Episode 4: Julie Czerneda

An hour-long conversation with Julie Czerneda ( bestselling author of The Clan Chronicles books and many, many others) about her creative process, with a special focus on her upcoming fantasy The Gossamer Mage.

The Introduction:

Julie Czerneda was born in Exeter, Ontario, and grew up on air force bases, her family moving with each transfer, from Ontario to Prince Edward Island and finally to Nova Scotia. When her father became a civilian, the family moved to Ontario, settling in what was then a rural setting near the shores of Lake Ontario (and is now that not-so-rural setting known as Mississauga.

Julie studied biology at the Universities of Waterloo, Saskatchewan, and Queen’s, accompanied by her former chemistry partner (and now husband) Roger. They moved a few times before settling back in Ontario, where they still live.

Julie began her writing career in educational publishing, beginning when she was on maternity leave from a university teaching. She became a full-time author and editor of non-fiction educational materials, primarily in science, in 1985, contributing to more than 250 titles from elementary to college level. But she also had twenty-three unpublished and unfinished science fiction novels tucked away in file folders, and with encouragement from husband, she finished the one in file folder X, Beholder’s Eye, which was bought by DAW Books. That same year, Julie was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and DAW contracted for three more novels.

She’s been published by DAW ever since: eighteen novels, including the popular nine-book The Clan Chronicles series. She’s also written many short stories, edited anthologies, and taught writing. Her books have received international acclaim, multiple awards, and best-selling status.

Website: czerneda.com

Twitter:  @JulieCzerneda

Julie Czerneda’s Amazon page

The Show:

She says her parents conspired to make her a writer. Her father brought home the first two Tarzan books, but only gave her the first one, which “doesn’t end well.” She came running out of her room, yelling, she was so furious, and “instead of explaining to me what a cliff-hanger was, my Mom lent me her typewriter and said, ‘Fix it.’” Julie proceeded to write a page that satisfied her much more than the book, and never stopped. She wrote so much as a child her parents bought her a file cabinet to hold it all.

We discussed whether moving from place to place as a child of a military family influenced her writing; Julie said only in that, when they left the Air force and moved into a civilian neighbourhood, all the other kids had gone off to summer cottages. That left her alone and exited to have time to write.

She encountered new science fiction for the first time in her university bookstore. “To be able to buy them myself was liberating.”

Julie studied biology. She feels her interest in science and her interest in science fiction arise from the same place. “It seemed like a lot things I read as a kid were finite. They just ended, or they were real life, and while real life is marvellous, I’d rather talk to real people about it. So, when I discovered things that were showing me something beyond what was here, it was the same itch being scratched that takes me into science.” She said she went into science because she wanted to explore how the world works, and read science fiction because she wanted new, interesting ways of thinking about the world.

She originally wanted a joint degree in physics and biology, so she could be the first person to go into place equipped to communicate with aliens (a plan she wrote out in third grade). However, the University of Waterloo wasn’t set up for that, so her courses conflicted.

Much of her early fiction writing was really biological thought experiments. Asked if being a scientist makes it difficult for her to write fantasy, she notes a good fantasy novel, because it takes her out of herself, so she doesn’t worry about the real-world impossibility of it. She was herself hesitant about writing fantasy for a long time because she felt the language was so rich, and the landscapes so intense, she couldn’t see herself doing it.

However, after DAW began publishing her, she was asked to write a fantasy story for an anthology being edited by Martin H. Greenberg. “You don’t say no, so I wrote my first fantasy.”

Still, the prospect of writing a fantasy novel terrified her. She finally did (A Turn of Light), but she says it took her five years to work up the courage to start, and two years (and deleting 400,000 words) to figure out how to do it.

She notes her popular Esen character, who has an ability associated with magic in fantasy, didn’t begin as a shapeshifter—she was the result of a thought experiment, trying to figure out what would be necessary for a biological organism to be semi-immortal. The Esen books continue to be her “biological playground,” Julie says. “I have a very large filing cabinet full of weird biology and all of it goes into those books. Most of the weird stuff is real.”

Her upcoming fantasy, The Gossamer Mage, grew out of a fantasy novella Eric Flint asked her to write. She was inspired by a pen in the Lee Valley catalogue, which included words for parts of a pen she’d never heard before. She did some more research, and realized she wanted to write a magic system based on pen and ink. She clipped the image from the catalogue, and that, in turn, gave her the main character, because the story opens with the pen in his hand after many years of use. (She also researched the history of ink, “which is full of great drama and crime and all manner of skullduggery. It’s amazing!”)

Julie says her research differs from science fiction to fantasy and gives some examples.

Whereas when she’s writing science fiction, Julie says, she tends to know enough about the question she wants to ask to get going and what she additionally needs to research. (For example, for something she won’t be writing for a couple of years, she’s currently researching plate tectonics.)

For fantasy, her research focuses mostly on the worldbuilding, “because everything past the worldbuilding is me, making it up.”

She likes to physically visit places: in A Turn of Light there are a lot of log cabins, so she spent a lot of time in cabins. She also went to a running mill, so she could feel how the building shakes and moves.

The amount of outlining Julie does depends on the book. She did little for A Turn of Light, wanting to see where it went. For the next two Esen books, she’s made a note of their shape and the major plot threads. The Gossamer Mage is quite different: it’s a series of novellas, each of which moves the story forward, but which can be read separately or in a different order. She’s outlining those more tightly. Usually she doesn’t outline a book until she’s almost finished, so she can go back and make sure she’s covered every point—more to check herself than to plot to.

She doesn’t have much problem with continuity while writing series, she says, but she does have to work to keep the voices consistent.

She likes to put as much as she can into a story so she can draw on it latter—such as the giant lobsteresque alien from A Thousand Words for Stranger who has a pool in his suite in which he has “carnivorous non-verbal wives.” The implication is they’re non-sentient, but Julie never intended for them to stay that way, and they became major players in the final finale trilogy. “I never knew if I would do that. I just put it in, because the more you put into a story, the richer it reads.”

Julie notes her editor (and mine), Sheila E. Gilbert, told her a long time ago that she likes to have the sense the world she’s reading about continues off the page—places the main characters haven’t been, unexplored areas, things that don’t get mentioned but you know that they exist.

Julie gives a bit of a synopsis of The Gossamer Mage, with its magicians spending their life with every act of magic, sometimes just to create beautiful things. “It’s very much a case of, if you want to keep magic, what are you willing to do? And is there a value to just random beauty, or not?” She adds, “I myself don’t know how it will end.”

The two main characters are the magic user from the original novella, “Intended Words,” now the first novella in the book, who is trying to destroy the deathless goddess because he’s seen so many of his friends turn old and die for nothing, and one of the daughters who serves the goddess, who, in the second novella, “Consequential Phrases,” shows what things look like from her side.

Sometimes minor characters threaten to take over a book. Julie remembers that in her second book in The Clan Chronicles, Ties of Power, the character of Simon, someone from the past of the main character who made him who he was, started to get too important. She told Sheila Gilbert she either needed to kill him off or she needed another book, and Sheila told her to go ahead and write another book, in which he got his “satisfying comeuppance.”

Julie does very little rewriting, possibly because she did so much non-fiction writing. “I write the best I can first time around.” After a spell-check, she sends it. Sheila comes back with requests for elaboration in certain areas, she writes that, and she’s done.

Part of that is the confidence and experience of having done this full-time for twenty years. What’s important to her is to make sure she has been “generous enough to the reader” in terms of worldbuilding, scene, and description. She’s also come to realize that any book “can only be so good.”

“I could pick up any book off the shelf that I’ve written and I’m sure I’ll find things I’d like to fix, or have someone read it to me and think, oh, that’s awkward, but if I’ve told the story I want, and at the end of it the person feels the way I meant them to feel, I still love the book, and I’m fine with that.”

Sheila Gilbert, she says, is “the ultimate beta reader,” who brings her own enormous amount of experience to the book. “For me she’s the one who’s forever slapping me on the wrist in a very calm and thoughtful way when I’ve been lazy, when I’ve left something out, when I’ve tried to skip over some important revelation…I think she’s got a wonderful instinct for the emotional content, and she’s got a great instinct for crap.”

We talked a bit about the goofs we sometimes make as writers. Julie recounts how at one point she began to confuse aft and bow on ships and would have characters go from the aft to the stern—which, of course, are the same thing. No one picked that up for years—it’s in all The Clan Chronicles books. “Everyone had missed this, and we’re talking about twenty years of proofreading. Even readers have never called me on this.”

Julie says her fiction has an optimistic bent because she doesn’t like dark, grim fiction, nor does she believe in it. “I love a really good tragedy…what I don’t like is violence used as pornography and I don’t like the victim mentality…in my experience and the way I look at the word, most people muddle along. We’re not great heroes, but we’re not great villains, either.”

She also doesn’t write grim fiction because she doesn’t want to inhabit a world like that for the long period of time it takes to write a book. “I get too engrossed in the work, and I don’t want to be there. That’s not how I want to make my living.”

The difference between writing mainstream fiction and speculative fiction, Julie says, is that when you’re writing every day, slice-of-life stories, you’re relying on your reader already being an expert on that world, which allows you to use very broad brushstrokes for most of it, only focusing in on the places you choose as your settings.

Some of that happens even in science fiction: experienced SF readers already have a mental image of a spaceship, for example, so you don’t have to describe it in detail. “I’m not shaping the world so much as pointing my flashlight at a part of it where I want their attention, as if they’re all cats and I’ve got a little pointer.” Fantasy, Julie says, requires more detailed, specific description of many of the elements of the world.

Julie thinks science fiction and fantasy writers are partly driven by dissatisfaction: “You’re not getting what you want as a reader, so you’re going to write it yourself.”

But, she adds, “I also think there are so many questions we want to answer as human beings that science fiction lets us play with, and so many things we want to say that we care deeply about that fantasy gives us a platform to say. To me, those are both very powerful draws to writing science fiction and fantasy. And I think I will always write both for that reason.”

She doesn’t write with a message in mind, except, perhaps, for, “Take care of the planet, take care of yourselves, be nice to other people.”

Episode 3: John Scalzi

An hour-long talk with bestselling, award-winning science fiction author John Scalzi about how and why he writes, focusing on his latest novel, The Collapsing Empire.

The Introduction:

John Scalzi was born in California in 1969 and currently lives in Bradford, OH. He studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, which is where he began his freelance writing career. He wrote film reviews and was a newspaper columnist for a few years, and in 1996 was hired by AOL as its in-house writer and editor. He wrote his first novel, Agent to the Stars, in 1997 and published it free on his website in 1999. His first published novel, Old Man’s War, also appeared first on his blog (serialized a chapter a day) in 2002. Tor Books purchased it, publishing it commercially in 2005, and it went on to win the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Since then, John has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, the Locus, the Audie, the Seiun and the Kurd Lasswitz, plus the 2016 Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio. His work regularly appears on the New York Times bestseller list for fiction.

He also remains involved in the film and gaming worlds: he’s the creative consultant for the Stargate Universe television series, the writer for the video game Midnight Star, by Industrial Toys, and executive producer for Old Man’s War and The Collapsing Empire, both currently in development for television. He served as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America from 2010 to 2013. He’s married and has a daughter and “several pets.”

Website: scalzi.com

Twitter: @scalzi

John Scalzi’s Amazon page

The Show:

First, we establish that your genial host was literally the first person John met in science fiction and fantasy besides his editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden: we were on a panel together at the 2003 Toronto WorldCon on the topic (if we remember right) of other ways to make money writing besides writing fiction.

John traces his interest in science fiction back to childhood reading, specifically mentioning Robert A. Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky as one of the first SF books he remembers.

He notes that when, in his twenties, he decided to write a novel, “just to find out if I could,” he had to decide between two genres he was equally comfortable with, science fiction and mystery, and literally flipped a coin: heads SF, tails mystery. “It’s a weird sort of inflection point.” If it had come up tails, he wonders how different his life would have been, because “so many of the people that I know and like are in science fiction.”

He adds that SF is capacious enough you can write whatever you want, and he’s gone on to write a couple of what are essentially science-fiction mystery novels, Lock In and Head On.

John says he first realized he could do interesting things with words when, in sixth grade, a teacher asked him to write a letter to the news department of a local station because he wanted to get publicity for something he was doing and thought a letter from a student would get more attention than he would. He told John, “I want you to do this because you are good with words.”

In his ninth-grade English composition class, tasked to write a short story on the theme of gifts, he trashed what he’d first attempted and ended up, late on the last night, typing up a lightly fictionalized true-life story about his friends getting together: the gift they gave was their love for each other. (“Awww…”)

When that story, which he had slammed together at the last moment, was the only one in three sections of the class to get an A, he realized writing was something he could do well and relatively easily, whereas everything else–math, history, whatever–was difficult. And so, at the age of fourteen, he decided, “That’s it, I’m going to be a writer,” largely driven by the principle of least effort for maximum return. “The disappointing thing for me later was to find writing isn’t in fact easy, that you do in fact have to work at it, by then it was too late.”

He adds, “I have no other skills. The only other thing I would be good at would be Wal-Mart greeter.”

He kind of fell into his philosophy degree (he was undecided, but discovered he’d taken enough philosophy courses to graduate sooner than if he’d gone for, say an English degree), and agrees it doesn’t have a lot of real-world utility, but feels it has had value in his work. He says philosophy teaches you how to learn, and how to think more deeply about things, useful in writing science fiction.

He adds, “We like to call science fiction the literature of ideas, but I think really what it is is the literature of consequences. It’s not so much about the aliens arriving or robots coming, but the consequence of those arrivals that we write about in science fiction.”

Fun fact: Saul Bellow was briefly John’s thesis advisor.

John says coming up with ideas for novels aren’t the hard part; the hard part is distinguishing the good from the terrible. If he has an idea, he doesn’t write it down. If he remembers it the next day he thinks about it some more. If he remembers it in a month, even more. “It’s a vicious process because I’m absent-minded and forget a lot of things. For something to stay in my brain, it has to interest me.”

What interested him and led to The Collapsing Empire was the importance of ocean currents and the jets stream to European colonialism between 1400-1800. If those currents had altered, making it far more difficult or important for Europeans to sail to other continents, he wondered, “What would have happened to European colonialism, and consequently the rest of thew world?”

He gives a synopsis of The Collapsing Empire, which is about an interdependent network of worlds that rely on a natural phenomenon called the Flow, which permits interstellar travel. The Interdependency (as it’s called) finds itself in serious trouble as the Flow begins to collapse, cutting worlds off from the rest of humanity.  “When humans are confronted with natural things that actually don’t care about human’s plans one way or the other, how do they dal with that?” He notes that has parallels in both the past and the present.

John begins building characters from archetypes. He knew he needed someone at the very top (the emperox, Cardenia), someone at eye-level (the scientist, Marce, a.k.a. “exposition guy”), and a “wild card” (Kiva). Once he knew he needed those types of characters, then he began to develop their personalities.

“I’m a huge fan of all the characters, which is nice because I had to write them.”

He notes writing Kiva in particular was “a heck of a lot of fun,” although you have to be careful or characters like that can take over the book. “Characters like Kiva are the spice, rather than necessarily the main dish.”

I noted that his approach to developing characters seemed filmic–starting with archetypes, working down–and asked if his long interest in and observation of film ties into the way he plots and writes.

John said, “Absolutely.” He notes Old Man’s War very clearly has a three-act cinematic structure, because that was a storytelling grammar he was used to not only from watching films but from analyzing them during more than a decade of writing film criticism. “In many ways my storytelling school was not really novels, it was film.” He also notes that his novels are “dialogue-heavy,” something else that comes from film.

He doesn’t anticipate writing any of the scripts for the Old Man’s War and The Collapsing Empire TV adaptations, since he doesn’t have any concrete experience in the field. However, he notes his experience as a reviewer, and hence familiarity with other screen adaptations, has made it easier for him to talk to producer–unlike some authors, he understands that the filmic version of a story and the novel version are very different, and changes have to be made to make the former work as well as the latter.

Adaptations shouldn’t be slavish, he says, but should be “intelligent,” leveraging “the strengths of the film medium to tell the story in a way that lives in that particular medium.”

He has written a screenplay adaptation of his novella The Dispatcher as an exercise and has received positive feedback on it, and does hope o write a script or screenplay in the future.

There is a brief aside about the alien lifeforms making mewing noises in the background.

Asked if he rewrites, John says, no, not in the sense of finishing a draft and then rewriting it from the beginning: he does “rolling rewrites,” so when he gets to the end, he’s done.

Two reasons:  as a former journalist, “where you have write a couple of thousand words every few days and it’s all due at 3 p.m. and you have to write clean copy,” he learned to organize his thoughts as he wrote.

As well, he says, he thinks the revision process is dictated by the instruments people use. Those who write, or first wrote, by hand or typewriter,  tend to do drafts. He’s only ever written on a computer, hence the rolling (or “fractal”) drafts. “By the time I get to the end, so much of what would have been first drafts or second drafts has already been subsumed in the writing process.”

He does a lot of research, but the Internet makes that “super easy.” He adds, however, that, “You have to be intelligent about it.”

Asked to comment on the concept of “worldshaping,” versus “worldbuilding,” he says that when writers create worlds what they are really doing is taking what they already know, introducing new highly speculative (and hopefully interesting elements), and then mashing them together to find out what comes out the other end. , mashing them together, finding out what comes out the other end.

” I would say I think both terms are equally applicable. I think the issue here might be degree than kind.”

He notes that, not only is it very difficult to create a completely new world, it would be a very hard book to sell, because there would be no hook there for the reader…and that’s important, because science fiction and fantasy writers are working “more or less in service to a commercial genre.” Writers have to think not only about what they want, but what editors and readers want.

“There’a reason why McDonald’s is hugely popular and molecular gastronomy is basically a niche project,” he says. “The number of people who want a hamburger is larger than those who want to question the nature of the food on their plate, and whether it is food or not.”

He points out that Old Man’s War is “Starship Troopers with old people,” a Heinlein juvenile with senior citizens. That was intentional, he says. He wanted to write a book that would sell, so he looked at what was popular at the time, which was military science fiction. So he decided, “I’m going to write a military science fiction book on my terms. I’m going to give people what they want, and then I’m going to give myself what I want, and then we’re going to see what works out.

Asked why he writes–or anyone writes–he says that self-expression is obviously the desire for all writers, but after that “things get varied very quickly.”

” I never once wrote in a journal,” John says, even though people gave him journals as he was growing up, thinking he was the kind of kid who would keep one. But, he says,  “I already knew what I was thinking. I didn’t need to write it down.”

Instead, he says, he only started writing when he had an audience. “For me, writing has always been an extroverted act, not just for myself, but primarily for other people to read.” The gratification it provides comes from the ability to make people feel things through the power of words: to persuade, and argue.

John says a lot of people start writing because they love the act itself, but for him, that’s a small component. He notes that he plays guitar just because he enjoys it, and takes photos for the same reason. But, he says, “Writing for me has always been about making a connection with other people, and not just making a connection…but influencing them in a particular way, making them laugh, making them cry, making them get angry when I feel angry.”

He says his writing has had an impact on the real world. Some things in his stories–like the enhanced artificial blood in Old Man’s War–has piqued the interest of real-life scientists. SF offers something few other genres do, he notes, in that people sometimes read about something in SF and think, “This is cool, I want this in the universe,”–and then they go out and build it.

His biggest impact has been through a couple of non-fiction pieces, he says. His essay “Being Poor,” written in response to people wondering why those affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans didn’t just pack up and leave, “went everywhere.” It appeared in newspapers, it’s been put in textbooks, and it’s taught in classes. “That’s an example fo something I’ve seen go far and wide and have influence on the discussion.”

Another was an essay comparing life to a videogame, and arguing that in that metaphorical videogame, straight white men play at the “lowest difficulty setting.” It doesn’t mean they can’t still lose, it doesn’t mean the game is hard, but it isn’t as hard for them as for some others. He says that piece was an attempt “to explain privilege to people who hate the world privilege.”

He says that piece has also gone everywhere, and he hears people using that metaphor whom he’s quite certain have no idea that it originated with him. “it’s come into the common parlance when discussing privilege and intersectionality.”

John says it’s harder to say if anything he’s doing in SF will have any significant influence. “I don’t think you get to figure it out until you’ve been doing it for twenty or thirty years.” And, he adds, “If you’re sitting there saying, what abut my legacy, you won’t be focusing on what you’re doing now, which is writing stuff that is interesting and entertaining and makes people think today…you sit there and write the best work you can. If it gets remembered, that’s great, if it doesn’t, that’s fine, because right in the moment you are doing what you’re supposed to do, which is make people laugh, or cry, or think, or be entertained, and that in and of itself is a laudable goal.”

Episode 2: Tanya Huff

The second episode of The Worldshapers features the talented and popular author Tanya Huff, with a special focus on her Aurora-Award-winning novel The Silvered.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tanya.huff.5

Twitter: @TanyaHuff

Tanya Huff’s Amazon page

The Introduction:

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Tanya grew up in Kingston, Ontario, and made her first professional writing sale to The Picton Gazette when she was ten. They paid her a dollar for every year of her life, for two poems.

Tanya joined the Canadian Naval Reserve in 1975 as a cook, serving for four years, then attended Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto, obtaining a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Radio and Television Arts alongside Robert J. Sawyer—my very first guest on this podcast.

In the early 1980s she worked at a game store in downtown Toronto, and from 1984 to 1992 she worked at the science fiction bookstore Bakka. All the time she was writing—seven novels and nine short stories, many of which were subsequently published. Here second professional sale was to to George Scithers, then editing Amazing Stories, in 1985: “Third Time Lucky”.Presumably he paid her more than a dollar per year of life.

In 1992 she moved from downtown Toronto to rural Ontario, where she continues to lie with her wife, Fiona Patton, also a fantasy writer, along with many pets.

Her diverse array of fantasies range from the highly popular “Blood” books, which mix vampires, fantasy ,and romance and were the basis of the TV series Blood Ties, to the Torin Kerr military SF novels, and the humorous fantasies of The Keeper Chronicles. Her publisher is DAW Books, and in the US alone, according to her agent, more than 1,200,000 copies of her work are in print.

The Show:

Although we’ll be discussing her book The Silvered, we actually start with a discussion of her (and my) interest in theatre.

Then we move on to a discussion of her early writing. Although her first published poems were “ten-year-old angst,” she says she was interested in fantasy from the beginning of her reading career.

The first two books she remembers checking out of the library were Greek Gods and Goddesses, “which was almost as big as I was,” and The Water-Babies, “a weird Victorian choice” about a boy who runs away to join the water sprites that live in the pond at the bottom of the garden. “Cleanliness is next to fantasy, apparently.” It also featured a heavy dose of morality.

Even earlier than the 10-year-old-angst poems, Tanya (at age three) dictated a letter to her grandmother to send to her father, then at sea in the Navy, featuring a story about a spider who lived in the garden. Tanya also did the illustration, without notable success: the spider looked more like a pom-pom, eight legs apparently being too challenging for her three-year-old hand.

One summer when her cousin had an operation for scoliosis and spent weeks in a cast, she told her stories to help her pass the time. As well, Tanya says, “At recess, I was always the one who directed the games.”

She says she stumbled over science fiction by accident. She had run out of things to read in the children’s section of her local library (the upstairs) and was deemed too young to be sent into the adult section (downstairs). But when she started in the As and began reading everything in order, they decided maybe she could go downstairs. There she discovered little yellow stickers with rocket ships on them, the marker for science fiction novels. “I picked up everything with a rocket ship on it,” she says.

Her Grade 7/8 school library had all of the Robert A. Heinlein “juveniles,” plus the books for young people by Andre Norton and Isaac Asimov. “I just ploughed through all of those.” The first Andre Norton book she read was Year of the Unicorn, and it made such an impression that a few years ago she bought a first-edition copy of it.

Tanya says the first complete fiction she wrote was when she met a girl in Grade 9 who was writing pastiches of Zenna Henderson. “It was the first time it occurred to me that people wrote books. (I have no idea where I thought they came from before that.) I thought, well, if people write books, I’m a people, I can write books.” So in short order she wrote a western, a spy novel, a science fiction novel called Light Years, and  a book called: Richard the Lionhearted Was an Overmuscled Thug, or the Facts Behind Robin’s Merry Men. She says she also illustrated them, albeit with little more success than she had illustrating the spider story when she was three. Illustrated them.

Her friend Karen and she created the Insult Your Intelligence Book Club. They wrote the books on paper with carbon paper underneath it, to create two copies.

Despite her interest in writing, it didn’t occur to her it could be a career. Tanya notes she comes from a working-class family: she was the first person in her family to graduate from high school and the only person who had ever gone to university.  “Writing books was not something one saw as a career,” she says, and notes her grandmother was much more thrilled the summer she got a job as a Teamster, a good strong union.

After her four years in the military, she went to Los Angeles to become a TV writer, but, she says, she was “too Canadian”: when she ran out of money (in about four months) she packed up her typewriter and came home instead of getting an illegal job, even though she had an in with the company producing the TV series Operation Petticoat. “If I had had half a brain I’d be running the CW right now.”

Instead she decided to go to Ryerson, because she’d discovered “there’s a hell of a lot of money in television programming, and I wanted some of it.”

At Ryerson she had three years of scriptwriting. She notes she’s always been a visual writer, so she had less trouble writing scripts than some text-based writers. “Rob Sawyer and I did our third-year project together. In retrospect, it might have been better if instead of two writers we had pulled one of the tech guys in.” She also had a creative writing class with Rob, although she was writing science fiction and “the teacher absolutely did not get it. I had to explain everything to her.”

She actually started writing Child of the Grove in her TV tech class, “which could possibly explain my mark in my TV tech class,” but she started writing seriously at novel length “with intent to be published” while working part-time at Bakka books: the part-time job gave her time to write. Her first short story sale came at about the same time DAW Books was looking at Child of the Grove; editor Sheila E. Gilbert asked if she had anything published previously, and she was able to say she’d just gotten a letter from George Scithers.

She’s been at DAW her entire career, and sees no reason to leave. “They’re wonderful people. I’ve always said if Sheila retires, I retire, too.”

The Silvered was pitched as “the Napoleonic Werewolf Book.” It deals with the transition point between the manners and mores of Regency England and the Victorian era, with its greater emphasis on technology. “Werewolf culture is essentially Regency England, the opposing culture is essentially Napoleonic.”

But ultimately, “like all of my books, it’s a story not so much about, ‘Who am I?’, but ‘Who do I decide to be?'”

Tanya says the The Silvered “was one of those books you have kicking around in your head for a long time,” one with a “long gestational period,” and partlly arose from the fact that she loves Georgette Heyer, like many fantasy writers do, “probably because she pretty much wrote a fantasy version of the Regency,”

It wasn’t a book with “one big solid idea” that can be encapsulated in an elevator pitch, but more a lot of little things building up over the years. Tanya says in a lot of her books (like the Blood Books) each book deals with one idea thread. In The Silvered, she was dealing with many little things, and not just one big heavy thing–but she figures she did it well because “it’s the only book of mine that’s ever won an award” (the Aurora Award for Best Novel).

When she writes, Tanya says, she knows where she’s going but she doesn’t always know how she’s going to get there. “I have the beginning, and then the end, then I travel my characters through it. I try to look at characters to build them up like you would meeting a person for the first time. You observe what they are like, over the course of the book.”

She notes that for The Silvered she put the characters into groups. There was the redemption character, the young hero, the old hero, the young heroine, the old heroine. The complexity of the multiple characters and situations mean she created more story structure than she usually does: she says she’s usually much more of a “pantser” than she was with this book.

While she can outline if she has to (she did a work-for-hire book in the Ravenloft series for TSR that had to be very strictly outlined), one of the advantages of having done 32 books with one editor is that she doesn’t have to outline anymore to sell a book.

For The Silvered she spent a full month doing nothing but research notes, handwriting them, because she finds when she handwrites things, they stay in their head, whereas if she types them, “it’s just typing.” Since she knew where the story was located, she had pages of notes on the geography, botany, climate, and more. While writing, she sometimes looks for specific things like how long it takes a person to walk twenty-five miles, although she notes you have to beware the “Wikipedia rabbit hole,” where “suddenly you find yourself researching cornbread in Central America.”

She had to spend a lot of time thinking about werewolf society, things like clothing (which has to be easy to get out of), the lack of a nudity taboo or body modesty, the fact furniture is chewed up (“because, puppies”), and more.

Tanya says she’s very much a “one thing at a time” writer: if she’s doing a short story she has to stop working on her latest novel, because otherwise “they would both sound exactly the same.”

Speaking of voice, for The Silvered she pulled out all of the sections from each POV character so she could keep their voices consistant.

Humour is always a part of Tanya’s book, although she notes that the Keeper Chronicles, which are meant to be funny, were the hardest thing to write.

We spent some time talking about an apparently minor incident involving a rabbit, which proves in fact to be major foreshadowing of something much more significant later on. Tanya said as soon as she got to the rabbit she realized how what happened to it could resolve the greater issue later on. (Those who have read the book will understand these vague references.)

Tanya says her first draft is probably 80 to 85 percent of what is actually published, then she layers it up from there. She compares this to contractors, who build a house layer by layer. There are other writers, she notes, who are more masons building a wall: pull out one brick at the bottom and the whole thing collapses.

For Tanys, Sheila Gilbert’s feedback is usually to add more detail. She thinks this may relate to the fact that her actual writing training is in television, where details are put in “by the other 75 people who work on the property.” She says she’s worked so long with Sheila she can hear her voice in her head when she’s writing.

Tanya claims to be terrible with titles: The Silvered took a two-hour discussion with Sheila to settle on.

If she ever stops writing fantasy and science fiction (maybe because Sheila has retired) she has an idea for a series of cozy mysteries set more or less in rural Ontario, where she lives. The first book would be called Strawberry Fields. She’d also like to do “a lesbian Regency romance,” which she figures has bounced around in her head long enough she could probably write right now.

Why write science fiction and fantasy? “The cynical version is it’s the main income coming into the house and I’d like to make a living… the other answer is because you write what you love.”

She says SF and fantasy allow writers to look at the “heart topics.” In Touch Magic Jane Yolen has a list of these: things like sacrifice, duty, honour, love. She notes it’s not odd that those are at the heart of so much SF and fantasy, because when you put people in extreme conditions, it exposes what’s at their core. “Any genre is just telling stories about people to other people. It’s how you do it that is the difference.”

Tanya feels her work has touched a lot of readers. She notes that she hasn’t been at a convention in the past twenty years without someone, usually a young woman, coming up to her in tears, saying things like they had read the Quarter books in high school, and it was the first time they had seen themselves in fiction, the first time they had seen a bisexual character.

The chairman of WindyCon in 2016 told her that her Keeper books got him through his Master’s degree program when he was “falling apart in every other way,” she adds.

“That kind of  response is better than an award. (Which is not to say I wouldn’t take  a Hugo if someone offered it to me.)…I get so much emotional response back from people who have read my books that I feel very nourished by my readers.”

 

Episode 1: Robert J. Sawyer

Welcome to the very first episode of The Worldshapers: Conversations with science fiction and fantasy authors about the creative process. After a brief discussion of why this podcast exists, and who your genial host is (that would be Edward Willett), we plunge into the meat of the episode: a conversation with Robert J. Sawyer.

Website: www.sfwriter.com

Twitter: @RobertJSawyer

Robert J. Sawyer’s Amazon page

The Introduction:

Robert James Sawyer is a Canadian science fiction writer, born in Ottawa and now living in Mississauga. He’s the author of twenty-three novels and innumerable short stories (well, not literally, obviously they’re numerable, but it’s a large number), and is the most-awarded science fiction writer of all time, said awards including the Hugo, the Nebula, and the John W. Campbell awards: he’s the only Canadian author to have won all three. His books regularly appear on the major bestsellers’ lists in Canada, and have been translated into numerable (as opposed to innumerable) languages. Rob is a graduate of Ryerson University (where one of his classmates was Tanya Huff, guest on Episode 2 of The Worldshapers) which presented him with its Alumni Award of Distinction in 2002, and in 2007 received an honorary doctorate from Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario. In 2016 he was named to the Order of Canada, the highest civilian honour bestowed by the Canadian government.

He’s also a popular keynote speaker for conferences of all kinds, and an excellent writing teacher, as I have reason to know, since I twice attended week-long Writing With Style writing classes taught by Rob at the Banff Centre, out of the second of which came my own Aurora Award-winning novel, Marseguro.

 

The Show:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since we’ll be discussing The Neanderthal Parallax trilogy in detail, we start with a discussion of “Neanderthal, or Neandertal?”

Quote:  “Fads come and go. That was a meme of the early 21st century.”

We move on to a discussion of Rob’s impetus for writing science fiction:

“I’m the first generation fo science fiction writers who came into the field through media as opposed through the pulps…I was hooked by Gerry Anderson’s Supermarionation series.” Rob goes on to note the first Star Trek episode he saw, “The Devil in the Dark,” at age six, hooked him on theshow, to this day his favourite science fiction media series. As well, he points out, in the 1960s and early 1970s, there was an actual space race!

He recalls going to see 2001: A Space Odyssey with his father, and reflecting that all the visions of the future he was seeing would come true by the time he was the age his father was then.

His first piece of fiction: Lost in Space fan fiction when he was ten years old. A couple of years later he read Trouble on Titan by Alan E. Nourse, who wrote in his intro about the joys of being a science fiction writer and said “you could do this too.” Rob notes that he never met Nourse, but in a very real sense he owes his career to him.

We go on to discuss Rob’s writing process. “I write science fiction to fund my research hobby,” he says. Since he sold the Neanderthal Parallax as a trilogy, he was able to spend an entire year researching it.

“Being a writer is like being a grad student who gets to change his thesis topic and even his field of endeavour as often as he or she wishes,” Rob says.

He talks about how the trilogy began with a conversation with Tom Doherty at Tor Books about writing licensed properties. Rob was interested in classic Planet of the Apes; the property that was finally offered to him by Tor was Earth: Final Conflict; he decided that wasn’t a good fit but wanted to do something that would let him do everything Planet of the Apes did for him: social commentary on the human condition from a slightly skewed angle, i.e., a parallax.

Research included lots of reading and attending scientific meetings to talk to every major expert on Neanderthals, asking, “If they hadn’t died out, what would they be like?”

He came up with three pillars of such a society, all based on solid scientific research: no religion, males and females led largely separate lives, and Neanderthals were so much stronger than homo sapiens that any physical altercation could prove fatal: any Neanderthal could kill another with his or her bare hands. “I wanted to explore the interpersonal relations, the society that would grow out of having to eschew violence.”

The alibi archive, based on implanted devices that record every bit of a person’s life, was an extrapolation of that. If everyone is strong enough to kill anyone, then how do you ensure a peaceful society?

Experts’ reaction? “Lovely.” Rob notes that the first book is taught at Johns Hopkins in an anthropology course.

In an aside, Rob notes that he told Eastman Kodak twenty years ago that they could save their business by developing life logging, based on the idea that you don’t recognize “Kodak moments” until it’s too late. It’s definitely coming, but Kodak didn’t do it, any more than IBM developed tablet technology–even though it appeared, with their name on it, in 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Rob says, “Almost never does an old company transfer to a new technology. ”

Rob says story development for him is very much top-down, staring with the big idea that in an alternate world, Neanderthals survive to the present day and we don’t–and a portal opens between the two. “I wanted to do social commentary,” he says, and soon realized he was writing about masculinity. To those who complain the books are anti-male, he points out that that’s specified in the opening quote, from Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson’s Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human ViolenceRob’s thesis: we don’t have to be this way. What would it be like if manhood wasn’t measured by how mean, nasty, and selfish you were?

Another influential source: a book that made the case there must have been some natural selection toward sexual violence: A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, by biologist Randy Thornhill and anthropologist Craig T. Palmer.

This led to his main characters: a woman, his main female character, recovering from a rape, and a male universe that had eschewed all masculine violence. “I wanted to write about that kind of sexual politics, and the politics of masculinity, how we could be better men.”

Ponter Boddit, his main Neanderthal character, is his platonic ideal: caring, compassionate, empathetic, non-competitive, and yet clearly male through and through.

The result is what some call “The most unusual romance story you’re ever going to read.”

Plotting: the alibi archive is a kind of “miracle technology,” so how could it fail? Deep underground…like in the Sudbury Neutrino Observatory, which in Ponter’s world is a quantum computing research facility. A portal opens, Ponter comes through, and almost drowns in the heavy water tank.

Rob’s process of plotting was summarized by Theodore Sturgeon: “Ask the next question.”

Rob does a lot of plotting on the fly. “I’m a big advocate of detailed outlining, but I’m not not a big practicer of what I preach.”

Rob notes he has never belonged to a writer’s group, which he calls an unintended outgrowth of cheap laser printing.  “Most truly successful SF & fantasy writers over the last twenty-five years…when writers’ groups became common…never have and never would contemplate belonging to one.”

He contrasts a typical writers’ group with the writers’ room of a television series, like Flash Forward, based on his book of the same name, where there is a constant back and forth, question and answer–a constant interrogation. In a good writer’s room, “the best idea wins.”

Rob’s a huge believer in rewriting–he calls his first pass, in a phrase he thinks he got from Edo van Belkom, “the vomit pass,” adding, “it’s an unpleasant process getting it out but you actually do feel better.” He does many drafts, but when he hands it in to his editor, his goal is to have it to the point where the editor has a single word of response: “Great.” He adds that most of his books have been published with no editorial changes whatsoever.

The exception was when he was working with the late David Hartwell at Tor, whom he says in a number of cases “materially harmed” his novels. “I’m not averse to editors but David, I do believe,felt to some degree he was co-author of the piece.” You can read more about this in his latest column for Galaxy’s Edge.

Rob hopes his books will have an influence on society, but it’s difficult to quantify. “This is the observer effect in quantum mechanics. You cannot observe a situation without changing a situation.” He points out that 1984 was not like the 1984 in George Orwell’s book of the same name, but that doesn’t mean he was a failure: it was thanks to his book it took us all the way to 2018 to end up in a a 1984 situation. “George Orwell predicted in essence state-run propaganda news agencies; he did not predict people would tune into them willingly.” The book still informs our understanding of totalitarianism.

Similarly, Margaret Atwood hoped to derail further inroads into women’s reproductive rights when she wrote The Handmaid’s Tale, although they remain under threat. Rob says he sometimes think SF only manages to, at best, forestall bad situations for a few decades.

In his own work, Rob is proud of having had two novels in the trilogy nominated for the Gaylactic Spectrum Awards at the dawn of the millennium, and of the ethnic diversity he portrayed in his work that exactly mirrors what he sees when he looks around Toronto today. “I do feel I’ve been a small part of a movement, a literary and social movement that has helped shape our reality.”

Rob thinks the concept of worldbuilding is the most arrogant notion in the field, whether you’re a theist or atheist. He says the task of making a world seem believable in science fiction is more like theatre set decoration:  “What two, three, four, five pieces of setting and prop can I put on the stage that will suggest a real world?”

He agrees that the worlds of “literary” fiction are just as much make-believe as those of science fiction. Mystery fiction would have you believe most crimes are solved; romantic fiction would have you believe true love triumphs. In fact, most crimes remain unsolved and half of all marriages end in divorce. “There is no correlation between what we take as the cornerstones of our so-called mimetic mainstream fiction and reality.” A lot of literary fiction takes place in  “A world in which the self-indulgent minutiae of our day-to-day lives is important.”

To wrap up: Rob’s next book is an alternate history of the Manhattan Project, The Oppenheimer Alternative. “For the first time in history, science and policy intertwined, world events turned on scientists. Many came to have regrets on both sides. My big theme is the moral obligations of scientists ot the new world their inventions create.”