Laurie Penny interview

In August we caught up with Laurie Penny at Nine Worlds in London.

Image result for twitter laurie penny

How’s your con?

Oh, well, I’ve always liked Nine Worlds! I missed last year, but that’s the first year I’ve missed. This year, there have been some fantastic panels – the Hidden Histories panel was a favourite. But probably my highlight was playing four hours of The Good Society. It’s a Jane Austen based tabletop RPG. And it was really intense.

Who were you?

I played the heiress, the daughter of the lady of the manor. You know, beset by suitors, having to choose the one that was least awful … and you can’t choose nobody.

Oh my God. What happened?

Well, the misconception is that in Austen novels nothing happens. But imagine if you watched somebody trying to defuse a bomb, and you didn’t know what they were doing …

You’d assume they were doing nothing?

Yes! Every tiny movement in Austen is immensely high stakes. Everything is life or – okay, if not death, then at least permanent disgrace and penury. It’s massively mercenary and exciting. What’s really interesting was watching people who are used to playing swords‑and-sorcery games adapt to those mechanics. And we had a fantastic game as well.

That sounds so cool. I wanted to ask you, actually, about the role of conflict when you write fiction. In a lot of writing advice, we’re told how important conflict is. I wonder what you think about that from a craft perspective?

I mean, I’m not the most accomplished fiction writer. We’re sitting at Nine Worlds here, and I guarantee you that within this three-hundred square metres, there are people …

We stare in quiet awe at a nearby group of people.

I don’t know these people here, but I absolutely guarantee you that there’s probably somebody better to ask just sitting around.

We’re all fucking brilliant.

Everybody’s fucking brilliant. But to answer your question, I guess ‘tension’ is as good a word as ‘conflict.’ If you’re writing about something that’s problematic, something that’s tense …

Which is what you see in Austen.

Yes! If your definition of violence is only visible violence, then Jane Austen books are very gentle. But psychologically, Jane Austen books are extraordinarily violent. They are brutal. It was actually your namesake, Jo Walton, who clued me into it. I never really understood Austen until I read Tooth & Claw. Walton is an amazing literary ventriloquist, and Tooth & Claw is this pitch-perfect sentimental Victorian novel … but all the main characters are dragons. And it’s so clever. In this world, dragons only get bigger by eating other dragons. So their entire society is set up to stop them doing that, unless – you know, there are certain socially acceptable circumstances. Somebody dies, there’s an inheritance, they have to eat the patriarch, but then somebody takes too much, there’s a lawsuit …

Dragon you through the courts …

… yeah, and suddenly all that metaphorical monstrosity is made utterly literal. All of what is subcutaneous in nineteenth-century satirical realism comes to the surface. It’s like: they’re literally horrible monsters! I read Tooth & Claw – having really not liked Austen when I studied her at uni – I read this book about four years ago, and I was like, ‘I get it! I get it!’ I went back and read every Austen in one go. That’s what genre fiction can do, in a way.

It reminds me also of – I think it’s Samuel Delany? Who talks about how science fiction can be a way of reading, how you can read Jane Austen as science fiction. Perhaps that has to do with different modes of tension. Including even the tension between how we actually do things, and how we could do them?

Yes. It connects with something else I’m working on. The non-fiction book I’m currently working on is about consent. There’s a bit that’s trying to respond to the idea that, you know, ‘If you make consent explicit, then love and sex won’t be exciting any more. If you make gender equal, what about the game? What about the chase?’

People are still going to get their heart broken. I don’t think the area of love and sex is in danger of becoming unexciting, or void of risk. Explicit consent is not about taking risk away. It’s about reducing pain. To reduce pain is not to reduce excitement. Well, I believe so, anyway.

There is always something at stake.

And it’s about changing what’s at stake. What if the stakes are not, ‘If this person doesn’t go out with me, my masculinity will be crushed forever’? What if it’s, ‘How good can I make this person feel?’ It’s changing the wind conditions. What if the win conditions are, ‘This person has an amazing time, or they don’t’?

There’s this weird thing, that there is something that we love about love that is painful. And some misogynists have got very, very confused, about …

… about other people’s pain.

Yes.

The kind of gamification of love and sex at the moment, for me a lot of that comes from the desperate desire of straight men in particular to protect themselves from any possible risk. And there’s this idea that women don’t bear a fair part of the risk, which is nonsense. It’s not like women don’t get rejected! We do! Lots! And we shut up about it!

So this will be in a book you’re working on right now?

Yeah, it’s this giant book about feminism and other things. That should be coming out next year. But it’s still in editing phases, so I’m like, ‘Argh.’ Nine Worlds is my break from that.

Your out-of-office mentioned it, I think.

My out-of-office is generally correct. Except that I’m not actually out of the office. So people get the out-of-office, and then I’ll pop up and be like, ‘No no no, I can definitely do this.’ Like, listen to my out-of-office, not me! The out-of-office is there to stop me from volunteering to do more work. Also I don’t have an office. Like, ‘office’ is a state of mind.

Yeah. That millennial thing. ‘My phone is my office.’

Yeah, also my house? ‘My phone is my house.’

Actually, the theme of the next Vector is economics. For a long time in leftist economic thought, the word ‘utopia’ has been straightforwardly pejorative.

Yup.

But it seems like recently that may have changed? With this issue we’re hoping to explore connections between science fiction and some more recent radical and alternative economic thinking.

Well, the idea of utopia itself, I still believe, is sort of inherently fascist. At least in the sense of there being only one perfect world. The only way to maintain that ‘perfection,’ in the same way that you achieve a society where there is never any crime, never any wrongdoing, is to have a total system of social control. But rather than the binary of utopia and dystopia, I’m far more interested in many different kinds of possible futures.

Sure.

And that includes different kinds of failure modes. That’s why I adore N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series. It engages in a really thrilling and productive way with different failure modes for the future. It shows mainly women, mainly women of colour, trying to productively build a way of living in a world that is collapsing. And it’s not nihilistic. So much dystopian fiction is nihilistic. A dystopian story which is ultimately in some way hopeful is much more interesting. Because that’s what the future actually is going to look like. It’s not going to be everything collapsing at once. It’s about slow collapses, and working out how to distribute the load of collapsing, so that it doesn’t fall and hurt more people.

That’s really interesting.

That’s what I’m trying to work out in both the fiction and the non-fiction that I work on.

The idea of building structures in the context of collapse just randomly makes me think of Cory Doctorow’s, um, Walkaway

Walkaway!

– which was, yeah.

I’m kind of upset Walkaway hasn’t been – I know a lot of people have read it, but I think even more people should have done. Because to my mind it is by far Cory Doctorow’s best work.

Yes.

Like, by far. Although he should really name his characters different things. I love Cory and Cory knows me, so if he reads this, I’m sorry … but those are terrible names for characters in an otherwise brilliant book. They are too in-jokey. Put yer in-jokes somewhere else, rather than in the names! But yes, it’s a really, really stunning book. One of the things he talks about is the difference between living in the early days of a better nation and living in that nation as the difference between getting married and being married. It’s also the only piece of fiction I’ve seen so far which has made an internet flamewar genuinely exciting and high-risk.

Yeah, and … and like worth doing? Like …

Yes, absolutely!

This is a flamewar that can teach us something.

Yes. ‘What’s a teachable moment here?’ Because so many of the experiences we have with politics are not legible. Quinn Norton, another writer I really admire, talks a lot about the difficulty of representing online experience in fiction. So what she says is – it’s not an exact quote, but – falling in love, fighting the government, and filling out tax forms, all looks the same. It looks like typing.

Yeah.

It all looks like typing! Like, ‘What are you doing?’ ‘I’m having sex. I’m breaking into a bank. I’m bringing down a foreign government.’ It all looks like, tictictictictic

We air-type furiously.

So Walkaway is really good at dramatizing that.

There’s an article all about Walkaway in our next issue, actually, by Kirsten Bussière. But finally, what should we be looking for from you? Of course there’s your short SF novel Everything Belongs to the Future. What else can we expect? Both non-fiction and fiction?

Well, I’m in the middle of an essay series at Longreads, where I’ve just moved the kind of hub of my essay-writing. Things also occasionally appear on my Patreon. I’m loving the chance to get deep and meaty in terms of length, but also keeping the energy up there.

After the current book is done, I will get back on a bigger novel that I’m working on. But I’ve done a few short stories this year as well – a story for Radio 4, a piece of flash fiction in the next Wired, and I have a story in I Am Heathcliff, edited by Kate Mosse, which is just out. That’s got ghosts in it.

I prefer doing genre. It’s a little bit like, I read what I’ve written, and I think, ‘Well, it would be better if there was a dragon, wouldn’t it? Or a vampire. Or a ghost. Or something weird with time.’ Maybe someday I will push the boat out, and do a story where nothing implausible happens.

Laurie, thank you so much!

THINGS MENTIONED

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