Episode 79: Walter Jon Williams

An hour-long conversation with Walter Jon Williams, Nebula Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author of more than forty books of historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, as well as work in film, television, comics, and games.

Website
www.walterjonwilliams.net

Walter Jon Williams’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Walter Jon Williams is the Nebula Award-winning, New York Times-bestelling author of more than forty volumes of fiction, in addition to works in film, television, comics, and the gaming field. 

He began his career writing historical fiction, the sea-adventure series Privateers & Gentlemen, then, when the market for historical novels died, began a new career as a science fiction writer. Since then, he’s written cyberpunk, near-future thrillers, classic space opera, “new” space opera, post-cyberpunk epic fantasy new weirdand the world’s only gothic western science fiction police procedural (Days of Atonement). He’s also a reasonably prolific writer of short fiction, including contributions to George RR Martin’s Wild Cards project.

Williams has been nominated for numerous literary awards, and won Nebula Awards in 205 and 2011. In addition to fiction, he’s written a number of films for Hollywood, although none have yet been made. He’s also maintained a foot in the gaming industry, having written RPGs based on his Privateers & Gentlemen series and his novel Hardwired, contributed to the alternate-reality game Last Call Poker, and written the dialog for the Electronic Arts game Spore. In 2017, he was the Guest of Honor at the 75th World Science Fiction Convention, held in Helsinki.

In addition to writing, Williams is a world traveler, scuba diver, and a black belt in Kenpo Karate. He lives in New Mexico.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Walter, welcome to The Worldshapers

Happy to be here.

I always try to find connections, and I can think of two. You live in New Mexico, and I was born in New Mexico. So that’s something.

OK.

I was born in Silver City, New Mexico, but yeah, I didn’t live there very long. We moved to Texas, and then we moved from Texas to Canada, which is where I am now. But, yeah. So, there’s that connection.

Silver City is quite pretty and has quite a history.

I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it when I was old enough to remember it. I know we went back a couple of times when I was young, but I don’t have any memories of it, unfortunately.

Well, the thing I like about certain old towns is, you know, if they were, say, a mining town, silver-mining town, which Silver City was, and then the silver mining went bust, they never had enough money to tear down their old Victorian town and build up an ugly new modern one.

Mm hmm. 

So, it’s still got all these beautiful Victorian buildings still, as does all the surrounding area.

It’s a bit like Moose Jaw here in Saskatchewan. They had a couple of fires in the early years that burned everything down. So, they passed a bylaw that everything had to be built out of brick.

Huh. OK.

And then there was kind of a boom and then a bust. And a lot of those old brick buildings are still there. So, Moose Jaw has some really nice character buildings still existing. Plus, it has that name, Moose Jaw, going for it. The other connection is, we did actually eat at the same restaurant at some convention, but I can’t remember which one. I was probably Denver or Reno, but . . . 

I think I’ll have to take your word for it. I’ve eaten in many restaurants at many conventions.

Yeah, so have I at this point. You more than me, I’m sure. And they do tend to kind of run together over time. Well, anyway, so, that’s not actually what we’re going to talk about. We’re going to talk about your writing process. But first, I want to take you back into the mists of time, which is getting further and further back for some of us, I guess. For all of us, really. Where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in reading and writing and all that good stuff? How did you get started in this strange way of making a living?

I was born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, and I always wanted to be a writer. As soon as I knew what a writer was, I wanted to be that. I was probably four years old. I didn’t know how to read or write yet, so I would dictate stories to my parents, who would write them down for me. And then I would illustrate them with my crayons, and fortunately, none of those have survived. And so, I mean, it wasn’t a choice for me. I was compelled to be a writer, and I just work hard at it all my life until I managed to sell some fiction. And then I worked hard at writing more fiction to sell.

If you wanted to be a writer, that must have come from having encountered books. So, was there a reading component to your wanting to become a writer, I presume?

Well, once again, I didn’t know how to read, but I had books read to me and comic books, which I think were a big influence on my very early writing development, since I was better with crayons than I was with, you know, actually crafting prose. So, let’s see. And so, my family left Duluth and moved to New Mexico when I was thirteen. And with some exceptions, I’ve been here ever since.

Did you study writing formally at some point or . . . ?

I took some creative writing classes in college. I’m not sure that they helped. Well, I think, you know, I took a lot of literature courses, and that exposed me to a lot of different material, different writers, different ways of writing, different approaches to writing. And those turned out to be quite valuable. But the actual writing classes . . . well, probably they did no harm.

Well, I often ask writers about that, and more often than not . . . I have rarely gotten a ringing endorsement of creative writing courses at the university level from anybody I’ve talked to you on the podcast. So, that’s interesting. Were there specific books, once you were reading your own books, were there specific books along the way that influenced you, do you think?

Well, science fiction was an early passion. I think I was in second grade when I . . . my mom, who was not a science fiction person at all, sort of marched through the local public library one day, and she knew I would like science fiction, so she grabbed a couple of science fiction books off the shelf and brought them home for me. And the first one was Robert Heinlein’s Have Spaceship Will Travel, which is still my favorite Heinlein novel.

Mine too, actually.

You know, I don’t know why it hasn’t been made into a movie. It would be glorious. But so. I read science fiction from second grade on. I was really fond of books about natural history and animals, including, you know, fiction about animals, you know, The Jungle Book and so on. And then I just continued, and I read a ton of history because I just love history, and that’s a big influence on one of my current projects.

Just mentioning animal books, did you read the Black Stallion books by any chance?

No, I did not. They were not available.

The only reason I ask is, I often ask if anybody has encountered them because it’s perhaps little known that Walter Farley wrote a subsection of those, the Island Stallion books, that were actually science fiction. There’s, like, aliens involved, with horse racing as well.

If I’d known that, I would have sought them out, I’m sure.

His final book that he wrote, late in life, Alec and the Black are wandering around the southwestern desert, Arizona, I think, not New Mexico, while there’s been some sort of asteroid strike or something, it’s like a post-apocalyptic almost setting, with the horse and the boy. And it’s very odd, really. So, that’s why I asked.

Yeah, it’s . . . you sort of wonder if he was running out of ideas for ordinary horse stories, you know that., OK, well, let’s have a post-Holocaust horse story and see what that seems like.

It might have been something like that, or he was just feeling really depressed. I don’t know. It kind of reads that way, too. So, you mentioned the historical, and when you did start becoming published, I know that your first books were historical novels, were they not?

My first published books were. There were some unpublished ones that weren’t. There are a whole host of projects that I never completed for one reason or another, including science fiction and fantasy. I wrote a sort of literary novel that took place in the Civil War that attracted some attention but never got published. And I followed that up with a murder mystery and then had the idea for a series of sea-adventure novels. And those were the ones that sold. It was . . . they were in the realm of C.S. Forester or Jack Aubrey, you know, except that my heroes were Americans rather than Royal Navy.

Did you have any . . . I’ve always had a fondness for these stories, one of the books, one of the series I read growing up was a series of British children’s books called Swallows and Amazons, in which the kids sail. Now, they’re not. They’re just sailing, like, little sailing dinghies around the Lake District in England for many of the books. But in their mind, they’re having these sea adventures with pirates and broadsides and all that stuff going on. And I think that’s where my interest in and see stories came. Did you have any connection to the sea other than just wanting to write about it?

Well, I think growing up on Lake Superior. Lake Superior is, you know, it’s the largest body of fresh water on the planet. And it is, it’s, you know, it’s pretty much a sea of its own. And also, growing up in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, I spent a lot of time in the water when I was a kid and on boats. So, you know, I grew up, and I became a small-boat sailor and a scuba diver. So, you know, it’s been a consistent thing in my life.

And that series you’ve brought out as ebooks now, haven’t you? After they were not available for a while. It’s called Privateers and Gentleman, right?

That’s the series title. And I also restored my original titles that the publisher . . . the original publisher was Dell, and they had a formula for how they wanted series books to be titled. Which was The (Adjective). And the adjective would change, but it had to be a two-word title, the first word had to be “the.”

That gets repetitious after a while, I would think.

Yeah, yeah. And especially as I had much better titles. Those titles are now restored to the books that needed them.

Where could people get those if they wanted to read them?

Your favorite online bookstore.

Available everywhere.

Available everywhere I can find to put it, yeah.

So how did you make the switch from the historicals to science fiction?

Oh, that was easy. The market for historical fiction in the United States completely collapsed about May of 1982. And so, what I planned as a ten-book series became a five-book series. And so, I spent a desperate six months writing proposals for things that didn’t sell. And it was across the spectrum, I mean, I wrote proposals for mysteries, for historicals, for science–not for science fiction, actually—everything but category romance, I think. And none of them sold.

And then, a science fiction proposal that I had written some years before sold. And so, I became a science fiction writer. And the science fiction proposal had been bouncing around publisher to publisher without being read. It’s kind of a fascinating saga, it’s probably too long for this interview, but it sort of explains how publishers can screw up repeatedly. And it finally ended up at Tor books. And the editor at that point was Jim Baen. And there were only three people in the office. There was Tom Doherty, who was the publisher, Jim Baen, the editor, and then there was Mrs. Doherty, who ran the account—was the accounting department. And, you know, now Tor is the largest science fiction publisher, and it doesn’t run like that anymore. But Jim Baen read the proposal and bought it. And although it had been on the market for two or three years, it actually sold to the first editor who rented.

How did it not get read at the other places that it had been?

Well, there were a lot of mergers going on in publishing, as there are now. And so, you know, I don’t recall the exact sequence, but, you know, it was sent to Ace. And Susan Allison, who was the editor, left Ace to go to Berkeley, and until she was replaced, they put a buying hold. So, then it came back, and then it was sent to Berkeley and to Susan Allison at Berkeley, and then Berkeley acquired Ace and suddenly they had too many manuscripts sitting in the office. So, another buying hold went, and then it went to David Hartwell at Timescape, and it was lost in the mailroom for about six months. And by the time that was discovered, they had put a buying hold on. And so, it just kept bouncing off of these things until it actually went to an editor who still had a publishing schedule to fill up.

That must have been satisfying when it did finally sell.

I was greatly, greatly relieved because I was, you know, beginning to look in the help wanted section of the paper so that I could make my rent. And suddenly . . . although it has to be said that the science fiction sold for a lot less money than the historical fiction did. So, I was . . . it took me a few years before I could reach my former miserable standard of living from where I was merely poor instead of in wretched poverty.

Yeah. I can relate. So, there was also a venture into writing for games, and you’ve written for . . . I know, I’ve been a full-time freelancer for thirty years, and I know you do, you know, anything for a buck, basically, but how did you get involved on the gaming side, and have you kept your hand in there?

I’d always been doing games, I’d been playing games for a long time, Avalon Hill games and spy games, historical war games and stuff and Dungeons and Dragons. And so, you know, I was familiar with the genre. And what happened was Jim Bain formed his own publishing company. He left Tor, formed Baen Books, and he also decided to get into computer games, which was a new thing. And because he had a distribution deal with Simon and Schuster, he was going to market his computer games through Simon and Schuster, and they would appear in every bookstore in America and be a huge success. Except, he didn’t realize that the crack Simon and Schuster sales force weren’t interested in computer games, didn’t know how to sell them, and didn’t care to try. And so, it ended up being a terrible failure. And I did write four computer games for Baen Software, of which only one saw print, and the company collapsed before the others could appear.

I’m curious about it because it’s, you know, I’ve never done it, and I’ve always thought it might be interesting to do. Playing them, it seems to me like there’s an . . . there’s an awful lot of dialogue that has to be written for every conceivable iteration of how the game might play. Is that a fair description of it?

Well, especially with, say, a large-scale computer game. I did write the dialogue for a game called Spore, which was sort of galactic adventure with many different alien races that fit various categories of every warlike or mercenary or capitalistic or concerned about ecosystems or whatever. And so, you know, when you say hello to one of them, depending on what kind of alien they are, which category they fit into, they will respond in character. And you end up having these long dialogues with these people. And it was done very imaginatively. They found all these artists who could do gibberish. And so, you know, you would say, “hello,” and this gibberish would come back at you along with the translation. And that was quite epic, but fortunately, I was paid quite well for it. You know, it’s incredibly tedious, mind-numbing work. And I was the second writer they hired. The first one had, I think, OD’d on it and gone kind of nuts, and so they wanted someone who could rein it in a little more.

You didn’t have to write the gibberish; the voice actors made that up?

The voice actors. Yeah. 

You’ve also done some screenwriting, haven’t you?

I have. I wrote several movies that never got made, which is a typical screenwriter experience. I should point out that ninety-nine percent of scripts never get made. But I got paid for writing. The only thing you can see of mine is a science fiction show called Andromeda. And I had one episode in the first season, and it was . . . there were just epic casting problems on that particular episode. And so, it was rewritten, I think, twenty-seven times in the ten days that it took to shoot, when they realized that their guest star couldn’t act and couldn’t remember lines.

The fellow I interviewed for the last episode of this podcast, Chris Humphreys, is both a writer and actor, and he actually played a starfleet commander on Andromeda at some point, but hopefully not in that episode.

No, there weren’t any starfleet commanders in that episode.

All right. Well, let’s talk about your novels then. That does kind of tie in because I’m curious, whenever I talk to somebody who’s done screenwriting or other forms of writing like that, do you learn something doing that that you then bring to your novels? Or was it the other way around? Was the fact that you a novelist, you know. . .?

I was an established writer by the time I did any of these screenplays. So, I already knew how to write fiction. But the main thing was a kind of mental switch because, in my fiction, my characters all have strong inner lives. And they’re always thinking and reacting and having emotional responses to what’s going on, but it’s not necessarily visible to any of the other characters. And so . . . but you can’t have that in a screenplay. You can’t have somebody think in a screenplay and not tell you what he’s thinking. All the audience sees is action and dialogue, and so, I had to make that adjustment. My characters couldn’t have interior lives. It was only outer life.

Well, I do some stage acting, and I’ve written plays, and it’s much the same thing. Everything is driven by the visible action and the dialogue and whatever the actor can do to emote. But, you know, everybody interprets that differently, depending on who the person is that’s viewing it.

Yeah. You know, I did have, you know, second readers on my screenplays and stuff. And they would ask, I don’t understand why your character is doing this. And I said, “Well, because he worked it out in his head that this is what he should do and then . . . No. That’s not a viable approach for screenwriting.

There’s the few where they have a voiceover narration, but that always seems a little forced after a while.

I really miss the artist’s soliloquy. I wish I was living in Shakespearean times so that I could just have the character turn to the audience and explain what he was going to do.

If you ever get a chance, there’s a show on Amazon Prime now, it’s from the BBC, called Upstart Crow, which is a situation comedy about Shakespeare writing his plays.

It is terrific. I’ve seen all seasons.

I thought of that because the actors will turn to the front and say, “By strict convention. I can now say what I want to say, and nobody around me can hear what I’m . . .”

Yes.

Well, let’s talk about your writing of novels then. Now, Fleet Elements, that’s the most recent one—well, you have a new short story collection we’ll mention as well, later on. So, using that as an example, we’ll talk about how you write your novels. And I guess the first thing would be a bit of a synopsis without giving away anything you don’t want to go away.

OK. Well, my elevator pitch is war and revolution as seen through the eyes of a pair of star-crossed lovers. Or alternatively, star-crossed lovers experience war and revolution, but it is set in the far future in a somewhat decrepit space empire in which humanity and several other alien species were conquered by another race. And that other race is gone now. They all died. And now, we, the human race, and these other species have to figure out what comes next. Because they’re very good at taking instruction from these totalitarian aliens, but the totalitarian aliens aren’t giving them instructions anymore, and now, they have to work it out on their own, and they’re not used to that, and they’re not very good at.

I should point out this was inspired by–I was reading a lot of classical history, Polybius and Livy and people like that, and they told this wide-scale history with very vivid characters. And I thought, I should be able to do that. And so, when I planned this series, twenty years ago now, I planned it for nine to twelve volumes. And for various reasons . . . anyway, the fifth or seventh one has just come out, depending on how you point them there. This is the fifth one from Harper Collins, but there was one from Tor, that was a novella, and there was another novella that I published on my own. So, I think of this, Fleet Elements, as book seven, but the publisher thinks of it as Book Five.

Do you know exactly how many volumes it’s going to be now, or is it still in flux?

I think twelve.

So not even halfway yet, depending on how you count.

I’ve plotted them all out. I know what’s going to happen in all of them. That’s part of my process. In the first trilogy, I knew what the last line of the last book was going to be before I wrote the first line of the first book. I always have the end in view, and I always know where I’m going. Sometimes there’s a certain amount of difficulty in getting there. I always know the beginning of the book really well, and I know the end of the book really well, but the middle part is sometimes a bit of a mystery. And that’s where I tend to struggle.

Well, you mentioned what the inspiration was. Was that typical of the way ideas . . . I mean, ideas come from everywhere, I know, and it’s cliche to ask, where do you get your ideas? But is that fairly typical for you, something you’ve read or just something you’re thinking about, or how does it work for you?

Very often, I get an idea just from reading other people’s fiction. And I see something that was undeveloped or something that could be viewed in some other way, and usually, you know, even my short fiction, there’s more than one idea happening. So, I tend to like the collision of ideas, so I’ll wait till I get a certain number of ideas that are kind of undeveloped, and then I will sort of have them smash each other head-on like particles in a particle beam accelerator just to see what happens.

See what kind of strange quarks emerge.

Yeah.

You mentioned a little bit about knowing the beginning and the end, but are you much of an outliner? I mean, this is a big sprawling series.

Yeah.

How much work did you do ahead of time to plan it out? What does it look like for you? Is it very detailed or more sketchy or what?

When I’m working on one project, I’m always thinking about other projects. So, I was able to plot out twelve volumes while I was writing something else. Because that’s just usually how it works, you know. I’m not a very fast writer. I’m a plodder, but I’m persistent. I don’t . . . you know, I write every day. I just don’t write a huge amount of words every day. And so, you know, I have a lot of time to think about my next project. And I have probably outlined, at least in my head, more projects than I can write in a lifetime.

What does the actual outline that’s not in your head look like?

Well, there are a couple of kinds. I mean, I have to write a synopsis for the publisher, right? Because publishers require synopsis and sample chapters even for writers that they know well now. I mean, I recently, you know, sent a proposal to an editor I knew well, right, and he said, look, the company requires me to have sample chapters. I know you can write. I know you don’t need to write these sample chapters; you don’t have to prove anything to me. But the company has this checklist, and I have to put that check there. And so, I wrote him those damn sample chapters, you know, really annoying.

I don’t have to do that with DAW. Still just getting by with the synopsis.

Well, that’s because DAW is still family owned.

Yeah, I think that’s the difference.

They aren’t owned by an international corporation. Good for them.

So, your synopsis, will it be like ten single-spaced pages or . . . ?

Yeah, something like that? Well, you know, it worked out to ten double-spaced pages. But I write outlines for myself, and they are a lot more eccentric. I tend to write them on yellow legal pads in colored ink with different characters being represented by a different colored ink and arrows and timelines and stuff like that. It would be incomprehensible to anyone else. I know what all this stuff means, all these weird scribbles, but I can’t see anyone else getting a hold of one of those outlines and being able to write a book from it.

How closely do you follow your outlines once you actually start the writing process? Do you find that you wander off as you create things along the way, or are you fairly strict?

Well, outlines are just outlines, and I don’t so much wander away from the outlines as I find other aspects of the story that would contribute to the value of the fiction, right, so, you know, I find new sidelights on characters, new sidelights on the action. And so, for me, it’s a process of addition. I start with the outline, and then I add things as I go if I think they would contribute.

And what about your characters? Do you do a lot of detailed work on them beforehand, or do you discover them as you write?

Uh, I pretty much . . . the major characters I know pretty well by the time I start. I don’t always write down their personalities or the little details and stuff, but I have that worked out in my head.

You mentioned that you write every day. What does your actual writing process look like? You outline on yellow legal paper, but I bet you don’t write on yellow legal paper longhand.

No, no, I write on a computer. I use Scrivener, which is a software that is developed specifically for writing fiction.

Yeah, I have it, and I’ve never climbed the learning curve to use it. I’m still plugging away on Word.

Well, the thing is that, as with every modern word processing program, most of it is stuff you’ll never use.

It’s certainly true of Word.

Yeah. That’s true of Scrivener, too. There’s just a lot of stuff in there that you probably won’t ever use. But it does have a very useful outlining function where it actually gives you the index cards and the little pins. And you could put them in and rearrange them and stuff. It allows you to rearrange scenes very easily, which is extremely useful in at least some of my projects where I’m not too sure on the chronology until it’s all done.

Yeah, I should probably . . . the one I’m working on now is a space opera called The Tangled Stars, and it’s kind of tangled my brain, too, so I should probably be using Scrivener. That might help. So, you said you’re not a fast writer. Do you have a set word counts you try to get done every day or . . .?

I seem to average about 500 words a day. It’s not a lot, but I get to write one book a year plus some short fiction, and that’s what it amounts to.

And once you have your first draft, how does the revision process start for you? Or do you write in drafts? Do you do a rolling revision or what?

I don’t anymore because word processors make it so easy to revise. So, probably by that, by the time I’m done with my, quote, first draft, unquote, everything’s been gone over half a dozen times. I always start my day by revising the previous day’s work. And, you know, whenever I have to go back and look something up, I’ll probably revise it a bit. So, ideally, it’s very polished by the time I get to the end of the first draft. So, revision for the second draft is generally pretty quick and easy just because I’ve been over it so many times.

That’s interesting because the very first person I interviewed on here was John Scalzi, and he was talking about how he does rolling revisions. But then I’ve talked to other people who started on typewriters, as I’m sure you did, because I did, and you’re maybe a little bit older than me, I’m not sure, but somewhere along in there. And he thought that people who wrote on typewriters tended to still do single drafts and then go back to the beginning and revise it, as you had to do on a typewritten manuscript.

Pretty much.

But it sounds like you’ve switched more to the word processing.

I’m very pleased that I never have to use a carbon ever again.

Yeah.

But yeah, and since I’ve adopted a word processor as opposed to a typewriter, my books have gotten a lot more complex simply because the word processor makes that easy to do. The stuff I wrote on typewriters was very straightforward.

I still remember the first decent printer I had, because of course, dot matrix printers, editors didn’t want that. I had a daisy wheel printer, but I had to feed the paper into it just like it was a typewriter. I wasn’t typing it, but I still had to sit there, and it would make a carpet. So, I was still using carbon paper and feeding it into my daisy wheel printer. I don’t miss that. Yeah, I’m old. So, do you use beta readers or anything like that? A lot of people do.

Well, I use my wife, who was a very good beta reader and who has worked as a copyeditor in the past. So, I get a free copyedit, which is pretty cool. But I used to belong to several workshops, and I would workshop everything. And then, I started a workshop of my own called Taos Toolbox, where I actually teach writing for two weeks up in a ski lodge in northern New Mexico every summer.

Oh, nice.

And I work with Nancy Kress, who is just brilliant at teaching.

That’s where I heard that, because I interviewed Nancy and I think she mentioned it.

But it kind of ruined me for workshopping because, during that two weeks, I have to read and critique maybe three hundred and fifty thousand words of fiction. And I am so burnt out by that process that it takes me a year to recover. And I just don’t want to workshop anymore. I don’t want to have to read anybody else’s drafts until it’s time to do Taos Toolbox again.

Do you . . . I’ve done a smidgen of teaching, and I’ve been a writer in residence and worked with a lot of writers at a couple of libraries where I’ve been a writer in residence. Do you find that teaching writing benefits you as a writer?

Not that much. I do occasionally get excited about one of the students and, you know, but it’s mainly—I’m mainly teaching in this, I’m not necessarily out to learn new tricks.

Do you ever find—

That’s it . . . I have I encountered a dilemma in one of my, my current project, and I went back and looked at my own lecture notes. Which I normally don’t do. I looked at my notes, my lecture notes, and I found the solution to the problem I was having. And that was kind of fun. I actually took my own advice.

I was actually going to ask because that’s something I found. You know, I will confidently tell somebody, you know, you should do it like this or something like this, and then, just don’t look in that book I wrote where I didn’t do that. Because it’s easy to give advice sometimes that you don’t take yourself.

Well, writers are very individual, and they each need, you know, critique and so on that is pitched to them. And this is why Nancy and I do so well, because Nancy has a completely different approach to writing than I do. I’m a plotter, she’s a pantser, and so if my approach won’t work for you, here’s her approach,

Well, that’s one of the reasons for this podcast, is why it’s, you know, it’s focused on this kind of stuff, so that people can go and find out that there is no one right way to do this thing. You’ll hear every possible approach from somebody that I’ve interviewed or will interview in the future, I’m sure. So, going back to the revision, are there specific things you find that you have to work on in revision? Like, is there a consistent tick that you have to clean up or anything like that?

Well, my first drafts tend to have very elaborate, long sentences with peculiar syntax and a lot of words derived from Latin roots, polysyllabic words from Latin roots. And so, I have to remind myself to make the syntax a lot more straightforward, replace the Latin words with Anglo-Saxon words, which are punchier. And that’s my typical . . . I mean, if you actually saw a very first draft of mine, you would think I was hopeless. I really do need to spend a lot of time polishing it to make it readable.

But clearly, you get there.

Yeah, I think a lot of it is, English is not my first language. And so, it’s a struggle to translate the language that’s going on in my head into English.

What is your first language?

I don’t know.

Perhaps it’s Latin!

It seems to be a symbolic language. It’s like . . . when I think, it’s like laying out an array of Tarot cards. And so, I have these different symbols that together all means something, but when I translate it, I have to literally do the translation and add the grammar and all of that. I’m the only person I know who has this problem. Most people apparently think in their native language, and I guess I do, too, except it’s not English.

That rings a bell from somebody who was talking about . . . hey were startled to realize that other people didn’t think the way they thought, and I don’t remember who it was, or if it was exactly along those lines. But somebody else had told me something similar to that, which I find . . . I find it fascinating because, you know, one of the things about writing is, we present the illusion that we know how other people think, right, but really, we don’t, we don’t have a clue what goes on inside anybody else’s head.

Well, I know what’s going on in my character’s heads, and that’s kind of all that matters as far as my books go.

Yeah.

I know how they think.

Your readers come to that and will actually take something different than what you’re picturing in your head.

Yeah, you’re right.

Because it is a collaborative effort.

I find that people read the book that they want to read, and it isn’t necessarily the one that I wrote.

So, once you have the book and it goes off to the publisher, what does the editorial process typically look like for you? Are there things that come back, or is it pretty clean . . .?

It’s mostly sitting around for months waiting for my notes. And, you know, I won’t name any names, but I turned in a book last September, and I’m just getting the notes from it today, supposedly.

Well, it will be . . . you know, you’ll be looking at it with a fresh eye, I guess.

So, I’m going to be doing, you know, spend the next week doing a bunch of rewriting, I expect, you know, unless he says, “Oh, it’s OK, we’ll just send it to the copyeditor.”

Are there things that you typically get editorial notes about? Like, in my case, from Sheila Gilbert at DAW, it’s usually, you know, I didn’t explain enough about some aspect or, you know, the characters need a little more development, that sort of thing.

Yeah, uh, generally, I think because I know too much about the way that my characters think, I don’t necessarily explain their motives and actions as clearly as I could. So, it’s always useful to have someone say, “I need to understand why this action is happening now,” and then I can handle that. Another thing I tend to do is I can overdo things. You know, it’s just the prose just becomes too much. And I need somebody to tell me when to back down, back off, and let the story happen instead of scenes of hallucinogenic intensity.

That sounds like you really enjoy the words themselves. Is that fair to say?

I do. I have a series out now called Quillifer, which is basically my love letter to the English language. I mean, aside from being a jolly good read, you know. But I am deliberately spending a lot of time playing with the language in that series.

I do love a good, convoluted sentence myself, as people have told me, so I can appreciate that. I also wanted to . . . you have written a lot of short stories, and in fact, you have a collection out now, you said. Novellas, mostly, but some short stories.

It’s just out this week. It’s The Best of Walter Jon Williams, oddly enough, out from Subterranean Press. It’s 200,000 words of fiction, which is, you know, a couple of novels worth. Mostly it’s a longer short fiction, novelettes and novellas, and including a lot of award nominees and a few award winners. So, you know, I’m very proud of it. I just wish I could have added another 100,000 words . . . 

That’s the sequel!

. . . because there are always some I wish, you know, there was room for.

Of course, if you call the first one The Best of Walter Jon Williams, would you have to call the second one The Second-Best of Walter Jon Williams?

I think Even More Best.

Even More best.

Even More Bester of Walter Jon Williams.

So, these would go back right through your entire career?

Pretty much. Yeah, it’s from the mid-’80s through the fairly recent present. And it’s sort of every stage of my career represented.

So, you write novels and short stories. Do you think you have a preference for one that you’re better at than the others? I always think some people are better at short stories and some people are better at novels. Are you good at both, or . . .?

My best work is in the shorter form because, in something that is of a modest length, everything can be perfect. You can actually put everything in it that you think ought to be there and then make sure it’s available to the reader. For a novel, something the length of a novel, something’s going to go wrong somewhere. There’s going to be a mistake, there’s going to be, you know, some of my tangled syntax got through all the editing. So, you know, I view my novels as good but necessarily flawed, which is how I view everybody’s novels. But my short fiction, I’m very proud of.

I’ve often used the metaphor of where you have this . . . in your head, the story is this beautiful, shiny Christmas ornament, absolutely perfect. And then you smash it with a hammer and try to glue it back together with words. Yeah, that’s the way it feels to me, that initial moment of, “Oh, this is going to be perfect,” and then you can’t actually get to perfect, unfortunately. Well, I’m going to ask the big philosophical questions—I’m going to put reverb on that sometime—you’ve been writing for a long time. You say you always wanted to be a writer, but the first one is why? Why do you write?

Well, it remains a mystery. It was a compulsion. It was an irresistible compulsion to be a writer. And that irresistible compulsion lasted from when I was four years old to when I was around forty, when it began to fade. And so then, I realized I was no longer compelled to do this, but it was kind of the only thing I was good at. You know, it’s not like I have a work history. My last real job was, like, in 1978, and so, I have no job history. I’m not even qualified to be a greeter at Wal-Mart, in terms of the straight world. So, but what I realized I had to do was I had to find some reason to love what I was doing and to really love the craft and love everything I was working on and find joy and delight in it. That wasn’t necessary before. I didn’t have to love it. All I had to do was just write it because I was compelled to do that. So, I think my approach to writing now comes from love, and this is what I tell my students. “If you don’t love it, don’t do it.”

Don’t do it for the money.

Yeah, because there won’t be any. Sorry.

So, you say you found a love for it. Why do you love it now? What do you love about this?

Why do you ask these complicated questions? I . . . it’s just I enjoy doing stuff that I’m good at. And this is the thing that I’m best at, is writing fiction. And I do a lot of other stuff, you know, I’m a scuba diver, I’m a martial artist, and love all that to a certain degree. But that’s not where, you know, my homeworld is. My homeworld is fiction.

Do you find some love in the love that your readers give back to you when they read something of yours and they really enjoy it?

It’s always gratifying when I hear from the readers. But see, the thing is, between the time that I finish a project and the time that it appears in print, I’ve written a bunch more on other projects. So, you know, when a novel comes out, I may have written two novels in the period of time between finishing that one and it appearing in print, so my head is in another place. And once I deliver a book, it’s kind of not mine anymore. It kind of belongs to the reader. So, there is . . . there’s a part there’s a time in which I know I’m the only person that possesses this work. Right when I’m working at it, I can really love it, and I can feel like I possess it. I can own it, and then I give it away, hopefully for money, but I give it away, and then it belongs to other people.

Who may be discovering it twenty years from now, for all you know, once they’re out there, they’re out there.

Yeah.

OK, so that’s why you write. Why do you think, in the bigger picture, why do any of us write? Why do human beings do this strange thing?

Well, I think storytelling is a compulsion. I think I think we make stories out of anything. I mean, you know, look at a newscast, right? They don’t just tell you this happened, they make a story about it so that you’ll be involved in it and you’ll care, and so I . . . because we’re in a covid pandemic right now and one of the things that television can shoot safely is reality TV because they can get everyone in one place and isolate. And so, I’ve watched a lot of that. And one thing that I’ve noticed is that if you’re completing a project on some reality television show, you have to tell a story about . . . it’s not just, oh, I made this cool thing. This is this, this story connects to the deepest wellsprings of my childhood, and it’s all about my grandmother, who passed away just two months ago. And I’m still, you know . . . and the audience responds to that. It may not even be true. In fact, it probably isn’t. They probably learned that they have to tell that—that soap opera is where you’re going with these kind of shows. S I don’t know why anyone else writes. I’m glad that they do. For some people, it’s a bucket list. They actually have “write a novel” on their bucket list, and then they write it and either sell it or self-publish it, and then they go on to the next item on their bucket list. I don’t understand that at all. It’s just too much work to write a novel just to tick off something on the list.

Yeah, just beat your head against the wall. It’d be simpler.

Yeah. And some just write for mercenary motives, which I don’t get either. Because so far as I can tell, these people aren’t rich.

Yeah. And the third question is, why write stories of the fantastic, specifically science fiction and fantasy. Why do we write about things that aren’t real?

Well, in my case, it seems to be what I’m good at. I just seem to come at reality from a somewhat sideways perspective. And, you know, I have written other stuff, and I have a whole lot of unsold fiction sitting around n other various categories, literary fiction or mysteries or whatever. But what I kept being told is this is too strange. We can’t publish it. They hardly ever say that with science fiction. And when I write science fiction, I can write about anything, so long as it has certain science fiction elements. So, war and revolution from the point of view of star-crossed lovers. I wrote the world’s only Gothic Western police procedural, a science fiction novel called Days of Atonement, set in Silver City, by the way, really a fictional analog Silver City, but if you know New Mexico, you know where you are. You know, I’ve written cyberpunk, I’ve written anthropological science fiction, I’ve written, I don’t know how to describe it, gonzo science fiction, I guess, really high-concept stuff. I’ve written near-future science fiction that actually got overtaken by events. I wrote a novel about the Arab Spring, and it appeared the week that the Arab Spring started. So, that’s one of my more successful predictions, I’d like to think. And oddly enough, no one cared. My agent was out there contacting every news organization in the world, saying, “my writer predicted that this was going to happen, and the book is out, and you should talk to them.” And they said, “No, we have our own analysts. We pay them.”

What was the name of it?

Deep State, the middle book of a series about alternate reality gaming, oddly, and they are also now all available for me as ebooks. But it begins with This is Not a Game, is the first one. There are four, although the last one is a novella. But it was interesting going back because I just, you know, once I mounted my own editions, I went back, and I was reading the reviews, and one of them said, “These are really good books, but this is in no way science fiction.” And I said, “They were science fiction when I wrote them. And then it all happened.” So, once again, it’s kind of a matter of timing. I wrote a Black Lives Matter novel twenty-five years ago called The Rift. And it was such a colossal commercial failure that I didn’t sell another book for five years. So timing is everything. If I were to write a Black Lives Matter novel now, it might do better.

Or there’d be so many of them that it would get lost in the . . . 

Yeah, that’s true.

So, what are you working on now? You’ve touched on it a little bit.

I’m working on the next book In the Praxis series, so Fleet Elements is to be followed by The Restoration. And I’m about halfway through that book.

When is it expected out?

Probably late 2022. Because I’m scheduled to deliver it later this year, and it will spend at least a year in production.

And anything else?

Yes, I have my Quillifer series, which is high fantasy and my love letter to the English language. The third book of that will appear around the New Year. I don’t know. The final schedule hasn’t been decided yet. It makes me happy to write these books. It’s just a delight to write Quillifer, because he’s just so, so much fun. And they are sort of a swashbuckler, Rafael Sabattini meets Michael Moorcook meets Tolkien, I guess. He’s a kind of impish character, and I like writing these characters.

So, lots for people to look forward to, it sounds like, in the not-too-distant future.

Yes.

And of course, the short story . . . 

And they can prepare for it by reading the two earlier books in the series, which are Quillifer and Quillifer The Knight

That sounds like my cup of tea, so I’m going to check those out.

Please do.

And where can people find you online?

Uh, www.WalterJonWilliams.net. I’m the only person I know who has a .net instead of a .com, but somebody had already stolen my identity with the .com.

And just for those who don’t know—you should know—it’s Jon without an H.

Yes, yes.

All right. Well, thanks so much for being on! I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.

It was great fun. Thank you.

And we say hi to Nancy the next time you see her because she was a guest on here not too long ago.

All right. Good talking to you!

Bye for now!

Bye-bye.

Episode 78: Chris Humphreys

An hour-long chat with Chris (C.C.) Humphreys, actor, playwright, and author of twenty historical and fantasy novels, including the Immortals’ Blood series for Gollancz and the new Tapestry Trilogy.

Sign up here for Chris Humphreys’ March 6 online workshop, “Fantasy Worlds – And How to Build Them,” part of the new Paper Covers Rock literary festival on Salt Spring Island.

Website
authorchrishumphreys.com

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@HumphreysCC

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@CCHumphreys

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Chris Humphreys’ Amazon Page

The Introduction

Chris (C.C.) Humphreys has played Hamlet in Calgary, a gladiator in Tunisia, and a dead immortal in Highlander; he’s waltzed in London’s West End, conned the landlord of the Rovers Return in Coronation Street, commanded a star fleet in Andromeda, and voiced Salem the cat in the original Sabrina

A playwright, his plays have been produced in Calgary, Vancouver, and London. He has published twenty novels, including The French ExecutionerThe Jack Absolute TrilogyVlad – The Last ConfessionA Place Called Armageddon, and Shakespeare’s Rebel. His novel Plague won the Arthur Ellis Award for Best Crime Novel in Canada in 2015. He is now writing epic fantasy with the Immortals’ Blood trilogy for Gollancz; the first book, Smoke in the Glass, was published in 2019. Book Two, The Coming of the Dark, has now been published in the UK and Canada. 

He has just published The Tapestry Trilogy, set around—and through—the fabulous medieval Unicorn Tapestries in New York’s Cloisters Museum. 

He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Chris, welcome to The Worldshapers!

Thank you very much for having me.

We were just talking—we know we’ve been at the same place at the same time, but we didn’t actually talk to each other at the time, because we were both at When Worlds Collide, the great literary conference that’s held in Calgary every year, a few years ago.

That’s right. Well, we might have, though we might have been drunk, and that’s why we don’t.

Entirely possible. So, we’re going to talk about specifically the Tapestry trilogy as an example of your creative process. But first, I will take you back into the mists of time, which is getting further and further back for some of us, and ask you about—well, your biography, you have an interesting upbringing—and how you got into both the acting side, which really interests me because I’ve done, nothing on your level, but I’ve done some professional stage work over the years, and then how the writing came along. So, just take me through your life and how you got interested in writing and especially on the fantastical side of things.

Right. Well, so I always really defined myself as a storyteller because I do I tell stories in all these different ways. You know, I began telling other people’s stories as an actor. I was blessed, or cursed, depending on how you look at it, because my dad was an actor and all four grandparents were actors. They also wrote, some of them. Both grandfathers wrote. My Norwegian grandfather particularly wrote. He was quite a well-known writer in Norway. And I was avoiding all the acting thing. My mother, who was not an actor but obviously grown up with one, married to one, daughter of one, did not want her dewy lamb to be an actor with all the hassles that a career in an industry like that can bring. So, I was being steered away from that. I didn’t really have any idea what I wanted to do. And then, you know, when I was about seventeen, I got cast in the lead in the school play, and suddenly all those genes kicked in. And I thought, That’s it. And I went to drama school in London, the Guildhall School, and then embarked on a pretty healthy acting career.

Over the years, I’ve done a lot of very . . . well, you listed some of them. You know, I’ve done a huge amount of screen and stage work. But the writing side began because I’d always wanted to write. I mean, you know, like a lot of people, I had a way of thinking, Oh, that’s what I really, really want to do. And I’d always had such a wild imagination. I was the kid telling stories. I was the five-year-old organizing all his friends into knights and Vikings and pirates and, you know, playing out these elaborate games, which everyone does on screen now, of course, but we didn’t have screens in my day. And so, that was me. And I always wanted to tell stories. And I particularly loved historical fiction. That’s where I lived. You know, I loved swordplay, especially. And I indeed ended up as a fencer at school, it was my main sport, and a fight choreographer later on, and essentially became an actor so I could jump around with bladed weaponry, which I managed to do an awful lot of, which was great.

But the writing side, you know, I knew that . . . you know, acting, I love acting as a pure essence of a craft, I absolutely love it. I still need to do it periodically. But the business of acting is a pain, you know, always submitting yourself for approval, you know, things so out of your own control. You can give the best performance but be an inch too tall or have the wrong colour hair, and you just don’t get the role. So, even though I did well and, you know, ended up in Hollywood at one stage and on the West End stage and played, as you said, played Hamlet, I was frustrated by the gaps, particularly the gaps between creativity. And I wanted to write, and I got into it the normal way, tried a few short stories. I didn’t understand something which I now teach, because I do quite a lot of teaching of writing now, and what I really teach is process. I thought things had to be good straight away and didn’t realize that it was a process of . . . you know, good and bad actually aren’t in my vocabulary, really, in any of the drafts I write. It’s just about what works and what doesn’t. So, a bit of craft there. I didn’t understand, but I gradually got into it, and then, I started—I actually won a twenty-four-hour playwriting competition in Vancouver, and they produced my play and gave me 500 bucks. And it was like, “Oh, I’m a professional writer now.” And so, I carried on writing plays because they felt, you know, like a small enough chunk. A novel, which is truly what I wanted to write, seemed like a mountain, whereas a play seemed like a hill to climb.

But then I had this idea for my first novel, The French Executioner, about the man who killed Anne Boleyn. And even though it’s historical fiction, it’s really got huge, fantastical elements, not least the ghost of Anne Boleyn wandering around without her head tucked under her arm, actually, which is as the old song goes. But I didn’t have the courage really to jump in, knowing I most wanted to do that. I found ways to avoid doing it, researched the absolute backside off the thing for six years, only then discovering that research is a form of procrastination, and finally jumped in and started writing it.

When I did, it just took off, and I wrote it in ten months, showed it to an agent. She took me on, she had it sold within a month, and suddenly I had a two-book deal. And then I was being published professionally by Orion in the UK. The fantastical side came a bit, actually came fairly early on, in that another agent who had taken me on my first agent lunch . . . of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, as they say. And she came up, she said to me, “Have you ever thought of writing young adult fiction?”

And I went, “No,” because I’d written three adult historical novels by that time. And anyway, she said, “This type of stuff, you write action-driven, character-driven family stuff. You know, it would work really well, if you’ve got any ideas.”

And I went away and thought about it and I thought, I only write what I love anyway. And I was very interested in the sort of Norwegian side of my family, which is, to put it mildly, a little spooky. It has a sort of ghostly/psychic element to it that I always found interesting. And so, I delved into that and I came up with this idea for a book called The Fetch, which is a term for, like, the doppelganger or that that sort of thing. You know, the other you that we all have inside and that can go out. Certain cultures have it. Corsicans have it. Italians have it. Indonesians have it, surprisingly, because they bought the books in the end. And I came up with this idea, dashed off a chapter and a very skimpy treatment. My agent took it to New York. They went, “Yep,” and had it sold in ten days. And suddenly I’m writing a trilogy for Knopf in New York called The Runestone Saga. So that began my fantastical journey. It’s more earth magic, I would say, than fantasy. It’s all about Runic magic and the fetch and time travel and all the stuff I love. 

Before we get too far into what you’re writing now, I just want to go back a little bit back into your bio, because I did want to establish that . . .you’re thought of as British, I think. But of course, you’re actually from Canada originally, aren’t you?

I was born in Toronto, yeah. Born in Toronto. Left when I was two. Grew up in Los Angeles till I was seven because my dad was an actor having his shot in Hollywood. And then I moved to England when I was about seven. And hence the accent you’re hearing, which was laboriously crafted from years of English private school, followed by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, getting rid of my lazy Rs, my Canadian, my American, Rs that I still had. So, then I became quite the Brit actor. But I’m not—I mean, I am. And I played that. But I’m—but it’s funny. I’ve played so many different things and I play American and Canadian. I’m making quite a career at the moment, actually, my sort of pivot in these turbulent times is to be an audiobook narrator and I’m doing a lot of that and I’m doing that American, Canadian, whatever it’s called for, you know. So yeah. So, that’s the background on the accent.

And I wanted to talk a little bit more about the acting and how it ties into the writing. Now, you said you started writing, writing plays, and you actually—you know, I think people who are naturally novelists or short story writers would think a play is the daunting task as opposed to the novel. The novel would come easy; the play would be hard because you have to tell everything strictly through dialogue and action on the stage. But how did the two things tie together for you? I mean, I often try talking to people who are involved on the acting or directing or playwriting side, that one thing they bring to their fiction writing is a very solid sense of what’s happening in the scene in a physical sense, like where characters are in relationship to each other, and you don’t have the sort of amorphous space where people suddenly seem to teleport from one place to another, which I’ve run into in some people’s writing. How do you find that the two things tie together, the play side and the prose side, the novel side? 

Well, yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, my books, people always say, “Oh, I can see the film,” you know, and I go, “Well, I wish you would because obviously, I’d be much wealthier if they did.” And a number of my books have been optioned for TV or movies, but none made so far. In answer to a question, the playwriting, it was a natural progression for me, having done so much theatre. I love dialogue. I love the use of dialogue. My books tend to have a lot of dialogue because I always find dialogue is very active, and I like to keep scenes active. Obviously, the opposite is passive, and who wants to read that? So, I like to move action. And I think dialogue is particularly useful for revealing character, concealing character in some ways, because people usually don’t say what they really mean or often don’t. And yes, that sense of dramatic action, I always say that what I write really is character in action. And obviously, that’s three words rather than two, because character inaction would be really boring, but character in action. So, you know, I don’t do a lot of interior monologue. I like my characters to reveal themselves by what they do and how they react to circumstances, which actually helps me in my writing because I, you know, I very rarely get stuck because something is able to happen. I can just take my character into some situation, and things will evolve.

And that’s kind of how I write things. I, I don’t know necessarily that much about the whole book. I don’t plot, really, I have an idea where I’m going. And then I let the characters take me there by doing stuff they need to do so. So, I think that’s the acting side. It’s almost, you know, Acting 101. You’ve done some of yourself, Ed, you know that when you as an actor, what you’re always taught and what you learn is that rather than dwell on, “Oh, do I remember my lines,” or whatever, you trust that they’re there and that you’re going to react spontaneously to what happens. “What do I want?” is the key question for me. “What does this character want?” And then take that character into a scene and run into an obstacle that prevents you getting what you want. So, how do you deal with that? So, I do that a lot. And that’s a definite, that’s the most direct correlation between my acting/playwriting side and my prose side.

Yeah. And that’s something else, when I’ve talked to other actors who are also writers, as an actor, you’re trying to inhabit a character and make that character come alive. And that’s exactly what you’re doing as a writer. The only difference is that as a writer, you have to make up the dialogue. It’s not given to you by somebody else.

This is true. This is true. And that can be both good and bad. You know, if you’re doing Shakespeare, you’re relishing the fact that you’ve been given this amazing dialogue. If you’re doing some terrible television show, you’re thinking, “How do I make this work? I can’t even begin—this makes no sense at all.” So, I’ve done both, obviously. 

Well, now, let’s go back to the books you were going through, the ones that you have had written. You have this . . . I can’t remember where you left off when you were talking about that, but you have the fantasy novels from Gollancz that were coming along there somewhere, I think.

Yes. Well, I’m currently I’m in the midst of those right now. I’m doing something that’s quite interesting, and I think a lot of your listeners might relate to. I’ve become what they call the hybrid author because I’m both being published by the big houses still, but I’m also doing some self-publishing, getting my—

Me, too!

Yeah, of course, getting the backlist back, reissuing those because, as you know, often a writer will feel that they’ve laboured for a year over this, or a year or more over a book, and then it barely registers before the publisher has moved on to another book. You know, you’re hot for about three days, and then they’ve moved on, and you think, “Well, they didn’t really. . .” You know, they expect some magic to happen, you know, so you always get frustrated because, let’s face it, we write to be read. And if people aren’t aware of your books being out there, how the hell are they going to be read? So, I’m quite interested in the whole . . . I’m not the world’s greatest. I have to tell you, I’m not a great marketer or a publicist, but I’m doing OK. And my plan is just to get all the books out there again. And so, that with the . . . Gollancz, of course, you know, they’re doing whatever they do. I don’t think they’re making them as known as they could, but, you know, there’s very few writers that aren’t going to complain about their publishers pushing their books. However, it’s . . . to write epic fantasy like that is quite interesting to me, because my other fantasy, even though I don’t really believe in marking between YA and adult, I just write a good book. And a lot of adults have read my so-called YA fantasy and vice versa. But my epic fantasy is, you know, it was an agent who actually said, you know, “Epic fantasy is kind of big right now, have you got something?” And I just thought, No, but I did what I do, which is, I sat down with a notepad, I wrote a word in the middle of the first page, and the word was “immortality.” And then I just started riffing off that and within two hours had a five-page treatment

So, I’m sure that’s going to offend a lot of your listeners, I’m sorry. It sounds too pat, but it’s that feeling of which I was talking about before, about process, and that initial process of just letting your mind go and riff and relate and word association, and all that stuff helped me come up with the idea for the Immortals Blood series, which Gollancz then, after a few hoops I had to jump through, bought, and the two books, as you said, were already out. I think it’s very different. I mean, of course, I would say that. But it’s not . . . I mean, there are battles. There are swords. There are, you know, there’s all this. But there’s nary an elf maiden with a lost king in sight. You know, it’s about immortality, and it’s about the corruption of basically the one percent, what the elites can do to a world. And three very different worlds, one kind of Viking, one kind of Greco Roman, and one kind of Mesoamerican. And what has immortality done in those three respective cultures. So that’s . . . I’ve loved writing those. I’m just about to receive book three, which is called The Wars of Gods and Men, which is the concluding book of the trilogy, back from my editor. And then that’ll be out probably until early next year. 

And then that brings us to the Tapestry trilogy, which, yes, we’re going to focus on a little bit more as an example of your process. We’ve talked quite a bit about your process already, but we’ll go through it anyway. So, tell me, first of all, before we start talking about it, tell me about it.

The Tapestry trilogy. So, this is a good example of how the hybrid world works. So, I wrote—when I’d written the Runestone saga, my editor asked me to write another book. I hadn’t thought of writing so-called YA fantasy fiction at all. So, I was a little bereft of ideas. And then, as you mentioned in the bio in the intro you gave, I suddenly looked at the ring on my finger, the rampant unicorn that I’ve worn since I was 18 years old. The family crest, no less, though, my horse-auctioneer great-grandfather was the one who came up with it. So, it’s . . . I’m not hidden nobility or anything like that. Anyway, and I thought, “What does a unicorn mean?” And I started delving, and various things happened. Unicorns could only be tamed by maidens. Unicorns are indomitable, unconquerable, apart from the maiden in the mirror, actually. And they could also cure illness and poisons and, dare I say, viruses, and heal and cure pollution as well. They calm a stream to make it drinkable, that sort of thing. I was fascinated by that.

And then I discovered the Unicorn Tapestries, these amazing medieval tapestries, which are in the Cloisters museum in New York. And the great thing about—-one of the great things about them, apart from their sheer stunning beauty and, you know, no one knows exactly who made them or when they were made, like, late fifteenth century is the best guest and Flanders is the best geographical get. But no one really knows anything about them, who they were made for, who made them—someone very rich because they’re very, very expensive to make, gold, red, and silver thread, but they are stunning, absolutely stunning, you know, this whole journey of a unicorn, the hunt of the unicorn in five tapestries.

And so, I immediately glommed onto that and came up with the idea that maybe a New York young lady called Elayne or, full name, Alice Elayne, is told by her father, who’s dying, actually, he’s got leukemia, that there’s a family history. And there’s this book he reads to her that tells of the original tapestry weaver, who was their ancestor, and who had woven a gateway for a unicorn to travel back to his world because unicorns, magical beasts, were in our world, but then basically it got too hot, man got too good at killing them, so they all went back to the place they were from, which is Goloth, the land of the fabulous beast.

And so, the tapestries became a portal, you know, kind of like the wardrobe in Narnia between our world and this medieval world, Goloth, where all our myths live. And she is summoned by a five-hundred-year-old unicorn called Moonspill through the tapestries because he needs her there, he needs her help. And it’s her adventures in Goloth and how they have a complete misunderstanding because she thinks, What do I know? Because he wants her to tame him because he needs to not go mad. He needs to rescue his mate, who’s held by the tyrant king. And she goes, you know, “I barely passed calculus. What do I know about unicorn-taming anyway?” I won’t tell you the story, but there’s a rapprochement and an adventure.

And then, I was asked to write this . . .I didn’t think of writing a sequel. I thought it was a pure one-off. But as you know, unless you actually kill the characters off, they’re there. And I started wondering, you know, after all the extraordinary and terrifying adventures, what would happen to someone like that? I mean, how do you go back to your normal life in New York? How do you go back to—two years later, she’s actually at Columbia—but how do you go back to a normal life when you’ve done all these incredible things? You know, there’s probably a touch of PTSD, you know. And so, I revisited. . . and then, of course, the other thing was, I really thought, Well, I’ve had a unicorn, I’ve got to do a dragon. So, I came up with this idea, The Hunt of the Dragon, and wrote that. And then, you know, that was only published in Canada. So, I thought, now I want to take this further. But then I thought, I know what I’ll do. I’ll write a third book, because, of course, there was more. And I discovered this thing about dragons. I decided not to stick to one sort of medieval European wyvern or something like that. I incorporated all various aspects of Eastern dragons as well. And Chinese dragons particularly are able to be shapeshifters. And I thought, Wow, that’s cool. A dragon that can actually turn into a human being for a couple of hours and then wreak unspeakable havoc when it does. Because my dragons are not cozy dragons, my dragons are killers. And so, I wrote The Hunt of the Shapeshifters, which is what happens when some dragons manage to get their way back to Earth and start killing. So, serial killer dragons, I thought, that’s going to be good. So, I wrote that as the conclusion of the trilogy, a completely new book for that whole saga, and then brought them out myself and called it all the Tapestry Trilogy.

Well, you talked a little bit about the Gollancz trilogy, starting with a single word and then building out around from that. In this case, it seems like you started with a ring, but did you use a similar process? And how much planning and outlining did you do? It sounds like you don’t do a lot.

I don’t do a lot. No, I. You know, with The Hunt of the Unicorn, I mean, I suppose . . . it’s a while ago since I wrote it, actually the first iteration of it, but it would be my normal process. I tend to . . . I mean, it depends how much research I needed.

There’s, you know, there’s a misconception that that fantasy doesn’t require research. You know, they say, “Oh, it must be so much easier for you now. You’re not writing historical fiction.” And I go, “You have no idea. I mean, you know, researching weaving for a start and tapestries and then and fabulous beasts, because, of course, it’s not just the unicorn and even the dragon. There’s griffins and manticores, and each has their own mythology around it and therefore their own way of behaving.

So, there was all that. But what I tend to do is, I take . . . you know, it’s, again, another misconception that I don’t plan anything. I just don’t write out a chart or a plan. I’ll have a rough idea where I’m going. What I do is . . . what I often say is I liken it to an alphabet. The book is an alphabet, A being the beginning and the Z being the end. And, you know, I’ll have an idea of both those things. You know, what will be the, “Well, what’s the start of this journey?” The summons basically, but the set up of her life and her ancestry, which she doesn’t believe in, and her father being ill and all that stuff in New York.

And then, I know she’s going to get summoned through, and I know the unicorn is going to be facing this. So, back to the alphabet. I’ll know A, and I’ll probably know D, the summons, and I’ll know G because that’s when she meets the unicorn, and I’ll know M and then T and then, you know, W or whatever. But I don’t know how I’m going to get between them necessarily and that’s what I then write you know how and then because, I really, I believe in the process of writing, that it actually happens while you’re writing and so that the ideas I come up with in my logical mind are probably not going to be as good as the ideas that I come up with when I’m actually writing the story, you know, physically sitting there writing it.

So, all sorts of things happen. You open yourself to serendipity. You open yourself to inspiration. You literally, I mean, without being too sort of, you know, you solicit the muse. You know, I don’t make it all sound super-mystical, but it’s you know, it’s that’s part of the process for me. And so, when I get to the end of the first draft, that’s when I do a plot. That’s when I become a little nerdy and get my pencil and ruler out and literally write out this chart on butcher’s paper, which I pin to a chalkboard, which has the chapters, the rough action, and then notes about, well, you know, if this happened in Chapter 24, I’ve got to plant that in Chapter 15, that sort of thing.

On the character side, because you described your fiction as characters in action . . .

Yes, yes. Well done.

. . . how do they develop for you? Like, do you have them clearly in your mind when you start? Do they also develop through the process of writing?

Oh, no. They very much develop through the process. Yes. You know, I always say that they’re, you know, I need them to tell me who they are. I will start out with an idea of who they are. But then by putting them through the action, I will then discover, you know, who they are, how they react to circumstance and what they say to people, and that way, when I go back into the second draft—because I’m very big on separating out the different needs of each draft, you know—by the time I got to the end of the first draft, I know them so much better. So then, I go back and start writing the second draft and some of the early stuff. I think, “Oh, no, because she’s proved to me that she is this. Therefore, she wouldn’t do this in the beginning.” And that’s when my rewriting comes in.

It’s a bit like the rehearsal process on stage. You start off with a rough idea of the character, but it develops as you as you play it and bounce off the other characters in the piece.

Yeah, that’s an interesting analogy, actually. Yes. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. But you’re right. That’s exactly right.

Because the character you end up with in performance is not the way you started when you were sitting around the table for the first time reading the script.

Yes. Well, I know. . . you hope. You hope. I mean, that’s the point of rehearsal. And often there are, you know, there are instinctive choices you make that are very good and will appear in the final performance. And there are others that you’ve gone, “Oh, that’s that,” and something one of the other actors gives you or director, you know, sometimes gives you, you know, gives you a different way of approaching and you rethink it. You rethink how you can do it, or you try something different, and you think, “Ah, that works.” So yes. So, it is similar. It’s a good analogy for the writing process as well.

What does your actual writing look like? Do you write, you know, longhand? Do you just tap on a laptop? Do you like to work in an office or out somewhere?

Yeah, no, quill and inkpot, you know, on old vellum . . . no. I’m not a very good typist, and I’ve often thought I should correct that and become a speed typist, but then I actually don’t mind because it sort of slows me down a bit, which I quite like. You know, I’m quick enough, but I do a lot of writing what I call off-piste. I have notebooks, I have these brown notebooks that I favor made by a French company called Clairefontaine. And I’m always writing stuff in there. Often, it’s research stuff. And then it’ll be, you know, I’ll say, oh, yeah, I’ll discover some interesting fact, and then I’ll put N.B. underneath it. The unicorn Moonspill could do this now because of that aspect of unicorn lore or whatever. And sometimes, though less often these days, sometimes I go off-piste entirely if it’s a particularly tricky passage and just write it longhand. I only ever wrote one book longhand, and that was Vlad – The Last Confession because the material was so dense and tough, and I tried to do what I do, which is essentially write thrillers, historical thrillers, fantastical thrillers, in a subject that was so layered and so complicated by politics and religion and myth. Actually, I thought now I need to connect the head in the heart and the hand here. So, I wrote longhand. Never do that again because it’s so bloody labour-intensive to then put it into the computer. And also, my writing is scribble. So, I go, “What’s that word? I can’t even read that anymore.”

I wrote longhand in high school, and I haven’t done it since. I still have . . . actually the first book I wrote is right here on my desk. 

Oh, fun.

Yeah. I would never do that again. My writing is also really bad.

I love the feeling. I’ve got a great pen, but I keep that for sort of a bit of journaling or a bit of riffing, you know, but yeah, it’s not ideal. So, no, it goes in the computer, and then it gets revised.

OK, and that brings us to revision. What does that look like for you? Do you do start to finish? Do you do a rolling revision as you go along? It doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like you’re going start to finish

Absolutely. Yeah, I . . .one of the classes I teach is called “The Mountain.” I came up with this concept of the mountain, the novel as a series of accents. And so, you know, it’s three different climbs up the mountain. I mean, there’s more probably than that. You do some bits, you do more, you work hard and do more drafts on than others perhaps, which come more naturally. But so, the first ascent up the mountain for me is that free climb. It’s like climbing a mountain. You forget the summit. You need to reach that handhold there, that foothold there. And that . . .if you free climb up the first time, that’s the exploration for me. That’s finding the best way up the mountain. And so, you know, one of the rules of mountain climbing, apparently, I’m not really a climber, but is, “Don’t look down,” right, and so I don’t look back, very rarely will I go back. Sometimes I go back to check eye colour or something, but even then, I don’t because I know I’ll pick it up next time. And often, if I’m . . . especially with the historical fiction, if I hit a point where I go, yeah, well, you know, I’m writing World War Two at the moment, “How did the Heinkel bomber . . .” you know, I put a question mark in rather than actually go back and look it up at the time, because I don’t want to stop the flow of the inspiration.

So, yeah, no, I don’t revise as I go. I get to the end, and then I go back to the beginning, and then I read it and . . . well I do my chalk first, actually. And then I just start again. As I’ve done it more and more, I find that my first drafts have become cleaner and cleaner. There’s not a huge change now as there was before, probably. You know, when I started out, I overwrote, I think, and now I don’t do that nearly so much. I find that the first draft is pretty clean, some passages will need reworking, obviously, something I discovered will have to go in, but there’s not a huge amount of revision on the second climb up the mountain. And the second climb is much more, “Right. I’m going to fix a route that someone could follow me up.” And then the third draft is, you actually take the editor up with you, and they go, “Yeah, look at that. That really worked. But why did you go over there? Why didn’t . . .?” And that metaphorically and then literally becomes the third draft.

Do you use beta readers of any sort, or you just going straight to the editor once you’ve got it finished to your own satisfaction?

You know, I don’t normally use beta readers. I did for Shapeshifters because I was writing it entirely for myself. And so, I got five fantasy writers, no, three fantasy writers, to have a read of it and give me some notes, which was great. Sebastien de Castell, Kristi charish, another, more screenwriter, Beth Stewart, who’s a friend of mine. They all read it and gave me notes, and then I use their stuff. So, I didn’t, actually, apart from the copy edit, I didn’t run that by an editor. So, that’s the only time. But normally, no, I don’t. It goes straight to the editor because that’s the advantage, of course, of working with a big house.

Yeah., I’ve never used beta readers either, partly because when I started writing, there just wasn’t anybody else around who read the stuff that I was writing

Right. Right.

And once I got to being published by DAW, well, I have one of the best editors in the business, so I’ll let her tell me what needs to be worked on.

Exactly. Exactly. You’ve got to trust your editor. Yeah.

So, what kind of notes do you typically get from your editors? Are there certain things that you always find yourself having to do?

No, not really. There’s nothing that springs to mind. You know, I mean, I always say . . . again, when I’m teaching this stuff about the different ascents up the mountain, you know, the editor’s job is not to write your novel for you—as they say in England, you don’t buy a dog and bark yourself, right? Their job is not to say to you, “Yeah, you should do this, you should do that.” Their job is, I think . . .it boils down to clarity. What is the writer’s vision? And is this passage of writing helping in making that vision clear? So, for me, it’s about clarity. You know, the best question an editor can ask really is—which applies to theatre as well, actually, you know, you can say to a director, if you’re assisting a director or whatever, “OK, so we’ve just watched that scene. This is what I see. Is that what you want?” And if an editor says that to me, I’ll go. “Ah, “because it might be clear to you as an author, but you might not have made it clear for a reader.

So, it’s getting you, know, those are the sort of notes I like from an editor, you know, and then being able to say, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right. That is unclear.” Or, “You know what, you’re not right because it’s ambiguous. “And I’m big on ambiguity. I like ambiguity in character. I don’t like lack of clarity. And there’s obviously a big difference between those two things.

But it’s interesting, and I often make the point, that writing and, for that matter acting, is actually a collaborative art form, but I mean between you and the audience, because what you . . . especially in writing, you’re putting something into their head. What they see in their head is not necessarily what you see in your head.

Definitely not.

It doesn’t mean it’s not working. It just means they’re bringing themselves to it and getting something different out of it than perhaps you thought you were putting in there.

Totally. Totally. I mean, two people make a book. The writer and the reader. I mean, leaving aside the editors and all that. But, you know, you . . . and I was saying this just this morning to my girlfriend because a young lady in Russia has written to me. She loved the Runestone saga, which only the first two books of were translated into Russian. She now speaks very good English—and this is ten years ago—suddenly writing to me and saying, “My grandmother and I really want to know how that story ended. We can’t get that book.” And I said, “I’ll send you one.” So, I literally just sent off a copy of Possession, which is the third book of the Runestone saga, to her in Moscow today. And I said to my girlfriend, I said to her as well as in the inscription I wrote in the book, you know, this is, all books are a journey and a journey between, you know, we take it together. And that’s why I annoy people who are reading my books by saying, “Oh, where are you up to? Where are you up to?” You know, because I like to remember that journey then and I’m part of it and get their feelings of the journey, which, as you say, can be quite different from what you might have intended or whatever. But I think that’s an important thing to remember as an author. You know, you’ve got to leave space for the reader to be in your story. I think explaining everything is not necessarily the way to go.

You’ve talked about teaching writing, so I wanted to ask you about that. But first I wanted to ask you, because I often do with authors, did you have any formal training yourself on the writing side?

No. I mean, I know people will go, “Well, wait a second, you got an MFA. “But I got that after I’d already written nine novels, I decided I needed to get a . . . I’d never gone to university. I’d gone to drama school. And I kind of felt cheated of that experience. Plus, I thought, you know, anyone who’s trying to teach in Canada today needs a master’s degree. So, I thought maybe, you know, if I want to teach at university, which really, I did, but I thought maybe that’s an idea now. So that’s why I went and got my MFA, which would be another podcast to tell you what I actually think about creative writing training, and it’s not necessarily all good. But anyway. 

I get that a lot from writers.

But I took, you know, I remember taking a short story class long before I was, you know, I was just a wannabe. And this is probably ten, twelve years before I even before I turn my hand to writing. But no, and I’m not a great manual reader either, though I’m actually considering writing one right now because of all the stuff I picked up along the way, the experiential stuff I like. But what got me writing was reading a book called Writing the Natural Way, and it was very much about left brain, right brain. And it was . . .I mean, it was maybe a little over-heavy on that side, but it really did emphasize the separation of the process. And I read that book, and that’s when I started. That’s when I wrote my first play.

Well, have you found now that you are teaching other people to write, do you find that that comes back to help you in your own writing? I certainly do. I’ve taught writing, and I’ve been a writer in residence at the public libraries in Regina in Saskatoon, working with a lot of writers, starting up writers. And I find that focusing on other people’s writing often makes me see my old work clearly. Is that your experience?

Yes, I would say that’s true. When I teach, I tend to teach in a fairly, you know, I’m not very rigid. I like to see, you know, I’ll have a series of bullet points that I’d like to work through. It’s kind of like my alphabet for writing the novel. I know I want to get from A to D, but I’m not sure where B and C are going to be or what. They’re good. So, you know, I’ll riff on stuff. Other things will come up, and I’ll come up with a phrase, something I’ll go, and I’ll stop, I’ll say, “Excuse me a second,” I’ll stop and write it down because it does apply to my writing, but, oh no, absolutely you do. You know, especially when you can clearly see someone who’s got talent but maybe doesn’t know, doesn’t have the craft and how to channel that talent. So yeah, that does definitely help.

Do you find it rewarding when people advance as a result of your teaching?

Yeah, absolutely, and I love it. I do love it. I mean, I’m you know, I never seek teaching work. I’m often asked. I’ve been doing quite a bit online this year, actually, of course. And I’m actually teaching—I don’t know if this podcast is going to go out by then, but you might want to share this.

It will!

Oh, right. OK, well, I’m teaching a fantasy writing workshop for a literary festival that’s starting on Salt Spring Island. And, of course, you know, terrible timing for the poor woman who’s tried to start this. So, it’s all online at the moment. But I’m going to be teaching a fantasy writing workshop a week on Saturday, March 6. And if people want to go to Paper Covers Rock, which is the website, they might even be able to join in if they want.

Well, unusually, we’re recording this like three days before it will go live. So that will work out. That’s a week in the future or thereabouts when this goes, so . . . 

Fantastic. Well, Paper Covers Rock, which is clever because Salt Spring is known as the Rock. And so this and this woman deserves the support because she’s trying to do what had never been done before establisher a literary festival in Salt Spring, which is crazy, and then tried to do it during a pandemic. So, I’m going to be teaching that class and hopefully get a few people out. And I’ll talk very specifically about writing fantasy.

One of the things I found teaching and being a writer in residence, in particular, is telling somebody very strongly, you know, I think this is very important, and you should do this and thinking to myself, “Just don’t look in that book that I wrote where I didn’t actually do that.”

Yeah, yeah. Exactly, exactly. Exactly. Oh, yeah. Yeah. Well, that’s the . . 

Do what I say, not what I do.

Exactly. That’s the motto of the teacher.

That’s what we’re getting into the last few minutes here. So, I want to . . .you thought it was a little early for big philosophical questions, but I’m going to ask you. OK, there are three, really. Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes, in the big picture of human experience? And then, why write fantastical stories in particular? You don’t just write that, but you have recently written quite a bit of that. So, those are the three questions. But the first one is, why do you personally write? You’ve been doing it for a long time.

Why, why, why? Why, why this madness? You know, yeah, I . . . there’s a wonderful . . . I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a book called The Unstrung Harp. It’s an Edward Gorey book. Mr. Earbrass writes the novel, and there’s one . . .it’s a fantastic book for writers because it’s all about the process. And at one point, there’s this gorgeous Edward Gorey picture of this man, his hand across his eyes holding a manuscript. He’s rashly decided to revisit an early draft, and he goes and he sees it for what it is, dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. Why does he go on writing when it all turns out rubbish? You know, why endure “the unexquisite agony?” Why didn’t he become a spy? “How does one become one?” he says, it’s just wonderful, you know, and sometimes you do feel that. Of course, I write because I need to tell stories. You know, I’ve done it since I was a child.

I’ve told stories, you know, just getting my mates playing games. I love stories. I think stories are important. I think that what makes us human. If you’ve read the book Sapiens by Uri Yuval Harari, he posits the theory that what allowed sapiens to become the dominant, in fact, the only hominid, was our ability to gossip, i.e., tell stories. And that’s what draws us together as humans. So, I suppose that that furthers into your other questions of why does anyone write. I think we’re trying to make sense of the world, we’re trying to share our little viewpoint. And I’ve often likened us to, we’re all little mushrooms, and we’re popping up and giving our little view of the world there. You know, there’s a wonderful Wim Wenders film called Wings of Desire. I don’t know if you have ever seen it, but it’s set in Berlin, and it’s about these two angels. And their job is to go down and listen to people. They literally just sort of fold into them. They can’t be seen. And they hear what the people are going through. Very mundane stuff often, but they kind of testify. And I like that image, the idea that one’s testifying to the world and to, you know.

Fantastical stories. Yeah, I don’t know why particularly. I know I always enjoyed fantasy without reading it exclusively. I think it can be in the right hands so imaginative. I think it can shed light on our current situation, I mean, you know, I don’t write message fiction per se, but I do, you know, I’m always aware, even with my historical novels, people say, “Oh, you are an historical novelist.” I go, “No, I’m a modern novelist. I just happened to write historical fiction. You know, the books are relevant to today, are being read today. My fantasy fiction, I mentioned before, particularly the Immortals Blood trilogy, does deal with the world as it is now. It does deal with climate change. It does deal with the elites, the one percent, without trying to spell out a big message. You know, I’m more a depicter than coming up with answers, but I love the fantasy fiction that really looks at the world in a very different way. I just recently read for the first time, shame on me, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. Have you read that, Ed?

Yes, I did a long time ago now, when it first came out.

Oh, my goodness. Reread it. But just that worldview, that ability to take something so different and yet make it also accessible to humans, I think it allows us to explore, yeah. Explore ourselves even when we think we’re reading something that’s so different from ourselves. So it’s, you know, a human wrote it. So, therefore . . . I started my book, Vlad, which I realized . . . I was writing about Vlad the Impaler, right? And I was worrying about, was I going to whitewash this guy? Was I going to excuse him? And I didn’t want to do either. And then I realized, no, that’s not my job at all. My job is to depict him. And I literally wrote a prologue that said, “I’s not up to me to decide. You decide. You’re the reader. You decide what you think of this guy.” And I came . . . I found this quote by a Latin writer called Terence, who said, “I am a man. Nothing human is alien to me. “And I think that’s a good sort of motto for the for us in the world. And perhaps particularly as fantasy writers, you know, let’s explore, and everyone is probably, if you do it well and with integrity, going to be able to find something that they can relate to or something that’s going to make them think about their world slightly differently.

And what are you working on now?

Well, switching hats entirely, I’m back into historical fiction, though, not my more medieval stuff, which is where I’m probably better known. I’m writing a World War Two saga. Fascinated by World War Two. It is loosely based on my parents’ story because, I mean, you wonder why I grew up a storyteller, my dad was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot. My mum was a spy. So . . . she was a spy in the Norwegian resistance. So, I’m writing a story about, it’s loosely based on them, about a pilot and a spy meeting and various times they meet during the war and what their different wars look like. You know, I’m not . . . given my you know, that I don’t set out knowing the huge amount, I’m not quite sure what it is yet. I’m just writing and having a hell of a time, actually, I’m really enjoying it. It’s very close to my heart in lots of ways. I feel I’m shaped by the people who shaped me, who were shaped by World War Two.

Did your parents tell stories of those times or write them down?

My dad was a storyteller, you know, being an actor and a writer himself, and, to a certain extent. My mum . . . my dad was very gregarious and, you know, one of the lesser-told stories of the war is that for many people, it was their best time, no matter how terrible it was. You know, how do you beat being a glory boy? You know, a fighter pilot? How do you beat . . . does the world ever come close to that again? My mum not so much. You know, Norwegian, you know, saw the Germans marching down her high street on April the 9th, 1940, lost a lot of friends to it all, just escaped with her life when they bust her cell. She didn’t talk about it much at all. But I’m finding out a lot more now.

With my little publishing company I started for my own publishing purposes, Shadowpaw Press, one of the first things I put out was the First World War memoirs of my grandfather-in-law, my wife’s grandfather. And he set out to write his memoirs very late in life, and he wrote very complete memoirs of the First World War. And then it kind of petered out. It’s like he intended to go on through his life, but the rest of his life just obviously wasn’t as vivid to him as that time he spent as a truck driver at Vimy Ridge and then as a navigator on a Handley Page bomber and prisoner of war and all that stuff. It was quite a little set of war memoirs. And I was very happy to be able to bring it into the world.

Yeah. Fantastic. Well done you.

So that brings us, I think, pretty close to the end here. Just let people know where they can find you on mine.

Well, my website is AuthorChrisHumphreys.com. Chris Humphreys. People often misspell Humphreys. You can follow me on Twitter @HumphreysCC. I’m on Instagram @CCHumphreys. I have a Facebook, professional Facebook page, Chris Humphreys. But the best place to start is my website for sure.

OK, well, thanks so much for doing this and for being on The Worldshapers. And yeah, unusually, this one’s going to go out almost right away, so it’ll be very fresh.

Great! Well, fantastic. I mean, obviously, send me all the links, and I’ll publicize.

I will do that. So, thanks again.

Thank you. I really enjoyed our chat.

Episode 77: K. M. Rice

An hour-long conversation with K.M. Rice, national award-winning screenwriter and independent author whose four-part Afterworld series launched with Ophelia and continues with book two, Priestess.

Website
www.kmrice.com

Twitter
@KMRiceAuthor

Instagram
@KMRiceAuthor

Facebook
@KMRiceAuthor

K.M. Rice’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

K.M. Rice, or Kellie, is a national award-winning screenwriter and independent author. Her four-part Afterworld series launched with the first book, Ophelia, and continues with book two, Priestess.

Her first novel, Darkling, is a young adult dark fantasy that now has a companion novel titled The WatcherHer novella The Wild Frontier is an ode to the American spirit of adventure and seeks to awaken the wildish nature in all of us. Black Irish, a dark comedy, highlights contemporary political drama in the emerald isle.

Over the years, her love of storytelling has led to producing and geeking out in various webshows and short films, including her author vlog and a webseries called Happy Hobbit, along with working for both Magic Leap and Weta Workshop. She provided additional writing and research for Middle-earth From Script to Screen: Building the World of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. 

When not writing or filming, she can be found hiking in the woods, baking, running, and enjoying the company of the many animals on her family ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kellie, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much for having me.

Now, I laughed a little bit there because I might as well explain that this is our second take on this interview. We’ve had quite a challenge making this happen.

Something in the universe was kind of conspiring that, like, for some reason, it was meant to not happen until now.

Exactly. The first time we tried, I had a windstorm, a huge windstorm up here in Regina, Saskatchewan–the whole province, it wasn’t just the city–that took out power for hours and hours and hours. And then we rescheduled for the following week, at which point you had a windstorm that took out power. And then, when we finally made it happen the first time, the Internet just would drop us periodically throughout the hour. And during that time, I managed to lose chunks of the interview. So here we are again. And this time, it’s going to be perfect.

Well, my clan’s motto is “fortitude.”

Seems appropriate! So, we’ll just pretend we haven’t talked to each other before. So, we’ll start by going back into the mists of time, as I like to say, and talk about where you grew up and how you got interested in fantasy and science fiction and all that stuff and how you got interested in writing. How did that all come about for you?

I was one of those kids who was really lucky that I had parents who regularly read to me. Our bedtime routine was, I don’t know, like, three books or something like that, like, me and my older brother could go pick three books and have our parents read them to us. It was either my mom or my dad, and then two more siblings came along, and we would join in being read to with them, too. And also, it was just a normal day in school and stuff. I remember being read to all the time, and that just, it was so magical to me, the magic of books. And I was an eighties kid, so I remember Reading Rainbow and everything. Everything in our culture at the time was just kind of telling me, like, this is the magical thing to do, is to read stories and maybe one day write one.

So, I was actually in kindergarten when I wrote my first story. And I think it coincided that way because that was the very first time I ever learned how to write, and as soon as I could, I just I wrote, ironically, a story about a haunted house on Halloween, which . . . I say ironically because there’s a haunted house in Darkling as well, which was my debut novel. And yeah, I wrote and illustrated my very first book, the spelling’s very phonetic, but I can still read it to this day and figure out what it’s supposed to be. And I brought it into class for show and tell, and I just wanted to read it to everyone. I think I did it, then my teacher at the time told me, you know, “I’d like you to take this to the principal.” And I had no context. And I just thought that going to the principal means you’ve done something wrong.

Sent to the principal’s office.

Yeah. And I’d gotten in trouble before for, like, making fart jokes and stuff like that. And I genuinely had no understanding of why that was inappropriate. But I knew the teacher wanted me to say I did, like, “Oh yes, sorry, I shouldn’t do that,” but I’m like, “Why?” So I was like, “Oh great. I probably messed up something again.” And I just remember the long walk to the principal’s office, and she sat me down, and she smiled at me, and she said, “Well, I hear you’ve written a story. Can you read it to me?” And I read her the story, and afterwards, she said, “You know, this is a fantastic story. Can I give you a sticker?” And she wrote me this note in her beautiful cursive handwriting that I still have, because I still have that copy, about what an excellent story it was. And she put a sticker on it. And I was like, what? You can go to the principal for good things, too. This is amazing.

I remember going to the principal’s office once. I don’t remember what it was for. And I remember that same sensation of, “I have to go to the principal’s office,” and I remember sitting in a hard chair outside his office, and that’s all I remember. So, whatever it was that they were trying to ingrain in me for the future, all that they ingrained in me was that it was scary to go to the principal’s office. I don’t know what it was for at all. I don’t think it was for writing a story, though. So, that’s a very early start to writing. Did you then carry on in that vein as you grew up through elementary school and junior high and high school?

I did. Fortunately, my spelling improved. I remember in fourth grade there were, Gosh, I guess it was just a general assignment. Every two weeks, we had a story writing contest, and I would routinely win them all. I don’t mind bragging that I got cookies as a reward. My teacher would give us, like, a vanilla-sandwich cookie if you won. So then, all the other kids wanted to be my, quote, writing partner. And I was like, “I work alone, people, “ but I did, some of my friends, I let them do the story with me, but I was very disappointed that it always turned out to be, “So what are we . . . what’s the story about, Kelly?” And then I would be like, “OK, and what do you think?” “I don’t know. Just keep going. You just tell me.” And I’m like, “Other people can’t do this. Like, come on, just try to.” Because I was so lucky, too, to have been raised in a rural area where, like, my first real word other than mom and dad or mama and dada, was outside. And when you’re in that kind of environment, when you want to play a game, you’re in your head, you’re growing your imagination all the time. I had siblings that I could play with when my older brother was nice to me and wanted to play with me. I did have a couple of years alone while my younger siblings were still too small to do much of anything. And I had my friends, but even with my friends, I found that I was usually the one coming up with all the stories.

So, I think, you know, maybe it’s something innate, but also the environment I grew up in was just really conducive to learning how to push the boundaries of your own mind and expand your imagination, so that by the time I did get into junior high, high school, etc., it was already a relatively rich and fertile area of my life. And I had no problem whatsoever coming up with ideas and coming up with stories and just loved doing anything creative. That transferred then into video making or filmmaking when I was twelve, and I was given our old camera because my family got an upgrade. I wasn’t given it. I was just told I could use it. So, that was, that opened up a whole ’nother world. I’ve got hours and hours of videos of me coaching my younger siblings into being police detectives and Indiana Jones, like, for our little movies.

I, unfortunately, go back to the days before video cameras. And it was, if you’re going to have anything, it was, like, eight-millimeter film cameras, and very few of those. So, yeah, it was unusual for any of my friends to be doing anything in the film area.

I’m so jealous of kids these days who have video cameras in their pockets.

Yeah, I know. 4K video cameras.

Yeah, it’s a different era, for sure.

So, through all of that, you were writing, but were you gravitating towards the fantastical side of things, or were you more eclectic at the time? And when did you start to really kind of focus on the fantasy side of writing things?

I actually haven’t given that much thought before, but you’re right, I think I did start off in that vein. I started off writing about a haunted house, and then the stories I was writing in elementary school were about pig assassins or unicorns and. . . kind of like the bio that you just read about me, there’s a touch of whimsy, there’s a touch of the otherworldly in most everything that I write. The only time that I don’t bring that into play, like, for example, in Black Irish, is because there’s comedy there. But I do find that I entertain myself better as I’m writing if I have something to . . .a lens to look at the world through that . . . usually it’s just more interesting to me, it’s more engaging to my imagination, if it’s something that goes beyond just the here and now. And if it’s not something fantastical, then it will be . . . for example, The Wild Frontier, my challenge there was to have more lyrical prose and have the magic kind of come from the words and the way the words sound, how they feel on your tongue rather than any sort of external, fantastical presence.

But I do remember loving The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I was a little young for Lord of the Rings when I first started reading that stuff, but I eventually got round to it after having a lot of people recommend it to me. And also, Harry Potter. Like, I was not a child child . . .well, actually, I was a child when the Harry Potter books first came out, but by the time they got really popular, I think I was in high school, and I had a lot of fun reading those, so . . . I think I was always gravitating toward the escapism and the way that fantasy provides us a safe space to look at real-life drama and trauma because it’s not set in the real world, I don’t have to necessarily . . .I can imagine . . . when you read that type of book, you can imagine what you want to imagine and you can block out stuff that you . . . that maybe is too dark for you. But I do think that even as adults, fantasy gives us a safe place to look at. If that makes sense. 

Mm-hmm.

So, I think I was even gravitating to that as a kid.

So, as you go along and then . . . you mentioned you were introduced to video, you kind of went more in the video direction to begin with, didn’t you? When you got to . . . like, did you study writing or did you study filmmaking, or what did you study as you decided to go forward into your life?

When I was a college freshman, I entered into university thinking I was going to be a film director. And that fell apart pretty quickly because I realized that as a director, you are still working with someone else’s vision unless you’ve also written the material

And you have to work with actors, too.

Yes! You have to be a big people person, which is . . . not that I’m not a people person, but I was like, “That sounds like a lot of stress, and there’s a lot of bureaucracy that goes along with it.” And it jus, t it kind of lost its gossamer appeal to me. And I realized, the storyteller, that’s what was speaking to me all along. So I did start . . . well, actually, I went through the normal college, the “now what do I do?” experience, and I was fortunate to have a professor who was actually teaching me a kind of an archaeology hybrid class when I was a freshman about deciphering whether The Trojan War ever actually really took place. So, it was kind of exploring the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age while teaching us research skills and stuff like that. It was one of those introductory courses. And she took the time . . . one day . . . she had bad arthritis and sometimes students would help carry her stuff to her office. And so, I was always happy to do that because I enjoyed talking with her. And I remember one time I was carrying her books and stuff back to her office with her, and she said, “You know, you’re a really good writer. Do you know that?” And I’m like, “Well, I don’t know. I mean, I love it.” She goes,” I wonder if you should be an English major.”

And at the time, I was like, “That is so boring and mundane. I want to be doing something amazing.” But I do remember going home and looking in the course catalog and reading up on the courses that you were, the core classes that you needed to take on, and I’m like, “All of those actually sound really interesting and fun. So maybe I should do this,” because it’s a degree that’s broad enough you could then build on it and go on to . . . a lot of people just assume you’re going to teach, but there’s a lot more you could do with it as well. And a strong foundation in writing, especially in today’s world where so much is digital and so much communication is via email. I think it’s an important skill to have. So, I was really thankful for that conversation and that she pushed me in that direction because before that, writing was just something that was a part of me that was fun, like, writing was kind of confined to the realm of fan fiction and not really something that I was taking super seriously as a craft.

So, when you switched to become an English major, there must have been some actual writing classes. I always ask this because I’ve talked to writers, especially in the science fiction/fantasy field, who say, “Well, I took some form of creative writing, but it didn’t help me very much because they were so against the kind of writing that I wanted to do on the fantastical side. What was your experience?

Oh, absolutely. Yeah, no, I really don’t like essay writing or anything like that, but of course, I had to learn to do it, suck it up and do it as an English major. But we didn’t have a creative writing major at my university at the time. They do now. So, I was doing a creative writing minor, and I took an intro to creative writing course that was actually . . . I found it a nurturing place. It was taught by a student teacher, and maybe that made a difference, but I felt like I was stretching my wings a little bit. And then I took one more fiction course, and that professor, I thought of him as Professor Snape from Harry Potter because he was very crotchety. He could be vicious, like, he could be really mean. I remember him reading a sentence from someone’s story and going, “That’s dumb. That’s just a dumb sentence. Why would you write something so stupid?” I’m like, “How is this helpful? Like, we’re all beginning writers?”

So, I was so nervous to have my first short story read by him. And instead, he read a sentence from my short story and said, “Look, this story has its flaws, but someone who can write a sentence like that is a good writer.” So that gave me a lot of encouragement. And so, I did then apply to be part of the graduate creative writing program to get my master’s in fine arts, which I was told was highly competitive. But I got in for fiction and screenwriting. In fact, I think fiction was my main emphasis, and screenwriting was my secondary because I was also learning screenwriting at the time as an undergrad. And I found that it came extraordinarily easy and natural to me. So, I was kind of growing in the two areas at the same time. And by the time I was in graduate studies, that’s when I was starting to get bored writing anything that was ostensibly literature because I was kind of writing in the here and now, and that’s fine, I don’t have anything against that. But I was finding that my imagination was just yearning to tell these other types of stories, and to world build, and to create some fantastical elements and set rules and limitations to them and then explore our humanity within those bounds.

So, I started writing those stories, and then, yeah, the same thing happened. In fact, as a matter of fact, the first story I wrote, it’s called “The Walkers in Darkness,” which is available online for free for anyone to read if they want to. That was actually written out of my love of the Anglo-Saxon language, Old English, which I also studied when I was translating Beowulf, and there is a fantastical element to it because there’s a creature in the woods that attacks this family, this Scandinavian family, and you don’t quite know what it is, in my mind, it was like a Sasquatch or something, but it’s kind of like this Grendellesque creature. And other than that, there is no magic, nothing. It’s all just written in the world that you see through the lens of the Beowulf author, and I even went to the length of trying to exclude words with Latin roots to try to really build that old English vibe.

That would be a challenge. 

It was a welcome one, though. And I was just shocked that most of the feedback I got from my classmates was, “I don’t read sword and sorcery, so I can’t really review this for you.” And I’m like, “OK, they have swords. What’s . . . what are they talking about?” And I was really let down until my professor, bless him, wrote an expletive on the back story for his review. “Bleep, yeah!”  And I remember he said, “There’s no postmodern pussyfooting around here. This is just pure story.” And I think to him it had been such a relief to read something different because everyone was so desperate to write what they called the next great American novel, which I still to this day have no idea what that supposed to mean. But I’m like, “If I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean, I’m not going to try to write it. I’m just going to write what I enjoy.” And at the time, there was this whole like . . .  you know, people talk about J.K. Rowling in a negative way now for a completely different reason, but they were pooh-poohing her and Harry Potter just because it was wildly successful and it was, quote, genre. And I’m like, “Hi, I like money and I would like for my stuff to be read. Is this bad?? Am I not supposed to be like, ‘Yes, I want to write to tell stories and because I have this innate drive to do so and I’d be doing it anyway. But also, like, if I made money from it, that would be amazing, too. Like, is it wrong to have that as a whole?”

It’s even better than cookies

Yeah, exactly.

You were professional very early, what with the cookie thing going on, but that is even better. So how did you start writing for money?

In fact, it goes back to that Professor Snape I had. I, around that era, I had written a short story written kind of in the Edgar Allan Poe-esque genre. And it’s called “The Woe of William.” And I submitted it to a contest at our university, and I won, like, five hundred dollars or something, because my story won, and I later found out that not only did I win, but I was . . . at the time they were not separating undergrad from graduate students, so I was competing against other people in the creative writing program that I wasn’t yet a part of. So, that really put some wind in my sails, especially getting the money. I’m like, whoa, you know, at the time I was like, “Five hundred dollars. This is . . . I’m rich.” And that was a story I wrote one night in my hammock as it was getting dark out, and I wrote until my hand was so numb I couldn’t write anymore. So I came in the house and I knelt on my bed and I finished scribbling it out and it had very little editing because it was just this burst of inspiration. And I’m like, “If that fun thing I’m doing can get me somewhere, that’s really cool.”

So, that gave me the encouragement I really needed and then I had a lot . . . I had more success with my short stories in competitions such as that, but most of my financial success was coming with my screenwriting, because I was winning national screenwriting competitions with my screenplays. And I do always highly recommend that fiction writers and even probably nonfiction writers do study some screenwriting or playwriting because it really helps you hone your storytelling skills, since you’re only allowed to use actions and dialogue.

That was actually the next question, was how screenwriting has fed into your fiction and vice versa, I guess.

Yeah, I think it’s a wonderful back and forth. You’re forced to focus on the spine of the story. And without that, it’s really easy to get lost. because there was a lot of people who I was in grad school with who I would read their work and be like, “Mman, this person can really paint a scene. They are really . . .  I can fully imagine this, but I just read 30 pages and I could tell you what happened in two sentences.” So, I’m like, nothing’s really happening yet in this story. And a lot should have happened by 30 pages in. So, that’s the kind of situation, one, like, that type of person or type of writer would really benefit from trying their hand at some screenwriting and forcing themselves to get down to the bare bones of storytelling.

Yeah, I recently read something where I literally got to the end of what was supposed to be the end of the book . . . it was in manuscript format, I was evaluating it . . . and I literally went up to my office to look for the rest of the book because I couldn’t believe that that was the end because nothing had happened yet.

Oh, my gosh. And I’m not really entertained by those types of stories. I know that there’s a place and time for it. I remember one of my professors pointing out to someone who was writing a historical fiction piece, he said, “I really appreciate that you’re not in a rush to tell this story that we know we’re in your hands and we’re going to go about this at a slow pace.” And I’m like, “Well, I hadn’t seen that as a plus,” but he made it, he helped me relook at it as a plus. So, it just, it’s all so subjective. It’s just, why are you reading? That’s why it is really important to figure out your target audience because if you are writing to a certain type of reader, it informs almost every decision you make when you’re telling the story.

Another thing I wanted to ask about screenwriting, I find . . . I’m more familiar on the playwriting side. I’ve written and directed plays, and I’m an actor as well, a stage actor. And I have often felt that the writing for the stage and being a director as well specifically helps with keeping a clear image in my head of what’s going on in a scene, where people are in relationship to each other, what the surroundings are, how that impacts. Because, of course, when you’re directing a play, you have very three-dimensional people who, you know, can run into each other and stuff like that. You have to know where they are, and you have to build those screen pictures, those stage pictures on them. And I feel that has helped me writing action scenes, or any scenes where there are a number of people in the space. Do you think that screenwriting gives you some of that same sort of visual component to your prose writing?

Yeah, yeah, because if you don’t have an imagination that naturally is going to envision it as a film, screenwriting is obviously going to help you get to that place where you can see it play, Peter Jackson, the director of Lord of the RingsKing Kong, and a bunch of other films, one of the things he says is, “Make sure you can watch the movie in your head from beginning to end, because if you can’t, how can you expect anyone else to?“ So, I think that’s good advice. And I also got really good advice in my Intro to Creative Writing Class a million years ago, the one that I said actually felt quite nurturing, where he advised us to, “If you’re writing about a physical space, always draw the space, because you will find your imagination is putting in rabbit holes that are not physically possible.” And I remember thinking, “That’s stupid advice, I know exactly what the house I’m writing about looks like. And I drew it, and I was like, “Oh. Oh, the staircase has two different landings that it’s impossible for it to have. OK, this is good advice.”

Yeah, especially if, you know, like, I was writing something, and it was set in an inn, which I had just sort of imagined in my head. And then, when I started drawing it, I realized that it just didn’t work, what I had been writing about, as a physical space. Yeah, I’ve encountered exactly that thing. Well, let’s move on to talk about your most current series, the Afterworld series, as a focus on how you go about creating your stories. So, we’ll begin at the very beginning. It’s a cliche, but it’s still a legitimate question . . . actually, et’s begin even a little bit before the beginning and have you give a synopsis, whatever you’d like to say about these books, before we start talking about them.

I will . . . I am, like, my own worst enemy. I’m, like, bad at the elevator pitch, which is something I really need to work on. But, so, I will read to you my little summary from my website. So, the series is called Afterworld, the first book is called Ophelia, and it’s available in ebook format for free right now, if you’re interested at all.

“The four-book Afterworld series tells the tale of a love so strong that it cannot be constrained by death… or time. Compared by readers to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels, this unique epic combines ancient Irish mythology and history with the modern world.”

So, I will read you the summary of Ophelia as well. And my boyfriend’s Irish, so he’ll tear me apart for this, but I’m going to attempt an Irish accent for a moment here.

If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have attempted one earlier.

“‘What if it wasn’t random?” he whispered, and the hairs on the back of her neck rose one by one with tickling tugs. “What if sometimes people are meant to meet each other?” 

“Ophelia Brighton hasn’t had a vision from the past since she was a small child. Now a grad student, both her thesis and her life are interrupted when a troubled young Irishman knocks on her door in Santa Cruz, California. Her visions return with his arrival, and Ophelia must struggle to keep her balance amidst her growing confusion over her place in the world . . .and time. 

“When Ophelia’s visions of a Victorian mystery reveal a secret that will change her future, she also discovers a love that was stronger than death. But is it too late to right the wrongs of the past?”

So that’s the description of book one.

I just . . . this is completely off topic in a way, but just thinking of Irish accents, I mentioned that I’m an actor, and years ago, I was in a professional production of a play, Who Has Seen the Wind, which is based on a famous Canadian novel set on the prairies, and the character I was playing . . . well, I was playing two characters. But one of the characters was Uncle Sean, who was Irish. So, I was doing my best Irish accent. But the director was very, very Hungarian.

Oh my gosh.

Thick Hungarian accent. He was no help at all on the accent. So, he just let me do whatever I wanted. And my one thing was what I got, you know, after I’d done it. And somebody that knew said I sounded Irish. I just didn’t sound like I came from the part of Ireland the character said he came from. And I figured as long as I hit the island, I was doing OK.

I know, right? At some point, you’ve just got to pick your battles. Yeah, I love it when my boyfriend does an American accent, and he’s suddenly, like, this Southerner, I’m like, “That’s what we sound like to you?”

Funny thing is, I went to the UK when I was in college, and I went to college in the States. We were on a chorus tour, and I had all these Southerners around me, and in England, people thought they were Irish. So maybe there is a connection there.

Oh, funny. You know, like, the American accent has, especially in different regions, been formed by the Irish vowel pronunciation because obviously, they were a massive, in Canada as well, they were a massive immigrant group. So linguistically, I definitely think they influenced our accents.

Undoubtedly. That was just an aside. And so, we’re using this as an example, where do your ideas come from? The seeds from which your stories grow, and specifically this one?

Well, let me think now. So, this was actually the . . . I want to say fourth novel that I wrote, even though it wasn’t the fourth that I published, because the first book that I wrote is unpublished, and I wrote two of those. I’m waiting until I finish the series before release that. And that was inspired by a dream. So, it had what was the end of a story as a dream, and I wrote to discover how the characters got to that place. And then the second one, Darkling, was also inspired by dreams that most people would call nightmares. And just the emotions of the dream clung to me like carrion on a skeleton, which I feel is an appropriate metaphor for that book. And I just really wanted to explore that. So, both those novels I wrote very quickly because I don’t outline, I write to entertain myself, so that’s why I write in kind of these manic bursts. And I have since tested that and been relieved to find out that I can also write as a more sane individual, you know, in chunks of time when I have them. And from the feedback I’ve received so far, my work hasn’t suffered for it. So that was a great relief to me because, like I said, the first several novels that I wrote, including Ophelia, I wrote in this kind of just-lock-myself-in-my-room and tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.

But, so, Ophelia did not come from a dream. In fact, it came from a very roundabout place that . . . this description, explanation, is going to have nothing to do with what you just heard of the summary of the book. But I always had this fascination with the First World War and with Irish history in general, the Irish struggle for freedom, especially as an American, that really captures the imagination. So, I love this blend of history and the fantastical, especially if it’s almost magical realism, if it’s like, well, just one there’s one twist, play with that one twist. For example, in Outlander, it’s time travel. So, how does that change things? How does that change your view of the world? And obviously, there’s some playing with time in my novels as well. And this idea of someone could have been a young man in Ireland and enlisted to go fight for the Crown–at the time, they were being told by a lot of politicians that serving the British in the First World War would be a great way to get home rule–because they were still considered a colony of the UK–it would be a great way to get home rule because it will show we’re willing to play by the rules, we’re willing to be your allies. So, a lot of young men enlisted under that belief, and the tide completely changed culturally at home over the course of those four or five years. They had the 1916 Easter rising, which was a strike at freedom and a strike that the organizers knew was pretty much doomed to fail. But they hoped that through their failure, the Irish people would be galvanized.

And that is what happened. The British sailed warships up the River Liffey and decimated a lot of Dublin in retaliation and trying to quell the rebellion. And a lot of civilians died. So, people at first were very upset at these rabble-rousers being like, “Why did you do this to us? Why did you incur their wrath? We’re just trying to go about our daily lives.” But then once word got out about how the uprisers were being treated in prison, and once they started being executed, two weeks later, which was apparently enough time for these emotions to come down . . . you know, they could hear the gunshots. Dublin isn’t that huge of a city, at least the old part of Dublin. And people just turned very much against the British occupation in terms of popular opinion. So, at the time when these veterans returned home, they were seen as people who’d betrayed the Irish because they went to serve the Crown, even though a lot of them, their motivation was the opposite. And so, that was tough. But then, on top of that, they returned home to a lot of political unrest where, as I mentioned, the cultural tide was wanting to push for freedom. So, they were in a really unique position to be young men with a lot of military training. And that’s largely how the Irish were able to organize and conduct their guerrilla tactics and win their independence from the United Kingdom in 1921, I believe it was, when the treaty was signed. Of course, Northern Ireland wasn’t part of that treaty, but the Republic of Ireland was essentially birthed then. Well, I guess that was one hundred years ago now.

Yeah.

So, I was fascinated that one person’s lifetime could go through all that, and that’s actually just, Like, a decade. How I came up with this really roundabout way to tell that story, that baffles even me. But I don’t question it so much because especially this series of books, I almost feel like . . . you know, the ancient Greeks talk about their muses whispering in their ears. I feel like someone’s been whispering this story in my ear and that these people are real people, and I’m just their conduit. So, by the time I got to the fourth book, I was nervous because I was like, “How do I close out a four-book series that’s on this epic scale?” And the book’s not released yet. But I do feel like personally I did the story and the characters justice, and that essentially wrote itself at that point. So that, to me, was a very magical experience, to be kind of channeling, whether it’s my subconscious or . . . I don’t know if there really are muses or whatever it is, I was able to put it to paper.

So, my next question is always about planning and outlining. It sounds to me like perhaps you’re not a huge planner or outliner?

No, not at all. I found that when I do that, which I needed to do for some of my screenplays and stuff, I then would really fight against the actual writing because part of me felt like I’d already satiated that need to tell the story and that the story was already told. So that was I realized that was kind of a passion killer for me. But I do take notes as I write, especially something as complicated as Ophelia or any of the Afterworld books, I have to keep notes to be like, “OK, remember that this was said. Remember that this is that date.” So, I have a notebook that I keep next to me. But other than that, I do . . .  also enjoy editing as I go. So, if I wake up the next morning and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, wait a minute, what you just wrote yesterday, that’s going to contradict something in chapter two,” I’m more comfortable going in my Word document and editing that and changing it before I continue going forward. So, it’s all kind of always in flux.

Well, one of the interesting things about this podcast, of course, is that every writer does it differently.

Yeah.

So on the outlining front, I have the people who, you know, just start writing. And then there’s . . . I always mention Peter V. Brett, who writes 150-page outlines before he starts writing.

That’s just so impressive to me.

And I said, “Well, you know, doesn’t that kind of take some of the fun out of it?”, I guess, or words to that effect, and he basically said, “Well, it doesn’t have to be fun. It’s a job.” I mean, I’m . . . I kind of do a few pages of sketches, and then I rarely look at it when I write the book.

So, I mean, there’s strength to both styles. I think that that’s what I love about it. And that’s what I try. . .  like, when I was doing my author’s vlog, which I don’t do writing advice so much anymore, but there’s like fifty or more episodes out there giving free writing advice, answering people’s questions, and one of the things I was always trying to emphasize is like, I’m telling you what works for me, by no means should you apply that to your life or compare yourself to that. The fact that I wrote a 90,000-word novel in two and a half weeks does not mean that I’m better or . . . it could be a crap book. And that doesn’t mean that you should be holding yourself to that. I’m just saying that this has been my experience, and almost every creative has a different way of going about it, different circumstances, different ways that their mind works. And it’s just about experimenting and finding out what works for you and encouraging that, leaning into that.

So, I always tell people, be very cautious when you’re reading these writing advice blogs or books, and they’re telling you this is what you should do. Think, “Well, no, that’s what they do and what works for them.” And you can try it and see if it works for you. But if it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to try something else.

You mentioned your writing process earlier, where you had done it in these intense bursts, and then you did it a little more sanely.

Yes.

So, we kind of talked about that. And then you also talked a little bit about you do some revision as you go. But what does your revision process look like when you have a draft?

I usually have to let it sit for at least a month. I have to have that emotional and intellectual distance from it before I can go back to it. And then I’ll go back to it, and I’ll reread it. Now, I hope my answer right now is truthful, I might . . . I’m not so self-aware when I’m going through this process. I know that once I finish it, I probably don’t completely leave it and walk away. I probably first go through and read it again because what I tend to do because I write quickly is I do the broad strokes of scenes. So, I have a lot of, what do you call them, like, not filler moments but placeholders, sometimes dialogue, placeholder descriptions of the characters, facial expressions, reactions, and stuff, and because when I’m first writing the scene, especially a charged scene, it is a lot of acting and I’m feeling those emotions, and I’m just trying to get those out. And then, I need to come through and add some of the finer details to the painting or the story. And that’s when I really start getting into the nitty-gritty. And then, inevitably, I have to start challenging myself. I found there’s a couple of pieces of software out there now that I’ve found really helpful in my writing that will flag overuse of words or expressions or passive voice. And that’s been really helpful to me because I do . . .we get brain blind to our own mistakes and our own patterns. So, it’s really nice to have that pointed out to me.

Would you like to introduce those software items?

The one I’m using right now is called ProWritingAid. And I think there’s a free version you can use where you upload, or you copy and paste onto their website, but I paid for it to be incorporated into my Microsoft Word. It does bog down the process a lot because it’s it makes it freeze every once in a while, which has been . . .

I use one called PerfectIt. The longer the manuscript gets, the more painful the process is so slow. So, probably the key there is to do it in short chunks at a time instead of trying to do the whole manuscript at once.

Exactly. And then also remind yourself that this is AI, and you don’t need to be writing to get a completely 100 percent score. But that always bothers me as I watch the . . . it gives you, like, a percentage of, like, how strong it thinks your writing is. And at some point, I was getting competitive with myself and, like, I intentionally have passive voice in the sentence. It’s OK.

Sentence fragments can be used.

Yeah, this is creative writing.

So, once you’ve got a revision, the revised draft, do you use beta readers of any sort?

I do.

What’s the next step, editing and all of that kind of thing? Since you’re independently published, do you hire an editor, or how does that work for you?

Most of my edits have been done by volunteers who are in the wide swath of my beta-reader group. I am lucky that I have a few friends who are also writers and really good editors. In fact, one of my friends isn’t a writer, but she’s a voracious reader, and so she will catch stuff.

That’s more useful than another writer, sometimes, I think. Somebody who’s a really experienced reader looks at it in a different way than another writer does.

And it’s amazing. Her wealth of knowledge amazes me because I know she’s just absorbed it all from reading so much. You know, it’s like, she’s memorized stylistic traits and rules and stuff just through absorption. And like, that is one of the reasons why you hear a lot of other writers saying if you want to improve your writing, read and read and reread.

I always start there, telling people if they want to be a writer, they have to read.

Yeah.

So, where do you find your beta readers?

I have a Facebook group I had called my Wildling Warriors because Wildlings is kind of the nickname I came up with for my supporters because my goal is for my creative work to awaken the wild, wildish nature in everyone. Awaken your passion, awaken your zest for life, for creativity, for nature, that’s kind of what I feel like drives me. So, through my films and through the written word and my photography, that’s usually where I’m coming from, and I’ve been lucky to have a lot of support from people. Some of that came from having a successful YouTube series, The Happy Hobbit, which you mentioned, which is bringing Middle Earth into your daily life, which I do with, I co-produced with my sister. And it’s so much fun. But a lot of people found out who I was through there, then were like, “Oh, she also has a book!” and then made the hop over to my author self under my initials, and have just been incredibly supportive. I also have a group of friends who have been really supportive too. And the friends, it’s harder, because I can’t necessarily rely on them to give me brutal feedback, if brutal feedback is to be had. But it’s been good so far to get the opinions of at least ten different people on a novel, and I’ve been happy that thus far, no major plot holes or anything like that have been found because I do, before I even send it to them, I’m trying to send them as finished a book as possible so that there’s minimal work to go into it afterward.

And at some point, you have to decide that it’s ready to go. How do you decide that it’s ready to go?

You kind of have to get to the phase of good enough. Like, I still want to go back through Ophelia and look for more tweaks. That because you’re always growing as a writer, and you’re always learning more. And so, yeah, with it being an ebook, it’s very dangerous because you can . . .

You can always change it, yeah.

Yeah. You can change a lot and then just re-upload the document. I forgot to mention another part of the process, which I think is important. And a lot of people don’t do it because they either don’t have someone or they feel crazy doing it. But my little sister is my biggest fan. She loves all of my books, and she will always be my first listener. I won’t say reader because I’m reading it aloud to her. And the process of reading it aloud is really, really helpful to me, not only for the way . . . like, I will read dialogue, but I’m like, “How did I think that sounded OK?” Or I realize, “Oh, there’s no conjunction in that sentence.” But when I was reading it quickly on my own, my brain filled that in. So, I think that reading it aloud is a very powerful editing tool. And then I’m just extra lucky to have a loving little sister who, when I was writing the Afterworld series, for example, would just, “That’s it? That’s all you have written? I’m leaving. You go back in there, and you write more. I want more by tonight.” So that was a great motivator to know that there was someone out there who wanted this, even if it was just my sister. Like, not just, she’s not just, but even if it was just one person reading, reading out loud.

You know, you don’t have to have somebody to listen either. It’s the actual act of reading aloud. I tend to read it with, you know, moving my lips, basically, but still saying it out loud. Even if I’m working in a coffee shop or something, I’ll read it out loud, sort of under my breath sometimes when I’m in the editing process, because, yeah, if you don’t, it’s one of the best ways to find . . . and if you don’t find it then, you’ll find it when you’re doing a public reading and you see what you’re about to read and you think, “Oh, I wish I . . . and sometimes I have changed things in public . . .

And you go beet-red, and you’re like, “It’s OK, nobody else can see what you’re seeing . . . .”

Yeah, nobody else is reading along with you in the book, so it’s OK. Well, we’re getting close to the end here, so . . . we’ve got touched on some of this earlier on, but I do have the three “big philosophical questions.” I’m going to put reverb on that someday. They are simply, why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes, you know, the sort of the big picture, why do humans write stories, and why stories with fantastical elements specifically? So there are your three big philosophical questions.

I was . . . I’m one of those personalities who, you know, the background I’ve given you in this episode shows that it just came innately to me. It was something that I was absorbing my whole childhood and couldn’t wait to do. So, I know that . . . I am writing without an audience. I have a journal full of poetry and starts of stories and, in fact, chunks of books that have still never even been read by anyone else or seen. And I’m going to keep doing that. So, I’m not writing for the sake of . . . I’m writing to express myself, I guess, and to put these things out into the world and to explore my own psyche and imagination, and then, if I can craft a powerful story that people are going to want to read and, even better, if people are willing to pay four dollars for, then, oh, you know,  all the better. But other than that, it is just this kind of innate drive I have to tell stories either through the written word or through filmmaking or photography, and I think that speaks to the nature of why we tell stories to begin with., I think that that separates us . . . I view human beings as animals just as much as any other creature on the planet, and I think that that’s one of the great things that separates us, though, is art. 

And I kind of reject the idea that our creativity and our artistic expression is just an over-firing of the creativity we’ve developed to problem solve, to survive as a species. I think there’s something more soulful to it than that. Whatever your spirituality is, I think that powerful art, powerful stories, connect to us on a level, a cathartic level where we feel like we’ve just vicariously experienced something. And it really broadens the scope of your way of thinking when you have had that escape from yourself and your world, and you’ve gone into another one, and you’ve experienced life from someone else’s point of view or an alternate version of what life could be. That’s my favorite part of reading, is looking at the world in a completely different way. So, I do think that there’s this very innate part of who we are as human beings that wants to create and express ourselves.

But then why the fantastical elements? You know, you can tell stories that are set and in the real world, so why do we feel drawn to pull in these imaginary, fantastical, supernatural elements?

I think, like, what I touched on earlier, I think that the level of escapism gives us permission to examine these things more so than we would give ourselves permission to if it were in the real world. The real world is full of really horrendous, harrowing things. I don’t personally like to read stories that are set in the here and now and involve that, because to me that’s just too unlike . . . hat’s what my friend’s going through, that’s what my family members are going through, that’s what I might be going through. Why would I want to have that compounded in me even more? But if it’s in the safe space of, “Oh no, this is told through symbolism. Like, what does the ring symbolize in Tolkien? Is it power? Is it control? Is it addiction? How do the characters all respond to it differently? Sometimes it’s more palatable in that format, and you feel more comfortable exploring these ideas than you would if it was about a more real-world example, but it is funny because when I first started to write Ophelia . . . it reads kind of cozy at the start, which I don’t do cozy, but I was really trying to do cozy because I thought that’s what people want. And it progressively . . . and I found this when I did my first draft. So, of course, I went through and totally made sure that it was a gradual increase, but my imagination completely rebelled. And it was like, “You’re trying to write something cozy and cutesy? Oh, wait till you see what I have in store for you.” So, through the fantastical twists, it brought in a lot of heavy, you know, some people would say dark stuff that I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable writing if it wasn’t through a fantastical twist.

So, maybe I’m just speaking from my own personal experience. Maybe other people can’t relate to that. But I just find that fantasy is using archetype, and it’s our modern mythology that gives us this place to explore these ideas and to ask the hard questions of where do we come from? Where are we going? What values do we hold dear? And sometimes it might be a little bit simplified, but I’m a lover of mythology, and I don’t see any harm in that because most of us have lives that are already complicated enough as it is. So, if you’re going to be edifying yourself through your escapism, all the better.

And what are you working on now?

Right now, I am slowly going through my edit of book three of the Afterworld series to release at an undisclosed date this year. I’ve been plodding along because I was laptop-less for, I think, what, two years? Over two years. And I finally have one again, so I’ve been excited to get back into that world with the characters, and it’s given me the benefit of having a year, I guess, away from the book series. So, I’m coming at it with fresh eyes for the editing process, which is fun because when I forget parts of my own stories, which I often do, it’s really fun to be reading it. And I’ll be like, “I hope this happens next. Oh wow. It does. Imagine that.”

Yeah, I’m currently reading out loud to my wife one of my novels that she’s never heard from ten years ago now. And that’s long enough now that I’m reading it, I’m thinking, you know, “I don’t  remember writing these sentences at all. But that was a pretty good sentence. That was a good scene.”

Isn’t that hilarious?

And, you know, I have vague memories of it, but there’s nothing . . . the specifics are long gone through my head. So, it’s like reading something somebody else wrote almost.

Yeah. And then when you have that level of detachment, you can actually appreciate your own writing without, like, trying to chisel it to death.

Yeah, it’s kind of a nice thing to go back. Of course, you can also go back to an old book and wish you could completely rewrite it, but that’s not my experience in this one, anyway. 

Good!

So that’s kind of the end of the time. So, where can people find you online?

I am on social media under my pen name, so that’s my initials, K then M then Rice, RICE, and author. So, I’m on Facebook, Instagram—Instagram’s where I spend most of my time—YouTube, TikTok. I do technically have a Tumblr blog, but it’s not very exciting. It’s just where I push all the content from my other stuff. So, I’m relatively easy to find online if you want to follow my creativity.

OK. Well, I’m sure people will after we finally got this podcast done.

I know, it’s been a feat! I’m afraid to celebrate it yet.

Yes, I have . . . you know, I haven’t checked the recording, but it says it’s recording, so everything is fine. So anyway, thanks for being on The Worldshapers twice, in a way, but thanks for being a guest and a great chat. Hope you enjoyed it.

Thank you so much for having me. It was lovely talking with you, and thank you to everyone listening for giving us an hour of your time. Time is precious.

OK, well, bye for now.

Bye-bye. Thank you.

Episode 76: Gerald Brandt

An hour-long interview with Gerald Brandt, bestselling author of the San Angeles science-fiction series and the new Quantum Empirica series that began with Threader Origins, all published by DAW Books.

Website
www.geraldbrandt.com

Facebook
@authorgeraldbrandt

Twitter
@GeraldBrandt

Gerald Brandt’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Gerald Brandt is an internationally bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy. His current novel is Threader Origins, published by DAW Books, the first book in the Quantum Empirica trilogy that will continue with Threader War and Threader God.

His first novel, The Courier, Book 1 in the San Angeles series, was listed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as one of the ten Canadian science fiction books you need to read and was a finalist for the prestigious  Aurora Award. Both The Courier and its sequel, The Operative, appeared on the Locus Bestsellers List.

By day, Gerald is an IT professional specializing in virtualization. In his limited spare time, he enjoys riding his motorcycle, rock climbing, camping, and spending time with his family. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife, Marnie, and their two sons, Jared and Ryan.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Hi, Gerald.

Hey, Ed. How are you?

I’m good. Now, we’ve known each other for quite some time now. Winnipeg and Regina are not that far apart. And we’ve showed up at the same conventions, and now we share a publisher, DAW Books.

We do. I think we first met, probably, at World Fantasy in Calgary, would have been the first time.

Yeah, that sounds about right. And I guess we share an editor, too, Sheila E. Gilbert at DAW Books.

Hugo Award-winning editor.

Oh, yes. Must mention that. Yes. And the other fun fact is that I was there in Washington, DC, at World Fantasy when you sold that first novel to DAW. And I think I was one of the first people to know about it, actually, outside of probably your family.

You may have been, actually. Yeah. That whole day is still a fog. I can’t remember all the finer details.

It was great. Well, let’s start by finding out how you got interested in writing science fiction and fantasy. Let’s take you back first to a little bit of biographical information. Did you grow up in Winnipeg? Have you always been a Winnipegger? Tell me your life story.

Yeah, I did grow up in Winnipeg, although I wasn’t born here. I was born in Berlin, Germany. So, I’m a first-generation immigrant to Canada. But I guess we moved when I was two years old. So, yeah. I don’t remember much of my first two years of my life, but so, yeah, Winnipeg has been my home for pretty much my entire life.

So, growing up in Winnipeg, when did you discover that you liked science fiction?

You know, this is going to sound cliché, and I’m sure that just about everybody you have spoken to has said the same thing, but I started out as an avid reader. Don’t we all?

Pretty much, yeah.

And the books that grabbed my attention, although I read pretty much everything, you know, if you handed me a ketchup bottle, I’d read the ingredients list just to read something . . .

And then do it again in French, since we live in Canada.

Well, no, I . . .no, no. I’m sadly a one language person.t I did not do well in school in French classes. But anyway, so yeah, the books that really seemed to draw me more than anything else were, well, mainly fantasy novels, and science fiction as well. So, yeah.

Do you remember any specific titles that had an impact on you?

Oh, my gosh. You know, the Foundation series, Asimov’s Foundation series, was a big one for me, going a ways back in my younger, younger years. Piers Anthony was a big one for me, but I find myself struggling to . . .I went back and read some of him recently, and I don’t think his books aged that well, unfortunately.

No, I loved them too. And I had kind of the same reaction when I looked back at them.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, what else? Wow. Yeah. You’re asking me to go way back. You know, I’m pretty old.

Oh, yeah, look who’s talking to me. I’m older than you are. So, you know, I can remember. I’m sure you can.

Well, I . . . you know, maybe . . . but I don’t even have many of those books on my shelf anymore. You know, I’ve gone past what really got me into the genre, I think.

Well, when did you start writing? I read in another interview, I think, that you did some in junior high?

Yeah, in junior high. I wrote . . . I started thinking that, you know, I’ve been reading all this stuff, I can start writing it. And it was much like the poetry I was writing at the time, rather angst-filled teenage garbage, but, you know, I guess we all start somewhere.

How much did you do? Like, were you writing long things or short stories or . . .?

Yeah, short stories. I didn’t even know they really existed back then. So, I was reading novels, you know, I was reading Stephen R. Donaldson and things like that. So, I was basically copying what I read. And, you know, I got well into some novels, but I never actually got anything finished back then. I think I actually still have a notebook here somewhere that has a really bad hundred pages of a handwritten fantasy novel in it, which I really should get rid of before I die because somebody will read it, and that would just be bad.

I have actually, right here on my desk, I have the handwritten manuscript of my first novel that I wrote when I was fourteen.

Oh, boy.

And it was typed up later. And you never know, I might put it online sometime under a pseudonym or something. And my worry is that it will sell better than my actual novels.

Well, you are a braver soul than I.

I don’t know. I haven’t done that yet. I’ve talked about it for a long time, but it hasn’t happened yet. 

OK.

So, I also read in that interview, though, that you kind of . . . well, first before I do that, did you share your writing with people at the time? I always ask people that about their youthful writings. Were they brave enough to share it, or was it a thing you just kept to yourself?

Never. I did not share any of my writing until I got serious, quite serious, about it when I turned forty. And even then, I held off for a number of years before I thought I was good enough to have somebody else look at.

So, there was a gap in there between writing in junior high and getting serious about it.

There was.

What happened in there?

Well, in Grade 10, so, the first grade of high school, they offered a computer programming course. And on a whim, I took it. And that was the end of my world. I started, at that point, I started a career of computer programming. And I’m glad I did. It did very well for me. I’m actually not programming anymore, I’ve gone more to the IT side now, but it gave me a career that helped me, you know, let me raise a family and buy a house and do all those things that normal people do that you can’t do for, in most cases, you can’t do with a writing career.

I did programming briefly. I didn’t have a class in it, but I learned Basic, and I had a Commodore 64, and I wrote this extensive program using the Commodore 64 music chip that allowed me to input sheet music into it after a fashion. And I did that, and it took hours and hours, and it worked, after a fashion. And then when it was done, I thought, “You know, there are other people who are better at this than I am.” And I was never tempted to be a programmer after that. So I had a different reaction to you, I think.

Yeah, yeah. M first introduction in high school would have been punch cards and programming in COBOL before we moved on to the Commodore PET, which was the first microcomputer I touched. So, that was a long time ago.

I did take one programming class. I lied. I took an off-campus university programming class, and it used a Commodore PET, as well. So there something we have in common. But then you did something with it, and I never did. So, what brought you back to writing then? I mean, were you continuing to read science fiction through all those years?

Oh, absolutely. My reading has never . . . well, I’m not going to say never. My reading did not drop off at all during those years. That has changed since I’ve become a writer because I just don’t have as much time as I used to have. But yeah, I absolutely kept on writing or kept on reading, and yeah, I wouldn’t have stopped. Nothing would have stopped me from reading.

I kind of loved science fiction and fantasy together, but your writing is certainly, so far at least, more on the science fiction side. Were you more of a science fiction reader than a fantasy reader, or were you indiscriminate?

I was more of a fantasy reader than science fiction, and everything that I’ve ever written before my first sale has been fantasy, but I have never sold any of my fantasy. I’ve only sold my science fiction. So, go figure.

Hmmm. Well, how did the switch to writing seriously come about? What made you decide at the age of forty or whenever to take it seriously and really get into it?

Yeah. You know, it was always there. I mean, always the idea that, you know, I’m reading this stuff and I can do this. I want to do this. But at forty, a little bit before forty, I became a stay-at-home parent to my two boys. One was in Grade 1, and the other one hadn’t yet started preschool, I guess, so he was home all the time. And one of the parents of another kid in my son’s, in the Grade 1 class, she was a writer. And, you know, we started talking a little bit, and I just kind of woke up one morning and said, “This is it. It’s now or never. I’m forty years old. If I don’t start writing, then I probably won’t.” So, I gave myself a goal. I said, I will have something published. A novel was my goal. I will have a novel published in ten years. Or if I don’t, I’ll stop because it’s obsolete. Ten years to me was the perfect amount of time to hone whatever skills I might have had and churn out something that was publishable. And the end result was Sheila offering me a contract at roughly ten years and three months.

So close!

And at that point, you know, I wasn’t going to stop anyways because ten years of actually struggling and getting better and writing and being critiqued and critiquing, I wasn’t going to stop at fifty, at any rate. I was going to keep on going until I had something sold. But, you know, it’s interesting that it happened roughly in the time frame that I gave myself.

Well, did it just sell out of the gate, or was there some back and forth with Sheila on that particular novel?

Well, there’s a five-year story.

Yeah, I kind of knew it was there. That’s why I asked.

Yeah, I figured you did. Actually, Sheila came to the convention, KeyCon, here in Winnipeg.

Yeah, I remember. I was there too.

So, we did meet then before World Fantasy. I guess we never spoke.

Yeah. We probably didn’t notice each other.

Probably not. No. But anyway, as a big surprise to her, KeyCon had set up a pitch session, which she . . .

I remember that!

. . . . which she was not prepared for. So, I signed up for the pitch session, and it was my first pitch session ever. And it took me by surprise, probably almost as much as it took Sheila by surprise. They put thirty of us into a room with Sheila, and we all pitched to her in front of each other, which is not actually the way it works, really. But whatever, it happened.

I, unfortunately, followed somebody who had had a lot to drink the night before and showed up with bathroom-tile imprints still on the side of their face. And they tried to pitch to Sheila and finally just stood up and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this,” and walked out. And then they called me. So, I went up to the desk and, you know, did the brief introductions, and she said, “What do you have?” And I stuttered and stuttered. And I said, you know, “I’m really quite nervous. And I’m not sure that I can remember what I memorized anymore.” And she said, “Well, do you have it written down?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s right here.” And she looked me in the eye, and she said, “Oh, thank goodness.” And she took the paper, and she read it, and she requested a full.

And then, I guess, we met, that’s why I started going to World Fantasies, probably. We met at every World Fantasy after that and talked about the book. And, you know, she never actually had read it yet, but she asked me what I was working on, what was new, what was coming up to me. I guess she was kind of just pushing me to make sure that I was serious about the work. But writing this was what I wanted to do. You know, in the meantime, I pitched other books to her, and she kind of grimaced once or twice. Threader Origins was one of those. But I wrote it anyways, despite her grimace. And then, you know, we’d meet, and she said, “You know, I managed to read your synopsis on the airplane. So, we’re going to talk about your synopsis rather than The Courier.” And so, she critiqued and poked holes in that. And I kept saying, “Well, you know, this is what happens.” And, you know, so I answered all of her questions on that. In the next year, she actually read it and bought it. But it was a five-year process.

That’s an interesting initial sale. I remember . . . because I was at KeyCon, I was working on Magebaneat the time, which is by one of my pseudonyms, Lee Arthur Chane. And I remember, I actually remember after she had finished her editorial comments on that, saying to her on the elevator, “But I can write, can’t I?”

When she bought The Courier, I left our little meeting, and we arranged to meet later on in the day again. So, I went up to my room, and I phoned the wife, and she actually left a meeting to take my phone call. And she went back into the meeting, and she says, “My husband just sold his first novel.” And everybody in the meeting, including her boss, looked at her and said, “Well, you’re not quitting your job, are you?” So luckily, she said no, because the writing . . . but anyway, in that same convention, Sheila and I sat down in a quiet spot, and she gave me my first editorial on the novel at that convention. And I kind of felt like garbage because I didn’t know how things worked. But yes, the same as, you know, “I can still write? You think I can still write, right?” And then, about twenty minutes after she gave that first editorial pass, I went to my first DAW dinner.

Oh, yeah. It’s, I mean, I’ve said that to Sheila, it’s been well, you know, “I bought the book, so obviously I think you can write.”

Yeah. I think Julie Czerneda has asked her to at least say something good right at the beginning so that we actually start off thinking, “OK, maybe it’s not that bad.”

Well, we’re going to talk about the editorial process at the end of this next bit because that is part of the whole published-author thing that people are interested in. But let’s talk about now how . . . well we’ll focus on the new one, Threader Origins, which just came out as we’re recording this and will have been out for a month or so when this goes live, and use that as an example, tell me—the classic question—where do you get your ideas? Or, if you prefer, what was the seed for this particular novel? How did this particular one come along, and how does that tie into the way that ideas normally bubble up for you?

Well, this is my second series with DAW, and—although I have a bunch of trunk novels, so I guess I have experience there as well—but normally, as is the case for this one, I have a character . . .

Before we do that.

Yes?

Very important. Give us a synopsis so that people know what we’re talking about.

The dreaded synopsis, how writers dislike that part. But Threader Origins is an alternate-Earth book. Darwin Lloyd is a university student. He’s going to become a physicist, and he loves quantum theories and all that stuff. And he’s following in his father’s footsteps. So, he gets an internship where his dad works, and together with, of course, the whole team, they build a machine that can basically generate unlimited electricity to power whatever you want, a whole city or whatever. And Darwin is there for the very first test where they go up to 100 percent, and things go wrong, and he gets pulled into an alternate earth by the machine. And then things go bad from there. In the world he gets pulled into, the same machine was turned on five years prior. So, they’ve had five years of this machine generating what the people call threads. And, you know, they can . . . it can not only, not quite alter reality, but it can kind of predict the future. And it can do various things. I won’t get into too much detail here. And he sees how much it’s destroyed the world he’s gone into. And his main goal is to get home and turn the machine off. And of course, nobody knows how to do that, get home or turn the machine off. So, it’s a struggle.

The overall story is called the Quantum Empirica, correct?

Yes.

Yes. Now, go back to where did this one come from?

All right. We’ll go back to, again, Darwin Lloyd. He just kind of popped into my head one day as not quite a fully formed character, but pretty close. And I fleshed him out and figured out what his flaws were, what happened to him before the book started. And I figured I had a great character to build a novel around. So, it took me quite a while to figure out what kind of world to throw him in that would test him the most. And yeah, once I did that, I just started researching and writing.

Well, what does your planning and outlining process look like? I read a description of it, and it sounds quite . . . what’s the word . . . physical. Post-it notes and things like that. So how does that work for you?

All right. Yeah, I have . . . I bought a four-by-eight metal whiteboard at IKEA, and I have so many stacks of Post-it notes around here it’s ridiculous. But basically, what I do is . . . by the time I’m into the Post-it note stage, I already have my main character, and I have the majority of my world thought out, not necessarily detailed, but thought out. And I might have a couple of secondary characters. And I grab my Post-it notes and I write . . . sometimes it’s as little as one word, and sometimes it’s a sentence. And I take that, and I stick it on the board. And basically, that Post-it note becomes a scene, and sometimes the one word is an emotion, right? I know that at this point, there’s got to be a lot of pain and hurt. So that’s what I’ll put in there, because I don’t know what scene is going to bring that out yet, the details, but I know that I need it, so I’ll put it on there. And by the time I’m done, I have anywhere from 75 to 100 Post-it notes or more on my whiteboard. And it’s possible that they’re all different colors because I assign a color per point of view character. So, for example, on the San Angeles series, I probably had about six colors on my whiteboard. For Threader Origins, it’s just all Darwin Lloyd’s point of view. So, it’s all one color. In this case, it’s pink. I’m still staring at it now for book three.

And yeah, I take it, once I have all my Post-it notes written, I arrange them to make more sense. And so, I know where I have my highs, I have my lows.  I don’t know chapter breaks or anything at that point yet, but I actually do my initial rough plot on that whiteboard. Once I’m sure that I have something that I like that is somewhat coherent, I take all of those notes and put them into a spreadsheet and, again, color-coded based on character point of view. And that’s where I start expanding things. You know, if for, like, for the San Angelesseries, every scene had a timestamp. So, I made sure that the timestamps matched for every point of view character, and all that stuff. For Threader Origins, I had separate color coding for the threads that Darwin was learning at a time because the colors of threads have specific meaning in the novel.

So, I fill all that in, and I take those one-word or those one-sentence scenes, and I put them into three or four sentences in the spreadsheet, and I just build it and rearrange it until, again, I’m happy with it. And then, I take the somewhat detailed description of three or four sentences, move those into a document and start writing from there. I usually end up with . . . by the time it’s all said and done, seventy-two to seventy-five scenes because I average thirteen to fourteen hundred words per scene, and that gets me a 100,000-word novel.

Wow. Not the way I work!

And you know, the thing is that none of what I’ve done up to this point is written in stone, which is good because, as you know, as you’re writing, these things just organically kind of grow. I don’t leave, at least for the first half, I don’t normally leave my plot. But there’s these little details that come in. This little, this character that you have to throw in there in order to show something becomes a little bit more important. So, you know that they’re going to be coming back in the book a bit more. So usually at the halfway point, I go through the process again for the second half of the book because things have changed enough that the second half of the plot, although it’s, the plot is probably OK, it’s the details of the interactions and the emotions that might have changed. So, I go back at the half unit, the halfway point, and rearrange that second part of the plot.

So, this Post-it approach, how did you decide to use that approach? Does that somehow relate to being a computer programmer and the way that you plan out when you’re reprogramming, or . . .?

No, not even . . . not at all, actually. You know, when you’re starting out, and again, during that time period when I wasn’t writing, but, you know, and I was doing all the computer stuff, I’d still buy all these books on how to plot and character development and all this kind of stuff. My bookshelf is filled with them. But the thing that made sense to me was . . . people were always using note cards, right? They’re saying you take your, take the note cards, and you write things down in the note cards, and that lets you rearrange things, and I tried it, and it didn’t work for me, but, you know, and then I moved to Post-it notes and just seeing it visually on the whiteboard all at once worked for me a lot better than having a stack of note cards that I would rearrange or have to lay down on the floor to look at the sequence of events. And then, at the end of that, I have to clean it up because, of course, I have kids in the family, and I can’t leave stuff like that on the floor. So, it just kind of a progression of the note cards just into Post-it notes.

“Your novel doesn’t make a lot of sense.” “Yeah, well, the cat ran through it at just the right moment.”

Exactly.

You know, it’s . . . you know, I read all that stuff, too, in the magazines, and yet it never, never took with me at all. So, I’m always interested in . . . you know, part of the point of this whole podcast is that everybody does it differently. So, it’s always interesting. So, once you start writing, it’s sequential because you figured it all out ahead of time. What’s your actual writing process? I know, for example, that you use rather different word processing software than most people do.

I do. I use . . . you know, I tell the world I use WordStar, which is a 1980s word processor. But, you know, having been a computer programmer for too many years to even consider, I wrote my own word processor, and I use that, and it’s WordStar compatible.

And what is your actual . . . well, first of all, what do you like about that? What were you looking for that made you do that?

Well, the first thing is that the muscle memory of just how to use WordStar, because I used it, like, in the ’80s and early ’90s, I used it for all of my other stuff, whether I was documenting or whatever, I was doing some code or whatever, I used WordStar. So, the muscle memory was certainly there. But it’s really a writer’s word processor. You know, I can . . . if you have Microsoft Word, if you highlight a block of text and you know you want to copy that somewhere, you want to do something with that text, but you’re not quite sure, and then you go and do something else, that block of text is not highlighted anymore. So, you kind of lose what you’ve highlighted with WordStar. I can highlight a block of text, and then I can write for six hours, and I could say, oh, that block of text belongs here, and boom, I can copy it. And it’s still highlighted. So, it remembers things like that. It also has bookmarks. It has ten bookmarks. So I can, say, remember this position in the document as bookmark one or whatever, and then if I’m writing and go, “OK, I have to remember,” I go back to bookmark one, and it’s one keypress, and I’m back at bookmark one, and I can go in, then I can go back to where I was writing. So, it’s easier to jump around. It’s almost like you have a printed document with your fingers in between pages, and you’re flipping between chunks of document to make sure things flow. It just seems to work better for me.

Well, when you’re writing, do you . . . where do you write? You just . . . and how do you find the time for it? You do have a full-time job. So how do you juggle all that?

I do. I had a full-time job up to the second book in the San Angeles series, and the schedule on that was so tight that things were not working out for me. So, I actually went down to three days a week on my job, and that helped a lot. But then, of course, with this whole Covid thing going on and me being the IT guy, my workload increased because nobody’s working in the office anymore. So, I have to support these people in their homes and stuff like that. So, I’m now back to four days a week, so close to full time, but not quite. So, I got into the habit of writing at five in the morning for The Courier because I was the stay-at-home dad at that point, and my kids woke up at seven. So that gave me gave a two-hour block when nobody was awake. I could just come into my office and sit down and write.

Over time that has kind of disappeared. And I started writing in the evenings, and . . . because the kids got older and whatever, I started writing in the evenings and on weekends. For the current book I’m writing, which is the third in the Quantum Empirica series, I tried dictating, which worked for a while. But I’ve now gone back to five in the morning writing because it just seems that I’m more creative at that time. I try to get up at five in the morning, try still being the keyword, and write for a couple of hours before the whole house wakes up.

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

Depends on what I’m writing. If I’m writing an action scene or something with a bunch of dialogue, I can turn that out pretty quick. If I’m writing something, you know, in between those two, where a character has to get from A to B and stuff like that, I struggle with those ones. And those, you know, if I get 200 words, 200 words, 600 words in those two hours, I’m happy. But if I’m, like, I’m doing action scenes, I can do 3,000 words in those two hours easily.

So, once you have a first draft, what does your revision process look like? But what things do you do on the and yeah, how many passes do you make and all that sort of stuff?

How many passes I make is, you know, anywhere from, well, double digits. Let’s just go double digits. Leave it at that.

It’s hard to tell when you’re working, it’s kind of an organic thing, really what you count as a pass.

It is, although I do have fixed passes in there as well. I do have a specific pass where I, I add description because when I do my first draft, I’m not a descriptive writer. My first draft could be anywhere from sixty-five to seventy-five thousand words, which is not the right size for a novel. It’s too small. And I will say one of the passes is adding the description so that you can actually get to know where you are in the book when you’re reading it. And another pass I add I use specifically for emotional content to make sure I’m hitting those points, you know, and then I have the technical passes as well, you know, don’t use passive voice and all that kind of stuff, so . . . But then there are the organic passes where you’re just kind of going through it, and it’s tough to keep track of. But I don’t revise as I’m doing that first draft. I don’t go back ever. I get the words out because I can’t fix what’s not on the paper. So, I’ve got to get that first draft out before I start any revision. So that first route, that first draft, is usually quite rough.

And how long does your revision process usually take you?

That all depends on when the contract says the book is due.

I guess I’m done revising! Yeah, I know that feeling.

Yeah, you know, that’s a tough call because it’s different for every book, really. It all depends on the details that I need to remember. For the first, the San Angeles series, every scene had a date and a time stamp. And I will never, ever, ever do that again because that is a headache. I end up using Gantt charts in order to keep track of who was where and when and what they knew, just to make sure that those timestamps were actually accurate. And, yeah, that was a struggle. So that took a lot of revision, right?  So that took more time. And in this one, because it was a bit more of . . . it’s not as strict on its timelines, really, so the passes were. . . how long it takes is how long it takes, I can’t . . .I don’t think I can answer that.

Well, you did, kind of.

Well, kind of.

So what’s . . . once that deadline comes along and the book goes in, what do you find . . . well, why don’t you describe what Sheila’s editing process is for you?

All right. Before I go into that, I will say that Sheila is thankfully, thankfully happy to give you an extension if you need it. And I have used that twice now. I used it for the last book in the San Angeles series and it made me feel so bad that I swore I would never do it again. And so, I did it again on the last book in the Quantum Empirica series.

I may have taken advantage of that once or twice.

Yeah. And for this extension, I blame 2020. I take full responsibility for it, of course. But 2020 was quite hard on my creative process. So that’s why book three is late and being handed in, but it will still be, the books will still be released in a nice, timely fashion, simply because I’m ahead of the game already, right? With the first book being out and the third book being halfway done, right, I’m still, I still have time. So, things are, you know, the books will be released in good order.

Sheila E. Gilbert

But the process for dealing with Sheila, as you know . . . you read about how everybody goes, and they talk about the editorial letter and all that stuff. So, that’s what I was expecting. But that is not the way that Sheila works. As you well know, Sheila will call you up on the phone at a preplanned time, and you will be on that phone for however long it takes to for her to go through her notes. And she will go through and tell you what is wrong with your book. And it’s all verbal. It’s all done on the phone. And for my first two books, I was scribbling away so fast I might have missed half of what she said, at which point . . . because she always calls me on my cell phone, I have an app on there now that records our phone calls so that I can always go back and listen to what she’s saying again, because my notes miss things. You just can’t keep up. She’s a fast talker, and my handwriting’s not fast enough to keep up with her.

And what sorts of things are you generally, does she generally suggest you might need to expand upon or rewrite?

It’s different, I think, probably for every author, so, yeah, and I think it’s different for really every book I hand in. Right? It’s . . .I’ve never actually looked for a common thread, which is probably a weakness of mine because if there was a common thread, I should really fix it, shouldn’t I, or hand the book in?

I usually find it’s, like, you know, expanding on something that there’s just not enough information there for the reader to follow what’s going on or that sort of thing.

I would agree. It’s continuity comments or things where, yeah, there’s not enough detail to explain why the character’s going this way, or there is enough detail, and she doesn’t think that it really fits in with the character’s psyche of what she’s learned of that character and she doesn’t think it fits. I’ll take an example. The first version of Threader Origins that I handed in, the relationship between Darwin and his father was antagonistic. They did not like each other. They blamed each other for a lot of things, which I won’t get into detail with because that’s a bit spoilerish. But they butted heads a lot. They didn’t really like each other. And, you know, it created tension, and it created conflict, and it moved the book ahead, so it did its job. But when Sheila read it, she didn’t quite like it. She didn’t think that that was really what the book needed. So . . . and this is the nice thing about doing phone calls. We sat there, and we just hashed it out. We figured it out together. And she kind of tossed in ideas. And I said, you know, well, that won’t work because of and then I tossed in ideas, and she says, well, that might work. But what about, you know, we just came to something that we were both quite happy with, and that relationship changed. And because it changed, it added so much more depth to Darwin’s and the father’s character and increased the whole emotional line of the novel. It was just fantastic.

Before you were writing seriously or when you started writing seriously, did you have any fear of the editorial process? I know that some beginning writers, you know, “Well, the editor’s going to change everything, or they’re going to ruin my story.”

Way back when I didn’t even know there was an editorial process. So, no. My first experience with the editorial process would have been with Bundoran Press. When Virginia O’Dine ran Bundoran Press, Heyden Trenholm edited Blood and Water for her, and they bought a short story, my very first sale ever in 2012 maybe. So, Hayden was my first editorial process thing.

Another editor we’ve shared!

I loved working with Hayden. He was, you know . . . I expected the editorial process to be, at that point, anyways, this is wrong. This is how you can fix it. And that’s not really the way it works because the editor didn’t write the story, right? It’s my story. So, what the editor—and Hayden and Sheila will both do this—is they’ll say, “This isn’t working. What can you do to make it better? This feels a bit forced to me, or this spot feels weak, or I’m not getting the emotional hit I think I should here.” But they didn’t tell you how to fix it, right? They just tell you that it’s not working. And then you have to go back and fix it. And I think that was the biggest surprise for me. When, you know, when I first went with Hayden and when I first actually started thinking about the editorial process, is that they leave it up to you. They don’t do the changes for you, which I love.

But if you wish to consult with them about possibilities, they’re certainly willing to help out in that.

Absolutely. Absolutely. You can. And that’s what they’re there for as well, is to hash things out if you need them. As I mentioned about Sheila, she’s very, very good at that. With Hayden, I didn’t do that as much.

So, one thing I forgot to ask you about was at the point at which you have something that’s almost ready to submit, do you use beta readers of any sort, or do you have a writing group or anything like that?

I have a loose writing group. We actually used to be a critique group, but I had to bow out of that because my timelines were so tight I couldn’t read somebody else’s work and do a critique. So, I didn’t feel like I was giving in to the critique group as much as I was getting out. So, I had to pull away from that. But that group instead just became a general writing group. And we will talk and discuss ideas. You know, if I’m hitting a roadblock, you know, I’ll say, “My character’s been in this location for so bloody long, and I can’t get them out of there. What am I supposed to do?” And we’ll hash things out verbally as we meet. But it’s not a formal critique group. But I do have beta readers, for sure. I have a handful of beta readers that I trust and respect their opinion, and they get everything before I hand it in. And even then, you know, they’ll give their feedback, and one beta reader will absolutely hate a section. And every other beta reader . . . I mean, beta readers will never tell you they love a section, almost never, but they didn’t bring up the section at all, so I’ll kind of go, “OK, well, one person out of however many didn’t like it,” I’ll read it and I’ll say, “No, this is perfect for the book. I’m leaving it in as is,” or I’ll read it in context of their opinion and I’ll say, “No, he’s right. I could do this and this and this, and it would be a better scene or a better section.” But normally, if one person picks something up, it’s going, it’s not, you know, it’s not something that you’re going to change. If multiple beta readers pick up the same thing, then I don’t have a problem.

See, I’ve never, never had beta readers, still don’t have beta readers, so I always ask about them because it’s just, I’ve never been someplace where I felt I could find them. I probably could online now, of course. But when I started, I was in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. And, you know, as I’ve mentioned before on here, the writing group in Weyburn at the time consisted of elderly women who wrote stories about the Depression, and I didn’t really fit in there.

No. Yeah. I think, you know, just a couple of my beta readers are actually local. Most of them are spread far and wide. In fact, I don’t even know where two of them live. I just know they’re in the States. That’s all I know.

I was part of a writing, not online, but a by-mail critique group, for a while back in the Dark Ages, but, boy, that was a slow process.

Yeah, at the beginning, I did join an online critique group, and I think they’re actually still running because I still get some emails from them occasionally. But that was, also, I found a slow process. I can’t imagine doing it over mail. That would be a struggle.

Yeah, it was slow, but I did find a couple of really good . . . I ended up with a couple of really good people, and I guess we were sort of beta readers for each other at that point. We didn’t call it that back then. But yeah, I just never got in the habit of that. And I keep thinking . . . maybe my books would be better if I did. But, you know, I’m kind of set in my ways at this point.

You know, us old guys. We’re stubborn

Yeah. “I’ve never done it that way. I’m not going to start now.”

That’s right. Get off my lawn!

The other thing I wanted to ask you about, we talked a little bit about the characters. When you’re doing all this stuff, do you write down character sketches? Do you, you know, just sit and think about the character and try to build all the backstory and everything at that point? Or does a lot of it get discovered as you write or how does that work for you?

You know, although I do start with a fully fleshed character, I do not have a lot of their background. And I also have no idea how they look. If you read my novels, you’ll find that I almost never describe what my characters look like. I’d rather have the reader do that. And that might be because I don’t really know how they look like. I might have an image in my head, but it’s still kind of blurry. But yeah, the character, although I have a full-fleshed character when I start, I don’t know their backstory, and although I kind of know their emotional part going forward, I do that . . . yeah. I discover that as I go. It’s not part of my plotting process, not part of anything that the character develops as it goes. And then in the revision process is when I’ll go back and make sure that there’s consistency in all of that.

And the other thing I kind of forgot to ask you about, and especially this one, which is, you know, quantum, multiple universes and all that sort of stuff. What kind of research do you end up doing for most of your books?

Yeah, that . . . this is a question I really hate with the Quantum Empirica series specifically.

Sorry!

No, I also get asked that a lot because it is quantum strings and quantum theory. I ended up buying many, many books and doing a whole bunch of online research into quantum theory and quantum strings. And, yeah, and I realized, much to my chagrin, that I’m just not smart enough to know that stuff. 

So, yeah, I did a bunch of research that really didn’t stick with me because I wasn’t smart enough, or intelligent enough, to keep all those details, you know, going. For the Quantum Empirica series, what really worked is, one of the books I bought was The Dancing Wu Li Masters, I don’t have the author’s name in my head right now. It’s quite an old book. But it kind of brought, you know, Eastern philosophies together with physics and kind of tried to meld them together into something that was explainable. And that really fed into Threader Origins. In fact, the title of the book was The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and I actually have dancers in Threader Origins based off of that. I had a friend, I was reading the book and going through it with a highlighter and marking pages, and a friend picked up the book and started reading my highlighted comments and threw it back on my desk in disgust. He says, “You haven’t highlighted any of the scientific stuff, just all the emotional content,” and I said, “Well, yeah, OK, that works.”

Yeah, research is, you know, because both of my series take place, you know, basically on Earth, I don’t have any extra, you know, planetary stuff. And, you know, and especially for Threader Origins, Google Maps was a big one, a big part of my research. And then I had the opportunity, actually, I went on holiday and drove through most of the areas that Threader Origins covers in the US, which also help me bring in a bunch of extra details on the scenes.

OK, well, we’re getting down to the last few minutes, so I’ll ask you the other question you’ve already said you’ll hate, which is the big philosophical questions.

Did I not mention that I’m not intelligent enough?

Before we started, you said you weren’t philosophical enough. So, we’ll see. But they’re really not difficult questions. I think the first one is, why do you write? The second one is, why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? And the third one is, why do you write stories of fantastic specifically? So, in whatever order you like.

All right. Well, I will do them in the order you asked. I will ask you to rephrase those questions as well, because I will have forgotten what they were about to get them. OK, why do I write? is the first one. And a lot of people I know, a lot of authors I know, say they write because they have to. If they don’t write, they’re going to go crazy. They’re going to go insane. And that is not my answer. I write because I enjoy it. I love the creation and the development of characters and the world-building. And, you know, it’s a mental exercise that I love doing. And could I go without writing? Probably. Would I be happy about it? No, no. I enjoy the process. I really, really enjoy the process. That being said, I enjoy having written more than the actual writing as well. So, I’m a complex person. How’s that?

That’s a very common affliction of our writers.

There you go.

And the second question was, why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? Why do we make stuff up? As human beings, we make. Why do we make stuff up?

I think I’ll couch that in our current times, when times get difficult and tough, you know, whether it’s Covid-19 or the politics south of our border or whatever is in the world or whatever is stressing you out or hurting you, people want and need—most people, not everybody, not everybody—but people want and need some sort of escape. And even if that escape can be as depressing or as painful as the real world, it’s an escape from where they are in their lives and where they’re at. It gives them the chance to, whether they live in your main character’s skin for a while or whatever, gives them a chance to escape from reality, you know, without the use of psychotics.

And the third question was . . . what was the third question . . .oh, why, if you’re going to tell stories for people to escape into, why make it stories of the fantastic, fantasy and science fiction?

Because it’s what I love to read, I actually . . . when I started out, I never even thought of writing a different type of book. It’s just what I love to read. It’s what I love to write. Although I also love to read thrillers. And although I’ve tossed around the idea of writing a thriller, I don’t . . .  you know, by the time I’d be finished writing, the thriller would have too many fantastical things in it to be considered just a thriller.

Yeah, whenever I’ve tried to write something else, there’s always, “But if I put a ghost in here, this is really cool.”

I could put it a gryphon right here! Yeah.

So, you’ve mentioned that you are, I guess, writing the third book. The second one is in revisions, and the first one is out. So that’s what you’re working on now?

Yeah, I’m working on the third book, and again, the whole Covid year and some of the  politics that have been happening have made it a struggle for me to be creative. But I am working my way through it, and I will hand this one in on its extended deadline.

And what are the titles of the second and third books?

OK, so it’s Threader Origins is the first, Threader War is the second and Threader God is the third.

And do you know roughly what the release schedule is?

I have no clue. I have not heard the release schedule on anything but the first book, which, as you said, just came out.

And do you have anything else in the works beyond that? Are you already looking beyond . . .?

I do I, I have an idea, and usually, I wake up with these ideas in the middle of the night and scribble them down on a piece of paper, and in the morning, it feels like I’m reading a doctor’s signature. So . . . and the idea is gone from my head. So what happened this time is the idea came during the day, but I was in the middle of doing writing on Threader God. So I emailed the idea to my agent, and now it’s up to her to remind me when it’s it’s time to work on it.

And you’ve got a little short fiction as well, I think, for an anthology that’s coming up?

I do. I have . . .What’s the title? It’s called Derelicts, by Zombies Need Brains. I’m one of their anchor authors. That doesn’t mean that they’ll actually buy my story if it’s garbage, but I’m hoping they enjoy it. I handed that in . . . probably December, January 1 or 2, I think, so a couple of days beyond the due date when it was due. But they will get to reading it, and I will get my editorial comments on those. And I think that book is . . .you know, I don’t have a release date on that either. But if they accept it, it’s my third short story sale.

I’m in another one that was Kickstarted at the same time. That’s why I asked. So, I turned mine in before the deadline.

Uh-huh.

Not too far from the . . .

Yeah. How’s that full-time job working for you? Sorry, that was harsh.

All right. Fair enough. Fair enough. And where can people find you online? I mentioned it off the top, but we’ll mention it again here at the end.

All right. Well, I’m geraldbrandt.com on the Web. I’m on Facebook as Gerald Brandt Author, and I’m on Twitter @GeraldBrandt.

And we should mention that’s Brandt with a D. B-R-A-N-D-T.

It is a silent D, so. Yes, yeah. If you’re not sure of the spelling, you can look at the transcript.

Exactly right. Well, thanks so much, Gerald. It’s been great chatting with you. You know, I thought about it for a long time. I have to limit the number of DAW authors I do, though. I have to space them out because I could easily do nothing but DAW authors because I’ve met so many of them at dinners and stuff.

Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for having me. This was a blast.

I had a great time, and best of luck with the trilogy, and I’m sure I’ll talk to you again soon. Or hopefully, we’ll see each other in person again soon.

That would be nice. I would . . . I can hardly wait to actually meet people again. This has dragged on long enough. But I think we’re looking at probably another six to nine months before something happens.

Yeah, probably. 

World Fantasy in Montreal.

Yeah. Yeah, I hope so. Well, thanks again.

Thank you.

Episode 75: Robert G. Penner

An hour-long interview with Robert G. Penner, author of Strange Labour (Radiant Press), named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Science Fiction Books of 2020, and editor of the online science-fiction zine Big Echo.

Website
www.robertgpenner.com

Twitter
@BillSquirrell

The Introduction

Robert G. Penner is the author of Strange Labour, one of Publishers Weekly‘s Best Science Fiction Books of 2020. He’s also the editor of the online science fiction zine Big Echo, and has published more than 30 short stories and a wide range of speculative and literary journals under the pseudonym of William Squirrell.

Originally from Winnipeg, he currently lives in western Pennsylvania, but will soon be returning to Canada.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers.

Well, thank you, it’s great to be here.

I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths in person, but we do have a kind of a secondhand connection in that the publisher of Strange Labour, Radiant Press, is based right here in Regina, Saskatchewan, where I live. And I know John Kennedy, who’s the publisher over there, very well. And in fact, the anthology that came out of the first year of this podcast, Shapers of Worlds, is being distributed through LitDistCo, a Canadian distribution company, through the good graces of Radiant Press. So, there’s kind of a connection there, I think.

Yeah, that’s a connection. That’s the real deal.

And so, we’ll talk a little bit about your Canadian roots and how you got interested in all this science fiction stuff. So, where did you grow up?

I was born in Winnipeg, but very shortly after birth, my parents took me and my brother off to Africa, where they were development workers with the Mennonite Central Committee. So, the first six years of my life were in Zambia. Then we came back to Winnipeg for four or five, then to Swaziland, and then back to Winnipeg. But I do identify as a Winnipegger.

Well, that’s an interesting combination of countries.

It is.

So, how did you become interested in the . . . well, I presume, like most of us. You started as a reader. When did you first find your interest in reading and writing? And was it science fiction that you started with, or did you come to that later?

It was very young. But when we were in Zambia, when we were small children, my dad . . . we were in fairly rural Zambia, so there wasn’t much to do. And my dad read us the whole of the Lord of the Rings a couple of times and the whole of the Narnia series and some of those classic fantasy books when we were very small. So, we grew up, both me and my brother, already very engaged in sort of speculative fiction and the pleasures of, like, fantasy. And when we got back to Winnipeg, and we had access to the big public libraries, my brother, my older brother, started taking on a lot of science fiction from the libraries, and I followed his path.

Yeah, I had two older brothers, and one of them, in particular, read quite a bit of science fiction, so that was the stuff that was always around the house. And so, I kind of picked it up, and that’s kind of how I got really interested in it as well. How old were you when you came back to Winnipeg?

I was six. My brother was . . . I was five or six, and my brother was about eight. So, we were still very young. But like I said, because of the environment we grew up in, we were sort of hyperliterate because that’s all there was for entertainment. So, by the time I was 10 or 11, I was reading science fiction fairly regularly and already thinking about writing, writing as play, as just an extension of both reading and your usual childish sort of fantasy life. Writing was just a part of it.

When did you write your first sort of complete thing? I mean, I remember that stage where I was writing, you know, I’d write a few pages or something, but I never finished anything until a little bit later. So how was that for you?

I don’t know. You could say I still haven’t. But I think the first time was probably, again, 10 or 11, like very short pieces, nothing very extensive, but by 10 or 11, I was writing little short stories, I think.

Yeah, that’s about when I wrote my first complete one. “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” it was called, so you could sort of say . . .

That’s awesome. That’s a great title.

I thought science fiction characters had to have weird names.

Well, that’s a keeper.

Yeah, I wish I could find it. It’s . . . my mom typed it up for me, and it’s tucked away in a box somewhere. And if I ever find it, it’s going online like that, just to show people. So, did you continue writing through high school? Was that something that you kind of went through?

Not as much. I’d say in high school, I trailed off quite a bit in terms of my writing. And then when I went . . . I mean, you’re just busy with a lot of things in high school, and it just wasn’t super high up on my agenda. I was . . . my friends and I at that stage were playing a fair amount of Dungeons and Dragons and Traveller and things like that. So that’s a type of writing, too, when you’re preparing games.

Yeah.

But serious writing wasn’t until I think I went to university, in the very late ’80s and early ‘’90s. And then I started writing more and more again. And in some ways, it might have been triggered again by isolation. In my late teens, I spent some time working on a farm in Germany, and there was nothing left . . . and again, there’s nothing to do but read. So, I read an awful lot. And I think that sort of reinvigorated my sort of my ambitions to write. So, probably late ’80s, early ’90s, I started writing again, and it was a combination of both university and sort of periods of isolation doing different kinds of work where I was thrown upon my own imagination for entertainment.

What did you . . . did you study any writing formally, like, did you take any classes? What did you study?

I guess when I started university, I did take some . . .I took a couple of English Lit courses at the University of Winnipeg, and that influenced me, and I . . . at Red River, Red River Community College has, like, a journalism program, creative communications. I did that in my early adulthood as well. So, that was some fairly formal training. But I would say the biggest influences in terms of sort of establishing style and voice would have been just reading, just picking up independent books and experimenting on my own. I did tend to always be a fairly experimental writer, and I think music, the type of music I was listening to, influenced that.

What kind of music were you listening to?

Oh, punk rock and . . . well, especially punk rock, but sort of more avant-garde-ish pop music where there was a lot of room for sort of play and experimentation. Even something like the Talking Heads, there’s an awful lot going on lyrically that isn’t very typical and just gets a young writer thinking about what’s possible with language if you really push or stretch.

You referenced punk rock in an interview with you. I read about Big Echo, so I was wondering if that was the kind of music you were listening to.

It was. And also, actually, for writing, I listen to a lot of, I guess, what you call old country stuff like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. And that’s a lot more sort of a standardized style of writing. But I think that country, country and western probably also shaped . . . that curious combination of punk rock and country and western probably shaped my style and my voice.

One of the interesting things about country music is that there’s a lot more storytelling in it, I think, than other forms of music, so many country songs are actually little stories of one sort or another.

Absolutely, yeah. And my dad listened to a lot of country. Well, he grew up playing country music, and so there was some country music fairly early on in my life as well. I wasn’t a big fan or anything, but there was always, you know, I mean, I learned about Wilf Carter and Hank Snow and that kind of thing fairly early on. And as you say, that’s like, they write little stories. And so, I was aware from quite young of this idea of the little story as being highly entertaining.

So, when did you start writing little stories and attempting to get them published? When did the publication thing start happening for you, and how?

Very late. So, we moved down to the States about seven or eight years ago, and I had just started writing again. I’d finished a Ph.D. in history, and one of the ways to distract myself from preparing for class, I think, was to write fiction. And so, I started writing a lot more fiction at the tail end of my Ph.D. But then, when we moved down here, my partner was working, and I was on a visa that required me not to work. I wasn’t allowed to make any money while we were down here, while I was on that visa. And so, there was really nothing to do but shop and cook and take care of the kid and write. So, I started really writing a lot right when we first moved down here and started publishing in small zines fairly regularly and compulsively, I’d say, So I would say that really picking up the energy, that was about seven or eight years ago, I started really writing.

And down here, I was lucky as well. There’s a guy called Andy Stewart who’s published occasionally for Fantasy & Science Fiction, and he has a new book, a novella, coming out with Tor. And he happened to be living here at the same time. So, we had similar reading and writing interests, and we started working together a lot and reading each other’s stuff. So that also was a big invigoration.

You weren’t entirely writing science-fiction kind of stuff, were you? You mentioned literary writing as well in your little bio there.

Yeah, I do both. When I was younger, it was very much more literary. It was all a sort of this like, I don’t know, like, sort of male-confessional Charles Bukowski type stuff that a lot of young men might be interested in, and I found it ultimately a little boring, and I started retreating into sort of my childhood, looking for more inspiring things, more fun things to write about, and I began to realize that speculative fiction really gives you a lot of freedom to just do whatever you want in terms of your writing. And so, I started reading more, revisiting old texts, and trying to experiment and write science fiction in ways that I hadn’t before, certainly not since I was a child. And there’s this idea that I think academics sometimes have that you can just start writing science fiction or fantasy, and it’s very easy. And it’s . . . I mean, it is in one sense in that it’s play, but in another sense, there was quite a steep learning curve. I started reading an awful lot of short-form science fiction and fantasy venues and more novels and novellas and sort of trying to understand the craft from a speculative perspective. And that was all in the last seven or eight years. And that was also . . . Andy (Stewart) 11:49 was again a fairly big influence because he’d been to Clarion, he was a part of that scene in ways I wasn’t and had a very good eye for what sort of contemporary science fiction and speculative fiction was like. And so, that was all in the last seven or eight years, I’d say, I started really thinking hard about it. That doesn’t mean I stopped writing the literary stuff or reading it. That was going on at the same time, but there was that influence; Andy’s influence was very significant.

Yeah, we often say in the field that it’s a field in conversation with itself. And, you know, it’s very easy for people, I think, who come into it and haven’t read widely, and experienced it, to write something that, you know, would have been perfectly fresh 50 years ago, but the field has perhaps dealt with that or is now taking that idea in unexpected directions. There are all sorts of things going on that . . . when I work with young writers, and I do quite a bit of work with young writers, I will often get stuff that it’s pretty clear they’ve watched science fiction like Star Wars, stuff like that, but they haven’t actually read it.

Absolutely. And so, I was shocked at how, in some ways, how hard it was to write something fresh, like really fresh and original, because it’s been an awful lot of very clever people being very creative over a long period of time. And it’s pretty hard to just walk in and think, well, I can start writing this stuff and impress people.

So, we’ll move on to the novel. Was this your first attempt at a novel, Strange Labour, or had you written something before?

I self-published sort of a speculative political horror thing a little while ago, but I wouldn’t call it a novel. It was more of an experiment, I would say, in terms of just a fairly straightforward narrative novel. This was my first serious attempt.

Well, pretty good initial attempt then, considering. So, I guess the first thing to do is to give listeners a synopsis of it without giving away anything you don’t want to give away.

The basic idea is that people wake up one morning and the vast majority of the population has become overwhelmed by a compulsion to leave the cities and dig these massive earthen mazes or labyrinths. And there’s a handful of people that are not sort of compelled to do so, and they have to find a way to live in this new world where everyone has left the cities, and they’re just building, working themselves to death to build these massive mounds, these earthen mounds. These people don’t talk. They just communicate somehow to themselves. And so, you have this isolated, this small, isolated community of people who aren’t digging, who have to make sense of this new world and find a way to live meaningfully, sort of in the margins. That’s the book. And so, the structure, the narrative structure, is a young woman traveling across the United States, what was the United States, because she wants to find out what happened to her parents, whether they joined the diggers or whether they’re like her. So, it’s this sort of this combination of a kind of an eerie or weird post-apocalypse with a fairly traditional road novel. And so, she meets various people on the way and various little communities that are striving to make sense of the world, this new world they find themselves in. And that’s the book.

You could say the structure goes back to, oh, say, the Odyssey, traveling to strange places.

Absolutely. Yeah. And it’s . . . I mean, it has a fairly episodic feel in some ways, too, like the Odyssey, where it’s just one thing after another. It is . . . yeah, it does actually hearken back to that very old style of storytelling.

And what was the inspiration and in general, what is your . . . I know it’s a cliché, where do your ideas come from, but it’s a legitimate question. How do these things come to you? What sorts of things spark story ideas, and this idea in particular?

That was a dream fragment. There was a very small element of it that just originated in a dream fragment, and then just playing around with it. After that, it was originally a short story, and the short story became the end of the novel. So, in a lot of ways, the writing was writing backstory for this short story that I really liked and couldn’t get published. I don’t know. I guess in terms of just where the ideas come from, just life. One has odd thoughts. You write them down. Occasionally a dream. Occasionally it might be something more pointed, like a very specific idea, like a what-if idea. But I’m a . . . . I would say I’m a mood writer. And so, most of my ideas come from trying to capture a certain mood or feeling about the world rather than a sort of a very classic science fiction axiom. Like, if X then Y kind of writing, which I really enjoy and I wish  I was better at it, but it tends to be more sort of particular moods or atmospheres that trigger ideas and narratives rather than sort of a scientific notion.

Well, in Strange Labour . . . do you explain at some point, or is it more about the mood of this strange world, and nobody knows what’s going on, and nobody finds out?

I don’t explain. I don’t. So, there’s no . . . I can’t even give it away because, I mean, I have my own theories and ideas, but in a lot of ways, I think the book wasn’t about this interesting thing that happened, but rather this thing has happened and how do people respond and how do they make meaning out of something they don’t understand? So, if you’re going to boil it down to a single sort of philosophical idea, it would be that these people are stuck in this incomprehensible universe that they can’t make sense of, and they need to somehow keep living despite this. And so, if you do provide a solution to that problem, it kind of undercuts the whole purpose, which is to try to think about what it’s like to live in a universe you can’t quite understand and still live.

Well, isn’t that the question we all face?

Yeah, it is. And I mean, that’s part of why I was writing it, just trying to think through on a sort of . . .  personal problems on a, in an aesthetic way.

You have a Ph.D. in history. Has your knowledge of history, does it play into these sorts of things? I mean, there’s been many times down through history when people have found themselves in such circumstances, completely out of their control, and not understanding what’s going on. Do you draw on some of that knowledge of history in writing things like this?

I do. Strange Labour isn’t a particularly historical book or anything like that. But one of the things that’s really interesting in history, like, sort of professional archival history, is you tend to always start finding yourself looking back at the big events sort of through the margins because you’re doing archival work, because you’re looking at these really subjective experiences of history, in some ways you stop thinking historically, right? You stop thinking in terms of these big economic and social sweeps, and you find yourself often thinking in very personal terms because you get attached to particular archival voices or perspectives, and these people never know what’s going to happen. They’re stuck in the world, and they’re trying to understand it. And there you are, like 200 or 300 or 400 years later, and you know what’s happened. But you’re still sort of obliged to try and enter the world that these people exist in and try to understand what it looks like and what it feels like when you don’t understand what’s happening or what’s going to happen. So that very sort of, very, like, working historian perspective of like, how do you enter the world of someone who’s dead, who’s living in the far reaches of the past and doesn’t know what’s happening, what’s going to happen, how do you understand their experience of the world and how do they make sense of the world and what’s sort of the raw material, the cultural and the social and the economic raw materials through which they live in this world, that you have a sort of a post facto sense of that they’re stuck in the middle of?

So, when you’re writing a novel, it’s actually quite similar. You’ve got these characters that don’t have access to the world in the way you do, and I think, for me, the practice of history really showed me ways to sort of think about it. Well, what do they have access to? How can they think? What are the raw materials of their life, and how do they construct meaning out of that? So, in that sense, it’s sort of, a meta sense, history 

was very important to the writing of Strange Labour. And other than that, I mean, you have access to interesting facts, I guess, you can use as spice and flavor in a novel as well, the way most people might not. But, yeah, I think, philosophically, history has been very important specifically to Strange Labour, and to my writing in general, just for that, this is this way of sticking yourself into the head of someone who doesn’t have the same access to the facts as you do, but trying to do so as respectfully and thoughtfully as possible.

There have been several authors I’ve interviewed who have a background in history, so it’s interesting . . . and folklore, in the case of Seanan Maguire, was a folklorist, I think, and, of course, that plays into it as well. So, once you had the idea, you said it started as a short story, and then you had to create a back story. So, what did you’re planning and outlining process look like? This is your first novel, so it would have been kind of deciding how to do it.

Yeah, it is. It’s, I mean, you play around a little, but I mean, it was actually, it made it easier to know what the ending was. So, in a sense, everything’s focused on getting to a certain point. The problem, the biggest problem, I faced was that I like the original short story very much. And I like the characters in the short story very much. So, I didn’t want to mess it up. I wanted to keep it sort of true to the original tone and style of the piece, but it was just, it was fun, I think it was mostly just fun. You say, “I’ve got to get to X, and I’m starting it at A, and how do I get there?”

There wasn’t a whole lot of planning initially. I started writing, and it just took off from there. You mentioned the Odyssey earlier, and so, one of the things that was a little difficult was to keep it, like, structured and not episodic. I think the biggest danger was it would just turn into a sequence of events, just sort of that kind of very plotty way of getting from A to B to C. I think that was the big danger, particularly for a novice, was trying to have a fairly classic novelistic structure and get to where I wanted without it just being like a straight linear procession.

Yeah, so I started writing, and then when I was about halfway done, I kind of had to reevaluate the structure and sort of start, maybe start, I think I started to think of it in terms of acts. Well, if the original short story is act three, what has to happen in that one? And act two, how can I give it structure and meaning, so the reader doesn’t feel like they’re just being dragged along.

Did you ever write anything down as formal as an outline or a synopsis or something, or was it more feeling your way through and then, you know, taking notes as necessary to . . .?

No synopsis ’til late, but lots of lists, lots of flowcharts. I’m a big flowchart fan. So, there was, I would say, about a third of the way through, all of a sudden, I started writing flow charts, making flow charts, and just trying to figure out what was happening, when, and how. And once I started working with Radiant Press, I had to do that a little more seriously because they wanted more sort of background than I provided in the original draft, which was very sort of existential. And they wanted a little more back story. So then . . .and then you start doing this thing where you’re tracking the backstories as well as the current story. So, I have to think about Miranda’s—the main character’s name is Miranda—I had to think about her previous life and start working that into the material. And that’s probably when I started writing, like, a novel proper, and started struggling with the usual kinds of problems that novelists struggle with. But there were definitely, I think, flowcharts and catalog cards getting rearranged on tables and all kinds of desperate efforts t  fight through the problem of structure.

You mentioned the character, and obviously, there are other characters. How did you discover the characters you needed for this story, and how much thinking and detailing of them did you do before you started writing them, or did they also emerge as the story advanced?

The main characters were there in the original. The two main characters were there in the original short story, and they were just there. I just started writing the story, and I needed these characters, and I came up with them. When I started doing the novel, then you need to put in a lot more sort of . . . well, you need a lot more words about them, and they need a lot more shape and form. So, I started thinking about them more in sort of dramatic terms as characters, what’s this character like, and so on. I’ve mentioned this in a previous interview before, but there were two main characters, Miranda and Dave, and my partner really liked Miranda, but she didn’t care much for Dave, who was sort of the foil for Miranda, and I really like Dave, so a good portion of the middle of the book is me trying to convince Nicole, my partner, that Dave’s OK, that Dave’s actually all right. And that was a very productive way to do it, because it really, because then you think about, “What are the things she doesn’t like about Dave?” and you don’t want to get rid of them because you think it’s part of who Dave is. But then you also want to start showing and illuminating other aspects of his character. So, for me, the most satisfying part of the writing process in terms of character building was to build Dave up in such a way that he was fuller and more understandable than he had been in the beginning. I enjoy writing characters. It’s one of my favorite things about writing. I don’t know if I’m particularly good at it, I sometimes feel like they all tend to look a little the same, but I guess that really is a lot of the pleasure for me in the writing is you get these fairly basic characters, and then you start building them up into sort of three-dimensional forms and trying to establish how they’re distinct from each other and so on.

Well, ultimately, all our characters are really aspects of ourselves because we’re the only ones that we really understand—if we understand ourselves.

Exactly. Which is why it was particularly distressing when Nicole didn’t like Dave because there’s an awful lot of me in Dave.

What does your actual writing process look like? Are you a certain number of hours a day, or do you go out in under a tree with a quill pen? How does it work for you?

It’s shifted a little. When we first got here, I’d get my daughter off to school, and I’d do the shopping or whatever and then have a few hours, and I would put in the writing. Once I got a visa that allowed me to work, that changed. Then you find yourself sort of scrabbling and scratching for writing time. A lot more in the last couple of months. I mean, we’ve all been locked in with the pandemic. It’s actually been a lot easier. So, my daughter is now online in school. So, once I get her set up in the morning, I mean, I have a couple of hours just to write. So, it’s actually been . . . the last six months or so, it’s actually been relatively easy. You just get up, you take care of some basic chores and housework, and you get everyone fed, and then you write for a couple of hours until you get tired. Particularly over the Christmas holidays, I’ve just . . . it’s been very easy to get up in the morning and start writing.

On the novel, did you write it quite sequentially, just started at the beginning and kept pressing through until you got to the end? You mentioned that halfway through, you had to kind of reevaluate, but you did it sequentially?

Yeah, I do. I don’t know what it means, but the novel I’m working on now, again, it’s just . . . I just start at the beginning and start writing. And I mean, obviously, at a certain point, you’ve got to go back and reevaluate and rethink and restructure, and you never know how much of it you’re going to have to just destroy. But yeah, A to B to C is basically how I proceed.

There are a few people who write piecework and do scenes and then stitch them all together later. But most people, I think, find it easier to just tell the story and then worry about fixing it later.

Yeah. And every once in a while, if I’m feeling stuck, I might jump ahead, right, and go, “Well, OK, I know this one scene has to happen later, so I’m going to flesh it out at least, and then maybe that will help me, and go back. But in general, yeah, it’s just full steam ahead and try to get to the end.

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

I would characterize myself as fairly fast. I guess it kind of depends. In genre, I find people write fairly quickly, whereas like in literature, in the literary, like the high-end literary stuff, they seem to write a lot slower. I’d say I’m kind of in the middle. I’m probably very fast for a literary writer and sort of a little slow for a spec-fic kind of a guy.

I remember years ago hearing of someone who had spent, like, 11 years writing, I don’t know, half a dozen short stories or something. And I can’t even fathom that. I could not write that slow if my life depended on it.

I’m pretty sure I’d get bored. There’s actually, on Netflix there’s this great movie with . . . Meryl Streep plays a writer, sort of a Margaret Atwoodish writer, and she’s horrified, she’s on a boat, and she’s horrified when she meets a mystery writer who turns books out, like, two or three a year and she spends four years on a single book.

It’s a different approach, that’s for sure. So, you’ve mentioned that you were trying, you know, part of your work was making your wife like Dave. Yeah. Did you have any other sort of first readers or beta readers that you showed work to give you feedback? You’d mentioned your friend there?

Yeah. Andy Stewart. 31:47 I was incredibly lucky to find him. We were in a small town in western Pennsylvania, and both our wives were teaching at the university here. So, we were very lucky to find each other. And yeah, so he was a beta reader. He gave me an awful lot of feedback, and he was very, very useful because, again, because he was much more grounded in sort of the culture of speculative fiction than I was. And so, I tend to be fairly pretentious . . . oh, let’s call it avant-garde, experimental . . . and so it was very useful to write with him because he would help me ground myself and just always remind me, keep reminding myself, that you’re writing for an audience. I mean, you don’t have to. If you just want to write for yourself, that’s fine. But I was trying to write for an audience. So, Andy was very good at trying to get me to think through sort of technical issues, like, “Well, OK, so what’s your idea and how do you want to communicate it to your readers sort of efficiently and easily so that they’re not constantly having to try to catch up with you?” So, he was tremendously important in that way in sort of keeping me grounded and not sort of off into the experimental stratosphere or anything like that

When you were reading, did you read any of the New Wave stuff from the 60s in science fiction?

Actually, I didn’t. I mean, it was in the back of my mind. I was reading . . . when I was writing Strange Labour, I was reading mostly sort of modern literary textbooks of post-War Europe. And that kind of influenced the mood. And since then, I’ve started going back to that, to the New Wave stuff. I was a little leery while I was doing it. I didn’t want to read anything that would be too closely connected to it in style. So, one of the things that always happened is people would say, “Oh, you have to read The Road.”

I would think that’s what you would not want to read while you’re writing something like this.

Exactly. So, I was terrified of reading it, and I didn’t want to go near it until I was finished. And now I feel free, that there’s all these books that people told me I should read that now I can go back to. I mean, you just don’t want to read a book and then find someone’s done it way better than you already because then you’re hooped.

Well, I was a kid when the New Wave was happening, and I was reading science fiction, and it did not click with me at the age of, say, 10 or 12, and I’ve never gone back to see what I think of those stories now, but it would be an interesting experiment. The only one I really remember, I don’t remember the story. I just remember the weird typography. It was a story that was printed in a spiral on the page that you read from the outside, following the words around in the spiral to whatever happened in the middle. I don’t remember the story. I remember that image of those spiraling words on the page.

Yeah. And I think that was always the danger for me, was ending up in the spiral.

So, once you had a draft, what did your revision process look like? You’ve gotten some feedback. Were you working on language or . . . you’ve mentioned structure? What were some of the things you had to continue polishing? And I guess this ties in as well to the editorial process because you mentioned that some of that feedback came from Radiant. So maybe before we talk about that, how did you find Radiant Press? It’s a small press, puts out excellent stuff, but it’s a very small press.

It is a small press, and actually, I heard about it through a friend, Stephen Whitworth, who runs the Prairie Dogin Regina. So that’s how I heard about them. But before I sent it to them, I’d sent it to a whole bunch of agents all over the United States. And one of the agents, a fairly big name, got back to me, and he said, “Well, send me more. I’m curious.” And so I did, and he was disappointed with the rest of the book. And so, I talked to him a little about that. I wanted to find out why he was disappointed. And he felt like in the middle, it got sort of trite and typical of post-apocalyptic fiction. So whereas in the beginning, he found it very fresh and original and engaging, it sort of just became . . . I blew it all up, I just destroyed the middle of the book and started writing it again. So, that was the first sort of major intervention, just getting rid of the middle of the book. Not quite entirely, but I would say, like, 20 percent of the book, I just deleted. And so, I had this big hole in the middle that I had to fill up. And so, the middle part of the rewrite was all that, was like trying to restructure the middle of the book in ways that were satisfying and not stereotypical or cliched.

And then once I had that done, I sent it to Radiant Press because Steve had said, “Oh, you should try these people.” And Debra at Radiant Press got back to me, and she was interested. And then we started working. And that was sort of the next stage of development was . . . she’s a very good reader and some other good readers had a look at it. And a lot of their critique was what I had mentioned earlier, was that that the characters needed more backstory because I was just being too existential. I didn’t want the reader to have any access to the world sort of before this had happened, except in the most superficial ways. And readers were like, “No, you know what? You need to build your characters up a little more. You have to give the readers at least something to hang on to.” And so, a lot of the sort of the next stage of development was the really, really quite pleasant work of just trying to build up these characters a little more, sort of flashback stuff, just little bits here and there, just to try and give them depth.

So, those would be some of the major revision stages other than copyediting, was this agent got back to me and said the middle was disappointing, so I blew it up and restructured it, then I got hold of Radiant Press, and they were interested, and in the conversations with Debra, she told me what her concerns were, in particular, characterization. And I guess, as far as Debra and I are concerned, I solved them in that draft. And then, after that, it was just tweaking and fine-tuning.

Well, then Radiant went out, they got some pretty good blurbs. Kim Stanley Robinson, for example, that’s a pretty big name to have attached to your first novel as a favorable comment.

It is. It’s actually still kind of confusing that he would have read the book and responded in that way. A lot of those blurbs I got because I was running that science fiction zine, Big Echo. I interviewed a lot of these people, and so I sort of, I got a little bit of social capital, and then I spent it to get the blurbs, so . . . that wasn’t my plan when I did the interviews or the zine, but I realized, though, I’ve talked to all of these people that are pretty clever and well known and kind, and maybe they’ll help me out. And they did.

Now, generally, people in the field are . . . there’s this whole pay-it-forward idea that Heinlein talked about that. Yeah, it’s something that I think a lot of people in the field are very, very good about. And then when did it come out? It was in October, was it?

It was in October.

So, what was your reaction when you saw the finished book and then read the response that you’ve had to it?

Positive, good. It’s exciting. It is a first book, and it is a weird time for it to come out. So, we have been expecting to do, you know, like readings and that sort of thing. And obviously, that can happen very easily. And I was stuck in the States as well, which didn’t make things easier, but it was exciting. It would have been fun to do a little more of the typical kind of readings and bookstores and that sort of thing. But it’s just, I mean, it’s just odd to have a book, right? Like, you do all this writing your whole life, and you do all this reading and then all of a sudden, you’re writing’s in an actual book and an actual thing. And it’s a little disconcerting to see it there and exciting.

Well, at that point, it’s out of your control, and it’s in going into the heads of readers who are getting all sorts of things out of it that you might not even have known you put in there, so . . .

Oh, absolutely. So, we got one really good review, and that was from Publishers Weekly. So that’s a pretty good one. And the reader was fantastic. So, this anonymous reader gave it a great read, and they saw a number of things in it that I hadn’t really been paying attention to. So, for instance, in terms of these people digging versus people not digging, there’s a suggestion in the book that it has something to do with sort of neurotypicality, right, that there’s something neurologically different about the people that aren’t digging than the people that are digging. And so, what that reader picked out was that there’s a theme here about what it means to be neurotypical or neurotypical or what have you. Like, what do these distinctions mean in terms of what it means to be human, et cetera? And I hadn’t intended a particularly sensitive or thoughtful take about that in the book, yet this reader picked it out and showed this thing about my book that I never thought was particularly valuable, or something that can be valuable to some readers. So that was very exciting, very inspiring, actually, to see something in your book that’s positive that you hadn’t thought of, or deliberately thought through, or put there. But this sensitive reader can pick it out and show it to you and say, look what you did here. This is good.

There’s a story that I’ve I think I’ve told before on the podcast that came out of Isaac Asimov’s Opus 100, I think, which was the first of his autobiographical books. And he talked about going to Columbia University, I think it was, a class where a professor was teaching his famous story, “Nightfall,” and he sat at the back and he listened to that. And afterwards, he went up to the professor, and he said, “Well, that was very interesting, but I’m Isaac Asimov, I wrote that story, and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there. And the professor said, “Well, I’m very happy to meet you. But just because you wrote the story, what makes you think you know what’s in it? It’s kind of an interesting thought. And I think there is certainly . . . we all put stuff in that we don’t know necessarily where it comes from, and then readers find things there that we didn’t necessarily think we were putting in specifically, and I think it’s because I always like to say that writing actually . . . it feels very like a loner activity, something you do by yourself, but it’s really collaborative.

It is. I think that word’s tremendously important. And it’s collaborative all the way down. So, from the very beginning, when you first start writing a project, and it’s yours, and it’s your own until your beta readers, and then if you start publishing, you’re always having conversations with the publishers and with editors. And then when readers get it, there’s a whole other conversation. And you really have very little control over the types of meanings that people are going to extract from a text. And it can be a little scary when you start thinking about it, about how little control you have of the language once it’s left your grasp.

Of course, sometimes they can completely misconstrue what you had in mind, but you don’t have any control there either, so . . .

That’s the danger. 

I wanted to go back to the zine, which you mentioned and I mentioned, Big Echo. Where did that all come from? And you’ve mentioned that you’ve had a number of writers that you’ve interviewed. And I was looking at it online and saw some recognizable names had provided, you know, short stories for it. So, how did that come about?

Boredom. Like all good things, it came from boredom. So, we moved down here, and I had some time on my hands, and I had a friend who does graphics and web pages and also loves science fiction. And he was actually, he’s in Regina, too.

All of the best people are.

That’s right. Almost all. So, I said, “Well, why don’t we put together a scene?” And he said, “OK.” And so, then we did. And the issue when you’re putting together a zine like that is you don’t have money, and you can’t pay, so it’s really hard to get the writers you’re necessarily interested in. So, the first year or so was a lot of hustle, of cold-calling writers I liked and asking if they’d be interested in contributing something. And one of the, I think in the first summer, one of the first people I contacted was Rudy Rucker, of cyberpunk fame. He ran a zine called Blurb, which was quite similar. And I contacted him and asked if he had anything lying around we could use in Big Echo. And he was very excited about it and very enthusiastic, and as you say, about Heinlein and paying it forward, he’s a very generous kind of an artist, and so he gave us a story, and that was the biggest name we’d had up to then, and then he also mentioned in our conversation that the next time he had a book out, if we wanted, we could interview him, and then that just got me thinking of interviews. And because it was Rudy Rucker, I could contact people that knew who Rudy Rucker was and say, “Hey, Rudy Rucker did this with us. And now we’re doing interviews, and we’re wondering if you’d be interested.” So, Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow were both amongst our first interviews, and I’m pretty sure that’s a lot of it. I mean, they’re both also very generous guys who give a lot of interviews.

Yeah, Cory Doctorow was on here a little while ago.

Yeah, he never runs out of things to say, and he’s always happy to speak to a lot of people. And so, both of those guys came on very early and helped us out and made a big difference. And once you get a few of those big names and it’s a lot easier to attract other writers. Kim Stanley Robinson was actually . . .  I got in touch with him through Andy Stewart 48:27, whom I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, and he knew him from California. I think he might have been taking a class with Stan, I’m not sure. But so, I contacted him through Andy Stewart. So, again, a lot of it just has to do with, like, a little bit of hustle right in the beginning and then social networks kicking in in good ways.

Well, the field is a lot bigger than it was, say, back in the Golden Age. But it is still a fairly small group of people, so everybody knows each other. So, I thought I saw on the website that you had the final issue of Big Echo. So, is it done now?

Yeah, we’re wrapping up. I’m just I’m a little tired. It’s not . . . I’m not a particularly outgoing or extroverted person, so the hustle part of it is a little difficult for me. And I’m not super comfortable as an editor. I don’t like tweaking people’s voices or anything like that. So, it was hard work in that sense. It’s also fairly niche. So, we’re looking for a very particular type of writing, and there’s only . . . it’s a sort of a subset of a subset of science fiction, so there’s not that much out there. It’s not particularly sort of popular science fiction we were interested in. So, it was just kind of running out of gas. It would have been a lot of work to keep up the standard we’d set. And I was tired. So, I just sort of . . . we wrapped it up. We’re going to put out an anthology shortly, probably within the next couple of months, a Big Echo anthology for a minimal cost just to try and generate a bit of revenue, just to keep the website up, just to keep costs up. So that’ll probably be the last thing we do with Big Echo. But it’s been awfully fun. It’s been a heck of a ride. And again, I’ll come back to, again, what you mentioned about the generosity of people in the field, it’s really quite amazing that you can just cold call someone and say, “Hey, I’m putting together this zine. Would you be interested?” And depending where they are in their career, they might help you out. And they generally do.

Well, we’re getting close to the end of the time, so I need to ask you the big philosophical questions, which is ultimately . . . there’s three of them. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do we write stories of the fantastic in particular as opposed to limiting ourselves to stories of the here and now? So, those are the three questions. Why do you write? Why do any of us write, and why write science fiction and fantasy?

For me, it’s, I mean, the two sort of key aspects of it are our pleasure and therapy. I mean, it really . . .ever since I was small, I’ve had a hyperactive sort of creative life. I love the play of imagination, and it’s a way to just keep doing it, that you can always be experimenting and playing with language and ideas with writing. It’s just fun. It’s just flat-out fun. I know that’s not true for everyone. I know for a lot of people, it’s something sort of horrifying, the idea of writing. But for me, I was always an introverted kid, I was always hypercreative, it was just a way of entertaining myself. And that whole thing about, if you can’t find a book you enjoy, then you need to write your own. I think that’s true. It’s, like, just, yeah, you can write a book you’ll love, and it’s fun to do. And the therapy . . . I tend to write fairly, fairly dark stories on the whole, and it’s just a way of working through sort of emotional and psychic stresses, sort of . . . certainly when you’re living through the last four years of the Trump administration as an immigrant in the United States, and the epidemic, there’s a lot of psychic stress on you all the time. And so, writing about it, fictionalizing the anxieties you feel, is a way of coping with them, as well. So, for me, that was always important.

Why do people write? I think mostly for the same reasons, the pleasure and the sort of the therapy of it goes hand in glove. I think, also, the collaborative thing you mentioned is also important. This idea of . . . like, you can do it for the pleasure or the therapy, you can do that, and nobody else has to read it. But there’s this next step where you start getting other people to read it as well. And there’s this collaboration and conversation going on. And that’s very important in all sorts of ways as well, just the sheer fact of exchanging ideas, sort of an exchange of ideas and views and perspectives on the world is obviously important. But just also, again, the pleasure of having a conversation with someone about an idea is wonderful. It’s . . . one of the best things about writing is when you do write something, and you get positive feedback from someone you don’t know, like someone says, “Oh, I really enjoyed this, this was good, or this was fun.” That’s a tremendous charge. It’s a big rush, I think. Once that starts happening to someone, they probably write more and more and more because it’s a really wonderful thing, in a very innocent sort of way, to just do something fun and to share it and have people you don’t know say, “You know what? That was great. That was fun.”

And the final part, why speculation, why the fantastic, why science fiction? Again, I think . . . for me, it was really freeing. I’d been reading a lot of social realism and super serious, ideological-type stuff about like, you know, boo capitalism, life sucks, just angry, loud music, and then I started rereading old spec fic and science fiction and there was just a freedom to it and a more . . . a more honest sense of one of the reasons we write and we read is for fun. And it can be super serious science fiction, you know, but there’s always an element of fun to it and the freedom of someone taking an idea and running with it as far as they can and pushing it to its limits. That’s very exciting and invigorating. So, I’m the least fannish person you’ll ever meet, but one of the things I like a lot about science fiction and fantasy writing is the fan community and the enthusiasm, right, just the flat -out enthusiasm for having a stonking good time when you’re reading a text. To me, that’s one of the most attractive things about science fiction and fantasy is that the audience really wants you to succeed because they want to have fun when they’re reading the text as well. I think that’s important to me.

And what are you working on now?

I’m writing historical fiction, a different kind of genre, a little bit of drift into sort of speculative material, about the fur trade, the 19th-century fur trade in the Hudson’s Bay territories. So, it’s from the perspective . . . for my Ph.D., I wrote about the fur trade, missions in the fur trade, some other things as well. So, I’m going back to some of that archival material and trying to turn it into a novel.

Sounds very interesting. And where can people find you online, if anywhere?

I got a Twitter feed @BillSquirrell. I think it’s . . . probably the safest way to find me is, there’s, for the book we have a webpage called robertgpenner.com, and there’ll be links on that page to other social media sites.

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

I did. Thanks very much.

I’ll tell the folks at Radiant Press that I talked to you. They were actually the ones who suggested it because I didn’t know about the . . . I knew that they were going to publish some speculative fiction because I talked to John about it, and then Strange Labour came along, and it’s getting lots of great attention. So, I was very happy to be able to talk to you. And also, it’s not very often I talk to somebody that has any kind of connection to Regina, Saskatchewan. So that was nice to know.

John had nothing but good things to say about you. He was very enthusiastic.

That’s great. All right. Well, thanks so much. Bye for now.

OK, take care.

Episode 74: Frank J. Fleming

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

Website
www.frankjfleming.com

Twitter
@IMAO_

Frank J. Fleming’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Frank, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Hey, thanks for having me.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

Mm-hmm.

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

Oh, wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dresden Files.

Yeah, Dresden Files.

Yeah, I love those, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You’re not sure where he came from?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continuity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mm-hmm.

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

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

How many beta readers do you have?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I have heard of that one.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And when will that third book be?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks. Yeah, it was great.

Episode 73: K. Eason

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

Website
www.mythistoria.com

Twitter
@svartjager

K. Eason’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, K., welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

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

Katie.

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

Yes.

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

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

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

Were the Black Stallion books among your first books?

Oh, God, all of them.

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

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

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

There you go.

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

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

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

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

Yeah. That’s for sure.

But so great.

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

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

But you kept writing?

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

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

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

That would do it!

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

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

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

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

Oh yeah.

What took you in that direction?

Getting the English Lit degree, truthfully?

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um-hm.

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

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

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

So, what was your first published novel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, nothing.

So this mostly happens in your head?

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

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

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

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

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

Mm-hmm.

OK.

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

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

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

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

What fascinated you about them?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of notes do you get?

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

And then it goes to Katie at DAW.

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

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

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

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

Oh, God, yes. Editors are fantastic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes. 

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

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

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

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

I was thinking more about than reviews.

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

And they have very striking covers.

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

They’re certainly beautiful.

Yeah. They’re very, very attractive.

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

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

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

Uh-oh.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

So why then tell stories of the fantastic?

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

No, finish what you’re saying.

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

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

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

And what are you working on now?

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

And where can people find you online?

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 72: Cory Doctorow

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

Website
www.craphound,com

Blog
www.pluralistic.net

Twitter
@Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Corey, welcome to The Worldshapers.

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

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

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

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

That also sounds possible.

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

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

Judith Merrill

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

Tanya Huff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, fabulous.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

What was your first novel?

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

And that was what year?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mm-hmmm.

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

That’s exactly it. Yep.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What was your goal?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A lot going on there.

Yeah.

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

Oh, yes, very much so.

And when will that come out?

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

I suspect it will find a home.

Yeah. Oh, yeah.

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

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

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

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

Okay, great.

And best of luck with Attack Surface.

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

Episode 71: Patricia C. Wrede

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

Website
pcwrede.com

Twitter
@PatriciaCWrede

Facebook
@PatriciaWredeAuthor

Patricia C. Wrede’s Amazon Page

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

The Introduction

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

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Patricia, welcome to The Worldshapers.

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

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

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

And you grew up in Chicago, right?

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

As one does.

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

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

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

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

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

I remember those, too.

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

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

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

Oh.

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

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

Yes.

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

Yeah.

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

A critique group.

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

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

Pretty good collection of names there.

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

Creative destruction.

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

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

Mm-hmm. Yeah.

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

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

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

Where do you get your ideas . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, that’s excellent.

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

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

Mm-hmm.

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

I know that one!

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

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

Pardon me?

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

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

Touch-type.

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

But I presume you work on a computer now.

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

Yeah, a Commodore 64 was my first one.

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

Cut and paste.

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

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

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

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

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

Feels like forever.

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

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

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

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

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

Pretty good beta reader.

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

That’s the trouble with starting to name names.

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

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

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

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

It depends on the book.

And the editor, I would presume.

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

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

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

But it made the book better.

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

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

Yes

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

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

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

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

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

Ah, yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s a great setup.

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

That sounds fun.

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

Publishers are annoying like that.

Sometimes. Sometimes.

And where can people find you online?

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

Any social media accounts to mention?

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

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

Yes, I think that’ll be fun.

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

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

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

Ed, thanks for being here.

I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.

Thank you for inviting me!

Bye for now!

Episode 70: F. Paul Wilson

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

Website
RepairmanJack.com

Facebook
@RealFPaulWilson

Twitter
@FPaulWilson

F. Paul Wilson’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Paul.

Well, glad to be here.

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

I understand.

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

Yeah, it was.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, they are.

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

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

Yeah.

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

Yeah.

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

I was in family practice for 44 years.

Oh!

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, I remember those.

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

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

Oh, don’t say it, really.

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

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

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

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

That was my next question.

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

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

Oh, no!

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

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

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

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

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

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

All you’ll ever need!

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

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

Oh, really?

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

I know that name.

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

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

Practice makes perfect!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t look at my stuff!

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

Yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that comes out next June?

That comes out in June.

And where can people find you online?

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

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

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

My pleasure. Bye bye.