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Copyright 2000 Tara K. Harper.  All rights reserved.

Interview with Tara K. Harper

Weekly Feature
September 3, 1997
Sponsored by the SF Books section of the Mining Company
Interviewer: Howard V. Tayler

  Cat Scratch Fever: link to blurb, cover  

  Cataract thumbnail: link to blurb, cover

This interview is reprinted in its entirety with permission from Howard V. Tayler.

Interviewer: Howard V. Tayler

In the course of surfing the Web for SF links of interest, I "discovered" Tara K. Harper. I picked up and read a couple of her books. Her writing intrigued me, and the FAQ on her web site sparked further interest. In spite of the thorough nature of that FAQ, I emailed her, and she graciously consented to her first online interview.

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Tara, your FAQ makes it clear that you have been writing for a long time, and much more than just science fiction.  You've done lots of technical writing, for instance.  What is it that drives you to write?

I think I write because it is an expression of who I am, a way for me to try communicating to someone else what I've seen and experienced.  In that way, I suppose writing is like painting to me--a communication of souls, and expression of imagery.  I write from my dreams (or rather, from the nightmares I have every night), and those dreams reflect the issues, fears, driven-ness, and imagery of my mind. The words on paper--that is the medium in which I try to communicate my dreams.

One of the things that confuses people about my career is that I never had a goal of being a fiction author.  I write fiction simply because I have always been writing something; not because I intended to get published outside of the sciences.  In fact, I had completed four fiction novels before I attempted to get an agent.  Fiction writing wasn't important--not in the way that other things were: science writing, working with abused kids, rehabilitation work, organizing fund-raisers, learning about life.  Fiction writing was the fun thing, not the important thing in my life.

Then life changed, and suddenly, there I was, making my living as a fiction writer.  It seems, well, unreal in many ways.  Requires a significant readjustment of goals and motivations.  But it does allow me to spend more time doing research into sciences that I love.  For example, I had the opportunity recently to spend two weeks in a neuroscience lab and clone human DNA; I've spent time with the senior flight instructor for the astronauts; I've spent time overseas; done wild-animal rehabilitation with raptors; explored wilderness areas; worked on international herpetology projects; and more.  Fiction writing makes research necessary, but the job flexibility also provides opportunities I would not otherwise have.  In that respect, I suppose that I write SF because it allows me to explore not only the implications of issues and decisions, but also discoveries and developments--the wonders of how the world works.

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What do you think the role of Science Fiction is in western culture?  Would you like to change it?  If so, are you working toward that end somehow?

Hope. Yes. Yes.

Does that cover it?

Seriously though...  There is only one thing that science fiction provides to its readers, which no other genre provides: the hope of a future--a tomorrow.  And SF does so through more than one vehicle: fantastical, futuristic worlds; science extrapolated into cautionary tales or joyful explorations; or the creation of a history that pushes us out a hundred years or more.  No other genre creates such a sense of tomorrow, builds worlds, and expands humanity by exploring the real and unreal.

Would I like to change today's SF?  Yes.  --Not the sense of future which SF embodies, but in these two things:  the type of future we see and the manner in which people look at science.  Science fiction should teach principles of science as much as it provides entertainment.  For example, the description of the structure of the marine platform in my 1995 novel, Cataract, encompasses a fairly truthful description of marine sponges.   The beginning of another chapter in that novel uses imagery to describe how waves are formed by the falling of cold air in the ocean.

The presentation of science does not have to be in dissertation, science-dump form.  Instead, writers can couch their science as descriptions, slide it in with the details of a world or in the processes characters use to complete projects, the ideas people have to solve problems, and so on.  Science does not have to be limited to dry or plastic cautionary tales or overused, un-foresightful themes.

What do I want to change?  The idea that the future must be dark and full of obsolete VR, that people cannot have supportive families, that antisocial behavior will always win power, that corporations are the government of the future, that heroes cannot exist in normal lifestyles in industrial or futuristic societies, that normal people are not important...  Those themes are a denial of humanity and a nihilistic look at the future.

SF is about hope, not about the death of the future.  I don't mean that a cautionary tale isn't SF:  cautionary tales build futures while still providing people with the vision to avoid or anticipate problems and issues.  But end-of-the-world, apocalyptic stories not only don't interest me, they also don't feel like real SF.  To me, those death-to-humanity, destruction and annihilation stories are nothing more than suicide notes.  And like suicide, they are not enlightening, empowering, or encouraging; but are usually only selfish and empty.

Am I working toward changing SF?  I don't know if I could say that what I write is so concretely directed.  I can say only that I write stories that express what I need to say, about issues I feel are important.  I think I am much more concerned about communicating through my own writing, than I am in opposing the work of some others.

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Some of your writing appears to be layered with symbolism beyond what is suggested by the story (but only after the interviewer has been beaten over the head with a brick ;-).  Could you give us a guide to some of the symbols you use?

I suppose you are talking about the CatScratch books in general, and Cat Scratch Fever in particular.  Storm Runner and Wolf's Bane (Oct/Nov 1997) are also books more about symbolism, rather than books about stories.  But since Cat Scratch Fever seems to be the most controversial, I will address the symbolism in that novel.

Cat Scratch Fever is about enslavement and freedom.  One of the major aspects of that symbolism is the idea of rebirth, which is where the pregnant women come in.  Each pregnancy, each birth brings new hope--the chance of a new life away from the emotional and psychological chains of the other, older, previous life.  The pregnant women themselves are symbolic, not actually meant to be specific people in a story.  The mother-child connection symbolizes past and future.  The child is the extension of the mother in the same manner that the future is an extension of the past.  Until one ties the future to the past, the future itself is separate and free of the weight and pain of the past.

For one mother-character (the enslaved Vashanna), the circumstances of each new chance at life are worse each time she gives birth.  This is because Vashanna has submitted some part of herself to the chains she wears in order to gain greater comfort as a slave.  But having submitted to enslavement--even in so small a thing as trading the willingness to learn a language for the clothes she wears on her back--she embraces some of the patterns of slavery.  Those patterns then become part of Vashanna's view of life, and they then help define her future.  Each time Vashanna gives birth, she has the chance of creating a new life.  But because she has not truly rejected the past--her existing slavery--she also cannot completely grasp the new hope.  She sacrifices each future (each child) to her life as a slave in the present.  And with each sacrifice, she binds herself more tightly into her chains.  Vashanna trades overt enslavement for a more subtle, emotional and psychological slavery.

For others, such as the main character, Tsia, the idea of rebirth is also significant. Tsia has the choice of rejecting slavery outright--and then dying, because she will not submit to the will of the artist who has enslaved her.  Or she could try to retain her sense of self and past within the context of "minimal" enslavement, as Vashanna did, thus accepting slavery as part of life.  Or Tsia could completely accept life as a slave and relinquish control and responsibility for herself to someone else.  For Tsia, the choice is that of remaining true to herself, or allowing someone else to define who she is.  Her story is about trying to survive while rejecting enslavement.

There is also a pregnant councilwoman in the story.  Like Tsia (the main character), the councilwoman resists slavery by refusing to submit in any way to the will of the artist.  But while Tsia tries to work within the guild structures to break free of the artist; the councilwoman rejects all structures associated with the slavers.  The councilwoman is willing to unconditionally sacrifice her life for her child--and thus, to sacrifice her current life for her hope for the future, her chance at new life.   Only by abandoning all ties (including her life) to the past does the councilwoman achieve freedom from enslavement to the artist, to politics, and to prophecy.

In enslavement, any ties to the past create new chains in the future.  Think of the man who does not break the pattern of his behavior of beating his girlfriends, no matter how many new women he meets.  Or the woman who becomes a victim again and again because, even though she has a new chance with each new relationship for a life without violence, she still binds herself with the same ties of behavior...  Or the couple who attack each other verbally instead of talking things out, because each one brings defenses, rather than newness to their marriage.  --It is all enslavement to the past.

There are other, darker, more desperate, more private slaveries.  Isolation, indoctrination, torture, imposed starvation...  It happens now, here, in the United States, in my state and county, to people I know, to people who do not understand the price of the choices they have made.  Slavery is not just some distant, fantastical, medieval, third-world, or politically or religiously imposed circumstance.  It is a state of mind, and those who give in to it, those who succumb, can chain not only themselves to their masters, but their entire families with them.

In Cat Scratch Fever, because Tsia cannot have children on her own (the viruses that mutated her body also made her sterile), her rebirth into a future--into freedom--is symbolically attached to the pregnancies of Vashanna and the councilwoman.   Tsia can survive as she is--a shell, alone, breathing but not truly alive or whole.  Or she can try to save a child--save the future she cannot otherwise be part of.  Vashanna's children represent slavery and the relinquishment of responsibility for oneself; the councilwoman's child represents sacrifice, freedom, and future.  Tsia must choose between them.

Cat Scratch Fever is not about sex or beating up kids or pregnant women.   It is about heinous acts of enslavement our legal system does not even recognize as criminal, but which are allowed in our society every day.  It is about the value of survival--the definition of survival and freedom--and in the end, about the value of life.

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I've heard it said that women write differently from men, and I have heard it also said that there is no such thing as "writing like a woman" or "writing like a man."  (For the record, I heard the first from Katharine Kerr in an interview, and the other from Lois McMaster Bujold in a foreword).  What is your opinion on the matter?

I cannot agree with the former, certainly;  if anything, I agree with the position attributed to Bujold.  As far as I'm concerned, if one writes "like a woman" or writes "like a man," I would say that indicates an author's lack of understanding of humanity in general--in short, poor comprehension of psychology, sociology, and history; or in some cases, just plain, poor characterization.

I have heard some women writers claim that they have a better understanding of people than men do, so their characters are better than those of male writers.  To those female authors, "writing like a woman" means writing better than a man. I find that an offensively sexist statement.

I see no difference in the sexual discrimination of claiming that solid, hard science in a story can be achieved only by men, and claiming that good characterization can be achieved only by women.  Good science is the result of education, research, discourse, and experimentation--not simply of being male or female.  And good characterization is the result of having lived enough (regardless of your age) to understand people, not simply a matter of being the one with an innie vs. an outie.  A good SF writer should have an understanding of both humanity and science.

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I've seen writers recently on everything from typewriters (I won't say who) to twin-processor RISC machines.  What is your tool of choice.  How does it (or doesn't it) affect the style of your work.

Oh, I can't believe you're going to let me rant on one of my favorite topics:  unix is power; unix is god.  Bill Gates is the antichrist; and MS Word is hell.

    --Not that I'm opinionated, or anything like that, of course...

But in answer to your question about tools, actually, I write longhand first, usually in the middle of the night.  Then I get on the keyboard and start rat-a-tatting away.  

Does working on a unix system affect my style?  Only in that it gives me a set of well-designed tools. Anything that makes it easier to write allows me to spend more time on the story, and less on the mechanics of shifting words around, changing this paragraph, rewriting this, editing that.  The writing task should be an instinctive, background, almost invisible process.   My fingers should be a reflection of my thoughts--they should not be the things on which I have to concentrate.  The story, the imagery, the emotions and cadence and flow--those should be the focus.  The unix system allows me to focus on my work, not on the mechanics of the tasks.

Of course, the learning curve is a bit higher for unix than it is for a Microsoft ("ptui!") product, but I would rather have something that is functional, powerful, and efficient for any task, than something that is easy for two days and worthless after that.

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In the spirit of tantalizing faithful fans, what are you working on right now?  When can we read it?

Wolf's Bane, a Wolfwalker novel, will hit the stands in October/November of this year.  (Eric Peterson, who did that wonderful Grayheart cover, also did a great job on Wolf's Bane.)

What's the story about?  Plotwise, the story is about finding hope beyond grief; finding a new future when the future one thought one had suddenly ceases to exist; taking the first step in reaching the stars which have been forbidden to mankind.  In Wolf's Bane, Dion finds a way to go beyond her limited view of her world to a view that expands the future not only for herself, but for her world.

If you ask me otherwise, in an unqualified fashion, what the story is about, my answer is simply: grief.  My grief:  the grief of a living death--a death I live with every day--and the grief for another death that mercifully ended, and a dozen other deaths in my life.  After all, what is life but a statement of grief of one sort or another?  Dion, the Wolfwalker, gave me a vehicle for expressing my grief, for insisting that there must be something beyond grief, for reaching for a future, even when I cannot see next week, next month, next year.

In some ways, I suppose Wolf's Bane is not an easy book, but then, it is not meant to be easy:  It was meant to be an expression of my self.

What I am working on now?  Besides the 48 novels I have started (yes, I really have that many in the works), I am finishing up a fantasy--one of only three I have ever wanted to write.  I have been working on the hard-SF Karry Hel novels (which are about being human), on Aranur's story and also Tegre's story (both are Wolfwalker novels), the third CatScratch novel, and a story from an alien perspective.

Oh, and I would like to clarify one thing:  Wolf's Bane is not the fifth Wolfwalker novel--it is the fourth.  Grayheart is not the fourth novel--it is the sixth.  The fifth is not yet written.  (Is anyone lost yet?)  I wrote the books in the order in which I needed to tell the stories; not in the chronological order of the world (just about every listing in-print and online has them listed wrongly).  Please refer to my web site if you would like more, specific information about my novels.

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If you HAD to "do it over again" (you don't strike me as someone who would choose to, so let's say you were forced), what would you do differently?

That's always an interesting question.  I have to recognize, however, that I would not be who I am today had I not experienced what I have.  --Which is not to say that there weren't an awful lot of painful, terrifying, life-threatening, sometimes maiming experiences I might rather have skipped.  But there are, I suppose, two things:  one writing-related, and the other lesson-related, which I wish I could have as "do-overs".  One is a true "do-over;" the other is wishful thinking.

The writing-related experience has to do with my novel, Lightwing.  Lightwing was better, smoother, in the draft stage than it was after the edit.  I regret that I was not more stubborn in insisting that the story be worked with its strengths, or that I be given more editing help in smoothing it again after that initial edit.  I have to admit that I still harbor a niggling little goal of rewriting the story back to smoothness in the future.

The other, lesson-related experience is this: (some) years ago..., the handyman working on my (house) told me he was losing his home.  I agreed to let his girls stay with me while he worked; I adjusted my work schedule and loosely babysat his girls; fed them, found them toys and books, etc., and tried to deal with the knowledge that he was a wife-beater (the circumstances were difficult; the frustration must have been intense; the bruises were spectacular; and my own rage at those results was extremely difficult to contain).  I know he wanted to move his family in with me until...whatever worked out.  Something held me back from it.  I gave them the contacts for the county services (I was doing volunteer work for six different agencies at the time), which put them up in a motel for the night until they could contact relatives; I never saw them again.

For a long time, I tried to understand why I would not just let the family move in.  I finally realized it was me, not them.  Immediately, I had been afraid that I would harm that man badly if he struck his wife or girls again, especially in my home, the place that was supposed to be safe.  There was no fear in me of physical danger; instead, I was afraid that my fury at the abuse would turn preventative violence into righteous punishment or vengeance.  But that was the immediate, not the real, reason.

I had experience enough to understand what I saw, without having the wisdom to fix it.  What I did not completely understand then, is that it is not enough to oppose physical abuse or halt it in some settings--that merely drives it underground, channels it into less obvious, sometimes more destructive patterns.  Instead, I would have had to set myself up as the "parent" for that man, in order to create an authority great enough to prevent him from taking his anger out as physical violence on the mother of his children.  And if I were to allow them to stay in my home, I would have to create an environment that would help fix, not just momentarily halt, the violence.

Do it again?  If I was then who I am now, yes, I would have let them stay, and I would have been able to create the environment that was needed.  But I was still young, and I wasn't who was needed back then. Today is different, but today, I am working with gang kids and teen moms and cult victims and battered kids.  Tomorrow, I will have grown and changed again.

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That's all I've got, Tara.  I hope I covered things not found in your way-too-comprehensive-to-try-punching-holes-in FAQ.  Do you have any closing words for our readers?

Hope.  Dream.  Build a future for others, not just for yourself.

Oh, and keep reading Tara K. Harper books!

      (It's my first shameless plug. Is it working?)

A question I was recently asked was this:  "If you couldn't do any of the things you've already done, what would you want to do next?"  The answers started just rolling out of me:

What would I do next?  Live.

Copyright 2000 by Tara K. Harper

All rights reserved.  It is illegal to reproduce or transmit in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, any part of this copyrighted file without permission in writing from Tara K. Harper.  Permission to download this file for personal use only is hereby granted by Tara K. Harper.

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