An Interview with Ann Leckie
By Chris Large (First Appeared in Aurealis #86)
Ann Leckie has worked as a waitress, a receptionist, a lunch lady and a recording engineer. She also happens to be the author of a little book called Ancillary Justice, which won not only a Hugo, but a Nebula and an Arthur C. Clarke Award as well. In 2014, her second book, Ancillary Sword was met with equal praise. Now, with the release of the third instalment in her Imperial Radch series, Ancillary Mercy, Ann speaks with Chris Large about perspective, the value of a good cup of tea, and most importantly of all, those pesky Presger and why we don’t see more of them.
Hello Ann, and welcome to Aurealis. It’s great to have you here.
Thanks! I'm glad to be here!
As a thought exercise, the lack of gender cues in your Imperial Radch series can be a difficult concept to deal with at first. How have you found reader’s reactions to this device?
I have been really surprised at some reactions, and have come to see it as a kind of Rorschach test. Some people read it as the Radch being somehow femininely oriented, some have read it as a book entirely about women, and some have claimed to know what genders various characters are. I think my favourite was a reviewer who said that they could tell that all the romantic/sexual pairings were heterosexual. I still kind of wonder how they could manage that. But hey, once a book is out there, that interaction between the book and the reader is its own thing, and not something I need to get in the middle of, right?
It's been really, really interesting, though, to see the variety of reactions to the way I handled gender.
I’ll interpret that as in invitation to share. Reading your first book Ancillary Justice hurt my brain a little in the beginning, as I found myself unconsciously searching for indicators of gender and for visual quirks in order to identify various characters. It took me a while to come to terms with the fact that few would be forthcoming. Once I managed to get over it, I think the mystery increased my enjoyment of the book. Is this a common reaction?
I think it is! It's one I've seen a fair amount. And it makes sense--we're so used to assigning gender to people on the instant, and to assuming a certain set of characteristics go with a given gender, that we don't really notice it until it's made obvious. I've found it really interesting how difficult it is for some readers to picture characters without knowing their gender--I don’t describe characters any less than I have in these books than, say, my short fiction, but I never got that complaint about my short fiction. I find that really interesting. Definitely something to think about.
In Ancillary Mercy Breq (who was once a segment of an AI) consciously limits her ability to draw upon the vast amounts of information Mercy of Kalr can provide her, but for much of the previous novels she makes full use of her capacity to examine situations from all angles. It must be difficult to catch every facet Breq might be exposed to. How do you address the issue of perspective as an author?
That very issue paralyzed me for a long time. How to convey that kind of point of view? That would have to be a flood of information, and how could I possibly write that? Eventually I decided that I didn't actually have to do that. No fiction really tells you everything--it just tells you what you need to know to understand the story. So I settled on conveying just what I needed to for the reader to (I hoped) get the effect I was after. But I did still have to work very carefully--I wanted it to be consistent, and believable. I mean, to the extent that a being like Breq is believable to begin with!
Okay, I’m gonna have to ask this question. I love your books, but what is it with tea? Is it just the obvious historical connection with brewed beverage-sipping imperials, or is there more to it than that? Because if I drank even half the amount of tea Breq consumed in a day, I’d spend a heck of a lot of time in the bathroom.
What, don't you like tea?
Well, I’m a coffee drinker myself but I don’t mind the odd cup of camomile at the end of the day.
I'm kidding. Yes, tea does in fact contain compounds that will make you have to pee, more than if you just drank the same amount of water. I've heard it said it's the caffeine, but honestly I think the effect is much stronger with tea than with coffee, and coffee generally has way more caffeine. I'm pretty sure theobromine is a suspect here too.
But I also suspect there's some acclimation involved – that is, if you drink a lot of tea and/or coffee every day the effects aren't so noticeable. Here in the US, some folks drink a pretty spectacular amount of iced tea, particularly in the summer, and seem to do okay. And to be honest, I drink about half the amount of tea Breq consumes in a day! And I do not spend all that much time in the bathroom. Heck, I might drink more, considering I generally use a mug that holds 18 or 20 fluid ounces (US), generally fill it with 14-16 ounces at a go, and often have two or three mugs of tea a day. Partly I drink as much as I do because, yes, I drink iced tea in the summer (on top of that first couple cups of hot tea in the morning). But also, I bought a lot of different kinds of tea during the process of researching for Sword, and if I only had one cup a day the Sun would die of old age before I cut my inventory down to manageable levels.
But I don't think Breq is drinking half-litre mugs of tea. She's drinking bowls of tea--much smaller than my favourite big mug with the squid on it.
There are also some contexts in which consumption of lots of caffeine is just part of how you do things. I remember touring an old (WW2) aircraft carrier and at one point in, I think, Navigation, the tour guide said something like, "Now behind me is the most important part of all of this," and it was, of course, the equipment for making coffee.
The tea in the story doesn't come so much from its connection with Earth Imperialist history as it does from CJ Cherryh's Foreigner books. It began as a deliberate nod to those books, though of course its taken on a life of its own in the context of the Radch.
I honestly didn’t think we’d end up comparing peeing habits in this interview, but I guess since I asked the question, I should be prepared for the answer! So, keeping on-topic, have you thought of marketing a Daughter of Fishes tea brand? It would be fantastic to sip on a hot cup of Fishes while reading the books…
I have thought of it! It would be awesome. But I'm not sure I'd know where to start. And the currently existing equivalent teas are the sorts that already have their own names and histories, and my blanking that out to add my own fictional ones seems weird to me.
There are Ancillary themed teas in existence, though! Adagio teas (http://www.adagio.com) lets you make custom blends from a pre-set list of available ingredients, and then lets you share links to your blends so other people can buy them. There's a long, long list of fan-inspired teas there! And I made some for Imperial Radch, just because once I knew I could, I had to. I think shipping outside the US is pretty expensive, though.
I laughed out loud at Presger Translator Zeiat’s antics in Ancillary Mercy. Not only was Zeiat hilarious at times, she also brought a separate, and novel perspective to the book. Can you tell us a little about your approach to her and to the Presger in general?
Hah, I'm glad you liked Translator Zeiat! I enjoyed writing Dlique so much, and was so sad when I realized she couldn't be onstage long. I consoled myself with the future arrival of Zeiat.
The Presger probably wouldn't retain their mystery or remain convincingly threatening if I brought them onstage, or explained too much about them. So the Presger Translators are intermediaries that let me show the reader aliens while still keeping them sort of human-seeming. And I wanted the Presger Translators to be off-kilter in a way that could be amusing or threatening, depending. Once I'd decided that, I figured I also wanted to have as much fun with them as I could.
Ancillary Mercy answers many questions, but leaves some fairly important issues unresolved. Clearly this is deliberate, but is it deliberate in the “Oh, well, life goes on and not everything has an end,” sense? Or are you leaving a few doors open for later exploration?
In terms of intention, it's meant in a "life goes on" sort of way. It is remarkably convenient, though, no? And this universe is large enough that there's plenty of room for nearly anything I'd like to do in the future, while I still take advantage of all the construction work I've already done.
Now that Ancillary Mercy is out and Breq’s story has been told, is Ann Leckie taking a well-earned rest? Or do you have another project that’s been simmering away in the background to be getting on with?
I'm under contract for two more books. They won't be Breq books--as you've noted, Mercy closes that story out. But they'll certainly be set somewhere in that same universe. Like I said, there's lots of room there to play.
I'm in the planning stages of that next book now, and hopefully I'll start writing it soon. I also hope to be able to do a few short fiction pieces, just because I haven't in a while and short fiction is a lot of fun.