Episode 31: Shelley Adina

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




Shelley Adina

Shelley Adina’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to the World Shapers!

Thank you. Thanks for having me over.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“This could be a thing!”

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

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

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

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

I loved that show!

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

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

You’re in the cold part.

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

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

Well, your undergraduate degree was in literature.


What did that entail?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Holy cow.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, if I’d known that existed.

It’s been around since 1999.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s true.

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

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

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

What is your your mastermind group?

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

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

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

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

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

I just want to back up for a minute, ’cause I was looking at your information here and I noticed that you actually taught or are still teaching, I guess some?

Yeah, well, I taught at Seton Hill for nineteen years from 2002 to just this past winter in 2019. And then, you know, with the Ph.D. I have to step away from it because I can’t do it all at once, plus release four books a year.

Yeah, it’s tough when you’re the only person.

Yeah, I know.

You know, there’s the…what is it…it’s from The King and I, actually, there’s a line, “If you teach, by your students you are taught,” or something like that is one of the lines that’s in there. Did you find that? Did you find that teaching others has helped you with your own writing?

I do. Because having to take your process apart and reconstruct it on a PowerPoint deck is really, really hard. So I found my, you know, “How do I do this? How do I build a world? How do I build a series?” In fact, I’m giving a talk next weekend on planning and plotting your series. But I had to figure out what my own process was in in doing that so that I could transmit it to students. And that has actually been really good for me because I have a very literal brain and it makes it happy to not have the woo woo stuff, but just kind of laid out that this is how I do it. It’s, I don’t know, it’s comforting somehow. But, you know, some people hate that. It’s like, “Don’t touch the magic or it will all shatter and I’ll never be able to write another word.”

Yeah. And again, one of the great things about doing this podcast is the wildly different ways that people people approach all these things. This flash that you speak of that gives you the image. Is that true for all of your books? I mean, you write in other genres, you write romance. Do you get the same kind of start to those stories as for your steampunk stuff?

Yeah, it’s just pretty much how my brain works. There’s some kind of inciting reason for the story to be there, and that’s usually what the flash is like. For instance, there’s a book I wrote called Grounds to Believe, and I got a flash of a guy on a motorcycle trying to find his kid in a religious cult. And that was the start of a four book series.

You mentioned that you’re going to give a talk on writing a series, and I did want to explore that, too. So, you’ve talked about how you build out from that initial flash for the book, but then you’ve got a whole series. So, how did you develop it into a series from that initial thing?

Well, Lady of Devices was only supposed to be, like, one or two books. And I’m on number eighteen now. But there’s a lot of things that brain does in the background that you’re not really aware of. It’s cooking the soup while you’re putting in ingredients on the front end. So one book grew to a four-book sort of little mini series, and then two more books came after that, and two more books came after that, and then four books after that. They’re all, like, in segments, but they’re all connected. It’s one huge story. I had the big bad in book one, but I didn’t know who that person was until book seven. So it…brains…I tell my writing students, “Trust the brain, because it knows what it’s doing.” And I see in J.K. Rowling’s books, like the Harry Potter series, stuff she’s seeded in book one…you know, knowing her, she’s a genius, she probably put them there intentionally. But my brain does that without me knowing about it. So, I can be like six books along and go, “Oh, that’s what that’s for!” and then write and develop it.

Well, that brings up another thing. I’ve been on panels at conventions talking about writing series. The longest thing I’ve written was a five-book young-adult series called Shards of Excalibur. But even in that…and I wrote a trilogy, which I guess technically probably had more words, as many words in it, as the five-book young adult series. Do you ever find that you…something that you did not intentionally seed, you know, you’ve said something you didn’t intentionally seed can develop later into something you use, but is there ever something that you put in on the spur of the moment that then later on causes you a problem, and you think, “Oh, drat, I’d really like to do that, but I closed that door back in book three or whatever?

Book One of The Mysterious Devices

Yeah, that happens sometimes. In the mystery, The Mysterious Devices spin-off series, I think I’m so smart and I’m planting red herrings up front, and what they turned into is loose threads just waving in the wind. So I have to go back and remove them because what I thought was such a good idea at the time turns out not to be. And then those odd little accidental things like a brooch showing up on somebody’s dress collar turns into a major deal. So who knew? You know, brain. I trust the brain. I just let it do its thing.

For me, at least, even when you make those kind of problems for yourself, that’s actually part of the fun of writing is then finding out a way to solve those problems or work around them or make them work for you.

Or just delete the wretched things.

Yeah, well, you know, that can work too, but not if it’s already published.

Yeah, that’s kind of a problem.

Do you ever run into continuity issues where, you know, the bulk of stuff piles up the longer the series goes on? And do you finding yourself having to constantly refer back to what you’ve written to make sure that you don’t contradict yourself?

I do, actually. My mom has been creating a series bible for me. I think she’s up to like book seven now. So that’s been really helpful in keeping everything straight. And I also have a continuity reader, who lives in Ontario, who is an English expat. And so, he has been incredibly helpful with, you know, “You said this in book three, but now you’re saying this in book six. Did you mean to do that?” And I’m like, “Ah, I forgot.” So between the two of them, they’re keeping me on the straight and narrow, keeping the steam train on the track.

Well, I’ve just started the new series that this podcast takes its name from, it’s called Worldshapers. And I don’t know how long it will run–its with my, DAW Books, in New York. But book two is coming out this this fall, and I’m already wishing I had a continuity reader.

Yes. Well, technically your editor is going to be keeping track of that.

She is, she catches stuff. But even so, going through the page proofs, every once in a while. I’ll find things. You know?

And take it for me, create your series vible now.

Yeah, that’s what I should do. Though I should do…Master of the World is the name of the next one. It’s actually steampunk, so this is another reason this is interesting to talk to you right now.

Oh, cool.

It’s set in a Jules Verne-inspired world.

Mm-hm, yeah.

So, going back to the actual writing, what does your writing process look like? Do you, you know, sit in a garret and write longhand by candlelight or do you have a home office or do you go out to coffee shops? What’s your process?

Well, when the power goes out, sweetie hooks up the generator and gets everything booted back up so that I can work. No candles for me. I’m actually ,very disciplined because I used to be an executive assistant arranging executives’ time for a living. So, organizing my own time is a piece of cake in comparison. I work from nine till noon on left brain stuff, so, the accounting, the blankety-blank Facebook ads manager, things like that, creating ad creative, you know, all that stuff that you have to do for promo. So, that’s in the morning, nine to noon, noon to one I’m outside with the chickens, just to let my brain expand again back to its normal shape. From one to four is my writing hours. A thousand words a day is my daily output, seven days a week. If it takes me forty-five minutes, great. If it takes me all those agonizing hours, then great, too, but it has to go on the page. So, that’s the shape of my day. People say, “Oh, how are you so productive?” And I look at them and I say, “Discipline.” Then again, I don’t have kids, so I can be disciplined.

Yeah. Discipline is something I’m aware of. People tell me I’m productive, too. But in my back of my mind is always, I could be so much more productive if I were more disciplined.

Well, when you’re kind of floating the boat and this is what’s paying for the power bill, you get pretty disciplined in a hurry.

Well, I’ve been doing this full-time for twenty-five years, so I guess I’m managing, but I’m a bit scattered on the things that I work on from day to day. Just depends on what kind of deadlines I have on what kind of projects since I write all sorts of stuff.

Well, that’s the thing. T deadlines pretty much dictate what you’re going to do from day to day. It’s triage. You just have to do it.

Exactly. So, once you have a first draft, which, let’s see, 7,000 words a week and then say it’s 70,000 words, that’s 10 weeks.

Or more, I allow myself three months per book. And so the final month is the beta readers, editing, layout, that kind of stuff.

And that was my next question. Once you have a first draft, if it works for you that way, do you sort of do a rolling draftwhere it’s done when you get to the end, do you. sstart back at the beginning and do a whole revision? How does that work?

I do a rolling draft. At the beginning of each day’s work I read the previous day’s work and do an edit and that just kind of launches me into the current day’s work. Then once the book is finished and I type those two beautiful words, then I go back and I do, like, a it’s kind of like the flesh and makeup draft, you know, you put in if the scene is missing a certain emotional beat, that goes in, if the description of some device or a landscape is missing, that goes in, just kind of fleshing it out and making it more real, that sensation of of dropping into a story and being able to see it and experience it? I’m really focused on that for my readers. So they they get what they pay for.

That’s kind of what I focus on in my rewrite. Like, it’s pretty good. I would say it’s about eighty percent done when I get to the end. And then that pass through the next time is all about beefing up the language and specific details and things like that. You say you don’t have a critique group, but you do have beta readers.


How many of those do you have and what do they do for you?

I have my English gentleman in Ontario, my lifesaver. I have…one of the people in the mastermind group likes to beta read my mysteries in particular, ’cause she’s writing cozy mysteries. Nancy Warren, she’s doing the Vampire Knitting Club cozy mystery series. So she’s been extremely helpful in, “Oop! That red herring is now a waving piece of yarn in the wind. You need to tie that one up!” Victoria Thompson, the mystery writer, was very helpful. She’s on the faculty at Seton Hill, and as we would drive to school from the airport, I would get private master classes in how to do a mystery really well from her. So she’s she’s been wonderful.

And then once you have the comments from them, do you do another pass through?

Yes. I layer in everything they’ve said, which sometimes has the ripple effect and things down the line then change because of what they suggested. So I have to catch the ripples and fix them. And then the book is done and it goes into layout and up for preorder.

‘Cause you’re your own editor.

I am. I can’t afford me. I mean, I couldn’t afford someone like me.

But you have in the past written for traditional publishers.


How was that change from having an editor to being your own editor?

Well, to be honest, for the Regency and the Amish books, I send them to my old editor and she does what she used to do when were both at Hachette. Leslie Peterson was my editor at Hachette and we had a great working relationship, and so for those two genres I send them to her for a developmental edit, which adds, you know, a couple of weeks into the production schedule, but I think it’s been worth it.

And what does she do? Do you get a lot of line-by-line edits or what exactly is she looking for?

She’s…well, the thing about being the project manager for these, is that I know what it needs. So I say, “I need, like, an emotional edit.” for the romances in particular, because I’ve been doing adventure for, what, almost ten years or something. And sometimes you want the emotional stuff in there, but you forget because you’re so busy, you’re so caught up in the adventure. So that’s why I have to go back and make sure the beats, the emotional beats, are there. Particularly in a romance, this is vital, and sometimes I’m too close to it. And she…I ask for an emotional developmental edit, and Leslie delivers. She knows what it needs, and so she’ll write in, “You know, the motivation to back up ts declaration of love is not here. Here’s where you could work it into these scenes and you need to add a scene in chapter three that brings this out…” And so, she’s very, very detailed and very good at helping me get that right, because I don’t want to disappoint the readers in that department, either.

So, it sounds like you would say that there is definitely a value to editors for  writers.

Absolutely. Oh, yeah. The good ones are worth their weight in gold.

You are happy with yourself as an editor?

I’m a copy editor. I’m not a developmental editor. For the steampunk, I’m so deep in the world that I kind of know where it’s going. I know the characters so well that I can bring out their emotions and bring out the world without the developmental edit. But for the romance in particular, I feel like I needed a dev editor and the Amish, certainly, because that’s a whole other level of complication. But for copy editing, I’m pretty confident and I think my beta reader, she found two errors in the last manuscript, so I was feeling pretty happy about that.

I did want to ask you about the Amish romance, because that’s an unusual genre and not one that I have encountered talking to science fiction and fantasy authors very often However, what was it, two years ago?…Yeah, I guess it was the sesquicentennial. So yeah, would’ve been two years ago. I was at a thing for, at our local Chapters, with several other local authors, you know, Canadian authors in the house kind of thing, and they had us scattered around the store and for some reason I was seated up where I was looking at this rack of romance novels and I was looking at and I was seeing…maybe it was one of yours. I was seeing Amish romance and other subgenres that I had no idea that they existed. So, how did you end up writing in that particular subgenre?

Well, there is a parallel universe out there called the Christian Booksellers Association, and Amish is the biggest seller in that. It’s like the ABA only for the Christian publishing side. Amish is pretty much the Tyrannosaurus rex that ate the rest of the industry. People in that readership love them. And so, my editor at Hachette gave me the beady eye one time when we met at a conference to have lunch. And she says, “Why aren’t you writing Amish romance? You grew up plain. What’s wrong with you?” And I said, “Well, you know, I left that in my thirties. I kind of…I’m okay with leaving that behind.” And she looked at me and she said, “Hachette needs an Amish author.” And she offered me six figures and I said, “OK, we’re in.”

Well, you know, I guess I vaguely knew it existed. But I suppose if it’s not what you read, then there’s all sorts of these subgenres out there that you may not be familiar with. So it was interesting to me.

Well, the learning curve was not as high as it could have been because I grew up in a plain church. So, the doctrines and things were very much the same. But the customs, the clothing, the worldbuilding, the lack of electricity and all that stuff that that means was like a ninety-degree learning curve. So, I’ve been out to Pennsylvania many times. Luckily, Seton Hill is in that state, so it was pretty easy. I go out there twice a year and I do a little research trip on the side.

Do you think it’s kind of that low-tech lifestyle that actually makes it appealing to people?

Yeah, the getting off the fast lane and taking a country road behind a horse and buggy. I actually drove a horse and buggy. Nearly ran into a bus.

I’ve trundled along behind a horse and buggy.

Yeah, it was quite the experience. But you know, how are you supposed to know how your characters feel and behave with the reins in their hands? Who knew that the reins came through the windshield into a little slot? I mean, stuff like that that Amish readers just eat up because they love the detail. And so, for me, feet on the ground research in the Amish genre is necessary.

Well, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and, you know, that whole idea of how we shape our fictional worlds..it sounds like also, you know, you’ve been in Belgravia in London and you’ve been in Lancaster County, talking with Amish women. Research is something I always ask about, so what kind is what kind of research do you do for any of your books? I mean, in the case of the steampunk books, there’s also some technical things in there, and I don’t know how much…how much work you put into making these devices practical or if they could really exist? You said you’re married to an engineer, so does he help with that?

He has been very helpful, as a matter of fact, I had to blow up a dam once. And so we’re like, you know, Arlo Guthrie with the 8 by 10 glossies in the X’s and the circles and the arrows.

And you just hope that it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands.

Well, exactly. People wonder about my Google search history.

Yeah, that’s true of all of us. So you do a lot of research.

I do a lot of research. Yeah. And some of it is just serendipitous. Like, I was at a bed and breakfast one morning and I was moaning and groaning to the innkeeper about how I needed to know whether there could be a steam-powered submarine. And he turned around and he said, “Why don’t you ask him? He’s a submarine captain.” So, you know, book seven took shape right then and there because I had undersea dirigibles. And they’re technically correct in how they operate. But, you know, some things, like the behemoth in books nine through twelve, I sort of take it for granted that the readers’ imagination will lead them into the guts of that machine where I am afraid to go.

So, the other thing, you are publishing most of this now…well, I guess all of the steampunk books are published yourself…and having started my own similar company last year, Shadowpaw Press, I’m always interested in that. What I have found in my dabbling with it is, there’s a lot more work goes into putting out your own books than you might think before you launch into it. So, how do you balance that with also getting the writing done?

Well, that’s…running the business as part of the stuff that happens in the morning with my left brain. Because I do publish one or two other people’s books and I’m actually kind of not doing the best job. They’re very forgiving people. But because these days, with the whole pay-to-play advertising thing, you can get lost in a rabbit hole of advertising and never come out. And it kind of affects your emotions, too. So the emotions affect how you’re writing the books. If you spend too much time in that rabbit hole, you’re you’re not going to be able to put the words down on the paper. So it’s a fine balance. I use time to make sure that the balance happens, like nine  to noon. That’s all you get. You can’t have any more of my life than nine to noon. And then then I’m free. The brain shuts off and then I’m free to go into my imaginary worlds in the afternoon.

Do you…you’re your own copy editor? But do you then farm out cover design and layout?

Yes. Well, no, I do my own layout because Vellum is like the best thing that was ever invented.

I was going to say I got the free e-book and I started the book and I said, “Oh, she’s using Vellum.”

Yes, I’ve loved…

Because I use it, too, and I instantly recognized that little swirly symbol.

Scene break. Yeah. Oh, yes.

They do a fabulous job…it does a fabulous job. It’s only available for Mac, I think, if anybody is curious about it. But if you’re a Mac user and you do your own books, you should definitely check out Vellum.

Yeah. It’s like a creative act in itself, and I like making beautiful things like costumes and quilts and books that look pretty.

I have done three so far with my press and they’re all, they’ve all been done on Vellum and, yeah, I haven’t had any complaints about it at all.

Yeah. And I do copy edit for other authors, so those morning hours are sacred also, if I have a client on deck, then they get those morning hours when I’m fresh.

Clearly, I need to adopt your schedule because I do all of this stuff, too, only not in as organized a fashion.

Well, remember the executive time in fifteen-minute blocks? That’s kind of, this is what it derives from.

So, and then you mentioned that you do farm out your cover art. Do you give a lot of. input into what you want, or do you leave quite a bit of that up to the artists?

Well, I figure I’m hiring a pro who’s good at what they do. And I would say something like, “I need a Victorian woman on the cover.” Like, for my Mysterious Devices series, each mystery has a watercolor color in it from the 1800s palette. So the one that came out last week or the week before, The Matchmaker Wore Mars Yellow, I’ll send Jenny at Seedlings, she’s my cover designer for these books, I’ll send her mars yellow from the 1800s palette and say, you know, “Find me a Victorian woman. Here’s the dress color, and I need a watercolor background.” And she creates it. We’ve worked together for so long now that it’s like one and done. She’s really good.

Well it’s nice, I guess, to have the same artist for every cover in a series.

Yes. And actually, I think that’s really important, because there is that continuity. Once the reader’s eye is trained to look for your covers, if suddenly in the middle of the series you go with something different, then you lose them. Like literally on the results page.

How quickly do you then get things published once all this is done? One of the nice things about the self-publishing is, of course, that it’s like once it’s ready to go, it goes.

Right. Exactly.

You’re putting out four books a year, I think you said?

Yes. The last Wednesday of every quarter, in the middle month of the quarter, is release day. And so I have everything…everything is kind of backed up from there. So Jenny is now booking out about six months, so I have booked my February cover already and she’ll be starting work on it in September.

And what has the response been from readers?

They really like these watercolor covers and they’re selling quite briskly. Thank you, readers.

But what has the readers’ response been to your books, was what I was actually asking.

To the Mysterious Devices?


Well, the steampunk readers were willing to give me a chance. They were willing to follow me, follow these new characters into the same world. They like being in that world and they like coming back to it. One reader wrote on, I think it was on Amazon, that it’s like coming home again and they can just sink into the world and be in a familiar place that they love. And these new characters, they’re willing to go along with them. Some people don’t like the new sleuths, but, you know, to each their own. So, I think building the world and having people that your readers can relate to is  really important when you’re doing a long-running series, because they want to come back to it. And so, the response has been pretty healthy. I think that the preorders have been nice to see.

I guess one thing that I have run across is that people follow…they’re usually following a series that they like. They’re not necessarily following an author that they like? Do you think that’s fair, that it’s the series that draws them in? And will they follow you to something else if you’d completely changed? Like, do you have overlap, I guess, between your Amish romance readers and your steampunk readers? Or is it one or the other? Are they sort of separate groups?

They’re separate groups. There were some of the steampunk readers that told me flat out, “You know, I can’t read romance. I’m here for the adventure.” And there’s others that said, “Well, you know, it’s you. I trust you. I’m going to take a leap. I’ve never read a romance before, but because you’re writing it, I’ll try.” And that reader was happy because she got the worldbuilding, she got the characters, the sympathetic characters that she liked in this new genre that she had never been exposed to before. So I call that a win.

Broadening horizons.


Wwll, I guess that kind of leads into my big philosophical questions here towards the end of the conversation. And I always ask, first of all, why do you write? Second, why do you think any of us write? And third, why do we write fantastical stories of stuff that never really existed?

Oh, boy, hard questions. Why do we write? I write to shut up the voices in my head.

I hear that a lot.

My mom says, “How do you know a book is done?” And it’s like, “They stopped talking.” So that’s pretty much…I mean, I’m hearing bits of description in my head all the time. I’m hearing people talking. I see the flash. It’s like you have to…and the only thing that cures that noise is writing it down. So, part of it’s therapy. Part of it is, it comes out of you. You can’t help it. I suppose it’s like a composer. We went and saw Rocketman on Tuesday, and the way they showed the music playing in Elton John’s head all the time as a kid. That’s kind of how I feel now with writing, that the stuff is, words are happening all the time. And…what was the second question?

Why do you think…well, why do you think people write in general? Why do any of us write? Why do we tell stories?

Because that’s a basic human need, right from in the cave around the campfire. You told the story of the poisonous plant, or the small creature with the nasty bite, to be kind of a cautionary tale for your companions. And so, it’s transmuted, I think, into, “Here’s situations maybe that you will never live. But if you did, here’s what you could do.” It’s…I used to love the series of books called The Worst Case Scenario Handbook, ’cause it’s like, OK, I do know how to jump from a moving train if I ever need to.” So, you know, I could steer an undersea dirigible if I never needed to. I think that, and we want to be heard. We, you know, sitting in our rooms, we want to say something that someone will want to go, “Oh, I want to come and live in your world with you. Let’s be friends.” I think that’s why I do it.

And then, why do you think we write stories of the fantastic? I mean, there will never be a world in which steam took over and the internal combustion engine failed, so.

Well, you never know. After the apocalypse, anything could happen.

Well, that’s true. What’s the appeal of the fantastic and the made up and the imaginary?

Well, for me, it’s that limitless horizon, that I could…my imagination is free to play in this space. And by golly, it’s going to. And I’m gonna write it down and have fun and then say, “Hey, come on, look, look at this thing. Isn’t it cool?” And somebody else will say, “Yeah, that’s cool. Let’s tell somebody else.” And so, not only do I have a world I’m living in that’s fantastic and, you know, there’s giant behemoths, and Venice is built on a huge clockwork, and it changes every time the church bells ring. You can have that and you can live there and have adventures that you couldn’t in real life. I think it’s just….it’s kind of like space exploration from your armchair.

Well, that occurs to me that I failed to ask you something off this top, which is, most of us when we become writers, it’s because of the books that we read. So, what were the books that drew you into telling these kinds of stories back when you were reading as a kid?

Oh, boy. I well, I read the classics like Little Women and Anne of Green Gables. I have the entire library of Lucy Maud Montgomery in first editions. I was that…I’m that big of a fan. Yeah, if the house ever burns down, those are coming with me. I read so I read that I read a lot of Elizabeth Goudge. Not the one that wrote that story about Savannah. That was Eileen Goudge. I don’t know if they’re related, but anyway, it’s kind of turn-of-the-century children’s authors I really liked, and I didn’t really get into fantasy and science fiction as much until I was grown up and I could kind of, I don’t know, handle it, maybe. And then steampunk just seemed to be…the characters seemed to be an outgrowth of those English characters that I knew and loved as a child. And there’s that element of the Saturday afternoon serial in the theater also that I really liked, those adventures in the theater as a kid.

Steampunk is very much where those two things come together, isn’t it? The kind of Victorian era story that Dickens and all that, and then the super science story, they all kind of meet right there in Jules Verne’s time.

Yeah. And you can make it up. And as long as you make it believable, it doesn’t have to be, you know, physically correct. I don’t have to build models or anything. But my my aim is, is this believable? And so far, I think it’s working because I check it with my engineer husband.

A useful thing to have. As I said, I have an engineer wife, so…

I know, they’re very handy.

They are. Well, in my case, not least because I often say tha…she kind of hates this joke. But my best move is a freelance writer was to marry an engineer.

You know, I agree with you.

So, what are you working on right now? Although at the pace at which you’re working, it might be what are you working on next will be what you’re working on when this comes out.

Well, I alternate the Regency romances with the steampunk mysteries, so I have just plunged in…I’m three chapters into The Rogue Not Taken, the follow up to The Rogue to Ruin, my Rogues of St. Just Regency romances. So we’re on the middle book now.

And looking ahead?

Looking ahead. I will be…let me see. I’m looking at my schedule here. So that would come out in August. My November book would be what I call the Manor House novellas, that are kind of in The Magnificent Devices world and follow some of the characters. So the next one in that little series is called Gwynn Place. We’re going to go to Lady Claire’s home. In February, the next Mysterious Devices book comes out. And then after that, the next Regency. So, yeah, I’m eyeballing my calendar because it’s all laid out. I have to have it. I have to have dates to work towards. I’m very date driven.

And for your readers, where can people find you online?

I am at shelleyadina.com. That’s Shelley with an ey. Like the poet. And I have lots of…I have an ongoing blog. I’m doing a blogging the Ph.D. series, which may or may not be interesting to anyone but me. Also, things about the books. I’m going to be talking Mysterious Devices 3, The Matchmaker Wore Mars Yellow, is very,…it’s, you know, it’s the Wild West. So there’s a lot of old pistols and armaments and things in that book. And so I’m going to be doing one or two blog entries about the inspirations for those guns, which again, may or may not be very interesting to a whole lot of people, but it’s interesting to me.

And you’re also on other social media, are you?

Yes, I’m on Twitter @ShelleyAdina. I’m on Pinterest–you can see all kinds of inspirations for the things that I put in books. And some of them are just made up out of my head but some of them…you know, there are amazing steampunk artists out there. And I’m like, “Wow, I could take the leg off of this creature and really do something with it.” And let me see, what else am I on? I’m a failure at Instagram, so don’t look for me there. And I’m on Facebook as Shelley Adina.

I did realize there’s one last thing I forgot to ask you about. Why do you like chickens?

Because the engineer that I live with has allergies to pet dander, and this chicken walked into our yard one day and said, “Hey, I’m going to stay.” So, we built her a coop and got her some companions, and I’ve been doing rescue for twenty years now.

Because the affinity for chickens is one of the things that Claire…

Shares with me. Yeah, exactly. In fact, I have…Dinah the office chicken is overseeing this conversation at this very moment.

And doing a very good job, I’m sure.

She knows when to be quiet.

Well, thanks so much for for being a guest on The Worldshapers, Shelley. It’s been a great chat.

It’s been a pleasure. Thank you so much for inviting me.

You’re most welcome.

Episode 30: Charles E. Gannon

A in-depth interview with Dr. Charles E. Gannon, bestselling Nebula and Dragon Award-nominee and Compton Crook winner, about his creative process, focusing on his Caine Riordan/Terran Republic hard science fiction novels, the fifth of which, Marque of Caine, just came out from Baen Books.




Charles E. Gannon’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Dr. Charles E. Gannon‘s Caine Riordan/Terran Republic hard science fiction novels, published by Baen Books, have all been national best-sellers, and include three finalists for the Nebula, two for the Dragon Award, and a Compton Crook winner. The fifth, Marque of Caine, came out in July 2019. His epic fantasy trilogy, The Broken World, launches in  2020.

He collaborates with Eric Flint in the New York Times– and Wall Street Journal– bestselling Ring of Fire series, and has worked in the Starfire, Black Tide Rising, Honor Harrington, and Man-Kzin universes. The rest of his bibliography includes many works of short fiction in venues such as Analog,  numerous game design/writing credits, and television productions from his past career as a scriptwriter/producer in New York City.  

Formerly a Distinguished Professor of English at St. Bonaventure University, and recipient of five Fulbright grants, his book Rumors of War & Infernal Machines won the 2006 ALA Choice Award for Outstanding Book. He is a frequent subject matter expert both for national media venues such as NPR and the Discovery Channel, as well as for various intelligence and defense agencies/contractors. 

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Chuck. I guess I can call you Chuck. Can I?

Absolutely. Call me Chuck. And it’s great to be here.

Now, we’ve run into each other once in a while at conventions and we actually sat at an autograph table together at DragonCon last year. I can’t remember who was to my left. It was an urban fantasy author with a huge following who had a line out the door. I didn’t. But it was it was nice to have a talk with you while we were sitting there, anyway.

Absolutely. Mine was a humble and intermittent line.

So, we’re going to talk primarily about the Caine Riordan series, as an example of your creative process. But first, I always like to take the guests back into the dark recesses of history…when you were young…and find out how you…

Oh, you mean before electricity.

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Back then, I was there, too…how you got, first of all, interested in science fiction and fantasy and then how, specifically, you got interested in writing it. And also, you know, where you grew up and that kind of thing.

So where I grew up is about…I’ll start with that first…is about thirty miles northwest of New York City. And I say that, and people envision a sort of endless domino structure of high-rises receding into the great distance, and in actuality, our biggest problem was keeping deer out of our tomatoes. Of course, that was a long time ago. But still, the New York metro sprawl is pretty much constrained a lot closer than that. So, I had a kind of…I had an upbringing which brought me in close contact with the city fairly frequently and yet was pushed right up against the state park, which was inviolate to development. So, it was a mix of two worlds. Not a city person, I learned that early, but in the city there was something that probably was one of the earliest sparkings in me towards what science fiction or just notions of alterity in general. Excuse me, and that was the Museum of Natural History in New York City. They had a, at that time, a really, really extensive, for that time, dinosaur exhibit, I think now that’s been massively passed by others that are much more invested in that. But I could spend an inordinate amount of time amongst the various reassembled fossils, and that was where I conceived of the notion that I wanted to be a paleontologist and write about it.

Well, as time went on, I wanted to be a zoologist and write about it. And then I wanted to be an astronomer and write about it. And then briefly I wanted to be an astronaut and write about it. But that was a little bit more dangerous than I was in line for. And at about eleven or twelve, I realized what the constant was, was wanting to write about it. The other constant was to be involved with cool things. But this was about also the age when you start getting enough of a sense of the way the world works, that at eleven and twelve I was starting to realize about ninety-five percent of the time spent in those jobs, if not more, is solitary, and to my mind, kind of dull, repetitive, and almost purely…for every for every ounce of creativity in it, there was a ton of essentially quantitative assessment, proving analysis, et cetera. Not that I don’t enjoy that to a degree, but my…obviously, I think, given my chosen career, my avocation, lucky enough now to be my occupation, was to move on the creative side of things, so I kind of realized, well, what I want to do is be and talk about all those things, but to write about them. And that’s really been the best of all worlds because literally I can go to all worlds. And that sense of alterity, that sense of, if you will, unlimited possibilities and a total lack of restriction…there are no no-fly zones. There are, you know, there are no construction barriers up when it comes to the human imagination. So. that’s how I got here.

I often say when I’m doing talks and, you know, sometimes people say, “Well, why do you write this stuff?” In fact, I’m going to ask you that question later on. But if it’s coming from people who look slightly askance at science fiction, all the alterity, as you called it, alternate-world kind of fiction is, my response is always, “Well, why don’t you write it? Because it’s such an unfettered place for the imagination to play.”

Yeah, and I think there’s a lot of…oh, there’s a lot of what I’ll call…if you’re really grown up, if you’re really an adult, I think there’s no reason to feel that you have to always act in a way that is socially coded as, if you will, adult action. And I think the notion of, if you spend a lot of time in alterity, in alternate places, in thinking about things that are not connected to what’s happening in the stock market right now and what’s coming across our feed from Reuters or whatever your chosen dubious news source is–and I say that, I’m not saying Reuters is dubious, I’m saying that right now I can’t figure out what isn’t–and in consequence to me, I think if you’re really secure with yourself, why, if you have the kind of mind which is naturally one that wants to go over the next hill, to see what hasn’t been seen yet, then, of course, do that. Which is an entirely adult activity anyhow. It’s just not always coded that way. And I think that, so for me, I understand exactly what you’re saying about that. 

But I always find it kind of interesting…it’s a useful endeavor…to encounter folks like that, simply because it sets up an opportunity to have a discourse, and a friendly discourse, and make people perhaps give them a sense of freedom to ask those same questions, just as you said, Ed. You know, it’s, “Well, why aren’t you writing it?” And I think that’s a really important question. I think that it’s probably highly tinctured by our media. What I mean by that is, for instance, I have four kids, and they are big fans of the various Marvel movies. And I have to say, they’re a great romp. But I think for a lot of folks, when they think of science fiction, when they think of alterity in general, they’re thinking of that. They’re thinking of Star Wars. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these things. They’re great fun. But it’s not, that’s not the workshop in which I toil. As you said in your intro, hard science fiction is pretty much where I live. And even when I’m doing fantasy, the same sort of rigour in terms of the way the world works and the way the world has been built, not to sort of preview what obviously our main topic is, worldbuilding, but, you know, this is what they think of, and they think of escapist fare. And what I think, unfortunately, it tends to blind them to, or it gets in the way of them having, finding and creating a relationship with that part of our genre which is entertaining, but escapist would probably not be the best word to use to define its center of gravity.

Now, were there books that you were exposed to that made a big impact on you and kind of helped push you in this direction?

There absolutely were. I don’t remember some of them because they were simply Scholastic Books Service Book of the month sort of things, when you’re in grade school here in America. But I do remember a couple. There was a series, it was Dig Allen…Digby Allen Space Rangers, something like this (Ed’s note: Dig Allen, Space Explorer, by Joseph Green, creator of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.) And it was just as juvenile as it sounds, but it was fascinating, because what they did…the premise was a visit to every one of the worlds of the solar system, which even in the science of that time were deeply unlikely. But that didn’t matter to me at that age, and I devoured them and obviously remembered them. And I would say then, when I read…the next two things that really sort of drove home some of the possibilities in the genre to me was War of the Worlds reading the, you know, the original unexpurgated version of H.G. Wells. And, you know, the striking thing at the end of the book, when they say, when they finally crack into the walkers and they find some of the Martians who’ve perished from biology, from bacteria here on Earth, that a sort of backward assessment of their skeleton and everything else says suggests they weren’t too unlike us earlier in their evolution. And so that really, for some reason, that book really turned me on to two things. It’s an exciting book, but it’s also a big-idea book. You know, as you as you start to get into the notion of…which I only learned much later…the history of this is, you probably know this, he was walking out in his backyard with his brother, I believe it was, and they were talking about what was going on in Tasmania, the extermination, the clearing of species that didn’t exist any place else on the earth. It was his brother who said, “Wouldn’t it be something if, you know, if there were beings from another planet that came down here and started laying about themselves the way we are in Tasmania?” and, you know, all of what’s in there, in terms of really important questions and really important perspectives about, you know, the wages of empire, what does it mean to expand, the inability, in the case of the Martians, to speak with them, both because of a lack of common ground and also because they’re disinterested, and also the notion that we’re not on the top of the food chain. That to me was really, really interesting. So that book, as I guess my long, flowing, not to say disjointed, answer may suggest, is a…it really, really, I would say, if it didn’t set me on the track, it really was a lens that clarified the vision of where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do.

So when did you actually start trying your hand at writing fiction?

The very first issue of the very first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia, from 1968.

Pretty much a few months after that? Actually, I’d been writing fiction beforehand and I started very, very soon thereafter and was fortunate enough to come across a great mentor and started publishing…you know, this can this can be taken by listeners as either a badge of honor or a badge of shame for me, but started writing in Star Trek fanzines back in the day before…there weren’t even photocopiers. It was that thump, thump, thump noise of a mimeo machine, which was how one got into amateur publications. And that’s what I did and went forth from there.

And that great smell of the ink.

Oh, that ink, you never get off your hands. Good Lord.

I remember that well. That and Gestetner machines, those were…with the wax stencils. I had to draw cartoons for my junior high newspaper on a Gestetner stencil, which was scraping it into the wax. That was an interesting one.

It’s a little bit like monk work in the medieval era, toiling away over these highly resistant substances of ink and vellum to leave some mark for the future. Yeah, I remember those wax papers as well. And boy, are we dating ourselves here. OK. So, on we go.

Yeah. So you…because you eventually became a distinguished professor of English. I’m assuming you were an English major at university. Is that a fair assumption?

Well, it would be, except for I went to Brown University, which had, and still has, an independent major opportunity. And while English and creative writing, they also had a distinct creative writing track, and to this day, a well-respected M.A. program in…MFA? M.A., I forget which…in creative writing. And so, I went there and I had three things that I found were sort of speaking to me, and they were theatre arts, they were semiotics, which is, you know, to use the fast rubric, the theory of signs and symbols, but actually, what it was for the most part were film courses, and English with the creative writing element in it. So, I decided I wanted to package all three, and had a…came up with a major called storytelling for creative media. And that’s what I did. That’s what my degree was in. I had a minor in English, but I always…it’s kind of interesting I went that way, because even in 1978, ’79, I felt we were moving towards cross-platform narratives, increasingly. So, whereas many people are sort of looking, I suppose, still at e-books and trying to get accustomed and acclimated to that, my question is, “So when do we start having more media start actually moving into e-books?”, which I think is something that’s coming certainly within the next fifteen years and possibly a lot sooner than that.

I always ask people who’ve had actual creative writing courses, the writers that I’ve talked to, how useful that was for them in the long run. Some have had disparaging things to say about their creative writing classes in university. What was your experience?

My experience was mixed. I would say that…so, I did it in two ways. I had some of the courses in a track, some of the courses as independent study. The independent studies were very rewarding and largely, I think, they’re because…I always knew, my motivation always was to write, but what I would call belle lettres was not ever at the center of my scope. It would be lovely if somebody noticed my writing and felt that it was meritorious from within that sort of, under that tent. But my notion was always that I wanted to do the highest quality possible fiction in speculative fiction, whatever that meant, whatever market I had to go to. And there was no small amount of pushback on that, in 1979, 1980, ’81. I mean, it’s pretty clear that not only did science fiction and fantasy come out of the ghetto, but you might say we won, in that…just given, you know, how much it’s proliferated in our media these days, I think that if you go and look at the top five grossing films of all time right now, you will find that not a one of them is anything other than alterity. They’re all, for the most part, science fiction or superhero films. What that says is probably fodder for an entirely different podcast. But, in…so, it’s a very different world for any listener who may not have been around back when, you know, as Kingsley Amis said, when he would read science fiction on the underground in London, he would always have a larger magazine, so that he could put the science fiction book inside it, so he’d read it without anybody actually seeing that he was shaming himself as a good, upstanding, serious Englishman.

And so, for me in creative writing courses, there was some pushback on my materials, but they were helpful in a lot of ways. They were not helpful in others. I think the thing about creative writing, most programs, is that the people teaching them are usually not people who have had a long-standing popular-market success. Most of them, many of them are not people who’ve had much success professionally at all. They have degrees. They have some publications. Their publications tend to be in academic journals. And if you look at a lot of the academic journals which are connected to MFA programs, you will notice that they’re primarily…or, at least they were up until fifteen years ago, the years ago…they were primarily publishing other people in this same circuit, if you will, of MFA programs. So, they were publishing each other. And so, the notion of, how do you write to entertain, how do you write to be commercially successful, how do you integrate the sort of things that you’re trying to do in an MFA or creative writing track program, are frequently just, they’re not addressed. They’re not addressed in terms of actually making a living at this or having a, whether you make a living or not, having a career of some sort in it.

When I was actually in charge of the creative writing track at St. Bonaventure, I very much focused it on, sort of, without throwing…I don’t believe that…the problem with going to either extreme of either belle lettresor just pure commercial capability is, either one, you’re throwing some baby out with the bathwater. So, I very purposely created a middle course. So that was…it offered both…people coming at it from either one of those ends of the spectrum or points in between, that it was still not making them feel unwelcome or that their issues and their ambitions were being thwarted by the presuppositions of the program.

I’m currently mentoring an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan. It’s the first time I’ve done that. And he’s writing a young-adult fantasy. And so…I’m encouraged that apparently that particular program, at least, is letting students sort of do that, come at it from whatever direction they’re particular interests take them. I had one creative writing course in university and everything else was journalism. So, it’s always interesting to talk to people about their experiences with that. So how did you…when did you…start writing and getting published?

Well, I suppose if you mean getting published as in a check comes along with that, that would have been in the…actually, I was good at making money in television before I made money in dead-tree publication. I was writing scripts. I was writing documentaries, things like that, I was a script doctor in New York City back in the mid-’80s to the late ’80s. The first print publication I had for which some money came my way was actually in gaming, and that was in 1988 for a wonderful science-fiction roleplaying game called Traveler.

I played it!

Yeah, well then you may have seen some of my stuff along the way. I was…ultimately, that was part of my freelance gig, from 1988 to 1992. And I was, for a while, I was in charge of the Traveller segment of…the house organ at that time was called Challenge magazine, and I was made the mega-Traveller guru, which was a lot of fun and taught me a lot of good lessons in there. And at about, right at about the end of that was when I had my first fiction sale, which was to one of…the late Jerry Pournelle, who was a who was a good friend of mine. Many people, I suppose, have encountered stories of him being, at the very least, forceful and direct, and at the, probably the negative end of the spectrum, irascible, but he was always just a sort of big, nice uncle to me. And it was in one of those, in his anthologies, called War World, which was connected to the whole CoDominium series, that I got…I published two things at the same time. There was a short story called “Introduction,” which was exactly that, for that second or third installment, it was called Invasion, the third installment of the War Worldseries, and then another short story in there called “The Gift of the Magi.” And so that was the, that was the first, and then things kind of came to a crashing halt for quite a while. But I returned to writing full time in 2007…late.

You mentioned that there were some lessons you learned from both scriptwriting and gaming that then applied to your fiction. What were some of those lessons?

Well, one of the ones in film…there were lessons that were really valuable to learn and other lessons you had to unlearn. So, the lessons I learned. Writing action–cinema is a great place to cut your teeth because very quickly, you realize, I think faster than you do writing a book, that there are certain things which should happen as a narrative moves towards action that really you disregard at your peril. So, some specifics. If you think about film for a second, and you move from a conversation or a scene-setting moment, a medium or long shot, right? As we move to action, the shots get closer, the shots get faster. It is cut on action. And the pace of the shots, if you were going to put it to a metronome, the pace of the metronome is increasing. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just intellectual or cognitive. It’s physical. Literally, when we get excited, what happens to our heart rate? It goes up. It speeds up. Well, that’s exactly what you’re seeing in terms of the pace of the cuts as you move into action. What don’t you see? You never have any item that’s going to be used in an action sequence explained during the middle of the action sequence. That would sort of be like, you know, dropping a bomb on a locomotive that’s just gaining steam and moving forward. So you don’t do that, unless you you’re writing a parody. You don’t have people talking with each other as they are trading blows. That might work, you know, for certain highly, I guess you could say posed or stylized events, but in general, when people are, the more…the higher the stakes are, let’s say your life, you don’t generally take time to say anything other than what absolutely needs to be said. This is not a moment for witty banter. This is not a moment for one adversary to sneer at the other as twirl their mustache with their free hand. That not what’s going on at urgent at urgent moments. And cinema teaches you that, because if you try to do that in cinema, there is no way, you will sit in front, you will sit at the editing table, back in the days that we were physically editing 16mm black and white, and you’ll realize, “Oh my God, this is ridiculous. This is utterly ridiculous.” And it teaches you that lesson for the rest of your life regarding narrative. And that translates very well into prose format, because as I move into action sequences, the paragraphs get shorter, the sentences get shorter, multisyllabic words get fewer, which I know anybody who listens to me talk for five minutes says, “Really? Can you even do that?” But the fact is, yes, I can, particularly when the action is very intense. And description is more, has now entered the realm of the verb almost exclusively. It really doesn’t want nouns at that point.

So those are all…but then then you have to unlearn a lesson. And one of the big lessons you have to unlearn from film is dialogue. Dialogue, for instance, in television you can have…and in films, we see this all the time…you know, somebody can be doing something, and they say, “Well, we’ve got to press the thingamabob before the clock hits 9.” “Why? Why do we have to do that?” And you get this explanation. That sort of pitching of a character asking why or how or what, which is the platform for the other character to explain, it really becomes a very, very tired mechanism in prose much more quickly. And the reason for that is because you can, if you plot it carefully, you can put it in…in television and put it in a car chase. You can put it in people as they’re trying to get from one subway car to another and they’re having to jostle through a crowd. In other words, it’s a little bit stylized, but there are less high-action moments, when the characters are still doing interesting things. The visuals are telling us they’re moving towards the objective, so we’re paying attention to that. But we’re getting this other track in terms of, that’s explaining what’s going to happen, foregrounding it, what needs to be done, what the objective is going to be. The lesson to learn when you’re in fiction, when you’re writing prose, is you have one track, you don’t have audio and visual, you don’t have information your eyes are gathering for you, plus listening to the dialogue. And if you try to do that same sort of thing in in prose, you will probably rue the day you thought that was a good idea.

And on the gaming side?

The gaming side teaches you a lot about collaboration. It teaches you a lot about being a good guest in somebody else’s sandbox. I actually think gaming is far better preparation for novels, novel writing, in some ways, than is filmmaking. And the reason I say that is connected to the reason why I have, you know, people will say, well, “Hope your books are going to be made into a film!” Maybe. I’d rather they were made into a game, and I’ll tell you why. If you, if, you know, you see what film directors do on set, they supposedly hold their fingers up to make a box so they can see what’s in the viewfinder, right? They say, “We’ll take this short of shot.” They’re framing things all the time. They have to. That’s their job. On film and television it is rarely important what is outside the frame. That’s just not that important. But when you’re designing a game or when you’re writing a novel, particularly if you think there’s a series there, it is very important what’s beyond the frame, because you’re going to come back to it. In the case of a game, particularly electronic games now, but also roleplaying games, the first thing that’s going to happen, any game design knows this, is that the players are going to wander away. They’re not going to follow the path that seems the most likely, and they actually…and these days, there’s largely an expectation that there should be things off the beaten path. If a game is too linear, it very often gets a black eye right now, and has probably for the last ten or fifteen years. So, understanding what worldbuilding means in a more totalized concept, that it’s not just…you don’t just develop the things that are gonna wind up in the viewfinder of your camera, because your readers or your game players’ interests are going to go off that beaten track. They’re going to want to sense that the world is real beyond the narrow confines of the of the screen or the scope through which they’re viewing things at that given moment. And so, it was great preparation for that, for worldbuilding. It’s a very orderly form of worldbuilding by definition, because in any game, whether it’s for a computer or whether it’s for something you’re playing at your home on tabletop, you know, papers and pencils as it is, and dice, the bottom line is, there’s quantities involved. There are relationships between what you attempt to do and whether you succeed. In most games, it still has some kind of simulational verity, that is at some level connected to the quantifiable elements that will either make it more or less likely that you succeed. And so, all of that is great preparation for worldbuilding that I believe readers…readers can tell if a world is fully fleshed out or not in a writer’s mind. And you will have done that work from that background.

So, when you brought all those lessons together, it was still a few years after the short story that you were talking about…that was a few years before your first novel came out, right?

Oh, more than a few years, but I was working on it. That may be another thing, which is…so in 1991, ’92, a pair of semi-braided short stories are my first publication. I have to leave the industry for…that’s a whole other story. But it had nothing to do with me. It had to do with changes of business, it had to do with broken contracts that resulted in some…lawsuits that ultimately happily only went to arbitrage, because people cancelled contracts, and in those days people in gaming didn’t understand that they couldn’t do that, not without paying a bit for the piper. And so, I had to look at Plan B, and Plan B was becoming a college professor, which I did. And the good news was I was pretty good at that, and the bad news was I was pretty good at that. But even so, what I mean by the bad news is that if you do something well, you basically get asked to do more. And that was certainly the case with me. And that was very, very gratifying. And I learned a lot through that, which found its way into my writing. But at the same time, how much time I was able to devote to actual writing slowed down. But throughout that entire time, from ’92 to 2007, although I published one or two things in that time, it was short fiction. But I kept on developing the world that would ultimately turn into the first novel.

Now the first novel of mine, Fire with Fire, which is the first novel in the Caine Riordan series, was a 2013 publication. But my first novel actually was in a shared universe once again with one of the people you mentioned earlier that you’ve already had on the show, David Weber. He had left the series called Starfire, which is a space opera military science fiction series that actually predates Honor Harrington. So, he had been doing it with Steven White. He left because, as I think we know, David Weber is a pretty busy guy right now. And he’d done that, and he was moving on to two other projects. So, I had come to Baen Books’ attention, and the attention of the lead author on the series now, Steve White, who said, “Do you want to come play in this sandbox?” And I said, you know, “Is the pope Catholic?” And so, that was the first book. And through that was, I think, the demonstration that, in fact, I, you know, as I’m sure listeners may have heard already on this program or other places, since I know that this particular venue draws in a lot of writers, there’s a huge, huge difference between people who can write well and write a great story and complete a novel. It’s a little bit like, to use the academic equivalent, there are so many more ABDs, that’s “all but dissertation,” than there are ultimate Ph.Ds. conferred, because that’s where a lot of people stop. A lot of people can tell a good story, but they can’t wrap it up in a totality that a novel is, sustain it over that period of time, and not make it feel like a lot of it is just sort of wasted noise. And so, I had the good opportunity, therefore, to show my potential publisher that I could do that with my own stuff as well. And that’s what happened, and so it was between…it was fifteen years, if we count it out between when I had to stop writing fiction more or less in 1992 and before I could resume again, and then it was another six years. So I guess, as I think back on it, horrified at the notion, it was twenty-one years.

So, we’re going to talk about the Caine Riordan series. So, for people who…I’ve read, I haven’t read the entire series, I’ve read some books, I haven’t gotten too far into Marque of Caine, the latest one, but I’ve started it and I’ve read a couple of the previous books. Can you give us sort of overall synopsis of the series for someone who inexplicably hasn’t read any of the books?

There’s a lot of inexplicable people out there, I tell you that for sure. So, it’s set a hundred years in the future. It is a…the story begins before we have any inkling that there may have been other intelligences. And what the story…I guess you could say it’s written in, at a moment in a change of history. And the change in history it really looks at is, “What happens when we learn we’re not alone? And what does that mean?” And the main character, his story is that he he’s a defense analyst, he’s a think-tanker. He has worked with and around the government, but not for the government. And he actually runs…he’s the right guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. And for his troubles he is cryoslept. He’s put into cryogenic suspension, which is a fairly new technology at the time that that it occurs, and he is awakened about thirteen years later, to go and look, to explore if the report of alien intelligence or ruins on Delta Pavonis—which is an actual star, one of the hard-science aspects of the series—if it is in fact an accurate report, if the murmurings are true. And the and the reason they pull him out of cold sleep to do this is, they’re part of an agency which has been tasked to keep an eye out for this. And they know their own people are being watched. He’s been out of…he’s essentially missing, presumed dead, because when he is cold-slept during an investigation on the moon, he is not reported as being cold-slept, he is reported as being missing. So thirteen years later, he’s awakened, and the notion is, well, we’ll get you your life and we’ll tell you what happened in the 100 hours you can’t remember before you went into cold sleep. And that’s the setup.

And what flows, goes from there is essentially first contact, and first contact turns out to not be some sort of some sort of grand encounter with other intelligences, it turns out that we are already a playing piece in a variety of…there are only five other intelligences, or four, depending on how you count them, and they all have designs on us in one way or another. We’re already part of a game for which we don’t know who the players are, and we don’t know what the rules are. And so, the first book gets to the end of a sort of a first convocation of these groups that has clearly gone very awry and indicates that, rather than a bunch of lofty intelligent beings, this is just as fraught by differences and squabbles as, for instance, our own Balkanized world is. The second book is that this first contact goes terribly awry because it turns it into an invasion that isn’t an invasion. And what I mean by that is that there are certain forces on Earth which actually, or I guess you would say power centers on Earth, that actually invite an occupation of certain areas because they feel that they are not receiving proper representation on Earth. So this is one of these ways in which also I try to…the problems of our day are something that I try to carry forward into these books, here the basic notion being if your own house isn’t in order it makes you vulnerable in all sorts of ways. And while I don’t think that therefore we’re about to be visited by aliens anytime soon, or maybe we are, it, you know, we remain as contentious as we are about so many things at our own peril. And certainly I think that, you know, just whatever you think of climate science, whatever you think of asteroid interceptors as something that we should be looking to do for earth crossing, whatever the threat is to the human race, I can absolutely feel certain of this: we are stronger together than we are apart, and the wages of remaining apart become very, very manifest in the second book of the series.

That completes what I call the contact arc. The next three books in the series of which the fifth, the one you’ve just started on, Ed…I call the emissary or the envoy arc, because now it’s time to go and meet some of these other intelligences, both to try to strike up relationships and also to prevent incidents which could lead to a resumption of hostilities. And in the fifth book, we finally get the answer to some of what was in the first book regarding these ruins that were particularly interesting because there were two ruins, and one was clearly built either by or for humans, and the other was built by somebody else. And they date to about 20,000 years in the past. And in the first four books, which take place in over the space of only three years, there is a constant, you know, we are always jumping from one fire frying pan into the next or the fire. And just hopefully the reader apparently is caught up in that same flow of events that Earth itself is, just trying to adapt to what’s, what the new crisis in front of you. And in the fifth book, we finally wind up meeting the aliens, called the Dornaani, who do know what was going on 20,000 years ago. And that answers one set of mysteries, which has been cooking through the first five books in the series, but also opens up deeper mysteries for those which will follow.

What was the initial seed for this series, and also, in general, for a new book for you, what sorts of things spark your interest and get you started on the process of developing them?

So this is a…this is a question for which I assume I’m going to have some unfortunately boring answers. What I mean by that is that, in some ways the spark was lit…remember when I said I was, you know, you asked me, when did you start writing after reading this influential book, and I said pretty much a few months later. And while what I tried to write was essentially a fairly dreadful homage to Star Trek, the original series, you know, and a couple of other things that I was interested in thrown in for good measure, none executed particularly well, this notion of contact, of what contact means, of how diplomacy is going to be very akin to anthropology at some level for a, you know, xenoanthropology in order to…how do you talk? What values do you share?…This was always part of it. And then, you know, there’s the…the reason I gravitate towards, very often, conflict motifs is not because I am enamored of war for its, you know, for its own sake. One would hope not. But I do find that the one thing you can say about conflict is it’s where the stakes are highest. And that’s always good for drama, which is why I think we see so much of that as the organizing trope in movies and in games and in a variety of things.

But then in my twenties and thirties, particularly in my thirties, I would say, between reading and also what I was experiencing during my Fulbrights, this…the sense of intrigue, of layers within layers, wheels within wheels, was really growing for me. And that put in the third part of this, which is, yes, it is, it is conflict, yes, it is first contact, and yes, there isn’t a single book which doesn’t have an intrigue element to it as well. And nested under all of that, though, is this question about what came before us. What is our place in this universe? And so, I know you asked me, what is my idea for a book, but the thing is, the series and the books were, have been percolating in my mind, since I was twelve or thirteen, in one form or another.

I was gonna say, there’s certainly, what you said about War the Worlds, you can certainly see that in these books that…


The alien intelligence that we don’t quite get.


So, how do you go about the actual process of plotting and worldbuilding? Do you start with your worldbuilding and then you develop your plot, then your characters come from matter? How does all of that initial preparation work for you. Are you a big outliner, or do you just make it all up as you go? Somehow I don’t think you make it all up as you go.

You’re absolutely right on the last conjecture. I do not make it…I couldn’t keep track of it if I made it up as I go. I think when you write intrigue particularly, and you write this sort of deep mystery, you know, if you’re going to write something that you’re only going to solve for reader, four books later, my suggestion would be to figure that out ahead of time. There will be things that you will discover in the act of writing anyhow. That’s always going to happen. But I think having a framework is really important. So for me, before I wrote the first book, I actually knew what the first seven or eight in the series were roughly going to be. So, it’s not like I sit down and say, what is the next book I want to write in this series? I kind of know what the next book I want to write is. But I don’t trouble myself with the specifics…if you troubled yourself with the specifics of each book, you’d never wind up writing any. You’d have a bunch of very interesting outlines. And what I tend to do when I outline is, when I know I’m moving towards writing a book and it starts creeping into my consciousness. I start accumulating notes. That means I have a thought when I’m on the road and I dictate something into my phone, or I am working on a story and I realize that this passage doesn’t fit here, but I know that it’s going to be needed in the next one, where I have a realization through what comes out of a character’s mouth as I’m writing, let’s say Book 1, and I realize, “Oh, my gosh, this I just realized from what this character said what must be driving X, Y and Z,” and I will simply open a new file, write that down until I’ve, it’s sort of all come out of me, and then go back to my original. So, what’s happening is I’m compiling all this other stuff.

Another thing that may happen is that I write things that I like or…so what I do is, by the time I’ve started a novel, I’ve got all these pieces, yeah? And they have to do with all sorts of things. And then I know…the story is kind of what I know. I know where we start in a story and where we end in a story. Well, beforehand, what happens, the exact course of events, that remains a little bit vague. Part of what happens is that then, as I start working with that and I know more about what the dramatic arc is, I start looking at all these notes and I wind up putting them in different places in the dramatic arc. It is not as organized as, I come up with a chapter outline. I don’t do that for a variety of reasons. Chapters for me are actually…they’re not…they are things that to me evolve spontaneously. What I mean by that is a chapter should have a really good sense of closure. I can know what sort of content I want to put at a certain point in the book, but that doesn’t necessarily tell me…I’m probably going to discover where that great closure moment, that great last line in each chapter is, as I write, because it will be characters in conversation, it will be a turning point in a battle, it will be the discovery of a new mystery or something like that, which is that great, which gives you that great tagline, which makes somebody absolutely have to turn the page to read to find out what happens as a result of this, what happens next.

So, I don’t work from an outline in chapters. What I do is, I kind of see the different dramatic blocks that the entire narrative is going to be in, and I start seeding, I start taking all those notes, all those recordings, and I start notionally putting them in the different blocks. That tells me what the topics of conversation are going to be. And very often what’s happened is, like I say, I will have a…a lot of these ideas that I have long before I start writing the book become really foundational elements in determining what the dramatic arc of the book is going to be. If this is going to be where this fact is revealed, then I kind of already have a scene in mind. And when I start having that scene in mind, I kind of get a sense of, is that the conclusion, is that the midpoint, is that the introductory part of it, and the book really kind of takes shape. So I’m very much an outliner, but not on the level of, here’s what happens in this chapter, here’s what happens in this chapter, because I actually want to leave myself to discover some of that, because I feel that an over-plotted book can sometimes feel a little bit stiff, like it’s hitting the marks, and I want to also have spontaneity. I want spontaneity as I write. That means that I have the freedom to deviate from what I thought I was going to be doing at this part because I keep on discovering as I write the book.

And when I say discovering, I mean discovering things about characters, I also mean discovering that what I thought was going to be the best dramatic driver for the book is evolving in a slightly different direction. Doesn’t mean I’m throwing it out, but I want to…I don’t want to…in the final analysis, remaining flexible saves me time, too, because if you spend a lot of time doing an outline and then you say, “Oh, my gosh, this is, I thought this was gonna work really well, but actually the primary interest is not where I thought it would be, it’s gonna be here, I need to refocus.” Well, that means, therefore, if you’ve invested all the way to the end of the book in a very tightly plotted outline based on that presumption, it means you have to go back, and you have to redo all that. So for me, I tend to remain…there’s a certain point where my outlining ends in order to retain flexibility. And for me, it makes the book more interesting to write, frankly.

What about characters? You’ve mentioned that you develop, you discover things about your characters as you’re writing. Do you do a lot of preparatory work on, you know, details of their childhood and all that sort of thing, character sheets, as some people do before you start?

I did that with a couple of major characters. These are through characters, these are characters who have through lines and whose backgrounds are very important. Of course, for me, one of the things that people will realize when they read my books is that a lot of the major characters are not even human. So the background there, obviously, is worldbuilding in terms of, their society is not like ours, so what does it mean? What is a consciousness like that comes from this very different set of evolutionary building blocks and the very different culture that will arise from that, and how do I understand that, and how are they received in that culture? One of the things that I’ve done, and it’s a…I do write on a bunch of different levels, and I do hope that that at some point maybe somebody will go back and say, “Look, he was doing this, or trying to do it, anyhow.” One of the things about the main character, as I said, who sort of winds up being the first-contact expert simply because there’s no way to really get a degree in first contact, they’re doing it for the first time, hence first contact, but it actually helps to be a little bit of an outsider. And what I mean by that is if you are, if you presume that the shibboleths and the truths, so to speak, maybe truisms is a better word, of your upbringing and your culture are absolute, they’re kissing cousins to physical law, you’re not going to probably have what I will call the freedom of intellect and the receptivity to actually meet something that is intelligent but shares almost none of that background. How do you find common points? How do you wind up seeing your…how is this a mirror held up to your own species? These sort of things are…they’re consistents, and what I…

The one commonality, for instance, and I discovered this later in the writing, is that all of the alien characters who ultimately are the opposite number in a first-contact scenario, either by chance or design, to some degree are the same way. They are…they’re not pariahs in their own society, but they don’t…they don’t rest comfortably inside it. It doesn’t answer all the questions for them. To some degree, to whatever extent…a person who is willing to question their own society is also considered a little bit dangerous by their own society. That’s what all have in common, regardless of where…because you have to have that freedom.

So, to go back to what I was mentioning earlier about through characters that actually do have that kind of initial development on the way in. Caine Riordan, the protagonist of the series, to the extent that it has one, is definitely an example of that. And my decisions regarding him were a little bit a little bit unusual, I suppose, in that I wanted a realistic character that was going to be a great lens for immediate encounters with the unknown, immediate encounters with problems. And that meant that, in addition to me wanting to break with tradition and not go with somebody who starts out as a soldier or a spy or something else like that, I wanted to choose somebody who was a little bit more reminiscent of what I’m gonna call a World War Two hero ethos, which was, World War Two was largely a war where you did not have professional militaries. You had, it was a sort of a come-as-you-are party. And so, citizen soldier and that entire idea was very important to me, and that’s one of the reasons I chose to make him an analyst and a think tanker more than anything else, because I wanted him to start out in a comfort zone.

So, he was…what I mean by that is, he’s a semi-Washington insider at the time that everything begins, and it’s…he starts, actually, in a place of strength, in his comfort zone, but as time goes on, he’s actually moving out of that that comfort zone, very much what had to happen with folks who were in World War Two, they had to learn things on the job. They hadn’t… his was not part of their plan. And I thought that was a more interesting story than the ones that…I think we’ve gone in a slightly more pre-professionalized sort of direction regarding a lot of our heroes in similar tales.

The other thing that I wanted to do about him, so I wanted to give him, what was he going to have instead of those skills? And so, I decided on a character that was a polymath, which is, of course, more than just knowing a lot of things. It is also having an ability to, if you will, employ and exploit knowledge from one field to another. To give you an example of that, the same thing that moderates, for instance, our…the principle of dynamic equilibrium is just one example. It’s at work in terms of a pendulum. It’s at work in terms of maintaining pressure between systems. It’s at work in maintaining body temperature in the human body. And a polymath will tend to see all these things as potentially informing different fields where a similar process of dynamic equilibrium might be at work. That’s the way a polymath tends to think. They tend to take concepts or paradigms from one area, apply them to another that would not necessarily be the place you would normally expect to see it applied.

So, I wanted to make him that because I wanted to give him a kind of an unusual facility that turns into, readily turns into a jack of all trades, master of none. I thought that would be interesting in a character. The other thing that I chose for him…so that is, if you will, his superpower, everybody of course, every character has to have a tragic flaw. And his tragic flaw is a sort of a virtue that can go to an extreme, which is, he really, really does not like to, and almost never does, tell a lie. And when he does “lie,” it’s a lie of omission. It’s like, well, if you presume something and I don’t, I’m not going to say any…I’m not going to correct your misperception there. And he’ll only do that with people he feels have proven themselves to be faithless.

Now, given how much, as is obvious, he obviously works with or for the government on occasion, that desire never tell a lie, never to, you know, never to spout a party line, for anybody who’s had any sort of experience with large organizations, you can understand just how costly that can be. 

So, I wanted him also, with those skills, I felt that I wanted a character that readers, particularly readers, long-time readers of this, of science fiction and fantasy, would relate to. And I felt they would relate to this because, frankly, there are two places where I’ve met a lot of people who have these sort of traits, who have these desires not to march…they’re going to march to the beat of a different drum. They’re extremely intelligent. They are, they’re intelligent, their intelligence is spread across and frequently integrates a variety of different disciplines, and the two places I found that, in my experience, have been in that that big building at Langley, and as you walk past those cubicles, you’ll see the science-fictional books and all of the, if you will, the devotion again to alterity, because those are minds forever voyaging also. That’s why they’re analysts, for a large part. And also, science fiction fans themselves.

And so, in a sense, this was sort of a love letter, I guess you could say, to fans. I don’t come from fandom, but I found fandom to be exactly like this: well-read, competent in a bunch of areas, ferociously intelligent, really don’t care if they fit anybody else’s preconceived mold. So, that was who I chose him to be, and he’s evolved to the point as a character that…fans often describe my characters better than I do, and one fan, I was trying to explain who he was to somebody who didn’t read much science fiction at all, and the person with this less-exposed individual said, he sort of broke in and said, “Okay, let me put it in terms you understand. This character is a cool guy who has to sort of solve problems almost like a MacGyver, and he’s got sort of…although he’s got the head of Batman, he’s kind of got the heart of Captain America, although he doesn’t have any of their powers.” And I sat there, and I said, “Yep, that’s good. That works. I’ll take that. That’s a nice description. That’ll hook people.” So, that’s kind of who the main character is, and as you can see, this was very much a planned character for the other reason, the last thing I’ll say is, the other reason I did not want him to be a specialist at anything, why I did not want him to be in a military or rank situation, is that I frequently find it that a lot of these series, military series particularly, have this apparent driver in them to show the character from private to general and then still somehow involved in the action. And to my mind, that was never a good model because it becomes increasingly implausible as you go, as a character becomes higher and higher and higher in the command structure, that they would actually be on the sharp end of things, that they would be where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. And I did not want to take that away from the character. So I wanted…so although first contact frequently goes wrong or can put him in places where conflict arises, I didn’t want him to ever promote out of having to be in the field. So those were some things that are very much structured the character’s background and also the character’s temperament and abilities.

So, with your plan in mind and your characters, what does your actual writing process look like? Do you sit and work a certain number of hours a day? Do you write in longhand in an old notebook under a tree? How does it work for you?

So, no Thoreau for me, and…so, my work habit is not the one that I, unfortunately, that I work best on. And what I mean by that is I write toward immersion, because I think that’s one of the absolute requirements in a good piece of fiction, that…if a reader falls into your book, no matter why they’re doing it, you’re doing your job. You know, unless they’re there…and I don’t mean stick with the book, when I say fall into it, I mean, they get lost in the world, I mean, when they finally close the book, they feel like they’re re-emerging from that other world into this world. That is my objective. And so, my…I write from the same process, if you will, which is I, in a perfect world, I would get to my desk at nine or ten in the morning and I would write as long as it was in me. And there were times when I used to be able to do that. And there are one or two days of the week where I’ve got it structured that I can, but when you have four kids, two and a half of whom are still at home, that’s not quite the way it works out. So, the bottom line is, I try to get a start on every day.

I’m fortunate, very blessed, in that I never have what I would call writer’s block. And as a hint or as a possible function to other writers, I would say if I don’t know where I want to start the day or my energy isn’t ready, one of the things I’ll simply do—normally I do not start my day this way—Is I’ll go back to what I wrote the previous day or the last day that I was writing, and I’ll look at the last four pages of it, just to get myself up to speed. What I’m also winding up doing, of course, is I say, “Oh, my God, there’s a typo,” or “Oh, that’s clumsy,” or “Oops, that’s repetitive,” and by the time I’m done with those four pages, I’m ready to rock. As a matter of fact, I’m impatient to get going, because I’ve sort of put myself on the runway, I’ve backed myself up on the runway a little bit so by the time I’m hitting the blank page, so to speak, I already have a head of steam going. And that’s pretty much how I write. And if I can write for three or four hours straight such that I only stop when I suddenly realize, “Wow, my bladder is really full,” that is the way I like to write. That’s the most productive for me too, because the longer I do that, the more immersed I get in my own world. I don’t even feel like I’m writing at that point, I feel like I’m channeling and that’s, to me, the way it should feel.

When you get to the end, what does your revision process look like to you? Do you revise—you mentioned some revision as you go, when you’re doing this backing up, but do you do a complete start-to-finish rewrite at the end or are you pretty much done when you reach the end?

So, what I find that I wind up doing is…and I think this is very likely if you discover and if you…one of the reasons I don’t go back and revise as I’m writing is I find that it really slows down forward progress, because I do tend to be a perfectionist, particularly about prose and about character and about leanness. I want…whether or not you’re in an action scene, it’s very important to me that the book moves along with that kind of pacing. So, the thing I’m most likely to do in revisions is simply cut. And here’s where, here’s where part of that stuff for later novels comes in, because I’ll cut stuff that I thought was necessary in the book I’m writing, let’s say, and I realized it wasn’t. I didn’t get to that ultimately. I thought I would, but I didn’t, and it didn’t become important to the plot or the story arc in this book. But I can see where it’s going to become important down the line. So I’ll take all that stuff and I’ll move it into a file that is for later books. And that’s kind of a way of…I find that it makes it makes these, it makes the cut easier, to think that I’m not consigning all of it to a garbage bin, but that actually all I’m doing is kicking it…it’s part of the can that I’m kicking down the road.

Because when you’re writing a series, and if the series is not just, you know, “Here’s the universe and here’s this week’s adventure,” which is the model of most television series, or has been, like, for instance, in the Star Trek days and even the Babylon 5 days, although we’ve been moving more towards what I would call sustained character arcs as viewing and media options have changed. But in the original Star Trek universe, the thing that hung it together was, you knew something of the relationships of the character. But each show was essentially a self-contained experience, an adventure. Obviously not so mine, so when…so, there’s always reason, there’s…kicking stuff down the road is a very real advantage for me. And it gives me a sense of where I’m going and actually helps me pre-shape novels.

So editing, very important. And I’ll make several editing passes. The first thing I’ll do is, I will skim it and I will just highlight the text in one of three ways, not highlighted at all, yellow, or red. Red means I know I absolutely can and will get rid of this. Yellow is, “I don’t know, you know, have I said this someplace else, is gonna be repetitive, is it really necessary?” Because for whatever reason at that particular moment reading I haven’t got the whole, I haven’t got the project, the whole project, in my head at this point, ’cause this is probably my first read-through. So, after I’ve gotten to the end, then I’ll know which of those things…the red will almost always come out, the yellow, a lot of the yellow comes out, and then I’m left with what I’ll call the Ur-text at that point. And then I start doing the line edits, and the line edits are for clarity and just not to have extra stuff in there.

And I think sometimes, when I write from immersion, and like I say, I’m channeling, I’m very uncritical of what I’m writing as I write it. And so, this is the moment when the critical eye comes in, and a word…I’m not going to stop if I can’t think of precisely the word I want, because I don’t want that to jam up my writing day. But this is the point at which I’ll come back and say, eh, you know, because I put asterisks. You know, I’ll use a word, let’s say I was thinking of, you know, of a term having to do with, you know, when are you’re going to arrive, you know, and I’m thinking, “There’s a word for in military parlance, what is that? I can’t remember it, dammit.” I’m not going to stop, so I’ll write, “When are you going to arrive?”, snd I put three asterisks. I hit that when I go back and I say, “Oh, of course, insertion.” So then that comes out and insertion goes in and that edit is done.

So, there are probably two main passes. Sometimes there’s more. Interestingly, in Marque of Caine, this is the most heavily edited novel of all. It originally went in at 240,000 words, and Toni said, “You know, I think this is, for what it’s doing, I don’t think it wants to be this long.” She was absolutely right. Toni Weisskopf, by the way, owner and my editor at Baen Books. And I really looked at that, and…to give you an idea of how much I take editing and editor’s suggestions to heart is that one, that 240,000-word book ultimately came in at 158,000 words, thirty or 40,000 of which I can actually use, possibly in a standalone, or something later on, and a lot of the other things or bits. But yeah, a lot of editing and at almost every level, multiple passes.

Now I’ve got to get to the…well, you actually sort of answered this right off the top when you were talking about what drew you into science fiction and fantasy. But the big philosophical question is always, why do you write and why do you think any of us write this stuff? So, why do you why did you write it? Why do you think any of us write it?

Well. I think there are…I think people have overlap on one topic. If you were completely satisfied with the way things are in the real world in terms of all it contains in the way of experience and all of your ability to experience it, my guess is that possibly imagination would go in different directions. I think there is something about this focus on alterity, whether it is what I will call for the purposes of entertainment, and it might be self-entertainment as much as anything else, or whether it’s to ponder the imponderables, if you will, that at some level what’s in this particular mortal veil is not is not sufficient. Some…the people who write this, and I think the people who read it, want more. They want to see how else it could be. They are…there’s something that’s in them that is what I would call a positive restlessness of wanting to see what’s over the next hill. Not all human beings are like that. As a matter of fact, from having worked in advertising, I can tell you that that science fiction and fantasy sells to actually one of the rarest demographics, it’s a demographic that advertisers almost don’t go for, which is people who actually, you know, love and revel in the notion of alterity. Most people, it feels like, “That’s disorienting. You moved my cheese. Don’t do that to me.” It’s kind of hard to advertise for people who are focused on alterity and also tend to be a little bit skeptical. One of the reasons obviously they’re interested in alterity is because they have the mind reflex to essentially say, “If I’m not happy here, where else can I go? If it doesn’t fulfill, if it doesn’t check all my boxes, where do I go to get those boxes checked?” Well, science fiction, fantasy, those are great places, and this is where you find folks. So, I think all the readers and all the writers probably have that in common at some level.

Then I think there are a variety of different reasons for it. In my place, I am very much motivated by that. I’m also motivated by…I guess you could say some…first of all, it’s fun to do. If I…writing is work. It’s work I love to do. But worldbuilding, actually, if I am…I can be half asleep. I can be terribly distracted. I can…for instance, if I…some people can write in a crowded, somewhat noisy Starbucks. God love them, don’t know how they do it, but I can world-build wherever I am. For whatever reason, that exercise is such that…it’s like such a playground for me. I can be in the noisiest environment, and the only thing that will annoy me is if I don’t have a way to record my thoughts, because I’ll forget a bunch of them. And I can do that. So, that gives it… some of it from me, I think, is cognitive temperament, if I can say that? I know those sound like inherently different things, but I’m gonna put it that way.

And the other thing is that I do think that there are important questions to ponder. And I think one of them is, you know, the entire question of our future. By which I mean to say that I don’t write things–I want to be very clear about this–I am certainly not interested in predicting the future. I think it’s a fool’s errand, and as a friend of mine and fellow SIGMA member said, Steven Gould, he said, “Science fiction predicts the future the way a shotgun kills a duck.” And I think that that’s an absolutely on-target metaphor, if you will, or simile.

I haven’t heard that one before.

It’s a good one. And what I like about it is that there’s another level to it, I’m not sure Stephen intended this, which is, yes, a shotgun is firing across a broad span. But at the same time, it’s not without focused purpose. You’re aiming at the duck. You are trying to put, you’re trying to overlap, if you will, a cone of intent on an object at a distance. And I feel that’s exactly what the science fiction writer is doing. We’re trying to find what…we’re trying to project rather than predict. And we’re trying to, we’re not saying it’s likely. We don’t want it to be wholly implausible, but someplace between the realm of it’s possible, maybe even plausible, is, I think, sort of an important thing to do.

One of the things that makes human beings human beings is that we, as far as we can tell amongst all the creatures, are the ones who essentially create planning scenarios. We run through possibilities and potential scenarios in our mind, and we come up with ways of dealing with that. And this notion of forward-looking…science fiction and fantasy to some degree is just a more extreme version of that.

And I would say probably, the other component in this, which I suppose sounds a little bit goofy, but to go back to something I said before, I think there are challenges before us as a species, no matter whether it involves things from outside our own solar system or not, we have a bunch of challenges in front of us. I mean, a biosphere does not last forever. A star does not lasts forever. We are doing things to this planet, which I think anybody can say, forget the current sensitivity issues regarding climate, I’ll simply say carcinogens. We’re making a dirty environment. And what are we going to do about that?

And so, all of this is going to the notion of, there is a necessity for us to work together. There is a necessity for us to leave no one behind. Poverty and lack of education are not merely a crime against a compassionate approach to other human beings, they are wasted resources. By which I mean there are challenges before us that I really feel we will do our best if we have every human being on deck bringing their best game to the game. And we are not doing that right now. And I do believe that a movement in that direction is kind of one of the things that I’m trying to get at in my fiction, the costs potentially of not doing so.

And connected to that is that there is an interest in a different intelligence. I’m gonna say, I’m gonna use something that, as far as I know, is kind of coming from me, which is when people say, “Well, why would you think that would be any other intelligence in the universe?” And my attitude is, if you’re approach to this is deistic, well, you know, I don’t know that we can talk to begin with, not because I don’t want to talk with you, but when cosmology is the same thing as theology, essentially, you have your answers. There’s a teleology in place in the notion that, of course, we may be the only one, because that’s what we were told. OK, fine. But if that’s not what’s motivating somebody, if science and empiricism is, then my simple response to why would I think there’s other intelligence in the universe would be, “Tell me something else that nature has ever done once.” It just doesn’t. And I mean, they can say, oh, “Big Bang.” But there’s a lot that’s suggests that Big Bang itself is part of…there’s, I think, it was a scientific, or a sort of model that came out of, I think India, originally, going way back now, like twenty, thirty years, the hypersphere model, that if everything does, you know, if the universe is saddle shaped and everything goes far apart, when it goes far enough apart, it will ultimately begin to re collapse. It will recombine. And what happens? You get impossible density in a small point and “Bang!”, it starts all over again. So, I’m really wedded to that idea.

And if we are not alone, then my question is, what else is out there now or what else has been out there and what would that mean? What does it mean as we…and do we really want to say, therefore, in our own block? I think it was Tsiolkovsky, the sort of the father of Russian space technology and aeronautics and in some ways, for probably more than just Russia, said, you know, “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but you can’t remain in the cradle forever.” And indeed, you can’t. You won’t fit. Eventually it’ll rot. You know, your choices to…either we stay and die, or we move and exist and change. And my attitude is, the second is full of uncertainties. It is full of alternates that we certainly don’t see today. And that is certainly the direction in which I would want to head. So all those things kind of make me feel like, because they’re all so innate to me, I feel they’re like part of how I define myself that I kind of don’t feel that I chose science fiction. I feel science fiction chose me.

Well, now projecting your personal future. What are you working on right now? What’s coming up?

Giving shorter interviews and thereby sparing everybody’s listening audience.

I can’t wait to do the transcript for this one.

Oh, God Almighty. I’m so sorry, Ed. So, what I turn my hand to next is, I am doing a solo novel in John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising universe. Known inaccurately as his zombie apocalypse universe, which kind of was a complete surprise to me. The way it came up, I was asked to give an eight-to-ten-thousand-word short story for an anthology for that. And I certainly said, “Oh, that’d be fun.” So I did that and 35,000 words later, I turned in my piece, and there was great silence on the end of the line, so to speak, the email link. And many months later, I got an e-mail coming back saying, as I expected, “Obviously this doesn’t fit in the anthology, but if you could write as much again, we’d love to publish it as a novel.” So this was one of those moments where you break the rules and get a contract. And as Toni Weisskopf said at DragonCon, don’t any of you use this as a success model. So that’s what I’m in the midst of working on. After that, I do another 1632 novel, which I think Eric probably plugged the time he was on here. We’re doing something called 1637: No Peace Beyond the Line.

Yes, he did.

Right. A follow on to Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, and is another New World-setting novel, which at the end is going to start actually bringing some of the disparate character arcs back into contact. I won’t say more than that. And finally, after that, after working my way through the rota, because I have the wonderful quote, “problem,” I use that word very, very ironically and facetiously, is that I have a lot of books already under contract, which is the dream job. You know, I almost don’t say that because it is truly the thing I know I envied, and I feel honored and humbled by having that. So, I say all that to leaven any sense that I could at all be complaining about having more work to do than I have time to do it. That is exactly what every writer wants to have as their daily existence. But finally, I do get to write the first novel in the epic-fantasy slipstream sort of sort of trilogy that Baen contracted me to do called The Broken World.And I’m really lookin g forward to that because that’s worldbuilding again. It’s set in…it’s a different discipline in some ways than the worldbuilding for science fiction? But because rigour and consistency of worlds and everything you put in it is very important to me, there’s a lot in it that is actually reminiscent. The worldbuilding is the same. And once again, I had this world built in, in its main, long ago.

What I’ll say about it is again, the character is not the average character you would expect. Again, this character is a little bit at…not exactly at odds, but was hoping for a different life path than he got, but because of the skills he has, he doesn’t get that. He…you know, he’d hoped he was going to be a great figure in the armies of this state of which he is a part. But instead, he sort of is put in…he’s made a kind of a rolling individual scout-courier, which is hugely disappointing to him, but puts him in contact with things that suggests that there’s something wrong with this world. Things don’t add up. And that’s where I say it’s slipstream, because to some degree I am working against genre types. By the end of the novel, I hope to have largely stood a lot of the conventions of the fantasy novel straight on their heads, not the least of which a reader is quickly going to see that there are some things in this novel which certainly do draw from some of the imagery and shapes that we know of from our own history of this world and some that are not merely…they go beyond being not merely a sort of northwest tinctured, northwest European tinctured fantasy, but they become a sort of almost alien, if you will, tinctured fantasy. And that they are existing side by side is not is not a failure in artistic or aesthetic consideration, but bloodymindedly purposeful. That juxtaposition.

Sounds intriguing. And where can readers find you online?

All the usual places. My website is terribly hard to remember. It is—get a pen ready—www.charlesegannon.com. So what, the title you see on the books, the name on the books, is exactly the website, with the exception of there’s no period after my middle initial. It’s just www on one end, com on the other, and you’ll find me easily enough. I am probably…the best place to look for me is on Facebook. I’m there a lot. That makes it sound like I post a lot. I don’t, but it’s the thing I look at. I do have a mailing list that’s easy to find through the website. It’s easy to find through Facebook pretty much. If you can’t find it just let me know and I will be happy to direct you towards it. And I do have a Twitter account. I, as a matter of fact, did a Twitter interview just yesterday. No, on Friday. So I’m there. And, of course, you can find my books at Amazon. You can find them at baen.com, and they are, of course, frequently littering the shelves at Barnes and Noble and other, you know, bricks and mortar venues.

Oh, that’s great. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. It’s been a fascinating conversation. I think—I’m sure—that listeners will enjoy it.

Well, thank you very much. It’s great being here. And I’m sorry I gave you so much for your transcription efforts to untangle and present. But it’s a lot of fun. These were great questions. And you have a whole bunch of great things going on in your career right now. I see wonderful stuff with DAW Books and recently named a fellow in residence at one of Saskatchewan’s libraries. Am I right about that?

Yeah. I’ll be writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library from September through April, working with local writers and then also getting a chance to get paid for working on stuff before the publisher pays me for the stuff I’m working on, which is kind of weird, but I’ll take it.

You know, I think if you can make two dollars for every one you should make for the publication of a story. That’s a good thing. And it also sounds like I should have been interviewing you, not the other way around.

Well, I interviewed myself for a previous episode.

Oh, did you? Well, that must have sounded wonderful, if pathological.

Well, it was my Masks of Aygrima pseudonym, E.C. Blake, who interviewed me. So, anyway, thanks, Charles…Chuck.

Thank you so much.

Episode 29: Christopher Ruocchio

An hour-long conversation with Christopher Ruocchio, author of the The Sun Eater, a space-opera fantasy series from DAW books (published by Gollancz in the UK), which began with Empire of Silence in 2018 and continues with Howling Dark in 2019, and assistant editor at Baen Books, where he co-edited the military SF anthology Star Destroyers, as well as Space Pioneers, a collection of Golden Age reprints.




Christopher Ruocchio’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Christopher Ruocchio is the author of The Sun Eater, a space-opera fantasy series from DAW books, as well as the assistant editor at Baen Books, where he co-edited the military SF anthology Star Destroyers, as well as Space Pioneers, a collection of Golden Age reprints showcasing tales of human exploration. He’s a graduate of North Carolina State University where, in his words, “a penchant for self-destructive decision-making” caused him to pursue a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric, with a minor in Classics.

An avid student of history, philosophy, and religion, Christopher has been writing since he was eight years old, and sold his first book, Empire of Silence at twenty-two. The Sun Eater series is available from Golancz in the UK and has been translated into French and German.

Christopher lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he spends most of his time hunched over a keyboard writing. When not writing, he splits his time between his family, procrastinating with video games, and his friend’s boxing gym.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

 Welcome to The Worldshapers, Christopher.

Well, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

We met…we’re both DAW authors, a you know, conflict of interest and all that, get that right there, and we actually met at San Jose last year at WorldCon at the DAW dinner. I think was when I first met you.

I think so.

And then you very kindly showed me around the…well, Dealer’s Room doesn’t quite cover it at DragonCon…

A shopping mall.

Yeah…when I was down there last year, so I appreciated that as well. So it’s great to have you on. And I have to confess I have not finished Empire of Silence, but I…

Neither has my fiancée, so I can’t throw stones at anybody.

But I’m well into it, so when I get you to do a synopsis in a little bit, and I say, “no spoilers,” that will be for me as much as for the listeners.

I’ll do my best.

So, I always like to start these things off by going into… I always say either the mists of time or the depths of time…into the past, to find out how you got interested, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy, and how you started writing it, You started early, apparently, at eight years old.

Oh yeah. Yeah. I think it was my dad’s fault mostly, because when I was really small we were a Disney family, and most Disney movies are…I don’t want to say are for girls, but they’re about princesses, and when you’re a three-year-old boy it’s harder to get into those necessarily, although I was I was very fond of, especially, Sleeping Beauty because there was a dragon and a sword fight…

Me, too.

But then I think I watched Star Wars for the first time when I was four or five, and then immediately after we got through watching the first three movies, you know, a week later and then two weeks later, because they’d spaced it out, I think I watched the original trilogy on loop. Because I wasn’t allowed to watch very much. I was allowed TV Land, the Batman cartoon from the ‘90s, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and then the Star Wars trilogy. And so, I watched those original movies obsessively, and I read a bunch of the books, and of course The Phantom Menace came out, and I was just young enough to think The Phantom Menace was awesome. And it’s, you know, actually, it’s fine. It’s Attack Of The Clones that’s bad.

But I went from that through to reading a bunch of Star Wars books. I think the first book I ever bought was the first Tim Zahn Thrawn novel. But then I found Tolkien, and Harry Potter, of course, came in. I hit…actually before Harry Potter was popular. I read it when I was like five, because I read very early, maybe even younger than that. I’d have to check with my mother. And so, all this was happening at once, and then I hit Lord Of The Rings right when the movies were starting to come out, around 2000. I tried watching the Bakshi version, and it terrified me, and I gave up. And I tried reading the books instead but struggled with those a bit more than the Star Wars books and Harry Potter.

And so, I started writing because my friends, you know, would play make believe on the playground, right? And they were playing Dragon Ball Z, which I of course had no idea what that was, because I was not allowed to watch it. And so, when I was asked,” Hey do you want to play Dragon Ball Z?” I said, “Yes! But can I be Batman? And after two weeks of careful deliberation, the other five-year-olds agreed that, yes. And so, over the years going through grade school up to about third grade, we would play make-believe, right, on the playground, and we spun out and made our own characters. So, Batman eventually got a lightsaber, and…you know all these other…he went to wizard school, I think, and became…he was very accomplished.

I think that would improve Batman.

You know, I like Batman a lot, so I hesitate to say that, but I would definitely read that.

At least with a lightsaber.

The light saber, yes…he needs one. Everyone needs one, really. But I…so I started writing down these adventures we had on the playground, and then as my friends grew up and discovered football and social skills, I sat on the edge of the parking lot with a notebook and would keep making stuff up. And, of course, once I made it to fourth grade, third-grade me didn’t know what he was talking about, and I would throw everything out and start again and again and again and again and again, until I finished a novel, I think in eighth grade, of which one copy remains printed and it is in someone’s lockbox somewhere, I don’t remember. And it is terrible, and I…I kept doing this through high school and college, mostly because, you know, Christopher Paolini got lot of flak, you know. But he wrote that book at fifteen, and he was another Christopher, and an Italian one, at that, and I was…you know, “By God, if he can do it, I can do it, too,” and…I actually got to meet him at DragonCon, when I met you, and thank him for that, because I…you know, it’s one of those things I always thought that you needed to be like forty to do when I was little and he sort of proved that wrong. And so, I kept doing this until I eventually had something worth reading.

Did you share that early writing with your friends and see how…you know, that you could tell stories that they enjoyed?

Oh, sure. That…I had…I have a few friends, actually…before we started the talk officially I mentioned my two roommates. My two roommates…I’m just moving out now, actually, into my first house, but my roommates are two friends I’ve been friends with…since third grade, I think…and them and a couple others I would…we would always pass things back and forth. We used to play, you know, like, not exactly Dungeons and Dragons but some like off-brand RPGs and stuff together, a lot of, like, Internet forum RPGs? So we would do a lot of co-writing and stuff. And I was always working on this side thing, and when I would finish, it’d be like, “Guys, look at this!”, and then hand it out. A couple of them have stuck with me and keep giving me feedback. I think one of them has that one copy that I referred to, ’cause he was always fond of this stupid story I’d written in middle school, so I gave him the last print copy I had, because God only knows what happened to the Word documents.

I always ask that because a lot of us started writing young. I wrote novels in high school and started well before that, and I talked to some writers who, you know, there’s no way they were gonna show that stuff to their friends, and yet, I always did. So I always ask people that. And I think it helps, because you get that sort of, “Oh, I could tell stories that people really enjoy,” so, you know, it’s a kind of a positive-feedback thing.

I still do…I have a couple of them. I have a little Facebook group discussion and I send them updated files of…I’m working on the third book in The Sun Eater now and so every four or five chapters I will send them another update and then wait until one of them tells me how it is. Because you don’t know, right? You don’t know if what you’re doing is really good until you get someone else’s eyes on it. It’s sort of like Schrödinger’s Cat. And it helps to have either some validation or some course correction.

Well, somewhere along the way I lost all that. So now nobody sees it until it goes to Sheila at DAW. That’s another thing I ask, and we’ll talk about that a little bit later on with your writing process, you know, whether you have people that help you out at that initial stage or not, giving you feedback. But we’ll talk about that a little bit…so, from, you grew up, then, in North Carolina, I presume, where you still live.

Oh yeah. Born and raised. I am the proverbial medieval peasant. I haven’t moved more than ten miles from where I was born.

And so, this was interesting, that you decided to get a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric with a minor in Classics. I didn’t even know there was a degree called English Rhetoric. What does that involve?

So NC State was weird, right? It’s sort of…North Carolina, Raleigh in particular, has got a bunch of colleges right around. We’ve got the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, which is a pretty famous liberal-arts school, oldest public university in the US, and we’ve got Duke, which has sort of like a semi-Ivy League reputation, but NC state was founded as an agricultural school just after the Civil War. So it’s got more of a…it has a reputation for being kind of the, like, farm school, right? But now it’s one of the best engineering universities in the state, and, I think, even in the world. But I went for an English degree because they had this internship program for English students that had a 100-percent job-placement rate and I am, if nothing else, a practical man. So, I thought that would be better than a slightly more reputable name on my diploma. And it was a great program at any rate, just a less-famous one.

So, I went, and they do this thing where they split their English degrees into what they called focuses, so I could take a focus in literature or rhetoric or film, and the rhetoric one was the technical-writing one, really. So, there was a lot of tech-writing classes, that sort of thing, but also just journalism classes, you know, just making sure you could write, you know, nonfiction articles, that sort of thing. Make sure your grammar is correct.

Hilariously, I had this very bad graduate-level rhetoric class right at the end that taught no rhetoric, I think because the professor felt left out that when the scientists got particle accelerators and lasers the English department didn’t get any toys. So, we spent a lot of time talking about the “rhetoric of physical spaces” and how…and that’s not rhetoric. And I got in a lot of trouble for repeatedly informing her that this was not rhetoric, because I had the classics background, too, which I backed into because I didn’t want to take a world-literature course because I’m less interested in them, shall we say, than in the things that I grew up with., because that’s just who I am as a person. And I didn’t want to take a language class where I had to stand and do oral conversation components to my exams because I am bad at learning languages.

Unlike your character.

Yeah. So people who say that he’s just a self-insert are wrong. I can’t do it. And so I was taking three years of high-school Japanese and by the end it was, you know, (something in Japanese), and I’d be like, “Um…um…good morning.” I’m not that bad, but I was just embarrassed, and so I took Latin. And between the taking Latin and…I took for my world literature course. I did ancient literature, so we did a bunch of Greek and Roman stuff, but we also did some middle-Eastern stuff. The Enûma Eliš and the Epic of Gilgamesh, these things, and some early Far East stuff as well, which is also fascinating, so when I say, “world literature,” I mean contemporary stuff, because I just don’t think a lot of contemporary lit-fic is very good. I know that…it just doesn’t interest me, so…the old stuff, yes, by all means. And so, I backed into it because of my interest in ancient history and the classical period in the Near East and whatnot, and through  the Latin.

The rhetoric major still interests me. It doesn’t sound like it was what anybody would consider a creative writing class. It’s more like  just technically creating clear sentences and paragraphs and organizing your thoughts and all that kind of thing.

Yes. So, I had a bunch of classes that actually were your sort of traditional…the sort of rhetoric classes that Shakespeare was forced to do, right, where it’s like, “OK, give us, you know, write ten examples of tricolon, as like a, you know, overnight assignment,” right, things like that. And so I actually have…I won’t say something like an ancient education where you would be drilled constantly on how to speak and how to hold your hands to present a statement before the Roman Senate, right, because there were hand positions in these things, but I at least had something sort of winking in that direction, where it was, you know, “Be aware that if you phrase things in this way, if you employ devices like hendiadys or stichomythia, you know, these things that sound like Greek incantations, that you can have an effect on an audience in a certain way.” And I did a lot of Elizabethan theater classes, as well, and a lot of that was still used by people like Shakespeare and Marlowe, and the rest, in writing those plays, because they’re very…the play is a very oral medium, right, it’s meant to be heard, it’s meant to be spoken, and I think the best prose should be the same way. And so, the rhetoric stuff ended up being really useful, I think, from a creative-writing standpoint, because I’m a big audiobook person, and so I’ve been very much affected by the sound of the language. And so, those classes were all great except for that last one, which was like, “We’re going to talk about rhetoric in paintings,” to which I said, “Shouldn’t be a design class, three buildings down?”.

How to win friends and influence professors, maybe not.

No. It was my last semester and I was grumpy, let’s say.

So, with Empire of Silenceselling when you were twenty-two, clearly you were working on this while you were at university. Is that when this began?

Yeah. The book that became this one…people ask when I started writing. I’ve always been writing, air-quotes, “the same book,” but when I started writing it at seven, eight years old, you know, it was about Batman, and it’s not about Batman at all anymore, really, although Hadrian does wear a lot of black still, that hasn’t changed. But so do I, and I don’t know if that’s a chicken or egg thing.

And so, I started this one in my freshman, sophomore year of college, really, and it was quite different still. Hadrian wasn’t quite human in the original draft. There were some near-human aliens because I also played a lot of Japanese RPG games and there are a lot of aliens that are almost human…anyway, it changed dramatically. And as I got into my final year, I had the great fortune of having John Kessel for a professor. He’s a Nebula Award-winning short-story writer, he’s got a couple of novels out from Saga, and he is an all-around just great guy, and he gave me some advice on querying, and of course I’d started my internship at Baen, so I actually had access to a SFWA directory, which has all the agencies in the back, so, I photocopied that and started going through, querying people, with John’s advice on the letter writing. There was this awful frame narrative that was in the book at the time that he convinced me to cut out. And lo and behold the minute I did that, I started getting answers to my queries that weren’t, “Go away.” And I sold…rather, I got an agent a month before I graduated and then…so that was November because I graduated a semester off schedule, I had an extra, I was late, which is part of why I was so cross with my rhetoric professor, I just really wanted to be out. And so, I had about a month over the holidays because, you know, people aren’t working in December really, and then come January I got my job at Baen on Monday, and then that Thursday I got a call from Sarah Guan, who used to work at DAW, she’s with Orbit now, she loved the book and wanted to buy it. And so, I had about the best week of my life up until I proposed to my fiancée. So that was a good time.

Well, you said this book kind of grew out of all the stories that you’d been writing all along, but was there some initial seed or image? How does that work for you when it comes to a story? How do stories come to you, or begin?

I can’t remember where this one really came from. There’s no, you know, Robert Howard talking about Conan just appearing or J.K. Rowling having the same sort of conversation about Harry Potter just sort of appearing to her on the train, because it’s been so long. Hadrian and I…although Hadrian’s had like thirteen, fourteen different names, he’s been with me in some form or other since I was a kid so, I don’t…a couple of people have noted similarities between our personalities. You know, just…this is a common thing with authors, right? Like, I’ve seen people say the same thing about Pat Rothfuss and Kvothe, that they have some similar personality traits, things like that…but I don’t know which one’s me, which one’s him, because I’ve been writing this character in some form since I was a small kid. So, like, I was talking about the black clothes. Like, I wear black pretty much all the time and so does Haddrian, it’s his family color, and I don’t know if I’m wearing black because I’m sort of low-key cosplaying my own work or if my work is borrowing from my own fashion choices.

I thought I was a Johnny Cash influence.

You know, my dad makes that joke and I’m happy to accept it because Johnny Cash is the man.

I wrote a biography of him, a children’s biography of him. So…it was kind of cool.

Did you really? I’ll have to go track that one down. I’m a big fan. I’m not usually a country guy but Cash is excellent.

So, I don’t really know. There are some other stories that I will, that I’m working on that I have some ideas for. They’re just coming to me randomly. I don’t try to go looking for them. I’m not a very stringent researcher. If it’s something completely new, if it’s something I want to be devoting a lot of time to, they’ll just sort of pop up eventually, usually because I’ll be reading or watching something and I’ll like it, I’m like, “This is cool! But…” And then something will sort of spin out of an objection or a critique of something else. And I’ll want to do something from that. I’m a very argumentative person, to my detriment, as my educational history made brief reference to.

Well, if we’re going to talk about the Sun Eaterseries, perhaps you could give a spoiler-free synopsis of the first book for those who either have not read it or, like me, have not yet finished reading it.

All right. Well, what I usually do, because I go to a lot of conventions and I do a lot of floor selling with my friend Alexi Vandenberg of Bard’s Tower, is, I tell people that my main character, Hadrian, is sort of an Anakin Skywalker, but less whiney, if becoming Darth Vader were the right thing for him to do. The story is set about 20,000 years in our future in this big galactic empire. Hadrian is a nobleman, the son of a fairly minor but high-status house, that runs away from home, and he finds himself stuck in the middle of this war between humanity and the Cielcins, this alien menace, who are the first species of technologically advanced aliens in all that 20,000-year history who have ever stood up to humankind, who have ever rivaled us for control of the galaxy. Hadrian tells you on page one that he is the man who ended that war and killed all of the Cielcin, and the story is a memoir of why and how.

Yeah, talk about a spoiler on the first page.

Yeah, I…yeah. I don’t…I’ve always taken umbrage with spoiler culture. I think that if your story has to hang together on surprise, then maybe it’s not the best story. People have started to realize this about, say, M. Night Shyamalan, after The Sixth Sense. You know, his other movies have all hung on some twists that more or less haven’t delivered and I, you know, I don’t go out of my way to ruin things, but I think that if we can take the what-if, or what might happen, off the table, and instead talk about why and how, and the details, obviously, ‘case I’m not giving away the whole ending on page one, that we can ask some more interesting questions and have a different kind of story.

I suppose there’s no particular reason…I don’t think it even works very well to try to do an entire novel version of an O. Henry short story where everything depends on a sudden twist on the last page. I don’t think readers would actually like that.

No, no. And I’m not saying that every, you know, plot twist is like that, either. I just…I think…like, I’ve gotten a lot of people who complained that these memoir-style books take a lot of the tension out of the plot, and maybe that’s true for them. But I am one of those people who always looks at Wikipedia summaries of things because I like to know. I’m more interested in the journey than the destination and seeing how things get carried off and why, and what’s layered in there. And for those people who think that this story is something that I’ve given away completely at the beginning, that presupposes that all there is to this story is this one action that I tell you about on page one, which I think would be a mistake.

Well, I was gonna say that when it comes to memoirs it’s not like, if we were reading a memoir of a famous person…we know what he did, or she did, and yet we are still interested to find out how that all came about from the internal perspective of the person who did that thing. So, that should apply just as well. If I were…we’re currently reading, of all things, I’m reading out loud Boswell’s Life of Johnsonto my wife. We still have forty-four hours to go according to the Kindle.

Oh, my gosh.

And yet, you know, it’s still interesting even though, you know, well, he did the dictionary and he did all this, and then he died, you know. And yet it’s still interesting, even though you know how it ends. And it’s not like, you know, Romeo and Julietis any less powerful because you know when you go into it how it’s going to end. In some way it’s going along the journey along the way that makes it interesting.

Right. And there’d be no point to read classical literature anyway, right? Like, take The Count of Monte Cristo, right? Like, everybody knows it’s about a guy who goes to prison unjustly and gets revenge. And now, that he gets revenge, which is usually how the book sold to anybody when you’re trying to get them to read it, presupposes his success. But the details, right, you know, and how and why and the catharsis of those moments, right? That’s why you read the thing, you don’t read it to figure out what happens.

Did I interrupt you in the synopsis of the book?

Oh no. No, no, no. That was pretty much all I wanted to say, because I don’t want to say the things in the middle, right? There are, you know, without putting anything together, there are gladiator fights and there is court intrigue and there are aliens and friendships lost and found and all of these things.

Well, that brings me around to the next question, which is, so far you’ve mostly talked about your character, but there’s an awful lot of worldbuilding going on in here and a detailed and complicated plot. What does your planning process look like? Do you outline in great detail, do you wing it, and then…how does it work for you?

So, I winged the first book because I didn’t have a deadline. I had years and years to figure it out. And so, most of it ended up gelling in my head over time as I was rewriting things and changing things. You know, “What if I did this instead?” I had to rewrite this one very quickly because my first editor, when she bought it, it was about half as long. She said, “I love it. It’s great. I read it in one shot overnight, but I have these two problems,” and I looked at the problems and they were, without getting into too much detail, they were really fundamental worldbuilding problems, and it was the sort of thing that the only way I could fix them and be sure I fixed them and it wasn’t sloppy was to rewrite the whole thing. And so, I locked myself in my room, basically, for three months. I think it took me 108 days, because I kept a spreadsheet of my progress because this encourages me. Or discourages me, at least, when I fail to write enough on one day and my spreadsheet looks bad. And I would go to work, and then I would come home, and I worked…I think I slept only, like, four hours a night for most of that period. It was not good. But I shot through the whole thing all at once, and because I had just written it, right, it was all still very crystal.

But for the second book…I’ve become pretty friendly with David Drake, working at Baen, and Dave writes these enormous outlines, you know, you can…they’re basically like fifty or sixty pages for everything he does. And Dave ticks through and writes them…he writes his books…we, you know, we can almost plan our schedule around Dave. He’s like clockwork. It’s amazing. And so, he’ll turn in a book, we’ll know how long it is, we’ll know when we’re getting it, we know how early we’re getting it, we know how clean it will be. He’s so consistent. He’s just a real pro. And he does it because of these, I think because of these, amazing outlines, and so when I wrote book two, Howling Dark, I thought, “I’m going to be like Dave Drake.” Bold, bold statement, I know, but we have the Rome thing in common, so I thought I was I was off to a good start.

So, I started this big outline, and I wrote it and then, having written it, I realized that I knew basically everything that was in it. So when I would start a chapter I would look again at the page or so I’d written for the chapter, refresh myself with it, and then not look at it again. And for book three I did kind of the same thing. Because this story starts with at least intimations of its ending. I had kind of both ends of this plot string nailed to the table and I’ve been trying to untie the knot ever since. Which is kind of hard to do. So, I’ve been clipping at it and moving things around, so when I start outlining, I will put a bunch of scenes I know need to be in the book down on sticky notes. I had this big door on my closet that was just flat, right, so I used it kind of like a like a chalkboard, and I would stick these things to it and this sort of cloud of notes would turn steadily into a column marching straight up and down the middle of the door as I knew which scene/chapter was gonna be where and what would happen. And I turned that big string of post-it notes into a sixty-page David Drake outline. And I’ve done that for the last two books. And in doing that, I haven’t taken, you know, fifteen years to write it. I did book two in about nine months and book three is going to take about six all told. So I’m getting this down to a science, I think. I hope, rather.

What length are they? I’m reading it in Kindle, I don’t know how thick it is.

Oh gosh. Empire was 238,000 words. Howling Dark was 260, and I think this one’s going to be a little bit longer than that, the third one.

They are substantial.

Yeah, I try to write about 2,000 a day, when I am not moving house (I’m moving right now, I think I said), I can do two to three pretty reliably. At least, now that I have a due date and the fear of God is in me.

Sixty pages is pretty impressive from my point of view—my synopses are more like twenty, twelve to twenty, fifteen to twenty, more or less. But you don’t win the medal for people I’ve talked to on The Worldshapers. Peter V. Brett does a 150-page outline.

Yeah, I have no ambitions of trying to take that title from him.

He’s certainly…and there’s also, you know…I guess it was Kendare Blake I talked to, whose episode just came out before this interview with you, and she basically wings everything. So it’s always interesting to hear the different approaches that people take.

You mentioned Rome, and clearly that’s a lot of influence in there, in the book. So, going back to the worldbuilding side of things, it seems like you were drawing very much on your interest and study of history and philosophy and religion, all that seems to really find its way into the story.

Yes. So I thought, when I was writing it, that it was mostly Greek and Byzantine. I was wrong, but that was what I had in my head. And I think…I had thought that a lot of the Roman influence was because I post a lot of very stupid jokes just, you know, meme images, that are about the Roman Empire and Roman history generally, because I think they’re funny and I think maybe two people I’m friends with get them all, but I share them anyway. And so, I think this impression that I had been primarily a Roman scholar sort of emerged from my stupid Facebook use, and I’ve sort of steered into the skid a little bit, because most of what I’d read was, of course, Greek, because there’s more of it, at least, dramatic literature, right, and most of it the Romans appropriated in one form or other, sometimes improved, depending on who you ask.

And because, also, I was raised and am Roman Catholic, I went to a Catholic school up through high school, up to the beginning of high school. And so, I grew up with a lot of classical history because it’s so integral to the genesis of the religion. So we talk about Egypt and Israel and the Near East generally, and then moving through to the Greeks and…the Seleucids, the Macedonians, you know, and Rome later, and the Byzantines afterwards. And, of course, much of early medieval history, which is steeped in a lot of classical philosophy. Aristotle’s influence cannot be overstated. And my best friend is an Aristotelian scholar at, he’s finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton. So, I have him check a lot of my work and give me ideas, things I wouldn’t have read because I was mostly interested in the myth and the drama, and he had the philosophy. So he helps me out a lot.

And so, a lot of it really comes from, I think, that religious background, just because, you know, you can’t escape Rome’s shadow as a Catholic, certainly. Both the Empire and the city and the church after. And a lot of that left its stamp, but I think as far as my reputation for it goes, it’s probably mostly just those stupid jokes.

You never know what you put on line is going to follow you down…

No, and you never know what thing is going to be the useful detail in your world building, right? You know, I might have only read I think a few pages of philosophers like Epictetus, right, like I…of course. your readers will think you’ve read all of it. Don’t tell anyone. But you know, you might find a line or two and that’s all you need. You know, the fiction writer’s world-building game, I think, ought to be consequensive of a pretty light touch. You know, I talked to Lois Bujold, because I did a brief stint doing the other side of the interview thing here when I did the Baen podcast for a couple of months, and I asked Lois Bujold about worldbuilding, and she told me she won’t make up anything until she needs it. And once I heard her say that, I was like, “All right, I’m not going to spend hours filling notebooks with information anymore. I will make up details as I need it and then try to stick to the rules that I have established.”

Well, I’m a stage actor and playwright and director and a lot of this bears in common with doing something on stage: you only put on there what you need to suggest the reality and the viewer, in that case, the audience member, fills in everything from that. You know, that one flat with a view over the Roman hills in the background or whatever. It’s really just a light little touch, a little detail, and yet it suggests a depth and richness that in many ways the audience actually provides.

It’s amazing how little the audience really needs in order to generate a picture, right? Like, Shakespeare…Elizabethan theatre didn’t use set design at all, right? They might, they had the balcony above the stage, but there were no  tables and chairs. It was all done by costume. You had your props and what not. You know, I think it’s Measure for Measure when they say, “Exit pursued by a bear.” There was a bear-baiting pit across the street from the Globe, so I’m sure there was a real bear, but they weren’t building, you know, castle displays and these things. That’s why, at the beginning of Henry V, the chorus comes out and says, you know, “Imagine that this dome, you know, contains the varsity fields of France,” and so, you know, just a light suggestion, just an off phrase is going to generate crazy ideas in people. I remember as a kid looking at maps of Middle Earth and looking at places Tolkien doesn’t even talk about, right, like a ruin barely comes up, and thinking, “Well, I want to I want to go there,” right? That’s all it takes is literally just one name on a map and the audience is running with. And they think that you have it all planned out, and you don’t have to.

We have talked about a little bit about your actual writing process: 2,000 words a day on a good day, 2,000 to 3,000 words. You are very…it sounds that you’re very organized, like, “I sit down, and I work when it’s time for me to work.” Is that pretty much the way you work?

Yeah. Well, especially now. They give me a deadline, and it was a month sooner than I had anticipated for book three. So what I do, I wake up at about 6 a.m., I eat breakfast, and then I will write until I have to go to work just before 9, and then I will go to the office and work 9 to 5, like a good soldier, and then I will come home, make dinner, and then I will work until I hit that word count. And I try to hit, at the very least, a thousand words in a day. These days, I’m trying to bottom out at 1,500, just because I want to get it to Katie on time, and if I can do it early, because they know the deadline surprised me and wrong-footed me, then I will look really cool. And I am trying to look as cool as possible so…fortunately I had that deadline.

You’ve mentioned, also, you know, that you have these friends that you still get some feedback from. Especially when you’re working to a deadline like this, do you actually even have time to show this to anybody before you’re gonna have it done and then hand it in?

They might not…their feedback at the very end might not be that useful, but I try to get it to them in stages, you know, so they might read three chapters at a time and just sort of follow behind me. I very briefly had a stint in the noughts as a middle schooler writing fan fiction and reading it. I sort of fell out on it because I realized that I would do better writing my own stuff. I know I could make money doing that, I can’t make money writing Legend of Zelda stories. But, you know, they would update a chapter at a time every couple of weeks, right? And it was exciting. Same with comic books, right? You know, I’m  a big fan of Berserk, the Japanese series, and that might get a chapter every, like, three months or something, and waiting for that little update’s really exciting. And so, my friends who came out of the same space as me no objections to getting these things in dribs and drabs and getting back to me. I have a couple who were faster than others, and some people might not answer, but that’s the virtue of having about five or six. I’ve got a couple who will read pretty reliably.

My friend the philosophy guy usually spot checks things for me. I’ll have specific questions for him or a couple of other people. My…I mentioned my friend’s boxing gym in my bio. My friend Wes runs a gym here in Raleigh. He trains boxers to actually fight, because most boxing gyms are actually aerobics studios. Not to put that down, but they’ll just stand in lines and they’ll just do drills, and their technique is not actually competitive at all. So, Wes trains people to fight, and he also does fencing and HEMA (Historic European Martial Arts) and he used to teach summer camps where he would teach kids like medieval military tactics and have them in lines with spears and stuff, it was very cool. And so I’ll have him check a lot of my action scenes, things like that.

I was gonna ask, what specific kind of feedback are you getting from people? I guess that’s one of them. Action scenes, and specific questions you have for your philosophy friend…philosophical friend?

Yeah, yeah. Marcus. He’s actually, he is who Gibson—if you’ve read the book, Gibson is Hadrian’s tutor.


Sort of the scientist monk. And they all take names, in much the same way that when you’re confirmed Catholic you take a saint’s name, these monks will take old scholar names, and he has borrowed my friend’s name, as a nod to my friend for his long years of service.

So what does your revision process look like when you get to the end? Do you revise as you go? Do you do a big revision at the end and then submit it? How does that work for you?

I do…when I have time, and I won’t this time with book three, I let it sit for a week, ideally, and then start reading it over again, and I’ll make notes about what needs to be changed and things as I go. I’ll fix, you know, bad-sounding sentences. Because I try to read aloud. The most important bit of writing advice I ever got, and I think the most important bit of writing advice I can ever give, is “read your work out loud,” because if you wrote a bad sentence it will sound stupid and you can fix it, but you can’t fix it if you can’t hear it. And so, I try to read everything aloud and catch those as I’m going and then catch things. I also find my memory is much better with things I’ve heard, so I’ll remember details better and catch things like someone’s eye color changing, which…even proofreaders are going to miss that sort of thing.

Yes, those things do crop up, and if you don’t read it out loud to yourself while you’re doing that, you will certainly find those errors when you’re doing a public reading sometime.

Oh, yeah. Every time. There’s a word missing in the first line of dialogue in Empire of Silence, I think. It’s something like “the mother of wisdom in” and it should be “is in” and that missing “is” haunts me to this day. I fixed it in the mass market, but it just…it’s in the audiobook, and every time it just…it’s too late.

It must be in the electronic ARC I’m reading, so I’ll have to look that up.

Yeah, it’s…it’s just embarrassing. But I try to do that, and I’ll do spot fixes. I try to go and find words like “very” and see if it’s an instance of the word “very” that needs to go. Words like “seems.” I have a whole list somewhere, I forget other words…

Quite a few authors have told me that. Let’s see, it was Kevin Hearne, I think, who said he suddenly became sensitive to the phrase “I couldn’t help but,” and he said, “Well, of course you could.” And so he goes through and tries to get rid of all of those. For me…I…well, of course, there’s the, you know, the basic, if you do a search for “wases” and “weres” and stuff you can see if you’re using passive tense sometimes you shouldn’t. But, I often find that my characters make animal noises too much. They’re always growling dialogue or snarling something. I try to catch some of those.

So, when it gets to DAW, and Katie, your editor there, what kind of editorial feedback do you get? I haven’t worked with her, so I don’t know how she works.

Katie is great. Katie catches a lot of things. My favorite thing about working with Katie is that Katie and I have more-or-less diametrically opposed worldviews and philosophies and backgrounds. I come from a deeply Catholic conservative background. Katie is very much a progressive. I think she was, I think she was an activist, like, a professional activist before she was an editor. And we live in very divisive times, let us say, and without getting into anyone’s opinions on anything, because I really don’t, especially publicly, don’t want to be a political person in any way whatsoever, I really appreciate that we can work together with these very different…because there are just things that you’re blind to, right? When you have opposing…when you have a different way of seeing things, there are just some parts of the world you don’t see because you’ve never seen them, these sorts of things? And Katie is conscious of things.

’Cause I’m not trying to hurt anybody with writing, so just, you know, stupid, you know, thoughtless things that might creep into your writing because it doesn’t…you don’t encounter it, right? It’s not exactly…I’m not describing, like, sensitivity reading issues, because my response is usually not…it’s not changing anything that’s in…I don’t change any of my…things that are in the text. It’s not that kind of thing. It’s…she will catch where I haven’t presented myself very clearly or I’ve sort of taken half-measures in order to express an idea or to negotiate a plot point, these sorts of things. The way I like to think about it is, in Dostoyevsky and Brothers Karamazov, right, he’s got Ivan and Alyosha, and Alyosha is kind of dim, but he’s a really decent human being. Ivan is viciously brilliant, right? And Ivan wins every single argument that he has against Alyosha, but Alyosha wins in the long run because he is a decent human being. He ends up at the end of his life better off, right? And Dostoyevsky has more in common worldview-wise with Alyosha than he does Ivan, but he makes Ivan as strong a foil as he possibly can. You know, Nietzsche used to say that he did philosophy with a hammer, well ,Dostoyevsky did literature with a hammer, right? He built the strongest possible…you know, I don’t want to say arguments, because fiction isn’t necessarily an argument…but the strongest possible avatar of things he didn’t believe in, right? He made his villains, his antagonists, as strong as he could. And Katie helps me to pull out places where I have been a weak writer because of our differences of opinion and vision and clarity of vision. And, you know, I find that absolutely wonderful and indispensable. And so, in addition to that, obviously there’s the usual stuff about, you know, just usual editing, you know, this might not work here, move this scene, that kind of thing, but that, I think, is the most useful, the most indispensable, bit of editorial help that I get.

So, Empire of Silence came out last year, right? 2018?

Yes. Yeah. July 10.

Trying to remember what year it is.

I know.

And the second one, which is called Howling Dark, is coming up very shortly. We’re recording this in early June and the book comes out in July.


I should know because there’s this guy on Twitter that’s running a daily countdown of how many days it is.

Yeah. I thought that would be fun. It’s been a lot of work.

I was looking at that, thinking, “I could do that for Master of the World,” which is my next book from DAW, but I thought, “Boy, that looks like a lot of work,” so I don’t know if I will do that or not.

Yeah, I did that all in advance, thank heavens. I don’t do it every day. I did a countdown for book one like that, where I did the one quote from each chapter per day for each number of chapters. But I had eighty chapters in this book, and doing one for three months, is…

So, what has the response been to the first book?

Overwhelmingly positive. I think I’ve got about 1,200, 1,300 reviews on Goodreads. Fifty percent of them are five stars, which is just absolutely mind-boggling, because to me this is still a bunch of goofy nonsense that I made up because, really, you know, for all this talk of, you know, differences of opinion and stuff, my only aspiration is to entertain people. It truly, truly is. People can read the book if they agree with me, if they disagree with any of this. And I hope that they have a good time, because that’s what this is about. I am ultimately no different than a medieval harlequin juggling in the streets, and that’s all I want to be, only more serious.

Well, that actually is my next question. This is the point in the podcast where I ask the big questions, and the first one is, “Why do you do this? Why do you write?” And, on a broader scope, why do why do you think any of us write, one, and two, why do you and I and other people write this kind of made-up stuff, science fiction and fantasy?

Well, I have two answers, because of course I have artistic pretensions, right? And any artist does. And I do really think that literature in particular, that the thing that separates human beings from the animals isn’t, you know, tool-building, obviously crows do that sort of thing, it’s not language even, really: it’s storytelling. The reason…we tell stories so that our narrative persona, our narrative avatars, right, our characters, can suffer and die so that we don’t have to.

Stories are instructional. The most basic story is, “I went out into the wilderness. There was a tiger. It killed the other cavemen. Bring a stick next time.” You know, that’s why fables have morals. And all stories do this. And what we’ve been trying to do with our stories…and the oldest stories, in addition to being, you know, daily news, like the tiger one, are religious, right? Religion, literature—these things overlap pretty significantly in the way that they try to define an ethic of, like, how we’re supposed to act in the world, what the right way to behave is. That’s what the hero’s journey is, right, the hero’s journey is like the Dao in Daoism, right, it’s like the eightfold path in Buddhism, it’s like the imitation of Christ in Christianity, it’s the right way to act in the world, you know, being heroic, right? Now, we can argue about the details of what that is, and that’s part of the experiment, right?

You know, I started writing this because I read Iain Banks’s Culture series, where he’s like, “Well, the minute we get into space, government’s finished,” like, you know, no one will ever control anybody. And as much as I love those books, I was like, “That’s not right. Like, well, it’s really hard to get off planets, Mr. Banks. Like, they just won’t let you.” And so, I made an empire that doesn’t let people get off planets. So, you know, it’s all part of this argument about society and how people function.

But beneath all that, and at the same time, you know, I think it was Edgar Rice Burroughs said, you know, “You have to entertain first.” Right? Maybe it was someone else, or maybe he said it, too. And all I really want to do…the reason why most of what I post online are links to obscure metal songs and stupid jokes about the Roman Empire is because I am not here to change anyone’s heart or mind. I am not. I don’t think I have the wisdom or the clarity of mind to do that, and I would be very suspicious of anybody whose job is to write stories about wizards and spaceships who tries to tell you how to live your life. All I want to do is tell you a story about wizards and spaceships.

And as for why we write stories about wizards and spaceships, you know, I think…there are a lot of people, a lot of my creative-writing professors, John Kessel aside, because the man is a rarity…hated that I was writing science fiction in my creative-writing classes. They in fact tried to stop me, and I had to negotiate with them pretty early in the class, like, “Look, this is what I want to do, like, professionally, I would really appreciate your feedback, can you please work with me?” And they very often would. A couple of them were like, “No, you must write literary, you know, lit-fic minimalist hyper-realist pieces.” Maybe magical realism, because that gets a pass for some reason. But all the old stories are fantastic, right? Literally the oldest story we have is the Enûma Eliš, or the creation myth from the Sumerians. And it is a dragon-slaying story. It is about Marduk, the God of Attention, right, he’s got eyes all around his head, right, and his ability to speak magic words, and to take the Dragon of Chaos, Tiamot, apart. He cuts her to pieces and builds the world out of the dragon’s corpse, right? So this is a dragon, and magic words, and, you know, he’s got superpowers, he can see everything, right?

It sounds like a Marvel movie.

Yeah, exactly. And that’s what it all is. Science fiction is modern mythology, because a lot of modern people have a hard time with other forms of mythology, because they go out into the world and they’re like, “Well, I don’t see anyone turning water into wine. So these stories aren’t true,” and I’m like, “Well, but what does the story mean?”, right? The story represents something. Whether or not that something is metaphysically true is irrelevant—those stories have meaning. And it’s the same…and I think it’s more digestible if we know those stories are fake to begin with, right? Like, I’m amazed by the number of people who dislike religion on principle who are Tolkien fans, right? It’s just absolutely mind-boggling to me, because it’s the same story, you know? King Arthur is literally the same story, right?

And so, I think we’re doing this because writing… because we don’t live in a society where popular culture is hagiography anymore, where we’re not writing the lives of the saints. So, instead of talking about St. George killing a dragon—because that’s the same story, too. You know, talking about St. Barlaam, who is actually just the Buddha, you know, that story traveled across Asia and arrived in Europe in a different form. You know, instead of telling all these stories as popular entertainments, instead of talking about the quest for the Holy Grail, right, which is of course a very religiously centered story, we tell stories about different dragonslayers, right? You know, Euron Greyjoy just killed a dragon in Game of Thrones, right? Now, that’s a terrible person, but it’s still the same motif, it’s the same kind of story, and it’s scratching a similar itch. Even if the ending of Game of Thrones…that’s an issue, you know, we can get into another time. But it’s still…it’s still hitting that same spot for people.

I think that fandoms are…I don’t want to say cults, but, like, cults in the Roman sense, where they’re these little tiny micro-religions, right, without the pejorative content at all, I think. People come to these things looking for meaning, and they find them in these other places.

And, you know, I think some other people just like dragons, right? They like knights, you know, because in their real life they’re pizza-delivery guys or, you know, they drive trucks, or they work in an office, or they teach school, and, you know, they…it helps. You know, Tolkien talks about writing escapist literature, because, you know, in its truest sense, because you need to be let out of prison, right, because you don’t want to go to the office every day. I work at a science-fiction publisher and I don’t want to go to the office every day, it’s an office. You know, and I love my job, but sometimes it’s Tuesday and you don’t want to go.

I don’t know if it’s Tolkien or Lewis who said that people who…who’s against escapism? Well, jailers. So, people who say, “You shouldn’t read that escapist stuff” are the jailers.

Yeah, that was my problem with those professors.

It’s interesting. I’ve talked to a lot of authors, some of whom had creative writing, and that is…that, unfortunately, it’s still there, those creative-writing types who have this deep-seated prejudice against the fantastic, which…not always. there have been some exceptions in the people I’ve talked to, but it is something that comes up quite a bit.

I will say this though, against those professors. That’s what every student in those classes wanted to write. Almost to a man and woman, every single person who was in those classes with me wanted to write science fiction or fantasy. Maybe they wanted to write, like, a thriller, right, you know, some sort of military story, spy story, but they weren’t writing, you know, literary minimalism, you know, about some person in their ordinary life having ordinary experiences. Everyone was in there with dragons or robots. So they’re losing. And I think people like Dr. Kessel will be more the mainstay in the profession here in another generation or so.

Well, we’re just about to the end of the hour. We’ve talked about the new book and you have mentioned that what you’re working on is the third book. Anything else that you’re working on at the moment?

No, none at the exact moment because I have to power through book three here and finish it before Howling Darkcomes out July 16. And so, I owe them book three August 1. I’d wanted to turn it in before this one was even out, because I turned in book two before book one was out, because it would be nice, you know, to do that. But I have some other ideas. Most of them are fantasy. I want to…there’s a famous story about the Emperor Caligula, who’s famously mad, although I think personally that he’s been defamed by oligarchs throughout history, but it’s his famous story about him ordering his soldiers to attack the ocean. And, you know, that happened up in the Netherlands, so he sounded crazy to everybody in Italy, but I’m a big Tim Powers fan and, you know, Tim Powers’s thing is, he tries to find fantastic explanations for these sort of coincidences in history and, you know, what if Caligula were actually attacking something that came from the sea, you know? That, I think, is something I want to work on after I finish this, but after I finish book three it’ll be time for book four. And then book five. So I have to do that first.

Because it’s not a trilogy, then. It’s more than that.

Oh, no, no. I’m allergic to trilogies, because everyone…it seems every time there’s a trilogy out I find people who are like, “Oh, book two is bad, oh, don’t read the second one, really dropped it in the middle,” or, “You get through the second one, the third one fixes it.” And I thought, “Well, instead of having one awkward middle book, I’ll have three. That’ll fix the problem.”

Well, I did a five-book series, so I’m right there with you. Although they were much shorter. I mean, I think the entire five books would have fit into one and a quarter of yours, but…

I just talk too much, as you can tell.

And where can people find you online?

I am on Facebook and Twitter @TheRuocchio. Someone had already taken my last name, it’s like a third cousin of mine in Pennsylvania, so I put the “The” in front, which makes me sound famous, even though I’m not.

Oddly enough, that’s why this is called “The Worldshapers” instead of just “Worldshapers,” because worldshapers.com was taken. And they offered to sell it to me for, I don’t know, $5,000 or something. I said. “You know, I think I’ll just put a ‘the’ in front of it and I’ll be fine.”

Yeah, that’s the easy solution. I wasn’t gonna try and shake down this cousin I’d never met, so…

So, Twitter and Facebook, both the same thing?

Yes. And my website is sollanempire.com. I figured that’d be easier to spell than my name.

Well, thanks so much for being a guest. I really enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.

I did. Thank you for having me. I’ve been really looking forward to this. I really enjoyed the episode you did with Dave Butler, who is a really good friend of mine, and a couple of the others, and been real excited.

Well, thank you. I think it’ll be…I’m sure that listeners will enjoy it as much as we both did. I hope, anyway.

I hope so, too.

Okay, bye for now.

Bye. Thank you.

Episode 28: John C. Wright

An hour-long interview with John C. Wright, Nebula- and Hugo Award-nominated author of some twenty-two novels, including the critically acclaimed The Golden Age and Count to a Trillion. His novel Somewhither won the Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 2016. He’s also published numerous short stories and anthologies, including Awake in the Night Land and City Beyond Time, as well as non-fiction.


John’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

John C. Wright

John C. Wright is a retired attorney, newspaperman and newspaper editor, who was only once on the lam and forced to hide from the police. He is the author of some twenty-two novels, including the critically acclaimed The Golden Age and Count to a Trillion. His novel Somewhither won the Dragon Award for Best Science Fiction Novel of 2016. He’s also published numerous short stories and anthologies, including Awake in the Night Land and City Beyond Time, as well as non-fiction. He holds the record for the most Hugo Award nominations for a single year. He presently works as a writer in Virginia, where he lives in “fairy-tale like happiness” with his wife, L. Jagi Lamplighter, also an author, and their four children, Ping Ping, Orville, Wilbur, and Just Wright.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, John.

Excellent. Wonderful to be here.

We were just commenting before we started that we are the only two living members of the New Space Princess Movement, which has yet to take the science fiction world by storm. But there’s still time.

Yes. I wrote a novel with a space princess, an honest-to-goodness space princess, in it. She was the princess of Monaco. And she went into outer space. She went to the globular cluster at M-3. So that counts.

Closest I came was the daughter of an elected official on another planet, which…?

Doesn’t count. Elected officials. It’s got to be the daughter of a monarch.

I guess I’ve never actually written a space princess novel…

It doesn’t matter. These literary movements are very important for generating manifestos and discussions at coffee houses, not for actually affecting the literary world in any way, shape, or form.

That’s good, because I don’t think we have affected it much.

No, that’s okay. But if you remember, it was started as a joke based on the reaction against the mundane science-fiction literary movement, which was going to try to take away all the wonder and splendor out of science fiction. And you and I both thought that was such a terrible idea that we needed to get some good old-fashioned pulp fun back into the mix.

Well, and certainly there’s a lot of pulp fun to be had in the book we’re gonna be talking about, Lost on the Last Continent, which I’ve read a good chunk of, although I haven’t finished yet. But we’ll get to that a bit later. I always start these things by…this will also sound pulpy…going back into the mists of time…


…to find out how you became interested in science fiction and fantasy–presumably that began as a reader, like most of us do–and then how you got started writing it. So take me back and tell me about your formative years as a fan and writer.

I was born of poor but humble parents. My father was a naval officer. And so I was raised on post, on bases, Navy bases, which were nice, clean, well-tended, and low-crime areas where a kid could could run around at night and rarely run into the MPs. And the local library was in walking distance of my house, which for a bookish child is a wonderland. And  back in the day, Navy men would often have sack time on cruises. They would have a little bit of free time. Not too much, because the senior officers don’t want to give to the scrubs much room for idle hands’ mischief. So when they’re not scraping barnacles off the hull of the aircraft carrier, some of them will read paperbacks. And so, when they were done with the cruise, they were done with the paperbacks, and they would donate entire boxes of stuff to to the local base library.

Well, a friend of my dad’s, knowing I was a bookish young man, gave me a crate, an entire crate of my own books. Now, I had never owned my own books before. So to me, as a child, this was a great thing, a, you know, a life-changing event. And the book on top was Have Space Suit With Travel by Robert Heinlein, and I still remember the cover of it, because it had a picture of the main character, Kip, in his spacesuit, Oscar–the spacesuit had a name–plus the three thugs, the Mother Thing, and Wormface, the alien, all in a semicircle above his space helmet. And that’s what got me started, and I never looked back.

Well, I have to say, that is one of my all time favorites and certainly one that influenced me a lot, too. I read it to my daughter when she was about ten or so and she loved it as well, especially, of course, Pee Wee.

Yep. One of my great pleasures in life, which I can’t explain to any of my bachelor friends, is reading to my own children, and this is back when they were smaller, A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs. That book is a lot better science fiction than most people remembered it as being. They remember it as being kind of a boy’s adventure story with a space princess, four-armed green Martians, and so on. But he actually had…whenever he made an astronomical factoid that he put in, those were all correct. And although the science of the time no longer applies, for 1920, 1930, when he wrote it, it was as advanced as anything else being written in the science fiction field, in terms of what the theory was as to how planetary formation worked and so on and so forth. The idea back in the day was that Mars was an older planet, and so if it had life, they would be more advanced, and Venus was a younger, which is why to this day you still sometime see ruins on Mars, if you’re going to write a story there, and dinosaurs on Venus. All that has since been, you know, we now that Venus is a sulfurous hell hole and Mars is an arid wasteland without a single thoat on it.

Yeah, I miss the jungles of Venus. But…

I miss the dinosaurs, so I put them in my current novel.

Yes, I noticed that.

But, as an homage to Burroughs–and I gotta say, my current novel, I tried to write a Burroughs-style thing, and it is difficult. People make fun of him as a pulp writer, but it is not easy to do, because you have to be so tight and consistent with your writing and get the action started immediately. It’s…if you think of how tightly plotted the movie Star Wars is, you can see the really good pulp influence in that film, which made it such a blockbuster.

Well, so you were reading this, so, when did you decide to try your hand at writing it?

I do not recall a time before which I did not have the intention to be a science-fiction writer. I’m one of those few people fortunate enough to be blessed by always knowing from my earliest recollection of my life what I wanted to do with my life. Many people have to try at some point to decide what career they want to have. I’ve always wanted to be a science fiction writer, I’ve never really wanted to be anything else. My first completed manuscript was at age nine called Agent of Nesps (sp?), which was a cheap ripoff of Keith Laumer’s Dinosaur Beach. I just copied what he did beat for beat, word for word. First story I tried never sent into a magazine, I did at age 12…but my first sale was much later, and it was to Isaac Asimov’s Magazine. It was called “Farthest Man from Earth.”

So, you were you were writing all through your kidhood then, it sounds like. Did you write long stuff, did you write novel-length or were you writing short stuff?

When I was in college, I was writing an epic-length book called The Ninth Forgotten Sun, which took place in the same background as the Cthulu mythos. And it was the…it takes place in the far future, after the sun has gone out, and the world’s last wizard…is responsible for trying to resurrect the sun from the dead, using his necromancy. And when he does that, not only do the ark men, the ancient men who ruled the earth before their demise, also come back, but the people and the secret civilizations that have grown up in the eternally nighted world, who can’t tolerate the return of the sunlight, rise up to oppose him. And that was the…I never did actually finish that manuscript, but it was upwards of a thousand pages before I abandoned it. And that was when I was in college.

Did you show your work to people as you were growing up and shared around to see if. you know, if you were telling stories that people enjoy?

It never occurred to me to do that. So, no, I never did that.

That’s  something I always ask writers and I get varying responses. It’s something I did.

I guess I’m just not very gregarious. It’s not that I was shy of showing it, I just never, never thought of it…oh, no, no, no, wait, that’s not quite true. I showed the manuscript to the girl who later became my wife. So she must’ve seen something in it worth admiring.

Now, you went to university, you studied law, is that correct?

Yes. I both went to St. John’s College in Annapolis, where I had a wonderful education in philosophy and mathematics, and then I went to the Marshall Wythe School of Law at the College of William and Mary. So I went from the third-oldest to the second-oldest college in the entire continental United States.

Well, in your undergraduate…you were doing this Great Books Course, which I’ve read about in your…you know, online, you’ve referenced it. What did that involve exactly?

Oh, I love talking about the Great Books Program. It’s one of the best programs I’ve ever heard of. Instead of going to a modern…I assume you know what a modern college is like, the children have their heads shaved, they’re dressed in white jumpsuits and they’re set before the giant Omnitron with electrodes put into their head….

Yeah, that’s…I kind of remember that…

..they’re brainwashed to worship the state and to complain about everything and to run weeping for safe spaces, and so on. They did the opposite at St. John’s. Not only did everyone grow their hair out long, but they follow…every student follows the same course of study. There’s no tests and no grades. Every class is a writing class. Every course is…you’re graded on papers, not…they only have grades for the purpose of transfer. They don’t actually grade your performance. Instead, they have a “don rag,” the way they used to do in medieval Europe, where your tutors, your professors would sit around and verbally tell you what you were doing right and what are you doing wrong. And the class sizes were small enough that they could do that for everyone. There were no lecture classes.

And so, what we did is, we read the great books of Western literature in more or less chronological order, starting with the ancient Greeks. So every student there read The Iliad and The Odyssey and Socrates and Aristotle and so on and so forth. And then in your sophomore year, you would read the Latins, and then you would get up through the Enlightenment in your junior year, and there would be some rubbish in the senior year that was hardly worth reading, like Marx and so on and so forth.

That’s fascinating. And also sounds like an excellent preparation for writing.

And we would study music and rhetoric, logic. We studied the quadrivium and trivium, in other words. We actually studied the ancient course of study that built European civilization, and it is shocking to me, truly shocking, that almost no other college offers a course like this. I think Chicago does. But I’m not sure about that.

Well, it sounds like a great preparation for writing.

It is a great preparation for writing, it is a great preparation for law, it’s a great preparation for…it’s what liberal arts used to be and was supposed to be. It’s a great preparation for being a free man in a free country. It’s not good preparation for being a brainwashed drone, so most colleges don’t offer that kind of course of study. And it’s like being a man with a memory in a land of amnesiacs, because every thought in your head is probably made up by someone who lived between 100 and 500 years ago–or, if you’re a Christian, 2,000 to a million years ago–and most people don’t know where the thoughts come from or what they mean or where they fit in a…it’s a great dialogue that goes on between the great minds of the Western literature, where someone in one century will be answering someone who put forward the opposite idea in a previous century. And nowadays, most people, even educated men, are like people who walk in on the last five minutes of a conversation that’s been going on for hours. And they don’t really know where anything comes from or where it fits into the grand scheme of things.

I’ve had the rather peculiar and disappointing experience twice now in my life of speaking to some of the most highly respected, highly regarded physicists in the country, and neither of them knew the first thing about empiricism or the metaphysics on which the scientific revolution is based, or even the idea of the differing models between the Newtonian, Galilean, Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, Ptolemy, and so on. They didn’t seem to grasp what science was or how it fit into the great scheme of things. They didn’t know the difference between physics and metaphysics, for example. Both of them thought physics could cover every topic that philosophy covered, in which case, my question to them in both cases was, “What experiment or observation do I perform to prove to myself, to prove to a skeptic, the proposition that all philosophy is ultimately physics?” Because to me, that sounds like a philosophical question, not a question you can solve by performing an experiment.

I should mention neither of them answered the question and both of them got mad at me for asking. So, there’s one thing a St. John’s education will do for you. You start to become less angry at people who ask you questions. You begin to enjoy it instead.

So, where along in there…I mean, you were an attorney for a while, and then you ended up working as a newspaper reporter and editor, which I have also done…that transition there, how did that all fit in with your writing fiction?

Well, I got into law because of a, basically because of a mistake on my part. I thought about my career very logically and what I had skills at. And as a St. John’s graduate, I had good skills at logic and rhetoric, at putting together arguments. I thought there was no one in the modern workplace that did argument other than lawyer. And I actually do have a good mind for it, (but it was not something) I was particulary good at, it was not the kind of work I particularly enjoyed doing, usually because I wasn’t working on the side of the angels. I neann, I wasn’t a prosecutor, I wasn’t putting bad guys between bars. I worked for a small general-practice firm for maybe six months, maybe not even that. And they were dissatisfied with my performance–rightly so, I should say, I was not good at the work–and they let me go.

And so, while I was looking for other work, a friend of mine who was running a print store was also running a little magazine, kind of a fishing and fun magazine. But his brother had been killed by a drunk driver, so he was on a crusade to stop the drunk driving in the local St. Mary’s County, which is Maryland, which is where I was stationed at the time. His name was Ken Rossignol. And this guy was like a character from a comic book. He was like, J.J. Jameson crossed with Perry White, if you catch my reference. And he was unstoppable and unfrightened. And the reason I say unfrightened, he started looking into police corruption, he started looking into county commissioners in a gambling ring with local developers, who would lose money at card games and therefore get their petitions granted for putting up houses. He would start looking into where the drug smuggling was coming into the town, because the, all the fishing boats would go out, it’s very easy to bring drugs up through the Caribbean, if you just make a rendezvous with a fishing boat off the coast of the county.

And so, my job was to cover the local courts, and also to get the get the tickets for whoever had been DWI or DUI that week. And he would put his hit parade, he would put a list of everyone who had gotten a drunk-driving ticket on the front page every week. He would call it his hit parade. And he would listen the police scanner late at night, and when there was a drunk driver reported over the police scanner, he would get his camera and he would drive out there and he would take a big honking photograph of a drunk behind the wheel being arrested and put on the front page. And because it was a small rural community whose main income came from the tourist trade from the District of Columbia, where people would come by for fishing and, you know, beachifying and stuff, the local courts didn’t want to really crack down the drunks, because these were usually tourists who were there to go to a bar and go fishing, like I said. But they were afraid of Ken Rossignol, because they’d get their picture in the paper from him. Of course, all their relatives would then buy up all the issues, ’cause…

So, he was a…he he got threatened. He wore a flak jacket to work because he got threatened by local dealers. They would come and threaten to kill him, and he had his microphone and tape recorder and interviewed them for the paper. Give them space on the front page if they were willing to talk to them. And that was the one time I was on the lam from the cops, because the police…not the state troopers, they were straight guys, but the local county sheriffs…were on the take. And so, the powers that be were out to get me, and get us.

But meanwhile, you were writing science fiction while all this was going on.

Yes. Yes, I was also writing science fiction. What I decided to do with my science-fiction career, which had been, I hadn’t made a single sale yet, is, I decided to take a piece of advice from Harlan Ellison, which is write a short story a week, and at the end of a year you’ll have fifty-two short stories. Now, to a beginner writer, to whom sweating bullets to get a single short story written in six months is an immense Olympian task, I have to tell you seriously and sincerely, if you want to be a writer, you should buckle down and make yourself do this kind of thing now. Now, I wrote about forty or so short stories, and to this day I’ve actually managed to sell every single one of them.

But my first sale, my first real sale, I made a small sale to it to a tiny magazine called Aberrations, my very first sale. It was a short story called “Not Born a Man.” But my first real sale was to Isaac Asimov’a Magazine and I… the cover of the magazine my story appeared in had a story by Ursula K. LeGuin. I shared…I was sharing pages with her, and this is an author who I had admired since I was, since boyhood up. So I started to rub shoulders with the famous people. I was very pleased with that.

And then, how did you go from the short stories to the first novels?

I wrote novels as well. Basically, I…back in those days, many writers got started the same way I did. They sold some short stories to magazines and anthologies. And I came to the attention of David Hartwell of Tor Books. So, I was going to a science fiction convention and Lawrence Watt-Evans turns to me in the green room and says, “Are you John C. Wright?” And being from Virginia, I of course went, “Why, yes, suh, I do have the pleasure of being Mr. Wright, suh.” (I didn’t actually do that, but I should have.) He said, “David Hartwell is looking for you, he says you’re the man to read.” He had seen my short story, “Farthest Man from Earth.” At the same time, I was trying to get an agent interested in agenting for me, but he was a little reluctant. So, I neither had an agent nor had a publisher, but I talked to David Hartwell and then phoned my agent who was there…the guy I wanted to be my agent, who was there at the same convention…and said, “I just talked to an editor at Tor Books who is interested in my manuscript,” you know, and I had two of them ready.

So, if you’re if you’re a beginning writer, go ahead and write two or three novel-sized manuscripts if you want to have something ready to show to a publisher. Now, I should say that was back in the days when people went through publishers and didn’t just do everything over the Internet. The market these days is very different than it was even twenty years ago.

Yes, for sure.

Yep. In any case. So that was The Golden Age, the book of mine that you’ve heard of. It’s the one I sold to Mr. Hartwell.

Yes, I read those. And yeah, I was very impressed when I first encountered your writing. So I’m really happy to have you in here. And I think a lot of what I reacted to was, in fact, what you talking about with the Great Books Course was that…it was this deep knowledge of Western civilization, Western history, the books that, you know, the writings that have informed our civilization. I think that’s what I reacted to in that. I also looked at it and said, “I can’t write that.” That’s annoying. I have other things I can write, but that particular thing was not something I could have written.

Well, thank you. The check for having someone say that I’m a better writer than you is in the mail and you’ll be getting the pay. Don’t tell your listeners that this is all set up.

Now, I want to talk about the new one, Lost on the Lost Continent. The reason we’ll talk about it is because this podcast is all about the creative process. So, using this as an example, we’ll talk about how your creative process works. And I guess that brings the first and, unfortunately, highly clichéd question, “Where do you get your ideas?”.

Well, it is…I actually have an answer for that, and it’s not the answer that Harlan Ellison gives, which is Schenectady.

Yeah, exactly.

My answer is that every science fiction writer I know, every fantasy writer I know, either has a notebook or, nowadays, a cellphone, that they keep notes in. And the difference between a writer and a non-writer is only this: non-writers have just as many ideas about stories as writers do, they just don’t write them down. They don’t remember them later. I write all my ideas down

So, the answer to the question is I get all my ideas from stealing them. I look at writers who are better than me and I steal their ideas. Now, in order to not be caught by the cops, what I do is…not the cops, excuse me, not to be caught by the readers…what I do is, I steal two ideas at once and intermingle them after filing the serial numbers off, and I also think about the thing, I think, “What if it really happened?” Not if it was convenient for a story. But what would the ramifications be, you know? So that’s why…if you remember The Golden Age…that story, the origin story for that story was, at a convention, a girl in the audience stood up and asked a question. And she said that people were much happier in the old days than they are now. And I asked her, “Where did you hear that?” She said, “Well, I read it,” and I said, “So, who are you reading?” Because it looks to me like people living in the modern day, your chance…you don’t have to go into the profession your father was, you don’t….you have more liberty to do just about anything you can imagine, including things our ancestors couldn’t even imagine. If the pharaoh of Egypt had a headache, he could not get an aspirin, because there was no such thing in those days. He couldn’t go get an ice cream cone. I can get ice cream. I can hop in my car and go get an ice cream right now, you know, at any time of, any hour of the day or night.

Now, that doesn’t necessarily create happiness. There are some problems that are caused by great wealth. So, the idea of The Golden Age was, let’s take every science fiction trend I can think of and take it to the ultimate extreme and put a novel as far in the future as I can imagine and still have what’s recognizable as something like a human being, as a main character. And let’s just see what the problems would be, even in the utopia or as close to utopia as human beings can get to. So, I ended up writing a sort of non-utopia. Now, that idea is not original to me. That idea comes from Sir Thomas More. But that’s where I got my ideas.

Now, Lost on  the Last Continent. Now, most people here…let me just say again…

Before we do that, give a brief synopsis of Lost on the Last Continent.

How can it be briefed up? The main character is Colonel Preston Lost, a big-game hunter who, after returning home from the China wars, doesn’t fit into modern society anymore. He’s too rough and ready. He’s too manly. He likes his guns too much. And almost everything he likes to do is now either illegal or unconscionable. So he…and he’s a wealthy man. So, he turns his great energy to hunting down and tracking down reports of UFOs, which he slowly begins to believe is a real thing. And he interviews a family of people whose daughter was kidnapped by UFOs. So he actually gets personally angry at the at the UFO people, even though he’s never met them or seen them. So he has, because he runs an international airspace engineering corporation. he has a special spaceplane built, an aerospace plane, orbital-to-surface plane with, you know, afterburners and ram jets and so on, so forth, that’s radar invisible. And he simply tootles around…

And this is all before the story opens. The story opens with him chasing a UFO through a tornado and a thunderstorm over the Bermuda Triangle, into a vortex that opens up a different, an alternate world through a wormhole. And he chases the ship through a wormhole, finds himself flying above a volcano-lit, hellish landscape under a giant red sun, and rams into a pterodactyl and has to ditch his plane in a boiling lake.

And we’re about four pages in at that point.

No, no, that’s the first paragraph or so. No, excuse me, the wreck is about four pages in. That’s correct. That’s correct. The UFO people are out to get him. As it turns out, the UFOs do not come from outer space. Spoilers! They don’t come from outer space, they come from in the future. But very far in the future. We’re not talking the year 4000 or something itty-bitty, rinky-dinky like that. They’re from 250 million years from now, when all the continents have re-collided together to form the one supercontinent of Pangea Ultima, the last continent of Earth of the title. And as it turns out, mankind has not only been superseded by nine or ten additional versions and variants of mankind, each one created artificially by the race that came before them, but all life was at one point wiped out, and time travelers decided to restock the biosphere, after the surface became habitable again, with life, starting with the most primitive life forms they take from the far past, working their way up to the modern lifeforms.

So, they brought along mastodons and dinosaurs and all sorts of things from the Triassic and the Jurassic periods and earlier. And so, not only are there first men, Homo sapiens, our humans, but there’s also the race of the second men that we are going to create in 14,000 years from now, and the race that arose after them, the third men, and so on and so forth, all the way up through the other nine.

The immortals of the fourth race, when they’re resurrected from the dead, take over handily, but because they’re trying to discover something deeper in life than their own  immortality can provide them, a mysterious spiritual reality that they can’t define themselves, they die off, even though they allegedly can’t die, trying to save the first men, our race, from extinction, from a second extinction, I should say, since we…now, in order to prevent any paradox, the time travellers have only kidnapped people who their records show perished. So, when Preston Lost, who’s the only guy who’s not in any records, shows up in the far, far future, he starts running into people from Atlantis, who were swept off the island before the high tidal wave hit, from Lemuria, from sunken cities and the lost cities of gold of the Incas and…including people who have died in disasters in our future, as well. He is aided and abetted by a sabertoothed little monkey named Smiley (not his real name), who turns out to be more than more than meets the eye. And I tried to…I tried to mimic the. techniques of Edgar Rice Burroughs when I was writing, and I have to say, it’s like I said, it’s very difficult to copy those old pulp writers because they had a craft to them that’s that’s been lost. At least, I could not reincarnate it. I don’t know. Maybe it hasn’t been lost, but at least I couldn’t do very well. I could not do as well as I’d like.

So, what was the specific seed for this particular story?

The specific seed of this particular story was, once upon a time I was writing a series of articles for a magazine, and the editor was opening a new magazine. And he thought having a pulp story, a pulp-style story, would be a good sell, because not many people were doing things like that these days with science fiction. These days its kind of dreary political-correctness sort of, you know, stories about…I don’t know. Garbage. And so, off the top of my head, I thought of three ideas for various stories, a space opera, which I’m rather good, at called Superluminary, this one, my planetary romance, which is a Lost on the Last Continent, and another one…which I haven’t written yet. And in every case, storytelling is…

My method of making up stories is very similar to that that C.S. Lewis describes in his writing. I get images in my mind, striking ideas of visual images, and I try to interconnect them with some sort of plot logic to show where they are going and to give some sort of justification for them. So, when I thought pulp magazine, my first thought was a guy in a spaceplane running into a dinosaur, a big-game hunter, a big-game hunter hunting dinosaurs in an in an era when his race, mankind, was also the prey animal of more advanced species and was being hunted to extinction. You know, where mankind was the dodo being hunted down. And I wanted to write a planetary romance, but we have since discovered that Mars is not habitable and Venus is a burning hellhole. Where else could I go but Earth in the far future? Because I’ve seen maps of Pangea, of the one supercontinent that emerges once all the lesser continents collide with each other in the far future. And that was so striking to me as a possible spot for a, you know, to put a stop to the grim answers, that I put it there. So, basically I made it up by making it up. A guy said, “Can you write a pulp-style story?” And I said, “Sure, I can.”

What does your planning process look like? Do you synopsize a lot? Do you do it more by the seat of the pants? How does it work for you?

That is an excellent question. It depends on the book. The book I wrote just before this one was called Superluminary, and it was also written according to the same discipline, which was, I wrote a chapter a week for 52 weeks. And in that story, I outlined everything beforehand to excruciating detail.

Now, you outline to that level of detail, you run the risk of draining your characters of some of their vivacity and draining your plot of some of its snap and originality, some of the flexibility and originality, if you understand what I’m saying. If you plan things too thoroughly…not everyone falls in that risk. I just think it’s a temptation that you can fall into as a writer. But if you rely too much on the exploratory method…I myself don’t like the seat-of-the-pants metaphor. It’s not really what’s going on. A better metaphor would be to say, you’re an explorer trying to cross a mist-filled valley to reach a mountain that you can see on the far side. And if you can pick out the landmarks of where you want to get, even if you can’t see the exact path you will take to get there, you know where you’re going.

So, for people who write in an exploratory fashion rather than an outlining fashion, basically their first draft is their outline. But that method was not open to me, using this method, you see. And I have to confess, I got into more trouble with Lost on the Last Continent than just about any other project I’ve ever tried to write, because I had straitjacketed myself into a situation where I couldn’t go back and change the early chapters, because I’d published one a week, see, on my blog, and I’m giving it away free, free of charge, anyone can can read it. But if you wanna read the whole thing, you know, gathered together in a bound book, you’re going to have to pay me. And unlike unlike Superluminary, which I had planned out from the get go, this was only rather vaguely planned out, and several things happened that quite surprised me, and some things took longer than I had thought. For example, in my original notes, the entire battle sequence that takes twenty chapters in the fifth book, Gods of Pangea, was just a note: “Battle! Need a battle scene!” But if you’re an exploratory writer, you have to also be flexible enough to look back at things that you did not originally intend to be plot twists or traps or red herrings, and retroactively make them into red herrings or plot twists or plot traps, so that your readers will think you had that planned out in mind from the get-go. Yeah, in this case, Smiley’s identity, the secret identity of the monkey, I had planned out from the very beginning.

I was just going to say that I’ve been on a panel or two about writing series and…my longest series is five young adult books, and they’re only sixty thousand words each. That’s only a little longer than Last on the Last Continent is, in length.

It’s basically…if it was published as a book, it would be five short novels. It’s actually rather long. It was more than a year. It turned out to be a 105 episodes, which is almost two years.

One of the challenges of writing series fiction, and it sounds like it’s exactly what you’ve, well, done to yourself by publishing them as you go along is, there’s always that something you make up in the moment because it seems like a good idea, which then later you have to justify or that comes back to bite you in some way because you want to do something that you’ve now precluded yourself from doing because you ruled it out in some earlier chapter or book.

That happened when I had my main character jump off a cliff. Yeah. He did not die at that time. I’m just telling you, because you looked a little nervous. The main character does not die when he jumps  off the cliff. He does float away to the highest mountain in the world, being yanked there by a gravity-controlling magic ring he’s wearing on his finger.

Of course. As one does.

Well, no, he knew that one of the other superbeings on the planet was meddling with his destiny. And he was doing it secretively. And he was going to double-dog dare the guy to either let him die or…he was playing Russian roulette with an unknown party, trying to to see whether or not the guy would reveal himself. And he does. Now, disaster falls because of that, because he absolutely gives away the secret base, the secret location of the last remaining superbeing on the planet, then gets attacked by a gigantic aerial fleet of the UFO people: the eighth men, they’re called. The Watchers.

Well, I think…

Oh, I’ve got to tell you. I haven’t finished your question. Here’s here’s answer to your question. Here’s who I stole my ideas from for this story. One was just a map of Pangea. I just thought was a great setting for a story. But the other is a book called Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, which is a brilliant piece of fictional work from the 1920s from England, from back before they called science fiction by that name, it’s that old. Where this guy lays out the entire history…

I’ve read it.

Then you know Lost on the Last Continent. You know exactly who I’m stealing from. My third man are his third men. I just made them slightly shorter. My fifth men are his fifth men, except I made them warlike and devil worshippers and so on. My winged men are his Venusians…I didn’t even change the order in which I put them, if you understand what I’m saying. The eighth men, in his book, he describes his eighth men as being very pedestrian, and I made them into grays, into Roswell-type alien critters who reproduce by cloning. But I didn’t even change…I didn’t even change what I called them.

I didn’t get all fourteen men…I thought he was too extravagant.

So what does your actual writing process look like to use? Do you sit and write for a solid block, do you do it in your office, do you go off toa coffee shop, do you write by hand? How do you write?

I write directly on the computer because now with word processors, they’re so ridiculously convenient if you want to change a character’s name globally or look up a passage that you’ve forgotten and so on. I usually write in separate chapters so I can keep track of the chapter length, because, of course, you’ll get a read-out at the bottom of your Word for Windows. Now by day, I should say. I’m a technical writer, so I spend my life formatting documents to make it look pretty. So I could format my manuscript scripts to make them look really good, and I know all the tricks to make them…

So anyway, I usually have an outline and notes. My outlines are usually extensive, Lost on the Last Continent‘s an exception. And usually I have…my notes. for example, for Count to a Trillion was seventy pages of notes, including a twenty-page timeline of future history. Some of that material showed up in the appendix for that book, but I take extensive notes when I’m making up a story and I usually intend not to tell the reader all the background that I’ve made up, because I just want it to be enough to create an illusion of versimalitude. So I really write a chapter at a time and I try to keep them a uniform length. Then I cut and paste the material into a master document, which is labeled “Master Document,” that I update continuously, and I email it to myself so I have a spare copy floating around in case one of my computers blows up. And I write by quota, I either do a certain number of hours a week, you know, or I do a certain number of pages, a certain number of words a week. One or the other.

And then what does your rewriting or revision process look like? Now, this one was published on your blog as it went. Were you taking reader comments as you went?

I don’t rewrite. I’m a genius, I just write everything down the one time, one draft, it’s brilliant, and the only time I rewrite is if an editor tells me to rewrite it.

So, do editors tell you to rewrite it?

Vox Day is the best editor I’ve ever encountered, and he has made wise suggestions on several occasions. But never, never a major rewrite. Never a thing like saying, get rid of this character or switch this plot around. My very first book, The Golden Age, for example. David Hartwell made a suggestion that a certain scene that I had as a Council of Ellrond scene in chapter two, he said, break that up. He said, “It’s too big, break it up and put it into several other scenes.” And that was fine.

The only time, the only other major rewrite I ever had to do was their fault, not mine. David Hartwell called me when the second book of my fantasy story Orphans of Chaos was being published, and he said, “Hey, we just found out up that we can’t make this in two books, it’s got to be three books, but the third book requires another…” I forgot what the word count was…25,000 words or something like that. Basically another four chapters of material. And I said, “Bingo, I have the material here and ready for the sequel. I could just take some of that and plop it right in the middle. It will be seamless, because I already have the scenes all planned out,” and so I did.

When you say you don’t rewrite beyond the first draft, as you are writing a sentence, will you sometimes back up and reword, that sort of thing?

Oh, yeah, I’ll do that, I’ll do that.

So that’s a form of rolling rewrite.

I’m not that much of a genius. Or lazy. It’s either genius or lazy. I’m not sure which. Because I simply steal from smarter authors than me, it maybe should be lazy instead of genius, you know.

I remember reading…and I’ve mentioned this before on the podcast. It was probably Opus 100, Isaac Asimov’s hundredth book, which was also kind of autobiographical, and I think that may have been where he talked about when he wrote he would, you know, he he just typed–and that was on a typewriter, right? He would type the page and set it aside and never rewrote, never, you know… it just came out right. That’s even harder in a typewriter than on a word processor.

Yeah, I could not do that. I make lots and lots of spelling errors. In fact, there’s the guy…when I was doing was Lost on the Last Continent, there was a guy who would diligently go through my my terrible spelling errors and just send me pages of corrections every time. And I would correct those. Now I got to…

I take it back. Let me tell you one disadvantage of my method. When I was writing Count to a Trillion, my first draft got to be about 50,000 words, and I realized I’d taken a wrong turning at chapter two, so I had to take out 25,000 words of writing. (And I may be out by a factor of of magnitude, because I’m terrible with numbers.) I had to throw away about twelve chapters’ worth of material, which I hoped to eventually revisit as another book. But it was just because I did not outline that one, and because I did not have to plan it out.

Let me tell you the secret. I’m not actually a genius. I’m going to tell you what goes on. Some writers write and do their first draft in their head and some do it on the paper. And if you do it in your head, you don’t have to rewrite it when it comes to a second draft. You’re basically writing your second draft down when you sit down with a pen and paper.

How fast are you as a writer?

I can crank out between 2,000 and 3,000 words a four-hour writing session. So, on a good week, when I get four or five writing days, that’s basically…I mean, I wrote The Golden Age in nine months. And that was a three-book, you know, bug-crusher sized manuscript. I write quickly.

A useful skill.

Yeah, for a writer. Now, let me tell you how I learned that skill. I was a newspaper man.

Yeah. I was going to say…

And I would write ten articles a week for my paper.

Yeah, I tell people that, too. I worked for a weekly newspaper and became news editor of it. At the ripe old age of twenty-four I was the newspaper editor, and we wrote…because it was a weekly and it was a community newspaper, a small–well, 6,000, 10,000–they said 10,000, but it only recently really became 10,000 people in Weyburn, Saskatchewan–and we, you know, I wrote everything, I wrote features, I wrote a column, I drew the editorial cartoon.

Me, too. I should have put that down! No, honest to goodness, I was the cartoonist, also, for my paper.  

We have so much in common–besides the space princess thing.

Besides the space princesses, yeah.

So, you know, it’s….there are no, “Oh, I can’t write right now,” when you’re writing for a newspaper, because the newspaper has to come out and it has to have stuff in it. And you know, the pressman….

There are some jobs in life where you can be a little late, and newspaper is not one of them. If you do not make the deadline, then you are dead. The word deadline comes from the days back in the Civil War, when they couldn’t afford to put walls around where the prisoners were being kept. So, they’d just station a man in the guardhouse with a gun, and they would draw a line on the ground. And they’d say, “If you step over this line, we shoot you. You are dead.” It was known as a dead line.

Oh, I hadn’t heard that before.

Well, but you’ve worked in newspapers before. So, you know what it’s like to stay up until two in the morning on a Friday so you can get your your galleys to the printer Saturday morning, so it can come out by the Sunday deadline.

I had to cover City Council, which met on Tuesday nights, and the paper came out on Wednesday morning. So I would go have back to the office and write forty or fifty inches of copy, and my most vivid memory of that is the night when I turned off the computer without saving and had to rewrite it all from scratch. I only did that once.

Now, I can tell you’re a real newspaper guy, though, because you give your text in terms of inches.

Well, you do in the newspaper, yeah. I don’t do that now.

No, not with computerized news anymore. That was the one thing that the modern age really changed. In addition to changing the entire publishing industry, which I’m still not used to.

Well, I’m going to, as we’re getting…we’re forty-five minutes, almost fifty minutes in, so it’s time to get to the…I’m sure you’ll have no trouble with this…the big philosophical questions, which…

I love big philosophical questions, those are my favorite.

Well, it’s just one, really. Why do you write, and why do you think any of us write? Especially, why do we write this kind of stuff?

Well, that’s actually three questions. Why do I write, why does anyone write, and why do we write this kind of stuff?

Three questions, yeah.

So. The reason why the human race is creative is because we were created by the Creator. We were created His image, and His image is of a creator. So, when God gave man the gift of speech, the devil immediately told man how to lie. And God gave man the gift of telling stories, so we could use even the devil’s gift of lying for our good and for the good of all mankind.

The reason why we tell stories is because there are truths that you can’t capture by writing things down literally. The newspaper doesn’t tell you anything except for the news of the day. It doesn’t tell you about eternity, it doesn’t say anything about the deep truths, it doesn’t tell you about the the glint of love in a young girl’s eyes. It doesn’t tell you about the harsh glare of the sun on the mountains of the moon in the airless void. It doesn’t tell you what life is all about. It doesn’t tell you what it’s like to pick up a baby as a father for the first time, or to wipe the baby’s bottom, back when they’re so young that their poo does not stink, there is an age at which…if you have never wiped a baby’s bottom…

Oh, I have.

…you have to read it in a story to find out about that kind of thing. If you’ve never looked off the bow of a ship and seen an iceberg coming toward you when the sea is as blue as cobalt because of the cold, then the only way to know these things is to is to have someone tell you in a story. It’s the only way to live another person’s life. Otherwise, we’re all trapped within ourselves.

So, that’s why we are given this godlike gift, because without it, we would go mad. It’s the way to channel madness into a useful product that makes the angels weep with joy. It’s also useful for seducing women, and it’s useful for glorifying the great heroes of the post who need to be glorified. That’s what art and poetry is for.

The reason why I do it is because science fiction has always struck me as having everything every other genre has in it. It has got everything mainstream literature has, but it has less restrictions on the imagination, because you can go anywhere and do anything. Your setting can be anything you can imagine.

I like the discipline of science fiction ever fantasy–I also read fantasy, don’t get me wrong, but I do like the discipline of trying to stick to what is scientifically feasible. I’m the only guy I know who writes hard SF, nuts-and-bolts space opera, like I do with Count to a Trillion. All the fantastical things, all the astronomical wonders that I portray in that book are real. I didn’t make those up. I did not make up the star that is passing through our arm of the galaxy at 90 percent of the speed of light. There’s a real star that’s actually doing it. I did not make up the Andromeda Galaxy that is going to ram the Milky Way Galaxy three billion years from now. That’s for real. That’s gonna happen. And so and so forth. So, the reason why I write science fiction is because I like science fiction, the reason I like it is because from a young age it is the only field large enough for truly unbridled imagination, a truly ambitious imagination. The thing I think you liked in The Golden Age was just that ambition of imagination.

The third question was. Now I’ve forgotten it…why do I write, why do we write, why does anyone write?

Why does anyone write science fiction and fantasy? But, at least, for me, you’ve kind of answered it.

But that’s part of the same question, because I think most people have the same reason that I did.


If you’re going to explore mankind and you’re stuck with modern mainstream limitations, that…I should say, those limitations did not used to exist. When Homer and Hesiod and Virgil and Milton wrote stories, they put it as many fantastic elements as they needed to satisfy their story. No one said to Homer that the gods didn’t exist, you know, no one said to Dante…in fact, Dante’s worldview was as scientifically accurate as he could make it. He was practically a science fiction writer. But he threw in angels and devils and all sorts of all sorts of monsters.

But after the world went mad, sometime around the turn of the last century, someone–a socialist–got the bright idea that art and literature should only be about real people living on the real world in circumstances that were fairly close to boring everyday life, which is not the way anyone has ever told a fairy tale since the world’s begun. So, the true mainstream of literature had to go underground, it had to hide, and it reemerged from underground in the most unexpected place possible: the penny dreadfuls and the pulp magazines, where the real poetical Homeric ethical storytelling glories were wrapped up and disguised as boys’ adventure stories, but were actually talking about the deeper issues of the world. Because if you’re writing a science fiction story…if you’re writing a mainstream story and you say, “What is man? What is man that thou art mindful of him as a man? What is a man and what is his place in the universe?”, and you’re writing a mainstream story, the only thing you can write about is, oh, I don’t know, a Jew living in turn-of-the-century Dublin whose wife is cheating on him, let’s say. Or a guy who knows a friend who committed suicide. But if you’re writing a science fiction story, you can have a robot as a main character who can look at your main character, your man, and say, “You and I are not alike, and this is the contrast between what you are as a man and what I am as something that doesn’t grow old and doesn’t suffer from disease.” Or he can run into an elf or an angel or a Kzinti or a Vulcan, and they can say, “What you are as a man is different from what I am, because as a Vulcan, I have no emotion, so I don’t understand what it is you get out of life and why you do the things you do.” So, from a science-fiction point of view, you can explore a deeper question and use and have on stage characters who are not that way, not limited to the here and now. Whereas mainstream fiction has artificially, in the modern generation, artificially limited itself to the here and now in a way that I think is mentally unhealthy.

Now, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and I’m curious, if you…well, how do you hope that your writing shapes the world, if you hope that it shapes the world in some fashion?

I’m not that ambitious. I think of myself as a clown, and my job is to pen the book of gold for some reader who I’m never going to meet, and he’s going to pick up my book on some rainy day, maybe after I’m dead, and he’s gonna be glum and depressed, and he’s going to read that book, and it will open up to him something that is particularly special in it for him and maybe not even for anyone else. And it will be for him the book that opens his imagination to the world. And he’ll laugh, he’ll cry, he’ll kiss ten quatloons goodbye, or whatever they’re using for money in the future. And I may never meet him, like I said. Because…he reason I write for that guy, who I don’t know, is because if I try to write for the crowd, if I try to write for the largest number of people, I don’t think I’m doing a good job. I don’t think I’m listening to the muse. I don’t think I’m actually writing what heaven wants me to write. And if I recognize that my job is to entertain rather than to instruct…

The arrogance of so many modern writers, who think they’re going to lecture me, who quite frankly has a better education than those people, and they’re going to tell me about right from wrong, aand they’re going to tell me about the nature of morality and the nature of reality, so that so that whatever the thing is that…whatever the fashionable latest frivolous shallow idea is that is infuriating them, they think they’re going to be my teacher and my master and I’m going to be their disciple? Any writer who thinks that,  I think, is stepping off a cliff. I think they’ve stopped doing art and they’re just doing lecturing. They’re preaching, and they’re not even preaching a real religion, they’re preaching their own make-believe religion, something they made up in their heads.

Stepping off a cliff, and they don’t even have a ring to waft them off to the highest mountain peak.

Because they’re double-dog daring a guy, the universe, to see if it will save them. And so, I think that writers who have a mission in life, I think they’re making a mistake. And I don’t want to be a guy like that. I want to be an entertainer. I want to entertain. My job is to ride a unicycle or throw a pie in my face and see if I can make people laugh.

Well, and on that note, we’re close to the end. So, Lost on the Last Continet is on your blog, but what is the print future for it?

I have a deal with a friend of mine, we’re trying to do a direct to, you know, a direct-to-readership-through-the-Internet kind of thing. It’s called Superversive Press. So, Superversive Press is going to come out with this within this year. I don’t know the exact date because some things are still up in the air, but it should be…I mean, the whole manucript is done. We might wait until after the last issue appears on my blog, which would be in in August.

I have a story in one of their anthologies, so I’m familiar with Superversive.


And what are you working on now?

Right now, I’m working on a book called Starquest. And that one, I wish I could tell you the origin story of that, which is even better than the origin story of Lost on the Last Continent. I mean, I wrote Lost on the Last Continent because someone said, “Write a story for me.” This one, I made it out of anger. I went tovsee a movie, whose name I will not mention, which was a space opera movie, and one that was of a beloved franchise that I’ve liked and enjoyed since childhood, and it was such a bad job, and I felt so sorry for the poor actor who had to reprise his role as one of the most famed space heroes of American literature, and they gave him garbage to say, and he died for no reason, then faded away like a ghost. It was terrible, and I said, “I could do better.”

So the boys and I, Orville, Wilbur, and Just Wright, were driving home, and in an hour, I said, “Boys, if you were writing that movie, how would you rewrite it? How would you have done it differently?” They came up with an idea for a plot for a sequel to a space trilogy that will go unnamed, but I’m stealing my ideas from, that I thought was brilliant, that I thought made a lot more sense than anything we’d seen Hollywood put out. And so, as a joke, I wrote up a movie review of this make-believe movie, which should have been the sequel that Hollywood ruined, that Disney ruined. And I got such a powerful and positive reaction from my fans from that, I said to myself, “I’ll write this up as a novel. I’ll change the names and change around the background–I make up my own background–but try to keep the flavor, try to keep the the Saturday matinee serial flavor of like, Spy Smasher, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, and write it up that way.” And so it’s called Starquest, and it concerns…it’s after the fall of an evil galactic empire, but it’s not the empire you’re thinking of, because this is in a different galaxy. But it’s exactly like Rome, so it basically is the empire you’re thinking of. And the question is, when the space piracy starts to get on the rise and certain things from the ancient past begin reappearing, which people thought were long dead, who can fight the ghosts of the past that are coming back to the living, both figuratively and literally? And that’s what Starquest is about.

Oh, that sounds like a lot of fun.

It is a great deal of fun. My main character right now has snuck aboard a space pirate ship and is about to be caught and have the living daylights, having the tar beaten out of him. But, he does wear a mask that he found in his brother’s belongings after his brother was killed under mysterious circumstances. And it’s a mask made by an alien species of an alien technology, as a requiem mask. And when he puts it on, it makes him stronger and faster than normal. And so the pirates, when they see him, think he’s come back from the dead. They think he’s a guy who can’t die, which is not quite true. But there are things that can’t die that are in the background of this book. So that’s what’s going on with that.

And where can fans find you online?

Scifiwright.com is my blog. I also sell books through Tor Books, I also sell books through Castalia House, that’s run by Vox Day. I also sell books through Superversive Press. If you just type in John C. Wright, you’ll either get me or books on how to train your cat.

You mentioned penny dreadfuls earlier. There’s been a couple of Edward Willetts who’ve written in the past, and one of them wrote dime novels in the 19th century with names like Kip, the Flat Boat Boy. And there’s even a fantasy one called something like Apteryx the Dwarf, Mystical Dwarf, or something like that. (Actually Aspinax, or The Enchanted Dwarf – Ed.). It’s very short. And speaking of filing of, stealing ideas, I want to rewrite that as a modern book at some point.

Most dwarves are short. Yeah. I actually had a character named Penny Dreadful in my a Superluminary. Her name is Penelope. She was the daughter of Professor Dreadful.

Well so, we’re kind of at the end of the time here, so thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, John. I hope you enjoyed it. I did.

I did. I did, indeed. I did indeed. And I should say, Lost on the Last Continent, the part of the worldshaping I liked the best, was drawing up the huge outline of 250 million years of history that never shows up anywhere in the text. It was just in my notes of all the things that happened.

Oh, I’ve got to say one other thing. Okay. My timeline is not only taken from Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon, but from a short story by H.P. Lovecraft called “Shadow out of Time.” All the events that the character in “Shadow out of Time” discovers are going to happen in the future, I put into my history.

I just bought a collection of H.P. Lovecraft because I haven’t read him for years. So I’ll be reading that story soon.

I’m sure if you read that story, you’ll recognize at least some of the people who are involved in the gladiatorial games, in the fight scenes, in the final section of the book. You’ll recognize the names.

I’ll watch for it. So, thanks again for being on The Worldshapers!

Excellent. Thank you for having me. It was great fun.

Episode 27: Eric Flint

An hour-long conversation with Eric Flint, New York Times-bestselling author of the Ring of Fire alternate-history series, which began with 1632, and more than 50 other science-fiction and fantasy novels, both on his own and in collaboration, as well as many pieces of short fiction and dozens of anthologies.


Eric’s Public Page

Eric’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Eric Flint’s writing career began with the science-fiction novel Mother of Demons. With David Drake, he has collaborated on the six-volume Belisarius series, as well as a novel entitled The Tyrant. His alternate-history novel 1632 was published in 2000 and has led to a long-running series with many novels and anthologies in print. In addition, he’s written a number of science fiction and fantasy novels, and now has more than 50 novels in print, as well as many pieces of short fiction and dozens of anthologies that he’s edited. He currently resides in Northwest Indiana with his wife, Lucille.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Eric.

Thank you.

We met very, very briefly at DragonCon last year, which was the first time I had ever been to DragonCon—I found it a bit overwhelming, but I did find the Baen Books table and actually signed up a couple of people to be guests, and you’re one of the ones that I talked to there. Other than that, we’ve never crossed paths, I don’t think, at conventions anywhere, or anything like that.

Not that I recall, no.

Well, we’ll get into 1632 a little bit later, and the Ring of Fireseries, but I always like to start off by taking people back—and I always say this, “into the mists of time,” to find out how you first became interested…well, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy, probably as a reader, because that’s how we almost all start, and then how you got around to trying your hand at writing and how that all worked out for you. So, when did you first become interested in the field?

Well, I started reading science fiction when I was about 12 years old, I think. My mother bought me a copy of, a hardcover copy of one of those Winston juveniles, of Robert Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy, and I was very taken by it. And shortly thereafter I remember reading Andre Norton’s Star Rangers, and I also remember reading…it has two titles. The one that it was originally published under was The Survivors and its re-title is Space Prison. It was written by Tom Godwin. And those three books really got me into it, and after that I would read everything I could get in the school library. I started writing science fiction when I was about 14, and I kept writing it through high school. I once had a very nice rejection letter from John Campbell, whose handwritten, two-page letter, which I lost decades ago—I feel bad about now—at the time, to me, was just a rejection letter, you know. I don’t know who Campbell was. Then I did some more writing in college and then I stopped writing pretty much for about 25 years, and then I started again when I was in my mid-40s. I had one novel that I had started and not finished and it kept nagging at me, and when I reached the age of 44, I think, I just realized I didn’t want to be lying on my deathbed regretting the fact that I never tried to finish the book. So, I went ahead and finished it.

In 1992 I took a part of that novel and rewrote it as a short story and submitted it to the Writers of the Future contest, and it won first place in the winter quarter of 1992. And that’s really what got my career off the ground. I didn’t publish anything else for four years. I tried several times, but with short stories, but I’m really not…I’m really a novelist. I finally just said, “Oh, to hell with it,” and I just concentrated on writing novels. I finished the novel that I’d started back in…Jesus, when was it…I started when I was 22 years old, back in 1969. I got that one finished. I submitted…I got an agent. She warned me, she liked the book, but she warned me it was going to be a very hard book to sell, which it proved to be. After a couple of years, I told her take it off the market because there’s no point just racking up rejection slips.

I had written in the meantime a much more straightforward science-fiction novel called Mother of Demons. And so, we started shopping that around, and that’s actually my second book I wrote, first one I sold, Baen Books decided to buy it in 1996 and it was published in September of ’97. And right at the same time, Jim Baen offered me a collaborative series with David Drake, which became the Belisarius series. And that’s what I worked on next. That wound up being six books. I did the first four back to back, right in a row, didn’t work on anything else. And then I wrote my next solo novel. which was 1632, which came out in the year 2000, and my career took off quite rapidly after that.

Well, going back to when you were first writing as a as a kid, did you have people who encouraged you along the way, or were you sharing it with other, you know, with your friends, and finding out that you could tell stories, or…? What were you doing back then?

Well, in high school I was sharing it with girlfriend, not, pretty much, anybody else. She was quite supportive. My mother was, too, and a more distant…you know, somewhat greater distance. I was quite self-contained, so I didn’t really talk much, either. There’s a line…early in my life that said there’s nothing quite as ridiculous as an unpublished author and I sort of always kind of felt that way, so I didn’t really talk much about it until I get published. I talked more about it in college because that novel I started was originally a collaborative project for me and three of my friends, two of whom dropped off fairly early. The second one, Richard Roach, has stayed with that project ever since. The novel, the first one I wrote, is actually a collaborative novel with him. So, obviously I’d talked it over with them because we were all working together.

You started collaborating early.

Oh, yeah, very early. You know, not in high school, but once I got to college.

You actually studied history at college. Did any of that ever play into your fiction or did just the mere study of it help you when it came to writing some of your…?

Almost all of my fiction, one way or another, is historically rooted. That’s obviously true of the alternate history, which is what I’m best known for. Now, alternate history represents a little less than half of what I write, so I write a lot of other stuff. But, for instance, my science-fiction novel The Course of Empire is modeled after, or inspired after, my thinking about the Roman conquest of the Greeks. My first novel, Mother of Demons, is based on episodes in southern Balkan history, in the late 18th, early 19th century, which is what I was studying in college. Americans don’t recognize it. My friend Dave Freer is South African, he spotted it right away. That’s just generally true, that I’ll look to historical models as the basis for telling a story, even though the story itself might not technically be an historical fiction, but straight science fiction, but it’s going to almost always have an historical basis to it. So, yeah, I’ve been, in that sense, an historian my whole life.

Now I like to ask authors, because some have and some haven’t and some who have wished they hadn’t…have you ever had any formal creative-writing training?

I took a course in creative writing in junior college one semester. The teacher was quite nice, and I learned some about the use of language. The problem is…the problem with creative-writing courses is that they can sometimes be helpful teaching you how to write, but they’re not usually very helpful at all in terms of teaching you how to tell a story, which is not the same skill They overlap but they’re not the same. And, from the point of view of being commercially successful, it’s being able to tell a story that really matters, not so much how well you write. So, I took one semester of that. I don’t regret taking it, but I can’t say it particularly helped me much.

Yeah, I get a variety of answers on that. A lot of authors who write science fiction and fantasy in particular found that it was not something that their creative-writing teachers were comfortable with or supportive of in any way, and there was often some conflict along the way, when they were trying to write that kind of thing in a creative-writing session.

Well, that was certainly true in the time I was going through college. That was way back in the ’60. Today, there’s a lot more flexibility in the academic world toward genre fiction in general, science fiction in particular, but in those days there wasn’t. I knew a case of a professor who actually got fired from  a college because they found out he’d published a mystery novel, which he did under a pseudonym, but they, you know, the word leaked out. So…you know, there’s that. I think…I don’t know, I think the bigger problem is simply that…it depends on your orientation. What’s called literary fiction is today a genre of its own. It’s very rigid, it has all kinds of tropes you pretty much have to follow, and I personally would find it quite stultifying. And a lot of great literature of the past wouldn’t fit into it all. My first novel written, Forward the Mage, is based on the satires of the 17th and 18th centuries, which were fantasies, most of them. That’s what it was based on. But it would have been hard to try to get that through in a kind of literary [fashion].

Now during the 25 years that you weren’t writing, you were doing a lot of things: meatpacker, longshoreman, truck driver, auto forge worker, glassblower. That’s a lot of practical hands-on experience doing things that a lot of writers aren’t exposed to. We do get a lot of writers who have had a lot of odd jobs over the course of their career. Do you find that having had that sort of, I don’t know, I want to call it salt-of-the-earth, I guess, experience, does that feed into your fiction?

Yeah. Particularly the 1632 series…

Yeah, I notice it there, for sure.

Yeah, that’s probably where you see the most. That town of Grantville is actually very closely modelled on the town of Mannington, West Virginia. I lived in that area for about a year and a half. I find one thing that tends to be absent…not entirely, but it’s pretty thin on the ground in science fiction…is the working class. It’s…they kind of show up as spear carriers, if they show up at all. And I just wanted to write a story whose protagonists were, you know, not engineers, not Navy SEALs, you know, just working stiffs. And that’s pretty much who populates, well, the American characters who populate the 1632 series. Once the time-travel event happens it gets broader than that. There are kings and cardinals and all kinds of other people get into it. But the town itself was just a small coal-mining town in northern West Virginia.

Did you ever work in a coal mine?

No. I tried when I lived there. I always wondered why anyone worked in a coal mine, and when I got to West Virginia I discovered real quick that it was the only job that paid worth a damn. So, I went through the course—you have to go through an 80-hour course in main safety. I went through it, got my certificate, but they were not hiring at the time. So, I wound up kicking around a machine shop, driving a cab, doing shape-up at glass factories. That’s where I learned some parts of glassblowing.

Well, my big brother actually did work in a coal mine, although it was an open-pit mine, it wasn’t an underground mine. But he had worked in an underground mine, a nickel mine in northern Manitoba. So, he has some of that experience. And I actually recently wrote the history, a history of the mine-rescue competition that they run every year here in Saskatchewan, so I hung out with the volunteers that do that kind of mine safety and mine rescue. That was very interesting, to talk to those guys.

So, well, let’s talk about 1632, because we’re going to kind of focus on that as an example of your creative process. I’ll let you give the synopsis so I don’t give away something that shouldn’t be given away to somebody who somehow hasn’t managed to read any of the books yet.

Well, the basic premise is really quite simple. There is a cosmic act, the nature of which I explain in a three-page preface, which is just handwaving. This is just a MacGuffin to get the story going. I thought I came up with a clever one. But it’s essentially a cosmic accident that causes a time transposition event, where a chunk of the modern United States—and by modern we’re talking about the year 2000, because that’s when I wrote the book—Is transposed in time and place into the middle of Germany in the year 1631, which is right smack in the middle of the Thirty Years War, which was probably the most destructive war in European history, at least since the collapse of the Roman Empire. So, what happens is, this small town, about 3,500 people, just literally materializes, about a six-mile diameter. and finds itself in the middle of that part of Germany. It’s called Thuringia, which during the Cold War would have been the southern part of East Germany. And they find themselves in the middle of one of the greatest wars of history, which went on…it wasn’t really a war, it was a whole running cascade of wars. It went on for 30 years. It’s estimated that possibly a quarter of the population of Central Europe died in that war. So, basically, what the series is about is simply, all right, you’ve got 3,500 Americans from the year 2000, with whatever resources they had in this small town…and I was very strict about the resources available. The basic rule, which I’ve applied ever since and everyone who writes in that universe has to obey it, is that if you can find something in Mannington, the real town of Mannington, then you can put it in Grantville, but if it’s not there, you can’t. The one exception, what we call “wild cards,” which is…I will allow a certain number of those. What I mean by “wild cards” is, for instance, in the second novel, 1633, my co-author, David Weber, and I introduced an aircraft designer who builds an actual plane. Well, the odds of there being a retired aeronautical engineer in a small town or low, but any small town in America with 3,500 people in it is going to have a certain number of people that aren’t likely to be there, but they are. So, I allow that as long as people don’t overdo it.

So, that’s the basic premise. All the books have followed, and we are now up to…Baen Books has published—I really lose count—I think we’re up to 24 novels, with the one I just wrote that just was published last month. That’s 24 novels that Baen publishes, and I have my own publishing house, called Ring of Fire Press, and we publish, also publish, stuff in the series, and there’s another probably dozen novels that we’ve published. In addition, there are 12 anthologies of short fiction in paper, and back in, 12 years ago, we launched a magazine, an electronic magazine called the Grantville Gazette, that’s been in operation now for 12 years. It’s a professional magazine, it’s recognized by the science fiction writers’ association as a qualified professional venue. It’s made a profit for 12 years. It’s become a very big, sprawling enterprise. And by now, something like 200 people have written something in this setting, most of them just one or two stories, but…most of my co-authors, quite a few of them, are actually people who started as fans and sort of learned to write within the series. And if they got good enough, and I thought they were ready for it, I’d offer them, you know, I’d ask if they wanted to try their hand at collaborating on a novel, and that’s where most of my authors—not all of them, but most of my collaborative authors—actually began, that way, not as established professionals.

Well, it’s been 20 years, then, since you wrote the first one. Do you remember what the initial seed of the idea was that gave birth to all this?

Yeah, I had…just from living in the area…I can’t remember how far back the idea came to me. I’d had the idea for a long, long time that a small coal-mining town would make a terrific collective protagonist in some kind of adventure. I just couldn’t figure out the adventure. And then, years later, I was working with David Drake and he had a new novel he wanted to do, and I was originally going to co-author, it wound up eventually being someone else, but the basic premise of that novel is near-future, and it was posited that China had broken up and Vietnam and southern China were about to go to war, and a band of alien mercenaries show up and offer their services to the Vietnamese using an American intermediary who lives in Hanoi, he’s an expatriate, he used to be…he was, is, a Vietnam veteran. David did not develop the…he had the plot well-developed, but he didn’t develop the background of the alien mercenaries. And I asked him if he minded if I fleshed it out, and he said, “No, go ahead.” So, I started thinking, “Well, I’ll use a historical model, just to give me a framework,” which is what I usually do. And the great era in modern times of…well, “modern,” using the term broadly…of mercenary armies was the Renaissance and what’s called the early modern period, and they were very prominent in the Thirty Years War.

So, it had been many, many years—decades—since I’d read anything about the Thirty Years War. I don’t think I read anything about it since a little bit in college. So, I decided to study it, and I started reading…there’s a classic narrative history by C.V. Wedgewood called The Thirty Years War, and I picked it up and started reading it, and about halfway through it dawned on me that this would be the perfect setting for my…that collective protagonist. And that’s where the idea came from. I then sat down and developed it into a plot and submitted it to Jim Baen at Baen Books. He liked it, and it took off.

How does that look for you, when you develop an idea into a plot? Or you a staunch outliner…what exactly do you do?

Yes. I outline quite thoroughly. What I will wind up with is a chapter-by-chapter outline of the book—not lengthy: I do it on an Excel sheet and my rule is that each chapter has to be summarized in one line, so I don’t get long-winded. I just want to capture the heart of it. I don’t start there. I start with thinking it through. But, yeah, before I start writing, I try to have the story well-plotted out. In the course of writing, things change—that always happens—and that outline will, to some degree or another, get transmuted, although it never gets transmuted too much, because you have to have a coherent story arc, and if you don’t have an ending and a beginning and the link between, you don’t actually have a story. So, nothing tremendous changes, but things can change.

For instance, in 1632, the book actually ends three months before I’d planned to end it. I’d planned to end with the Battle of Whitsun, which took place in the fall of 1632. But after I wrote the big scene at the high school, big battle at the high school, I realized I’d actually resolved all the issues there. So, I called up Jim on the phone and said, “Jim, I actually think this book is finished.” So, he said, “Let me see it.” I sent it to him, and he said, “Yeah, you’re right. This is where we should end it.” So, you know, you might not necessarily end at exactly the same place, but the basic…the ending is the same in the sense of what it resolves, let’s put it that way.

How long would your outline be when you complete one, ready to start writing?

It depends. If I’m submitting an outline as a proposal to a publisher, where they want something, it’ll be around, I don’t know, 3,000 to 7,000 words. If I’m just doing it for myself I tend to do a lot of the initial outlining just in my own head, and I don’t start really putting stuff on paper until I’m ready to actually do this final chapter-by-chapter outline. But by the time I get to that point I’ve thought about it a lot.

I liked something in your frequently asked questions on your website where you made a distinction between, you know…a plot is not just a sequence of events, it’s an actual structure, a skeleton that you hang a story on, and I liked that distinction, because when you’re plotting, when you’re a young writer, a beginning writer, and you’re plotting, it is easy to try to, you know, “Well, I’ll just add on a bunch of things that happen and then somehow I’ll have a story,” but a story is more than that, isn’t it?”

Yeah, yeah, it’s …the way I try to explain this to people is have them do a mental experiment. Just write down everything that happened to you yesterday, from the time you woke up to the time you fell asleep. Just, you know, write it all down, like a story. Do you have a story? And the answer is, no, you don’t have a story. You just have a sequence of events. It’s not…I mean, it’s coherent, there’s reasons for everything you did, but there’s no beginning to it. There’s no end to it. Every story has some kind of conflict of some kind that has to be resolved by the end of it, at least to a degree. That’s…I don’t think there’s ever been a story, at least not a  story that very many people are going to read very often, that doesn’t have that characteristic. And when I write, the first thing I start with is actually not a plot or characters. I start with figuring out…a conflict, basically. And since my interests tend to be very social and political, in my case it’s usually a social or political conflict of some kind that I’m interested in and think is important, and then I just start thinking about it and figuring out ways that you could put that into fiction. That’s where the 1632series came from. And then I start working my way down in, you know, different levels of concreteness, as far as developing goes.

One of the points…you often hear writers say they write character-driven stories. And there are many who think they’re working that way, and consciously they are, but if they’re any good what they’re really doing is plotting without realizing it, because the thing is this: what makes a character a character is what they do. And if you don’t know what they do, then you don’t have a plan. So, you really have to have a plot to develop a character in the first place. Otherwise, what you’ve got is not really a character, it’s just a collection of personality traits. And what kills more stories is just that they ramble around and don’t seem to have much point to them and eventually just sort of come to an end. But…when I was editor of Jim Baen’s Universe Magazine, I…the stories that got up to me had to get through readers, so that they were, they were well-written, I mean, they weren’t badly written, those would be rejected before I ever saw them. But the most common reason I would reject a story is just because it…there was nothing wrong, the writing was usually quite competent, and there was nothing really wrong with the story, exactly, but there was nothing right with it either. I mean, you know, it just wasn’t much of a story. And it’s hard to explain that. If there’s any one single talent to being an author that’s hard to teach anyone, it’s how to recognize what’s a good story and what isn’t. That’s the place where talent itself really comes in. I can teach people pretty much everything else, but that’s hard to teach.

You mentioned characters. How do you…how do you identify the characters that you need in the story, and then how do you…how much do you work on developing them before you start the actual writing?

Well, I don’t know. I mean, the characters kind of emerge, just in the process of thinking about a plot. Honestly, I’ve never had any trouble coming up with characters. It’s not something I have to spend any time really thinking much about, except—the one time I do have to think about it is if I want to use an actual historical figure. For instance, the series I’ve started, there’s two books in it, and I will within a year be starting a third one, and it’s a series set in Jacksonian America. It’s all from history. The first book’s called 1812: The Rivers of War, and the second one is called 1824: The Arkansas War. And…it’s written during the Jacksonian era, and one of the main characters in the series is Andrew Jackson. And I studied Andrew…and also, the central hero is Sam Houston. So, you know, this is where I was working with real people, I mean, this is not characters I invented, so I had to…I read…Jesus, I don’t know…half a dozen biographies of Houston and a whole lot of Andrew Jackson, to figure out if I could work with them, you know, in fiction, and I became comfortable that I could. And I’m pleased with the result, but that’s where you do have to spend some time thinking about it, because, you know, you have to stay reasonably true to what we know of the person’s character. You’re not just inventing something.

Well, and you have mentioned somewhere in what you had in your website, as well, that for 1632, the research could be quite intensive because you’re writing about a real period in history. I think somewhere you mentioned you would sometimes take an hour to write one paragraph because of the research you had to do to make sure you got all the facts right that were in that paragraph.

Yeah, sometimes. Yeah, that happens. I mean, happily with something like the 16…that problem has gotten less and less as time goes on, partly because…well, there’s a number of reasons, one of them is, it’s an alternate history, so the further you go, the more the history has changed, so it’s hard for anybody to prove me wrong. The second is I just get more and more familiar with it. And the third is that by now that series has a very active and dedicated…I don’t even want to call it a fan base, because a lot of these people are much more than fans, many have become writers themselves, and it’s an important project for them, too. You know, it’s become a very collaborative effort on the part of a lot of people, and a lot of those people know things I don’t know. So, you know…one of the major writers, Virginia DeMarce, with whom I’ve co-authored two novels…she has her Ph.D., and basically she’s a specialist in the social history of 17th-century Germany. I mean, you know, her knowledge of it is way deeper than mine. That’s the kind of thing you don’t get from just reading books. I mean, you have to read, do the kind of studying that an actual professor does.

So, I try to develop friends and contacts who are experts on all kinds of things, who are people I can go to if I need to find out something. If any issue comes up involving guns, I will run it by Larry Correia and David Drake, every single time, just to make sure I’m not making some mistake. I’m fairly familiar with guns, but they’re complex, and so…I used to, unfortunately she passed away a few years ago, I used to have Karen Bergstralh, who was an expert horsewoman, so anything involving horses I would run it by Karen to make sure I wasn’t missing something, because there’s a lot of things about horses that people think they know or understand, but they really don’t.

Yeah, I’ve heard that from horse people many times, about how horses in books don’t have much relationship to real horses.

No, they don’t, they don’t. Movies are even worse. So, with something like the 1632 series that’s gone on for 20 years, that makes life a lot easier for me, than if it’s something new I’m starting with, then I kind of have to do all the, you know, the initial spadework myself.

One thing I like to ask series writers…the longest thing I’ve written is a five-book young adult series, which was only about 300,000 words in total, and yet, I started to find that there were, you know, concerns about continuity and occasionally writing something in a sort of a throwaway that comes back to bite you later. Have you ever encountered anything like that in your in your series?

Oh, sure. I have a saying, and my friends and co-authors, I’ve said it so many times that they like to repeat it, but the motto is, “Vague is your friend.” And what I mean by that is that 95 percent of what’s in a novel is put there by the reader, not the author. A novel is not a photograph, it’s much, much more like a pointillist painting, where the artist is giving you a framework, but a lot of it you’re filling in yourself. And, the thing you do is… some things you’re very concrete about, very specific, if you know you’re right about it. Then you put in some very detailed and, you know, nail it down, cross all the “T”s, dot the “I”s, and so on and so forth. If you do that fairly often, then the reader feels secure that they’re in a real story, and what they don’t really notice is how often you’re vague about what exactly, where exactly it’s happening, when exactly it’s happening, who exactly might be around there, so that you don’t have that problem…which you can have even a single novel, much less a series, of discovering you’ve stumbled over your own, what you’ve already put down. But, yeah, I try not to.

It’s a lesson I got from Jim Baen, he died years ago, but he was my publisher. He said, “Don’t tell the readers anything they don’t need to know and don’t tell it to them until they need to know it.” And that’s pretty much a rule I’ve tried to follow. And don’t put something in just because you researched it and you know it, and so, what the hell, you’re gonna put it in. Every scene in a novel should be part of the plot. And we all get a little loose and sloppy about that, including me. I mean, we’ll all write some scenes that are just there for the fun of it. But in theory, at least, and I did try to pay attention to this, every episode, every plot point, I mean, every scene in a novel, most of it at any rate, what is it doing to advance the plot? And if the answer is, it’s not doing anything to advance a plot, then why is it in the story? There another saying I like, which was invented…not invented by me, it’s by Anton Chekhov. It’s called Chekhov’s Dictum, which is…he was the great Russian playwright…and it was, “If there’s a shotgun on the mantelpiece in the beginning of Act One in the play, it needs to have figured somehow in the story by the end of Act Three, or it doesn’t belong there in the first place.” And that’s something that that I think you need to follow, and I find a lot of writers don’t. There’s a lot of novels out there that are honestly pretty ramshackle. There’s just all kinds of baggage in there that really isn’t doing much of anything.

Well, when you have written a draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you bang out a first draft and then go back, and do you revise a lot, do you keep it revised as you go, or how does that work for you?

I’m fortunate in that I have…I sort of have the authorial equivalent of perfect pitch. Typically, a chapter I write is the final draft. Now, I will polish continuously as I go along. What I mean by that is, after a day or two or three, I’ll go back and reread and, you know, I’ll polish the prose, but I’m hardly ever rewriting the actual chapter. Occasionally I get a chapter that I just decide didn’t work and I’ll just scrap it altogether. But I don’t do the kind of rewriting that a lot of authors do. And the reason I don’t is just ’cause I found I really don’t need to. I’m lucky that way. I mean, it’s not…it’s like perfect pitch for a musician, you’re lucky if you have it, but if not, you know, it’s not something you learn. But it enables me to write pretty quickly. I do polish all the time. I mean, I’m constantly going back over, but when I’m looking for there is specific word usage, that kind of thing, not changing or rewriting major plot points and so on.

And I see, from your website, again, that once you start writing you just write through, like, you sort of write in a burst to finish the book?

Yeah, I…yes. I don’t…writers all have different work habits. There are some writers who religiously write every day and they set goals, you know, 500 words a day, whatever. I don’t write like that. I will…when I get rolling in a novel I’ll start really getting into it and I will…pretty much, that’s what I’m doing. And then, once the novel is finished, I’ll take several weeks off before I try to start writing anything else. Now in my case, because I do so much collaborative writing, I’m not…it’s not like I’m not busy, because my co-authors will have drafts they want me to look at, you know, so there is a lot of editing work I do also, and I’ll do that, but I don’t try to…and I don’t ever try to write two novels at the same time.

Speaking of editing, do you get much in the way of editorial revision then, coming back from Baen, or suggestions?

The only time I’ve gotten…I’m trying to think. Mostly when I get editorial input from Baen, it’s actually not at the novel stage, it’s at the proposal stage. For instance, my friend and co-author David Carrico and I submitted a proposal for a science fiction novel called Hydra to Toni Weisskopf…oh, it’s been over a year now…and she read it, and she had problems with a number of pieces, parts, of it, and she laid it out: “This doesn’t seem to work to me, that doesn’t…”, and so we did a pretty major rewrite of the proposal, because I agreed with her points. So, that’s mostly where I get the input. Once the story’s written, the only time I’ve gotten a lot of input, was early on…I think it was the third Belisariusbook, which was about the fourth novel I wrote. Toni Weisskopf, who was then the chief editor, did a very detailed line edit of the novel. But what she was trying to do was show me was…I had certain tics and habits as a writer I wasn’t even aware of…

I think we all do.

Yeah, and she was just going through and showing them to me so I could see it. And I learned a great deal from that. It was very helpful. That’s the only time I’ve had that. I did get a lot of input from Jim on 1632. He was very taken by that book and he worked more closely with me on that book than any other I ever did. I would send him…once I’d written a few chapters I’d send it to him and he’d read it and get back to me. So, that…there was a lot of editorial feedback. It wasn’t…he wasn’t sending anything…he wasn’t sending me manuscripts with red ink on them. We’d talk on the phone. And I did two books with Del Rey. I got a lot of editorial input from Steve Saffel and later from Jim Minz. Steve edited the first book, Jim edited the second. And…that’s kind of it.

Well, we’re getting a little short on time here, because I know you have to break off here in a few minutes, so I do want to get the big philosophical question out, which is, “Why do you do this, and why do you think any of us do this? Why do we write science fiction and fantasy?”

Well, I’ve always been interested…I’ve always been interested, and I’ve always enjoyed it. So, when I considered, you know, when I decided I was going to write again, I didn’t really have to think about whether I was going to write science fiction or something else. I just figured I’d have a lot more artistic leeway and freedom in science fiction than I would in anything else, which was true. In my case…my whole life, I was a political activist for close to 30 years, which is why I stopped writing, and…issues of, social issues in general, how human society works, the moral and ethical issues and values that come out of that, are things that have been central to my life ever since I was a kid. And that’s, one way or another, usually what I’m writing about in my novels.

Now, I’m writing novels to entertain people, so I’m not trying to beat anybody over the head with my own specific political viewpoint. And I think fiction is really lousy at that anyway. I can explain why—it takes some detail—but there’s a contradiction between the way political theory works and the way fiction works, which is that, if you want to analyze things as a politician or as a campaign manager or whatever, you have to abstract the individual out of the equation. You have to, because if you don’t, everybody’s different and you can’t…so you have to take a look and see, however you’re dividing up the population, it might be by class, it might be by gender, it might be by race, it might be by whatever. You have to abstract the individual out of it and be talking in some sense about social abstractions.

You can’t write fiction like that. Stories are about individual people, and they have to seem like people to readers. They have to seem real. And if they’re just clanking around like stereotypes, it doesn’t work. People don’t like that. For one thing, they get irritated if you happen to be stamping all over their particular viewpoint, but leaving that aside, it’s just not attractive. So that means you have to find individual characters, and once you start doing that they tend to get quirky. They tend to…well, let me not turn this into a lecture, but the upshot of it is this: fiction is lousy for educating anybody about politics, but what it is very good at is imparting broad moral and ethical values. There are certain values I have that are reflected, one or another, in almost any book I write. And…obviously the first thing you have to do is entertain people, because that’s why they’re reading a book, they want to be entertained, but I try to do more than that. And it varies from one book to the next, what I’m particularly trying to portray. But I’m trying to portray something…every good writer I know is doing that, to one extent or another and to one degree of consciousness or another. I know very few writers, that includes genre writers who are just…although they’ll often say they’re just trying to write a good read, there’s almost always something more going on.

Well, and what are you working on now?

Right now I am starting…well, I had several little small projects I had to get finished, but the novel I’m working on now is…I’ve written several novels with David Weber in his Honor Harrington universe, which is very popular, and we’ve done three novels together in that universe and I am starting the fourth, which is a sequel to the third. And I’ve gotten into it pretty well. It’s a complex novel and it’s somewhat difficult to write for reasons I don’t want to go into because they’d take too long, but I think everything is pretty well squared away. It’ll be a long book.

And if people…and you did mention there’s a Ring of Firebook that is just out?

I just published one…well, I didn’t, Baen Books did…it came out in April, last month. It’s called 1637: The Polish Maelstrom, and…that’s not a collaborative novel, I wrote that on my own…and it’s one of what I call the mainline novels, and what I mean by that is it’s a big sprawling complex series, but there is a spinal cord to it, and there are seven novels that are in that, what I call the main line, and five out of the seven I wrote on my own, two of them I did with David Weber. And this one is the seventh and most recent of them, and it’s a direct sequel to the book that preceded it, which is 1636: The Ottoman Onslaught. That just came out. The next one that’s coming out is coming out in September, and it’s a book I wrote with Iver Cooper, it’s called 1636: The China Venture. And this will be the first time the series goes into China. And Iver has written a number of things, he wanted to collaborate on a novel with me, we’ve been working on it for quite a while. He has done…I know quite a bit of Chinese history, but Iver has done an enormous amount of research on it over the past few years. So that’s coming out in September.

Then, in November…this is a book…my name is not on it because I didn’t have anything to do with the writing, although I did help him work out some of the things… but it’s by David Carrico. It’s called The Flight of the Nightingale and it’s got two short novels in it, and that’s coming out in November. And then…well, there’ll be more stuff coming out, but I don’t know exactly when they’ll be coming out. Chuck Gannon and I have just started to work…will be just starting to work on the sequel to 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, and the new book will be called 1637: No Peace Be on the Line. And that’s a book, a naval…maritime adventures in the Caribbean, let’s put it that way.

So, lots to come.

Oh yeah, oh yeah.

Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. I should just mention where people can find you online.

Yeah, there’s a number of different places. I have my own website, which you can find at www.ericflint.net. Somebody had bought .com and wanted me to pay him $2,000. I said, “Screw you.” Actually, I do post there, but I tend not to post on a regular basis. I’m more active on Facebook, so you can find me on Facebook. There’s also a 1632fan site, it’s www.1632.org. There’s the magazine’s web site, which is grantvillegazette.com, and, for the past three four years now, we’ve launched our own publishing house, so that’s called Ring of Fire press and that’s got its own website. And Baen’s Bar, I drop by there pretty often. So…that’s Baen Books’ website, where they have a big discussion area called Baen’s Bar. So, I’m not hard to find online.

I guess not. Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

I have, too. Thank you very much.

Thank you!

Episode 26: Kendare Blake

An hour-long conversation with Kendare Blake, New York Times-bestelling young-adult author of the Anna Dressed in Blood duology, The Goddess Wars trilogy, and the Three Dark Crowns quartet.





Kendare Blake’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Kendare Blake

Kendare Blake grew up in the small city of Cambridge, Minnesota. She’s a graduate of Ithaca College in Ithaca, New York, and received a Master of Arts in Creative Writing from Middlesex University in London, England. Her bio notes: “Adopted from South Korea at the age of seven months, she arrived with the following instruction: feed her chocolate. Though not medically advisable, she and her parents are eternally grateful for this advice.”

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

Now, we met at C2E2 in Chicago, I guess that’s Comic Con and Entertainment Expo in Chicago. When was that? Four or five years ago now?

Yeah. It was such a long time. You sent me that photo of us and I opened it and I was like, “Oh, yep, yep, that is where it was.” And my second thought was, “Wow, what a long time ago, like where does the time go? It seems like yesterday.”

Yeah, it was a few years and, of course, at the time you actually thought that we shared a last name because I was there in my capacity as E.C. Blake, which is a pseudonym of mine. So, we do kind of share a last name.


As E.C. Blake, I wrote a fantasy trilogy for DAW Books called the Masks of Aygrima. So, that was current at the time, and so that’s what I was…that’s who I was pretending to be, or however that works with pseudonyms, but we had a great panel there and I enjoyed getting to know everybody that was on it, so you came to mind but I was thinking of possible guests, and here you are.

Well, thank you. Thanks for reaching out.

We’re going to focus primarily on Three Dark Crowns, which started off a new series for you. I have read the first book, so I’m prepared. I literally finished reading it about 15 minutes before I called you up here. So, it’s fresh in my mind.


But first I’d like to go back in…I always say this…into the mists of time (speaking of going back a long ways). How did you become, well, first of all, interested in, I presume, reading science fiction and fantasy, that’s where we all kind of start, it seems like, and then how did you get interested in writing it? What was the…your story that led you into this?

I think a love of reading, it oftentimes just progresses into a love of storytelling and then it naturally lends itself to wanting to live a life of stories and write your own stories. My mom largely was the one who got me into reading. She…when we were growing up, we didn’t have a lot of money, but the library was always free, so we were frequent visitors to the library, We had one of those big canvas sacks that we would frequently fill with probably about the same twenty unicorn picture books just on repeat, and the poor woman just read them to me over and over again without ever once expressing the boredom and annoyance that she must have been feeling about the same twenty unicorn picture books. So, I was reading voraciously…like, I could read before I went to kindergarten because of her, because she just really immersed me in words. And my Dad, too. We would sit around and read the Sunday paper together and I would, he would read me the Garfield comic strips, and then I would read him back the Garfield comic strips, just by memory, and eventually, that’s kind of how I learned to read. So, that kind of kept on. They always kept my nose in books. So, thanks, parents!

Now, the town of Cambridge, Minnesota…although I live in Saskatchewan, so it’s relatively close to Minnesota, I’m not familiar with Cambridge. How small a town is it?

It’s like…man. I mean, you know, you always pass the population sign, and you wonder, “Well, how often are they updating that?” But I believe the population sign, when I was there, was something like 7,000 people.

Very close to…I grew up in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, and the population signed for years said 10,000 but they were rounding up, and then…I think they have finally passed 10,000. But for most of the time it was more like 6,000 and something, I think, officially, but they rounded it up to 10,000.

Oh, wow, they really rounded. They went for it.

I spent a lot of time in the library there as well and I also learned to read before I went into Grade 1. So, kind of a similar story there. Well, once you started reading things other than unicorn picture books, did you gravitate to the fantastical at that time or were you reading other stuff?

It was a pretty fast switch, actually. I went straight from you know, unicorns and The Black Stallion right into Stephen King and Anne Rice. Just a hard turnabout, God, I must have been like ten or so, when my mom and I or somebody and I, probably my mom and I, were walking through Wal-Mart or Sam’s Club or something and adult novels caught my eye, and, yeah. That was the end of Black Beauty for me.

My other library story is similar, in that my mom got called in by the librarian, and she said, “You know that your son is reading stuff from the adult side of the library,” because it was split into the kids’ side and the adults’ side. And my mom said, “Oh, it’s okay. He only read science fiction and fantasy.” And I thought, “Mom, you don’t actually know what’s in science fiction and fantasy.” But I was glad for her for standing up for me anyway.

Yeah. I spent so long dragging my mom through bookstores and, you know, trying to pick out the one book that I was gonna get that day, that it didn’t matter what I’d pick up, and, like, “Hey, can I get this?” By the time I asked her, she was so just fed up with waiting, she’d say, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, whatever, yeah. Let’s go.” So, I probably got away with a lot.

So, when did you get interested in trying to write your own stories?

Well, the earliest fledgling attempt I can remember to actually write anything of length, it was kind of a length challenge. I wanted to know if I could write something that was as long as a book, like a book-length something. So, I started writing this horse story when I was in seventh grade. And it took up, like, three spiral-bound notebooks by hand. I don’t know if…I don’t remember how serious I was about it. or if it was just an experiment. but that was. that’s the earliest thing I can remember. I’m sure it was terrible.

So, as you went on through high school, did you write more and more stuff. Did you share it with other people to read, at some point?

I didn’t share much. I’m pretty private…a private writer. But whenever, you know, there’s those word problems in math and they kind of let you go on and on? I was…whenever you gave me an option in homework to use words instead of numbers, or to have, like a more than just a simple answer, I always took it. So, my teachers would often say, like, “Hey, you know, you think you might be a writer or something?” I’m like, “Maybe.” But I…it was kind of a far-off dream at that point. Authors were like…that was like becoming an actor or something, you know, like, “Sure, I’ll run away to New York and become a writer. Right. That’ll happen.” So, I didn’t really think about it seriously. I wrote a couple of…well. quite a few. actually…short horror stories. I love writing short fiction. and when you’re in school. you know. that’s oftentimes what you have time to do. So, I wrote a collection of short fiction with my then-boyfriend, like, he wrote a bunch, and I wrote a bunch, and so I shared them with him. But that’s about it. And then I wrote another novel in high school that was also terrible. And I think that was when I first thought, “You know, maybe, maybe I could try to get something published, you know, someday.”

Well, just the act of writing something long, you know, just putting that many words on paper, is an important part of becoming a writer. I mean…

It is. Yeah. Learning to finish is important.

You mentioned Stephen King. I think he’s famously said that everybody writes half a million words of unpublishable stuff before they write anything publishable, and I think he may be on the low end of that.

I know! I agree.

So, when you did to university, though, you didn’t go into writing right away. You went to Ithaca College, but it was a business degree, wasn’t it?

It was, yeah. I always loved books, I always loved writing, but I also…I just wasn’t…I also wanted to be able to make my own way, you know, and um…I’m pretty practical. I’m a pretty practical person. So, I wanted to have something where if, you know, I couldn’t live my dream of being an author, then at least I wanted to be able to make some money. So, I went into finance and was going to be, you know, I’m not sure what at that point, like a stock analyst or an investment banker, I don’t know…I like foreign currencies, maybe foreign currency trader or something like that. But by the time I finished the degree, I hated it, so…I didn’t really figure out that I hated it until senior year. They actually brought in a speaker who I think was supposed to be inspiring to us as the senior class, but all I heard the whole time he was talking about how he had a Lambo and worked for Merrill Lynch and had this great office and…but all I heard was. “Yeah, my friends go skiing in Aspen and I stay and work, and I never get to drive the Lambo because I’m always at work, and I’m a little bit bald now because I’m always at work, and I haven’t…” It was really, really kind of upsetting, all the things he was saying in between the other things that were supposed to be inspiring, and those things were what I clung onto him, like, “So, you’re telling me I’m going to have no time, I’m going to be stressed out, I’m gonna be bald and miserable. OK. I’m not…I’m going to change. I’m not using his degree.”

Well, maybe it was…maybe he was the perfect speaker. then. from your point of view.

For me, yeah, I’m very grateful. And I’m pretty sure that my classmates already knew that going in and they were ready, but I was not.

So, did you then immediately…you went on and got a master’s in creative writing in England, so how did you make the leap from here to there and from that to that?

It was a year or two of working kind of horrible jobs. I sold garbage at one point. Literally. I sold people trash service, like, “Who do you want to pick up your garbage? Let’s just decide, you know, who has the best garbage truck that goes around your neighborhood?” And I just…I kind of knew I had to go back to school for something, and at the same time I just knew that I wasn’t…by then I’d figured out, like, I wasn’t going to be happy if I didn’t give this writing thing a try. So that was my chance. I said I’d give myself this degree and I’d take this time and I’d just put everything into it, and if it worked out it worked out and if it didn’t, well, at least I would know that I gave it a shot. So, I asked my parents if they were cool if I moved back in with them. They said, “Of course,” because they’re those kind of clingy parents that you want but don’t want but you’re lucky you have them. And, yeah, I took out just massive student loans and went to London–with a friend! So, I wasn’t by myself. That helped.

Why London?

I always wanted to live abroad. I’ve always loved, you know, British culture. One of the first classics I read was Jane Eyre, and I like…I’m kind of like an Austen head. So, I really wanted to go over there, I’ve always wanted to travel there, and really I’ve always wanted to live there, so I figured the language barrier was okay, I could discern the accents, and that was probably the safest bet if I wanted to go overseas.

So how long a program was that Master of Arts in Creative Writing?

It was only a year, which was another selling point, which I still…I still give that piece of advice to young writers who come up to me and ask about, “You know, should I get an MA, should I not get an MA.” Well, you know, in London it only takes a year instead of, you know, oftentimes it’s two years in the States. So, when you even it out, it’s about the same cost, despite the exchange rate, and it’s less time. So, yeah, it was only…it was a thirteen-month program, I think? That’s how long we were over there? And it was wonderful. Just really relaxed. Laid back.

So, I’ve talked to a number of authors at this point and many of them had no formal training at all and others have had formal creative-writing training. I think you’re the first Master’s I’ve encountered, though I have another one coming up, I know, in a future episode. So, I get varying degrees of was it worth it or not, depending on who you talk to. Some of the ones who took creative writing said that they ran into professors who, you know, said, “You can’t write that crap,” meaning science fiction or fantasy, and so they found it a very negative experience. What was your experience doing it formally?

Oh, well, they…my professors were wonderful. It was a really small class. Like I said. it was extremely laid back. I don’t know if it’s just they have a different view of that over there, or what, but small class sizes…I’m talking, my graduating, my actual graduating class, was probably about six of us. It was just a very small program. And so, it made the workshop aspect of it extremely effective because we all got to know each other’s work very well. And it was a supportive and collaborative kind of environment. But they were very open to whatever our natural voices and our natural inclinations were. Most of the writers on the course were of a more literary and sometimes even journalistic bent, but…and that’s what I tried to do. I mean, I love literary fiction, and I do write it occasionally, so I was trying to do that. But my love of fantasy and just the weirdness kept kind of creeping in and eventually I started writing stories about, you know, a girl who is suicidal and then accidentally, when she’s like cutting wrist, she finds that, you know, she unlocks, like, a portal to the Greek underworld and, you know, just weird stuff like that kept coming out in my stories and they never…they really embraced it. I was, I told them immediately, like, you know, I’d really like to give this a go, I really, I’m hoping for some kind of literary life, for life in Book World, just to carve that out for myself, and they were very quick to hook me up with every resource they had. They got me an internship with a literary agency in London, so I had some work experience and got to see things from the other side of the desk, and they just embraced my voice. They’re like, “You know, it’s…you’ve got a nice commercial voice.” So, I never ran into that kind of snobbishness, I guess. So, I’m lucky.

It’s nice to hear, because I’ve had more of the other than I’ve had that from the authors I’ve talked to. So, I’m glad it does work out sometimes. I’m actually…I have…my training was in journalism. I never had a…I took one creative writing course in university. But the funny thing is I’m currently mentoring an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan. So, I’ve actually just sort of jumped straight up to teaching people who are getting a masters in a way.

How’s it going?

Good. But he’s writing young adult fantasy and so clearly, you know, the university up there did have a problem with that. They just found him a mentor who could, who could help him with that. So, obviously it just depends on the program. So, you went on from there. Your first book, Anna Dressed in Blood. That was the first published one, wasn’t it?

Well, actually, a literary novel called Sleepwalk Society was released by a small press the year before, and I had actually written that one before my Master’s course. And it was such a small press…I’m talking a micro press. Really wonderful people and I’m so glad that I got to work with them and met them, but I do consider Anna Dressed in Blood to be my first mainstream majorly published novel. So, yeah, that’s usually what I talk about.

Were you actually working on that while you were still doing your masters? Did that sort of start during that time or did it start afterwards?

No, it definitely started afterwards. Probably about six months afterwards was when I started writing? And I was…I worked on a different novel during my, for my dissertation, and I completed it. It was also literary, but it didn’t, you know, it just, it wasn’t there. But when I switched to write…when I switched gears and kind of really embraced the fantasy side and my horror-loving side, which maybe I had been fighting because I thought, you know, you’re supposed to write literary, that’s when everything kind of changed. Like, all the short stories I’d been selling prior to that, I’d sold maybe one or two literary ones but most of them had a horror or a fantasy bent.

Well, and we’re going to talk specifically now about Three Dark Crowns, which started a new…is it a series? A trilogy? What would you call it?

It’s a quartet. The final book comes out in September.

It’s a quartet. Okay. And we’ll talk about…use that as an example of your writing process on everything that you’ve written, but maybe the first thing to do is to get you to give a synopsis of it, so I don’t give something away that you don’t want me to give away.

Sure! So, the Three Dark Crowns series is set on an island. It’s a magical island, where a person can be born with a number of different gifts. So, you can be like an elemental, for example, so you can control one or more of the elements. You can be a naturalist, so you can make things grow, like crops and flowers, and you can also commune with nature and the animals, and you have a little animal companion, called a familiar, who kind of knows what you’re thinking and feeling and vice versa. You can also be a poisoner, so poisoners really like to ingest poison, because it has no effect and it kind of gives them a rush, actually, to ingest poison, and they really like poisoning other people. So, on this island, it’s always been ruled by a queen, and in every generation that queen gives birth to a set of triplets, triplet queens, who all have a particular magical gift, and they are raised, and when they turn sixteen they have a year, essentially, in which to just kill the crap out of each other, and whichever one survives gets to be the new queen, and then bear the next triplets, and so on and so forth. So, Three Dark Crowns is the story of one such generation of these sisters and how they deal with their battle to the death.

Now, you mentioned, that you, you know, your fantasy often also dips into the horror side. That certainly seems to be the case in Three Dark Crowns. Is that common in all of your fantasy? Do you…does it always have that kind of dark edge to it?

I would say so. And I don’t know why but it always tends to be a little bit violent. Someone pointed out to me about two years ago that every single one of my books has intestines, like, intestines somehow end up always on the outside of someone’s body. And I went through and, like, sure enough, yes, every single book that I’ve written has intestines on the outside, so now I make sure that I always put intestines on the outside at some point.

Well I certainly noticed them making their appearance in Three Dark Crowns. So, what are the…what is the seed for you for a book? I mean, this one, specifically, but also any of your books. How do the ideas come to you that you then develop into a book?

I’m not sure it’s the same for you, but for me it’s always different and random. Three Dark Crowns, with its triplet sisters who have to kill each other, actually came from a ball of bees, like a swarm of bees? Are you familiar with beekeeping at all?


Ok. So I was not, and I was at a book event in 2013 and they had like a hot-dog truck outside and it was a lovely day and people were going in and out through the bookstore, but there was a swarm of bees, a big ball of them about the size of a human head, stuck to the tree, like the fork of the tree, right next to the hot-dog truck and everybody was afraid to go and get the hotdogs and maybe we should cancel the event because there were kids there and we didn’t want anybody to die, but there happened to be a beekeeper there, and she said, “You know, when they form a ball like that, their only concern is protecting their queen, who is at the center of the ball. They’re on their way to a new hive. And if she dies, you know, that’s the end of them. So, really, they’re kind of docile when they’re in that state, as long as you don’t poke the ball or annoy it in any way, you can go right up to the hot-dog truck. And everybody was fine and that was true, but since there was a beekeeper there–I mean, what have I ever met a beekeeper? So, I just followed this poor woman around all day asking her bee questions, and I wanted to know, like, “Why does she have to travel in the middle of the ball? That seems very inconvenient. Does she do this a lot?”, and she told me a bunch of stuff about bees and keeping bees and how she gets her hive, but she also told me that a queen bee will leave her hive for a number of reasons, but before she does she’ll lay four or five baby queen eggs, before that she is only laying worker eggs, and she takes off with half the hive and then the baby queens hatch out and they just spite and sting each other to death, and whichever one lives is the strongest queen and she gets to take over the old hive. So, I just really liked that idea and I wanted to do it to people, so on the way home that’s what I started to do, I started to develop the idea of Three Dark Crowns. But that is the only time–the only time–that I can pinpoint exactly when an idea arrived. Do your ideas…can you can you distill them down and go back and find out, like, “Ah, that was the seed of the idea,” because Three Dark Crowns, that’s the only one for me, I have no idea where the rest of them came from.

It depends very much on the on the particular story. Some of them I can and some of them…I was doing an interview recently on an older book that I reissued, and I couldn’t for the life of me remember why I wrote it.

Exactly! Yeah, it’s by the time you…you know, it seems like it’s kind of a compilation of ideas? Like, you get a spark of something, and you’re like, “Oh, that’s kind of an interesting thought.” And then you push it away and if it comes back you know it’s a worthy idea. But it may be has gained something in the time that it was gone.

Well, so once you had this this initial idea of this case–this is good, because at least you remember this one–how do you go about fleshing it out and developing it into a story? Do you do a detailed outlined, do you do kind of just a sketch, what’s your process there?

I do not. You know, there was something going around on Twitter yesterday, like, one of those square, you know, tables, like a chart, and you could kind of..it had different definitions for, like, “Are you a lawful pantser?” And you know the pantser versus plotter…


So, “Are you a lawful pantser? Are you a lawful plotter? Are you a chaotic pantser?”, and it had all these different levels of plotting versus panting, and different definitions for each. And I read through it and I was very surprised to find that…I thought I’d be a combination of a couple. like. you know. whenever those things come out most people are a combination of a couple. But I’m actually quite a lawful pantser. I don’t outline, unless I’m really deep in a series and kind of in over my head as far as the plot lines are going, I never outline. I had the idea in 2013, spring of 2013. I didn’t start writing it until…late 2014, I want to say?” So, it had been sitting there for at least a year, which I like to do because I want it to prove itself to me that I really want to write it. I don’t want it to be one of those ideas where you’re like, “Well, that’s neat,” and then two months later, like, “No, it isn’t.” I don’t, I don’t want to work on this for as long as it takes to finish it. So, if it’s a novel, I make it wait for at least a year and percolate, and it kind of just develops in my subconscious, I think?

So, initially I met the three queens, you know, the three sisters kind of introduced themselves to me and told me what their names were, which I love, because I hate naming characters. Please just introduce yourself to me! And I knew what their gifts were. And I kind of knew…over time, I grew to knew what their situation was, you know, what their culture was like in the different cities, because on the island different cities foster different gifts. So, the poisoners have a city, the naturalists have a city, the elementals have a city, and each one has a different culture because each gift values different things and are raising these girls differently. all of them trying to win. And so, by the time I started writing I had a pretty good sense of who these girls were and where they were coming from. But I had no idea what would happen once I threw them together. And that is the ultimate joy that I have as a writer, is I love my characters, and they are real people to me. That sounds weird, but they’re real, living in another dimension, and I just want to take them and shove them in a room together and see what happens. So that’s what I do.

So, you didn’t write down anything before you just started writing the actual narrative?

Right. I usually like to…as soon as I start, like, I’ll start hearing snippets of conversations and I’ll start hearing snippets of scenes, and as soon as that starts happening with enough frequency that I’ll actually write down a paragraph or two by hand, just to keep it, I’ll know that it’s almost time to start. And when I start I like to have a good idea of where I’m opening and maybe an idea of where the first three chapters might go. And then after that I just depend on it to fill itself in.

So, you don’t even have the ending in mind when you start?

Usually not. I like to be surprised.

You are a lawful pantser!

Yeah. I did have…with Three Dark Crowns, I did know the secret. So, I did know that that is what would be revealed at the end. But I didn’t know how she was gonna get there, I didn’t know how anybody was gonna get there, and I didn’t know…like, yeah, that’s all I knew. I knew these girls were gonna have to fight, I knew there was ceremony involved, and tradition, and…but I didn’t know anything. It was very going in blind, and it usually is, as far as my books are concerned.

So, you must write completely sequentially then, you don’t do scenes and then move them around later? Or do you?

I don’t. I write from start to finish. That’s just…I’m finding…I’m just throwing words out into the void and following them and hoping that there is, you know, like something to catch them on the other side.

So, what is your actual physical writing process? Do you write by hand, do you write in an office, do you go off to a coffee shop, do you sit under a tree, how do you like to work?

Oh, except for those very brief notes I never do anything by hand because my handwriting is just bad.

Exactly. That’s how I feel about it!

It’s just bad. I really envy people with pretty handwriting. And I have an office, I have a home office, so I write here pretty exclusively. There’s a writing group around where I live and sometimes a bunch of us will meet up at a coffeehouse and write for a day just so, you know, we’ll write, and then we’ll have lunch and chat about it and just kind of commiserate, but that’s only once every few months. It’s so…by and large, yeah, I’m that stereotypical writer by myself in an office in a room, sometimes in the dark…no, not usually in the dark, but yeah.

How fast a writer are you?

Slow. I mean, I think I’m slow. I’m slow by young adult standards. Probably fast by adult standards. So…young adult. I mean. we all like to keep to a book a year, which, when you think about it, is tough. Some of us write three books a year, which just makes my brain hurt and wish for sleep. But I probably…left to my own devices, I would love to have eight…seven to nine months…to do a first draft. I love it. Love it! Haven’t had it in years, but that’s, like, my natural writing habitat.

Publishers tend to want you to keep producing books.

I know!

So, when you have a first draft, then what? What’s your revision process? Do you have beta readers? You mentioned a writing group, but that sounds like it’s a very infrequent thing. Do you show to other people or do you just go back to the beginning and…what’s your process?

Well, lately my process has been, “This has to go to my editor, so it goes.” And…

That also sounds familiar!

I don’t…I’ve never had critique partners. I’ve never had beta readers. I kind of wish that I did. I’ve just never…I have writing friends, but we don’t have that kind of environment. I think it takes a particular kind of trust, a particular kind of friendship to have…to be able to do that back-and-forth beta reading and I’ve just never come across that. Maybe it’s just not my nature. So, and when it hangs out with my editor, while it’s hanging out with my editor, I do like to cool drafts off for a number of months, because when I finish it I’m like, “Well, this isn’t so bad. That went pretty well.” And then two months later I’ll say, “Well, that was a garbage fire. Let me just take that back from you and do it all over again.” So, that’s, yeah. Good process.

Do you do revision before you send it to your editor, or does it…are you done when you get to the end of the first draft? Like, do you publish it as you go, or do you go back and start from the beginning and work your way through it again? How does that work for you?

Well, lately…it’s been different with every with every series,. With the Three Dark Crowns series, I’d say I rewrote Three Dark Crowns from top to tails about three times, and I wrote the first hundred pages maybe three times before that. So, yeah, it was hard, it was a lot. Each book has gotten a little bit better. The final book in the series I only had to rewrite, like, once, which was nice, but everything else has been like two times, a full rewrite, just full rewrite, because I just…it’s not that necessarily all of the beats in the plot were wrong but the way that I was telling them were wrong and the writing was not very good. And I just…I really need those few months of just letting it cool off so I can gain some perspective. so I can step back and look at it with. you know. actual eyes and say, “Yeah, this is really, really bad, and I’m sorry that I made my editor read it, but, you know, what’s done is done, now I get to fix it.”

What kind of feedback do you typically get from your editor? Have you had the same editor all along?

I haven’t. I had the same editor at Tor, Tor Teen, for the first five books, so Anna Dressed in Blood series and The Goddess War trilogy, I had the same editor, she’s wonderful, love her. I have a new editor for the Three Dark Crowns series because I moved from Tor to Harper teen and I also love my new editor. I’ve been really, really lucky with editors. And the kind of feedback that I get from her is I think fairly standard. I don’t know about, I mean, you know, you can tell me a little bit about your editors, too, if they give you, like, the shit sandwich? That’s what I call it. So, there’s like bread…it’s like a, about a sixteen-page, single-spaced, one page of bread where they tell you what’s great about it and then like, and then like fourteen pages just of shit, like everything that needs to be fixed and reworked. And then they’ll, you know, finish it off with another slice of bread that’s like, “Oh, yeah, but it’s still so wonderful and let’s have lunch when you’re in town,” and all that stuff. So, yeah, it’s…she’s very, very detail oriented. She really has a strong handle on worldbuilding. She has a really good sense of character. So there was a lot of that, a lot of tracking through the arcs, and the further you get, the further we get, into the series, the more the feedback has to do with, like, the arc of the character and making sure that all the beats are coming through with the proper dramatic hits and that I’m making motivations very clear for the readers. I can’t really the early feedback for Three Dark Crowns, because I would have been about four years ago now, but, yeah, that’s the long and short of it.

Well, my editor at DAW, which is my major publisher, is Sheila Gilbert, and she’s been doing this for a long time, and Sheila actually doesn’t send us, us being her authors, doesn’t send us a written editorial letter, we do it all by phone. So, it’s a two-hour phone call, and after the first fifteen minutes of talking about cats, then it’s talking about the book and…and she’s, yeah, it’s much the same thing. You know, I have gotten to the end of one of those conversations..and sometimes it’s done in person, if I happen to be at a convention or her see her in person, and you get to the end of it…I got to the end of one and I actually said to her, “But I am a good writer?” And basically, she said, “I’m by buying your book, aren’t I?” Yeah, so there can be some of that, but at the same time it’s, you know, it’s all necessary and it’s done from a knowledgeable place, from somebody who has seen an awful lot of this stuff and knows what works and what doesn’t.

Yeah. That’s why they’re there and that’s why, when you’re, you know, when we’re deciding on who to work with, you know, you definitely want to have an editor who shares your vision for the project. And I do the phone calls, too, so she’ll send me the letter and I’ll read it, and I’ll just, you know, weep, and then we’ll jump on the phone and we’ll have this, you know, like a really long two-hour conversation about it. And by the time I’m finished I know exactly what I need to do and I’m very energized. So, I guess that is our process, our process is kind of a combo, like, the letter just like land the blow, and then the phone call to really soften it out and get things moving.

Are there any specific writing tics that you have to watch out for? I mean aside from the entrails thing, which apparently you have fully embraced?

Things that I think…

You know, we all, or I do, anyway. I have these, you know, and it doesn’t necessarily come from the editor, I find it in my own rewriting. My characters, for example, I have a tendency to have people make animal noises when they’re speaking, they’ll growl dialogue or they’ll snarl something, and I have to watch out for that. Anything like that for you?

It differs by book. Like, if one book she’s like, “They’re frowning too much,” then I take out all the frowns and then the next book they’ll be, like, smirking too much. So, it’s…yeah, there’s definitely stuff like that. I will catch myself slipping into passive voice a lot more than I appreciate, but I’m pretty decent about going through and picking that up.

Yeah, that’s something I check on all the time, too. I find that more than I would like.

Yeah, and I don’t know…but, yeah, it’s always there and sometimes you just…even through, like, the line edits. So, you’ve been through major revisions probably a couple of times by that point, and then you go through the line edits and you realize, “Man, a lot of your paragraphs are just totally structured very poorly,” so you have to, you know, change the sentences around or, yeah, there’s definitely a lot of it. It seems like I was more naturally talented in the beginning and there’s a lot more heavy lifting to fix, you know, just the crap that comes out in the first draft. My first, Anna Dressed in Blood, had almost no revisions, like it just, there it was, like it felts like most of them were additions, story smoothing, but as far as sentence-level rewrites there were practically none. And that’s definitely not the case anymore.

One thing I did want to comment on in this book…and I don’t know if it’s your common choice…but it is written in present tense. Is that something you often choose for your stories?

It depends on the story. It felt right for this, third-person present, which I know really, really bugs some people, but third-person present felt right for this. I usually write…unless…if I’m working with a first-person narrator, unless I want them to be an unreliable narrator, I almost always go present tense because of the immediacy. I don’t want to give my narrator time to color things with their own recollection. I really want it just to stream right through, so it adds a little bit more authenticity to the voice, a little more believability. But if I do want, you know…because nobody…we never remember things how they really happened, you know, even things that just happened to us, it’s always colored by experience and the passage of time. So, if I’m writing in past tense that’s always, I’m always very aware of that, as far as if I’m working with a first-person narration. My Goddess War series was told in third past, so it’s…and I think my next fantasy series will be in third past as well, and my next stand-alone is going to be in in first past. So, I don’t know. Maybe I just need a break from present tense.

Well, I admit, I was…I don’t know, I was maybe four or five chapters in and it suddenly twigged on me that it was in present tense, which is interesting, that it didn’t immediately…I was reading it in past tense even though it was written in present tense. That’s something weird in my brain, I guess, but I didn’t immediately notice, which is interesting. Probably more to do with me than you, though. So, you mentioned going through all these stages of rewrites, and line edits, and it is something I like to point out to readers, sometimes, who, you know, say, “Well, you must be so excited your book is out,” and it’s like, “Yeah, but I’ve seen that thing so much at this point.” Do you feel that way a little bit when it comes out, that you’ve read it way too many times already and you don’t have to look at it again after it’s published?

Oh, exactly. Like, that’s…yeah, I remember, you know…more so in the early books. You know, people say, like, “Oh my God, your book is out and you can hold it in your hands and are you so excited to just bring it home and read it?” And it was very exciting to see an on a shelf and to hold it in my hands. And it is still very exciting to see my books on shelves and be able to hold them as physical books because books are so, you know, such a big, monumental part of my life. But I never want to crack my book open and actually read it because I have read it like ten times from cover to cover within the last six months or so. And, I mean, even my favorite books I haven’t reread ten times. So, yeah, I think I’ve had enough…and yet. I will sometimes now…it’s been about ten years since Anna Dressed in Blood…I will pick it up and if I need to reference something, like, “Oh, what did I say then?”, I’ll read it and then I’ll catch myself, like, reading a little more and going, “Well, that’s not bad, that’s OK,” but it’s taken ten years for me to do that, and as far as Three Dark Crowns goes, it’s still so fresh that the only reason I’ll crack one open is if I need to reference something that I said before, just to make sure, like, I’m in the right area of the castle or the right hair color or eye color, et cetera, et cetera.

I presume there are audiobooks of your work. Have you ever listened to those?

No, I can’t. I just…I think it’s too weird to listen to somebody else read my, you know…do you think that’s weird? Do you like…I mean, I’ve chose the audiobook narrator for the Three Dark Crowns series, which is my first time doing that, and she’s wonderful, she’s fantastic, and I do listen to enough of it so that I’m like, “Oh, yeah, Amy Landon, you knocked it out of the park again,” so I can, you know, really appreciate that. But then I stop. Do you do the same thing or can you…?

Well, I did one young adult fantasy series, I retained the audiobook rights, it’s from a smaller publisher here in Regina called Coteau Books, and it’s an Arthurian, modern-day Arthurian series called The Shards of Excalibur. So, I actually found the narrator,, but I was also the publisher because I was doing it through ACX–audio book exchange or whatever that stands for–Audiobook Creation Exchange or something like that. So, I had to listen to them all because I had to do the proof listening, And actually, I kind of enjoyed it. It’d had been a while. She did such a great job. It was…she did… there’s a teen girl and that was great but there’s a teen boy and she made him believable and Merlin’s like a computer guy like Bill Gates or something in my story and she gave him this obnoxious English accent. And, yeah, I actually quite enjoyed listening to my own stuff, but I’ve never listened to the ones that are done…like, my latest one, Worldshaper, has one out and I’ve listened to the opening of it and I can’t quite bring myself to listen to anymore because it’s just too soon since that came out and I just want to hear it again right now. Also, I read it out loud to my wife, so I feel like…

Yeah. That’s another thing I do. I do the same thing, I read them all out loud to my husband. So, yeah. He’s an audiobook guy. Is your wife an audiobook listener?

No, but we have this thing where…our kitchen’s not big enough for both of us to work side by side, it’s an old house, so she…I pour wine and she cooks and I read to her. That’s kind of our suppertime ritual.

Oh, that’s nice.

We’re currently reading Life of Johnson by Boswell. So, it says it takes fifty hours, so apparently it’s a long book…I’m reading it on e-book. Anyway, that’s what we do. So, you’ve got the last book coming out…and it’s called Three Dark Crowns, is the name for the overall quartet, is it, as well as the first book?

Yes. So, yeah, the series doesn’t have a special name, it’s just the Three Dark Crowns series and it will be comprised of four main novels, and then I also released a short bind-up of novellas. They’re prequel novellas, so they take place before the start of the series, when the queens were children, and then one of a queen from 500 years before. And that one’s called Queens of Fennbirn. But the last book will be called Five Dark Fates. So, completely out of numerical order, which is really bugging people.

What are the two middle books called?

So, the order of the series is Three Dark Crowns, One Dark Throne, Two Dark Reigns, and Five Dark Fates.

They don’t even add up!

They don’t even add up. They totally skip…I totally skipped number four. Originally, the series was designed to be a two-book series. It was just a duo. So, the story…it completes an arc at the end of One Dark Throne, and then, the next two books…I like to think of them almost as separate duologies, because the first is, like, the story of the Ascension and then the second is like the story of the reign. Yeah, so, when it was just going to be Three Dark Crowns and One Dark Throne, well that wouldn’t have been too confusing, that would have been OK. And then I started adding more numbers and it just got out of control.

Well, now we’re at the point where I’m going to ask you the big philosophical questions. Why do you write and why do you think any of us write? In particular, why do you write this kind of stuff, and why do you think any of us write this kind of stuff? What do you think is the impetus?

I think escapism has so much to do with it as far as why we write fantasy, and even horror, in particular. I don’t know about you, but I find there’s something soothing about being extremely frightened of something that can’t actually hurt me. There’s enough to be afraid of for real when you’re just walking around living your life. So, if I can be afraid of, like, a guy with Butterfinger knives on his hands, that’s wonderful to me. I love, I have Freddy nightmares every now and again and they’re my favorites, just waking up just terrified and knowing, “Well, he’s not real,” and hoping someday he will be. So, there’s a lot of…at least, for me I think that’s where it is. I always used to try to find, you know, magic when I was a kid, in the real world. I always thought, like, “Man, our world is so dull, it’s so boring, like, my horse doesn’t have a horn, not a single horn on that horse whatsoever. Not even an invisible one. She never grew one. I waited… And so, yeah, escapism. And…what was the other question? Kind of starting to ramble here.

Well, that’s sort of one reason we read it and maybe why you write it, but, like, do you enjoy it? I mean, is it fun?

Oh, yeah. I don’t know what it is about…I don’t know, for me, since I’m a hard-core pantser, when I’m drafting, it’s very much living the story. Like, I’m very Bastian Balthazar Bux about that. I don’t insert myself, you know–that might be fun at some point, but–I’m just living, I’m finding things out along with my characters, and I’m really along for the ride, and I start to get inklings about what might happen, and it’s not always what happens, and that’s exciting. So, for me the act of writing has always been a little bit magical. It’s…I mean, there’s no reason why it should work out. There’s no reason why I should be able to just sit down with these threads of story and just plop down and write, and they’ll, like, twine themselves into some kind of a sensible arc and reach a, you know, a conclusion that makes sense, like, without planning it out. But it does. Every time it does, and that is just magic. So, for me, yeah, the act of writing is…just, writing anything, it doesn’t even have to be fantasy. Just the fact that you…there’s a story out there and it’s waiting to be discovered is very, very magical.

Have you found that the writing process, where you are drawing all these plot threads together and bringing the story out, has that gotten easier the more you do it or does it…has it changed for you? You’ve done many books now.

I have, and I’ve done standalones, and I’ve done series, duos…I actually realized the other day…well, I realized this about a year and a half ago…that Sleepwalk Society was a standalone, then Anna was a duo, then The Goddess War was a trilogy, and now Three Dark Crowns is a quartet, so I would either forge ahead and go for five or I should reset and go back to one, and I did. I reset and I went back to one. Probably the best, for the best, because…it’s really hard sometimes to get real deep into a series and you’re coming up on the conclusion and you’ve got a whole bunch of things just stretched out there waiting to be resolved and at the outset of that final book you’re looking at them flapping in the wind wondering, “How am I going to catch you?” Like how are you going to braid together to, you know, work yourselves out. And they do, I suppose, but it’s a little bit nerve racking. It hasn’t really changed, though, over the course of…the writing process, over the course of these books. The revision process has changed a lot, but the actual drafting has remained the same. It’s just very much getting to know the characters, letting the characters make their choices, and following the story wherever it wants to go.

Since you mentioned series, something I often ask series writers…the last interview that just went live was Kevin Hearne, who has like a ten-book series, the Iron Druid series…do you find any issues with continuity and remembering what you put in the previous books so you don’t contradict yourself in the current book?

Well, it’s always…I always think about that when I’m starting out, because I’m a pantser, and whenever I put something to paper, every once in a while I’ll think, “Man, I hope I’m not just writing myself into a corner,” you know, just making it so that there’s no way that I can get out of here, and then the last book just has to have a meteor strike and just take out everybody because that’s the only way. Which I suppose is always an option. But, no, I haven’t yet. It’s been OK, despite not having all of the rules in place and not knowing…like, I don’t know, often I don’t know the ins and outs of a locale until I bring a character there and walk around with them. I don’t know the ins and outs of a culture before I have a character’s excuse to go and learn about it, or a character’s…yeah, so, but it’s  worked out OK so far. I will have just plain old flubs. A reader pointed out that in Two Dark Reigns, one of the characters…so there’s a line of queens, right, in these books, and the last three queens have been poisoner queens, which is unprecedented. Usually there’s not the same type. Nobody, like, three in a row just don’t win. So, the poisoners are kind of experiencing this dynasty of sorts and they’re kind of going mad with power and the three poisoner queens directly before this are Camille,, Nicola and Sylvia…or Camille, Sylvia, and Nicola, in that order…and in Two Dark Reigns they’re referred to as Camille, Sandrine, and Nicola, because in the very early timeline, which apparently I mistakenly worked off of, the second poisoner Queen’s name was Sandrine,. and then we changed it to Sylvia. I don’t even know why. So, that’s actually in print in Two Dark Reigns, and I’m thinking that we’re gonna have it fixed, but that was embarrassing. So, stuff like that does happen, yeah.

And it doesn’t seem to matter how many eyes look at it in the publishing side, ultimately it’s a reader that always seems to find these.

Isn’t it? Those readers. They’re good!

And speaking of readers, what do you hope readers get from your work? You mentioned escapism, are you looking for any other impact on their way of thinking or their life. I guess it sounds a bit grand, but this is called The Worldshapers, so, are you trying to shape the world with your fiction?

I’m not. I really want readers to enjoy it. I hope they care about the characters and I hope they care about the story and I hope they enjoy it. I’m…if. you know. Three Dark Crowns is set in a matriarchy, where women are in power, and they’re the heads of households, and that’s the way it’s always been, and nobody seems to bat an eye about that, I mean, if that leads some people to go, like, “Oh, yeah, why should we bat an eye about that,” well, that’s great. But I didn’t set out to do that.

I don’t think I’d recommend the system of government that has built up…

Oh, no, no. By no means do I mean to say that a matriarchy would be without flaw, because women are still humans and we just mess things up no matter what, no matter what gender we are we will mess it up, guaranteed, but…

That’s where stories come from!

Exactly. But, no, I often…sometimes folks ask me to, like, do keynote speeches, and I always caution them, because I love keynote speeches–I’ve listened to quite a few, just going to conventions and things, and they’re always so inspiring and just uplifting and, you know, all these great personal stories of things they’ve overcome or mentors that have affected them, and I just make it very clear that I’m …I don’t have those kind of stories and I’m not that kind of change-the-world, you know, writer. It’ll be mostly dick jokes and, yeah, just a lot of court-jestering for however long you want to have me up there. So, no. Like, I…I don’t want to say that I don’t take my work seriously, because I really, really do, but…and I hope that it has, for that rare reader I think, you know, maybe it does…you know, a really good book can change your world. It doesn’t really matter what it’s about. So, I hope that does happen for some people but I…I don’t think…you know, I’m not like a, I’m not like a Jason Reynolds or an Andy Thomas or a, just…yeah. I’m not that.

Well, when I think of the books that really had an impact on me, I don’t think, in most cases, they had any sort of impact that the author thought they might have. It just happened to be the right book and the right character hitting me at the right time to really make an impression on me.

Exactly. Yeah. And that’s true for me, too, as a reader. So, I don’t know, maybe that’s why I don’t have that hope, is you know…I hope that it will happen, but I don’t I don’t set out for that for sure. When I’m writing, it’s really just…honestly, I don’t think about audience much at all, I just want to serve the characters and tell the story as best I can.

Well, it seems like the readers are coming along for the ride, so that’s good. And speaking of that, what are you working on now? I mean, we know the fourth book is coming out in September, I think you said?

Yes. September 3rd. And I just finished it. We got a little behind. They…well, they asked me to do the novellas shortly after, I think, One Dark Throne was published. And at the time I was like, “Sure, yeah, what are they, like 25,000 words apiece? No problem, I can knock them out,” and no, that took a while. So, ever since then we’ve kind of been working from behind and so, we’re very late. Normally, I would be…they would all be wrapped up by now. We’d be through pass pages, everything would be set. And I just turned in another edit, like another decent-sized edit, and we tried to combine the line edits and the copy edits into that edit and I only had four days to turn it around.


So, it was tight. I’m still pretty happy with where it’s ending up. And…but, yeah. So that immediately was what I was working on. I’m going to be starting my next standalone, which hasn’t really been announced yet, but it’s kind of like a, kind of like a YA In Cold Blood mixed with Natural Born Killers. Are you familiar with the serial killer…he’s not a serial killer, he’s a spree killer…Charlie Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate?

The names vaguely ring a bell but that’s all I could say.

There’ve been a couple movies, like, based off of them, Badlands, and they were…they were teenagers and they just went on a killing spree that lasted several days, possibly a couple weeks, into…they just shot up the heartland and it was just very, very shocking, you know, just like In Cold Blood, the Clutter murders were shocking, things like that just didn’t happen in the heartland at that point in time. And Caril Ann Fugate was only thirteen when this happened, and she was tried as an accomplice, and she went to prison, and Charlie Starkweather, I think, was only fifteen or sixteen. I mean, these were kids. So, that story has always really interested me, and…it’s not going to be exactly like a retelling or based on them really at all, that’s just the inspiration. So, it’s gonna be kind of a twisty crime thriller. In a sense, that’s what I’m going to be working on next, and then I’ll go back to fantasy after that, but it will, I mean true to form, it will have kind of a horrifying fantasy-like spin because of the nature of the murders and the possibility of some supernatural involvement.

Does it have a title yet?

It doesn’t have…it has a working title, but it doesn’t have a title that I think is going to stick. Right now I’m just calling it…like the full title in my brain was, like, All These Bodies Without Blood, but I think…then we shortened it to All These Bodies, and I don’t know if All These Bodies will stay or if it’ll be something else by the time it comes out. I’m taking a year off, though. I need time to shift gears, and I really…I’m afraid of this book. I know what it needs to be and it’s one that I’ve had in my head long enough that I kind of know most of the beats. So, you could almost say that I’m plotting this one. And I haven’t felt up to it as a writer so far. I think I’m ready to try it now. But I need a lot of time.

Well, it certainly sounds intriguing. Well, we’re just about out of time here. So, where can people who want to keep up with your writing exploits, where can they find you online?

Well, my website is a good place to start, just KendareBlake.com. I try to keep the events updated. I’m not as good about keeping the blog updated. Maybe I’ll blog like once a year. I’m on Twitter, and if you @ me I will definitely do my best to reply. I’m on Instagram, ditto, if you tag me or something I’ll do my best to reply. And I’m also on Facebook. And those are all just my name. I’m not very creative with the handles, it’s just Kendare Blake. I don’t do Snapchat because I don’t get it and the filters scare me. But uh, yeah, you can definitely find me there.

All right, well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshup…Worldshapers, I can’t even pronounce the name of my own podcast…and I think I mispronounced your name in the introduction. You said…how do you pronounce it?

I say Kendar-ah but I don’t care. Whatever you say is fine.

I think I said Ken-dare off the top.

That’s fine. I get…if it starts with a K and you’re looking at me, I’ll answer to it.

Well, thanks so much for being on the podcast. I’ve really enjoyed talking to you.

Well thanks for having me. It was it was great to talk to you again after all these years.

Episode 25: Derek Künsken

An hour-long conversation with Canadian science fiction author Derek Künsken, author of The Quantum Magician (Solaris) and its upcoming sequel, The Quantum Garden (due out in October 2019), as well as the webcomic (with artist Wendy Muldon) Briarworld, and numerous short stories, which have appeared in places like Asimov’s, AnalogClarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a number of year’s-best anthologies, and podcasts.



Derek’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Derek Künsken left molecular biology to work with street kids in Honduras and upon his return to Canada found his way into the Canadian Foreign Service. After working in embassies in Colombia and Cuba he settled and Gatineau, Quebec, where he writes science fiction and fantasy and raises his son. Derek’s short fiction has appeared in places like Asimov’s, AnalogClarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and a number of year’s-best anthologies, as well as in foreign magazines in translation, and many have been reprinted in podcasts, available for free. His first novel, The Quantum Magician, came out in 2018 from Solaris. Its sequel, The Quantum Garden, will be in stores everywhere in October 2019. He also writes a fun “jetpack planetary-romance webcomic” with Argentinean artist Wendy Muldon, called Briarworld, which updates every Tuesday on Webtoons.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Derek.

Thanks so much.

We’ve kind of known each other, mainly because of Can-Con in Ottawa, which I’ve been to the last three years or something like that, so that’s usually when I see you.

Yeah. You make quite a trek across the country to get here.

Well, I got invited to be Guest of Honour that one year, and then I liked it so much I’ve been going back ever since. So, we’re going to talk primarily about The Quantum Magician, and how that all came about, which…I have to confess I haven’t quite finished it but I’m well into it and enjoying it very much.

The butler did it.

So, when I give you a chance to synopsize it later, I always say don’t give any spoilers, and this time it’s for me, too. But first, let’s go back into the mists of time and find out, how did you first become interested in science fiction and fantasy and…reading it, presumably, we all start as readers, and then from there, how did you begin writing it?

So, I didn’t start as a reader. My sort of creative primordial soup was Saturday-morning cartoons. I watched the Super Friends, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Spiderman, Batman, Space Ghost, and stuff like that. And I was a kid when Star Wars came out and my parents brought me to see it in the drive-in, and there was Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers, and I think all of that together I had in in my brain right when I was ten years old and my mother gave me my first comic books and I became a voracious reader of comic books. And then you know how in comics they always have those little asterisks where, like, they’ll refer to a story and say, you know, “Go back to this issue.” In one, John Carter, Warlord of Mars, they had an asterisk and it wasn’t a comic book they were referring to but The Princess of Mars, and I’m like, “What on earth is this?” So, I went to a second-hand store and found my first novel that I bought on purpose, and was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, and from then on, you know, picking up a wider and wider selection of stuff. So, I didn’t come to sci-fi by reading right away but I knew I wanted to be a writer as soon as I could write, although I don’t know why.

Well, what were some of the other books that you gravitated to after you started with Edgar Rice Burroughs?

So, I was a really…I’m not a well-read writer. I would pick one writer and read most of their stuff until I couldn’t stand it. And so, I read a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which is terrible training for a writer because it was pulp. I read a lot of comic books until end of university. Katherine Kurtz was really good. I liked her Deryni series, and I found that because of a class they’d made in Dragon Magazine back when I was playing D&D as a teen. I discovered Asimov in high school and also Tolkien, and then when I got to university, there was a second-hand bookstore nearby, and I discovered Robert Holdstock and a few other writers. I started to try and really broaden my reading, though, in my early thirties, after I’d failed so often to write anything that anybody would want to buy. And I started picking…I just went through all the Hugo and Nebula lists and just tried to see what I could find in second-hand shops and, you know, I just started reading a lot more.

I never read Edgar Rice Burroughs, I admit. But Katherine Kurtz was one that I did pick up as well. I’m obviously older than you because you saw Star Wars as a child, and I saw it as a college student so there’s roughly that gap in there. But I also played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons in university. I often say that I supposedly majored in journalism but really I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and minored in journalism, based on the amount of hours I put into it. And I do hear that a lot from authors. A lot of authors have played D&D.

Yes. Yes. Because, you know, it’s either that or have friends, right, back in the ’80s?

Now, I admit that when I did it I actually preferred to be the dungeonmaster and I realized one reason I quit playing it very much was I ran out of people to play with, because I moved away from university, but also I realized that a lot of the muscles I was using and creating my Dungeons and Dragons world were the ones I could be using in creating fictional worlds.

That’s really cool. Yeah, I can’t say I had the same experience, in part just because the D&D community I was with split up, you know, when I was still in high school, so…yeah.

Well, my roommate was the one that introduced me to it, and he’d started playing when D&D came in three paperback, badly printed pamphlets, basically.

Oh, wow.

For $10 each. I still have those original books somewhere, at least two of them.

Oh, my goodness.

They’re probably worth, like, $30. So, anyway, enough about Dungeons and Dragons. So, did you just begin to start trying to write in college or along that timeframe?

Oh, no. I wrote my first book in Grade 4. I just, I don’t know why. My father had a typewriter and there was something pretty…so, I had written…so, I went to French Immersion, because I am in Ontario, and that means you didn’t learn any English until about Grade 2 and even then it was only an hour. So, by the time I was in Grade 3 I could put together…I could write English sentences, and pretty early I started already trying to write stories–I remember doing it at that age–and then when I was in Grade 4, my dad’s typewriter was there, and there was something really, really magical about it not being in my awful handwriting, and being on the page and looking so official, and that typewriter really motivated me, and then my dad got me a better electric one in Grade 7 and I wrote a, you know, many more things then, but just piddling-around sort of stuff. And then in Grade 8 I wrote another book. But, I mean, these are all childish attempts, right? But they point at some of the urges and the needs that are in us that we know how to express now but we didn’t know how to express then. By the time I was fifteen, though, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be associated with kid stuff anymore and the novel I started at fifteen was very much intended to be a novel that would be sold to adults, that would be put out by a publisher and everything else.

Did you finish it?

Oh, yeah. It took me…by the time I got to eighteen years old I realized that the roots of the book were, like, the beginning of it, were not strong enough to sustain it and so I just kind of restarted. Which is not a bad thing to do. And so, from eighteen to twenty-five I got two university degrees and then also finished the novel and sent it off while I was still in grad school. And that got rejection from Tor, but I was pretty motivated that…you know, there were lines in the margins and little notes like, “Oh, this sounds cool,” sort of thing from whichever reader had gotten it. And so it was cool to have had my turn at bat but by the time I got the rejection back after a year, I looked at it and I saw, “Well, you know, I can do way better now and I can see all sorts of flaws and so I put it aside.”

Did you share your writing with anybody during all that time?

I took one creative writing course in university but as you can imagine in university it’s more lit-focused and I was writing sci-fi. I had friends I could share stuff with, and they were good friends that, you know, they would read through a 100,000-word novel, but they weren’t writers. And so…I really think there’s something you need in a critiquing group, like it has to be writers, it has to be somebody who can say, “You know, I see the technique you’re using here. This technique is not the appropriate one because I’ve tried it and, you know, this is another technique you may want to try to get this effect.” So, yeah, I didn’t have a writers’ community if that’s what you’re asking. In fact, I didn’t have a writers’ community until I was about thirty-five, thirty-six.

Well, it was that but also…like, I wrote, I started writing fairly lengthy stuff about Grade 8, 9, and wrote three novels in high school and all that. And I did share them with my classmates, and the reason I ask it is because it’s often…you find out at least that you’re telling stories that people enjoy even if maybe the techniques not really there, but you you’re kind of getting those stories out there. I was wondering if that was your experience.

Yeah, no. Well,. the thing is I didn’t share I think…I don’t know why. But why did you start writing? Like, did you consciously, like were you self-aware that I am a writer therefore I am writing? Or did you just start to do it the way a beaver builds a dam, which is a bit the way I feel I started?

I was a huge reader and I decided that I wanted to tell a story, too, and most of them didn’t go anywhere to begin with but then I wrote a complete short story when I was eleven years old with a friend, something to do on a rainy day. And my junior-high English teacher, Tony Tunbridge…it was science fiction, it was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot”…and he took it seriously. and that kind of spurred me on to try to write more and more and write better things and somewhere along in there I realized that that was what I really wanted to do. So, I always ask writers about that. And you also mentioned the creative writing class…you’re my twenty-fifth author. I’ve interviewed on the podcast. And a few of them have taken formal creative writing and most of them say that their formal creative writing wasn’t much help to them as a science fiction and fantasy writer. It sounds like you fall into that ballpark, too.

Actually, to be fair, I think I took…it was a second-year course at the University of Guelph. It made me read things I wouldn’t have normally read. It made me critique things that I wouldn’t have normally critiqued. And it exposed me to Strunk and White, for example, and all of his rules of writing, and then even some of the ways the prof talked about what you’re trying to do with fiction was useful, and so I think there are a lot of things that translated over, most especially the techniques, but even just the, you know, trying to read CanLit. It wasn’t for me, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I could appreciate some of what they were doing and it’s, you know…I think I read Dune in university and then, you know, I tried to reread it ten or fifteen years later and I found there was a huge difference in what I could appreciate out of it, in part because some of the technique and the way he wrote, and I attribute that to just that sort of Launchpad of what I got from that course. Not all bad.

I was going to say, I suppose nothing is entirely wasted, even if you’re in a course that doesn’t really fit right into what you’re doing. You always pick up something from it if you’re if you’re open to it.

Yeah, yeah.

Now what you were studying was science, was it? You said you got two degrees.

Yeah, I did a degree in biology at Guelph and then I did a master’s in biology at McMaster, and so…Guelph was a plant-genetics sort of school, and so I did genetics and molecular biology, and I really loved it, and that still provides a lot of the sort of foundational stuff for when I’m making aliens and things. And then, for my master’s degree I worked in a cancer lab building genetically engineered viruses to see, you know, if these would be good vectors to carry immunotherapy into tumours. So, that was also a really interesting experience, which exposed me a lot to, you know, the viral world as well, which is really cool genetically.

And genetics certainly plays an important role in your novel, too, which we’ll talk about shortly.


But then, you didn’t stick with that.


How did you end up working with street kids in Honduras?

I think the reason I got into genetics…it’s not a crapshoot. I actually loved biology and molecular biology but the only reason I knew about it was from The Uncanny X-Men comic books, because Moira McTaggart and Professor X were both geneticists and it just sounded like a cool thing and so, when I got into high school I, you know, I twigged right away when we were learning genetics in high school, and so, I’ve…the only job I knew you could do with genetics was to be a prof. And so, I decided to head for grad school and, you know, be on the researcher sort of career path.

But as soon as I got into grad school I saw, you know, the kind of quality of life that professors have and the sort of uncertainty they have and how much, you know, almost independent of how smart you are is your success, which is based on luck of, did you pick the right field, did you pick the right time, did you pick the right set of experiments, did you pick the right gene? And I thought, “Wow, it’s just so unstable.”

And the other thing is, it’s…I worked in a big lab so there are always people around. but in the end you’re all working on your own experiments and it felt a bit lonely in the work part. Like, it wasn’t like I was working with others. And I found that there were sort of emotional muscles that weren’t being flexed in that work. And so, about midway through my master’s I decided I didn’t want to be a professor anymore and I did want to do something a little more people-focused.

And, yeah, after grad school I wanted to work with street kids, and I had a cousin who was already working with children who worked in the street in Honduras. And so, she set me up with an NGO in a different city who gave me room and board and I worked with, you know, kids who were, you know, drug-addicted, living in the streets, being abused, some here in prostitution. And it was a sort of first-contact job where, you know, you had to make some kind of emotional contact, some trust contact, quite quickly to try and see if, after a while, they might take themselves out of the situation of vulnerability and at least come to the centre, where they could get food and clothing, medical attention, where they wouldn’t be preyed upon by, you know, people, and, you know, eventually, if it’s possible, see if they could be reunited with their families, and in some cases they were, you know, the families were the reasons they were on the street, but in other cases it was just, you know, seduced out by different factors and stuff. So, I did that for about ten or twelve months. And, yeah, it was a life-changing experience.

Does that still inform your writing, those experiences?

I don’t know what it does. I subscribe a bit to this sort of Tolkeining thing, which is, you know, you absorb a lot of stuff and you don’t exactly follow any individual leaf that’s falling down in your brain. It’s just…there’s a mulch at the bottom and out of that mulch grows stuff. I’ve tried to write stories about street kids and I’ve had a couple that worked, but far more often I feel pretty strong imposter syndrome, even to be somebody trying to write about that topic and so, you know, like, I just don’t feel I know enough or understand enough of their lives to do it authentically, and so I kind of shy away from it.

But then after that you ended up in the Canadian Foreign Service.

Yes. Because in the late ’90s the only people who were hiring was the Foreign Service. And if you had a master’s degree and foreign experience and bilingual, you know, you could apply. And so, I did, and managed to score high enough that I got picked, and about a year later they shipped me off to Colombia for three years, where I worked on their special refugee program that they had there, which was really cool. And then, you know, after three years I was cross-posted to Havana, where I was working basically in what you could call anti-people smuggling, where, you know, I would work with airlines and the Ministry of the Interior of Cuba to, you know, just pass around information to try and stop people from using false passports and fake visas and imposters, how do you detect them, and stuff like that. And, you know, both of those places were very, very interesting but it was…it’s hard on a marriage, because your wife can’t necessarily work in a country like that, where the income and the language are so different. But also, I knew that artistically I was far away from other writers and I needed to be closer to other writers who were writing in English, whom…I needed to be able to interact with them. So, we decided to come back to Canada, and I’ve been in Gatineau now since.

Oh, since.

Yeah. Sorry, since, yeah.

I was waiting for a year there.

Oh, no.

And I thought, “Oh, you still there?”

Since, period.

Since, period. Okay. You need that…have you ever seen the visual punctuation thing that Victor Borge used to do? If you don’t, you should look it up.


There’s little sound effects like comma is a “gzzzzk!”, and there’s all these…sometimes I think I’d be useful in radio and podcast things like.

Oh, that’s funny.

So, you were writing through all that time? You were still…

Yes. Yeah, I was, and…

When did you shell sell your first short story?

I sold my first short story in 2006. It was in 2006…one of the issues of 2006’s On Spec, and…so. I would’ve been thirty-five at that time, and so that would’ve been just when I had gotten back to Canada.

And a lot of short stories since.

Yes. Yes. Well, in part…my second short story sale was to Asimov’s, which is, you know, one of the top markets and I thought, “Well, I made it now. Oh, now I can go back to my novels,” of which I had two failed ones, and so I decided to write a third novel because now that I’d made it, you know, in terms of competence, of course my novel would sell, and so I wrote a third novel and then, you know, that didn’t work. But so, basically I had a period of…the last ten years has been write a bunch of short stories, write a novel, write a bunch of short stories, write a novel, and the short stories mostly got sold, everything after 2011 is pretty much sold, but the novels…I ended up having five in the end that were, you know, just not there, and so I think I was learning skills on the short story side maybe faster than on the novel side or…I don’t know. It’s hard to pick apart your own failures, but it’s…yeah.

One question I have because I read it in the bio and then I thought that sounds a little odd. They’ve been “reprinted in podcasts?” What does that mean. Are they audio, then?

Yeah, yeah. So, for example, Escape Pod, Pod Castle, and Pseudo Pod are three big markets and I have three stories in there that have all been published elsewhere. And, yeah, I kind of consider podcast to be reprint markets because I always go for the print first.

The other thing I wanted to ask, because you are bilingual, have you…do you write in French at all, or do you just write in English?

Yeah. I didn’t do a lot of homework on French grammar when I was a kid except when my mother made me. So, no. I…my reading is good. My writing is fine, but fine is not what you need for fiction, you need something, you know, much more expansive.

Do you do quite a bit of reading in French?

No, no almost none. I’m impatient. So, what happens is, I find that reading in French is slow enough that I get bored of it. And then I stop. It’s only if I have to, or if I think I should a little bit, like eating vegetables, I’ll read in French to make sure I’m staying current, because with the government I do have an obligation to keep my French at a certain level and luckily my oral French is quite good and I enjoy speaking French quite a bit, and I treat reading and writing in French as, you know, “I should eat my vegetables,” sort of thing, and also go to the gym.

So, you’re still with the Foreign Service or some other government…?

So, I left the foreign service and became a policy guy for about nine years and then I took a leave from work because we were driving with my son somewhere once and, you know, those conversations where, you know, “I’ll tell you when you’re eighteen” sort of thing.

And he was quiet after that for a little while and then, you know, a minute after I’d said that, he said, “That’s in eight years,” and I nearly had a heart attack because then I realized, “Wait a second, he’s ten,” and, you know, I go to work and I only see him a couple of hours a day because of the work hours and everything else. And in three years he’s not going to want to be with me anymore because he’s gonna be a teenager and he’s gonna be, you know, chasing after girls and stuff. So, I took a leave from work to be with my son more. And that’s been absolutely fantastic. We spent four summers so far together, I think. And, I pick him up from school at three, I drop him off at school at eight, and it’s fantastic. And then, when he’s at school, that’s when I write. And so, it’s been a very nice balance. But I eventually have to head back to work, ’cause my leave…it’s an unpaid leave. You can only live for so long on unpaid leave.

Yeah, well let’s move on and talk about your first novel which has now been published, The Quantum Magician. First, before we talk about how it came about, synopsize it without spoiling anything.

Well, I got to my agent by saying, “It’s Ocean’s Eleven meets Guardians of the Galaxy.” And then she sold it to the publisher by saying it was Ocean’s Eleven in space.


Spaaace, yeah. No, it’s…there is…like, it’s a space-opera book. There are a set of…one of the tropes of space opera that I really enjoy is that. you know. there are lost civilizations that have gone extinct and what they’ve left is behind this technology that we know nothing about. And so, there’s this wormhole network left behind by these forerunners and the nations in space that control those are these big patron nations, and they have client nations who are allowed access to them but, you know, under conditions and for service and stuff. So, there is one of these client nations that comes to a con man called Belisarius and they say, “You know, we have some stuff we want to move across this wormhole but they’re not going to let us through. We’d like you, as a con man, to help us move our stuff across this wormhole.” And that’s the beginning of the story. And the fun stuff with a con plot structure is, you know, you’ve got certain things that are really, really fun for the audience, like finding the allies and, you know, going through the training and then figuring out where things are gonna go wrong and how they have to improvise and stuff like that. So, it was a very fun book to write.

Well I’m glad you expressed it as Ocean’s Eleven because I was going to say it seems a lot like an Ocean’s Eleven or that kind of caper story. So obviously that was a deliberate thing.

Yeah. Well, also the sting. I enjoy heist movies a lot. And to be honest, as well, I wanted to go with a plot structure that I understood pretty well, whose beats I understood pretty well, because I had five failed novels. I sort of was lacking the confidence to embark on a sixth unless I had a bit of a boost, so to speak. It’s not training wheels, it’s a boost. And so, I went with a plot structure that I think I understood. And I think it also worked because some of the worldbuilding is weird enough that for the audience, as well, having a structure they’re more familiar with allows me to put a lot of stuff on it that is unfamiliar and a little weird.

So, did you choose the structure and then thought about a way to make a space-opera version of that, or was the impetus something different. How did…where did you get your idea? What was the seed for this?

So, I did…so, one of the…I subscribe to the theory of John Truby, who is this Hollywood script doctor. And he says, when you’re writing a screenplay, write down all of the things you’ve seen in other screenplays that you think are fascinating, ideas you’d love to play with, and then just see which ones could go together and what you get. And so, one of the ideas I had was a con structure like The Sting or Ocean’s Eleven. I also wanted to use some of the aliens I’d created in some of my other stories, like the Homo eridanus, the mongrels in the story. I wanted to create a few others. I knew I wanted to make a quantum man because I had read a story by Stephen Baxter where he had somebody who could perceive things in the quantum world, but the way he did it is not the way I would do it, and that’s often the way I get inspired, I look at what other people have done and I said, “Is that the way I would do it?”, and then as soon as I say “No,” you know, that sends me off on a tangent of my own creativity. It’s just looking at what questions other writers have asked. And I think I wanted to do something about…do I really think that access to space is going to be as equitable as we think. Because there’s all this talk about. you know. well there’s so many resources in space and so on. But. you know. we haven’t gotten there yet and I’m sure there’s gonna be choke points. And so, for me, the wormholes were the stand and choke points for everything else, and that’s why there are only four big patron nations and everybody else who is in space, you know, is under the thumb of one of those patron nations.

So, once you had your sort of general idea, what does your…and this applies to all your writing…what does your outlining and planning process look like? Are you a staunch outliner?

Yeah. Yeah. Because I’ve had a lot of failed stories where I think the ending didn’t land. And so, for me, I have to know the ending, because at least, when I outline the ending, what I can do then is I can start interrogating it and say, well, is this ending surprising? Is this ending satisfying? If it isn’t surprising, are there ways that I can come up with a different ending or are there ways that I can misdirect it so that it is surprising and stuff like that. So, I do outline, and my creative process also involves a fair bit of worldbuilding, because for me the setting is really important because I am a sense-of-wonder junkie, and so, a lot of what I get really excited about is the, you know, “We’re on asteroids,” or, “Oh, look, they, you know, engineered these people and look at how weird they are,” and stuff like that. And so, those are all the elements I put in. But also understanding, in this one novel, that I was using a particular structure that had audience expectations with it that I could play with as well was part of that, too, was part of my calculus.

Well, with all that worldbuilding…and there was, you know, little asides on the history of playing cards and things like that…what does your research process look like?

So, on this one…I did a science fact article for Analog Magazine on this book, because it also got serialized in Analog.

Right, I was going to ask you about that. Yeah.

And I found…they wanted me to do the science in The Quantum Magician, and I found that, you know, maybe one quarter of the science was physics or chemistry and then three quarters was biology, and I hadn’t realized that when I was writing it, it just…that’s the way it came out. And I think because I was trying to look at the different ways that genetic engineering of our children can go wrong, that really means you’re going to spend a lot of time on the biology and the unintended consequences. And so, for me, because I did two degrees in biology there’s a lot less stuff I really need to look up.

And I think in science fiction, as well, you often have two questions. One is, “Is it possible?” and the other is, “How would you do it?” And in…as far as engineering. you know. of genes and stuff goes. it’s all possible. I mean, you know, everything from a goldfish to a human to a whale to whatever you can imagine, all sorts of things that could be alive. And really it’s just a different combination of genes and so, anything you want to make, you don’t really have to worry too much and explain too much. So, the research was a lot lighter on that side. I had to research more on the physics, I think. And the cards, in fact.

There were a few other things like that, you know, little historical notes and some of the naming and things like that. It seems you’d done a little digging around. Do you ever get lost in your in your research where you go down a rabbit path just because it’s so interesting?

I think…I don’t know if I do it as much as other writers do because. you know. I’m friends with a lot of writers and we’ll be talking on Twitter and then somebody will come back up and say. “I just spent two hours down a rabbit hole,” and I’m like, “Whoa I’m so glad I don’t, you know, do that.” I generally go for what I want and then pick it up because I’m always conscious of time that could be writing or I could be doing something else, and so when I’m writing I try and stay on writing as much as possible. That being said, I’m also human, and so, when I find something interesting or when it just isn’t working for me that day, yeah, I’ll end up researching a little more than maybe I plan to.

So, in addition to the researching you did ahead of time before you started writing, you do find things along the way that you have to do a bit of research on as well I presume?

Yeah, it’s…I outline to the point that the metaphor where they say it’s like taking a drive. you know that if you’re driving from Ottawa to Toronto you know you’re going to pass Kingston and Brockville and Belleville and Trenton and Coburg.

Well, I wouldn’t know that, but those who live in Ontario would know that…and Quebec.

So, you’re going to pass all those places and you know those are landmarks. But in between, you know, it’s almost…the discovery is the in-between stuff for me, and the imagining…like, when I get to a new city like Belleville or something then I say, “OK, what does it look like in Belleville,” or, like, I know where I’m going to go there. But, so, I outline lightly enough that research happens, you know, on the spot as well as ahead of time.

How long would your outline be?

Probably fifteen to twenty pages single-spaced. I just do it in bullet form, and so a scene could take one sentence, which means that when I get to actually writing it, you know, I’m going to have to do some thinking, or it could be I’ve got snippets of conversation and other stuff and little details that I’ve already got in mind and that will all be one bullet that maybe lasts a whole half page or something. So, when I get to that it will be far easier to write and just that mishmash of different things, roughly put in order, is how I write, even though I don’t necessarily always write in order.

Do you find yourself departing from your outline as you write?

Uh, yeah. Yeah.

Have you ever had to replot to the end? I’ve had to do that. That’s what I ask.

Yeah. No, I…once I’ve got the end and I’ve done my interrogation of the end, I tend to stick to that because having the end and knowing the denouement, the sort of emotional feel of the denouement, is what gives me the confidence to proceed. And I’m self-aware enough as a writer, that if I don’t have that confidence I won’t be able to write, that I know that I have to preserve that confidence. I do spend a lot of time trying to figure out what makes me tick as a writer, what motivates me. As you’ve probably seen on Twitter, having challenges with other people, like, “Hey, let’s do forty-five minutes right now,” that keeps me relatively honest and productive, and also counting the words helps, but also knowing my ending is a big thing for me too.

Now the other aspect, obviously, of the story is, you’ve got your world and you’ve got your plot, but there have to be characters in there. So, how do you find the characters you need and how do you flesh them out?

A lot of stealing. So, you know, the Belisarius character is, you know, every character is a stand in for you. But in the end…

For me?

Yes. Every character is Ed Willett! No, the Belisarius character, I think, is the sort of straight man of the whole thing, right? He’s got his own thing to go through, but essentially he’s the everyman of the future that we’re gonna follow through, even though obviously he’s very special. The Iekanjika character, the major, is a military person, and I wanted her to have a chip on his shoulder and I wanted her to have her own grudges she wants to solve and so, that comes through. The puppet, Gates-15, he was really interesting to do because I had to think, “Okay, if you’ve got somebody who’s chemically addicted to the smell of somebody else and that is hardwired to the centre that produces religious awe in your brain, what kind of culture would you have around that?”, and so, the puppet characters in the story were very, very informed by their biology and the history of captivity and then the history of being captors now in the story. The Marie character was a mix of, you know, somebody I know mixed with that Muppet who likes to blow things up, and then Stills is another character with a different kind of chip on his shoulder and a different way of taking the sort of not being the first-class citizen, and what does he do with it and what do his people do with it, and, you know, what kind of cultural baggage do they take on to make…to sort of defend themselves against the world where power. of course. is important.

Well, it certainly is a fascinating cast of characters. And for anybody who hasn’t read it yet, just hearing your description of the puppets, for example, will make you think, “Wow, there’s some interesting stuff going on in that book.” So, what does your actual writing process look like? Do you sit and work in your office same time every day, you said you write in your sons at school, so…?

Yeah. So, The Quantum Magician I actually wrote on my last year while I was still at work, and basically what I did there was I would show up at a coffee shop every day at 7:00, I would write from 7:00 till 8:00, and hopefully get somewhere between 500 and 600 words, and then I would be at work by 8 a.m. and that would often be the only writing I would be able to get for the day. And if I had a weekend where I was free, then I would obviously try and add more, but really it’s about regularity for me. Now, I, while I’m not at work, I can obviously spend more time, you know, if I have a three-hour session I can get, you know, a good 1,500 words done, sometimes 2,000, and, yeah. There’s enough other stuff, as you know as a writer, there’s promotion, there’s other projects you’re working on, there’s, you know, a bit of writer hustle you have to do, so… I sometimes let those things slide and I don’t, I’m not happy about that, so I try and keep myself to a word limit per day and then after that I just do all those other projects.

And you work directly on the computer or do you…are you one of these amazing people that writes longhand?

I tried that once for my fourth novel. Because I didn’t have enough writing time, what I would do is, I would write on the bus longhand, in both directions if I had a seat, and I think on the way to work and on the way back I would be able to get about 350 words a day. But then I found that the time it took to type it in was about as much as it would take to write it in the first place. So, I’m not sure I save myself time, but, I don’t know, it’s sort of a piece of reclaiming time that would otherwise have just been wasted in the bus.

I cannot write longhand anymore. I can barely do anything anymore.

My writing is deteriorating, the penmanship is.

Yeah, and mine was never good to begin with, so…


All right, so you have a completed draft. How long did that take you in the case of The Quantum Magician, to have your first draft done?

I think I started it in September and I probably finished it in June, and near the end I was hurrying a bit because just in the May of that year I had been at the Nebulas conference of 2015, where I met the person who was going to be my agent, and I had said to her, “Well, I can send you The Quantum Magician at the end of September,” and I was saying this in May and then being very optimistic about what I could get done. So, I had a bit of fire under me to try and get it done on time.

Deadlines can be very useful that way.

Yes, they sharpen the mind!

So, do you…did you do a complete draft. do you do a rolling revision as you go, do you revise it all when you get to the end, how does that work for you?

So, in 2005, it was the first time I did NaNoWriMo–successfully–and I got the book by Baty, the guy who invented NaNoWriMo, and he said…you know. it’s basically a field manual for. like. how to write a lot in a short period of time. And one of the keys he said is, “Don’t look back, ever.” Like, draft with one mind, edit with another? And I find that that’s true for me, it works for the way my personality works, because again it’s a confidence thing. If I look back and see bad writing there, I think it’ll sap my confidence for writing the rest of what’s going on. And the other thing is, if I spend…like, looking back over what I’ve got can be a procrastination tool for me just to just not draft. So, for me it’s better to just write the whole thing and then just do a whole ugly first read when I’ve got it done, and boy, can that be a painful process!

Well, Rob Sawyer, who was the first person I interviewed on the podcast, calls his first draft “the vomit draft” that’s, you just get it out then you feel better and then you go back and clean it up.

I wouldn’t disagree.

That’s kind of the way I work, too. I get it down, and then I go back and do the revision. So, what do you find you’re having to work on when you go back to revise and polish?

I don’t think I’m a natural storyteller, which means that I’ve had to learn story structure over time and that, like I said, is one of the reasons why I leaned a little more on to the heist structure for this novel, because I didn’t want my story structure to be the thing that holds me back. And so, yeah, structure and pacing are things that I still feel I have a lot of work to do on, characterization…I mean, it’s almost everything. There’s nothing you can’t name that isn’t bad in a first draft, except the worldbuilding in my case, I think the world building’s good, and I’m happy with that usually and don’t change much. But, yeah, the structure and pacing is often the thing that kicks me, and luckily I have a critique group and an agent who can then say, “Well, you know, this person sort of vanished at this point,” or, “I don’t understand why this person did this,” or…you know, those are all helpful things that point out your flaws. But I think everybody has the same flaws and nobody ever really outgrows them.

You mentioned the critique group before, and you just mentioned it again. How many people is that that sees your work in progress and make suggestions?

So, I’m a member of the East Block Irregulars–it’s an Ottawa sci-fi critique group that was formed by Matt Moore and I in late 2007–and they have been instrumental in my development as a writer And, I think…so. what we do is. you know. everybody commits to reading all short fiction that is sent; novels are on the basis of negotiation. And so, I think five people, maybe, or six in the group had read The Quantum Magician and gave me comments, and then I had a couple of other people from outside the group who also gave me comments. And then, in the end, then I went through four more drafts with my agent.

And then she sold it!

And then she sold it, to not one but two editors. It was great.

And that’s at Solaris?

Yeah, yeah, Solaris in the UK. They’re under Rebellion. They’re a nice mid-sized publisher and…I had never heard of them when I got the offer, and so I looked them up and they said they’re a mid-list publisher, and I thought, “Wow, I thought those sort of had gone the way of the dinosaur!” But, no, it’s wonderful, because the expectations are you’ll perform as a mid-list writer, which are far more manageable to meet. And if you go beyond that then, you know, everyone is happy.

And so, there would have been another editorial pass once you got to an editor at the publishing house.

Well, yes. The edits were relatively light at Solaris, but then, when we sold it to Analog, Trevor Quachri, the editor there, said, “Could we see a little more of the big bad?” And so, I said to the editor at Solaris, you know, “This is the comment. Do you agree with it?” And he said, “Sure, go for it.” And so, I ended up writing an extra 6,000 words of, you know, the sort of cop figure who is after the whole group. And I’m really, really happy that we got that comment, and so, going through Analog meant that it had two sets of proofs, two sets of structural edits, and it helped to polish it a lot more.

So, the serialization comes out before the book is released? I’ve never had anything serialized so I don’t really know how it works.

Yeah. I think the deal is the last instalment of the serialization has to come out six months before the first book drops. So, the timing is important. But I’m very happy that it got serialized because it got to a bunch of readers who would not have otherwise seen it.

Well, and the Analog readers are the true sort of hard-science-fiction space-opera types generally.

Yeah. They do love their science.

So, how did how did they respond. Because you would have had response from the Analog readers before it ever appeared as a book, presumably.

So, I’ve seen some reviews by Analog readers on Goodreads and those seem very positive and I think there were a couple of people who wrote in, like, fan comments and stuff and I would have others that came on Twitter. It was all very positive. I feel that it’s a hard-SF space opera, and when it’s read by people who are looking for hard-SF space opera, it does well. You know for people a little outside that Venn Diagram circle, you know, their mileage may vary, but…

But you’ve had some good response to the book as well and some really good attention within the field, haven’t you?

Yeah, yeah. It got onto the Locus recommended reading list, Barnes and Noble picked it as one of their 2018 books to watch, their favourites. I think it got long-listed at the BSFA, as well, the British Science Fiction Award. But, I mean, where I’ve been happiest is the foreign sales, because China really liked it and they’ve been helping promote it there and they’ve been very, very supportive, and it’s coming out in French in 2020. And then, there are two other deals that are pending right now. These things take a long time to negotiate. So, I don’t know when I’ll be able to announce, but I’m pretty happy with the way things are going in that sense, that there’s enough editors around that are interested in this.

Well, and there’s a sequel coming.

There is, there is.

Is that what you’re working on now?

No, no, I wrote that one basically as soon as my agent had this other one going. I started the second one right away because I had heard from experience, from, you know common friends of ours, that, you know, if you get a two-book deal or something, sometimes they may want the second book in a hurry. And I didn’t want to be in a position where being rushed would lead to blocking, and so I started to get ahead of that process a bit. And I think I had finished much of the second already by the time we inked the deal on the first.

So, was it a two-book deal?

Yeah, yeah, it was right away.

If, if, you know, it does well, would there be possibilities of more books in the series, or a trilogy, or what?

So, with Solaris I gave them two books. They liked them both. I then offered them a third, which is a novel set 250 years before the events in The Quantum Magician, and set in the same universe, and they bought that as well. And now I’ve got the sequel to The Quantum Garden, which I am in the process of writing right now and hopefully they’ll be interested in that. But so far the sales on The Quantum Magician seem to be good. Which is, which is heartening.

Yeah. That’s always heartening.

Yeah, yeah it is. Yeah, I wasn’t sure how the first royalty statement was gonna go, but I got it for, just covering the first two months of the book, and it was very promising.

Well, that’s good,.


Well, I’m gonna ask you the big philosophical questions.

Oh, goodness.

Why do you write and why do you think any of us write? And particularly, why do you. and why do you think any of us, write this kind of stuff? Science fiction and fantasy.

Yeah. So, you want good answers?

Whatever answer you feel that you would like to give me.

So, when we had first discussed doing this podcast and we had talked a bit about what might come up, I was thinking on this question. I was like. “All I have is facetious answers.” I mean, do we write because we’re broken? Are we writing because one of our dials is turned too high? Is it that we’re all people that just have the transmit function on and we’re just hoping that somebody is receiving somewhere? I think the third one might be the right one for me, in that, it’s not that I have a particular message I’m trying to send. It’s not that I want to influence anybody in any way. It’s just a need. My thumb is on the transmit button and I’m just hoping that somebody is out there listening.

And, it’s interesting, because when people, you know, podcasts come up and interviews come up and people start to say things about, you know, “I really like these themes in your Quantum Magician of, you know, decolonization and, you know, a lot of what you did with the unintended consequences of genetic engineering and what that means to us now,” and all that, and people are getting messages that I’m not necessarily consciously aware of putting in, but now that I look back I realize, “Well, yeah, I mean, those things are in there and they are there on purpose,” but I was putting them in there because I thought it would be the right thing for the story not, again, because I was sending a message, but I…

Why do we write? I’m not sure. And like Harlan Ellison said, I think, if you could, if you can persuade somebody to stop writing you really should, because it’s not like we’re making a whole lot of money or that, you know, people are throwing sports cars at us or stuff like that, it’s, you know, we do this because we want to and if we can afford to make a living at it, you know, we’re already, that’s one of the highest things we can get out of it.

Because, you know, the idea about the message and things not being in there, that’s an opportunity for me to tell a story I like to tell. I’ve probably told it before in the podcast, but you mentioned discovering Asimov, and it was in one of his autobiographical books, probably Opus 100, his 100th book where he was attending a class in a New York university, some university in New York, and the professor was teaching his classic short story “Nightfall,” and he sat at the back and he listened, and when it was over he went up to the professor and he said, “Well, you know that was a very interesting class, but 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 happy to meet you, but just because you wrote it, what makes you think you know what’s in there?”

That’s a good point. And I think that…over the last few years I’ve come to subscribe to the idea, too, that in the end, all you do is you write a story, and it is a transmission, and the act of interpretation by the reader is the final story. And that means there’s many, many final stories. And, yeah. Because once you put it out it’s got a life of its own.

Well, I like that too. It’s something I often say, that although writing is a solitary act, reading is a collaborative act, I guess. Or the creation of stories is a collaborative act because the writer creates something, but the ultimate story is different for every person who reads it because of their own background. And I’m also a playwright, in fact I just had a play that was up this last week here in Regina.

Oh, congratulations.

It’s…that’s much, much more collaborative. But there, you actually see actors taking your words and interpreting them and bringing these characters to life that maybe, you know, they’re completely different from the little actors in my head who are moving around on the set in my head when I was writing the story. And it’s also the same thing that happens with writing anything, writing science fiction and fantasy, that readers are like the actors in the play and they’re bringing the characters to life and they’re bringing the story to life in a way that you may not have imagined when you put it into words.

And not only that, I mean, there’s so many people who will interpret things with different backgrounds that you couldn’t have imagined, and their interpretations come out to be, you know, more complex, more interesting, just because they’re seeing dimensions that, you know, I didn’t. And it’s fascinating.

So, you’ve already said what you’re working on next. I guess we will just sort of bring this to a close by telling people how they can find you online should they so desire.

Yeah, I’m a Twitter user, so I’m just @DerekKunsken, that’s just my name, on Twitter, and I have a website, too, which is just my name, as well, dot com, and I blog every couple of weeks at BlackGate.com, and otherwise you know my stuff is in bookstores everywhere, and I’d be happy to hear from any listeners who want to reach out.

We should also mention the webcomic.

Oh, yeah, yeah.

Just tell me a little bit about that and where people can find that.

So, WebToons is this gigantic, gigantic South Korean company platform where people who make a comic can post the equivalent of two to three comic book pages per week, and you get readers or, you know, if people like your stuff, and…there’s monetization in in different ways and that’s not necessarily what myself and the artist are going for first and foremost, but, no I’ve been experimenting with doing a comic book in this format so people can read it, and it’s a female jetpack planetary-romance adventure, a bit pulpy, but at the same time I wanted to do something fun and romantic and cute at the same time. And, yeah, it’s up that WebToons and it’s free to read, and if you just look for Briarworld at WebToons you can find it there, and Briarworld has its own Twitter, which is just @BriarWorld and it’s fun. It’s…a mercenary has to go rescue a prince in a weird Mungoesque planet.

Well, I’ll have to go check it out. Well, thanks very much for being on The Worldshapers, Derek.

This has been wonderful!

And I suspect I’ll be seeing you at Can-Con this year in Ottawa?

I hope so, I hope so.

All right. Well thanks a lot.

All right. See you, Ed.

’Bye for now.

Episode 24: Kevin Hearne

An hour-long conversation with Kevin Hearne, author of the Seven Kennings trilogy, The Tales of Pell (with co-author Delilah S. Dawson) and the New York Times-bestselling series The Iron Druid Chronicles.





Kevin Hearne’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Kevin Hearne is the author of the Seven Kennings trilogy, The Tales of Pell (with co-author Delilah S. Dawson) and the New York Times-bestselling series The Iron Druid Chronicles. In his own words, “he loves doggies and trees and art of all kinds and is astounded at how much college costs now.”

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Kevin.

Hey thanks so much for having me, Edward.

Now, we met at Can-Con last year in Ottawa. That was your first time at that convention, I think?

Yeah, it was.

Yeah, it’s a great one, and we were on a panel together about writing series, which I felt kind of overmatched on because my longest series was five…a YA series with five books, 60,000 words each, and The Iron Druid is…more than that.

Yeah. It’s up to nine novels and then there’s a collection of short stories and a bunch of novellas, things like that.

Well, I wanted to tell you how I came across the Iron Druid books first. I was at a World Fantasy Convention in…I guess it was in Washington, DC, that year. And, of course, they have a book bag as…people who haven’t been to them, you get this great bag of books that they give you at World Fantasy, and even if you don’t like the books, you’ve got a great bag. And one of the books in there was the first book in the Iron Druid Chronicles and it was actually my publisher, Betsy Wollheim at DAW—co-publisher with Sheila Gilbert at DAW—who made a point of showing me your book and saying, “You should read this,” because I think she was one of the publishers in the mix when it was being shopped around, and she’d wanted it but of course it went with…Ace, right?

Del Rey.

Del Rey. Oh, sorry!

No worries!

It’s because I hadn’t looked at my notes…I looked at them at the wrong moment there. So, yeah, it was actually another publisher that pointed out the Iron Druidbooks to me and then I read them all. So, I’m well prepared for this.

Well, thank you.

Now, we’ll talk specifically about the creative process, your creative process, and the writing of those books specifically a little later on, but I always like to take my guests back into the mists of time and find out how they got started…well, first of all, interested in…it usually starts with reading the fantastical…and then how they got interested in writing it. So, I know you grew up in Arizona. I was born in New Mexico, by the way, right next door. And so, how did that all begin for you? Did you start reading it and then get interested in writing?  What was the process for you?

Oh, I did start reading. I guess my first love of action-adventure and fantasy and that kind of stuff came from comic books, superhero comic books, when I was a wee lad, and, you know, reading Spider-Man especially. And then, as I got older, I think my first introduction to fantasy and then really science fiction both was through the author Alan Dean Foster.

Ah, yes.

He’s got over 120 novels to his name now, I mean, talk about prolific. He’s still going. I read his Spellsinger books and they got me really loving the fantasy period. You know, I mean, there’s talking animals in ’em, so there’s an inspiration for you. Then he had the Pip and Flinx books, where you had a redhead with a telepathic connection with a mini-dragon and the redhead kept getting in trouble a lot and, you know, had this really strong bond with his mini-dragon and so, that’s also an inspiration, you know, for Atticus and Oberon down the road. So, that’s where I really got into fantasy. And if you want to look for inspiration for, you know, the Iron Druid chronicles I would look at those old books rather than anything newer. The inspiration to write, though, or my desire to start writing, didn’t happen until college. I was really interested in some first-person points of view that I was reading at the time and how that could simultaneously reveal so much of the character’s thought process but also keep a lot of things secret because, you know, i the first person narrator doesn’t interact with them, you know, they’re not gonna be aware of it. So, I kind of liked that. So, anyway, that got me started, but I didn’t get published for another twenty years. I was writing for a very long time before I got published.

So, you didn’t do any writing at all in high school, or…? That’s that’s what a lot of people start.

I didn’t! In high school I was into music and art. I was actually a graphic-design major originally and I was doing cartooning and things like that.

That’s something else we have in common. I was editorial cartoonist for a weekly newspaper for several years in my twenties when I started as a journalist.

Well, no kidding. I did that, too, I did the editorial cartooning for the college newspaper.

You’re probably a better artist than I was, but anyway…

It was a lot of fun, but ultimately it wasn’t…it didn’t really appeal to me in terms of creative freedom, being a graphic designer, because you would always have some sort of corporate client, probably, and then you’re making cool stuff to sell things, which…I suppose that’s also what writing a novel is. But it’s different, somehow.

It worked out for Andy Warhol. I mean he started drawing shoes, and then…

Yeah, right. But I just, I switched from graphic design to English, and then got into reading, of course, a whole lot more, and, you know, that just inspired me to write, as well.

Your degree was actually in English education.


Did you have creative writing courses along the way?

I did not. See…so, the very bizarre thing is that I never took a creative writing course, and I never took a writing workshop or went to a writing conference. I’m entirely self-taught, which is, you know, considering how long it took me to get published, that might not be the best way to go in retrospect—maybe I should have gone to some writing conferences, I would have learned quicker—but I basically learned from a lot of mistakes, a lot of trial and a whole lot of error, basically, and gradually figured out how to tell a story that way.

So, you were actually teaching high school English over most of those years, weren’t you?

Yes, I was. I was teaching mostly freshmen through juniors. I didn’t do the seniors so much.

Do you find that having…I presume you were teaching some creative writing as part of your classes…did you find that teaching it helped you on your own writing in any way?

Not so much. A lot of times…unfortunately, a lot of what we were supposed to teach was not creative at all. We were kind of required…you know, education at the time, it was going through the throes of this, you know, standardized testing and having your pay tied to performance and all of that kind of stuff, and it’s still going through that, I think. And it really kind of changed the focus from growing people’s minds to “let’s make sure people can pass the test.” And so, there was a lot of essay writing and using a rubric to grade them and so often we found that there was a dire need just to figure out structure, that a lot of the creative stuff we never even got a chance to get to because we were spending so much time on kind of remediation.

I’ve had a few opportunities to teach high school but only for short periods of time. I was a writer-in-residence at a local high school and worked with kids but that was very different because they were very much the kids who were interested in creative writing and were coming to me for advice as opposed to trying to teach just the general student population. I did find out, though, that with a week, spending a week in high school, I was glad I had not followed my father’s footsteps and actually become a teacher. I don’t think it would have worked out well for me.

Yeah, it can be a tough job, but of course it’s a necessary one, and I do miss the kids. I don’t miss taking attendance, though, or faculty meetings. But I do miss the kids. They’re always a lot of fun, even if you’re teaching the same thing every single year. It never gets old, because the kids always have different reactions to it and no day is the same, and that was delightful.

So, somewhere along in there you decided to try to write an epic fantasy novel.

Yeah. I tried to write an epic fantasy, and I did. I wrote an epic fantasy, and it was like 240,000 words, but it was really full of clichés and kind of structural crutches. But it was my first attempt at writing something that was really specifically genre and I learned a lot of what not to do next time.

That’s a lot of practice words.

Yeah. I think I definitely put in how many hours you’re supposed to put in to become an expert in something. I don’t know what that phrase is, is it 10,000 hours or something. I don’t know.

I’ve heard variations of it. I think Stephen King said half a million words of unpublished stuff before you ever write anything publishable. I sometimes think that’s low.

Yeah. I think I definitely hit that benchmark by the time I started working on Hounded. And Hounded was a lot of fun, and that’s what I was doing, actually. I was writing it to entertain myself, and because, I think, I did that it just…when I got finished with it I actually didn’t think anybody would want to read it because it was, really, all of my kind of geek-outs, but my wife convinced me to seek out an agent and I got one. So, basically, it just kind of proved once again that my wife is always right.

That’s a good philosophy. So, for those who may not have read…unbelievably, have not read…any of the Iron Druid books, I’ll let you do a synopsis of what they’re about, because that way I don’t give away anything you don’t want to give away.

All right. Basically, it follows the…I started with the dog. I wanted to have a dog that could be a character that a human could talk to, and that kind of wound up being the inspiration for Atticus, a Druid. So, this follows the adventures of Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,100-year-old Druid still living among us today, who stole a magical sword from the Tuatha Dé Danann, the gods or the Irish, pagan Irish, and they want it back. So, basically his decision to fight them…well, he’s a fugitive for thousands of years…but when he eventually decides to fight, that has consequences that snowball on him. And that is basically your series, this fellow who decided to fight the gods instead of run.

And he lives in the same part of the world that you lived in.

Yeah. I really enjoy reading fantasies, or urban fantasies I should say, that are set in real-world locales that you can actually go and visit. I think that the reality of the urban setting is a really fun anchor for the really fantastical elements that you wouldn’t believe otherwise, but because you have a real setting, it helps you swallow that. So, that’s one of the reasons I kind of stay faithful to the actual settings and try to make them come to life as much as possible.

So, you were writing Hounded while your epic fantasy was making the rounds. But Hounded itself made a significant number of rounds of publishers before it got published, didn’t it?

Yeah, it…well, my agent sent it to nine different publishers and four of them decided to put in a bid on it. So, you know, that was super fortunate. I actually wound up getting to go to auction and then I chose one based on proposals that I was given and was super-happy with the result. Del Rey has been wonderful.

Now, it’s become a series. Did you have that in mind from the very beginning?

Oh, yeah. What we did is, we wrote the first book so that it could be a stand-alone, but with series potential. So, it was pitched to the publishers that way. So, I had Hounded complete. And then I had Hexed outlined, and then I had, like, one sentence for Book 3, which is, you know, Atticus goes to Asgard. And that was the proposal basically given to all the publishers. They knew that I had a complete Book 1 and plans for more if they wanted them. And on the basis of that they offered me three-book contract. Every single one of them gave me a three-book contract offer. We just didn’t know what we were gonna get. A lot of times they like to try to get series and see if they work and then, since they did work, thank goodness, they let me write more, so, that was great.

Okay, I want to go back to the writing process itself. You mentioned having an outline for the second book when you did the submission. But, what does your preparatory work look like for a novel? What does your outlining process look like? Do you do a very complete one or very minimal one, or how does it how does it work for you?

Well, for Hounded I had none at all. And that, you know, that’s because I guess I had no deadline, right? You know, I was just making it up as I went, and so I have the experience of writing by the seat of the pants, as one says, but what I do now is, I write chapter summaries, and I’ll try to get anywhere from twenty-four to thirty chapters in, and if we average around 3,000 or so words per chapter, then you’re getting into a ballpark of what you need in terms of word count for an urban fantasy, which is 80,000 to 110,000 kind of range, somewhere in there.

So, Hounded was actually just 81,000 words to begin with. It expanded a tiny bit in its editing stages. All of my books do; I wind up expanding upon revision instead of cutting. So now my outlines are just these chapter summaries that may have snippets of dialogue in them, because I do wind up…I believe that a lot of character is revealed through dialogue and through those conversations we really have, actually, a lot of plot resolved sometimes, or character revealed, so those go into my outlines when I feel them. So, I guess my outlines wind up being about seven to ten pages single-spaced. And what I do then is, I write non-sequentially. I don’t feel that…once I have an outline, I don’t feel that I have to go from the beginning to the end. I already know what end is, kind-of sort-of. So, whatever I’m feeling that day, that’s what I write. If I get stuck on Chapter 3, I don’t have to sit there and stare at the page and bang my head against the monitor, I guess. What I do instead is, “Hey, Chapter 7 looks fun. Let’s write that instead!”, you know? So, I’m just basically productive every day because I have the outline, and I’m kind of a slow and steady fella, writing anywhere from one to two thousand a day in terms of word count, but because I’m kind of, you know, consistent with it, it winds up being a pretty good way to get a couple of books done a year.

I don’t think I could work non-sequentially. You’re the first…I think you’re the first author I’ve talked to that works that way. So that’s interesting.

Yeah. I understand that it’s completely…I didn’t realize it either, at first. Like, I did work sequentially at first, but in the process of writing a second book, when I really did have my outline there, and I realized I had to…to make the book better I kind of had to switch around the sequence of chapters anyway. And some of these I had written, some of them I’d not, and in the process of switching things around, I realized there’s no reason I have to go from beginning to end anyway. I can write this out of order and then kind of do an edit part in sequence when it’s all done and make sure everything fits together right.

Going back to Hounded, you didn’t have an outline. Did you find yourself occasionally running into dead ends or having to back up and take another run at something, or what was that process like when you were working literally by the seat of your pants?

I don’t think I had too many dead ends there, in the sense that I had to go back and start over again. I did keep going forward but what I had to do was take breaks for…well, for teaching school, of course, but also for some research, because I was doing a lot of research in the background on worldbuilding stuff and making sure things would kind of fit together logically. There’s a magic system. So that’s what took so long, I guess, is figuring out how everything would work. So…and then my editor or, I’m sorry, my agent, got a hold of it and he asked for a couple of revisions, mostly a fight scene in the first chapter, I didn’t have one in my original draft, so I had to put a fight scene in the first chapter, makes some few adjustments, and then it was sent out.

You mentioned research, and that’s something I do like to ask about what, and particularly this book…these books…eventually seem to pull in just about…every mythology you can think of shows up at some point or another…so it looks like there’s been a lot of research involved. What does that look like for you? How do you research?

I try to do primary sources where possible when it comes to religion. And, for the Tuatha Dé Danann mythology, or the pagan religion of the time, there’s not a lot of great extant sources on Druidry that, you know, that are actually real. Everything is…the Druids themselves were an entirely oral culture, so nothing in writing survived. What we have instead are archaeological records, and some stories that were written down by Christian monks years later. So, they were preserving the culture and all of that, which is fantastic. However, you do have to realize that these were written by folks who might not have actually been believers at the time.

So, anyway, I was reading those original sources, kind of dry, ’cause they didn’t write, you know, stories the same way back then that they do now. But fascinating characters, and I tried to imagine what they would be like in a more modern day. The same thing with the Norse and so on, all of those myths, you go back to the original source material and you pull from that and then you find holes in it. That’s what I was doing, I was…you know, there’s plot holes in there, and one of the biggest plot holes that I found was that Fragarach, the sword that could cut through any armor, was given to Conn of the Hundred Battles in the first century by the Tuatha Dé Danann, and it was never given back—and there’s no explanation for that. And so, that was my, the hole that I found that I could exploit and say, well, the reason it was never given back is because my character stole it. And so, that what I love about going back in the original material and finding things where I can kind of put my stories alongside what’s already there.

Now, obviously you have a main character, because it’s a first-person narrative. How do you find the other characters that you need to tell the story, and do you do preliminary work to develop them or do they sort of develop on the page as you write?

I’ve done a little bit of preliminary stuff, yeah, for some of those characters, but some of them, you know, just walk on in when I need them.

Hal and Gunnar—Hal Hauk and Gunnar Magnusson—were these kind of werewolf lawyers that I kind of just made up as I went along. And other than the idea that I wanted the werewolves to have white-collar jobs, because I kept seeing them have blue-collar jobs in a whole bunch of books that I’d read…I didn’t know why that was a trope, you know, why are werewolves blue-collar workers?…but I just wanted to flip that around and have fun with it. So, I did. And then, same thing with a vampire. There was a trope that usually there’s going to be…in urban fantasy at the time the vampire was probably going to be a sexy one and might be part of a love interest or something like that, so I made sure that this vampire was not sexy and was not really anybody’s love interest at any point. So, just to kind of flip the script the tiny bit, you know.

So, it sounds like you were reading widely in the field in the years leading up to writing in the field. Is that a safe thing to say?

Yeah, I read it quite a bit of stuff and noticed patterns and was doing my best to make sure it fit in the genre, because it did have werewolves and vampires in it, for example, but also at the same time I was being a little bit different by, you know, nobody else was really writing about a druid, for example. So, I was trying to take things in a slightly different direction.

So, writing in first person—you mentioned earlier that that was something that attracted you when you first started writing, and the challenges of everything has to be seen by that character. My current book series that I’ve started, Worldshapers, has largely a first-person narrative, and it is an interesting challenge. Have you ever occasionally wished you could throw in another viewpoint?

I not only wished that, I did it.

I had forgotten that!

Yeah, I put in Granuaile and Owen in the later books…

Oh, that’s right. I remember now.

Yeah, yeah. That allowed me to basically tell parts of the story that had previously been hidden, and also, it really frees you up a little bit to put some tension in there, because one of the drawbacks of a first-person character is the reader isn’t really afraid they’re ever going to die, otherwise they can’t be telling the story, right? So, by having different characters in there, then there’s the possibility of some danger for any of them because their narrative can end and be taken up or continued by somebody else.

Yeah. Writing first-person…also you don’t get a different take on anything that’s happening. Like, if you’re first-person you always have this one person’s opinion of things and other people may have a completely different view of what has just happened.

Exactly, yeah.

My current series is largely first-person, but I from the very beginning I introduced one other character, so it’s not a pure first-person narrative even from the start.

So, what does your is your actual writing look like. I mean, you’ve talked about how you don’t write sequentially, but I mean, do you…I’m talking about the physical act. Do you write in your office, do you write in coffee shops, do you scribbled on the back of, you know, old test papers, like Tolkien started writing The Hobbit?

I do a lot of different things. I don’t have a set schedule. I just…the only thing I try to do is make sure I get, you know, a thousand to two thousand words a day, and how I accomplish that does vary quite a bit. So, sometimes I’m in my office, sometimes I’m out in the kitchen, sometimes I’m in a coffee shop or a bar somewhere, just wherever I feel that I can be inspired. I’m often listening to music, and it’s instrumental metal or classical, something without lyrics, because I find the words in songs wind up being distracting when I’m trying to, you know, pull words out of my brain and put them on the paper. So, I have also written manually on an old-fashioned typewriter. I’ve also written a story by hand and journal and then had it typed later. So, I tried a whole bunch of different stuff and I enjoy it all, but, yeah, the laptop is the fastest method of doing things.

It’s interesting you mentioned music. There was a news item I just saw this week about a study that showed that listening to music, at least for some people, interferes with the creative process. And so, I started sort of paging writers to see whether they listen to music or not, and it sounds like you do, but it’s not…there’s no lyrics. And I agree with you, that’s what…that’s almost impossible, to have words going on in your ears while you’re trying to write words.

Yeah, unless it’s very low volume and stuff that, I don’t know, that you can basically treat as background noise, you know? Then I don’t think…I think in those cases, where it’s a background kind of thing, that maybe you’d be able to get away with having lyrics. But usually I’m using instrumental metal. I have a couple of different playlists. I really like a band called Polyphia, and another band called Scale the Summit, and they have multiple albums out, and so you can listen to them for hours, and that will allow you to get your entire writing session done without ever hearing anything on repeat.

And you’re actually the second author I’ve talked to who listens to metal when they write, which is…Arthur Slade, who’s a young adult fantasy author here in Saskatchewan, where I live, listens to heavy metal when he writes, which I think is an interesting choice.

Yeah, well, I kind of need it to do…I’m not very much of a fighter, you know, I’m a pretty peaceful fellow, and ironically I write fight scenes a lot, so I need to get my brain in, I guess, a more aggressive mode, and metal helps, so that’s why I do it, because it helps me get to the action scene, or, you know, get me in the right frame of mind, I guess, for action sequences.

You mentioned a little bit about the revision, with your agent, and he asked you to put in a fight scene and things like that…when you had your draft, and when you have a draft of your later books in the series, what does your revision process look like? Do you show it to other people and then revise, do you do a pass through at first…how does it work for you?

The first few books I had an “alpha reader” (I call him instead of a “beta reader”). I had a friend who would look at my chapters as I went and give me some feedback on them. He was a very logical person and…well, he still is, he has a doctorate in math, so a very logical person, who would point out some flaws here and there. But over time, I got more confident and better at avoiding some of the pitfalls that, you know, that I fell into early on, and I didn’t need that as much. So now, I basically write it and send it to my editor and just go from there and there is nobody else who sees it besides my editor, so…I’ll share some chapters here and there with my wife, but she likes to read the finished copies, so…that’s kind of my process now, but I did start out with having an alpha reader. But I never had a writing critique group or anything like that.

What does your own revision process look like, just when you’ve got a draft and you’re publishing it up before you submit it? What sorts of things do you find yourself having to correct in that pass?

Okay, so earlier I mentioned that I tend to look at dialogue as being revealing of character. Dialogue and action. What a person decides to say and do usually tells you a lot more about them than how they’re dressed one day, for example. And I don’t consider appearance to be a huge indicator of a person’s actual character, it’s just their appearance. And appearance is important for the reader to give them a mental picture of what’s going on, but it doesn’t it doesn’t matter to me as a writer when I’m interested in exploring the character. So, what I find that I do is that I don’t ever describe the characters. I keep forgetting to do it, basically. So, when I do my revision I have to go back in and insert little passages saying, you know, this is what they look like. And I’ll still miss a few. And my editor will come back and say, “Hey, Kevin, we don’t know who this major character…we don’t know what they look like. Are they tall, are they short? Give us something, please.” And they do it book after book. You know, my edtior keeps doing this, and she says, “Well it’s a strange…you know. you’re the only person I really have to do this with.” And that’s kind of strange. But, you know, there are worse faults. So, I’ll take it, right? So, that’s one of things I’m usually doing is, I’m going back in and putting in descriptions of characters during my revisions.

Do you do a lot of tweaking of the actual prose on that pass-through?

I do a little bit. I will sometimes…I actually do a lot of that kind of stuff as I go. One of the reasons I might have a slower word count, or a lower word count, per day is because I do self-edit as I go, being…this is part of the English teacher thing, I guess. So, it’s fairly clean, you know, my first draft, but then a lot of what I have to do is, I will occasionally expand on things and tweak some of the language. I will look for repetitive words.

One of the things I started to do recently is ruthlessly cut out any phrase that uses the construction “couldn’t help but.” “He or she or they couldn’t help but smile, or…”, you know. I saw it in my own work and then I started seeing it in a bunch of other books, too, and realized that this phrase had become kind of stealthily incorporated in a whole lot of people’s everyday vocabulary and they weren’t, or at least I, was not really thinking about how often it was being used. And so, I now seek it out and I find I find it quite often, honestly, or I used to. Now that I’ve been doing it and I’m careful against using it I don’t use it anymore. For a while there it was popping up everywhere.

You realize I’m now going to have to go do a search on my last book and see if I’m using it that much.

Yeah, it’s…I don’t know how that phrase became so popular. But if you think about it, you can  help but do something, and there’s probably a better way to say it. And I think that it has become an easy way to, or a shorthand, I guess, for describing someone’s reaction to something instead of really exploring how it affected them. And so, that’s one of those things where I wanted to try to do better than lean on that phrase.

You know, that is interesting, and the more I think about it the more…yeah, I will definitely do a search for that in my last manuscript I find…I mean, every author I talk to who has these little things that they, you know, have cropped up and they’ve become aware of. And once you’re aware of them in your writing, you’re right, it seems like you see them everywhere because you’ve been working so hard to cut them out of your own.


My case is, my characters have a tendency to make animal noises too much, like, they’ll growl dialogue, or they’ll snarl something. I try to watch out for that.

Yeah. I think almost every writer you talk to might have some, yeah, some kind of story like that where they become aware of some crutch that they’ve become dependent on and they’d like to, you know, stop using it and write normally, if that makes any sense. Write in the way that they were used to writing before they started using it.

Now, you mentioned that your books typically get longer in the editorial revision process. That can’t all be adding fight scenes and character descriptions. What are some of the other things that you usually end up building in after the editorial comments?

Yeah, my editor will say, “Hey, can we see a little bit more development of this particular relationship,” or, “This character over here is really interesting, but, you know, it looks like they should have a very strong character arc and development going from point A to point B, but they don’t seem to have that, they just kind of stay at point A the whole time, so can you build an arc for this particular character and have them change.” And so, I’ve done that a couple of times, where I built in some extra goodies or some of the smaller…or. not smaller. but. you know. more minor role characters…and, you know, just to make sure that everybody is really the hero of their own story and they all have some depth to them.

The curious exception to that is Oberon. He is the flat character that everybody loves. He always likes, you know, meat and poodles and so on, and he doesn’t really change in that regard, but that’s one of the characteristics of what a dog is, right? They’re loyal and they love food and playing and, you know. So that’s one of the ironies of the series, I guess. My most popular character is the character that I don’t have to work on very much to develop.

So, you started with the three books, but the series has gone on. How do you…and this goes back to the panel we were on about writing series…how did you find the nuggets for the future books as it extends out. You weren’t building in stuff for Book 10 when you were on Book 2, so how do you tease out the threads that will enable you to continue the series further?

Well, when I was writing Book 3 I was very conscious at the time of wanting to…you know, it was the end of the contract, but I wanted to write more. So, I did put in a whole bunch of stuff that could be developed later on, and Book 3 really is…a lot of the stuff that winds up happening down the road in the series has its origins in Book 3. Although, of course, Books 1 and 2 lead up to three, so I mean, you can, you know, you can always see the origins of things in the them as well, but the decisions that Atticus makes in Book 3 just have incredible consequences. They really do snowball on him. So that’s what I was doing with that particular book. I was conscious…I didn’t know how long they would let me go. I might…I was prepared to do it in six books, but I would have preferred to do nine because, I guess to be consistent with Irish mythology or pagan, you know, the pagan tradition, nine was a really important number in the old Irish myths. They did everything in multiples of nine: nine weeks, nine days, nine months, whatever. So, I thought a character from that culture would tell his own story in nine books, and that’s what I was really aiming for once I got down to Book 3 and was thinking about, “How am I going to go forward? I’d like to write nine books.” So, thankfully, folks, you know, bought enough copies of the first ones that they would, that they let me do that.

Now, one of the things I think we talked about on that panel at Can-Con as well was, at least something that I was aware of just in my little series: continuity. There’s a lot of facts and details that build up over the course of that many books and some of them are created on the spur of the moment as you’re writing. Do you keep detailed notes about things that might come back to bite you…now, of course, you said you don’t describe your characters, and that’s one of the things that often continuity crops up. But do you find that a problem, continuity?

I’ve been…I think by keeping it under ten books I just sort of skated under the necessity for having a huge bible. I know that that kind of stuff can be totally helpful, and I’m realizing in my epic fantasy series that I probably do need to keep some sort of bible like that or start thinking about compiling one for the third book. But for The Iron Druid I didn’t do that. However, I did have occasional continuity errors and I did have to go back and look up…like Greta, for one example, was a character who had appeared in every book but didn’t get developed really until Book 7. I had to wait until I could really start developing her. And so, we’re getting into Book 7 and I’m giving her a bigger role in things, and then I had to go back and figure out, “Wait! Did I ever say what color her hair was?”, for example. I couldn’t remember some of the details of her appearance.

Another thing a copyeditor saved me on was the color of Hal’s car. I had made it…I think I described it as blue in one place, and then in the subsequent draft I’d made it silver, or vice versa, maybe I’d made it silver first and then I made it blue. See, now I still can’t remember the color of Hal’s car! But the copyeditor saved me on that so it was consistent from book to book.

So those kinds of small details, yeah, those can trip you up sometimes, but in terms of the characters’ arcs, you know, and continuity in terms of what they’re doing and where they’re going as a person, I was pretty…I was able to do that without help. But small details, yeah, I probably I should have employed something there to help me out a little bit more.

So, is Atticus’s story complete?

I would say now pretty much yeah. I just came out with Death and Honey this week, and it includes an “Oberon’s Meaty Mystery” that is set five months after the end of Scourge. Atticus, Oberon, and Starbuck in Tasmania, and Oberon is the narrator, but he speaks quite a bit about what Atticus has been going through ever since the end of Scourged, so that’s kind of an extended coda to the series where…and I really couldn’t just write an epilogue at the end and say, “Oh, here’s what happened later,” kind of thing, because there’s a lot to it and it didn’t seem it that it would work at the end of the novel.

So, this last novella was a fun adventure, you know, a little “meaty mystery,” but it was also a way for me to explore some of the things like, how did Atticus resolve and process everything that happened to him in Scourged. Yeah, and so if I do tell it, Atticus himself, he’s not going to be a narrator anymore. If I do write anymore of Atticus’s story it’ll be probably from Oberon’s point of view or even from Owen’s point of view. I have Owen in a novelette that that’s going to be coming out this summer.

But then I do, I have a new spinoff series set in the Iron Druid universe called Ink and Sigil, and I’m working on that now, and it’ll be out, I guess next year, late next year, and that’ll be…it won’t be…It’s set in theIron Druid universe, but it has a completely different character that was introduced in a short story as the main character. His name is Aloysius MacBharrais…and he’s a Scots wizard detective.

Where do these shorter pieces come out?

I sometimes self-publish them, sometimes they were in anthologies, and then in one case, the one that I’m talking about here, Al showed up in a story in Besieged, which was a collection of Iron Druid short stories that really basically functioned as Book 8 1/2. They could be read in sequence and they would really kind of take you from the events of Book 8 to Book 9.

Well, that kind of touched on something I was going to ask, “Which is what are you working on now?” So, good for that…

Yeah. I’m working on several things. I’m copyediting The Princess Beard, which is the third book of the Tales of Pell. The second book comes out in April, it’s called No Country for Old Gnomes.

I love that title.

Thanks. A lot of fun. And then, I’m also working on A Blight of Black Wings, which is the sequel to A Plague of Giants. That’s the epic fantasy stuff. And then I am working on Ink and Sigil, as I was saying a little bit earlier here, the new Iron Druid spinoff series. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Set in Glasgow, Philadelphia, and Chattanooga.

So, keeping busy!

Yeah, that for sure. I’ve had to say no to a couple of invitations. I’m just too busy to contribute to everything. But I do have one short story that I’ll be contributing to an anthology soon here.

So now I want to talk the, you know, the big picture, the big philosophical questions. So, why do you do this? And, you know, ultimately why do you keep writing, why do you think any of us write, and particularly why do we write these crazy stories of Druids and magic and things like that?

I think that fantasy and science fiction are vehicles for…we can kind of rent that car for a while and take a drive and see what it might be like to look at things out on the road, get out of our own space and see something else for a while. I think it helps us reimagine better futures, or take a look at our current state of the world and really kind of approach issues that we might be resistant to if somebody said them straight out, but if it’s presented as a story and as a character that we care about and they’re going through things, then we can relate to that and maybe understand the issues a little bit differently. It gives us empathy.

So, I think that’s really the point of a lot of fiction. And there’s some research to bear this out, that people who read have more empathy than folks who don’t, because they have read fiction about people who lived different experiences than theirs, and since they wind up liking those characters and identifying with aspects of it they may wind up having more empathy for folks who are different than them.

Is that something that you specifically hope readers take from your work?

Actually, yeah. It’s really baked into the series. There’s just this bedrock assumption in the Iron Druid chronicles that all faiths are equally valid, that they’re all real and that they’re all worthwhile. And so…you know, it came down to a basic worldbuilding question at the very beginning. If I’m going to have my main character believe in the Irish pagan pantheon and then say that they are real, why aren’t all of these others real, as well? And once the answer was, of course, they’re all real, then that really made it a lot of fun and also an opportunity for us to really see how a lot of different faiths are really wanting us to be better human beings.

Well, and you talk about the function of telling stories; in a way, all of these faiths are storytelling. They’re telling stories about how the world was created, how the world works, how people relate to the world, so it does seem to form a very solid basis for something like this.

Absolutely. And so that’s kind of why I do it. I do the same thing with my epic fantasy series. I have a bunch of different faiths living alongside each other. They find other things to fight about than their faith. There’s plenty of things where people that get into conflicts about without throwing religion into the mix. And that’s kind of what I’d like to…well, that’s what I kind of put into my fiction, the idea that all faiths are equally valid and valuable.

Just because I’m not familiar with it and readers might not be either, can you just give a quick synopsis of the epic fantasy books, as well?

Oh, all right. It’s called…well, the trilogy is called The Seven Kennings, a kenning being a form of elemental-based magic: the word kenning meaning you know something very well. So, at the beginning of A Plague of Giants there are basically five kennings. They suspect the existence of a sixth, and then it gets revealed that there is a seventh, but they don’t know what it is. And basically, we have a world that’s been at peace for quite some time, and then this one continent is suddenly invaded on either coast by two different races of giants and they’re not…one of them is really bent on genocide and the other one is bent on colonialism, or colonizing the population. So, it’s kind of an indictment of both of those things, and it’s also an exploration of, you know, how, when you are beset by forces that are so much bigger than you, how do you not only survive, but then how do you rebuild afterwards? What comes after your world has been upended by war? That’s kind of what I’m exploring there.

And ultimately I guess you must write because…you find it fun?

Yeah, there’s that too. I wind up kind of giggling to myself quite a bit over my silly jokes here and there and, you know, I like to make my wife laugh, too, so that’s part of the bonus is hearing her laugh out loud when she’s reading my stuff. So, yeah, that’s certainly a perk.

Now, where can people find you online if they would like to know more or keep up with what you’re doing?

Well, kevinhearne.com. I spell my name with an “e” at the end, Hearne. I’m Kevin Hearne on Instagram and Twitter as well, so I recommend that if you’re…I do a lot of bird pictures in the spring and summer when the birds are around and then I do a lot of other stuff as well, but then my Twitter feed is a bunch of random stuff, but I’m happy to talk to anybody if you just @ me. Or e-mail, that’s easy, too, kevin@kevinhearne.com.

All right. Well, I’ve certain enjoyed talking to you. Hope you enjoyed the chat as well!

Thank you, I have, yes. I appreciate you having me on.

And I guess that’s it for now. So, thanks so much.

Thanks everybody!


Episode 23: Kim Harrison

An hour-long conversation with Kim Harrison, author of the New York Times #1 best selling Hollows series, as well as young adult novels, accelerated-science thrillers, several anthologies, and two original graphic novels set in the Hollows universe, plus traditional fantasy, written as Dawn Cook.





Kim Harrison’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Kim Harrison
Photo by Myra Klarman Photography

Kim Harrison is best known as the author of the New York Times #1 best selling Hollows series, but she has written more than urban fantasy and has published more than two dozen books, spanning the gamut from young adult novels, accelerated-science thrillers, and several anthologies, to scripts for two original graphic novels set in the Hollows universe. Kim Harrison is a pen name; she has also published traditional fantasy under her real name, Dawn Cook.

Dawn was born and raised in the upper Midwest. After gaining her bachelor’s degree in the sciences, she moved to South Carolina, where she remained until relatively recently, moving back to Michigan because she missed the snow.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Dawn, I always like to start by asking my guests to go back into the mists of time, which is…you know, those mists are deeper for some of us than others…and  find out how you first got interested in…well, first of all, I presume, reading science fiction and fantasy, and then how you finally got around to writing it, which we’re all glad you did.

Yes, yes, it was reading. I was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy back in the heyday of the ’70s and the early ’80s, and I read everything, just gobbled it up, and you can see that if you pick my work apart, because I try to pace everything like a good science fiction novel, ’cause I think that’s the way all stories should read.

But, yeah, it wasn’t until later that I thought I could actually make a go at writing. So, I did not take any classes for writing at all. I avoided it like the plague. I’ve got a science degree, actually, and I use it every day, and my dad says, “You’re kidding! You went to school for science and now you’re writing,” and I say, “But, Dad, I use my degree every single day. But when I did decide that writing was something I wanted to do, I had a big learning curve that I had to handle because, like I said, I didn’t take any classes and I still, you know, I talk to literary people and they start spouting things like “the fourth wall” and I star at them blankly because I have no clue, I have to go Google it find out what they’re talking about. But a good story is a good story and if you can get it down, you know, more power to you.

It wasn’t until I got to move down to South Carolina and I found a writers’ critique group that…oh, it was dedicated. It was my Camelot, actually, because we’d meet every single week and we’d all get a chance to share our work. And I made the connections there that allowed me to break into print and hone my work and toughen up my skin. If it wasn’t for them I don’t think it would have happened. But they’re really hard to find these days.

Yes, and of course,, when I teach writing and when people ask about writing groups, I always say that you have to be careful, because if you have writers in the group and you’re all at a kind of a beginner level, you don’t help each other as much. You need to have people who are at a higher level than you, perhaps, to help lift you up.

Yes, yes. And I was fortunate enough that there was somebody like that.

Now, what were some of the books that you read as a kid that kind of drew you into this?

Oh, Anne McCaffrey was a favorite early on. I read a lot of Isaac Asimov. I didn’t understand him at the time, but I read him. Ray Bradbury was my favorite, back then, because he was the first person who showed me that the worst monsters are the ones that live next door to people. People are monsters…well, they can be. So I read a lot of Ray Bradbury. Jack L. Chalker, loved his stuff, so probably a lot…I’ve got a lot of old names here that people are going to be scratching their heads over…Aspirin, Robert Aspirin. He actually went to school, college, near my hometown, so I got to meet him when he was thin and gawky and just starting out. That was a thrill.

Well, they don’t have me scratching my head because I think I’m a couple of years older than you are, so it’s right in my era as well. I’ve read many of those same books. Now, you mentioned that your degree was in science. What specific discipline?

Well, I’ve got a degree in science engineering and technology, but I basically ran the the…I worked in the labs and I ran the greenhouse as a work study program. But mostly biology, mostly botany, and I am an avid gardener. You know, it’s hard to find a job in the sciences. My first job was at Dow Chemical and I was chaperoning an experimental fiber. I like to tell people that’s where I learned how to type because I didn’t know how to type until then, but, you know, I’ve had really weird jobs. My favourite job was running live-animal traplines for two years, catching chipmunks and mice for a research project for one of my professors.

Where did you go to university?

Saginaw Valley State University. That’s in Michigan.

Is that where you grew up, in Michigan?

Yes, I did. I grew up just outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and went to school at Saginaw Valley State University and then moved down to South Carolina for about 13 years following my husband’s job. And we recently–I say recently but I think it’s been like 10 years now–we moved back to another small town outside of Ann Arbor and it just feels like home. It’s really nice to be back.

So, tell me a little bit about the the first book that you broke into with.

The first book! It was a traditional fantasy called The First Truth and it’s still in print, actually. Tt was the first one of a four-book series and it was…oh, I had everything in it. I had telepathic dragons that could shape shift all in a pre-industrial setting with dragons and wizards and that kind of thing…”and I know they’ll love it!” I went back recently to look something up, a reader had a question, and so I was thumbing through it and I got lost for an hour reading it and it was like, “Oh, yeah, I remember that, oh, yeah, it was so fun.” But yeah, that was the first thing actually that I ever wrote, to tell you the honest truth, because I didn’t write when I was growing up. This particular novel idea came to me when I was like 13 or 14 and I wrote it down when I was in my early 20s and I wrote and rewrote it and rewrote it for about four years and that’s what I honed my writing skills on. A lot of people, I’ve noticed, will write a lot of different manuscripts when they’re honing their skills and try out a lot of different ideas, but I just worked on the one manuscript trying out different things until I found what worked for me.

And that was the one you were working with the writers group?

Yes, it is.

What kind of feedback did you get from them that was helpful?

Well, the first one…one of the very first things that somebody said to me was, he leaned back, he put his hand on his hip, and he said, “This is what you’re going to use to break into print?” And I leaned forward, and I said, “Yes, it is absolutely.” I don’t want to make it sound like they were not supportive because they really, really were, it was just something very different from what what he was writing. And so, in another book that I wrote I killed him off. But it was all in fun. But, yeah.

I actually saw a T-shirt that said, “If you were in my novel I would have killed you off by now.”

That’s the one thing we get to do, legal.

So how did you go from that…how did you break in? How did that book come to the attention of publishers?

That one…well, I found an agent at a writer’s conference, and he took it on and said, “If you can do this, this, and this, I will see about, you know, I will take you as a client and I will see about getting it published,” and so I did this, this, and that, and about a year or two later it was. Now, the Truth books, they did OK, but it wasn’t until I wrote, I started writing an urban fantasy under the Kim Harrison name that I really broke into print, really in a big way. And that one was just a natural extension of taking what I like to write,,,what I like to read, which was the science fiction, and what I like to write, which was the fantasy, and merging the two. Which is kind of what urban fantasy is, you take your fantasy creatures and put them in a modern-day setting. And this was right about the time when Jim Butcher was just getting started, and Charlaine Harris, I think she only had, like, two books out, and Laurell K. Hamilton was really the front runner for the urban fantasy. So, I was getting in on the bottom row of the first tier of the big urban fantasy authors.

Yeah, it’s hard to think that, you know, say, in the ’90s, nobody ever heard of anything called urban fantasy, really, it’s all quite a new subgenre of the field.

Yeah, yeah.

So, I always get asked this because I have a couple of pseudonyms…in fact, there’s an episode of The Worldshapers where my pseudonym, E.C. Blake interviews me, Edward Willett, which was fun.

That’s fun.

He sounds a lot like me, only he has a southern accent and I don’t.

Oh, wicked, wicked.

Anyway, people always ask me, you know, why do you write under a pseudonym? And I have my answer but I’ve already done that in my interview, so, how did your pseudonym come about and why did you use it?

The Kim Harrison pseudonym came out because I switched publishers, and the easiest way to switch publishers is to take on a pen name. At the time, the Dawn Cook books were doing okay, but a publisher is kind of leery of starting up…a new publisher taking on an established author is carrying the weight of the numbers of the last book, unless they take a pen name. And sometimes they’ll take a pen name because book buyers will buy more books from an unknown author than they will one that already has an established track record. Like, if you’ve only sold 10,000 books under your old name, they’ll only buy 10,000 books if you keep that name. But if you change your name, they might take a chance on it and buy 20. So, there’s a numbers game, there’s a legality game because, you know, my original publisher only had the first-look rights to anything written under Dawn, so I was able to make a clean break and go forward as Kim with my second one.

Also, there was the issue that it was a new genre and my new publisher wanted to create a new persona to push these books. And so, I got a wig and I wore leather a couple of times and had a really good time stretching in my skin and becoming Kim, so to speak. Now it’s funny, because I’ll run into people who know me as both, and sometimes I’ll get called Kim and sometimes I’ll get called Dawn, and it might seem confusing, but people have different names–you know, there’s mom or sister or wife. It’s all the same to me, although I know some people are really fussy about their pen names and it’s like, “No, no, use this name,” but I go by anything.

Was it a secret for a while?

It was a really tight secret for a long time. I don’t know how it stayed…we’re talking years. It’s really hard to keep a secret in New York because most of the publishers know and it’s easy to let things slip, and how we managed to keep the Dawn name and the Kim name separate for so long is beyond me. But it’s out now, and it came out when I decided it should come out and the Kim Harrison career was doing well, and my publisher said that it wouldn’t be hurt by having it associated with the original Dawn books. So, it was just easier to come out at that point and not try to keep it a secret anymore. And I recently lost the wig. So, I’ll run into people again who have known me as Kim and they stare at me like, “That’s not Kim.” And we’ll go to conferences and, it’s funny, for the first couple of years when I had lost the wig, I could walk around and not get recognized unless somebody recognized my husband, who is always with me at conferences, and then it’s like, “That can’t be Kim. It’s gotta be Kim. Oh, yeah, it’s Kim!”

Did you ever do any acting when you were growing up?

Oh, I am terribly shy. I…well, yeah. I’m really, really shy and so acting was not ever on my horizon. So, no acting, no. But, you know, I daydreamed a lot, and obviously you use those same muscles when you write.

Yes. One reason I ask that question is because, you know, the pseudonym thing is a little bit like acting, but whenever I talk to–and I act, I’m an actor as well–whenever I talk to authors who’ve done acting, we all find that we are using basically the same mental muscles, because you’re pretending to be somebody else, basically.

Right, right. And, actually, it did help out quite a bit when Kim Harrison name, titles, and books got more popular and I had to do more presenting and I had to do more public appearances. It was nice to have that persona to fall into where I could be more confident and be more comfortable being confident. Now, I don’t need all the trappings that go along with it, which is really nice.

Now, you’ve got books published by more than one publisher, do you not?

Yes. Yeah. I have a couple of graphic novels out through Del Rey. I’ve got my fantasies, which are under Ace. I have the Hollows, which is under HarperCollins, and Perfection, which is under Subterranean Press.

We’re going to talk a little bit about the editing process later, so maybe I’ll save the next logical question for when we get to there. Well, we are going to focus on your brand-new book, um…Perfunctory Affection.

Yes. I call it just Perfection because it’s a mouthful, but yes.

Well, and of course the typography they use for the title highlights the Per and Fection so that you get that Perfection when you look at it. And that ties into the story, of course. I’m going to get you to do a synopsis of it, so I don’t give away something you don’t want to give away.

Oh, no.

How would you describe the book?

Oh, well, that would depend on what kind of day I’m having. At its basis, it’s about Meg, who’s dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from a couple of accidents in her life. And she is an artist and she’s poised to take the art world by storm if she can get over her debilitating anxiety. She teaches art at one of the local universities and she’s working with a psychiatrist, too, to get through this. And she’s getting better, but she meets a couple of people who seem, you know, perfect. And her psychiatrist puts her on a new medication that makes it easier to deal with the stresses in her life, and her life seems to be turning around, and then her boyfriend starts to appear to be controlling, and not in a good way. I mean, he’s kind and he’s nice, but he’s making it easier for her to not become the person that she wants to be. And the doctor herself, she starts to look a little gray, and the waters get muddier and muddier until you’re really not sure what happened when the book is finally over.

And that was my goal, to have the reader finish the book and close it and say, “Did that just happen, or did she just imagine it?” And so, I hope that’s the way people feel when they finish the book because that’s something new for me, and I am really glad I had the opportunity to try to write that.

Yeah, I did find that interesting, you know, I would decide that something was real and then I’d think, “Wait a minute, maybe it wasn’t,” all the way to the end, so, yes, I think you accomplished exactly what you set out to accomplish.

Oh, good, good.

What was…well, specifically, what was the genesis of this book, but more generally, where do book ideas come to you from?

This one…this one I think came from–a tiny little nugget came from my husband, who drives me around and makes my life very easy. He’s…I want to say he’s the perfect house-husband without him feeling bad about that, because he does make my life easier and so I’m able to avoid the things that I don’t like to do. So, there’s a tiny nugget of that in there, but most of my book ideas come from what I’m dealing with on a daily basis, where, you know, I’m not dealing with vampires and werewolves, you know, and I’m not trying to solve crimes, issues that she deals with on an emotional level and there’s a couple of other books…oh, my Drafter series! I forgot all about my accelerated-science thrillers, the Drafter books, where the main character, her ability when she uses it in her job, her magic ability, it takes chunks of her memory so it can be debilitating. And, you know, I’m dealing with a parent who’s losing chunks of their memory, so that impacted me and I wanted to write about and try to find a way to deal with it by working with it on a daily basis in my books.

And you know, I have another series, that’s not published, about a woman who is at the top of her game, and then a medical issue comes and takes everything that she’s, you know, sacrificed for away, and she has to find a way to get the job done without that ability and find a new meaning for life. And, you know, everybody loses things. And so, that comes into my work and I put it in there.

So, the kernels of the story, besides the saving the world, what’s going on with the character, that comes from things that are, they’re hitting my life and making my life challenging, and ways for me to overcome my own obstacles. So, it’s very much…maybe I’m a method writer, I guess maybe you’d call it, by taking in what what’s around me and internalizing it before I can, excuse me, word-vomit it all over the place. But that’s where my ideas come from. The saving the world is secondary, it’s always the character development and the characters that pull me to my desk every day.

So, once you had this initial germ of an idea, how did you go about developing it? What kind of an outline or planner are you?

Oh, I have a really good balance of plotting and pantser. I used to think that I was strictly a plotter because I do outlines, and I love my outlines, and I don’t like starting a book until I have it all sketched out. And it’ll take me a couple of weeks, and I’ll start with a real quick synopsis, which grows into a three-page, and then I break it down, and I have a page per chapter–but I never hold to it. Usually about page 100 I’ve made enough changes that I have to rewrite my outline, and right about page 300 I throw my outline out and I just pants it to the end, knowing I have the goals. The goals are still there, but how I’m getting there shifts. But it’s always…the actual, when I sit down and write, it’s always dialogue first, and I’ll spend the day writing out the dialogue for a chapter, and it kind of looks like what I imagine a script might, with a little minor directions of character movement and whatnot, but it’s mostly dialogue, and if I don’t have that dialogue I start wandering off track. So that keeps me on point and I get to where I’m going that way.

It does actually sound like you should try writing plays.

My dialogue chapters look a lot like a play, yeah.

Now, you’d said that it’s the characters for you that drive the story forward and bring you back to it. How do you find the characters that you are going to put into your story?

They…the main character usually grows out of the issue that I’m dealing with. The supplemental characters come from the story itself, to fill a need, whether it be a romantic interest or a platonic relationship or of something that just brings out the issue that the character is dealing with. I find that my antagonists are often more interesting and fun to watch than my protagonist. I really enjoy my antagonists. I have very few that are fully bad. I think I have a vampire who’s totally irredeemable but most of them are redeemable. Most of them don’t get redeemed. If you’re familiar at all with the Hollows series, Trent Kalamack was supposed to be my big, bad ugly through the whole series but about Book 6 Rachel began to understand where he was coming from and that his purpose was noble and at that point she either had to kill him or start to really understand him, and by the end of the series…well, it’s not ended, actually there’s another one in the works…but by the original ending he was a love interest, and it worked. I mean,, it took a long time to get there because I like my relationships to be believable, but I did make him go from an antagonist to a protagonist.

Did you know that was going to happen when you started the series or did that happen along the way?

No, I did not. I wanted my hero to be the poor, downtrodden, wickedly smart man and my villain to be the really wealthy, rich kind of snobby boy, which…and it turned out all wrong. The readers…I do not write romance but because I pay so much attention to relationships I have a really wide following in the romance area, and my romance readers, they told me first, they said, “She should be with Trent,” so I explored it my mind a little bit and I said, “Yeah, you know what? You might be right.” And it took several books to believably turn that around—but I’m glad I did!

Now, when you are initially designing characters, do you do detailed character sheets or is it more you have an idea and it comes out on the page as you write?

It’s a little of both. I do have character sheets. They’re very messy, they’re handwritten, and they’re only there so I don’t make a mistake and have somebody with eyes blue in book and brown in the other.

The perennial problem!

But it was a real problem when I went to do my world book that I didn’t have more details on my characters. But most of them develop like you get to know a person, you know, surface stuff and then a little deeper and when you see them at their worst point, you know, the really core of a person comes out, and that’s, I think, my favourite part.

This particular book, Perfunctory Affection, has a very tight point of view. You’re in Meg’s head for the entire time, which, of course, I think the kind of book it is that pretty much was the only way you could tell it. Is that typical or do you do different points of view over different books?

Well, my first book was third, and I wrote in third person for quite a while and I enjoyed it, but it was a fantasy and you kind of need that to manage the scope. The Hollows books were written in first person, which is what most urban fantasy is because the readers like the intimacy of it, and I found I had to almost re-learn how to tell a story from a first-person point of view because, like I said, I like my villains, and I wanted to see them and get to know them, and it’s harder when you’re in only one person’s point of view. However, it does give you a more intimate feel, which I really like. And the Hollows books were, they’re kind of detective, so it fits. You can do it, it works. I’m writing in third person right now, on the work I’m working on currently, but I think first person is my favorite just because of that intimacy.

Did you consider it for Perfunctory Affection?

You know, I did but, like you noticed, it really has to be from one person’s point of view in order to…it is, isn’t it? It’s been a while since I’ve worked on it…

Yes, it’s entirely very tightly in Meg’s point of view.

I didn’t think I had anything in there from third.

It’s as tight in as if it was first person, but it’s written in third.


And, yeah, what I found interesting, because of the and…as I said I think it almost…okay, if I had been writing it I wouldn’t have done it in first person, either. Therefore, I think you made the correct decision.

Okay. Seriously, it’s been so long I don’t remember actually what…but now that I think about it, it was third, wasn’t it?


But it was all her point of view pretty much.

And I think because of the not being sure what’s real and what’s not, I thought that that also…

Yeah, it really had to be like that.

Yeah. What’s your actual…well, one question before we get to that.


Meg, in this story, is an artist and you’ve mentioned you’ve done some art, and there’s some other…you know, what kind of research do you do going into a book?

Um…that’s tricky. I don’t do a whole lot of research. I don’t like falling into that research trap. If a place setting is important, I will do a lot of research on a  place. The Hollows books take place in Cincinnati ,and I know Cincinnati better than my hometown, you know, I’ve been in the tunnels, I’ve been on Carew Tower, I’ve been on the streets, and I’ll spend a week there if I need to, but before anything else I prefer to spend, like, maybe an hour or two online to get an idea of how I need to tackle this or move forward in it, and then I just go.

And maybe research as you encounter things along the way?

Yeah. Most of my research, if you can call it that, is just done by living. You know, I’m constantly taking things in. I’m constantly weighing them in my mind. I’m constantly trying to figure out why this is that way. And I’ll come out to my husband and say the weirdest things, like, “I think she turned around and went the other way because of blah blah blah blah blah.” And that’s how I live my life. I’m always trying to figure out why people are doing things the way they are. And that’s pretty much most of my research. Like, I didn’t do a whole lot of research on anxiety…well, I looked it up to find out what the symptoms were, you know, that kind of thing, but no, not a whole lot, to tell you the honest truth.

The question went out of my head that I was about to ask…oh, yes. So, you were talking about the researching, you know, basically by living, and you have done, as you said, a lot of different and interesting kinds of jobs, and you have that science degree which which you say you apply. How does all that feed into your work?

Oh, a lot. I look very analytically at most problems that appear on the page. I use science quite a bit. I tap into DNA as being a reason for the way things are. When I’m designing creatures like vampires and witches and pixies and and stuff I will pull on my biology background and say, “Well, it’s a pixie, it’s small, that means it needs a high-energy source, so it’s probably feeding on nectar, which means it’s going to hibernate or migrate during the winter. It’s going to have a, you know, low cold tolerance.” So, you know, it just builds on itself like that. So, that’s how I use my biology degree mostly, but I do like the beauty behind genetics and, you know, I’ve recently looked back at my body of work and I’ve got genetics in that first fantasy series that I did and I touch on it in the Hollows books and it just keeps popping up here and there. You know, it must be on my mind.

What’s your actual writing process look like? Do you sit in an office and type, do you work in a coffee shop, do you hand write, how does it work for you?

Yeah, I do, I sit in the office. I am lucky enough now to have a office that is six steps away from my back door. It’s a stand-alone octagon. I’ve got windows on all eight sides of me, and I’m basically sitting in a glass box in the middle of my garden. And, it’s been a, you know, when I’m out of my office I’m landscaping the area that I’m looking at and when I’m inside my office I’m head down over the keyboard. When I’m working on plotting there’s a section that’s handwritten, but then I graduate to typing, fairly rapidly now, and then it’s all on the keyboard. I like to work at my office and then…so that when I leave my office I can separate the book world from my real world, and if I have a physical, you know, shut-the-door sensation I think it makes it easier. I think most writers are working all the time whether they know it or not. But being able to shut the door and walk away has helped me divorce myself from whatever issues my characters are working on–because it can spill over into your everyday life if you’re not careful.

I have tried working other places. I recently was in Tucson for two months and I developed the ability to sit outside in the sunshine and work on a laptop instead of in my office off a keyboard, so, you know, I can be flexible, but–I don’t want to say it’s a nine-to-five job now, but I do work almost every day and I try to keep to a schedule. And I think that’s about the only way that I can get anything done. I’m not a splurgeist, I am a a scheduled-time-to-write person.

You mentioned that you start with dialogues, so then you flesh it out from there in your first draft?

Yes. And my first draft is really ugly. I will be the first to admit it. I don’t show my first draft to anybody but my husband and…he’s my sounding board, actually, which is really nice, to have somebody who knows your work as much as you do, and the characters, so that you can talk things over. But I don’t show that to my my editor until I’m at least on my second or third draft because they are so ugly. My first drafts have holes in them and some logic issues. The whole point of a first draft for me is to find out where you’re going and what you end up at. And then you go back and you make it work.

It’s kind of like, going back to the art, it’s sort of like having the clay, you roughly shape it out the first time and then you go in and you put in the details.

Yeah, exactly, exactly.

You mentioned your husband being a sounding board. Do you, at some point, do you use beta readers or anything like that like some writers do?

No, I do not. And I don’t know if that’s…you know, a lot of people do. But I have just never been comfortable with it.

I don’t either, so I’m glad that somebody else doesn’t.

Yeah, my editor is usually the first professional who sees it and I’m…I don’t want to say I’m particular about my editors but I have to trust them implicitly, and so, if it’s a bad fit, it goes sour really fast because if I don’t trust their judgment, you know, it’s like, “Why should I make this change?” You know, I have a little bit of a stubborn streak. But if I trust their judgment it’s like, “I will do it even if I don’t understand why because I trust your judgment.” And if it’s a good fit and they know where I’m going and we’re coming from the same place, it works. You know, I really enjoy working with an editor that I trust.

And, since you have worked with a number of different publishers, you must have worked with a number of different editors over the years.

I have. Probably fewer than most, though. I find somebody I like and I don’t want to go anywhere. I enjoy working…I enjoy feeling like I’m a part of a team even though I’m not involved a lot in in many of the decisions abut how a book is marketed and published and placed. But I enjoy feeling like I’m a part of a team, and my job is to present a product that can be tailored to an editor’s…what an editor sees can be marketable. And, you know, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But, yeah, I do enjoy working with my editors.

What kind of feedback do you get from editors, as in, is there a recurring theme in the sorts of things that you find yourself working on in the editorial pass? I know, for me there’s certain things that…well, of course, have basically only worked with, on the big publisher side, DAW Books, it’s been Sheila Gilbert the entire time. And I already…and everybody that’s edited by Sheila says the same thing, it’s that you get to the point where you’re saying, “Sheila is going to say something about that.” And sure enough, Sheila says something about that.

I’ve never run into that before!

Do you find that there’s certain things that you’re always getting asked to work on in the editorial revision?

I get asked a lot to put in more physical characteristics, and I think that’s just because I see people by how they act rather than what they look like. So, I have really had to work hard at describing people more. You know, I can describe them well but then I don’t…if I don’t remind myself I don’t remind the reader of what they look like throughout the book. And I hear that a lot. Other than that, it’s mostly…mostly I get a lot of questions on, “Can you clarify how this magic system works?” or “Can you flesh out the world a little bit more?” or it might be, “This reaction doesn’t wash with me. You either need to fix it or change the reaction or go back and add some more stuff so I understand why it happened.” Stuff like that.

I think that’s…I think the thing that editors, and new writers will often…they’ll say, “Well, I don’t know if I want to be edited or not. The editor’s going to change things or tell me to change things.”


But good editors have seen a lot of stories and they know what works and they know what doesn’t and they know where you need to kick things up a bit.

Yes. I have run in…most of my editors have been really good but occasionally you might run into one who doesn’t read your work thoroughly enough, and they’ll…I had one editor wipe out the first three pages of almost every chapter and then say, “I need more detail on this this and this.” And it was…and that’s what was in the first three pages! But I had wedged it in so carefully that she skimmed right over it. But that’s rare. I think most of the time editors really care about what they’re doing and they buy your work because they like it and they want…and they see a way to make it better. And they see a place where it can be sold. So if…my advice is, if an editor tells you to change something, unless it’s something that, you know, clearly they missed, change it. Do it. See if…it might work better. You can always change it back.

I like what you said about being part of a team because although as writers we work very independently and on our own for much of the time, once it gets up to the publication level you are part of a team and it’s becomes more of a collaborative thing. That final book has gone through, you know, copyeditors and…the editors and the copyeditors and there’s cover art and there’s blurb writing and there’s all these things that come together to actually make the book when it actually hits the shelf.

And I think if an author feels like they’re part of the process, not just giving them a manuscript and doing a copyedit and page proofs but really part of the process of helping to design the cover, and…the worst covers I’ve ever done are the ones that I’ve tried to design. So, you know, the author is not the person to design the cover but input, a little input, makes you feel involved and the more involved the author is in those later stages of the book, I think the more they’re willing to help push it through their own…like Facebook and Twitter and their…their outreaches to the readers.

And speaking of readers, you’ve already mentioned that some of the feedback from readers had you take another look at the relationship in the Hollows books and you are a, you know, very widely read author, do you get a lot of feedback from your readers, and how does that impact what you do going forward?

I listen to them because sometimes they see things before I do. Sometimes they see things that…a more interesting path than I normally would. I’m in touch with my readers a lot. I’m pretty active on my Facebook and my Twitter, Instagram not so much but I’ve got an account, and it works for me. They often come to me with questions. Rarely do they come to me with suggestions but their questions lead me to think about, “Well, maybe what if?” And that’s that’s what an author always wants to be doing, is saying, “Well, what if?” And to me, the editing, the changing, you know, once you get that first draft done, that’s the hard part. The fun part is tweaking it and tailoring it and seeing what would happen if they go through this door instead of that or they pick up the stray dog, you know, that kind of thing.

And I…going back to the idea of teamwork, ultimately a book is collaborative not just with the people who produce it, but also also with the people who read it. It doesn’t exist, in a way, until somebody reads it and what they get out of it may be quite different from what you thought you were putting in there but clearly because they got it out of there it’s in there somewhere.

Yeah, it’s in there whether you meant it to be or not.

There’s a story about Isaac Asimov, whom you mentioned, I think it was in one of his biographical books, Opus 100 or Opus 200 or Opus 300, I think he went that far, where he mentioned to being in a classroom in a university where they were teaching his classic story “Nightfall,” and he listened to the professor talk about it and then afterwards he went up to him, and he said, “that was very interesting but 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 what makes you think that, just because you wrote it, you know what’s in there?” I’ve kept that in the back of my head for thirty, forty years now.

Yeah, that works, that really…that’s right.

Well, let’s talk a bit about the big philosophical questions here. Why do you write, do you think, after all these years, and why do you keep doing it, and specifically why do you write this kind of stuff?

I write to keep from going insane.

I get that a lot from authors.

Yeah, yeah. I think we’re all different but we’re all of a type. It’s…writing is a way for me to get a grip on reality, of what’s going on around me. I don’t want to say that I have a bad life, because I have a wonderful life, but life is full of ups and downs and minor, you know, personal tragedies. And writing helps me work through it and find a way to deal with it. I like puzzles and exploring how things fit together, and that’s what writing is to me. A lot of it is seeing, you know, you start with all these pieces and this is what you want. Well, how do you put them together to get there? And it’s just…it’s a way for me to relax, if I may say so. This is…I’m an introvert, so I need a lot of personal time, and this is the way I can do that and pay the bills. Lucky me, lucky, lucky me! And it’s an escape. You know, people read to escape. Well, I write to escape, and it’s a healthy escape. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

And why science fiction and fantasy?

Why science fiction and fantasy. Yeah, I forgot that part, didn’t I? Probably because that’s what I read growing up, and it’s tied to emotions and good feelings and there’s probably some endorphins going on in there, too–the mind’s a wonderful thing. But that’s probably why. It’s what I like to read so it’s what I like to write. I think it’s that simple.

In the case of Perfunctory Affection, if you read it in one way, it’s not just science fiction or fantasy at all.

No, no it isn’t. It is not. And that is why I really enjoyed writing it. I had just finished…well, I thought I had just finished the Hollows series and I needed something to cleanse my palate, and Perfunctory Affection was an idea that I wanted to work on for a long time and hadn’t been able to. So, I just dived right into it. And it came out to be a weird length, it’s like 68,000 words, which is about half of what I usually write…well, actually, it’s maybe a third of what I usually write for a book. But I couldn’t bear the thought of padding it to make it a full novel because it needed to be slim and trim and the way it is. I don’t really want to think about what was going on in my head or my life at the time that I wrote it because this kind of scary, but, no, it is not fantasy. It is not science fiction. I think I’d call it a psychological thriller, maybe?

Yeah, I think that would fit. I mean, it has a science element to it.


So, in a way it’s science fiction because it has science in it and it’s fiction. But still, I don’t think I would call it that.

And then with Haley and Rory, I don’t know, that might be fantasy.

It is if you read it one way, yeah.

Yes, it is. Yeah. Yeah. So, if it can be read multiple ways I think I’ve done my job.

Sixty-eight thousand is kind of a young adult length. That’s the length of some young adult books that I wrote, and you have written young adult, haven’t you?

I have. Oh, I forgot about those. Yes. I wrote those under Kim Harrison. Again, I think they’re urban fantasy although they don’t deal with vampires. They deal with the grim reaper and angels and that might be urban fantasy-ish.

I think I’d still call it that.


What do you find different writing for young adults and adults?

Not a whole lot. My young adults tend to be, like, 16 to 20, maybe. And the biggest thing that I keep in mind when I sit down is that, aside from including a parent figure in there, that the odds are higher. I think most young adults feel like they don’t have any resources compared to an adult. And…when the truth of the matter is that they’ve got tons of resources, they’ve got friends, they’ve got, you know, they’ve got their own internal power, their strength, their courage, you know, they’ve got tons and tons of of resources, they just don’t realize it. And the fun part about young adult is being able to show a character who feels like they don’t have these resources in order to surmount whatever they need to, and then showing how, yes, you do, and how they grow into it, so to speak. But young adult is where I first started reading,and I love writing young adult, it’s just…I don’t know. The adult issues I guess come up more often, or more easier perhaps, in the adult stuff, and I think for me it’s harder for me to write a young adult and put those adult issues in it, like a lot of authors do. I kind of like to keep my young adult something that I wouldn’t mind my grandma reading, so to speak.

So, we’ve talked about readers and so I guess the other…this whole podcast is called The Worldshapers. Do you hope through your writing that you are shaping…I know, shaping the real world might be a bit grand…but ate least shaping readers in some way, reaching into them and changing them a little bit?

Yes. And I have. I have gotten the feeling that I have changed…I don’t want to say I’ve changed people’s lives…people have read my work and changed their lives in certain instances. I’ve toured for a while, and one of the fun things is, I had a couple come up to me at one of my events and they told me that they met in line two years ago or last year and now they’re a couple. I mean, that’s cool in itself! My favorite story is, a reader came up to me and told me a story that he was in a coffee shop and he saw somebody reading one of my books across the way. And he looked at the woman and he made a bunny-eared kiss-kiss, which is basically a peace sign where you crook your fingers twice in quick succession, and his friend said, “Do you know that woman?” And the woman, you know, across the way, crooked her fingers and did the same thing back, and the guy said, “No, it’s a book thing, it’s a Hollows thing.” And to be able to know that you have impacted the world enough that two people who don’t know each other and share a moment across the coffee shop, you know, that’s heady stuff.

We’re just about out of time here. So, tell me what you’re working on now. What comes next?

I am actually working on American Demon. It is the next Hollows book, with Rachel and Trent. It picks up after the last book but before the epilogue in the last book. So I’ve wedged it in. I hope the readers will be pleased with it. I’m also working on a something completely out of my wheelhouse. It’s more of a hero’s journey. And I don’t really want to say much more than that but it’s not in the Hollows, it’s something else. But I’ve been enjoying being able to write on a multitude of subjects, which is something that, once you get kind of name brand into a genre, that you don’t often get a chance to do, so I’ve just been enjoying writing whatever I feel like. But American Demon is the thing that’s on my plate right now.

And Perfunctory Affection just came out.

It will be out on the March 31.

Which will probably be before this airs, I think I can say… 

Ok, yes, so it just came out.

And it’s from Subterranean Press, right?

Yes, it is. And this one is a little special. They are all signed and numbered, which is something new for me. Usually I have a small print run that’s signed and numbered. It is a small print run, but this is it. There is an audio version that will come out and I believe the e-book will come out at some point. But if you want to get a hold of this, it’s…you can get it through Amazon, but Subterranean Press is the publisher and they’re all signed and numbered.

Oh, I feel I feel fortunate to have had an advance reader copy.

There weren’t very many of them, no!

And where can people find you online?

They can find me at my Web site, kimharrison.net. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter @BurningBuddies.

Okay! Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers!

Well, thank you! This has been a fabulous interview.

Thank you very much.

Episode 22: Victoria/V. E. Schwab

A 45-minute conversation with Victoria/V.E. Schwab, the number-one New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including the acclaimed Shades of Magicseries, The Savage SongOur Dark Duet, ViciousVengeful, The Near Witch, and City of Ghosts.





Victoria/V.E. Schwab’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Victoria/V.E. Schwab

Victoria/V.E. Schwab is the number-one New York Times best-selling author of more than a dozen books, including the acclaimed Shades of Magicseries, The Savage SongOur Dark Duet, ViciousVengeful, The Near Witch, and City of Ghosts. . Her work has received critical acclaim, been featured in the New York TimesEntertainment Weekly, the Washington Post, and more, has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and has been optioned for television and film. When she’s not haunting Paris streets or trudging up English hillsides, she’s usually tucked in the corner of a coffee shop, dreaming up monsters. She currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome, Victoria.

Thank you for having me.

Before we started recording this, I was just telling you that my daughter is a fan, and the way I came to your books, was my niece, she’s a lawyer, actually, in her 30s, had recommended the Shades of Magic to my daughter, who then read them and then recommended them to me. So, it’s what, you know, they say, “Word of mouth is the best possible publicity.”

I think, especially, weirdly word of mouth is more powerful these days when there’s so much buzz in so many different directions that I think there’s an authenticity that comes with word of mouth that really makes it very special. So, I’m incredibly flattered that that’s how you came to my work.

I always like to see if I can find any connections with the authors, your about the twenty-third I’ve interviewed here, and it’s a stretch with you, but you grew up in Nashville, and I went to university at Harding University, in Searcy, AR, which is in the neighborhood, church of Christ, you’ll be familiar with that if you grew up in Nashville.


And I spent a month with a family in Edinburgh, before you were born, so there you go, there’s a connection.

That’s a good connection, that’s like, what, five degrees of separation, not six.

Yeah, not bad at all. So how did you, first of all, become interested in reading—I presume you started as a reader of the fantastic—and then moved on from there to start writing it. Did that all start when you were a kid or what was your story?

I definitely wasn’t one of those children who grew up in a library. I think those are really beautiful narratives to hear. I was a jock. I was a really serious athlete all growing up. I wanted to go to the World Cup for soccer long before I ever thought about telling stories for a living. But I had a lot of health problems as well and so I wasn’t able to compete in sports at that level, but really I was a proficient reader, in that I was a very capable reader, but I had not had the experience that many children have growing up where they read something that makes them forget that they’re reading, that transportative  experience. And the first time that ever really happened with me was with Harry Potter. And that can seem like a very trite answer these days, when almost everyone, it seems, has read those books, but you have to remember I’m 31, and so I read the first Harry Potterbook when it came out and I was 11 and Harry Potter was 11. So, I had the, based purely on the year in which I was born, the immense (privilege) of ageing with a protagonist in that way, and of becoming part of something that was such a phenomenon, such a worldwide phenomenon. And so, Harry Potterwould come to dominate and inform my entire teen years, my entire youth, in that way.

And that was a really special thing, because if I hadn’t had that series, I’m not sure how long it would have taken for me to find a series that transported me in that sense, that made me realize the power of narrative, because I grew up in love with poetry. And poetry is incredible, poetry, everything from William Blake to Shel Silverstein, is wonderful but it’s not transportative in the same way. It gives you an intense appreciation for language, but it doesn’t make you forget at any point that you’re reading.

And so, that’s really the power that Harry Potterhad for me, and being a true World-Domination-seeking Slytherin, my first reaction was, oh wow, this is cool, and my second reaction as an eleven, twelve-year-old was, “Wow, words are very powerful.” You know, the idea of words on a page being something which could psychologically impact you in that way, which could emotionally transport you, was to me a very intoxicating premise. And so it wasn’t very long before I started trying to write as well, though it would be, I would be 18 or 19 before I tried to write a book.

Did you write stuff before that, short stories or pieces?

I was particularly into fragments, yeah, really into poems, very dark, apocalyptic poems. All teenagers should write bad poetry. I was really into short stories. I was really into narrative non-fiction. Basically. I was really into anything that wasn’t novel-length because I was so convinced, to be honest, sixteen books I’m still convinced, that I don’t have the attention span for a novel. I was very afraid of the idea of having to keep a novel in my head while putting it down on paper. And so, I really…one of the only reasons that it even took me until college to try and write a novel was because I tried every other form first and then I realized that, as a sophomore in college I realized that the reason I hadn’t tried to write a novel was because I was afraid of failing. And I have a very antagonistic relationship to fear. The moment somebody points out that I’m afraid of something, or the moment I realize I’m afraid of something, I have a kind of combative reaction to that. So I realized I had a fear of heights and I jumped out of an airplane when I turned 18, and I realized I had a fear of change and I chopped off all my hair, and I realized I had a fear of being away from my comforts and so I traveled around Europe, like backpacking, and so, when I realized that I was afraid of failing to do this thing I immediately sat down and was determined to start and finish a novel.

Well, when you were writing fragments and bad teenage poetry—and I’ve edited magazines of teenaged writing, and I can assure that teenagers still write bad teenage  poetry—were people encouraging you that, you know, you’ve got something here, maybe you should be writing it. Did you have encouragement along the way?

I did have some reinforcement in that, I struggled a lot as a teenager, and I felt very displaced at the time. I was so in the closet that I had no concept that I was gay, but I just felt continuously othered. I had been dropped into an all-girls Southern preparatory school at age thirteen in a completely different state, and I felt so out of place and so out of my element that writing became something that was just a tether. It was just an outlet for me. And then I had a couple of teachers who began to encourage me. And you know, God knows if they saw something or if they were just trying to say, “Here’s an anchor, here’s a life raft, but it really helped. And I, because I grew up with poetry I had a really, really good ear for cadence. And so, I actually…I mean, I was 15 or 16 when I started submitting poetry and winning contests with it. And by the time I graduated high school I was my high school’s Poet Laureate, and I had a sense from there on that I really wanted to do something with words, that words gave me a sense of power that I didn’t feel in the rest of my environment.

So, when you got to university, did you study writing, or did you study something else and write on the side?

When I first went to university I started out in astrophysics, and so needless to say I was a great departure. I would end up changing my major six times…and I stand by this. though. I wasn’t changing it because I wasn’t capable in any one discipline. I was changing it because the idea of choosing only one was terrifying to me. And that was really one of the first indicators I should have had that I wanted a creative profession because one of the beauties of writing fiction is that you get to become somebody else for a limited period of time. You get to become an astrophysicist, you get to become an explorer, you get to become an archaeologist, a scholar, a write,r you get to become all of these things and kind of dive into different lives. And that was something which really, really appealed to me. I do have a minor in creative writing.

I’m of very many minds when it comes to pursuing creative writing from an academic perspective instead of from a exploratory perspective. I still believe that the best education that I’ve gotten towards my own writing has been reading. I still believe that the vast majority of what I took away from those programs was, if anything, simply a…not a comfort, I don’t think I ever became comfortable with sharing my work, but the necessity of getting over that fear of critique, that was something that I took away from the programs. But the writing was something which happened in the background. It was something that I protected throughout university as a creative outlet.

It’s interesting, because several authors I’ve talked, some of whom did have formal creative writing classes, are also of two minds. I went into journalism myself, when I made my decision I wanted to work with words, because I was very, very practical and thought, “I can get a job,” as opposed to just trying to make a living just writing stories or something. So, how did the first novel come about? How did you break in, I guess is the question.

So, my…weirdly, because of my background in poetry, because I had an interesting or unusual cadence, I was able to get a literary agent with that first, first novel that I ever wrote, the one that I wrote when I was a sophomore in college. Now, that book never got published. It got very far up the acquisitions ladder at multiple houses and got rightfully rejected because it had no plot, because I didn’t actually know how to write a book. It was the first time I’d ever even tried. And what I was good at was writing very pretty sentences and what I had not yet figured out how to do was write a story. And so, I was so busy, that happened when I was a sophomore, I got an agent, from my sophomore year through my junior year that book was on submission to publishers and being summarily rejected from them. I hit my senior year, it was my second semester senior, and at that point I was doing an arts program. I had moved from astrophysics into set design into art history into English into…oh, God, one other one…and then—Japanese cultures and mythologies—and then into graphic design and marketing and design, and because I had come into the program so late, I was really behind. So I had this intense course load that I was having to take because most of the design majors had been in their program for like, four years, and I had been in it for a year and a half. So I had no time. It would have been very, very easy to put writing aside, and I would have followed that classic narrative arc of going off and doing something else for ten, fifteen, twenty years and then saying, “Oh I always wanted to write a book, I always wanted to be an author,” and find my way back to it. And I had this crystal-clear, almost out-of-body experience, on a February night as a second-semester senior, thinking, like, “This is where I make this choice. I either sit down right now and try again and try to write another book. or it is going to be something that I come back to after I have had another life,” and I didn’t want it to be that.

And so I began checking out of my art studio space for two hours every night from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., walking off-campus to a coffee shop across the street, and sitting down and writing for two hours a night. It was time I really didn’t have, but I made this decision that I did not want to…I didn’t want the first book I had ever written to be a fluke and I didn’t want to give up on this path. And so, some nights I would write 500 words and some nights I would write 2,000 words, but essentially by the time I graduated that spring I had a draft of another novel and that novel was called The Near Witch, which is about a village where a stranger appears one night, and the following night all of the children begin to disappear one by one, and that would go on to be my debut novel

And there’s been several since then.

Yeah, several.

How many are you up to now, after about ten years?

Well, sixteen in about eight years, because it sold ten years ago, but I had several gaps. I had an eighteen-month gap between when it came out and when my next book came out. So for a while there, it was a two-year gap between when it sold and when it was published and…so, but yeah, it will come out to about seventeen books in ten years.

Now, you write both young adult and adult. Was the first book young adult or adult?

The first book was young adult, and I’ve actually written a few middle grade in ther,e as well, so for the age bracket below young adult. The Near Witchwas young adult. My first three books, The Near WitchThe Archived, and The Unbound, were all young adult, and then my fourth novel, Vicious, was my first adult novel.

When I started, my first unpublished novels were all basically young adult because that’s how old I was.


Is that one reason why you started in the young adult market? Because you were quite young when you wrote that first book.

Interestingly…and this is something that I had to do a lot of, like, soul-searching with afterwards, I have never written very comfortably into YA. Even my books that we were talking about earlier, The Savage Songand Our Dark Duet, they’re very, very much upper YA. And it has nothing to do with any of the arbitrary boundaries. I find that I tend to write very dark and very adult and less…I write almost no romance and I write very little coming-of-age, and so, it’s not that I ever fell cleanly in one category or another, it’s simply that my agent said, this will work in this category or this will work in this. I have always tried very hard to do what’s right for the story, and and try to worry about where it fits on a shelf later, because, you know, YA is a category of which more than half the readers are adults, and adult is a category of which more than half the readers teenagers. And so, I think it could be really unnecessarily divisive when we think creatively about these boundaries and about these thresholds. My primary interest is writing stories for a version of myself. So, when I write middle-grade novels, I am writing the book that I would have wanted to read at ten or eleven. Now I was a very morbid, strange ten- and eleven-year-old reading Jason Bourne and Stephen King. I was a very morbid and strange and outsider seventeen-year-old, which is who I wrote The Savage Songand Our Dark Duetand the Archivebooks for, and I’m a very morbid and strange thirty-one-year-old, which is who I wrote Vengefulfor earlier this year, and so, I think that’s really the only way that I fathom the boundaries between my books.

And I think you’ve pointed out, I’ve seen in interviews, that there are different categories in different countries.

Exactly. Yeah, my threshold for young adult in France is like twenty-three, and the threshold in, what is it, let’s see, in Brazil it’s quite high…or it’s quite low…oh, but in like the UK, which is where I live, you’ll see the young adult spaces on the shelves really skew younger. So, what we would consider a lower YA in the US, in terms of that kind of, like, fourteen and fifteen and much more contemporary, that’s the bulk of the young adult shelf in the UK. So, even books of mine which are published as YA in the US then are published as adult in the UK

I want to talk specifically about the Shades of Magic trilogy, and…so, I’m going to ask you the classic question. I won’t say where do you get your ideas, but I will say, what was the spark for that particular trilogy? And there’s more books coming in the series.

There are, there are. So, I’m a bit of a magpie writer. I have a slow process in which I collect many shiny bits and pieces of an idea before it coalesces into something, before I have a nester or whatever. I…so, it’s never like, one thing. I’m not a person who dreams entire stories. I’m not a person who sits down and has an entire character spill out. It’s usually a collection of fragments that simply…something comes along to become the codifying ingredient. And so, for Shades of MagicA Darker Shade of Magic is the first book, and for those who don’t know, it’s about a magician with the ability to move between alternate versions of the world, officially as a messenger and unofficially as a smuggler, and he comes into possession of something he should not have. It all came about from several, several sources, gathered together slowly, but essentially, I wanted to write a love letter to Harry Potterbut not to any of the specifics of Harry Potter. I wanted to write a love letter to the nostalgia of wanting to visit a place, because at the time I was thinking about Shades of Magic, the market was inundated with dystopia and with narratives in which…the narratives themselves were incredibly compelling, but you as the reader would never want to go back and visit just to spend time in those worlds. Whereas, with Harry Potter, like, you wanted to go back to Hogwarts and you could kind of visually, mentally extrapolate what house you would be in and what you would study and do all these things, and it kind of gave you a world of nostalgia that existed outside of the actual plots of the characters. And I missed that, I missed having a world that I wanted to simply spend time in. So, I wanted to design that.

I also wanted to…I really like designing magical structures because I think that magical structures work best when they are at their most intuitive. And so, I wanted to design an intuitive magical structure. I wanted to do a nod to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I was very much in love with at the time and still am, and I just…I had a visual in my head, along with all of those other elements. I had this still-frame picture, which I get sometimes, I get still-frame pictures in my head, and it was a man in a red coat walking through a wall and colliding with a girl dressed as a boy. And I had no story to go with it. And so, that was that was actually the first piece of the puzzle that I had. And then I was piecing through a snowfield garden, talking to a friend of mine, trying to figure out what I was going to write next, and I mentioned that picture, and I thought about how I write about a lot of different kinds of doors in my books, metaphorical and physical, but I had never written, at that point, alternate worlds, alternate realities. And when I mentioned that, I immediately thought back to that visual in my head and thought, “Oh, what if he wasn’t walking through a wall between rooms, like, what if he was walking through a wall between worlds?” And all of a sudden all of the other little shiny magpie pieces that I had just kind of started clicking, cascading into place.

One of the, I would almost call it a character in the book, is the city of London, and it’s three different iterations. Why London?

You know, it’s twofold. My cheeky answer is that London is the most overused setting in fantasy, and I wanted to play with that, because while all three to four of the Londoners in the series are called London, only one of them is actually London as we know it? And the rest is kind of a semantic anomaly. And so, you can go in assuming you know what the setting of this book is going to be and be proven very wrong because we spend very little time in our London, and the other answer is that the way that my magic systems are designed is, essentially, I wanted to build different bodies on the same bones. So I wanted to strip the geography down to its base elements and then build new cities on top of that. So, one step in our London is one step in Red London, is one step in Grey London. They have the exact same geographic footprint. And then I build the cities on top of them based on their relationships to magic. So, in Red London magic has thrived and so have the people and so the way that their environment works is a very magic-driven system, whereas in White London magic is being controlled and dominated and constrained by the people and it’s starving out all of the nutrients of their city, et cetera, et cetera. And so, I needed a geographic foundation that was easily recognizable, and London is one of those that is…it’s easy division. I mean, it has two banks and it has a river in the middle. And that’s essentially what I needed to do. I needed them all to be on the same footing pretty quickly.

Now once you had your actual idea, and all these elements that you had together, what did…and does…your planning process look like? Are you a detailed outliner or are you more of an on-the-fly kind of writer?

No, no. I plan. So, but I don’t plan everything. I think people hear the word outliner and they think like I’ve, you’ve stripped all of the magic from the process, like that you’ve somehow left no room for discovery and I disagree pretty strongly with that idea of an outliner. I have to know certain things when I go into a book. I have to know how it ends because I work backwards. So, I need to know how the story ends and where all of the characters are at the end so I can know who they should be and where they should be at the beginning. And so, I have a little bit of a rewind process when I’m writing. 

Normally, I will then figure out five to ten of the most important kind of beats, the pins in the map, and then I will give myself enough space to explore and find my way between those pins. For A Darker Shade of Magic, it was a little unique because I was selling it to Tor, my US publisher, on a proposal, and so, essentially, because it was quite an ambitious project, I sat down and I wrote a five- to six-thousand word synopsis that was essentially a beat sheet for the story that I wanted to tell. And that’s more detailed than I had ever done before, but I knew that I…I am somebody who feels more comfortable with a map. I don’t hold myself to that map I don’t but it gives me a sense of where the world ends. It gives me a sense of, “Oh, if I go this way I’m gonna fall off a cliff and I don’t want to do that.” So, I use the map as giving me a safe environment to explore without getting derailed too far.

It’s interesting, again, talking to so many different authors, how different that process is for everyone. I think Peter V. Brett, who wrote the Demon Cycle books, writes like a 150-page outline, so he’s just very, very, very precise. Then there are people who say, “Well, I do a page, and then I go for it.”

I think it’s really interesting it’s so important to remember that there’s no right way to write. I think the what what works for you is whatever allows you to get out of your own way. So, for me, I get scared by not having a plan, and so that eliminates any of the joy that would come from discovery. Whereas there are other writers who—ninety percent of their joy comes from just wandering in the dark. I am somebody who gets a huge amount of joy from executing a strategy.

What does your actual writing process look like? Do you, you know, sit down at a desk for eight hours a day? Do you write in a coffee shop? Do you write in longhand? How do you do it?

A little bit of everything. I probably max out about two to three hours a day, because my job also requires me to…I mean, it’s an embarrassment of riches but I am really, really lucky to be at a point in my career where there are a lot of other demands on my job that are not actually word making. So, whether it’s, I’m about to set out on tour for almost three months straight, and so that obviously will change, and I will need to adapt and write in airports and write in hotel bars and in my room and things like that. I am somebody, though, who writes in twenty- to twenty-five-minute sprints because I have very short focus and it’s going many directions usually, and I try to do two to three hours of those twenty-minute sprints a day. And obviously, some days I exceed that and some days I don’t.

But I think it’s also really important to remember that there’s a difference between time spent creating and time spent typing. So, while I only sit down at my computer for two to three hours a day to write, I am creatively cogs turning all day, when I am at the gym, when I am walking my dog, when I am on a train or a plane, I am constantly turning over pieces of the story, so that when I sit down I can work. And sometimes I write by hand when I’m stuck. I don’t draft by hand, but I plot and I strategize and I create myself beat sheets for a scene by hand. I will do whatever I need to do to keep creative momentum. And some days when I’m travelling I don’t actually write any words but I spend time with the story so that I keep the creative door propped open in my head.

It sounds like you probably are a little different on every book in the way that it all comes together.

Absolutely. I will say that my process differs based on whether I’m writing a 45,000- word middle grade installment for my City of Ghostsseries or the adult novel that I’m working on right now, which is a book that has been in the process for almost a decade.

Once you have that draft, what does your revision process look like?

My revision process is really interestingly consistent considering I have three different editors at three different publishing houses. I think the more books I write the more I hate first drafts, because you become more and more aware of the things you’re doing wrong but you still have to do them wrong before you can do them right so that you have something to work with. I really do, it goes straight to my editor, first of all, like, I have a beta reader, she’s wonderful, and her job is essentially to keep me from quitting. And then I have very close relationships with all three of my editors. And so, I go…I turn in the first draft. Well, but also, I should sidebar or footnote and say that I do revise as I go. I don’t zero draft. So, when I say I turn in my first draft to my editor, I have been told, at least, that my quote-unquote first draft looks a lot more like perhaps a third draft because. By the time I’m turning it in I have outlined and strategized and plotted and kind of polished what I have as I’m going.

So, I turn that to my editors and then I usually do three to five rounds of revision, in kind of concentric circles. So, the first round of revision is very broad. It’s big picture. It’s plot and arc and pacing and worldbuilding. And then from there we move in kind of Russian-doll style to character and, again, pacing because by then I will have made some structural changes that need to be shored up and tightening of internal motivations. And of, you know, a lot of the emotional cogs. And then the third round, we start looking at the actual wording, tightening up any of the line edits, perhaps cutting one last scene in order to just to make sure that it’s functioning in its absolute strongest form. And from there it’s just last polish.

Are there any things that you find that you consistently end up doing getting in revision that for some reason you just didn’t notice in the first draft. We all have weaknesses that are caught by our editors.

Yeah, I do try. I do think that the more books I write the more I’m aware of those weaknesses. It doesn’t always stop me from making them, but I usually…I really have gotten better listening to the voice in my head that throws up a little warning light that something’s not working. And so even if I don’t know how to fix it I’ve gotten better at flagging it for my editor, as saying like, hey I know this moment isn’t achieving the right emotional piece or the right number of beats or whatever it is. That is probably the only thing that I feel like I’ve gained over the course of drafting. But the middle of the book and I always fight. The tension in the middle. I am quite confident in my last notes and in my first notes but there’s usually always something in the middle that I struggle with.

Using characters…and this question kind of goes back to the first draft…but how do you decide what characters you need and who are going to be your characters that carry the story forward. And do you do a lot of character planning?

No, I don’t, like do a sheet, I don’t, like, put them through their, like, psychological profiles and Meyers Briggs. My rule with characters is that they need to be fully realized enough that I could give them their own book, even if this is not their book, and they would be able to hold it up as the protagonist. And that is the rule that I hold for characters who are on-page for one scene. If you meet them in the course of my book, they should have enough depth, even if you never see it all, that they could have been the protagonist of a different story. And so, in the early stages of a book I don’t necessarily always know which characters are going to take up more space as the story goes on. A classic example of that is, there’s a character in the Shades of Magicseries who becomes kind of our, like, doorway to grey London, to our London, named Ned, Ned Tuttle, and Ned Tuttle is a human character with no magical powers who was only supposed to show up in one page of the first book. And…but because I try very hard to give characters enough potential, enough depth, he became somebody that my editor and my readers wanted to see more of as the books went on, and so he started to show up more and more.

And so that is the luxury of treating each of your characters as though they are a main character, simply not of this book. I make sure that for every one of my characters I can answer the questions, “What are they afraid of, what do they want, and what are they willing to do to get it?” Because I think understanding those core psychological tenants, those core kind of ethical and motivational tenants, are some of the most important for grasping a character, even if they aren’t going to be the central one of the narrative.

You had mentioned that briefly you had studied set design. Have you done any other…like, been an actress?

No. God, no.

The only reason I ask is because I am an actor.


The process that you talked about with characters, sounds very much like what actors do to try to bring characters to life, even if you have a walk on, you try to make them in some way memorable.

Well, that doesn’t surprise me. I mean, I do think that authors…I think one of the… I don’t want to call it a failing One of the frustrations I’ve had with some of the novels that I’ve read lately is, I think, in the interests of plot and pacing, sometimes authors are forsaking character a little bit and they have to remember that, if we don’t care about the people that the plot is happening to, we will not care about the plot when it is over. Like, you have to, if you think about it, if you’re writing a series, we come to the first book in a series for the plot because we don’t know the characters yet. Right? So, we have to be drawn to the first book in a series solely based on the concept and the plot. But we don’t come back to a series for the plot. We come back to the subsequent books for the characters.

Now this is going to be a little shorter than some of these, because I know that you’re very, very busy, so I’m going to come to the final couple of questions…

I have a nine-month-old puppy who keeps coming into the kitchen and looking at me like, “Hey!”

So, a couple of big philosophical questions here. You’ve talked a little bit about why you started, but why do you think anybody writes. Why do we tell stories, and particularly stories of the fantastic?

Oh, God, that’s such a big question. I’m not sure I have an answer to it. I mean, I can’t…this is the thing, I can’t speak to it a general…writing is such a personal process. I think many of us probably have slightly different motivations. I have friends who write because they’re good at it and they make money and I have friends who write because it is an exorcism of internal chaos and I probably fall somewhere in the middle. Like, I love my job. I see it as a job. But even if I weren’t being published, I would write, because it is the only way to make straight lines out of all of the tangles in my head.

Another way to ask is, why do you think readers read stories and are interested in what we right. And also, because this is the others the other question I would ask is, What do you hope your books give to readers. What do you hope they take it away from them?

I think sometimes it’s escapism and sometimes it’s mirror. Like, sometimes we want to be somebody else and sometimes we want to see ourselves. And so, I think that can depend, really, on the story. I think a goal for me when I write is to give them both, is just, show somebody who isn’t usually centered in the narrative, to give them space in the middle, to let them see themselves in that way, but also sometimes to let them escape their reality. I mean, I write fantasy because…and this is the dedication at the beginning A Darker Shade of Magic…but I grew up wanting the world to be stranger than it was. I grew up looking for cracks in stone walls that might be doorways and I may I still believe in magic and I still believe that there’s so much more to this world than we understand and it’s that potential for magic that makes me want my readers to doubt their reality. That’s my goal. I want you to pick up one of my books and ask yourself by the end, like, I mean, “Is that possible?”, because, for instance, I have a series called The Villainsseries. The first book is Viciousand the second book is Vengeful. And these books are built on a sci-fi concept, on the concept that superpowers can evolve from a specific kind of near-death experience, right? And, like, it’s an extrapolation of science, of the kind of the phenomenon that happen s when adrenal responses overload under immense stress. But I tried to write it with an eye toward utmost realism. And it’s funny to say I tried to write a supervillain novel with an eye towards realism, but every few months I will get an email from somebody, usually a guy, a like, grown man, who will say, “Hey, like, I read these books and, like, I just want you to, like, confirm this isn’t real, is it? Like, this phenomenon isn’t real.” And that entire interaction right there is my goal. That entire interaction, whether I’m writing fantasy or science fiction. I want readers to doubt, because when we’re when we’re young we doubt. When we’re young we believe so easily, and that’s something that we seem so loathe to hold onto or so unable to hold on to. And that’s what I love about fantasy, both as a reader and as a writer, is that it reintroduces doubt and possibility.

You talked about the crack in reality. I think it’s a great metaphor. That was Doctor Whowhen the crack opens up in the wall in Amy Pond’s room.


And we’re thinking, “That could happen. That could totally happen.”

We read to believe something can happen, if we are not sure about it, in our own world, or if we don’t think it’s possible in our own world, whether that’s a person, whether that’s magic, whether that’s simply a better, stronger, stranger, darker, freer version of ourselves

So, you are going on book tour. Perhaps we should at least mention that book.

What’s really interesting is I’m going on book tour in part for The Near Witch, which is the book that I mentioned at the very beginning, the very first novel. It went out of print…I mean, this is the thing. Writing is an art and publishing is a business. And when The Near Witchcame out in 2011 it was strange and quiet at a time when the things which were successful were very loud. And I had no readership yet, it was my debut novel, and it wasn’t particularly given the time that it needed to find its strange little morbid audience. And I have the immense fortune now, almost a decade later, that my readership has grown and is full of readers who like my strange, morbid, peculiar stories. And so, The Near Witchis finally being rereleased after five, six years not on shelves, and so I’m going on tour for that and for the graphic-novel release of my comic book series, which is set in the Shades of Magicworld, called The Steel Prince.

It’s interesting, because The Near Witch is going to seem like a brand-new book, then, to most people.

Some people have been, like, “Why did somebody put on the blurb that this is her debut novel, like, this is obviously her sixteenth or seventeenth book,” and I’m like, “Well, this is the weird paradox of it, isn’t it?” Like, it is a brand-new book and it has a novella with it that was never published. And it’s gonna be really interesting to see what the readers’ reception is to this book, for those who assume it is a new book

Now, for those who want to follow along and try and find out where you are and what you do doing, and all that stuff, how do they find you online?

Oh, I live inside the Internet, so it’s very, very simple. Probably the best places to find me are on Twitter and Instagram. On Instagram I post my tour schedules when they’re finalized, so it’s a good way to figure out where I’m going to be, a little bit more static than Twitter. But I’m @VESchwab on both of those platforms

When this airs, you’ll actually be well into the tour, this will probably be on in April sometime, I think. So, have a great tour.

Thank you.

Thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. It’s been a great pleasure talking to you.

Thank you so much for having me.