The Big Idea: Elizabeth Bear
Where did Karen Memory come from?
Well. That’s a complicated question. It involves a certain well-known young adult editor with glorious hair, a college friend with a memorable name and a good turn of phrase, and a little attitude problem I happen to have with generalizations. And a long, long road between here and there.
In the middle of September in 2009, said editor (with the glorious hair) solicited me for a YA proposal for a steampunk novel with a lesbian protagonist. She solicited me because while in her presence, I happened to mention that I really wanted to write one, which is a nice thing to have happen. So I thunk and thunk until my thinker was sore, and happened to talk it over with an old friend of mine, Karen Memery Bruce, who is a librarian and a puppeteer. In the course of that conversation, Karen Memory’s apparently-already-iconic first line got written—or a version of it, anyway.
According to my blog of September 20th, 2009, the original version of the first line was, “You don’t want to know this, but I’m going to tell you anyway.”
That eventually settled down to the version that is about to see print—that has already seen print, actually, in at least two places, but more on that later. It goes like this now: “You ain’t gonna like what I have to tell you, but I’m gonna tell you anyway.”
And that was it. That was her voice. Everything after that was just letting her have her head and tell her story. (Well, and figuring out how that story went.) And in writing this book, I found a place to vent a lot of my frustrations about how people who are not heterosexual middle- and upper-class white men tend to be erased from existence in certain types of fiction. For example, there’s a historical character in this book, in fact, who is incredibly famous—iconic even—in his fictionalized person, but his real history is so marginalized it’s almost forgotten that there was a historical character upon whom the legend was based.
Needless to say, I named my new protagonist after my friend.
I had a proposal finished within the week.
It was rejected.
Well. Okay then. Saddle up, ride on.
Some years went by. I converted the first chapter or so of my proposal into a short story, which was included in the anthology Dead Man’s Hand, edited by John Joseph Adams. And when I next had the opportunity to pitch a book to my long-term and much-beloved editor at Tor, Beth Meacham, I asked my agent to send her Karen. Her comment was, more or less, “Does this have to be a YA?”
“No,” says I. “Of course not.”
“Well,” says she. “Okay then. I’ll buy it.”
It remains pretty YA friendly, for what it’s worth. Or at least as YA friendly as a book about an occasionally foulmouthed, extremely sharp-minded, nearly fearless girl who works in a bordello and faints at the sight of blood can be. It may be the only book ever written with a prostitute as a protagonist with this much adventure and this little sex. It also has rooftop chases, perilous escapes, true love, gunfights, derring-do, a deaf opinionated cat, a bit in a burning building certified authentic by my partner the firefighter, and a mecha battle or two.
If it’s not clear yet, I adore Karen. And I adore the cover art, directed by Irene Gallo and painted by Cynthia Sheppard. It looks just like her. And more than that, I cannot wait to share her with everybody I know. I feel like Karen is a friend of mine—the sort of friend you make, and then can’t wait to invite to parties so all your other friends can enjoy her too.
So what it boils down to is that the Big Idea in Karen Memory is Karen herself—indomitable, smart-mouthed, and proof positive that a woman in a man’s world can still have agency, ideals, and a real badass super-sized serving of attitude.