Hans Persson: You began publishing books with three fantasy novels. Then came An Alien Light which is set on some other planet. Since then, you have written the Beggars series set on a near-future Earth and some other novels in similar settings. I've seen the latest novels described as thrillers. Are you consciously moving toward more plausible themes to write about or is there another reason? Have you considered writing fantasy again?
Nancy Kress: So many of my recent books, both SF and thrillers, have been set in the near future because I became very interested in genetic engineering, and its immediate ramifications. I still am very interested: This is our future. But the novel I just turned in, Probability Moon, is more like An Alien Light-far future, another planet, space wars, aliens ... all the good old SF stuff. Writers like to vary what they do. It keeps us fresh. But, no, I'm not particularly interested in writing any more fantasy. I don't know why.
Hans Persson: Do you feel there is a significant difference in what subjects one can write about in fantasy as compared to science fiction?
Nancy Kress: Yes, of course. SF concentrates more on real science. The themes for both are the same -- power, good vs. evil, love, death, exploration, growth -- but the settings are so different. I prefer SF because it feels more real to me.
Hans Persson: Of course it ought to be possible to do the same themes in science fiction as in fantasy, but I think that there is a difference in what is usually produced in the different genres (with exceptions, of course). I'd say that science fiction more often does what you've done in your later books -- it looks at what the changes in society would be as the effects of some discovery. Fantasy tends to be more character-centered, I think. I'm not saying that science fiction doesn't have good characters, but I think it's much more common that a fantasy novel has personal development as the central theme than it would be for a science fiction novel.
Nancy Kress: I really can't agree. Good SF always has character development at its heart. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness is about Genly Ai's growth in embracing the Other. Maureen McHugh's China Mountain Zhang is a coming-of-age novel, about putting together a life from the elements available. Fred Pohl's Gateway isn't about black holes; it's about coming to grips with personal guilt.
Or maybe this is just the kind of SF I can get passionate about.
Hans Persson: Are you a member of any writer's circle or something like that?
Nancy Kress: No, not in Washington. I was in New York, where I used to live, and it was useful to me.
Hans Persson: You are married to sf writer Charles Sheffield since 1998. Has being married to another writer affected your own writing? Do you generally discuss your writing with each other while it is in progress? Have you considered collaborating?
Nancy Kress: We do look at each other's writing in progress, and offer critiques. That's very useful. However, I don't think we'll collaborate because our styles are too different. I have gained an enormous amount from having Charles as a resource. He is a scientist; I am not. He helps me put plausible scientific foundations under things I invent for my stories. Not in biology -- that's not his area -- but in physics and space exploration.
Hans Persson: You just said that your next novel will be set on a different planet. Is this an effect of having such a resource as Charles close by or did you have the idea for the novel before that?
Nancy Kress: I had the idea before that. I did, after all, set An Alien Light on a distant planet, before I met Charles. But he did help me work out the physics.
Hans Persson: Where do you get the biology know-how? As far as I know, you are not a scientist yourself. Do you read up on biology as you need it or do you try to find external experts (or simply take the Star Trek approach and make something up ;-) ).
Nancy Kress: I read the popular journals, the ones I can understand, like Scientific American. When an idea interests me, I research it on the Net, by reading, and by asking scientists I know. Then I make up whatever else I need -- this is, after all, fiction. But I try to keep the invented plausible with the real.
Hans Persson: How much ahead planning do you normally have? Do you have any idea now what you might be writing in a year? In five years?
Nancy Kress: No idea whatsoever.
Hans Persson: In Beggars in Spain the environment of Earth is rather like the one we are living in. In Beggars and Choosers it gets worse. In Maximum Light the environment is in very bad shape. Are you getting progressively more worried about the environment?
Nancy Kress: Yes, I am. Much of the bad news in Maximum Light is based on actual scientific studies, although sometimes disputed ones. We are putting huge amounts of chemicals into our world, and we have no idea what they will do in combination.
Hans Persson: We're also starting to use genetically engineered foods on a massive scale. In Europe, there is some concern about this and people try to find out what's in what they buy, but the US are emphatically not interested in labeling what's engineered and what's not.
Nancy Kress: No. So far, there is not one reported case of anyone harmed by genetic food, and at least 40% of American processed food has at least one engineered ingredient, usually soy. Eating the food seems safe to me. It's growing it that may be the problem, through changing the ecology.
Hans Persson: You seem to be interested in the laws of the future. In Beggars in Spain the sleepless are not allowed to do jury duty since it is supposed to be ''a jury of one's peers''. Leisha is a lawyer and a trial plays a big part in the plot.
Nancy Kress: The law interests me. Law school is one of those things I regret I didn't do. Although perhaps I shouldn't regret it -- I seem to know a lot of lawyers who regret their career choice, and who want to be writers instead.
Hans Persson: If you could back your life up and start over, would you still like to be a writer?
Nancy Kress: Yes. But I would have studied different things at college.
Hans Persson: Quite a few of your novels alternate between three viewpoint characters (Maximum Light, Brain Rose, Beggars and Choosers). I think this kind of construction tends to make a book feel more like a film. Do you have film in mind when you write? Have you had any contacts with film makers about your work?
Nancy Kress: I didn't think about film when I wrote those novels in multiple first person; I had more in mind works like Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness and Silverberg's Book of Skulls. So far, there has been both film and TV interest in Beggars in Spain and TV interest in Stinger, but none of these projects worked out. Most don't, you know.
Hans Persson: I'm afraid I must admit to having read neither that Le Guin nor that Silverberg, although I have them both.
Which version of Beggars in Spain was it they looked at? Personally, I like the first version better since it's more compact. The novel version with sequels (I've only read the first sequel, but still) gives you more discussion about it, of course, but the first shorter version was enough to get me thinking. That story would make my top ten for shorter fiction.
Nancy Kress: The film people looked at (and apparently rejected) the novella version.
Hans Persson: I'm not following the fiction magazines. Do you publish a lot of shorter fiction? I know you said at ConFuse in 1993 that you'd like to write only shorter fiction if you could live on it. Do you still feel that way?
Nancy Kress: No, I haven't published much short fiction lately, having been involved with novels, but it's still my favorite.
Hans Persson: You wrote ''Beggars in Spain'' as a novella. It was later expanded into a novel, then into a trilogy. Do you have plans to write more in this series?
Nancy Kress: No. I am very tired of the Sleepless! I have other projects in mind now.
Hans Persson: In Brain Rose people can remember earlier lives through brain surgery. The Beggars series concerns genetic manipulation of embryos. Actually, almost all your work seems to concern medical technology and the effects of it in one way or the other. Why?
Nancy Kress: Because this is the future. The twenty-first century will be the age of biology, in the way the twentieth was the age of physics. I think that by the end of the next century humanity may be unrecognizable to us. Literally. I wish I were going to be around to see it!
Hans Persson: In some ways, I think the society of today would be pretty
incomprehensible to a person from the late 19th century. But as you
say, humanity as such is still much the same.
Do you think body reconfiguration for fun like in Tanith Lee's Don't Bite the Sun and Drinking Sapphire Wine or Ian McDonald's Terminal Café will be a reality in, say, my children's lifetime?
Nancy Kress: I really don't know. It's hard to say how fast science can move. Whatever does happen, it will be available to the rich first.
Hans Persson: What would the ability to change your sex, color, or any body characteristic do to our society and institutions like for instance organized religion?
Nancy Kress: You just asked a question that deserves a novel, not an interview answer. Come on, Hans! I'm a writer, not a prophet :)
Hans Persson: *laugh* What's the difference? ;-)