EUC Interview: Karen Traviss

EUCantina (EUC): What do your days, including days your write, usually consist of?

Karen Traviss (KT): I’ve had so many books to write since 2004 that my days are all taken up with the physical act of writing or the other work generated by it, like editing, proof reading or cons.

I write from the moment I get up and I stop when I’m too tired to carry on. That’s about it, really. I plan my workload in advance as far as I can, so I know what I’ll be doing on any given week up to a year or two ahead.

EUC: What do you enjoy writing about the most?

KT: People, and what goes on inside their heads. That’s the sum of all fiction – people. The rest is just the circumstance that tests them each time. A good story isn’t a sequence of scenes and events – it’s the journey the characters make from beginning to end. What they think and do dictates what happens, not the other way around.

Karen Traviss boys, Republic Commandos. Her insight into their head is amazing.

Karen Traviss' boys, Republic Commandos.

EUC: How long would you say you would need to write a novel?

KT: Every writer has their own pace, and it can be anything from 20 years to a long weekend. It depends on the author, not on the book. There’s no right or wrong answer to how long it takes to write a novel. Orson Scott Card has said that it took him two weeks to write Ender’s Game, for example, and that’s generally acknowledged as a modern classic. And for all the people thinking, “Oh, you can’t write a good book in a few days…” then I’ll take on a bet with any reader that they simply won’t be able to tell from reading a book how long it took to write it unless the writer tells them – in fact, I know they can’t, because I’ve tested the theory.

I think that some people equate writing a book with an essay for college or something – that there’s some universal formula for how long it should take anyone in the class. Fiction doesn’t work that way. It’s tied to the cognitive process of the individual, and that means it’s different for every writer. It’ll also depend on the writer’s personal circumstances – if they have a day job, for example, or if they have young kids who need a lot of looking after, and how long they need to spend staring at the wall before they get down to writing. I write full time, I don’t have small children, and I’ve never been one for staring out the window looking for inspiration. Things come to me right away. If they hadn’t, I’d have starved as a journalist.

I need to immerse in a story and live it as I write, so the longer I have, the more times I completely change it. It’s best when I take a run at it and dive in. I’m used to writing fast as a journalist. A book takes me on average five or six weeks; if I take longer, I end up writing two or more totally different books. If I do all the research in advance and plan out every scene (not a good idea, because you can be too slavishly devoted to plans and that can sometimes make for a boring book) then I can write a chapter a day very easily, and that means a book in 20 days or so. I admit that I laughed out loud when a new romance writer was lauded in the media for having written a book in “only” nine months – I’d write three or four in that time. So would many of my colleagues.

EUC: As a sci-fi writer, do you find it hard to write about regular issues such as families, politics, and just being a teenager?

KT: No, because science fiction isn’t about science. It’s about people. All good fiction is. There’s a school of thought that says if you take the science out of a story and the story still works, then it isn’t science fiction. I think that’s garbage, and stems from an era when writers thought that having a whizzo science idea and making the characters dance around it was the thing to do; it was a very sterile, clever-clever approach that I feel has had its day, and I suspect readers have moved on too, because we live with whizzo ideas made real these days.

We’re not bedazzled by spaceships, and as for gizmos, we can buy them at Wal-Mart. I take the view that science is the set dressing for SF, just as horse racing is the setting for Dick Francis thrillers – that it’s just another device for exploring what it means to be human. (Yes, even with aliens.) Science gives us more choices and more dilemmas. It’s how we handle those that define who we are.

EUC: Most people, when asked who writes Ben Skywalker the best answer, Karen Traviss. Why do you personally feel you can connect to that character (and his mother) so well?

KT: Ben was a blank sheet when I wrote him – his point of view had never been used before, so I could start from scratch. So I was able to make the maximum use of my character-building technique, which is to get inside the character’s head and look out through their eyes.

What’s it like to be the son of two A-list political figures? What’s it like to have superpowers and yet still be treated as a kid? What’s it like to go through the uncertainty of puberty with those powers, too? How do you face killing people, which is what that lightsaber is ultimately for? How do you handle finding out that the adults you trusted and looked up to have let you down? From all those conflicting pressures came Ben Skywalker, ultimately working out who he was, and that he was his own man.

Ben Skywalker: Can he live up to his fathers legacy?

Ben Skywalker: Can he live up to his father's legacy?

EUC: Who has been the most difficult character to write in the Legacy Of The Force series?

KT: I don’t think any of them have been difficult, but some took longer than others for me to “get inside.” Once I was “in” they were fine. There have been characters that I’ve enjoyed and didn’t expect to be caught up in, though, like Admiral Cha Niathal, who I enjoyed enormously, and Lumiya.

They don’t have to have big parts in the books, either – Baltan Carid, the Mandalorian mercenary, just fell out of nowhere (as my original characters all seem to) and he was instantly real and three-dimensional to me with zero effort. You never can tell. But in the end, I can get behind the eyes of any character. It’s just a matter of how long. The best description of the process I use is a cross between method acting and psychological profiling.

EUC: Are there any plans for more Republic Commando novels or other Clone Wars era books?

KT: There are at least two more books with the RC characters, one out at the end of October – True Colors – and a fourth in July 2008.

The cover of Karens third RC novel, True Colors.

The cover of Karen's third RC novel, True Colors.

EUC: How hard was it to write Mara’s death, and are fans lashing out at you for it like they did when R.A. Salvatore wrote Chewbacca’s death and Troy Denning wrote Anakin Solo’s death?

KT: I’ve had no really adverse reactions to Mara’s death. I think the small lunatic fringe of fandom learned their lesson way back that threatening and abusing writers just alienates other fans, and it certainly doesn’t change a word of what writers do.

I’ve had one letter from someone telling me I ruined their life by killing Mara, but it wasn’t abusive, just very sad. Every other piece of mail I’ve had from Mara fans has been wonderful – okay, they’re sad to see her go, some very upset indeed, but they’re mature enough to accept it, and they’ve all said that the death was handled properly.

I don’t just bump off characters for the hell of it. It’s an integral part of the novel; it has to be, or it shouldn’t be in a book. It has to be a logical progression of the story. If I was ever asked to whack a character for the sake of sensationalizing a book, I’d hand back my advance and walk away, because that’s just bad storytelling, and it creates problems for the rest of the book, because it’ll feel bolted on for no good reason.

Writing a character’s death is very hard if you immerse as I do, because you have to feel what the characters feel to make a decent job of it, and it’s not fun. It’s harrowing to put yourself in Ben’s mind, or Luke’s, and imagine what it is to lose your mother or your wife like that, with so much left unsaid. And it carried on into Revelation – it’s painful writing Ben and Luke at that phase of their grieving process, where the funeral’s over, and everyone else is getting on with their lives, but yours is changed irrevocably forever and the pieces are missing every time you try to pick them up.

Readers can see from the way I write that I take character deaths seriously, and so they don’t react badly. For a writer, it’s about maintaining respect for role that the books play in readers’ lives. And beloved characters have to face death, or there’s no drama, no real risk, and no high stakes to play for in the story. Oddly, many people seem okay with “minor” characters dying, as if their lives have no meaning, but I hate that. Every life – even a fictional life – has to count, or else we start thinking of some real people’s lives as having less value than others, which is a terrible attitude to slip into.

Mara Jade-Mother, Wife, Jedi, Hero

Mara Jade: Mother, Wife, Jedi, Hero

EUC: How did you create an entire language?

KT: I’m not an academic linguist or a philologist, but I did languages – modern and classics – so it was fairly natural for me to build one organically. Because I was developing the Mandalorian culture too, it was much easier to build both synergistically, at the same time. I got the general “sound” of the language from Jesse Harlin’s lyrics for the RepCom game music – Jesse’s a great bloke and we’ve had a lot of fun discussing Mando’a – and then I went back to basics.

What matters to Mandalorians? How do they perceive time, and so how do they treat tenses? How would they classify the world around them? Would gender matter? How rigid and rules-oriented would their grammar be? Would they use the language primarily to talk, or write? From those basic principles, the rest flowed almost instantly. I developed the vocabulary organically, by evolving words from other words, just as we do over centuries in real life, with all the irregularities and variations of a real language, and the end result was something that felt real and lived in.

I also wanted it to be easy for folks to use – and that fitted fine with the basic premise, because Mandalorians are a pragmatic, no-nonsense people who regularly take in outsiders; so the language is straightforward, very active, very vivid, and something that people can pick up fast.

EUC: How significant of a role will the Mandalorians play in the future novels? (LOTF and RC)

KT: Wait and see…..

EUC: Will Boba Fett get his revenge on Jacen or at least get to see Jacen’s demise?

KT: Boba doesn’t get mad. He gets even. That’s all I’ll say.

Boba Fett isnt known for his talking skills...

Boba Fett isn't known for his talking skills...

EUC: What are your professional tips on making it in the writing business?

KT: Write every day, even when you don’t want to. Pretty soon it becomes automatic. Look at the world around you in intense detail and study people and their behavior, and think about what you really feel – and what others feel – at any given time. Get used to seeing the world through other people’s eyes, especially when they don’t think like you or agree with you.

We live in a world where superficiality, lack of questioning, formulaic thinking and quick glib answers are the order of the day, so true observation and looking at the world in a radically different way by asking fundamental questions are becoming lost arts. Books that sell – books that readers want to come back to time after time – are books with vivid characters, observed with acute perception, and not full of easy answers and stereotypes. Make your fiction real and honest.

EUC: We thank Ms.Traviss for her time and efforts in the Star Wars galaxy and for taking the time to sit down and answer all the questions.

About the Author

Austin Blankenship is the webmaster of EUCantina. He is a host of our official podcast, EUCast, and also founded our sister website, SoloSound.net. Austin helped turn EUCantina from a forum into a website in 2007, and continues to operate the site and the EUC social media accounts. Austin works as a librarian in a small town above Atlanta, Georgia.