Saturday, August 24, 1996

writers and a living wage


Financial matters are very difficult for writers; it seems that only a Best-Selling book can earn enough money to support an author (and sometimes even Best-Seller money runs out in a very short time). My question for you is: how do you and your partner manage to survive financially? The travel and publicity costs you must pay to publicize your works must be enormous, not to mention the medical bills you must face from your MS (don't you just love America's crappy health-care policy? The government tells people to eat meat and then won't help anyone pay for their medical bills). Also, it would seem you have financial burdens from getting your Green Card.

Do you or your partner have other income sources besides writing? What do you think of the horrible economy right now in America, and the lack of appropriate jobs for people with advanced college degrees? (I know people with Ph.D.'s who are swabbing out toilets and running cash registers for a living-- some of those people are [gasp!!] COMPUTER Ph.D.s.)
How do you see SF images of the future being influenced by the relatively new lack of opportunity in our society (lack of opportunity for EVERYONE -- even Pale Males) and the growing group of people with Master's and Doctoral degrees who are living below the poverty line?

Earning a living as a writer is difficult, but not impossible. This year will be the first time I'll earn a living wage. Oh, not enough to eat out, or have a holiday, but a literal living wage--more than minimum wage. I'm very lucky in that my partner, Kelley, has a day job that pays very well. We're lucky, too, in that we bought a house in Atlanta and sold it for a very healthy profit and were able to pay off the crippling debts that we accumulated during my Green Card war, *and* to put a down payment on a house here in Seattle.

We're especially lucky because the company Kelley works for, Wizards of the Coast, have an enlightened domestic partner benefits policy--I count as her dependent (as of June 1 this year, yay!), so my insurance is covered. This is an enormous relief. Before then, we were paying huge amounts of money on healthcare.

I don't have to pay for travel and publicity costs for my books anymore. Ever since Ammonite won a couple of awards, Ballantine/Del Rey have taken me seriously--i.e., they have paid for all that stuff. My new publisher, Avon, is an unknown quantity at this point because I'm still in the middle of writing my novel for them. They'll definitely pay for good publicity because they've risked a certain amount of money already on the book; I won't know about travel until the book comes out.

The lifespan of the Living Wage writer is very short. The first book doesn't do it, the second rarely does. Then you hit the third book, and things pick up. Unfortunately, you then have to either sell a lot of copies, or you get dropped from the list, that is, you either move up beyond Living Wage territory, or you have to go find a day job. Kelley and I are two years into something we call The Five Year Plan: I'm determined to be earning enough in the next three or four years for Kelley to be able to leave her job and write full time. Right now, it's a bit like she had been putting me through medical school--only the earnings at the end are not guaranteed. Sometimes I really believe that in five years I'll be rich and famous; sometimes I think I'm nuts.

I find American health care to be rather mixed. On the one hand, there are vast chunks of the population who have none at all; on the other, those that can afford it get excellent care. Take the UK as a comparison. On the National Health, you can have your tonsils taken out for nothing--but you have to wait three or four years, meanwhile, your immune system is destroyed by all the antibiotics you have to take to fend off the tonsilitis. Also, the UK has the lowest cancer survival rate in the developed world. So while I complain about the horrible costs, I'm glad I'm ill here rather than there. (And now I imagine there'll be some Brits out there who'll think I'm terribly disloyal and will want my guts for garters.)

Ph.D.s scrubbing the toilets.... Hmmn. Well, I think most people with degrees should not have bothered. Many people believe that getting a higher degree entitles them to something--a job, respect, security. It's demonstrably not true. Some of those people with Master's and Doctoral degrees should have done something else. It seems to me that often, students get their first degree and think: oh shit, now what do I do?! They panic, and sign up for a Master's. Frankly, I loathe the education system--in this country and the UK. It smothers those who truly want to *know* and encourages the mediocre. This doesn't mean I don't feel sorry for those who are stuck cleaning the toilets.

I think the "relatively new lack of opportunity in our society" is only new in that it is affecting those Pale Males of which you speak. White Boys aren't used to not getting what they want. Women are. From my perspective, there are more opportunities for women today then there ever have been. That hugely affluent period in this country after WWII was a freak. It probably won't come again. The SF imagery we're used to--homogeneous cultures striving towards a single goal, technology leading us to a brighter world, the conquest of space--was refined during that period. The feminist and separatist SF of the seventies was refined during the feminism of the sixties and seventies. The cyberpunk of the eighties stems from the Reagan voodoo economics and the sudden growth of the disenfranchised White Boy population. What will come from the nineties and the new century? I don't know. Maybe some of what we're seeing now--SF about real people with real lives; more fiction about non-perfect people; the fictional equivalent of niche marketing: stories about lesbians and gay men; the disabled; religious fundamentalists of all stripes; characters from non-Western countries; and so on. It'll be interesting to watch it develop.

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