Sylvia Engdahl is best known as the author of award-winning Young Adult novels, but she is now writing only for adults. Although her fiction is set in the distant future on other worlds, it’s not just for science fiction fans and because it focuses more on the characters’ feelings than on fast action or strange environments, it is usually enjoyed more by general audiences than by readers with extensive science fiction background. Engdahl lives in Eugene, Oregon, and currently works as a freelance editor of nonfiction anthologies. Her main website is at www.sylviaengdahl.com and the website for her novel Stewards of the Flame is at www.stewardsoftheflame.com.
Q: Thank you for this interview, Sylvia. Can you tell us what your newest release, Stewards of the Flame, is all about?
A: Actually it’s not my newest release, as the sequel has just come out; but because any description of the sequel would spoil the suspense of Stewards of the Flame, I’m not promoting that to new readers. Stewards of the Flame is about two things. First, where the trend toward government control of health care might lead in the distant future — in the story the medical authorities literally are the government and people have voted away their personal freedom out of exaggerated (and self-defeating) concern for physical perfection and the illusion of an unending lifespan. And second, the development of the so-called paranormal powers of the mind, which I believe are latent in humankind. Both these issues are controversial, of course. There’s a reading group discussion guide at http://www.stewardsoftheflame.com for those who want to get an idea of them (it doesn’t contain any plot spoilers). Several reviewers have suggested that the book might be a good one for reading groups, and I hope some will discover it.
Q: Is this your first novel? If not, how has writing this novel different from writing your first?
A: No, but it’s my first for adults — the others were all Young Adult novels. Enchantress from the Stars, first published nearly 40 years ago, became a Newbery Honor book and later was a runner-up for Book Sense Book of the Year in the Rediscovery category. I wrote more YA novels for older teens during the 1970s and many adults also enjoy them. But I had been away from writing for many years when I began writing Stewards of the Flame, which isn’t suitable for YA audiences. Writing on the computer is totally different, and far easier for me, than using a typewriter as I did in the 70s; I have poor finger coordination and was always struggling with correction fluid and paste-ups when I had to produce hardcopy, so that I could not revise as I went along to the extent I do now.
Q: How difficult was it writing your book? Did you ever experience writer’s block and, if so, what did you do?
A: Well, that depends on what you count as writer’s block. I have gone for many years at a time without enough action ideas for stories to turn my theme ideas into novels; that is less “block” than my normal state. Having a real story idea is the exception for me. I got the central idea for Stewards of the Flame 16 years before I wrote more than the first few chapters; I’d created the society and characters but could not think of what would happen in the story. Then all of a sudden when clearing old files off my hard disk, the ending came to me, and I was able to write the book quickly. I never have writer’s block in the sense of trouble putting a story into words, although often the ideas for specific events don’t come to me until I’m actually writing a scene.
Q: How have your fans embraced your latest novel? Do you have any funny or unusual experiences to share?
A: It’s had a lot of good reviews but I’ve had very little feedback from readers. Those who’ve written to me have been enthusiastic, and have used phrases like “couldn’t put it down,” “utterly spellbound,” and “totally bowled over.” Of course, since it’s a controversial book, I assume there have been people who strongly disagreed with its premises and refrained from commenting on that account. And often the reviews have appeared on science fiction pages of websites, where the people most apt to like it don’t even look; so its largest potential audience hasn’t yet heard of it.
Q: What is your daily writing routine?
A: As I can’t sleep well at night I live by an unusual schedule; I go to bed about 6:30 a.m. and sleep until early afternoon, work in the late afternoon and evening, and do my best writing in the middle of the night. When I’m writing a novel I get totally absorbed and spend all the time available on it. As I now work as a freelance editor of nonfiction anthologies, I devote most of my time to that; but when I’m not near a deadline, I take several hours before going to bed for my own writing — and between freelance projects I write virtually all the hours I’m awake.
Q: When you put the pen or mouse down, what do you do to relax?
A: I read, listen to music, and hold my cats for about an hour before I go to bed at dawn. Often I watch TV or DVDs for an hour or two in the evening merely to rest my eyes from close work on the computer — although the computer is less tiring for them now than books are, as I can enlarge the font.
Q: What book changed your life?
A: I don’t think any single book ever changed it. Books have been an integral part of my life since my early childhood, but I can’t single out particular ones that influenced what I thought or did. Of course my life would have been very different if I had not read widely; I can’t even imagine that!
Q: If someone were to write a book on your life, what would the title be?
A: An Observer of Planet Earth. (I used that title for an autobiographical essay once.) I’ve always been more of an observer of life than an active participant, except insofar as writing is participation.
Q: Finish this sentence: “The one thing that I wish people would understand about me is…”
A: That even my YA novels were meant for mature teens, not children, and that I mean the themes of my books to be taken seriously.
Thank you for this interview, Sylvia. I wish you much success on your book, Stewards of the Flame!