In honor of Women’s History Month, I’m sharing my interview with a writer, friend and mentor I’ve known and admired for years.
As a writer, editor, teacher and activist, Marta Randall has a long and influential career in the SFF world. A leading voice in the New Wave movement, Randall saw her 1976 novel Islands nominated for a Nebula. She went on to write several novels, including THE KENNERIN SAGA and, most recently, Mapping Winter and The River South. (You can see our reviews here and here.) She is also well-known for her short fiction. In 1982, Randall served as the president of the Science Fiction/Fantasy Writers Association (known then as the Science Fiction Writers of America). She has taught at Clarion and at the online workshop Gotham. Her most recent short fiction, Sailing to Merinam,” is in the March/April 2022 edition of Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine.
Marta Randall: I didn’t see Cherek, the world, as fantasy; I think it was characterized that way by default. I wanted to play with the idea of a civilization that developed away from the influence of an overriding religious structure, that is, away from a series of rules and regulations that the culture had to follow, had to adhere to. So I gave Cherek a basic feudal history, including guilds but not including religious establishments, and I gave it a culture that included a set of rudimentary religious beliefs shared loosely among three deities, and left it alone to see what would happen.
I have to say that the original editor was Not Happy with these decisions, but he was Not Happy with most of my fiction. Editors skipped from publisher to publisher; he had inherited me and had neither sympathy nor patience with what I was trying to do. He said he could not possibly sell the book as I had written it, and required that I put “magic” into it. I tried, but the characters just laughed. Then he insisted that I call the horses something other than “horses” or put two moons in the sky, to make the book “science fictional.” This time I laughed. So the book came out as The Sword of Winter (because
magic) in hard cover (because that was in the contract) with no publicity at all (because that wasn’t in the contract) and with risible magic, and an ending I despised. I fixed as much as I could in Mapping Winter.
The River South emerged without benefit of an editor at all. I’m not entirely convinced that this was a good thing, but at least it avoided the ungentle prejudices of a man who was set up to dislike it ab initio. Instead it emerged from the stern hands of a workshop, who did, I think, a much better job.
MD: You’re known for your speculative fiction work, but under the name Martha Conley you published a mystery novel, Growing Light, in the 1990s. Tell us how crafting that book differed from your speculative fiction. Would you consider writing a mystery again?
MR: For a brief time I managed a combined software-and-hardware firm in Northern California that turned out to be a vanity project for the owner of a larger specialty software firm. I was hired as a writer. It was soon apparent that my end of things was in total disarray and trying to bring order to chaos was thwarted at every turn by the people who owned and ran the company. And the New Age butchery of the English tongue was beyond belief! Eventually the owners were persuaded to close down the vanity project, I and my team departed, and, well, there you have it. It took writing the novel to expunge the poison.
Writing a mystery is really not that much different than writing SF. You need a solid plot, you need believable characters with believable motives, in my case you need something to poke fun at, and, also in my case, you need a healthy dose of being ticked off. Not sure I have been that ticked off since, so no, not sure I have another mystery in me.
MD: You were one of the New Wave Writers in the late 60s/early 70s. When you were writing and publishing books like Islands and A City in the North, were there conscious breaks you were making from the popular SF of the time? What were they? What were you trying to do differently.
MR: Write women characters doing things that men usually did. But, really, I was just trying to write the kind of SF that I liked to read.
MD: You were also an influential editor during this time. Of course, you were looking for good stories, but were there particular elements or sensibilities you sought out at that time?
MR: Robert Silverberg had grown weary with editing the annual New Dimensions series of SF stories and proposed letting it die, and I talked him and the editor at the publishing house to let me have a go at it. ND11 would be edited by Bob and myself; ND12 by myself and Bob, and ND13 by myself alone, although in truth I was responsible for all three volumes. Primarily I wanted SF that excited me, that puzzled me, that ticked me off. I wanted SF that I couldn’t find elsewhere, from writers I couldn’t find elsewhere. That by itself eventually led to some unhappiness with the publisher and with Bob, who said they’d have trouble selling books containing stories by total unknowns, so I did what I could to include to some established writers. But it was the new writers who excited me the most, and I am most proud of the fact that many of my new voices went on to become established and award-winning writers in the field.
ND11 and ND12 made it into print, “edited” by Bob and me. But ND13 made it as far as the cover and review copies before being yanked from the publication process with the excuse that “anthologies don’t sell.” Me, I think it was because Bob’s name was no longer on the cover but of course I have nothing but a suspicion of this. It was a lovely anthology, too, and every one of its stories found a good home and, in the case of more than one, an award nomination.
MD: In 1981/82 you were the vice-president of Science Fiction Writers of America (SWFA) and in 82 you became the association’s first woman president. During the 1980s we saw the beginning of a contraction in publishing (still going on!) as conglomerates bought up formerly independent businesses. During your tenure, you fought for some specific rights for writers. Tell us a little bit about those issues and what you and SFWA accomplished.
MR: The SFWA was originally conceived, by Damon Knight and others, as a guild of writers banding together to resist some of the more egregious outrages perpetrated against writers in the genre by some of the more outrageous publishers. Things like: buying the right to publish a bunch of novels from various writers, declaring bankruptcy, “selling” the rights to a third party (which often turned out to be the original publisher with a different name) as part of the assets but not passing on the obligation to pay for those rights (because the bankruptcy wiped out the debts) so the writers were left with no right to their own books and no right to payment, either. There were allegations, possibly true, that the Mafia was involved. So, dirty. Until shockingly recently, if a piece was published (short or long) without the proper copyright notice on it, the rights reverted to the publisher and the writer couldn’t sell it again to, say, an anthology or a Best of the Year compilation.
Damon Knight and others knew that while one writer, complaining, had no power, a bunch of complaining writers would be heard, and they were. By the time I came along certain publishers were still learning that lesson. In particular, Simon & Schuster (who owned Pocket Books, my publisher) decided to close down Timescape, its SFF line, and turn it over to a packager (a packager takes on the roles of acquisition, editing, cover design, printing, etc. and turns over a completed package to the publisher for distribution). S&S chose, as its packager, a large and well-known literary agency. There’s a problem with such a move: When a literary agency works in such a capacity, it tends to look to its own clients for material, to the exclusion of other writers: a blatant conflict of interest. Both the agency and the publisher apparently understood this, because the hand-over was all done quietly and SFWA only learned about it because someone at S&S made a phone call. SFWA’s efforts to talk to the agency, Pocket Books, and S&S were stonewalled regardless of who on our side tried to get through.
So I called in the Big Guns. I spoke to the Justice Department (conflict of interest, remember?) and the New York Times and a few other places I thought might be interested. They were. The kerfuffle was very satisfying. The agreement between the literary agency and the publisher fell apart (S&S turned its SFF line over to a new line, Jim Baen Books) and, to my delight, Richard Snyder, then the Vice-President of S&S, called me a “gunboat diplomat” in the pages of the New York Times. It remains one of the high points of my career.
MD: I think you should get “gunboat diplomat” on a T-shirt.
You’ve done a lot, in various aspects of the field. Tell us the things you’re most proud of.
MR: New Dimensions and the Gunboat Diplomat are probably at the top of my list, followed by the successes of the writers I have mentored over the years. Not to say that I’m not proud of a lot of my writing, but if my reputation in the future comes down to those three things, I’m pleased.
MD: In the current SFF field, whose work are you currently reading and enjoying?
MR: To be honest, I’ve spent the past six months in the reading in the past: Mark Twain’s travel books, some RL Stevenson, Bill Bryson, a lot of Walter Tevis. Looking for something that makes me want to pick up the next book. Any suggestions?
MD: Maybe our commenters will have some good recommendations. Thank you for taking the time to talk to us, Marta!
One commenter will get an ARC of The Quarter Storm by Veronica G. Henry.