Silly Interview with Fran Wilde, expert on man-made wings

fran by Steven GouldThank you to Fran Wilde for agreeing to do a silly interview!

I met Fran a few years ago at WorldCon, but we really got some nice time together at 2015’s ICFA in the pool. Later, we discussed migraine glasses.

Fran’s first novel, Updraft, is a Nebula nominee. She has another novel coming out in 2016 (Cloudbound) and a novella (The Jewel and Her Lapirdary) out in May. She’s published short stories in some of the usual suspects like Asimovs, Tor and Nature.

1. Like a million writers before you, you’ve had to deal with being a primary caregiver (yes?) and writing. What are your strategies?

I’m a parent and a trailing spouse (ie: spouse gets job, you move [which? I never thought I’d be doing that!]), and I occasionally need to look in on my parents. I’m also a freelancer. That makes for a lot of “Stop everything you are doing / thinking about / concentrating on and focus on this other thing right now!” which isn’t particularly conducive to a calm writing environment. My solution for a long time was stops-and-starts, which wasn’t really a solution because I rarely finished anything. Then I started scheduling my writing like I would a job or another task, on the theory that if I didn’t put it first, no one would. Even if it meant getting up before everyone else (and I am a TERRIBLE morning person), even if it was just for an hour or two. Writing is the thing I do first now. That doesn’t mean I neglect the other things, and it’s still a lot of work finding an hour, or day here, another there, but especially as my family has evolved, tasks are getting easier to distribute… and we’re getting much better at all communicating our needs to each other instead of assuming that someone will always be there to catch what needs caught, or that this need or that need isn’t as important as someone else’s. (And we make a lot of lists and spreadsheets and schedule as much as we can in advance. That sometimes still doesn’t work out, though!)
I think, actually, the hardest thing for a long time was the isolation. Not being able to get out to coffee shops, or even knowing that writers’ groups, or writing retreats / workshops existed, made it hard to see myself doing what I loved as a valid choice. It’s always easier to say “this person needs me to do x, then y, before I can think of doing my own work.” It felt selfish to do anything else. Especially when there wasn’t anyone nearby to point to as another way to do things. When I figured out that I could say “I am taking these two hours to write,” or “I’d like to go for this weekend retreat,” and everyone would see if they could make room for that — willingly! — that was an enormous change. And by doing that, I was able to connect with other writers — both in person and by Google chat, which is huge, because even if I can’t get out to something, being able to connect online makes all the difference.
These days, sometimes the timespan I need is a lot more than two hours, and sometimes it’s weirdly hard having my focus broken when someone needs something right that minute that I haven’t planned for. And sometimes I still need reassurance that what I’m doing has value to the family / to me / to others. But we’re getting there.
2. The setting for UPDRAFT is very unusual–it contains a mosaic of different elements that aren’t usually associated with each other. How did you develop such a layered world?
Mostly I developed the world through layering. The bone towers have been there from the start, as have the wings, the clouds, and some of the characters. But the rest came from asking questions about what would be the logical extension of a sky-bound culture — what would they lack, what would they not know they were lacking? What physical features of the landscape impacted politics? How would that change over time? I’d add those layers in, write side stories about various groups and events that happened far from the events of the novel, and let those events quietly impact the rest of the world. And then I’d go back and do another layer.
3. Have you ever done skydiving or hang gliding or anything similar?
I haven’t! I’m a sailor. I have relatives who hang-glide, and I spent a lot of my childhood watching storms roll in on the cliffs of the Chesapeake Bay (it gets really windy), but in order to do the research for UPDRAFT, I wanted to feel the physics of being in a wind tunnel, and I wanted to make sure I was writing a flying book, not a sailing book turned sideways. So I went indoor skydiving, which was a hoot. And very spinny.
The wings in the book aren’t hang-gliding wings, they’re more like a cross between furlable wings and wing-suit wings, so I also watched a lot of wingsuit fliers on long-flights and also doing particularly dangerous things like flying through canyons. I researched about 2,000 years of man-made wings in history, and talked a lot with engineers who understand the physics of foils – aka: wings.
3a. Bonus question! What were the most unexpected things you learned about man-made wings?
  • The number of times a version of “but forgot to add a way to lift their feet and so broke both legs in the fall” appeared in the texts. Repeatedly.
  • This stained glass window in Malmesbury (link), depicting Eilmer – an 11th Century monk who tried to fly. (And who forgot to lift his feet and/or panicked and broke both legs in the fall.)
  • The reported 17th c. Khan’s reaction to Ottoman-empire polymath Hezârfen Ahmet Çelebi *successful* flight over a body of water : a sack of gold coins, while stating “This is a scary man, he is capable of doing anything he wishes.” Plus exile to Algeria.
4. We both deal with migraines that interfere in our lives in all sorts of inconvenient ways–when we should be writing, when we should be on panels at conventions, to name only a couple that relate to writing. Actually, I don’t think I have a question here. I’m just complaining. Why don’t you complain some, too.
Ugh, yeah. My usual thought when I feel a migraine coming is: “Maybe it won’t be that bad?” or “I can get through this task, then go take care of myself. Maybe it won’t be that bad.” Hah. No. Bad idea. I hate putting people out, or causing a stir, and I am really bad at asking for help, so sometimes I’ll push myself even harder to work through it, and of course the migraine always pushes back, often at the WORST times. That said, once I figured out most of my migraine accelerants, I’ve been able to control them more. That’s been really good, except when it’s not.  Grumble.
Ok, tossing this back at you! How do you deal with the unpredictability and the invisibility of migraines? How do you communicate pain to someone else when there are few visible markers until things are really really bad?
RS: Oo, throwing the question back at me. Meta. My migraines may not be as bad as yours; I’m often in a kind of demi-functioning, impaired-but-not-totally-gone state. So, I do things like go to meetings and just sit with my hands over my eyes, which I find most people are pretty good about even though it looks weird. I think the visual component makes it easy for most people to understand. These days, I actually have a medicine that works very reliably, but it makes it impossible for me to drive, so it’s inconvenient. And I often still fall asleep (my migraines usually put me to sleep). I don’t like having to bail on commitments when they happen. It’s deeply frustrating.
5. Back to me asking the questions! You’ve had a really fast career growth spurt in the past year. What’s the most unexpected thing you’ve encountered? 
It’s funny – it doesn’t feel fast? There’s a lot of work that went on under the surface, both in the years before I was public about the fact that I was writing again, and in the years since I started sending out stories. And there’s also the feeling of “ok what is the next thing?” So I guess I feel like I’m always growing and learning, and that there are always going to be more elements of craft and practice that I want to hone.
Most unexpected was the realization that it doesn’t get easier. A friend told me once that it gets differently hard. She was right, but then she is almost always right.
6. Do you have any upcoming projects, or anything else you’d like to talk about? Entertaining lies are encouraged. (Non-entertaining lies are tolerated.)
My gem universe novella “The Jewel And Her Lapidary,” a hidden history wrapped in a traveler’s guide, is coming out in May from And CLOUDBOUND — a companion novel to Updraft (not a sequel!) comes out in September, which I’m really excited for.
I’m staffing Paradise Lost in May, and am a writer in residence at University of Richmond in March, as well as at York University in the fall.
I have some more research-based activities I’m planning, both for the last novel in the Updraft cycle, as well as for another completely unrelated project. And more gem universe stories. No spoilers though.
I can’t think of any entertaining lies! I should practice that. YES. My upcoming project will be boot-camp training in entertaining lies.

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