Mary Robinette Kowal: Puppetmaster

Mary Robinette Kowal (by Amelia Beamer)

Mary Robinette Kowal was born in Raleigh NC and attended Eastern Carolina University, majoring in Art Education, with a minor in Theater and Speech. In 1991 she left for an internship at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta GA, and never went back. She has been a professional puppeteer ever since. Kowal spent a year and a half working in Iceland on the children’s show Lazytown, has worked for various other shows and theaters, and runs her own company, Other Hand Productions.

Kowal began publishing fiction in literary journals in 2004, and in SF magazines with “Portrait of Ari” in Strange Horizons (2006). Her work has since appeared in various genre magazines and anthologies. Notable stories include “For Solo Cello, op. 12” (2007) and current Hugo nominee “Evil Robot Monkey” (2008). Some of her short fiction will be collected in Scenting the Dark and Other Stories from Subterranean Press later this year.

Kowal is also a novelist, with two Jane Austen-flavored fantasies forthcoming from Tor, starting in 2010: Shades of Milk and Honey and Glamour in Glass.

She is currently the Secretary for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, and was the art director for small-press magazine Shimmer. She attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp in 2005, and won the Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2008. She lives in New York with husband Robert Kowal, married 2001, though they are relocating to Portland at the end of August.

Excerpts from the interview:

“One of the things that pulled me to both puppetry and writing speculative fiction is the world building. And certainly the technology: I know exactly what it’s like to live on a daily basis in VR goggles. When I was working on Lazytown, I was often wearing VR goggles and watching a virtual world. It was shot on green screen, so you had real puppets, real people, shot against green, and then they created a real-time environment, so we were seeing exactly what the audience would see. You always watch a monitor, with television puppetry. So I would watch with VR goggles. Take them off — ‘Oh, right. Big green set.’”


“One of the other things that has definitely shaped me as a writer is coming from an art background, where you start by doing a ‘gesture drawing.’ It’s a very fast sketch, and you go from that to a more fully rendered one. Then, if you’re going into paint, you’ll do the under painting and then the final painting. So that experience informs the choices I make.

“The amount of detail you put into a painting is directly related to the size of the canvas. If something’s very small, you’re probably not packing it with detail because you can’t see it. And one of the choices you make is, ‘How far away is my audience going to be standing?’ With theater, that means ‘How big is my audience?’

“For my collection A Scent in the Dark, I picked my shortest stories — in most cases so I could give a broader sampling. Writing short fiction is very much like doing a sketch. These are the ideas, these are the relationships I want to talk about. If a detail isn’t needed and it’s not adding anything to the story, I’m likely to pull it out. Sometimes a detail can add to it, based on enhancing the environment, since for me a story isn’t just plot; it’s also character and setting.”


Shades of Milk and Honey is a Regency Romance fantasy, and I tried to write it as if Jane Austen were writing it. We’re going through this bizarre Jane Austen resurgence, so I may have timed it exactly right! I’m very fond of it and I’ve written a sequel, Glamour in Glass. I could happily write more in this world, and I’ve already begun a short story about one of the main characters.

“The magic system is called Glamour, and the basic idea is that a young woman learns painting, music, and glamour as ‘womanly arts.’ It’s an illusionary art (basically, you’re dealing with wavelengths), but doing it takes energy just like running up a hill takes energy. So if a young woman does too much glamour, she might faint. But once you’ve created this illusion, you can tie it off and it stays fixed in place. (It will gradually degrade over time, like a painting would fade.)

“One of the characters is a glamourist who comes into town to do a mural for a wealthy woman. He’s also sort of an inventor. One of the things that bothers me with magic in fantasy is that there are very few experimenters. Who’s making the innovations? If magic really existed, it wouldn’t be static and then stop; there would constantly be people pushing the boundaries. So this fellow is actively trying to create new techniques.”

This review and more like it in the August 2009 issue of Locus.

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