We throw the word "aesthetic" around a lot on this podcast -- but we've never really slowed down to talk about what it means. How do we define the aesthetic of a work? Is that different from the aesthetic of a world? How do subgenres and plot structures intertwine with those ideas?
Guest Mary Robinette Kowal joins us to explore the crafting of aesthetics in worldbuilding and storymaking! We discuss pacing, word choice, set dressing, the theatre of the mind, the "breath" of the written word, and so much more. We also examine how aesthetic can be a shorthand to help your reader with an on-ramp into your story -- but how you may also need to teach your reader where your particular world deviates from what aesthetic may lead them to assume.
Nebula and Hugo Award-winning author, Mary Robinette Kowal is a novelist and professional puppeteer. In 2008 she won the Astounding Award for Best New Writer and her debut novel Shades of Milk and Honey (Tor 2010) was nominated for the 2010 Nebula Award for Best Novel. In 2019, the first book in the Lady Astronaut series The Calculating Stars (Tor 2018), won the Hugo, Nebula and Locus awards, becoming one of only eighteen novels to do so. Her stories have appeared in Strange Horizons, Asimov’s, and several Year’s Best anthologies, as well as in her collection Scenting the Dark and Other Stories from Subterranean Press. Her short story collection Word Puppets was published in 2015, and includes both of her Hugo Award-winning stories in addition to fifteen others, running the full range of speculative fiction. In 2016, her World War I fantasy novel Ghost Talkers was published by Tor books, followed in 2018 by her alternate history Lady Astronaut series.
From 2019-2021, Kowal was the President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America.
In 2011, after several appearances as a guest star on the podcast Writing Excuses, Kowal became a permanent member of the cast. In 2013, the seventh season of the podcast won the Hugo Award for Best Related Work. Her involvement in the podcast also contributed to the creation of the Shadows Beneath anthology, in which Kowal and her three co-hosts contributed short stories alongside materials charting the unique creative process of each author.
Kowal is also an award-winning puppeteer. In high school, she took up puppetry as a hobby, but as Kowal says, she “never thought of it as something you could get paid for.” Instead, she went to East Carolina University to pursue an art degree, minoring in theater and speech. While performing as Audrey II in a performance of Little Shop of Horrors, she learned that a professional puppeteer had come to the show. It was a turning point. Kowal went on to intern at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, GA. With over twenty years of experience, she has performed for LazyTown (CBS), the Center for Puppetry Arts, Jim Henson Pictures, Sesame Street, and founded Other Hand Productions. Her designs have garnered two UNIMA-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve.
Her career in puppetry consumed much of Kowal’s creative energy for over ten years. Although she wrote in high school and college, it wasn’t until her brother moved his family to China that she began writing again. Like Lewis Carroll and J.M. Barrie, she started creating children’s fantasy as a way to stay connected to her young niece and nephew. Reminded of how much she enjoyed writing, she began submitting short stories and made her first sale in 2005, and her first professional sale to Strange Horizons in 2006.
When she isn’t writing or puppeteering, Kowal brings her speech and theater background to her work as a voice actor. She is a member of SAG/AFTRA. She has recorded audio books and short stories for authors such as Seanan McGuire, Cory Doctorow and John Scalzi. She likes to describe voice acting as “puppetry, without the pain.”
Mary Robinette lives in Nashville with her husband Rob and over a dozen manual typewriters. Sometimes she even writes on them.