Elizabeth Moon's Path to the Stars
Text by Christopher Dow
Photographs by Tommy LaVergne
Elizabeth Moon talks so knowingly about all the native species of grasses she and her husband, Richard, have reintroduced to their 85 acres in the Texas Hill Country, you’d think she’s a conservation biologist. Call that a plot that didn’t gel. Instead, life cast Moon in the role of a science fiction and fantasy writer, and ecology’s loss is her readers’ gain.
Born Susan Elizabeth Norris, Elizabeth Moon grew up in McAllen, Texas, loving not only the outdoors and riding horses, but also music and reading. She still rides horses, and she still makes music as an alto in her church choir, but it is reading—and writing—that has dominated much of her life. The road to success as a writer, though, was a winding one with many detours. Her mother, who’d trained as an engineer, gave Moon her first real lesson in storytelling when she was just a preschooler. “She wrote and illustrated a couple of little books for me,” Moon recalls. “One was a book of manners, which may not have stuck very well, and the other was about me and a boy who lived across the alley. Those taught me that books didn’t just appear out of nowhere but that real people wrote them. I even tried to write my own book when I was six, titled My Dog Tippy: Her Life.”
In the ninth grade, a friend asked Moon if she read science fiction, and Moon responded somewhat disparagingly, “Ah, I don’t read that stuff.” The friend said, “If you don’t read it, how do you know you don’t like it?” She gave Moon three science fiction novels, and after Moon read them, she says, “I was hooked. I read all the science fiction in the library and everything else I could get my hands on. In about six months, I was trying to write it, because that’s what I did. When I read dog stories, I wrote dog stories; when I read horse stories, I wrote horse stories.”
As high school came to a close and it was time to think about college, Moon insisted on Rice University. In fact, she’d had her eyes set on Rice from the age of 8 or 9. “My uncle and great uncle had gone there, so I knew it was a good school,” she says. “And I was a competitive kind of kid.”
Her time at the university proved formative for Moon. “Like a lot of people who came to Rice from smaller towns, I’d been one of the smart kids in my high school, and I thought I was hot stuff. And then I got to Rice and found out that the world is full of hot stuff. That can be very shocking and depressing, but it also can free you to reach out and see just how far you can go.” She started out as a physics major, but after she “gloriously flunked calculus and freshman physics,” she went on to major in history.
Two history professors, in particular, influenced her. One was F.S. Leer, then a professor emeritus. “I took every one of his classes that I could,” Moon says. But most of all, Katherine Drew impressed her enormously. “I was just blown away by her scholarship and character. She was the kind of person I wanted to be in terms of scholarship.”
Outside the classroom, Moon practiced photography for fun and sang in the Jones chorus. She also played the accordion. “The accordion now is considered such an awful instrument,” she laughs. “But while I was growing up in McAllen, it was perfectly acceptable. A man down the street played the accordion at neighborhood gatherings, and I learned to play one. At Rice, we had a little group consisting of cello, mandolin, and accordion.”
And, of course, she wrote. “I wrote tons of poetry and fiction. Most of it was bad,” she admits. “Periodically, I’d think about being a writer, but I’d decide that everything I’d written up to that point was utterly and disastrously horrible.” That opinion seemed validated when she read Frank Herbert’s Dune and J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. “Those put me in a complete blue funk,” she says. “I knew I might never be that good, and I was at Rice, where, if you’re not going to be at the top level, shelve it. So that put me on hold for a long time. I kept writing, but I had no belief that I actually would make it.”
But she did receive a bit of unexpected encouragement from Drew. “She pointed me to Cecilia Holland’s historical novels and suggested that I consider writing as a career,” Moon chuckles. “It took me years to believe she was serious and that it wasn’t just a clever way of saying, ‘Now dear, you’re really not smart enough to be a scholar, but maybe you could write novels.’”
Elizabeth met fellow Rice student Richard Moon when she was invited to play her accordion at a hotdog fest after a brush clearing party. “During the day,” she smiles, “I kept noticing this handsome young man, and by the end of the evening, we were fairly interested in each other.”
Elizabeth and Richard graduated in 1968, but before they pursued further careers, both joined the military—Richard the army and Elizabeth the Marine Corps. “It was a very unpopular thing to do in 1968,” she admits. “I’ve never been entirely able to define why I did it, which may be why I keep writing books with military characters. I wanted to serve my country. I admired what I’d read of the military, and I had a romantic attitude toward it. It sounded adventurous, exciting, different. I’d always climbed higher trees and did things that felt exciting and somewhat scary, so that was part of it, too.”
Initially, she wanted to be a pilot, but myopia and being female shot down that idea. “I talked to recruiters from all the branches, and most, like the other colleges I’d approached, were eager to have me. But just as Rice had said, ‘We’ll see if you can qualify,’ the marine recruiter said, ‘Well, you might make it through officer candidate school.’ So, of course, it had to be the marines, just like it had to be Rice. Tell me it’s hard, and then tell me you don’t think I can do it.”
Moon served in the marines for three years, and like her time at Rice, it was a formative experience. “Rice had pushed my mind close to its limits, and the marines pushed the rest of me to the limit, so I knew how far I could go, how long I could stay up, all those sorts of things. I also had to learn to deal with stressful people and situations.” She earned the rank of first lieutenant and was promoted to captain of inactive reserves when she mustered out.
The Moons moved back to Texas to attend the University of Texas. While Richard went to medical school, Elizabeth earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and later pursued a master’s with the idea she might go into some ecological field. Her master’s was cut short however, when Richard finished medical school and started his residency. In 1979, they moved to Florence, Texas, a small town north of Austin, where Richard established a family practice.
As it turned out, Florence was too small to support a family practice, but the Moons managed. “We didn’t get rich,” Moon says, “but we had a lot of fun and delivered a lot of babies.” To help Richard, she joined the local volunteer emergency medical unit and earned emergency medical technician and paramedic certifications, although she had to quit after about five years when she and Richard adopted their son, Michael.
Through it all, she kept writing, but with a different focus. “There was no employment in Florence,” she says, “and Richard’s practice was not exactly booming, so sometimes we needed money. I realized that I could sell articles to medical journals, especially if the articles had Richard’s name on them. He’d think them up, and I’d write them.” She laughs. “At one point, he was doing quite well with Medical Economics.”
The sales were helpful, and Moon realized that she wasn’t bad at this sort of writing, but she still didn’t trust that her fiction was any good. “One bar to writing fiction for me was that I’d been told that you have to write short stories before you can write a novel. I am a natural novelist, not a natural short story writer, and all my short stories insisted on being too long.” Then a fortuitous set of circumstances changed everything.
“We had some friends who moved to Utah, and their son was not happy about it, so I decided to write a story to cheer him up. Like all my short stories, it grew too long, but instead of stopping, this time I kept going. By the time I was 170,000 words into it, I was beginning to think it might be good enough to be published.”
The book was The Deed of Paksenarrion. Set in a fantasy world much like medieval Europe, it is the tale of a young peasant woman who joins the army and, through daunting tasks and hardships, rises to the rank of knight. Having a finished novel on your desk is not the same as having it published, but Moon had learned from the experience of writing it. “I then was able to write short fiction,” she says, “because I finally understood how much story would fit into a shorter piece.” She soon sold several stories to science-fiction digests, and an agent contacted her and said that if she ever had a novel, he would be interested in seeing it. “Like the grandparent who just happens to have pictures of the grandchildren,” Moon chuckles, “I just happened to have a novel.”
The Deed of Paksenarrion was rejected by a lot of publishers, and a letter from one explained why: It was too long, and it was about a woman soldier, by a woman. The implication was that women can’t know anything about the military. “I blew my stack.” Moon says. “I’ve studied this stuff, I have a degree in history, I own horses, and on top of that, I was a marine, and how dare they, and so on.” The agent went back to the publisher and said, “You’ve insulted a marine.” The publisher, who had strong military feelings, agreed to look at the manuscript again, and when he actually read it, he liked it.
The Deed of Paksenarrion was published in three volumes—The Sheepfarmer’s Daughter, Divided Allegiance, and Oath of Gold—in 1988 and 1989. “One of my biggest thrills as a writer was seeing that first book out,” she says. “I showed the cover flats to a friend who ran a bookstore in Georgetown, and she folded one and stuck it between some other books on the shelf so it looked like my book was sitting there with the others. I managed not to scream and jump up and down in the store, but I was really excited. Later, I was terrified because, when you’re a writer, you also reveal, and when I seriously thought about everything that was in The Deed of Paksenarrion, I thought, oh boy, I’ve just thrown open the closet.”
Two linked prequels to The Deed of Paksenarrion followed, but not before Moon received an invitation to co-author a pair of books with well-known science-fiction writer Anne McCaffrey. Those two showed that Moon had a talent for writing military science fiction, and her publisher requested more. The result was Moon’s seven-book Heris Serrano series, featuring several characters whose lives and adventures revolve around the military of an interplanetary league. The Vatta’s War series, with explosive space battles and a spirited, tough-as-nails heroine who refuses to back down, is in process.
The switch from medieval fantasy to space ships may seem like quite a leap, but it was a providential change for Moon, whose personal life had taken a grievous turn. Her son, Michael, had been diagnosed as severely autistic. “Having a child that different,” she says, “is kind of like getting a box of parts, but the parts aren’t the ones in the directions, and you have to figure out what you can build out of the parts you do have that will result in some kind of happy conclusion.”
She began homeschooling Michael and discovered that the switch from fantasy to science fiction might be the only thing that would allow her to continue writing. “To write deep fantasy, I need six to eight hours without interruption because I have to sink into that world in order to make it real. So I knew I couldn’t write fantasy, at least for the near future. With science fiction, though, I can write some, be interrupted, and go right back and write some more.”
Moon says that the intellectual training instilled by Rice allowed her to survey the professional literature on autism relatively quickly and thoroughly by setting standards by which to judge the quality of her sources. “It’s been very challenging,” she says, “but it’s been stimulating, too. Rice helped give me the ability to see the situation as an intellectual challenge, not just an emotional one. The cultural anthropology at Rice gave me the means to look at autism as a culture thing rather than as a pathological thing. If this is what we have, how do we make contact with this alien culture? But, man, it was 24–7. If you’d asked me before I did it if I could do it, I’d have said, no way.”
While Moon was helping Michael face the constraints of autism, she also was facing the constraints of writing adventure stories. “Main characters usually just come to me,” she says. “I sit there and say to the people in my head, ‘Okay, who wants to be next?’ And this crowd comes forward, and then I prod and poke them to see if any of them are solid enough to make a main character. If they come to me with a big problem right off the bat, they’re usually pretty strong. Otherwise, I say, ‘Shut up and go away.’” Ofelia wouldn’t go away.
Ofelia, whose story is recounted in Remnant Population, certainly does not fit the adventure character mold. She is an old and simple widow living in a small colony on an out-of-the way planet with a son who does not understand her and a daughter-in-law who dislikes her. “What I saw in Ofelia,” Moon says, “was a person who’d had all of the fun and play squashed out.”
All Ofelia wants is to live out her life in peace on this planet that has been her home for most of her life. But the corporation that colonized the planet has lost the franchise, and the entire colony is scheduled for deportation. Instead of accepting her fate, Ofelia hides in the forest until the last ship has left, then she reoccupies her home in the settlement and goes on, quite comfortable and happy with her solitary life. Until she discovers that she isn’t alone. The indigenous intelligent species, which is at a pretechnological level and has been hiding in the forest since the colony was founded, begins to explore the town left vacant by the humans, coming face to face with its sole remaining occupant.
At first, Ofelia resents the intrusion, but she soon becomes an integral part of the fabric of the indigenous culture, despite the fact that she is the alien. As she teaches her new family about human technology, it becomes apparent that these strange beings are a lot more intelligent than humans, rapidly absorbing everything she can teach them and more. And then humans return, and the two cultures clash with potentially disastrous consequences.
Published in 1996, the novel was nominated for the Hugo Award, the oldest of the major annual science-fiction awards. While it didn’t win, the novel gained for Moon the recognition that she could go beyond the conventions of the adventure story and delve into deeper cultural and psychological issues. She returned to the adventure stories, but it wasn’t long before another out-of-the-mold character came into her head, demanding that his story be written. His name was Lou, and he was autistic.
Lou’s book is The Speed of Dark, published in 2003, and in many ways, it is the most difficult book Moon has written. “My first thought was that I was going to write about a child,” Moon explains, “but Lou popped up as an adult and insisted on telling the story in his own way—insisted on doing it in first person present tense, which I knew better than to try. But that was the only way to tell it. I tried writing it the other way, and it became very remote, as if it had four plates of glass between Lou and the story. I had to be inside his head, and I had to write it that way. I found that I could do it, though staying in that mindset and character was really difficult.”
But Lou helped her along. “I became fascinated with him,” Moon says. “There are things about him that surprised me, that are not like Michael but that are consonant with everything that I know about autism and the autistic people I’ve met—what they’re like, how they communicate with each other, what kinds of things interest and concern them, and how they feel about the things that society tells them.”
Lou lives in the near future and has found a niche for himself within a group of autistic people who analyze data for a company, looking for patterns that the company can use in its business. Things are comfortable until a corporate climber attempts to coerce the group members into participating in an experimental treatment that, he says, will make them normal. But just what is normal? The book becomes a parable of the way people face the fears, unknowns, and potentials of any life-altering change.
When Moon finished, she thought the book was good, and she hoped it would be read and help people understand autistic people. Initially, sales were modest, in part because it was so different. It did garner a nomination for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, though it didn’t win, prompting Moon, she says, “to categorize myself as the bridesmaid, not the bride, when it came to awards.” And then The Speed of Dark was nominated for the Nebula Award, whose importance is on par with the Hugo.
“The morning of the award ceremony,” she says, “my agent asked if I had my speech ready. I replied, basically, that I didn’t need no stinkin’ speech since I wasn’t going to win. My agent said I was going to look really stupid up there if I did win and didn’t have a speech, and that’s when I started to get nervous. At the ceremony, I was sitting there with my editor and my agent, and they kept asking if I was doing all right, and I said I was fine until they started in on me. I know how to lose graciously. I’ve done it before. But they kept asking, ‘Are you doing okay? Are you getting nervous yet?’ And I said, ‘Yes, I’m getting nervous yet. Are you satisfied?’”
When her name was announced as winner for the best novel of the year, she says, “I just went off. It was incredible. I couldn’t believe it. I clutched the award and wouldn’t let it go for hours.”
She’s still happy about the Nebula, but the reasons go beyond the award itself. “It gave the book a new lease on life, which means that more people are reading it, and I’m getting more mail from relatives of autistic people and others. One of the most touching was from someone in a police station in California. Because she’d read the book, she recognized that a child she was handling was autistic and not on drugs or just being difficult, and she was able to talk to him. I just sat there and cried after reading that.”
If Moon has one succinct piece of advice for beginning novelists it is that you must be true to your art. “I write what I want to read,” she says. “The characters have to be real and true for me.” Over the years, she’s talked to a lot of people who want to be writers, but what many really want is to be published. “It doesn’t work that way,” Moon says. “If you have to write, if you can’t do anything but write, if you find yourself writing when you should be doing something else, you’re probably cut out to be a writer. At that point, the hunger to be published isn’t bad, but it can’t ever take over, because if it does, you start falsifying things to do what you think will get you published.”
As exciting as the high points in her career have been, the real satisfaction for Moon comes during the writing. “It’s that flow,” she says. “Sometimes when I’m sitting there, typing as fast as I can, and the story is really blooming and coming alive there in front of me, I feel, yes, this is right. The first book was an enormous thrill, and the award is a thrill, and it’s still a thrill to have a book come out, but the real thing that keeps me going is when the writing is alive and making the story a reality that other people can play in. It’s creation. Creation is the whole thing.”
The article originally appeared in Rice Sallyport, Summer 2006.