Am I OK?

I just got an e-mail from a friend saying, effectively, ‘Wow, read your blog–are you OK?’

And then I thought, oops, maybe I’ve been a little bit intense lately, here and there.

So, PSA: I am OK! I am better than OK. I’m doing great.

When I rant online it doesn’t mean I’m sitting at home lining up my automatic weapons. I am a very lucky person and I enjoy all kinds of advantages in life–maybe not money advantages so much right now, but even there I’m not complaining. I consider myself blessed as a person.

But as a writer? We all live in a system that treats people like chowder and every so often I feel I need to point that out. I don’t blame individual people for the system any more than I blame myself. We’re all in this boat.

Hope that makes sense.


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

N’or ur spores

Thought of this in the shower, writing it very fast. Contains exactly one shower’s worth of insight, but compiled over 20 years’ experience.

All this talk of the canon, its straight-white-Western-male bias. All good talk. I have a bigger problem tho. Problem isn’t that the canon is bad, but that it exists as a thing. It isn’t a thing, it’s an artificial construct. IRL it was living, breathing. Now dead weight.

The problem isn’t what the canon is, it’s what it blocks out.

This piece by Sandra Newman  pissed me the hell off when I first read it. I thought, here she comes into SF on a literary ticket, has so much to say, has no clue the wars we have all been fighting for women and minorities to be recognised. Was mad. Ears: steam.

Well, she’s rite about what’s wrong–shit was crazy then but not now–but she’s wrong about why.

I think why is because commercial system has got us by throat. Diversity means also diversity of artistic forms and visions. System wants ‘there can only be one’ , plus clones of course. Clone legions ftw.

THIS IS NOT HEALTHY. It reinforces racism, sexism, ablism, all the vectors on which ppl can be excluded and also it excludes their IDEAS. Everybody’s ideas. Especially the wild ones.

The marketing system we have starves the creative genome of opportunities to mix, too. Why do you think there are so many mash-ups? Because it’s the quik & easy way 2 make something new.

Why are there so many reboots? Hedgehog obvs, rite? Bc our marketing system has sucked the life out of our ecosystem. There’s no oxygen or food for the tender, new, different, and strange.

We need to diversify in all ways, guys. We need to stop grabbing sugar and go for fruit. We shop and live like f&cking pawns.

We won’t do it, but it’s what we need.

I get told: ‘If you would just rite this kind of thing and not that’ all the time. So do my friends. We get told, implicitly, ‘If you would just hew to our mold, U could hav nice things.’

We get told this because nobody will buy outside the mold. Well, no. There’s me gone down in flames. Guess I can’t be sold, because your molds don’t interest me, nor your spores, SF 😉

I went to a conference at Oxford for undergraduate women in physics. One of the luminaries of contemporary astronomy, Prof. Katherine Blundell, gave us a talk about how to succeed in science. A question she asked over and over, in different contexts, was this:

‘Are you free to think?’

Science fiction, I don’t think you are. U make me crai because I don’t think ur free at all.

There you go, kids. When I write down my shower musings it comes out same as if me drunk. Hav a niceday.



Gollancz Festival 2015

I’m greatly pleased to announce that I’ll be one of the authors appearing at this year’s Gollancz Festival at the Manchester Waterstone’s on 16 October. Other authors at this event are: Ben Aaronovitch; Joe Abercrombie; Stephen Baxter; Aliette de Bodard; Adam Dalton; Joanne Harris; Alex Lamb; Elizabeth May; Ian McDonald; Simon Morden; Richard Morgan; Sarah Pinborough; Al Robertson; Justina Robson; Brandon Sanderson; Gavin Smith; Mark Stay; Tom Toner. That’s a lot of SFF writers in one place! There will also be digital shenanigans. I’ll give you more details when I have them–meanwhile, tickets are available at GollanczFest2015.

gollancz festival 2015

News about the new SF book

Here’s The Bookseller’s announcement of the sale of Occupy Me to Gollancz. The book is out 21 January 2016 in the UK.

The cover reveal is at the Gollancz blog.

There’s loads I want to tell you about this novel, but I’m going to save it for nearer the release date. All I’m going to say for now is that Occupy Me was conceived in 2011 during a phone conversation with my mate Karen Mahoney in which I complained about paranormal romance in general and the angel trend in particular. Kaz challenged me to write my own angel book.

Not-so-shocking disclosure: I can’t write paranormal romance. I did try. This other thing is what came out.

Here’s some pre-order information.

If you do Amazon, it’s here

At Waterstone’s it’s here

At Book Depository it’s here

what mid-career slump?

It’s no secret that I have been having a mid-career slump for approximately the last thirteen years. That’s so long I’m not sure it can even be called a slump anymore and probably needs a new word. Slough, maybe? Anyway, because of the remarkable length of my slump–and I’m not exactly out of the marsh yet–I feel like I’m qualified to talk about this.

Here’s what I want to say to my discouraged mid-career slough-slogging comrades:

You have the power.

The system has a lot of stuff. The business side of things–the bookstores, publishers, media outlets, marketing system, all clumsily milking the collective will of the human organism for profit—those guys are loaded with stuff they can  do. Judgements. Money. The lists, awards, mentions, invitations. The (free) lunches. All the apparatus of industry like a thicket of spears and you are but a morsel.

When these guys talk to you and tell you you’re finished or hint that maybe you should think about selling shoes instead of writing or make reassuring noises but don’t return your calls, you may be tempted to feel like the people in this system, being in control of things like they are, must therefore know something you don’t. It’s natural to cling to authority—any authority—when times are hard. And sure. ‘They’ may know something you don’t. Maybe. But they don’t know everything.

This ain’t Delphi. There are no oracles. Shit happens and a surprising amount of the time, people don’t know why. Hey, we don’t even know what dark matter is made of and it’s fundamental to the Universe but I digress.

I don’t know what’s possible for me or for you, for any of us who are good enough to get published but not able to break through for whatever reason. I don’t have any answers.

I know you have the power, though.

You have the power. You. Because you choose to make something out of nothing. You choose to let in the wind and the rain. Everybody else puts up an umbrella and you stand out in the weather and build sandcastles in it. That’s what we do.

And that madcap optimism is what the human spirit is about. Taking risks. Falling down. Refusing to accept the things our rational minds tell us we must accept; if we did, we may as well lie down and die. No. We make things even though we know it’s all sort of futile, because there’s a tiny chance that something good–we know not what–may come of it. And a tiny chance is better than no chance. A tiny chance is everything.

Creativity is a radical act because it claims the power that each of us has within ourselves to do something real. It means that for that moment, we don’t belong to anyone. To create is to be hopeful. And that is a huge high–you know it is because you’ve felt it.

There are really big forces at work in the world that don’t want people like us to have hope, much less express or share it or in so doing, free others to feel it. We are easier to control when depressed, miserable, defeated. Have you noticed this? I have. Fight back.

To create is to express freedom. To create is to express hope.

Hope is contagious.

Take some from me. And pass it on.


Dragon fight

If the reason I write SF could be embodied in one person, she would be Anne McCaffrey. I loved her early Pern books, literally to pieces. The older I get, the more I appreciate what she did as a writer and as a person. If I’m honest and put aside my various pretensions, I can clearly see the ways that Anne McCaffrey gave twelve-year old me nothing less than a road map to how to live.

I wonder what she would say if she were still with us. On Pern, the different factions that share the planet go through all kinds of conflict as their seemingly-stable society is forced to evolve. There are fights. But the one truth that the protagonists all adhere to is this: Dragon must not be allowed to fight dragon.

That has really stayed with me, all these years. I’m thinking about it now.

To the new or newish mother who writes

This post was inspired by a friend whose struggles made me want to try to put down what I wish I had known when I was going through the babies and toddlers years. In that sense, maybe it’s more of a letter to my past self, because everyone is different and our circumstances are different–some of us have more obstacles than others. I had a couple of obstacles. Others have a huge stack of problems.

Looking back, I can write off an entire decade of my writing life as lost to the rigours of parenthood. When I had my first child I had already published three SF novels and three fantasies. My fourth novel was drafted. I was thought by some to be a bit of a rising star. Then I had my first child, and a bunch of other things happened in my life that were hard. And everything stalled.

I want to pause here and say something about the ‘you can’t have a writing career and babies’ line that’s been fed to some women. Clearly this is untrue and objectionable. But nor is it fair or reasonable to expect a person to produce at the same level and quality as before while under the burden of parenthood. Expecting that leaves writers who are taking care of babies swinging from a hook. The blessing and the burden of parenthood may be ordinary, but it’s not light, especially if there are other circumstances that make life hard that are happening at the same time.

I thought, going in, that I had the best of all possible worlds: I could work from home and take care of my kids and still generate income. And it’s true—if I’d been working 9-5 I doubt I’d have been able to have more than one child for all kinds of logistical reasons. So I can thank writing (and the NHS) for the fact that I’m able to have three. I know how lucky I am.

But this is about writing, not about the economics of having babies. I had the best of both worlds, but on a day to day basis it often felt like the worst of both worlds. I had to ignore my kids a lot in order to get work done, so I felt guilty. Yet I could never escape them and interact with other adults because writing all happens inside your head. As for the inside of my head: I was known as a writer of ‘cutting edge science fiction’ (my contracts actually specified that). But I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t write the way I wrote before. I didn’t have the time, the space, the resources on any level. I was drained to an almost pathetic level, and this went on for years.

I took failure really personally. It had to be my fault. I mean, what was I, a walking cliché? Apparently yes.  I can tell you that each time I was pregnant I lost all ability to think deeply and my drive to produce evaporated. Does this happen to all women? No. But it happened to me. Does that create a valid excuse for me and my gender to be dismissed? No. In fact, I challenge anyone to write books of the quality of Double Vision, Sound Mind, and Lightborn while in the throes of pregnancy and breastfeeding and the attendant sleeplessness and erosion of selfhood (because that is what happened, at least to me–I evaporated into the role of caregiver). Those books might not represent the best that is in me, but when I look back at the conditions under which they were written I have no issue with my performance.

I ended up writing off a decade of my working life to babies. Between 2001 and 2011 I was fumbling in the dark. I didn’t write well and I was only there for my kids half as much as I wanted to be—I felt inadequate on every level, every day. Ten years of brain fog and frustration—frustration, because I certainly wanted to be writing. I can still remember how badly I craved a straight shot at a piece of work.

In 2011, my writing career in ruins, I went back to university and I’m still there four years later, struggling for a BSc in a new field. I’m not quite there yet, but my head is above water now.

My head’s above water because my kids are older. I have my brain back. I sleep. I mean, I actually sleep. There were years and years where sleep was like the fucking Holy Grail. When you don’t sleep you start to forget that it was ever any other way and you live in the shallows, just getting by. I thought I was done for, intellectually. I thought it was over.

It’s not over. I’m only just getting started here.

In the midst of everything my family and I went through in those ten years, if I had known I was going to be OK and my brain would return and I’d come through stronger and wiser with all faculties intact and with a deep sense of appreciation of life’s gifts, if I’d known that despite the bumps in the road my kids would be fine, then maybe I’d have saved myself a lot of tears. I know I’d have saved myself a lot of thrashing and guilt, the desperate grasping at trying to do the impossible. In hindsight, I wish I could have climbed down off that hook.

But I bought into the lie that I had to be Superwoman.

I wasn’t. I’m not. I never will be.

It’s a lie.

The truth is that you muddle and you laugh as often as you can, and you accept that you can only do what you can do.

When I was going through all this, the person who reached out to me frequently was Kate Elliott. She kept encouraging me. It meant so much that my throat is closing, just remembering.

So I want to say to you—and you know who you are, specifically, but all of you  reading this who may need to hear it—please cut yourself whatever slack you need. Paradoxically, life will work better in the long run if you can just take it easy on yourself. You don’t have to beat yourself up. The world will do a real good job of that. Be as kind to you as you possibly can.

Hang in there. You will come through. Hugs.

[title edited to reflect the fact that people become parents at all ages]


So say you’ve wrestled with a central problem on many occasions. It’s sweaty and there is grunting. You try brute force, cunning technique, you try dirty tricks. No dice; the problem keeps getting the better of you. Then one day, having turned your back on that problem for now because thinking about it just makes you feel down-at-heel, you are sitting there at the keyboard minding your own business. You’re following a little thread thinking you’re just chasing down a detail when out of the blue WHOOMP this big wild purple idea with tap shoes materializes right in front of your face and starts dancing for its life, saying, ‘I dare you to use me. I fucking dare you.’ With a terrible shock you realise that the tapdancing purple idea will solve your big problem, but so very much NOT in the way you imagined. So much not.

The whole process takes about five seconds but the thing you’re working on will never be the same. Now it’s shot through with lightning.

This is one of the (rare) highs of writing. So what if it burns all your hair off and the smell is atrocious? Being a writer means that once in a while, you are nothing more than a piece of toast.

the work of working is always a thing

I’m reluctant to write this publicly because frankly I think there is such a large pile of writing about writing by writers that adding more to it is a bit of a disservice to the world. Yet here I go.

I’ve been sitting here warming up to go back to work on something that was hot and alive a few days ago and is now making faces at me because I don’t know how to get my head back into the space I was in when I wrote it. I’m sitting here feeling like a giant steaming idiot because, really? How hard can it be?

In fairness to me I’m not sure that writing is as easy as I seem to think it should be. Like, I have this image of writing as the one thing in life that I’m supposed to know how to do and that I can do with so much more ease than the average random person, as if this somehow means it isn’t hard to begin, hard to carry on, hard to finish. Maybe I hold this image because I annoy myself when I whinge; there are a lot of things that are harder; writing is a privilege. Etc. The truth is, I have always had to twist and contort and flog myself to get myself to write, always always.

Except when I haven’t.

Well, obviously. Because sometimes writing feels like the most natural thing in the world, like eating or sleeping. (Maybe if people judged you when you ate and slept, those things wouldn’t be so easy, either.) But if I only wrote like I sleep and eat—that is, when tired or hungry—then nothing would get finished. Writing would be a physical discharge and no more. To make more out of it I’ve got to be able to work, and the work of working is always a thing. See how articulate I can be? I stun myself.

Actually, I’m not interested in how clever I can be. The answer to that is always: not enough. And more importantly: who cares?

I always want to tap something rather than manufacture something. I’m perennially unconvinced by the things I have manufactured, but I fall in love with the inner streams I’ve been lucky enough to tap. That’s what I really want to do.

So if I want to tap something then I have to be willing to be quiet and pay attention. This is actually the hard part, and the more facile you are with words the harder it can be to just STFU. This simple relation is why our world contains an abundance of people talking their heads off with nothing to say.

Writing is listening. Listening means you aren’t the boss. You are the listener. That’s the work. It isn’t the whole work and nothing but the work. But it’s the work nevertheless.

I will now STFU and go back to it.