Fantasy's Prolific Workaholic Is Back with 'Middlegame'

Posted by Cybil on May 1, 2019
Seanan McGuire
Author Seanan McGuire is the busiest person you know, even if you don't know her yet. She's that busy. McGuire has 33 novel-length works currently listed on her bibliography page, and that's not counting her pseudonymous acquaintance, Mira Grant. Scroll down and you'll find short fiction, essays, comics, nonfiction, and poetry.

The crazy part? She didn't turn to full-time writing until about three years ago.

Along the way, McGuire has won several marquee book prizes, including Hugo and Nebula awards for speculative fiction. Her series of fantasy novellas Wayward Children was recently picked up by the TV network Syfy for development. McGuire's brain is clearly a restless explorer, and her ambitious new novel, Middlegame, maps out another enormous chunk of notional real estate.

In the new book, a pair of separated twins named Roger and Dodger endeavor to solve a series of increasingly sinister mysteries. Why were they separated? Why are they being hunted? Why are they developing world-breaking powers? And perhaps most importantly—why did they get such ridiculous names? The brother-and-sister team find themselves squaring off against a cabal of eldritch predators who have cracked the ancient code of alchemy, the missing link between science and magic.

Speaking from her home outside Seattle, McGuire talked with Goodreads contributor Glenn McDonald about the new book, the weird science of alchemy, and the curious case of the prescription typewriter…


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Goodreads: Your bibliography is really astonishing. Are you just writing all the time?

Seanan McGuire: Well, I'm not writing at the moment because I'm talking to you. But yeah, I was writing right up to the point where my phone rang. That's pretty much my life, because I am a workaholic and I enjoy what I do.

GR: When did you make the leap into full-time writing?

SM: I made the transition around January 2016, I think. The best advice I ever received from anyone, about professional writing, was from Todd McCaffrey. He said: Don't quit your day job until you're reasonably sure you can pay your bills off of your royalties. My last job was for a nonprofit, and I was basically sick all the time because I was writing all these books and I was still working a full-time day job. My friends never saw me. Like, never.

Then the ACA happened, the Affordable Care Act. I don't think people realize what a difference that made, for all of us that work in the creative fields, to be able to get affordable insurance. I kept my day job for a few years after I strictly had to, just because I was terrified of dying under a bridge. The attacks on the ACA that are happening now are terrifying. Genuinely terrifying. Especially if they take away the protection for preexisting conditions.

GR: Were you into writing as a little kid?


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SM: I was. I did not figure out that writing was an option until I was about three. I started reading before I was talking, really. Then I started getting migraines because I was trying to write, but I didn't have the physical coordination to actually write at the speed that I could think.

So the doctor prescribed a typewriter. Really. My mom went to a yard sale and got me this gigantic thing. It weighed more than I did. I started writing stories. At the beginning, they were all very factual. I would write stories about going to look for my cat. A lot of my earliest work was what we would classify as fan fiction now. There were a lot of adventures with My Little Ponies.

The thing about being a genius when you're a kid is that you grow out of it. I was perfectly average by the time I hit school. But there was that brief, frustrating time when I was so far ahead of where they wanted me to be that they just didn't know what to do with me. I would write until 3 a.m. on my typewriter, which sounded like gunfire.

GR: There seems to be some of that experience in the new book, with the child prodigies Roger and Dodger. Their relationship is fascinating; it's a sibling thing but also this deeper connection that suggests they're resonating on the cosmic level.

SM: I love that this is my best-reviewed book so far and it's about characters with intentionally terrible names. It's a delight to have people have to try to talk seriously about the relationship between Roger and Dodger. It's terrible, and it makes me so happy.

Roger and Dodger really are soul mates because they are functionally the same person. They're one person split into two to embody the Ethos [the alchemy formulation sought after in the story]. I don't think that's a huge spoiler; that's basically the premise of the book. We know that, but they don't for a good part of the story.

Locking down their relationship, a lot of that was looking at my own relationships with my siblings and the places where it's good or weird or awkward.

GR: For readers who might not be familiar, what do we mean when we talk about alchemy?

SM: Alchemy is sort of like magical chemistry. It's this idea that you can transform parts of the world into other parts of the world. You just have to figure out the right combination of elements. The classical example is lead into gold. But alchemists also believed that there were spirits and such that could be called upon to help with these processes. It has some of what we might call sorcerous ideas.

They were trying to find the magical formulae for these things, like the panacea, which is the cure for everything. Or the alkahest, which is the universal destroyer, a fluid that could dissolve literally anything. Then there's the Philosopher's Stone, which was said to give eternal life.

Harry Potter fans are probably familiar with alchemy, more than previous generations, because of the character Flamel, who was an actual and quite famous real-world alchemist.

GR: Did you research the actual history of alchemy?


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SM: Yes, this was the first time I really jumped into it. I did a lot of research, and research makes me so happy. I hunted down every book I could find on alchemy; they're all downstairs in the library now.

Alchemy was a real thing, even if it never worked, even if they never turned lead into gold with these processes. Really smart people spent a really long time trying hard to make these things happen. I wanted to make sure what I was trying to do would fit into at least one school of alchemical thought—and there were many, many schools of thought. Alchemy sounds a little ridiculous now, but there was a time when it was a commonly accepted belief.

GR: In the book you have a great villainous force in the Alchemical Congress, who are modern practitioners of the ancient art. They reminded me of historical groups that purported to be keepers of secret knowledge, like the Masons.

SM: Right, or like the Order of the Golden Dawn. I never found a specific historical analog to that in alchemy, but maybe that's because they never got it to work. My Alchemical Congress is a group of people who can actually say that alchemy works. They're able to do all kinds of ethically negotiable things. With that kind of power, you're absolutely going to have a group that locks it down so it stays in what these people consider the right hands.

GR: The cover image of the book depicts a delightfully creepy magical item known as the Hand of Glory, which also has a historical basis. Do you recall when you first came across that?

SM: I feel like I've always known. I don't remember where I first read about that. I studied folklore in college, and the Hand of Glory was very common in certain parts of Europe. It's amazing. Everyone was chopping hands off for a while there.

GR: When did you actually start writing Middlegame?

SM: Middlegame is kind of unique. I'd been thinking about it for ten years, but it took me a while to develop the technical skill to tell the story and have it make sense to people who don't live inside my head. My brother must have heard me explain this story 90 times before I even sat down to write it.

At this point in my career, I have the enviable problem that, for the most part, I don't get to just sit down and decide that I'm going to write. Everything has been pre-sold. I'm working off contracts until 2023. So I know exactly what I'm going to be writing every day when I get out of bed.

GR: Don't you ever just get burned out?

SM: Well, I think I'm dealing with ten years of systemic burnout because I'm exhausted all the time. But if you mean: Do I ever get to the point that I can't write? Thankfully, no.

I think everybody's wired differently that way. So much of my storage space is devoted to people who don't exist. There's a certain concern that if I leave them alone, those parts of my brain will go offline.

GR: There are fictional lives at stake!

SM: There are! You don't depend on me for your persistence of existence. If I forget about you, you'll still be fine.

GR: Your series Wayward Children was just picked up for development with the Syfy channel. Is there anything you can disclose about that?

SM: No, not really. For the most part, for myself and other creators, we can't disclose anything because they don't want to let us know what's happening. We have family members that are going to ask, and they don't want us to be the leaks and endanger the production, so we're frequently not told things.

I've basically just sold them my canvas, because I'm a wee baby author from the perspective of Hollywood. I have no properties under my belt, I have no track record. There's not a lot of bargaining power on my side of the table. But I trust the people that are involved in this project.

And even if I didn't, honestly, television changes everything. The worst show that absolutely butchers my concepts—which is not a thing I'm expecting with this team at all—but the worst show in the world is going to be seen by more people than have read the first book. So that bumps my book sales, almost guaranteed.

That sounds very mercenary, I'm sure, but that's just the math of it. Jim Butcher, Charlaine Harris, even Neil Gaiman—they weren't household names until they got something on TV.

My mother raised three daughters on welfare, and she lives with me. I'm basically her sole support. I worry fairly regularly about what would happen if I get hit by a bus and can't write anymore. But what happens with a successful TV show—or even a failed TV show—is that my mom lives off my royalties for the rest of her life.

GR: This is a question we've been polling authors on: When you read for pleasure, do you read one book at a time or do you have several going at once? Some people say it's insane to read multiple books at the same time, but I usually have two or three going.

SM: Well, I'm currently reading six.

GR: Is there anything else you'd like to highlight or discuss about the new book?

SM: Middlegame is currently a standalone, but there are two follow-ups I'd really like to write, so please buy Middlegame from your local bookstore so that my publisher will let me continue!



Seanan McGuire's novel Middlegame will be available in the U.S. on May 7. Don't forget to add it to your Want to Read shelf. Be sure to also read more of our exclusive author interviews and get more great book recommendations.

Comments Showing 1-19 of 19 (19 new)

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message 1: by Depi (new)

Depi Lou I love this interview- thank you!


message 2: by Christine (new)

Christine Loved Wayward! Looking forward to Middlegame :)


message 3: by Eileen (new)

Eileen Young I'm really looking forward to this book - and honestly love that it only took two questions to bring up what a terrifying dystopia we already live in.


message 4: by D.j. (new)

D.j. So! I loved Seanan’s Newsfeed series , the side jaunts and short stories . I’ve read that whole story and visit it now and then . I’m SO SO GLAD I read this article . I’ve seen her patreon and other projects . Sadly I couldn’t really afford the commitment at the time . I couldn’t pin down why her writing was so incredible to me . Thank you Seanan for sharing some insight . I suffer with a debilitating and rare illness. So I share this struggle. I totally get it . The escape that her books have given me are like a survival skill to me . They take me places. Places I can’t really go . They introduce me to characters I wish were real people. ( I read somewhere that more than a few times she’s incorporated elements of people she knows and I’m envious of her knowing such amazing individuals no matter how elaborated the story makes them ) . I can’t wait to see this new adventure... and hope things are better for her now ... and continue to be ...hint ... newsflesh is screaming movie series ... just sayin !


message 5: by C. (new)

C. Gold Great interview. That's awesome we'll get to see a TV series based on Wayward Children. Yay!

I wish I could write even 1/10th as fast!


message 6: by Esther (new)

Esther i havent even heard about the syfy thing so far and i follow seanans works! im so happy about it. it was the first book i read that actually had a character who was ace like me. ever since the series became a favorite thanks to the wonderfully comforting feminism and the cast. im so curious to read middlegame, i just ordered it today (once again, why did i have to find out about this book on a random goodreads article?? i would have preordered smh)


message 7: by Pamela (new)

Pamela Sewell Interesting interview. An author I really admire...she is so inventive and her imagination is off the charts. Very lyrical writing almost poetic.


message 8: by Tria (new)

Tria Preordered several months ago, so - shiny goodness. And yeah, the ACA has done a lot of good for a lot of people I care about; it needs protecting.


message 9: by Melissa (new)

Melissa Great interview!


message 10: by Rachel (new)

Rachel Love the interview, Seanan really has a unique personality, excited to read more of her stuff 😊


message 11: by Anaisha (new)

Anaisha I absolutely loved the interview. I love Seanan McGuire, she is one of my favourite authors. It was great to know a bit more about her and to know that she reads multiple books at the same time like me. :) When I finished reading the series of wayward children I cried because it got over. So, based on last experiences I am definitely looking forward to Middlegame.


message 12: by Celia (new)

Celia So glad that Goodreads interviewed Seanan McGuire!! I love her work so much, and am always excited to follow her into new and exciting series.


message 13: by Edward (new)

Edward Smith Great interview, Thanks


message 14: by Erin (new)

Erin Just bought Every Heart a Doorway for my son’s second grade teacher last week as an end of school gift. My theory is a teacher has got to love a story about found children that want to be lost again....
Besides, I gave it to everybody in my family last year so it’s always fun to find a new convert.


message 15: by Beverly (new)

Beverly D.j. wrote: "So! I loved Seanan’s Newsfeed series , the side jaunts and short stories . I’ve read that whole story and visit it now and then . I’m SO SO GLAD I read this article . I’ve seen her patreon and othe..."

Same! I read Feed as a Hugo nominee and i was hooked. I read all of those books before finding out that was her pseudonym and there were so many other books out there for me to read! She doesn't have a contract for any more of the NewsFlesh books, so we have to email the publisher and request more!


message 16: by Aly (new)

Aly Loved the honesty here. Bumped it up from my maybe pile to someone I truly want to support. I need to dig into her work and this seems like a great place to start!


message 17: by Greg (new)

Greg Gah! I am so sad that Seanan/Mira has to structure so much of her life around shitty american healthcare. From the outside, it just looks so stupid and savage.
Good interview though, and yeah definitely on the read list now.


message 18: by Tiffany (new)

Tiffany Terry I had never heard of Seanan McGuire but after reading this interview and playing around on her website, I am TRULY intrigued! I can't wait to read some of her stories!


message 19: by Warren (new)

Warren Rochelle Loved this interview! Love her work, and am in love with the universe of October Daye.


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