Q&A with Eleanor Arnason

Eleanor Arnason’s character Lydia Duluth returns to Asimov’s pages in her novelette “Tunnels” [in our May June issue, on sale now]. Eleanor took the time to tell us about the inspiration for this story, how she relates to Lydia, and the career of hers that’s had the strongest influence on her writing—You might be surprised!

Asimov’s Editor: Is this story part of a larger universe, or is it stand-alone?

EA: This is part of a series, which I call The Adventures of Lydia Duluth. Lydia is a location scout for Stellar Harvest, a holoplay company producing dramas that are loosely based on the classic Hong Kong martial arts movies of the late twentieth century. (Stellar Harvest also makes musicals in the manner of Bollywood. Ramona Patel is the great star of these.)

Each story takes Lydia to a new planet, where she stumbles into a new adventure. The stories are my homage to Hong Kong movies and to space opera and planetary romance. There are seven preceding Lydia Duluth stories, also three additional stories set in her universe. Most were published by Asimov’s.

AE: What is the story behind this piece?

EA: My significant other worked for many years with homeless people living in tents or empty buildings or caves along the Mississippi. I heard a lot about these people and wanted to write about them.

The Goxhat come from a couple of earlier Lydia Duluth stories. (One of these, “Knapsack Poems,” was published in Asimov’s and was a Nebula finalist.) They are an alien species who have no sense of themselves as individuals. They usually live in small groups of four to sixteen bodies, which they see as a single person. Over time they have also come to believe that their entire species is one person, though they have no trouble identifying individual bodies, genders and personalities. Is this confusing? Not to them.

I no longer remember where the self-building concrete tunnels come from.

AE: Do you particularly relate to any of the characters in this story?

EA: I noticed decades ago that almost all the protagonists in my fiction have names that begin with E, A, L, or N. The reason for E and A should be obvious. L and N become obvious if you sound out my first name. (After I figured out that I was doing this, I kept doing it. Why not?) So I would say I relate to Lydia, though Lydia is more of less named after my friend Lyda Morehouse, another SFF writer. Also, Duluth—an old industrial and shipping town on Lake Superior—is one of my favorite cities. You haven’t lived till you have seen a thousand-foot-long lake boat come in through the Duluth shipping canal, on its way to be loaded with ore from Minnesota’s Mesabi Iron Range. I like to think I have some of Lydia’s idealism. I certainly have some of her discouragement after fifty years of neoliberalism; and like her I have done non-art work for arts organizations.

Why does anyone tell stories? To entertain others (my kid brother). To entertain oneself. To make sense of the world, and to oppose the pain and injustice of much of the human world with something that is well-made and just and funny.

AE: How did you break into writing?

EA: I sold two stories to New Worlds in the early 1970s and then three stories to Damon Knight’s Orbit anthology series, also in the 1970s. My first novel, The Sword Smith, came out in 1978 from a small publishing house that turned out to be a tax-avoidance scheme. In order for the scheme to look plausible, the publisher had to actually publish some books, and he didn’t much care what they were. An acquaintance of mine was working for the company, not realizing that it was fake, and bought my book. It did not do well, as you might imagine. It has recently been republished in ebook version by Aqueduct Press. It’s really pretty good, a fantasy about a sword smith on a non-epic quest, aided by a small female prepubescent dragon. The important part of all this is: the IRS nailed the publisher for tax avoidance, and he went to prison.

AE: What inspired you to start writing?

EA: As far back as I can remember, I have wanted to create stories. I told my kid brother made-up stories before I could read or write. Why does anyone tell stories? To entertain others (my kid brother). To entertain oneself. To make sense of the world, and to oppose the pain and injustice of much of the human world with something that is well-made and just and funny. (My third novel, Daughter of the Bear King, is a fantasy about the epic struggle between the forces of integrity and shoddiness.) As Archy the cockroach typed, “Expression is the need of my soul.”

AE: What other projects are you working on?

EA: A collection of Lydia Duluth stories to be called (I think) The Adventures of Lydia Duluth, which I hope to complete real soon, though I keep writing stories about Lydia, and it’s possible that Asimov’s readers will see one or two.

AE: If you could choose one SFnal universe, what universe would it be, and why?

EA: Star Trek, off the top of my head. I have only seen the original TV series, plus several of the following movies, so it would be that version of Star Trek. For the obvious reasons: Star Trek’s universe is mostly fair and humane and sane.

AE: What SFnal prediction would you like to see come true?

EA: Universal peace with justice. Also, I wouldn’t mind FTL and trips to other star systems.

AE: What are you reading right now?

I am rereading C.J. Cherryh’s Foreigner series, before getting the most recently published novel in the series; and I am about to reread Naomi Kritzer’s Catfishing on Catnet. Naomi is in my writing group, so I have seen the alpha version, but still need to read the final version.

AE: What other careers have you had, and how have they affected your writing?

EA: I’ve done a lot of office work, in addition to working in warehouses (as an order puller and packer) and art museums (as a librarian and a script writer for an audio system that never worked properly). Most important, I have done a lot of accounting for small organizations, both for-profits and nonprofits. The accounting shows up in a fair amount of my fiction, including “Tunnels.” Accounting is very important and not treated with the respect it deserves.

AE: How can our readers follow you and your writing?

EA: A good question. I have a blog, easily found by googling “Eleanor Arnason.” I have not been good at keeping it up. My website is still under construction. In a more normal time, people could find me at cons in the Twin Cities and at Wiscon. We can all hope that normal times return.

Eleanor Arnason’s first story appeared in 1973. Since then, she has published six novels and fifty works of shorter fiction. Her novel A Woman of the Iron People won the James Tiptree Jr. and Mythopoeic Society Awards. Her novel Ring of Swords won a Minnesota Book Award. Other works have been finalists for the Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon, and Sidewise Awards. Eleanor’s most recent books are Hidden Folk (2014), a collection of short stories based on Icelandic folklore, and Hwarhath Stories (2016), a collection of short fiction set in the universe of Ring of Swords. A new edition of Ring of Swords came out in 2018. The author lives in the Twin Cities Metro Area. Her current goals are to finish the long-long-past-due sequel to Ring of Swords and a collection of Lydia Duluth stories.


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