Suzy McKee Charnas
In an interview here, Suzy McKee Charnas discusses Dorothea Dreams and fiction writing.
Suzy McKee Charnas grew up on the West Side of Manhattan when that area was still packed with refugees from World War Two, settling among many previous waves of newcomers from elsewhere. The environment was rich, varied, and fraught enough to be a little scary as well as stimulating.
Her own parents were both artists, her toys were paper and colored pencils, and everyone assumed that she too would become an artist and a proper New York bohemian. She made an early start by appropriating some of her illustrator-father's dummy booklets to write and illustrate her own stories, most of them about cowboys and horses. She was a huge fan of Will James' and Walter Farley's books, and still harbors warm feelings for whoever wrote Pat Rides the Trail.
She was accepted by a public High School dedicated to art and music students (now part of the La Guardia High School located right behind Lincoln Center). There, she was lucky enough to find herself in the classroom of a Regina Barnes, a wonderful English teacher in whose name an endowed scholarship fund has been established at La Guardia.
First, Mrs. Barnes asked from where Suzy had plagiarized a spy story submitted for a class assignment. After that rocky start, Miss Barnes offered unfailing encouragement and support, which Suzy did not get from anyone in the art department—a fairly obvious portent of future developments.
Entering Barnard College in 1957, Suzy knew that she wanted to be an author. She aspired to write romances of the post-colonial world, taking as inspiration then-current best-sellers such as Island in the Sun and Something of Value. Her cobbled-up major, Economic History, was devised to help develop skills needed to design convincing lands and cultures for fictional characters to explore (this background came in very handy when she finally got around to writing science fiction and fantasy).
Eager for firsthand experience of something besides Manhattan, after graduation she took the entry examination for President Kennedy's newly-announced Peace Corps. She was invited to go work in Nigeria for two years and immediately said yes, a pivotal life decision that scared her mother half to death.
After teaching first in a rural high school and then in a college in the Western Region's Provincial capitol, she came home with her Manhattan provincialism largely knocked out of her. She tried to sell a western novel that she had written as a sort of warm-up while in Nigeria. Luckily everyone rejected it, and there was no internet self-publishing available in the sixties.
So she got a Master of Arts in Teaching at N.Y.U. and went on to several years of teaching at the New Lincoln School, a private school for very smart kids, for several years, followed by a stint designing curricula in a drug treatment program for high schools that was run out of Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital by an ex-cop (and with quite an opposite slant to what that leadership suggests).
Still feeling drawn by life in high, wide landscapes like the plateau country of Western Nigeria, she went looking, with her new husband, for a job out west—which brought both of them to a state with a history of cultural diversity and conflict (including cowboys), and a rich heritage in the arts, and the odd distinction of being treated by the Federal government like a colonial possession: New Mexico, the Land of Enchantment (and also of colorful crime and corruption).
This particularly evocative and stimulating setting was part of the genesis of Dorothea Dreams, her novel about a life in the visual arts that can be seen as an alternative creative path that Suzy might have taken, under slightly different circumstances.
But first, inspired (like so many) by Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness, she finally found her path: that of writing speculative fiction of all kinds. Her work includes the four-book Holdfast Chronicles, a cult classic of vampire literature (The Vampire Tapestry), several Y-A books, and shorter fiction of various kinds. Over the years, her fiction has garnered a gratifying set of awards (including a Hugo, a Nebula, a Tiptree, and a Mythopoeic Fantasy award). She has been an instructor several times at the Clarion Workshops, East and West, and still loves teaching when an opportunity arises, and her stage play, Vampire Dreams, has been performed on both coasts.
Suzy lives in central Albuquerque with her husband, two cats, lots of books, and close access to the one of the best grocery co-ops in the country and two great coffee shops. She attends a half dozen or so conventions and conferences each year (always including Wiscon and ICFA); writes fierce but concise letters to the local paper (a Right-wing rag which always publishes them); and does her gym workouts listening to Fleet Foxes, Shearwater, and Arvo Pärt on the iPod that her stepson gave her for her seventieth birthday.