Bec Stafford interviews Tricia Sullivan about her upcoming young adult novel, Shadowboxer.
I started with martial arts at 13 because I wanted to be allowed out of the house by my overprotective father! Initially, I studied Okinawan Goju-ryu karate, but they kicked me out for insubordination! I then bounced around trying different things until many years later I met Steve Morris, who eventually became my partner. He had been experimenting with anything-goes fighting since he ran a big London club in the 1970s, and it was in his small private class that I got my ass handed to me and found out karate is a pretty useless training method for fighting. I threw away everything I knew and started over. Never looked back.
Because I was running Steve’s website for years, I got exposed to the MMA culture and I saw the obstacles women face in training and fighting—it’s a tough, tough sport and women have been discouraged from fighting. In the early years most of the women in MMA who got media attention were ring girls. In the martial arts, women are encouraged to do traditional forms or no-contact sparring, or we’re fobbed off with ‘self-defence’ which is usually really ill-conceived stuff. I got more and more interested in women not as students or disciples (or victims) but as fighters. That’s what switches me on.
I probably channelled a lot of my wishful thinking into Jade. When I started Shadowboxer, I was having babies and breastfeeding. I was full of oxytocin and doing all the nurturing stuff you do with small children, but some part of me wanted to write about an angry young woman who fought. Realistically. Not Buffy, not superpowers, not kung-fu gymnastics or mystical trickery—but real fighting. That’s where Jade comes from.
1) Be you. Seriously. Don’t try to imitate or live up to anyone’s expectation of what your work is supposed to look like.
2.) Keep your writing and editing processes separate. Don’t judge when you’re writing. Write when you’re writing. Judge when you’re editing. When you’re writing, let it out freely.
3) Do the work. Do it with passion and commitment. You might be tempted to over-listen to online talk about industry politics or marketing/sales; there are some fascinating conversations. New opportunities are beginning to appear for women. But if you want to take advantage, you have got to have the chops. So no matter what happens, good or bad, keep working. Because in the end, your work is all you have, both as an artefact and as a process. The more you work, the more capable you will become, and this brings an internal power that the world can’t give you and the world can’t take away.
As well as being an acclaimed SF writer, you write fantasy under the pseudonym Valery Leith and are mum to 3 children. What’s it like juggling your many roles, and have your work habits changed much over the years?
I wrote the fantasy novels before I had children, so time wasn’t a problem back then. Right now I’m on a degree program in physics, and I write in the spaces around that.
I think what happens is that you learn to adapt. I wrote my first novel in five months of weekends while working full-time teaching middle school in New York City. I thought that was hard, until I found myself writing in one-hour-a-day slots around a very difficult baby, and then two more babies, with sleep deprivation, and isolation, and lack of money. That went on for years.
I won’t lie: it was tough, and I know that my writing suffered because there was so little of me to go round. That said, I now know how hard I can work, and it’s harder than I thought possible! Writing is really a psychological game you play with yourself. It took me a long time to develop confidence and to understand how to get the best out of myself. After twenty years, I’m finally starting to feel like I might know what I’m doing. A little.
Which of your fictional characters Burns Brightest in your mind and why?
Jade is my favourite character that I’ve ever written. Inside she’s hurting, and she’s unsure, and she feels things acutely, but she keeps up this hard exterior because that’s the only way she knows how to survive. She has this wordless fire burning in her all the time, driving her on even when the situation she’s in seems impossible. I love that about her.