Website Interview with Sarah Hoyt
Conducted by Toni Weisskopf, October 2006
Sarah A. Hoyt has sold a dozen novels in various genres, and her first Baen novel is an epic urban fantasy, Draw One in the Dark, set out west, where she now makes her home with her husband and their two sons. Hoyt was born in Portugal, but rectified that cosmic error in natal geography and is now an American citizen. She is an avid history buff and longtime reader of sf, fantasy, and mysteries. She also has an active, some say hyperactive, topic on Baen's Bar, called Sarah's Diner.
"I remember the exact moment I decided I was going to be a writer. It was around my sixth birthday and I was curled up on an armchair with Enid Blyton's Castle of Adventure. And I thought, ‘That's what I want to do. I want to write books for a living.'
"Of course, from then on, it was a given. No, really. :)
"Seriously – that was when I decided it but, needless to say I had absolutely no clue how one went about making a living from writing. My previous ambition – I will point out – was being an angel. Of course, wanting to be a writer was slightly less realistic. On the other hand it didn't come with wings so the lack of plausibility wasn't immediately obvious to my mind back then.
"By fourth grade I had completed two – ahem – novels. Which were bad Enid Blyton knock offs. And then I thought maybe this writing thing was harder than it looked and I gave it up for a bad job. Instead I proceeded to read everything I could get my hands on. And since I came from a long line of readers, that was just about everything.
"I didn't know, you see, that there was such a thing as genre. I read historical and mystery and literary and horror and my cousin's collection of truly horrible romances.
"And then when I was eleven, my twenty-year-old brother who was studying engineering in college, met a guy who lent him science fiction. He brought home a few books and told me I SPECIFICALLY was not to read them. Of course, this meant I lost my heart to science fiction within the week.
"So, by the time I started writing again after college, I mostly wanted to write science fiction, though fantasy and mystery were fun too.
"Influences... I've been accused of sounding like Heinlein, possibly because as a lonely, bookish child, I grew up IN his books. There is a reason I named my first born after him. But I'd be amazed if there wasn't some Clifford Simak and Poul Anderson in there, too. And then of course there were Dave Drake, and Harry Turtledove, and Terry Pratchett, F. Paul Wilson, Diana Wynne Jones and all the people I read now. I'm sure some of their style has fallen in the pot, too... As has doubtless a bunch of others. I'm sadly addicted to print and always on the look out for stuff to learn."
I asked Sarah to cast her mind back and let us know the first sf she ever read. "You know, this is kind of funny. Till very recently, I would have told you it was Out Of Their Minds, by Simak, but then I realized I'd read Have Space Suit Will Travel long before that. I simply did not identify it as sf, never having heard of the genre before.
"I must have read it when I was seven or eight and it read absolutely true to life to me – my dad too read Three Men In A Boat compulsively – sharing the good bits – and my parents' approach to giving me anything was to make me figure out a way to get it. For example, when I wanted my own radio, the old, broken tube radio was exhumed from its tomb in the attic, and I was given the chance to rebuild it. And when I wanted a tape player I got my brother's old player, bought from the smuggler's shop and sadly dead. Needless to say I did repair this stuff. Necessity might not be the mother of invention, but it is the mother of fiddling till you figure it out.
"So, as I said, Have Spacesuit sounded entirely true to life to me and not like ‘science fiction'. But it was probably the first sf/f book I ever read.
"Weirdly – and getting farther afield – A Canticle For Leibowitz was the third sf book I ever read. This led to my spending about a month confused about how many world wars we'd had and whether or not there had been a nuclear holocaust before. Look – I was eleven. It scared my history teacher, though."
Little did she know young Sarah was destined to be a science fiction writer…. For Sarah, the biggest perk of her chosen profession
"is that I get to associate with REAL writers. You know, people I read long before I was published. And they, like, treat me as one of them and talk to me as if I were one of them.
"It's like growing up suspecting there is this wonderful fraternity that you really want to join. And then somewhere along the line, you realize you never will. They're out of your reach, they're REAL writers, and you're a hack, trying to make your way in.
"And then when you least expect it the owl arrives from Hogwarts and next thing you know the sorting hat throws you into Hogwarts (Slytherin more likely in my case, I know) and you're hob-knobbing it with Harry Potter.
"I've made too many friends among those I hope someday to be worthy of calling my peers to name them all. I even owe too many favors to thank everyone. However, among my most oh wow moments were getting to become friends with Dave Drake, with Harry Turtledove, with Jerry Pournelle. Having the occasional dinner and talking shop with Kevin J. Anderson and being able to bug Dave Freer because it's Sunday and there's nothing good on the telly is worth the price of admission. And there was the day, about a month ago, when all the emails in my inbox were from editors or respected professionals. After all the years of writing by and for myself, this was an electrifying moment. Going to a con and having REAL writers greet me as a friend or an acquaintance is still very much a shock. "
Other perks are less exalted. Like "being recognized by the man who came to roto-root the drain as ‘the Sarah Hoyt who writes books." And being asked to judge my son's science fairs ‘because you are a scientist.' ‘Science fiction writer.' ‘Same thing.'
"Also, specifically being a Baen author can get you discounts on household appliances, but perhaps I shouldn't divulge the secret of that, as then everyone will run down to their store and badger the clerks and possibly Photoshop their names onto Baen covers. "
I thought this might be the case, but when I asked Sarah if she had any favorites among her characters, she did have a confession to make. "I might have sorta kinda fallen in love with Tom, the main character in Draw One In The Dark. Which unfortunately leads to my feeling horribly guilty, because he's young enough to be my son. On the other hand, he's so sexy and... self contained and noble, in a total b*stard sort of way.
"But I did the responsible thing and gave him Kyrie, who is probably my favorite female character.
"In my mysteries, I have the most horrible crush on Athos. But then, the whole reason I'm writing three musketeer mysteries is because I have had a crush on Athos since I was eleven, so that figures.
"Then there's this – cough – space opera, Dark Ship Thieves, that shall be submitted to Baen really soon, where the main character, Athena, is a woman who has just.had.enough.and.is.not.going.to.take.it.anymore. She rides anti-grav wands, gets in fistfights, is more than slightly paranoid and has an out-of-control imagination. All of which make her a very fun character to ride along with. And it's not – attention there, in the peanut gallery – autobiographical. Well, mostly not. Certainly not in recent years. "
The next question is who would play Tom in a movie version of Draw One in the Dark. "You're hitting in my area of greatest weakness. You see, I have lousy visual memory. I remember characters in movies, not actual faces. I'm blessed with the strange gift of being able to see each new role an actor undertakes as a new person. My normal answer to Dan when he tries to tell me something about some actor in some movie is ‘I don't understand this illusion you guys suffer from. Actors do not exist. They're computer-generated simulacrums.'
"Now, there are exceptions. I remember half a dozen male actors and maybe three female actors. (It is possible I look at males more.) The thing is, I usually remember them because I can't stand them. And the Hollywood male ideal seems weird to me. Too wimpy by half.
"So, I don't know who could play Tom. A younger Val Kilmer, with a real nose and several shots of testosterone?
"After much research and poking all my friends for suggestions (mostly because they said, ‘he's not a thing like Val Kilmer' and to be honest I'm hazy on what Kilmer looks like) I've settled on a younger Patrick Dempsey (whom I'm told is Dr. McDreamy on Grey's Anatomy) with longer hair (how I suffer for my art! And no real swim trunks shots that I could find!). In fact that's amazingly like Tom, including a certain roguish charm. Tom is just younger, of course.
"I have no idea who could play Kyrie. In my head she looks like the Venus de Milo with arms.
"And I DO think Draw One In The Dark would make a great movie. But then, of course I would."
Ask Sarah about books and authors, though, and she has no trouble remembering people to recommend. Among her favorite non-sf authors are: "Jane Austen, Shakespeare, Sir Walter Scott, Alexandre Dumas. And on another level entirely and in no particular order: Jorge Luis Borges, Fernando Pessoa, Giovanni Guareschi (best short story writer ever), Rex Stout, Leslie Charteris, Agatha Christie, Steven Saylor, Lynda Robinson, Stephanie Barron, Jill McGown. I've recently been introduced to Georgette Heyer by Dave Freer's nefarious influence and I've been reading her books when and if I can get them (some are rarities nowadays.) I like some of Nora Roberts. But I read the back of cereal boxes, newspaper want adds and, in a pinch, pamphlets on how to wallpaper your wall, so I have so many odd favorites that it's hard to name them all. (And Home Depot does pretty good faux-painting instructions.)"
I'd thought asking Sarah if she were a morning writer, an evening writer or a catch-as-catch-can writer would be a fairly innocuous question. But… "Er... The truth is, technically, sanely, I never write. Or I write all the time, just never without interruptions.
"It's mostly a conjunction of writing and my other duties. I used to write late at night, but then the kids entered school and my wake-up time moved up about two hours, and all of a sudden I was tired by ten p.m. So I tried to write really early. But the kids need someone to chase them out of the house, so it doesn't happen. Then there's the days when I'm theoretically alone, but you know – there's always phone calls, repairmen, accidents and the kids call three or four times a day with emergencies.
"So, when do I write? I don't know. Beats me. Sooner or later, I lose patience, snarl at everyone, lock myself in the room, and come out a couple of weeks later, disheveled, starved and near death, but with a novel finished.
Sarah's husband Dan Hoyt also writes SF. I wondered how living in a multiple writer household worked out. "Dan hasn't been writing much lately. Something about some uppity female he lives with making him help her with publicity for her books. Also, he does taxes. It's right there, in our marriage agreement – I married him to have someone to do my taxes. Since I'm digit dyslexic and likely to transpose them, this was very important. So, his duties as my husband are to do my taxes and warm my feet at night. All the rest is optional.
"Also, he just finished editing an anthology, Fate Fantastic, for Marty Greenberg. I'm hoping this doesn't mean we've lost him as a writer – having crossed to the dark side and all. " Hey! I resemble that remark.
"However, of course, even when he isn't writing, he IS a writer. We, together, study writing and writing techniques all the time and share neat discoveries. And my best plotting is done in the morning while we're showering – possibly because we're not with kids then.
"Weirdly, we seem to have spawned a young writer. Our son Robert Anson – 15 going on 87 – writes science fiction and fantasy, has had any number of encouraging rejections on his short stories, sold a pro story to an anthology and has just handed me his first novel for critiquing.
"I'd say it wasn't much different from living in any other household, only I doubt the average family gets into a heated argument over their teen boy's misuse of the black moment in narration. It was way too early. Pulled all the fizz out of the story as the rest read as anticlimax. But he refused to believe us. The screaming raged on and on for two hours, I swear. Then Dan calmed me down, sat him down and explained it rationally. (Rationality is one of his other duties in the house, though an optional one.)
"Seriously – when I get stuck it's good to have two people who know what I'm talking about. It's like having my own mini critique group right there. "
Other than the home-grown critique group aspect, I wondered how Sarah's experiences with motherhood changed her writing. "My most important experience as a mother was the first. Robert and I almost died at his birth. I think it was the first time I realized I might NOT have unlimited time in which to become a writer. It... stopped me and brought me sharply to attention. I'd been frittering away my life dabbling in this and playing in that until, faced with death, I realized my greatest regret (other than not meeting Robert and his possibly dying with me) was that I'd never written all these worlds in my head. Not so much because I thought they were the best thing since sliced bread, but because they were mine and unique and would now die with me without anyone ever having seen them.
"Beyond that... I read a book sometime ago that said no human being is a full adult until he becomes a parent. I'm not sure this is true – it would seem to eliminate a vast number of people who were clearly adults, like, say Robert A. Heinlein. However, being a parent is one of those conditions that you can't imagine if you're not one – not fully. And having children is one of those things that means you'll never be the same again. There's a different mind-set, a different outlook. It's not just that you're responsible for something else – I had cats for years before having children – it's that you're responsible for something else human which will grow and – hopefully – thrive and go on to affect the future in ways you can't imagine.
"Watching them grow is fascinating. Helping form their minds is both difficult and exhilarating. Finding out how you're primally wired in ways you didn't even know – I'd swear the Sarah that comes out when one of the boys is threatened or hurt crawled out of some primeval cave – is an education in itself.
"The downside of motherhood is often expressed by my comment on how I should have stuck to cats because cats rarely grow up to be ax murderers. (Miranda would try, but she lacks the opposable thumb.) The upside is... well, I've just bought a ticket to the future. In the best of all possible worlds, where my kids grow and have kids (and multiply and fill the faces of several worlds – terrifying thought, that) a part of me, and perhaps an echo of the things I taught them will be there, a thousand years from now, who knows where.
"It makes life terribly exciting – not counting the exciting ways in which the boys themselves enhance my experience, with accidents and crises of various sorts – and this comes through to writing. It also gives me a bigger stake in writing well, in having my words survive for the future. It's another way to influence those great-great-great-grandkids that I'll never meet and who will probably not even know they are in any way related to me. "
I wondered how Sarah managed working in so many genres—mystery, urban fantasy, historical fantasy, sf, etc. "It works as a refreshing mechanism. I don't know how to rest – sad really – and so I rest by doing something else. (The only other way I know of resting is to sleep and I'm not very good at that, either.)
"In my first few years in the field, everyone tried to restrict me to fantasy and, of course, to one particular brand of fantasy (historical and more or less literary. Probably because my first novel was a Mythopoeic award finalist in 2002.) It got to the point that I felt if I had to write one more of those I would slit my wrists. It would be a less painful way to die.
"This might sound melodramatic and, yes, I am indeed aware that lots of writers work one field only their entire lives. One subgenre even. Fine writers I respect and admire.
"It's just my brain is not wired that way. I don't think I could read only one genre and I can't write only one genre either. Perhaps I get bored too easily.
"From a technique point of view, I love picking up mystery techniques for use in SF and vice versa. I think it enriches the work and makes it better. Part of the reason I enjoyed Draw One In The Dark so much is because it is a mystery fantasy adventure – I could bring every technique together and juggle it all, which was challenging and fun.
"And I think at this point I can even do historical and more or less literary again – as long as it's not the only thing I do. "
Sarah was born and grew up in Portugal. I wondered how that affected her writing. " I was going to say I'm not sure it does, but then realized I was being silly. Of course it does – but mostly in odd ways. It's not so much being raised in Portugal, as being raised in a weird time and place. Portugal in the sixties compared at about the same level as the rest of Europe in the thirties or forties. There were inconveniences, among them a neverend of childhood illnesses, lousy medical care and sucky bathroom facilities. On the other hand, there were advantages. My family didn't own a tv till I was eight – there were tvs in Portugal, only mom thought it was a passing fad that would peter out and saw no reason for spending money on it – by which time I was thoroughly addicted to reading as my primary form of entertainment. Also, the newspapers didn't devote much time to missing children and horrific incidents, so my parents didn't keep as close a watch on me as perhaps they should have. I had a freer childhood than my kids do. I could spend summer days tramping about, if not unnoticed at least unhampered.
"Beyond that, the area I grew up in had a sense of history. What I mean is, you couldn't kick up a stone in a field without uncovering some weird inscription. One of the local farmer's main gate had a lintel engraved in Latin saying the farm was given to the family by Trajan. (I presume as a legionary's reward for service.) One of the old roads in the village was a Roman road. And there were medieval ruins and survivals everywhere.
"This gave me not only an interest in but a... vision of any place as it existed in time. I don't know how to put this, but ... I tend to be aware of a place's past as a dimension to the place's present.
"Beyond that, having lived as a full member of two societies, even if I've acculturated so well in the US I feel like a stranger in Portugal, gives one a perspective for what is mutable in humanity and what isn't and made it easier – I think – to build world's and societies and to get into the characters' heads.
"I believe this was helped by being an exchange student at 18, when I spent a year living in Stow, Ohio under the auspices of AFS. This exposed me not only to American society but to a panoply of human culture and behavior in my fellow exchange students and was an education in itself. It's an experience I would recommend to every young person and particularly every young person intent on becoming a writer."
Sarah is very active on Baen's Bar, and I asked her if her experiences with Baen's Bar changed your experience as a writer. "I used to feel lonely as a writer. And also, often, like I was flinging my work into an abyss from which I got – maybe once a year – a fan letter or a question. The Baen Bar (and Sarah's Diner) gave me... company. I have access to instant feedback – and occasional thwacks with a rolled up newspaper – from my readers. Beyond that – I KNOW in a very palpable way that there are people waiting for my writing. (The critters get very vocal and annoying too, when I'm late with stuff I promised. In a good way.)
"It's a great confidence booster, a great reality check (how does this work read by real readers, not fellow writers?) and ... well, company. I've made several friends in the diner and met several people who give me nudges and point me in directions I hadn't thought of.
"The Bar makes me feel like I'm part of something, not going it alone. In many ways, it helps keep me sane. " That's too obvious a straight line, and I am too noble to pick up on it…. "Thanks, I think."
When I asked Sarah what invention or scientific leap in understanding she'd most like to see made in her lifetime, she had to make some auctorial adjustments. "Invention... Make it discovery. I would like to see us be able to repair genetic issues. Sickle cell anemia and Tay Sachs and mongoloidism and all that. Perhaps even more mundane and prevalent things like correcting a tendency to diabetes or obesity. Think of the human potential it would free. Which would then, of course, allow us to make many more discoveries.
"For strict ‘invention' – though it actually would involve many small inventions and a few big ones – an easy and cheap way to travel to the stars. I'd like to see human colonies elsewhere. I like humans. (Sometimes even without mustard.) It's a failing I can't seem to get over and part of the reason I'll never be a ‘serious intellectual.' And I'd like to see humans better inured against an extinction event than we are now. I'd like to know we will go on and on.
" And we hope Sarah's writing career will go on and on, too.
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