What compelled you to tell the story/stories in your most recent book?
Lately, a lot my energies have gone into developing a concept I call workable utopias, the idea of imagining societies that function very well but are plausible, not perfect. My interest in this mode of science fiction grows directly out of Ursula K. Le Guin’s idea of the “ambiguous utopia,” the subtitle of her 1974 novel, The Dispossessed, about an anarchist society. An ambiguous utopian work explores a society that is “ideal” in many ways but it also acknowledges that negatives are inherent in any system. For me, workable utopias is much the same concept but, to my mind, more directly focused on how the human race and much of Earth-based life can survive—because we’re in a moment now, in the real world, where it’s far from certain we will. That’s my underlying compulsion.
As to how my books reflect it, my most recent release is a new edition of my first novel, Perdita, trimmed down and tightened up. Perdita recounts a planet’s struggle over how (or if) to use a dangerous space travel technology introduced into their midst. A long-term conflict between pro-tech and anti-tech factions explodes in ugly political and interpersonal strife as they attempt to solve this question. Utopian? Well, I conceived of Perdita a long time before the concept of workable utopias coalesced in my mind. That said, yes. Yes, it actually is on the utopian spectrum.
You see, though the Perditans grapple with social and ecological problems, every single problem—every one—is less bad than what we face every day on Earth. Food shortage? Yes, but no one starves. War? There’s guerrilla war, but no drones or nuclear weapons or civilians routinely killed by terrorist attacks. Ecological breakdown? That’s the central problem of Perdita, that they might wreck their biosphere with this new tech. But even if they do, Perdita is just one planet out of hundreds that sustain Earth-based life. Earth-based life, humanity: these aren’t in jeopardy at all.
That’s a good illustration of the utopian heart of my science fiction universe, the Continuation. It’s often not pretty. My second novel, The Hour before Morning, is dark as heck, concerning three people from a brutally colonized society about to be executed. But all these problems are passing. They exist within the underlying stability that comes from a distributed human race living across several nations on many planets, most with populations well within ecological carrying capacity. They have room to absorb the shocks. On Earth today, our margin for shock absorption is rapidly running out. I want to present a future in which resilience is unassailable. And I think all my Continuation works do that one way or another.
What obstacles did you encounter while writing the book?
I’ve encountered twenty-five years of obstacles with Perdita! Reimagining work I began as a teenager, my own verbosity (the single thing I’ve revised most in the new edition), money.
Speaking of my Continuation works more broadly, however, the reality is that far-future cultural exploration is not much in demand now in traditional science fiction publishing. It’s not YA; it’s not near future; it’s not zany, it’s not based heavily on a specific present-day human culture… I could name a lot of agent and publisher desires that it’s not.
But it’s what I do. I think most writers write because our hearts compel us. And whether my mode of expression is currently popular or not, I absolutely believe the project of utopian writing, in general, is vital to our world’s ability to navigate an increasingly treacherous future. We cannot forget how to imagine hope. In that vein, I’m heartened to see an increasing number of calls for stories that imagine our vibrant survival of climate change. We need those ideas if we’re going to achieve anything like the reality.
How has writing your most recent book changed or added value to your life?
Here I have to move away from Perdita. Though it is my most recent release, it’s been a long time since I fundamentally wrote it. Of my more recent manuscripts, those currently under revision, the most personally impactful has been Mercy, a Continuation novel in which the mysterious abduction of various famous people becomes a forum for grappling with conscience and the consequences.
I wrote most of this novel in 2015-16 as a therapeutic tool for grieving the abrupt and traumatic end of an important friendship. Now, personal therapy does not necessarily make the best novels, and I make no claims about its quality. But help my life it certainly did. It gave me an outlet for a torrent of thoughts and pain. Looking back over it from the perspective of 2018, I can see very clearly how far my grieving process has progressed. And I remain very glad I have that record of my feelings.
Did you self-publish or did you go the traditional route? What was that process like?
I have self-published Perdita and The Hour before Morning. The process is infinitely simpler than it used to be and, thankfully, more socially acceptable. That’s the good part. The bad part is twofold. It’s expensive to do it well, including professional editing, a good cover design, etc. It’s also difficult—and more expensive—to get away from having the sales and distribution of your work controlled by large corporate players. I have yet to solve this, but my preferred course of action thus far is to buy my own inventory and sell it face to face. Readers can also buy directly from my website http://www.arwenspicer.com/ through PayPal, skip Amazon, maximize my earnings per book, and get an autographed copy with my sincere thanks for supporting indie authors. I have recently discontinued my books on Kindle as part of an effort to minimize ties with Amazon, but I will release new ebook versions in the future.
Are you friends with other writers? If so, how do they influence your writing?
I’ve been in several writers groups over the years and love them! At present, I regularly participate in write-ins through 9 Bridges here in Portland, which has been a great way to get to know other local writers, from acclaimed to just starting out. These folks routinely share their insights about both the business and craft of writing. Lately, I’ve been learning a lot about the business.
I miss being in a more craft-oriented writers group, however. I have learned the craft from other writers. One example of a permanent change in my style: my friend Nye Joell Hardy, sadly taken from us far too young by leukemia, taught me long ago about the one line paragraph: that rare punchy line that just deserves to be by itself. That’s become a standard tool in my toolbox. I cannot imagine writing without sharing work with and learning from other writers.
Do you maintain a regular writing practice? If so, what does it look like?
In the past couple of years, the weekly 9 Bridges write-ins have kept me going, even when life, work, and parenthood strip away other writing time. That means I get a minimum of a couple of hours of writing a week. When time allows, especially in summers when I’m not teaching, I like to write in the morning before breakfast when the house is quiet and kids are asleep. I write in bed. It’s lovely.
How many other books or stories do you have in progress right now?
(Long chuckle…) Let’s only count ones that I’m actively working on or are complete manuscripts. My novel Mercy is complete but happens to be book 4 in a series of which Perdita is book 1, so it won’t see the light of day until I’ve written books 2 and 3. I’m preparing another Continuation novel, The Swallow in Flight, to go out on submission soon. It’s my most properly utopian novel to date, a work about two very different cultures trying to coexist with a natural disaster flings them together. I am also on the first draft of a fun new Continuation novel, The Soldier and the Warden, which is a male/male love story set against a backdrop ecological hardships leading to war. After a few years of revising drafts, I’m loving the free play and fresh energy of a brand new story.
Do you view writing as a spiritual practice?
The concept of “spirituality” has never spoken to me personally. I can use the word but it doesn’t resonate. So I guess I’d say, no, I don’t view my writing as spiritual. But I do view it as essential. And lately, I’m happy to say, it’s giving me joy again after quite some time in the doldrums. It’s a natural drive that will always be part of me.
What would your life look like if you didn’t write?
A friend of mine who’s a doctor once described the chaotic days of his residency as like having much of his mind switched off. His love of history, reading, hiking, traveling, all had to be shut down so that he could eat, sleep, and go to work. That’s what my life has been like in stretches where I’ve been too busy to write. I can get through the day, but a piece of me is absent. I am not my full self. I am not living my life. I strive these days to maintain at least a small place for writing every week. I cannot imagine my life without ever writing again. It would be like being locked away and never seeing the sky.
Why do you write?
I write to express the giant piece of myself that lives in the worlds inside my head. I write to tell stories that need to be told. (This is especially true in fan fiction, which I don’t write much these days but profoundly love and respect.) I write to put forward non-dominant ways of thinking about our world, our future, and human relationships. I write to make my readers happy. I write because it’s fun.
Arwen Spicer is a science fiction writer and educator born in the San Francisco Bay Area, and Northern California will hold her heart forever, even if it turns into a desert. She wrote her doctoral dissertation on ecology in utopian science fiction and offers workshops and services on the concept of workable utopias, a methodology for artists, activists, and visionaries to imagine radically hopeful futures.
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