06 October 2006

interview : l. timmel duchamp : part one

Lance: Would you start off by telling us a little about Aqueduct, your press dedicated to publishing feminist science (or would "speculative" be a better word here?) fiction? When, why, and how did you launch it, and what are some of the most important revelations about the small-press world you've had by doing so?

Timmi: Since April 2004, when the publication of my collection Love’s Body, Dancing in Time launched Aqueduct Press, we’ve published five large trade paperbacks and thirteen—soon to be fourteen—small trade paperbacks. Aqueduct’s focus is feminist sf, which is a term I interpret loosely to include fantastic fiction and also nonfiction. The basic criteria for selection has (so far, at any rate) been that the work must be in “conversation with” other works of feminist sf (in the sense I describe in The Grand Conversation), that I personally am able to engage with it, and that it be in some way “challenging.” When I’m been commended for the range of Aqueduct’s list, it’s usually with surprise—reflecting, I suppose, the unstated assumption that “feminist sf” must by definition be a narrow category. I’m happy, of course, to unsettle that assumption.

The story of how I came to start Aqueduct is one that alters from moment to moment. In fact, I now see so many contributing factors to its genesis that I sometimes wonder how I could not have started it.

On the most personal level, I decided to bring Aqueduct into existence as the resolution to a crisis about my own work. I hit a kind of wall in 2001. By that time I had come to realize it was unlikely I’d ever find a publisher to bring out even one of my standalone novels (much less the million-word Marq’ssan Cycle, which I needed to be assured would be published in its entirety, something I knew no publisher would ever be able to promise). For another, I found that the attitude of some of the editors to whom I’d been selling short fiction was becoming more conservative and less open to my more challenging stories. And so for a couple of years I toyed with the idea of forgetting about writing for publication and just writing for myself. Given the strength of my independence and the peculiarities of my imagination, I knew that such a strategy could result in my producing work so increasingly idiosyncratic that it might become virtually unintelligible to anyone but me. And that made me wary of taking such a decision.

At the same time, I had become aware that the major sf publishers were ditching good writers right and left. I had always wished that existing feminist presses in the US would, like the Women’s Press in the UK, become sufficiently enlightened to realize that feminist sf is a literature at the vanguard of feminist ideas and thinking and commit themselves to publishing and promoting it. But although that never happened, feminist sf nevertheless managed to thrive in the US. So when the major publishers of sf began to back away from strong, serious feminist sf, the lack of a specifically feminist press publishing sf made itself felt, and I found myself thinking seriously about what the knowledge that the publishers had become risk-averse and that anything too challenging or demanding might now get tagged as “risky” would do to feminist sf writers. As a devotee of feminist sf, this disturbed me; as a writer of feminist sf, this alarmed me. I have long understood that the intelligibility of my own work depends on the existence of a web of related work by other writers. This is true, of course, for all writers. But for one embedded in the small discursive sphere that is feminist sf, this is absolutely critical. While it is true that people who’ve never read Samuel R. Delany, Joanna Russ, Octavia Butler, James Tiptree, Jr., Carol Emshwiller, Gwyneth Jones, or Karen Joy Fowler may very well be able to read my work with appreciation, there’s no question in my mind that people who have read all those authors (and others I haven’t named) will have an easier and richer experience reading my work than those who haven’t.

Aqueduct is the first dedicated feminist sf press to exist in the US. If we’d had such a press in the 1970s, feminist sf might have gone even farther than it did. In any case, there’s considerable irony in my founding a feminist sf press in 2004, at a time when many young women want to dissociate themselves from the term “feminist” even when their values and attitudes are unquestionably feminist, and at a time when numerous men in sf keep announcing that the need for feminist consciousness is past. The reality is that an influx of women into the field is underway, and they’re talking among themselves about many of the same issues Joanna Russ and Suzy Charnas were talking about thirty years ago.

Two of the novels I’ve edited and published were rejected by the major sf publishers, probably because the publishers considered them too demanding. I heard about Gwyneth Jones’s novel (Life, which Aqueduct published in October 2004) from Karen Joy Fowler in the fall of 2003 just as I was making my final decision about starting Aqueduct; Karen had read the novel in ms and loved it. I asked Gwyneth for permission to consider it, and I fell in love with it, too, and knew I had to bring it into print. Surprisingly, despite its being a challenging book to read, it won the juried Philip K. Dick Award. Another novel not appreciated by the big publishers, Mindscape, is an immense, mind-expanding experience to read. Its author, Andrea Hairston, is a playwright and performer, and the energy and élan of her prose reflects that. I suppose that if this is a particularly “difficult” book (and I’ve heard that some people think it is), that perception is due to its utter originality. There’s nothing like it that it can be compared to, which means that it demands that its readers venture into terra incognita and learn how to read the book as they go. I myself have always loved that kind of reading experience, but I’m sure it’s what corporate publishers consider “risky.”

Anent revelations about the small-press world, the discovery that the “presence” of a particular small press, at least in its earliest stages, before it has become a institution in itself (which development is, of course, an index of its success), is linked to its identity with the person or persons who are running it has come as my biggest surprise so far. Although I had numerous examples staring me in the face when I started Aqueduct—Small Beer, Tachyon, and Night Shade, to name the first three to come to my mind—it never occurred to me that my own association with Aqueduct would need to be publicized. In fact, though a writer and friend who has a career in the advertising industry behind her advised me at the outset that I should “brand” Aqueduct with my own reputation, I’d intended to downplay that association. But I abandoned the idea of keeping my association quiet when I discovered at a party for sf professionals that saying “Aqueduct, c’est moi” was efficacious in generating interest in an otherwise invisible press. (Which is another way of saying, I suppose, that where any small press is concerned, it’s a small world.) Once I uttered those words and discovered the difference they made, I began the scramble up a steep and slippery curve for learning how to reach the range of audiences that Aqueduct’s books might appeal to. I may change my mind about this later, but for the moment, achieving presence and maintaining and communicating a clear vision of Aqueduct’s mission are, it seems to me, the most critical factors in doing that.

Lance: In your press's mission statement, you talk about feminist SF having thrived for thirty years now. How has it changed over that time, and who are some of the practitioners with whom all of us should be familiar?

Timmi: The second wave of US feminism hit sf in the early 1970s. There are earlier works of feminist sf that have since been returned to print, but at the time these had largely been forgotten; and of course there was a lot of work by women, but most of it wasn’t in any way oppositional or alternative to mainstream values and practices of the day (which, I should perhaps remind younger readers, included separate job listings for men and women and the complacent and completely legal refusal to allow women into certain academic departments or majors, as well as difficulties, often insuperable, in opening a bank account or buying a home in one’s own name, if one were a woman). Feminism came to the sf world not only through feminist texts, but via the discussion both of the role and place of women in sf texts and of the place and role of women in the sf community at large. The earliest and strongest feminist voices leading the discussion were novelists Joanna Russ, Suzy McKee Charnas, Vonda McIntyre, and critic Susan Wood. Over the next decade and a half, they would be joined by writers James Tiptree, Jr. (aka Alice Sheldon), Octavia E. Butler, Ursula K. LeGuin, Angela Carter, Samuel R. Delany, Pamela Sargent, Eleanor Arnason, Pat Murphy, and Karen Joy Fowler. Other writers like Carol Emswhiller and Josephine Saxton produced arguably feminist texts (while themselves refusing the label “feminist”), and a few writers who did not identify themselves as science fiction writers produced one or two important feminist sf texts (Monique Wittig, Marge Piercy). The late eighties and early nineties saw the appearance of another wave of feminist sf writers—Nicola Griffith, Maureen F. McHugh, Gwyneth Jones, Lucy Sussex, Rebecca Ore, and Kelly Link, among others.

Feminist sf in the 1970s took an oppositional attitude toward the genre: it challenged previously unquestioned assumptions and premises and claimed the genre’s tropes for use in developing a distinctly feminist imagination. For a while, feminist explorations of the utopian imagination flourished, breathing new life into a moribund form of political fiction. By the mid-eighties, though, feminist writers began to engage in conversation with the important feminist texts of the 1970s—raising questions, challenging earlier assumptions as naïve or needing more thought, and in some cases taking issue with other writers’ notions of the desirable; and the earlier intense focus on reproductive issues began to give way to a focus on sexuality. A third stage began to emerge in the 1990s. Building on the work of the 1970s texts, writers dropped the attitude of writing in opposition to the established tropes and engaged in subtle exploration and conversation with what had by that time become the feminist sf canon. I call such writing “alternative.” “Alternative” writing can afford to be expansive and exploratory as politically oppositional writing cannot. The best example of such writing that I can think of is Karen Joy Fowler’s story “What I Didn’t See,” which readers lacking a grounding in the feminist sf canon tend not to read as either science fiction or particularly feminist.

Lance: In your bio at the end of your wonderful collection, Love's Body, Dancing in Time, you mention that at one point your creativity was "derailed" onto "an academic track," but that you eventually "deserted the academy and abandoned" yourself to the pleasures of fiction writing. Would you connect the dots in that story, and talk a little about how the academy has informed your fiction and your sense of it?

Timmi: I spent most of my childhood immersed in music—in playing it, in writing it, in listening to it. Interesting things were going on at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) in 1968, when I arrived as a freshman. I planned to major in music composition, but ran into a situation I was too naïve to negotiate successfully. Before I registered, I was asked to “audition,” which involved my being tested in music theory, sight-singing, taking dictation, and on-the-spot keyboard transposition of a score, all of which I performed effortlessly for an octogenarian emeritus professor who must have just happened to be on campus that day (since he was someone I never saw again at any music school function); I also played piano transcriptions of some of my own compositions. Because of this “audition,” I was exempted from taking theory (though I allowed myself to be talked into taking an experimental course in music theory, which turned out to be one of my favorite courses, taught by a wonderful instructor)—but was told that I would need to “prove” myself before I’d be allowed to major in composition. I could do this by persuading a composition professor to let me sign up for lessons with him at the beginning of each semester, and perhaps some day, I was led to understand, in the vague future, I would be considered worthy of being a major. Naturally it never occurred to me that they had made up all this rigmarole of an audition & invented a rule just for me. (And it didn’t occur to me that their administrative exclusion of me might have something to do with why there were no women composition students: for since there never had been a woman majoring in woman composition, I naively assumed I must simply be the first woman student that had ever been interested in composing music on that campus.) But once I began classes, I met the handful of young men who were composition majors (of whom I was at first in awe, because I assumed they must be enormously more advanced and talented than I) and discovered that some of them had no theory background and at least one of them had never finished composing anything and that none of them had been subjected to an “audition.” And of course none of them had ever been required to persuade a professor to teach them each term.

As one does, I did my best to swallow the humiliation and do what I needed to do to keep studying and composing. This was an exciting and challenging time to be writing music, for one tended to invent new theory and new notation with each composition one undertook. (Such a background was extremely helpful when I began writing fiction.) And I found several musicians who were into my work and eager to perform it, with the result that when graduate students and junior faculty organized New Music events, they included my work on their programs. What more could I have wanted? I told myself that the legitimacy of official recognition didn’t matter. & for a while, that attitude held. In late May 1970, a few weeks after our campus had suffered a brief occupation by the Illinois National Guard, a piece of mine that had been previously performed with other New Music in an art gallery in downtown Champaign was performed in the Composition Division’s year-end student recital and got a warm reception from an audience of a couple hundred people. For about twenty-four hours I basked in the praise of my peers. When I went to my next composition lesson, my teacher asked to see the score of the piece again; I happened to have it with me and happily handed it over. Calmly he drew cartoons all over it and explained to me that its success was a “fluke.” (I was too upset, of course, to ask him what exactly he meant.) After which, he hit on me. I left his studio in a daze. And I understood that he had agreed to let me study with him simply because of his sexual interest in me.

And that was the beginning of the end. I lost all confidence in my creativity. I remember sitting, that summer, staring at a score I was working on, contemplating half a dozen different possible places to take it and being unable to settle on which. I’d never experienced such an impasse before: always I’d heard everything in my head without thinking about it and had merely to work it out on paper. I kept recalling what my first composition professor had often told me when he was describing the principles of craft that explained the effectiveness of something that I had done intuitively: the music is right when it sounds inevitable; the ear always knows.

For several years I kept that terrible lesson of the “fluke” a deep, dark secret. (I assumed it was true: and so how could I stand to share my humiliation with anyone else?) For the first time of my life, I ceased to live, eat, and breathe music. My friends, my family, and the musicians who’d been performing my music couldn’t understand how I could just stop writing music. I dropped out of school for a couple of years, and when I went back, I majored in Music History and quickly discovered a passion for History itself. And when I finished my undergraduate degree, I began work on a PhD in History. I became enamored with abstract thinking and theory, and as anyone becoming a historian must do, I grappled with narrative and came to understand how narrative structures determine what it is possible to say. What I learned about narrative dovetailed nicely with my readings of Foucault, particularly his discussion of the politics of truth and knowledge (which resonated with the Nietzsche I’d begun reading a year or two before I started graduate school).

As to my coming to write fiction: that started through a joke. After I passed by written doctoral examines, I whipped off the first chapter of a roman a clef to blow off steam in an entertaining way. Egged on by my friends and colleagues, I continued writing chapter after chapter—in my spare time—until one day I found myself with a novel ms in hand. After that, I couldn’t stop. And then I became serious and arrived at the momentous decision to set aside my dissertation in favor of a fiction-writing apprenticeship. And I’ve never regretted it for an instant.

Without question, my fiction has been informed both by my experience composing music, which made me acutely aware of overarching structures and themes as well as the equally important microstructures and patterns so important to all aesthetic creation, and by my training as a historian, which required me to think critically about plausibility and narrative structure and gave me an awareness of and insight into different/changing social and cultural logics (awareness and insight that have been enormously helpful for creating the interior reality of characters who live in worlds where people not only behave but also think and feel differently than the norm that I am necessarily immersed in). As for my sense of my work, although it is infused with pleasure and playfulness, I am serious about everything I do, likely because of my earlier ambitions as a composer and my years as a graduate student passionately in love with high-flown, abstract conceptualization.

stay tuned:
the second half of this interview
will be posted soon