Wow, right to the eternal questions! I’m a writer and a lapsed social scientist. I’ve worked on chocolate statistics, cancer biology, the science of rumor, and the social neuroscience of racial bias in police shootings.
I’ve written more than a dozen short stories, a lot of the fiction and lore for Bungie Studios’ smash hit Destiny, and an embarrassing amount of fanfiction about Lego bricks.
I grew up in the Vermont hills, where we had an icy six-stage sledding track worthy of legends. Two brave children would race down first in a big sled, and then everyone else pursued them in one-person sleds and tried to tear them from their mount.
I liked to draw targeting crosshairs on my goggles so I could pretend to be a cyborg.
Your debut novel, The Traitor, will be published in September by Tor Books. How would you introduce the novel to a new reader, and is it part of a planned series?
When Baru’s home and family are torn apart by the clever, calculating Empire of Masks, Baru resolves to join the Imperial civil service, work her way to the top, and claim enough power to free her home. She’s brilliant and ruthless, but the Empire has one last test for her: go to another conquered land, draw out the rebellion there, and destroy it. If she does that, they’ll trust her loyalty, and give her the power she needs.
Worse yet, Baru’s been given the station of Imperial Accountant. And she’s dangerously attracted to the rebel Duchess Tain Hu, who probably wants to kill her. Even if Baru can survive, what will victory cost her?
I do plan to write at least one more book! I see each book as an argument, and I’d like to have at least two books arguing with each other.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
Well, the very first, secret inspiration for the novel was an item on the Evil Overlord List, an old Internet artifact about the right way to run an evil empire.
But a lot of the fire in this novel came from Internet conversations about who was and wasn’t allowed to be the hero of a fantasy story. People would often claim that there were chunks of history so oppressive that only certain kinds of people — usually men, straight, often white — could be the protagonists. Everyone else would be dead or in jail or a slave, or whatever. (Implicit in this argument is the argument that their stories are thus uninteresting and not valuable.)
Yes, history’s full of monstrous oppression, and it’s full of environments in which select classes of people faced threat or constraint. But it’s also full of human beings fighting back and making space to live! The axes of oppression that we see around us today aren’t universal and timeless. They’re contingent on specific historical events, some quite recent.
I wanted to write a story about a woman who was at the bottom of her society’s social power structure, someone who refused to be defined by that power structure and who fought her way to the top.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
Shelves and shelves of paperbacks in my parents’ home. The first real chapter book I read was 1984, and I was so young I thought it had a happy ending. He likes Big Brother now! Woo!
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I have to be a writer — I don’t know what else I’d do! My editor and publisher have been incredibly kind, enthusiastic, and supportive.
I find being a writer really psychologically taxing. I take it out on myself when I don’t do good work, or when I can’t produce. Other writers have been a valuable support network, and I’ve come to enjoy professional events just for the chance to share war stories and emotional solidarity.
Writing can be lonely and hard. But it’s so satisfying to create something worthwhile.
Thanks to the Internet, we also have access to a range of diverse, thoughtful criticism on all kinds of media. Which leads into the next question!
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I read a lot of history and nonfiction, not because I want to mimic it but because I want to punch through the walls of my own assumptions about what’s ‘realistic’. (That’s where the family structures on Taranoke come from, and the torpedoes used in naval warfare.)
My work practice is pretty erratic — I sit down, turn on the music, turn off the internet, and binge caffeine. If I’m lucky, I can enter a flow state and do a few thousand words. If not, I can usually do a scene or two on a good day. My first drafts are very focused on the line-by-line writing; I can’t go on if I don’t write good sentences, or I get this strange physical itch, like I haven’t bathed.
I don’t rely on outlines, but I’m not a pure seat-of-the-pants writer, either. I tend to build plans of attack, then modify them as I discover new truths about the characters or new conflicts in the story. I do my best writing when I know the ending, so I can seed it across the whole story.
I treasure the first readers I have, who are able to see into my blind spots and give me ideas I’d never have on my own.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
Ha! The first story I can remember…in first or second grade of elementary school, we had to write a story and read it aloud to the parents at ‘publishing night.’ I wrote about a shapeshifting alien from Pluto who crashed on Earth, and took the place of an incorrigible problem child named Seth. His parents were pleased their child had suddenly started behaving.
I’m quite proud of it. I got a lot of childhood stories out of that universe. I tried to convince my classmates that a buried metal dump behind my house was the wreckage of my ship.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
The genre is opening up to more voices, and remembering voices who’ve been silenced and erased for decades. This is a vital process. Science fiction and fantasy is the literature of the human imagination — all humans, all of us. We will all win, and no one will lose.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on a sequel to this novel, which I think of as an emotional counterpoint and an escalation of the story.
I have a couple other projects ongoing. I’m involved in Destiny, Bungie’s mythic SF smash hit video game, as a lore writer — I’ve written a big chunk of the game’s fiction companion, the Grimoire.
I have two novel projects on the back burner: Titanomach, a Portal-meets-Marathon story about two half-sisters from Earth who stumble into control of a haunted starship, and Exordia, about a Kurdish orphan befriending a crash-landed alien traitor who’s trying to stop her people from reprogramming the physics of universal morality.
Right at the moment I’m reading Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I have played more games of the Battlestar Galactica board game than there are episodes of the show. I really love quality board games. And they influence my writing!
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Talking about this book with smart, incisive people! And, I very much hope, finishing another one.
You can read an excerpt from The Traitor here.
The Traitor is published in the UK by Tor Books on September 29th, 2015; it has already been released in the US by Tor Books, as The Traitor Baru Cormorant. For more on Dickinson’s writing and novels, be sure to check out his website, and follow him on Twitter and Goodreads.