Deborah J. Ross: Tell us a little about yourself. How did you come to be a writer?
Pat MacEwen: Born that way, apparently. I started doing crayon drawings and telling stories about them when I was four, and put my toy giraffe through endless adventures that cost him one of his four rubber hooves and all of his dignity, but he never seemed to mind very much. I read everything in sight, including cereal boxes, and spent a lot of time playing pinochle with my older relatives. They gossiped like mad and told stories non-stop, and I learned all about how they survived the Great Depression, World War II, the government’s Indian boarding schools, and sometimes each other. At 13, I was given a box full of paperbacks by an older cousin during a cross-country road trip, and promptly fell in love with the works of Andre Norton, Poul Anderson, Terry Carr, Doc Smith, and dozens more. Eventually, I wondered whether I could ever do anything half as good, and decided to try. Probably doesn’t hurt that the MacEwen clan has been spawning bards and shanachies for a thousand years and more.
DJR: What inspired your story in Lace and Blade 4?
PM: My son-in-law runs EuCon – an annual Comic-Con that takes place in Eugene, Oregon every fall. I met one of their celebrity guests last year – Deep Roy – a diminutive actor who has played Yoda and all of the Oompa Loompas, and has had many other roles in science fiction and fantasy films. The man has a delightful sense of humor and such a deep and abiding intelligence, he intrigued the hell out of me. It so happened I’d already run across a biography of Lord Minimus, and I found myself imagining Deep Roy in the role of that valiant though very short cavalier. And then I got to wondering what would happen if the smallest man in British history were to encounter the Little People during the height of the English Civil War. Now I’m working on a screenplay about his further adventures in France, with the Court-in-Exile.
DJR: What authors have most influenced your writing? What about them do you find inspiring?
PM: Poul Anderson is one of my personal heroes. He built so many amazing aliens and alien cultures, and he did it with so much humanism, you couldn’t help but sympathize with them, including the villains! All while using the most amazing bits of new scientific information. Thomas Costain wrote excellent historical fiction and non-fiction (especially his series about the Plantagenets) that did much the same for the Middle Ages C.J. Cherryh has taken me deeper into plausible but totally alien minds and cultures than I ever thought was possible. Pat Conroy and Connie Willis are two very different authors who have succeeded in reducing me to tears with both the screwball comedy and the sheer heartbreaking pathos in their stories, and they’ve each of them done it within the course of a single book. So that’s who I’d like to be when I grow up – one of those writers.
DJR: Why do you write what you do, and how does your work differ from others in your genre?
PM: I’ve had a checkered career that includes degrees in marine biology and anthropology. I’ve also got a sordid past in forensics and war crimes investigations. So I’m a science and history geek with an abiding interest in how things and people and other creatures work, in how they can all go massively wrong, and how we survive it when they do. I like to use arcane bits of biology, and real events and people, and sometimes my old cases, and then ask questions that never come up in mainstream lit. What if the latest group of refugees in your home town are elves? How do you solve crimes involving magic? How do you, as a woman with strong maternal instincts, deal with an alien race that has no concept of mothers but their children are in peril? What is the right thing to do if your own freedom requires enslaving another species?
I also publish papers in anthropology, where my research is centered on genocide. Surprisingly, it has no generally agreed-upon definition. Where, for example, do you draw the lines between homicide, mass murder, pogroms, and out-and-out genocide? You can’t even use a body count. If one is A murder, ten is a mass murder. Fine, but how many, then, is a genocide? What sets them off? Who are the victims, and who does the killing, and who gives the orders? Why does this country erupt in a bloodbath when that one doesn’t, and yet they seem to be suffering from the same problems and hitting the very same crisis points? For my part, at least, the most telling trait is whether or not the perpetrators are mounting attacks on children, on the future of the targeted group, but economics, history, mythology, nationalism, religion, demographics, and ethnic identity play major roles in the process.
All that tends to feed into my fiction, along with my penchant for throwing weird sex into the mix – I am, at heart, a biologist and the need to reproduce shapes every species, does it not?
DJR: How does your writing process work?
PM: I usually start with opening and closing scenes. The opener has to hook the reader and pose the problem. The closer has to wrap it up, usually with heartbreak and (in)justice for all. Then I start working on how you get from here to there, usually by taking long walks and letting my mind wander while I get into a zen-style breathing pattern. On the way home, I stop off at the local coffee shop. I tip the baristas pretty well, and they’re amused by my mad ideas, so they let me sit there, sucking up caffeine and scribbling madly until they lock up for the night. Sometimes while they’re cleaning up, even after that. My goal is to do what Stephen King does so well with his opening paragraphs, which always put his viewpoint character’s heart in your hands right from the start. Other scenes will come to me as I work out their mechanics and their emotional bearings. Then I try to fit them together. I have problems, most of the time, with getting the middle done, and done right. Rare is the story that is simply written from start to finish.
DJR: What have you written recently? What lies ahead?
PM: I have a new short story, “The Forever Boy,” coming out in Alma Alexander’s anthology of tales about refugees, Children of Another Sky. It’s based on a Cherokee myth about a boy who is taken in by their Little People, so he won’t ever have to grow up and face the world, or his own past. Some of my ancestors walked the Trail of Tears, and I wanted to see what that boy would do when and if that particular horror started all over again. I’m finishing True-Born, the sequel to my forensic/urban fantasy novel, Rough Magic, about those elvish refugees. I have a mini-murder mystery in an upcoming anthology of Darkover tales, and I’m polishing a rather odd alien sex/horror story called “Romancing the Goat-Sucker.” Not sure where that will end up!
DJR: What advice would you give an aspiring writer?
PM: If you want to be a writer, then write. Write all the time. Write every day Write all sorts of things, and get that million words out. Keep on going until your craft hits a point where it all starts to crystallize. You won’t be anywhere near done learning your craft, but you’ll have enough control of it to start doing good stuff. Really good. On purpose. And read. Read everything. Fiction. Non-fiction. Poetry. History. Romances. Space opera. Screenplays. How-To books. Even cat food labels. Study up on what your favorite authors do, and how they do it. Volunteer for a small press mag of some sort and read the slush pile – that will teach you how not to do it! Above all, take the advice I got from my all-time favorite fortune cookie: Don’t stop now!
Pat MacEwen is a physical anthropologist. She works on human bones from archaeological sites in California and does independent research on genocide. She has worked on war crimes investigations for the International Criminal Tribunal, after doing CSI work for several years at the Stockton Police Department, and has also been a marine biologist at the Institute of Marine & Coastal Studies at USC. Rough Magic, the first novel in her forensic/urban fantasy trilogy, The Fallen, is out from Sky Warrior Publishing. She writes mystery, horror, science fiction and fantasy, and has published short stories in several magazines and anthologies. She is also working on an anthropology textbook, The Anatomy of Genocide. Her hobbies include exploring cathedrals, construction of interesting aliens on the basis of nonhuman sexual practices & biology, bedeviling her nephews and grandkids, and trawling through history books for the juicy bits.