For those of you not in the know, Pat Cadigan is an amazing award-winning cyberpunk author. One of her most recent works is Parasite, a delightfully creepy foray into a world of teenage rebellion and body-snatchin’ parasites. A dark sense of humor lurks behind the sleek covers of her technothrillers, and is part of what makes each novel both provocative AND engaging. It’s kind of awesome that this interview is getting posted on Ada Lovelace day — while she’s not a techy inventor, she’s a techy theorist. Her work consistently pushes the imaginative edges of technology, and questions the ways in which humans interact with the cybernetic world.
1. You are certainly a traveler! You were born in upstate NY, grew up in Western Mass, and then moved to England. How have these different locations impacted your work?
I’m never sure about the answer to a question like this. 🙂 My family didn’t stay long enough in upstate New York after I was born for me to remember anything about it. My earliest memories are of the trailer park we lived in outside of Wallingford, Connecticut. Yes, I’m genuine trailer trash. At the time, we didn’t know we were trash, though. Right after World War 2, lots of families got a foot on the property ladder by way of buying a mobile home. You’d live in it for a few years, then trade up to a better trailer and then eventually to a standard house. Our trailer park was full of young families whose fathers had been in the service. It was quite nice, actually–the people that owned it raised ducks and I used to go down to visit them every day. We moved back to upstate New York briefly, though not to the area where I was born; not long after that, my mother and I moved to Massachusetts, about fifty miles northwest of the Boston area, where I grew up. So it wasn’t really western Massachusetts. I went to UMass Amherst for three years–that was about as far west as I ever lived in Massachusetts. Then I got married and my first husband and I moved to Lawrence, Kansas where he did a Ph.d. in theatre and I finished my bachelor’s degree. When we got divorced, I ended up living in Kansas City where I met my son’s father. I stayed there for almost twenty-five years before my life changed again and I moved to the UK. The change I had the most trouble adjusting to? Easy one–moving from Massachusetts to Kansas in 1973. That was a much more dramatic change for me than moving to the UK. It was years before I got acclimatized and I think if I hadn’t lived in the Kansas City area, I wouldn’t have stayed. I fell in love with Kansas City–it’s a beautiful city and there was always a lot going on–music, culture, great restaurants. All the bands on their way to the SXSW festival in Austin always stopped in Kansas City to do gigs, so we’d see some of the best musicians before anyone in Austin. But the area also includes some serious conservative territory, on both the Kansas and Missouri sides of the state line, as well as groups that went well beyond the religious right into some seriously scary shit. I didn’t know what to make of that.
I didn’t travel outside the North American continent until I was thirty-six and the first place I went was London. As soon as I got here, I felt like I was at home. England and New England are amazingly similar. I mean, aside from the fact that New England has all the old British place-names–I already knew how to say ‘Worcester’ and ‘Leicester’–the landscape is similar, the trees and plants are similar. I was amazed. London itself was reminiscent of Boston to me, another city I’ve always loved. I never thought I’d ever have the opportunity to live here and yet here I am. Funny how things happen.
Traveling to other countries showed me how provincial I really was. And even after thirteen years in the UK, I’m still learning how US-centric my view of the world was. I have not written a whole lot of stuff set in London yet. I’ve done a couple of things but so far they’re told from the viewpoint of an outsider. I really don’t have the background to be an insider. The thing about London, though, is that you don’t have to be British to be a Londoner. This is London’s great strength and its beauty. The neighbourhood where I live in North London reminds me a lot of the neighbourhood where I grew up in Massachusetts–only the ethnic groups are different. And that difference goes only so far–an Italian grandmother, a Puerto Rican grandmother, a Turkish grandmother, and a Nigerian grandmother are all grandmothers. Just ask their grandchildren. 🙂
2. It sounds like your real commitment is to writing about people! Can you talk about how that impacts your writing style?
When you write putting the emphasis more on people than on situations or even principles, you have to investigate human nature. You have to study it, you have to consider it at length, and you have to embrace all the aspects, good, bad and in-between. And you have to realize that, for all the wonderful things, the foolish things, the awesome things, and the downright stupid, nasty things that people do, they very seldom consider themselves the bad guys, even when they are. Especially when they are. It would be an easy world to navigate if all villains woke up every morning twirling their mustaches and thinking, “Aha, what can I do today to make widows suffer and orphans cry? How can I excel at pure evil in ways that I never have before?” By the same token, it would be equally wonderful if all the would-be good guys got up every day brimming with virtue and ready to feed the hungry and cure cancer. Strangely enough, it is often the case that the right things get done for reasons that are completely selfish; innocent people who are wrongly convicted of crimes are sometimes guilty of other things equally bad or worse; good people can have bad children and good children can have monstrous parents; and sometimes people are brilliant by accident and stupid due to bad luck. If we are all cogs in the world machine, it’s a machine designed by Rube Goldberg on steroids and crack. I’m not exactly sure what impact this has on my writing style as much as my perspective. I like to think that my plots are more people-driven. I don’t necessarily go for happy endings or even definitive endings, but I like to end having portrayed the better, or at least the more sympathetic aspects of human nature.
3. This is so cool – it looks like this is building up to be one of those interviews where the emphasis is on the how-tos of writing! 😀 Okay – how does one go about constructing a plot that is character driven, versus one driven by new-and-shiny concepts?
That’s a good question.:) When I think of new-and-shiny concepts, my first thought is how, in the words of Bill Gibson, the street will find its own uses for it–the street in question being people. I suppose I think, “What would I do with that?” or “What would that do to me?” It’s kind of hard to explain things you do practically by reflex. But I guess we all know that there’s almost never any story in when things go right, so I’m always thinking in terms of what can go wrong. And things don’t go wrong without people. To err is human…but it takes a human with a computer to really foul things up.:) If I were stuck for a way to do this, I’d probably match up a new-and-shiny concept with the person most ill-suited to deal with it–someone I actually knew personally or someone I knew of, for example. Because that’s probably how it would be. Most people aren’t so much deliberate screw-ups as they are often just fish out of water.
4. What led you to cyberpunk? I always think of you as one of the mamas of the genre. 🙂
John Shirley once described cyberpunk as a tribal thing and I can’t think of any better way to describe it. It was something in the air at the time–all the writers who came to be identified as cyberpunks were reading a lot of the same things, listening to a lot of the same music, and were all within five or so years of each other, so we had the same life landmarks even if our backgrounds weren’t the same. I didn’t really know a lot of them personally–I was just reading and writing on my own when Bruce Sterling got in touch with me about a story I’d written called “Rock On.” That was the story that ended up in Mirrorshades and it is, word for word, the most profitable thing I’ve ever written in terms of its earning power. People usually get around to asking me why I was the only woman. I’ll tell you honestly: I don’t know. Statistical anomaly, maybe. There really weren’t any other women writers at the time who were doing the kind of writing that I was and there still aren’t many today–Tricia Sullivan and Justina Robson are the only two I can think of offhand. But so what? Times have changed anyway and cyberpunk has been recognized for what it has always been: hard sf.
5. Wow, music influenced your writing?? How so?
I’ve always had music on when I’m writing–still do. It helps to keep me focused on what I’m doing and often keeps me from flagging. I don’t know that it’s really influenced my writing so much as it has simply been a big part of my life and is intertwined with who I am. I’m of the first generation to have truly portable music–the transistor radio, the mid-20th century pre-cursor of the Walkman:)–which means the soundtrack to my life is literally a soundtrack.:)
6. What kind of soundtracks do your novels have? Do these soundtracks reflect different character attributes or plots?
Oh, definitely not. I put on music that I like, that makes me feel energetic and ambitious, or that induces the appropriate mood for whatever I’m writing. But this is a very subjective thing. What makes me feel a certain way may not have the same effect on a reader. I like some pretty crazy, obscure things; I also like some sweetly popular, twee things. I would never publish the soundtrack for something I wrote because I know it wouldn’t mean the same thing to a reader. I listen to anything that helps me get the job done. Back when I was living in the Kansas City area, I was working on something–I honestly don’t remember what–and I followed a tape of my old bellydancing music with a cd by Body Count–the one with “Cop Killer” on it. Go figure that one.
7. Oh, so music is more a tool for writing. Neat! Let’s rewind for a moment — can you say a little more about the “so what” in terms of being identified as a woman writer when people question you about women in cyberpunk?
When cyberpunk first reared its high-tech lowlife head, the fact that almost no women were associated with it caused some people to dismiss it as not being legitimate. But women writers weren’t deliberately excluded by anyone, least of all by Bruce Sterling. There really weren’t any women writers at the time besides myself whose writing fit the description. I’m not bragging or being self-aggrandizing–that’s just how it was in terms of substance and style. And believe me, I looked–I was suspicious myself about the obvious lack of women writers and I looked for women whose work could have been identified as cyberpunk. There were no women I could point to and say, “Hey, they’ve been overlooked.” And believe me, I would have. Should women writers have been dragooned into doing that type of work? Should their work be dismissed because it wasn’t cyberpunk? Does anyone really believe there’s any other answer to that but ‘No’? At this particular time, few women write in this way. This doesn’t mean the male writers should be dismissed out of hand. Every time Bill Gibson writes another book, I fall in love with his work all over again. When I read him, I don’t consider whether I’m reading something by a man or a woman, I’m reading something extraordinary.
8. In one of your interviews on SFSite, you go really in-depth about the role of clarity in your work. Can you talk more about your philosophies on writing?
My philosophies of writing…well, I suppose I could go on and on about that and probably nothing would give me greater pleasure than to go on and on (and on). In the end, however, I’m always working to produce something so involving that it’s a total-immersion experience. I’ve talked elsewhere about how I was once marooned on a Sunday night in the Wichita, Kansas airport. What few stores they had were closed; so were the restaurants except for one shabby snackbar, and there was no place to get a drink–this was back in the days when Kansas was a dry state. “The open saloon is forever banned,” is how the law put it. It’s not that way anymore but back then, being stranded anywhere in Kansas on a Sunday was a fate worse than death. The only thing that can save your sanity in a situation like that is a good book. If you’ve got a good book, you’ll be all right. In the end, that’s who I’m writing for–someone who wants to be completely immersed in a story, all five senses engaged. When I’m reading a book like that, the words disappear and I’m seeing it all unfold in my head. That’s clarity to the point of transparency. Everything–setting, plot, characters, dialog, action, description–is all there to serve that purpose. When people read your book, you don’t want them thinking, ‘Oh, good plot’ or ‘what a character’ or ‘well, she got the location right’–you want them thinking, ‘if anyone bothers me while I’m reading this book, I’ll kill them.’ Analyzing the style is for later.
We need to read–it gratifies something deep within us. I read for pleasure first and foremost, to gratify that need. Even when I’m doing research for my own writing, the reading I do gives me pleasure.
9. In what ways does your reading intersect with your writing?
My favourite pleasure reading is–are?–mysteries. Crime fiction, thrillers, that sort of thing. Mystery writers have to be intelligent in order for the mystery to work. I’m also of the opinion that at the heart of every great story lies a mystery of some kind to be solved or compounded or both. My research has led me to Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennet, Stewart Brand, Fritjof Capra, Roger Penrose, Brenda Laurel–and reading their work did for my mind what LSD was supposed to do. I have no scientific qualifications at all, no advanced education in serious science or math–but fortunately, I read a lot of Isaac Asimov’s nonfiction when I was younger so I had a good…uh…foundation (gawd, that pun even hurt me and it was completely unintentional, really). Anyway, that’s what has both influenced my work and given me a great deal of enjoyment and entertainment.
10. How does loving one genre — mysteries — and working in another genre — SF/cyberpunk — affected your writing?
Ellen Datlow is a proponent of what she calls “cross-pollination”–mixing up genres and seeing what comes out. I wrote some police procedurals set in the future–but to be absolutely true to both genres, I couldn’t just put law enforcement in shinier uniforms, give them robot partners and then send them out to solve bank robberies. I had to make the crime futuristic/science-fictional. So in Fools, I had a burglary of a person’s mind, which could then be parted out in a chop shop like a car, and undercover police who didn’t just re-style their hair, change their clothes, and fake an accent but who actually become different people. Tea From An Empty Cup and Dervish Is Digital are set nearer in the future, but the crimes and the investigations take place in virtual reality. In fact, I feel rather prescient these days about having created, for those books, something called World Within, which is an ongoing project to scan everything in the world into virtual reality. Google has apparently taken up the challenge. Just the other day, I was sitting at my desk and walking down the street past my house. Wish the Google van had caught our front yard after Chris had finished planting the flowers at the edge of the walk. But it seems that’s quite a minor complaint next to some others that Google have had to deal with. But I digress.
Anyway, mysteries and police procedurals go with hard sf/cyberpunk. Cyberpunk itself comes out of the noir thriller tradition as much as anything else and the spirit of Raymond Chandler will live forever, reincarnated over and over again on mean streets, IRL or just virtual.:)
11. In what ways has your familiarity with the “golden age” of SF impacted your writing?
Well, when I was starting out, you young whippersnappers, we had to read the old stuff so we wouldn’t re-invent the wheel. Well, actually, “Golden Age” to me means the really early stuff–things like Heinlein’s first story and Asimov’s and Sturgeon’s and Williamson’s. I don’t know if it’s had a whole lot of impact on my work except to make me want to do really good work. It’s also interesting to see how perspectives have changed. Read “With Folded Hands” by Jack Williamson, for example. I don’t think anyone today would write a story exactly like that, about how people would react to being served so obsessively by perfect machines that the machines become their jailers rather than their servants. On the other hand, there is a bit of prescience in how he shows what happens when we try to protect ourselves a little too much.
12. What would be your “must-reads” in SF for the novice SF writer?
Must-reads: The classics by Heinlein, Asimov, Clarke, Bradbury, Bester–you have to know what’s been done, otherwise you’ll just re-invent the wheel. Robert Silverberg was quite an innovator in his day, as was Roger Zelazny, Samuel Delaney, Ursula K. Le Guin, Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm, Vonda McIntyre. Any would-be cyberpunk or post-cyberpunk has to read Cordwainer Smith’s Norstrilia series, Stand on Zanzibar and The Sheep Look Up by John Brunner as well as William Gibson’s work. Actually, read them anyway–they’ll make your brain big and strong. 🙂
Read Philip K. Dick’s original work–Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? became the movie Bladerunner. The movie’s OK but the book really is a different animal and his other novels are even further out there. M. John Harrison is as fresh and compelling now as he was back when he was writing for New Worlds. Connie Willis is more of a conventional storyteller–I’ll read just about anything she writes. Michael Swanwick, Paul McAuley, Kim Newman, jon courtney grimwood, China Mieville, Susannah Clarke, Gwyneth Jones, Nalo Hopkinson, Bruce Sterling–all different, all good writers to enjoy and to learn from.
Hunt down as many old issues of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction from when it began in 1949. They’re getting harder and harder to find but there’s a lot of treasure in those pages–Avram Davidson was the editor for a while before Ed Ferman took over permanently. Of course, you should be familiar with all the magazines–F&SF, Asimov’s, Analog, Realms of Fantasy, Interzone. You don’t want to be sending the wrong kind of story to the wrong market. Also hunt up copies of Judith Merrill’s Best of the Year anthologies. Those are getting harder and harder to find, too–she published some fabulous things, everything from hard-core sf to fantasy pieces by John Cheever and Bernard Malamud, even Tuli Kupferberg. Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison. Gardner Dozois’s Best SF of the Year anthologies, and the Best Fantasy and Horror of the Year anthologies first edited by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, later by Ellen Datlow and Kelly Link and Gavin Grant. David Hartwell does a Best of the Year, as do Karen Haber and Jonathan Strahan. If you have a favourite writer, look up interviews with him/her and see what s/he recommends. If you go to conventions, you can ask the writers in person as well as other fans. Fans are always happy to give recommendations. 🙂
I tend to recommend short fiction for novice writers because I think most of them should start out with short fiction. Some people are natural novelists but they’re relatively rare. I feel you should learn how to write a solid piece of short fiction first–you learn how to use your words wisely, how to make a few words do the work of many. Then work your way up to longer pieces and then finally a novel. Some people find they prefer writing short fiction, others all but abandon short fiction for novel-length work. Each takes a specific kind of skill; writers are better off being able to do both if they can.
I’m sure I’ve left out something that someone else thinks is vital. This is a many-faceted, many-splendoured field. Read as much as you can.
13. In another interview for Zero News, you mention that you self describe as a SF writer and not a female SF writer? Can you speak to that difference? Do you identify as a feminist SF writer?
I have some mixed feelings about being identified as a woman writer. I am absolutely a feminist writer and always have been; feminist is my default setting. I don’t actually see how anyone can not be a feminist writer, frankly. It’s like being a writer who is against human rights. I felt like women writers were being marginalized every time they were identified as women writers, because people would talk about, say, Saul Bellow as one of the best writers in the world–not one of the best male writers, just one of the best writers. But women writers always got that qualifier. And I’m sorry but I’m not in this trying to be one of the best women writers any more than I’m trying to capture the crown as one of the best over-fifty peroxide blonde women writers. I’m a writer. I want to be measured as a writer.
At the same time, there’s still enough sexism that women writers often need to identify themselves with the qualifier just to get a mention. Otherwise, it’s all Saul Bellow and Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller and John Gardner and so on and so forth. Science fiction is a little better than the so-called mainstream in that respect. Although I still grind my teeth every time I get a question asking me something about what it’s like to be a woman in a primarily male business. ‘What it’s like? Well, today I’m retaining water and since I quit taking hormones, I still have a minor hot flash from time to time. I lost five pounds.’ Give me strength. I’ve been in this business for thirty years; I’ve won the Arthur C. Clarke Award twice. I’ve got a hell of a lot more to talk about than what it’s frigging like to be a woman.
And if I feel that way, imagine how Ursula K. Le Guin and Kate Wilhelm feel when someone asks them for the zillionth time about what it was like to be one of the few prominent women sf writers back in the day.
Why doesn’t anybody ever ask some young guy how he juggles fatherhood with a writing career? I’m dying to hear that answer.
Heh, isn’t that what The Shining’s about? That didn’t end very well for Jack. 😛
Actually, Jack was trying to juggle a drinking problem with fatherhood and a writing career. That seldom ends well. 😉
(Hm. You know, as a bookworm, I now feel challenged to think of a novel about a young male writer juggling fatherhood and his career. The one dude in Life Isn’t All Ha Ha Hee Hee might fit the bill, but he was incredibly bitter about his wife not being femme. Hathor readers, if you can think of a novel featuring a male writer struggling with acting as a primary care provider to a young child, who is NOT bitter about his wife/partner being more active in the child’s life, reply here. I clearly need some book recs!)
14. In your interview with Forbes last year, you mentioned that this isn’t quite the future you imagined as a kid. How does the idea of a “not quite ideal” future appear throughout your crime novels?
Forbes magazine asked a number of people, sf writers included, how the future had surprised them. I don’t think anyone ever gets the ideal future they hoped for, even if by some miracle everything for them went right and the bread always landed on the carpet jam side up. “Not quite ideal” can be a good starting point–the story begins with the not quite ideal and everything just gets worse before it gets better. Or it’s the end–the not quite ideal end that everyone had in mind but that most of them can live with, at least for a while. Or that they have to live with, like it or not. Nothing we have–nothing we discovered or invented or developed–has ever been quite what we expected it to be. In some cases, it’s been extreme–e.g., medical science thought it had come up with a drug to treat extreme morning sickness in pregnant women; the drug was called thalidomide. Not the first bad medical mistake in relatively recent history–right around the turn of the 20th century, doctors thought they had come up with a cure for the common cold, most aches and pains, and even depression. The name of this pharmaceutical miracle? Heroin.
I’m going far afield here and I apologize. I guess all I really need to say is that my science fiction does not start from a premise of ‘Well, if we just invent/discover/learn this one thing, it’ll solve everything.’ When I write about the future, it has to do with things that not only fail to solve problems but also create new ones. Or our solutions don’t work because we’ve failed to determine what the problem really is.
15. What sorts of problems does your fiction seek to address?
Generally, the problems of the end-user–i.e., people like me, I guess. Which is to say, all of us who aren’t insiders for decision-making, technology, exploration, government, you name it. All the people who get stuck with the equipment that’s supposed to work and doesn’t, the mystifying assembly instructions, the software that doesn’t seem to make any sense, the food that’s bad for us because we can’t afford the healthy stuff. I’ve said that my work is primarily concerned with the impact of technology on people, but the people I’m talking about aren’t the populations of whole countries but people the reader is likely to know…or be.
16. That’s a fascinating approach to take to writing cyberpunk, since the genre is so often enamored with the mechanics of the technology. What are some up-and-coming writers you admire who employ such a strategy?
Actually, I don’t think cyberpunk really is enamoured with the mechanics of the technology. The technology stands out, of course, but cyberpunk itself was a reaction against the sf trope of “All we need is __________ and everything will be fine.” Most sf today, cyberpunk or not, is written by people who know better. Talkiing about up-and-comers I admire, I’m going to leave someone out by accident, or I’m going to put someone in who is new to me but is no longer considered an up-and-comer. Also, I don’t admire writers because they approach things the same way I do–I admire them for themselves. I don’t get to read as much as I’d like to. When I do, I often check up on people I “taught” at Clarion West first before anyone else. I’ve just read Binding Energy, a collection of short fiction by Daniel Marcus, and I’m currently reading Filter House, a short-fiction collection by Nisi Shawl–both of them were in my first Clarion West class and I’m proud to know them. David Marusek was in the same class and he does fabulous work. Justina Robson was in my second class, as were Christopher Rowe and Craig Gidney. I’m proud to know them, too. Tricia Sullivan wasn’t in any of my Clarion West classes and as young as she is, I don’t think she counts as an up-and-comer any more. I love her work, too. None of these writers write like anyone except themselves. They’re true to themselves just as they should be and they’re kicking ass.
17. What are some authors of other genres you admire? Why?
In no particular order, I like Nicci French, Val McDermid, Toni Morrison, Minette Walters, Stephen King, Lawrence Block, Alice Walker, the late John Gardner (Look up The Sunlight Dialogues–very long but rewarding!–and Grendel, short and more familiar to everyone), Thomas Pynchon, Carl Hiaason, Maxine Hong Kingston (look up Tripmaster Monkey: His Fake Book), Joseph Wambaugh, Ishmael Reed (look up The Last Days of Louisiana Red and Yellow Back Radio Broke-Down), the late Kathy Acker…I think I’ll stop there. Why do I like them? They’re all different.:)
18. How does blogging interact with your writing?
Actually, I try not to do too much blogging. It takes a lot of thought and energy and I need that to do my own work. So I stick to posting LolCats that I found particularly funny, wishing people happy birthday, and once in a while, ranting about one thing or another. I just don’t have enough time for more than that–not if I want to get any work done. Linking to my blog…well, only with the proviso that readers won’t find much substance there. If they’re looking for profundity, they’ll have to look elsewhere. And I’m not the kind of writer who can talk about what she’s working on in detail. It’s just my temperament.
Considering how we became LJ friends, that’s actually really surprising to me! 🙂
Well, I guess I see what you mean. I say I try not to do too much blogging but I’ve actually made a lot of friends on LJ that I would not know otherwise, and I’d be the poorer for the lack. I’ve “met” them in LJ communities or because they dropped in to leave comments on something I’d posted, or replied to comments I’ve left in other journals, and I really enjoy that interaction–it seems less like formal blogging to me and more like blogversation, if you see what I mean. I won’t say I’d never do a formal blog using WordPress or something like that, but I prefer the informality and easy contact that LJ affords. I’ve made friends with people within the sf community here but I’ve also “met” others who aren’t actively in the tribe, so to speak, and that’s great, too. So I guess I shouldn’t say that I don’t blog. Whatever this is I’m doing, it’s become an integral part of my life and I don’t want to do without the contact.
19. Got an opinion on Elizabeth Bear and RaceFail ’09?
No, I think enough has been said.
20. You mentioned having taught such luminaries as Justina Robson. What should young writers look for in a good mentor? How can more established writers act as good mentors/teachers?
I’d like to claim I’m Justina Robson’s mentor–that would look great on my resume, wouldn’t it?:) However, I only “taught” Clarion West for one week. She did the hard part–i.e., persevering. Frankly, I don’t really advise young writers to look for mentors as such. I advise them to look for good influences. The luckiest writers find editors who take an interest in them. I was very lucky that way–Ellen Datlow took an interest in me early on in my career. Every time she worked on one of my stories, I learned something that made me a better writer. Ellen Datlow made me the writer I am.
Some people like working with mentors and if that suits you, that’s fine. But writing is ultimately a solitary pursuit. It’s nice to have support but you also have to be able to keep going even when nobody seems particularly interested in what you’re doing. I think that if you want a writer for a mentor, you should look to their work. Pick their brains by reading their best stuff, examine it, enjoy it. But learn how to be strong for yourself. If writing is really what you want to do, don’t pay any attention to people who seem to want to discourage you.
How can more established writers act as good mentors/teachers? Good question; I’m really not sure how to answer that. Not every writer is good at teaching/facilitating learning. I’d recommend that if writers know of someone worth encouraging that they do so, even if it’s just with a few good words. I don’t believe in discouraging people who want to write. The rest of the world does that well enough without my pitching in.