ellen_kushner (ellen_kushner) wrote,

My Nebula Essay (because I did promise)

As Constant Readers of this LJ may remember, my novel The Privilege of the Sword (now available in inexpensive pocket edition!) was nominated for a Nebula Award from SFWA this year, which was an enormous thrill. In May, I got all dressed up and went to the Awards Banquet (and if there had been a Best Dressed award, I bet I would have gotten that). I also had to write a Personal Essay about my book for the SFWA Bulletin, to be published at the Banquet.

Here is my report on the Event itself.

Here is me being all angsty about writing my Nebula Personal Essay.

And now, at last, as promised: here is the Essay itself, in all its possibly lame glory:

I didn’t know what the hell to call this novel. Its longtime working title was First Disguise, which was out of the question if only because it is almost impossible to say aloud, which is hard on the sales reps. But I like finding catchy phrases in my novels and turning them into titles. It’s a fine old tradition. That one comes from a line early in the book where the teenage narrator envisions her future: “First disguise; then revelation!” She turns out to be entirely wrong, and so was I. The book is about transformation.

But then, I’m not really a theorist. When scholars ask me intelligent questions about the thematic underpinnings of my work, I usually look them in the eye and say, “That’s your job. I just write ‘em.” I remember I was thinking at that time that the book would have sort of a Shakespearean undertone, with people putting on guises – of costume or manner – that simultaneously hide who they think they are and reveal their true natures despite themselves. I love that, and I think it’s true: when we put on a costume is often when we tell the world the most about the way we see ourselves. I think it’s one reason we choose to write fantasy: in the fanciful disguise of Other Lands and Mythic Beings, we can sneak up on and reveal the deepest truths of our world underneath the mask.

But in this novel, the guises and disguises are imposed on the characters by necessity or the will of others, or even by the dictates of society. Society in my novels is pretty much always a major player. In this case, I needed to set up a society in which a nicely-brought-up, conventional upper-class girl expects to find security through marriage and dependence on her male relatives. I wanted to explore what it would take to turn her into a confident, independent-minded person -- resisting it all the way, but getting there in the end.

Halfway through the book I got that awful feeling you get when you realize it was all a huge mistake. What was I thinking?! We live in a post-feminist age when girls know perfectly well that they can have careers and wear pants and fight their own battles! What kind of useless retro crap was I working so hard on here to create – the Great American Fantasy Novel of 1815?

It was too late to turn back. So I went on. I was enjoying this book, at least. That counted for something. And I’ve found that, as usual, my own strengths and purpose were disguised in a welter of plot and structure and character. They are slowly being revealed to me by readers, one by one, who explain to me how and why what I wrote matters to them today – and by you, my very dear and respected colleagues, who in nominating the book for the Nebula have given me an honor I treasure very deeply.

So in the end, I chose the title The Privilege of the Sword -- from a 17th century political ballad about violence vs. intellect: Lay by your pleading/ Law lies a’bleeding/ Burn all your studies now and throw away your reading….

I call it TPOTS (pronounced “teapots”) for short.

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