Today I’m chatting with writer Christine Amsden. I have known her (virtually) since 2005 when I joined Codex, though we have never met in person. One of these days we’ll correct that. I hope you enjoy learning more about her, and click through to check out her website.
For somebody unfamiliar with the work of Christine Amsden, how would you describe your fiction and which story do you think is the best introduction to your work?
I like to write about ordinary people defining themselves through extraordinary situations. I’m a character girl. I choose to put my characters in weird (scifi or fantasy) situations because it’s fun, but beneath it all I like to write about people.
In some ways, I think I’m still defining myself as an author. When I look at my first three books, I see three very different stories. Touch of Fate is a paranormal mystery focusing on a woman who can predict (but not change) the future. The Immortality Virus is far-future science fiction dealing with a world in which the entire human race has stopped aging. Cassie Scot is part of a world of magic and sorcerers, though she has no magic of her own. It is also my first series, and includes a bigger romantic element than anything I have done before.
Which book would be the best introduction? I want to say Cassie Scot, but only because I firmly believe that each novel I have put out is a little better than the one before. I keep learning and growing. On the other hand, Cassie Scot is the first in a series and it should be clear at the end of the book that the story is not over. Cassie still has things to learn about herself.
For that reason, I think I’ll recommend The Immortality Virus. I’m proud of the world building I did there, and I have been honored to receive two awards for the work.
You have an unusual condition for a writer, working with significant vision loss. How does that affect the way you write? Do you use software like Dragon, or do you work in much the same way you did before the problems developed?
I use extremely large fonts to draft and edit my work — 36 point. I’m not totally blind. In my case, don’t think of the world as black, just very fuzzy. I see colors and shapes and I make sense of them through context clues. I also make sense of the world through motion. Surprisingly, that’s not one I hear about very often. But think about it. Look at the way people walk. No two people have exactly the same walk. So if I’m in a room waiting for someone I know — my husband, for example — I’ll know him by a combination of his general shape and the way he moves.
Words on the page don’t move, of course. I see them through proximity and size. I have a monitor set on an arm that brings the screen right up to my face.
When it comes to editing, I’m not bad — better than most. I miss things, just like anyone else, but I’m careful and thorough. I have actually started doing freelance editing. I take my clients’ manuscripts, blow them up to 36-point font, make my corrections, and then reduce the size.
You do a lot of reading, and you do a lot of reviews. How many books would you say you read in a year?
Over 100? I read at least 2 books a week. I usually listen to them as audiobooks through the national library for the blind. The service allows me to listen to a book at high speed, so that it takes me about 5-6 hours to listen to an average book. I have recently decided to reread Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series. Those take longer! Even at high speeds, you’re talking 15-20 hours of reading. I don’t read a lot of epic fantasy, though. I prefer romance, mystery, and urban fantasy these days.
Since I listen to books, I have the option of reading while I do the dishes, fold the laundry, or watch TV with my kids (with headphones). This is how I have so much time to read.
You have a nice coupling of hard and soft science degrees. Do you find being educated in both computers and psychology helps you to create fiction that feels more realistic, regardless of the exact genre you work in?
That depends upon how you define realistic. A feeling of reality comes from writing what you know, which is derived through life experiences — not college degrees.
I learned a lot about life from having children. (And may I add that I find it amazing how unrealistic the birthing experiences depicted in fiction usually are? It’s amazing, since most women go through it.)
To a certain extent, reality is also a matter of perception. Something one reader finds completely plausible based on his experiences may seem ridiculous to another. I have gotten “I don’t buy that” responses on more than one occasion to personal experiences I adapted to fiction. For example, I once wrote a vivid description of the day my eye doctor diagnosed me with Stargardt’s Disease (for a short story). It was a horrible experience, and at the end of it I didn’t understand that I was going to lose my central vision. He never actually told me so, you see. He just looked into my eyes, then got several medical students to look into my eyes, explaining that this was rare and they weren’t going to get to see something like this every day.
“Yeah, right” said several critiquers. “A medical doctor isn’t going to do that.” But it happened.
When it comes to college coursework, my psychology degree has helped a lot. If for no other reason, it helps me to understand that you’re never going to convince everyone to suspend disbelief — even for the truth!
Psychology also helps with characterization. I mentioned liking to write about people, and in that my psychology background helps quite a bit. The coursework required for the computer science degree emphasized logic. This is useful, too, but in a more abstract way. There is a certain methodical logic required to create a complete story from start to finish — especially one involving a mystery (as most of mine do).
So to make a long story short (too late), I suppose that yes, getting diverse degrees was useful. But there is a lot more to writing than you can learn in college. (A good reason not to major in English.)
What writers have been the most influential in forming your style?
Orson Scott Card — I attended a by-audition “boot camp” with him in 2003 and learned a ton from him. For many years, I treated his writing advice as gospel. Since then, I have read more, lived more, and found my own comfort zone. I particularly enjoyed the somewhat informal style I adapted for my Cassie Scot series. I think Jim Butcher and Karen Marie Moning influenced me there.
Tell us a little about your forthcoming book, Cassie Scot,
Cassie is the ungifted dauhgter of powerful seers, born between worlds but belonging to neither… Or at least, that’s my blurb. To get real about it, this is the story of a young woman learning how to be okay with who she is. And there’s a lot to like about her — she’s clever, brave, and compassionate. What she’s not is the stereotypical bad-ass fantasy hero with the magically prescribed destiny. When I came up with her, I had been reading a lot of contemporary fantasy, but I wanted to come up with a unique character. I think I nailed it with Cassie. She’s not sure about herself, but there’s more to life — and more to being a hero — than flashes and bangs.
What other projects do you have in the works or in the planning stages that get you excited?
Cassie is a 4-book series. All 4 books have been written, and will be coming out within months of one another. After that, I have two possible projects. The first is a spin-off involving a minor character from Cassie’s story who took on a life of her own. The other is a entirely new fantasy project involving people who can walk through a world of dreams. That one may be a stand-alone novel or a series — the jury’s still out. If it’s a series, it each book will probably feature different characters, with the world of dreams tying them together. I’ve been a bit sluggish getting into that one (I think because Cassie is still lingering), but I recently realized it will give me a new way to explore an old theme: The cost of immortality. I’ll be coming at it from an entirely different angle than I did in The Immortality Virus, but it should be fun.
Thanks for having me here today. You asked some very insightful questions.