Feminism, astronauts, and riding sidesaddle: Talking to Dreamsnake's Vonda McIntyre

It's Dreamsnake weekend for Blogging the Hugos! Today, an interview with author Vonda McIntyre about writing 1979's Hugo-winning novel, how much things have changed for women in SF, and how she hopes you don't notice the trick she pulled.

Yesterday at Blogging the Hugos, we looked at Dreamsnake, the novel that won the award in 1979. Today, we talk to author Vonda McIntyre about the book.

So, what was the impetus for writing "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," the short story that became the first chapter of Dreamsnake?

This is actually one story that I know exactly where it came from. It was a writing assignment from Avram Davidson at the 1972 Seattle Clarion West writers' workshop. He made two lists of words — one list was technological words, and the other was pastoral words. He cut the lists up, and he put them in separate Styrofoam cups, and we each had to take a word from each cup and write a story about them.

Feminism, astronauts, and riding sidesaddle: Talking to Dreamsnake's Vonda McIntyre

So we trouped off to lunch bitching and moaning about the weird words that we had. The words I had were "snake" and "cow." Now, I don't know how I ended up with what I would assume to be two pastoral words, unless for some reason Avram thought "snake" was a technological word; but that's what I ended up with. And a friend of mine said, "Ha ha ha, why don't you write a story with a protagonist named Snake?" And I said, "Oooh-kay." I went back to my room and started thinking about the story, and I couldn't figure out how to use the word "cow" until I figured out that you could use it as a verb, as in "frighten." And that's where the beginning of the story started.

So I wrote about 12 pages of the story and got stuck. And the reason I got stuck is that even though this was the 1970s and everybody was doing drugs, I didn't do that. So it took me way longer than it should have to realize that what a snake called Grass should have is hallucinogenic or some kind of psychoactive venom. Once I knew that, I wrote the story.

I turned it in — I wasn't actually a student at that workshop; I was sort of running it, but I got to sit in on the classes, and every so often I would turn in a story. So I stayed up all night writing it, went to class, turned in the story, did the workshop, came back, and crashed, because I was exhausted — I'd been awake for like 36 hours. And about an hour later, the same friend who had said "Why don't you call the protagonist Snake?" flung open the door to my room, stomped in, threw the manuscript on the floor, and said, "How dare you write a story that makes me feel sorry for snakes!"

And I went, "Huh? OK" — and went back to sleep.

Where did the idea of using snakes for medicinal purposes come from?

Well, you know, the snake is on the symbol of the medical profession, and that must have been part of it. Also, I always felt like snakes got a bad deal.

The book is quietly subversive that way: You've got people feeling sorry for snakes, and the snakes, instead of being scary creatures that will harm you, being used to help people. Besides that, you've got a female hero. And instead of sort of fighting her way through enemies to get to her goal, Snake is actively opposed to that. And her "powers," so to speak are defensive — her immunity to venom, and then just her endurance; there are a lot of scenes where she's pushing just to stay on her feet. Were you trying to be subversive that way, or is that sort of thing more instinctive?

A lot of that stuff happens in your brain before you're really conscious of it, but when I was writing the book, you know, it was the 1970s and the modern feminist movement was just gaining steam. And there was a lot of controversy in science fiction about whether women should have anything to do with science fiction at all, which I actually found quite hurtful. And I didn't want to do the same thing that everybody else had done for the last 50 years.

On another blog, you said you got some flak for writing Arevin as a male character who wasn't traditionally masculine. He is a really strong character, but not in a hitting people, rough-and-tough way.

I still sometimes get flak for it. It seems like some folks can't tell the difference between a secondary character and a weak character. He's not the protagonist of the book; he's a secondary character, so of course he doesn't have as much screen time as Snake does. And some reviewers and critics seem to think that means he's some kind of a wimp. I mean, this is a guy who goes off into completely unknown territory to try to right what he perceives as a terrible wrong. That's a classic story. It just happens to be the B story instead of the A story.

There's a review that keeps popping up — it's actually a pretty perceptive review, up till the end, where the guy says, "And then she completely blows her feminist credentials by having Arevin ride in and save the day." But that's not what happens in the last chapter! It's not even close to what happens in the last chapter.

Yeah, Arevin shows up and it's a handy device to have him there because it finishes his quest and brings him and Snake together again, and because it's handy for her to have him to lean on — but it's very clear that she made it out herself and that it wasn't contingent upon him appearing at that moment.

Right, and she also has to practically kick him out of her camp because he keeps saying, "What you want me to do is pointless and useless." And she keeps saying, "No, it's not, and if you're not going to help me, get the hell out of here!"

What was the process of turning the story into the novel? Did the short story win the Nebula, and then you or someone said, "OK, now this should be turned into a full-blown novel"? And did you have to make the rest of the novel up from scratch, or did you have some ideas based on having written The Exile Waiting in the same world?

Actually, that isn't what happened at all. What happened was that the characters, at the end of "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand," didn't like where I left them. They kind of demanded that I write the rest of the story. That sounds kind of goofy, but I'm sure you've found that a lot of writers will tell you the same thing, that their characters have this independent existence. They have minds of their own, and they kind of tell you what to do.

Feminism, astronauts, and riding sidesaddle: Talking to Dreamsnake's Vonda McIntyre

It's been a long time since I wrote the book, and I don't remember exactly when I realized that Dreamsnake and The Exile Waiting were set on the same world, more or less at the same time. I've never actually decided which one comes first. And I don't think it really matters, because they don't really intersect.

I wrote the short story, and then I wrote the book and Analog wanted to publish some of it. But they couldn't serialize it, because they'd already published "Of Mist, and Grass, and Sand." They couldn't reprint it, because their readers would be justifiably annoyed at getting the same story again. So I extracted a couple of novelette-length pieces from it. Because it's a quest story, so it's almost by definition episodic. But what I didn't do is write several short stories and then stitch them together.

My assumption is that the setting is Earth, but I've read other reviewers saying it could be Earth. Is it Earth in your mind?

I think it's Earth.

It's funny — when the book came out, I got a number of letters from people saying, "So, um, how do I learn biocontrol?" And I had to write them back and say, "One of the reasons I put it in the book is that I hope someone will figure that out."

What about the snakes? We get a sense of how they work, and I know snake venom is used in medical research, but how did you imagine them working?

I just made it up completely out of whole cloth. I wrote the book well before not only Google, but before the Internet and before personal computers. So getting that kind of information was not anywhere near as easy as it is now. The ease of getting information now is actually kind of a problem if you're writing something, because it's easy for people to fact-check you, and if you fact-check every single word in your book, you end up never writing the book; and if you get something wrong, then somebody is going to notice it and then they're going to excoriate you. And even if you do get everything right, they're going to excoriate you anyway, because they think they know what they're talking about, but they don't!

There's an Amazon review of The Moon and the Sun, and it complains that the main character is too perfect and does impossible things. The example the reviewer uses of an impossible thing is that she stays on a horse, at a gallop, in a sidesaddle. Now, I've ridden sidesaddle; I've ridden sidesaddle over fences. The scary thing about sidesaddle is not that you fall off; the scary thing is that you can't get out if you're in trouble. And the women who were riding knew it was dangerous and knew they could be killed, and they took that risk deliberately because it gave them a measure of freedom they didn't have in their lives. But anyway, this guy has certainly never ridden sidesaddle, but other people are going to read the review and assume he knows what he's talking about, so, you know, McIntyre's an idiot. Somebody responded to the review — I swear to God it wasn't me — and said it was wrong, but you never know if anybody's going to read that. When people say you got X, Y, and Z wrong, and you know you didn't, you sort of think, "Why am I doing all this research?"

With Dreamsnake, I made most of it up. I don't actually remember if I knew that there was any medical research going on with snakes. You know, I wrote the short story in 1972 — I don't know if there was any research going on with snake venom then. I think that's a later thing that happened. But for the story, I made it up. I'm a fiction writer! I make stuff up. It's my job. If it's something I can get information about, I try to get it right, but you can't get everything right. You just do your best, and then people hit you on the head with a rolled-up newspaper anyway. [Laughs]

What's your favorite thing about Dreamsnake?

Being handed a Nebula by an astronaut was pretty cool. I think it was for the short story. Edgar Mitchell was at the ceremony, and that was really neat.

The book itself, I liked contravening some of the conventions of SF. I don't remember learning to read, but the first thing I remember was an SF novel. So I grew up reading science fiction. And a little girl reading science fiction in the 1950s — you had to twist your brain around a little bit to put yourself in those stories, because you weren't there most of the time. And society all around you was telling you that girls should be this and girls should be that, and if you weren't like that, you really felt like an outsider.

How much better do you think it's gotten? When Dreamsnake won the Hugo, you were the third woman to win for a novel; there have been five others since.

Is that all? Really?

Yeah, after you it was C.J. Cherryh, Joan Vinge, Lois McMaster Bujold, Connie Willis, and J.K. Rowling. [Update: In the comments, SF_Strangelove notes that it was actually six. Susanna Clarke won in 2005 for Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norell.]

Gosh, I didn't know. But I am gonna say it's changed enormously. It really has. You don't see people who should know better saying women shouldn't be writing SF, and women don't read SF, and there shouldn't be women characters in SF, which were all conversations that were going on in the early 1970s.

That's crazy.

Well, it was, but it wasn't crazy at the time. It was a reflection of the way society was. How old are you?

I'm 34.

Feminism, astronauts, and riding sidesaddle: Talking to Dreamsnake's Vonda McIntyre

Oh, OK. You have no idea, and it's really neat that you have no idea what it was like. It's really neat that young women have no idea what it was like. Because they just haven't had to put up with people saying, "Why are you going to college? Why do you want to take calculus? Girls can't do calculus." Occasionally you hear people say things like that, but everybody looks at them like they were from — I don't want to say Mars; I want to say a cave. Like they've been in a cave for 50 years.

One thing I want to emphasize is that people like Kate Wilhelm, and Ursula Le Guin, and Joanna Russ, and Andre Norton, and Anne McCaffrey, and Marion Zimmer Bradley kicked down doors in their generation that people in my generation got to walk through. I don't think I would have existed as the writer I am now if it weren't for those writers. What they did was amazing, because when they were kicking down those doors, those doors were a lot stronger and a lot thicker.

And the time frame is actually kind of short, but there was a huge difference between publishing in the early 1970s and publishing in the 1960s.

Dreamsnake was actually quite controversial when it came out. There weren't that many science-fiction with biology as the speculative element, so that was something that was unusual. There weren't all that many with kids in them; there certainly weren't many SF novels with abused kids in them. That was a subject that people hadn't focused on or dealt with. And having a woman as a protagonist — the book just deals with a lot of stuff that wasn't being dealt with very much at that time in science fiction, and some people had a problem with that.

Was it, generally speaking, an age gap? Was it the older guard who really had a problem with that stuff, or was it even coming from guys who were your age?

That's a good question. I say it was controversial, but the book also got a lot of really positive attention, and obviously it won some big awards. The positive reaction I got to it far outweighed the negative stuff. But of course, as a writer, you see the negative stuff even if you try to avoid it, and it just burns itself into your brain. There was a newspaper in my parents' hometown where the guy wrote this incredibly negative review — he just hated the book, he hated everything about it. For literally 20 years after that review, I would occasionally meet someone who would say, "You know, I read that review and I read your book, and that guy's an asshole!" [Laughs]

Was The Exile Waiting the only other story set on this postapocalyptic Earth? And what was going on in your head that made that setting appealing to you?

Yeah, it was. I think that because I read so much SF when I was a kid, that kind of background sort of permeated my idea of what a science-fiction novel should be. But I think there was also an element of "There's some ideas that I want to explore, and I can't figure out how to get from where we are now to what I want to think about without kind of knocking everything down and starting over again." Now, in retrospect, I don't think that's really a very good idea! Knocking everything down and starting over again — there's this feeling in the SF world that "Of course, I would be one of the people who would still be there after everything is knocked down." For one, I don't think I believe that — I am extremely shortsighted; if I didn't have access to a pair of glasses, I would be doomed. So the whole "science-fiction loner setting out across the apocalyptic universe" is really pretty fantastical. And knocking everything down and starting over again completely ignores the suffering of all the people who get knocked down, and all the creatures and eco-systems that get destroyed.

Of course, we may not have to have an actual apocalypse for that to happen. Biological creatures have a habit of changing their environments to the point where they can't live in them anymore. Anyway, I hope we're smart enough to figure out a way to keep civilization and people and the diversity of the world, but sometimes I wonder. I wrote a story about this — it's called "A Modest Proposal for the Perfection of Nature," and it was published in Nature.

How did Dreamsnake end up going out of print?

Feminism, astronauts, and riding sidesaddle: Talking to Dreamsnake's Vonda McIntyre

Dreamsnake got caught in a couple of different publisher meltdowns, so unlike most Hugo and Nebula winners, that have stayed in print, it kind of went into print and then fell right back out. Which was really discouraging. And some folks on an email list that I subscribe to, a couple of years ago decided to start an authors' co-op, which is Book View Cafe, where we would offer our backlist books that we had the rights to people to read. And this developed into an electronic bookstore, which we're working on streamlining. We're all volunteers; we have one person who gets paid way too little to help with the programming of the site.

It's gotten a good bit of attention. We just published a benefit anthology for a small nonprofit working in the Gulf of Mexico. It's called the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund, and the book is called Breaking Waves. Everything about is volunteer, and what that means is that we can give all of the money that comes in to the fund. My family used to winter on Sanibel Island in the gulf. The place was paradise, and to see what has happened to it is just breaking my heart.

One of the other things that struck me about Dreamsnake was the names. You go from, in the first chapter, Stavin and Arevin — they're sort of more traditional, odd-sounding SF names. And then you've got Alex and Jesse and Gabriel and Brian and so on.

I wanted the names of people in specific groups to have a relationship to each other, so that you didn't have a made-up name in a group where everybody else had a more conventional name. So the healers have a particular way of naming people, and the people in Mountainside have a particular way of naming people, and the people in Arevin's group have a particular way of naming people, only you really don't know that much about it, because they mostly don't tell their names to anybody.

What about Merideth? I was one of the people who read the book and didn't notice at all that the character had no given gender. (To me, it's always been a woman's name, so I saw the character as female.) Do you think a lot of people catch that?

No. What I usually hear from people is that they read that character as male or female. And it doesn't seem to me that guys think it's a guy or women think it's a girl. I don't know how people decide whether Merideth is a man or a woman.

I don't usually do sort of "experimental," tricky writing things, but I had been in this workshop where I was told that I absolutely had to identify the sex of my character in the first mention of the character — preferably, in the first word. And what that means is that you don't say the sex of the character if it's a man, because that's the default sex. And that comment made me so — it just outraged me, to the point where I decided that you would never find out, by anything that I said, what sex Merideth was. It just made me so mad to be told that people would not put up with a character if they didn't find out immediately whether it was a man or a woman, that I had contravened some unbreakable law of the universe. It just made me mad! I'm usually a pretty laid-back person, but it just outraged me and I decided to be sneaky and never tell you. And if you didn't notice what I was doing, then I'm really flattered, because that was the idea.

I haven't actually kept any kind of tally, and it wouldn't be accurate anyway, but it seems to me that most people read that section and don't notice the sneaky thing I was doing. And that's great.

Do you have a personal opinion on Merideth's sex? Is there a right answer?

I only know on Thursdays when the moon is full.

Photograph of Vonda McIntyre, c. 1979, by Gary L. Benson

See our review of Dreamsnake here.

"Blogging the Hugos" appears every other weekend. In the next installment: The Fountains of Paradise, by Arthur C. Clarke, from 1980. Subscribe to the RSS feed and follow @blogginghugos on Twitter for updates.

Josh Wimmer is a freelance writer in Madison, WI. He can usually be found here.