An interview with Sally McBride, author of Indigo Time

We recently sat down virtually with Sally McBride, author of the newly released speculative fiction novel, Indigo Time, and discussed her muse, her work ethic, her views on publishing and process. We think you’ll enjoy this frank, unpretentious author.

Sally McBride

Q: There is a depth of environment, cultural construct and history to Indigo Time. Tell us about that genesis and growth, please. Was it epiphany, or the result of much thought and careful building?

McBride: Thank you! I would have liked to stuff a whole lot more cultural, geographic and historical detail into the book…but it would have run quite a few more pages! I pictured the world of Strand (called that by those unwillingly stranded there) as similar to Earth in many ways, but with slightly lower gravity, perhaps due to a different, lighter core composition. Thus the mountains are higher and steeper, environmental changes more sudden, etc. (Since I have little scientific training and a deplorable lack of focus, the world does not have rigorously researched veracity. My bad.)

The society that grows there over time stems from its start in a resentful, spoiled and panicky group of nobles and their servants. Basically I dumped them there and let them do their thing for 300 years, at which point my story starts. I did a few calculations to see just how quickly the population would grow…turns out quite fast, if you picture humans taking a look at a big empty world with no one telling them not to go forth and multiply, plus a pent-up desire for freedom. Since my ‘galactic empire’ is advanced, though rather decadent, I made my people free of most handicaps and relatively immune to illness.

As a matter of fact, I spent very little time thinking about world-building. The world is just a backdrop for the characters and their interlocking stories. I wanted it to be beautiful, accessible and just a wee bit harsh, but nothing that would make the story be about the world and not the people in it.

Q: To categorize Indigo Time might prove problematic for those who prefer clear labels. Does that bother you – that you’re writing hybrid stories? Or is that never a consideration and you simply write what you wish?

McBride: It does sort of bother me. Indigo Time is technically science fiction (space-faring empire, genetic engineering) but reads more like fantasy (primitive ‘medieval-style’ civilization, psychic powers). Or it might be Young Adult. So where does it go on the shelf? If a reader is looking for sci-fi they might pass it up thinking it’s fantasy, and vice-versa. Indigo Time started years ago as a short story about lovers torn apart, but morphed into a coming-of-age tale alongside a coming-to-love story. With an evil old woman stirring the pot. Several generations each have their own jobs to do in the novel. I tend to hope that readers will mentally place it alongside some of Anne McCaffrey’s Pern novels, which I think have a similar flavour.

I’m not quite sure what to do about my tendency to write hybrids. Or if I should do anything at all. Since I’m in a happy position of not having to try to make a living at writing, I can just do as I want. Lucky me!

Of course there are lots of folks who love the whole spectrum of speculative fiction…hopefully they will take a look.

Q: Do you think there’s a caveat in being branded by way of genre, or not?

McBride: Depends on how wide and inclusive the genre is. Speculative fiction covers a lot of ground. Saying “I write steampunk,” or, “I write dystopian hard sf,” implying that’s all you are interested in, that’s restrictive. I hate to think the bookshelves will become more and more Balkanized and readers will head only to their little section to seek out more of the same. However, if you’re trying to establish a reputation and hopefully get on with an agent, or noticed by a large publishing house, it’s undoubtedly much better to find your niche and develop it. Branding is very big in Romance writing, for instance. People buy an author, not a book. If I like a writer’s style and the stories they tell, I’ll seek out more by that person, and I admit I might cast a suspicious eye on something outside of the genre I’ve grown accustomed to seeing them write.

Dana Stabenow

For instance, one of my favourite writers is Dana Stabenow, who writes terrific mysteries set in Alaska. She has also written a few science fiction novels, but I’m leery of trying them. Why? Do I not trust her talents to encompass more than one genre? I’m accustomed to hearing her tell a certain kind of story. I like it, and don’t fancy having to become all judgmental about whether she can also do sf. For it’s true—people judge. A certain well-known and very accomplished literary writer tried her hand at science fiction and was criticized for sashaying into territory where she wasn’t quite welcome. It was perceived that she hadn’t paid her dues in the sf world. Perhaps she was indeed an interloper, or perhaps she simply didn’t care and chose to write whatever she damned well pleased. At a certain level, a well-beloved or admired author can do anything he or she wants and it will get serious attention. But when you’re just starting out, or are stuck in the mid-list? Better probably to make the decision: am I in this for love or money?

Q: I think all of us are asked this at some point, about our writing process, about where we write, the environment we create for ourselves, the rituals, beverages, twitches, avoidances, compulsions. What are yours?

McBride: I’m lucky enough to have ‘a room of my own’ where I can retreat and focus. Or try to focus…. Hmm, doesn’t that bathroom need a good cleaning? And I think I need milk and eggs…. Is that my cat wanting in/out? Etc. It can take me a while to settle down and stop finding new avoidance techniques. Sometimes I get in the zone and the words come easily, sometimes not so much. I don’t listen to music while I write, though I know a lot of people who need certain kinds of noise in the background, including coffee-shop chatter, TV in background, that sort of thing.

At one time I had a particularly boring day job, and I got a lot of writing done then. But mostly it was at home in the evenings, and the pressure of having to go to work in the morning made writing time more precious. Now I think of myself as ‘retired’ and it can be hard to force myself into a productive routine. I do the physical stuff, housework, errands, gym and so on in the mornings, then write in the afternoons and late evenings.

I used to start my stories in longhand, then transcribe them to typewriter (yep, quite a while ago…) but now I just jump right in on my PC. I’ve taken a look at software for writers but find it’s just not for me. I jot notes on paper, or in a computer file. When I start a story or novel it’s usually with just a compelling (to me) opening scene or glimpse or even a phrase. I’ll write a few paragraphs to see if the idea starts to expand in my head. If it does, and seems to have potential to grow into a novel-length work, I start to generate scenes that I know I’d like to put into the novel. They can be from anywhere in the story. I generate them as fast and loosely as I can, toss them in no particular order into a ‘scenes’ file, and check them off when they’ve served their purpose. Which is: they work in the book or they don’t. If they don’t I chuck them. You have to be quite ruthless.

Q: Why choose to go with a small publisher like Five Rivers? Why not target larger houses?

McBride: As I tell up-and-coming writers, it doesn’t hurt to take a shot at the big-name publishing houses, bearing in mind that they get more submissions than they can possibly handle. What’s the harm in taking a run at a major player? Just be sure your work is really ready to be seen.

But unless you have great luck, or some kind of in, your manuscript will probably languish in the slush pile for a dismayingly long time. A new, unknown writer is likely to get lost in the crowd, and if taken on, might get shunted to one side in favour of more established names. At a smaller publisher, you stand a good chance of real attention from an editor, plus genuine knowledge and interest in the marketplace. That’s what I have found with Five Rivers. Indigo Time became a better book because of the relentless hounding…er, I mean the brilliant suggestions of my editor Robert Runté.

Q: Tell us something about how it is Sally McBride came to the literary muse.

McBride: I love to read. I discovered science fiction as a young mother and tried writing it after my own mom (a poet) said she thought I had a facility with words. I’m sad to report that my first effort was a shameless bit of Star Trek fan fiction, which shall remain in the bottom drawer forever.

I got more serious about techniques of writing, and eventually produced a few short stories. My first sale was to the amazing Judith Merril, for her Tesseracts anthology. I was delighted to be in the company of such folks as William Gibson, Phyllis Gotlieb, and Spider Robinson, and I floated above the Earth for a while. I’ve sold almost every short story I’ve written, to magazines and anthologies such as Asimov’s, Realms of Fantasy, Northern Frights, On Spec, Matrix and lots more. My paranormal romance novel Remnants of Fear came out from The Wild Rose Press a while ago, but it sank with barely a trace. Another paranormal, Water, Circle, Moon has recently been released by Masque Books. I’m concentrating on novels these days, as short fiction ideas are quite different and don’t seem to be popping up the way they used to.

Q: Over the past year or so there has been much in publishing trade magazines about women being under-represented, and unrecognized especially when it comes to literary awards. What are your thoughts on that debate?

McBride: It’s something I really haven’t thought about. It seems to be a constant and recurring issue over the years; I do believe that some of the very best sf/f/h writing has been done, and is still being done, by women. And the men, bless their hearts, seem to be pretty damn good too. There may be an ‘old boys’ network’ that skews awards towards the men, but I don’t know enough about this to comment on it.

Q: Do you consciously write as a woman, or is gender a non-issue for you?

McBride: Gender is pretty much a non-issue. I like writing in the female and the male voice, also the young and the old, the alien and the human. My gender is always there, of course, along with its attendant baggage, but I do like writing male characters. I know lots of men, like most of them and can see where they are coming from most of the time. I feel that I can, and should, tell a story using whatever gender of character best fits the necessities of the plot.

Q: Where from here? Is there another novel on the desk? Short stories? Screenplay?

McBride: I’m always working on multiple projects. I have a fantasy novel (The Nightingale’s Tooth) on the go that I just love, about a young woman in training to be resura – resurrected into a realm of magic she must learn to control. Another is a science fiction novel about shape-shifter children who have been insidiously enslaved to those who love them most, and who must find the will to rebel. I’m hoping to have both these novels done in first draft by early next year.

And did you mention screenplay? Since you ask…. I had one of those high-concept ideas for a TV show that involves the supernatural, plus a woman in search of the truth about her mother’s supposed death. Sounds kind of trite when I put it that way, but it’s fun to think about, and amass a series of scenes, characters, and possible ways the story could go. I’m also writing another paranormal, set in Hawaii, about three generations of women who discover things about themselves that they really don’t like.

Q: What advice would you give to an aspiring author?

McBride: My biggest advice is to read. A lot. Everything you can get your hands on. Try not to get too attached to one genre; branch out into non-fiction, literary, YA, whatever looks interesting to you. I have a suspicion that creative writing courses aren’t worth the time and money, but that’s just my experience.

If you really think you’d like to try your hand at writing, you will have to put down that book you’re reading, take a deep breath, sit down at the computer (or the kitchen table with a pad of paper, or whatever works for you) and start in. Write a sentence. Write more sentences. Delete stuff that seems to be going nowhere. Look at things sideways. Ask “What if?” Put your hero or heroine into a dreadful situation and work with them to get out of it. Trust your subconscious mind to be there for you. Sleep on stuff. Try to remember your dreams. Be ready and open to catch that inspired thought, that plot twist, that lovely turn of phrase. Get it down or it will get lost in the noise of everyday life. Finish something, even if it’s just a short scene. Remember that a story has a beginning, a middle and an end, and sometimes the end is hard to find.

If you keep writing, you will get better at it. If you get good enough and can find the nerve to submit your work to an honest-to-god publisher or agent, you will most likely see your name in print someday. And you will float above the surface of the Earth.

Indigo Time is available through online booksellers worldwide in both print and eBook, and directly from Five Rivers.

ISBN 9781927400319 $24.99
eISBN 9781927400326 $4.99
by Sally McBride
Trade paperback 6 x 9, 302 pages
ePUB format
August 1, 2013