Who walks away


When I was 27 my then-husband introduced me to his editor. Ray Roberts was also Thomas Pynchon’s editor, and a truly lovely man: soft-spoken, thoughtful, and endlessly patient with the foolishness of youth. Back then I didn’t want to be a science fiction writer. I had cut my teeth on science fiction in books and onscreen, but much of what I saw on the genre shelves in the mid-1990s was deeply disappointing to me. Most of it I had no wish to emulate.

Maybe that right there is where I went wrong. I wanted science fiction to be a literature of possibilities, of imagination, of human progress, not just a collection of tropes.

In 1996 I had sent my second novel, Someone to Watch Over Me, to Russell Galen. He pounced on it, read it like lightning, faxed something like, ‘This book has so much potential. If you changed X to Y, foregrounded the Japanese scientist, made it into a thriller and took out the Z, I could get you six figures and a movie deal in a heartbeat. As it is, you’ve got a mass-market original and I’m just not interested in that.’

I did what anyone with a pulse would do, and set about trying to rework my book to make it into the kind of thing Russ wanted. I could see what he saw in it. I wanted it to be that thing. That exciting, streamlined, grabby kind of thing that people would really, you know, really go for. Wouldn’t it be cool to be cool? So I tried. But within a very short time I found myself falling hard into what Justina Robson calls ‘Trope Valley’. I was up to my eyeballs in clichés, and I couldn’t seem to swallow my own bullshit. Everything in my being was screaming, no, these things they want are just too stupid. Don’t do it.

At the same time, I could see the wavering outline of what I might be able to write if only I had the chops. I knew didn’t have what it took; I was too inexperienced. I couldn’t write something that operated on multiple levels the way the idea demanded. I couldn’t write something with literary values and science-fictional ideation and thriller pace all at the same time. I didn’t have the muscle back then.

I showed the book to Ray. He was so nice.  I said, ‘Tell me what to do. Do I try to turn it into a literary novel? Or do I try to do this commercial thing? What?’

I wanted him to tell me, ‘You have the potential to be a deep and meaningful writer.’ I wanted him to say, ‘What are you doing stuck in with the space pirates? Come on over here where the serious guys are.’

He read it. He said, ‘Leopard can’t change her spots.’

So I rewrote the book to make it the best I could make it with the skills I had, on my own terms. Then I sold it as a mass-market SF paperback, and when it came to the next book after that I decided to go full-on Space Pirate* and wrote Dreaming in Smoke, which won the Clarke.

Leopards. Spots. All good, except that despite the Clarke both books sank like stones in the marketplace. (It’s not unusual. Most books sink.)

I then went into fantasy so I could make enough money to buy food. Halfway through my fantasy trilogy, the Spots began to show through. Russ sent me the fax (still faxing in those days, yes) from my German publisher, refusing to publish the second book. It said, ‘You sold us this author as the next Marion Zimmer Bradley and she gives us time travel and brain worms. It’s not acceptable.’

Around this time China Mieville asked me for a blurb for Perdido Street Station, which I gladly produced.

I know, right? I blurbed China. How funny is that. I didn’t have an entry in the SF encyclopedia until around 2014, though. Maybe this is my claim to fame: blurbed China Mieville’s first edition, then VANISHED from the Earth.

Do you see where I’m going with this? Maybe a little?

Here’s how it played out publicly: Tricia Sullivan won the Clarke and then Abandoned SF. She made a Triumphal Return with Maul that despite being multiply shortlisted and getting publisher support, didn’t sell that well and then…er…a mist passes over. Wrote two more books that nobody reviewed or read. Wrote a third that nobody reviewed or read until by some freak chance the pesky thing got on the Clarke shortlist again.

When I say ‘nobody reviewed or read’ I don’t mean those few of you who did review or read the book, obviously. I appreciate you guys so much. What I mean is that I was being paid modest advances but didn’t come within miles of earning any of them out. My royalty statements would make your eyes bleed out of sheer pity.

After Lightborn my publisher told me, ‘We can still work with you but it has to be something Completely Different because people found Lightborn hard to get into.’

I don’t know why other people walk away, but when I walk away it’s because to stay is a form of self-harm. I had written Lightborn to be accessible, and it was.

I walk away because I’m not a victim. I will go where I must go to survive.

I wrote a YA, again Abandoning SF. I also took on a physics degree, initially to improve my employability in the UK but also because the itch scratched by science is in fact related to the itch scratched by science fiction, although they are not the same. People sometimes ask me if I study physics to assist with my writing. That’s not why. I’m studying physics because I need to get a good, solid job with which to support my family and make a contribution to the world.

I’m doing physics because physics is crying out for more women, and I go where I’m wanted.

As for contributions, I do not feel I’ve been able to make one to SF, although I have sincerely tried. I have always been interested in SF, but SF as an entity does not seem particularly interested in me. I felt like I was pounding on a door that wasn’t going to open for me. It opened for many others, though. I did not know the secret knock.

And now my new book, into which I poured my heart, soul, and a very great deal of sweaty graft and intellectual grit, will be sold as a Return to SF. It is not a return because I never left SF. Science fiction abandoned me. Science fiction pushed me out the door. Science fiction left me begging for scraps.

I don’t beg. I don’t want your scraps. I go and hunt down my own food.

My new book is SF on my own terms, with Leopard Spots intact, with no apologies to any tradition, expectation or canon. It is the book I couldn’t write in 1996 when I was first trying to break in. It is the book that represents the cumulative effort of twenty years learning to write in a professional environment that offered very little encouragement, but frankly much gaslighting and convenient overlooking of my work.

Here is what SF needs to understand when it deigns to mention my name. I never left. I have been here all along. Oh, and one other thing:

I am not the next William Gibson or the next Philip K. Dick. I am the one and only Tricia Sullivan. You can’t get rid of me because I’m strong as fuck and my ideas are incomparable. I own the page.


*No space pirates were harmed in the writing of this blog