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Transcript for Episode 18.03

Writing Excuses 18.03: An Interview with Erin Roberts

From https://writingexcuses.com/2023/01/15/18-03-an-interview-with-erin-roberts/

Key Points: Erin Roberts. Working nonprofit communications, then science fiction, fantasy, and horror. MFA! Short stories, and beyond. Telling stories about the way the world is, and the way it could be. The black experience in the American South. Game writing, letting people play in your world. It’s all storytelling and worldbuilding. Getting paid? Be scrappy. Check out grants, residencies, and scholarships. Look at projects for creative nurturing, setting you up for the future, and it pays well. Love the work you do.

[Season 18, Episode 3]

[Mary Robinette] This is Writing Excuses.
[DongWon] An Interview with Erin Roberts.
[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 Howard.

[DongWon] So today we are talking with Erin Roberts. We’re going to find out a little bit more about her background and where she comes from and the perspective that she’s bringing to the podcast. So let… I kind of wanted to start with you’ve said that you’re kind of the early-stage writer here among the five of us, and you’re bringing that perspective to the podcast. So let’s just dive right in. Where did you get your start? What was the thing that brought you to writing as a serious thing that you were pursuing?
[Erin] Great questions. So I often think of myself as a little bit of a late bloomer, because I was just going about my life, living, working the nonprofit field, doing my thing. In New York, there’s the Gotham Writers Center. They were having a class on writing science fiction and fantasy in person, which was like the first time they’d had it in person ever. I decided to take the class, and had a really great professor who just… Was actually, “You’re not bad at this. Like, you might want to look into this some more, like this writing thing. It could work out for you.” Which is why I love teaching, and why I think teaching is so important, because you just need somebody to kind of believe in you and say, “Like, this could work.” So that was not that many years ago. I think it was 2014. So, 2014, 2015. I had not been doing any writing or other than in the margins of my notebooks during boring work meetings. So I just decided to mainline writing. Basically, like think of me with an IV with writing [garbled] coming into it. So I went off to Odyssey writing workshop, I went and got an MFA, I listened to Writing Excuses podcasts…
[Chuckles]
[Erin] I did everything that I could to just try to learn about it. But I really kind of came sort of out of nowhere in my life and decided to take this kind of radical shift.

[DongWon] That’s such an exciting transition. When… What was your first sale? Like, how long did it take you to get to that first professional sale?
[Erin] My first sale was in… I think it was 2016. It was actually while I was at the MFA program, which was great because it forced me to write all the time because I had to turn in things to my professors or they would beat me.
[Chuckles]
[Erin] Not really. They… So I was turning in things all the time and working on stories. I think actually the first story I sold, Wolfy Things, was something I wrote during Odyssey, and then reworked a bit during my MFA, and then sold to PodCastle. Go, PodCastle. Just really… It was just like a couple of years for that to happen. Then I just kept writing and had a few more sales. I had a few things out in 2018. Then blah blah blah pandemic. I’ve been doing a few other things with my time as well, but I continue to love and work in the short story form.
[DongWon] Was that the first place you had submitted to or had you submitted to several places before you got there? Like, how long did it take you from the time that you’re like, “I think this is good enough to send out,” to it ending up on PodCastle?
[Erin] That one took… It took a little bit of a journey. It went around the world. You know that old song? “Been around the world, and I, I, I, I can’t find my baby.” It’s like that, but with short stories. So, I think it was maybe the 10th or 11th, it took a while for that one to sell. That’s how it goes a lot of the time.
[Mary Robinette] I was wondering, because you talked about the MFA. I know that you’re a science fiction, fantasy, sometimes horror. I always hear people talking about how difficult it is to do science fiction and fantasy in an MFA program. Did you have any pushback? Is that where you started? Like, what was that like?
[Erin] I specifically picked the Stone Coast MFA program because they are science fiction and fantasy, horror, friendly. I will say that from the time that I went to the MFA program, which was like 2017 2018 to now, programs in general have become much more friendly to speculative fiction. I see that now as somebody who teaches at a university, the people that they’re looking for as professors, the classes that they’re offering. I think people were like, “it was a fad. It’ll go away.” Then they were like, “It didn’t go away, and our students are going to write it. So we might as well bring people on who know about it, and who don’t turn up their noses at it.” So I think we’re actually coming into a really rich, amazing hero for learning about speculative fiction in an MFA program, if that’s the thing that you want to do.

[Howard] Okay. So, in 1999, my next-door neighbor had just gotten out of medical school and started an OB/GYN practice at age 45.
[Mary Robinette] I cannot wait to see where this segue goes.
[Howard] He had no idea… He’d been a gym coach…
[Erin] [garbled to me]
[Howard] A collegiate gym coach, and then decided, “No, this isn’t what I want to do with my life.” It was super inspiring to me. I quit my day job doing software middle management to become a cartoonist. I’ve seen in my own life that there’s a huge effect on my writing that comes from all that stuff that happened before hand. So the question for you… Yes, you say you came to writing late. There’s nothing wrong with that. You frontloaded with all of this information, all of this life experience. How has that colored, how has that altered, how has that affected the things that you create?
[Erin] Oo, I love that question. In part because I don’t really know. I think it’s something that… It’s something good to think about more. I think it’s something we all could think about more. Because you are you. Sort of like if your face changes every day, you don’t notice it. It’s when you go and you look at someone else and they’re like, “Oh, my gosh, your face has shifted.” How this is happened, I don’t know. But you see yourself differently than other people see you. So the experiences I’ve had to me are just the experiences that I’ve had. But I’ve had a lot of fun times. Like I… There are things that I’ve learned in working the nonprofit sector, in working in the social justice philanthropy, this really… That really impacted the way that I think about how writing can create positive change in the world, the ways in which we see the world. One of the things that you learn a lot when you work in nonprofits, and I worked in nonprofit communications, is that there are well-worn paths that we have in our thinking a lot of the time. Part of what you try to do when you’re in my job is to shift that path a little bit, and say, “Hey, you know, the world could be a little different if we go this different way.” Writing can do that, fiction writing does that as well. Every piece of fiction is telling some sort of story about the world, the way it is, the way it could be. I think that having thought about that differently outside of the fiction world really helped me think differently about how fiction does that as well.

[DongWon] Great. Let’s take a break for a second to talk about the thing of the week, and we will be right back with more from Erin Roberts about how to build a career and how to build a life in the writing world.
[Erin] All right. Our thing of the week is Dungeons & Dragons, y’all. It is Journeys through the Radiant Citadel which is a Dungeons & Dragons adventure book. It’s a compilation of different adventures, including one written by me, yours truly, Erin Roberts, that’s about horror and Southern Gothic and black folks. But what’s really important and exciting about this book is in thinking about the different perspectives that we all bring to the table in the way that it shapes the world’s that we create, Journeys through the Radiant Citadel is a D&D book, an official out from the Wizards of the Coast D&D book that was written entirely by people of color. Bringing our own lived experiences and perspectives to the page and saying, medieval European fantasy, awesome. But what else can I bring to the table? For me, it was what can I bring about the black experience in the American South. For other folks, it was what can I bring from Mexico. From other folks, it was all around the world. So people were really bringing themselves to the table and saying, “Play in our world. Experience our adventures. Just have a good old time, in a D&D way.” So, it’s Journeys through the Radiant Citadel, and it’s out from Wizards of the Coast.

[Dan] All right. So I have a question for you. As someone who has also worked in the gaming industry, I’m really fascinated to hear about your game writing. How did you get into that? What are your plans for it in the future? Do you see yourself as primarily a game writer, primarily a fiction writer who does games? Tell us about that aspect of your career.
[Erin] Sure. I’ll start with the second part first, which is that I think of myself as a storyteller. Really, what it’s about is figuring out what’s the best venue to tell each story. So there are times when you want to control the story, you want to know exactly how the person is moving through it. That’s what prose is great for. That’s where you’re trying to control everything from where somebody takes a breath to what they think of the characters. Not always successfully, but that’s a little bit of the dream. In game writing, you’re letting people play a little bit in your world. Part of it is creating a backdrop for other people to tell their stories. So it’s just a very different type of storytelling. But it’s all storytelling, and it’s all worldbuilding, which is one of my favorite parts of just storytelling as a whole, and why I’ve always liked science fiction and fantasy and horror. For me, I got involved because a very kind person, I told them I really wanted to do some game writing. Ajit George, an amazing game writer himself, he passed my name to a few folks, and then I wrote for them and they were like, “Come back and write more. And write more, and write more.” Because as… If you’re ever a freelancer or someone working in a field like that, getting the first job is hard, getting the second job is harder, and the third is the hardest. Because that’s where you really have to prove that you’ve got your mettle, and that like it wasn’t a complete fluke. So I will continue working and going forward and doing more game writing and doing more storytelling in all forms.

[DongWon] That’s amazing, and that kind of segues into a thing that I’m wondering about. Because I’m a literary agent. My concern is how do we get people paid for the creative work that they do. Right? You’ve mentioned some creative sale… Or professional sales. Doing the game writing. What does that look like for you in terms of putting together a sustainable life that is centered around your storytelling, around your writing?
[Erin] I’m a scrappy, scrappy girl. So I’m all about making sure that I get paid, no matter where it comes from. One thing that I think we could all be is a little bit scrappier, actually. Obviously in… One of the great things about speculative fiction is that people are generally paid, especially in the short story world, which they aren’t in other genres. But like I’ve gotten my local jurisdiction to give me grants. Like, I’m a big fan of grants, of residencies, of scholarships. There is money out in the world for people who… They’re just like, “We want you to write more. We want to support that.” A lot of times, they’re not even getting as many applications as they could. So I’m taking all the money. I’m going to just ruin my life here by telling other people to like look and see what’s available in your area. Even if you take the money out of my pocket, I want other folks to have it as well. But I’ve used grants, I’ve used freelance jobs, game writing pays. It’s doing a little bit of everything to balance it out. One of my favorite things when I’m trying to decide what I want to do next and take on a project is something I saw recently on Twitter that apparently Dolly Parton says, which is to decide it’s got to do two of the following three things. One, it nurtures you creatively. Two, it sets you up for the future. And three, it pays well. So if it does two of those three, definitely consider it. If it does all three, you probably want to do it if you can. Also, I would say, if you can like keep your own health and sleep at night and have relationships with other people. But those are the things that kind of I think about. But money is definitely one of them. So, get scrappy.
[DongWon] That is such fantastic advice. I love that so much. I just want to add one last note, just to tag onto that, is I so wish more science fiction and fantasy writers knew about the grants, knew about how to apply for residencies. It’s a thing that’s incredibly common in the literary world. I’ve seen writers really build a whole life for themselves, even before publishing their first story, even before publishing their first book. Really, just do some searching, learn how to write a grant application, learn how to apply for residencies. See what’s out there, and there’s a ton of opportunities to help you figure out how to build a life that is centered on writing that isn’t necessarily about directly getting paid for the fiction that you’re putting on the page.

[Howard] Okay. So, Erin, I don’t know that I’ve got the dates right here, but sometime between 2010 and 2014, something happened where you went from doing the thing, or doing all the things, you were doing many things, and you decided, “Hey, I think I want to be a writer.” What was it about writing that appealed to you? I mean, was it something you read? What planted the hook? What was it that so gigged you out of what you were doing before and pulled you into this horrible world we all live in now?
[Erin] Well, I’ll tell you a secret about myself first. Which is that I love most things that I do. I think a lot of folks, there’s this theory that you sort of have like your soul sucking regular life jobs and things, and then like your creative amazingness. I loved my work in the nonprofit field, and there’s another version of me who’s doing that now. But what I loved about it was the ability to… I love puzzles. I love the puzzle of figuring out how to take the story that’s in your head and put it on the page. I just finished working on a story and I… There’s the thing that happens where you’re working on a sentence and you realize, “I’ve got it. Oh, my gosh, this thing is in my head, it now came out, and it came out the perfect way that it was supposed to.” To me, there’s magic in that. In really being able to… Who knows where it’s happening in your brainstem, but that process is something that’s so magical. Trying to capture that magic, even on the days when I want to like shred everything I’ve ever written, is part of what keeps me going and keeps me motivated from day to day.
[Mary Robinette] I love that so much. It’s something that I think is unfashionable, the idea that we love what we do. The fiction of the “oh, the angst… Oh, it’s so hard, my writing, my craft. I suffer for it.” We never hear the “I love what I do. Look at that, I wrote something good.” So, I’m delighted to hear that that is part of what guides you.
[Erin] Absolutely.
[DongWon] Yeah. For me, it’s always like I think writers are their own best advocates. No one’s going to fight better or more clearly or more cogently then you will. I think that starts with loving what you do and loving your work. Erin, it’s just such a delight to hear you talk about that and about that aspect of it.

[DongWon] So, Erin, I believe you have our homework for us this week.
[Erin] I do. This has been an amazing time, because it’s gotten me to think about what’s brought me to where I am. So the homework is to think about what’s brought you to where you are. When you write, when you read, you bring a bit of yourself to the table. So write down what are three things that have happened in your life that you loved as a storytelling conceit. It could be anything from the real world to the imaginary, that you think you carry with you and that you bring to the page. Either when you’re reading or when you’re writing.
[Mary Robinette] That’s wonderful homework. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.