GeekPlanetOnline Interviews

Gillian Coyle interviews the award-winning author.


GeekPlanetOnline Interview: Kameron Hurley



Kameron Hurley is the author of the novels God’s War, Infidel, and Rapture (out February 26th in the UK) a science-fantasy noir series which earned her the Sydney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer and the Kitschy Award for Best Debut Novel. She has won the Hugo Award (twice), and been a finalist for the Nebula Award, the Clarke Award, the Locus Award, and the BSFA Award for Best Novel. Her most recent novel is the subversive epic fantasy The Mirror Empire. The sequel, Empire Ascendant, will be out in October 2015. She writes regularly for Locus Magazine and publishes personal essays at Gillian Coyle speaks to her about anti-heroes, bugs and fighting the system.


For those who've yet to encounter the Bel Dame Apocrypha, would you explain a little about the world?

God’s War, Infidel and Rapture are set on a contaminated, colonized world at perpetual war in the far, far future. The economy and technology are all powered by bugs – there are bug magicians, boxing mullahs, and a keen band of assassins called bel dames that hunts down deserters. I think of it like Mad Max with giant bugs. It was, as you’d imagine, a lot of fun to write.


It’s a couple of years since Rapture was originally published. Does it feel odd to be promoting it again?

Yes and no. When Rapture came out in the U.S., my publisher was slowing imploding into bankruptcy-land, I hadn’t been paid over six months, and there was very little promotion or distribution for it. It sort of sank without a trace. As time has gone on, more people have found the book, but it’s been an upward slog. Which is a real shame. More people have read the first book in the series, God’s War, but Infidel and Rapture are much, much better books. It’s not even just me saying that, either! Reviewers and readers across the board love the other books more.

So while it may seem odd to promote a book that came out three years ago in the US, it’s really the first time I've had the opportunity to promote it at all!


I recently read an article about the scarcity of female anti-heroes, despite the apparent rise in female-led SFF. Nyx has become one of my exemplars of this type of character. Who are some of your favourites?

Actively anti-heroic female characters can be difficult to find – creators are often told that women characters need to be “likeable,” which is absurd. Few people would say Humbert-Humbert was likeable. There are entire genres of books about male characters who are murderers and rapists. I have no interest into going out for drinks with anyone in American Psycho. It’s why it’s so delightful when I find female anti-heroines. Monza from Joe Abercrombie’s Best Served Cold comes to mind.  Joanna Russ has a heroine who basically murders everyone she knows in the book We Who Are About To…, which is awesome. Chuck Wendig’s Blackbirds does this with Miriam Black. Cheryl Strayed’s Wild is wonderful to read because the author has no problems being terribly honest about the things she did – real, complex things that are selfish, evil, heroic, touching, all at once. I’ve also heard great things about Captain Sygney Mallory in Down Below Station by C.J. Cherryh.


Inaya’s journey from God’s War to Rapture was a fascinating portrayal of politicisation. Could you tell me a little about your own journey to political activism?

That’s probably a whole post in and of itself. Suffice to say that I was one of the biggest misogynists I knew until I went out into the world and realized that no matter how capable I’d taught myself to be, how much “not like a woman” I had learned to act, people still treated me like a woman. And the way we treat women is pretty awful. I found myself trying to go back and unlearn all of my butch habits, trying to be something I wasn’t, figuring that maybe I’d be accepted if I was more traditionally quiet and fem, and that just made me super depressed.

I got lucky in that I started reading a lot of feminist science fiction, which led me to reading feminist theory, which led to me reading about racial politics and inequality, and then queer theory and activism, and it all snowballed from there. Recognizing the structures in place for keeping alive this lie that women can only be and do particular things – rewarding only particular sorts of behavior, writing only about people who fit those modes – made it easier for me to recognize other types of equality. It’s all part of the same system that’s built to keep a tiny minority of people in power while crapping on everyone else. You play these disparate groups against each other, then sit back and reap the rewards as one of the super rich.

Once you see it, you can’t unsee it.


I love the bug tech in the Bel Dame novels. Were there real world inspirations for it?

I lived in Durban, South Africa for a year and a half – I went to graduate school there, and there were… more bugs than I was used to. I talk a lot about it here.


There is a very high body count in this trilogy, and I cried over more than one death. How hard was it to kill off your characters, and did any of them get a reprieve?

Sometimes characters just die. Which might sound funny, but there are times when I’m writing a scene and the death just writes itself, and I have to go back and ensure that that’s what really needs to happy. I had a character in the book I just turned in, Empire Ascendant, who hasn't even supposed to die, but they slipped off the side of the mountain and ooops… there goes that character arc. I don’t mind killing characters when their arc is over. It can be difficult, though, as when one of the sudden deaths in Rapture, when that death matters a great deal to your main character. You go through some of that grief with them.


There’s a lot of love between characters in the series, but no typical fictional romance. Was this a deliberate choice?

It was. In part, the trilogy was written as sort of a rebellion against the typical love triangle or will they/won’t they narrative I’d see in a lot of other fantasy novels, especially urban fantasy.  One of the things I've always found fascinating about these types of storylines is that they've become so typical that we have a real expectation for how things will turn out between the protagonists. You put two people who are opposites but attracted to each other, like Nyx and Rhys, and we have an expectation that love will conquer all, that there will be some kind of redemption, that no matter how bad these two people really are for each other, they’ll get together anyway, because love just makes anything work.

This romantic narrative is a fun fantasy, but I see a lot of people driving their actual romantic lives – especially as teenagers – using this as a guidepost, and it can be hugely damaging. You spend a lot of time trying to redeem abusive, broken people, when the reality is that the only thing that will change a person is, often, a traumatic life experience. People cannot be fixed. They must choose to repair themselves. I also see us trying to smoosh two people together who really shouldn’t be together in fiction, people who would have to sacrifice so much of the core of who they are to be together that I actually wonder what’s the happier story – the one where they hook up but live miserable boring lives trying to be as inoffensive to each other as possible, or the one where they go their separate ways and retain their identities.  All relationships involve compromise, but it’s difficult to communicate, especially to young people, the line between adult compromise and eradicating everything you are to become something more palatable for someone else.

That said, though there is not a lot of romantic love in the books, as you said, there is certainly a great deal of loyalty and affection. Our affection for one another is what powers the world, and though Nyx may screw up everything in her life, she does live by a moral code, even if it’s one that may be unrecognizable to most of us.


With the end of the Nasheen/Chenja war, thousands of marginalised men return to Nasheen and start demanding equal treatment. It made me think about the positions of British and American women after WW1 and WW2. Is this something you had in mind?

It was indeed. I was fascinated by the shift in propaganda after men came home from war, especially in World War II. There was a huge push to get women into factories, to take up jobs, when men left. They had all these studies and doctors coming forward to tell women how good it was for them and their children to not be in the home. They set up childcare centers in the US to make it easier for women to work.

And then when the men came home, all of that was dismantled. They paid doctors to say new things. They put out new studies, all saying the opposite of what they had said when the government wanted women to work. All of the sudden it was bad for women to work, bad for their children, bad for their families, and in the US, all those childcare centers went away.

I wanted to explore what it would be like for Nasheen once the men came home. Because women had been running things for so long, I couldn’t see them going in that particular direction, but I was interested to explore what direction it did go in. How do you employ tens of thousands of men who have been only been trained in how to manage a war, and have no other real social function in society?


The Bel Dames, and Nyx in particular, seem to recognise that a better, kinder Nasheen would have no place for them. To what extent do you think positive societal change can result from violence?

This is a funny question, because it’s something I go back and forth on a lot. When I was in my early 20’s, I figured the only way to really change a system was to just burn the whole thing down and start over. Then I researched what happened during many revolutions and realized how many people would be killed, starved, and displaced during such a thing and I thought, is that worth it? Surely we can remake a system from the inside? So for the last ten years I’ve been looking at how to change systems from the inside, and I’ve become fascinated with this idea that it’s actually nearly impossible to go into a system, profit from it, and then change it significantly from within. The trouble is that once you have something invested in a system, your very survival is now linked with that system. When you work your way up, what’s your motivation to tear it all down? I see so many people looking into the abyss, and becoming a part of it.

I count myself in here too, because once I invest in a 401(k) that invests in companies that buy out other companies and bleeds them dry, firing people and reducing wages, I become part of the machine. Once I buy a house from a bank that tosses other people out of their homes, I’m part of the machine. Paying taxes to a government that tortures people, yes, that’s tacit support of the machine.

More and more, I worry that the only solution for real change is revolution. Does it need to be violent? I hope not. But I don’t think we’re going to get where we need to go unless there’s a hugely traumatic event in the US that helps us wrest control of the country from the mega rich. Let’s hope that’s not a violent one.


I've browsed the Bel Dame Apocrypha wiki a fair bit while reading the novels, and found it useful. Do you think wikis and fan sites are becoming as important to genre fiction as they are to TV series, for example?

I create the wikis for myself and my copyeditor mostly, to help me keep characters and made-up flora and fauna straight when I'm writing series books. The fact that fans dig them is sort of an added bonus. As to their importance – they’re certainly important to me as a creator. I know that most folks making television and games keep wikis as well, to help the whole team stay on the same page. Is this vital when you’re a single creator? I don’t know. It really depends on your process. There are writers who don’t use them, but I can tell you now – any epic fantasy writer who doesn't have something like it probably wishes they did by book three of their series.


You’ve written a lot about representation, and your novels feature women of colour as protagonists, as well as characters with various sexualities and genders. Do you think representation in genre fiction is improving, or are we just hearing more about the writers who are doing it well?

The diversity of our literature – the stuff we promote as “literature” in particular -  is still pretty dismal; talking about it is helping to open publishers’ eyes, and they are certainly more open to diverse work than they were a decade ago. But just because we make lists of diverse work doesn't mean there’s more of it – it means we’re taking the time to surface that work and put it front and center, when it’s been marginalized before.

I still spend a lot of time bumping into writers who don’t see why it’s weird that the worlds they’re writing about are 99% white and 98% male – they honestly think they’re being “realistic.”  I still spend a lot of time trying to fix my work so I'm not one of them. Do I believe there’s progress being made? Sure. But it’s not at a revolutionary level as yet. I’m optimistic that we might get a bit of a shift here before the real backlash.


You've won a lot of awards, notably winning the first Hugo awarded to a blog post for We Have Always Fought. How significant do you think awards are, and how do they translate into books on shelves*?

*or a better bookish version of ‘bums on seats’.

It depends on which award, and how much you’re already selling. If you’re already a bestseller, they don’t mean much. Maybe a few thousand sales. But if you’ve only sold 500 copies, a few thousand sales is a big deal. It can mean the difference between you being seen as a lost cause…. or a promising rising star. Awards mean buzz, and if you can take advantage of that buzz, if you say yes to interview opportunities and writing opportunities that result from that, then you can maintain that momentum going forward, and use it to your advantage.

I hear from folks all the time that awards don’t sell books, and blog posts don’t sell books, and signings don’t sell books, blah blah blah. But the reality is that just because your blog posts don’t sell books doesn’t mean other people’s don’t. I know a writer who posted a review of another writer’s book who used Amazon analytics to track back over 1200 sales of the other writer’s book to the post they made about it. So I tend to give the side-eye to people who tell me “the internet doesn’t sell books” or “awards don’t sell books” like it’s some kind of divine maxim written on a stone tablet. The only thing people don’t dispute is that people talking about books sells books, so the more opportunities there are for people to talk about your work – because it’s won an award, because an author or celebrity with a big following blogs about it - the better.


Empire Ascendant, the sequel to Mirror Empire is due out later this year. Do you get nervous about releasing your babies into the wild, or are you more the “move onto the next one” type of writer?

There’s certainly always some trepidation. You hope that what you wrote resonates with the right people in the way you hoped. I edit my novels right up through page proofs to make them the absolute best they can be before they go out the door, but then you have to let them go. I tend to read early reviews for a few weeks to get a general idea of how things are going, then I have to stop. At some point, all those voices make it harder to write the next book. Everyone wants different things, and many want different outcomes than the ones you've planned.

I remember reading the reaction of a super fan of God’s War and Infidel who just really despised Rapture. They wanted the story to turn out a different way, and that was just not going to happen. It wasn't that kind of story.


Finally, what’s in your TBR pile at the moment, and what recent reads would you recommend?

I'm reading Wake of Vultures by Delilah Dawson, Grace of Kings by Ken Liu, and Wild by Cheryl Strayed. I highly recommend a book I finished and blurbed a few months ago called The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson. It’s incredible, and explores the big question I mentioned earlier – is it possible to change a system from the inside without becoming a monster? I cried through the first forty pages because I knew what was coming, and cried through the last forty because it was even worse than I thought. Everyone should buy it.


Interview conducted by Gillian Coyle. Our thanks to Kameron Hurley for taking the time to speak with us. 

Read Gillian’s review of Rapture, as well as the previous novels in the trilogy, God’s War and Infidel.