This Friday, Mary Robinette Kowal will arrive in Indianapolis to do something you’ve almost certainly never seen before: She’ll teach writing techniques with puppetry.
If that sounds unusual, it falls right in line with Kowal’s unique career arc. For 17 years, Kowal worked exclusively as a successful puppeteer, performing for the popular CBS show LazyTown, Jim Henson Pictures, and the Center for Puppetry Arts, and winning two UNIMA-USA Citations of Excellence—essentially the Olympic gold medal in the world of puppetry—along the way.
Then in 2003, Kowal returned to an old love: writing. Over the past 10 years, she’s tallied an impressive list of nominations and awards for her fiction—including a Hugo Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in the science fiction genre.
Kowal’s latest book, Without a Summer, is described as a “magical book that might result if Jane Austen’s Emma were set against the Luddite uprising.” In a recent interview, Kowal talked about the difference between body puppets and costumes, and how being a successful writer is a simple matter of writing that one book you want to read, but hasn’t been written yet.
First thing’s first: How do you get grown adults to pay attention to a writing lesson presented by puppets?
It’s a lens for discussing writing that most people haven’t come across before. And a thing that is consistent with all puppet shows is that when an audience is watching, they have to invest part of themselves in believing that character is alive. It requires a pact between audience and puppeteer for that character to exist. And since you’ve invested part of yourself, you tend to want to stay invested. I have been doing this for 20 years, and across the board, people will usually invest more in puppet shows than with live actors.
It’s easier to ignore a person than a puppet.
In a way it is, because we’re kind of use to doing it. When your mom starts telling you to clean your room, you start down the path of ignoring.
How is it that one gets interested in puppetry, anyway?
I was one of those kids who wanted to do everything. I wrote in high school; I was working on a novel in college like every other student. I studied art education with a minor in speech and I was doing puppetry on the side. I had no idea you could make a living at it. My sophomore year, I was doing the man-eating plant in Little Shop of Horrors when a professional came to work with us and I thought, “You can make money at this?” And I pretty much changed career paths on the spot.
After many years of successful puppetry work on the stage and in TV and film, you became a writer. Why?
Around 2003 I had a wrist injury that had kept me out of performing. So I decided to write a serial for my niece and nephew. I got about three chapters in and decided I really enjoyed it and that I really had something. So I thought, “Here is this thing I like to do, how do you sell it?” I researched that, and started writing short stories and submitting those, then people bought them and then I moved on to submitting novels.
Just like that.
Well, for four or five years I balanced puppetry and writing pretty evenly, but as I have sold more novels, writing has consumed more of my time and my creative energy.
And it seems writing would be less physically demanding than puppetry. I understand it’s not for the faint of heart.
The first show I toured with was a marionette production. The puppets weighed five to 15 pounds. Imagine holding a gallon milk on a string and leaning over a rail for 45 minutes and attempting to sing and act with that as well. And before you did that, you had to spend an hour and a half unloading a set from a van with speakers and plywood and marionettes.
There must be a whole set of injuries that are unique to puppeteers.
A lot of what you see is simple strains of things. I ended up with chronic tendonitis in my right shoulder. I could give you a list of injuries I have had, but it’s probably not that interesting. People look at puppeteers, and go, “How cute!” but they have no idea how athletic you have to be to do this. Many puppeteers do this into their 80s and longer. Look at Carol Spinney, who does Big Bird.
Big Bird is a puppet, not a costume?
It’s a body puppet. A simple line separates a body puppet from a costume, and it revolves around something called displacement. If all of the body parts of the suit line up with the body parts of the person inside, it’s a costume. But if a body part is displaced, it’s a puppet. In Big Bird, Carol Spinney’s left arm is up inside the head of the puppet, his head is in the chest of the puppet, and his right arm is a puppet arm.
Let’s shift to your work as an author. You just published your third novel, Without a Summer. Could you describe the genre you write in?
It’s a sub-genre of speculative fiction that’s called historical fantasy where the author takes a real historical period and tries to be as accurate of possible in depicting it, then adds some sort of something. In my case, I add magic. It’s essentially Jane Austen with magic.
How did you come up with that combination?
I am a Jane Austen fan. I had just read Persuasion and I could not think of a single small-scale family drama in the fantasy genre, and I started wondering, “Why aren’t people doing that? Was it something impossible or difficult for fantasy to do?” So I decided to try to write a novel as if Jane Austen lived in a world of magic; what would she write? So I sat down to write, trying very hard to stay in the Jane Austen plot mode, where magic is something that young ladies are taught as a decorative art, much in the same way needlepoint or dancing is viewed.
That’s a long way from being inside a body puppet for Little Shop of Horrors.
They look very different, but they are both forms of storytelling and relating to an audience. That’s why using puppetry to teach writing is so effective. It externalizes a process that for most people is really internal. I can demonstrate writing techniques in a physical form and it maps over pretty perfectly. After 20 years of learning how to talk to audiences, when I moved from puppetry to writing, all I did was change what I am manipulating. Now I’m using words instead of puppets.
Any advice for the aspiring genre writer?
I think the thing that is important is to write something you yourself want to read. In my case, I identified a book I wanted to be reading but I couldn’t find it, so I decided to write it. If it’s a book you desperately want to read and it doesn’t exist, you have to create it.
Photo © 2010 Annaliese Moyer.