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An hour-long interview with Robert G. Penner, author of Strange Labour (Radiant Press), named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Science Fiction Books of 2020, and editor of the online science-fiction zine Big Echo.
Robert G. Penner is the author of Strange Labour, one of Publishers Weekly‘s Best Science Fiction Books of 2020. He’s also the editor of the online science fiction zine Big Echo, and has published more than 30 short stories and a wide range of speculative and literary journals under the pseudonym of William Squirrell.
Originally from Winnipeg, he currently lives in western Pennsylvania, but will soon be returning to Canada.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers.
Well, thank you, it’s great to be here.
I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths in person, but we do have a kind of a secondhand connection in that the publisher of Strange Labour, Radiant Press, is based right here in Regina, Saskatchewan, where I live. And I know John Kennedy, who’s the publisher over there, very well. And in fact, the anthology that came out of the first year of this podcast, Shapers of Worlds, is being distributed through LitDistCo, a Canadian distribution company, through the good graces of Radiant Press. So, there’s kind of a connection there, I think.
Yeah, that’s a connection. That’s the real deal.
And so, we’ll talk a little bit about your Canadian roots and how you got interested in all this science fiction stuff. So, where did you grow up?
I was born in Winnipeg, but very shortly after birth, my parents took me and my brother off to Africa, where they were development workers with the Mennonite Central Committee. So, the first six years of my life were in Zambia. Then we came back to Winnipeg for four or five, then to Swaziland, and then back to Winnipeg. But I do identify as a Winnipegger.
Well, that’s an interesting combination of countries.
So, how did you become interested in the . . . well, I presume, like most of us. You started as a reader. When did you first find your interest in reading and writing? And was it science fiction that you started with, or did you come to that later?
It was very young. But when we were in Zambia, when we were small children, my dad . . . we were in fairly rural Zambia, so there wasn’t much to do. And my dad read us the whole of the Lord of the Rings a couple of times and the whole of the Narnia series and some of those classic fantasy books when we were very small. So, we grew up, both me and my brother, already very engaged in sort of speculative fiction and the pleasures of, like, fantasy. And when we got back to Winnipeg, and we had access to the big public libraries, my brother, my older brother, started taking on a lot of science fiction from the libraries, and I followed his path.
Yeah, I had two older brothers, and one of them, in particular, read quite a bit of science fiction, so that was the stuff that was always around the house. And so, I kind of picked it up, and that’s kind of how I got really interested in it as well. How old were you when you came back to Winnipeg?
I was six. My brother was . . . I was five or six, and my brother was about eight. So, we were still very young. But like I said, because of the environment we grew up in, we were sort of hyperliterate because that’s all there was for entertainment. So, by the time I was 10 or 11, I was reading science fiction fairly regularly and already thinking about writing, writing as play, as just an extension of both reading and your usual childish sort of fantasy life. Writing was just a part of it.
When did you write your first sort of complete thing? I mean, I remember that stage where I was writing, you know, I’d write a few pages or something, but I never finished anything until a little bit later. So how was that for you?
I don’t know. You could say I still haven’t. But I think the first time was probably, again, 10 or 11, like very short pieces, nothing very extensive, but by 10 or 11, I was writing little short stories, I think.
Yeah, that’s about when I wrote my first complete one. “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” it was called, so you could sort of say . . .
That’s awesome. That’s a great title.
I thought science fiction characters had to have weird names.
Well, that’s a keeper.
Yeah, I wish I could find it. It’s . . . my mom typed it up for me, and it’s tucked away in a box somewhere. And if I ever find it, it’s going online like that, just to show people. So, did you continue writing through high school? Was that something that you kind of went through?
Not as much. I’d say in high school, I trailed off quite a bit in terms of my writing. And then when I went . . . I mean, you’re just busy with a lot of things in high school, and it just wasn’t super high up on my agenda. I was . . . my friends and I at that stage were playing a fair amount of Dungeons and Dragons and Traveller and things like that. So that’s a type of writing, too, when you’re preparing games.
But serious writing wasn’t until I think I went to university, in the very late ’80s and early ‘’90s. And then I started writing more and more again. And in some ways, it might have been triggered again by isolation. In my late teens, I spent some time working on a farm in Germany, and there was nothing left . . . and again, there’s nothing to do but read. So, I read an awful lot. And I think that sort of reinvigorated my sort of my ambitions to write. So, probably late ’80s, early ’90s, I started writing again, and it was a combination of both university and sort of periods of isolation doing different kinds of work where I was thrown upon my own imagination for entertainment.
What did you . . . did you study any writing formally, like, did you take any classes? What did you study?
I guess when I started university, I did take some . . .I took a couple of English Lit courses at the University of Winnipeg, and that influenced me, and I . . . at Red River, Red River Community College has, like, a journalism program, creative communications. I did that in my early adulthood as well. So, that was some fairly formal training. But I would say the biggest influences in terms of sort of establishing style and voice would have been just reading, just picking up independent books and experimenting on my own. I did tend to always be a fairly experimental writer, and I think music, the type of music I was listening to, influenced that.
What kind of music were you listening to?
Oh, punk rock and . . . well, especially punk rock, but sort of more avant-garde-ish pop music where there was a lot of room for sort of play and experimentation. Even something like the Talking Heads, there’s an awful lot going on lyrically that isn’t very typical and just gets a young writer thinking about what’s possible with language if you really push or stretch.
You referenced punk rock in an interview with you. I read about Big Echo, so I was wondering if that was the kind of music you were listening to.
It was. And also, actually, for writing, I listen to a lot of, I guess, what you call old country stuff like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. And that’s a lot more sort of a standardized style of writing. But I think that country, country and western probably also shaped . . . that curious combination of punk rock and country and western probably shaped my style and my voice.
One of the interesting things about country music is that there’s a lot more storytelling in it, I think, than other forms of music, so many country songs are actually little stories of one sort or another.
Absolutely, yeah. And my dad listened to a lot of country. Well, he grew up playing country music, and so there was some country music fairly early on in my life as well. I wasn’t a big fan or anything, but there was always, you know, I mean, I learned about Wilf Carter and Hank Snow and that kind of thing fairly early on. And as you say, that’s like, they write little stories. And so, I was aware from quite young of this idea of the little story as being highly entertaining.
So, when did you start writing little stories and attempting to get them published? When did the publication thing start happening for you, and how?
Very late. So, we moved down to the States about seven or eight years ago, and I had just started writing again. I’d finished a Ph.D. in history, and one of the ways to distract myself from preparing for class, I think, was to write fiction. And so, I started writing a lot more fiction at the tail end of my Ph.D. But then, when we moved down here, my partner was working, and I was on a visa that required me not to work. I wasn’t allowed to make any money while we were down here, while I was on that visa. And so, there was really nothing to do but shop and cook and take care of the kid and write. So, I started really writing a lot right when we first moved down here and started publishing in small zines fairly regularly and compulsively, I’d say, So I would say that really picking up the energy, that was about seven or eight years ago, I started really writing.
And down here, I was lucky as well. There’s a guy called Andy Stewart who’s published occasionally for Fantasy & Science Fiction, and he has a new book, a novella, coming out with Tor. And he happened to be living here at the same time. So, we had similar reading and writing interests, and we started working together a lot and reading each other’s stuff. So that also was a big invigoration.
You weren’t entirely writing science-fiction kind of stuff, were you? You mentioned literary writing as well in your little bio there.
Yeah, I do both. When I was younger, it was very much more literary. It was all a sort of this like, I don’t know, like, sort of male-confessional Charles Bukowski type stuff that a lot of young men might be interested in, and I found it ultimately a little boring, and I started retreating into sort of my childhood, looking for more inspiring things, more fun things to write about, and I began to realize that speculative fiction really gives you a lot of freedom to just do whatever you want in terms of your writing. And so, I started reading more, revisiting old texts, and trying to experiment and write science fiction in ways that I hadn’t before, certainly not since I was a child. And there’s this idea that I think academics sometimes have that you can just start writing science fiction or fantasy, and it’s very easy. And it’s . . . I mean, it is in one sense in that it’s play, but in another sense, there was quite a steep learning curve. I started reading an awful lot of short-form science fiction and fantasy venues and more novels and novellas and sort of trying to understand the craft from a speculative perspective. And that was all in the last seven or eight years. And that was also . . . Andy (Stewart) 11:49 was again a fairly big influence because he’d been to Clarion, he was a part of that scene in ways I wasn’t and had a very good eye for what sort of contemporary science fiction and speculative fiction was like. And so, that was all in the last seven or eight years, I’d say, I started really thinking hard about it. That doesn’t mean I stopped writing the literary stuff or reading it. That was going on at the same time, but there was that influence; Andy’s influence was very significant.
Yeah, we often say in the field that it’s a field in conversation with itself. And, you know, it’s very easy for people, I think, who come into it and haven’t read widely, and experienced it, to write something that, you know, would have been perfectly fresh 50 years ago, but the field has perhaps dealt with that or is now taking that idea in unexpected directions. There are all sorts of things going on that . . . when I work with young writers, and I do quite a bit of work with young writers, I will often get stuff that it’s pretty clear they’ve watched science fiction like Star Wars, stuff like that, but they haven’t actually read it.
Absolutely. And so, I was shocked at how, in some ways, how hard it was to write something fresh, like really fresh and original, because it’s been an awful lot of very clever people being very creative over a long period of time. And it’s pretty hard to just walk in and think, well, I can start writing this stuff and impress people.
So, we’ll move on to the novel. Was this your first attempt at a novel, Strange Labour, or had you written something before?
I self-published sort of a speculative political horror thing a little while ago, but I wouldn’t call it a novel. It was more of an experiment, I would say, in terms of just a fairly straightforward narrative novel. This was my first serious attempt.
Well, pretty good initial attempt then, considering. So, I guess the first thing to do is to give listeners a synopsis of it without giving away anything you don’t want to give away.
The basic idea is that people wake up one morning and the vast majority of the population has become overwhelmed by a compulsion to leave the cities and dig these massive earthen mazes or labyrinths. And there’s a handful of people that are not sort of compelled to do so, and they have to find a way to live in this new world where everyone has left the cities, and they’re just building, working themselves to death to build these massive mounds, these earthen mounds. These people don’t talk. They just communicate somehow to themselves. And so, you have this isolated, this small, isolated community of people who aren’t digging, who have to make sense of this new world and find a way to live meaningfully, sort of in the margins. That’s the book. And so, the structure, the narrative structure, is a young woman traveling across the United States, what was the United States, because she wants to find out what happened to her parents, whether they joined the diggers or whether they’re like her. So, it’s this sort of this combination of a kind of an eerie or weird post-apocalypse with a fairly traditional road novel. And so, she meets various people on the way and various little communities that are striving to make sense of the world, this new world they find themselves in. And that’s the book.
You could say the structure goes back to, oh, say, the Odyssey, traveling to strange places.
Absolutely. Yeah. And it’s . . . I mean, it has a fairly episodic feel in some ways, too, like the Odyssey, where it’s just one thing after another. It is . . . yeah, it does actually hearken back to that very old style of storytelling.
And what was the inspiration and in general, what is your . . . I know it’s a cliché, where do your ideas come from, but it’s a legitimate question. How do these things come to you? What sorts of things spark story ideas, and this idea in particular?
That was a dream fragment. There was a very small element of it that just originated in a dream fragment, and then just playing around with it. After that, it was originally a short story, and the short story became the end of the novel. So, in a lot of ways, the writing was writing backstory for this short story that I really liked and couldn’t get published. I don’t know. I guess in terms of just where the ideas come from, just life. One has odd thoughts. You write them down. Occasionally a dream. Occasionally it might be something more pointed, like a very specific idea, like a what-if idea. But I’m a . . . . I would say I’m a mood writer. And so, most of my ideas come from trying to capture a certain mood or feeling about the world rather than a sort of a very classic science fiction axiom. Like, if X then Y kind of writing, which I really enjoy and I wish I was better at it, but it tends to be more sort of particular moods or atmospheres that trigger ideas and narratives rather than sort of a scientific notion.
Well, in Strange Labour . . . do you explain at some point, or is it more about the mood of this strange world, and nobody knows what’s going on, and nobody finds out?
I don’t explain. I don’t. So, there’s no . . . I can’t even give it away because, I mean, I have my own theories and ideas, but in a lot of ways, I think the book wasn’t about this interesting thing that happened, but rather this thing has happened and how do people respond and how do they make meaning out of something they don’t understand? So, if you’re going to boil it down to a single sort of philosophical idea, it would be that these people are stuck in this incomprehensible universe that they can’t make sense of, and they need to somehow keep living despite this. And so, if you do provide a solution to that problem, it kind of undercuts the whole purpose, which is to try to think about what it’s like to live in a universe you can’t quite understand and still live.
Well, isn’t that the question we all face?
Yeah, it is. And I mean, that’s part of why I was writing it, just trying to think through on a sort of . . . personal problems on a, in an aesthetic way.
You have a Ph.D. in history. Has your knowledge of history, does it play into these sorts of things? I mean, there’s been many times down through history when people have found themselves in such circumstances, completely out of their control, and not understanding what’s going on. Do you draw on some of that knowledge of history in writing things like this?
I do. Strange Labour isn’t a particularly historical book or anything like that. But one of the things that’s really interesting in history, like, sort of professional archival history, is you tend to always start finding yourself looking back at the big events sort of through the margins because you’re doing archival work, because you’re looking at these really subjective experiences of history, in some ways you stop thinking historically, right? You stop thinking in terms of these big economic and social sweeps, and you find yourself often thinking in very personal terms because you get attached to particular archival voices or perspectives, and these people never know what’s going to happen. They’re stuck in the world, and they’re trying to understand it. And there you are, like 200 or 300 or 400 years later, and you know what’s happened. But you’re still sort of obliged to try and enter the world that these people exist in and try to understand what it looks like and what it feels like when you don’t understand what’s happening or what’s going to happen. So that very sort of, very, like, working historian perspective of like, how do you enter the world of someone who’s dead, who’s living in the far reaches of the past and doesn’t know what’s happening, what’s going to happen, how do you understand their experience of the world and how do they make sense of the world and what’s sort of the raw material, the cultural and the social and the economic raw materials through which they live in this world, that you have a sort of a post facto sense of that they’re stuck in the middle of?
So, when you’re writing a novel, it’s actually quite similar. You’ve got these characters that don’t have access to the world in the way you do, and I think, for me, the practice of history really showed me ways to sort of think about it. Well, what do they have access to? How can they think? What are the raw materials of their life, and how do they construct meaning out of that? So, in that sense, it’s sort of, a meta sense, history
was very important to the writing of Strange Labour. And other than that, I mean, you have access to interesting facts, I guess, you can use as spice and flavor in a novel as well, the way most people might not. But, yeah, I think, philosophically, history has been very important specifically to Strange Labour, and to my writing in general, just for that, this is this way of sticking yourself into the head of someone who doesn’t have the same access to the facts as you do, but trying to do so as respectfully and thoughtfully as possible.
There have been several authors I’ve interviewed who have a background in history, so it’s interesting . . . and folklore, in the case of Seanan Maguire, was a folklorist, I think, and, of course, that plays into it as well. So, once you had the idea, you said it started as a short story, and then you had to create a back story. So, what did you’re planning and outlining process look like? This is your first novel, so it would have been kind of deciding how to do it.
Yeah, it is. It’s, I mean, you play around a little, but I mean, it was actually, it made it easier to know what the ending was. So, in a sense, everything’s focused on getting to a certain point. The problem, the biggest problem, I faced was that I like the original short story very much. And I like the characters in the short story very much. So, I didn’t want to mess it up. I wanted to keep it sort of true to the original tone and style of the piece, but it was just, it was fun, I think it was mostly just fun. You say, “I’ve got to get to X, and I’m starting it at A, and how do I get there?”
There wasn’t a whole lot of planning initially. I started writing, and it just took off from there. You mentioned the Odyssey earlier, and so, one of the things that was a little difficult was to keep it, like, structured and not episodic. I think the biggest danger was it would just turn into a sequence of events, just sort of that kind of very plotty way of getting from A to B to C. I think that was the big danger, particularly for a novice, was trying to have a fairly classic novelistic structure and get to where I wanted without it just being like a straight linear procession.
Yeah, so I started writing, and then when I was about halfway done, I kind of had to reevaluate the structure and sort of start, maybe start, I think I started to think of it in terms of acts. Well, if the original short story is act three, what has to happen in that one? And act two, how can I give it structure and meaning, so the reader doesn’t feel like they’re just being dragged along.
Did you ever write anything down as formal as an outline or a synopsis or something, or was it more feeling your way through and then, you know, taking notes as necessary to . . .?
No synopsis ’til late, but lots of lists, lots of flowcharts. I’m a big flowchart fan. So, there was, I would say, about a third of the way through, all of a sudden, I started writing flow charts, making flow charts, and just trying to figure out what was happening, when, and how. And once I started working with Radiant Press, I had to do that a little more seriously because they wanted more sort of background than I provided in the original draft, which was very sort of existential. And they wanted a little more back story. So then . . .and then you start doing this thing where you’re tracking the backstories as well as the current story. So, I have to think about Miranda’s—the main character’s name is Miranda—I had to think about her previous life and start working that into the material. And that’s probably when I started writing, like, a novel proper, and started struggling with the usual kinds of problems that novelists struggle with. But there were definitely, I think, flowcharts and catalog cards getting rearranged on tables and all kinds of desperate efforts t fight through the problem of structure.
You mentioned the character, and obviously, there are other characters. How did you discover the characters you needed for this story, and how much thinking and detailing of them did you do before you started writing them, or did they also emerge as the story advanced?
The main characters were there in the original. The two main characters were there in the original short story, and they were just there. I just started writing the story, and I needed these characters, and I came up with them. When I started doing the novel, then you need to put in a lot more sort of . . . well, you need a lot more words about them, and they need a lot more shape and form. So, I started thinking about them more in sort of dramatic terms as characters, what’s this character like, and so on. I’ve mentioned this in a previous interview before, but there were two main characters, Miranda and Dave, and my partner really liked Miranda, but she didn’t care much for Dave, who was sort of the foil for Miranda, and I really like Dave, so a good portion of the middle of the book is me trying to convince Nicole, my partner, that Dave’s OK, that Dave’s actually all right. And that was a very productive way to do it, because it really, because then you think about, “What are the things she doesn’t like about Dave?” and you don’t want to get rid of them because you think it’s part of who Dave is. But then you also want to start showing and illuminating other aspects of his character. So, for me, the most satisfying part of the writing process in terms of character building was to build Dave up in such a way that he was fuller and more understandable than he had been in the beginning. I enjoy writing characters. It’s one of my favorite things about writing. I don’t know if I’m particularly good at it, I sometimes feel like they all tend to look a little the same, but I guess that really is a lot of the pleasure for me in the writing is you get these fairly basic characters, and then you start building them up into sort of three-dimensional forms and trying to establish how they’re distinct from each other and so on.
Well, ultimately, all our characters are really aspects of ourselves because we’re the only ones that we really understand—if we understand ourselves.
Exactly. Which is why it was particularly distressing when Nicole didn’t like Dave because there’s an awful lot of me in Dave.
What does your actual writing process look like? Are you a certain number of hours a day, or do you go out in under a tree with a quill pen? How does it work for you?
It’s shifted a little. When we first got here, I’d get my daughter off to school, and I’d do the shopping or whatever and then have a few hours, and I would put in the writing. Once I got a visa that allowed me to work, that changed. Then you find yourself sort of scrabbling and scratching for writing time. A lot more in the last couple of months. I mean, we’ve all been locked in with the pandemic. It’s actually been a lot easier. So, my daughter is now online in school. So, once I get her set up in the morning, I mean, I have a couple of hours just to write. So, it’s actually been . . . the last six months or so, it’s actually been relatively easy. You just get up, you take care of some basic chores and housework, and you get everyone fed, and then you write for a couple of hours until you get tired. Particularly over the Christmas holidays, I’ve just . . . it’s been very easy to get up in the morning and start writing.
On the novel, did you write it quite sequentially, just started at the beginning and kept pressing through until you got to the end? You mentioned that halfway through, you had to kind of reevaluate, but you did it sequentially?
Yeah, I do. I don’t know what it means, but the novel I’m working on now, again, it’s just . . . I just start at the beginning and start writing. And I mean, obviously, at a certain point, you’ve got to go back and reevaluate and rethink and restructure, and you never know how much of it you’re going to have to just destroy. But yeah, A to B to C is basically how I proceed.
There are a few people who write piecework and do scenes and then stitch them all together later. But most people, I think, find it easier to just tell the story and then worry about fixing it later.
Yeah. And every once in a while, if I’m feeling stuck, I might jump ahead, right, and go, “Well, OK, I know this one scene has to happen later, so I’m going to flesh it out at least, and then maybe that will help me, and go back. But in general, yeah, it’s just full steam ahead and try to get to the end.
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
I would characterize myself as fairly fast. I guess it kind of depends. In genre, I find people write fairly quickly, whereas like in literature, in the literary, like the high-end literary stuff, they seem to write a lot slower. I’d say I’m kind of in the middle. I’m probably very fast for a literary writer and sort of a little slow for a spec-fic kind of a guy.
I remember years ago hearing of someone who had spent, like, 11 years writing, I don’t know, half a dozen short stories or something. And I can’t even fathom that. I could not write that slow if my life depended on it.
I’m pretty sure I’d get bored. There’s actually, on Netflix there’s this great movie with . . . Meryl Streep plays a writer, sort of a Margaret Atwoodish writer, and she’s horrified, she’s on a boat, and she’s horrified when she meets a mystery writer who turns books out, like, two or three a year and she spends four years on a single book.
It’s a different approach, that’s for sure. So, you’ve mentioned that you were trying, you know, part of your work was making your wife like Dave. Yeah. Did you have any other sort of first readers or beta readers that you showed work to give you feedback? You’d mentioned your friend there?
Yeah. Andy Stewart. 31:47 I was incredibly lucky to find him. We were in a small town in western Pennsylvania, and both our wives were teaching at the university here. So, we were very lucky to find each other. And yeah, so he was a beta reader. He gave me an awful lot of feedback, and he was very, very useful because, again, because he was much more grounded in sort of the culture of speculative fiction than I was. And so, I tend to be fairly pretentious . . . oh, let’s call it avant-garde, experimental . . . and so it was very useful to write with him because he would help me ground myself and just always remind me, keep reminding myself, that you’re writing for an audience. I mean, you don’t have to. If you just want to write for yourself, that’s fine. But I was trying to write for an audience. So, Andy was very good at trying to get me to think through sort of technical issues, like, “Well, OK, so what’s your idea and how do you want to communicate it to your readers sort of efficiently and easily so that they’re not constantly having to try to catch up with you?” So, he was tremendously important in that way in sort of keeping me grounded and not sort of off into the experimental stratosphere or anything like that
When you were reading, did you read any of the New Wave stuff from the ‘60s in science fiction?
Actually, I didn’t. I mean, it was in the back of my mind. I was reading . . . when I was writing Strange Labour, I was reading mostly sort of modern literary textbooks of post-War Europe. And that kind of influenced the mood. And since then, I’ve started going back to that, to the New Wave stuff. I was a little leery while I was doing it. I didn’t want to read anything that would be too closely connected to it in style. So, one of the things that always happened is people would say, “Oh, you have to read The Road.”
I would think that’s what you would not want to read while you’re writing something like this.
Exactly. So, I was terrified of reading it, and I didn’t want to go near it until I was finished. And now I feel free, that there’s all these books that people told me I should read that now I can go back to. I mean, you just don’t want to read a book and then find someone’s done it way better than you already because then you’re hooped.
Well, I was a kid when the New Wave was happening, and I was reading science fiction, and it did not click with me at the age of, say, 10 or 12, and I’ve never gone back to see what I think of those stories now, but it would be an interesting experiment. The only one I really remember, I don’t remember the story. I just remember the weird typography. It was a story that was printed in a spiral on the page that you read from the outside, following the words around in the spiral to whatever happened in the middle. I don’t remember the story. I remember that image of those spiraling words on the page.
Yeah. And I think that was always the danger for me, was ending up in the spiral.
So, once you had a draft, what did your revision process look like? You’ve gotten some feedback. Were you working on language or . . . you’ve mentioned structure? What were some of the things you had to continue polishing? And I guess this ties in as well to the editorial process because you mentioned that some of that feedback came from Radiant. So maybe before we talk about that, how did you find Radiant Press? It’s a small press, puts out excellent stuff, but it’s a very small press.
It is a small press, and actually, I heard about it through a friend, Stephen Whitworth, who runs the Prairie Dogin Regina. So that’s how I heard about them. But before I sent it to them, I’d sent it to a whole bunch of agents all over the United States. And one of the agents, a fairly big name, got back to me, and he said, “Well, send me more. I’m curious.” And so I did, and he was disappointed with the rest of the book. And so, I talked to him a little about that. I wanted to find out why he was disappointed. And he felt like in the middle, it got sort of trite and typical of post-apocalyptic fiction. So whereas in the beginning, he found it very fresh and original and engaging, it sort of just became . . . I blew it all up, I just destroyed the middle of the book and started writing it again. So, that was the first sort of major intervention, just getting rid of the middle of the book. Not quite entirely, but I would say, like, 20 percent of the book, I just deleted. And so, I had this big hole in the middle that I had to fill up. And so, the middle part of the rewrite was all that, was like trying to restructure the middle of the book in ways that were satisfying and not stereotypical or cliched.
And then once I had that done, I sent it to Radiant Press because Steve had said, “Oh, you should try these people.” And Debra at Radiant Press got back to me, and she was interested. And then we started working. And that was sort of the next stage of development was . . . she’s a very good reader and some other good readers had a look at it. And a lot of their critique was what I had mentioned earlier, was that that the characters needed more backstory because I was just being too existential. I didn’t want the reader to have any access to the world sort of before this had happened, except in the most superficial ways. And readers were like, “No, you know what? You need to build your characters up a little more. You have to give the readers at least something to hang on to.” And so, a lot of the sort of the next stage of development was the really, really quite pleasant work of just trying to build up these characters a little more, sort of flashback stuff, just little bits here and there, just to try and give them depth.
So, those would be some of the major revision stages other than copyediting, was this agent got back to me and said the middle was disappointing, so I blew it up and restructured it, then I got hold of Radiant Press, and they were interested, and in the conversations with Debra, she told me what her concerns were, in particular, characterization. And I guess, as far as Debra and I are concerned, I solved them in that draft. And then, after that, it was just tweaking and fine-tuning.
Well, then Radiant went out, they got some pretty good blurbs. Kim Stanley Robinson, for example, that’s a pretty big name to have attached to your first novel as a favorable comment.
It is. It’s actually still kind of confusing that he would have read the book and responded in that way. A lot of those blurbs I got because I was running that science fiction zine, Big Echo. I interviewed a lot of these people, and so I sort of, I got a little bit of social capital, and then I spent it to get the blurbs, so . . . that wasn’t my plan when I did the interviews or the zine, but I realized, though, I’ve talked to all of these people that are pretty clever and well known and kind, and maybe they’ll help me out. And they did.
Now, generally, people in the field are . . . there’s this whole pay-it-forward idea that Heinlein talked about that. Yeah, it’s something that I think a lot of people in the field are very, very good about. And then when did it come out? It was in October, was it?
It was in October.
So, what was your reaction when you saw the finished book and then read the response that you’ve had to it?
Positive, good. It’s exciting. It is a first book, and it is a weird time for it to come out. So, we have been expecting to do, you know, like readings and that sort of thing. And obviously, that can happen very easily. And I was stuck in the States as well, which didn’t make things easier, but it was exciting. It would have been fun to do a little more of the typical kind of readings and bookstores and that sort of thing. But it’s just, I mean, it’s just odd to have a book, right? Like, you do all this writing your whole life, and you do all this reading and then all of a sudden, you’re writing’s in an actual book and an actual thing. And it’s a little disconcerting to see it there and exciting.
Well, at that point, it’s out of your control, and it’s in going into the heads of readers who are getting all sorts of things out of it that you might not even have known you put in there, so . . .
Oh, absolutely. So, we got one really good review, and that was from Publishers Weekly. So that’s a pretty good one. And the reader was fantastic. So, this anonymous reader gave it a great read, and they saw a number of things in it that I hadn’t really been paying attention to. So, for instance, in terms of these people digging versus people not digging, there’s a suggestion in the book that it has something to do with sort of neurotypicality, right, that there’s something neurologically different about the people that aren’t digging than the people that are digging. And so, what that reader picked out was that there’s a theme here about what it means to be neurotypical or neurotypical or what have you. Like, what do these distinctions mean in terms of what it means to be human, et cetera? And I hadn’t intended a particularly sensitive or thoughtful take about that in the book, yet this reader picked it out and showed this thing about my book that I never thought was particularly valuable, or something that can be valuable to some readers. So that was very exciting, very inspiring, actually, to see something in your book that’s positive that you hadn’t thought of, or deliberately thought through, or put there. But this sensitive reader can pick it out and show it to you and say, look what you did here. This is good.
There’s a story that I’ve I think I’ve told before on the podcast that came out of Isaac Asimov’s Opus 100, I think, which was the first of his autobiographical books. And he talked about going to Columbia University, I think it was, a class where a professor was teaching his famous story, “Nightfall,” and he sat at the back and he listened to that. And afterwards, he went up to the professor, and he said, “Well, that was very interesting, but I’m Isaac Asimov, I wrote that story, and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there. And the professor said, “Well, I’m very happy to meet you. But just because you wrote the story, what makes you think you know what’s in it? It’s kind of an interesting thought. And I think there is certainly . . . we all put stuff in that we don’t know necessarily where it comes from, and then readers find things there that we didn’t necessarily think we were putting in specifically, and I think it’s because I always like to say that writing actually . . . it feels very like a loner activity, something you do by yourself, but it’s really collaborative.
It is. I think that word’s tremendously important. And it’s collaborative all the way down. So, from the very beginning, when you first start writing a project, and it’s yours, and it’s your own until your beta readers, and then if you start publishing, you’re always having conversations with the publishers and with editors. And then when readers get it, there’s a whole other conversation. And you really have very little control over the types of meanings that people are going to extract from a text. And it can be a little scary when you start thinking about it, about how little control you have of the language once it’s left your grasp.
Of course, sometimes they can completely misconstrue what you had in mind, but you don’t have any control there either, so . . .
That’s the danger.
I wanted to go back to the zine, which you mentioned and I mentioned, Big Echo. Where did that all come from? And you’ve mentioned that you’ve had a number of writers that you’ve interviewed. And I was looking at it online and saw some recognizable names had provided, you know, short stories for it. So, how did that come about?
Boredom. Like all good things, it came from boredom. So, we moved down here, and I had some time on my hands, and I had a friend who does graphics and web pages and also loves science fiction. And he was actually, he’s in Regina, too.
All of the best people are.
That’s right. Almost all. So, I said, “Well, why don’t we put together a scene?” And he said, “OK.” And so, then we did. And the issue when you’re putting together a zine like that is you don’t have money, and you can’t pay, so it’s really hard to get the writers you’re necessarily interested in. So, the first year or so was a lot of hustle, of cold-calling writers I liked and asking if they’d be interested in contributing something. And one of the, I think in the first summer, one of the first people I contacted was Rudy Rucker, of cyberpunk fame. He ran a zine called Blurb, which was quite similar. And I contacted him and asked if he had anything lying around we could use in Big Echo. And he was very excited about it and very enthusiastic, and as you say, about Heinlein and paying it forward, he’s a very generous kind of an artist, and so he gave us a story, and that was the biggest name we’d had up to then, and then he also mentioned in our conversation that the next time he had a book out, if we wanted, we could interview him, and then that just got me thinking of interviews. And because it was Rudy Rucker, I could contact people that knew who Rudy Rucker was and say, “Hey, Rudy Rucker did this with us. And now we’re doing interviews, and we’re wondering if you’d be interested.” So, Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow were both amongst our first interviews, and I’m pretty sure that’s a lot of it. I mean, they’re both also very generous guys who give a lot of interviews.
Yeah, Cory Doctorow was on here a little while ago.
Yeah, he never runs out of things to say, and he’s always happy to speak to a lot of people. And so, both of those guys came on very early and helped us out and made a big difference. And once you get a few of those big names and it’s a lot easier to attract other writers. Kim Stanley Robinson was actually . . . I got in touch with him through Andy Stewart 48:27, whom I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, and he knew him from California. I think he might have been taking a class with Stan, I’m not sure. But so, I contacted him through Andy Stewart. So, again, a lot of it just has to do with, like, a little bit of hustle right in the beginning and then social networks kicking in in good ways.
Well, the field is a lot bigger than it was, say, back in the Golden Age. But it is still a fairly small group of people, so everybody knows each other. So, I thought I saw on the website that you had the final issue of Big Echo. So, is it done now?
Yeah, we’re wrapping up. I’m just I’m a little tired. It’s not . . . I’m not a particularly outgoing or extroverted person, so the hustle part of it is a little difficult for me. And I’m not super comfortable as an editor. I don’t like tweaking people’s voices or anything like that. So, it was hard work in that sense. It’s also fairly niche. So, we’re looking for a very particular type of writing, and there’s only . . . it’s a sort of a subset of a subset of science fiction, so there’s not that much out there. It’s not particularly sort of popular science fiction we were interested in. So, it was just kind of running out of gas. It would have been a lot of work to keep up the standard we’d set. And I was tired. So, I just sort of . . . we wrapped it up. We’re going to put out an anthology shortly, probably within the next couple of months, a Big Echo anthology for a minimal cost just to try and generate a bit of revenue, just to keep the website up, just to keep costs up. So that’ll probably be the last thing we do with Big Echo. But it’s been awfully fun. It’s been a heck of a ride. And again, I’ll come back to, again, what you mentioned about the generosity of people in the field, it’s really quite amazing that you can just cold call someone and say, “Hey, I’m putting together this zine. Would you be interested?” And depending where they are in their career, they might help you out. And they generally do.
Well, we’re getting close to the end of the time, so I need to ask you the big philosophical questions, which is ultimately . . . there’s three of them. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do we write stories of the fantastic in particular as opposed to limiting ourselves to stories of the here and now? So, those are the three questions. Why do you write? Why do any of us write, and why write science fiction and fantasy?
For me, it’s, I mean, the two sort of key aspects of it are our pleasure and therapy. I mean, it really . . .ever since I was small, I’ve had a hyperactive sort of creative life. I love the play of imagination, and it’s a way to just keep doing it, that you can always be experimenting and playing with language and ideas with writing. It’s just fun. It’s just flat-out fun. I know that’s not true for everyone. I know for a lot of people, it’s something sort of horrifying, the idea of writing. But for me, I was always an introverted kid, I was always hypercreative, it was just a way of entertaining myself. And that whole thing about, if you can’t find a book you enjoy, then you need to write your own. I think that’s true. It’s, like, just, yeah, you can write a book you’ll love, and it’s fun to do. And the therapy . . . I tend to write fairly, fairly dark stories on the whole, and it’s just a way of working through sort of emotional and psychic stresses, sort of . . . certainly when you’re living through the last four years of the Trump administration as an immigrant in the United States, and the epidemic, there’s a lot of psychic stress on you all the time. And so, writing about it, fictionalizing the anxieties you feel, is a way of coping with them, as well. So, for me, that was always important.
Why do people write? I think mostly for the same reasons, the pleasure and the sort of the therapy of it goes hand in glove. I think, also, the collaborative thing you mentioned is also important. This idea of . . . like, you can do it for the pleasure or the therapy, you can do that, and nobody else has to read it. But there’s this next step where you start getting other people to read it as well. And there’s this collaboration and conversation going on. And that’s very important in all sorts of ways as well, just the sheer fact of exchanging ideas, sort of an exchange of ideas and views and perspectives on the world is obviously important. But just also, again, the pleasure of having a conversation with someone about an idea is wonderful. It’s . . . one of the best things about writing is when you do write something, and you get positive feedback from someone you don’t know, like someone says, “Oh, I really enjoyed this, this was good, or this was fun.” That’s a tremendous charge. It’s a big rush, I think. Once that starts happening to someone, they probably write more and more and more because it’s a really wonderful thing, in a very innocent sort of way, to just do something fun and to share it and have people you don’t know say, “You know what? That was great. That was fun.”
And the final part, why speculation, why the fantastic, why science fiction? Again, I think . . . for me, it was really freeing. I’d been reading a lot of social realism and super serious, ideological-type stuff about like, you know, boo capitalism, life sucks, just angry, loud music, and then I started rereading old spec fic and science fiction and there was just a freedom to it and a more . . . a more honest sense of one of the reasons we write and we read is for fun. And it can be super serious science fiction, you know, but there’s always an element of fun to it and the freedom of someone taking an idea and running with it as far as they can and pushing it to its limits. That’s very exciting and invigorating. So, I’m the least fannish person you’ll ever meet, but one of the things I like a lot about science fiction and fantasy writing is the fan community and the enthusiasm, right, just the flat -out enthusiasm for having a stonking good time when you’re reading a text. To me, that’s one of the most attractive things about science fiction and fantasy is that the audience really wants you to succeed because they want to have fun when they’re reading the text as well. I think that’s important to me.
And what are you working on now?
I’m writing historical fiction, a different kind of genre, a little bit of drift into sort of speculative material, about the fur trade, the 19th-century fur trade in the Hudson’s Bay territories. So, it’s from the perspective . . . for my Ph.D., I wrote about the fur trade, missions in the fur trade, some other things as well. So, I’m going back to some of that archival material and trying to turn it into a novel.
Sounds very interesting. And where can people find you online, if anywhere?
I got a Twitter feed @BillSquirrell. I think it’s . . . probably the safest way to find me is, there’s, for the book we have a webpage called robertgpenner.com, and there’ll be links on that page to other social media sites.
OK. Well, thanks so much for on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did, too.
I did. Thanks very much.
I’ll tell the folks at Radiant Press that I talked to you. They were actually the ones who suggested it because I didn’t know about the . . . I knew that they were going to publish some speculative fiction because I talked to John about it, and then Strange Labour came along, and it’s getting lots of great attention. So, I was very happy to be able to talk to you. And also, it’s not very often I talk to somebody that has any kind of connection to Regina, Saskatchewan. So that was nice to know.
John had nothing but good things to say about you. He was very enthusiastic.
That’s great. All right. Well, thanks so much. Bye for now.
OK, take care.