Exclusive Interview: “Lessons In Birdwatching” Author Honey Watson


Despite what the title might suggest, Honey Watson’s Lessons In Birdwatching (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) is not an instruction manual. And despite what the novel’s set-up might suggest, it’s not just a sci-fi novel. As Watson herself says in the following email interview, “Birdwatching is a science-fiction story that doesn’t care that it ought to be.” As for what else it is, and isn’t, and what else Watson has to say about it, well, this interview won’t read itself…

Honey Watson Lessons In Birdwatching

To begin, what is Lessons In Birdwatching about, plot-wise/set-up-wise, and when and where does it take place?

It begins in a future beyond Earth’s destruction at the far reaches of a galactic empire called Crysth. The plot follows five Crysthian grad students as they carry out research on a “new” planet called Apech, whose native inhabitants are eager to join the empire but are prevented from doing so by the presence of a pathogen or force that Crysth’s scientists are working to identify.

Where did you get the idea for Lessons In Birdwatching?

I wrote Birdwatching around four years ago while I was still in school, so I’m afraid I observed grad students trying to write their dissertations.

Is that why Wilhelmina and the other people are students as opposed to scientists or researchers?

They are operating at the level at which student and researcher are pretty much synonymous, and there are scientists among them.

And you kind of answered this already, but is there a significance to them being from a galactic empire as opposed to just students from Earth? Y’know, like they’re from Harvard or UCLA or Mars University (“Go Fighting Buggalos!”).

Earth is dead, the galactic empire the students are from is one of many which considers itself Earth’s successor. They all do this without any substantial evidence for the claim and often without a real understanding of their appropriated heritage. For them, what matters less about history is what actually happened and more what they can romanticize, lionize, and weaponize in their favor. Ultimately, the distance serves as a way for me to take the piss out of fascist aesthetics.

Also, is there a reason they’re watching birds instead of whales or some Apechian animal that isn’t like an Earth animal?

In this universe, and even at the perimeter of explorable space, inhabited planets are very suspiciously similar to Earth. Unfortunately, you’ve hit a major plot point with this question so I can’t say more about it.

On a smaller scale, I suppose I can admit that I chose birds because that makes it sound like you’re about to have a pleasant experience, and I find the whole bait and switch thing quite funny.

Lessons In Birdwatching is clearly sci-fi story, but it sounds like there might be more to it. What other genres are present in this story?

Angry Robot books tend to be genre weirdos and Birdwatching needed a home for one. I’ve been watching, with some amusement, as retailers add genre tags like “cyberpunk,” “dystopia,” and “military sci-fi.” All these things are forensically true but narratively misleading. Birdwatching is a science-fiction story that doesn’t care that it ought to be. The task is to introduce a vast new world from a tiny corner at its perimeter, to suggest an empire lurking over the daily squabbles of a few crabby grad students. Of course, everything goes wrong so dramatically that they get kicked off the precipice of “dystopia” and into “military,” but a reader looking for Star Wars will likely be confused. A reader looking for anything at all might be confused, actually. What I’m aiming for is Jägermeister: ridiculous, unpleasant, ultimately a good time.

It’s also been said that Lessons In Birdwatching is darkly comic. Who do you see as being the big influences on the comedic aspects of this story?

Everyone. We’re hilarious, nobody has a clue what they’re doing.

What else do you consider to be the big influences on Lessons In Birdwatching? And I mean not just literary ones, but movies, TV shows, or games as well?

Hmm. Well aside from “everyone,” I would say that I grew up reading [Terry Pratchett’s] Discworld, and sometimes feel rather like I might be trying to write Slimy Evil Discworld, but that’s a terrible thing to pin on Sir Terry.

More seriously, I think this is interesting to think about because I wrote Birdwatching while I was preparing for my doctoral exams and also working as a translator. I didn’t have time to read anything outside of my exam lists, which was all critical theory and Chinese postmodernists like Can Xue, Mo Yan, and Yu Hua.

Something that does stick out to me from very early in my studies though would be Xia Jia introducing the world to the concept of “porridge sci-fi,” meaning sci-fi which blends different methods of storytelling together rather than adhering to standards of genre. I didn’t know we could do that. I had a moment that was like, oh shit, we can just write stuff? Wicked. I did meet her once, but it was maybe 2015, so I was too young and shy to dare tell her how much I loved the phrase.

Earlier I asked if Lessons In Birdwatching had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to flip the script, as you kids don’t say anymore, do you think Lessons In Birdwatching would work as a movie, a TV show, or a game?

I would love to say I have written something gameable. I’ve been trying to teach myself how to build tabletop RPGs with very limited success. The stats for Birdwatching would be difficult but nasty fun. Motherfuckery 3, Rage 6, Competence -4. Roll for random act of evil. You get the idea. It would work best as a narrative adventure which forces you to navigate horrible choices into a position where you’re accidentally siding with the faction you hated most at the end.

So, is there anything else you think people need to know about Lessons In Birdwatching?

I suppose I should warn people that it is more of a body horror story than it seems. I pulled punches because it’s my debut, and it didn’t seem fair to drop people straight in, but it’s certainly there.

Honey Watson Lessons In Birdwatching

Finally, if someone enjoys Lessons In Birdwatching, what sci-fi novel or novella of someone else’s would you suggest they read?

Well of course Denise Crittendon’s Where It Rains In Color. There’s actually an excerpt at the end of Birdwatching so you can get a taste of her rich, beautiful writing as she takes you on a far more exultant adventure. I would also suggest Composite Creatures by Caroline Hardaker. She tells sci-fi through everyday life, but she goes about it in a more delicately creepy way than I. Both very different very wonderful books.



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