Interview with Lynda Williams

An interview with Lynda Williams
By Derek Newman-Stille

It is always refreshing and exciting to have the opportunity to talk to a writer who is willing to really interrogate and question the world around them through SF, and I am glad that Lynda Williams is willing to share her insights and observations with readers and help us to step out of our taken-for-granted observations of the world around us. I am happy that she was willing to do an interview here and help us to debate and question our world. I hope that you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed talking to Ms. Williams about these complex topics.

Spec Can: To begin our interview, could you tell readers a little bit about yourself?

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

Lynda Williams: I’m a nice middle-class girl who went to university, got a good job, got married, raised three great daughters and once led a grass-roots movement to get internet connectivity for the general public. Anyone interested in more about my work as an applied technologist and teacher of computing is welcome to check out my profile at LinkedIn http://www.linkedin.com/in/lyndajwilliams

My intellectual life has been equally important to me as a person. In some ways, I’ve always been an observer of life requiring a conscious effort to mimic what comes naturally to others, and felt most at home in fiction where everything has some kind of meaning. On the whole, in antithesis to the deconstructionist era in literary studies, my goal has been to construct meaning wherever I find pre-existing maxims unsatisfying. Writing is the necessary by-product.

Spec Can: In your Okal Rel Saga you explore two civilizations, the Reetions and the Gelacks, who both descended from Earth populations but were cut off from each other and Earth and culturally drifted over the years. Now, upon re-encountering one another, they are confused by different cultural customs that have developed. What inspired your interest in cultural drift and change?

Lynda Williams: Perhaps it started with the arguments about religion among my fathers’ siblings. They were all religious but could never agree with one another.  It made me think. So I read about dozens of religions. I also joined Amnesty International, became a volunteer crisis counselor and read a lot of anthropology, mythology, history, popular science and stuff like theories of culture and social order down the ages. I remember being deeply impressed by the ancient Greek play, Antigone, in which the heroine accepts a death sentence in order to honor her brother’s corpse, motivated by cultural imperatives that make no sense to a modern reader. But the dilemma is no less real.

Spec Can: What got you interested in the idea of culture contact?

Lynda Williams: Star Trek, originally. The old TV show. I branched out to history where I discovered most of the injustice surrounding culture contacts arose from an imbalance of power. That’s what got me thinking about methods of social control and what might happen if the tribal culture, like the neo-feudal Gelacks, had one kind of power (reality skimming prowess) while the culture that considers itself more advanced and sophisticated, like the Reetions, had another (medical and information science, and political infrastructure). But neither side is more powerful in an absolute way, so they have to work out their differences.

Spec Can: The topic of taboos is one of the areas where the Reetions and Gelacks differ from one another. What interested you in the idea of conflicting taboos and conflicting religious and social patterns? How can this help readers to think differently about cultural and religious difference?

Lynda Williams: I grew up with the Canadian mosaic idea of celebrating differences. Then I encountered things like a father justifying the murder of a daughter over her choice of husband and realized I was not okay with complete cultural relativity. None of the cultures of the Okal Rel Universe are without blemish. Rire is where I’d prefer to live, but Reetions can be obnoxiously superior.  In Part 5: Far Arena, for example, they are so resistant to viewing Gelacks as their equals that not even living in a transparent society prevents them from lying to themselves. Most Gelack cultures discriminate between classes of Sevolite and the Nesaks practice genocide toward “non-eternals”, which means any human less than highborn in the court biological hierarchy.  Yet there are good people in all these cultures, and individuals who think for themselves. My hope is that by examining fictional cultures in conflict, readers might learn to think through situations in their own world on a case by case basis.

Spec Can: The Reetions and the Gelacks each have different ideas about sexuality (the Reetions encouraging acceptance of sexual difference whereas the Gelacks have created a fundamentally homophobic society). What inspired your interest in sexuality? What do you hope readers will take from this interaction?

Lynda Williams: I knew nothing about homosexuality until first year university, where I spent hours discussing it with a couple of gay acquaintances in my favorite study spot, the Raven’s Wing Café. Di Mon became a homosexual the minute I learned a tough guy could be. This move gave the very principled Di Mon, who was already a well-loved main character, the same problem as Amel’s whiny abuser, H’Reth. So naturally it struck me as a perfect thought experiment.  If there’s a message in this for readers it’s a complex one about responsibility for one’s actions while, simultaneously, registering the non-trivial nature of finding oneself on the wrong side of a cultural norm.

My initial interest in sexual differences sprang from something like rebellion against male and female stereotypes. Hence the extremes, among the Gelacks, of Vrellish woman, like Vretla, and Golden Demish men, like Amel.

Spec Can: When I was younger, there were very few science fiction novels that had queer characters (unless they were portrayed as villains). How is this shifting, and what can we do to encourage more representation of LGBTQ characters?

Lynda Williams: Let the LGBTQ characters be fully realized, even if that means they won’t always be perfect role models. I’ve had readers express impatience with Di Mon, for example, because he can’t “get over” his dislike of being homosexual. Really? Given what’s at stake for him? When the idea of Di Mon jelled for me, back in the 1970s and 80s, it was radical to contemplate a gay hero. Now, it sometimes feels as if he’s lost the right to be a character with hang-ups because he has to represent something. If readers need proof that the Okal Rel Universe can also harbor a well-adjusted homosexual character, Ranar is right there. Di Mon is Di Mon, and that’s all there is to it. And Vretla is a female-chauvinist pig who believes there aren’t really any “girl-sla” women, just horny ones suffering a shortage of available males. But we love her anyway. Real people aren’t perfect. Neither are believable characters.

Spec Can: Your work often explores notions of compassion, and, particularly the point at which compassion shifts from being beneficial to almost self-harming. What inspired your interest in the complexities of compassion?

Three Versions of Amel by Yukari Yamamoto.

Three Versions of Amel by Yukari Yamamoto.

Lynda Williams: I think I’ve always admired the combination of great sensitivity and great strength, but recognized it could lead to an undesirable martyrdom.  If I’d discovered Dostoyevsky’s novel, The Idiot, at an earlier age, I might have saved myself the work of creating Amel. Amel’s history in the Okal Rel Saga also dramatizes the question of whether science should be used to “fix” people. For example, my father used to hate being on anti-depression medication because it altered his sense of who he was. But he couldn’t cope without it, either. As we become more and more able to directly intervene to change ourselves, medically, the questions Amel and his Reetion doctor, Lurol, dance around in books 1 and 5 will get nothing but more important.

Spec Can: I was at a conference recently where a speaker (Robert Runte) discussed the incredible work that you are doing including and encouraging fan participation in the Okal Rel world that you have created. What inspired you to encourage fan participation and what are some of the benefits of involving fans in the worlds you create?

A photo from Lynda Williams' Teen Years - The origins of the Okal Rel universe

A photo from Lynda Williams’ Teen Years – The origins of the Okal Rel universe

Lynda Williams: The Okal Rel experience evolved out of playing with others http://okalrel.org/i-promised-my-dolls/ , so it invites participation naturally. But it’s a misconception to assume it is easy to get involved. The very first prerequisite is to learn the Okal Rel Universe. It isn’t light reading. And it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I’m arriving at a stage of life where I’m losing interest in complying with marketing imperatives to make out that one’s work is “just like” something better known in order to ride on its coattails, or to define an audience niche and conform to its standards for acceptance. I count among my favorite readers high school students and university professors. What they share is a love of rich cultural settings, intense human relationships, and well-plotted stories that are sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic and always emblematic of some dilemma or concern that preoccupied the writer. When I find people among this audience who have the talent and mind-set to play with me, I welcome them. I never called them fans but collaborators. People are welcome to write fan fiction if they want, too. But that’s not the same thing. The benefits? The Okal Rel Universe is nearly as old as I am, and has matured with me under the influence of constant challenge and stimulus from others. It feels like a lived-in place for a reason. And I love collaborating, as an adult, as much as my youthful self loved playing make-believe.

Spec Can: Your encouragement of fans shows that you view readers as valuable participants in the process of creating worlds. Are there any drawbacks or challenges to fan participation?

Lynda Williams: The Okal Rel Saga is the sum of my life’s work of making meaning of my world through fiction. So I am sometimes frustrated to see it branded as a shared-universe as if all that mattered was the rule-book for how to write about Sword Law, or arbiters, or reality skimming physics.  I suppose this is a fate I brought upon myself by blurring the distinction between “pro” and “fan” that writer-culture fights to maintain. At the same time, I am proud of the people who engage with me, from the professional writers and artists to the amateurs who walked a mile with me in the ORU during an important stage of their lives, crossing the “line” between fan and collaborator. I embrace both ways of making meaning. But I sometime cringe at the label “fan” because I fear it may be taken as an insult by the professional participants. The truth, I think, is this: many (but not all) readers have the potential to be creators, but most are discouraged by what pilots in the ORU might characterize as the hard rel of doing any kind of art for a living. So they stop. I can’t help but love the creative engines of the ORU for being a micro-environment where a greater-than-usual diversity of skills, styles and even genres thrive under one “roof”. In the end, like many things about the Okal Rel phenomenon, the role of collaborators in its creation is a complex and evolving business.

Spec Can: In addition to being an author, you also work in higher education at Simon Fraser University. In what ways do these roles complement each other?

Lynda Williams: A day job makes it harder to commit time to promoting one’s work, but it’s a rich source of material. I’ve seen and participated in big changes brought about by information technology, for example, which makes me sympathetic to both Erien’s drive for progress and the resistance of conservative Demish society. The politics of Fountain Court are as much informed by life as a “nobleborn” in post-secondary institutions as by my reading of history. And my crisis centre work was an eye-opener. But my use of real life in fiction is always a mash up. Colleagues, friends and family will be hard pressed to identify themselves in any particular character. It’s the essence, not the details, of a real life problem that I abstract into fiction to examine.

One great thing about having a good day job is the freedom to write what you want. I worked as a professional writer for a few years, as a journalist. It was a great experience. But the Okal Rel Saga was what I always wanted to write and being able to do it as a part-time job meant I could take my time to get it right, over the years.

Spec Can: How is Science Fiction a process of education and learning, and how can it encourage readers to think in new ways?

Lynda Williams: It makes us think outside the box. People can have petrified attitudes about a topic due to past associations which aren’t necessarily part of the package. In science fiction, we can alter the stimulus. We can identify exactly what we want to show the reader and see if he/she has the same reaction without the usual triggers. Take the Nesaks. They loom, throughout the Saga, as the war-mongers who periodically invade the empire. Their religious motivations might suggest a jihad, and, in fact, Part 9 of the saga is called Holy War. But if there’s a touch of Islamic warriors about the Nesaks there is also a touch of American family-loving Christians who believe the rest of the world has got it all wrong. The combination of real family values and militaristic theocracy is something I’ve always had trouble reconciling. But it happens. Readers can weigh what’s right and what’s wrong about it in their reaction to the Nesaks without automatically applying beliefs they might otherwise be unable to avoid falling back on.

Spec Can: Many of your characters have been visited by trauma or have been heavily influenced by traumatic events of the past. What encouraged you to involve characters that are coping with and learning from trauma?

Lynda Williams: I think I needed to believe anything could be survivable when I was young. The more I found out about just how awful “anything” could be, the harder it was to believe. So I invented a hero, Amel, whose job was not only to survive it all but to retain the ability to love. I read up on the topic, a little, and saddled him with some of the problems suffered by abuse victims. I didn’t want him to just get up, dust himself off, and be emotionally whole. Putting yourself back together after trauma is a lot of very hard and scary work. But there’s an opportunity to learn about how to do it, or how not to do it, in studying the lives of characters. Eler, in Part 2: Righteous Anger, is messed up by the implosion of his family over religious and political differences. He reacts by spending the rest of his life poking and prodding people to prove they aren’t what they seem. Di Mon suffered a trauma in the loss of his first lover, Darren, and responds with iron self-denial and devotion to duty which, arguably, kills him in the end. But the interpretation of Di Mon’s suicide haunts the series to its conclusion. Was it a maladaptation to his homosexuality, or a rational act motivated by the desire to die with dignity?

Spec Can: In The Courtesan Prince, the Reetion civilisation is fundamentally socialist and has gotten rid of class divides, whereas the Gelack civilisation is entirely based on class distinctions and has been shaped by a strong belief in the differences between classes. Why did this idea of competing class systems interest you? What shaped your fascination with classes and how they orient societies?

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Lynda Williams: I think I became fascinated by class distinctions because at some fundamental, instinctive level at which most people ‘get’ who is important and who isn’t, I just didn’t. I therefore found myself, from a young age, in the midst of a never-ending social game of hierarchy where I had to keep figuring out the rules. It still bewilders me why anyone would be excited about spotting a celebrity on the street, for example. But I did come with a conceit of my own. My upper class English heritage. Or, at least, the sense of it conveyed by my mother and grandmother. It made perfect sense to me that Oliver, in Oliver Twist, was a different kind of being from his fellow orphans who were what my grandmother would have termed “common children”. How my family managed to simultaneously instill in me an impression that being half-Welsh was a little bit magic, is a mystery, given what the English think about the Welsh. But I do know that one of my early mental images of Amel was as an Oliver Twist kind of character, so obviously better than those around him that it leaps out at the reader, even though it is invisible to other characters. The blindness of social systems, in other words, is revealed by the participants’ failure to see the very truth they most profess to value.

Spec Can: Your work engages with tough social questions and complex ideas. In what ways can Canadians SF ask those tough questions or help people to challenge their social situation and think outside the box?

Lynda Williams: We profess to be above class distinctions in Canada. I don’t believe it. People are always pegging each other in some hierarchy or other. The saving grace, I think, is that there are now multiple hierarchies in which to participate and we can choose which we prefer to take to heart. Just like Ilse Marin, a merely nobleborn woman of the Midlord birth rank, takes pride in being Blue Demish, we can chose to measure our own self-worth in terms of our education level, income, family, professional distinctions, volunteer roles, creative skills, etc.  We can build our identities in our chosen spheres of influence while still respecting other people’s worlds. But to be truly happy, I think, we have to make peace with the idea people just aren’t equal in all things. No amount of wishing is going to make us all equally attractive, strong or smart. Writing about how people negotiate the class system of Sevildom, within and across cultures, gives me toys to play with for dramatizing hierarchy issues of all sorts. For example, in the fourth Okal Rel anthology there’s a brilliant story by M. Alexis Pakulak about a woman who defines herself as a Sevolite, finds out she isn’t, and has to decide whether it matters. In her case, it’s mostly a psychological affair because she’s a Fractional Sevolite, but for this dilemma the question of actual differentiation of abilities wasn’t an important issue. But what if, like Gadar, in my story “Going Back Out”, it is physical? Gadar, as a natural human, will never be able to outfly a highborn. Ann’s answer is “so what!” That only means we need you all the more for Reetion purposes. “Fly for your own reasons,” says Ann. Good advice, not always easy to follow. But there’s something deeply gratifying about pursuing one’s own, particular rel, no matter what.

Spec Can:  In addition to your work as an author, you also are known for running blogs about Canadian SF. What can blogs add to the developing nature of Canadian SF? How can they help people to think differently about SF?

Lynda Williams: For many years, writing was a bizarrely private experience for me, shared primarily with a few special friends. But I wanted to get my characters out there in the world and felt the pressure to promote. Most of the ways of doing this rankled. And, let’s face it, if something goes against the grain of your soul, you aren’t apt to do it very effectively. The pleasure in writing, for me, has always been about creativity and ideas. The heroes. The questions. The larger-than-everyday feel of SF.  Blogging let me extend that preference to a wider public. It’s a social thing for me, letting me collaborate with kindred spirits in a way that feels good. It is also an outlet for my surplus thoughts and idea about life, which prevents me driving my family nuts. I enjoy inviting fellow authors and thinkers to appear on Reality Skimming. And since I’m a Canadian SF author, it is true that a good number of the guests are Canadians but that’s more an accident of overlap than a real intent to focus on Canadian SF. Some writers are fiercely national in their outlook but international in their audience. I’m probably the opposite. A would-be citizen of the world in my outlook, but Canadian by default.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would be interested in including in this interview?

Lynda Williams: Just to thank you for the opportunity to respond to such insightful questions. People keen to talk about themselves are legion. Those game to bring their heart and mind to the task of encouraging another to explore her inward halls of thought are rarer stock.  The Okal Rel Universe is proud to count you among its readers, and I hope additional books in the series have the pleasure of your visitations there. Ack rel.

I want to thank Lynda Williams for being willing to do such deep analyses of her own work and of the world around her. I am honoured that she was willing to let me participate in this interrogation of the deeper issues expressed in her SF and to share this conversation with readers who may be interested in the worlds she creates and the potential of SF to not only create different worlds, but to question this one and encourage readers to be comfortable questioning their own worlds and their own perspectives. 

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Upcoming Interview with Lynda Williams on August 2, 2013

Lynda Williams and I have been corresponding for a while, each visiting the other’s website and reading about various comments about Canadian SF. I was therefore very excited when Ms. Williams agreed to do an interview here. It is always very exciting to talk with an author who is comfortable deconstructing and analysing her own work, and whose keen observations add much to the discourse of Canadian SF.

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

Author and family photo courtesy of Lynda Williams

In our upcoming interview on August 2, 2013, Lynda Williams discusses the power of close observation for an author, religion, culture contact, imbalances of power, writing LGBTQ or queer characters and giving them personal complexity and depth, engaging with issues around homophobia, gender stereotypes, the question of medical intervention, writing about trauma, and the importance of fan participation in an author’s world.

Here are some teasers from our interview:

Lynda Williams: [Science Fiction] “makes us think outside the box. People can have petrified attitudes about a topic due to past associations which aren’t necessarily part of the package. In science fiction, we can alter the stimulus. We can identify exactly what we want to show the reader and see if he/she has the same reaction without the usual triggers.”

Lynda Williams: “I’ve always been an observer of life requiring a conscious effort to mimic what comes naturally to others, and felt most at home in fiction where everything has some kind of meaning.”

Lynda Williams: “My hope is that by examining fictional cultures in conflict, readers might learn to think through situations in their own world on a case by case basis.”

Lynda Williams: “If there’s a message in this for readers it’s a complex one about responsibility for one’s actions while, simultaneously, registering the non-trivial nature of finding oneself on the wrong side of a cultural norm.”

Lynda Williams: “My initial interest in sexual differences sprang from something like rebellion against male and female stereotypes.”

Lynda Williams: “Let the LGBTQ characters be fully realized, even if that means they won’t always be perfect role models. I’ve had readers express impatience with Di Mon, for example, because he can’t “get over” his dislike of being homosexual. Really? Given what’s at stake for him? When the idea of Di Mon jelled for me, back in the 1970s and 80s, it was radical to contemplate a gay hero. Now, it sometimes feels as if he’s lost the right to be a character with hang-ups because he has to represent something.”

Lynda Williams: “Real people aren’t perfect. Neither are believable characters.”

Lynda Williams: “Amel’s history in the Okal Rel Saga also dramatizes the question of whether science should be used to “fix” people. For example, my father used to hate being on anti-depression medication because it altered his sense of who he was. But he couldn’t cope without it, either. As we become more and more able to directly intervene to change ourselves, medically, the questions Amel and his Reetion doctor, Lurol, dance around in books 1 and 5 will get nothing but more important.”

Lynda Williams: “The Okal Rel experience evolved out of playing with others, so it invites participation naturally.”

Lynda Williams: “I’m arriving at a stage of life where I’m losing interest in complying with marketing imperatives to make out that one’s work is “just like” something better known in order to ride on its coattails, or to define an audience niche and conform to its standards for acceptance. I count among my favorite readers high school students and university professors. What they share is a love of rich cultural settings, intense human relationships, and well-plotted stories that are sometimes funny, sometimes dramatic and always emblematic of some dilemma or concern that preoccupied the writer.”

Lynda Williams: “The Okal Rel Saga is the sum of my life’s work of making meaning of my world through fiction.”

Lynda Williams: “The pleasure in writing, for me, has always been about creativity and ideas. The heroes. The questions. The larger-than-everyday feel of SF.”

If you have not already had the chance, check out my review of Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince at https://speculatingcanada.wordpress.com/2013/07/25/the-in-between-space/. You can find out more about Ms. Williams and the Okal Rel universe at http://okalrel.org/.

The Courtesan Prince Reading Questions

Some Book Club Discussion Questions for Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

What do you find appealing about Reetion society?

What makes you uncomfortable about it?

What do you find appealing about Gelack society?

What makes you uncomfortable about it?

In what ways was Von’s personality shaped by his experience as a courtesan?

Why do you think the Reetions and Gelacks drifted so far apart in terms of their values and social behaviours even though they both came from Earth?

What do you think of the idea of Reality Skimming as a method of space-faring? How does the fact that it causes bodily damage add to or take away from its use as a plot device?

What were some of the biggest questions you found yourself asking as you read this novel?

What were some of the things that were most notable about Ann’s personality?

What would you focus on from this novel if you were to adapt it into a play?

What do you think of the Reetion idea of Social Transparency? What are some of the benefits and dangers of this idea?

What was most notable to you about Okal Rel? Why do you think this religious system developed?

Why is secrecy such a prevalent theme in the novel? What are the different ways that the theme of secrecy appears?

How does trauma shape and change these characters?

How does the theme of racism and cultural difference play out in this novel? Why is it so significant and how does Lynda Williams tackle racism differently than other authors?

The In-Between Space

A Review of Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince (Edge, 2005).
By Derek Newman-Stille

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

Cover photo of The Courtesan Prince courtesy of Edge Publications

The Reetions and the Gelacks, two branches of the human race that were separated from Earth due to temporary losses of space travel. The Reetions developed from the first group of people to leave Earth and settle in a colony. Connections to Earth were lost, and they developed into a divergent civilisation. They developed an egalitarian system of government with open policies, public access to information, and general public engagement in decision-making processes.

The Gelacks developed from a second wave of human space travel. They too lost contact with Earth. The Gelacks were a civilisation that had been changed by the intervention of genetic technology, technology that changed certain people to better sustain the biologically damaging effects of space travel. This group became stronger, smarter, and better at healing than the regular human population. Because Gelack population had both genetically modified humans and unmodified humans (as well as interbred populations), a class system developed along feudal lines. The genetically modified populations attained positions of superiority and hegemonic control.

The Reetions and Gelacks had met before, and the results were devastating, with misunderstandings and miscommunications on both sides. Now, both sides have discovered that traders are making jumps between their civilisations and it has become clear that they may need to make formal contact again. In The Courtesan Prince, Lynda Williams explores the diversity of cultures and the misunderstandings that can come from cultural difference. She illustrates to readers that a large part of conflict comes from misunderstandings and the more diverse the populations are, the more effort needs to be put into understanding the cultural gap and communicating effectively with others.

The Courtesan Prince follows the life of Von, a courtesan who seems to be more than he appears to be. Von’s life and understanding of the world is challenged when he encounters the Reetions, and, in particular Ann, who encourages him to understand her on a deeper level and get rid of some of his xenophobic fears and beliefs that human social relations can only be understood through a Gelack lens.

Simultaneously Ranar, a Reetion anthropologist is left among his research subjects, the Gelacks, and is forced to understand their way of life, even if it is both fundamentally different and even hostile to his own. The Gelacks are a fundamentally homophobic people, with a deep and violent hatred for queer-oriented people. Often this homophobia erupts into public torture of gays and lesbians, followed by their murder and the murder of any children they may have had. Ranar, a gay man, is left in a vulnerable position, having to hide his sexuality for the first time in his life. Among the Reetions, sexual diversity is respected and people are encouraged to accept themselves and there is never a question of sexual interest being either bad or problematic in any way. It is simply another form of relationship. With this openness of sexuality, Ranar has to quickly shift his own openness about his sexuality in order to keep himself safe. When one of the Gelack leaders Di Mon develops an attraction for him (an attraction that he hates in himself and that encourages violence from him), Ranar is confronted with the idea that his own sexuality could be harmful to a lover who is part of a system that systemically oppresses queer-oriented people. He has to keep his sexuality hidden not only for his own protection but to preserve the life of his lover, Di Mon.

Unlike many SF authors, Lynda Williams does not just stick to heteronormative SF, but presents homophobia as something that is socially created and that can be resisted. By contrasting two cultures with different treatments of queer-oriented people, she illustrates that our own homophobic culture has been created by our own social issues and is not something that is taken-for-granted (as it is often portrayed by people who espouse homophobic beliefs). By having one culture that has a healthy, open approach to sexual diversity, and another that has a deep-seated hatred of queer people, she illustrates that homophobia is a choice, not homosexuality.

Lynda Williams is willing to do deep cultural critiques, exploring the development of different cultural ideas and contrasting them in societies that essentially descended from the same roots. She is willing to interrogate politics, ideas of social equality, the complexity of sexuality, ideas of privacy, biological change, and technology. And she is unwilling to give the readers simple answers, but encourages them to interrogate these issues, think for themselves, and develop their own ideas. The Courtesan Prince is a pedagogical text in the best sense of the word, not because it gives answers (as many think that teaching does), but because it asks questions, opens things to debate, and encourages readers to be uncomfortable with any easy answers.

Gelacks and Reetions are contrasted with one another in a way that pushes readers into an uncomfortable intergalactic, in-between space, stuck in the limbo between different ideologies. And this is a hugely powerful creative space where readers are made aware of how much their ideas and thoughts are socially defined and they are encouraged to get rid of cultural trappings and question things freely. The Reetions focus on the idea of honesty, and everything being public… but with that comes the limitations on privacy and the sense of living in a panopticon where everything can be easily seen. The Gelacks are more private, but lying is culturally entrenched to maintain secrets. The Gelacks have a population with bodies that are stronger, heal faster, and survive better… but the power of these bodies have meant tight restrictions on mating practices and the social control of “common” people by a small minority of physically stronger people. The Reetions don’t genetically modify people to be stronger, which means they are able to attain an egalitarian civilisation… but because of this their pilots often have short careers, damaged by the ravages of space travel which destroys normal human bodies. The Reetions are more comfortable with technology… but this means that they are also willing to modify people’s minds through psychotherapy. Whereas the Galecks consider certain forms of technology taboo, which prevents healing adaptions… but they are able to reduce the construction of any weapons of mass destruction. Nothing is easy in The Courtesan Prince and neither civilisation is portrayed as the model of perfect human society. Both have flaws, and these challenges make Lynda Williams’ novel more complex, more rich in substance, and portray the idea that the struggle for perfection is culturally defined and that one person’s ideal may be another’s horror.

The Courtesan Prince is book 1 in Lynda Williams’ Okal Rel Saga, to find out more about it and other books in the series, visit Edge’s website at http://www.edgewebsite.com/index.html . To find out more about Lynda Williams and the Okal Rel universe, visit her site at http://okalrel.org/ .

Interview of Derek Newman-Stille about Speculating Canada on Lynda Williams’ Reality Skimming Blog

I have recently been interviewed by the Reality Skimming Blog, facilitated by the brilliant and wonderful Lynda Williams (author of the Okal Rel Saga). I was asked about what inspired me to create the Speculating Canada site, about the relationship between Canadian SF and mainstream Can Lit, about the role of SF to engage with questions of identity, the role of SF in bringing attention to social issues, and the role of Canadian small SF presses.

You can check out our interview at http://okalrel.org/interview-with-derek-newman-stille/

Thank you to Lynda Williams and Sarah Trick for this lovely interview.

Interview with Michelle Carraway about The Courtesan Prince Play.

As someone who has been involved in theatre in the past and has acted in both stage performances and radio dramas, I was quite excited when I heard that Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince was being converted into a live theatrical performance. I have often wondered what it would be like to act in a performance of speculative fiction, so I was quite excited that Michelle Carraway has allowed me to do this interview with her to share some of those quirky theatrical insights with the readers.

The performances of The Courtesan Prince will take place in November 2013 and will occur at  The River Rock Casino (tentative venue, may be subject to change)

A glimpse of sword-fighting rehearsals for The Courtesan Prince Play, courtesy of Michelle Carraway.

A glimpse of sword-fighting rehearsals for The Courtesan Prince Play, courtesy of Michelle Carraway.

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about the transformation of Lynda Williams’ book The Courtesan Prince into a live performance?

Michelle Carraway:  Transforming “The Courtesan Prince” into a play was remarkably easy.  Lynda Williams’ style is a lot like a play of Shakespeare’s if it was written as a novel rather then as a play.

Courtesan Prince reads like a classic fairy tale and translating it into a play has been a very pleasurable experience. It is a rags to riches story about a noble prince who was stolen away by the machinations of  royal intrigue.  Forced into humiliation, the prince is always noble and his true nature shines forth despite  his situation. Courtesan Prince  is filled with the joy of restoration of position and wrongs being righted.  These are all traits that fit well with format of a play.

If you add in the many cases of mistaken identity and the spice of a collision of cultures, you have many of the ingredients that Lynda wrote into The Courtesan Prince and you can easily see why I was inspired to transform the novel into  a play for everyone to enjoy.

Spec Can: What inspired you to change Lynda Williams’ The Courtesan Prince into a play?

Michelle Carraway: The inspiration was mostly in listening to Lynda Williams read her novels out loud.  I was staying with Lynda and her family for a couple of weeks and every night, Lynda would read a chapter of one of her novels.  Listening to the stories that I had heard before in this context I was inspired to have other people see the stories in the same light as I was seeing them.

When Lynda reads her stories, she can’t help but to be a dramatic reader as all of her characters are alive inside of her and she channels them forth both when she writes and when she re-reads the stories.

My imagination was taken by the idea of sharing what I was seeing with a larger audience.  As I began to formulate this as an idea I began to ‘find’ the characters very vividly in other people who I then cast to play the parts.  The stories that Lynda Williams writes want to be enjoyed by people and the characters want to be seen.  My play is a venue for them that I am honoured to be able to provide.

Spec Can: What changes to the story of The Courtesan Prince did you have to do in order to change it into a play?

Michelle Carraway: The biggest changes that I have made to the story are simplifications.  I am closely adhering to Lynda’s main plot, that of the commoner Von becoming Prince Amel and to the theme of cultures colliding.

Many sub plots and minor characters have been cut from the play in order to keep it to a level that I can manage, both as a director and as a play wright.

There won’t be any big surprises for fans of the Okal Rel Universe although I’m sure that there will be some longing for beloved minor characters and the rich subplots that fill the story.

The subplots are wealthy enough to fill out a whole play of their own so the main characters, Von and Ann are the only ones who are closely followed.

Spec Can: What are some key things that you are hoping to capture in the performance?

Michelle Carraway:I am hoping to capture the passion and purity that Lynda Williams’ writes into her characters.  She is a writer who doesn’t machinate against her audience or her characters and she only writes the truth of the story.  I hope to capture that  clarity in my version of Courtesan Prince.

I also hope to capture the way that Lynda brought a new freshness to a rags to riches story and the depth of the characters that play in it.

Spec Can: Could you tell us a little bit about the actors and actresses involved?

Actors preparing a scene for The Courtesan Prince play (Ann of New Beach and Thomas Revert), Courtesy of Michelle Carraway.

Actors preparing a scene for The Courtesan Prince play (Ann of New Beach and Thomas Revert), Courtesy of Michelle Carraway.

Michelle Carraway: The actors and actresses that I have selected so far are all uniformly passionate about their craft and enthusiastic to the telling of a beautiful story.

They all come from very different backgrounds although they are all local to Vancouver and are doing the play out of love of the story and the craft.  Since we have started to get together and read the scripts, we have become fast friends and have begun working as a group on some other fun projects that we have all inspired in each other.

The Courtesan Prince  play is much like a creative collective rather than a Broadway play. You will find the same honest devotion that Lynda Williams writes with in each of the cast and crew members.

To find out more about the individual actors and actresses you can go to our blog site and read bios and see pictures of them. They have all agreed to write a short essay about how they felt when they first met the character that they are playing and their enthusiasm for them.

Spec Can: Were there any particular looks or personalities you were hoping to capture in your casting call?

Michelle Carraway: I have definitely been looking for the right person for each part.  There are still several parts that are not cast yet as I search for the right person for the job.

Ann of New Beach, played by Nicole Anthony, looks as though she stepped off of the cover of The Courtesan Prince.  When she reads the part of Ann she has exclaimed on several occasions: ‘I LOVE Ann, she is so my new hero!’.

Anthony Stark, who plays the part of Von who becomes Prince Amel, looks almost identical to Lynda Williams’ many loving descriptions of Amel.  When I announced that he would be playing the role at a party, all eyes turned to Anthony, then, almost as one, everyone began to nod and said, ‘Yeah, I can totally see him as Amel.”

Spec Can: What initial chemistry have you seen between the performers? How will this work for the stage or provide challenges?

A glimpse into rehearsals for The Courtesan Prince Play, courtesy of Michelle Carraway

A glimpse into rehearsals for The Courtesan Prince Play, courtesy of Michelle Carraway

Michelle Carraway:  As the actors meet each other and start to read together they have found some great chemistry.  The actors who play Thomas and Ann went to acting school together and they naturally play with each other at gentle jibes that flower marvelously into the lascivious looks and open approaches  from Thomas and the hard nudges that Ann responds to Thomas with.

As everyone becomes friends their ability to interact with physical comedy and force improves as well and provides flavor and validity to the scenes.

Spec Can: What are you doing about the set? What are some key features of the set that really excite you?

Michelle Carraway:  The sets will be painted on a fabric background so that they can be rolled up when we are finished and used for future productions.

As with any production a lot of what will make it all come together is a lot of creativity and hopefully some good luck.

Spec Can: What are some of the exciting things you are hoping to do about costumes?

Michelle Carraway: Costumes are going to be a group effort.  As many of the styles are a sort of fantasy Restoration era there will be a lot of corsets and fancy dress for women and men both.

Local shops are excited for the opportunity to be involved in the ORU legacy and many of the more valuable pieces, such as corsets have been offered for use in the play by local stores such as “Lace Embrace”.

Spec Can: How closely are you working with Lynda Williams on this performance? What input has she provided to the process so far?

Michelle Carraway: I have been working quite closely with Lynda Williams and also with her daughter, Jennifer Lott to read over the play for ideas for inaccuracy or misinterpretation.  So far everyone seems happy with the streamlined version of Courtesan Prince.  Lynda is very pragmatic of the need to simplify down to the major plotline and characters in order to put the story into a form short enough to put on stage.

Spec Can: What are some of the initial challenges to the performance that you have encountered so far?

Michelle Carraway: The initial challenges thus far have been finding all the right people to play the characters.  The two characters, Di Mon Monitum and Ranar of Rire have been the hardest to cast so far.   Capturing their essential dignity and motivation will be a difficult task that still awaits the right actors.

Spec Can: From my own years in the theatre, I know there are always those funny behind-the-scenes moments that really bind a cast together. What are some of the quirky, funny things that have happened so far?

Michelle Carraway: When I first met Andre Roshkov, the actor who plays Thomas Revert, I referred to him as Thomas within two sentences of having met him before he even read his first lines as Thomas.

Spec Can: What special effects (lighting, stage movement, etc.) are you using for this performance?

Michelle Carraway: I am getting the assistance of professional fencers in order to choreograph the fight scenes for the play.

I am also considering utilizing the expertise of local talented burlesque dancers for various scenes, especially the ones that  take place at a brothel.

Spec Can: What other performances have you directed? What directing experience do you have before this?

Michelle Carraway: I have directed several independent movies, including Truth and Wine which is still in production.  I have also directed many plays over the years including The Tempest and A Mid-summer’s Nights dream.

Spec Can: What other Canadian Speculative Fiction would you like to see transformed into performances?

Michelle Carraway: I would love to see some of Margaret Atwood’s writing such as After the Deluge and Oryx and Crake transformed into performances.  I think that you could tantalize audiences with nearly all speculative fiction transformed into a live performance. Imagine what fun it would be to do a performance of the The Life of Pi!   If it is done is such a way that the audience accepts the actors as the embodiment of their beloved characters and as long as scripts follow the reality of the novels to the best of their ability, it is always a winning combination.

Spec Can: Is there anything further you would like to add?

Michelle Carraway: Definitely! Stay tuned for more information and updates.  Everyone needs to come and see this play. Lynda Williams has encompassed an entire universe in her novels and this play is an expression of a great Canadian’s achievements.  It is the pride of Canada that we produce so many wonderful creative people but it is our shame that they aren’t promoted and supported more then they are.  Show your support for our home grown achievements  and have a great time while you do it.

Cheers!

I want to thank Ms. Carraway for this exciting glimpse into the world of speculative fiction theatre and for letting us see her creative process as it unfolds. This has been a great opportunity to see the collaborative writing process and I hope to hear more from Michelle Carraway and Lynda Williams about this project as it unfolds. 

Upcoming interview on Wednesday April 3rd with Michelle Carraway about The Courtesan Prince Play.

As someone who has an incredible love of the theatre and of speculative fiction, I have always been interested in portrayals of the speculative on stage. I was very excited to hear from Lynda Williams that her novel The Courtesan Prince was being converted into a stage performance by Michelle Carraway. It is with great excitement that Michelle  Carraway was willing to do an interview with me and provide me with insights on all of those little elements of theatre that I miss from my years on stage.

Michelle is both writing the theatrical adaptation of The Courtesan Prince as well as directing it, allowing her creative vision that came out of reading Lynda Williams’ work to be shaped on the stage.

Here are a few sneak peaks about our upcoming interview on Wednesday April 3:

Michelle Carraway:  “Courtesan Prince reads like a classic fairy tale and translating it into a play has been a very pleasurable experience. It is a rags to riches story about a noble prince who was stolen away by the machinations of  royal intrigue.  Forced into humiliation, the prince is always noble and his true nature shines forth despite  his situation. Courtesan Prince  is filled with the joy of restoration of position and wrongs being righted.  These are all traits that fit well with format of a play.”

Actors preparing a scene for The Courtesan Prince play (Ann of New Beach and Thomas Revert), Courtesy of Michelle Carraway.

Actors preparing a scene for The Courtesan Prince play (Ann of New Beach and Thomas Revert), Courtesy of Michelle Carraway.

Michelle Carraway: “I was inspired to have other people see the stories in the same light as I was seeing them.”

Michelle Carraway: “The actors and actresses that I have selected so far are all uniformly passionate about their craft and enthusiastic to the telling of a beautiful story.”

Michelle Carraway:The Courtesan Prince  play is much like a creative collective rather than a Broadway play.”

Michelle Carraway:  “As the actors meet each other and start to read together they have found some great chemistry…. As everyone becomes friends their ability to interact with physical comedy and force improves as well and provides flavor and validity to the scenes.”

Michelle Carraway: “As with any production a lot of what will make it all come together is a lot of creativity and hopefully some good luck.”

Michelle Carraway: “Costumes are going to be a group effort.  As many of the styles are a sort of fantasy Restoration era there will be a lot of corsets and fancy dress for women and men both.”

Michelle Carraway: “I think that you could tantalize audiences with nearly all speculative fiction transformed into a live performance.”

This interview was very appropriately timed as I found out about Michelle Carraway’s adaptation of The Courtesan Prince after accidentally stumbling across a radio play that I directed on Trent Radio many years ago when flipping through radio stations. My nostalgia for my theatre years was heightened and I couldn’t believe that I had the opportunity to hear about Ms. Carraway’s process as she adapted and directed this work of Speculative Fiction.

Check out Speculating Canada on Wednesday, April 3 for our full interview and I will make sure to keep you informed of Ms. Carraway’s adaptation as it develops. Hear about her use of special effects, the quirkiness of interactions between actors, and the excitement of adapting a novel for the stage.