Episode 52: Nancy Kress

An hour-long interview with Nancy Kress, bestselling Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon, and Campbell Award-winning author of thirty science fiction and fantasy novels and novellas and five short-story collections, including Beggars in SpainProbability Space, and Steal Across the Sky, as well as three non-fiction books for Writer’s Digest on the fundamentals of writing.

Website
www.nancykress.com

Nancy Kress’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Richard Man

Nancy Kress is the bestselling author of thirty science fiction and fantasy novels and novellas and five short-story collections. Among her books are Beggars in SpainProbability Space, and Steal Across the Sky. She’s also published three non-fiction books for Writer’s Digest on the fundamentals of writing.Nancy is a six-time Nebula Award winner, including two consecutive awards for her novellas “After the Fall,” “Before the Fall,” “During the Fall,” and “Yesterday’s Kin.” She’s also the recipient of the Sturgeon and Campbell Awards, as well as two Hugo Awards. Her fiction has been translated into nearly two dozen languages, including Klingon. She teaches writing at workshops, including Clarion West and Taos Toolbox, as well as at the University of Leipzig in Germany as a guest professor. She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband, the author Jack Skillingstead.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Nancy.

Thank you, Ed.

I don’t believe we’ve ever met in person. I’m sure we must have been at the same conventions at the same time, but I don’t think we’ve ever actually spoken in person.

Since I’ve been going to conventions for 40 years, I’m sure we were there some time together.

So, I’m very happy to have you. We’re going to talk about a couple of things, a new novella called “Sea Change” and upcoming novel, The Eleventh Gate. But before we get to that, let’s do the background information. So where did you grow up and how did you get interested in writing? Most of us started as kids, or at least we started reading as kids. And that’s what turned us on to science fiction and fantasy. Was that how it was for you?

Rumpelstiltskin from Andrew Lang’s
The Blue Fairy Book

No, not exactly. I grew up in the 1950s in a small town, and we lived way out in the country. And my mother did not drive and my father had the car away at work, so I didn’t get into town very often. The books that were available to me, other than the ones at home, were in the school library. And remember, this was the ‘50s. When I was a child, the library was divided into a boys’ section and a girls’ section, and all of the science fiction, with little rocketships on the spines, was shelved in the boys’ section, and all of the fantasy in the girls’ section. So I read Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book, and Green Fairy Book, and Plaid Fairy Book and Polka-Dot Fairy Book and all the rest of them, and some fantasy, but no science fiction.

I didn’t see any science fiction until I was fourteen. I had my first boyfriend, who lived down the road and was studying to be a concert pianist. And every day after school, I would go over to his house and hang over the piano adoringly while he practiced. And the problem with that is that I’m tone-deaf and I can only hang adoringly for about ten minutes. And after that, I started inching towards the bookshelves in his parents’ house and pulling out books at random. And one of the books that I pulled out was Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. And in five minutes, I was in love, and not with the pianist. I’d never seen anything this…wide…with such a large canvas, so grand. And I immediately got very interested in it.

But I didn’t think of myself as a writer. Again, my mother was Italian-American. She raised me in the way she’d been raised, and she sat me down when I was twelve and said, “Do you want to be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary?” Those were all the things she could imagine. And I said, “A teacher, I want to teach kids.” She said, “OK, you’ll have to go to college for that.” And that’s what I did. I taught the fourth grade for four years after I graduated from college, and I didn’t start writing until I was almost 30. It didn’t occur to me that this was even possible. As a child, a young child like eight or nine, I didn’t know that anybody was a writer. I thought all writers were dead. The writers I was reading were like Louisa May Alcott and Zane Grey and the Nancy Drew books, and I assumed it was a finite resource like oil, and we were going to run out of it eventually.

Peak author. So, you did go into writing, but you did start writing fiction, right away. You were writing…you went into the sort of corporate copy and that sort of side of writing to begin with, didn’t you?

That actually was later.

Oh, was it?

That was later. I started writing when I was pregnant with my second child. I was home, again, living out in the country, with a toddler and a difficult pregnancy and alone a lot of the day with the kids. And when they were napping, I started writing to have something to do that didn’t involve Sesame Street and had words of more than two syllables. And I didn’t take it seriously for a long time. I was a mother, and that was what I was doing, and I was taking my graduate work in elementary education because I assumed I’d go back to that, which I actually never did. And I would send stories out and they would come back and I’d send them out and they would come back. And then after a year, one of them sold. And then, after another year, another one sold, and slowly it began to dawn on me that I really like doing that better than teaching the fourth grade.

I see from the bio that you have on your website your first story was what you termed the “eminently forgettable” “The Earth Dwellers,” which appeared in Galaxy in 1976. I remember Galaxy; I had a subscription to Galaxy for a while. I probably read it.

But what I did not know, Ed, was that Galaxy, at the time they brought my story, was trembling on the verge of bankruptcy, and everybody who knew anything, which did not include me, had stopped sending them material. So, I think they bought my story partly out of desperation. And then they promptly went out of business right after that and declared bankruptcy. And it took me three years to get my $105. I kept writing to Saul Cohan over and over again, saying, “This is my first story, and I really, really want the payment.” And finally, they sent me a cheque. Whining has its uses.

Your first novel came out about five years after that, right?

Yes. And it was a fantasy. The first three novels were fantasies. And then I switched to science fiction. And I really don’t know why, because nothing about my career has been planned. I didn’t plan on being a writer. I didn’t plan on writing fantasy novels. I didn’t plan on switching to science fiction novels. I have never done what many people say you’re supposed to do, which is build a brand. And as a result, the whole thing has a certain haphazard luck to it.

Well, I think one of the things I find doing this podcast is that every writer comes to it from a different direction and in a different path. And, you know, people ask, “How do you become a writer?” And it’s, well, there’s a different story for everybody that becomes one, it seems to me.

Yes, that’s absolutely right.

You did get a master’s in English. Did you take any actual creative writing courses at any point? I ask that because I get widely varying opinions from authors as to whether those did them any good or not, the ones who took them.

I took one, and I was fortunate because the instructor liked and understood science fiction. He didn’t write it himself, but he liked it and he understood it. Other people I’ve talked to, writers, have had very bad experiences because their instructors…I know one writer whose instructor told him, “I don’t know why reality isn’t enough for you.” But this was useful to me. I had just started to write, and it was useful because it explained things like what a point of view is and why it’s nice to have one and other basic things that, even though I had always been a reader, ever since I was a little kid, I would read absolutely anything, if there was nothing else available. The back of a cereal box would do, but I’d never thought about the mechanics of it. And so, yes, it was useful. And because it was a critique class, it was also useful to get the feedback from other students in the class who were at least readers, or they wouldn’t have been there.

Yes, I often ask people who started writing as a kid, as some did, like I did. And I would share my…I sort of did the critique thing. I would share my stories with my classmates. And I found out that they actually liked my stories and that at least gave me some income, an indication that, you know, I could tell a story that maybe somebody would be interested in reading. You actually…I got ahead of myself previously, but you did work writing corporate copy and advertising copy and that sort of thing for a while.

Yeah, that came a little later. After I got my master’s degree in English and my kids were old enough to go back to school, to start school, I realized I didn’t want to teach the fourth grade, and I know I probably wouldn’t have been able to even if I had wanted to, because it was the baby bust, and they were laying off elementary teachers, not hiring them. So I took work as an adjunct at the university. And then for a couple of years, I filled in full time, not tenure track, but when somebody was going on sabbatical, I would fill in and take over for them in the English department. So I taught college for a couple of years. And then, because that’s a sort of hit-and-miss thing, I needed a real job because I was getting divorced. And that’s when I went to work for an ad agency and wrote corporate copy, internal copy, mostly for Xerox.

Did you find that type of writing has helped you in any way in your fiction writing? I always say writing is writing, and you can get some benefit out of just about any kind of writing you do.

I found it interesting and useful, not so much from a writing standpoint, but from the viewpoint…because I already published a couple of novels by then and a whole bunch of short stories…I found it useful in understanding how the world works and especially how power works. I had been in academe my whole life as a student, as a fourth-grade teacher, as a college teacher. The corporate world is much different. And it was an education for me to see how…because I was writing for executives, mostly. I would be writing scripted slideshows, speeches, things like that, starting with newsletters and then working my way up. And it was very interesting to see that the corporate world runs on entirely different principles. And it was useful in that respect. As far as the actual writing, less so, because corporations want things phrased in ways that are almost antithetical to good English. I had spent a lot of years learning to write clear sentences, but clear sentences tend not to disguise responsibility so much as the use of passive verbs. You don’t say “so-and-so decided,” you say, “it was decided that.” And large words…a Lot of terrible words were coming into use at that time. “Incentivize,” “negative profits,” things like that, that they wanted included in the copy. So, the writing was not…it didn’t help the writing in that sense, but it did help my education, which had been pretty sheltered, about how the world works.

And then, when did you start writing about writing? You said you’d already been teaching writing some. And you wrote a column for many years for Writer’s Digest. When did that all come along?

Yes. The column came first. The college where I was teaching, State University in New York at Brockport, on a hit-and-miss basis, ran a bunch of summer workshops called the Writer’s Forum, and they had a section for…where they brought in, paired one faculty member with one visiting writer. They had a section for poetry, a section for fiction, a section for journalism, all kinds of them. And somebody decided that a section for science fiction would be good. And this was very useful to me because I got to bring in, every summer for a week, another science fiction writer, who stayed at my house and we talked together. And this forged a lot of alliances and friendships that were very valuable to me. My first year, I taught with Frederick Pohl, the second with Gene Wolfe, the third with Connie Willis, and it went on and on like that. And I really, really enjoyed those.

But one of the other sections was magazine writing, which was being taught by a visiting person who was one of the editors on Writers Digest. And he said to me, “You know, you should you should write a column for us.” First, he said, “You should write some articles for us.” So, I wrote three articles, which they published, and then their regular fiction columnist, Lawrence Block, was ready to leave. He was getting tired of the whole thing. So, he left, and they hired me to do that, and I wrote the Writer’s Digest column for sixteen years. It really was just an extension of my teaching, because by that time I was teaching a lot of writing. And then out of that grew the three books on writing.

I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, my nine-month term is just wrapping up, and I’ve done that on another occasion, and I’ve taught short courses here and there along the way, and I’ve always found that trying to tell other people how to write is very beneficial to me in figuring out how I can do what I do better. Do you find that you learn from being a teacher?

Yes, very much. Every summer, Walter Jon Williams and I teach a two-week intensive workshop called Taos Toolbox in Taos, New Mexico. And our guest visiting writer is George R.R. Martin every year. And we…in fact, I’m reading manuscripts right now to choose our 18 students. And I find that going over these manuscripts…because it’s really, we work them very hard. In addition to being in class to do critiquing of each other’s work, we also assign exercises, and we do analysis of fiction, successful fiction, all kinds of things. And I get an awful lot out of that every year. The students bring different manuscripts every year, of course, and a wide variety of them. Some fantasy, some science fiction, some space opera, some military fiction. And I find it useful to me to try to figure out why a story isn’t working. It’s easy with the manuscripts that need a lot of attention, but very often at this level, you get manuscripts where they’re not quite working, but you’re not quite sure why. And sitting down, trying to pinpoint exactly why this isn’t working, and what might make it work, has a lot of carryover into my own work.

Well, let’s talk about your own work. Two pieces I wanted to talk about, and maybe we’ll start with “Sea Change,” which is the novella that’s out from Tachyon. First of all, maybe give us a synopsis of it without giving away anything you don’t want to give away.

OK. “Sea Change” concerns three things. It’s a story about the genetic engineering of crops, GMOs are a very controversial subject, obviously, and I wanted to present both sides of this, although it’s clear which side I’m going to be coming down on, I think from the beginning. That’s one strand that went into the story. Another strand that went into the story is ocean blobs that we are increasing the getting off the West Coast. Seattle is my adopted city. I love it. I came here ten years ago to marry my husband, and I just love Seattle. It’s gorgeous. Every once in a while, off the coast, beaches are closed because we get blobs, ocean blobs. And they’re usually not harmful. They’re caused by runoffs from rivers and creeks with a lot of fertilizer in them, which causes the ocean algae to just go crazy and bloom, Everything under them, because the algae bloom is so dense, dies. That wouldn’t be a problem in itself, because they do break up eventually in the fall, except that every once in a while, certain bacteria combine with the blooms and they produce a toxin called domoic acid that poisons fish, that poisons sea lions, that poisons the small fish, then the larger fish eat them, and then the sea lions eat those, and you get a perfect disaster. And then the beaches are closed because it can also poison people. 

The third strand that went into the novella was a love story. In fact, if I had it to do over again, I would probably call it “Sea Change: A Love Story.” But by the time this occurred to me, the novella had already been printed, and I didn’t think that Tachyon was going to want to go changing the title at that point. But it is very much a love story.

Now, one thing I wanted to ask you about was the difference between planning for a novella and planning for a novel. So, maybe we’ll also just flip over and you can give a brief synopsis of the novel as well. And then we’ll sort of talk about everything at once. So, the novel that’s coming out is called The Eleventh Gate, and it’s quite different. It’s a far-future space opera.

Yes, it is. I’ve always wanted to write a space opera because that was the kind of thing I was reading when I first discovered science fiction. I was reading Asimov’s Foundation series, I was reading that sort of thing, and I wanted to write a space opera. But I haven’t ever actually done it.

So, that one takes place in a pretty far future after Earth has been environmentally trashed and hardly anybody lives there anymore. There’s a couple of holdouts, but not very many. Gates have been discovered orbiting the moon. They’re hard to see, but. And we’re not up there very much. But once they get there, they find them and they lead to eight other planets. So, all of these get settled by various different groups from Earth, the eight worlds, and they are connected with these space gates that you can go through. There are ten space gates connecting the various planets because some have two, going from one planet to another. And then, someone discovers an eleventh gate. And what’s behind the eleventh gate changes everything, including the very precarious truce, balance of economic and political power among the eight worlds. And that’s what I wanted to write about, the balance of political and economic power. And I wanted to do it through certain characters, many of them women, but not all, who are very varied in belief, in temperament. None of them is somebody…well, maybe one…but other than that, nobody is someone you can say, “Oh, this is clearly the heroine. This is the good person. This is the one I want to identify with.” I was trying to make them all having the flaws of their particular backgrounds. And a few of them are just batshit crazy.

So, these are two very different stories. This is a cliched question, but it’s still a valid question, which is, I hate to say, “Where do you get your ideas?” But let’s say what inspired you to write each of these…you mentioned a little bit, I think, on “Sea Change”…and is this typical of the way that story ideas come to you?

Well, more and more, I have been writing hard SF, which “Sea Change” is. The science in it is all completely accurate. That wasn’t true when I started writing. I was writing soft science fiction, in which it didn’t really matter if the science hung together. And that transitioned into, I guess, high-viscosity science fiction, if not actually hard. And now, I write hard SF. So, although I can’t usually pinpoint where a specific idea came from, and with “Sea Change” it would also be difficult. It came off the general area of genetic engineering, which I read about a lot, and which I am obsessively interested in. I’m not trained as a scientist. I wish I were, but it’s a little late for that. But I read about it, I learn about it, because this is the future. This is where we’re going. And “Sea Change” is a direct outgrowth of that interest.

The specific idea started, as all of my stories start, with a character. And this time it was the character of an old man, a patriarch, still very powerful, who runs a world and who is brought a business proposition he can’t refuse. And from there, once I had this, I wrote, as I always do, I wrote the first scene sort of in a white-hot heat. And then I sat down and said, “OK, what have I got here? Who is this person? Who is this other person? Where is this going? What are the implications of the situation I’ve set up?” And the same thing is true of (The Eleventh Gate). The first couple of scenes came to me, and then I write them, and then I sit down and I start thinking about first the characters and the situation, and then secondly, the things I’ve learned painfully about structure. Structure came harder to me than characterization, which is one reason why my short stories for a very long time were more successful than my novels.

So it sounds like you….basically it’s a process of self-interrogation, where you have the initial thought, and then you ask yourself a lot of questions. Is that a fair way to describe that?

That’s half of it. That’s the questioning part that is intellectual. Because there are two questions that guide the construction of all fiction, basically. One is, “What do these people want?” If your characters don’t want anything, you really don’t have a piece of fiction. Sometimes maybe all they really want in a short story is to be left alone. But it’s better…and the longer the work, the more things they have to want and the more they have to want them intensely. So you ask, “What do these people want?” And the other question is, “What can go wrong?” Because that’s where the conflict comes from. If your character wants something and then they go out and get it, you really don’t have a story there, either.

So intellectually, those two questions guide me. But on the other side, it’s a little more mystical. It’s like the Stanislavski method of acting, where you become the character. I try to become this person from the inside out. When I write “Sea Change,” I am Renata. And if…when this goes well—and it doesn’t every day, but some days it does—my life disappears. I disappear. The room around me disappears. I am Renata, and I’m in this space, and what Renata would do next comes to me naturally because I’m in her mind, I’m in her heart, or she’s in mine. And that’s the other part of how I proceed. I know this sounds like a mishmash of intellectual combined with mystical. But that’s kind of how it is.

Have you done any theater?

Have I done what?

Theater. Any acting?

No. No. I don’t think…my sister is an actress. She’s a very good actress. But I don’t think I could do it. I’m…like many writers, not all, but many. I’m very much an introvert. And the idea that I have to get out there and interact with people every night for eight shows a week. It wouldn’t work. Also, I’m a morning person.

Well, that really doesn’t work.

No, it really doesn’t work. They wouldn’t let me go home at nine o’clock at night. So, no.

So, I asked that partly because I am an actor and have done, both professional…

Oh! What kind of acting do you do?

Mostly stage acting. I’ve done a lot of musicals.

That’s what my sister does. Well, she doesn’t do musicals too much anymore. She started with it. Because her voice isn’t trained, and as she’s gotten older, it’s gotten a little rusty. But she’s…she had marvelous stage presence. She still does. She does a lot of Shakespeare.

The reason I asked was what you’re describing is, of course, the acting process, you know, however you approach it, you pretend to be somebody else, you try to inhabit that person and bring them to life on stage. And the authors I’ve spoken to who have done stage acting find that it’s, the two processes are very similar. So, yeah. Absolutely. And now, what does your actual planning…

I didn’t come to it that way, though. I came to it as a reader. Even as a girl, what I would read something, the whole world would go away. My mother would get quite irritated because she’d have to say my name three or four times before I’d even hear her. I became those people in those books. And that kind of identification for me grew out of reading, not acting.

Yeah, I had both.

Doubly blessed!

So, what does your actual planning/outlining process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you do just kind of a sketch, or what does your planning look like? And how is it different for the shorter work as opposed to the longer work?

The shorter work doesn’t really have any planning. The shorter work I kind of write, and about halfway through it all comes together in my mind. By shorter, I’m saying something under 10,000 words. And when you grow things organically that way, a certain number of them die. And that has happened. I have a whole file full of unfinished short stories that will never be finished because it just dried up on me.

That doesn’t work for longer work. For novellas or novels, you have to have some sort of structure. And structure has been harder for me to learn than characterization or language. What I do now is…I don’t know everything that’s going to happen, but I have a general idea where I’m going, and what I will do, as I did this morning, is I will sit down and I’ll think, “OK, this is the next scene, and this is the one after that, and the one after that might be this.” And I’ll make notes of those three scenes, and as they get a little clearer in my mind, I’ll sit down—going with the general direction that I know I’m moving—and I’ll write…I’ll begin work on one of those scenes. And by the time I finished it, I’m hoping that a couple more will have become clear to get where I need to go. 

There are certain things I will check for, too, as I’m going along. You need to have the stakes rising throughout the story, as they do in “Sea Change.” You need to have the conflict escalating. You need to move towards some sort of climax. And you need to make sure that there isn’t too much after the climax or it will be…anticlimactic! So, there is a certain structure that I have in my head, and it’s built around, again, those two questions, “What do these people want?” and “What can go wrong?”

And what they want might change. In fact, for the length of an entire novel, it has to. When I’m teaching, I point out to my students…I can’t count that they all have read the same stuff,  although I give them some short stories and we talk about those. But I can usually count on some movies they’ve seen, one of which is Star Wars. So, we talk about that in terms of what Luke wants at the beginning, which is to get the hell off Tatooine, and what he wants after that, which is to find Obi-Wan Kenobi, and on through his changing desire to become a Jedi knight, too, and right up to where his desire is to destroy the Death Star. What he wants changes and builds, and it also raises the stakes each time. So, those things kind of guide me as I fumble my way through the manuscript.

How much of this do you write down ahead of time?

Not a lot. I make a lot of notes on the science because, again, I’m not trained on that. And I will do a lot of research and a lot of notes on the science and how I can use it. Science itself suggests a lot of plot points. The more I found out about domoic acid, the more plot points came through for “Sea Change.” So, the science itself will guide it. What the characters are like will guide it. Other characters’ reactions to my protagonist will guide it. The process…I know it sounds messy, but that’s because it is messy. I can’t…I don’t outline. I’m kind of in awe of writers who do outline in detail because I can’t do that.

I think my…the example I keep giving from the people I’ve talked to on the podcast is Peter V. Brett, author of The Demon Cycle. And he writes 150-page outlines before he starts writing. And that’s the most detailed outliner I’ve encountered yet in the podcast.

That’s amazing. I would feel like I’d written the whole book. I would need to write it, then.

Yeah, I don’t think I would work for me either. What is your actual writing process look like? Do you, you know, get a quill pen and sit under a tree, or…?

No. I write mornings. If it doesn’t get written by noon, it doesn’t get written. In the afternoon, I will do research and publicity and student manuscripts and stuff like that. But in the morning, I get up very early, like five o’clock. And that hasn’t always been the case, but it’s been…well, it’s been the case for much of my adult life. First, I needed to get up and write before my children got up, and then by that time, it was already ingrained. It was too late to change. But I get up, and for the first hour, I drink the first cup of coffee, I putter around the kitchen, I look at the e-mail, but don’t answer it, I check CNN to make sure nothing has blown up overnight, things like that. And then, around six, I settle in and I write…I work for several hours.

And do you do a…getting to the revision process, do you just barrel through to the end and then go back and revise, or do you revise along the way or how does that work for you?

Both. The plotting of scenes and the thinking about them is all done on a clipboard with yellow legal pads. The actual writing of words that will go into the story is done on a computer. And usually, I write the whole thing straight through. But if I feel that I’m in trouble, then I will stop and go back and rethink it, with my little clipboard and my yellow pages, and sometimes dump large sections of what I’ve written and then go back to the computer and write new sections. But I try not to do that too much. I try to have some sense of what I’m doing. The first half is always messier than the second half, because by the second half I really know what I’m doing.

That’s a first draft. The second draft, I will revise major things, characterization problems, scenes that are missing that I think I need now. I keep sort of running list of these as I’m working. And that’s the big stuff. The third draft, I go through and I clean up. I also, on the second draft, will pick up things where…I don’t want to stop writing, so I write in triple parentheses, “Find this out later,” and then keep going. These are details that I just don’t want to stop and research at the time.

And I have to say the computer and the Internet make this so much easier. I remember when I first started to write, this was in the ’80s, and the Internet didn’t exist, and I needed to know for some story long forgotten how high a regulation basketball hoop was from the gym floor. This required a trip over to the university library, trying to find it myself, failing, bothering the reference librarian, and she and I riffled through things till we finally find it, then I had to trudge all the way home. There’s a couple of hours involved for this stupid little detail.

I remember those days, yeah.

Oh, yeah. Now, it’s so easy. It’s so nice to be able to do it on the Internet and find out instantly how high that basketball hoop is supposed to be.

As long as you’re disciplined enough not to then end up finding yourself reading a history of the National Basketball Association or something like that along the way.

Well, with sports, that’s not really a temptation for me. The only sports I’m really interested in are the Seattle Seahawks.

Do you have anybody that reads…like, beta readers that some authors like to use, or is it just you…

My husband.

Oh, well, yeah. I was going to ask you about being married to a writer. So there you go.

Yes. Before Jack, I was married to Charles Sheffield, who died of a brain tumor in 2002. So, it’s been two writers. And in each case, we looked at each other’s manuscripts and made suggestions. And yes, that’s very, very helpful.

I married an engineer, who is not much help to me as a writer, but has been a great help to me on the family income side.

Yes, I can imagine.

Good career move on my part. She hates that joke, but it’s true. So, once you have your final draft, then it goes to the editor, what kind of editorial feedback to you typically get on your work?

Oh, it varies so much by editor. There are editors who do absolutely no editorial work. Obviously, they send it to a copy editor, who will go over it and look for factual errors and inconsistencies, and why does she have blue eyes in Chapter 3 and green eyes in Chapter 18, that kind of thing. But I’ve had editors that have made extremely useful, substantive suggestions, and I’ve had editors that I’m not absolutely positive read the manuscript.

You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers over the years, haven’t you?

Yes, yes. For a while, they kind of kept going…amalgamating or going bankrupt or whatever. I followed David Hartwell around for a while from different posts, and that was kind of nice. And then eventually, I was working with Jim Minz, his assistant, and then Jim left, and I went to a different publisher. And now I’m back with Jim Minz at Baen, that’s publishing The Eleventh Gate, which I’m very pleased to be back working with him. And in the meantime, the novella is a standalone…

Well, the novella is my favorite form. Science fiction, for reasons that defy understanding, defines a novella as between 17,500 and 40,000 words, and my novellas are usually pushing up at the 40,000-word mark. It’s my favorite form because a novella is short enough to need a single plotline to go barreling through, long enough to create an alternate world or a believable future. In a novel, on the other hand, you need not only a main plot but braided plots on top of that, and I find that more challenging. I really like novellas. Almost all of my awards are for novellas.

Is the editing process different for those than for novels?

Not really. Some editors give me useful feedback, things that they think need to be strengthened. That happened with “Sea Change.” I got some very useful information from Jacob (Weisman) about the ending on that. And I rewrote the ending to strengthen it. But some do and some don’t. It depends on both the editor and the work.

I have been with…DAW is my major publisher, and so I’ve worked with Sheila Gilbert. I’ve only had the one editor for my major books. And so, it’s always interesting to me to talk to people about working with a variety of editors. I have worked with other editors of smaller publishers, but Sheila is so good, I don’t know what it’d be like to work with a different editor.

I’ve never had the pleasure of working with Sheila.

Well, we’re getting close-ish to the end, so I want to move on to the big philosophical questions. You’ve done a lot of thinking about writing and a lot of teaching of writing, so this should be easy for you. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write, first of all, and why science fiction and fantasy specifically?

There are days when I think I have no idea why anybody writes. But, you know, actually, that’s a difficult question, Ed.  I’ve done this for so long, for forty years now, that it’s so deeply ingrained in me to think in terms of stories that I can’t imagine…oh, I can’t say I can’t imagine doing anything else, because I’ve done other things. I’ve taught the fourth grade, I wrote corporate copy. If you go back far enough in my college days, I waitressed in the summers. I mean, I have done other things. And of course, I was a full-time mother for a number of years, so I can imagine doing other things. But I have always told myself stories. Long before I knew I was going to be a writer, I told myself stories as I fell asleep, in which I was always the heroine. Since the 1950s Saturday morning consisted of cartoons and westerns, these were westerns. We weren’t allowed to watch television except on Saturday morning. So, I would invent gangs of my Western heroes, Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger and all the rest of it. And I’d be a member of this gang, too, and I’d invent all these stories and tell myself a different chapter every night. Stories were ingrained, and I think that the human brain is built to understand the world in terms of stories.

Og, sitting around the campfire, tells a story about the great hunt he did that day, and then everybody else wants to go where Og went and kill a bison where he killed one. We’re meant to understand the world in terms of stories. And I think that’s why even people who don’t read usually watch television, with its versions of stories, and movies.

And Og embellished his story, too, the more often he told it,

Oh, Og was a terrible liar. Can’t believe a word the man says.

So, why do you think we, those of us who do, why do you think we write within the science fiction and fantasy genres specifically?

So, that’s a little harder to understand. I think, though, that it’s a large enough canvas, it’s especially suited—and this really is a cliché—to exploring ideas: political ideas, scientific ideas. It’s a rehearsal for different ways that we might live, or rather an exploration of different ways that we might live. My favorite SF writer of all time is Ursula LeGuin. And I have read The Dispossessed until my copy fell apart and I had to buy a new one. I’ve also taught it on two continents. She’s taken there the idea of anarchy, and she’s saying, “Would this be a viable way for us to live? And if so, what might it look like?” And I think that’s what science fiction does.

With “Sea Change,” I’m saying, “OK, what if we really were serious about the genetic engineering of crops, what might drive us to do that and what might it look like if we did?” And I think you can do that with most fiction, and with science fiction and fantasy you can especially do it because you can alter whatever you want to alter and put it under a kind of a microscope and say, “OK, if this were different, how would it affect us as humans?” And then you can write about it and look at it.

Well, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and of course, the idea is of the writers shaping the worlds that they’re writing about, but do you think or hope that your fiction might have shaped the real world in some way, or if that’s too grand, at least shaped readers in some way to think differently?

I have readers who write me and who tell me that Beggars in Spain changed them, yes. That’s my most famous novel. It’s about people genetically engineered to not need to sleep.

I remember it well.

Well, that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about other things, as well. But I don’t know. I think there are very few books in history that have had that kind of impact—I don’t mean the kind of impact of Beggars in Spain, I mean a genuinely large impact—and even fewer that have shaped politics, economics, even science. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring would be one. Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be one in terms of giving a huge impetus to the abolition movement before the civil war.

Maybe some of Dickens?

Some of Dickens, yes, for child labor. But I don’t think there’s a lot of them. I don’t think that they shape a specific thing, so much a specific event or a specific situation, as they do shape the way that readers of science fiction, good science fiction, at least, have a certain flexibility of mind. They can look and entertain at least the possibility that things could be different than they are now.

And not everybody can do that. I have relatives who never read fiction. They say, “Why would I want to read it if it didn’t happen?” And this is completely alien to me. They also have very practical minds. They look at the world as it is and try to say, “OK, why do I want to do with what’s here?” But they never look at the world the way it is and say, “How could this be different?” And for me, that’s the most interesting part about fiction. How could this be different? How could I be different? How could what I do be different? How could what’s around me be different? And science fiction, I think, is particularly well suited to that.

And of course, there’s the fact that it’s fun.

It is fun.

Both to read and write. I think, anyway. So what are you working on now?

Well, I don’t like to talk about work in progress very much, but I am working on a novel that is about the nature of human consciousness. Nothing like taking on a large subject, is there?

So it’s a short story, then.

It’s already, it’s not done and it’s already longer than it’s supposed to be.

And coming up, we have The Eleventh Gate, I think will be out just before this goes live. So that will be the freshest thing, I think, when the podcast goes live. Where can people find you online, or learn more about you?

I have a website, nancykress.com. I have a Facebook feed, but I’m not on it, I’m afraid, very much, or at all, anymore. So, that’s probably not good. But anybody who wants to contact me can do it through the website. And the publication date for “Sea Change” has been pushed back due to the coronavirus. Jacob pointed out that there are actually no bookstores to ship this book to. So, we’re hoping that by the end of May, when is a new pub date, that there will be.

Is that for “Sea Change” or The Eleventh Gate?

Yes, both of them.

Both of them. Yes, and I was going to say, well, and people can find you at conventions, but not for a while, it looks like.

Not for a bit. And of course, both books will be available on Amazon. Along with everything else in the world.

All right. Well, I think that about wraps it up, so thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. It’s been a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

I really did. Thank you for having me, Ed. I guess I didn’t equal Scott Card’s two hours’ worth of talking, but…

Yes. Well, Scott said that he went on because I would let him talk and didn’t interrupt. And so, his default is, if the interviewer is not saying anything, I should fill the space. And so, I got two hours out of him.

Oh, OK.

Anyway, thanks so much for being on and hope to actually meet you in person sometime in the future.

Well, I’m supposed to be Guest of Honor at WorldCon in D.C. in 2021, if it happens.

Yeah, and I’d like to be there. So hopefully, I’ll see you there if not before.

That would be really nice. Take care, Ed.

You, too. Bye for now.

Bye-bye.

Episode 51: Barbara Hambly

An hour-long chat with Barbara Hambly, New York Times-bestselling author of fantasy and science fiction, as well as historical novels set in the nineteenth century, about her creative process.

Website
www.barbarahambly.com

Facebook
@BarbaraHamblyWriter

Barbara Hambly’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Since her first published fantasy in 1982, The Time of the Dark, Barbara Hambly has touched most bases in genre fiction: her most recent vampire novel is Prisoner of Midnight (Severn House, 2019) and her most recent historical whodunnit, Lady of Perdition, continues the well-reviewed Benjamin January series.

In times past, she has written Star Trek (TOS) and Star Wars tie-in novels (Ishamel, Crossroad, Children of the Jedi), and did scripts for Saturday morning cartoons.  In addition – when she can – she writes short fiction about the further adventures of characters from her fantasy novels of the ‘80s and ‘90s, which can be purchased on Amazon (Gil and Ingold from the Darwath series, Antryg and Joanna from The Silent Tower, John and Jenny from Dragonsbane, plus a couple of Sherlock Holmes tales “for the hell of it”).

She teaches history at a local community college, and practices iaido, costuming, and painting. Now a widow, she shares a house in Los Angeles with several small carnivores.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Barb.

Well, thank you. Thank you. Thank you for asking me to be on.

Well, it was…I ran into you, I guess, at World Fantasy, I was sort of, you know, keeping my eye out for people I wanted to talk to. And I thought, hey, there’s somebody. So I’m glad you said yes.

Very nice.

I think that’s the only time we’ve met, actually. And we didn’t really meet, just sort of chatted there at World Fantasy, but I’ve been familiar with your work for a long time and currently reading, I haven’t quite finished it, but Stranger at the Wedding is the one we’re gonna talk about today as an example of your creative process. So we’ll get to that in a little bit.

But I always start by taking my guests back into the mists of time and finding out how you got started, became interested in writing, how you got started writing, and also just a little bit of your biography, which is kind of an interesting one. So, where did you grow up and all that sort of stuff? And how did you get interested in writing? Was it through reading books like most of us?

I suppose it must have been. But I remember, even before I learned to read, I was storyboarding stories. I would, like, draw the characters in a storyboard form. And I remember doing that when I was about four. So actually, I think my desire to tell stories predated learning to read. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a household where my father was a great reader. He always had fiction. He loved the Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series, he was a great fan of Zane Grey. He liked adventure stories. He liked biographies. He liked history and when we were small children…my mother is not a great reader, but she was a very conscientious mom. And I think she looked up lists of books that had won the Newbery Award or had won children’s book awards, and she made sure that she read these to us. So we were always surrounded by an atmosphere of storytelling.

And in your, we mentioned Stranger at the Wedding, you have some pictures at the back of that of your family from when you were little, as well. So, I think I can picture your mom and dad because I have a picture of them right in front of me.

Oh, my gosh.

And a picture of you as a very little girl.

Oh, dear.

So you were growing up on a Marine base, it says.

Yes. Well, my dad was in the Marines when he met my mom. He met my mom immediately after World War Two ended, and they got married, and he was stationed in San Diego, which is where all three of us kids were born. And then he was transferred out to a Marine base in the middle of the desert in a place called China Lake. And my earliest memories are of being in…and of course, at that time, housing of any kind was very much at a premium because the war was just over, and you were in the first wave of the baby boom. And so, on the Marine base out in the middle of the Mojave Desert, the married officers’ housing was a trailer park. And my poor mother got to keep house in a 30-foot single wide with three children under the age of six. And my earliest recollections are of living in the trailer, and you’d step out of the trailer, and because it was all brand new, there was nothing. There was a little concrete path around the outskirts of the trailers, and beyond that, it was desert. It was, you know, if you watch any of the 1950s science fiction films like Them or…all of those 1950s science fiction films, they’re all in, like black and white and they’re out in the middle of the desert, that’s where I grew up.

That was immediately what I thought of when you were describing it.

They were all filmed out in the Mojave Desert because it is within a couple of hours’ driving distance of Los Angeles.

And then, when did you actually start writing your own stories?

Well, as I said, I started storyboarding stories. I would storyboard stories about my toys. When I was four, I started writing stories as soon as I learned the alphabet. I would write…one of my favorite series was the Oz books, and, I’m sure everyone knows, in addition to The Wizard of Oz, there were about 25 or 30 other books about characters in Oz. And for me, it was like fan fiction. I would then write my own Oz stories. When I became enamored of Sherlock Holmes in the third grade, I would write my own Sherlock Holmes stories. And writing was just something I did. It was always completely natural to me. Storytelling was always the thing that I did. It was the thing that shaped my life.

Did you share your early writing, like with your friends or schoolmates or parents?

In seventh grade, I mentioned to some of the other students in my class that I…at that time, I was writing Edgar Rice Burroughs takeoffs…and I got teased so badly that that was the last time I told anybody that I wrote until I got published.

I always ask that because I get such different responses to it…the people who never shared, and people who were like me, and I was handing out copies of it to my classmates in high school. “Here read this. Read this!” So that’s why I always ask.

Actually I did write…starting in high school, I would write Man from U.N.C.L.E. stories. I would write…I wrote this unbelievably long—it was like a hundred-part—story about the Beatles. And those I did share with two of my classmates. And then when Star Trek came along…I was kind of a weird kid and I did not have many friends and I had been teased and bullied to the point where I was not…I didn’t tell most people what was going on with me. But in high school, I had a couple of very close friends and we were the only people in the high school who were tremendous Star Trek fans. It was the first season, the first time, the original series, it was 1966, Star Trek came on and it hit the three of us like a ton of bricks. And so, we all started writing Star Trek stories and I wrote simply for the audience of my two friends. One of them would write stories for me, for our little group, and these were the only people who knew that I wrote because I pretty much didn’t talk to anybody else in high school.

Were there any teachers who were, you know, helping out or supporting you along the way, or did you kind of keep it from them, too?

Oh, God, no. There were teachers that made a tremendous impression on me, but I certainly would not share with any of them or with anybody else the fact that I wrote.

Well, when you got to university, you didn’t study writing, you studied medieval history and went so far as to get a master’s in. What drew you into that?

Well, I,,,when I originally…because I always knew I wanted to be a writer, and when I got into UC Riverside, it was 1969 and I thought, If I want to be a writer, I should be an English major. And I went to my first creative writing class, I was like eighteen years old, sitting in the front row with the class. And there was this woman up in the front of the class, the instructor, with a size eleven mouth and an ego to match. And here am I, sitting in the front row, thinking, You tell me what you’ve published and then I’ll listen to you. As far as I could tell, the class was supposed to be in creative writing and it actually seemed to be a class in how to write bad Flannery O’Connor knockoffs. And that was the last creative writing class I ever took.

Now, when, many years later, for purposes of the plot, I needed to find a teaching job, I went to the local community college and applied for a teaching job in creative writing. And at this point in time, I had published about sixty novels. So I applied. I said, you know, I’m a professional writer. I’ve published about sixty novels. And they said, oh, we can’t hire you because you don’t have an MFA—because after that creative writing class that I took way back in 1969, I’d switched over to being a history major. So, when I’m applying for a job teaching creative writing, they said, “We can’t hire you to teach creative writing because you don’t have an MFA. And even if you did have an MFA, if the English department hired you, they would hire you to teach remedial English because all of the creative writing classes are taught by the tenured full-time English professors because it’s more fun for them.”

And I thought, Oh, good. You have people who want to learn to be a professional writer, and instead of hiring a professional writer to teach them, you have them taught by an academic who has never published any fiction in his or her life because it’s more fun for them. And then they said, “You want to teach history?” And I said, “Absolutely.”

When I…back in 1969, as I said, when I finished my first and last creative writing class, I switched over to getting a BA and then an MA in history, which served me very well, it got me a nice job teaching history, which I still have.

And has it fed into your writing, as well?

History?

Yes.

Oh, God, yes. I…well, I’ve always been interested in history. My dad was a history buff. I had some excellent history teachers in high school and in university. My best friend in high school was a history buff. She is still my best friend and she is still a history buff, and history always felt very natural to me. I always wanted to write in historical settings or fantasy settings, but it’s the same thing, you’re world building in both in both genres. And I think that’s one reason why I’ve written in both genres, is it’s about worldbuilding. It’s about going to another world, going to a world that is not my own.

You know, in creative writing classes, they would always say, “Well, write what you know.” And…for one thing, nobody would be interested in the adventures of a fat pimply virgin in Southern California in the 1960s. I wasn’t even interested in them. So I wanted to be somewhere else. I wanted to go somewhere else. J.R.R. Tolkien’s writings hit me like a ton of bricks. I read the first unauthorized copy of The Two Towers. And it’s like, “This is what I want. This is the world I want to be in. This is what I want to do.”

And you got there. But you did a few other things along the way before that first novel came out, didn’t you?

Yes, yes. Well, from the time I was…actually, junior high and in high school, I—going back to “write what you know”—always in the back of my head was, I knew I wanted to write adventure fiction. And I knew that if I was going to do this, I was going to…there were certain things I would need to know. When I was fifteen, I joined a fencing class. I was always interested in historical costuming and that got me among the historical costumers, for things like, you know, stuff your characters need to know. What is it like to wear a corset and a bustle? What is it like to be in a physical fight with someone? I started taking karate in 1974 partly so that I would know what it is like to be in a physical fight with someone, which is not something that girls generally do, unless they go to a high school and are bullied by the Mexican girls.

And of course, once I got into karate, that was a whole new world. The martial arts has been a constant in my life since 1974. But it blends in with this. I do it because I love it. I also do it because if I’m going to have a hero who is wielding a sword, I want to know how to wield a sword. We would go horseback riding, and partly in the back of my mind is, If I’m going to write stories about people who get from place to place on horses, I better learn how to ride a horse.

So, there’s always this moving back and forth between real life and the fictional world inside the books, and the fact that I am going to need this information if I am going to produce these stories effectively. That’s one of the reasons that I’m drawn to history, partly because I just love history, partly because I need to know how non-industrial societies work. I need to look at stuff that has happened in history and go, I can use that. There will be times I’ll be in conversations with my friends and someone will be talking about the behavioral enormities being practiced by their sister or their brother or whomever, and I’ll be sitting there thinking, I can use that!

So tell me about the first novel and how that came about, Time of the Dark, which kind of launched your career.

Well, when I started taking karate, I quit writing for about two years. And I had a dream. And the dream was…one sequence at the beginning of Time of the Dark where the young screw-up hero first sees the dark ones, sees this creature, and because they can change their size it’s slithering in through, like, a crack in the wall, and he is shocked and horrified. And he goes to the old wizard who’s in the next room. And the wizard said, “Oh, did you think they’d be human?” And from that dream, then I extrapolated how did this situation come about and extrapolated what came from that situation.

I originally wrote it up as a single volume. I sent it to…I went to the library and got a list of publishers who were taking fantasy. I sent it to Lester Del Rey, who was the editor at Del Rey Books at the time, and he sent me back this long letter, basically telling me that I had enough material there for a trilogy, extrapolating from this, extrapolating from that. “Can you pursue this? Can you pursue that?” And I sat down for the next almost a year. Again, I didn’t tell anybody I was working on this. And I sat down and expanded it into a trilogy, sent it back to Lester, and, you know, everybody has told me it’s really hard to break into the field. But I guess in that year, they were really looking for trilogies, because I sent this manuscript back to Lester and I got a reply in two weeks saying, “We’ll take it.” And then I went, “Oh, dang, I don’t have an agent. I’d better get an agent.” And immediately had to hunt around for an agent who is…she’s still my agent.

It’s always easy to get an agent when you’ve already sold the book.

Oh, absolutely. And she immediately got me a better deal on the contract. But I didn’t…my experience with writing the book and getting accepted was…I don’t think it’s typical.

As far as I can tell from talking to authors, nobody has a typical story. It’s different for everybody. Mine was very different as well.

Well, we’re gonna talk about Stranger at the Wedding as an example of your creative process. But before we get to that, I did just want to ask you about some of the other writing you’ve done, the Saturday-morning cartoons and the Star Wars and Star Trek books. How is that different from writing your own material?

Well…

And did you enjoy it?

Oh, tremendously. Tremendously. Of course, as a tremendous Star Trek fan, when they started coming out with the Star Trek novels, my agent got in touch with me and said, “They are looking for Star Trek novels, and they were looking for Trek novels, of course, because everybody was writing fan fiction for Trek. And at that time, my agent told me, “They’re looking for Star Trek novels written by authors who have already been published.” Because at that time they didn’t want to have to teach somebody how to write. They wanted a manuscript by somebody who knew how to write a manuscript. And so the editor at that time was looking for…”Hey, do you have something? Do you have a Star Trek novel in your drawer? We know you’ve got a Star Trek novel in your drawer.” And as it happened, I did. And that was Ishmael, which was infamous for other reasons. And then I wrote another two Star Trek novels.

And the thing about the Star Trek novels was, they kept changing the approvals loop. Part of the problems I had with Ishmael, the first of the of my Star Trek novels, was that book went through about five editors. And the editors at the beginning of the process were telling me things that later turned out were not true, were not correct. And the mess had to be cleared up by an editor, you know, five editors down the line. But this was a problem with the Star Trek novels: they kept changing the approvals loop. So, something would get approved, and then by the time I turned in the manuscript, they said, “Oh, no, we don’t want that.”

Ghost Walker, which was the second one, I’d turned in the outline saying, you know, the plot involved Captain Kirk being in a serious romantic relationship with the guest star. And by the time I turned the manuscript in, they said, “Oh, we don’t…we can’t have Captain Kirk being in a serious romantic relationship. “And I said, “That’s fine. You don’t have to publish the book, but you have to pay me for it, because that’s the first line on the outline, saying Captain Kirk is in a serious romantic relationship with X, Y, Z.”

And, you know, when I turned in the outline for Crossroad, which was the third of my Trek novels, they said, “Mr. Roddenberry doesn’t want Trek novels on that subject.” And I said, “OK.” And eighteen months later, when Mr. Roddenberry was no longer in the approvals loop, I got a phone call from the editor saying, “You still want to write Crossroad?” And I said, “Oh, yeah.” But of course, it was eighteen months later, so I had written this outline and I’d kind of forgotten how things happened. So at one point, the outline said, “And then these five aliens take over the entire Enterprise.” And as I’m typing along and I reach that point of the outline, I went, “God, how they do that?”

Well, it’s just like a writing exercise you set for yourself.

Oh, yeah. Yeah. The Star Wars…I was friends with Kevin Anderson, Kevin J. Anderson, who was doing the first two of the Star Wars anthologies of short stories, Tales from the Star Wars Cantina and Tales from Jabba’s Palace. And he introduced me to Betsy Mitchell, who was in charge of that first bunch of Star Wars novels that were being done by Bantam. And then she asked me, you know, would you do a Star Wars novel? And I was so delighted. I loved Star Wars. I loved the original Star Wars. I love the original Star Wars.

In the early days of my writing, I was…you don’t make a lot when you’re starting out. In fact, you make almost as little as you make now. So at the time, I had a part-time job at the library. And friends of mine in Los Angeles…one of my friends in Los Angeles was a fellow named Michael Reeves, who was the…he was sort of the center of a group of people who were writing Saturday-morning cartoons. And this was in the late ’80s, when you had just gotten…Transformers had just come on and you had all of these, what the writers called “poster shows,” which means that the toy company would put out a line of vehicles, and then they would hire an animation company, to…at that time, seasons were very long. A season would be, like, forty-eight episodes. And they would say, “We’re going to do a season of, essentially, yes, it’s the adventures involving these vehicles that you can buy down in the store as a toy.” And the vehicles would always transform into something else.

The first of these, the animation company that was doing them was called DIC.

And so they decided—because, of course, there was no Writers Guild that dealt with animation. This was all cheap non-union—they called us together for a…called all of the sort of bush-league science fiction writers in the Los Angeles area, called us together, and they explained that they needed scripts and they were paying…I think it was a thousand bucks a script, which to me was phenomenal. It would mean I could quit my job in the library.

And the fellow explained to us that the show was called Jayce and the Wheeled Warriors. And it was about…it involved giant metal vines growing between planets. And these metal creatures would grow out of metal flowers on the vines, and the vines would go between planets, they would go between galaxies, they would go between solar systems. And these evil vehicles would trundle along these metal vines through outer space and strip mine every world in the cosmos for resources. And our brave little band of adventurers were fighting against these guys, in the vehicles that are being sold in your local toy store.

And somebody in the group of science fiction writers said, “Planets turn on their axis, and planets orbit different stars, and all the stars in the galaxy are moving away from one another, and you cannot have giant vines growing between planets.” And the story editor said, “I have explained this to the producers of the show. I have explained this to the toy company. I have explained this to the administration of DIC. Now write the scripts.” One fellow got up and walked out. But I thought, It’s basically the cast of Star Wars meets the Daleks. I can write Star Wars dialogue. I can write Dalek dialogue. No problem. So I worked on a number of shows for DIC. And it meant basically that I had more time to do my actual writing.

Well, and turning to the actual writing, let’s talk about Stranger at the Wedding, which is the one you’d suggested. I guess, quickly give a synopsis of it that doesn’t spoil anything for people like me who haven’t gotten to the end of it yet, although I’ve read quite a bit of it.

Oh, and, of course, I haven’t been able to reread as much of it as I would have liked to, due to circumstances beyond my control. But the way the story came about in my mind, is that…in the story, the young heroine, she is at Wizards’ College and she’s the daughter of a wealthy merchant family back in the big city. And her younger sister is going to have an arranged marriage with the business partner, a business associate, of their father’s. And Kyra, the heroine, has been essentially disowned by her family because she is in training to be a wizard. And Kyra starts getting omens and prophetic dreams, saying that her younger sister is going to die on her wedding night. And Kyra returns to her family, who are horrified that she’s shown up, and she has to stop the wedding until she can find out what’s happening. And so she’s basically in a position of throwing all kinds of Murphy hexes, everything that could possibly go wrong with the ceremony goes wrong. Mice infest the church and, you know, the bishop breaks his ankle and all this horrible stuff takes place. And then she falls in love with the groom. Her younger sister, it turns out, is in love with one of the kitchen help. And Kyra falls in love with the groom while still trying to ascertain who has put a curse on the wedding, who is attempting to kill her lovely eighteen-year-old sister, and why? What’s going on?

I’m enjoying it very much, as far as I’ve gotten into it. I think the main character’s very appealing. What was the, kind of the seed for this story? And is that typical of the way the story ideas come to you?

There are basically two seeds. The first of the seeds is the fact that…I’m trying to think of a tactful way of saying this. My mother tended, tends, to drag me over to total strangers and say, “This is my daughter, the author.” Or say to people at church, you know, the people at church say, “Oh, you know, my daughter wants to write books.” And Mom will say, “Oh, she can come and talk to Barbara.” And it’s like, Barbara is…Barbara has other things to do. And I’ve always found this being touted very…it makes me very uncomfortable. I know it makes my mother very happy, but it makes me very uncomfortable. So part of the seed for that, is, you know, all of those times when I would go home for Christmas and Mom would say, “Why don’t you talk to the next-door neighbor’s daughter who wants to write books?”

And the other seed was, I was invited many years ago to a workshop on neurolinguistics, and they asked me, the fellow who was facilitating the workshop, said, “What is your process of putting together a story?” And I said, “I’ll usually start with the characters.” And he said, “Well, why don’t you explain how you put together a story?” And he said, “Characters…let’s take Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn.” And I closed my eyes for a second and tried to think of a fantasy that ,if you made it into a movie, it would with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. And then, I produced the entire plot in, like, one paragraph, just sitting there. I had never had this idea before, and I came up with, oh, “The older sister is in Wizard College and the younger sister and she finds out that she has a curse and she’s gonna die on her wedding night and she comes home and falls in love with the groom.” And everybody in the workshop, including the facilitator, just sat there, because there was no process. It’s like, “You give me the characters and  I’ll give you a fully formed plot.” That’s…you know, that’s a trick like swatting a fly out of the air. You can do it once by chance. And everyone goes, “How’d you do that? I have no idea.”

So what’s more typical?

What’s more typical? Generally, it does start with characters. The vampire series…I wanted to put together a story of…no, I was waiting for my sweetheart to arrive because he and I were gonna go someplace and I was lying on the couch in his house and just started thinking about a vampire and a living person having to go into partnership because someone is killing the vampires of London. And the vampires, they can’t go out in the daytime to be detectives, so they have to hire a detective. And I thought, that’s really good. And this was the start of Those Who Hunt the Night, which turned into the vampire series, because I really liked the characters. But it started out with, “What do vampires do when somebody is…when there’s a vampire hunter on their trail?” And so, they have to hire a living guy, and he knows they’re gonna kill him when he solves the case. And then from there, just going, “OK, how do you get into this situation, how do you get out of this situation?” It was exactly the same with Time of the Dark. I had this single scene in my mind. “How did we get into this scene? Where do we go from this scene?”

So it is very much like a seed that grows.

Yes.

What’s your actual planning process look like as you get started to write. Do you do a detailed outline? Do you just start? How does that work for you?

Oh, no, I’m an outline girl. My outlines are usually…four or five pages, single spaced? And they’re very…they’re sort of loose. It’s…details get changed, scenes get changed, but I always have to know, if we’re starting from here, we’re going to end up here. I don’t write very well not having a goal. I have to know where we’re going. I can’t just set sail because I’ve read too many books that quite clearly did not have an outline, and that type of structure does not appeal to me.

Do you find yourself diverting from the outline as the story takes on its own pathway sometimes?

Somewhat, yes, but never, never galloping off into another direction. Mostly because I know the character well enough to know where we’re going, where his or her personal development is going. The only exception to that was Dragonsbane, where up until I was close to the end of the book, I did not know whether…at one point the wizard, the heroine, transforms herself into a dragon. Basically, she falls…she is…the man that she loves is a dragonslayer. And when they go to slay this dragon, she ends up falling in love with the dragon. And at the end of the story, she transforms herself into a dragon. And then she realizes, “I need to go back to the man that I love.” And up until the end of the story, I didn’t know whether she was going to just continue to live on as a dragon or whether she was going to step down from that and return to the man she loves. Basically, she’s choosing between becoming and being a dragon or remaining human and experiencing the depths of human love. And once I had done that, I realized the story is not a story about dragon slaying. The story is a story about love. And then, of course, I…actually through the whole process of writing the book, I needed to come up with a hero who would be emotional competition for a dragon. And I have continued to write the further adventures of this couple, John and Jenny. Occasionally the dragon reappears, but it’s…I’ve continued to write novelettes about them for sale on Amazon as downloads.

What does your actual writing process look like? Do you write longhand? On a typewriter? On a computer at home? In a coffee shop? How do you like to work?

I must…there cannot be anyone else under the same roof. And I have set up my entire life to be solitary. I’ve always liked solitude. I cannot write if there was someone else in the house,

Definitely not a coffee-shop writer.

I am not a coffee-shop writer. I write at a desk. I have a desktop computer. I…when I’m writing first draft, I can usually only work a couple of hours a day because it is just so exhausting. At the moment, it’s difficult to forge out the time to write because I teach at a community college. I only teach one class a semester, but we were informed at the beginning of this month that we had two weeks to switch all of our classes over to online classes, and that takes a tremendous amount of time and I have been waking up very, very early in the morning to buy myself enough time. I’m working on first draft of a project and I’m tired most of the time.

Under normal circumstances, would you consider yourself a fast writer or slow writer or just-right writer?

I…sometimes I think I’m fast, sometimes I think I’m slow, I have no idea.

That sounds familiar. And do you…you’ve talked about a first draft. So, do you do a complete draft and then go back and revise from the beginning? What’s the revision process?

Yes. I do a complete draft and then go back and revise from the beginning.

What sorts of things do you find yourself working on in revision?

Sometimes, as I’m getting close to the end of the story, I realize, “Oh, that is a more efficient way to solve the problem, so we’re gonna have to go back and rewrite whole chapters.” Other times it’s just word choices or sentence structure. Other times I will look at it and go, “This person’s motivation is not clearly conveyed, this person…I need a scene between these people to clarify, either a plot point or some motivation.” The first revision is always the hardest and the most challenging and the most tiring because that’s where the heavy work gets done. Then there will be a second, not quite so heavy revision. And from there, it’s usually just progressive polishing.

There was one of the Benjamín Januarys, the historical murder mysteries, which, of course, take place in the American south in the 1830s, 1840s. And one of these involved…it’s like, my hero is black, of course he’s involved with the Underground Railroad. And I wanted to do a murder mystery that took place against the background of the Underground Railroad. And about halfway through, I reread what I had written and…the plot, the themes in the book, were very, very dark. Basically, the book was heavily based on slavery and rape. And I went, “Nobody’s gonna be able to read this. How do I lighten it? How do I make it readable?” And I thought, OK, we’ve got this going on one side. But my hero is dealing with… and I had to put in a lighter element simply to to balance out that darkness. And I thought, OK, my hero is working out of a circus. So we’re going to deal with circuses in the 19th century. And we’re also going to deal, because the circus is in town, there’s also a revival meeting in town. So that lets me cut away from this horrible stuff that is happening connected with the murder. And, yeah, we’re going hunting for clues, but we’re doing it against the background of the circus, we’re doing it against the background of this fake preacher who is basically trying to bilk the congregation out of their money. And that lightened the weight of the book. In my opinion, it made it readable.

I’m going to guess that you’re not somebody who uses beta readers, but then it goes on to your editor directly from you. Is that correct?

Yes.

What kind of editorial feedback you usually get?

I have published close to seventy novels. So I’m…I don’t get much editorial feedback because I’m good at my craft. The times when I do get more editorial feedback is if ,for whatever reason, I did not have time to smooth the differences between two drafts and they’re catching things that I would have caught if I had had the time to do one more draft. And this is something that I have developed as time goes along. 

 remember there was one book where they got someone as a copyeditor and she came back saying things that were completely against, that ran completely contrary to the point that the book was making. “Well, she shouldn’t say this. She should say that.” And I. emailed the acquisitions editor and said, “Do I have to change things according to what this person said?”, and they made sure I never got that copyeditor again. Beta reading has to be by somebody that you really trust.

Yeah, it’s not something I’ve ever had because I’ve just never lived…I was always off kind of away for many other writers and…I had a couple of people by mail that I used to share manuscripts with way back before email. But I’ve never used beta readers. And I’ve talked to many people who do, and sometimes I think maybe I should, but I think I’m too set in my ways to change to that now.

Yeah.

And I don’t really know who it would be anyway. Well, I want to move on to our closing question, because we’re getting up here on the time, and that’s the big philosophical question, which is why do you do this? And why do any of us do it, why do any of us write, but why do you write and why do you write the stuff you write?

And the reply is, because I can’t not do it.

A good friend of mine once said there’s two basically two kinds of writers. And he said type A, the first kind of writer, is the writer for whom writing is the safe place—you go down into the dark of your mind and you see all of these things, and that’s where your safe. And he said this type of writer usually starts as a child.

He said the other type of writer is the one for whom writing is the dangerous place. And you go down into the dark of your mind and you see all of these things and it scares the bejesus out of you. He said this type of writer usually starts later in life, and it was his personal opinion that this is why you sometimes find writers who have substance abuse problems.

Because if you are a writer, you have to write. There really is no question about why do you do this. You do this because you do this. Because you can’t not. It is indeed a calling. And nobody in their right mind would be trying to do this, trying to make a living in this fashion, if there was any other way to be.

Fortunately, I was the first kind of writer. I started as a child. It is the safe place. It is the wonderful place. It is the place where I am happiest. I was married to a man who was the other kind of writer, where it was the dangerous place, it was the terrifying place. But he couldn’t not do it. Because he just…we are what we are and we can’t change what we are, and if we try, it hurts us.

And on that note…I’m the childhood, it’s a safe place writer myself…

Yeah. Yeah.

…what are you working on now? Aside from putting your courses online.

My publishers in Britain asked me to conclude the vampire series, to finish off the vampire series, and asked me to start another historical murder mystery series. I am working on that, but I would rather not talk about that until I’m a little bit further on with it. I realize this is not a good thing to say, but I, I just, I would rather…I’m working on another historical murder mystery series, and I would rather not talk about that until I get a little bit of a better feeling of what I’m doing.

Still, lots to look forward to.

Oh, yeah. Yeah.

And where can people find you or find out about you online?

I have a Facebook site, Barbara Hambly, writer. I have not posted on my Livejournal site in a long time, simply from lack of time. Those are the two best places.

If you want to…if you were a fan of the fantasy series that I wrote back in the ’80s and ‘90s, the Darwathseries, the Dragonsbane series, the Sun Wolf and Starhawk series, if you’re a fan of those series, I continue those series in the form of novelettes. I’ll write novelettes about those characters. They’re available on Amazon for five bucks a throw. And a lot of people, they…you know, with a with a series, you like to know what the people are doing. You’d like to know where those characters are now. And I will be continuing the vampire series as novelettes on Amazon. So in addition to transferring all of my history class on to online and working on this new historical novel series, I’m also trying to fit in enough time to work on these, what I call the further adventures. So it’s busy times.

Well, thanks so much for taking time to talk to me in the midst of all that. I enjoyed that. I hope you do, too.

Thank you so much. And I’m sorry if I talked too much.

There’s no such thing.

But thank you so much. And we will meet again.

Episode 50: S. M. Stirling

An hour-long conversation with S.M. Stirling, author of numerous science fiction and fantasy novels, including the novels of the Change and the Shadowspawn series, and most recently Shadows of Annihilation, Book 3 of the Tales from the Black Chamber series, about an alternate First World War.

Website
smstirling.com

Facebook
@worldsofwhatif

S.M. Stirling’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Anton Brkic

S.M. Stirling was born in France in 1953, to Canadian parents—although his mother was born in England and grew up in Peru.  After that, he lived in Europe, Canada, Africa, and the US and visited several other continents.  He graduated from law school in Canada but “had his dorsal fin surgically removed,” and published his first novel (Snowbrother) in 1984, going full-time as a writer in 1988, the year of his marriage to Janet Moore of Milford, Massachusetts, who he met, wooed and proposed to at successive World Fantasy Conventions. In 1995 he suddenly realized that they could live anywhere and they decamped from Toronto, “that large, cold, gray city on Lake Ontario,” and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico.  He became an American citizen in 2004. 

His latest books are Shadows of Annihilation, Theater of Spies, and Black Chamber (Roc/Penguin Random House), a trilogy of related alternate-history novels set in the 1910s and involving Teddy Roosevelt, dirigibles, and spies. His hobbies mostly involve reading—history, anthropology, archaeology, and travel, besides fiction—but he also cooks and bakes for fun and food.  For twenty years he also pursued the martial arts, until hyperextension injuries convinced him he was in danger of becoming “the most deadly cripple in human history.”  Currently, he lives with Janet and the compulsory authorial cats.

The Lightly Edited Transcript

Coming soon(ish)…

Episode 49: Ira Nayman

An hour-long chat with Ira Nayman, editor of Amazing Stories magazine, proprietor of the Alternate Reality News Service (11 books so far), and author of six novels in the Multiverse series published by Elsewhen Press.

Website
Les Pages aux Folles

Twitter
@ARNSProprietor

Ira Nayman’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Iray Nayman is the proprietor of the Alternate Reality News Service, which sends reporters into other universes and has them report on what they find there. There are 11 books in the series, the most recent of which is the omnibus volume Idiotocracy for Dummies. He is also the author of six novels in the Multiverse series published by Elsewhen Press; the latest is Good Intentions: The Multiverse Refugees Trilogy: First Pie in the Face. He won the 2010 Jonathan Swift Satire Writing Contest, and his novel Both Sides: Now! was longlisted for the Guernica Prize.

In his spare time, Ira is the editor of Amazing Stories magazine, and co-host of The Gernsback Machine: An Amazing Podcast. He has also been a writer/performer in radio sketch comedy groups and created several (as yet unproduced) television series. He has a Ph.D. in Communications from McGill University and taught part-time for five years in the New Media program at Ryerson University. 

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Coming soon(ish)…

Episode 48: Tim Powers

An hour-long conversation with three-time World Fantasy Award (and two-time Philip K. Dick Award)-winning fantasy author Tim Powers, whose sixteen novels include The Anubis Gates, Forced Perspectives, and On Stranger Tides.

Website
www.theworksoftimpowers.com

Facebook
@AuthorTimPowers

Tim Powers Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Serena Powers

An hour-long conversation with three-time World Fantasy Award (and two-time Philip K. Dick Award)-winning fantasy author , whose sixteen novels include The Anubis Gates, Forced Perspectives, and On Stranger Tides. Tim Powers is the author of sixteen novels, including The Anubis Gates , Forced Perspectives, and On Stranger Tides, which was the basis of the fourth Pirates of the Caribbean movie. He has twice won the Philip K. Dick Award and three times won the World Fantasy Award, and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Powers lives with his wife, Serena, in San Bernardino, California.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Coming (relatively) soon…

Episode 47: Carrie Vaughn

An hour-long chat with Carrie Vaughn, author of the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times-bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series: more than twenty novels and upwards of 100 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award.

Website
www.carrievaughn.com

Facebook
@carrie.vaughn

Carrie Vaughn’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Carrie Vaughn‘s work includes the Philip K. Dick Award-winning novel Bannerless, the New York Times bestselling Kitty Norville urban fantasy series: more than twenty novels and upwards of 100 short stories, two of which have been finalists for the Hugo Award. Her most recent work includes a Kitty spin-off collection, The Immortal Conquistador, and a pair of novellas about Robin Hood’s children, The Ghosts of Sherwood and The Heirs of Locksley. She’s a contributor to the Wild Cards series of shared world superhero books edited by George R. R. Martin and a graduate of the Odyssey Fantasy Writing Workshop.

A bona fide Air Force brat (her father served on a B-52 flight crew during the Vietnam War), Carrie grew up all over the U.S. but managed to put down roots in Colorado, in the Boulder area, where she pursues an endlessly growing list of hobbies and enjoys the outdoors as much as she can. She is fiercely guarded by a miniature American Eskimo dog named Lily.

The (LIghtly Edited) Transcript

Coming (relatively) soon…

Episode 46: Jeffrey A. Carver

An hour-long conversation with Jeffrey A. Carver, author of eighteen science fiction novels, including The Chaos Chronicles and the Star Rigger stories, which include Dragons in the Stars and Nebula-finalist Eternity’s End, and Battlestar Galactica, a novelization of the critically acclaimed television miniseries.

Website
http://www.starrigger.net

Facebook
@jeffrey.a.carver

Jeffrey A. Carver’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Jeffrey A. Carver is the author of eighteen science fiction novels, including the recently published two-volume epic, The Reefs of Time and Crucible of Time, the latest chapters in The Chaos Chronicles. Equally popular are his Star Rigger stories, including Dragons in the Stars and Nebula-finalist Eternity’s End. He also wrote Battlestar Galactica, a novelization of the critically acclaimed television miniseries. His work lies somewhere in the borderland between hard SF and space opera. His greatest love remains character, story, and a healthy sense of wonder. 

Carver has taught writing in a variety of settings, from educational television to conferences for young writers to Odyssey to MIT to his own workshops. Visit his free guide for aspiring authors of all ages at writeSF.com. For more about the author, to read his blog, or to sign up for his newsletter, visit starrigger.net. His books and short fiction are widely available in ebook, print, and audiobook. 

He lives with his family in the Boston area.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Still to come…writing deadline and the current active Kickstarter campaign have eaten my time. Look for this in a few weeks.

Episode 45: David D. Levine

An hour-long conversation with David D. Levine, the Hugo- and Nebula-winning author of the Regency interplanetary airship adventure novel Arabella of Mars (Tor 2016), sequels Arabella and the Battle of Venus (Tor 2017) and Arabella the Traitor of Mars (Tor 2018), and more than fifty science fiction and fantasy stories.

Website
www.daviddlevine.com

Twitter
@DavidDLevine

Facebook
@David.D.Levine.sf

Instagram
@DavidDLevine

David D. Levine’s Amazon page

The Introduction

David D. Levine

David D. Levine is the Hugo- and Nebula-winning author of the Regency interplanetary airship adventure novel Arabella of Mars (Tor 2016), sequels Arabella and the Battle of Venus (Tor 2017) and Arabella the Traitor of Mars (Tor 2018), and more than fifty science fiction and fantasy stories.

Arabella of Mars won the 2017 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, his story “Tk’Tk’Tk” won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, his story “Nucleon” won the James White Award, and he has been shortlisted for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, Sturgeon, and Locus. His stories have appeared in Asimov’sAnalogF&SFRealms of FantasyTor.com, numerous anthologies and websites, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies, as well as his collection Space Magic from Wheatland Press, which won the Endeavour Award for the best SF or Fantasy book by a Pacific Northwest writer.

David is a contributor to George R. R. Martin’s bestselling shared-world series Wild Cards. He is also a member of Book View Cafe, a writer-owned publishing cooperative, and Oregon Science Fiction Conventions Inc., a non-profit organization that produces OryCon and other SF conventions. He has narrated podcasts for Escape Pod, PodCastle, and StarShipSofa and the audiobook of Space Magic, and his video production “Dr. Talon’s Letter to the Editor” was a finalist for the Parsec Award. In 2010 he spent two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station, a simulated Mars base in the Utah desert.

David lives in a hundred-year-old bungalow in Portland, Oregon.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, David.

Nice to be here.

Usually, at this point, I talk about how we’ve met each other at conventions or how we know each other through this or that, but I don’t think we’ve ever met anywhere.

No. At this point, I don’t recall how you crossed my bow. I’m always interested in podcasts. I’ve done interviews on a lot of podcasts and I also do podcasts narrations. I narrate my own stories and also sometimes those of other people.

Well, we’ll have to talk about that, too. But first…the other cliché on this podcast is I’m going to take you back into the mists of time, and find out how you got interested in…most of us start as readers, so perhaps that’s how you began—you probably did—how you got interested in science fiction and fantasy and how you got interested in writing: how you got started putting words on paper, which it still was probably when you started writin

It was, yes. So, my father was a science-fiction reader back in the ’30s, in the days of the pulps, so there was a lot of science fiction around the house, as a matter of fact. There are stories that my father told me as bedtime stories when I was a kid which I now recognize as being classics of the field, like Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement. And so, I was surrounded by science fiction. I always loved it, big fan. I counted myself fortunate when Star Trek premiered in 1966 that I lived in the Midwestern time zone because if I’d lived in the Eastern or Pacific Time zones, it would’ve been past my bedtime. So, I was a Star Trek fan from day one. And my early…the books that I remember were, there was Miss Pickerel Goes to MarsHave Space, Will Travel, and Willy Lay’s The Runaway Robot was an early favorite.

So, I’ve been reading it since I was a kid and I know I started writing science fiction stories about as soon as I started writing it all. I actually have a science fiction novel in two volumes, which is to say two spiral-bound notebooks, that I wrote in fourth grade. And, you know, I picked it up and re-read it a while ago, and it’s not bad. It’s, you know, I mean it’s dated, but it’s not embarrassingly badly written. I mean, it’s juvenile. It’s juvenile, but I think the sentences are in the correct order, and, you know, there’s actually plot and character—not so much on the character, but definitely there is plot. Character has always been my weakness and plot my strong point, and that’s been the case since the beginning. So, I wrote a lot of stories in middle school and high school, and in college, I took a science fiction writing class, and people said, “Hey, this stuff is really good, you ought to submit it.” But when I got out of college, I started working as a technical writer, writing software documentation, and writing fiction was just too much like the day job. So, I didn’t write a lick of fiction for 20 years.

And then I changed careers. I moved from technical writing into software engineering because I was tired of cleaning up other people’s design messes and wanted to have a chance to build the software so it was usable from the beginning. So, once I started being a software engineer instead of a technical writer, I found that my fiction-writing energy had come back. And so, that was around ‘98. And so, I had a  sabbatical from my job coming up in 2000, so I had told my wife, to her surprise, that I wanted to go to Clarion for my sabbatical. So, I went to Clarion West in 2000 and I started publishing almost immediately thereafter. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend being a technical writer for 20 years as a path to fiction writing, but what it did for me is, I was able to spend 20 years focusing on the craft of writing, writing nonfiction. with all of the…I mean, simple things like. not just the grammar and the punctuation, but the work habits: outlining, scheduling, my time, ergonomics, all of the things…I mean, writing is a really complicated business, and I was able to focus on everything except for the fiction craft parts of it for 20 years. So then, when I went to Clarion in 2000, Clarion West, I was able to add the fiction disciplines to the general writing disciplines I already had, which explains why I was able to hit the ground running so hard, I think. And certainly…I mean, you know, I went to Clarion West in 2000 and I was on the Campbell ballot in 2003. I don’t think most people can do that. Again, I wouldn’t recommend going to Clarion at age 38, 39, which is what I did, but, you know, everybody has their own path. There’s a…I’m a member of Book View Cafe, which is a writers’ co-operative.

Yeah. I’m familiar with that.

Yeah. And we produced a book called The Usual Path to Publication, which is, you know, the title is a joke. It’s a collection of essays where each of the 20 or so people in the book discusses their path to publication. And, of course, the joke is there is no useful path to publication. And I called mine, “How to Sell a Novel in Only 15 Years,” because everybody’s path to publication is different.

Yeah, I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library here in Saskatchewan, and one of the things that I…one reason for this podcast, and one reason I recommend all the want-to-be writers who come in to see me, and I’ve seen 40 or 50 individuals at this point, is by listening to these podcasts, you discover that there is no one right way to do this stuff, that everybody brings a different style and a different approach and gets into it in a different way. There are some similarities with you and what…I started in journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter for 10 years, and I was in communications for five years, and I was writing fiction at the same time and selling, you know, here and there, minor things. But I do believe that just the very act of sitting down and having to write thousands and thousands of words every week is quite invaluable. It’s like anything else. You have to exercise those muscles.

Yeah. When I was, like, a student, writing research papers, I hated outlining. And then, as a professional technical writer, outlining is absolutely an unavoidable part of the process. You have to do an outline before you can figure out how much time you need to budget to do the work. So, I was a really, really heavy outliner when I started, and I discovered in my personal path, and I think this is true of many other people, that I started out as a plotter and become more and more of a pantser as I become more experienced. And I’ve also noticed that pantsers actually realize the value of outlining and become rather more plotters as they become more experienced. So, I think the more experience you get, the plotter/pantser distinction becomes a lot fuzzier.

Now, this…your first few stories.,..”1992: the WorldCon that Wasn’t.” I’m just curious about the title. What was that about?

So, this was…it started out…so, as you mentioned, I co-edited a fanzine with my wife for 25 years or so. And so, this started out as an essay in the fanzine. So, the 1992 World Science Fiction Convention was held in Orlando. And it just so happened that there was a hurricane that basically just missed slamming into Orlando like a week before the convention. So, we wrote an essay, my wife and I collaborated, we wrote an essay, kind of an alternate-universe con report of what happened when we went to the convention, despite the fact that the convention center had been wiped out by a hurricane the week before, basically riffing on the idea that fans will get together and put on a convention under any circumstances.

And so…I was going to say that fans love stories about fandom.

Yes. Well, but the thing is, is that this was in a fannish publication. It was explicitly…basically it was an alternate-universe con report. So, a couple of years later, Mike Resnick, who has recently passed on, he did a lot of anthologies. He did a lot of alternate-universe anthologies, beginning with Alternate Presidents. And so, he decided that he was going to do a fan project called Alternate WorldCons. So, he opened the floor, and this was explicitly a fannish project, they did not pay professional rates, he was very clear about that up front, but he opened for contributions, and so I said, “Hey, I’ve got this essay. Would you be interested in it?” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” So, you know, he paid me some something less than pro rates, like maybe a penny a word. And so, that on appeared in the second volume, Again, Alternate WorldCons. So it’s basically…it was based on something that almost happened, but that makes it an alternate-history thing and therefore was perfect for Again, Alternate WorldCons. So that was my first publication in a science-fiction market, although it was not my first professional publication.

But it was a few years after that when you really started publishing regularly.

Yeah.

And you focused on short stories to start with.

I did.

Why were you drawn to that first? I mean, that also varies some author to authors., Some leap right into novels and some seem to gravitate to the shorter forms.

I was…as…when Humphrey Bogart was asked in Casablanca why he had come to Casablanca, he said, “For the waters.” “Monsieur, we are in the middle of a desert.” And he said, “I was misinformed.” So, that’s why I wrote short stories, because I was misinformed. At the time, I thought that…like I said, my father was a reader during the pulps. So, I had a bunch of anthologies and magazines from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s that I grew up reading. And so, reading the essays in there, I got the impression that the way to make a career as a science-fiction writer is, you begin by making your name with short stories and then you do a fix-up novel and then you begin writing novels. That wasn’t even true then, and is even less true now, but nonetheless, that’s what I believed.

And also, when you go to Clarion West or Odyssey or any of several other workshops for beginning writers, they use short stories because it’s a much better pedagogical technique. When you write a short story, you can write the whole thing in a week, you can do beginning, middle, and plot, characters, setting, all the pieces in an easy-to-critique and easy-to-understand chunk. If you wanted to workshop a novel, you couldn’t possibly do that in six weeks. And the Taos Toolbox workshop that Walter John Williams does is focused on novels and does two weeks, but even in two weeks, all you can do is you can talk about novels and you can read excerpts, but you can’t write and critique a whole novel in two weeks. That’s physically impossible.

So, by going to Clarion West, I discovered that I enjoyed short fiction and I was good at it, so I kept writing short fiction for a long time. I find that most writers are either natural novelists or natural short-story people. And I found myself to be a natural short-story writer. I’d say that most people are natural novelists because most of what people read these days is novels and you are what you eat. You tend to write what you like to read. And so, most science fiction and fantasy these days is published and consumed in the form of novels.

Novels get a lot more attention. Novels get a lot more critical interest. If you just Google on, you know, “best science fiction of 2019,” you’ll probably find nine or 19 pages talking about nothing but novels for every one page you find that even mentions a short story. Novels are where the action is. And so, I did spend a long time in the short-story mines and I learned an awful lot, but I always felt that novels got more attention. It certainly is the case that even a mid-list novel gets more attention than even an award-winning short story. So, I always wanted to be a novelist, and I wrote…Arabella of Mars was the fourth novel I wrote, but the first one to sell.

What did you start with? What was the first one that didn’t sell?

So, the first novel I wrote had the working title of Epixemic, with an X, which was changed to Remembrance Day for submission. It takes place on an Earth where the aliens have come, and…my model was the British in India, that there were not very many of them and they didn’t conquer. They just came in and offered us a really good deal and took over. So, they had…they gave us a worldwide rapid-transportation system and cured disease and stuff like that. And all they wanted was to, you know, to make use of our raw materials and special craft. So, they really were dominating the planet, but only economically, not militarily. And so, this was a world where the aliens were…they were the elite. They were the classy ones. And basically, all of humanity was relegated to a subsidiary role. And most people were reasonably happy with it, but there were a few people who didn’t like it.

So my main character was somebody who fell in with a group of rebels— or terrorists, as they were described by people outside the group—who had managed to seize an alien biocomputer. And he was a computer hacker and he hacked it, and for reasons that he didn’t understand at the time, the hack resulted in a plague, an “epixemic,” an alien plague, and so all the aliens on Earth started coming down with this horrible disease that was spreading like wildfire. And the connection between the two wasn’t even clear at first. And to make things more complicated, he was the ex-lover of the daughter of the alien’s leader. Who was also, not coincidentally, the first person to fall to the virus.

So, I did something incredibly ambitious. I said, “Well, if Iain Banks can write a novel that bops back and backward and forward in time simultaneously, I can, too.” So, I didn’t have…in Iain Banks’s, I believe it’s Use of Weapons, you’ve got alternating points of view, one of them going forward in time, the other one backward, to a mutual conclusion. I didn’t do that, but I did have one of the two point-of-view threads begin, say, in January, and the other one began in September of the same year, and bopping back and forth between them. One of them is catching up to the other and they both finish up in December. So you’ve got, one thread is offering you previews and foreshadowing for what’s happening in the other thread. And the other thread is explaining what’s happening in later one. So, anyway, it was ridiculously complicated. And I believe I pulled it off, but nobody was willing to risk it for a first novel.

Also, there was polyamory and my main character slept with men, women, and aliens, and…and it was a first novel, you know? I think it was really good, but it didn’t sell. You know, I came close. I got an offer from a major publisher, but the editor…I did not get an offer from a major publisher. I got an editor who wanted to buy it, but he couldn’t convince his boss to put up the money. And one of the other publishers were interested. And so, the second novel was a similar thing. Again, I thought it worked. I learned from the first novel that I needed to be a little bit less ambitious. So, instead of having alternating points of view bopping back and forth in time and a complicated polyamorous bisexual alien fucking love story…I’m sorry, did I say that word?…I, in the second novel, I had only two points of view. And it was strictly going one direction in time. But I still had an underage lesbian romance at the heart of it. And that one also did not sell.

OK, OK, so, that one didn’t sell. And the third one was a was young adult, one point of view, strict chronological, and still had a possible lesbian love affair in there, but not inter-generational. And at the time I was finishing up book three, the rejections that I was getting on book two, people were telling me “Science fiction just isn’t selling these days.

I remember that. 

I don’t know if it was actually true at the time, but was certainly the message that I was getting from both editors and agents. So, for my fourth project…so, after I finished that third book, the young-adult one, I did not even submit it. I set it aside because it was science fiction. And I said, “What can I write that’s fantasy enough to meet the needs of the market, but science fiction enough to satisfy my science fiction writer heart?” And so, of the huge pile of ideas that I have—because I don’t know about anybody else, but it certainly is a truism in this field that ideas are the easy part. I mean, you know, that thing about somebody will come up to you at a party and say, “Hey, I’ve got this great idea for a science fiction story. You know, I’ll give you the idea. You write it, we’ll split the profits.” And no, no, ideas or easy. Ideas are a dime a dozen.

So, I had this huge pile of science-fiction story ideas. And there was this one that involved an alternate Regency…or. at least. an alternate Enlightenment period, where the sky was full of air and the European powers had colonized Mars and Venus, which are, of course, inhabited. And so, I had this idea and I thought, “You know, this kind of feels like fantasy, with the flying sailing ships, but I’m going to I’m gonna approach it as science fiction.” And so, I wrote it, and…and this is one of those things where, when you mention, “Well, I’ve got I’ve got these three or four novel ideas,” this was the one that everybody pointed at and said, “Yeah. Yeah, that one sounds fascinating.”

And really, that’s, you know, the basic idea of Arabella, with the flying sailing ships and the girl who dresses as a boy and Martians and pirates and privateers, it’s got a lot of jazz to it. People really like the raw idea. And that helped propel me through the writing of it and it really helped sell it.

One thing that is really important when you are submitting a book to either an agent or an editor is, you’ve got to have your comps, your comparable titles. And for my first couple of novels, I said, “Well, it’s kind of like Larry Niven,” or “It’s kind of like Jack Vance.” You know, I was comparing myself to writers who were already 20 or 30 years out of date. But on this one, I could say it’s Patrick O’Brian in space. You know, that’s my comp title. I could also compare it with Mary Robinette Kowal’s Regency magic series. So, if you can realistically compare your book to things which are highly regarded, critical successes and current bestsellers, it dramatically increases the chances of success, versus saying, “Well, it’s kind of like this obscure thing that you might not have heard of or was 40 years ago.”

So, and that’s something that you’ve got to do…that has to be baked into the core of the book. It’s not something…you can’t come up with comp titles after it’s written. You have to understand as you’re beginning to write it, “I’m going for a C.J. Cherryh feel,” or, “It’s going to be like N.K. Jemisin,” or, “I want something like Captain Nemo.” You have to have your comp titles in mind from the very beginning, and it’s best if those comp titles are things that people will go, “Yeah. Cool. I love that. I want more of it.”

All right. Well, let’s get a synopsis of Arabella of Mars first for those who, for some inexplicable reason, have not read the book.

OK. So, Arabella of Mars takes place in 1813 in an alternate universe in which the sky is full of air and the European powers have colonized Mars and Venus. Arabella is a girl who was raised on a plantation on Mars, but her mother, fearing that she was turning into a wild colonial child, hauled her back to England. She hated it in England. Everything was too heavy, too wet, too warm, and the people were dull. She wanted excitement in her life. She had grown up basically completely on her own. She and her brother would run around in the desert with their Martian nanny and have all kinds of adventures. And in England, it was just balls and cards and horses and incredibly dull. So then, they get a letter discovering that Dad, who had remained back on Mars, had passed away of a fever. And Arabella discovers that her cousin is planning to travel to Mars and do in her brother so that he can inherit the family fortune. She is, for a variety of contrived reasons, the only person who is in a position to do anything about this. So, she disguises herself as a boy and signs on to a fast interplanetary freighter to attempt to beat her cousin to Mars so she can warn her brother and save the family fortune. Naturally, hijinx ensue. She winds up…there’s a mutiny, the ship is attacked by pirates, they land on Mars to discover there’s an alien rebellion in progress. Eventually, there’s a confrontation and Arabella does indeed get the boy, save the fortune, and calm the Martian rebellion.

It’s a heck of a lot of fun. Now, going back to the initial idea, you have a lot of ideas, but do you remember what kind of made you think of this in the first place? And is that typical of the way that your ideas come to you?

I say of ideas that ideas are like neutrinos. They come sleeting down in space by the billions, but you have to be dense enough to stop one. So if you just keep your eyes open, ideas are coming to you constantly. I was talking with somebody at Clarion, one of my fellow students. She said, you know, “Where do you get your ideas?” And there was a bird in the tree nearby, we were outdoors, and I said, “Well, you know, there’s a bird. You know, let’s talk about birds. You know, what if, what if, I don’t know, what if birds were spaceships? What if you could build a spaceship out of a bird brain? And I just sort of sketched out an idea right then. And that idea became “Tail of the Golden Eagle,” which was my first Hugo nominee.

So, in this particular case, I know exactly where the seed of Arabella was. It was 1987. It was Gene Wolfe’s book, Earth of the New SunEarth of the New Sun takes place in a far, far, far future, which is almost medieval. And at one point, our hero boards a ship to take him to another planet, and he’s given a necklace which holds the air around himself. And he discovers that when he goes out on deck, in order to talk to somebody else, you have to move up close to them so that your envelopes of air intersect, because there is no there is no sound in space. And he asks, “Why is this so?” And he is told, “Well, the philosophers believe that if there were sound in space, the roaring of the stars would define the universe.”

And that note about space is full of vacuum, because otherwise the roaring of the stars would deafen the universe, stuck with me for over 20 years. And I had this idea for…first it was gonna be a short story about, it was going to be an alternate 1700s where humanity discovers that the sky is indeed full of air, that the universe is full of air. And this was gonna be, I figured, “When would people discover this? When and how would people discover that the universe was full of air?” And I figured they’d probably do it, it would probably be, you know, Ben Franklin or Isaac Newton or something like that, and they would discover it by actually hearing that vibration, which, you know, people would have evolved to not hear it, but there would be this peculiar low-level hum that’s everywhere.

And so, I started out thinking about it as being the discovery of the phenomenon. But then I started thinking about, “What would people do after they discovered it?” So I had this idea about the flying sailing ships in the 1700s, I think probably because I started out with the idea of the Enlightenment? And then, as the plot evolved, it moved from the 1700s up to the Regency, because I do dearly love Patrick O’Brian, and so the Napoleonic wars in space. But I like having a young-adult main character, I like having a female main character, because life is harder for women, especially in the past of our cultures, and so, putting your main character in a situation that is difficult is a way to make their story more interesting. So, basically, making her female just made her life harder. And so, that’s how I came up with my main character and my setting. And then the rest of it kind of evolved through discussions with other writers and mostly just kind of pulling things out of my tail because, you know, that’s what fiction is, is pulling stuff out of your tail and putting it on the page.

There’s a Canadian writer…who’s been mentioned a few times by Canadian writers who actually studied with him…Candas Jane Dorsey had actually met him and I think worked with him a bit. Not a science fiction writer. His name is W.O. Mitchell, but he used to have a TV show which dramatized some of his fiction, and the name of the TV show was The Magic Lie, which I thought is a great expression to describe fiction. And I was glad you talked about ideas being everywhere, because when I do workshops and things, I did one not too long ago, in fact, and I was talking about this, and I said, “Well, look around the room. There are coat hangers over there. And I looked at the coat hangers and I asked questions and I came up with a story idea based on coat hangers. So, yeah, it’s just…again, it’s kind of that muscle that you exercise, I think.

Yeah, I do a workshop called “Idea to Story in an Hour” and I usually do start off with something like that.

Now, you had your idea. You had a character. Now, what does your planning process look like? How do you take that and turn it into your novel? You said you’re more of a pantser than an outliner now, but you also said you were an outliner, so what does it look like for you?

So, yeah, at the time I wrote Arabella I was a pretty strict outliner. So, my writing process is, I always have two files, or in Scrivener, I have one file outside of the manuscript. And so, I have my notes file and I have my draft file. And so, I start off in the notes file and my notes file, I only ever add onto the end of it. So it’s a combination of writing journal and process notes. So, I start off, every writing session, I sit down and I write the date and where I am. And then I start typing in the notes file about, “OK, so here’s where we are and here’s what I’m gonna do next.” And so, for the first, maybe, you know, for the first hour or two on a short story or for the first weeks or months on a novel, I’ll just type in the notes file and I’ll think, “OK, well, this is what I want to do, and this is some ideas for the story and the setting.” And I may go off and do some research and copy and paste stuff out of Web pages into the notes file I may write a couple of paragraphs about the character and where they’re coming from. The notes file is full of lots of “maybe” and “what if” and “oh, well, then if I, then I could.” And so, I just talk on paper. I just talk it out. And then every once in a while I’ll stop and I’ll write a bullet list of, OK, this is the outline so far. And I will actually, like, copy and paste bullet lists down further into the notes file so that I can refer back to previous versions. So, generally, the notes file is as big or bigger than the actual project.

And eventually, at some point, I actually start drafting in the other file. And so, the notes file will contain my notes about, “What did I write today and where do I think this is going next and what are the problems I need to keep an eye out for in the future and how many words did I write today?” And sometimes my notes file just says, you know, “Writing at so-and-so coffeeshop with so-and-so, did 1,500 words on X.” You know, sometimes it’s just that. And sometimes my entry for a notes file will be pages and pages and pages and pages of. “Oh God, I’ve written myself into a corner, what can I do now?”

So, I find that my process is generally, I will outline the whole book before I begin writing. And then I have to stop about halfway through and re-outline the second half based on what I’ve learned about the characters and situation in the first half, because the second half that I had in mind is no longer viable, or I discover…many, many times I discovered that my outline, I outline the first half in considerable detail and then the second half is then is something along the lines of, “And then hijinx ensue and everybody comes out happy.” So, I have to…so, not only because I didn’t think it through in detail, but also because what I had in mind isn’t going to work anymore, based on where I’ve gone up until this point, so I stop and re-outline at the halfway point, and then again at like the three-quarter point, I stop and re-outline the back quarter of the book.

Yes, that sounds very familiar to me, too, because I do something similar. In fact, I just did it for…not that long ago for the one I’m working on now, which is my next DAW novel. I had to replot to the end because it just wasn’t going to work the way I originally thought it was going to work.

Yep, yep. I find that I’m…my particular process is, I can’t begin writing until I have an ending in mind. I may not wind up with that ending, but I have to have an ending in mind or I can’t start moving.

Now, you mentioned a little bit about your writing, the actual physical act of writing. You write in coffee shops some. Is that typical? Do you write out of your home or your home office or how does it work for you?

I have a comfortable writing chair in my living room, but I do find that it’s much easier for me to write if I can get away from my home environment with all of its chores and distractions. And so, I find that writing with one or two other people in a coffee shop is the most motivating, because when you’ve got somebody on the other side of the table typing diligently away, you don’t pay attention to the fact that they may just be, you know, they may just be on Facebook. You…they give the impression of productivity and therefore, that compels me to be productive. Also, there’s something about the noise of a coffee shop that is very…it helps people to focus. And I’m far from the only person to have discovered that. And, of course, there’s coffee.

So, interestingly, I did, when I first started…and I don’t write full time. I am retired from the day job. But people say, “Oh, you retired to write full time?” No, I’m not spending any more time writing than I did before, but I don’t have a day job. So, when I first retired and started thinking about putting more attention to my writing, I considered renting space in a co-working space. And basically the choice was, I could rent a co-working space for, like, $300 a month with free coffee, or I could pay for the coffee at, you know, like three bucks a shot, and get free working space. So it was just, it was just cheaper to work in a coffee shop than a co-working space. I’d love to be able to have regular co-working partners. I know people who are software engineers and people…a lot of cartoonists. In Portland, we have this amazing studio called Periscope, which is a co-working space for cartoonists and comics illustrators, and I’d love to have that sort of working environment, but it just…I just can’t justify the expense.

I like to work in coffee shops, too, but here’s another question about working in that kind of a space. Do you find that you occasionally are overhearing conversations that interfere with your writing? Because that’s what happens to me and then I have to put on headphones and listen to music.

I used to write to music and I found that I just sort of stopped doing that. I guess I don’t find those conversations too distracting. The one thing that will be distracting is if there’s music at the coffee shop and the music has words.

Yeah.

And if that starts happening, then I have to go someplace else. But the conversations don’t impinge too badly.

Once you have a draft…well, first of all, are you a fast writer? A slow writer? How do you typify yourself?

I am an extremely slow writer. I have been working…with the exception of the third Arabella book, which because of various life factors, I had to finish in six months. I’ve never written a novel in less than two years, and my current project, which again, due to various life circumstances, I’ve been working on for over two years now, I could easily see it extending out to three. And I’m trying to be kind to myself. I have a real tendency to beat myself up for not being more productive. But I’m trying to be kind to myself and  let the process flow as it does.

So, once you do have a draft, what’s your revision process before it gets submitted anywhere? Do you have beta readers? Do you do it all yourself? How does that work for you?

After I finish a draft, I generally will go through and do a revision based on what I’ve learned about the book during the process of it. I generally…my first drafts come out extremely consistent because I’m really good at keeping details clear in my head and so I don’t have to go back and revise to make sure that my heroine’s eyes didn’t change color or anything like that.

Clothes are what get me. What people are wearing.

Yeah. But I have a really strong sense of where everything is in the room. I don’t have difficulty with blocking. I never have people across the room and then find themselves back at the door. So, the problems that I have are larger problems, like, the character isn’t sympathetic enough or there’s not enough tension. And I wish there was like a knob on the outside of a story that you could just turn, you know, make the character more sympathetic or what have you. So. Okay. But anyway, so, by the time I get to the end of it, in my notes file, I have a whole bunch of notes of things I want to take care of in the first revision. And so, I go through and I do a revision pass on my own. Then, if possible, I have workshopped a couple of novels using a process where you get together with a bunch of other novelist friends, you rent a beach house for a long weekend, and you trade off critiques. A technique which has worked really well in the past is, you get, say, a dozen people together, and everybody has a completed novel, and you have to have a draft done by a certain date, maybe two months before. And so, then you share. You put your novels up on a shared drive so that everybody can access them. Everybody reads everybody else’s synopsis and first 50 pages. And then, two people read your complete novel and you read two complete novels. And the person who’s organizing the thing has to figure out who does which. It’s a little bit complicated, but I’d never done that part myself. And then you go and you spend a weekend at a beach house with, you know, cooking together and eating together, and exchanging critiques during the day, and just talking shop and chewing the fat for the rest of the time. So, in this way you get at a bunch of people looking at your premise and opening, which is really important. And then, a couple of people look at the whole thing. And likewise, you learn an awful lot from critiquing other people’s work. So, this is the best way that I have found to get feedback on a novel.

I also, for my first two novels I was working with a critique group that met regularly in person. And so, I was writing a chapter for every meeting. And I promised them that if I did not have a chapter for them, I would buy everyone drinks. And I never had to do that. So, it was very motivating for me to keep drafting, and I was getting feedback on the thing as it went along. Now, I remember Dean Wesley Smith telling me that nobody’s ever written a good novel that way, but he said this right after he’d praised my novel, which was written that way. So he said, “Well, I suppose there’s an exception to everything.” But, so, I do like to get feedback. I don’t have…sadly, at the moment, I do not have a writing group. I do not have trusted beta readers. The people that I was working with, many of them have stopped being productive for a variety of reasons. And those that have been productive are too busy with their writing careers to take time to critique other people’s stuff. So, putting together a good writing group is important and it’s also difficult.

Yeah, I’ve never had one, living in small-town Saskatchewan growing up. There was a writing group, but it was elderly women who wrote stories about the Depression, so…

Yeah. We have to two writers’ organizations here in Portland. We’ve got Willamette Writers and the Oregon Writers Colony, and they’re both very good. But the majority of people in them are retired people, mostly women who are writing their memoirs. We do have quite a few fiction writers and quite a few screenwriters and playwrights, but the numerical majority of members of these writers’ organizations are people writing memoir.

I did find a good…this is, you know…as I said, I’m pretty much your age. I’m a couple of years older than you. And there used to be a group called the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop, which was a by-mail critique thing, because we didn’t have e-mail yet, and it worked well, and I found a couple of really great critiquers who went on to have careers of their own. And that was nice, but critiquing by mail is a very slow process. So it just didn’t work once, you know, you started trying to get books turned around in any kind of reasonable amount of time.

Yeah. So, here’s something that I say. I’ve led a lot of critique sessions at science-fiction workshops. I started out attending them and gradually shifted over into leading them. And what I say about critiquing in groups is that the benefit to a writer of critiquing in groups is that you take the time to read a work with a critical eye. And this is a draft, so everybody involved agrees that this is not finished, perfect work. It’s not like a literature class, where you’re reading something that has already been published and has probably received a lot of critical acclaim. You’re reading something which is definitely rough, definitely a draft. And so, you’re looking for ways that it can be improved. So, you look at it with a critical eye, and then you get together and you share your opinions in a circle with other people who have also read that same work with a critical eye. And from listening to the other reactions to a piece that you have just read with that critical eye, you can hear, for example, “Other people found that this thing here was a problem, and I didn’t even notice that,” or, “I thought that this was a problem and other people didn’t.” And so, by hearing what other people thought of the same story that you just critiqued, you can improve your own critical faculties. You can figure out, “What am I missing that other people are spotting?”, or vice versa. And so that, I think is one…I mean, in addition to the critique that you receive and the things that you learn from reading other people’s drafts, you also learn from other people’s critiques. And so, that’s something that you cannot duplicate by mail. You could duplicate it with, like, you know, like a group video chat. I have not tried doing critique by group video chat, but I can imagine that it would work as well.

So once you have your polished draft, and it goes into your editor, what kind of editorial feedback to you typically get? You’re with Tor, so…

Yes. The first book had been through many rounds of critique, and so the editorial letter was quite short. The second book, I did get a rather extensive editorial letter. And the third book, both because it was written so fast and because of critiques…I mean, not critiques, reviews, that I’d read of the second book. I got a really…okay, so this is a Tor book, and it got a really scathing review on Tor.com, the second Arabella book. And that really set me back on my heels. And I made substantial changes to the third book to address the problems that this reviewer found with the second book. And I really wish she had reviewed the third book so I could find out what she thought of the changes, but she did not. So, whether the third book is better on those issues of colonialism and racism than the second book was, I haven’t received a lot of feedback indicating whether or not it did a good job. Because books, you know, books in a series are like children. You know, you look at somebody’s photo album and there’ll be, you know, a dozen photos of the first child and a couple of photos of the second child and the third child is, “Oh, wait, here they are at seven.”

That was me.

Yeah. Books in a series are the same. The first book gets a lot more critical attention. Like, I mean, look at the number of reviews of the three books on Amazon or Goodreads and you’ll plainly see…like, the first book has, I don’t know how many reviews, certainly well over 50, the second more like a couple dozen and the third, maybe a dozen. You know that…readers and publishers like series because it answers the question of, “I enjoyed this. Give me something that’s just like this, only different.” But, in general, only the people that read the first book will read the second…only some of the people that read the first book will read the second…and only some of the people that read the second book will read the third. So, the number of readers always goes down over the length of the series. Even, you know, even George R.R. Martin is not getting as many sales of the last book in his series, even though it’s a huge national bestseller, as he did for the first book, because every book in the series acts as an ad for the first book. So, a successful series, as it goes on, every new book that comes out at the end is going to cause more people to start at the beginning. But many of those people who start will not, will read either just the first book or just the first couple and not go on. So, there’s this big descending curve of readership over the course of a series, even the really successful ones.

Yeah, when I wrote my first trilogy, as E.C. Blake, it was under a pseudonym , and the first book…by far, my most popular book, but as the trilogy went along, I certainly noticed that, that each book had fewer readers, which is disturbing in a way. That’s just the way it works.

It is just the way it works. There’s a death spiral that can occur, where…it’s called ordering to the net. When, back in the days when brick-and-mortar booksellers were the top of the food chain, they would, you know, if they ordered 20,000 copies of some book and only sold 15,000 of them, then they would only order 15,000 copies of book two and they’d probably only sell 12,000 copies of that. So they would only order 12,000 copies of Book 3, which meant it was almost physically impossible to increase sales from one book to the next. So, you know, so there’s ordering to the net, it can turn into a death spiral where you don’t where you no longer have the opportunity of selling more because they just aren’t in the stores.

Did you know that Arabella was going to be…you say Ah-rabella, don’t you? How do you...

I say Ah-rabella. I believe that I am pronouncing the name of my main character incorrectly. So, I will not…I will never, ever correct anybody else’s pronunciation. I think I’m wrong, but I’m not…and people say, “Well, that’s the way you pronounce it, it must be correct.” No, not necessarily. I mean, I had a story that was set in China. And I had all these Chinese words in it, which I had looked up. But when I went to read it, when I went to do the audiobook of it, I discovered that I had no idea how to pronounce those words that I put on the page.

Funny story, I asked a friend of mine who does speak Mandarin how these words were pronounced, and he e-mailed me back saying, of this one particular word, was pronounced with the like the a in can, not the a in can’t. And I went, “What?” But I forgot he was a Brit. So it’s can and cahn’t, but anyway…so, just because I wrote something doesn’t mean I know how to pronounce it. And a lot of people have trouble with the name of the story “Tk’ Tk’ Tk’,” and that’s just how I say it. I just say tick, tick, tick. So you got it fine.

Oh, good.

So anyway, so Arabella, I wrote it as a standalone, but during that novel-critique weekend, I was talking with my writer friends and everybody says, “You know, if you go to a publisher, if a publisher comes back to you with an offer, they’re gonna say, you know, ‘What else do you have in mind?” And if you can say, ‘Well, I’ve got two more books planned in this series,’ they’ll offer you a three-book contract.” And so, we…I just basically sat around with some friends in the evening and we BS-ed out a second and a third book. So, I wrote it as a standalone, but when…by the time I came to present it to the publishers, I had a one-page outline for a book two and a one-paragraph sketch of a book three in my hip pocket. So, when the publisher did indeed come back and say, “We like this, what else do you have?” I could say, “Well, here’s a sketch for book two and a sketch for book three. And so I got a three-book contract.”

All right. Well, we’re getting within about 10 minutes of when I need to cut this short…well, not that short, it’s still an hour. So, I want to ask my big philosophical question, which is, “Why do you do this? Why do you write? Why do you write science fiction? And why do you think any of us do?”

Why do I write? I write because I enjoy making things. And this is something that that I really enjoyed about software engineering is basically, you know, I wiggle my fingers and stuff to appear, stuff that actually does a job. In this case, the job is entertaining people. But I enjoy the process of creating. I enjoy the, “Ooh, what happens next?” thing. Storytelling is a basic human thing. And I happened to find myself with this skill set. I think some of it’s innate and some of it’s trained. And I definitely have some innate skills, and I’ve also done a lot of, I’ve taken a lot of workshops., I’ve taken a lot of courses, I’ve chewed the fat many a late hour talking about how do we do this thing on. And so, I’ve built up a pretty good skill set and I enjoy exercising that skill set.

And, you know, and the ego boost when somebody says, “Ooh, I read that book, I loved it,” is just, you know, that’s one of the best things in life, is when somebody says, “Hey, I saw that thing you did, it was great.” So really…I mean, people write for all sorts of reasons. They write for money. They write for fame. They write for critical acclaim. I really do write for the reviews and the awards. That is the thing that I am hoping to achieve. And why does anybody do it? Everybody’s got their own reasons. And if you’re going to pursue a career in writing, you really have to understand what you want out of it and how you’re going to prioritize the things that you do in order to align your particular skills with your goals. You’ve got to understand what your goals are before you can determine how to achieve success. You know, if I had, like, if I had twice as many readers and was making less money, I would go, “Great trade-off!” I would happily do that.

I know other people that are trying to, you know, trying to put food on the table. They wouldn’t take that. They would say, I would much rather sell a thousand copies with 50-percent royalty than…sorry, they’d say I’d rather sell 500 copies with a 50 percent royalty than 2,000 copies at a 25-percent royalty. Even though the money might be the same, that means that…if you self-publish, you get more money per copy. But most self-publishers can’t sell, can’t move as many copies as a traditional publisher with all of their marketing resources can. So, I would much rather have a smaller slice of a bigger pie, even if I get less money out of the deal, because you get more exposure, more visibility, more readers and more critical attention. If my book appears in brick-and-mortar bookstores, in libraries, and, you know, gets reviewed, you know, these are all things that are more available to me as a traditionally published writer. And they matter to me. It really matters to me to find my book in the library. And that to me is worth giving up a big chunk of the royalties. For a self-published writer, they would rather have a bigger chunk of the royalties of each book, which means that they make more money, even if they put fewer copies in front of people’s eyeballs. So, you have to understand what’s important to you and then choose your tactics based on achieving your goals.

And why science fiction?

I always say, “What’s the point of reading a book where it’s limited to things that could happen in the real world?”

That’s what I say, too!

I mean, oh, okay, yeah, yeah. So I’m reading How the West was Won or Gone with the Wind, you know. And Gone with the Wind, you know, nothing really interesting is going to happen. No Martians will descend. There are no ghosts. I think fiction’s all made up, and you should have the ability to make up whatever you want. And so, I really do find stories with the element of the fantastic to be a lot more interesting than stories that are limited to what could actually happen.

Yes. When people ask me, “Why do you write science fiction?” I say, “Why wouldn’t I?”

Yeah.

You know, it’s just more interesting to me. All right. Well, what are you working on now?

I am working on what I describe as a space-opera caper picture. It’s a cross between Leverage and Firefly in the universe of The Expanse. A group of…a criminal gang, basically, they had what they thought was going to be the job that would set them up for their lifetimes. It didn’t go well. Several gang members were killed and they split up. Ten years later, the son of the leader of the gang shows up and says, “Dad’s in jail. I’m putting the gang back together to break him out.” And it turns out to be more complicated than that.

Sounds fun. Is there a release date on that or is that still some way off in the future?

No, it’s some ways off in the future. I’m at…let’s see., I think I just crossed 78,000 words or thereabouts, shooting for 100,000. But that’s on first draft. So, it’s gonna be a while before it’s even ready to submit, never mind having a publication date. And, as I said, I’m trying to be kind to myself and not beat myself up for not being as productive.

And anybody that wants to follow you and find out what you’re up to, where can they find you online?

My Web site is daviddlevine.com. You can find me on Twitter as DavidDLevine. You can find me on Facebook as David.D.Levine. But I use that David D. Levine identifier…I’m also on Instagram as David D. Levine. I use my middle initial because the name David Levine is quite common. There’s a New Yorkercaricaturist, David Levine. There’s an Indy car driver named David Levine. Lots and lots and lots and lots of dentists and lawyers named David Levine. So I just I, you know, I never had a hope of getting my unadorned name to be near anywhere near visible on Google. But if you Google on David D Levine, you should follow me.

I’ve been pretty lucky with Edward Willett. There’s a professional golfer, I think, and there’s a guy who plays the cello. He played on the theme music for Northern Exposure with a group called Chance, and his name is Ed Willett. But if you Google Edward Willett, I get like most of the first two pages of hits. So that’s pretty good.

Cool.

All right. Well, thanks so much for the conversation. That was great. Thank you very much. I’m glad you were a guest on The Worldshapers.

OK. Best of luck to you.

OK. Bye for now.

Episode 44: Matthew Hughes

An hour-long conversation with Matthew Hughes, award-winning (and multiply nominated) author of more than twenty novels of fantasy, space opera, and crime fiction and numerous short stories, focusing on What the Wind Brings, his latest, a magical-realism historical novel from Pulp Literature Press.

Website
matthewhughes.org

Facebook
@hapthorn

Twitter
@hapthorn

Matthew Hughes’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Matthew Hughes

Matthew Hughes writes fantasy, space opera, and crime fiction, and has sold 22 novels to publishers large and small in the UK, US, and Canada, as well as 90 works of short fiction to professional markets. His latest are Ghost Dreams (PS Publishing), and What the Wind Brings, a magical-realism historical novel from Pulp Literature Press. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’sF&SFPostscriptsLightspeedAmazing StoriesPulp Literature, and Interzone, and he’s in a number of invitation-only anthologies as well, including Songs of the Dying EarthRoguesOld MarsOld VenusThe Book of Swords, and The Book of Magic, all edited by George R.R. Martin and/or Gardner Dozois. He’s won the Arthur Ellis Award, and been shortlisted for the Aurora, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, Endeavour (twice), A.E. Van Vogt, and Derringer Awards. He’s been nominated for induction into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Hall of Fame.

Matthew spent more than 30 years as one of Canada’s leading speechwriters for political leaders and corporate executives. Since 2007, he’s been traveling the world as an itinerant house sitter: he has lived in 12 countries and has no fixed address.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Matt.

Thank you. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? When you hear it like that? Yeah.

I guess I have no idea where you actually are, right now, now that I think about it. Somewhere in B.C., I think?

I’m on Salt Spring Island, right on the sea, in a very comfortable and beautiful house that belongs to some wealthy people who are traveling in Argentina right now.

Oh, very nice. Now, we’ve been acquainted for a long time through Canadian science-fiction circles, and you have an unusual connection to me: you’re the first person I’ve interviewed for the podcast who has actually been one of my editors as well, because you edited my young adult fantasy series, The Shards of Excalibur, for Coteau Books.

I did, yes. Yeah.

So, I always try to establish those sorts of connections off the top. And I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest that I’m interviewing one of my editors. because it was a freelance thing.

Yeah. And also that’s done and finished and it’s all over.

Some time ago now, yeah. Well, we’ll start where I always start, which is asking you to go back into the mists of time. And, first a little bit about your background and biography and how the writing started. Did you start as a reader and that’s where it came from, or how did that all work for you? And I know you have a colorful background.

Well, we’re reaching way back. I decided I would be a writer when I was a teenager when I was about 16. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make a living at it because I didn’t know very much. I was from the working poor. I had no real understanding of the middle-class universe that surrounded me. But the first thing I heard of that writers did and got paid for was advertising copywriting. And I thought, “Oh, that sounds easy,” you know, very short text, you put them in magazines, you get highly paid. So, I even went downtown in Vancouver to the biggest local ad firm and arranged a meeting with one of the partners, whose name I can’t remember anymore, and he told me all about it. And I thought about it, and then I decided, “No, I don’t think so.”

For a while, I decided that I would be a teacher, but that while was only about a week or so because I got into student teaching and, thank goodness, Simon Fraser University, when you signed up for them to be a student teacher, they didn’t give you six months of theory and then put you in a classroom, they put you in a classroom on the second day. And I very quickly realized I did not want to spend my life in a classroom with children, some of whom were not all that bright, you know? It was frustrating.

So, that led to journalism. And in those days, we’re talking the early 1970s, in fact, actually in 1970, you could become a journalist just by being able to write, which is what I did. I wrote some features and book reviews and movie reviews for the student newspaper at SFU, The Peak, until I had a book of clippings with my name on them, and I then took them down to the Vancouver Province, where a guy I knew had been doing what they called stringer work for them—that was going out on Monday evenings to cover municipal council meetings. He’d been doing it and he was quitting to go somewhere else, so I went down, saw the reporter, and showed him my clippings, and he hired me. And that was my first professional gig. Then I did that for month after month. And then they had me write feature articles and eventually made me the SFU-based reporter. Anything that happened at SFU, I covered it, which, you know, is sports kind of stuff, and even…they had a multi-day conference up there once about why we don’t have freeways running through Vancouver, and I covered that every day. Wrote lots of copy.

They had summer staff, which…it was about two months I was on summer staff, and sometimes I was the only reporter there for the, you know, skeleton shift, when there was not going to be a paper the next day. So, Saturday I was in there, all on my own…and that’s when I screwed up, remarkably.

We had the first Canadian trade mission of businesspeople to China, because China was just opening up then. This would have been ’72. So, I got a list of the people who were at that, and they were coming back. I went to the airport, I collared some of them, interviewed them there, then went back to the newsroom and phoned them at the various hotels that I was given, at, you know, the contact places. And I just went down the list, and those I got, you know, I wrote down what they said. The problem was, I called up the president of Sooke Forest Products, and didn’t get him. So, I then went to the sales manager of a little electronics firm and interviewed him, but I put his remarks under those of the president of Sooke Forest Products, who, it turned out had not actually gone to China at all.

Oh, dear.

Oh, dear. And so, what happened was the paper came out on Monday and caused a little flutter in the stock market for Sooke Forest Products, because what sounded perfectly fine coming from the sales manager of an electronics firm didn’t sound good coming from the president of the forest company. So, the publisher had to personally apologize, and there was a retraction on the front page, and I was summarily fired. But, you know…

As a former newspaper reporter. I commiserate.

Yeah, well, every reporter gets fired eventually, I suppose.

I quit. I didn’t get fired.

Oh, well, there you go, okay, yeah. And from there, I went into weeklies. I was news editor, which actually meant editor, of a bi-weekly in Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam and Port Moody, a paper called the Enterprise, and did that for 10 months, I think. Yeah. And then, a guy bought a piece of the paper and he wanted to do my job, so they let me go from there. So I had UIC, unemployment insurance, as it was called in those days, and I had a typewriter, so I wrote a fantasy novel and then went looking for work again. It was a bad fantasy novel, but I learned an awful lot about writing from doing that.

But if I take that back just a little bit further, you actually started writing in high school, didn’t you? Is that when you actually started first trying to put fiction together?

The Dragon of the Ishtar Gate
by L. Sprague de Camp

Yeah. I…in those days I really liked the historical novels of L. Sprague de Camp, who also wrote fantasy, but I loved his historicals, and I decided I was going to write one of those. And I came up with a good premise. In fact, I may even sit down one of these days and research and write this book. There is a mention here and there that after Alexander the Great had conquered everything and came back to Babylon, he sent a ship to go down and circumnavigate Africa. And then, of course, he died soon after that—he died of malaria, I think—and nobody knows what happened to that ship, whether it went, whether it went and didn’t come back or went and did come back or where it went. There’s a pretty good consensus that it was sent, but nobody knows what happened to that. So, I thought that was a great premise… 

Yeah!

…so I wrote the first chapter of it in the summer holidays in…it would have been ’65…and then I realized writing a book with a pencil in an exercise notebook was a pretty hefty job. I was going to have to wait until I was, you know, better equipped, mentally and physically, with, you know, the writing implements to do this. But I did show up one day in Grade 12 for English class and was told we were supposed to have written the first chapter of a novel. I hadn’t been there for a while, I sometimes didn’t go to school. I didn’t like it. So I whipped this thing out and it actually was…

I’m glad you brought this up because it was a turning point. It was probably the time when I really decided I was going to be a writer, because the teacher we had…her name was Ruth Eldridge. and she was a tough woman, a former colonel in the American army, who was teaching English very hard…a stern, tough kind of woman, she was…and she had told us at the beginning of the year that nothing we wrote was going to get a 10 out of 10 from her because it wouldn’t be good enough, because we were kids. But I turned in my little few hundred words in my first chapter and she gave me 10 out of 10, and I took that as encouraging.

Well, that’s who…one of the people you dedicated What the Wind Brings to, isn’t it?

That’s right. Yes.

I noticed that when I was looking at it that she was on the first, you know, the dedication page.

Yeah. She and my mother. Both of them encouraged me to be a writer.

Were there other things you read? You mentioned L. Sprague de Camp. Were there other books that were inspirational to you as a young reader and then writer?

Cue for Treason
by Geoffrey Trease

Yes. I…as I say, we were poor. And when I was still back in Ontario, before we fled to BC in ’63, we were living a couple of years in a quite remote farmhouse up a country road between Kitchener and Guelph, if anybody knows that part of the world. There was no library, there was no bookmobile. We did not have many books in the house. My eldest brother used to leave science fiction books around, until he finally got fed up of living at home and left, and I would read those. And also. there was a book that was on the Grade 9 English curriculum that both my elder brother and sister and eldest brother, I think, had all had. It was a juvenile historical set in the time of Shakespeare in England, called Cue for Treason.

That sounds familiar.

I think a lot of people in Ontario read that book because everybody was given it. And I read that and I was quite taken with the whole idea of historical novels, which I hadn’t run into by then. So, came September of 1962, they started putting us on a school bus to go to Grade 9 in the city, at Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate Institute, which everybody called KCI. And they had a really good, substantial school library, just chockful of science fiction, fantasy…wasn’t much fantasy in those days, mostly science fiction…and historicals, and I just started reading everything I could get. I would read two, three, four books a week, starting then. And then, by April, I’d read most of what they had that I was interested in, and my father had a shoestring construction business and he got into some trouble with loan sharks, and we packed up everything with no warning, U-Haul trailers, and headed for Vancouver to hide out. But we ended up in Burnaby, only a mile from a very good public library, and I started reading there and read everything I could for years and years. I used to actually spend a lot of time in the library because it was a warm and quiet place, whereas my family home was not a quiet place at all, it was fair amounts of stress and sturm und drang and so on. So yeah, as I sat and read for years.

And…you mentioned that the first thing that you wrote in Grade 12 was  basically a historical novel…

Yeah, that was my that was my predilection to begin with. Later on I thought, “Maybe I’ll be a science fiction author,” but I wasn’t very good at science, so that kind of troubled me. But, you know, I could write space opera, I assumed. And then when fantasy hit, in ’65, I read The Lord of the Rings in that Ballentine edition that first came out and thought, “Now, here’s something I could do.” Which is why the first novel I wrote was actually a fantasy,

But a bad fantasy, you said.

Well, it was a good idea, but my writing was a bit clumsy, and the fact is, if you wanted to sell a fantasy novel to Betty Ballantine or somebody like that, writing a tragedy was not a good idea. But there you go.

So how did things did things proceed from that first attempt? Because obviously, you got to the point where you were writing much better things.

Yes. Well, from the newspaper business…my last newspaper job was editing a little tabloid weekly in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, and I was quitting that because it was pretty much a scam anyway as a newspaper…

I’ll divert here for a moment to explain that. In those days, Conrad Black and his partner, Radler, were going around with a suitcase full of money buying newspapers, small-town dailies especially. And we had one of those in Port Alberni, it was called the Alberni Valley Times, and Rattler was phoning up the owner of that, a guy called Rollie Rose, every week and saying, “We want to buy your paper. We’ll give you X amount.” And Rollie would say, “No, I don’t want to sell my paper. I like it.” And then they would phone back the next week and say, “We’ll give you X plus Y.” “No, I don’t want to.” This went on for quite a while. And a couple of local hustlers, one of whom worked at that newspaper, they got to know about this, and so they borrowed some money and they bought an advertiser. You know, one of those things that come around every week and tell you about shopping and bargains and so on? They bought that. They rented some Compugraphic equipment, hired a couple of people, including me, and it became a community newspaper, which it really wasn’t, because there was only so much copy that I could generate every week, so we filled it with Copley news clips, you know, horoscopes and cartoons and feature articles of all kinds.

What they were doing, the two hustlers, was undercutting the AV Times on advertising, which meant the paper was jam-packed with ads, page after page, which is why there was so much copy we had to write and fill. The idea was that when Rollie Rose eventually said to Conrad Black, “OK, I’ll take the money,” that Conrad would also buy up this paper just to shut it down, because it was cutting into all the ad revenue. And I believe that’s what eventually happened. But, by the time I figured out this was not a real job anymore—you know, after the second time that my paycheck bounced—I thought, “OK.” I was going to do some freelancing for the AV Times, and I had a suit, so I could be a supply teacher (that was the qualification necessary in Port Alberni) and I was working out my two weeks’ notice, when a guy came into the newsroom, and he was the campaign manager for the Liberal candidate, a local insurance guy who had just won the election in ‘74 and was going to Ottawa, and said, “Would you like to go to Ottawa and ghostwrite his newspaper column for the riding press?” And I said, “Yeah, okay.” (It took me a week to get to, “Yeah, okay,” but I eventually did.) And off I went to Ottawa and was quite happy, about six weeks of ghostwriting the column and helping people with their passports and UIC and citizenship problems.

And then the MP comes into the office one day and says, “You have to write me a speech, because I’m seconding debate on the Speech from the Throne.” Which is a big deal. That’s…for those who are listening who don’t know the Speech from the Throne, that’s when the government, at the beginning of a parliament, sets out its entire agenda, what it’s going to do, the bills they’re going to bring in, the things they’re going to concentrate on, and it was traditional—with the Liberals, at least, this was a Liberal government, of Pierre Trudeau—traditional that the debate on that speech, after the speech is given by the governor-general, the debate starts with a maiden MP from the east and a maiden MP from the west moving and seconding the debate.

So I said, “OK,” and I went down to the speaker’s office. They showed me some samples of this kind of speech, and I read them and looked at them, and thought, “OK, not hard. You do half about the Speech from the Throne, the government’s agenda, and half about the riding you come from.” So, I went back to the office and I had my IBM Selectric typewriter and I wrote him a 20-minute speech, one draft, and he loved it, and he went out and gave it, and it was a big hit. John Turner, who was the light that failed in the Liberal Party in those days, came over and put his arm around him and said, “You’re our boy,” and they made him chair of the caucus of the British Columbia Liberal MPs ,and he was on his way up.

And, of course, he started to get requests from riding associations all across the country and chambers of commerce, Rotary and, you know, “Come and give us a speech.” So, suddenly, my major occupation in his office was writing speeches, which were well-received. And he then had this reputation as this great speaker, which he wasn’t all that good at, but I could write so it sounded just like him, that was the trick. But I got a reputation as this hot new speechwriter that nobody had ever heard of. And minister’s offices started coming around saying, “Would you like to come and work for our minister as a communications aide and speechwriter?” And after a certain amount of time, I said, “Yeah, okay,” and ended up writing speeches for Ron Basford, the minister of justice, and then after about a year and a half with him, I went to work for Len Marchand, who was first minister of small business and then minister of the environment.

So, all together, I was four years in Ottawa, pretty much writing speeches full-time. Turned out I had a knack for it. I had no training at all, but I could hear somebody’s voice in my head and right in that voice, so it sounded like whoever it was. And I had a knack for drawing word pictures, which is what speechwriting is mostly about, you put pictures in people’s heads, and they like it, and your good.

Both of those sound like useful skills for a novelist as well.

Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ll tell you how I first developed that knack as when I was working for that paper in Coquitlam, the Enterprise. I had…it was owned by a very right-wing fellow and I had to write very right-wing editorials. And I had trouble with that until I started writing them in Richard Nixon’s voice. It came out perfect and the boss was very happy with them. I would think,”Ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh,” type type type. But, yeah, that is the speechwriter’s trick. It is the ability to get somebody’s work, world view and voice in your head. Hang on a sec…we’re house-sitting a somewhat nervous dog. Yeah, there she goes.

You’d be surprised how often there are animal noises in the back of these interviews.

Well, this one, if I raise my voice at all, she gets anxious and starts to bark. And then, if you put her outside, she immediately starts barking even though there’s nothing there. She’s the runt of the litter. And she’s kind of strange. But she’s a nice dog. I like her.

It was your Nixon voice that set her off.

That was it. “Ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh.” Anyway, so, okay, continuing the saga, I did four years in Ottawa, and then I came back to Vancouver to be a freelance speechwriter, because I’d known guys…I was thinking of the one guy I knew in Ottawa who wrote speeches for the department of the environment, which were then brought up to the minister’s office for the minister to give, and then I would have to rewrite them because they were dull and pedestrian and full of bureaucratic language, you now? They were like a big, long memo.

Yeah.

Passive voice, and blah, blah, blah. And this guy was making then…and this was 1978…he was making 70 grand a year doing this. I thought, well, I’m gonna go back to Vancouver and I’m going to do this and I’m gonna get a lot of money because I’m good at it and he’s not.

So, anyway, I came back to Vancouver and discovered, after…I did a stint as a civil servant for a while until I became politically toxic and was fired by the incoming Joe Clark government…I discovered that nobody had ever been a full-time specialist speechwriter in Vancouver, and the work was not there. I had to spend two years building the practice before I could actually make any money at it. People used to say, “How can you write a speech for our CEO if you’re not an expert in the forestry or mining or whatever industry?” And I would say, “Well, how can you send your boss out to make a speech that hasn’t been written by an expert speechwriter?” So, we would agree to disagree. But I always used to say at the end of the pitch, “The day will come when somebody has screwed up and the CEO or the chairman needs a speech and it hasn’t been written, and you need someone to write it very quickly, and then you call me and I will come in and I will do it for you, and it will be magic.”

And that happened two or three times, and suddenly my reputation began to spread and I got lots of work, and it got to the point where other people tried setting up as speechwriters and they got told, “Well, we’ve got Hughes, so, no,” you know? And I kept raising my rates and nobody complained. I started out at, I think, $75 an hour, and I ended up effectively at about $200 because I would just charge a flat rate. Didn’t matter how many draft drafts or anything, it would be that amount of money. You know, $1,500, $2,000, because I discovered early on that I was writing one draft for, you know, $100 an hour and getting $600-700 for it. Other people were writing four or five drafts because they weren’t very good and they were actually getting more money than I was for an inferior product.

So yeah, being a fast, good writer, if you charge by the hour, you actually hurt yourself. I’ve encountered that myself. So, you’re clearly writing millions and millions of words over all this time. Where was the fiction by now?

Well, the funny thing I discovered…I’m like a factory that is tooled up to produce a certain thing, product, and if you’re going to change the product, you’ve got to shut the factory down for a while and retool, and then make that new product. I could not spend my working day writing speeches or even newspaper material and then write fiction in the evening. It just wouldn’t come. If I took two weeks off, three weeks, then I could write something. But I couldn’t…somehow could not do both at the same time. So, I put aside writing fiction essentially in about ’74, and just almost never did anything until we got right up into the ’80s. And then I wrote over a period of a number of years, in dead time, I wrote my first real novel, the one I sold, Fools Errant.

And, later on, I wrote a couple of crime novels and got a New York agent to represent them, which was good, except that then she had a family crisis and couldn’t do anything for months. And those two sort of died on the vine, because once an agent has taken a book out and not sold it, it doesn’t matter what the reasons are, no other agent is interested in that book. So, my attempt in those days to be a crime writer…I was selling short stories, I’d sold a novel to Doubleday, won the Arthur Ellis Award, which was nice…got kind of got short-circuited because I had two novels I couldn’t sell. I didn’t want to write another one and, you know, wait all that time, I didn’t have the money to be able to set aside the time. On the other hand, people were offering me checks and publication if I wrote science fiction and fantasy by then. And so, I started doing that and have kept on ever since, really. Although, I do tend to write crime fiction in science fiction and fantasy settings, so I’m kind of melding the two together. I don’t write about heroes. I write about thieves and con men and wizard’s henchmen, that kind of thing.

Well, let’s talk about What the Wind Brings, which you have called your magnum opus, and, first of all, where did it come from and how does that compare to the way that most of your story ideas come to you? What generates story ideas for you?

Ok, I’ll do the “what generates” and then I’ll do What the Wind Brings, because they’re different really.

What generates a story for me is a character in a normal situation of some kind, and then something happens and the character has to respond to that situation, that conflict, and that makes things roll forward and other characters get involved, and before I know it, there’s a story. I had one out (A God in Chains), a novel set in the Dying Earth, a fantasy novel set in…it’s sort of my extrapolation of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. And I started out with a man walking on a road on a big open prairie, and he figures out, looking at what’s in front of him—there’s wheel tracks and animal dung and footprints—and he figures, “I must be following a caravan.” The thing is, he has no memory. He has complete amnesia, doesn’t know who he is, how he got there, what his backstory is, none of that. And when I started writing that, neither did I. I didn’t know who he was. I just started with the character in the situation, and then on we went.

By the time I…I actually thought I was writing a novella to send to Fantasy & Science Fiction or Lightspeed, and instead it turned out I was writing a novel, because other characters got involved and their stories meshed and conflicted with the main character’s. And after about three months, I had a novel of 80,000 words, and I sold it to Edge Publishing, Brian Hades in Calgary—I’d always wanted to do a deal with Brian. I used to edit books for him—and actually, it’s done quite well. It came out in July and it’s got about 28, 29 five-star reviews on Amazon now. For people who like Jack Vance, it’s exactly what they’re looking for. And there are still people around like that.

So that’s my process. I have no idea what I’m doing when I begin. At some point, maybe a third to half the way through, I understand the shape of the story and how it’s going to have to end. And then I start writing towards that.

So, you don’t typically, like, outline ahead of time? You’re more of a…

I can’t. I can’t. I’ve tried that. I tried that years ago. Nothing really comes off. I’m just sitting down trying to make up a story. I have to do it scene by scene and even line by line, sometimes. You know, I’ll be writing a scene and a line of dialogue will come out of the back of my head. It’s the same way I used to write speeches. There’s a guy in the back of my head who does this, and then I type and edit a bit. But a line of dialogue will occur to me and that will take the thing off in a whole different direction. And I follow that. That’s what I do. Normally I write one draft and then a second draft to tighten and add some bits and shore up things I thought at later—you know, I put them in Chapter 2 because in Chapter 8, something has happened—and then I polish and that’s it. That’s my normal process.

But you said What the Wind Brings was a bit different. Oh, and also, before we talk about that, maybe you should explain what the story is about, without giving away anything that you don’t want to give away.

I’m happy to talk about that one. It’s about African slaves who were shipwrecked on the jungle coast of Ecuador in the middle of the 1500s, who melded with the local indigenous people who had been ravaged by disease, and also by the fact that the conquistadors and the Pizarro had come through their territory, going up to the highlands to crush the Inca Empire. So, they were demoralized and scattered and in rather a bad way, had lost a lot of people. But the Africans and the indigenous folk, they were a people called the Nigua, they got together and they formed a mixed society, which became a place for people who were running away, like slaves and so on, escaped, came to them and augmented them. And they also made alliances and connections with other indigenous groups around them.

The Spanish…they tried several expeditions to reduce these people to servitude again. And the mixed people…they’re now called Zambos, which was the term for indigenous and African mixed people…they outfought them and they out-thought them, time and again, until finally the Spanish said, “OK, we’ll leave you alone, we’ll make a deal with you because we really want a port at the mouth of that river that you control. That’s going to cut our transportation costs enormously.” And so they did that. They made a deal. And these people remained a “distinct society,” as we would say in Canada, forever. And then eventually they negotiated their way into Ecuador when Ecuador became a republic in the Bolívar period.

And I had a friend, a client, who in 1970 went up the little back creeks in that area. He was doing a Forest Service survey, I think, for CUPE…not CUPE, CUSO. The Canadian University Service Overseas.

I wondered why CUPE (the Canadian Union of Public Employees) would be doing it.

But he went in dugout canoes, paddling up backwaters and then little creeks that led to the backwaters. And he found, essentially, Africa. Everybody was black. And he even had the experience…he landed at this little village, got out of his canoe and walked into the midst of the huts, and an old woman came up to him and took her finger and wiped it down his cheek and then looked to see if the white came off. Here was an old woman who had never seen the white man. And that’s the story.

Now, the “how it came to be”…I was still thinking of myself as a potential historical novelist from time to time, and back in 1971, I came across a footnote in a textbook in university and thought, “Gee, that would be a good idea,” because it said…the chapter I was reading was about how most castaways who show up on a foreign shore, you know, like Japanese fishermen who might have landed at Nootka Sound 500 years ago, been blown off course and so on, they didn’t thrive. They didn’t last very long. Mostly that’s what happens. But here was this one case where these Africans came ashore and survived and prospered. And I thought that could make a good story.

The problem was, back then, that I couldn’t research it, really. Virtually all the scholarship was in South American journals in Spanish, and my Spanish was, you know, good enough to ask where the hotel is or, you know, (Spanish phrase) kind of stuff, but not good enough to read academic journals from Chile and Ecuador and so on. So, I always kept it in the back of my mind that this is a story I would like to write. And the more I thought about it, even without the proper background, the idea of two societies melding together in the face of opposition—and really desperate opposition, from people who would kill and enslave them—It had a real appeal to me, and I used to think about who the characters might be. And early on, I decided one of them was going to be a shaman, one of the indigenous people. And at some point I thought, “Not just a shaman, but a hermaphroditic shaman. Now there’s a character you can build a story around!”

And then came this century. I discovered …I used to look into it from time to time, see what I could find out…I discovered that North American scholars were beginning to write about this in English, quite a bit, about the Zambos. So, I began collecting material and sketched out what my idea for the story was, three characters, three points of view, and I went to the Canada Council, and they gave me 25,000 bucks to write this.

Nice.

Which was…yeah, it was very helpful. And it was also a vote of confidence, I thought. So I wrote it. And, unlike most of my stuff, I did actually four drafts on this because I wanted it to be perfect.

Did you outline this one, or did you approach it the same way in the writing process?

Well, I knew things that had to happen. You know, about the entradas, as they called the invasions that the Spanish made. And I knew about who characters would have to be, like a merchant up in Quito—and I used a real historical figure who is very important and was trying to build up the wool trade in Ecuador at that time. So, I took real historical people I knew about and things that they had done and I fitted them into the framework. But, there was no real history of what had happened on the ground among those people, the Africans and the Negua, when they got together, because nobody was there taking notes. So, I had to imagine that. And nobody knows what Negua culture was like, because they are extinct and have been for centuries.

So, a lot of room to play.

Yeah, as long as…I was happy with that, but also thought, “As long as I use actual aboriginal cultures as templates.” So I made the Negua, I made them quite matriarchal, and the Africans are quite patriarchal, although the Africans came from different cultures, too. And I happened to know a fair amount about West Africa in that period and before, because I’d once been interested in writing a historical novel set in the empire of Mali in the 1200s. So, I can apply that knowledge and the basic aboriginal knowledge, and out of it came people, and the people had their hopes and dreams and desires and fears, and that’s what you make stories out of, so…

Basically, it’s a political novel. It’s about the politics among people and between the Spanish and the Zambos, the politics. And also, the Inquisition is involved in there, too, because one of the real-life characters was a man named Espinosa, who was a Trinitarian monk from Spain. He was the only Trinitarian monk in Ecuador at the time. His order did not have any functions there at all. And the implication was that he was fleeing the Inquisition in Spain, because he was a what they call a converso, someone whose parents or grandparents had converted from Islam or Judaism, under threat of death, to become Christians. And by the time, the period we’re talking about, the Inquisition was running very well, and what they were doing was they were finding rich conversos and simply stripping them of their assets with fear of imprisonment or being burned at the stake. So, this guy had fled to the new world because the Inquisition did not exist in Ecuador at that time. So, he was fun. He was my good-hearted, innocent character who simply did what he thought was right and the hell with everybody else.

So, I guess what slips this out of being pure historical fiction into maybe a bit of magic realism or fantasy is that the shaman, Expectation, actually has power.

Yes. Yes. I thought that was appropriate, to use magical realism in a story set in South America, where magical realism comes from. And also, it was a way of, I suppose, conferring dignity upon the character and the culture, that these things that others might have pooh-poohed and said, oh, you know, “bunch of nonsense,” actually, she could go into the underworld and the overworld and deal with spirits and heal people that way. That was her main job, was to heal people. And not just heal physically, but to heal psychologically, because in her culture, if you were very depressed or whatever, had a mental problem, chances were that your animal spirit had departed you, and she would go into the underworld and find where it was and bring it back and put it into you, and then you’d be happy again. Also, I knew that in South America there was a lot of trepanning done. People would…you find skulls with holes in them that had been carefully cut and then repaired, because they would put holes in people’s skulls to relieve pressure and so on, I suppose from concussions and whatnot. So, I gave her that power too. That was fun.

So, it’s very long novel, right? It’s like 150,000 words or something like that?

Yeah. Thereabouts, yeah.

And the publisher is…well, basically a new publisher, isn’t it?

Yes. The publisher is Pulp Literature Press which began as two…well, three…women in BC who were putting out a quarterly magazine called Pulp Literature. And they did that for, I think, five or six years, and it developed a following and became a successful small magazine. And then they thought, “Well, let’s do books.” I was having trouble placing What the Wind Brings because 150,000 words of historical novel, with or without magical realism, is not an easy sell these days. I mean, one of my most favorite historical novelists of all time is Cecilia Holland, whom I’ve been reading since the late ’60s, but in the past 10 or 15 years or so, she’s had to make historical novels with a certain amount of magic in them or characters who have second sight and so on, and then get them published by Tor as essentially fantasy historicals. Historicals are just a hard sell.

So, I’d been selling stories to this magazine, and I got to know the people, and I liked them, and they were certainly serious publishers. They weren’t just fooling around and they weren’t fooling themselves as many small-press people can be. So, I offered them the book and they read it and said, “Holy mackerel, this is a really good book.” So, they took it, and we’ve been working our way through the process. There was a limited-edition hardcover, which has sold mostly pretty well. There are people who collect me, so they wanted this book. And now last month (December 2019) we came out with the paperback and the e-book on Amazon and also distributed by Ingram, so booksellers can get it. And I’ve been doing whatever I can to promote it, which I’ve had some success with. Right now, there’s a science fiction and fantasy group on Facebook, which is run by Damien Walter, who used to do science fiction and fantasy reviews for The Guardian newspaper in England, and he picked it as the one book that he was going to promote, starting a week ago, and to promote it for a month. And that’s had quite a good effect. We have sold quite a few through Amazon, especially the e-book.

So…and I’m pushing it. I had a…in John Scalzi’s Whatever blog, I did a piece, his Big Idea feature. There’s a big idea behind his book, which is “diversity makes strength,” a very Canadian point of view, somewhat controversial in some parts of America these days, but that helped, too. That drew some eyes to it.

What was the editing process like for this book? And what is typical when you’re edited? What sorts of things do you find yourself working on after the editor has a look at it.

I have always been quite lightly edited. When I did my book for Tor, when David Hartwell was my editor, I got literally a few lines on a piece of paper telling me not to kill the character that I’d killed and change the ending to make it more upbeat. I’d made a sacrificial hero out of the hero, but I simply changed that so he didn’t die. But with What the Wind Brings, it got a pretty thorough polishing from Jennifer Landels, who’s the managing editor of Pulp Literature. She made some suggestions. I took most of them because I thought they improved the book and I really wanted this book to be polished like a gem.

You know, most of everything I’ve written has been entertainments. There’s some philosophy in them, there’s some maybe quirky points of view, some original ideas that are, you know, little small ideas of how the future might be and so on. But this one, I wanted to be just absolutely the best it could be. And so, I had more engagement with editing than I normally do—but again, it was fairly lightly edited. I mean, structurally, there was one small change. I took a piece out of the beginning and at her suggestion, I moved it further back so that we would get to the action sooner, which was a perfectly valid strategy. Otherwise, it was, you know, a few words here, and a few words there. I’d thrown in some sword fighting using rapiers, and in fact, Jennifer is in aficionado of the rapier, so she corrected me on a few things that I didn’t know.

That’s helpful.

I thought so. Yeah. We don’t want the rapier fans to be, you know, thrown out of the book by whether I go over somebody’s guard or under it.

I once was on a panel about writing fighting scenes, and the general consensus was that if you couldn’t be accurate, be vague, which is probably not a bad…if you can’t be absolutely certain that what you’re saying is correct, then don’t try to be too specific. So, if you have somebody who can actually help with that, that’s great.

Yeah. I had a sword-fighting duel in one book, in the far future, and they used a peculiar kind of weapon which was like a rapier, except the blade was only six inches long at the tip, the rest of it was just round. And so, I invented things, moves and so on, just gave them names, you know, and said that they did this and they did that and responded with a quatrefoil and whatever, you know. No idea what they were, but it sounded good.

So, we’re getting close to the end here. So I do want to ask…I’ll get to what you’re working on next in a minute, but first, I want to ask the big philosophical question, which is why do you do this? Why do you write, and why do you think any of us write? What is this impulse to tell stories? Where does it come from in you, and where do you think it comes from in all of us?

Well, I can’t really speak for other people. I think the urge to tell stories comes from very far back in our evolutionary past, when we developed language. And I don’t believe we develop language in order to make hunting signals, I think we developed language so we could gossip about each other, which is what every culture does. And I think, in a reasonably accurate sense, the idea of story-making is just a form of gossip. We tell each other about people and events and things, because we’re just programmed to like gossip. Everybody does.

For me, as I figured out when I was 16, this is the only thing I can do, writing, that I can do superbly with minimum strain and stress. I was naturally good at this from the very beginning, and so it was natural for me to be doing this.

I must have written 2,000 speeches over my career. Some of them I quite enjoyed, some of them I really didn’t enjoy. A lot of them I just didn’t care about: I was doing a job and doing it to the best of my ability and that was how I made my living. Writing stories, though…

I know I have a kind of fragmented psyche. There are different personas inside me, not full-blown multiple personality, but what a Jungian would call a complex. And when I’m writing fiction, and even when I was writing speeches, very often, those pieces come together and make me more whole or make me more who I am than normally I would be, you know, when I’m doing other things, because other aspects of me do other things as required. So, yeah, it integrates me and that feels good, basically. That’s why I do it. Also, at the level of when I write something and it really works, I enjoy that. I say, “Oh, got that one. Good.” Yeah.

And what do you hope your readers get out of your work?

I guess…I want them to enjoy it. I want them to be transported to someplace else and maybe moved a little. That one I was talking about, the one that started off with amnesia, it’s called A God in Chains, and the ending of it…I knew my central character, who’d been awful and terrible and been part of a massacre of innocents back in his career, he had to be renewed, he had to be reborn in some way, and as I got to the last scene or two, it suddenly occurred to me how that would work within the context of what I’d created for the book. So, I had him do this thing, and people have been saying in reviews on Amazon and so on that it brought a tear to their eyes and it totally unexpected, that that’s how it was going to end. And I thought, “That’s…yeah, that’s nice, when you can do that.”

Now, though, you’ve got a new project that you’re excited about that draws on your love of Jack Vance. So, tell us about that.

Well, I’ve always been strongly influenced by Jack Vance and Booklist, years ago, even called me his heir apparent. And anybody who reads Vance and reads me will see, yeah, there are shadings here that…I’m standing on his shoulders. I’m not doing pastiche, but I’m certainly influenced by him.

So, one of his iconic works is a five-volume novel called The Demon Princes, or five short novels that make one great story, about these space-opera villains. Five master criminals and monsters, and a guy, one by one, tracks them down and kills them because they did terrible things to his community, basically a slave raid that took everybody away and they were never seen again.

Well, I was talking to John Vance, who is Jack Vance’s son, about this, and we made an agreement that I’m going to write a sequel, a kind of sixth Demon Princes novel, although all five demon princes are dead, so they won’t be in it. But I’ve come up with a rough idea for how I want it to go. And I’ve started. I’ve written, like, the first 1,400 words or so just yesterday. And that’s what I’m going to be working on for the next couple or three months. And I want to make it, not a fake Jack Vance novel, but a kind of homage to him and to the universe that he created, the space-opera universe that he wrote so much in. And I’m hoping it’ll go well and maybe I’ll do more.

Is there a projected release date for that? And who will publish it?

Well, that’s an open question. John Vance has his own press now, called Spatterlight Press. Well worth looking at, because he’s been publishing in e-book and trade paperback all of his father’s works, and using the texts that were developed as part of what was called the Vance Integral Edition, where they took the old manuscripts and they put back in the things that editors had cut out because it had to fit a certain space in a magazine or…an Ace Double was only going to be 40,000 words long, so they had to be cut. They put all of that back and they made a complete definitive edition of all his works. And he’s using those texts and putting them out. I’ve written some blurbs for them and introductions and so on, and that’s doing well.

So, I get this thing done and it’s a good book, then it will neither be published by John’s Spatterlight Press or I’ll look at ta third publisher taking the rights. And the idea is, John and I split the proceeds either way. I did have something like this in the works several years ago before Jack died, but when he died, it kind of died with it. And in those days, David Hartwell, who is now gone also, was very interested in getting it for Tor, and we might do something like that.

And is there anything else in the works right now?

I was 22,000 words into a crime novel, which is a sequel to one that’s coming out later this year from Pulp Literature, but I put that aside to work on the Vance thing. So when I’ve done the Vance job, then I will go back to…the book is called The Do-Gooder, and I’ll get that finished, too.

So the question you asked, when would that come out, if it’s coming out from Spatterlight, it would be later this year. And if it’s from a third party, Tor or somebody, probably not ’til late next year.

Okay. Well, that’s about the time. So, where can people find you online?

MatthewHughes.org is where I am, and I have a Facebook page of Matthew Hughes Author, and if you go to Facebook and put down Hapthorn, the name of one of my characters, it’ll take you to my Facebook page. Oh, yeah, and I should always say this, I have a Patreon account. If people would like to be my patrons, they can go to Patreon and look me up there as Matthew Hughes, and they’ll say Click Here and you’ll be a patron.

And you’re on Twitter, too, are you not?

Oh, I’m on Twitter, yeah. Again, that’s @hpathorn. If you go to my web page, you can link from there to all the Facebook and Twitter and everything, and Patreon. You can sign up for my newsletter, which I do every month, now. I just completed three years of a monthly newsletter about what I’m doing, what I’m trying to do.

Sounds like a great way to stay on top of it.

Yeah.

Okay. Well, thank you so much, Matt, for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.

I did indeed. Thank you for having me.

Thank you. Bye for now.

Okay, take care.

Episode 43: Heli Kennedy

An hour-long conversation with Heli Kennedy, writer for several projects continuing the saga of the hit TV series Orphan Black, including Orphan Black: The Next Chapter, a book series from Serial Box; she has also written for Ubisoft computer games, and is a screenwriter who has written, produced, and acted in short films that have screened around the world.

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The Introduction

Heli Kennedy

Heli Kennedy has authored multiple comic book series for the critically acclaimed TV show Orphan Black, including Deviations, an alternate-universe plotline that reimagines the first season of the show.  Also a screenwriter, she has written, produced, and acted in award-winning short films that have screened around the world.  Her latest work includes consulting and writing on Orphan Black: The Next Chapter, a Serial Box book series that continues the clone saga through print and audiobooks read by the show’s star, Tatiana Maslany.  She’s currently writing on an unannounced project for Ubisoft, where she also wrote for the upcoming “play as anyone” game, Watch Dogs: Legion.  Leaning into her fantasy genre nerdiness, Heli is working on a novel entitled The Penny Discount.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Heli.

Hi, thanks for having me on.

This will be interesting. Now, I always like to start off by figuring out what I have in common with whomever I’m speaking with. And oddly enough, we have an odd connection, in that we’re going to be talking about your work on Orphan Black: The Next Chapter, and you’ve also done some work on Orphan Black comics before that. But Orphan Black: The Next Chapter is being narrated by Tatiana Maslany, of course, who starred in Orphan Black. And I’ve known Tat since she was a little girl. So, there’s an odd connection for you.

Well, that’s kind of wild. You said that you had taught her and directed her?

Well, I didn’t exactly teach her. But she was in…there’s a young people’s theatre group here called Do It with Class Young People’s Theatre that she was a member of. And when she was eleven, I think? It was ninety…oh, I shouldn’t say that. Probably give away her age. Anyway, it was 1997, because it’s the year I got married and I had directed a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, in which all the dwarves were played by little girls with beards. And Tat was one of them.

Amazing. Do you remember which dwarf she was?

They weren’t the usual Disney dwarves. It was…they had all different names, so I don’t remember that at all. I cast my newlywed wife as the evil queen, which I thought was a rather brave choice on my part.

That’s quite brave, actually. Right.

And, of course, my joke recently has been, if I’d known then what I know now, that Tatiana could have played all seven dwarves.

Yeah, you’re right. You could have had a really unique play on your hands.

So, I’m gonna start by taking you back into the mists of time. And…I always say that…and see how you first got interested in telling stories. I saw in an interview with you that when you were about seven years old, you started creating your own stories based on Tolkien. So, is that kind of when you got going and how did that all come about? And where were you growing up, for that matter?

I grew up in downtown Toronto, in Canada. And yeah, I started writing when I was six. It started with Nancy Drew. I was really into kind of the creepy, strange story…well, that’s what I thought…as the storylines in Nancy Drew when I was six years old. And I was also really into Star Trek. And I thought it would be really neat to combine the two things. Yeah. It was a little bit of a genre mash-up. And so I started rewriting Nancy Drew books with a kind of sci-fi element. So I would have her, you know, finding a secret passageway and a hidden door that would lead her to another dimension where there would be strange aliens or giant eyeballs. It was pretty surrealistic, I have to say. But, yeah, I started writing those, and it really came from this sense when I was at school that, you know, writing was something that was, you know, an impossible thing to do. You know, I would see kids older than I was writing pages, like foolscap, full of, like, story, just pages and pages of story, and I was really impressed by it and daunted and thought I couldn’t do it, so I kind of threw myself at it to try and do it. And I’ve been writing ever since.

When I was seven, I was writing picture books for my class and reading them, and I kind of spent the whole year writing books for my classmates. And I had what I thought was a small publishing company at the time. And then I got into Tolkien and started writing alternate storylines set in Middle Earth, set in Tolkien’s fiction, because I really, really enjoyed it and connected with some of the themes, and I wanted more female characters. So, my best friend and I created storylines with more female characters. And then it kind of…from there, it morphed into…I was really into collecting old movie memorabilia as I grew up, too, like things from the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, and it got me into filmmaking, and I started to make films with my friend. And she and I kept working on storylines and brought it into…we started to develop filmmaking skills, I guess? And then I was getting grant money to make films, I think, like, right after high school, and I just kept going.

You mentioned Tolkien and Nancy Drew. Were there other books that were kind of important to you that got you hooked on telling stories?

Yes…

Most of us start out as readers, so…

Yeah, exactly. There was a book called Something from Nothing, it’s a picture book, and I think my second-grade teacher read it to the class and it really impacted me, ’cause it’s a story about…I think it’s about a little boy and his blanket, and in the end he ends up making something out of the blanket, when…I think it wears down to a tiny skirt—now I could be completely misremembering this, but—it wears down into a tiny square, because it becomes ratty, and then he makes something new out of it and he makes something seemingly from nothing. And it’s a story about him and his grandfather, I think. And I think the message of, you know, creating something out of nothing and having a profound impact by creating something out of nothing, that it was positive and could connect with someone else, that really hit me. And that book influenced me a lot because I think writing is largely about creating…seemingly something out of nothing, I mean, it’s not nothing, you use your experiences and people you meet and ideas and what’s going on in the world around you to form stories…but it’s something that you can just create, no matter what you have, if you don’t have anything else. Like, you know, filmmaking is an expensive medium, lot of collaboration, time and money. Same with videogames, which is what I’m working on right now. But writing alone was something that felt fulfilling because I could really build off of things I could pull from the ether and then connect with people over a story I wrote. So that was really impactful for me.

It’s interesting to mention a book like that because I don’t remember a lot of the books I read as a small reader, but one that always stuck with me was Harold and the Purple Crayon. I think it’s Harold.

Yeah, I remember that.

Yeah, and he would draw things, and again, creating things out of nothing with his purple crayon. And I hadn’t thought about that for a while, but when you were mentioning this other book that sort of had that same idea, that was one that captured my interest early on, and maybe that was a foreshadowing of me becoming a writer later in life.

Yeah. I think that the books that we read when we’re really young, have a lot…a huge impact on us. It took me years to really remember that book in particular and make that connection. It kind of just came back one day in the last five, six years. And I started to really think about it and I realized I’d taken more from that story than I had, you know, really given it credit for until later in life. And there was another Canadian author, I think he’s in Toronto, Michael Bedard and…I don’t know, maybe I didn’t pronounce the last name properly…but he wrote a book called Redwork, and it was set in the neighborhood that I grew up in, or so it seemed, because it held many of the same elements, like the same park and a movie theater that used to exist on the main street in my neighborhood. And it was about alchemy, so it had this kind of, you know, this otherworldly fantasy aspect to it, but it also felt really grounded because I could relate to it because it was set in my city. And yeah, that heavily influenced me, too. It had a lot of mystery. It was dark. Yeah. Yeah, that book stuck with me. A lot of things that I read along with Tolkien, with The Hobbit in particular, the stuff that I think informed me the most happened probably in the first ten years, if I go back to really think about, you know, well, what do I like to write about, and what are the topics I gravitate towards or the genres? It was really those first ten years, I think.

You mentioned that you became more focused on filmmaking. I’m curious, what kind of equipment were you using in high school? I don’t know, let’s see…you’re younger than I am. So, when I think back to when I was in high school, there was absolutely no possibility that any of us were gonna be doing that, unless it was with, you know, a Super 8 film camera. But what were you doing, using, to make short films in that time?

Well, when I first started, I think I was eleven or something like that, and we had a kind of a Sony, just a camcorder or a VHS camcorder, and we would record and then kind of edit with the VCR to VCR kind of, style of editing. So it wasn’t, you know, really high-quality in the beginning and it was an onboard mike, and we were always kind of disappointed with what we’ve created because we had really high standards for what we wanted to make and we just couldn’t meet them. But later in high school, I had a friend that I was making films with, and he had an XL1. So that was like a camera, that was a mini-DV camera at the time, it was made by Canon, and we could connect a boom mike to it so we could have a nicer microphone, and it shot…it was, you know, for indie filmmaking, it was not…it wasn’t…it was like a prosumer camera, I would say. It wasn’t like, pro, it wasn’t like…you weren’t going to get film quality out of it, but you could do, you could shoot pretty well with that. And so, that’s what we started to use later on, cause my friend had one, and he had saved up in high school, and he shot a feature film in high school with it and it traveled the festival circuit.

So, yeah, we were using something that was pretty decent and then editing on Final Cut Pro on a laptop because by that time, though, everything was still…there was an analog element…you could convert to digital files by plugging the camera into your laptop and importing footage. So there…we had the ability to do way more with stuff at home than ever before. It’s…now, kids can just shoot on iPhones and edit, like, on the phone, and uploaded it to YouTube, and they have, you know, videos and videos and channels that are filled with content. Back then, it took a little more time, but it was kind of the beginning of that era where you could just make videos at home and readily like, you know, put them on a computer and send them out over the Internet in a compressed file or whatnot.

And you were writing the scripts for these short films that you’re making at the time?

Yeah, some of them I did write and some of them I kind of story-edited and produced, and I acted in some of them as well. And I wrote funding packages for some of them. But yeah, I was kind of…it was a kind of a wear-all-the-hats situation with indie filmmaking. You know, we had a lot of friends. We were all in kind of art schools or alternative schools filled with kids with different skill sets because we were given the opportunity to focus on specific skill sets. So we had friends who could sound edit and musician friends who could score it. So it was really kind of, you know, learning to work with other people with really specialized skills even at that age. And then also, like, figuring out, “Oh, my God, like, how do I sync up sound? And how do you run a set so that you get all your shots in a day? How does lighting work?” So, I kind of did a lot of…many of the jobs that you’d find on a film set in a strange indie way.

That sounds like a great experience for learning skills that you’d be able to translate into a professional career later, which I guess is what you did.

Yeah, exactly. I think that if I hadn’t, you know, if I hadn’t just jumped into it and forced myself to try and figure all of it out and learned and to have done all those jobs, I don’t think…on these projects…I don’t think I would have built the skill set. I went to school, I did a post-grad for one year, at Sheridan College, it’s a college in Ontario, and they had really good equipment at the time, where…after I had been making films, I went there and we kind of got the opportunity to work with a bigger group of people and run it…run our projects as though we were on professional set. And that was also a really good experience because it was completely hands-on and everything we did, we had to run like a union set. So then, it expanded my knowledge and ability to, you know, figure out how to build a film and actually achieve your day and make a little product out of it.

I actually know a lot of kids who went to Sheridan, because of the aforementioned Do It With Class Young People’s Theatre, that’s a place where many of those kids go to study musical theater. I think there’s some…I know there’s some there right now who were classmates of my daughter who are now at Sheridan.

Yeah, they have a great musical theater program. It’s a…many other students go on to book really big roles in plays in the city here.

It’s a fun thing about knowing people in theater and film in Canada in that, you know, I’m watching The Expanse, Season 3, I think it was, and there’s this familiar-looking Martian marine, and I thought, “Wait a minute, I saw her when she was a kid doing musical theater,” because she’s from Regina, she’d gone and, you know, she’s in Toronto now making TV. So, you know people in the business up here, and it’s not a huge pool of people, so you start to see people that you know in shows. Now, you did some acting as well, did you not?

Yeah, I did a little bit of acting, mainly in some of my indie stuff, a few commercials, and small projects here and there. And I…initially I started acting because we needed people to act in our films that we were making. And then later, I kind of really got, I got…I was bitten by the bug and I also felt that it really enriched my writing. I started to see a change in the way I approached scenes as a writer. Learning what actors needed or didn’t need on the page in terms of building a scene was…I took away a lot from acting class that way. And then I did a little bit of directing. I directed a couple of small shorts and I learned a lot. I had…I found it a lot easier to talk to actors because I had been doing it and I could sort of try to put myself in their place and figure out where the roadblocks were and what we were trying to do. So, I thought it was an invaluable experience for filmmaking and writing as a whole.

And that’s one reason I brought it up. I ask…you know, I’m mostly talking to novelists, and…but there’s quite a few that I’ve talked to who have a little bit of theatrical background or a lot of theatrical background in some case, as do I, ’cause I’m, you know, I’m an Equity actor and I’ve done with professional and shows just for fun, too…but I’ve done a lot of them. And I always find that the process of acting and creating a character is very similar to the process of creating a character when you’re writing. And that’s one thing that I think pretty much everybody I’ve talked to has agreed, that acting and inhabiting a character in that fashion informs their writing when they’re trying to create the character on the page.

Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think, you know, just sitting down, and, you know…when you’re working on other people’s IP or other franchises, you’re thrown characters that are maybe not necessarily something you would immediately generate yourself and plug into a story, which is extremely valuable when you’re growing as a writer and to push yourself forward in your skillset. But when I get thrown a character that I just, I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, how am I going to write this character?” I go through the motions of what I would do if I was given scenes in a class and I had to, you know, inhabit the skin of someone very, very different from me. So, I try to draw on myself as much as I can and look at other people that I know and build on characters using what I learned in class.

And I would think that the…I mean, I’ve directed some stage shows and I find that that helps, too. And I would think directing film might be even more helpful when it comes to visualizing scenes in your head when you’re writing, for example, the Orphan Black book, which we’ll talk about a more detail…that sort of sense of where everybody is and in the visual appearance of what you’re trying to convey. Does that also play into it?

Yeah, definitely. Right now, I’m writing for a video game studio, Ubisoft, and I’m on my second big kind of triple-A game with them, and it’s all screenwriting and it’s all blocking and it’s very specific to environments because it’s animated. So, I think a lot in shots and blocking and positioning and logic of, you know, well, how will this scene play out literally, physically in a space? And I think that, yeah, filmmaking definitely you think like that when you write a script. But I was writing comics as well for Orphan Black, and that was a lot…there was a lot of, kind of…I would say it felt like directing a bit when you’re writing. You feel like you’re a filmmaker with all the money in the world and no money at all because it’s very limited in page count and how many cells you have on each page, you know, how many images you’re gonna put in there and how are you gonna use your edits, every time you turn a page it felt like an edit. So, yeah, I thought a lot in terms of shots that way and tried to really economize with editing in my mind. That’s definitely like a muscle that takes a while to build and I’m still building it. You know, I still learn…every time I write a scene, I learn something new about, you know, what succeeds or doesn’t succeed in it. But yeah, I would say it’s invaluable in terms of writing, and it also…when you have to think in limited edits or timeframes, like, you have 90 seconds to do a scene or three minutes or ten minutes, you…it pushes you to get in and out faster and get really creative at how you can get to the heart of what needs to happen and how you can keep it compelling in that small window of time.

I like the fact that you referred to it as a muscle that you have to work on, because that’s actually a metaphor I use all the time when I’m…I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, so I’m meeting with a lot of want-to-be writers or starting-up writers who come in, and I’ll say, “You know, you just have to write,” that the act of writing is like exercising or practicing figures if you’re a figure skater or, you know, anything you want to be good at, the very act of doing it is the practice you need to build that muscle, and writing is no different.

Yeah, that’s completely true, Ed. I’d say that’s probably true of the arts in general. I used to draw a lot as a kid and…I’d draw, like, fantasy maps and paint, I oil painted and sketched. And, you know, I’ve stopped since I made the decision to pursue writing and filmmaking and acting as a career. And now I’m getting back into it and I’m definitely shaky. I’ve lost, I’ve literally lost muscle memory in my hand. But it’s like mind-body connection that you have to keep going. And I would say writing is the same. Acting is definitely the same. You haven’t auditioned for a while and you get thrown an audition, you feel the rust flaking off of you.

Playing an instrument is the same, too, for sure. I used to play piano a lot and I haven’t played it much for the last few years. And whenever I sit down to play now, it’s like, I kind of remember how to do this, but…yeah, it’s the same thing. Well, I wanted to talk about…we’ve already mentioned it, of course. Orphan Black…so, how did you fall into doing new material for Orphan Black? I guess you started with the comic, Orphan Black: Helsinki…was that the first thing that you did?

Yeah, the first one was Helsinki. And then I pitched and did a comic series called Deviations, which was an alternate-universe comic series in which Beth Childs, a clone that you see in the first five minutes, so this only a minor spoiler…

Very minor.

Very minor…in which she lives, because the beginning of the series starts on one clone, Sarah Manning, and another clone, Beth Childs, and we see that Beth Childs commits suicide. So, I rewrote the series based on that. And then I pitched a third comic series and I started writing that, called Crazy Science, that continued the story of…now this will be big spoilers, so maybe I won’t say everything…it continues at the…where they leave off at the end of the series, at the end of season five. So, I continued the show’s plot line through the comics. Then…we didn’t get to finish that series, unfortunately. But yes, so I started with that. And then I was referred to a publishing company in New York, Serial Box, who had been in communication with the production company that produced Orphan Black. And I was referred as a consultant because at that time the show’d been over for just…almost a year, just under a year, I believe…and they were looking for somebody who knew the content really, really well and could help with the pitches that they were taking in for their book series that they wanted to do. And they brought me on as a story consultant and a writer.

The very initial connection with Orphan Black…obviously, you loved the series. Did you, like…for Helsinki, did you pitch that to somebody, was that…you just went in cold and said, “I’d like to write this?” or how did that work?

So, I knew Tatiana Maslany prior to her acting on Orphan Black, because, like you said, it’s a really small community in Toronto, Canada as a whole. And I also went to a film program up here for writers, directors, producers, and editors called the Canadian Film Centre, and a lot of the writers and the show’s two creators, John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, actually also went to the same center. So, I knew them as alum, because the alum kind of gets around and you start to meet everybody, because small and everyone’s very interconnected. And I knew many of the writers in the room, like Aubrey Nealon, and I kind of reached out and started chatting with them. And the comic book series Helsinki was a pitch I believe that John and Graham, maybe it was John Fawcett, wanted to…they wanted a series based on a back story that they had for a bunch of European clones who had died when they were teenagers. But it took place far, like, long before the story started for the TV series, so they thought a comic would be a good way to explore that. And they were looking for a comic book writer for this series and IDW the publisher, who’s down in San Diego, the editor there was reaching out and they let me know. So, I had met this editor the year before at Comic-Con, so I kind of threw him a bunch of my material and hoped he would reach out to me. And then he reached out and I ended up getting the gig. And it was really good because I could, you know, I was in Toronto, I was a local writer that was close to the show. I could go into the writers room and ask what was going on so that I could write this back story, which ended up having many, many threads that came into the fourth season of the show. I believe it was the fourth season where we introduced a new clone that Tat played, but it actually got published first in the comic books. So, that’s how I kind of started working with the Orphan Black franchise.

Now is…the current one that you’re working on…what I’m unclear on is how many actual books have there been, as opposed to the comics. You’re working on one now…. were there some before that? I haven’t been clear on that.

Right, OK. So, with the books, we write them episodically. It’s kind of structured like a ten-episode season of TV. So, there are ten books, all written by different writers. We had a writing room where we brought a bunch of writers together and we wrote story, down in a room in New York, and then we all went away because we’re all scattered across North America, and we all kept doing sort of clone-club Skype calls to talk to each other about plot and breaking story beyond that. And we came up with ten books that we owned. So, I believe, at the time of this recording today, the last book has just come out.

And is that the one that you wrote?

I wrote Episode 6. Which was called…Episode 6 was…sorry. Now I’m like, it’s because I wrote it so long ago…hold on, I might need a couple of minutes here to find that…and I also, we also ended up reading a lot of the other books as well, which essentially…we gave notes on each other’s work and we, you know, we tried to kind of like track all the plotlines. So this is why I’m trying to remember what the name of my episode was.

We can just call it Episode 6, if we need to…

No, I believe I have it…sorry about that. Oh. So my episode was Episode 6, and that’s entitled “What a Living World Will Demand.”

So, without giving too much in the way of spoilers, can you sort of explain what happens over the course of these ten books, or at least give some idea of where this…does it follow right after the conclusion of the series? Is what happens?

No, it doesn’t. So it picks up about eight years after the end of the series. So, all of the clones that are still alive…and I won’t…I’ll mention a few, but I won’t give away it all, if you haven’t yet seen the TV show…but it picks up eight years after the end of the series. And we follow Cosima Niehaus and Delphine Cormier from the series. And you know, they’re living their life together. We have Kira Manning, which is Sarah Manning’s daughter, and she’s now in her late teens and we explore her life. And Charlotte, another younger clone from another generation of clones who’s also the same age as Kira. And we follow them as they are living out their lives, and the story begins when Cosima Niehaus, who’s seeking out new opportunities in life professionally, because she’s left the academic realm, or is trying madly to get out into genetics and work in a larger way in her field, she discovers that the clones’ identity, which they’ve kept secret all these years, may be in jeopardy because somebody potentially knows that they exist. After Dyad, the big corporation that controlled the clones had dissolved and disappeared and they had this sense of security, they’re now thrown back into turmoil of being exposed and potentially manipulated because of their genetic identity.

That sounds exciting.

Yes. And we have a new clone, too. The first episode starts with a brand-new clone who has a very exciting job, a very unique job, and she’s a very complex, interesting character. And she was really, really a great character to write for, because we got to push the clone identity into a job that involves a more global political walk of life.

I’m interested in the process. This podcast is all about the creative process, and this is a very different process with a writer’s room throwing ideas around and coming up with ideas jointly. So, you know, usually at this point I ask where, you know, more or less, it’s a cliché, but where do you get your ideas? It sounds like there were a bunch of you working on ideas all at the same time.

Yeah, we had a great room of writers, I think. I felt really privileged to work with them. Malka Older was our showrunner, essentially. It was her pitch that ended up becoming Orphan Black: The Next Chapter. And she has a background in…well, she has a doctorate in ethics, particularly within the realm of science and socially, so that was really great, to work with her, because she brought that entire aspect of Orphan Black. And that’s a big part of the TV series, as you know, the ethics around genetics and science and using human beings in experiments. So, she brought that to the table. I’ve always felt like I learned a lot from her, getting her insight on what she thought we could do with that angle of the story. We had Madeline Ashby, who is a novelist and a futurist, and she’s flown around the world to consult on science and the future of technology. And she always had, you know, frightening, frightening stories to bring to the table about where technology could go or kind of…her viewpoint was extremely interesting, so tons to learn there. We had to E.C. Myers, and Eugene is an incredibly funny person with an extremely grounded sense of humor, and he brought a lot of insight to certain characters. He writes in YA, and we had a kind of a teen component to our story with Kira and Charlotte. And then we had also Michelle Baker, who, as a writer, she was…she comes from kind of urban fantasy and she creates very emotionally grounded, complex, deep characters. And that is also another huge touchstone for the Orphan Black universe, are these layered characters, particularly the women that Tat played, you know? So that was huge. And then Lindsey Smith, our final writer, that was in our group, she comes, she’s a novelist as well, and she has a background in…I don’t know exactly what her job is, but I want to say she’s definitely our tech expert. I think she’s a hacker? She…you know, and we have a lot of technology that we touch on in terms of, you know, computer science, so she was kind of filling that angle for us. And we deal with a lot of kind of clandestine jobs and jobs working for intelligence agencies, so she…she knew something about that as well. So, there was no shortage of ideas. I think at one point I would say, you know, we had too many ideas.

I was going to say, it sounds like it could be difficult to pare them down to one storyline.

Yeah, exactly. We had so many options for certain storylines. And then eventually, you know, you just hacked through and weeded out. And what’s kind of…it’s a blessing and a curse, but when you’re writing not for the screen, but for prose and for books or whatnot, you have less limitations in terms of, you know, sure, we had a page count, like a word count we had to adhere to, but we didn’t have a budget or, you know, how many actors we have or how many people we get to have in a scene or how many clones we could have in a scene. So, we could kind of do anything we wanted. If we wanted to take the show to Paris, we could have. We could have done any number of things. So, it gets tricky sometimes to pare it down.

So, when you took your segment away to work on, what exactly did you have in front of you in the way of notes and what were you working from?

We had done kind of…we did…we broke out a kind of rough season outline that had the arc, when we were all in New York together, and we ended up having, basically, rough tentpoles per episode of what we knew we wanted to happen for this season. So, we didn’t have details and we didn’t have maybe all of our kind of logic and minute character motivations broken out or completely hammered out, rather, but we did know in a general way what all the big moments were and how we were gonna work them in. And we had kind of spitballed and riffed on ideas in the room. So, we came away with the flavor of certain scenes that we knew we wanted to have in the series and kind of moments that we really thought were valuable for the tone of the show or for, you know, entertainment value or for plot and thematic and dramatic statements and themes. So, when I sat down, I had kind of, I would say like five, six, seven big moments that I knew had to happen in my episode and I went to work and tried to string them together and create scenes to build off of that into an outline, and then we sent the outlines around and all read and had discussions and Skype calls where we all were on split screens talking to each other. And then I just kept refining the outline, and we went through an approval process with the, with Temple Street/Boat Rocker Media, that’s the company that initially produced Orphan Black here in Toronto, and a producer that had worked on the show, Kerry Appleyard, would give us notes and we’d go back and redraw our outlines and then move to draft.

It’s a very different process from someone simply writing their own novel.

Yes, it’s very collaborative. Sometimes a little chaotic, confusing.

I suppose it’s much more like writing…anytime you’re writing on a TV series or something where you have an arc for the season, but you have a bunch of different writers working on different episodes, it must be pretty much the same process.

Yeah, I would say it’s most similar to a TV writing room. That’s kind of what we had going on, except for we were all over the continent and sometimes in other time zones when certain people are to fly off to other countries for gigs. So, it was a little challenging. We weren’t all locked together in a room anywhere. We didn’t reconvene after that story summit that we had. But yeah, essentially, yeah, it’s a very collaborative process. I mean, coming from film making, I love working with other writers and filmmakers and I really enjoy working in a group that way. I think for certain projects…I’m writing a book right now of my own, a novel…there’s certain projects that I think for me I do well being alone writing. But in this case, Orphan Black is a very complex universe. The themes are very complex. The topics are sometimes hard to grasp. It’s…you have to generate a lot of content because they’ve already had five seasons of material that they’ve run through and multiple characters that Tatiana has played. So, working in a group like this for this kind of show or story series, really…I don’t know. It’s hard to do it alone.

Was there an overall editor that…or an individual who edited each book as it came along?

Yeah. We had two editors, Lydia Shamah and Marco Palmieri, who were with us for the duration of development and through to the end to copyedit, and they both kind of…they split the work up. Lydia was with us for the first half of the project and then Marco came in for the latter half. And they were amazing editors. They were always reading all the content that we were trying to create. They are helping us figure out if we had dropped threads or what we needed to kind of pick up and..’cause a series like Orphan Black: The Next Chapter, you know, it’s a thriller. There’s a lot of characters, there’s a lot going on. So it’s easy when you’re just focused on your individual episode to lose sight of the bigger picture or to miss a beat that’s integral to the plot. So, really it was invaluable to have other eyes looking at our project from a kind of broader scope.

Whenever you’re writing anything, what you’re…just the physical process? Do you sit in a home office? Do you go out to a coffee shop? How do you like to write?

I used to write in coffee shops a lot because I have a very moody husky and he likes to bug me all the time when I’m writing. And I just couldn’t get anything done because she didn’t like it when I was on my laptop. So I used to go out and I used to write with an author, a friend of mine, Christian Cameron. He’s known also as Miles Cameron. He writes a lot of historical fiction and fantasy. And I used to go write with him. We’d write in a kind of a bakery that had a second-floor area where there was no Wi-Fi and forced us to focus. And it was nice, because he’s written, I think…oh, God, he must have about forty books now that are out and he’s written multiple fantasy series. And he’s got a very…he’s got military training. He was in the military. So he treats…he’s very regimented, very disciplined, and he just hammers through pages. So, it was really good for me to write with him. It was inspiring. And, you know, it helped me to wrangle me when I was writing on contract alone. I would say for this book series, now, I’d write during the day at Ubisoft, in the office, it’s a very collaborative medium, too, a lot like film making that way, but maybe even more chaotic in some ways. And then I’d come home at night and I would either write at home or I’d force myself to go back out to a cafe, if writing…if I didn’t have a lot of gas in the tank and I knew I had to get something done.

Tatiana Maslany, photo by Gage Skidmore

Now, one of the interesting things about Orphan Black: The Next Chapter is that Tat has narrated the audiobooks of them. Have you heard yours, your segment, with her narration?

Yes, I have. I did listen to mine and it was kind of crazy to hear Tat read my book. It was just so strange because I’d met her, you know, about a decade, over a decade ago now, I think, or maybe just about a decade ago. And yeah, it was great. I was really impressed by her work yet again. She always impresses me and she has done a great job of embodying new characters and bringing back old clone characters and also playing her other, like, her co-stars on the show. So, she plays other people from the show that she had previously worked with.

I guess she’d have to, wouldn’t she?

She plays, you know, she plays, Felix, played by…her brother on the show, played by Jordan Gavaris. She plays Donnie and Alison, who were a married suburban couple. It’s kind of wild, but yeah, it was really great to hear it. And she did a fantastic job. It played…it’s read a little bit more like a radio play than just straight-ahead audiobooks. There’s a bit of…they have some sound effects, and I thought that, production-wise, they did a great job.

Now, what do you find is the biggest difference between writing screenplays and game material now and writing straight prose? What strikes you as the difference between the two or the three?

The three. Yeah. So, screenplays are very, very structure oriented. You have, usually…you don’t want to put too much fat in there. You need to keep moving the plot and the arc of every character with each scene. You don’t have a lot of time to be…you don’t have time to meander, but you also don’t really have much ability to get very introspective with your character. You can’t jump into their head, and you don’t want to do, you know, tons of voice-over where you get into their psychology. So that’s a huge difference with prose, where you can sometimes indulge in something or explore something in the character that you might only kind of get across on screen, but you can get into their psychology more and kind of the minutiae of who they are and why they do what they do from their perspective or from another perspective. You can switch perspectives to in storytelling when you’re writing in prose. And I would say with videogame writing, there are even more restrictions on that than on film making and comic books, because you have less time for your scenes, for these cinematic scenes, cut scenes that you have in games. So, you’re writing even more economically in a dramatic scene and you’re also constantly considering so many different variables in video games of, well, where has the player potentially come from or not come from in the game? You know, what have may they have seen or completed or not completed? You write exits and entrances a little bit differently, almost like a stage play, because a lot of the cut scenes that play in games have to merge back into gameplay, so you need to write exits for certain characters. So it’s got a theatrical aspect to it that way.

I would think…in games do you not sometimes have to write a scene in more than one way, depending on how the player might come to that spot?

Yes. I wrote on a project called Watch Dogs: Legion at Ubisoft, and it was kind of an amazing project to write on, I have to say, because one of the main features of the game is that you can play as anyone you see in London, England. It’s set in a post-Brexit London, and you can kind of walk around and recruit people to your kind of resistance group, it’s a hacker group, and you can become that person. And as writers, the writing team for that game, we had to write from many different voices. We’d write characters in scenes, but then we would have to go back and rewrite certain scenes because you could be any number of people in the world. So, there is a lot of that which you don’t get in film making, you know, traditionally you follow one character and that’s it, or a few characters and you see certain perspectives, but in this game, you could really be anybody. So, we ended up revising a lot of things based on that.

It actually sounds like a great writing exercise, writing a scene from everybody who’s in the scene.

Yeah, exactly. Because, you know, it would shift the intentions of the characters slightly, you know. You’d have one line from a character that might always being the scene, and depending on which player character ends up in that dramatic scene, the lines and the tone of the scene shifts, you know, depending on age and gender and culture and attitude. So, it was really an amazing writing exercise.

I think I’m going to steal that for a writing workshop sometime. I think it could make an interesting writing workshop.

Oh, you should. You should have a scene where you have to rewrite one character as different people and see how far you can push, you know, an archetypal scene.

I did a book, that was never published…years ago…I rewrote it twice. Still couldn’t make it work. But I changed the main viewpoint character. So, I sort of did that once. Well now, we’re getting close to the end of our time. We’ve got about ten minutes left. So I want to ask the big philosophical question, which is, “Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories and why do we do it through writing?”

Wow. Yeah. The big philosophical question. For me, I think with writing…there’s probably a few answers to this question. One of the most…one of the predominant reasons that I write would be to connect with people. I really…you know, to be able to build a story and explore something that either puzzles or interests me or affects me, you know, that I’ve seen in the world or that has, you know, somehow come to me as a story idea…to build something like that and then have someone else read it, right after I write it, in a year, two years, years, maybe even when I’m dead…who knows who’s gonna read what a person writes? You know, someone could read what you’ve written a hundred years from now…that is just, you know, to me, that is just the reason I write, I think, because I’ve read so many people’s work. I’ve read work that had been written, you know, hundreds of years ago, and it still resonates with people, and I’ve learned from it, I’ve…it’s changed me as a person, you know, when you read something and it has an impact on you, I think. I think that’s one of the reasons I write. Just to connect with people.

Why do you…you have, clearly, from the beginning, been drawn a bit to the fantastical and the weird and the strange. So why do you think we choose to tell those kinds of stories? Like, Orphan Black is kind of set in our world, but it’s not, It’s not really, it’s a fantastical story. And so, what draws you to those kinds of stories?

Number one, I think I’m an escapist. I like a little bit of escapism. I definitely think that some of my fascination with Tolkien dealt with wanting to escape as a kid and go to another world and I used to act out those stories as well, I’d write these elaborate storylines, but I also think the reason we gravitate towards genres that kind of bend our world into…or characters into…you know, things that don’t exist in our real world…I think we really enjoy that because we can connect with it. And I think that when we can manipulate people or characters and environments, we can highlight things even more so that we see in the world or that we feel or things that we want to, you know, challenge. We can highlight that, you know, we can use genre as a form of criticism or, you know, a way of bringing things to light. I think that we…it’s like giant metaphor. And I think that that’s one of the reasons genre for me is so attractive, you know, because I can be entertained and intrigued by something that seems new and fresh, and at the same time I can relate it back to, you know, what I see politically in in our world or I can relate it back to a personal experience and a walk of life by experiencing something that’s seemingly so different and otherworldly.

Now, you’ve mentioned the game that you’re working on. You also mentioned a novel that you’re working on. Do you want to say anything more about it?

Yeah, sure. This one…this kind of touches back to, you know, when I was a kid, and…it’s a story called The Penny Discount, currently, and it’s a fantasy novel about two thirteen-year-old girls who learn about…they learn about debt and credit debt through the use of magic. Yeah. It focuses a lot on that and on, you know, seeking out happiness. And, yeah, it has a lot to do with consumerism as well. And having a very, very close friendship with somebody and having big dreams and goals and maybe not going about them in the best way.

And how far along are you in that?

I am…I have yet to write the end of it. I am around…I’m getting up there for a kid’s book, I’m just over sixty thousand words. But I’m about to go through and do a kind of a little bit of a structural rework of it. But yeah, it’s been really fun to write in prose because, you know, when you’re writing like that, you feel like you can kind of just, you can freewheel a little bit here and there and explore stuff that you don’t always get to explore in other formats of writing.

Do you have publication lined up? Do you have any idea when this will be published?

This one I’ve just kind of kept to myself. I haven’t really told many people about it until now. It’s been secret, just in case, you know, it’s not too hot, then I don’t have to tell anybody I’ve ever done it. But it’s just one of these projects that kind of just flows when you’re writing it. And I’m really excited about it. So, yeah, I’m hoping to get back on that and finish that now that Orphan Black: The Next Chapter is out. And, yeah, that’s kind of the next thing I’m working on, going back to something that touches back to my roots and has a lot of me in it.

And if people want to keep up with what you’re doing, do you have a website or online presence, or where can they find you?

You can find me on Twitter @HeliKennedy, or Instagram, I’m on there, too. But yeah, I’m on Twitter. So reach out if you like.

Yeah, well. Hopefully people will do that. So thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. It’s been a fun conversation.

Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.

And good luck with the novel.

Thanks so much.

Bye for now.