The Ozark Trilogy
[Frequently Asked Questions]
These are the seven questions that I'm most frequently asked, with my answers. If you'd like to add questions, just e-mail them to me and I'll be happy to answer them if I can.
Q1. How did you happen to write the Ozark Trilogy?
It was an accident. I was teaching a university class on writing the science fiction novel. I had expected maybe five students. (Five novels-in-progress is about as many as a teacher can possibly deal with at one time.) To my horror,thirty-three people showed up. I told them they would be required to turn in one chapter a week, without fail; then I told them that no matter how good their writing was, unless they finished their novel they couldn't pass the course. I was positive that making those two announcements would cause at least twenty students to get up and leave. I was wrong; nobody left. But there was a horrified silence in the room that went on and on and on.
To bring the students out of that, I started a discussion about which Earth creature actually might be able to fly while carrying human beings on its back, in the fashion that dragons are said to do in Anne McCaffrey's Pern novels.It didn't take the class long to come to the conclusion that no such creature existed, and that if we had dragons on Earth they wouldn't be able to do it either. That, I told them, meant that -- supposing we were determined to write novels in which human beings rode on the backs of flying Earth-creatures -- we were free to pick any creature we liked. Turtles. Lions. Armadillos. Mules. Whatever. Pick one, I said. They picked mules, and I went to the blackboard and wrote: "I should have known that something was wrong when the Mules started flying erratically."
I did that to start a discussion about how to write the opening sentence of a novel. We discussed what a reader would know after reading just that one sentence on the blackboard. We talked about whether the sentence was as good a way to start a novel as writing a half-page of detailed description would be. We talked about what it means to write a novel in the first person, from the viewpoint of "I." We talked about the usefulness of "I should have known that something was wrong" as the opening to a narrative. And the more we talked, the more the idea of a novel to go with the sentence on the blackboard filled out in my mind. That's how it started.
Q2. Why did you decide to do the story as a trilogy?
I didn't make that decision. I plotted the whole story and meant to write it as one book. However, at that time (1980, when the first edition came out) trilogies were all the rage; people in sf weren't yet writing the 700-page whopping novels that are now all the rage. The decision to trilogize was made for me, and it was a marketing decision rather than a literary one. If I were doing it from scratch today, I'd write it as just one book.
Q3. Did you mean to be serious or funny?
Both, as in the real world. I was absolutely serious about the politics, the linguistics, and the theology; I wasn't serious about the numerology or the flying Mules.
Q4. How could you write such a sexist book? Why write a book with so many stupid incompetent men and so many smart capable women?
It's mildly sexist, although in fairness I have to remind you that it also contains some pathetic women and some admirable men. But it's a fictional world, portrayed as fiction, that just happens to be populated in the fashion you describe. The common practice in classic science fiction has been to write books filled to the brim with stupid incompetent women and smart capable men -- those are also fictional worlds, portrayed as fiction. Let's hear it for variety.
Q5. Why is Troublesome considered so evil in the book? It seems to me that she does more good things than bad things.
The standard "Western" way of looking at good and evil is to divide up all behavior into two parts, calling one part good and the other part evil. But there's another way of looking at it, in which good and evil are on a continuum from goodness to evilness and there are places where they run together. Troublesome is consecrated to evil, doing evil religiously so that others won't have to; that puts her so far over on the scale of evilness that she keeps slipping into goodness in spite of her best efforts not to. (I wrote another story about that, the one called "Lest Levitation Come Upon Us," with a woman sinning as hard as she can because her saintliness is a burden to her beloved family and she's trying to get herself de-sainted for their sake.) Then there are people who are relentlessly and passionately good in the most evil of endeavors. The paradoxes that occur at those places where good and evil run together have fascinated me all my life.
Q6. Can you explain the population figures in the book, considering the fact that you started with just the twelve families?
No, I can't. I can't explain flying Mules, either.
Q7. Are you going to write more books in the Planet Ozark universe?
I don't know. I tried it once, in a book called Yonder Comes the Other End of Time. Such ill-omened things happened with that book that it may have scared me away from the subject forever.
Copyright © 2001 by Suzette Haden Elgin