Episode 75: Robert G. Penner

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.

Website
www.robertgpenner.com

Twitter
@BillSquirrell

The Introduction

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.

It is.

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.

Yeah.

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.

Episode 74: Frank J. Fleming

An hour-long chat with Frank J. Fleming, author of the Superego science-fiction series and senior writer for the satire site, The Babylon Bee.

Website
www.frankjfleming.com

Twitter
@IMAO_

Frank J. Fleming’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Frank J. Fleming is the author of the Superego series of science-fiction novels. He’s also a humor writer for the Babylon BeeNew York Post, and USA Today, and has been a scriptwriter (Love Gov).

Fleming is a Carnegie Mellon University graduate and works as an electrical and software engineer when he’s not writing. He has also been a pioneer in virtual-reality video. He lives in Austin with his wife and four kids. 

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Frank, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Hey, thanks for having me.

I reached out to you because I . . . of course, I encountered you actually through the Babylon Bee. And this may not surprise you because you live in Texas, so you will know that when I say that I grew up in the Church of Christ, the Babylon Bee has humor in there that appeals to me because . . . I’m often passing along, not so much the political stuff, which is funny too, but often the church-related stuff I can pass on to people that I went to school with, I grew up with, and we all get those . . . we all get that satire.

That’s funny. I’ve thought about doing some more specific Church of Christ jokes, but I’m not sure how many people would get them.

Yeah, well, there’s a few of us, but it might not be exactly . . . it might be a bit of a niche audience, I’m afraid.

Yeah.

So, that’s kind of where I encountered you. And then I was following you on Twitter, and then I said, “Hey, you write science fiction.” And I looked that up, and it looked interesting. And I thought, “Well, that’s why I have this podcast.” So, I would reach out, and here you are.

Well, yeah, thanks. I really like talking about my fiction writing. The satire, I think, gets a lot more attention lately.

Yeah. It’s that kind of a world we’re living in at the moment. 

Mm-hmm.

The other thing I didn’t know until I got your bio here was that you’re an engineer and although I am not an engineer, I am married to an engineer. So, I hang out with engineers a lot. My wife, Margaret Anne Hodges, is past president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan. 

Oh, wow.

And so, I’ve hung out with engineers a lot over the years, too.

Yeah, it’s one of my favorite topics, actually. I have lots of strong opinions on different programming languages. It just doesn’t come up as much.

We probably won’t talk much about that. All right. Well, let’s start at the very beginning. I always say that I like to take my guests back into the mists of time—I don’t know how far back that is for you; it’s getting increasingly far back for me—to find out how you got . . . well, first of all, where you grew up and went to school, all that sort of thing, but how you got interested in science fiction and how you got interested in writing, and how those two things came together. So how did that all work for you?

And it’s hard to say. You know, as far back as I can think, I’ve always wanted to do little stories. You know, it’s funny, like, I work with Ethan Nicolle, you know, who did that Axe Cop. He illustrated stories from, like, his five-year-old brother, and I’m thinking, like, same age, I would always, like, play with stuffed animals or make up stories and things. And I can think back to . . . I think when I was a teenager, I probably made my first attempt at writing a science-fiction novel. It’s just, you know, I can’t help but think of stories. You know, I didn’t have much of the writing skill back then. And I just come at it, you know, and keep coming back to it. It’s just, I also found I had a bit of a knack for writing satire, particularly political satire, and I eventually started a blog and wrote more on that. But eventually, just because it’s always been a passion, I did, I think it was 2005. I actually did Superego as a short story. I just wrote it piece by piece and completely planned it out, and it actually ended up being a bit of a hit. I think I’m a bit embarrassed by the original short-story version, but it was pretty popular at the time, and eventually, I decided I have to, you know, if something’s my passion, I have to set more time aside for it eventually. So, you know, I need to work on my fiction every day. And eventually, I started just getting up at five a.m. every morning. So, I had time to both do the humor and satire and write on, novel writing, before my regular day job. And just, you know, if you do a bit of it every day, eventually it gets done.

You mentioned that you wrote a little bit in high school when you . . . well, first of all, where did you grow up?

That’s a complicated question. High school was in New Jersey. That’s, I think, still the single place I’ve lived the most. I lived there nine years, from age nine to eighteen.

And did you have books that got you interested in reading and writing in those and those early days?

It’s funny, I was a very avid reader up until high school, and for some reason, I’m not sure why, I kind of dropped off then. I remember reading, let’s see, the Dragonlance series was one of my favorites as a kid, and, you know, I read some Michael Crichton, but at some point, I dropped off, and eventually, I just was not finding time for reading. That’s something I had to reintegrate into my life and realize, you know, as they always say, if you want to be a writer, you have to read a lot. And so, that’s now something I make a priority each day. It’s usually what I do in the morning when drinking my coffee. I find that’s a lot better a way to wake up than, like, you know, looking at the news or social media.

What are some of the authors you’re reading now?

Let’s see. I actually, I just finished today, Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles. I really try to alternate nonfiction and fiction. And then I try to draw from, you know, fantasy, science fiction, thrillers. You know, I try to, every once in a while, to go a little bit out of my comfort zone, just to try a lot of different authors. Lately, I’ve been enjoying Jim Butcher and is, uh . . .

Dresden Files.

Yeah, Dresden Files.

Yeah, I love those, too.

I think I’m more the style, you know, I know there’s the hard science fiction things in me, I’m more, I just I want to write something that, you know, maybe makes you think and has a few themes to it, but my main goal is just make something fun and end up . . . I really want to make a page-turner, I’d say.

Well, you went into engineering. Why did you decide to pursue that? What drew you to it?

I’ve always had a very analytical mind, and this is something . . . it feels like I have, like, two sides of me that I’ve never been able to join. I have a very creative side, a very . . . I always loved creative writing, I always loved humor. But I also, I love solving puzzles, and I just love computer programming. I love debugging. I love figuring things out. I love, especially, really complex problems where you can’t just Google the answer, and you got to be like, you know, the one go out there and solve things no one else has figured out before. And I really enjoy both. I’ve just never been able to merge the two sides.

And how did the satire writing start coming about? I mean, yeah, you said you found a knack for it, but how did you end up getting . . . I mean, you were published in some fairly major places, and you had satirical books published. How did that all come about?

Well, that, I mean, that goes back . . . I always loved humor. I think for a while as a kid . . . I almost feel embarrassed, it was like, I was like a big fan of Garfield, I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I used to write and draw comics and things. But eventually, it’s just . . .I don’t know, I played around. I found out, you know, politics is something to make fun of. We had a . . . in my high school, they had . . . a local paper was going to run editorial from a high schooler, and so, they had people submit, and I wrote a joke one about how economic and political ideas need to be tested on monkeys first before they’re tried on humans, and that got published, that was the one chosen, it got published. And then, when I was in college, I just started writing, like, joke columns. You know, I’d say I’d been influenced by, like, Dave Barry, I just wrote, like, humorous columns for the school paper and, you know, just kind of did that a little bit, then set it aside. And then, I became what back in the day was known as a war blogger. You know, a little bit after 9/11, everybody started blogging and trying to get involved in the news. And I think I was about, let’s say, I’d be about 23 at the time. And I said, “Well, I’ll write some on politics.” But I also realized, “I’m too young to lecture anybody on politics. I don’t know anything, so, I’ll just write really stupid opinions that will at least be entertaining,” and made that my niche, and first started out as blogging and eventually started writing some columns and things.

As opposed to stupid opinions that aren’t entertaining, and there’s lots of those around.

Yeah, but, well, stupid opinions are the most entertaining. Smart opinions are usually very simple.

Well, I have to ask you about the Babylon Bee, because that’s how I found you. How did . . . are you one of the founders of that or . . . you’re listed as a senior writer. So, how did that all come about?

I’m one of the earlier writers. I’m not a founder. I think they were out maybe about two years because I remember being a fan of them before I got involved. I knew, you know, I already mentioned Ethan Nicolle, and I was a big fan of his. And I ended up just meeting him online, becoming friends with him. And then he went working for them full-time, and he dropped my name with them. And it’s just, I’d been blogging, writing similar-type humor for over a decade, so it just was a real good fit. Because I used to write full columns where I’d have, like, a joke, a funny idea, and I’d have to fill out 600 to a thousand, and really I’d just have one joke, and so that’s all padding. I like the Bee because I just come up with a funny concept and usually only write, like, 200 words or so. And so, it’s usually pretty fun to write for.

My background is in journalism, and when I was working as a newspaper reporter and photographer at the little Weyburn Review—Weyburn has a population of 10,000, so this wasn’t exactly a huge newspaper—and I had a weekly column, and I would sometimes dip into satire. And I found that people would get madder at me for the satire than things that I had written, you know, serious news stories about serious topics. But people were sometimes . . . especially if they took the satire seriously and then found out afterwards that it was satire and they’d missed the joke. Does that . . . ?

Well, yeah, that’s always the problem. My very first paid column, I actually co-wrote it with Jonah Goldberg for USA Today. And there, they were very particular. It said, like, satire right in the title and satire right at the end. And, you know, I know why they do that, but I always feel that puts you off on a bad foot, like, you’re like, “You’re too dumb to get this was a joke if we didn’t tell you right away.” For a while, I wrote, though, for the New York Post, and there, they didn’t label it, but no one seemed to get that mad. I seemed to, you know, I never had, like, these most strident, ardent opinions that really worked people up. I think a few people wrote in some angry letters who didn’t get it was satire, but it didn’t seem to be a big deal. Of course, now, at the Babylon Bee, we keep having all these times where people share it for real, and, of course, we get accused, like we’re trying to do that. We’ve never written one where we’re trying to trick people. It’s just, it so often takes us off guard, like, which ones people thought were real and end up getting shared as, you know, fake news, and that that will get people angry.

And a few times, your satire has turned into almost what actually happens a few weeks later on, too.

Yeah, that’s what I was saying recently, is satire these days is just figuring out what’s going to be real news in about, you know, two days in the future.

And I guess that’s where a Not the Bee came along because those are real news items that read like they could be satire.

Yeah, yeah. It’s . . . and that’s, I think, actually a challenge for satire. If things are already crazy and funny, you can’t really . . . you know, it’s better if something’s really serious and you make fun of it, you know, like, you throw a pie in the face of some stiff, you know, upper-crust guy, throwing a pie in the face of a clown, not as funny. And it’s . . . and with things so crazy, it’s a little bit more challenge for the humor. You have to learn how to, like, work with it instead of against it. It’s . . . as I describe to people, if you, like, a decade or two ago, you pitched, “Hey, Donald Trump is going to be president,” you know, no one would do that as a drama. That’s a comedy. And so, I explain people are living in a comedy premise. And you have to learn to, like, flow with that and be with it and not get all too serious about it, or you’re going to end up like Dean Wormer from Animal House.

I also wanted to ask you about the scriptwriting side. We’re working our way around to the fiction, but I’m touching on everything else that you’ve done. You mentioned being a scriptwriter. How did you get into scriptwriting?

I had an opportunity where I worked with a production company in Austin. It’s what moved me to Texas. They’re called Emergent Order. They’re probably most famous . . . they did, like, a Keynes versus Hayek rap battle explaining economics. And I did with them a series which portrayed government as, like, kind of this bad boyfriend who’s always butting in, and had a lot of fun. That was my first time writing and getting to see it filmed, which is a lot more complicated. And I thought . . . and it kind of ruins TV and movies for you afterwards, because now I’m always thinking practically, like, “Oh, how many extras have they got, where did they film this, what camera angles.” In a way, you can enjoy TV more before you know all the background stuff. And now, I’m actually writing some scripts for, you know, Babylon Bee started doing some animation. They’re really expanding what they’re doing on YouTube. And so, having some fun there.

Well, one reason I ask about scriptwriting is because, as we’ve come around to your fiction, all these other kinds of writing that you have done, have you found them helpful when you started turning your attention to fiction? I think in scriptwriting—and I’ve done plays, and a few video scripts, mostly more plays than anything else—one thing that you quickly learn is that dialogue has to carry a lot of the action in a play. So, do you find, for example, that being a scriptwriter has helped with the dialogue in your fiction?

Well, I think my problem is I love dialogue. I want to start with the dialogue. It’s like, I’ll do the dialogue and then start to get the plot around it. And that’s kind of the wrong way to do things. So, I’ve actually, with scriptwriting, had to learn more discipline to outline and get the plot points and beats. And after I get everything, then I can finally write the dialogue, because that’s my favorite part. And so . . . and you know, there’s the length of it, because a lot of the, you know, I’d say, like, the humor writing, that doesn’t really contribute much to the fiction writing. To me, I love the fiction writing because it’s different when you actually have a plot and characters, and you need to make it all come together. And to me, it’s more like engineering in that it’s a bit of a puzzle, in that, you know, there’s no exact right way to come at it. But you have to work at it and try different things until it finally fits together and works.

Well, let’s get around to the fiction. You sort of talked a little bit about how you decided to start doing it, but before we do anything else, maybe we should get a synopsis, however much you want to say, about the Superego books.

Well, it’s funny. I’m not even sure how I ended up with this character because it’s . . . I like funnier, lighter things, but, of course, the main character of Superego is a psychopath. He’s an intergalactic hitman who just . . . and basically, it’s, to me, I guess it was an exploration of morality by . . . I came up with a character who has absolutely no practical use for it. He doesn’t feel guilt. He doesn’t have to, usually, worry about retribution for anything he does. So, is there any use of morality for a character like that? And that’s where I think, in a way, the story’s exploring.

You’re not sure where he came from?

Yeah, I’m not sure how I ended up with someone with absolutely no . . . like, a psychopath without any feeling of guilt. It just . . . it seemed like an interesting character to work with. I think at the time, I remember it was back, I was watching that show House, and I also liked the idea of just this cranky character who can say whatever he’s thinking because he doesn’t really care about other people.

And then, do you want to give a little outline of the plot?

Well, in the first one, he, let’s see, he ends up having to pretend to be with law enforcement when he’s on a planet doing a job and ends up working with a detective whom he begins to fall in love with. But he, you know, finds out that the job isn’t what it seems. And he ends up sort of a . . . well, I don’t know how much to give away, but it just thinks his basically his whole life starts to collapse around him when he hadn’t really thought much about it. The second one has him . . . now he’s decided to be somebody different and exploring how different can he be considering who he is. In a way, he’s trying to be a hero, even though, again, he doesn’t get the feelings of, like, any good feelings from helping people or anything. And so, we’re seeing how far he can push that.

The other interesting thing I found . . . he has an AI in his head who struck me as, like, Jiminy Cricket, actually, he’s the conscience of the puppet in Pinocchio, and it was a bit like that. So, where did that come from?

I’m not sure where the character first came from. I figure . . . I think it’s just, in a way, logical. He is not a people person, he doesn’t do well with people, but he needs help. I actually have a short story that is kind of a prequel that shows him first activating AI. He’s lonely, but he also doesn’t do well with people. And so, he ended up with an AI. He figured he could deal better with that. And so . . . and then, yeah, it’s like a conscience forum, but in a way, he can understand because, you know, it’s an AI, it has to logically think through, you know, what’s the right thing to do here. And that’s what he’s stuck with doing because he has no feeling of like, you know, this is a good thing, or this is a bad thing.

Well, let’s start at the very beginning of the writing process, then. Once you had your character, what did your planning, and what does your planning/outlining process, look like? Are you a detailed outliner, or do you just sort of start writing and see what happens?

I’m somewhere in between. I once tried . . . I read, like, Stephen King’s On Writing book, where he seems to be, let’s just, like, come up with the characters and let happen what happens. And I tried that with the novel Side Quest, but I ended up . . . to me, I need at least a skeleton of what I think the whole story is going to map out, like, where different plot points are, where it’s going to end up. And I tend to just kind of walk around, play with it in my head, until I think I have a solid structure for the plot and what are the main beats of the story in my head, and then I start to write it out. And then . . . but it usually then, it usually takes a few twists and turns from what I originally planned, because you have to, you know, let the characters do what seems logical for them. Because, of course, the problem, if you map out a plot too much, is you’re trying to make your characters fit into doing what you need them to do, and sometimes that just doesn’t work out.

What you put down on paper before you start writing? Is it fairly sketchy, sort of just to remind you of what you thought about, or do you do something pretty detailed? Like, would it be five pages or ten pages or . . . I talked to one author, Peter V. Brett, who does 150-page outlines. So, he’s the extreme.

I’m definitely on the other end. I have a . . . for the current, I’ve written a third Superego, I have a very simple Excel sheet that just maps out a few different plot points, and only because this one’s a little bit more complicated than the others because I’m juggling a few more storylines.

Do you do anything like character sheets or detailed character sketches, that sort of thing?

No. I’m starting to think I need to do that because part of it also is just all the, you know, different names of planets and . . .

Continuity.

. . . characters . . . and then, you know, it goes back to the first two books, and it’s, sometimes, I’m just writing a note. I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got to go look back up in the second book, what was the name of this planet?” And fill this in later. And it’s . . . my first drafts tend to be completely unreadable, filled with holes, have whole sections that need to be rewritten because I said something else is going to happen, so I need to rewrite the old part. But I like to keep momentum, so I don’t . . . for the first draft, if it’s something I’m stuck on, I’ll just write a note, what I want, you know, and then move on, because I like to move through the first thing and say I finished the first draft, even though it’s unreadable, and then go back and pound it into something I can give to a beta reader.

You mentioned a little bit about your actual writing process taking place largely early in the morning. I would presume you write on a computer, you’re not with a quill pen on parchment, under a tree somewhere.

Yeah, I’ve been a computer word-processor since I was a kid. Of course, first it was on a Tandy, but now I usually write in Google Docs because it’s just easy to access from anywhere. And then, for the more final revisions, I move to a Word document.

I like to say that . . . my first computer that I wrote on was a Commodore 64. There was word processing software called Paperclip, which was pretty good, but it was not what-you-see-is-what-you-get, it was just text scrolling across the page. No line breaks at the end of the text unless you put in a hard return, and it was 499 lines of text, which worked out in manuscript format to about ten pages. And so, for quite a while, all my books had ten-page chapters because that’s where I ran out of space on the word processer, and I just adapted to that. It’s funny how your technology can affect the way that you work.

Yeah. I mean, we’re still dealing with things set by typewriters, because that’s, you know, that’s what we’re imitating.

Yeah. And I also had . . . because publishers would not take dot-matrix printouts, and I certainly didn’t have a laser printer, I got a daisy-wheel printer, which was faster than typing, but I had to manually feed each sheet of paper into it as it typed it. So, I would just sit there and scroll in new paper every time it got to the end of the page. It was . . . I don’t miss that at all.

Yeah, I prefer the all-digital route, and I’m one of those . . . I like my books on a Kindle because I now find a physical book kind of cumbersome.

Well, as I get older, I like the fact it’s bright, and you can make the print bigger if you need to. That’s helped.

Yeah. Yeah.

So, are you a fast writer or a slow writer? How many words would you crank out in a writing session?

I am a slow writer, and that’s by necessity because I have, like, a couple of hours in the morning, and I’m also writing, you know, I write at least one Babylon Bee article per day. And sometimes, I have other writing projects going on; before, I was a co-writing a movie script. And so, I write what I can per day. I, you know, I’m happy if I do over a thousand words. You know, I’d love to write longer, you know, be able to write faster. Right now, I just . . . my goal is to get out a novel a year. But it really does change the novel by writing that slow because I have more time to think out each part and allow some more time for the story to evolve, to think, “Oh, wait, wouldn’t this work instead?” And, you know, sometimes that involves having to go back and change huge sections, but I think it makes the story stronger overall to write it that slowly.

Now, you’re writing far-future science fiction and interstellar travel, that sort of thing. And you’re engineer. How hard do you work to make it as scientifically plausible as possible?

Yeah, that seems to be, I say, a contradiction. I am a . . . future tech is just magic, and I don’t really care how it works unless that would help with the plot. You know, you add limitations as you need to. I could say, one of them was, “OK, I have it. They use some sort of tech to jump.” And then, I realize in the second book I need to add some limitation where it takes a long time to charge up so you can’t just jump away quickly because I just need that for the plot. And so, I add things like that as I go, because to me, I guess, it’s . . . the characters are more what I’m interested in than the technology. And the thing is, I really like hard science fiction where they obviously put a lot of thought into it, but I guess that’s just not my focus in my own stories.

Well, and I always feel that as soon as you stipulate faster-than-light travel and maybe artificial gravity on your starships, you’re pretty much playing with technology that you can do whatever you want.

It’s, yeah, there’s stuff you just handwave because it would take so much time out of the story. I have some, you know, they have a universal translator. It’s one of those things where maybe eventually I’ll go into where that works if it’s plot-relevant, it would be interesting if that fails at some point. But, yeah, a lot of it is just, you know, some of it’s just handwaves to do what you need to do in the story. But, you know, when I establish something, then you have to logically follow, “OK, how does this affect things?” If you can jump quickly anywhere, how does that affect laws between, like, planets? It’s very easy to just escape and go somewhere else in the universe and never be found again. And so, you know, to me, those implications are what’s interesting.

It’s like working out the rules for a magic system. Have you ever had any desire to write on the fantasy side of things? Or have you?

Yes, I’ve . . . it’s like, one of my oldest stories that’s been in my head is a fantasy epic. I think it goes back to, like, I played Dungeons & Dragons a little bit as a kid. And I’ve always had this story, developing a long time, it’s . . . eventually I hope to get to that. It’s just, you know, I have my writing schedule. I try . . . right now, I focus on getting one novel done at a time, I don’t try to write multiple at the same time, so . . . but, yeah, I don’t think I’d be doing a very strict magic system. But, you know, again, it has to follow at least some logic, so people understand, you know, limitations and things like that, which you need for a plot to work.

Yeah. Otherwise, it’s just . . . you can’t tell a story without limiting what your characters could do. It just doesn’t work. So, you mentioned a little bit about your revision, that you get to the end, you have a first draft that’s full of holes and things you have to go back and fix. So, tell me about your revision process. What happens when you get to the end of the first draft?

Well, first, I think . . . I’m getting close to that now for the third one and . . . what I guess the first thing I do is, some of the biggest holes are actually names for made-up things because I hate coming up with made-up names. I never came up with a good process for that. I think I use street names for some things in the first Superego.

I have one where my character names are . . . I was doing a production of—I’m an actor as well—I was doing a production of Beauty and the Beast up in Saskatoon while I was writing this book, and as a result, about six characters are named after actors who are in that production.

Yeah, to me . . . I had some street names nearby that sounded at least a bit like, you know, planet names or something. So, I used those. And then I’ve used a few, like, online random-name generators and things like that, especially. I use that all the time with the Babylon Bee if I just need some random name, you know, but they’re good for human names. You come up with alien names, and it always gets like, you know, you want at least a certain style to each certain alien and things like that. And it’s not something, again, that I care about. It’s one of those things like, you know, you have to do. So, part of it’s filling in the names. And then, I tend to . . . my habit is to write in brackets notes for myself. And so, to get from my first draft to something readable, which at first will go to my alpha reader, which is always my wife, whose job it is to make sure I don’t embarrass myself too much, I just can search for brackets. And once I’m getting all the brackets out of the story, then it’s done, and it’s readable now. And so, what I do is, I’ll go back, and I’ll start to fill in those sections and rewrite the sections that now have to be changed because I decided to go somewhere else later on, and I’ll fill in all the names, and then once I search the document and all the brackets are gone, now I have something someone else can read.

Just on the writing side itself, do you, like, go back and do all the tightening up the language and making scenes more vivid and all that sort of stuff at this stage? Or do you get it right the first time?

Some of it . . . my biggest weakness, I think, is describing things. It’s one of those things I never felt very good at. And again, it’s like, I want to get on to the action. I want to get on to the character drama. And so, I just want to describe things enough so you understand what’s going on, what you can see. But sometimes, you know, you need to add a bit more, really, to draw people into it. And so, that’s one of those things I really have to force myself to concentrate more on. So, yeah, I’ll try to increase the descriptions when I come back to it and also just notice the flow. And then, one of the biggest things I worry about is repetition, where I, you know, because I write over such a long time, I forget, “Oh, I already had the character say something similar in the previous section.” So, I do need to read through a few times and make sure things don’t get repeated and just sort of look at the flow of it, which is . . . it’s hard to tell because you’re . . . especially for something you’ve read over so many times.

You mentioned your wife is your alpha reader, but you also mentioned that you have beta readers.

Mm-hmm.

Where do you find them, and what do they do for you?

I just go to . . . I’ve been lucky to at least have fans been lucky at least have fans, at least initially for my blog and now for my fiction writing. And I keep an email list, and I usually just go to them and see who’s interested, and I’ll send out copies to get feedback. And, you know, and . . . of course, that’s one of those things is, how do you react to the feedback? And usually, you know, if a number of different people mention the same thing, then, you know, that’s something you need to really pay attention to.

How many beta readers do you have?

At least . . . just probably a little over a dozen. It’s just, you know, it’s whoever’s interested. Last time, for the Superego sequel, I had quite a number because a number of people were fans of the first one. I probably did more than a dozen, but we’ll see. I don’t know what’s, like, a good number there, but I feel like as long as I get some quality feedback, it’ll help me know what I need to fix. I didn’t do as many big revisions on Superego: Fathom. I think that worked out pretty well by the time I got it to beta readers.

Do they tend to give you consistent feedback, or is it all over the map?

Sometimes over the map, but, you know, sometimes you really have to read between the lines and see if people run into the same problems. I got some pretty bad feedback on . . . Superego: Fathom, I think that worked out really well, I was really happy with that one. Hellbender, I think, had a bit more problems. That was more of a straight comedy one. And I went back and had to, I think, make the characters a little bit nicer. To me, I don’t like stories where people don’t like the main characters. I know you have a lot of that in fiction these days, especially TV shows. And so, I try to make them a bit more likable because I feel you get into the story more if you’re at least rooting for people.

Well, your main character’s likable; he just happens to be a psychopath.

Yeah, a lot of people, that’s the problem, and that’s . . . it’s not going to be for everyone. Some people are just not going to like Rico. But a lot of people seem to respond well to him. Because you have to sympathize with him, or the story’s just not going to work. And even though he’s kind of out there, I need the reader to see something of themselves in there. I think in a way, they’re situations they can relate to, his awkwardness around other people. And yeah, if you’re not . . . if you just hate the guy and you’re not rooting for him, the story doesn’t work.

So, once you have taken into account all of those revisions, I presume you get an editor involved at some point . . .or do you?

Yes, I get editors . . . before, my wife has actually worked on editing Superego, sometimes I’ve had other people just, you know, hired out editors, but I am not technically . . . let’s say I’m very bad at proofing myself. I would never trust myself to edit one of these things. And I always tend to be really lousy with passive voice, and I’m bad at spotting it in my own writing, so I need a lot of fixes there.

So that sounds more like copyediting. Do you get a developmental editor of any sort involved, or is that sort of taken care of by the beta readers?

Yeah, a bit with the beta readers, though, you know, I do like editors who actually look at, like, story-wise, does this work, and did you establish just enough. So not, yeah, not just the writing, but actually making things fit together, spotted where I inconsistently used a planet name, that sort of thing.

Yeah. It’s always helpful to have somebody else look at your stuff, that’s for sure. And I do some editing, and I’m looking at other people’s stuff, and I sometimes find by editing other people, I find, I realize stuff that I’m doing in mine that I shouldn’t be doing. So, it’s kind of educational reading other people’s stuff as well as working on your own.

Yeah, I think it’d probably be useful if I tried editing others to get better at it myself. But it’s is so hard for me to see my own writing. To me, that’s . . . I really like when I get to the Audible version, because to me, that’s the first time I really get to detach enough that I can really hear my story for the first time all and complete because it’s there now, someone else is interpreting it, acting it out a bit. But just going back and reading your own writing and trying to see it as other people would see it is so hard.

I was interested in the audiobook and the fact that you listen to them because I often ask authors if they listen to the audiobooks of their books and, more often than not, they say they don’t. They might listen to a little bit, but they don’t listen to the whole thing. It sounds like you like to listen to the whole thing. And do you find that helpful for the next book after you’ve heard it with those sort of fresh ears?

Yes, I think that, to me, was very helpful with the first Superego. That was actually a surprise, I didn’t know the publisher was going to do an audiobook. And so, that was my first experience. To me, it was very surreal when I got sent a list of all my made-up science-fiction names and was asked how to pronounce them. At least, I did have a pronunciation in my head for each one. And then listening to it, you know, like I said, I really got to feel it for the first time. I got to see what parts where I was not paying attention and what parts really drew me in. I know at one point I was like, you know, as I’d listen to, like, in my car on a commute, you know, I’d get home ,and I’d stay in the car for a while listening because, “Oh, this is interesting what happens,” because, you know, this is all, right now, a couple of years since I wrote it, so at least I’d forgotten some of it. And that helped me determine, I think . . . with the first one, a lot of people . . . like, the beginning part of Superego, I felt it takes a little time to get the momentum. And to me, there’s one chapter where afterwards it has this momentum that just really grips you until the very end. And so, that influenced the sequel because I wanted to start with that at the beginning and try to keep up that pace for the entire novel.

Now, the publisher, NTM Publishing, I have not heard of them, so . . .

Well, that one . . . originally I was with Liberty Island . . .

I have heard of that one.

NTM is my own imprint. Now I’ve decided to go the self-publishing route. To me, it’s just less stressful, because I’m only having to worry about . . . the only one I’m answering to about sales is myself. And also, that’s part of the reason I do want to listen to the audiobooks because I’m paying for those and I want to make sure, you know, there’s no errors and things in them before they get released, because I think . . . for quality ones, you know, it’s not cheap.

The only audiobooks that I . . . I do both, I’m published by DAW Books in New York, but I’m also published by myself through Shadowpaw Press, which is named after our cat. And there are some books that I had the audio rights to that were published by somebody else. And so, I did that where I found . . . I’ve narrated some of my own, but in this case, the main character is a teenage girl, and I don’t really have the voice for that . . . I don’t have much voice today, I’m quite hoarse . . . so, I got a narrator to do that. And that was, I think, the only time I’ve listened to my books all the way through. But I really liked that narrator, though, and I really enjoyed my own books because she found things in it that I had not, you know, they got tweaked a little differently. So, I do . . . but you have to have a good narrator. Have you had the same narrator for both of the Superego books?

Yes, I went back because . . . I wasn’t the one who hired him for the first one. But I did, I went back and approached him for the sequel, and so, I got the same narrator, and, you know, if you want to get, you know, it’s not cheap to pay for these things, especially if you’re paying someone, like, who’s at union rates. But I think, yeah, it’s very worthwhile to get somebody who knows what they’re doing and also, like I said, knows how to really perform and pull something out of the text. Sometimes, they find things maybe you didn’t even see in there. And like I said, it’s interesting because now, like, the story’s not completely just yours anymore. When someone else reads it like that, they are adding their own take to it.

Well, and I like to think, and to say, that even though it’s very obvious in an audiobook that somebody else is getting something a little different out of it. That, of course, is happening with every one of your readers because although we sit alone and we write our stories, the story is actually re-created in the head of each reader as they read it. And they’re all going to actually have a different a slightly different take on your story than what’s going on in your head when you write it. And I think . . . when I think about that, I’m always kind of fascinated by that. It’s a very . . . it feels like a solo activity, but it’s really a collaborative activity.

Yeah. And I wish I could experience how they read it in their head because, to me, that’s  the sort of feedback I would like to. You know, I work on, you know, Babylon Bee, or work on Twitter. I have these things where, you know, I write them and then sometimes, you know, it’s usually within seconds I get feedback or, you know, within a day I get feedback and see how people are reacting. The novel writing is a bit lonelier. It takes sometimes years to get it out there, and you don’t get, like, the line-by-line feedback you’d quite like to. But, you know, I’d really like to . . . I mean, to me, I would love to get in people’s heads and see exactly how they read each section and see that. Like I said, you get a little bit of that with the audiobook.

Might be a science fiction story there with an author who develops the way to see  inside readers’ heads as they’re reading his story. It sounds like a good idea. So, what has the reaction been for your fiction? Has it has been well-received?

Yeah, I feel it’s been really well received. Superego’s been quite popular. That’s definitely my most-read book so far. Part of that was also actually because of the audiobook. It got featured once . . . was made Audible’s deal of the day. So, I got to experience being the number-one audiobook for a day. And some people, they really reacted to the main character, really liked it, and then I feel the sequel’s been a big success, people who like the first one seems to love the second one. I’m hoping . . . most people consider that one even better than the first one, and I got a lot of feedback to that. And now I’m just scared with the third one because I’m trying something a bit different. And it’s going to . . .the pacing is going to be a bit different. But, you know, you have to try new things with each story. I wish I could have, like, a rut where I’m making, like, the same character and same story beats each time. But I don’t think I can do that. I’m more . . . I want an epic scope, so it’s all, you know, all these books are going to fit together in one big story. It does, it will have a conclusion. They’ll be, like, we have two books out, and there’ll be two more. And that will end the story.

So, it’ll be four all together. A quadrology.

Yeah. I mean, originally, I wrote the book, the first book, without necessarily thinking there’d be a sequel. It was the idea that it had an ambiguous ending, where you weren’t sure if Rico died or not, but no one thought he did, and everyone was asking where the sequel was. And since then, I’ve kind of thought out the rest of this story and it’s just going to fit, it’s going to be, you know, three more books after the first one, well, I have to out now, working on the third one, then I’ll have a fourth coming.

Well, we’re getting into the last little bit of this, so I’ll go to my big philosophical questions—and I’m totally going to put reverb on that one of these days, “big philosophical questions.” Three questions, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think people, in general, write? And why science fiction in particular? So, we’ll start with, why do you write? Why do you do all this?

It’s . . . I have these ideas. I want to share them. And writing is the easiest way, I think, to do that. It’s something accessible to everyone. I say it’s . . . and this is something I determined a while ago. It’s just, I’m always going to come up with stories in my head, ever since I was a little kid, and they’re always going to . . . they’re almost like demons I have to exorcise. The only way to do that is to write the story down because once I’ve written the story, I don’t think about it anymore. I don’t keep thinking, “Oh, we could do this, do this.” It’s done. It’s out there. And so, the only way to get these stories to stop bothering me is to write them down. And so, it’s one of those things where it’s like, I have to write, you know, regardless of what success I have there, it’s something I need to do.

And why do you think humans, in general, tell stories through writing and through other media? Where does that come from?

That isn’t . . . yeah, that is not a philosophical question I think I’ve thought long on. But, you know, it’s yeah, we’re very compelled to communicate these ideas through stories. You know, it’s funny because, you know, I’m an engineer, I’ll, you know, I don’t always use metaphorical language. I’ll tell you very succinctly exactly what I’m thinking and what I want to get done. But stories, I think they allow you to tackle much more complex subjects, things you can’t just write out and have, you know, a simple answer to explain. You have to follow characters. You have to see stories. You have to see how they react and just kind of develop an understanding, even if you can’t verbalize all of it.

You’ve done some work with virtual reality and, in a way, fiction is a form of virtual reality. If it’s done well, you feel immersed into a world that’s not real, and yet it feels real to you. So, it’s sort of the same impulse, I think, to experience other lives and other ways of seeing things and have experiences, virtual experiences, that aren’t real experiences that you probably wouldn’t want to have. You wouldn’t actually want to experience what Rico goes through. But it’s exciting to experience it virtually.

Yeah. I mean, that’s a good analogy. You’re trying to draw people into . . . I mean, if you can do it well, people really immerse, you forget about things for a while. And, you know, that’s my main goal of a story, is to entertain and give people, you know, a little bit of a vacation from things. It’s funny; things are so crazy, even as bad as things get, like, you know, in Superego: Fathom you have this entity trying to take over the universe, and no one knows about it, and it’s a crazy world, but in a way, it’s a nice little . . . jumping in there is still a vacation from how crazy things have gotten in the real world. So, I think people could appreciate that. And I like, you know, I write a lot in satire and politics and things like that. But it’s I like, I mainly like to stay away from that in my fiction. I think I want to tackle bigger subjects than, like, you know, temporary issues, and give people a break from all those real-world things.

And is that why science fiction/fantasy? Because it’s a way that you can talk about bigger issues, but sort of disconnected from the here and now?

Yeah, in a way, I think of myself as a fantasy writer, even when doing science fiction, because it allows you, you know, you have less of a box you’re stuck in. You can do a lot more things. You can do whatever you want. And some of it’s laziness, too, because I don’t have to research as much. I can just make things up. And that’s part of why I write, like, political satire and things like that. I don’t have to do all this research for these well-thought-out opinions, I just make things up.

Well, and you sort of mentioned that you’re working on the third book, but is there anything else that you have in the works that are coming up soon?

Yeah, well, I’m working on the third book . . .

And when will that third book be?

I don’t . . . I’m hoping, sometime early next year. We’ll see how that works out. You know, there’s a number of things to get, you know, you get it done, you get it edited, you get a cover. But then I think I’m going to take a little break to do a sequel to HellbenderSuperego’s a bit dark. Hellbender is straight comedy, and I think I’d like a little break into that for a little while before I write the fourth and final . . . probably final . . . And then I, you know, my other writing right now has been doing lots of stuff with the Babylon Bee, and I’m hoping to do more animation projects with them too.

We should probably mention just a little bit more about Hellbender. You’ve mentioned it a couple of times but haven’t really said what it is. So, here’s your opportunity.

Okay, that is a science fiction comedy about . . . like, you know, it’s sort of a post-apocalyptic world, but for orphans who are . . . it’s kind of them against the world, and it’s always been a hard one to describe, plot-wise. But that’s one where . . . I think that was the most me novel, where I’m just having fun and having lots of jokes in it. But I still felt the need to have a solid plot that draws you in, and you don’t know where it’s going to go. And then, I also have one other novel, Sidequest, which to me is a stand-alone, and a lot of people . . .that also got a very big reaction. It’s probably my most Christian novel, even though God isn’t mentioned in it at all. It’s sort of a metaphorical one, but that’s, I’d say, between a straight comedy and Superego, and I really enjoyed that one, though I don’t know if I’ll go back to it. A lot of people . . . I got mixed things on the ending. I thought I stuck the landing on the ending, and a lot of people didn’t like it.

You can’t please everyone. You may have noticed that. And where can people find you online?

Well, I’m very active on Twitter, quite a following there. Just look for Frank J. Fleming on Twitter. My handle is based on my blog name, it’s @IMAO_, because IMAO was already taken. And then, you can catch my writing on the Babylon Bee, go to BabylonBee.com. And also, you know, I have a website where you can see some short stories and also just shows all my novels, and that’s FrankJFleming.com.

All right. Well, I guess this brings us to the end, so thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.

Thanks. Yeah, it was great.

Episode 73: K. Eason

An hour-long interview with K. Eason, author of the On the Bones of Gods fantasy trilogy and the Thorne Chronicles, the second book of which, How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge, has just come out from DAW Books.

Website
www.mythistoria.com

Twitter
@svartjager

K. Eason’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

K. Eason started telling stories (to pets, stuffed animals, and anyone who might listen) in her early childhood. She ended up with two degrees in English literature before she decided that she needed to stop writing about everyone else’s stories and get back to telling her own. 

She lives with her husband and a trio of disreputable cats in Southern California, where she teaches first-year college students about zombies, Beowulf, and food (though not all at once). Her short fiction has appeared in Cabinet-des-FéesPostcards from Hell: The First ThirteenJabberwocky 4Crossed Genres, and Kaleidotrope. She is the author of the On the Bones of Gods trilogy and The Thorne Chronicles, the second book of which, How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge, came out from DAW Books in October. When she’s not writing or commenting on essays, she’s probably playing D&D.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, K., welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Fellow DAW author. We’ve never met, but we are both published by DAW, though we actually have different editors. Mine is Sheila (Gilbert). Who’s your editor as DAW?

Katie.

Katie (Hoffman). OK. One of the young’ns.

Yes.

So, yeah, we do share that little thing in common. It’s quite a big thing, actually. So, let’s go back, as I like to say, into the mists of time and find out . . . that’s a cliche on here at this point. I’m going to put reverb on it, MISTS OF TIME . . . find out how you got interested in . . .you talked about telling stories from a very young age. How did you get interested in writing them down? And were you always interested in science fiction, or how did that all come together for you? And where did you grow up? Basic biography.

OK. Where I grew up is . . . my dad is Air Force, so, everywhere. We spent no longer than three years in any given place. So, I sort of just hopped around, mostly the United States, but we did spend a couple of years in the Philippines when I was very small. So, I grew up all over. But how did I get into . . . my mother got me started with books when I was very . . . she used to just sort of, I guess, prop me up and just show me pictures of books. So, books were always this cool thing to me. And I decided when I was barely old enough to read—and I don’t remember learning to read, I just apparently, one day . . . I just only remember knowing how to read—I decided I should write my own books. And so, I tried to write my own books with whatever it is small children try and tell stories about. I know there were probably dogs involved and crayons and crayon-drawn dogs, and there were probably . . . I don’t know, but I know there was a dog in my first book because I remember trying to draw the dog and doing a terrible job of it and realizing with, like, a three-year-old or four-year-old’s brain that this is not really a dog, but it will do, so . . . 

Science fiction was also my mother’s fault, and it was really fantasy that started it. She brought me The Prydain Chronicles, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, when I was, I think, in fifth grade. I don’t know what possessed her to bring those home to me, but she did. And then we were off and running. And she got me off of the horses, all of the horse and animal books. I think she was maybe just tired of those? And then it became everything having to do with fantasy. And then I found reruns of Star Trek, and I was like, “This is cool, too.” And then it was just . . . it was all over.

Were the Black Stallion books among your first books?

Oh, God, all of them.

Well, see, there’s science fiction in the Black Stallion books. The Island Stallion books are actually science fiction. I don’t know if you remember that or not.

Yeah, OK. It’s been a long time. It’s been a really long time since those books.

Yeah, it’s been a while for me too. But I remember that because it was, like, “I’m reading a horse book, and now it’s got aliens in it. This is cool. Now I’ve got two things that I like in one book.

There you go.

Actually, his last–completely off the topic, but his last book that he wrote, that Walter Farley himself wrote, I think, is very strange. It’s got Alex and The Black off in the desert somewhere, and there’s like an apocalyptic meteor strike or something happening. And civilization is being destroyed. And it really comes out of left field.

That actually would probably be right up my alley now. Yeah. We can go back to this and the magic horse and the . . . you know, pretty much it was a magic horse. We all knew that.

And I remember Prydain . . . The Prydain Chronicles were favorites of mine, too. So yeah. Names that I remember.

The Mabinogion, right? It was the children’s version of a very not children’s story.

Yeah. That’s for sure.

But so great.

When did you start writing stories down, and did you share them with other people? I always ask that question because many people, when they start out writing young, they keep it to themselves, but some of us share it with our friends. So, which were you?

I wrote a story in my elementary school, I think, for an English class that . . . I remember it won. It was about a horse because of course it was. But they wanted me to read it out loud to the auditorium or whatever, and I freaked out. I would not. I fled. So after that, I stopped showing people my writing for a long time because I was afraid they would make me read it out loud. And I could think of very few things worse than having to read my own writing out loud.

But you kept writing?

But I did keep writing. I did. I did keep writing on and off. It was how I got through high school. They thought I was taking notes back in the day when we took notes with, you know, pencils and paper, and no, no, no, I was back there writing. Probably super-derivative stuff because it was whatever I was reading, and then sometimes those books just needed to have a female character in them, or a talking horse, or who knew what. And I would be, you know, writing stuff.

Did you have any teachers or anybody in school that encouraged your writing?

Um, not really, because I didn’t show it to them.

That would do it!

I just kept it hidden. My mother knew I was writing, and she was super-supportive of it. I think she probably read the terribly derivative fan-fiction Pern Chronicles, sort of, because who didn’t want a dragon? You graduate from horses to dragons. Of course, you do. And I wrote some terrible thing. And I remember she read it. She’s a tough one, my mom. She sat there, and she read those handwritten spiral notebooks and did not say, “Please never do this to me again. And, no, you’re going to get an engineering degree.” No, she didn’t say that. She should have, but she didn’t.

My mom actually typed up my first short story, which was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” So, I subjected her to some of that, too.

Nice. See, mothers are tough. They do a lot.

So, at some point, you decided, you know, you weren’t getting an engineering degree, you were getting English literature degrees.

Oh yeah.

What took you in that direction?

Getting the English Lit degree, truthfully?

You can lie if you want to, but preferably truthfully.

I was going to be a genetic engineer of some sort because I’d read C.J Cherry’s Cyteen in high school and decided I’m going to do that. Not even thinking about the ethical-moral problems, like, “No, we don’t really need to make. . . that’s, no, OK, but no.” So, I was going to be a genetic engineer, and I hit microbiology and realized I hated labs. I hated biology labs. Chemistry labs were fine, but biology was just not fun for me, and calculus was awful. I hated calculus, and I thought, “You know what, you need to stop right . . . you just need to go do something else.” And I was good at reading, and I liked reading. And I thought, “Why not just get a degree reading stuff and then writing about it?” Because I was good at the nonfiction writing for sure. That was not a problem. So, I went off and did that because it seemed easier. And yeah, that was . . . it seemed easier. That’s exactly why we want to tell people why we do a major. But it was true.

Did you take formal writing courses at some point during that process?

I took one creative writing class. My undergraduate institution had a split between creative writing and literature. It wasn’t a combined degree; you had to choose a track. And I chose the literature track because there was, at least in that particular creative writing department, there was quite a bias against, quote-unquote, “genre fiction.” And I knew what I wanted to write, and I knew what I didn’t want to write. And I just decided that was not a fight I felt like having for years, so I just went and I did the literature degree. I did write, in my one creative writing class, I did write a cyberpunk story, and I got an A, and I got a side-eye from the instructor, like, “You’re writing cyberpunk?” Like, “I just read William Gibson. Of course, I’m writing cyberpunk.”

I always ask that about because I get . . . it surprises me that there is still that level of animosity towards tales of the fantastic from some creative -writing teachers, and yet I still hear that from so many authors I talk to, that they took a, you know, they took a formal writing class and maybe it was helpful, but they didn’t dare write what they really wanted to write and things like that. So . . .

Yeah.

Yeah. So, when did you actually start writing for publication?

I started trying to get published . . .. once I got my graduate degree, I couldn’t write fiction at all anymore. It died, and it probably took about four or five years before I could even start to turn off the editor brain long enough to start writing. And then, I guess it was probably right around 2000, I started trying to write for publication, short stories, when I realized that I’m a lousy short story writer because I just write bigger than that, I just, I have a hard time writing short stories, I’m much better at writing long-form. But I discovered that the hard way by trying to write short stories. So, right around the year 2000, I think my first pub was 2004 or 2006, I’d have to look. But right around there.

Do you think that some people are just naturally short fiction writers and some people are just naturally long fiction writers because it does seem to be that people are better at one than the other? With some exceptions.

I don’t know if it’s. . . I tend to . . . part of my knee jerk response is, “Well, yeah, I think some people are just better at telling the shorter, tighter story, and some people are much more into telling the long developmental stories.” And it’s not . . . there’s no value judgment either way. It’s just . . . I think some of us are just . . . the way our stories and the way our thoughts are structured might work better in different forms. But I certainly think it’s possible to write both pretty well. There’s people who do that, too. And I’m like, “Yeah, you go.”

Well, I just interviewed . . . actually, today, in fact, I interviewed, because I’m doing two today, which is unusual . . . I just interviewed F. Paul Wilson, who has this enormous list of publications, both short and long. So, there are certainly people who can write both short and long, equally. When did you then tackle a novel?

After we’d moved to California, so it was right, it was probably after I’d gotten my first couple of short stories out there and then decided I was going to try and write a novel. And I did . . . the first one is a trunk novel, we won’t talk about it. I wrote one with somebody. We won’t talk about that one, either, just because we were both learning to write, and also, it’s really hard to do collaborative work. Really hard. So, yeah, I wrote a couple that will never see the light of day. Ever. But it was enough to teach me that, “Oh, I can sustain a long narrative, I can do the character building. I can . . .” Basically, at that point, I was putting into practice what I had learned DMing. You know, we’re all playing games for a decade and saying, “You know what? You can tell long stories. You’ve done it. Now, do it without your players helping you.”

Yeah, I was interested in the D&D connection. I often say that although I have a degree in journalism and I officially minored in art, the truth is that I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and minored in everything else, based on the number of hours that I put into it.

I feel that. I feel seen. Yeah. Yeah. Seriously. I gamed a lot in college.

I always liked DMing far more than I like to play. And part of that was that I did want to tell a story through the game. I wanted to create this world that the characters . . . and I would . . . I was perhaps . . . I was always trying to push them in the direction of the quest I wanted them to take, as opposed to all the side things that would pop up. And one reason I stopped . . . well, one reason I stopped being a DM and playing was because I had no nobody to play with anymore because there was anybody in my town when I moved back to Canada from university,  where I went . . . and the other one was that I discovered . . . that I felt that my story-writing impulse should be better put into my writing my fiction than in my DMing. But I still kind of wish I’d kept doing it because I miss it. But now I haven’t done it, like . . . we won’t say how long. And I’m sure the rules are so far different from what I was playing that I wouldn’t even recognize the game. But have you found that DMing has fed . . . you mentioned one way that it did . . . overall, do you think it’s actually benefited your writing?

Oh, yeah. I joke that D&D is, like, the life skill that makes me a better teacher and it makes me a better writer because it makes me . . . it taught me how to write, how to do the long-form story creation and sort of thinking out branches. Well, what could happen here? Well, what could happen here? And there’s nothing like having—and I’m sure you know this—players who find the hole in your plot immediately.

Um-hm.

And you’re just like, “Oh, crap, I didn’t think of that.” And so now I have an internal voice that tries to think of those things. When I’m plotting, I’ll be like, “Well, I need them to do this. Yes, but why would they do that? How am I going to coerce a reluctant player or character into doing that? Oh, well, I have to give them a motive. Oh, well . . .” So, yeah, D&D has definitely helped me think about, not just good and evil, but all the different layers and the politics and the different valences and all of the different pressures that can drive people to do what they do, because . . . sorry, go ahead.

I was just going to say that the whole concept of characters taking on a life of their own is a literal thing when you’re playing D&D because the characters are being run by other people is.

And that’s where I started, you know, as a player. And I loved it. I thought it was great, but I was always the one who had to . . . if there was a new game, I was the one who would agree to DM it. So, whether it was a D&D module or cyberpunk, Tellurian cyberpunk or, you know, White Wolf’s Vampire or Werewolf or whatever new game was coming out, it was like, “OK, Cat will run it.”

So, what was your first published novel?

My first published novel was Enemy, which is the first of the On the Bones of God trilogy. Um, that was in 2014, I think? 2015? I should know that, but I don’t. It was so long ago. So that was my first, and it was fantasy. Dark, grim fantasy. But not grimdark.

Well, and that brings us to the Thorne Chronicles, so this is where we’ll talk about your creative process, from start to finish. So, we’ll start with the . . . well, first of all, the first thing we’ll do is, give us a synopsis of the Thorne Chronicles. There are two books so far. So, whatever you could say without giving away something to somebody who hasn’t read any of it. It’s up to you.

OK, I should . . . if I had known that, I would have pulled one up already. The Thorne Chronicles are . . . well, the first one, How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, is the story of princess, basically, who at her naming is given 13 gifts from a bunch of alien fairies, one of which is that she will . . . well, the curse, the 13th fairy gives her the curse, that is, “You will always know when someone’s lying to you.” And the 12th fairy, who had been circumvented, stepped in and said, “Yes, but you’ll always also have the courage to do something about that.” And, so, Rory ends up . . .she’s supposed to be the queen, but then her little brother is born, and because of stupid old rules, she’s shunted off to a neighboring kingdom’s space station, it’s a conglomerate of worlds, to marry the prince. Only when she gets there, she discovers that there is a political coup underway and that the prince is missing and in trouble, and she needs to fix things and make sure that she sets the world to right, which doesn’t perhaps go quite as well as  she might have hoped.

And what was the impetus for this sort of . . where did the genesis of all of this come from?

Truthfully, it probably heat exhaustion on the 405 when we were stuck in traffic at Long Beach. And I was . . . I don’t remember what it was, but I was complaining about fairy tales and feminism, and I was like, “You know what, I’m going to write this book. I’m going to write a story, and it’s going to, like, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ except the fairies are going to be, like, the 13th will be a punk. She won’t be an evil witch. She’s going to be a punk.” My husband’s like, “OK, all right, you do that. And that’s where the idea came from. The genesis came from. And then it kept bugging me. The idea just kept bugging me, and I kept thinking about what I would do. I could set in space. Could I set it in space? I could set it in space. What would I do if I set it in space? And so, there was no great plan. It was just sort of . . .  it wouldn’t stop bugging me until I said, “OK, how can I tell this?” And so, I went and wrote the first chapter and thought, “OK, there was a short story. Hey, I wrote a short story. This doesn’t suck. I’m going to try and get this published. This is chapter one. Oh, crap. Oh, no. This is going to be . . . OK. I guess I’m writing this book.”

It sounds like your idea process is, you know, you have a germ, and then you self-interrogate, you ask questions and try to build out from that idea. You know, “What if what if, what if?” Is that a fair statement? Is that the way it usually works for you?

Yeah, I think so, because I’m trying to think . . . the Rory Thorne Chronicles are very different than On the Bones of God, stylistically, flavor, all of it. And I’m thinking, what is my similarity in process? It’s, yeah, there’s a lot of, “What if? What if? What if?” I usually start with an idea or a character or a couple of characters or a situation or a moment, a scene just happens, and I see it, and I say, “OK, what led to that? And where’s it going?” So yeah, it starts tiny, and then I have to feel my way through the dark.

So, asking questions presumably leads you into the planning/outlining process. What how much of that do you do? How much of an outliner/planner are you?

Terrible at it. The first . . . the trilogy, there was no outlining, and I learned . . . I mean, I threw away 30,000 words, where the story would start going the wrong direction, and I realized it had gone the wrong direction. And it wasn’t 30,000 all at once. It would be, like, ten here or a chapter here. And I’d have to yank it back, like, “No, no, no, no, no, come back here. What did I do to set you off? OK, let me fix that.”

It was a little more structured with The Thorne Chronicles, at least the first one, because I was pulling off of the idea of a fairy tale, and I very much had the idea in my mind that I wanted to be in the same ballpark as, like, The Princess Bride, that sort of I’m-telling-you-a-story feeling, so I was like, “OK, I’ve got a narrator. They have a voice. They have . . . they interject, it’s a chronicler. How am I going to do this? And how does a fairy tale work? And what happens with a fairy tale? Obviously, I’m not going to do ‘Sleeping Beauty’ the whole way through. So, what other pieces am I going to pick? What other parts of fairy tales are necessary? What can I subvert? What can I flip?” You know, and that was a lot more structured, just because I knew I was playing with that particular genre and breaking it and messing with it.

So, what did you actually have written down when you began?

Oh, nothing.

So this mostly happens in your head?

Yeah, this mostly happens in my head. If I, you know, if I die in a car crash tomorrow, the books are gone. There’s no . . . there’s almost nothing. I had to come up with, like, projections for material. You know, when you’re trying to get your publisher to buy more books, you come up with these little projections. And I’m, like, “Oh, I think this is what would happen in this book. I think?” knowing full well that I’m going to get like ten steps into it and it’s probably going to go pear-shaped and sideways, but . . . yeah, I don’t do a lot of outlining, I would like to learn how to do that because I think that would probably save me a lot of heartache and aggravation, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I’m working on it. I’m trying to do it, but it’s not working.

Well, it’s another one of those things, doing the podcast and talking to so many authors is how different everybody is about that. So, it’s ranged from people who do none to . . . I think it was Peter v. Brett who writes 150-page detailed outlines and then just kind of fills that in. I tend to do a synopsis of a few pages because, again, that’s what I’m selling the book from, right? And then I sometimes don’t look at it again until I’m finished, so . . .

Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of where . . . I go for a feeling or a thought or, “Here’s how I’d like it to end up.” But I’m very much . . . I like to explore, and if I already know where it’s going to go, I’m afraid I’m going to get good and bored. And I don’t want to get bored. I want to still be discovering as my characters are discovering, “What the hell are we doing?”

Well, and speaking of your characters, I guess you’re not one of those people that does extensive character sheets, like you would for a D&D character. You’re discovering them as you go along, too? I mean, you have some idea from what you’ve been thinking about that’s in your head, but do you discover them very much as you go along as well?

Um, it depends how long the character’s been living in my head. With Rory, I was figuring her out as I went along. With the narrator, I had a pretty good idea before, you know, I could have put him on a character sheet. I had . . . I knew who he was. I just knew who he was. But, yeah, I don’t do a lot of background development because I’ve been gaming for so many years, I could make up a character pretty fast and pretty in-depth pretty quickly, and I just . . . that’s how I think my way through. “OK, you know, who are we going to meet? We’re going to meet a so-and-so. All right. Well, what kind of person is this likely to be? Who do I need them to be? How might they be this way? What?” You know, just sketch it out super fast, and there we go. Does that kind of answer the question?

Mm-hmm.

OK.

I’m curious, too, as you’re doing, as you’re writing, because you are a holder of literature degrees and you do some instructing as well, does what you have learned in your study of literature feed into the writing of your own material?

Oh, yeah, definitely. Because I have read things that I would never have chosen to read in the course of getting the degrees. Like, you get asked to read stuff you would never pick up off the shelf on purpose, and you learn, even if you don’t like it—and there was a lot I did not like—I learned to appreciate different ways to tell stories, different ways to . . . different techniques, different things in the box, different structures like, you know, “Oh, I’ve now read medieval romances. I see. This is . . . OK, this is how this works. OK.” So, I learned a lot of different techniques for ways that stories can be told. And then they just sort of . . . I put them all in my little bag of tricks and then yank them out as necessary. So, definitely, that has helped me as a writer, I think, just knowing the breadth of what’s out there.

Have you ever done a formal study of fairy tales since you’re working in a version of that?

No, I actually haven’t. I did not do it. I’ve never done a formal version of fairy tales. I was in the Tolkien phase when I was in grad school. So, I was doing a lot of writing about Tolkien at the time and not so much the fairy tales. Those came later. My fascination with them actually came after grad school. And so, that’s been self-educated.

What fascinated you about them?

Just the ways that I . . . like, my very first short story that I published was a ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ where Little Red Riding Hood is a werewolf, and it’s also cyberpunk. It’s a future with, you know, semi-mechanical rats and things. And it was just that . . well, how many different ways . . . what about a fairy tale is timeless? What about a fairy tale can be . . . what is essential to a fairy tale, that you can move through time and space—and you always see the recastings in the resettings. And I’d read . . . there was a series of books . . . I want to say it was Terri Windling who did them, but I can picture the covers in my head, and they were all these retellings of fairy tales, and I always really liked that. But I’d never had the opportunity to take a class in it because that was just not cool enough when I was going through grad school. We did not talk about fairy tales in my department, particularly. We talked about literary theory. So, you know, Focault, not fairy tales.

What does your actual writing process look like, then? Are you a fast writer, a slow writer? Do you write, you know, longhand or . . .?

No, never. I can’t read my own handwriting.

Do you write at the same time every day? What’s it like for you?

You know, I try to do the same time, more or less the same time. Every day I try to say, “OK, you have a word count. Go, go. Hit your 1,000, 1,500, 2,000, whatever it is.” And it’s just sit there . . . and some days it is super. When it’s working, it’s fast. And when it’s not working, oh, dear God, it’s pulling teeth until I finally just give up and like, “OK, you need to stop, you need to stop, or you’re just going to throw the computer across the room.” But I try and keep it regular when I’m actually writing and try to, “OK, now is a writing time.” Even if it’s not every day, it might be . . . if I’m teaching, especially, it’ll be “Tuesdays are writing days” because I will move heaven and earth to make sure I don’t have anything to comment on that particular day. Like, maybe I’ll get two or three days of a week where I can lay out a couple of hours that I know will be just for the fiction. And then I just sit there, and I write, and sometimes it’s crap, and I know it’s crap as I’m doing it. And I’m going to have to go back and clean it up. It just needs to be written. I mean, I always tell my students, and I believe this for myself, like, “You have to write the bad words to get to the good ones sometimes.”,

Well, it’s funny. I mentioned that I just interviewed F. Paul Wilson, and he used a term which was actually used by Robert J. Sawyer, who was my very first guest on the podcast, and he got it from somebody else, but they referred to that first draft as the “vomit draft” because you just have to get it out and it’s a big mess, and then you have to clean it up. But you feel so much better.

Yeah, exactly. Like, OK, what is even happening? And sometimes it’s really clean, and sometimes it’s just like slogging, and I know there’s going to be a problem, and I’m going to have to come back to it, but I can’t obsess over it. Here is a thing that I learned. I trashed a 92,000-word not-completed manuscript a couple of years ago because I got into the rut of, “Oh, I’m writing it. Oh, I’m changing my mind about what I’m doing. Oh, I really don’t like this. Let me go back and keep revising the hell out of it.” And I just destroyed it. Like, by the end I couldn’t. . . there was nothing to resurrect from this. It was a pile of bones. It was just . . . “There’s ideas, there’s moments, that are really awesome. And you have no clue what you’ve done because you’ve revised it to death. So never do that again.” That is what I learned. Never do that again. Just write it, even if it’s crappy.

And then, when you do get to the end of it, what does your revision process look like? And do you use beta readers or alpha readers or anything like that? How does that work for you?

I do have a beta reader, my bestie, my best friend forever, my BFF from high school, my first DM, too, the first person to get me into D&D. And she reads . . . poor thing, she reads almost the raw stuff. She will read pretty much anything I send her, bless her heart, and sometimes it’s chapter by chapter, sometimes it’s an entire manuscript. But even I won’t send her the very raw, almost raw stuff. I’ll just . . . once I’ve done the vomit draft and then I go through and make sure that there are complete sentences that I remember what the heck is going on, that there’s, you know, there’s a little bit of a voice happening . . . mostly at that point, I’m looking for plot holes. Character is never my problem, or rarely my problem, but there can occasionally be plot inconsistencies. And since she’s one of my players in D&D who will also punch holes in my plots on a regular basis, she’s good at finding those for me. So, she’s my first reader. And then I go through and clean it up again. And then . . . I’ll probably at that point, I’ll send it to my agent. You know, once I’ve gone through it a few times and decided it doesn’t suck, then I’ll send it to her, and then she gives me notes. Which have been getting shorter as the years have been going on, so that’s good. I guess I’m getting better at turning in good drafts.

What kind of notes do you get?

Sometimes it’s structural. There was the memorable, “OK, yes, but I think you need another 15,000 words because you dropped this arc in the middle.” “Oh, damn, you noticed. OK, yeah, I need to pick that up.” Sometimes it’s, you know, the big structural things where you need to come back to this or you need to play this part up, or this scene seems really flat because I don’t know what’s happening with the voice, but this character seems really distant. So those sorts of comments are what I get from her. And she’ levels it up. She always levels up the manuscript big time.

And then it goes to Katie at DAW.

And then it goes to Katie. And then it goes to Katie, and she always finds new things, too. So then, you know . . .

I haven’t worked with Katie. So, what is her process? Does she do a written editor’s letter or phone call? With Sheila, it’s a phone call. Nothing in writing.

Oh, no. That would give me the vapors. Yeah. She writes me a letter, and she does some commentary inside the manuscript. She’ll do some in-line, periodically . . . not like copyediting, but just you know, “You’ve said the same thing, these two places. Or maybe you could combine it this way.” But she’s. . . I mean, she’s good. She tells me . . . she finds the good places that need help or the places where she has questions, and she marks them for me. And then I can think about, “Well, how do I solve that? How can I solve that problem?” Because she’s very good at finding, “Here’s a problem. Here’s the problem.” Or, “Here’s a place where you sent us in one direction. Did you mean to do that?” And I know I probably didn’t or, “Oh, yeah, I totally did, and I haven’t followed up three pages later.” But she gives us, she gives me, a lot of room to figure out how to fix it. She trusts me to fix it if there’s a problem. Which is good.

There’s a lot of, you know, beginning writers or wannabe writers who are sometimes worried about the editorial process. And I’ve always found that editors are extremely helpful things to have on your side.

Oh, God, yes. Editors are fantastic.

I mean, I suppose there is such a thing as a bad editor, but I haven’t really run into one myself.

No, I haven’t either. And granted, I don’t have a huge number of books behind me, but I have not run into a bad editor yet. Now that I’ve said that . . . but no, as long as I stay with Katie, I’ll be fine.

It’s one of those things that I learned from D&D is that there needs to be a healthy level of willingness to collaborate and a willingness to listen as a writer to what other people say, but at the same time, keep that balancing act and know what you . . . be able to, at some point, as I always tell my students, trust yourself. Trust yourself. It’s, you know, this is opinion, this is a suggestion, but it’s not holy writ, and it’s not . . . you know, it’s not to get a grade, it’s. . . you have to be happy with the thing that you are writing, and you have to fight for the thing that you are writing, but at the same time be willing to say, “OK, but what am I trying to do? And what is the editor or the feedback telling me that I am perhaps not doing that I mean to do?

Are you teaching any creative writing or . . . you’re teaching literature, and so you are talking about essays when you’re doing . . .?

I’m teaching the worst of the worst. I’m teaching writing composition, first-year writing to non-majors. And I say the worst of the worst, but they’re my favorite. My absolute favorite. But they’re the ones who are hostile to writing to begin with, and they hate to read. And so, they’re a hostile audience, and they’re just awesome when you can get them to realize what they can do with writing, that it doesn’t need to be their enemy, but it can be their ally, and it can be their tool or their weapon. Some of them discover, “This is a weapon.” Yes. Yes, it can be. Go, go with God. Small one. Do that.

Do you find that teaching other people writing has benefited your own writing? Does it make you look at your own stuff more critically sometimes?

Um, my nonfiction, for sure. I definitely have internalized my, “What would I tell my students about this?  What would . . . you know, what is the editor going to say about this?” But for fiction . . . I mean, yeah, I guess if nothing else, teaching writing all the time makes me think about, you know, the word choices and the sentence structures, and very much more aware of audience at all times than I might be if I were just, you know, 15 again and writing for myself.

Do you ever get the feeling because you are working with words all the time . . . there’s a song in My Fair Lady (sings) “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words.” You ever get that feeling?

Yeah. Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes. 

Because I’ve done some . . . I was just writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library for nine months, and I’ve done it at another library, and I’ve taught some writing classes and stuff, and sometimes . . . and a newspaper reporter and editor before that. And there are times occasionally when I think, “You know, maybe not working with words wouldn’t be such a bad thing.” And yet, I’m still doing it.

Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing. It’s like, “Well, sure, it would be fun to do something else.” Like, “One, I’m a little old and cranky to be switching gears now. I’ve got ‘expertise,’ quote-quote, in a field. And also, what else, really, at this point, what I do . . . like what else, what else would I do? This is what I’m good at. This is what I’m trained to do, and this is what makes me happy. Even though sometimes I’m pulling my hair out and, you know, lamenting my existence and swearing that I’d be better off being a mechanic or a mathematician or anything else than this, but I don’t mean it. I never mean it.

What kind of feedback from readers have you had on the, well, on the Rory Thorne books and particularly in your books in general? And how . . . have you been pleased by the way that people have reacted to your work?

I truly don’t read reviews. I just . . . that’s a sanity saver. I don’t read them. I’ve had, you know, readers who e-mail me or DM on Twitter or whatever.

I was thinking more about than reviews.

Yeah. So then, yeah, I’ve gotten, you know, people seem to like this or, you know, they react strongly to particular characters, or they tell me, “Oh, this, you know, made me laugh or this made me smile, or I really loved it.” So that’s. . . those are always nice to hear, like, “Good, hooray, I have brought . . .” Especially with The Thorne Chronicles, with Rory, it was like, there needs to be something happy and bright. The first three are not happy and bright. They’re not meant to be, but Rory was meant to be. So, it’s nice that she’s getting the emotional reaction that I was hoping she would get.

And they have very striking covers.

Oh, God, those are so pretty. They’re so gorgeous. I just, every time I see them, I just sort of, you know, squeal and do a small-child dance and clap my hands.

They’re certainly beautiful.

Yeah. They’re very, very attractive.

And they make you think, this is going to be fun. This is going to be something that I’m going to enjoy.

Yeah, they are like . . . I never thought a lot about book covers before, but then I thought, “You know what? No, really, they can . . . you don’t judge a book by its cover, but you do buy one sometimes because of its cover and it’s its own communication.” So, I really love the covers.

Well, now let’s get to some of the big questions I wonder about.

Uh-oh.

And they’re really just one . . . well, a three-part question, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do we write these kinds of crazy stories about things that aren’t real and never could be?

I write because I have something to say. And I may be just arrogant enough to think that it’s something that needs to be read or heard. Like, I have something important to say or something interesting to say, or something worthwhile to say. And because I like creating stories. The second part . . . remind me of the second part because the third part is why do I write science fiction and fantasy.

The second part is why, in the bigger picture, do you think any of us write. Why do human beings tell stories? 

Yeah.

I think stories are one of the ways that we make sense of the world. I think we . . .  obviously we told stories long before we ever wrote them down. But I think stories and narratives are one of the ways that we make sense of things. We just, we understand stories, stories click with us in ways that just raw data or reports don’t necessarily. We do like . . . we like to be able to see ourselves. We like to empathize—at least, I think we do. We want to have feelings. Stories that let us have feelings, even if they also seriously can make us think.

And your study of literature would seem to indicate that there are . . . what’s the Rudyard Kipling . . . there’s one and a thousand ways of constructing tribal lays or something. There’s a lot of ways to tell stories, aren’t there?

Yeah, I mean, there’s. . . culturally, historically all over the place. And it’s just, it’s fascinating to me what they all have in common at the same time as looking at all of the differences, just all the different ways, you know, from structure to content. Because I loved the medieval stuff, because that to me was fantasy, that was, you know, we still had magic, we still had that mythic world of you, the natural philosophy before the Age of Enlightenment. And so, understanding the world and making sense of things that don’t make sense, that’s part of why I think people write stories so much, is we’re trying to make sense of things that may or may not make sense. And stories are imposing a structure.

So why then tell stories of the fantastic?

Hmm. One, the real world is very boring. No, it’s not, but I always wanted magic to be a thing. Or . . . I don’t think science fiction and fantasy aren’t about the real world; I think they are a frame that we can use to imagine a world that looks different or imagine a world that is dealing with the same problems we’re dealing with in a slightly different setting, that gives us a different perspective. You know, we can talk about all these issues, we can talk about what makes us people and what is personhood and, you know, how do we deal with difference, how do we deal with the other, how do we deal with race? How do we deal with gender? We can look at those through different lenses and think about, with the different frames from science fiction or fantasy or whatever hybrid genre you come up with. And so, a lot of the themes can still be there, but they’re there in a different format. And so, we look at them, and we might see them in a different way. We might see something different about them. But I don’t think they’re completely fanciful, you know, they come from somewhere. Maybe if they . . . I’m sorry, go ahead?

No, finish what you’re saying.

I’m feeling my way through it. This is much how I write, this is also how I talk, I think my way through things, and it can get pretty wild. But I think there’s a level of imagination, too, like, even if you’re not writing a dystopia, but you’re trying to imagine a world in which, you know, gender doesn’t matter. OK, well, what would that look like? How would that change things? How would that . . . ? And then you get into that cool world-building aspect, which is, “Why do I write science fiction and fantasy? Because I get to make up a whole world. Everything. It’s all . . .I get to make it up. And that’s awesome.

Well, the podcast is, of course, called The Worldshapers. And I actually picked Shapers deliberately as opposed to builders because . . . also, it happens to be the name of my current series, but anyway . . . but also, I like the idea that we’re not . . . we don’t really create worlds out of nothing, ex nihilo, we’re shaping the real world in some fashion, imagining it to be different in some way. But we’re still starting with the raw material of human beings and human nature and all that kind of stuff, and then shaping it like a potter might shape clay. So that’s kind of the way I’ve always thought of it. Do you hope that your stories are in some way . . . maybe shaping the world’s a bit grand; very, very little fiction has actually changed the world significantly. Some, maybe. But do you at least hope that you are having an effect on readers in some fashion, shaping them a little bit, perhaps?

Sure. I mean, even if it’s even . . . if it’s as little as, “Oh, this made me laugh today when I desperately needed to,” or, you know, “This took me away from the world for a couple of hours.” Even if it’s just escapism . . . I say “just,” I don’t mean to make that, minimalize that, because that’s a huge thing to be transported elsewhere for any period of time. That’s pretty, pretty damn powerful. But yeah, of course, I hope something sticks, something remains. There’s some echo.

And what are you working on now?

I am working on two things. One is the second book in a series that the first book hasn’t come out yet, but there you go. You know how those work. So, I’m working on the second book in that. And it’s. . it’s up the timeline from Rory, it’s the same world, the same arithmancy, you know, all of the lost paradigms of science, all of that. But it’s way up the timeline. It’s the things that Rory has done that have changed the multiverse or changed the world in that. So I’m working on the second book of that, and I’m trying, messing, vaguely stabbing at the idea . . . one of my friends said to me, “At some point, you should write a book about Grit. I would totally read a book about Grit.” And I thought, “What if I wrote a book about Grit?” So I’m poking at that from, you know, Grit from Rory, because she turned out to be a favorite character with a couple of folks that are near and dear to me. So. I want to see if I can write a story with her, a book with her. I don’t know. We’ll see if I can. So, that’s what I’m working on.

And where can people find you online?

I have a blog that is updated occasionally, but mostly with pictures of cats, at mythistoria.com. And I’m on Twitter @svartjager, from the first trilogy, the favorite character. Yeah, that’s where I generally . . . I am on Facebook, but shh!, no. That’s only for family. That’s only for family and people I know in meatspace.

Yeah, it’s nice to have a place like that sometimes.

Yeah, like these are my gaming groups. These are the people I hang with.

Yeah. Well, thanks so much for taking time to be on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did too.

I did. Thank you so much for having me. This has been a lot of fun.

Episode 72: Cory Doctorow

An hour-long chat with Cory Doctorow, science-fiction author, activist, and journalist, about his creative process.

Website
www.craphound,com

Blog
www.pluralistic.net

Twitter
@Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist, and journalist. His latest book is Attack Surface, a standalone adult sequel to Little Brother. He is also the author How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, nonfiction about conspiracies and monopolies; and of Radicalized and Walkaway, science fiction for adults, a YA graphic novel called In Real Life; and young adult novels like Homeland, Pirate Cinema, and Little Brother. His first picture book was Poesy the Monster Slayer (August 2020).

He maintains a daily blog at Pluralistic.net. He works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate, is a Visiting Professor of Computer Science at Open University, a Visiting Professor of Practice at the University of North Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science, and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Born in Toronto, Canada, he now lives in Los Angeles.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Corey, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you. Thank you for having me on. It’s nice to talk to you.

Yeah. We met a long time ago, with the Canadian connection . . . I think it might have been in Edmonton, at ConSpec, about 2000 or something? Were you there?

Maybe Saskatchewan, I wasn’t at that, but I think . . . or Winnipeg, at the WorldCon.

Oh, yeah. Yeah. And I think I said hi to you at a WorldCon somewhere else at some point or another.

That also sounds possible.

So, thanks so much for doing this. We’re going to talk about the Little Brother series in particular as an example of your creative process. But before we get to that, I always take my guests back into the mists of time. And so, I’d like to take you back into the mists of time and find out, you know, all that biographical stuff. Where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in writing and, in particular, science fiction and fantasy? Well, science fiction. I don’t think you wr9te a lot of fantasy, perhaps.

I’ve written some. I’ve got one fantasy novel, although it’s a fantasy novel about WiFi, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, and  I’ve written some fantasy stories, so, yeah, a little bit. So, my dad was a comics and fantasy fan, Conan fan, and when I was little, he used to tell me modified Conan stories. He was a Trotskyists, so he was telling me modified Conan stories in which Conan was replaced by a trio called Harry, Larry, and Mary, and in which their end game was after, you know, felling the grand vizier, was not to install themselves on the throne, but rather to create, like, a socialist cooperative.

Judith Merrill

And when my mom was in grad school, my dad used to turn on the TV, and we would watch Judith Merrill introduce Doctor Who on TV Ontario. And I was very excited to watch Doctor Who. My dad knew Judy through radical political circles, and when I was about nine or ten years old, my school went on a trip to the Spaced-Out Library, which is the science-fiction reference library that she founded in Toronto, where she was the writer in residence. And she came out and said, “You know, kids, if you write a story, you can bring it to me, and I’ll critique it for you,” which is, you know, really a remarkable thing. I mean, the closest Canadian analogy I came up with is it’s like Wayne Gretzky coming out and going like, “Look, kids, if you’re ever having a pickup game and you want some tips, just give me a call and I’ll come by and help you out with it.” So, you know—except Judy wasn’t a Tory, and Gretzky is. But that was, like, very inspiring. And I knew Judy from TV and recognized her, and so it was, like, doubly exciting to have her invite us down to the library to give her manuscripts.

Tanya Huff

And then, you know, within a year or two, we also went down to Bakka Science Fiction Bookstore, the oldest science-fiction bookstore in the world. And I get on a school trip, and the woman behind the counter was a writer who was just about to sell her first story, named Tanya Huff. And I was, you know, maybe ten or maybe 11, and I had a dollar, and Tanya asked me what kind of books I liked to read. And I told her, and she took me back to the U.S., and she found me a copy of Little Fuzzy that was a dollar, by H. Beam Piper, and was the first book I ever spent my own money on.

And I started bringing manuscripts to Judy and to Tonya. I had started writing a few years before. The first thing I remember writing was after seeing Star Wars at the University Theater on Bloor Street and, you know, having a really exciting time, not because it’s, like, the greatest movie ever written, but because kids’ audiovisual material was so poor. You know, it was like David and Goliath and a few other terrible shows. And then, just having a complex narrative was very exciting for me, really chimed with me. And I went home, and I just started writing out the Star Wars story over and over again like a kid practicing scales on the piano. And so, I started writing stories and start ed bringing them to Judy and to Tanya, who, you know, bless her socks, would actually, like, while working in the bookstore, allow, you know, a callow fourteen-year-old to bring her stories and would critique them for me and give me writing advice. And Judy, what she would do is use these workshops, or these one-on-one sessions, as a way to start workshops. So, she would find writers who were writing about the same level and get them to start meeting together, you know, the library had a spare room and so on.

So that’s how I started workshopping eventually with the Cecil Street Irregulars, which, you know, it’s Karl Schroeder and David Nickel and Peter Watts from time to time and Madeline Ashby and Hugh Spencer and many other writers over the years, a really exciting group of people. And I also started writing, going to a writing workshop at my high school, this kind of groovy alternative school in downtown Toronto. And it was run exactly like all these other workshops I’d been to, and I couldn’t figure it out until I learned that Judy had actually started that workshop, too, as part of a writer-in-the-schools program. And so, and then, you know, when I started selling stories, I sold my first story to OnSpec when I was seventeen to their youth issue. And when I started selling stories, I joined SF Canada, and I started going to the Hydra meetings. And these were again a thing that Judy started. They were potluck dinners that would be a moveable feast from one house to another every six or eight weeks. And that’s how I met the Prisoners of Gravity people and got involved with TV Ontario and helped out on the show. And so, you know, really, like, there are a lot of people in the story, but the one name that comes up over and over again is Judy Merrill. And while Judy was, like, hugely important to my life, I mean, she liked me just fine, but it wasn’t like I was her protege, right? She did this for so many people. She basically created a formal science fiction writers’ apprenticeship in Toronto that I lucked into.

You know, there were other factors, too, like, it was the early days of online writerdom and fandom, and for a time, there was a dial-up service called GEnie that General Electric ran. It was very expensive to use during the day. They used it to absorb their excess capacity at night, so it was a flat rate to use it from six p.m. to eight a.m., and then it was like twenty dollars an hour during the day. But they gave free, unlimited access to Science Fiction Writers of America members, and every SFWA member who had a modem was on Genie. So every famous writer in the world was on GEnie, and it’s like, as a seventeen-year-old, I joined this BBS and was, like, trading quips with, you know, Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin and, you know, hanging out with Damon Knight. And that’s how I ended up going to Clarion, that’s how I met my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, you know, people, they all pitched in, like, fifteen bucks each to send me to Clarion, all the writers there. And so, it was really, it was a remarkable time. I don’t think there’s ever been a time quite like it for becoming a writer. I mean, there are other things that are that writers today have going for them, like Archive of our Own and Wattpad and other ways of forming communities and so on. But that was a fabulous moment.

Unfortunately, I lived in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where I didn’t have any of that stuff. I never got on GEnie.

You needed to do what Karl did, which is move from Saskatchewan to Toronto.

Tanya was actually my second or third guest on here, so I had her on . . . 

Oh, fabulous.

And Rob Sawyer. So, you know, I had the Canadian connection, Julie Czerneda, I had that Canadian thing going on very early on here on the podcast.

Well, Tanya likes to embarrass me by telling a story about when we were at the London WorldCon and chatting, and someone came up to her after and said, “Do you know Cory Doctorow?” And she was like, “Yeah, I know him. I’ve known him since ye was, you know, wetting his pants.”

Well, just looking at your bio, you said you attended four universities without obtaining a degree.

Yeah.

So, how did your career evolve from all of that?

Well, you know, I kept writing and selling, and I went to Clarion and then had a drought after that. I sold some stories beforehand, but it took me a long time to integrate the really excellent stuff that I learned there and then, you know, eventually figured it out. And university was not really for me. I had gone to an amazing alternative school where, you know, really we’d been in charge of designing our own curriculum. And I’d spent seven years in this four-year program, you know, taking a year out to write and taking a year to organize street demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq under the first George Bush, and doing just all kinds of stuff that was highly educational but not formally recognized, until I finally got a diploma and went to university. And the university was far more regimented and really felt like a giant step backwards. And so, I got a job in the burgeoning tech industry doing hypertext for Voyager, which was the best CD-ROM publisher the world had ever seen, really an amazing, you know, dream-come-true job. And from there, I got into the Web and sort of never looked back. But I kept on writing and kept on selling stories and then eventually books and novels.

What was your first novel?

It was Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. So, it was a short novel, and it was in part inspired by Bob Wilson. So, I went to his signing for Spin at Bakka, and Spin is a great book, but the first thing I noticed about it was that it was only 200 pages long. And I was like, you know, “Bob, this book is 200 pages long. Is it even a novel?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, 50,000 words is a novel,” and I was like, “Rally?” And he’s like, “Yeah, totally, 50,000 words is novel.” And I was like, “Well, finally I figured out how I’m going to finish a book. I’m only going to write one that’s 50,000 words long,” and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a 50,000-word novel. And you know, I was writing on it, and I went to New York, we took the Amtrak to New York for Christmas and stayed with my cousin in Midtown and had lunch with the Neilson Haydens who were at Tor, and now Patrick Nielsen Hayden is vice president there, but he was the senior editor there. And I had gone and read slush at Tor before and hung out with Patrick and, you know, knew him from GEnie. And, you know, over lunch, he said, like, “When are you going to write me a novel?” And I said, “Well, I have a book that I’m working on now.” And he said, “Well, how’s it coming?” And I said, “Well, I’ve got you, know, I’ve gotten quite a ways into it.” And he said, “Have you got three chapters and an outline?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, then, you better send it to me. And that was December. And he bought it in June.”

And that was what year?

That was . . . I want to say it was, like, 2000, but it didn’t come out till 2003. That was my second book. I had written a book with Karl Schroeder beforehand. Someone I knew from The Well, which was another online service started by the people who did The Whole Earth Catalog, had seen that I was selling a lot of short stories. And she said, “Do you want to write a book on how to publish science fiction?” And I said, “Yes, but I’ve never published a novel. I need to a novelist.” And she said, “Oh, go find a novelist.” So, I asked Karl if he would write the novel chapters, and I would write the short-story chapters. And we wrote this, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, together.

I have a copy of it somewhere. I was just looking at my bookshelf here to see if I could spot it. I remember getting it when it came out.

Yeah, that was very . . . it was a good first-book project because it’s super structured. They had a real verse, verse, chorus formula, you know, like down to, like, each chapter has so many sections, each section has so many paragraphs, here is what, you know, makes a complete section and so on. If you could tick all the boxes, you would have a functional book at the end.

I never did a Complete Idiot’s. I did write Genetics Demystified, which is pretty funny considering I had to teach myself genetics to write. I always worry about that just a little bit.

I have a friend who writes very good books about genomics, Adam Rutherford, whose latest book is a brilliant genomics book called How to Argue With a Racist, which is a terrific title.

Yeah, it is. You moved from short stories to novels. What do you find the difference between the two is for you? Do you think you’re more of a short story writer by temperament or a novelist, or do you think there’s a difference?

I mean, there’s definitely a difference. I mean, at this point, in terms of, like, how much work I put into one versus the other, I’m definitely a novelist. I have probably written more words of novel than of short story, although I’ve written a lot more short stories than novels. But in terms of overall volume. And I’ve won prizes for both. And I think the major difference is how much ornamentation you get. You know, I liken it to packing for a trip, which is a thing we used to do before the plague. And, you know, there’ll be some trips where you just take a carry-on bag, and that’s a short story, and you’ve got to be pretty ruthless with what goes in that bag. And then somewhere you take, like, a suitcase, and that’s like a novella. And you can, you know, you can carry some comfort items maybe, like, you know, when I go on tour, I always bring a big suitcase, and it’s got an air press and a collapsible kettle and some coffee and a nice flask of whiskey in it. You can add some comfort items. You can have some ornamentation. You can have a nice jacket to wear if you’re, in case you go to a good dinner. And then, with a novel, it’s like getting a shipping container, and you get to put everything in it.

We’ve written a lot of nonfiction as well, with all of your interest in electronic rights and freedom of information and all that stuff. Do you find that the nonfiction writing feeds into your fiction writing both on the skill side and on . . . I mean, obviously, you tend to have the same kind of overall philosophy, I guess, going through your nonfiction and your fiction. Is that safe to say?

Yeah, for the most part. I mean, it really depends on what you mean by the nonfiction. I wouldn’t divide it so rigorously into fiction and nonfiction or short- and long-form pieces. I would divide it into what’s sometimes called stalk and flow. So, stalk is the longer synthetic pieces that are really significant and that kind of stand on their own, and flow is the stuff that you do from moment to moment. And so, for me, flow is blogging. And blogging is a thing that I have done for now almost twenty years, in fact, more than twenty years if you count a bunch of things that I did that were indistinguishable from blogging, except the word blogging hadn’t been invented yet. And for me, blogging is the process of taking the thing that a writer might jot in a commonplace book to remind themselves of it later, and instead publishing it along with enough context that a notional stranger can understand why you’re taking notes on it, what it is that snagged your attention about it.

And that process of writing that material for strangers is powerfully mnemonic. It makes you think through why this is important to you, why this has caught your interest, and it makes you be rigorous, and you can’t cheat the way that you do with your own notes, where you make these notes that you think are very clear, and then you go back, and they’re very cryptic, and they don’t make any sense to you. And that creates a kind of supersaturated solution, fragmentary story ideas or fragmentary ideas overall, that can be synthesized into fiction and nonfiction and so on. And what happens is over time, this solution has these little fragments in it, and they bump together, and they kind of nucleate and they crystallize into a speech or a story or a novel or an essay or a book-length work of nonfiction or what have you. And, you know, that stock represents a synthesis. It represents a kind of dialectic where two things that are in dialogue with one another, maybe in opposition to each other, get together and kind of duke it out in your imagination and in your critical analysis. And what comes out is something that is recognizably descended from both, but not obviously latent in either.

Well, I think this is tying into talking about your process for creating novels, which always starts with where do you get your ideas, which you kind of just explained in a way.

Yeah.

We’re going to talk about Attack Surface, which is the new one in the Little Brother series, but maybe give a quick overview of Little BrotherHomeland, and Attack Surface, for those who have not, unimaginably, read any of them.

Hmm. Well, so Little Brother and Homeland are YA novels, and they’re books about kids who use technology to resist technology, right? Kids who find themselves in circumstances of dire personal and social peril because of technology that is being wielded against them and who fashion their own counterattacks out of the technology that they figure out how to master and wield on their own behalf. And Little Brother is a book about the war on terror. So, it opens with this young man, Marcus Gallo, and his friends being caught in a terrorist attack on San Francisco, which is traumatic enough. But what’s far more traumatic is the immediate transformation of the city into an armed police state with mass surveillance checkpoints and so on. And they are so appalled by this that they build a resistance movement. They used hacked Xboxes with cryptographically secured wireless communications to communicate with one another and build a network that the NSA can’t wiretap. And they conspire together to kick the Department of Homeland Security out of the city and restore their constitutional rights.

In Homeland, the sequel, the reputation they have ends up with them inheriting a collection of really sensitive government leaks that reveal a lot of government wrongdoing. And they set about trying to release these leaks in a way that will hold the powerful to account. And they do this in a way where they try to be as careful as they can, and they’re doing it in the midst of an election campaign that they’re running, but they’re beset on the one hand by mercenaries from private military contractors who want to suppress these leaks, who’ve been paid to suppress the leaks, and on the other hand by hacktivists who want the leaks released as soon as possible with no redactions and no selectivity. And they’re in the middle of this pincer.

And the third book, the one that’s just come out, is Attack Surface, and it’s not exactly a sequel. It’s the third Little Brother book, but it’s a standalone book, and it’s intended for adults, not because it has sex in it—speaking as a fifty-year-old, I’m here to tell you that being an adult doesn’t mean that you have more sex than a teenager—rather because it is about confronting your life’s work and having a moral reckoning with what you have done, which I think is a thing that mostly adults do. And it involves this young woman, Masha, who appears in the other two books. She’s something of the antagonist of the other two books. In the first book, she works for the Department of Homeland Security, trying to catch the heroes, and in the second book, she moves to Iraq, where she is a military contractor, hunting insurgents, using technology, and in the third book, in this new book, she has moved on to the private sector and is supplying cyber weapons to post-Soviet dictators in Eastern Europe who want to crush pro-democracy movements by hacking people’s phones and figuring out who to arrest and torture. Basically, sort of the Belarus situation that we’re living through as we record this now. And she has, through her whole career, compartmentalized. She’s found ways to rationalize what she’s doing and to not think too hard about the negative consequences of it. And she’s finally reached a point where she can’t rationalize it anymore, where the tactics that she engages in to convince herself that she’s one of the good guys have reached a breaking point.

So, you know, by the time we meet her, her day job is installing surveillance equipment in the National Telco’s Main Data Center, and her hobby is teaching the activists she’s supposed to be catching with it how to evade it. And her bosses, who are not exactly the forgiving type, figure out what she’s doing, and she has to flee the country. And when she gets back to San Francisco, she realizes to her horror that her childhood best friend, who she’s been relishing the prospect of being reacquainted with, is now a Black Lives Matter activist who’s being targeted by the same cyber weapons that she herself spent her whole career building. And that’s when she has to have this reckoning.

And the Little Brother books are interesting as artifacts in the world because of the impact that they had. There are a lot of technologists and cyber lawyers and cryptographers and human rights workers and activists who started off by reading Little Brother and Homeland. And it convinced them, on the one hand, that technology could be abused in terrible ways and, on the other hand, that the liberatory power of technology is real. If you watch the documentary about Edward Snowden, Citizen Four, you can see that as he’s fleeing Hong Kong, he grabs a copy of Homeland off his bedside table and sticks it in his go-bag. And that is, you know, really one of my proudest accomplishments, right? That you have these people who have acquired these rare and important technical skills for the express purpose of using them to help people and not hurt people and to defend people from corporate power and state power. And this third one is addressed to a different cohort, a cohort who got in for other reasons, you know, just because of their passion for the field and because it looked like a good job, but who’ve grown increasingly discontented with the compromises that they had to make along the way. You know, the 20,000 Googlers who walked out last year, or the workers at Amazon and at Facebook and at Microsoft and at Salesforce and at Apple who have voiced their concerns or quit their jobs or walked off the job over surveillance, over censorship, over manipulation, and over sexual harassment and impunity in their workplaces. And, you know, that group of people really is waiting to be radicalized. And this is a book, in some ways, for them. It’s a book to show them what redemption looks like when you’ve spent your career rationalizing your way into doing things that you know in your heart you shouldn’t be doing.

Was there a specific impetus for this, a specific group of ideas that came together to inspire you to write this third book? Because you talked about how ideas will bounce around, synthesize.

Yeah, no, no one instigating incident, really more like there was a critical mass of fragments, right? You know, one of the things that I’ve spent a lot of time campaigning on is transparency, modifiability, interoperability, and user control over smart devices, that as computers infiltrate our cars and our medical implants and our tractors and our homes, rather than these computers being designed to be responsive to the people who own them and who trust their lives to them, these computers have been increasingly designed to extract revenue from those people by subjugating them and by surveilling them and by putting their interests behind the interests of the shareholders, the companies that made them. And not only does this expose us to risk from the companies themselves, but a device that’s designed to be treacherous, to hide its workings from you, to prevent you from reconfiguring it to work how you need it to work, is a device that, if it’s never compromised by a bad guy, whether that’s the state or whether that’s a criminal or a rival company or what have you, that device by design is not going to let you reconfigure it so that it listens to you. It’s designed to hide its workings from you. And so, I really wanted to illustrate the way in which a world of devices designed to control their users presents a kind of endless playground for the worst impulses in our species and to show what that would mean for human rights in a digital era.

What did your planning/outlining process look like? And what does it look like generally when you set out to write a novel? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you do a sketchy outline, and then it evolves as you write? How does that work for you?

It’s really a different book by book. Mostly, what I have done is written a sort of treatment that explains what kind of thing will go on in the book and then written the book. I use a kind of heuristic where at every turn, I ask myself, “What problem is the character trying to solve? How are they going to fail through no fault of their own? How will things get worse and raise the stakes? And what will that new problem look like, and how will they try to solve that?” And if you do that enough times, you reach a climax because eventually, things can’t get any worse, and then that’s the climax. I ran into trouble with this one because it went really long. I had a really hard time bringing it in for a landing, and it came in at over 170,000 words. And I knew that I wanted a book of about 130,000 to 140,000 words.

So, I actually hired an external editor for this book, a woman named Juliette Ollman, and Juliette was a Random House editor who now works for the New York Transit Authority. And she gave me some really good suggestions for tightening up the book. We eliminated the love interest and replaced him with the sidekick, basically. And that was a pretty major piece of surgery on the book, and it was somewhat traumatic to undergo, but it made the book much better. It also got the book down to about 134,000 words, which is perfect. And it convinced me that I needed to be more outline oriented for the next book, that whatever I would lose in the spontaneity I would gain in the lack of a need for that kind of dramatic rewrite. And so, the book that I’m working on now, I wrote a very detailed outline, and I’m keeping it updated as I go because obviously, the first casualty of every battle is the plan of attack. So, I’m changing the outline as I go so that I have a kind of as-built drawing when I’m done. And I found it to be quite relieving. Like, I mean, every book in my experience feels like you’re cheating, right? It feels like . . . because there’s no way you can hold all the pieces of a book in your head. And so, at a certain point, there’s a lot of kind of unconscious work being done to keep the book consistent. And it always comes, there always comes a time writing a book where you feel like Wile E. Coyote having run off the cliff, and knowing that if you look down that there’s just empty air below you. And a lot of finishing a book is down to not looking down. It’s trusting that you’ll get to the other side if you just keep running. And this feels like cheating, too, but in a different way, in that I’m following this recipe I wrote, and the part of my brain that writes the recipe is not the part of my brain that does the writing. And it kind of feels like, almost hacky, like I got an outline from someone, and now I’m just following their instructions, except that someone is me.

What does your actual writing process look like? I mean, you have a lot of things that you do. Do you write . . . when you’re working on fiction, do you work a certain time every day, or how does that work for you?

No, I long ago lost the luxury of being able to set aside a certain time every day. I really just squeeze it in. And what I do is, I have a word count I hit every day. And the book that I’m working on right now, it’s a 500-word-a day word count. It’s two pages generally, takes about 15 or 20 minutes. It’s a little easier with the outline, I have to say. And I just sit down, and I write it. And the thing that freed me up to do that kind of daily work was the realization that although there were days when I felt like my writing was very good and days when I felt like my writing was terrible, and although there were days, or there were parts of the work that were very good and parts that needed revision, that they were unconnected, right? That the quality of the work was completely unrelated to how I felt about the quality of the work. Some of the stuff I felt great about was garbage, and some of the stuff I felt was garbage was great. And that the thing that the feeling related to was not the objective quality of the work, but rather to, like, my blood sugar and my anxiety and stress levels and how much sleep I’d gotten. And once I realized that the quality of words was unrelated to my feeling in the words, then I could just write whatever words there were, even if they were stupid-sounding words. And later on, I could go back and fix them if it turned out that the way I felt about them was true. And, you know, that was liberating. But it’s also somewhat depressing over time because it is anhedonic, right? That the joy that you feel when you feel like you’re writing really, really well kind of gets leached out of the thing once you acknowledge that how you feel about the work is not connected to the objective quality of the work. And you start to realize, oh, I feel great about this, maybe it’s crap.

Well, maybe the operative word is work because it is, of course, work sometimes. Sometimes it feels like play, but a lot of the time, it feels like work. I at least I find.

Mm-hmmm.

Much as I, you know, I enjoy having written, but yeah. So, do you write sequentially? Like, you start at the beginning, you write to the end?

That’s exactly it. Yep.

You’re not one of these people that strings scenes together along the way.

Nothing of the sort, I do write, like, TK, for to come, which is a journalistic convention, if there’s a thing that I need to go look up later, like, you know, the name of a minor character that I didn’t bother to make a note of it. And I do write FCK for a fact check if there’s a thing that I think I might have gotten wrong. That’s mostly to stop, like, getting into a Wikipedia click trance. And I just write with a plain old text editor, you know, like, not even a word processor.

Do you find that you have to do a lot of research on these books? I mean, you’re dealing with, you know, cutting-edge technology and that sort of thing. And I know you’ve got to kind of deal with that all the time, but do you find things that you have to research as you’re writing?

It’s really the other way around. I mean, there are sometimes a detail or two that will come up like that, but mostly what’s going on is this process of taking everything that seems significant and turning it into a blog post gives you a wealth of material that you have already researched. So, you’re doing research for a book you don’t know you’re writing. And the book you write comes out of the research you do instead of the other way around. I did write a book that was set in China and India and spent some time there. In Homeland, there’s a sequence where they propose an alternative way of running an insurgent election campaign. And I canvassed a bunch of people I knew who worked in netroots politics and a young man named Aaron Swartz, who was one of the Reddit founders, who very tragically killed himself the year the book came out, gave me a really, really good sequence for it. And, you know, that was just like, there was just a TK, like, I will figure out what goes in the scene later. And then, when the book was done, I wrote to Aaron for advice, and he just sent me a couple of paragraphs I dropped in.

Once you have your completed draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you use beta readers or people like that? Or how does that work for you?

I use my editor and my agent, and in the case of the last book, I used this outside editor, but I don’t tend to use a lot of beta readers. I did have some sensitivity readers for Walkaway, particularly for the sequences in which there’s a trans character. And I did have a sensitivity reader for Radicalized, where it’s a story about African-American relations with the US police, but for the most part, it’s editor, agent, and sometimes outside editor.

And what does your actual revision process look like personally? Do you go through it line by line, are you making big changes, or more just cleaning up the language? Or what sort of things do you find yourself working on?

Well, it’s strongly varied by book. Obviously, with Attack Surface there was this major surgery. With Walkaway, I decided that I wanted that book to be shorter as well, and I went through it line by line. I just basically took 5,000 words out of the book every morning and put them in a new file, and just tinkered with it until I was 4,000 words. And what I found was that in doing this, I started to identify tics of bad habits of my own, where I would be needlessly verbose. And it got really fast. I got really good at doing it. And both fortunately and unfortunately, the practice of doing that with the whole book meant that by the time I wrote my next one, I wasn’t making those mistakes anymore. So, when I wanted to cut down in Attack Surface, I didn’t have twenty percent fat at the sentence level that I could just trim out because I taught myself a better habit. And, you know, often what I’ll do is read the book aloud. I find that that’s a really powerful way to revise. I know Bruce Sterling told me once that when he did a residency out here in L.A. at Art Center in Pasadena, he drove a trailer of stuff from Texas to L.A. for his residency. And he had a new book out, I think it was The Caryatids, and he strapped his laptop into the passenger seat and had it do text to speech for the entire book while he drove cross-country. And he would just pull over whenever he heard a line that sounded wrong and fix it.

There’d be a lot of pulling over if I were doing that. Yeah, reading out loud is a great way . . . well, it forces you to read every line, of course, every word. You don’t skip over anything in your head. And if you don’t find the mistakes while you’re reading it out loud, doing revision, you will totally find them when you’re doing a public reading later on when it’s too late to change.

Yeah, you certainly do. Very true. Or f you’re producing an audiobook when the reader gets to them.

Yeah, I actually have a copy of the first edition of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. And of course, he lives in Saskatchewan, he lives in Saskatoon. And he was at the Saskatchewan Book Awards a few years ago as the speaker, and he opened it up and went to one particular place and made a correction that had made it all the way through into publication. So now we have this hand-corrected copy, autographed copy, of Life of Pi. And I put it in a plastic bag and put it away somewhere.

Yeah, Damon Knight used to do this. . . there was a book that I think John Campbell had retitled The Rithian Terror that originally had a title like, you know, A Happy Story About Space or something. And every time someone would bring in a copy of the book, he would open it to the title page and cross out Campbell’s title and write in his own.

Well, you talked about, in this particular case, having an editor before it went to the editor. Once it gets to the publication level, with the publisher’s editor, what kind of feedback do you typically get?

So, my editor, Patrick, whom I’ve known since I was seventeen, he tends to be pretty macro. He usually will have one or two things where he’s like, “This thing really needs a fix,” but mostly he, you know, the way that he approaches I think is that science fiction is a story in which you have a kind of a micro and a macrocosm. And the microcosm is the character, and the macrocosm is the world. And they need to be parallel to one another. They need to have they need to be sort of an as-above-so-below, powers-of-ten kind of relationship to one another. And, you know, the character is like a little cogwheel that spins around and around interfacing with this very big wheel that is the world, and the character spins and spins and spins until the world makes a full revolution and you see it in the round. And a lot of the times when the books falter, it’s because the teeth aren’t meshing, because there’s some way in which the world and the character are not matched for each other. So, a lot of the time, his suggestions will be sort of thematic. He’ll be like, “If you do this with a character and or this with the world, you’ll get a much better mesh.”

Does he work with, like, an editorial letter that you get, or is it a conversation or . . .?

Yeah, oftentimes it’s a conversation, but we notionally . . . well, I mean, what actually usually happens is he says, “I will get you an editorial letter,” and then time will go by, and he’ll go like, “Actually, let’s just talk on the phone.”

Well, that’s what I’m used to. Sheila Gilbert at DAW is my editor. And it’s always phone conversations. So, when people talk about getting these massive editorial letters, I’ve never actually had one of those. So, I always wonder what they’re like.

Well, and Juliet gave me a proper editorial letter, but, you know, that was a separate process.

Now, I also wanted to mention you’re doing something interesting with a Kickstarter for the audiobook version of this. So, that has funded, it’ll be over, so, you can’t, you know, people hearing this can’t contribute. But tell me about that and how that came about and why you did it.

Yeah, sure. So, I will not make my work available under DRM, and there’s a lot of reasons for that. But, you know, from an author’s perspective, the most important one is that under the revisions to the Canadian Copyright Act in 2011 and under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, we as creators, as the owners of those copyrights, cannot authorize our readers to remove the DRM. And so, if we sell work that’s locked to Amazon with Amazon’s DRM and then Amazon and we have a dispute, and we walk away from Amazon and find another publisher for our work or another retailer for our work, those books are locked into Amazon’s silo. It’s like, if every time you sold a book at Wal-Mart, they got to decide which light bulbs and bookcases and chairs you could read them in. And yes, if you wanted to, you could get another chair and another light bulb and another bookcase for, you know, the Indigo books that you’re going to go buy now, but you could see that that switching cost would really lock in the suppliers, that is, us, to this monopoly platform. And so, Amazon will thankfully allow you to sell e-books without DRM, but not audiobooks. And they completely dominate the audiobook market. They have more than 90 percent of it through their Audible division, which, when they bought it in 2008, they promised they would remove the DRM from and then reneged. And I won’t allow my books to be sold, which means that I’m cutting myself off from more than 90 percent of the market. And understandably, MacMillan is not all that interested in acquiring the rights to a book that they can’t sell in the place where 90 percent of the shoppers are. And I don’t blame them. And so, I retain those rights.

And I live in Southern California, which means that I’m a fifty-minute drive from one of the powerhouse audiobook studios, Skyboat Media, and I’m only a few minutes away from my friend Amber Benson’s house. She’s a writer, a DAW writer, but she’s also an actor, she played Tara on Buffy, and she’s a wonderful, wonderful voice actor and audiobook reader. And so, I had Amber read the book, paid her SAG actor rates and paid the director Cassandra De Cuir, and paid my editor, John Taylor Williams, who’s been editing my podcast for more than a decade. And we produced a really kickass audiobook, and I’ve done this before with other books, but this time I really wanted to make a statement, in part because there’s finally this pro-competitive anti-monopoly energy in the world. And I decided I would pre-sell the audiobook on Kickstarter along with the e-books. I’m my publisher’s e-book retailer so that you can buy my e-books at all the major retail platforms, you know, Kobo and B.N. and Indigo and Amazon and so on, but you can also just buy them from me, and I get the 30 percent that would otherwise be taken by one of those companies when you buy for me, and I take the 70 percent that remains, and I send it to my publisher, and they take the 25 percent that would be my royalty and send it back to me. So, it comes out to like 47 1/2 percent. So, I’m selling the e-book, pre-selling the audiobook, I’m selling the backlist titles, the first two books all on Kickstarter, and I’ve discounted the audiobook. It’s going to sell for twenty-five bucks, but I’m selling it for fifteen. And, as I speak, the Kickstarter is sitting at $238,883, and that’s a really good sum of money.

What was your goal?

Well, seven thousand bucks was the goal, but that’s just like the amount of money that it would sort of cost me to do the listing and the fulfillment and whatever. It’s just an opportunity cost. I wasn’t really . . . I wanted about this much. This was kind of where I was shooting. In fact, I’m hoping to get significantly more because the last four or five days of the campaign are when you get a whole lot of pledges. What I really want is to sell 10,000 audiobooks. And I think that if I sell 10,000 audiobooks to 10,000 customers, that it will tempt McMillan into buying the audio rights to my next book and into helping me produce it and market it this way with another crowdfunder. And that if we can do that, we can probably tempt other bestselling writers into eschewing Amazon Audible, and we can start creating a new kind of Audible exclusive, the book that’s exclusive of Audible, that’s available in all the places. You know, it’s first life is as a discount title on Kickstarter for pre-order and then all the major retailers except Amazon. And I think that will bring Amazon to the table. I think that gets Amazon where it hurts. That is what they care about. And not being able to sell your bestsellers, the best sellers in the field, is a big deal for them. And then maybe we can get a more equitable proposition, one where we get to decide as the copyright owners whether we want their so-called protection.

Well, a lot of your activity is as an activist as well as a writer. And that does probably kind of tie into my big philosophical questions that I always ask at the end, which is, why do you write? Why do you write, and do you consider the writing or the other things that you do . . . are they all one piece or they are two separate things? Are you an activist and a writer? Are you an activist first and then a writer? How do you put all those pieces together? But at the core of that, why do you write, and why do you write science fiction and fantasy particularly?

Yeah, well, so I think that in terms of rhetoric and politics, writing is a way to carry on the argument. It puts a lot of blood and sinew on what could otherwise be a very dry academic kind of argument about tech policy questions. But, you know, more importantly, or just as importantly, I write for the reason anyone who makes art makes art, right? Because we have this like important, difficult-to-stop need to make art. You know, one of the reasons that artistic markets are so dysfunctional is because people make art even when they don’t have a reasonable expectation of a return, right? When people are traumatized by, you know, war and torture and so on, we give them art therapy, you know, like, art’s important, and I make art because I’m an artist and artists make art and all humans make art, and it’s really important to the human condition. In terms of, like, what happens when you write, there’s . . . it is a weird question, right? You know, the more I think about writing, the weirder writing gets. Because when you read fiction, you have a limbic involuntary emotional response to the plight of imaginary people who you know to be inconsequential, like, by definition, like, things that happen to imaginary people have no consequences. Right? Like, the yogurt you ate with your breakfast this morning had a more tragic death than Romeo and Juliet because they were never alive. And so, they didn’t die, whereas that yogurt was once alive and then you killed it, right?

And I think what’s going on is that we have an automatic and voluntary process by which we learn to model other people in order to empathize with them, that, you know, from the models you build up of people you’ve never met, you know, whether that’s someone, you know, on the Internet or someone that you hear about second hand, like a celebrity or like the new kid at school, you haven’t met yet, but the other kids are talking about them. And it gives you . . .  you create a kind of picture of who they are and what they would do under certain circumstances. And that’s how you predict what they’ll do and how you empathize with them. And this process, it’s very naive and automatic. There’s no conscious intervention needed to do it. And it can be tricked into spending time building and maintaining models of people that you can’t encounter, like imaginary people, like strangers and like dead people. Like, you can probably imagine what your grandma would say if she could see you now. And that’s drawing on that model. And I think when you read, you experience the empathic cognitive version of an optical illusion where the writer tricks your model maker into modeling the imaginary person that is the subject of the story, and then you experience empathy for them.

And I think that when you write a similar thing happens. That when we start writing it can feel masturbatory, right, like you’re putting on a puppet show for yourself, because you know you’re making it up and you’re like, you know, “Hey, let’s all go on a quest!” “Sure, that sounds great to me!”, right? But over time, that same part of your brain that readers use to experience empathy and have the aesthetic experience of reading a novel builds up the model of your characters, and they start to tell you what they want to do. You’re kind of inhaling your own farts, basically, right? You’ve got the exhaust of your very regimented planning, of your specific imaginative process, in which you say, “What imaginary thing can my characters do?”, becomes the source of a bunch of intuition about what these imaginary people would do that arrives in exactly the same way that your intuition about what real people would do arrives. And that’s a pretty cool thing. And then, as to why science fiction, well, you know, it’s kind of in my DNA. It’s, you know, between Judy and living in the 21st century and being so engaged with technological subjects, science fiction really is the natural genre for me.

Well, and I think you’ve kind of answered the next question, too, which is, do you hope that your fiction has some impact on the real world? I think very clearly, you do.

Yeah, I really do. I mean, I would do it, you know, even if I didn’t have that. But, you know, one of the things that keeps me going when, you know, things are low, and I don’t feel like working, and it’s not very satisfying and everything’s terrible, is the thought that I’m making a difference in the world, that this thing has meaning in the world and will make the world a better place.

And you’ve mentioned that you’re working on something, what are you working on now?

I’m writing a utopian post-Green NewDeal novel called The Lost Cause that is in many ways indistinguishable from a dystopian environmental novel in that it is full of floods and fires, zoonotic plagues, refugees, and so on. But the difference is that the people in the book have met the crisis head-on, and they have begun a multi-century-long process of addressing it. So, there’re like . . . a bunch of them are working on relocating all the coastal cities in the world twenty kilometres inland. You know, they have high-density living plans to accommodate refugees as ever-larger parts of the world become uninhabitable. They are replacing major aviation routes with high-speed rail links. They’re just, they’re doing the work. And they call themselves the first generation in two hundred years not to fear the future. And they start with something called the Canadian miracle that starts after a hung Parliament triggers, or a no-confidence vote triggers, a snap election in Canada. And election surprises mire the Tory and Liberal candidates in scandal, and (a) Metis woman becomes the PM, and she ushers in what they call the Canadian miracle, the first Green New Deal, the first Leap Manifesto, implementation after Calgary is basically washed away. And she, they relocate all of the parts of Calgary that are in the flood plain and create a new way of thinking about climate work and care work. And after the Canadian miracle is well underway, there’s this practice of what they call the blue helmets, who are exchange workers, who go all around the world to learn methods and to teach methods from their home countries. And this large circulating population of blue helmets are really at the center of this story. And so the story, I should mention, turns on truth and reconciliation with the white nationalist militias who think that they’re not living in a utopia, but rather a dystopia going on there.

A lot going on there.

Yeah.

Well, glad to hear there’s still some Canadian content.

Oh, yes, very much so.

And when will that come out?

Oh, I haven’t sold it. I never sell my books before I write them. I always sell them after they’re done. So, it doesn’t have a publication date. But my editor is really excited about it. I sent it to him.

I suspect it will find a home.

Yeah. Oh, yeah.

And where can people find you online? You are online, I presume?

Oh yes. So you can find all my work at pluralistic.net.

Pluralistic is available, If you go there, you’ll find out how to get it as a Twitter feed. So, I post several essays a day as Twitter threads, or you can read them on the web or full-text RSS. I podcast a lot of them. They’re also available as a daily email newsletter, and they’re also available on Mastadon and Tumblr. Everything except Tumblr and Twitter is is surveillance-free. There’s no analytics, no tracking, no cookies set. It’s licensed Creative Commons attribution only.

Okay, well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I really appreciate it. I enjoyed the chat. Hope you did, too.

Okay, great.

And best of luck with Attack Surface.

Thank you very much. Thanks for the chat. It’s been really nice.

Episode 71: Patricia C. Wrede

An hour-and-twenty-minute interview with Patricia C. Wrede, award-winning author of more than twenty-two fantasy novels for readers of all ages, as well as two collections of short stories and one book on writing.

Website
pcwrede.com

Twitter
@PatriciaCWrede

Facebook
@PatriciaWredeAuthor

Patricia C. Wrede’s Amazon Page

Patricia will be instructing the workshop “Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction” for Odyssey Writing Workshops in January and February. Register here by December 7, 2020.

The Introduction

Patricia Collins Wrede was born March 27, 1953, in Chicago. She and her siblings (she is the eldest of five) grew up in the Chicago suburbs. She attended Carleton College, where she earned an A.B. in Biology and took no English or writing courses at all. Following graduation, she earned a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Minnesota and worked for a number of years as a financial analyst and accountant. She married James Wrede in 1976; they divorced in 1991. She currently lives in Minneapolis with her cat, Karma.

She began writing fiction in seventh grade and continued off and on throughout high school and college. In 1974, she started work on Shadow Magic, which took her four and a half years to complete and another year and a half to sell. By the time the book was released in 1982, she had completed two more novels. In 1985, she left her day job to write full-time and has been making her living as a writer ever since.

To date, Patricia has published twenty-two novels, two collections of short stories, and one book on writing. Her work is available in twelve languages (including English) and has won a number of awards.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Patricia, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you very much. It’s an honor to be here.

Well, it’s great to have you. I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths at conventions or anything. But the folks at Odyssey reached out to me and suggested you’d be a great one to talk to. And I certainly agreed with that. And we are going to talk about the workshop you have coming up with Odyssey later on. But I’ll start the way I always start, which is by taking you back into the mists of time to find out how you got started (probably you started as a reader—from what I’ve read of your interviews, that’s definitely the way you started)-and how you then became interested in writing and fantasy and in science-fiction-type stories in particular. So how did that all . . .and where you grew up and all that stuff. So, how did that all come about for you?

Well, I grew up with parents who adored reading. I shocked some of my college friends when I told them that the only room in the house that I grew up in . . . I grew up in a big house because we had, my folks had, five kids, so I had four siblings, and we were parceled out. And so, it was a pretty big house. The only room in the house that did not have books in it was the dining room. And the only reason it didn’t have books in it was because there was, like, one wall of glass windows and another wall of windows and an archway door, and then you had to put the whichajigger, the sideboard for the dishes, somewhere, and that took up the last wall, and so there was no wall to put bookcases on. That was the only reason there were no books in the dining room. Officially. There were always books lying around, but they weren’t there . . . they didn’t have a home. But we had books in the kitchen, we had books in the bathrooms, we had books in the linen closet, and we had books in the upstairs hallway. The entire hallway was lined with books along one side. So, I mean, this is where I grew up and the way I grew up. And I was always, I loved reading, when I was five and started going to school, I was so excited about—I remember this, this is one of my very earliest memories—I was so excited about learning to read, I went off to school on the first day, and I came home, and I sat my brother and sister down in the backyard in the sandbox and told them I was going to teach them how to read. I was five, my sister was three, and my brother was two. This did not go well, but that’s how excited I was that, you know, everybody should know how to read as soon as they possibly could. And it just never occurred to me that, you know, two is possibly a little young, especially when you couldn’t really talk clearly.

And you grew up in Chicago, right?

I grew up in Chicago, in the Chicago suburbs. And I started writing my first novel, my very first unfinished novel, when I was in seventh grade. And it was the only thing I’ve written that isn’t technically fantasy, although it probably would have been if I’d gotten more than seven chapters. It was a kids’ wish-fulfillment adventure kind of thing. You know, they just moved into a new house, and he discovers a secret passage, and . . .

As one does.

Yes, as one does, every time you move into a new house, there’s a secret passage and secret rooms, and, you know, all kinds of fun things. And they were just heading into having discovered the secret passage that used to belong to the pirates that led to the castle. How they had a castle and pirates in, like, the middle of the Midwest in America, I have no idea. But I was in seventh grade. I, you know . . . who cared? Plausibility was not my thing. I suppose that makes it fantasy right there.

Of all the books that were lying around, were there some that were particularly influential on you in those reading years?

I read everything, and probably what I loved the most was fairy tales. I went through the entire Andrew Lang fairy tale collection. When I was in seventh grade, my beloved aunt in Alaska sent me a copy of Beowulf as a birthday present, and my parents gave me Bullfinch’s Mythology. And it was . . . I loved mythology and, you know, all of those sorts of stories, the fantasy. Older fantasies, you know, and fairy tales were what I could get my hands on, but this was really before fantasy was its own genre. You really had to hunt to find anything that was fantasy. It wasn’t until I got to high school that Lord of the Rings hit big in the United States, and suddenly you started being able to get fantasy. But there still was just not enough of it.

Yeah, I remember that. I’m a little just a little bit younger than you, I think. I was born in ’59, and I remember that. I remember as a kid, you know, you just couldn’t find the stuff. If you found something that was really fantastical, it was a rare treat. There was more science fiction, I think, but the actual fantasy stuff . . . 

There was a lot more science fiction. So in high school, I mean, I read all the fantasy I could get my hands on, but most of what I read was science fiction because that was what there was. It was also what my dad read, and so I didn’t have to buy it myself. I could, you know, I mean, I only had so much allowance, and books were cheaper, but they were still expensive when you were in seventh grade. But I, you know, I got books for my birthdays. I had, you know, the Oz books. If you wanted something that’s influential, those and the Narnia chronicles were probably the first. I have almost the complete set of Oz books. I’m still missing two or three of the Ruth Plumley Thompson volumes, but I have the others, and I loved those. Probably my other big influences were The Man from Uncle and Rocky and Bullwinkle.

I remember those, too.

I’m absolutely sure those were important influences. And I get in trouble with English teachers every time I say that because they’re just not respectable. But, you know, when I grew up, fantasy wasn’t respectable either.

When you started writing, like, that first unfinished book when you were seven, did you share it? I always ask this question because some people did, and some people didn’t. I did when I was writing stuff as a teenager and so forth, and it kind of helped me know I wanted to write because people actually enjoyed what I wrote. Did you have people who are reading the stories you were writing in those early years?

Only my mother. And she was probably the other huge influence because there I was in seventh grade, and I told her I was writing this story, and she said, “Really?” And I showed her the pages, and she took them away, and she typed them up on her typewriter in proper manuscript format. Because she also wrote. I never was allowed to read her stuff because she wrote for the confessions magazines.

Oh.

And that was just not something that you . . . by modern standards, they’re extremely tame, but at the time, that was something you just didn’t even admit to, to your children. She didn’t even save any of her stuff when she passed away. The only thing she had kept was a manuscript for a children’s book based on the Mother Goose fairy tales, or rhymes, Mother Goose rhymes, that she had finished. She didn’t save any of her less-respectable stuff, but she wrote for the confession magazines for a while, for a couple of years, so she knew proper manuscript format, and she typed it all up for me. And I just thought it looked so professional. And she didn’t say a word about the fact that I must have written it during my classes because, you know, that was the only time that I could have produced this much. But she didn’t say a word. She just typed it all up and gave it back to me. And I got seven chapters before life happened, and I moved on to other things.

My mom was a prolific letter writer, but she was also a secretary, and she had an IBM Selectric at home, and she typed up my first short story in proper format. 

Yes.

And that really made me feel very professional. I was about the same age.

Yes.

It was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” was my first complete short story, so . . .

Ah-ha!  Yes. I didn’t have a title for mine. It was only seven chapters, and it was never finished, but it was a novel. The first thing I tried to write is a novel. And then I had a couple of, I guess you’d call them articles, they were humorous stuff, in the high school magazine that they had. I did do a couple of things, but they were all non-fictional kind of humorous high-school slice-of-life things. And in college, I didn’t really have a lot of time to write. What I produced in college, somewhere along in between high school and the end of college, I got the notion that the proper way to write was to start with short stories and learn your craft. And then, when you had finally gotten good enough, you would write a novel. And so, I created this life plan. And I also got the . . . it had never occurred to me that you could actually make a living writing. And so, I created this plan for myself, a life plan. I was going to write and, you know, really work on my short stories from time to time as kind of a hobby for the next 15, 20 years. And when I hit . . . that would give me enough time to get really good at it and start selling my short stories and have a real track record here so that when I hit 40 and had my midlife crisis, I could quit my day job and write a book and still have something for an income. I was very practical about this.

It didn’t work out quite the way I expected. You know, I did write quite a few short stories. It turns out I’m not really a short story writer; I’m a novelist. And I kept writing them and sending them out, and I did get better. And after a while, they started coming back with notes on them from the editor saying things like, “This sounds like Chapter 3 of a novel, and this sounds like the plot outline for a novel.” And you’d think I would have bought a clue at that point, but I didn’t. I kept writing short stories and having them rejected. And finally, I had an idea for something that I knew was not a short story. It was a novel. And I wasn’t at the point where I was supposed to . . . my plan said that I was supposed to sell a bunch of short stories first, but I really wanted to write it. And so, I said, “All right, fine, I’ll write it, and I will stick it in the bottom drawer because . . . I won’t tell anybody. I just won’t tell anybody that I cheated and did the novel now. So, I did write it. It took me a long time because I wasn’t really paying that much . . . I wasn’t really focused on it. I was still trying to write short stories. And when I eventually finished it, it was sort of like, “Well, I could put it in the drawer.” But by this time, I had internalized the idea that when you finish something, you sent it out because editors do not do house-to-house searches for manuscripts. You have to put it on their desk. And so, I went, “Well, it’s done. What the heck?” So, I started, I put it in the mail, and it got rejected from the first place, with a lovely encouraging rejection letter from Lester Del Ray. And then, you know, I sent it to a couple of other places, and it got rejected. And finally, I sent it to Ace Books, and they accepted it, and they bought it. And, I was like, “Well, hey, cool.” And I never looked back from there. And that was Shadow Magic.

All those years that you were writing short stories and so forth, you’d actually studied biology, and then you got your MBA . . .

Yes.

. . . were you taking any formal writing, training of any sort? Did you ever do that during those years?

Nope. Nope, none at all. I had . . . I took no English classes at all in college. The high grammar school and high school that I went to both had excellent English programs in terms of the fundamentals. I mean, diagramming sentences. Remember, diagramming sentences?

My dad taught English, and he was big on that.

The design firm Pop Chart Lab has taken the first lines of famous novels and diagrammed those sentences. This one shows the opening of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis

Nobody does that anymore. But diagramming sentences, that was a big thing. And so, I had a pretty good grasp of grammar and essay-writing structure and that sort of thing. But I, you know, once I passed high school, when I got to college, my philosophy was, I looked at the course requirements, I skipped out of the required . . . they required, like, the basic essay-writing class, and my AP exams were enough to let me skip that . . . and I looked at the classes, and I went, “OK, all of these English classes are about reading books. I know how to read books.” But the other things in that particular distribution requirement were things like history and art and, you know, those kinds of things. And I went, “You know, OK, I’m going to take stuff that I wouldn’t do by myself because I wouldn’t know where to start or I don’t know anything about it, and I want a little more guidance.” So, I took Art of the Far East, and I took History of India, and I took classes in subjects that  I would not have explored or would have had a much harder time exploring on my own. And I did indeed, you know, read a lot of Shakespeare and other stuff. But no, I did not take any . . . Carlton didn’t offer creative writing, you know, formal creative writing. They may have had, like, one English class in it, but most of the English classes were more traditional English literature, study of English literature. And I figured I could read that on my own. So I did. And never, ever did take any creative writing classes.

And all of those other things you studied, have they fed into your writing over the years?

Oh, yeah. Everything always feeds into your writing. And, you know, people ask about sources, and really, writing, it’s kind of like making stone soup. You know, that folktale?

Yeah.

For listeners who might not, it’s a folk tale about a guy in the middle of the plague years who comes to a town, is begging, and they say we aren’t going to, you know, we have nothing. And he says, “Well, that’s fine. You’ve got a big pot. I can make stone soup for everybody.” And so, they give him a big pot, and he puts a stone in and a whole lot of water in and lights a fire under it and starts making soup and tastes it after a while and says, “Coming along great, but you know, some onions would be just the treat.” So somebody goes and gets some onions, and they put the onions in the pot. And then, a little while later, he checks it again. He said, “Yeah, yeah, I could use . . . a few carrots would be great.” And he keeps this up with each of the possible ingredients, and the villagers keep bringing him stuff. And finally, it’s all done, and it’s great soup, and everybody has some, and they just marvel at the fact that he made it out of nothing but a stone and some water. And writing is a lot like that. You know, people say, “Oh, you made it up all out of your head,” and it doesn’t occur to them that your head has had, you know, 20, 30, 40, 50 years’ worth of inputs of, you know, everything in the world, you know, from, you know, going fishing, going on a fishing trip to, you know, playing hopscotch in grade school, to everything you’ve ever read. You know, all writing is based on the writer’s life and in some sense or degree.

I often say when I’m teaching, writing, or talking to writers, the only person you really know well is yourself, and all your characters are going to some extent draw on what you know about yourself and what you’ve observed from the people around you. So, yeah, it’s al kind of, you know . . . “filling the tank” is the expression that sometimes used.

Yeah.

You didn’t take any formal writing courses, but you were a member of a writer’s workshop. And I often get asked about writers workshops . . .

A critique group.

A critique group. “Extremely productive,” it says in your bio here.

So, that would be the Scribblies. And that was a group that . . . originally I think it was six of us formed it and we added a seventh, one of our members moved out of town, and we wanted to stay six, and so we added a seventh and then she came back to town and so we just stayed at seven until everybody kind of went off in their own directions. But yeah, that was me, Steve Brust, Kara Dalkey, Nate Bucklin, Pamela Dean, Will Shetterly, and Emma Bull.

Pretty good collection of names there.

Yeah. Well, at the time, none of us was published, you know, we were all beginners. Will and Emma were, I think, the only ones who had taken a creative writing class, and Pamela had a Master’s in English, so she was our grammar maven. But it turned out to be a really great balance of people because everybody was really, really good at a different thing. And so, when you gave them a piece of writing to critique, everybody would spot something different, and the people who spotted it . . . you know, Pamela was really great at doing characters and dialogue, and when she said there was something wrong with the dialogue, there was something wrong with the dialogue. There were different people who had sort of different areas of expertise. It all flowed together really well, and it was enormously helpful. And critiquing other people’s stuff was almost more useful than having my own stuff critiqued. You know, your own stuff . . . when people give you advice about your own stuff, the tendency is to think in the back of your head, “What? You don’t know anything about that. That’s perfectly all right. That’s fine.” But when you see some other person’s stuff getting torn apart into tiny, tiny little pieces, you think to yourself, “Well, I’d better check and make sure I’m not doing that because I don’t want them to do that to me.” Tat’s really useful. It’s a really useful reaction. So, yeah, the right crit group can be—it can be, sometimes they’re destructive, but you just have to be aware of that, and it’s a matter of picking the right people and the people who are destructive in a constructive way, if that makes any sense.

Creative destruction.

Something like that. People are not afraid to point out your mistakes, but who don’t make you feel like you can’t correct them or that you’re smaller because you made the mistakes. You know, you don’t need people who are showing off how great they are; you need people who are trying to make your story better, honestly and truly, and that you can help them make their story better. That’s the, I think to me,  the ultimate thing in a critique group. Now, you had another question?

I was going to say you’ve done quite a bit of teaching as well over the years.

Mm-hmm. Yeah.

And I have found, like, I just finished a term as writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, and I was at the Regina Public Library a few years ago doing the same thing. And I always find that looking at other people’s, sort of like what you’re just talking about, looking at students’ work or other writers’ work and trying to help them with it is very helpful to mine, as well. Do you find that, you know, by . . . what’s the line from The King and I, “If you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught”? Do you find that to be true?

Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s one of the most rewarding things to do, but it’s also really fun to see, just to see what other people come up with because one of the things about writing is everybody’s process is different. And after doing this for 35, 40 years, the one thing I’ve discovered is that every book, the process is different. You know, there’s something that I think of as my normal process, but I think that only works on about 50 percent of the books I write. The other ones just go off on their own. They do their own thing. And you can’t predict which ones are going to be like that and which ones aren’t. They just . . . it’s how it happens and watching what other people do just . . . it fascinates me, all the different ways that people work and, you know, how they take an idea and something that I thought was very straightforward and pointing to the left and this is exactly where this is going to go, and no, it veers off, and it goes totally to the right and, you know, upends itself, and it’s just fascinating.

And that’s also what this podcast is about, so that’s a perfect segue into your particular way of writing. And as you said when we were talking about this before we did the interview, you actually have different ways of working on different books. So instead of focusing on a single book, which I often do in the podcast, we’ll just talk about your process in general in the ways that it varies for different kinds of books. And the first one is a question that everybody asks, and it’s a cliché, I know, but it’s still a legitimate question: “Where do you get the ideas?”

Where do you get your ideas . . .

Or, I often like to say, rather, “What are the seeds from which your stories grow?” because that’s not quite the same.

That’s a little better question. But the thing is that ideas are the easy part. Ideas are all over the place. It’s like, how do you stop having ideas? A question I usually ask people is, “How do you not have ideas?” You know, for me, getting the ideas, like I said, it’s the easy part. They are all over the place. Emma Bull and I a couple of years ago were at an art gallery when they were living out in Los Angeles. I was out there for a convention, and the two of us went to, a lot of us, actually, went to an art gallery, and we were in a whole room, one of the rooms of portraits of people from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, and we said, “Well, look at that? Doesn’t she look like a ghost?” And for the next half-hour, we were going down the portraits, assigning them roles, you know, “Yes, she’s obviously the ghost. And this is obviously her husband. He must have killed her. He doesn’t look very nice. But, you know . . .”, and we had this whole thing just from looking at the portraits and looking at their faces and saying, “This is what he looks like, and this is what she looks like. And, you know, that’s the scullery maid who, you know, poisoned the soup.” I mean, it was just . . . neither one of us went there expecting that, but, you know, we came out with, I’d say, things that could have been ideas for probably two or three books or maybe a series, I don’t know. Neither one of us ever did anything with them as we were just, you know, sitting there having fun. It’s just, you know, ideas are all over the place. You look at pictures, you look at things out your window, you know, whatever.

So how do you decide which ideas are worth the time and effort to turn into a finished story?

The ones that won’t let me alone. There are always ideas that keep coming back. It’s you know, you think, “Well, that’s a good idea, but it’s not ready yet, it’s not finished.” And you put it away in . . . some of those sort of go to the great idea graveyard in the sky and nothing ever happens, and nothing ever comes of them, but other ones, you know, I finish a book, and I’m casting around for the next one, “Oh, hey, here’s that thing. Here’s that story, that idea about . . . that I was going to do . . . I’ve had that idea for ten years . . .” And some ideas, there’s one of them that I think I’ve started, I thought I was going to write that book three times. And the characters that I put into the idea didn’t go the way I thought that book would go. And so, I’ve got three books out of the same idea and never actually gotten that particular idea down on paper yet. My usual process in terms of writing is to start with all the prewriting and the outlining and the, you know, coming up with a plot, the plot outline, you know, somewhere usually between five pages and twenty-five pages of details about what’s going to happen and where. It’s usually about five to ten pages, I think it is . . . five single-spaced pages, which would be ten manuscript pages, and so I do this plot outline and then when I think I’m finally ready, I sit down, and I do the first chapter, and I look at the plot outline, and I look at the chapter. And the chapter has nothing to do with the plot outline except some of the names are the same. And so, I throw away the plot outline, and I write a new one based on the chapter that I actually wrote. And I write the second chapter, and I look at the plot outline, and the first paragraph’s fine because that describes the first chapter, which I had already written when I did this version of the plot outline. But the rest of it really is not right; it has nothing to do . . I mean, more of the names are the same. And so, I ditch that, and I write another plot, and I can continue doing this for about ten chapters, until I’m solidly in the middle of the book, at which point it takes so much psychic energy to plow through the middle of the book that I stop doing outlines and, you know, by then I usually know where I’m going. That’s kind of my standard . . . as I say, the one that works for about 50 percent of the books that I do.

It’s kind of an externalized thought process, where the thinking that would otherwise just stay in your head, you’re putting it down on paper as you go along. That’s what it sounds like to me.

Kind of. It’s . . . well, not really, because that, I mean, the plot outline, sometimes I use some of the incidents that I put in there. But more often it’s, I need the plot outline because it gives me a false sense of security. I have the plot outline, so it’s like I know where I’m going. This is going to be a book for sure. I’ve got a plot outline. I know where it’s going. I don’t know where it’s going, and it doesn’t go where I thought it was going, but I have a plot outline. And the other reason I need a plot outline is because it gives my back brain something to rebel against, which is very important for me. You know, the minute somebody tells you, you know, “Well, this is what happens,” the back brain goes, “No, it isn’t. No, it isn’t. I have this much cooler idea.” So, that’s kind of my normal process.

You said that’s for about 50 percent of your books. What would be some of the books that were written using that process?

The first three or four for sure. Shadow MagicDaughter of WitchesSeven Towers, the first of the Frontier Magic Books, which didn’t end at all the way I thought it was going to be, it developed into a series. Mairelon the Magician. The ones that don’t work like that have other things going on. Snow White and Rose Red, it was a . . . that’s the fairy tale of “Snow White and Rose Red,” and basically, I was asked for Terri Windling’s fairy tale line to do a novel version, to do a novel adaptation of some kind, of my favorite fairy tale. A bunch of us were doing it because it was a series. And so, I started that one with the fairy tale, and it had to follow the fairy tale. So, I couldn’t let my back brain go too wild in terms of the plot. But it turns out that when you do that, fairy tales are so stripped down in terms of plot and everything else that your back brain has plenty of room to go in all kinds of interesting directions. And that was the first time I tried doing alternate history, or in that case, it wasn’t very alternate, it was more history with magic in the cracks. You know, I was setting it in Elizabethan England, and, you know, John Dee was a real character, he was the queen’s magician. So was Ned Kelly. And so, I had a lot of fun doing real history along with the Queen of Faerie and various other plot elements in there. Talking to Dragons was the first time I ever did an entire book totally pantsing. I had no plot outline, I had no plot, I had no idea who the characters were. I had, I started that book with a title and the first line. Actually, I started with the title. I got the first line on the way home, driving home from the party where I got the, was talking about the title. And I just started writing the first line when I got home. And by the time I finished writing the first line, I’d actually written a paragraph, and it’s like, “OK, fine, I’ll save that for when I figure out what this book is about.” And the next morning, I woke up. “I know what the second paragraph is!” And so I sat down to write it, and I wrote the second paragraph, and I ended up with a page and a half, and it’s like, “I don’t know what’s going on, but I really want to find out, and the only way I’m going to find out is to write the rest of this book.” So, I wrote Talking to Dragons that way. Totally, totally pantsing, I had no idea what was going on until almost the end of the book. And then, of course, the prequels to that were, to some extent, I had an outline that I was stuck with because Talking to Dragons is the fourth book in the series. So, you know, when I was asked to go back and do the first books, I kind of had to . . .I got to make a few changes, but I couldn’t change anything major. The Star Wars novelizations, of course, I had the script, and they were very strict about not making changes of any sort. About the best I could do was . . . I mean, there were things I certainly made up. I made . . . the script in that scene in The Phantom Menace, the scene at the end where the, uh, Obi-Wan and the Liam Neeson character, I can’t remember his name at the moment, anyway, they’re fighting Darth Maul, and they’re leaping over things and, you know, going around this whole space and everything is this big dramatic set-piece. All the script says is Scene 20, whatever it was, “The Jedi fight.” That was it. That was it. No description of the background, no description . . . I mean, I knew where they were because it said, you know, setting, the factory, whatever, but that was it. I had known . . .you knew that was going to be, like, a five-minute set piece. So I had to pick up a lot of that in ways that hopefully would not conflict with what they did in the final version of the film. So, that was a fun and interesting experience and very different from my usual way of working. So, yeah, different things work differently.

Clearly, with these books, I mean, you’ve had books set in the Regency, you’ve had, you mentioned, the Elizabethan era, you’ve got Ice Age, all these things, and Star Wars . . .clearly, you often end up doing quite a bit of research. What’s your research process?

I did . . . the research actually, frequently, again, it’s being life, the . . . back in the day, one of the things that I started doing on about my second or third book was I started keeping a list of questions because I kept running . . . in The Raven Ring I got to, like, the seventh chapter and the cops showed up, and I hadn’t made up the cops in that world. And so, I had to stop for, like, four weeks while I made up the cops. And it totally stalled my forward progress. And I found that very frustrating. So, I started keeping a list of questions to at least ask myself when I was getting, booting up, the story, like, you know, “OK, what are the police like here?” And since I mostly do fantasy, I had a lot of questions about how magic works and, you know, things like, “Does it need a license? Do you need a license to be a magician, or is it an inborn talent? Is it something you learn in schools, or is it more like driving a car, or is it more like getting a Ph.D.? You know, what’s the education?” You know, things like that. And at the request of some people on a newsgroup that I was on way, way, way back, they wanted to know what this was like. So, I put them up, and they got consolidated into the fantasy-worldbuilding questions, which I still have on my blog, on my website. But those were kind of, the genesis is, sort of looking through them. I don’t go through and answer all the questions, every book. But I look at them and I sort of go, you know, “Am I going to need to know this? Is this something that oh, hey, that gives me an interesting idea?” You know, “I hadn’t thought about what they do for art, but if I make that one character, they’re a painter, that would be really cool and interesting. Nobody’s done that kind of thing before. I’m going to do that.” So, it just . . . and that was really where I got interested in a lot of the aspects of worldbuilding that led me eventually to do this class for Odyssey that I’m going to be teaching in January.

Well, that seems like as good a point as any to talk about that class. What will that look like, and what’s the process if someone wants to be part of it?

Well, they would go to the Odyssey website and register, they’ve got, you know, all the details there. I don’t have . . . I should have copied that website. I think it’s Odyssey.com or Odyssey.org.

Yeah, I’ll put a link to it. I actually do have a description in front of me here somewhere . . .

Yeah. There’s . . . basically, what I want to do in the class is, there’s basically two parts to worldbuilding. There’s the part that everybody thinks of, which is the making it up part, where you’re . . . you know, the Tolkien appendices, where you’ve got massive amounts of information about, you know, what the pottery is like and what the artwork and the culture and the history and the battles and how magic works and all this other stuff. That’s the first part. And that’s important. You need to think about that. But the second part is really the key, and that’s getting it across to the reader in the text, because Tolkien is really the only one who can get away with putting a million appendices at the end of their book and having everybody actually read them. So, you know, all of the important things, getting across . . .and that worldbuilding is something that everybody has to do in every book, because whatever your characters are, wherever they are, whatever culture, even if you’re in 2020, there’s going to be a sizeable number . . if I’m writing a book set in 2020 in Minneapolis, there’s going to be a sizable portion of my readers who have never been to Minneapolis, who don’t know what it’s like, who have no idea what things . . . you know, who’ve never even seen it on television.

Even if you pick someplace like London or New York where you know what all the key buildings and such look like because everybody’s seen them on TV and the movies, there’s an awful lot of London that people just don’t know what it’s like unless they’ve been there and haven’t been there. And there’s going to be people still who haven’t seen it on TV because they just don’t watch those shows. You know, so, even when you’re looking at a real-life place and, of course, the further away it is from the experience of your initial set of readers, the harder or the clearer your presentation of that world has to be for it to be appealing. The Harry Potter books are a great example. I mean, they’re quintessentially British, you know, set in the British Isles, United Kingdom, England and Scotland. So much of it is very, very, very British, and yet she can . .  you don’t have to know that to love the books because she does such a good job of getting the feel of what it’s like across, both in the Dursley’s, the real world and in the wizarding world. You know, there’s translations into Japanese and Indonesian, and all these different places and languages, and they’re appreciated by millions and millions of people all over the world who don’t need to have a cheat sheet of what this means because it’s British and they don’t, you know, they’ve never been to Britain, and they don’t really get how it works. You have to get it across to people, and that’s what I’m hoping to start with, sort of some of the basic aspects of worldbuilding, of the making-it- up part, and then talk more about the getting it across part towards the end.

It is odysseyworkshop.org. I looked it up here.

Yes, that’s excellent.

Well, one of the things that’s mentioned in the description is how worldbuilding can affect the characters. And we’ve talked a bit about your plotting process. But where do you, how do you find your characters, and how much work do you do on them beforehand, and how much do they just grow during the process?

It depends on the book. It depends on the character. A lot of the times, a lot of the times, they just sort of walk into my head. If you’re starting with a character, you do the worldbuilding, and you can start anywhere. And sometimes it starts with character. You know, a character walks into your head, and you sort of look at them and go, “OK, what are they wearing? Swords and a kilt. That’s interesting. All right. We’re looking at maybe medieval Scotland or maybe some kind of roleplaying. Where is this person from? How did they get this sword? Is that a real sword, or is that just for show? Is that a kilt? You know, it’s not plaid. Why are they not wearing . . . OK, then it’s not Scotland. So, who else wears kilts? So, I’ve got a world that has . . . yeah.” And I’m just making this straight up out of, off the top of my head. This is how it works. You know, you dig into the characters, and a lot of it is digging into the character. As I write, I tend to write my way into the characters, as I usually start more with the plot, which is really kind of weird because a lot of the time, the characters are what drives the plot. But the world that you live in shapes the person in real life and in fiction, and it makes a difference. What the world is like is going to shape what the person is like. If you’re actually looking at a medieval peasantry, they’re not going to be literate, most of them. Which means they’re not going to have read books, but they will be oral storytelling, and that’s going to affect the way they see stories and process. You know, skills are going to be different. The kinds of things that they’re used to are going to be different. You take somebody from the 1100s, heck, even from the 1700s, bring them into a room and flip the light switch and they’re going to go, “Magic!”

Mm-hmm.

You know, “Lights came on! Oh, my God. Magic!” It’s all in what you’re used to. There’s a wonderful book by Sylvia Louise Engdahl called Enchantress from the Stars, in which there are three different viewpoints.

I know that one!

Yeah. Where you’ve got the fairy tale version, which is the way the peasant, the native, sees it. And you’ve got the viewpoint of the highly technological aliens who are coming in a . . . to them, it’s all about the, you know, their technology and their machines, whereas, of course, to the native guy, it’s all magic. And then you have the gal from the super-advanced society that’s trying to keep these two very different cultures from clashing, to whom they’re both kind of childish. And it’s really the different views, which are predicated on the cultures and the worlds from which each of these characters come. And so, yeah, the world shapes the characters as much who the character is; if you’ve got a clear idea of the character, then that pretty much defines what the world has to be because that character came out of the world. And you can tell a lot about the world by looking at the character and understanding where they came from and how did they get these ideas or their these viewpoints or beliefs or, you know, this drive to, you know, save the world or destroy the world or whatever they’re going to do.

Once you have a plot and character and all of that, what does your actual writing process look like as far as the actual physical act? You started in typewriter days, as I did . . .

Pardon me?

You started writing on a typewriter, I presume, as I did . . . or first, longhand, I suppose, to begin with . . .

I did. I did typing. I took typing in high school. And I’m forever grateful to my mother for making . . . it’s one of the fundamental things I think that I recommend to everybody is, if you want to be a writer, learn to type, learn to touch-type.

Touch-type.

So, I have a very good friend who blew out several disks in her neck because she’s a hunt-and-peck typist, and she looks down at the keyboard as she types, and then she looks up at the screen to see what she typed, and she looks down at the keyboard as she types, looks up at the screen and she types, and after 40 years, she’s had several disks in her neck . . . and it’s extremely painful. And touch typing, you don’t have to worry about that.

But I presume you work on a computer now.

Yes, absolutely. As soon as practically as soon as they came out, I had one of the very first Apple II Plus’s, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.

Yeah, a Commodore 64 was my first one.

I was doing cut and paste when cut and paste meant . . .

Cut and paste.

Scissors and . . . scissors and tape. And yeah, that was exciting. I still remember that.

Do you write a certain number of hours a day, or how does that work for you? And do you work at home or do you like . . . well, everybody works at home now, but do you like to go out to other places to write or how does that all work?

A little bit of everything. Sometimes it helps to, you know, take the laptop to a coffee shop, now that I can do that. It’s been an evolution because, of course, back in the day, you didn’t take the typewriter any place because it was too heavy. And then the computer, of course, was desktops. It wasn’t until laptops came along that it was even a possibility to take your computer out to a coffee shop casually and, you know, out any place. And so, you know, where I write has been kind of an evolution. I’ve always had a desk, at least a desk someplace, and usually had an office. You know, there’s . . . sometimes the office was the spare room, to begin with. But I had an office, and I mostly work in the office, sometimes haul it out someplace else just to get a bit of, you know, change of scenery.

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

I don’t know. I’m a plodder. I am not . . . most of the time, I’m a plodder.  I’ve had a couple of books where I did a burst writing. But most of the time, it’s a, you know, if you write one page a day, every day without fail, at the end of the year, you’ll have three hundred pages, which is a book, and you can take Sundays and holidays off. And that’s what I do. That’s what I started doing. And that’s basically what I try and do. And it’s gotten harder over time as other life things keep interrupting and getting in the way. It’s been very difficult to concentrate in the past, oh, what is it now, eight, nine months?

Feels like forever.

But yeah, since about last February, it’s been really difficult to concentrate. That, too, depends on whether writing is more like a hobby or more like an escape or whether it is something that requires focus and mental energy, and really, for me, it’s kind of both those things. So, sometimes it works as an escape, and then it’s like, yeah, head down in the book because that lets me ignore all the horrible things. And sometimes, I’m so distracted by all these other things that are going on that I can’t get head down in the book. So, you know, it varies.

Once you have a finished draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you use beta readers, or do you just revise it yourself?

Oh, I use beta readers. I use beta readers everyplace. I am a rolling reviser. It’s one of the many things . . . I talked about this a lot on the blog. I also have a blog, at pcwrede.com, where I talk about writing and process and have been doing for . . . God, ten years now! That’s kind of scary. But I talk about the process, and I’m a rolling reviser. You know, some people have to do the whole book all the way through and then go back and write it. Some people have to have to get it right almost the first time because their stuff sets up like concrete after, you know, 24 hours, after they’ve let it alone for 24 hours, it’s practically impossible to change. I’m kind of . . . I need to have, what has been written, I really need to know somewhere in my back brain that it’s right, quote-unquote—picture me doing air quotes—in order to continue to make progress. I have learned over 40 years of doing this that I can at times put in a little note that says, “Fix this later,” and actually go back and fix much later. But most of the time, if I realize in Chapter 15 that I just had this brilliant idea, but for it to work, I need to plant something in Chapter 2 and remind people about it in Chapter 7 and 12, I have to stop and go back and plant it in Chapter 2 and do the reminding in Chapter 7 and in Chapter 12 before I can continue with Chapter 15 because when I do the plant, when I do the reminding, it changes what I’m having happened just a little, just enough that in order to get it right from here on out, I have to know what happened back in those places where I’m planting this thing. So, I tend to . . . and the other thing is that when I get really, really stuck, I’ll go back and I’ll start at the beginning, and I’ll just go through and fix things and revise things and reread things and fix them, and usually by the time I get back, I’m not stuck anymore, you know, because I’ve changed enough things or I’ve seen enough things where it’s like, I’ve got the ideas to move on with.

Who are your beta readers, and what do they do for you?

It’s varied a lot over the years. Lois McMaster Bujold and I trade manuscripts all the time.

Pretty good beta reader.

She was . . . I was one of her first, actually. I had . . . back when I sold Shadow Magic, I went to the Chicago WorldCon and met Lillian Stewart Carl, and we, I offered to trade manuscripts with her by mail, and she said, “Well, you know, I don’t I don’t really need that, I have a writers’ group.” This was before that, you know, when I was still hunting for more input. I was in the Scribblies, but I was still hunting for other input, outside input. And she said, “I don’t need that. I have a good writers’ group, but I have this friend in Ohio who doesn’t have anybody. She’s out in the wilds of Ohio. She doesn’t have anybody around who reads or writes science fiction fantasy. Can I give you her your contact?” And that was Lois. And so, you know, she and I started trading critique by mail. I ended up with, like, a four-inch stack of . . . this was before email. So, physical letters until we went, until we did go to email. Then eventually, she moved to town, which made it much easier. But anyway, she’s one of my beta readers. Pamela Dean still is. Caroline Stevermer frequently. Several non-writer friends . . . you know, Beth Friedman. God, I’m missing somebody . . . 

That’s the trouble with starting to name names.

Yeah, yeah, it is. It’s well, especially, there’s a bunch of people that nobody would recognize that, you know, I could name the names, but, you know, it’s not going to mean anything to anybody. But, you know, sometimes the best beta readers are people who are not writers; they’re just readers who are really good at articulating what’s going, what is a problem here, or what they like about this or don’t like about this.

And what kind of feedback do you typically get from your readers that . . . what sorts of things do you find you need to work on?

It varies. Everyone . . . and sometimes it’s the same old things that you thought you had gotten rid of years ago. Sometimes it’s, you know, there’s character stuff, there’s stupid, stupid things like dialogue tags and repeated words, you know. One I remember specifically because it was so annoying was somebody who pointed out that I had used a very unusual phrasing like three times in the same chapter. And it’s like, “How did I not notice that?” You know, but I mean, it’s everything from really picky little details to questions about characters that are very enlightening, like, you know, things like, one asked, you know, “Are these two characters gay?” And I went, “Son of a gun. They are. I didn’t know that. OK.” You know, so it’s there for people who want to see it, but it’s not a big point. Mean, I didn’t know they were until somebody pointed it out. You know, it’s like, “Oh, yeah.” And so there’s things that are . . . things about the characters that I hadn’t even realized, things about the world, things about the plot. Just, you know, major things, and then, of course, the minor word dinks and nitpicks.

And then the manuscript will go to an editor. What kind of editorial feedback is typical for you? Do you find it’s pretty clean, you don’t have to do a lot, or there are occasionally some . . .

It depends on the book.

And the editor, I would presume.

And the editor. They’re very different. There is one editor that, it was always questions. She never made any recommendations; it was always questions about what was happening. I had another editor . . . Jane Yolen was lovely. I mean, she was fun. We were friends. She edited the Enchanted Forest books when she was at Harcourt. And she was . . . we were good friends. In fact, she kind of was the one who browbeat me into writing the prequels. And so, it’s all her fault. But I turned in the first one, and I got back two pages of editorial comments that started with, “Does your husband know about your love affair with a semicolon? Seventeen on one page is too many.” You know, and she was absolutely right.

I like a good semicolon, but that does seem excessive.

It was excessive. It was, like, a manuscript page was about, I think I had my printer set to do 25 lines, and 17 of them had semicolons. It was just way too much. So, yeah, it varies. And then I had one editor who basically . . . had two different editors, in two different places, I had ask for scenes, where I had not put in a particular scene the character . . . in one instance, the character wasn’t there, and in another instance, I was skating very quickly over that part, and it just didn’t seem . . . and the one where I was skating over it wanted the set-piece with that particular scene and the other one, the character wasn’t there, and the editor said, “This seems like a really important scene, and I think you should write it.” So, I had to write ten thousand words to, you know, instead of having the character told about it in a three-paragraph summary, I had to figure out how to get her to go along so she could watch it. And it took about ten thousand words to interpolate that into the book.

But it made the book better.

Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. I’m very pleased with how it came out, but it was a lot of work. So, it really depends. A lot of the time it is pretty clean, I think, but I don’t have anything to judge by except my own stuff, really. So how would I know? I don’t know what the editor sees all the time.

Yeah. They see a lot more stuff than the authors do. My editor is Sheila Gilbert at DAW. And, of course, she’s been doing this for a very long time.

Yes

She’s seen a lot of manuscripts. And she notes . . . she just sees things that I don’t see..

Yes. Yeah, yeah. They see things you don’t see.

And now we’ve actually gone past the hour, but nobody’s counting, so . .  but I should wrap it up here.

Well, I should have warned you upfront, I can talk about writing for hours, literally. I thought . . . I was supposed to have a one-hour interview with somebody at my alma mater, and we ended up talking for five hours, until I got hoarse. So, yeah, I can talk for a long time about writing.

My record is still Orson Scott Card, who went for two hours by the time we were done. So, you know . . .

Ah, yeah.

We’re not there yet. But just to wrap it up with the big philosophical question, really, three: Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? And why stories of the fantastic, specifically?

Let’s start backwards. Stories of the fantastic is because I can’t seem to write anything else. I tried to write a mystery once, and it had wizards in it by the second chapter, so I gave up. I was like, that’s what I write. That’s what my back brain hands me, so that’s what I write. Why I write is, again, I just, I mean, I love reading, I love writing, I love telling stories, I’ve always loved telling stories, and writing is a way of doing that. I mean, I think I would write stuff even if I wasn’t selling it and nobody was reading it. It would not be as easy, and it would be very disappointing. Certainly, at this point, it would be very difficult since this is how I make my living. But really, I like the process. I like it even though it’s frustrating and annoying as all get out and, you know, can drive you just absolutely mad at times. It’s still . . . I love the feeling that I get when I know I nailed it, when it’s like, “Yes, there’s that scene, and this is that thing.” And I have this cool thing going, and I got it. And there it is. “Yes, that’s what I wanted.” I don’t know if anybody else is seeing it, what I saw, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes I end up having to fiddle with it. But there’s still that moment when there it is down on paper, that scene I’ve been waiting to write for so long.

And I also love the analytical side of it, you know, figuring out why things work, why using this viewpoint is more effective than using that viewpoint, you know, what’s going to work best for this story, how . . .  I love doing that. I love it. I mean, that’s mostly what the blog is, is different angles of a view on everything from . . . well, just pretty much every aspect of writing, I mean, I’ve been doing it for ten years, I think I’ve covered pretty much everything, and I’m still talking about it, which tells you how long I could go on about writing. That’s me, you know, I just . . . the other thing is I do it so that the voices in my head will shut up.

I’ve heard that from a lot of authors. A lot of authors put it that way.

And it’s not necessarily the characters’ voices, it’s the stories themselves. You know, it’s . . . I’ve shot past my exit numerous times on the freeway because I’m sitting there going, “And then they go, right? No, no, no, no, they’ll go left, left. And there there’s . . . yes. And the bridge is out. And the . . .” You know, if I don’t put it down on paper, it keeps changing in my head, and it won’t leave me alone. And so, I have to go home, and I have to write the scene where the bridge is out. And then I’m done with the damn bridge. It’ll leave me alone. But I have shot past the exit multiple times doing, you know, telling myself stories in my head.

Why do you think on the bigger scale, why do any of us write? Why do you think we do this? As a species, I guess.

As a species? I think it’s to explain ourselves to ourselves. You know, it’s . . . stories are a way of transmitting life lessons and teaching people about things that are going on in a wider world. One of . . . I think I heard this bit from Jane Yolen. She had been reading about an anthropologist. She’s very big in fairy tales. And the anthropologist had been collecting fairy tales from native cultures in the north. I think the Inuit was one, but there are several others, and one of . . . and their fairy tales, their stories, are really grim, and they have this custom of, in the wintertime, when it’s dark for 24 hours or very nearly a day, everybody gathers in a hut. And, you know, the children are all there, and they tell these horrible, horrible ghost stories, creepy, scary, nightmare-inducing stories. And at the worst part of it, somebody, one of the adults, sneaks out and they beat on the outside of the tent, you know, to make the scary parts even scarier. And the woman said, “Why do you do this? Why do you do this to your children?” And the person she was interviewing said, “Because they need to be scared. They need to learn how to be scared in a safe place so that they won’t freeze up when it’s a real emergency.” Because if you freeze up when it’s 50 below zero, and you’ve just gone through the ice, you are a dead person. You have to be able to continue to function, and that’s the kind of things that stories do. Most of us are not in that dire of an environment, that we’re under those kinds of threats, but there’s still. . . they are ways of conveying lessons about people, about what is right and what is wrong about dealing with other people, about living in the world, you know, about what kinds of things are mistakes and what kinds of things, you know, you might not recognize as a mistake right now. But in 20 years or 40 years, you will. And sometimes those things are buried really, really deeply entrenched, and they are ways of explaining to ourselves what we’ve learned about ourselves and about other people and about the world. I think that’s kind of as deeply philosophical as I can possibly get on this.

Well, it certainly seems like a good answer to me. OK, let’s wrap it up by finding out what are you working on now? What’s coming up next from you?

OK, I am in the process of doing what I hope will be final revisions to another children’s book called The Dark Lord’s Daughter. It’s about a 14-year-old girl who is, uh, you know, she knows she’s been adopted, and her family has, her adopted family, has kind of fallen on . . . they’ve been having some difficulties, and she and her adopted mother and her little brother are off at the state fair, and they are approached by a gentleman in what looks sort of like a Darth Vader outfit who says, you know, “My lady, I have found you!”, and the next thing they know, the three of them have been transported to an alternate universe. And she finds out that she is the daughter of the former dark lord and is expected to come and take over his kingdom.

That’s a great setup.

And it is nothing like what either side is expecting. She is not what they were expecting to get, and they are, you know, the dark lord’s kingdom is not at all . . . well, let’s put it this way, they had ten years to deteriorate, and it’s deteriorated pretty darn bad. So, she’s got a lot of work to do. And, of course, she’s got her mother and her little brother along to make life interesting.

That sounds fun.

So I’m working on that. And, I don’t have a pub date yet because I’m way behind, and I don’t get to know when it’ll come out until I actually turn it in.

Publishers are annoying like that.

Sometimes. Sometimes.

And where can people find you online?

PCWrede.com. And that’s my Web site and the blog and a lot of other useful information if you poke around on it a bit.

Any social media accounts to mention?

The blog is really the only place where I spend a lot of time. I do have a Twitter account where I mostly make announcements, and there is a Facebook business page, which again is . . . that’s not really run by me, but it also has a lot of announcements about, you know, what’s coming up with my books. Every once in a while, I post something to Twitter, but I’m not really super active there. I have too much else going on.

And once again, of course, you’re teaching the World Building in Fantasy and Science Fiction workshop for Odyssey Workshop.

Yes, I think that’ll be fun.

And that runs January 7 to February 4. And the deadline, I believe, is December 9, if anybody’s listening and wants to register.

Yeah. And it’ll be, it’s three classes with about two weeks between. So, you’ve got time to actually apply some of this stuff in between and hopefully come up with new and interesting questions to ask.

OK, well, I guess that wraps it up, then. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers.

Ed, thanks for being here.

I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.

Thank you for inviting me!

Bye for now!

Episode 70: F. Paul Wilson

An hour-long interview with F. Paul Wilson, the award-winning, bestselling author of 60 books and nearly 100 short stories spanning science fiction, horror, adventure, medical thrillers, and virtually everything between.

Website
RepairmanJack.com

Facebook
@RealFPaulWilson

Twitter
@FPaulWilson

F. Paul Wilson’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

F. Paul Wilson is the award-winning, bestselling author of 60 books and nearly 100 short stories spanning science fiction, horror, adventure, medical thrillers, and virtually everything between.

His novels The Keep, The Tomb, Harbingers, By the Sword, The Dark at the End, and Nightworld were New York Times Bestsellers.  The Tomb received the 1984 Porgie Award from The West Coast Review of BooksWheels Within Wheels won the first Prometheus Award, and Sims another; Healer and An Enemy of the State were elected to the Prometheus Hall of Fame.  Dydeetown World was on the young adult recommended reading lists of the American Library Association and the New York Public Library, among others.  His novella “Aftershock” won the Stoker Award. He was voted Grand Master by the World Horror Convention; he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Horror Writers of America, and the Thriller Lifetime Achievement Award from the editors of Romantic Times.  He also received the prestigious San Diego ComiCon Inkpot Award and is listed in the 50th anniversary edition of Who’s Who in America.

His short fiction has been collected in Soft & Others, The Barrens & Others, and Aftershock & Others.  He has edited two anthologies: Freak Show and Diagnosis: Terminal plus (with Pierce Watters) the only complete collection of Henry Kuttner’s Hogben stories, The Hogben Chronicles.

In 1983 Paramount rendered his novel The Keep into a visually striking but otherwise incomprehensible movie with screenplay and direction by Michael Mann.

The Tomb has spent 25 years in development hell at Beacon Films.

Dario Argento adapted his story “Pelts” for Masters of Horror.

Over nine million copies of his books are in print in the US, and his work has been translated into twenty-four languages.  He also has written for the stage, screen, comics, and interactive media. He resides at the Jersey Shore

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Paul.

Well, glad to be here.

You know, I like to give people who, you know, haven’t done much an opportunity to be on the show once in a while.

I understand.

And maybe I can help out your career a little bit. Well, it’s nice to meet you. We’ve never met in person, but your name sort of popped up in something I was reading, and I thought, “That’d be a great guy to talk to.” And I have to say that I have a very strong memory of reading The Keep when it first came out, back in 1981, was it, I think?

Yeah, it was.

And I also remember seeing the movie, and I do remember thinking that it was rather incomprehensible but pretty to look at. So, yeah, I think that was an accurate description. So, we’re going to talk a little bit about your upcoming collection, which will come out about the same time as this goes live. But first, I want to do what I always do with my guests and take you back into the mists of time to find out how you got interested in this kind of stuff and how you started writing. How did that all come about for you? Where did you grow up, and when did you start reading this kind of thing, and when did you start writing it?

Well, I grew up in a classic middle-class family, mother, father, sister, brother, dog, cats. My father was an immigrant from England in, oh, I guess he was age eight in the ‘20s and I . . . .you know, he never encouraged me toward science fiction, but he never discouraged me. And but it was something I always gravitated to. I mean, when we had that little TV set with, maybe it had an eight-inch or a 12-inch screen, I remember King Kong coming on, the trailer for King Kong, when they re-released it in the ‘50s, and I was just was absolutely fascinated with that. And then came The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. And I was on the set. I would sit there and watch the TV, and we had three channels then, and I’d be switching back and forth, praying that somebody would show it again. And finally, you know . . . and I drove my parents crazy. At that time, polio was a threat. The vaccine hadn’t come out yet. And they didn’t want me to go to the movies. It was a summer movie, and summer with other kids was where you got polio. And they said, “You want to end up in an iron lung?” And I said, “I would take that risk to see this film.” And finally, I came up with the idea, hey, drive-in. I’ll be the only one, my family will be the only people I’ll be exposed to, so then they couldn’t object anymore. My father took me, and it was just a wonderful experience to see that on the big screen. And that sort of really cemented my love affair with monsters and science fiction. EC Comics were big at the time. It was before they were censored, and they used to have . . .

Tales of the Crypt, that was EC, wasn’t it?

Yeah, Tales of the Crypt, but they also had the science fiction ones where, you know, they’d have a dinosaur. Maybe drawn by Frazetta, sometimes it was drawn by Frazetta, and Williamson on the cover and on the side, they’d have a rocket ship taking off. I mean, those are my two triggers. I could not buy them. And so, the EC Comics and Uncle Scrooge comics were–because Uncle Scrooge stories were full of imagination—those were my reading staples as a grammar school kid. And then I started reading science fiction and finally got to the point where I said, “I’d like to try to write some of this.” And it took me years, years of rejection, before John Campbell finally bought my first story in 1970, so that’s 50 years ago this year, by the way, and by that time I was hooked. I couldn’t not write. And it’s become an obsessive-compulsive disorder. You know, if I’m not writing, I’m thinking about writing. I fall asleep at night working out plot twists or plot problems. It’s just an integral part of my life. There’s no thought or no possibility of not doing it anymore.

So, did you start writing when you were still in school and as a kid?

In college. Oh, I wrote stories, and I submitted them, you know, like werewolves and haunted house stories, and I submitted them to, like, the school paper, and stuff like that. And they always got rejected. But in college, I started very seriously. I just wanted to get published once. I figured, “If I can just get published once, I’ll be a published writer, and after that, I can do whatever I want.” And, you know, I was going to be, I planned on being a dilettante writer, but in the four or five years it took me to tell the first story, I just became hooked on it, on the process. And I was sure that my, you know, my stories were being rejected because nobody knew my name. You know, if I had Robert Silverberg or Harlan Ellison on the byline, they’d buy this story because it’s great. And after I finally did start selling, I went back to see if I could resell any of these things, or resubmit any of these things, and they were terrible. They were awful. And I just realized they got rejected for very good reason. I never had a writing course. I was just, you know, going by trying to write something I would like to read. Imitating Heinlein . . . I couldn’t imitate Ray Bradbury, that was beyond me, but I could imitate Poul Anderson, I could imitate Robert Heinlein. At least, feel that I was trying to imitate that. Bradbury was too verbose and too picturesque for me.

You mentioned you didn’t actually study writing. You actually were in medical school, weren’t you?

Yes, yes. When I sold my first story, I was a first-year medical student and got $375 or $365, something like that, you know, five cents a word, which they’re still paying nowadays.

Yes, they are.

So, at that time, I went online, and I did one of those inflation calculators and that’s worth almost $2,500 in buying power today. That’s amazing.

Yeah, there was a time when you could make a living just writing short fiction.

Yeah.

In the pulps and things like that. But I think that time is long gone, unfortunately.

Yeah.

Did you ever do anything . . . like, did you complete your medical degree and ever do anything in the medical field, or did the writing sort of take over?

I was in family practice for 44 years.

Oh!

So after 20 years in there, around the mid-‘90s, like 1994, I was doing full-time medicine, and basically, I was putting out a novel a year. I’d learned how to do the two of them. But by the mid-‘90s, I had partnered with Matt Costello when we were riding interactive scripts, we were scripting the SciFi channel’s FTL Newsfeed, I was still writing books, and we were writing tie-in books together for the games we had sold, and I just couldn’t do it. I just had to cut back on medicine. I cut back to two days a week, and I stayed at that until I retired at the beginning of 2019. So, I’ve been retired for a year and a half, so . . . 

Well, you have written some medical thrillers, but in general, has your medical experience fed into your writing? Do you think it was very beneficial for your writing to have that other side of things going on at the same time?

Yes, well, I’m a big believer in keeping the day job for writers because it keeps you in contact with people. Because I notice now since I’ve been retired . . . well, of course, with Covid. All your social contacts are cut way back, but I used to go to conventions all the time, I love being out with the readers. I love being out with other writers. And so, right now, I’m a shut-in and I . . . you know, that human contact, because basically, even if you have the greatest plot, plots happen to people, so, I mean, you’ve got to have good characters and you can’t create characters totally in a vacuum. You know, you have to know what real people are like and what they talk like and imitate that to some extent. So . . . but also, I mean, writing was also my golf game as a doctor. I couldn’t play golf. It was just, you know, I had golf attention deficit disorder, where after a few holes I’d be saying, what am I doing here? But I noticed that one thing that was recurring in my fiction was the miracle cure. It just pops up again and again, and I think that’s something subconscious, that being a doctor, and being a family practitioner, you know, you have patients you’ve had for a long time, and all of a sudden, they get terminally ill, and there’s nothing you can do. And you just wish there was something that you could do. But you’re helpless. You know, the sixteen-year-old girl with an acute leukemia, I mean . . . you know, she’s gone so quickly, and it just tears you up. So, I mean, you know, The Touch was about miracle cures, even my first novel was called Healer. So, it did influence me, but I did try to stay away from medical themes because that was too much like going back to work. As I said, this is my golf game.

Wait, you did venture and have ventured quite a bit into horror. What drew you to horror as opposed to more straightforward science fiction?

Horror was my first love. You know, I loved the rocketships and all that kind of stuff, but monsters, especially like GodzillaThe Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. I just loved the monster aspect of it. Then they released the Universal monsters films onto TV, and, you know, I was watching Dracula, watching Frankenstein, watching The Wolf Man, I mean, I just loved those things. I built the Aurora models.

Oh, I remember those.

Probably anybody who is in this, you know . . .  that was one of the things, when I first read Salem’s Lot, I didn’t know who Stephen King was. I got it from the Literary Guild, my copy. And never once did it mention a vampire was going to be in the book, on the flap copy and the advertisements, never once mentioned vampires. And I’m reading along, and I’m saying, “Oh, you know, the only thing that can explain this is a vampire, but he’s going to cop out because everybody cops out. Nobody has vampires anymore. And then, that kid, I forget the name of the kid who was like, the main protagonist, it turns out that he had built the Aurora models, and I said, “Oh, this Stephen King, he’s one of us.” And all of a sudden, it turned out to be a real vampire. It was like, “Oh, yes!” And so, you know, that that was one of the highlights of the ‘70s, was coming across that novel and absolutely loving it. And then . . .  King had made some inroads into horror, but unless you were, in the ‘70s, unless you were Blatty or you were Ira Levin, you really couldn’t get a horror novel published. So, that’s why I was writing science fiction, because there were all these science fiction magazines. There were no horror magazines. Stu Schiff was doing Whispers, and he could only take so many stories. So, as soon as the horror market opened up . . .  I had written three science fiction novels and a novella, mostly for Doubleday and Dell. And then I decided, “It’s time to write my horror novel.”  So that I sat down and I wrote The Keep. And that changed my life. I mean, that was a huge international bestseller. It’s never been out of print. I’m just getting the movie rights. In February, I filed for recapture of the movie rights; after 35 years, you can do that. And so, we’ve already got people bidding on it to remake it. So, you may see a movie that resembles my novel in more than the title.

Like I said, I really remember reading The Keep. I would have been 20 . . .

Oh, don’t say it, really.

 . . . 21 or 22 at the time, I guess 22 probably, and I have a . . . yeah, it really stuck in my mind. And I kind of went through everything, like, I read science fiction, I read fantasy, I read horror. But I actually read more horror for a while after reading The Keep, looking for something else that I liked as much as I enjoyed The Keep. So, there you go. That was the influence on me. I think you mentioned Lovecraft as an influence as well when you encountered him as a young reader.

Yeah, I encountered him . . . the first time was in The Macabre Reader, edited by Donald Wollheim for Ace, and I had this really Emsh cover. And they were all old stories from weird tales. And there was this one called The Thing on the Doorstep, and it had to be the weirdest damn story I had ever read in my life, and I was sure, asking, “Where is Arkham, Massachusetts? Where is Miskatonic University? I’ve got to go there and get a look at some of these books. And actually, I actually got the college guide. I’m looking up Miskatonic, and it wasn’t in there. I mean, that’s how convincing he was and setting up his world. So, you know . . . I never admired his style, but the idea of cosmic horror really got under my skin, and I just thought, “You know, this is really unsettling.” And that has influenced horror work right from The Keep onward.

Well, let’s talk about how you go about crafting a novel. It’s a very old question, and yet it’s legitimate. Where do you get your ideas? What are the seeds for you, the something that will come to you and make you think, you know, I’ve got to write a book about this? Where do those things come to you from?

Different places. I have a notebook, which every writer should have, and I write down little snatches of whatever. Sometimes the first line, sometimes it’s an idea. Like, the Repairman Jack novel Crisscross, that came from an idea I’d written down that a guy is a recurrent killer, but no one can convict him of any of the murders he’s done, so why not convict him of a murder he didn’t do? And that was just the idea there, but, you know, it turns out that in the end, Jack frames him for the murder he didn’t commit, and that’s what gets him. All the murders he did commit still are unaccounted for. But I saw, I was reading the New York Times and I saw this article that talked about lightning survivors having a meeting, getting together in Clearwater, Florida, which is right on Lightning Alley, and where a lot of them had been struck. And it says some of the survivors have been struck two or three times. And how do you get hit by lightning more than once? Three times. I mean, you’ve got to be out there on the golf course holding a putter. And then I said, well, what if they want to get hit? Yeah, I think they kind of want to get hit, but why would they want to get hit? And then (unclear) had asked me for a ghost story, and I said I couldn’t do it, I had no ideas for ghost stories. And I saw this, and I thought, well, what if you can see a dead loved one, even for just a few minutes? And that became “Aftershock,” and that won me the Stoker Award. So from one little blurb in a newspaper . . . or another one, I saw a line that said chimpanzees, this was years and years ago, it said chimpanzees share 98.4 percent of their DNA with humans. And I’m saying, “What? Really? What if they shared 99.6? “That’s where the novel Sim came from. So those are like the epiphanies, the lightning strikes. But the more practiced approach is from the notebook, because I just, as time goes on, I go back and read through the notes and, you know, one from page six, a little blurb on page six will suddenly adhere to something on page eight. And so that’s something . . . sometimes the books grow by a process of accretion. And it’s got to get to the point where I want to write. I think I can make this worthy of somebody’s time to read it and also worthy of my time to write it. And I used to be a real outliner . . . 

That was my next question.

I am a firm believer in an author knowing how to end the story before he begins it. I’ve read too many books, and I’m sure you have to, where you’re going along, and it’s great, it’s just sailing along, cooking, then three-quarters of the way through, it starts to fall apart. You see the little cracks form, and by the end, it’s all falling apart because the author didn’t know how he was going to end it. He’s said, “Oh, sure, I can end it. I’ll think of something when I get there ‘cause I don’t know how I’m going to get there.” Well, you know, sorry, you just disappointed me. I feel I’ve sort of wasted my time reading this. I mean, yeah, the journey’s part of it, but also the destination is really important. Especially for a thriller. I mean, I can see some literary novel where it’s a peripatetic type of wandering narrative, and if it’s really got a good voice, fine, you can be happy with it. But with a thriller, with a horror story, even with science fiction, I want that catharsis. You’re going to be building up emotion in me, you’re going to be building up anticipation, and you’ve got to pay off. I have to blow off that steam. Otherwise, I feel that you haven’t done your job.

I read, I don’t remember what it was, it was a long time ago, but it was kind of a post-apocalyptic thing, and the characters are trying to get to . . . I think it was to New Orleans, where they thought there was still some sort of civilization going on down there. And the whole book is about them trying to get there. But when you got to the end, they were heading down, and it was a standalone, they were heading down the Mississippi, and the book literally ended with, “And maybe they got there, and maybe they didn’t. It’s up to you to decide,” basically.

Oh, no!

So that’s about the only book that I literally threw across the room when got to the end of it.

Yeah, that’s . . . why did you do that? You could have just come up with something. But I outline and plotless now. I do more, you know, story points. I know how I’m going to get there. I mean, I know where I’m going, I’m not always sure how I’m going to get there, but I have the story points and plot points that I can sort of hop to. But even when I had a big outline, I would always put in a drawer and write the book. Because the story was in my head by then. But every once in awhile, I’d come up against something and say, “How do I how do I solve this?” So that’s when I pull out the outline, I say, “Oh, I did, I figured it out in the outline. And there’s how I got around this.” And I put it back. But a lot of times, stuff that looks great in an outline doesn’t work great fleshed out, you know? So, then you’ve got to take a different path, you’ve got to make a left turn or a right turn there, so you wander off your outline, but at least you know where you’re going. This is where I’m going. And then you get there, and you get that catharsis that you promised.

Well, that’s pretty much the way . . . that’s very familiar to me, because these days, fortunately, writing for DAW, you know, I’m selling from a synopsis rather than writing the whole book. So, I have the whole thing figured out. But then I don’t look at it when I’m writing. It’s only if I get stuck somewhere that I might take another look at it and say, “What was I thinking originally? Maybe that actually is better than what it’s ended up being. And so, it’s very similar for me.

Yeah, you wander off the path, which is good, but then, you wonder why you had the path, and then you go and look and say, “Oh yeah, that’s why I had that there.”

What’s your actual writing process like you? Do you write a certain time every day? Do you work on a parchment with a quill pen, or how do you like to write?

Well, you know, I started off on the Olympia portable, and then I started making a little money out of it, I bought the IBM Selectric, and I think it was 1980, I was at the World SF Convention in Boston, I was talking to Joe Halderman, and he said, “Oh, I’m writing on a computer now.” I said, “What?” He said, “Yeah, I’m using a word processor on Apple II.”  And I said, “Word processor, that sounds wonderful,” because I’m still a two-finger typer, millions and millions of words published, all done with two fingers. So the idea of moving a paragraph around or something like that, and not having to retype the page. I mean, this was . . . oh, how long has this been going on? Well, it hadn’t been going on very long. But I went out, and I blew a lot of money. It was like $3,500 to get an Apple II+ with two floppy drives and 48K of RAM.

All you’ll ever need!

Yeah, I could have had 64, but who needs 64? And I used Apple Writer, which was so crude. It didn’t even have word breaks, it was a total wrap-round on the screen. It did print out with word breaks, but on the screen, you couldn’t see the word breaks and an Epson dot-matrix printer. But I thought I was, you know, I was in hog heaven here. I could just fool around with this stuff. I didn’t have the retype stuff, or minimal retyping. It was mostly just fixing. And so now, I write at the computer completely. I’m a morning writer. I always start early in the morning. I’m a morning person. And the first draft, I like to do a thousand, 1500 words a day. And that way, I can keep up the narrative momentum. And I never look back, I never go back and rewrite until I’m done. I call it the vomit draft. I get everything out, get the story on paper, and then I go back and fix it. I forget who said it, but it’s a great saying about getting that vomit draft out. They said, “You can fix bad writing. You can’t fix no writing.”

You’re the second person I’ve interviewed that calls it the vomit draft. My very first interview on the podcast was Robert J. Sawyer, and that’s what he calls it.

Oh, really?

And he said he’d gotten it from Edo van Belkom, who’s a Canadian horror writer.

I know that name.

So, I don’t know where it originated, but yeah. And I’ve been using it since, I’ve been telling people it’s like, “Yeah, you get it on paper, and it’s a huge mess, but you feel better, and then you just have to clean it up. So, it’s quite a good metaphor. So, once you do have that vomit draft, what does your rewriting process look like, then? Do you go back to the beginning? And what sorts of things are you finding and correcting? And how many passes will you do on your revisions?

Well, you know, I’m doing fewer and fewer revision passes because, after 50 years, I’ve gotten pretty good at the first draft.

Practice makes perfect!

Yeah. But, you know, often it’s going back because I’ve made notes as I’ve gone along, I say, “Oh, you got to fix this because, you know, you did this here and you didn’t set it up back there. So, we have to go back and set it up.” So that’s a lot of what my first rewrite or revision is, is consistency, and make sure I’ve set up things that happened later on that occurred to me that weren’t in my original plan. And that happens all the time. And that’s one of the things about writing, say, a trilogy or something like that, is you hand in the first book, it’s gone into production, or maybe even on the third book and the first one is in print. And you’re in the third book and go, “Holy crap, I just wish I had done this blah, blah, blah in book one, so I could do this here, you know. And so, it’s always a process with me, and I’m sure I’m not alone, is that you can’t, over the course of three books, you can’t totally plan for everything you want to do. So, I find that  going in chapter by chapter in a standalone book, you’ve got to set everything up. It’s very important to avoid the deus ex feeling in your readers of “where did this come from?” So, that’s usually what my first revision is. Then I don’t play around with it too much before sending it out to my beta readers. And I have an understanding with them that they can say anything. They can’t hurt my feelings. We’re both on the same page that, “You guys like thrillers, I like to write thrillers, and you want to help me make my book better. So, no matter what you say, I’m not going to take it personally.”

How many beta readers do you have? And where did you find them?

I had four. I’m down to three. Most of, a lot of, times they are other writers, but there are a couple of people who were fans, and they actually asked me, you know, “I found these errors in the book. Yeah, you want me to take a look at something before it goes to press?” And it’s amazing. I work with Tor a lot, and I read it, and I reread it, then my four beta readers read it and make corrections. Then my editor reads it. Then they have a professional copy editor read it, then they typeset it, and then they send it back to me for another read-through of the page proofs, and there’s still, it goes to press, and it comes out, and somebody says, oh, you know, there’s this here and there. Jesus!

Usually when you’re doing a public reading, that’s when I tend to find those. I’m doing a reading at a bookstore or something, and there’s a typo.

Yes, you’ll be reading . . . you know, I always read my dialogue out loud, but I don’t read the whole book out loud. And probably I should, because even then, you know, your brain puts that word in. I just had . . . I did a Christmas children’s back around 2000. Alan Clarke did the illustrations. And we just republished it. And he was going through all the typesetting and everything, and he wrote to me and said, “You know, there’s a word missing in this sentence.” It’s an 8,000-word story. I’ve been through it so many times. And there it is. There’s the word “to.” “To” is missing in between two other words. And every time I read it, I put that word in, my brain put that word in, and for some reason, because he was typesetting it, it popped out to him. So, that’s very frustrating. I find that very frustrating. But that’s why . . . you know, I’ve had some very good beta readers. Someone would drop out because life gets in the way and stuff like that. And then after that, if the beta readers are somewhat consistent, if at least two of them find a problem, then I’ll fix it. If one of them has a problem and the other three don’t know, then it’s iffy if I’ll fix it, or whether I think it really needs to be fixed. But a lot of times, you know, they’ll spot some inconsistency, “Well, you said so and so said this here and then he said this over here,” And I’ll say, “Oh, you’re right.” One of the things that have changed my writing is . . . back, I think it was 2006, Tom Monteleone and Elizabeth Monteleone asked me to be an instructor at their writers’ boot camp. Now, I never had a writing course, never been to a workshop. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I said, “Sure, you know, just give me the manuscripts, I’ll line-edit them, and then we can go over them with the writers.” And, you know, I came back from that, you know, it’s just a very intense three days. I came back from that, and I had been correcting passive voice and doing all this type of stuff for them. And I looked at my own work in progress, and I’m saying, “Holy crap, I’m doing the same thing I was correcting them for. Look at this passive voice, all of these bad constructions.” So, it was an eye-opener for me, and it really improved my writing, really tightened it up, because I kept crossing stuff out of theirs, and I’m looking at my stuff saying, “Yeah, I can do without that. I can do without that.” And so, I think you can see a sort of a watershed in 2006 where all of a sudden my writing becomes leaner and cleaner because of that.

Yeah, I just finished a term as a writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, and I did it a few years ago at the Regina Public Library. And I’ve done workshops and stuff like that. And writer-in-residencing is the same thing. People give me manuscripts, and I go over them and then we talk about them. And I would say very confidently, you know, “Here, you should be doing this.” And in the back of my mind, I’m thinking, “I have a feeling if they look at my own stuff, they’re going to see I did exactly the same thing.”

Don’t look at my stuff!

Do as I say, not as I do, is some of that.

Yeah, exactly.

So, once it gets to your editor, what kind of editorial feedback do you typically get?

I haven’t had much lately. I miss David Hartwell. He used to be my editor for the Repairman Jack books. You know, he was good for the big picture. Writing day after day after day, I’d get a little bit too involved in the leaves, and he would be able to step back and look at the shape of the tree, and said, “You need to fill this out over here and maybe trim this back over here,” or, “Jack’s reaction here, you know, he’s already been through an awful lot of stuff, he’s probably not going to react like this at this point in his career.” And I’m saying, “Yeah, you’re right. Let me just go fix that. So, I miss him because he was with almost all the Repairman Jack books,  right up through Nightworld. And the big irony, he fell carrying a bookcase at home and hit his head and died of a cerebral hemorrhage. Carrying a bookcase. Well, I guess that’s a good way to go.

One thing that I meant to ask as we were talking about the writing process was about characters, and of course, Repairmen Jack is a famous character of yours, but how do you develop characters? Where do you find the people that inhabit your books? And how much work do you do on them before you start writing, and how much simply grows through the process of telling the stories?

I do almost no work on them before. I’m like Nabokov. I think characters are my galley slaves, that’s what he called them, and they’re there to perform a function. So, I mean, for Jack, I did, I made some conscious decisions before I wrote the first Repairman Jack novel that he was going to be not like the other typical thriller heroes. He was not going to be ex-CIA, he was not going to have a history of black ops, he was not an ex-cop, he was not anybody. He was a guy from New Jersey who happened to kill someone, who murdered somebody in New Jersey, the guy who killed his mother, and he murdered him in cold blood. And it sort of changed him. He just sort of divorced himself from human society and went to live in New York City under the radar. So I said, this guy, he’s not going to pay taxes, he’s going to be totally under the radar and off the grid, blah, blah, blah. And so, he’s going to have to set up his own network if he’s going to be doing these fixes and he can’t call on the police, he can’t call on an old buddy to run license plates or fingerprints, he’s got to do it on his own. So, he wound up being a blue-collar hero. And people just responded to that. I mean, when I finished the first book, it was supposed to be a standalone. And I knew when I finished, “People are going to want another one.” And I was determined not to do it. I did not want to get into a series and. So, I spent 14 years doing other things before I did the second Repairman Jack novel. But I let the characters develop as I’m writing. They have to serve the story. I don’t like to really define a character before I start writing because then they start thinking that they’re in charge, and this is my book. “You’re not in charge, I’m in charge, and you do what I tell you to do.” And so . . . unless you have, like, a series character, it changes things. Series characters are different because they have their own personality over the course of the books, and they’re going to do what they’re going to do. But everybody else, they’re going to do what I want them to do. And that’s another thing, when I go back and do my first revision. I don’t know that character when I start. By the end of the book, I know that character pretty well. So I go and rewrite him from the beginning, or her, to be the person I need them to be at the end, and so that way, it seems like I planned this all along. But I haven’t. I’ve just I’ve gone by, you know, I’ve winged it. But it sure doesn’t look like that because, as I said, I make it consistent all the way through.

Well, we’ve been talking about your novels. But, of course, what you have coming up, or probably is out as this goes live, is . . .

My next one is . . . oh, yeah, October.

Yeah, is this collection of shorter pieces. Pastiches, I believe you called them. So, tell me about that and what that is. It sounds interesting.

Well, Other Sandboxes is the title, and over the years. I’ve been asked to do . . . I’ve been asked to do a Lovecraft story, like for Lovecraft’s Legacy, Bob Weinberg and  Marty Greenberg, they wanted a Lovecraft story. So, I wrote “The Barrens,” sort of a novella, you know, and it mentions Miskatonic University, it mentions Arkham, Massachusetts and the like, but it takes place in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, which I so twisted into a very Lovecraftian place. I didn’t have to do a lot of twisting. It is a weird place. And then you’re going along . . . and Marty Greenberg is responsible for a lot of it because of all the anthologies he did, all the theme anthologies. Like, he did a Batman anthology when the movie came out, The Further Adventures of Batman, and he didn’t ask me to be in it. And I caught him one day, and I said, “You know, you never asked me,” he said, “I didn’t think you would be interested in comic books,” and I said, “I just love comic books. I’ve written for comic books. I wrote for Creepy and Eerie during the ‘70s. And Batman is the one hero I like because he doesn’t have superpowers.” And he said, “We’re doing a Joker anthology next, do you want in?” and I said, “Oh, I definitely want in.” So that was, “Definitive Therapy,” and then he did a Dick Tracy anthology to go with the movie, and I did one for that, and so as time goes on . . . I mean, Joe Lansdale asked me for a story for his retro-pulp anthology, and I mixed in Fu Manchu. I even threw in Daddy Warbucks. So, there’s a whole bunch of these stories, plus there are other people that I have, you know, living writers like Blake Crouch. He did that Wayward Pines that became a TV series, but he did three books initially and Kindle Worlds, they did a Kindle World for him for his Wayward Pines stories. And he asked me to kick it off if I would, and I didn’t think I could, and all of a sudden, I came up with a really killer story. And so, I did that and . . . so oh, yeah, Leslie Klinger asked me for a Sherlock Holmes for one of his Sherlock Holmes anthologies. So, they all added up, and I had all these stories in other people’s sandboxes. And so, I said, “Gee, why don’t I just put them all together.” And I love the title, and Borderlands Press is putting it out . . .oh, and the coverage by a Canadian, Gerhard, he used to do the backgrounds for the Cerebrus comic book. He’s from Kitchener. And so, it’s a really handsome, handsome book, and it’s pretty fat, too, it’s like 160,000 words.

Wow.

Yeah. A lot of stories I’ve done all those years, so I’m looking forward to that. You’re recycling stories, obviously, but . . .

It’s rare that anybody would have read them all, so they’ll be new to most people.

Exactly. You’re going to find some, you know, even if you’ve read some of the other ones, you’re going to find a passel of new ones you haven’t. And, you know, they’re all definitely the thriller type of short story.

We’re getting close to the end of the time here, end of the hour. Not that anybody’s really counting, it’s just me and the cat, and the cat doesn’t care. But I’d like to ask the big philosophical question, which is basically, why we do this. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why write stories of the fantastic specifically?

Oh, that’s always a tough one. Why do you do anything? I just . . . I don’t consider myself a writer. I’m a storyteller. I love to tell stories, and I love to suck you into a good story because then, for a while, I can own you, I can squeeze your adrenaline, squeeze your tear ducts, or whatever. But I find tremendous satisfaction in finishing a story and having it come out the way I wanted it to. And that’s tremendously satisfying for me. So, that’s what keeps me going. I think I started off doing it to see if I could do it. But that, you know, once I found out I could do it, there has to be something else that’s going to, you know, keep it going. And sometimes, you know, you think it’s a little bit of immortality, that after you’re gone, somebody is going to pick up one of these books and read it and in a way, you’re still alive. Woody Allen once said, he says, some people, writers, want to achieve immortality through their books. He said, “I’d much prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.” But anyway, I knew that, just for some reason, I get a tremendous satisfaction out of it. And I always tell a story that I would want to read. And I don’t want to read literary fiction. I don’t want to read a straight romance novel. I want something that’s going to . . . I don’t like mimetic fiction. I don’t want to read about something that could be happening down my block. I don’t want to read about a professor having an affair, an English professor having an affair at the college with a student, or something like that. Because that really happens. And that’s the promise of fiction to me, is to take you someplace where you can’t go. And this writer is going to take me someplace where I can’t go by myself, and I want to go along. And if I can walk down the street and find these people that some of these writers are writing about, what do I need them for? You know, I can find the people myself. But you’re going to take me someplace that doesn’t exist? Well, cool. I’m there. So that’s what I want to do.

And where are you taking readers next? What are you working on right now?

Right now, I’m working on another sort of a cosmic horror novel, but I do have a, next June, I have to call it a science fiction, weird science fiction, but science fiction novel,  coming out from Tor. My title was (unclear), they always hate my title, so now it’s called Double Threat. And it’s really a rewrite of my first novel, Healer, transposed from the far future to the present time. I transgendered the hero from male to a millennial female, and . . . totally different take on the book. And those changes, you know, make it . . . you wouldn’t know it was the same book. So that was fun.

And that comes out next June?

That comes out in June.

And where can people find you online?

I’m at RepairmanJack.com. I’m also on Facebook, and I’m also on Twitter @FPaulWilson.

Well, that’s kind of the time. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that chat. I hope you did, too.

I did. And that’s it for now. So, thanks so much, and bye for now.

My pleasure. Bye bye.

Episode 69: Glen Zipper & Elaine Mongeon

An hour-long conversation with Elaine Mongeon and Glen Zipper, filmmakers, screenwriters, and authors of the new young-adult space-opera novel Devastation Class, first book in a trilogy from Blink.

Website
www.devastationclass.com

Twitter
@E_Mongeon
@Zipper

Instagram
@ElaineMongeon
@GlenZipper

The Introduction

Photo: Charles W. Murphy

Award-winning filmmaker Elaine Mongeon wrote and directed the short films Good Morning for Warner Bros. Pictures and Swiped to Death for Hulu and the Sundance Institute. She also served as an associate producer on Magic Mike XXL. Elaine has a love for the outdoors and has been known to spend her time traversing glaciers in Canada and precision motorcycle riding. Originally from New England, she currently resides in Los Angeles.

Glen Zipper is producer of the Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated, and the popular Netflix series Dogs, which was greenlit for a second season, as developed and co-produced the recent Netflix hit docuseries Challenger: The Final Flight.  He is also known for producing the HBO film Showbiz Kids directed by Alex Winter of the hit franchise Bill and Ted and is producer of the Emmy Award-nominated and Critics Choice Awards-winning HBO series What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali.  Born in New York City and raised in Fort Lee, NJ, Glen currently resides in Los Angeles, where he enjoys motorcycle riding and stopping to pet every dog he sees. 

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Glenn, Elaine, welcome to The World Shapers.

Thanks so much for having us.

And now this will be an interesting one. I have not done two co-authors at once. I have done co-authors, but I did them as separate episodes. So, we’ll see how this goes.

We’ll still follow the same procedure, I should say, first, usually I say, oh, we met at some convention or something. But no, we’ve never met in person. So, this is all new territory for me. We’ll start as I always start, which is taking you back into the mists of time and find out how each of you—and we’ll have to trade this back and forth a bit—how each of you, where you grew up and that sort of thing, basic biographical information, but how you got interested in storytelling. You’re both filmmakers now. You’ve written a novel. Was there writing and books involved in your early interest in science fiction fantasy, or where did that all come from? So why don’t we start with Elaine?

E: OK, well, so from a very early age, my mom would encourage my siblings and me to tell stories. Basically, from the time we could talk, we’d tell the stories, and she’d write them down and draw the pictures. And then, once we could write and draw, she encouraged us to write and illustrate our own storybooks. She is a writer herself and an English teacher, and, you know, she just really encouraged us to explore our imaginations. And then, my older brother and sister, who were eight and ten years older than me, they really introduced me to sci-fi and fantasy. I was reading things like The Neverending Story and The Lord of the Rings and then progressed to things like The Stand, when I was much too young to be reading stuff like that. But movies really played a big part, movies and series in introducing me to sci-fi and growing my love of it, just, you know, Star Wars, the original Superman movies, Mad Max, the Alien movies, Blade Runner, all of these movies that I probably shouldn’t have been watching. So, that’s kind of how it all started.

And, you know, I would write privately because my mom never stopped encouraging us to write. And then, in high school, my English teacher was sort of the first person other than my mom to encourage me to keep writing creatively. And then I went on to college, originally as a bio/pre-med major, because I never actually thought that I could, you know, develop my writing into something that I would do professionally. It was always just sort of something that I did for fun in my spare time. But I quickly realized that science wasn’t really the track that I wanted to be on. My mom actually…I called my mom in tears when I was in Chemistry 101, freshman year of college, and she said, “Get out of the class.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” And, you know, “This is my dream of becoming a doctor?” And she was like, “It’s OK,” you know, like, “You’re miserable. Do you really want to be this miserable for the next at least eight years of your life?” And so, she was very, very smart in, you know, supporting me and making the change. And I kind of floundered for a semester, and then she called and said, “B.U. has a film program. You love writing, you love movies. Your brother loved film school. Why not consider going to film school?” And again, you know, she just had this insight into, you know, kind of what I was not realizing for myself, which is that I’ve always been a storyteller, and I just never really thought of it as a practical whole. And so, I did the film school, and I got in, and I absolutely loved it. And that set me on the right course that eventually led me to L.A.

And, Glen, what’s your story?

G: You know, I’ve been answering this question a lot in the last few weeks since the book got released. And I’m realizing that I’m getting free therapy as I answer the question, and some sort of working it out. And my answer is evolving as I’m coming closer and closer to the truth of where it all began, I think? For me, I had a relatively difficult childhood, like many other people, child of divorce, and there was a lot of stress going on in the family. And we had one of the first VCRs, top-loading VCR, and we had four we had four tapes. We had Star Wars, we had Superman, we had The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and we had a film called Where’s Papa? with George Segal and Ruth Gordon. And those, the confluence of those four films, I think, might have warped my mind a little bit. Star Wars and Superman, you know, a child’s brain could process. Then you go to Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I don’t know what that did to me, but it definitely did something. Where’s Papa? I didn’t totally understand. But when you’re that age, you look at TV, it’s not a TV, it’s a window. You think that what’s on the other side of it is real or some version of real. And when all the other chaos was going on in my life, that world, looking through that window, is what brought me comfort. And as you mature, as you get older and you start to come to terms with the fact that it’s not real and that the comfort of that imaginary world starts to go away because it’s it is imaginary, I think I just had this impulse to start creating my own world because if they lived inside my own head, they were somehow real, or more real. And as time went on, and I lived with these stories in my head, there’s yet another impulse that starts to take root, which is, “I want to share these stories.” They’re not going to be fully realized or fully real unless I bring them out into the world, unless other people can see them and touch them and be affected by them.

And for me, that started in film. But as a producer, you’re really just executing, helping other artists execute on their visions. I have a joke that I make, which is, “What does a producer do? A producer takes a director’s dream and makes it their nightmare.” And there is a lot of truth to that statement. Not that it’s an unpleasant thing to do, it’s a wonderful thing to do, but you . . . again, you are problem-solving for someone else. And it’s very . . . there’s not all that much direct creative energy that you’re able to put into something. So, between the process of, throughout my life, of coming up with these own stories and building these imaginary world in my head and at the same time being frustrated at not being able to tell my own stories as a producer, I think it was just a natural progression and evolution to wanting to write my own stories.

Now, writing scripts is different from writing prose. Had you done a lot of prose writing, either one of you, or had you been very much focused on scriptwriting?

G: Scriptwriting. But there’’s a funny story there, which is, Devastation Class initially was conceived as a television show because that’s what we knew how to do. And we wrote a pilot and wrote a few episodes, we wrote a bible, and we showed it to our TV and film connections and friends and colleagues. And the response was overwhelmingly positive, but as often happens in this business, overwhelmingly positive response does not necessarily lead to anything productive. “This is great,” but no one wanted to lift a finger to help us get this thing set up anywhere. And we languished with it for a minute, and then Elaine sent it to a friend who is an artist who does cover art for writing novels, and we wanted him just to read it as sort of a fanboy read to tell us if it passed his sniff test, and he read it, and he loved it, and he asked if he could show it to his, to a couple of editors at where he worked. And he showed it to them, and a couple of months later, they reached out to us very excited, and they asked us if we could write it as a novel, if we could write prose. And that’s when Elaine and I both decided that we needed to just lie a lot. “Yeah, 100 percent, we write prose all the time.” It’s not that, we do it for ourselves, and we never let anyone read it, but, you know, I had stacks and stacks of things I’ve written that I’ll never let the world see. But maybe this is the first thing that will write that we’ll let the world see. And so that sort of “fake it till you make it” moment is where the transition from TV to novel began.

Well, how did you two meet, and how did the collaboration begin?

E: We met on an online dating site . . . it’s actually sort of a lifestyle website called nerve.com that had a personal section. And, you know, we met, we had a first date, the first day quickly turned into an overnight binge-watch of Battlestar Galactica, the Ron Moore version. Because we quickly discovered in hanging out that we had a lot of similar interests and mutual love of all things genre, specifically sci-fi. So, you know, we did this binge, and we were together probably for about a year or so when we decided that it would be really cool to collaborate on something together, and the original core idea that we came up with was “teenagers in space,” sort of aboard a starship, a sort of Lord of the Flies in the stars. And then the idea kind of grew from there. And we were actually inspired by this movie called Taps.

Yes. I saw I saw that. And I very much remember I’m old. I saw Taps when it first came out in the movie theater, I was probably . .  it came out in what, ’81 or something like that.

G. Yeah.

So, I would have been about the same age as the characters—a little older, I was 22 in 1981, I guess, and had just started working as a newspaper reporter and editor. I have a very clear memory of Taps and how much I enjoyed it. And so, it was interesting to see that, and I can see the connection in the book. So, how did you come to Taps, though? I mean, it’s an old movie.

G. Yeah, it was, you know . . . I’m a bit younger than you, I was relatively young when it came out, I think I would have been about 10 or 11 years old. In the early days of HBO, they didn’t have very many movies. And so, what they would do was, they would take whatever movies they had, and they would just loop them, just one after the other after the other, and Taps was in that rotation. And so, even though I was probably too young to truly understand the sort of the implications of the movie and the themes of the movie, I became invested in that film after watching it so many times. And although we didn’t know who those actors were at the time because they weren’t quite that famous yet, we did have Tom Cruise and Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton, and it did have Giancarlo Esposito. And these are some remarkably powerful actors. So, even though they weren’t famous, their performances were remarkably effective. And I think that also left an impression on me. And it’s also a very jarring film. For those who haven’t seen it yet, I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but when you leave that film, it’s just one of those films that sticks with you for a while and feels like, a bit like a gut punch to the stomach. And so, I’m sure that that was part of the reason the film lingered with both of us for so long.

The divergence between Taps and Devastation Class is, in Taps, you had these military cadets who were students at a military academy, and they had a loyalty to the ideal behind the academy. And when the academy was threatened with being demolished to make way for some new condominiums, these cadets, they just couldn’t bear the thought of it, and they essentially mutiny and take control of the academy and try to prevent the construction crews from coming in and tearing down the academy. But that is a story about sort of an abstraction, a loyalty to an ideal. And you could look at that film and say, “Well, with these cadets did, really, their actions can’t be justified. The means don’t justify the ends here.” You know, the academy goes away, there’s some new condominiums that go up. Yeah. And so what? And to us, we said, “What if we took that to another level? What if the stakes were life and death? What if we had a group of cadets where if they didn’t take action, even though they weren’t permitted to, even though it would require a mutiny, if they didn’t take action, if they really believe that will need to their deaths and lead to the demise of perhaps even human civilization, what do you do now? And how do you handle the unforeseen consequences that come as a result of that decision?”

This might be a good point for a brief synopsis of the book for those who have not yet read it. Without giving anything away.

G. Sure. The story takes place in the very distant future after the conclusion of a devastating nine-year war with an alien race called the Kastazi. And in the aftermath of the war, humanity is having a bit of a renaissance, and instead of taking their battleships into space to fight aliens, they’re going on missions of science and learning. It’s peacetime. And because these battleships no longer have a war to fight and don’t need to be packed to the gills with soldiers, they’ve even taken students and young military cadets aboard these ships as they go on their missions of science and learning. And on one particular mission, on the flagship of humanity’s fleet, the alien race, the Kastazi, they return. A reinvasion force returns. And when the ship comes under attack, most of the adult officers are off the ship on a space station. And the few adult officers that are remaining on the ship are really not competent enough to save the lives of everyone that’s remaining on the ship. So, our cadets make the impossible decision to mutiny, to take over the ship, and to try and save themselves and everyone else. But after that happens, chaos is unleashed, and consequences that our characters never saw coming do manifest, and a mystery eons in the making starts to slowly become unraveled, which will ultimately lead to some pretty shocking surprises across the trilogy of books.

So, once you had the inspiration and once you decided that this was going to be a novel, what did your planning process look like? There’s two of you. You obviously would have had a lot of bouncing of ideas off of each other. Did you end up with a very detailed outline, or did you have a general idea and then just start writing? And how did that work for you?

E. Well, we were tasked, when we spoke with those editors who expressed interest in the story, they suggested that we write a book proposal.

You already had a serious proposal, right, like a series bible?

We did. Yeah, we had three episodes of the series written in script form. And then we had a bible for the rest of season one. So, we already had, you know, we had already structured out a lot of the story. Now, when we decided to make it into a novel, a lot of the original concept changed structurally, and characters changed, but for the most part, the bones stayed the same. So, we wrote about a hundred pages of prose, and then the rest of it was an outline, basically a synopsis of what the rest of the book was going to be. And because we lived together for a large portion of our relationship, we were constantly, or we were spending so much time together, we were constantly, in our free time—because we were both working our other jobs while we were doing this—we were really spending a lot of our free time just talking things through before pen ever went to paper and exploring other ideas and spending our weekend brunches, like, over eggs and pancakes, just talking a lot about where the story was going to take us and where these characters were going to go.

Did you have any major disagreements during that process about how it should proceed?

G. We did. We had a big one in the beginning, which was . . . we had initially started writing the book in the third person because there’s so much action that takes place parallel to other action in the story. And if you’re in the head of, or in the perspective of, one character, how do you see that? How do we get that across to the reader? How do we portray in an efficient way all these multiple storylines that are happening at the same time? And we gave it a crack, and we were probably a third of the way through the book, and I think we both instinctively knew that something wasn’t working. And I was more stubborn and wanted to stay in the third person, and Elaine was very dogged about wanting to give the first-person perspective a shot. And at some point, I got frustrated enough with her that I said, “Fine, just go do it, you go do it, and then you send it to me, and it’s going to be terrible, and then I’ll tell you it’s terrible, and then we’ll go back to the third person.” And so, she went away, she did that, she sent it to me, I opened it up, started reading it very angrily, like, “This is going to be terrible. I think this is . . . oh, this is actually excellent. Golly.” And then I had to admit that I was wrong, which I hate doing, and I’ve done maybe three or four times in my life, not any more than that. And we went back, and we changed the perspective, and it was all first-person, and it became a multiple-character book. So, we tell the story through the perspectives of various characters. And that was our way of being able to touch on the various storylines that are happening parallel to each one other at the same time.

Yeah, choosing the voices is always challenging. My current one is mostly first-person, but I did . . . it’s first-person with third person, is what I did, which was interesting.

E. Whoa. Wow.

And I did one years ago, before I was getting published, but when I was still feeling my way, I wrote an entire book in third person, and then I wrote it again from first person. And first-person, I think . . . I mean, your book, having only seen it in first person, it’s hard to imagine it in third person because the first person seems, you know, it’s very immediate, and you’re right in these kids’ heads. So, yeah, I think I think Elaine was right, Glen.

G. She was. It’s quite frustrating. And I’m just going to have to live with it. I’m in therapy, and I’m working through it. I’m getting a little bit better every day.

Well, once you had your outline, what did your actual writing process look like? You’re collaborating, are you writing, each person writing a chapter, then switching them back and forth? Or how did that work for you? And I’m presuming because you’re collaborating, that it was all done on computer. You’re not literally putting pen to paper, which is the expression Elaine used, but maybe. I don’t know.

E. No, no. Everything is definitely on the computer. You know, we have this joke that, like, people often envision is writing together, sitting at, like, a kitchen table with our laptops back to back as if we’re playing a game of Battleship. But that’s definitely not how we do it. Yeah, one of us will go off and write a handful of chapters and then send it off to the other person, and that person will take a stab at it, and we just kind of go back and forth until we’re both happy with how they’ve landed. And, you know, sometimes we have heated discussions about things that we disagree on, but I would say that along the way, a large percentage of the time, we are very much in agreement about, you know, what it should be.

So, one of the interesting things here, you’ve got a fairly complex world with various alien races. I love the fact that the Greys are an actual alien race, I thought that was very funny, and you’ve got, you know, spaceships, you’ve got to have to figure out how you’re going to, you know, how do they get around the galaxy? You have this Blink reactor, which is something else. You’ve got space stations. So, what kind of research and sort of that level of planning would you have to do? It’s kind of like, you know, in film terms, it’s like set design and set decoration and stuff like that. Did you have a lot of that kind of material worked out ahead of time, especially when you’re writing separately? You know, you want to make sure that one person’s version of the spaceship is the same length as the other one and has the same arrangement of rooms and things like that.

E. We actually, you know, for the actual ship of the California, we actually sat down one day and, like, talked it through and made a diagram of where things would be just . . . you know, I mean, neither one of us are our artists in that way, but a super crude drawing of where, of how to lay it out, just so that we could . . . you know, it’s much easier to envision where things are happening if you actually have it plotted out. So, I kind of remember looking at some maps of the galaxy online and then quickly abandoning the idea of being accurate because it’s so complex, you know . . .

And you’re in three dimensions, too, it’s not a two-dimensional world.

E. Exactly, so . . .

G. There’s also, you know . . . I think some of the influences are obvious in the book, and one of the primary ones would be Star Trek. And I remember at some point watching, it was a YouTube video of someone who worked on Star Trek and designed the technology and wrote the technobabble, and someone in the audience raised their hand, and they asked the question, they said, “Well, how does the transporter work?” And the Star Trek production person looked at that person and said, “Very well, thank you.” And I sort of took it the heart, you know, and we also, as we were writing the book, we were thinking about, you know, what if someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson read the book and tweeted out, like, “Well, that’s not how something would operate in space.” But our answer to that would be, “Are you really sure this book is happening in space?”

Well, and there’s a lot more freedom with a far-future tale than there is, if you’re trying to do, you know, Gravity or something like that, which looked good, but apparently was really quite wrong in many ways.

G. Yeah.

But when you’re dealing with the far future, of course, you could say, “Well, yeah, we have artificial gravity, and why do we have artificial gravity? Well, because it’s really hard to tell a story where everybody floats around all the time.”

 E. Yeah, exactly. Yes.

And that’s a long history in science fiction with space drives, right, hyperspace and folding space and time, because otherwise you just can’t tell the story you want to tell.

G. Exactly.

E. Exactly.

What about characters? How did you find the characters you wanted, and how did how do you build up and design your characters?

G. I think there is an inevitable impulse to imbue yourself into these characters somewhat. We all like to see ourselves as the protagonist. Even when we’re watching a film that we love, we see. . . you’re watching Star Wars, you sort of see yourself in Luke Skywalker, and you see yourself in Princess Leia, even though that is ridiculous, you just inevitably do that. At some point, we realized that we were probably doing that a bit too much because we have arguments, like, Elaine would say, “Well, JD would never do that.” And I would say, “What do you mean you wouldn’t do that? I am him. And that’s exactly what I would do.” And then she would look at me and say, “You’re not him. “And she was right because he’s far more talented, far more proficient in everything he does than anything I do. Probably the more accurate component or portrayal of ourselves in these characters are in their flaws and their insecurities and their doubts. So, in that sense, a part of us lives in all these characters.

Another interesting influence for us, if you noticed, the book is dedicated in part to our dog, who sadly left us last December after being with me for 17 years. But his loyalty, his love, his tenaciousness, his fierceness. You know, he was sitting at our feet the whole time we were writing this book, and he was an omnipresent reminder about the best qualities that we could hope for any of these characters to have. And so, there’s a part of him that that lives in each of these characters.

And then also, we both have an affinity for all things 1980s, particularly 1980s films like John Hughes films. And if you look at those films, many of them were ensembles with teenage characters from every walk of life. And, you know, if you watch those films, you always pick a character that you identify with more than some of the others. And we wanted this book to have some of that as well, which is also why we were very careful to not be too particular in the way that we describe the physical appearance of these characters because we didn’t want there to be a bar to entry in that identification. We wanted someone reading the book who identified with JD or Viv or Anatoly or Safieh or Ohno to say, “Oh yeah, that’s me. That’s my character in this book. So, I think, if you take all those factors and put them into a bag, that’s really the origin story from where these characters came from.

You started with teenagers right off the bat, when you first started this idea, what drew you to a teen story where the characters are young?

G. Because it helped with the stakes, because they’re not yet equipped to solve even the most basic problem sometimes. We would submit drafts to our editor, and a note that we got back often and that we found frustrating was, like, “Why did they make this decision? It’s stupid.” And we’d be like, “You remember when you were a kid and all the stupid decisions that you made?” And, you know, we were making stupid decisions as kids, sort of like, maybe, we drove the car too fast, or maybe we broke the lamp, and we lied about it. We didn’t have life and death stakes. We didn’t have the fate of the universe on our shoulders. And, so imagine how difficult it is for someone in the position of these characters who are 17, 18 years old, to have to navigate the stakes of the universe imploding upon them. And to us, that was much more interesting than 40-year-olds, 30-year-olds, who have some life experience, have navigated some serious landmines in their time, it’s just that juxtaposition of, those who are not ready who have to take on something that, if they were to just stand down, would probably result in their demise. That’s why the tag line of the book is “Fate Doesn’t Wait for the Ready.”

Yeah, I think that’s what draws many people to YA, both as authors and as readers. And, I mean, even adults read a lot of YA. I’ve written quite a bit of who I am. I have a trilogy called The Masks of Aygrima with a fifteen-year-old protagonist. And I would see reviews that say, “She keeps doing stupid things.” And I said, “She’s a 15-year-old girl. Of course, she does stupid things!”

E. It’s so frustrating, so frustrating. We feel your pain.

Now, you are scriptwriters first, and then you’ve come to prose. So, what differences did you find in writing prose as opposed to writing scripts? Obviously, there’s more description and maybe less dialogue, but other than that . . 

E. Well, you know, with prose, you’re not limited by the sort of parameters that you have to follow within film and television. You know, we didn’t have to conform to a certain page length, for instance. We didn’t have worry about a budget.

There’s a famous story there that you may have heard. Star Trek’s episode. City on the Edge of Forever, Harlan Ellison’s original script had, like, this huge valley with giant statues looming over it, stretching off into the distance. And at the end, it was a, you know, a plaster rock with a hole in the middle of it showing old newsreel footage.

E. Yeah.

G. The ability to, going back to the first-person perspective, there is the ability to be in somebody’s head. Whereas, if you were going to do that in a film or TV show, really the only way to do that is through narration, which is really hard to do well without it being boring, without it feeling like it’s a crutch. We’re like, “Oh, we couldn’t, we’re afraid the audience doesn’t understand this. So, we’re going to have, we’re going to have a narrator sort of connect the dots for us. You know, famously, the Harrison Ford, the version of Blade Runnerwhere Harrison Ford is narrating everything you’re seeing, which isn’t very good, at least in my opinion.

E. Agreed.

G. And so, but when you’re writing prose, it does make sense. It doesn’t feel like a crutch. It doesn’t feel like you’re connecting dots for the audience that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to connect themselves. Instead, it feels like you’re offering the audience an intimacy with these characters that they wouldn’t otherwise have. And when you have that level of intimacy with characters, it’s much easier to invest yourselves in them. And that’s the formula for storytelling in our minds: characters you’re invested in, who go on a journey with stakes that are somehow paid off in the end.

On the other side, what . . . I mean, that’s a change. What advantages do you think being a scriptwriter first brought to your prose writing?

G. Efficiency, because in the end, you write a script, anything longer than 90 pages is hard for people to get through. I mean, like, the people who read scripts, you know, they usually go home over the weekend with seven or eight scripts that they need to read. And it basically destroys your entire weekend. It’s like, you can’t read that many scripts over a weekend and have a sort of personal or social life. And so, I remember, back in the day when I had to read scripts, when I would open up a script, and it was 120 pages, I would be like, “Come on, man, there’s no reason . . . like, why? You can tell this story in 90 pages. Why are you expecting me to read these extra 30? And so, we had to constrain ourselves to the same limitations when we would write in screenplay format. And so, you develop the tools and the skills to have an efficiency in storytelling, to be able to tell your story more clearly and with less runway. And also, without the crutch of being in someone’s head, you have to learn how to connect the dots through action, to have things make sense without your characters literally talking to you and telling you why they’re doing what they’re doing. And I think if you take those skills and you apply them to the prose, it allows for the same sort of efficiency. And then, you have to remind yourself to take the governor off and to allow yourself to go a little bit deeper, to let go of some of those efficiencies.

Do you think that there’s a better grasp of pacing, perhaps, than you see in some prose?

I mean, I don’t know how to answer that question without sounding like patting ourselves on the back, but I think so. But I think that could also be a criticism of the book, where someone will say, you know, “Why didn’t we get more time to sort of live inside these characters’ heads, get to know them, be more in tune with their inner dialogue? Why does it have to be sweaty action from chapter to chapter to chapter?” And we just made the choice early on that’s the sort of storytelling we wanted to engage in, where we wanted this book to feel like. Like, an action movie in a book. We never had the ambition for it to literally be Lord of the Flies or anything of that ambition. We just wanted people to read this book and have a tremendous amount of fun with it. And then when they were finished, kind of feel exhausted in the best possible way.

I think there are . . .whenever you writing a book, you’re writing for different readers, some readers will like the choice you made and some won’t. You can’t satisfy everybody—unlike in film where, you know, everybody loves every film. So, Elaine, you’ve done directing, and maybe Glenn, you have, too. I’m a stage actor myself, and I’ve directed and written plays. And I’ve . . . when I talk to people who have some theatrical or filmmaking experience, one of the things that it seems to me is that . . . I feel like I have a really good grasp in my head of where people are in relationship to each other. When I’m doing action scenes like, I know where they are in the room and where they have to go to to make something happen. Do you feel that perhaps your directing background helped with some of this on-the-page action as opposed to on-the-screen action?

E. Yeah, I would say so. I mean, you know, just having the ability to visualize people within a certain space. And, you know, I think that both Glen and I, because of our, even just, love of movies, really brought that eye toward a cinematic representation of, you know, when we’re describing what people are doing and describing the action, we really wanted it to feel cinematic overall. And I only directed for the very first time in a real way three years ago. And by that point, were already well into, you know, heavily into the book. So, I think, you know, the book helped the directing in many ways, and the directing helped the writing of the book. It kind of goes hand in hand, I think.

How long did it take you to write the version that you considered completed?

G. We’ve struggled with answering that question because we’ve done so many iterations, we don’t really know when it started, you know, because we had that first version of it that was a television pilot and then three episodes, and we did the book proposal, and then we made the revision from third person to first person. And so, where we settled is that writing the book proper was probably about four years or so. And a lot of that also . . . and this is a trilogy, so there were elements to the story that we pulled out that we are saving for subsequent installments of the book. And so, we weren’t just writing one book, we were writing three books, so that four-year time frame is a bit non-representative as it relates to one book, because we weren’t just writing one book.

Plus, you were doing other things at the same time.

E. A lot of other things. Yeah, a lot of other things. And I can add that we . . . there was a practical element to sort of the timeline, just because we had changes in editors at one point, so, you know, you kind of bring somebody else into the fold to have those creative conversations and things shift a bit. So . . .

That kind of leads to the next question, which is the revision and an editorial process. Did you write a complete draft, and then you were showing it to the editor or did . . . it sounded like maybe you had input along the way? Since they had come to you and asked for this.

G. Yeah, I mean, there was some back and forth. We did definitely show them components of the book before it was completed . . .

E. We also didn’t end up selling it to the original people that were interested.

Oh, really?

E. Yeah, which is really interesting. They kind of wanted . . .it turned out they wanted more of a heavily romantic element, and we weren’t interested in, like, in diving into that. Yeah, so we ended up at a different place, actually.

Did you show it to other people along the way? I mean, many authors use what are often called beta readers, sometimes alpha readers, people who read it before it’s finished and give feedback. Did you have anybody like that, like friends or colleagues that you shared it with along the way?

E. No, we really didn’t. We shared it with our agent, Charlie Olson at Inkwell, who’s been with us from the very beginning, and I think Glen and I both felt like, because we had each other to bounce things off of, we didn’t really . . .you know, it can get a little murky and sometimes messy when you have too many people kind of weighing in. So, we kind of just wanted to keep it limited, you know, with the exception of that very early decision to share it as the TV version just to kind of get like that, “Yeah, this is good,” reaction. We really kept it to a small, small circle.

It’s interesting because I read acknowledgments in many books, and there are so many people that are, like, “And thank you to all these edits,” and it’s like ten people that pre-read and gave feedback. And I was like, “Wow, you know, like we didn’t do that at all.”

Yeah, it’s interesting. Well, one of the things about this podcast is, 

I talk to authors, bestsellers, and everybody does it differently. And many people have beta readers, but others don’t. I never have, partly from growing up in a small town. There just wasn’t . . . the writers’ group in my town, in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, was elderly women who wrote stories about the Depression, so . . .

E. Wow.

And I was writing science fiction and fantasy, and it just wasn’t a good match.

E. Yeah.

So, I just never got used to that. My stuff,  I write it, and I send it to my editor, and that’s, she’s the first person that sees it, so . . .

G. It’s really interesting, because we do a lot of this in film, too, where we test stuff before we . . . if we’re making something from Netflix, we’ll have a friends-and-family screening, and you’ll get feedback from people. I’m always sort of on the fence about if it’s a good idea at all because when you ask people for criticism, you know, they’re

loathe to just say, “Yeah, it’s great, don’t change a thing.” They feel like they’re required to give you some sort of criticism. And there’s also . . . ego comes into it. So, like, if they don’t make suggestions for how to make it better, they haven’t left their imprint on your work. And so, it’s really hard to cut through it all and decide which notes to take and which notes to dispense. And really, the only way, in my experience, to figure out which notes are truly legitimate from other notes that are just someone imposing their own creative, you know, feelings on something, telling you the story that they would write if they were writing it, is to get a tremendous amount of feedback, because then you could say, “What are the notes that that keep coming up again and again and again, by different people consistently?” because that’s probably an issue that needs to be addressed. The thing is, a book is so personal that I wouldn’t feel comfortable showing an unfinished draft to 40 people. So, it’s a bit of a Catch-22.

That is one of the freeing things about writing a book as opposed to working . . . and again, my experience is more in theatre. Everything is very collaborative, maybe not, probably not, as much in theatre as it is in film and television. Whereas with a book, it’s really just, you ultimately get the final say—maybe the editor, yeah, but you don’t have to necessarily take anybody’s advice if you don’t want to while you’re writing it. Was that freeing?

E. It was freeing, for sure. I mean, you know, I love the collaborative nature of filmmaking. It’s one of my favorite parts of the process, is you bringing together all of these tremendously talented people to contribute toward this one goal. But it was definitely nice to just kind of have it be us, you know, figuring it out and working through it and exploring our imaginations. Just us.

Once you did submit it to the publisher, what kind of editorial feedback came back? Were there specific things you needed to work on that you had perhaps not worked on until the editor said, “Hm . . .”?

E. I think one thing that came up early on in the editorial process that we at first were, I think, a little reluctant to . . . and then ultimately decided it was a very good idea . . .was adding the perspective of one of the students, which we hadn’t done. We had only had the cadets’ perspective. And that was a really important contribution from our editor that we think, you know, we feel really improved the storytelling because we were really able to present both sides. And, you know, that was key. Glen, can you think of anything else that may have . . .?

G. I think that’s probably the big one.

E. You want to talk about Bossa a little bit?

G. Well, yeah, well, I mean, it actually might be something that I think was an editorial feedback that we got that we, if we can do it all over again, we would have rejected, which was . . .  there is another character in the book, named Bossa, who is an outsider, a bit of a space pirate, who comes into the story and sort of unsettles things. And we had his perspective in the book. And our first editor just didn’t didn’t think it was appropriate to have his perspective in the book. And he was a bit of a, certainly a lighter character in terms of his perspective. Certainly not a light character, but he definitely had an irascible spirit about him, or does have an irascible spirit about him, and was just really fun to write. And we ultimately took that note, and we did remove his perspective from book one. But, oh, he’s going to be all over book two, his perspective, from beginning to end.

E. Yeah, we’re really excited about that.

So, you did envision this as a trilogy from the very beginning?

G. Yes.

E. Yes.

That’s helpful because then you can, as you said, you can pull things out and say, “We’ll use this in the next book.” It’s when you write one, and then they say, hey, let’s make it a trilogy, and you didn’t really plan for that that you sometimes . . .

G. And it gave us the opportunity to plant a lot of fun Easter eggs in the book. And they’re not easy to find, but once people read book, too, it’ll pay off, and they’ll say, “Wow, I didn’t notice that those elements were living in book one all along. How did I miss them?

Well, the book is out now, as we are doing this conversation, and it will have been out for quite a while by the time this goes live. Have you been pleased by the response you’re getting?

G. Yeah, I think we’re, like, we have five stars or . . .

E. We have.

G. . . . or close to five stars on Amazon, and we’re doing pretty well on Goodreads, which I find absolutely terrifying. People don’t hold back, the people who don’t like you on Goodreads, you sort of just want to go, “Hey, here’s my address, come to my house and repeat that to my face.”

Yeah, I’ve had one like that. More than one like that. Yeah.

E. Yeah, brutal.

So, do you read your reviews?

G. The good ones.

E. Yeah. Yeah.

G. You know, look. I have a series out right now on Netflix called Challenger: The Final Flight, about the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. It’s doing very well, you know, at something like 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and it was the number two show on Netflix in the US last week. And so, it’s a big success. But you go on Twitter and there’s, like, some of the people are, like, “It’s too long,” and then there’s other people, “It’s too short.” You’re like, can you guys maybe get together and come back to us with the consensus? As you were saying earlier, you just can’t please everybody, and everyone does . . . the most frustrating thing I find about criticism is people don’t criticize you on your terms. Like, here’s a criticism of the book you wrote. The criticism is, “Here’s the story I wish you would have told.” Well, then you write that story. Tell me how you feel about the story that we wrote.

Well, and that brings us nicely to my big philosophical questions, here at the end, which is, “Why tell stories? Why are we, why are people in general driven to tell stories? Why are you particularly driven to tell stories and . . .and there was a third part to that, but I guess that will cover it. Yeah . . .oh, why stories of the fantastic in particular? Why go to science fiction and fantasy for storytelling? So those kind of three questions.

G. Well, I think that for science fiction, why science fiction, It’s because of the possibilities. There’s no limit other than the limit of your imagination. And also, when you are telling stories that have a component that are a bit like eating vegetables, you’re trying to get across important themes, you can sort of hide the chocolate in the popcorn when you’re telling stories in science fiction where people don’t really see those vegetables until they’ve finished the meal and then it resonates with them afterwards. In terms of why tell stories to begin with, I think as storytellers, we just enjoy that feeling of affecting people. By being able to create something and see the emotional response, you know, it’s sort of a call-and-response, where we create something that has some sort of endorphin response in them, which then, in turn, gives us a satisfying endorphin response of our own. And that back and forth in storytelling and telling stories is why I do it.

Elaine?

Yeah, and, you know, I feel . . . I agree with all of that and feel the same way, and I also think that there’s just a certain element of magic to storytelling overall. You know, I think that it’s this process of word by word expressing yourself onto a page, like literally grabbing something out of your brain and making a complete thought of it, and then being able to share that with other people and have them react and respond and entertained by it. And, you know, that process, while it can be grueling, it can be a very grueling process, it can be . . . it’s also tremendously satisfying. And, you know, the joy of being able to complete a project, you know. It was interesting for Glen and me to deliver this book amidst the pandemic. We handed in, we finally handed in the final version of it, and it was like, “This feels like we should be, like, jumping up and down and, like, having celebratory drinks.” And instead, we’re both in our individual houses, like, you know, just like, “Congratulations, we did it!” You know, it’s like this, you know, you’re confined to your own space during this strange time that we’re living in. But, yeah, I just go back to the magic and, you know, Glenn says there are just so many possibilities with sci-fi, you know, and I say there are no rules, you know. And I think that that also translates to, the magic of it all translates to filmmaking, as well. You know, when I finally had the experience of directing for the first time a few years ago, I went into it thinking, “I’ve been wanting to do this for such a large portion of my life. Oh, my God, what happens if I hate it?” And then on day one of production, the first time I gave the actors some feedback, and they adjusted their performance, and it was perfection, I literally yelled, “This is like magic!” after the take. And I think that that can be applied to novel writing as well, where you’re talking to people, and they are totally getting what you were trying to do. We, like, they . . . some people are noticing . . . I think the first time we had an interview where somebody noticed some of the Easter eggs and were like, “Wait, is that going to come into play in book two? We were like, oh, cool!” Like, this is such a cool thing to have other people, you know, recognize these things that we’ve been trying so hard to achieve for so long.

So, is it easier to get a perfect performance out of an actor or out of a character that you’re writing in a novel?

E. Oh, my gosh. Are you kidding? Way easier. Way easier in the novel.

So, we’re just about out of time here. What are you working on now that you want to mention? I think I saw in a interview, Elaine, that you sometimes don’t like to talk about what you’re working on, but . . .

E. Yeah, I’m a little I’m a little superstitious. I can say that I’m working on a couple of scripted movie ideas that I’m excited about, but it’s so early on in the process that it’s kind of not worth talking about them in any detail. And, you know, we’re both working on book two, which is obviously very important. And Glen, what are you working on?

G. Uh, I’m working on my tan. Well, of course, you have book two, and we’re just about finishing up season two of Dogs on Netflix. Challenger: The Final Flight was released last week, and that was a collaboration between my company and Bad Robot. And we have this second Bad Robot collaboration that’s in production now that I can’t talk about. But we’re hoping that will premiere sometime in early 2021.

You know, there’s a publisher called Angry Robot. I always get them mixed up with Bad Robot. But they are two different things.

E. Oh, I didn’t know that.

I think I think they’re British. They’re called Angry Robot. They have a pretty funny Twitter presence. They’re always making robot jokes. Oh, and where can people find you online.

E. Well, we have a wonderful website, DevastationClass.com, and then I’m @ElaineMongeon on Instagram and @E_Mongeon on Twitter.

G. And I am @Zipper on Twitter and @GlenZipper on Instagram, with one N. And if you go to my Instagram, you’ll notice there’s not much there other than me posting at least one funny animal video a day. So, if you like funny animal videos, head on over to my Instagram account.

E. Oh, and we have we do have an Instagram account for the book as well, it’s @DevastationClassNovel.

Great. Well, I think that will just about do it. So, thanks to both of you so much for being on å. I enjoyed that. I hope you did too.

E. We sure did. Thanks so much for having us.

G. Thank you. 

Episode 68: James Morrow

An hour-plus interview with James Morrow, World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and Grand prix de l’Imaginaire-winning author of eleven novels and many shorter works.

Website
www.jamesmorrow.net

Facebook
@james.morrow.754570

Twitter
@jimmorrow11

James Morrow’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Born in 1947, James Morrow has been writing fiction ever since. As a seven-year-old living in the Philadelphia suburbs, he dictated the story of the duck family to his mother, who dutifully typed it up and bound the pages with yarn. Upon reaching adulthood, Jim channeled his storytelling urge toward the production of speculative literature.

The majority of his eleven novels are written in satiric theological mode, including the critically acclaimed Godhead trilogy. He has won the World Fantasy Award twice, for Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah, the Nebula Award twice, for his story “The Deluge” and the novella City of Truth, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award once for the novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima.

In recent years, he’s produced historical fiction informed by a fantastical sensibility, including The Last Witchfinder, about the birth of the Enlightenment, and Galapagos Regained, about the coming of the evolutionary worldview, and his novel-in-progress sardonically reimagines the 325 AD Council of Nicaea. The French translation of his Darwin extravaganza recently received the Grand prix de l’Imaginaire. His most recent work to see print is The Purloined Republic, one of the three novellas that constitute And the Last Trump Shall Sound.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Jim, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you very much, Ed.  Happy to be here.

Happy to make the connection. I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths at a convention or anything in person, but it was through Mickey Mickkelson, who’s my publicist and is doing some work as well with Arc Manor. I guess we made the connection because of And the Last Trump Shall Sound, which is out or about to come out. Is it out or about to come out? As we talk, because it will be out by the time this goes live.

September 22 is the pub date. I see you’re about to appear on The Coleman Show, which I’m also booked on. You’re doing that tomorrow, right?

Yeah. As we talk. By the time this comes out, this will all be a few weeks in the past. I sometimes forget that when I’m doing these things, that this is not a live broadcast, but it does not live, it is recorded. And at the time it comes out, all of this stuff will be out. Well, let’s that start, as I do, by taking you, as I like to say, I’m totally going to put reverb on it someday, back into the mists of time, where, as I also like to say, it is mistier for some of us than others. How did you become interested in, you know, you mentioned writing your first story when you were seven years old, so obviously, that came along early, but not just writing, but also science fiction fantasies specifically. How did that come about for you, and where did you grow up and go to school and all that good stuff?

Okay. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a little town called Roslyn. I guess there are two different tributaries feeding the river of my imagination. One comes from low culture, sort of popular culture, the other from a more literary zone, high, high culture. I’d say, unlike the majority of guests you have on The Worldshapers, I was not a voracious reader as a kid. My introduction to genre was through the more tawdry venue of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. I still have the first, Forrey Ackerman’s sort of love letter to the history of horror films, and so was watching movies on television that had that fantastic sensibility that ultimately, I would argue, led to my producing prose fiction in that genre. My friends and I in high school subscribed to Famous Monsters and would go to each other’s houses to watch these movies. And we started our own filmmaking club.

Growing up in Roslyn, Pennsylvania, I was very near a large cemetery, and this became the setting for about half the movies that we made. But we did, these were 8mm home movies, but we thought of them as feature films, and we were in them, but we thought of ourselves as adult actors. But we did adaptations of “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and the other films we did had titles like Cagliostro, The Sorcerer, and The Futurians. But let me then jump to the other tributary of more literary or high culture. In my 10th-grade world literature class taught by the amazing Mr. Giordano (sp?), I came to understand for the first time that a novel was not simply about following the vicarious adventures of non-existent people, that a novel could be a matrix of ideas, and novelists were people who had something to say. And the syllabus was just extraordinary. We read Voltaire’s Candide, we read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the plays of Ibsen, Kafka’s The TrialMadame Bovary by Flaubert. And I just was so entranced by the sensibility of those authors. They were people who did not settle for the received wisdom of their day. They stood outside of their cultures. They were at odds with conventional thought, and they tended to be very much religious skeptics, doubters. And not just . . . it was kind of like my inverse road to Damascus. You know, I wanted to sign up for the sort of honest atheism of Albert Camus and I, you know, and I thought maybe I could do it myself someday, that I could write a novel of ideas.

Science fiction, of course, demands that you play with ideas. It’s often called the literature ideas of ideas. You get this wonderful toolkit when you join that club of robots and time travel and rocketships, all of which become techniques for getting perspective on the world, for holding reality up to a kind of funhouse mirror and, you know, and then maybe telling people a thing or two, arguing for a way of seeing the world.  And one day, I found myself possessed by an idea for my first novel.

When you were doing the film work, were you doing some of the scripting for those films where you’re writing for that?

Yeah, they were my . . . I guess there were like four of us who were in this, who had created this club, and I was sort of recognized me as the one who did pretty well with dialogue and was the writer of the group. But we all took turns behind the camera, we all took turns in front of the camera. I usually did the editing as well. I love the editing process. And I would say to this day, my fiction-making for me is filmmaking by other means, that when I cut into a manuscript, when I leap into the rough draft of a chapter as it comes pouring out of my printer and I sit down with a pencil and a cup of coffee, to me, trimming and reshaping the prose is analogous to what I did for many years editing films, trimming the frames, rearranging the images.

I have to ask if you still have the story of the dog family bound in yarn by your mother, you still have a copy of that.

I do! That managed to survive. I have it in a file upstairs. And I still have most of the 8mm movies that we made. Although I haven’t played them recently. I have a feeling the splices would fall apart, and the soundtracks may have, the tape may have degenerated. I’m afraid to find out.

Were you writing prose during that time as well, your teen years, and so forth? And were you sharing those stories with people? Or was it pretty much you were in that film making side of things?

Yeah, I mean, I had an urge to tell stories. I had, I think, a feeling for narrative, but I expressed myself in other media, the filmmaking . . . we put on some plays, I used to draw my own comic strips and comic books and, you know, didn’t turn to prose fiction until, you know, my first novel, really, though I always, I loved the medium of the novel from a very young age. I thought there was just something magical and luminous about those books in my parents’ modest library that I knew were fiction. And even before I was very adept at reading and way before I would imagine composing stories myself, I would take volumes off the shelf in my parents’ living room, and then I would impose on them my own novel. I would sort of be telling a story to myself as I was turning the pages of the novel, pretending that it was something that I had written.

I have to ask because so much of your work is, as you said in your bio, theologically inspired, did you have a religious upbringing, were you learning theological material during your youth?

No. My parents took me to Presbyterian Sunday School, but I think they were not really serious Christians themselves. I think they had a kind of inoculation theory: give the kid a little bit of religion, you know, lest he someday show up announcing that he’s decided to become a monk, and you deprived me of God, and how dare you not tell me about the divine! And, you know, I honestly believe that was their theory. So, I had . . .it was a very low-level experience. I mean, even though I did have that inverse road to Damascus I mentioned earlier, thanks to Voltaire and Camus, etc., there just wasn’t that much, there’s not that much to lapse from when you’re a sort of white-bread, you know, middle-class suburban Christian. So, the impulse to critique Christianity does not come out of any kind of trauma. I was not in rebellion against a religious upbringing. I’d never been assaulted by a nun holding a ruler or anything like that. It was much more, these voices spoke to me, these doubters like Camus and Dostoyevsky and Ibsen. And I just wanted to try that myself.

Well, you mentioned that you didn’t really tackle prose until you had the idea for your first novel. When did that come along? And also, what did you study in university?

I majored in English, and my speciality was creative writing, but I still wasn’t doing a lot of prose fiction. My main project was a screenplay, and I actually had Joseph Heller as a teacher, which was a wonderful experience.

Not bad!

And he was very interested in what I was doing. It was a course in playwriting, and he himself had a play running on Broadway at the time called We Bombed in New Haven. And he was taken with the comedy, the three-act comedy that I was producing in his class. But I did not come out of the program at the University of Pennsylvania with a belief in myself as a novelist or as someone who was going to get into this wonderful universe of science fiction. I became an educator for a while, and I had used my filmmaking experience to become a media educator and was hired by several public school systems to, like, teach animation to junior-high-age kids or teach students how to make slide tapes. But at that time, in my circle of media educators, there was a lot of discussion about the effect that mass media was having on children. And most of that conversation was about the deleterious effects of television and movies on kids. There were books like The Plug-in Drug getting a lot of attention, very anti-television. And I said to myself, “Well, I can understand why people are worried that that TV is turning kids into lemmings, but what about the contrary argument, that television has a kind of cathartic effect, and that television maybe drains off impulses that one otherwise might be inclined to act out in the real world, anti-social impulses.” And I said, “You know, there’s kind of science-fiction novel in there. What if there was a society that was totally pacifistic, where there’d never been a robbery or a rape or a killing? And if initially this is a mystery, how in the world did they achieve this, this blessed state?” And then it turns out that they have a technology that lets them sort of hook themselves up to their television sets, except they control the content. If they’ve had some bad experience that day, an argument with the boss, or maybe even getting fired from their job, you could go home and shoot the boss on television, and nobody would get hurt and would drain off your desire you might have to commit that sort of crime in the real world. And then the plot became, what if on this utopian planet an astronaut arrives, falls in love with one of these, they’re human migrants, falls in love with them and decides that she needs just a little bit of an aggressive instinct to be fully human, that maybe, you know, you’ve got to have a dark side, you’ve got to have that dark side for real, not just in your fantasies. And so, he injects her with a little bit of the violence that these people drain off into a rive, a moat that encircles their city. And of course, this is a recipe for disaster. She has no immunity and becomes a maniac. And then he’s faced with this terrible dilemma: is he going to kill the woman he loves to save a civilization he hates? 

So, the whole thing arrived full-blown, all three acts. I found an agent, and we discussed whether this was, in fact, a science fiction novel or just a novel of ideas. And we ultimately decided it should be marketed as science fiction. She took it to . . . Holt Rinehart and Winston at the time had a line of SF they were publishing, Larry Niven and Robert Checkley, and they did Heinlein. This was Donald Hunter, the late lamented Donald Hunter at Holt. And I was off and running. I never looked back. The book didn’t become a bestseller, but it got quite a bit of review attention. The Science Fiction Book Club picked it up, it came out in paperback, and I said, “Okay, I’ve sort of kept the commitment I made with myself way back in tenth grade to see if I could write a novel of ideas.”

I want to go back to the university and studying creative writing/ I often ask authors who have done that formally if it turned out to be helpful. It sounds like, in your case, maybe it actually was. Not every author tells me that it was. So, what was your experience?

Certainly, having Joseph Heller and his sensibility was a big influence on me. He was very self-effacing. I would say that, you know, Catch-22, as far as he was concerned, its unbelievable success was kind of a fluke. Every year many worthy novels come out and disappear and die a dog’s death. Now, that said, it was just, you know, Catch-22 is, as you might imagine, a touchstone for me, James Morrow the satirist. That said, the other creative writing classes I had were happening at a time . . . this is, what, circa 1968, ’69, before it was thought that you could teach the crafting of prose fiction systematically. And so, the only thing that went on in these classrooms was workshopping, because reacting to each other’s manuscripts, as opposed to, you know, the sort of, I wouldn’t call formulas, but the sort of incredibly good advice you get, you would get from, let’s say, a John Gardner in his book—On Writing Fiction, as I recall, is the title. And, you know, there was no discussion of how to negotiate the marketplace, what it meant to get a literary agent, how important that could be, you know, nor was there a whole lot of explicit teaching about how do you create a character? How do you structure a plot? You know, what are the techniques you can use to engage a reader? What is the difference between suspense and surprise, et cetera, et cetera? And so, yeah, I can’t praise the other aspects of the University of Pennsylvania’s writing program at the time. I suspect it’s rather different now, maybe much more influenced by institutions like Iowa’s writers’ workshops.

The playwrighting interests me, as well. I’m an actor. I’ve done quite a bit of stage work and have written a couple of plays and directed them and all that sort of thing, and I always feel that that’s helpful in writing my fiction in a way and that I always have a very clear image of where everybody is in relationship to each other in my head, in the scene. And I think some of that comes from writing plays. And then I also think, of course, the dialogue side of things. Do you feel that that background in playwriting and scriptwriting has benefited your fiction?

Yes, very much so. I sometimes think of myself as a playwright manque, though, of course, it’s even harder to convince money people to put on a play of yours than to publish your novel.

Yeah, that’s for sure.

To say nothing of filmmaking. But yeah, I do see my work, as it may be, both playwriting and filmmaking by other means, and I’m told that my novels are visual and vivid, and I do think in terms of scenes. Not all prose fiction makers do, they’re maybe a little more free form. They don’t break into discrete acts or scenes or sequences or the three-act structure. But that’s where I am. These epics of mine are not only patterned on the structure of films, but I actually draw inspiration a great deal from the Hollywood product. At least, it’s always, whenever I’m working on it, it becomes an excuse to look at a bunch of movies and see how I’m going to get energy.

When you, I mean, you mentioned doing it in high school, but have you done acting yourself since then?

Very, very little. No, I’ve fallen away from that.

Well, you know, if the writing doesn’t work out, you can always try acting. There’s a good, solid career choice.

I think of the criticism from Peter Ustinov, who, as you probably know, was a man of many talents, a Renaissance man, and his whole family was into the arts. I mean, they were all musicians or writers or painters.

I think I read his autobiography, yeah.

Someone brought to the Bronx, brought to the family dinner, a guy she was dating. And they asked, “Well, what does he do for a living?” And he said he was a stockbroker. And they said, “You’re a stockbroker. Can you make a living from that? Why don’t you go into something safe, like poetry?” Because they were all successful. Not the norm.

No. My favorite actor joke, which I’ve heard a few times, is, “What’s the difference between an actor and a pizza?” And it’s, “A pizza can feed a family of four.”

I’ve heard that joke as being the difference between a science-fiction writer and a pizza.

Yeah, it’s the same joke.

So, let’s talk about your creative process. We’re going to talk about The Last Witchfinder, which I’ve read a chunk of. I haven’t gotten to the end, but I certainly intend to. This came out a few years ago, but I’ll let you give a synopsis of it and explain what it is.

I had an amazing encounter, this would be 35 years ago, with a book by a physicist at the University of Massachusetts named Edward Harrison. The book is called Masks of the Universe. And the essential argument of the book is that we, the human species, will probably never know the Universe with a capital U. It will be, that kind of knowledge, absolute knowledge, will be denied to us. What we have are a succession, throughout human history, of universes, each with lowercase u, and this book, Masks of the Universe, is a kind of history of the evolution of human intellectual thought and scientific thought, vis a vis all these masks. So, Harrison takes us on a tour, from the magic universe of Paleolithic people to the mythic universe of the Sumerians, the Egyptians, and other early civilizations, the geometric universe of the Greeks, the divine universe of medieval Christian Europe, the mechanistic universe of Newton, the Age of Reason, and then our contemporaneous relativistic universe of modernity, of scientific modernity. Harrison is particularly, was particularly, obsessed with what he calls the witch universe, that time when everybody understood that demons were what made things happen, that the world was not so much enchanted as haunted.

It was called the Renaissance ex post facto. But I encountered this amazing sentence, and I just Xeroxed it, and I want to read it. This is from page 214 in Masks of the Universe. Harrison says, quote, “The supposed Renaissance was a disordered interlude between sane universes,” that is between the medieval and the Age of Reason, quote, “a bedlam of distraught world pictures terrorized by a witch universe, created by leaders with fear-crazed minds, an age in thrall to a mad universe on the rampage, which would have destroyed European society but for the intervention of science.” So, I read that sentence, and I said, “Oh, my God, there’s an idea for a novel, an entire society nearly destroyed by its own theology. I mean, I have to work with that someday. I have to be able to turn that into an epic, even if Harrison is overstating the case,” and I think perhaps it was. “But for the intervention of science, Europe would have destroyed itself. I’ve got to work with that theme!” But I couldn’t come up with an entree, year in, year out. How in the world could one traumatize an event so large and momentous?

And after a gestation of 15 years, I had a breakthrough, and I said, “You know, a character,” in this case, I intuitively knew she must be a woman, “a woman born in about 1678, would have lived through this amazing transition, this rotation from the witch universe to what we call retrospectively the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment.” And so, The Last Witchfinder was born and became the story of Jennet Stearne, who makes it her lifetime mission to try to bring down the parliamentary witchcraft statute of 1604. She has many adventures in the course of trying to fulfill this mission. It’s really, it’s both a mission and a pledge to her Aunt Isobel, a kind of deathbed promise. Isobel is herself mistaken for a witch and executed by the powers that be in the England of early modern Europe. Eventually, eventually, Jennet engages in a very creative act. She masquerades as a witch and in a sense then puts herself on trial for consorting with demons, and because she’s become good friends with the young Benjamin Franklin, she actually becomes a lover of Benjamin Franklin, this is circa 1731, she knows she will get publicity in Franklin’s periodical, the Pennsylvania Gazette. So, this sort of media circus trial occurs in Philadelphia, and Parliament takes note of it in England. And so, this is the kind of science fiction, I guess, that would be called secret history or hidden history. This is the real story that you’ve not known until now of why that statute was finally taken off the books.

So, once you had this idea, what did your planning process and research process . . . because clearly, you put a lot of research into this. I noticed in your foreword you were talking about a great deal of this is reality, with a few tweaks of what we . . . well, what we think is the real history . . . here and there to tell the story. So, what did your research and planning process look like? And is this typical of your work?

I always do a lot of research, and it’s mysterious to me. And I don’t want to become too conscious about it, self-conscious about it. How does one know when to stop the research and write the damn novel? I mean, my facetious answer to your question would be, first I write the novel, and then I do the research, you know, sort of retrofitting. But it’s more of a dance. It’s very complicated. As I did the research, a lot of actual history kind of played into my hand. I felt very fortunate that, for example, when Jennet is abducted by Indians around 1695, she’s now living, she starts out living in England, but then she goes to the colonies because that’s where her family has moved. She ends up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and it turns out that, in fact, Haverhill, Massachusetts, was attacked by the Abenaki in 1695.

A big breakthrough for me was, I always knew that I wanted to use not only Benjamin Franklin but also Isaac Newton as sort of personification of the two universes, the universes that are in play at this point in history. Franklin, sort of the avatar of the Enlightenment, cheeky and contrarian, as opposed to Newton, one of the most pious men who ever lived. Very much of a piece with the Renaissance. And it turns out that they actually almost met in 1725. Franklin is in London. He has a commission from the royal governor of Pennsylvania to buy printing equipment. And he has a letter of introduction to Newton from someone in Newton circle, I think it was the physician Pemberton, who edited the second edition of Principia Mathematica. Newton does not want to meet this cheeky kid from Philadelphia, so the meeting never occurred. But in my novel, it occurs. I have Franklin and Newton in the same carriage together, but they just talk past each other. Franklin wants to discuss electricity; Newton is preoccupied with counterfeiters at that time and with biblical prophecy. And so, it’s not simply that they are from two different generations, this is the old Newton and the young Franklin, not just two different generations, two different continents, they’re really from two different universes: Franklin of the Enlightenment and Newton of the Renaissance. So I said, well, this is playing into my hands. This is a lot of fun. It’s going to work.

And then other facts, like the Baron de Montesquieu, who ends up defending Jennet at the trial she arranges for herself, really could have ended up in Philadelphia in 1731. He was a young aristocrat taking the grand tour that European aristocrats always took at that time. There was even, according to Franklin, on a witch trial in Mount Holly, New Jersey, at this time, and I simply moved it across the Delaware to Philadelphia. Franklin’s account of the witch trial makes it clear that it never really happened, it’s simply a hoax that he put into the Pennsylvania Gazette. But I decided to take Franklin at his word. So, I guess for me, Ed, the process was like walking through a field with all of these sort of pottery shards lying around, you know, and I would pick them up and examine them and try to fit them to each other and end up with an urn of my own design.

From what I know of Franklin, I suspect he’d like this story.

He comes off very, very well. Yeah.

Did your outlining . . . do you do, like, a detailed outline or just hit some high points and then go for it? What’s that process like?

I do. It’s a kind of freeform outline. You know, I wasn’t really sure how the book was going to end, though. And that’s true of almost all of my novels. I have to kind of feel my way to the climax. But I would never plunge into a project this ambitious, or any sort of a novel, without a rough sense of what the three acts were going to be. You can hear my playwriting heritage coming out here. But that said, I always appreciate a remark that the film director John Huston once made. He said, there comes a time when every film project when you throw away the script and make the movie, by which he means, you know, don’t let the script become your master. You must allow for improvisation, things the actors are going to bring to it, camera setups you never imagined until you were actually on the set, and so forth. And I think for me, at least with prose fiction, there comes a time when you throw away the outline and write the damn novel.

Talking about the three-act structure, you know, it just now occurred to me, but almost every play I see these days is actually two acts. People always talk about the three-act structure, but they’re generally presented as two acts.

It certainly was the classic structure of musicals, right? It was almost like an unwritten but inviolable law that every musical must have two acts with an intermission.

What’s your actual writing process like? Are you a fast writer, a slow writer? Do you write with parchment, quill pen, and parchment out under a tree where an apple could fall on your head, or . . .?

I guess I wrote my first novel, The Wine of Violence, in longhand, you know, Bic pens on legal pads, and I’ve never been able to compose on a typewriter. I envy writers who could do that. So, I’d always have to . . . sometimes I would type it up myself, and then then I would often have to hire a professional typist to try to cope with all the notes I would put on my first typed draft. Now, of course, I use word processing. I’m working very hard on not being so distracted by the Internet that I stop because I just have to look up a fact, sometimes even because I know I spelled the word wrong, I have to stop to correct the spelling. These are terrible habits. And if any embryonic writers are listening, try to never acquire these bad habits that James Morrow has. I’m slow, methodical. It seems to take forever. In theory, every novel I write should be a year. I remember a remark that Stephen King makes in his quasi-autobiography, his book called Danse Macabre, “Any writer who can’t produce a novel in a year is merely dicking off,” and I agree with Stephen King, but somehow, it always takes two, three, four years. It’s been a lot of time on rewriting, workshopping, showing it to friends and colleagues. And also, I have to say, because I love the medium so much and regard it as such a privilege to work within the medium of the novel, I don’t want to surrender a given book. I want to live inside it.

And perhaps because my premises are so often ridiculous, preposterous, like Towing Jehovah, schlepping the corpse of God to its final resting place in the Arctic on a commission from an angel. Oh, come on. That’s so bold and bold and absurd that I didn’t believe it at first. But I’m living inside and retrofitting a whole lot of facts about life aboard a supertanker onto the story and talking to people who had actually lived on supertankers and then visiting, you know, visiting a lot of death-of-God theology, month in, month out, I started to believe that Towing Jehovah could be the case, but it took a while.

Well, your prose is very rich, and especially in The Last Witchfinder, you’re going for a bit of that archaic diction, I guess. Is that . . . what does your revision process look like? Does that kind of language flow out of you naturally, or do you go back and tweak it a lot to get to that level of . . . erudition, I guess.?

Yeah, Witchfinder was a difficult struggle in particular, because I was trying to . . . I was trying to hit the archaic qualities that we encounter in Restoration drama. And I read a lot of Restoration plays to try to get that voice right, and I read contemporaneous documents. And I have to say it’s the aspect of The Last Witchfinder that I’m least satisfied with. I’m not sure I got it right, but I was determined to try to not settle for modern English, where it becomes the reader’s job to imagine they’re speaking in idioms of the day. I was very influenced by John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, which is set in exactly the same time zone as The Last Witchfinder, Restoration England and Colonial America. I stole a lot of locutions from him that he had gotten from somewhere else.

But The Last Witchfinder was almost seven years in creation, and much of it was just, yes, endlessly revising the dialect to try to get it to sound right. You know, the language is in transition. They’re sort of shedding Elizabethanisms, sort of the language of Shakespeare, but a lot of that still stayed around. And so, with the novel I did subsequently . . . well, there was a modern novel in between, which was set in Victorian England. That was rather easier to do because we have a pretty good idea from Dickens how the Victorians spoke. But it’s less clear in the case of Witchfinder.

And I guess you still have to also make sure that your language is comprehensible to a modern reader.

That was the challenge, you know, and some of the positive reviews of Witchfinder complimented me on how you adjust to it fairly quickly. It seems very strange, all of this archaic diction. But you kind of figure it out, and you flow with it. I think the book is easier to negotiate than Shakespeare. For example, when you read Shakespeare, it’s a self-conscious experience. You’re constantly making little almost subconscious translations in your mind.

One reason he works better on stage, where you can kind of understand what’s going on from the action, even if you don’t know exactly. Of course, we should make the point that, at least according to the beginning of the book, you didn’t actually write it. It was written by Isaac Newton’s book, which I thought was hilarious, with all these old books that were, you know, they were actually writing these new books, and the authors weren’t really involved.

I guess that’s the other dimension of Witchfinder that owes something to my genre background. There’s a sense in which The Last Witchfinder is taking place in a universe that isn’t quite ours, a universe in which books are alive. They’re sentient creatures who have thoughts and agendas and who can nevertheless fall in love with humans, just as we fall in love with books, right? And they write other books. And what I was up to there and was, I knew the book was going to be, at one level, a celebration of the Enlightenment. I would argue that Harrison is really on to something, the Age of Reason, the scientific understanding of nature came along just when it was needed because the witch universe was a nightmare, a bedlam, as he puts it. At the same time, I said, you know, I don’t want to become an unqualified cheerleader for the Enlightenment because there is a case to be made against reason and the deification of reason, of the sort of church of reason that emerges during the French Revolution. That’s a dead end, too. And the critics of the Enlightenment always point to the French Revolution, that’s always exhibit A in any indictment of that period, which for me was, I guess I am a child of it, I’m a child of Voltaire and Candide, but this conceit of the Principia Mathematica and its somewhat sardonic understanding of the worl, enabled me to make the case against the Enlightenment through the voice of the Principia, which is privilege, which has perspective on all this. I wanted to avoid what I think is a pitfall of a lot of historical fiction, of the characters being acutely aware of how their descendants interpret their actions, which I think it is simply not given to us to know. I had an initial way of getting this perspective on history by having Jeanette’s Aunt Isobel, the woman whose death sends her on her great commission, having Isabelle writing an epic poem that she’s channeled from the ether that recounts, that narrates what’s going to happen in the next generations and the rise of experimental science. And then I said to myself, “Oh, no, that’s a kind of mystical idea, that’s one that’s at odds with the rationalism that I’m defending in this book.” So, I did something that was even more irrational than the epic poem. I did this crazy, this crazy, contemplative narrator. And I’m glad that you’re fond of it.

I guess it is Prin(k)ipia, isn’t it? I tend to give it more of a, like an Italian pronunciation, Prin(ch)ipia.

I think both are acceptable.

What’s the editing process like for you? What do editors come back to you suggesting you do at the editing level?

Well, when it comes to professional editors whose job it is, whose job description is to be an editor, that’s what it says on their door, Editor . . . the days of Maxwell Perkins, I think, are over; the days when somebody could take a manuscript that was kind of raw and rough and say, “Well, here’s how we can, here’s how I can work with this. And I’ll enter into a conversation with the author, and we’ll reimagine this book so that it’s really going to work for the reader.” That’s not what editors are paid to do anymore. They’re expected to acquire ready-to-run books on the whole. And so, I have rarely gotten suggestions that went very deep into the book. They tended . . . you know, the editor will send you a two-page letter with suggestions. And I respect the industry because the author has final cut. Rarely will an editor ever say, “If you don’t go along with this, we’re not going to publish your book”. So, I guess what I’ve said could be boiled down to the notion that you have to be your own editor. And that’s another thing that protracts the composition process for me because I don’t want to . . . sending a book out prematurely, that, I feel, is one of the worst mistakes you can make. You can’t count on an editor seeing its potential. The potential better be there upfront.

We’re getting close to the end of the hour, just a few minutes left, so I want to get to the big philosophical questions, and clearly, you have fun with those. And there’s three of them, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why literature of the fantastic in particular?

Well, why do I write? I write to change the world, to make it a better place now.

We’ve been talking about The Last Witchfinder, and I write because I feel so privileged to be part of what I would call the great post-Enlightenment conversation. The situation we find ourselves in, in modernity, where everything can be put on the table and where you can’t say, “Well, because I’ve had a revelation, we don’t need to continue this discussion any further,” that argument doesn’t work anymore. So, I just feel that I’m making my little, my small contribution to the, you know, to the fight against nihilism, really a fight against a kind of theocracy that pretends that mere human beings have ultimate answers. And they don’t. They don’t.

Why does anybody write? I can’t speak to my colleagues. Some of them would say they do it because it’s so much fun and I make money from it.

On the human scale, then, why do humans tell stories?

We are storytelling animals, Homo narratives, I think. But with science fiction in particular, I think you have an opportunity to enrich the vocabulary with which we address the big mysteries of existence, these questions of meaning, and how then shall we live? I mean, if you’re lucky, your book even ends up in the dictionary, a la Frankenstein and 1984. Frankenstein, you know, enlarged our vocabulary, it gave us . . the very name means, or has become synonymous with, the idea that with the power of science must come responsibility. And the tragedy of Victor Frankenstein is not that he was curious, I would argue, or not that he did this borderline blasphemous experiment, but that once he brought the creature into the world, he abandoned it. 1984, of course, the first and last time an author actually owned a year, expanded our vocabulary with terms like Newspeak and Doublethink and Big Brother. We have a way to talk about things that previously we couldn’t talk about. I think of Wells and The Island of Dr. Moreau, you know, a kind of metaphor for this brave new world of genetic engineering and the power we’re developing to manipulate the human genome. Certainly, Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale just gave us the concept of the handmaid, this woman who’s under the thumb of a patriarchy. And these are all science fiction titles.

Even in the case of fantasy, it’s important to remember that it also stands against nihilism. The fantasy does not in any way argue the world is up for grabs, the way the nihilist would do and say, well, therefore, my authority is the last word, because we all know reality is up for grabs, there is nothing that’s grounded anymore, which would be sort of nihilism in a nutshell. Tolkien made the point that in a fantasy saga, the trees are real trees, and the grass is real grass, and the rocks are actual rocks. It’s not a fantasy world in the sense of everything being surreal or absurdist. There is an external reality up there, out there, and the very title, Lord of the Rings, I’ve always been fascinated that it points to the villain of the story, to Sauron. Why is that? And I think it’s because the main, the big idea that Tolkien is playing with is the nature of evil, not in some dopey Manichaean sense, but just the, you know, those who think that there is no external reality and therefore they can set the terms, they can set the terms of reality themselves. The line that Gandalf has, “Let folly be our cloak,” it would never occur to Sauron that the Fellowship is going to give up this power. Evil has far less imagination than people of goodwill possess, and I think that’s a very affirming idea, and I think that’s why the book, that novel, has the title it does.

And we’ll. . . what are you working on now? But first, we should mention that you do have something out, a brand-new novella in And the Last Trump Shall Sound with Cat Rambo, whom I’ve had on the show, and Harry Turtledove. So, maybe just briefly, what is that? I have a pretty good idea, but I’ll let you describe it.

And the Last Trump Shall Sound is a set of novellas that speculate on a near-future USA in which Donald Trump won a second term, and this was followed by the election of Pence, who also got a second term, whereupon the states of Oregon, Washington, and California come together under one flag, call themselves the nation of Pacifica, and secede from the Union. That was the premise as it was pitched to me by Shahid Mahmud, the publisher who came up with this idea because he was so distressed to see the way that the nation was being torn apart on the macro scale by the Trump phenomenon and families were being torn apart on the micro-scale. And he just thought, well, maybe science fiction writers can make a valuable contribution to that conversation. I turned him down initially. I said, “Shahid, I can’t work with this. The thought of Trump being re-elected and Pence getting two terms after that is so depressing. Sorry, I’m out of here.”  And so, after I rejected membership in this committee, I remembered something that Shahid had said in pitching it to me, which was that Trump would be dead when the story opened. And I said, “Well, what if Pence is falling under the spell of a spiritual adviser who is not all she seems, and was, in fact, working for Pacifica. What if Pence becomes convinced that he could bring Trump back from the dead? That could be a lot of fun. All right.” So, the very next day, I said, “Shahid, is the slot still open? Can I still join your project?” And he said yes, and I’m really glad.

So, it is still science fiction/fantasy. It’s not just political commentary.

These three novellas, they’re all in the grand tradition of sort-of near future . . . not prophecy. I think the distinction that Orwell makes between a warning and a prophecy is very important. So, I don’t think we’re saying this is going to have to be how it turns out, but we are trying to just diagnose what’s happening, and we all come at it from three very different directions. I should hasten to add that when Trump is actually resurrected in the Washington National Cathedral, what’s going on is not supernatural. It appears that Trump has come back from the dead, but in fact, it’s an audio-animatronics robot.

Like Disneyland.

Exactly.

And what else are you working on?

Well, let’s see. For once, I think I actually have written a novel in a year, as Stephen King prescribes. It’s called Those Who Favor Fire, and it’s a comedy about climate change and a title I’ve always wanted to use. Many years ago, I wrote a nuclear war comedy, or dark comedy, that saw print as This Is the Way the World Ends. I wanted to call it Those Who Favor Fire, but at the time, another work of fiction with that title was coming out, and my editor and I said, well, we want to avoid confusion. So, I finally got to use the line from the Robert Frost poem “Fire and Ice” as the title of my climate-change novel. And very briefly, it posits that the hollow earth theory is the case, and there’s actually a race of human beings living beneath the surface of our consensus reality. And they’ve got a problem with ice. Their side of the planet has fallen victim to global cooling. So, it’s an allegory, I guess, though I like to think I can avoid the usual pitfalls of allegory where things just map neatly onto each other.

Any indication of when that will be out?

Well, yeah, sure. It’ll be done in a year, and so it will be out next year, except, no, this is James Morrow, and I’m sure I will once again trip myself up with a long rewriting and workshopping process. And it’s not a book that’s been commissioned by a publisher. And, you know, I think I’ll take it to St. Martin’s Press, who did my last novel, to see hardcover print. But there’s no guarantees. It may or may not ever find a publisher. As you may know, I don’t want to spoil your day, Ed, it could even happen to you, a writer at my age can end up in a condition that’s called post-novel, where, you know, where people will take a much harder look at your sales figures and your status, and if you’ve not had a bestseller, it becomes really hard to unload a novel.

Yeah, well, here’s hoping. And those who would like to see how you’re doing, where can they find you online?

I have a website, www.jamesmorrow.net, and I have a Facebook presence of sorts, and I do some twittering, some tweeting.

Okay, I will put those links in, as I always do. And I think that’s about our time, so, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.

I enjoyed it very much. You’re welcome.

Episode 67: Griffin Barber

An hour-long interview with Griffin Barber, author of Second Chance Angel, co-authored with Kacey Ezell; 1636: Mission to the Mughals, co-authored with Eric Flint, and Man-Eater, Book 3 of the Murphy’s Lawless series, set in Dr. Charles E. Gannon‘s Caine Riordan universe, and several short stories.

Website
www.griffinbarber.com

Facebook
@Griffin911

Twitter
@J_GriffinB
@RantingGriffin

Griffin Barber’s Amazon Page

Introduction

Griffin Barber‘s first novel was 1636: Mission to the Mughals, co-authored with Eric Flint. He’s also the author of the novella Man-Eater, Book 3 of the Murphy’s Lawless series, set in Dr. Charles E. Gannon‘s Caine Riordan universe, and a number of short stories. His latest novel is Second Chance Angel, co-authored with Kacey Ezell, was recently released by Blackstone Publishing.

Griffin spent his youth in four different countries, learning three languages, “and burning all his bridges.” Finally settled in Northern California with a day job as a police officer in a major metropolitan department, he lives the good life with his lovely wife, crazy-smart daughter, and needy dog.

The (Lightly Edited) Tranascript

So, Griffin, welcome to The Worldshapers!

Thanks so much for having me.

I’m glad to have you. I talked to your co-author on Second Chance Angel, which is one of the books we’ll be talking about, Kacey Ezell, just four days ago, I guess just the beginning of this week, maybe just two days ago. Not that that matters to anybody listening because this will go live sometime way down the road. But anyway, I did talk to her very recently and said I’ve been looking forward to talking to you. And I will start the same way I start all of these, by getting you to go back into “the mists of time” and tell me how you got interested in science fiction and fantasy and how you got interested in writing it. So, how did that all work for you? And a little bit about your, you know, general growing up and background.

So, my father was an executive with Caterpillar, and when I started reading voraciously . . . first off, I’m dyslexic, so I had a lot of challenges to learning to read and learning to read quickly and especially learning to write manually. And so, I think I was a little bit a late bloomer when it came to reading a lot of stuff. But I discovered very early on and stole from my father’s dresser a copy of The Lord of the Rings and really got into that and enjoyed it quite a bit and started reading a lot of science fiction, mostly hard science fiction, though, you know, specific titles I can’t really recall at this, you know, late day and age, until I got into my teens, when I discovered Pournelle, Dave Drake, that kind of stuff. So, this was the ’80s and, of course, Star Wars, that kind of thing, was available as far as media is concerned. But when it came to reading the stuff, I really enjoyed Hammers’ Slammers and Dave Drake’s work. Jerry Pournelle’s open universe, called War World, was another one that I just thought the world of. And, yeah, so C.J. Cherryh, Elizabeth Moon, Anne McCaffrey, just a ton of . . . I remember going to the library and checking out a lot of the Dragonriders of Pern books as a kid, so, yeah, I had a lot of science fiction influences as a kid.

Did you have friends who are into it as well, or were you kind of the only one that you knew that read this stuff?

No, actually, I kind of lucked out when I was about 10. One of the kids that moved into my neighborhood in North Carolina, still my friend today, working up in Alaska, Kyle, Kyle moved in, and we discovered that we both like science fiction and fantasy. And he remains a voracious reader and a really good, like, he’ll forward stuff to me that, you know, that he thinks I’ll enjoy, that kind of stuff. But he’s more in the fantasy vein these days as far as reading. So, he’ll give me, you know, like, he was the one . . . I hadn’t heard of The Lies of Locke Lamora, and he’s like, “Dude!” So, he gave that to me to read, and I really did enjoy it.

Yeah, I enjoyed that one a lot, too.

Yeah. And, you know, I’m a big fan of heist movies, you know, huge fan of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and pretty much everything Guy Ritchie’s ever put on film as good examples of the heist or the multiple storylines getting tangled up.

So, where did you grow up? Did you grow up and move around, or were you in one place?

Yeah, we moved around quite a bit. I originally started out and I was born in Peoria, Illinois, and went to . . . we moved to Spain and then to Canada and then back to the States when I was, I think, six. And then stayed there until I was 16, at which point we were back in Peoria, Illinois, and then moved from Peoria to Geneva, Switzerland, and stayed there for about six years. I finished up my high school there and went to a bit of college, wasting my dad’s money, failing out from those colleges back in the States, and went back and was working as a bartender in Geneva at a Mexican restaurant’s bar that’s right outside the garre, the train station in Geneva, met my wife there and returned to the States, I guess about a year after that, to Nevada and from thence to California or actually sorry, back to Chicago, which is probably one of my favorite cities in the world, and from Chicago, Oak Park, outside of Chicago, and then off to Northern California, which is where I’ve stayed for the last, jeez, 22 years now.

You did a lot of things in there, but you ended up as a police officer, I see from your bio.

Yep. So, I joined a major metropolitan department here in Northern California, and I’ve been doing that for 20 years as of February last year.

Where did the writing fit in with all of that? When did you really start trying your hand, as a kid or later on?

I wrote a bit as a kid, got into a contest, and won the local one, won the next level up the next year. And then, they didn’t believe I’d written it myself, so they basically said I wasn’t . . . they disqualified me. And I showed them. I didn’t write again for 20 years.

That taught ‘em!

Yeah, exactly. So, then I . . . but in the meantime, I did a lot of roleplaying games. I ran a lot of D&D and RolemasterSpace MasterTraveler. Pretty much every kind of roleplaying game out there, pen-and-paper roleplaying game out there. I usually read it, liked it, and read it.

I like to say that although theoretically, I majored in journalism at university, at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, really, I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and minored in everything else, based on the amount of time I spent on it.

Right. It probably taught you more about stats than the stats class, right?

I probably did. So, what was kind of . . . when you got back into trying to write, what did you start with? And how did that work with you getting into published professionally?

So, I was walking a beat and on my beat was Borderlands Bookstore . . .

Oh, yes.

Borderlands Books

. . . which is one of the premier Northern California bookstores, certainly for science fiction and horror, and hanging out with Alan Beatts, and I’d been talking about how I’d always wanted to write and was trying to finally write because . . . I had a couple of things going on as well. So, attention deficit disorder is a real thing. And I kind of resent people when they talk about, “Oh, I just got the ADD,” or whatever, ADD moment. I was diagnosed with it and finally got some medication for it after I was sitting on the counselor’s couch and blubbering about how I wanted to do all these things and never had. And she said, “Well, you know, there’s some medication you could probably take, and you could, you know, maybe do that.” And a year after that, I had my first novel written.

And so, I’m walking the beat, and I’m talking to different folks at Borderlands and stuff. And I was told by Alan Beatts, the owner there, you know, “Hey, take a look at this.” He said, “Let me take a look at it, and I’ll tell you what I think.” And I was like, “Well, sure.” So, thinking, Wow, that’s pretty cool. And he did. And he said, “This is really good, and you have to send it out.” And he was also really relieved that his beat officer actually wrote well, rather than crappily, and he’d have to let me down easy, given that I was going to be around for a while. So, that novel has been since trunked, but a lot of the work I did on it informed Second Chance Angel. I’ve always been kind of fascinated with A.I., and how do we get like an anthropomorphic A.I. that, you know, feels and talks and seems to behave more in line with humanity without having the natural instinct for survival, et cetera? So, that dealt with that, but there were some other errors and problems with it, and so it got trunked.

Well, you know, you learn to do by doing, as they say.

Exactly. Especially in writing.

When did you make the step up to the next level, then?

And so, I’d been going to . . . as an adjunct to trying to sell that novel, I had been going to World Fantasy because it was really cool. And that’s where my friend Kyle met Scott Lynch, and I’m like, “Who?” And he’s like, “It’s Scott Lynch. Lies of Locke Lamora, you’ve got to read it, it’s an awesome book.” So anyway, we had been going to that for some time and hobnobbing with a lot of these authors that are really neat people, and we attended a panel with Walter Jon Williams and Charles Gannon, Chuck Gannon, and it was on gunpowder and fantasy, I think. And the panel went really well, but there was an individual at the panel who was a little bit abrasive, and Chuck was being hunted by this guy. And Kyle and I kind of intervened to make sure that this guy didn’t harass Chuck much because we wanted to talk to him. And we ended up speaking with Chuck and having a few cocktails at the bar that evening. And he, the next morning he’s, “I read some of your stuff off your blog. And it’s really good, it’s got a very different quality. You need to write for Eric Flint, the 1632 universe.” And the Grantville Gazette was specifically what he was talking about, it was, you know, a good way to get short stories out there, get your name recognized and work with professionals, get the professional credits, et cetera. And it still remains that.

But at the time, I was, you know, like I said earlier, about how I can show people, you know, I know better because I’m not right. I was like, “Oh, you know, I’m not a big fan of time travel, number one. Number two, I’m not a, you know, I’ve got this novel I’m trying to sell.” So, he let it go and let me, you know, but a year later, when I come back to him, to World Fantasy, he’s like, “How’s it going for you?” So, I kind of bit my, you know, swallowed my pride and said, “It’s not going well. We haven’t sold it.” And he’s like, “Oh, they still need people that can tell some stories and synthesize all the history and stuff, and I think you’re, you know, you’d be good at it.” So, I wrote a story, and unlike, you know, it’s unusual in my experience of talking to other authors, that story that I wrote, bank on it sold immediately.

I’ve had both Eric and Chuck on The Worldshapers, so I’ve talked to both of them, and we talked, of course, about the 1632 universe. A lot of authors have kind of made their way in through that particular universe, it seems like.

Yeah, well, there’s a lot of words being written for it. I don’t know how many it’s up to now, I think it might be six or seven million. There’s a lot of words and a lot of different collaborators. And it’s a really neat universe. I enjoy writing in it. It’s the rigor of trying to get historical facts and characters right, combined with being a little creative with “What if?”, you know, that game that we all played as kids, “What if somebody went back and killed Hitler?” and when, and all that kind of stuff, so it’s been fun.

Now we’re going to talk about Second Chance Angel in a little bit. But just to get an idea of your creative process, we’ll take a look at the whole . . . Man-Eater, I guess, is the latest one, the whole series is called . . .

Murphy’s Lawless.

And it’s actually set in the Caine Riordan universe?

Yeah. Which is Chuck Gannon’s universe. I joked that I call Chuck, it’s Chuck “The Rainmaker” Gannon, ‘cause a lot of the opportunities I’ve had, indeed, most of the opportunities I’ve had, aside from Second Chance Angel, although he did introduce me to my agent, everything that has kind of come to me that’s been super-positive has been through Chuck Gannon, so, I owe him a lot.

Well, maybe give us an overview of Murphy’s Lawless and Maneater, specifically, whatever you want to give by way of a synopsis without, you know, giving anything away that you don’t want to give away.

So, in the core books of Chuck’s universe, the Caine Riordan books, he is basically behind enemy lines. And one of the things in his galaxy-spanning war, or our neck of the galaxy, anyway, one of the ongoing deals is this alien race has been kidnapping human soldiers and turning them out for their use. And Caine Riordan has stumbled across a group of those soldiers. They’re put in cryo-sleep for however long, in some cases hundreds of years, and then thawed out when they felt it appropriate. But Caine stumbles across a unit of these folks, or a group of soldiers stolen out of time, and he puts them to use but for their own good, kind of situation. So, it’s very much one of those tropes of soldiers out of time, kind of deal. Murphy’s Lawless is dealing with some of the guys that are a little bit more broken and perhaps not as suitable for frontline action, but they’re struggling to make it happen anyway. The characters that I specifically used were Chalmers and Jackson, they’re a criminal-investigation division from the Mogadishu era when they’re taken, and they are investigating a spy that is working for the bad guys, trying to find someone that is going to report on their troop movements before they can do too much damage.

So, working in someone else’s universe. It’s a little different than when you get to Second Chance Angel, which is something you and Kacey developed. What does that . . . I mean, obviously, there’s not as much worldbuilding involved. Is there a Bible for all of this that you have to follow, or what do you start with?

Well, for the 1632 universe, oh my, is there a Bible? There’s, as I said, there’s at least two million words. But the core novels are up to, I think, a million or something like that. It’s huge. So, you don’t necessarily have to know all of that, but it helps. And then because I’m an idiot, I shot my mouth off about India and what was going on there. So, I had to do an enormous amount of research on India, specifically Mughal India, which at the time was Islamic, but Islamic conquerors, Hindu soldiers, very inclusive kind of empire as far as, like, they took talent from wherever talent was, and they paid cash, which nobody did at the time. So, the creative process in that one and that universe is very much constrained by what’s come before and by what is plausible, given the extensive research that you have to do. So, you know, every story is a human story, right? Otherwise, we’re really not telling it. So, in this particular regard, it’s within these constraints trying to tell that human story, make it engaging and make it fun, and maybe make some points that you wanted to make as a human being or writer.

So that’s that universe. And then for Chuck Gannon’s universe, I’ve been lucky enough to be one of his alpha or beta readers for a number of years for the mainline series. So, I had read everything that exists that’s been published for that, and some that hadn’t been published yet. And then, I was kind of part of the initial skull sessions that originated the idea of doing this Murphy’s Lawless sequence and developing that, so I knew . . . I was very familiar with a lot of the background anyway, and then having read . . . he prepared a bible for us that was, I think, 127 pages, as well as a bunch of Pinterest files to kind of show what the imagery that he thought of the planet that they’re on, called R’Bak, which was cool. So . . . and I’m used to, because of my gaming background, I’m very much used to assimilating the gazette, assimilating the “this is the universe, and what’s the story you’re going to tell in that universe,” that kind of thing.

So, how did your planning/outlining process look? Is it a detailed outline for you, or how does that work?

Well, for Man-Eater, not at all, I kind of pantsed that very heavily. Because it’s a novella, it’s pretty short. So, there wasn’t a whole lot I had to do. But for Second Chance Angel and anything that you’re going to do it collaboratively, you’ve got to absolutely make certain that you have an outline that you agreed on because otherwise, things get confusing and, you know, people don’t know where you’re at, that kind of stuff.

So, is that a long, drawn-out process, the two of you going back and forth and deciding how it’s going to be?

Yeah, it’s not . . . I wouldn’t say it’s a long, drawn-out process. One of the cool things I was just able to do that Eric taught, Eric Flint, was a very easy, very simple outlining technique, using Excel or whatever equivalent you need, or Sheets or whatever for Apple. And it’s, the left-hand, left-most column is chapter, the second one is scene, the second column is scene, and then it goes who, what, when, where, and why across. And it’s just one or two sentences. Or it can be as complex as you want it to be. But one or two sentences describing what’s going on in the what, the when is really useful for connecting how, you know, what’s the time frame for everything, and where and why, again, for making sure you know where you’re at in the book and that kind of thing. Really very useful, especially if you’re like me, and you’re not necessarily all that up on actual outlining technique as far as Roman numerals and large capital letters and all that kind of stuff. And the biggest thing I found advantageous about it is that if you change something in the writing, you still want to discover something while you’re writing, you can just go in and change it, and it doesn’t have to affect the huge slew of, you know, the numeral system and everything, how you organized it in that very strict outlining kind of sense.

That’s interesting. I haven’t heard that particular one before. It sounds useful.

Yeah, I found it to be. You know, most people that I, most authors I’ve spoken to, they’re like, “Wow.” Because, you know, if outlining is not intimidating, then cool, but if it is intimidating for you and/or you feel like, “Well, that’s going to constrain me because I’m not going to be able to do al the discovery that I want to do,” well, it’s easy to continue to discover something about the characters, et cetera, and then only have to change one or two lines, or even change a row in the Excel document, so you can kind of keep track of where you turn left and that kind of thing.

So, when you’re working in someone else’s universe, was there an approval process before you went ahead?

Well, Eric and I collaborated on the outline for Mission to the Moghuls very closely. And I basically . . . yes, so the outline is definitely an approval process, and I worked very closely with him to get that squared away. And then, depending on your deal with Eric, as far as how much work he has time for, number one, and number two, also thinks he needs to do for it, he’ll, you know, either weigh in fully and be doing 50 percent of the actual writing, or he’ll do less, depending on those criteria. But the outline is always, with Eric, a very collaborative process.

What does your actual writing process look like? Are you a fast writer or a slow writer? Do you . . . . you know, considering what your job is, I would think that you have to work around things a bit.

Well, I think everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, right? I can write action very, very well, personal combat, I do pretty damn well, and part of that springs from 20 years of experience of writing down what somebody did to somebody else in an incident report, sometimes three and four times a day. So, I have lots of practice with doing that, but I am not necessarily as good at giving you an emotional scene, which for me, it runs counter to my day-job experience. You’re not supposed to put a bunch of emotion into what you’re writing about in an incident report. So, I can . . . it can go really fast, and it can go really, really slow. It really depends on how I’m feeling. But as far as, like, the logistics of it, I was writing . . . I ride a motorcycle on my commute back and forth to work. I had kind of started injuring the tendons in my hand, so typing was miserable, so I started using Dragon Dictation, and that worked pretty well. And I would do, you know, whenever I had an opportunity . . . .one of the things about police work in general, as far as being in the field, is you have ten-hour shifts, but you’re working four tens. So, you work for a few days, and you’ve got a few days off. So, I would ignore my responsibilities as a father and husband and sit down as long as I could and try and crank out some pages. I find it a lot easier to write to a contract than I do to write on spec, which is one of the reasons why Second Chance Angel, I think, really spun out fast for me because . . .the contract wasn’t necessarily for money, it was a contract between Kacey and I as both of us being similarly experienced writers and not wanting to let the other person down on this pet project that we had taken on for ourselves and that we were taking time out from other things that we might be able to do to work with one another. So, it was really important to me, just as a professional, to make sure I didn’t let her down. So, you know, I didn’t care, I was going to crank those letters and those words out that day any time I had an opportunity to work on Second Chance Angel.

Well, since we’re talking about that, and although Kacey gave her synopsis of it, somebody might not have heard that episode and is hearing about it for the first time. So, how would you describe Second Chance Angel?

A very noir mystery thriller set in a distant future with aliens and a lot of heart. And a little bit of excitement, too. There’s quite a bit going on, alien crime lords, et cetera. So, we touched on a lot of different stones in the subgenres of science fiction.

Did you alternate chapters or alternate scenes or decide who’s doing which scenes? How was that divided up between you?

So, we . . . it kind of fell naturally to us. I wrote the male Muck parts, and she wrote the Angel parts, the female . . . that sounds kind of vaguely dirty, doesn’t it? Angel parts. She wrote the A.I. Angel. As we closed in on a finish, I started to feel, and Kacey, as well, we started to feel like there was some difficulty with the . . . well, first off, the first-person perspective is a challenge for a full-length modern novel today, because people are expecting to have, you know, 100,000, 200,000 words in their inbox for their novel. We were coming in kind of slow on those numbers and were worried that that would be a problem. And then also, trying to tell the full story from only two perspectives, and they share a body, was a little bit challenging. So, we added in additional characters—characters that were already in, but we added them as a point of view characters. They were A.I.s that are not sentient. They are sophonts, but they’re not sentient. They don’t feel at the beginning of the novel. So, that was told in third person, and because they were administrative A.I.s and law-enforcement, they had a lot more data collection points to use for their point of view. And that was collaboratively written between the two of us.

Once you have a draft, either for yourself or for the collaborative novel, what did the revision process look like? Did you have beta readers or anything like that or not?

Yes, we’re both lucky enough that we have a lot of friends that are also writers and voracious readers. And I sent out . . . there’s a group of guys and gals that I have been, from World Fantasy, mostly . . . that I’ve been associated with for some time. We call ourselves the Breakfast Squad. We just basically hang out, drink too much, and make bad jokes in the mornings after. So, we get everybody up, and at breakfast we make inappropriate humor our métier. So, I sent it out to them, and all of them came back with positive, for the most part, and they had a couple of things that they found problematic, and we fixed those problematic issues and turned around, and I did principal editing, first pass, and then I think Kacey went through it again and then we sent it off to a publisher. That publisher turned us down. And we then went to our agent, Justin Bell at Spectrum Literary, and he turned around and shopped at about.

And it’s being published by . . .?

It’s Blackstone Publishing house who eventually picked it up, and they’ve put it out there, and it’s already out and swimming with the other fishes.

And Murphy’s Lawless, I presume, since it’s Caine Riordan, it’s Baen that publishes that?

No, actually. There’s only so much room in any publisher’s house for different stuff. And Chuck was looking around for places that he could put additional content for the Caine Riordan universe and contacted Chris Kennedy Publishing. And with Toni Weiskopf, the publisher and editor at Baen Books, they worked out a deal. And it’s like, “Yeah, cool, no problem. Go ahead and take this portion of the universe and play.” So, Chris Kennedy Publications did an imprint called Beyond Terra Books, and that’s what has published the Murphy’s Lawless series. So far, it’s only in one season, but they’re going to . . . we’re in the process now working on the second season, and the third season is planned, as well as Lost Signals, which is an anthology of mostly short stories—but it seems like every one of us went over the limit on the words—that was initially Kickstarted and then produced, is going to be republished with Beyond Terra Press. So, we’re excited about that, too.

What was the editorial process like for each of these books once it ended up at the publisher? What sorts of feedback did you get?

So, it’s been very different, depending on who it was with. So, Eric is, you know, he’s such an old hand with the editing of his work with co-authors, he generally tends to edit a lot of stuff upfront and then submit it to Toni and Baen, and they have a copyeditor go through it. But it seemed to me that it was harder to pass Eric for editing than it was to actually pass through to the Baen folks because they have a high degree of trust with him that he is going to furnish good copy and complete copy. When it came to the Murphy’s Lawless, sent it to Chuck, and then he sent it on once he was done editing it, and there were some challenges with the Maneater copy because I was going through, I’d had back surgery recently, and stuff like that, I was changing some of my medications, et cetera, so I was not just as focused as I would have liked to have been while I was writing that, although I do think it turned out really nicely. And Chuck had some editing to do with it and then gave it over to Mia Kleve at the Beyond Terra imprint, Chris Kennedy Publishing, and they turned around and got it out there real quick. With Second Chance Angel, it was . . . Blackstone Publishing hires some freelance writer editors, and they hired Betsy Mitchell.

Oh, right!

Yeah, it was a huge like, “Wow, really?” We were super excited that that was how it turned out. And she was just really great to work with. She made it a much, much better book with her work.

Well, as editors, good editors do. That’s kind of what they’re all about.

It was really, really neat. And I mean, it was neat working with her because she taught us a lot about how to, you know, how to . . . how simple changes in some of the things that we were doing would lead to much better throughput as far as understanding it, what was going on. ’Cause this is a pretty complex novel, too.

And it has some nice reviews, I see, on your website. So, you must have been pleased. Publishers Weekly and well, Eric Flint gave you a good review, and David . . . you mentioned Hammer’s Slammers, and there you have a review from David Drake.

Yeah, I get choked up when I even think about that, because, you know, he’s my idol.

Yes, it’s . . . one of the great things about this field is that you, you know, we all get started, and we read people that inspire us, and the next thing you know, you’re at World Fantasy or somewhere like that, and you’re actually meeting these people that were kind of far-off distant figures, and you find out they’re there, you know, real people that you can actually . . . 

Yeah, and they don’t have clay feet, necessarily. They don’t necessarily have clay feet.  So, yeah, Dave was . . . I didn’t really . . . I think I read a couple of books by him, Hammer’s Slammers, beforehand, but I got into one of the anthologies when I was living in Switzerland. And, you know . . . we moved there in the summer, so school hadn’t started. So, I had, you know, zero friends for the most part, although there was one or two that I ended up meeting before school started. But, I had a lot of time on my hands and went down to the English language media store, which is called Elm Books, the anagram of their name, and I picked up, I think, The War World and . . . I can’t remember the name of it now, I just wrote about it the other day . . . but by David Drake and you know, to have him, so he was my buddy, he was writing stuff that I really wanted to read, and he was my buddy in my mind as far as narrating life. So, it was really huge for me to eventually meet him again through World Fantasy and Borderlands books. I ended up driving him around San Francisco to look at the Diego Rivera murals and that kind of stuff and just kind of hanging out and being careful not to tell him that, “I just love your work!” or descending into that kind of . . . it’s really hard when a stranger comes up to you and says, “I love you!”, you know, so you don’t want to go there as a fan. And I managed to keep my fanboy in check. And we’ve been buddies ever since. It’s been a real pleasure. And when I, with great temerity and worried about it, when I wrote him to ask him to write, to read it, he not only read it, but he enjoyed it and offered a blurb. A huge deal.

You talked about all the places you’ve lived, and of course, you’ve done lots of things. And then a police officer for the last 20 years. You did mention how working as a police officer has perhaps influenced things a bit. Do you feel that all that experience, that living experience you have, has made you a stronger writer?

Yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind that, you know . . . part of the reason why I joined the department wasn’t just for a regular paycheck, but also, you know, I wanted to have some stories. Experience informs everybody’s work. You can be a great writer and tell some really cool tales as a youngster. But I think that there is a lot to be said for your experience, life experience, and how you process those experiences can inform your work quite a bit. Certainly, for me, I don’t think I had anywhere near the talent to be able to compensate for my lack of experience when I started.

Do you feel you’re improving all the time?

Oh, yeah, definitely. If you stop learning, you’re failing. I feel like it’s . . . everything can teach you quite a bit. And part of the cool thing about collaborative work, too, is that you can learn from your co-authors immensely if you have an open ear to do so.

Are you very different as writers, the two of you?

Yeah, I think that Kacey is magnificent at emotional impact and emotionally impactful scenes. I am much less so. So, I really picked up a few things from her as far as that and then, you know . . . oftentimes when guys try and write romance, it ends up just being a little bit like porn. Or most guys. One of the things I learned from her is that . . . because there’s a strong vein of romance in this, and I think I learned quite a bit about how to portray that without being, you know, physical, being so utterly reliant on physical description.

Well, we’re getting about, right about 10 minutes left here, so we’ll take the big philosophical questions. Why do you do it? Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes? And why write science fiction and fantasy type stuff specifically?

Number one, specifically, is a lifelong love affair with it, with the genre. You know, it’s the ultimate in anything’s possible. If you can imagine it and make it plausible, you can make it possible in your work. So, that is really cool and unmatched, I think, in any other genre. With regard to why I write, I am a lot healthier when I’m writing and getting my mat out on the page rather than in my interpersonal relationships with others.

One of the things about my profession, especially in recent years and this last year, is that we are expected to be held to a standard that is very, very difficult to adhere to, first off, and secondly, it is extremely difficult when you do adhere to it to not appear as if you’re doing otherwise, because the ignorant or those that are only partially educated in what it is we do will often see something, and violence looks like violence. It looks bad. People don’t go beyond the appearance of things very much in this day and age of “the feels” to understand that the legal justifications and the legal situation that these officers often find themselves in is difficult, and it does not have the benefit of armchair quarterbacking or hindsight. It has to be done right now, in this moment. So, one of the things that the writing allows me to do is to kind of explain that and to work out some of my own feelings about situations that I’ve been in and difficulties that I’ve had on the job and personally.

And why do you think we write, any of us write? Why do you think there’s this impulse to tell stories?

Well, I think it’s one of the ways we relate things that work and things that don’t. And it’s also one of the ways that . . . you know, Dave’s a good example, Dave always talks about getting his mad out and, you know, coming back from Vietnam and not being able to talk about it. And some people find avenues to talk about it through speaking to other veterans or speaking to other people and whatever workplace that they have or, you know, support groups, that kind of thing. And some people need to write about it, and they need to explore their perspectives, that the voices in their own heads are telling them they need to talk to or talk about these things. So, I think it’s always a good thing that storytellers are how we communicate knowledge about the world and how we think it works. And for the storyteller themselves, it’s often a good way to process feelings that are otherwise troublesome.

Well, the podcast is called The Worldshapers, and I always say it’s a little grand to think of any story as particularly shaping the entire world, but certainly, stories can shape individual readers. So, when you’re writing, do you have any hope for how it might affect your readers? When they come away from your stories, what do you hope they take with them?

Well, this particular one, Second Chance Angel, is very important to me that people realize that trauma and dealing with trauma is . . . there are a number of different ways to handle it, and you can be a highly successful individual handling it, processing it and getting it, you know, working on it rather than suppressing it or not trying to think about those kinds of things. There’s a lot of different ways to deal with, to effectively deal with, trauma and issues that arise from trauma that include, rather than preclude, you doing well in your profession and in your relationships with others. So, if there’s anything that I would like people to kind of get is, there’s other people going through the same stuff that need to process it and that there are other people out there in the world that will listen.

And at the same time, I presume you’re hoping to entertain?

Yes. You know, most people are going to look at this and are going to go, “Really? I mean, there’s like there’s a singer on the cover and squiggly alien heads and stuff like that. This guy’s reaching pretty far.” But yes, the ultimate and primary goal is to tell a good story. And along the way, I would like for people to gather or take from it that there’s a lot of ways to heal thyself. And they usually include actually tackling the problem head-on, and they do not preclude getting better at your profession.

What are you working on next?

So Kacey and I just finished the outline and first couple of chapters for The Third Sin, which is the sequel to Second Chance Angel, which has a couple of references there to both the noir genre and a certain robot A.I., a famous guy’s work, certain laws of robotics, and we’re excited to be beginning work on that. I have been working on an epic fantasy for 12 years now, so I’m trying to close in on the finish of that. But I’m also rehabbing from my back injury and trying to get back to work, etc., so there’s quite a bit of stuff going on that’s slowing me down a little bit. But we’re also doing that second season of Murphy’s Lawless, and I’m hoping to have a story in that. I’ve got a bunch of short fiction that has come out in the last year. I’m hoping to get more opportunities to write short stories, as well. So, there’s a lot of different openings.

Is Second Chance Angel seen as a trilogy or endless series, or what’s the idea there?

Yeah, there’s no . . . that was one of the things that is kind of important to note, too, is that one of the things that Jim Baen, the original and the man that built Baen Books, one of the things he said to Eric Flint as related to me by Eric was, the best way to not have a series is to try and write your first novel in that series as if you have a series. So, write a complete story, write a complete novel that indicates that, you know, that it’s discrete, and the reader goes away happy. So, we tried do that with Second Chance Angel. I think we accomplished it. But we are wide open. We have got . . . we did a lot of worldbuilding in Second Chance Angel, and there’s a lot of mystery left to for both Angel and Muck to unravel and fight and suffer through. So, we are very hopeful that we’re going to be able to do a long-running series with it as long as the readers are willing to buy it and publishers want to publish it. We have no specific thing about, like, it’s going to be a five-story arc or a five-novel arc, that kind of thing. But we have the next one outlined, as I said, and we have a precis for the third one, which is tentatively titled The First Question. Because we like to mess with people’s numbering systems.

Yeah, I was just thinking that. The first one is Second Chance Angel, the third one, no, the second one is The Third Sin, and then the fourth . . .

The third one is going to be The First Question, and the fourth, I don’t know, we’re going to have to get creative on that one.

Use a fraction.

Or Four Score, or something like that. But yeah, we had a lot of fun, and we hope that people really enjoy it. It’s my favorite work, I think, so far, because I really got to . . . with Kacey, she and I basically just sat down, and we built a universe, whereas with everything else I’ve done in the past collaboratively, it was done, I was the guy, the journeyman, coming into the master’s arena. So, this was really cool to be masters of our own universe, to be able to just kind of go, “This is really cool to me,” and then hash it out between the two of us as equals rather than as one of us being previously established and the holder of the I.P.

And where can people find you, and more about the book, online?

So griffinbarber.com, and on Facebook as Griffin Barber and Twitter as @TheRantingGriffin and @GriffinBarber as well. Baldilocks is one of the nicknames I’m going with now because I am bald. Yeah, and accessible at any time to chat about stuff. I really enjoyed this, so I appreciate you giving us the opportunity to come on the show and talk about worldbuilding.

Well, you were recommended to me by Dave Butler at Bean Books, who’s been on the show and whom I met at a convention.

Yes, he’s a great guy. I met him, too.

One of the few authors I could truly say I looked up to because I’m 6’2” and he’s . . . more than that.

Yes, he is. He’s a great guy, too. He’s been really neat to get to know.

Yeah. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him a little bit myself. Well, I think that brings us to the end of the podcast. So, thanks so much for being on. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.

I did!

All right. Well, bye for now.

Bye for now.

Episode 66: Kacey Ezell

An hour-long conversation with Kacey Ezell, an active-duty USAF instructor helicopter pilot who writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror/noir/alternate history fiction including Minds of Men and The World Asunder, both Dragon Award Finalists for Best Alternate History in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and, with Griffin Barber, the far-future noir thriller Second Chance Angel.

Website
www.kaceyezell.net

Facebook
@KaceyEzell

Instagram
@KaceyEzell

Kacey Ezell’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Kacey Ezell is an active duty USAF instructor pilot with 2500+ hours in the UH-1N Huey and Mi-171 helicopters.  When not teaching young pilots to beat the air into submission, she writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror/noir/alternate history fiction. Her novels Minds of Men and The World Asunder were both Dragon Award Finalists for Best Alternate History in 2018 and 2019, respectively. She’s contributed to multiple Baen anthologies and has twice been selected for inclusion in the Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction compilation. In 2018, her story “Family Over Blood” won the Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction Readers’ Choice Award.

In addition to writing for Baen Books and Blackstone Publishing, Kacey has published several novels and short stories with independent publisher Chris Kennedy Publishing. She is married with two daughters. 

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kacey, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much for having me.

I should point out that we are speaking across a vast portion of the Earth’s surface, since you’re Tokyo, and I’m in Regina, Saskatchewan. So, yeah, 15 hours difference, I think. So, it’s an early-morning interview for you and a late-afternoon one for me, on two different days. It really is a science-fictional world.

The future is now, friends. It really is.

Exactly. Well, I’m glad to have the chance to talk to you. Your name was suggested to me by one of your fellow Baen authors. So, I’m always glad to get recommendations for people I’ve talked to. We’ve never met in person. So, this will be a good chance to get to know you. So, let’s start at the very beginning, as they say in The Sound of Music. And one interesting thing is that you were born in South Dakota, as you probably actually know where Saskatchewan is. So that’s nice.

I do vaguely. Sort of northish.

Yeah. Just go up past North Dakota, and then it’s us, basically.

Yeah, right.

So, yeah, so, let’s start with—I always say this—we’ll take you back into the mists of time, where you grew up and how you got interested in . . . well, probably you started as a reader. Most of us do. And how that led you to become a writer. And also, this whole bit of being in the Air Force and being a helicopter pilot. That’s interesting, too.

Well, yeah, so. So, I was born in South Dakota, but my parents, when I was about six years old, my parents joined the United States Air Force, as well. And so, we started moving around shortly after like first grade. And one of the very intelligent things that my mother did . . . so, I was kind of an early reader. I started reading just before kindergarten. And once I started reading, I very quickly devoured, you know, any written word I could get my hands on. And during one of our first moves, my mom, I think desperate for me to stop whining that I was bored and didn’t have any friends yet, because we had just moved, to put a copy of Anne McCaffery’s Dragondrums into my hands and said, “Here, this is for kids, read it.” And so, I read it and was immediately entranced. And that was my gateway drug to science fiction and fantasy, if you will, was the Harper Hall trilogy for Dragonriders of Pern.

That would do it.

Yeah, yeah, it really did. And, well, you know, and so here’s me, I’m like, well, so, I read Dragondrums when we lived in Albuquerque. And then very shortly after that, we moved overseas to the Philippines. And during that overseas move, my mom gave me the actual Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, the first trilogy that Anne McCaffrey wrote in that series. And for, you know, a kid who was leaving all of her friends behind to go overseas to another country, like, the idea of being a dragonrider and being telepathically paired with, like, your perfect companion who will always love you, who will never leave you, you’ll never have to move away from, was really enticing. And I got it into my head that I really, really wanted to be a dragonrider. And it turns out dragons are in fairly short supply here on mundane Earth. So, my very logical nine-year-old brain decided that I was going to be a pilot instead because that was about as close as I was going to be able to get. So that’s when I, one, both fell in love with science fiction and  fantasy, and two, decided to pursue aviation as a career. It’s all Anne McCaffery’s fault.

Besides Anne McCaffery, were there some other books that were kind of inspiring to you along the way?

Oh, absolutely. You know, like I said, I, I read anything I could get my hands on, so, you know, my mom put The Lord of the Rings, she bought me that trilogy very shortly after that. And, you know, I got really into Tolkien for the, which was my introduction, as I think it is for most people, to the world of high fantasy. And, you know, in an odd way, you know, I pointed this out at a convention a couple of years ago, but there’s a connection there between, like, Tolkienesque fantasy and a lot of the military science fiction that, you know, that I read and write today because, you know, with epic fantasy, you’re talking about these sweeping movements, but you’re also a lot of times talking about armies and, you know, the movements of armies and the tactical decisions of the, you know, of their leadership and stuff. And that’s part of what makes military science fiction so interesting, too. So I think that that kind of, in a way, laid the groundwork for my interest in that, as did my, you know, my own military career, of course. And the experiences that I had growing up as a military brat, particularly living overseas in the Philippines, which was, you know, as I’m sure most people know, the Philippines was a hotly contested area back in the, you know, 1940s timeframe. And so, the opportunity to see a lot of those historical, you know, memorials and some of the battlefield sites and things of that nature was really cool and really interesting to me as a budding history enthusiast and writer.

Well, when did you actually start trying your own hand at writing?

So, my mom, somewhere in her stuff, has a notebook that I wrote, like, some of my first stories in, when I was about six years old. So, I was young. I started writing almost as soon as I started reading.

And did you . . .

Maybe that wasn’t the answer to the question that you wanted as far as, like, professionally, is that what you’re saying?

Well, how did that develop? And as you went along, I mean, OK, you started when you were six, but you wrote longer and longer stuff. And did you share it with other people? I like to ask that question because I did, but not everybody does.

Yeah. No, I did. I did. I shared it. You know, I would show my things to my mom. And my mother was . . . so, my mother’s a huge science fiction fantasy fan. She’s a, you know, she’s another voracious reader, and she’s always been, you know, probably my you know, my number one first reader and fan, obviously, you know, as moms tend to do so. Yeah, I would show me my stories to my mom. But the other thing that I would do and, you know, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was kind of a bossy little girl. So when, you know, I would get my friends together, the kids together in the neighborhood or on the playground at school or wherever, a lot of times it was like, “Hey, let’s play pretend. We’re going to pretend that we’re on a spaceship and you’re going to be the captain and I’m going to be the pilot. And you’re going to . . .”  And I would make up these play scenarios that really were just stories, you know, and I was like, “OK, and now the aliens are attacking.” And, you know, it’s, so . . . 

So, I used to do that. My friends never really got into it the same way I did. It was kind of annoying.

No. Well, mine rarely did. Sometimes it worked, you know, and sometimes we would play out, you know, a certain, I don’t know, scenario for a couple of days or whatever. But, yeah, in in a lot of ways, I think that was . . . well, it wasn’t necessarily writing things down, but it was still sort of making up stories and sharing, you know, sharing those stories with other people, trying to involve other people in my stories, so. Yeah. A little bit of an extrovert, so yeah, I tend to want everyone to pay attention to me and my stories.

Well, you went into the Air Force and pilot training and all that. I would have thought that would keep you fairly busy for a while.

Absolutely.

When did you start to try to write professionally?

Well, so yeah. So, for sure, the Air Force kept me very busy. But here’s the thing, is that . . . so, I graduated in Air Force Academy in 2003, sorry, 1999. And right around that time I discovered the magical world of AOL fandom and the Dragonriders of Pern fandom groups that existed there. And so, once again, you know, Anne McCaffery comes to my rescue, right? So, even though I was busy at work and busy, you know, learning to fly and things like that, one of my hobby outlets became interacting with other fans on these groups and actually writing fan fiction.

And in those groups, you know, doing like . . . and when I say writing fan fiction, it wasn’t necessarily, like, writing stories to, you know, be produced in like a fanzine or anything like that. It was mostly, like, role play by email, essentially, where, you know, I would create a dragonrider character, and my friends would create this other one. And we would, our characters would, interact via the email. And it’s super geeky and super nerdy, I mean, don’t get me wrong, but it was an outlet, and it was something that I really enjoyed. And it allowed me to, you know, to kind of play in one of my favorite worlds. And so . . . and actually, you know, during the course of that, I learned a lot about, you know, things like character development and story pacing and, you know, what to do in dialogue, what not to do in dialogue, and how to keep your character’s thoughts confined to their own head and not go head-hopping and things like that, because you can’t act when someone else is controlling the other character in the scene, you know, it’s considered very rude.

So, yeah, super geeky, but it was fun, and it allowed me to continue . . . you know, Toni Weiskopf, the publisher of Baen Books, she has a saying that she says all the time, that writers write because they can’t help it. And I find that to be kind of true in my case, that if I’m not actually, like, writing stories, the stories are going to come out in some way, whether it’s through, you know, playing with my friends or doing online fan fiction or whatever. I’m never not writing, right? It’s kind of like breathing. It’s something that I have to do.

That sounds familiar. And you don’t have to talk to me about being geeky. I actually drew pictures for a Star Trek fanzine when I was in university. So I was . . . 

Oh, that’s awesome, dude.

Doing pictures of Kirk and Spock. I think I did a pretty good Spock. And I’m not . . . that’s all I can remember. I remember doing a pretty good Spock.

That’s awesome. Yeah, I have zero talent when it comes to, like, creating visual fan art. I wish I did, because there’s some gorgeous stuff out there, and yeah, I would love to learn how to draw dragons, but . . . just never got there.

Well, I minored in art, so it actually was a potential direction to go in.

Oh, that’s cool.

 But I . . . I often say that I supposedly majored in journalism because I wanted to be a writer, but really, I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and everything else was kind of a sideline to that.

Dungeons and Dragons should be a major at school.

Like, I think I put more time into that than I did my schoolwork, for sure.

Yeah. There’s a lot that you can learn from tabletop role-playing. I, I support that. Really.

So, when did you start trying to get published professionally?

So, I have a confession to make, but it happened sort of by accident. So, when I was in pilot training back in 2001, I discovered the amazing, mind-bending experience that is DragonCon in Atlanta over Labor Day week.

I’ve been once.

Oh, my gosh. Am I right, though? It’s mind-bending. It’s like walking into . . . it’s like being, you know, being away from home your whole life and then walking through the doors of the hotel and suddenly you’re on your home planet with your people. Everybody’s geeky, everybody’s into the things you’re into, and if they’re not, it’s just because they don’t know about it yet. And yeah, I love it. DragonCon is always the highlight of my year.

But my first one was in 2001, because I’m super-old, and after that, I went back several other times. And one of the . . . so in 2004, I think was the next one that I attended. And in 2004, I had the opportunity to meet a guy by the name of John Ringo, who—I didn’t know this at the time, I hadn’t read any of his work before meeting him—but he was a New York Times bestselling military science fiction author, also published by Bain Books, still is, as a matter of fact. And just talking with him, you know, he’s into MilSciFi, that’s his genre. And so, you know, we were talking about flying and about, you know, fandom and being geeks in the military and things like that. And he struck up a friendship with our group of friends that were, we were all there together, and we maintained an email correspondence. And I saw him at conventions, you know, a couple of years after that.

And then when I was deployed to Iraq in 2009, he emailed me and said, hey, I’m doing this, you know, I got asked to do this project, I’m editing this anthology of military science fiction by military veterans, and I want to include some new voices, along with some of the, you know, the reprints that we’ve done and things like that. And I know you just finished . . . so, the Air Force made me get a degree, a master’s degree, but they didn’t specify what it had to be, and so, I was like, all right, well, I’m going to get an MFA in writing, because screw you guys, I can do what I want. And so, John knew that I just finished that just, you know, because I had been like, hey, guess what, I’m done with my master’s. Right?

And he was like, “I know you just got your writing degree. Do you want to, do you have anything that you’d like to submit?” And I said, “No, but I could. Give me 24 hours.” And so, I wrote a story very quickly. But when you’re deployed, there’s very little to do. You really, like, you go to work, you fly, you go to the gym, you eat, and the rest of it is just kind of hanging-out time, right? And so, I just took that hanging-out time and knocked out this story. And it wasn’t very long. I think it was only, like, 5,000 words or something like that. But it was a cute little story. And I sent it in, and it became part of the anthology, you know, they accepted it for the anthology. And so, that was my first publication.

And then after that, Jim Minz, a couple of years later, once I was back in the States and again back at DragonCon, Jim Minz, you know, who also had, he was one of the editors on the product as well, came up to me and he was like, “So, when are you going have a novel for me? I’ve been waiting for it for a couple of years. And I was like, “Oh, well, let me get on that.” So, that was really the start of my career. I started doing, writing short stories for anthologies, again, mostly connected with John Ringo. He kind of like pulled me . . . and then I started, you know, branching out from there.

Before we go on to what you started writing at that point, I’m interested in the MFA because I’ve talked to other authors who have had, you know, that sort of formal creative writing training. And I get mixed reviews on how helpful it actually was. Was it helpful in your case? Did you find it very worthwhile?

So, aspects of it were helpful. Not necessarily from the standpoint of professional connections or anything like that, but like I said, the Air Force was going to make me get a master’s degree, and they were going to pay for it, and they didn’t really care what it was in. It was just kind of, almost like a box to be checked. So, I decided to do something, you know, knowing myself the way that I do, I really only want to spend energy and time on things that are interesting to me. And I knew that I wouldn’t, you know, if I tried to get, like, an aviation management degree, there would be aspects of it that were interesting, but there would be other aspects of it that would be deadly dull and that I would probably procrastinate and, you know, potentially not do very well. So instead, I chose to pursue the MFA in creative writing.

Where did you get that?

From National University. It’s a primarily online university that caters to a lot of military folks. I think they’re based out of San Diego. So not a real big, well-known name in academia or anything like that. But the program itself I really enjoyed. I found it to be . . . you know, because I think what I was trying to get out of it was one, just the piece of paper that said I had a master’s degree that the Air Force required, but two, I was just trying to have an enjoyable experience and kind of expand my toolbox, if you will. My concentration was in poetry, not in short fiction or . . . I mean, I guess you could kind of do a long fiction concentration . . . but I chose poetry, in part because I’ve always loved poetry. I’ve written it almost as long as I’ve written stories. And I find that a skillful  . . . that a lot of the tips and techniques and, you know . . . what’s the word I’m looking for . . . just, the things that you do that make poetry poetry, can really inform your prose writing and really help to make it beautiful. So that’s why . . . well, and also poems are shorter. So again, less—typically. Not always. Sometimes they’re super long—but the graduation requirements were definitely shorter. Rather than writing a novel, I only had to write a book of 50 poems for me to complete my program. So that was a pretty big draw, too. You know, when you’re active-duty military and at the time a single mom, I was trying to balance out my requirements, and that was my strategic decision.

But I did. I loved it. Not because it necessarily got me anywhere in the publishing business, but for my own personal development. It taught me how to critique. It taught me how to take critique. And that’s probably the most immediately valuable lessons that I learned from that program, is how to how to give a constructive critique that is actually useful to the other individual and how to receive critique and to tell what’s constructive and what’s just, “Oh, I loved it. It’s great. You should write more,” you know, stuff like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with those kinds of comments. We love those kinds of comments, but they don’t necessarily help develop you as a writer.

Yeah, it’s like . . . my mom didn’t read my stuff, but my dad would, and he’d say it was great and, OK, but I need more than that to make it better in the future.

Right. Right.

Your poetry that you were writing, did it have any fantastical element to it, or was it more straightforward?

Some did, yeah, some did. So, what I what I mostly wrote for the program was actually aviation-related because I was the only pilot in my group that was going through the program at the time and so, you know, write what you know, right? But also, not only write what you know but write about what makes you different and what makes you unique. And that’s sort of, you know, find that niche, that brand. And so, I ended up writing a lot of poetry about, I’m just thinking of my chapbook collection now, you know, a lot of it has to do with flying and, you know, being in the air force and, you know, what it’s like to fly in the daytime and nighttime and stuff like that.

So, this has nothing to do with writing a book. What drew you to helicopters as opposed to, say, fixed-wing?

They were more fun.

They’re more fun?

They seemed more fun. Yeah, no, before I went to pilot training, when I was a what’s called a casual lieutenant, I had already graduated from the Air Force Academy and been commissioned, but I was awaiting my pilot-training start date. I had the opportunity to ride on an MH-53 helicopter. It’s what the Air Force used to use for special operations. They’ve since retired that airframe. And I remember sitting on the back . . . so, it had, like, a ramp on the back, and it had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on that ramp. And we were out flying over a range. And I didn’t actually get to shoot that day, which made me very sad. But I did get to sit on the ramp next to the gunner. You know, he was sitting on one side of the weapon, and I was sitting on the other side and, you know, kicking my feet off the back of the ramp. While we’re flying 50 feet above the ground and it was pretty cool. I was like, yeah, this is a lot of fun. I want to do this.

Was it at least some of the feeling of flying on a dragon, do you think?

A USAF UH-1N Huey.

Oh, yeah, maybe. Maybe although, yeah, not necessarily that particular experience because we were going backward, you know, because I was sitting out the back. But sometimes, yeah, sometimes it has. You know, when you can feel . . . the thing about flying helicopters versus flying fixed-wing is that, you know, flying fixed-wing is about 50 percent art, 50 percent science, right? But flying helicopters is more like 70/30 art versus science. And the reason is because you do so much more of it, at least my helicopter. Now, I fly a UH-1 Huey, which, you know, was the quintessential Vietnam era helicopter, if that tells you anything. Every tail number that I fly was made in 1969. So, they are old birds, and we’re not talking cutting-edge technology in any sense of the word. And so, because of that, in part because of that, so much more, so much of what we do is, it’s our seat-of-the-pants muscle memory, like, you have to, it has to feel right.

And that, you know, when we’re teaching young aviators, half of what we’re teaching is just getting them to practice the maneuvers to the point where they can feel what feels right versus what feels wrong. And so, I think that when, you know, occasionally when you do a particular maneuver, and it feels just right, I think that it must be very similar to what that would feel like, you know, on the back of your own dragon to whom you were telepathically linked.

I’ve been sitting here trying to remember . . . I had characters in a helicopter in a book, two or three books ago in my current series. And so, I was researching helicopters because I’m not exactly an expert on the subject. And I went down a rabbit hole where I was reading helicopter jokes for about half an hour.

There’s a ton of them.

And unfortunately, I can’t remember any of them off the top of my head. I was going to try one on you, but . . .

Yeah, well, beating the air, we don’t fly, we beat the air into submission. That’s a very common one. Or, we don’t fly, we’re so ugly the Earth repels us.

Oh, yeah, I remember that. Yeah.

Oh, yeah. No, it’s there’s a, yeah, there’s a ton of helicopter jokes. And what’s so funny is that that, you know, like a lot of professions that, you know, have jokes about us, we tend to embrace those things. And helicopter aircrews as a whole, we have a reputation for being a little bit crazy. And what’s very interesting about that is that there’s some science to actually back that up. If you put our personality traits, and by our I mean society’s personality traits on a bell curve, helicopter aircrews are highly skewed to one end when it comes to traits of, like aggressiveness and, you know, adrenaline junkieness, whatever, whatever the proper term for that is. So, yeah, so there’s some data to back up the fact that we’re all crazy., Or you could just meet one of us and know that. 

Well, taking us back to the writing side of things . . .

Sure.

So, Jim Minz had suggested a novel to you, but your . . . was your first novel Minds of Man? Is that then your first novel? But that’s not a Baen book.

Yeah, no, well, no, so . . . not for lack of trying. It wasn’t. So my first . . . my first actual novel contract was with Baen, and it was for Gunpowder and Embers, which was a collaboration that I did with John Ringo and Christopher L. Smith. And that just came out last January. And while we were working on Gunpowder, and it was . . . we’d finished up the first draft, and it was in edits and development. I had this other idea to write a story about World War II aviation, but with female psychics on board.

As one does.

Right. Well, because so what got me thinking about it was, you know, I was thinking about how aircrew are kind of a different, you know . . . like a lot of subcultures, I’ll say, you know, we end up being kind of a different breed and having our own discreet ways of communicating with one another. And I kind of got to thinking about that. And then the other thing that happened was that we had an air show and I had the opportunity to see the inside of a B17 cockpit. And I’m used to flying with a relatively primitive aircraft. But I got nothing on those guys, man. I have no idea how they even navigated. I mean, it’s no wonder that they had an entire crew member whose sole job was to do navigation, because their navigation, you know, their tools that they had to use were so primitive, and to think that they took hundred-ship formations of this incredibly primitive aircraft, not just into the weather, but into the weather, out the other side, and then flew them in combat. It was, like, mind-boggling. I mean, just the amount of courage of those men who did that was, you know, it was flabbergasting when it dawned on me the magnitude of the task that they had accomplished and done so over and over and over again. And, you know, their loss rates were just staggering.

And so, I started thinking about that. And the reason I came up with the psychics was that one of the things that that could potentially compensate for, you know, in a way that we have compensated with technology, would be, you know, the instantaneous communication that a telepathic connection might provide, because . . . So, anyway, I got to thinking about that, and I decided to write a story, and it became Minds of Men. And did actually send it to Toni at Baen. And she sent it back saying, you know, “This is not for us.” It’s not for, you know, “It’s not the kind of thing that I think our readership would snap up.” However, she sent me some very, very valuable critique. And I will be forever grateful to her for that time and attention that she took to actually provide that for me instead of just saying, no thanks. And so, I took it and applied the critique. And I had recently been approached by Chris Kennedy of Chris Kennedy Publishing to do a novel in his and Mark Wandrey’s military science fiction shared world called The Four Horsemen Universe. And so, I decided to just ring him up, I guess, and say, “Hey, you know, would you be interested in looking at this?” He said, “Yeah, send it on over.” And the thing about Chris is that he’s an aviator, too, right? So, I think I kind of spoke to my audience there with that one and but yeah, he loved it. And so, I published it under Chris Kennedy’s Theogony imprint and, yeah, that was kind of the start of the Psyche of War series.

Well, we’ll take a closer look at that one as an example of your creative process. I did want to mention that I also had an opportunity to tour the inside of a B17 when it came to our local airport a couple of years ago. And my experience there, which I never thought I would have, was that this horrendous thunderstorm blew in, and we were all kind of stuck out there on the tarmac. And I’m standing under the wing of an all-aluminum airplane while lightning is cracking around and the rain’s pouring down. And I’m thinking, “I’m not sure this is the best place we could be at this moment, but . . .I have video of it somewhere. My daughter was with me, and she was quite concerned. And I wasn’t terribly happy myself.

Oh, poor girl, yeah.

But the other thing I want to mention that navigation was that my wife’s grandfather, my grandfather in law, was a First World War navigator on a Handley Page bomber. These things had an 80-foot wingspan. They were enormous. But you talk about your primitive navigation, it was mostly . . . we actually have, we actually have his notebook from when he was at navigation school, and he was like one of the top-ranking students when he was in the navigation school in the Royal Air Force. But a lot of it went down to was, “Do you recognize that church steeple over there on the horizon?”

Right.

’Cause that’s the target, right?

Yeah, absolutely.

So, that was interesting.

Yeah. So, by the time World War Two had rolled around, they had very, very basic radio navigation available. But what they would do is, they would call on the radio to a station and get a ping and then the navigator would plot the information that they got from that ping and then just triangulate their position from there. And then, they used a lot of dead reckoning, which, you know, that’s just following, you know, flying this direction over the map for a given period of time should put us here if we maintain a constant speed. And yeah, it was just it was insane. I’ll take my GPS, thank you very much.

I always found the word “dead” in dead reckoning to be a little alarming.

It’s slightly ominous for sure, especially when we’re talking about dead reckoning into combat. Right.

So, you sort of talked about where the idea for Minds of Men came from, and you gave a hint of it. But do you want to give a bit more of a synopsis of it and then we’ll talk about it?

Yeah, so the synopsis of Minds of Men is, essentially, it’s 1943 and 8th Air Force bombers are flying out of England and they’re, you know, they’re just getting their lunch eaten by the Luftwaffe fighters because they didn’t have a long-range fighter escort that had the capability to take them all the way to their target and back. So, they were particularly vulnerable during, you know, during part of their sortie. And their loss rates were just incredible and staggering, if you actually go and read those numbers and think about, you know, how many men that represents. And in this, like I said, in this world, some women—and they’re all women because I’m sorry, I’m sexist—but some women have the ability to create psychic connections with other people and communicate with them telepathically. And one of these Air Force generals knows about it because his wife is one of these women. So they end up, you know, doing a super-secret recruiting drive, essentially, and come up with 20 women powerful enough to do this job, who end up flying with these bomber crews out of England, helping them to maintain closer formation, better formation integrity, helping them to respond quicker to, you know, threats and things like that. And that ups their success rate, but at what kind of cost, right? Because now, these women are not only experiencing the hell of warfare for themselves, but they’re experiencing it tenfold because they’re experiencing it through the minds of each of their crew members, too. And then, of course, as is every aircrew member’s nightmare, you know, at some point the main character gets shot down. And so now, she’s stuck in occupied Europe, you know, with her surviving crew, trying to find her surviving crew members from the crash. And they’re having to escape and evade their way through occupied Europe, all while being chased by . . . because it turns out that the Germans have psychics, too. So, there’s a team of German Fallschirmjäger and a psychic woman who is pursuing them.

The latter half of the book was actually a lot of fun to write. Well, the whole thing was pretty fun to write, but I really enjoyed doing the research for the latter half of the book because I really got to dig into some of the stories about resistance-led escape lines that ran throughout Europe in the Second World War. And these were organizations that would help, not just allied airmen, but they actually started, really, helping to repatriate soldiers stranded by the evacuation of Europe, you know, ones who couldn’t get out at Dunkirk, essentially. At least, that’s when one of the Belgian lines that I researched started. And they would smuggle these, you know, these allied airmen and soldiers through the Nazi lines and, you know, take them on trains and try to get them out, either get them out to sea to get picked up by, usually, Royal Navy destroyers, or over the Pyrenees into ostensibly neutral Spain and get them picked up at the British embassy there. So really fascinating stuff and it was a lot of fun to right, you know, to kind of combine those stories and put it in my own.

Well, so, what . . . that kind of brings you out to the next question. Well, first of all, you said, you know, as a helicopter pilot, you’re kind of a seat of the pants flyer. Are you also a seat of the pants writer, or are you a detailed outliner?

So, that aspect of my style is sort of evolving, honestly. And I do a lot of collaboration, and I find that when working with another author, a detailed outline is actually really helpful because it allows you to say, “OK, well, you know, I’m going to go away, and I’m going to work on this part of the outline. I’m going to bring it back. And here it is.” And then, you know, you can just get more done that way if you agree ahead of time where you’re going with the story. So, you don’t have surprises. For myself, I would say that I’m an outliner, but I outline in phases. I don’t do the whole thing right up front, all right, like the outline of the first act and then I’ll write the first act and kind of see how it’s going, and then I’ll figure out, “OK, where am I going to go in the second act?” And so, I kind of do it in chunks, if that makes sense.

And once you have the outline, what is your actual writing process. Do you write, you know, with a quill pen under a tree or . . .

No, I use my laptop.

Well, being a poet, you ever know.

Right? Yeah. No, I, I use my laptop. I actually, I enjoy Scrivner. It’s a program . . .

Yeah. I have it, and haven’t climbed the learning curve yet to use it, but I have it.

It is steep, the learning curve is steep. I got it. And I went ahead and said, “OK, you know, I paid for this program, I’m going to learn how to use it.” And I dedicated two days and just went through the tutorials. And it took that long, but I’m glad that I did it because, you know, it walked me through all of the functionality. And I’ve since forgotten a lot of it because I don’t, you know, it’s a very, very capable program. And I don’t use, you know, I probably only use about two-thirds of what it’s actually able to do. But, yeah, I like it a lot. I like the flexibility that it gives me to move things around and kind of see, “OK, this is where this is,” and, you know, link characters to different things and stuff. So. Yeah. I use Scrivener.

Do you write sequentially.

Yeah, most of the time I have to. When I don’t, it’s usually because I’m dead stuck, and I’ve just, I’ve got to skip a part and go on and come back and fill it in. But for the most part, I write sequentially. The challenge for me is always, like I think it is for many people, you know, who have day jobs and families and stuff, is always finding that balance to, you know, time to dedicate to sit down and do the writing. And not just the time, but the energy, you know, because I could for sure sit down every night at 10:00 and write for an hour, but by that time, a lot of times I’m so exhausted that, you know, what would be the point, right? I don’t know that I’d get anything useful out of it.

Yeah, it does take energy to write. I’m not . . . you know, people think you just sit there and type, but it actually takes a lot of energy to write.

Right. Right. And it’s the mental energy, which is the kind that, like, just gets sucked out of you if you have a boring day at work or whatever. So, for me, what I’ve found is that I have to have a very low but consistent daily word-count goal. And I have to keep that habit up of writing. So, mine, it’s . . . I don’t even know if it’s the goal, but my minimum is that every day, no matter how exhausted I am, I need to sit down and write 100 words, just 100 words. And if I get to 100 words, and I’m exhausted, and I want to quit, I’ll allow myself to quit and just say, “OK, this was a lower day.” But just like with . . . and I actually heard of this technique in regards to exercise, actually, where people are like, “Oh, I don’t really want to go to exercise, but let me, you know, let me get on the bike for ten minutes. And after ten minutes, if I want to quit, I let myself quit.” But most of the time, you know, by the time you’re 10 minutes in or, in the case of writing, by the time you’re a hundred words in, you know, there’s more going on in your head, and there’s more that’s ready to come out. And so, you end up getting a little bit more than that, at least.

So, my productivity has definitely fallen off this year. Like, you know, I think a lot of us who write, that’s been the case. At least, you know, among people that I’ve talked to, that’s been the case. And using this technique of forgiving myself and just being like, all right, you know, I’m going to keep, as long as I’m moving forward, forward progress is forward progress. We’re not going to harp on how much forward progress we’re getting. It’s been working for me.

Once you have a draft, what does your revision process look like?

So, I do the thing that most people say you shouldn’t do, and I edit as I go, but I do that because I, I can’t . . . it just bothers me. It bothers me to not do it. So, I do, I edit as I go. So, once I have a draft, it’s usually fairly clean. I will read through it one more time out loud because I find that that helps me catch typos, and more importantly, it helps me catch repeated words that I, you know, use too often.

Yeah, reading out loud is a great way to find things. Better to find it while you’re writing it than when you’re doing a public reading later, which is when I usually find those things. Oh, I wish I’d change that before it went into print.

That’s not what I said. Yeah. And that was another tip from Toni Weiskopf from Baen Books. So, it was read it out loud and listen to, you know, listen to how it flows and how it sounds and stuff. So, I will I’ll read through the draft out loud, start to finish, and make any changes that I, you know, that I find needs making there. And then from there, I usually send it off to the editor and let the editor, you know, take a look.

So, you don’t have any beta readers or anything like that?

Well, no, that’s not true, I do. It depends on the project, right? So . . . and again, a lot of times, you know, other than the Psyche of War series, a lot of my novels have been collaborations. So, you know, a lot of times I will bounce the ideas or . . . not the ideas, but I’ll go through it, and then my co-author will go through it, is what I’m trying to say. And sometimes, we have beta readers. But sometimes, you know, like I said, it just goes straight to the editor. A lot of times lately, we’ve been working very under, very, you know, right up to the deadlines. So, not the best practice, but . . . 

But it’s an extremely common one. Let me tell you.

For Gunpowder, we had beta readers, for Second Chance Angel, we had beta readers. So, I had some beta readers for Minds of Men. I didn’t for World Asunder because I was late on it. So, it was like, all right, get it done, make sure it’s clean, send it to the editor.

What kind of editorial feedback do you get back typically?

Oh, again, you know, it varies. For Second Chance Angel, Griffin and I had the wonderful experience of working with . . . oh, I’m going to not remember her last name . . . our editor, Betsy. She’s a fantastic editor who’s been in the business for years and years. And she worked with us on a developmental level. And so, with her, you know, we sent her the draft, and she came back, and it was it was very much a conversation kind of . . . modality, I guess. You know, where it was like, all right, so, you know, “I have questions about this. What if you did this to this part?” or “What would you think about this?” or “This part threw me out, you know, of the story.” “How can you make this . . . how can you tie this back in?” And she had some . . . you know, one of the major, one of the best suggestions she gave us was, you know, Second Chance Angel is a post-war, post-galactic-war story. And Betsy, she came back, and she said, “Look, I think that what you really need to do is make a timeline of the war so that you have it very clear on how all of these things, you know, kind of came to be. It doesn’t necessarily have to be included in the text, but you guys need to know it,” and, you know, things like that. On the developmental level, some of my work, when I get edits back, it’s really just, like, copyedit-level stuff. And I find that, I get that. So, with my Psyche of War series, because it’s alternate history, I don’t have to do a lot of worldbuilding because it’s our world, there’s just psychics in it, right? So, I find that the more—maybe I’m just weak in worldbuilding—the more worldbuilding I have to do, the more, like, developmental-edit type feedback I get, whereas when there’s not that much worldbuilding to do, it’s really more on the copyeditor level, if that makes sense. And I’m happy to have it both.

You’re talking a little bit about Second Chance Angel, and that’s the other one we want to mention. I’m actually talking to your co-author, Griffin . . .

Yes.

. . . actually, this week, as we’re speaking, in just a few days, I’ll be talking to him, too. So, maybe . . .

He’s a riot. You’re going to have a good time.

Maybe a quick synopsis of that one, and then we’ll talk about it a little bit.

OK, so, Second Chance Angel is a sci-fi noir thriller that Griffin Barber and I co-wrote together, and it is the story, like I said, it’s a story set in the aftermath of a great galactic war, where humans essentially joined this war on the side of this alien race, kind of mysterious alien race, that we call the Mentors. And one of ways that the Mentors enticed humanity to come into the war on their side was by offering these cybernetic upgrades that require artificial intelligence to run the upgrades or to maintain the modifications. And so, these . . .  they have these AIs that were written as personal AIs that inhabit the body with the person. And it should kind of just be transparent. But one of our characters is actually one of these AIs that we call angels. And so Ralston Muck is a down-on-his-uck veteran bouncer who’s had his angel removed . . .

That’s a great name, by the way, Ralston Muck.

Yeah, that was Griffin’s idea. It’s very noir.

Very.

So, he finds himself, you know, mixed up in, and went, you know, when a singer at the club that he works at disappears and he finds himself in a position of having to go look for her and having to work with her personal AI to go find her. You know, they kind of slip into, uncover some seedy underworld stuff, as you know, as noir stories do. And, yeah, so that’s sort of the synopsis of the book is that they’re trying to find Siren . . .

Oddly enough, I just watched Chinatown last night. You know, it’s only been out for, what, 50 years and I’ve never watched it, so . . .

Well, it’s such a great movie. Yeah, it’s . . . I love the noir subgenre and Second Chance Angel for both Griffin and I is sort of our love letter, too, to the noir subgenre. A couple of years back, when I really got into it, I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, and I just I fell in love with the way that that guy could turn a phrase, you know, and the way that he would create these characters and make them, you know, just real people, just  by the words that they would say and the comparisons that they would draw, you know. And so, yeah, I, I love it. I love the aesthetics of it. And so does Griffin. And so, we decided to write a book and make it noir.

And how did you do that? Did you write, like, one chapter, alternating chapters, or exactly how did that work?

Kind of, yeah. So, in the book, we have essentially three points of view represented. So, one of the noir tropes is that, you know, you have this first-person point of view narration, which has its advantages and it has its disadvantages. One of the advantages is that you can really do some cool, like, unreliable-narrator type stuff that way, right? And we did do some of that. But one of the disadvantages is that it’s by necessity a very tight POV. You know, there’s only so much that you can do. So, what we did was, we had both Angel and Muck in first person POV, and I essentially wrote Angel’s Point of View, and Griffin wrote Muck. And there was some overlap. And sometimes where we, you know, did one or the other. But for the most part, that’s how it came about. And then, kind of to address that that disadvantage, you know, we realized that there was another dimension to the story that we needed to tell. And so, we did that through some of the additional AIs that are not necessarily personal augmentation eyes like Angel, but, like, the AI that is running the admin for the space station and the AI that is the law enforcement officer AI. We rolled them in and used them to tell part of the story, too, from a third-person point-of-view perspective.

Well, it sounds quite fascinating.

Yeah, it was fun. It was . . . it kind of came about organically, you know, we didn’t sit down and say, “OK, you’re going to do this, and you’re going to do this.” It was just sort of like, “Well, here, let me see. Well, I think this is how Angel would react,” and was like, “Oh, OK, well, this is what Mike would do next and just sort of went from there.”

Well, getting close to the end of the time here. So, time to turn my attention to the big philosophical question, which is . . .

Dum dum dum.

Yeah, exactly. Why, why? Why do this? Why write? Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes? Why do we tell stories, and why specifically stories of science fiction and fantasy?

Oh, OK, well, those are a lot of questions.

I like to pretend it’s just one, but it’s actually more than one.

Yeah, really. So, the reason that I write? I write like I breathe, right? You know, I kind of alluded to this earlier when I was talking about being a little kid, and I’ve never not made up stories. I don’t know how to process life without making up stories. And I think that that’s on some level true for us as a human race. We are in so many ways defined by our stories, the stories that we tell, the stories that we remember, what we choose to remember, what we choose to forget. I think that stories are an essential part of the human experience. And because, you know, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I can tell you a story that is similar to something that you’ve experienced and that then becomes a point of connection between us. And I think that that’s something that was very important for us as humans to do, is to connect with one another, you know. So, I think that we write for all of those reasons, you know, because that’s part of what makes us who we are.

Why stories of the fantastic?

Because that also makes this part of who we are. Because we, you know, we have the amazing ability to not just talk about what is but what could be, and to get excited about what could be and to inspire ourselves and each other and. And so, I think that, you know, there’s great joy to be had there, in telling stories of the fantastic, whether it be in science fiction or in fantasy or even in, you know, even in the darker stuff, like the horror and the noir and . . .you know, they’re two very different things, but they’re all ways of processing this experience, right, so . . . you know, it’s like dark humor, for example. I mean, I’ve been in the military for 20 years, and I have a very dark sense of humor, and most of my friends have a very dark sense of humor. And, you know, the same is true of first responders who work where they see terrible things all the time, police officers who have to deal with domestic violence and social workers who have to go into these situations and stuff. One of the major coping mechanisms for all of this is dark humor, is the ability to laugh so that you don’t cry.

And I think that, you know, there’s so much out there that frightens us as humans, even, you know, even, you want to talk even on an evolutionary level, like, we’re not the biggest, baddest animal out there. We don’t have super-sharp teeth or super-sharp claws we can’t see in the dark. But what we do have is our mind and our imagination. And we have this, like I said, this ability to tell stories and this ability to inspire each other and this ability to think beyond what is, to see what could be. And that is our great evolutionary advantage. And so, you know, even taking something that’s dark and turning it into our own story, you know, telling a story about it, makes it a little bit more accessible, and it gives us the ability to process the emotions that come with fear a little bit better, in fact. I don’t know if any of that made sense.

It made sense to me.

OK, good. I’m glad.

What are you working on now?

So, Griffin and I are . . . we have started the sequel to Second Chance Angel, which . . . Second Chance Angel releases, if you don’t mind me saying this, Angel releases on September 8, which is today for me while we’re recording this, I’m not sure when this will go up, but here in Japan, it’s already release day. So, yeah, happy release day!

It will have been out for some time before this goes live.

Good. You guys can just be part of my retroactive celebration! So, we’ve started the sequel, which is called The Third Sin, and we’re about three chapters into that. I’m also working on the third book in my Psyche of War series, which is a story set in the Vietnam era. And I’m working on a sequel to Gunpowder and Embers, started outlining that, and a couple of short stories and stuff. So, I’ve got a lot of projects.

And where can people find you online? I mentioned the website off the top. Oh, I should say that’s . . . better spell that.

Yeah. So, my website kaceyezell.net. That’s sort of the hub for where you can find me. You can go there and find lists of all my books, all my social media links, and join my mailing list, actually. And if you do that, you get, like, two free stories. So, there’s that as well, if you’re into that sort of thing. But also, I’m available on Instagram at KaceyEzell and then Facebook at KaceyEzell, too. So that’s kind of usually where I’m most interactive on social media is Instagram and Facebook.

OK, great. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.

I did! Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun to talk to you.