An hour-long interview with John C. Wright, Nebula- and Hugo Award-nominated author of some twenty-two novels, including the critically acclaimed The Golden Age and Count to a Trillion. His novel Somewhither won the Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 2016. He’s also published numerous short stories and anthologies, including Awake in the Night Land and City Beyond Time, as well as non-fiction.
John C. Wright is a retired attorney, newspaperman and newspaper editor, who was only once on the lam and forced to hide from the police. He is the author of some twenty-two novels, including the critically acclaimed The Golden Age and Count to a Trillion. His novel Somewhither won the Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 2016. He’s also published numerous short stories and anthologies, including Awake in the Night Land and City Beyond Time, as well as non-fiction. He holds the record for the most Hugo Award nominations for a single year. He presently works as a writer in Virginia, where he lives in “fairy-tale like happiness” with his wife, L. Jagi Lamplighter, also an author, and their four children, Ping Ping, Orville, Wilbur, and Just Wright.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, John.
Excellent. Wonderful to be here.
We were just commenting before we started that we are the only two living members of the New Space Princess Movement, which has yet to take the science fiction world by storm. But there’s still time.
Yes. I wrote a novel with a space princess, an honest-to-goodness space princess, in it. She was the princess of Monaco. And she went into outer space. She went to the globular cluster at M-3. So that counts.
Closest I came was the daughter of an elected official on another planet, which…?
Doesn’t count. Elected officials. It’s got to be the daughter of a monarch.
I guess I’ve never actually written a space princess novel…
It doesn’t matter. These literary movements are very important for generating manifestos and discussions at coffee houses, not for actually affecting the literary world in any way, shape, or form.
That’s good, because I don’t think we have affected it much.
No, that’s okay. But if you remember, it was started as a joke based on the reaction against the mundane science-fiction literary movement, which was going to try to take away all the wonder and splendor out of science fiction. And you and I both thought that was such a terrible idea that we needed to get some good old-fashioned pulp fun back into the mix.
Well, and certainly there’s a lot of pulp fun to be had in the book we’re gonna be talking about, Lost on the Last Continent, which I’ve read a good chunk of, although I haven’t finished yet. But we’ll get to that a bit later. I always start these things by…this will also sound pulpy…going back into the mists of time…
…to find out how you became interested in science fiction and fantasy–presumably that began as a reader, like most of us do–and then how you got started writing it. So take me back and tell me about your formative years as a fan and writer.
I was born of poor but humble parents. My father was a naval officer. And so I was raised on post, on bases, Navy bases, which were nice, clean, well-tended, and low-crime areas where a kid could could run around at night and rarely run into the MPs. And the local library was in walking distance of my house, which for a bookish child is a wonderland. And back in the day, Navy men would often have sack time on cruises. They would have a little bit of free time. Not too much, because the senior officers don’t want to give to the scrubs much room for idle hands’ mischief. So when they’re not scraping barnacles off the hull of the aircraft carrier, some of them will read paperbacks. And so, when they were done with the cruise, they were done with the paperbacks, and they would donate entire boxes of stuff to to the local base library.
Well, a friend of my dad’s, knowing I was a bookish young man, gave me a crate, an entire crate of my own books. Now, I had never owned my own books before. So to me, as a child, this was a great thing, a, you know, a life-changing event. And the book on top was Have Space Suit With Travel by Robert Heinlein, and I still remember the cover of it, because it had a picture of the main character, Kip, in his spacesuit, Oscar–the spacesuit had a name–plus the three thugs, the Mother Thing, and Wormface, the alien, all in a semicircle above his space helmet. And that’s what got me started, and I never looked back.
Well, I have to say, that is one of my all time favorites and certainly one that influenced me a lot, too. I read it to my daughter when she was about ten or so and she loved it as well, especially, of course, Pee Wee.
Yep. One of my great pleasures in life, which I can’t explain to any of my bachelor friends, is reading to my own children, and this is back when they were smaller, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. That book is a lot better science fiction than most people remembered it as being. They remember it as being kind of a boy’s adventure story with a space princess, four-armed green Martians, and so on. But he actually had…whenever he made an astronomical factoid that he put in, those were all correct. And although the science of the time no longer applies, for 1920, 1930, when he wrote it, it was as advanced as anything else being written in the science fiction field, in terms of what the theory was as to how planetary formation worked and so on and so forth. The idea back in the day was that Mars was an older planet, and so if it had life, they would be more advanced, and Venus was a younger, which is why to this day you still sometime see ruins on Mars, if you’re going to write a story there, and dinosaurs on Venus. All that has since been, you know, we now that Venus is a sulfurous hell hole and Mars is an arid wasteland without a single thoat on it.
Yeah, I miss the jungles of Venus. But…
I miss the dinosaurs, so I put them in my current novel.
Yes, I noticed that.
But, as an homage to Burroughs–and I gotta say, my current novel, I tried to write a Burroughs-style thing, and it is difficult. People make fun of him as a pulp writer, but it is not easy to do, because you have to be so tight and consistent with your writing and get the action started immediately. It’s…if you think of how tightly plotted the movie Star Wars is, you can see the really good pulp influence in that film, which made it such a blockbuster.
Well, so you were reading this, so, when did you decide to try your hand at writing it?
I do not recall a time before which I did not have the intention to be a science-fiction writer. I’m one of those few people fortunate enough to be blessed by always knowing from my earliest recollection of my life what I wanted to do with my life. Many people have to try at some point to decide what career they want to have. I’ve always wanted to be a science fiction writer, I’ve never really wanted to be anything else. My first completed manuscript was at age nine called Agent of Nesps (sp?), which was a cheap ripoff of Keith Laumer’s Dinosaur Beach. I just copied what he did beat for beat, word for word. First story I tried never sent into a magazine, I did at age 12…but my first sale was much later, and it was to Isaac Asimov’s Magazine. It was called “Farthest Man from Earth.”
So, you were you were writing all through your kidhood then, it sounds like. Did you write long stuff, did you write novel-length or were you writing short stuff?
When I was in college, I was writing an epic-length book called The Ninth Forgotten Sun, which took place in the same background as the Cthulu mythos. And it was the…it takes place in the far future, after the sun has gone out, and the world’s last wizard…is responsible for trying to resurrect the sun from the dead, using his necromancy. And when he does that, not only do the ark men, the ancient men who ruled the earth before their demise, also come back, but the people and the secret civilizations that have grown up in the eternally nighted world, who can’t tolerate the return of the sunlight, rise up to oppose him. And that was the…I never did actually finish that manuscript, but it was upwards of a thousand pages before I abandoned it. And that was when I was in college.
Did you show your work to people as you were growing up and shared around to see if. you know, if you were telling stories that people enjoy?
It never occurred to me to do that. So, no, I never did that.
That’s something I always ask writers and I get varying responses. It’s something I did.
I guess I’m just not very gregarious. It’s not that I was shy of showing it, I just never, never thought of it…oh, no, no, no, wait, that’s not quite true. I showed the manuscript to the girl who later became my wife. So she must’ve seen something in it worth admiring.
Now, you went to university, you studied law, is that correct?
Yes. I both went to St. John’s College in Annapolis, where I had a wonderful education in philosophy and mathematics, and then I went to the Marshall Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary. So I went from the third-oldest to the second-oldest college in the entire continental United States.
Well, in your undergraduate…you were doing this Great Books Course, which I’ve read about in your…you know, online, you’ve referenced it. What did that involve exactly?
Oh, I love talking about the Great Books Program. It’s one of the best programs I’ve ever heard of. Instead of going to a modern…I assume you know what a modern college is like, the children have their heads shaved, they’re dressed in white jumpsuits and they’re set before the giant Omnitron with electrodes put into their head….
Yeah, that’s…I kind of remember that…
..they’re brainwashed to worship the state and to complain about everything and to run weeping for safe spaces, and so on. They did the opposite at St. John’s. Not only did everyone grow their hair out long, but they follow…every student follows the same course of study. There’s no tests and no grades. Every class is a writing class. Every course is…you’re graded on papers, not…they only have grades for the purpose of transfer. They don’t actually grade your performance. Instead, they have a “don rag,” the way they used to do in medieval Europe, where your tutors, your professors would sit around and verbally tell you what you were doing right and what are you doing wrong. And the class sizes were small enough that they could do that for everyone. There were no lecture classes.
And so, what we did is, we read the great books of Western literature in more or less chronological order, starting with the ancient Greeks. So every student there read The Iliad and The Odyssey and Socrates and Aristotle and so on and so forth. And then in your sophomore year, you would read the Latins, and then you would get up through the Enlightenment in your junior year, and there would be some rubbish in the senior year that was hardly worth reading, like Marx and so on and so forth.
That’s fascinating. And also sounds like an excellent preparation for writing.
And we would study music and rhetoric, logic. We studied the quadrivium and trivium, in other words. We actually studied the ancient course of study that built European civilization, and it is shocking to me, truly shocking, that almost no other college offers a course like this. I think Chicago does. But I’m not sure about that.
Well, it sounds like a great preparation for writing.
It is a great preparation for writing, it is a great preparation for law, it’s a great preparation for…it’s what liberal arts used to be and was supposed to be. It’s a great preparation for being a free man in a free country. It’s not good preparation for being a brainwashed drone, so most colleges don’t offer that kind of course of study. And it’s like being a man with a memory in a land of amnesiacs, because every thought in your head is probably made up by someone who lived between 100 and 500 years ago–or, if you’re a Christian, 2,000 to a million years ago–and most people don’t know where the thoughts come from or what they mean or where they fit in a…it’s a great dialogue that goes on between the great minds of the Western literature, where someone in one century will be answering someone who put forward the opposite idea in a previous century. And nowadays, most people, even educated men, are like people who walk in on the last five minutes of a conversation that’s been going on for hours. And they don’t really know where anything comes from or where it fits into the grand scheme of things.
I’ve had the rather peculiar and disappointing experience twice now in my life of speaking to some of the most highly respected, highly regarded physicists in the country, and neither of them knew the first thing about empiricism or the metaphysics on which the scientific revolution is based, or even the idea of the differing models between the Newtonian, Galilean, Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Ptolemy, and so on. They didn’t seem to grasp what science was or how it fit into the great scheme of things. They didn’t know the difference between physics and metaphysics, for example. Both of them thought physics could cover every topic that philosophy covered, in which case, my question to them in both cases was, “What experiment or observation do I perform to prove to myself, to prove to a skeptic, the proposition that all philosophy is ultimately physics?” Because to me, that sounds like a philosophical question, not a question you can solve by performing an experiment.
I should mention neither of them answered the question and both of them got mad at me for asking. So, there’s one thing a St. John’s education will do for you. You start to become less angry at people who ask you questions. You begin to enjoy it instead.
So, where along in there…I mean, you were an attorney for a while, and then you ended up working as a newspaper reporter and editor, which I have also done…that transition there, how did that all fit in with your writing fiction?
Well, I got into law because of a, basically because of a mistake on my part. I thought about my career very logically and what I had skills at. And as a St. John’s graduate, I had good skills at logic and rhetoric, at putting together arguments. I thought there was no one in the modern workplace that did argument other than lawyer. And I actually do have a good mind for it, (but it was not something) I was particulary good at, it was not the kind of work I particularly enjoyed doing, usually because I wasn’t working on the side of the angels. I neann, I wasn’t a prosecutor, I wasn’t putting bad guys between bars. I worked for a small general-practice firm for maybe six months, maybe not even that. And they were dissatisfied with my performance–rightly so, I should say, I was not good at the work–and they let me go.
And so, while I was looking for other work, a friend of mine who was running a print store was also running a little magazine, kind of a fishing and fun magazine. But his brother had been killed by a drunk driver, so he was on a crusade to stop the drunk driving in the local St. Mary’s County, which is Maryland, which is where I was stationed at the time. His name was Ken Rossignol. And this guy was like a character from a comic book. He was like, J.J. Jameson crossed with Perry White, if you catch my reference. And he was unstoppable and unfrightened. And the reason I say unfrightened, he started looking into police corruption, he started looking into county commissioners in a gambling ring with local developers, who would lose money at card games and therefore get their petitions granted for putting up houses. He would start looking into where the drug smuggling was coming into the town, because the, all the fishing boats would go out, it’s very easy to bring drugs up through the Caribbean, if you just make a rendezvous with a fishing boat off the coast of the county.
And so, my job was to cover the local courts, and also to get the get the tickets for whoever had been DWI or DUI that week. And he would put his hit parade, he would put a list of everyone who had gotten a drunk-driving ticket on the front page every week. He would call it his hit parade. And he would listen the police scanner late at night, and when there was a drunk driver reported over the police scanner, he would get his camera and he would drive out there and he would take a big honking photograph of a drunk behind the wheel being arrested and put on the front page. And because it was a small rural community whose main income came from the tourist trade from the District of Columbia, where people would come by for fishing and, you know, beachifying and stuff, the local courts didn’t want to really crack down the drunks, because these were usually tourists who were there to go to a bar and go fishing, like I said. But they were afraid of Ken Rossignol, because they’d get their picture in the paper from him. Of course, all their relatives would then buy up all the issues, ’cause…
So, he was a…he he got threatened. He wore a flak jacket to work because he got threatened by local dealers. They would come and threaten to kill him, and he had his microphone and tape recorder and interviewed them for the paper. Give them space on the front page if they were willing to talk to them. And that was the one time I was on the lam from the cops, because the police…not the state troopers, they were straight guys, but the local county sheriffs…were on the take. And so, the powers that be were out to get me, and get us.
But meanwhile, you were writing science fiction while all this was going on.
Yes. Yes, I was also writing science fiction. What I decided to do with my science-fiction career, which had been, I hadn’t made a single sale yet, is, I decided to take a piece of advice from Harlan Ellison, which is write a short story a week, and at the end of a year you’ll have fifty-two short stories. Now, to a beginner writer, to whom sweating bullets to get a single short story written in six months is an immense Olympian task, I have to tell you seriously and sincerely, if you want to be a writer, you should buckle down and make yourself do this kind of thing now. Now, I wrote about forty or so short stories, and to this day I’ve actually managed to sell every single one of them.
But my first sale, my first real sale, I made a small sale to it to a tiny magazine called Aberrations, my very first sale. It was a short story called “Not Born a Man.” But my first real sale was to Isaac Asimov’a Magazine and I… the cover of the magazine my story appeared in had a story by Ursula K. LeGuin. I shared…I was sharing pages with her, and this is an author who I had admired since I was, since boyhood up. So I started to rub shoulders with the famous people. I was very pleased with that.
And then, how did you go from the short stories to the first novels?
I wrote novels as well. Basically, I…back in those days, many writers got started the same way I did. They sold some short stories to magazines and anthologies. And I came to the attention of David Hartwell of Tor Books. So, I was going to a science fiction convention and Lawrence Watt-Evans turns to me in the green room and says, “Are you John C. Wright?” And being from Virginia, I of course went, “Why, yes, suh, I do have the pleasure of being Mr. Wright, suh.” (I didn’t actually do that, but I should have.) He said, “David Hartwell is looking for you, he says you’re the man to read.” He had seen my short story, “Farthest Man from Earth.” At the same time, I was trying to get an agent interested in agenting for me, but he was a little reluctant. So, I neither had an agent nor had a publisher, but I talked to David Hartwell and then phoned my agent who was there…the guy I wanted to be my agent, who was there at the same convention…and said, “I just talked to an editor at Tor Books who is interested in my manuscript,” you know, and I had two of them ready.
So, if you’re if you’re a beginning writer, go ahead and write two or three novel-sized manuscripts if you want to have something ready to show to a publisher. Now, I should say that was back in the days when people went through publishers and didn’t just do everything over the Internet. The market these days is very different than it was even twenty years ago.
Yes, for sure.
Yep. In any case. So that was The Golden Age, the book of mine that you’ve heard of. It’s the one I sold to Mr. Hartwell.
Yes, I read those. And yeah, I was very impressed when I first encountered your writing. So I’m really happy to have you in here. And I think a lot of what I reacted to was, in fact, what you talking about with the Great Books Course was that…it was this deep knowledge of Western civilization, Western history, the books that, you know, the writings that have informed our civilization. I think that’s what I reacted to in that. I also looked at it and said, “I can’t write that.” That’s annoying. I have other things I can write, but that particular thing was not something I could have written.
Well, thank you. The check for having someone say that I’m a better writer than you is in the mail and you’ll be getting the pay. Don’t tell your listeners that this is all set up.
Now, I want to talk about the new one, Lost on the Lost Continent. The reason we’ll talk about it is because this podcast is all about the creative process. So, using this as an example, we’ll talk about how your creative process works. And I guess that brings the first and, unfortunately, highly clichéd question, “Where do you get your ideas?”.
Well, it is…I actually have an answer for that, and it’s not the answer that Harlan Ellison gives, which is Schenectady.
My answer is that every science fiction writer I know, every fantasy writer I know, either has a notebook or, nowadays, a cellphone, that they keep notes in. And the difference between a writer and a non-writer is only this: non-writers have just as many ideas about stories as writers do, they just don’t write them down. They don’t remember them later. I write all my ideas down
So, the answer to the question is I get all my ideas from stealing them. I look at writers who are better than me and I steal their ideas. Now, in order to not be caught by the cops, what I do is…not the cops, excuse me, not to be caught by the readers…what I do is, I steal two ideas at once and intermingle them after filing the serial numbers off, and I also think about the thing, I think, “What if it really happened?” Not if it was convenient for a story. But what would the ramifications be, you know? So that’s why…if you remember The Golden Age…that story, the origin story for that story was, at a convention, a girl in the audience stood up and asked a question. And she said that people were much happier in the old days than they are now. And I asked her, “Where did you hear that?” She said, “Well, I read it,” and I said, “So, who are you reading?” Because it looks to me like people living in the modern day, your chance…you don’t have to go into the profession your father was, you don’t….you have more liberty to do just about anything you can imagine, including things our ancestors couldn’t even imagine. If the pharaoh of Egypt had a headache, he could not get an aspirin, because there was no such thing in those days. He couldn’t go get an ice cream cone. I can get ice cream. I can hop in my car and go get an ice cream right now, you know, at any time of, any hour of the day or night.
Now, that doesn’t necessarily create happiness. There are some problems that are caused by great wealth. So, the idea of The Golden Age was, let’s take every science fiction trend I can think of and take it to the ultimate extreme and put a novel as far in the future as I can imagine and still have what’s recognizable as something like a human being, as a main character. And let’s just see what the problems would be, even in the utopia or as close to utopia as human beings can get to. So, I ended up writing a sort of non-utopia. Now, that idea is not original to me. That idea comes from Sir Thomas More. But that’s where I got my ideas.
Now, Lost on the Last Continent. Now, most people here…let me just say again…
Before we do that, give a brief synopsis of Lost on the Last Continent.
How can it be briefed up? The main character is Colonel Preston Lost, a big-game hunter who, after returning home from the China wars, doesn’t fit into modern society anymore. He’s too rough and ready. He’s too manly. He likes his guns too much. And almost everything he likes to do is now either illegal or unconscionable. So he…and he’s a wealthy man. So, he turns his great energy to hunting down and tracking down reports of UFOs, which he slowly begins to believe is a real thing. And he interviews a family of people whose daughter was kidnapped by UFOs. So he actually gets personally angry at the at the UFO people, even though he’s never met them or seen them. So he has, because he runs an international airspace engineering corporation. he has a special spaceplane built, an aerospace plane, orbital-to-surface plane with, you know, afterburners and ram jets and so on, so forth, that’s radar invisible. And he simply tootles around…
And this is all before the story opens. The story opens with him chasing a UFO through a tornado and a thunderstorm over the Bermuda Triangle, into a vortex that opens up a different, an alternate world through a wormhole. And he chases the ship through a wormhole, finds himself flying above a volcano-lit, hellish landscape under a giant red sun, and rams into a pterodactyl and has to ditch his plane in a boiling lake.
And we’re about four pages in at that point.
No, no, that’s the first paragraph or so. No, excuse me, the wreck is about four pages in. That’s correct. That’s correct. The UFO people are out to get him. As it turns out, the UFOs do not come from outer space. Spoilers! They don’t come from outer space, they come from in the future. But very far in the future. We’re not talking the year 4000 or something itty-bitty, rinky-dinky like that. They’re from 250 million years from now, when all the continents have re-collided together to form the one supercontinent of Pangea Ultima, the last continent of Earth of the title. And as it turns out, mankind has not only been superseded by nine or ten additional versions and variants of mankind, each one created artificially by the race that came before them, but all life was at one point wiped out, and time travelers decided to restock the biosphere, after the surface became habitable again, with life, starting with the most primitive life forms they take from the far past, working their way up to the modern lifeforms.
So, they brought along mastodons and dinosaurs and all sorts of things from the Triassic and the Jurassic periods and earlier. And so, not only are there first men, Homo sapiens, our humans, but there’s also the race of the second men that we are going to create in 14,000 years from now, and the race that arose after them, the third men, and so on and so forth, all the way up through the other nine.
The immortals of the fourth race, when they’re resurrected from the dead, take over handily, but because they’re trying to discover something deeper in life than their own immortality can provide them, a mysterious spiritual reality that they can’t define themselves, they die off, even though they allegedly can’t die, trying to save the first men, our race, from extinction, from a second extinction, I should say, since we…now, in order to prevent any paradox, the time travellers have only kidnapped people who their records show perished. So, when Preston Lost, who’s the only guy who’s not in any records, shows up in the far, far future, he starts running into people from Atlantis, who were swept off the island before the high tidal wave hit, from Lemuria, from sunken cities and the lost cities of gold of the Incas and…including people who have died in disasters in our future, as well. He is aided and abetted by a sabertoothed little monkey named Smiley (not his real name), who turns out to be more than more than meets the eye. And I tried to…I tried to mimic the. techniques of Edgar Rice Burroughs when I was writing, and I have to say, it’s like I said, it’s very difficult to copy those old pulp writers because they had a craft to them that’s that’s been lost. At least, I could not reincarnate it. I don’t know. Maybe it hasn’t been lost, but at least I couldn’t do very well. I could not do as well as I’d like.
So, what was the specific seed for this particular story?
The specific seed of this particular story was, once upon a time I was writing a series of articles for a magazine, and the editor was opening a new magazine. And he thought having a pulp story, a pulp-style story, would be a good sell, because not many people were doing things like that these days with science fiction. These days its kind of dreary political-correctness sort of, you know, stories about…I don’t know. Garbage. And so, off the top of my head, I thought of three ideas for various stories, a space opera, which I’m rather good, at called Superluminary, this one, my planetary romance, which is a Lost on the Last Continent, and another one…which I haven’t written yet. And in every case, storytelling is…
My method of making up stories is very similar to that that C.S. Lewis describes in his writing. I get images in my mind, striking ideas of visual images, and I try to interconnect them with some sort of plot logic to show where they are going and to give some sort of justification for them. So, when I thought pulp magazine, my first thought was a guy in a spaceplane running into a dinosaur, a big-game hunter, a big-game hunter hunting dinosaurs in an in an era when his race, mankind, was also the prey animal of more advanced species and was being hunted to extinction. You know, where mankind was the dodo being hunted down. And I wanted to write a planetary romance, but we have since discovered that Mars is not habitable and Venus is a burning hellhole. Where else could I go but Earth in the far future? Because I’ve seen maps of Pangea, of the one supercontinent that emerges once all the lesser continents collide with each other in the far future. And that was so striking to me as a possible spot for a, you know, to put a stop to the grim answers, that I put it there. So, basically I made it up by making it up. A guy said, “Can you write a pulp-style story?” And I said, “Sure, I can.”
What does your planning process look like? Do you synopsize a lot? Do you do it more by the seat of the pants? How does it work for you?
That is an excellent question. It depends on the book. The book I wrote just before this one was called Superluminary, and it was also written according to the same discipline, which was, I wrote a chapter a week for 52 weeks. And in that story, I outlined everything beforehand to excruciating detail.
Now, you outline to that level of detail, you run the risk of draining your characters of some of their vivacity and draining your plot of some of its snap and originality, some of the flexibility and originality, if you understand what I’m saying. If you plan things too thoroughly…not everyone falls in that risk. I just think it’s a temptation that you can fall into as a writer. But if you rely too much on the exploratory method…I myself don’t like the seat-of-the-pants metaphor. It’s not really what’s going on. A better metaphor would be to say, you’re an explorer trying to cross a mist-filled valley to reach a mountain that you can see on the far side. And if you can pick out the landmarks of where you want to get, even if you can’t see the exact path you will take to get there, you know where you’re going.
So, for people who write in an exploratory fashion rather than an outlining fashion, basically their first draft is their outline. But that method was not open to me, using this method, you see. And I have to confess, I got into more trouble with Lost on the Last Continent than just about any other project I’ve ever tried to write, because I had straitjacketed myself into a situation where I couldn’t go back and change the early chapters, because I’d published one a week, see, on my blog, and I’m giving it away free, free of charge, anyone can can read it. But if you wanna read the whole thing, you know, gathered together in a bound book, you’re going to have to pay me. And unlike unlike Superluminary, which I had planned out from the get go, this was only rather vaguely planned out, and several things happened that quite surprised me, and some things took longer than I had thought. For example, in my original notes, the entire battle sequence that takes twenty chapters in the fifth book, Gods of Pangea, was just a note: “Battle! Need a battle scene!” But if you’re an exploratory writer, you have to also be flexible enough to look back at things that you did not originally intend to be plot twists or traps or red herrings, and retroactively make them into red herrings or plot twists or plot traps, so that your readers will think you had that planned out in mind from the get-go. Yeah, in this case, Smiley’s identity, the secret identity of the monkey, I had planned out from the very beginning.
I was just going to say that I’ve been on a panel or two about writing series and…my longest series is five young adult books, and they’re only sixty thousand words each. That’s only a little longer than Last on the Last Continent is, in length.
It’s basically…if it was published as a book, it would be five short novels. It’s actually rather long. It was more than a year. It turned out to be a 105 episodes, which is almost two years.
One of the challenges of writing series fiction, and it sounds like it’s exactly what you’ve, well, done to yourself by publishing them as you go along is, there’s always that something you make up in the moment because it seems like a good idea, which then later you have to justify or that comes back to bite you in some way because you want to do something that you’ve now precluded yourself from doing because you ruled it out in some earlier chapter or book.
That happened when I had my main character jump off a cliff. Yeah. He did not die at that time. I’m just telling you, because you looked a little nervous. The main character does not die when he jumps off the cliff. He does float away to the highest mountain in the world, being yanked there by a gravity-controlling magic ring he’s wearing on his finger.
Of course. As one does.
Well, no, he knew that one of the other superbeings on the planet was meddling with his destiny. And he was doing it secretively. And he was going to double-dog dare the guy to either let him die or…he was playing Russian roulette with an unknown party, trying to to see whether or not the guy would reveal himself. And he does. Now, disaster falls because of that, because he absolutely gives away the secret base, the secret location of the last remaining superbeing on the planet, then gets attacked by a gigantic aerial fleet of the UFO people: the eighth men, they’re called. The Watchers.
Well, I think…
Oh, I’ve got to tell you. I haven’t finished your question. Here’s here’s answer to your question. Here’s who I stole my ideas from for this story. One was just a map of Pangea. I just thought was a great setting for a story. But the other is a book called Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, which is a brilliant piece of fictional work from the 1920s from England, from back before they called science fiction by that name, it’s that old. Where this guy lays out the entire history…
I’ve read it.
Then you know Lost on the Last Continent. You know exactly who I’m stealing from. My third man are his third men. I just made them slightly shorter. My fifth men are his fifth men, except I made them warlike and devil worshippers and so on. My winged men are his Venusians…I didn’t even change the order in which I put them, if you understand what I’m saying. The eighth men, in his book, he describes his eighth men as being very pedestrian, and I made them into grays, into Roswell-type alien critters who reproduce by cloning. But I didn’t even change…I didn’t even change what I called them.
I didn’t get all fourteen men…I thought he was too extravagant.
So what does your actual writing process look like to use? Do you sit and write for a solid block, do you do it in your office, do you go off toa coffee shop, do you write by hand? How do you write?
I write directly on the computer because now with word processors, they’re so ridiculously convenient if you want to change a character’s name globally or look up a passage that you’ve forgotten and so on. I usually write in separate chapters so I can keep track of the chapter length, because, of course, you’ll get a read-out at the bottom of your Word for Windows. Now by day, I should say. I’m a technical writer, so I spend my life formatting documents to make it look pretty. So I could format my manuscript scripts to make them look really good, and I know all the tricks to make them…
So anyway, I usually have an outline and notes. My outlines are usually extensive, Lost on the Last Continent‘s an exception. And usually I have…my notes. for example, for Count to a Trillion was seventy pages of notes, including a twenty-page timeline of future history. Some of that material showed up in the appendix for that book, but I take extensive notes when I’m making up a story and I usually intend not to tell the reader all the background that I’ve made up, because I just want it to be enough to create an illusion of versimalitude. So I really write a chapter at a time and I try to keep them a uniform length. Then I cut and paste the material into a master document, which is labeled “Master Document,” that I update continuously, and I email it to myself so I have a spare copy floating around in case one of my computers blows up. And I write by quota, I either do a certain number of hours a week, you know, or I do a certain number of pages, a certain number of words a week. One or the other.
And then what does your rewriting or revision process look like? Now, this one was published on your blog as it went. Were you taking reader comments as you went?
I don’t rewrite. I’m a genius, I just write everything down the one time, one draft, it’s brilliant, and the only time I rewrite is if an editor tells me to rewrite it.
So, do editors tell you to rewrite it?
Vox Day is the best editor I’ve ever encountered, and he has made wise suggestions on several occasions. But never, never a major rewrite. Never a thing like saying, get rid of this character or switch this plot around. My very first book, The Golden Age, for example. David Hartwell made a suggestion that a certain scene that I had as a Council of Ellrond scene in chapter two, he said, break that up. He said, “It’s too big, break it up and put it into several other scenes.” And that was fine.
The only time, the only other major rewrite I ever had to do was their fault, not mine. David Hartwell called me when the second book of my fantasy story Orphans of Chaos was being published, and he said, “Hey, we just found out up that we can’t make this in two books, it’s got to be three books, but the third book requires another…” I forgot what the word count was…25,000 words or something like that. Basically another four chapters of material. And I said, “Bingo, I have the material here and ready for the sequel. I could just take some of that and plop it right in the middle. It will be seamless, because I already have the scenes all planned out,” and so I did.
When you say you don’t rewrite beyond the first draft, as you are writing a sentence, will you sometimes back up and reword, that sort of thing?
Oh, yeah, I’ll do that, I’ll do that.
So that’s a form of rolling rewrite.
I’m not that much of a genius. Or lazy. It’s either genius or lazy. I’m not sure which. Because I simply steal from smarter authors than me, it maybe should be lazy instead of genius, you know.
I remember reading…and I’ve mentioned this before on the podcast. It was probably Opus 100, Isaac Asimov’s hundredth book, which was also kind of autobiographical, and I think that may have been where he talked about when he wrote he would, you know, he he just typed–and that was on a typewriter, right? He would type the page and set it aside and never rewrote, never, you know… it just came out right. That’s even harder in a typewriter than on a word processor.
Yeah, I could not do that. I make lots and lots of spelling errors. In fact, there’s the guy…when I was doing was Lost on the Last Continent, there was a guy who would diligently go through my my terrible spelling errors and just send me pages of corrections every time. And I would correct those. Now I got to…
I take it back. Let me tell you one disadvantage of my method. When I was writing Count to a Trillion, my first draft got to be about 50,000 words, and I realized I’d taken a wrong turning at chapter two, so I had to take out 25,000 words of writing. (And I may be out by a factor of of magnitude, because I’m terrible with numbers.) I had to throw away about twelve chapters’ worth of material, which I hoped to eventually revisit as another book. But it was just because I did not outline that one, and because I did not have to plan it out.
Let me tell you the secret. I’m not actually a genius. I’m going to tell you what goes on. Some writers write and do their first draft in their head and some do it on the paper. And if you do it in your head, you don’t have to rewrite it when it comes to a second draft. You’re basically writing your second draft down when you sit down with a pen and paper.
How fast are you as a writer?
I can crank out between 2,000 and 3,000 words a four-hour writing session. So, on a good week, when I get four or five writing days, that’s basically…I mean, I wrote The Golden Age in nine months. And that was a three-book, you know, bug-crusher sized manuscript. I write quickly.
A useful skill.
Yeah, for a writer. Now, let me tell you how I learned that skill. I was a newspaper man.
Yeah. I was going to say…
And I would write ten articles a week for my paper.
Yeah, I tell people that, too. I worked for a weekly newspaper and became news editor of it. At the ripe old age of twenty-four I was the newspaper editor, and we wrote…because it was a weekly and it was a community newspaper, a small–well, 6,000, 10,000–they said 10,000, but it only recently really became 10,000 people in Weyburn, Saskatchewan–and we, you know, I wrote everything, I wrote features, I wrote a column, I drew the editorial cartoon.
Me, too. I should have put that down! No, honest to goodness, I was the cartoonist, also, for my paper.
We have so much in common–besides the space princess thing.
Besides the space princesses, yeah.
So, you know, it’s….there are no, “Oh, I can’t write right now,” when you’re writing for a newspaper, because the newspaper has to come out and it has to have stuff in it. And you know, the pressman….
There are some jobs in life where you can be a little late, and newspaper is not one of them. If you do not make the deadline, then you are dead. The word deadline comes from the days back in the Civil War, when they couldn’t afford to put walls around where the prisoners were being kept. So, they’d just station a man in the guardhouse with a gun, and they would draw a line on the ground. And they’d say, “If you step over this line, we shoot you. You are dead.” It was known as a dead line.
Oh, I hadn’t heard that before.
Well, but you’ve worked in newspapers before. So, you know what it’s like to stay up until two in the morning on a Friday so you can get your your galleys to the printer Saturday morning, so it can come out by the Sunday deadline.
I had to cover City Council, which met on Tuesday nights, and the paper came out on Wednesday morning. So I would go have back to the office and write forty or fifty inches of copy, and my most vivid memory of that is the night when I turned off the computer without saving and had to rewrite it all from scratch. I only did that once.
Now, I can tell you’re a real newspaper guy, though, because you give your text in terms of inches.
Well, you do in the newspaper, yeah. I don’t do that now.
No, not with computerized news anymore. That was the one thing that the modern age really changed. In addition to changing the entire publishing industry, which I’m still not used to.
Well, I’m going to, as we’re getting…we’re forty-five minutes, almost fifty minutes in, so it’s time to get to the…I’m sure you’ll have no trouble with this…the big philosophical questions, which…
I love big philosophical questions, those are my favorite.
Well, it’s just one, really. Why do you write, and why do you think any of us write? Especially, why do we write this kind of stuff?
Well, that’s actually three questions. Why do I write, why does anyone write, and why do we write this kind of stuff?
Three questions, yeah.
So. The reason why the human race is creative is because we were created by the Creator. We were created His image, and His image is of a creator. So, when God gave man the gift of speech, the devil immediately told man how to lie. And God gave man the gift of telling stories, so we could use even the devil’s gift of lying for our good and for the good of all mankind.
The reason why we tell stories is because there are truths that you can’t capture by writing things down literally. The newspaper doesn’t tell you anything except for the news of the day. It doesn’t tell you about eternity, it doesn’t say anything about the deep truths, it doesn’t tell you about the the glint of love in a young girl’s eyes. It doesn’t tell you about the harsh glare of the sun on the mountains of the moon in the airless void. It doesn’t tell you what life is all about. It doesn’t tell you what it’s like to pick up a baby as a father for the first time, or to wipe the baby’s bottom, back when they’re so young that their poo does not stink, there is an age at which…if you have never wiped a baby’s bottom…
Oh, I have.
…you have to read it in a story to find out about that kind of thing. If you’ve never looked off the bow of a ship and seen an iceberg coming toward you when the sea is as blue as cobalt because of the cold, then the only way to know these things is to is to have someone tell you in a story. It’s the only way to live another person’s life. Otherwise, we’re all trapped within ourselves.
So, that’s why we are given this godlike gift, because without it, we would go mad. It’s the way to channel madness into a useful product that makes the angels weep with joy. It’s also useful for seducing women, and it’s useful for glorifying the great heroes of the post who need to be glorified. That’s what art and poetry is for.
The reason why I do it is because science fiction has always struck me as having everything every other genre has in it. It has got everything mainstream literature has, but it has less restrictions on the imagination, because you can go anywhere and do anything. Your setting can be anything you can imagine.
I like the discipline of science fiction ever fantasy–I also read fantasy, don’t get me wrong, but I do like the discipline of trying to stick to what is scientifically feasible. I’m the only guy I know who writes hard SF, nuts-and-bolts space opera, like I do with Count to a Trillion. All the fantastical things, all the astronomical wonders that I portray in that book are real. I didn’t make those up. I did not make up the star that is passing through our arm of the galaxy at 90 percent of the speed of light. There’s a real star that’s actually doing it. I did not make up the Andromeda Galaxy that is going to ram the Milky Way Galaxy three billion years from now. That’s for real. That’s gonna happen. And so and so forth. So, the reason why I write science fiction is because I like science fiction, the reason I like it is because from a young age it is the only field large enough for truly unbridled imagination, a truly ambitious imagination. The thing I think you liked in The Golden Age was just that ambition of imagination.
The third question was. Now I’ve forgotten it…why do I write, why do we write, why does anyone write?
Why does anyone write science fiction and fantasy? But, at least, for me, you’ve kind of answered it.
But that’s part of the same question, because I think most people have the same reason that I did.
If you’re going to explore mankind and you’re stuck with modern mainstream limitations, that…I should say, those limitations did not used to exist. When Homer and Hesiod and Virgil and Milton wrote stories, they put it as many fantastic elements as they needed to satisfy their story. No one said to Homer that the gods didn’t exist, you know, no one said to Dante…in fact, Dante’s worldview was as scientifically accurate as he could make it. He was practically a science fiction writer. But he threw in angels and devils and all sorts of all sorts of monsters.
But after the world went mad, sometime around the turn of the last century, someone–a socialist–got the bright idea that art and literature should only be about real people living on the real world in circumstances that were fairly close to boring everyday life, which is not the way anyone has ever told a fairy tale since the world’s begun. So, the true mainstream of literature had to go underground, it had to hide, and it reemerged from underground in the most unexpected place possible: the penny dreadfuls and the pulp magazines, where the real poetical Homeric ethical storytelling glories were wrapped up and disguised as boys’ adventure stories, but were actually talking about the deeper issues of the world. Because if you’re writing a science fiction story…if you’re writing a mainstream story and you say, “What is man? What is man that thou art mindful of him as a man? What is a man and what is his place in the universe?”, and you’re writing a mainstream story, the only thing you can write about is, oh, I don’t know, a Jew living in turn-of-the-century Dublin whose wife is cheating on him, let’s say. Or a guy who knows a friend who committed suicide. But if you’re writing a science fiction story, you can have a robot as a main character who can look at your main character, your man, and say, “You and I are not alike, and this is the contrast between what you are as a man and what I am as something that doesn’t grow old and doesn’t suffer from disease.” Or he can run into an elf or an angel or a Kzinti or a Vulcan, and they can say, “What you are as a man is different from what I am, because as a Vulcan, I have no emotion, so I don’t understand what it is you get out of life and why you do the things you do.” So, from a science-fiction point of view, you can explore a deeper question and use and have on stage characters who are not that way, not limited to the here and now. Whereas mainstream fiction has artificially, in the modern generation, artificially limited itself to the here and now in a way that I think is mentally unhealthy.
Now, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and I’m curious, if you…well, how do you hope that your writing shapes the world, if you hope that it shapes the world in some fashion?
I’m not that ambitious. I think of myself as a clown, and my job is to pen the book of gold for some reader who I’m never going to meet, and he’s going to pick up my book on some rainy day, maybe after I’m dead, and he’s gonna be glum and depressed, and he’s going to read that book, and it will open up to him something that is particularly special in it for him and maybe not even for anyone else. And it will be for him the book that opens his imagination to the world. And he’ll laugh, he’ll cry, he’ll kiss ten quatloons goodbye, or whatever they’re using for money in the future. And I may never meet him, like I said. Because…he reason I write for that guy, who I don’t know, is because if I try to write for the crowd, if I try to write for the largest number of people, I don’t think I’m doing a good job. I don’t think I’m listening to the muse. I don’t think I’m actually writing what heaven wants me to write. And if I recognize that my job is to entertain rather than to instruct…
The arrogance of so many modern writers, who think they’re going to lecture me, who quite frankly has a better education than those people, and they’re going to tell me about right from wrong, aand they’re going to tell me about the nature of morality and the nature of reality, so that so that whatever the thing is that…whatever the fashionable latest frivolous shallow idea is that is infuriating them, they think they’re going to be my teacher and my master and I’m going to be their disciple? Any writer who thinks that, I think, is stepping off a cliff. I think they’ve stopped doing art and they’re just doing lecturing. They’re preaching, and they’re not even preaching a real religion, they’re preaching their own make-believe religion, something they made up in their heads.
Stepping off a cliff, and they don’t even have a ring to waft them off to the highest mountain peak.
Because they’re double-dog daring a guy, the universe, to see if it will save them. And so, I think that writers who have a mission in life, I think they’re making a mistake. And I don’t want to be a guy like that. I want to be an entertainer. I want to entertain. My job is to ride a unicycle or throw a pie in my face and see if I can make people laugh.
Well, and on that note, we’re close to the end. So, Lost on the Last Continet is on your blog, but what is the print future for it?
I have a deal with a friend of mine, we’re trying to do a direct to, you know, a direct-to-readership-through-the-Internet kind of thing. It’s called Superversive Press. So, Superversive Press is going to come out with this within this year. I don’t know the exact date because some things are still up in the air, but it should be…I mean, the whole manucript is done. We might wait until after the last issue appears on my blog, which would be in in August.
I have a story in one of their anthologies, so I’m familiar with Superversive.
And what are you working on now?
Right now, I’m working on a book called Starquest. And that one, I wish I could tell you the origin story of that, which is even better than the origin story of Lost on the Last Continent. I mean, I wrote Lost on the Last Continent because someone said, “Write a story for me.” This one, I made it out of anger. I went tovsee a movie, whose name I will not mention, which was a space opera movie, and one that was of a beloved franchise that I’ve liked and enjoyed since childhood, and it was such a bad job, and I felt so sorry for the poor actor who had to reprise his role as one of the most famed space heroes of American literature, and they gave him garbage to say, and he died for no reason, then faded away like a ghost. It was terrible, and I said, “I could do better.”
So the boys and I, Orville, Wilbur, and Just Wright, were driving home, and in an hour, I said, “Boys, if you were writing that movie, how would you rewrite it? How would you have done it differently?” They came up with an idea for a plot for a sequel to a space trilogy that will go unnamed, but I’m stealing my ideas from, that I thought was brilliant, that I thought made a lot more sense than anything we’d seen Hollywood put out. And so, as a joke, I wrote up a movie review of this make-believe movie, which should have been the sequel that Hollywood ruined, that Disney ruined. And I got such a powerful and positive reaction from my fans from that, I said to myself, “I’ll write this up as a novel. I’ll change the names and change around the background–I make up my own background–but try to keep the flavor, try to keep the the Saturday matinee serial flavor of like, Spy Smasher, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and write it up that way.” And so it’s called Starquest, and it concerns…it’s after the fall of an evil galactic empire, but it’s not the empire you’re thinking of, because this is in a different galaxy. But it’s exactly like Rome, so it basically is the empire you’re thinking of. And the question is, when the space piracy starts to get on the rise and certain things from the ancient past begin reappearing, which people thought were long dead, who can fight the ghosts of the past that are coming back to the living, both figuratively and literally? And that’s what Starquest is about.
Oh, that sounds like a lot of fun.
It is a great deal of fun. My main character right now has snuck aboard a space pirate ship and is about to be caught and have the living daylights, having the tar beaten out of him. But, he does wear a mask that he found in his brother’s belongings after his brother was killed under mysterious circumstances. And it’s a mask made by an alien species of an alien technology, as a requiem mask. And when he puts it on, it makes him stronger and faster than normal. And so the pirates, when they see him, think he’s come back from the dead. They think he’s a guy who can’t die, which is not quite true. But there are things that can’t die that are in the background of this book. So that’s what’s going on with that.
And where can fans find you online?
Scifiwright.com is my blog. I also sell books through Tor Books, I also sell books through Castalia House, that’s run by Vox Day. I also sell books through Superversive Press. If you just type in John C. Wright, you’ll either get me or books on how to train your cat.
You mentioned penny dreadfuls earlier. There’s been a couple of Edward Willetts who’ve written in the past, and one of them wrote dime novels in the 19th century with names like Kip, the Flat Boat Boy. And there’s even a fantasy one called something like Apteryx the Dwarf, Mystical Dwarf, or something like that. (Actually Aspinax, or The Enchanted Dwarf – Ed.). It’s very short. And speaking of filing of, stealing ideas, I want to rewrite that as a modern book at some point.
Most dwarves are short. Yeah. I actually had a character named Penny Dreadful in my a Superluminary. Her name is Penelope. She was the daughter of Professor Dreadful.
Well so, we’re kind of at the end of the time here, so thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, John. I hope you enjoyed it. I did.
I did. I did, indeed. I did indeed. And I should say, Lost on the Last Continent, the part of the worldshaping I liked the best, was drawing up the huge outline of 250 million years of history that never shows up anywhere in the text. It was just in my notes of all the things that happened.
Oh, I’ve got to say one other thing. Okay. My timeline is not only taken from Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, but from a short story by H.P. Lovecraft called “Shadow out of Time.” All the events that the character in “Shadow out of Time” discovers are going to happen in the future, I put into my history.
I just bought a collection of H.P. Lovecraft because I haven’t read him for years. So I’ll be reading that story soon.
I’m sure if you read that story, you’ll recognize at least some of the people who are involved in the gladiatorial games, in the fight scenes, in the final section of the book. You’ll recognize the names.
I’ll watch for it. So, thanks again for being on The Worldshapers!
Excellent. Thank you for having me. It was great fun.