Karin Lowachee was born in South America, grew up in Canada, and worked in the Arctic. Her first novel WARCHILD won the 2001 Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. Both WARCHILD (2002) and her third novel CAGEBIRD (2005) were finalists for the Philip K. Dick Award. CAGEBIRD won the Prix Aurora Award in 2006 for Best Long-Form Work in English and the Spectrum Award also in 2006. Her second novel BURNDIVE debuted at #7 on the Locus Bestseller List. Her books have been translated into French, Hebrew, and Japanese. The Gaslight Dogs, her 3rd book, was published in 2010.
This interview was conducted by Briana Stone.
BLS: How long have you been writing and when did you first consider yourself a writer?
KL: I’ve been writing pretty much my entire life. As a kid, before kindergarten, I made up stories and drew pictures for them, and it hasn’t stopped since then. Obviously my stories have become a little more complex, though. I can’t remember when I explicitly thought of myself as a ‘writer’ but I’m fairly certain that since I’ve been doing it for so long, it’s been quite awhile. I became an ‘author’ much, much later.
BLS: Why Science Fiction/Fantasy?
KL: I just love using my imagination and not being bound by strict history or contemporary politics and places. SF/F is the genre of metaphor, it technically has the most freedom in storytelling while being capable of a lot of depth and resonance, and I like that.
BLS: Who are your influences?
KL: Anything and everything. I think you have to be interested in the universe and everything in it, so I try not to limit myself. Writerly influences are from all different genres and time periods. Artistic influences are from every discipline: music, visual art, film. And events in the ‘real’ world are also a heavy influence, past and present and the possibilities of the future.
BLS: How has poetry influenced your writing fiction?
KL: Reading poets like Octavio Paz, Pablo Neruda, William Shakespeare, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, TS Eliot, Maya Angelou … poetry has the ability to say beautiful, visceral, profound things in a very distilled manner. Every word has to count and be placed perfectly. I strive for that in my stories. I think of sentence structure and dialogue oftentimes in rhythm and beats. I want to illustrate what I mean in my stories, through words, the way poets do. Writing a good novel, for me, isn’t just about delivering a story in a competent manner. I want to create a world and characters, using the best language I can, to show them to the reader so they respond emotionally.
BLS: What elements of poetry would you say you include in your writing?
KL: Like I said above, I’m pretty conscious of the rhythm and beat of sentences, and individual words. I like to round off parts or scenes on a good ‘note’. I don’t always stick to expected paragraph structure, but would rather break up sentences to suit a certain rhythm that reflects the character or the scene’s emotionality. I want to show how my characters feel by using imagery and metaphor, sometimes, because I think that resonates deeper than just working on a single narrative level. To me it’s about finding precise but not plain ways of telling the story, when needed, to use words effectively and to their potential. That’s the beauty of language.
BLS: Can you talk about being one of the few women of colour in the industry?
KL: I’ve never taken a headcount, but when I look around at the industry, I see people from all different walks of life, different shades of skin and different backgrounds. I think it’s fantastic, but it’s not my primary focus. Maybe that isn’t a popular opinion but I don’t navigate the world thinking of my race or gender before my humanity — or even before my abilities, what I’m capable of — nor do I interact with others that way.
My (mixed) race and multiculturalism is a part of my humanity but it’s not the whole of it, and I’m wary of the train of thought that microfocuses on one or two aspects of a person without considering the whole. I understand, respect, and support the importance of talking and writing about gender and race (I do it myself), and celebrating our different heritages; I think it’d also be great to be respected as a writer first, for the work, and the fact that I’m a woman of colour is an aspect of that but doesn’t need to be the primary focus all of the time.
I really chafe against labels of any kind, anything that would pigeonhole me and give people preconceived notions, good or bad, before they’ve even read my work. I know it’s inevitable, we all get judged or assessed one way or another and I’m pretty conscious of that, so anything that would minimize that in my life, I would prefer it.
BLS: What is the idea behind the title for your book The Gaslight Dogs?
KL: I like evocative titles. To me The Gaslight Dogs is an image appropriate for the book. The image of furtive dogs beneath gaslight, in a city, evokes a certain time period and directs a certain focus. The concept of the Dog is important in the novel, and the setting is too. But I never use that phrase specifically in the book. So there’s the title.
BLS: Why did you choose the North as the location of your story?
KL: I lived up there for a short time and simply fell in love with the culture and the people. I think it’s an interesting, unique, and beautiful culture that doesn’t seem to be much of a focus in fantasy literature like some other cultures tend to be. Since living up there I wanted to write about it somehow, so this was my attempt.
BLS: How did you come up with the names of the groups of people such as the Abo/ Aniw people and the Ciracusan/Kabliw people?
KL: It’s a sort of alchemy. I’m no linguist. I play around with language, use my ear and my eyes for the aesthetics of it, and try to cohere the names within the individual cultures. The bottom line is it has to feel right and follow its own rules.
The Aniw names are an odd amalgamation of Icelandic, Inuktitut, Japanese, and my imagination. Ciracusan names … I tried to use “English”-looking names but not make them common or totally recognizable. “Fawle” looks like an actual English name but I made it up, a play on “fall”. I have to say that when I chose “abo”, I wasn’t consciously aware of its usage in Australia and I regret that. I never would’ve used it, had I known. Lesson learned, though I did intend its usage in the book to not exactly be flattering from the Ciracusan point of view. It’s their shorthand, the generality of naming rather than looking on people and their cultures as individual. Which of course is one of the issues I wanted to explore in the book.
BLS: What similarities and what differences of colonialism did you want to include in the story?
KL: I didn’t think about it in those specifics, not at the outset anyway. I wanted to just tell an honest story driven by human behaviour (and the spirits), through my observations, reading, and understanding of those parts in history (particularly of this continent) that are similar. The overrunning of a culture by another culture being one of those similarities. The usurption of another culture’s “power” by another. The connection between knowledge and conquest, and the consequences of that. The changes in spirituality or beliefs when cultures clash; the resistance to or acceptance of truths, whether they’re recognized as truths or not. I can’t really list everything, it’s too broad and there’s too many.
BLS: What message would you like readers to have grasped from the story?
KL: I don’t go into books wanting to impart a “message”, but obviously I have things that I’m passionate about, that move me enough to write about in depth. Hopefully readers get a lot of different things out of this book, not the least of which is the importance of compassion and knowing who you are. That’s one of the bedrock “issues” of the book.
BLS: Do you have any advice for other writers?
KL: Just write. If you don’t discipline yourself to do that, nothing else is going to matter. And read a lot of everything good.
Briana Stone is a Dakota Sioux and Plains Cree Native from Saskatchewan. She sought residency in Toronto, Ontario to attend post-secondary school for art. Establishing herself as a youth artist in the Native community, Briana assisted workshops, art projects and murals. She took some time away from art to pursue an education in community work, later to return to art. As an artist today, she has done work with animation, murals, graphic design and photography with her main focus on graphic design.
Tune in Friday June 3, 2011 for a video of Karin Lowachee reading from “The Gaslight Dogs”.