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Elizabeth Moon

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Interview with Elizabeth Moon

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Elizabeth Moon: A Biography
Elizabeth Moon: A Bibliography

Author Interview by Paul Witcover

 When did you start writing?

According to my mother, as soon as I could hold a pencil I was writing verses and stories. I don't remember any of the early stuff , but around age six I tried to write a little picture book. It was harder than it looked, so I quit. At about ten I tried to write a musical comedy, music and all. My teacher was underwhelmed, so we never did perform it (just as well.) About the same age, I was writing adventure stories with a classmate named Chopper Metcalf--he liked jungle, dog, and sea stories, and I liked horse, dog, airplane, and mountain stories. This is how come we wrote a complicated adventure involving the Amazonian rainforest, PT boats, wonderful giant stallions that rescued the heroes from prison, amazingly brilliant collies and Irish setters, hair-raising flights over the Andes...and absolutely no coherence.
Where did you grow up?

n extreme south Texas, 250 miles south of San Antonio. McAllen is 8 miles from the Mexican border, and about 60 miles upriver from the Gulf of Mexico. We lived in a little frame house on Hackberry Street, which flooded every time there was a two-inch rain--our area was known as "Hackberry Lake" after rains. We had a Valencia orange tree in the back yard (the 1951 freeze killed the grapefruit tree), and bougainvillea in the front yard, along with a row of tall palms. I didn't see snow until a brief trip to Michigan in high school.
 What was your family like?

My parents separated before I was born, and divorced shortly after. So my mother and I were the family; her father died when I was four. She was the sole support of our family; she worked in a hardware store until I was eight, then as a draftsman for a small oil company. She had been an aeronautical engineer during WWII, but no one was hiring women engineers in the 1940s and 1950s. I found both her jobs fascinating. In the hardware store, I could noodle around playing with all the hardware, draw huge pictures on the brown wrapping paper, and have the run of Main Street. Once she started working for the oil company, I had the chance to learn about geology, maps, and serious drafting.
 When did you start reading science fiction?

When Mary Morell transferred from the local Catholic school to Lamar Junior High. We were in the same homeroom, and in one boring assembly we were sitting side-by-side far up on the bleachers in the gym. I'd already noticed her--she's smarter than I am--and we started talking about what we liked to read. She read science fiction. I turned up my nose. She slapped me down and gave me a reading list. Two days later, I was hooked.
 When did you start writing science fiction?

Maybe a week after I started reading it...maybe a whole month went by. I'm not sure. I was always writing poetry and stories in those years, and it's hard to remember the point at which I first shifted from war stories to science fiction stories.
 Did you always want to be a science fiction writer?

No. I wanted to be a scientist. Originally, I'd wanted to be an aeronautical engineer and test pilot, but I'm near-sighted and female...a strong bar to those ambitions in the 1950s. My own engineer mother insisted I didn't have the right kind of mind to be an engineer (she meant, I think, that I never followed directions in building with Tinkertoys or Lincoln Logs...I was always doing something else, usually weird and useless.) Anyway, I thought (even before reading SF) that perhaps as a scientist I could earn my way aboard something that went into space. Science fiction only reinforced the hunger for real science. did you end up writing the fiction rather than leading the life?

Math 100 at Rice University in the fall of 1963. That's the short answer, and it will have to do. Math 100 was (is?) the introductory calculus course for science-engineering majors, and the assumption was that you had had pre-calculus in high school. It was a theory class ("We know you already know how to work the problems...but now you're going to learn why it works...") My section was taught by someone who firmly believed in the mathematical inferiority of females, so when I finally asked for advice about finding a tutor the answer I got was "In my experience, girls can't learn calculus." Lots of girls could, and did, but this one couldn't--not then, anyway--and since the physics class used the calculus I was supposed to have learned in high school, there went the end of my Madame Curie illusion. This was not all bad. Learning early on to cope with stark failure and the death of a dream imparts a certain resilience later. It hurt like hell, and I lived over it. Other things have hurt like hell, and I've lived over them, too. Not a bad take-home lesson for a first year at college.
 Why did you join the Marines in 1968?

This is usually two questions in the asker's mind: why did I join the Marines (instead of, say, the Air Force), and why did I join the military at all in the midst of the Vietnam War? The Marines are responsible for my joining the Marines. I'd always planned to serve in the military at some point (in fact talked to recruiters in high school, who told me to go on to college.) In my last year at Rice, I talked to recruiters from all branches. Three were congratulatory, almost fawning: they wanted me, they promised wonderful things. The Marine recruiter looked at me with narrowed eyes and said "You might make it through OCS." Irresistible. Why did I join the military at all in 1968? A more difficult and complicated question. I was not really a Sixties person (to put it mildly)--most of the liberal activists I knew came out of conventional homes; they were conventional even in their unconventionality. The same ones who, a year before, had been worried about wearing the right sweater with the right skirt now worried about whether their jeans had had enough trips through the washer to be properly faded, and if the tie-dyed shirt was the right new pattern of tie-dye. Kids like that had given me trouble all the way up because I was a child of, as a cocky young adult, I wasn't inclined to listen to them. I wasn't going to let their opinion change my long-laid plans. Besides, I'd already lost high school friends in the war, volunteers in the years before the anti-war protests swept the college campuses. If you suspect that I was just as opinionated, cantankerous, priggish and arrogant as the kids I disagreed're quite right. I was. So?
 What did you do in the military?

What anyone does--what I was told. Mostly it was working with computers...and all totally irrelevant now when the computer on my desk is 1/100 the physical size, and has far more capability, than the ones for which I helped write dinky little programs.
 Where did you learn so much about medicine?

My second degree was in biology, and I took the premed requirements because I was thinking about going to med school after my husband did. While he was in med school (and I was in graduate school in biology) I studied with him. Found it fascinating. If he had done his residency in the same city, I might have applied--but he didn't. However, I continued to read the medical journals he took (four of them a week) and when he opened his rural practice, I took an ambulance attendant course to learn how to help. Once I started working on the local EMS, I discovered that I really liked emergency work. I hadn't expected to discover this ghoulish pleasure in myself, but there it was. I went on to take more advanced courses, finally qualifying as a paramedic. Did my hospital work for this at an Army hospital (gives you LOTS of experience). I also worked about a year in my husband's clinic. Helped deliver babies, including one over-the-phone home delivery ("NO--don't pull on the head! NO--don't use that fishline to tie the cord!") Helped clean up the dead after failed attempts at resuscitation. Pulled more drunks out of cars than I can remember and acquired a real distaste for unimaginative cussing. Comforted the terrified on the way to the hospital--and witnessed one full-bore miracle of spinal-cord recovery. Discovered that it's not possible to strap your own child in the carseat in the ambulance, and work efficiently on someone else--so had to quit doing this after we adopted our son. We no longer have the rural clinic (went broke--these things happen), but I have a lifetime's worth of medical details...and still skim a couple of medical journals a week.
 How do you find time to write?

I don't find time to write...I make time to write. Big difference. Defines writers who write from people who would like to have written but can't find time to write. Art is selfish; the book doesn't care about dishes, meals, clothes, dusting, cleaning, crusty toilets, streaky windows, neglected children, family, friends. I try to choose what to neglect (what, not who--a child and a spouse have to come first, if there's to be a family at all.) That means all my non-writer friends (and many of my writer friends) have neater, cleaner houses and prettier yards.

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Last Updated 6/7/04