Karen Osborne was kind enough to drop by to talk about her debut novel, Architects of Memory, which is officially out today, and which my alerts inform me is on its way to my mailbox right now. I can’t wait! To get things started, I’ll make introductions by shamelessly stealing from Karen’s author bio.
Karen Osborne is a Nebula finalist, visual storyteller and violinist. Her short fiction appears in Uncanny, Fireside, Escape Pod, Robot Dinosaurs, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies. She is a member of the DC/MD-based Homespun Ceilidh Band, emcees the Charm City Spec reading series, and once won a major event filmmaking award for her work on a Klingon wedding. Her debut novel, Architects of Memory, is forthcoming in 2020 from Tor Books.
Welcome, Karen, and congratulations on your novel! Without giving too much away, would you care to tell folks a bit about Architects of Memory?
I began Architects of Memory purely to rekindle my love of writing after months of hustling in the content generation mills after I lost my job back in 2015. The book quickly became serious and deliberate and terrifying and just plain fun to write, and I highly recommend that anyone struggling with writing a novel simply lean in and embrace all of the elements that make you feel thrilled as an artist, no matter how ordinary or how strange.
Architects is the story of Ash Jackson, a terminally ill, indentured salvage pilot putting her life back together after losing everything in the war with the inexplicable alien Vai. It’s not easy—her new company, Aurora, can never know she’s sick, or they’ll stop considering her a good investment and she’ll never see her new love, ship’s captain Kate Keller ever again.
When Ash finds an alien weapon in a dead starship near the war’s last battlefield, she and her crew stumble into, and I’m gonna quote from the logline so I don’t give away spoilers, “a conspiracy of corporate intrigue and betrayal that threatens to turn Ash into a living weapon.”
So Architects draws all of the gorgeous tropes I’ve loved in space opera all my life—found families, truly alien aliens, complicated relationships, twisty wild macropolitics—as well as a bunch of questions I had surrounding how corporations and corporate-adjacent entities like nonprofits and megachurches might metastasize in the future. After all, Elon Musk has already intimated on Twitter that workers interested in going to Mars could pay their fare with work once they arrive…
It also centers on what I consider to be the important healthcare question of our time: what’s more important to a society, a person’s productive valuation to the economy or their intrinsic worth as a human being? When I started writing Architects of Memory, I never thought that we’d be having this conversation in our society on this kind of macro level. We’re all talking about “personal responsibility” to keep us safe because our public health system has completely broken down. We’re just going along with the abdication of the U.S. government’s public health responsibility like it’s normal. We’re putting immigrant workers and grocery workers at risk of death just so we can eat meat and paying them with lip service. Ours is absolutely a world that Ash Jackson and the Aurorans would recognize intimately, and I definitely wish it wasn’t.
In addition to your novel, you’re also a prolific short fiction author. You have a particular talent for creating rich, secondary worlds and stories that feel epic in scope within just a few thousand words. Would you ever consider writing epic fantasy at novel length? And on a related note, do you find it difficult to switch back and forth between science fiction and fantasy, or are you equally comfortable in both worlds?
I certainly plan to. Writing careers are slippery beasties at the best of times, and you never really know where you’re going to go next, but I do have a synopsis and outline ready to go for at least two epic fantasies when it becomes time to write them. One is the novel version of “The Two-Bullet War,” which was published at Beneath Ceaseless Skies in mid-2019. I’m extremely excited to get my hands dirty with gunslingers, ancient mountain sorcery, democratic revolutions, and secret marriages. So there’ll be cars and telephones and guns, but also that epic feeling I know I certainly crave while reading fantasy.
I honestly can’t wait to do the worldbuilding. Most of my science fiction centers around stories that rely on the claustrophobia and physics of being in space—moon bases, tiny starships, shuttles and the like—which is a milieu I’m extremely comfortable writing in after focusing on it for so long. The Two-Bullet War will need me to build this wild, complicated, huge world, with a specific ecology, a complicated political system, and more characters than I’ve ever dealt with in a piece this long before.
I suppose it makes me a little nervous to switch, but I think writers always are, and should be, just a little scared of their next book. I think that fear is both healthy and helpful. I think it sharpens our abilities, keeps us on our toes, and makes everything just that much better.
I wanted to talk a bit about “The Bodice, the Hem, the Woman, Death”, which is one of my favorites among your stories. I love the idea of people carrying the souls of their ancestors around in their jewelry, and the way you use fashion to reveal aspects of the main character’s personality, and her relationship with her mother. Where did the seed for this story come from? Do you have any ties to the world of fashion that informed this piece?
Fewer ties and more baggage! I actually have a lot of baggage when it comes to fashion, and that’s exactly where the story came from. I was teased relentlessly for my looks in middle and high school and then spent most of my adult life in a plus-size body, working low-paying but wonderful journalism jobs where conservative dress was more than required. I didn’t think fashion had anything to say to me, which is definitely where the main character of “Bodice” also starts. There were years of my life where the only place I could get appropriate clothing was the clearance rack at that one expensive plus-size mall store, and in the early aughts, everything they sold made me looked like a walking baked potato.
My outlook completely changed once I started freelancing again in 2017, and I was no longer working with clients that needed me to be in business dress. Designers had finally gotten the message that plus-size women were human beings that didn’t want to look like potatoes or wear 1028384832 cold-shoulder tops. I started following Instagram personalities like Katie Sturino, began bleaching and dyeing my hair, and started buying the clothes I’d always wanted to wear when I was younger but could never find for my size—skull sweaters, long maroon dusters, chunky boots. I taught myself to sew, and that’s where I learned all that vocabulary for “Bodice.” And suddenly, with all of these new experiences under my belt, I had to ask the question: who was Karen Osborne if she was allowed to look awesome?
It sounds gauche and conceited and vain but finding out has made me more confident and happy. I’ve grown as a person and feel better in my own skin, and I didn’t have to stoop to self-hate or guilt or self-excoriation to do it. I’m not hiding in the corner anymore like society wants fat people to do. I’m taking selfies!
So that’s where this story comes from. It’s partially why Lia sews the travelling-dress for her mother: fashion is a cage for Lia, but it’s the way her mother, whose worldview is more limited, expresses herself and feels freedom. It’s only in respecting each other’s worldviews—Lia in making the terrible traveling-dress, and her mother in donning it—that they’re finally able to leave the house where they were both trapped. And, of course, their jewelry reflects their society and their journeys in very much the same way.
(I think I should mention here that shopping with my own mom is always a total blast.)
As for the souls in the jewelry, that one’s directly mapped. I own some pieces of jewelry from my maternal grandmother, who died when I was sixteen. I think of her every single time I pick them up. She was very special to me, and I wonder sometimes what she would say about how I turned out. So those pieces were the inspiration for the entire soul-economy in “Bodice,” which I hope I can write about again down the line.
You refer to yourself as a “visual storyteller”, which strikes me as accurate. You’re a photographer as well as an author, and your prose itself is very visual and evocative, almost cinematic at times. Do you see your work as a photographer and your work as an author informing each other, or are they different creative spheres in your brain? On top of all that, you’re also a musician. What role, if any, does music play in your writing and photography?
Nice catch! I spent several years as a wedding videographer in Orlando, and it absolutely changed how I write. Modern wedding videography is the most exhilarating and exhausting thing I’ve ever done, and it basically requires you to be the director, lead camera, second camera, sound mixer, boom operator, and gaffer all at once, while never flubbing the first take—ever.
As a wedding videographer, you have to be omnipresent and omnipotent. You’re hypervigilant, hearing everything, watching everything, taping everything, knowing where the light is, knowing what the DJ or the presider is doing next, knowing where Uncle Joey is with his iPad so you don’t step on his toes, knowing which accessories the bride wants featured and which relatives were just invited so Aunt Patty stopped complaining and—you start noticing things you don’t notice in “real life,” and that absolutely trained my writing eye to notice the little details, too. Photography—especially news and portrait photography—is similar. It’s all about telling an entire story in one frame. You have to be both economical and incredibly creative all at once. Harnessing that aesthetic is a delightful challenge for a writer.
My relationship to music is similar. There’s a reason so many writers put on soundtracks before diving into their novels. Music is a language like English or Japanese or C++, and the more you pay attention to how to tell a story in lyrics and notes and orchestral swells, the easier you’ll find sentences and paragraphs. The structure of a novel is very much like the structure of a symphony, for example, and anyone who’s been to a folk festival has witnessed a master class in economical storytelling. I’ve spent most of my life playing the violin—when not in a pandemic, I fiddle with a ceilidh band—and music is a delightful warm place to return when things get tough.
Switching gears, you currently reside in the Baltimore area, a which seems to have a very active speculative fiction community. Do you think there’s something about the area that attracts speculative fiction writers and readers? What spots do you like to bring guests, or recommend to people visiting for the first time? Are there any particularly fantastical or weird spaces in the city that have inspired your fiction?
Baltimore is weird. It’s a great city. It’s the most American place I’ve ever lived, full of wonderful art and unbelievable contradictions and wild disparities and activism and people that care deeply about their communities. I haven’t actually written about Baltimore yet—I still feel, in many ways, like I have a lot to learn before I can, because the city is so complicated. Living here is more affordable than any of the other places I’ve been. I think artists, writers and musicians have a lot more room to breathe, to worry about art instead of rent, and it shows in all of the great stuff going on.
Because there’s art. So much art. One of the things that non-Baltimoreans don’t always know is that the city is covered in murals! There’s community theater of all kinds—tons of places to hear music, a rock opera society, an orchestra, a film district—and the support system for book culture continues to grow. There are tons of indie bookstores—The Ivy, Greedy Reads, Bird In Hand, Atomic Books, Red Emma’s, The Book Escape and more.
So I’d probably take a person new to Baltimore on a morning bookstore crawl, then stop by the Visionary Art Museum in the afternoon, which is a wonderful space dedicated entirely to self-taught and folk artists. For dinner, it’d be tapas at Clavel in Remington, followed by a jaunt across the street to WC Harlan, a candlelit speakeasy, or perhaps, chili fries at an Orioles game.
One of my favorite questions to ask authors is about non-writing related jobs. What is the most unusual job you’ve ever had? What did you learn from it, and has any aspect of that job worked its way into any of your stories?
Being an event videographer is kind of like being a social engineer—we make wedding days look perfect, even if it wasn’t. You can really say that we’re—ha ha, and just so you know, I didn’t plan this phrase at all—the architect of the client’s memory. We remove familial discord and create familial bliss. We “forget” to tape the bouquets that aren’t perfect, and if you spend the day frowning or grumbling or annoyed, you’ll most likely get left out unless you’re on a client’s must-film list. I have removed unwanted family members, made unhappy brides look adorably nervous, chosen clips that make the groom look adorably hilarious rather than regrettably drunk, et cetera.
Since I’m a documentarian and not a director, I tend to stay unnoticed while filming. This allows the family to really be who they are, and for you to observe the way the family actually functions when they’re not performing for an audience. While editing, you spend hours with that family, watching them hug and laugh and celebrate and snipe at each other, and you really feel like you get to know them. It was a fabulous way to learn how people tick.
(You do need to be careful when delivering the project—despite the forty-odd hours you just spent editing the video, to our client you’re still just a stranger that showed up, said hello, then disappeared into the woodwork for the rest of the day. It’s such a weird dynamic. If you say things like “oh, my God, your Uncle Hugo has the most amazing drunk facial expressions,” you’ll sound like a complete psychopath, even if it’s 100% true.)
And yes, I’ve tried to weave that job into my written work! I wrote a wedding video horror story at Clarion, but I haven’t been able to move it out of tropey rejected territory into anything saleable. Someday I’ll figure out how to do it, when my abilities catch up with my ideas.
Now that Architects of Memory is out in the world, what’s next for you? What are you working on, or have coming up that you want folks to know about?
I’ve just turned in the sequel, Engines of Oblivion, and it’s a really wild adventure that builds on the events of the first book. There are more Vai, more Natalie Chan, more corporate shenanigans—well, more of everything, really, turned up to 11. The book should be out during the first quarter of next year and is currently available for pre-order, so you can basically get both books at once.
Other than that, I’d like to encourage readers to support debut authors during this time—and purchase their books from their local indie bookstores! It’s so important that our indies survive the pandemic, and they can only do that if we continue to support them.
Buy more books you say? I can totally get behind that. Thank you for stopping by!
Thank you very much for having me!