Irina Ivanova is soft spoken. Yet, she writes a tough cookie of a heroine. Guess you never can tell what is beneath the surface.
Tamago: When did you first know that you were going to be a writer?
Irina: I wrote my first story at thirteen, for a literature class. The assignment was to come up with a 3 (notebook) page science fiction story. After an all-nighter (a first manifestation of a bad habit of mine), I proudly presented a 22-page story (again, a first manifestation of another bad habit of mine). At this point, I still didn't know I'll one day consider writing as more than a fun pastime -- that'd take another 20 years or so. But I haven't stopped writing since.
Looking back, though, I should have known storytelling would be my "thing." I was the four-year old who would entertain herself for hours by naming her color pencils and creating adventures for them (sadly, my character-naming skills haven't improved much since -- though I'd like to believe the adventures have). For years growing up, my favorite bedtime activity was to re-imagine books and movies the way I'd have liked them to be (I had, and still have, a mild fascination with evil henchmen -- as you can imagine, there was a lot of re-imagining to do there!). Oh, and I was also a compulsive reader. I figure my career as an engineer has had it coming from the start.
Tamago: What kind of genres do you like to write the most in? Why?
Irina: I don't necessarily have a preferred genre. I've dabbled in most subgenres of speculative fiction, but I play mainly in "hard-ish" fantasy and in science fiction (usually, with stories that are a tad less grand than space operas, fall a hair or two short of hard sci-fi, and/or border on social sci-fi). I guess one of my favorite parts of writing is world-building, so I tend to be drawn to genres that let me do a ton of it.
Tamago: Has being a member of two different cultures affected your writing?
Irina: Absolutely! It's the shove-it-down-your-throat version of gaining perspective by being exposed to others' beliefs and lifestyles -- and adopting or adapting to them -- or, alternatively, getting forced out of your comfort zone: a type of experience all fiction writers should have anyway!
Seriously, though, partly because I've been a member of different cultures and partly because of the specific cultures and the events that have influenced them in these past couple of decades, I feel I have a rich source of themes, conflict, imagery, and behavior patterns to explore -- or borrow -- for my stories. Otherwise, it's just another experience, in a way unique, and in a way not at all that uncommon, that's part of life. And life affects writing, whether we want it or not. =)
Tamago: Do you prefer to write novels or short stories? Why?
Irina: Novels, because I get to spend more time with the story, characters, and worlds. I also like to play in novella territory -- I believe novella-length stories allow a writer to focus on leaner plots and fewer themes, while still providing plenty of space to fill out the characters and the world. As for short stories, I occasionally do try my hand at them, but I find them much harder to do well, and not nearly as fulfilling as my longer works.
Tamago: Which authors have influenced your work the most?
Irina: It's hard to pick just a few. From the science fiction genre, my earliest (and possibly greatest) influences are the works of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Hard-boiled detective novels gave me my favorite writing voice -- I used to eat up Stout, Chandler, Hammett. I love classical adventure/historical novels -- Sir Walter Scott, Sabatini, Dumas -- they're probably the reason why a lot of my stories are personal journeys with grand-scale world events taking place in the background. Finally, of my newer influences, I have to mention Matthew Stover, from whom I also heard the simplest, yet best writing advice I can think of: "Write what you want to read."
Tamago: What could you tell a prospective VP'er about going to the workshop?
Irina: Anyone's mileage with any given workshop will vary -- it's one of these experiences that will be unique for you, even if you share it with others. In my case, a couple of the lectures fundamentally changed how I view my writing and how I approach the writing process. I also had the opportunity to meet some great people, have excellent conversations, and spend a wonderful -- even if busy and sleep-deprived -- week with like-minded individuals. Particularly about VP: the staff is amazing, the instructors are knowledgeable, approachable, and accommodating to us neophytes (and they are also super awesome people in general), and Martha's Vineyard itself turned out to be a really neat place to visit.
As for advice for the workshop … Chances are that you won't have enough time for everything you want and need to do. So, if you have a job that requires your attention even when you're taking time off -- do your best to find someone to cover for you for the week and make yourself unavailable to your colleagues and your boss. Also, talk to everyone at the workshop, as much as you can. Go on all the walks and any group outings, fly kites and help with the grocery runs. And, again, talk to everyone, even if you feel tired, or stressed, or under the weather! Chance are that it will be worth it.
Tamago: What are you working on right now?
Irina: I usually have a few projects going on at once. Currently, I'm halfway through a novel I tentatively call "The Journeyman," which is about a world where the "magic," which for centuries has been essential to daily life, is dying (quite violently), and about a few people who try to figure out why and what to do about it. On the sci-fi side, I'm playing with "The Sake of the Pack," a story about a man who, after nearly becoming a sacrificial pawn, seeks revenge on the leadership of a resistance movement formed when this region of space -- which had been isolated for a long time after a technological disaster -- is re-integrated with the rest of the world. I'm also tackling a novella (about two groups racing through a dangerous forest to get to a guy who's prophesied to be the deciding factor in a war), and a short story (about a near-future police detective forced to work with new technology he distrusts).
Tamago: When you're not writing, what sorts of things are you likely to do for relaxation?
Irina: I draw. I read. I play computer games. I take random road trips. I also walk. A lot. There's nothing like a good long walk to clear the mind and recharge the creative energy!
Tamago: Where would you like to be as a writer in the next ten years?
Irina: I'd like to reach the point where I can consider my finished stories good enough to release in the wild. There's still a lot I need to work on when it comes to the actual craft of writing. I might have been putting stories on paper for a long time, but, at least in my case, I've found there's a huge difference between writing for personal enjoyment and writing for an audience. So, I hope that in ten years I'll have successfully bridged the gap and some of my stories will be thriving out there. Also, it'd be great to make a comfortable living from writing -- although I realize this is quite unlikely to become a reality, especially in the next ten years.
Tamago: Where can readers find more of your work?
Irina: Unfortunately, right now, nowhere. I've only made a few very timid attempts to get short stories published, none successful -- which in retrospect is a really good thing, considering the stories weren't all that good. I have a novella or two that I kinda like, but don't plan on trying to get published -- I've considered putting these up on my blog or on a personal website as examples of my work. But I'm still weighing the pros and cons of placing rough prose in publicly accessible locations, no matter how obscure these locations may be, and so far the cons have a definite advantage.
Perfecting craft is a noble writing endeavor. Hopefully, however, those of us who know Irina might get to see some diamonds in the rough.