Episode 38: James Alan Gardner

An hour-long conversation with James Alan Gardner, author of ten science-fiction and fantasy novels and numerous short stories, including finalists for the Nebula and Hugo Awards and winners of the Aurora, the Asimov’s Readers’ Choice, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Awards, with a particular focus on his Dark vs. Spark series (Tor Books), which began with All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault.

Website
jamesalangardner.com

Twitter
@jamesagard

James Alan Gardner’s Amazon page

The Introduction

Xiaopu Fung of Xiaopu Photography

James Alan Gardner got his bachelor’s and master’s in math with a thesis on black holes, then immediately began writing science fiction instead. He has published ten novels and numerous short stories, including finalists for the Nebula and Hugo and winners for the Aurora, the Asimov’s Readers’ Choice Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His most recent novels are All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, first book in the Dark vs. Spark series, and They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, the second book, both from Tor. In his spare time, he plays a lot of tabletop roleplaying games and has recently begun writing material for Onyx Path’s Scion line. In his other spare time, he teaches kung fu to six-year-olds.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, James.

Thanks, Edward. Glad to be here.

I guess we’ve kind of known each other for a long time, but we don’t encounter each other very often. But we did see each other at When Worlds Collide, which is something…When Words Collide. It always comes out as When Worlds Collide.

Yeah, yeah. It’s a great idea and a great title. And it was a great con this year.

Was that the first time you’d been?

Yes.

It’s close to me, so I’m there most years. It gets plugged a lot on The Worldshapers, ’cause I’ve asked a number of writers to be on after I saw them at When Words Collide.

Well, if I can make it next year, I certainly will. I had a great time there.

And I guess this is a good place to mention to those interested that the website for that is WhenWordsCollide.org. It does fill up every year, so if you’re interested in going, it wouldn’t hurt to to sign up for next year, right now. But enough about that, let’s talk about you! I always start by taking guests back into the mists of time, and for you and me, it’s roughly the same amount of mists, to find out, first of all, when you became interested in writing, and when you became interested in writing science fiction. I’ve seen from other interviews that you started writing pretty early.

Yes. I still have some of the things that I wrote when I was, like, five. They are hiding in my parents’ house and I hope they will never see the light of day. The first thing…I can remember writing what would be called fanfic these days, which was in my time based on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—which tells how old I was—and me and my friends were spies: the standard thing that one writes when one is…I guess I was twele at the time…and I kept writing some of that for a while.

I wrote several plays when I was in high school, but I really got serious in my first year of university. I was in co-op at the University of Waterloo, and there the co-op program is sort of four months in school, then four months in work placement, and I was working for IBM in Toronto, where I knew no one, and didn’t have a whole lot of money. But writing was cheap. So, for four months on my work term in Toronto, I amused myself by writing science fiction. And none of that was saleable, but bit by bit, I got better.

Well, I think it’s come up a few times on here with different authors, the famous saying…I always attribute it to Stephen King, that you had to write half a million words of unpublishable stuff before you wrote anything publishable, but then somebody recently who’d met Ray Bradbury said that he used to say 800,000 words.

Yeah, yeah. A whole bunch of junk before you get down to the good stuff underneath.

Yeah, that’s what it boils down to. So, you got your bachelor’s and master’s in math, but you never actually used that? You went straight into writing? Or what happened after you graduated?

I went…for two years after I got my master’s, I tried to write something significant. I was working on a novel…and I still like the idea for the novel, I might…every now and then, I think, “Is it time to write that? Maybe. Probably not yet.” But for two years I tried to make a living writing while tutoring calculus. That was my income. And at the same time, I was also writing for a musical comedy review at the university, and someone who was associated with that show put me in contact with a group in the computer science department who wanted someone to write computer manuals for them. So, I got a job half-time writing computer manuals, and that kept me in money for long enough for me to start selling stories and things.

Well, it’s interesting, because when I decided to be a full-time writer, one of the things that got me going was there was a market for, you know, general computer books at the time. So, people ask me what my first book is, and I always say, well, my first book was actually Using Microsoft publisher for Windows 95. And my second book was the sequel, Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 97.

Ah! I have a few Unix books out there that I, you know, they’re on the shelf, but I’m not proud of them.

Well, I was never that technical, but at the time there was actually a market at the level of, “To open a file, click FILE>OPEN.” That’s the kind of level I was writing at. And I was interested, too, that you wrote plays and this musical comedy revue…

Right.

…because that’s another side of what I do. I’m an actor and singer and performer, and I’ve done…I’ve written plays, as well. And I like to ask the writers who have done that sort of thing, if you find your theater background helps in the writing of fiction. For me, it feels that it does. But I’m always interested to see if others have the same experience.

Oh, yes, immensely. So, I did…first of all, this onstage musical comedy thing, and then a group of us who helped write for that started writing straight-up plays and radio dramas. And sometime in there, I got into improv and took a number of improv classes. And all those things go together into…theater gives you immediate feedback on whether your writing works or not, by the amount you cringe when you hear your lines being said. You learn a bit on fool-proofing dialogue. And certainly, improv gives you some good practice in structuring scenes and figuring out how actions go together to make plot.

I often feel that, having directed plays and stuff like that, I feel like I have a very solid image in my head at all times of where characters are in relationship to each other in the space in which the scene is happening, and when I tutor younger or beginning writers—and I’m writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library right now—I’ve done quite a bit of that—and one thing I often find is, it’s like a gray fog in which everything is happening.

Yes.

And I’m not entirely certain where everybody is in relationship to each other. You get an image of them in one place and the next thing you know, they’re looking out the window, but they never left the fireplace in your head.

Yeah. Yeah.

I think theater helps with that.

Yeah. Certainly, just plain old scene choreography helps. Theatre contributes to that a lot. As you say, who’s where and what’s actually there. The idea of what is in the room besides the characters is hugely useful when you’re trying to figure out what the characters do in response to some problem. There’s almost always something in the room that they can use, if you’ve envisioned the room well enough to actually have stuff there.

And if you plant it in the right place and in the story so it doesn’t materialize out of thin air.

Yes. Well, you know, whenever you write a story, every scene has to take place someplace. Every time someone goes into a room, you pretty much have to describe the room and you want to describe interesting things in the room, and just that description, first of all, trying to come up with something that is interesting and not the same old, same old, will give you material to use later on in the scene.

What you said about fool-proofing dialogue is actually something that Orson Scott Card said when I interviewed him for The Worldshapers, and he’s done a lot of theatre, and he actually had a role in your breaking in, didn’t he? Because he was at Clarion West when you were there?

Yes. He was the first teacher in my year at Clarion West. He gave me really good feedback on a story that he liked a great deal, and that was actually my first published story. He put in a good word for me with the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and so when I sent that story to the editor, it sold, and that was my first pro SF sale.

Before you went to Clarion, had you taken any other formal writing training?

Alice Munro

Yeah. Between…the summer of when I got my bachelor’s, I went to Banff, the Banff Centre for Fine Arts, and took a writing course there. W.O. Mitchell was the grandfather of it all, but it was…Alice Munro was there, so, you know, hanging out with some pretty impressive people, and got a lot of good feedback on my writing and how to set about writing stories.

So, I ask science fiction fantasy writers about their formal training…now clearly, at Clarion, science fiction and fantasy is what people are writing, but usually in other writing programs it is not, and there’s sometimes a…

Right.

Sometimes it’s not a comfortable fit with what the program is about. Did you find that, or did it or did you find it helpful that it wasn’t science-fiction focused?

W. O. Mitchell

Yeah, I don’t think I wrote a great deal of science-fiction content while I was at Banff. It was mostly…the method, what W.O. Mitchell called “Mitchell’s messy method,” was just sitting down and seeing what spontaneously arose as you were at the typewriter. And at that point, I was writing a lot of memoir-type things, as opposed to actual fiction, and finding what inside of me wanted to be written was very useful for that. The real trick after that is figuring out how to shape that material into actual stories. And once I got started with that, kind of marrying my own memories with science fiction was kind of fun and useful.

Was Mitchell there when you were there?

Oh, yes.

The reason I ask is because W.O. Mitchell is famously from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, which is where I grew up, and I got to meet him once when he came doing a reading for his book, Roses Are Difficult Here, I think is what it was, when I was at the newspaper down there. He was an interesting guy.

Yeah, he’s a fun guy, and, of course, a great raconteur, or was, so he was great to have in classes. And we all had, I think, a fifteen-minute session with all of the writers in residence. It was, you know, in some sense similar to Clarion, in that the writers were brought in for, I think, four or five days, and each of the students had a chance to show the writers their stuff and get some feedback on it.

The other thing I like to mention about Mitchell is that, when I did see him in Weyburn, there was a woman there named Sadie Bowerman, who was the first white baby to be born in Weyburn, she was still alive then. And she’d been his schoolteacher, and she got after him—she must have been in her eighties by then—she got after him for using bad language. So, writers can relate. You never know who’s going to pop up out of your past.

That’s right. I have a few English teachers who have caught up with me over the years and, you know, kind of patted me on the back. And again, some of them have chided me for using bad language.

The other thing I want to mention about Weyburn, Saskatchewan, is that Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, so Weyburn is a very important place in the tapestry of…well, much more for him than me, I wasn’t born there, but I grew up there.

A hotbed of literature.

Yeah, exactly. Well, you started with short fiction. Did you write that exclusively for a while, or did you immediately try to write novels, or how did that work for you?

Well, I think I wrote a novel…back when I was in high school, I got pneumonia the year after…sorry, the summer after…I graduated, and was basically locked in the house for the entire summer and spent some time writing a novel-like thing. I wouldn’t call it a novel, but it was a long piece of fiction. So…gee, I forget about doing that. I always think that my writing started when I was in university co-op, but no, that summer where I had nothing else to do. But that was kind of an amusement more than a, “Yes, I’m going to be a writer.”

Still, part of your half a million words that you had to…

That’s right. Yeah. Never gonna rewrite that one. That was self-indulgent, as only high-school students can be.

Yeah. So, when did your first novel come along?

My…so, I wrote it…I wrote several novels before I actually published something. So, I was in Clarion in ’89 and was writing short stories and started a novel sometime after that. And I think there were two novels that didn’t go anywhere—and thank heavens they never saw the light of day—before I wrote Expendable, which was published in ’97.

And so now we’re up to how many novels?

Ten, eleven. I guess it’s eleven now.

Are you still writing a lot of short fiction?

Off and on. I can write novels for two or three hours a day, at least the first early drafts of novels, and that gives…so I write in the morning, and in the afternoon, I want to write something different. So, I sometimes write short fiction. Sometimes I write the gaming material that you mentioned in my biography. Sometimes I do freelance editing jobs for various people. So, afternoons I have several hours when I do something besides the novel in progress, and short stories are one of the things I do then.

Okay, well, that’s kind of getting us into the process part of this of the podcast, which is what I’m going to focus on next. So, let’s move on to that. So, we’re gonna focus on All Those Explosions were Someone Else’s Fault, just as an example of your creative process, and see how that ties in with the way you write everything, but before we do that…I have not finished the book; very much enjoying it, it’s a lot of fun…

Thank you!

So, perhaps you can give a synopsis for those who have not read it, without giving away anything that I haven’t read yet.

Ok. Well, the setup is that in the early 1980s, vampires, werewolves, demons, et cetera, come out of the closet and basically say, “Why have we been keeping ourselves secret? We have a saleable asset here. You want to be one of us, pay us $10 million and we’ll make you a vampire or a werewolf or a demon.” And within twenty years, all the movers and shakers, or the wealthy, influential people, are basically darklings. So…and then in the year 2000, suddenly superheroes start appearing. And so you’ve got this world where the rich one percent are essentially monsters and the ninety-nine percent are protected by the people who were stupid enough to touch the glowing meteor or fall in the vat of weird chemicals, or were just, you know, born as mutants. And so, the background setup is the dark one percent versus the super ninety-nine percent, or the supers who represent the ninety-nine percent, who protect them.

And then the story follows four science students at the University of Waterloo who get into a weird lab accident and gain superpowers and become involved in the shenanigans that were responsible for the lab accident. And a supervillain is part of it all, and a cabal of darklings who are up to no good, and the whole thing takes place in something like nine hours on the night of the winter solstice.

And it’s a humorous novel.

Yes, it is. It’s done for laughs. It could…the setup could get very dire with horrible people running the world, but I like playing it for laughs, and the four characters who get superpowers are all funny in their various ways. The first book is about Kim, who is a geology student who…queer—non-binary, anyway…who has a wry view of the world. The second centers on Jules, who is a wonderful, incautious, brash person, and the plan is for four novels, one on each of the superheroes, having them go through their big life change. I think that a novel should be about a huge moment in a character’s life, and each of the four heroes…I mean, “Hey, you’ve just become super. What does that do to you?” And for each of them, it kind of brings to the fore something that they haven’t dealt with, baggage that they haven’t dealt with. And they’re each going to be forced to confront this stuff that they’ve been ignoring for much of their life and deal with their issues one way or another.

So, what was the seed for this and how does that tie into the way that stories appear for you, in general? I’m trying to avoid saying “Where do you get your ideas?”, but that’s basically the question.

You know, I don’t…the seed was the idea of the superheroes-versus-darkling type things, and the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent, which was relevant at the time I started writing this. You know, it was…the Occupy movement had been taking place. I mean, that’s where I get the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent. And it was a time when the politics of the whole thing was kind of in your face.

And I had also done a lot of roleplaying in various contexts. So, if people are familiar with the White Wolf games, which later became Onyx Path, or were…Onyx Path started writing for the same game lines…you could be a vampire or a werewolf or some other type of creature of the night. And that was one set of roleplaying that I had done, but I’d also done a lot of superhero roleplaying.

And putting them together, as far as I know, had never been done before, but was a really cool idea. As soon as I had the idea, I Googled like mad to see if there was anything like this out there, and there wasn’t. Urban fantasy was big at that point. Superhero fiction was just starting to become more prevalent. One of the things that interests me is that superhero comics have been around for eighty years, but superheroes in prose fiction really hadn’t been done a lot before, say, fifteen years ago? There were a few novelizations of superhero movies, but until…fan fiction for sure and the Marvel superhero movies came out…there hadn’t been a lot of superheroes in prose fiction, but that kind of opened up and now there’s a whole ton of it.

Well, it is an interesting juxtaposition. Certainly, I’ve never encountered the two things put together like that, so it’s very interesting.

Yeah, I hadn’t seen it before. I still haven’t seen it. So, it’s kind of fun to be able to play with that without too much competition.

Now, that’s how this came about. Is that fairly typical of your story generation. Is it basically just ideas bubble up and bounce into each other?

I think I go back to what I said about stories being about some huge pivotal moment in a character’s life. So, whatever the seed for a story is, the next thing I want to know is what character is going to experience the setup and what sort of transition are they going to go through. So, often I think of some dramatic situation, some sort of ticking bomb that is going to cause trouble in some setting. But then immediately I say, “OK, well, what character is going to face this problem and what is it going to put them in?” When I was…you told me ahead of time that we were going to be talking about All Those Explosions, and I went back through my notes, and…on the book as I was developing it…and it’s constantly, “What problem is this going to cause for the characters and what sort of transitions are they going to go through because of it?”

Well, and that’s the very next question. What does your planning process look like once you had this idea? It sounds like the characters come perhaps even before you have the plot worked out?

Absolutely. So, it’s useful to have some sort of background problem that is going to force the characters to act—a ticking bomb, so that even if the characters are, you know, lost, or I’m lost because I don’t know what happens next, there’s going to be some pressure to deal with the situation. But I think a novel is about an overt exterior situation, but it also has to be about a character facing some sort of crisis in their life, so constantly, when I develop things, I’m thinking, “OK, what is this going to put the character through? What is the next thing? How are the screws going to tighten on the character?” Not just in terms of the urgency of the external situation, but the development of the internal situation, too.

So, how do you find those characters? How do you decide what your characters are going to be? I mean, Kim is, in her own words, I believe, a “short, queer Asian kid.”

Yeah.

Which, you know, is not you. So…

That’s right.

How did you decide?

Really…so, the first time I…the first draft…Kim was Asian, but not queer. And, she…the situation…so, for people who haven’t read the book, one of the first things she does is, she comes across an old flame of hers, someone she knew in high school. Really, her first serious boyfriend, who has become a darkling, who was always a rich kid who knew he was going to be a darkling as soon as he was old enough to be transformed. And that relationship went bad, and basically, the…Kim was a bland character who didn’t have a whole lot of personality. And one thing I often do when I’m trying to get a handle on characters, especially when trying to get a handle on personality, is sit down and improv stuff in their tone of voice—just sit at the typewriter…or the computer, of course, these days…and write a diatribe from them as fast as I can and see what just pops out. So, this is Mitchell’s messy method again, just sitting down and blast it out and see what pops out. And Kim’s queerness came from that. I was blasting away, basically a monologue, and it just completely took me by surprise when she started talking about, “No, I’m not as binary as you think,” sort of thing.

And there were several days there when I thought, “Oh, shit. Am I going to actually write a non-binary character?”, you know, a straight middle-aged white guy writing a queer young university-age Asian. Did I have the nerve to do that, and how much homework would I have to do in order to not be that guy writing someone who I had no right to write? But that’s what was…that was the voice that came to me, and eventually I said, “Yeah, OK, I’ve got to go with this.”

Well, she is a very interesting voice.

Yeah. Yeah. And once I had that handle on the character, a whole lot of things came out and the character came alive, and some of the situations that were dead on the page in the first draft took on a whole different character and really much more interesting resonance than they had been in the first draft.

Did you do something similar with your other main characters?

Yeah. So, Nicholas had the same process. I did, you know, a soliloquy from his point of view, and not so much with the other three superheroes, because I knew their books were going to be coming along later. When I did the Jules book, which is They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, the sequel to All Those Explosions, I did do soliloquies from her point of view. And for the future books, I will be doing the same thing. It’s just a really useful way to unlock what inhibitions have been keeping…holding me back from doing, going as far as I need to for a character.

Once you’ve developed the character, you have an idea for the setup, how much of an outline or planning do you do? Is it a very detailed? Are you a pantser or a plotter?

I’m mostly a pantser, but especially because I’m writing superhero things, I want there to be some great set pieces. So, I plan for interesting places where big superhero action can take place. So, in All Those Explosions, there are several big superhero-vs.-monster action things, and I figured out where they were going to take place and sort of some context for why they were happening, and an overarching plot for them.

So, in All Those Explosions…well, Waterloo has a number of tourist attractions and I want, over the course of the series, to destroy them all. So, in the first book, I trash the Waterloo market, which is the St. Jacob’s Market, which is a big farmer’s market. In the second one, I trash a popular club, the Transylvania Club, which is just, you know, a name like that is asking to be associated with monsters. And the third one, Waterloo has a clay and glass gallery, the National Clay and Glass Gallery.

Oooh!

I mean, I got to have a fight there. And Clay and Glass is right next to the Perimeter Institute, which is an institute of theoretical physics, a kind of a world-class physics research center. So, trashing both the Clay and Glass and Perimeter is kind of a gimme. And I don’t know what I’m going to trash for the final book, but we’ll see.

There is some fun to that. The last book in my young adult series, The Shards of Excalibur, the final big climactic battle takes place at a provincial park called Cannington Manor. I do a pretty good job on it, too.

Yeah, I mean, if you’re going to take a place…if you’re going to have your story take place in a real location, then let’s make use of the location. And especially with, you know, if you’re going to have superheroes, there is going to be a large set of smoking rubble.

And I still remember the Jim Butcher, I don’t remember which book it was, in the Dresden Files, where Sue the Tyrannosaurus comes to life.

Yeah, a super thing. I just loved that episode. Yeah, I don’t remember which book it was, but…

So, you talked a little bit about your actual writing process, you know, three hours in the morning and work on other things in the afternoon. Do you just work at home, are you a go-out-to-a-coffee-shop guy? I gather you type and don’t do it longhand or anything like that…

Oh, I do some things in longhand. If a particular scene is not working out well, I go longhand and I write it out. I’m working right now on a haunted-house novel, and this morning I spent writing really the first scene of a particular character, because I really wanted to slow down and cover the bases and really get the character’s voice down on the page. So, when I want to…writing fast is useful, but writing slow is also useful.

Well, then, speaking of that, are you a fast writer or a slow writer when you average the two things together?

I’m not superfast. I can I usually do about a thousand words a day. So, you know, some people do a lot more than that, several thousand words a day, and I’ve done that, but usually, a thousand is good. And that’s for my morning stuff. In the afternoon. I would do maybe the same amount again, depending on whether I’m writing new stuff or revising old stuff.

When you get to the end, you have a draft, have you done sort of rolling revisions, so it’s pretty clean at that point, or do you go back and do a complete rewrite, or how does that work for you?

I do some rolling revisions, but usually I have to go back and do several more drafts. So, as I say, I’m mostly a pantser for the first draft, which means that there’s rough-around-the-edges stuff. So, the haunted-house novel, which is the one I’m thinking of, the rough draft ending was really, “Yeah, OK, I’m gonna keep writing it, but I doubt that I’m going to keep any of it.” The second draft is pretty good. I like the action of the ending, except that the precipitating incident…so, there’s something that makes all hell break loose, and I like the hell that breaks loose, but I’m not so crazy about what actually kicks things off. So, I’m going to at least have to rewrite that again, which will probably necessitate a few other changes. So, I’m refining things as I go along and I hope it’s no more than three drafts, but…that’s about typical for what I’m doing.

You’ve been published by various publishers, which means you’ve worked with a lot of different editors. What typically comes back to you from editors to work on? If anything.

I don’t get a whole lot of structural stuff. It’s mostly cosmetic or, you know, “I didn’t understand this,” or, “This chapter is slow,” or something like that. So, I don’t get…once or twice. I’ve had people, an editor, say, “No, this ending just doesn’t work.” But mostly it’s, “I didn’t understand their motivation for doing this,” or, you know, “Polish up this section again.” So, I’m pretty lucky, in that I want a story to be as clean as possible before I send it to my agent. And she makes a few comments, but not many, and then she sends it off. So, I like things being pretty good to go before I send them out, which means I have to spend a fair length of time…I don’t send out anything that I don’t think is pretty good already.

Now, you do some editing for other people. Do you find that working on other people’s manuscripts helps you when it comes time to look at your own?

Oh, sure. It’s much easier to see problems when other people have them, but I know I have the same thing, so…and, you know, we all have words that we overuse—“really,” “quite,” “very,” all that. And as I’m reading somebody else’s stuff…I have a list of these words that I overuse, and reading somebody else’s stuff, I, you know. “Oh, yeah. There’s one of mine that I should pay attention to, too.”

Speaking of which, brilliant little thing from Brandon Sanderson that I recently heard about in their Writing Excuses podcast is to, you know, you have your list of words that you overuse or, you know…”suddenly,” there’s another one that is real easy to use too much of…just do a global replace on the word with brackets around it, square brackets, and that makes it stand out. So, when you’re reading the book, reading the manuscript, you see these things and you could say, “Do I really need that?” It really draws your attention to the words that you overuse and gets you…makes you think about them again. I really love that technique and I use it now.

Oh, yeah. That’s a good one. I think I’ll have to adopt that, too.

Yeah. Yeah. It just draws your attention to something. Sometimes “very” is a perfectly good word to use, and a lot of times the prose is stronger by crossing it out, by deleting it.

I find that my characters tend to use animal noises too much in dialogue, they growl things and snarl things and…

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good point.

I do avoid hissed dialogue because it always bothers me when somebody hisses something that has no sibilance in it.

Generally speaking, I only let myself use “said,” “told,” “replied,” “shouted,” “whispered,” maybe a “muttered” or two…oh, and “asked.” But I do try to avoid the animal noises and so on.

Yeah, I’m aware of it, but that doesn’t mean I catch it all the time. The other thing is…you’ve probably had this experience, too…the best way to find things that you overlooked is to read your work out loud in front of an audience after it’s been published.

Yeah. Yeah. Zadie Smith has a quote, something to the effect of, “The best time to rewrite your stuff is two years after it’s been published and ten minutes before you read it at a literary festival.”

That’s about right. Well, we’ve got about ten minutes left, so I want to get to the big philosophical questions.

Sure.

It’s really one question with multiple parts. Why do you write? Why do you write this stuff? And why do you think any of us do? That’s really three questions. But it’s kind of one.

Oh, well, just like almost every other writer I write because I can’t not write. These days I get up in the morning and write, and I write to understand what’s in my head and to…because I like writing stories.

Why do I write something in particular? Because something about the idea has got its claws in me, and the only way to get free of it is to write it and write it well. So, this…again, the haunted-house story that I’m thinking of was an idea I had probably two and a half years ago. And I had no idea why I wanted to write a haunted-house story, and it’s taken me two years to crystallize what I want to say in the book and why I’m writing it.

I think…writers, as you know, sit alone for hours at a time. And what we write today will not be seen in the world for a long, long time. It’s, you know…it takes me at least a year to write a novel, often more, and after it’s written, it’ll take at least another year before it gets out for anyone to…before it gets published…and so you really have to be obsessed and in the moment to write. There has to be some sort of reward or compulsion to write, because you don’t get the fame and fortune, if ever…

I’m still waiting for that.

Yeah. Yeah. Well, in some sense, we all write to impress someone. Paul Simon said, when someone asked him why he wrote songs, “I write songs to impress girls.” And, you know, there is that aspect…

I went into theater to kiss girls.

Yeah. Yeah. And I certainly started writing to, you know, let’s impress women. But it’s a long time before that happens. I mean, a long time between sitting down to write the sentences today and before anyone is impressed by it. And I am not, you know, making a gazillion dollars or having a gazillion readers. I’d love to. So, you just kind of get the rewards, and every now and then you have a character suddenly come to life, like Kim revealing that she’s queer, and the idea that you…every once in a while, you feel as if you are telling a truth that is out there, as opposed to stuff that you’re just pulling out of your head. And it’s really cool when that happens.

The podcast is called The Worldshapers. Probably a bit grand to talk about shaping the world through fiction, but what do you hope your writing does for the readers who read it? Because you can certainly influence individuals as they read your stories.

Yeah. Well, for All Those Explosions, I wanted to make people laugh, and…

Works for me!

Good, thank you! And to have the fun that I find in superheroes. I started reading superhero comics when I was just a kid. I talked about this at When Words Collide, that my great uncle would buy me one comic book a week when I was seven years old and I bought comic books and I bought superhero comic books. And I do not know anymore any of the people that I knew when I was seven, other than my immediate family, and I still know Batman, I still know Spider-Man, I still know all of those characters that I knew back then. I keep up with them. I don’t know the people anymore, but I know the characters. And so, to be able to write superheroes…not, alas, Marvel and DC superheroes, although, if anybody from Marvel or DC are listening, I’m there, hire me!…but to be able to write superheroes and just have fun with them…I hoped that I could pass on the delight that I get from superheroes to other people, too, and to share in the joy.

And for other books, it’s almost always the same, that I get delight from various types of stories. And so, I want to be part of that conversation, be part of the fun or the delight or the concern or the thrills or the horrors or whatever. It’s such a delight to be a writer and to be part of the conversation.

That’s actually what I always say, that I started writing because I loved the stories that I was experiencing so much, I wanted to be able to create stories that other people would enjoy as much as I enjoyed the ones I’ve been reading. So, that’s probably a very common thing with writers.

Look at fanfic! I think many people get their starts in fanfic, if not actual…these days, you can actually put it in front of the public, but even if you don’t, you write your little stories and show it to your friends and so on. And that’s because whatever you’re doing fanfic of touched something in you and you want to be in that world, you want to have a piece of it, too.

You mentioned what you’re working on, the haunted-house novel, anything else that you’re working on right now?

I’m doing a re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty where nobody is stupid. It’s kind of fun to write a fairy tale with sensible people. There’s a lot of re-imagined fairy tales these days. Naomi Novik immediately comes to mind, but other people have been doing it, too. And it’s fun to write fairy tales which have that feel of depth, mythological depth, folkloric depth, but bring a modern sensibility to them that…there are just some strange things that happen in very tales that are hard to believe, and trying to justify them—or not!—Is fun.

And where can people find you online?

I am…most of my stuff is on Twitter @jamesagard. I do Twitter every day. I also have jamesalangardner.com, which I blog at occasionally. Those are the best places. I do have a Facebook page, which I almost never do anything with, so…

Well, I think that’s about the end of our time. Thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers!

It was great talking to you, Edward. Thanks for having me.

Episode 37: Susan Forest

An hour long conversation with Susan Forest, award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy that has appeared in Asimov’s Science FictionAnalog Science Fiction and FactIntergalactic Medicine ShowBeneath Ceaseless Skies, and OnSPEC Magazine, among others, and the new young-adult fantasy novel Bursts of Fire, the first in a seven-volume series, Addicted to Heaven, from Laksa Media.

Website:
www.speculative-fiction.ca

Twitter:
@SusanJForest

Instagram:
@SusanForestWrites

Facebook:
@SusanForest

Susan Forest’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Susan Forest

Susan Forest’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science FictionAnalog Science Fiction and FactIntergalactic Medicine ShowBeneath Ceaseless Skies, and OnSPEC Magazine, among others. Her collection of short fiction, Immunity to Strange Tales, was published by Five Rivers Publishing, and her nonfiction has appeared in Legacy MagazineAlberta Views Magazine, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Blog. Her short stories, “Back,” “Turning It Off,” and “The Gift” were finalists for the Prix Aurora Award, and her novella, Lucy, won the Galaxy Project, juried by Robert Silverberg, David Drake, and Barry Malzburg. “For a Rich Man to Enter” is nominated for the Prix Aurora Award this year (2019).

Bursts of Fire, the first in a seven-volume young-adult epic fantasy series, Addicted to Heaven, came out in August from Laksa Media, and will be followed by Flights of Marigolds in 2020.

Susan was the editor for Technicolor Ultra Mall (Edge), a finalist for the Prix Aurora Award in 2013. Strangers Among Us, and The Sum of Us, both of which she edited for Laksa Media, each won the Prix Aurora Award, in 2017 and 2018. The third in Laksa Media’s social issues anthology series, Shades Within Us, was released in 2018 and is nominated for the 2019 Prix Aurora Award.

Susan served two terms as Secretary for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (2015-2016). She has judged the Endeavor and Sunburst Awards, teaches creative writing in Calgary, and presents at international writing conventions several times each year.

Susan is also a painter and visual artist whose landscapes have been displayed as part of the Stampede Western Showcase in her hometown of Calgary, Alberta.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome, Susan.

Hello, hello, hello.

Now, we’ve known each other for a few years.

Yes.

Because a science fiction convention in Calgary, which turned into When Words Collide in a roundabout sort of way, was what first started me going over to Calgary on a yearly basis. And I think probably the first time I went, I probably met you. And that’s been a long time ago now.

Probably. Yes, I remember.

Well, I always like to start these by taking guests…I usually say back into the mists of time, which is becoming almost a cliché on the show, but I’m going to say it anyway, because it fits…going back into the mists of time, how did you first become interested in science fiction and fantasy and how did you become interested in writing it? And you know, where did you grow up and all that kind of thing?

Yes. Well, I think the first books I really remember reading, like full novels, were Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan series. My dad, actually, was a big fan…oh, way back in the ‘30s, when they were super popular, and he would go to second-hand bookstores and bring them back from my older brother to read, actually. And so we didn’t necessarily start with Tarzan of the Apes. We started with whatever second-hand book he could find at the store. So, my brother would read them and then he would pass them on to me. So, that’s a huge memory as far as reading is concerned.

But, yeah, I always thought of myself as a writer from the time I was quite small, I think I was in Grade 2, and I wrote a book called Jimmy, the Fish that Couldn’t Swim. That’s the first thing I remember writing. And then, when I was in Grade 7, I used to…I was a very studious person, and I would…I had a big binder with all my subjects in it, and when the teacher was finished teaching, they’d usually give us some time to do some homework. So, I’d sit at the back, I’d get my homework done, and then I had a novel at the back of my binder, and I would just open that up and just work away on that a little bit at a time. So that’s my earliest writing that I can think of.

And did that continue as you went on through high school?

Oh, yeah, yeah. No, I never did stop writing. That’s for sure. I don’t know that it’s something that I pursued professionally for a long time, but I always had a book that I was working on.

Did you share it when you were young readers? Did you share your writing? I always ask that because I think it’s a valuable thing for young writers to do, to let other people read it and get an idea if you’re telling stories that other people will enjoy reading.

Only to a very small degree, maybe a very few close friends. It’s kind of interesting, Even today, like if I’m…I like to go skiing, and I’ll be on the ski lift, and people say, “Oh, well, what do you do?” And I say, “I’m a writer.” And they say, “Oh, yeah, what have you published?”, all this sort of stuff. But they say, “What do you write?” I say, “Science fiction,” and it tends to stop the conversation.

Yes, it does.

Because people don’t have anything to relate to. So, yeah.

Well, and I, of course, live in Regina, Saskatchewan, as you know, but listeners may not necessarily, and our professional football team here is called the Saskatchewan Roughriders, which are the Riders for short. So half the time if I say I’m a writer, people will look at me funny. “Aren’t you a little old to be a football player?” “No, a writer, it’s a wri-TER. So, around here you have to really careful how you pronounce it.

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Well, was it science fiction and fantasy from the start, or were some of your early…well, I guess The Fish that Couldn’t Swim could be considered a fantasy.

I suppose. Yeah, you know I really did enjoy reading the horse stories. So Alec Ramsay, The Black Stallion, was huge, absolutely. I remember one time going to visit my cousin, though. She would read the Tarzan books and she said, “Guess what? Edgar Rice Burroughs also write science fiction. He writes John Carter of Mars!” So, of course, I got into that whole series. A little bit later, I was really interested in Ursula K. LeGuin, you know, the whole Earthsea series, Left Hand of Darkness, some of those books I really enjoyed reading. And I have a really strong memory of first getting involved with Tolkien. Again, it was my older brother who came up with this book, and we had one copy and everybody in our family was reading it, so you had to look right and left to see who had the book, right? And one time he just got so mad at me, he was going out and I knew he was gonna take the book with him, and I grabbed the book and I ran to the local school, the local junior high school that I attended. It had a courtyard that was almost three-quarters blocked off from the street. And I had the book and I was walking around in there and reading it. And he came along and he just glared at me, grabbed the book, and left. He never yelled at me or anything, but I knew I was big trouble.

So, when you got on through high school and university, did you study writing or what did you focus on?

Actually, my first…well, I’ve got a couple of university degrees, but they’re both in education. I was a teacher for many years. I was interested in taking creative writing, but it was quite difficult because the university tended to stream people. If you were in certain fields, there were courses that you couldn’t take in other fields. It was actually after I was teaching for a while that I was able to go back and take a course at the university with Aretha van Herk, it was just an introduction to creative writing. And the way I got into it was kind of funny because it was August, and I wanted to take a course in September, and I went and I got on the website and I signed up, and it looked like a great course to take. And I showed up at the first class, it was an evening course, it was on a Thursday night, and it was absolutely crammed with people. I don’t know, there were like 40 people in this room, which I thought was a little odd. And the teacher, the professor, came in, and she was angry. She said, “Half of you don’t belong here. We vetted the people who were going to come into this course way back in the spring, and the registrar let a whole pile bunch of people in. And there’s only allowed to be a maximum of 16 people in this class, so half of you don’t belong here.” But then she turned around and said, “However, if you have a chapter in your bottom drawer and you send it to me in the next day, I might let somebody in.” And guess what, I had a chapter in the bottom of the drawer. I didn’t know anything, so I went ahead and just sent it in, and she let me in. And I think of those extra 20 people, I was the only person that got into the course. So, yeah.

So, I often ask writers who have taken any sort of formal creative writing whether they ran into a pushback on the genre that they wish to write in. Were you writing something in the speculative fiction genre for that, that chapter that you sent in, or was it something else?

Oh, yes, absolutely. It was a fantasy novel. I always thought of myself as a fantasy novelist, especially before I knew myself better. But I did write a variety of different things while I was in that class, so I was using it as an opportunity to experiment. I learned a lot in that course. I know that…if I can brag just a little bit, I have a daughter who got her Ph.D. in creative writing, and yes, it certainly was her experience that writing in the fantasy and science fiction genres, she did experience that. And I have in other circumstances, as well. But I think the issue for me was I knew so little at that time that I was just a sponge. I was just soaking up every, every possible thing that I could get. I think I wound up with a C on that course, and I really think I deserved it. I think it might even have been generous, I don’t know. But I continued to learn from that course for like two years after I took it, just because I knew so little, and there was so much. And I would go back and I would revisit in my mind and experiment and try new things. So it was a really good course for me.

Well, as I’ve mentioned previously on the podcast, my degree was in journalism. So, I only took one creative writing course in university, and the name of our textbook was actually Three Genres, and I thought, “Oh, wow,” you know, “what is it? Like romance, mystery, and science fiction?” But no, it was plays, short stories, and poetry. And I don’t recall what I wrote for fiction for that—it must have been science fiction or fantasy, because that’s all I wrote, but the one thing I got the highest praise on from the teacher was actually a piece of poetry, which really startled me.

Whoa.

You know, just the fact that you’re writing…because I’d never thought of, you know, writing poetry, but I had to for the course, and it just…those classes and things like that do expose you  to different ideas and different writing. Even if they don’t like what you would like to write, you can often learn things from them, I think.

Oh, yeah, absolutely.

So when did you start seriously pursuing publication?

Well, way back, actually, a number of years ago, I…although I didn’t belong to any writers’ groups, I would, you know, worry away at my little project—I would work during the day and come home and write at night—and I belonged to the Writers Guild of Alberta. That was a…I mean, the result of that was simply I got a magazine once every three months or something like that. But I would look at the back, and there would be markets listed, and this particular time I was looking Gage Educational Publishing was looking for novels. So, I had a novel, so I sent it off, and that was my first published book. It’s something I don’t tend to talk about very much because I’m really amazed when I look back at that work right now and think, “They published that? Really?” It was really a two-edged sword because on the one hand I now had a published book, so that put me into a whole other category, for all kinds of things. Because it was a young adult book, I’d been working with the Young Writers Conference for a number of years here in Calgary, it meant that I could apply for grants, it meant that I could do all kinds of things because I had a book. The flip side of it is, it’s a terrible book. You know how they say editors do you a great favor when they don’t buy your book that isn’t ready? Yeah, no, that’s a really true thing. So, on the one hand, I’m really glad I got it published. On the other hand, I’m kind of embarrassed by it.

But that was your first one.

That was the first one.

When did the second publication come around, and was it short fiction? Because you started with short fiction before you went back to novels, didn’t you?

Yes, absolutely. Well, a number of things came together. For one thing, I did start to meet other writers, I belonged to writers’ groups—we actually met face to face and critiqued each other’s work—I took a number of workshops, so my writing was really growing. And one of the things that I decided to do was to try short fiction, as I said. I always thought of myself…my image of myself was as a fantasy novelist. So, I didn’t think I could write short fiction. I didn’t think I could write science fiction: all these limitations that I  placed on myself. But one of the things I discovered was that I was spending a lot of time at the beginning of long works and I was not learning, I guess, to write a full arc. And I thought, “Let’s work away with short stories and try to write a full arc.” And I would put them on the table for my critiques and they would say, “Yep, that’s Chapter 1 of another novel,” you know? So, definitely I had quite a learning curve as far as writing short stories was concerned, but I pursued and I persisted, and again…I know your mileage may vary and I know other people have found this does not necessarily work for them, but maybe it was because I just happened to belong to a very knowledgeable and supportive writers group, which…I’ll give them a little plug, it’s the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association of Calgary. Very large group. As long as you’re serious about writing, you can join it. You don’t have to be published. So, it goes from rank beginners right up to very well-published writers. Robert J. Sawyer is an honorary member. So, it was a really good place to learn a lot. And one of the things I learned was, when an editor is new to a publication or moves up within a publication to take a stronger editorial role, they may be trying to develop their own stable of authors. And I had a short story that I wanted to submit just about the time that Sheila Williams became editor for Asimov’s Magazine. She didn’t take the first story or even the second story that I submitted to her, but she did take the third story that I submitted to her. And so, that was my burst into what I would call really much more professional writing.

That’s one of the top markets in the field when it comes to short fiction, for sure, that one and Analog and Fantasy and Science Fiction used to be the big three. I mean, there’s a lot more stuff out there now.

Yeah, I’ve never got into F&SF. But my story about getting into Analog was kind of interesting. So, I mentioned that I went to a number of workshops and one of them was…the pro who ran it was Mike Resnick, and, oh, he was really tough on everybody around the table. One of the women, unfortunately…well, she did something that she probably shouldn’t have done. She took out an old trunk piece she hadn’t even looked at and put it on the table. And he kind of gave her a good tongue-lashing. He said. “You have 12 people around this table who have spent time and energy on your work and you didn’t care enough to give us your best.” So, he was pretty tough on us. But one of the things I remember was the absolute look of horror on his face when he looked around the table and he said, this is probably a direct quote, I remember it so well, “You all want to be professional writers and you don’t go to WorldCon?”, you know. So, one of the things that I did start doing was going to international conventions. And, you know, when you have friends like Robert J. Sawyer, who was able to make a few introductions, that really helped.

So, I met Stan from Analog, and I think making that connection maybe made a bit of a difference. But the other thing, too, was just, you know, talking to other writers, people would say, “If you want to get into Analog, try something short and funny.” So, I had sent something in that he called bleak. And then I sent in another one that was full of puns. And he really liked it. He said he laughed out loud, but it wasn’t a piece he thought that his readers would really think of as science fiction. And again, it was the third one that I sent in.

But, I’ll tell you a little story. I also go on a fairly regular basis to the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat in northwest Washington state. And I happened to be there one time, and just in a position to overhear the conversation between two editors, and one of them was saying to the other, “Do you know such and such a writer? Hs she submitted to your magazine?” And the other one said, “Yeah, yeah, she’s pretty good. Have you published anything by her?” “No, no, not yet.” “Well, have you heard anything about her recently?” “No, I haven’t heard anything.” I wonder if she stopped one sale, one story short of a sale. And, you know, it just really struck me that people in the business do know one another and are aware and in some ways, I think, are encouraging new writers…I mean, they have to have the best of the best for their publications…but that that they’re aware and are encouraging. At least, that’s been my experience anyway.

So you would recommend to new writers that they make an effort to get to these conventions and things like that, it sounds like?

Yes. I think…

I mean, it’s a lot of money to go to an international convention.

Oh, it certainly is. And I certainly have to watch which ones I’m able to go to. But, again, Rob Sawyer said something that kind of stuck with me a number of years ago. He said, “Always put your stories into the top markets first. If it gets rejected from there, there are the mid-tier markets and so forth that you can still try.” And his reasoning for this was, he said, “In your mind, you need to think of yourself as at that level,” right? If you think of yourself at that level, then you will write to that level and you will be at that level, which kind of makes sense. So I think the same thing with going to the conventions…by the fact that you attend—you can learn a lot from one thing, you can also meet people, which is helpful—but also, you see yourself at that level. I am a professional. This is what I do.

Well, certainly since those early sales, you’ve racked up a considerable number of short fiction sales. But now we’re going to talk about your novel, which is starting a pretty ambitious project, a seven-volume epic fantasy series.

Yes.

So this…and this still goes back to the short fiction, as well. I mean, I know it’s a cliché, in these sorts of things, to ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” But it is a valid question. I know, ideas are everywhere, but at the same time we all have little things that tend to spark them in us, and spark story ideas. So, first of all…well, first of all, before we do that, let’s get a brief synopsis of Bursts of Fire, the first book. Without spoilers, because I’m only about halfway through it.

Okay. Well, Bursts of Fire, the first book, it’s the story of three sisters. Meg is the eldest…she’s 17 and she’s essentially the protagonist, but the other two sisters are very important as well…they are magic wielders. But they are very highly placed. They’re like princesses. They’ve grown up in a castle, with all of the benefits of that and very little life experience. Their mother is the magic wielder for the king, who has the second-most powerful prayer stone in this fantasy world. Their mother sees a glimpse of the future and she sees that war is coming. She wants to save her daughters. She also wants to save this magical prayer stone, and she wants to save the balance of the world, which is quite healthy at this point. So, yes, their castle is attacked, right away in Chapter 1, and the mother, because she has this bit of premonition, she is able to help her daughters flee. And so, the three daughters flee with their nurse, who is killed almost immediately, and the three sisters are in this world as refugees alone. You were going to say something?

I was going to say I knew the nurse was doomed because you have to get your young protagonists on their own as quickly as possible.

Yeah, exactly. So, they meet…of course, now when something huge like this happens in a world, things don’t stay static. You have people who are going to rise up and say, “Hey, this is wrong. We want to do something about it.” And so, a very nascent rebel group starts to form and the sisters get involved with that. So that’s how the story begins now.

Now, I can go back to the question, what was the seed for this story? Where did that seed come from for you? And is it typical of the way that you come up with story ideas?

You know, it’s been a very interesting process to work on this series, because…I think I heard somebody say this very recently, but I think it’s quite true, that fantasy in particular, I think it tends to take itself very seriously, and a lot of the writing that I had been doing in the fantasy genre, I think, really, I was feeling, “Oh, this is this is dark and getting darker,” and I have a very strong memory. I can’t place the memory in time, but a very strong memory of camping and being in a tent in the morning, waking up, it was so beautiful, it was warm in the tent, the sun was shining through, and just thinking, “Oh, my goodness, what I really want to do is, I want to write a heist romp. I want to do something light, something, just, you know, with maybe even some comic moments and what have you.” And that is actually where the idea came from. I think I had an image of a young female thief climbing up the outside of a castle tower, was kind of the image that I think this whole thing sprang from. And it does happen later in the series. It’s still there. But when I was when I was a teacher, one of the experiences that I was very fortunate to have was to take up a course that was called mini-counselling. It was, like, a three-day course in counselling, because teachers do have to counsel students all the time. And one of the gems that came out of that was, as a counselor, it’s not necessary to talk to a client and say, you know, “What is your deepest, darkest secret that you fear?” You can start anywhere, because whatever is bothering somebody is going to come out in its own good time. And I think that is also true in the writing process, that the themes and the ideas that you yourself are wrestling with may be very sub…you know, you’re not aware of them, they’re in your subconscious, but they’re going to come out in your themes and in your writing anyway. And so, yeah, I wanted to write a really lighthearted heist romp, but no…

I can’t say that’s the way it’s coming out.

No, the book gets into a whole lot of deeper issues because that’s just what’s bubbling up out of my subconscious.

So is that sort of seeing an image, is that a fairly typical way for you to latch on to a story idea? Just something in your mind that’s, “Oh, that would be cool!”

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a lot of visualization, for sure, that happens in the early stages of my writing. Yeah, absolutely.

So, as you begin to develop this, what does your…I mean, there’s quite a bit of…a fairly complicated magical thing going on here.

Yes.

And something…I don’t believe I’ve read anything quite like it before. So, was there are a lot of worldbuilding before you even begin plotting, or how did all that planning and synopsizing work for you?

Yeah. Well, I need a lot of people who are pantsers, and I understand that there’s some great advantages to writing by the seat of your pants. A friend of mine once said, “You know, when I’m writing by the seat of my pants, I can surprise myself. And if I can surprise myself, I can surprise the reader.” And, you know, surprise is a wonderful thing to be able to have in your stories, for sure. But I have never been a pantser. I’ve always plotted my stories, right from the very beginning. However, my process is a bit more complex than that, because I do tend to go back and forth in the initial stages between just writing scenes and planning and then writing some more scenes and planning. And I think it’s because I really don’t know enough about my world and I don’t know enough about my characters until I see them in action. So, I have to write some chapters or some scenes before I can really get deep into the planning. On the other hand, I don’t get too deep into the book before I do create a complete of…quite a detailed outline.

And do you follow that outline as you write or does it wander off occasionally?

I tend to follow it fairly closely in the broad strokes. Having said that, you know what? If your story is telling you you need to do something, you need to listen to that because, you know, that’s where the surprise comes from. I remember one time very clearly writing along, and I had two conmen—this was in the same series, it’s a little later on…and one of them said, “All we need is a miracle.” And I thought, “Yeah, that’s perfect.” And then I thought, “OK, now I have to come up with a miracle.” But, you know, as a writer, you have time, because…if you are a performing artist, as you know, because you’re a performing artist, when you’re on stage doing something, whatever comes out of your mouth, well, it’s out of your mouth, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, right? As a writer, we do have that to a degree. I mean, eventually there are deadlines, but to a degree, we have the opportunity to go back and rewrite. And if you need a miracle, you can do some research and you can come up with a miracle.

Well, how did you come up with the idea for this particular magic system? Maybe you should explain a little bit about what the magic is like in this book.

This…I’m really enjoying working with this magic system because it’s giving me so many tools to do so much in the books that I really enjoy. For your listeners, I’m sure they’re quite aware that magic systems always have to have a cost. And so, it’s important that the magic system does not allow your magic wielder to just do anything in the world. There have to be limitations. The magic is based on the manipulation of time. So, the people who have this ability can hold an object still in time, so it doesn’t move as the timestream moves around it, or they can take it back in time, or they can take it forward in time. But usually, just a very small object, maybe, I dunno, something the size of a pea is about all they can do. So, they can’t just take the entire world and stop it in time.

But also, let me just give an example, which is right away in the early part of the book, these three girls are trying to escape the city. The gate is locked. They’re able to find a time when that lock was open, and then they walk through the gate. So, it works in these very small ways. The cost of the magic is that once you have used magic, you have disturbed the timestream, and that therefore you live bits and pieces of your own life out of order. There’s no way of knowing how that’s going to happen. It’s quite random. You may suddenly find yourself at a time in your past, but only for a few seconds. Or you may find yourself at a time in your future, but again, only for a few seconds. And that is really important, because take, for instance, the fact that the three girls mother knows something bad is gonna happen, but she doesn’t know what, she doesn’t know when. So, she’s preparing for her girls to get out of the city, but the bad thing happens before the preparations are complete because she doesn’t know when. So it allows for a little bit more adventure, a little bit more, you know, surprise.

One of the things that you sometimes find in fantasy novels that I find quite irritating is the prophecy. Prophecies are very problematic. Either the prophecy is right, in which case it’s kind of boring because you’ve got the prophecy and then you get the adventure, and they’re the same, so there’s no surprise, or the prophecy is wrong, in which case it wasn’t a very good prophecy. So, people tend to write prophecies in very cryptic language that could be interpreted in a whole lot of different ways, which in my mind…I just find it kind of irritating.

It’s like, if you’re a prophet, why can’t you be clear?

Yeah, exactly. So, the advantage to this is that we can see bits and pieces of the future, just not enough to tell what the whole story is. So, you can get that foreshadowing, you can you can get the tool to use to help you to a degree, but without giving away the whole story.

So, once you actually start writing, what does your writing process look? Like, do you write longhand on a parchment out under the stars? How does it work for you?

Does anybody really? Maybe some people do. No, I’m very much…I think through my fingers. In fact, sometimes, you know, I might be helping somebody with something else, and I’ll say, “Just let me write this,” and then I’ll know what I want to say and then tell it to them. You know, I can really think through my fingers on the keyboard. I do tend to be a…I’ve planned it, I’m going to start with scene one, chapter one, and work my way through. But recently, I have been experimenting a little bit more with quilting. So, you’ve heard of writing by the seat of your pants or pantsing, planning, and then quilting is where you write a theme or chapter, and it could fit anywhere in the book or it may not be in the book at all. And then you string your quilted scenes together with the other scenes that you require. And I have been experimenting with that a little bit for a couple of reasons. One is, I love to ride on the back of my husband’s motorcycle, and especially on the winding, twisty roads, it’s like riding a roller coaster. It’s tons of fun. But, you know, not all riding on the motorcycle is hills and curves. Some of it is straight boring highway for hours at a stretch. And we don’t have the means to talk to each other in our helmets, so what I do is, I get a tape recorder and I’ve got a lovely little tiny microphone that I can stuff inside my helmet, and of course have to stuff a lot of padding in there so I don’t get any road noise, and I can write all usually about four scenes in a day of motorcycle riding, which is about 4,000 words. And you know what? If you go on a 10-day motorcycle trip, you can get a chunk of your book done that way.

Well, you’re the first person I’ve talked to that writes on the back of a motorcycle. That’s a new one.

So, what I do is, I know what’s in the scene because I made the plan, I write a little point-form note that maybe has three or four things that I want to occur in this scene, and then I dictate the scene. When I get…you know, if we stay in a hotel, usually by the end of the day, my husband’s really tired because he did all the work, so he’ll have a nap, and then I can get out the tape recorder and I transcribe onto my iPad—you have to carry very small equipment on a motorcycle—and then, I usually just transcribe and I need to do it right away, because sometimes, you know, with the road noise, it’s  hard to get some of the words.

I was going to ask you about that, yeah.

There’s no way I would ever try to use Dragon on a motorcycle ‘cause I would get complete gobbledygook. So, I transcribe it right away and maybe do a little bit of editing at that point. But because of this method, I need to be very clear in my mind about the scene that I’m doing. So I pick, like, the best scenes. I pick the most active ones, or the ones with the greatest interpersonal conflict, or the ones that are clearest in my mind, which means that the ones that are still a bit fuzzy in my head, those are the ones that I really need to have that focus and concentration to do my initial drafts.

Well, once you got this all assembled, and you have your first draft, what is your revision process look like? Do you go back to the very beginning and rewrite the whole thing? Or, by the time, you get to the end, have you sort of rewritten as you go along and it’s pretty much done.

Lots of times, there are going to be problems somewhere in the book. Usually multiple places in the book. So, my first go to is going to probably just be a complete read-through to see, “How is this whole thing hanging together?” And you know, the low-hanging fruit, capturing those things that are really obvious. I do a number of edits. I’m not…I think I do actually a fairly clean first draft, but…like, something that I’m dictating, for instance, is not gonna be a very clean first draft. It’s going to be…have all kinds of problems with it. So I revise, revise, revise, revise. And I’m looking for story arcs, I’m looking for character arcs, I’m looking for interweaving the worldbuilding. And worldbuilding is so important because it’s way more than just the physical description, right? It’s the technological development, it’s the social development, the attitudes of people toward everything that’s going on, that you never have—and this is a truism—an entire group that thinks the same way, there are going to be people who disagree within a group. So, ensuring that that layering in that complexity is in? And then, finally, of course, you do have to look at the words and the sentences and making it the best it can be.

And this is where I wanted to talk about your editing career. Because you…how did you get started editing other people, and how does your experience as an editor play into editing your own stuff?

Oh, it has been absolutely amazing. It is one of the best things that I ever could have done. I had…oh, I’m guessing, 20 years of critiquing other people’s works, because I’ve belonged to a couple of…three or four…different critique groups at different times. So, I got lots of practice with that. Between giving critiques and receiving critiques, you learn a lot, and you learn so much by critiquing other people’s work. Lots of times what you do yourself, the mistakes you make yourself, you can’t see them until you see them in somebody else’s work. So that was a, I think, a really solid basis. And then, when I stopped teaching, I was actually approached by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing to edit for them. So, I edited, in total, three novels for them, one of which was nominated for the Prix Aurora Award, so I was really happy about that. And then, I also became a freelance editor as well. And then, when was it, I guess four or five years ago, when Laksa Media first got started, again, I was invited to edit for them. And that was a bit of a daunting experience  because…I remember being at World Fantasy Convention one year and sitting with a bunch of editors at a table at various stages and saying, “I’m starting on this new project, the publisher has invited some really high-level authors, and it’s just making me a bit nervous.” And the advice I got back was, “The bigger the author, the more professional and the easier they are to work with.” And, you know, that was absolutely true. I have to say, I can remember one particular story I edited where the author was really busy with a deadline, and so we got the story a little bit late. And I went through it and I thought, “Oh, this is a really good story, but it’s got a couple of plot holes.” And I really didn’t want to write the letter saying, “Can you fix this and this?” But I did. And the author got back to me and said, “I’ve done all the things you wanted. Have a look.” I looked at it. Not only had this author done all the things I wanted, but way more. And it was an amazing story and I felt so good about it. But the best part was I ran into that author at a convention later, who said to me that that really appreciated my editing. And, oh, I was thrilled.

Well, it’s something that, and, you know, I do a lot of editing, too, and I find the same thing, that editing other people’s stuff and mentoring other writers and all that stuff that I do feeds right back into my own writing, and I start to see things that maybe I wouldn’t see if it weren’t for the fact that I’m seeing it in other people’s stuff.

Oh, absolutely.

I think it is very useful. Well, OK, so now you’ve done your revisions. You’re actually an editor at Laksa Media, but presumably you’re not your own editor.

No, no, no. It’s unfortunate that it’s…it’s a little bit incestuous that way. I did start working as an editor with Laksa Media first, but I did have this novel that I was working on. And Lucas Law…for people who don’t know, Laksa Media is very small. So, it was Lucas law. And he said to me, “I’m interested in your novel, and can we talk about it?” We talked about it, actually, for at least a full year, probably closer to a year and a half, before we finally said, “Yeah, this novel would fit with Laksa Media.” And here’s something that I found really interesting. I found Lucas to be an excellent editor for my work, but one of the things he said early on that was really huge was he said, “I enjoy your story. I think you’ve got something here that we can work with, but Laksa Media has its niche. It is into social causes.” So, the first anthology they put out, Strangers Among Us, was about mental health and mental illness. The second one, The Sum of Us, was about caregivers and caregiving. The third one was about migrations, Shades Within Us. And so, he said, “What is the social cause that your book is really dealing with?” And it was interesting, because that was not something I had thought about up until that point. But, as you say, you know, what you’re wrestling with in your subconscious comes out, and I just took one look at him and I said, “Addictions.” That’s exactly what it’s dealing with. And as soon as he asked me that question, I knew the answer.

Now, having said that, sometimes thematic threads that are nascent that are in the book, but kind of bubbling under the surface, then you want to go back with your edit and say, “Okay, how am I developing this? What is it that I have to say and how is it coming through?” So, for instance, as you mentioned earlier, this is a seven-book series, and the topic of addictions is absolutely huge, which is a wonderful, wonderful way that these things work together, because Bursts of Fire is dealing…exactly like the title says. It’s first tastes. It’s a YA take on a novel. The girls are 17, 16 and 11, and they are out in this world where they have never seen or heard any of the stuff that’s going on around them. So, they get first taste of all kinds of different things, including spells that are…in our world the analogue would be like drugs…that give them all sorts of mystical experiences, as well as, you know, healing spells and curses and all of these sorts of things. So, they’re getting first tastes of alcohol, first case of love, all of these bursts of fire that are happening around them. So, that’s book one. Book two deals with interdependence…codependents, that’s what I’m trying to say. Codependents and enabling. Book three deals with the social conditions that may underlie why certain groups may become more at risk for addictions than other groups. One of the later books deals with Prohibition. You know, there’s issues of recovery and relapse. There’s seven books. You can you can really dig your teeth into a whole lot of different aspects of the theme.

Should probably say, though, that although those are the themes, it’s still a heck of an adventure story.

Yes, that’s primary. And that’s really important, because nobody wants to read a book that’s a) a downer. “Oh, my goodness, addictions, da-da-duh-da,” right? But b) you know, hitting you over the head with, “You should do this or you should do that,” or, you know, whatever. So, it is the thematic content, but there…it’s an epic saga. It is…it’s dealing with war and sword sorcery and magic and, you know, the fantasy.

How detailed is your plot for the entire series? Do you have, like, the future books get sort of a paragraph and you’ll figure that out later as you get there, or is it all figured out to great detail already?

Book two was submitted, so it’s completely written. Book three is completely plotted out and I’d say 85 to 90 percent written. I know it doesn’t come out until 2021, but it’s really nice to be ahead of the curve. The other thing is, by working further into the books, down the series, that makes sure that I can have the proper seeds planted in the earlier books. Books four, five and six, all have some writing in them. All are relatively plotted out, but in broad strokes—more than a paragraph, but still fairly broad strokes—and book seven is planned, and I know how the series ends, it’s definitely ending with book seven, but I haven’t done any of the writing on book seven yet.

Well, we’re getting close to our time being up—not that there’s exactly a firm deadline on these things. It’s not like it’s a live radio show—but this is the point where I ask the big philosophical questions, or question, which is basically, why do you write, first of all, and why do you write science fiction and fantasy, second of all, specifically. And I guess, why do you think any of us write this crazy stuff?

I think that there is a lot to be said for…you know, my initial idea, the fantasy heist romp, you know, just the fun book. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. But I don’t think we ever even write a very light book without some of that thematic stuff percolating away underneath. I think it always happens even if we’re not in control of it. But more important, I think all art is a type of leadership within our culture and within our society. If you look at politics, for instance, political leaders in a democracy need to satisfy the masses or they’re not going to get re-elected, right? The masses, on the other hand, feel kind of powerless because they’ll say, “Well, the leaders are deciding everything.” So I think you’ve got this kind of loop going back and forth between the electorate and the politicians. But where does change come from? It comes from the discourse. The major discourse will determine what both groups are going to pursue. And it is the artist who can influence the discourse. It is the artist who brings up new ideas, who brings up arguments, of ways of thinking, and gets people talking.

And I’ll give you an example of this. I think that for many, many, many years…okay, I’m in Alberta, right? Oh, my goodness. we love our oil in Alberta. If there’s going to be any kind of a development project, oh, yeah, maybe there are some hoops to jump through, but it’s going to go through. You know it’s gonna go through, right? In recent years, the assurance of that has been wavering. It’s not necessarily for sure anymore that these big mega-dams are going to go through. And it’s because the discourse is changing. It’s because other voices are coming forward and saying, “Hey, you know, we need to pay attention to climate change. We need to pay attention to the farmland that’s gonna be flooded by that dam.” And those voices are coming forward, and now the major discourse is starting to shift. So, our voices coming forward…and I think artists are a key component of that.

I guess that kind of answers the other question I often ask, which is, because this program is called The Worldshapers, if you think…I mean, shaping the world is perhaps a bit grand, but if you are at least shaping the way that individuals think about things in your writing, and is that something you hope you are accomplishing, that you hope that you’re having some impact on the way individuals think about the world and everything. Life, the universe, and everything.

Life, the universe, and everything. Yes, absolutely. I think that is the purpose and function of art, and as writers, we are artists, and I think it’s important to be aware of and in control, as much as we can, of the thematic elements that we’re putting forward. But at the same time, the story is primary. I mean, you may have ideas that you need, that you want to bring forward, but, yeah, that is always the under-layer, that is always something that just percolates up. It’s story that has to be first and foremost.

And you’ve said something about things percolating up, whether you know they’re there or not. And there is a story…I’ve told it before, but I always like to, that Isaac Asimov put in his Opus 100, I think, one of his autobiographical books, how he had gone to a university class in science fiction at some university—it would been in New York since he barely traveled—and he heard the professor talking about his story “Nightfall.” And he sat at the back and he listened to him going on about it, then at the end, he went up the professor and he said, “That was a very interesting class, but, you know, I’m Isaac Asimov and I wrote that story and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there.” And the professor said, “Well, I’m very glad to meet you, but just because you wrote the story, what makes you think you know what’s in it?”

You know what? I had heard that story, but I did not realize it was Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall.”

Yeah, definitely “Nightfall,” and I think it’s in Opus 100.

Yeah. Oh, I learned something new. That’s cool.

So, what are you working on next? I think I know the answer to that—it’s probably the next book in this series—but are there  other things as well?

Yes. Absolutely. Actually I’m really excited about a book project that I’ve got on the go. One reason I’m kind of glad to be already at book three in this series is because I think, over the winter, if there’s not too many edits, I’ve got still a year and a half before it’s due, I’m working on one that is a World War Two fantasy, and it’s kind of a mystery thriller as well. The magical element is a character who can step outside of his body for brief periods to see and hear things without being seen and heard. So he would make a great spy, right? Except that he’s had some bad experiences and he is in hiding. He’s living on a small farm in rural Alberta. And I’m doing tons of research on rural Alberta in the 1940s, it’s really interesting. The book is actually from his wife’s point of view, and he gets kidnapped and she does not know where he’s gone. So, it is her journey to find and rescue her husband, it does take her over to Europe, but also to find and learn about magic. And it also deals with disabilities and mental illness. Now, I don’t have a publisher for this book. It’s not even written. But I’m really excited about working on it.

Are you still writing short fiction?

You know what? I wish I was. I have, like, one short fiction story that is out circulating right now, and I really should be doing more short fiction. But yeah, no, I’m just so busy with so many other things, I have not been getting to it this year. Maybe it’ll come up in the winter. Maybe I’ll get something done this winter.

And you’re still doing freelance editing as well?

Yes. Yeah. All of the above. And teaching at the Alexandra Writers Center.

So, one or two things going on.

Yeah. Keeps me busy.

So, where can people find you online?

Well, my website is called speculative-fiction.ca.

Yeah. How’d you get that?

Oh, yeah, I was very lucky. And then, let’s see, I’m on Instagram, @SusanForestWrites, I’m on Twitter @SusanJForest, and Facebook @SusanForest, and, oh, can I just mention, we just put out a wonderful video to support the first book, Bursts of Fire, and it’s on YouTube, just look up Susan Forest, and you’ll find me there. 

All right. Good stuff. And so thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.

Thank you

And I’m sure I’ll see you in…probably in Calgary at When Words Collide next year, if not before.

Yep. And I’m going to see you in Ottawa this fall.

Oh, you’re gonna be a Can*Con for the Auroras, so I’ll see you there. Because, of course, this podcast is also nominated for an Aurora this year.

Yeah, good luck.

Yeah. Looking forward to that. And my editor, Sheila Gilbert from DAW Books, will be there again this year. So that’ll be great as well. All right, so I’ll let you go now. Thanks again for being a guest.

Thank you.

Episode 36: Tim Pratt

An hour-long conversation with Tim Pratt, author of more than twenty novels (most recently the Axiom space-opera series, Philip K. Dick Award finalist The Wrong Stars, The Dreaming Stars, and The Forbidden Stars), a Hugo Award winner for short fiction and a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards.

Website:
timpratt.org

Twitter:
@TimPratt

Tim Pratt’s Patreon page

Tim Pratt’s Amazon page

The Introduction

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is the author of more than twenty novels: most recently, the Axiom space-opera series, including Philip K. Dick Award finalist The Wrong Stars, The Dreaming Stars, and the forthcoming third volume, The Forbidden Stars, out this month (October 8, two days after this episode released. – Ed.). He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction and has been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. His collection, Miracles and Marvels, is also coming in November…or, coming in November. Not also, because The Forbidden Stars is out in October, it’s coming after that. He tweets incessantly (he says) as @TimPratt and publishes a new story every month for patrons at patreon.com/timpratt.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Tim.

Hi, Ed, thanks so much for having me.

Could’ve sworn it said November for The Forbidden Stars. Anyway…

I probably told you the wrong date. Like most authors, I have only the vaguest idea of when anything is coming out. I think last year it came out…the second book came out in September, the first one might have come out in November. That’s probably what happened.

Close enough, anyway. Yeah, and I just finished reading the first two, so I’m looking forward to talking to you about them. Usually at this point in the podcast, I will talk about how we met at some convention or other, but I’m not sure we’ve ever met at a convention. I might have seen you at a WorldCon or World Fantasy, but I can’t say for sure that we’ve ever actually spoken. So, this is a new one.

Yeah. Nice to meet you. I used to go to a lot of conventions, and then I had a child about twelve years ago and have only in the last couple of years kind of gotten back into getting back into the convention scene. But there was a long stretch there where I only went if it was, you know, twenty minutes from my house.

Which most of them aren’t.

Well, you know, I’m in the Bay Area, so it’s not absolutely none, but yeah, it’s not that many.

Well, we’re gonna talk about the Axiom series in particular as an example of your creative process, but before we do that, let’s go back, as I like to say, into the mists of time, which you’re getting further back for some of us than others. I say that having just had a 60th birthday not that long ago…

Oh, happy birthday.

…and find out how you first became interested in, first of all, in science fiction fantasy, and how you became interested in writing the same.

Oh, absolutely. Really, my parents were just really big readers. I grew up fairly poor, travelled around a lot with my mom. She was a single mom for the first six years of my life and we lived all over the south and kind of had no fixed address. We stayed with relatives or we spent some time in West Virginia, Texas, wherever. But she was always a science fiction fan, so those books were around. When I was about six, she married my stepdad and we settled down in North Carolina. And, you know, my dad’s a welder and my mom for a long time was, you know, just worked the cash register in a store, although later she became a paramedic when I was in high school. And so, not sort of the classic literary upbringing. There was no beautiful library full of volumes, but what they would do is whenever they were at the thrift store they would pick up all the cheap paperbacks, right, and they would bring them home. So, there are always millions of books in my house, and the majority of them were science fiction, fantasy, and horror. So that was just early exposure. You know, by the time I was eight years old, I was reading Stephen King novels, not entirely understanding everything that was happening in them, but I was reading them.

And then, in summers, I would stay with my great-grandmother, Annie, who would watch me while my parents were working. And she was a huge science fiction novel fan. And she was like, she didn’t mess around with fantasy, she didn’t mess around with horror. She was a Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov science-fiction fan, and her guestroom was just full of shelves and just full of hundreds of books. And so in the summer, you know, I would like to eat ice cream and watch TV, but she would be like, “No, you can’t watch TV all day. Go weed the garden and, you know, and you can read.” And so I’d read her books. And that, I mean, honestly, that was my education and my grounding in science fiction.

Not a bad one.

Really, no.

So when did you become interested in writing it, or writing in general?

The oldest story that my mom still has in the shoebox is from when I was in second grade, so before I remember not being into writing, right, I don’t have a memory of not being interested in it. You know, kids play around with all the arts, right? I wanted to be a visual artist. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be a chef. All these things. Honestly, I think writing stuck because writing had the lowest barrier to entry. You know, if I wanted to play music, well, I had to get a guitar from somewhere, right? If I wanted to be an artist. I needed to get art supplies. If I wanted to write. I just needed a spiral-bound notebook and a pencil. I had that anyway to go to school. So that’s sort of the artistic endeavor that I just started and kept at. My learning curve was incredibly slow because I didn’t sell any fiction until I was in my twenties, but I was working at it.

So, did you write, as you went through school, were you writing a lot of stories? And were you sharing them with friends to see what they thought or anything like that?

I did. Yeah, I was collaborating with a friend in fourth grade. I actually just recently was digging through some old files and found something. I was like, “Oh, yeah, we wrote this thing together.” When I was in high school, once I was in typing class–not keyboarding class, we had, they were electric, but we had typewriters–I started making just a little satirical like joke-filled newspaper thing for my friends that I would just type there and it would end up getting sort of circulated around–I mean, one copy at a time, but it would get passed around the school. I was always writing and in high school I was sort of, I was known as the writer. I have no idea why, I’d published on a couple of like, you know, school literary magazines or whatever. But somehow, like, my senior year, I was voted “most talented.” I’m like, “How? Why? Like, it should go to someone who’s like playing in a band or like doing art that’s hanging in the halls, at least. Like, how does anybody know I do anything?” But I guess I never shut up about it. so people knew that I was doing it.

Did you write make longer stuff, like novels, or you sort of on the shorter side during all of that time?

Most of that time I was writing short stories. I really love short stories. I did take a couple of stabs at longer things and probably in high school produced some novella-length stuff that wasn’t very good. It was college before I really settled down and thought, “You know, I’d like to sort of figure out how to do novels now.” And I wrote a few of those through college and I went to Clarion right after college and after Clarion…so, at Clarion they warn you, “You know, you’ve been here, you’ve been so intense, you’ve been so focused, a lot of people, they come out declaring they’re just blocked. They’re, like, too hypercritical of their work, they can’t produce anything just because they freeze up about everything they’re doing wrong.”

It sounds like telling people that would be a good way to make that happen.

Right. Yeah, let’s plant the seed of fear. But, so I sort of thought, well, I’m not gonna let that happen. So I came back from Clarion and I did a novel there, which was…there were a bunch of people online who would do, like, dare each other to write a novel in thirty days. So, sort of NaNoWriMo-ish, except usually longer, like an eighty-, ninety-, hundred-thousand-word novel that you would try to write in thirty days, and sort of just boost each other up online. And so, I did one of those, like, immediately after clearing. And that book was also terrible, but the book I wrote after that, I sold.

Well, it’s that old thing, and it’s attributed to various people–somebody told me Ray Bradbury said you had write 800,000 words and Stephen King said you only had to write 500,000. So it’s getting better, you know, as you go along.

That’s right. Yeah.

You’re talking about writing a novella-length…I had thought I had written novels in high school because they were typed up and they made a substantial stack of paper. But recently, I scanned the first one I wrote, when I was fourteen, which I typed up as soon as I had my–and it was on a typewriter–my typing classes. And, you know, I thought it was long, but when I scanned it and did a word count, it’s like 38,000 words.

That’s close.

Pretty close, but it wasn’t really a novel. But still, it looks like one. So… I’m thinking about putting it out online under my…I was known as Eddie Willett when I was a kid…putting it out under my Eddie Willett byline on Amazon. My worry is it might sell better than my other stuff.

You know, it’s a fear. I took the first novel that I finished, that I wrote when I was probably a sophomore in college…and it’s not very good, it’s sort of contemporary fantasy thing…and I do a Patreon where I read a new story every month, I’ve been doing it for years, and I do bonus material sometime, and usually it’s like trunk stories or fragments or audio, just, like, weird stuff. But I was like, “You know, I have this novel. I’m just going to resist the urge to clean it up. Really. I’ll go through it and make sure there’s not anything too, like, horrific because it was written by a twenty-year-old white guy,” and I posted it to my Patreon as a bonus novel. So, there are at least a couple of hundred people who’ve potentially been able to read my juvenilia. I don’t think I’d put it on Amazon.

Back at the Denver WorldCon, I think it was, I suggested a panel of writers reading their juvenilia, because I had this, and we had Connie Willis on it…

Oh, that’s great.

…Josh Palmatier, Sarah Hoyt and me, and we all read. Connie didn’t really have juvenilia, but she read some of her early romance short stories that she had written.

Oh, yeah. She used to write for the magazines.

Yes, she did. And I read from my novel, and I don’t know what the others read. It actually went over really, really well. It’s sometimes hard to find authors who are willing to do it, though.

Well, I think it’s fun. And sometimes you get, like, “It Came from the Slush Pile,” reading terrible things that, you know, were submitted. That always makes me a little bit twitchy because God knows I’ve submitted some terrible things and I would be embarrassed. But if you’re an author and you’re embracing your own terribleness, you know, you can get the same laughs, I think.

The fear of going to “It Came from a Slush Pile” would be, you’d be sitting there prepared to laugh at this stuff, and then they read something you submitted.

Exactly. A frisson of terror.

So, you mentioned Clarion. You were an actual English major, were you not, at university?

I was. I took the very laziest path. In retrospect, I got more out of my history classes, and I probably should have majored in that. I almost double majored, but I needed to take one more class, and instead I went to Clarion, so I said, “Fine, I’ll do a history minor.” But yeah, it was just, you know, “I like to write. I like to read…” I thought I was going to…I went into college intending to become an English teacher. I thought that was, you know, the safe path, like, a plausible thing to do.

And then when I was a freshman, I ended up taking a workshop, a ten-day workshop that Orson Scott Card ran, because he had an association with my university. And they…like, the university…had this apartment, or I guess it was like a little townhouse, in Washington, D.C., and Scott would go up there and run these ten-day workshops for, you know, eight or ten college kids. And I went in there and I took some stories and Scott kind of took me aside and said, “I think you have it in you to do this professionally.” And that was only encouragement I needed. I then immediately threw away all my plans to have any kind of reasonable backup, you know, professional safety net and said, “Okay, I’m just going to be a writer. I’m going to do it.”

Well, I was going to ask about your experience as an English major, because when I’ve talked to some writers who have done that and they’ve taken creative writing, they say that they had a…they would run into pushback because of what they wanted to write. And obviously, you at least had some classes with Orson Scott Card, a previous guest on here, so I’m guessing there wasn’t a particular problem with the genre you were writing.

Well, it’s funny, because I took…it actually didn’t have to be genre fiction to get into that workshop, and I submitted literary stories because I had sort of been beaten about the head and told, “Oh, we don’t really want to cover the science fiction and fantasy stuff,” right? And so, I was writing…you know, they were still weird and they had elements of crime and stuff like that, but I was writing stories without supernatural or science fictional elements. So, once I got to the workshop, I freed myself. I was like, “This is a sympathetic audience. I’ll do this.” I did end up doing my honors thesis in poetry instead of fiction, because the woman who ran the fiction department, though she was lovely, just did not get science fiction and fantasy, she just didn’t really understand it. I found the poets in the department much more sympathetic, so I came out with a degree with a concentration in creative writing, but my thesis was poetry.

So, what happened after university? How did you break in?

Yeah, so I went to Clarion, I took a couple of stories, I met a bunch of great people who I’m still close friends with, Tobias Buckell, Jenn Reese are both still writing a lot. Lots of other people, honestly. I learned so much from my instructors. It was really huge for me. And like I said, then I came back and I wrote a novel to make sure that I hadn’t broken my brain by being at Clarion and came to California pretty much on a whim. I was living in the mountains of North Carolina. I was working in advertising, so I was making money, but I really did not enjoy my job. I kind of didn’t like the face I saw in the mirror every morning. I mean, it’s fine. You can do advertising and do it ethically. I worked for a company whose explicit approach was to go into small towns and put the locally owned businesses out of business. Like, they had specific strategies to do this so that they could dominate the local markets, and I just felt kind of twitchy about it. So, I had a friend who is studying astronomy in grad school in Santa Cruz, and he said, “Santa Cruz is beautiful, you should move out here. I need a housemate in the fall anyway. I’m going to have to move.” So I said, “Sure.” And I loaded up the car and drove for four days across the country.

Loaded up the car, and you moved to…

I did. I moved to…

Not quite Beverly…

Not quite. A little bit farther north. But, you know, the whole time I was still writing, and I had…around ’99, 2000, started to occasionally sell stories to, like, very tiny small-press magazines and stuff like that. So I was getting some encouragement. I got up here and I lived in Santa Cruz for a while and I moved up to Oakland after I met Heather Shaw, whom I eventually married, also a writer and editor. We started dating, and dating up and down the coast from Santa Cruz to Oakland proved to be a little bit tiring, so I moved up to Oakland, and I got a job at Locus. I applied at Locus Magazine, and was fortunate in that one of my Clarion instructors was Michaela Roessner, who was very good friends with Charles Brown, who was still alive and running Locus. So, I came up for the interview and he said, “Oh, I asked Mikey about you and, you know, you got the job if you want it. Here’s what the job is.” So that helped a lot.

For those who don’t know, you should maybe explain what Locus is.

Oh, sure. Locus is a trade publishing magazine for science fiction and fantasy. So, we run book reviews, we run interviews, we run obituaries–I write those–we run listings of science fiction books, we do all sorts of features, we cover the conventions, we do quarterly forthcoming books listing where we painstakingly gather information from publishers big and small about all the science fiction and fantasy books that are coming out in the next nine months. And that’s a really helpful issue. Booksellers and librarians really love that issue because they can go through and see what’s coming down the road that they’re interested in.

Lots of little tiny print.

You know, we’ve revamped a little bit. Our reviews are a bigger type size than they used to be. But yeah, the listings of books…there’s just so many books now, right? With all the small-press stuff, the barrier to entry to self-publish is so low that, you know, we used to get on the order of, you know, hundreds of books in a month, and now sometimes we’ll see, you know, several hundred bucks a month, right, instead of like a couple hundred. And, you know, it’s got squeezed in there somewhere. 

I was just gonna say, you know, I’ve been reading books for a long time. And there’s this thing among authors known as Locus Envy, where you’re looking in the news and you see that, you know, somebody you never heard of just landed a twelve-book deal for $14 million and the mini-series is coming out next week…yeah, so.

It’s an issue, but I write the People in Publishing column, which has all of those deals in it, and it used to drive me nuts, especially when I was, like, desperate to sell a novel, because I had been at Locus for a few years before I sold the book. I’d been at Locus for a couple of years before I sold the story professionally. But I’ve actually come around to say, “You know, what this tells me is that there are still publishers out there that will value science fiction and fantasy to that degree, right? They’re willing to invest in it.” And the thing to remember is that, like, somebody else’s hugely successful book is the thing that subsidizes your potentially less successful book, right? I had the same editor as George R.R. Martin for a little while. And you know what? My books didn’t do like George’s did, but George’s made enough money that they could take chances on books like mine.

In my case, I’m at DAW, and Patrick Rothfuss has helped a lot in that regard.

Oh, absolutely right. Rising tides, they lift all boats.

So, we should probably talk about your books…

Sure!

…and how you write them, because that’s what this is all about. So, looking at the Axiom series, maybe you can give a synopsis so I don’t give it away. I have read the first two books and enjoyed them very much. I just came back from St. John’s, Newfoundland, because my wife is an engineer and she was on a committee of Engineers Canada and she had to go up there for a meeting, so I tagged along, since I’d never been out there. But it’s a three-hour flight to Toronto and another three hours to St. John’s. I think I finished the first book in that first trip to St. John’s and I read the other while I was there. So I got them both read before I talked to. So, I enjoyed it very much, but maybe you can explain what the premise is.

Yeah, I always try to do an elevator pitch and I always say I need a very slow freight elevator and a very tall building. Essentially, they’re set about 600 years in the future. Humankind has made contact with a species of aliens, which we call Liars because we don’t know what they’re really called, because they lie about everything, which leads to some funny first-contact shenanigans that I sort of exposit, talk about a little bit, but it’s all deep pre-history to my characters. Right? They’ve known about these aliens for centuries. But the liars just confabulate. They make up stories about their own origins, about the nature of the universe. You can’t really rely on them to tell the truth about anything. But eventually, once humans figure out what they’re dealing with, they manage to work out some trade, right? If you make sure that the thing that they’re giving you is the thing that, you know, you think it is, sometimes the trade works out okay. And one of the things that the liars give us is the location of these wormhole gates. There’s one out near Jupiter, and we don’t know it’s there because until it’s bombarded with exactly the right kind of radiation, it’s nothing. It’s empty space. But when it’s bombarded with the right combination of radiation, it opens up into this portal that leads, potentially, to various other places. So, there are about thirty known wormhole gates scattered throughout the galaxy, and what they enable humans to do is go out and colonize, right? They can spread. So, a lot of these systems have habitable planets or planets that can be terraformed, which the Liars also have great technology for.

So, the first book starts with a bunch of, sort of ragtag post-humans, a crew, because I like a nice misfit crew, and they’re working salvage and security for a space station, the stuff out in the outer fringes of our solar system, out beyond the orbit of Neptune, and they find this wrecked ship. And when they open up the wrecked ship, they find a bunch of destroyed cryopods and one cryopod that still has a human being in it. And this is pretty weird because they realize promptly that this ship was what they call a Goldilocks ship. So, back before we met the Liars, back before we got some technological remediation, the planet was not doing very well, and in a sort of desperate last-ditch effort to save humanity, we sent out a bunch of ships, just slow, sublight speed, with people cryogenically frozen. They’re seed ships, right, so they have lots of embryos and lots of seed stock and they just send them out to various stars that look like they have planets in the Goldilocks zones, right, so planets that might conceivably be habitable. Probably most of them aren’t. Probably ninety-nine percent of them aren’t. But things were so desperate and there were enough people who were willing to volunteer to take this shot that they sent these colony ships out. The funny thing is then, you know, while they were all still taking their slow journeys, then we met aliens, and the aliens helped us, and they helped us fix Earth. And so, most of those colony ships were sort of forgotten. And, in fact, some of them would arrive to find the planet that they were going to try to colonize already having a thriving colony, right, if it happened to be one that had a wormhole gate in that system.

So, they find this Goldilocks ship, and it’s baffling because it should not be in our solar system. It should be really, really far away by now, right? It left 500 years ago. And so, they wake up the one person who’s in the ship, who’s a biologist named Elena, and ask her what happens. She says, “Oh, our ship, it was incredible, it was amazing. We met aliens.” And they all say, “Oh, yeah, we know. We know about the aliens. That’s kind of old news. I’m sorry.” And she says, “No, no, no, not those aliens. These are different aliens.” As far as humans know, Liars are the only other intelligence pieces of aliens in the universe. We’ve never met any other ones. And it turns out there’s a reason for that. So the aliens Elena met are much more terrifying, much more uninterested in working with humans and more interested in scouring humans from life. And eventually, I mean, this is a little bit of a spoiler, but it’s the name of the trilogy, they discover that there’s this ancient alien race called the Axiom, and one hates to make generalizations about entire species, but as a culture, the Axiom were not nice. They were about domination and control and exterminating anything that might be a threat to them. The Liars they kept around because the Liars  could be useful to them. They were essentially, you know, a servitor species, which is not fun for them. The Axiom, thousands of years ago, mostly went dormant as they wait for various long-term projects that they have set to go into fruition.

So, essentially what my ragtag crew discovers is that the galaxy is littered with these space stations and these facilities and these things that look like planets–but they’re not actually planets–that the Axiom have built that are doing stuff we don’t even understand, that have technology way beyond anything we can imagine. And so, there’s extremely dangerous toys lying around. The problem is, if the Axiom happened to wake up and notice us like, say, if we start messing with their toys, they’d probably exterminate all humanity. So now my crew has this terrible secret that they want to tell anybody about, because humans, being humans, will go try to pillage these treasure boxes to see what they can find, and as a consequence, they might kill everybody. So my crew is trying to sort of, with the help of a Liar named Lantern, who’s from a sect that knows about the Axiom, this crew, they’re trying to figure it out. They’re trying to deal with it. So the books are about them, basically, like running into Axiom stuff and attempting to deal with. And then, over the course of the trilogy, trying to sort of figure out a larger strategy to deal with this huge existential threat that no people know about. And there’s all kinds of deeper stuff in it, like why the Liars tell lies is one of the big reveals in the first book, you know, the cultural reason for why they make up all these stories. And the second book is about a giant virtual reality engine, because I like VR stuff. That was really fun. And then the third book, The Forbidden Stars, the one that’s coming out, which you have not read…

No, I have not.

So I sort of mentioned, what I like to do in series, I’ve done a few series, I like to sort of, you know, put some Chekhov’s guns, not even on the mantelpiece, but like way out in the front yard, you know? So, in book one, I’ll mention something and I’ll come back to it three books later. And that’s essentially what this book is about. I mentioned that, of the wormhole gates, there’s one gate that people just stopped coming back through. Right? Like, colonists went in, for a while there was communication, and then it just shut down. And various, you know, ships have been sent in to try to figure out what happened on the other side, what happened to the system. They never come back, either. Right? So it becomes known as the forbidden system, the interdicted system. Nobody’s allowed, you know, the militaries, or the polities, that control the wormhole gates don’t let anybody go there because it seems to be a one-way ticket. You seem to not come back. The assumption is that something horrible happened there. Well, in the course of the series, my ragtag crew of post-humans, they get hold of technology that nobody else has, Axiom technology. They can open wormholes anywhere they want to in the galaxy, so they can go places that no one else can go. And they decide, for various reasons, that they should go see what’s happening in the Vanir System, that’s the system that’s interdicted.

I’m going to predict the Axiom has something to do with it.

You know, it’s possible that mean, bad aliens could be involved. So, that’s what The Forbidden Stars is about. They’re able to go. And it’s the Vanir system is the most remote of all the colonized systems. It’s so far out in the galaxy that conventionally, you know, it would take thousands of years for a ship to get there. So ,it really is a complete mystery. And the crew pops in and they find out all sorts of interesting things that are happening. And the third book, because it’s the last one in the trilogy, I also reveal like some big fundamental stuff about the axiom. You know, it ends up having sort of…it’s a book with two climaxes, because they have to sort of deal with the local problem, and then I want to like address the sort of global, bigger problem, which is that, like, six people are trying to save the galaxy, which is a great story, but practically maybe, maybe the scale is a little bit beyond what they can deal with. So…

In your dialogue, which is very witty and fun, because it is, like, this ragtag bunch trying to save the galaxy, it did have for me certain Guardians of the Galaxy vibes.

Yeah, right?

A completely different crew, but it was still that kind of joking, and the banter was…it’s really a lot of fun to read.

Well, you know, I love that sense of, sort of a found family that the bumbling around in space, you know, the Firefly feel, right, I mean, The Killjoys feel, like there’s a lot of things that kind of have that vibe. And I think it’s fun. And you either have…if you’re trapped on a ship with a bunch of people, either you poisonously hate each other–and that’s, you know, one way you can go in space opera to have drama–or you sort of figure out how to, like, tolerate and enjoy one another’s weird qualities and foibles.

Now, how did this all come about? What was the seed for this trilogy? And is the way that it came about fairly typical of the way that you find your stories to tell?

The first book in Tim Pratt’s Marla Mason series.

So, this one’s a little bit odd in that I am historically a fantasy writer. The thing I was probably best known for before this was an urban fantasy series about a character named Marla Mason that I did ten books and a prequel, a short novel, and a collection right? And so I had spent a decade of my working life doing urban fantasy. And other things, too, but mostly always contemporary fantasy. A little bit of sword and sorcery and stuff. So I thought, well, one thing I really love that I’ve never written much, except the occasional short story, I love space opera. And I always felt this resistance because I have a great respect for science and a great respect for math. And I’m not very good, especially at the math. I have friends who are astronomers who can help me out with stuff, but when it comes to, like, calculating orbital mechanics and stuff, I am hopeless. The Internet has been a great help because there are all sorts of calculators where you can plug in values and sort of figure out things, but it’s just not the way my mind works. And I always thought, you know, if I write it, I’m going to screw it up, I’m not going to be able to do it well enough. Just in the back of my head, I thought, “I’m not qualified to write space opera.” And then I stopped myself and I thought, “But really, space opera is a big tent, right? Like, you can have, you know, The Expanse is pretty crunchy, right, like it’s pretty much…they try to stay within the realm of feasibility for the most part. But at the other end, you know, you have stuff like Firefly, right, you have stuff like Farscape. So, somewhere in there is a range where I can exist happily, right? So, sort of the small-scale local solar system stuff, I thought, “Okay, I will try and learn enough that I can do this halfway plausibly, like see what it’s actually, you know, how the spaceships would actually work, actually pay attention to it, and then as quickly as I can, I will get magical alien technology, right? The stuff the Axiom has, like, they can violate laws of physics, right? Like they can do all sorts of things. Once I was got that, I was like, oh…

Very much Clarke’s Law stuff there.

I can have artificial gravity at that point, okay, right? Like, there’s all these things I can do. I can have, you know, wormhole travel so that it doesn’t take, you know, thousands or millions of years to get from point A to point B. And once I sort of told myself, “It’s OK, I can find a place that is reasonable to use my level of science and math knowledge. It’ll be okay. A space opera has a lot of flexibility, right? It’s not like it’s hard science fiction anyway. It’s supposed to be sort of adventure stories in space,” I decided I could do that. So I sat down with a notebook and I wrote down everything that I like in space opera. And you know, I love Iain Banks, you know, I like Lois McMaster Bujold, I like M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract stuff, like, my taste in space opera is super broad. So, I just wrote down all the stuff I like, post-human weirdos, like Peter Watts’s Blindside I love, it’s a great book. It’s super depressing, but it’s about a spaceship full of post-human weirdos and they all have a weird thing about them, right? You know, there’s the person who has a bifurcated brain, and there’s a technologically plausible vampire, and there’s, you know, somebody who has multiple personalities. There’s…and I really like that sort of assemblage of bizarre characters. So that was one of the things. I like weird, menacing alien technology. I like wormholes. I like really huge-scale space stations floating around, right, where there are entire sort of hothouse cultures that develop on space stations. So I made a list of all the things I love.

Then, I made a somewhat shorter list of things I hate. Like, alien cultures that are monocultures, right? I used to see this lot more in old science fiction. People have gotten better about it. But you know, sort of the Star Trek thing, where this is a planet of, they’re all worriers, they all have bumpy foreheads, and they all follow the Bushido code, right? Like, I always thought that was kind of boring because just in my neighborhood in South Berkeley, there are probably 400 overlapping cultures and subcultures, right? And so I thought, if I’m going to have aliens, they need to have that level of complexity.

Now, there’s a reason that most science fiction writers don’t do that, and that’s because it impossible. You can’t have anything approaching the granularity of actual culture and subculture in an alien species. That’s why you have the shorthand that says, oh, they’re all warriors. And then maybe you point out, “Well, there’s some pacifists over here and there’s some guys who just really like writing bicycles over here.” But sort of the way that I approach that was by having the Liars, who create their own version of their culture, their own history. So every group of them you meet, whether it’s a giant ship or if it’s, you know, a small, you know, half a dozen of them living together on a hollowed-out asteroid. They all have their own made-up story about where they come from and what they are and their purpose in the universe. You know, they have religions and it’s unclear for much of the series whether they believe the things that they tell you or whether they’re just messing with outsiders, or what. And eventually it does, as I said, get revealed in book one, why they are the way they are. But that was my approach to dealing with that thing that, you know, that I don’t like so much in science fiction.

So, I took my big list of things I loved and things I didn’t love, and I bashed together, you know, sixty pages of prose and an outline, and I started sending it around. And I remember my agent had sent it out to a bunch of places, and I had reached out to some (publishers) that I knew personally, and, you know, it was like any novel submission, we were getting some rejections and some “close, but not quite”s, and all that. 

So I was walking around Lake Merritt, the beautiful jewel of Oakland, out with my friend Sarah, walking around, enjoying the weather and just talking about stuff, and I got an email from Mark Gascoigne, who was then at Angry Robot, the science fiction publisher that he founded. And I had known Mark a little bit from back in the day. He’d worked on some anthologies that I had had stories in and stuff like that. We had a friendly relationship. So I’d said, “Hey, Mark, I have this space opera, maybe you’ll take a look.” And he wrote me back and he said he loved it and he wanted to buy it. So that was that was a happy thing. And, you know, I jumped around and said, “Hooray!” And then we talked about sort of the nitty-gritty. And the cool thing was, I sold them one book, and Mark liked what I had so much that he came back to me and said, “Actually, how would you like to do a couple more books?” And so, pretty soon I had, not just not just one book, but I had a trilogy deal, which was awesome because I like to be gainfully employed for years.

It’s funny when publishers say things like that, no author ever says, “No, no, I think I’d just like to do the one.”

“I’ll just do the one.” There are circumstances under which I would decline, like, if the money was really terrible…

It is possible to write a book that just…sequels make no sense to, of course.

Oh, absolutely. And you know, if it was a publisher, I wasn’t sure about, maybe, right? But I had, you know, I had a good feeling about Mark. He’d done me some good turns that he did not have to do earlier in my career. So, I was absolutely thrilled. And, you know, I had friends who’d published with Angry Robot and I’d done all my due diligence, so I was pretty happy. And they’ve done great with the books. They got Paul Scott Canavan, did these wonderful covers.

Yeah, they’re very nice.

Yeah, right? Like, I got a book with a spaceship on the cover. I thought I’d never have that my career. You know, I write about weird magicians who live in cities and stuff.

I had a book called Falcon’s Egg, which was the second book in a duology I did for a small Canadian press called Bundoran Press. And it has an exploding spaceship on the cover…

Oh, that’s great.

…and that been a dream of mine since I was like eleven, so.

Oh, yeah, that’s beautiful.

It’s also a bit of a spoiler because it’s about two-thirds of the way through the book with that particular spaceship explodes, and it’s also on the cover of the first book. So you know which spaceship it is. There’s only one spaceship, really, one big spaceship. But still, it’s an exploding spaceship, so I like it.

Well, it creates suspense. People are reading, waiting to see when the spaceship is going to explode.

I suppose that’s true. So, just to back away from the trilogy for a minute, when you’re writing your short stories and things like that, what’s a typical way for you to get an idea for something like that or for some of your other work?

You know, I just…my brain is always looking for stuff. You know, I read a lot of popular science, I read a lot of history and mythology, I read a whole lot of fiction. And what a lot of writers do, I’m sure you know, is, you’ll read something and be like, “Oh, that’s great idea. I could have done that better.” Or, “Oh, I would have taken that in a different direction, right?” And so, sometimes you do that. You go, you just take it in a different direction.

It is a field that we often say is in conversation with itself. And that’s part of it, all these ideas are floating around and people deal with them differently. And you think, “Well, I don’t like the way you dealt with it. I’m going to write it this way,” or, “Well, she did a good job on that. But I would have taken it over here.” So we all are always feeding off of this stuff.

Yeah. And I love that. You know, I love the sense that we’re working within this huge sort of shared universe of tropes and ideas and possibilities that we can ring all these changes on. And we can interrogate and we can critique things, right, that other people have done or that have just been common in the field. So, I think about that stuff a lot. And, you know, I’m a character-driven writer, honestly, so I come up with a neat idea or cool situation and then I try to come up with a character who would be the most fun to torture in that situation, right? And then I just attempt to sort of build them up psychologically into my mind and model what they would be likely to do.

Is that how you came up with the characters for the Axiom trilogy?

Absolutely. I wanted to have somebody, you know, I wanted to have sort of an acerbic space captain, right, who’s a little bit abrasive, but is ultimately good, good-hearted. I wanted to have a weird cyborg. There’s a character named Ashok who a lot of people love…

I like him.

Ashok is great.

I know a lot of engineers. So he kind of…

Exactly. Yeah. Ashok is a classic engineer, right? He doesn’t care as much about why as about how he’s going to know fix it or exploit it. He’s an early adopter. You know, I have friends who are always…you know, I live in the Bay Area. I’m surrounded by tech people. So I know people, whenever the new thing is out there, they’re the first one in line or, you know, the first one to order it online. And so I thought, you know, you take that far enough in the future where there’s better prosthetics and stuff, then maybe you would have people who would say, “You know, my human arm is fine, but it wouldn’t be so terrible if I was in a horrible salvage accident and lost it, because then I could get this amazing new prosthetic that has the in-built microsurgery tools or whatever.” Right? So that’s Ashok. He just, he wants to improve what nature gave him. And I wanted to have sort of a morose ship’s doctor to kind of ground the crew and be sort of a voice of reason. So I put him in there. And, you know, I have a ship’s AI, who is in love with the captain for complicated reasons.

And so I sort of put together…I wanted to have a crew that had lots of strong personalities that would sort of act in conflict with each other. You know, they’re a family. They love each other. But that doesn’t mean they always get along, they always agree. I’m also a hopeless romantic, like a lot of my stuff is love stories. And there is a love story that’s central to the trilogy. And throughout the trilogy, I resisted making a plot point…it’s the captain and the woman who they thaw out of the cryopod, so it’s a time-slip romance, sort of…I resisted the urge to make a source of conflict them getting into a fight, because I really wanted to demonstrate them as a partnership. Right. Even when they disagree, they support one another. They have each other’s back. So that was important to me in that book.

When you were outlining and synopsizing, what do those look like for you? You said you did like sixty pages. That’s a fairly lengthy synopsis.

That was text. That was sample chapters. I wrote sixty pages of actual book, and then then about a page of what I thought the rest of the book was going to be, which was sort of semi-accurate. And then for the other two, they said, “We just need something written on a piece of paper so that we can justify writing you checks, right?”

Nice.

So essentially…well, you know, I’ve done a lot of books and Mark was familiar with my work and knew that I would…you know, I’ve done work for hire, like I if I’m known for anything in this business, it’s for being reliable and turning in decent copy on time. And so, for those I just was able to write a couple paragraphs, kind of about what I thought they were about. So those were cool. But I will tell you my trick for writing outlines and synopses if you want.

I’m sure people will be interested.

So, I had, I struggled like hell with it for the longest time. I would sit down and I would write, you know, what was going to happen in the book, and it would be the driest, most boring recitation. It would be like a third-grade book report of a book you didn’t like that much. And it drove me nuts. And then one day, I was at a party and I’d had a couple of drinks, and a friend of mine who was a writer asked me what I was working on. I started telling them how excited I was about this book, that I was going to work on. And I was telling them all the coolest things about it, and like all the things I was most excited about and how amazing it was, and something clicked in my head. And I said, “This is the way I need to write synopses. I need to write my synopsis like I’m slightly drunk at a party telling an editor how awesome my book is going to be.” And so that’s what I did. You know, I still hit the highlights, I talk about what happens in the book, I talk about the plot and the characters, but I do it with the energy and the enthusiasm. And, you know, I’m not plodding and sequential, I talk about it in a way that conveys my excitement about it. And since I have done that, every proposal I have tried to write like that has sold. I mean, maybe it’s taken a few times, but they’ve all sold.

I’m actually…I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library. So I’m working with anybody that wants to come in and say hi and ask me questions or give me something to critique. And actually, I had a fellow in yesterday who was asking that specific question, about how to create a successful synopsis. So I’ll be sure to point him to your answer.

Yeah. You don’t have to be drunk. You know, this is…that’ just me. But something…whatever helps you convey that enthusiasm in an uninhibited way.

What’s your actual writing process look like? I presume you work directly on the keyboard. You’re not writing in longhand under a tree somewhere in a parchment notebook.

I used to, and when I write poetry, I do tend to write longhand. I feel like I get a little bit closer to the language somehow when I write longhand. But for novels and for stories, I pretty much compose straight into the keyboard. Back in the old days, I would sometimes draft longhand and then my first round of revision would be when I typed it in.

Yeah, I used to do that.

In practice, I eventually hit a point where I had to hustle, like, a lot. I was writing two and a half, three books a year for a while, just because, you know, I had a kid and I work for a non-profit, and so I had to make some money. Things have eased off since then. But just for time reasons, I stopped writing longhand and I started typing directly because it was just faster. And I’ve kept it up. I compose pretty comfortably on my little laptop.

Do you work at home or do you work out somewhere? Where do you like to work?

I was sort of your classic coffee-shop writer for a long time. This was especially when I lived in places where I had housemates. It could be hard to find a place that was quiet. And so I would go out and, you know, find the corner of a coffee shop and write. As I said, I had a kid about twelve years ago and that stopped me going out quite so much. So now mostly I tend to write at home. I’ll write wherever with my laptop in my lap. if it’s only an hour or two, if I am on deadline and I’m having to work for hours and hours at a stretch, I acknowledge my forty-something-year-old body and set up a little more ergonomically at a desk, plug the laptop into the monitor and the keyboard.

Are you a fast writer?

I am a slow thinker and a fast writer. Yeah. So I tend to think about stuff a lot, and by the time I sit down to type, it comes out pretty quickly.The Axiom books in particular…I’ve always been kind of a binge driver by preference, like, I’ll not write at all week, and then on a day I’ll spend seven or eight hours writing. And I had to adjust that after I had a kid, especially when he was little, because I didn’t have long stretches of uninterrupted time anymore. So, I had to retrain my brain to be able to write in sort of ten-minute snatches or half-Hour snatches. And so, as a result, I’m a much more flexible writer now than I used to be. But my preference is still long stretches of time and to draft things very quickly. The Dreaming Stars was written…like, actual days spent typing, probably in less than a month, and half of it I wrote in a week at a writing retreat where I went. You know, I have a kid, I have a day job, like, so if I take the time away to go write, I have to maximize that time. I have to really use it. So I was writing 10 or 12,000 words a day at that retreat.

I got a chance to do that with a book called Magebane, which is…it’s written under a pseudonym, Lee Arthur Chane, but it’s me, as I keep telling people when I’m trying to sell it to. “No, really, it’s me. I’ll sign it Lee Arthur Chane. But really, it’s me”. But there’s…the Banff Center has a self-directed retreat you can go on, where you stay in…they’re basically dorms, hotels, a cheap way to stay in Banff…and then you just write, and I did 50,000 words in a week. I don’t do that usually. And I have a kid, too. She’s gone to university as of this year, but still.

Oh, yeah. Well, in my house I can’t produce to that level. But if I’m in a place where my only job is to write a lot? And for The Forbidden Stars, I went…I had some friends who have a place up in Marin that’s in the country, and they kindly let me stay up there for a few days, and I pounded out, not quite half, but a big chunk of The Forbidden Stars I wrote up there, going slowly stir-crazy all alone in the forest.

What does your revision process look like once you have that draft? You do produce polished prose? Do you have to go back and do a lot of fixing and rewriting? Do you show it to beta readers? How does it work for you?

Yeah, it’s not super polished. It tends to be pretty schematic because I’m writing very quickly. So, I get down the situation that’s happening, I usually get down some good lines of dialogue. My next pass I go through and I flesh out the world. You know, I remember, “Oh, sometimes things have odours, right? Sometimes people have physical reactions to things that, you know, they say to each other.” So I go through and I do an extra layer. So my stuff always gets longer. So my first drafts will be maybe 70,000 words. And then. I’ll go back through and flesh them out and, like, I’ll foreshadow and I’ll touch up my subplots and all that, and they’ll grow by ten or fifteen or 20,000 words in the course of revision. I’m a putter-inner rather than taker-outer…

Yeah, me too.

…as a reviser. Yeah, I mean, I feel like it’s more efficient that way. You’re not throwing away words you could get paid for. That’s my feeling.

How long are the books? I read them in e-book, so I have no idea.

Yeah. They’re like eighty-five, ninety, around that range. That’s a pretty comfortable range. Like, most of my novels are about that long.

That’s kind of what I felt, because it wasn’t like I felt like I was slogging through Game of Thrones, which, you know I enjoyed, but they’re very long. But because they were in e-book—and I read both of them in e-book, but certainly I got through yours fashion than I did his. So I knew they were shorter.

Yeah. You know, I love a big immersive fantasy. It’s just not what I write. You know, I tend to, you know, lean and mean…I think the longest book I’ve written is maybe a 110, 120,000 words long.

Does it go straight to your editor once you’re happy with it, or do you have other people who look at it first?

Well, when I was newer, when I was first starting out, I had a lot of beta readers. And, you know, I have a lot of friends who are writers. If there’s something that I feel like isn’t working, I will reach out to some trusted friends, whose biases I know and understand, and I will ask them about things. In practice, like, in terms of deadlines, I don’t have a lot of time to send out stuff for the most part. And at this point, I’ve done, you know, thirty-some novels or something like that. I can usually tell if it’s kind of working, you know, so I’ll do my round of vision to clean it up, and then I’ll sort of read…put it aside if I can for a little while, read the whole thing, and sort of minimally mark it up as I read through it, because what I’m looking for in that read is like horrible failures of pacing, or horrible, you know, changes in tone, things that just…you know, I try to get a sense of the gestalt of the whole thing to see if it’s working. And if it’s not, then I sort of fine tune that. And then I do…I love to line edit I will line edit things all day, I do a line-edit pass or two, and then I send it off to my editor and deal with whatever they want dealt with. But for the most part, I tend to clean it…by the time I turn it into my editor, it’s usually pretty clean.

My agent is good, especially about character issues, so sometimes I’ll run a book past her. I’ve…you know, I went to Charlie Finlay’s Blue Heaven writing workshop once back in the day. So, I have done more of a critique process, but for the most part…Tim Powers said once that he never shows his books to anyone who’s not in a position to write him a check for them, which is not…he’s a little bit stretching the truth. He does show it to them. I know his wife helps him out stuff, but I sort of thought, “Oh, that’s a nice ethos. I can get behind that.”

Well, I’ve just always lived someplace where there wasn’t anybody around to help. So I’ve always…pretty much it just go straight to my editor. And what does your editor come back with typically? What are the sorts of things…I know you’ve worked with more than one editor…what sorts of things do they typically come back with you to maybe tweak a little more?

You know, I probably block all these things out. Revision is very traumatic. I remember on The Forbidden Stories, it was kind of cool, I had Simon Spanton, the venerable British editor, is now…who’s worked with all sorts of, you know, big science fiction, space opera, people…he edited the third book, which was cool. And he came back with a lot of really interesting stuff about me maybe not fully thinking through the implications of some of the technologies that I was introducing, right.? Because I had all this, “Oh, here’s all this cool stuff.” And Simon said, “Well, that’s cool, but you have to think if you have this in your universe, that implies this and implies this. And why don’t they just do this?” Right? So he had me sort of scale back some of my more godlike technology and make stuff  a little bit more grounded and plausible. And it is also, like, if your character can wave a magic wand and defeat, you know, a battalion of enemies, that’s not quite as exciting, right, as having them have to struggle a little more. So Simon was great. You know, it’s stuff like, “Maybe beef up this character a little more or, you know, I thought this thing came out of nowhere. Could you maybe set it up and prepare it a little better?” But yeah, I mean, honestly, turning in pretty clean drafts is just one of the things, it’s one of the things that came in the box for me. It’s one of things I’m pretty good at.

My editor at DAW, of course, is Sheila Gilbert, and she’s great about picking up on things that maybe don’t quite make sense. My current fantasy series, we worked a lot on it because she was making sure that I had thought through things like that, so I didn’t get in trouble further down the road. Has that ever happened to you where you’ve put something into a book in a series, you had a long series, and you got bitten by it later down the road because you put it in as a sort of a throwaway moment, then you want to do something later and you can’t do it because you’ve established in your world that that’s not possible. Anything like that ever happened to you?

It is a difficulty. Yeah.

Continuity, I guess.

Yeah, it has happened. In my urban fantasy series, I could usually find ways to route around that damage, because it’s magic. I can come up with magic or a new kind of magic or a more powerful magic or whatever. So, usually I could work on it. I did think of another editorial feedback thing that was helpful. So, in The Dreaming Stars, they go to the Jovian system, they spend some time there and they spend some time on Ganymede. And I did a lot of research about Ganymede, and Ganymede is fascinating. And so, I just filled the book with all these wonderful Ganymede facts. And my editor came back and said, “You know, this book is really enjoyable. I love the banter and the interplay with the characters. Nothing happens for the first quarter of this book. They just talk about Ganymede. Maybe we could scale back on the Ganymede facts and increase the tension here and there.” And so I said, “Fine.” I did I did a reading where I was like, “So here, I’m going to read to you the Ganymede facts I had to cut from my novel.

Well, at least you had have a use for them.

That’s right.

Well, we’re getting within the last ten minutes or so here, so I’m going to move to the big philosophical questions. I’d like to change my voice for that: Big Philosophical Questions. It’s really just one question, with multiple parts, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you write science fiction fantasy? And why do you think anybody writes science fiction fantasy? Why do we do this?

This is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m going to be principal speaker at PhilCon in November and I have to write a speech, and so I was thinking about things I could talk about. And it dovetails pretty neatly into this question. So, for me, I grew up in rural North Carolina, lived in a trailer park, right? The people that I knew were factory workers or they were farm workers, right? Like the fancy people had retail jobs or like office jobs, right? There was no sense that there was like a literary or creative life, right, that you could be more, that you could pursue a life in the arts, that you could, you know, move more than ten miles away from where your family had grown up. And there’s some good things to be said about that. You know, my dad’s side of the family, especially, is very close-knit, and there’s a real sense of community there. But for me, I always kind of had my head in the clouds and my eyes on the stars. And so, the fact that I had access to all these books that were in my parents’ house and that were in my grandmother’s house, what they did was show me the possibility of other worlds, right? That there could be something more than living in, you know, among the swamps and the soybean fields in eastern North Carolina, that if that didn’t feel like the right world for me, that there might be another world that did feel right. And it just opened my eyes.

When I was a kid, it was everything. You know, it’s the reason that I had the courage to go off to college, you know, I was the first person in my family to go to college. It was the reason that I was able to move out to California, which was just not…you know, my mom traveled around, but even she mostly stayed in the South. And that was all down the books, it was all down to showing me there’s all these other kinds of people and all these other worlds. And, you know, like, I’m a weird liberal bisexual person, like all sorts of things that didn’t really fit in super well where I grew up. And books showed me that it was okay, and there were places where it was OK. And I think a lot of why I wrote was because I loved the feeling that I had when I read books and I thought if I wrote, I could have that same feeling in worlds that I’d created, and that always worked, right? I write the books that I want to read. But as I got older and thought about it more and started to have a career and thought about, “What am I doing?”, sort of bigger-level, like, “What kind of books do I want to write?” I want to write books that do for other people what books did for me, right? I want to show them that there are other ways of being and there are places where you can be accepted for who you are and that it’s worth taking chances, and sometimes you’re gonna get a smacked down, sometimes it will hurt, but it’s still worth it to take the chance, and that you should live your life open-hearted. All these things that I learned from books that I certainly wasn’t getting from where I grew up, right? You know, we were pretty poor, and it was…you know, my parents always made sure we were fed. We had a roof over our heads. But, you know, it could be a little rough sometimes…that there was a world beyond that. And so, that’s what I tried to do in my books, you know? I want a kid who picks up one of my books to feel like there’s magic in the world, right? To feel that they’re gonna find their tribe, right, or at least that it’s possible that they can find their tribe. And, you know, let them go out there.

As for, “Why science fiction and fantasy?” Honestly, I think it was just early exposure. You know, I could have written other kinds of books–perhaps not crime novels, since they have a somewhat darker world view than what I’m talking about. I love reading them., but part of why I love reading them is because I don’t write them, so I can enjoy them purely as a reader and not analyze them. But, you know, it’s just, that’s what I grew up with. That’s what my parents loved.

You know, the first books that I remember reading were, you know, Stephen King, and I had an aunt who gave me some Clive Barker, you know, my grandmother gave me Heinlein and Asimov, right? And it was just, that was just the kind of story…I read comic books, you know, I watched The Twilight Zone. For whatever reason, all that stuff really appealed to me. And when I think about it intellectually, I love the ability to make metaphors literal. I love thinking about how people react to extreme circumstances, and science fiction and fantasy allow you to create really extreme circumstances, like, way more extreme than most people are going to plausibly encounter in their day to day life,

I hope.

Yeah, right. And, you know, I think the…like my favorite short story writer, dead short story writer, I suppose…is Theodore Sturgeon, and I just loved that when he wrote about technology, he wrote about how technology impacted people, how it affected humans. So, when I do science fiction, that’s always my interest, too, right? It’s like, how this changes what it means to be human, how this changes how we relate to each other as humans. I mean, that’s the stuff that I like. So, I think that’s why  science fiction and fantasy.

It sounds like a good reason to do what you do. Well, that’s kind of the end of our time, I think, so thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. Oh, but before we go, what are you working on now?

So, I have another novel that it looks like is going to get bought. The contract is not signed yet, so I have to be a little bit skimpy with the details. But it is a multiverse book. I’ve wanted to write a multiverse book for ages. I love, and in my short stories I write a lot about, alternate dimensions, parallel dimensions, mirror universes, all that stuff. And I get to write a book that’s a multiverse book. So, that’s the next thing.

That’s actually…my current series is the characters moving from world to world, Shaped worlds that have been created by people that live in them. And so…the first one was kind of a version of our world, only with differences, but the second one that’s out right now is a Jules Verne-inspired world.

Oh, that’s cool.

And the one after that is…it doesn’t have a real title, but the working titled is Werewolves and Vampires and Peasants, Oh, My!

That’s great!

So, I’m having a lot of fun with that. And where can people find you online?

I am at timpratt.org, which is my sporadically updated website where I put sort of officially things.

You’re an organization.

Well, yeah, unfortunately, the dot coms and all of the various other dots were taken, so I became an org. And I’m on Twitter a lot. That’s sort of my social media presence. TimPratt on Twitter. And yeah, and I’ve been doing for four or five years, for years going into my fifth year, a story a month on Patreon, because I love writing short stories and that’s a great excuse to do it every month.

Great. Well, again, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, I had a great time talking with you. I hope you enjoyed it.

Yes, it was fun. Thanks for having me.

Episode 35: Lisa Kessler

An hour-long conversation with Lisa Kessler, bestselling and award-winning author of dark paranormal fiction, including The Moon Series, The Muse Chronicles, The Night Series, and the new Sentinels of Savannah series that begins with Pirate’s Passion.

Website
www.lisa-kessler.com

Facebook
www.facebook.com/LdyDisney

Twitter
@LdyDisney

Pinterest
www.pinterest.com/LdyDisney

Lisa Kessler’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Lisa Kessler

Lisa Kessler is a bestselling author of dark paranormal fiction. She’s a two-time San Diego Book Award winner for best published fantasy/sci-fi/ horror and best published romance. Her books have also won the PRISM Award, the National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award, the HOTE Medallion Award of Merit, and an International Digital Award for Best Paranormal. Her short stories have been published in print anthologies and magazines, and her vampire story, “Immortal Beloved,” was a finalist for a Bram Stoker Award. When she’s not writing. Lisa is a professional vocalist and has performed with San Diego Opera as well as other musical theatre companies in San Diego.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Lisa.

Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

Now, I usually start the show by talking about how we know each other. This is kind of a different one, because basically I know you because I was on your show, so…

Right. Yeah. You’ve been on Book Lights a couple of times and we always have such a great time. Plus, we have the musical background. So, I feel like we already know each other so well.

We will talk a little bit about Book Lights a little later on, too, so you get a chance to talk about that….I think I hear cats in the background.

Yes, sorry. My cat never comes in here, but she just decided to come in and be on the radio. So sorry about that.

It’s quite all right. Mine’s asleep somewhere or he might join in as well.

He’ll hear the other cat, and they’ll have a conversation.

I think it was my second interview, with John Scalzi, there were cats in the background. So, it’s kind of a Worldshapers tradition, so…

Oh, well, good. Maybe my cat knew that, and I wasn’t aware.

He’s probably a long-time listener. Well, we’ll start by taking you back…I always say this, and it’s kind of appropriate, considering the book that we’re going to be focusing on, Pirate’s Passion…take you back into the mists of time, but perhaps quite not as far back as the 18th century, to find out when you became…well, first of all, where you were born and where you grew up and then how you became interested in writing and specifically in writing tales of the paranormal and the fantastic.

Well, it’s kind of an interesting story because it’s sort of paranormal and I promise that it’s true. I grew up in San Diego, and after I graduated high school, I got into our family business–we made hospital window blinds–and so I travelled a lot for trade shows. And one of those trade shows took me to New Orleans. And some background. I sang opera and musical theatre, music was my focal point, but I always wrote for fun. And I was madly in love with Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, but anyone who was a fan back in the ’90s, it took a year and a half for another book to come out. And way back in the day of the Internet, when there were…remember net groups and things like that?…there was an Anne Rice one, and I met some other women there, and we started our own Yahoo! group to write our own vampires while we would wait for the next vampire book. So I probably did that…I would write every night my own vampires just for fun, probably for like eight years. I never thought about publishing anything.

But I had a trade show in New Orleans. And so, since I was in New Orleans, I had to get my palm read. And the palm reader gave me the reading and it seemed pretty right on. And then as we were leaving, she stopped me at the door and said, “Can I ask you something?” And I said, “Sure.” And she said, “Are you a writer?” And I said, “No, I sell window shades.” And then I thought about it and I said, “Well, I write for fun every night.” And she smiled and said, “You’re gonna be a famous writer someday.” And I was like, “What?” And my brain would not let it go. And by the time I got back to the airport, I had written out a plot outline for my first book, Night Walker, which was Mayan vampires in San Diego. Very cool book, but it took me a really long time to get that published. But I wrote it in six months, and I had no idea that all those years I had been practicing.

I got to meet Ray Bradbury a couple times before he passed away, and he always believed that you had to write somewhere around 800,000 words of crap before you became a storyteller. And I never knew that that was what I was doing. I filled up a whole hard drive with text documents of my vampires and never with any inkling that I would publish it. If I hadn’t seen that palm reader, I don’t know that I ever would have gotten that nudge to try and get published.

And then I wrote short stories—that was where “Immortal Beloved” came from—because I thought, “I’m not sure I’m a good writer. I’ve just been writing for fun.” So, I wrote a bunch of short stories and I got five of them published in publications and I thought, “OK, so I’m not horrible,” And I went on from there. But without that palm reader in New Orleans, I…it just wasn’t on my radar. I was so busy singing and working. The writing was just for fun. So, she really changed the course of my life that day unexpectedly. It was very, very strange. And now I write full time. So, who knew?

So you said that you’ve always written. Did you actually start as a kid? I know many of us writers do start whenever we’re quite young. Did you start way back then?

Yeah, I did. I did write when I was a kid, but I never thought I was going to be a writer. I wrote my first book in sixth grade. They actually bound and published it for me in the school library. And thankfully, when they re-did the school library, somebody on the school board found me and brought my book back. It was called The Wonders of Unicorn Creek. It was all of like twenty pages, but that was my first book.

I thought you were going to say, “Fortunately, they threw it out when they re-did the library,” but…

Mo, I got that wonderful book back. But I never…I always wrote, but I didn’t have that, you know, I just never realized I was going to be a novelist. That was never on my radar until New Orleans.

So, when did the music come in?

Music has always been my first love. That was…my dad was a musician, and as soon as I got to junior high, I was in choir and I had all the solos and in high school and right out of high school, I was taking private voice lessons and getting in San Diego Comic Opera and Lyric Opera and stuff like that. It was just, music has always been my first love and passion, and I still have a church job, so I still do sing every week. And that was really where my focus was. And I wrote…but during all of that, I was writing every night. I was building good skills for becoming a writer without any idea that I was ever gonna be one. So it’s very, very odd.

So, you mentioned that you started with short stories. Where was “Immortal Beloved” published? It was one it was a finalist for Bram Stoker Award. Where did it fall in there? Was it like your fifth one or was it an earlier wonder? And what was it about? Because I’m not familiar with the story.

Oh, OK. “Immortal Beloved” was…I was trying to write some short stories that I could try to get published to see…because I really had no concept if I was a good storyteller or not. But I had had the idea about…because I’m very musical, I had the idea about Beethoven, and nobody has figured out, you know, who his “immortal beloved” was, and I was really into writing vampires. So I thought, “What if Beethoven’s immortal beloved really was immortal, and what if it had to be a secret because he was a man?” And so, anyway, the story takes place today, but the vampire is hearing a child prodigy playing the “Moonlight Sonata” and he’s wondering if it’s Beethoven. It’s a really cool story. And I wrote it as an experiment. I wrote it while I was listening to the “Moonlight Sonata” over and over. And it really has, like ,three different acts. And so, the story kind of follows that same kind of structure. And it got…it’s been republished quite a few times. It’s in an anthology that’s out right now called…I’ll have to look it up, I can’t remember what…Dead Souls, that’s what it’s called. It’s a paperback anthology called Dead Souls, and it’s reprinted in that right now. But it was a fabulous experiment. And the story came out really well. I was really proud of it. I did my research and I felt like at the end, maybe Beethoven was in love with a male vampire.

Well, there was a whole movie called Immortal Beloved, of course, which did not have a vampire but was also dealing with that question of exactly who the immortal beloved was.

And somebody recently, they found some DNA or something, I don’t know, but I saw it pop up again recently and they still don’t know. But they think they’re closer to figuring it out. I don’t know. It’s a great mystery, though.

So, talking about “Immortal Beloved,” and I’m also going to get into your research, because obviously there was some involved there, when we talk about the book. So, why don’t we start talking about the book? Now, you’ve written a lot of books. How many series do you have at this point?

I have five series so far. Three of them are finished and I’m currently writing two others, The Sedona Pack and also the one we’re going to be talking about, The Sentinels of Savannah.

The Sentinels of Savannah, and the first book is called Pirate’s Passion, which I read. So, why don’t you give a synopsis of it so that I don’t give away something that shouldn’t be given away?

Okay. Well, there’s actually a novella that’s like the prequel just to get you into the whole world. But basically, there is a pirate crew that sank outside of Savannah over 200 years ago, in the 1700s. But the thing was that their final plunder was supposed to be the world’s greatest treasure. But when they took over the ship, all they found was a wooden cup that seemed to always have water in it. And so, they all drank from this without realizing that they had taken a sip from the Holy Grail. So, all of these men are still alive. They’re now immortal. And so, most of them still live in Savannah and now they have regular jobs. They have made a replica of their ship so that they can still sail. And their captain is still pirating, but he’s pirating in real estate.

And so, anyway, I made this special division of the government, Department 13, who deals with paranormal threats to American citizens. And because they’re the government, they have to…there’s laws, and they can’t steal, but he meets up with the immortal pirate crew and gives them the option of stealing now for the government. So they are going back to some of their piracy ways and also helping America. So, it is really wild and fun series to write so far.

And it is, of course, a romance, as well as paranormal, paranormal romance, kind of right there in the title. So who is the romance between?

So, in Pirate’s Passion, the romance is between the ship’s pilot, do the guy who steers the ship, and a historian who works for the Maritime Museum in Savannah, Dr. Charlotte Sinclair. And she has some secrets of her own. It was a wild adventure of a book to write. And the thing is, when you’re writing romance with these big paranormal elements, it’s really hard to balance the two. because you want the romance readers to get that happy-ever-after that they want, but when you have paranormal elements, a lot of times the stakes are gigantic. You know, the world could end, there’s lots of death and all that kind of thing. So, for me, it’s always a fun juggling act to keep it even, so that the romance is achieved, but we also get a really fun adventure with lots of danger. For me as a writer, I need lots of danger. When my kids were younger and at home still, they who see me sitting at the computer chomping on gum, going, “No, the story is stalled. What’s happening?”, and I had taught my daughter, “Well, it’s time to raise the body count,” because nothing gets things moving like a dead body. So anyway, a lot of people die in my books, as well. But balancing the romance with that is always a challenge. Bu in this book, it was it was not so difficult because the hero and heroine had a lot of spark instantly, which is always fun for me.

Yeah. I was going to ask you about that element of it, because I haven’t read…you know, I’ve read a lot of urban fantasy and I’ve read a lot of paranormal stories, but not paranormal romance, and certainly that balance is different than if it were just an urban fantasy.

Right.

You know, in an urban fantasy, you might have a romantic subplot, but it’s not quite as front and centre as the romance is in Pirate’s Passion. And, of course, there’s also the difference in the cover art.

Right, definitely. Yes. If you’re writing paranormal romance, the market is that there’s some kind of man chest on there, man chest and some kind of fog. And that’s what makes readers go, “Oh, it’s paranormal.” But, yeah, in urban fantasy, there’s almost always a big romance, you know, subplot going on. But in urban fantasy, there doesn’t have to be a happily ever after, and in romance that’s the deal you’re making with the reader. So, like, if it’s a mystery, the deal with the reader is that you will solve the crime by the end of the book, and the deal with the romance is that there will be a happily ever after, somehow. You may not know how that’s going to happen, but somehow there will be a happily ever after at the end. And so it does make it tricky, because if you don’t meet that, the readers are really disappointed. And in urban fantasy, you’ve got a little more wiggle little room, because you can have happy for now, you can have that they break up at the end. But there’s another book, so maybe they’ll get back together, you know? Like Sookie in the Sookie Stackhouse books, you know, she had many happy-for-nows with all different people. So, you have a little…more options there.

You couldn’t do that in a paranormal romance because the reader is expecting a happily ever after. So, in a paranormal romance series you’ll usually see some kind of band of brothers, you know, like this one has a pirate crew, because although all those characters will be in every book, I need a different character to be able to get his happily ever after. And that’s why werewolf shifters and things like that work really well in paranormal romance because you have a whole pack, and each one gets to be the hero of a book.

Does paranormal romance draw in readers from the more regular fantasy side and also draw in readers from the romance side that might not otherwise venture into that territory? Is it like a place where they come together? Ecumenical, sort of?

Yeah, I think so. I think so. I think paranormal romance is like a gateway drug to fantasy for romance readers because they get that taste of the worldbuilding and, you know, the worldbuilding and those super high stakes. You know, the world could end, you know, a city be destroyed or something like that, and it’s a whole new thing because other…there’s lots of genres of romance, historical, contemporary, romantic suspense. Romantic suspense can sometimes have super high stakes also. But the fantasy elements are all in paranormal romance. So, if a romance reader who maybe typically reads historicals stumbles across a time-travel or a paranormal romance or something like that, that can be their first experience sometimes with that kind of genre and can lead them toward, you know, urban fantasy and maybe even high fantasy.

To be fair to the cover art with the “man chest”…

Yes.

There was, of course…for a long time, urban fantasy seemed to be distinguished by the bare midriff of the female protagonist.

Exactly. Exactly. And urban fantasy, for a long time, it had to be the female protagonist, she had to be in black leather and high-heeled boots. And it’s like, if you read the book, the, you know, the women are, like, kicking ass, and I’m sure it wasn’t in high-heel boots. But that was what needed to be on the cover. But all of that is really like marketing and bookstore…you know, what people are expecting, I think. I don’t know who came up with what those need to be, but they sure stick.

Now, we’re using Pirate’s Passion as an example of your creative process. So, where did the idea…I know that’s a cliché, “Where do your ideas come from?”, nevertheless… where did the idea, or the seed, that grew into Pirate’s Passion come from, and is that typical of the way that your ideas come to you?

Well, actually, it was really neat. I got invited to be part of an anthology for the Romantic TimesRomantic Times was a magazine that would have the Book Lovers’ Convention, a national convention, where people came from all over the world. Lots of Australian readers would come to that one, and they wanted…it was happening in Atlanta, and so they called it Moonshine and Magnolias. And they wanted…they picked twenty romance authors, of all different genres of romance, to write a novella that was set in the south. And they needed…and the only requirement was it had to include Atlanta. And I’ve been to Atlanta, and it’s not like my most favourite city, but my grandmother and her family were all from Savannah. And I love Savannah. I’ve been there before. It’s very haunted city. It’s just, it’s so gorgeous and so much history. And so, I thought about Savannah. If I set it in Savannah, I could put the bad guy in Atlanta. And then I’m thinking about it, and I’ve been to Savannah before, and Savannah is all ghosts and pirates. It was a big pirate hub back in the day. You can go The Pirates’ Inn restaurant. It used to be a bar back then, but it is still there. And you can go inside, and they will show you the pirate tunnels that are still there, where they would get…they would get you so drunk that you would pass out and they would drag you through the tunnels onto a ship. And when you wake up out in the ocean, they’re like, “Well, you’re our ship’s doctor now.” So, anyway, you can still see those in Savannah. And when you walk along River Street, you know, they have all the pirate stuff. And so anyway, I thought, “Well, if I wrote a pirate book, but I don’t want it to be historical, I want it to be now, how can I make these pirates immortal?” And then I thought about the Holy Grail and I thought, “Ah, that could work.” And the whole thing came together. 

And when I wrote the novella for that event, my agent wanted to read it, and so I sent it to her, and she wrote me back, she goes, “I forgot to eat lunch, I was reading this, and please tell me the whole crew is gonna get a book and let me sell this series.” And I was like, “Okay.” So, anyway, I started working on, you know, what the crew stories would be so that I could give her a series synopsis. And she sold the whole series. So, I’m writing…I’m finishing book four right now. And then there will be four more. There’s eight books altogether.

So….that’s kind of an unusual way for a series to come about…

Right?

…where have some of your others come from? You know, images, characters, settings, what kind of gets you going?

Ray Bradbury

My other series came from short stories that I wrote. When I…the first time I met Ray Bradbury, I had only, I had written my first book. I had written Night Walker, the palm reader told me, you know, “You’re going to be a writer.” Well, I was new, so I didn’t realize how many rejections you get. Oh, my gosh. And I would get so close with an agent and then they would go, “On second read, we’re just not sure, but we’ll be excited to see it on the shelves.” And I’m like, “What? You think it’s gonna get published and you won’t represent me?” It was very frustrating. And I was working for a literary paper in San Diego, and we did an interview with Ray, and part of the perk was that he was going to come down and speak in San Diego and we were all going to get to meet him. So I was beside myself. And so, when I finally got to meet him, I asked, I told him, I had written a book and I’m getting a lot of rejections, what can I do to improve my writing? Because I was sure it must be me. And I thought he would recommend a book, and instead he told me, “Write a new short story every week for a year.” He said, “By the end of the year, you will be a new writer.” And since I had already sold short stories and I knew you didn’t make very much money off of them, I thought, “I don’t know.” It took me a few weeks to decide, “Okay, this is Ray Bradbury. He knows what he’s talking about. I’m going to do this.”

And I wrote the first one, and I ended up having so much fun I wrote a short story every week for a year and a half. So, I have I have over 120 short stories and a few of them just stick with you. And one of them ended up being the first chapter of Moonlight, which was the first book in my Moon Series, which is still my most popular series to date, but the first chapter was that short story, and when I wrote it, I couldn’t let the idea go. So, I wrote that book and the second book in that series while I was writing a short story every week. So,  it was the best thing I ever did. Ray Bradbury is a genius and was totally right.

My Muse Chronicles series came from one of my short stories, as well. I wrote a short story called Unemployed Muses Anonymous, and it was that the Muses were still here, because they were daughters of Zeus, so they’re immortal, and they were living in New York and they were all unemployed. And each of them, their personalities were coloured by what their muse was. So, the Muse of Tragic Poetry was a pessimist and the Muse of Dance couldn’t stop wiggling, and anyway, it was a really fun short story to write, but I couldn’t let the idea go that it would be really cool to have this group of women in today’s world who maybe, when they turn eighteen, realize that, you know, they’re the vessel for this muse. And so, anyway, that series was the most incredible writing experience I’ve ever had. It was just amazing, those books, and the way the whole series turned out wasn’t anything like I expected. It was really very inspired. So, I had planned six books, but in the book where I was supposed to kill off one of the muses, it turned out that wasn’t going to happen, there was a new hero who came on the scene and he was not going to let her die, and I called my cover artist and said, “I’m super sorry, but we’re going to have one more book.” So, there actually were seven books in that series. But it was all from that short story. So that, really, those inspire me a lot.

Ok, so that just takes it back one more step, though. If you’re writing a short story every week, you’re having to come up with a lot of ideas every week. So how are you generating those?

Yes, that was the hardest part of writing a new short story every week. Oh, my gosh. So, sometimes I would be so desperate that I would go look at odd news. If you go to like Yahoo! News and CNN, there’s, way in the corner, there’s “Odd.” And if you click on it, it’s bizarre stories of things that have happened. And so, I found a lot of short story ideas that way, and I learned so much doing it, because…you need a story idea. So, you go, and you find this story about a rogue wave. I’m like, “What the heck’s a rogue wave?” And then I go look on YouTube and I’m, “Wow, those are terrifying.” So anyway, I did all this research and now they think that the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in the Great Lakes, they didn’t know, because we didn’t have cell phone videos and things back then, but rogue waves happen on the Great Lakes. And so now there have been ships where they have video of these rogue waves coming on the Great Lakes, and they think that’s what split the Edmund Fitzgerald. So, anyway, so I wrote a shipwreck story.

And I read about this strange hailstorm in Death Valley that basically took out all the power, and it was so strong that they closed the highway, and so I wrote a sci-fi story about that it was really aliens, and all this kind of thing. So, I found a lot of things looking at weird news.

I was so desperate, sometimes I would look at songs that I like and see if I could come up with a story to go with the song. Sometimes, the ideas just showed up and I was like, “Thank you!” Sometimes I wrote spinoff stories from other stories. The other thing, too, that was fun was I tried to challenge myself to write stories I never thought that I would, just see if I could. So, I wrote…I’m not a big sci-fi reader, but I wrote, like, five sci-fi stories. And I wrote one about a gunslinger, I was like, “Oh, my gosh. Who knew?” But it was a great experiment because you learn to research faster, you learn to get ideas faster, you write faster, you edit faster. I mean, in the beginning, it would take me an entire week to write and edit the short story, and by the end of my year, I could sit down Sunday afternoon with an idea (finally!) and then write the whole thing, edit it, and have it up by midnight, because I was so much faster by then. So, it really was a great thing for my tool kit, as a writer, to keep your brain going and coming up with ideas and writing them down and not picking it apart so much. You know, get the whole idea down and then edit it. And I feel like learning beginning, middle, end, it all works for writing novels because each chapter is, you know, similar to and has that same flow as a short story.

Is this something you recommend to other writers, to beginning writers who are looking to up their game?

Definitely. Definitely. I used to…I’ve been too busy now, so I haven’t done it…but I mentored five writers through it, and they all wrote a new short story every week for a year. And it was the coolest thing. I mean, most people would drop out partway through. It’s really hard. It’s a marathon. But five of them finished. And it was so exciting to see. And we would make it, Sunday night was deadline night, and they all would post their stories, and I would give everybody feedback on their stories and encourage them for next week, and all that kind of stuff, and to see five of them finish, and they were so much better by the end of the year, it was really inspiring. So, I hope that eventually I’ll be able to do that again, because it’s really hard to do it on your own, and I think having a group, the little bit of peer pressure and all,  it really helped. They were all cheering each other on, and it was it was a great experience.

When I did it, I did it alone, but I had a blog—this was back in MySpace days—and so for fun, I was just writing my story and I made Sunday night deadline night and I would have put it up on my blog on MySpace. And I didn’t realize at the time, but I was building a readership before I ever had a book come out. I had, I think, over 6,000 subscribers to that MySpace blog who were waiting for the free story every week. And I met Ray Garton, who is a horror master, Grand Horror Master winner and everything, I met him through that. He had stumbled across one of my stories on my blog, and he messaged me and said, “You can write! That was great. What are you doing?” And I got to meet him at Book Expo, and he gave me reference when I was looking for an agent, and all of that just happened because I was writing a new short story every week and putting it up on my blog. And it did get to be a little bit of peer pressure, because the subscribers were waiting on Sunday night, so I felt like it had to go up.

But having that group where I was, you know, cheering these writers on, it was really exciting, and they got so much better. We would compare at the end their first story with their last story, and it was amazing. Ray is right. It’s the best way to improve your writing, for sure.

Well, coming back to Pirate’s Passion, and all of your novels, once you have that idea, what does your planning and outlining process look like? Do you do a detailed outline or are you more of a make-it-up-as-you-go-and-worry-about-it-later, or how does it work for you?

Yeah, yeah. I’m a big time pantser, unfortunately. Sometimes I look at my plotting friends and I’m like, “Dang it, I wish I knew what was happening next.” But the flip side of that is for me, writing can be magical, because cool things happen that I never thought of, and they’re always so much better than what I had thought was going to happen. And so…I always feel like…Ray Bradbury used to talk about that there’s, like, a superconscious up there that wants stories told, and when…he used to think that when you get a story idea, it’s downloading in your head and it’s your job to, like, dictate that, you know, follow the story and let it spill out. You don’t get to direct it, kind of thing. And I feel like by letting myself not have a big outline, it gives me the freedom to let the story go where the story needs to go.

And there are times where I’m like, “I don’t know, this is way off…” Like, in The Muse Chronicles when I’m suddenly going, “Oh, my gosh, I have to add a book.” But it was the right thing to do for that series, and I loved that book. It was great. So, that was all good. But had I been so pinned in by my series outline, and my book outline, you know, I would have just gone, “Sorry, she has to die.”

And, you know, as a writer, for me, part of the fun is the discovery. And so, I try not to pen it in. I mean, for my publisher, they do need a series outline, so I come up with who the hero and heroine will be and sort of what the adventure will be. In the pirate series it’s, you know, which relic are we going to go after of each time, and that kind of thing. But beyond that, I leave it wide open so that I can discover it as I go. And a lot of times, character growth, too, because your characters change as events happen. And so, as a pantser, I’m constantly asking, “what if” and “why?” You know, “So, what if this happened? And why did they react like that?” And that is how the story unfolds for me, that’s my process. And, “How can I make it worse?” I’m always asking, you know, “What, if this happened, why did they react like this, and how can I make it worse?” Well, it’s Savannah, it should rain. So, for me, that’s my process.

I found when I was doing the short stories, I tried plotting for a few of them because I was doing it as an exercise to try new things, and the three stories that I tried plotting, I never finished the story, and I realized that for my writing process, if it’s already basically written, I have no impulse to put it together. I feel like it’s already done. It’s already, you know, it turns into a term paper instead of a creative experience. So, I don’t I don’t do a big outlining, even though sometimes I get stuck and I’m like, “What’s going to happen now?” And I look at my friend across the table who has notecards and she knows what’s happening, like, “Dang it!” So, you know, it all comes down to how your writer brain is fixed up, and I think there’s pluses and minuses to both, but you’ve got to go with what works for you in the end.

What does your actual writing process look like? Are you sitting in a home office a certain number of hours a day? Do you go out to coffee shops? Do you sit under a tree with a notebook and a quill pen? How do you write?

I don’t write by hand. I have to type. But I have a writing chair at home, so I usually write a little bit at home. Panera is my office away from home, and a lot of times…I have some local friends who are writers, too, so a lot of times they’ll come meet me at Panera and we’ll all write. And that’s always fun, because when you start to get stuck, if you see everyone else is writing, you’re like, “Okay, I got to keep right. I’ll come up with something.” So, that’s fun as well.

I am not an every-day…I know there are some people who say you have to write every single day, and I am not like that. Because I don’t plot. I write two chapters at a time and then I go back and edit those two chapters, because the only way I can be fearless is if I can promise myself that if I took a wrong turn, I’m only going to lose two chapters. So, I write two chapters and then I edit those two chapters, and so, it makes my book go a little bit slower, but in the end, I can turn in my first…my first draft is clean, so I turn those in. So, it works for me. It just makes that first draft…it takes a little bit longer than somebody who can just, you know, put it all out there and then rewrite. I’m not a rewrite, so… But for me, because I don’t have an outline, it’s too scary to write the whole book, and the thought of a rewrite gives me hives, so I do two chapters and then I go back and edit. So there may be, you know, where I write three days and then I edit for two, and then I write for three and I edit for two, and then, you know, I might be busy, so I’m doing something else. And sometimes I have deadlines overlap, and so when I get edits back for a book, I have to set aside the one I’m writing because my brain will not compartmentalize like that. I have friends who can write one book in the morning and edit a different book at night, and I can’t. So, when I get edits, I might have to set the book aside and do the edits on the other book and then go back. So I think…I think I lost my thread, but that’s basically my writing process.

Well, you kind of answered the next question, which I normally ask, which is about the revision process, but it sounds like you do essentially a rolling revision, two chapters at time, so that when you have that draft at the end, it’s actually a finished draft, not just a rough draft that you’re going to go back through from the beginning.

Yes.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about your theatre background, because I’ve talked to other authors who have theatre backgrounds, like Orson Scott Card, for example, who’s written multiple musicals and directed plays and things like that. And from my own experience, I want to see if you find this as well. There’s a usefulness to being a stage performer when it comes to keeping track of where people are in relationship to each other and how they interact with each other within a space. That’s what I find. And of course, I also find that being an actor ties directly into being a writer because it’s basically the same thing: you’re pretending to be somebody else and trying to make that person come alive. Is that your experience?

Definitely. And being, you know, with a musical theatre background and opera and all that kind of thing, music plays into it a lot. Like, I build playlists for my books before I even start writing, because when I get that, when I’m going to start a new book, I usually know kind of what the theme of the book is going to be. So, I look for music, movie soundtracks, classical music, even songs with words, I have those on there, too, that will back up, you know, who I think the hero is, the heroine is, the, you know, plot things, that kind of stuff. And I think if you come from a music and acting background, I think that you are able to blend those arts together to make your words, you know…to inspire your words, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. But, yeah, I definitely feel like having that background helps my helps my writing very much.

And, just speaking for myself, my current book, Master of the World, and the one before that, Worldshaper, my character likes musical theatre, so I get to make musical theatre jokes throughout the book, so that’s fun.

Oh, I love it.

Now, you mentioned then, there is still some editing, some maybe not rewriting, but what sorts of things do you find yourself editing afterwards? And I presume this is after it’s been to your editor and it comes back for comment.

Well, and I forgot to mention this, too, I do have beta readers, I have a team of four beta readers, and they read my two chapters at the same time as I’m writing the book because I like to get their feedback as far as…you know, one of them is really good at catching typos, that even after editing, I missed, I’m like, “What?” But there are a couple of them who are really good at character motivations, and they’ll tell me, “Oh, I hate that guy!” and I’ll go, “Good. You’re supposed to hate that guy,” you know, but they give me their feedback, and a couple of times it has been really helpful because, like, one of them said, “He seemed like he would have been angrier. He would have been angrier at that.” And she was right, and so I boosted that up.

So, a lot of times when I get my edits back from my editor, it’s things that I thought were clear that really aren’t clear on the page. I have a writer friend, Mary Leo, who…my favourite saying that she has is, “You don’t get to travel with your book to explain it.” And that is so true. So, sometimes, you know, and I’m sure you’ve had this experience, too, where it seems totally clear to me, you know, why he did that, but it’s because I know the character inside and out and sometimes I don’t get enough detail on the page so that, you know, the editor’s like, “Well, he seems like a jerk here.” And I’m going, “Oh, because I didn’t…” And sometimes…I know I’m a rusher when I write, I’m always wanting to get to the next good part, so I leave out details. Like, one time I had an editor note somebody had gone to urgent care with a stab wound, and I had things happening with this other character, and then suddenly a nurse came in and the editor’s like, “Whoa, there’s a nurse? When did they get into urgent care? What’s happening?” And I was like, “Oh, maybe I should have them get out of the car and walk inside.” But I was so excited to get to the next part that I completely missed getting out of the car and getting…you know. So. usually when I get my edits back, it’s things like that. Like, it was clear in my head, but I didn’t necessarily get that on the page.

And when you’re writing romance, too, a lot of times the editors will look for beats in the book that they think are coming too soon. You know, they said, “I love you” too soon. And sometimes it’s the right thing for the book, and that’s OK. But, you know, they’re looking for things like that, pacing and that kind of thing. But usually…I’ve never had to do a rewrite, thank God, but usually it’s stuff like that.

Well, we’re getting fairly close to the end of the time here, so I wanted to, first of all, before I ask you my big philosophical questions, I wanted to ask you about your program, Book Lights, and how did that come about, and what is that about? I mean, I know, I’ve been on it, but you tell us what it’s all about.

Yeah, well, Sheila English owns Circle of Seven Productions and she makes fabulous book trailers. If you’ve ever seen a commercial on cable TV for a Christine Feehan book, that was Sheila English, she makes those. She is a huge book lover, and she’s also now a published author herself, and she founded Readers’ Entertainment Radio and they have two shows, Readers’ Entertainment and Book Lights. So there’s two shows a week that we do. And, I had been on both of those shows as an author and Sheila sent out one of her newsletters, and I noticed at the bottom she said that she was looking for another host for Book Lights, “So if you know anyone, please send them my way.” So, I emailed her and I said, “Well, I would do it,” And she said, “Really?” And I said, “Oh, I love talking to writers. That would be super fun.”

So, anyway, she had me jump in and try, and I have had such a blast. I’ve been so lucky to talk to so many different writers. And I talk to them from every genre. I’ve had horror authors on and women’s fiction authors on and romance and fantasy and sci-fi. And I never get tired of, you know, hearing from all these different writers from different places. I’ve had people from England and Greece and, of course, Canada. And it’s just, it’s fascinating to me, you know, how people write books and the cool ideas that they come up with for them, where I’m like, “Wow, I never would have thought of that.” And so, it’s a really fun show, and it is not pointed at, you know, we always talk about the author’s new release at the beginning, but it devolves into what we’re all interested in and what TV shows we should binge and all this kind of thing. So, I feel like for readers, it’s a very reader-focused show. It’s readers who are listening. So, I feel like at the end the readers really get to know that author much better. And I hope if it’s a new author to them that they’ll be willing to take a chance on that new book because they’ll be going, “Oh my God, that author watches all the shows I do. And, oh my God, they ride horses and we have a horse ranch!”, you know? So, hopefully…my goal is always that hopefully new readers find new authors, because as an author myself, we’re constantly looking for new readers to fall in love with our series and go and read our backlist and all that kind of thing. So Book Lights is a really good forum for that.

Well, and The Worldshapers, of course, came about because I wanted to talk to authors about writing and so, yeah, authors are generally very interesting people to talk to you.

Yeah, I think so, too.

Now, that does bring us back to the big philosophical questions I’d like to, sort of, wrap up with. It’s really one question, which is, “Why do you write?” with subsidiary questions of, “Why do any of us write?” and, specifically, “Why do you write tales of the fantastic?”

Oh, wow. That is a philosophical question. Well, I think that writing, especially these days, is more important than ever, fiction writing, because fiction…stories have been around since human beings have been around, you know, there’s cave paintings of stories. And I think that Ray is probably not wrong, there’s a superconscious that that needs stories to be told and songs to be written and all these kind of things. And so, I feel like, when you get a reader email from somebody who says, “Thank you so much, I love your books when I’m going for dialysis and it takes me away while I’m going through this,” or somebody who has lost a loved one and they write you an email that this book, you know, gave them welcome relief from all this grief right now that they’re going through and that kind of thing… I think that books also teach us to empathize with people who are very different than we are. Obviously, I am not an immortal pirate, but writing this series…

Spoiler!

Really, I know, right? Spoiler alert. But writing this series, I really dig into the question of what would it do to you if the world around you is constantly changing and you are not? And each character, I get a different facet of that. Because it affects each of them differently. And so I learn.

And I think that fiction teaches us to empathize and learn about people, as opposed to a historical event. You know, it’s not like a textbook. When you go on a story and you go on a hero’s journey and you see people change, it reinforces to you that you can change. You can be anybody you want to be. If this person could do it, you can do it, you know, kind of thing. And I think that there is a magic in that. And so, I think that writing is important, and I feel like when I get these story ideas that they need to come out because they’re going to serve some kind of purpose that I may not even know. But they need to be told. So, we do.

Well, this is…The Worldshapers, of course, again, is the name of this podcast, and that is something you’ve kind of touched on there that I like to ask is if, you know, do you hope that your fiction is…changing the world might be a little grand, or even shaping the world might be a little grand, but at least shaping readers in some fashion and having some sort of impact on them?

Yeah. Definitely. I hope that, if nothing else, it provides an escape from, you know, something that they need a break from. And also, I hope that through the books…there is always, especially in in romance, there’s always a character arc where they’re changed by the end of the book. And I think that that’s powerful. And I hope that that helps people understand, too, and empowers them that you can change you. You know, if you don’t like who you are today or you don’t like how your life is today, it doesn’t have to stay that way. You have that power to change that. And in romance, you know, it’s the powerful emotion of love and how that changes you. But in all fiction, you know, there’s always this change, and I think that that is important. And I hope that my books help people see that that’s possible.

I wrote a novella called “Night Angel,” which…I bawled so much writing that book, but I hadn’t planned on writing it, because this character had been, he was immortal, but he had been like so damaged that he’s a shapeshifter and he shapeshifts into this big hawk, and he can’t fly anymore because part of his arm was ripped off. And, you know, he lives forever and he heals, but he doesn’t regenerate like a lizard, so… So, I wasn’t going to write his book, but readers kept asking if he was going to get a happy-ever-after. And I’m like, “Oh, my God.” But that novella was so powerful to me as a writer because I learned and I…when I was in high school, I used to be a teacher’s aide for the deaf classroom, and so I learned sign language and all this kind of thing. And so, I made the human character, she was deaf from…there was a bombing in Ireland, and so she was deaf. And he crosses paths with her and learns from her that you’re not less, you’re just different. You’re not, you know…handicapped, I think, is this label that makes people feel like they’re less. And you’re not, you’re just different. And she taught him that. And that was such a powerful thing that I learned writing that book. And so, anyway, I do hope that readers come away with a new, maybe even just a new empathy for other people around them and in their life.

Well, I think what’s interesting is that fiction doesn’t just change readers, it changes the writers as well. We all discover things, as we’re writing these stories, about ourselves and about the way we look at the world that maybe we didn’t know going into that story. Do you find that your experience?

Exactly. Yes, definitely. And that’s part of the love of writing. You know, we do all this research and then we throw it into a story, and you put them in situations, and you realize, “Oh, my gosh,” you know, and  you learn, too. So, yeah, it definitely changes you, some books more than others. But, yeah, it’s an amazing process, and as human beings, we’re so lucky that we get to do it.

And hey, we can even bring that to a musical theatre quotation because of course, in The King and I, there’s that line about, “If you become a teacher, by your students you are taught.”

So, yes, exactly. That was great.

If you’re an author, by your characters you are taught.

Yes. We definitely learn from our art, for sure.

Well, and that brings us to the end of the time. So, where do people find you online, should they wish to do so? And I’m sure they do.

My Web site is lisa-kessler.com. And I’m also on Facebook and Twitter. I’m easy to find, just Lisa Kessler, writer. And I’m also on Goodreads and Pinterest. Pinterest is really fun. I put up pictures from scenes of every book I write because I use it while I’m writing. But if you’ve read any of my books and you want to see if you were picturing people the same way I was, you can go to Pinterest. It’s pinteres.com/ldydisney, and find me there also. And I do have an author newsletter, you can sign up on Facebook or on my Web site. And I often give away free short stories, free sneak peeks into books that aren’t out yet, so there’s always something fun in there. And I’m also a Tarot card reader, so every month you’ll get a Tarot card for the month with a little reading with it. So, sign up for the newsletter, too.

And what are you working on next?

I’m finishing Pirate’s Persuasion next. And then I will be going back to the wolf pack to write Sedona Seduction. So, that’ll be fun.

All right. Well, thanks again for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I had a great time. Hope you did, too.

I did. Thank you for having me on.

And maybe I’ll be talking to you on your program again sometime. You never know.

Right? When you get that next book out, you know where to find me.

Thanks again. Bye for now.

OK, thank you. Bye bye.

Episode 34: John Kessel

An hour-long conversation with John Kessel, author of Pride and Prometheus, The Moon and the Other (both from Saga Press) and other novels, and, as a short-fiction writer, winner of two Nebula Awards, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Locus Award, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award.

Website
johnjosephkessel.wixsite.com/kessel-website

Facebook
www.facebook.com/john.kessel3

John Kessel’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

John Kessel

John Kessel‘s most recent book is the 2018 novel Pride and Prometheus, published by Saga Press. He’s the author of the earlier novels The Moon and the Other, Good News from Outer Space, and Corrupting Dr. Nice, and, in collaboration with James Patrick Kelly, Freedom Beach. His short-story collections are Meeting in Infinity, a New York Times notable book, The Pure Product, and The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories

His stories have twice received the Nebula Award, given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in addition to the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Locus Award, and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. His play Faust Feathers won the Paul Green Playwrights Prize, and his story “A Clean Escape” was adapted as an episode of the ABC TV series Masters of Science Fiction. In 2009, his story Pride and Prometheus, on which the novel was based, received both the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. With James Patrick Kelly, he has edited five anthologies of stories revisiting contemporary short SF, most recently Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Kessel holds a B.A. in Physics and English and a Ph.D. in American Literature. He helped found and served as the first director of the MFA program in creative writing at North Carolina State University, where he has taught since 1982. He and his wife, the novelist Therese Anne Fowler, live and work in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, John.

Thank you. Glad to be here.

Now, we’ve never met in person, but the way you ended up on this show…I’ve been aware of your name for a long time, obviously, with your record, and being in the field, but I’d never run across you at a convention or anything like that. But Christopher Ruocchio, who was a guest on the program a little while ago, was one of your students, and he mentioned your name. And I thought, “You know, I should have him on.”

Well, I’m glad you had him on. You know, Christopher seems to be well-launched now with his first novel. I guess the second novel in that series is coming out, is that right?

Yeah. Just came out. And he’s a fellow DAW Books author, so I’d met him at a DAW dinner at WorldCon last year. That’s how we made that connection. In this field, you know, you sort of, you know somebody, then they know somebody…everybody’s connected

Even though it’s much bigger than it was when I started, it’s still a fairly small pond, and you will run into people, and everyone eventually knows everyone else in some connection.

Yep.. Well, we’ll start the way I always start, which is by taking you back into the mists of time to find out how you became interested in science fiction and fantasy and specifically in writing it. Most of us, it starts with reading as kids. Is that how it worked out for you?

Pretty much, yes. I was reading science fiction and fantasy…really from, it seems like, from the beginning. I cannot remember the first book I ever read that was science fiction. There were children’s books–and I was born a long time ago, I was born in 1950, so we’re talking, you know, late ’50s, early ’60s, I was definitely already hooked on science fiction and fantasy. I liked fairy tales an awful lot, and then I somehow, you know, I went to the library and got books from the science fiction section of the library.

And back then, they had…a number of publishers had fairly serious attempts to write, publish, YA science fiction, and Robert Heinlein wrote a series of juvenile novels that I really snapped up. And also André Norton, who was Alice Mary Norton, wrote a whole series of YA science fiction novels that I loved. It was quite a shock to me when I discovered that Andre Norton was a woman. It was years later. And then around…I think it was 1963 exactly…I pretty much know exactly when it was…I was at my grandfather’s house on a Sunday, and I had had my library book there and I finished it and I had nothing else to read, and I was bored, and I asked if I could go down the block–this was in Buffalo, New York–to see if I could buy some comic books. And they said, “okay,” and so I walked down to this delicatessen, Cosentino’s Delicatessen, and they had some comic books, but they also had science fiction magazines, which I had never seen. I knew they existed, but I had never seen one. And immediately I bought my first science fiction magazines, and then I was well and truly hooked, pretty much. I had subscriptions to Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction and Analog starting in the early ’60s, so I was really much a pretty much a science fiction nerd from day one.

Well, it’s interesting, because—I’m a little bit younger than you, I was born in ’59–but that’s exactly my list of books that got me interested in it, Heinlein  and Andre Norton. Somehow I knew Andre Norton was a woman. I don’t know remember ever being surprised to find it out. So I must have read a bio or something of her early on.

I think it became much more public knowledge by the late ’60s, but up until the mid-’60s, I think, you know, she basically kept her identity close to the best.

There was James Tiptree, Jr. I was surprised to find…

Yes. Right. Me too, really. Yeah.

Well, by the time I was reading it would’ve been the late ’60s, so that’s probably why I knew it from the beginning. But that’s sort of the same list of things that I became interested in as well. So, when did you start trying your hand at writing?

Well, you know, I often tell students, my writing students, that one of the seven warning signs that you might become a writer is that you are writing fiction which is not on command by your English teacher before the age of ten, and indeed, I was writing stories and I actually made a little magazine, I would compel my friends to write them and I would illustrate stories myself, probably…maybe I was eleven or twelve. And so, I was trying to do that, and I remember there was a contest in Fantasy & Science Fiction in the mid-’60s that asked for submissions, and I submitted an entry there and I got my first rejection slip and I still have it. And so, I was at it pretty early.

I was, you know, in my early teens when I submitted my first story. I didn’t ever submit another story until I was in college. But, you know, I really…I knew that there was the possibility of an ordinary person writing stories and sending them off. And it was really quite…I was felt empowered by the fact that they had sent me a rejection slip. The idea that I, you know, John Kessel, a kid from Buffalo, New York, could write a story and send it into the magazine and they would read it and say “No,”  but they would send me a slip, just as if I were, you know, a published writer. And so, that was cool.

Yeah, I remember that that same feeling. My first published story, though, was actually…at about that age…I actually got a story published in something called Young Authors’ Open in Cat Fancy Magazine.

Wow, good for you.

It was a terrible, terrible pun about Santa Claus looking for a replacement, and he searched the world over, and he found this guy he thought was perfect, but the guy wouldn’t weed his garden and he knew he couldn’t be Santa Claus because he wouldn’t hoe-hoe-hoe. That was the…

Well, you know, it’s funny because my first submission to F&SF was what was called a Feghoot and it involved a pun.

Oh, I remember those.

Yeah.

So, were you focused on short fiction entirely? Did you try your hand at longer stuff during those years, or…?

Pretty much short fiction. I really loved short stories–still do! And so, that was my thing, was short fiction. Although I read a lot of novels, I’d never tried to write one till I was in my twenties, late twenties, and really had to learn…I mean, novels are different from short stories. And I don’t think the short story is a less important form, although, you know, in terms of making a living, certainly it’s hard to do writing short fiction. But I think artistically the short story is a beautiful form. And it’s not a practice for the novel, it’s not a less worthy or less important form, but it is different.

Somewhere on my bookshelf right behind me, I was just turning around to look, is a collection of science fiction short stories , one of those anthologies from the late ’50s, early ’60s. And, yeah, short fiction was sort of my introduction to it, and that’s sort of the way I started writing it as well. But it turns out I more of a novelist, I think, than a short story writer. Did you show your stories? You said you had this little magazine. Were you letting people read your stories?

You know, in a way, my friends were not as interested in this as I was. So, you know, it was just my thing, at that stage anyway, when I’m talking about junior high school or middle school. So, no, I didn’t. I didn’t really advertise them to people.

I usually ask that because when I’m teaching writing, and I know you’re much more of a writing teacher than I am, but I often recommend to people that they do let other people read their work because it’s a way to find out if you can tell stories that people are interested in.

Well, I think ultimately you do have to submit the story to an audience, either an audience of, you know, a teacher or mentor, or other writers. And so, I’ve actually been very active in workshopping. I like workshopping, and not just as a teacher in the university, but…I went, I was invited to, one of the last Milford workshops, run by Ed Bryant, in 1980 and then again in ’81. That was a real revelatory experience for me in 1980 because I met these other writers, many, many of them up-and-coming writers, but also they were, most of them, unknown. I mean, among the writers who were at this first workshop I went to were Ed Bryant, who was well-established at that point and was sort of a writing hero of mine, although people don’t remember him anymore.

I remember the name.

But then, Connie Willis was there, she had only published a few stories. Cynthia Felice. One of the other people that who had not published a single story at that point, who was one of the workshop members, was Dan Simmons. And George R.R. Martin was one of the writers there. So, I got to know these people really early, and it was really heartening that they would read my stories and give me critiques, so that was good.

Well, when you went to university…where did you go to university?

I went as an undergraduate to the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. It’s a small private school. And I studied astrophysics, I wanted to be an astronomer. And then I double majored. By the time I graduated, it was a degree in physics and English.

What drew you out of astrophysics to add the English?

Probably you could say that tensor calculus had something to do with it. I could do the math pretty well through the first couple of years, but by the time I got to the really higher math, and the higher physics, too, it’s tremendously mathematical. It especially was at that time, where I think the slogan was, you know, “Shut up and calculate” in physics. And so, I could…I had to struggle to do that, the really advanced math. And I could see other physics majors around me, and they were very…it was a small group of physics majors, maybe there were…I think there were twenty in my graduating class…some of them could do it much better and with more facility, more naturally, than I could. So…and I also saw that my GPA in English classes, which I was taking for fun, was like a grade-point higher than my math class. Great. So, I thought, “Well, and I’m enjoying English classes. I’ll double major.” I didn’t know what exactly I was gonna do at that point, but I know I loved reading and I at that point was starting to write stories again.

And so, I took my first creative writing class in my second semester, senior year at Rochester, and wrote a science fiction story for my final project there. And so, I was getting more serious about that. And then I went to graduate school at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. And the main reason I went there was that there was a science fiction writer on the faculty there, James Gunn, who’s, you know, still alive, ninety-six years old, I believe, and was…he’s a Grand Master of SFWA. And, so, he was my mentor there. I was in his classes and he directed my master’s thesis, which was in fiction writing. And then, on my Ph.D. dissertation, I persuaded the university to let me write a collection of stories, rather than a scholarly work, for my Ph.D. in American Lit, and so I wrote a bunch of stories and he was also on my committee at that point.

Were those science fiction and fantasy stories?

They all were. And one of them in my dissertation was “Another Orphan,” which won the Nebula Award in 1982. So, I guess I, you know, I was glad I was able to do that. I mean, I was writing anyway. I would have written the stories anyway. But it was…I probably wouldn’t have finished my dissertation if I had had to write a scholarly dissertation, because I knew at that point, although I’m very interested in, you know, literary study, and I’ve taught American Lit for thirty, almost forty, years, I really wasn’t interested in writing books about, you know, canonical writers and being a scholar, I wanted to write fiction, so most of my energy went there.

Well, this is…it’s interesting to me that…I ask most authors about their, you know, if they had any formal creative writing training, and you get a really mixed bag with science fiction and fantasy authors. There are some who did it and it was not a particularly good experience for them because they met so much pushback against writing science fiction and fantasy. Fortunately, you found James Gunn.

Right.

Was he the only one teaching at that level at that time?

Well, there were very few. I think the only one I can think of…this is 1972, when I went to grad school…is Jack Williamson, who was teaching, I think, at the University of New Mexico.

Right.

 I don’t know if he was a regular faculty member or not, and I didn’t even know he was teaching there. So, the only one I knew about was Gunn, and that’s why I went there. So, I guess you could say that that was instrumental there, that he did not turn up his nose at my writing science fiction. I’m very aware of what you say, that many creative writing teachers, at least in the past, have been very skeptical of anyone who wants to write genre fiction in a, you know, a literary workshop.

Do you think that’s changing?

I think it’s changing to a degree. It depends on what kind of genre fiction you write now. If you write a story with aliens and spaceships and, you know, basically a space opera or that kind of background, in a MFA program, you’ll probably have a hard time unless you go to one of the specialized programs like the Stone Coast Non-Resident MFA, which has people like James Patrick Kelly and Liz Hand and others as teachers. But, I do think there is, you know, there’s a lot more fiction being published now by, we’ll call them mainstream writers, that has fantastic elements in it. I mean, it’s everywhere in our culture now. So…and there, you know, bestselling novels that are written that have time travel in it say or, you know, an apocalyptic plague like Station Eleven, that kills off pretty much everybody. Things that would have been in science fiction novels in 1960 now are published and they’re not really called science fiction, but they have the material of science fiction. They generally treat it a little different than a science fiction writer would, as well. But if you’re going to do spaceships and aliens, then you’re still, I think, going to be put in a different pen.

It’s interesting for me because I’m…I was asked this year to mentor an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan, the first time I’ve done that, and he’s writing a young adult fantasy novel. So it was…I was pleased, in fact, that the University Saskatchewan didn’t seem to have a problem with people writing in those kinds of genres. And it’s been interesting for me, too.

Well, there are many more professors and teachers in these programs who have genre credentials. So, I think that it is a lot better now than it was in 1972.

So, in between graduating university and starting teaching at North Carolina State University, what were you doing in that interim there?

Well, I finished my coursework for the Ph.D….must have been by ’78 or something like that…and I was supposedly writing a dissertation. Not very fast. I was writing stories. And I took a crack at being a full-time writer and didn’t have much success at it, just writing short stories. So, I got a job at a wire service as an editor. Fortunate to get that. It was a very good job. For three years, I was a copyeditor and then a news editor for a wire service called Commodity News Services out of Kansas City, which was owned by… half-owned by Knight-Ridder newspapers and also by UPI, the United Press International wire service…and I learned an awful lot from that. That was very interesting work. So, that was what I was doing while I was on the side trying to finish my dissertation.

And thenm when I finished it and got my degree in ’81, I looked for a teaching job. Because I found that, as a wire-service editor, it was very high-pressure work, I was editing text all day, and I didn’t feel like writing when I got home. So, I thought, “Well, if I get a teaching job, I can have the summers off at the very least, and my schedule during the week, I won’t have to be sitting in an office from eight to five every day doing high-pressure work. And I was fortunate enough to get the job at N.C. State and I came here in fall of ’82.

And been there ever since.

And been there ever since, yeah. Yeah.

Were your first sales, then, along in their somewhere? Short fiction sales?

So my first fiction sale was in 1975 to an anthology called Black Holes that…they paid me for the story, but it never came out, ’cause the publisher went under. It was…as with so many young writers, often you’re selling to marginal markets. You can’t get into the top paying markets, so you’re just trying to get in somewhere. And that actually happened to my first three stories. I sold them to markets that folded before the stories came out.

It starts to make you a little paranoid.

Yeah, I began to feel pretty discouraged. But then, it was in the late…I think it was in the ’70s, ’77, I sold a story to Galileo, and then I also sold one to Fantasy & Science Fiction, a month apart. And what happened was, a bunch of stories I had written already sold, then, one after another. And so…if I said ’80s earlier, I mean the late ’70s was when I really started to break in. So ’77, ’78, ’79, I started to see stories come out.

And then, of course, you mentioned you won the Nebula in ’82.

Cover of September 1982 issue of F&SF, containing John Kessel’s Nebula Award-winning novella “Another Oprhan.”

Right, which was a huge shock. It was the first time I was nominated, and I was a complete unknown, and I think it was quite shocking to people that I won. And of course, the story was…it showed my background. because it’s a story about…your listeners may not know…it’s about a commodities broker who wakes up on page one and he’s on a sailing ship and he doesn’t know how he got there. And it turns out it’s the Pequod, and he’s in the middle of Moby Dick. And he read it… had to read it in college…and he knows that at the end everybody dies except Ishmael, and he’s not Ishmael. So, that that was my premise, and it used my literary study, ’cause I’m a huge Herman Melville fan, but also it had this sort of fantasy element, and it also used my commodities-editing knowledge, so it really came out of a lot of things that were going on in my life. I wrote it in 1979 and ’80, and it came out in fall of ’82, and won the award in ’83.

You mentioned the commodities feeding into that story? Has your astrophysics background played into any of your science fiction writing over the years?

Certainly I know a lot of astronomy and I try to get the science accurate. I know physics, and I’m not any kind of genius at it, but I know basic physics. And so, when I’m doing science fiction stories, I do try to make it as plausible as I can, but I’m not afraid to violate fundamental laws of nature in order to write a story. And I’m not considered really a techie writer, I think I’m more considered a literary science fiction writer. And then I write stories that I think of as fantasies…and when I say that, everyone thinks, “Oh, it’s like Game of Thrones, castles, dragons, you know, lords and ladies. No. I don’t…I’ve never written a story of that sort in my entire career. What I mean by fantasy is a story that violates reality, has some element of the fantastic in it, could be set in the present, the past, but it’s not explained by an appeal to science.

Well, we’re gonna talk about your creative process using Pride and Prometheus as a sort of a template for how you work. But I also wanted to ask you before we did that about…I noted that you had written a play, Faust Feathers. Have you done other playwriting? I’ve done some playwriting and I’m a professional actor, so I’m always curious about that sort of thing. So, have you done a lot of playwriting?

I have done some playwriting. I wrote a one-act back in the late ’80s called “A Clean Escape,” based on a short story I wrote, that was performed here in Raleigh, and I was very pleased to see that happen. And later on I adapted it for a thing called Seeing Ear Theater, which is an audio play thing run by the Sci-Fi Channel. And then I wrote Faust Feathers, which won the Paul Green Prize, and it got produced somewhere in Nebraska but I never got to see it. And “A Clean Escape” actually eventually got adapted for that show Masters of Science Fiction. So, I have written some plays and I did take an acting class, although…I actually am in a couple movies. I’m in a very low-budget movie called The Delicate Art of the Rifle. I play…it’s kind of typecasting, I play an obnoxious college professor who gets murdered. So, I’ve done a little bit of that stuff. But, you know, mostly I have stuff stuck to prose fiction.

I’m always interested in the crossover between fiction and plays because they are very different kinds of writing. In the play world, of course, it’s very much dialogue driven.

Right. It’s very much that’s the case. But there’s also…when you’re writing, you have to cast yourself into the mind of a character who may not be like you in order to write a book. And it seems to me that’s what actors do. You know, the idea that you’re portraying someone who’s not you, but you have to make their behavior rational and to act in a way that they would act but somehow make it your own. And that, to me is a kind of mental trick that writers do as well as actors.

Yeah, I often make that point when I’m talking to people about the two things. All right, well, let’s move on to Pride and Prometheus. And before we get into talking about how it all came about, and your creative writing process, maybe a synopsis and what the book is. I’ve not quite finished it, but I’ve read most of it.

Well, it’s a kind of a crossbreed. I’ve written a number of stories over the course of my career where I’ll use characters or situations created by other authors. “Another Orphan,” which won the Nebula, puts my character into Moby Dick. In this story I’m basically crossing Frankenstein with Jane Austen’s character, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And this kind of story really appeals to me in that, in a way…it’s a way of sort of thinking about the story and the characters, the way maybe a literary critic might do it, but instead of doing it in terms of literary analysis, I just want to see, you know, what sorts of situations would happen. Because…

I got the idea for the story from a workshop where we were reading a story by a writer named Benjamin Rosenbaum, a wonderful writer, who had a story that was a parody of Jane Austen. And it occurred to me, as I was talking about this story there at the workshop, that Jane Austen and Mary Shelley were contemporaries. They were…if you went to a bookstore in 1818 in London, you could find Jane Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice, on the shelf next to Frankenstein. And yet they’re very, very different books. And I never, as an English professor, very seldom ever heard anyone talk about Mary Shelley and Jane Austen in the same context. Now, I think they do a lot more, but not back then. And so I thought, “Well, they’re so different.” I mean, you know, putting a Jane Austen character in Frankenstein, that doesn’t work. I mean, that kind of character, what would they do in Frankenstein? And then putting one of, you know, Victor Frankenstein or the monster into a Jane Austen setting, you know, they don’t belong in a ballroom, OK? But that, to me, intrigued me, and so I got carried…and I wrote originally a novelette version of this, I took the character of Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and imagined her a decade or more after the end of that book, and had her meet Victor Frankenstein and eventually meet his monster.

Yeah, and I guess it’s hard to synopses it without sort of…

Oh, well, yeah, it’s…you know, Mary is the…she’s the old-maid character, the middle sister in Pride and Prejudice, who’s really not very attractive. She’s kind of bookish and moralistic, she’s always preaching at people. In Pride and Prejudice, she’s hardly even in the book, and when she’s there, she’s sort of the butt of the joke. She’s the only one of the Bennet sisters who’s not pretty. If you know Jane Austen’s books, they’re almost all about finding the right mate and marrying. And I imagine that Mary is going to have a hard time of that. So, I imagine her as, you know, thirty-two years old and on the brink of old-maid-dom, and she gets dragged to a ball by her mother and her younger sister, Kitty, who’s still trying to get married. And there she meets Victor Frankenstein, who is in England–she doesn’t know this, but–in Frankenstein, Victor goes to England, after he’s created the monster. The monster gets abandoned by him and has a terrible time of it and becomes very alienated, and eventually finds out that Victor created him, and goes to Victor’s home and strangles his younger brother, and then threatens Victor with killing everyone in his family if Victor does not create a mate for him. Since no human being will have anything to do with him, he needs to have someone to give him solace, and so he forces Victor to agree to make a female creature. And so Victor travels to England with his friend Henry–this is all in Frankenstein–and travels around and eventually goes up to Scotland, on an island, to create the female, the bride of the monster.

And so, my story begins where Mary’s at this ball in London and Victor is there with his friend Henry, Henry drags him to the ball, and they dance together and strike up a conversation, and it turns out they like each other. And so, that’s the beginning of it. And the rest of it, it sort of follows Mary’s encounters with Victor. Victor is being tormented by the fact the monster’s following him, and then the monster is desperate to have Victor follow through on his promise. And the story alternates between the points of view of these three characters. It’s mostly Mary’s point of view, but it’s also in Victor’s point of view and also in the monster’s point of view, which, in Frankenstein, that’s true, too, if you’ve read it, both Victor and the creature, his creature get to have their own points of view.

Yes, one reason it was interesting…I mean, I’ve read a little Jane Austen, but I’ve read Frankenstein twice, and I think I read it for the first time–and you mentioned this in an interview somewhere, that it was Brian W. Aldiss who perhaps first suggested that Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel–and it was after reading his history of the field that I thought I should read Frankenstein, as opposed to just relying on what we all kind of know from the miasma of Frankenstein stuff that’s around.

That’s right. And, frankly, the image we get of Frankenstein from movies is very much not the creature that was…well, one thing is that people call the monster Frankenstein, and it’s Victor who is Frankenstein. The creature has no name in the book. And so, yes, I wanted to present the monster, the creature–I prefer to call him the creature–as he is in the novel. He’s incredibly intelligent, he’s agile, he’s strong. He’s becomes a kind of…he educates himself remarkably. He’s incredibly articulate. He speaks very well, which is so weird because we’re not used to that from the movies. And so, one of the things that Viktor warns people against when he tells them about these creatures, is, “Don’t listen to him because he’s so persuasive.” That’s really interesting. And he’s sort of a social critic of human behavior. So I wanted to get into that. In a way…

You know, Aldiss did say that this was the first science fiction book, and I had not read it until I read Aldiss, back in the ’70s. and it seemed to me that if Mary Shelley wrote the first true science fiction novel in English, and Jane Austen was sort of the ancestor of the novel of manners…so these are the two great streams in literature, it seems to me, since the early 1800s to the present. We have the novel of the fantastic, the science fiction novel, and then we have the realistic novel like, you know, Henry James and Virginia Woolf, following In the footsteps of Jane Austen. And so, in a way, cramming these two things together in the same book is really sort of unnatural, but also, to me, fascinating.

I read it again…I read it out loud to my wife for the 150th anniversary of the novel, because we have…I read out loud while she’s cooking because our kitchen’s too small for us to cook side by side. And so, it was very interesting to read it out loud, too, and to say that  sort of early 19th century prose, but also the fact that, you know, Mary Shelley was a teenager when she wrote it, nineteen.

Really, eighteen, nineteen years old. And I think it was published when she just turned twenty, right, so…

And I have a daughter who’s eighteen.

Okay. Actually, it was 200 years ago, 200 years ago in 1818.

Right, 200. Yeah, yeah. I just lost half a century there somewhere. So, you’ve talked about how the inspiration for this came about. Just pulling back from it a little bit, is that fairly typical of the way that your story ideas come to you, things sort of colliding and sparks coming off of it?

Often the collision of two things that don’t fit together is a good way to get a story started, it seems to me. And I’ve written a number of works, as I say, that take off from other literary works, but that’s not all the stuff I write, and so…like, my last novel, in 2017, before this one, was The Moon and the Other, which is a science fiction novel set on the moon in the twenty-second century. Very complex future background, lots of technology, I tried to make it as accurate as I could, showing how people might live on the moon, so that one really comes from a different place. And that’s sort of how it works, really.

But yes, the collision of things…to me, it’s always interesting to have things that don’t seem like they ought to go together put together. Or, another way of putting that is, I really like paradoxes. I like when things don’t easily settle themselves out. You know, where all of the…for instance, all of the morality, or the rightness and wrongness, doesn’t all land on one side. I don’t really like stories where there’s the hero and the villain and  there’s just no…it’s easy to choose between them and there’s no confusion or complication of that way of seeing things.

Once you have the idea, for this novel or other novels, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? And how does it differ from your short fiction writing?

Well, again, it depends a little bit on the project. With novels, I do quite a bit of outlining and sketches and notes. I will try to figure out what the inciting incident is, the beginning incident, and then have some sense of where it’s going in the end. Although, when I was younger, I always had to know the ending before I could start a story, but now I’m more willing to get started without a firm idea of how it’s going to end. Well, one thing with Pride and Prometheus is I had many things given to me from Frankenstein. I knew I was going to follow Frankenstein’s plot. And so, I know eventually that Victor ends up in the Orkney Islands, there trying to create the female. So, that to me was a place I was going to get to. I knew I was gonna get up in the Orkney Islands when he’s trying to create the bride for the monster. How he gets there and how Mary gets involved in it, that was not all worked out.

But then, those things are also given to you. For instance, one of the things that happened was…I think I mentioned that in Jane Austen novels, the spring for many of the plots, or maybe all the plots, is finding the right mate. You have these young women heroines who are maybe attracted to one man, who…or someone is being courted by one man…but it turns out there’s someone else who is really the person they should be with. And finding the right mate is the crucial decision of a young woman’s life in Jane Austen’s period, of her social class, anyway. And so, what hit me was that in Frankenstein, Frankenstein is about a lonely guy, the creature, who can’t find a mate. And so, he has to find a female who will love him. And then Victor’s part in this is, he has to create this female. And in order to do that, he’s going to have to come up with a female body. So I thought, “Well, gosh, you know, that’s sort of scary. He’s going to meet my character, Mary, who’s a lonely old maid, and, you know, what sort of things could happen?” And so this sort of offers certain possibilities of scenes that I could imagine. And if you have certain scenes you want to write in a narrative, you can connect them, connect the dots really, like beads on a string. You know, I know I’m driving from here to San Francisco, and I know I’m going to stop in Memphis and Kansas City and Denver and Salt Lake City, but I don’t know where I’m going in between. And so, you sort of try to arrange those, and you drive your characters, you know your characters, you know your characters, you know what they want, what they don’t want, the circumstances around them. The circumstances will change, depending on what happens in the story, and then, you know, given who they are, the kind of people they are, how would they react to that and what would they do to respond to it? And so, that can help you plot a story out. That seems to me a pretty natural way to create a story.

One of the interesting things about Pride and Prometheus is you’ve got this Jane Austen…and it’s also, it’s three viewpoints. I guess there’s third person for Mary, and then you’ve got two first persons, you’ve got the creature and you’ve got Frankenstein and all of them…the prose is…it seems to me that it reminds you of the prose of Austen and Shelley without being…trying to really get into that very convoluted early-nineteenth-century style where you can have one sentence that goes on for like a full page, almost.

Right. Well, thank you. I actually spent a lot of time thinking about that. And so…I tried not to completely imitate Jane Austen’s or Mary Shelley styles, which are quite different. And it’s right, you know, Frankenstein is written in first person from the point of view of these characters, and Jane Austen’s novels are all in third person. But I wanted to allude to them, so that someone who is familiar with those books would feel that this was reminiscent of that, without being so convoluted that it would be difficult to read. So that was my take on it. I hope I did that well enough. I’m pretty proud of how I did it, actually.

It’s…you know, in a lot of ways, the writing of a book is a process of discovery and you have to–I’ve said this to my students, that when you write any fiction, that it’s a collaboration between your conscious mind and your unconscious mind. And if you have everything planned out like a, you know, an architect, it seems to me you can stifle your imagination, because you have everything all worked out and there’s no discovery involved. So, I think that you have to depend on…at least, the life of a narrative can come from you allowing your mind to ruminate over something that you don’t really know the answer to. And that…Jim Kelly, my friend James Patrick Kelly, says that if the writer writing a story is never surprised by anything that happens, then no reader will ever be surprised. And it seems to me that, you know, to a greater or lesser degree, that there have to be things that you didn’t plan that turn up on the page.

I don’t know what your experiences is, but haven’t you ever had the experience where something just sort of comes to you as you’re writing that is exactly the thing you needed, and you did not know it, but there it is, and it proves to be much smarter than anything you could have thought up in advance?

Oh, yeah, that happens. Happens all the time.

Yeah. It’s funny how that works. It seems to me that our minds are more complex than we can easily understand.

The book I’m writing now, which is the third book in a series of mine, much to my surprise, there’s this long discussion on God’s relationship to time that pops up in one scene, which I had no intention of the two characters talking about at that time. But that just seemed to make sense. So there it is, so far, anyway. So, yeah. It’s interesting. It’s very interesting the way the writing mind works.

What’s your actual physical process of writing? Did you write this in longhand in a notebook like they might have, Austen and Shelley, or do you write on the computer? How do you work?

I’m a computer writer, a keyboard writer. I’ve been writing on keyboards since, you know, 1970 with typewriters. I never…I used to…I’ve done some longhand writing, but very little. Very little. And I know some writers who say that they can’t think unless they’re writing longhand, but I work with a keyboard. I work with a laptop right now, although I have it connected to a big screen at my desk.

I tend to work at my desk in my home office. Although there have been times when I will, when I’m having trouble, I will say, OK, I’m going to go to Panera Bread or Starbucks and sit there in the corner and try to write, and that’s worked, too. So, whatever it takes to get the work done, I think, is what I need.

And when I’m teaching, I have a lot of other responsibilities, so I can’t always write every day. And I’m not one of those…actually, I think one of the things that’s told to young writers that can be very intimidating to them is that you can’t be a writer unless you write every day. And it seems to me that…it’s certainly good to encourage the habit of writing regularly, okay? I think that that’s absolutely true. If you want to write anything of any length or…you need to be…you have your head in the game regularly, all the time. But I don’t write every day and I never have. There’ve been periods where I’ve written every day for, you know, a couple of months, when I’ve had the time to do that or when I’ve been hot on a project and I want to finish it, but there are other times when I, you know, I’ll write three days a week, okay, or I’ll, between projects, be sitting around reading and playing the guitar and watching bad movies and thinking. So my process…I mean, I do have habits that work for me. I try to be regular in them. But, you know, other people say, “Oh, we have to write, you write the same time of day every day.” Well, I generally will try to work in the morning, but it doesn’t always work that way. So whenever it comes to me to work, then I will work. And sometimes I do have to kick myself in the pants and say, “OK, you need to sit down there. You need to close the door. You need to stare at the screen. You can’t look at your e-mail. You cannot go to Facebook. You are a writer.”

Yeah, that’s…I know that feeling. Deadlines help sometimes, too, to motivate you.

I like deadlines. I know George R.R. Martin, I think, is a writer who hates deadlines and sort of fights against them. I am one who,  a deadline focuses my attention, and I like deadlines because it tells me exactly what I have to do. I have to have this done by September 1st, it’ll be done by September 1st. In my entire undergraduate career and graduate career, I don’t think I ever turned in a paper late, because something about it, the idea of being late on it would be worse. I mean, I would just…not so much that I’d get a bad grade, but rather that psychologically I might never get it done if I don’t make it by the date that I’m supposed to turn it in.

What does your…once you have a draft. What does your revision process look like?

Well, I will certainly go over it and make sure it reads smoothly and revise and edit to a degree until I’ve got a fairly polished version of it. But then I will show it to other people who are writers who I trust to give me feedback. And one of them is my wife, Therese Anne Fowler, who is extremely successful. I mean, she’s much more successful than I am. She wrote a novel called Z, a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which was a bestseller and made into a TV show on Amazon. And so, she’s a very experienced novelist, and so she gives me feedback. I often talk to her about it over supper. We’ll be working, we’re both writers, and so we’re working and then we have meals together. “How’s your day, dear?” “Oh, you know…” And she doesn’t talk as much about her work as I do, but I often talk about what I’m doing and what the problems are and what’s going on. But then when I get a draft done, I show it to her.

I always ask James Patrick Kelly to read it, and he’s been my faithful critique and critic for, you know, forty years now, really. A very wonderful guy, wonderful writer, so knowledgeable. And other writers who I have regularly…and get feedback…are my friend Richard Butner, who lives here in Raleigh, and Lewis Shiner, a well-known science fiction writer. He lives in Raleigh and we’ve been friends for more than thirty years. Karen Joy Fowler has helped me a lot with my female characters and Gregory Frost…and often actually for a couple of my things, Bruce Sterling, a writer who many people…I mean, back in the ’80s when he was the head cyberpunk and I was labeled as a humanist writer, people thought we would, you know, we hated each other, but that wasn’t the case, even though we disagreed about an awful lot of stuff. But he’s give me some very good readings over the years.

Are there sort of consistent things you find that your readers come back with that you need to…per up?

I usually find, when I have some women readers, that my women characters need attention, OK? And so…I’m trying to do my best. But, you know, I think it’s good to have someone put their eyes on it who has experienced the things that a woman experiences. And so, that to me is a consistent thing that I have had to pay attention to. The editing of…editing things down. I tend to be, in my early drafts, a lot more wordy than I do in the later. As I’ve gotten older, I’m less and less that way, I think. And Jim Kelly has been very helpful with that. He’s a much more efficient writer than I am, and I have to sort of work to get to that point.

What other things? You know, there are sometimes story-logic issues, but generally, my stories, when I get a draft done…I’ve done a lot of time thinking. I don’t write really fast, so it generally has had a lot of thought put into it, and it’s very seldom that I get told something that causes me to drastically change what I’ve written, like the structure or something.

You teach writing. Do you ever find people telling you to do things that you tell your students to do but you overlook in your own writing?

Gosh, probably. One of my colleagues at NC State is a novelist named Wilton Barnhardt, also a wonderful novelist who has given me much, much good advice. He’s not afraid to tell me, you know, but I think as far as the things that I tell my students, it’s not usually so much that, you know.

Well I ask because, you know, I mentor writers. And then when I’m editing my own stuff, I’ll say, nope, there it is, that’s exactly what I told them not to do, and I did it in my first draft.

Well, it’s certainly true that I will make grammar or usage errors that I would complain about to them. I generally…I know the difference between lie and lay, okay, but it’s possible for me to make a mistake there. Or I will sometimes put an apostrophe in its, a possessive its, when it doesn’t belong there.

Yeah, that’s a pernicious one. That just happens sometimes.

Right. It’s, you know, it’s a matter of you writing fast and not thinking.

So once the book goes to the publisher, what does the editing…we should say Pride and Prometheus is from Saga, is that right?

Saga. That’s right? And my previous book, The Moon and the Other, was also from Saga. And that was…my editor there is Joe Monti, who’s is good. I had never worked with them before The Moon and the Other. And actually, I said that I very seldom change structure, but with The Moon and the Other, I sold on the book, and I…he had the whole manuscript. It was finished, you know, before…I thought it was done. And he read it, and we met in New York City, and he said, “You know, it’s a slow start on this book.” It’s a big book. It’s like, 600 pages long, and it’s got four main characters and it alternates point of view between these four characters.

And I said, “Yeah, I know, it starts really slow because I have to do all four characters and they’re in different places, they don’t know each other, it’s complicated.” And so, he said, “Do you know how long it takes before all four characters are introduced?”, and I said, “Jeez, I don’t know. Maybe eighty pages? Seventy pages?” He says, “108 pages.” “Wow. Okay.” And he said, “Is there something you can do?” I mean, he said…also, the first chapter originally was taking place ten years before the body of the book. It was sort of like a prologue. And he said, “Do you have to have that chapter? Can you take it out?” And I said, “I absolutely cannot take out the chapter because it mirrors the last chapter of the book, and there are all these reasons why I just could not do it. There are too many things introduced there that are vital to the storyline.” And then I went home, and I said, “OK, so…” He didn’t say I had to do it, but he said, “Is there anything you do speed up this this book?”

And so I went home, and I thought, “All right, is it possible to take out that first chapter? What happens if I take out the first chapter? There’s things in that chapter I absolutely need. Is there someplace else I could put them?” So, I took the first chapter out, and one thing that immediately became evident is that I would have to rearrange the order of the next six or seven chapters. And so, I did that. And then I had to rearrange what was in those chapters, because the chapters depended on what happened in previous chapters. And then, I had to get the first chapter stuff in there somewhere else. And anyway, it ended up changing the first seven chapters of the book, and considerable revision. And it got much better. I mean, it started much better. And I’m so glad he…he didn’t tell me to do it, he didn’t say, “You have to do this,” but he made me think about it. And it really was vitally important to the book, I think, to do it, to get that chapter moved. And it really made it better.

And I think, you know, new writers sometimes are concerned about the editing process, you know, they’re going to change my deathless prose and all that sort of thing.

Right. Right.

And certainly my experience has been with my editors, Sheila E Gilbert at DAW Books, Hugo Award winning editor, and my experience has been, editors make things better for the most part.

I think they want the book to be as good as it can be. And, you know, you may have some differences of opinion, but it doesn’t help you to be stiff-necked and defensive about things. You know, actually, Christopher, who was in my undergraduate class, was writing the novel…I can’t remember the title of the first novel in the series…but he had it in my, parts of it in my class, and I remember we met in my office one time, and it had a prologue on it, and I felt the prologue was slow to start, and then the first chapter was a completely different situation than the first, than the prologue. And I said, “OK, so you’re opening this story with a frame here. When do you close the frame? Do you close the frame at the end of the book?” Because I hadn’t seen the whole book. He said, “No, I close the frame at the end of the trilogy.” And I said, “That’s not going to work. You need to…if you’re going to have a frame in front of a book, you need to close it by the end of the book. Or at least that’s my strong prejudice. Think about that, okay.” And so, what he did was, he ended up throwing it out. And I don’t know what he did with the material, if it shows up elsewhere, but he changed that. And to me, I thought that was a, you know, I mean, I didn’t make him do it, but that just was my advice for a better opening. And it’s funny, it’s similar to what Joe Monti told me, although it happened before that. So, you know, I guess it helps to be able to listen to things, even if you don’t, in the end, do what the editor says.

Empire of Silence. That’s the first book.

That’s it. Empire of Silence.

Howling Dark is the one that just came out. Well, now we’re getting close to the end, so I want to move to the big philosophical questions. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do you and I and others write science fiction and fantasy?

Wow, those are tough questions. I don’t know if I can speak for everyone else, but…

For yourself, then.

Yeah. Frederick Pohl, science fiction writer Frederick Pohl, said science fiction is a way of thinking about things, and I like that definition a lot. It seems to me that you can think about things in terms of, in science-fictional terms, the same kinds of things you can think about in a realistic story, but you do it differently. So if you think about, say, marriage, okay, or death or love or parenthood or something like that, in science fiction you can twist things in a way that sort of exposes the workings or…I think of it sometimes as like a lever that you can shove into the machine and pry it open and see the workings in a different way than a realistic novelist or story writer can, so that one of the appeals of science fiction, is that you can…

The very. the fantastic element. to me. should be essential to the story. And in fact, that’s one of my principles, is that. if I could tell this story without the science fiction or the fantasy element, then I should tell it without it, okay? That it has to be vital to the story, has to be essential to make the point I’m trying to make that is in there. So, you know, in other words, I could…

You know, The Moon and the Other started from me watching my daughter at the daycare center when she was a toddler. And I was watching the kids in the playground, the little kids, two, three years old, playing out back. And it seemed to me that the boys’ way of playing was different from the girls’ way of playing. And I started thinking about, “Well, is that inherent or is this culturally determined, okay? When did they start behaving differently?” And so that got me thinking about the difference between men and women–not that I hadn’t thought about it before, but… and I ended up writing this big novel set on the moon in the twenty-second century about gender issues. And yet, another person would have written a story about a father at a daycare center with his daughter and the other kids, you see? But that’s not what I wrote. I wrote a science fiction novel. So, there’s something about that tropism for the strange, or the fantastic, that I’ve always had, and I think I always will.

I think that, you know…why does anyone write? It’s a very good question. I think it’s something about…trying to figure out the world, it seems to me. Or maybe just to entertain yourself or entertain somebody. There’s an element also of sort of showing off, isn’t there? Where you want everyone to admire you. And so…I remember there was a TV production company that did sitcoms and stuff, and at the end of every show, they’d have this little logo and they’d have a kid’s voice that would say, “I made this!” And I always liked that, because a kid makes things just to make them and to be proud, you know, to sort of say, “I made this myself. No one else made this.” And I still have that kid feeling, you know, “No one else wrote these books. No one else could write these books exactly the way I wrote them. Maybe for better, for worse, someone might have written them better, but I made this book myself,” and I like that, you now?

That is one of the rewarding things about it, for sure.

It’s bad when they reject your story and say, “Oh, my God, that stinks.”.

Yeah, there’s that, too.

Yeah.

Well, that’s kind of the end of our time. So, what are you working on now?

I have a novella that I just told you about that is on submission right now that is a weird kind of thing. It’s about the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 at a World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York, and it’s also about a trip to the moon in 1901. And it sort of alternates between the realistic historical story and this fantastic scientific romance about the inhabited moon full of Selenites.

I miss that moon.

Yeah. It’s based on a ride that was there at the at the fair, called A Trip to the Moon. It was the first dark ride, if you know what a dark ride is, like at Universal City or Disney World, where they have these rides, you’re in a vehicle and they show you things. So that one’s going out. It’s a kind of political story. I’ve got a ghost story. I wrote my first ghost story and that is on submission right now. And I don’t know, we’ll see what happens with that. You’d think I would have written a ghost story before now, but I didn’t. And who knows? I like to write different kinds of stories. So, you know, if there’s a kind of story I haven’t written yet, I’m thinking, well, what kind of what kind of monster story would I write?

And where can people find you online?

Oh, I have a Web site…and also, there’s a…I have a pretty active Facebook page, which is open to the public and has lots of things on there. You can find things about me. And I’m in the bookstores. Look for Saga books.

OK, well, I think that’s the end of our time, so, thanks so much for being a guest on The World shapers. That was a fun conversation.

Well, thank you very much. I certainly didn’t lack for things to say. I hope I didn’t get too far off the bat.

No, no, it was great. So, thanks a lot, and bye for now.

Take care.

Episode 33: Kameron Hurley

An hour-long conversation with Kameron Hurley, award-winning author of the recently released military science fiction novel The Light Brigade, the short-story collection Meet Me in the FutureThe Stars are Legion, the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, the God’s War trilogy, and the Worldbreaker Saga.

Website
www.kameronhurley.com

Twitter
@KameronHurley

Instagram
@KameronHurley

Kameron Hurley’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Kameron Hurley is the author of the recently released military science fiction novel The Light Brigade, the short-story collection Meet Me in the FutureThe Stars are Legion, the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, the award-winning God’s War trilogy, and the Worldbreaker Saga. Kameron has won the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, the Kitschy Award for Debut Novel, and Sidney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science magazine, Lightspeed, and numerous anthologies. Kameron has also written for The AtlanticWriter’s DigestEntertainment WeeklyThe Village VoiceL.A. WeeklyBitch Magazine, and Locus Magazine, and she blogs regularly at her website, www.kameronhurley.com.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kameron, welcome toThe Worldshapers.

Oh, thank you so much for having me.

I was just saying before we started that usually at this point, when I’m just getting started, I say, “Oh, yeah, well, I met you, you know, this WorldCon or that WorldCon,” but we’ve never actually crossed paths before this.

No, yeah.

So, I’m very happy to have you on. And I just, as I said, also before we started, I just finished reading The Light Brigade last night, so it’s very fresh in my mind.

Excellent.

And we’ll talk about that one primarily as an example of your creative process, but my first step is always…I say this all the time, but I don’t know any better way to say it: I’m gonna take you back into the mists of time and find out how you, first of all, got started being interested in science fiction and fantasy, probably starting as a reader, as most of us did, and then how you got into the writing of it. So, let’s go let’s go way back and then find out how that all started for you.

Way back…yeah. No, I have always had a very vivid imagination, even, I think, when I was in kindergarten, to the point where they would have us, you know, make little storybooks and everything, and I was making this story with, you know, space explorers who went to this strange planet that was blowing up flowers out of the volcanoes and had weird creatures that were crawling around. I had always done stuff like that, and I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it, and I got a lot of positive feedback from it. And I think that’s important, too, when you think about encouraging young people, right, with things that they enjoy and are interested in. My teachers and my family were just like, “Wow, you’ve got quite an imagination, Hurley,” and so I started doing that for, you know, just as part of the English curriculum stuff.

And then it just turned out that that was what I started to do after school, as well. It just sort of became my hobby. I, gosh, I think I wrote…I typed out…I remember typing on an electric typewriter at one point, a story of mine, an early one. And I think that about 1994, when I was thirteen or fourteen, we finally got a word processor. And that was exciting—I could I could actually keep an entire book on, like, four or five floppy disks. So that was great.

But I…you know, it was just something that I wanted to do because I had all of these stories in my head, and I loved this idea that I could take these things that were in my head that no one else could see or experience or whatever, and I could communicate that to people. I thought that was really cool. And I think that that just sort of sparked my interest in kind of delving deeper and how do I, you know, create a book that absolutely gets across this feeling the best way possible, right, to people, and that’s totally clear. So, yeah, I’ve been doing it a long time.

Where there are things that you were reading that kind of also sparked your interest in telling stories?

Sure. Yeah. Tamora Pierce wrote a really great series, The Song of the Lioness, which is about a young girl who swaps places with her twin brother and goes off and pretends to be a male knight, and she gets knight training, and then she gets revealed.

I read that one!

But it was cool when I was a kid because I think it was the first time that someone really wrote that idea in a way that made sense to me, where I bought it, right? I was like, “Oh, I can see how this happened.” Of course, you look at history…that would happen all the time. But it was someone who actually did that in a way that felt really cool. And so I think that was some of the early stuff. And again, I read The Phantom Tollbooth and all that. I think we all really start with fantasy and science fiction, right? Like talking animal stories. And it’s just a matter of, you know, do we continue reading or do we kind of veer off in another direction?

I think a real formative moment was, I think again, at thirteen, fourteen, I had a family friend and I said, “Hey, I’m running out of stuff to read.” There wasn’t really a YA category, right, when I was a kid. So it’s like, I was in that weird stage where the younger-people, the middle-grade, books were too young, but the older-people books, I just didn’t even know where to start, because some of…a lot of them were just like, I had no interest in. It was old-people problems, right? And he said, “Hey, why don’t I give you some of my fantasy and science fiction books?” So, he brought to me a paper bag full of Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, and the first, The Eye of the World, the first Robert Jordan book. And that, like, really, really, I just loved. Those Dragonlance books…I’d never read Tolkien, so the Dragonlance books were like my Tolkien. I was like, “This is so original and amazing!” you know, at the time. And I really loved it and enjoyed it. And again, The Wheel of Time, I really got into that one. And that sort of was my gateway into science fiction and fantasy, and yeah, I’ve kind of stuck with that ever since.

Now you mentioned that, you know, your family and friends and all that said, “Oh, what an imagination!” That sounds like you were probably sharing your writing with people along the way. You weren’t just keeping it to yourself?

Oh, yeah. No, absolutely. Actually, what I would do is, I would base characters on some of my friends at school, and so they wanted to read it, to know what happened to their character. And I look at some people who have kind of gotten into D&D and stuff like that, and it’s a very similar sort of idea where it’s like, it’s something you can…it’s something that’s very social, so that if you’re not really good at making friends, not very social, which I was not, it was something to talk about, you know, with people. And it was like, oh, you know, “The scullery maid is revealed as the princess!”, you know, stuff like that. And people did, they really liked it. And all of sudden people said, “Oh, Kameron’s writing stories,” and people that I didn’t even think would ever talk to me were like, “Well, I want to be a character in your story.” And so, yeah, it was…it ended being a little bit of a social activity as well.

Hm. I wonder if you put, like, Oprah as a character in your story if you’d get in her book club or that sort of thing?

I know. Right. Right. It’s like that Obama-Biden comic book. I’m sure he was thinking, “Yeah, maybe Obama and Biden will call me.” Yeah. No.

Were you writing just shorter things? Or were you writing…were these like novel-length, or…?

I just writing pretty long stuff. I called them books. I mean, it was 150 pages, was my first one. And then I think, yeah, we got up to about 200 pages for some of the other ones when I was in my mid- and late teens. I probably wrote, you know, eight or nine books before my first book was published, and some of those early ones were definitely, you know, they were…they were book-sized, for sure.

Well, I ask a couple these questions of everybody. And one reason is because, of course, comparing it to my own experience. My first short story was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” so you can see where my mind was. But I wrote these longer works, too. And actually mine…I was calling them books, too. And I thought it was novel-length, too, but I recently got the typed manuscript of the one I wrote when I was fourteen, called The Golden Sword, and I scanned it, word recognition, and it’s only about 38,000 words. And I felt it was like this huge, epic fantasy.

Yeah, it feels, yeah, it feels like this. Yeah, absolutely.

I may throw it up on Amazon as by Eddie Willett, which is what I went by back then. The scary thing is it might sell better than my real stuff. That would be really scary. Were there teachers or people along the way who encouraged you at that stage?

There were! One of them—again, it’s somebody you always remember their names, right?—and one was Barbara Kreinbring, who was like my seventh- or eighth-grade English teacher, and she was very, very passionate about it, very encouraging, loved that I had this thing that I did outside of class that, you know, engaged me and I was interested in and, again, something academic. I was from a pretty small town, too, and I think that there was certainly this, you know, push to, hey, you know, “If you’ve got it, let’s go.” You know, “If you’ve got something, let’s get you out of town!” And, yeah, she was super-encouraging. She’s probably the most encouraging one.

I’m trying to think, kind of later on…later on, you know, in college and stuff, I actually had a writer, David Marusek, who’s a science fiction writer, who was teaching a class, and he was actually the one who told me, “Hey, you need to reapply to Clarion,” the writing workshop Clarion, because I had and I was rejected, and he’s like, “No, no, your stuff really is good enough.” You know, I was doing stuff in this class all semester and he said, “Apply again.” And I went to Clarion later on. and it really was transformative for my writing career, just meeting new people and forcing myself to write a story a week. You know, you do level up like two years in six weeks. And so that was a really good kind of a moment as well.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a town called Battleground, Washington. It’s just north of Portland, Oregon. I think now that they’ve extended the freeway a little bit it’s basically, my mom was saying, I was just talking to her about this, basically it’s become like a suburb of Portland because it’s about forty-five minutes away and there’s no housing in Portland, so it’s like, there’s all this growth. But when I was there, it was like…cows. Which is great! I loved it. We had two and a half acres, I had a great imagination, I wandered around. It was a great place to grow up, it was just definitely a small town.

Well, you mentioned going to Clarion. I want to ask you about that in a minute. But you didn’t actually study writing in university to start with, did you? Your degree was in historical studies?

Yeah, yeah. I considered doing an English degree until I realized that basically what they wanted you to do was just read the classics. And I said, “Well, gonna read the classics anyway, why don’t I do something that is writing-adjacent that will…that I feel like I’m actually learning something.” I mean, one of the things that…and that was, again, that came from a teacher, I do not remember his name, but that was…he was a college teacher, but I was still in high school, I was in community-college classes as part of my high school curriculum…but anyway, he was an amazing history teacher because he’d tell it like a story, and all these wild things, right, that people have done in the past, and what motivates them and all of that, and as someone writing fiction and sort of struggling with, you know, character motivation and where do ideas come from and what are some twists and things, that was really awesome for me to take those notes and be like, “OK, how can I work this into what I’m doing?” And I realized that, “You know, it’s probably going to serve me better to go straight to the source of where all the stories come from,” right, which is our own history. And so that was that sort of leading me more and more…

There was another teacher, again, at the same community college, she was exceptional. I think it was a feminist history course of some kind, and it was amazing learning about…it was wild. So we had a really great time with that one, too. And it just…yeah, it just sparked my interest. And my parents were like, “We’ll disown you if you don’t go to college,” so I had to go to college. But I chose to do something and study something that I found really interesting.

And it has, it’s really changed and transformed my writing, because I’m going straight to the source stuff. As I’ve said, people have said, “Oh, your stories are so weird and stuff happens, it’s so creepy,” and whatever, and I’m like, “You don’t understand, this is sanitized. This is sanitizedfrom actual events.” There’s stuff like…I researched…I spent two years living in South Africa, where I got my master’s degree in history, and I researched all these archives from something called the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which is what they did after the end of apartheid in that country, where people could come forward and actually tell stories of the horrors that had happened under the state, and they would be, they’d be given political immunity. Oh, my gosh. Like, the stuff you read is just…you know, I’d have to stop and take a break, like, just the things that people do to each other. But to me that was a much better way of spending my time, like researching the real world and what has happened, than just reading books, which I was going to do anyway.

It’s interesting. You’re my twenty-ninth author, I think, that I’ve interviewed so far, and… I don’t want to say names because I’ll forget somebody…but you’re about the third or fourth who actually has a history background.

Yeah!

And that does seem to feed into their writing, and clearly it feeds into yours as well.

Oh, for sure.

So how did you—and when did you—break into writing?

Let’s see. I sold…I sold a non-fiction piece, I think, when I was sixteen, to, like, a local newspaper, which was a nice little jolt. I think I got like twenty bucks or something for it. It was like, “Wow, I got twenty bucks!” And you know, my mom cut it out of the paper, and it was so exciting. And then I think I sold my first genre…I started submitting when I was fifteen to genre magazines, like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, and I think Intergalactic Medicine Show was around then, and Talebones. And I think my first professional…I sold one when I was, like, seventeen to an online magazine for five dollars. And then I think my first professional story was to Talebones, and that was when I was…twenty, I think? And so, that was the first one where I actually felt like, “Oh, I’m a real writer,” like, “a publication I’ve heard of is pushing my…” And it was great, though, because I met, oh, I forget his name (Patrick Swenson – Ed.), but I met the editor of that publication like, ten years later. I had just published a book, my first book. And he said, “Oh, I love to talk about you, it’s like, ah-ha, I first published Kameron Hurley.” He’s like, “But honestly, the reason that you were in that particular issue was because I had a spot of exactly 3,000 words, and I had a pile of stories that were on the maybe pile, and your story happened to be about 3,000 words.” I said, “God bless you.” Sometimes that’s all it is, right? It’s so funny.

Well, having been a newspaper editor early in my career, I know exactly what it’s like to have a specific space that you need to fill. And I’ve added a magazine since then and, yeah, it’s like, “That one’s a good story, but I can’t use 5,000 words. This one’s not quite is good, but…”

But it fits!

You mentioned selling to the local newspaper and I was laughing a little bit. My first sale I got paid for was to Cat Fancy magazine.

Oh, yes.

They had something called Young Writers’ Corner. When I was thirteen I sold them this terrible pun about Santa Claus looking for a replacement. And he found a guy who wouldn’t weed his garden and he knew that he could never work out because he wouldn’t hoe-hoe-hoe.

Oh, my God.

And I got paid for that.

And you got paid for that!

So, you know, you take what you can get.

You take what you can get. Exactly. A sale is a sale.

So, you carried on from there. So, were you largely short fiction for quite a while before you tried something longer?

You know, I actually was trying longer stuff. I feel like I’m a natural novelist, so I was writing very long stuff and I think it was from actually encountering other writers. And at the time, you know, the popular wisdom in the genre was, “You need to publish short fiction so that you get known, and then you publish the longer stuff because your stuff will, you know, stand out on the pile or whatever.”

Yeah, I hated that bit of common wisdom.

Oh, man. I hated it. And so I did. So I tried to write short fiction, especially, again, when I went to, again, the Clarion Writing Workshop, they specifically are like, “We would prefer you do a short story, a complete, you know, arc, every week.” And so that gave me a lot of a lot of experience doing that. Again, I think I was twenty when I went to that one, as well. And, yeah, it just…I don’t know. I did a lot of short fiction. I sent a lot of stuff out, and at the same time I was working on longer work, on novels. I think I finally…I sent out a partial, I sent out a novel to several publishers, without…unagented, just to the slush piles, when I was…twenty-two, I think? And, of course, it was rejected across the board and I was like, “Oh, well.” And then I sent out another manuscript again when I was twenty-three, twenty-four, looking for an agent, and all of those are rejected as well. “Well, yay!”, you know, whatever. And again, it’s like I was not having a ton of luck with the short fiction. I sold some stuff to Strange Horizons, again, I had the Talebones sale. I had some stuff to some smaller magazines. I did get into a Year’s Best SF at some point, which was really cool, for one of my Strange Horizons stories, but it just wasn’t…and I could tell, right, that, you know, I could make a short story, but it wasn’t anything special. Like, I look at some of the short story writers who are writing today, Alyssa Wong, Brooke Bolander, like, they put stuff out and everybody’s like, “Ohhh!” The crowd goes wild! And I was not like that. It was just like, well, that was a story. Again, it fits the 3,000-word thing. So I’m like, there’s clearly something I’m missing in short fiction that I was not, you know, it just wasn’t gelling, it wasn’t coming together. 

Whereas I think when I finally wrote my first novel, the one that was actually published—ha-ha, “first novel,” again like the tenth one or whatever—when I finally wrote God’s War, I just was like, “Let’s just put in everything. Since I can, I have the space, I’m just going to throw in bug magic and worlds at war and a desert planet, it’s like Mad Max Apocalypse, I’m going to do all this stuff, and—cutting off heads,” and I did, and I ended up sending it out to, I think, three agents, and one came back and said, “Yeah, I’d like to represent this.” And I was like, “Wow, cool.” And, you know, we sent it out and got tons of rejections.

And here’s the…now, here’s the irony, okay? And this is why I tell people that how I broke in is not how you break in today. It’s all very different. Same thing with, like, Scalzi, you know? How it’s done is very different. But I…so the agent sent it all around, we got rejections across the board, nobody wanted it. And then she gets an email from somebody a…an editor at a house that she’d already sent it to, but she’d sent it to a different editor at that publishing house. Well, this editor said, “Hey, I heard Kameron Hurley is shopping a novel, heard it online somewhere, and I read a short story of hers that I really liked, could you send me this novel? I think it’s weird you haven’t sent this to me.” And she, my agent, was like, “Oh, well, I sent to this other, you know, editor. She didn’t want it.” So she sent it to this editor who had read a short story that she liked, and, yep, twenty-four hours later, we had a three-book deal. And that one eventually…there’s a whole thing with that, that didn’t go through, and there was a bunch of messed-up stuff because that editor was fired, it was 2008, it was a disaster. But it was eventually published somewhere else. But that was…like, my first experience was, “Oh, wow,” And then me thinking, “I guess that short story thing really does work,” though I hate to write them. Oh, yeah.

So, yeah, everybody’s story is different. And I do the same thing, when I talk about how I got in with DAW Books, which is my major publisher, it was almost the “here’s a 3,000-word story that fits,” because they had a hole in their publishing schedule, and I had a book published through Marty Greenberg’s…what was it called…Five Star. And they said, “Well, send over some of your stuff and we’ll see if there’s anything that fits,” and they picked mine. And so that’s how I got in at DAW…they had a hole, and I filled it.

That was what they needed. Yeah, totally.

That was…ten books later, I’m still with DAW, so…I also wanted to mention, going back to Clarion, where did that fall in there? Because one thing I often ask writers about their formal writing training, and I get “hit or miss.” You did mention David Marusek was a teacher, so you must have taken some formal writing classes in university at some point. But I get a lot of hit or miss with authors as to whether formal writing training was helpful or not. It sounds like for you, it was.

For me, it was. And it really would depend. I think I started going to, like, local workshops and stuff from the time I was about fourteen, that’s actually when I started reading Writer’s Digest thinking, “OK, if I really…” Again, when I was twelve, I said, “Wow, I could be a writer. How cool is that?” Sometimes I get really mad when I think, you know, how many years I spent studying writing and how long it’s taken, right, to get to where I am, but I also go to the point where, for some people I feel story and structure and all of that stuff comes a lot more naturally, and others of us really have to start early because we have to work at it. But I did, I had to work it, and a lot of it, that was plot and structure. And actually my current agent has been really great with helping me with plot and structure. But I struggled quite a bit when I first was starting out because I could write sentences and there were characters and people did things, but it wasn’t a story, if that makes any sense, it wasn’t…you didn’t get that feeling of catharsis or emotion at the end of it, it was just like, “Okay, so what?” Which is, you know, what Damon Knight would kind of write at the end of somebody’s story that, he’s like, you know, it just tailed off: “So what?” And I had to learn what, the reason I’m writing the story.

So, yeah, I started out doing some of those, some creative writing classes in college, and what I found with a lot of them is, I felt I was a stronger writer than a lot of those people. And I also found that, you know, still, they’re quite hostile toward genre. I think more so than they are now, but nobody likes science fiction and fantasy. They treat it like you are a little kid or something.

I hear that a lot.

Right? All the time. So I got very frustrated with it, and especially having teachers who clearly had, like, they’d published one poem in a literary journal when they were twenty-five. And I’m like, “Okay, what do you have to teach me?” And I think, yeah. David Marusek was the first…I think by that point he had sold about a dozen short stories and possibly had sold his first novel. But it was someone who actually worked in the genre, who took it seriously, who had been published in it, and I was in a class with other people who wrote genre. And it was really very useful to me because they were not only genre, you know, writers—they were also readers, and it was really nice to kind of get that feedback. And I think that was definitely the jumping off point to…again, as I said, he encouraged me to go to Clarion, and then from going from, you know, this sort of small pool of, “Okay, cool, genre writers,” to, like, professional-level, oh-shit genre writers at Clarion, was really, really…it was kind of…there was this feeling of both awe and fear and…I don’t…I can’t explain it. It was one of those things where I went to the writing workshop, and there were seventeen of us, and some had been to Oxford and Stanford and a bunch of them are…one’s a doctor, and all this stuff…and I thought, at the end of the first few weeks, I was like, “You know, we all have different strengths and weaknesses, but I am performing at a similar level to all of these people.” And I think at the time I was like, “Oh, I’m just going to live in a cabin in Alaska, I’m going to write, and I’m not going to…” I wasn’t thinking about all the things I could do with my life. And there was just something about going into that environment and being really inspired and thinking, “These are my peers. Like, I’m not like the lowest person here or the one who just kind of slid in, you know, on my backside. I’m actually writing…I’m performing.” I wrote a short story every week. They weren’t necessarily very good, but I wrote them. Some people didn’t, they weren’t able to do it. I totally get that. But I was there to learn, and I was there to do the work. And I think that there was something about…it’s something about how you approach these experiences and how you decide or not to make the most of them. I think for some people, that kind of environment is not good. It is true. A lot of people can’t do, like, the criticism and the like, the pressure cooker, you know, sort of thing. And there’s, you know, cliques form, I mean it’s six weeks, so it’s like a…ugh, it’s a mess. So some people can’t do it. But I really enjoyed it. I felt it forced me again to kind of push myself and to level up my craft, so…

Well, and your craft was leveled up quite nicely since then, with all these awards and everything. But let’s talk about your craft. So, as I said, I just finished reading The Light Brigade, which came out in March 2019. And so, let’s talk about that one as an example of your creative process. First of all, this isn’t…you know the first question is going to be some variation on, “Where do you get your ideas?” And I’m sorry, but you have to start there. So, let’s put it this way: what was the seed from which this impressive growth sprang?

Well, I have always loved military science fiction, certain military science fiction. I love Conan, too. Now, both of these genres are very problematic in many ways. You know, Conan is a throwback to very racist, sexist times, and a lot of military SF, it’s like people talk about Heinlein, especially like, “Oh, this is just him spouting on about, like, fascism is good.” And I’m like, “I understand that. I also love a lot of things about it.” I think John Steakley wrote a really great military SF novel called Armor, and of course, Joe Haldeman, you know, The Forever War, which is an amazing anti-war novel, which is great.

He was a guest on the program.

Oh, was he?

Yeah.

So, there are some really wonderful military SF titles I really like—Marko Kloos is doing some interesting things as well now—and I, weirdly enough, like, I studied, you know, resistance movements and war for my master’s degree in graduate school. And funnily enough, I was like, “I haven’t written a military science fiction novel.” And we had sold…we had done a two-book deal with Saga Press. One was for The Stars Are Legion, which was a weird-ass feminist space opera, and the second one, it was like, “Well, what do we do now?” And my agent actually came to me and she said, “Hey, you wrote a short story for your Patreon,” ’cause I have a Patreon, which is basically supporting us right now, and she said, “Hey, why don’t you—I really love the voice in that, why don’t you expand that to a novel?” And I said, “Oh, I could do that,” And it was a short story, and I had gotten that initial idea because I love time-travel stories, I love military SF, and I was actually playing World of Warcraft, and there’s this point where you can get between two locations where it actually transforms you into a ball of light, and you sort of follow the ball of light, you know, to the next location, and I thought, “How cool is that? What if you broke down people into light and you, you know, took them to different battlefronts?” And I was like, “Well, so once you start messing with light, then you can start messing with time travel and quantum mechanics and all that stuff.” And so that’s sort of where that idea came from, right, playing World of Warcraft.

We should probably at this point have some sort of synopsis of the book for those who have not yet read it, because otherwise that may have been just a little confusing.

Yes. The Light Brigade is a novel about a disgruntled soldier who signs up to fight a war against Mars to get revenge for her family, who has died, and soldiers are broken down into light to get them to these interplanetary battlefronts. And what she starts to realize, as she experiences this war out of order, is that the reasons for the war are not at all what, you know, they’ve been told they are. So, that’s the journey of the novel, it’s sort of her learning what exactly this war is really about and trying to take control of that situation.

So, that sort of, you know, coming from anywhere…is that how ideas come to you in general? Some people, you know, they tend to start with ae character, or they start with an image or something. It sounds like it can come from anywhere for you.

It can. It can come from anywhere. I think a lot of times, you know, they do start with a character. And then I will actually start with…I’ll start with a character, an idea for a character, and say, “Well, what kind of a world would make that character,” right? And in this particular case, I had this idea…and that’s the thing, too, is that one idea does not make a novel. You have to take a great many ideas. And I can say, “Yes, this…idea of beaming people back and forth, that started it,” but that by itself is nothing. I had to come up with, you know, Dietz as a character, and say, “Okay, what kind of a world will make this person?” And then I had to figure out the structure of the novel, which is a pain in the ass. I had to do all, you know, all these other things, all of the military…

There’s a lot of stories in there that actually come from people that I know who have been in the military, also from a really great book called The Unwomanly Face of War, which is actually an oral history of women who fought in World War Two in Russia. And there, they had a ton of, you know, just first-person accounts of some of these harrowing and heartbreaking and hilarious, also, things, and those sort of also made it into the novel in various different forms. And it all had to come from the media and the books and the writing and all of those things that you sort of soak up throughout the world and your experiences of it, and you then distill it down into a story.

So what does your planning and outlining and all that look like for you? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you…I’m pretty sure in this one you didn’t just make it up as you go, because the structure is complicated.

I tried. I tried the first time, the first time writing it, I sat down, I got to the 40,000-word mark, which was all through the basic, her basic training, and then, yeah, once stuff started going out of order, I…all of a sudden I, it just stopped, and I, you know, called my agent, I said, “Listen, I don’t know how to make this work.” And she said, “Okay, well, tell me what’s going on.” I said, “Well, here’s what I want to happen, but I can’t make it logically happen.” And she said, “Oh, my gosh, you really have made a mess.” And I was like, “Yes, I have. Yes, I have!” Well, it turns out her husband has a Ph.D. in mathematics, he actually teaches in California, and he saw her with a whiteboard trying to figure out, “Okay, how does this, and check the jump that…now they’re back and they’re doing…” And he said, “Oh, well, you just need to…” I don’t know, it’s whatever I said in the back of the book, it’s this, whatever, kind of graph that links these things together. He’s like, “This is okay, you can just use this mathematical equation to make sure that everything is happening in logical order,” and she’s like, “Oh. Oh, great!”

So, we actually sat down, and what she would do is run characters through this graph to make sure that the events as they were happening out of order…because first I had to note how everything happened in order, so I made an Excel spreadsheet of that. Then I would chuck those out of Excel and mix them up, and then I would go to her and say, “Does this make sense?”, you know, just make consistent sense with math. And she’d run it through and be like, “Okay, yes, math says that make sense,” and then I’d go, and I could write the, you know, each section. And it was a matter of me having to say, you know, “Here’s who’s alive at this time. Here’s, you know, here’s what she believed happened last time. Here’s what her squad actually experienced last time.” And I did need to be incredibly detailed and really pay attention to this book in a way that I don’t think I have with any other book.

I was telling my agent, I think it was the third read through of the novel, for the finished novel for me, where I said, “You know, this feels effortless.” And I was like, “How amazing.” Like that….as an author, like, that’s your goal, is to make it look easy. And I mean, you know, the third time I read it through, I said, “It’s at that point where it feels like, ‘Oh, how obvious, you know? Oh, this was easy.’” And again, and still up until, you know, up until we were in proofs, my agent was double-checking, running stuff through, making sure that it all made logical sense, because we knew, with any time-travel novel, we know…and military SF, right?…people are gonna check, they’re gonna re-read it several times and they’re going to check to make sure that you’re right.

So, yes, this was a very different sort of book for me. I think you look at, you know, my first series, The God’s War series, was just, it was a classic quest plot. It was just, it was Conan, it was a female Conan, so it was just like, “Hey, there’s this object of power or person that they need to find,” and they go about, and they have silly hijinks, and they do it. Like that’s, that’s a…I love writing those sorts of plots because they’re just very easy. This was not that…

No math required?

Yeah, no math required, no running it through the graphs. But this one, you know, was a real level up, where it was…I felt like I could say, “I’m writing science fiction now. We used math!” But, yeah, for the most part, with other things I’ll do broad outlines. I used to be almost entirely, you know, a gardener writer, where I would just sort of throw stuff on the page and wander around and I’d have some big set piece like, “Here’s where I want to go and here’s the kind of the big things I want to happen,” but it was just, you know, wandering around. I can’t do that as much anymore because I’m on contract, so what I’ve found is if I try to do that, I end up spending, you know, six times as long editing the book as I would if I do all the work up front like I did with Light Brigade.

Yeah, those deadlines have a way of doing that.

They change your process. It’s a pain in the butt, yeah.

So what does your actual writing day look like? Are you a plant-yourself-at-the-office-chair-and-type-for-twelve-hours-a-day writer, or how does it work for you?

Well, it usually depends. I think my…I’m a binge writer. So, what I like to do is make sure I have big chunks of time. I like to, you know, be sitting at the computer, certainly by about nine o’clock, and I will usually work straight through, with a little break for lunch, until two o’clock or so. By the time it gets about three o’clock, it’s like, my brain is done, I’m done, and I’m ready to do other things, which is great, because then I can spend the early morning hours responding to email, reviewing contracts, and then the later hours doing whatever. So, that’s really kind of the ideal.

Now, does that mean that’s always what happens? No. Right now, I’m working constantly because I’m on deadline. I have a book due Thursday, a big rewrite of some stuff due Thursday, so now it’s like, “Oh, get up at six, type-type-type-type-aaaah!”, you know, and then go to bed late. So, it really depends on where I am in the process. ’Cause there are some other days, you know, once this book is in, I have another book that I’m actually in the research and ideation process right now, and that means going to the library and taking notes and researching things. And that’s a different process. I’m not necessarily making words, but I am preparing to create that outline and flesh that out and get the world in order before I really start it in earnest. And so that’s kind of different mode of work.

Do you ever get lost in your research?

You know, I try a lot more now to stay on target, just like with deadlines, right?

“Stay on target…”

Right, yeah. That’s also, I think, the reason I like to go to the library, because if I’m just like, oh, I’m a hundred percent doing my research online, it’s way easier to lose yourself online than it is in the library, ’cause at the library you have to physically get up, to look for stuff, you have to put this away, do that, so you’ve got to be very clear about…it is much harder to get caught in that. But yeah, if I try and do stuff online, it’s, I feel like, “Oh, it’s been six hours and now I’m watching a YouTube video about basket weaving, how did that even happen?”

So now…I’m presuming you type and work directly onto a computer because you started with word processors when you were a kid, so…

Mm-hmm.

I have talked to one person, I think, who still likes to write longhand, but…once you have your draft, what does your rewriting process look like? Do you have beta readers? Do you just get it done and send it off to your editor? How does it work for you?

At this point in my career, my agent is basically my beta reader. In fact, she is involved…again, I talked about working with structure, she’s very analytical and very much involved and hands-on from the early draft stage…so, when I finish a draft, I usually send it to her first. Occasionally we’ve had ones where, you know, it’s due to the editor and I’ve got to send it to them both at the same time and I just ran out of time, but for most of my work, yeah, she reads the first draft, she gives me her first big batch of notes, I rewrite it based on her notes—that’s usually when the big structural stuff happens—send it back to her, she reads it again, I clean up any last little things, and that’s when it goes to the editor. And that’s ideal, right? But sometimes it just goes straight to the editor, in which case, yeah, then I just end up having…

Like, this last book, The Broken Heavens, which is the third in my fantasy series, The Worldbreaker Saga…that one is so late, and so it ended up going to my editor and to my agent at the same time. They both read it and I had to incorporate both of their comments—sometimes contradictory, so it’s like any other way of taking notes, some of the times you’re just like, “Well, which one best fits my view of the novel and the way the novel should be. Do I agree with them?” and throw them out if you don’t like them. And then again, I just sent it back, and I got the notes back again, fewer notes every time from my agent and editor at the same time. And so, I work on those.

But yeah, I worked with beta readers for my first series, and I think after my first series, the issue became, you know, a lot of my first readers were from my Clarion class, and over time we all became professional writers, and then none of us had time to actually read each other’s books. We didn’t have time. And by the time I had a draft finished, it was already…there would only be, like, a week before it was due to the editor, and that wasn’t enough time to give them time to read it, so, it just…that just kind of fell by the wayside. But early on in my career, yeah, I did have beta readers.

See, I basically never did. I pre-date the Internet, when I was getting started, and I didn’t have any friends…well, that’s not quite true…but I didn’t have any, you know, people that were going to be any use to me. So I’ve always just kind of gotten it written and sent it off to an editor. It’s kind of the way I’ve always worked. Before you send it to your agent, what does your personal rewriting look like? Or are you perfect at the end of your first draft and ready to send it off?

Ha-ha. That’s only John Scalzi is that way. It drives me crazy.

He was, like, my second interview, so I remember him saying…

Oh, my gosh, yeah, no, he drives me crazy. But no, I…some of it is…I do, I revise as I go, but a lot of times when I finish something, I do go back and say, “Okay, what are…were there any notes I made…”, see, sometimes I’ll make notes along the way, “Hey, remember to go back and fix that, remember to go back and do this,” and I will go back and I will kind of fix those things up. But, you know, more and more I do…because I am writing to deadline…I wait for my huge edits until my agent sees it. And then I incorporate my edits and my agent’s edits into it, to be like, okay, kind of a gut check, like the things that I thought were wrong, “Oh, look, she thinks are wrong,” or “Oh, she didn’t even think about that.” So, yeah. And I do, I try to take…when feedback comes in, you know, I try and take the small stuff first and get all the small stuff done, and then look at the bigger ones. “Okay, now we have to go through and fix these large sections. This motivation doesn’t seem right, you know, this sequence of events is messed up.” So, I do kind of try and keep track while I’m writing of all the things that I need to address on the next pass.

And yeah, then I’ll go through, I will read it through, address those things. I’m not terribly worried about, like, word choice and things like that. I will spellcheck it at that point, but I wait to really layer on, you know, worldbuilding stuff and work on sentence-level things once I’ve gotten all of the feedback from my editor and my agent, because I found if I try to work at that level first off, a lot of times it takes a lot longer, and then it might turn out that I have a big section that I spent all this time on that in fact needs to be deleted completely. So, I’d rather make sure all of that big structural stuff is in there—in fact, that’s what I’m doing for Broken Heavens right now—all the big structural stuff is fixed, and then I go back, layer on worldbuilding, layer on character stuff, go to the sentence level and say, “OK, let’s clean this up, let’s make this a little bit more poetic,” and that’s the point at which I really start…again, now it is a polish. It’s really shining it up right before it goes to the copy editor.

My final sentence revisions usually happen when I’m doing a public reading and I come across something I wish I’d changed before it got into print.

Oh, yes, we all have that. “What did I do?”

Yeah, it’s funny. Well, it’s not funny, it’s kind of sad, really, but it happens. Well, that’s the novel we were talking about. I also wanted to mention the short story collection that’s just come out. Where do the short stories come from? How did you assemble this collection? You said you don’t write a lot of short stories? Are these all previously published? Are there some unpublished ones in there? It’s called Meet Me the Future.

Yes. Meet Me in the Future. So, two years ago, I think, I started a Patreon. And a Patreon is where my fans can sign up and they get subscribe for a buck a month and get a short story for me. And yes, I’m like, “Oh, I hate short stories, to write short fiction.” Well, when you’re writing short fiction every month for two years…

They pile up.

You do get better. Yeah, you do get better. It’s amazing. But it was really cool, because, I mean, at this point, I was laid off from my day job a few months ago, and so Patreon and my book earnings are basically what we’re living on right now, and, you know, when you have to pay the bills with it, it’s very easy to write a short story. So, I had been doing that. Yeah, I had quite a few lined up for the last two, two and a half years, and what I did is…and I also took some much older stuff, again some of those old Strange Horizonsstories, some other ones that ended up in anthologies. It’s really a “best of,” and it was me taking the best of the Patreon stories, the best of my older stories, and then I basically presented over 100,000 words of these to Jacob (Weisman), the editor at Tachyon Press, and said, “I don’t know what to do with these, you tell me which ones are best. You tell me what you think is good and what order it should go in.” And he read through them, and he’s like, “Wow, this is like…there’s so many, They’re all so great.” And he picked out the ones that he thought were the best. He ordered them in the way that he felt made sense again. Again, he’s an editor, he does it all time. And it’s getting really great reviews, it got two starred reviews, and people have been really happy with it, which is great, again, for someone who’s like, “I don’t know how to write short stories.” It turns out that if you apply…like again, my whole career, if you apply yourself and you work really hard at it, you know, you can get better. And I think that that’s, you know, this short-story collection especially is a really good example of how, you know, doing something over and over again, but with the intent of excelling and getting better and studying, can pay off for sure.

Well, we’ve got about ten minutes left, and this is where I like to get the big philosophical questions. (See, my voice even goes deeper when I say that, “The big philosophical questions.”) And it’s not that…well, it is a big question, really. It’s, “Why do you write and why do you think any of us write?” and concurrently, “Why do you write this crazy stuff?”

I write to change the world. That’s all. I enjoy exploring ways that the world can be really different. And that’s something Joanna Russ actually had said in one of her essay collections. She realized science fiction was the place where she could actually explore how things could be really different. And something about that really struck me, and I really identified with it, because I felt I was writing, especially when I first started, I was writing the fiction I wanted to read then that I wasn’t seeing. And I like, yeah, I kind of grew up in the age of the New Weird genre movement, and which is really strange, really strange, and it’s weird stuff. And I love that stuff because I believe it gets us to think about the world differently. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and kind of pushing that envelope and having people think about the world a little bit differently is really a powerful thing. And I think…my day job, work, you know, the last, like, fifteen years, has been in marketing and advertising, and one of the things that marketing and advertisers know is that stories, and emotional stories especially, can change people’s behavior. You can get people to buy your toothpaste and wear seatbelts or not and smoke or not, and it’s really powerful. And I think they understand that in a way that some other folks don’t.

I think even in genre that sometimes we don’t understand, really, the power of our stories. One of the things that Geoff Ryman, an author, told me the second week of Clarion, he said, “You know, we have to take responsibility for the images that we put on the page, whatever those images are, because they are part of the storytelling, storytelling world that we come from, and that’s how we are each building our own consciousness.” So, I write because I like to show people how it could be different, for better or worse.

I was gonna say, the world of the The Light Brigade is not one for the better.

It’s not a great one. It’s not a great one. It is ultimately, I feel, a hopeful book, but it’s certainly, you know, yeah, it turns around and shows us, you know, a mirror image of certainly some of the things that we deal with now, for sure, so…

A little out of order from my questions, but I meant to mention back when we were talking about it that when I got into it and where the time shift starts happening, I kept being reminded of Gene Wolfe’s book, Soldier of the Mist.

Oh, yes.

With, you know, the soldier who forgets day to day unless he writes things down. A completely different book in almost every way, but that was something that kind of struck me as a similar kind of thing. And I guess that kind of ties in. I mean, science fiction is often said to be a field that’s constantly in conversation with itself. And I think you mentioned that earlier about, you know, you were reading Conan, and then you wrote a feminine Conan, a feminist Conan. Do you feel that you are a part of this great conversation of what’s come before and what might still be coming?

Oh, gosh, absolutely. And that that to me, again, is what so much of Light Brigadereally was. And I think it really depends…a lot of people have asked me, “Oh, can you write down, you know, all the call-backs and Easter eggs and stuff in Light Brigade?” I said, “No, I can’t,” because some of those are actually just in there for specific people. But it’s a book that’s absolutely in conversation with, you know, all those older military SF books, which I think a lot of people really got in there like, oh, here’s our military SF book for this decade. I’m like, “Yeah, see?” It really is, you know, kind of my riposte to a lot of those books.

And it’s in conversation, certainly, with a lot of those books, with Forever War, with Armor, with, you know, Starship Troopersand all the rest. And I don’t think you can say that your work isn’t, unless you don’t read. I mean, if don’t read the genre, then sure, it’s probably not. But one of the things that I actually love about writing genre is that there is still an established…there’s sort of an established community and a discussion of, you know, that we all have about the work, and that you can actually kind of contribute to that conversation as a writer if you’re kind of plugged into it. So, I do appreciate that. I like it because it feels like…you feel like you’re building on something, right? Like, you’re all building toward something. And no one knows what that is, but everybody is contributing to it. And no matter how much one will try and get away from whatever thing in the past, like, influenced all this other work, it’s like, if you are influenced by someone who is influenced by someone who is influenced by someone, you’re part of that kind of timeline. I don’t know. I find it interesting.

So do I. And I guess that’s one reason I got into the field as well. Although I predate you by some time, when I was doing all my reading and writing. Well, what are you working on now? I mean, we’ve mentionedThe Light Brigade, which came out in March. The short story collection is out now.

Mm-hm. Yep.

What’s coming next for you?

Next up, in January of 2020, is the third book—third and final, whew!—in my fantasy series, The Worldbreaker Saga. That’s called The Broken Heavens. And then I actually just sold a book called Losing Gravity, which I pitched to my editor as “Killing Eve meets Die Hard in space.” And he loved that, and the movie people loved that, too. They called immediately.

That’s an elevator pitch.

And I said, “There’s no book! There’s no book yet, guys. That’s a pitch.” So I now have to write that book. So, that’s the stuff I’m doing research and stuff on now while finishing up edits on Broken Heavens.

We haven’t mentioned your non-fiction writing, but you do a lot of columns and that sort of thing. Is that continuing?

That is, that is. I do a column for Locus Magazine every other month, and I also do an essay for Patreon subscribers every month. Occasionally, I do still do stuff when I am, you know, someone pitches me and wants me to write a column. It depends on, really, my schedule, so…

And finally, where can people find you online?

Best place is probably Twitter or Instagram. And that is @KameronHurley, and that’s Kameron with a K, and then, of course, my website, which is KameronHurley.com.

Ok. Well, I think that we’ll wrap it up. So, that was a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Great. Yes. Thank you so much for having me.

Episode 32: Fonda Lee

An hour-long conversation with Fonda Lee, author of the Green Bones Saga (Jade City, winner of the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, Jade War, just released, and Jade Legacy, in progress, all from Orbit Books), as well as of the acclaimed young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer, Exo, and Cross Fire.

Website
www.fondalee.com

Twitter
@FondaJLee

Facebook
@fonda.lee.94

Fonda Lee’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Fonda Lee

Fonda Lee is the author of the Green Bones Saga, beginning with Jade City, which won the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and continuing in Jade War, which came out in August. Book 3, Jade Legacy, is currently in progress. She is also the author of the acclaimed young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer, Exo, and Cross Fire.

Fonda’s work has been nominated for the Nebula, Andre Norton, and Locus Awards and been named two best-of-year lists by NPR, Barnes and Noble, Powells Books, and SyFy Wire, among others. She won the Aurora Award, Canada’s National Science Fiction and Fantasy Award, twice in the same year for best novel and best young adult novel. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, black-belt martial artist, and action-movie aficionado residing in Portland, Oregon.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Fonda, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thanks, Edward, it’s great to be here.

Now, we kind of almost crossed paths last year at When Words Collide in Calgary, which is where you were born, right? You were born in Calgary?

Yes. Yes.

Was that your first time at that convention?

No, I’ve been to that convention a few times and I’m gonna be there next year as the guest of honor. I still have family in Calgary, so it’s always a great opportunity for me to combine visiting family with making it out to When Worlds Collide.

Well, I always like to plug When Worlds collide because it’s such a great event. We go every year.

It is, yeah. I like the fact that it’s it’s a great size. It’s not too huge, but it’s still very vibrant. And I like the fact that it’s very much modeled after an SF con, but it is cross-genre, and so I always end up seeing some panels and talks about mystery and thriller and romance and other genres besides my own.

Even poetry pops up.

Yeah.

Yeah. I like it a lot. And so, since I have plugged it now, we have plugged it, we should mention that the website for it is whenwordscollide.org. It’s capped at 750 or something like that, or 500, I don’ remember what it is.

Yeah. And unfortunately, I won’t be there this year because I’ll be traveling in Ireland before Worldcon in Dublin, but I will be there next year and I’m always happy to make it over there when I can.

Will you be at World Fantasy this year in Los Angeles?

Unclear. Still up in the air. I’ve got a bunch of travel for the rest of the year, so I’m trying to parse it out so that I’m not totally overloaded. I actually have to write a book sometime this year.

That’s such a nuisance, isn’t it? All these other things you can do, and then, oh, yeah, you’ve still got to write the books.

That’s right.

Well, and speaking of writing books, we’re going to talk primarily about the Jade–I guess it’s called the Green Bones Saga, is the name for the series. I am reading Jade City. I haven’t finished it, but I’ve read quite a bit of it, so I have a good sense of the setting, and I’m enjoying it very much. And Jade War is…is it out now? This is July 15, I guess, when we are conducting this conversation. Is it out, or is it coming out later this month?

It is not out quite yet. It comes out next week. We are one week away from release.

Well, it will definitely be out when this goes live, so…

Yes.

So, we’ll talk about that and how it all came about. But to start with, I always take my guests back into the mists of time–further back for some of us than others, and my mists of time are starting to get quite far back–to find out how you, first of all, became interested in writing science fiction and fantasy, and secondly, how you started writing. You were born in Calgary, but I know then that you moved to the States, so how did that all work out and when did writing kick in for you there?

Yeah. So, I wanted to be a writer when I was quite young. I think I was probably around ten or so. And I was a voracious reader as a child and loved to make up stories. So, at some point I told my parents, “I want to be a writer,” and I think they said, “Oh, that’s nice,” and patted me on the head and encouraged me to get a real job that would allow me to support myself as a functional adult when I grew up. And so, over the rest of my childhood, writing was something that I still loved to do. I always was doing it in my spare time. I had an extremely boring and long forty-five-minute bus ride to school and then another forty-five minutes back, and did not have, at that time, Gameboy or an iPad and whatever else that kids have these days to distract themselves. So, I had a very large pad of paper and I wrote a novel. So, my first novel I wrote when I was in fifth grade, and it ended up being 300 pages of handwritten prose about a young dragon and his motley crew of assorted magical forest friends on a quest for a magical amulet. That was my very first novel, which is possibly still bound with elastic bands in my parents’ attic. I then wrote a second novel when I was in high school that was a pulpy superhero saga, where I cast all of my classmates into this story about cyborgs and superheroes and nefarious corporate tycoons, and printed it out as a graduation gift to all of them. I wrote it, co-wrote it, with a classmate of mine during biology class by passing a graphing calculator.

What do they call that? Tuckerization. when you use real names in your book?

Yes. So that was that. And then I…I didn’t really think that writing would ever amount to more than that for me. I went off and got a business degree, and then an MBA, and I worked in management consulting and corporate jobs and eventually ended up…well, lived in Toronto for a while, then ended up moving to Portland, Oregon, to work at Nike, which is located here. And it wasn’t it until I was in my thirties when I kind of had this epiphany that I wasn’t writing anymore because I just gotten way too busy. I had a full-time job, I had two small children, and writing had just completely fallen off to the wayside. And that’s when I realized, “Wow, something really feels like it’s missing in my life and I need to get back to what I really enjoy.” So I took writing much more seriously than I ever had before and made changes to my work schedule, to what my priorities were in life. And then, once I did that, I was like, “No, I’m in it 100 percent. I want to be published and I want to make this my career.”

Well, you mentioned that you were a voracious reader. What were some of the books that you read that… because clearly you were reading the kinds of books that led you to write your first story as a fantasy.

The Book of Three, Book 1 of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain

Yeah. So, I was a fantasy/science fiction reader from the start. I loved…The Chronicles of Prydain was one of my favorite early books. I read Monica Hughes. I don’t know if many readers remember Monica Hughes books. She was a Canadian science fiction author.

I do!

Yeah! Devil on My Back was a book I really loved when I was a kid. I read, well, Narnia, of course, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, all of those books. And I also loved animal stories. I read, like, all of those Black Stallion books.

Devil on my Back by Monica Hughes

Oh, me too. You know, I always like to point this out. Walter Farley actually wrote science fiction in the that arc with…the Island Stallion books actually have a science fiction twist.

Yeah! Yeah, so I loved those stories as well. So, I graduated later on in my teens to Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Anne McCaffrey, all of the science fiction/fantasy greats at that time. So, I’ve been very much in this genre as a fan since the start.

Well, those are all the same books I read, which…and I also wrote my first…well, I didn’t write it, I didn’t write my novel quite as young as you, but you were mentioning it, and I just happened to have it on my desk, my first novel, which I wrote when I was fourteen. And you were…yours was 300. Mine was only 201 when I hit THE END, so you outdid me. And it’s in a binder that says “Eddie Willett, Algebra,” on the front of it.

Oh, that’s great. It’s an artifact now.

And it has little drawings of race cars on it. I sometimes take it to school readings to show off. So, how did the first…was the first book you wrote trying to get published, published, or did you have some false starts along the way? How did you break in, I guess?

I wrote a practice novel that I knew would not be published, but I just wanted to teach myself how to write a novel. So, I wrote a novel that never saw the light of day at all. Then I wrote a young-adult fantasy novel that I wanted to see published and I began querying it after it was done. It went through quite a few rounds of querying and it picked up some interest from agents, but nothing…but it didn’t go anywhere beyond that. And while I was querying that novel, I wrote Zeroboxer, which would become my debut. And I took that novel, as well as the one I had been querying previous to it, to a writing conference here in Portland called Willamette Writers. And I didn’t really know which of these projects I should pitch, but Zeroboxer was hot off the press, I had just recently finished writing and revising it and felt like it was in shape to start being sent out, so I pitched that, and I got a lot of agent interest. A number of agents said, “Send me the manuscript right away.”

So at that point, I sent out queries to those agents as well as others that were on my list, and within a couple of weeks in offers of representation, I signed with my agent now, who…I’ve had him since the start…and we did a round of revision, took it out, and within three months we had an offer. So, between me finishing that novel, that would have been August…that conference would’ve been August of 2013. And we had a book deal in December of 2013. So when it happened, it happened quickly.

It doesn’t happen that way for everyone.

I know, it’s funny, because publishing often does feel like it’s slow, slow, slow, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Then it happens and it’s like, boom, all these things start cascading.

Well, I often ask authors if they showed their work to people when they were starting out, but clearly you did, since you wrote with a classmate and put all your classmates in it and gave it to them as a graduation present. And the reason I asked that is because it’s…for me, that was when I kind of discovered that, “I’m writing stories that people actually do enjoy reading.” Did you have any formal creative writing, training or anything along the way? Or were you just…you read and then you wrote, which is what I did, so I often ask that question, too.

Yeah. So, I did not, when it came to formal educatio. In fact, I regret that fact, because when I was in college, I took an English class, and then I think…I probably took a couple of English classes that were required. But I also had finance and accounting and marketing and all of those. And my English classes were…the English department was sort of against giving out As to what no matter what I did, I would always get, like, a B-plus, sort of regardless of, you know, the quality of whatever essay I was writing. It seemed like everyone in the class got somewhere between like a B-minus and a B plus. So, you know, academic overachiever that I was, I was like, “Well, I’m not going to have this dragging me down.” So, I ended up not taking future English classes in in the latter half of my undergrad except for one class that I couldn’t resist. And that was a class on the history of science fiction. And I ended up doing a term paper on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and we read stories by Sawyer and Bradbury. And that was, of all the classes I have taken…I don’t remember a thing from Finance 101, but I remember that undergrad science fiction class.

But, in terms of craft of writing, once I started getting serious about it as an adult, I took an online writing class through continuing-ed classes, I applied and got into the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop–which I’m going back to this year as a faculty member, which is pretty cool. And those were ways for me to get into, first of all, the discipline and habit of writing and treating it really seriously and improving my craft, and also a way to meet other writers and find a community and get validated that, yeah, like, “This is this is really something I could do and want to do.”

Have you ever had any writing groups that you belong to, like critique groups or anything like that, that some writers have?

Yeah, I have…actually my Viable Paradise classmates. I’ve asked them to read for me on occasion. I have a beta reader group. So, I don’t have a critique group that follows the model of meeting once every couple of weeks or every week to share small pieces. I need to write my novels in isolation and I don’t show them to anyone until they’re in pretty decent shape. So, I’ll go for a year or more without showing my work to anyone. And that’s…especially with these novels, thay’re so long. So, I need to write by myself and get it into…see the whole shape of it first. And then I will send it out to beta readers. I’ll have a few people read it and I’ll send it to my agent and he reads it before it goes to my editor.

Well, we’re going to focus on the Green Bones Saga as an example of your creative process, but I did want to mention your earlier books, too, because you started in YA, and now you’re writing adult. And I’ve kind of crossed that divide myself, and back and forth, and sometimes there seems to be…and I was reading an interview with you in Locus, actually, and you were talking about this. There can be a kind of a confusion sometimes if your voice is YA, but your story is more adult, and I think you mentioned that in connection with Zeroboxer, and I’ve run into that, as well. So, what in your mind is the difference between writing YA and writing adult, and how do you go back and forth between them?

So…over the years it’s clarified in my mind that young adult is very much about voice and perspective. I don’t approach the writing of my YA novels differently than my adult novels, process-wise, the same amount of work goes into developing the world and the characters and the storyline. But with my young adult novels I have…I’m conscious of wanting to make them much tighter in terms of the perspective and making sure that that teen mindset, that teen voice, is there, because you can have any number of things going on in a YA speculative fiction world.

Exo is a good example of this, my duology. It has not just global stakes, but interplanetary stakes, where there’s a war between alien races and Earth is potentially caught in the middle, and there’s…entire human cities get demolished. So, it is very…it’s the same stakes as you would find in any big space opera. But it is very focused on the main character, this seventeen-year-old guy named Donovan, and everything is filtered through his experience and him trying to figure out what he should do, what his responsibilities are to his friends, his family, his cohort, to humanity. And that is, I think, the defining characteristic of young adult, is that, no matter what’s going on, it is still about the teen character.

And a good example of this is Hunger Games. Hunger Games…by the end, Katniss is leading a revolution against the capital, but it doesn’t zoom out like an adult novel might and go to whatever political machinations are occurring in the glass towers of the capital. It’s always with Katniss and her situation, her romantic tribulations and her struggle to survive and so on.

So, with my adult fiction, I feel a lot more free to expand the perspective and the scope. And that was certainly the case with the Green Bones Saga, because I knew from the start that it would be a family saga, and that it wasn’t about one character, especially one teen character. It was going to be a cast of characters, different ages. Their relationships were gonna take center stage. The world was going to be a very…there was gonna be a lot of stuff happening in different places. So, from the start, it was pretty clear to me that it was an adult novel. And my very first novel, Zeroboxer, I think could have gone either way. And that was..it ended up being picked up by a young adult imprint and published as young adult, but looking back on it, it could have gone either way. And now I’m more cognizant of deciding early on, figuring out early on what type of story this is.

See, what happened in my case was my…I wrote under the pseudonym E.C. Blake–who was a guest host on here and interviewed me–E.C. Blake interviewed Edward Willett in an earlier episode of the podcast. E.C. Blake wrote a fantasy trilogy, Masks of Aygrima, with a fifteen-year-old female protagonist. And it was always conceived as a YA book in my mind. But DAW wanted it, and DAW doesn’t have a YA line, so it was published in the adult fantasy market. And I got it from two directions, with people saying, “Oh, this read like a YA book”–well, yeah–and others saying, “Well, this is too adult for my YA readers.” So, yeah, I’ve been caught like that too. And the funny thing is Worldshaper, my latest novel from DAW, is up for a…well, it’s longlisted for the Starburst Award for best young adult novel.

Congratulations?

Yeah, but there’s not a teenager in the entire story. The main character is in her late twenties, and I still don’t know how it ended up being considered a YA novel. So…

Well, there is a grey zone, certainly, there’s kind of this blurry line, and what I see is a lot of young adult conventions filtering up into adult fiction. There’s more adult spec-fic these days that features young protagonists that kind of adopt some of that YA pacing and tone. So, there is certainly a gray zone in between there, but eventually, at the end of the day, your book has to sit on a shelf somewhere and the publishing powers that be need to be able to tell the buyers at bookstores this is where you’re your book is going to sit.

And the young adult’s over there, and the adult’s over there, and they’re two different things.

Right.

Well, let’s talk about the Green Bones Saga. Well, first of all, perhaps a synopsis without giving away anything you don’t want to give away, because if I talked about it, I might give away something you don’t want to give away so you synopsize it, and then we’ll go from there.

So, the Green Bones Saga is a modern-era epic urban-fantasy gangster-family saga that I have on multiple occasions described as The Godfather with magic and Kung Fu. It takes place in a…

That’s pretty much I would have described it, so…

It seems to work for people. You know, it’s nice when you can encapsulate your book in a couple of sentences, because you get asked to do it quite a bit. So, it is set in a secondary world on this fictional Asian-inspired island metropolis called Kecon. And what distinguishes this island is that it is the world’s only source of magic jade. And this magic jade is this resource that the Keconese people have long had to themselves. And it gives those who wear it these superhuman abilities that are not unlike superhuman abilities you might see in Wu Chia-Hsiang Kung Fu-movie martial-arts heroes. So they can…they have enhanced strength and speed and perception. And they can, not exactly fly, but they can, you know, jump great distances.

So, they have over time developed this warrior caste called the Green Bones. And the Green Bones can use jade, but not without cost, because it’s not like anyone can use it, they have to train for a very long period of time. And if you have too much jade or you’re too sensitive to it, bad things happened, including madness and death.

So, the story follows one of the two clans that ostensibly rule the city. And these two clans used to be united back when they were patriotic organizations that fought against foreign colonialist powers, but have since become rivals. And the No Peak clan is one of these clans, and it’s led by a family called the Kaul family that has this aging, bitter patriarch who has four grandchildren. And the story is really about them. The brother Lan is the head of the family now, and he has a younger brother, a younger sister, and they have an adopted sibling. And clan war is looming on the horizon. And one thing leads to another and all hell breaks loose. So that is pretty much the summary of Jade City. And Jade War

I think the title gives something away there.

Yeah! So, Jade War is the second book, and it expands on a lot of the things that happened in Jade City and takes this conflict between the clans and then sees it become an international one on the world stage. So, that pretty much sums it up. You know, it’s very much a mash up of things that I’ve loved. I’m, you know, a big fan of. of Wu Chia-Hsiang Kung Fu films, gangster movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas, and epic fantasy. So, all of those came together and and became this mash-up in my mind that I created in the Green Bones Saga.

Was there…and I guess this applies to all your novels..is there a kind of..do ideas come to you in sort of the same way, is it like an image, or something you’ve read, or two ideas banging together? Or…how do how do stories begin for you? And how did this one in particular begin?

Yeah, so, stories come to me in different ways. With Zeroboxer, it was the storyline that came to me first, the plot came to me first. With my young adult duology, Exo and Cross Fire, the character came to me first. And with the Green Bones Saga, it was the world.

So, this story came to me actually as just the premise of this magic jade and the aesthetic that this world would be, this kind of gangster fantasy. And the first thing I wrote down in my writing notebook was Jade City, was the title. So, that was the first spark. And I wrote Jade City, and then I wrote, “Modern-era world where combat is hand-to-hand. There’s guns and cars and so on, but power rests with those who have magic jade.” And that was it. I had no plot, I had no characters, I had nothing. I just had that idea. And then it sat in my notebook for a very long time. And like many good ideas, it accreted material around it like a piece of sand in a oyster shell, until I had enough to grasp onto it and then start turning it into a book.

Well, and what does that process look like for you, when you start building on the initial idea? How do you then develop a story, and do you end up doing a detailed outline, or are you more of a “let’s just get started and see what happens” kind of writer?

I do write an outline. For me to start writing. I need to know the beginning, I need to know the end, and I need to know some of the big turning points in there between the beginning and the end. And I won’t start writing until I have that. And I will do at least two to three months of just research and brainstorming. And for every book that looks different, but it involves a lot of reading and just absorbing as much information as I can that will help me in that creation process.

What are the things you researched for Jade City?

So, I did everything from, you know, watch a lot of Hong Kong crime dramas to read up on the gangs of New York and the history of the Italian American Mafia and Cosa Nostra, and articles, non-fiction articles about the Yakuza and the Triads and, you know, everything. And oh, jade mining, you know, drug production and smuggling. Anything that I knew would kind of have some bearing in this fantasy world. So I kept a notebook. I have a Scrivener file where I’m just dumping loads of research, and I’m just collecting a lot of stuff and seeing the connections and figuring out how that works. So, for example, you know, I’m seeing connections between…how the Italian-American Mafia family structure could be combined with, like, the flowery titles and ranks used in the Triads. “OK, I like both of those ideas. How am I going to work those into the story?” So, things like that.

And then I will do a lot of just free writing, outlining, writing, like character, little profiles of characters. And then at some point I feel like I have enough of an outline. The outline is helpful to me only as a safety net, for me to feel like, “Oh, I can finally start writing,” because I know that it will change. I know the outline is most likely not going to stay the same. But I have it to at least get started. So, then I set everything aside, close all the research files so that I’m not tied to them, I’m just keeping them in the back of my mind. And then I start writing.

You mentioned doing character profiles. What do those…well, first of all, how do you find the characters that you need for the story and how do you go about developing them?

So, they they start off as fulfilling particular roles in the story I want to tell. So, the siblings, I knew the main characters would be members of this family. And so, it helps to have a vision of what you want this story to be. And because I knew this was a family saga, I knew the main points of view would revolve around this family. And then I started kind of fleshing out, what would the roles be? “What characters do I want to have in this story?” So, I knew there would be a character who is going to be sort of the responsible one, you know, the prudent, reasonable leader. And, you know, he was the elder brother.

And then I knew that other characters were going to be playing off of each other, and there was going to be a much more emotional, impulsive, charismatic brother, and he would be this counterpoint to his older brother, but he would also have this rivalry with his sister, who was very similar in age. And she was bringing a different perspective because she rejected their upbringing and all the constraints of that patriarchal society and left. And she’s coming back. So, I knew that she would have a particular character arc.

So, I just started off, and then I was like, “Okay, well, I also want a character who is new to this, like, he’s the protege, and through him, I’m going to be able to introduce how this jade magic works and how people come up in this world, because that’ll be…the fact that he’s in school, he’s going to be able to show the reader, you know, how people train to be able to harness this magic.

So, they start off as fulfilling specific rules in the story, and then they gain their own unique identity, and then the story starts responding to them. So there’s this interplay. It’s not like, you know, the characters come first and then the plot, or the plot comes first and then the characters, they’re very much sort of interacting, and there’s this whole iterative process between them and the storyline.

Characters change as you write, at least, mine do, from what you might have initially. But as you throw them into situations, you see how they react and how they interact with each other. And I’m always fascinated by that, because these things…we set out with an idea in our head, and yet somehow, as the words flow out of your fingers, it’s not always an entirely conscious process. It’s quite fascinating to me.

Yeah, definitely. I mentioned the outline changing. I initially had…even though I knew how the story would end, I didn’t have the specifics of it correct. So, I had an idea of what the final big climax would be. And as I wrote, I realized, “No, based on what the characters would do, that’s not going to be how it how it goes.” So, you’re right, there’s this…things change, because you get to know the characters better. You start off…they sort of start off as puppets doing your will, having…you’re just trying to move them around. And then by the time you’re finished, get to near the end of the book, you know them a lot better, and you go back to the beginning and start revising and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, no, that’s not really how he would say that. So, yeah.”

So, yeah, and I want to talk about revision process in a mintue. But I also wanted to ask about the…there’s a great fascination in people who are interested in writing fantasy with creating magic systems. And this one is unique, I think. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like this. And I kind of like the fact that it’s just this one single magical thing in a world that is otherwise very much like ours, and how that changes things. Is that kind of what you were going for?

Yes, definitely. I really like my fantasy to feel very grounded. And, you know, I’ve never really gravitated towards writing high fantasy, if you will. And before I wrote this series, I was writing science fiction.

And this does have a certain amount of a science fiction feel to it just because it is a high-tech world.

Right. And I’ve had that comment before, that this feels like a fantasy where the magic is treated in a science fiction away. You know, there’s…you may not have reached this chapter yet, but there’s a scene where the Jade is being referred to by these foreigners, and they’re calling it bio-energetic jade. Because, you know, it’s not magic in this world. It’s magic…

To us.

To us, but the characters just see it as, “This is just the way it was,” just sort of…I mean, it’s something that we don’t totally understand. I mean, I’m not sure I totally understand quantum physics. It’s magic to me, but it exists. And so, these characters don’t think of it like magic. In fact, there’s never the use of the word magic in the entire series.

So, I like to write the use of, the existence of, this substance as a way to to heighten and examine the social conflicts. So, the fact that this jade exists creates the particular structure of this civilization, and the fact that other countries are coveting it and that technology is impacting its use is also playing in here, because if there was this substance in our world, you know, it wouldn’t be like a fantasy novel where there is birthright and only certain people are born with magic. There’s a drug being created that would allow other people to use it. And that’s just feels very real to me. Like, yes, of course, like, someone would apply science to this magic thing and figure out how to use it more widely. And so, all of those things are playing into the story.

And it was very much my intention that, you know, this magic substance is a resource. And with any scarce resource, it’s going to create disparity of distribution. It’s going to create conflict. It’s going to create, you know, social questions of, you know, how it’s viewed religiously and socially. So, all of that is part of the story, and it’s not, you know, it’s not treated like magic. It’s just treated like a fact.

In the family and the clans and the whole society, there are all sorts of different points of view being presented and bouncing off of each other. And I noticed in your previous interview that you were a high-school debater, which stuck out for me because I was also a high school debater. And I do think–and I think you mentioned it, this was in the Locus interview–when you do formal debate, you have to argue both sides.

Right!

It doesn’t matter which one you personally are drawn to, you have to argue both sides to the best of your ability. And I think that does come through in the book.

Yeah, I think it is very much present in, I think, almost all of my writing, honestly, I feel like I don’t ever want to write just obviously good characters and obviously bad characters. I like to write stories where you can see the point of view of the other side. Like, the main antagonist in the Green Bones Saga is Ayt Mada, who is the leader of the opposing clan. And, you know, she makes some pretty good points. You know, she wants to kill all of our protagonist characters, but, you know, she has reasons for why she’s doing what she’s doing. And I like to think that I can rewrite the story again from the other clan’s point of view and make a case for your sympathies that way.

That was certainly my approach when I was writing my young adult duology as well. It would be easy to write a teen protagonist who is just, you know, plucky hero fighting against the aliens. But I made him a security officer whose job is to enforce the laws under alien governance. And, you know, there is…because of his position, he can see a lot of the good things that have come out of the intergalactic trade and being part of this larger alien empire. And so, there’s…I like to…I like having characters in that gray zone of, you know, moral ambiguity and which side is right. Is there a right side? And I think that does come through in my writing, even if it…regardless of whether it’s YA or adult or fantasy or science fiction.

So going back to your actual process, what…you said, you have to write in isolation, do you sit at your desk for four or five or six hours a day in your home office? Do you go off and write in a notebook under a tree somewhere? What’s your actual writing process look like?

Much more like the former, the sitting in my chair at the desk for four to five hours. Not always in my home because…well, sometimes in my home, maybe about half the time. and sometimes I just need to get out and have a change of scene. So, I’ll go to a coffee shop or the library and I will write there. But I try to…not necessarily write the same amount of time or the same number of words every day, but I have short-term and medium-term goals that I set for myself by backing in from what I need to get things done. So, I know that I have to hit some deadline at some point and I’ll back out from there and say, “OK, well, that means I need to have a second draft by this date, which means I need a first draft by this date so I have time to give it to better readers…” So, if I know when I need to get a first draft done, then I’ll be like, “OK, I really should try and get the first half done by the end of summer,” for example. And that means I need to really get about X number of words, or this week I’m going to try and get these two scenes done. and then I’ll block out time to do that. So it’s, you know, it’s always thrown for a loop by the schedule, whether I’m traveling or, you know, other things are going on.

But I work best when I am by myself and it’s quiet. I don’t even listen to music. I put on noise-canceling headphones with ambient noise just in the background, like rain falling–it’s actually quite easy because Portland is usually raining, so there’s usually background noise of rain falling–and a big cup of tea. If I can get a solid three to five hours, that’s what I’m most productive.

Now we’ll circle back around to the revision process. So, you mentioned first draft, second draft, so I’m guessing you do a complete first draft and then go back and rewrite from the beginning. Is that how it works?

You know, it depends. It’s kind of…every book sort of is different in that regard. I don’t always do a full first draft and then go back from the beginning and start rewriting. Sometimes that is the case. That was the case with Zeroboxer. I just got, boom!, all the way through and wrote a first draft, but other books have sort of defied that model. Jade War is a good example because I had multiple POVs and they were in different places and I couldn’t write straight through. I would lose the thread of the overall narrative, so I had to write non-linearly. I would write one character’s POV, and then I would write another character’s POV, and I would try to figure out how to stitch the…where they were intersecting and where they fell in the overall timeline…and then stitch them together. And it was…it was more like quilting then like one straight, you know, knitting process. So, I couldn’t even tell you what draft I was on at any given time because it would be like, “I don’t know, is this like 2.34?” Because there would be parts where I had written it and then I had revised that part, but I had still not written the first draft of this other part. And so, it was just all piecemeal and all over the place. So, you know, at some point the idea of even like first, second draft just sort of fell apart.

Once you had it to the point where you considered it more-or-ess complete…you mentioned beta readers. So, what do they provide for you?

So, I will send it to beta readers to have them read the whole thing and give reactions on the structure, which parts felt like they needed more work. Maybe where things were not clear. It really is just to get outside eyes on it.

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

I have, you know, usually between three to five people read it, not including my husband, who I also use as a reader. And I’ve found them from, generally, just the writing community here in Portland, and other spec-fic writers who are also working on novels, because though we don’t have these expectations of meeting every second week, we just are very much…we’ve set it up so that it’s a…we get in touch when one of us has a novel that is done.

So you do the same thing for other writers as well?

Right.

And then once it gets to the editor, what what does your editorial feedback look like?

Well, my editor is…I’ve had multiple editors. So, I have an editor for my YA–I’ve had two different editors there–and obviously my editor at Orbit, and usually it goes to my editor, and then there’s silence for a little while, and then I get this very long, very daunting letter back, you know, with all the reactions and what needs work. And then I look at the letter and I panic for forty-eight hours, and then I set up a phone call with my editor and we talk through it.

And I find…I really…the editorial process is one of the best parts of of the whole writing process, even though it is very stressful at times. It’s where the book really gets better. The editorial feedback is just so intensely valuable. And the editor is both a source of misery, but a real…but also, your greatest champion. Because my editor wants the book to be true to my vision and to be the best possible version of itself that it can be. So, it’s really a partnership. And my editor is frighteningly efficient. I think I turned in Jade War…I can’t even remember exactly when I turned it in…but she read it and had this long edit letter for me like two weeks later, I don’t think I’d even really fully recovered from finishing it and handing it in. So when the edit letter came back it was like whiplash, ’cause she had read the whole thing and gotten back to me with notes so quickly.

But I think a lot of aspiring writers fear the editorial process. I get this a lot. I’ll teach writing workshops and writers will say things like, “Oh, but like, you know, what’s it like when the editor wants to change your book? Like, do you have to listen to them?” And these…they’ll have comments that make it seem like the editor is your enemy. And, you know, “What do you do if they want you to change your book?” Most of the time, that is not not how the relationship goes at all. I mean, I’m not saying there are no bad editor relationships. There certainly are. But in my experience, you know, you and the editor are working toward the same goal. And every one of my editors has made my books better.

Well, you have  a pretty impressive list of awards that you’ve picked up along the way. What have those meant to you, to get that kind of professional feedback?

I mean, they’ve been…they’ve meant a lot because, you know, they are…they’re first of all, a sense of, “Wow, like people actually are reading my books and they like them and they think they’re good.” So, I often say this, it’s funny because awards are both very meaningful and meaningless at the same time. So, they are very meaningful in the sense that you have received outside validation that you’re doing pretty well and other people in the know, especially if it’s a pure award like the Nebula nomination, I know I’m being nominated not just by, you know, any random person, but all my fellow science fiction and fantasy writers, whom I respect and I know that that isn’t a nomination that’s given lightly. They’re not going to nominate something that they don’t think is well written. So, it’s very meaningful. The World Fantasy Award, which I won, was hugely meaningful because I knew that…it’s a juried award, and these jurors are chosen carefully, and they’re like experts in their field, they’ve read a lot. They read–I don’t know how many books in order to come up with the shortlist and then to decide. So, it’s incredibly important. It’s a huge honor to get nominated for any of those major awards and to win an award like that.

At the same time, it doesn’t change your day-to-day life or routine. Like, you have this burst of achievement and joy and people are congratulating you, and it feels amazing for a short while, and then it’s, you know, it’s back to work. You know, you’ve still got a sit down, your life doesn’t change overnight or anything like that. It’s not like, you know, you’ve won the lottery in publishing and now from now on, you know, you’re not going to get rejected anymore like you. It’s not a magic sales ticket. It’s not like, you know, the next day suddenly you’re, you know, raking in dough. You get the validation and you enjoy it and you bask in that achievement and then you sit right back down in your chair, and you’re still facing the blank screen the next day.

And, of course, with a lot of these things, you get recognized for something that to you is now way in the past and you’re struggling with something brand new.

Oh, definitely.

It’s like, you know, when get your book, and you…people say, “Isn’t it exciting to get your book?” Well, it is, but I have no desire to read it because it’s in the past, right? I’m working on something new.

Yeah. I remember actually feeling quite stressed after won the World Fantasy Award. I was smack dab in the middle of writing the second book. And the amount of…after the, you know, the excitement wore off, there was the pressure of, “Oh, great. Like, how am I going to write a sequel to live up to the first book?” Because now there’s expectations. So…and I feel the same way.

The same thing happens with book launches. Book launches are very funny because, you know, you’re launching a thing that you worked on so long ago. And you’re, you know, talking to interviewers and you’re doing bookstore events and you’re talking about this thing that you wrote and you’re acting happy and excited. You are happy and excited, but, you know, in the back of your mind, you’re stressing about whatever it is you’re working on right now. You know, “I still can’t figure out this plot point.” So it’s funny. Your brain is always kind of broken up based on the projects that are going on.

Well, we’re getting close to the end here, so this is where I asked the big philosophical questions. Well, one really, Which is simply…well, it’s kind of a three-parter. Why do you write, why do you think anybody writes, and in particular, why do you and I and other people write science fiction and fantasy?

So, I write because I love stories. And I think that stories are the truest form of human communication. I think everything that we do to relate to each other revolves around stories. Have you sat down with a bunch of friends that you haven’t seen for a few years or weeks? You immediately start telling stories, saying, “Oh, how’s it going?” And someone says like, “Oh, well, you know, last month I went here and this and that.” And they’ll, you know, they start telling a story.

I think that the stories are how we share ourselves with others. And everything that I write, I feel like I’m sharing something about myself with the world. And ideally. I’m sending that out into the world so that other people who read it will find something in those words that connects with them, and they’ll be like, “Yeah, like I feel like I relate and I understand and I see myself in that, too.” So, you know, there’s something personal about writing that…I think writers feel very drawn to kind of put their own truth out there. And, you know, when you see things in the world and, you know, you have personal experiences, you know, you can…part of, for me, the way to process them and to talk about them is to tell a story.

And when it comes to, you know, why science fiction and fantasy in particular? I think it’s a way to really stretch the imaginative boundaries of our minds, but then use that to tell fundamental truth or to reflect the human experience. So, if I’m going to tell a story about war, I could write about a specific war in our real history, but I can say something more, both broader and kind of more underlying about war itself in general, by putting it in a fantasy world or a science fiction world where, you know, there’s two alien races or, you know, it’s humans against cyborgs or whatever, and tell a story about war that way. And then I’m not bringing the real-life baggage of a specific event in history from our world into the conversation. Then it’s just a story about the truth of war and how it affects those characters and those characters are a stand in for, you know, any number of humans or people in our world.

So, I think that science fiction/fantasy really builds empathy in a way because, can you make a reader relate to a human who’s living 300 years in the future or an alien or a magical being or a robot? If you can, then you’re asking them to empathize with someone who’s very different than them. And that’s something that we can all use more of in the world.

I was going to say, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and so I’ll ask you, as I’ve asked others, do you hope in some way that through your fiction you are…shaping the world might be a little grand, but at least shaping individuals and changing them in some way when they read your stories?

I certainly hope so. And I think that, you know, that is really probably the most validating thing about being an author, is when you hear from a reader who has really connected with your work and for whom your book means a lot. We all have those books in our lives where, you know, you feel like you read this book and it really shapedd, you know, our view on something, fiction or, you know, some  issue or what have you. And having those moments…I mean, I’ve I’ve been honestly amazed and thrilled by how much international enthusiasm the Green Bones Saga has gotten. You know, I’ve had readers from the Philippines and New Zealand and Britain, like, people all over the world, who’ve said that they really love the fact that, you know, it’s a different take on fantasy, that it’s not fantasy that is set in some version of medieval northern Europe, that they are seeing fantasy worlds that that aren’t sort of the traditional mold of fantasy and that that meant a lot to them. That has been really, really awesome. And, you know, I think the fantasy genre as a whole is seeing a lot of that, just a broadening of, like, what sort of voices and stories are being told in fantasy. And I am really glad I get to be a part of that.

And what are you working on now?

Well, my answer is gonna be the same for the next year or so. And that is the third book of the Green Bones saga.

Does it have a title?

Yeah, there is, and I can’t announce it yet. Maybe by the time this podcast goes live, it will be public (It is, as you can see from the cover art at left – Ed.), but it does have a title. Orbit will be announcing it soon. And that will be my monster project for a while, because capping this trilogy is going to be no mean feat. And then I’ve got some other projects in the works that…well, I won’t speak of yet, but stay tuned.

And where can people find you online?

They can find me on my Web site, which is fondalee.com. I am on Twitter @FondaaJLee, and occasionally on Facebook. But yeah, people can certainly find me on the interweb.

I’m just curious, why is there a J in the Twitter handle and not on your website?

Only because the Twitter handle was taken by some sort of egg.

That’s so annoying.

Yeah.

Yeah. The reason this is called…well, it wasn’t a Twitter problem, but it was a domain name problem. This podcast is called The Worldshapers because Worldshapers was just being held by somebody who said, “Oh, well, we’ll sell it to you for $2,000 or $5,000, whatever it was. I said, “You know, I don’t think I need to spend that money on that.”

Right.

Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did, too.

I did! Thank you, Ed. And I will be sure to signal boost once it goes live. And good luck with the rest of your interviews you have lined up. Sounds like you’ve got quite a lineup the rest of this summer and year.

Yeah, it’s going really well. So, I hope to keep doing it for a long time. Anyway…

Awesome!

Bye for now.

OK, bye. Take care.

Episode 31: Shelley Adina

An hour-long conversation with Shelley Adina, author of twenty-four novels published by Harlequin, Warner, and Hachette, and more than a dozen more published by Moonshell Books, Inc., her own independent press, including the Magnificent Devices steampunk series. As Charlotte Henry she writes the Rogues of St. Just series of classic Regency romance;  and as Adina Senft, writes the Whinburg Township Amish series.

Website:
www.shelleyadina.com

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@ShelleyAdina

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Shelley Adina’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Shelley Adina is the author of twenty-four novels published by Harlequin, Warner, and Hachette, and more than a dozen more published by Moonshell Books, Inc., her own independent press. She writes the Magnificent Devices steampunk series; as Charlotte Henry writes the Rogues of St. Just series of classic Regency romance;  and as Adina Senft, writes the Whinburg Township Amish series.

She holds an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University, and is currently at work on a PhD in Creative Writing at Lancaster University in the UK. She won the Romance Writers of America RITA Award® for Best Inspirational Novel in 2005, and was a finalist in 2006.

When she’s not writing, Shelley is usually quilting, sewing historical costumes, or enjoying the garden with her flock of rescued chickens.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to the World Shapers!

Thank you. Thanks for having me over.

Now, I wanted to tell you how I ended up reaching out to you. My wife is an engineer, and one of her former classmates, who is also an engineer, Carol Bachelu, is a fan of the podcast, and she said, “You know who you should get on there? There’s this steampunk author that I really enjoy, and you should reach out to her.” And so, I did, and so, here you are. So, you were recommended to me by a woman engineer, which makes perfect sense.

It does, actually. You’d be surprised how many engineers are in my readership.

I wouldn’t at all, having read the book. Doesn’t surprise me at all. And I’ve hung out with a lot–I’m not an engineer myself, but I’ve written a history book about engineering in Saskatchewan and hung out with a lot of engineers because…my wife is former president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan. So I have a lot of engineers in my circle of acquaintances.

And I’m married to one, so there you go.

There you go. So, we’ll start by going back into into the past, which is where you write, so that kind of makes sense. But we won’t go quite that far back. We’ll go back to when you first became interested in writing in general, and in writing the kind of thing that you write in particular. So, how did that all begin for you?

It began in third grade, as a matter of fact. We were given a writing assignment and I wrote this little story about a ghost in a graveyard. And my teacher, Miss Gilstein, bless her heart, wrote across the top in red ink–after giving me, like, ten out of ten–she said, “Ooh, you have me scared!”, which is, you know, what a lovely teacher would write there–but the thing is, I had never realized before that what went down on paper could affect people’s emotions. And yes, it wasn’t real. But to my eight-year-old mind, it was very real. And I decided then and there that this is what I was going to do when I grew up, was be a writer.

So that’s interesting to me, because one thing I often ask writers on this podcast is if, when they started writing, if they showed what they wrote to people to see how they reacted. To you, it kind of all started with that. And I’ll get authors who’ll say, “Well, no, I never wanted to show it to anybody,” but I always think it’s  was precisely that. It was sharing it with my classmates–a little older than five–and finding out that I was writing stories that they enjoyed that actually kind of made me think, you know…

“This could be a thing!”

Yeah, I can tell stories that other people like. And clearly it happened for you very early.

And this is why neither of us has any fear of reviews?

I guess that’s it. Yeah. My classmates were reviewers for sure. That’s for sure. So after you were five, how did it progress from there?

Well, that was eight years old. And then, right in our neighborhood, we used to…we never played house. That was for kids in the city. We played, like adventure. And so, we’d watch episodes of The Wild, Wild West, with James West and Artemus Gordon. And, as you know, that was like steampunk back in the ’60s.

I loved that show!

I know. Me, too. So, I always had to be James West because I was the oldest, but I really wanted to be Artemus Gordon, coming up with the cool tech. So, that’s kind of where it embedded itself in my mind. And time went on, and I got educated, and went through a couple of writing degrees, and finally I came up…I got the flash for Book 1 of this steampunk series, and it just took off from there. All that sort of desire and interest in Victorian technology just came to the fore.

Now, you grew up on Canada’s West Coast. I’m in Canada, but a long way from there.

You’re in the cold part.

Yeah, hat’s for sure. But did you, when you went into university, did you go straight in with the idea of going into creative writing or or did you start somewhere else?

Well, I sort of had a circuitous way of getting there. My family was very blue-collar, so my mom always wanted me to go to university, but I wanted to travel. So, I moved to Alberta and saved up my money as much as I could, and I went to Europe, and multiple times–you know, the backpacking trip to Europe that you do in your twenties–and that kind of opened my mind a little more to other cultures, other languages. I love languages, and they come fairly easily. So, you’ll notice that there’s a lot of German and French as you progress through the series because it’s a very multinational sort of series. And so, once I had the traveling done, I went to school. I emigrated to the States, and I started college when I was, oh, I don’t know, thirty or something. And I always said I was going to get a license plate that said BA BY 2K, because I was on the, you know, one class a quarter plan. But I got it in ’95 and then I went into a Master’s program after that. Got two Master’s degrees in writing, and now I’ve told my mom I was taking this education train to the end of line, so we’re getting a Ph.D. now.

Well, your undergraduate degree was in literature.

Yeah.

What did that entail?

Well, I had a creative-writing minor. So, my undergrad thesis was a novel that will never see the light of day, but it gave me the confidence that I could finish a book.

So that would be the very first one that you wrote to completion? First novel that you wrote to completion? 

No, the first novel I wrote to completion was when I was thirteen. A Nancy Drew rip-off. Very adventurous.

Did you write other longer things while you were still growing up? Other novel attempts?

Well, it took it took me five years to write the Nancy Drew rip-off, just ’cause that’s what you turn to when you’re a really introverted kid and you grow up in a religious group that’s closed and you don’t have any friends that are outside the church, and yet you want a larger life than the one you have. So you make it on paper. That’s what I did.

I think at that age…well, my very first short story was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” because I had hit the science fiction thing really early.

Holy cow.

But I also wrote…you know, I was reading, like, there was a fellow named William Gault, I think his name was, and he wrote auto-racing books in the ’50s. And so I went through a…that was my rip-off. I tried to write auto-racing books, never having driven a car or even been to an auto race. But I did my best, so…

Well, I know, and I was doing, like, massive adventures, taking cruises and going to foreign countries, and my characters are fourteen.

My favorite bit of juvenilia was the one I wrote called Ship from the Unknown, in which this strange ship shows up in my seaside town…of course I’d never lived in, either, where my characters were…and they end up…there’s the whole hidden high-tech civilization in the middle of the Amazon jungle, which nobody knew about until they got there. And even now, I think,”You know, we had satellites then, you couldn’t hide something like that. What was I thinking?” But it was a lot of fun to write, ao that was the main thing for me then.

Right. When you’re young, that’s the main thing, and it’s exercising your brain and giving it those muscles that it’s going to need later on.

Now I always like to ask the people…and there are a few authors who went the formal creative writing course. Now, they sometimes run into teachers who are not amenable to the kind of fiction that they want to write, especially if they’re tending toward the fantastic or the science fiction. Now, I noticed your Master’s was actually in writing popular fiction, which is different from some of the more literary focused Master’s programs. Did you ever run into that, with any of your teachers, or were they all really good?

In high school, I got told flatly to knock off this space-opera nonsense and stick to what I knew, which was not good advice. I just basically ignored it. And the Ph.D. program that I’m in right now is very literary, so that was…even though I multi-published and I came into that program as a, you know, sort of a professional, that’s not holding any water. But the MFA in writing popular fiction at Seton Hill…I think there’s only two popular-fiction and  Master’s programs in the country, and they were the first ones. And they were…they’re just fantastic. I was a romance major, but you can be a mystery major or, you know, a science fiction or a fantasy or a horror major. It’s great.

Oh, if I’d known that existed.

It’s been around since 1999.

Yeah, well, I graduated from university in ’79, so…yeah, I guess I could have done it, but I was busy doing other things by then. Well, that’s interesting. I’m actually mentoring an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan right now, and he’s writing a young-adult fantasy novel, which they seem to have no problem with, which makes me feel good. At least they’re not saying you can’t write that kind of stuff.

So, you mentioned briefly how Lady of Devices–the whole series is called Magnificent Devices, is that right?

Uh-huh. Book eighteen just came out a couple of weeks ago.

You mentioned sort of getting the initial initial “flash” for that. But maybe before we talk about it in more detail, give us a synopsis.

Okay…the Cliff Notes version is that a young lady is the daughter of a viscount and Daddy bets the estate on the combustion engine, which, as everyone knows, is a failure, and he commits suicide and she is thrown out onto the street, because it’s kind of based on the idea of the South Sea Bubble in the 1700s, where everyone invested in this thing that turned out to not even exist. So, that’s kind of what I was thinking about. All the investors…there was a riot in London and they came and trashed the townhouse in Belgravia and my heroine had to run for her life. She winds up with a street gang of children and becomes the queen of the London underworld.

Yeah, I really enjoyed it. I finished it, as I said  before we started, about ten minutes before we started the interview. So it’s very fresh in my mind. The first book. Not a terribly long book. I read it in Kindle. So, how long would it have been?

It’s kind of an introductory book. It’s about 55,000 words. All the other books range between sixty-five and seventy-five. This was the one that I have for free, so  it’s a launch pad.

Yeah. That’s how they get you, is that first one’s free…

It’s true.

So maybe in more detail, how did that idea come to you and then how did you go about developing it? Are you a detailed outliner or do you kind of make it up on the fly? How does it work for you?

Well, every book starts with what I call the flash. It’s an image that I don’t know what comes before or after, but I know that that’s kind of like the inciting incident. So, the flash for Lady of Devices was a girl in a steam landau outside an underground station in London. And she’s attacked by this gang of children and is lying in the street. And I’m like, “Whoa, who is this girl? Where her family? What is she even doing in White Chapel at this time of night? And the story just kind of iterates and builds as you try and go backwards and forwards from the flash. So, I’m an outliner, but I’m not like the spreadsheet kind of outliner. I really, really like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat fifteen-point beat sheet. So, that’s kind of how I have been structuring the books.

But now lately, I’ve been doing something that my mastermind group and I call the placemat plot. So, we get large paper placemats from restaurants, and you can lay out your story in sections you can draw, like setting diagrams, mountains and rivers and, you know, how am I going to manage this battle? And it’s all in one spot and you can fold it up and put it in your purse. So that’s how I do things now with the place pad.

What is your your mastermind group?

My mastermind group is a group of friends. We’ve been friends for twenty years, probably, since before we were all published. And we get together a couple of times a year to retreat, to brainstorm plots together, to, you know, we run covers past each other, back cover blurbs. “How does this sound?” “Well, I’d fix it and it would make it more exciting if you did this, this and this.” And all of us have our strengths. I’m really visual, so I like helping people with covers and others of the group are really good at back-cover blurb, so they’re always making mine better, and it’s just a real wonderful give and take between professionals.

Well, that does some terrific, and something else I would have asked you, if you hadn’t mentioned it, was if you had a group of either beta readers or, you know, anyone that you bounce things off of, and it sounds like you do. And again, you get all good all over the map with authors. Some, like me, the first person who sees it as my editor. And that’s kind of it.

Well, I don’t have one of those except myself these days. But, you know, I was always a complete failure at critique groups. I produce much more quickly than they can read. And so having a meeting once a month was just the maximum in frustration and unhappiness for me. So I’ve never…I haven’t had a critique group probably in thirty years, but I really enjoy the mastermind group, ’cause we’re all sort of at the same level. Some of us are higher on the ladder, some of us are a bit behind because of time, but we we really mesh well together and are really helpful. I don’t know what I’d do without them.

I often think that that’s what’s important in those kinds of groups, is that, people are either at the same level or there are some that are a little bit above. If you have people at wildly different levels you may find yourself not getting very useful advice because some people are just inexperienced and don’t really know how to give good advice.

Exactly. And you’re not really in the group to be a mentor. You’re in the group to be like a sharing partner. So there’s a big difference in that kind of disparity,

I just want to back up for a minute, ’cause I was looking at your information here and I noticed that you actually taught or are still teaching, I guess some?

Yeah, well, I taught at Seton Hill for nineteen years from 2002 to just this past winter in 2019. And then, you know, with the Ph.D. I have to step away from it because I can’t do it all at once, plus release four books a year.

Yeah, it’s tough when you’re the only person.

Yeah, I know.

You know, there’s the…what is it…it’s from The King and I, actually, there’s a line, “If you teach, by your students you are taught,” or something like that is one of the lines that’s in there. Did you find that? Did you find that teaching others has helped you with your own writing?

I do. Because having to take your process apart and reconstruct it on a PowerPoint deck is really, really hard. So I found my, you know, “How do I do this? How do I build a world? How do I build a series?” In fact, I’m giving a talk next weekend on planning and plotting your series. But I had to figure out what my own process was in in doing that so that I could transmit it to students. And that has actually been really good for me because I have a very literal brain and it makes it happy to not have the woo woo stuff, but just kind of laid out that this is how I do it. It’s, I don’t know, it’s comforting somehow. But, you know, some people hate that. It’s like, “Don’t touch the magic or it will all shatter and I’ll never be able to write another word.”

Yeah. And again, one of the great things about doing this podcast is the wildly different ways that people people approach all these things. This flash that you speak of that gives you the image. Is that true for all of your books? I mean, you write in other genres, you write romance. Do you get the same kind of start to those stories as for your steampunk stuff?

Yeah, it’s just pretty much how my brain works. There’s some kind of inciting reason for the story to be there, and that’s usually what the flash is like. For instance, there’s a book I wrote called Grounds to Believe, and I got a flash of a guy on a motorcycle trying to find his kid in a religious cult. And that was the start of a four book series.

You mentioned that you’re going to give a talk on writing a series, and I did want to explore that, too. So, you’ve talked about how you build out from that initial flash for the book, but then you’ve got a whole series. So, how did you develop it into a series from that initial thing?

Well, Lady of Devices was only supposed to be, like, one or two books. And I’m on number eighteen now. But there’s a lot of things that brain does in the background that you’re not really aware of. It’s cooking the soup while you’re putting in ingredients on the front end. So one book grew to a four-book sort of little mini series, and then two more books came after that, and two more books came after that, and then four books after that. They’re all, like, in segments, but they’re all connected. It’s one huge story. I had the big bad in book one, but I didn’t know who that person was until book seven. So it…brains…I tell my writing students, “Trust the brain, because it knows what it’s doing.” And I see in J.K. Rowling’s books, like the Harry Potter series, stuff she’s seeded in book one…you know, knowing her, she’s a genius, she probably put them there intentionally. But my brain does that without me knowing about it. So, I can be like six books along and go, “Oh, that’s what that’s for!” and then write and develop it.

Well, that brings up another thing. I’ve been on panels at conventions talking about writing series. The longest thing I’ve written was a five-book young-adult series called Shards of Excalibur. But even in that…and I wrote a trilogy, which I guess technically probably had more words, as many words in it, as the five-book young adult series. Do you ever find that you…something that you did not intentionally seed, you know, you’ve said something you didn’t intentionally seed can develop later into something you use, but is there ever something that you put in on the spur of the moment that then later on causes you a problem, and you think, “Oh, drat, I’d really like to do that, but I closed that door back in book three or whatever?

Book One of The Mysterious Devices

Yeah, that happens sometimes. In the mystery, The Mysterious Devices spin-off series, I think I’m so smart and I’m planting red herrings up front, and what they turned into is loose threads just waving in the wind. So I have to go back and remove them because what I thought was such a good idea at the time turns out not to be. And then those odd little accidental things like a brooch showing up on somebody’s dress collar turns into a major deal. So who knew? You know, brain. I trust the brain. I just let it do its thing.

For me, at least, even when you make those kind of problems for yourself, that’s actually part of the fun of writing is then finding out a way to solve those problems or work around them or make them work for you.

Or just delete the wretched things.

Yeah, well, you know, that can work too, but not if it’s already published.

Yeah, that’s kind of a problem.

Do you ever run into continuity issues where, you know, the bulk of stuff piles up the longer the series goes on? And do you finding yourself having to constantly refer back to what you’ve written to make sure that you don’t contradict yourself?

I do, actually. My mom has been creating a series bible for me. I think she’s up to like book seven now. So that’s been really helpful in keeping everything straight. And I also have a continuity reader, who lives in Ontario, who is an English expat. And so, he has been incredibly helpful with, you know, “You said this in book three, but now you’re saying this in book six. Did you mean to do that?” And I’m like, “Ah, I forgot.” So between the two of them, they’re keeping me on the straight and narrow, keeping the steam train on the track.

Well, I’ve just started the new series that this podcast takes its name from, it’s called Worldshapers. And I don’t know how long it will run–its with my, DAW Books, in New York. But book two is coming out this this fall, and I’m already wishing I had a continuity reader.

Yes. Well, technically your editor is going to be keeping track of that.

She is, she catches stuff. But even so, going through the page proofs, every once in a while. I’ll find things. You know?

And take it for me, create your series vible now.

Yeah, that’s what I should do. Though I should do…Master of the World is the name of the next one. It’s actually steampunk, so this is another reason this is interesting to talk to you right now.

Oh, cool.

It’s set in a Jules Verne-inspired world.

Mm-hm, yeah.

So, going back to the actual writing, what does your writing process look like? Do you, you know, sit in a garret and write longhand by candlelight or do you have a home office or do you go out to coffee shops? What’s your process?

Well, when the power goes out, sweetie hooks up the generator and gets everything booted back up so that I can work. No candles for me. I’m actually ,very disciplined because I used to be an executive assistant arranging executives’ time for a living. So, organizing my own time is a piece of cake in comparison. I work from nine till noon on left brain stuff, so, the accounting, the blankety-blank Facebook ads manager, things like that, creating ad creative, you know, all that stuff that you have to do for promo. So, that’s in the morning, nine to noon, noon to one I’m outside with the chickens, just to let my brain expand again back to its normal shape. From one to four is my writing hours. A thousand words a day is my daily output, seven days a week. If it takes me forty-five minutes, great. If it takes me all those agonizing hours, then great, too, but it has to go on the page. So, that’s the shape of my day. People say, “Oh, how are you so productive?” And I look at them and I say, “Discipline.” Then again, I don’t have kids, so I can be disciplined.

Yeah. Discipline is something I’m aware of. People tell me I’m productive, too. But in my back of my mind is always, I could be so much more productive if I were more disciplined.

Well, when you’re kind of floating the boat and this is what’s paying for the power bill, you get pretty disciplined in a hurry.

Well, I’ve been doing this full-time for twenty-five years, so I guess I’m managing, but I’m a bit scattered on the things that I work on from day to day. Just depends on what kind of deadlines I have on what kind of projects since I write all sorts of stuff.

Well, that’s the thing. T deadlines pretty much dictate what you’re going to do from day to day. It’s triage. You just have to do it.

Exactly. So, once you have a first draft, which, let’s see, 7,000 words a week and then say it’s 70,000 words, that’s 10 weeks.

Or more, I allow myself three months per book. And so the final month is the beta readers, editing, layout, that kind of stuff.

And that was my next question. Once you have a first draft, if it works for you that way, do you sort of do a rolling draftwhere it’s done when you get to the end, do you. sstart back at the beginning and do a whole revision? How does that work?

I do a rolling draft. At the beginning of each day’s work I read the previous day’s work and do an edit and that just kind of launches me into the current day’s work. Then once the book is finished and I type those two beautiful words, then I go back and I do, like, a it’s kind of like the flesh and makeup draft, you know, you put in if the scene is missing a certain emotional beat, that goes in, if the description of some device or a landscape is missing, that goes in, just kind of fleshing it out and making it more real, that sensation of of dropping into a story and being able to see it and experience it? I’m really focused on that for my readers. So they they get what they pay for.

That’s kind of what I focus on in my rewrite. Like, it’s pretty good. I would say it’s about eighty percent done when I get to the end. And then that pass through the next time is all about beefing up the language and specific details and things like that. You say you don’t have a critique group, but you do have beta readers.

Yeah.

How many of those do you have and what do they do for you?

I have my English gentleman in Ontario, my lifesaver. I have…one of the people in the mastermind group likes to beta read my mysteries in particular, ’cause she’s writing cozy mysteries. Nancy Warren, she’s doing the Vampire Knitting Club cozy mystery series. So she’s been extremely helpful in, “Oop! That red herring is now a waving piece of yarn in the wind. You need to tie that one up!” Victoria Thompson, the mystery writer, was very helpful. She’s on the faculty at Seton Hill, and as we would drive to school from the airport, I would get private master classes in how to do a mystery really well from her. So she’s she’s been wonderful.

And then once you have the comments from them, do you do another pass through?

Yes. I layer in everything they’ve said, which sometimes has the ripple effect and things down the line then change because of what they suggested. So I have to catch the ripples and fix them. And then the book is done and it goes into layout and up for preorder.

‘Cause you’re your own editor.

I am. I can’t afford me. I mean, I couldn’t afford someone like me.

But you have in the past written for traditional publishers.

Yes.

How was that change from having an editor to being your own editor?

Well, to be honest, for the Regency and the Amish books, I send them to my old editor and she does what she used to do when were both at Hachette. Leslie Peterson was my editor at Hachette and we had a great working relationship, and so for those two genres I send them to her for a developmental edit, which adds, you know, a couple of weeks into the production schedule, but I think it’s been worth it.

And what does she do? Do you get a lot of line-by-line edits or what exactly is she looking for?

She’s…well, the thing about being the project manager for these, is that I know what it needs. So I say, “I need, like, an emotional edit.” for the romances in particular, because I’ve been doing adventure for, what, almost ten years or something. And sometimes you want the emotional stuff in there, but you forget because you’re so busy, you’re so caught up in the adventure. So that’s why I have to go back and make sure the beats, the emotional beats, are there. Particularly in a romance, this is vital, and sometimes I’m too close to it. And she…I ask for an emotional developmental edit, and Leslie delivers. She knows what it needs, and so she’ll write in, “You know, the motivation to back up ts declaration of love is not here. Here’s where you could work it into these scenes and you need to add a scene in chapter three that brings this out…” And so, she’s very, very detailed and very good at helping me get that right, because I don’t want to disappoint the readers in that department, either.

So, it sounds like you would say that there is definitely a value to editors for  writers.

Absolutely. Oh, yeah. The good ones are worth their weight in gold.

You are happy with yourself as an editor?

I’m a copy editor. I’m not a developmental editor. For the steampunk, I’m so deep in the world that I kind of know where it’s going. I know the characters so well that I can bring out their emotions and bring out the world without the developmental edit. But for the romance in particular, I feel like I needed a dev editor and the Amish, certainly, because that’s a whole other level of complication. But for copy editing, I’m pretty confident and I think my beta reader, she found two errors in the last manuscript, so I was feeling pretty happy about that.

I did want to ask you about the Amish romance, because that’s an unusual genre and not one that I have encountered talking to science fiction and fantasy authors very often However, what was it, two years ago?…Yeah, I guess it was the sesquicentennial. So yeah, would’ve been two years ago. I was at a thing for, at our local Chapters, with several other local authors, you know, Canadian authors in the house kind of thing, and they had us scattered around the store and for some reason I was seated up where I was looking at this rack of romance novels and I was looking at and I was seeing…maybe it was one of yours. I was seeing Amish romance and other subgenres that I had no idea that they existed. So, how did you end up writing in that particular subgenre?

Well, there is a parallel universe out there called the Christian Booksellers Association, and Amish is the biggest seller in that. It’s like the ABA only for the Christian publishing side. Amish is pretty much the Tyrannosaurus rex that ate the rest of the industry. People in that readership love them. And so, my editor at Hachette gave me the beady eye one time when we met at a conference to have lunch. And she says, “Why aren’t you writing Amish romance? You grew up plain. What’s wrong with you?” And I said, “Well, you know, I left that in my thirties. I kind of…I’m okay with leaving that behind.” And she looked at me and she said, “Hachette needs an Amish author.” And she offered me six figures and I said, “OK, we’re in.”

Well, you know, I guess I vaguely knew it existed. But I suppose if it’s not what you read, then there’s all sorts of these subgenres out there that you may not be familiar with. So it was interesting to me.

Well, the learning curve was not as high as it could have been because I grew up in a plain church. So, the doctrines and things were very much the same. But the customs, the clothing, the worldbuilding, the lack of electricity and all that stuff that that means was like a ninety-degree learning curve. So, I’ve been out to Pennsylvania many times. Luckily, Seton Hill is in that state, so it was pretty easy. I go out there twice a year and I do a little research trip on the side.

Do you think it’s kind of that low-tech lifestyle that actually makes it appealing to people?

Yeah, the getting off the fast lane and taking a country road behind a horse and buggy. I actually drove a horse and buggy. Nearly ran into a bus.

I’ve trundled along behind a horse and buggy.

Yeah, it was quite the experience. But you know, how are you supposed to know how your characters feel and behave with the reins in their hands? Who knew that the reins came through the windshield into a little slot? I mean, stuff like that that Amish readers just eat up because they love the detail. And so, for me, feet on the ground research in the Amish genre is necessary.

Well, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and, you know, that whole idea of how we shape our fictional worlds..it sounds like also, you know, you’ve been in Belgravia in London and you’ve been in Lancaster County, talking with Amish women. Research is something I always ask about, so what kind is what kind of research do you do for any of your books? I mean, in the case of the steampunk books, there’s also some technical things in there, and I don’t know how much…how much work you put into making these devices practical or if they could really exist? You said you’re married to an engineer, so does he help with that?

He has been very helpful, as a matter of fact, I had to blow up a dam once. And so we’re like, you know, Arlo Guthrie with the 8 by 10 glossies in the X’s and the circles and the arrows.

And you just hope that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Well, exactly. People wonder about my Google search history.

Yeah, that’s true of all of us. So you do a lot of research.

I do a lot of research. Yeah. And some of it is just serendipitous. Like, I was at a bed and breakfast one morning and I was moaning and groaning to the innkeeper about how I needed to know whether there could be a steam-powered submarine. And he turned around and he said, “Why don’t you ask him? He’s a submarine captain.” So, you know, book seven took shape right then and there because I had undersea dirigibles. And they’re technically correct in how they operate. But, you know, some things, like the behemoth in books nine through twelve, I sort of take it for granted that the readers’ imagination will lead them into the guts of that machine where I am afraid to go.

So, the other thing, you are publishing most of this now…well, I guess all of the steampunk books are published yourself…and having started my own similar company last year, Shadowpaw Press, I’m always interested in that. What I have found in my dabbling with it is, there’s a lot more work goes into putting out your own books than you might think before you launch into it. So, how do you balance that with also getting the writing done?

Well, that’s…running the business as part of the stuff that happens in the morning with my left brain. Because I do publish one or two other people’s books and I’m actually kind of not doing the best job. They’re very forgiving people. But because these days, with the whole pay-to-play advertising thing, you can get lost in a rabbit hole of advertising and never come out. And it kind of affects your emotions, too. So the emotions affect how you’re writing the books. If you spend too much time in that rabbit hole, you’re you’re not going to be able to put the words down on the paper. So it’s a fine balance. I use time to make sure that the balance happens, like nine  to noon. That’s all you get. You can’t have any more of my life than nine to noon. And then then I’m free. The brain shuts off and then I’m free to go into my imaginary worlds in the afternoon.

Do you…you’re your own copy editor? But do you then farm out cover design and layout?

Yes. Well, no, I do my own layout because Vellum is like the best thing that was ever invented.

I was going to say I got the free e-book and I started the book and I said, “Oh, she’s using Vellum.”

Yes, I’ve loved…

Because I use it, too, and I instantly recognized that little swirly symbol.

Scene break. Yeah. Oh, yes.

They do a fabulous job…it does a fabulous job. It’s only available for Mac, I think, if anybody is curious about it. But if you’re a Mac user and you do your own books, you should definitely check out Vellum.

Yeah. It’s like a creative act in itself, and I like making beautiful things like costumes and quilts and books that look pretty.

I have done three so far with my press and they’re all, they’ve all been done on Vellum and, yeah, I haven’t had any complaints about it at all.

Yeah. And I do copy edit for other authors, so those morning hours are sacred also, if I have a client on deck, then they get those morning hours when I’m fresh.

Clearly, I need to adopt your schedule because I do all of this stuff, too, only not in as organized a fashion.

Well, remember the executive time in fifteen-minute blocks? That’s kind of, this is what it derives from.

So, and then you mentioned that you do farm out your cover art. Do you give a lot of. input into what you want, or do you leave quite a bit of that up to the artists?

Well, I figure I’m hiring a pro who’s good at what they do. And I would say something like, “I need a Victorian woman on the cover.” Like, for my Mysterious Devices series, each mystery has a watercolor color in it from the 1800s palette. So the one that came out last week or the week before, The Matchmaker Wore Mars Yellow, I’ll send Jenny at Seedlings, she’s my cover designer for these books, I’ll send her mars yellow from the 1800s palette and say, you know, “Find me a Victorian woman. Here’s the dress color, and I need a watercolor background.” And she creates it. We’ve worked together for so long now that it’s like one and done. She’s really good.

Well it’s nice, I guess, to have the same artist for every cover in a series.

Yes. And actually, I think that’s really important, because there is that continuity. Once the reader’s eye is trained to look for your covers, if suddenly in the middle of the series you go with something different, then you lose them. Like literally on the results page.

How quickly do you then get things published once all this is done? One of the nice things about the self-publishing is, of course, that it’s like once it’s ready to go, it goes.

Right. Exactly.

You’re putting out four books a year, I think you said?

Yes. The last Wednesday of every quarter, in the middle month of the quarter, is release day. And so I have everything…everything is kind of backed up from there. So Jenny is now booking out about six months, so I have booked my February cover already and she’ll be starting work on it in September.

And what has the response been from readers?

They really like these watercolor covers and they’re selling quite briskly. Thank you, readers.

But what has the readers’ response been to your books, was what I was actually asking.

To the Mysterious Devices?

Yes.

Well, the steampunk readers were willing to give me a chance. They were willing to follow me, follow these new characters into the same world. They like being in that world and they like coming back to it. One reader wrote on, I think it was on Amazon, that it’s like coming home again and they can just sink into the world and be in a familiar place that they love. And these new characters, they’re willing to go along with them. Some people don’t like the new sleuths, but, you know, to each their own. So, I think building the world and having people that your readers can relate to is  really important when you’re doing a long-running series, because they want to come back to it. And so, the response has been pretty healthy. I think that the preorders have been nice to see.

I guess one thing that I have run across is that people follow…they’re usually following a series that they like. They’re not necessarily following an author that they like? Do you think that’s fair, that it’s the series that draws them in? And will they follow you to something else if you’d completely changed? Like, do you have overlap, I guess, between your Amish romance readers and your steampunk readers? Or is it one or the other? Are they sort of separate groups?

They’re separate groups. There were some of the steampunk readers that told me flat out, “You know, I can’t read romance. I’m here for the adventure.” And there’s others that said, “Well, you know, it’s you. I trust you. I’m going to take a leap. I’ve never read a romance before, but because you’re writing it, I’ll try.” And that reader was happy because she got the worldbuilding, she got the characters, the sympathetic characters that she liked in this new genre that she had never been exposed to before. So I call that a win.

Broadening horizons.

Yeah.

Wwll, I guess that kind of leads into my big philosophical questions here towards the end of the conversation. And I always ask, first of all, why do you write? Second, why do you think any of us write? And third, why do we write fantastical stories of stuff that never really existed?

Oh, boy, hard questions. Why do we write? I write to shut up the voices in my head.

I hear that a lot.

My mom says, “How do you know a book is done?” And it’s like, “They stopped talking.” So that’s pretty much…I mean, I’m hearing bits of description in my head all the time. I’m hearing people talking. I see the flash. It’s like you have to…and the only thing that cures that noise is writing it down. So, part of it’s therapy. Part of it is, it comes out of you. You can’t help it. I suppose it’s like a composer. We went and saw Rocketman on Tuesday, and the way they showed the music playing in Elton John’s head all the time as a kid. That’s kind of how I feel now with writing, that the stuff is, words are happening all the time. And…what was the second question?

Why do you think…well, why do you think people write in general? Why do any of us write? Why do we tell stories?

Because that’s a basic human need, right from in the cave around the campfire. You told the story of the poisonous plant, or the small creature with the nasty bite, to be kind of a cautionary tale for your companions. And so, it’s transmuted, I think, into, “Here’s situations maybe that you will never live. But if you did, here’s what you could do.” It’s…I used to love the series of books called The Worst Case Scenario Handbook, ’cause it’s like, OK, I do know how to jump from a moving train if I ever need to.” So, you know, I could steer an undersea dirigible if I never needed to. I think that, and we want to be heard. We, you know, sitting in our rooms, we want to say something that someone will want to go, “Oh, I want to come and live in your world with you. Let’s be friends.” I think that’s why I do it.

And then, why do you think we write stories of the fantastic? I mean, there will never be a world in which steam took over and the internal combustion engine failed, so.

Well, you never know. After the apocalypse, anything could happen.

Well, that’s true. What’s the appeal of the fantastic and the made up and the imaginary?

Well, for me, it’s that limitless horizon, that I could…my imagination is free to play in this space. And by golly, it’s going to. And I’m gonna write it down and have fun and then say, “Hey, come on, look, look at this thing. Isn’t it cool?” And somebody else will say, “Yeah, that’s cool. Let’s tell somebody else.” And so, not only do I have a world I’m living in that’s fantastic and, you know, there’s giant behemoths, and Venice is built on a huge clockwork, and it changes every time the church bells ring. You can have that and you can live there and have adventures that you couldn’t in real life. I think it’s just….it’s kind of like space exploration from your armchair.

Well, that occurs to me that I failed to ask you something off this top, which is, most of us when we become writers, it’s because of the books that we read. So, what were the books that drew you into telling these kinds of stories back when you were reading as a kid?

Oh, boy. I well, I read the classics like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. I have the entire library of Lucy Maud Montgomery in first editions. I was that…I’m that big of a fan. Yeah, if the house ever burns down, those are coming with me. I read so I read that I read a lot of Elizabeth Goudge. Not the one that wrote that story about Savannah. That was Eileen Goudge. I don’t know if they’re related, but anyway, it’s kind of turn-of-the-century children’s authors I really liked, and I didn’t really get into fantasy and science fiction as much until I was grown up and I could kind of, I don’t know, handle it, maybe. And then steampunk just seemed to be…the characters seemed to be an outgrowth of those English characters that I knew and loved as a child. And there’s that element of the Saturday afternoon serial in the theater also that I really liked, those adventures in the theater as a kid.

Steampunk is very much where those two things come together, isn’t it? The kind of Victorian era story that Dickens and all that, and then the super science story, they all kind of meet right there in Jules Verne’s time.

Yeah. And you can make it up. And as long as you make it believable, it doesn’t have to be, you know, physically correct. I don’t have to build models or anything. But my my aim is, is this believable? And so far, I think it’s working because I check it with my engineer husband.

A useful thing to have. As I said, I have an engineer wife, so…

I know, they’re very handy.

They are. Well, in my case, not least because I often say tha…she kind of hates this joke. But my best move is a freelance writer was to marry an engineer.

You know, I agree with you.

So, what are you working on right now? Although at the pace at which you’re working, it might be what are you working on next will be what you’re working on when this comes out.

Well, I alternate the Regency romances with the steampunk mysteries, so I have just plunged in…I’m three chapters into The Rogue Not Taken, the follow up to The Rogue to Ruin, my Rogues of St. Just Regency romances. So we’re on the middle book now.

And looking ahead?

Looking ahead. I will be…let me see. I’m looking at my schedule here. So that would come out in August. My November book would be what I call the Manor House novellas, that are kind of in The Magnificent Devices world and follow some of the characters. So the next one in that little series is called Gwynn Place. We’re going to go to Lady Claire’s home. In February, the next Mysterious Devices book comes out. And then after that, the next Regency. So, yeah, I’m eyeballing my calendar because it’s all laid out. I have to have it. I have to have dates to work towards. I’m very date driven.

And for your readers, where can people find you online?

I am at shelleyadina.com. That’s Shelley with an ey. Like the poet. And I have lots of…I have an ongoing blog. I’m doing a blogging the Ph.D. series, which may or may not be interesting to anyone but me. Also, things about the books. I’m going to be talking Mysterious Devices 3, The Matchmaker Wore Mars Yellow, is very,…it’s, you know, it’s the Wild West. So there’s a lot of old pistols and armaments and things in that book. And so I’m going to be doing one or two blog entries about the inspirations for those guns, which again, may or may not be very interesting to a whole lot of people, but it’s interesting to me.

And you’re also on other social media, are you?

Yes, I’m on Twitter @ShelleyAdina. I’m on Pinterest–you can see all kinds of inspirations for the things that I put in books. And some of them are just made up out of my head but some of them…you know, there are amazing steampunk artists out there. And I’m like, “Wow, I could take the leg off of this creature and really do something with it.” And let me see, what else am I on? I’m a failure at Instagram, so don’t look for me there. And I’m on Facebook as Shelley Adina.

I did realize there’s one last thing I forgot to ask you about. Why do you like chickens?

Because the engineer that I live with has allergies to pet dander, and this chicken walked into our yard one day and said, “Hey, I’m going to stay.” So, we built her a coop and got her some companions, and I’ve been doing rescue for twenty years now.

Because the affinity for chickens is one of the things that Claire…

Shares with me. Yeah, exactly. In fact, I have…Dinah the office chicken is overseeing this conversation at this very moment.

And doing a very good job, I’m sure.

She knows when to be quiet.

Well, thanks so much for for being a guest on The Worldshapers, Shelley. It’s been a great chat.

It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me.

You’re most welcome.

Episode 30: Charles E. Gannon

A in-depth interview with Dr. Charles E. Gannon, bestselling Nebula and Dragon Award-nominee and Compton Crook winner, about his creative process, focusing on his Caine Riordan/Terran Republic hard science fiction novels, the fifth of which, Marque of Caine, just came out from Baen Books.

Website
www.charlesegannon.com

Facebook
@chuck.gannon.01

Twitter
@cegannon1

Charles E. Gannon’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Dr. Charles E. Gannon‘s Caine Riordan/Terran Republic hard science fiction novels, published by Baen Books, have all been national best-sellers, and include three finalists for the Nebula, two for the Dragon Award, and a Compton Crook winner. The fifth, Marque of Caine, came out in July 2019. His epic fantasy trilogy, The Broken World, launches in  2020.

He collaborates with Eric Flint in the New York Times– and Wall Street Journal– bestselling Ring of Fire series, and has worked in the Starfire, Black Tide Rising, Honor Harrington, and Man-Kzin universes. The rest of his bibliography includes many works of short fiction in venues such as Analog,  numerous game design/writing credits, and television productions from his past career as a scriptwriter/producer in New York City.  

Formerly a Distinguished Professor of English at St. Bonaventure University, and recipient of five Fulbright grants, his book Rumors of War & Infernal Machines won the 2006 ALA Choice Award for Outstanding Book. He is a frequent subject matter expert both for national media venues such as NPR and the Discovery Channel, as well as for various intelligence and defense agencies/contractors. 

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Chuck. I guess I can call you Chuck. Can I?

Absolutely. Call me Chuck. And it’s great to be here.

Now, we’ve run into each other once in a while at conventions and we actually sat at an autograph table together at DragonCon last year. I can’t remember who was to my left. It was an urban fantasy author with a huge following who had a line out the door. I didn’t. But it was it was nice to have a talk with you while we were sitting there, anyway.

Absolutely. Mine was a humble and intermittent line.

So, we’re going to talk primarily about the Caine Riordan series, as an example of your creative process. But first, I always like to take the guests back into the dark recesses of history…when you were young…and find out how you…

Oh, you mean before electricity.

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Back then, I was there, too…how you got, first of all, interested in science fiction and fantasy and then how, specifically, you got interested in writing it. And also, you know, where you grew up and that kind of thing.

So where I grew up is about…I’ll start with that first…is about thirty miles northwest of New York City. And I say that, and people envision a sort of endless domino structure of high-rises receding into the great distance, and in actuality, our biggest problem was keeping deer out of our tomatoes. Of course, that was a long time ago. But still, the New York metro sprawl is pretty much constrained a lot closer than that. So, I had a kind of…I had an upbringing which brought me in close contact with the city fairly frequently and yet was pushed right up against the state park, which was inviolate to development. So, it was a mix of two worlds. Not a city person, I learned that early, but in the city there was something that probably was one of the earliest sparkings in me towards what science fiction or just notions of alterity in general. Excuse me, and that was the Museum of Natural History in New York City. They had a, at that time, a really, really extensive, for that time, dinosaur exhibit, I think now that’s been massively passed by others that are much more invested in that. But I could spend an inordinate amount of time amongst the various reassembled fossils, and that was where I conceived of the notion that I wanted to be a paleontologist and write about it.

Well, as time went on, I wanted to be a zoologist and write about it. And then I wanted to be an astronomer and write about it. And then briefly I wanted to be an astronaut and write about it. But that was a little bit more dangerous than I was in line for. And at about eleven or twelve, I realized what the constant was, was wanting to write about it. The other constant was to be involved with cool things. But this was about also the age when you start getting enough of a sense of the way the world works, that at eleven and twelve I was starting to realize about ninety-five percent of the time spent in those jobs, if not more, is solitary, and to my mind, kind of dull, repetitive, and almost purely…for every for every ounce of creativity in it, there was a ton of essentially quantitative assessment, proving analysis, et cetera. Not that I don’t enjoy that to a degree, but my…obviously, I think, given my chosen career, my avocation, lucky enough now to be my occupation, was to move on the creative side of things, so I kind of realized, well, what I want to do is be and talk about all those things, but to write about them. And that’s really been the best of all worlds because literally I can go to all worlds. And that sense of alterity, that sense of, if you will, unlimited possibilities and a total lack of restriction…there are no no-fly zones. There are, you know, there are no construction barriers up when it comes to the human imagination. So. that’s how I got here.

I often say when I’m doing talks and, you know, sometimes people say, “Well, why do you write this stuff?” In fact, I’m going to ask you that question later on. But if it’s coming from people who look slightly askance at science fiction, all the alterity, as you called it, alternate-world kind of fiction is, my response is always, “Well, why don’t you write it? Because it’s such an unfettered place for the imagination to play.”

Yeah, and I think there’s a lot of…oh, there’s a lot of what I’ll call…if you’re really grown up, if you’re really an adult, I think there’s no reason to feel that you have to always act in a way that is socially coded as, if you will, adult action. And I think the notion of, if you spend a lot of time in alterity, in alternate places, in thinking about things that are not connected to what’s happening in the stock market right now and what’s coming across our feed from Reuters or whatever your chosen dubious news source is–and I say that, I’m not saying Reuters is dubious, I’m saying that right now I can’t figure out what isn’t–and in consequence to me, I think if you’re really secure with yourself, why, if you have the kind of mind which is naturally one that wants to go over the next hill, to see what hasn’t been seen yet, then, of course, do that. Which is an entirely adult activity anyhow. It’s just not always coded that way. And I think that, so for me, I understand exactly what you’re saying about that. 

But I always find it kind of interesting…it’s a useful endeavor…to encounter folks like that, simply because it sets up an opportunity to have a discourse, and a friendly discourse, and make people perhaps give them a sense of freedom to ask those same questions, just as you said, Ed. You know, it’s, “Well, why aren’t you writing it?” And I think that’s a really important question. I think that it’s probably highly tinctured by our media. What I mean by that is, for instance, I have four kids, and they are big fans of the various Marvel movies. And I have to say, they’re a great romp. But I think for a lot of folks, when they think of science fiction, when they think of alterity in general, they’re thinking of that. They’re thinking of Star Wars. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these things. They’re great fun. But it’s not, that’s not the workshop in which I toil. As you said in your intro, hard science fiction is pretty much where I live. And even when I’m doing fantasy, the same sort of rigour in terms of the way the world works and the way the world has been built, not to sort of preview what obviously our main topic is, worldbuilding, but, you know, this is what they think of, and they think of escapist fare. And what I think, unfortunately, it tends to blind them to, or it gets in the way of them having, finding and creating a relationship with that part of our genre which is entertaining, but escapist would probably not be the best word to use to define its center of gravity.

Now, were there books that you were exposed to that made a big impact on you and kind of helped push you in this direction?

There absolutely were. I don’t remember some of them because they were simply Scholastic Books Service Book of the month sort of things, when you’re in grade school here in America. But I do remember a couple. There was a series, it was Dig Allen…Digby Allen Space Rangers, something like this (Ed’s note: Dig Allen, Space Explorer, by Joseph Green, creator of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.) And it was just as juvenile as it sounds, but it was fascinating, because what they did…the premise was a visit to every one of the worlds of the solar system, which even in the science of that time were deeply unlikely. But that didn’t matter to me at that age, and I devoured them and obviously remembered them. And I would say then, when I read…the next two things that really sort of drove home some of the possibilities in the genre to me was War of the Worlds reading the, you know, the original unexpurgated version of H.G. Wells. And, you know, the striking thing at the end of the book, when they say, when they finally crack into the walkers and they find some of the Martians who’ve perished from biology, from bacteria here on Earth, that a sort of backward assessment of their skeleton and everything else says suggests they weren’t too unlike us earlier in their evolution. And so that really, for some reason, that book really turned me on to two things. It’s an exciting book, but it’s also a big-idea book. You know, as you as you start to get into the notion of…which I only learned much later…the history of this is, you probably know this, he was walking out in his backyard with his brother, I believe it was, and they were talking about what was going on in Tasmania, the extermination, the clearing of species that didn’t exist any place else on the earth. It was his brother who said, “Wouldn’t it be something if, you know, if there were beings from another planet that came down here and started laying about themselves the way we are in Tasmania?” and, you know, all of what’s in there, in terms of really important questions and really important perspectives about, you know, the wages of empire, what does it mean to expand, the inability, in the case of the Martians, to speak with them, both because of a lack of common ground and also because they’re disinterested, and also the notion that we’re not on the top of the food chain. That to me was really, really interesting. So that book, as I guess my long, flowing, not to say disjointed, answer may suggest, is a…it really, really, I would say, if it didn’t set me on the track, it really was a lens that clarified the vision of where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do.

So when did you actually start trying your hand at writing fiction?

The very first issue of the very first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia, from 1968.

Pretty much a few months after that? Actually, I’d been writing fiction beforehand and I started very, very soon thereafter and was fortunate enough to come across a great mentor and started publishing…you know, this can this can be taken by listeners as either a badge of honor or a badge of shame for me, but started writing in Star Trek fanzines back in the day before…there weren’t even photocopiers. It was that thump, thump, thump noise of a mimeo machine, which was how one got into amateur publications. And that’s what I did and went forth from there.

And that great smell of the ink.

Oh, that ink, you never get off your hands. Good Lord.

I remember that well. That and Gestetner machines, those were…with the wax stencils. I had to draw cartoons for my junior high newspaper on a Gestetner stencil, which was scraping it into the wax. That was an interesting one.

It’s a little bit like monk work in the medieval era, toiling away over these highly resistant substances of ink and vellum to leave some mark for the future. Yeah, I remember those wax papers as well. And boy, are we dating ourselves here. OK. So, on we go.

Yeah. So you…because you eventually became a distinguished professor of English. I’m assuming you were an English major at university. Is that a fair assumption?

Well, it would be, except for I went to Brown University, which had, and still has, an independent major opportunity. And while English and creative writing, they also had a distinct creative writing track, and to this day, a well-respected M.A. program in…MFA? M.A., I forget which…in creative writing. And so, I went there and I had three things that I found were sort of speaking to me, and they were theatre arts, they were semiotics, which is, you know, to use the fast rubric, the theory of signs and symbols, but actually, what it was for the most part were film courses, and English with the creative writing element in it. So, I decided I wanted to package all three, and had a…came up with a major called storytelling for creative media. And that’s what I did. That’s what my degree was in. I had a minor in English, but I always…it’s kind of interesting I went that way, because even in 1978, ’79, I felt we were moving towards cross-platform narratives, increasingly. So, whereas many people are sort of looking, I suppose, still at e-books and trying to get accustomed and acclimated to that, my question is, “So when do we start having more media start actually moving into e-books?”, which I think is something that’s coming certainly within the next fifteen years and possibly a lot sooner than that.

I always ask people who’ve had actual creative writing courses, the writers that I’ve talked to, how useful that was for them in the long run. Some have had disparaging things to say about their creative writing classes in university. What was your experience?

My experience was mixed. I would say that…so, I did it in two ways. I had some of the courses in a track, some of the courses as independent study. The independent studies were very rewarding and largely, I think, they’re because…I always knew, my motivation always was to write, but what I would call belle lettres was not ever at the center of my scope. It would be lovely if somebody noticed my writing and felt that it was meritorious from within that sort of, under that tent. But my notion was always that I wanted to do the highest quality possible fiction in speculative fiction, whatever that meant, whatever market I had to go to. And there was no small amount of pushback on that, in 1979, 1980, ’81. I mean, it’s pretty clear that not only did science fiction and fantasy come out of the ghetto, but you might say we won, in that…just given, you know, how much it’s proliferated in our media these days, I think that if you go and look at the top five grossing films of all time right now, you will find that not a one of them is anything other than alterity. They’re all, for the most part, science fiction or superhero films. What that says is probably fodder for an entirely different podcast. But, in…so, it’s a very different world for any listener who may not have been around back when, you know, as Kingsley Amis said, when he would read science fiction on the underground in London, he would always have a larger magazine, so that he could put the science fiction book inside it, so he’d read it without anybody actually seeing that he was shaming himself as a good, upstanding, serious Englishman.

And so, for me in creative writing courses, there was some pushback on my materials, but they were helpful in a lot of ways. They were not helpful in others. I think the thing about creative writing, most programs, is that the people teaching them are usually not people who have had a long-standing popular-market success. Most of them, many of them are not people who’ve had much success professionally at all. They have degrees. They have some publications. Their publications tend to be in academic journals. And if you look at a lot of the academic journals which are connected to MFA programs, you will notice that they’re primarily…or, at least they were up until fifteen years ago, the years ago…they were primarily publishing other people in this same circuit, if you will, of MFA programs. So, they were publishing each other. And so, the notion of, how do you write to entertain, how do you write to be commercially successful, how do you integrate the sort of things that you’re trying to do in an MFA or creative writing track program, are frequently just, they’re not addressed. They’re not addressed in terms of actually making a living at this or having a, whether you make a living or not, having a career of some sort in it.

When I was actually in charge of the creative writing track at St. Bonaventure, I very much focused it on, sort of, without throwing…I don’t believe that…the problem with going to either extreme of either belle lettresor just pure commercial capability is, either one, you’re throwing some baby out with the bathwater. So, I very purposely created a middle course. So that was…it offered both…people coming at it from either one of those ends of the spectrum or points in between, that it was still not making them feel unwelcome or that their issues and their ambitions were being thwarted by the presuppositions of the program.

I’m currently mentoring an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan. It’s the first time I’ve done that. And he’s writing a young-adult fantasy. And so…I’m encouraged that apparently that particular program, at least, is letting students sort of do that, come at it from whatever direction they’re particular interests take them. I had one creative writing course in university and everything else was journalism. So, it’s always interesting to talk to people about their experiences with that. So how did you…when did you…start writing and getting published?

Well, I suppose if you mean getting published as in a check comes along with that, that would have been in the…actually, I was good at making money in television before I made money in dead-tree publication. I was writing scripts. I was writing documentaries, things like that, I was a script doctor in New York City back in the mid-’80s to the late ’80s. The first print publication I had for which some money came my way was actually in gaming, and that was in 1988 for a wonderful science-fiction roleplaying game called Traveler.

I played it!

Yeah, well then you may have seen some of my stuff along the way. I was…ultimately, that was part of my freelance gig, from 1988 to 1992. And I was, for a while, I was in charge of the Traveller segment of…the house organ at that time was called Challenge magazine, and I was made the mega-Traveller guru, which was a lot of fun and taught me a lot of good lessons in there. And at about, right at about the end of that was when I had my first fiction sale, which was to one of…the late Jerry Pournelle, who was a who was a good friend of mine. Many people, I suppose, have encountered stories of him being, at the very least, forceful and direct, and at the, probably the negative end of the spectrum, irascible, but he was always just a sort of big, nice uncle to me. And it was in one of those, in his anthologies, called War World, which was connected to the whole CoDominium series, that I got…I published two things at the same time. There was a short story called “Introduction,” which was exactly that, for that second or third installment, it was called Invasion, the third installment of the War Worldseries, and then another short story in there called “The Gift of the Magi.” And so that was the, that was the first, and then things kind of came to a crashing halt for quite a while. But I returned to writing full time in 2007…late.

You mentioned that there were some lessons you learned from both scriptwriting and gaming that then applied to your fiction. What were some of those lessons?

Well, one of the ones in film…there were lessons that were really valuable to learn and other lessons you had to unlearn. So, the lessons I learned. Writing action–cinema is a great place to cut your teeth because very quickly, you realize, I think faster than you do writing a book, that there are certain things which should happen as a narrative moves towards action that really you disregard at your peril. So, some specifics. If you think about film for a second, and you move from a conversation or a scene-setting moment, a medium or long shot, right? As we move to action, the shots get closer, the shots get faster. It is cut on action. And the pace of the shots, if you were going to put it to a metronome, the pace of the metronome is increasing. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just intellectual or cognitive. It’s physical. Literally, when we get excited, what happens to our heart rate? It goes up. It speeds up. Well, that’s exactly what you’re seeing in terms of the pace of the cuts as you move into action. What don’t you see? You never have any item that’s going to be used in an action sequence explained during the middle of the action sequence. That would sort of be like, you know, dropping a bomb on a locomotive that’s just gaining steam and moving forward. So you don’t do that, unless you you’re writing a parody. You don’t have people talking with each other as they are trading blows. That might work, you know, for certain highly, I guess you could say posed or stylized events, but in general, when people are, the more…the higher the stakes are, let’s say your life, you don’t generally take time to say anything other than what absolutely needs to be said. This is not a moment for witty banter. This is not a moment for one adversary to sneer at the other as twirl their mustache with their free hand. That not what’s going on at urgent at urgent moments. And cinema teaches you that, because if you try to do that in cinema, there is no way, you will sit in front, you will sit at the editing table, back in the days that we were physically editing 16mm black and white, and you’ll realize, “Oh my God, this is ridiculous. This is utterly ridiculous.” And it teaches you that lesson for the rest of your life regarding narrative. And that translates very well into prose format, because as I move into action sequences, the paragraphs get shorter, the sentences get shorter, multisyllabic words get fewer, which I know anybody who listens to me talk for five minutes says, “Really? Can you even do that?” But the fact is, yes, I can, particularly when the action is very intense. And description is more, has now entered the realm of the verb almost exclusively. It really doesn’t want nouns at that point.

So those are all…but then then you have to unlearn a lesson. And one of the big lessons you have to unlearn from film is dialogue. Dialogue, for instance, in television you can have…and in films, we see this all the time…you know, somebody can be doing something, and they say, “Well, we’ve got to press the thingamabob before the clock hits 9.” “Why? Why do we have to do that?” And you get this explanation. That sort of pitching of a character asking why or how or what, which is the platform for the other character to explain, it really becomes a very, very tired mechanism in prose much more quickly. And the reason for that is because you can, if you plot it carefully, you can put it in…in television and put it in a car chase. You can put it in people as they’re trying to get from one subway car to another and they’re having to jostle through a crowd. In other words, it’s a little bit stylized, but there are less high-action moments, when the characters are still doing interesting things. The visuals are telling us they’re moving towards the objective, so we’re paying attention to that. But we’re getting this other track in terms of, that’s explaining what’s going to happen, foregrounding it, what needs to be done, what the objective is going to be. The lesson to learn when you’re in fiction, when you’re writing prose, is you have one track, you don’t have audio and visual, you don’t have information your eyes are gathering for you, plus listening to the dialogue. And if you try to do that same sort of thing in in prose, you will probably rue the day you thought that was a good idea.

And on the gaming side?

The gaming side teaches you a lot about collaboration. It teaches you a lot about being a good guest in somebody else’s sandbox. I actually think gaming is far better preparation for novels, novel writing, in some ways, than is filmmaking. And the reason I say that is connected to the reason why I have, you know, people will say, well, “Hope your books are going to be made into a film!” Maybe. I’d rather they were made into a game, and I’ll tell you why. If you, if, you know, you see what film directors do on set, they supposedly hold their fingers up to make a box so they can see what’s in the viewfinder, right? They say, “We’ll take this short of shot.” They’re framing things all the time. They have to. That’s their job. On film and television it is rarely important what is outside the frame. That’s just not that important. But when you’re designing a game or when you’re writing a novel, particularly if you think there’s a series there, it is very important what’s beyond the frame, because you’re going to come back to it. In the case of a game, particularly electronic games now, but also roleplaying games, the first thing that’s going to happen, any game design knows this, is that the players are going to wander away. They’re not going to follow the path that seems the most likely, and they actually…and these days, there’s largely an expectation that there should be things off the beaten path. If a game is too linear, it very often gets a black eye right now, and has probably for the last ten or fifteen years. So, understanding what worldbuilding means in a more totalized concept, that it’s not just…you don’t just develop the things that are gonna wind up in the viewfinder of your camera, because your readers or your game players’ interests are going to go off that beaten track. They’re going to want to sense that the world is real beyond the narrow confines of the of the screen or the scope through which they’re viewing things at that given moment. And so, it was great preparation for that, for worldbuilding. It’s a very orderly form of worldbuilding by definition, because in any game, whether it’s for a computer or whether it’s for something you’re playing at your home on tabletop, you know, papers and pencils as it is, and dice, the bottom line is, there’s quantities involved. There are relationships between what you attempt to do and whether you succeed. In most games, it still has some kind of simulational verity, that is at some level connected to the quantifiable elements that will either make it more or less likely that you succeed. And so, all of that is great preparation for worldbuilding that I believe readers…readers can tell if a world is fully fleshed out or not in a writer’s mind. And you will have done that work from that background.

So, when you brought all those lessons together, it was still a few years after the short story that you were talking about…that was a few years before your first novel came out, right?

Oh, more than a few years, but I was working on it. That may be another thing, which is…so in 1991, ’92, a pair of semi-braided short stories are my first publication. I have to leave the industry for…that’s a whole other story. But it had nothing to do with me. It had to do with changes of business, it had to do with broken contracts that resulted in some…lawsuits that ultimately happily only went to arbitrage, because people cancelled contracts, and in those days people in gaming didn’t understand that they couldn’t do that, not without paying a bit for the piper. And so, I had to look at Plan B, and Plan B was becoming a college professor, which I did. And the good news was I was pretty good at that, and the bad news was I was pretty good at that. But even so, what I mean by the bad news is that if you do something well, you basically get asked to do more. And that was certainly the case with me. And that was very, very gratifying. And I learned a lot through that, which found its way into my writing. But at the same time, how much time I was able to devote to actual writing slowed down. But throughout that entire time, from ’92 to 2007, although I published one or two things in that time, it was short fiction. But I kept on developing the world that would ultimately turn into the first novel.

Now the first novel of mine, Fire with Fire, which is the first novel in the Caine Riordan series, was a 2013 publication. But my first novel actually was in a shared universe once again with one of the people you mentioned earlier that you’ve already had on the show, David Weber. He had left the series called Starfire, which is a space opera military science fiction series that actually predates Honor Harrington. So, he had been doing it with Steven White. He left because, as I think we know, David Weber is a pretty busy guy right now. And he’d done that, and he was moving on to two other projects. So, I had come to Baen Books’ attention, and the attention of the lead author on the series now, Steve White, who said, “Do you want to come play in this sandbox?” And I said, you know, “Is the pope Catholic?” And so, that was the first book. And through that was, I think, the demonstration that, in fact, I, you know, as I’m sure listeners may have heard already on this program or other places, since I know that this particular venue draws in a lot of writers, there’s a huge, huge difference between people who can write well and write a great story and complete a novel. It’s a little bit like, to use the academic equivalent, there are so many more ABDs, that’s “all but dissertation,” than there are ultimate Ph.Ds. conferred, because that’s where a lot of people stop. A lot of people can tell a good story, but they can’t wrap it up in a totality that a novel is, sustain it over that period of time, and not make it feel like a lot of it is just sort of wasted noise. And so, I had the good opportunity, therefore, to show my potential publisher that I could do that with my own stuff as well. And that’s what happened, and so it was between…it was fifteen years, if we count it out between when I had to stop writing fiction more or less in 1992 and before I could resume again, and then it was another six years. So I guess, as I think back on it, horrified at the notion, it was twenty-one years.

So, we’re going to talk about the Caine Riordan series. So, for people who…I’ve read, I haven’t read the entire series, I’ve read some books, I haven’t gotten too far into Marque of Caine, the latest one, but I’ve started it and I’ve read a couple of the previous books. Can you give us sort of overall synopsis of the series for someone who inexplicably hasn’t read any of the books?

There’s a lot of inexplicable people out there, I tell you that for sure. So, it’s set a hundred years in the future. It is a…the story begins before we have any inkling that there may have been other intelligences. And what the story…I guess you could say it’s written in, at a moment in a change of history. And the change in history it really looks at is, “What happens when we learn we’re not alone? And what does that mean?” And the main character, his story is that he he’s a defense analyst, he’s a think-tanker. He has worked with and around the government, but not for the government. And he actually runs…he’s the right guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. And for his troubles he is cryoslept. He’s put into cryogenic suspension, which is a fairly new technology at the time that that it occurs, and he is awakened about thirteen years later, to go and look, to explore if the report of alien intelligence or ruins on Delta Pavonis—which is an actual star, one of the hard-science aspects of the series—if it is in fact an accurate report, if the murmurings are true. And the and the reason they pull him out of cold sleep to do this is, they’re part of an agency which has been tasked to keep an eye out for this. And they know their own people are being watched. He’s been out of…he’s essentially missing, presumed dead, because when he is cold-slept during an investigation on the moon, he is not reported as being cold-slept, he is reported as being missing. So thirteen years later, he’s awakened, and the notion is, well, we’ll get you your life and we’ll tell you what happened in the 100 hours you can’t remember before you went into cold sleep. And that’s the setup.

And what flows, goes from there is essentially first contact, and first contact turns out to not be some sort of some sort of grand encounter with other intelligences, it turns out that we are already a playing piece in a variety of…there are only five other intelligences, or four, depending on how you count them, and they all have designs on us in one way or another. We’re already part of a game for which we don’t know who the players are, and we don’t know what the rules are. And so, the first book gets to the end of a sort of a first convocation of these groups that has clearly gone very awry and indicates that, rather than a bunch of lofty intelligent beings, this is just as fraught by differences and squabbles as, for instance, our own Balkanized world is. The second book is that this first contact goes terribly awry because it turns it into an invasion that isn’t an invasion. And what I mean by that is that there are certain forces on Earth which actually, or I guess you would say power centers on Earth, that actually invite an occupation of certain areas because they feel that they are not receiving proper representation on Earth. So this is one of these ways in which also I try to…the problems of our day are something that I try to carry forward into these books, here the basic notion being if your own house isn’t in order it makes you vulnerable in all sorts of ways. And while I don’t think that therefore we’re about to be visited by aliens anytime soon, or maybe we are, it, you know, we remain as contentious as we are about so many things at our own peril. And certainly I think that, you know, just whatever you think of climate science, whatever you think of asteroid interceptors as something that we should be looking to do for earth crossing, whatever the threat is to the human race, I can absolutely feel certain of this: we are stronger together than we are apart, and the wages of remaining apart become very, very manifest in the second book of the series.

That completes what I call the contact arc. The next three books in the series of which the fifth, the one you’ve just started on, Ed…I call the emissary or the envoy arc, because now it’s time to go and meet some of these other intelligences, both to try to strike up relationships and also to prevent incidents which could lead to a resumption of hostilities. And in the fifth book, we finally get the answer to some of what was in the first book regarding these ruins that were particularly interesting because there were two ruins, and one was clearly built either by or for humans, and the other was built by somebody else. And they date to about 20,000 years in the past. And in the first four books, which take place in over the space of only three years, there is a constant, you know, we are always jumping from one fire frying pan into the next or the fire. And just hopefully the reader apparently is caught up in that same flow of events that Earth itself is, just trying to adapt to what’s, what the new crisis in front of you. And in the fifth book, we finally wind up meeting the aliens, called the Dornaani, who do know what was going on 20,000 years ago. And that answers one set of mysteries, which has been cooking through the first five books in the series, but also opens up deeper mysteries for those which will follow.

What was the initial seed for this series, and also, in general, for a new book for you, what sorts of things spark your interest and get you started on the process of developing them?

So this is a…this is a question for which I assume I’m going to have some unfortunately boring answers. What I mean by that is that, in some ways the spark was lit…remember when I said I was, you know, you asked me, when did you start writing after reading this influential book, and I said pretty much a few months later. And while what I tried to write was essentially a fairly dreadful homage to Star Trek, the original series, you know, and a couple of other things that I was interested in thrown in for good measure, none executed particularly well, this notion of contact, of what contact means, of how diplomacy is going to be very akin to anthropology at some level for a, you know, xenoanthropology in order to…how do you talk? What values do you share?…This was always part of it. And then, you know, there’s the…the reason I gravitate towards, very often, conflict motifs is not because I am enamored of war for its, you know, for its own sake. One would hope not. But I do find that the one thing you can say about conflict is it’s where the stakes are highest. And that’s always good for drama, which is why I think we see so much of that as the organizing trope in movies and in games and in a variety of things.

But then in my twenties and thirties, particularly in my thirties, I would say, between reading and also what I was experiencing during my Fulbrights, this…the sense of intrigue, of layers within layers, wheels within wheels, was really growing for me. And that put in the third part of this, which is, yes, it is, it is conflict, yes, it is first contact, and yes, there isn’t a single book which doesn’t have an intrigue element to it as well. And nested under all of that, though, is this question about what came before us. What is our place in this universe? And so, I know you asked me, what is my idea for a book, but the thing is, the series and the books were, have been percolating in my mind, since I was twelve or thirteen, in one form or another.

I was gonna say, there’s certainly, what you said about War the Worlds, you can certainly see that in these books that…

Absolutely.

The alien intelligence that we don’t quite get.

Yeah.

So, how do you go about the actual process of plotting and worldbuilding? Do you start with your worldbuilding and then you develop your plot, then your characters come from matter? How does all of that initial preparation work for you. Are you a big outliner, or do you just make it all up as you go? Somehow I don’t think you make it all up as you go.

You’re absolutely right on the last conjecture. I do not make it…I couldn’t keep track of it if I made it up as I go. I think when you write intrigue particularly, and you write this sort of deep mystery, you know, if you’re going to write something that you’re only going to solve for reader, four books later, my suggestion would be to figure that out ahead of time. There will be things that you will discover in the act of writing anyhow. That’s always going to happen. But I think having a framework is really important. So for me, before I wrote the first book, I actually knew what the first seven or eight in the series were roughly going to be. So, it’s not like I sit down and say, what is the next book I want to write in this series? I kind of know what the next book I want to write is. But I don’t trouble myself with the specifics…if you troubled yourself with the specifics of each book, you’d never wind up writing any. You’d have a bunch of very interesting outlines. And what I tend to do when I outline is, when I know I’m moving towards writing a book and it starts creeping into my consciousness. I start accumulating notes. That means I have a thought when I’m on the road and I dictate something into my phone, or I am working on a story and I realize that this passage doesn’t fit here, but I know that it’s going to be needed in the next one, where I have a realization through what comes out of a character’s mouth as I’m writing, let’s say Book 1, and I realize, “Oh, my gosh, this I just realized from what this character said what must be driving X, Y and Z,” and I will simply open a new file, write that down until I’ve, it’s sort of all come out of me, and then go back to my original. So, what’s happening is I’m compiling all this other stuff.

Another thing that may happen is that I write things that I like or…so what I do is, by the time I’ve started a novel, I’ve got all these pieces, yeah? And they have to do with all sorts of things. And then I know…the story is kind of what I know. I know where we start in a story and where we end in a story. Well, beforehand, what happens, the exact course of events, that remains a little bit vague. Part of what happens is that then, as I start working with that and I know more about what the dramatic arc is, I start looking at all these notes and I wind up putting them in different places in the dramatic arc. It is not as organized as, I come up with a chapter outline. I don’t do that for a variety of reasons. Chapters for me are actually…they’re not…they are things that to me evolve spontaneously. What I mean by that is a chapter should have a really good sense of closure. I can know what sort of content I want to put at a certain point in the book, but that doesn’t necessarily tell me…I’m probably going to discover where that great closure moment, that great last line in each chapter is, as I write, because it will be characters in conversation, it will be a turning point in a battle, it will be the discovery of a new mystery or something like that, which is that great, which gives you that great tagline, which makes somebody absolutely have to turn the page to read to find out what happens as a result of this, what happens next.

So, I don’t work from an outline in chapters. What I do is, I kind of see the different dramatic blocks that the entire narrative is going to be in, and I start seeding, I start taking all those notes, all those recordings, and I start notionally putting them in the different blocks. That tells me what the topics of conversation are going to be. And very often what’s happened is, like I say, I will have a…a lot of these ideas that I have long before I start writing the book become really foundational elements in determining what the dramatic arc of the book is going to be. If this is going to be where this fact is revealed, then I kind of already have a scene in mind. And when I start having that scene in mind, I kind of get a sense of, is that the conclusion, is that the midpoint, is that the introductory part of it, and the book really kind of takes shape. So I’m very much an outliner, but not on the level of, here’s what happens in this chapter, here’s what happens in this chapter, because I actually want to leave myself to discover some of that, because I feel that an over-plotted book can sometimes feel a little bit stiff, like it’s hitting the marks, and I want to also have spontaneity. I want spontaneity as I write. That means that I have the freedom to deviate from what I thought I was going to be doing at this part because I keep on discovering as I write the book.

And when I say discovering, I mean discovering things about characters, I also mean discovering that what I thought was going to be the best dramatic driver for the book is evolving in a slightly different direction. Doesn’t mean I’m throwing it out, but I want to…I don’t want to…in the final analysis, remaining flexible saves me time, too, because if you spend a lot of time doing an outline and then you say, “Oh, my gosh, this is, I thought this was gonna work really well, but actually the primary interest is not where I thought it would be, it’s gonna be here, I need to refocus.” Well, that means, therefore, if you’ve invested all the way to the end of the book in a very tightly plotted outline based on that presumption, it means you have to go back, and you have to redo all that. So for me, I tend to remain…there’s a certain point where my outlining ends in order to retain flexibility. And for me, it makes the book more interesting to write, frankly.

What about characters? You’ve mentioned that you develop, you discover things about your characters as you’re writing. Do you do a lot of preparatory work on, you know, details of their childhood and all that sort of thing, character sheets, as some people do before you start?

I did that with a couple of major characters. These are through characters, these are characters who have through lines and whose backgrounds are very important. Of course, for me, one of the things that people will realize when they read my books is that a lot of the major characters are not even human. So the background there, obviously, is worldbuilding in terms of, their society is not like ours, so what does it mean? What is a consciousness like that comes from this very different set of evolutionary building blocks and the very different culture that will arise from that, and how do I understand that, and how are they received in that culture? One of the things that I’ve done, and it’s a…I do write on a bunch of different levels, and I do hope that that at some point maybe somebody will go back and say, “Look, he was doing this, or trying to do it, anyhow.” One of the things about the main character, as I said, who sort of winds up being the first-contact expert simply because there’s no way to really get a degree in first contact, they’re doing it for the first time, hence first contact, but it actually helps to be a little bit of an outsider. And what I mean by that is if you are, if you presume that the shibboleths and the truths, so to speak, maybe truisms is a better word, of your upbringing and your culture are absolute, they’re kissing cousins to physical law, you’re not going to probably have what I will call the freedom of intellect and the receptivity to actually meet something that is intelligent but shares almost none of that background. How do you find common points? How do you wind up seeing your…how is this a mirror held up to your own species? These sort of things are…they’re consistents, and what I…

The one commonality, for instance, and I discovered this later in the writing, is that all of the alien characters who ultimately are the opposite number in a first-contact scenario, either by chance or design, to some degree are the same way. They are…they’re not pariahs in their own society, but they don’t…they don’t rest comfortably inside it. It doesn’t answer all the questions for them. To some degree, to whatever extent…a person who is willing to question their own society is also considered a little bit dangerous by their own society. That’s what all have in common, regardless of where…because you have to have that freedom.

So, to go back to what I was mentioning earlier about through characters that actually do have that kind of initial development on the way in. Caine Riordan, the protagonist of the series, to the extent that it has one, is definitely an example of that. And my decisions regarding him were a little bit a little bit unusual, I suppose, in that I wanted a realistic character that was going to be a great lens for immediate encounters with the unknown, immediate encounters with problems. And that meant that, in addition to me wanting to break with tradition and not go with somebody who starts out as a soldier or a spy or something else like that, I wanted to choose somebody who was a little bit more reminiscent of what I’m gonna call a World War Two hero ethos, which was, World War Two was largely a war where you did not have professional militaries. You had, it was a sort of a come-as-you-are party. And so, citizen soldier and that entire idea was very important to me, and that’s one of the reasons I chose to make him an analyst and a think tanker more than anything else, because I wanted him to start out in a comfort zone.

So, he was…what I mean by that is, he’s a semi-Washington insider at the time that everything begins, and it’s…he starts, actually, in a place of strength, in his comfort zone, but as time goes on, he’s actually moving out of that that comfort zone, very much what had to happen with folks who were in World War Two, they had to learn things on the job. They hadn’t… his was not part of their plan. And I thought that was a more interesting story than the ones that…I think we’ve gone in a slightly more pre-professionalized sort of direction regarding a lot of our heroes in similar tales.

The other thing that I wanted to do about him, so I wanted to give him, what was he going to have instead of those skills? And so, I decided on a character that was a polymath, which is, of course, more than just knowing a lot of things. It is also having an ability to, if you will, employ and exploit knowledge from one field to another. To give you an example of that, the same thing that moderates, for instance, our…the principle of dynamic equilibrium is just one example. It’s at work in terms of a pendulum. It’s at work in terms of maintaining pressure between systems. It’s at work in maintaining body temperature in the human body. And a polymath will tend to see all these things as potentially informing different fields where a similar process of dynamic equilibrium might be at work. That’s the way a polymath tends to think. They tend to take concepts or paradigms from one area, apply them to another that would not necessarily be the place you would normally expect to see it applied.

So, I wanted to make him that because I wanted to give him a kind of an unusual facility that turns into, readily turns into a jack of all trades, master of none. I thought that would be interesting in a character. The other thing that I chose for him…so that is, if you will, his superpower, everybody of course, every character has to have a tragic flaw. And his tragic flaw is a sort of a virtue that can go to an extreme, which is, he really, really does not like to, and almost never does, tell a lie. And when he does “lie,” it’s a lie of omission. It’s like, well, if you presume something and I don’t, I’m not going to say any…I’m not going to correct your misperception there. And he’ll only do that with people he feels have proven themselves to be faithless.

Now, given how much, as is obvious, he obviously works with or for the government on occasion, that desire never tell a lie, never to, you know, never to spout a party line, for anybody who’s had any sort of experience with large organizations, you can understand just how costly that can be. 

So, I wanted him also, with those skills, I felt that I wanted a character that readers, particularly readers, long-time readers of this, of science fiction and fantasy, would relate to. And I felt they would relate to this because, frankly, there are two places where I’ve met a lot of people who have these sort of traits, who have these desires not to march…they’re going to march to the beat of a different drum. They’re extremely intelligent. They are, they’re intelligent, their intelligence is spread across and frequently integrates a variety of different disciplines, and the two places I found that, in my experience, have been in that that big building at Langley, and as you walk past those cubicles, you’ll see the science-fictional books and all of the, if you will, the devotion again to alterity, because those are minds forever voyaging also. That’s why they’re analysts, for a large part. And also, science fiction fans themselves.

And so, in a sense, this was sort of a love letter, I guess you could say, to fans. I don’t come from fandom, but I found fandom to be exactly like this: well-read, competent in a bunch of areas, ferociously intelligent, really don’t care if they fit anybody else’s preconceived mold. So, that was who I chose him to be, and he’s evolved to the point as a character that…fans often describe my characters better than I do, and one fan, I was trying to explain who he was to somebody who didn’t read much science fiction at all, and the person with this less-exposed individual said, he sort of broke in and said, “Okay, let me put it in terms you understand. This character is a cool guy who has to sort of solve problems almost like a MacGyver, and he’s got sort of…although he’s got the head of Batman, he’s kind of got the heart of Captain America, although he doesn’t have any of their powers.” And I sat there, and I said, “Yep, that’s good. That works. I’ll take that. That’s a nice description. That’ll hook people.” So, that’s kind of who the main character is, and as you can see, this was very much a planned character for the other reason, the last thing I’ll say is, the other reason I did not want him to be a specialist at anything, why I did not want him to be in a military or rank situation, is that I frequently find it that a lot of these series, military series particularly, have this apparent driver in them to show the character from private to general and then still somehow involved in the action. And to my mind, that was never a good model because it becomes increasingly implausible as you go, as a character becomes higher and higher and higher in the command structure, that they would actually be on the sharp end of things, that they would be where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. And I did not want to take that away from the character. So I wanted…so although first contact frequently goes wrong or can put him in places where conflict arises, I didn’t want him to ever promote out of having to be in the field. So those were some things that are very much structured the character’s background and also the character’s temperament and abilities.

So, with your plan in mind and your characters, what does your actual writing process look like? Do you sit and work a certain number of hours a day? Do you write in longhand in an old notebook under a tree? How does it work for you?

So, no Thoreau for me, and…so, my work habit is not the one that I, unfortunately, that I work best on. And what I mean by that is I write toward immersion, because I think that’s one of the absolute requirements in a good piece of fiction, that…if a reader falls into your book, no matter why they’re doing it, you’re doing your job. You know, unless they’re there…and I don’t mean stick with the book, when I say fall into it, I mean, they get lost in the world, I mean, when they finally close the book, they feel like they’re re-emerging from that other world into this world. That is my objective. And so, my…I write from the same process, if you will, which is I, in a perfect world, I would get to my desk at nine or ten in the morning and I would write as long as it was in me. And there were times when I used to be able to do that. And there are one or two days of the week where I’ve got it structured that I can, but when you have four kids, two and a half of whom are still at home, that’s not quite the way it works out. So, the bottom line is, I try to get a start on every day.

I’m fortunate, very blessed, in that I never have what I would call writer’s block. And as a hint or as a possible function to other writers, I would say if I don’t know where I want to start the day or my energy isn’t ready, one of the things I’ll simply do—normally I do not start my day this way—Is I’ll go back to what I wrote the previous day or the last day that I was writing, and I’ll look at the last four pages of it, just to get myself up to speed. What I’m also winding up doing, of course, is I say, “Oh, my God, there’s a typo,” or “Oh, that’s clumsy,” or “Oops, that’s repetitive,” and by the time I’m done with those four pages, I’m ready to rock. As a matter of fact, I’m impatient to get going, because I’ve sort of put myself on the runway, I’ve backed myself up on the runway a little bit so by the time I’m hitting the blank page, so to speak, I already have a head of steam going. And that’s pretty much how I write. And if I can write for three or four hours straight such that I only stop when I suddenly realize, “Wow, my bladder is really full,” that is the way I like to write. That’s the most productive for me too, because the longer I do that, the more immersed I get in my own world. I don’t even feel like I’m writing at that point, I feel like I’m channeling and that’s, to me, the way it should feel.

When you get to the end, what does your revision process look like to you? Do you revise—you mentioned some revision as you go, when you’re doing this backing up, but do you do a complete start-to-finish rewrite at the end or are you pretty much done when you reach the end?

So, what I find that I wind up doing is…and I think this is very likely if you discover and if you…one of the reasons I don’t go back and revise as I’m writing is I find that it really slows down forward progress, because I do tend to be a perfectionist, particularly about prose and about character and about leanness. I want…whether or not you’re in an action scene, it’s very important to me that the book moves along with that kind of pacing. So, the thing I’m most likely to do in revisions is simply cut. And here’s where, here’s where part of that stuff for later novels comes in, because I’ll cut stuff that I thought was necessary in the book I’m writing, let’s say, and I realized it wasn’t. I didn’t get to that ultimately. I thought I would, but I didn’t, and it didn’t become important to the plot or the story arc in this book. But I can see where it’s going to become important down the line. So I’ll take all that stuff and I’ll move it into a file that is for later books. And that’s kind of a way of…I find that it makes it makes these, it makes the cut easier, to think that I’m not consigning all of it to a garbage bin, but that actually all I’m doing is kicking it…it’s part of the can that I’m kicking down the road.

Because when you’re writing a series, and if the series is not just, you know, “Here’s the universe and here’s this week’s adventure,” which is the model of most television series, or has been, like, for instance, in the Star Trek days and even the Babylon 5 days, although we’ve been moving more towards what I would call sustained character arcs as viewing and media options have changed. But in the original Star Trek universe, the thing that hung it together was, you knew something of the relationships of the character. But each show was essentially a self-contained experience, an adventure. Obviously not so mine, so when…so, there’s always reason, there’s…kicking stuff down the road is a very real advantage for me. And it gives me a sense of where I’m going and actually helps me pre-shape novels.

So editing, very important. And I’ll make several editing passes. The first thing I’ll do is, I will skim it and I will just highlight the text in one of three ways, not highlighted at all, yellow, or red. Red means I know I absolutely can and will get rid of this. Yellow is, “I don’t know, you know, have I said this someplace else, is gonna be repetitive, is it really necessary?” Because for whatever reason at that particular moment reading I haven’t got the whole, I haven’t got the project, the whole project, in my head at this point, ’cause this is probably my first read-through. So, after I’ve gotten to the end, then I’ll know which of those things…the red will almost always come out, the yellow, a lot of the yellow comes out, and then I’m left with what I’ll call the Ur-text at that point. And then I start doing the line edits, and the line edits are for clarity and just not to have extra stuff in there.

And I think sometimes, when I write from immersion, and like I say, I’m channeling, I’m very uncritical of what I’m writing as I write it. And so, this is the moment when the critical eye comes in, and a word…I’m not going to stop if I can’t think of precisely the word I want, because I don’t want that to jam up my writing day. But this is the point at which I’ll come back and say, eh, you know, because I put asterisks. You know, I’ll use a word, let’s say I was thinking of, you know, of a term having to do with, you know, when are you’re going to arrive, you know, and I’m thinking, “There’s a word for in military parlance, what is that? I can’t remember it, dammit.” I’m not going to stop, so I’ll write, “When are you going to arrive?”, snd I put three asterisks. I hit that when I go back and I say, “Oh, of course, insertion.” So then that comes out and insertion goes in and that edit is done.

So, there are probably two main passes. Sometimes there’s more. Interestingly, in Marque of Caine, this is the most heavily edited novel of all. It originally went in at 240,000 words, and Toni said, “You know, I think this is, for what it’s doing, I don’t think it wants to be this long.” She was absolutely right. Toni Weisskopf, by the way, owner and my editor at Baen Books. And I really looked at that, and…to give you an idea of how much I take editing and editor’s suggestions to heart is that one, that 240,000-word book ultimately came in at 158,000 words, thirty or 40,000 of which I can actually use, possibly in a standalone, or something later on, and a lot of the other things or bits. But yeah, a lot of editing and at almost every level, multiple passes.

Now I’ve got to get to the…well, you actually sort of answered this right off the top when you were talking about what drew you into science fiction and fantasy. But the big philosophical question is always, why do you write and why do you think any of us write this stuff? So, why do you why did you write it? Why do you think any of us write it?

Well. I think there are…I think people have overlap on one topic. If you were completely satisfied with the way things are in the real world in terms of all it contains in the way of experience and all of your ability to experience it, my guess is that possibly imagination would go in different directions. I think there is something about this focus on alterity, whether it is what I will call for the purposes of entertainment, and it might be self-entertainment as much as anything else, or whether it’s to ponder the imponderables, if you will, that at some level what’s in this particular mortal veil is not is not sufficient. Some…the people who write this, and I think the people who read it, want more. They want to see how else it could be. They are…there’s something that’s in them that is what I would call a positive restlessness of wanting to see what’s over the next hill. Not all human beings are like that. As a matter of fact, from having worked in advertising, I can tell you that that science fiction and fantasy sells to actually one of the rarest demographics, it’s a demographic that advertisers almost don’t go for, which is people who actually, you know, love and revel in the notion of alterity. Most people, it feels like, “That’s disorienting. You moved my cheese. Don’t do that to me.” It’s kind of hard to advertise for people who are focused on alterity and also tend to be a little bit skeptical. One of the reasons obviously they’re interested in alterity is because they have the mind reflex to essentially say, “If I’m not happy here, where else can I go? If it doesn’t fulfill, if it doesn’t check all my boxes, where do I go to get those boxes checked?” Well, science fiction, fantasy, those are great places, and this is where you find folks. So, I think all the readers and all the writers probably have that in common at some level.

Then I think there are a variety of different reasons for it. In my place, I am very much motivated by that. I’m also motivated by…I guess you could say some…first of all, it’s fun to do. If I…writing is work. It’s work I love to do. But worldbuilding, actually, if I am…I can be half asleep. I can be terribly distracted. I can…for instance, if I…some people can write in a crowded, somewhat noisy Starbucks. God love them, don’t know how they do it, but I can world-build wherever I am. For whatever reason, that exercise is such that…it’s like such a playground for me. I can be in the noisiest environment, and the only thing that will annoy me is if I don’t have a way to record my thoughts, because I’ll forget a bunch of them. And I can do that. So, that gives it… some of it from me, I think, is cognitive temperament, if I can say that? I know those sound like inherently different things, but I’m gonna put it that way.

And the other thing is that I do think that there are important questions to ponder. And I think one of them is, you know, the entire question of our future. By which I mean to say that I don’t write things–I want to be very clear about this–I am certainly not interested in predicting the future. I think it’s a fool’s errand, and as a friend of mine and fellow SIGMA member said, Steven Gould, he said, “Science fiction predicts the future the way a shotgun kills a duck.” And I think that that’s an absolutely on-target metaphor, if you will, or simile.

I haven’t heard that one before.

It’s a good one. And what I like about it is that there’s another level to it, I’m not sure Stephen intended this, which is, yes, a shotgun is firing across a broad span. But at the same time, it’s not without focused purpose. You’re aiming at the duck. You are trying to put, you’re trying to overlap, if you will, a cone of intent on an object at a distance. And I feel that’s exactly what the science fiction writer is doing. We’re trying to find what…we’re trying to project rather than predict. And we’re trying to, we’re not saying it’s likely. We don’t want it to be wholly implausible, but someplace between the realm of it’s possible, maybe even plausible, is, I think, sort of an important thing to do.

One of the things that makes human beings human beings is that we, as far as we can tell amongst all the creatures, are the ones who essentially create planning scenarios. We run through possibilities and potential scenarios in our mind, and we come up with ways of dealing with that. And this notion of forward-looking…science fiction and fantasy to some degree is just a more extreme version of that.

And I would say probably, the other component in this, which I suppose sounds a little bit goofy, but to go back to something I said before, I think there are challenges before us as a species, no matter whether it involves things from outside our own solar system or not, we have a bunch of challenges in front of us. I mean, a biosphere does not last forever. A star does not lasts forever. We are doing things to this planet, which I think anybody can say, forget the current sensitivity issues regarding climate, I’ll simply say carcinogens. We’re making a dirty environment. And what are we going to do about that?

And so, all of this is going to the notion of, there is a necessity for us to work together. There is a necessity for us to leave no one behind. Poverty and lack of education are not merely a crime against a compassionate approach to other human beings, they are wasted resources. By which I mean there are challenges before us that I really feel we will do our best if we have every human being on deck bringing their best game to the game. And we are not doing that right now. And I do believe that a movement in that direction is kind of one of the things that I’m trying to get at in my fiction, the costs potentially of not doing so.

And connected to that is that there is an interest in a different intelligence. I’m gonna say, I’m gonna use something that, as far as I know, is kind of coming from me, which is when people say, “Well, why would you think that would be any other intelligence in the universe?” And my attitude is, if you’re approach to this is deistic, well, you know, I don’t know that we can talk to begin with, not because I don’t want to talk with you, but when cosmology is the same thing as theology, essentially, you have your answers. There’s a teleology in place in the notion that, of course, we may be the only one, because that’s what we were told. OK, fine. But if that’s not what’s motivating somebody, if science and empiricism is, then my simple response to why would I think there’s other intelligence in the universe would be, “Tell me something else that nature has ever done once.” It just doesn’t. And I mean, they can say, oh, “Big Bang.” But there’s a lot that’s suggests that Big Bang itself is part of…there’s, I think, it was a scientific, or a sort of model that came out of, I think India, originally, going way back now, like twenty, thirty years, the hypersphere model, that if everything does, you know, if the universe is saddle shaped and everything goes far apart, when it goes far enough apart, it will ultimately begin to re collapse. It will recombine. And what happens? You get impossible density in a small point and “Bang!”, it starts all over again. So, I’m really wedded to that idea.

And if we are not alone, then my question is, what else is out there now or what else has been out there and what would that mean? What does it mean as we…and do we really want to say, therefore, in our own block? I think it was Tsiolkovsky, the sort of the father of Russian space technology and aeronautics and in some ways, for probably more than just Russia, said, you know, “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but you can’t remain in the cradle forever.” And indeed, you can’t. You won’t fit. Eventually it’ll rot. You know, your choices to…either we stay and die, or we move and exist and change. And my attitude is, the second is full of uncertainties. It is full of alternates that we certainly don’t see today. And that is certainly the direction in which I would want to head. So all those things kind of make me feel like, because they’re all so innate to me, I feel they’re like part of how I define myself that I kind of don’t feel that I chose science fiction. I feel science fiction chose me.

Well, now projecting your personal future. What are you working on right now? What’s coming up?

Giving shorter interviews and thereby sparing everybody’s listening audience.

I can’t wait to do the transcript for this one.

Oh, God Almighty. I’m so sorry, Ed. So, what I turn my hand to next is, I am doing a solo novel in John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising universe. Known inaccurately as his zombie apocalypse universe, which kind of was a complete surprise to me. The way it came up, I was asked to give an eight-to-ten-thousand-word short story for an anthology for that. And I certainly said, “Oh, that’d be fun.” So I did that and 35,000 words later, I turned in my piece, and there was great silence on the end of the line, so to speak, the email link. And many months later, I got an e-mail coming back saying, as I expected, “Obviously this doesn’t fit in the anthology, but if you could write as much again, we’d love to publish it as a novel.” So this was one of those moments where you break the rules and get a contract. And as Toni Weisskopf said at DragonCon, don’t any of you use this as a success model. So that’s what I’m in the midst of working on. After that, I do another 1632 novel, which I think Eric probably plugged the time he was on here. We’re doing something called 1637: No Peace Beyond the Line.

Yes, he did.

Right. A follow on to Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, and is another New World-setting novel, which at the end is going to start actually bringing some of the disparate character arcs back into contact. I won’t say more than that. And finally, after that, after working my way through the rota, because I have the wonderful quote, “problem,” I use that word very, very ironically and facetiously, is that I have a lot of books already under contract, which is the dream job. You know, I almost don’t say that because it is truly the thing I know I envied, and I feel honored and humbled by having that. So, I say all that to leaven any sense that I could at all be complaining about having more work to do than I have time to do it. That is exactly what every writer wants to have as their daily existence. But finally, I do get to write the first novel in the epic-fantasy slipstream sort of sort of trilogy that Baen contracted me to do called The Broken World.And I’m really lookin g forward to that because that’s worldbuilding again. It’s set in…it’s a different discipline in some ways than the worldbuilding for science fiction? But because rigour and consistency of worlds and everything you put in it is very important to me, there’s a lot in it that is actually reminiscent. The worldbuilding is the same. And once again, I had this world built in, in its main, long ago.

What I’ll say about it is again, the character is not the average character you would expect. Again, this character is a little bit at…not exactly at odds, but was hoping for a different life path than he got, but because of the skills he has, he doesn’t get that. He…you know, he’d hoped he was going to be a great figure in the armies of this state of which he is a part. But instead, he sort of is put in…he’s made a kind of a rolling individual scout-courier, which is hugely disappointing to him, but puts him in contact with things that suggests that there’s something wrong with this world. Things don’t add up. And that’s where I say it’s slipstream, because to some degree I am working against genre types. By the end of the novel, I hope to have largely stood a lot of the conventions of the fantasy novel straight on their heads, not the least of which a reader is quickly going to see that there are some things in this novel which certainly do draw from some of the imagery and shapes that we know of from our own history of this world and some that are not merely…they go beyond being not merely a sort of northwest tinctured, northwest European tinctured fantasy, but they become a sort of almost alien, if you will, tinctured fantasy. And that they are existing side by side is not is not a failure in artistic or aesthetic consideration, but bloodymindedly purposeful. That juxtaposition.

Sounds intriguing. And where can readers find you online?

All the usual places. My website is terribly hard to remember. It is—get a pen ready—www.charlesegannon.com. So what, the title you see on the books, the name on the books, is exactly the website, with the exception of there’s no period after my middle initial. It’s just www on one end, com on the other, and you’ll find me easily enough. I am probably…the best place to look for me is on Facebook. I’m there a lot. That makes it sound like I post a lot. I don’t, but it’s the thing I look at. I do have a mailing list that’s easy to find through the website. It’s easy to find through Facebook pretty much. If you can’t find it just let me know and I will be happy to direct you towards it. And I do have a Twitter account. I, as a matter of fact, did a Twitter interview just yesterday. No, on Friday. So I’m there. And, of course, you can find my books at Amazon. You can find them at baen.com, and they are, of course, frequently littering the shelves at Barnes and Noble and other, you know, bricks and mortar venues.

Oh, that’s great. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. It’s been a fascinating conversation. I think—I’m sure—that listeners will enjoy it.

Well, thank you very much. It’s great being here. And I’m sorry I gave you so much for your transcription efforts to untangle and present. But it’s a lot of fun. These were great questions. And you have a whole bunch of great things going on in your career right now. I see wonderful stuff with DAW Books and recently named a fellow in residence at one of Saskatchewan’s libraries. Am I right about that?

Yeah. I’ll be writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library from September through April, working with local writers and then also getting a chance to get paid for working on stuff before the publisher pays me for the stuff I’m working on, which is kind of weird, but I’ll take it.

You know, I think if you can make two dollars for every one you should make for the publication of a story. That’s a good thing. And it also sounds like I should have been interviewing you, not the other way around.

Well, I interviewed myself for a previous episode.

Oh, did you? Well, that must have sounded wonderful, if pathological.

Well, it was my Masks of Aygrima pseudonym, E.C. Blake, who interviewed me. So, anyway, thanks, Charles…Chuck.

Thank you so much.

Episode 29: Christopher Ruocchio

An hour-long conversation with Christopher Ruocchio, author of the The Sun Eater, a space-opera fantasy series from DAW books (published by Gollancz in the UK), which began with Empire of Silence in 2018 and continues with Howling Dark in 2019, and assistant editor at Baen Books, where he co-edited the military SF anthology Star Destroyers, as well as Space Pioneers, a collection of Golden Age reprints.

Website
www.sollanempire.com

Twitter
@TheRuocchio

Facebook
@TheRuocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Christopher Ruocchio is the author of The Sun Eater, a space-opera fantasy series from DAW books, as well as the assistant editor at Baen Books, where he co-edited the military SF anthology Star Destroyers, as well as Space Pioneers, a collection of Golden Age reprints showcasing tales of human exploration. He’s a graduate of North Carolina State University where, in his words, “a penchant for self-destructive decision-making” caused him to pursue a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric, with a minor in Classics.

An avid student of history, philosophy, and religion, Christopher has been writing since he was eight years old, and sold his first book, Empire of Silence at twenty-two. The Sun Eater series is available from Golancz in the UK and has been translated into French and German.

Christopher lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he spends most of his time hunched over a keyboard writing. When not writing, he splits his time between his family, procrastinating with video games, and his friend’s boxing gym.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

 Welcome to The Worldshapers, Christopher.

Well, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

We met…we’re both DAW authors, a you know, conflict of interest and all that, get that right there, and we actually met at San Jose last year at WorldCon at the DAW dinner. I think was when I first met you.

I think so.

And then you very kindly showed me around the…well, Dealer’s Room doesn’t quite cover it at DragonCon…

A shopping mall.

Yeah…when I was down there last year, so I appreciated that as well. So it’s great to have you on. And I have to confess I have not finished Empire of Silence, but I…

Neither has my fiancée, so I can’t throw stones at anybody.

But I’m well into it, so when I get you to do a synopsis in a little bit, and I say, “no spoilers,” that will be for me as much as for the listeners.

I’ll do my best.

So, I always like to start these things off by going into… I always say either the mists of time or the depths of time…into the past, to find out how you got interested, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy, and how you started writing it, You started early, apparently, at eight years old.

Oh yeah. Yeah. I think it was my dad’s fault mostly, because when I was really small we were a Disney family, and most Disney movies are…I don’t want to say are for girls, but they’re about princesses, and when you’re a three-year-old boy it’s harder to get into those necessarily, although I was I was very fond of, especially, Sleeping Beauty because there was a dragon and a sword fight…

Me, too.

But then I think I watched Star Wars for the first time when I was four or five, and then immediately after we got through watching the first three movies, you know, a week later and then two weeks later, because they’d spaced it out, I think I watched the original trilogy on loop. Because I wasn’t allowed to watch very much. I was allowed TV Land, the Batman cartoon from the ‘90s, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and then the Star Wars trilogy. And so, I watched those original movies obsessively, and I read a bunch of the books, and of course The Phantom Menace came out, and I was just young enough to think The Phantom Menace was awesome. And it’s, you know, actually, it’s fine. It’s Attack Of The Clones that’s bad.

But I went from that through to reading a bunch of Star Wars books. I think the first book I ever bought was the first Tim Zahn Thrawn novel. But then I found Tolkien, and Harry Potter, of course, came in. I hit…actually before Harry Potter was popular. I read it when I was like five, because I read very early, maybe even younger than that. I’d have to check with my mother. And so, all this was happening at once, and then I hit Lord Of The Rings right when the movies were starting to come out, around 2000. I tried watching the Bakshi version, and it terrified me, and I gave up. And I tried reading the books instead but struggled with those a bit more than the Star Wars books and Harry Potter.

And so, I started writing because my friends, you know, would play make believe on the playground, right? And they were playing Dragon Ball Z, which I of course had no idea what that was, because I was not allowed to watch it. And so, when I was asked,” Hey do you want to play Dragon Ball Z?” I said, “Yes! But can I be Batman? And after two weeks of careful deliberation, the other five-year-olds agreed that, yes. And so, over the years going through grade school up to about third grade, we would play make-believe, right, on the playground, and we spun out and made our own characters. So, Batman eventually got a lightsaber, and…you know all these other…he went to wizard school, I think, and became…he was very accomplished.

I think that would improve Batman.

You know, I like Batman a lot, so I hesitate to say that, but I would definitely read that.

At least with a lightsaber.

The light saber, yes…he needs one. Everyone needs one, really. But I…so I started writing down these adventures we had on the playground, and then as my friends grew up and discovered football and social skills, I sat on the edge of the parking lot with a notebook and would keep making stuff up. And, of course, once I made it to fourth grade, third-grade me didn’t know what he was talking about, and I would throw everything out and start again and again and again and again and again, until I finished a novel, I think in eighth grade, of which one copy remains printed and it is in someone’s lockbox somewhere, I don’t remember. And it is terrible, and I…I kept doing this through high school and college, mostly because, you know, Christopher Paolini got lot of flak, you know. But he wrote that book at fifteen, and he was another Christopher, and an Italian one, at that, and I was…you know, “By God, if he can do it, I can do it, too,” and…I actually got to meet him at DragonCon, when I met you, and thank him for that, because I…you know, it’s one of those things I always thought that you needed to be like forty to do when I was little and he sort of proved that wrong. And so, I kept doing this until I eventually had something worth reading.

Did you share that early writing with your friends and see how…you know, that you could tell stories that they enjoyed?

Oh, sure. That…I had…I have a few friends, actually…before we started the talk officially I mentioned my two roommates. My two roommates…I’m just moving out now, actually, into my first house, but my roommates are two friends I’ve been friends with…since third grade, I think…and them and a couple others I would…we would always pass things back and forth. We used to play, you know, like, not exactly Dungeons and Dragons but some like off-brand RPGs and stuff together, a lot of, like, Internet forum RPGs? So we would do a lot of co-writing and stuff. And I was always working on this side thing, and when I would finish, it’d be like, “Guys, look at this!”, and then hand it out. A couple of them have stuck with me and keep giving me feedback. I think one of them has that one copy that I referred to, ’cause he was always fond of this stupid story I’d written in middle school, so I gave him the last print copy I had, because God only knows what happened to the Word documents.

I always ask that because a lot of us started writing young. I wrote novels in high school and started well before that, and I talked to some writers who, you know, there’s no way they were gonna show that stuff to their friends, and yet, I always did. So I always ask people that. And I think it helps, because you get that sort of, “Oh, I could tell stories that people really enjoy,” so, you know, it’s a kind of a positive-feedback thing.

I still do…I have a couple of them. I have a little Facebook group discussion and I send them updated files of…I’m working on the third book in The Sun Eater now and so every four or five chapters I will send them another update and then wait until one of them tells me how it is. Because you don’t know, right? You don’t know if what you’re doing is really good until you get someone else’s eyes on it. It’s sort of like Schrödinger’s Cat. And it helps to have either some validation or some course correction.

Well, somewhere along the way I lost all that. So now nobody sees it until it goes to Sheila at DAW. That’s another thing I ask, and we’ll talk about that a little bit later on with your writing process, you know, whether you have people that help you out at that initial stage or not, giving you feedback. But we’ll talk about that a little bit…so, from, you grew up, then, in North Carolina, I presume, where you still live.

Oh yeah. Born and raised. I am the proverbial medieval peasant. I haven’t moved more than ten miles from where I was born.

And so, this was interesting, that you decided to get a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric with a minor in Classics. I didn’t even know there was a degree called English Rhetoric. What does that involve?

So NC State was weird, right? It’s sort of…North Carolina, Raleigh in particular, has got a bunch of colleges right around. We’ve got the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, which is a pretty famous liberal-arts school, oldest public university in the US, and we’ve got Duke, which has sort of like a semi-Ivy League reputation, but NC state was founded as an agricultural school just after the Civil War. So it’s got more of a…it has a reputation for being kind of the, like, farm school, right? But now it’s one of the best engineering universities in the state, and, I think, even in the world. But I went for an English degree because they had this internship program for English students that had a 100-percent job-placement rate and I am, if nothing else, a practical man. So, I thought that would be better than a slightly more reputable name on my diploma. And it was a great program at any rate, just a less-famous one.

So, I went, and they do this thing where they split their English degrees into what they called focuses, so I could take a focus in literature or rhetoric or film, and the rhetoric one was the technical-writing one, really. So, there was a lot of tech-writing classes, that sort of thing, but also just journalism classes, you know, just making sure you could write, you know, nonfiction articles, that sort of thing. Make sure your grammar is correct.

Hilariously, I had this very bad graduate-level rhetoric class right at the end that taught no rhetoric, I think because the professor felt left out that when the scientists got particle accelerators and lasers the English department didn’t get any toys. So, we spent a lot of time talking about the “rhetoric of physical spaces” and how…and that’s not rhetoric. And I got in a lot of trouble for repeatedly informing her that this was not rhetoric, because I had the classics background, too, which I backed into because I didn’t want to take a world-literature course because I’m less interested in them, shall we say, than in the things that I grew up with., because that’s just who I am as a person. And I didn’t want to take a language class where I had to stand and do oral conversation components to my exams because I am bad at learning languages.

Unlike your character.

Yeah. So people who say that he’s just a self-insert are wrong. I can’t do it. And so I was taking three years of high-school Japanese and by the end it was, you know, (something in Japanese), and I’d be like, “Um…um…good morning.” I’m not that bad, but I was just embarrassed, and so I took Latin. And between the taking Latin and…I took for my world literature course. I did ancient literature, so we did a bunch of Greek and Roman stuff, but we also did some middle-Eastern stuff. The Enûma Eliš and the Epic of Gilgamesh, these things, and some early Far East stuff as well, which is also fascinating, so when I say, “world literature,” I mean contemporary stuff, because I just don’t think a lot of contemporary lit-fic is very good. I know that…it just doesn’t interest me, so…the old stuff, yes, by all means. And so, I backed into it because of my interest in ancient history and the classical period in the Near East and whatnot, and through  the Latin.

The rhetoric major still interests me. It doesn’t sound like it was what anybody would consider a creative writing class. It’s more like  just technically creating clear sentences and paragraphs and organizing your thoughts and all that kind of thing.

Yes. So, I had a bunch of classes that actually were your sort of traditional…the sort of rhetoric classes that Shakespeare was forced to do, right, where it’s like, “OK, give us, you know, write ten examples of tricolon, as like a, you know, overnight assignment,” right, things like that. And so I actually have…I won’t say something like an ancient education where you would be drilled constantly on how to speak and how to hold your hands to present a statement before the Roman Senate, right, because there were hand positions in these things, but I at least had something sort of winking in that direction, where it was, you know, “Be aware that if you phrase things in this way, if you employ devices like hendiadys or stichomythia, you know, these things that sound like Greek incantations, that you can have an effect on an audience in a certain way.” And I did a lot of Elizabethan theater classes, as well, and a lot of that was still used by people like Shakespeare and Marlowe, and the rest, in writing those plays, because they’re very…the play is a very oral medium, right, it’s meant to be heard, it’s meant to be spoken, and I think the best prose should be the same way. And so, the rhetoric stuff ended up being really useful, I think, from a creative-writing standpoint, because I’m a big audiobook person, and so I’ve been very much affected by the sound of the language. And so, those classes were all great except for that last one, which was like, “We’re going to talk about rhetoric in paintings,” to which I said, “Shouldn’t be a design class, three buildings down?”.

How to win friends and influence professors, maybe not.

No. It was my last semester and I was grumpy, let’s say.

So, with Empire of Silenceselling when you were twenty-two, clearly you were working on this while you were at university. Is that when this began?

Yeah. The book that became this one…people ask when I started writing. I’ve always been writing, air-quotes, “the same book,” but when I started writing it at seven, eight years old, you know, it was about Batman, and it’s not about Batman at all anymore, really, although Hadrian does wear a lot of black still, that hasn’t changed. But so do I, and I don’t know if that’s a chicken or egg thing.

And so, I started this one in my freshman, sophomore year of college, really, and it was quite different still. Hadrian wasn’t quite human in the original draft. There were some near-human aliens because I also played a lot of Japanese RPG games and there are a lot of aliens that are almost human…anyway, it changed dramatically. And as I got into my final year, I had the great fortune of having John Kessel for a professor. He’s a Nebula Award-winning short-story writer, he’s got a couple of novels out from Saga, and he is an all-around just great guy, and he gave me some advice on querying, and of course I’d started my internship at Baen, so I actually had access to a SFWA directory, which has all the agencies in the back, so, I photocopied that and started going through, querying people, with John’s advice on the letter writing. There was this awful frame narrative that was in the book at the time that he convinced me to cut out. And lo and behold the minute I did that, I started getting answers to my queries that weren’t, “Go away.” And I sold…rather, I got an agent a month before I graduated and then…so that was November because I graduated a semester off schedule, I had an extra, I was late, which is part of why I was so cross with my rhetoric professor, I just really wanted to be out. And so, I had about a month over the holidays because, you know, people aren’t working in December really, and then come January I got my job at Baen on Monday, and then that Thursday I got a call from Sarah Guan, who used to work at DAW, she’s with Orbit now, she loved the book and wanted to buy it. And so, I had about the best week of my life up until I proposed to my fiancée. So that was a good time.

Well, you said this book kind of grew out of all the stories that you’d been writing all along, but was there some initial seed or image? How does that work for you when it comes to a story? How do stories come to you, or begin?

I can’t remember where this one really came from. There’s no, you know, Robert Howard talking about Conan just appearing or J.K. Rowling having the same sort of conversation about Harry Potter just sort of appearing to her on the train, because it’s been so long. Hadrian and I…although Hadrian’s had like thirteen, fourteen different names, he’s been with me in some form or other since I was a kid so, I don’t…a couple of people have noted similarities between our personalities. You know, just…this is a common thing with authors, right? Like, I’ve seen people say the same thing about Pat Rothfuss and Kvothe, that they have some similar personality traits, things like that…but I don’t know which one’s me, which one’s him, because I’ve been writing this character in some form since I was a small kid. So, like, I was talking about the black clothes. Like, I wear black pretty much all the time and so does Haddrian, it’s his family color, and I don’t know if I’m wearing black because I’m sort of low-key cosplaying my own work or if my work is borrowing from my own fashion choices.

I thought I was a Johnny Cash influence.

You know, my dad makes that joke and I’m happy to accept it because Johnny Cash is the man.

I wrote a biography of him, a children’s biography of him. So…it was kind of cool.

Did you really? I’ll have to go track that one down. I’m a big fan. I’m not usually a country guy but Cash is excellent.

So, I don’t really know. There are some other stories that I will, that I’m working on that I have some ideas for. They’re just coming to me randomly. I don’t try to go looking for them. I’m not a very stringent researcher. If it’s something completely new, if it’s something I want to be devoting a lot of time to, they’ll just sort of pop up eventually, usually because I’ll be reading or watching something and I’ll like it, I’m like, “This is cool! But…” And then something will sort of spin out of an objection or a critique of something else. And I’ll want to do something from that. I’m a very argumentative person, to my detriment, as my educational history made brief reference to.

Well, if we’re going to talk about the Sun Eaterseries, perhaps you could give a spoiler-free synopsis of the first book for those who either have not read it or, like me, have not yet finished reading it.

All right. Well, what I usually do, because I go to a lot of conventions and I do a lot of floor selling with my friend Alexi Vandenberg of Bard’s Tower, is, I tell people that my main character, Hadrian, is sort of an Anakin Skywalker, but less whiney, if becoming Darth Vader were the right thing for him to do. The story is set about 20,000 years in our future in this big galactic empire. Hadrian is a nobleman, the son of a fairly minor but high-status house, that runs away from home, and he finds himself stuck in the middle of this war between humanity and the Cielcins, this alien menace, who are the first species of technologically advanced aliens in all that 20,000-year history who have ever stood up to humankind, who have ever rivaled us for control of the galaxy. Hadrian tells you on page one that he is the man who ended that war and killed all of the Cielcin, and the story is a memoir of why and how.

Yeah, talk about a spoiler on the first page.

Yeah, I…yeah. I don’t…I’ve always taken umbrage with spoiler culture. I think that if your story has to hang together on surprise, then maybe it’s not the best story. People have started to realize this about, say, M. Night Shyamalan, after The Sixth Sense. You know, his other movies have all hung on some twists that more or less haven’t delivered and I, you know, I don’t go out of my way to ruin things, but I think that if we can take the what-if, or what might happen, off the table, and instead talk about why and how, and the details, obviously, ‘case I’m not giving away the whole ending on page one, that we can ask some more interesting questions and have a different kind of story.

I suppose there’s no particular reason…I don’t think it even works very well to try to do an entire novel version of an O. Henry short story where everything depends on a sudden twist on the last page. I don’t think readers would actually like that.

No, no. And I’m not saying that every, you know, plot twist is like that, either. I just…I think…like, I’ve gotten a lot of people who complained that these memoir-style books take a lot of the tension out of the plot, and maybe that’s true for them. But I am one of those people who always looks at Wikipedia summaries of things because I like to know. I’m more interested in the journey than the destination and seeing how things get carried off and why, and what’s layered in there. And for those people who think that this story is something that I’ve given away completely at the beginning, that presupposes that all there is to this story is this one action that I tell you about on page one, which I think would be a mistake.

Well, I was gonna say that when it comes to memoirs it’s not like, if we were reading a memoir of a famous person…we know what he did, or she did, and yet we are still interested to find out how that all came about from the internal perspective of the person who did that thing. So, that should apply just as well. If I were…we’re currently reading, of all things, I’m reading out loud Boswell’s Life of Johnsonto my wife. We still have forty-four hours to go according to the Kindle.

Oh, my gosh.

And yet, you know, it’s still interesting even though, you know, well, he did the dictionary and he did all this, and then he died, you know. And yet it’s still interesting, even though you know how it ends. And it’s not like, you know, Romeo and Julietis any less powerful because you know when you go into it how it’s going to end. In some way it’s going along the journey along the way that makes it interesting.

Right. And there’d be no point to read classical literature anyway, right? Like, take The Count of Monte Cristo, right? Like, everybody knows it’s about a guy who goes to prison unjustly and gets revenge. And now, that he gets revenge, which is usually how the book sold to anybody when you’re trying to get them to read it, presupposes his success. But the details, right, you know, and how and why and the catharsis of those moments, right? That’s why you read the thing, you don’t read it to figure out what happens.

Did I interrupt you in the synopsis of the book?

Oh no. No, no, no. That was pretty much all I wanted to say, because I don’t want to say the things in the middle, right? There are, you know, without putting anything together, there are gladiator fights and there is court intrigue and there are aliens and friendships lost and found and all of these things.

Well, that brings me around to the next question, which is, so far you’ve mostly talked about your character, but there’s an awful lot of worldbuilding going on in here and a detailed and complicated plot. What does your planning process look like? Do you outline in great detail, do you wing it, and then…how does it work for you?

So, I winged the first book because I didn’t have a deadline. I had years and years to figure it out. And so, most of it ended up gelling in my head over time as I was rewriting things and changing things. You know, “What if I did this instead?” I had to rewrite this one very quickly because my first editor, when she bought it, it was about half as long. She said, “I love it. It’s great. I read it in one shot overnight, but I have these two problems,” and I looked at the problems and they were, without getting into too much detail, they were really fundamental worldbuilding problems, and it was the sort of thing that the only way I could fix them and be sure I fixed them and it wasn’t sloppy was to rewrite the whole thing. And so, I locked myself in my room, basically, for three months. I think it took me 108 days, because I kept a spreadsheet of my progress because this encourages me. Or discourages me, at least, when I fail to write enough on one day and my spreadsheet looks bad. And I would go to work, and then I would come home, and I worked…I think I slept only, like, four hours a night for most of that period. It was not good. But I shot through the whole thing all at once, and because I had just written it, right, it was all still very crystal.

But for the second book…I’ve become pretty friendly with David Drake, working at Baen, and Dave writes these enormous outlines, you know, you can…they’re basically like fifty or sixty pages for everything he does. And Dave ticks through and writes them…he writes his books…we, you know, we can almost plan our schedule around Dave. He’s like clockwork. It’s amazing. And so, he’ll turn in a book, we’ll know how long it is, we’ll know when we’re getting it, we know how early we’re getting it, we know how clean it will be. He’s so consistent. He’s just a real pro. And he does it because of these, I think because of these, amazing outlines, and so when I wrote book two, Howling Dark, I thought, “I’m going to be like Dave Drake.” Bold, bold statement, I know, but we have the Rome thing in common, so I thought I was I was off to a good start.

So, I started this big outline, and I wrote it and then, having written it, I realized that I knew basically everything that was in it. So when I would start a chapter I would look again at the page or so I’d written for the chapter, refresh myself with it, and then not look at it again. And for book three I did kind of the same thing. Because this story starts with at least intimations of its ending. I had kind of both ends of this plot string nailed to the table and I’ve been trying to untie the knot ever since. Which is kind of hard to do. So, I’ve been clipping at it and moving things around, so when I start outlining, I will put a bunch of scenes I know need to be in the book down on sticky notes. I had this big door on my closet that was just flat, right, so I used it kind of like a like a chalkboard, and I would stick these things to it and this sort of cloud of notes would turn steadily into a column marching straight up and down the middle of the door as I knew which scene/chapter was gonna be where and what would happen. And I turned that big string of post-it notes into a sixty-page David Drake outline. And I’ve done that for the last two books. And in doing that, I haven’t taken, you know, fifteen years to write it. I did book two in about nine months and book three is going to take about six all told. So I’m getting this down to a science, I think. I hope, rather.

What length are they? I’m reading it in Kindle, I don’t know how thick it is.

Oh gosh. Empire was 238,000 words. Howling Dark was 260, and I think this one’s going to be a little bit longer than that, the third one.

They are substantial.

Yeah, I try to write about 2,000 a day, when I am not moving house (I’m moving right now, I think I said), I can do two to three pretty reliably. At least, now that I have a due date and the fear of God is in me.

Sixty pages is pretty impressive from my point of view—my synopses are more like twenty, twelve to twenty, fifteen to twenty, more or less. But you don’t win the medal for people I’ve talked to on The Worldshapers. Peter V. Brett does a 150-page outline.

Yeah, I have no ambitions of trying to take that title from him.

He’s certainly…and there’s also, you know…I guess it was Kendare Blake I talked to, whose episode just came out before this interview with you, and she basically wings everything. So it’s always interesting to hear the different approaches that people take.

You mentioned Rome, and clearly that’s a lot of influence in there, in the book. So, going back to the worldbuilding side of things, it seems like you were drawing very much on your interest and study of history and philosophy and religion, all that seems to really find its way into the story.

Yes. So I thought, when I was writing it, that it was mostly Greek and Byzantine. I was wrong, but that was what I had in my head. And I think…I had thought that a lot of the Roman influence was because I post a lot of very stupid jokes just, you know, meme images, that are about the Roman Empire and Roman history generally, because I think they’re funny and I think maybe two people I’m friends with get them all, but I share them anyway. And so, I think this impression that I had been primarily a Roman scholar sort of emerged from my stupid Facebook use, and I’ve sort of steered into the skid a little bit, because most of what I’d read was, of course, Greek, because there’s more of it, at least, dramatic literature, right, and most of it the Romans appropriated in one form or other, sometimes improved, depending on who you ask.

And because, also, I was raised and am Roman Catholic, I went to a Catholic school up through high school, up to the beginning of high school. And so, I grew up with a lot of classical history because it’s so integral to the genesis of the religion. So we talk about Egypt and Israel and the Near East generally, and then moving through to the Greeks and…the Seleucids, the Macedonians, you know, and Rome later, and the Byzantines afterwards. And, of course, much of early medieval history, which is steeped in a lot of classical philosophy. Aristotle’s influence cannot be overstated. And my best friend is an Aristotelian scholar at, he’s finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton. So, I have him check a lot of my work and give me ideas, things I wouldn’t have read because I was mostly interested in the myth and the drama, and he had the philosophy. So he helps me out a lot.

And so, a lot of it really comes from, I think, that religious background, just because, you know, you can’t escape Rome’s shadow as a Catholic, certainly. Both the Empire and the city and the church after. And a lot of that left its stamp, but I think as far as my reputation for it goes, it’s probably mostly just those stupid jokes.

You never know what you put on line is going to follow you down…

No, and you never know what thing is going to be the useful detail in your world building, right? You know, I might have only read I think a few pages of philosophers like Epictetus, right, like I…of course. your readers will think you’ve read all of it. Don’t tell anyone. But you know, you might find a line or two and that’s all you need. You know, the fiction writer’s world-building game, I think, ought to be consequensive of a pretty light touch. You know, I talked to Lois Bujold, because I did a brief stint doing the other side of the interview thing here when I did the Baen podcast for a couple of months, and I asked Lois Bujold about worldbuilding, and she told me she won’t make up anything until she needs it. And once I heard her say that, I was like, “All right, I’m not going to spend hours filling notebooks with information anymore. I will make up details as I need it and then try to stick to the rules that I have established.”

Well, I’m a stage actor and playwright and director and a lot of this bears in common with doing something on stage: you only put on there what you need to suggest the reality and the viewer, in that case, the audience member, fills in everything from that. You know, that one flat with a view over the Roman hills in the background or whatever. It’s really just a light little touch, a little detail, and yet it suggests a depth and richness that in many ways the audience actually provides.

It’s amazing how little the audience really needs in order to generate a picture, right? Like, Shakespeare…Elizabethan theatre didn’t use set design at all, right? They might, they had the balcony above the stage, but there were no  tables and chairs. It was all done by costume. You had your props and what not. You know, I think it’s Measure for Measure when they say, “Exit pursued by a bear.” There was a bear-baiting pit across the street from the Globe, so I’m sure there was a real bear, but they weren’t building, you know, castle displays and these things. That’s why, at the beginning of Henry V, the chorus comes out and says, you know, “Imagine that this dome, you know, contains the varsity fields of France,” and so, you know, just a light suggestion, just an off phrase is going to generate crazy ideas in people. I remember as a kid looking at maps of Middle Earth and looking at places Tolkien doesn’t even talk about, right, like a ruin barely comes up, and thinking, “Well, I want to I want to go there,” right? That’s all it takes is literally just one name on a map and the audience is running with. And they think that you have it all planned out, and you don’t have to.

We have talked about a little bit about your actual writing process: 2,000 words a day on a good day, 2,000 to 3,000 words. You are very…it sounds that you’re very organized, like, “I sit down, and I work when it’s time for me to work.” Is that pretty much the way you work?

Yeah. Well, especially now. They give me a deadline, and it was a month sooner than I had anticipated for book three. So what I do, I wake up at about 6 a.m., I eat breakfast, and then I will write until I have to go to work just before 9, and then I will go to the office and work 9 to 5, like a good soldier, and then I will come home, make dinner, and then I will work until I hit that word count. And I try to hit, at the very least, a thousand words in a day. These days, I’m trying to bottom out at 1,500, just because I want to get it to Katie on time, and if I can do it early, because they know the deadline surprised me and wrong-footed me, then I will look really cool. And I am trying to look as cool as possible so…fortunately I had that deadline.

You’ve mentioned, also, you know, that you have these friends that you still get some feedback from. Especially when you’re working to a deadline like this, do you actually even have time to show this to anybody before you’re gonna have it done and then hand it in?

They might not…their feedback at the very end might not be that useful, but I try to get it to them in stages, you know, so they might read three chapters at a time and just sort of follow behind me. I very briefly had a stint in the noughts as a middle schooler writing fan fiction and reading it. I sort of fell out on it because I realized that I would do better writing my own stuff. I know I could make money doing that, I can’t make money writing Legend of Zelda stories. But, you know, they would update a chapter at a time every couple of weeks, right? And it was exciting. Same with comic books, right? You know, I’m  a big fan of Berserk, the Japanese series, and that might get a chapter every, like, three months or something, and waiting for that little update’s really exciting. And so, my friends who came out of the same space as me no objections to getting these things in dribs and drabs and getting back to me. I have a couple who were faster than others, and some people might not answer, but that’s the virtue of having about five or six. I’ve got a couple who will read pretty reliably.

My friend the philosophy guy usually spot checks things for me. I’ll have specific questions for him or a couple of other people. My…I mentioned my friend’s boxing gym in my bio. My friend Wes runs a gym here in Raleigh. He trains boxers to actually fight, because most boxing gyms are actually aerobics studios. Not to put that down, but they’ll just stand in lines and they’ll just do drills, and their technique is not actually competitive at all. So, Wes trains people to fight, and he also does fencing and HEMA (Historic European Martial Arts) and he used to teach summer camps where he would teach kids like medieval military tactics and have them in lines with spears and stuff, it was very cool. And so I’ll have him check a lot of my action scenes, things like that.

I was gonna ask, what specific kind of feedback are you getting from people? I guess that’s one of them. Action scenes, and specific questions you have for your philosophy friend…philosophical friend?

Yeah, yeah. Marcus. He’s actually, he is who Gibson—if you’ve read the book, Gibson is Hadrian’s tutor.

Yes.

Sort of the scientist monk. And they all take names, in much the same way that when you’re confirmed Catholic you take a saint’s name, these monks will take old scholar names, and he has borrowed my friend’s name, as a nod to my friend for his long years of service.

So what does your revision process look like when you get to the end? Do you revise as you go? Do you do a big revision at the end and then submit it? How does that work for you?

I do…when I have time, and I won’t this time with book three, I let it sit for a week, ideally, and then start reading it over again, and I’ll make notes about what needs to be changed and things as I go. I’ll fix, you know, bad-sounding sentences. Because I try to read aloud. The most important bit of writing advice I ever got, and I think the most important bit of writing advice I can ever give, is “read your work out loud,” because if you wrote a bad sentence it will sound stupid and you can fix it, but you can’t fix it if you can’t hear it. And so, I try to read everything aloud and catch those as I’m going and then catch things. I also find my memory is much better with things I’ve heard, so I’ll remember details better and catch things like someone’s eye color changing, which…even proofreaders are going to miss that sort of thing.

Yes, those things do crop up, and if you don’t read it out loud to yourself while you’re doing that, you will certainly find those errors when you’re doing a public reading sometime.

Oh, yeah. Every time. There’s a word missing in the first line of dialogue in Empire of Silence, I think. It’s something like “the mother of wisdom in” and it should be “is in” and that missing “is” haunts me to this day. I fixed it in the mass market, but it just…it’s in the audiobook, and every time it just…it’s too late.

It must be in the electronic ARC I’m reading, so I’ll have to look that up.

Yeah, it’s…it’s just embarrassing. But I try to do that, and I’ll do spot fixes. I try to go and find words like “very” and see if it’s an instance of the word “very” that needs to go. Words like “seems.” I have a whole list somewhere, I forget other words…

Quite a few authors have told me that. Let’s see, it was Kevin Hearne, I think, who said he suddenly became sensitive to the phrase “I couldn’t help but,” and he said, “Well, of course you could.” And so he goes through and tries to get rid of all of those. For me…I…well, of course, there’s the, you know, the basic, if you do a search for “wases” and “weres” and stuff you can see if you’re using passive tense sometimes you shouldn’t. But, I often find that my characters make animal noises too much. They’re always growling dialogue or snarling something. I try to catch some of those.

So, when it gets to DAW, and Katie, your editor there, what kind of editorial feedback do you get? I haven’t worked with her, so I don’t know how she works.

Katie is great. Katie catches a lot of things. My favorite thing about working with Katie is that Katie and I have more-or-less diametrically opposed worldviews and philosophies and backgrounds. I come from a deeply Catholic conservative background. Katie is very much a progressive. I think she was, I think she was an activist, like, a professional activist before she was an editor. And we live in very divisive times, let us say, and without getting into anyone’s opinions on anything, because I really don’t, especially publicly, don’t want to be a political person in any way whatsoever, I really appreciate that we can work together with these very different…because there are just things that you’re blind to, right? When you have opposing…when you have a different way of seeing things, there are just some parts of the world you don’t see because you’ve never seen them, these sorts of things? And Katie is conscious of things.

’Cause I’m not trying to hurt anybody with writing, so just, you know, stupid, you know, thoughtless things that might creep into your writing because it doesn’t…you don’t encounter it, right? It’s not exactly…I’m not describing, like, sensitivity reading issues, because my response is usually not…it’s not changing anything that’s in…I don’t change any of my…things that are in the text. It’s not that kind of thing. It’s…she will catch where I haven’t presented myself very clearly or I’ve sort of taken half-measures in order to express an idea or to negotiate a plot point, these sorts of things. The way I like to think about it is, in Dostoyevsky and Brothers Karamazov, right, he’s got Ivan and Alyosha, and Alyosha is kind of dim, but he’s a really decent human being. Ivan is viciously brilliant, right? And Ivan wins every single argument that he has against Alyosha, but Alyosha wins in the long run because he is a decent human being. He ends up at the end of his life better off, right? And Dostoyevsky has more in common worldview-wise with Alyosha than he does Ivan, but he makes Ivan as strong a foil as he possibly can. You know, Nietzsche used to say that he did philosophy with a hammer, well ,Dostoyevsky did literature with a hammer, right? He built the strongest possible…you know, I don’t want to say arguments, because fiction isn’t necessarily an argument…but the strongest possible avatar of things he didn’t believe in, right? He made his villains, his antagonists, as strong as he could. And Katie helps me to pull out places where I have been a weak writer because of our differences of opinion and vision and clarity of vision. And, you know, I find that absolutely wonderful and indispensable. And so, in addition to that, obviously there’s the usual stuff about, you know, just usual editing, you know, this might not work here, move this scene, that kind of thing, but that, I think, is the most useful, the most indispensable, bit of editorial help that I get.

So, Empire of Silence came out last year, right? 2018?

Yes. Yeah. July 10.

Trying to remember what year it is.

I know.

And the second one, which is called Howling Dark, is coming up very shortly. We’re recording this in early June and the book comes out in July.

Mm-hmm.

I should know because there’s this guy on Twitter that’s running a daily countdown of how many days it is.

Yeah. I thought that would be fun. It’s been a lot of work.

I was looking at that, thinking, “I could do that for Master of the World,” which is my next book from DAW, but I thought, “Boy, that looks like a lot of work,” so I don’t know if I will do that or not.

Yeah, I did that all in advance, thank heavens. I don’t do it every day. I did a countdown for book one like that, where I did the one quote from each chapter per day for each number of chapters. But I had eighty chapters in this book, and doing one for three months, is…

So, what has the response been to the first book?

Overwhelmingly positive. I think I’ve got about 1,200, 1,300 reviews on Goodreads. Fifty percent of them are five stars, which is just absolutely mind-boggling, because to me this is still a bunch of goofy nonsense that I made up because, really, you know, for all this talk of, you know, differences of opinion and stuff, my only aspiration is to entertain people. It truly, truly is. People can read the book if they agree with me, if they disagree with any of this. And I hope that they have a good time, because that’s what this is about. I am ultimately no different than a medieval harlequin juggling in the streets, and that’s all I want to be, only more serious.

Well, that actually is my next question. This is the point in the podcast where I ask the big questions, and the first one is, “Why do you do this? Why do you write?” And, on a broader scope, why do why do you think any of us write, one, and two, why do you and I and other people write this kind of made-up stuff, science fiction and fantasy?

Well, I have two answers, because of course I have artistic pretensions, right? And any artist does. And I do really think that literature in particular, that the thing that separates human beings from the animals isn’t, you know, tool-building, obviously crows do that sort of thing, it’s not language even, really: it’s storytelling. The reason…we tell stories so that our narrative persona, our narrative avatars, right, our characters, can suffer and die so that we don’t have to.

Stories are instructional. The most basic story is, “I went out into the wilderness. There was a tiger. It killed the other cavemen. Bring a stick next time.” You know, that’s why fables have morals. And all stories do this. And what we’ve been trying to do with our stories…and the oldest stories, in addition to being, you know, daily news, like the tiger one, are religious, right? Religion, literature—these things overlap pretty significantly in the way that they try to define an ethic of, like, how we’re supposed to act in the world, what the right way to behave is. That’s what the hero’s journey is, right, the hero’s journey is like the Dao in Daoism, right, it’s like the eightfold path in Buddhism, it’s like the imitation of Christ in Christianity, it’s the right way to act in the world, you know, being heroic, right? Now, we can argue about the details of what that is, and that’s part of the experiment, right?

You know, I started writing this because I read Iain Banks’s Culture series, where he’s like, “Well, the minute we get into space, government’s finished,” like, you know, no one will ever control anybody. And as much as I love those books, I was like, “That’s not right. Like, well, it’s really hard to get off planets, Mr. Banks. Like, they just won’t let you.” And so, I made an empire that doesn’t let people get off planets. So, you know, it’s all part of this argument about society and how people function.

But beneath all that, and at the same time, you know, I think it was Edgar Rice Burroughs said, you know, “You have to entertain first.” Right? Maybe it was someone else, or maybe he said it, too. And all I really want to do…the reason why most of what I post online are links to obscure metal songs and stupid jokes about the Roman Empire is because I am not here to change anyone’s heart or mind. I am not. I don’t think I have the wisdom or the clarity of mind to do that, and I would be very suspicious of anybody whose job is to write stories about wizards and spaceships who tries to tell you how to live your life. All I want to do is tell you a story about wizards and spaceships.

And as for why we write stories about wizards and spaceships, you know, I think…there are a lot of people, a lot of my creative-writing professors, John Kessel aside, because the man is a rarity…hated that I was writing science fiction in my creative-writing classes. They in fact tried to stop me, and I had to negotiate with them pretty early in the class, like, “Look, this is what I want to do, like, professionally, I would really appreciate your feedback, can you please work with me?” And they very often would. A couple of them were like, “No, you must write literary, you know, lit-fic minimalist hyper-realist pieces.” Maybe magical realism, because that gets a pass for some reason. But all the old stories are fantastic, right? Literally the oldest story we have is the Enûma Eliš, or the creation myth from the Sumerians. And it is a dragon-slaying story. It is about Marduk, the God of Attention, right, he’s got eyes all around his head, right, and his ability to speak magic words, and to take the Dragon of Chaos, Tiamot, apart. He cuts her to pieces and builds the world out of the dragon’s corpse, right? So this is a dragon, and magic words, and, you know, he’s got superpowers, he can see everything, right?

It sounds like a Marvel movie.

Yeah, exactly. And that’s what it all is. Science fiction is modern mythology, because a lot of modern people have a hard time with other forms of mythology, because they go out into the world and they’re like, “Well, I don’t see anyone turning water into wine. So these stories aren’t true,” and I’m like, “Well, but what does the story mean?”, right? The story represents something. Whether or not that something is metaphysically true is irrelevant—those stories have meaning. And it’s the same…and I think it’s more digestible if we know those stories are fake to begin with, right? Like, I’m amazed by the number of people who dislike religion on principle who are Tolkien fans, right? It’s just absolutely mind-boggling to me, because it’s the same story, you know? King Arthur is literally the same story, right?

And so, I think we’re doing this because writing… because we don’t live in a society where popular culture is hagiography anymore, where we’re not writing the lives of the saints. So, instead of talking about St. George killing a dragon—because that’s the same story, too. You know, talking about St. Barlaam, who is actually just the Buddha, you know, that story traveled across Asia and arrived in Europe in a different form. You know, instead of telling all these stories as popular entertainments, instead of talking about the quest for the Holy Grail, right, which is of course a very religiously centered story, we tell stories about different dragonslayers, right? You know, Euron Greyjoy just killed a dragon in Game of Thrones, right? Now, that’s a terrible person, but it’s still the same motif, it’s the same kind of story, and it’s scratching a similar itch. Even if the ending of Game of Thrones…that’s an issue, you know, we can get into another time. But it’s still…it’s still hitting that same spot for people.

I think that fandoms are…I don’t want to say cults, but, like, cults in the Roman sense, where they’re these little tiny micro-religions, right, without the pejorative content at all, I think. People come to these things looking for meaning, and they find them in these other places.

And, you know, I think some other people just like dragons, right? They like knights, you know, because in their real life they’re pizza-delivery guys or, you know, they drive trucks, or they work in an office, or they teach school, and, you know, they…it helps. You know, Tolkien talks about writing escapist literature, because, you know, in its truest sense, because you need to be let out of prison, right, because you don’t want to go to the office every day. I work at a science-fiction publisher and I don’t want to go to the office every day, it’s an office. You know, and I love my job, but sometimes it’s Tuesday and you don’t want to go.

I don’t know if it’s Tolkien or Lewis who said that people who…who’s against escapism? Well, jailers. So, people who say, “You shouldn’t read that escapist stuff” are the jailers.

Yeah, that was my problem with those professors.

It’s interesting. I’ve talked to a lot of authors, some of whom had creative writing, and that is…that, unfortunately, it’s still there, those creative-writing types who have this deep-seated prejudice against the fantastic, which…not always. there have been some exceptions in the people I’ve talked to, but it is something that comes up quite a bit.

I will say this though, against those professors. That’s what every student in those classes wanted to write. Almost to a man and woman, every single person who was in those classes with me wanted to write science fiction or fantasy. Maybe they wanted to write, like, a thriller, right, you know, some sort of military story, spy story, but they weren’t writing, you know, literary minimalism, you know, about some person in their ordinary life having ordinary experiences. Everyone was in there with dragons or robots. So they’re losing. And I think people like Dr. Kessel will be more the mainstay in the profession here in another generation or so.

Well, we’re just about to the end of the hour. We’ve talked about the new book and you have mentioned that what you’re working on is the third book. Anything else that you’re working on at the moment?

No, none at the exact moment because I have to power through book three here and finish it before Howling Darkcomes out July 16. And so, I owe them book three August 1. I’d wanted to turn it in before this one was even out, because I turned in book two before book one was out, because it would be nice, you know, to do that. But I have some other ideas. Most of them are fantasy. I want to…there’s a famous story about the Emperor Caligula, who’s famously mad, although I think personally that he’s been defamed by oligarchs throughout history, but it’s his famous story about him ordering his soldiers to attack the ocean. And, you know, that happened up in the Netherlands, so he sounded crazy to everybody in Italy, but I’m a big Tim Powers fan and, you know, Tim Powers’s thing is, he tries to find fantastic explanations for these sort of coincidences in history and, you know, what if Caligula were actually attacking something that came from the sea, you know? That, I think, is something I want to work on after I finish this, but after I finish book three it’ll be time for book four. And then book five. So I have to do that first.

Because it’s not a trilogy, then. It’s more than that.

Oh, no, no. I’m allergic to trilogies, because everyone…it seems every time there’s a trilogy out I find people who are like, “Oh, book two is bad, oh, don’t read the second one, really dropped it in the middle,” or, “You get through the second one, the third one fixes it.” And I thought, “Well, instead of having one awkward middle book, I’ll have three. That’ll fix the problem.”

Well, I did a five-book series, so I’m right there with you. Although they were much shorter. I mean, I think the entire five books would have fit into one and a quarter of yours, but…

I just talk too much, as you can tell.

And where can people find you online?

I am on Facebook and Twitter @TheRuocchio. Someone had already taken my last name, it’s like a third cousin of mine in Pennsylvania, so I put the “The” in front, which makes me sound famous, even though I’m not.

Oddly enough, that’s why this is called “The Worldshapers” instead of just “Worldshapers,” because worldshapers.com was taken. And they offered to sell it to me for, I don’t know, $5,000 or something. I said. “You know, I think I’ll just put a ‘the’ in front of it and I’ll be fine.”

Yeah, that’s the easy solution. I wasn’t gonna try and shake down this cousin I’d never met, so…

So, Twitter and Facebook, both the same thing?

Yes. And my website is sollanempire.com. I figured that’d be easier to spell than my name.

Well, thanks so much for being a guest. I really enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.

I did. Thank you for having me. I’ve been really looking forward to this. I really enjoyed the episode you did with Dave Butler, who is a really good friend of mine, and a couple of the others, and been real excited.

Well, thank you. I think it’ll be…I’m sure that listeners will enjoy it as much as we both did. I hope, anyway.

I hope so, too.

Okay, bye for now.

Bye. Thank you.