Martha Wells is a woman with a ridiculous number of talents. I have recently been selling her Murderbot Diaries series to anyone who will listen. She also has a number of popular full length books and does writing for a number of established fictional universes such as Star Wars. Most recently, it was announced that Martha would be tackling the story for Magic the Gathering’s next card set, Dominaria, and writing the story pieces that come out alongside the new cards. With so many cool things going on for her, I decided that I really wanted to see if I could talk with Martha about what it was like to write in so many different formats and subjects. To my joy, she got back to my numerous questions about her work and the answers are posted below, enjoy:
I have been reading your Murderbot Diaries and describing them as novellas. Do you think of them as novellas? Or just short books? How do you define them as works of writing in your mind?
The first one was actually intended to be a short story, and then I realized it really needed to be longer. I still wanted to keep it short, so novella length seemed perfect. I’d also written novella-length work before, in my two Stories of the Raksura collections. It just seemed the right length to tell the story.
The Murderbot series has some of the best writing for a shorter novel I have seen. What is your technique when it comes to dividing page space in a book this small, and how does it differ from a book like The Cloud Roads?
Thank you! I don’t think I used any particular technique. I’ve written a lot, including a lot of work at shorter lengths, and after all that experience I just have a feel for how to pace a story or book for the length I want. In a longer novel like The Cloud Roads, there’s more room for subplots and more detailed exploration of the world. In a novella, you have to concentrate on the story and let the reader pick up on the details of the world as the plot develops.
What was your inspiration for the Murderbot Diaries? What made you want to write a story about relatable AI’s with a talent for killing people?
I’ve seen a lot of stories about AIs who want their freedom and immediately use it to kill humans, which seems like a very human-centric view of the situation, motivated by guilt at how the humans are using the AI. So I wanted to write an AI who was mostly indifferent to humans, who just wanted to be left alone, who had no particular desire to hurt anyone that wasn’t trying to hurt it.
Murderbot’s love of media left me with some big questions. Do they love TV because their personality was programed to love TV? Is it something that they completely developed on their own? How much of Murderbot’s identity was crafted by code and how much was made by her experiences or something else?
No, it wasn’t programming. As a combination of AI and human brain tissue, the constructs like Murderbot all have the potential to develop their own personalities. The governor modules are supposed to keep that from happening, but they aren’t always successful. I think that becomes more obvious in the later novellas where Murderbot encounters other contracts and bots.
You have written a number of sci fi and fantasy novels at this point. In your opinion, what are the major differences when it comes to writing in each genre?
I don’t really think there’s much difference at all. They both require consistency in world building and engaging characters that the reader will care about.
I saw the announcement that you would be writing a series of shorts for Dominaria, the next Magic the Gathering set. Are you a magic player yourself? Is this something that you pursued because you wanted to write in the magic world or was this something where Wizard of the Coast came to you for your excellent writing?
They approached my agent with the offer to write the fiction for Dominaria. I’ve been familiar with Magic for a long time through the artwork, which is so gorgeous, though I’d never played the game. (Most of my game-playing experience is all in older RPGs.) I was excited by the opportunity to do something new, in such a well-established, beautifully illustrated world, and it’s been a lot of fun.
What is different (easier/harder) about writing for an expanded universe like Magic (or Star Wars, as I know you have some books in that ring as well)?
It takes a lot of research. Even if it’s something that you’re a big fan of (like in my case Star Wars and Stargate Atlantis), as a reader or viewer who isn’t thinking of writing in the universe, there’s a lot of detail you can miss. When you’re going to actually work with an established universe, you have to take in a lot of detail, understand how everything works, as well as the personalities of your characters. It’s a lot of fun, but it can be a lot of work, too.
How do you feel about your Star Wars novel Razors Edge being relegated to the now non-canon Legends timeline? Would you like to write another Star Wars book in the current canon universe?
It was very disappointing. I really like the current canon universe and the new movies, but I’m not sure it’s something I’d want to do again.
Is there another license you’d be interested in writing for that you haven’t had the opportunity yet? (e.g. Marvel, DC, Harry Potter, etc)
If I had the opportunity, I’m a huge Doctor Who fan, so I’d be tempted to write something for it. But right now, I want to concentrate on my own universes.
What are some of your favorite sci fi and fantasy novels?
I have a ton of favorites. Right now I really enjoyed The Tiger’s Daughter by K. Arsenault Rivera, the Rivers of London series by Ben Aaronovitch, The Stone Sky by N.K. Jemisin, the Court of Fives series by Kate Elliott, Raven Stratagem by Yoon Ha Lee, Jade City by Fonda Lee.
The cover art for your work is consistently amazing, do you have a favorite piece of cover art out of all of your novels?
It’s hard to pick one. I think the covers for the Books of the Raksura by Matthew Steward and Yukari Masuike are some all time favorites.
Do you wear novelty socks?
Sometimes! I have octopus socks.
Thank you again to Martha Wells for taking the time to answer some questions, and for those of you unfamiliar you can start reading her new Dominaria storyline next week on the Magic the Gathering site!