MARION ZIMMER BRADLEY Mists of Avalon wordsmith


Marion Zimmer Bradley (1930–1999) was a pioneering author of fantasy, science fiction, and science fantasy. She was most famous for her goddess- centered retelling of the Arthurian legend from a female point of view in her novel Mists of Avalon, which spent four months on the New York Times bestsellers list; she was also known for her Darkover science fiction/fantasy series, the saga of a planet where human colonists develop ESP powers. Enthusiastic readers saw in her work what essayist Nancy Jesser called “one of the early manifestations of proto-feminist science fiction.” Perhaps driven by parenthood’s demands on her own life, her fiction often examined women’s attempts to find balance between a woman’s duty to herself and her obligations to others. She worked in many genres, including Gothic novels, historical fantasy, children’s books, teleplays, and lesbian novels, addressing through the characters and worlds she created such issues as gender, androgyny, sexism, homophobia, technology, alienation, and the evolution of cultures and how humans relate. Besides her Darkover and Avalon series, over four decades, she published dozens of stand-alone novels of various kinds. Paradoxically, she often denied possessing any particular talent for writing and said she’d rather edit or teach.

Born Marion Eleanor Zimmer, she grew up on a farm in Albany, New York. She had an early interest in writing and dictated poetry to her mother, historian Evelyn Parkhurst Conklin, before she learned to write; at eleven, when she found her school newspaper not to her taste, she started an alternative school paper, The Columbia Journal. In the late 1940s, she did not believe a young woman could make a living out of writing, so in a streak of practicality, she attended the state teachers’ college in Albany for a couple of years. But in 1949, she married a railroad man, Robert Alden Bradley, and left college behind. That same year, at age nineteen, she made her first sale via an amateur fiction contest, to Fantastic/Amazing Stories. The Bradleys’ son was born in 1950; meanwhile, she continued to both write short stories and try her hand at longer works. When she sold another story in 1952, this time to Vortex Science Fiction, it kicked off what she saw as her “professional” writing career; she juggled writing with the parenting and homemaking duties expected of women in the 1950s. The young family moved to Abilene, Texas, in 1959, where Marion went back to school, financing her tuition by writing romances and confessional novels.

In 1961, she was at last able to publish her first novel, The Door Through Space, an expansion of her 1957 short SF story “Bird of Prey.” 1962 was a banner year for Bradley, one in which she published five different books: three under her own name, including The Planet Savers, and two more under various noms de plume. The Planet Savers, which had been serialized in Amazing Science Fiction Stories in 1959, kicked off her Darkover series, which came to encompass seventeen novels under her sole authorship as well as a couple of collaboratively written works, notably including Rediscovery, written with Mercedes Lackey, and a dozen short story anthologies edited by Bradley. The Darkover saga took up much of her time through the sixties and seventies, though she also published a collection of her other short science fiction works, 1964’s The Dark Intruder and Other Stories, and several volumes of literary criticism.

1964 was the year Bradley finally finished college: She graduated from Texas’ Hardin-Simmons University with a triple bachelor’s degree in English, Spanish, and psychology; she also gained her teaching credential. But, by that time, her writing was selling sufficiently well that she ended up never using it. The Bradleys divorced; Marion wed again, this time to Walter Breen, an authority on rare coins. They had two children, moving to California in 1965, where she undertook graduate studies at UC Berkeley. She was also an early member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, a historical recreation group focused on the medieval period—in fact, she came up with the name! Fellow F/SF writers Diana Paxson and Poul Anderson were also cofounders of the SCA, which is now a nonprofit with tens of thousands of members in several countries.

In the early 1950s, Bradley began to explore Western esoteric traditions, joining the Rosicrucian Order. In the late 1970s, she was active for a few years in Darkmoon Circle, a women’s goddess spirituality group that used to meet in a renovated carriage house at her Berkeley home; it has been described as “part coven, part women’s consciousness-raising [group], and part sewing circle.” But she left not long after Mists of Avalon was published, finding herself beset by people wanting her to give talks on female consciousness and asking her how much of Mists had been “channeled”—which was none of it, according to Bradley. Some members also proposed opening the group to men; she was not keen on that, as she was there in the interest of learning how to better relate to women. She and Breen separated in 1979, the year Mists of Avalon was released, but lived on the same street and continued to have business dealings until a decade later, when her former husband was charged with molesting a boy and Bradley obtained an official divorce.

Bradley had long considered telling the tale of Morgan Le Fay, the enchantress sister of King Arthur. When editors Judy and Lester Del Rey asked if she would write an Arthurian novel about Sir Lancelot, she said she would prefer to write about Arthur’s sister, whose name she changed to Morgaine. After they agreed to her proposal, Bradley rented a flat in London and visited a number of Arthurian sites in England in preparation for writing Mists of Avalon. In Mists, the protagonist, a priestess of an ancient Earth-centered religion, is unable to forestall the inexorable expansion of Christianity despite her mystical powers; she watches as women, previously respected in ancient tradition, become oppressed and seen as the source of original sin in patriarchal Christian teachings. In the 1990s, Bradley cowrote two prequels to Mists with author Diana Paxson; after Marion’s demise, Paxson completed the story with four more prequel volumes.

In her later years, Bradley turned more to fantasy, as in 1980’s The House Between the Worlds. She’d once trained as a singer and was a self-described “opera nut,” so she made use of operatic plotlines in Night’s Daughter (1985), a retelling of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, and The Forest House (1993), based on Bellini’s Norma. Besides writing, Bradley edited magazines, including her own Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine, launched in 1988, as well as seventeen years of the annual anthology Sword and Sorceress. In these, as well as by licensing anthologies of fan-created stories set in her Darkover universe, Marion encouraged numbers of new writers in the F/SF field, especially women. Her writing output became more sparse due to declining health, though she did still create some new works, like her Gothic parapsychological novels Ghostlight, Witchlight, Gravelight, and Heartlight, in the 1990s. She died in Berkeley in 1999, and her ashes were scattered at Glastonbury Tor in Cornwall. Several works by other authors continued the Darkover epic posthumously.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

KATE WILHELM antiwar author who transcended sexist science fiction


Kate Wilhelm (1928–2018) wrote more than three dozen novels, as well as
a great deal of short fiction, split between the science fiction and mystery/ suspense genres. She won both the Hugo and Locus Awards for her SF novel Where Late the Sweet Bird Sang, and won both of these again for her nonfiction work Storyteller: Writing Lessons and More from 27 Years of the Clarion Writers’ Workshop. Her science fiction novel Juniper Time won the Prix Apollo of France. She also won three Nebula Awards for short science fiction and actually took a part in designing the physical Nebula Award trophy, creating an early sketch on which it was based.

Amazingly, Wilhelm sold the first two science fiction stories she ever wrote. Upon reading an SF anthology from the public library, she thought, “I can do that”; after writing a couple of stories in a notebook, she rented a typewriter and sent them off. Miraculously, both were accepted: “The Pint-Sized Genie” (1956, Fantastic) and “The Mile-Long Spaceship” (1957, Astounding).

Wilhelm also wrote detective fiction involving women as solvers: her Barbara Holloway series features a female attorney in Oregon who solves mysteries, blending courtroom drama with detective plotlines, and in her Constance Leidl and Charlie Meiklejohn series, Leidl is a psychologist who investigates cases with her retired arson detective husband. Wilhelm released nine collections of her short stories of speculative fiction; in 1980, she also published four volumes of her poetry. Her work has been adapted for TV, film, and theater productions in the US, England, and Germany. Her second marriage, which lasted four decades until her spouse’s passing in 2002, was to writer and editor Damon Knight. Along with Knight, Wilhelm played an important part in the creation of the Clarion Workshop for writers. In 2003, she was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

JUDITH MERRIL ‘the strongest woman in science fiction’


Judith Merril (1923–1997) was an American-born Canadian science fiction editor, critic, and anthologist who left her mark on the genre. Born Josephine Juliet Grossman to Jewish parents in Boston, she lost her father to suicide in 1929. Her mother, who had been a suffragette, moved the family to the Bronx borough of New York City when Judith was in her mid-teens. Judith took an interest in politics while still in high school, studying Marxism, as well as Zionism, which her mother espoused. Judith graduated from high school in 1939 at only sixteen; she soon experienced a shift in political values due to events of the time and became interested in Trotskyist thought. At a Trotskyite picnic the next summer, she met Dan Zissman, and four months later, they married. In 1942, they had one daughter, Merril Zissman, but the marriage ended in 1945.

During these years, Judith became involved with a New York science fiction group, the Futurians, and in 1946, science fiction author Frederik Pohl, whom she had met in the group, came to live with her. In this period, she changed her last name to Merril. She married Pohl in late 1948 when her divorce was finalized, and they had a daughter, Ann Pohl, in 1950. This second marriage was short-lived as well; they divorced in 1952. As these events unfolded, Judith concurrently worked on science fiction fanzines and began to write professionally in other genres in 1945. Her first SF short story, “That Only

a Mother,” a disturbing tale about nuclear radiation, was published in 1948 in Astounding. She followed it with her debut novel, Shadow on the Hearth (1950), an understated nuclear World War III story told from the viewpoint of a suburban housewife, which was later adapted for television under the title Atomic Attack.

Beginning in 1950, she edited anthologies of short science fiction, including the popular “Year’s Best” anthology from 1956 to 1967; she was one of a short list of people who brought greater professionalism and literary standards to the field. In total, she edited more than two dozen anthologies and published twenty-six original short stories of her own. She collaborated with fellow SF writer and Futurian C.M. Kornbluth on two novels published under the name ‘Cyril Judd,’ Outpost Mars (1951) and Gunner Cade (1952). Her 1960 novel The Tomorrow People melded suspenseful psychological mystery with science fiction; after that year, she did not publish much more fiction. Homecalling and Other Stories: The Complete Solo Fiction of Judith Merril was posthumously published in 2005.

Merril moved to the Canadian city of Toronto in 1968 in reaction to the US government’s suppression of citizen action against the Vietnam War; there she was one of the founding residents of the Rochdale College experiment in cooperative housing and education run by students themselves. She founded a wide-ranging collection of speculative fiction at the Toronto Public Library in 1970, donating the books and periodicals she had personally amassed to kick it off; later, in the 1990s, the library named the individually housed collection after her. In 1976, she became a citizen of Canada; she was active in its peace movement, and once, she even traveled to the seat of Parliament in Ottawa in witchy garb to cast a hex on them for having allowed the US to test cruise missiles in Canadian airspace.

In 1997, the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America named her their Author Emeritus for the year, and she was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. Her fragmentary autobiographical memoir, Better to Have Loved: The Life of Judith Merril (2002) was completed by her granddaughter Emily Pohl-Weary; in an ironic twist, it won a Hugo Award for Best Related Book. Noted SF author J.G. Ballard once called Judith Merril “the strongest woman in a genre for the most part created by timid and weak men.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

LEIGH BRACKETT the queen of space opera


Author Leigh Brackett mostly wrote science fiction but was also a screenwriter for both the large and small screen. She worked on scripts for such cinematic works as a 1946 film noir starring Bogart and Bacall titled The Big Sleep and 1959’s Rio Bravo, as well as other John Wayne Westerns, and she contributed to the screenwriting process for The Empire Strikes Back. She was born in Los Angeles in 1915; her father, himself an aspiring writer who worked as an accountant, died three years later of influenza during the pandemic that killed over 600,000 Americans and countless millions worldwide. Her mother and grandparents then raised her in Santa Monica. Young Leigh was a tomboy who enjoyed playing volleyball and reading Tarzan stories; she went on to attend a private school for girls. She did not attend college due to the family’s financial situation.

At age twenty-four, she joined the Los Angeles Science Fiction Society, where she met such authors as Robert Heinlein, who published his very first story, “Life-Line,” that same year, and Ray Bradbury, who at that point had yet to publish any of his works of speculative fiction. She soon started to attend Heinlein’s Mañana Literary Society gatherings; it is likely that this social milieu was inspiring and supportive, and Brackett’s first story, “Martian Quest,” was published in Astounding Science Fiction in 1940. Her first science fiction novel, Shadow Over Mars, was originally serialized in 1944 in the magazine Planet Stories, but was not published in book form (as The Nemesis from Terra) until 1961. Though it was somewhat rough-edged, it marked the starting point of a new film noir-inflected style of science fiction.

Her first published book-length fiction, a detective mystery novel titled No Good from a Corpse (1944), was good enough that director Howard Hawks told his secretary to call in “this guy Brackett” to help William Faulkner on scriptwriting for Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep, which is seen as one of the best detective movies ever made. Screenwriting became her main occupation until 1948, when she returned to speculative fiction. While working on The Big Sleep, she had no time to finish her novella Lorelei of the Red Mist, so she engaged Ray Bradbury to complete it, and it was published under both their names in Planet Stories in 1946.

On the last day of that year, she married Edmond Hamilton, a fellow space opera and mystery writer a decade older than she, who had been precociously intelligent enough to start college at age fourteen. They bought a house in rural Ohio and eventually a second home in California’s high desert and worked side by side for a quarter-century, though they only rarely collaborated in a formal sense. From 1948 through 1951, Leigh wrote a series of longer SF stories such as her novel Sea-Kings of Mars (1949), creating evocative planetary settings. Also in 1949, she began to produce a series of stories featuring Eric John Stark as protagonist; though her character was from Earth, he was raised by semi- sentient aboriginal denizens of the planet Mercury. She wrote and sold three stories featuring Stark: “Queen of the Martian Catacombs,” “Enchantress of Venus,” and 1951’s “Black Amazon of Mars” before turning her writing focus from plot-driven tales of high adventure to fiction with more attention to mood that contemplated such concepts as the passing of civilizations.

Brackett regularly sold short fiction to science fiction magazines through 1955, while at the same time producing a number of book-length works, including The Starmen (1952) and the post-nuclear holocaust novel The Long Tomorrow (1955). That year, however, Planet Stories, her most reliable buyer, ceased publication; her fittingly titled story Last Call graced its final issue. But later in 1955, both Startling Stories and Thrilling Wonder Stories folded, and with that, Brackett’s magazine market for her short stories had evaporated. Though she did write some short stories in the years that followed (some of which saw print after evolving into full-length books), for the next decade or so she focused her efforts on writing for the more financially rewarding big screen and television markets.

In 1963–64, she revisited the Martian setting of her early adventure works in two short stories, “The Road to Sinharat” and the amusingly titled “Purple Priestess of the Mad Moon,” which was at least somewhat of self-parody. After several years more, she returned to science fiction in the mid-seventies with her trilogy The Book of Skaith, which revived her Eric John Stark character of decades earlier but shifted the setting to Skaith, a fictional world outside Earth’s solar system. Brackett never wrote any more tales set in our own solar system after the Mariner probes proved there was no life on Mars; instead, she invented her own faraway planets. Her narratives often involved clashes between planetary civilizations or tensions between colonizers and local sentient beings.

Leigh Brackett published twenty original novels spanning genres including SF, mysteries, crime, and Western, as well as more than fifty works of short fiction and sixteen screenplays for cinema and TV. She died in California after a battle with lung cancer in 1978, shortly after completing a first-draft script for Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back.

On William Faulkner’s handling of collaboration with her on The Big Sleep:

He greeted me courteously. He put the book down and said, “We will do alternate sections. You will do these chapters and I will do these chapters” and so on. But that’s the way he wanted it done. He turned around and walked into his office and I never saw him again except to say good morning.

Leigh Brackett

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

ANDRE NORTON first woman in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame


Andre Alice Norton (born Alice Mary Norton in 1912) was a prolific classic science fiction and fantasy author for over half a century, as well as a writer of contemporary and historical fiction and the editor of such anthologies as Catfantastic; she wrote many series as well as over sixty single novels and dozens of short stories. Her main nom de plume was Andre Norton, and she also wrote under the names Allen Weston and Andrew North. Norton was the first woman ever to win either an SFWA Grand Master Award or a Gandalf Award for achievement in the fantasy and science fiction genres, as well as the first woman to be inducted into the Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame. She has been called the Grande Dame of Science Fiction and Fantasy by media outlets  such as Time magazine.

Norton wrote her first novel, a thriller called Ralestone Luck, while still in
high school; it was eventually published as her second book in 1938. She had planned to study teaching, but the Depression forced her to go to work as a librarian instead. She continued working in libraries for nearly two decades, eventually spending a couple of years on staff at the Library of Congress. She legally adopted the pen name of Andre Norton in 1934 in order to sell more books in the fantasy market, which was then composed largely of boys. In the 1950s, she was a prolific novel writer, and many of these books were aimed at young readers. She worked at New York SF publisher Gnome Press from 1950 to 1958 as a reader; then, having already published twenty-one novels while working at day jobs, she turned to writing full-time.

Her stories often involve a rite of passage type experience involving challenges requiring lead characters to rapidly rise to the occasion and be resourceful. She pioneered the concept of traveling through alternate worlds in her 1956 work The Crossroads of Time, and, in 1978, she published the first novel based on the Dungeons & Dragons game, Quag Keep. She was the author of many popular series, such as Time Traders; Beast Master; Mark of the Cat; the Cycle of Oak, Yew, Ash, and Rowan; and the bestselling Witch World books.

Andre Norton died at her home in Tennessee in 2005; that year, an annual Andre Norton Award for outstanding science fiction or fantasy for young adults was established. She deeply influenced the entirety of the fantasy and science fiction genres, publishing over three hundred works over the span of seventy years, and inspired many popular authors such as C.J. Cherryh and Mercedes Lackey.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

C.L. MOORE pioneering mastery of noir and interplanetary romance


Catherine Lucille Moore (1911–1987) was among the first female authors in the science fiction and fantasy genres, and her work paved the way for the many women writers of speculative fiction who followed. She was the first woman ever to be nominated as a Grand Master by the Science Fiction Writers of America, though she did not accept due to health difficulties late in life. She first attained recognition writing as the gender-neutral “C.L. Moore,” though, interestingly, she did not employ this nom de plume to conceal the fact that she was a woman but rather because she didn’t want her employers at the Fletcher Trust financial institution to find out she was moonlighting as a writer.

As a child, she was often in ill health and spent countless hours taking in the literature of the fantastic. Her first three stories to see print ran in The Vagabond, a student magazine at Indiana University, in 1930–1931; they were works of short fantasy fiction that appeared under the name “Catherine Moore.” As the 1930s rolled on, she sold a number of short stories to Weird Tales; one of her two early series featured one of the first female protagonists in the sword-and-sorcery subgenre, Jirel of Joiry. Her Jirel of Joiry tale “The Black God’s Kiss” was the cover story for an issue of Weird Tales in 1934, with an illustration of the heroine and a huge ebony statue. In 1936, Moore received a fan letter from a fellow science fiction writer; due to her pseudonym, he was under the impression that she was male. She met Henry Kuttner and went on to write a story with him featuring both Jirel of Joiry and another of her series characters, Northwest Smith, entitled “Quest of the Starstone” (1937). In 1940, they married, and many further collaborations ensued, with some credited to their actual names and some under one of seventeen joint pseudonyms, such as Laurence O’Donnell, but most often their stories appeared under Lewis Padgett, a name created by combining their mothers’ maiden names.

Moore had already achieved fame before she started to work with Kuttner;
this recognition came with her first professional-level story in Weird Tales, 1933’s “Shambleau,” a tale of a psychic femme fatale vampire set on a ‘planetary romance’ version of Mars. A gradual consensus has emerged that Moore was in fact the stronger writer of the two. She did continue to create solo works, and many of her short stories ran in Astounding Science Fiction through the 1940s; one of these, the 1944 novella No Woman Born, went on to be reprinted in no less than ten different anthologies, including The Best of C.L. Moore (1975). The novella tells the story of a badly burned dancer who is given a robot body and becomes a cyborg. But most of the couple’s writing during this time was in creative partnership; it is said either of them could pick up any story where the other had left off. They successfully combined her emphasis on the emotions and senses, which had broken ground in the genre, with his more cerebral narrative style.

Their 1940s novels for Startling Stories, many of which were erroneously attributed to Kuttner alone, were early examples of the hybrid genre of science fantasy, neatly fusing her romanticism with his vigorous plotlines. Their collaborative F/SF works include the classics “Mimsy Were the Borogoves” (1943), adapted as the 2007 film The Last Mimzy, and 1946’s “The Vintage Season,” source of the story line for the 1992 film Timescape. They also wrote a couple of 1940s mystery novels writing as Lewis Padgett. In 1950, the couple both began studies at the University of Southern California. They continued to write mysteries but not many more science fiction stories, though Moore produced one solo novel, 1957’s Doomsday Morning, a futuristic thriller. She retired from writing fiction upon Kuttner’s death in 1958, though she continued to teach a writing course at USC, from which she earned a master’s degree in English in 1963.

Moore worked as a television screenwriter for detective series and for Westerns including Maverick from 1958 to 1962, with her screenplays credited to “Catherine Kuttner,” but left screenwriting in 1963, which was also the year of her second marriage to Thomas Reggie. Two decades later, after a long and gradual illness, she passed away at home in Hollywood at seventy-six years of age. She received the World Fantasy Award for life achievement in 1981 and was posthumously inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 1998.

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through 
Amazon and Mango Media.

URSULA K. LE GUIN pioneering grande dame of science fiction & fantasy


Ursula Kroeber Le Guin (1929–2018) was the distinguished and well-loved author of twenty-one novels, nearly a dozen volumes of short stories, four essay collections, a dozen children’s books, six volumes of poetry, and four translated works. She grew up in Berkeley, California, the daughter of anthropology professor Alfred Kroeber and Theodora Kroeber, writer of the noted biography Ishi in Two Worlds, an account of the life of the last survivor of the Yahi tribe of California Indians. The Kroeber family had a large book collection, and the household was visited by a goodly number of interesting academics such as Robert Oppenheimer. Le Guin later modeled the protagonist of her award-winning novel The Dispossessed, a physicist named Shevek, on Oppenheimer. She enjoyed reading fantasy and hearing the Native American stories her anthropologist father would tell, as well as exploring Norse and other mythic traditions.

At nine, Ursula wrote her first story; two years later, she made her first short story submission to Astounding Science Fiction, but it was rejected, and she did not try submitting any of her writing for publication for the next decade. She had an interest in biology but was limited in her ability to pursue the sciences due to difficulty with math. She attended Radcliffe, graduating Phi Beta Kappa in 1951 with a BA in Renaissance French and Italian literature, and went on to earn an MA in French from Columbia in 1952. Ursula won a Fulbright grant to study in France from 1953 to 1954; on her voyage there aboard the Queen Mary, she met Charles Le Guin, a graduate student also on a Fulbright grant to further his studies of history, and they married in Paris in 1953. She later said that the marriage spelled “the end of the doctorate” for her.

As they settled in together, Ursula Le Guin helped support their young family by teaching French and working as a secretary while Charles worked toward his PhD, first at Georgia’s Emory University and then at the University of Idaho, until 1957, when their first child, Elizabeth, was born. Caroline followed in 1959, and that year, they moved to Portland, where Charles had secured a history instructor position at Portland State University. A son, Theodore, was born in 1964. Portland ended up being the couple’s permanent home, but for a couple of sojourns Ursula made to London when she received further Fulbright research grants in 1968 and 1975.

Le Guin began her writing career in earnest between the births of her first and second children, but as the primary caregiving parent, the time she was able to devote to her writing was limited, especially while her three children were small. Besides writing, she also did editorial work and taught college courses at institutions of higher learning including Tulane, Bennington College, and Stanford. Her first few novels were deemed inaccessible by publishers, so she turned her attention to writing within the science fiction genre, as she knew there was a market for SF works and presumably had tired of receiving rejection slips. Indeed, she started selling; at first, she made sales of short stories to SF magazines like Fantastic Science Fiction and Amazing Stories. Some of these early stories introduced fictional universes which she fleshed out later in the Earthsea series and the Hainish trilogy, which began with Rocannon’s World.

Rocannon’s World, her first full-length novel to see print, was published by Ace Books in 1966 as a double volume along with its sequel, Planet of Exile; this work gained her enough recognition that the third volume in the trilogy, City of Illusions, was published as a stand-alone volume the following year. Critics began to notice Le Guin, and there were several reviews in science fiction magazines. The Hainish trilogy deals with themes often found in Le Guin’s works, including the inner journey of self-discovery undertaken by a protagonist which is mirrored in an actual physical journey, the challenges of understanding between two or more cultures, and the quest to uncover one’s authentic self and understand one’s identity.

But real understanding of Le Guin’s capabilities with the written word had not yet unfolded; when she sold her short story “Nine Lives” to Playboy magazine in 1968, she was asked if they could run it using her initials only rather than her first name. She agreed to this stipulation, and the story ran under the byline of “U. K. Le Guin.” Later, she wrote that it was the sole time she had encountered gender prejudice from a publisher or editor, along with the realization that “it seemed so silly, so grotesque, that I failed to see that it was also important.” When the story appeared again in later printings, it ran under her full name.

The tide turned later that same year when A Wizard of Earthsea, arguably her best-known novel, was released. She had never intended to write a novel aimed at young adults, but when an editor at Parnassus Press who realized that demographic might offer major potential for success requested that she give it a go, she wrote a coming-of-age story that was very well received both in the US and the UK. Although written initially for teenagers, A Wizard of Earthsea is now considered a fantasy classic and is beloved by many readers far past their teens; millions of copies have been sold all over the world. It is very possible that without the college for wizards on Roke Island so vividly imagined by Le Guin, Hogwarts would never have been dreamed up by J.K. Rowling.

Her next novel put Le Guin solidly on the map of science fiction and fantasy greats; 1969’s The Left Hand of Darkness, a book set in her Hainish universe, “stunned the science fiction critics” and went on to win both of the top two prizes in those speculative fiction genres. Le Guin was the first woman ever to win either a Hugo or a Nebula award, which was especially fitting considering that it was her first book dealing with feminist issues. The story takes place on a planet where humans are able to change sex in a nonsurgical manner, opening up all kinds of questions about gender and sexuality and what is innate to a person. Le Guin then continued the Earthsea trilogy with The Tombs of Atuan (1971) and The Farthest Shore (1972), which carried readers on a journey through magic, mortality, and the borderline between life and death.

Critic Harold Bloom has described A Wizard of Earthsea and The Left Hand of Darkness as Le Guin’s masterpieces. In 1973, she won another Hugo Award for her novel The Word for World Is Forest, which dealt with the effects of military- backed Terran colonialism on the indigenous inhabitants of the fictional planet Athshe; these concepts were particularly vivid given that the Vietnam War was then still raging with horrifying impacts on Vietnamese civilians. With The Dispossessed (1974), Le Guin returned to the Hainish universe in a tale of people working to create an idealistically utopian society, which included anarchist concepts. Her writing had begun to include more of her political ideas and feelings, as reflected in these last two novels.

In 1983, Oakland’s distinguished Mills College engaged Le Guin to give a commencement speech; she put her own stamp on it, titling it “A Left-Handed Commencement Address.” American Rhetoric included the address among its top hundred speeches of the twentieth century; it was later published in Dancing at the Edge of the World, a collection of Le Guin’s nonfiction work.

Le Guin wrote for a total of nearly sixty years of her life before its peaceful end at home at age eighty-eight; in total, she won eight Hugo Awards, six Nebulas, twenty-four Locus Awards, the PEN/Malamud, and a multitude of other prizes. The US Library of Congress recognized her in 2000 as a Living Legend in their “Writers and Artists” category. Upon granting her the Margaret Edwards Award in 2004, the American Library Association panel declared that she had “inspired four generations of young adults to read beautifully constructed language, visit fantasy worlds that inform them about their own lives, and think about their ideas that are neither easy nor inconsequential.” Vanishingly few American authors have produced such a quantity and array of different types of works with such consistently stellar quality. The New York Times called her “the greatest living science fiction writer” in 2016, and Bloom summed her up as a “visionary who set herself against all brutality, discrimination, and exploitation.”

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

JOYCE CAROL OATES her heart laid bare


Seemingly, Joyce Carol Oates can turn her hand to any subject and inject it with her trademark layered depth. She is well on her way to becoming one of the world’s most abundant artists, having authored, as of this writing, forty- one novels and novellas, twenty-five collections of short stories, eight volumes of poetry, and nine collections of essays (including one on boxing), and has edited thirteen prestigious anthologies, most notably the Norton Anthology of Contemporary Fiction.

While she crosses barriers of time frequently in her novels, from postmodern urban settings to the Victorian era and back again, and works in genres ranging from Gothic to realism, she does have one overriding theme: violence. From prostitutes to primordial goddess figures (her novel Blonde, based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, was published to raves in March 2000), her writing fascinates as much as it shocks. She has received a fair amount of criticism for the disturbance in her fiction, but she explains it thusly: “The more violent the murders in Macbeth, the more relief one can feel at not having to perform them. Great art is cathartic; it is always moral.”

She was born in Lockport, New York, to an Irish Catholic family of modest means. Joyce’s intelligence saw her to the head of most classes, and she graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Syracuse University before doing her master’s work in English literature at the University of Wisconsin. Her writing talent was noted early—she won the Mademoiselle fiction contest while still in college.

A reportedly excellent teacher, she has taught at several schools, most recently at Princeton, with her husband, academic Raymond Smith, while maintaining her grueling writing schedule. Her body of work averages a novel every two years, beginning in 1963. At certain times, she has published a book a year. As of this writing, her new work ‘Night. Sleep. Death. The Stars’ is expected in 2020.

When asked how she manages to produce such critically acclaimed works so quickly, she told the New York Times, “I have always lived a very conventional life of moderation, absolutely regular hours, nothing exotic, no need, even, to organize my time.” When labeled a workaholic by a reporter, she retorted, “I am not conscious of working especially hard, or of ‘working’ at all. Writing and teaching have always been, for me, so richly rewarding that I don’t think of them as work in the usual sense of the word.”

To read widely and to be open and curious about other people, to look and listen hard, not to be discouraged by rejections— we’ve all had them many times—and revise your work.

Joyce Carol Oates’ advice to other writers

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

DANIELLE STEEL solid gold Steel

America’s sweetheart Danielle Steel is one of the hardest working women in the book business. She has a unique approach, differing from other prolific writers who claim to focus on one project at a time; she works on up to five books at a time, juggling storylines, writing one while editing others. Add her movie scripts and adaptations from her fiction and you have a virtuoso at work, and a very successful one. Make no mistake, however; her books are not “cranked out”; her research process alone usually takes at least three years. Once she has fully studied her subjects in preparation for diving into a book, she can spend up to eighteen to twenty hours nonstop at her 1946 Olympia typewriter.

Steel hails from New York and was sent to France for her education. Upon graduation, she worked in the public relations and advertising industries. She left these to craft a career as a writer and clearly found the work for which she was best suited. She also married and raised nine children. Never considered particularly feminist, Steel creates female protagonists in her romance novels who are powerful women, often driven career women, who juggle work, life, and love. Palomino, published in 1981, is centered around a woman rancher who founds a center for handicapped children; Kaleidoscope is the story of an orphan girl who survives a series of foster homes and recovers from rape to track down her sisters and reunite her family.

The statistics about Danielle Steel’s career are staggering: 650 million copies of books in print, over fifty New York Times bestselling novels, and a series of Max and Martha illustrated books for children to help them deal with difficult issues such as death, new babies, divorce, moving, new schools, and other real-life problems. She has written a volume of love poems, and her 1998 book about the death of her son Nicholas Traina, His Bright Light, shot to the top of the New York Times bestselling nonfiction list upon its release. At this point, twenty-eight of her books have been adapted for films, and one, Jewels, garnered two Golden Globe nominations. She is listed in The Guinness Book of World Records for the amazing run of one of her titles on the Times bestseller list for 381 weeks straight. Since that accomplishment, another Steel title has beaten her own record with 390 consecutive weeks.

Danielle Steel doesn’t rest on either her many laurels or her beauty, wealth, fame, and unstoppable talent. She also works diligently on behalf of various charities—she serves as the National Chairperson for the American Library Association, on the National Committee for the Prevention of Child Abuse, and as spokesperson for the American Humane Association.

Not content with a posh Parisian pied-á-terre, a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, and her undisputed status as the bestselling living author, Danielle Steel realizes her readers are her most important resource and has made herself accessible to them via email through her publisher, Random House. While she is often compared to the fictional heroines of her own invention, her life is undoubtedly much quieter. But if she does have anything in common with them, it is her strength of will and her inimitable style. There is only one Danielle Steel.

I believe in dreams, not just the kind we have at night. I think that if we hang onto them, they come true.

Danielle Steel

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.

MARGARET ATWOOD oracle of Ottawa


On at least one occasion, prodigious writer Margaret Atwood has mentioned the comic book fantasies she read as a child in Ottawa as her primary influences, but she seems much more closely aligned with the Victorians she studied in her postgraduate work at Harvard. Born in Ottawa in 1939, she traveled with her entomologist father into remote areas of northern Canada and the bush of Québec. Educated at the University of Toronto, Radcliffe, and Harvard, she knew she wanted a career in writing by the age of sixteen and started actively working toward her dream two years later as a student at the University of Toronto’s Victoria College. By nineteen, she began to publish her poetry as well as articles in Victoria’s literary journal, Acta Victoriana.

Atwood’s writing often delves into the mythic, retelling Homer’s Ulysses, for example, from the vantage point of the women who were seduced and left behind. Her novels, including The Edible Woman, Surfacing, Lady Oracle, Life Before Man, The Handmaid’s Tale, and Alias Grace, give voice to the silenced. The natural world is another major theme for Atwood, as are her unique twists on the psychological. Her published work includes nine novels, four children’s books, twenty-three volumes of poetry, and four works of scholarship. She also is the editor of five anthologies. A film based on The Handmaid’s Tale was released in 1990, and her dystopian tale of women confined to a permanent underclass has now been adapted as a famed Hulu miniseries. The Testaments, a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale set fifteen years later, was published in 2019. Her novel Alias Grace has been released as a Canadian miniseries to great acclaim, earning a 99 percent approval rating on the Rotten Tomatoes review site. In 2016, Atwood collaborated with illustrator Johnnie Christmas to create Angel Catbird, a graphic novel about a scientist who, in a way similar to the Hulk and Spiderman before him, is accidentally fused in a mutation-meld with the powers and some of the body parts of an avian and a feline.

In addition to being prolific, she is also among the most awarded writers, having received more than a hundred prizes for her excellent poetry and fiction. Moreover, she is claimed by her country of origin, Canada, as having helped to establish an identity for Canadian literature. Her work in the 1970s for Anansi Press very directly aided this cause. Survival, which she wrote in 1972, was an attempt at “a map” for charting Canada’s writers, followed by The Oxford Book of Canadian Verse in 1982. Her sense of place is often a theme in her fiction and poems.

Although she does not call herself a “feminist writer,” Atwood said in an interview with Penguin Books that the question that drove her while writing The Handmaid’s Tale was, “If you were going to shove women back into the home and deprive them of all of these gains that they thought they had made, how would you do it?” (She has also stated that sales of that 1990 work jumped following the 2016 election in the United States.) Strong women rising against all odds appear again and again in her work, underlining her heroine’s final words in Surfacing: “This above all, to refuse to be a victim.”

I’m not a very good gardener, for the same reason I wouldn’t make a very good poisoner: both activities benefit from advance planning.

Margaret Atwood, from Various Gardens

This excerpt is from The Book of Awesome Women Writers by Becca Anderson, which is available now through Amazon and Mango Media.