Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

18.05: An Interview with Mary Robinette Kowal

Your Hosts: Mary Robinette Kowal, DongWon Song, Erin Roberts, Dan Wells, and Howard Tayler

In this episode Howard Tayler conducts our interview with Mary Robinette Kowal, leading with a wide-open question: “Where did you even?” Mary Robinette talks to us about how she came to the world of writing, and some of the amazing things she picked up along the way.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Marshall Carr, Jr., and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Think about the skills your non-writing life has given you. What are those lenses, what is the toolset, and how might it apply to your writing.

Thing of the week: The Monsters We Defy, by Leslye Penelope.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Puppetry and teaching a cat to talk with buttons? Before that? Art education with a minor in theater and speech. Art director. Puppets. Technique, and something to say. Curiosity and surprise. Challenge! Toolboxes. MICE Quotient. Axes of power. The go-to? Yes-but, no-and. What is the character trying to accomplish, what is their motivation? Next? How do we deal with tension without conflict. Subverted expectations? 

[Season 18, Episode 5]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.

[DongWon] An Interview with Mary Robinette Kowal.

[Erin] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Mary Robinette] I’m Mary Robinette.

[DongWon] I’m DongWon.

[Erin] I’m Erin.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m driving. My name’s Howard Tayler, and I get to lead this interview of my friend, Mary Robinette Kowal.

[Mary Robinette] Hi.

[Howard] Mary Robinette, I remember meeting you at World Con in… Gosh, was it Montréal?

[Mary Robinette] It was World Fantasy, but, yes.

[Howard] Was it World Fantasy?

[Mary Robinette] No, I think…

[Dan] World Fantasy. I’m pretty sure it was World Fantasy.

[Mary Robinette] It was World something.


[Howard] I’m pretty sure it was World Con, because that was the year that I got to be in the People Versus George Lucas movie.

[Dan] Okay.

[Howard] But we podcasted, and episode 3.14 was Mary schools Brandon, Dan, and Howard about using puppets to teach us how to write. That was when I met you. But that is not when you started. You have done a bazillion things. I know that one of them is puppetry, and another is teaching your cat to talk with buttons. Where did you come from?


[Howard] Where did you even…?

[Mary Robinette] Were did I even? So, I was actually an art major in college. Art education with a minor in theater and speech, because being one of those kids who wanted to do everything, that was the closest I could get to doing all the things I wanted to do.

[Howard] The everything major!

[Mary Robinette] Yes. The everything major. I was firmly convinced… So, before that, I was firmly convinced that I was going to be a veterinarian specializing in cats. Then I looked at my math grades, and… Actually, just looked at my grades in general. I was like, “Oh, hey.” It turns out I’m good at art. Went to college to do that. I… Like, I can render. I have good technical chops that I have used outside of school. I’ve been an art director. I’ve even illustrated some things. But I looked at the stuff that my friends were doing and realized that I had technique, but I didn’t actually have anything to say. With puppets, I had both. I had the technique, and I had things I wanted to say. I had a voice that was specific to me. I fell in love with that, and chased it, and did that for 20+ years. Somewhere along the way, also started writing again. Because I had stopped. Again, had that moment of, “Oh. Not only is this fun for me, but there are things I want to say.” It’s very much the storyteller with any tool you will give me. But some of them I have more things to say than others.

[Howard] That is fascinating to me, because I feel like… Well, you and I are clearly very different people. Because I feel like if I got something to say, and I have technique, then I got something to say using that technique. I’ve seen your art and was… You drew a picture on a tablet at one point when we were in Chicago. I remember looking at it and thinking why are you not just doing this. You’ve got so many wonderful things to say, and clearly you’ve got mad art chops, why don’t you say them that way? So that… I don’t understand that. I’m not denying that it’s a thing, but I just don’t understand it.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. It doesn’t make sense to me either. Honestly. I don’t know…


[Mary Robinette] Elsie however does have things to say.


[Dan] Well, let me ask you a question, Mary Robinette. Was there a specific moment or project or story that helped crystallize for you either visual art is not for me or puppetry is for me? Because of that, I have something I want to say. Is there anything specific attached or is it more broad than that?

[Mary Robinette] It’s broader. Some of it is the difference in where I am in my life, I guess. But with the… I mean, with the writing, I very clearly remember that I was… When I came back to it, my niece and nephew had moved to China with my brother. Skype was not yet reliable thing. So I started writing this story for them. If you go back pretty far into episodes, you can find a thing where we do a deep dive on an outline for… I think I was calling it Two Ordinary Children or Journey to the East, I can’t remember which. But it’s the novel that brought me back to writing. I remember that I was starting to write this thing as a serial for my niece and nephew. I thought, well, you know, I’ll just write an episode and all kind of choose your own adventure my way through it. And that I was… I was starting to think about what happened next and starting to wonder where the story was going and that I wanted to know what happened next. That was this moment of going, “Oh, I think I have something here.” That curiosity, that wonder, that is the next thing, what’s the surprise. For whatever reason, when I draw, when I paint, I love it. I really en… It’s very satisfying. But it is not surprising for me. There’s no curiosity about what’s the next thing around the corner for me.

[DongWon] I think that is such a wonderful way to think about it, and I’m so glad that you expressed it that way. I… One thing that I always encourage people against is this idea of comparison. That moment you had when you looked at the stuff that your friends were creating and what I thought you were going to say is, “And I could see they were so much better than me.” That’s not what you said. That’s a really important difference. What you said is that you found your voice and your excitement in a different style of art. So I don’t want people out there to just get discouraged and stop doing one thing. But the way you did it instead is you got very encouraged by something new and exciting and followed that passion. Which is such a better way of making that decision.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah. Like I… As I said, I use those skills. It has framed the way I approach things. I still take enormous satisfaction from it. It’s just I get more satisfaction from other things. I have stories to tell that I… The tools for me are better with puppets than with fiction.

[DongWon] You’re exploring all these different media, you’re exploring all these techniques. To sort of refill your creative tank? To sort of get back to the writing side, or is it all kind of orthogonal, incidental to each other?

[Mary Robinette] It’s… It depends. There’s… A lot of this is a new understanding of it. If you had asked me this at the beginning of… When I joined Writing Excuses, I’m sure I would have answered it differently, but I don’t know how I would have answered it. Because at the time, I didn’t understand that I had ADHD. One of the things that helps is the new. Like, I’m drawn to the new. In hindsight, it’s like, “Oh, that’s why I had a very successful career in theater,” because theater is… Everything is… It’s constantly moving to a new show. You do that show and you get really good at it. Then the season is over and you go to a new show. Or you’re doing a television show and it’s a different… Each episode is different, and you have to learn this technique and that for this particular thing. So it was constantly… New was constantly happening. With the writing, I think that’s one of the reasons that I keep moving genre is because that’s some of where that newness comes for me. But I also… One of the other things for me that is a driver, and again, it’s like, “Oh, in hindsight,” is the challenge. So the refilling of the well, it’s less about going to something else to refill the well, and more about finding something new to challenge me. So sometimes that’s the “I’m going to take my friend’s advice and try to write this book without an outline.”


[Mary Robinette] Sometimes it’s “I’m going to learn to make a Regency gown that is entirely handsewn.”

[Oh, wow.]

[Howard] Okay. On that terror inducing note, let’s take a quick break for a thing of the week, and then were going to come back and… I’ve got some cool questions queued up.

[Mary Robinette] I want to talk about The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope. So I met Leslye through a friend of a friend and was told this person is great. Then I was like, “You know, I’d like to…” Correct, Leslye is fantastic and extremely talented and smart. Then I was like, “Let me read this person’s fiction.” So I listened to The Monsters We Defy. It is such a good audiobook. So it is prohibition black Washington heist novel with ghosts. It is so good. The heist is so beautifully structured. Like, I spent a lot of time looking at how to construct a heist, and this one is so just exquisitely handled. There is the assembling of the team beats, and I love all of the teams. There’s the… There’s… Every heist, there’s a twist, and the twist is… It’s just so cleverly handled and moving in the way that it’s handled. It’s… I can’t tell you about it, but you need to listen to this book. It’s also really well narrated. It is smart, it is moving, it’s funny. It’s dealing with generational trauma. It’s dealing with fashion. It’s dealing with magic and ghosts and I love it a lot. I keep talking about it on kind of everything I go on. So, this is The Monsters We Defy by Leslye Penelope.

[Howard] I have a question about the toolbox. Because, Mary Robinette, you have thrown so many tools at us during the last decade or so. The MICE Quotient, obviously, we come back to a lot. The axes of power that you’ve talked about a little more recently. Discussions of creation of tension. Discussions of the way learning to read things aloud changes the way you write. Do you have a go to favorite when you’re stuck? When you fall back on craft, what’s the first tool you reach for?

[Mary Robinette] Yes-but, no-and. Because almost always, when I am stuck…

[Howard] Sorry. I thought you were yes-but no-anding my question. And I’m like, “It wasn’t enough?”


[DongWon] The worst improv tool ever.


[Dan] That’s going to be my new response when I get interviewed in like someone else’s podcast. Just…


[Howard] It sounds like a game. Yes-but, no-and.


[Howard] Mary Robinette, please continue.

[Mary Robinette] Yes. But…

[Howard] No.

[Mary Robinette] Okay. So, the reason that I said, “Yes-but, no-and,” is that almost always when I’m stuck, it’s because of the “Okay, but what is the next thing that supposed to happen next?” It’s usually I have a general idea of the scene and I’m in the scene and I’m like, “Oh. This is okay. But where’s? What’s the…?” So I look at what my character is trying to accomplish. So I guess in many ways the actual answer is that I go back to my theater roots and I’m like, “But what’s my motivation?” Then, once I got the motivation, it’s the question of does she succeed at this thing? It’s going to be yes, she succeeds, but there is a negative consequence. Or, no, she doesn’t succeed, and there’s a negative consequence. Then, more recently, when I’m in the latter part of the book, realizing that the but and the and represent directions of progress. So, yes is closer to the goal. But is a reversal. And is continued motion. So yes-and gets me closer to the goal. So it’s yes, and a bonus action. That has helped me so many times when I’m kind of trying to inch forward towards the ending. It’s reaching for that has been very useful in a scene. Especially if it’s like something is coming too easily for the character, or it’s coming… It’s too hard. I can, like, “Okay, you can adjust direction of action.”

[Howard] Okay. 

[Erin] I’m curious…

[Howard]  Who else has questions? Erin?

[Erin] I’m curious, yes, what the… So, you have all these amazing tools. I’m curious if there’s anything you wish you had a tool for, but you haven’t yet figured out. Something that you’re working towards figuring.

[Mary Robinette] Um… Hah… Yeah. That’s a great question. So… I’m sitting here… What… For the people who don’t have the video feed, I’m staring into the middle distance as I think about the novel that I am writing right now. I wish that… So. Huh. A thing that I have been thinking about a lot recently, which I will talk about later in the season, is the difference between conflict and tension. I wish I had a set of tools for talking about tension that is not conflict based and how to manipulate it. I’m starting to kind of be able to identify it and some of the tools to manipulate it. But it is still such a new concept to me because so much of my training as a writer has been story must have conflict. I’ve been coming to realize that a story must have tension and that conflict is the easiest way to teach that. But that I don’t think that it has to have conflict. So, like, one of the things that I’m actually trying to do in this book is have people… Is have the conflict come from the cooperation. Or have the tension come from the cooperation. It’s… It is such… Like, it is working, but I don’t have a toolbox for it. I’m definitely feeling myself… My way through it and am looking forward to being at a point where I can reverse engineer it, and can reverse engineer what other people are doing. Like, I can tell that other people… It’s like, “Okay. This is a subverted expectation.” What are the dials for setting up that expectation? What’s the point at which you subvert it? Does it matter which direction that you do the subvers… Like, when you veer off of the expectation, does it matter which direction you go? How do you control that? Like, I really… I am… That’s, for me, the toolbox that I’m excited to get my hands on next.

[DongWon] That’s so cool.

[Howard] Let me know when you’ve got that one labeled.


[DongWon] I love watching your process, Mary Robinette. Because… This reminds me of, like, there’s a thing that the physicist Richard Feynman said at some point about you don’t truly understand the concept until you can teach it to a freshman seminar.

[Mary Robinette] Yeah.

[DongWon] I see you over and over again tackle these new ideas, these new techniques, these new things. Like, watching you sort of figure out how to internalize it, how to do it, and then how to explain it to other people, seems to be the cycle that I see you go through. It’s always really exciting just to watch that and participate in it, and end up getting to reap the benefits of the results at the end there.

[Mary Robinette] My dad says that actually what I is an engineer, really. He’s sad that I didn’t go into programming.


[Mary Robinette] The rest of the world is happy that I did not.

[Howard] There is a computer somewhere that is very sorry that it’s not running a Mary Robinette Kowal program. But it’s not running one, so it’s unable to speak to us, so… Meh. Oh, well.

[Howard] Hey, do you have some homework for us?

[Mary Robinette] I do. What I want you to think about is, I want you to think about the skills that your non-writing life has given you. I talk a lot about the stuff that I’ve brought from puppetry. Dan has talked about the stuff that he’s brought from doing audio. Which is, granted, still writing, but it is the non-writing aspect. Howard talks about the stuff that he gets from drawing. DongWon and Erin are going to be talking about these things as well as we go through the season. So think about your own life. What is a lens that you have that gives you a toolset that is exciting to play with in your writing?

[Howard] Thank you very much, Mary Robinette. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.