of person. The Mirror Empire actually started with the central conceit of the book: what if the big evil we were fighting wasn’t some stand-in for the scary Other—the hordes of orcs, the unknowable aliens—but were literally versions of ourselves? How does that challenge or re-imagine the typical epic fantasy story, when “the bad guys” are just different versions of us, who got the short end of the stick? Does it change the morality of the story? Our compassion as readers?

Though I’ve had the general geography of this world down for a long time, the details changed dramatically as I got older and more well-read. I burned down several versions of this book and pretty much just re-wrote it from scratch. When it comes to worldbuilding, I have a very high bar, and point to authors like KJ Bishop, Jeff VanderMeer, Angela Carter, and China Mieville as the templates by which others are measured. I love the New Weird tradition of creepy worldbuilding that really takes you somewhere different.

I wanted to talk a bit more about your worldbuilding actually, because I loved this world. It was so different (in a good way) from a lot of the fantasy novels out there: the biological construction/sentient plant life, the magic system, the mix of cultures, the mirroring of history and cultures.

One of those “rules” I hear every now and then is that a story should have an average person in a strange world (Alice in Wonderland) or a strange person in a normal world (typical comic book superhero), but a strange person in a strange world is too much. I thought your book was a great example of how to break that rule.

Was there ever a concern about putting too much complexity into the novel? Or was it more of a “go big or go home” mindset?

God's War (cover)I’m all about going big or going home. If I’m going to write a book just like everyone else’s, why bother? Everyone else is here to write those.

I once had someone say they found my first series really arrogant, like as an author, I was trying to be needlessly complicated and difficult. But I think what I write actually shows a huge amount of trust in and respect for my readers. I trust that readers are willing to come along for the ride because they, too, are interested in exploring a totally new and different place. One of the drawbacks to much of what we consider mainstream “fantasy” these days is that they’re all so much the same they’ve come to limit our imaginations as to what is possible from the genre. And while there is always work at the edges of things willing to push the envelope, I think there are readers who are hungry for a 200-level type of epic fantasy after reading the same 100-level fantasy books over and over again. Why not level up to blood magic, consent cultures, and sentient plants?

I tend to write what I want to read, stuff I feel is missing in the broader market, and that’s what The Mirror Empire was for me. It was the great gateway for folks who like all the trappings of epic fantasy—misfit young people thrust into positions of power too soon, massive world-destroying threats, hordes of invaders with genocidal intentions, and all that—without all the boring, borderline insulting stuff, like the endless sexual abuse of women characters, the same four square-jawed male characters with the same four commitment issues, and lazy worldbuilding like something sketched in from someone’s memory of a generic medieval European history class as taught from a Wikipedia entry. There’s a place for all that, of course, but after you’ve read a few of them, most folks are ready for something…that’s a little more challenging.

So that’s what I tried to do with The Mirror Empire—deliver that level-up fantasy saga that takes you to some place you’ve never imagined before, while delivering a totally fantastically epic story. Whether or not I achieved it is for readers to decide.

And I remember seeing pictures of Lauren Beukes’s murder wall from when she was writing The Shining Girls. Did you use something similar to keep track of your world?

Infidel (cover)I didn’t! But I regret not doing it—at least to keep track of plot threads—and it’s something I’m considering as I push past the halfway point on the sequel, Empire Ascendant. What I often did was pull out all the chapters for one character’s POV and read them in order, then intercut them with the others according to the timeline. That got messy in the rewriting process, and I’m looking for a more elegant solution. Folks often recommend Scrivener to me, but I just haven’t been able to make it work with my own personal writing habits.

I also have a very detailed wiki for the series, which my assistant maintained. She had the onerous task of going through very, very early versions of the book and putting in entries for everything from people to plants so I could go back and reference them later. The wiki was a great help at the copyediting stage, and even more crucial for the second book. As I learned with my last trilogy, if you don’t start a wiki early on, you’re asking for trouble by book three.

Gender, consent, and family structure play important roles in this book, and you offer multiple takes on these topics. These topics have also been coming up a lot again within the genre community. Given how long you’ve been working in this world, my guess is that this is largely coincidental, but could you talk for a bit about how you wanted to explore these elements of the story and why it was important to you to do so?

I’ve been asking for more stories that re-imagine the ways we organize our social structures for at least ten years, since I started going to Wiscon. When we’re building new worlds, we often get caught up in the aesthetics — the rivers, the roads, the names of the countries, maybe some animal and plant life. But I wanted books that did more than just say “Dragons or no dragons?”

I read a lot of feminist science fiction and fantasy, which is great at doing this, but doesn’t always include the things about the genre I really liked. Hence my squee when Ancillary Justice came out and gave me some new social stuff to chew on while delivering spaceships and explosions. This is one reason I like Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler and Nicola Griffith, because they give me great social ideas to chew on while still satisfying my craving for adventurous stories.

I think it’s important that imaginative fiction is actually imaginative. Here we are with this incredible sandbox to play in, but the work that does the most playing ends up being the stuff at the margins. I wanted to write an epic fantasy that was both accessible—because of the traditional sort of young-people-who-come-into-power-against-horde tropes—while still being challenging insofar as it plays with reader expectations about how fantastic societies must be structured when you’re telling an epic.

I also wanted to talk a bit about “We Have Always Fought”. First off, congratulations on the Hugo nomination! Second, you blogged a bit about the reaction when the post first came out, the second round of reactions when the nominations came out, and the probably lack of reaction had you written it when you started blogging ten years ago.

Did the second round of reactions (post-nomination) evolve from the original reactions? Or was it more of the same?

Rapture (cover)Honestly, the reactions all around to “We Have Always Fought”—pre and post Hugo nomination—have been overwhelmingly positive. I’ve been writing stuff on the internet for ten years, and I got far more backlash in challenging the accepted “wisdom” of the status quo back then than I do now. I think people are really hungry for change right now; we know there’s a world we were all told was default, and that it’s not true, and there’s no better time to challenge the status quo than in times when it’s very clear that the status quo is profoundly broken.

Times of economic prosperity tend to see a digging in, but I think now that we’ve had ten years of war and a continually sluggish economy, there’s a bit of a ruckus now in the same way there was during the 60’s and 70’s, the first whiff of a possible push against the backlash that happened after those more radical days. Whether or not the genre itself transforms now the way it did then has yet to be seen, but I think we’re on the edge of…the possibility of what could be a really exciting time in SFF right now.

You’ve been writing fiction and blogging for a while now. Whether it takes ten years or 10,000 hours to reach a certain level of ability, what was your approach as far as improving in both forms? Did writing in one form influence the other? Did you have specific goals in mind or was it a refusal to give up? Both?

What improves my novel writing is writing more novels. I learned an incredible amount about plot and structure while writing my God’s War trilogy, and I think that really comes through as that series progresses and again in The Mirror Empire, which has so many plot arcs and characters that I just didn’t have the skill to write it the first dozen times I tried. It’s also helpful to read other great books, particularly those you find well plotted. I actually sat down with Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold and mapped out the plot chapter by chapter to help me get a grasp on building structure. I’ve also spent far too long with The Eye of the World, especially the prologue, working out how Jordan pulls it off right.

Blog posts are the same way. Writing novels teaches you nothing about writing blog posts, just as writing blog posts teaches you nothing around writing novels. A lot of fans and publishers think that because a writer knows how to write a book, they can write a compelling blog post. But they’re very different forms, and I think in the last ten years of blogging, I’ve been figuring that form out.

What helped me most with structuring blog posts was actually the work at my day job, which is in marketing and advertising. I have to write marketing emails, direct mailers, web copy, and all sorts of other things, and the way I learned how to write all those different types of copy was to study, study, study what other people were doing and then write, write, write my own examples. After writing over 800 marketing emails, I think I’ve got the form down pretty well.

I think the shift happened in my blogging in the last two or three years, where I figured out the posts people really engaged with were the ones structured like a sandwich. You open with a compelling story, a situation, a theme, and you run that line all the way through, then tie everything back up to the central story in the opening. They aren’t all like that, because too much of a good thing sours quickly, but that’s the general mode of attack I have going in.

You learn in public speaking and marketing that people are far more likely to remember a fact if you tell it as part of a story than if you just read a bulleted list. This is why religious texts are basically collections of stories. We’re more likely to remember stories five, ten, fifty years from now than a logical essay with graphs and facts. Much of the success of something like “We Have Always Fought” wasn’t the message. There are a billion essays out there that will demonstrate that women-identified people have fought in every conflict. But there aren’t any others that tell you this within the frame of a story about llamas.

And finally, what can readers expect next in the Worldbreaker Saga?

The Mirror Empire (detail)The Worldbreaker Saga is a solid (firm!) three books, the second of which, Empire Ascendant, should be out in the fall next year. So if you finish The Mirror Empire and worry about a five-year wait for the sequel, have no fear! There’s more.

Anything else you’d like to plug? Will you be attending any upcoming cons (upcoming as in post-publication)?

I’m done with conventions after GenCon, and will be spending the post-Mirror Empire release months typing away at finishing the sequel and hiding from public appearances, as I expect August and September to be mad times! Very much looking forward to seeing how readers respond to The Mirror Empire. It’s been a long road.

We would like to thank Ms. Hurley for taking the time to talk with us, and again offer our congratulations on her Hugo wins! You can learn more about her newly released novel, The Mirror Empire, on her website or follow her on Twitter.



  1. Avatar Justin Brown says:

    Excellent interview. I’ve not read anything by Kameron before, but The Mirror Empire is now on my Kindle.

    I’ve been looking for something that stretches the boundaries and this sounds ideal.

  2. Avatar Shack says:

    Her God’s War books are amazing and highly recommended. Amazing stuff

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