Carver has taught writing in a variety of settings, from educational television to conferences for young writers to Odyssey to MIT to his own workshops. Visit his free guide for aspiring authors of all ages at writeSF.com. For more about the author, to read his blog, or to sign up for his newsletter, visit starrigger.net. His books and short fiction are widely available in ebook, print, and audiobook.
Arabella of Mars won the 2017 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy, his story “Tk’Tk’Tk” won the 2006 Hugo Award for Best Short Story, his story “Nucleon” won the James White Award, and he has been shortlisted for awards including the Hugo, Nebula, Campbell, Sturgeon, and Locus. His stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Analog, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, Tor.com, numerous anthologies and websites, and multiple Year’s Best anthologies, as well as his collection Space Magic from Wheatland Press, which won the Endeavour Award for the best SF or Fantasy book by a Pacific Northwest writer.
David is a contributor to George R. R. Martin’s bestselling shared-world series Wild Cards. He is also a member of Book View Cafe, a writer-owned publishing cooperative, and Oregon Science Fiction Conventions Inc., a non-profit organization that produces OryCon and other SF conventions. He has narrated podcasts for Escape Pod, PodCastle, and StarShipSofa and the audiobook of Space Magic, and his video production “Dr. Talon’s Letter to the Editor” was a finalist for the Parsec Award. In 2010 he spent two weeks at the Mars Desert Research Station, a simulated Mars base in the Utah desert.
David lives in a hundred-year-old bungalow in Portland, Oregon.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, David.
Nice to be here.
Usually, at this point, I talk about how we’ve met each other at conventions or how we know each other through this or that, but I don’t think we’ve ever met anywhere.
No. At this point, I don’t recall how you crossed my bow. I’m always interested in podcasts. I’ve done interviews on a lot of podcasts and I also do podcasts narrations. I narrate my own stories and also sometimes those of other people.
Well, we’ll have to talk about that, too. But first…the other cliché on this podcast is I’m going to take you back into the mists of time, and find out how you got interested in…most of us start as readers, so perhaps that’s how you began—you probably did—how you got interested in science fiction and fantasy and how you got interested in writing: how you got started putting words on paper, which it still was probably when you started writin
It was, yes. So, my father was a science-fiction reader back in the ’30s, in the days of the pulps, so there was a lot of science fiction around the house, as a matter of fact. There are stories that my father told me as bedtime stories when I was a kid which I now recognize as being classics of the field, like Mission of Gravity by Hal Clement. And so, I was surrounded by science fiction. I always loved it, big fan. I counted myself fortunate when Star Trek premiered in 1966 that I lived in the Midwestern time zone because if I’d lived in the Eastern or Pacific Time zones, it would’ve been past my bedtime. So, I was a Star Trek fan from day one. And my early…the books that I remember were, there was Miss Pickerel Goes to Mars, Have Space, Will Travel, and Willy Lay’s The Runaway Robot was an early favorite.
So, I’ve been reading it since I was a kid and I know I started writing science fiction stories about as soon as I started writing it all. I actually have a science fiction novel in two volumes, which is to say two spiral-bound notebooks, that I wrote in fourth grade. And, you know, I picked it up and re-read it a while ago, and it’s not bad. It’s, you know, I mean it’s dated, but it’s not embarrassingly badly written. I mean, it’s juvenile. It’s juvenile, but I think the sentences are in the correct order, and, you know, there’s actually plot and character—not so much on the character, but definitely there is plot. Character has always been my weakness and plot my strong point, and that’s been the case since the beginning. So, I wrote a lot of stories in middle school and high school, and in college, I took a science fiction writing class, and people said, “Hey, this stuff is really good, you ought to submit it.” But when I got out of college, I started working as a technical writer, writing software documentation, and writing fiction was just too much like the day job. So, I didn’t write a lick of fiction for 20 years.
And then I changed careers. I moved from technical writing into software engineering because I was tired of cleaning up other people’s design messes and wanted to have a chance to build the software so it was usable from the beginning. So, once I started being a software engineer instead of a technical writer, I found that my fiction-writing energy had come back. And so, that was around ‘98. And so, I had a sabbatical from my job coming up in 2000, so I had told my wife, to her surprise, that I wanted to go to Clarion for my sabbatical. So, I went to Clarion West in 2000 and I started publishing almost immediately thereafter. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend being a technical writer for 20 years as a path to fiction writing, but what it did for me is, I was able to spend 20 years focusing on the craft of writing, writing nonfiction. with all of the…I mean, simple things like. not just the grammar and the punctuation, but the work habits: outlining, scheduling, my time, ergonomics, all of the things…I mean, writing is a really complicated business, and I was able to focus on everything except for the fiction craft parts of it for 20 years. So then, when I went to Clarion in 2000, Clarion West, I was able to add the fiction disciplines to the general writing disciplines I already had, which explains why I was able to hit the ground running so hard, I think. And certainly…I mean, you know, I went to Clarion West in 2000 and I was on the Campbell ballot in 2003. I don’t think most people can do that. Again, I wouldn’t recommend going to Clarion at age 38, 39, which is what I did, but, you know, everybody has their own path. There’s a…I’m a member of Book View Cafe, which is a writers’ co-operative.
Yeah. I’m familiar with that.
Yeah. And we produced a book called The Usual Path to Publication, which is, you know, the title is a joke. It’s a collection of essays where each of the 20 or so people in the book discusses their path to publication. And, of course, the joke is there is no useful path to publication. And I called mine, “How to Sell a Novel in Only 15 Years,” because everybody’s path to publication is different.
Yeah, I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library here in Saskatchewan, and one of the things that I…one reason for this podcast, and one reason I recommend all the want-to-be writers who come in to see me, and I’ve seen 40 or 50 individuals at this point, is by listening to these podcasts, you discover that there is no one right way to do this stuff, that everybody brings a different style and a different approach and gets into it in a different way. There are some similarities with you and what…I started in journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter for 10 years, and I was in communications for five years, and I was writing fiction at the same time and selling, you know, here and there, minor things. But I do believe that just the very act of sitting down and having to write thousands and thousands of words every week is quite invaluable. It’s like anything else. You have to exercise those muscles.
Yeah. When I was, like, a student, writing research papers, I hated outlining. And then, as a professional technical writer, outlining is absolutely an unavoidable part of the process. You have to do an outline before you can figure out how much time you need to budget to do the work. So, I was a really, really heavy outliner when I started, and I discovered in my personal path, and I think this is true of many other people, that I started out as a plotter and become more and more of a pantser as I become more experienced. And I’ve also noticed that pantsers actually realize the value of outlining and become rather more plotters as they become more experienced. So, I think the more experience you get, the plotter/pantser distinction becomes a lot fuzzier.
Now, this…your first few stories.,..”1992: the WorldCon that Wasn’t.” I’m just curious about the title. What was that about?
So, this was…it started out…so, as you mentioned, I co-edited a fanzine with my wife for 25 years or so. And so, this started out as an essay in the fanzine. So, the 1992 World Science Fiction Convention was held in Orlando. And it just so happened that there was a hurricane that basically just missed slamming into Orlando like a week before the convention. So, we wrote an essay, my wife and I collaborated, we wrote an essay, kind of an alternate-universe con report of what happened when we went to the convention, despite the fact that the convention center had been wiped out by a hurricane the week before, basically riffing on the idea that fans will get together and put on a convention under any circumstances.
And so…I was going to say that fans love stories about fandom.
Yes. Well, but the thing is, is that this was in a fannish publication. It was explicitly…basically it was an alternate-universe con report. So, a couple of years later, Mike Resnick, who has recently passed on, he did a lot of anthologies. He did a lot of alternate-universe anthologies, beginning with Alternate Presidents. And so, he decided that he was going to do a fan project called Alternate WorldCons. So, he opened the floor, and this was explicitly a fannish project, they did not pay professional rates, he was very clear about that up front, but he opened for contributions, and so I said, “Hey, I’ve got this essay. Would you be interested in it?” And he said, “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” So, you know, he paid me some something less than pro rates, like maybe a penny a word. And so, that on appeared in the second volume, Again, Alternate WorldCons. So it’s basically…it was based on something that almost happened, but that makes it an alternate-history thing and therefore was perfect for Again, Alternate WorldCons. So that was my first publication in a science-fiction market, although it was not my first professional publication.
But it was a few years after that when you really started publishing regularly.
And you focused on short stories to start with.
Why were you drawn to that first? I mean, that also varies some author to authors., Some leap right into novels and some seem to gravitate to the shorter forms.
I was…as…when Humphrey Bogart was asked in Casablanca why he had come to Casablanca, he said, “For the waters.” “Monsieur, we are in the middle of a desert.” And he said, “I was misinformed.” So, that’s why I wrote short stories, because I was misinformed. At the time, I thought that…like I said, my father was a reader during the pulps. So, I had a bunch of anthologies and magazines from the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, ’60s that I grew up reading. And so, reading the essays in there, I got the impression that the way to make a career as a science-fiction writer is, you begin by making your name with short stories and then you do a fix-up novel and then you begin writing novels. That wasn’t even true then, and is even less true now, but nonetheless, that’s what I believed.
And also, when you go to Clarion West or Odyssey or any of several other workshops for beginning writers, they use short stories because it’s a much better pedagogical technique. When you write a short story, you can write the whole thing in a week, you can do beginning, middle, and plot, characters, setting, all the pieces in an easy-to-critique and easy-to-understand chunk. If you wanted to workshop a novel, you couldn’t possibly do that in six weeks. And the Taos Toolbox workshop that Walter John Williams does is focused on novels and does two weeks, but even in two weeks, all you can do is you can talk about novels and you can read excerpts, but you can’t write and critique a whole novel in two weeks. That’s physically impossible.
So, by going to Clarion West, I discovered that I enjoyed short fiction and I was good at it, so I kept writing short fiction for a long time. I find that most writers are either natural novelists or natural short-story people. And I found myself to be a natural short-story writer. I’d say that most people are natural novelists because most of what people read these days is novels and you are what you eat. You tend to write what you like to read. And so, most science fiction and fantasy these days is published and consumed in the form of novels.
Novels get a lot more attention. Novels get a lot more critical interest. If you just Google on, you know, “best science fiction of 2019,” you’ll probably find nine or 19 pages talking about nothing but novels for every one page you find that even mentions a short story. Novels are where the action is. And so, I did spend a long time in the short-story mines and I learned an awful lot, but I always felt that novels got more attention. It certainly is the case that even a mid-list novel gets more attention than even an award-winning short story. So, I always wanted to be a novelist, and I wrote…Arabella of Mars was the fourth novel I wrote, but the first one to sell.
What did you start with? What was the first one that didn’t sell?
So, the first novel I wrote had the working title of Epixemic, with an X, which was changed to Remembrance Day for submission. It takes place on an Earth where the aliens have come, and…my model was the British in India, that there were not very many of them and they didn’t conquer. They just came in and offered us a really good deal and took over. So, they had…they gave us a worldwide rapid-transportation system and cured disease and stuff like that. And all they wanted was to, you know, to make use of our raw materials and special craft. So, they really were dominating the planet, but only economically, not militarily. And so, this was a world where the aliens were…they were the elite. They were the classy ones. And basically, all of humanity was relegated to a subsidiary role. And most people were reasonably happy with it, but there were a few people who didn’t like it.
So my main character was somebody who fell in with a group of rebels— or terrorists, as they were described by people outside the group—who had managed to seize an alien biocomputer. And he was a computer hacker and he hacked it, and for reasons that he didn’t understand at the time, the hack resulted in a plague, an “epixemic,” an alien plague, and so all the aliens on Earth started coming down with this horrible disease that was spreading like wildfire. And the connection between the two wasn’t even clear at first. And to make things more complicated, he was the ex-lover of the daughter of the alien’s leader. Who was also, not coincidentally, the first person to fall to the virus.
So, I did something incredibly ambitious. I said, “Well, if Iain Banks can write a novel that bops back and backward and forward in time simultaneously, I can, too.” So, I didn’t have…in Iain Banks’s, I believe it’s Use of Weapons, you’ve got alternating points of view, one of them going forward in time, the other one backward, to a mutual conclusion. I didn’t do that, but I did have one of the two point-of-view threads begin, say, in January, and the other one began in September of the same year, and bopping back and forth between them. One of them is catching up to the other and they both finish up in December. So you’ve got, one thread is offering you previews and foreshadowing for what’s happening in the other thread. And the other thread is explaining what’s happening in later one. So, anyway, it was ridiculously complicated. And I believe I pulled it off, but nobody was willing to risk it for a first novel.
Also, there was polyamory and my main character slept with men, women, and aliens, and…and it was a first novel, you know? I think it was really good, but it didn’t sell. You know, I came close. I got an offer from a major publisher, but the editor…I did not get an offer from a major publisher. I got an editor who wanted to buy it, but he couldn’t convince his boss to put up the money. And one of the other publishers were interested. And so, the second novel was a similar thing. Again, I thought it worked. I learned from the first novel that I needed to be a little bit less ambitious. So, instead of having alternating points of view bopping back and forth in time and a complicated polyamorous bisexual alien fucking love story…I’m sorry, did I say that word?…I, in the second novel, I had only two points of view. And it was strictly going one direction in time. But I still had an underage lesbian romance at the heart of it. And that one also did not sell.
OK, OK, so, that one didn’t sell. And the third one was a was young adult, one point of view, strict chronological, and still had a possible lesbian love affair in there, but not inter-generational. And at the time I was finishing up book three, the rejections that I was getting on book two, people were telling me “Science fiction just isn’t selling these days.
I remember that.
I don’t know if it was actually true at the time, but was certainly the message that I was getting from both editors and agents. So, for my fourth project…so, after I finished that third book, the young-adult one, I did not even submit it. I set it aside because it was science fiction. And I said, “What can I write that’s fantasy enough to meet the needs of the market, but science fiction enough to satisfy my science fiction writer heart?” And so, of the huge pile of ideas that I have—because I don’t know about anybody else, but it certainly is a truism in this field that ideas are the easy part. I mean, you know, that thing about somebody will come up to you at a party and say, “Hey, I’ve got this great idea for a science fiction story. You know, I’ll give you the idea. You write it, we’ll split the profits.” And no, no, ideas or easy. Ideas are a dime a dozen.
So, I had this huge pile of science-fiction story ideas. And there was this one that involved an alternate Regency…or. at least. an alternate Enlightenment period, where the sky was full of air and the European powers had colonized Mars and Venus, which are, of course, inhabited. And so, I had this idea and I thought, “You know, this kind of feels like fantasy, with the flying sailing ships, but I’m going to I’m gonna approach it as science fiction.” And so, I wrote it, and…and this is one of those things where, when you mention, “Well, I’ve got I’ve got these three or four novel ideas,” this was the one that everybody pointed at and said, “Yeah. Yeah, that one sounds fascinating.”
And really, that’s, you know, the basic idea of Arabella, with the flying sailing ships and the girl who dresses as a boy and Martians and pirates and privateers, it’s got a lot of jazz to it. People really like the raw idea. And that helped propel me through the writing of it and it really helped sell it.
One thing that is really important when you are submitting a book to either an agent or an editor is, you’ve got to have your comps, your comparable titles. And for my first couple of novels, I said, “Well, it’s kind of like Larry Niven,” or “It’s kind of like Jack Vance.” You know, I was comparing myself to writers who were already 20 or 30 years out of date. But on this one, I could say it’s Patrick O’Brian in space. You know, that’s my comp title. I could also compare it with Mary Robinette Kowal’s Regency magic series. So, if you can realistically compare your book to things which are highly regarded, critical successes and current bestsellers, it dramatically increases the chances of success, versus saying, “Well, it’s kind of like this obscure thing that you might not have heard of or was 40 years ago.”
So, and that’s something that you’ve got to do…that has to be baked into the core of the book. It’s not something…you can’t come up with comp titles after it’s written. You have to understand as you’re beginning to write it, “I’m going for a C.J. Cherryh feel,” or, “It’s going to be like N.K. Jemisin,” or, “I want something like Captain Nemo.” You have to have your comp titles in mind from the very beginning, and it’s best if those comp titles are things that people will go, “Yeah. Cool. I love that. I want more of it.”
All right. Well, let’s get a synopsis of Arabella of Mars first for those who, for some inexplicable reason, have not read the book.
OK. So, Arabella of Mars takes place in 1813 in an alternate universe in which the sky is full of air and the European powers have colonized Mars and Venus. Arabella is a girl who was raised on a plantation on Mars, but her mother, fearing that she was turning into a wild colonial child, hauled her back to England. She hated it in England. Everything was too heavy, too wet, too warm, and the people were dull. She wanted excitement in her life. She had grown up basically completely on her own. She and her brother would run around in the desert with their Martian nanny and have all kinds of adventures. And in England, it was just balls and cards and horses and incredibly dull. So then, they get a letter discovering that Dad, who had remained back on Mars, had passed away of a fever. And Arabella discovers that her cousin is planning to travel to Mars and do in her brother so that he can inherit the family fortune. She is, for a variety of contrived reasons, the only person who is in a position to do anything about this. So, she disguises herself as a boy and signs on to a fast interplanetary freighter to attempt to beat her cousin to Mars so she can warn her brother and save the family fortune. Naturally, hijinx ensue. She winds up…there’s a mutiny, the ship is attacked by pirates, they land on Mars to discover there’s an alien rebellion in progress. Eventually, there’s a confrontation and Arabella does indeed get the boy, save the fortune, and calm the Martian rebellion.
It’s a heck of a lot of fun. Now, going back to the initial idea, you have a lot of ideas, but do you remember what kind of made you think of this in the first place? And is that typical of the way that your ideas come to you?
I say of ideas that ideas are like neutrinos. They come sleeting down in space by the billions, but you have to be dense enough to stop one. So if you just keep your eyes open, ideas are coming to you constantly. I was talking with somebody at Clarion, one of my fellow students. She said, you know, “Where do you get your ideas?” And there was a bird in the tree nearby, we were outdoors, and I said, “Well, you know, there’s a bird. You know, let’s talk about birds. You know, what if, what if, I don’t know, what if birds were spaceships? What if you could build a spaceship out of a bird brain? And I just sort of sketched out an idea right then. And that idea became “Tail of the Golden Eagle,” which was my first Hugo nominee.
So, in this particular case, I know exactly where the seed of Arabella was. It was 1987. It was Gene Wolfe’s book, Earth of the New Sun. Earth of the New Sun takes place in a far, far, far future, which is almost medieval. And at one point, our hero boards a ship to take him to another planet, and he’s given a necklace which holds the air around himself. And he discovers that when he goes out on deck, in order to talk to somebody else, you have to move up close to them so that your envelopes of air intersect, because there is no there is no sound in space. And he asks, “Why is this so?” And he is told, “Well, the philosophers believe that if there were sound in space, the roaring of the stars would define the universe.”
And that note about space is full of vacuum, because otherwise the roaring of the stars would deafen the universe, stuck with me for over 20 years. And I had this idea for…first it was gonna be a short story about, it was going to be an alternate 1700s where humanity discovers that the sky is indeed full of air, that the universe is full of air. And this was gonna be, I figured, “When would people discover this? When and how would people discover that the universe was full of air?” And I figured they’d probably do it, it would probably be, you know, Ben Franklin or Isaac Newton or something like that, and they would discover it by actually hearing that vibration, which, you know, people would have evolved to not hear it, but there would be this peculiar low-level hum that’s everywhere.
And so, I started out thinking about it as being the discovery of the phenomenon. But then I started thinking about, “What would people do after they discovered it?” So I had this idea about the flying sailing ships in the 1700s, I think probably because I started out with the idea of the Enlightenment? And then, as the plot evolved, it moved from the 1700s up to the Regency, because I do dearly love Patrick O’Brian, and so the Napoleonic wars in space. But I like having a young-adult main character, I like having a female main character, because life is harder for women, especially in the past of our cultures, and so, putting your main character in a situation that is difficult is a way to make their story more interesting. So, basically, making her female just made her life harder. And so, that’s how I came up with my main character and my setting. And then the rest of it kind of evolved through discussions with other writers and mostly just kind of pulling things out of my tail because, you know, that’s what fiction is, is pulling stuff out of your tail and putting it on the page.
There’s a Canadian writer…who’s been mentioned a few times by Canadian writers who actually studied with him…Candas Jane Dorsey had actually met him and I think worked with him a bit. Not a science fiction writer. His name is W.O. Mitchell, but he used to have a TV show which dramatized some of his fiction, and the name of the TV show was The Magic Lie, which I thought is a great expression to describe fiction. And I was glad you talked about ideas being everywhere, because when I do workshops and things, I did one not too long ago, in fact, and I was talking about this, and I said, “Well, look around the room. There are coat hangers over there. And I looked at the coat hangers and I asked questions and I came up with a story idea based on coat hangers. So, yeah, it’s just…again, it’s kind of that muscle that you exercise, I think.
Yeah, I do a workshop called “Idea to Story in an Hour” and I usually do start off with something like that.
Now, you had your idea. You had a character. Now, what does your planning process look like? How do you take that and turn it into your novel? You said you’re more of a pantser than an outliner now, but you also said you were an outliner, so what does it look like for you?
So, yeah, at the time I wrote Arabella I was a pretty strict outliner. So, my writing process is, I always have two files, or in Scrivener, I have one file outside of the manuscript. And so, I have my notes file and I have my draft file. And so, I start off in the notes file and my notes file, I only ever add onto the end of it. So it’s a combination of writing journal and process notes. So, I start off, every writing session, I sit down and I write the date and where I am. And then I start typing in the notes file about, “OK, so here’s where we are and here’s what I’m gonna do next.” And so, for the first, maybe, you know, for the first hour or two on a short story or for the first weeks or months on a novel, I’ll just type in the notes file and I’ll think, “OK, well, this is what I want to do, and this is some ideas for the story and the setting.” And I may go off and do some research and copy and paste stuff out of Web pages into the notes file I may write a couple of paragraphs about the character and where they’re coming from. The notes file is full of lots of “maybe” and “what if” and “oh, well, then if I, then I could.” And so, I just talk on paper. I just talk it out. And then every once in a while I’ll stop and I’ll write a bullet list of, OK, this is the outline so far. And I will actually, like, copy and paste bullet lists down further into the notes file so that I can refer back to previous versions. So, generally, the notes file is as big or bigger than the actual project.
And eventually, at some point, I actually start drafting in the other file. And so, the notes file will contain my notes about, “What did I write today and where do I think this is going next and what are the problems I need to keep an eye out for in the future and how many words did I write today?” And sometimes my notes file just says, you know, “Writing at so-and-so coffeeshop with so-and-so, did 1,500 words on X.” You know, sometimes it’s just that. And sometimes my entry for a notes file will be pages and pages and pages and pages of. “Oh God, I’ve written myself into a corner, what can I do now?”
So, I find that my process is generally, I will outline the whole book before I begin writing. And then I have to stop about halfway through and re-outline the second half based on what I’ve learned about the characters and situation in the first half, because the second half that I had in mind is no longer viable, or I discover…many, many times I discovered that my outline, I outline the first half in considerable detail and then the second half is then is something along the lines of, “And then hijinx ensue and everybody comes out happy.” So, I have to…so, not only because I didn’t think it through in detail, but also because what I had in mind isn’t going to work anymore, based on where I’ve gone up until this point, so I stop and re-outline at the halfway point, and then again at like the three-quarter point, I stop and re-outline the back quarter of the book.
Yes, that sounds very familiar to me, too, because I do something similar. In fact, I just did it for…not that long ago for the one I’m working on now, which is my next DAW novel. I had to replot to the end because it just wasn’t going to work the way I originally thought it was going to work.
Yep, yep. I find that I’m…my particular process is, I can’t begin writing until I have an ending in mind. I may not wind up with that ending, but I have to have an ending in mind or I can’t start moving.
Now, you mentioned a little bit about your writing, the actual physical act of writing. You write in coffee shops some. Is that typical? Do you write out of your home or your home office or how does it work for you?
I have a comfortable writing chair in my living room, but I do find that it’s much easier for me to write if I can get away from my home environment with all of its chores and distractions. And so, I find that writing with one or two other people in a coffee shop is the most motivating, because when you’ve got somebody on the other side of the table typing diligently away, you don’t pay attention to the fact that they may just be, you know, they may just be on Facebook. You…they give the impression of productivity and therefore, that compels me to be productive. Also, there’s something about the noise of a coffee shop that is very…it helps people to focus. And I’m far from the only person to have discovered that. And, of course, there’s coffee.
So, interestingly, I did, when I first started…and I don’t write full time. I am retired from the day job. But people say, “Oh, you retired to write full time?” No, I’m not spending any more time writing than I did before, but I don’t have a day job. So, when I first retired and started thinking about putting more attention to my writing, I considered renting space in a co-working space. And basically the choice was, I could rent a co-working space for, like, $300 a month with free coffee, or I could pay for the coffee at, you know, like three bucks a shot, and get free working space. So it was just, it was just cheaper to work in a coffee shop than a co-working space. I’d love to be able to have regular co-working partners. I know people who are software engineers and people…a lot of cartoonists. In Portland, we have this amazing studio called Periscope, which is a co-working space for cartoonists and comics illustrators, and I’d love to have that sort of working environment, but it just…I just can’t justify the expense.
I like to work in coffee shops, too, but here’s another question about working in that kind of a space. Do you find that you occasionally are overhearing conversations that interfere with your writing? Because that’s what happens to me and then I have to put on headphones and listen to music.
I used to write to music and I found that I just sort of stopped doing that. I guess I don’t find those conversations too distracting. The one thing that will be distracting is if there’s music at the coffee shop and the music has words.
And if that starts happening, then I have to go someplace else. But the conversations don’t impinge too badly.
Once you have a draft…well, first of all, are you a fast writer? A slow writer? How do you typify yourself?
I am an extremely slow writer. I have been working…with the exception of the third Arabella book, which because of various life factors, I had to finish in six months. I’ve never written a novel in less than two years, and my current project, which again, due to various life circumstances, I’ve been working on for over two years now, I could easily see it extending out to three. And I’m trying to be kind to myself. I have a real tendency to beat myself up for not being more productive. But I’m trying to be kind to myself and let the process flow as it does.
So, once you do have a draft, what’s your revision process before it gets submitted anywhere? Do you have beta readers? Do you do it all yourself? How does that work for you?
After I finish a draft, I generally will go through and do a revision based on what I’ve learned about the book during the process of it. I generally…my first drafts come out extremely consistent because I’m really good at keeping details clear in my head and so I don’t have to go back and revise to make sure that my heroine’s eyes didn’t change color or anything like that.
Clothes are what get me. What people are wearing.
Yeah. But I have a really strong sense of where everything is in the room. I don’t have difficulty with blocking. I never have people across the room and then find themselves back at the door. So, the problems that I have are larger problems, like, the character isn’t sympathetic enough or there’s not enough tension. And I wish there was like a knob on the outside of a story that you could just turn, you know, make the character more sympathetic or what have you. So. Okay. But anyway, so, by the time I get to the end of it, in my notes file, I have a whole bunch of notes of things I want to take care of in the first revision. And so, I go through and I do a revision pass on my own. Then, if possible, I have workshopped a couple of novels using a process where you get together with a bunch of other novelist friends, you rent a beach house for a long weekend, and you trade off critiques. A technique which has worked really well in the past is, you get, say, a dozen people together, and everybody has a completed novel, and you have to have a draft done by a certain date, maybe two months before. And so, then you share. You put your novels up on a shared drive so that everybody can access them. Everybody reads everybody else’s synopsis and first 50 pages. And then, two people read your complete novel and you read two complete novels. And the person who’s organizing the thing has to figure out who does which. It’s a little bit complicated, but I’d never done that part myself. And then you go and you spend a weekend at a beach house with, you know, cooking together and eating together, and exchanging critiques during the day, and just talking shop and chewing the fat for the rest of the time. So, in this way you get at a bunch of people looking at your premise and opening, which is really important. And then, a couple of people look at the whole thing. And likewise, you learn an awful lot from critiquing other people’s work. So, this is the best way that I have found to get feedback on a novel.
I also, for my first two novels I was working with a critique group that met regularly in person. And so, I was writing a chapter for every meeting. And I promised them that if I did not have a chapter for them, I would buy everyone drinks. And I never had to do that. So, it was very motivating for me to keep drafting, and I was getting feedback on the thing as it went along. Now, I remember Dean Wesley Smith telling me that nobody’s ever written a good novel that way, but he said this right after he’d praised my novel, which was written that way. So he said, “Well, I suppose there’s an exception to everything.” But, so, I do like to get feedback. I don’t have…sadly, at the moment, I do not have a writing group. I do not have trusted beta readers. The people that I was working with, many of them have stopped being productive for a variety of reasons. And those that have been productive are too busy with their writing careers to take time to critique other people’s stuff. So, putting together a good writing group is important and it’s also difficult.
Yeah, I’ve never had one, living in small-town Saskatchewan growing up. There was a writing group, but it was elderly women who wrote stories about the Depression, so…
Yeah. We have to two writers’ organizations here in Portland. We’ve got Willamette Writers and the Oregon Writers Colony, and they’re both very good. But the majority of people in them are retired people, mostly women who are writing their memoirs. We do have quite a few fiction writers and quite a few screenwriters and playwrights, but the numerical majority of members of these writers’ organizations are people writing memoir.
I did find a good…this is, you know…as I said, I’m pretty much your age. I’m a couple of years older than you. And there used to be a group called the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers Workshop, which was a by-mail critique thing, because we didn’t have e-mail yet, and it worked well, and I found a couple of really great critiquers who went on to have careers of their own. And that was nice, but critiquing by mail is a very slow process. So it just didn’t work once, you know, you started trying to get books turned around in any kind of reasonable amount of time.
Yeah. So, here’s something that I say. I’ve led a lot of critique sessions at science-fiction workshops. I started out attending them and gradually shifted over into leading them. And what I say about critiquing in groups is that the benefit to a writer of critiquing in groups is that you take the time to read a work with a critical eye. And this is a draft, so everybody involved agrees that this is not finished, perfect work. It’s not like a literature class, where you’re reading something that has already been published and has probably received a lot of critical acclaim. You’re reading something which is definitely rough, definitely a draft. And so, you’re looking for ways that it can be improved. So, you look at it with a critical eye, and then you get together and you share your opinions in a circle with other people who have also read that same work with a critical eye. And from listening to the other reactions to a piece that you have just read with that critical eye, you can hear, for example, “Other people found that this thing here was a problem, and I didn’t even notice that,” or, “I thought that this was a problem and other people didn’t.” And so, by hearing what other people thought of the same story that you just critiqued, you can improve your own critical faculties. You can figure out, “What am I missing that other people are spotting?”, or vice versa. And so that, I think is one…I mean, in addition to the critique that you receive and the things that you learn from reading other people’s drafts, you also learn from other people’s critiques. And so, that’s something that you cannot duplicate by mail. You could duplicate it with, like, you know, like a group video chat. I have not tried doing critique by group video chat, but I can imagine that it would work as well.
So once you have your polished draft, and it goes into your editor, what kind of editorial feedback to you typically get? You’re with Tor, so…
Yes. The first book had been through many rounds of critique, and so the editorial letter was quite short. The second book, I did get a rather extensive editorial letter. And the third book, both because it was written so fast and because of critiques…I mean, not critiques, reviews, that I’d read of the second book. I got a really…okay, so this is a Tor book, and it got a really scathing review on Tor.com, the second Arabella book. And that really set me back on my heels. And I made substantial changes to the third book to address the problems that this reviewer found with the second book. And I really wish she had reviewed the third book so I could find out what she thought of the changes, but she did not. So, whether the third book is better on those issues of colonialism and racism than the second book was, I haven’t received a lot of feedback indicating whether or not it did a good job. Because books, you know, books in a series are like children. You know, you look at somebody’s photo album and there’ll be, you know, a dozen photos of the first child and a couple of photos of the second child and the third child is, “Oh, wait, here they are at seven.”
That was me.
Yeah. Books in a series are the same. The first book gets a lot more critical attention. Like, I mean, look at the number of reviews of the three books on Amazon or Goodreads and you’ll plainly see…like, the first book has, I don’t know how many reviews, certainly well over 50, the second more like a couple dozen and the third, maybe a dozen. You know that…readers and publishers like series because it answers the question of, “I enjoyed this. Give me something that’s just like this, only different.” But, in general, only the people that read the first book will read the second…only some of the people that read the first book will read the second…and only some of the people that read the second book will read the third. So, the number of readers always goes down over the length of the series. Even, you know, even George R.R. Martin is not getting as many sales of the last book in his series, even though it’s a huge national bestseller, as he did for the first book, because every book in the series acts as an ad for the first book. So, a successful series, as it goes on, every new book that comes out at the end is going to cause more people to start at the beginning. But many of those people who start will not, will read either just the first book or just the first couple and not go on. So, there’s this big descending curve of readership over the course of a series, even the really successful ones.
Yeah, when I wrote my first trilogy, as E.C. Blake, it was under a pseudonym , and the first book…by far, my most popular book, but as the trilogy went along, I certainly noticed that, that each book had fewer readers, which is disturbing in a way. That’s just the way it works.
It is just the way it works. There’s a death spiral that can occur, where…it’s called ordering to the net. When, back in the days when brick-and-mortar booksellers were the top of the food chain, they would, you know, if they ordered 20,000 copies of some book and only sold 15,000 of them, then they would only order 15,000 copies of book two and they’d probably only sell 12,000 copies of that. So they would only order 12,000 copies of Book 3, which meant it was almost physically impossible to increase sales from one book to the next. So, you know, so there’s ordering to the net, it can turn into a death spiral where you don’t where you no longer have the opportunity of selling more because they just aren’t in the stores.
Did you know that Arabella was going to be…you say Ah-rabella, don’t you? How do you...
I say Ah-rabella. I believe that I am pronouncing the name of my main character incorrectly. So, I will not…I will never, ever correct anybody else’s pronunciation. I think I’m wrong, but I’m not…and people say, “Well, that’s the way you pronounce it, it must be correct.” No, not necessarily. I mean, I had a story that was set in China. And I had all these Chinese words in it, which I had looked up. But when I went to read it, when I went to do the audiobook of it, I discovered that I had no idea how to pronounce those words that I put on the page.
Funny story, I asked a friend of mine who does speak Mandarin how these words were pronounced, and he e-mailed me back saying, of this one particular word, was pronounced with the like the a in can, not the a in can’t. And I went, “What?” But I forgot he was a Brit. So it’s can and cahn’t, but anyway…so, just because I wrote something doesn’t mean I know how to pronounce it. And a lot of people have trouble with the name of the story “Tk’ Tk’ Tk’,” and that’s just how I say it. I just say tick, tick, tick. So you got it fine.
So anyway, so Arabella, I wrote it as a standalone, but during that novel-critique weekend, I was talking with my writer friends and everybody says, “You know, if you go to a publisher, if a publisher comes back to you with an offer, they’re gonna say, you know, ‘What else do you have in mind?” And if you can say, ‘Well, I’ve got two more books planned in this series,’ they’ll offer you a three-book contract.” And so, we…I just basically sat around with some friends in the evening and we BS-ed out a second and a third book. So, I wrote it as a standalone, but when…by the time I came to present it to the publishers, I had a one-page outline for a book two and a one-paragraph sketch of a book three in my hip pocket. So, when the publisher did indeed come back and say, “We like this, what else do you have?” I could say, “Well, here’s a sketch for book two and a sketch for book three. And so I got a three-book contract.”
All right. Well, we’re getting within about 10 minutes of when I need to cut this short…well, not that short, it’s still an hour. So, I want to ask my big philosophical question, which is, “Why do you do this? Why do you write? Why do you write science fiction? And why do you think any of us do?”
Why do I write? I write because I enjoy making things. And this is something that that I really enjoyed about software engineering is basically, you know, I wiggle my fingers and stuff to appear, stuff that actually does a job. In this case, the job is entertaining people. But I enjoy the process of creating. I enjoy the, “Ooh, what happens next?” thing. Storytelling is a basic human thing. And I happened to find myself with this skill set. I think some of it’s innate and some of it’s trained. And I definitely have some innate skills, and I’ve also done a lot of, I’ve taken a lot of workshops., I’ve taken a lot of courses, I’ve chewed the fat many a late hour talking about how do we do this thing on. And so, I’ve built up a pretty good skill set and I enjoy exercising that skill set.
And, you know, and the ego boost when somebody says, “Ooh, I read that book, I loved it,” is just, you know, that’s one of the best things in life, is when somebody says, “Hey, I saw that thing you did, it was great.” So really…I mean, people write for all sorts of reasons. They write for money. They write for fame. They write for critical acclaim. I really do write for the reviews and the awards. That is the thing that I am hoping to achieve. And why does anybody do it? Everybody’s got their own reasons. And if you’re going to pursue a career in writing, you really have to understand what you want out of it and how you’re going to prioritize the things that you do in order to align your particular skills with your goals. You’ve got to understand what your goals are before you can determine how to achieve success. You know, if I had, like, if I had twice as many readers and was making less money, I would go, “Great trade-off!” I would happily do that.
I know other people that are trying to, you know, trying to put food on the table. They wouldn’t take that. They would say, I would much rather sell a thousand copies with 50-percent royalty than…sorry, they’d say I’d rather sell 500 copies with a 50 percent royalty than 2,000 copies at a 25-percent royalty. Even though the money might be the same, that means that…if you self-publish, you get more money per copy. But most self-publishers can’t sell, can’t move as many copies as a traditional publisher with all of their marketing resources can. So, I would much rather have a smaller slice of a bigger pie, even if I get less money out of the deal, because you get more exposure, more visibility, more readers and more critical attention. If my book appears in brick-and-mortar bookstores, in libraries, and, you know, gets reviewed, you know, these are all things that are more available to me as a traditionally published writer. And they matter to me. It really matters to me to find my book in the library. And that to me is worth giving up a big chunk of the royalties. For a self-published writer, they would rather have a bigger chunk of the royalties of each book, which means that they make more money, even if they put fewer copies in front of people’s eyeballs. So, you have to understand what’s important to you and then choose your tactics based on achieving your goals.
And why science fiction?
I always say, “What’s the point of reading a book where it’s limited to things that could happen in the real world?”
That’s what I say, too!
I mean, oh, okay, yeah, yeah. So I’m reading How the West was Won or Gone with the Wind, you know. And Gone with the Wind, you know, nothing really interesting is going to happen. No Martians will descend. There are no ghosts. I think fiction’s all made up, and you should have the ability to make up whatever you want. And so, I really do find stories with the element of the fantastic to be a lot more interesting than stories that are limited to what could actually happen.
Yes. When people ask me, “Why do you write science fiction?” I say, “Why wouldn’t I?”
You know, it’s just more interesting to me. All right. Well, what are you working on now?
I am working on what I describe as a space-opera caper picture. It’s a cross between Leverage and Firefly in the universe of The Expanse. A group of…a criminal gang, basically, they had what they thought was going to be the job that would set them up for their lifetimes. It didn’t go well. Several gang members were killed and they split up. Ten years later, the son of the leader of the gang shows up and says, “Dad’s in jail. I’m putting the gang back together to break him out.” And it turns out to be more complicated than that.
Sounds fun. Is there a release date on that or is that still some way off in the future?
No, it’s some ways off in the future. I’m at…let’s see., I think I just crossed 78,000 words or thereabouts, shooting for 100,000. But that’s on first draft. So, it’s gonna be a while before it’s even ready to submit, never mind having a publication date. And, as I said, I’m trying to be kind to myself and not beat myself up for not being as productive.
And anybody that wants to follow you and find out what you’re up to, where can they find you online?
My Web site is daviddlevine.com. You can find me on Twitter as DavidDLevine. You can find me on Facebook as David.D.Levine. But I use that David D. Levine identifier…I’m also on Instagram as David D. Levine. I use my middle initial because the name David Levine is quite common. There’s a New Yorkercaricaturist, David Levine. There’s an Indy car driver named David Levine. Lots and lots and lots and lots of dentists and lawyers named David Levine. So I just I, you know, I never had a hope of getting my unadorned name to be near anywhere near visible on Google. But if you Google on David D Levine, you should follow me.
I’ve been pretty lucky with Edward Willett. There’s a professional golfer, I think, and there’s a guy who plays the cello. He played on the theme music for Northern Exposure with a group called Chance, and his name is Ed Willett. But if you Google Edward Willett, I get like most of the first two pages of hits. So that’s pretty good.
All right. Well, thanks so much for the conversation. That was great. Thank you very much. I’m glad you were a guest on The Worldshapers.
An hour-long conversation with Matthew Hughes, award-winning (and multiply nominated) author of more than twenty novels of fantasy, space opera, and crime fiction and numerous short stories, focusing on What the Wind Brings, his latest, a magical-realism historical novel from Pulp Literature Press.
Matthew Hughes writes fantasy, space opera, and crime fiction, and has sold 22 novels to publishers large and small in the UK, US, and Canada, as well as 90 works of short fiction to professional markets. His latest are Ghost Dreams (PS Publishing), and What the Wind Brings, a magical-realism historical novel from Pulp Literature Press. His short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s, F&SF, Postscripts, Lightspeed, Amazing Stories, Pulp Literature, and Interzone, and he’s in a number of invitation-only anthologies as well, including Songs of the Dying Earth, Rogues, Old Mars, Old Venus, The Book of Swords, and The Book of Magic, all edited by George R.R. Martin and/or Gardner Dozois. He’s won the Arthur Ellis Award, and been shortlisted for the Aurora, Nebula, Philip K. Dick, Endeavour (twice), A.E. Van Vogt, and Derringer Awards. He’s been nominated for induction into the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Association’s Hall of Fame.
Matthew spent more than 30 years as one of Canada’s leading speechwriters for political leaders and corporate executives. Since 2007, he’s been traveling the world as an itinerant house sitter: he has lived in 12 countries and has no fixed address.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Matt.
Thank you. Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? When you hear it like that? Yeah.
I guess I have no idea where you actually are, right now, now that I think about it. Somewhere in B.C., I think?
I’m on Salt Spring Island, right on the sea, in a very comfortable and beautiful house that belongs to some wealthy people who are traveling in Argentina right now.
Oh, very nice. Now, we’ve been acquainted for a long time through Canadian science-fiction circles, and you have an unusual connection to me: you’re the first person I’ve interviewed for the podcast who has actually been one of my editors as well, because you edited my young adult fantasy series, The Shards of Excalibur, for Coteau Books.
I did, yes. Yeah.
So, I always try to establish those sorts of connections off the top. And I don’t think it’s a conflict of interest that I’m interviewing one of my editors. because it was a freelance thing.
Yeah. And also that’s done and finished and it’s all over.
Some time ago now, yeah. Well, we’ll start where I always start, which is asking you to go back into the mists of time. And, first a little bit about your background and biography and how the writing started. Did you start as a reader and that’s where it came from, or how did that all work for you? And I know you have a colorful background.
Well, we’re reaching way back. I decided I would be a writer when I was a teenager when I was about 16. I wasn’t sure how I was going to make a living at it because I didn’t know very much. I was from the working poor. I had no real understanding of the middle-class universe that surrounded me. But the first thing I heard of that writers did and got paid for was advertising copywriting. And I thought, “Oh, that sounds easy,” you know, very short text, you put them in magazines, you get highly paid. So, I even went downtown in Vancouver to the biggest local ad firm and arranged a meeting with one of the partners, whose name I can’t remember anymore, and he told me all about it. And I thought about it, and then I decided, “No, I don’t think so.”
For a while, I decided that I would be a teacher, but that while was only about a week or so because I got into student teaching and, thank goodness, Simon Fraser University, when you signed up for them to be a student teacher, they didn’t give you six months of theory and then put you in a classroom, they put you in a classroom on the second day. And I very quickly realized I did not want to spend my life in a classroom with children, some of whom were not all that bright, you know? It was frustrating.
So, that led to journalism. And in those days, we’re talking the early 1970s, in fact, actually in 1970, you could become a journalist just by being able to write, which is what I did. I wrote some features and book reviews and movie reviews for the student newspaper at SFU, The Peak, until I had a book of clippings with my name on them, and I then took them down to the Vancouver Province, where a guy I knew had been doing what they called stringer work for them—that was going out on Monday evenings to cover municipal council meetings. He’d been doing it and he was quitting to go somewhere else, so I went down, saw the reporter, and showed him my clippings, and he hired me. And that was my first professional gig. Then I did that for month after month. And then they had me write feature articles and eventually made me the SFU-based reporter. Anything that happened at SFU, I covered it, which, you know, is sports kind of stuff, and even…they had a multi-day conference up there once about why we don’t have freeways running through Vancouver, and I covered that every day. Wrote lots of copy.
They had summer staff, which…it was about two months I was on summer staff, and sometimes I was the only reporter there for the, you know, skeleton shift, when there was not going to be a paper the next day. So, Saturday I was in there, all on my own…and that’s when I screwed up, remarkably.
We had the first Canadian trade mission of businesspeople to China, because China was just opening up then. This would have been ’72. So, I got a list of the people who were at that, and they were coming back. I went to the airport, I collared some of them, interviewed them there, then went back to the newsroom and phoned them at the various hotels that I was given, at, you know, the contact places. And I just went down the list, and those I got, you know, I wrote down what they said. The problem was, I called up the president of Sooke Forest Products, and didn’t get him. So, I then went to the sales manager of a little electronics firm and interviewed him, but I put his remarks under those of the president of Sooke Forest Products, who, it turned out had not actually gone to China at all.
Oh, dear. And so, what happened was the paper came out on Monday and caused a little flutter in the stock market for Sooke Forest Products, because what sounded perfectly fine coming from the sales manager of an electronics firm didn’t sound good coming from the president of the forest company. So, the publisher had to personally apologize, and there was a retraction on the front page, and I was summarily fired. But, you know…
As a former newspaper reporter. I commiserate.
Yeah, well, every reporter gets fired eventually, I suppose.
I quit. I didn’t get fired.
Oh, well, there you go, okay, yeah. And from there, I went into weeklies. I was news editor, which actually meant editor, of a bi-weekly in Coquitlam and Port Coquitlam and Port Moody, a paper called the Enterprise, and did that for 10 months, I think. Yeah. And then, a guy bought a piece of the paper and he wanted to do my job, so they let me go from there. So I had UIC, unemployment insurance, as it was called in those days, and I had a typewriter, so I wrote a fantasy novel and then went looking for work again. It was a bad fantasy novel, but I learned an awful lot about writing from doing that.
But if I take that back just a little bit further, you actually started writing in high school, didn’t you? Is that when you actually started first trying to put fiction together?
Yeah. I…in those days I really liked the historical novels of L. Sprague de Camp, who also wrote fantasy, but I loved his historicals, and I decided I was going to write one of those. And I came up with a good premise. In fact, I may even sit down one of these days and research and write this book. There is a mention here and there that after Alexander the Great had conquered everything and came back to Babylon, he sent a ship to go down and circumnavigate Africa. And then, of course, he died soon after that—he died of malaria, I think—and nobody knows what happened to that ship, whether it went, whether it went and didn’t come back or went and did come back or where it went. There’s a pretty good consensus that it was sent, but nobody knows what happened to that. So, I thought that was a great premise…
…so I wrote the first chapter of it in the summer holidays in…it would have been ’65…and then I realized writing a book with a pencil in an exercise notebook was a pretty hefty job. I was going to have to wait until I was, you know, better equipped, mentally and physically, with, you know, the writing implements to do this. But I did show up one day in Grade 12 for English class and was told we were supposed to have written the first chapter of a novel. I hadn’t been there for a while, I sometimes didn’t go to school. I didn’t like it. So I whipped this thing out and it actually was…
I’m glad you brought this up because it was a turning point. It was probably the time when I really decided I was going to be a writer, because the teacher we had…her name was Ruth Eldridge. and she was a tough woman, a former colonel in the American army, who was teaching English very hard…a stern, tough kind of woman, she was…and she had told us at the beginning of the year that nothing we wrote was going to get a 10 out of 10 from her because it wouldn’t be good enough, because we were kids. But I turned in my little few hundred words in my first chapter and she gave me 10 out of 10, and I took that as encouraging.
Well, that’s who…one of the people you dedicated What the Wind Brings to, isn’t it?
That’s right. Yes.
I noticed that when I was looking at it that she was on the first, you know, the dedication page.
Yeah. She and my mother. Both of them encouraged me to be a writer.
Were there other things you read? You mentioned L. Sprague de Camp. Were there other books that were inspirational to you as a young reader and then writer?
Yes. I…as I say, we were poor. And when I was still back in Ontario, before we fled to BC in ’63, we were living a couple of years in a quite remote farmhouse up a country road between Kitchener and Guelph, if anybody knows that part of the world. There was no library, there was no bookmobile. We did not have many books in the house. My eldest brother used to leave science fiction books around, until he finally got fed up of living at home and left, and I would read those. And also. there was a book that was on the Grade 9 English curriculum that both my elder brother and sister and eldest brother, I think, had all had. It was a juvenile historical set in the time of Shakespeare in England, called Cue for Treason.
That sounds familiar.
I think a lot of people in Ontario read that book because everybody was given it. And I read that and I was quite taken with the whole idea of historical novels, which I hadn’t run into by then. So, came September of 1962, they started putting us on a school bus to go to Grade 9 in the city, at Kitchener-Waterloo Collegiate Institute, which everybody called KCI. And they had a really good, substantial school library, just chockful of science fiction, fantasy…wasn’t much fantasy in those days, mostly science fiction…and historicals, and I just started reading everything I could get. I would read two, three, four books a week, starting then. And then, by April, I’d read most of what they had that I was interested in, and my father had a shoestring construction business and he got into some trouble with loan sharks, and we packed up everything with no warning, U-Haul trailers, and headed for Vancouver to hide out. But we ended up in Burnaby, only a mile from a very good public library, and I started reading there and read everything I could for years and years. I used to actually spend a lot of time in the library because it was a warm and quiet place, whereas my family home was not a quiet place at all, it was fair amounts of stress and sturm und drang and so on. So yeah, as I sat and read for years.
And…you mentioned that the first thing that you wrote in Grade 12 was basically a historical novel…
Yeah, that was my that was my predilection to begin with. Later on I thought, “Maybe I’ll be a science fiction author,” but I wasn’t very good at science, so that kind of troubled me. But, you know, I could write space opera, I assumed. And then when fantasy hit, in ’65, I read The Lord of the Rings in that Ballentine edition that first came out and thought, “Now, here’s something I could do.” Which is why the first novel I wrote was actually a fantasy,
But a bad fantasy, you said.
Well, it was a good idea, but my writing was a bit clumsy, and the fact is, if you wanted to sell a fantasy novel to Betty Ballantine or somebody like that, writing a tragedy was not a good idea. But there you go.
So how did things did things proceed from that first attempt? Because obviously, you got to the point where you were writing much better things.
Yes. Well, from the newspaper business…my last newspaper job was editing a little tabloid weekly in Port Alberni on Vancouver Island, and I was quitting that because it was pretty much a scam anyway as a newspaper…
I’ll divert here for a moment to explain that. In those days, Conrad Black and his partner, Radler, were going around with a suitcase full of money buying newspapers, small-town dailies especially. And we had one of those in Port Alberni, it was called the Alberni Valley Times, and Rattler was phoning up the owner of that, a guy called Rollie Rose, every week and saying, “We want to buy your paper. We’ll give you X amount.” And Rollie would say, “No, I don’t want to sell my paper. I like it.” And then they would phone back the next week and say, “We’ll give you X plus Y.” “No, I don’t want to.” This went on for quite a while. And a couple of local hustlers, one of whom worked at that newspaper, they got to know about this, and so they borrowed some money and they bought an advertiser. You know, one of those things that come around every week and tell you about shopping and bargains and so on? They bought that. They rented some Compugraphic equipment, hired a couple of people, including me, and it became a community newspaper, which it really wasn’t, because there was only so much copy that I could generate every week, so we filled it with Copley news clips, you know, horoscopes and cartoons and feature articles of all kinds.
What they were doing, the two hustlers, was undercutting the AV Times on advertising, which meant the paper was jam-packed with ads, page after page, which is why there was so much copy we had to write and fill. The idea was that when Rollie Rose eventually said to Conrad Black, “OK, I’ll take the money,” that Conrad would also buy up this paper just to shut it down, because it was cutting into all the ad revenue. And I believe that’s what eventually happened. But, by the time I figured out this was not a real job anymore—you know, after the second time that my paycheck bounced—I thought, “OK.” I was going to do some freelancing for the AV Times, and I had a suit, so I could be a supply teacher (that was the qualification necessary in Port Alberni) and I was working out my two weeks’ notice, when a guy came into the newsroom, and he was the campaign manager for the Liberal candidate, a local insurance guy who had just won the election in ‘74 and was going to Ottawa, and said, “Would you like to go to Ottawa and ghostwrite his newspaper column for the riding press?” And I said, “Yeah, okay.” (It took me a week to get to, “Yeah, okay,” but I eventually did.) And off I went to Ottawa and was quite happy, about six weeks of ghostwriting the column and helping people with their passports and UIC and citizenship problems.
And then the MP comes into the office one day and says, “You have to write me a speech, because I’m seconding debate on the Speech from the Throne.” Which is a big deal. That’s…for those who are listening who don’t know the Speech from the Throne, that’s when the government, at the beginning of a parliament, sets out its entire agenda, what it’s going to do, the bills they’re going to bring in, the things they’re going to concentrate on, and it was traditional—with the Liberals, at least, this was a Liberal government, of Pierre Trudeau—traditional that the debate on that speech, after the speech is given by the governor-general, the debate starts with a maiden MP from the east and a maiden MP from the west moving and seconding the debate.
So I said, “OK,” and I went down to the speaker’s office. They showed me some samples of this kind of speech, and I read them and looked at them, and thought, “OK, not hard. You do half about the Speech from the Throne, the government’s agenda, and half about the riding you come from.” So, I went back to the office and I had my IBM Selectric typewriter and I wrote him a 20-minute speech, one draft, and he loved it, and he went out and gave it, and it was a big hit. John Turner, who was the light that failed in the Liberal Party in those days, came over and put his arm around him and said, “You’re our boy,” and they made him chair of the caucus of the British Columbia Liberal MPs ,and he was on his way up.
And, of course, he started to get requests from riding associations all across the country and chambers of commerce, Rotary and, you know, “Come and give us a speech.” So, suddenly, my major occupation in his office was writing speeches, which were well-received. And he then had this reputation as this great speaker, which he wasn’t all that good at, but I could write so it sounded just like him, that was the trick. But I got a reputation as this hot new speechwriter that nobody had ever heard of. And minister’s offices started coming around saying, “Would you like to come and work for our minister as a communications aide and speechwriter?” And after a certain amount of time, I said, “Yeah, okay,” and ended up writing speeches for Ron Basford, the minister of justice, and then after about a year and a half with him, I went to work for Len Marchand, who was first minister of small business and then minister of the environment.
So, all together, I was four years in Ottawa, pretty much writing speeches full-time. Turned out I had a knack for it. I had no training at all, but I could hear somebody’s voice in my head and right in that voice, so it sounded like whoever it was. And I had a knack for drawing word pictures, which is what speechwriting is mostly about, you put pictures in people’s heads, and they like it, and your good.
Both of those sound like useful skills for a novelist as well.
Oh, yeah, yeah. I’ll tell you how I first developed that knack as when I was working for that paper in Coquitlam, the Enterprise. I had…it was owned by a very right-wing fellow and I had to write very right-wing editorials. And I had trouble with that until I started writing them in Richard Nixon’s voice. It came out perfect and the boss was very happy with them. I would think,”Ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh,” type type type. But, yeah, that is the speechwriter’s trick. It is the ability to get somebody’s work, world view and voice in your head. Hang on a sec…we’re house-sitting a somewhat nervous dog. Yeah, there she goes.
You’d be surprised how often there are animal noises in the back of these interviews.
Well, this one, if I raise my voice at all, she gets anxious and starts to bark. And then, if you put her outside, she immediately starts barking even though there’s nothing there. She’s the runt of the litter. And she’s kind of strange. But she’s a nice dog. I like her.
It was your Nixon voice that set her off.
That was it. “Ruh-ruh-ruh-ruh.” Anyway, so, okay, continuing the saga, I did four years in Ottawa, and then I came back to Vancouver to be a freelance speechwriter, because I’d known guys…I was thinking of the one guy I knew in Ottawa who wrote speeches for the department of the environment, which were then brought up to the minister’s office for the minister to give, and then I would have to rewrite them because they were dull and pedestrian and full of bureaucratic language, you now? They were like a big, long memo.
Passive voice, and blah, blah, blah. And this guy was making then…and this was 1978…he was making 70 grand a year doing this. I thought, well, I’m gonna go back to Vancouver and I’m going to do this and I’m gonna get a lot of money because I’m good at it and he’s not.
So, anyway, I came back to Vancouver and discovered, after…I did a stint as a civil servant for a while until I became politically toxic and was fired by the incoming Joe Clark government…I discovered that nobody had ever been a full-time specialist speechwriter in Vancouver, and the work was not there. I had to spend two years building the practice before I could actually make any money at it. People used to say, “How can you write a speech for our CEO if you’re not an expert in the forestry or mining or whatever industry?” And I would say, “Well, how can you send your boss out to make a speech that hasn’t been written by an expert speechwriter?” So, we would agree to disagree. But I always used to say at the end of the pitch, “The day will come when somebody has screwed up and the CEO or the chairman needs a speech and it hasn’t been written, and you need someone to write it very quickly, and then you call me and I will come in and I will do it for you, and it will be magic.”
And that happened two or three times, and suddenly my reputation began to spread and I got lots of work, and it got to the point where other people tried setting up as speechwriters and they got told, “Well, we’ve got Hughes, so, no,” you know? And I kept raising my rates and nobody complained. I started out at, I think, $75 an hour, and I ended up effectively at about $200 because I would just charge a flat rate. Didn’t matter how many draft drafts or anything, it would be that amount of money. You know, $1,500, $2,000, because I discovered early on that I was writing one draft for, you know, $100 an hour and getting $600-700 for it. Other people were writing four or five drafts because they weren’t very good and they were actually getting more money than I was for an inferior product.
So yeah, being a fast, good writer, if you charge by the hour, you actually hurt yourself. I’ve encountered that myself. So, you’re clearly writing millions and millions of words over all this time. Where was the fiction by now?
Well, the funny thing I discovered…I’m like a factory that is tooled up to produce a certain thing, product, and if you’re going to change the product, you’ve got to shut the factory down for a while and retool, and then make that new product. I could not spend my working day writing speeches or even newspaper material and then write fiction in the evening. It just wouldn’t come. If I took two weeks off, three weeks, then I could write something. But I couldn’t…somehow could not do both at the same time. So, I put aside writing fiction essentially in about ’74, and just almost never did anything until we got right up into the ’80s. And then I wrote over a period of a number of years, in dead time, I wrote my first real novel, the one I sold, Fools Errant.
And, later on, I wrote a couple of crime novels and got a New York agent to represent them, which was good, except that then she had a family crisis and couldn’t do anything for months. And those two sort of died on the vine, because once an agent has taken a book out and not sold it, it doesn’t matter what the reasons are, no other agent is interested in that book. So, my attempt in those days to be a crime writer…I was selling short stories, I’d sold a novel to Doubleday, won the Arthur Ellis Award, which was nice…got kind of got short-circuited because I had two novels I couldn’t sell. I didn’t want to write another one and, you know, wait all that time, I didn’t have the money to be able to set aside the time. On the other hand, people were offering me checks and publication if I wrote science fiction and fantasy by then. And so, I started doing that and have kept on ever since, really. Although, I do tend to write crime fiction in science fiction and fantasy settings, so I’m kind of melding the two together. I don’t write about heroes. I write about thieves and con men and wizard’s henchmen, that kind of thing.
Well, let’s talk about What the Wind Brings, which you have called your magnum opus, and, first of all, where did it come from and how does that compare to the way that most of your story ideas come to you? What generates story ideas for you?
Ok, I’ll do the “what generates” and then I’ll do What the Wind Brings, because they’re different really.
What generates a story for me is a character in a normal situation of some kind, and then something happens and the character has to respond to that situation, that conflict, and that makes things roll forward and other characters get involved, and before I know it, there’s a story. I had one out (A God in Chains), a novel set in the Dying Earth, a fantasy novel set in…it’s sort of my extrapolation of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth. And I started out with a man walking on a road on a big open prairie, and he figures out, looking at what’s in front of him—there’s wheel tracks and animal dung and footprints—and he figures, “I must be following a caravan.” The thing is, he has no memory. He has complete amnesia, doesn’t know who he is, how he got there, what his backstory is, none of that. And when I started writing that, neither did I. I didn’t know who he was. I just started with the character in the situation, and then on we went.
By the time I…I actually thought I was writing a novella to send to Fantasy & Science Fiction or Lightspeed, and instead it turned out I was writing a novel, because other characters got involved and their stories meshed and conflicted with the main character’s. And after about three months, I had a novel of 80,000 words, and I sold it to Edge Publishing, Brian Hades in Calgary—I’d always wanted to do a deal with Brian. I used to edit books for him—and actually, it’s done quite well. It came out in July and it’s got about 28, 29 five-star reviews on Amazon now. For people who like Jack Vance, it’s exactly what they’re looking for. And there are still people around like that.
So that’s my process. I have no idea what I’m doing when I begin. At some point, maybe a third to half the way through, I understand the shape of the story and how it’s going to have to end. And then I start writing towards that.
So, you don’t typically, like, outline ahead of time? You’re more of a…
I can’t. I can’t. I’ve tried that. I tried that years ago. Nothing really comes off. I’m just sitting down trying to make up a story. I have to do it scene by scene and even line by line, sometimes. You know, I’ll be writing a scene and a line of dialogue will come out of the back of my head. It’s the same way I used to write speeches. There’s a guy in the back of my head who does this, and then I type and edit a bit. But a line of dialogue will occur to me and that will take the thing off in a whole different direction. And I follow that. That’s what I do. Normally I write one draft and then a second draft to tighten and add some bits and shore up things I thought at later—you know, I put them in Chapter 2 because in Chapter 8, something has happened—and then I polish and that’s it. That’s my normal process.
But you said What the Wind Brings was a bit different. Oh, and also, before we talk about that, maybe you should explain what the story is about, without giving away anything that you don’t want to give away.
I’m happy to talk about that one. It’s about African slaves who were shipwrecked on the jungle coast of Ecuador in the middle of the 1500s, who melded with the local indigenous people who had been ravaged by disease, and also by the fact that the conquistadors and the Pizarro had come through their territory, going up to the highlands to crush the Inca Empire. So, they were demoralized and scattered and in rather a bad way, had lost a lot of people. But the Africans and the indigenous folk, they were a people called the Nigua, they got together and they formed a mixed society, which became a place for people who were running away, like slaves and so on, escaped, came to them and augmented them. And they also made alliances and connections with other indigenous groups around them.
The Spanish…they tried several expeditions to reduce these people to servitude again. And the mixed people…they’re now called Zambos, which was the term for indigenous and African mixed people…they outfought them and they out-thought them, time and again, until finally the Spanish said, “OK, we’ll leave you alone, we’ll make a deal with you because we really want a port at the mouth of that river that you control. That’s going to cut our transportation costs enormously.” And so they did that. They made a deal. And these people remained a “distinct society,” as we would say in Canada, forever. And then eventually they negotiated their way into Ecuador when Ecuador became a republic in the Bolívar period.
And I had a friend, a client, who in 1970 went up the little back creeks in that area. He was doing a Forest Service survey, I think, for CUPE…not CUPE, CUSO. The Canadian University Service Overseas.
I wondered why CUPE (the Canadian Union of Public Employees) would be doing it.
But he went in dugout canoes, paddling up backwaters and then little creeks that led to the backwaters. And he found, essentially, Africa. Everybody was black. And he even had the experience…he landed at this little village, got out of his canoe and walked into the midst of the huts, and an old woman came up to him and took her finger and wiped it down his cheek and then looked to see if the white came off. Here was an old woman who had never seen the white man. And that’s the story.
Now, the “how it came to be”…I was still thinking of myself as a potential historical novelist from time to time, and back in 1971, I came across a footnote in a textbook in university and thought, “Gee, that would be a good idea,” because it said…the chapter I was reading was about how most castaways who show up on a foreign shore, you know, like Japanese fishermen who might have landed at Nootka Sound 500 years ago, been blown off course and so on, they didn’t thrive. They didn’t last very long. Mostly that’s what happens. But here was this one case where these Africans came ashore and survived and prospered. And I thought that could make a good story.
The problem was, back then, that I couldn’t research it, really. Virtually all the scholarship was in South American journals in Spanish, and my Spanish was, you know, good enough to ask where the hotel is or, you know, (Spanish phrase) kind of stuff, but not good enough to read academic journals from Chile and Ecuador and so on. So, I always kept it in the back of my mind that this is a story I would like to write. And the more I thought about it, even without the proper background, the idea of two societies melding together in the face of opposition—and really desperate opposition, from people who would kill and enslave them—It had a real appeal to me, and I used to think about who the characters might be. And early on, I decided one of them was going to be a shaman, one of the indigenous people. And at some point I thought, “Not just a shaman, but a hermaphroditic shaman. Now there’s a character you can build a story around!”
And then came this century. I discovered …I used to look into it from time to time, see what I could find out…I discovered that North American scholars were beginning to write about this in English, quite a bit, about the Zambos. So, I began collecting material and sketched out what my idea for the story was, three characters, three points of view, and I went to the Canada Council, and they gave me 25,000 bucks to write this.
Which was…yeah, it was very helpful. And it was also a vote of confidence, I thought. So I wrote it. And, unlike most of my stuff, I did actually four drafts on this because I wanted it to be perfect.
Did you outline this one, or did you approach it the same way in the writing process?
Well, I knew things that had to happen. You know, about the entradas, as they called the invasions that the Spanish made. And I knew about who characters would have to be, like a merchant up in Quito—and I used a real historical figure who is very important and was trying to build up the wool trade in Ecuador at that time. So, I took real historical people I knew about and things that they had done and I fitted them into the framework. But, there was no real history of what had happened on the ground among those people, the Africans and the Negua, when they got together, because nobody was there taking notes. So, I had to imagine that. And nobody knows what Negua culture was like, because they are extinct and have been for centuries.
So, a lot of room to play.
Yeah, as long as…I was happy with that, but also thought, “As long as I use actual aboriginal cultures as templates.” So I made the Negua, I made them quite matriarchal, and the Africans are quite patriarchal, although the Africans came from different cultures, too. And I happened to know a fair amount about West Africa in that period and before, because I’d once been interested in writing a historical novel set in the empire of Mali in the 1200s. So, I can apply that knowledge and the basic aboriginal knowledge, and out of it came people, and the people had their hopes and dreams and desires and fears, and that’s what you make stories out of, so…
Basically, it’s a political novel. It’s about the politics among people and between the Spanish and the Zambos, the politics. And also, the Inquisition is involved in there, too, because one of the real-life characters was a man named Espinosa, who was a Trinitarian monk from Spain. He was the only Trinitarian monk in Ecuador at the time. His order did not have any functions there at all. And the implication was that he was fleeing the Inquisition in Spain, because he was a what they call a converso, someone whose parents or grandparents had converted from Islam or Judaism, under threat of death, to become Christians. And by the time, the period we’re talking about, the Inquisition was running very well, and what they were doing was they were finding rich conversos and simply stripping them of their assets with fear of imprisonment or being burned at the stake. So, this guy had fled to the new world because the Inquisition did not exist in Ecuador at that time. So, he was fun. He was my good-hearted, innocent character who simply did what he thought was right and the hell with everybody else.
So, I guess what slips this out of being pure historical fiction into maybe a bit of magic realism or fantasy is that the shaman, Expectation, actually has power.
Yes. Yes. I thought that was appropriate, to use magical realism in a story set in South America, where magical realism comes from. And also, it was a way of, I suppose, conferring dignity upon the character and the culture, that these things that others might have pooh-poohed and said, oh, you know, “bunch of nonsense,” actually, she could go into the underworld and the overworld and deal with spirits and heal people that way. That was her main job, was to heal people. And not just heal physically, but to heal psychologically, because in her culture, if you were very depressed or whatever, had a mental problem, chances were that your animal spirit had departed you, and she would go into the underworld and find where it was and bring it back and put it into you, and then you’d be happy again. Also, I knew that in South America there was a lot of trepanning done. People would…you find skulls with holes in them that had been carefully cut and then repaired, because they would put holes in people’s skulls to relieve pressure and so on, I suppose from concussions and whatnot. So, I gave her that power too. That was fun.
So, it’s very long novel, right? It’s like 150,000 words or something like that?
Yeah. Thereabouts, yeah.
And the publisher is…well, basically a new publisher, isn’t it?
Yes. The publisher is Pulp Literature Press which began as two…well, three…women in BC who were putting out a quarterly magazine called Pulp Literature. And they did that for, I think, five or six years, and it developed a following and became a successful small magazine. And then they thought, “Well, let’s do books.” I was having trouble placing What the Wind Brings because 150,000 words of historical novel, with or without magical realism, is not an easy sell these days. I mean, one of my most favorite historical novelists of all time is Cecilia Holland, whom I’ve been reading since the late ’60s, but in the past 10 or 15 years or so, she’s had to make historical novels with a certain amount of magic in them or characters who have second sight and so on, and then get them published by Tor as essentially fantasy historicals. Historicals are just a hard sell.
So, I’d been selling stories to this magazine, and I got to know the people, and I liked them, and they were certainly serious publishers. They weren’t just fooling around and they weren’t fooling themselves as many small-press people can be. So, I offered them the book and they read it and said, “Holy mackerel, this is a really good book.” So, they took it, and we’ve been working our way through the process. There was a limited-edition hardcover, which has sold mostly pretty well. There are people who collect me, so they wanted this book. And now last month (December 2019) we came out with the paperback and the e-book on Amazon and also distributed by Ingram, so booksellers can get it. And I’ve been doing whatever I can to promote it, which I’ve had some success with. Right now, there’s a science fiction and fantasy group on Facebook, which is run by Damien Walter, who used to do science fiction and fantasy reviews for The Guardian newspaper in England, and he picked it as the one book that he was going to promote, starting a week ago, and to promote it for a month. And that’s had quite a good effect. We have sold quite a few through Amazon, especially the e-book.
So…and I’m pushing it. I had a…in John Scalzi’s Whatever blog, I did a piece, his Big Idea feature. There’s a big idea behind his book, which is “diversity makes strength,” a very Canadian point of view, somewhat controversial in some parts of America these days, but that helped, too. That drew some eyes to it.
What was the editing process like for this book? And what is typical when you’re edited? What sorts of things do you find yourself working on after the editor has a look at it.
I have always been quite lightly edited. When I did my book for Tor, when David Hartwell was my editor, I got literally a few lines on a piece of paper telling me not to kill the character that I’d killed and change the ending to make it more upbeat. I’d made a sacrificial hero out of the hero, but I simply changed that so he didn’t die. But with What the Wind Brings, it got a pretty thorough polishing from Jennifer Landels, who’s the managing editor of Pulp Literature. She made some suggestions. I took most of them because I thought they improved the book and I really wanted this book to be polished like a gem.
You know, most of everything I’ve written has been entertainments. There’s some philosophy in them, there’s some maybe quirky points of view, some original ideas that are, you know, little small ideas of how the future might be and so on. But this one, I wanted to be just absolutely the best it could be. And so, I had more engagement with editing than I normally do—but again, it was fairly lightly edited. I mean, structurally, there was one small change. I took a piece out of the beginning and at her suggestion, I moved it further back so that we would get to the action sooner, which was a perfectly valid strategy. Otherwise, it was, you know, a few words here, and a few words there. I’d thrown in some sword fighting using rapiers, and in fact, Jennifer is in aficionado of the rapier, so she corrected me on a few things that I didn’t know.
I thought so. Yeah. We don’t want the rapier fans to be, you know, thrown out of the book by whether I go over somebody’s guard or under it.
I once was on a panel about writing fighting scenes, and the general consensus was that if you couldn’t be accurate, be vague, which is probably not a bad…if you can’t be absolutely certain that what you’re saying is correct, then don’t try to be too specific. So, if you have somebody who can actually help with that, that’s great.
Yeah. I had a sword-fighting duel in one book, in the far future, and they used a peculiar kind of weapon which was like a rapier, except the blade was only six inches long at the tip, the rest of it was just round. And so, I invented things, moves and so on, just gave them names, you know, and said that they did this and they did that and responded with a quatrefoil and whatever, you know. No idea what they were, but it sounded good.
So, we’re getting close to the end here. So I do want to ask…I’ll get to what you’re working on next in a minute, but first, I want to ask the big philosophical question, which is why do you do this? Why do you write, and why do you think any of us write? What is this impulse to tell stories? Where does it come from in you, and where do you think it comes from in all of us?
Well, I can’t really speak for other people. I think the urge to tell stories comes from very far back in our evolutionary past, when we developed language. And I don’t believe we develop language in order to make hunting signals, I think we developed language so we could gossip about each other, which is what every culture does. And I think, in a reasonably accurate sense, the idea of story-making is just a form of gossip. We tell each other about people and events and things, because we’re just programmed to like gossip. Everybody does.
For me, as I figured out when I was 16, this is the only thing I can do, writing, that I can do superbly with minimum strain and stress. I was naturally good at this from the very beginning, and so it was natural for me to be doing this.
I must have written 2,000 speeches over my career. Some of them I quite enjoyed, some of them I really didn’t enjoy. A lot of them I just didn’t care about: I was doing a job and doing it to the best of my ability and that was how I made my living. Writing stories, though…
I know I have a kind of fragmented psyche. There are different personas inside me, not full-blown multiple personality, but what a Jungian would call a complex. And when I’m writing fiction, and even when I was writing speeches, very often, those pieces come together and make me more whole or make me more who I am than normally I would be, you know, when I’m doing other things, because other aspects of me do other things as required. So, yeah, it integrates me and that feels good, basically. That’s why I do it. Also, at the level of when I write something and it really works, I enjoy that. I say, “Oh, got that one. Good.” Yeah.
And what do you hope your readers get out of your work?
I guess…I want them to enjoy it. I want them to be transported to someplace else and maybe moved a little. That one I was talking about, the one that started off with amnesia, it’s called A God in Chains, and the ending of it…I knew my central character, who’d been awful and terrible and been part of a massacre of innocents back in his career, he had to be renewed, he had to be reborn in some way, and as I got to the last scene or two, it suddenly occurred to me how that would work within the context of what I’d created for the book. So, I had him do this thing, and people have been saying in reviews on Amazon and so on that it brought a tear to their eyes and it totally unexpected, that that’s how it was going to end. And I thought, “That’s…yeah, that’s nice, when you can do that.”
Now, though, you’ve got a new project that you’re excited about that draws on your love of Jack Vance. So, tell us about that.
Well, I’ve always been strongly influenced by Jack Vance and Booklist, years ago, even called me his heir apparent. And anybody who reads Vance and reads me will see, yeah, there are shadings here that…I’m standing on his shoulders. I’m not doing pastiche, but I’m certainly influenced by him.
So, one of his iconic works is a five-volume novel called The Demon Princes, or five short novels that make one great story, about these space-opera villains. Five master criminals and monsters, and a guy, one by one, tracks them down and kills them because they did terrible things to his community, basically a slave raid that took everybody away and they were never seen again.
Well, I was talking to John Vance, who is Jack Vance’s son, about this, and we made an agreement that I’m going to write a sequel, a kind of sixth Demon Princes novel, although all five demon princes are dead, so they won’t be in it. But I’ve come up with a rough idea for how I want it to go. And I’ve started. I’ve written, like, the first 1,400 words or so just yesterday. And that’s what I’m going to be working on for the next couple or three months. And I want to make it, not a fake Jack Vance novel, but a kind of homage to him and to the universe that he created, the space-opera universe that he wrote so much in. And I’m hoping it’ll go well and maybe I’ll do more.
Is there a projected release date for that? And who will publish it?
Well, that’s an open question. John Vance has his own press now, called Spatterlight Press. Well worth looking at, because he’s been publishing in e-book and trade paperback all of his father’s works, and using the texts that were developed as part of what was called the Vance Integral Edition, where they took the old manuscripts and they put back in the things that editors had cut out because it had to fit a certain space in a magazine or…an Ace Double was only going to be 40,000 words long, so they had to be cut. They put all of that back and they made a complete definitive edition of all his works. And he’s using those texts and putting them out. I’ve written some blurbs for them and introductions and so on, and that’s doing well.
So, I get this thing done and it’s a good book, then it will neither be published by John’s Spatterlight Press or I’ll look at ta third publisher taking the rights. And the idea is, John and I split the proceeds either way. I did have something like this in the works several years ago before Jack died, but when he died, it kind of died with it. And in those days, David Hartwell, who is now gone also, was very interested in getting it for Tor, and we might do something like that.
And is there anything else in the works right now?
I was 22,000 words into a crime novel, which is a sequel to one that’s coming out later this year from Pulp Literature, but I put that aside to work on the Vance thing. So when I’ve done the Vance job, then I will go back to…the book is called The Do-Gooder, and I’ll get that finished, too.
So the question you asked, when would that come out, if it’s coming out from Spatterlight, it would be later this year. And if it’s from a third party, Tor or somebody, probably not ’til late next year.
Okay. Well, that’s about the time. So, where can people find you online?
MatthewHughes.org is where I am, and I have a Facebook page of Matthew Hughes Author, and if you go to Facebook and put down Hapthorn, the name of one of my characters, it’ll take you to my Facebook page. Oh, yeah, and I should always say this, I have a Patreon account. If people would like to be my patrons, they can go to Patreon and look me up there as Matthew Hughes, and they’ll say Click Here and you’ll be a patron.
And you’re on Twitter, too, are you not?
Oh, I’m on Twitter, yeah. Again, that’s @hpathorn. If you go to my web page, you can link from there to all the Facebook and Twitter and everything, and Patreon. You can sign up for my newsletter, which I do every month, now. I just completed three years of a monthly newsletter about what I’m doing, what I’m trying to do.
Sounds like a great way to stay on top of it.
Okay. Well, thank you so much, Matt, for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.
Heli Kennedy has authored multiple comic book series for the critically acclaimed TV show Orphan Black, including Deviations, an alternate-universe plotline that reimagines the first season of the show. Also a screenwriter, she has written, produced, and acted in award-winning short films that have screened around the world. Her latest work includes consulting and writing on Orphan Black: The Next Chapter, a Serial Box book series that continues the clone saga through print and audiobooks read by the show’s star, Tatiana Maslany. She’s currently writing on an unannounced project for Ubisoft, where she also wrote for the upcoming “play as anyone” game, Watch Dogs: Legion. Leaning into her fantasy genre nerdiness, Heli is working on a novel entitled The Penny Discount.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Heli.
Hi, thanks for having me on.
This will be interesting. Now, I always like to start off by figuring out what I have in common with whomever I’m speaking with. And oddly enough, we have an odd connection, in that we’re going to be talking about your work on Orphan Black: The Next Chapter, and you’ve also done some work on Orphan Black comics before that. But Orphan Black: The Next Chapter is being narrated by Tatiana Maslany, of course, who starred in Orphan Black. And I’ve known Tat since she was a little girl. So, there’s an odd connection for you.
Well, that’s kind of wild. You said that you had taught her and directed her?
Well, I didn’t exactly teach her. But she was in…there’s a young people’s theatre group here called Do It with Class Young People’s Theatre that she was a member of. And when she was eleven, I think? It was ninety…oh, I shouldn’t say that. Probably give away her age. Anyway, it was 1997, because it’s the year I got married and I had directed a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, in which all the dwarves were played by little girls with beards. And Tat was one of them.
Amazing. Do you remember which dwarf she was?
They weren’t the usual Disney dwarves. It was…they had all different names, so I don’t remember that at all. I cast my newlywed wife as the evil queen, which I thought was a rather brave choice on my part.
That’s quite brave, actually. Right.
And, of course, my joke recently has been, if I’d known then what I know now, that Tatiana could have played all seven dwarves.
Yeah, you’re right. You could have had a really unique play on your hands.
So, I’m gonna start by taking you back into the mists of time. And…I always say that…and see how you first got interested in telling stories. I saw in an interview with you that when you were about seven years old, you started creating your own stories based on Tolkien. So, is that kind of when you got going and how did that all come about? And where were you growing up, for that matter?
I grew up in downtown Toronto, in Canada. And yeah, I started writing when I was six. It started with Nancy Drew. I was really into kind of the creepy, strange story…well, that’s what I thought…as the storylines in Nancy Drew when I was six years old. And I was also really into Star Trek. And I thought it would be really neat to combine the two things. Yeah. It was a little bit of a genre mash-up. And so I started rewriting Nancy Drew books with a kind of sci-fi element. So I would have her, you know, finding a secret passageway and a hidden door that would lead her to another dimension where there would be strange aliens or giant eyeballs. It was pretty surrealistic, I have to say. But, yeah, I started writing those, and it really came from this sense when I was at school that, you know, writing was something that was, you know, an impossible thing to do. You know, I would see kids older than I was writing pages, like foolscap, full of, like, story, just pages and pages of story, and I was really impressed by it and daunted and thought I couldn’t do it, so I kind of threw myself at it to try and do it. And I’ve been writing ever since.
When I was seven, I was writing picture books for my class and reading them, and I kind of spent the whole year writing books for my classmates. And I had what I thought was a small publishing company at the time. And then I got into Tolkien and started writing alternate storylines set in Middle Earth, set in Tolkien’s fiction, because I really, really enjoyed it and connected with some of the themes, and I wanted more female characters. So, my best friend and I created storylines with more female characters. And then it kind of…from there, it morphed into…I was really into collecting old movie memorabilia as I grew up, too, like things from the ‘30s and ‘40s and ‘50s, and it got me into filmmaking, and I started to make films with my friend. And she and I kept working on storylines and brought it into…we started to develop filmmaking skills, I guess? And then I was getting grant money to make films, I think, like, right after high school, and I just kept going.
You mentioned Tolkien and Nancy Drew. Were there other books that were kind of important to you that got you hooked on telling stories?
Most of us start out as readers, so…
Yeah, exactly. There was a book called Something from Nothing, it’s a picture book, and I think my second-grade teacher read it to the class and it really impacted me, ’cause it’s a story about…I think it’s about a little boy and his blanket, and in the end he ends up making something out of the blanket, when…I think it wears down to a tiny skirt—now I could be completely misremembering this, but—it wears down into a tiny square, because it becomes ratty, and then he makes something new out of it and he makes something seemingly from nothing. And it’s a story about him and his grandfather, I think. And I think the message of, you know, creating something out of nothing and having a profound impact by creating something out of nothing, that it was positive and could connect with someone else, that really hit me. And that book influenced me a lot because I think writing is largely about creating…seemingly something out of nothing, I mean, it’s not nothing, you use your experiences and people you meet and ideas and what’s going on in the world around you to form stories…but it’s something that you can just create, no matter what you have, if you don’t have anything else. Like, you know, filmmaking is an expensive medium, lot of collaboration, time and money. Same with videogames, which is what I’m working on right now. But writing alone was something that felt fulfilling because I could really build off of things I could pull from the ether and then connect with people over a story I wrote. So that was really impactful for me.
It’s interesting to mention a book like that because I don’t remember a lot of the books I read as a small reader, but one that always stuck with me was Harold and the Purple Crayon. I think it’s Harold.
Yeah, I remember that.
Yeah, and he would draw things, and again, creating things out of nothing with his purple crayon. And I hadn’t thought about that for a while, but when you were mentioning this other book that sort of had that same idea, that was one that captured my interest early on, and maybe that was a foreshadowing of me becoming a writer later in life.
Yeah. I think that the books that we read when we’re really young, have a lot…a huge impact on us. It took me years to really remember that book in particular and make that connection. It kind of just came back one day in the last five, six years. And I started to really think about it and I realized I’d taken more from that story than I had, you know, really given it credit for until later in life. And there was another Canadian author, I think he’s in Toronto, Michael Bedard and…I don’t know, maybe I didn’t pronounce the last name properly…but he wrote a book called Redwork, and it was set in the neighborhood that I grew up in, or so it seemed, because it held many of the same elements, like the same park and a movie theater that used to exist on the main street in my neighborhood. And it was about alchemy, so it had this kind of, you know, this otherworldly fantasy aspect to it, but it also felt really grounded because I could relate to it because it was set in my city. And yeah, that heavily influenced me, too. It had a lot of mystery. It was dark. Yeah. Yeah, that book stuck with me. A lot of things that I read along with Tolkien, with The Hobbit in particular, the stuff that I think informed me the most happened probably in the first ten years, if I go back to really think about, you know, well, what do I like to write about, and what are the topics I gravitate towards or the genres? It was really those first ten years, I think.
You mentioned that you became more focused on filmmaking. I’m curious, what kind of equipment were you using in high school? I don’t know, let’s see…you’re younger than I am. So, when I think back to when I was in high school, there was absolutely no possibility that any of us were gonna be doing that, unless it was with, you know, a Super 8 film camera. But what were you doing, using, to make short films in that time?
Well, when I first started, I think I was eleven or something like that, and we had a kind of a Sony, just a camcorder or a VHS camcorder, and we would record and then kind of edit with the VCR to VCR kind of, style of editing. So it wasn’t, you know, really high-quality in the beginning and it was an onboard mike, and we were always kind of disappointed with what we’ve created because we had really high standards for what we wanted to make and we just couldn’t meet them. But later in high school, I had a friend that I was making films with, and he had an XL1. So that was like a camera, that was a mini-DV camera at the time, it was made by Canon, and we could connect a boom mike to it so we could have a nicer microphone, and it shot…it was, you know, for indie filmmaking, it was not…it wasn’t…it was like a prosumer camera, I would say. It wasn’t like, pro, it wasn’t like…you weren’t going to get film quality out of it, but you could do, you could shoot pretty well with that. And so, that’s what we started to use later on, cause my friend had one, and he had saved up in high school, and he shot a feature film in high school with it and it traveled the festival circuit.
So, yeah, we were using something that was pretty decent and then editing on Final Cut Pro on a laptop because by that time, though, everything was still…there was an analog element…you could convert to digital files by plugging the camera into your laptop and importing footage. So there…we had the ability to do way more with stuff at home than ever before. It’s…now, kids can just shoot on iPhones and edit, like, on the phone, and uploaded it to YouTube, and they have, you know, videos and videos and channels that are filled with content. Back then, it took a little more time, but it was kind of the beginning of that era where you could just make videos at home and readily like, you know, put them on a computer and send them out over the Internet in a compressed file or whatnot.
And you were writing the scripts for these short films that you’re making at the time?
Yeah, some of them I did write and some of them I kind of story-edited and produced, and I acted in some of them as well. And I wrote funding packages for some of them. But yeah, I was kind of…it was a kind of a wear-all-the-hats situation with indie filmmaking. You know, we had a lot of friends. We were all in kind of art schools or alternative schools filled with kids with different skill sets because we were given the opportunity to focus on specific skill sets. So we had friends who could sound edit and musician friends who could score it. So it was really kind of, you know, learning to work with other people with really specialized skills even at that age. And then also, like, figuring out, “Oh, my God, like, how do I sync up sound? And how do you run a set so that you get all your shots in a day? How does lighting work?” So, I kind of did a lot of…many of the jobs that you’d find on a film set in a strange indie way.
That sounds like a great experience for learning skills that you’d be able to translate into a professional career later, which I guess is what you did.
Yeah, exactly. I think that if I hadn’t, you know, if I hadn’t just jumped into it and forced myself to try and figure all of it out and learned and to have done all those jobs, I don’t think…on these projects…I don’t think I would have built the skill set. I went to school, I did a post-grad for one year, at Sheridan College, it’s a college in Ontario, and they had really good equipment at the time, where…after I had been making films, I went there and we kind of got the opportunity to work with a bigger group of people and run it…run our projects as though we were on professional set. And that was also a really good experience because it was completely hands-on and everything we did, we had to run like a union set. So then, it expanded my knowledge and ability to, you know, figure out how to build a film and actually achieve your day and make a little product out of it.
I actually know a lot of kids who went to Sheridan, because of the aforementioned Do It With Class Young People’s Theatre, that’s a place where many of those kids go to study musical theater. I think there’s some…I know there’s some there right now who were classmates of my daughter who are now at Sheridan.
Yeah, they have a great musical theater program. It’s a…many other students go on to book really big roles in plays in the city here.
It’s a fun thing about knowing people in theater and film in Canada in that, you know, I’m watching The Expanse, Season 3, I think it was, and there’s this familiar-looking Martian marine, and I thought, “Wait a minute, I saw her when she was a kid doing musical theater,” because she’s from Regina, she’d gone and, you know, she’s in Toronto now making TV. So, you know people in the business up here, and it’s not a huge pool of people, so you start to see people that you know in shows. Now, you did some acting as well, did you not?
Yeah, I did a little bit of acting, mainly in some of my indie stuff, a few commercials, and small projects here and there. And I…initially I started acting because we needed people to act in our films that we were making. And then later, I kind of really got, I got…I was bitten by the bug and I also felt that it really enriched my writing. I started to see a change in the way I approached scenes as a writer. Learning what actors needed or didn’t need on the page in terms of building a scene was…I took away a lot from acting class that way. And then I did a little bit of directing. I directed a couple of small shorts and I learned a lot. I had…I found it a lot easier to talk to actors because I had been doing it and I could sort of try to put myself in their place and figure out where the roadblocks were and what we were trying to do. So, I thought it was an invaluable experience for filmmaking and writing as a whole.
And that’s one reason I brought it up. I ask…you know, I’m mostly talking to novelists, and…but there’s quite a few that I’ve talked to who have a little bit of theatrical background or a lot of theatrical background in some case, as do I, ’cause I’m, you know, I’m an Equity actor and I’ve done with professional and shows just for fun, too…but I’ve done a lot of them. And I always find that the process of acting and creating a character is very similar to the process of creating a character when you’re writing. And that’s one thing that I think pretty much everybody I’ve talked to has agreed, that acting and inhabiting a character in that fashion informs their writing when they’re trying to create the character on the page.
Yeah, I totally agree with that. I think, you know, just sitting down, and, you know…when you’re working on other people’s IP or other franchises, you’re thrown characters that are maybe not necessarily something you would immediately generate yourself and plug into a story, which is extremely valuable when you’re growing as a writer and to push yourself forward in your skillset. But when I get thrown a character that I just, I’m like, “Oh, my gosh, how am I going to write this character?” I go through the motions of what I would do if I was given scenes in a class and I had to, you know, inhabit the skin of someone very, very different from me. So, I try to draw on myself as much as I can and look at other people that I know and build on characters using what I learned in class.
And I would think that the…I mean, I’ve directed some stage shows and I find that that helps, too. And I would think directing film might be even more helpful when it comes to visualizing scenes in your head when you’re writing, for example, the Orphan Black book, which we’ll talk about a more detail…that sort of sense of where everybody is and in the visual appearance of what you’re trying to convey. Does that also play into it?
Yeah, definitely. Right now, I’m writing for a video game studio, Ubisoft, and I’m on my second big kind of triple-A game with them, and it’s all screenwriting and it’s all blocking and it’s very specific to environments because it’s animated. So, I think a lot in shots and blocking and positioning and logic of, you know, well, how will this scene play out literally, physically in a space? And I think that, yeah, filmmaking definitely you think like that when you write a script. But I was writing comics as well for Orphan Black, and that was a lot…there was a lot of, kind of…I would say it felt like directing a bit when you’re writing. You feel like you’re a filmmaker with all the money in the world and no money at all because it’s very limited in page count and how many cells you have on each page, you know, how many images you’re gonna put in there and how are you gonna use your edits, every time you turn a page it felt like an edit. So, yeah, I thought a lot in terms of shots that way and tried to really economize with editing in my mind. That’s definitely like a muscle that takes a while to build and I’m still building it. You know, I still learn…every time I write a scene, I learn something new about, you know, what succeeds or doesn’t succeed in it. But yeah, I would say it’s invaluable in terms of writing, and it also…when you have to think in limited edits or timeframes, like, you have 90 seconds to do a scene or three minutes or ten minutes, you…it pushes you to get in and out faster and get really creative at how you can get to the heart of what needs to happen and how you can keep it compelling in that small window of time.
I like the fact that you referred to it as a muscle that you have to work on, because that’s actually a metaphor I use all the time when I’m…I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, so I’m meeting with a lot of want-to-be writers or starting-up writers who come in, and I’ll say, “You know, you just have to write,” that the act of writing is like exercising or practicing figures if you’re a figure skater or, you know, anything you want to be good at, the very act of doing it is the practice you need to build that muscle, and writing is no different.
Yeah, that’s completely true, Ed. I’d say that’s probably true of the arts in general. I used to draw a lot as a kid and…I’d draw, like, fantasy maps and paint, I oil painted and sketched. And, you know, I’ve stopped since I made the decision to pursue writing and filmmaking and acting as a career. And now I’m getting back into it and I’m definitely shaky. I’ve lost, I’ve literally lost muscle memory in my hand. But it’s like mind-body connection that you have to keep going. And I would say writing is the same. Acting is definitely the same. You haven’t auditioned for a while and you get thrown an audition, you feel the rust flaking off of you.
Playing an instrument is the same, too, for sure. I used to play piano a lot and I haven’t played it much for the last few years. And whenever I sit down to play now, it’s like, I kind of remember how to do this, but…yeah, it’s the same thing. Well, I wanted to talk about…we’ve already mentioned it, of course. Orphan Black…so, how did you fall into doing new material for Orphan Black? I guess you started with the comic, Orphan Black: Helsinki…was that the first thing that you did?
Yeah, the first one was Helsinki. And then I pitched and did a comic series called Deviations, which was an alternate-universe comic series in which Beth Childs, a clone that you see in the first five minutes, so this only a minor spoiler…
Very minor…in which she lives, because the beginning of the series starts on one clone, Sarah Manning, and another clone, Beth Childs, and we see that Beth Childs commits suicide. So, I rewrote the series based on that. And then I pitched a third comic series and I started writing that, called Crazy Science, that continued the story of…now this will be big spoilers, so maybe I won’t say everything…it continues at the…where they leave off at the end of the series, at the end of season five. So, I continued the show’s plot line through the comics. Then…we didn’t get to finish that series, unfortunately. But yes, so I started with that. And then I was referred to a publishing company in New York, Serial Box, who had been in communication with the production company that produced Orphan Black. And I was referred as a consultant because at that time the show’d been over for just…almost a year, just under a year, I believe…and they were looking for somebody who knew the content really, really well and could help with the pitches that they were taking in for their book series that they wanted to do. And they brought me on as a story consultant and a writer.
The very initial connection with Orphan Black…obviously, you loved the series. Did you, like…for Helsinki, did you pitch that to somebody, was that…you just went in cold and said, “I’d like to write this?” or how did that work?
So, I knew Tatiana Maslany prior to her acting on Orphan Black, because, like you said, it’s a really small community in Toronto, Canada as a whole. And I also went to a film program up here for writers, directors, producers, and editors called the Canadian Film Centre, and a lot of the writers and the show’s two creators, John Fawcett and Graeme Manson, actually also went to the same center. So, I knew them as alum, because the alum kind of gets around and you start to meet everybody, because small and everyone’s very interconnected. And I knew many of the writers in the room, like Aubrey Nealon, and I kind of reached out and started chatting with them. And the comic book series Helsinki was a pitch I believe that John and Graham, maybe it was John Fawcett, wanted to…they wanted a series based on a back story that they had for a bunch of European clones who had died when they were teenagers. But it took place far, like, long before the story started for the TV series, so they thought a comic would be a good way to explore that. And they were looking for a comic book writer for this series and IDW the publisher, who’s down in San Diego, the editor there was reaching out and they let me know. So, I had met this editor the year before at Comic-Con, so I kind of threw him a bunch of my material and hoped he would reach out to me. And then he reached out and I ended up getting the gig. And it was really good because I could, you know, I was in Toronto, I was a local writer that was close to the show. I could go into the writers room and ask what was going on so that I could write this back story, which ended up having many, many threads that came into the fourth season of the show. I believe it was the fourth season where we introduced a new clone that Tat played, but it actually got published first in the comic books. So, that’s how I kind of started working with the Orphan Black franchise.
Now is…the current one that you’re working on…what I’m unclear on is how many actual books have there been, as opposed to the comics. You’re working on one now…. were there some before that? I haven’t been clear on that.
Right, OK. So, with the books, we write them episodically. It’s kind of structured like a ten-episode season of TV. So, there are ten books, all written by different writers. We had a writing room where we brought a bunch of writers together and we wrote story, down in a room in New York, and then we all went away because we’re all scattered across North America, and we all kept doing sort of clone-club Skype calls to talk to each other about plot and breaking story beyond that. And we came up with ten books that we owned. So, I believe, at the time of this recording today, the last book has just come out.
And is that the one that you wrote?
I wrote Episode 6. Which was called…Episode 6 was…sorry. Now I’m like, it’s because I wrote it so long ago…hold on, I might need a couple of minutes here to find that…and I also, we also ended up reading a lot of the other books as well, which essentially…we gave notes on each other’s work and we, you know, we tried to kind of like track all the plotlines. So this is why I’m trying to remember what the name of my episode was.
We can just call it Episode 6, if we need to…
No, I believe I have it…sorry about that. Oh. So my episode was Episode 6, and that’s entitled “What a Living World Will Demand.”
So, without giving too much in the way of spoilers, can you sort of explain what happens over the course of these ten books, or at least give some idea of where this…does it follow right after the conclusion of the series? Is what happens?
No, it doesn’t. So it picks up about eight years after the end of the series. So, all of the clones that are still alive…and I won’t…I’ll mention a few, but I won’t give away it all, if you haven’t yet seen the TV show…but it picks up eight years after the end of the series. And we follow Cosima Niehaus and Delphine Cormier from the series. And you know, they’re living their life together. We have Kira Manning, which is Sarah Manning’s daughter, and she’s now in her late teens and we explore her life. And Charlotte, another younger clone from another generation of clones who’s also the same age as Kira. And we follow them as they are living out their lives, and the story begins when Cosima Niehaus, who’s seeking out new opportunities in life professionally, because she’s left the academic realm, or is trying madly to get out into genetics and work in a larger way in her field, she discovers that the clones’ identity, which they’ve kept secret all these years, may be in jeopardy because somebody potentially knows that they exist. After Dyad, the big corporation that controlled the clones had dissolved and disappeared and they had this sense of security, they’re now thrown back into turmoil of being exposed and potentially manipulated because of their genetic identity.
That sounds exciting.
Yes. And we have a new clone, too. The first episode starts with a brand-new clone who has a very exciting job, a very unique job, and she’s a very complex, interesting character. And she was really, really a great character to write for, because we got to push the clone identity into a job that involves a more global political walk of life.
I’m interested in the process. This podcast is all about the creative process, and this is a very different process with a writer’s room throwing ideas around and coming up with ideas jointly. So, you know, usually at this point I ask where, you know, more or less, it’s a cliché, but where do you get your ideas? It sounds like there were a bunch of you working on ideas all at the same time.
Yeah, we had a great room of writers, I think. I felt really privileged to work with them. Malka Older was our showrunner, essentially. It was her pitch that ended up becoming Orphan Black: The Next Chapter. And she has a background in…well, she has a doctorate in ethics, particularly within the realm of science and socially, so that was really great, to work with her, because she brought that entire aspect of Orphan Black. And that’s a big part of the TV series, as you know, the ethics around genetics and science and using human beings in experiments. So, she brought that to the table. I’ve always felt like I learned a lot from her, getting her insight on what she thought we could do with that angle of the story. We had Madeline Ashby, who is a novelist and a futurist, and she’s flown around the world to consult on science and the future of technology. And she always had, you know, frightening, frightening stories to bring to the table about where technology could go or kind of…her viewpoint was extremely interesting, so tons to learn there. We had to E.C. Myers, and Eugene is an incredibly funny person with an extremely grounded sense of humor, and he brought a lot of insight to certain characters. He writes in YA, and we had a kind of a teen component to our story with Kira and Charlotte. And then we had also Michelle Baker, who, as a writer, she was…she comes from kind of urban fantasy and she creates very emotionally grounded, complex, deep characters. And that is also another huge touchstone for the Orphan Black universe, are these layered characters, particularly the women that Tat played, you know? So that was huge. And then Lindsey Smith, our final writer, that was in our group, she comes, she’s a novelist as well, and she has a background in…I don’t know exactly what her job is, but I want to say she’s definitely our tech expert. I think she’s a hacker? She…you know, and we have a lot of technology that we touch on in terms of, you know, computer science, so she was kind of filling that angle for us. And we deal with a lot of kind of clandestine jobs and jobs working for intelligence agencies, so she…she knew something about that as well. So, there was no shortage of ideas. I think at one point I would say, you know, we had too many ideas.
I was going to say, it sounds like it could be difficult to pare them down to one storyline.
Yeah, exactly. We had so many options for certain storylines. And then eventually, you know, you just hacked through and weeded out. And what’s kind of…it’s a blessing and a curse, but when you’re writing not for the screen, but for prose and for books or whatnot, you have less limitations in terms of, you know, sure, we had a page count, like a word count we had to adhere to, but we didn’t have a budget or, you know, how many actors we have or how many people we get to have in a scene or how many clones we could have in a scene. So, we could kind of do anything we wanted. If we wanted to take the show to Paris, we could have. We could have done any number of things. So, it gets tricky sometimes to pare it down.
So, when you took your segment away to work on, what exactly did you have in front of you in the way of notes and what were you working from?
We had done kind of…we did…we broke out a kind of rough season outline that had the arc, when we were all in New York together, and we ended up having, basically, rough tentpoles per episode of what we knew we wanted to happen for this season. So, we didn’t have details and we didn’t have maybe all of our kind of logic and minute character motivations broken out or completely hammered out, rather, but we did know in a general way what all the big moments were and how we were gonna work them in. And we had kind of spitballed and riffed on ideas in the room. So, we came away with the flavor of certain scenes that we knew we wanted to have in the series and kind of moments that we really thought were valuable for the tone of the show or for, you know, entertainment value or for plot and thematic and dramatic statements and themes. So, when I sat down, I had kind of, I would say like five, six, seven big moments that I knew had to happen in my episode and I went to work and tried to string them together and create scenes to build off of that into an outline, and then we sent the outlines around and all read and had discussions and Skype calls where we all were on split screens talking to each other. And then I just kept refining the outline, and we went through an approval process with the, with Temple Street/Boat Rocker Media, that’s the company that initially produced Orphan Black here in Toronto, and a producer that had worked on the show, Kerry Appleyard, would give us notes and we’d go back and redraw our outlines and then move to draft.
It’s a very different process from someone simply writing their own novel.
Yes, it’s very collaborative. Sometimes a little chaotic, confusing.
I suppose it’s much more like writing…anytime you’re writing on a TV series or something where you have an arc for the season, but you have a bunch of different writers working on different episodes, it must be pretty much the same process.
Yeah, I would say it’s most similar to a TV writing room. That’s kind of what we had going on, except for we were all over the continent and sometimes in other time zones when certain people are to fly off to other countries for gigs. So, it was a little challenging. We weren’t all locked together in a room anywhere. We didn’t reconvene after that story summit that we had. But yeah, essentially, yeah, it’s a very collaborative process. I mean, coming from film making, I love working with other writers and filmmakers and I really enjoy working in a group that way. I think for certain projects…I’m writing a book right now of my own, a novel…there’s certain projects that I think for me I do well being alone writing. But in this case, Orphan Black is a very complex universe. The themes are very complex. The topics are sometimes hard to grasp. It’s…you have to generate a lot of content because they’ve already had five seasons of material that they’ve run through and multiple characters that Tatiana has played. So, working in a group like this for this kind of show or story series, really…I don’t know. It’s hard to do it alone.
Was there an overall editor that…or an individual who edited each book as it came along?
Yeah. We had two editors, Lydia Shamah and Marco Palmieri, who were with us for the duration of development and through to the end to copyedit, and they both kind of…they split the work up. Lydia was with us for the first half of the project and then Marco came in for the latter half. And they were amazing editors. They were always reading all the content that we were trying to create. They are helping us figure out if we had dropped threads or what we needed to kind of pick up and..’cause a series like Orphan Black: The Next Chapter, you know, it’s a thriller. There’s a lot of characters, there’s a lot going on. So it’s easy when you’re just focused on your individual episode to lose sight of the bigger picture or to miss a beat that’s integral to the plot. So, really it was invaluable to have other eyes looking at our project from a kind of broader scope.
Whenever you’re writing anything, what you’re…just the physical process? Do you sit in a home office? Do you go out to a coffee shop? How do you like to write?
I used to write in coffee shops a lot because I have a very moody husky and he likes to bug me all the time when I’m writing. And I just couldn’t get anything done because she didn’t like it when I was on my laptop. So I used to go out and I used to write with an author, a friend of mine, Christian Cameron. He’s known also as Miles Cameron. He writes a lot of historical fiction and fantasy. And I used to go write with him. We’d write in a kind of a bakery that had a second-floor area where there was no Wi-Fi and forced us to focus. And it was nice, because he’s written, I think…oh, God, he must have about forty books now that are out and he’s written multiple fantasy series. And he’s got a very…he’s got military training. He was in the military. So he treats…he’s very regimented, very disciplined, and he just hammers through pages. So, it was really good for me to write with him. It was inspiring. And, you know, it helped me to wrangle me when I was writing on contract alone. I would say for this book series, now, I’d write during the day at Ubisoft, in the office, it’s a very collaborative medium, too, a lot like film making that way, but maybe even more chaotic in some ways. And then I’d come home at night and I would either write at home or I’d force myself to go back out to a cafe, if writing…if I didn’t have a lot of gas in the tank and I knew I had to get something done.
Now, one of the interesting things about Orphan Black: The Next Chapter is that Tat has narrated the audiobooks of them. Have you heard yours, your segment, with her narration?
Yes, I have. I did listen to mine and it was kind of crazy to hear Tat read my book. It was just so strange because I’d met her, you know, about a decade, over a decade ago now, I think, or maybe just about a decade ago. And yeah, it was great. I was really impressed by her work yet again. She always impresses me and she has done a great job of embodying new characters and bringing back old clone characters and also playing her other, like, her co-stars on the show. So, she plays other people from the show that she had previously worked with.
I guess she’d have to, wouldn’t she?
She plays, you know, she plays, Felix, played by…her brother on the show, played by Jordan Gavaris. She plays Donnie and Alison, who were a married suburban couple. It’s kind of wild, but yeah, it was really great to hear it. And she did a fantastic job. It played…it’s read a little bit more like a radio play than just straight-ahead audiobooks. There’s a bit of…they have some sound effects, and I thought that, production-wise, they did a great job.
Now, what do you find is the biggest difference between writing screenplays and game material now and writing straight prose? What strikes you as the difference between the two or the three?
The three. Yeah. So, screenplays are very, very structure oriented. You have, usually…you don’t want to put too much fat in there. You need to keep moving the plot and the arc of every character with each scene. You don’t have a lot of time to be…you don’t have time to meander, but you also don’t really have much ability to get very introspective with your character. You can’t jump into their head, and you don’t want to do, you know, tons of voice-over where you get into their psychology. So that’s a huge difference with prose, where you can sometimes indulge in something or explore something in the character that you might only kind of get across on screen, but you can get into their psychology more and kind of the minutiae of who they are and why they do what they do from their perspective or from another perspective. You can switch perspectives to in storytelling when you’re writing in prose. And I would say with videogame writing, there are even more restrictions on that than on film making and comic books, because you have less time for your scenes, for these cinematic scenes, cut scenes that you have in games. So, you’re writing even more economically in a dramatic scene and you’re also constantly considering so many different variables in video games of, well, where has the player potentially come from or not come from in the game? You know, what have may they have seen or completed or not completed? You write exits and entrances a little bit differently, almost like a stage play, because a lot of the cut scenes that play in games have to merge back into gameplay, so you need to write exits for certain characters. So it’s got a theatrical aspect to it that way.
I would think…in games do you not sometimes have to write a scene in more than one way, depending on how the player might come to that spot?
Yes. I wrote on a project called Watch Dogs: Legion at Ubisoft, and it was kind of an amazing project to write on, I have to say, because one of the main features of the game is that you can play as anyone you see in London, England. It’s set in a post-Brexit London, and you can kind of walk around and recruit people to your kind of resistance group, it’s a hacker group, and you can become that person. And as writers, the writing team for that game, we had to write from many different voices. We’d write characters in scenes, but then we would have to go back and rewrite certain scenes because you could be any number of people in the world. So, there is a lot of that which you don’t get in film making, you know, traditionally you follow one character and that’s it, or a few characters and you see certain perspectives, but in this game, you could really be anybody. So, we ended up revising a lot of things based on that.
It actually sounds like a great writing exercise, writing a scene from everybody who’s in the scene.
Yeah, exactly. Because, you know, it would shift the intentions of the characters slightly, you know. You’d have one line from a character that might always being the scene, and depending on which player character ends up in that dramatic scene, the lines and the tone of the scene shifts, you know, depending on age and gender and culture and attitude. So, it was really an amazing writing exercise.
I think I’m going to steal that for a writing workshop sometime. I think it could make an interesting writing workshop.
Oh, you should. You should have a scene where you have to rewrite one character as different people and see how far you can push, you know, an archetypal scene.
I did a book, that was never published…years ago…I rewrote it twice. Still couldn’t make it work. But I changed the main viewpoint character. So, I sort of did that once. Well now, we’re getting close to the end of our time. We’ve got about ten minutes left. So I want to ask the big philosophical question, which is, “Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories and why do we do it through writing?”
Wow. Yeah. The big philosophical question. For me, I think with writing…there’s probably a few answers to this question. One of the most…one of the predominant reasons that I write would be to connect with people. I really…you know, to be able to build a story and explore something that either puzzles or interests me or affects me, you know, that I’ve seen in the world or that has, you know, somehow come to me as a story idea…to build something like that and then have someone else read it, right after I write it, in a year, two years, years, maybe even when I’m dead…who knows who’s gonna read what a person writes? You know, someone could read what you’ve written a hundred years from now…that is just, you know, to me, that is just the reason I write, I think, because I’ve read so many people’s work. I’ve read work that had been written, you know, hundreds of years ago, and it still resonates with people, and I’ve learned from it, I’ve…it’s changed me as a person, you know, when you read something and it has an impact on you, I think. I think that’s one of the reasons I write. Just to connect with people.
Why do you…you have, clearly, from the beginning, been drawn a bit to the fantastical and the weird and the strange. So why do you think we choose to tell those kinds of stories? Like, Orphan Black is kind of set in our world, but it’s not, It’s not really, it’s a fantastical story. And so, what draws you to those kinds of stories?
Number one, I think I’m an escapist. I like a little bit of escapism. I definitely think that some of my fascination with Tolkien dealt with wanting to escape as a kid and go to another world and I used to act out those stories as well, I’d write these elaborate storylines, but I also think the reason we gravitate towards genres that kind of bend our world into…or characters into…you know, things that don’t exist in our real world…I think we really enjoy that because we can connect with it. And I think that when we can manipulate people or characters and environments, we can highlight things even more so that we see in the world or that we feel or things that we want to, you know, challenge. We can highlight that, you know, we can use genre as a form of criticism or, you know, a way of bringing things to light. I think that we…it’s like giant metaphor. And I think that that’s one of the reasons genre for me is so attractive, you know, because I can be entertained and intrigued by something that seems new and fresh, and at the same time I can relate it back to, you know, what I see politically in in our world or I can relate it back to a personal experience and a walk of life by experiencing something that’s seemingly so different and otherworldly.
Now, you’ve mentioned the game that you’re working on. You also mentioned a novel that you’re working on. Do you want to say anything more about it?
Yeah, sure. This one…this kind of touches back to, you know, when I was a kid, and…it’s a story called The Penny Discount, currently, and it’s a fantasy novel about two thirteen-year-old girls who learn about…they learn about debt and credit debt through the use of magic. Yeah. It focuses a lot on that and on, you know, seeking out happiness. And, yeah, it has a lot to do with consumerism as well. And having a very, very close friendship with somebody and having big dreams and goals and maybe not going about them in the best way.
And how far along are you in that?
I am…I have yet to write the end of it. I am around…I’m getting up there for a kid’s book, I’m just over sixty thousand words. But I’m about to go through and do a kind of a little bit of a structural rework of it. But yeah, it’s been really fun to write in prose because, you know, when you’re writing like that, you feel like you can kind of just, you can freewheel a little bit here and there and explore stuff that you don’t always get to explore in other formats of writing.
Do you have publication lined up? Do you have any idea when this will be published?
This one I’ve just kind of kept to myself. I haven’t really told many people about it until now. It’s been secret, just in case, you know, it’s not too hot, then I don’t have to tell anybody I’ve ever done it. But it’s just one of these projects that kind of just flows when you’re writing it. And I’m really excited about it. So, yeah, I’m hoping to get back on that and finish that now that Orphan Black: The Next Chapter is out. And, yeah, that’s kind of the next thing I’m working on, going back to something that touches back to my roots and has a lot of me in it.
And if people want to keep up with what you’re doing, do you have a website or online presence, or where can they find you?
You can find me on Twitter @HeliKennedy, or Instagram, I’m on there, too. But yeah, I’m on Twitter. So reach out if you like.
Yeah, well. Hopefully people will do that. So thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. It’s been a fun conversation.
Candas Jane Dorsey is the internationally known, award-winning author of novels Black Wine (originally Tor 1997, 1998, re-released Five Rivers 2013) and Paradigm of Earth (2001, 2002, Tor); upcoming mystery series The Adventures of Isabel, What’s the Matter with Mary Jane? and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2020-2022 ECW); upcoming YA novel The Story of My Life, Ongoing, by C.J.Cobb; short story collections Machine Sex and Other Stories (1988), Dark Earth Dreams (1994), Vanilla and Other Stories (2000) and ICE & Other Stories (2018); four poetry books; several anthologies edited/co-edited, and numerous published stories, poems, reviews, and critical essays.
Candas was editor/publisher for fourteen years of the literary press The Books Collective, including River Books and Tesseract Books. She teaches writing to adults and youth, professional communications at MacEwan University, and speaks widely on SF and other topics. She was founding president of SF Canada, and has been president of the Writers Guild of Alberta.
She has received a variety of awards and honours for her books and short fiction. In 2005 she was awarded the Province of Alberta Centennial Gold Medal for her artistic achievement and community work, and in 2017 the WGA Golden Pen Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts. She was inducted into the City of Edmonton Arts and Cultural Hall of Fame in 2019.
Other awards include the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame (2018), YWCA Woman of the Year Arts and Culture (1988), and an Edmonton Arts Achievement Award (1988). She is also a community activist, advocate, and leader who has won two human rights awards and served on many community boards and committees for working for neighbourhoods, heritage, social planning, and human rights advocacy.
Welcome to The Worldshapers.
We have known each other for…I always start these podcasts by trying to make a connection, but in our case, we’ve known each other for quite a long time at this point, haven’t we?
I believe so. I believe we could measure that in numbers of decades.
Yeah, it’s getting there, for sure. And. of course, I’ve also been plugging When Words Collide, which is where I asked you to be on the podcast this year, because it’s a great writing convention that I’ve found several of my guests on over the last couple of years…or at…and I do like to tell people about it because I think it is really always a fun weekend for me, anyway. And I hope for you.
Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where you’re recognized for doing the thing you think of as primary. You know, we do so many things to make a living, but they’re not all things that we want to be remembered for the annals of history, you might say. Whereas, when you go to When Words Collide, it’s about writers and being writers and it’s like your primary environment. You get to submerge yourself in talking to people about books. I think it’s marvelous.
And I should mention for anyone who is interested that whenwordscollide.org is the Web site if you want to check it out. Not “when worlds collide,” whenwordscollide.org.
So, we’re gonna talk about your collection of short stories, Ice & Other Stories, which came out last November, and that’s a little different ’cause we normally talk about novels on here, but that’s good because short fiction is, you know, it’s own thing, which I think maybe I should talk about more on The Worldshapers. But before we do that, I would like to take you back, back into the mists of time, which is becoming a cliche on here, because I say that to everyone, to find out how you became interested in writing in general, but also how you became interested in writing stories of the fantastic, and a little bit about where you grew up and all that sort of thing.
OK, well, I’m one of those rare people who was born and grew up in the place that I still live, which is Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. And I’ve never really left for any period of time, although I’ve traveled a lot. I was the youngest in a family of three children, and it was a reading-and-doing-things family. My father had a day job, but he was…what he really was as a musician. My mother was a kind of self-taught historian who turned that into an entire career after I was in high school and was also very much a secret visual artist—you know, she never did much with it, but she loved it. And in her later years, she decided that she was just going to do it. So, it was kind of an interesting group of individuals. My brother is a professional musician and is also a visual artist. And my sister was a kind of a philosopher, really. But she had a day job editing for Hansard and she also did, you know, she sang in the choir, she made things with primitive Japanese woodworking tools just to see if she could, and that sort of thing. So…and, of course, we were all great readers.
So, one of the problems I had as a kid when I came along, I was nine years after my sister and eight years after my brother, they had taken up a number of the art forms, and I was acutely conscious of the competition factor. And so, I think without really…I mean, I already loved reading and I was reading and writing above my grade level, so it was fun to show off, to write things. But I really began to realize that I loved it, and it was also a field where I could just go to town without worrying about an older sibling competing. So I kind of dug into that in my school years, but by high school, I really was kind of committed to it and started to really take it quite seriously. And I have a sideline in visual art, which I did then and then kind of stopped doing for a number of years, and just in the last ten or twelve years, I’ve started doing visual art again and selling paintings. So, that’s more of what my students these days call a “side hustle,” and the writing is always the thing.
So, I’ve been a writer and an editor. I’ve also run a book-publishing company with a group of other people that included for a while Tesseract Books, the Canadian science fiction and fantasy press, which we bought from Beach Holme Publishing, and we later sold to Edge Publishing, and we ran that for about nine years. And I’ve also run an arts newspaper and I teach writing, to various continuing education…like the University of Alberta, and the local school board has something called Metro Continuing Education…and I also teach in communication studies at MacEwan University for the last few years.
And somewhere in there I also got an MFA. I thought it might be a good credential to have. And by then it was kind of interesting because I had more books published than about half of my professors, and of that, half of those minded and half of them didn’t. So, it was kind of a fun experience to dip my toe into academe and discover the politics thereof, but I enjoyed it for the most part. And that’s where I wrote for young adults for the first time, took a children’s and young adults’ writing course from Glen Huser, and realized that I actually had a voice in my head for that. So, that book, if I actually sign my contract and send it back and work out a few technical issues, that book should be coming out next year or the year after.
Well, we’ll certainly talk about that a little later on, too. When you were starting out writing as a young person, did you share your writing with…you know, you said you liked to show off a little bit…were you sharing your writing with classmates and that sort of thing? I always ask that because I think it’s important to get that audience feedback when you’re starting out and realize that you can tell stories that people might like. That’s certainly what I did and kind of what made me think, you know, maybe I really can do this.
.Well, mostly I shared them with the teachers. I had…I had only a very few classmates that I had good friendships with, and high school got a little better, but I was one of those kids who was alone by circumstance rather than by choice in school. I was sick a lot. I was away a lot. And when I was there, I was often ridiculed and called the teacher’s pet because I actually read the books and did the assignments and so on. But I did…it’s kind of interesting. I have been teaching this course for Metro Continuing Education called Introduction to Creative Writing, and a couple of years ago, they moved the classroom that they used, because they use school classrooms at night, right? They moved it to the place where I went to high school, and I realized when I went in there that that had been fifty years ago. This was quite a shock to my system because I don’t really tend to think of myself as old enough to have had, you know, a span of fifty years of sort of higher consciousness, you know, as opposed to, you know, vague memories from long ago. But indeed, I am.
And so, there I was in the school, which, although it had been renovated in terms of paint job and new doors and new lockers, visually is very much the same, and it’s the school where..well, OK, to start that sentence in a different place, I started school when I was four. I think my mother was sort of glad to get me out of the house because I was a very talkative, questioning kid, and probably quite tiring. But anyway…and she also recognized I could already read and was interested in stuff…and so she talked the school into taking me a little bit early because I was supposed to be five. So, when I got to high school, I was a little younger and a little..and a lot…less cool than the popular kids. But high school is a place that had things like the newspaper club and the debating club and the Reach for the Top team and places where my particular kind of weirdness was actually valued for a change. So that was quite nice. But also, I had a Grade 10 English teacher who was awesome, just awesome. She was herself an artist. I found later she was a talented violinist. She’d had her first recital when she was very young and it was, you know, a big sensation around town.
And I think this is in part because, sadly, I just last week attended her funeral service. She was 91 when she died. And…so she was 40 when she was teaching me, and she just had…she had a warmth and an interest in her students that meant that she actually recognized me as having potential or having something to do, and she showed an unfailing interest in my writing, and then she took a little bundle of my writing and she sent it off to Mel Hurtig, who at that point was running his bookstore in Edmonton. He later, of course, became a publisher and published a bunch of Canadian, amazing Canadian classics, like, so many of the works of Inuit writers in the 1970s. He published Mini Aodla Freeman’s Life Among the Qallunaat, and he published People from Our Side…and he published a number of books of the artists up there and their memoirs. He also published The Canadian Encyclopedia. But in those days, he still ran his bookstore. And if you’ve ever been to Audreys in Edmonton, he sold his bookstore to two women named Audrey, who worked for him, and that’s why Audreys, which is Edmonton’s only general independent bookstore at the moment, that’s why they have no apostrophe in their name, because it means the two Audreys. But that was later.
So, there I went…and she sent me downtown to talk to him in his bookstore. He had this big bookstore and then there was a little raised, like, three-steps-up section at the back where his office was. And there I went. Grade 10 self, so I’m like, fourteen, fifteen years old, and I’m shy and nervous. And this just wonderfully kind and intelligent man greets me and talks to me a little bit about writing and books, and then he sent me over to the university to a professor of children’s literature named Alison White, who welcomed me and gave me some books and read my poems and talked to me about them. And I…by then it was summer, and I got the excitement of going sort of all by myself on the bus, which was kind of a big deal for me because I didn’t go out much in that way, over to the university and into one of the historic buildings there where her office was and have this, you know, exciting moment of recognition.
And I have to say that it changed and possibly even saved my life and my sense of self to actually be seen at that point. And I don’t know about you, but those years of sort of thirteen to seventeen are not my favorite years in memory. They really aren’t. They were the time of maximum…well, not to be euphemistic, maximum misery. So, you know, she certainly changed my life and she may have saved it in a kind of metaphysical way because she really gave me to understand that at some point down the road, life would be different and interesting and I might have something to say to the world. So it was…I was thinking about all this week because, of course, it was a bit of a shock to realize that that was fifty years ago and that she had just died and I had met her since then and been able to express my appreciation, thank goodness. But then I went to this service and there was her daughter, who was her only child, and who looked very much like she looked when I knew her first. And so it was kind of an interesting conversation. And I think I was the only person there who was from her teaching life. And, I just, you know, I saw it in the paper. But so I was…I sort of brought all this up from memory and talked to them about her, her sister, and her daughter and her nephew were there, and they invited me to sit at their table. It was a Ukrainian funeral, so there was this absolutely delicious meal, lunch, sit-down lunch afterwards of the Alberta Ukrainian fare, which is, you know, cabbage rolls and meat and chicken and so on. And so it was this hearty and wonderful lunch. And then, just being able to tell her family something about what she was like for us, for her students. So, that was cool.
A lot of writers have somebody like that in their past, I think, that one person that maybe made them realize that maybe this was, you know, there was some value there and what they were doing and maybe they had some talent in that area.
Yes. And I’ve come to think…and I teach a lot of introductory writing courses, and I generally teach pretty much the same thing each time, but that’s because I think there are a few basics that people need to know and then they just need to get out there and write. But I sort of…iI think about what is the nature of a writer in general. And I think that writers are a peculiar combination of nervousness and ego. I was in theater when I was in school, I took drama classes, I went to…the local flagship theater is called The Citadel, I went to drama classes there…I crewed shows. I was gonna be in technical theater. When I realized I couldn’t act very well, I went into technical theater. And there were some opportunities that now I kick myself. I mean, I could have been a stage designer by now and had a completely different life, because Phil Silver, the stage designer at the time, who later went on to Stratford and other heights, invited me to be his model maker, which is a bit like saying you can apprentice with me. And I was young and kind of stupid and I decided I was going to, you know, go back to university and save the world. I don’t know what I decided. That was a long time ago, too. But I didn’t do it.
So, I was in theater and I began to realize that the talents that…I loved improv, but I was not good at preparing a role and losing myself in the role. And I realized that the thing that was wrong with that was the losing myself. And I had this conversation with a guy called Edward Atienza, who was a tenor…he came to Edmonton to do the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado when my partner was the…sidekick…you know, I can never remember their names…Ko-Ko and Poo-Bah.
Ko-Ko is the main character. He’s the Lord High Executioner. And there’s Poo-Bah and there’s Pish-Tush, I played Pish-Tush, that’s how I know.
Yeah. OK. Well, you guys could get together, have a little reunion, and, you know, put your arms over each other’s shoulders and sway back and forth and sing Mikado songs. But, anyway, so there was Edward Atienza, and we were at the sort of first-night party, and I happened to get seated next to him. And I don’t know how we started trading biographies, you know, that, you know, try to find common ground. But, for some reason, I made this mention of having been involved in theater, but realizing it wasn’t…performing was not…I wasn’t temperamentally suited to any other performing except improv. And he said. “That’s really interesting,” because when he was in university, he had wanted to be a writer. Like, in all his teenage years. And he’d gone…and he was British…so he’d gone to university to prepare for this and realized what he was there, that he couldn’t stand the kind of vulnerability that you have as a writer. He couldn’t put himself out there. Even in fiction, you have a kind of vulnerability when you write it. And that just didn’t suit him. And so he moved over into performing, because he could take his creative impulses and clothe them in inhabiting a role.
And so, there were these two people who had basically gone opposite directions, had kind of crisscrossed over in order to find the thing that suited their temperament. Because even when I was a kid, even when I was a very unhappy little kid, I was not…I was quite confident that I would grow up and I would have a life and it would be an interesting life and it would be full of writing. And I find that kind of interesting, that I never really doubted that part. I doubted my ability to write well, I had all the usual angst and worry that young writers have. But I also had some peculiar kind of confidence or ego that kind of saw me through that early part.
Well, I think a lot of the challenge of writing is, like you said, you have to have some sort of ego there that makes you keep doing it and doing it and doing it and thinking that, you know, somebody eventually is going to recognize what you’re doing.
Yeah, and that you’re writing a thing that’s important to be written. You’re not wasting your time and so on. Right? So, yeah, so it kind of interests me, you know, and I try to…I had some really encouraging writing teachers and I had some that basically believed that the way you went about it was extreme tough love and that you would just…and that they would just…well, there was in particular, he would discourage anyone, you know, “You’re wasting your time, don’t do this,” kind of thing. And what I discovered is that the encouraging kind of teacher is not going to bring people into the field who or bad at it because the field will just cull them out. What they will do is bring people into the field who need encouragement—and the word courage is in that word encouragement—who need the courage of their own conviction to get into their career. So, the kind of tough-love writing teacher only is only good for the egoist or the stubborn people or the people whose kind of social fight-or-flight response is to fight back. But there are a lot of writers who are quiet and who don’t want to have a public fight, but they want to write. And so I think, when I’m teaching, I try to indicate to people that, you know, the world of writing and of readers and of publishing is going to narrow you down into the people who are going to get accepted, and so, you know, obviously for them a part of their career is to just get better at doing that thing until they get good enough to pass the bar. But I don’t sort of sit them down and say, “You should really open a 7-Eleven,” because you can’t decide for other people how they’re going to carry out that drive and whether they’re going to…whether they’re going to fix all other technical errors because they are so driven, like some writers that I have known, that I have taught, who you would have thought would be, would never get anywhere because they had so many technical errors, but they fixed them all because they loved, loved writing.
Well, and I’ve done quite a bit of writing teaching as well, and do try to be on the encouraging side myself. I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, so it’s very much people coming in at all different levels of ability. And sometimes I see stuff and I think, “There’s just no way.” But I tell them what I think could make it better and try to be encouraging because, you know, you never know.
Oh, you know, I don’t hold back. You know, if I see somebody with a lot of technical errors, I will say to them, “You must fix these. Because otherwise you will have a miserable time being rejected.” But, you know, once they know they have to fix them, there’s no reason why they can’t. You know? I mean, I know it sounds kind of like, I don’t know what it sounds like, but basically I have seen people coming up into my writing classes for the past few years who have been taught by the whole-language or process-learning approach, and they really don’t know their own written language and they’re terribly disadvantaged, but they have the same desire to do the work and to tell the stories as the other writers have had. And so, I’ve often had to say, “Hey, it’s not your fault. It’s how you were taught. But you will have to learn this,” and many of them do, because they understand that it’s a tool, it’s their technology, the language is their technology, and they need to use it to do what they want to do.
And you know, I find that pretty, pretty…encouraging, I guess, because I knew all this stuff very early and I was also taught…I was schooled at a time where you were drilled in all the rules of grammar. So, when I sit down to write, I am extraordinarily lucky that my sentences come out as proper sentences, right? So, I can start kind of down the road. If I didn’t have that, though, I still would probably have the impulse to write, I would just have to do more work. So, you know, even people who come to the task with technical skills that need improving, I have seen them…I mean, it’s not just sort of a greeting card here, I have seen them improve and become published writers, and I’ve seen others who had great skills, but they didn’t have kind of the fire. They didn’t want to do the extra work to do a second draft. And their extremely promising stories didn’t even go as far as the other ones. So, this at this point, after having taught since 1983 different writing classes and started, and sent…many of my classes, I send them off to be writing groups…I’ve decided you can’t predict which horse is going to finish the race. You just can’t. So, you give everyone the same skills and encouragement and then tell them it’s a tough business. And so you have…
Sorry. Just give me a second…okay, let’s try that sentence again. I tell them it’s a tough business and that they have to meet a quality standard, but…and that they’re going to have to learn a lot of that on their own…and I think it’s a much better way to prepare them for the writing world than to try and be mean to them.
You may hear my little dog in the background.
He won’t be the first animal noises in the background. John Scalzi had cats going on in the background and somebody else did, too. So it’s not uncommon. And Peter V. Brett had somebody doing construction work outside his window, so…so, you studied English and drama in university and also social work. Were you…when did you start writing for publication, or attempting to be published? When did you break in?
I started writing seriously in high school and in the first couple of years of university, and my mother actually talked me into staying at university after the first year rather than going walkabout, as so many students did in the ’70s, because W. O. Mitchell was coming to teach writing at the university. And so, I did stay in my second year and took classes from Doug Barbour, who you know through his work in the science fiction field, and that’s who introduced me to Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel Delany…in a big way. I mean, my father had been a big science fiction reader and I think I’d read Le Guin before, but some of the others I hadn’t…Alfred Bester, Joanna Russ, all these amazing writers…he had done his thesis on. And this is 1971, so, you know, people listening to your podcast will realize how long ago, how ancient I am. I’m not that old, but I feel it sometimes.
In any case, so I went back. I studied with Mitchell, who was a wonderful teacher. He was nurturing but demanding in a really wonderful way. And he never forgot anything or anyone. So, I would meet him years later and he would say, “Kid, you didn’t quit. You didn’t quit.” And that was his big thing. “Never quit. Just keep writing. Keep doing it.” And I remember one time I asked for a letter of reference for a grant I was applying for and I remember him saying, “I don’t know, my letter might be the kiss of death, kid, because, you know, I’m just not, you know, they don’t…I don’t think they’d like me that much.” And I’m saying, “I don’t know, you know. Big name.” In any case, I think I got the grant. So I think he wasn’t the kiss of death, but he was a lovely guy, and so…
Doug Barbour was editing White Pelican in those days and he’d gotten Samuel Delaney, for instance, to write for White Pelican. I think I still have that somewhere, that issue. And he and some other people got together and started NeWest Press. George Melnyk had started the NeWest Review and the NeWest Institute, which were to study Western Canadian culture. And I went to the first NeWest Forum on the Arts. It was out at Rudy Wiebe’s Strawberry Creek Lodge when the lodge wasn’t…it was just barely completed, it didn’t have carpets, or, you know, all the amenities, but there was. And we looked at, you know, questions…I mean, this was is in the 1970s and we’re talking about indigeneity. And somebody had made a film about spring burning for ecological reasons in First Nations before settlement and just all sorts of very cool stuff.
So, they decided to start a press. So they got a little board together and they started NeWest Press, which is of course, still in existence. And the very first book they did was called Getting Here…Getting There?…no, Getting Here. And it was a book of Edmonton writers, all of whom were women, as I recall. It’s way up too high on the shelf to reach to verify this for sure. But I know that…yeah. I’m pretty sure it was all women writers and that was part of the point. And Doug edited or co-edited it. And that was…I had had some other things published in things like the university newspaper, and so on, but that was sort of the first time a story was anthologized. And it was a science fiction story of sorts, a kind of slipstream science fiction story, which was called, “You’ll Remember Mercury.” Which was a line from someone’s poem, who had written a kind of very creepy, almost horror-like poem, where the astronauts come to Mercury and they get changed and transformed in ways that they perhaps didn’t intend, and the last line was, “Oh, yes, you’ll remember Mercury.” So I’d written this story, which was, quite, I guess, a little surreal, but it took all the science-fiction tropes and it had them in there. You know, the faster-than-light travel, the spaceship captain, the et cetera, et cetera. And eventually…what it was was, in essence, was a space ship full of sort of outcasts, including First Nations people and so on, who were making a gesture against what we today call colonialism, I guess. And who have the spaceship and who ceremonially dive into the heart of the sun. And, you know, I mean, I was twenty, right? And so that was my first kind of breakout.
And I had a lot of stories published in literary magazines. All of them were science fiction and fantasy, really. Or slipstream or kind of surrealism or whatever they were. There wasn’t much in the way of realism, but I just thought of myself as a writer, you know, not particularly as a genre writer. I didn’t have any trouble with those markets, either. Like, you know, there’s a certain kind of town and gown kind of thing, of, you know, the literary world looks down on us, but I have been…I had no hesitation in submitting to those markets, and getting published, places like A Room of One’s Own and Prairie Fire and various magazines that no longer exist, Blue Buffalo, and so on.
And I also had no hesitation in applying for literary grants. I just thought, “Well, I’m a writer. That’s what they’re here for.” And I would apply and by and large, I would get them. I think, you know, the odds of getting a literary grant is somewhere between one and six and one in ten and probably more by now. But I figured that was pretty good odds for spending an afternoon on an application. And so, I would say that I probably got over half of those that I applied for, and was fairly philosophical about the ones I didn’t. I definitely urge, you know, if listeners are Canadian writers, almost all the provinces and the Canada Council have these grant programs and many cities do, as well. I live in Edmonton, and the Edmonton Arts Council has grant programs, and I would really urge people to apply and not be weird and reverse-snobby about how those are for literary writers and they will discriminate. They’re all decided by juries. The juries differ from time to time. So one jury may love your work. The other jury may put you a little bit below the red line. You have to think of it as buying a lottery ticket, in essence. You apply, and then you forget about it. And if a nice letter comes in the mail down the road, yay, you won the lottery. If it doesn’t, then, OK, you hadn’t counted on it anyway.
And, you know, I don’t think artists have a right to…I mean, I think we’re very lucky to have a grant system, but I have to recognize that historically, the state, as it were, and private patrons who had a lot of money were the reasons why the arts even got made. You think about the Renaissance and all those huge paintings of Saint Sebastian taking on the arrows that are now in the Louvre, they were all in private castles and artists went from castle to castle, making their daily bread by painting or they wrote a long poem and they dedicated it to the guy who was going to pay for it, right? And I don’t think…I think government is the best patronage system there is, because it’s objective. So, I really strongly feel that developing writers should look at all the options, and they shouldn’t think of themselves as being…especially developing speculative writers or developing genre writers, they shouldn’t think of themselves as being the little match girl outside the outside the house while the party goes on inside. We’re all part of the same thing.
Well, let’s move on to your current collection of short stories. Your first book was a collection of short stories, Machine Sex and Other Stories, and now you have Ice & Other Stories, which also starts with “Machine Sex.” So…I know you can’t really synopsize a collection of short stories, but tell us about the book.
Well, the book started as all the stories that had been in something, but not in a book. So there were thirteen or 14 stories. And every couple of years I’d get a story published. I’m a very slow writer. And sometimes that was because of life and reasons and sometimes it’s just because it takes me a while to develop a story. So I had these stories and I went through a period where my mother was aging and she was in a nursing home and I had some health issues, and it wasn’t the best time for getting things out into the world. But I had this collection. So, every now and then I would think about, “Where should I send it?” And it’s hard to get short-story collections published. It’s not easy to sell them, so only certain publishers want to do them.
So, I did…Ursula Plug did a book of short stories with PS Publishing in England, Pete and Mickey Crowther run it, and they do these beautiful hardcovers and they do a limited, a signed, limited edition, and so on. And she asked me to write the forward for it. So then I was in touch with these people and they seemed…and then I went to the London WorldCon and there were all their books, and they were just beautiful. They were beautiful. There wasn’t a small-literary-press-deathwish cover among them. They were all just beautiful and beautifully produced and a lot of hardcovers. And they were really sincere people. And I still can’t figure out their business model, because they do these beautiful books in small editions. They bind them beautifully. The signed editions are still well within a collector’s or regular collector’s budget. And they ship their author’s copies to me without charging for shipping, so I’m kind of amazed at their business model. But…so I got in touch with them and I sent them a manuscript, and…Nick Gevers is the short-fiction editor that works with them, and he lives in South Africa. And nothing really happened to this book for a while. And so finally, when I was in a little better state, I sort of sent a reminder saying, “Oh, yeah, I sent you guys a book,” and he sent me back a message and, interestingly, my mother had just died, which is why…and I was sort of getting back into having more time in my life. And so, he sent back a letter, and his mother had also been in care and dying at a similar elderly age, in their nineties. And so he said, “I haven’t read your manuscript yet, but I will,” and within a week I had a publication offer.
So, that started out one of the new years very well. And then we worked on what stories from previous books might be known to people that we should put into a retrospective, because this is 30 years of stories. They wanted a new story, and that took me a while, I must say. But so, then what would be kind of the first one? So we decided to put “Machine Sex”—”(Learning About) Machine Sex” is its real name—put that into it as the first story, because that’s the story of mine that has been most anthologized. And we’ve put in “Sleeping in a Box,” which won what was then the Casper Award and is now the Aurora Award, and there were a couple of others that I felt kind of still had…still should be seen there, and we ended up with, I think it’s twenty-one stories now, if I’m not mistaken. For a while, it was seventeen, and then it increased again.
And, basically, they cover thirty years, and so when I was writing the notes for it, I started writing the notes with a little bit of an eye toward the history. So, if you read the notes, you get a little bit of the secret history of Canadian SF. I talk in there about the SF Canada workshop in 1986 in Peterborough. And Michael Skeet was there. I was there, John Park…trying to remember if Karl Schroeder…anyway, I have all the names in the book. And there were eight people there and their various spouses. Ursula Pflug was there, Wendy Pearson was there, who’s now mainly an academic, but she was writing fiction in those days. She’s at Western, University of Western Ontario, I think it is. And her partner, Susan Knabe, who is also an academic in the field now. Ursula was there with her baby and her husband, who’s a filmmaker, and Michael was there, and Lorna Toolis, of course, the librarian at the Merrill Collection for all those years was there when she could be, she had to work. And Judy Merrill ran it.
So, that was then. And things have changed considerably over the time, and so each…we decided to arrange the stories in chronological order by publication and just talk, I would talk about what was going on at the time in the notes. So, it’s been actually, I think, an interesting exercise. Like, if people really want to start thinking about how the network fit together, who was helping whom, who was talking to whom, in the field, they will find some good information in the back pages there. And also, they’ll find all these, thirty years of short fiction. And the last story is actually a brand-new story. Probably, it has some…I mean, I know that some of my stories were more intense than others, and there’s some that I particularly love.
The one that I wrote for Ursula Plug’s anthology, and Colleen Anderson’s anthology, Playground of Lost Toys, is one that I’m particularly proud of. It’s really an example of me as a slow writer, though, because I started writing that story when Nalo Hopkinson put out a call for her anthology called Mojo Conjure Stories, which were stories about, in essence, everyday magic, and people doing folkloric magic. And it always bugs me that writers in the fantasy field will swipe the folklore of other people and turn it into their plot devices and they won’t look necessarily to their own heritage, because, you know, Wendigo is cool, so I’m gonna write a story about Wendigo, kind of thing. And some of those stories you need to be given. And if you’re given them, if you do the work, if you go to the people who own them and you ask, then that’s a different matter. But just to say, oh, I think it’s really interesting that, you know, Voudon says this or, you know, Candomblé is based on this and I’ll just use it in my story. You have…you’re walking a fine line between colonialism or, you know, imperialism of some kind, and true homage.
And so, I just thought I would look at what’s the kind of magic that my people would do. You know, I’m a third- or fourth-generation settler on the prairies from a sort of Scots-English background, almost completely that. I have a few random…I have a probably a random Mennonite several, a couple of hundred years ago, and so on. But it’s mostly Scots and English. So, I’m thinking, “What’s the heritage I have?” And so I started thinking about my relatives and the kinds of things that prairie people do, like make flapper pie and eat Kraft dinners and put together jigsaw puzzles and wear L’eggs pantyhose and work at the dollar store, and so on. And I crafted those into a story about, what would the everyday magic be for those people? So, it’s around putting together jigsaw puzzles makes magic. And it ended up being a lovely story, but it was also, like, many years after Mojo Conjure Stories was gone and published and so on. And it just never made it, So, when Playground of Lost Toys came along. I figured, “Jigsaw puzzles equal toys. Hey!” And I finished the last little bits of it and sent it in, and I’m very pleased with it. It’s the kind of story that I can only read it and it makes me sniff with a little bit of emotion, and so, I like that.
Well, a lot about what I talk about on the podcast is, you know, the process of creating stories. And one of the great things about the story notes at the end of the book is that you do tell where these stories came from. But I don’t know that I see a particular theme as to how ideas come to you. It looks, like many of us, all sorts of things can spark a story idea in you. Is that fair to say?
Yes. And stories sort of start at different points, too. Like, I have had stories, and one of my novels, that started from a dream I had. And the novel became a novel because it took that long to make the elements of the dream into a story that made sense in anything other than an emotional arc, right? So…one of the things you need to know about me is I started writing short and started writing longer and longer pieces. So, it’s like that Eastern European proverb about, “How do you lift an ox? You start the day it’s born and you lift it every day.”
So, I wasn’t a natural novel writer. And, in general, my process is to start with a thing…and maybe you could think of it as, I don’t know if you save wrapping paper, but sometimes in my family we did, and there’d be this big tangle of ribbon and you’d pull the end of the ribbon and you’d just keep pulling it out and untangling it from all the stuff that isn’t that piece of ribbon. And so, I would assemble little pieces and move them around and it’s only later in my career have I written this…and I did it on purpose to see if I could…written a book where I started with, sort of the beginning, the first scene, and went in order to the end. And that’s the first mystery… I’ve just sold this series of three mysteries to ECW Press. Two of them are written, and I’m supposed to be writing the third one, probably right this minute, when you think about it.
But the first one came from, sort of an assignment I gave myself to just start at the beginning and write to the end. And I probably also did that when I was working with Nora Abercrombie on the three-day novel that we won. But I had, at least I had someone there to help me. Yeah, that was Hardwired Angel. And I think I’ve actually empowered certain of my students by saying, you know, you don’t have to write an order and you don’t have to write fast. It’s true that the industry demands a book a year from some kinds of writers and you can get into that rhythm once, you know, once you have the experience, but everybody is their own kind of writer, and you just have to learn what kind you are. Which is not like…I say to them, it’s not an excuse to be lazy, it’s not an excuse to say, “Well, I’m not going to do that because it’s too much work and I’m not that kind of writer anyway,” you know? No, that’s not what I’m saying. But if you’re like me and you hate to know the ending…like, I truly find that if I have an entire outline planned out before I start, my impetus to write goes down to ten percent of what it was, if that, because I just, I write to find out what happens.
And other people love the outlining, and they put up their little index cards and stuff, and then they write for a while, and of course then the characters take over and create chaos within the story. And so, you know, there’s a moment when I have to get organized, but it’s usually when I’ve got quite a bit of stuff written and I have to think about what comes next in a more organized way. But quite often my instinct for story will drive me down a certain road when I’m not even sure I should be including that in the book, and it’ll turn out to be the right thing.
What is your actual…like, do you write in a keyboard, Do you write longhand? How do you like to work?
Well, that depends on what I’m writing. I pretty much always write poems longhand. And I do have a notebook beside my bed that I will occasionally write a scene down in. But, over the years…I was an early adopter of computers. I was actually an early adopter of typewriters, because my godfather gave me his 1922 Underwood when he got a modern typewriter in the 1960s, and I learned to type quite early. And I understood that if I typed it right, I would never have to type it again, and that was kind of powerful. When computers came out, I was freelance writing and I pretended that it was all about my business, and that it was a business decision. But what it really was, was, “Oh, my gosh, I get to do this where if I do it right, I will never have to retype another manuscript, and I can do this cutting and pasting stuff and I can do this alteration stuff,” it was tremendously exciting. And so, my first computer was this twenty-six-pound KayPro, which was considered portable in those days, made by an oscilloscope company…
I remember those!
Yeah. Ten-inch screen, and the first one had 63K of memory, and then you put a floppy disk in it to save your files, and the floppy disks were 5 1/4 inch. And then, they got a hard drive. It was ten whole megabytes. I thought I would never need another storage device in my life. It was so exciting. Anyway, so I was an early adopter. So, I got trained pretty early to type stuff. So, for the prose, I generally tend to type, but if something strikes me, if I have a good idea while I’m just about to go to sleep, I will grab the notebook and write it and then transcribe it later. But I know people who still write, like, their first draft in fountain pen, and…in one of the courses I teach, I have to talk about this, but, there is actually science to say that writing on a keyboard, if you’re taking notes, gives you less retention than writing.
Yeah, I saw that.
But I don’t know what that means if you’re generating it. I do know that if I were a better typist, there are all sorts of cool techniques that people that I know have done to make their first drafts were better. And one of them is a woman I knew who turned off her monitor for the first draft. But she was a good enough typist that what was there made sense when she turned them back on. Whereas I’m a terrible typist and I’m always correcting. And I look at, you know, I look at the screen and the keyboard all the time, I never learned any of the typing techniques. The attitude to typing that they had then was that it led to a stenographic career, so girls didn’t take typing. And I was very careful not to cross that line, but I kind of regretted it, because I wanted to write. But my sister taught me, who had taken typing, taught me to type on my Underwood when I was just a little kid. But I had such weak…like, I had tiny hands. And you have to lift the carriage return, or the capital key, the Shift key, was a literal shift, and you had to push it down, and it was very heavy. So as a result, I never learned to type with the right fingers.
But it doesn’t really matter. I think that the computer has been so helpful for so many because it’s a lot like writing by hand. You can write things that aren’t in order. You can go back and forth. You can cut and paste. You can add things. You can move lots of texts. You can copy things. You can keep…I mean, people who write with Scrivener can keep files on all their characters and all their settings and all their research in the same place. I mean, it’s just…it’s quite marvelous. And I think it actually helps the creative process have that kind of freedom from linearity.
What does your revision process look like? Is it all kind of a unit, where you just work away at it and it takes shape and then it’s done? Or do you ever go back and start at the beginning and do a complete rewrite, or how does that work for you?
I am not a complete-rewrite person. I hate to talk about this because I don’t think it’s common. But the thing that I write down, by the time I write it down, is very close to the end thing. So my revision consists of fiddling around a little bit. Like, I hardly ever…I have hardly ever in my whole career taken a scene and just axed it and written a whole new scene. But I might put something aside. That doesn’t seem to fit. More often than not…like, I have very little of that had-to-try-this detritus lying around in my hard drive. It’s…to talk about my own process, I actually want to talk about my partner, Timothy Anderson’s, process, because he can be quite infuriating to sit across the room from while he’s writing and I’m writing, because he has everything in his head and he types it out. Like, he doesn’t…and it’s not conscious, he’s not walking around saying, “Oh, this character needs to do this,” but somehow there’s this story build-up that goes on in his head that’s way more conscious than it is in mine. And when he has some time, he sits down from across…and he can type fast, so he can write four to twelve thousand words in a day, if that’s all he’s doing, because he just types. It’s absolutely infuriating. It’s just so infuriating. Because I go type, type, type. Silence, silence, silence. Type, type. Silence. Type a bit. Silence. But when I put the thing on paper, it’s as if part of my mind is doing the same as his. It’s putting the story together, but it’s not doing it in my conscious sight.
So, when I type, what I’ve had to learn is to just trust, to type what’s there, what’s coming out, and see where it fits later. And especially with novels. I remember…your listeners might or might not know that the novel I’m best known for is called Black Wine, and it’s a rather complicated fantasy novel in which a number of braided stories turn out to all be related in the end. And when I first started writing it, it was…I thought it was gonna be a longish short story that was sort of a quest: young woman goes off looking for her mother who went away when she was a child, all in a fantasy landscape. And it was Marie Jakober, when I was telling her about it, who said, “Oh, Candas, this sounds like a novel.” And I was thinking, “Oh, no, oh, please, no.” But yeah, it was a novel. So I started typing.
And one day, I had gone to my friend’s, David Greer’s, house on Pender Island for a writing retreat, he had a lovely little cabin there, and I’m typing on my KayPro, and all of a sudden, the sentence I type, like, the first sentence I typed that day is, “There is a madwoman in a cage in the courtyard.” Now, this just came out of nowhere, nowhere, and luckily. I was smart enough not to say to myself, “Oh, this has nothing to do with what you’re writing. Don’t type any further.” And so, I just kept typing, and suddenly there was this young woman with amnesia who was sort of like a waif figure, and she was bringing this woman food, and they were talking in this language that the waif hadn’t realized she knew until she heard the woman speaking it…because amnesia, right? And I’m thinking, “What is this?” But something in me said, “This is part of your story.” And that ended up being the first scene in the book.
Once I had written all these pieces of book, I then arranged them in a bunch of orders, and some of the orders worked and some of the orders didn’t, and that ended up the first scene. And how I got smart enough to just keep typing, I have no idea. But I’ve always been really grateful for it, because many years later that novel emerged and that was the beginning of it. And then we discover later how it all fits with quest-girl and her mother and all the other people in the book, and it all kind of fits together, but you don’t really find out till about page 100, and even then, speaking of the revision process, David Hartwell bought that novel for Tor Books. That was funny, too, because he was buying a story of mine and one of the forwards to the Tesseracts Anthologies for his book Northern Stars, which was a Canadian science fiction anthology he co-edited with Glenn Grant and…I think it was Northern Stars, which was the first one…anyway…when my voice gets fades away, there’s because I’m looking up at my shelf of books to see if I can see the spine of it…but in any case, so he has me on the phone and I said, “Oh, David, you know, I’ve had this novel sitting on my desk for like a year now and I don’t know who to send it to. Could you give me some some some hints, some suggestions about who you think might want it?” And there’s this silence at the other end of the phone. And then this exasperated voice says, “Well, send it to me.” And I thought, “Oh, yeah, right, you’re the, you know, one of the most influential editors at the most influential publishing house, but I never thought of that.” And, indeed, he bought it. And what he…the only real change he made was, he said, “People have to wait till about page 150 or 175 to find out what’s going on for sure. They’re not going to wait that long. You have to move one of these scenes up a little earlier in the book.” So I moved it up to about page 100 and then he said, “That’s good.” And so, really his editing consisted of, “Move these things around a little.”
He was more active with the second book, because he would say things like, “These scenes are too long, you’ve got to fix them.” And I then figured out why and fixed them. But the first book, there was almost, almost nothing was changed. It was just moved a bit. And on the level of the sentences, some sentences were sanded until they had smoother edges. Including that very first sentence.
We’ve done an hour here, so I want to wrap things up. But I have to wrap it up with the big philosophical question that I ask everyone. And you spend a lot of time thinking about writing and you teach writing. And so the big question is simply, why? Why do you write and why do you think any of us write. And, specifically, why do we write stories of the fantastic? Why do we tell stories?
Well, when I’m being flippant, I say I write because there’s only two things I do well, and the other one is illegal to sell. But, no, I think…well, I know that it’s a human imperative to tell stories and to make sense of our environment through storytelling and through arranging things into a story. There’s even research…this woman whose name I forget at the moment, who pioneered a lot of research into nursing practice using narrative inquiry, which in itself is storytelling, right? It’s “ask the nurses to tell the stories of their practice.” And she actually did a study where she particularly interviewed bad nurses and asked them the same thing she asked the nurses in her general studies. And the main finding she had was that bad nurses could not make narrative out of their experience. They could not tell the story of their nursing practice.
And this, of course, makes me think of, in my social-work years and child-care work years, makes me think of the dysfunctional families, who would have secrets and lies but they don’t have stories that they pass on. They don’t have, they don’t know when the kids were born or when they moved here from Ontario or when so-and-so started school or whether they won an award or whatever. Whereas, certainly in my family, those memories were dearly, dearly kept and re-told as story. So, I think all humans try to make sense of their situation. And you think about someone who was raised in a dysfunctional family and they go to therapy. What’s the first thing they tell them to do? They tell him to tell his story. They tell them to, the first thing they do is to tell them to tell the story of their own lives. So they try and put together a coherent narrative out of their memories and what happened to them and their lives. That’s a kind of storytelling, too, right? It’s a kind of making order out of the universe. And I think those of us who…well, I don’t know if I can generalize, but certainly, when I look at the body of my work, it’s all about justice and injustice. It’s about hope and transformation because of things…
Particularly, when I was twenty years old, I got a job as a child-care worker for four years with teenage girls. And at that point, I was still complaining about my family of origin and how mean they were or whatever. Well, no, they weren’t. They were brilliant. I mean, there may have been some dysfunction in our family, as there is in every family. But I saw things that were horrifying and tragic and just left me with enough anger to basically fuel all the stories for life, and to some degree, I’m still telling those stories. And I thought about John Gardner’s book On Moral Fiction and how he talks about moral fiction is a fiction that kind of seeks justice. And fantasy novels are considered one of the kinds. The quest novel or the good-versus-evil novel, mystery novels, and romance. So he talks very specifically about the genres, and the reason that they’re so popular is because they restore order in the universe and in that way they are not religiously moral, but they are moral in the sense of a universal order, an ethical way of living, whatever.
So, I think we tell stories to create order and restore order and give people hope that there are solutions and answers and that there are people like them and that there are things they can do in the world. They don’t have to be inert. They can be agents of their own change and other people’s change. And I think, at the base level, that’s why I tell stories. The challenge is not to tell lectures, because I could give, as I am doing now, a little rant on why that’s important, or I could tell a story. But if I try to tell a story and all it is is a rant, it’s not a successful story. So, you have to put real people in a situation where their lives and love and emotional well-being and physical well-being depend on the resolution of these issues, and that then becomes an allegory for other people who read it to say, “I can submerge myself in this and I can see parallels to my own life and I can learn new things.
I do urge people…the last thing I’ll say is, I urge people to have a look, in our field, to have a look at John Clute and his fellow editors..it was John Klute and John Grant for one, and John Clute and Peter Nichols for another…the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. And there is a definition of fantasy in there that has something that I say to all my writing classes. It talks about the progression of a story from an initial wrongness through a state of thinning, where the world or the person’s reality is kind of thinned and hollowed out. And then comes a moment…and this is a beautiful sentence that I love, and I might as well finish with this, “A moment where the protagonist gazes upon the shriveled heart of the thinned world and knows what to do.” And that revelation is followed by a metamorphosis or a set of actions that lead to what Klute calls the eucatastrophe, like, the good, the resolution of the story, basically. And that leads to a return, a healing, a return of just governance, all the things that we recognize in fantasy.
But in my mind, you can put any type of fiction on that loom and look at that journey, and I often say to my students that modern literary fiction, especially what is sometimes called the MFA short story, is trapped in thinning every bit as much as a horror story is, right? So, literary fiction is still on it, too, and it fits in with his taxonomy. So if people want to know more about that, they just should look at the encyclopedia. It’s online. They can just look for the definition of fantasy and read the whole thing.
But I think that’s why people tell stories. Certainly why I do. And for a while, I was thinking it was also the only thing I knew really how to do and how to earn money doing. And that was when I started doing the visual art, because it was wordless and I could paint things and just feel the sense of creating for the sake of creating. And that created for me…that gave me a return to the way I had felt when I was first writing, and then I was able to kind of renew my own writing. So that’s that’s where I’m at now. And I’m actually quite happily writing away on this new book and I have another book waiting and another editor. So, if things work out, I’ll have this little cluster of about five books coming. Well, counting Ice, that’ll be six, coming out within a few years after a very long period of not publishing much.
And that was actually my next question. You mentioned the young adult book as one thing that was potentially coming up. And what are the other things that you’re working on right now?
Well, there’s a series of three mystery novels that are kind of nameless, slightly hard-bitten detective. But what she is, is a bisexual, downsized social worker with a cat who’s called Bunnywit, that he’s only called Bunnywit because she used to call him Fuckwit, but then when her cousin, the born-again Christian, came to visit, she was insulted by the cat having an obscenity in its name, so she had to learn to call it Bunnywit. And she’s been unemployed for a year, and things are getting to…she’s gotten down to her last box of fish sticks when someone offers her a job that’s related to a crime has been committed, and she sort of becomes an unwilling, unwillingly involved in the crime. And it goes on from there. So. the first one is called The Adventures of Isabel, and all the chapter headings were taken from the Ogden Nash poem. The second one is called What’s The Matter With Mary Jane? and all the headings are taken from the AA Milne poem. And the third one is called, that I’m working on right now, not sure if it’s called, The Man Who Wasn’t There, or He Wasn’t There Again Today. But it’s that little poem about, “As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. Oh, how I wish he’d go away.” And so, they’re a bit of a series. Things happen as do happen in mystery series. And they’re also a little bit stylistically different with each one, which is part of the fun.
And then, so there’s the YA, which is called The Story of My Life Ongoing, and it’s narrated, sort of…it’s epistolary, and it has an intersex teen who is going through some stuff. But it’s not about being intersex, it’s about the stuff, and another teen that they meet that’s also going through stuff. So, we’ll see how that goes. And I wrote it quite a long time ago, so my struggle is I have to update it for the modern, much more aware era, thirteen years later. So there’s the three mystery novels, there’s that, then there’s the great looming serious novel that I worked on for years, which is now sitting with an editor who, as usual, is taking some time. I probably should send him a message saying, “Er, um, excuse me?”
I should mention, too, that Wayne Arthurson, the Edmonton nystery writer, decided that he’d like to try being an agent, and he took on my mystery novels and he was the one that placed it. So it was his first deal as an agent and my first deal with an agent. So it was a tremendously exciting moment. And I also joke that I never thought I would actually get to say the words “three-book deal” about my own books, because I’m not usually that kind of a writer. I’m usually a slow one-at-a-time writer. But this was a bit different, and then…I never mention the advances because I read all these stories in the American media, but about six-figure advances. And I say, “Well, I got a six-figure advance, but it had a decimal point in it.”
Yeah, I’ve gotten those.
And I’m actually happy with that because, frankly, you want to earn your advance out. You don’t want to be paid a huge amount of money. And then what if the book doesn’t sell enough to earn out? Then you have a bad reputation in the industry, whether it’s fair or not. And I don’t think it’s fair. So I’d rather have a small advance and then a success.
For readers who want to keep up with what you’re doing, can they find you online and where can they find you?
Oh, that’s something that’s a work in progress because I’ve actually…I had a Web site and I was just about to populate it when WordPress updated and broke it and I never got back to it. So my project for the winter, in order to avoid writing, is I thought I would try to get my website back in order and start a bit of a blog and I don’t know if what I will do is blog about things of interest, little rants, or whether I would make it specific to the process of writing and try and accumulate enough of that material for a book or what? And we’ll see. So you can find me in a search, but it’s not going to give you an up-to-date Web site. It’s going to give you a site that the Writers Union put up years ago and a Wikipedia entry that’s out of date and a little bit wrong, not a lot wrong, but just a teeny bit. They don’t allow you to edit your own.
And so I’m sort of there. I’m visible. But you can find out how to order my book, though, because it, most of the orders that PS Publishing does are mail orders. And so, just look up PS Publishing and Ice & Other Stories. And it is really a pretty book. So you will like…I say this to all your listeners…you will like it. I know you will.
Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, Candace. It’s been a great chat.
OK. Well, thank you for letting me go on and on. I really enjoyed it. And I’m looking forward to hearing it and the others that you’re talking about, because you told me you have some great people coming up, and so, it’s always good to follow.
As a professional puppeteer and voice actor, Mary Robinette has performed for Lazy Town, the Center for Puppetry Arts, and Jim Henson Pictures, and founded Other Hand Productions. Her designs have garnered two Unima-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve, and she records fiction for authors such as Seanan McGuire, John Scalzi, and Cory Doctorow. Mary Robinette lives in Nashville with her husband, Rob, and over a dozen manual typewriters.
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Mary Robinette.
Thank you so much for having me.
I’m glad to have you. I have to confess, I haven’t quite finished Calculating Stars. I was working on it, so I’m about, I don’t know, three quarters of the way through. But you won’t give any spoilers anyway, because I’m going to get you to synopsize here in a little bit for people who haven’t read it.
But I’m enjoying it very much. And not least because I’m married to an engineer…
…who identifies with some of the situations in the story.
Yes. Yes. I’ve found that the people in STEM have a strong connection to certain aspects, especially women in STEM.
Well, before we get to that, I’ll take you back into—I always say this, it’s becoming a cliché on the podcast—I will take you back into the mists of time, to find out how you, first of all, became interested in writing, and specifically writing science fiction. How you got started, in other words, and maybe a little bit about, you know, where you grew up and all that kind of stuff.
So, I grew up in North Carolina. My dad worked for IBM and he used to take me to visit him at work sometimes. They had the…it was in the days when the computers were still ginormous rooms and we didn’t yet have personal computers. There were gerbil tubes connecting the buildings. The first programming that I did was my name with punch cards. And so that was…it felt very science fictional. It felt very much like what you’d see on the Jetsons and things like that. And then we also would watch…like, I got connected to Doctor Who, you know, Tom Baker was my doctor. And we listened to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio. So there is not a point in my life where I remember discovering science fiction, it was something that was just always present. Like, the earliest books that I read that I have concrete memories of are things like Enchantress from the Stars.
I remember that one.
Yeah, so good. And you know, of course, other things like A Wrinkle in Time, and all of these books, which were just shelved as books. But I gravitated to the ones that had a fantastic element. When I started writing, which I did pretty young, my mom sent me to a writing workshop camp. I was basically writing the things that I was reading, and since I was reading science fiction and fantasy, it seemed only natural that that’s what I was also writing. My friends also were into that.
So, some of the earliest stuff that I was writing was actually…we had this, we called it “The Note.” It was a notebook. And we would pass it to each other between classes and write a co-operative story and then pass it to the next person who would pick it up and continue on. So, it was very much a part of my life, but I was also one of those kids who wanted to do everything, so…
I was an art major—I went to school to be an art major—and I performed with a puppet company, a puppet troupe, in high school, and then my junior year of college left to do an internship at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, intending to go back…and never did, and then had a twenty-five-year career in puppetry. But the first ten of that, more or less, somewhere in there, I stopped writing because I was getting my creative jollies from puppetry. So for me, it’s all varying forms of storytelling.
You’re the first one I’ve talked to who’s done puppetry. I’ve talked to several authors, myself included, who have a theatrical background. And I always like to ask if that theatrical side, and I mean, puppetry is a form of theatre, it’s a little different than moving actors around on stage, but you’re still moving, you know, things in relationship to each other and characters interacting with each other. Have you found that your puppetry has helped you with your writing?
Yes, absolutely. It absolutely has. First of all, because puppeteers are actors and we are doing theatre. It’s just that the…rather than putting on a costume, we have an external manifestation. But we are still acting. We…the derogatory term that we have for poor people who do not do puppetry are “meat puppets,” or “meat actors.” Meat actors is what we usually go with, or a “fleshy” as opposed to a “plushy.”.
I’m going to remember that.
Yeah. But it is very much acting. I think of it as the Ginger Rogers of theatre. I have to do everything that you’d have to do, backwards in high heels. So, there’s multiple advantages to it, one of which is that, because I am working an inanimate object, my job as a puppeteer requires me to take the body language that we do naturally, that we often don’t even think about, we just do it, break it apart into its semantic components, and then reconstruct it in an inanimate object in a form that is human-readable.
That is essentially what I am doing as a writer, as well. I have to understand the basic components, semantic pieces of body language, and here I am, the tool that I’m using to reconstruct them, are words on a page. But the basic building blocks or components are the same. For instance, if someone is curious about something, they’ll do what we call an aggressive motion, which is a movement towards. If there’s something they don’t want to engage with, they’ll do a regressive motion. And while it’s very easy to do that with a puppet—and as an actor, you’ll do it without even thinking about it, very naturally—on the page, it also plays out the same way. There’s a very big difference between, “‘What did you say?” She leaned across the table,” and, “‘What did you say?’ She pushed back from the table.” One of those is the aggressive motion, one is the regressive, but it tells you a great deal about the character’s reaction without having to use a Tom-Swifty dialogue tag to denote tone.
That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but yeah, I can…in a way, our characters are puppets, and we are making them come alive, something that is actually not alive. We are trying to communicate that to the reader.
Yeah. With theater, with writing, regardless of which form you’re using, I think that a lot of what we’re trying to do is to create an emotional response in our audience’s brain, whether they are reading or viewing. But the things that we have emotional responses to, those actually remain fairly consistent from medium to medium. It’s just the mechanical technique that you use to convey it. And that’s one of the things that I’m trained in as a puppeteer, that there are principles that make a puppet look alive, but the mechanics differ when you move from one style to another. Like, the mechanical movement that I will do with my arm for a regressive motion if I’m doing something that’s very much like a Muppet is completely different than the mechanical motion that I’m doing, also with my arms, but holding a marionette control. It’s mechanically very different. But the thing that I’m trying to create for the audience, that illusion, is still the same illusion. It’s still that regressive motion, or it’s still the sense of muscle, where I’m using a compress/expand to mimic the moment when you bend your knees to jump. All of those things are still there. It’s still trying to create that same effect for the audience. And I feel that way when I move to writing, it’s like I’m still trying to create that effect, it’s just I have a different mechanical tool now.
And when did you then move back into writing after your twenty-five years of puppetry? What brought that about?
Well, I moved back probably about fifteen years into the puppetry career because I had a severe puppet injury. And again, people don’t think about puppetry as being particularly dangerous, but I was doing Little Shop of Horrors and working an eighty-pound puppet, and we had something go a tiny bit wrong onstage. We’d done it three months without any injuries, and just a little bit wrong and the puppet sheared to the side. Someone hit it on stage at a time that I had it up off the ground. No one should have touched it. And I tried to control it, and something in my wrist went pfft! I essentially popped the ligament. It was…for various reasons, it was complicated and I wound up in a cast for a year, and then did another year of physical therapy after that to regain range of motion.
During that time, kind of simultaneously with that, my brother had moved to China with his kids, working for the State Department, and I wanted to stay connected to the kids, but they are not really going to…it was before Skype was really a thing, so I started writing a serial for them, and remembered that I really enjoyed writing. In hindsight, I understand that what happened was…the reason I had stopped for a long time was because I was getting my creative jollies from the puppetry and that it uses, puppet design and construction uses, exactly the same parts of my brain as writing. It’s all worldbuilding, character creation, problem-solving. So when I could no longer do that, I had to take a substantial break from it, it gave me the energy to apply that in another form, one that I hadn’t visited for a while.
I often say that…it’s not quite the same thing, but it’s similar. I was a huge Dungeons and Dragons player in university and one reason I quit playing was because I looked at the stack of maps and, you know, characters and monsters and stuff that I had built up for my world in Dungeons and Dragons and said, “You know, that’s exactly the energy I should be putting into writing my fiction.” And I hardly ever played again after that.
It was the same thing. You’re using the same muscles, but it’s, if you use them all in one way, it’s harder sometimes to use it the other way.
Yeah, I used to play D&D with a group when I was in high school as well. Although, you know, in high school I would do anything to avoid doing homework. So, I would just write and play D&D. But now I will only do a one-off for exactly those reasons, because the, you know, the narrative is so seductive and interesting and fun. And I as I get older I have less and less energy.
And I think I’m ten years older than you, so I definitely identify. So, when did you break in? And how?
So, my first sale was 2005—I think that’s correct—to a small press magazine called The First Line. And I love this small press. They…the theory is that the first line of anything is so important. But if you hand the same first line to Mark Twain, you know, if you hand him, “Call me Ishmael,” he will not write Moby Dick. He will write something totally different. So, the first line gives you a first line, and then every story in that issue begins with the same first line, and they’re all wildly different. So, my first couple of sales were to them, and then I started selling to other markets, as well.
And you started with short fiction.
And did quite well at short fiction, looking at the awards and so forth. What did that…were you surprised by the level of acceptance and appreciation that your fiction begin to garner?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I should say that what I actually started writing were novels, but I had been told that if you wanted to break in, you needed to write short fiction, which it turns out is not true. Jim C. Hines did a survey, and it turns out that debut authors, when you ask them, “How did you break in?”, whether with short fiction first or just straight to novel sales, that it was actually 50/50. But I like short fiction quite a bit. And I think that it was very good for me because it allowed me to experiment with a lot of different things without having to commit so many words. So it’s like doing a bunch of, using the D&D metaphor again, it’s like doing a one-off campaign versus something that’s a multi-session campaign. So, doing a one-off, it was very easy to say, “Oh, this time I’m going to I’m going to focus on character and try to hone my character skills,” or, “This time I’m going to focus on description.” But I was also…I was surprised at how quickly I was able to start making sales, but also in hindsight, it’s not surprising, because by that point I had spent fifteen years coming to understand narrative and audience. And so much of what I know from theater translates over. Some of it doesn’t, but so much of it does. So. in hindsight, I had a leg up when I came back to prose.
So when did the novels start coming along, then?
So, as I said, I had started with novels. So the thing, the serial, that I wrote for my niece and nephew was…it turned into a novel very quickly, which was actually the thing that made me go, “Huh.” Because I had started doing it just kind of for kicks. And then I got a little bit into it and thought, “I think I have something here. How do you write a novel?” and started trying to sort that out. And in the process of that, at some point, not long after I started doing this, I discovered NaNoWriMo and decided that this was a great thing, and I was very excited about it. And I did my first one and it was a murder mystery—and let me tell you that doing a murder mystery without outlining is questionable as a choice. And then the second one that I did was Shades of Milk and Honey, which was my first novel, first published novel. So…there was another novel I call Novel Zero. That was the novel that I wrote in high school through college and then finished on my second or third year on tour. But Shades of Milk and Honey was the, I guess the third…the second novel that I completed after I got serious about it.
But yeah, I did NaNoWriMo. And we, you know, I shopped that…I had shopped the thing that I wrote for my niece and nephew, but it has first-novel problems that I am not invested enough in the book now to go back and fix.
Did your niece and nephew enjoy it?
Well, that’s the main thing.
Well, of course, your novel that just won the Hugo Award and the Nebula and Locus, Calculating Stars, we’ll move on to talk about that as an example of your overall creative process. And you know… I know it’s a cliché, and I know writers hate to be asked it…the question is, “Where did the idea come from?” But, on a bigger scale, how do you generally generate ideas for stories? How does that work for you?
Sure. So, the funny thing is, actually, the...Calculating Stars began with a…
You know what? I skipped over one very important thing. You should give a quick description of Calculating Stars for people who haven’t read it…
…before we start talking about it.
OK. Calculating Stars is set in 1952. It’s Apollo-era science fiction, it’s women-centered. I slam an asteroid into Washington, D.C., and kick off the space program fast and early and with international cooperation. My main character, Elma York, is a mathematician and a pilot and she is working with her husband, who was the lead engineer, rocket designer, for the NACA—which was a real organization, it was NASA’s precursor—and becomes the lead engineer for the International Aerospace Coalition. And she realizes that the asteroid has caused a runaway greenhouse effect. So, we’re actually looking at an extinction event, which gives impetus to get people off the planet. As a side note, I will just let people know, the science…you know how you see those disaster films and there’s an asteroid coming at the Earth and they divert it into the ocean.
It would be a bad idea.
It turns out that’s a really bad idea, because when you have an asteroid come through, it tears a hole in the atmosphere. And then you get something called ejecta, which ejects part of the planet up into the upper atmosphere. And then, if it’s rocks, it’ll fall back down. If it’s water, what happens is the water vapor gets locked in the upper atmosphere. It doesn’t precipitate out, and you can trigger a runaway greenhouse effect. There is some speculation that this might be what happened to Venus. So, anyway…
I was just going to say, my feeling when that initially comes up and she does the math and realizes that’s what going to happen is, it felt very much like a Titanic: The Musical, which I’ve been in, and Titanic, the actual thing, which is that the engineer went down, took one look at what had happened and said, “This ship is going down,” even though there were still, you know, two or three hours of floating around and people not believing it.
It was inevitable at that point. And I had that same feeling when I got to that point in the book.
Yeah, that was a…like, when I started looking at it, and I will also say that I’m very cautious in this book to not tell you exactly how big the asteroid is, because the science on that is super complicated. And I decided that rather than being wrong about it, I was like, “Well, I know that this is how it works, and it is big enough to trigger these conditions. But I don’t know how big that is because I don’t have access to a university supercomputer modeling system to come up with something that’s exactly right.” And even there, it would still be…there’s still opportunity for error.
So, anyway, so that’s what the book is about. It’s basically getting into space in the 1950s. And it’s the push towards the moon. The idea came because I had written a novelette called “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” which I wrote for an anthology called Rip-Off! It was an audio anthology. And the premise of Rip-Off! was actually very much like the First Line magazine, which was that the first line is so important. But instead of us all having the same first line, we each got to pick a first line, a famous classic first line, and then write a different story. And I picked the opening line of The Wizard of Oz, and wrote something that was…I wanted a Bradberry homage, something that reminded me of The Martian Chronicles, and that created the story of Elma York and her husband, Nathaniel, who were both in “Lady Astronaut of Mars,” older, Elma is in her 60s, Nathaniel is older than she is, he’s in his 70s, and the decisions that they have to make. And the backstory for this piece of fiction was this asteroid strike.
And the more I started thinking about it, the more I was like, “You know, it would be really interesting to know what she was doing when that happened.” And I had written a couple of other short pieces in this universe before I really decided to unpack it into a novel. It’s…I jokingly call it my punch-card-punk universe because they’re much…the computing is a little bit behind where the real timeline went.
I love the fact that the computers are having to check the work of the IBM machine.
Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, that was true.
Yeah, I read that.
Yeah. Yeah, that was really…they were not completely reliable. And we lost…oh was it the, one of the Voyagers? the name’s just gone out of my head…but we lost an early rocket because they had…the computers, who were women, had written the code, had written, you know, this is the plan, and then they had given it to the Air Force and they had keyed it into the punch-cards to load it onto the, you know, onto the rocket, and had transposed something. And so the rocket wound up crashing. So, it’s a really interesting era in computing, in rocketry. And I just got more and more…like, I’ve always been interested in space, but the longer I work in this universe and become versed in the early space program and the contemporary space program, the more interested I am in what we’re doing and how it affects people.
It’s…I find it very interesting because, of course, they’re doing all this, they’re heading to the moon and everything, but it’s ten years earlier than it actually happened, and the technology is that much more primitive, and yet it could have been done then. And it’s very much in that golden age of science fiction era, you know, with Heinlein and rockets being built by teenagers in the backyard, practically.
Yes! Well, and when you start, like, when you really start looking at the early history of spacecraft, of spaceflight…I recommend Breaking the Chains of Gravity by Amy Shira Teitel,, which is a history of pre-NASA spaceflight, the history of spaceflight up until NASA exists, basically. And the early days were actually teenagers and rockets in Germany, there was this whole Rocketry Club. That’s where Wernher von Braun came from, the V-2 is a descendant of that. And it was, you know, it was kids who were like, “I’d love to go to the moon. Can I build this thing?”
Now, you’ve talked about a couple of stories which started with first lines that came from elsewhere. When you’re not starting with the first line…
Where do story ideas tend to come to you from?
It’s random. The thing people always say is the idea is not the hard part. The challenge is turning it into a story. So, I will approach it in a couple of different ways, depending on the situation. Sometimes I will sit down, I’ll just free-write something, and then I will sort of do a diagnostic look at it to see where I’m going and what I need to do to continue this in a satisfying way. Other times, you know, if I’m writing for an anthology or I have an idea that I’m having trouble getting traction on, then I will do something that’s much more mechanical, where I will start breaking this story apart in different permutations to see where the idea could come from.
There’s an organizational theory called the MICE quotient, which holds that every story is basically made up of four components: milieu, which is setting, characters, inquiries, questions that you have, and events. Sorry, milieu, inquiry, character, event. And you can tell pretty much every story, you can reshape and refocus it, depending on which of those you want to be the driver. Most stories have more than one element in them. And so, what I will sometimes do if I’m having trouble kind of getting traction on a story is that I’ll start with what I call the gee-whiz idea, which is, you know, any story prompt you want to throw at me, and then, if I don’t have an immediate hit on it, then I start interrogating it to see, you know, what are the things that could go wrong with the environment, what are the things that, you know, how could I trap someone someplace around this idea? Because a milieu story is about trying to exit, a journey story.
What questions might they have or not be able to answer? Is my character angsting about something or is there something angsty that could be around this, which gives you a character story? Or is there something about this that disrupts the status quo, which is an event? And so, I’ll dig into those. And what I’m looking for is very Marie Kondo. I’m looking for that, you know, that moment like, “Oooh!”, whatever sparks joy. And then that’s the thing that I’ll chase.
And if nothing sparks joy, then there’s not a story there.
Yeah. I mean, there is a story there, but sometimes you have to scratch at it a little bit harder. There’s…you can…I mean, I really think you can tell a story about anything. And you can make it compelling. Like, the first novel, the first thing that I won a Hugo for, is a story called “For Want of a Nail.” And that story, the gee-whiz idea, literally, I mean, seriously, this is what’s…you know, when I came up with this, because this was one that I had to write at a workshop on a deadliney kind of thing, I was, I just, I did the whole mechanical thing to jumpstart me into it. But the gee-whiz idea was trouble plugging in a cable. Proprietary cable. That was, that was it, it was like when you don’t have the right cable…
A situation we’ve all been in.
Yeah. That was the gee-whiz idea. And what I wound up writing, which completely is about not being able to find the right proprietary cable, is a story about a family on a generation ship, and the AI, which they use to record their history from generation to generation, gets dropped. There’s a cable in a housing that’s damaged, so it can no longer store in long-term memory, it can only keep things for a couple of hours and then it’s going to have to start ditching memories, and there’s trouble finding this cable. And the process of finding it and getting it uncovers that the AI has been masking for a couple of different people who have Alzheimer’s, and it’s been covering for them because it can whisper in their ear. And so it’s…the story unpacks into something else. But the story seed is “can’t find the right proprietary cable.” Which is not a particularly compelling story seed. That’s where I’m like, “Ideas are everywhere. It’s just…you just have to scratch up for a little while, sometimes.
It’s something I say when I do school presentations about writing. You know, I can look around a school room and have twenty different story ideas just from what they’ve got stuck on the walls…
…or on their desks or whatever So now, going back to Calculating Stars, once you have your story idea, what does your planning process look like for a novel. Are you a detailed outliner, or how does that work for you? And there must’ve been a lot of research involved in this one too, I would think.
It varies. So this one, I had a pretty good…I had a pretty solid outline for this one. And my general approach is that I’ll come up with kind of a what I call a thumbnail sketch, which is left over from my art days, which gives me sort of the basic compositional structure. And then I unpack that into a synopsis, which is like, you know, doing a rough sketch on the page. And then from there, I’ll unpack the synopsis into an outline, which is kind of my armature. And at each of those stages, things get adjusted and moved around as I come to understand the story a little bit more and what I want to get out of it. And I see opportunities, usually opportunities to make things worse for my characters.
And then…at each phase, I’m also doing research, and it gets more specific the deeper into the process I get. So, with this one, I did fairly broad research on the early space program. I also, when I’m doing something that’s historical, always assume that there were women and people of color there in real life and that they’ve been written out of the narrative. So, one of the things that I actively do is go looking for them. And usually, those stories are significantly more interesting than the ones we’ve always heard, partly because we haven’t heard them. They’re newer stories. Like, when I was working on this was before Hidden Figures came out, so the involvement of women of color in the space industry was something that I became aware of and it was really cool and not something that I had heard of. And some the women…like, you know, Katherine Johnson, who basically wrote…that is how we knew how to get to the moon, because of the programs that she wrote, the math she did, the equations, excuse me. So I look for those and that helps me kind of shape the story.
And then I get more specific in the research. So, like, with these novels, my main character is a pilot. So she needs…so I need to know how rockets are flown. But she’s not an engineer, so I don’t need to know how they’re built. Or rather, I need to know just enough so that when something goes wrong, I can handle it. And this is why I kind of wait until I get an outline, because what I generally find is the stuff that I need to know is related to the things that my character directly interacts with. So, as I get more specific, I get a better idea about which things my character is going to need to interact with, which allows me to then hone my research.
For these particular books, there is so much math and science in there that I don’t have, and the level of understanding that I need to have in order to put sometimes a detail that is like three words long, but if it’s the wrong three words, it’s very apparent to anyone in the industry. Sometimes, it’s a ton of research to do that. So, I hired a science consultant and then I also found a number of people who were willing to…you know, subject-matter experts who are just willing to participate and help me. So I had, you know, I had literal rocket scientists for my science consultants. And then I had a couple of astronauts who were willing to read along and helped me with things. So, when I got, you know, when I would be writing, I would hit a thing, it was a really specific crunchy detail in a scene, but also kind of a grace note, right? It’s not something in spreading the plot, but it’s letting you know that my character is competent. It’s setting the stage. It’s that kind of thing. And so I would play what I call Astronaut Mad Libs. I would write it, and it would be something like, “As she jobbed the job,” or “’Jargon,’” the captain said, as he jargonned the jargon,” and then send it over to the astronauts, and I would say, “Could you just fill in the blanks? Could you just play Mad Libs?” So, technically, parts of these books are written by astronauts.
I was thinking as I was reading it that it’s a lot scarier and harder work actually to write an alternate history, especially that recent an alternate history, than writing a far-future handwavium sort of science, because there are so many opportunities for you to mess up something that people actually know.
Yeah. Yeah. It’s really fascinating. There are a couple of times where I am tempted to just, like, throw some random acronyms on the page, and, you know, just keep going. “That’s a thing.” But what I run into with my own brain is that I know how many people learn their science from fiction and if I have the opportunity to put the right science down on the page, then I will. If…and most of the time, the constraints of getting the science right cause me to have a better story. If I can’t get the science right, then I go vague, or don’t build a plot point around it. Which is why with, as I mentioned before, the asteroid, I know that a water strike, and particularly a shallow water strike, can cause the runaway greenhouse effect. But I didn’t…it was not important to the book to have the size of the asteroid be defined. It’s not a plot point.
We knew what it did. That’s all that matters, really.
That’s right. So again, it’s what she interacts with. So, I did just enough. There I hand-waved the math…let me rephrase it. The math, she’s…there’s a point where she’s trying to figure out how big it is, and she’s…so what she does is, she needs to figure out what it would take to heat up the Chesapeake Bay to the point that it got heated up. So I have them do the math for that, for heating up the Chesapeake Bay. And I had Steven Granade, my science consultant, I’m like, “What is…I found this formula for figuring out what it would take to heat something up a body of water like this, but I don’t do this math. Please help me.” And he did that and walked me through the steps that he had to go through to do the math. And then I took that and used sections of it as my character was kind of working through the problem. So I would have them hum a little bit and just talk out loud, so you just get these pieces of the equation, which…
Yeah, I remember that.
Yeah. So it really makes it look like I know what I’m doing.
It’s all an illusion.
I basically am treating math like a magic system. I established that my character can do magic using numbers. And then later when I say things like, “Elma did the equations,” you believe that she can do those equations.
Without having to specify what those equations were.
That’s correct. Because I was just like, oh, this is…this is a lot.
So, what did your actual writing process look like? I notice you say in your bio that you have a lot of manual typewriters. Do you write on a manual typewriter, or is that just something you’d like to collect?
We like to collect them. I will sometimes do short fiction on manual typewriters. But we just collect them. I predominantly write on my computer, either in Scrivener or…these days, my favorite thing is 4 the Words, 4thewords.com, which is a roleplaying game that…in which the metric for defeating monsters and going on quests is the number of words you write and the time in which you write them.
It’s really good.
I should check that out, for sure.
It’s embarrassingly effective. I will write to earn a pair of wings with a dedication that I will not write for a paycheck. So it’s embarrassing how well it works, but it does.
That might be something I could use to motivate me, I admit.
There are quests. You have an avatar. There are little tiny pets that you can get. Yeah, it’s really good.
Hm. Do you work mostly, then, in a home office, or do you like to go out to other places, get away from the house, or what’s your…
All of the above. Since so much of my writing was done, early writing was done, in transit, I’m very comfortable writing kind of wherever I am. Sometimes I will go to a coffee shop because I just need to get out of the house because I’ve been there for so long. Sometimes I write at home in a chair, sometimes I write at a desk. I’m staying with friends right now and I’ve been writing…they have a solarium, so I’ve been sitting out there on a couch and their cat comes and sits with me. So it varies. The only things that are really super consistent are that if there is a conversation, a single conversation near me in which I can distinguish dialogue, I have difficulty concentrating, and I can’t write to music with lyrics. Or, actually, not just lyrics, I cannot write with the human voice. So even if it’s in another language, it will…there’s a part of my brain that’s trying to figure out what they’re saying.
It’s interesting, because I’m exactly the same way. In a coffee shop, I can write if it’s white noise, but otherwise…I have to put on headphones if somebody starts talking close enough to me to follow their conversation. Yeah. And I can’t listen to lyrics, either. I listen to classical or instrumental jazz. And it’s just background noise is just to block out the other noise.
Yeah. The thing that I figured out…so, I just finished writing Relentless Moon, which is Book Three in the Lady Astronaut series, or universe, and while I was in the process of writing it, I had had a flight in which I saw Captain Marvel and the soundtrack for that is so good and empowering and completely stuck in my head, but it’s full of all of these lyrics. So I assembled a Spotify list, which are instrumental versions. It’s an instrumental Captain Marvel playlist and it’s great. And I am now like, “Ah.” This is…because it’s all this really driving music and this is something that I will consider for future projects as well.
Something I didn’t ask you, but this is a good place to ask you because we’re getting to the point now…you’ve got a manuscript. What do you do next in the revision process? Do you have beta…well, you talked about some of the people who read it along the way, like astronauts and so forth.
But, do you have more traditional beta readers? And when you were starting out, were there writing groups and support groups like that that helped you along the way?
Yeah, I started with a writing group very, very early. And I…we recently moved to Nashville and I don’t have one in Nashville, and I miss having a writing group. But what I do with my beta readers is…this is very much influenced by the fact that I come from theater, in that I perform better for an audience. So, the only times I have gotten the stereotypical writer anxiety was the one novel where I decided not to use beta readers until I’d write the thing and then start showing it to people. And I got, I don’t know, ten chapters in and was having “this is a terrible book” reactions. And the thing that I do is, I use…so I’ll write, as I said, in Scrivener, and then I use Google Drive, Google Docs, and I’ll upload a chapter. And I have a list of beta readers who will read it. And I ask them to tell me just four basic things: awesome (so I don’t accidentally fix things); when they get bored, when their attention flags; when they’re confused; and when they don’t believe things. Then, I also tell them, like, stream-of-consciousness thoughts are great, and I enjoy those, but not to give me any kind of line notes at all, because all I’m interested in is whether or not the scene plays.
So, I think of it as inviting someone to a rehearsal. It’s like, it’s not even to a dress rehearsal stage, maybe, but I’ve just, you know, I’ve got the show up on its feet, I want to see if this plays. And then I’ll…just based on what they’re confused about, and that helps me kind of…so, I’m kind of doing a rolling revision as I go. I stay two chapters ahead of them. So, like, if I post Chapter One, that means I have finished writing Chapter Three. Then when I finish…and I should say that I usually talk through the outline with someone, like my writers’ group or with my agent or editor, so I’m pretty structurally solid by the time I start actually writing. And then this kind of rolling revision process means that I wind up with a fairly clean draft, though there’s usually things where I’ll have a retcon…and I just tell the readers, if I have a major retcon that I need to go back and do, I’ll just tell them like, you know, “In a previous scene, the evacuation is going to take place using a repelling line instead of the inflatable slide,” and then I just keep writing as if I’ve already made that change.
Then, when you have got that final draft, you do another revision just on your own?
And what do you look for in that pass?
I look for the same things that I ask my readers to look for. So, a lot of times I think a thing that writers will forget is that they have been thoroughly trained as readers for their entire life and that we can still have an emotional response to something, even if we know exactly what’s going to happen. There’s a piece of media that you’ve seen that you love, that, you know, you can probably recite lines from and you’ve seen multiple times. You know, like The Princess Bride. “Anybody got a peanut?” So, the fact that you know where something is going doesn’t stop you from having these emotional responses and this cathartic satisfaction.
So, with my fiction, if I am not having reader responses, like if I find myself getting bored with something, it’s probably boring. It probably means that it’s not going to stand up to a reread. And, you know, as a writer, if people want to reread my stuff, that’s real good. So, I try to do a read through in which I am thinking about my own emotional responses to things. Usually when I finish it there’s some big-picture stuff that I know I need to do and I’ll do that. But then, like, when I have something, that’s pretty clean, I’ll do a reread and look for the problems. Look for the things where I get a little bored. You know, like, “Look, you just started skimming there. Maybe you should do something with that.” The number of times that I’m reading something that I’ve written, I’m like, “What does that even mean?” So, I’ll fix everything that I can identify. And these days, unless I have done a really major structural change, after that, I will send it off to my agent or editor. Before I was agented and had books that were for sale, or books that had been sold, I would run it through a different set of beta readers and see how it played for them, to see whether or not I had accidentally introduced a problem. If I’ve done a really big structural change, I will often run it through beta readers before turning it in, through another set of iterators, but not always. It depends.
And what does your agent and/or editor, what sorts of things do they most often flag for you to take another look at? If anything?
It depends on the book. A lot of times it’s a pacing issue. Sometimes they’ll flag that there’s a character opportunity that I missed, motivation is not clear, and those are the things where it’s most likely to have been in my head and to not hit the page. So, it’s usually something to do with the characters, in either the main character’s or a secondary character’s internal life. And those are usually pretty easy adjustments to make. But that’s for me the things that I’m usually getting flagged with. Sometimes it’s something else that’s more…fundamental, a large change. But since I have them involved from the outline phase, it’s usually pretty sound by the time we get in there.
Have you had the same editor for multiple books or have you worked with different editors?
So, the first…until Relentless Moon, it has all been Liz Gorinsky for the novels, and now Relentless Moon is Beth Meacham. I’m still with Tor, but Liz left and now has her own company, Erewhon, and is doing quite well. But it was an interesting process. switching editors. I’ve been edited, of course, by a lot of different short-fiction editors, but figuring out what the rhythms were and our communication style and things like that, it’s an interesting shift. And they flag different things. Each good, but it’s an interesting, interesting change.
My main publisher is DAW, I’m on my tenth novel with him and of course, that’s Sheila Gilbert, so I’m very, very familiar with Sheila’s style of editing. So, whenever I work with anybody else, it’s like, “Well, that’s different.”
Yeah. Right. Yeah.
’Cause it is kind of a…it’s not exactly a marriage, but it’s some sort of long-term relationship, anyway.
Yeah. Yeah, it really is. I mean it’s…in a lot of ways you’re business partners, because you’re building a product together. It sounds really crass, but it is a thing that is happening. Or, you know, theater, it’s…you’re putting on a show together now.
Now, you are…I would suspect…pleased with your response that the book has gotten.
Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s been very nice. I mean, the…I’ll tell you that the awards are…I mean, it’s been amazing. And I…like, the whole hitting all three was…staggering, I would say. But the thing that has been really…I’m not sure…this is a…it’s a tricky thing to talk about because it was an unexpected thing…the discussions of anxiety and mental illness in the book. There are a lot of people for whom that hits very hard and that deal with anxiety and feel like they have never seen themselves on the page before. And so, the emails, the fan mail that I get with these books, is of a different sort than I’ve gotten with the other things I’ve written. And it is really humbling. Like, I am…again, you know, again, it’s a theater thing, and it’s a fiction thing, too, but there’s a thing that I create. And then there’s the thing that the audience sees. And a puppet…you know, a puppet is an inanimate object, right? My job is to pick it up and move it. But the thing we say in puppet theater is that the difference between playing with dolls and putting on a puppet show is the audience. Because the audience has to invest part of their belief in the character in order for it to come alive. It doesn’t matter how skilled I am at manipulating it. If there’s not someone there to watch it and invest part of themselves, it’s still just a figure. And so, the puppet exists in this liminal space between the performer and the audience. And I feel like books are very much the same way. Like, I wrote a book that satisfied me and that I intended to have an emotional impact on my readers. But I did not set out to write a book that was going to speak directly to people with anxiety. Like, that was…the goal was to tell a story about getting to the moon. That was the goal. And I wrote a character that I loved and I connected with, but this thing that has happened, that exists in this liminal space between my book and the reader, is something that the reader is responsible for. Like, each reader who picks it up is bringing part of themselves to it. And so, it’s this humbling thing where I am involved in this act of discovery for these readers. And what I’m doing is that I am…I’ve given them a tool, but the discovery is generated by them.
Yeah, I often like to say that writing is, we think of it as a solo thing that we do on our own, but it is in fact a completely collaborative art form, because, it does not exist until it exists in the head of somebody who reads it. And every reader is going to craft, really, a different story out of the story that you created. It’s actually a different story for every individual that reads it in some way or other.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, certainly, I also get the people who have clearly never realized that there are people in their lives who have anxiety. “Why is Elma so whiny? She can fly a plane, but she can’t talk in front of a group of people. I don’t believe that.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Anyone who has anxiety, they’re the best people to have with you in a crisis, because they’re like, what, stress hormones? That’s Tuesday.”
And I would think that you’ve had some good response…I haven’t…okay, I mentioned to you before we started the show that my wife is an engineer and has long been involved in the efforts to get more women involved in engineering. And there’s an effort in Canada right now called 30 by 30, which is to try to increase the percentage of women in the profession to thirty percent by 2030. And her mother was a doctor who graduated from medical school in 1947 when there were not a lot of other women in her class with her at the University of Toronto. So I would think that there would be a segment of the population whom that part really speaks to as well.
Yeah, yeah, that’s really true. A lot of people in STEM, women in particular, contact me to tell me that it’s like, “Oh, yeah, my story was Elma’s.” But what’s horrifying, is, it’s really easy to read the book and go, “But that was the 1950s.” And the number of women who have had that experience in the 21st century, of being the only woman in their math class…the fact that there’s a campaign to get thirty percent women, that’s still not a lot.
And I will say, I think at the University of Toronto, where my daughter, she’s not in engineering, but she just started this year, and I was there for their…when the engineers were having their big thing that they do the first day, there are all these people in yellow shirts and hard hats running around. And I was watching them go by. And it was, it looked pretty much 50/50. And I think they’re pretty darn close at the University of Toronto and the engineering program right now. So…
So, I’m going to challenge you on that, when you say that it looks 50/50, to find out. Because there is a thing that happens, and this is real, this is like well-documented, that when there are thirty percent women in a room, or on a bookshelf, that it is perceived as being predominantly women, even though it’s not.
Well, in this case, I asked my wife and she believes that it is close…closer than 30 percent in the high 40s maybe. So, you know, pretty close. OK. I confess I haven’t looked at up myself, but I think the University of Toronto at least is certainly working hard…
…to make that happen. So I also wanted to touch, before I get to my big philosophical question here—we’re just about out of time, but I want to get those in…but I did just want to ask you about the audiobook narration. That’s another form of theater.
And I’ve…I do some of that myself. I’m currently narrating my own books, but I’ve done a couple of other people’s, too. How did that come about?
I like to say it’s like puppetry, but without the pain. You know, I have this long career doing character voices and talking to myself because usually there’s two performers and you have to do the entire cast, so often you are in dialogue with yourself. So, I had that skill set and my minor in college was theater and speech, specifically doing radio performance. So, honestly, I like, I auditioned and audiobooks are just like trying to do any other form of, you know, any form of writing, where there’s submission guidelines and you go and you read the submission guidelines and then you follow those instructions and you turn in a tape. And then sometimes they’ll have you do what is essentially a callback, where they’ll say, “Yeah, we’re thinking about you for this audiobook. Here’s a page. Please read that page to us.” And then you see what happens. I got lucky. I did a couple of different things, but then started doing the Seanan Maguire series. I was just in the booth this morning to record the fixes on book thirteen in the series. So it’s nice to have a little bit of job security there. She keeps writing these.
But I have to ask, because, having done it…it’s an enormously time-consuming thing, recording books. Does that…how do you balance out writing your own stuff and recording the other stuff. You just have time for it? Because I find it’s a huge…you know, it just takes so much time.
Well, I don’t do self-producing. So I have an engineer, which means that I only have to do the recording part.
And true, I do my own engineering.
Yeah. And that’s the part that I’m just like, no. if I had to do that, yeah, then the balancing of those two things would be, I think, well-nigh impossible. But balancing just narrating and writing is not bad. Usually it’s, you know, six to eight hours a day of the narration, depending on the book and who I’m recording for. And then I’ll get in an hour or so of writing before or after, depending again on the book and where I am. Sometimes, I’m doing it…like, editing and narration. I will often do my edits on my lunch break or something. So it’s…I don’t find it any different than balancing writing with any other day job. And I don’t do it often. Like…I mean, I’ve done seventy-some books, but I’m not recording every day.
I could be if I did, if I were willing to do, home records or self-records. But I…most of my career has been trying to turn down the gigs I don’t want to do. And it’s not something I’m interested in doing. So I don’t, even though that means I have less audiobook work. And then there’s also books that I don’t want to record. There was a series that I was recording for a company and the books were very rapey and I recorded the second one and said, “I can’t, I can’t record these. I’m so sorry. I know that you don’t want to change narrators mid-series, but I just, I don’t want to be involved with these books.” I was already using a pseudonym for them and…which, like, they don’t…I don’t do a lot of. But I’m like, I don’t need to do these books and I don’t want to. So I don’t. Which makes it significantly easier to balance.
Yeah. Well, it’s you, when you’re reading something out loud it’s…yeah, if you’re not comfortable with the narrative, it would be very difficult, I would think, to…
I mean…yeah, I can do it. Like, I can turn in a good performance. It’s compelling and all of that. But I’m just like, “But I don’t want to participate in that.”
I’m just gonna back up for a minute. I was listening, but I was also checking the enrollment at the University of Toronto, and they’re at…I did overestimate. They are apparently at about thirty-five percent women at this point.
Yep. Thank you for checking. And that was what I, sorry, that was what I guessed.
I had heard a higher number than that, but clearly that was incorrect. So, just to finish up here, with the sort of the big philosophical question, and you sort of touched on this already, with the sort of reaction and, you know, talking about the collaboration with readers. But, the first question is, “Why do you do this? Why do you tell stories?”, and then the second question is, “And what do you hope to accomplish by telling stories?” So, why do you write, and specifically, why do you write science fiction? Why do you write this crazy stuff?
So I write, and I write, I guess, science fiction, because…for the same reasons that I do puppetry. It is the theater of the possible. It allows me to take the natural world, tip it on its side, and look at the interconnective tissue, which helps me understand the real world more. The reason I write instead of just doing daydreams is so that I can share those things with other people. It’s also, I think…I mean, I am a storyteller and it’s something that gives me satisfaction. I like the give and take. I like that conversation with the reader. So, really, I guess, ultimately, I write because it’s fun. I enjoy it. As I said, I am working to turn down gigs I don’t want to do, so ultimately and selfishly, I write because I enjoy it.
But the goal with each book is to provoke an emotional response in the reader and usually to have them share the same emotional journey that I have had when I’ve been thinking about a character. But each book is different. Each short story is different. Like, the specifics of what that emotional response is vary. With the Lady Astronaut books, a lot of what I am thinking about kind of consciously are ways in which to demonstrate a different path. Because we do learn so much from fiction. We use it as a means of cathartic experimentation, trying on different selves. And…as a reader, I mean, not as a writer. We do that as writers, too, but as readers, that’s what…we’re trying on these different lives and these thought experiments. And sometimes the thing we want to try on is just escaping the stuff that’s going on around us. Sometimes it is purely just for fun, which I think is also a valuable and important thing. But it is…each book we pick up, we pick up for a reason, to have this journey of some sort. And so I am, as a writer, wanting to create the experience that I have as a reader.
Something that…I always say that the reason I write is because I want to give to other people the experience I had as a reader.
You know, and create something that people will enjoy as much as I’ve enjoyed the stuff that I’ve read.
I think that’s a common thread. And what are you working on now?
I am doing the final edits for Relentless Moon. It was actually due day before yesterday, but I’m…one of my astronauts got back to me with notes at 10:30 the night before it was due, which is…fortunately, my editor was like, “Wait, you got astronaut notes? You get some extra days.” So I am actually rewriting a scene based on those notes right now. That is literally what I was doing right before this interview and what I’m going to do immediately when we’re done. And then, once I turn that in, I get to start working on a book that is not in the Lady Astronaut universe that I’m very excited about. It’s the next book that’s gonna come out from Tor. So, Relentless Moon comes out in 2020. The book after that is called The Spare Man, and it is a locked-room murder mystery on an interplanetary cruise ship. And it’s basically The Thin Man in space. It’s, you know, retired detective and a socialite and sparkling witty banter, but on a cruise ship going from the moon to Mars.
That sounds like fun.
It’s…I have written the first three chapters of it and the outline. I’m so excited to be writing this book. I cannot tell you. It is frolicking.
And where can people find you online?
The easiest way is to go to my Web site, maryrobinettekowal.com. And you can check out the Web site, but actually, signing up for my newsletter is probably the best thing, because I’ll tell you when I’m teaching classes, when I’m going to be traveling, and I will sometimes put out calls for beta readers and invite people to read my stuff while I’m working on it.
And are you active on Twitter?
Yes. @MaryRobinette, and on Instagram @MaryRobinetteKowal. Generally speaking, if you type in my name, Mary Robinette, I will pop up.
Yes, I think you’re the only one I’ve ever heard of.
So, funny thing, I actually met another Mary Robinette. But it was her last name. And that was very funny. But it’s…and Joe Biden’s middle name is also Robinette. But there’s not a lot of us.
I did not know that about Joe Biden, so that says…you learn something new every day. I knew it was Joe R. Biden, but I know that was his middle name.
Yeah, my double take on Inauguration Day was pretty epic.
Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers.
Rebecca Roanhorse is a Nebula, Hugo, and Locus Award-winning speculative fiction writer, and the recipient of the 2018 Astounding (formerly Campbell) Award for Best New Writer. Her novel Trail of Lightning, book one in the Sixth World series, won the Locus Award for best first novel, and is a Nebula, Hugo, and World Fantasy finalist. It was also selected as an Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Library Journal, and NPR Best Book of 2018, among others. Book two in the series, Storm of Locusts, has received starred reviews from Publishers Weekly and Booklist. Her newest novel, Resistance Reborn, is part of Star Wars: Journey to the Rise of Skywalker. Her middle-grade novel, Race to the Sun, for the Rick Riordan Presents imprint, will release in January 2020, and her epic fantasy novel Between Earth and Sky will follow in late 2020. Her short fiction can be found at Apex Magazine, New Suns, The Mythic Dream, and various other anthologies, and she also writes nonfiction, which can be found in Uncanny, Strange Horizons, and How I Resist: Activism and Hope for a New Generation, published by Macmillan. She lives in northern New Mexico with her husband, daughter, and pups.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Rebecca.
Well, thank you for having me.
I always look for connections and we have a…we haven’t met, but you were born in Arkansas, lived in Texas, and went to university in New Mexico, and I was born in New Mexico, lived in Texas, and went to university in Arkansas. So there’s a certain…
Wow. Small world.
…although I live in Canada. Yeah, I was born in Silver City, New Mexico. My parents were living in a little town called Bayard down there, so…but didn’t live there very long.
Yeah. That is south and I’m in the north, but I know where it is.
So, let’s go back into the mists of time, as I like to say to my guests, and talk about where you grew up and how you got interested in writing and in speculative fiction in particular. Most of us start with reading, and I think from reading some of your other interviews that that was kind of the case for you, too.
Yeah, absolutely. Always a huge science fiction/fantasy fan. As long as I can remember, I’ve been reading in the genre. And I think really my first sort of big “Wow!” book was Dune by Frank Herbert. I read that one, and that blew the doors wide open. You know, in the fantasy realm, you know, of course, I read the Belgariad, I read all the Wheel of Time books, like those were…
All of them?
Well, OK, not all of them. That’s true. Good point! I haven’t read the last few. I think I tapped out at, like, I don’t know, probably book five or six or something, now I can’t even remember, but I’m very excited for the Amazon show that is coming. I’m really curious to see what they do with it.
So you were born in Arkansas. You grew up in Texas. But then you ended up in New Mexico and you didn’t actually study writing at university. Were you writing as a kid?
Yeah, absolutely. So, I grew up in Fort Worth, Texas. My mom is actually from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, which is in New Mexico. And so, I didn’t return to New Mexico until law school, actually. So, I did my undergraduate on the East Coast and a master’s degree. But when I was in Fort Worth, I was already writing. I think I wrote my first, I would say my first science-fiction short story, when I was in seventh grade. I always joke about…we had a science report and we were supposed to, like, give some very dry facts about the planets, like, you know, how big they are and how far apart they are and that sort of thing, and I turned it into this very dramatic telling of this astronaut doing research, who for some reason, I can’t remember now, had to, like, commit suicide by driving into the sun at the end. So it was very much like, “Tell my wife and kids I love them,” you know, and then he’s dead. And I turned that in for my science project and my teacher was, ah, not as impressed as I had been with my own work. I got a B-plus or something, because that was not the assignment. But yeah, you know, from there I was hooked, and I’ve been sort of writing my own stuff ever since. I kind of…I only got serious about writing…I just did it for my own pleasure. I was a practicing attorney for ten years. And before that, I was a computer programmer, actually, for ten years. And just, writing was in the background. It was just something that I loved to do for myself. I never even thought about getting published until about 2016, when I decided to take it a little more seriously.
Now, did you show your writing to your friends when you were writing as a young writer? I often ask that question because it’s something I urge young writers to do when I’m teaching writing, because it’s a way to find out if you can tell stories that people like. Apparently your teacher was not completely impressed with your first effort, but did you share your stories with other people?
Yeah. So, in eighth grade, I had a great eighth-grade English teacher, and we actually did a group novel, like, each week, you know, came up with the whole story as a class, and then we each were responsible for a chapter. And it was…I don’t know, there were some…I kind of dominated the, as I recall, a lot of the worldbuilding, because I was really into it. And there were some smugglers and there was some, you know, sort of galactic police, and, you know, this sort of thing. And I definitely shared that one. I probably overshared that, I think I forced that on people.
And then, all through high school, or at least my last couple of years of high school, I guess, I was an editor for our creative-writing magazine. And so, not only did I get to do some editing, which was basically like, just, picking what stories were going to be in the magazine, but I put a lot of my work into that as well. And a lot of that was poetry or, you know, very short fiction, like excerpts…you know, I don’t know, what you would maybe call vignettes or something, maybe a little flash fiction, but I don’t think we called it that back then. But, yeah, so I think those years I was always sharing, probably oversharing. And then…I guess for some of my time I had a friend who wrote as well, and we would share stories, like she would write something, you know, we’d be critique partners. But only for fun. It was never really serious. But I was never shy about showing my work per se.
Well, I was also interested when you…you didn’t study writing, but what you studied is very interesting, because you received a B.A. in religious studies from Yale, and a master’s in theology from Union Theological Seminary. That’s an interesting background for a science fiction/fantasy writer. Has that fed into your work going forward? And the law degree, too? I mean, at least with the law degree, you certainly use a lot of words, being a lawyer. My niece is a lawyer, so…she started as an English major, so…so has all that contributed to writing, do you think?
You know, as we’ll get to Trail of Lightning, there is a lot, actually, of cool stuff in Trail of Lightning, so that definitely did. I talk about checkerboard lands and things like that, and that is all real. You know, I think the religious studies and theology degree probably feed into my worldbuilding more than I realize and probably affect what it is that I like to talk about. You know, I like to talk about, sort of the gods, and sort of spirituality and things like that, and religion, and those are my interests, so I’m sure they feed into my work probably more than I realize. I think there was someone on Twitter once that was like, once she found out I had gotten those degrees, she was like, “Oh, that makes so much more sense now.” And I was like, “What does that mean?” And she didn’t tell me, ’cause she’s like, “I don’t like to, you know, like critique people based on, like, who they are, I want the story to stand on its own,” but she felt that that gave her some sort of insight. So I guess so!
And then, when you were…you said you were lawyer for ten years, but where along there did you start trying to get published and how did that happen? “How did you break in?”, is the cliched question.
So, I was a practicing attorney with a small child, and that was just…and I think at the time, actually, I was in private practice. I later started to work for the government, and that’s a better gig. But the hours were insane, you know, and I had a small child, and so I had actually not written for quite a while, but to sort of keep myself sane and to give myself something that I just love to do, I started to write again. And then I found out about NaNoWriMo. So I’m actually a NaNoWriMo story in a lot of ways. I joined the local NaNoWriMo group here, who would meet twice a week and just write. You know, we would just sit at the coffee shop and write. And I loved it. And it gave me a schedule and it kept me, you know, sort of pushing forward.
And then after NaNoWriMo was over, there were three or four folks in the group that wanted to keep meeting. One was a romance author, she’d been…she had, like, seven books. One was more of an academic writer and one was a self-published writer. And I was like, “Sure!”, you know, “Let me join your group!”, even though I had done nothing. They let me join their group and they became my first sort of writing group, my first critique group. And I wrote the book with, you know, along with, you know, that group. And when I was done, they were like, “You know, you should try to get this published.” I was like, “Really? You think? I don’t know. You know, I just wrote this for fun.” And they’re like, “No, no, no, it’s good. You should try to get it published.”
Yeah, well, I sent it out through the slush. I knew nothing about publishing. I knew…I had done some research on agents and I knew which agents, you know, I was sort of interested in. And I sent it out and it got picked up. So there was no sort of magic to it. I just did it the old-fashioned way.
So the novel came first before you sold any short fiction?
Yes, the novel actually came first. I sold that in 2016, like August 2016, and then in 2017, Apex Magazine put out a call for indigenous fantasists, indigenous science fiction and fantasy. And I thought, “Oh, I should try to get into that. I should write a short piece and get it published. And maybe that will help get my name out,” because the book, it takes a year and a half for a book to come out, and, you know, Trail of Lightning wasn’t going to come out till 2018, so I was like, “I should try to get a short story published.” And, you know, I thought maybe ten, fifteen people would read it, I don’t know, I thought it would just be cool. And that got picked up and that went rather well. So, yeah, that actually came after the book. (“Welcome to Your Authentic Indian Experience“, Apex Magazine)
That’s a little different from most writers’ experience, to have the novel go first and then start selling short fiction. So that’s why I wanted to mention it.
Okay, well let’s…we’ll talk about Trail of Lightning…well, I guess the whole series, but that was the first book. As I said to you, I somehow managed to schedule a whole bunch of interviews almost on top of each other, so I haven’t been able to read everybody’s books to the end, as much as I would like to, but I have read a considerable portion of it, so I know something about it. But, well, I’ll let you give a synopsis of Trail of Lightning and the setup for the whole series without spoiling anything for people who haven’t finished the book…like me.
Yeah. So, Trail of Lightning takes place in sort of a near future, after a climate apocalypse, where sort of all the world has sort of gone to hell, except for the southwest of the Americas, basically. And specifically, the book takes place on the Navajo Nation, which is now Dinétah Risen, and has become sort of a power player in the region along with some other places like New Denver and the Mormon Kingdom, and we follow a woman there who is a monster slayer, because with the sort of climate apocalypse, all the gods and heroes and monsters of traditional Navajo stories have risen up and now walk the land, like Coyote and other folks you might not be familiar with, but you will be when you read the book. And it is her job to, sort of, a) survive and b), you know, fight them, with the help of her sidekick, who is a very unconventional medicine man.
Okay. And it is a very interesting setup and an interesting character as well. So, how did the idea for it come around? That’s another cliché. Where do you get your ideas? But what was the seed for this book as you were working with this writing group? And…this was what you worked on in NaNoWriMo, was it or was this…?
Uh-huh, this what I worked on for NaNoWriMo.
Okay. So how did the idea come about?
Yeah, so, I am a huge urban fantasy fan. You know, I always say that I sort of drifted away from fantasy, from all that Wheel of Time and stuff like that, for a long time, particularly through college, because it didn’t really speak to me anymore. I didn’t feel like I saw myself in all those questing farm boys and everything, and it just sort of got a little dull for me. So I set aside fantasy for a while, but then one day I was in an airport somewhere just looking for a random book. And I came across, actually, a Laurell K. Hamilton book. If you don’t know her, she writes the Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter series. And I picked up the book…and this is an earlier book in the series of…the later books get a little not to my taste, but the early books are great…picked it up, not knowing what it was about or who she was. And I read the back, and it was something like, “Will Anita Blake choose between her vampire lover or her werewolf lover?” And I was like, “I don’t know, but I’m about to find out.” I was just amazed a) they let you write that and b) it was on the shelf, right at the airport, and I could just pick it up. So I did. And that’s how I sort of discovered urban fantasy. And from there, I went on to all sorts of other authors, like Ilona Andrews and folks like that, and just sort of fell in love with the genre of these, like, strong, you know, women who are at the center of the story who kind of like kick ass and take on the supernatural, but at the same time have these sort of complicated love lives. I thought that was a lot of fun.
And so, that was really my inspiration for Trail of Lightning. I wanted to write an urban fantasy, but I wanted to write it in an indigenous setting with an indigenous pantheon, essentially, coming from, you know, traditional stories or myths. And then I wanted all the characters and the places and all of that to be indigenous as well, because what you do have in a lot of urban fantasy, or not a lot, but there are a few, is you often have a character that’s half-native, but they don’t…they’re not particularly native in the way their world view, you know, or the way that the story plays out, that’s just sort of a flavoring, I guess. And often the only way that they’re native is that they’re shapeshifters. And I was like, “Well, we’re not going to do that.” I wanted it to be something that felt real to me as an indigenous woman. I wanted it to be the people and the places and the things that I knew and that I had, you know, experienced. But, you know, fantasy. So that’s where that story came from.
And also, well, calling it urban fantasy…a lot of that, you know, it’s like, if you have that character, they’re in some big city somewhere, and that’s just something in their past. But this is actually set…it’s not really urban in the sense of being in a city.
Right. Right. Yeah. This is rural fantasy.
So, how did you go about…well, actually, before I get to that question, is that sort of where all of your story ideas have come from, you’ve written short stories now, and you’re writing Star Wars too. So, you know, in a more general sense, how do story ideas come to you?
Gosh. You know, I think for a writer, part of our job is to just be observant. So it can come…story ideas can come from anywhere. They can come from the news, they can come from an overheard conversation, they can come from a book you read that’s bad, if you want to do it better. I actually think I asked the influence question once to, like, John…I was on a panel, moderating, with, like, John Scalzi, and a bunch of other folks. And I asked, “Where do your ideas come from?” And they all groaned, you know, about the question. But then, as they got to talking, they realized that every one of them had written at least one book because they had read another book that they thought got it wrong. So, like, “I’m going to write my book as a correction.” And I was like, “Ah-ha!” So, yeah, I think they can come from anything. Often songs. Songs are very influential. I’ll often find a song that really captures a mood or spirit that I want to convey, and so I’ll try to, you know, turn it into words.
Well, on the, you know, reacting to other works, it’s often said that science fiction and fantasy are genres that are in conversation with themselves, because we’re all reacting to what we’ve read in the past and what we’re reading now and what other people are doing and things we like and things we don’t like. So, I don’t…I can’t think of one that I’ve written specifically where I was trying to do somebody’s…you know, do my version of something I didn’t like, but I’m sure that figures into it somewhere.
Yeah. Yeah. Even if it’s subconscious, I think we’re always sort of reacting, like you said, like, “Oh, you know, I see it done this way. Let me do it this way,” you know?
So what does your planning process look like? Your synopsizing or outlining or however it works for you. Do you do a detailed outline? Do you kind of just wing it? How does that look for you?
You know, it really depends on the book. I think that first book, because I was just writing for myself and I didn’t really know what I was doing, quite frankly, there was no outline. That was much more of a pantser kind of book and I think you can tell, for better or worse. The second book in that series, Storm of Locusts, was outlined much better. But what I did was, I wrote the beginning and then I wrote the end. And then I decided what needed to be in the middle to get me from that beginning to the end. And then I wrote that.
For books like Star Wars, you have to create a very detailed online, and then it has to be approved by six people at Lucasfilm and ten people at Del Rey, so you really don’t get the opportunity to wing it. So for that one, yes, I wrote probably, I don’t know, a twenty-page outline. I knew exactly what I was going to write. And you have so little time to write it. The turnaround time is pretty crazy. So that actually helped. They know what they’re doing.
They’ve been doing it a long time.
Yes, exactly. So I guess it really varies. And, you know, for this epic fantasy that I’m writing, I have a very detailed outline, because I have a lot of voices to manage and I have a lot of places, the worldbuilding is much more massive. And so I think if I wasn’t organized, I personally would get lost. It would be difficult.
Well, and speaking of worldbuilding and planning, there must be a considerable amount of research going into these books. Is that a fair statement?
You know, yes and no. You know, Trail of Lightning, I wrote what I knew. I know that world. I lived on the Navajo reservation. My husband is Navajo, I have Navajo family, so I didn’t actually do a whole lot of research for that. I confirmed some things that I knew about the stories and things like that, like character names and how to spell things. And there’s always different versions of stories, all across the rez, ’cause it’s a huge reservation. And then, you know, what I wanted to fantasize. And I mentioned before that, you know, I had practiced law, actually, on the Navajo Nation, so a lot of the little things, like jurisdiction and checkerboard land and things like that, I knew from, you know, my practice. So when I put those in the stories, I didn’t have to do research for that. I knew it.
But, you know, for Star Wars, I actually did a ton of research because it’s such a vast universe and you wanted things right. And they do have folks at Lucasfilm who live and breathe the Star Wars universe, so that’s very helpful. And then I think for this epic fantasy that I’m writing, I’m doing quite a bit of research as well.
Now, what does your actual writing process look like? Are you a sit-down-for-a-certain-number-of-hours-a-day at-your-desk typing kind of writer, or do you like write with a quill pen on a parchment underneath a tree?
What is most effective for me is, I am good in the early hours, and late hours. So I think what you need to do is discover when you’re at your best, and when your imagination sort of flags. So I’ll write, maybe, in the mornings from…I’ll drop my daughter off at school and then, let’s say, write from 8 to 12. But I know from, like, 12 to 4, it’s going to be like slogging through mud. I mean, the words might come, but they’re not going to be as good, and they’re just not going to…it’s going to be hard. So, often I’ll take that time, that’s when I do my e-mails or do other things, run errands, whatever needs to get done that day. And then I will pick up…if I have time at 4, but if not, often I will wait till my daughter is in bed and start again and write from like 9 to 12 or 10 to 2, or something like that. So that’s for the first step. And then, if I need speed, I will sketch out the scene beforehand on paper, like, pen and paper, so that I know what it is that I want to write, so I’m not trying to think about what I’m, you know, come up with ideas while I’m typing. I’m typing to get everything done, but I already know what I’m going to say. So I’ll sketch out the scene, you know, put in some important dialogue or things I know. But I will know, you know, how the scene works, where the reversal is, who’s involved, where it’s set. All of that stuff before I start typing.
I wanted to ask you about the voice of the book. You wrote it in first person. Why did you choose first person and what appeals to you about that point of view?
Yeah. So, not all my books are in first person. Trail of Lightning and…like that series….
Star Wars clearly is not. And the epic fantasy is not. But, you know, first person is the conceit that you often find in urban fantasy, so that makes sense. I was also writing a very difficult character. I think that Maggie, who is the main character, is a challenge. A lot of people don’t like her, which I think is fair, because…
She’s not warm and fuzzy.
No, she isn’t. And I think, you know, she doesn’t even like herself very much at the beginning of the book, right? So…and she’s a killer. And so, I felt that if I were going to create a character like that and I was gonna ask the reader to come along with me, it needed to be in first person. You needed to see her, you know, to be in her head and have her perspective on things, or I don’t think it would work as well.
Yeah, I think if she was a third-person character, she would be really hard to warm up to. She would be very scary, I think as third person without some way into her head to see how she feels and is thinking about things. So, what does your revision process look like, once you’ve got a draft done? Do you do a complete rewrite from the beginning or do you kind of rewrite as you go, or how does that work for you?
I edit as I go, normally. What I’ll do is write however much I’m writing that day. I usually have some sort of word-count goal generally, and how I get to that is, I know what my deadline is, I sort of divide that up, how many words I need to write a day to get to that deadline, and then that is sort of the goal. But knowing that I’m going to, you know, miss days. I don’t write every single day. Sometimes something happens and you just can’t. Or sometimes your brain just says no, and you can’t. So, yes, so I have that sort of in mind. I’ll write every day that is on, you know, sort of my schedule try to get to it. Then the next morning I will review what I’ve written, do a light edit and then start with whatever the next thing is. And so on and so forth.
So, by the time I have finished a draft, it has at least been edited once. And then I will go through and like, do a normal, another edit, you know, likely. But I do not…well, this epic fantasy, I am doing a rewrite. This is my first time to do this. But all the other books I’ve not done a rewrite. I edit as I go and I try to draft pretty clean. But this one is just…the whole story has changed. So I’m having to do a rewrite.
And then, once it reaches your editor, have they…what kind of things have they asked you to do? Have there been big changes or they’re pretty happy with it, or how does that work for you?
Well, they tend to be pretty happy with it. Because I do sort of, you know, plan it out. I’m trying to think…you know, probably the most heavily edited book I had, actually, is the children’s book, because that was my first children’s book and it’s the Rick Riordan imprint, and they know what they want, you know, they know exactly what kind of story they want. And it is very hard to write for children. It’s much harder to write for children than it is for adults, in my opinion, because children don’t come with experiences, they don’t come with this sort of set of things, references that you can make that they will pick up on, so you don’t have to spell everything out. For kids, you have to learn everything now.
I remember there was one edit where…in my children’s book there’s this bodyguard that gets left behind, you know, to watch over the protagonist, ’cause she’s in trouble. And I had said something like, you know, “she waiting by the car,” or something. And my editor came back with this whole list of questions about “Well, what is she doing by the car? Well, why would she do that? Well, shouldn’t she come inside if it’s…” And I was like, “Wow, really? We’re really thinking this hard about this throwaway, you know, like, scene?” But those are the kinds of questions kids want answered. You can’t leave them hanging. So I had to bring her in the house and have her sit on the sofa and read a magazine, and, you know, and that’s, you know, because kids need that concrete sort of storytelling. And they also believe what you say, so you have to be…you know, you have to believe what you say, as well, because you might be their first sort of experience of a particular incident or a particular idea, and they take that to heart. So you really have to be more aware of your words, I think.
On the reference side…I have a young adult series called The Shards of Excalibur, and the second book…it’s changed publishers, but the original publisher had a very young editor, who was probably twenty-one or twenty-two or something like that, and I had made some reference to somebody looking like they had come from a Dallas-themed costume party because of the way they were dressed, and she said, “What is Dallas except a city in Texas?” And I said, “OK. First of all, you’re very young. But secondly, you’re absolutely right, because no teenager is going to get that reference, likely.” So, yes, it is very different
I was going to ask you about the children’s book. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
It is sort of a kid’s version of Trail of Lightning, I guess, like for the middle grades, so eight to twelve, that age group. It focuses on seventh-grader Nizhoni Begay, who can see monsters and no one else around her can. And she is sort of your typical seventh-grader, which means she’s kind of a mess. She wants to be popular, but she’s not. She wants to be athletic, but she’s not. And so, she’s, sort of fighting, you know, that sort of stuff, like how to be cool or how to get likes on the Internet. And at the same time, her mother has left and her father is sort of an artist type, who sort of like doesn’t really pay close attention to what her and her brother do. And so, when monsters show up and threaten the family, it’s sort of up to her to step up and save the day. And then along the way, it explores a lot of Navajo traditional stories, as she has to follow in the footsteps of Navajo heroes in order to get some magical weapons and fight the bad guy.
It sounds like…it does some very much like a middle-grade version of Trail of Lightning.
Hopefully the middle-grade readers and young-adult readers of that will go on to read the adult series as they get older.
That’d be great.
Well, you had great critical response, obviously, and, you know, one or two award nominations and stuff like that along the way. Were you surprised by the reaction that the book got when it came out? Were you happy? How did you feel about that?
Yeah, absolutely surprised. I…like I said before, I didn’t know anything about publishing. I didn’t know about the field in a professional sense. So, I wasn’t really familiar with a lot of the awards and everything. I mean, I was from the year before, clearly, when my short fiction did well, but I did not…really, I thought Trail of Lightning would be sort of a niche book. I thought there’d be a certain, you know, kind of person who liked it and…so, yeah, I was. It was all pretty shocking, you know? Pretty exciting, I mean, clearly. But the fact that that book got published to begin with, that I could write a book like that and a big five publisher would pick it up, and then for it to do as well as it did. Yes, I think it’s pretty amazing.
It’s a pretty amazing list of awards and award nominations you’ve picked up, for sure.
I want to go to the big philosophical questions. Well, it’s really one question that I always ask, which is, “Why do you write?” and then, subsidiary, to that, “Why do you specifically write the kind of thing that you write?” and on an even broader level, “Why do you think any of us write stories that are fantastic?” But start with you. Why do you write?
I think I write to keep myself sane. I think that’s where it started. I am a much nicer, happier person when I’m writing. Just ask my husband. He will attest. But yeah, I mean, I write because I have stories and I did not see a lot of my stories, the kind of stories that I wanted to tell…I saw none, actually, let me rephrase that, out there in the world. And so, I think that’s why I write what I do write, because I feel like those stories need to be told. And no one is telling them. I think those readers need a chance to see themselves in stories, and no one is giving them that. And so I’m excited to be able to do that.
Why the fantastical? I think because I’m a huge fan of it. I mean, I think that’s what I prefer to read. That’s what I read growing up. That was what I’ve always read. I find books, you know, sort of literary realism type books tend to not be my thing. I tend to tap out. So why the fantastic? It’s the genre that I love, that sense of possibility and fantastic, the world building. Those are all the things that really appeal to me.
And what do you think…what do you think is the urge for all of us to write and tell these kinds of stories? Where do you think that urge comes from?
I don’t know. I think that’s like a bigger human urge. I can’t think of, like, a culture or a time when there weren’t stories of the fantastic, you know, whether they were used to sort of explain the world around us or whether they were used purely to entertain or a little bit of both. I don’t think you could, people would listen to your, you know, preaching about the world around you unless you were entertaining, right? These are stories of heroes and monsters and villains and these sort of large-scale, you know, epic stories, the characters. I don’t know. It’s just…I think that’s just part of who we are as humans.
This podcast is, of course, called The Worldshapers…and you’ve sort of touched on this a little bit…I think it’s safe to say that shaping the world is a bit grand. I mean, very few of us actually shape the entire world in fiction or any sort of writing. But certainly we can reach out to specific readers and touch them in some fashion and influence how they think. Is that something you hope you have done and will do as you continue to write?
Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I know that—’cause I have been sent emails and been told at readings and stuff—that it’s a pretty big deal for an indigenous woman to write in the genre, and especially something like Star Wars. And so, I have had readers tell me that it’s a big deal to them. You know, oftentimes, especially kids, they might read a story with a native character, but to have a native author write a story is a whole ’nother level of, “What? You can do that?” So I guess my feeling when I saw Laurell K. Hamilton, “You could do that? They let you do that?” And so for them, that was, you know, it’s often an idea like, “Wow, I didn’t even know that was an option. I didn’t even know that was a possibility.” And that, you know, is the world to me. If I can inspire a whole truckload of other native and black girls and boys to write, then that’s amazing. More than I could ask for.
We’ve…it’s interesting. I live in Saskatchewan, and there’s a First Nations man—also a lawyer—Harold Johnson, who wrote a climate-fiction novel (Corvus, Thistledown Press – Ed.) set in northern Saskatchewan, where basically the north becomes a powerhouse because of all the climate refugees fleeing to the north. And, you know, I was on a panel with him, actually, on Words on the Street in Saskatoon, and I hear some of that same echo in what he has said and what you’re saying.
Well, that’s very similar sort of set up, too, to my book. I have not read him, for the record, but that’s…I’m sure that’s probably a thing that a lot of indigenous people think about. So that’s not surprising.
He’s an interesting, he’s a very interesting writer. I mean, he’s not primarily by any means a speculative fiction writer, but he does do some. Of course, it’s all through Canadian publishers. You’d be unlikely to have run across him, but if you wanted to look him up, you might find him interesting. Harold. Harold Johnson. There’s also another Harold Johnson who’s a game designer, I think. That’s not him.
I wanted to talk a little bit about the epic fantasy that’s coming up, because my next question is, “What are you working on now?” So, what is that all about?
Yeah, so, I can’t say much because I am in a rewrite, so who knows? But…
It has a title.
It does have a title, because I have written a version of it. I’m just rewriting that now. So I’m not sure what’s going to stay and what’s going to go. But generally, I wanted to write an epic fantasy, sort of in that vein of, you know, the epic fantasy that we’re familiar with, but focused on the Americas, like cultures, like sort of, you know, cultures that reflect or, you know, sort of parallel in a secondary world, cultures of the Americas.
And so, my ancestors, the ancestral Puebloans, lived in places like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, which are big in the American Southwest. I don’t know if everybody knows about them. And they were previously called the Anasazi, but we’ve moved away from that term and now we refer to them as the ancestral Puebloans, but sort of these cliffs cities that were, you know, sort of obsessed with astronomy and, you know, tracking the heavens and were centers of…both religious centers and trade centers. And so, I’m very interested in sort of the trade networks and Cahokia and Mesa Verde and the classical Mayan period and creating a world sort of centered around those cultures. But in a secondary world, clearly this is fantasy.
I had an opportunity…I guess it was when WorldCon was in Denver, I think, and then we went on down to New Mexico, which was the first time I’d been down there in ages. And then we went to…I can’t remember the name of the park we went to (It was Bandelier National Monument – Ed.), but it was one with the cliff dwellings, and (I remember) being fascinated by that culture and especially the fact that they had all that trade with other cultures at the time. So, it sounds like it’ll be a very interesting setting for a for a fantasy novel.
I hope so.
And if you want to look even further down the road, how do you see your writing career developing over the next few years? What do you hope for?
Oh, gosh. Well, I’m under another three-book deal with Saga, so there will be two more books in the Sixth World series, for a total of four. I’ll have Between Earth and Sky, and that hopefully we’ll start a new series. And then I have a couple of other projects that I can’t talk about yet, because publishing is all about, you know, keeping secrets for a year. But I think I’m going to be writing for quite a while, and I’m thrilled. I feel very honored and very lucky to be able to do that. So, yeah.
And where can people find you online?
They can find me on my Web site at RebeccaRoanhorse.com. I’m also on Twitter @RoanhorseBex. And I occasionally stop in on Facebook. But it is not my favorite site, Facebook. And that would be facebook.com/roanhorsebex as well.
All right. Well, I think that’ll do it. So, thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.
An hour-long conversation New York Times bestselling novelist Garth Nix, author of the Old Kingdom series, the Keys to the Kingdom series, Frogkisser, and many others: his books have sold more than six million copies around the world and been translated into 42 languages.
New York Times bestselling novelist Garth Nix has been a full-time writer since 2001, but has also worked as a literary agent, marketing consultant, book editor, book publicist, book sales representative, and bookseller, and as a part-time soldier in the Australian Army Reserve. He has written numerous books, including the Old Kingdom series, beginning with Sabriel, the Keys to the Kingdom series, Frogkisser, and many others. He also writes short fiction, with more than 60 stories published in anthologies and magazines. More than six million copies of his books have been sold around the world, and his work has been translated into 42 languages.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Garth.
Thank you, Edward, it’s great to be talking to you.
We’ve only met once. I think that was at a world fantasy convention in Toronto. Well, actually, technically, I think it was in Richmond Hill. But you could see Toronto in the distance.
You could see it very vaguely in the distance. It was a shock, I think, to quite a few international persons such as myself to discover that it was not quite in Toronto, despite being called Toronto.
It was a bit of a shock to me, even though I live in Canada, I was expecting it to be a little closer to downtown, as well.
Well, I think we did have the misfortune that the railway was being worked on and the other public transport. So I think if everything had been up and running it wouldn’t have felt quite so far away. But, of course, we were just talking about how with World Fantasy, it doesn’t really matter. That convention is a travelling community that pops up, and you tend to spend all your time with all the other writers and publishers and editors and agents all hanging out anyway. So maybe it doesn’t really matter so much.
It was still a fun convention, even though…
Yeah, it was great. Yeah, it was very good.
...though it wasn’t right downtown. And the other thing I always like to mention, you know, when I’m looking for connections…this is not exactly a connection with you, but I wrote a fantasy trilogy called The Masks of Aygrima as E.C. Blake, and some reviewer said that they liked my fifteen-year-old female protagonist, she was their favorite female heroine since Sabriel.
Oh, that’s a nice thing to say. That is a connection. Yeah.
I considered that a great, great compliment because I really love those books, so…
We’re going to start, as I always start with my guests, by taking you back in time. How…well, first of all, where did you grow up and all that sort of thing, but how did you become interested in writing and fantasy, and which came first? Were you interested in the fantastical and science fiction before you started writing, or did the writing come first and then you migrated into it? How did that all work out for you?
Sure, it’s a good question. I grew up in Canberra, which is the federal capital of Australia. It’s still a very small city, but it was a very small city when I was growing up there in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Canberra is kind of like the Washington, D.C., equivalent, except that it’s a planned city. It really was only built from the, sort of, 1930s onwards. When I was growing up there, it only had about 200,000 people. It’s quite a small city, and it’s also in the middle…it’s in the bush, the Australian bush. It’s sometimes called the bush capital because it’s got so many trees. So it was kind of like a country town, but then it had the weird extra layer of all the federal government stuff and also all the things like Washington, D.C. has, on a smaller scale, like the National Library and the National Museum and Parliament House and all that sort of stuff as well. So it was an unusual city. It had a very, very good public education system then—it still does, perhaps not quite as good—which I benefited from, and a very good library system, which I also benefited from.
And my parents are readers. Both my parents were science fiction and fantasy readers, amongst many other things. My father is a scientist and my mother is an artist. So, from a very early age, I was exposed to all kinds of books. Our house was full of books. There was a library between my home and my school, which I stopped at every afternoon–a children’s library, a specialist children’s library. And I read everything. I love all kinds of books. I do love fantasy and science fiction, but I also love historical novels and thrillers and contemporary literature and classics, all kinds of stuff. And non-fiction as well. I’ve always been fascinated with all kinds of non-fiction.
I actually noticed, Edward, that you’ve written a lot of non-fiction, looking at your bio before I started to talk to you.
Anything for a buck, basically. But also, I do love that stuff. I love learning about things and writing about them.
And I think it’s good for writers, too. You need to read non-fiction as well as fiction to fill your mind with all kinds of information you can draw upon to create fiction. And non-fiction is very, very good fuel for that.
So, I was always reading, there were books everywhere. My parents read science fiction and fantasy. I probably had more than most people, in part because my father used to spend quite a lot of time in the U.S. working for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the United Nations and a few other…lots of international programs, some of which were run out of the U.S. (One mysteriously always had to meet in Hawaii every year. I wonder why that was.) But he would bring back American paperbacks, which we would not otherwise get, because Australia, particularly in that period, most of the books came from the U.K. So, I was actually exposed to many American authors that not all Australians would necessarily have been and would not have been known in the U.K. So, I guess in a way I had a perfect environment to become a writer of fantasy and science fiction because of that reading.
And I was always very keen on making up stories. I’ve always loved making stuff up and trying to get people to believe it. Sometimes I joke that if I wasn’t a writer, I’d probably be in jail as a confidence trickster, because I like to make people believe in stuff. I like to write stories that feel real. I like to tell stories that feel real. And there’s not a big step, I think, from making up those kinds of fictions to getting to some kind of complex scam making people believe things. But luckily, I haven’t gone down that road as yet. I’m sticking to the fiction.
So, you started writing pretty young then, as a child?
Yeah, I did actually start…I loved the idea of my own books. I made little books of my own from a very young age. In fact, I have one from when I was about six. Well, I actually do have one when I’m about six. I don’t take it with me. I have a sort of little replica that I bring with me I use in talks sometimes to demonstrate how far I’ve come in my writing since I was six years old. At least I hope I have.
So, yeah, I was making little books. I was writing stories. I wrote stories in school. But I didn’t actually plan to be a writer. I loved books. I loved writing. But actually, right up until the end of high school, when I was thinking about what I am going to do, in the last few years, I was thinking I would actually join the regular Australian army and go to our equivalent of West Point. But I actually joined the Army Reserve and I was a part-time soldier for about five years, and that convinced me I didn’t want to be a regular soldier. It was actually…it was a very good experience and I really mostly enjoyed it, with some reservations. But I also realized that the life that I would lead as a regular Army soldier would be more contained and closed, the environment would be more closed, than if I did something else.
So, for a few years, I was thinking that’s what I would do. I would go to what was then the Royal Australian Military College and be an officer and learn, and do a university degree, and become a commissioned officer. But then I realized that, “Hang on, I actually don’t want to do that. What am I going to do instead?
And I worked…I got a job after I left school, I worked in a government job for a year, and I saved my money. Then I went travelling in the U.K. and Europe. And while I was doing that, I re-read lots of my favourite books, particularly children’s books and particularly English ones, and I read them in the places where they were set. So a lot of classic fantasy like Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.
Yeah, it’s a fantastic book, in Cheshire. I read other children’s classics, like Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons in the Lake District.
Oh, thank you so much for mentioning that one.
Well, they’re wonderful books. I mean, I still re-read them. That also…I mean, those books made me interested in sailing.
You know, you get so much from those books. And then Rosemary Sutcliff, The Eagle of the Ninth, you know, historical novels, children’s historical novels, were also very much part of my reading. I read The Eagle of the Ninth while I was visiting Hadrian’s Wall and so on. And I while I was doing that, I also started to seriously write, whereas before I’d written stories off and on. I wrote a couple of stories and sent them out, and I also started a novel. I wrote half a novel while I was travelling around. And of course, this is back in the day. So, I had a portable typewriter, a Silver Reed typewriter, and I would type away in the various places that I was I was staying, or actually often not in the places, the youth hostels I was staying, because it would annoy people. So, I would actually go and type just, you know, by the side of the road or whatever, because I bought a little car. Terrible, terrible old car that…once the wheel literally did fall off and I also caught a light once. But it also got me around about 10,000 miles of travelling. And yeah, in the course of that time, I thought, I do want to be a writer. This is what I want to do.
But I also, because I was a reader and I loved nonfiction, one of the areas of non-fiction I read about was publishing and writers and writers’ biographies. And even back then, I realized that a writer’s…economically, a writer’s life is generally very difficult and you need a day job. So…and I’m actually kind of astonished, looking back, that even at nineteen I did have enough common sense to realize I would need a job. That was probably one of the few areas where I had sufficient common sense, but I did. And so, I made a plan to come back to Australia, go to university, get a degree, because that would enable me to get a better day job, and also just to continue writing, which is pretty much what I did.
And when I got back to Australia, I had great encouragement, very early encouragement, because I got a telegram—this was shortly before telegrams were completely phased out, and, in fact, I didn’t even know they still existed at that point until I got one—which was from Penguin Books in the U.K., saying, “We want to publish your story, ‘Sam, Cars and the Cuckoo,’ and we’ll pay ninety pounds.” Prepaid telegram, reply yes or no. And I hadn’t even sent it to them, so I was extremely puzzled, but also very happy. I unraveled this mystery many years later. I’d sent the story to the gaming magazine White Dwarf, because I also wrote, I had a little bit of a success, right, writing gaming articles about Dungeons and Dragons and Traveller and so on. And they, at that point, they did occasionally publish fiction. This is, again, a long way back, the magazine was very different. And so, I’d sent it to White Dwarf, so it was a great surprise to get this telegram from Penguin Books saying, “We want it for our magazine, called Warlock.” And, anyway, as it transpired, I discovered much later, an editor from White Dwarf had left to join Penguin, to work on their magazine Warlock, which was for their Fighting Fantasy books, was in support of their Fighting Fantasy books. And he’d actually just taken…I don’t know, I guess his submission inventory from White Dwarf with him, including my story. I met him years later and he said that he’d just taken his whole folder with him and bought some of the stuff for Warlock.
But I thought, “Wow, this is fantastic.” Ninety pounds, this is in 19…this was in 1982, I think, it was quite a lot of money, particularly in Australian dollars at the time. And I thought, “Wow, I can write a short story every couple of weeks and get this money and, you know, it’ll be brilliant.” But, of course, I couldn’t actually sell a short story for about another five years after that. I wrote about forty without being able to sell any of them. Which is, again, of course, a very common experience. But at least I had the early encouragement of that first short story sale.
I reacted to the Arthur Ransome reference because they were books that were very important to me when I was growing up and I spent my…in Canada, we got a family allowance. I think it was $10 a month per kid. And my parents gave that to me as my allowance and I saved that up and bought all the Arthur Ransome books.
And in my last book before this, my current one is Master of the World, book two in the series, but in the first one, Worldshaper, there is an occasion in which there is a…they get on to a sailing yacht, and I named the yacht Amazon and there’s some reference in there. So, I do try to reference those books when I can.
Yeah, well. These things, books, your childhood books are so important for what you do later. And I think whether you even consciously reference them, they’re there, they’re deeply embedded in the reservoir you call upon to write. So, they’re always present. And sometimes there’s conscious references and sometimes there’s conscious resonance and sometimes it’s unconscious. But having read them is the necessary is the necessary part of the equation.
Now, you got your B.A. in Professional Writing. What kind of a course was that? Is that a creative writing course or is it more of a journalism course or what? I haven’t quite seen that phrase before.
Yeah, well, it’s very old. They don’t actually offer that anymore. But at the time, that was the only writing degree offered in Australia. Again, a very different time. Of course, everywhere offers creative writing or writing degrees now. But at the time, what was then the Canberra College of Advanced Education, that’s now the University of Canberra, it was the only place in Australia that offered any kind of writing degree. And principally, it actually was a journalism school. And most people there were majoring in journalism, but they also had a screenwriting stream, which included a small element of prose writing, fiction writing. So, when I was looking at what I could do, I wanted to get a degree mainly as a kind of ticket to show at door to get a better day job. I thought, “Well, I might as well do a writing degree.” And it was luckily in my home city, Canberra. so it was just much more doable in terms of, you know, I could stay with my parents, which I did most of the time, and…you know, it was just logistically easy. So I was very lucky it was there.
And it was actually a really good experience. I majored in screenwriting, and I guess it’s like a lot of those writing degrees, in the sense that someone once said, “You can’t be taught writing, but you can learn.” And really, I think the most valuable thing for me was that it set up an environment in which you’re expected to do a lot of writing and you were in the company of other people who were very keen to write. So, I met some very good friends there and reconnected with some old friends who coincidentally just happened to be there, I had no idea, old school friends who also wanted to be writers, and being in the company of those people and also having the workshop experience, which is he typical one of where you pass work around in a, you know, tutorial group or workshop group and discuss it, very much as many workshops do now, that was very valuable. To be honest, most of the actual lectures and so forth were not particularly useful. But being in an environment where you need to create work all the time and it has to be on time…because they treated it like a…the journalism strain was very strong…it was treated as if it was a job at a newspaper. If you didn’t file on time, you got zero. That was it. There was no, “I’m sorry, I’ve been ill,” or whatever, it was just zero, because they said, “This is what will happen at the newspaper.” You have to…if you’re told to write something, that’s your job, you’ve got to write it. So that was all very, very useful. So, it was a good three years.
And I started theatre there as well and did some productions. I ended up directing a production of The Crucible in my last year. And it was all…it was fun and it was good experience. And…I think I probably would have kept writing anyway. But it really did help shape some of the discipline to do that. And I wrote probably half my first published novel, The Ragwitch, while I was doing that course, for that course, too. So that was also a good thing.
I’m interested in the theater experience. I’ve talked to a number of writers who have some theater experience and I’m a theater guy myself—I’ve written plays and I’m a professional actor and I’ve directed—and I always like to ask if you find that the theater experience helps you in your fiction writing. Orson Scott Card is one who says it does, and I just talked to James Alan Gardner, and he said it does. What was your experience?
Well, I think it all helps, to be honest. I think all the cross-media stuff helps. The screenwriting experience is also very helpful. I mean, to be honest, I think everything helps. The experience of life helps. Reading books helps. Strange knowledge of rock formations might help. You know, anything can help, but particularly in terms of writing. I think experience of different ways to tell stories and convey stories to people, whether it’s visually or aurally or, you know, using different senses…and theater in particular is often very good for experimental ways to communicate stories. People are always looking at different ways to stage and perform. And that makes you think about, well, “Hang on, maybe I could do something different just on a page, as well.” So, it was very useful. And, I mean, I directed a play, I performed in plays. I’m a terrible actor, but it was probably useful experience and useful for, again, also useful for something that’s very much part of a modern author’s life, which is, of course, talking about your work, because we’re all expected to do that nowadays and need to do that, whether it’s in person at bookshop events or it’s on YouTube or even in a podcast like this. I’m sure some of that early actor training, even though I was a terrible actor on stage or screen, it probably helps me play myself, as it were, and to get across what I want to get across. And it was just interesting. It was just a good thing to do.
I also worked as a stagehand after, briefly, after university, as an additional job. I worked in a bookshop, but also I worked as a stagehand on a couple of different productions with a very good friend of mine, also a writer. And that was a good experience, too, which I’ve not drawn upon directly for a story, but I think some of the conversations we had working on that show and the sort of cynical realism of backstage people, it was an exposure to characters you might not otherwise have been exposed to, and, as with anything somewhat out of what you normally do, was very useful. And some of the old, literally old, as in they would probably be in their 60s, people who worked in the theater, and had done for forever, were such interesting characters and had some very interesting stories to tell. So things like that. I think everything’s useful.
Yeah, theatre people have lots of interesting stories to tell if they’ve been in it for a while.
Absolutely. Yeah. Yeah.
Now you mentioned The Ragwitch, which was your first published novel. When did that come about? You went on to work in publishing. How did that all line up?
Well, as I said, I realised I would need a day job, and I was at university and thinking about what I could do. I did actually think about journalism for a while. Many of my friends were journalists.
I did it!
Yeah, well it’s…and of course, again, it’s a very sort of standard sort of thing. So I toyed with that, but I found that I didn’t…while I could adequately write everything, I could write whatever was required, I actually didn’t particularly like having to stick to the facts, which is a bit of a drawback in journalism, or it should be a drawback. And so I was thinking, “What else can I do?” And I was still fascinated with books and really interested in publishing, so I thought, “OK, well, that’s what I’ll do. My day job will be publishing, and” (I was still, you know, I was writing all the time) “I can continue to write.” And those would feed off each other. And one of the classic ways—and then looking around to see how I could do that, of course, one of the classic ways, and it’s still one of the best ways to get into publishing, is to get a job in a bookshop. So that’s what I did, and I worked in a wonderful bookshop where quite a number of my friends also worked in Canberra, and that then led to…I got a job as a sales representative for a very small publisher, which was in Sydney, so I moved to a much bigger city, but all the time I was writing and at that time I was finishing The Ragwitch.
So, from that small publisher, which was a small trade publisher, I then moved to an academic press on the production side as an editorial assistant. And while I was there, and I was sort of working my way—I worked my way up there to be an editor and then actually the publications manager there—but during that time, when I was at that academic publisher, I got The Ragwitch published. But in the usual way. I researched publishers. I looked at who was publishing that kind of novel. I submitted it to seven publishers, most of whom rejected it. Two, I think, never replied at all. And then one day I came home and there was a message on my answering machine, again back in the old days, a cassette answering machine, from a publisher saying, “Can you come and talk to us about it?” And so it was picked up and published in 1991. Which is a long time ago.
But there’s been several since then.
More than several. Yes. Yes, I’ve managed to keep going, which is basically the whole secret, really, as I often say to people. The answer to any publishing problem is to write another book, you know, whether it’s problems of success or failure or things not working out as you would hope. Write another book. It gives you another chance. Another spin of the wheel.
Yeah, I think it was maybe Stephen King that said…it’s usually either Stephen King or Ray Bradbury who says these things…
That the difference between a published writer and an unpublished writer is that the published writer didn’t give up.
They probably both said that in different ways, actually. And it’s true. Though it can be extraordinarily difficult to keep going because of all kinds of factors. And I’ve been very fortunate across the board, really, in terms of who I am and my background and where I live and even such things as, you know, the fact that we have essentially free health care here in Australia makes a massive difference. I’m very well aware of many of my American friends who are successful authors, but they can’t give up their day jobs to write more because they need the day job for the medical insurance. So there’s, like, those kinds of factors. And I’ve been very lucky.
Well, we’re going to talk about your creative process and we’re going to focus on your latest, which is Angel Mage, which unfortunately I have not had a chance to read. But that’s OK, because I’m going to get you to synopsize it for people who haven’t read it, like me.
I’ll just read it to you on the podcast, Edward. It’s only going to take about eighteen hours. That’s all right, isn’t it?
Oh, sure, I’ll just release it as multi-part podcast.
I wouldn’t dare do that because it’s actually, the audiobook has been read far, far better, anyway. I actually, I recently distilled the sort of elevator pitch for the book, even though I don’t really believe in elevator pitches. But with the help of various people who’ve already reviewed it and commented about the book, the sort of simple summary is that it’s The Three Musketeers crossed with Joan of Arc, crossed with angelic magic, crossed with kick-ass woman heroes. And that kind of sums it up on a variety of levels. But, yeah, Angel Mage is very much inspired by Alexander Dumas’s The Three Musketeers and the Richard Lester 1973-1974 films of The Three Musketeers and The Four Musketeers.
I love those movies.
I love those movies, too. I mean, they’re brilliant movies and brilliant adaptations of the book. Very much inspired by that, but it’s not a retelling. Angel Mage is the story of Liliath, who is an angel mage. She’s able to summon angels using icons that she makes. And she, Liliath, is perhaps the most pre-eminent angelic mage who’s ever lived. Unfortunately, she has already destroyed one kingdom in an effort to do something, which is unclear, involving an archangel, the archangel of that kingdom. And this all happens before the book begins. She did something which caused a terrible plague that killed most people or turned them into monsters. She was thought to be killed by it as well, or something to have happened to her. But, in fact, she wasn’t. She just went into a long sleep to have another go. And the book is actually about her awakening from her long rest to try and put in motion once again and so successfully carry out whatever her plan is to get closer to her beloved Archangel Palleniel. And this is in the new kingdom of Sarance, which is pretty much an analog of 17th-century France, but with some important key differences. And to do so, Liliath needs to gather to her and direct four key individuals who are young people who are just embarking on their careers in the capital of Sarance, which is a sort of Paris equivalent. So, she is setting up her plan again. She is manipulating these four characters who are brought together. They don’t know why, you know, what their connection is. They feel a connection and they, Dorotea, who is also an angelic mage and a very gifted maker of icons, Simeon, who’s a medical student at the hospital, Henri, who’s a clerk of the cardinal–the cardinal is a woman, incidentally, and one of the, I guess the key differences in Sarance is that it’s an equal-opportunity kingdom, as such, as most of my fantasy worlds are. Women can be all the things that men can be as well, as of course they can be in reality if they’re not constrained by social barriers. And…who have I forgotten?…oh, and Agnez, who’s a musketeer, a cadet of the musketeers. And so it’s an adventure story, it’s set in that alternate 17th century, influenced by Dumas, and I hope it’s just a great, enjoyable adventure that really takes you to another world, as Worldshapers is all about. I hope it takes readers to somewhere that feels real and they can go along for the ride.
Most of your books, and this one included, are classified as young adult. What has drawn you to the young adult side of the spectrum?
Well, classifications are funny things. And in fact, Angel Mage is published as an adult fantasy in the UK and Australia.
Amazon shows it as young adult…
Well, in America it is published as young adult. It really, I guess, demonstrates the fluidity, particularly, of young adult as a category. I guess what I would say is that the clue is all there in the name “young adult.” It’s young adult, not all children. So, to my mind, you know, YA…and it’s confusing to people, because YA covers such a broad range of books from very young YA, as it were, to older books. And, you know, categories in publishing are about publishers trying to find the sweet spot to connect core readers to a book. They always hope that the book will go beyond those, that core group. And you always hope that that’s just the kindling that starts the fire to reach everywhere, as it does with the really big bestselling books. They always go far wider than whatever their categorization is. But, of course, to make that happen, you do need to connect with the people most likely to read the book. And that’s partly about genre classification as well, which is why if you try and categorize a book as something that it doesn’t really fit, which happens occasionally where publishers want to try and position a book somewhere else, but it doesn’t…you know, readers are put off from it because it doesn’t match their expectation. That’s probably the cardinal problem. (Cardinals on my mind, obviously, too many cardinals.) That’s the biggest mistake you can make in publishing, because if you try and sell a book as something t isn’t, you know, the people who would love it don’t buy it, and the people who you’re hoping to try and get to love it typically don’t buy it either. So the safe method is always trying to connect to a core audience.
And partly, of course, what happens is, if you’re known for a particular genre or category, if your book can even halfway fit into that category, that’s where publishers will try and put it. In the case of Angel Mage, I’m absolutely fine with calling it a young adult book. I do think it’s a young adult book, but at the same time, I think it’s important to be aware that doesn’t mean it isn’t for older adults as well. And, in fact, all the data shows that most of YA is in fact being read by 18-to-35-year-olds, anyway, and older. It’s not actually being read by teenagers, which is a whole other discussion, because there’s a whole discussion of how teenagers are actually being marginalized out of a genre that’s out of…not a genre, a category…which is meant to be for them. But, so, it’s not as straightforward as it may seem.
I just write the stories. I mean, going back to answer your question more directly, I just write. I write for myself, and I guess I write for myself as I am now and as I was at 20 or 15 or even a bit younger, where I would have read a book like Angel Mage with no problems whatsoever, in the same way I was reading completely adult titles with no problem whatsoever. But I also, I do write children’s fiction as well, and when I am writing the children’s books, I’m really writing for myself as I was at 10 or 11 or 12. But again, good children’s books work for all ages as well. And they work for all the readers, as well. It’s not the primary audience, but in my view, all the best children’s books will also work for an adult reader because they’ll be, there’s just more to them. There’ll be multiple layers of story and meaning which make them work, and a child reader who may not be as practiced or experienced will just take that top layer of story and meaning, and they will love it and be carried along by it. And later you can come back to it. They’ll come back to it later maybe and get some more of the subtext and more of the other layers of story. And an adult reader, a sophisticated adult reader, will, you know, we’ll get all of that straight away.
Getting the balance of all those things right is the difficult part, except that most writers, I think, do it by instinct. So I think if you start thinking about it, it won’t work. But if you’ve equipped yourself by reading, certainly, lots and lots of the right books, and by the right books, actually I just mean any books ,really, except that you probably should have read lots and lots of books in the area in which you want to work as well as everything else. Then you will have equipped your storytelling and writing instincts to be able to do that without having to think about it too greatly. And, of course, then the editorial process helps as well.
I’ve kind of run into the classification thing myself with the aforementioned Masks of Aygrima trilogy with a 15-year-old protagonist. It was published by DAW Books, which does not have a young adult line, and so it was published in the adult market. And I got people who said, well, you know, “This is really a young adult book.” And then there were young adult reviewers who said, “Well, this is too grown-up a book, but it has a 15-year-old protagonist. So, yeah, the whole genre classification thing, can…
And, well, it’s important not to get too hung up on it, I think. I mean, that’s…when people start thinking, “Oh, I can’t read this because it’s YA” or “I can’t read this because it’s adult” or “I’m not going to read this because it’s science fiction and all science fiction is terrible.” You know, those preconceptions just cut you off from reading good books. I think it’s very important to look at books on their own merits. The whole categorization, the labels that are put on books, are all about how to sell them. They’re not actually about what the qualities are, literary qualities or narrative qualities or whatever, they’re labels to help you find a book, but they are not exclusive labels. So I do think it’s very important for people to…reading about a book that sounds interesting, it probably is interesting. Have a look at it. Read some pages. Don’t think, “Oh, it sounds really interesting, but it’s YA, so it’s not for me, or “It’s children, so it’s not for me,” or “Dang, I didn’t realize it was romance, so I’m not going to read it,” because it could be absolutely the best book for you to read. It could be a wonderful book to read. Just because of some selling labels on it…I think preconception of genre and category just really narrows people’s reading habits, sometimes. Though, many people, of course, don’t care, which is good.
So, going back to Angel Mage, you talked about the elevator pitch, but that came after the fact. So, how did the original seed for this all come together? And is that typical of…the way that Angel Magecame together, is that typical of the way that your stories generally germinate?
That’s a good question. The way I typically develop stories is that I will have an idea for something. And often, it’s just about a character in a situation. And I really don’t know anything about it. I know, I have a…it’s like having a still cut out of a section of film. And I can look at it in my head and think, “Oh, well, there’s this person in this situation and this appears to be the setting,” but I really don’t know any more than that. And then I will start writing something about that. And often, these little fragments I don’t end up using, but that has helped me work out what the story is or what the story might be. And sometimes they become full-on prologues or opening chapters, which, again, I might not, but it does help me set the scene. And I work out, you know, who that character is and what part they play, and if they’re going to be the main character. And I also work out the feel of the setting, the sort of tone of the setting, even if I don’t know many details. And after I’ve written a little section like that, typically I don’t do anything on it for a while, maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months. And my subconscious is working on it, and every now and again, I might make a few notes about that particular idea.
And if it is going to come to something, then at some point, the next thing I usually do is write an outline, which I won’t actually follow. That’s one of those Zen outlines, the act of doing the outline is more important than what it’s going to be used for. I will write an outline and then probably will write the beginning, which I may have already written, and I’ll just rewrite it, or it will be something completely different, but I will get that first chapter or prologue or prologue and first chapter down, and I will then revise the outline again. And at that point, I will have something which I will think, “Well, okay, that’s gonna be my next book, or is going to be the one I’m going to write after the one I’m writing now.” And that’s when I’ll share it with my agent and so on and start talking about it being the next book. And I should say, sometimes when I’m writing these, I begin this process where I have a little idea and I write a little bit, it becomes a short story and I will write it, and then, usually within a few weeks, it’ll be complete in itself. And then I know, “OK, well, that’s done. That is a story. It’s not going to be a novel, it’s not going to be anything else. And then I’ll try and do something with that story.
So, once you…if you decide to go on and write a novel…what does your actual writing process look like? Do you write, you know, 24 hours a day?
Do you sit under a tree with parchment and quill? How does that work for you?
Well, I actually did…I wrote many of my early novels longhand first, so I would write a chapter in longhand, pen on paper, in my favorite black-and-red notebooks. So I’d write a chapter longhand and then I would type it up on various computers over the years and then I would print it out and I would correct the printout and take in those corrections to the electronic file, and then I would write the next chapter longhand and then just repeat the process. I stopped doing that probably about fifteen years ago, except that I still do write some sections longhand first. So, I still write difficult chapters.
What does writing longhand do for you or for your prose?
It just seemed to be a good process. I mean, I think I started it because, when I was traveling, and I first started writing when I was traveling, I could just write in my notebook wherever. And this is long before, you know, laptops or, actually, I mean, it was really the early days of personal computers. I mean, when I came back from that trip, I got a TRS-80.
Not portable, no, at all. I got my first Mac maybe the year often. And it was actually one of the very first Macs, the Mac 512K. It was…which was a miraculous thing. I mean, what you see is what you get on the screen. And printing out was astonishing compared to what I’d been using. But yes, not at all portable. So, I think it stemmed from that ability to write in a notebook wherever I was. And on that trip and then later on another trip 10 years later, in the early ‘90s, I mean, Sabriel, I wrote part of, I wrote chapters, you know, I wrote a chapter sitting on the wall of a Crusader castle in Syria, I wrote in a Roman amphitheater in Jordan, under a medieval bridge in Isfahan, in Iran, in the Khyber Pass, and so on. And so, being able to write anywhere, it was, I think, what drove that. I just got into the habit of it and it worked.
But I think also, writing longhand and then typing my longhand, and as I typed, I would correct, as well, did give me an extra layer of revision, which wasn’t just reading, a sort of tactile revision, not just looking at it on screen and going through. But that said, I always wrote short stories pretty much straight on screen, all my short fiction. And then later I did just start to write just, you know, on the computer. But I still write longhand. I still write notes longhand. And I will occasionally, particularly if I’m having difficulty, I will take my notebook and pen and go and write a chapter, often somewhere outside, somewhere in some sort of natural environment, not to sit at my desk. So I mix it up.
And once you get to the end of the book, the first time through, what does your revision process look like?
Well, I revise all the way through. Typically, what I do, in fact, is…say I’ve written Chapter 1. Before I write Chapter 2, I actually will revise…in my writing session, say I finish writing Chapter 1 on Monday, and I would have done minor revision at the time, just going backwards and forwards with every writing session, on Tuesday I will read Chapter 1, revise it and then write Chapter 2, and then when I come to write Chapter 3, I’ll revise Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 before writing Chapter 3. So I’m constantly revising all the way through. But of course, what that means is Chapter 1 will have been…say the book’s got 40 chapters. As part of my normal process, Chapter 1 will have been revised 40 times, by the time I get to the end of it, but Chapter 40 will have been revised, notionally, once, but in actual fact at least two or three times. And then, when I have a complete manuscript, I will go through it again, usually two or three times before it goes to the publisher, with a little bit, as much fallow time as possible between revisions, which in practice normally means only two or three days, because of, just, time constraints and needing to deliver it. But then, I also typically don’t look at it again until I get the edit back from, when I get the top-level edit letter back from my editor, I just won’t look at it at all. So, I’ll normally have at least a month or six weeks of having totally forgotten about it, with luck, before it comes back again.
And in that time, I’ll be writing other things. I’m always writing something. And I usually am writing a couple of short stories or sometimes a screenplay at the same time as writing the novel. The novel will take 80 percent of the time, but I will spend 20 percent of the time working on other projects, and then, once the novel is off my plate temporarily, I’ll be working on those other things and of course also starting the next one. So, it’s always…there’s always the shuffling, short-order-cook-type shuffling of things around on the stove.
Every once in a while, as a full-time freelancer, I remember the song from My Fair Lady, where Eliza sings, “Words, words, words. I’m so sick of words.”
Well, you do get sick of, absolutely, you occasionally do get sick of words, like Eliza. And then when that happens, it’s time to do something else for a while. Go for a walk, watch a movie, you know, anything that refills…or perhaps leeches the chamber of loathing for words.
What…you mentioned the editorial letter that comes back…what sorts of things do you usually find yourself having to work on when the editor gets a look at them?
Well, it varies very much from book to book. I guess…I mean, I’ve always felt greatly complimented by editors who tell me that my books don’t need much revision. And they usually credit that to the fact that I do a lot of revision myself and I do pride myself on delivering a very clean and…you know, a manuscript that’s been revised as much as possible. So, it varies from book to book. Usually, they’re things like tightening up particular sections, which…you know, the pace may have dragged or, very occasionally…one famous editorial letter pointed out that I had a character who could be completely deleted from the book without making any difference whatsoever. And therefore should be. Which…and of course, as always, you know, your initial reaction is, “Oh, ridiculous nonsense. What are they talking about?” And then after calm reflection and looking at the examples cited, I realized that, yes, that character was, in fact, completely extraneous and did absolutely nothing. And so I did get rid of them, and the book was all the better for it. So, occasionally, there’s things like that, but generally speaking, they’re mostly fine-tuning things.
But not always. Again, this is going a long way back. I benefited greatly from the editorial advice from my then editor…at HarperCollins. Because I delivered Lirael and Abhorsen actually as one giant book. And that’s how I write it, as one very large book. And she pointed out that it probably needed to be two. And it wasn’t just a matter of cutting them, cutting it in half. I actually needed to expand upon some aspects of Lirael’s early life, which I’d alluded to without going into. And so, I took the book apart, I broke it in two, and I rewrote both halves, adding and subtracting. And so that was quite a big task. But it was the right advice. It was very, very useful. So, yeah, every now and again, there’s big things, and there’s small things.
I always like to talk about what the editors contribute because there are beginning writers or wannabe writers who are scared that editors will somehow destroy their precious prose or something. And in my experience, they almost always make it better. Almost always.
Almost always, because you can unfortunately get bad editors who just don’t understand the book or who want to remake it in, you know, remake it into something that it’s not. That does occasionally happen. But of course, you deal with that. And I’ve actually been very lucky. I’ve not had that really at all myself, ever. But I was an editor and I did…while I don’t think I’m guilty of doing this myself either, I did work with many other editors and I do know of…and I also, just from being in this business for a long time and knowing lots of other authors, I do know of a very few examples where just the wrong editor was working on a book with someone and it was not a good fit. But that, as you say, that is not the norm at all. Usually, a good editor is very helpful and makes a big difference.
Well, we’re close to the end of the time here, so I want to move on to the big philosophical questions…
Well, I gotta go. Sorry. Time’s…oh, no, hit me. Hit me with a question.
It’s only one, really.
Oh, good. Okay.
With multiple parts, but…why do you write? Why do you write stories of the fantastic, specifically, and on a slightly broader level, why do you think anybody writes? Why do we tell stories? Why do you tell stories and why does anybody tell stories?
That is quite a tough question. Why do I write? Why do I tell stories? I think it’s because I have to, on one level, I’ve always told stories, I’ve always had them bubbling up inside me, and I feel like they need to come out, I guess. I did allude to this earlier when I said that possibly, if I didn’t write stories, I’d be in jail as a confidence trickster, because I do have all these stories in me and I have to get them out. Maybe this is how I make sense of the world, is by telling stories and by writing, or make sense of my world. But I do derive an enormous satisfaction when a story works out. I love it when I can successfully tell a story.
And I should say that never…nothing is ever as good as it is in my head. When I’m thinking up a story, it’s always truly amazing. And then when I write it, it goes from truly amazing to, if I’m lucky, kind of amazing. And I look at it and I think, “Wow, that’s great. I would like to read…if I came to this as a reader, I would like to read this. I would love this.” And that’s what I’m always trying to aim for. So I think it is that innate desire to tell stories just coming up inside me. Also, matched with that, the satisfaction of telling a good story and of making people…making people happy is perhaps not quite the right description, because, in fact, stories might not make people happy, they might make them feel all kinds of different things…but successfully transmitting a story from my head into a reader’s via the medium of text, I guess, is something that gives me great satisfaction.
As to why I write mostly fantastical stuff, that is also quite a tricky question. And possibly the best way to answer it is to say that, whenever I do try to write something that is contemporary and entirely realistic in terms of our contemporary world, it hardly ever works out. I mean, the story might work out perfectly well, but it will end up having some element of the fantastic, even a very slight one. It just seems to be something I do whether I plan to or not. I have set out to write entirely contemporary or historical stories and nearly always some element of the fantastic…I just suddenly get part of the way through, and I think, “This would be so much better if the supernatural intrudes or there’s magic,” or “Wouldn’t this be more interesting if that person is not, in fact, a human?” It just seems to be something, again, inside me that introduces these things. Though I have occasionally written things that do not have elements of the fantastic, my natural bent seems to be to want to include them.
And that sounds very familiar to me because that’s exactly what happens to me.
Yeah, I think it’s very…absolutely, I think it’s a, quite a shared trait of most fantasy writers. But not all, of course, everyone is different. There’s so many different ways to write, and write novels. And that’s also part of the fascination.
And the idea of having the amazing image in your head and then trying to get it…I’ve sometimes used the image of, it’s like you have a Christmas tree ornament and it’s beautiful and perfect and you can see it so clearly and then you smash it with a hammer and try to glue it back together with words.
Yes. And they might still be very impressed, but it’s not quite what you wanted to give them. Yes. Yeah.
So, what are you working on now?
Well, I’ve actually just finished my next book, which is kind of ahead of schedule for me for once, which is good. I’m revising it in response to the editorial letter at the moment. And that book is called The Left-Handed Booksellers of London. It’s set in 1983, and it’s set in a slightly alternative London, London with a…a United Kingdom with a slightly different 20th-century history. And it’s about a young woman, Susan, who comes to London. She’s an art student who will be starting art school later, but she’s come early to London to try and find her father, who she doesn’t know anything about, she just has some clues from her mother to follow up—her very vague mother. And she almost instantly falls in with one of the left-handed booksellers, called Merlin, who saves her from…well, they save each other, actually…from an intrusion of the mythic. And Susan is drawn into this world where the left-handed booksellers and the right-handed booksellers have a kind of secret organization that not only runs a couple of bookshops, but also works to keep the mythic and legendary elements of Britain under control and stop them from intruding disastrously into the contemporary world. And Susan’s quest to discover her father is connected very much with Merlin. Merlin also has a quest, to try and find out what happened to his mother, who was apparently killed by criminals, but there seems to be some connection with the mythic world as well. So that’s The Left-Handed Booksellers of London, which will be out, hopefully, this time next year.
And anything else that you’re currently in process on?
I’ve got some short stories. I’ve actually got a bunch of stories coming out in different venues over the next twelve months. I had a quite a little short-story writing frenzy earlier this year. So I think I’ve got five stories coming out in various places over the next twelve months or so, which range from science fiction to fantasy, different kinds of fantasy…well, actually, one horror, one is just straight-out horror, which I don’t write that often, but every now and again…and some fantasy stories and science fiction. And I’m also outlining a new novel and notes for other stories. And I’m working on a screenplay with a friend of mine, as well, who’s a very experienced, and has had many things produced, screenwriter. So, lots and lots of things on that stove top, as I mentioned before, I’m shuffling those pans around.
And where can people find you online?
They can find me at garthnix.com, on Facebook, it’s just facebook/garthnix, and /garthnixauthor. I actually have my very old personal Facebook, which I always just use to connect with readers, but it’s generally full up with the 5,000-friend limit. And then later I started the author page, which is just the /garthinix one. So Facebook, I’m there, but actually where I’m most likely to respond to people, and I’m much more likely to post, in fact is Twitter, where I’m also just @GarthNix. And if you want to ask me a question, Twitter is generally the place where I’m most likely to be able to respond in a sort of timely fashion. Far more than that anywhere else already.
All right! Well, thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers, Garth. I really appreciate it.
It’s fun to talk about writing, isn’t it? You know, writing and publishing.
James Alan Gardner got his bachelor’s and master’s in math with a thesis on black holes, then immediately began writing science fiction instead. He has published ten novels and numerous short stories, including finalists for the Nebula and Hugo and winners for the Aurora, the Asimov’s Readers’ Choice Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His most recent novels are All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, first book in the Dark vs. Spark series, and They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, the second book, both from Tor. In his spare time, he plays a lot of tabletop roleplaying games and has recently begun writing material for Onyx Path’s Scion line. In his other spare time, he teaches kung fu to six-year-olds.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, James.
Thanks, Edward. Glad to be here.
I guess we’ve kind of known each other for a long time, but we don’t encounter each other very often. But we did see each other at When Worlds Collide, which is something…When Words Collide. It always comes out as When Worlds Collide.
Yeah, yeah. It’s a great idea and a great title. And it was a great con this year.
Was that the first time you’d been?
It’s close to me, so I’m there most years. It gets plugged a lot on The Worldshapers, ’cause I’ve asked a number of writers to be on after I saw them at When Words Collide.
Well, if I can make it next year, I certainly will. I had a great time there.
And I guess this is a good place to mention to those interested that the website for that is WhenWordsCollide.org. It does fill up every year, so if you’re interested in going, it wouldn’t hurt to to sign up for next year, right now. But enough about that, let’s talk about you! I always start by taking guests back into the mists of time, and for you and me, it’s roughly the same amount of mists, to find out, first of all, when you became interested in writing, and when you became interested in writing science fiction. I’ve seen from other interviews that you started writing pretty early.
Yes. I still have some of the things that I wrote when I was, like, five. They are hiding in my parents’ house and I hope they will never see the light of day. The first thing…I can remember writing what would be called fanfic these days, which was in my time based on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—which tells how old I was—and me and my friends were spies: the standard thing that one writes when one is…I guess I was twele at the time…and I kept writing some of that for a while.
I wrote several plays when I was in high school, but I really got serious in my first year of university. I was in co-op at the University of Waterloo, and there the co-op program is sort of four months in school, then four months in work placement, and I was working for IBM in Toronto, where I knew no one, and didn’t have a whole lot of money. But writing was cheap. So, for four months on my work term in Toronto, I amused myself by writing science fiction. And none of that was saleable, but bit by bit, I got better.
Well, I think it’s come up a few times on here with different authors, the famous saying…I always attribute it to Stephen King, that you had to write half a million words of unpublishable stuff before you wrote anything publishable, but then somebody recently who’d met Ray Bradbury said that he used to say 800,000 words.
Yeah, yeah. A whole bunch of junk before you get down to the good stuff underneath.
Yeah, that’s what it boils down to. So, you got your bachelor’s and master’s in math, but you never actually used that? You went straight into writing? Or what happened after you graduated?
I went…for two years after I got my master’s, I tried to write something significant. I was working on a novel…and I still like the idea for the novel, I might…every now and then, I think, “Is it time to write that? Maybe. Probably not yet.” But for two years I tried to make a living writing while tutoring calculus. That was my income. And at the same time, I was also writing for a musical comedy review at the university, and someone who was associated with that show put me in contact with a group in the computer science department who wanted someone to write computer manuals for them. So, I got a job half-time writing computer manuals, and that kept me in money for long enough for me to start selling stories and things.
Well, it’s interesting, because when I decided to be a full-time writer, one of the things that got me going was there was a market for, you know, general computer books at the time. So, people ask me what my first book is, and I always say, well, my first book was actually Using Microsoft publisher for Windows 95. And my second book was the sequel, Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 97.
Ah! I have a few Unix books out there that I, you know, they’re on the shelf, but I’m not proud of them.
Well, I was never that technical, but at the time there was actually a market at the level of, “To open a file, click FILE>OPEN.” That’s the kind of level I was writing at. And I was interested, too, that you wrote plays and this musical comedy revue…
…because that’s another side of what I do. I’m an actor and singer and performer, and I’ve done…I’ve written plays, as well. And I like to ask the writers who have done that sort of thing, if you find your theater background helps in the writing of fiction. For me, it feels that it does. But I’m always interested to see if others have the same experience.
Oh, yes, immensely. So, I did…first of all, this onstage musical comedy thing, and then a group of us who helped write for that started writing straight-up plays and radio dramas. And sometime in there, I got into improv and took a number of improv classes. And all those things go together into…theater gives you immediate feedback on whether your writing works or not, by the amount you cringe when you hear your lines being said. You learn a bit on fool-proofing dialogue. And certainly, improv gives you some good practice in structuring scenes and figuring out how actions go together to make plot.
I often feel that, having directed plays and stuff like that, I feel like I have a very solid image in my head at all times of where characters are in relationship to each other in the space in which the scene is happening, and when I tutor younger or beginning writers—and I’m writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library right now—I’ve done quite a bit of that—and one thing I often find is, it’s like a gray fog in which everything is happening.
And I’m not entirely certain where everybody is in relationship to each other. You get an image of them in one place and the next thing you know, they’re looking out the window, but they never left the fireplace in your head.
I think theater helps with that.
Yeah. Certainly, just plain old scene choreography helps. Theatre contributes to that a lot. As you say, who’s where and what’s actually there. The idea of what is in the room besides the characters is hugely useful when you’re trying to figure out what the characters do in response to some problem. There’s almost always something in the room that they can use, if you’ve envisioned the room well enough to actually have stuff there.
And if you plant it in the right place and in the story so it doesn’t materialize out of thin air.
Yes. Well, you know, whenever you write a story, every scene has to take place someplace. Every time someone goes into a room, you pretty much have to describe the room and you want to describe interesting things in the room, and just that description, first of all, trying to come up with something that is interesting and not the same old, same old, will give you material to use later on in the scene.
What you said about fool-proofing dialogue is actually something that Orson Scott Card said when I interviewed him for The Worldshapers, and he’s done a lot of theatre, and he actually had a role in your breaking in, didn’t he? Because he was at Clarion West when you were there?
Yes. He was the first teacher in my year at Clarion West. He gave me really good feedback on a story that he liked a great deal, and that was actually my first published story. He put in a good word for me with the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and so when I sent that story to the editor, it sold, and that was my first pro SF sale.
Before you went to Clarion, had you taken any other formal writing training?
Yeah. Between…the summer of when I got my bachelor’s, I went to Banff, the Banff Centre for Fine Arts, and took a writing course there. W.O. Mitchell was the grandfather of it all, but it was…Alice Munro was there, so, you know, hanging out with some pretty impressive people, and got a lot of good feedback on my writing and how to set about writing stories.
So, I ask science fiction fantasy writers about their formal training…now clearly, at Clarion, science fiction and fantasy is what people are writing, but usually in other writing programs it is not, and there’s sometimes a…
Sometimes it’s not a comfortable fit with what the program is about. Did you find that, or did it or did you find it helpful that it wasn’t science-fiction focused?
Yeah, I don’t think I wrote a great deal of science-fiction content while I was at Banff. It was mostly…the method, what W.O. Mitchell called “Mitchell’s messy method,” was just sitting down and seeing what spontaneously arose as you were at the typewriter. And at that point, I was writing a lot of memoir-type things, as opposed to actual fiction, and finding what inside of me wanted to be written was very useful for that. The real trick after that is figuring out how to shape that material into actual stories. And once I got started with that, kind of marrying my own memories with science fiction was kind of fun and useful.
Was Mitchell there when you were there?
The reason I ask is because W.O. Mitchell is famously from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, which is where I grew up, and I got to meet him once when he came doing a reading for his book, Roses Are Difficult Here, I think is what it was, when I was at the newspaper down there. He was an interesting guy.
Yeah, he’s a fun guy, and, of course, a great raconteur, or was, so he was great to have in classes. And we all had, I think, a fifteen-minute session with all of the writers in residence. It was, you know, in some sense similar to Clarion, in that the writers were brought in for, I think, four or five days, and each of the students had a chance to show the writers their stuff and get some feedback on it.
The other thing I like to mention about Mitchell is that, when I did see him in Weyburn, there was a woman there named Sadie Bowerman, who was the first white baby to be born in Weyburn, she was still alive then. And she’d been his schoolteacher, and she got after him—she must have been in her eighties by then—she got after him for using bad language. So, writers can relate. You never know who’s going to pop up out of your past.
That’s right. I have a few English teachers who have caught up with me over the years and, you know, kind of patted me on the back. And again, some of them have chided me for using bad language.
The other thing I want to mention about Weyburn, Saskatchewan, is that Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, so Weyburn is a very important place in the tapestry of…well, much more for him than me, I wasn’t born there, but I grew up there.
A hotbed of literature.
Yeah, exactly. Well, you started with short fiction. Did you write that exclusively for a while, or did you immediately try to write novels, or how did that work for you?
Well, I think I wrote a novel…back when I was in high school, I got pneumonia the year after…sorry, the summer after…I graduated, and was basically locked in the house for the entire summer and spent some time writing a novel-like thing. I wouldn’t call it a novel, but it was a long piece of fiction. So…gee, I forget about doing that. I always think that my writing started when I was in university co-op, but no, that summer where I had nothing else to do. But that was kind of an amusement more than a, “Yes, I’m going to be a writer.”
Still, part of your half a million words that you had to…
That’s right. Yeah. Never gonna rewrite that one. That was self-indulgent, as only high-school students can be.
Yeah. So, when did your first novel come along?
My…so, I wrote it…I wrote several novels before I actually published something. So, I was in Clarion in ’89 and was writing short stories and started a novel sometime after that. And I think there were two novels that didn’t go anywhere—and thank heavens they never saw the light of day—before I wrote Expendable, which was published in ’97.
And so now we’re up to how many novels?
Ten, eleven. I guess it’s eleven now.
Are you still writing a lot of short fiction?
Off and on. I can write novels for two or three hours a day, at least the first early drafts of novels, and that gives…so I write in the morning, and in the afternoon, I want to write something different. So, I sometimes write short fiction. Sometimes I write the gaming material that you mentioned in my biography. Sometimes I do freelance editing jobs for various people. So, afternoons I have several hours when I do something besides the novel in progress, and short stories are one of the things I do then.
Okay, well, that’s kind of getting us into the process part of this of the podcast, which is what I’m going to focus on next. So, let’s move on to that. So, we’re gonna focus on All Those Explosions were Someone Else’s Fault, just as an example of your creative process, and see how that ties in with the way you write everything, but before we do that…I have not finished the book; very much enjoying it, it’s a lot of fun…
So, perhaps you can give a synopsis for those who have not read it, without giving away anything that I haven’t read yet.
Ok. Well, the setup is that in the early 1980s, vampires, werewolves, demons, et cetera, come out of the closet and basically say, “Why have we been keeping ourselves secret? We have a saleable asset here. You want to be one of us, pay us $10 million and we’ll make you a vampire or a werewolf or a demon.” And within twenty years, all the movers and shakers, or the wealthy, influential people, are basically darklings. So…and then in the year 2000, suddenly superheroes start appearing. And so you’ve got this world where the rich one percent are essentially monsters and the ninety-nine percent are protected by the people who were stupid enough to touch the glowing meteor or fall in the vat of weird chemicals, or were just, you know, born as mutants. And so, the background setup is the dark one percent versus the super ninety-nine percent, or the supers who represent the ninety-nine percent, who protect them.
And then the story follows four science students at the University of Waterloo who get into a weird lab accident and gain superpowers and become involved in the shenanigans that were responsible for the lab accident. And a supervillain is part of it all, and a cabal of darklings who are up to no good, and the whole thing takes place in something like nine hours on the night of the winter solstice.
And it’s a humorous novel.
Yes, it is. It’s done for laughs. It could…the setup could get very dire with horrible people running the world, but I like playing it for laughs, and the four characters who get superpowers are all funny in their various ways. The first book is about Kim, who is a geology student who…queer—non-binary, anyway…who has a wry view of the world. The second centers on Jules, who is a wonderful, incautious, brash person, and the plan is for four novels, one on each of the superheroes, having them go through their big life change. I think that a novel should be about a huge moment in a character’s life, and each of the four heroes…I mean, “Hey, you’ve just become super. What does that do to you?” And for each of them, it kind of brings to the fore something that they haven’t dealt with, baggage that they haven’t dealt with. And they’re each going to be forced to confront this stuff that they’ve been ignoring for much of their life and deal with their issues one way or another.
So, what was the seed for this and how does that tie into the way that stories appear for you, in general? I’m trying to avoid saying “Where do you get your ideas?”, but that’s basically the question.
You know, I don’t…the seed was the idea of the superheroes-versus-darkling type things, and the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent, which was relevant at the time I started writing this. You know, it was…the Occupy movement had been taking place. I mean, that’s where I get the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent. And it was a time when the politics of the whole thing was kind of in your face.
And I had also done a lot of roleplaying in various contexts. So, if people are familiar with the White Wolf games, which later became Onyx Path, or were…Onyx Path started writing for the same game lines…you could be a vampire or a werewolf or some other type of creature of the night. And that was one set of roleplaying that I had done, but I’d also done a lot of superhero roleplaying.
And putting them together, as far as I know, had never been done before, but was a really cool idea. As soon as I had the idea, I Googled like mad to see if there was anything like this out there, and there wasn’t. Urban fantasy was big at that point. Superhero fiction was just starting to become more prevalent. One of the things that interests me is that superhero comics have been around for eighty years, but superheroes in prose fiction really hadn’t been done a lot before, say, fifteen years ago? There were a few novelizations of superhero movies, but until…fan fiction for sure and the Marvel superhero movies came out…there hadn’t been a lot of superheroes in prose fiction, but that kind of opened up and now there’s a whole ton of it.
Well, it is an interesting juxtaposition. Certainly, I’ve never encountered the two things put together like that, so it’s very interesting.
Yeah, I hadn’t seen it before. I still haven’t seen it. So, it’s kind of fun to be able to play with that without too much competition.
Now, that’s how this came about. Is that fairly typical of your story generation. Is it basically just ideas bubble up and bounce into each other?
I think I go back to what I said about stories being about some huge pivotal moment in a character’s life. So, whatever the seed for a story is, the next thing I want to know is what character is going to experience the setup and what sort of transition are they going to go through. So, often I think of some dramatic situation, some sort of ticking bomb that is going to cause trouble in some setting. But then immediately I say, “OK, well, what character is going to face this problem and what is it going to put them in?” When I was…you told me ahead of time that we were going to be talking about All Those Explosions, and I went back through my notes, and…on the book as I was developing it…and it’s constantly, “What problem is this going to cause for the characters and what sort of transitions are they going to go through because of it?”
Well, and that’s the very next question. What does your planning process look like once you had this idea? It sounds like the characters come perhaps even before you have the plot worked out?
Absolutely. So, it’s useful to have some sort of background problem that is going to force the characters to act—a ticking bomb, so that even if the characters are, you know, lost, or I’m lost because I don’t know what happens next, there’s going to be some pressure to deal with the situation. But I think a novel is about an overt exterior situation, but it also has to be about a character facing some sort of crisis in their life, so constantly, when I develop things, I’m thinking, “OK, what is this going to put the character through? What is the next thing? How are the screws going to tighten on the character?” Not just in terms of the urgency of the external situation, but the development of the internal situation, too.
So, how do you find those characters? How do you decide what your characters are going to be? I mean, Kim is, in her own words, I believe, a “short, queer Asian kid.”
Which, you know, is not you. So…
How did you decide?
Really…so, the first time I…the first draft…Kim was Asian, but not queer. And, she…the situation…so, for people who haven’t read the book, one of the first things she does is, she comes across an old flame of hers, someone she knew in high school. Really, her first serious boyfriend, who has become a darkling, who was always a rich kid who knew he was going to be a darkling as soon as he was old enough to be transformed. And that relationship went bad, and basically, the…Kim was a bland character who didn’t have a whole lot of personality. And one thing I often do when I’m trying to get a handle on characters, especially when trying to get a handle on personality, is sit down and improv stuff in their tone of voice—just sit at the typewriter…or the computer, of course, these days…and write a diatribe from them as fast as I can and see what just pops out. So, this is Mitchell’s messy method again, just sitting down and blast it out and see what pops out. And Kim’s queerness came from that. I was blasting away, basically a monologue, and it just completely took me by surprise when she started talking about, “No, I’m not as binary as you think,” sort of thing.
And there were several days there when I thought, “Oh, shit. Am I going to actually write a non-binary character?”, you know, a straight middle-aged white guy writing a queer young university-age Asian. Did I have the nerve to do that, and how much homework would I have to do in order to not be that guy writing someone who I had no right to write? But that’s what was…that was the voice that came to me, and eventually I said, “Yeah, OK, I’ve got to go with this.”
Well, she is a very interesting voice.
Yeah. Yeah. And once I had that handle on the character, a whole lot of things came out and the character came alive, and some of the situations that were dead on the page in the first draft took on a whole different character and really much more interesting resonance than they had been in the first draft.
Did you do something similar with your other main characters?
Yeah. So, Nicholas had the same process. I did, you know, a soliloquy from his point of view, and not so much with the other three superheroes, because I knew their books were going to be coming along later. When I did the Jules book, which is They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, the sequel to All Those Explosions, I did do soliloquies from her point of view. And for the future books, I will be doing the same thing. It’s just a really useful way to unlock what inhibitions have been keeping…holding me back from doing, going as far as I need to for a character.
Once you’ve developed the character, you have an idea for the setup, how much of an outline or planning do you do? Is it a very detailed? Are you a pantser or a plotter?
I’m mostly a pantser, but especially because I’m writing superhero things, I want there to be some great set pieces. So, I plan for interesting places where big superhero action can take place. So, in All Those Explosions, there are several big superhero-vs.-monster action things, and I figured out where they were going to take place and sort of some context for why they were happening, and an overarching plot for them.
So, in All Those Explosions…well, Waterloo has a number of tourist attractions and I want, over the course of the series, to destroy them all. So, in the first book, I trash the Waterloo market, which is the St. Jacob’s Market, which is a big farmer’s market. In the second one, I trash a popular club, the Transylvania Club, which is just, you know, a name like that is asking to be associated with monsters. And the third one, Waterloo has a clay and glass gallery, the National Clay and Glass Gallery.
I mean, I got to have a fight there. And Clay and Glass is right next to the Perimeter Institute, which is an institute of theoretical physics, a kind of a world-class physics research center. So, trashing both the Clay and Glass and Perimeter is kind of a gimme. And I don’t know what I’m going to trash for the final book, but we’ll see.
There is some fun to that. The last book in my young adult series, The Shards of Excalibur, the final big climactic battle takes place at a provincial park called Cannington Manor. I do a pretty good job on it, too.
Yeah, I mean, if you’re going to take a place…if you’re going to have your story take place in a real location, then let’s make use of the location. And especially with, you know, if you’re going to have superheroes, there is going to be a large set of smoking rubble.
And I still remember the Jim Butcher, I don’t remember which book it was, in the Dresden Files, where Sue the Tyrannosaurus comes to life.
Yeah, a super thing. I just loved that episode. Yeah, I don’t remember which book it was, but…
So, you talked a little bit about your actual writing process, you know, three hours in the morning and work on other things in the afternoon. Do you just work at home, are you a go-out-to-a-coffee-shop guy? I gather you type and don’t do it longhand or anything like that…
Oh, I do some things in longhand. If a particular scene is not working out well, I go longhand and I write it out. I’m working right now on a haunted-house novel, and this morning I spent writing really the first scene of a particular character, because I really wanted to slow down and cover the bases and really get the character’s voice down on the page. So, when I want to…writing fast is useful, but writing slow is also useful.
Well, then, speaking of that, are you a fast writer or a slow writer when you average the two things together?
I’m not superfast. I can I usually do about a thousand words a day. So, you know, some people do a lot more than that, several thousand words a day, and I’ve done that, but usually, a thousand is good. And that’s for my morning stuff. In the afternoon. I would do maybe the same amount again, depending on whether I’m writing new stuff or revising old stuff.
When you get to the end, you have a draft, have you done sort of rolling revisions, so it’s pretty clean at that point, or do you go back and do a complete rewrite, or how does that work for you?
I do some rolling revisions, but usually I have to go back and do several more drafts. So, as I say, I’m mostly a pantser for the first draft, which means that there’s rough-around-the-edges stuff. So, the haunted-house novel, which is the one I’m thinking of, the rough draft ending was really, “Yeah, OK, I’m gonna keep writing it, but I doubt that I’m going to keep any of it.” The second draft is pretty good. I like the action of the ending, except that the precipitating incident…so, there’s something that makes all hell break loose, and I like the hell that breaks loose, but I’m not so crazy about what actually kicks things off. So, I’m going to at least have to rewrite that again, which will probably necessitate a few other changes. So, I’m refining things as I go along and I hope it’s no more than three drafts, but…that’s about typical for what I’m doing.
You’ve been published by various publishers, which means you’ve worked with a lot of different editors. What typically comes back to you from editors to work on? If anything.
I don’t get a whole lot of structural stuff. It’s mostly cosmetic or, you know, “I didn’t understand this,” or, “This chapter is slow,” or something like that. So, I don’t get…once or twice. I’ve had people, an editor, say, “No, this ending just doesn’t work.” But mostly it’s, “I didn’t understand their motivation for doing this,” or, you know, “Polish up this section again.” So, I’m pretty lucky, in that I want a story to be as clean as possible before I send it to my agent. And she makes a few comments, but not many, and then she sends it off. So, I like things being pretty good to go before I send them out, which means I have to spend a fair length of time…I don’t send out anything that I don’t think is pretty good already.
Now, you do some editing for other people. Do you find that working on other people’s manuscripts helps you when it comes time to look at your own?
Oh, sure. It’s much easier to see problems when other people have them, but I know I have the same thing, so…and, you know, we all have words that we overuse—“really,” “quite,” “very,” all that. And as I’m reading somebody else’s stuff…I have a list of these words that I overuse, and reading somebody else’s stuff, I, you know. “Oh, yeah. There’s one of mine that I should pay attention to, too.”
Speaking of which, brilliant little thing from Brandon Sanderson that I recently heard about in their Writing Excuses podcast is to, you know, you have your list of words that you overuse or, you know…”suddenly,” there’s another one that is real easy to use too much of…just do a global replace on the word with brackets around it, square brackets, and that makes it stand out. So, when you’re reading the book, reading the manuscript, you see these things and you could say, “Do I really need that?” It really draws your attention to the words that you overuse and gets you…makes you think about them again. I really love that technique and I use it now.
Oh, yeah. That’s a good one. I think I’ll have to adopt that, too.
Yeah. Yeah. It just draws your attention to something. Sometimes “very” is a perfectly good word to use, and a lot of times the prose is stronger by crossing it out, by deleting it.
I find that my characters tend to use animal noises too much in dialogue, they growl things and snarl things and…
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good point.
I do avoid hissed dialogue because it always bothers me when somebody hisses something that has no sibilance in it.
Generally speaking, I only let myself use “said,” “told,” “replied,” “shouted,” “whispered,” maybe a “muttered” or two…oh, and “asked.” But I do try to avoid the animal noises and so on.
Yeah, I’m aware of it, but that doesn’t mean I catch it all the time. The other thing is…you’ve probably had this experience, too…the best way to find things that you overlooked is to read your work out loud in front of an audience after it’s been published.
Yeah. Yeah. Zadie Smith has a quote, something to the effect of, “The best time to rewrite your stuff is two years after it’s been published and ten minutes before you read it at a literary festival.”
That’s about right. Well, we’ve got about ten minutes left, so I want to get to the big philosophical questions.
It’s really one question with multiple parts. Why do you write? Why do you write this stuff? And why do you think any of us do? That’s really three questions. But it’s kind of one.
Oh, well, just like almost every other writer I write because I can’t not write. These days I get up in the morning and write, and I write to understand what’s in my head and to…because I like writing stories.
Why do I write something in particular? Because something about the idea has got its claws in me, and the only way to get free of it is to write it and write it well. So, this…again, the haunted-house story that I’m thinking of was an idea I had probably two and a half years ago. And I had no idea why I wanted to write a haunted-house story, and it’s taken me two years to crystallize what I want to say in the book and why I’m writing it.
I think…writers, as you know, sit alone for hours at a time. And what we write today will not be seen in the world for a long, long time. It’s, you know…it takes me at least a year to write a novel, often more, and after it’s written, it’ll take at least another year before it gets out for anyone to…before it gets published…and so you really have to be obsessed and in the moment to write. There has to be some sort of reward or compulsion to write, because you don’t get the fame and fortune, if ever…
I’m still waiting for that.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, in some sense, we all write to impress someone. Paul Simon said, when someone asked him why he wrote songs, “I write songs to impress girls.” And, you know, there is that aspect…
I went into theater to kiss girls.
Yeah. Yeah. And I certainly started writing to, you know, let’s impress women. But it’s a long time before that happens. I mean, a long time between sitting down to write the sentences today and before anyone is impressed by it. And I am not, you know, making a gazillion dollars or having a gazillion readers. I’d love to. So, you just kind of get the rewards, and every now and then you have a character suddenly come to life, like Kim revealing that she’s queer, and the idea that you…every once in a while, you feel as if you are telling a truth that is out there, as opposed to stuff that you’re just pulling out of your head. And it’s really cool when that happens.
The podcast is called The Worldshapers. Probably a bit grand to talk about shaping the world through fiction, but what do you hope your writing does for the readers who read it? Because you can certainly influence individuals as they read your stories.
Yeah. Well, for All Those Explosions, I wanted to make people laugh, and…
Works for me!
Good, thank you! And to have the fun that I find in superheroes. I started reading superhero comics when I was just a kid. I talked about this at When Words Collide, that my great uncle would buy me one comic book a week when I was seven years old and I bought comic books and I bought superhero comic books. And I do not know anymore any of the people that I knew when I was seven, other than my immediate family, and I still know Batman, I still know Spider-Man, I still know all of those characters that I knew back then. I keep up with them. I don’t know the people anymore, but I know the characters. And so, to be able to write superheroes…not, alas, Marvel and DC superheroes, although, if anybody from Marvel or DC are listening, I’m there, hire me!…but to be able to write superheroes and just have fun with them…I hoped that I could pass on the delight that I get from superheroes to other people, too, and to share in the joy.
And for other books, it’s almost always the same, that I get delight from various types of stories. And so, I want to be part of that conversation, be part of the fun or the delight or the concern or the thrills or the horrors or whatever. It’s such a delight to be a writer and to be part of the conversation.
That’s actually what I always say, that I started writing because I loved the stories that I was experiencing so much, I wanted to be able to create stories that other people would enjoy as much as I enjoyed the ones I’ve been reading. So, that’s probably a very common thing with writers.
Look at fanfic! I think many people get their starts in fanfic, if not actual…these days, you can actually put it in front of the public, but even if you don’t, you write your little stories and show it to your friends and so on. And that’s because whatever you’re doing fanfic of touched something in you and you want to be in that world, you want to have a piece of it, too.
You mentioned what you’re working on, the haunted-house novel, anything else that you’re working on right now?
I’m doing a re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty where nobody is stupid. It’s kind of fun to write a fairy tale with sensible people. There’s a lot of re-imagined fairy tales these days. Naomi Novik immediately comes to mind, but other people have been doing it, too. And it’s fun to write fairy tales which have that feel of depth, mythological depth, folkloric depth, but bring a modern sensibility to them that…there are just some strange things that happen in very tales that are hard to believe, and trying to justify them—or not!—Is fun.
And where can people find you online?
I am…most of my stuff is on Twitter @jamesagard. I do Twitter every day. I also have jamesalangardner.com, which I blog at occasionally. Those are the best places. I do have a Facebook page, which I almost never do anything with, so…
Well, I think that’s about the end of our time. Thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers!
It was great talking to you, Edward. Thanks for having me.
Bursts of Fire, the first in a seven-volume young-adult epic fantasy series, Addicted to Heaven, came out in August from Laksa Media, and will be followed by Flights of Marigolds in 2020.
Susan was the editor for Technicolor Ultra Mall(Edge), a finalist for the Prix Aurora Award in 2013. Strangers Among Us, and The Sum of Us, both of which she edited for Laksa Media, each won the Prix Aurora Award, in 2017 and 2018. The third in Laksa Media’s social issues anthology series, Shades Within Us, was released in 2018 and is nominated for the 2019 Prix Aurora Award.
Susan is also a painter and visual artist whose landscapes have been displayed as part of the Stampede Western Showcase in her hometown of Calgary, Alberta.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Hello, hello, hello.
Now, we’ve known each other for a few years.
Because a science fiction convention in Calgary, which turned into When Words Collide in a roundabout sort of way, was what first started me going over to Calgary on a yearly basis. And I think probably the first time I went, I probably met you. And that’s been a long time ago now.
Probably. Yes, I remember.
Well, I always like to start these by taking guests…I usually say back into the mists of time, which is becoming almost a cliché on the show, but I’m going to say it anyway, because it fits…going back into the mists of time, how did you first become interested in science fiction and fantasy and how did you become interested in writing it? And you know, where did you grow up and all that kind of thing?
Yes. Well, I think the first books I really remember reading, like full novels, were Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan series. My dad, actually, was a big fan…oh, way back in the ‘30s, when they were super popular, and he would go to second-hand bookstores and bring them back from my older brother to read, actually. And so we didn’t necessarily start with Tarzan of the Apes. We started with whatever second-hand book he could find at the store. So, my brother would read them and then he would pass them on to me. So, that’s a huge memory as far as reading is concerned.
But, yeah, I always thought of myself as a writer from the time I was quite small, I think I was in Grade 2, and I wrote a book called Jimmy, the Fish that Couldn’t Swim. That’s the first thing I remember writing. And then, when I was in Grade 7, I used to…I was a very studious person, and I would…I had a big binder with all my subjects in it, and when the teacher was finished teaching, they’d usually give us some time to do some homework. So, I’d sit at the back, I’d get my homework done, and then I had a novel at the back of my binder, and I would just open that up and just work away on that a little bit at a time. So that’s my earliest writing that I can think of.
And did that continue as you went on through high school?
Oh, yeah, yeah. No, I never did stop writing. That’s for sure. I don’t know that it’s something that I pursued professionally for a long time, but I always had a book that I was working on.
Did you share it when you were young readers? Did you share your writing? I always ask that because I think it’s a valuable thing for young writers to do, to let other people read it and get an idea if you’re telling stories that other people will enjoy reading.
Only to a very small degree, maybe a very few close friends. It’s kind of interesting, Even today, like if I’m…I like to go skiing, and I’ll be on the ski lift, and people say, “Oh, well, what do you do?” And I say, “I’m a writer.” And they say, “Oh, yeah, what have you published?”, all this sort of stuff. But they say, “What do you write?” I say, “Science fiction,” and it tends to stop the conversation.
Yes, it does.
Because people don’t have anything to relate to. So, yeah.
Well, and I, of course, live in Regina, Saskatchewan, as you know, but listeners may not necessarily, and our professional football team here is called the Saskatchewan Roughriders, which are the Riders for short. So half the time if I say I’m a writer, people will look at me funny. “Aren’t you a little old to be a football player?” “No, a writer, it’s a wri-TER. So, around here you have to really careful how you pronounce it.
Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.
Well, was it science fiction and fantasy from the start, or were some of your early…well, I guess The Fish that Couldn’t Swim could be considered a fantasy.
I suppose. Yeah, you know I really did enjoy reading the horse stories. So Alec Ramsay, The Black Stallion, was huge, absolutely. I remember one time going to visit my cousin, though. She would read the Tarzan books and she said, “Guess what? Edgar Rice Burroughs also write science fiction. He writes John Carter of Mars!” So, of course, I got into that whole series. A little bit later, I was really interested in Ursula K. LeGuin, you know, the whole Earthsea series, Left Hand of Darkness, some of those books I really enjoyed reading. And I have a really strong memory of first getting involved with Tolkien. Again, it was my older brother who came up with this book, and we had one copy and everybody in our family was reading it, so you had to look right and left to see who had the book, right? And one time he just got so mad at me, he was going out and I knew he was gonna take the book with him, and I grabbed the book and I ran to the local school, the local junior high school that I attended. It had a courtyard that was almost three-quarters blocked off from the street. And I had the book and I was walking around in there and reading it. And he came along and he just glared at me, grabbed the book, and left. He never yelled at me or anything, but I knew I was big trouble.
So, when you got on through high school and university, did you study writing or what did you focus on?
Actually, my first…well, I’ve got a couple of university degrees, but they’re both in education. I was a teacher for many years. I was interested in taking creative writing, but it was quite difficult because the university tended to stream people. If you were in certain fields, there were courses that you couldn’t take in other fields. It was actually after I was teaching for a while that I was able to go back and take a course at the university with Aretha van Herk, it was just an introduction to creative writing. And the way I got into it was kind of funny because it was August, and I wanted to take a course in September, and I went and I got on the website and I signed up, and it looked like a great course to take. And I showed up at the first class, it was an evening course, it was on a Thursday night, and it was absolutely crammed with people. I don’t know, there were like 40 people in this room, which I thought was a little odd. And the teacher, the professor, came in, and she was angry. She said, “Half of you don’t belong here. We vetted the people who were going to come into this course way back in the spring, and the registrar let a whole pile bunch of people in. And there’s only allowed to be a maximum of 16 people in this class, so half of you don’t belong here.” But then she turned around and said, “However, if you have a chapter in your bottom drawer and you send it to me in the next day, I might let somebody in.” And guess what, I had a chapter in the bottom of the drawer. I didn’t know anything, so I went ahead and just sent it in, and she let me in. And I think of those extra 20 people, I was the only person that got into the course. So, yeah.
So, I often ask writers who have taken any sort of formal creative writing whether they ran into a pushback on the genre that they wish to write in. Were you writing something in the speculative fiction genre for that, that chapter that you sent in, or was it something else?
Oh, yes, absolutely. It was a fantasy novel. I always thought of myself as a fantasy novelist, especially before I knew myself better. But I did write a variety of different things while I was in that class, so I was using it as an opportunity to experiment. I learned a lot in that course. I know that…if I can brag just a little bit, I have a daughter who got her Ph.D. in creative writing, and yes, it certainly was her experience that writing in the fantasy and science fiction genres, she did experience that. And I have in other circumstances, as well. But I think the issue for me was I knew so little at that time that I was just a sponge. I was just soaking up every, every possible thing that I could get. I think I wound up with a C on that course, and I really think I deserved it. I think it might even have been generous, I don’t know. But I continued to learn from that course for like two years after I took it, just because I knew so little, and there was so much. And I would go back and I would revisit in my mind and experiment and try new things. So it was a really good course for me.
Well, as I’ve mentioned previously on the podcast, my degree was in journalism. So, I only took one creative writing course in university, and the name of our textbook was actually Three Genres, and I thought, “Oh, wow,” you know, “what is it? Like romance, mystery, and science fiction?” But no, it was plays, short stories, and poetry. And I don’t recall what I wrote for fiction for that—it must have been science fiction or fantasy, because that’s all I wrote, but the one thing I got the highest praise on from the teacher was actually a piece of poetry, which really startled me.
You know, just the fact that you’re writing…because I’d never thought of, you know, writing poetry, but I had to for the course, and it just…those classes and things like that do expose you to different ideas and different writing. Even if they don’t like what you would like to write, you can often learn things from them, I think.
Oh, yeah, absolutely.
So when did you start seriously pursuing publication?
Well, way back, actually, a number of years ago, I…although I didn’t belong to any writers’ groups, I would, you know, worry away at my little project—I would work during the day and come home and write at night—and I belonged to the Writers Guild of Alberta. That was a…I mean, the result of that was simply I got a magazine once every three months or something like that. But I would look at the back, and there would be markets listed, and this particular time I was looking Gage Educational Publishing was looking for novels. So, I had a novel, so I sent it off, and that was my first published book. It’s something I don’t tend to talk about very much because I’m really amazed when I look back at that work right now and think, “They published that? Really?” It was really a two-edged sword because on the one hand I now had a published book, so that put me into a whole other category, for all kinds of things. Because it was a young adult book, I’d been working with the Young Writers Conference for a number of years here in Calgary, it meant that I could apply for grants, it meant that I could do all kinds of things because I had a book. The flip side of it is, it’s a terrible book. You know how they say editors do you a great favor when they don’t buy your book that isn’t ready? Yeah, no, that’s a really true thing. So, on the one hand, I’m really glad I got it published. On the other hand, I’m kind of embarrassed by it.
But that was your first one.
That was the first one.
When did the second publication come around, and was it short fiction? Because you started with short fiction before you went back to novels, didn’t you?
Yes, absolutely. Well, a number of things came together. For one thing, I did start to meet other writers, I belonged to writers’ groups—we actually met face to face and critiqued each other’s work—I took a number of workshops, so my writing was really growing. And one of the things that I decided to do was to try short fiction, as I said. I always thought of myself…my image of myself was as a fantasy novelist. So, I didn’t think I could write short fiction. I didn’t think I could write science fiction: all these limitations that I placed on myself. But one of the things I discovered was that I was spending a lot of time at the beginning of long works and I was not learning, I guess, to write a full arc. And I thought, “Let’s work away with short stories and try to write a full arc.” And I would put them on the table for my critiques and they would say, “Yep, that’s Chapter 1 of another novel,” you know? So, definitely I had quite a learning curve as far as writing short stories was concerned, but I pursued and I persisted, and again…I know your mileage may vary and I know other people have found this does not necessarily work for them, but maybe it was because I just happened to belong to a very knowledgeable and supportive writers group, which…I’ll give them a little plug, it’s the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association of Calgary. Very large group. As long as you’re serious about writing, you can join it. You don’t have to be published. So, it goes from rank beginners right up to very well-published writers. Robert J. Sawyer is an honorary member. So, it was a really good place to learn a lot. And one of the things I learned was, when an editor is new to a publication or moves up within a publication to take a stronger editorial role, they may be trying to develop their own stable of authors. And I had a short story that I wanted to submit just about the time that Sheila Williams became editor for Asimov’s Magazine. She didn’t take the first story or even the second story that I submitted to her, but she did take the third story that I submitted to her. And so, that was my burst into what I would call really much more professional writing.
That’s one of the top markets in the field when it comes to short fiction, for sure, that one and Analog and Fantasy and Science Fiction used to be the big three. I mean, there’s a lot more stuff out there now.
Yeah, I’ve never got into F&SF. But my story about getting into Analog was kind of interesting. So, I mentioned that I went to a number of workshops and one of them was…the pro who ran it was Mike Resnick, and, oh, he was really tough on everybody around the table. One of the women, unfortunately…well, she did something that she probably shouldn’t have done. She took out an old trunk piece she hadn’t even looked at and put it on the table. And he kind of gave her a good tongue-lashing. He said. “You have 12 people around this table who have spent time and energy on your work and you didn’t care enough to give us your best.” So, he was pretty tough on us. But one of the things I remember was the absolute look of horror on his face when he looked around the table and he said, this is probably a direct quote, I remember it so well, “You all want to be professional writers and you don’t go to WorldCon?”, you know. So, one of the things that I did start doing was going to international conventions. And, you know, when you have friends like Robert J. Sawyer, who was able to make a few introductions, that really helped.
So, I met Stan from Analog, and I think making that connection maybe made a bit of a difference. But the other thing, too, was just, you know, talking to other writers, people would say, “If you want to get into Analog, try something short and funny.” So, I had sent something in that he called bleak. And then I sent in another one that was full of puns. And he really liked it. He said he laughed out loud, but it wasn’t a piece he thought that his readers would really think of as science fiction. And again, it was the third one that I sent in.
But, I’ll tell you a little story. I also go on a fairly regular basis to the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat in northwest Washington state. And I happened to be there one time, and just in a position to overhear the conversation between two editors, and one of them was saying to the other, “Do you know such and such a writer? Hs she submitted to your magazine?” And the other one said, “Yeah, yeah, she’s pretty good. Have you published anything by her?” “No, no, not yet.” “Well, have you heard anything about her recently?” “No, I haven’t heard anything.” I wonder if she stopped one sale, one story short of a sale. And, you know, it just really struck me that people in the business do know one another and are aware and in some ways, I think, are encouraging new writers…I mean, they have to have the best of the best for their publications…but that that they’re aware and are encouraging. At least, that’s been my experience anyway.
So you would recommend to new writers that they make an effort to get to these conventions and things like that, it sounds like?
Yes. I think…
I mean, it’s a lot of money to go to an international convention.
Oh, it certainly is. And I certainly have to watch which ones I’m able to go to. But, again, Rob Sawyer said something that kind of stuck with me a number of years ago. He said, “Always put your stories into the top markets first. If it gets rejected from there, there are the mid-tier markets and so forth that you can still try.” And his reasoning for this was, he said, “In your mind, you need to think of yourself as at that level,” right? If you think of yourself at that level, then you will write to that level and you will be at that level, which kind of makes sense. So I think the same thing with going to the conventions…by the fact that you attend—you can learn a lot from one thing, you can also meet people, which is helpful—but also, you see yourself at that level. I am a professional. This is what I do.
Well, certainly since those early sales, you’ve racked up a considerable number of short fiction sales. But now we’re going to talk about your novel, which is starting a pretty ambitious project, a seven-volume epic fantasy series.
So this…and this still goes back to the short fiction, as well. I mean, I know it’s a cliché, in these sorts of things, to ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” But it is a valid question. I know, ideas are everywhere, but at the same time we all have little things that tend to spark them in us, and spark story ideas. So, first of all…well, first of all, before we do that, let’s get a brief synopsis of Bursts of Fire, the first book. Without spoilers, because I’m only about halfway through it.
Okay. Well, Bursts of Fire, the first book, it’s the story of three sisters. Meg is the eldest…she’s 17 and she’s essentially the protagonist, but the other two sisters are very important as well…they are magic wielders. But they are very highly placed. They’re like princesses. They’ve grown up in a castle, with all of the benefits of that and very little life experience. Their mother is the magic wielder for the king, who has the second-most powerful prayer stone in this fantasy world. Their mother sees a glimpse of the future and she sees that war is coming. She wants to save her daughters. She also wants to save this magical prayer stone, and she wants to save the balance of the world, which is quite healthy at this point. So, yes, their castle is attacked, right away in Chapter 1, and the mother, because she has this bit of premonition, she is able to help her daughters flee. And so, the three daughters flee with their nurse, who is killed almost immediately, and the three sisters are in this world as refugees alone. You were going to say something?
I was going to say I knew the nurse was doomed because you have to get your young protagonists on their own as quickly as possible.
Yeah, exactly. So, they meet…of course, now when something huge like this happens in a world, things don’t stay static. You have people who are going to rise up and say, “Hey, this is wrong. We want to do something about it.” And so, a very nascent rebel group starts to form and the sisters get involved with that. So that’s how the story begins now.
Now, I can go back to the question, what was the seed for this story? Where did that seed come from for you? And is it typical of the way that you come up with story ideas?
You know, it’s been a very interesting process to work on this series, because…I think I heard somebody say this very recently, but I think it’s quite true, that fantasy in particular, I think it tends to take itself very seriously, and a lot of the writing that I had been doing in the fantasy genre, I think, really, I was feeling, “Oh, this is this is dark and getting darker,” and I have a very strong memory. I can’t place the memory in time, but a very strong memory of camping and being in a tent in the morning, waking up, it was so beautiful, it was warm in the tent, the sun was shining through, and just thinking, “Oh, my goodness, what I really want to do is, I want to write a heist romp. I want to do something light, something, just, you know, with maybe even some comic moments and what have you.” And that is actually where the idea came from. I think I had an image of a young female thief climbing up the outside of a castle tower, was kind of the image that I think this whole thing sprang from. And it does happen later in the series. It’s still there. But when I was when I was a teacher, one of the experiences that I was very fortunate to have was to take up a course that was called mini-counselling. It was, like, a three-day course in counselling, because teachers do have to counsel students all the time. And one of the gems that came out of that was, as a counselor, it’s not necessary to talk to a client and say, you know, “What is your deepest, darkest secret that you fear?” You can start anywhere, because whatever is bothering somebody is going to come out in its own good time. And I think that is also true in the writing process, that the themes and the ideas that you yourself are wrestling with may be very sub…you know, you’re not aware of them, they’re in your subconscious, but they’re going to come out in your themes and in your writing anyway. And so, yeah, I wanted to write a really lighthearted heist romp, but no…
I can’t say that’s the way it’s coming out.
No, the book gets into a whole lot of deeper issues because that’s just what’s bubbling up out of my subconscious.
So is that sort of seeing an image, is that a fairly typical way for you to latch on to a story idea? Just something in your mind that’s, “Oh, that would be cool!”
Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a lot of visualization, for sure, that happens in the early stages of my writing. Yeah, absolutely.
So, as you begin to develop this, what does your…I mean, there’s quite a bit of…a fairly complicated magical thing going on here.
And something…I don’t believe I’ve read anything quite like it before. So, was there are a lot of worldbuilding before you even begin plotting, or how did all that planning and synopsizing work for you?
Yeah. Well, I need a lot of people who are pantsers, and I understand that there’s some great advantages to writing by the seat of your pants. A friend of mine once said, “You know, when I’m writing by the seat of my pants, I can surprise myself. And if I can surprise myself, I can surprise the reader.” And, you know, surprise is a wonderful thing to be able to have in your stories, for sure. But I have never been a pantser. I’ve always plotted my stories, right from the very beginning. However, my process is a bit more complex than that, because I do tend to go back and forth in the initial stages between just writing scenes and planning and then writing some more scenes and planning. And I think it’s because I really don’t know enough about my world and I don’t know enough about my characters until I see them in action. So, I have to write some chapters or some scenes before I can really get deep into the planning. On the other hand, I don’t get too deep into the book before I do create a complete of…quite a detailed outline.
And do you follow that outline as you write or does it wander off occasionally?
I tend to follow it fairly closely in the broad strokes. Having said that, you know what? If your story is telling you you need to do something, you need to listen to that because, you know, that’s where the surprise comes from. I remember one time very clearly writing along, and I had two conmen—this was in the same series, it’s a little later on…and one of them said, “All we need is a miracle.” And I thought, “Yeah, that’s perfect.” And then I thought, “OK, now I have to come up with a miracle.” But, you know, as a writer, you have time, because…if you are a performing artist, as you know, because you’re a performing artist, when you’re on stage doing something, whatever comes out of your mouth, well, it’s out of your mouth, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, right? As a writer, we do have that to a degree. I mean, eventually there are deadlines, but to a degree, we have the opportunity to go back and rewrite. And if you need a miracle, you can do some research and you can come up with a miracle.
Well, how did you come up with the idea for this particular magic system? Maybe you should explain a little bit about what the magic is like in this book.
This…I’m really enjoying working with this magic system because it’s giving me so many tools to do so much in the books that I really enjoy. For your listeners, I’m sure they’re quite aware that magic systems always have to have a cost. And so, it’s important that the magic system does not allow your magic wielder to just do anything in the world. There have to be limitations. The magic is based on the manipulation of time. So, the people who have this ability can hold an object still in time, so it doesn’t move as the timestream moves around it, or they can take it back in time, or they can take it forward in time. But usually, just a very small object, maybe, I dunno, something the size of a pea is about all they can do. So, they can’t just take the entire world and stop it in time.
But also, let me just give an example, which is right away in the early part of the book, these three girls are trying to escape the city. The gate is locked. They’re able to find a time when that lock was open, and then they walk through the gate. So, it works in these very small ways. The cost of the magic is that once you have used magic, you have disturbed the timestream, and that therefore you live bits and pieces of your own life out of order. There’s no way of knowing how that’s going to happen. It’s quite random. You may suddenly find yourself at a time in your past, but only for a few seconds. Or you may find yourself at a time in your future, but again, only for a few seconds. And that is really important, because take, for instance, the fact that the three girls mother knows something bad is gonna happen, but she doesn’t know what, she doesn’t know when. So, she’s preparing for her girls to get out of the city, but the bad thing happens before the preparations are complete because she doesn’t know when. So it allows for a little bit more adventure, a little bit more, you know, surprise.
One of the things that you sometimes find in fantasy novels that I find quite irritating is the prophecy. Prophecies are very problematic. Either the prophecy is right, in which case it’s kind of boring because you’ve got the prophecy and then you get the adventure, and they’re the same, so there’s no surprise, or the prophecy is wrong, in which case it wasn’t a very good prophecy. So, people tend to write prophecies in very cryptic language that could be interpreted in a whole lot of different ways, which in my mind…I just find it kind of irritating.
It’s like, if you’re a prophet, why can’t you be clear?
Yeah, exactly. So, the advantage to this is that we can see bits and pieces of the future, just not enough to tell what the whole story is. So, you can get that foreshadowing, you can you can get the tool to use to help you to a degree, but without giving away the whole story.
So, once you actually start writing, what does your writing process look? Like, do you write longhand on a parchment out under the stars? How does it work for you?
Does anybody really? Maybe some people do. No, I’m very much…I think through my fingers. In fact, sometimes, you know, I might be helping somebody with something else, and I’ll say, “Just let me write this,” and then I’ll know what I want to say and then tell it to them. You know, I can really think through my fingers on the keyboard. I do tend to be a…I’ve planned it, I’m going to start with scene one, chapter one, and work my way through. But recently, I have been experimenting a little bit more with quilting. So, you’ve heard of writing by the seat of your pants or pantsing, planning, and then quilting is where you write a theme or chapter, and it could fit anywhere in the book or it may not be in the book at all. And then you string your quilted scenes together with the other scenes that you require. And I have been experimenting with that a little bit for a couple of reasons. One is, I love to ride on the back of my husband’s motorcycle, and especially on the winding, twisty roads, it’s like riding a roller coaster. It’s tons of fun. But, you know, not all riding on the motorcycle is hills and curves. Some of it is straight boring highway for hours at a stretch. And we don’t have the means to talk to each other in our helmets, so what I do is, I get a tape recorder and I’ve got a lovely little tiny microphone that I can stuff inside my helmet, and of course have to stuff a lot of padding in there so I don’t get any road noise, and I can write all usually about four scenes in a day of motorcycle riding, which is about 4,000 words. And you know what? If you go on a 10-day motorcycle trip, you can get a chunk of your book done that way.
Well, you’re the first person I’ve talked to that writes on the back of a motorcycle. That’s a new one.
So, what I do is, I know what’s in the scene because I made the plan, I write a little point-form note that maybe has three or four things that I want to occur in this scene, and then I dictate the scene. When I get…you know, if we stay in a hotel, usually by the end of the day, my husband’s really tired because he did all the work, so he’ll have a nap, and then I can get out the tape recorder and I transcribe onto my iPad—you have to carry very small equipment on a motorcycle—and then, I usually just transcribe and I need to do it right away, because sometimes, you know, with the road noise, it’s hard to get some of the words.
I was going to ask you about that, yeah.
There’s no way I would ever try to use Dragon on a motorcycle ‘cause I would get complete gobbledygook. So, I transcribe it right away and maybe do a little bit of editing at that point. But because of this method, I need to be very clear in my mind about the scene that I’m doing. So I pick, like, the best scenes. I pick the most active ones, or the ones with the greatest interpersonal conflict, or the ones that are clearest in my mind, which means that the ones that are still a bit fuzzy in my head, those are the ones that I really need to have that focus and concentration to do my initial drafts.
Well, once you got this all assembled, and you have your first draft, what is your revision process look like? Do you go back to the very beginning and rewrite the whole thing? Or, by the time, you get to the end, have you sort of rewritten as you go along and it’s pretty much done.
Lots of times, there are going to be problems somewhere in the book. Usually multiple places in the book. So, my first go to is going to probably just be a complete read-through to see, “How is this whole thing hanging together?” And you know, the low-hanging fruit, capturing those things that are really obvious. I do a number of edits. I’m not…I think I do actually a fairly clean first draft, but…like, something that I’m dictating, for instance, is not gonna be a very clean first draft. It’s going to be…have all kinds of problems with it. So I revise, revise, revise, revise. And I’m looking for story arcs, I’m looking for character arcs, I’m looking for interweaving the worldbuilding. And worldbuilding is so important because it’s way more than just the physical description, right? It’s the technological development, it’s the social development, the attitudes of people toward everything that’s going on, that you never have—and this is a truism—an entire group that thinks the same way, there are going to be people who disagree within a group. So, ensuring that that layering in that complexity is in? And then, finally, of course, you do have to look at the words and the sentences and making it the best it can be.
And this is where I wanted to talk about your editing career. Because you…how did you get started editing other people, and how does your experience as an editor play into editing your own stuff?
Oh, it has been absolutely amazing. It is one of the best things that I ever could have done. I had…oh, I’m guessing, 20 years of critiquing other people’s works, because I’ve belonged to a couple of…three or four…different critique groups at different times. So, I got lots of practice with that. Between giving critiques and receiving critiques, you learn a lot, and you learn so much by critiquing other people’s work. Lots of times what you do yourself, the mistakes you make yourself, you can’t see them until you see them in somebody else’s work. So that was a, I think, a really solid basis. And then, when I stopped teaching, I was actually approached by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing to edit for them. So, I edited, in total, three novels for them, one of which was nominated for the Prix Aurora Award, so I was really happy about that. And then, I also became a freelance editor as well. And then, when was it, I guess four or five years ago, when Laksa Media first got started, again, I was invited to edit for them. And that was a bit of a daunting experience because…I remember being at World Fantasy Convention one year and sitting with a bunch of editors at a table at various stages and saying, “I’m starting on this new project, the publisher has invited some really high-level authors, and it’s just making me a bit nervous.” And the advice I got back was, “The bigger the author, the more professional and the easier they are to work with.” And, you know, that was absolutely true. I have to say, I can remember one particular story I edited where the author was really busy with a deadline, and so we got the story a little bit late. And I went through it and I thought, “Oh, this is a really good story, but it’s got a couple of plot holes.” And I really didn’t want to write the letter saying, “Can you fix this and this?” But I did. And the author got back to me and said, “I’ve done all the things you wanted. Have a look.” I looked at it. Not only had this author done all the things I wanted, but way more. And it was an amazing story and I felt so good about it. But the best part was I ran into that author at a convention later, who said to me that that really appreciated my editing. And, oh, I was thrilled.
Well, it’s something that, and, you know, I do a lot of editing, too, and I find the same thing, that editing other people’s stuff and mentoring other writers and all that stuff that I do feeds right back into my own writing, and I start to see things that maybe I wouldn’t see if it weren’t for the fact that I’m seeing it in other people’s stuff.
I think it is very useful. Well, OK, so now you’ve done your revisions. You’re actually an editor at Laksa Media, but presumably you’re not your own editor.
No, no, no. It’s unfortunate that it’s…it’s a little bit incestuous that way. I did start working as an editor with Laksa Media first, but I did have this novel that I was working on. And Lucas Law…for people who don’t know, Laksa Media is very small. So, it was Lucas law. And he said to me, “I’m interested in your novel, and can we talk about it?” We talked about it, actually, for at least a full year, probably closer to a year and a half, before we finally said, “Yeah, this novel would fit with Laksa Media.” And here’s something that I found really interesting. I found Lucas to be an excellent editor for my work, but one of the things he said early on that was really huge was he said, “I enjoy your story. I think you’ve got something here that we can work with, but Laksa Media has its niche. It is into social causes.” So, the first anthology they put out, Strangers Among Us, was about mental health and mental illness. The second one, The Sum of Us, was about caregivers and caregiving. The third one was about migrations, Shades Within Us. And so, he said, “What is the social cause that your book is really dealing with?” And it was interesting, because that was not something I had thought about up until that point. But, as you say, you know, what you’re wrestling with in your subconscious comes out, and I just took one look at him and I said, “Addictions.” That’s exactly what it’s dealing with. And as soon as he asked me that question, I knew the answer.
Now, having said that, sometimes thematic threads that are nascent that are in the book, but kind of bubbling under the surface, then you want to go back with your edit and say, “Okay, how am I developing this? What is it that I have to say and how is it coming through?” So, for instance, as you mentioned earlier, this is a seven-book series, and the topic of addictions is absolutely huge, which is a wonderful, wonderful way that these things work together, because Bursts of Fire is dealing…exactly like the title says. It’s first tastes. It’s a YA take on a novel. The girls are 17, 16 and 11, and they are out in this world where they have never seen or heard any of the stuff that’s going on around them. So, they get first taste of all kinds of different things, including spells that are…in our world the analogue would be like drugs…that give them all sorts of mystical experiences, as well as, you know, healing spells and curses and all of these sorts of things. So, they’re getting first tastes of alcohol, first case of love, all of these bursts of fire that are happening around them. So, that’s book one. Book two deals with interdependence…codependents, that’s what I’m trying to say. Codependents and enabling. Book three deals with the social conditions that may underlie why certain groups may become more at risk for addictions than other groups. One of the later books deals with Prohibition. You know, there’s issues of recovery and relapse. There’s seven books. You can you can really dig your teeth into a whole lot of different aspects of the theme.
Should probably say, though, that although those are the themes, it’s still a heck of an adventure story.
Yes, that’s primary. And that’s really important, because nobody wants to read a book that’s a) a downer. “Oh, my goodness, addictions, da-da-duh-da,” right? But b) you know, hitting you over the head with, “You should do this or you should do that,” or, you know, whatever. So, it is the thematic content, but there…it’s an epic saga. It is…it’s dealing with war and sword sorcery and magic and, you know, the fantasy.
How detailed is your plot for the entire series? Do you have, like, the future books get sort of a paragraph and you’ll figure that out later as you get there, or is it all figured out to great detail already?
Book two was submitted, so it’s completely written. Book three is completely plotted out and I’d say 85 to 90 percent written. I know it doesn’t come out until 2021, but it’s really nice to be ahead of the curve. The other thing is, by working further into the books, down the series, that makes sure that I can have the proper seeds planted in the earlier books. Books four, five and six, all have some writing in them. All are relatively plotted out, but in broad strokes—more than a paragraph, but still fairly broad strokes—and book seven is planned, and I know how the series ends, it’s definitely ending with book seven, but I haven’t done any of the writing on book seven yet.
Well, we’re getting close to our time being up—not that there’s exactly a firm deadline on these things. It’s not like it’s a live radio show—but this is the point where I ask the big philosophical questions, or question, which is basically, why do you write, first of all, and why do you write science fiction and fantasy, second of all, specifically. And I guess, why do you think any of us write this crazy stuff?
I think that there is a lot to be said for…you know, my initial idea, the fantasy heist romp, you know, just the fun book. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. But I don’t think we ever even write a very light book without some of that thematic stuff percolating away underneath. I think it always happens even if we’re not in control of it. But more important, I think all art is a type of leadership within our culture and within our society. If you look at politics, for instance, political leaders in a democracy need to satisfy the masses or they’re not going to get re-elected, right? The masses, on the other hand, feel kind of powerless because they’ll say, “Well, the leaders are deciding everything.” So I think you’ve got this kind of loop going back and forth between the electorate and the politicians. But where does change come from? It comes from the discourse. The major discourse will determine what both groups are going to pursue. And it is the artist who can influence the discourse. It is the artist who brings up new ideas, who brings up arguments, of ways of thinking, and gets people talking.
And I’ll give you an example of this. I think that for many, many, many years…okay, I’m in Alberta, right? Oh, my goodness. we love our oil in Alberta. If there’s going to be any kind of a development project, oh, yeah, maybe there are some hoops to jump through, but it’s going to go through. You know it’s gonna go through, right? In recent years, the assurance of that has been wavering. It’s not necessarily for sure anymore that these big mega-dams are going to go through. And it’s because the discourse is changing. It’s because other voices are coming forward and saying, “Hey, you know, we need to pay attention to climate change. We need to pay attention to the farmland that’s gonna be flooded by that dam.” And those voices are coming forward, and now the major discourse is starting to shift. So, our voices coming forward…and I think artists are a key component of that.
I guess that kind of answers the other question I often ask, which is, because this program is called The Worldshapers, if you think…I mean, shaping the world is perhaps a bit grand, but if you are at least shaping the way that individuals think about things in your writing, and is that something you hope you are accomplishing, that you hope that you’re having some impact on the way individuals think about the world and everything. Life, the universe, and everything.
Life, the universe, and everything. Yes, absolutely. I think that is the purpose and function of art, and as writers, we are artists, and I think it’s important to be aware of and in control, as much as we can, of the thematic elements that we’re putting forward. But at the same time, the story is primary. I mean, you may have ideas that you need, that you want to bring forward, but, yeah, that is always the under-layer, that is always something that just percolates up. It’s story that has to be first and foremost.
And you’ve said something about things percolating up, whether you know they’re there or not. And there is a story…I’ve told it before, but I always like to, that Isaac Asimov put in his Opus 100, I think, one of his autobiographical books, how he had gone to a university class in science fiction at some university—it would been in New York since he barely traveled—and he heard the professor talking about his story “Nightfall.” And he sat at the back and he listened to him going on about it, then at the end, he went up the professor and he said, “That was a very interesting class, but, you know, I’m Isaac Asimov and I wrote that story and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there.” And the professor said, “Well, I’m very glad to meet you, but just because you wrote the story, what makes you think you know what’s in it?”
You know what? I had heard that story, but I did not realize it was Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall.”
Yeah, definitely “Nightfall,” and I think it’s in Opus 100.
Yeah. Oh, I learned something new. That’s cool.
So, what are you working on next? I think I know the answer to that—it’s probably the next book in this series—but are there other things as well?
Yes. Absolutely. Actually I’m really excited about a book project that I’ve got on the go. One reason I’m kind of glad to be already at book three in this series is because I think, over the winter, if there’s not too many edits, I’ve got still a year and a half before it’s due, I’m working on one that is a World War Two fantasy, and it’s kind of a mystery thriller as well. The magical element is a character who can step outside of his body for brief periods to see and hear things without being seen and heard. So he would make a great spy, right? Except that he’s had some bad experiences and he is in hiding. He’s living on a small farm in rural Alberta. And I’m doing tons of research on rural Alberta in the 1940s, it’s really interesting. The book is actually from his wife’s point of view, and he gets kidnapped and she does not know where he’s gone. So, it is her journey to find and rescue her husband, it does take her over to Europe, but also to find and learn about magic. And it also deals with disabilities and mental illness. Now, I don’t have a publisher for this book. It’s not even written. But I’m really excited about working on it.
Are you still writing short fiction?
You know what? I wish I was. I have, like, one short fiction story that is out circulating right now, and I really should be doing more short fiction. But yeah, no, I’m just so busy with so many other things, I have not been getting to it this year. Maybe it’ll come up in the winter. Maybe I’ll get something done this winter.
And you’re still doing freelance editing as well?
Yes. Yeah. All of the above. And teaching at the Alexandra Writers Center.
All right. Good stuff. And so thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.
And I’m sure I’ll see you in…probably in Calgary at When Words Collide next year, if not before.
Yep. And I’m going to see you in Ottawa this fall.
Oh, you’re gonna be a Can*Con for the Auroras, so I’ll see you there. Because, of course, this podcast is also nominated for an Aurora this year.
Yeah, good luck.
Yeah. Looking forward to that. And my editor, Sheila Gilbert from DAW Books, will be there again this year. So that’ll be great as well. All right, so I’ll let you go now. Thanks again for being a guest.