Interview with SFWA member L. Timmel Duchamp

by Cat Rambo
With the release of her five book Marq’ssan Cycle, beginning in 2005, L. Timmel DuChamp has gained a reputation for fierce, uncompromisingly feminist writing of the same kind that has marked her short story appearances in places such as Asimov’s and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction.

You wear a number of hats — writer, editor, and founder of Aqueduct Press. Where does most of your time fall? Does one of the hats fit more comfortably than the others?

I’ve been wearing all of these hats for four years now. Over that period, the allocation of my time has varied tremendously. During the first two years, writing consistently continued to dominate my life and I performed the functions of editor and publisher in the background. Gradually, though, my roles as editor and publisher have begun to take precedence, chiefly because their claims on me often demand an immediate response and secondly because the number of interesting unsolicited submissions has been climbing steeply. I’m now at the point of crafting a strategy for creating sacrosanct spaces in my life for writing. I’m willing to make sacrifices for Aqueduct Press, but for me, writing is a necessity, not a luxury. Without question, the writing hat fits most comfortably of all the hats I wear.

But actually, it’s probably a bit more complicated than I’ve just made it sound. For one thing, the roles of writer, editor, and critic bleed into one another in interesting ways. Like most sf writers, I experience a continual flow of story scenarios and ideas, even when I’m already working on a story or novel. Similarly, as editor and publisher, I experience a continual flow of ideas for projects that would be perfect for Aqueduct. I have ideas for expansive collective fiction projects, for instance, as well as numerous nonfiction projects. (Had I time enough and money…) Since writers are such imaginative people, I have a sense that the sky’s the limit–or rather, my personal supply of energy–for what Aqueduct could conceivably do. My creativity as an sf writer informs and shapes my work for Aqueduct at least as much as my critical expertise does. It remains to be seen how far I’ll be able to carry my ideas for Aqueduct: since ideas, of course, are cheap. When I began Aqueduct I initially thought in terms of creating publishing space for the work I wanted to read (as well as for the fiction I’d written that could not be placed in the publishing spaces that then existed). Creating such space will always be my first priority with Aqueduct, but I’ll be the first to admit I have larger ambitions for Aqueduct. And so I suspect that just as my creative practices as a writer affect my editing and publishing, so my editing and publishing may ultimately prove important for where I might go in my own writing.


Why an aqueduct as the symbol for your press?  What symbols did you consider and discard?
For a couple of decades before we started Aqueduct, Tom and Kath (my partners in running Aqueduct) and I daydreamed about starting a press. We fielded many different names over the years (though I don’t recall any of them now). Most of them were feminist icons. But when we actually got Aqueduct started (which happened very quickly) and sat together conjuring names and symbols, we continually returned to water images–rivers, streams, ocean–and from there leaped to the notion of the aqueduct, a structure designed to carry water long distances to places where it was needed. The very idea of vital material flowing by way of an aesthetically attractive structure captivated us. We would build an aqueduct, bringing otherwise unavailable work to the readers who wanted–maybe even needed–it.
Disobedience to readership, and multiple readerships are ideas recently explored in your blog, “Ambling Along the Aqueduct.”  Are there segments of your readership that you feel more comfortable with than others? You talked in a recent interview with Jeff VanderMeer about exploring the subtext in stories — does the subtext matter more for some readerships than others?
One part of Aqueduct Press’s mission, of course, is to encourage writers in their disobedience to the dominant, majoritarian readership, and some of my time working with authors is spent specifically addressing the pressures they face to conform to today’s gender expectations, which many people find reasonable, since they’re not entirely the same gender expectations as those of twenty years ago and thus somehow are not supposed to “count” as being “gender issues.” A common problem for women writers is the worry over what to do to make their female characters “sympathetic” to those who make no bones about actively disliking female characters who fail to cater to the (apparently invisible) nuances of gender expectations. One reason I declared Aqueduct to be feminist outright was to be clear that our authors will not be expected to such pressures. Another, complementary reason was to provide tangible recognition that a readership for the kind of writing that disregards such pressures does in fact exist, however fringe it might seem to the genre as a whole. Labels can often seem to be a trap, but they can also serve to bring into visible existence what is otherwise easily denied. And I hope that Aqueduct’s embrace of the label “feminist” will help to do that.
I realized fairly early on in my writing career that my fiction would likely always appeal to multiple readerships and that few–if any–of my readers would find everything I write interesting, much less congenial to their taste. My work doesn’t fit comfortably into any one category or sub-category, and I’ve been told I write about four or five different “types” of L. Timmel Duchamp stories. Perhaps more to the point is that my intellectual and aesthetic formations are nonstandard, the component parts of which don’t often rub shoulders together. Without question, people who are virulently opposed to feminism are likely to misunderstand and hate my work, as are people who think that the purpose of fiction is entertainment that makes no intellectual demands on the reader. I’d like to think that at least some of my work will move readers who have no familiarity with the story’s broader frame of reference. I do know that readers come to my fiction with different levels of recognition, which is what conscious writers ought to expect.
As for whether subtext matters more for some readerships than others: my sense is that it matters differently across differing readerships. A minority of readers will consciously recognize and explore a work’s subtext, but virtually all will appreciate the effect the subtext makes to the work. If the subtext is too obvious, the reader will feel hectored by the author; if the work lacks a subtext altogether, the work will seem shallow, thin, and without resonance. Even when the reader doesn’t perceive the subtext, its presence in the narrative will add texture, resonance, and a sense of meaningfulness. This is true for all narrative-dominated forms. I doubt you could name a single blockbuster movie lacking in a strong subtext; people like to say blockbusters are “just entertainment,” but the subtext in such movies (which tends to be obnoxious to people like me) is an absolutely essential part of their appeal.
The Marq’ssan Cycle is five books — I’m reading the third right now, but I can best describe them as a mash-up of old-school sf, hard-core feminism, and spy thriller. They’re also written much earlier — can you talk about the decision to revisit, revise, and publish those books? What prompted it, and what has the experience been like as you systematically re-encountered your earlier writing?
Wow. I’ll do my best to address all that (and try not to take 5000 words to do so!) You’re right to talk about their being an amalgam (“a mash-up”!) of several subgenres and styles of writing informed by and alluding to several knowledge-sets. Because the books borrow from so many different narrative styles, readers not familiar with all or most of them may well become frustrated, since they’ll be reading these books, variously, as feminist dystopia, spy thriller, a rousing old-fashioned tale of leftist revolution, a story of different sorts of lesbian (non-utopian, semi-separatist) societies, a Gothic-without-a-male hero, and so on. And the books just don’t work that way. If I had had the technical experience and accomplishment back then that I have today, I probably would not have even tried to pull off such a narrative. On the other hand, a feminist versed in standpoint epistemology would probably have little trouble reading it (now, anyway), even if she hadn’t read much science fiction. At the time, I wrote at white heat, about a million words in a little less than two years, driven by passion and guided entirely by instinct. I became a far more conscious writer in the late 1980s, a couple of books after Stretto. My fiction still demands sophisticated reading, but I hope I’ve become better at helping the reader to figure out how to read my stories.
I decided in the late eighties that the books were unpublishable; although some of my early readers had been addicted to them, I knew that very few readers would either know how to read them or be likely to “get” them. After all, not many people could grasp the books’ sophisticated treatment of gender as something other than a simple binary (that even today continues to dominate the way most people, conceptualize gender) or my Nietzschean epistemology or my Foucauldian approach to history. Ten years after I finished them I took another look at them. Granted, by that time more people were familiar with Foucauldian ideas, and major attention to gender theory in the early nineties made me a bit more optimistic that at least some readers would understand what I was doing with gender in those books. But because US culture in the nineties seemed ever more set on declaring the death of feminism and the end of the Cold War had segued into an exuberant love of a US-dominated global corporate economy, I believed the books would strike most people as politically and culturally passé. All that changed, though, with the installation of the Bush Administration, which has openly embraced naked unprovoked military aggression, torture, surveillance of citizens, and economic and fiscal policies likely to eliminate the middle class altogether. So I dragged the big box of old manuscripts out of storage–not only to determine their publishability, but to see if my memory of the acuteness of their political critique would be borne out. To be honest, my first re-reading came as something of a shock. In at least a few respects I found the books’ dystopian government’s behavior less harsh than our real-life government’s behavior. (And boy did that put a scare into me!) At any rate, I then looked around for readers whose opinions I respect to tell me what they thought. Perhaps the most interesting comment I got was from academic critic Joan Haran, who pointed out that she couldn’t have read these books ten or fifteen years earlier simply because she hadn’t yet acquired the reading protocols now common in these postmodern times. That comment especially gave me hope that a wide spread of readers would be able to grasp such a complex, challenging narrative.
When I revisited these books in 1996 and 1997, I revised them to reflect the major shift in global politics since the time they had been written. I also decided to set them later in the twenty-first century. Originally, Alanya to Alanya opened in 2047, which placed the backstory of the Executive Transformation in 2012. In 1996, that struck me as too close to the present. Oddly enough, though, by the time Alanya to Alanya came out in June 2005, it seemed to me that having the Executive Transformation occur in 2012 was entirely plausible, so I suppose now it would have been best to have kept the original dating. The characters and their relationships, of course, all remained the same. How could they not? They’ve always been so real to me that every now and then I spot their ringers in Real Life. I could have sworn a historian giving a presentation on low-intensity warfare in the Philippines (that was back in the late eighties) was the spitting image of Kay Zeldin. Or to take another, more recent example, a couple of years ago I met someone at a convention who viscerally reminded me of David Hughes as he followed me around buttonholing me after I’d been on a panel he’d attended. (Add to that, he identified himself as a surveillance expert who worked for a military contractor.) It’s virtually impossible to alter characters who’ve taken on that degree of reality in the author’s mind.
Though preparing the books for publication didn’t entail major revisions of narrative structure or even terminology, I found the process tricky, vexatious, and–as I approached the end of the process–poignant. Vexatious because as I read the five mss I could literally see my writing improve and the style in which the books were written grow in sophistication, even as I recognized a certain crude vitality and intensity absent from my more mature writing. Tricky because I realized that I couldn’t tamper with the structure and style of the books without wrecking them and so had to confine myself to stripping them down as far as they could stand (while never having a clear sense of how far that might be). Every line-edit I’ve done on these books has stripped away more and more of the prose. (This has happened even when correcting galleys: the ARC of the last book, Stretto, is, for example, a couple of signatures longer than the final version of the book. If I’d had time to do one more line-edit of each book, I’d probably have eliminated another 100 pages from the Marq’ssan Cycle.) Poignant because for the two years I spent writing these books, they possessed me body and soul in the way nothing has ever done before or since. Imagine it, on my best days I would write forty or fifty pages at white-heat intensity, barely pausing to eat (usually Shredded Wheat), occasionally to walk to the post office to mail copies of the latest chapters to Kath (since we didn’t have email back then), and often having to get up in the middle of the night to continue writing. And poignant, of course, because after having kept these books to myself for twenty years, they’re now no longer mine to do with as I wish. Stretto is at the printer as I speak. The possibility for alteration is gone. And most important, those characters and their stories are no longer my own private preserve. I feel both liberated of a burden and bereft of a secret that has been part of who I am for most of the time I’ve been a writer.
Aqueduct is identified as more than a feminist press, but a press that publishes books that “challenge prevailing opinions”.  What makes a book an Aqueduct Press book? If you had to pick one or two books that seemed to you to embody the Aqueduct spirit, which would they be?
Our mission statement puts it thus: “Aqueduct Press dedicates itself to publishing challenging, feminist science fiction. We promise to bring our readers work that will stretch the imagination and stimulate thought.” And it quotes Andre Schiffrin talking about the need for books that go “beyond the status quo.” Although my use of “challenging feminist science fiction” certainly includes work that challenges prevailing opinions, I hope to denote an understanding of “challenging” that encompasses aesthetic and intellectual challenges as well. I tend to emphasize the political when I talk about Aqueduct because most people deceive themselves that good fiction is apolitical,  simplistically equating neutrality with a mere lack of consciousness. (Ignorance is a positive value in the twenty-first century US; our current POTUS is an index of that.) But in fact Aqueduct’s aesthetic standards are high. I’m not sure that I believe that aesthetically timid or dull fiction can be politically challenging.
What makes a book an Aqueduct Press book? An Aqueduct Press book must be aesthetically pleasing, questioning of the ideological status quo, and open: that is to say, creating and opening new conceptual space as well as open to conversation. Although I locate myself at the far left, our books run the gamut of the feminist political spectrum. None are dogmatic, and all are intelligent and inventive. I appreciate work that plays lovingly with language, and my editorial choices reflect that.
It is hard for me to pick just a couple of books that embody the Aqueduct spirit, for not one of the books we’ve published has been a compromise with that spirit. Of the novels, I think I would pick Andrea Hairston’s Mindscape. It is bold, adventurous, and challenging, written in vivid, playful prose that summons into existence a world like none I’ve ever encountered. It strikes out in an entirely new direction, one that I’ve been longing for. It is just possible that the things Andrea does in that novel will offer an opening to other writers for future exploration.
Because I’m unable to single out a particular exemplar among the volumes of the Conversation Pieces series, I’ll mention the most recent volume, number 20 by Theodora Goss, Voices from Fairyland: the Fantastical Poems of Mary Coleridge, Charlotte Mew, and Sylvia Townsend Warner. Dora chose several poems each by these poets and engaged in a feminist conversation with them in her own poems and essays. This volume challenges both mainstream literary history and feminist literary history by insisting on the importance of certain fantastic tropes for women’s writing, which this volume explores. Not only is the poetry very fine, but the essays themselves are elegant and accessible and a delight to read.
If I’m recalling correctly, my Clarion West class was your first time teaching. What teaching do you do nowadays, and where would you suggest developing feminist f&sf writers go to learn? It would seem the choices are a self-taught path, one shared in comradeship, or one with a mentor/leader — do you see one of those as being more efficient or more rewarding than the others?
I taught college history for a couple of years back in the 1970s, but Clarion West was my first time teaching writing, bar a few workshops held at conventions like Potlatch and WisCon. My personal choice, made in the 1980s, was the self-taught path, largely because I knew a few people who had done workshops and taken classes and assured me that feminist writing was always attacked and misunderstood in such venues. But even so I benefited from the critiques of a couple of those people and lots of good, critical advice from my two first readers (Kath and Tom). I don’t think I could have survived alone without that kind of help. The second path–sharing in comradeship–is, I think, a particularly tricky one. One really should not write in a vacuum, even at the beginning, and bringing your writing to other writers can under the right circumstances be stimulating even when it’s not rewarding. But if one’s comrades lack good critical faculties or have no understanding of the kind of writing one is doing (feminist or genre, for instance), that comradeship will probably end up a liability. And if they are also all mediocre-to-bad writers, they could end up reinforcing bad habits. The third path, with a mentor/leader, will probably make sense for most people. There the challenge is to find the right class or workshop. I would urge developing feminist f/sf writers to seek out f/sf writers who are known to be feminists. The Clarion workshops, of course, usually include at least one or two feminists among their instructors. Both Potlatch and WisCon offer short workshops that are friendly to feminists. But the surest thing for developing feminist writers would be to query the writers whose work they admire to see when and where they will be teaching in the near future. Many feminist f/sf writers teach writing.
You were GoH at WisCon in 2008 and in the past have published a book, The WisCon Chronicles, about the convention, so it would seem a particularly significant convention for you? What is it about WisCon that made you feel like assembling a book about it?
A second volume of The WisCon Chronicles has come out; Eileen Gunn has joined me in editing this second volume. As a feminist, I do find WisCon significant. As a feminist sf writer, I find it essential. I see WisCon as the living, beating heart of feminist sf. WisCon embodies all that is wonderful about feminist sf as well as its flaws. By “feminist sf” I mean more than a set of texts, of course. (I’ve written about this at length in The Grand Conversation.) Feminist sf taps into the feminist desire for community, which includes not only being together, but also being able to talk freely and expansively without having to explain rudimentary aspects of feminism (aka “feminism 101”), as one must constantly do at mainstream (implicitly masculinist) sf conventions. That means that WisCon is one of the few places where certain topics are not only addressed, but discussed critically and (sometimes) with sophistication. The second volume of The WisCon Chronicles aims to extend the discussion “beyond WisCon” and apply an even more critical edge, which calm reflection (the benefit of hindsight, yes?) allows.
The reason I choose to publish books about WisCon–both documenting at least some of it and attempting to take its discussions beyond the event itself–is that feminist history is replete with important events and significant moments passing into virtual nonexistence because of their ephemerality. For centuries we have been reinventing the wheel. Our history is partial and elusive. I want to do what I can to document the collective power that is WisCon.

How important are conventions to you — how do they affect your creative energy? Are there conventions beside WisCon that you find rewarding?
For me, WisCon both taps into and generates creative energy. I’m not sure that I would describe any other conventions as doing the same. I mostly find that other conventions drain and dull my creative energy, except to the extent that I meet and can spend time with friends and acquaintance, usually outside of programming. A lively conversation with a kindred spirit always perks me up, and I especially enjoy spending time with persons who have been thinking very hard about something in particular and then when they see me buttonhole me to talk about it. Sometimes this happens with someone I’ve never met before. In such cases, the convention is the occasion that allows such thoughtful, intense conversations to occur: and in that sense, other conventions can indeed be rewarding.
Your writing is always beautifully crafted — what’s the writing and re-vision process like for you? How do you know when a piece is done? I would think that being the editor and publisher would make it particularly hard to let go, since you can constantly be revising — is that the case?
Thank you, Cat, for the compliment. My writing and revision/re-vision process is more complicated than I can go into here. I wrote an essay for an anthology (Sci-Fi in the Mind’s Eye, an academic anthology edited by Margaret Grebowicz) analyzing the evolution of my story “Living Trust,” called “Doing things with Ideas.” I noted that usually a story begins with a voice speaking words in my head, from which a world and characters create themselves, line by line, until the major trajectory of the narrative becomes obvious. Once that happens, I usually stop and think about where I want the trajectory to end up and only after I’ve established that do I continue writing, after which the challenge becomes getting from B to C. My essay didn’t look at the rewriting or re-visioning process, only the stages of composition. But just the other day when I was discussing a rewrite with one of my authors I wrote in an email to her, “If this were my story, I would probably sit with a pad of paper & a pen & draw diagrams of the various substructures of the narrative.” I had completely forgotten that I do this at various points while I’m working, doodling with names and arrows describing structural relations to try to help me understand what’s going on beneath the narrative. In other words, I continually “re-vision” the story as I’m crafting it–working at figuring out what’s really going on in the story. (Though I would be lying if I said that I often don’t see the subtext until long after I’ve finished drafting it.)
After I’ve finished drafting a piece, unless I’m writing to deadline, I usually let it sit about a month or so. Then I reread it and see how it hangs together and think about what it’s actually about. Once I have a version I feel good about, I do numerous line edits, usually about a week apart. It has often been the case, though, that months after writing a piece I’ll see it with new eyes–as though I’ve zoomed out–and insight will strike, and I’ll take it to pieces and subtract some pieces and add others and reassemble it into something that tells the same story differently and, I hope, more effectively. Now that’s true “re-vision,” and although I don’t often have this experience, when I do, my adrenaline surges and I know I’m onto something hot. Re-visioning a piece repeatedly is something a writer ought not to do often, of course, especially a writer in the early stages of her career–though I will note that Nicola Griffith, who has done that with each of her novels, offers a marvelously disciplined counterexample. Let’s put it this way: it’s a potent and fascinating method of writing that can yield brilliant results for writers who aren’t using it as an excuse to defer putting their work to the test of submission to an editor.
As for when a piece is done… That’s a tough one. The short answer is that a piece is done when it has been published and gone out into the world and uncontrolled circulation and is thus no longer private. Does my being my own publisher make it particularly hard to let go? Once I’ve decided to publish a particular work, Aqueduct’s managing editor sets a series of deadlines. (I will confess, though, that I use my special status as publisher to make substantive corrections to the galleys, which is something authors aren’t often allowed to do.) Unless I decide to pull the work, I have to adhere to those deadlines. The tricky part, though, is deciding to publish a particular work. I have several novels (and several more near first-draft completion) that I could publish. Which is to say they still belong in the realm of works-in-process. If, now that we’ve finished publishing the Marq’ssan Cycle, I decide to risk publishing another of my own novels, I’ll have to let it go too, as I did with the Marq’ssan Cycle. But I suspect nothing will ever be as difficult to let go as the Marq’ssan Cycle–which is how it should be, perhaps, with one’s earliest work.
This interview originally appeared in the Broad Universe Broadshreet
Cat RamboCat Rambo lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest. Her collection, Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight, is an Endeavor Award finalist this year. Both it and The Surgeon’s Tale And Other Stories (with Jeff VanderMeer) are available on  She is the fiction editor of Fantasy Magazine. Upcoming appearances include the Write on the River workshop, SteamCon and World Fantasy Con. Her website appears at