Interview with Lois McMaster Bujold

February, 2016
Lois McMaster Bujold It's been 30 years since the epic, bestselling Vorkosigan Saga launched with Shards of Honor, and author Lois McMaster Bujold continues to mine new depths for the characters and settings in her rich science fiction universe. Set approximately 1,000 years in the future in a system of fictional planets (and occasionally on Earth), the series follows Count Miles Vorkosigan, a man as gifted in military tactics and interplanetary politics as he is at stumbling into trouble. New this month, the 16th book in the saga, Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen, focuses on Miles's mother, Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan, three years after the death of Miles's legendary father, Aral Vorkosigan. She rules the planet of Sergyar as vicereine while coming to grips with the loss of her husband and choosing her path for the future with the help of one of his closest allies.

Beyond Vorkosigan Saga, Bujold has written books in the Chalion series and The Sharing Knife series. Known for her wit, warmth, and operatic, action-packed plots, Bujold has won the Hugo Award for Best Novel four times (second only to Robert A. Heinlein), the Hugo Award for Best Novella, and three Nebula Awards.


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Goodreads: Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen focuses on Cordelia Vorkosigan. Shards of Honor (1986) and Barrayar (1992) told the story of her early life, but she's mostly been a secondary character while the series shifted to focus on her son Miles. Did you always want to come back to her story? How did you know now was the right time?

Lois McMaster Bujold: The Vorkosigan series has never had a grand overarching plan. Each book has changed the range of the possible for the books that follow it, much the way each year of a person's life lived changes their potential future. Without a standard template, it's rather hard to know when one has come to "the end." Life always goes on for somebody.

I had thought for a while that Cryoburn would be the last book—ending the series, as it began, with the life of Aral Vorkosigan. Fan after fan wanted to know what happened next with Miles, although I thought the answer was plain: He settles down to shoulder the adult work that he's been shaped all his life to carry, walking the walk. But it gradually occurred to me that while Miles's life constricted upon his father's death, Cordelia's opened out; and, furthermore, the SFnal [science-fictional] setting gave her a vastly larger array of choices than a woman in our world would have. That was new and unexplored country.

I am not sure what "the right time" to write a book means, but I could not have written this one much earlier in my life because I had not yet learned about being an older or bereaved person and how differently they might perceive the world.


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GR: This book not only focuses on Cordelia and Oliver Jole, but it also tells the story of their past with Aral Vorkosigan that was heretofore unknown to the readers (and to Miles). As you've been writing the books, have you always known this story about them? And if so, how did it affect those earlier books?

LMB: The story of these relationship/s has existed in potential for a very long time, running along like a thread of different-colored yarn carried behind the outward face of a piece of knitting, waiting for the right place to be stitched in. Jole first appeared in The Vor Game, in Miles's brief and rather jealous glimpses, which I wrote in 1989; I rather raised my eyebrows at him and thought, "Oh my goodness, Miles, what you aren't seeing...!" But that wasn't what that novel was about. So as I followed Miles's further adventures, I let the ideas rest in what I have dubbed "Schrodinger's Cat Carrier," that reserve of story possibilities that could be either alive or dead, no knowing which until it's opened.

The second act of the relationship, on Sergyar, I couldn't imagine till after I'd sent the elder Vorkosigans offstage as joint viceroys (incidentally extending Aral's literary life span by a decade), which fell after I'd written Memory in the mid-1990s. But, once again, I was writing Miles's books, and this story potential had no place in them.

There followed a several-year break in the '00s, when I was writing the seven fantasy novels for HarperCollins, and I did not think I would get back to the Vorkosiverse at all. The next two books were Miles-centric and Ivan-centric, but I did manage to place a couple of stitches from that long-held thread in them, mainly for my own private amusement.

I first strung actual words together about this tale in early 2011, when I was sitting around, stalled on Ivan's book (Captain Vorpatril's Alliance, as it eventually became) and working my way through some distracting medical issues. I had purchased a new laptop and wanted to write something on it for practice. (The encounter I imagined became what is now the second scene of Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen.) After that, I set the Cordelia ideas aside because I didn't see any way I could possibly make a standard genre book out of them, but they came niggling back in early 2012 and wouldn't leave me alone. Or, rather, no other ideas succeeded in capturing my interest. This book or none, it seemed. The cat was definitely alive and yowling to get out.

I wrote the first half-dozen chapters in 2012 and stalled out again, trying to force some sort of standard plotlike thing into them, but the material was having none of it and went on sit-down strike till I stopped fighting it. The book took another small lurch forward in 2013. Other interruptions—a house move, spine surgery—also delayed things. But finally, in the winter of 2014-2015, it all came together and grew into the book you now see.

GR: Cordelia and Aral's stories have always been intertwined, but this book shows her ruling on Sergyar and dealing with their family on her own. Was it difficult, or liberating, or some mix of the two, to write Cordelia without Aral by her side?


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LMB: Liberating. There is a passage in Cryoburn where Miles is thinking about his grandfather Count Piotr that applies as well to Aral: "Like a great tree the old general had been, but a tree did not only give shelter from the storm. How would Barrayar be different if that towering figure had not fallen, permitting sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor and new growth to flourish?"

Aral couldn't help being a very great tree indeed, and no one who loved him could have wished him diminished, but there's no question he took up a lot of space.

GR: Goodreads member Sheila asks how difficult it was for you to kill off beloved character Aral Vorkosigan, especially since his romance/relationship with Cordelia is so central to the series and its mythology?

LMB: Well, I had to write the entire book of Cryoburn to edge into it, so: not easy. At times I could only move forward by telling myself (knowing I was lying) that I could leave off the last bit. I also drilled down to my experience of my own father's death, and some others, to inform it all. Somewhere in Gentleman Jole there's a passage where Oliver is contemplating a difficult verbal exchange and thinks, "Try to get it right. Or at the very least, try to get it true." Cryoburn was my attempt to get it true.

GR: It's revealed early in the novel that Cordelia has the option to have more of Aral's children by using reproductive matter that both of them had donated years before. If you could combine your DNA with one of your character's to create a child, who would it be?

LMB: There's a new question! Would I have to raise it myself? My side of the contribution would definitely need gene cleaning, but the Vorkosiverse can supply that. If I chose Miles or Mark, I could have some of Aral and some of Cordelia, giving me a twofer. (I wouldn't want to live with any of them, mind you. I prefer a more restful life.)

GR: With Aral gone, Cordelia at the end of her career, and Miles a somewhat-settled father of six, you've described this book more as a "character study" than full of action and intrigue like many of the earlier books. Do you want to write more of these more contemplative additions to the series?

LMB: I have no idea. Each story demands its own completion, according to its nature. In general, I am not fond of repeating myself unless I have found something new to add or some fresh, revealing angle.

Cordelia, I might point out, is only at the end of one career; she's at the dawn of at least two more. One of the several SFnal issues this book examines is the effect of extended life spans on human relationships and choices.

GR: Goodreads member Wendy asks whether you have considered a book that features the next generation?

LMB: Not at this time.

GR: You deal with social justice issues in a lot of your work. Goodreads member Becca asks how new perspectives on social justice issues (particularly gender and sexuality) have affected the worlds you describe in your writing? In particular, how have they affected Beta Colony and Cordelia?

LMB: It's a little hard to figure out how to answer that question. These books were written over a 30-year span, and each one is now fixed like an insect in amber. Whatever new perspectives may arise in our world, these pieces of art are finished. Current events cannot affect them because time does not run backward. How the old stories will be received by new readers going forward will surely shift, but that's not under my control.

GR: Tell us about your writing process.

LMB: My writing process has evolved over the years as my context has changed. I began writing in pencil in a spiral notebook, retyped on my old college report typewriter; advanced to a three-ring binder; acquired my first computer (it had a cassette-tape drive); traded up to my second computer; the Internet was invented, and so on. Small children grew to large children, we moved to a new state, kids moved out, back, out again, career-maintenance chores multiplied, and so on. A couple of aspects have persisted over the years.

"Making it up" and "writing it down" remain two different phases for me. I still capture the ideas for a story or a scene in penciled notes, as an organizational and memory aid. These could be thought of as a very rough draft or as a (quite mutable) outline. But in thoughts and visualizations (walking is good for this) and in pencil on paper is where I munge things around till they seem to work. Only then do I take the notes to the computer and bang out the first typed draft, usually in scene-sized units. One such bite at a time, chew well, swallow, making room for the next scene to form. Each scene written alters the ideas for what could come next, sometimes by a lot, sometimes by very little. Lather, rinse, pause to whine at my test readers, repeat until the tale is told.

Formerly, as I went along I would print out each chapter and put it in a binder, freezing it till a final edit. Lately I've switched to working paperless. It hasn't made the process any faster—"thinking it up" is still the main bottleneck—but I find I do more micro-editing.

GR: What books have inspired or influenced you as a writer?

LMB: The books and writers who have the most impact are inevitably those one reads first, at a young age. In science fiction and fantasy, they were mostly the books I could find in school and public libraries in the 1960s, thus a trifle out of date for the modern reader. Not necessarily the most famous, but the writers whose stories got into my head and took root include: Poul Anderson, Cordwainer Smith, Randall Garrett, Lloyd Biggle, Jr., L. Sprague de Camp with Fletcher Pratt, Zenna Henderson, Roger Zelazny, Fritz Leiber, Anne McCaffrey, and James H. Schmitz. Outside F&SF I could name Arthur Conan Doyle, Georgette Heyer, Rudyard Kipling, Dorothy Sayers, and Alexander Dumas. I read, and still read, piles of nonfiction, of course, but that tends to be memorable for the subject matter rather than the author.


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GR: What are you reading now?

LMB: I have taken to posting short reviews of most of what I read on Goodreads because the system makes it so easy. My reading tends to go in weird little spurts of exploration. This month I've been getting very little reading done, as I've been absorbed by the book-launch PR chores and first reviews. I'm presently slogging through a history book on medieval Greece, a period about which I knew nothing, which I will review if I manage to finish it before it has to go back to the library. I also have in hand a newish translation of Mahabharata, ditto. It's actually pretty readable, but I haven't been able to concentrate on it, so progress is slow. I am looking forward to two new Ben Aaronovitch books later this year, The Hanging Tree and the graphic novel Body Work, both in his Rivers of London urban fantasy series. Most recently I reread all four books in Megan Whalen Turner's fantasy series, starting with The Thief.

GR: What are you working on now?

LMB: Right now I'm mostly doing PR chores and being wildly distracted by the book launch. I have a new Penric novella in hand, about which I am making no promises since it's being structurally obstreperous, appears to have been hijacked by the antagonist, and is declining to evolve much physical action. Right now all the characters seem to want to do is sit down and talk sensibly with each other. I'm not sure what to make of that.


Interview by Janet Potter for Goodreads. Potter is a staff writer for The Millions and cohost of The Book Report on YouTube. She has contributed to The Chicago Reader, Chicago Magazine, The AV Club, and The Awl.

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Comments Showing 1-8 of 8 (8 new)

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MB (What she read) Yay! A potential new Penric!


message 2: by Theresa (new)

Theresa Dear Lois McMaster Bujold,
I started reading your books about the Vorkosigan clan about 10 years ago at age 53. Always loved good science fiction since 9th grade after reading Brave New World etc. I discovered you on Audible. Right now I am reading the entire series again. Miles and his friends and family still amaze, amuse and absorb me completely. I love mystery and sci fi and you do it so well. Looking forward to more of their past and present in the new book. And please, you could never write enough about Miles and his immediate family. Thanks for years of entertainment. Sincerely, Theresa Martin


message 3: by Zee (new)

Zee Evelsizer I absolutely love Cordelia and can't wait to read this new book!!!


message 4: by Zee (new)

Zee Evelsizer I absolutely love Cordelia, and can't wait to read this new book!


message 5: by Melanie (new)

Melanie T Dear Lois McMaster Bujold,
I have loved the Vorkosigan Series, which for me is the very best of space opera. I picked up a copy selling for about $2.00 as a taster. I had been moaning about the death of my favourite authors. Bingo, I was and still am hooked. I have replaced copies as they fell apart. I look forward to MORE Cordelia. Thank you for writing such splendid fiction, well drawn characters, and the HUMOUR.....lovely stuff.


message 6: by Kristin (new)

Kristin Nitz I'm not surprised that you're a fan of the Attolia books, Ms. Bujold! While Caz is probably my favorite male fantasy lead, Costis and Gen are both in my top five.


message 7: by Patti (new)

Patti very disappointed. Bujold has always grabbed me from the beginning and left me unable to quit til I finished--until this one. Yes, it was mildly interesting but there was no significant conflict, either physical or psychological. The psych dilemma at the core was solved outside the scope of the book with a few bland interchanges.


message 8: by Marina (new)

Marina Fournier The Schrodinger's Cat Carrier is a good description of where random data, go when absorbed as encountered, lurking about until a few things trigger a use or connection for one or more datum, when they erupt out of the carrier and become useful information.

Intuition, on the other hand, seems to be an accumulation of unconscious observations, perhaps memories as well, which pile up until a conclusion leaps out and whacks me upside the head, but not a Gibbs slap to the back of the head.

It's also how my brain can have a tangent triggered by something I'm hearing in a conversation (or musing about), followed by several more tangents, erupting in a seeming non-sequitur which path most people don't seem to be able to follow. Neurodiverse brains have a better chance, though. Sometimes it's just a phrase which triggers a line or a song. You know how *that* works, I expect.

Once I had access to a computer at Xerox in 1985, I began using the WP environment (as it was in those days) to record drafts of poetry. I don't compose with keyboard, as one engineer thought I did. I compose out loud, and record with the keyboard, because my writing is slow enough that I can lose track of what I wrote (immediate short-term memory <5 min issues since childhood, can't blame all of it on medication or age!) before I finish one line. So, that's my paperless writing, aside from essays and emails.

Implications of the cover art just hit me. Call the green DNA string Aral, the red one Cordelia (hair), and the blue one (true blue) Oliver. Aral runs through both their lives earlier on, but now the latter two are coming together.

Have no idea if you, Lois, or the cover artist was thinking this way, but my brain just registered the possibility.


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