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SFFWRTCHT: A Chat with Author Brenda Cooper

Brenda Cooper is the Chief  Information Officer of Kirkland, Washington by day and a Science Fiction writer by night. Her stories appear regularly in outlets like NatureAnalog, Asimov’s, Strange Horizons and Clarkesworld. Her anthology appearances include Fast Forward I and Footprints. Her novels include Building Harlequin’s Moon with Larry Niven, The Silver Ship & The Sea and two sequels Reading The Wind and Wings Of Creation. Her latest, Mayan December, will debut in Reno at WorldCon in August, published by Prime Books. She can be found online at and on Twitter as @brendacooper.

SFFWRTCHT: How’d you get into writing Science Fiction?

Brenda Cooper: Well, that’s what I read as a kid. Heinlein, Niven, LeGuin, etc. Tolkien. And I cannot remember not writing. My favorite middle school book was Stranger in a Strange Land.  I published poetry in college but my first story sale was a collaboration with Larry Niven in 2001.

SFFWRTCHT: What a way to start! How did that collaboration come about?

BC: I was very lucky. I know and love Steven Barnes well and Steve is a Niven collaborator. I showed Larry a broken story he could fix.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s a typical writing day look like for you? Do you write daily after work? Get up early? Do you outline? Do character sketches? Or let the story unfold?

BC: I write whenever I can. I try for 1000 words/day with occasional time off for good behavior. I also have day job, etc. I pretty much let it unfold, but not every story is the same. I usually have a vision of the arc and the end. I do outlines and seat of the pants stuff. It’s a balance between planning and letting the story tell itself. For me, too much planning kills some juice, too little has sometimes resulted in junk.

SFFWRTCHT:  Yes, your day job is as a city official. Interesting job for a Science Fiction writer.

BC: Well, I’m a tech geek by day. I’m the CIO for the City of Kirkland. Also a practicing futurist with a column So not too far of a stretch.

SFFWRTCHT: I guess you could say you’re the city’s official Geek then?

BC: Yes, I am the city’s official geek. I do have excellent staff and we do have fun most of the time. Lot of work lately.

SFFWRTCHT: Where do your ideas come from?

BC: My first novel all grew from the main character. The idea for my story “Phoenix Dogs” (coming soon in a Christchurch quake benefit anthology) came from the Haiti quake. I lost a brother last year, wrote about death for three months. Ideas come from life and everywhere. Most of my Science Fiction is a dialogue with what I have read before.

SFFWRTCHT: Your latest, Mayan December comes out from Prime Books in August and tells the tale of a Mayan researcher whose daughter starts going back in time to Mayan days and brings back digital photos then others start having the same travel experiences. How did that idea come about?

BC: Well, yes, it does focus on Dec 2012, but it’s not a disaster story or very new age. It’s kind of “The Labyrinth meets Contact.” I love the Yucatan. Mayan mysteries have always intrigued me. The seed story for Mayan December was actually “Mayan Summer,” which came out in Khimairal Ink, in January 2008.

SFFWRTCHT: I read that you had to do a lot of research for this. Do you do it all yourself or hire an assistant? Did you go to Mexico?

BC: For Mayan December I read a lot: Bibliography of Research for Mayan December and will interview some of those authors soon. I have been to Mexico three times. Once to Palenque and twice to Yucatan. Well, and also to Tijuana. I want to go back! The Yucatan peninsula is very beautiful. Very different from here. The people are fabulous. I love the ruins. I wanted to return between sale and final version to clock Chitzen action: ran out of time.

SFFWRTCHT: This book’s a bit of a departure for you. Was that deliberate?

BC: It just wanted to be written. It is not my usual hard Science Fiction for sure. I have no idea if it will find its market, but I like it. The most fun was researching/writing about Mayans in the past. They had a grand culture and we are still learning so much, but with so little known of them, lots of room to speculate as well. I also did write it as speculative fiction – things were changed to fit. But I think it is pretty accurate based on what we know.

SFFWRTCHT: I think it will appeal to a YA audience as well with Nixie being a young major character. Does having a daughter help you get inside a kid’s head when writing?

BC: Well, being around kids does help. I have a thirty year old son. My partner has a fourteen year old daughter who did help a lot. KT didn’t read this book, but she is smart and brave like Nixie (one of my viewpoint characters in Mayan December.)

SFFWRTCHT: How long does it take you to write a novel?

BC: Usually a year to six months for the first draft, one month to  fix bad things, two months rest, then polish and read aloud over the next three months. But sometimes novel drafts come out in a month and the book with Larry took years. So books, like stories, vary. Stories come out in a few days and then I can rest I tend to fall into novels and exclude other things. They eat my dreams. When a novel rests I do stories. Between novels I do stories. If I have to (e.g. for an anthology deadline), I can break away but I do not like it.

SFFWRTCHT: You recently lost your brother to cancer. How has that experience affected your stories? Will you use it in a story?

BC: It ate my work for three months; everything had death theme, but not Russy directly. But he will be a character. I have a story coming out in DAW’s Westward Weird anthology from that right-after-he-died period. Russy as a character will be a good cook who loves golden retrievers and has a great sense of humor.

SFFWRTCHT: “Robot Girl” is a great story published in Analog last year about a little girl raised by robots. Any plans to revisit that world?

BC: I don’t know if I will write more in Robot’s Girl time/world. Sometimes stories turn into novels. Working on one of those now.

SFFWRTCHT: What’s Larry Niven like to work with?

BC: Larry is brilliant. He’s fun and shy and has a good sense of humor and can all out mistakes cleanly. At first, I drafted and Larry corrected and fixed and added. Later we wrote more equally, but I am not yet his match.

SFFWRTCHT: What other projects are you working  on that we can look forward to?

BC: Right now I am working on post-apocalyptic YA set in Portland OR. It’s writing itself. Working title is Sage Monday so far.

Bryan Thomas Schmidt is the author of the forthcoming space opera novel The Worker Prince, the collection The North Star Serial, and has several short stories forthcoming in anthologies and magazines. He’s also the host of Science Fiction and Fantasy Writer’s Chat every Wednesday at 9 pm EST on Twitter. He can be found online as @BryanThomasS on Twitter or via his website