Q&A with Award-Winning Author and PJM Contributor Sarah Hoyt

As noted over on the Tatler, our own Sarah A. Hoyt is now an award-winning author, having won the Libertarian Futurist Society's prestigious Prometheus Award for best novel for her excellent book Darkship Thieves. We at PJM are of course very happy for Sarah and happy to have her here at PJM. Toni Weisskopf, editor and publisher of Baen Books, was equally excited for her:

Of course we’re thrilled whenever a Baen author wins an award, but we appreciate the work of the Libertarian Futurist Society so it means even more. I’m very pleased Sarah Hoyt will be joining the distinguished ranks of the Prometheus Award winners.

I contacted Sarah to do a little profile on her earlier this week. I had originally thought to do a basic interview and profile story. Having sent her a list of questions I found basically the same thing I found when I did the science fiction piece a few months back -- when you let authors respond via email, you get way more information than you anticipated, and of course, they're generally better writers than you are anyway. So in this case I thought we'd do a Q&A With Sarah A. Hoyt.

1. What does the award mean to your career?

SH: Honestly? I have no idea. I've been aware of the Prometheus Award for a long time and have always thought it was an award I'd like to win, mostly because of what it meant. But it never occurred to me I would actually win it at some point. My history with awards is to be a finalist, but never to win, so I didn't think of a win as likely even after it was announced I was a finalist. It seemed particularly unlikely after I saw the other nominees.

Awards, in general, are supposed to help the marketing, though at the moment at least one award in Science Fiction and Fantasy has a reputation for reducing print runs and publishers' expectations. I've never heard the Prometheus discussed in terms of its effect on extending your fan base and marketing which, ultimately, is what career is all about.

In the couple of days since the win I've been a little surprised at both the level of publicity for the win and the people who seem to suddenly consider me "big noise" after years and years of treating me like someone who could be safely ignored.

So, I have no idea. Right now I'm proud, and happy, particularly since the legacy award is Animal Farm which is one of my favorite books (not so much for how it's written but for what it says.) I expect the future will eventually reveal itself.

2. What are the challenges facing Libertarian/Conservative authors?

SH: This is another one in which I'll have to sort of hedge and beg. Look, like all the arts, writing is a liberal's game. Science fiction, too, I think encourages extreme ideologies, which almost inevitably default left. It's part of creating a world. You start thinking you could create "logical" rules for "this" world. (I tell you, if Lenin had written SF instead, we'd all be happier.) The climate in the field can best be judged by the fact that I could stand up tomorrow in the middle of a conference room full of my peers and announce I was a communist and they'd all applaud. However, if I announced I'm anti-communist, they would laugh. Some of them might laugh nervously and sympathetically but they would laugh.

Anyone clinging to Marxist theory is immediately believed to be very smart, and someone who goes against it is considered a lightweight.

Do they intentionally discriminate against Libertarians and conservatives? I don't think so. Not the vast majority of them. The vast majority of my colleagues are decent people. They are also, like the vast majority of the human race, conformists. Most of them attended good schools and grew up in upper middle class neighborhoods (at least most of them who came into the field in the last fifteen years. Yes, there are reasons for that, which I'll mention rapidly later, if I have time.) Their parents were taught in college about class struggle and that money was evil. They got it at home. They got it from schools. They got it from magazine articles and newspapers. The books they read growing up were infused with unconscious Marxism. OF COURSE they assume anyone who doesn't agree with them is either stupid or evil. And would you give a leg up to the career of someone who is evil? Would you help them?

The funny thing that always startles me a little is hearing myself addressed as a "conservative." I'm full of wild-eyed radical ideas not proposed out loud since Thomas Jefferson talked in his sleep, and I'm a "conservative" because I am, ultimately, anti-communist. This is a through-the-looking-glass world, since the establishment is as close to soft -- (and sometimes hard) -- communism as someone can go without sewing hammers and sickles into all their undies.

And that's part of the problem there too -- I don't think any of them means to discriminate against me. Some of them even like me, in a slightly bewildered way, but they don't know what to do with me. I was born in a Latin country, I am female, and yet I don't consider myself a victim and you truly don't want to get me going on a-historical theories of great mother goddesses. They don't know what to make of me, or what to do with me. I make them uncomfortable, and it's easier to ignore me or not to have me around too much.

Of course, it's entirely possible these aren't problems of the normal libertarian/conservative (the more... er... left-libertarians can even be embraced by the system at times) but just a problem of being me and cross-grained. This is entirely possible.  It’s also entirely possible my fiction writing sucks.  I don’t think it does, and I hope it doesn’t, but it’s sort of like judging your own kids.

3. What made you decide to come out of the political closet at PJM?

SH: I spent the first ten years of my career keeping quiet and commenting on political blogs on line ONLY under a nom-de-blog. This included the infamous Nebula Awards ceremony where the speaker took the podium and engaged in a campaign speech for... (rolls eyes) Howard Dean, "our next president." It included cozy dinners with friends and editors who suddenly and without provocation started a political rant. One of my editors once went on a foaming at the mouth rant about evil libertarians at breakfast, and I could feel my face set and crack, as I struggled not to show any expression.

More difficult, it involved writing books from which I CAREFULLY expunged every trace of political leanings. This is considerably harder to do than it sounds, even when someone is a writer like me, who prefers not to preach or emphasize politics. I lived in fear that some hint would get me "caught out."

And then strange things started happening. The first one of those is that my editor/publisher at Baen, Toni Weisskopf, called me and asked me to write the afterword to Puppet Masters by Robert A. Heinlein. She didn't tell me what to write, but we'd spent some time in the last few months emailing back and forth on the similarities between that book and the "war on terror." And that's what I wrote, because it had to be written, and because it was the truth.That afterword caught Glenn Reynolds' attention. Imagine still-deeply-closeted Sarah sitting in front of the computer with her cup of coffee in hand and seeing something like "Sarah A. Hoyt says" and a distinctly politically incorrect opinion. I spit coffee all over my monitor. And then I decided it felt good, and emailed Glenn and thanked him.

After that, it was sort of gradual, but I came to believe -- rightly or wrongly -- that I do have things I'd like to say, though not in my books, because those are entertainment. Oh, I'm no longer keeping my politics out of my books. I just let what comes out, come out naturally. I also don't preach, because that's not good entertainment. But the articles and opinion pieces give me an opportunity to express my opinions and to -- sometimes -- figure out the background for worldbuilding, particularly for the science fiction.

In a way I could say I felt called to do this, but that would be simplistic, and besides, it wasn't called so much as pushed, prodded and poked into doing this, by a variety of circumstances and an accumulation of small events.

So far, the sky has not caved in, and no bolts of lightening have flown. I don't know if anything bad has resulted. I might be permanently off some invitation lists, but can't tell you if it's due to politics or to my writing not being to some editors tastes, which might be politics or... not. That's life. On the other hand I sleep better and I like myself better.

4. What are your thoughts on the state of the publishing industry?

SH: Oh, boy. Uh. I don't know. What's more interesting, neither do they. Right now everything is confusion and turmoil. What I see is the establishment trying to hold out against the technology that's clearly pushing the field in a new and untried direction. I can't blame them. For most of these people, we're talking pensions and security.

On the other hand, the technology is having the impact it is because the industry is in a sorry state. There are several trends leading to this, one of them being that due to various reasons and pressures, between distribution, bookshelf space and publishers the publishers had managed to almost completely insulate themselves from market signals. They could decide what would have bookshelf space, what would have promotion, and what could be seen or not seen. This was very comfortable for individual editors when making sales projections, (they could MAKE them be right) but also allowed publishing houses to slowly ratchet away from public taste, so that ... we... I'm going to have to mention this. At one point, in one of my writers' lists, a colleague was madly enthusiastic about an erotic romance she'd just sold, and which her publishers were also very excited about. The love interest was... Jesus Christ.

Look, I'm not even particularly pious, and heaven knows I can discuss religion on levels that make people uncomfortable -- but the idea made my stomach twist in knots. The publishing house, however, thought it was a mega-bestseller in the making. It might have been a bestseller at that, at least on paper -- see above, where they controlled distribution and publicity. But can you imagine how many people would be permanently turned off by the idea alone? Turned off, possibly, from reading that author, that house, or even fiction?

That type of disconnect between consumer and supplier leaves the market ready to topple. Other things haven't helped. For instance, when they first got in financial trouble in the eighties, publishing houses fired their reading and slush-sorting departments (all except Baen, of course). When I was trying to break in in the late eighties, I got told I had to go to a workshop or a conference and meet the editors/agents. That was the way in. It was also -- for money AND time reasons -- impossible for a newly wed and then for a mother of two with small children.

This encouraged the flow into the field of a certain type of person -- not necessarily wealthy, but well educated, with a job, unmarried and/or with time on their hands. Nothing wrong with people like that being writers, of course. But something wrong with their being the only ones who could get in. Let's just say the writers nowadays really don't "look like America." Or understand America.

Then there's the houses screamingly clinging to the idea that "ebooks cost just as much as hardcovers." You know the thing about "when you're in a hole, stop digging?" Well, the publishing industry is in a hole, and just got an excavator in there with them, to dig more efficiently.

Baen, who listens to their readers, is poised to survive and grow through the debacle.

5. Where do you see the industry in 10 years?

SH: I'm an optimist. I grew up reading Heinlein and I tend to think the glass is not only full, it's positively brimming and possibly spilling over. Particularly when it comes to technology that allows more people to show their writing to the public, circumventing gatekeepers.

I think there's going to be a few years of turmoil, and it might become very difficult to make money in this for a while, but I think eventually things will settle out.

Yeah, there will always be people who write for free -- there always were -- but the law of TANSTAAFL (there ain't no such thing as a free lunch) tends to assert itself. In the end what you get is worth what you pay for it. People will pull away from the crowd and other people will be willing to pay them for their writing. With the middle man gone (or converted to small presses with good pay rates for authors) it will be possible for an author with 10k readers to make a living, possibly for the first time in history.

There will always be big presses -- though not necessarily the ones we have now! -- but those presses will become like the leather bound collections that are still done: for prestige authors, guaranteed to bring in mega bucks. For the rest of us, there will be ebooks. I suspect Baen will reinvent itself and survive as a mostly-e publisher and probably more diversified as to genre...

6. Why is there discrimination against Libertarian/conservative authors?

SH: Because we're outliers in the field. That's enough to make us strange and threatening. Again, I don't think there's conscious discrimination. Subconscious, almost for sure. People raised in an echo chamber of similar-thinkers (and mostly similarly-feeling people) can't process contrary thought except as perverse or evil.

We're heretics. Heretics make uncomfortable colleagues.

7. When is the sequel to DST coming out?

SH: I think it was originally scheduled for this fall, but I'm obscenely late turning it in. It's annoying because I can't even claim some big and important illness. It's been a series of small ones, and other, small, life annoyances. I am now on the final stretch, though, and as soon as Darkship Renegades is turned in, I'll announce it in the Tatler -- how is that? -- and then I'll announce the expected publication date.

The book is more action-packed and uh... considerably more charged than Darkship Thieves.

8. What do you want people to know about you and your writing?

SH: If you read a book of mine and hate it, don't rule out all my books. I write a vast variety of books, genres and subjects. (I've learned NOT to say "I'll never write...." Because heaven knows, I'll have this great idea, and I'll have to write it.) Actually what I've found is that people who like one of my books will follow me into genres and sub-genres they've never read before.

I write a lot but I write what I feel needs to be written -- particularly now that I don't undergo the emotionally exhausting task of cleaning my books of politics before sending them in.

Heinlein at some point said something about it being possible to kill writers but it not being possible to train them into doing anything useful. Maybe that's me.

9. Anything else you'd like to say?

SH: Uh... That is a dangerous question to ask me, considering I don't seem to have any idea when to stop talking.

Well, let me see, I blog at According to Hoyt, and I participate in two group blogs, a writing one: Madgeniusclub.com and a political/lifestyle one: Classical Values. And I hope my pieces will also continue appearing at PJM. Just today I was given the keys to blog at the Tatler -- "mwah ah ah ah ah. They said I was crazy, but I'll show them all... I have the power!" -- so, I'll be around.

Oh, and I must find some black lace stockings to wear to the Prometheus award at Renovations, because my dress is black with very fine silver embroidery. If you're at Worldcon, come and see me, if not for the speech, to see if I've found the stockings.