Suzette Haden Elgin
Suzette Haden Elgin was born in Missouri in 1936. In the late 1960s, she entered the graduate program at the Linguistics Department of the University of California San Diego as a widowed, re-married mother of five. She began writing science fiction novels to pay her tuition. After grad school, she taught linguistics at San Diego State University, and then retired in 1980 to the Arkansas Ozarks, where she can still be found. She has ten grandchildren.
She has written eleven sci-fi novels, including, among others, the Coyote Jones series (The Communipaths, Furthest, and Star-Anchored, Star-Angered), The Ozark Trilogy (Twelve Fair Kingdoms, The Grand Jubilee, And Then There’ll Be Fireworks) and the Native Tongue series (Native Tongue, The Judas Rose, Earthsong). She has also published several non-fiction books and short fiction. In addition, she writes and publishes the Linguistics & Science Fiction newsletter.
If that's not enough for you, Suzette also runs the Ozark Center for Language Studies, dedicated to the two goals of reducing violence in the U.S. and getting information about linguistics out to the public.
Why did you start writing?
I started writing when I was seven years old; by the time I turned eight I
had had a couple of poems published in newspapers. I can't remember ever not
wanting, and needing, to write, once I'd learned to make my letters. I was in an
elementary school system where -- when you were given your list of spelling
words to memorize -- you had to turn in a paper in which you used each of those
words in a sentence; from second grade on, I made a story with my spelling-word
sentences and turned that in, on my own initiative. If what you're asking is a
different question -- perhaps, "Why did you start writing
professionally?" or something of that kind -- there's an answer for that
one. I was a graduate student with four, sometimes five, little kids at home,
and I was hard up for tuition money. I started writing science fiction novels to
earn my tuition.
The power of language -- to change attitudes, to persuade, to comfort, to teach, to create whole worlds, to heal (and to hurt), to forge and maintain relationships, and much more -- has always seemed to me to be the most interesting thing that exists in this universe. My father (a lawyer) was described by people as able to "charm the snakes down out of the trees" just by talking; watching him use language fascinated me. I loved words from the time I was a tiny child -- literally tiny, because I learned to read when I was two years old, sitting on my grandfather's lap and "helping" him do the daily crossword puzzle in the newspaper. Linguistics is the scientific study of language and languages; doing linguististics meant doing work I loved, and I never could have imagined doing anything else.
You actually wrote your own language, Láadan, which
is used in your Native Tongue series. Why was this important in the book,
and how did you go about inventing this language?
Native Tongue was a thought experiment, with a time limit of ten years. My hypothesis was that if I constructed a language designed specifically to provide a more adequate mechanism for expressing women's perceptions, women would (a) embrace it and begin using it, or (b) embrace the idea but not the language, say "Elgin, you've got it all wrong!" and construct some other "women's language" to replace it. The ten years went by, and neither of those things happened; Láadan got very little attention, even though SF3 actually published its grammar and dictionary and I published a cassette tape to go with it. Not once did any feminist magazine (or women's magazine) ask me about the language or write a story about it.
The Klingon language, which is as "masculine" as you could possibly get, has had a tremendous impact on popular culture -- there's an institute, there's a journal, there were bestselling grammars and cassettes, et cetera, et cetera; nothing like that happened with Láadan. My hypothesis therefore was proved invalid, and the conclusion I draw from that is that in fact women (by which I mean women who are literate in English, French, German, and Spanish, the languages in which Native Tongue appeared) do not find human languages inadequate for communication.
You mention that you go to as many science fiction
conferences as you can. What are they like, and why do you go?
Now, to your other question: Why do I go to them? I go for two reasons. (1)
Everything I do is intended to further two goals: (a) to decrease the level of
violence in this country, and (b) to get information about linguistic science
out to the general public. Cons give me a forum for that work, and I use it with
all my heart and strength. (2) I go as part of my constant effort to
promote and market my writing, which is something every writer has to do -- it's
part of the job. Cons give me a forum for that, too.
You've been publishing books for over 30 years. How has the publishing climate changed?
There has really been only one change, but it's so huge that it has totally transformed publishing. When I first started writing professionally, publishers were interested in books. They were interested in having a reputation for publishing good books by good writers. They were interested in building a list of writers who were their writers and whom they were willing to nurture and support over time -- even over a lifetime -- while their careers grew and their status as writers developed. That has all disappeared except from a handful of very small presses who still do it that way but can only bring out a few books each year. Most publishing is now done by publishers whose interest is not in books but in the bottom line, supported primarily by the licensing of products associated with books -- movies, videos, computer games, action figures, and so on.
Most writers, with the obvious exception of the superstars, have become "content providers" who are perceived as inconvenient nuisances. Publishers' dream books today are books produced without having to be involved with a writer at all. This -- plus the almost universal attempt by publishing houses to keep all the new electronic rights, even for contracts signed before electronic rights existed -- has created an adversary relationship between writers and publishers that is unpleasant for everybody involved. (This situation is not the fault of editors, by the way; they work for the publishers, and they have to make the best of it in order to earn a living.)
You've also written for both large and small
publishing houses. As an author, what are the differences between them?
Do you have a writing "routine" when
working on a new book?
Unless I'm on the road doing promotion -- or it's a family day, like Thanksgiving, or grandchildren's birthdays -- I do that six days a week; Saturday I set aside for things like paying bills and posting to my account books and dealing with correspondence and all the multitude of other "business" stuff that just has to be done. But the other six days of the week, I write. However, often I'm so busy with other work -- newsletters, consulting, seminars, counseling, and the like -- that of the six to eight hours I spend at the computer I may spend only three or four hours on the book or books that I'm writing at the time. I have to schedule every minute of every day; there's just no other way to get everything done. (I should point out that, like the majority of women in this world, I also have housework and gardening to do, and multigenerational "caring" to do. Adult children; grandchildren; aged parents. All those things.)
What do you consider your greatest strengths and
weaknesses as a writer?
What's one thing you wish you'd learned earlier
How to find a book publisher
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