Book Brahmin: Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor, August 2010). In 2008 she received the Campbell Award for Best New Writer and has been nominated for the Hugo and Locus awards. Her stories appear in Asimov's, Clarkesworld and several "Year's Best" anthologies. She is vice-president of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. In addition to writing, Kowal is a professional puppeteer, and performs as a voice actor, recording fiction for authors such as Elizabeth Bear, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. She lives in Portland, Ore., with her husband, Rob, and over a dozen manual typewriters.


On your nightstand now:

It's a mix of research and pleasure books in different formats, since I hate being places without something to read. As research for a novel, I'm reading Introducing Bert Williams: America's First Black Star by Camille Forbes, which is quite compelling. Williams was the highest-paid vaudeville performer in America and yet still had to have it written into his contracts that he wouldn't perform on the stage with white women as a way to keep himself safe from accusations of impropriety. I'm also reading Up from Slavery by Booker T. Washington on my phone. For my e-book pleasure reading, I have Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America by Robert Charles Wilson, which I picked up because it's a Locus nominee and I looooooved his novel Spin. For my paper pleasure reading, I have Moonshine by Alaya Dawn Johnson waiting for me--vampires in 1920s New York. Mm....

Favorite book when you were a child:

Just one? Oof... if I had to pick one--which is impossible--it would probably be The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis because I loved the idea of being able to step into a world with that much magic. It might also be Madeleine L'Engle's Wrinkle in Time, because I was Meg, minus the math skills. Or maybe her Door in the Wall, because it was beautiful and made me cry. Just one? That's cruel.

Your top five authors:

This list changes all the time, but these are some of the writers for whom I have thus far loved everything they've ever written.

Guy Gavriel Kay: I love how detailed his worlds are but he still focuses on the characters. While the language is rich it all serves the greater story and it's really about the relationships.

Nancy Kress: I love the way she takes a big idea, like first contact in Steal Across the Sky, and shows us how it affects humanity by focusing on individuals. I find her work constantly compelling.

Brandon Sanderson: This is a new addition to my list and I'm now a huge fangirl. He manages to write these sweeping epic fantasies in which you never lose intimacy with the characters. Any author who can make me cry that often gets a win.

Steven Brust: I honestly think he's one of the best first-person writers out there. In his Vlad Taltos series, I really feel like I'm actually listening to Vlad tell the story.

Ellen Kushner: The thing that kind of staggers me with Ellen's writing is the way she can deal with Big Social Issues but have it so tightly woven into the story that you don't even notice until after you finish reading that the story was dealing with, say, body image.

Book you've faked reading:

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer. I wanted to talk about it with my niece but it wasn't grabbing me. So I read the first chapter and the Wikipedia entry.

Book you're an evangelist for:

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi. He's just won a Nebula award and a Locus award, and is up for a Hugo. On a line-by-line basis, it has the beauty of a well-crafted short story and then you get into the big sweep of the novel. The science fiction of it is thoroughly and frighteningly believable, but that isn't what makes this a great book. What makes The Windup Girl beautiful and terrifying is its convincing portrayal of humanity, both as a society and as individuals.

Book you've bought for the cover:

Mothers & Other Monsters by Maureen McHugh. The whole book was so beautifully designed that I needed to own the tactile package. I did not regret it at all, once I started reading the short stories.

Book that changed your life:

An Old Fashioned Girl by Louisa May Alcott. Odd? In part I identified with the main character, who was also named Mary, but the book has stuck with me because of the way she deals with, essentially, being a freelancer in the 1880s. I didn't realize it at the time but I was learning really good lessons about economizing and how to deal with sadness. There's this philosophy she has that if you are feeling sorry for yourself that the best way to snap out of it is to do something nice for someone else. I keep going back to that and, by God, it works.

Favorite line from a book:

"Painting consists of long stretches of minutes followed by short bursts of hours." --from The Sun, the Moon, and the Stars by Steven Brust

Book you most want to read again for the first time:

The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell. There's a whole series of Aha! moments that sent electric shocks of discovery through me as I was reading. It's still a wonderful book on re-read and there's a lot of layers that you catch the second time, but you can only get that zing of sudden understanding the first time though.

View the trailer for Shades of Milk and Honey.


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