Born and raised in the heart of Silicon Valley, I developed an abiding sense of wonder and a fondness for heroic geeks.
By the age of eleven, I was reading all the science fiction I could lay my hands on at the local library, and, because they were shelved together, I was also reading all the fantasy books. Genre-straddling works by Andre Norton gave me the impression that everything I was reading belonged on one wonderful spectrum of imagination and possibility. Andrew Lang’s colorful fairy books left me with the equally strong impression that Beauty and the Beast (in all its guises) is the yummiest tale ever.
I entered university a chemistry major intending to become an astronaut who would rocket into a brave new future, and I left (or, rather, never left) with a doctoral degree in rhetoric, a dissertation on James G. Frazer’s twelve-volume encyclopedia of magic, science, and religion, and a job teaching writing at the University of California, Berkeley.
And now I write my own science fictional variants of Beauty and the Beast, exploring the romance of the alien, the metaphorical beast in every man, even in the handiest of techno-geeks.
When I’m not writing, teaching, or reading, I’m quilting, doing Crossfit, or playing boardgames. Or I’m sitting on the couch, eating almond M&Ms and daydreaming about life amongst the stars.
More About Beneath the Skin
Beneath the Skin is a romance, of course, and love is at the center. But the novel also explores identity — directly, in Riven’s ability to shapechange into people, and indirectly, in Aleta’s struggle to decide who she is once she is no longer drugged. And as I wrote it, it became an unexpected meditation on how to deal with cataclysmic problems in my own life: run away and protect myself? shelter in place? actively resist?
At the very beginning of the writing process, while I was contemplating the tangled intersections of power and family and identity and love, one image came strongly to mind: Marlon Brando in the opening scene of Godfather, when Bonasera comes to Vita Corleone during Connie’s wedding to ask for justice for his daughter. I pay conscious tribute to that image during the first chapter of Beneath the Skin.
Beneath the Skin is the second in a series of books set on Faraway, the shapeshifters’ home planet. The first book tells the story of how Verilyn Beau Astra (who appears in Beneath the Skin as a sympathetic character) crash-landed on Faraway, met her husband, and came to protect the shapeshifters’ secret existence. The third book, which is still in progress, tells the story of Verilyn’s daughter, Cera Felice (another minor character in BTS), who falls in love with a most difficult object of affection.
If you are interested, click here to read the first two chapters of Beneath the Skin.
Interview Q&A in January 2017
- When did you first know that you wanted to be a writer?
I didn’t know that I wanted to be a writer. I just was. Some of my earliest, most vivid memories are of telling myself stories: arranging plastic horses in thundering herds across the couch and describing to myself over and over in excruciating detail a dress that I imagined a princess wearing. I made stuff up willy nilly, or if I really loved something I’d read or seen on TV, I’d revise the story in my head, changing the ending or inserting myself into it as one of the characters or as an entirely new character I made up. A teacher in third grade encouraged us to write creative stories, which I embellished with crayon drawings, and when I was in fifth grade my father gave me a manual typewriter, which I pounded gleefully, churning out “newspapers” and “spy manuals” for friends. By high school, I was writing full-on stories and parts of novels. A teacher told me then that I’d grow up to be a writer; I told him no, I was going to be an astronaut.
At university I didn’t have time to write fiction—too many academic papers to write. But I kept reading science fiction and fantasy; every school break, I’d hit The Other Change of Hobbit (the local speculative fiction store) for a hefty stack of novels to inhale. And the first thing I did after I got my undergraduate degree was clear out the academic muck in my brain by writing an admittedly bizarre science fiction novel about aliens that look like people-sized rats. And then I kept on writing fiction. My short stories tend to be fantasy or magical realism, inspired by a dream or an image or a writing exercise. My novels tend to be science fiction, often with a strong romantic component (inspired by binge-reading romance novels, whose pleasures I discovered shortly after writing the alien rat novel).
Writing fiction simply felt good. It felt right. It felt as if writing was what I was meant to do. Not to put money on the table, but to feel … whole. So I joined a science fiction and fantasy writers group that I connected with at a local science fiction and fantasy convention, attended Romance Writers of America meetings, and soaked up everything I could to be a better writer.
- As well as being a science fiction novel, Beneath the Skin is also a romance, but it is darker in many ways than a traditional romance and the hero is not quite like the traditional romance hero. Why did you choose to write it that way?
I am fond of unconventional heroes, but I didn’t set out consciously to make Riven unconventional or to write a dystopian romance. The universe in which Beneath the Skin takes place is one in which I’ve set several other novels, including a young adult space opera. That universe grew in my mind organically over the decades, morphing and changing with my interests, but its roots lie in concerns about the environment that I developed during a decade as a Girl Scout and concerns about social injustice that were sown in my years at UC Berkeley. Beneath the Skin is actually the second in a trilogy about the Faraway shapeshifters, so Riven’s backstory is shaped in part by the events of that first novel.
- The setting is a far future civilization where countless planets are controlled by ten ruthless families. If you substitute corporations for families and planets for nations do you see us headed in that direction now?
I wish I could say no. But I think many people nowadays feel increasingly powerless at the same time that power and wealth is consolidating in the hands of the increasingly few.
Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe it’s always been this way; maybe we’re not headed toward that future but are already there. People look to science fiction for predictions, but much of the best science fiction says important things about today.
In any case, I’ll answer with hope. If science fiction shows us horrors to come (or horrors already here) as well as ways to avoid those horrors, maybe we will change things for the better.
- You began writing Beneath the Skin several years ago, but some of the themes, particularly those about the environment, are even more relevant today. Where do you think we will be in that regard in fifty years? A hundred?
I’m not qualified to specify a timeline here. All I know is that we can’t foul our own nest endlessly. If we don’t adjust our attitudes and behavior on a global scale or come up with technological fixes that I’m not capable of imagining at the moment, we may be doomed.
- What is it that appeals to you about the science fiction genre?
Hope. That humanity will survive, expand, explore, learn, love—that we will evolve and will continue the great journey of life beyond the bounds of this Earth.
- What draws you to romance?
Hope. That love will conquer pain, death, isolation, the small and great indignities of life—that it will elevate us beyond selfish solitude.
- Which science fiction books and authors have influenced you?
When I was nine years old, I read the Scholastic Book Service edition of Alexander Key’s The Forgotten Door, and it impressed me deeply. When I reread it recently, I was surprised to find that it’s full of ethical themes that must have been stamped into my brain, because they show up in my own novels: in particular, the importance of resisting malicious authorities who oppress the little guy.
Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Restoree was the first romantic science fiction novel I read, way back in high school, well before I read any books marketed as romance. I was absolutely thrilled by the heroine being swept mysteriously away from Earth to wake up as a nurse to an apparent idiot who turns out to be the unwillingly drugged former planetary regent, whom she rescues and to whom she unwittingly becomes married. Hmm—writing it out like this, I can see the influence that her novel had on Beneath the Skin!
Over the years I’ve enjoyed romantic science fiction series, such as Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series, Steve Miller and Sharon Lee’s Liaden series, Catherine Asaro’s Saga of the Skolian Empire, and S.L. Viehl’s early Stardoc novels. The romance of the alien is strong in all of these, the characters learning to love despite deep differences and historical conflicts.
And then there’s Ursula K. Le Guin. I aspire unsuccessfully to write as beautifully as she does, with as much insight into the alien as she displays in The Left Hand of Darkness.
Many many many many others have influenced me, in many many ways, but that’s enough to mention.
- Which romance books and authors have influenced you?
I love Laura Kinsale’s historical romances. Her heroes often have a secret medical or psychological malady that makes them less perfect than the usual Alpha Male, which pushes all the right buttons for me.
I also enjoy older books by Georgette Heyer. Although I get a happy jolt from modern romances with fully fleshed sex scenes, I appreciate the mannered interplay in Heyer’s novels, boiling emotions expressed in the smallest of signs: the touch of a gloved hand, a sigh, a glance. Beneath the Skin pays tribute to this, insofar as the sex scenes are “sweet” rather than “spicy”.
A whole slew of paranormal romances (including J.D. Robb’s Dallas series) encouraged me to believe that there were readers like me who enjoy genre-crossing.
- Have you read anything lately that you are excited about?
I finished reading an oldie but goodie the other day: Clifford Simak’s Way Station. No romance in that one, but plenty of aliens imaginatively drawn and the intriguing question of how far to go in order to ensure peace. And I’m catching up on Connie Willis’s novelettes; I’m a long-time fan of her novels, and now I’m having a blast reading these shorter works. Her All About Emily novelette turns the All About Eve film plot on its ear in a refreshing “women work together” way.
- The setting for Beneath the Skin offers such broad possibilities, and there are characters – including a whole planet of shapechangers! — who undoubtedly have interesting pasts or futures still to be told. Will this be the first book in a series?
It’s definitely part of a series. The first book in the series is set on Faraway, the shapeshifters’ home planet, and tells the story of how Verilyn Beau Astra (who appears in Beneath the Skin as a sympathetic character) crash-landed on Faraway, met her husband, and came to protect the shapeshifters’ secret existence. The third book, which is still in progress, tells the story of Verilyn’s daughter, Cera Felice (another minor character in BTS), who falls in love with a most difficult object of affection. (My editor advises me not to say this, but what the heck: when Cera Felice meets him, he’s a rock. Yes: granite, quartz, that sort of thing. Hard-headed. Metaphor much?)