Mary Robinette Kowal explains why working within constraints makes you more creative


Mary Robinette Kowal is not only a Hugo and Campbell award-winning and Nebula-nominated author, she's also a professional puppeteer, a costumer, a podcaster, an editor, outgoing SFWA vice president, and more. Her second novel Glamour in Glass, the sequel to Shades of Milk and Honey, comes out on April 10.

Kowal talks to io9 about what artificial intelligence has in common with Regency magic, and tells us what to expect from the sequel to Milk and Honey — which, by the way, is just $2.99 in e-book form for the next 10 days.


We're so excited for Glamour! Can you give us a few hints as to what's in store for Jane and Vincent in their next adventure?

Glamour in Glass is set in 1815. It's no secret, because it's actual history, that Napoleon was sent into exile in 1814. For the first time in years, the Continent was safe and many people flocked over from Britain. Including a certain happily married couple. In February of 1815, Napoleon escaped from exile and marched on Paris. This led up to a little battle called Waterloo. So... if you were on Honeymoon just down the road from Waterloo, things could get a little dicey.

How did you come up with the system of magic? Anyone can posit "Jane Austen, but with a little magic", but developing that into a serious book is tougher.


With Shades of Milk and Honey I wanted to see if I could fit fantasy into a Jane Austen plot structure. That meant that my main character had to be a young lady of quality. If I wanted her to do magic, which I did, then it could not be a trade because young ladies of quality didn't have jobs. They did decorative things. I kept having to strip the magic back in order to keep from breaking the Regency.

How many more books will there be in "The Glamourist Histories"?

There are currently four scheduled. In 2013, we've got Without a Summer and that will be followed by Valour and Vanity.


Both your Hugo-winning story "For Want of a Nail" and your current Nebula nominee "Kiss Me Twice" deal with people interacting with artificial intelligences and the question "Are AI's people too?" Is that a theme, a coincidence, or just a really cool science fictional idea?


To me, they actually have the same theme as Shades of Milk and Honey, which is the nature of self. I'm very interested in how people define themselves and how they are affected by the way others perceive them. "Are AI's people too?" is another way to ask that question. In the Regency, the question was, "Do women have a role besides being decorative?" It's all a question of definitions, to me.

How did you get added to the podcast Writing Excuses?

In 2009, Howard Tayler asked me if I would be a guest on Writing Excuses. I sat down with him, Dan Wells, and Brandon Sanderson, to talk about writing and wound up discussing how my career in puppetry shaped the way I wrote. Little did I know that they had been secretly auditioning female hosts for a permanent spot on the program. The following year they asked me to do another guest spot — still secret auditions — and then offered me a permanent spot on the show. It's been great fun. The fellows all live in the Salt Lake City area so I fly in every few months and we record a bajillion episodes at one time.


So how does a nice girl like you get involved with what the Internet refers to as "That weird Icelandic kids' show"? Was it fun? Is Iceland really as otherworldly and alien as it looks, or is it all McDonald's and skyscrapers?

My life seems to involve a lot of auditions. Basically, I auditioned for the show and was hired as a mid-season replacement for some puppeteers who were heading back to the States. I absolutely adored working on Lazytown and would happily go back if circumstances allowed it. Not only was the show fun, but Iceland is amazing.


It is like living in Middle Earth, but with modern amenities. They have amazing health care, the cleanest water I've ever experienced, and a self-reliance that is inspiring. The landscape is just magic. There was one area that I jokingly called the Land of a Thousand Throw Pillows. It was a volcanic landscape covered by a dense, rich moss that you could sink your fingers in all the way up to the palm. Unreal and lovely.

You brought us the wonderful "Month of Letters Challenge". What made you decide to do it, how surprised by the media coverage were you, and how many pieces of mail did you send and receive? Do we get to do it again next year?


In September 2010, I took a month off from the internet. I had a writing retreat scheduled and was tired so decided that I just needed to unplug for awhile. I set up an auto-responder on my website saying that I was "declining" email because if I came back to 5000 emails, then it wasn't really a vacation. I gave an email address for my agent, for timely communications, but otherwise asked people to write to me after September 1st. Almost as a lark, I suggested that if people wanted to write to me by postal mail, that I would write back.

To my surprise, people did and I rediscovered how much I enjoyed sending and receiving mail. With email, there's an expectation of immediate response, because it can be so fast. There's no such expectation with letters, so it winds up being much more contemplative. I loved it and decided to issue a challenge.


Truly, I was expecting maybe 75 people to jump in. I did not expect it to go viral and certainly not to go international. It's been amazing and wonderful. I sent 320+ pieces of mail during February (We lost track because one batch went to the post office before I'd recorded it) and am still getting letters from participants. It's slowed down significantly, but it's quite pleasant.

And yes, we'll definitely be doing the Month of Letters Challenge in 2013.

You collect manual typewriters: how many do you have now, how much do they weigh, and how much hassle are they to pack up for your upcoming cross-country move?


We have 16 typewriters ranging in age from 1907 to 1938. The heaviest weighs 35 lbs and is a German Diplomat that does not even pretend to be portable. The portable ones were really easy to pack for the move, since they are small and already have cases. The desk machines... it's like packing a small car.

Tell us about the whistle-stop ad hoc book signing tour.

In April, the same month that Glamour in Glass comes out, my husband and I are moving from Portland, OR to Chicago, IL. He's been hired as winemaker at City Winery Chicago and his start date is May 1st. What's a girl with a new book to do? Well... since we're driving through all of these cities we're doing the Moving Book Tour.
We will stop at any bookstore within five miles of the interstate to sign books. So people can look at my moving route online, and let us know that there's a store we should stop at.


It also offers people the rare chance to meet my husband and our two cats.

I alternate between thinking this will be fun and that it is the worst idea that I've ever had. If nothing else, it will make a good story. If we survive it.


Will we see any of your puppet work at Worldcon?

In fact, you will. I'm not at liberty to say much about it, only that it will be in a context in which one does not usually see a puppet. I'm very much looking forward to the event.


How do you stay sane when you spend so much time in airports?

My first professional gig was with a touring puppet theater. I spent nine months of the year on the road in a cargo van. After that, airports seem like luxury malls.


Should we try to get the Regency-era exclamation 'La!' back into use? It's so much nicer than "So there" or "pfft".

Well, I'm all for that as a concept. I ran across the exclamation in Sense and Sensibility and adopted it for Melody. To my surprise, I find myself using it in modern life. True, it has slightly ironic overtones in a contemporary setting but, la!, it's so useful.


How does working within limits (puppeteering instead of acting, writing Glamour in Glass only with the vocabulary Austen actually used) improve your work?

I think that working within design constraints forces anyone to be more creative. When you can do anything, frequently there is no focus to the work. It sprawls. Take Spider-Man, on Broadway, as an example of something that could have benefited from being constrained. When I'm teaching puppet building in schools, I confine students to using only paper for decoration. If I offer them yarn or glitter, they focus on the materials rather than the effect. When they have a limited set of materials, they don't get distracted by the shiny. It's not that artists should be hampered in order to create art, but that being hampered forces one to rely on the innate creativity instead of throwing all the shiny bits at the page.


With the Austen vocabulary, I did not try to compose with the limited word list. I wrote the story as it occurred to me and then went back and pared it down to the words that existed prior to 1815. There are concepts that did not exist in 1815 and the language reflects that. Take the word "reaction" for instance. That existed as a chemistry term, but the idea of an individual having an emotional "reaction" was not in the language. I had to completely recast the entire sentence to approximate that meaning. Yet, I always had to remember that I was writing for a modern audience.


The constraints make me conscious of the choices I'm making. Whether I'm looking at paper, or a puppet, or a word, the choice to use that tool shapes the final product. The limits put the emphasis on the choice, rather than on the medium.

What can we look forward to besides more of The Glamourist Histories?

I have a story called "Mercury Retrograde" in the anthology "Willful Impropriety" that comes out September 4. I'm working on an audio novelette for an anthology called "Rip-off" for, edited by Gardner Dozois. It's a series of stories each of which starts with the first line of a classic piece of literature and then goes somewhere totally different.


If you had spare time, what would you do with it, besides pet your cats more?

Nap? Definitely nap.


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