Illustration by Jan Alice Keeling
M.M. Buckner is winner of the Phillip K. Dick Award and author of five critically acclaimed novels: Hyperthought, Neurolink/The Coin Giver, War Surf, Watermind and The Gravity Pilot, as well as a ghost-written fantasy best-seller and five nonfiction books. Her work has been published in five languages and has earned numerous accolades. Buckner holds a Master’s in Creative Writing from Boston University.
Buckner is co-founder and senior editor of TurnStyle Writers, an editing, coaching and workshop service for writers. As marketing vice president for a nationwide financial firm, she earned numerous professional writing awards. Other publishing credits include short stories, poetry, magazine features, blogs and other online content. She is currently a freelance writer, environmental activist, and whitewater kayaker.
Conversations with the Author
Interview Excerpt by Paige Crutcher, Examiner
PG: What, in your opinion, are the most important elements of good writing?
MMB: Wow, that question requires several book-length answers, so what I say will be very incomplete. Still, here goes…At the most basic level, a story should entertain the reader. But if that’s all it does, it will be quickly forgotten. A good story gives the reader something that lasts, an insight, a new perspective, or a difficult question that provokes thought. The very best stories help us explore the meaning of our existence. The most important – and most difficult – element of good writing, I think, is honesty. Writing is an exploration, and to do it well, we have to examine not only the sunny heights but also the dark scary places. We have to linger in the anguishing moments and feel them all over again in order to share the experience with pinpoint accuracy, whether we’re writing a fictional scene or a personal memoir. This is hard, but when it’s done well, the reader feels the truth, and it’s beautiful.
PG: Are your characters real to you?
MMB: Yes, absolutely. My challenge is always to convey on the page what I feel in my heart about the people in my stories. Like all serious writers, I am constantly working to improve my skills, and the craft of characterization is what I work on most.
PG: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
MMB: Writers and readers unite in a shared search for a message. I don’t have any answers. All I can do is raise questions and turn them over and over in different shafts of light. Readers bring as much to the page as writers do, and in the end, we all find our own messages where we can.
PG: Will you share a little about THE GRAVITY PILOT and how the story came to you?
MMB: THE GRAVITY PILOT is a futuristic retelling of the Greek myth of Orpheus and Eurydice. In the myth, Orpheus is a poet/musician, while my character is a skydiver who writes his verses through the clouds with the movement of his body. This story was inspired by my husband, a gifted athlete who has made over 1,200 skydives. In the myth, Orpheus has to enter the underworld to search for his lover, Eurydice, who has died. In my story, the skydiver has to enter the closed airless world of Internet gaming, where his lover has become addicted to computer thrills. The story occurs about 50 years in the future, so I had fun speculating about how the world will change.
PG: What types of research did you conduct for the novel?
MMB: During the research, I made a skydive myself, and it was unforgettable. I also talked to numerous experts and read extensively about skydiving in the upper atmosphere, as well as Internet gaming. I researched cutting-edge technology and the latest theories of climate change in order to speculate about what the world will be like in 50 years. One interesting note, in my first draft, I wrote about the market crash a year before it occurred. Wish I’d believed my own prediction!
PG: How do you develop your plots and characters? Do you use any set formula – are you a pantser or a plotter?
MMB: My process is very organic. I do plan. I draw maps and write notes and make outlines. Then I constantly change them as new ideas develop. Each story evolves in a way I can never predict. I just try to remain open all the way through. Sometimes, the very best ideas come to me after I think the work is finished.
PG: Do you hear from your readers much? What kinds of things do they say?
MMB: Yes, thankfully, I hear from readers who like my work. They ask me questions like the ones you’re asking, and I’m always happy to respond and connect. Sometimes, they alert me when my work gets a good review. For instance, one reader let me know when my novel, WATERMIND, made the Barnes and Noble Top 10 for science fiction last year. I might not have known otherwise. I’m really grateful for that.
SciFi Wire Interview Excerpt
SFW: Please talk about the genesis of WATERMIND.
MMB: For many years, I’ve worked with environmental organizations to help protect watersheds, wetlands, aquifers, rivers and streams, lakes, and oceans. I’m a scuba diver as well as a certified instructor of both whitewater and sea kayaking. Any water activity, I love it. Naturally, with such an interest, I was drawn to the idea of a water-based science story. When I began to read about the Mississippi River – the size of its drainage area, the tonnage of pollution it carries, and the complex manmade structures built to control its flow, well, that inspired me.
Then when I discovered Devil’s Swamp with its long history of toxic dumping, murdered bodies, birth defects, ghosts – you can see, that place is a writer’s dream. Next, I found the Bonnet Carré Spillway, the beautiful green strip of parkland used about once every decade to shunt Mississippi floods through Lake Pontchartrain and out to the open Gulf, into a polluted dead zone the size of New Jersey. After that, the story just sort of wrote itself.
SFW: Did the writing of this book present you with any significant challenges?
MMB: I like to give myself writing challenges. From a craft standpoint, I wanted to experiment with omniscient point of view. You’ll see right away in Chapter One, the POV alternates from one character to the other. That’s something writing teachers tell you not to try, so of course, I had to do it. I worked hard to make it smooth, and I learned a lot. Of course, there’s always more to learn about writing.
Also, this book has a fairly large cast of characters, each with different skill sets. I have scientists, regulatory agents, news reporters, musicians, hazardous cleanup workers, corporate executives and many others. Dealing with that diverse cast was quite a challenge, and again, I learned a lot from the experience.
Another challenge was my choice to set WATERMIND in the present. My previous three novels were set in the future. A present-day setting requires factual descriptions of real places, knowledge of government agencies, shipping channels, river vessels, and a decent grounding in available technology. The research was much more involved and detailed.
SFW: Most authors say all their stories are personal. If that’s true for you, in what way was this story personal to you?
MMB: My belief is that all lifeforms have a purpose. In us humans, it takes the form of an irresistible drive, something we might call passion. My passions are to learn, to create and to feel. So I give these passions to my characters – then I see what happens. Of course, my characters are very different from me. Their backgrounds and personal traits are all fictional. They come alive in the process of writing. I’m constantly surprised by what they decide to do. They teach me.
Also, I feel a reference for what we call “the environment.” But it’s not something far away in the wilderness. It’s everything. Every speck of matter in the universe – from dark energy to the bacteria living under your tongue. I grieve at how we humans are altering our world, making it more ugly, less wholesome. But I know we are a force of nature, too. We do not stand outside. We’re just doing what comes naturally. Writing WATERMIND was a way for me to explore ideas about man’s relationship to nature. I’m sure that exploration is not yet finished.
SFW: What kind of research did you have to do for the book?
MMB: Researching this book was a joy, but it did take quite a while. First, I read many books and articles. Then I traveled through the area, talked to locals, walked over all the main sites and took photos. I couldn’t enter Devil’s Swamp though – I had to use a fly-over web site to see it from above. It’s a real place, you’ll find it on the map. But it’s a toxic EPA Superfund site with a long notorious history. Most of what you read about Devil’s Swamp in my novel is literally true. The Bonnet Carré Spillway is also real, but it’s a beautiful park. The ranger, Skip Jacobs, was immensely helpful. He showed me a video of the last time the Spillway was opened to divert Mississippi floodwaters, and those images inspired the climax scenes in my novel. I also read Creole cookbooks and dictionaries, and I listened to quite a bit of zydeco music. As I said, the research was a true pleasure.
SFW: Tell me a bit about the technology and science and/or worldbuilding used in the novel.
MMB: The world of WATERMIND is a real place, so all I had to do was discover it. Southern Louisiana is beautiful, a rich savory melting pot. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the place and some of the people, then describing them in my pages.
The science in WATERMIND is especially fascinating because it’s real. Advances in chemical engineering, genetic modification and micro/nano-technology are changing our world faster than most people realize. Add to that our uncontrolled pollution – and kaboom!
The novel also involves aquatic biology, electromagnetic radiation, meteorology, and musicology – not to mention Creole cooking. It was total fun to write. I’m not a professional scientist, so my novel is not meant as a factual treatise. I do hope it may inspire some readers to go out and learn more.
Interview Excerpt by Jason Sizemore, Apex Digest
JS: How do you describe WATERMIND to potential readers?
MMB: My research for this novel revealed that every day, the Mississippi carries up to 400,000 tons of rubbish from forty-one US states and three Canadian provinces. All of North America’s most advanced technology flows into the river – microchips, nano-devices, pharmaceuticals, genetically modified seed. WATERMIND is set in the present-day Louisiana Delta, where a radically new primordial soup gives birth to an elusive entity. Drifting in the water, the WATERMIND is more alien than anything that might come from outer space – because it springs from our own waste-stream.
JS: Norman Spinrad in his enthusiastic review of WATERMIND in Asimov’s states “…WATERMIND is also a sort of sub-species of the Southern Regional novel, a novel of place, in which the region of Louisiana through which the Mississippi wanders from Baton Rouge to New Orleans is a major character too-the landscape, the flora and fauna, the local deni-zens, the music, the food, the patois.” Are you from the Baton Rouge/New Orleans area? Or are we witnesses to the vivid imagination of a SF writer researcher?
MMB: I am not a Louisiana native, but I have explored Baton Rouge, New Orleans and the region between. I’ve climbed on the levees and visited all the major flood control structures, including the Bonnet Carré Spillway where the novel’s climax occurs. Regional cooking delights me, so it was fun to include local recipes. Needless to say, I also listened to a lot of zydeco music while writing WATERMIND. Of course, I’ve never explored a toxic dumping ground like the one described in the novel, but “Devil’s Swamp” is a real place. The description in the book is accurate. It really is an EPA Superfund Priority Site. I drove all around Devil’s Swamp but couldn’t get inside because of the high fences. So I resorted to Google Earth and other web sites that gave me a virtual fly-over tour via satellite camera. Isn’t technology miraculous?
JS: I can’t say I’d ever read a SF novel where zydeco music plays a key role in the plot of the book. What inspired this?
MMB: You’ve probably noticed that the theme of WATERMIND is about mixing things up to make something new. The WATERMIND neural network comes from a mixture of pollution and computer parts. Many other elements of the novel echo that idea – Zydeco, the Creole people, language and culture, the Voudon religion, the recipes, even the weather. The three main characters are also mixed up. Max is a man of mixed race. Roman has mixed motivations. CJ Reilly is a mix of her troubled parents, but in the end, she’s not like either of them. She’s someone new.
Interview Excerpt by Leslie L. Smith, ElectricSpec
LS: Your books have been called eco-thrillers, and ecology seems important to
you. How did you get into it?
MMB: Eco-fiction is a natural for me because of my work in environmentalism. WATERMIND is actually my first novel in the eco-thriller vein, though I don’t think it follows the typical thriller formula. I’ve tried very hard to develop engaging characters. All my novels are character-driven. I do enjoy a good adventure ride though, and I hope this book provides excitement for readers. There’s plenty of suspense and action.
LS: Your work has also been called post-cyberpunk. What is “post-cyberpunk”?
MMB: My first three novels were labeled post-cyberpunk. HYPERTHOUGHT, NEUROLINK, and WAR SURF are set in a dystopian near-future earth which is characteristic of cyberpunk. There’s a lot of debate about what the “post” prefix actually means. I do relish the works of William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling, and they have clearly influenced me. However, my work offers a more hopeful view of the future, and I tend to focus more on climate change as a driver of progress.
LS: Your Greenhouse Earth Series terminology for the workers, protes, reminds me of Orwell’s proles in 1984. There are also similarities with your coms and Orwell’s totalitarian super-states. Were you influenced by Orwell?
MMB: I guess everybody has been influenced by Orwell’s seminal works. I read them in highschool and loved them. I hope to read them again before long. My coms are multinational corporations, not super-states. Regarding corporations and conglomerates, many futurist writers include these in their stories, for good reason. Just look around at our caving economy, where inept CEOs walk away with $millions while workers lose their homes. This is not Sci Fi. This is the nightly news.
LS: In all three of your Greenhouse Earth novels, the main male character becomes trapped in a structure (underground lab, underwater settlement, orbiting spaceship), is transformed literally or figuratively, and then reborn into the world. What about this plot particularly appeals to you?
MMB: Yes, the womb-grave theme obsesses me – although it doesn’t appear WATERMIND, which is basically a journey-by-water story. Of course, many classics have been written about the transformational womb-grave. Edgar Allan Poe was haunted by it. In grad school, I read his novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym, and it continues to inspire me. I highly recommend it. Other stories along this line include Jonah and the Whale, The Count of Monte Cristo, and my all-time favorite, Milton’s Paradise Lost. Joseph Campbell has written extensively about tomb-womb mythology. I see this theme as an expression of the endless cycle of life – the death and rebirth of the universe itself.
LS: In WAR SURF some members of the exec class actually surf wars–go to battle zones and sightsee. How did you come up with this idea? Is it an extrapolation of reality television and ‘real video’ on the internet?
MMB: WAR SURF definitely fits with reality TV and video. Actually, I got the idea from an article in the New York Times. A reporter was describing how weird he felt covering the war in Bosnia. He described spending an afternoon with freedom fighters, ducking bullets behind a riddled wall with dead bodies lying all around. Later that same day, the reporter flew to Paris to have dinner with friends in a nice restaurant. I don’t know if he called it “mental whiplash,” but that’s the sense I got. That story was the germ of my idea for WAR SURF.
LS: You have won a number of awards, including the 2006 Phillip K. Dick Award for WAR SURF. How do you do it?
MMB: I feel very honored and grateful to have received those awards – also very lucky. This year, I’m serving on the jury for the 2008 Phillip K. Dick Award, and there are so many excellent novels coming out, it’s tough duty to choose the best.
Interview Excerpt by Byron Merritt, SFFWORLD
Mrs. Buckner–like Connie Willis (author of To Say Nothing of the Dog)–has broken the mold when it comes to what most readers think of when they envision a science fiction writer. Many see the geeky-looking computer nerd (always male) plunking away at a keyboard while imagining visits to distant galaxies. But M.M. Buckner isn’t a man, nor is she imagining other galaxies. Her works center on Earth and its inhabitants in the near future, the focus always on the characters, the science aspect there but subtle. And her stories are excellently laid out.
SFFW: Why science fiction?
MMB: Science fiction has no rules. It’s the most imaginative category of fiction because it arises from both the intellectual discipline of science and the artistic urge for storytelling. What will tomorrow hold? That’s the question we all ask. We do our best to analyze and speculate, but ultimately, the hopes and fears we feel about the future are rooted in our collective dreams.
SFFW: How do you write a novel?
MMB: For me, each novel begins with a small germ of an idea. It grows through daydreaming, research, talking with friends and experts, listening to the news. I work steadily, hours every day, and I try to be as methodical as possible, doing outlines, drawing story maps, etc., but ultimately, the process is messy and unplanned. The best ideas pop up unexpectedly. I love that.
SFFW: You cover a lot of moral issues in WAR SURF, for instance the efficacy/futility of immortality, the negative and positive aspects of medical-biological alterations to humans, the need for change in economy/governments even if that change means destruction, etc. Do you feel it is the job of writers today to put these issues to readers, or is this just simply for entertainment?
MMB: Okay, it’s very hard to talk about this because for me writing is more emotional than intellectual. I guess my job as a writer is to make a story that will move a reader on an emotional level. Simple entertainment is a good thing, and every story must succeed on that level. But the very best stories take us farther, move us more deeply–and stay with us longer. That’s a huge challenge, but that’s what I want to do.
SFFW: WAR SURF takes a dark look at the future of corporate greed. Do you feel we’re seeing a lot of this in our present day world and is that why you wrote about it?”
MMB: Greed is intrinsic to human experience. Today’s corporate criminals didn’t invent it, they’re simply carrying on a time-honored tradition. Greed is a good subject to write about because we all carry this dirty little secret of our own personal greed. That’s why we love to read about outlaws. But greed forms a triad with two other emotions: vengeance and compassion. If we’re the victims, we feel a raging desire for vengeance, which we call justice. If we see others being victimized, we’re moved by compassion– “suffering together.” These are great big emotions, a complicated triad that’s churning inside each one of us. That’s the kind of tension writers love to explore.
SFFW: Many science fiction writers travel to the stars in their stories…but you don’t. Your novels focus on what I like to call “the human factor,” and you keep them on Earth. Do you enjoy this aspect of your style/writing? Why not go “outside” Earth?
MMB: One impulse for writing science fiction is to explore how present conditions might play out in the future. This is a subject I care about because we’re moving into the future faster than ever before. If we can think ahead, maybe we can make better decisions. For the next two or three hundred years, most humans will continue to live in and around Earth, so that’s what I write about. Also, I personally feel a kind of reverence for the Earth. A lot of what I think and write emerges from that spiritual bond.
Interview Excerpt by Knaur
K: When and how did you first notice that you had a talent for writing?
MMB: At the age of nine, I began my first novel, about a little orphan girl living in the American wilderness. I frittered away my school years composing poetry and short stories, and my dream was to grow up and be a writer. Well, I never did grow up, but the other half of my dream has come true. I’ve spent my career as a working writer.
K: How do you come up with ideas for your novels?
MMB: We all share certain archetypal myths that help us make sense of our lives, and these themes inspire my fiction. Current events give me specific story ideas. While the conflicts and troubled economies around the world make me pessimistic at times, the astonishing pace of scientific advance gives me tremendous hope. I believe our species is capable of greatness. My novel ideas come from long years of environmental activism to protect earth, ocean, rivers and streams. Earth is the Water Planet. Life evolved from water. Our bodies are mostly water, and everything we produce ends up in the water. So you might say the idea for WATERMIND evolved naturally.
K: Do you write to entertain … to warn … to push the genre of speculative fiction into a new direction … or to do all of that?
MMB: I believe the foremost requirement of fiction is to entertain, so I do my best to write thrilling adventures. Good fiction goes farther. It explores the human experience and seeks understanding. I try to do that, too. Bad fiction gives answers. I have no answers. Of course, my opinions and judgments influence what I write, but my novels are not meant as environmental propaganda. My hope is that each work satisfies the reader as a creative story. As for pushing genres, I believe our new technology-based lifestyles are changing the kinds of stories we need. Fiction has always been a steady collaboration between readers and writers to keep the art lively. So the bending of genres is a spontaneous emergence – in which I’m happy to play a small part.