Julie Czerneda: Writing it all

It’s the dream of any aspiring writer to make a name for themselves with a recognizable and respected body of work. And early on, most writers identify a genre they want to focus on. Julie Czerneda is such an author.

A well-known Canadian science fiction author, Julie has won a number of awards for her work as well as the respect of both her peers and her readers. She is as established in her genre as any author could be, which makes the leap to Fantasy even more impressive. To make such a change is essentially like starting from scratch except with the added benefit of the expectations that accompany being a seasoned writer with a multitude of fans salivating for your next book.

A Turn of Light, Julie’s first Fantasy novel, doesn’t disappoint. If you want to know more about the book, you can check out my review here. But if you want to know more about Julie and the process of being a Science Fiction author trying her hand at Fantasy, she was kind enough to answer a few of my questions…

1) You are primarily known and respected as a Science Fiction author. What prompted the decision to switch to Fantasy?

Thank you. I wouldn’t say I’ve switched, since I’ve many more science fiction novels to write, including four already contracted with DAW Books, but I did have a moment when I looked at my schedule and said to myself, now, if ever. You see, I’d wanted to try writing a novel-length fantasy novel for a long time. My original and insanely naive intention had been to write this new experiment “on the side” and show it to my editor Sheila Gilbert as a finished product once I had the courage. It didn’t take me long to realize two things. First, any extra time I had was for my family, not more writing. Second?

Second, the more I toyed with the story concept and made myself notes, the more I grew convinced the only way to write this was to write only this. A conundrum! My time with A Turn of Light, then called “Night’s Edge,” felt like some forbidden tryst I was holding in secret from my other stories. Naughty, delicious, and perilously distracting.

The moment of now, if ever, came during my advance plotting for Reunification, the concluding trilogy to my Clan Chronicles series. I had to do that during the writing of Rift in the Sky (Clan Chronicles #3), to be sure I had all the essential bits for the overall story arc. The darker and more emotional those bits became, the more I snuck away to Turn. Finally I gave up. Somehow, I had to write that next. I called Sheila and confessed my illicit affair … that I had a fantasy novel I wanted to write.

And I wanted to write it now.

I give her all possible credit for not only saying yes but for trusting me to produce something publishable.

2) Was the move from Science Fiction to Fantasy was difficult or did it come quite naturally?

As an infant fantasy author, I had a profound distrust of how I’d been writing science fiction and did everything I could imagine to work in a new manner. I tore apart my office and redecorated it in what seemed appropriate for Turn. Fabric on the walls. Candles on the desk. Dragons and toads everywhere. No clutter of paper. I used different music for the writing. The Turn page on Facebook, “Marrowdell,” contains a photo blog of the scale model I built first. I wrote my notes with a fountain pen used solely for that purpose. I obsessed over every paragraph and deleted anything that didn’t make me smile. Anything to keep my science fiction self from contaminating this story.

It was silly and it was smart. Looking back, the writing was as difficult at times and as natural at times as any writing can be. I hadn’t changed my writing. It’s my voice, of course it is, just telling a fantasy story. Where I did succeed in change? I became immersed in this one story to the exclusion of any other, something I discovered — hindsight being perfect — I’d never done before. I’m a compulsive multi-tasker. Ask anyone. But for those three plus years, Turn was my task. There was no deadline, no word count,  nothing and no one else accountable. It was scary and joyful and very hard work.

Can’t wait to do it again.

3) What was the response like from fans and peers who are familiar with your Science Fiction work when this book was announced?

My peers had more belief in me than I did. I’ve dear friends who were excited from the start and supported me along the way. My readers? Very much like my editor’s. A supportive “give this fantasy thing a try and we’ll read it” with a healthy dose of “promise you won’t abandon your science fiction because we’ve already been waiting a long long time for the next.” I did receive emails from a few readers who never read fantasy so vowed to wait till I was back in SF and that was absolutely fair. Though I can report with some delight that some since relented and tried Turn, enjoying it to their surprise. Win! Looking ahead? While I’m sure some of the fantasy readers who find me through Turn will try and like my science fiction, which is wonderful, I suspect most will not. It’s been my experience that SF readers will cross that boundary and read fantasy more often than the other way.

The time it took me to write Turn was the greater issue for those around me. I was, to that point, churning out at least a novel and one or more anthologies a year. After a couple without? Bookstores, again fairly, stopped carrying my titles (or carried fewer) because there was nothing new to encourage sales. That meant fewer new readers finding my work, as well as the occasional reader familiar with my work who thought I’d died and emailed to check. It also created a pent up demand for books my readers anticipated, namely Reunification and the next Esen title. Oh, the mail for those! Lovely, but somewhat panic-inducing.

I’ll get my next book out a little faster, believe me. For my career and for my readers.

Fortunately, I feel I’ve gained the confidence to return to deadlines etc even for fantasy. Then there’s that eager panting on my neck for the sequel to Turn, A Play of Light. Bonus!

4) One of the things your fans love about your writing is the exhaustive research that goes into each book, which lends itself well to the Science Fiction genre. Were you able to adapt that process to Fantasy and how?

Good to know, because I tend to obsess. Partly it’s because I take my readers’ trust extremely seriously and refuse to fudge. Partly it’s my nature to love the details and want them right. Then there’s the whole confidence issue. Unless I know about a thing, I can’t write about it. I need a critical mass of information before any words of my own come out. Utterly visceral. I’ve always that sensation of a shift, in my curiosity and my focus, from world-building to what’s about to happen in that world. I love that.

As for how I adapted my process? Hmm. Since I was delving into what I didn’t know well at all, namely pioneer history from industry to food, I used what had worked for me in Species Imperative. Namely, when I could get to a place and/or experience something for myself, that was my preference. When I couldn’t, I would do the book research — ideally biographies or other accounts — then send a sample of what I was doing with it to someone who did know firsthand. Doranna Durgin, for example, was my go-to expert for matters of horse. Not only is she a talented writer who would understand what I was trying to portray, but she lives with her Lipizzaner Duncan, who’s a character himself. I not only interviewed in person, twice, Cam Trueman, the master miller at Watson’s Mill, Manotick ON, but inflicted the resulting written passages on the poor man to check. Twelve pages in total. He was a gem.

When researching for science fiction, I tend to be in touch with scientists of some sort. For the fantasy? Everyone and anyone I spoke to had a nugget about the past to offer. Throughout Turn I found people interested and more than happy to help. My husband’s hockey buddies volunteered books and one gave me permission to tour his century plus barn. (On the flipside, they then teased poor Roger about “isn’t it done yet?” for the entire writing process.) It was a treat to have people who weren’t my readers feeling such a connection to the work.

5) Where did the idea for A Turn of Light come from?

Long ago and far away … it was before I’d sold my first novel to DAW, A Thousand Words for Stranger. I was writing for the same reason I’d started in the first place, because I wasn’t satisfied by what I read. I wanted something else. A different take on a question. Another ending. More of this, less of that. Such hubris! I didn’t care, you see, because back then I didn’t plan to show anyone else. Why would I? (I confess I still have that attitude. I write for me. How astonishing that there are so many more me’s out there! I’m grateful.)

Skipping over the part where I decided to see if anyone but me would like to read my stories, I’d tossed Thousand out into the world of the slush pile, and happily settled back to putter at other things I wanted to read. Having read yet another fantasy novel I didn’t like at all, I wrote two paragraphs of what I did like. A meadow. An unseen dragon. A girl whose laugh lifted the weariness from a distant stranger and saved a rabbit. Magic intrinsic and whimsical. No quest, no princess, no deadly sins or death. Just a kind-hearted girl living in a place full of wonder.

Then I put it aside for years, happily busy writing science fiction.

Aside in a sense. I daydreamed about the scene and the characters in it. About magic given shape. I wrote and sold a few short fantasy stories, which I quite enjoyed. Then, September 30, 2002, I took two gifts I’d received from readers and took the plunge, writing:

“I’ve no idea how this will pan out, but since receiving such fine gifts: this book and the fountain pen I’m using, it seemed only right to give it a try…

“What I’m doing in here is recording any thoughts, words, imagery, scenes that I feel belong in this fantasy story that’s niggled at me for, oh, about 7 years now. “Night’s Edge” the title came first. We painted the wall of our great hall this colour: “Night’s Edge Blue” and I found myself quite taken by the feel of the words. It probably won’t be the final title, but it informs the location of the story’s key events. At the boundary between field and forest, as the sunset ends and the shade takes on the blue of night’s edge.”

The next entry concerns dragons the way I’d write them. The next is entitled “not a princess!” in which I describe my character. Then comes “the spell” and “mysterious stranger” and, after a bit, “TOADS!”

So in answer to your question, where did the idea for A Turn of Light come from? It came from the unabashed yearnings of my readerly heart. What I hadn’t found in other books, I poured into this one. It’s the fantasy I’ve been waiting too long to read again. Lighter, yet with heart and families. Romantic, but as a joyful (and sometimes confounding) seasoning, as it is in life. Laced with what seems silly, but isn’t, and what seems tragic, but can be redeemed. Oh, and toads. I love it with that sort of exquisitely vulnerable love that makes you tremble on the brink between delight and terror at any given moment. A delicious feeling.

Does this mean I somehow love fantasy more than science fiction now? No. Not more, but perhaps differently. My science fiction stories — my science fiction characters, be it Esen, or Mac, or Sira, or Aaron or ones yet to give to readers — come from my curiosity about the universe. The questions I ask, these stories let me answer in my own way, giving my passion for science its voice while making me smile as often as not. There’s a sense of solidity. I have their back; they have mine. The fantasy?

Oh, that’s holding out a rose to a stranger on the street. Will there be a smile? A frown? Or simply a shake of the head. My fantasy, I believe, isn’t about answers. It’s an offer.

Here is what I am.

Ian Goodwillie is a columnist for the Spectator Tribune. Follow him on Twitter at@ThePrairieGeek and on Tumblr at