Interview: Esther Friesner

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Vision 7



Esther Friesner

Nebula Award Winner and Queen of the Hamsters


Lazette Gifford

Copyright © 2002, Lazette Gifford,All Rights Reserved



Esther Friesner, who is well known for her humorous stories, has published more than 25 novels, appeared in over 65 anthologies, and has had about as many appearances in magazines.  Esther has also written and published poetry and nonfiction articles, as well as having had an advice column (Ask Auntie Esther, Pulphouse Magazine).  She was Toastmaster for the 2001 World Science Fiction Convention, and subjected the crowd to the Hugo Rap...

And if that wasn't enough, Esther is also co-editor of the infamous 'Chicks in Chainmail' series.

Esther has twice won the Science Fiction Writer's of America's Nebula award, first for her short story 'Death and the Librarian' (Asimov's SF Magazine, December 1994) and again for  'A Birthday' (Fantasy and Science Fiction, August 1995).  In November 1995 White Wolf published 'The Psalms of Herod,' a stark look at a future society, followed by the sequel, 'The Sword of Mary' -- novels that surprised some of her long-time fans with the darkness of the storyline.

And if you want to know about the hamsters, you'll just have to check out her web site at

Vision:  You've written novels, short stories, articles, and poetry.  You've written serious material and humorous material.  Is there any type that you prefer to do?   

Esther: I can't say that there's one particular sort of writing I prefer over another.  Funny, serious, what-you-will, as long as I'm deriving satisfaction from the work at hand, it's good for me. 

Vision:  What drew you to write in the sf and fantasy genres?  Is there anything that you haven't written that you'd liked to try? 

Esther:  I started writing fantasy because a friend of mine in Yale grad school (Shariann Lewitt, who publishes some excellent SF as SN Lewitt) showed up in the Hall of Graduate Studies dinning room one day with a big pad of yellow legal paper and when we asked what she was doing she said "I'm building a world."  Well, that sounded like fun, and so with a merry "I can do that!" I started building one of my own.  During classes when I should have been taking notes.  But I got my Ph.D. anyway and I got the novels published that were based on that first go at worldbuilding, all of which makes this a very bad moral example for the children. 

As for writing something I have not yet tried, well, there's always a best seller for the New York Times list, or something nice for Oprah. <G> 

Vision:  Anyone who has met you, or spent time in your newsgroup on, knows that humor seems to come naturally to you.  When you sit down to write, do you intend to create humorous stories or do they just 'sort of' turn out that way?   

Esther:  This is a toughie to answer.  Stories come from all sorts of places, for me.  Sometimes I have an idea for a situation that's the story seed, sometimes it's something as small as a bit of wordplay that hits my ear and strikes my fancy just so.  Sometimes I know that a story is going to be funny and yes, there it is.  OTOH sometimes I start out with one of those story seeds I mentioned, something I expected to yield a funny story, and guess what?  The seed decides that no, it's going to grow up to be a serious story.  That's what happened with "Death and the Librarian."  Terry Pratchett gave me two miniature figurines from the Discworld game, one of Death, one of the Librarian.  I said, "Oh, neat!  Death and the Librarian!  Thanks!" and the phrase sounded like a perfect title, but when I started writing what should have been a funny story (I mean, come on, it was based one something connected to Terry Pratchett, for gosh sakes!) the story itself decided otherwise. 

Go figure. 

By the way, just so we're clear, a piece can be funny and serious too.  The best humor makes you think. 

Vision:  Do you have trouble switching off your sense of humor to do darker pieces? 

Esther:  It's not a matter of switching anything off.  I'm not a funny writer or a serious writer or a fantasy writer or a poet or a playwright.  I'm a writer.  Either I write in the vein that a particular story demands or I wind up writing a less than satisfactory (for me) story. 

Vision:  You spend a great deal of time interacting with fans, both on the Internet and at numerous conventions.  Do you feel this is an important part of being a writer in today's world? 

Esther:  I never thought of my interactions with fans as anything but interesting and fun.  I don't do it because it's good business or because I hope it will advance my career.  I do it because it's enjoyable and a lot of what I take home from conventions is real food for thought.  When it stops being fun and interesting and starts being stressful, I'll stop doing it. 

Vision:  When you want cheered up, whom do you go and read? Which genre writers do you enjoy reading?

Esther:  Oh dear.  When I want to be cheered up I go out of genre to a whole lot of. . .dare I say it?. . .comic books.  Although, well, let's face it, I read a LOT of Terry Pratchett's work.  He's wonderful.  I can't say enough good things about his work, and the fact that he's a great person too is icing on the very tasty cake. 

But as for comic books, I think Larry Gonick's THE CARTOON HISTORY OF THE WORLD is priceless.  I also enjoy Rumiko Takahashi's RANMA 1/2, Kobayashi's WHAT'S MICHAEL and CLUB 9, Frank Cho's LIBERTY MEADOWS, and plenty of other titles. 

I wish Walt Kelly were still with us.  POGO was the best.  I was raised on POGO.  

Vision:  How has writing changed who you are or how you see the world? Are there themes that matter most to you? 

Esther:  Well, I'm a lot less likely to turn off my Inner Editor when I go to the movies.  I don't nit pick, but I do notice flaws in the story's logic more than I used to. 

In the earlier days of my career I suffered from a common ailment, namely the conviction that I had to turn every life experience into fodder for a story.  That took all the fun out of things like vacations.  Now when I go to the beach, I enjoy the sun and the sea without feeling the driving urge to plot out a story set at the beach.  That's a great relief! 

I can't narrow down themes I care about.  It's a case of "I know it when I see it, or when it gets me angry/upset."  I suppose a lot of what does matter to me is doing what I can to make others understand that you do not need to stand on someone else's face in order to make yourself feel bigger.  Much hateful behavior in this world comes from people whose Words To Live By seem to be "Well, I may not be attractive, or successful, or well-liked, but at least I'm not a <fill in the blank with the racial/religious/ethnic/whatever group that the speaker feels superior to>!"

Vision:  Has your personal background and experiences played a significant role in what you write? 

Esther:  The writer is always the last to know this.  It's the readers, critics included, who are best at pointing out where the writer's life clearly influenced her work.  Who am I to deprive them of their honest employment? <G> 

Vision:  When did you know you wanted to be a writer?  Has your career progressed the way you thought it would? 

Esther:  I was three when I knew I liked to make up stories.  When I found out I could get money for doing so, my fate was sealed.< G>  I can't say whether my career is progressing the way I thought it would or not because I never really had a Five Year Plan thought through.  I had some goals I thought would be nice to achieve, like actually selling a novel (I swear, there was a time I was convinced I would never, ever, ever sell one) but I didn't have a preconception of my career as a thing unto itself.  

Vision:  Do you think today's genre market is harder on new writers just trying to break in?

Esther:  Wow.  That's another toughie.  I haven't got the information to give such an important question the sort of answer it deserves.  One thing, though:  The problem of mail contamination has definitely made things a lot harder on everyone.  This may or may not be the end of unagented submissions, but again, I can't make any call on this because there is nothing worse than an uninformed pronouncement.

Vision:  How did you become co-editor of 'Chicks in Chainmail' and the following books?  Do you enjoy the work of editor? 

Esther:  Pretty easily.  I came up with the idea behind "Chicks in Chainmail" at a Boskone years ago, pitched it to my editor at Baen Books, Toni Weisskopf, and when I got the green light I contacted Martin Greenberg of TeknoBooks to handle the administrative side of the editorial work involved.  We'd already co-edited two other anthologies.

Editing anthologies can be very enjoyable.  It's great to discover new writers (though the "Chicks" anthologies are invitation-only, with the invitation list generated in-house as opposed to open anthologies) but it's also sometimes frustrating when you get more good stories than you can buy.  Contracts state that the finished book can only contain so many words, after all, and you can't go over the limit.  I am consoled when stories which I could not buy are sold in other markets.  I like to see other writers succeed. 

Vision:  Can you give us an insight into what the editor of an anthology of this type does?   

Esther:  Pretty much what any editor does:  Read what comes in, first seeing if the story meets the guidelines of the anthology (i.e. in the case of the "Chicks" books a story must be funny and must involve women and armor of some sort).  That settled, I must say that I'm one of those intuitive editors of the I-know-it-when-I-see-it type.

Of course it doesn't hurt if a story makes me laugh more than it makes me say "Huh?"

Vision:  As an editor, is there anything you can tell upcoming writers that would help them in their careers? 

Esther:  Yes. 

  • ·        Learn the craft of writing as well as the art. 
  • ·        Be professional. 
  • ·        Follow directions (Do Not Send Complete ms. means just that.) 
  • ·        Follow requests. (If an editor says "No unicorn stories!" do not decide that your unicorn story is so wonderful it will make him change his mind.) 
  • ·        Follow professional manuscript format. 
  • ·        A rejection slip has nothing to do with you as a person; it just means that one of your stories was not the proper fit for one particular market.
  • ·        Go to panels where editors speak and heed what they say about such things as good cover letters (short and to the point) and other such matters. 
  • ·        Learn from the mistakes of others (which editors will speak of on these same panels) some of which are "cute" cover letters, writers who send abusive replies to rejections, and so on. 
  • ·        Be polite. 

Vision:  What is the most important advice you can give to a new writer?

Esther:  Don't give up.  But don't persevere blindly, either.  If one person tells you that a story is not working for Reason A and you disagree, fine.  But if one reader after another mentions Reason A, be willing to accept the fact that maybe, just maybe, they are right and you should look into Reason A for a rewrite. 

Vision:  Is there new material you have coming out that we can look for?

Esther:  I just turned in the novelization for MEN IN BLACK 2, said novelization and the movie upon which it is based will be out in the summer of 2002.  

Vision:  Any final thoughts you'd like to pass on to new writers?

Esther:  Love to write.  Value what you have to say and the way you choose to say it.  Work to make it as good as it deserves to be.  But again and above all, love to write.