Outside Genre: An Interview with Ken Liu
Hollihock is pleased to introduce our second keynote speaker of the conference weekend: Ken Liu.
A winner of the Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy awards, Ken Liu is the author of The Dandelion Dynasty, a silkpunk epic Fantasy series (which includes The Grace of Kings, The Wall of Storms, and a forthcoming third volume) and The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories, a collection. We chatted with Ken about his work and the broader genre of Speculative Fiction.
Tell us a little bit about your writing journey. When did you start writing? What were some major steps that brought you to where you are now?
I think every writer who’s asked to recount their writing journey ends up telling a fictionalized version of what happened. This is not necessarily a bad thing. We are a species evolved to understand not reality, but stories about reality. Still, I think it’s best to keep the narrative to a minimum on this one.
I’ve worked as a programmer at one of the largest software corporations in the world and also at a tiny Internet startup. I’ve worked as an attorney at a big law firm and also as a computer scientist at a tiny boutique litigation consultancy. I’ve learned much about writing through all of these professions because all of them are, in fact, variations on fiction writing. Creating symbolic artifacts (programs, contracts, stories) that function within rule systems to produce specific effects is what much of the modern economy is all about.
It took me almost three decades of my life to get to my first professional publication and five years to finish my first novel. I write very slowly, but people insist on describing me as “prolific” for some reason. The life you live is often not the life others see.
I began my career in short fiction, and now, about 130+ published stories later (fifteen of them collected in The Paper Menagerie and Other Stories), I’m a novelist with a an epic Fantasy series (The Grace of Kings and The Wall of Storms) and an upcoming book in the Star Wars universe (The Legends of Luke Skywalker). Still, I feel like I have to learn everything anew with each story.
I think I’ve worked hard, but I also know that I’ve been very lucky. We don’t acknowledge the role luck plays in our lives nearly often enough.
How do you define Speculative Fiction? How is it different from Science Fiction?
I don’t have a definition for either of those things. I don’t think about genre definitions much, if at all. I think genre labels are of some marginal use to publishers (because they help the books connect with some readers), and I think they’re of use to some readers because they can set up useful narrative expectations and interpretive frameworks—as long as they’re not too restrictive. But I’ve never personally found them helpful for writing the kind of stories I want to tell.
I once heard someone argue that the Fantasy I write reads like Science Fiction, and the Science Fiction I write reads like Fantasy. I think that was meant as an insult of some sort, but I rather like to think of it as a compliment.
Do you typically set out to write in this specific genre?
I don’t know what genre I write in – people just put labels on my stories afterward. I like to tell stories that literalize some metaphor as a way to explore the logic of metaphors, which is the logic of all fiction (and arguably, the logic of all life). Apparently some of these stories fit some definition of Speculative/Science Fiction/Fantasy, and so I’m very happy to have them called that.
Do you have any advice for a new writer who is interested in writing Speculative Fiction/Science Fiction/Fantasy?
I can say that if genre labels help you think about the story you want to tell, then go ahead and use them. If they don’t, then don’t. Ultimately, genres, like writing rules-of-thumb and story structure templates, are just tools to aid in storytelling. You are not required to use them.
Hear Ken Liu speak at his keynote presentation, and meet him at the book signing to follow at the Hollihock Writers Conference on Friday, August 26 at 9:00am. See the full list of classes here.