I am very happy to present June 2016 guest for Sci-Fi Women Interviews: Philippa Ballantine. I discovered her writing a few years ago with her Books of the Order series, which is one of my all-time favorite. I also made my mother read them and by now she has read more of Ballantine’s titles than me (one day I’ll catch up!) I am delighted that Ballantine accepted to participate to this monthly feature celebrating women who writes, creates, enjoys Science Fiction.
New Zealand born writer and podcaster Philippa (Pip) Ballantine is the author of the Books of the Order and the Shifted World series. She is also the co-author with her husband Tee Morris of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences novels as well as Social Media for Writers. Her awards include an Airship, a Parsec, the Steampunk Chronicle Reader’s Choice, the RT Reviewer’s Choice Award for steampunk, and a Sir Julius Vogel. She currently resides in Manassas, Virginia with her husband, daughter, and a furry clowder of cats. You can find more about her on her website and the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences one.
NG: How were you first introduced to Science Fiction?
BALLANTINE: My Dad was the first one to show me the beauty of imagined worlds. He read to me when I was about eight years old as a bedtime story, first the Hobbit and then the Lord of the Rings. He is a huge fan of science and fantasy in all its forms, and I was let loose on his collection of books as at an early age. It was undoubtedly one of the greatest gifts I ever been given.
NG: How did you start writing in this genre?
BALLANTINE: I have always been a very fast reader, just like my father, and so when I got to the end of his collection I had no choice but to write my own stories. I started when I was about thirteen, and recently when I connected with old school friends, they recalled me carting around this green hardback journal. I was constantly scribbling in the thing, and the habit has stayed with me for decades.
NG: Which Science Fiction authors have been most inspiring to you?
BALLANTINE: One writer that I was instantly drawn to is CJ Cherryh. I love many things about her writing, but her ability to create mesmerizing characters with strengths and vulnerabilities is something that just hooked me in. I also admire the length and variety of her career. She writes with such diversity, and does so many different things even in the space of one book. I can only hope to emulate that sort of writing career as I move forward in my own.
NG: What do you think of Science Fiction’s versatility and its ties to other genres such as Speculative Fiction and Fantasy?
BALLANTINE: When I first started reading I feel like the delineation between science fiction and fantasy was more clearly defined. As time has gone along, those lines have blurred. Someone like Anne McCaffrey brought dragons and space travel together, and when I read her books, the fact that it was ‘allowed’ was quite eye opening. I write steampunk with my husband, Tee Morris, and that is technically a subgenre of science fiction, however it is also incredibly diverse. You can have steampunk set on distant planets, steampunk chugging through the Wild West, but also steampunk that deals with the occult and magic.
The speculative fiction genre and science fiction are all about flights of the imagination, and the imagination knows no boundaries of genre, which is a box we writers and readers put the creation into afterwards. I see all those varieties of imaginative writing as a continuum, and that’s why I enjoy working in as many different spots on that continuum as possible.
NG: What are some recurring themes and patterns in your Science Fiction stories?
BALLANTINE: Looking back, I think I can find a continuous thread of examination of otherness in my stories. Most of my protagonists are definitely ‘other’ in the communities to they find themselves in. Some of them because they are powerful, and society is wary of them, and sometimes because they themselves are afraid of society.
How they deal with that otherness, how they come to accept who they are and even use it, fascinates me.
Also, I like to look at power, and how people handle it when they get it. The changes it can wreck on people, both good and bad, are fascinating. Even when we are having fun writing steampunk, it doesn’t hurt to delve a little deeper now and then.
NG: What difference is there between any written formats and audio ones such as podcasting, for you as a storyteller?
BALLANTINE: I don’t write audio dramas, which are where there is only dialogue, and action is implied with sound effects and background music. I simply read my stories aloud and record them, however doing so has given me a great grasp about how to write dialog. Often now, even when I am not podcasting, I read what I do aloud.
One day I would like to try writing audiodramas though.
NG: What is Science Fiction’s responsibility in diverse and inclusive representation?
BALLANTINE: I don’t think that science fiction should be limited by the bubble we may find ourselves writing in. Science fiction of all genres should not be confined like that.
We owe it to our readers and ourselves to reflect the wider world. When we talk about diversity, we are completely ignoring the fact that even on our little planet earth white men do not make up the majority. Perhaps they make up the majority of what we think science fiction readers are, but that isn’t the reality.
Our responsibility as far as writers is to show the differences, and explore what they mean. We need to reflect the beauty and complexity of our world in others.
Books that are not diverse do a disservice to the reader and the craft. Limiting writing, hobbling it ignorant perceptions of the world is not what science fiction has ever been about.
NG: Do you think Science Fiction is a genre welcoming to women creators and female characters?
BALLANTINE: Thinking back to my early reading experience with Norton, McCaffrey, Cherryh, it never occurred to me as a writer that it wasn’t a place for women. I think there are still sub-genres of science fiction—particularly the ‘hard’ science fiction—where women are considered less likely to write. However, since there are plenty of women who work in science, I don’t see why that perception continues.
NG: What advice would you have for an aspiring Science Fiction writer?
BALLANTINE: Read. Read a lot. Go back and discover writers from earlier times, not necessarily to copy them, but to understand the foundations of the genre. They may not have done things we enjoy now, but that understanding will make you a better writer working in the present.
It is also gives you great ideas for subverting what has come before. Find our what has already been done and do it differently. That is where the excitement of science fiction lies.
NG: Do you have future Science Fiction projects?
BALLANTINE: At the moment I am working on a galaxy spanning series, with corporations vying for control of planets. Twisted families, intergalactic corporate takeovers, and a messed up religion. The godfather in the outer reaches would be the best way of describing it.
NG: Thank you very much, Philippa! I am sure my readers will be happy to check your books out, if they aren’t already familiar with your writing.