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Wen Spencer
conducted by Toni Weisskopf
 
March 2006

Wen Spencer came to Baen with her fourth novel to be published, Tinker. She dove into the maelstrom of Baen's Bar and took to it like a fish to water. And the Barflies, like Sirens, welcomed her with open arms. The affair is ongoing, and Wen can be contacted at her topic on the Bar, Tinker's Dam (see address at the end of this interview). She is a unique voice in fantasy, as you can see from the interview below.

Wen was a natural storyteller, getting started almost as soon as she started talking. "Gee, I can remember telling myself stories before I started kindergarten. I was very influenced at an early age by the television show Wild Wild West, so my hero was Bob West--whom I was also going to marry when I grew up.

"When I was in fourth grade, I wrote a play that my class put on, where I meshed all the Christmas stories plus some together. At the end, the audience had to clap their hands if they believed in Santa Claus to save Rudolph from the Grinch and the kids from Night Before Christmas would get their presents.

"My parents were extremely supportive. My mom passed to me her books on 'how to type' and I slaved on their ancient manual typewriter to learn. When I was about twelve, they bought a used IBM electric typewriter dirt cheap. Turns out it was dirt cheap because the automatic return mechanism was broken. Not only did you have to manually return it, but you needed to bang the carriage three times before it would advance the paper a line. So it was taptaptaptaptaptap DING sling BANG sling BANG sling BANG taptaptaptap...

"Still, I sat at the typewriter all that summer and produced over a hundred single-space pages of novel. It was an impossible storyline that crossed Firestarter with Lord of the Rings. The effort impressed my parents so much that they gave me an new electric typewriter for Christmas that year.

"During my teenage years, I wrote several short stories that I submitted to magazines, but mostly focused on my novel. In college, I minored in English Writing.

"Until I was in my late thirties, though, I rarely put forth the same effort that I did on that broken IBM typewriter. I wrote when inspiration hit me. The turning point for me was when I thought about how hard my husband, who was putting in 50-60 hours a week, was working to improve our life. I needed to stay home for our son, but I could at least write as many hours as my husband worked. I started to write every day, even if I didn't feel inspired. I created time for writing by stopping watching television, and other things that were time wasters. When my son was very small, I would put him to bed at 9:00 pm and then write until 2 a.m. Within three years of being serious about my writing I had sold my first novel."

These days, Wen continues to treat writing like a job as well as a calling: "I try to get up every morning and write eight hours. Sometimes I sleep in and the day starts at noon. ... When I'm under deadline and working hard, sometimes I put in two eight hours, working in the morning, taking a short nap in the afternoon, and working again in the evening."

Wen definitely appreciates the perks of being an sf writer. For one, she enjoys, "Working at home and not having to put up with office politics! (laugh)

"Honestly, I think getting paid to do something that I love. Everyone should have a job that they love so much that they would do it for free. I have always told myself stories for the fun of it, and I enjoy having the chance to share them with other people. The truth is, that even if I didn't sell the stories, I'd still be writing them.

"And there's cool things, like all you have to say is 'I'm a novelist and I need to do research for a book' and you get into the darnest places. While working on Bitter Waters, I was given a tour of the Iron Mountain facility, two animal shelters in Pittsburgh, and a cruise of the Boston Harbor. I was going to tour a New England prison for Dog Warriors but ran out of time." Hmm, not sure touring a prison would count as a perk for me, but whatever works....

Wen is clearly influenced by the popular culture around her. "I went through a period of loving Louis L'Amour. The Sackett's were the blueprint for the Whistlers in A Brother's Price. I think I've read most of Dick Francis books. I got into Mary Stewart not through her Merlin series but from her early romantic mysteries. Tony Hillerman. Sue Grafton. All favorites.

"Also right before I wrote A Brother's Price, I went through an extremely stressful period of time where we were moving to New England. We had four houses in two states, two of which were under construction. During that period I read regency romances at the rate of two or three a day.

"I'm also a huge fan of Japanese manga. Also the new Batgirl (and Robin and Nightwing) from DC comics rocks."

The Wizard of Oz plays an important role in Wolf Who Rules. I wondered why that work in particular. "Like the various characters in Wolf Who Rules, as a child I had to watch this movie every year. It left an impression. I never read the first book, but at some point in my life picked up the ones where the main characters were the Pumpkinhead and Saw-Horse. Those I saw as wildly imaginative.

"It was the dichotomy between watching the movie and reading the books that made me use the movie in my novel. I have this very logical mind that says 'if the laws of the world are x at the start, they will be x to the end.' The initial chapters of the novel I read began in the fantasy world, so I had the mindset of 'this is a fantasy I'm reading, things will be different.' The movie started with the very realistic setting and suddenly had this huge jarring change. Even as a child, this abrupt change bothered me. It came across as random nonsense, intensified by the fact that everyone SINGS! Tinker is like me, and sees the world as a logical place. The movie version of Wizard of Oz also strikes her as nonsense. (And I recommend everyone to read the books, not see the movie! Also if you can find the comic books by Eric Shanower.)"

Wen refuses to play favorites with her characters, though she will rank them. "I love all my characters. If a character doesn't endear themselves to me, then they don't get dialogue. In the Tinker universe, I think I would rank them this way...

  1. Tinker
  2. Windwolf
  3. Pony
  4. Stormsong
  5. Oilcan
  6. Tommy Chan
  7. Forest Moss
  8. Tooloo
  9. Lain
  10. Rikki

"Certain characters are more in conflict with the world, so writing stories about them are easier. Pony, for example, is happy with his position in life, so I have trouble imaging a story for him. Stormsong, however, went through a period of intense angst about what to do about her life, so I've written sections of that. Oilcan buries his old hurts and resists any story to draw them out. Tommy Chan has thrown himself into the war between the elves and the oni, so his stories are easy to imagine."

Wen does think visually, and has definite ideas about how her characters should be portrayed. "Gee, I rarely look at a movie star and think 'he'd make a perfect....' The few times I do, unfortunately I'm looking at something old and the actor has aged past being able to do the character. For example, Adam Beach from Windtalkers when he was like eighteen would have made a great Ukiah, but now is too old. Martin Sheen would have made a good Max at 40. Charlie Sheen might be a reasonable replacement.

"In the HBO series, Rome, there was an actress playing Cleopatra who I think would make a great Tinker, but I haven't been able to track down her name. In the upcoming Endless Blue [to be published by Baen], I see Colin Farrell as Turk."

What invention or scientific leap in understanding would Wen most like to see made in her lifetime? "Immortality. I have so many stories in me I'd like to tell sometimes I wonder if I'll have time to tell them all. Teleportation. I always wanted that ability. Flying by only thinking about it, like superman does. That would be way cool."

Wen refuses to pick one incident in all of history to watch as a spectator, but chooses several. "The problem with most historic events are that they're usually quite bloody. There are things and places I would like to see that aren't events but simply don't exist anymore. I would have liked to ridden on both the Titanic and the Hindenburg before they vanished. I would liked have seen the Great Exhibition of 1851 at the Crystal Palace in London. The White City of the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. A year as Shakespeare's friend, learning about how he crafted his story would be fascinating. I would also like to meet Kipling, Twain, Stephenson, and Hemingway.

"A small part of me would also like to see if all the biblical stories are true. A very small part. I'm not sure if I'm really up to witnessing the glory of god first hand, or suffering the vast disappointment of discovering that its all made up or delusional."

There is a strong romantic theme in the stories about Tinker. I wondered if the romance in the Tinker fantasies was intentional or just arose from the nature of the character. "I find that I like to write about people relationships with each other: father, mother, daughter, sister, brother, cousin, and of course, lovers. Romance has the strength that it's a very dramatic growth curve. It starts with 'I don't know you' and runs to 'I would die for you' during the course of one story. Family relationships, while interesting, are usually quite static. Tinker gave me the opportunity to write about that time in a woman's life that few people seem to address--the first true sexual encounters. The first kiss. The first date. The first heavy petting session. Wolf Who Rules is more of an examination of what happens when you've made the commitment to another person but aren't sure because you've never been in this situation before. Is it lust or really love? Is love really enough to balance the difficulties of sharing your life?"

I wondered why Wen picked on Pittsburgh as the place for the temporal anomaly and crossing of our world and the elven worlds to occur? "Because I lived there for twenty years. I could write convincingly of the people. And I think it's important when you're writing fantasy to give a firm grounding in possible before inserting impossible. It makes the magical more real and believable.

"Also so many other towns are already taken. St. Louis. New Orleans. Chicago. No one was writing about Pittsburgh, which made it fair game.

"Lastly, there's the oddity of it. Isn't Pittsburgh the last place you expect to find elves?"

For more information please go to:

www.wenspencer.com

TinkersDam at http://bar.baen.com

http://wen-spencer.livejournal.com

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