Nancy Kress: Tomorrow’s Kin
Nancy Anne Kress (née Koningisor) was born January 20, 1948 in Buffalo NY. She received a BS degree (summa cum laude) from the State University of New York – Plattsburgh (1969), taught fourth grade from 1969-73, then returned to college for a Master’s in Education (1978) and an MA in English (1979) from SUNY – Brockport, where she went on to teach English from 1981-83. From 1984-89 she was a copywriter at a Rochester NY firm. She has also taught at various workshops, including Clarion, and for 16 years she wrote a how-to column, Fiction, for Writer’s Digest.
Her first published work was SF story ‘‘The Earth Dwellers’’ in Galaxy (1976), but her first few novels were fantasy: The Prince of Morning Bells (1981), The Golden Grove (1984), and The White Pipes (1985). She’s best known for her science fiction, especially the Beggars series, about humans who are modified to eliminate the need for sleep: Hugo and Nebula Award finalists Beggars in Spain (1993) and Beggars and Choosers (1994), and concluding volume Beggars Ride (1996). Other series include thrillers Oaths and Miracles (1996) and Stinger (1998); the Probability trilogy: Probability Moon (2000), Probability Sun (2001), and Campbell Memorial Award winner Probability Space (2002); and the Crossfire books: Crossfire (2003) and Crucible (2004). Most of her novels are standalones, including An Alien Light (1987), Brain Rose (1990), Maximum Light (1998), Nothing Human (2003), Dogs (2008), Steal Across the Sky (2009), and Flash Point (2012). She also wrote YA Yanked! (1999).
Kress is a celebrated writer of short fiction, and notable stories include Hugo and Nebula Award Winner ‘‘Beggars in Spain’’ (1991); Hugo winner ‘‘The Erdmann Nexus’’ (2008); Nebula Award winners ‘‘Out of All Them Bright Stars’’ (1985), ‘‘The Flowers of Aulit Prison’’ (1996), and Yesterday’s Kin (2015); Nebula Award winners and Hugo finalists ‘‘Fountain of Age’’ (2007) and After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall (2012); and numerous other awards finalists. Her short fiction has been collected in Trinity and Other Stories (1985), The Aliens of Earth (1993), Beaker’s Dozen (1998), Nano Comes to Clifford Falls and Other Stories (2008), and Philip K. Dick Award finalist Fountain of Age (2012). Retrospective The Best of Nancy Kress appeared in 2015.
Her non-fiction includes writing books Beginnings, Middles & Ends (1986), Dynamic Characters: How to Create Personalities That Keep Readers Captivated (1986), and Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint (2005). She also edited Nebula Awards Showcase 2003.
She lives in Seattle WA with her husband, writer Jack Skillingstead, married 2011. She has two adult sons from a prior marriage.
Excerpts from the interview:
‘‘I started writing because I had kids. I didn’t plan on being a writer, unlike all these other people who knew they wanted to write when they were seven. I started writing when I was pregnant with my second child. I had a toddler running around, and we lived way out in the country. My then-husband took our only car to work, and he was taking an MBA, so he frequently stayed downtown to take his classes. There were no other women my age around. I was going nuts. I had a difficult pregnancy, I had a toddler running around, and I was alone most of the time. When my kids were sleeping, I started writing to have something to do that involved words with more than one syllable. I didn’t expect it to go anywhere. After a year, a story sold, and after another year, a second story sold. I began to get very interested in it. I had planned on going back to being a fourth-grade teacher when my kids were old enough but I started publishing, and I never ended up going back to teaching.
‘‘I used to come up with amazing stratagems to find time to write when I had children. I had very little money, but every time I sold a story and got a couple hundred dollars, I would spend it on babysitters so I could write more stories. Finally, another woman with small kids moved to this country road, and we would trade babysitting, so we could each have time. If she had my kids, I would get a couple of hours. You fit it in wherever you can, if you’re really serious about it. Because I’m a morning person, I would get up at five, before the children, and I would write then.”
‘‘We live in the future. This really is the future. People don’t realize how much is already being done with genetic engineering. E. coli, which is one of the easiest bacteria to genetically engineer, already produces all the insulin that used to be produced much more expensively in other ways. Another genetically altered E. coli produces carpet fibers for DuPont. It produces a biodegradable plastic glass that’s in use at the Kennedy Center, that isn’t going to clog up the landfills with a lot of plastic that won’t go away. A lot of medicines are made from genetically engineered bacteria, along with food. In the United States soy, which is in everything, is genetically engineered. Canola oil, from Canada, is all genetically engineered. Much of the corn in the United States is genetically engineered. Whatever you had for breakfast, you had some genetically engineered components in there, and you will have more.
‘‘The interesting thing to me is that not one person has ever been harmed by genetically engineered crops. The only illness that ever resulted was when somebody inserted a nut gene into something, and someone who had a nut allergy had a reaction. But if these things are labeled properly, and tested properly, they’re not dangerous.”
‘‘The TV reporter wanted to talk to a science fiction writer because although he’d talked to many scientists, scientists don’t like to speculate negatively about what could happen. For instance, the gene editing tool CRISPR/Cas9 is the most interesting advancement in genetic engineering of the last decade or so, because it makes gene editing much simpler. CRISPR/Cas9, an acronym, stands for Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats, which means it’s a section of DNA with a certain structure, and Cas9 is the molecule that’s attached to it. That technology lets genes be cut and spliced and new genes put in more easily than previously. It makes genetic engineering more precise, much faster, and much easier. He wanted to do an article on this, as well as the CIA announcement, but when he talked to the scientists involved in it, including one at Berkeley who helped develop CRISPR/Cas9, they were leery of speculating about the consequences. Scientists have reputations and funding to protect, and can’t go out on a limb and make crazy predictions. I’m a science fiction writer. I can go out on all the limbs I want to, and make all the crazy predictions I want. I’ve written about genetically engineered bio weapons, in two novels and several short stories. That’s why he wanted to talk to me.
‘‘I’m turning ‘Yesterday’s Kin’, the novella that won the Nebula last year, into a trilogy. The first novel is done. The first third is the novella, and then it continues after aliens have left, and the spore cloud hits Earth. In the second book, which is also done, the United States has built a spaceship, and humans go to World. The third book, which I have to start writing next week, is about their coming back here, but there’s a time dilation, so they come back 28 years later. It has some of the same characters, and of course some new characters. My notes for book three say: ‘They return to Earth. Stuff happens. Microbes are involved.’ By the time this interview comes out I hope there will be more of it than that!”
‘‘I work out the science ahead of time because I’m not trained as a scientist, so even though I might not know all of the plot when I start writing, I do know all the science. For a short story like ‘Pathways’ there will be a couple of pages of scientific notes. Then it’s a matter of turning my attention to the characters, which to me are the most important thing in fiction. I’ve talked about genetic engineering and science, but the characters are what matter. I try to make characters that are affected by and involved with the science, though I don’t usually write from the point of view of scientists themselves. I write more of characters affected by the science. It’s always good to write about the character who’s hurt the most by something. That’s always a good viewpoint character because you get more conflict and emotion. Some handwaving is necessary because otherwise you’re writing a scientific monograph and you might as well go pick up your Nobel Prize.”
‘‘We can’t justify time travel, but time travel stories work. It’s a thing you have to accept. It’s a given. But don’t pile on top of the time travel a lot of other things you can’t accept. I regard a lot of time travel stories, including my own, as more fantasy than science fiction. What I wanted to do with the Anne Boleyn story in my collection, ‘And Wild For To Hold’, was to show that no matter how things change, human beings are the same. When they snatch Anne out of the past, she brings down the equivalent of a Pope and the equivalent of a King all over again, because that’s what she does. Human nature doesn’t change that much.”
Read the complete interview in the August 2016 issue of Locus Magazine. Interview design by Francesca Myman.