An interview with UMass Boston's own Laurie J. Marks
By Andrea Olson
Boston-area fantasy author Laurie J. Marks is gearing up for the release of her newest book, Water Logic, the third installment in her Elemental Logic series. Does that name ring a bell? It should – Marks is an instructor of composition at none other than UMass Boston, where she shares her impressive gifts as a writer with her students. In an exclusive interview with The Mass Media, Marks talks about the challenges she experienced working on her new book, and her equally challenging work at the university.
- Mass Media: Your series, Elemental Logic, is known for flipping conventions of the fantasy genre on its head. What inspired you to write the series? Did you start out with the goal of attempting to reinvent and revitalize what you felt was a stale genre, or was this a story that came to you one day and you thought, “I need to write this”?
- Laurie Marks: Neither one of those things, actually. The series actually started out looking a lot more conventional than it does now. It happens that, especially with the first book, Fire Logic, it was an old project that I hadn't looked at for more than 10 years before I picked it up and started looking at it again. And during those 10 years, I had at least begun to make a transition from being devoted to traditional, conventional fantasy tropes to being much more conscious of my own restlessness with them. They were too formulaic; they had lost their freshness and their ability to have an impact on me as a reader of this stuff. I was thinking, “Oh, God, not unicorns again.”
- But I was also hanging out with a different crowd of people who were writers that didn't just take those tropes and conventions as given. I think their influence made me more objective about my own genre. The traditional fantasy story focuses on a hero who is special, having had some kind of hard-luck life, who finds some kind of talisman and ends up saving the world from something. And it's always grounded in this good-versus-evil assumption – that there is this great war going on between good and evil – and good is going to win, ultimately through violence.
- I had never actually been committed to that kind of thinking. But I think more and more as I grew older I was thinking, “Wait a minute, I'm a pacifist, why am I writing this stuff?” or “Wait a minute, I'm a feminist, why am I writing this stuff?” I really started to understand that these simplistic ideas of good versus evil don't actually make sense. So I ended up working with this old story that I already kind of had worked out in my head – and yet I had come to realize this new set of values, and I ended up with this book that looks like a traditional fantasy novel, but isn't in any way. It was kind of a happy accident.
- MM: You sound like you're very happy with it. Are you?
- LM: Absolutely. It's definitely the best work I've done. Fire Logic earned the best reviews that my writing has ever received. But I actually think Earth Logic [the second installment] is a better book, and that almost never happens with any kind of series. It was really in Earth Logic that I had a sense of what I was doing, and I was able to do it deliberately and do it well.
- MM: You mentioned your frustration with black-and-white, oversimplified dynamics in fantasy stories. Your characters reflect that frustration – they're forced to make tough decisions, and one character in particular comments on the frustration she feels in being forced into a leadership role where she is expected to be a symbol of force instead of wise and level headed. Your characters are forced to compromise. Do you think that grew out of growing older and reevaluating your beliefs, or out of current events in the world? Or was it something else entirely?
- LM: It definitely was a matter of more maturity and experience on my part. We all go from having these simple, rigid beliefs into having a more complex and malleable set of categories. We start to realize that anything we think is true is only kind of true. That was part of it.
- Part of it also was my increasing experience with the politics of the world. I had been an activist in college, and one of the things, at least with college-level activism, is that it really does draw on that impulse to divide the world into good and evil. So, in other words, my career as an activist during those years was in a lot of ways applying this “sword and sorcery” mythology to it. I had more exposure to the fact that these groups that I did admire – and still do – for their courage ended up causing more problems than they solved, even if they were right, and they ended up doing things that were morally reprehensible in the service of their ultimate aims, no matter how good they were. I started getting this idea that no matter who was good and who was evil, for them to fight each other was the dumbest thing you could imagine. In the big picture, you would end up with these endemic, insolvable problems.
- In terms of real-world examples, I was thinking not so much of the situation in Iraq or Afghanistan, but of the situation in Northern Ireland and the various guerilla movements in Central and South America which were going on during that time frame, and looking at how things have worked out in all of those countries. What I see is that the people who were devoted to being right just ended up continuing violence and unrest and the lack of freedom in their own country. I think all of that influenced my different approach. In the first half of Fire Logic, it seems like it's a good-versus-evil story, and then it gradually becomes a story about something else entirely – about people figuring out how to combine forces and start thinking of coexistence to fix these problems.
- MM: What was the hardest part of writing Water Logic? You've talked about having trouble meeting a tough deadline with the manuscript while teaching at UMB. Was it an outside problem like that, or an internal problem, such as grappling with a frustrating aspect of the story?
- LM: You can't easily separate the internal and external forces. That's an example of those malleable categories that I was talking about. (laughs) In my case it was a combination of real, practical problems that affected me psychologically. The hardest part was working on it in spite of a lot of real-world discouragement. The first two books in the series were well received, earned lots of awards and sold extremely well, and yet the publisher decided not to publish the third book. That was after I had been working on it for more than two years. So it wasn't just a decision not to publish, but it was also a decision to essentially make two years of my work meaningless. I don't mean that I'm writing for the money, but I am writing to be published.
- I've had other periods in my writing career that I thought my career was over, so the fact that it wasn't the first time that something like that had happened made it even harder, because it had taken so much effort to get out of the hole the previous times. And now to be faced with doing it again – it was very, very tough. I had to exercise a lot of discipline and manipulate myself a lot to continue to care about the project.
- On top of that, I was dealing with a lot of other difficult problems in my life. It was hard to get over that psychologically.
- MM: How would you describe balancing your work here at the university and writing?
- LM: The balance is practically impossible because I actually love my work here just about as much as I love writing. I can't keep a balance because I really am truly emotionally pulled by both jobs. It's a problem I actually hadn't quite anticipated. I guess I'm really lucky that I have two professions that I adore. (laughs) It's way worse than having one job that you detest.
- MM: Do you have any words of advice for beginning writers pursuing their own projects?
- LM: Thinking of yourself as a writer and pursuing a career as a writer, fiction especially, is particularly difficult and requires persistence and a kind of personality that not a lot of people have. And as far as I can tell, it never gets easier. My first piece of advice to a beginning writer is to give up the hope that something magical is going to happen. It never gets easier.
- MM: Thanks for speaking with us, Laurie. Good luck with Water Logic.
- LM: Thank you!
- Marks' newest installment in the Elemental Logic series will be released on June 1. Marks is also Guest of Honor at WisCon 2007, the world's leading feminist sci-fi convention. Look for our upcoming review of Marks' Water Logic in The Mass Media. For more information on Marks or the Elemental Logic series, visit www.lauriejmarks.com.