Emma Bull, Interviewed August 2001  


Once upon a time, I found a book. This was early on in my exploration of the vast potential of the urban fantasy genre. Oh sure, I'd read plenty of things before. Mercedes Lackey had eased me into the idea of elves living and working among humans in secret. Charles de Lint showed me that magic was real, and possible, and that it wasn't anything so blatant as race car driving elves, but a vast and wild and capricious magic, much like the fairy tales of old. Armed with what I knew then, I stumbled across a certain book. "An unearthly war is brewing in the streets," read the cover, against a fantastic painting of dark Fae, black dog, tough looking blonde woman, all lovingly rendered in green and brown. I read the back. I read the inside. And I fell in love. That book was War For The Oaks, and it forever changed the way I look at fantasy, both urban and otherwise. And that was the beginning of my love affair with the works of Emma Bull.

As part of the Minneapolis based writers group known as the Scribblies, she first came to prominence in 1987 with the publication of her first novel, War For The Oaks, which was part of the unofficial line of urban fantasy novels being published by Ace, under the editorial direction of Terri Windling. She'd previously had several short stories published in Marion Zimmer Bradley's Sword and Sorceress series of anthologies, and in the Liavek series of shared world stories, all five of which she edited along with her husband and frequent partner-in-crime, Will Shetterly. In 1989, she followed that with Falcon, a relatively straight science fiction novel. Her third novel, Bone Dance: A Fantasy for Technophiles was as different from her first two as night is from day, taking us from the modern, recognizable streets of Minneapolis to a future ravaged by mysterious entities bred for chaos and war. After that came Finder, a novel-length tale set in the shared-world series of Borderland, edited by Terri Windling and Mark Alan Arnold, in 1994. Her fifth book continued to push the limits of her talent, as she collaborated with Steven Brust, fellow member of the Scribblies, on an epistolary historical fantasy set in 1849 Europe, Freedom and Necessity. And just for good measure, she and Will Shetterly found time to put together a collection of short stories, essays, and the like to commemorate their stint as Boskone 31's Guests of Honor, Double Feature.

In her off time, Emma found the energy to pursue some of her other loves. She was part of the popular Celt-folk-rock group, Cats Laughing, which put out two albums, Bootleg and Another Way to Travel before disbanding. After that, she partnered with "The Fabulous" Lorraine Garland as the Flash Girls, a decidedly eclectic group whose third album, Play Each Morning Wild Queen has just come out. Maurice & I is still available, but The Return of Pansy Smith and Violet Jones is now out of print, but there are plans to re-record it.

That's not all. She and Will spent time as publishers, running Steeldragon Press, which served to release several books, assorted Flash Girls and Cats Laughing music, and a number of comic books, including Emma and Will's fascinating alternate history series, Captain Confederacy. They've also acted as scriptwriters, the most notable of these forays into the world of Hollywood being the script for War For The Oaks.

A good place to start if you have questions about Emma Bull, Will Shetterly, Steeldragon Press, Cats Laughing, the Flash Girls, or anything else related to them is this site, and from there, follow the links to your heart's content.

So then. Author, musician, editor, publisher, and who knows what else. Emma Bull's played many a role, and for tonight only, she's with us in the Green Man Review studios, where she'll answer a few questions daringly put to her. Lights...


GMR: You're no stranger to collaborating with other creators, be it your husband for the Captain Confederacy comic books, Lorraine Garland for the Flash girls, or any of the numerous Borderlands writers. Who would your ideal collaborator be, if you could work with anyone, dead or alive? Writing, music, or both.

EB: Most of the people I want to collaborate with are so much better than me, I don't think it would deserve the name of collaboration. I'd be afraid of getting in their way. That said, I love working with other people. Being in bands has spoiled me for solo performances--it's just not as much fun when there's no one else on stage to shoot a look at. I'm not as social with fiction writing, but still, much of the fun of writing for me is being able to hear what my writers' group thinks of the latest chapter.

I've had the most amazing luck so far; I'm very aware that I've been in the right place at the right time, mostly. I've had a chance to work with people on a companionable footing who, under other circumstances, I'd have been too much in awe of to approach. Familiarity doesn't breed contempt, in this case; it breeds something more like heedless presumption.

Must name names: Yes, the first piece of luck was marrying Will Shetterly. He can't bear to see his friends' creative inclinations languish unpursued. So he's made it possible, literally, for me to be a writer and a musician and any other silly thing I decide I ought to try. 

We co-wrote a Bordertown novella, "Danceland," and had a great time. But for some reason, we didn't try it again until we started doing screenplays. All of those we do together; it just seems to me we write better scripts in tandem than solo. Things come out that wouldn't otherwise, and the story goes places it never would if it was just me at the keyboard.

Steven Brust is the next guilty party. Steve's made a lot of stuff happen for me, what with starting bands, introducing me to neat people like the Fabulous Lorraine, critiquing my fiction and egging me on in the Scribblies. And, of course, being crazy enough to write Freedom and Necessity with me (that's our epistolary historical fantasy set in England in 1849). That's still the most fun I've ever had writing a book.

Steve gets credit for my knowing Adam Stemple, because Adam probably wouldn't have moved to Minneapolis if Steve hadn't said, "Move here, and we'll start a band." He did, and we started Cats Laughing. Adam is the most amazing musician and producer; if someone told me my solo album could be produced by either Adam Stemple or Mitchell Froom, everything else being equal, I think I'd pick Adam. (For perspective, remember that Froom produced Mirror Blue, which is still my favorite Richard Thompson album.)

And the Fabulous Lorraine, of course, who is my fellow Flash Girl and a wonderful and heroic partner-in-crime, uh, tunes. I wouldn't have met her if it weren't for Steve immersing himself in the Minnesota Renaissance Festival. Go figure.

I don't think of Terri Windling as a collaborator so much as a genius, in the inspiring-spirit sense. (The other sense, too, but hey.) People who come within range of her superpower will suddenly understand what they're supposed to do with their lives, and start doing it.

Wish-list collaborations? I want to sing backup for Richard Thompson, Boiled in Lead, and Courtney Love. Writing? Joss Whedon, in an instant--I'd love to work with Joss Whedon, on anything, for any reason at all. I want to be in a writers' group with Jane Austen. I guess that's it--I'd like to be in a writers' group with my favorite writers.

GMR: So far in your career, you've been an author, musician, editor, and even publisher. You're one of the few science fiction authors to make the transition between books and comic books for even a short while. Which aspect of your creative endeavors was the most satisfying for you? And if different from that, which is your particular favorite?

EB: I love music, and screenwriting, and comics, and poetry, but for me, novels and short stories are where I really put down roots. I love making the whole thing up and presenting it to the reader as if it had always been there. That's when I find myself thinking I must have conned the entire world, to be able to do this for a living.

The other thing I've done that's not on your list, that makes me happy, is teaching writing. Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek, said at the Pima Writers Conference this year, "I don't know if you can teach writing. But you can coach it." I like that; that's what I feel as if I'm doing. I think, if people want to write, and they have the energy and daring to face that shiny empty screen or the glaring white page over and over, that they should write. I don't think we'll ever have too many writers.

GMR: In fact, if you were told that, to remain working in your chosen field, you had to pick a label for yourself, what would it be? Author, musician, creator, storyteller, or something else?

EB: Writer. An author is someone who has written; a writer is someone who's writing. I like the second. And if I called myself a storyteller, people would expect me to be able to, well, tell stories, the way Jane Yolen and Bruce Coville and people like that can stand up in front of a group of people and put them through two dozen changes in almost as many minutes by reciting some wonderful tale from memory. I can read my work aloud, but it's just not the same. Do you remember the Delany short story, "Time Considered as a Helix of Semiprecious Stones"? His Singers improvise story-songs that say the things that other people, who don't have those gifts, need to say. Jane and people like her may draw on an existing supply of stories, but they still manage to say what we all need to say right then and don't have the tools for. Awe-inspiring.

GMR: War For The Oaks drew upon a number of classic fairy tales and folklore to tell the story of modern-day Fae in Minneapolis. In your Wonders of the Invisible World essay, you admitted that the inspiration for the novel came from your imaginings while in a dance club called First Avenue. What other sources and inspiration did you draw from? Are there any particular books on folklore, for example, or folklorists whose work you like? Or did you just wing it?

EB: Oh, Katherine Briggs, absolutely. Her An Encyclopedia of Fairies is essential for anyone who's interested in British Isles folklore and supernatural stuff, including ghosts, monsters, magic wells...you know the drill. All her other work is also wonderful, but that's the absolute required reading. Brian Froud and Alan Lee's Faeries is great, because though they're faithful to the folklore, they also show ways in which the creatures and characters can be reimagined and reinvented, especially visually. They're faithful, but free--does that make sense?

I used a lot of other sources, as well, and did a lot of research into Minneapolis itself, and the music scene there--I don't believe I was in a band at the time. When I set out to write fantasy, back in college, I thought--I really did think--that at least I wouldn't have to do a lot of research. Insert maniacal laughter here. I've never written anything since that didn't require research, and in most cases, scads of it. Thank heaven I've come to love research.

GMR: It could be argued that War For The Oaks is your best-known, and most popular novel, even though you've written a number of others since then. Do you ever get tired of being identified by it? If you had to choose, which of your books is your favorite? I know we're supposed to love all our children equally, but we always end up with a favorite anyway.

EB: I proofread War For The Oaks for the new edition. There are a few things I'd change if I were going to rewrite it, but not really very many. (I never did want to turn the new edition into a rewrite. I think that would be breaking faith with my younger self. She knew what she wanted, and from this remove, I don't feel as if I know her mind well enough to second-guess her.)

What I'm getting around to is: I'm awfully proud of that book. If all my other work were forgotten, I'd be disappointed, but I'd be perfectly happy to go down in my particular segment of history as the writer of War For The Oaks. My favorite is always the one I'm working on, or the one that's just come out. Not the one I just finished working on, because as soon as the manuscript leaves home, I become convinced that it's the most appalling piece of earwax that ever slew trees. Not until the typeset galleys arrive for proofing do I begin to think that I've been a teensy bit hard on the poor thing. And when the author's copies of the finished book land on the doorstep, voila! A miracle of transformation. It's suddenly a dear little book, with such a cute little spine, and the most adorable running heads...

GMR: You've written in several different genres. Finder, for instance, War For The Oaks is urban fantasy and explicit magic, whereas Bone Dance can be considered more science fiction and implicit magic. Where would you place them on the sliding scale that determines genre fiction? Would you argue for Bone Dance in science fiction, fantasy, or somewhere else altogether?

EB: Bone Dance was something of a personal triumph in a lot of ways. I'd written War For The Oaks, which was fantasy, with a single female point of view character, in third person. Then I wrote Falcon: science fiction, multiple points of view, two of them male, third person mostly. Okay, time for my third book. What haven't I done? So I thought I'd try to weave science fiction and fantasy together.

As soon as I started to do it, bang! I discovered I had a deep and unreasonable prejudice against fantastic elements and science fictional ones bumping up against each other. I had to, literally, reexamine my whole world view to figure out why I felt that way, and to see if I could overcome it, in order to get the book written. I had to ask myself how I thought the world worked, and where mysterious things, difficult-and-maybe-impossible-to-explain things, fit into those workings. Literally changed my life, I guess.

Then, when the book won second place in the Phillip K. Dick Award, I was pleased. I thought, Okay, that's the sort of twisted thing that Dick would have understood somebody wanting to write about. Then it was nominated for the Hugo, which at the time still leaned pretty firmly toward science fiction, and the Nebula, which considered both SF and fantasy, and for the World Fantasy Award, which is entirely not about science fiction. And I thought, Hmm. It was a very happy Hmm.

I've been fond for a while of something a lot of us have been calling ambiguous fantasy: stories in which the magical elements may or may not really be there. It has a lot to do with point of view. In Steve's and my Freedom & Necessity, for instance, there are a lot of magical events. Since they're almost all witnessed by the two characters who don't believe in them, they're on the page, but not described as magical. You have to read the subtext for the magic in that book.

I think, though, I'm swinging back to a more overt portrayal of fantastic elements in the new book (Territory, a historical fantasy set in Tombstone, AZ in 1881-82). It's a "secret history" fantasy (see Tim Powers's The Stress of Her Regard for a fabulous example of the form). There are wizards in the book who know they're wizards, and who are doing wizardly things. They're just doing them in ways and places that keep them out of recorded history.

GMR: Your music, both with Cats Laughing and the Flash Girls, has a healthy blend of styles, with an emphasis on rock. Among your sources, you count songs written by Jane Yolen, Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, yourself, and adaptations of traditional Celtic music (and that's just from Maurice and I!). Do you prefer unique material, traditional, or just go with the flow? For that matter, what appeals to you about the songs you've done?

EB: Oh, gawd, that's worse than "Which of your books is your favorite?"! Lorraine and I have called the Flash Girls repertoire "gothic folk," and some of our selections are all about that--when we heard John Van Orman's "Death on Hennepin" (which is contemporary urban fantasy, by the way), we knew it was a Flash Girls song.

But that's changing, too--if you listen to Play Each Morning, Wild Queen, the new one, you'll find some spooky things, and some things that are just...us. "Meaningful Dialogue" is the Go-Gos doing surf music, for instance.

In the past, we've tried to add things to the repertoire that wouldn't go, and we didn't say, "That's not our kind of thing," so much as we just never bonded with it. Cats Laughing and the Flash Girls have different criteria for bonding, but in both cases, I think we lean toward smart lyrics that say things we haven't seen before, or haven't seen in that form. And tunes that go in unexpected directions, or tunes we can make go in unexpected directions (for instance, when we messed with the rhythm of "Morrison's" on the first Flash Girls album to turn it into Sort of Jazz).

GMR: It's no secret that you've wanted to see a War For The Oaks movie made in the past. With Will Shetterly, you even released a ten-minute trailer tape using friends and Minneapolis locals. So the dream day comes, and they begin planning a multi-million dollar epic version in Hollywood. Is there anyone you'd like to see working on it, for your dream cast, or as director, or even doing the soundtrack?

EB: Baz Lurman could direct this. So could Joss Whedon. Sam Raimi. Tim Burton. Amazing directors, and actors get seriously into working for them. Dream casting for the Phouka is, absolutely, Harold Perrineau; he plays the guy in the wheelchair on Oz, and played Mercutio in Romeo + Juliet. He's incredible. For Eddi, Julia Stiles, Eliza Dushku, Kirstin Dunst, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Claire Danes--ye gods, we're rich in terrific young actresses right now, I haven't even started this list. Willy? That's a toughie. I'll get back to you.

GMR: What does Emma Bull like to read? When you're not busy writing, or making music, or whatever else, and you find time to sit back and read, what's your genre or authors of choice? Feel free to recommend a few things for the readers at home.

EB: Right now it's all about Tombstone. The best book on the subject, and terrifically readable, even if you're not a rabid O.K.-Corral-o-phile, is And Die in the West, by Paula Mitchell Marks. Other things I've read lately: Kushiel's Dart, by Jacqueline Carey, a gorgeous, daring alternate-history fantasy. White Oleander, by [Janet Fitch], a contemporary novel which is fascinating and strange and ultimately uplifting. An Instance of the Fingerpost, by Iain Pears, a historical novel set in England at the beginning of the Restoration which has four separate narrators, each with a very different view of the events of the story. It's outrageously good. The Bridge by Janine Young, a science fiction novel that reminds me why I love SF, because it's deep and lyrical and surprising. I reread the complete Jane Austen every three or four years, and find something new every time. I can always read Patrick O'Brien's Aubrey-Maturin novels. I'm reading Promethea and the rest of Alan Moore's comics for America's Best, and Doselle Young's The Monarchy series, from Wildstorm.

I'm listening to Altan's The Red Crow, Hole's Celebrity Skin, the soundtracks for O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Josie and the Pussycats, and Sugar's Copper Blue and File Under Easy Listening.

It's summer, so there's not as much TV on my list, but Six Feet Under is the latest treat at our house. Usual viewing includes Buffy the Vampire Slayer, The Gilmore Girls, West Wing, The Sopranos...and more, and yet more. I watch a lot of TV, and I watch it actively, the way I read fiction. There's a lot of television right now that rewards smart, analytical viewing.

I get a lot out of other people's stories, out of reading them or watching them. They may not be the kind of story I'd tell--or they may be exactly the kind of story I'd like to do--but I find that story begets story. Good narrative makes me want more good narrative.

GMR: What's next on your agenda? Are there any novels in the near future, or musical projects, or Hollywood plans? Feel free to drop us some tantalizing hints, so all the loyal fans can wait anxiously.

EB: Let's see, I mentioned Territory, which I've promised to turn in to Tor Books by the end of the year. The new Flash Girls album, Play Each Morning, Wild Queen, has just come out. Sometime next year Terri Windling and Ellen Datlow's Green Man anthology will be published, and I have a story in that that I'm awfully proud of, "Joshua Tree." After Territory I'm doing a science fiction novel for Tor; all I can say about that one is that the soundtrack is probably heavily Afro-Celt Sound System.

The next Flash Girls project may be The Return of the Return of Pansy Smith and Violet Jones. We want to re-record a lot of things off the first album and then release that, rather than reprinting the first album. We are so much smarter now. To heck with being true to our younger selves. If our younger selves could have done what we can do now, they'da done it. As far as movies and TV, there are Irons in the Fire, but there are always those. Our script of Will's novel Dogland has been optioned. Don't let anyone tell you that there are no smart people producing movies and TV, because we've had meetings with lots of smart, creative, fun producers. Even if our projects don't get made, I have tremendous hopes for the future of TV, especially, because there are people working in the medium who know how powerful and complex and sophisticated television storytelling can be.

Well, that's what I've been doing on my summer vacation, so far...

[Michael M Jones]