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Interview With Suzette Haden Elgin
Interview by Jenna Glatzer
Photo by George 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.

What's so interesting to you about linguistics?

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?

If I write a novel that includes space flight, I don't feel obligated to explain the mechanism that moves the vehicles through space; that's not my field. But if I write a novel in which characters construct a new language, that's linguistics, and that is my field. I am obligated to describe that process in as much detail as I can get away with without boring my readers. Without having done a language myself, I didn't feel competent to write about it. So, even though I knew I wouldn't be able to put much of the material into the novel, I felt obligated to go ahead and construct a "language designed to express the perceptions of women" before I made that process part of my plot.

How was this series an experiment for you?  What were the results?

In feminist literature there's a lot of complaining about the inadequacy of existing human languages to express women's perceptions, as well as discussion of the paradox this creates -- that the only mechanism women have for communicating about the problem is those very same inadequate languages. There is a suggestion that this makes women what is known as "a muted group," that to some extent it silences women. An impression is given that this is an issue women at large feel passionate about.

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?

Sf conventions -- "cons," they're called -- are wonderful. (There are dreadful ones, of course, as with any other class of things, but we're talking about good ones here.) They're one of the few existing kinds of entertainment that's suitable for an entire family, is reasonably inexpensive, and that's open to literally everybody. It makes no difference how you're dressed, what you're like, how you look, where you come from....cons will do everything possible to make you welcome and give you a good return for your investment of time and money. They have masquerade contests, they have panels, they have gaming, they have video rooms, they have dances and concerts, they have speeches by famous people, they have children's versions of these same kinds of activities, they have parties...they're wonderful.

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.

Tell us about your newsletter.

The LINGUISTICS & SCIENCE FICTION NEWSLETTER covers topics such as: constructed languages (conlangs) used in science fiction (like Klingon, Elvish, Kesh, Láadan, and many more); sf accounts of translation, interpreting, language acquisition, and the like; sf with linguistics as a plot strand; linguists working with sf, and sf writers working with linguistics; CyberSpeak; how to construct a language for the sf you're writing;  language and linguistics myths perpetuated in sf; linguistic relativity; metaphor theory and application; reality bootstrapping; robotics; book and Internet reviews; updates on the sf publishing situation; and real world linguistics news useful for the linguistics and sf communities. It comes out every other month by e-mail only, in plain text -- no HTML, no whirling gewgaws, no ads. It's free to members of the Linguistics & Science Fiction Network (annual dues $5.00). Anybody who wants more information, or a free sample issue, can e-mail me directly at ocls@madisoncounty.net.

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?

I've never had the good fortune to write for a small press that was genuinely interested in me as a writer and my book as a book. There was a time when my publishers weren't focused solely on my sales figures, but that was in the days before The Big Change described above. Since that change, I've seen no differences that I could link to the size of the publishing house.

Do you have a writing "routine" when working on a new book?

Yes. It's a very boring routine, I'm afraid. I write a roughly one-page outline of the book and put it in a folder (both a physical one and a computer one). I write a roughly one-page outline of each chapter and put that in its own folder. If the book is a novel I next sit down and create a sort of database -- biographies of all my characters, descriptions of the locations and buildings and landscapes, histories of the places and the society... vast amounts of material about the universe of the book, most of which will never be used but which I have to write so that I truly know my characters and their culture. (If the book is nonfiction, I don't have to do this step, but I have to do other research that goes with nonfiction writing.) And then I start actually writing. I'm at my computer by about 7:00 a.m. every morning, and I work till noon; I stop for lunch and then I work another two or three hours. I do a few hours' research and obligatory reading after dinner. 

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?

Gracious. That's a hard question. My publishers would say my greatest strength is that I always get everything done on time, I suspect, and that they can come to me and say "we want such and such a book" and be reasonably certain that they'll get it. I think that probably my greatest strengths are my skill with dialogue and my ability to be clear. My weaknesses are everything else.

What's one thing you wish you'd learned earlier about writing?

I wish I'd known enough more about the business side of writing to have avoided some of the truly stupid mistakes I've made along the way.

Visit Suzette's website at http://www.sfwa.org/members/Elgin/.




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