Episode 17: David John Butler

An hour-long conversation with David John Butler, author (as D. J. Butler) of the Witchy Eye epic fantasy trilogy for Baen Books, set in an alternate version of early 19th-century America, and as Dave Butler of the middle-grade adventure series The Extraordinary Adventures of Clockwork Charlie, published by Knopf.

Website:
www.davidjohnbutler.com

Twitter:
@DavidJohnButler

Facebook:
David.Butler.16

David’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

David John Butler

David John Butler is a novelist living in the Rocky Mountain West. He trained in law and worked as a securities lawyer at a major international firm and in-house at two multinational semiconductor manufacturers before setting up in solo practice. He’s also a consultant and corporate trainer. He teaches business acumen to employees of world-class companies.

Dave is a lover of language and languages, a guitarist and self-recorder, a serious reader, is married to a “powerful and clever woman,” Emily Butler, who is also a novelist, and has three “devious” children. He’s been writing speculative fiction since 2010, ranging from fantasy to science fiction to horror, and writes for young readers as well as for adults. He’s published by Knopf, Word Fire, and Baen, and he’s also the acquisitions editor at Word Fire Press.

The Lightly Edited Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Dave.

Ed, thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.

We encountered each other at DragonCon. You were signing–it was actually my first DragonCon, by the way, a little overwhelming–you were signing at Bard’s Tower,which is a sort of a travelling bookstore that shows up at conventions, and speaking of towers, I was shocked by how tall you were.

Oh, yeah, I was once six foot eight. I haven’t measured myself in a long time. You know as a a kid you stand up against the the door frame and get a little pencil mark every year and a half or so. But as an adult you don’t need to. I’m pretty sure I’m shrinking now. I suspect I’m probably six-seven at this point. But, I’m still quite tall.

Well, I’m six-two, which, you know, normally is pretty tall around most people, so it’s always a surprise to me when I meet somebody that’s as tall as you are.

Yeah.

You’re also my third David on the podcast, which is interesting. David B. Coe was the first one, and David Weber, and now you, so…

Well, third time’s the charm.

Well, I’m wondering if I can find an author named Goliath just to get a little balance here.

It’s funny that you mentioned those guys. The editor at Baen, David Afsharirad, is putting together an anthology–and I have forgotten the title of it–in which every single short story is written by someone named David.

I should change my name.

That is a way to get in!

Well, a little later on we’re going to focus primarily on your trilogy, which began with Witchy Eye and follows up with Witchy Winter, which should be coming out in paperback about the time that this podcast goes live, but I’d like to start by–and I always say this-going back into the mists of time. How did you first begin writing? How did you become interested in writing, and also how did you become interested in writing specifically in the fantastical realm?

Yeah. It’s actually the same answer. I was seven years old and my dad, who was a professor, had been at an academic conference and he came home and he gave everybody…he had a gift for every kid, and the gift he had for me was the 25th Anniversary Silver Jubilee edition of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit paperback with the Darrell K. Sweet covers, red, blue, green, and yellow, and I laid down in bed and I didn’t come out until I had read the books, took about a week. I almost burned the house down. I had a little bedside lamp, you know, and I fell asleep with the lamp on and the lamp had just kind of nodded down and laid against the pillow. And when I woke up it burned a circular hole next to my head. Oh yeah. So so much longer that would have been really tragic.

We’re lucky we’re having this conversation, then.

We are. In an alternate universe, you know, the world never got to know the many gifts of Dave Butler because he died at the age of seven. But, yeah, so that was it. So, I was I was convinced from the age of seven that I wanted to be like Tolkien. I read and reread that, I looked for…I think many people did look for a way to recapture the experience of first reading Tolkien. I think a lot of fantasy writers of a certain era got their start basically profoundly imitating Tolkien. By the way, I think that is in some ways a fair characterisation of me, although hopefully I have more self-awareness than people who were writing in the ’70s did about the activity. And as a reader I was looking to recapture that experience. And so, from the time I have thought of myself as a big reader I have thought of myself as a reader of fantasy.

What were some of the other novels that you picked up on? I mean, seven is pretty early to read Lord of the Rings, so what else did you find after that?

It is. Well, you know, there was a limited amount. Really, the the young-adult sections and the middle-grade sections of the bookstore have exploded since that time. There was simply less of it. But there was some, you know, stuff written for younger readers, like The Moomintrolls, or I remember, you know, Pippi Longstocking with fondness. But really I was reading on the science fiction side, you know, Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven, and some of the sort of classic science fiction writers. Edgar Rice Burroughs: I loved the John Carter books more than Tarzan, but I read them all, as well as the the the Venusian series, the Venus books. I did read, over and over again, Terry Brooks, at least the first trilogy. I read..I mean. you know, seven is young for Tolkien, but it was about two years later that I was reading Stephen R. Donaldson. And I think…I don’t know, candidly, if my parents were sort of benignly neglectful and just said, “We’ll let Dave read stuff,” or if they just weren’t aware because they had too many kids. I mean there were like six of us, so you can’t really police six people’s reading. I remember going at the age of 11, walking to the library and checking out the the Gor books, which are really not for children, but no librarians ever bated an eye, they’d just check them out and send me home.

My story there is, our library had two sides, there was the adult side and the children’s side, and the librarian actually did tell my mother that, “You know, your son is checking books out of the adult side of the library.” I was about 11. And my mom said, “Oh, it’s okay, he only reads science fiction,” which made me think that Mom probably didn’t know what was in some of the books I was reading. I was reading the Gor books along about then, too.

Right, having my young mind kind of blown by that and others. So, pretty widely. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books, Andre Norton, Katharine Kurtz–loved Katharine Kurt’s Deryni books. The Earthsea stuff, Ursula Le Guin, and others. Yeah, widely.

So, you’re reading widely, but when did you actually start attempting to write?

The first teacher I ever had who told me that I should think about being a creative writer was when I was briefly…the beginning of eighth grade, the first seven weeks or so, I was in a middle school in New Jersey, and I I was in a creative writing class, and the teacher said, “You know, I think you have a gift for writing,” which…no one had ever said this before. I’d never really tried to write, except…what I would write as a kid was. you know, the inside of the book was way too big to write, so I would imagine these stories and I would write the outside of the book, the hundred-word blurb on the back, you know, the three-sentence excerpt from the inside front page, front cover. So I hadn’t really written anything. I don’t think that I wrote a coherent short story until I was in eighth grade. Then I was in creative writing classes on and off in the rest of junior high and high school, and then I stopped. And in college I didn’t go that way. I was not an English major. I majored in Near Eastern Studies. Frankly, it was sort of a fast way to get through. And I went to law school. I chickened out. I took the deal. I took the world’s deal and said, “OK, I will go have a job. I will put on a necktie and I will do the necktie thing and be one of the necktie people.”

When you were writing, in school, before you hit college, were you sharing your writing, you know finding out that people liked to read your stories?

In a limited way. You know, the creative writing classes I was in would have publications, and so I published things, and I published a few things for the same reason in college. I wrote a 14-line sonnet, formal sonnet, in Italian about a dog getting hit by a car, which I got published in the little creative writing paper, whatever it was. But really, not very much. The biggest creative outlet I had for shared creative storytelling was actually tabletop roleplaying, and I did an awful lot of that from about the age of 13. And at 13 I had no money, so I was just kind of making rules up, and then I got in high school and had little money so could buy books. So, right through to the end of college, at 23, I played a lot of role playing and then gave that up for about 20 years.

I’d like to say…well, I don’t know that I’d like to say, but it’s quite true…that although I majored in journalism at university, theoretically, with a minor in art, I really majored in Dungeons and Dragons and everything else I kind of fit in around that.

Look, I think that a lot of the interests that I have in life may may have been influenced by the roleplaying I did or, in the alternative, you may say they they manifested in the role playing I did. My interest in history and anthropology and comparative religion and myth and language really are all,,,you see them in the choices of the games I played and the way I played those games, and that’s the stuff that’s sort of then come out again as I have turned to creative writing in the last ten years.

Well, now, you did go into law, and law is very much a word-based profession.

That’s true.

Do you find, now that you have turned back to writing, do you find that that training as a lawyer has had any influence or effect on your writing?

Yeah, absolutely. Several things. First of all, the practice of law is absolutely a profession of writing. Now, it’s a very particular kind of writing. Accuracy, precision, really matter. You know, coming up with a long and colorful list of synonyms to avoid repeating the same word is not necessarily important. (I guess, actually, in some kinds of law practice that is, too.) Two other things: one, being a practicing lawyer gave me a lot of experience in writing as part of a team. In other words, where we are a group negotiating a contract or we are attempting to describe an underlying business that’s going to list its stock on the stock exchange. And I had a lot of experience in me being in a position of proposing language that then got discussed and edited, and me getting comfortable with the idea that, “Hey, I’m not wedded to my formulation, I’m wedded to getting the right response.” So I think that in some ways this has made being edited relatively easy for me. I’m able to step back and say, “Look, the goal here is to get the right description, the right book.” I’m able to detach myself, my ego, from the words on the page.

But another thing is, I was a full-time practicing lawyer for something like 13 years, kind of depending on how you count. Technically, I’m still a lawyer now. I have 13 years of experience being a professional, keeping obligations, being responsive and responsible, negotiating contracts, thinking clearly about business relationships. And I have found that to be very valuable as a writer. My experience is that this is an industry that is rife with people who kind of don’t really think deadlines are a big thing, who don’t really clearly understand what the deal is they’re getting into, who just sort of write a book and then hope they will be J.K. Rowling. And I have not had to be that because I have relevant experience.

When did you turn back to writing, then?

Well, in 2010 a there was a wonderful lovely day in spring. A beautiful thing happened, which was that I got fired, and I got fired in the best possible way. A company was acquiring the company where I was the senior corporate lawyer, and they weren’t going to keep me, but they needed me to stick around for the deal, so I got a parachute. It’s wasn’t a golden parachute, maybe it was bronze, but basically it meant I could get fired and I could do what I wanted for two years.

Cool!

It which is great. I highly recommend it. You should you should totally do that.

And actually I had been…in the interim, I had gotten the idea of writing screenplays, and so I had written several spec scripts that went nowhere. I also had written a body of, I don’t know, a hundred songs or so, and gotten into home recordings, so I had a studio and guitars and kind of a Dave Butler songbook, but it wasn’t…it took me a few weeks of kind of casting about, thinking about different possibilities before I realized, at the suggestion of a friend of mine who had recently got a big press deal, his first publishing contract, that I thought, “Oh, yeah, this is what I always wanted to do as a kid. Now, of course, I can do it.”

So that was 2010. I wrote full-time for two years, then I had to sort of take up the practice of law for a while again, and eventually moved to the corporate training, sort of a little more stable. And that my day job at this point. I’m self-employed, but I’m a corporate trainer. That’s the majority of my income. But from 2010 to now, I don’t want to shortcut any other questions you may have, but basically in the eight years, I have got five books published by national publishers and, depending on how you count, maybe something like 10 books published by an independent publisher called Word Fire Press, and I’ve got, you know, contracts, I’ve got two books coming out next year and contracts for another four that I haven’t written yet. And on the way my wife decided to get into writing. So getting fired was literally the best thing that’s happened to me professionally in my life. It made me do this.

So what was your first professional sale then?

The first, like, to a national publisher…that’s an interesting question. So, the first thing I wrote in 2010 was terrible, but then the second thing I wrote was pretty good and I got an agent, and I had an agent for a year, and he was a big deal. He’s the head of a kind of mid-sized agency and he couldn’t sell the book. And then he dumped me. And then in the meantime, sort of a year later, my wife got her own agent, initially with a co-written book that she and I had co-written. That didn’t sell, either, but then her agent, the second thing he took out for her was…she did a rewrite of the book that originally picked me up my agent. It is not published. It was a professional sale. The book was called The Case of the Devil’s Interval. It was a middle-reader story about a young, an eight-year-old, genius who is murdered by goblins and finds herself a ghost.

In the first version I wrote it was in Victorian England, and as a ghost she kind of is a superhero, and so the first story was about her solving the mystery of her own murder and setting up as a fighter of crime. And that sold. So, I wrote it originally in Victorian England. Emily and her agent, she did a sort of a revision that reset it in Federalist Boston. And that was bought by Egmont, as part of a two-book deal. And that book should have come out in…let me think about this…should have come out, I want to say, in fall of 2015, but then in about February 2015 Egmont, which is…you may not know their name, they’re Scandinavian, and they were making a bid to try to become one of the top five publishers in the US. And in February 2015…I think I have the timing right…they decided that they were done, and they just pulled out and they orphaned all their books. So the book..we have ARCs. The book had been fully edited. We got paid. We got the rights back. It got all the way to ARC. There are reviews you can find reviews on Goodreads, because copies of the ARCs went out to reviewers, and then the book never came out.

That’s annoying.

Freya & Zoose, the debut novel by Emily Butler, Dave’s wife

Yeah. Now my wife’s first first debut (Freya and Zoose, published by Crown Books for Young Readers) is finally going to happen in January, which is a huge relief to her, because she’s been working at this since like 2011, and it’s sort of hard to keep going when you feel like no one…you do a ton of work and no one has any idea. So, I think it’s been harder for her than for me but, yeah, so that was my first sale. It was that co-written book, sold by my wife’s agent, and the book never came out. I think it will someday, in some form, but there’s sort of a moral there: all of the horror stories you hear about publishing, are all true. They’re all true.

Yes, they are. I have several of them myself. So, what was your first published book, then? The one that actually appeared.

So, we’re talking about from national publishers?

However you would like to define that.

Rock Band Fights Evil, available from Word Fire Press

Well, OK, so let me give you a couple of separate answers then. So, while I had my first agent, whose name was Peter, I realized early on during the year of having him as an agent that he was going to read my stuff at about one-fifth of the rate at which I was writing it. So, I had a call, and I said, “Look, what should I do?”, and he said, “Well, people are doing self-publishing, you should you should try to go self-published.” So I did. So, my first things published at all were self-published. They’re now out from Word Fire Press, but I had a series of novellas called Rock Band Fights Evil, which I wrote to start to find readers, to be a calling card, to get out there, to not wait for my agent. That’s the earliest thing. And that would have come out in…the first one came out something like December 29, just before year-end, 2011, I believe.

First book in The Extraordinary Adventures of Clockwork Charlie, published by Knopf

Now, my first nationally published book was with Knopf, I have a trilogy, its middle-reader steampunk action fantasy. The first book’s called The Kidnap Plot. I picked up a second agent. So, my first agent dumped me then. Then my wife got an agent and he went out selling her stuff and our stuff together. And then I took this book, The Kidnap Plot out to agents again, and I picked up an agent. Deborah Warren is my agent, still is. I love Deborah, she’s very good. And she said, “OK, I’m going to send this book to…” So this was in March 2014 or something, so about four years I’ve been doing this now at his point. She said, “I’m going to send this to one editor on a sneak-peek exclusive look for a week.” And she did, and that editor bought it. So that came out in June of 2016. So a little over two years later. And the books have come out basically one year since, and that is a completed trilogy. It was fun! Michelle Frye is very, very good. Knopf is a big publisher. I got to have stablemates. Fellow Knopf publishees include people like Christopher Paolini, whom I’ve got to meet and hang out with. You know, he’s infuriatingly young, but he’s a cool guy.

He was even more infuriatingly young when he got published.

He really was. So, that was that was my first.

You mentioned that your first was a middle-grade, or for younger readers, so you’re still writing for both young readers and older readers as Dave Butler I think, is that what that’s what you use for your younger books?

That’s right. So, The Kidnap Plot by Dave Butler is book one of the series. And that’s just a way to signal to people who the intended audience is. I am thrilled if adults want to read The Kidnap Plot and I expect some young readers are going to go read Witchy Eye stuff, too. I certainly would have been one of those who did.

Yeah, I would have to. Since you do write for both ages, I was going to ask you, what do you think is the big difference between writing for the younger and the older readers?

I think less than people often imagine. I think some people approach writing for younger readers and some publishers approach writing for younger readers as a matter of, “Oh, I can’t say certain things,” and there is an element of that, but the truth is young people need to learn about death and they need to learn about violence and so I think the bigger difference is not that you can’t touch certain topics but that you need to be providing an inner journey for your characters or a subplot or a secondary arc or whatever writing lingo you want to call it that reflects the inner journey that your readers are going through. So, the real thing that defines a book is being a middle-grade book is that the character is having a middle-grade type experience in their own life, and that means learning the answer to questions like. “Who am I? How am I different from my parents? What do I need to do to be independent in the world?” Right? Those are the those are the things that 12-year-olds and 10-year-olds are are figuring out in their own life. And the same thing goes for young adults. Young adult is the age of first romance and first jobs and first experience, sort of on the cusp of adulthood, and especially young adult books, at this point, often have fairly gritty content. The thing that really makes them young adult is that there are young-adult journeys happening to the characters.

And the age of the characters is obviously an important element to that, too, usually.

Usually. That’s sort of the external sign, right? But the thing it’s a sign of is that the internal journey is appropriate for that age.

All right, well let’s start talking about Witchy Eye and Witchy Winter and…what’s the third book going to be called?

Witchy Kingdom.

So, well, I’ll leave it up to you, then, to provide a synopsis of, well, I guess, Witchy Eye, because that’s the first book, so that I don’t give away something that you don’t want to give away.

Well, so, Witchy Eye is in many ways a a straight-up epic fantasy, a straight up quest story, a fairy-tale-influenced story about, well, about a character who comes of age, sort of. It is my bid to be Tolkien, in many ways. Now, the main character’s named Sarah. Sarah is a witch. She is talented and clever and brave and funny and fiercely loyal and paranoid and xenophobic and mean. And the story opens on the day of the Tobacco Fair in 1815 in Nashville, because this is an epic fantasy, but it’s an epic fantasy set in an alternate America, and it’s an America that looks that looks like America in terms of its languages and people, and some of its heroes, but in terms of its power structure operates a little more like the Holy Roman Empire, with a bunch of semi-independent powers and an elected emperor who is, at the time the story opens, Thomas Penn. Penn Landholder.

So, 1815: it’s October, Sarah lives in the Nashville area, she takes the the family young’ns down to sell the crop, and Imperial Army officers try to kidnap her. And she learns that she has a secret history. a history so secret she herself is unaware of it. She is the hidden daughter of the dead Empress, Mad Hannah Penn, and her uncle, who she’d never knew was her uncle, the living emperor Thomas Penn, military hero Lord Thomas, has discovered her existence,, views her as a threat to his wealth and power, and wants her killed. She learns also that she has two siblings, that she had kind of a strange fairy-tale type birth that resulted in her birth and the birth of two other siblings. They’re hidden elsewhere in the Empire, and her quest is to find her hidden siblings, to recover the lost wealth of her mother, Hannah Penn, and the lost royal authority of her father, who was another sort of military hero and semi-legendary figure, the king of one of the seven Mound Builder kingdoms of the Ohio River Valley. So, it’s very questy, it’s very epic fantasy, it’s very fairy tale, but things are playing out in places like New Orleans and Philadelphia and Nashville.

Yes, it’s very interesting in that regard. The term that’s been applied to it I see is “flintlock fantasy,” which is actually not a term I’ve ever seen before, I don’t think. Was that invented for your book or have you seen it somewhere else?

I think it’s been…also I’ve seen black-powder fantasy. I think there is another term or two. People have been trying to find…because this isn’t. I’m not unique in having written sort of epic fantasy in a time when there are also muskets. So while I was writing this, Django Wexler was publishing his books, my friend Brian McClellan’s got, I think, six books out that, again, involve sort of both early modern gunpowder but also epic fantasy elements, and there are others. So I don’t know if there is yet a consensus term. I don’t think this was invented for me. I have seen things words like muskepunk as another one.

It’s just a bit earlier than steampunk seems to be what they’re going for.

Well, I think that’s right. I think the steampunk brand was successful enough that people have invented many other kinds of punks.

Yeah, I had a book from a publisher, which is now defunct and now I’m shopping around again, they decided to call it voltpunk because it involved magic that was vaguely like electricity. It wasn’t my idea at all, and I’m not sure it’s a very good description, but at least I hadn’t seen it before. But anyway, voltpunk was kind of catchy. So, where did the idea come from?

Oh. man. From multiple places or from multiple streams commingling in my heart. So let me let me parse out some of the streams. One of the streams is my own children. So, the three children who are at the center of this story, Sarah is the only one we meet in Book 1, but in Book 2 we meet the brother, Nathaniel, and in Book 3 we get a closer look at Margaret. The story of their birth is is as follows: their father, the king of the Mound Builder kingdom of Cahokia, is riding the bounds of his kingdom on the western edge of the Empire when he dies. In fact, he is murdered by some of his men, acting under orders from from his brother-in-law, Thomas Penn, although that’s not generally known, sorry, spoiler.

I knew it.

There you go, you knew it. With his dying breath he anoints three acorns with his blood and sends them with his Father Confessor priest back to Philadelphia. Hannah, his wife, her response causes people to suspect she has lost her mind. She treats the acorns like they are children. She sings to them and coddles them, and then one day she eats them. And then she gives birth, nine months later, to three children who are variously marked on their head. So, we meet Sarah she’s the title character we see her eye, it’s the subject of the first paragraph. She…at the age of 15, her eye has never opened. She has an eye that has never opened. It looks infected and it’s red and it oozes pus and it’s nasty and she’s already an unattractive woman and kind of a hellcat, and so this gets her negative attention on top of that. But eventually it turns out that that disfigurement is sort of a mark of her birth and her siblings have similar marks, one in her hair and then the other one in his ear.

Now, my kids…so, my son, our first child, was born with his left ear pressed flat against the side of his head and it has never fully relaxed. So, if you look at him straight on, he has one ear…the ear was pressed forward against the side of his head..so he has one ear that looks normal and then one that’s pointing out perpendicular, right? My second child, when she was very, I mean three or four weeks old, she was very young, and my brother Sam was visiting us and playing with her in the crib. And suddenly he kind of called out and said, “Hey, is it normal that her eyes are a different size?” And we rushed in, her eyes, her pupils were dramatically differently dilated. One was wide open, one was very tight shut. Now it turns out there’s nothing wrong with her. It’s a neurological condition that doesn’t hurt her at all, it’s just, I forget what it’s called, it’s got a name. Her pupils dilate at different rates. It’s not an indication…we were worried it was a concussion or something. It’s just, that’s the way her eyes are. So, I have been calling her since she was, you know, five weeks old, my witchy-eyed child. And then our third child has this shocking head of hair. It’s a recessive trait in my wife’s family, sort of one person every generation. The rest of us have kind of ordinary, more or less flat hair, and then kind of one person every generation gets this curly ‘fro, and she’s got it. So, one piece was me wanting to write a story about these children that are sort of marked, as my own children, and a story about them recovering a lost or mysterious heritage from their father. So, really, really, really really at the heart, there’s a story here about me and my children.

Now, there’s other stuff. I was reading several things at the time, I was…you know, I’d finished a book and I was trying to figure out what to write next and I was reading several things. One of them was, I was reading my kids the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and, you know, i a sort of fairly straight-up translation version where they don’t always make sense and they have very dark endings and lots of death. And at the same time I was reading…and I am not remembering now…I’ve got several different volumes…I was reading a history of the Thirty Years War. And Germany is not something that I ever really studied much in my youth. But reading those two things at the same time made me realize, and I’m embarrassed to say I was, you know, like 34 or 35 or whatever when I realized this, made me realize what the setting of the Grimm fairy tales is, because as an American kid, it’s a very striking setting, because you read something like The Musicians of Bremen and they’re wandering around, these animals, they’re in a landscape where there are princes and there are emperors but there are also mayors and there are people with guns and you kind of go, “Well, what is this crazy setting?” Well, it turns out it’s early modern Germany. It’s the Holy Roman Empire, which I had sort of never made those connections, and I was I was looking for a setting for the story of these three marked children and for a while I thought I might try to set something in, say, 16th century Germany, which would have involved, I think, an awful lot of research.

But then I read another book, which is called Albion’s Seed. It’s a book by a historian an American historian called David Hackett Fischer, who is sort of one of the great figures of American history living today. Albion’s Seed is a history of the English migrations, plural, to North America. We say casually, you know, “Hey, the English came here,” and if we say that we may think about that in terms of Plymouth Rock, but in fact there are at least four major distinct streams of migration into North America at the era of the founding, and only one of them is the Puritans from southeast England. There are also Royalists from the southwest and there are the Quakers from the, sort of the Scandinavian-influenced North Midlands. And then there are the, he calls them the North Borderers, the North British Borderers, something like that. The conventional term in America is usually the Scotch-Irish. That is to say, the people from Northern Ireland and the borders of England and Scotland who, you know, the first emigration, the Puritans came to Massachusetts Bay, the Royalists then came down to the southeast, the lowlands on the coast, the Quakers got a land grant and settled up the Delaware River in Philadelphia, and when the Appalachians arrived, they weren’t the Appalachians then, when the Scotch-Irish came, basically all the good lands near the coast already had white people on them, so they kept going and came to the mountains inland and so they settled a huge band that runs from north all the way down to the south in the Highlands. And it’s this fantastic 900-page book of anthropological history and I read this and I thought, “Man, I wish that fantasy settings were this good. I wish they were this detailed,” and then I thought, you know what, I should just write in this setting. This is it. This is the setting right right here. So, I told the story like I had been thinking in a kind of an early modern setting but I told it in a fantasy America rather than a fantasy Germany.

Well, there certainly are…in a way it’s an alternate history, because there certainly are a lot of historical figures that show up and I have to mention one that leaped out at me. I grew up in the church of Christ.

Okay.

And so when Barton W. Stone makes an appearance, there was a name I never thought I would see referenced in a fantasy novel. I mean, I knew it, growing up as I did, from Restoration history and all that. But he’s hardly the only one. I mean, there’s a lot of real historical figures with very very different stories: Martin Luther, George Washington, and all these people. So, how did you decide who to throw in there? It just look it just seems like you’re having an awful lot of fun pulling these names in and giving them new backstories.

I really am. You’re the second person to mention Barton W. Stone to me. I got an email from a woman about six months ago or something…no, shortly before Book 2 came out, closer to a year ago, and she said a very similar comment to you. And I said…because in the book Bishop Barton Stone is one of the the leaders of the of the New Light, which is a kind of a Christian…there’s no Protestant Reformation as such in the setting, but there is a sort of a revival going on, which is called the New Light, and in Book 2 the sort of New Light adherents are referred to as Kissing Campbells and Swooning Stones.

So Alexander Campbell’s in there, too.

Alexander and…hold on, is Thomas the father and Alexander the son?

Yeah, Thomas was the father.

Yeah, Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. You know, so, Tolkien, in writing the Lord of the Rings, is writing on multiple levels all at once. He is writing on a level that is philological, he is finding new meanings for words; he is writing on a level that is musical, because he’s putting settings around poems and songs he’s written; he’s writing on a level that is theological, because there is some profoundly–Tolkien was a seven-day-a-week Catholic. He went to Mass every morning with his boys. After his parents died he was raised by a monk, a priest, for a while. And so his Christianity shows up in there and all of it is sort of wrapped up in him finding a mythology for England that is sort of deeply English. But it’s also deeply and uniquely Tolkien, and I tried to do the same thing actually. And so there is a degree to which I am trying to consciously look at different streams of history in our collective past and in the stories of individual cultures. But there is a degree to which, inevitably, this book can only be idiosyncratically me. You know, I set myself the task to write the epic mythology of America. It’s an impossible task. It’s gigantic. America is impossibly vast: hundreds of cultures and hundreds of languages and and ruins we don’t know who lived in there and creatures that have entirely disappeared. And I’m doing kind of a crazy thing. So, at the end of the day, you know, the whole thing has to be bounded by my own my own aesthetic and my own experience. And Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell are very interesting people to me, and they fit right in the story, and so they got to show up.

Well, how thoroughly did you plan all this out before you began. What’s your process. Do you do a very detailed synopsis ahead of time or do you find a lot of it as you write?

I don’t have a detailed synopsis. I know what things have to happen. And I have a partial outline when I sit down to write a book and usually a fairly complete outline of the first third of it, maybe. And then I know what the main posts are,, and I know where it has to end, and in each of the books in these series there are a few big things: okay this is this is the book in which X and Y are going to happen. So, as I’m writing I’m writing to sort of macro signposts as well as sort of a few signposts that I know belong, but there is an element of making things up, of finding inspiration along the way.

As we’ve just discussed there’s lots of historical people in here, and yet they aren’t really quite the historical people. What kind of research do you find yourself doing along the way?

I read a ton. I mean, I’m sitting right now in my office. I’m looking at a bookshelf that has about a third of a bookshelf worth of books on India, including the Punjab and Sanskrit and Punjabi languages, and then about two thirds of the bookshelf is Native American stuff, and it’s got language and culture and history about the Iriquois and the Ojibwe and the Delaware Indians and the Navajo, and that’s that’s one of something like 30 bookshelves in the room I’m sitting in. So, I read an absolute ton. I do read a fair amount of biography. So I’ve read…I don’t know, two or three biographies of Benjamin Franklin and I’m looking at one, actually, now, Walter Isaacson’s that I haven’t read yet, that’s sitting on the shelf in front of me. In Book 2…there are references to this stuff in Book 1, but in book 2 one of the characters we get is a hedge wizard. He is a sort of a low practitioner of magic. He’s a guy who doesn’t have the natural gifts Sarah does, and so his skills are not the high art of Gramarye where you’re imposing your will on the cosmos. It’s traditional spells. And so I’ve got a shelf full of actual medieval and early modern magic books. John George Hohman’s The Long Lost Friend and The Picatrix and the three books of occult philosophy, which I have read. And you know, all of the language in there, I am sure I have made mistakes, but all of the Dutch or the French or the German or the Ojibwe or the Eno that you encounter in there has been read by me, written by me. So I do language studies, too.

Stephen King, in his On Writing…you have to take any book that any writer writes on writing with a grain of salt, because no one keeps all their own advice and writers are all full of crap. But he does say, and I think that is absolutely right, he says, if you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the tools to write. And so, I read obsessively, and then if I have an individual question, you know, directed research is easier than ever because the Internet will help you find resources. You know, if I want to know, well, what does place X look like, I can probably find photographs online or or go there with Google Maps Street View and take a look. YouTube is also great, because…well. for example there’s a scene in Book 1 where Calvin Calhoun is casting bullets. He’s got a bunch of lead and he’s got a bullet mold and, you know, a pair of clippers, and in the conversation he’s making bullets and. And I didn’t know how to make bullets, but it turns out you got on YouTube and say, you know, hey somebody casting bullets, and you can watch people do it. Enthusiasts will show you exactly what it looks like to shoot an anvil or to make a bullet or to, you know, whatever. So, that that piece in a sense is easier than it has ever been before. But also a lot of fun. I love writing. I love reading.

How do you develop your characters? Just how do you decide who you need in the story and then how much work do you do ahead of time to pen them down in your head before you start writing? Or does that also happen on the fly?

Well, the answer is both, right? It sort of depends on how important the character is. The more important the character is, the more I will upfront say, “Hey, let me write a little backstory for this person, let me, you know, write about kind of their motivation or their thoughts or here’s a little vignette of something that happened to them when were back studying at Harvard that was formative…” But, you know, the truth is that a lot of your characters in a novel are spear carriers. They walk on stage, they deliver a couple of lines and then they get shot or, you know, they they walk off stage again or whatever. So, for a central set of characters, yeah there there is backstory. And then for much larger number, no, they’ll be quicker sort of characterizations or, you know, thinking about, hey, what do I what do I need here? Well I need a guy who’s good at accounting and totally despicable. And then I’ll assemble that character kind of on the fly.

What does your actual writing process look like? Do you work direct from the computer? I still know people who write longhand. I can’t imagine it myself, but…

Yeah, I can’t either. My 10-year-old likes to write and if we won’t let her get on the iPad, so she can’t access her Google Docs, she will…she has two stories going in all time, she will turn to her longhand legal pad story if we won’t let her type. I do not do that. I write on the computer because I’m making a living doing other stuff, my writing process is sort of either I’m doing little bits now and then when I can because I’m busy, or I’m all in working at it for 12 hours a day because I have the time. I will start usually by…if you look in my files on my hard drive, for any novel that’s finished you’ll find initially some kind of scratch documents. Usually my experience is I get one idea that comes to me for free, if you will. There’s a medieval book or a poem called The Conference of the Birds, written by a Muslim poet named Farid ud-Din Attar. And the conference is an allegory for for Islam, or for religion or faith, but there’s a group of birds meeting and a feather falls from heaven. And the appearance of a mysterious feather from heaven starts the birds looking for the rest of the bird. What else is there, right?

And that’s kind of how I experience writing. There is a feather from heaven. There is something that is free, and that is a an idea about a character or an idea about setting or an idea about a conflict or an idea about a scene. And then my scratch documents are me working out the framework that goes around it, where I say, “Oh, well if I want to get to a climactic scene that looks like this, what do I have to, you know, what has to go with it? What kind of conflict would lead to such a climactic scene? What kind of characters would participate in it? Okay, which of these is my protagonist? Who’s, you know, who’s experiencing the most interesting story here?” So, I experience an initial piece of inspiration and then a lot of craft and a lot of forcing yourself to do the work, and along the way then you find lots of other smaller bits of inspiration. So the trail is, you look back at the beginning and there is a document with me just, like, asking and answering questions to myself, and then I build that into these charts that map out some main subplots.

And then I do an outline of the book, where I’ve got sort of a rough outline of the whole thing, and a detailed outline of the beginning, and then I just start writing. Now having said that, I recently co-wrote my first book…well, no, I recently co-wrote a book with a new strategy with a guy named Aaron Michael Ritchey, this will come out from Baen next November, the novel is called The Cunning Man, and we knew we wanted to split the writing of it, so, in other words, rather than have someone write the first draft and the other guy edit, ee wanted to each write half of the first draft. To do that we had to have a really detailed outline. Neither he nor I ordinarily writes this way. So for the first time we spent about a month meeting one to two hours a day on the phone talking our way through the outline and the main characters and the backstories and the sort of magical aspects of the story. And we had a detailed chapter-by-chapter, beat-by-beat outline and then sat down and each wrote half the book. And it worked! The two halves fit together totally. So this is…all my answers are long-winded, Ed, I’m sorry, I apparently am a very long-winded guy…but the point is this is a change from my past process, but it’s one that at least Aaron and I will use again, because it made writing the rough draft shockingly easy. It was all there.

Well, and speaking of drafts, what does your rewriting process look like and what does. I presume…is Toni your editor at Baen?

I’ve had Toni Weisskopf and also Jim (Mintz) edit my books. They both asked to look at Book 3. I haven’t got notes back from either one yet. I think Jim is looking at The Cutting Man. With both books that Baen’s published I got basically one…Toni gave me an email with some comments. Some of them came from the initial reader. Some of them came from her. Not a long list of comments. The biggest comment was, it needs to be shorter. And that was a wonderful comment, because I had turned in a 240,000-word draft, and she just said needs to be shorter. And I said, “OK.” I did not want to cut any characters or scenes, and I found that by just tightening the language I could cut out 35,000 words, and that experience made me a much tighter writer, even as I’m composing, not just in the way I edit, but I just write more tightly.

Before it gets to sending it to the editor, how much rewriting do you do you find yourself doing? Do you have a fairly clean draft when you get to the end? Do you sort of do rolling drafts, where you’re fixing things along the way, or do you go back to the beginning and start all over? Do you share it with your writing group? How does that all work for you?

During the time when I was writing full time for a couple of years, what I did and what I liked very much is I would read yesterday’s chapter. I had a page-count goal every day, depending on the book it was eight or fifteen pages, somewhere in there, eight, 10, 12, fift15 pages. Easy, that’s no problem, that’s like two to four hours of writing. So I would always edit the day’s chapter before, which is great, because then I’m totally in it, and then write today’s chapter. And as notes occurred to me I would go back and revise them in the earlier chapters as they occurred to me. So, in the first several books I wrote, by the time I had a first draft it was quite complete. I was quite quite polished. I just don’t have the consistent time now. I hope to get back to that process. Now, I tend to…comments occur to me and I write them in a note. I have an Eevernote. And, by the way, this happens, I turn the book into the editor, and things are still occurring to me.

But while I’m writing, things occur to me and having written it I let it sit for a few weeks and then I go back and I go through and I read it and make all the revisions that occurred to me and more revisions occur to me and I go through a couple of passes. Then while the book is with the editors, more things occur to me, and so I build up a set of notes again and so I’ll do anothe couple or three passes whenever I get the comments back from from Jim and Toni, and that’s kind of, you know, they’ll probably give me a month or two on it and I’ll probably procrastinate half that time and then it’s been a few weeks.

So, this is a lot of work, obviously. And, you know, I know this, being a writer, as well. So, here’s my big philosophical question as we come close to the end here. Why do you do it? Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write?

Yeah. So, there is a spiritual pattern that seems to be a very, very widespread inheritance of humanity, that finds its purest expression in the sort of Siberian steppes, which is usually called shamanism. And you’ll hear anthropologists say, you know, the Midewiwin medicine men of the Ojibwe are not quite shamanism, but they have shamanistic elements, and you hear that kind of language a lot. A shaman, the distinguishing characteristic of a shaman was that the shaman left his body and travelled…so, the technical term for that is ecstasy. Ecstasy is standing out, stepping out of your body…and in a trance, he would travel to the realms of the spirit, where he would be killed and reborn, where he would find spirits that would bring healing into the tribe, where he would learn the direction they needed to go to find the elk who were not at their usual summer pastures.

And I think that that a novelist is the contemporary descendant of the shaman .I think there is a craft aspect that we talk about ad nauseum, there is a business aspect that we sort of pretend to talk about once in a while but few of us really understand what’s going on, and by the way, that’s true of editors, too, so we don’t talk about it very much, but I think the core activity is shamanistic, or if you prefer, it’s prophetic. It’s leaving your body, it’s finding the muse, it’s encountering things of the internal world, things that are meaningful for you and your tribe, and then coming back and presenting them. And just like the shaman, you have to be part visionary. But you also had to be part entertainer, you had to be a showman, because you had to tell your story as a poem or act it out to get people to listen to you.

I do it because it’s a beautiful way to try to share and communicate meaning in the world. It’s a terrible way to make money. As a money-making proposition, it’s kind of like lottery tickets. Yeah, you might be J.K. Rowling, but almost certainly not. Almost certainly you’re going to make a very tiny amount of money and that’s it. If you want money, you’re better off just getting a government job and saving your money and you’ll retire as the millionaire next door. But as a way to make beauty and make meaning it’s absolutely terrific.

Well, and on that note, in what ways are you…now, this will come out just about the time that Witchy World comes out in paperback, so looking ahead to that from when we’re doing the interview, what will you be working and focusing on in 2019?

Well, so, we just turned in the first book…Baen bought two books, and so we’ll write at least two books of them. The first book is called The Cunning Man, and that’s set in the 1930s. A cunning man is an old English. but not, now I don’t mean Anglo-Saxon, I mean like it’s just, it’s old and it’s English, word for a kind of magician A witch was somebody who was malevolent to you. A witch cursed you and was a bad person. A cunning man, the research shows that they were mostly middle class. They were business people. They were like gunssmiths, or tanners, who also had a magical practice, and because they could read and they could gather enough kind of knowledge of spells, you know, when you wanted someone to fall in love with you or you wanted to heal your cattle of the murrain or whatever. you’d go to the cunning woman or the cunning man. So, this series is set in the 1930s, about a practicing cunning man who is dealing with some of the practical problems of the Great Depression, and finding that behind the bankrupted businesses and played-out farms there are demons and curses, and he battles them with his traditional magical law. So late next year we’ll write Book 2 of that.

What I’m working on now and I think will probably hopefully be finishing up about the time…well, that’s optimistic. I’ll be working on this about the time that Witchy Winter comes out in paperback…is a standalone fantasy novel. And I think I have finally settled on the name The Other Jack for the title. I’ve had various ideas, none of it felt right, I think The Other Jack does it. This is a a secret history of the life of J. Pierpont Morgan, and the idea, the opening chapter or the prologue is in the 1830s in Cairo. There is a group of Jewish scholar-magicians, including, there’s an old man who learned in his youth that, at night, he dreams the future, one hundred years in the future. And so, in the early 1830s he’s dreaming the rise of the Nazi party. And so these scholars are trying to come up with a way to try to prevent this, to stop the rise of German fascism. And their plan is, ultimately they what they want is they want the US to forgive the debtors of World War One, France and the UK, so that France and UK will forgive Germany’s debts, so that Germany between the wars does not become an economic basket case, so that Hitler does not have fuel to to light his bonfires. Right? That’s the plan. And they want to do it by taking over the House of Morgan.

So it’s about…in the real world, J. Pierpont Morgan’s life, he was sort of the great banker of his day, of the Gilded Age, is full of all kinds of fascinating little details, including an obsession with Egypt–he would go every year and sail up the Nile–but also including, in the Civil War, after Gettysburg, his number was called up in the draft, and he did not go. He paid somebody else and that guy, in real life, he then took care of him his whole life, I mean, not as a dependent, but he just made sure the guy was OK, if the guy was out of a job or something, Morgan would help him. And he jokingly referred to him as the other Pierpont. And so, this idea of kind of a vicarious personality is already embedded in Morgan’s life, so this story is going to be about a three-way switch that happens at that moment in 1863 where J. Pierpont Morgan’s soul is put in the body of that substitute, so they can replace it with a with a body of someone who’s part of this conspiracy to try to stop 20th-century Naziism. So it’s about a three-way body switch and about these three men kind of learning what’s happened then and trying to get their own bodies back or decide what to do about it.

Sounds ambitious and very interesting.

Yeah. Should have a climax aboard the Titanic. J. Pierpont Morgan had a cabin scheduled to be on the voyage of the Titanic and then didn’t go at the last minute. So you know that’s got to be in the book.

And where can people find you online so they can follow along and see what all these things are that you’re working on?

I have a Web site but it’s pretty static. I only rarely post, www.davidjohnbutler.com. It’s easy to follow me on Twitter @DavidJohnButler. And also on Facebook, Dave.Butler.16, there’s a lot of Dave Butler it turns out in this world. David.Butler.16. Usually my profile picture has me wearing a tricorn hat.

Seems appropriate. Well, thanks so much for for being on The Worldshapers.

Ed, thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate it.


Episode 16: Thoraiya Dyer

An hour-long conversation with Thoraiya Dyer, Aurealis and Ditmar Award-winning Australian science fiction and fantasy writer and veterinarian, author of the Titan’s Forest fantasy trilogy, published by Tor Books: Crossroads of Canopy, Echoes of Understorey, and Tides of the Titans.

Website
thoraiyadyer.com

Twitter
@thoraiyadyer.com

Thoraiya Dyer’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo from Blue Mountain Gazette, April 18, 2018: National science fiction award for author and vet Thoraiya Dyer

Thoraiya Dyer is a four-time Aurealis Award-winning, three-time Ditmar Award-winning, Australian science fiction writer and veterinarian.  A graduate of Sydney University and resident of the beautiful Blue Mountains, her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Cosmos, Analog and various US and Australian anthologies, including Bridging Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan and published by Solaris. Four of her original short stories are collected in Asymmetry, available from Twelfth Planet Press. 

Dyer is represented by the Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency. She is a member of SFWA. Her Titan’s Forest big fat fantasy trilogy, comprising Crossroads of Canopy, Echoes of Understorey, and Tides of the Titans, set in a massive, magical rainforest, is published by Tor.  You can listen to a short story set in the same world, “The Chimney-Borer and the Tanner,” at Podcastle.org. In addition to books, her other great loves are the environment, bushwalking, archery, and travel.

The Lightly Edited Transcript

Thoraiya, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much.

I always like to figure out the connections that I have with authors. There always seems to be something. A lot of them I met at a science fiction convention in Calgary, but not you. Our only connection I could find is that we share an agency, the Ethan Ellenberg Agency. But we’ve never met.

No, but we have the Canadian connection as well. My grandparents, Australian grandparents, set off on a trip around the world to teach in as many countries as they could, and they sort of got stuck in Canada for twenty-five years. So, my mother spent her formative years in Canada and my uncle is on Vancouver Island. Hi, Uncle Wayne! So, I feel like we have that as well.

Oh, yes, I guess we do. Now, we’re going to talk about your Titan’s Forestbooks in the course of this, but whenever I get started I always like to take my guests back into the mists of time. How did you become interested, first of all in science fiction/fantasy, and then in writing. Did that happen at the same time, were they separate things? How did that all happen for you?

Totally did, totally did at the same time. I think all kids love getting lost in worlds of the imagination, so the more pertinent question is, why do some of them stop reading science fiction or stop enjoying those sorts of stories? I was very lucky that my mom was a science fiction and fantasy fan. She had so many paperbacks from the ’50s onwards, but also sort of child-friendly ones like Asimov’s robot stories and The Flight to the Mushroom Planet. Don’t know if you remember that one.

I remember the title. I don’t think I ever read it.

So good. It’s about a couple of kids who answer this ad in the newspaper for someone wanted to volunteer to fly the spaceship. And it’s, you know, it’s so good. And then, you know, fantasy-wise, Enid Blyton, and The Jungle Bookand The Neverending Story were all there. Yeah, I loved those right off the bat.

Enid Blyton is a name that I don’t think anybody else has mentioned yet, but I actually know her work because when I was in university I lived with a family in Edinburgh for a little while and they had all these Enid Blyton books, The Famous Fivebooks, and I read my way through those even though I was, like, eighteen, because there was nothing else in the house to read.

Well, did you read The Magic Faraway Tree?

No, no, I didn’t read that one.

Because that was the same sort of adventurous group of kids as you had with the Famous Five, but they discovered this magical tree where sort of fairies and things would live in the branches and the world at the top of the tree would change each time you climbed up there so, you know, you could be in the world of dreams or the world of giants or the world of music. And every time you climbed up there was an adventure so that’s probably predictive of…

Yeah, I was going to say…

Great books.

So, when did you start trying to write?

Well, I guess you could say that the first science fiction story I wrote was a year in third grade. I wrote what could be called Star Warsfan fiction. We had this task where we were supposed to be writing about a haunted house and completely subliminally I ended up writing about the hero escaping by throwing a skull at the door mechanism, not unlike Luke escaping the rancor pit. And, yeah, that went on, too. I had to read that in front of the class because I got great marks for it and then all the little boys are piping up with, “Hey, doesn’t that happen in Star Wars?” and I was like, “Sh! Sh! No, it totally doesn’t.” But, yeah, I always loved writing, and then after I finished Year 12 but before I started vet school I was writing and submitting short stories to Australian markets, but I didn’t get any acceptances, so off to vet school I went and then I didn’t try again seriously until I was pregnant with my daughter and I had to leave the veterinary workplace because of the X-rays and the anesthetics and the hormones and things and I didn’t want my daughter to end up with two heads. So I found myself at home and thought, “It’s time to give this a serious go.” And that’s when I did get my first short stories published and was embraced by the Australian science fiction community and I discovered conventions and the rest is history.

All those years when you weren’t publishing, did you take classes or workshops or did you have a writing group that you belonged to any of that stuff, or were you kind of forging your own path all by yourself?

I didn’t belong to a writing group. Australia is large and I wasn’t on social media. But I did go to various writers’ festivals, which they sort of have in the capital cities. The Brisbane one in particular, like the Sydney Writers Festival, is very literary. I don’t know what it’s like in Saskatchewan, but you know they love poetry and things in Newcastle, where I was living, so there wasn’t much of a genre focus. But Brisbane, which is like 1,200 kilometres away from where I was living, had invited Jim Frenkel from Tor to teach one of their workshops. That was just right after my daughter was born and I got good value from that, but that was the exception rather than the rule.

Well, actually, Saskatchewan is similar—and, by the way, kudos for pronouncing Saskatchewan correctly.

No worries.

The funniest one I ever heard was, we were traveling and some kid looked at our license plate said “Sask-at-CHEW-an? Where’s that?” So, that was very impressive. But, yeah, it’s much the same, I mean, it’s a big empty space. We have a very strong Writers’ Guild here in the province, but not a lot of genre focus, especially not when I was growing up. Actually, I’m the guy that writes the science fiction/fantasy column for their newsletter, so there’s so a bit more of it now than there was when I was a kid.

Found yourself a niche?

Yeah. So, what was your first published fiction?

My first published short story was in an Australian magazine called Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine. I’m trying to think what was the title of the story…oh, I should have done some research on my own website before coming on this podcast.

Well, you’ve had a lot of stories published.

Yeah. So, it’s a really good format when you submit to them. They have this process so it’s a rotating roster of editors so that nobody gets too tired and burnt out, and they give really good personalized feedback, and that’s all I was after at the time, but the story was published, and then it was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, which is the Australian juried speculative fiction award, which I had heard of by seeing the stickers on the cover of Sean Williams’s novels—I don’t know if you’re familiar with Sean Williams?

Mm-hm.

But, by going to that presentation ceremony I met some of the movers and shakers of Australian small press. Pretty amazing, because when I was doing all that submitting before it was printing out manuscripts and pasting them to the United States and footing these massive sums of postage bills, which luckily, thanks to the wonder of e-submissions, don’t exist anymore. But it was costing me a hundred dollars each time I submitted!

Oh, boy.

Yeah. So, after that I wrote a lot of short stories. I had the goal to take sort of baby steps upward. I wanted to get, like, the semi-pro sale and then my pro sale. I had my Locus Magazineand Duotropeto give me the list of all the markets and I knew what I loved reading and I was submitting to those. I was so excited to be accepted byClarkesworldand Analog. Still haven’t cracked Asimov’sbut I’m gonna to keep trying. So that was all good practice in not taking it too hard when you get rejected, which stood me in good stead for novel submissions.

One thing I found interesting is that you write both science fiction and fantasy, and some authors I talk to do that, but others specialize in one or the other. Do you find it easy to move back and forth between the genres?

I do, and I love…there’s a different focus with each one. I feel like with the science fiction there’s that moment of understanding where you realise that something is possible that you never thought was possible before, or you see some kind of scientific concept which was just numbers and letters on a page, suddenly the meaning it all unfolds, and I love that moment of discovery. Whereas, I think with fantasy, with magic, it’s less about understanding how things work and more about just feeling really intense feelings. Probably that children get to feel more when they don’t know the limitations of possibilities. I guess, I’m thinking about, you know, it’s Christmas time and I’ve just had the chat with my daughter that, you know, she’s just working at that’s Santa’s not real and I always thought to myself, you know, I’m never going to tell her straight out that there’s no Santa unless she comes to me with a question and then I’ll answer it honestly. So, she’s come with me to me with a question and I’ve said, “Look, no, there isn’t a Santa,” and there’s just the sadness of that being taken away. I think fantasy lets you live in the realm of infinite possibilities and that’s just so wonderful. And, you know, my hobbies of archery and loving to be in nature, they all go towards what I write on the fantasy side, whereas the veterinary science and reading the journals and staying on top of sort of current discoveries, that all goes into the science fiction side.

What drew you into veterinary medicine?

I love animals. I wanted to be a zoo vet. Always was interested in saving endangered animals from extinction, and then worked so hard to get into it, it’s a very competitive course here, and then on the first day of my very first lectures we had a zoo vet come in and address the class, and he was like, “Well, here’s how it is. You know, we’ve got five zoos and there’s like three zoo vets in the whole country and if you want to get one of these coveted positions, the best thing you can do is, you know, maybe work with cattle for ten or fifteen years. You know, they’re large animals and they’re the most similar to your giraffes and your rhinos, and I just thought, “Oh, I can’t work with cows for 10 or 15 years, I can’t do it!” So, I gave up on the zoo vet plan and I’m a small-animal veterinarian but I do as much wildlife and bird work as I can. I really love that.

I was gonna say when I was in high school I was drawn to veterinary medicine for a time, but what kind of cured me was I did a spend-a-day with the provincial veterinarian. I found out that his work consisted of chasing cows around farm yards in the middle of the winter and then, you know, vaccinating them or doing blood tests or whatever. And then I was reading the James Herriot books, of course, and I was thinking, “You have to put your arm where?”

Yeah, not what you want to be chatting about at parties with cocktail in hand. Yeah, I mean it’s really physically demanding, and again, I imagine it would be same there, it’s a large area, there’s large distances to drive between farms, and being on call weighs you down. I mean, I was on call as a younger vet but I’m not now because I can’t do the thing where you work all day and then you stay up all night with, you know, a whelping dog or a snake bite or a tick paralysis case, and then you’ve still got enough brain power left to still be there at work and work your next day. I couldn’t do it these days.

You mentioned one of your hobbies, archery, and you also have quite a bit of karate training. Have you used that in your in your fiction, your kind of insight into martial arts and archery?

Absolutely. I always try and work out how things would actually work. I mean, it’s been a long time since I did karate. To get those marks, to get into vet, something had to give, so I gave up martial arts at that stage. But, more for Echoes of Understory. In Crossroads of Canopy, the main character is using magic, whereas the protagonist of the second book is a physical fighter. So, I was more using my karate and the archery knowledge in the second book than in the first.

Have you felt, reading fantasy over the years, that archery is often badly done?

I have had that thought. But then, when I mention it, seeing how little it matters to most people makes me wonder if I’ve been overthinking it and sort of over-researching. You know, it goes in with the theme of finding out cool stuff and then filling your stories with so much cool stuff that you haven’t got room left for your character to breathe and develop. It can be a bit of a bad habit. So, maybe I need to just throw all my practical knowledge to the winds and have all kinds of crazy stunts like the ones in the recent Robin Hood movie, which gave me a giggle of enjoyment, but was not any kind of historical accuracy.

Well, as far as I can tell, fighting would be a lot easier if you could do it in slow motion. That’s what I get out of most of those.

Yes, absolutely.

A little more time to think. I went to a convention in Vancouver where they had some…what’s it called…I can’t remember the name of it, but there’s a company out there that does medieval sword fighting and people do it as a fitness class, in fact. And they had a panel on fighting and for some reason I was on it and I said I’m not an expert by any means. So, my philosophy is if I can’t be accurate just be vague, you know, “he blocked that blow….”

Goes for quantum physics, as well.

Yeah, exactly. Well, you mentioned Crossroads of Canopy, and the second book, which I have here in front of me somewhere, the second book, which is called—I bet you know—

Echoes of Understory.

That’s right. So, let’s talk a little bit about that. What was the seed for that setting? What made you think, you know, “I’d like to write a book set in a giant forest world–oh, actually, sorry, before we do that, maybe you should explain what the story is about.

Well, so, this story is about a giant rainforest, so massive and…should I be saying this in kilometers or miles? Let’s say miles high…and stratified, so that the divisions between countries are vertical, not horizontal. Our characters are in the uppermost level of this massive, massive rainforest, they’re in this city up there that’s got its pantheon of gods that are reincarnated into human bodies, and our main character, Unar, she’s up there. Nobody up there knows what’s going on in the lower levels of the forest. It’s all dark down there, you can’t see what’s there, and nobody can come up from beneath because we’ve got this magical barrier, which is maintained by the gods, that’s separating them, so that no demons can come up from underneath. And then, of course, Unar’s sister falls down through this barrier, and that is the kickoff for her adventures to sort of find out what’s happening down there.

So, what was the seed, so to speak, that sprouted this giant forest world?

Well, it was wanting to have countries that were stacked on top of each other instead of side by side. And then, yes, because I spend so much time in nature then looking at this and realizing that in a real diverse and wild rainforest there are species that will stay, you know, between this high and this high off the ground, and that’s where they live, so wanting to have a fantasy map divided up like that, which I hadn’t really seen before, got me really excited about doing that. And then, the characters. You know, I’d just gotten my old book of Greek myths out to read to my daughter and there’s Atalanta, whose story is that she was raised by a bear, and then these three hunters who are brothers kill the bear and take over the raising of her so she has all these mad hunting skills. That was the story I was reading, and she is the basis for the character of Imeris, who is the protagonist of Echoes of Understory. But as I was working out the world and what kind of society it would be for a character like this to be born into, and going further back in time, that’s where the character of Unar came in. And then, the third seed, I guess, for the character of Unar was just reading so many fantasy books where the flawed hero is allowed to find redemption, whereas you don’t get to have a flawed heroine who is redeemed in the same way, she is either the villain or, you know, she’s condemned. And maybe I underestimated how much unlikability the reader would tolerate in a female character, because I’ve had quite a bit of pushback against her. But she is that way deliberately. It’s not an accident. And I like her, and how her story turned out.

What’s your process for developing something? You have these ideas, do you do a detailed synopsis, do you work more with a more general idea and then you discover it as you write it? What’s the process for developing a story?

I used to be a total pantser. But agents, as you know, prefer to have outlines, and so my process was to just write things on sticky notes. If you look back, you’ll just find, you know, one of them says, “Atalanta!” and another one says, “Countries on top of each other!”, all arranged in this hodge-podgy diagram in an exercise book. And then, after the idea collection, yeah, I did have to write an outline, and I wrote an outline for just the one book. And then when my agent suggested that Unar was not very likable, instead of changing her to be likeable I said, “Look, I’ll do a sequel with a more heroic kind of hero. And that was okay, and that’s how it got extended out into a trilogy.

The three books…as you said, you have a different focus in the second one…so would you call them a series, or are they more like individual books, but they’re all related within the same world?

I feel like you could read the second and third ones as stand-alones. But definitely, if you’re not a seasoned fantasy reader, things are more simplified and better explained in the first one, so you might want to start there. It’s three different protagonists and I hope I’ve done a good enough job explaining the backstory so that, yeah, you don’t need to read them together and I don’t think that they…I mean, in one sense there is a big plot arc that starts in the beginning and finishes in the third book but not as strong to be a true fantasy series, I think.

So, when you were forced to write a synopsis, how long a synopsis was it? Was it extremely detailed or still fairly general?

It was fairly general. It was about eight pages for each book, of single-spaced, twelve-point font, and I probably stuck to about two-thirds of what I had written. I don’t know. How closely do you follow your…do you stay pretty close to what you’ve written, or do you change it up?

Well, I’m asking the questions here, but…

I’m curious to know.

Well, it is a question I ask most people I talk to and, you know, it varies from author to author. For me, it’s probably sort of like that. I have a fairly detailed synopsis and I’m selling the books on the basis of the synopsis, but when I actually start writing it I start to wander, and occasionally…I know with one book I got close to the end and I realized there was no way I could get to the ending that I had put into the synopsis, so I had to replot everything from there to the end. So yeah, I’m right in there with you.

Yeah, I feel like as long as it’s better than what you had before it’s okay.

And, what happens is that as you’re writing, you know, the brain starts working on a different level than when you were synopsizing and thinking…well, I should ask you. What do you find is different about the writing as opposed to the synopsizing? You tell me.

Well, I think if you start with characters and then you feel out the world second after you’ve done the synopsis then you discover things about the world that fit better or that you could use more neatly to solve a problem. Whereas, if you start with the plot, then go the other way, then you might find that what you’ve written is not actually consistent with that character and then it’s the characters who make you go in a different direction because you didn’t think about them properly before when you were deciding what they were going to do.

What do your character notes look like? Do you do a detailed character sketch ahead of time or…?

Oh, yeah. I mean, I try not to change the color of their eyes mid-book and I might just put in a few pertinent facts from their history. You know, a bit about their childhood, because that’s so formative for everybody. And then, you know, you always want to know what they love and what they’re afraid of, and if they’ve got any irrational fears or goals in the other direction, but not more than a couple of pages.

How do you decide what characters you need?

How do you decide what characters you need? Well, you need the viewpoint…again, if you started with a character-based story then you know which character you need, but if you started with a plot-based idea, then who is going to give you a good perspective on that, and how many do you need? Like, what is the minimum number? Yes, it can be like reducing a mathematical equation. Well, this character is going to be here for this, but I really want to see inside this character when this happens, but you don’t want to have too many points of view and make everybody crazy, so…

And a lot of this, of course, happens on the fly. You don’t necessarily figure it out ahead of time. Some characters pop up while you’re writing.

Yes. Only once have I completely changed points of view, and it wasn’t even a novel, it was a novella. I don’t know if I’m hardworking enough to go, “Okay, this novel needs to be changed,” or if I’d just be like, “That’s the same amount of work as writing a completely new novel. Let’s do that instead!”

What does your actual writing process look like? Do you write longhand, do you write that a regular time, how does it work for you?

So, yeah, if I’m on the school drop off and I see something or hear something and I’m like, “That’s got to be in my story!”, I’ve got a notebook that I carry around with me for jotting. And then, when I get home I have got a separate, very old computer that’s not connected to the Internet, in a separate place far away from all Internet-connected devices. And I sit at it and I have to stay there until I’ve done my thousand words for the day.

That’s very disciplined.

Sometimes that goes quick and sometimes it literally takes all day to produce this pathetic amount of words.

There’s another word for that. It’s called a typewriter.

Well, I then, you know, I like to be able to back it up, so here, because it’s not connected to anything, I’m carrying my little drives back and forth to my Internet computer. But yeah, I joined Twitter shortly after my first short story was published, and it was fantastic for networking with other writers and especially sharing links to all the amazing short fiction that’s published free in online magazines. But, you know, the whole day would go by without any words being written if I didn’t lock myself away.

Yes. Yes, I’m right with you on that one too. You mentioned the Australian science fiction writer community. Very supportive? Do you have, you know people that you network with there that you either use as beta readers or just, you can talk about writing with?

I did find a lot of beta readers. When I joined it was in the lead up to AussieCon, I want to say Four? Australia was having WorldCon in Melbourne and everyone, all the small presses, were really excited about having the guests we were going to have and the opportunity to showcase excellent and often creepy work to the world. So, a lot of them were taking submissions and a lot of books were coming out and, so, just for opportunities to submit places and also just to, yeah, just to talk about what you loved. It was great. And still, you know, I feel like catching up with people once a year at the Australian National Convention is the bare minimum of what I would want to do to stay in touch with people that I met back then. And I venture down to Sydney once every couple of months, probably, to write. I find I work best if I’m not critiquing other people’s work. I think I’m at a place now where I just want to submit things and find…like, I know when it’s good and when it’s not good and I’ll just send it out until there’s an editor who agrees with me, so I’m not doing a lot of the whole workshopping thing. So, when I go to a writing group we’re not reading each other’s stuff and giving feedback, but we’re just doing sort of a similar thing to what I’m doing at home locked in my writing room, but we’re doing it in solidarity and just churning the words together in the same room.

Something that Canadian science fiction writers sometimes get asked is, is there something that makes Canadian science fiction different from British science fiction or American science fiction or Australian science fiction. Do you think there’s something noticeably Australian about the work that comes out of Australia?

It’s funny you ask, because I noticed growing up, like I said, my grandparents were in Canada and they, you know, always wanting to support local artists, they would send me Charles de Lint and Guy Kay books. I always found them to have more…not Australianess, I don’t know, I just really enjoyed something about the writing itself—not the storylines, because they were the same, but just the actual writing styles seemed more Australian to me. Maybe it was that if you write, if you’re a Canadian writer, you feel like you need to explain your cultural references, because otherwise Americans won’t get them. And that definitely has to happen. If you’re setting a story in Australia and wanting to sell it overseas, you’ve got to explain things properly. Which adds a whole new level to your worldbuilding, because not only are you trying to not info dump too hard with the actual advanced science or fantasy magical thing that you’re trying to explain but then you’ve just got to also, on top of that, explain all things that are normal to you that might not be known to that reader. I don’t think there is much of a difference. Often people asked those sorts of questions on panels will say, “Oh, you know, we’re isolated in this big wide land and it lends itself to horror,” and Australians certainly write amazing horror with a sense of isolation, but I personally don’t feel that sense of isolation and I love the Australian wilderness and hopefully no one reading my descriptions of a forest are going to feel that it’s coming from a place of being threatened by the wild and the woods, ‘cause that’s beautiful to me, not threatening.

That’s actually something that’s been said about Canadian fiction, that it’s man against nature and the vast unfeeling cold, and all that sort of thing.

It’s so such a white person thing, isn’t it? It’s like, we’re here and there’s nothing and it’s empty, and like, no, it’s really not empty, it’s full of indigenous people and, yeah. I guess I haven’t read a lot of indigenous Canadian authors but that is my favorite Australian writing that’s coming at the moment, it’s indigenous writers coming into science fiction and fantasy and bringing their absolute connection, and that sense of wonder and. power that it has. It’s good stuff.

Now when you’ve got your completed draft, what does your rewriting process look like? Do you tend to have a really clean manuscript, you don’t have to do much, or do you have a complete rewrite, or how does it work for you?

I shouldn’t have so many. I mean, it’s pretty tidy. I don’t have many spelling mistakes, but I have to draw back and try and look at the big plot elements and make sure that they’re working. So, I’ll usually run off the whole manuscript, go and write short stories for a month, come back to it and write onto the printed manuscript anything that strikes me as I’m reading through it again. After that it’s good to go.

So, you find it’s easier to spot stuff off of a printout as opposed to working just off the screen?

Yeah, I don’t know if it’s the screen or again just being away from the Internet. I can take it to a quiet place.

I’m sensing a theme here.

Yeah. Yeah absolutely. And I’m not a person that works with music. I don’t know if you listen to music as you write…

No, I don’t.

I’m a silence person, so…

I should say, I do a lot of writing in coffee shops. And I can do it with just conversation going on around me. But if somebody sits too close and I can hear every word that they say, then I’ll put on headphones, because I don’t want to know about…whatever. And I’ve learned a lot about people sitting at coffee shops that I really don’t care about, so… But I’m not somebody that sets a playlist and, you know, you have mood music for writing battle seasons and you have different music for writing love scenes. I’ve talked to people like that but it’s not the way I work.

That is strange and mysterious to me. It’s good that we’re all different.

What’s the editorial process like? Have you had the same editor on all of the books at Tor?

Yes. So, with the first book my agent gave me some editorial notes for it first, and then after it was sold I’ve had Diane Pho doing the, sort of structural edit, and then it has the copyedit, and then, you know, your final read-through of the galleys and things…

Do you get a lot of editorial notes from Diana? What’s her style?

Yes. What I am not very good at, which she’s very good it, because she also edits YA, is really digging in the talons at the emotional high and low points and giving all the feels. Maybe this is an Australian thing, too, that we like it to be a little bit understated rather than spelling things out. And then, the other major fail is that I am not interested enough in fashion to describe people’s clothes properly. So, you know, there’s a lot of, “What are they wearing?” going on. So, yeah, sometimes…but she’s right. Yes. She’s right. It’s easy to do it it’s when you know that they’re right.

I met Diana at Worldcon in San Jose, and she’s the one that put me in touch with you, because I’d asked her, well, actually, after I met her, she sent me an e-mail and followed up with me and then I said, “Well, you know, I’m looking for guests for the podcast,’ and so you were one of the people that she recommended to me, so I’m very happy that she did that.

She’s awesome. And I’m jealous. One day I will meet all of the people. The New York people, I shall meet them. Agents, editors. Some day.

I’ve met a few, but you know, living in Saskatchewan I don’t make connections with them very often either. So, you had the first book and how did it turn into a trilogy? You said, that the second one you wanted a more traditionally heroic character. How did you know that you had more story to tell, I guess is what I’m asking.

Well, because I still had this other character hanging around, so I had my magician in book one and I had my warrior in book two, and then I had this third character and he’s a bit of a poet, a bit of a spy bit of a…he didn’t really fit in anywhere. And then I thought, “Oh, he’s my Odysseus character.” And that just totally fit with everything that had come before, so ghe had to have his own book as well. He had to o on his voyage of discovery and then I had my three parts of a rainforest, my canopy, my understory, and my forest floor.

That worked out nicely.

Yes.

You’ve written some short fiction set in this world, too, haven’t you?

Yes. So, one of the comments that even my agent made on the first draft of the first manuscript was that my antagonist didn’t seem to have enough reasons behind her evilness. My baddie didn’t have enough behind her. He wasn’t feeling it. So, I wrote her backstory, which then turned into a story in its own right. And it was a very kindly picked up by Podcastle, and they just did a fantastic reading of it. I’m trying to think of the voice actress’s name. Again, lack of research on my part, but no, I was really pleased with how that came out.

Have the books been done as audiobooks?

Yes. And I think I can remember that it’s Christine Marshall that’s the voice of the audio versions of the novels. Though it’s very strange hearing your thoughts come out in American accent, it’s very good also.

I have a five-book YA fantasy series that’s actually set in Saskatchewan (so there was one where I didn’t have to explain any cultural references because it’s published by a Saskatchewan publisher and it’s set in Saskatchewan) but it recently came out in audiobook. I find it an interesting experience hearing my words read to me by somebody else. Do you find yourself listening to that and thinking, “You know, I kind of wish I had changed that…”?

With short stories I will sometimes read the whole story out loud to myself because it really does let you find where you’ve repeated yourself or you’ve got unnecessary distancing or it’s just extra words that don’t really need to be there. But I confess to not doing that with the novels, so, yeah, it does make you think, oh, I could have tightened that up a little bit. But, you know, you can only strive for perfection.

Well, with the ones that I had set in Saskatchewan I had to do a little pronunciation guide for places like Moose Jaw, and like, Wascana Lake, which is where the action takes place, and things like that. And Saskatchewan. I think I had to make it clear how Saskatchewan was pronounced.

Yeah, well, people often want to know how to pronounce my name, but I think everything else, you know, say it how you want. It’s like how Jo Rowling pronounces Voldemort. All of us in the mainstream, saying how we’ve seen it on the movies, pronouncing the hard T, whereas she says it “Voldemore” because in her head it’s from the French and that’s how it should be said.

I didn’t know that.

I think it’s totally fine for authors and readers to be saying things a different way.

I like to ask big philosophical questions here. You’ve written quite a lot at this point. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write, and specifically, why do you think we write this kind of stuff? Or why do you write this kind of stuff?

I think we write this stuff, I think we write this genre, because we have ideas for the future. We can see a way of things that’s different to how it is. I went to a book launch of a well-known Australian politician who had put out a book of his writing life. It was just a list of all these big important books, you know, “I’ve read War and Peace, and I’ve read this about the Holocaust and I’ve read that about this war, and it was all very heavy and realist. And if he had read any fiction, that was very literary and very, you know, stuff that was being taught in universities, and he hadn’t read a single science fiction or fantasy book, according to this tome, his whole life. And it just made me sad, because if our politicians aren’t thinking about, you know, “We don’t have to do things the same way we’ve always done,” how can we break out of these tragic cycles that have haunted Western civilization forever? The first step on making things better is being able to imagine, and I just think science fiction is able to contain all these ideas and help us extrapolate, and fantasy is giving us that sense of control, too. This is the way that this thing happened, but what if it didn’t? What if it happened that way instead? And that’s also so imaginative and so important. So, I personally am putting things in my books that I want to read and can’t find. The Australian content, I probably was a bit ignorant when I started and not looking close enough to find stuff like the indigenous content that I mentioned. Authors like Alexis Wright, who is a genius and writes Australian content better than I ever could, have now swum into my ken and these days I find it’s Lebanese content that I can’t find, my father being from Lebanon, and there’s a lot of short fiction out there, really excellent short fiction, Sofia Samatar and Sara Saab, incorporating Arab mythology into their stories. The one really great recent novel, which is the one by Saladin Ahmed, was gonna be the first of a trilogy, but he’s gone off into comics now. So that sort of less literary, Arabic-y fantasy is what I would like to do next.

Well, that leads nicely to one of the upcoming questions, which will be, “What are you doing next?”. But I’m not there yet. The name of this podcast is The Worldshapersand, you’ve kind of said this a little bit in what you just said, but, when you are writing you’re shaping a fictional world, but are you hoping in some way that you’re shaping the real world or at least changing your readers in some way?

I think that might have been true before online became the main way we had of sharing culture. I think a book can’t have the influence now that it maybe could have had back when Kim Stanley Robinson was writing Red Mars. I’m glad he’s still doing it. But I think maybe films are more where it’s at as far as changing public opinion.

It’s interesting, thinking of the impact of art forms, that there was a time when people would riot over paintings or, you know, poems or pieces of classical music. Those things are still being presented and they’re still vital art forms but somehow they are no longer the central art form that impacts people’s thinking. And I think you’re right. I think it’s gone to movies, or actually, probably even more television series these yeah.

Yes, I would agree.

Which is too bad, as a writer.

I mean, I say that…I just re-watched Arrivallast night because it’s come on Netflix and that came from a short story.

Well, that’s true, and an awful lot of science fiction stories now, a lot more than ever before, are being turned into film and television series. Not mine yet, mind you. If anybody is listening…

Good luck.

You don’t even have to produce it, just give me a lot of money and I’ll be fine. I think that may be the best of all possible worlds. So, now we get around to, “What are you doing next? What are you working on now?”

So, what I’m working on now is…so my favorite film ever isThe Seven Samurai. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, the original Japanese…

I have, yep.

I love it so much and I am working on an all-female version of it in a fantasy Arabia setting and it’s so much fun. I’m having the time in my life. Yes. My dad used to tell me, instead of your standard Western fairy tales, I’d get a bit of the creepy story about you go into the woods and the unicorn is there. And whereas you might think, “Oh, isn’t that wonderful,” you know, he’s this lovely white magical being with a magical horn, in the Arabic stories that he would tell they were always trying to kill you by stabbing you through the heart with their horn. And you had to, like, dodge behind a tree and trap them when their horn went through the trunk of the tree and then you would cut off their head and take it back to you, and I’m like, “Okay…”. So, yes, the unicorns that you will find in this book are a bit more like those angry ones than, you know, the unicorn that you might find in a French fairy tale.

Is there any expected publication date for that, or is it still too early to say?

No. I would say, Tor get first dibs, but I haven’t heard anything back as yet. So, I’m just on my merry way writing it. We’ll see what happens.

Looking in the future, would you like to write fulltime or would you always want to keep the veterinary side of things. You know, if everything went really well and you were able to support yourself writing full time, would that be your choice or do you’d like to…?

I had a break from veterinary work. I’ve only gone back in the last little while because, so, I was doing the writing and the stay-at-home mom thing, and then one day I went to walk my daughter to the bus stop and she was like, “You don’t need to come, Mom.” And I was like, “Well, okay, looks like I can go back to my day job, then.” But being back in that space, I did really miss the animals. And also, it forces you to interact. I’m also new to this town, I’ve only been here for twelve months, and I think if I had just been writing alone in my non-Internet connected room I wouldn’t have met the people and sort of become more integrated in the community. So, I think I will probably keep doing it, as fun as it is too the live-at-home-in-your-pajamas life writing magical stories.

Meeting actual people is good, too.

It’s good. Yeah. Talking to humans.

Well, I think that’s bringing us so close to the time here, so where can people find you online when you’re not offline writing?

I can find my tragically behind and not recently updated Web site at thoraiyadyer.com, and I’m @ThoraiyaDyer on Twitter.

And the three novels of Titan’s Forestare…?

They are Crossroads of CanopyEchoes of Understory, andTides of the Titans, which is coming out at the end of January.

Which should be just after this airs, so good timing there.

Hooray! Thank you.

And thank you very much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I really enjoyed talking to you.

It has been a great chat that has gone flying by.

Thank you.

And make sure you come to New Zealand WorldCon, which will be close to me and not too far away from you.

I should. I actually…yeah, it’s a little ways…I actually set a scene, a large portion of one of my books, the aforementioned YA fantasy series,The Shards of Excaliburseries, I actually set a section in the mountains of New Zealand, there’s a book called Lake in the Cloudsand the lake in question is actually in New Zealand.

It’s so beautiful. You must go there.

It would have been nice to go there before I wrote about it, probably, but…

You don’t want to know if you made any mistake.

Exactly. All right, well, thank you very much for being on The Worldshapers!

Thank you so much for having me!

Episode 15: Peter V. Brett

An hour-long conversation with Peter V. Brett, the internationally bestselling author of the Demon Cycle series (The Warded Man, The Desert Spear, The Daylight WarThe Skull Throne, and The Core), which has sold more than three million copies in 26 languages worldwide.

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www.petervbrett.com

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@PVBrett

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Peter V. Brett’s Amazon page

The Introduction

Photo by Karsten Moran

Peter V. Brett is the internationally bestselling author of the Demon Cycle series, which has sold more than three million copies in 26 languages worldwide. Novels include The Warded Man, The Desert Spear, The Daylight WarThe Skull Throne, and the final novel in the series, The Core. He lives in Brooklyn.






The Lightly Edited Transcript

I seem to start a lot of these by saying, “Oh, we met in Calgary. For some reason I’ve met a lot of authors in Calgary and you’re one of the most recent ones. We met at When Words Collide in Calgary this last summer, which is a convention I like to give a shout out to whenever I can because I think it’s a really good one. Hope you had a good time there.

Yeah, that was a fantastic convention. I didn’t really know what to expect, I’d never been to it before and wasn’t really familiar with it, but it actually ended up being one of the most welcoming and friendly and enjoyable conventions I’ve been to in a while.

I think one of the nice things about it is that it’s so focused on writing, and not just within science fiction fantasy but all sorts of writing. So, I think that’s nice change from just the typical science fiction convention or fantasy convention.

Yeah, I agree. And there were locals there who sort of know the area and are really welcoming and also a lot of guests from all over. So, there’s a good mix and I really had a good time there. And Canadians are just nicer.

Maybe. I’m both Canadian and American so I can’t really speak to that.

We’re going to talk, of course, about the Demon Cycle as we as we go ahead here, but I like to go back into the mists of time with my guests and find out how they got started. First of all, how did you become interested in the fantastical? I understand it’s from an older brother.

Yeah, I mean, some of that I think is from my older brother. Some, I think, it’s just when I reached the age where I was old enough to sort of read a novel on my own, the novel that happened to be hand was The Hobbit. That, I think, was probably the first book without pictures that I ever read of my own accord. And I think that definitely set me on the path.

And then I had an older brother, and you know, in the ’80s I was playing Dungeons & Dragons. We were those kids in Stranger Things playing Dungeons & Dragons. And so, between the two I think that I really get heavily invested in fantasy from an early age. And then when I started prowling the bookstores looking for things to read, I ended up in the fantasy section.

I have two older brothers who both read this stuff and that’s kind of how I got hooked on it as well, although, oddly enough, I tried reading The Hobbitas a kid, but I couldn’t get into it until I was quite a bit older. My start-up stuff was Heinlein juveniles and things like that, because I was more on the science fiction than the fantasy side. But I’m a bit older than you too so.

So, when did you actually start writing, and was it science fiction and fantasy from the beginning, or did you start writing and then sort of find your way into writing the fantastical stuff?

I started writing in school. From an early age I knew that I wanted to be a writer. First, I wanted to write comic books, and so for a while I was into comic books, and then probably in high school was when I realized that comic books are sort of a codependent relationship where you have to have a relationship with an artist, or you have to do the art yourself, in order to write comics.

I had a friend that I was doing that with who just couldn’t draw as fast as I could write and would often have opinions over how the story should go or what should happen, and I like being in control of everything, and I liked not having to be on someone else’s schedule, so I sort of gravitated from there to prose. And that’s when I moved into science fiction and fantasy. The first book I wrote was a hybrid of the two, it was like a space fantasy. From there I went on to writing sort of basically novelization of D&D adventures, and then from there moved into sort of my own area.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in New Rochelle, New York. I went to New Rochelle High School. I wrote my first novel when I was 17. I finished it the beginning of my senior year of high school. It was terrible, never published, never will be published. I don’t let anyone see it.

But you still have it?

I printed up 10 copies of it. I had them bound at the print shop and gave the to my friends, and I have systematically hunted down and destroyed all but one of those copies, which I keep locked safely away.

I was going to ask if you shared your writing. I wrote novels in high school, too, and I didn’t make copies but I had one copy that I’d typed up and I handed around to people to read. I often encourage writers, starting writers, to let other people read their stuff because that’s one way you find out whether you’re telling stories that anybody wants to read or not. So, did your friends actually enjoy it, even though you now think it’s terrible?

Yeah, all my friends read it and had plenty to say about it and acted like it was good. And maybe for a 17-year-old it was good. But when I look at it back at now I just cringe. But, yeah, you have to share your writing with people. I mean, some people tend to just write for themselves and never show it to anyone and that’s fine. But if you want to be a writer, if you want to actually communicate to other people, you have to show it. You have to be willing to take the risk of showing it to other people.

Now, you went into university. You studied English, but you didn’t particularly focus on creative writing, is that right?

Well, they didn’t have a creative writing program at the school that I went to. I wanted to go to a state university because that was what we could afford. The one that I got into was the best state university that I applied to, but they didn’t have a creative writing major. So, I majored in English and just took all the writing classes I could in trying to craft my own writing major. It didn’t really work out. I wouldn’t say that my college education had a massive influence on my writing.

Most of the writers I’ve talked to who took creative writing don’t usually say very good things about the creative writing that they took, I’ve noticed, especially if they write science fiction and fantasy.

Yeah, I mean, science fiction and fantasy is generally looked down on at the university level, which is undeserved, but nevertheless that’s the way of things. I took a bunch of creative writing classes that were, like, poetry even though I didn’t really want to write poetry, or that were literary fiction even though literary fiction had always sort of bored me. There certainly weren’t any science fiction and fantasy writing classes until later. After I graduated, I was living in New York City and I took a science fiction and fantasy writing class, a night school continuing education class at NYU, and that class actually did help me in my career. I actually wrote the first chapter of The Warded Manin that class, which ended up being what started my career off.

But there were a lot of years in there between that first novel at 17 and The Warded Man, weren’t there?

Yeah, there were a lot of years and a lot of terrible novels. The Warded Manwas my fifth novel. So, I wrote four other novels prior to that that were terrible. I mean, each one had good things in it, each one had things that even to this day I’m proud of, but they also had a lot of cringeworthy, horrible things. But you need to get through that in order to write on a professional level, and so every writer that I know, every professional writer that I know, has a few, you know, corpses of books left in their wake that have never seen light of day and never should see the light of day.

Yeah, I can I can vouch for that. And I started writing at high school and didn’t actually sell anything, and even then, it wasn’t too much of a publisher, for about the same timespan that you are talking about. So, yeah, lots of lots of bad writing in there. But you’re learning all the time.

I didn’t even try to get anything published until I was 35. I looked at my own work and sort of was my own harshest critic and I didn’t feel that I was writing on a professional level, so I wasn’t attempting to sell it. I mean, I was waiting to either get bored of doing it or to hit that point where I started to feel like I was in control and really knew what I was doing.

What were you doing for a living?

Well, I had a degree in English and I knew that I wanted to be a writer and so I moved to New York City and I took the first editorial-related job I could find. I started out editing business-to-business directories, which essentially means editing phone books, which is exactly as fun as it sounds. From there, I got a job as an assistant editor, doing medical journals. I did that for a little over a year. And from that I went on to get an editorial job doing pharmaceutical publishing. Basically we would send journalists to medical conferences and they would cover presentations there and write up reports that we would publish and mail out to doctors and nurses and things like that. And so that basically became my career.

I did that for almost 10 years and was doing very well. You know, I made a good living, I had good insurance. I was able to do the work with only a small percentage of my overall brain-processing power, so I didn’t really take my work home with me. I would go to work and I would work a full day and I would go home and sort of forget about it until I went back. It was it was a passable career that I could have gone on to do for the rest of my life.

But all along, at night, I was working on my novels and sort of hoping that that could turn into something, and eventually I was fortunate enough to have it turned into my fulltime career.

Yes, it worked out well for you. That sort of non-fiction pharmaceutical writing, all that stuff you were doing, do you find that that had benefit when it comes to writing fiction, or were they completely separate things for you?

It did. It had a big benefit, I think, but in ways that were sort of unforeseen. I mean, certainly I was wearing all of the editorial hats,. I was an editor who was assigning stories to journalists and then I was talking to them about the sort of theme of their story and then I was doing first- and second-pass edits to that story. There were a bunch of other editors and we would trade with each other. I would do copy edits on their stories, and they would do copy edits on my story, and then for a third editor we would do a proofread, and so because of that I sort of had to wear all the hats. So, I learned the proofreader’s job and how it’s different from the copyeditor’s job, I learned the copyeditor’s job and how it’s different from the regular editor’s job, and I did project management and I did art direction and I did print production, and we made promotional items and we built websites for our clients, and so I learned how to do a wide variety of publishing and marketing things. Because I was working in this sort of small boutique publishing company, I got to learn how to do all of those things.

I don’t think any of that really affected my prose, I don’t know that it affected the content of the book so much, but the editing skills allowed me to deliver a really clean manuscript to my agent for the initial hurdle and also for the publishers when we were trying to sell it, and then once I managed to sell the series I had a whole set of skills that I was able to apply to promoting myself. I knew how to build a website. I knew how to make promotional items. I knew how to art direct. So, I was able to hire artists to provide content for my website and provide content for my social media feeds and make me professional-looking business cards and all sorts of things like that. And so, all of those skills definitely had a positive effect on my career overall, although I don’t know that any of them really affected the stories themselves.

It sounds like…of course, when this started it wasn’t as big a thing as it is now…but had you chosen to, with those skills you could probably have done quite well within the self-published world as well as the traditional publishing world.

Absolutely. I think that being a success in self-publishing requires a certain skill set, and it’s a skill set that, to be honest, most people don’t have. The people who do have it, though, can be very successful in that realm, and I think that that career that I had in medical publishing and marketing gave me most of those skills, but also gave me an appreciation of just how much work all of those things are, and in the end I decided that I would much rather have a traditional publisher to do all of that stuff for me so that I could just focus on the creative part rather than take on all of the additional headaches of marketing and print production and mailing and selling myself and establishing mailing lists. There are so many things that you have to do to have a successful career in publishing that I think that I’m capable of doing, but I just don’t want to do. I’d much rather focu on writing stories and doing fan outreach.

While you were doing all your fiction writing, when you were doing this during the day and then you were writing the unpublished novels, were you also doing things like writing workshops, or were you’re in a writers’ group? Who encouraged you during all that time?

I never was in a formal writing group or writing workshop. My best friend, Myke Cole, is a science fiction and fantasy author as well…

Yes, I hope to have him on the show at some point.

Well, I can probably make that happen! He and I have been best friends…we met in high school, but we’ve been best friends since college. We both wanted to be writers and we were both sort of reading each other’s work and editing each other’s work and encouraging each other’s work from the beginning. And that, I think, was a big help to both of us. If you look at our first novels, there’s a lot of his influence in my early novels and there’s a lot of my influence in his early novels, because we were passing them back and forth to each other and offering ideas. So that, for the most part. was my creation partnership.

Mike is also a much more social person than I am, and so he was very keyed into the New York publishing scene and getting invited to parties with other authors, and he joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and had connections there. I was the introvert that he adopted to sort of break into that world.

Those connections certainly paid off later. But I spent, most of that time that he spent building that network, I spent that time focused on my writing and trying to get up to a level where I was willing to risk putting it out there.

Well, we’re going to talk in more detail about the Demon Cycle. But first, how do you describe them to people who, unimaginably, have never read any of them?

The Demon Cycle books are set in a world where demons rise out of the ground each night and basically ravage the land. They will hunt and kill any living thing, but their main focus and preference is humans. These creatures are magical and immortal and mostly immune to regular weapons, and so the only way to protect yourself is to draw these magical symbols called wards around your home, around your crops, around your property, to form a barrier of protection that the demons can’t pass, sort of like holding up a cross to a vampire. The book begins 300 years after the demons have reappeared in the world and knocked what was once a very technologically advanced society down to about a Little House on the Prairielevel of technology. Humanity has been hunted nearly to extinction, and so when the story begins there are very few people left. They live in very isolated communities and it’s really hard to get from one place to another because anywhere, anytime you travel overnight, you run the risk of being attacked by demons.

The series follows a group of characters, each of whom we meet in their childhood, and each of whom is scarred by some sort of demon encounter in their childhood that pushes them off what would have been the normal path of their life and forced them down a different path. Each one of them learns sort of a different way to resist the demons and start learning how to fight back. And that, as they grow up into adulthood, becomes this sort of last push for humanity to fight back from the brink of extinction and make a comeback.

And it’s a five-book series?

It’s a five-book series, and the last book is out. It’s a finished series, so if you’re the sort of person who likes to wait until a series is done to give it a chance you can binge the whole thing right now. There are five books and then there are four companion novellas that aren’t really essential to the main story, but if you’re enjoying the main story they are nice little side adventures that give you more development of some of the secondary characters in the series.

So, what was the initial spark? Where did you get your idea? That’s the classic question…

Yeah. You know, the thing is, this question is always the hardest to answer because any real author knows that you don’t just get anidea. A book is full of many, many, many, many ideas. And so, I don’t think there was any one thing that made me start writing the series. It was more something that built up over time.

One of my favorite books ever was The Elfstones of Shanarraby Terry Brooks, and that story, very similarly, was about demons coming back into the world after having been banished for thousands of years, and how the world wasn’t really ready for them. They had forgotten how to fight them, they had basically forgotten that they exist, and so suddenly these demons are coming back and people just don’t know how to deal with it and aren’t prepared for it. That, I think, was a big influence in my storytelling. But it was only a tiny part of the puzzle. I mean, I also spent a long time building a magic system that I thought were…sorry if there’s a little banging. They’re doing work outside of my window.

I figured that. That’s a very New York sound. 

Yeah. I didn’t expect it to be banging, like, literally outside of my window…

I think, what really made the story click for me was September 11th. I was in New York City on September 11th and I could see the towers burning from my office window and see people running around on the streets and everybody was terrified. My father-in-law at the time was in the World Trade Center at the time of the attack. He was evacuated, but we didn’t know that at the time. We didn’t have the sort of cellphone technology that we do now where you can get right in touch with somebody and see if they’re OK. It took hours before we found out.

And so, all of this had the effect of me seeing how fear and terror affected a large group of people. Some people immediately ran away. Some people said, “I have to get home to my family,” and they ran out of the building and went home, and some people just said, “OK, we have to move away from wherever the smoke and the fire is,” and other people said, “No, we have to run to the smoke and fire and help people,” and there were people lining up down the street to give blood and there were people rushing into the wreckage to try and help people out and clear it out. And there were other people who were just standing around bewildered and not knowing what to do, and there were other people who, you know, went and needed to go somewhere to cry, and there were other people who threw up their hands and said, “Oh well, the subways are screwed and we’re not going anywhere, so we might as get a six-pack of beer and wait this out.” The way that every one of those people was afraid but they all dealt with it differently was something that really struck me and something that I think became the basis of that first book, that there are all these people who were living in fear every night as the demons come out. How does that make them behave? What are the different ways that individuals deal with that fear? How do you treat your neighbor when you know that both of you might get eaten by demons that night? How do you treat your friends, how do you treat your family, how you treat the people that you’re sort of locked up with at night because you can’t go anywhere until the sun comes up? Those were some of the ideas that I really explored in that first book that made it more than just like a legend or a myth, it made it something that really felt real and visceral and hopefully draws the reader in and makes them feel like they’re part of what’s going on.

Well it certainly drew me in. So, I can vouch that you succeeded in that.

Thank you.

Where did the symbol-based magic system come from? Why did you go that route? Do you remember?

Well, I think that magical symbols that offer protection from evil are something that every culture in the world shares. Even cultures that sort of evolved independently of each other have their own version of the evil eye or the cross that holds back a vampire or whatever. And so, I was dealing with these sort of big concepts that everybody can understand: fear of the monsters that come out in the dark, the magical symbol that you hope will protect you. I wanted to have magic in the series, but I didn’t want magic to be something that people depended on overly. I wanted the series to be very much grounded in the real world, but then have this sort of magical element that you could understand, that the reader can understand, to the point where they would understand that magic wasn’t going to just suddenly save the day unexpectedly in a way that wasn’t satisfying. Because there’s a lot of fantasy books where magic is just sort of like, at the at the end, “Oh, the good guys won, and it was magic and it’s great!” I very much didn’t want that. I wanted a magic system where people knew the rules, so that they could understand that something unexpected wasn’t going to happen, but also be sort of surprised when that magic system was used in creative ways that maybe they hadn’t thought of. And I did it in such a way that it could be built up over the course of the series. So, in the first book there’s very little magic, other than these sort of protective symbols, but then by the end of the series, when people are throwing lightning bolts around and flying, the reader understands it because you got there through a very slow incremental way, where each step, each advancement in the understanding of how the magic system works, the reader was going along for the ride. So, you got there gradually enough that when it got spectacular it didn’t seem out of nowhere.

Well, that is course one of the challenges of writing a series, especially one that builds to a conclusion. I presume that you had the outline of the entire five-book cycle when you began, or did you develop some of it as you went along?

My original pitch to Random House was for five books, and I delivered to them a completed first book; maybe 30 percent of a second book, plus extensive notes on how it would end; probably about three pages on what would happen in the third book; one page on what would happen in the fourth book; and then one paragraph on what happened in the final book. But I’m happy to say that 10 years later I hit that paragraph pretty much exactly. So, it’s nice to know that, even when you sort of take a shot in the dark, years later I was able to hit the target anyway.

Did you have the book titles before you started or did they come as you went along?

I had a set of titles, not all of which ended up getting used. Sometimes when you’re writing a book series like that you have these story beats that you want to hit and you think you’re going to hit them in a certain rhythm and then that rhythm changes as the series goes along, and so some things that I thought were going to happen in book two didn’t happen until book three and some things that I thought were going to happen in book three didn’t happen until book four, and so the titles needed to be a little fluid to deal with that.

Now, I think I read that you are a very fairly detailed outliner of books before you began. Is that the case? What do your outlines look like?

Ridiculously outlined. My book outlines can be 150 pages. I will write down literally everything that happens in the story. Every chapter will be broken down to say, “OK the chapter opens up with this person’s POV, Section 1 of the chapter, this happens, Section 2 of the chapter, this happens, Section 3 of the chapter, this happens, and it ends on this note, and then that is the shift that brings us to this other character, who starts off in a similar way that picks up that beat.”

I do that throughout the entire book, so that I know the entire story. Before I sit down and start writing the prose of the story, I know exactly how the story is going to end. And that is essential to me, because I don’t run the risk of writing myself into a corner. I know exactly how the story’s going to go, and then I can spend my prose time focusing on the character’s emotional state. How did they feel about what’s happening? I already know what’s going to happen. W\hat state of mind does that put them in? How does that affect how they treat each other? How does that affect their emotional state? What is the relationship between the characters as they go through this or that trying event? And so, that is sort of how I approach the prose portion of the writing. A lot of the creative questions and problem solving is done in the planning stage and then a lot of the emotional writing is done in the prose.

A lot of authors will tell me that they don’t like to do a detailed outline because then they feel like they’ve already written the book and then it just becomes a slog actually writing the book. Does it feel like that to you?

It absolutely does. But this is the mistake that I think a lot of writers make, is that they think that their job should be fun. And you know what? It doesn’t have to be fun. Writing is your job, and the way that gets you to the best end product is the way that you should do it. If you’re writing because it’s fun, that’s fine, but I think that if that’s not the method that produces the best work for you, then it doesn’t always have to be fun. So, there’s a lot of times where I do feel like, “OK, I’ve sucked all the joy out of this story because I’ve already solved all the problems and done all the discovery and now I’m just doing the hard work part.” But, you know, a job should involve some hard work. Every artist hhas to spend time doing tedious tasks in addition to the very creative parts of things. I don’t resent that because I think that it gets me to the end point that I want to be in, wich is a book that I’m really proud of.

During the discovery process, when you’re doing the outlining, clearly you will be deciding what characters will be doing what. How do you decide who you need in a story, and then how do you go about bringing them to life? You have a multiple viewpoint characters, multiple protagonists, I guess you could you could call them, people we follow throughout and get to know. It’s not like it’s always just the one guy. You have a lot of interesting characters. How do you decide who you need and who’s going to be telling the story and how do you bring them to life?

Well, I sort of think of my series as a series of character studies going on in this sort of pivotal part of history. There’s this great upheaval as humanity tries to fight its way back from extinction and I’m exploring the interesting people who are involved in that. And so, each one of those characters is completely different from all of the others and each one of them has their own story and their own sort of path to achieving agency in this world, and those stories are as interesting to me as the overall overarching story.

So, you have this series of origin stories that all sort of build up to this group of characters that reaches the final battle, as it were. And so I wrote out stories that I thought were interesting and characters that I thought were interesting. I felt, like, “OK let’s take your sort of typical hero characters and then instead of focusing on them when they’re adults and they’re already awesome, why don’t we go back and look at them when they’re children and sort of see how they got there?” That’s what’s interesting to me, and as the series progresses there are a lot of times when I’ll take a character and say, “OK, we’re going to jump back a few years and you’re going to see where this person came from, and the trials that they went through when they were younger, so that when they encounter something similar as an adult you understand why they decide to do what they decide to do.” I think it’s a lot more satisfying in that way because when you know where a character came from, then you can understand why they make decisions that might be different from what you would have made under those circumstances.

I noticed on your website that on the about page about you, you actually have a character sheet for yourself. Does that match up what you do with your characters or is that just a visual, fun element for your website?

Honestly, that was something that I did as a goof for the website when I first made it. You know, this was at the very beginning of my career, when I had no reason to think that this was going to be even a fulltime job, much less any kind of success. And so, I just did it. I thought it’d be funny. I did two things. I did a Dungeons & Dragons character sheet about myself and I did a Marvel Universe entry. Marvel Universe was this book in the ’80s, it was basically an encyclopedia of all of the superheroes and supervillains in the Marvel Universe that you refer to. I love those books because it would give you all of the background information on every single character, whether they’re a bit character or a big hero, and would allow you to say, like, oh, you know, “Fantastic Four is fighting Annihilus and obviously there’s a lot of history there but I don’t have those older issue, and it’s pre-Internet age and I can’t really look it up, but I can go look up Annihilus in Marvel Universe and see what his deal is.” I used to spend a lot of time reading those books, and I think that that certainly influenced my writing, and so I made this entry in the same format as those old Marvel Universe 

entries, about myself.

Known associations and all that sort of thing.

Yeah, like alias and group affiliations and superpowers But, it was really just a goof. None of that was expected to go anywhere, really.

What’s your actual writing process look like? I remember reading that you actually wrote The Warded Man quite a bit while commuting, didn’t you?

Yeah. That first book, I submitted it to an agent, and at that point I was kind of at a stage where I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be published. I was in my 30s already and I thought that I was getting too old for this sort of thing and submitted the book to an agent, and he rejected it. But he asked if I had anything else, and I showed him one of my older books, and he rejected that, too, but he said, “Look, you’ve got a lot of potential but it’s clear that your writing is self-taught and you’re making a lot of amateur mistakes.” And he gave me a book on writing and told me to read it and said go back and take that first book, it was called The Painted Manback then, take that book and fix it and then come back.

And so, at this point I had a real legit agent who represented bestselling authors telling me I had what it took if I would just get some focus. But at the time I had a full-time job in Times Square in New York City and I lived out in Brooklyn, and so I had a two-hour commute each day plus my time at work and I also had a love life and friends and everything else and didn’t really have a lot of writing time, and so I decided that I would give up my reading time on my morning and afternoon commute and try and spend that time writing.

And so I bought this smartphone, this was pre-iPhone, I bought a Windows phone that had a very broken-down version of Microsoft Word, and I broke the book into separate chapters. I would get on the subway in the morning and I would open up the chapter that I was working on and I would put my headphones on and for 45 minutes to an hour I would write on the way to work and I would do the same thing on the way home. I would write maybe three or four hundred words on the way to work and three or four hundred words on the way back, and then at night I would sync that back to my computer and I would fix all the typos from writing with my thumbs and add another couple of hundred words so I would average around a thousand words a day. And I did that for a year.

I would say probably 60 percent of The Warded Manwas written on the subway like that in that first year, and a decent portion of The Desert Spearas well. After that I got an office and started writing in a more traditional fashion, but I still make sure that all my mobile devices are writing-capable so if I’m out and about somewhere and I want to get some writing in I can do it pretty much anywhere.

Yeah, I did a lot of writing on a phone as well. Only I had a little fold-up Bluetooth keyboard so I could do proper typing on it. I wrote a book called Marseguro, which won the Aurora Award in 2009, largely wrote on this little tiny fold-up keyboard on my phone. So when I first saw an interview with you not long after The Warded Man came out , I thought, “Oh, I’m not the only one that writes on a phone.”

It’s good to remember that writing is not something that needs to be contained in a certain ritual or in a certain place or a certain device. You can do it pretty much anywhere.

Lots of people still like to write longhand. I can’t do it myself, but I’ve talked to some who do.

I don’t understand that. I mean, for me, it’s just the worry that’s, like, what if you lose those pages? What if you spill your drink on it and they all blur? What if the wind blows them away? What if you forget your bag somewhere? Then everything is lost.

What if you can’t read your own writing?

Yeah, yeah. And so that’s what worries me more than anything else. My daughter is writing a novel and she’s writing it longhand in a notebook that she carries with her everywhere. And I live in terror that one day she’s going to lose that notebook and lose, you know, a year of work, more than a year at this point. But, you know, I don’t want to transfer all of my anxieties onto her.

Because of the way you work, with a very, very detailed outline I’m going to make a guess that there’s not a lot of rewriting when you get to the end of the book. Is that fair? Or do you actually have to do quite a bit of prose touching up?

I don’t want to lie and say that I don’t have to do rewriting. I don’t tend to write myself into a corner. I usually will write one book all the way through to the end and then turn it in to my agent and my editor. And usually Myke Cole will do a read to. And then I do read myself. And then all four of those people will deliver their own sort of edited manuscript and I will go through them all simultaneously and make sort of a master edit copy that breaks down what I need to work on, and then I do one rewrite from beginning to end to fix all of the problems.

There is always a lot of rewriting to do, but it’s usually like, “Oh, you told instead of showed in this section, or you got lazy here and did a shortcut to get to the interesting part but you still have to go back and fill in all of these details to make this make sense or, like, this emotional encounter doesn’t feel right, these characters might not have acted that way.”

It’s rare that I have to go out and delete a whole section or change something really significant with regards to the path of the story. I’ve never had to change the ending or something like that. But there are a lot of times where my writing was lazy because I was distracted or because I was more excited to get to a different part and I jumped ahead or because I was telling and not showing in the first draft. I do that a lot in the first draft. So, the second draft is always massively different and massively better. Structurally it’s mostly the same, but every sentence has been touched and improved. Usually I’ll go through and take two to three words out of every sentence and two sentences out of every paragraph, so I streamline a lot. I make things a lot tighter. Occasionally I’ll expand a little bit if there was a scene missing that I needed to add in, but I do all of that in one path and then usually that second draft is the final.

Have you had the same editor for the entire series?

No, actually I’m on my third editor, which is somewhat frustrating. My first editor was laid off when Random House combined. They had multiple science fiction and fantasy imprints and they sort of combined them all into Del Rey. My editor was a casualty of that. Then I was assigned another editor, but she had been assigned a huge pile of novels from different authors at the same time. As some editors were laid off the other editors got a bunch of extra work added onto them, and so this editor was swamped. She was a great editor, but I also feel like, she wasn’t the one who had acquired my books, she didn’t have the sort of passion for them that I had, and so on the third book I shifted editors again to Tricia Narwani, who is the managing editor at Del Rey Books, and she’s been my editor for the last three books. We have an excellent relationship. She’s been wonderful and has really helped make the books better.

I’ve written a much smaller five-book series, where the books are only 60,000 words each. That’s like, what, two of yours? One of yours?

That basically slightly more than one of my books.

Exactly. But even with that there’s always a certain continuity problem, keeping track of details. Now, maybe because of your detailed outlines…does that make that easier for you, so you can look back at an outline or something more easily if there’s a name or a description or something that you have to recall? Or is it just me that has that problem?

Well, I’m sort of an obsessive writer. There’s basically three files that I have at any given time. There’s the outline file, which I call a step sheet, there’s the actual prose file, and then there’s my appendices file, where I basically create a glossary that lists everything that I’ve made up in the story. So, every person, place, or thing, every distance between two points, every bestiary of magical creatures, the currency systems and individual locations, all of that stuff, is put into one big appendix file that is searchable, so that if I have questions or if I forget something I have a way to look them up. So that’s been extremely helpful to me, to give me a solid reference point.

More of us should do that, I think.

Well, again, I mean, it’s one of those things that takes the fun out. And so, if you’re the type of author who needs the fun, then that can be a problem. It certainly is an advantage to have that to refer to.

You’ve written novellas that are set in the same world, shorter pieces. I would think that would be very helpful, to, well, even as an idea generator, to have all this detailed information to see where there are places where stories could be told about other elements of the world that aren’t part of the main cycle. Is that fair to say?

Yeah, and I sort of have a running list of those story ideas that I keep handy. I’ve only written four of those novellas, but I have plots for maybe another four or five of them that I just will do when I have time. I always have sort of a running list of, like, “Oh, I never got to explore down that side road because I was building towards this thing and so I kept heading towards that, but I had this cool idea to explore it over there,” and I make a note and then I never got around to it. So those stories are always just sort of waiting for their chance to be told.

Well, I’m going to get the big philosophical questions as we get close to the end here. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write, and particularly, why do you think you and others write fantasy? What is the reason? Why do we do this?

I think that every person, in order to maintain sanity and good mental health, needs to have some creative outlet. And it’s different for all of us. I mean, some of it is what you’re naturally inclined towards doing, some of the things are what your skill set is, based on your personal makeup. For some people it’s art, for some people it’s quilting, for some people it’s fashion, for some people it’s music, and for me it was writing. Whether it’s something you do professionally or something you do as a hobby, I really think that without that we stagnate. And so, that was a big part of why I did it. And also, I like the idea that my books will outlast me. You know, the sense that, after I’m gone, here’s something I did that will hopefully stick around and be remembered and be a way to remember me in a fashion. There’s an immortality that comes with being published that I certainly reach for.

As for why fantasy? Fantasy is what I love, fantasy is what I enjoy. I mean, if maybe that first book that I had read it was Sherlock Holmesor Tarzanor H.G. Wells, or something, maybe what I write would be different. But my first book was The Hobbitand that really sort of set the tone for what I like to read, and so that’s why I do it, I think.

What do you think the appeal of fantasy is for readers?

I think it lets us explore things that we might not otherwise be able to. Writing a fantasy world gives me the ability to talk about a lot of real-world things, but in a once-removed fashion that doesn’t point a finger at anyone individually or anything individually. So, I can talk about religion, I can talk about politics, I can talk about culture, I can talk about all sorts of things, gender relations, but I can do it in a way where no one can say I’m talking about them in particular. And so that, I think, gives me a lot of freedom to explore and discuss things.

And I think that the magical world is somewhere where our brains go naturally. It’s part of everyone’s childhood in one way or another and something that I really like exploring and playing with. I think that fairy tales still have a lot to tell us in the modern world, to tell us a lot about ourselves and about the world around us.

Well, and so you’ve kind of touched on the next thing I was going to ask, which is, what impact do you want your stories to have on readers? What do you want them to go away with? This podcast is called The Worldshapers, and you’ve shaped a very detailed and fascinating world. But by having readers in our world read it, are you hoping that in some fashion you’re shaping them or shaping our world in some way?

I guess. I don’t want to be so hubristic as to claim that I have some ulterior motive to, like, shape people’s worldview or outlook or anything, but I do think that one of the things that I do in my books is take a character that you think you understand in one book and then do a deep dive into them in the next book and make the readers realize that they didn’t really know that person at all. The character who is set up to be the villain in the first book is the hero and protagonist in the second book and by the time a couple of chapters go by you’re rooting for them and want them to succeed. That is something that I did multiple times, and I think that if it teaches anything it’s that, whether someone is the hero or the villain is very often a matter of perspective. People can have the same goals, saving the world, being a good leader, protecting the people, and, depending on which side of the fence you’re on, the same person could be a hero or a villain. What I hope is that what people take away from that is that maybe they shouldn’t be so quick to judge people that they don’t really know very well.

That was something that was a really major theme for me, especially during those early years after 9/11, when the United States was getting into a war that we didn’t really understand with people that we hadn’t bothered to research, and making a lot of really stupid mistakes. And so, that’s something that I wanted to explore a little and give a sense of, like, all right, maybe if you’d taken the time to understand what you were doing you would have done things differently. It’s definitely a theme in the book.

You’ve finished the five-book series. What’s next.?

I’ve got another three-book series that I’ve started. The first book is called The Desert Prince and should be out probably in very early 2020. The series will take place in the same world as the Demon Cycle books but 15 years later and we’ll have a new cast of characters. Some of the older characters may show up for a cameo, but for the most part it’s going to be all-new characters and explore different parts of the world that we didn’t really get a close look at in the first series. You won’t need to read the older series to read the new series, but those people who have will have a different take on it than people who come in as new readers.

When will those start to appear, do you think?

The first one is due summer of next year and so it will probably be out in early 2020. And then I’m hoping they’ll be out more or less once a year after that. The first one is always the hardest.

And where can people find you online if they want to keep in touch with what you’re up to?

I’m on most of the social media feeds under the username PVBrett, so Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, all of those used the same username, PVBrett, or you can just go to www.petervbrett.com. Eaverything’s linked there as well. I keep a fairly active blog showing fan art. I run a lot of giveaway contests because I have a small New York apartment and don’t have a place for all of the books the publishers send me, like every publisher’s required to send me 20 copies of each edition of each book, nd if I don’t give them away a quickly pile up on me, and so I very regularly run giveaway contests for signed books.

“Author found crushed in apartment under own free copies of books.”

Yeah.

Thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I hope you enjoyed it. I sure did.

Yeah, it was a great time. Thank you so much for inviting me. I really appreciate it.

Episode 14: David Brin

An hour-long conversation with world-renowned, bestselling author (and scientist, speaker, and technical consultant) David Brin, winner of multiple Hugos, Nebulas, and other awards, with a focus on his books The Postman, Kiln People, and Foundation’s Triumph, as well as his thoughts and advice on writing…and many other topics.

David’s Website

David’s blog

David’s Amazon page

Other links David provided or mentioned:

Critters Workshop

TASAT (There’s a Story About That)

That Existence trailer

David has been speaking and writing about Artificial Intelligence a lot.  Here’s video of his talk on the future of AI to a packed house at IBM’s World of Watson Congress, offering big perspectives on both artificial and human augmentation.

David on science fiction

David on using science fiction to teach science

David on teaching science fiction

Pop Culture: Star Wars to Tolkien to…

Articles and speculations about Existence

The Introduction

David Brin

David Brin is a scientist, speaker, technical consultant, and world-renowned author. His novels have been New York Times bestsellers. He’s won multiple Hugos, Nebulas, and other awards, and his books have been translated into more than 20 languages.

David serves on advisory committees dealing with subjects as diverse as national defense and homeland security, astronomy and space exploration, SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), nanotechnology, and philanthropy. He’s served since 2010 on the council of external advisors for NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts Group, which supports the most inventive and potentially ground-breaking new endeavors.

In 2013 David helped establish the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California San Diego. He’s been awarded numerous honors, including the American Library Association’s Freedom of Speech Award for his nonfiction book The Transparent Society: Will technology forces to choose between freedom and privacy?, which deals with secrecy in the modern world. David appears frequently on television, including most recently on many episodes of The Universe and on the History Channel’s most-watched show ever, Life After People. His scientific work covers an eclectic range of topics from astronautics, astronomy, and optics to alternative dispute resolution and the role of neoteny in human evolution. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at San Diego, which followed a Master’s in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the California Space Institute and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He has a number of patents that directly confront some of the faults of old=fashioned screen=based interaction, aiming to improve the way human beings converse online. He lives in San Diego County with his wife, three children, and one hundred very demanding trees.

The Lightly Edited Transcript

Now, the first thing I have to ask you is, what makes trees demanding?

Oh, well, it’s Southern California, you know. It’s not an area where trees of substance would normally grow. As you drive north from San Diego to L.A. you pass through Camp Pendleton, the great big Marine base, and you see what Southern California was like back for the Native Americans and the early Spanish, and it’s not a lot of oak trees and not a lot of anything else but it had its own ecosystem, and we have to try to respect nature.

Well, one reason I asked, I live on the Great Plains, in Saskatchewan, northern plains, very northern plains, and there’s a famous writer from Saskatchewan, his name is W.O. Mitchell, and one of his books was called Roses Are Difficult Here, and that’s what that reminded me of.

Now, we met, I think for the first time we’d actually spoken to each other, at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose this year when you just happened to stop by the SFWA, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America table where I was volunteering, and that’s when I took the chance to invite you to be a guest. So, thank you for saying yes.

It’s terrific. We’re colleagues in a very, very strange cult. There are some religion and cult-like aspects to science fiction, but it’s a cult that believes in raising its children to out to have doubt and ask questions. It’s a sort of a fundamental ethos. If your children come up to you, having been raised in this culture, and they say, “I have different ideas than you, Mom and Dad,” our reflexive response is, “Ooh, tell us about it.”

In most of these episodes I’ve focused on a single book that the author wants to talk about. But you suggested three you wanted to talk about, The PostmanKiln People, and Foundation’s Triumph, which are all quite different.

We’ll get to those in a bit, but first, I want to take you back into the mists of time. When did you first develop your interest in this strange cult of science fiction and when did you start writing it—and which came first?

Well, I began writing in the fifth grade. I had a teacher who encouraged her students, and I enjoyed it. Of course, I came from a family of writers, going back generations.

But what’s interesting is that I knew from the start that history shows that every human civilization had artists. Now, in our civilization the artists and the entertainers are in charge of the mythic system, and so they extol how important art and entertainment and storytelling are and they are. They’re wonderfully human and important but they’re not rare. If you look across human history there’s never been a human civilization that didn’t have art, it fizzes from our pores, it bubbles, it pours out of us. Our greatest human talent is delusion and artists cater to it honestly by saying, “Hey, here’s another cool delusion,” whereas often politicians and priests and some other professions are shysters. They say, “this untrue thing is true.” But I looked around and I saw that only a couple of human civilizations ever devoted anywhere near as much in resources and attention to actually finding out what’s actually true.

I’m a child of Sputnik and I saw that we were developing hundreds of thousands of skilled people to try to find out what’s actually, objectively true, instead of artistic “Truth.” And I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to be part of something that was profoundly honest, a team effort that was going to transform human civilization. So, I made my writing a hobby rather than my central focus. I went to Caltech and then I went on to UCSD, got my doctorate in astrophysics, but all along the way I had this hobby and I developed it calmly and gradually. That’s the way I recommend to bright young writers: find something that you love that you will be paid for and make that your day job because usually you have to, you know, you can’t ignore the alarm clock if you have a job. But passionately have an avid artistic avocation and grow into it.

You know, parents all through time have said the right message in the wrong way to kids, and that is, “Well, it’s nice you want to go into this art, but have a backup plan.” But if it’s a backup plan and you wind up doing that thing for the rest of your life, then it’s always something that failed. The exact same message could be, “You are large. You can do several things. You’re a positive sum, you know, you’re more than one thing. So be good at something that people will pay you for and be good at something that you don’t give a flying patoot if anybody pays you for it. That’s means you’re an actual artist. If you have to write just for yourself, then you’re writing just for yourself because you must. As it happened, I did good work in science, but civilization very rapidly decided that it valued my delusions, my industrial-grade fabricated artistic delusions, much more, was willing to pay me more, willing to flatter me more, and so I was dragged kicking and screaming mostly out of science. May that happen to you. But if it hadn’t happened, I would still be coming out with books more seldom while I did something solid as my day job.

You said you started writing about the fifth grade. Did you share that writing while you were still a young a young writer? This is something I often ask young writers when I’m teaching writing: it’s important to find out if you’re telling stories that people want to read. Did you take that approach or were you keeping it all to yourself there for a while?

Well, I find that writers are just about the most varied type of profession. Some people, they’re a shy, they don’t want to share what they’re doing or if they tell the story even verbally, describing it to somebody, it takes away from the need to tell it. I’ve never understood that way of looking at things. The more often I describe a story or talk about it or poke at it the more I know about it and the more I the more I want to tell it well. So, you know, we’re varied, we’re very different.

Same thing with attitude toward criticism. If you want to be good at something, you have to get past your delusions of how to do it because, you know, you’re just not going to do it right at the beginning. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes, and there are a lot of skills, especially in writing, especially in fiction, that are almost invisible. The only way you’re going to get better in most arts is through apprenticeship or through taking criticism.

But the problem is that although criticism is the only known antidote to delusion, we hate it. We inherently hate criticism and so we make sure that others can’t criticize us. This is the root of the horrible thing that’s called human history. The horrible story of terrible events called history is rooted in the fact that leaders are human, and they therefore suppress criticism. They don’t want to have criticism. It’s anathema to them. The more mature they are the more they try to overcome this. And if they’re immature they try to repress criticism.

The most mature profession is science because in science, all of the apprentices in science at university are taught to recite or to know the great mantra of science, which is, “I might be wrong. Let’s find out.” And so, after 6,000 years of civilization, science has led the way, journalism also and some others, to enshrining criticism as the central antidote to error. But we’re still human and we try to avoid it almost reflexively. Even if you’re a leader and you say, “Give me the bad news.” your body language warns your subordinates that they’d better be careful. But the great breakthrough of our enlightenment was not freedom per se, not justice or equality per se, but the things that freedom and justice and equality and enable. And that is a confident civilization filled with a maximum number of people who can criticize each other because reciprocal criticism is how we find mistakes as we charge into the future.

Well, all right, so I got a little carried away there. The point is that the one thing that you can do as a writer that will make the biggest difference is to enter into situations where you cannot avoid your work being criticized and getting feedback. And that means workshops. One of the things I did was I took creative writing classes at local community colleges. Don’t be a creative writing major, for heaven’s sake. I mean, that’s the silliest thing you could possibly do. As I said, study something that would be useful for honorable and fun day job, because you need to have that alarm clock, but take, you know, creative writing classes because they give you a deadline: I have to hand in ten pages of a chapter I’m working on or a short story next week. It’s a deadline. I have to fulfill it. So, you write 10 pages. Well, at the end of a ten-week class you’ve got 100 pages. And if it’s discussed in class you can find out where you failed to get the point across, where you failed to communicate. I mean if the other people in the class said, “I was confused here, I didn’t get it,” you know, you don’t respond by saying, “Oh, but didn’t you understand on page two where I said…” No! What you did on page two failed and it’s up to you to find a way to do it better.

When you get a little more advanced you can collect names and create a workshop that’s a little more a little more ahead, a little more professional. We had one in San Diego when I was getting started that had Peyton Murphy, Richard Kearns, Michael Reeves, Greg Bear, occasionally Kim Stanley Robinson.

That’s not bad.

It was an amazing workshop, and boy were we brutal with each other. And there are writers out there who do not want to be brutalized with criticism. It’s not their fault that they’re a little more shaky and fearful. So, you find another way to do what I’m talking about and you can do it online. There’s a website called Critters, which is a site where, if you’ve participated in the criticizing of, say, 10 other people’s manuscripts, then it’s your turn to have yours critiqued. And, of course, that leads into the fact that the Web has offered people a way to get published that was never available before. Because there are basically two ways to get to get your art noticed. One is to be plucked up by the publishers, to be noticed by the great agents or publishers out there. And that used to be the only way to get a book published. But there was a second method for music. You might get suddenly noticed, your demo tape, by a music company, or you could climb the ramp—because the arts are all pyramidal. There’s 10 people who dream of writing for everyone who writes or even tries. There are 10 who try for every one that ever finishes anything. There’s 10 who finish something for every one that ever tries to submit something for publication. There are 10 of those for every one who gets anything published, and so on up the up the line.

My daughter’s a dancer, and we always say that at the peak there’s a couple of dancers who’ve come out of the studio who have gone into professional careers, but you start with 300 little girls in pink body suits down at the bottom. And then over time it gets winnowed down and down and down until eventually somebody emerges at the top. So that’s quite true, all forms of art I think are like that.

Yeah, well, for every 10 writers who can, you know, sort of make a basic living at writing, you know, there’s one of me, but for every ten of me who are comfortable from writing there’s a Stephen King out there and we’re shaking our fists up at him. “Curse you!” But actually, he’s a sweet guy.

J.K. Rowling and her castle.

Right. Absolutely. And fortunately, she’s very sweet, too. So, you can’t really hate her. The point is that climbing that pyramid used to take being plucked by a publisher or an agent who notices you out of the slush pile and that slush pile process still exists and it existed for music, but for music there was a ramp of the pyramid, and that was the ramp of merit, local merit. You would give a local concert, you’d be the opening act for a local concert, you’d do well on amateur night, you’d become the relief band on weeknights. You cut a local album, get a little scene going, and work your way up. Well, now that ramp exists for writing. That’s a long-winded story to basically get to the same point. Now you can have that ramp by publishing your works online. And the good news is, nothing’s going to stop you from having a book. What used to be called vanity press, well, now it’s hard to tell the difference. And you’re going to have a book. The bad news is that a million bazillion bazillion bajillion other people have their self-published books. So, getting it to stand out is going to take entering some kind of a rumor mill or self-publicization things, like that. And, you know, we all know the examples of people who really made it that way—Fifty Shades of Color Purpleor whatever. But the bad news is it’s hard to stand out in that world. But I suppose we should move on and talk about books.

So, when you started writing, when was your first sale? What was your first professional success as a writer?

Well, I spent three years writing my first novel, Sundiver. I wrote a couple of short stories, and usually people do their apprenticeship with short stories, and workshopped a few, but I didn’t really do much of anything with them. My story’s very atypical. The very first publisher to which I ever submitted anything was Bantam Books, for my novel Sundiver, when I felt it was ready. And it took them a little while to get around to reading it through the slush pile, but they made me an offer three times the usual starting rate for the first thing I ever submitted. So, I only started getting rejection slips after my first novel was in the works for publication. And when people shake their fists at me for that I can just sing, “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart,” and there, now I just sang on radio.

Well, on the Internet anyway. I would say I think you would say too that most of your science fiction falls into what’s called “hard” science fiction with a lot of technological speculation. What do you make of that distinction between hard and soft science fiction? Sometimes I think they’re not really even in the same genre. In some ways, soft science fiction, some of it is so soft that it’s indistinguishable from fantasy. I’m thinking things like Star Wars. What do you make of that?

I think it’s multispectral. I think it goes in many directions. For example, I think the biggest difference between fantasy and science fiction is not the furniture. Star Wars, for example, has spaceships and lasers, but it is fundamentally fantasy because of the power arrangements, because it’s a feudal mythological society in which these superior beings, those with Force, are all important and average people are not. Well, this goes back to the myths of the Iliadand The Odysseyand most of mythology in most of human history. So, this is the old mother art form, and, you know, one could call it fantasy today, but science fiction is impudent. And so, I call a science fiction story one in which change is the topic: not so much science, not so much technology, but the notion that, sociologically, our society might shift under our feet and that the old ways may come apart. That could lead to dystopias where the old ways are our ways and they come apart, like the greatest self-preventing prophecy called 1984, which helped to prevent itself from happening (God, I hope so) by, you know, delivering dire warnings. Soylent Greenwarned us about climate change and ecological destruction and recruited millions of people to be environmentalists. Dr. StrangeloveOn the BeachFail Safe. These all helped to prevent nuclear war by pointing out ways that it might accidentally happen.

So, this is what science fiction is to me. And so, you know, the hard-scientific aspects of the furniture, of the situation, aren’t central to me. Now it’s true I always just pile in stuff that I’ve learned and I’m a packrat. There’s more biology in my books than astrophysics because that’s where a lot of exciting stuff is happening these days. But The Postmanhas very little in the way of science and technology because it’s about the fears that I grew up with as a Baby Boomer, diving under my desk when I was a child in elementary school because the teacher did a nuclear war drill. And a lot of people are writing to me about The Postmanbecause, you know, not just because of the movie but because nowadays it’s looking frighteningly as if there’s some relevance to the story.

Since we’re going into that and that’s one of the ones we want to talk about, maybe you can give a very brief synopsis or description of it for those who for some unfathomable reason have neither read it nor seen the movie.

This is my most famous book because of the Kevin Costner movie. He made a movie in 1998 and in probably one of the greatest fails of movie-release timing in the history of the world, released it…he sent out an email saying we’ve got it made this Christmas holiday release, our only competition is James Cameron’s silly remake about a sinking boat. So, he released this movie opposite Titanic,and I don’t know why that’s not the most famous aspect of this whole thing. Anyway, so people ask me what I think of the movie and sometimes they’re surprised to hear that I’m even-tempered. It’s certainly not something that I’m ecstatic over the way Andy Weir is so happy over The Martianor Ted Chiang is so happy over the movie The Arrival. They had reason to be delighted there, and they were treated very well, by the way, by the directors and producers of those flicks, asking them advice and all that sort of thing. Kevin Costner didn’t treat me well. We exchanged maybe 12 words. You’d think that if you were going to make a movie of somebody’s book that you’d take them out to dinner. I never had a beer. But Hollywood is kind of like that. It’s, you know, what ego does to people. You have to take it with a grain of salt. It makes for very frail, very large egos. What mattered more to me was that the script by Brian Helgeland, with a lot of input by Costner, was sweet. It was bighearted. It conveyed a lot of the heart message of my book and that was the most important thing. If they had betrayed the soul…

The book is a post-apocalyptic story. It’s about the fall of human civilization, the thing we fear most, but it’s sort of an answer to the whole Mad Maxgenre in that the saving of whatever there is to be saved is not done by the lone hero and a sidekick. The hero does not defeat the bad guy by punching him in the face. To whatever extent good things happen, the good news is brought by the real heroes of our civilization, and that is citizens: people who remember that they were once mighty beings called citizens with great power, magnificent power, of cooperation and to get things done, and the hero’s principal job in this story is that he tells a lie. He tells people in isolated villages that the United States still exists and that it’s coming and he’s a postman and he’s delivering mail and people are so ashamed of how far they’ve fallen, they’ve let themselves fall, that they reopen schools, they reopen the post office, and everywhere he goes, like Johnny Appleseed, America is reborn, just because people believe that America has been reborn. They’re the ones whose start the rebirth.

And this is something that Costner captured. He captured this basic heart essence beautifully, and for that I forgive the fact that he scooped out and threw away almost all the brains. One thing about Kevin Costner is that I think he’s a cinematographer genius. I think this movie is musically and visually one of the dozen or so most gorgeous ever shot. So, what are you left with? You’re left with gorgeous, bighearted and dumb. Well, you know, there are worse things in the world than gorgeous, bighearted, and dumb. That’s what my wife married!

What was the original genesis? I mean, The Postmanactually started as a short story, did it not? I seem to remember reading it as a short story.

Gordon, the character in The Postman, whose name is never mentioned in the movie for some weird Costnerian reason, he’s the only character in the history of science fiction to come in second for three Hugo Awards, for short story, for novella, and for novel. But, yeah, it was a short story first and it was just about, you know, my thinking, pondering, what would I do under this circumstance? And I’m afraid my conclusion was that my biggest talent is creating delusions so that I had the character create a delusion. He’s ashamed of it, but ironically, because I love irony, he winds up doing far more good than harm.

Now the next one you wanted to talk about Kiln People. What was the genesis for that? You should perhaps explain what the story’s about, too.

Well, you know, it’s about being able to make copies of yourself. And that’s very simple. Not clones, because clones are living humans. An identical twin is a clone, and so, they have rights, you know, they’re gonna live for 80, 90 years, they should have their right to their own destiny, their own thoughts, but, no, this is a machine where you can put a cheap clay golem blank of yourself. It’s inspired by the legend of the clay golem of Prague or the clay terracotta soldiers of China of Xi’an or Adam being made from clay. In this world you have a freezer, it has a bunch of these clay blanks, and you put one in your home kiln and you put your head between these receivers, and you can imprint your soul and memory into this clay copy that lasts for 24 hours. It’s going to dissolve at the end of 24 hours, but if it makes it home from this day that you send it out on errands and things then it’ll download its memories of that day into you. And now you’ve been in two places. If you make five copies, at the end of the day you’ve been five places doing five different things. So instead of adding more life, the way a lot of science fiction does by making people immortal linearly, instead you get more life in parallel. And the genesis of this, you asked the question, is that it’s a cry for help from a busy person.

I was going to say it sounds like something a busy writer would really think was a great idea.

Almost any busy person would love to be able to make a copy. That copy doesn’t even have to be told what to do because it remembers what you were thinking just before you made it. It gets off the machine and looks down and it says, “Aw, man, I’m the green one today.” Well, it knows what to do. it has to go and clear the gutters, you know, and unclog the toilet. Meanwhile, the expensive grey model that you made goes off to the library, or you know does the research, because that model doesn’t have any sexual organs. It doesn’t have distractions.

The novel is a detective story. The detective makes four copies of himself at the beginning of this day and sends them out and he goes out himself in his original body, which you’re not supposed to do if you’re a detective because, you know, you could get killed, but all five of them go out, and what’s choice about this is you know some of them are going to die. You know some of them are going to get really, really destroyed. And so, unlike your typical detective story, there’s not this little voice at the back of your head saying, “It’s all right, it’s all right, he’s going to succeed, he’s going to live, they’ll pull him out, they can’t kill the main character. No. And it’s a great example of the ticking clock, which has been used in a great many movies and detective stories. And that is, you know that the detective has to get things done within 24 hours or the bomb in his neck will explode, you know, like in Escape from New Yorkor, you know, he has to get the antidote to the disease within 24 hours. Well, in this case, if you don’t make it home to download your memories in 24 hours you’re automatically gone. You’re just going to dissolve.

So, it was fun stuff and it led to…people should be warned that there are some puns. People have called it my most fun book since my third novel, The Practice Effect.

Well, it was one of my favorites for sure.

Well, I’m glad. And there’s a lot of movie interest that comes and goes. With Hollywood you never get your hopes up. You wait until there’s a check to cash.

This idea of downloadable consciousness in whatever form does pop up in science fiction, I know, for example, Rob Sawyer’s book Mind Scanwas about downloading consciousness into an artificial body and sending the original body off to die on the far side of the moon, but then the original body got cured, and, you know, who has the rights and all that. But do you think that’s actually ever going to be feasible, that we will be able to do that download consciousness into any form of artificial body?

Well, in a sense that’s what the teleporter on Star Trekis, only, it deals with some of the problems by destroying the original body. So, Dr. McCoy is right to be creeped out. I don’t know—how would I know?—you know, I am all the time giving talks about artificial intelligence—I just gave one on AI in defense at the Naval Postgraduate School, the same day that I gave one on AI and software security at VMware. This is one of the things that’s been slowing down my fiction writing has been a lot of public speaking about the future because people are very concerned and they want sort of out-of-the-box, you know, outside-the-envelope looks at what might be coming in them, and that’s my specialty. But the notion of whether or not we’ll be able to make AI…one of the six approaches is to copy a human brain. And if that happened and you were able to copy a human brain, well, then, you’d have this person in software. And Robin Hanson has a non-fiction—well, it’s actually fiction, but it’s written as nonfiction—book called The Age of Em, which talks about what the economy would be like if you could fill, you know, giant computers with emulated real human beings and what some of the results would be.

So, you know, all we can do is explore some of the consequences in advance. That’s what science fiction is about. And so, one of the things we did at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination (if you live in the San Diego area be sure and get on the mailing list) is we’ve created something called TASAT. It stands for “there’s a story about that.” It’s an attempt to get the group memory of science fiction readers engaged in this business of helping navigate the future. There’s a vast, vast number of gedanken experiments, or what Einstein called thought experiments, in science fiction—what if this, what if that—-and almost none of them are available to policymakers. I give speeches, you know, at the CIA and places like that, and very few of them have access to just this group-mind history of thought experiments. Like, for instance, let’s say that one day mole people come out of the earth. With TASAT, government officials or corporations or whatever could go to the TASAT site and say, “Hey, group mind out there, you nerds, are there any stories about mole people?” and get an instant access to what’s out there, what’s in our past, and at least have those thought experiments available to have a glimpse. You know, what if we meet aliens and they are total libertarian individualists with no concept of nations. That’s what I portray in my Mars invasion story, “Mars Opposition,” which you can find in my third short story collection, called Insistence of Vision (notice how I worked in a plug there).

Very good.

So, I urge your listeners to give TASAT a look, maybe a tickler to check in once a month to the discussions, because someday you might save humanity just by pointing out a story, because here’s the deal about a science fiction story. If it’s a first-contact story or something like that, the thing is, the people who are making first contact have reason to think that it’s about X, but it’s not a story unless it’s actually about Y. So, most stories about first contact are about how the first thing that you think is wrong and that’s exactly the kind of thing you want. A government commission that’s looking into something weird, that’s the first thing you want them to read, is ways in which they might be making a mistake. So that’s tasat.ucd.edu, and Ed will have it conveniently available along with my Web site and some links on his page.

I will indeed. Now speaking of stories from science fiction the other thing that you wanted to mention wasFoundation’s Triumphwhich was a continuation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundationseries, and it was part of a trilogy (and I thought this was interesting): Gregory Benford wrote Foundation’s Fear, Greg Baer wrote Foundation in Chaos, and I think you’re lucky to have gotten the gig since although your last name starts with B your first name is not Greg. 

We’re known as the “killer Bs” of science fiction. We invited Stephen Baxter in, and if you’re drunk, you can include Vernor Vinge. The thing is that we did what’s called the Second Foundation Trilogyand Janet Asimov was so happy with it that she retired the series. Now, the novels can be read separately. Greg Benford’s is the least like an Asimov book but has some fun stuff. Greg Bear’s is very much like an Asimov murder mystery. In my case, since I did the cleanup in Foundation’s Triumph, I felt it was my job to tie up Isaac’s loose ends. So, I read just about everything, including ancient things like The Stars Like Dustand Pebble in the Skyand Caves of Steel.

They don’t seem that ancient to me. I remember reading them!

Well, they’re wonderful books from the 1940s, but since they are officially part of his canon, I wove in everything. You can readFoundation’s Triumphby itself, but I tied together…I looked very carefully at where he was going in the last years of his life with his fiction, and it came to me that he was planning to go full circle. He was planning to pull things around full circle back to the very first book, Foundation. So, I deal with the last three weeks of Hari Seldon’s life, after the Foundation is already launched and nobody really needs him anymore. He winds up sniffing a clue to something and, a frail old man in a wheelchair, an anti-gravity chair, he winds up going on the greatest adventure of his life.

I remember reading, I think it was probably in Opus 100, Asimov’s first autobiographical book, that he had sort of stopped working on Foundationafter a while because he found the necessity of going back and rereading everything and trying to be consistent was a huge challenge, and then that’s pretty much what you had to do in this case. Was it a huge challenge?

Well, yeah, but it’s very strange. I never had a very good memory for mathematical equations, but I have always had a great memory for stories. So, you know, it wasn’t that hard.

But I wanted to have your audience have a little bit of a…now, it’s interesting, some of them are thinking, you know, why hasn’t he mentioned the Upliftseries, because if it weren’t for The Postmanthat would be by far my most famous series, and the one that I owe people, and I’m hoping to really get back to moving along on the long-awaited conclusion novel in that series. That’s the one about a universe in which sapient races like humanity create new sapient races by genetically altering them. And so, we alter dolphins and chimpanzees to give them a hand, to give them a leg up, so to speak, and help them to become fully assertive sapient species. That includes Startide Risingand The Uplift War. I suppose I should mention both of those won the Hugo Award.

Oh, a person who was just at our house the other day was Liu Cixin, the Chinese author of The Three-Body Problem, which won the Hugo two years ago. He was down for an event at the Clarke Center.

Now, what’s your actual writing process like? Do you do a detailed outline ahead of time or how much of it happens through the process itself? What is that like for you?

Yes. (Laughs.) I have written from outlines and it’s been very successful. I’ve been very happy with the effects and I just can’t do it very often. What happens is I usually just dive into a book and the characters start telling me what’s going on and then I jump up and down and I go, “Oo! Oo! Oo! Oo!,” and I just thought of this and I just saw that, and this is especially true in my most rigorous and most meticulous books, which you would think had been outlined. Those would be my near-future projections, the books I wrote for grown-ups, called EarthandExistence.

If you if you want to have fun in three minutes with your clothes on, go to my website and go to the novel Existenceand click on the three-minute video trailer with gorgeous artwork by Patrick Farley. It’s really three incredible minutes, but it talks about the central topic: what if we have contact with alien civilizations that are all dead, but they have sent out these crystals with embedded beings in them, embedded emulated versions of themselves, and we find that our solar system is filled with these crystals and they don’t all agree with each other and they can’t do anything to us. I mean, they are software entities inside crystal, except they can mess with our heads and that’s the most dangerous thing of all. And then there’s the earlier novel,Earth, for which my fans keep a Wiki tracking the predictions. There were a few scary on-targets.

Both of those were not outlined in great detail, they just kind of developed?

I was trying to do Stand on Zanzibarby John Brunner, because that’s such a wonderful, wonderful book. What he did was he took the future and he made it come alive, partly through glimpses of the world of 2018. It turns out we’re living in the world now that he predicted in in 1968 and so much of it came true. He had a President Obomi. Now a lot of people are saying he predicted President Obama as president of the United States. No. That was president of a small African country, but it’s still creepy.

Well, once you’ve got the draft, especially the ones that you’re not writing from an outline, do you find you do a lot of rewriting or do you kind of do a rolling rewrite where you’re keeping everything clean and consistent along the way?

It’s the latter. I write maybe the first 20 percent of the book, and then I circulate it. I have massive numbers of pre-readers because I live by what I recommended and that is get the criticism and find out where people were confused, where they were even able to put the book down. And I’ll tighten that scene.

Then I’ll do a rewrite on that first 20 percent of the book and then I’ll write another 20 percent. And now I really know what the book is about, so after getting some more circulated feedback I rewrite that 40 percent and then write another 20 percent. And now I really know what the book is about. So, I get feedback and I rewrite that first 60 percent and add another 20. It’s a way that works for me, and as a result I deal with my weakness, and my weaknesses is the beginnings. I don’t need a lot of work in the ends. I really know how to how to end stories. I seldom need any rewrite at that point, and I should have collaborated with Robert Heinlein, because it’s the exact opposite problem. He knew how to begin a story fantastically. The first half of his novels are wonderful and it’s the second halves that kind of fall apart.

But if I have one thing to say to would-be writers, it’s to remember what your relationship with the reader is and it is a sadomasochistic one, and I’m only 90 percent joking. Your job is to create a situation in which the reader cannot put the book down, in which the reader will be late for work, will miss a report, will forget to feed the cat, forget to feed her children. A sultry voice over the reader’s shoulder says, “Honey, coming to bed?” and he just waves her away, causing stress in marriages. That’s your job. If you do that, the highest compliment somebody can say to you when they meet you is, “Damn you, damn you, I almost lost my job because of you.” You get a little chill up your spine and you say, “Thank you!”

So that’s what I meant by it being a sadomasochistic relationship. Right now, you’re the masochist side. You want to look for good stuff that’ll do that to you. And may I recommend my books. I generally I’m pretty good at that. But if you’re going to be a writer, your job is to cause those problems in other people. And if you do, I guarantee they’ll buy your next book. Especially when they find out who done it, you know, two thirds, three quarters of the way into the book, you want them to slap their heads and say, “Oh, it was all there but I never noticed it!” The reader wants to hate himself. Because every aspect of the story was all there, there were hints, there were clues, but he just barely missed them. You want the reader to be so exasperated that she tears the book in half, throws it out the window, and dives after it. That’s what you’re trying to achieve. And the only way to achieve that is by learning the tricks.

And I mentioned Heinlein…one way to do it is to retype the opening lines because your book will never be read out of the slush pile for all of its brilliant ideas, on the basis of your outline. Forget the outline. It’s the first line that gets them to read the first paragraph. If the first paragraph is great, they’ll read the first page. If they read the first page and they think that’s great stuff, they’ll read the first chapter. And even if the rest of the book sucks, you’ll get a personal letter.

So, find someone whose opening for a book really grabbed you and retype it. Don’t just read it, because you have to understand that writing fiction is the last and greatest of all forms of magic. It uses incantations to create subjective realities in the victim’s—I mean, the subject’s, I mean, the reader’s—head. If you do it well the incantation will cause a magical spell to happen in which you experience the conversation. You aren’t reading it. The little black squiggles on the page disappear.

You all have experienced this. The little black squiggles disappear because the incantation that you are unrolling is causing star-spanning explosions, deep human insights, kissy-kissy love-love. If you just read an expert section by an expert writer that you enjoyed the incantation is just gonna work again and you won’t see how they did it. But if you retype that scene, then you’ll understand how conversation is done by a master, or how action is done by a master, how scene description is done by a master, or, most important of all, how an opening works. So that’s my biggest advice to would-be writers out there: find a section that really moved you that you’d like to know how the author did that and retype it, because it’ll go through a different part of your brain than if you read it.

Good advice. And we are running just about out of time here…so, what are you working and focusing on now, on the writing side?

I just had my third short-story collection, called Insistence of Vision. I’m very proud of all three of the collections, the others are Othernessand The River of Time. I think that short fiction is one of the greatest parts of science fiction. Science fiction kept the English-language short story alive. I think people would enjoy that. I’m working on a sequel to Startide Risingbut I really need to focus more because I wind up spending just way too much time on public speaking and interviews. Oops.

Sorry about that! And finally, where can people find you online?

Oh, well, there’s davidbrin.com. I have a blog called Contrary Brin that’s ornery and contrary and has the oldest and best commentary community down in comments on the Web. Let’s see now…and Ed will post a number of links, like for instance to my speech about AI that made some surprising predictions at World of Watson a couple of years ago.

I guess I will.

All right.

Well, thank you very much, David, I really appreciate it.

Sure thing. And best of luck to all of you out there. Write well, but above all, fight for a science fictional, open-minded scientific civilization.

Excellent advice. Thanks, David.


Episode 13: Lee Modesitt Jr.

 

An hour-long conversation with Lee Modesitt Jr., bestselling author of more than seventy novels of fantasy and science fiction, including the Recluce Saga, the Spellsong Cycle, the Imager Portfolio, and more, about his creative process, with a special focus on his science fiction novel Haze.

Website:
lemodesittjr.com

L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Lee Modesitt Jr. is the bestselling author of more than 70 novels, encompassing two science fiction series and four fantasy series, as well as several other science fiction novels. He has been a delivery boy, a lifeguard, an unpaid radio disc jockey, a U.S. Navy pilot, a market research analyst, a real estate agent, a director of research for a political campaign, a legislative assistant and staff director for U.S. congressmen, director of legislation and congressional relations for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, consultant on environmental regulatory and communications issues, and a college lecturer and writer-in-residence. In addition to his novels Lee has published technical studies and articles columns poetry and a number of science fiction short stories. His first story was published in 1973 we’ll find out about that in the course of the interview. He lives in Cedar City, Utah.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

We’re going to focus on Haze, but first: how did you start writing fiction and how did your interest in science fiction and fantasy develop. Was this a childhood thing or did it come along later?

I always was interested in science fiction and fantasy. I started reading it at a very young age and actually my mother was the one who introduced me to it. My father was an attorney and he didn’t have much interest in that sort of sky-blue stuff that just wasn’t hard and fast, whereas my mother was much more of a speculative mindset. And we lived in what was then the countryside, so to speak, and we weren’t close to libraries and we weren’t close to stores. But she did have this great painted bookcase in the front of her bedroom, and it was filled with paperback science fiction novels. And seeing as there was nothing else much interesting to read—I wasn’t going to read my father’s law books—I started reading science fiction But I never really thought I was going to write it. As a matter of fact I, was going to be the next William Butler Yeats, because my interest initially was in poetry. I read poetry, wrote it, did projects on it, essentially had a minor in it in college, although it wasn’t called that because they didn’t offer that minor, but I actually spent two years studying under William Jay Smith who later became the poet for the congressional reference service in Washington D.C., and that position then became the poet laureate of the United States. And I wrote poetry for some 15 years before I even thought of writing science fiction.

As matter of fact that I was turned down with form rejections from the Yale Younger Poets contest every year until I was too old to be a younger poet. Then I was in my late 20s, and my first ex-wife basically suggested that maybe I should try something besides poetry and she suggested science fiction, since I read it.

So, I thought I could try that, and I wrote a short story and I sent it off to Ben Bova who has just taken over as the editor of Analog, and he sent back a rejection. The rejection letter said this isn’t half bad but you made a terrible mess out of page 13. It’s good enough that if you can fix it I’ll look at it again.

I did, and he bought it. (The title was) “The Great American Economy.” I  was an economist by training and it seemed like a good place to go. It took me something like somewhere in the neighborhood of another 26 stories before I could sell the second one. And it was maybe 17 or 18 before I sold the third one. And this went on for maybe, I guess, five or six years, and then Ben sent me another rejection letter, and it began with the words, ‘Don’t send me any more stories–I won’t buy them.’ And after I got over the shock of those, I looked at the next paragraph, which said, ‘it’s clear that you are a novelist trying to cram novels into short stories. Go write a novel. After that we’ll talk about stories.’ Now, I hadn’t wanted to write a novel. At the time I was working as, at that particular point, legislative director for a U.S. Congressmen in Washington. Long hours, and I didn’t want to write a half million words to sell ninety thousand. But Ben didn’t give me any choice. So, I wrote a novel, and it sold, and that’s another story, but it did sell and every novel I’ve ever written since then has sold, so Ben was absolutely right about the fact that I was probably a better novelist than a short story writer.

How old were you when you started writing poetry?

I started getting published when I was about 15, only in small literary magazines.

There’s not a lot of other markets for poetry except small literary magazines anymore, is there?

Well, there is, I mean, you can theoretically publish it in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and a few other places like that, but that’s about it.

Did your poetry have any elements of the fantastical?

Oh, I think I one or two maybe had a few hints of the fantastical in it. I did write one poem, as I recall, about Atlantis, so I guess that had a certain fantastical element to it, but most of them weren’t.

Do you still write poetry?

Oh, yes. And I’ve incorporated into a lot of my novels. I mean, there are two novels in the Recluce series that are literally linked together by a book of poetry and the resolution of the second novel is partly shaped by that poetry and the existence of that poetry.

What part of the country did you grow up in?

I grew up in the suburbs south of Denver, Colorado. When I was very young my father decided he wanted to practice law in Hawaii. So, we moved to Honolulu and we lived there for a year and a half. He decided it wasn’t the best place to practice law or raise children, so we moved back to Denver, and we lived there until I went away to college.

Where did you go to university?

I went to Williams College in Massachusetts. I studied Economics and Political Science, a double major.

That sounds like the sort of thing that would help you with the creation of societies in science fiction and fantasy. Is that true?

Oh, I think it helped a great deal. Plus, 20 years, or 18 years, in the national political arena certainly didn’t hurt any. And I had a couple of years, actually a year, as n industrial market researcher, which was basically economic, and it was probably the most boring job one can possibly imagine, because my job was to forecast the sales patterns of compressed air filters, regulators, lubricators, and valves.

It sounds utterly fascinating. Have you ever gotten a story out of that?

I never could make a story out of that one. I’ve made stories out of a few other jobs I had but not that one.

You were also in the U.S. Navy for a few years and were a pilot. What kind of aircraft did you fly?

Actually, I started out as an amphibious officer, and I hated small boats so much that in the middle of the Vietnam War I volunteered for flight training, and the Navy decided I was a decent pilot but not a great pilot. So, I ended up flying helicopters and was a search and rescue pilot.

In Haze, the character is a military man of sorts. Does your military experience play into your writing, as well?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’m not certainly extensively a writer of military science fiction, but the military does fit into an awful lot of my books in one way or another. Maybe 40 percent. That’s just a guess, but yeah, it’ been a big factor.

I seem to remember that at ConVersion, the Calgary convention where we first met, you talked about economic systems in fantasy and science fiction and how there are a lot of unworkable ideas of how societies might work. Is that something you like to bring into your fiction, trying to create a more realistic society?

That’s exactly how I got into writing fantasy. I wrote strictly science fiction for almost the first 20 years I was writing. I got into writing fantasy because I got really tired of all of these fantasies where people go off on quests with no visible means of support, or where there are 10,000 armed knights on a side. One of the things that it dawned on me in terms of writing fantasy is, almost never, especially in the fantasy that was being published when I first started writing, did anybody have a real job. And one of the things that I’ve done in all my fantasies and which is still very rare is, all of my characters and fantasies have real jobs. They have to make a living. And the magic system has to be monetized. This is still very rare. A lot of people basically have a character, “Oh, he’s got a real job, but he’s on vacation or the job gets lost. And they just go off with the fantasy stuff.” When I’m writing fantasy, the economics and the magic are all integral. Maybe it’s because I was trained as an economist, maybe because I’ve been in politics, but I realized something about, call it technology, and that is, we don’t hang on to technology. We don’t use it unless it’s good for one of two things. It’s either a tool that will make somebody money or it will entertain somebody.

Well, magic would be the same way. If magic were real, nobody would bother with it unless they could do something with it, make money out of it or if they could entertain people, because we as a species are tool users. We are pretty much pragmatic but we like to be entertained. So, if magic can’t do one of those two things, it’s not really gonna be terribly useful in a society. And that’s probably too much of a soapbox. But anyway, that’s where I’m coming from.

It seems like there’s a preponderance of people are like thieves, bards, or mercenaries. That seems to be the three going job opportunities in a lot of fantasy worlds.

I think part of that is because people don’t think through what fantasy and magic can be used for. I do think that in my fantasies I come up with, shall we say, both practical and ingenious ways of using magic because people would.

Well, I’ve been accused of writing fantasy with rivets, so I’m not sure I agree with that one, but my feeling is, it’s simply the ground rules. In science fiction, the ground rules are, shall we say, the standard model of physics, if you will, and in fantasy, it’s whatever set of, call it a universal operating system, the author wants to put together. In the Recluce books my operating system is the balance between order and chaos

I basically use a different operating system for each fantasy universe, but I make a great effort to be rigidly consistent with the operating system, whether it’s science fiction or whether it’s fantasy. But beyond that I don’t treat them any differently. The characters just have to work within the operating system.

Let’s talk more specifically about your novelHaze. I’ll let you synopsize it so you don’t give away anything that you don’t want to give away.

Well, it’s set roughly 5,000 years in the future. You’ve got a Chinese Federation ruling the world. What used to be the United States is a client state, if you will, of China, and the main character is an American-born intelligence agents agent working for this Chinese Federation. In essence there are, if you will, two and a half storylines, although both of the storylines concern the main character. One’s in the present and one’s a flashback through the past. He’s basically tasked with investigating a planet, which is called Haze, because none of the Chinese federation’s surveillance gear will penetrate the, shall we say, the armada of A.I. spy devices that circle this planet. And he is one of several teams plunked onto this planet to try and discover what’s behind it all. That’s the setup.

What was the genesis of the novel? What was the seed that led to development of the novel?

I honestly can’t tell you, except part of it was the idea of what would happen if China continued on its present course, and American politics continue on their present course. The Chinese have always tended toward imperial states of one sort or another, and they tended to be both ruthless and bureaucratic simultaneously and that I guess was the background that I created and they pretty much co-opted every culture with its tried to co-opt them.

That was the background. And, of course, somebody is going to want to get out from underneath this. And that’s the genesis of the people on ??? or Haze.

Often when you’re talking about science fiction, there are the two big questions that start a story off, “What if?” and “If this goes on.”

I’m a big believer in the what if.

That’s a very long time in the future, five thousand years.Did you feel that you captured the changes that you’d have in technology and all that sort of thing over that amount of time?

I think a lot of people would say, “Why isn’t it more fantastic?” Well, people forget how fantastic things are right now. For example, we now communicate as fast as it is possible to communicate on a planet. We have essentially pretty much instantaneous communication—if we have the technology. but the ability is there—anywhere on the planet. We can get to any place on the planet in a matter of hours. There’s not that much difference in terms of the culture and the society between, even if we had matter transporters, between instantly and a few hours. There is a huge difference between a few hours and weeks or months, as was once the historical case. You can analogize all of these things to, there’s only so much further ahead you can go with technology. You can’t talk any faster than instantaneously, and it takes a certain amount of energy, no matter what you want to do to create things.

Theoretically, we could, I suppose, put together food replicators that could create anything from constituent elements, but the technology and the energy required…well, with that, it’s a heck a lot cheaper to simply go to Natural Foods. I don’t think you’re going to see changes in those things. So, basically, yes the society I postulated is much further ahead. I did suspect that the Chinese, and I did this in 2010 before this became well known, that the Chinese would find a way to, shall we say co-opt the Internet, and pretty much move into a world spy state. And I also postulated that certain parts of the world would not be at that point inhabitable for various reasons.

I also wondered if part of what you were going for was that it is a very static society. The federation is very static and doesn’t seem likely to evolve very quickly if at all, which I suppose is also a feature of Chinese Imperial States over the centuries.

Well, it’s not only Chinese Imperial States, but I mean, if you go back to ancient Egypt, which was in essence a water empire, that actually is the longest period of maintaining a similar government structure in human history that we know of. It’s actually outlasted the Chinese. I mean, yes, there are pharaohs, and you have the first dynasty and the second, all of these various dynasties, but basically, governmental structure in Egypt stayed pretty much the same from like 4,500 B.C. through the time of when the Romans finally conquered it, and even into Tomake ? Egypt it was somewhat similar.

How do stories tend to come to you?

Sometimes it’s just thinking about thing but probably a lot of it comes from the fact that I still study a huge amount of both history and technology. My wife laughs. She says that every time the mailman comes to our house he heaves a sigh of relief, because of the amount of periodicals we take. I admit that I like print periodicals because I can browse them at odd places at odd times. I think I take three archeology magazines, a couple of history magazines, and a lot of technology magazines, economic magazines. Of course, my wife takes all sorts of music periodicals and I read them all. I’m not sure I could say, oh, gee, this story came from this particular point.

I think the best resource that an author can have is a well-educated subconscious. We don’t remember all of it consciously. You can maybe call it up, but you don’t remember everything that you read. But I’m convinced that your subconscious, or your latent memory, if you will, remembers most of it, and the more stuff you pile in there the more likely you are, at least I believe so, to come up with good ideas.

Do you read a lot of other fiction or do you mostly read non-fiction?

At one point, even before I started writing, I was probably reading four to six hundred science fiction books a year. Right now, it’s more like 40 to 50. Most of my reading is non-fiction. Now I’m fortunate. I can I can read very quickly and I can retain most of what I read. which I find is a tremendous advantage.

With that initial idea in mind for any book, how do you go about shaping the world? Do you set out a plot and the characters develop, or how does the process work for you?

Well, it varies a little bit from book to book, but in general I tend to start with the world, the structure of the society, the religion, the environment, those factors, because they shape an awful lot of what you can do with the book. Resources are a factor. How do you get them? Where are they? Who controls them? Geography and obviously religious or belief structures, those shape people and people shape government. And I come up with those sorts of governments.

I mean, it’s not monolithic. When you look at the Recluse series, which is my biggest series, it set across over 2.000 years. And in the course of the 20-plus volumes, there are ,stories set on five different continents and more than 20 countries and the government systems that I have in those countries vary tremendously.There are military matriarchies, trading councils, hereditary monarchies, various other structures, an imperial structure in one particular case, based a lot on their past history and also the cultures and the geographies there.

Do you write all of this down before you start? Do you take copious notes and outline and do a detailed synopsis?

I don’t do synopses. I do have a set of notes when I’m doing a fantasy. I have a rather large-scale, rather large and rather messy, scale map of the countries and the world that I’m working in. I’m very big on scale maps because when I was younger, I got really irritated at writers who over the course of a book had the same journey take quite varying times without any changes in the climate or the cargo or what have you. So I try and be fairly accurate about that. I try and set up a structure that fits and then work within it.

Do you set out the plot in detail before you begin, or does a lot of that happen as you write?

I know pretty much the beginning and the ending. How I get there is something that I have to work out as I go along because you got to work. I mean, there are times when I have gotten to a point in the book and I’ve thought, well I thought this character was gonna do that, but the way I’ve written this character, he or she is not going to act that way. And so, I’ll have to figure out another way for that character to get to that, given their character.

Well, speaking of characters, how do they arrive on the scene to you? How do you decide what characters you need, and then how do you go about bringing them to life?

A lot of that depends. I mean, it’s the chicken and the egg thing. A lot of that depends on the structure and what you’re trying to do. In the first book of the Recluce Saga, I was thinking about Lerris in terms of a very bright but almost Asperger’s-like clueless young man, who was goodhearted. The reason why it was written in the first person, past tense, rather than the third person is, if I’d written in the third person, Lerris would have come off as the most obnoxious self-centered young man you could possibly imagine. He wasn’t. He was good hearted, essentially clueless and dense about a lot of things, but yoou wouldn’t be able to see that from the outside. So that’s one of the ways where the character defines the structure. In other cases, I mean, if you go to Adiamante, which is one of my science fiction novels, it was actually taken from life in a way. An acquaintance of ours in his, shall we say, late middle age, suddenly lost his wife to a fast-moving form of cancer and I started thinking about what would that be like. And then I put it in a science fiction setting, and so it’s really a science fiction novel about a man in either late middle age or early old age who’s had a certain amount of power in the past and is called on to deal with a very difficult situation, because of that expertise, And how he deals with it is intertwined with, call it his grief, and his understanding of where he’s been.

So that’s another way of bringing a character into a story. Soprano Sorceress from the Spellsong Cycle is a music fantasy set in what I would call a Germanic misogynistic society, and I came up with that particular idea because I was thinking about how well today singers are trained (because my wife is a singer and trains them) and what would happen if you had a society governed by song magic, and a lot of things fell into place there because one of the things I realized was even if you had song magic you’re not going to have very many sorcerers or sorceresses. And the reason for this is a confluence of two events that everybody overlooks. First, to really train somebody well as a singer, you really have to train them young. I mean, basically, after puberty and before 30. Second, that’s the most self-centred time in human existence. And if you are going to give somebody the power that could kill you…you’re going to be very careful about who you train. Then you add to this an outside sorceress from our world who’s got all those abilities in a misogynistic society. Well I thought it would make for an interesting conflict and it did.

So, it sounds like a lot of your stories actually arise because of the interplay of the character with the world that you’ve created.

Exactly. But I mean, that’s life. Everything we do is created by the interplay of the character with society and what goes on.

Do you do a detailed character sketch, or does it arise more organically as you write?

I think more I have a feel for the character to begin with. Call it a sense of who he or she is. Then I fill in some of the details and then we start filling in the society and the conflicts. And it goes from there.

A lot of writers—it’s happened to me—will put in a character simply because, for example, there needs to be view of something the readers need to know about and the main character is elsewhere, and that character then turns into a more major character than anticipated. Does that sort of thing happen to you?

I can’t say that it happens in that fashion, although there have been some characters who were minor characters in one book that I thought, “I really want to find out more about this character,” and so I wrote a book about them.

And usually if you want to find out more about the character the reader wants to find out about the character, too, so that works out.

What does your actual writing process look like? Do you write by hand? Do you write on a computer, do you write on a typewriter?  Do you write in an office or in a coffee shop? How does that work for you?

Okay. One, I do not write long hand, I’m left handed. I probably wasn’t trained properly in penmanship. And I get writer’s cramp after 200 words writing longhand. I started writing on a typewriter when I was 15 years old, just for school and what have you. I moved to computers as soon as computers had enough memory to accommodate my style of writing. I write on a computer. In terms of schedule, my wife laughs when people ask, do I have time for writing. She just says, “He writes anytime he can, which is pretty much all the time.” But to be fair about this, I don’t neglect her, because when I proposed to her, I said, “Well, you know, I need time to write. And her reaction was really simple. She just started laughing, and when she finished laughing, she said, “You are going to have more time to write than you have have ever had in your life. And she was right, because basically, she is a classically trained lyric soprano who’s done some work in opera, but she basically runs the university opera program and the voice program, and her schedule is 9 to 10 in the morning until 7 to 11 at night, depending on the time of year. She was right. I have plenty of time to write.

And you’re quite prolific. You’ve done as many as two or three books a year haven’t you?

I’ve averaged two and a half books a year for the last 20-plus years.

That makes me wonder what your revision process looks like. Do you have a very clean manuscript when it’s finished? Do you have to go back and do a lot of rewriting? Do you use beta readers?  How does that work for you?

Actually, according to my editors, I turn to a very clean manuscript. I revise continuously as I am writing and then I generally revise again after I’ve finished with the first draft of the manuscript, which is a little misleading, because there are probably some parts of that manuscript that written a dozen times before I finally finish it.

Revisions for me are both fun and by far the easiest part of the process.

As far as editorial revisions, I’ve had the same process with both of my editors, and I’ve only had two editors in the entire time I’ve been in the field. One was David Hartwell, who was my editor from my first book until his death a couple of years ago, and the second is my current editor Jen Gunnels, who was David’s assistant, and I’ve been working for her for about a year and a half before David died and she and I worked together well so I just stayed with her. But in terms of dealing with the editors, I’ve always had a very simple formula. Find anything you can that’s wrong with the manuscript. Tell me what it is. Don’t tell me how to fix it. Just tell me what the problem is. If I can’t fix it, then we’ll talk. In 40 years I’ve never had to have the second conversation.

You’re at 70-some books at this point aren’t you?

Seventy-three published, three more that will be published in the next year and a half.

Do you do a lot of research along the way?

Yes and no. I do a lot of research, but a lot of the research I’ve done in advance, just simply by all the things that I read. Every once in a while, I’ll have to look up something to make sure that I’ve remembered it or I’ve gotten the details correct.

It’s been said that all men are collectors. I don’t know if this is true, but an awful lot of men I know collect things. I don’t. What I collect is information. I love information. I love learning about things and I think I probably always will. And as an author, it serves me very well.

One of the things about Hazethat this struck me was, you know, we talk about science fiction as a literature of ideas, and it seemed to me that one of the things you were doing in Hazewas offering different views of how society might work, and bouncing these off of each other, through things like freedom and individual responsibility and empire and what happens when societies of different technological abilities clash. Is that kind of a feature of your work?

I’m not sure my work would exist without that. I’m always bouncing various ideas of how people respond to duty. responsibility. political structures. beliefs. I guess in a lot of ways that’s really what I do.

Well, certainly in Haze it comes through quite a lot with the difference between the Federation and the society on the planet.

One thing I would say is that the conflict that you that you’re talking about is a little stronger in my science fiction. It’s a little more subterranean, a little deeper and a little quieter in the fantasy, but it’s there.

How does it break down for you between science fiction and fantasy right now, in numbers of books?

We’re talking, with the ones I’ve turned in 29 science fiction novels, and 45 fantasy novels. In recent years it’s been more than two to one fantasy to science fiction.

Do you find an overlap in your readership between the two? Or do you find you have a science fiction readership and a fantasy readership?

Actually, I’d say I have three readerships. I have a science fiction readership, a fantasy readership, and a readership that does both.

There are definitely more fantasy readers. Sometimes the science fiction readers get a little irritated and say why don’t you write more science fiction stuff instead of that fantasy stuff.

I was on a panel recently at CanCon in Ottawa, talking about the challenges of writing series. Do you find that continuity and keeping everything straight becomes difficult as a series expands?

It’s difficult, but I’m not sure it becomes more difficult the way I do it. I think it would be very difficult done the way the Wheel of Time was done, but most of my series are not exactly series in what one would consider the traditional thing What I mean by that is, the Recluce series is now something like 22 books, but with one exception, there are no more than two books and sometimes only one book about one character. In a lot of ways, the continuing factor in Recluce is the world and the cultures, not the characters. Same thing is true of the Imager Portfolio. There is, in essence, a trilogy, followed by a five-book series about a different character, and then two two-book series. Spellsong Cycle, three about one character, two about another character. The Corean Chronicles was three, three, and two. So I have to keep the world consistent, but I don’t have quite as much to do with keeping the characters consistent over a long arc.

Do you have to go back and reread books when you go back into a series after you’ve written something else?

A little bit, but not a huge amount. Once I get it get back into a series it seems like most of the main threads and the pieces come back to me. I mean, I often have to check up on little details, particularly if I’ve got minor character that carries through the books. Usually with the major characters I can remember, and I have notes on them.

The name of this podcast is The Worldshapers. One of the things I’d like to ask all the guests is, do you hope that your fictional worlds will help shape the real world in some fashion? What impact, if any, would you like your fiction to have on the real world, or at least on your readers within the real world?

That’s one of the reasons why I write, because we tend to get bogged down in the real world, and I speak from almost 20 years in national U.S. politics. When you bring up a problem in the context of the real world, people get hung up with their tribe, they get hung up with everything around them. When you take that same problem and you put it in a fictional world or a fantasy world or a future world, people can look at the problem far more objectively and think, oh, there might be another way to deal with this.

I had a rather hard lesson with this very earlier in my career. With Bruce Levinson, we wrote a book called The Green Progression, and it actually got a review from the Washington Times that said it was one of the best views of contemporary politics ever written. It’s also one of the worst -selling books that Tor ever published. And to me that just proves the point. People really don’t want to look hard and fast at the current political structure, at their beliefs and how they affect the current political structure. They’re locked into it by their neighbors, their culture, their friends. You take the same problem and you put it in a fictional world, they’re much more open minded about it, and I hope somehow that some of what I do in that sense will help people look at these problems in a different light.

Have you had any feedback from readers to that effect?

I have. I’ve had more than a few people say that they wish I had either stayed in politics or got back gotten back into it. But no.

The other big question that I like to ask is very basic, and that is simply, why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? In particular, what do you think is the appeal of writing within the science fiction and fantasy genres, for you, and for anyone?

I don’t know that I can speak to anybody else. I write because I have to write. I wouldn’t be complete without writing. And that’s very selfish, but I try and leaven that with hopefully entertaining people and making them think. One of the things I try and leave all readers with in any of my books is at least a shred of hope, if not more.

There’s certainly a lot of fiction out there that seems to go the other way.

Yeah, and some of it’s very well written, but that’s just not my cup of tea. I think that, especially now, there’s way too much gloom, doom, and despair, and a lot of it is justified, but in the fictional world, I’d just like to give people shreds of hope, and sometimes more.

You’ve talked about in at least one interview I read about how important telling a good story is. Why did what do you think the appeal is of story to people? Why are we so interested in stories?

Because human beings are anecdotal. We have trouble with statistics. We’re innately number hampered. And we don’t really like facts. Stories are what we think about. Stories are what influence us. I can’t tell you why, but I know it’s so. Stories are what motivates us, and I’d like to be one of those doing some of the motivating.

What are you working on now?

I just turned in a very far-future hard science-fiction…actually, it’s a hard science-fantasy novel…entitled Quantum Shadows. The subtitle is Forty-Five Ways of Looking at a Raven.  That’s because every one of the 45 chapters is prefaced by a couplet to the Raven. who is one of the main characters. So that’s what  just happened.

Forty-Five Ways of Looking at a Raven sounds like a poetry book title.

Well, that’s why the subtitle. That’s why Quantum Shadows is the novel title. But there are only 45 couplets and I have 93,000 words. I think readers can deal with 45 couplets.

Currently I’m writing another Recluce book. It’s about a new character that nobody’s seen, so I don’t want to say much about it because I’ve only written about 65,000 words and I means I have another 120,000 words to go.

What will be the very next thing that’s published?

The next thing that will be published is the last book in the Imager Porfolio. That’s End Games and it’ll be out February 5 of next year (2019). After that, next August (2019) will be the Mage Fire War, which is the third book about Beltur in the Recluce Saga. And then after that’ll be Quantum Shadows.

And all published by Tor.

Right. As a matter of fact, my first two books were published by other publishers, but all my books are now under Tor and have been for 30 some years.

You said you’ve only ever worked with two editors. It sounds like you’ve had good experience with your editors.

I can’t tell you how fortunate I am that Jen and I get along and she pretty much followed in a lot of ways the example set by David, but I also realized something rather amusing about the whole thing. Most people don’t know that David, although he’s been a fixture in science fiction for years, most people outside of the inside don’t realize that he also had a PhD in comparative medieval literature, and what’s interesting here is that Jen has a PhD in theater history. So, I may be one of the few novelists who’s been edited by academic PhDs who are also very strong on science fiction and fantasy.

I think it has made it a lot easier for me dealing with them, because I tend to…let’s put it this way: there is a lot of subterranean depth in what I write, and it’s helpful to have editors who can recognize it.

 

Episode 12: David Weber

An hour-long (and then some) conversation with David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington science-fiction series, which this episode focuses on, and many others, including fantasy (Oath of Swords, The War God’s Own) other space opera (Path of the Fury, The Armageddon Inheritance) and alternate history  (1632 series with Eric Flint).

Website:
davidweber.net

David Weber’s Amazon Page

The Introduction:

David Weber was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but moved to Greenville, South Carolina with his family by the time he was two. Some of Weber’s first jobs within the writing/advertising world began after high school, when he worked as copywriter, typesetter, proofreader, and paste-up artist. He holds a Master of Arts in history from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. 

Weber’s first published novels grew out of his work as a wargame designer for the Task Force game Starfire. He wrote the Starfire novel Insurrection (1990) with Stephen White. This book was the first in a tetralogy that continued through their last collaboration, The Shiva Option (2002), which made The New York Times Best Seller List.

His most famous series is the Honor Harrington series, but he’s also written epic fantasy (Oath of Swords, The War God’s Own) other space opera (Path of the Fury, The Armageddon Inheritance) and alternate history  (1632 series with Eric Flint), and much more: he estimates some forty-seven published or in-the-works novels.

Weber and his wife, Sharon, live in Greenville, South Carolina. They have three children.

The Show:

David Weber likes to quote Robert Aspirin: “Professional writers are like rats, if we don’t wear our fingers down on the keyboard every day, our fangs grow through our brains and kill us.”

He started writing in fifth grade and has supported himself through writing-related activities of one sort or another since he was seventeen. He wrote his first novel-length work in Grade 10, and says, “I can’t imagine not writing for my own pleasure if not for anything else.”

His first published novel, Insurrection, was the consequence of some wargame design he’d done with his friend Steve White. They started exchanging short stories set in that world, and eventually realized they had a novel—which ran some 283,000 words in the first draft. That had to be pared down, but Baen bought it in 1989.

David says he “met science fiction” when he was ten years old. Mobility-restricted because of a broken arm, he read his father’s Fantasy Press hardcover of Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space and followed that up with Genus Homo by L. Sprague de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller. He was an eclectic reader, he says, because his parents’ position was their kids could read anything they wanted to, figuring, “If we were old enough to handle it we could handle it, and if we weren’t it would sail right past us.”

Other books he mentions are (to Ed’s delight) the Swallows and Amazonsseries by Arthur Ransome. On the science fiction side, he mentions Heinlein’s juveniles, Andre Norton, H.Beam Piper, Mack Reynolds, Gordon R. Dickson, and Anne McCaffrey.

Although Insurrection was his first published novel, his first submitted novel (rejected) was fantasy. That was Sword of the South, published just a year and a half ago or so. (The manuscript had been lost for years, but one of the floppy discs—one of the really big ones, using CPM and not DOS—turned up and then another, and an IT shop was able to recover the files “for a mere $800.” David rewrote it but says it’s still very close to the original novel. Most of the rewrite was to bring it in line with other novels set in the same universe.

In university, David studied military and diplomatic history. “Forever and ever,” he says, he thought he would teach college history and write on the side, but as he was finishing up his Master’s degree he came across a study revealing that half or more all tenured positions were currently held by people forty or younger. He decide he should alter his priorities, and instead took over his mother’s small advertising agency—she’d retired to look after her own mother, then in her eighties. David sold Insurrection about a year and a half after that, and was fortunate enough to be able to support himself writing fulltime with eighteen months or so of making that first sale.

Having been both a copywriter and a production journalist has taught him not to block, he notes: “Blocking is not an option.” There are times he can edit but not write fiction, because he’s thinking through a story problem, but he says he has “never had a time when I couldn’t sit down and put words on paper that made sense.”

“Writing is the medium through which I tell the story,” he says. “It’s the story that matters.” He believes it is the writer’s voice that wins or loses a readership: two different writers can tell the exact same story, and one will succeed and one fail with a given readership because of the manner in which they tell the story. “A weak story that is strongly told will succeed where a strong story that is weakly told will fail.”

While he has written passages and entire books he’s particularly proud of, for him, if the writing style becomes so important it begins drawing the reader’s attention away from the story, then the style has failed.

“Writing is something that is sort of a physical skill,” he says. “You learn it by doing it.”

David gives a synopsis of the Honor Harrington books, beginning with, “Honor Harrington is a six-foot-two-inch Eurasian martial-artist starship camera.” He notes the book both are an aren’t about Honor: she’s the focal point for most of the stories, but they’re actually about the series of wars she’s involved in. The first few books are very tightly focused on her, but as the war begins to spread, the stories take place on a broader canvas. There are a lot of secondary characters, “named characters,” David points out.

“I hate passages where you have somebody called the lieutenant seventeen times. I try to make the character a person.”

David has been writing Honor Harrington books for twenty-five years. He originally projected the entire series to be eight books: there are currently seventeen novels and six anthologies, counting the collaborations.

David said Jim Baen, publisher of Baen books, had noted that everything David wrote spawned sequels, so he suggested they try planning a series from the beginning. David sent ten ideas, one of which was the Honor Harrington series, one of which became his Safehold series (published by Tor), one the Multiverse series that began with Hell’s Gate, and one whose first book, The Golden Protocol, written with Jacob Holo, comes out in May.

What David didn’t know was that Baen had been looking for someone to write a version of “Horatio Hornblower in space” for twenty-five things. He leaped at the Honor Harrington proposal and offered David a four-book contract.  The first two books were released a month apart, which David says is “brilliant marketing.”

In fact, David says, he doesn’t think anyone else in the publishing industry has ever understood how to grow a new author’s readership so brilliantly.

Another thing Baen created was the Baen Free Library, where free ebooks of some Baen titles were made available—which is where Ed discovered Honor Harrington. “I believe it did nothing but increase readership,” David says. Baen also used to bind CDs containing earlier books and a series and other titles into the back of new hardcover releases in series.

“Spider Robinson once said Jim Baen was the only science fiction publisher who actually wanted to live in the twenty-first century, which makes it even sadder he got to see so little of the 21st century,” David says. (Baen died in 2006 at the age of sixty-three.)

Technology plays a major role in the Honor Harrington books. David said some of that comes from his background designing wargames, and some from the fact he’s been studying military and diplomatic history since he was ten or eleven years old. Before he wrote the first word of the first Honor Harrington novel (On Basilisk Station), he wrote an 80,000-plus word essay covering everything in the Harrington universe, from colonization to life sciences to technological history to politics.

The technology was in part shaped by the story David wanted to tell. It was important, he said, that there be tactical constraints. “In a lot of ways, the story is about what you character can’t do, not what about what your character can do,” he says. “It’s about the limitations they have to work around.

He decided technology would evolve over the course of the novels, and that technology would what would equalize the fight between societies where one was hugely outnumbered by the another.

He also wanted technology that made tactics important, because he’s always been interested in tactics as well as the operational and strategic levels of military campaigning. “I needed a system that would give scope to a tactician who was smart, and one which would create limitations on how you could approach a combat situation.” Readers had to be able to understand the tactical situation, as well, in order to understand why characters did what they did.

He notes that he wrote the first two books before the World Wide Web appeared, so some of his starting assumptions might be different if he was starting it today.

Ed noted that descriptions of technology often appear within action scenes, creating an odd sense of suspense by delaying the combat climax. David says he thinks this goes back to the writer’s voice.

“This is the natural way for me to tell the story. I can use that as a means to accelerate or decelerate the action tt the same time as it’s serving the function of telling the reader this is why the folks involved are really sweating what just happened or is about to happen…I’m not sure it’s a technique that would work for other writers.”

He thinks he got the balance of hardware descriptions, descriptions of societies and political systems, and development of planets and cultures write because some people tell him they don’t like some of those but like others. Almost everyone says they love the characters. “The characters are the common factor,” he says.

Some restrictions baked into the Honorverse are the impossibility of creating a self-aware AI (something David had dealt with in other novels and didn’t want to repeat), and the impossibility of faster-than-light communication—which means information can only move aboard courier starships.

“That had very interesting and significant implications for military operations. You spend a lot of time going from point A to point B. It also means a huge amount devolves onto the initiative of the station commanders, the task force commanders.” This puts the situation back to about where Earth was in the 18th or 19th century, when nobody could micromanage their forces from Washington or London or Moscow. They didn’t even now there’d been a battle until a courier came back with news, which might be that an invasion force was close behind!

That restriction, David says, is “a big part of the flavor or the books.” It allows him to “cut Honor Harrington loose from the apron strings.”

“She’s constantly aware she represents her Queen and star system, and that informs a lot of her decisions.” That means it’s her job to face overwhelming odds even with little or no chance of success…and that’s one of the things that makes her beloved by those who have followed the books.

Honor, in other words, is part of her character as well as her name (which David knew going). Her second name, Harrington, was a nod to C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels, so that she would have the same initials.

There are parallels between the Star Kingdom of Manticore and England, and apparent parallels between its rival, Haven, and the French Republic—but David says that latter paralle is a red herring, that Haven became what it becomes in the books not from a version of the French Republic but from a version of the United States, “if you look at their constitution.” David deliberately used his knowledge to create something that looked like the French Revolution within Haven—but really wasn’t. “I don’t know why people call me sneaky,” he adds.

David says he uses history as a source of building blocks rather thanb an operating model. Although Honor is set in a space-going version of the Napoleonic era, his original thought was that it would more closely follow the Punic Wars, only with Carthage winning. That changed when he realized his version of space combat meant controlling space around a planet meant controlling the planet, and planetary combat would be vanishingly rare.

“But I never intended the model I had built to be anything more than the starting point for cultures that had gone in different directions,” he says, so that readers would say to themselves, “iI know what he’s going to do here,” and then would be surprised when he did something else.

That initial lengthy monograph David wrote for himself about the Honorverse spelled out what would happen in the war through what became Honor Among Enemies. Originally, he planned to kill Honor in what became At all Costs. However, Eric Flint, writing in the Honorverse, wanted something both a Havenite and a Manticoran secret agent could hate enough to collaborate, and David gave him the genetic slave trade. By so doing, he moved a plot strand twenty years forward without really being aware of it, which meant he couldn’t kill off Honor and have her children become central characters as he’d intended.

“I think the readers would have forgiven me because of the way she would have died, the culmination and perfection of what she had lied her entire life to be and to do,” he says. “I won’t pretend I was broken-hearted when I realized I couldn’t kill her off, and not just because the character had become so successful, but because I had come to care so deeply about the character…I’ve killed characters it hurt as the author to write the death scene. This would definitely have been one of them.”

But, he notes, he’s writing military fiction. “Most people’s experience with violence is vicarious,” he says. “We form our views of it through what we see on the news in our entertainment.”

He thinks it’s important for someone writing military science fiction to make it clear that war is an ugly, ugly thing. “It can be a very noble calling to, as Heinlein said, place yourself between your home and war’s desolation, and I think the profession of arms is worthy of deep respect, but…not just bad guys die. If you’re going to be fair with the story and the weight of the story, you have to be willing to kill characters you know your readers love. It’s hard on you and them, but that’s part of what a combat situation is about…war, however exciting it may be, it is a voracious devourer of human life.”

David says the only character he did a detailed sketch of before he began was Honor—and even that wasn’t all that detailed in terms of where she finally wound up. He says he normally starts with a physical description and some aspect of their personality. As the character interacts with other characters and situations he goes back and adds notes.

When he’s writing solo, he adds, he tends not to outline (although he’s done more in the last four or five Honorverse novels just to keep things straight, by creating a detailed timeline). When he does a collaboration, there tends to be a much more detailed synopsis of where the story is going, so there’s no confusion between the two writers.

On his own, he says, “I do tend to have a very clear idea of where a series is going to begin and end, and a feel for what’s going to happen out in the middle, but I’m very much improvising on the theme as I go along in terms of getting from A to B.”

Wever says he can write 5,000 to 7,500 words a day when he’s in the groove. (The most he’s ever done was 34,000 words in a day, and then, he says, he slept for a couple of days.)

Each day, before he begins, he goes back and rereads and revises and tweaks the previous two day’s work, so every portion of th book had been revised and tweaked at least three times by the time he gets to the end. “This gives me an opportunity to strengthen and clean up as I go along, also builds storytelling momentum for the day’s work.”

David shattered his wrist in a fall about twenty years ago, which means today he can only type for about forty-five minutes at best. Since then, he’s been using Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate his books. One thing he’s noted is that Dragon prefers complete sentences, and so he now has a tendency to think more in complete sentences than when I was writing with a keyboard. “It’s interesting: the way in which you get those photons corralled on the display affects the way in which you write.”

Now the big philosophical question: why does he write this stuff?

“We are storytellers. That’s what we love to do. We love to create and craft stories. We communicate, we share those stories, by writing them down…I am fascinated by history, I am fascinated by the way that people’s personalities work, and how that motivates them to be who and what they are in real life. Telling stories lets me get inside that process…I honestly believe almost anyone could learn to love history if you could just get them to understand it is the greatest, most complex novel ever written. You have all of these characters, all of whom have their own motivations, their own responsibilities. How do they meet them? This is part of what makes us human beings, and defines the difference between responsible conscientious human beings and the predators. I think that I tell stories in part because that’s what I want to look at.

“Obviously, I want to entertain my readership, and don’t want to be in the position of lecturing. But any writer, the moment he or she begins to write, steps up onto a soapbox. If I present a character who would be unsympathetic to you under normal circumstances, but I get you inside that character…the character’s views might not be those you would espouse on your own, but you discover that you like this character…then I have made those contrarian views more accessible to you, and I think that’s something we are, especially these days, in sad need of.

“That’s why I play fair with the bad guys in the books. They are decent human beings, even if they come from a different value system…

“To me, that’s what being a human being is all about me. To me, good storytelling is about the human condition. Science fiction is a technological age’s fairy tale. It’s inspiration, its cautionary, it’s explicative, it’s all of those things…instead of using demigods and demons and what not, we’ve got scientists and cyborgs and computers, but we’re looking at the same issues, the same questions: what makes us human, and what is involved in living up to your responsibilities as a human.

“You can see that in Heinlein, in all really good science fiction.” He recalls Heinlein writing that, “Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.”

“It’s a very profound statement that cuts to the heart of what it means to e human. And I think that’s what I write about.”

Weber concludes, “It’s been a heck of a ride the last thirty years. I’ve been very fortunate in how well the books have done, and I’ve been very fortunate to be allowed to do something I love to do, and actually get paid for it.”

 

Episode 11: Joe Haldeman

An hour-long conversation with Joe Haldeman, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of The Forever WarThe Hemingway Hoax , Forever Peace and many others (more than two dozen), a SFWA Grand Master and a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Joe has also won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Locus Award, the Rhysling Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award.

Website:
joehaldeman.com

Facebook

Joe Haldeman’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Joe William Haldeman (born June 9, 1943) is an American science fiction author. He is best known for his 1974 novel The Forever War. That novel, and other of his works, including The Hemingway Hoax (1991) and Forever Peace (1997), have won major science fiction awards, including the Hugo Award and Nebula Award. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012.

Joe was born in Oklahoma City, OK. His family traveled, and he lived in Puerto Rico, New Orleans, Washington, DC, Bethesda, MD, and Anchorage, AK, as a child. In 1965, Haldeman married Mary Gay Potter, known as “Gay.” He received a Bachelor of Science in physics and astronomy from the University of Maryland in 1967.

He was immediately drafted into the United States Army and served as a combat engineer in Vietnam. He was wounded in combat and received a Purple Heart. His wartime experience was the inspiration for War Year, his first novel; later books such as The Hemingway Hoax and Old Twentieth have also dealt extensively with the experience of combat soldiers in Vietnam and other wars.

In 1975, he received an MFA degree in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Haldeman resides in Gainesville, FL. For thirty years, he was an Adjunct Professor teaching writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is also the fictional setting for his 2007 novel, The Accidental Time Machine. In addition to being an award-winning science-fiction writer, Haldeman is a painter and poet.

The Show

Your host first met Joe and Gay Haldeman at a convention in Calgary, as has been the case for several authors interviewed on The Worldshapers.

Joe started reading SF at around age eight or nine, when his father would come back with travels with books for both Joe and his brother, Jack, usually Norton science fiction novels. The one joe remembers the best is Rocket Jockey by Philip St. John, a pen name for Lester del Rey: basically, Grand Prix racing in outer space with rockets instead of race cars.

Joe was always interested in space and astronomy. There was no space travel until he was a teenager, and, he says, he was ready for it. “I don’t know what they were waiting on. Invent those rockets, I want to get into space!” He got his first telescope in Grade 4.

About the same time, he started writing. His father would bring yellow-lined paper tablets home from the office, and Joe would write comics in them, full of space travel, aliens, spies, “and stuff.”

“At age fourteen or fifteen, the presence of girls complicated my life and cut into my science-fiction activities,” he notes, but, “I survived that and went back to science fiction.”

He majored in astronomy at university, and was drafted straight out of college, which, he says, was pretty common because “they were sucking us up as fast as they could get us.”

While in the service he wrote long letters home, which eventually took the shape of a war diary, with the notion that Gay, whom he married in 1965, would keep the letters in order, so that when he came back, he could assemble them into a book about Vietnam.

He came back as a disabled war vet, and his first book was indeed about the war. War Yearwas written as part of a series of books for young readers—18, 19, or 20 years old—with limited reading abilities. He was given a vocabulary list of 1,000 words he could use, along with whatever technical terms he needed. He says it was an interesting challenge, and not a bad idea for a beginning writer. “Art thrives under restrictions,” he says.

The Forever War was essentially his master’s thesis at the University of Iowa. “The academic establishment, if you can call it that, thought I was crazy to write a science fiction novel,” he says; they saw that as children’s literature.

However, his advisor at the University of Iowa was himself a combat veteran who thought it was a good idea. His first novel had also been about his wartime experience. “After all, what has happened to you that is more interesting than being shot at and almost dying?”

Ed mentioned One Lucky Devil: The First World War Memoirs of Sampson J. Goodfellow, his grandfather-in-law’s First World War memoirs, which he just edited and published through his new publishing company Shadowpaw Press.

After the war, Joe and Gay went to Mexico, where Gay had been before (she has a degree in Spanish). “I said, sure, I’ve been to one foreign country, it would be fun to go to one where they aren’t shooting at you. That was the beginning of a lifelong pattern of exploration and investigating foreign places and foreign ways of living.”

The powerful notion at the center of The Forever War: taking his Vietnam experience and treating it as a metaphor, about going to another world and being changed by the relativistic aspects of spaceflight, coming back to a world that’s completely different because so much time had passed.

The title came about in conversation with his brother, Jack C. Haldeman (who would also write science fiction). He told his brother during a car trip about the idea, and wondered what to title it. His brother said, “How about, ‘The War that Went Forever,’ which became The Forever War.

Joe gave the synopsis: a young man trained to be a scientist is snatched by the political system he’s in and made into a soldier against his will. He goes through the usual military rites of passage and comes out the other end rather beaten up and older and not sure what he’s going to do with his life. He meets a girl, as a fellow soldier (a big new idea at the time, Joe says), and they have to face life after the war.

Joe says he was written books both from very detailed outlines (some early projects, which proved to be pretty good training) and, mostly without.

The Forever War, he notes, was actually written as a series of novelettes. He was writing for a living, needed to make money, and knew he could sell novelettes to Analog (formerly Astounding). John W. Campbell was the editor there when he started, but Campbell died while he was writing the series. Fortunately, the new editor, Ben Bova, suggested he continue—which he did.

St. Martin’s Press published the book, even though it hadn’t done science fiction before. Joe says he met the editor of young adult books at St. Martin’s at a cocktail party and pitched him the idea as a YA novel. “He said, cool, let’s do that.” Joe adds, “We were both kind of plastered.”

The editor said to create an outline for the book and send it over. He bought it, and published it, and Joe’s career was on its way.

Joe doesn’t rewrite very much, he says. He writes very slowly, so that his first draft is pretty much his last draft. Editors usually don’t suggest many changes. Later on, as a writing teacher, he realized he couldn’t teach people to write that way. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, just figure it out and write the goddamned thing.’ If it was that easy everybody could do it.”

He mostly writes long-hand. “I like the fluidity of handwriting,” he says. However, some books are a mix of handwriting, typing, and computer printouts.

He enjoys taking a blank, bound book and writing a book in it, “so that when I have finished the novel, I have a handwritten book, or several volumes. I’ve got them up on my bookcase here, a whole eight or nine series of handwritten books.”

Fortunately, he says, his handwriting is very legible, although he doesn’t know where that comes from.

Joe says he likes the physical connection with the manuscript handwriting gives him. “I like to form the letters and make the paragraphs and everything. It’s like the difference between art and craft. Craft contains art, art is expressed by craft. I think many writers are both craftsmen and artists.”

Asked about characterization, Joe notes that by the time he’d finished his first science fiction novel, he’d read ‘probably a dozen’ books on how to write books, many of which discussed characterization exhaustively, as a result, when he teaches writing, “ I answer my students’ questions about this and I’m usually not sure if it’s something I figured out myself or something I read in a library book.”

He says one thing “unusual but salutary” is to write a main character with a different gender or sexual orientation than yourself, so the details of the emotional parts of the character have to be invented. “It makes it easier because everything isn’t autobiographical.”

The Forever War achieved great acclaim. Asked if he was surprised by the success, Joe jokes, “I don’t think any successful writer is every surprised by his success. Of course, it’s going to be a bestseller. What am I, chopped liver? I am a writer. I’m going to make a lot of money, be famous, and get the girls.”

He goes on to say he had a tremendous amount of luck. “I knew the right people. I didn’t go out trying to meet the right people, but I stumbled into wonderful men and women who guided me along the way. If I didn’t start off writing science fiction, it would have been a lot harder to go through an apprenticeship. But science fiction writers hang together. If they see some young person trying to do it, they’ll say, ‘Well, here, let me look at that and I’ll give you my opinion.’”

He adds, “I had a lot of honest opinions thrown at me, some of which I ignored, many of which I followed.”

One accolade he received meant more to him than bestsellerdom: a letter from Robert A. Heinlein praising the book. “I grew up reading his books, and to have him, without him being solicited write a fan letter…that was incredible.”

In Calgary, Joe talked about the community aspect of SF. He agrees, a lot of SF writers find a family within the genre, although he thinks that may be less true now because there are so many more science fiction writers and so many subgroups. When he was treasurer of SFWA, there were only about 175 members, of whom only about half were fulltime writers. Now he guesses the total membership is around 5,000, and probably 1,000 call themselves SF writers as their main profession.

Joe notes people wanted a sequel from the very beginning, even though he thought the book didn’t need a sequel. “They kept pestering,” he notes, “and there was this soft rustling sound of folding money.” That was a big part of it, he says, as well as the appeal of writing a book that he wouldn’t even have to sell. “You just say, this will be a sequel to The Forever War and people will come to you with check books.” In the end there were two sequels, Forever Peace (a thematic sequel) and Forever Free (a direct sequel).

There has also been a graphic novel series based on The Forever War. Joe notes he didn’t know anything about graphic novels, but head read a few and thought they were cool. Then, at a science fiction convention, an artist came up to me and pitched a graphic novel of The Forever War. “I said, wonderful, let’s go do it. He wrote up a few pages of storyboards, and we pitched it together.” That began a long collaboration with artist Marvano. “Marv is an extremely good artist, and I like his style. We were very much in parallel all the way.”

There has also been a stage play, produced by Stuart Gordon, with whom Joe also worked on the movie Robot Jox. The basic idea of that, Joe says, was “huge clanking robots that had people inside them,” the was somewhat inspired by Transformers. He notes the original title was RoboJox, but someone thought that was too close to RoboCop.

A film version of The Forever War has been in development for years. Joe says all he can say about that is “that it has probably given me about a third of the money I’ve earned in my lifetime, even though the film hasn’t been made.”

His current project inverts a classic SF situation. As Joe explains it, your basic SF hero is a guy, about thirty years old, involved in some sort of an adventure job, he does things that requires facing danger and going into exotic locales and interacting with bad people and doing stuff and being a hero.

“One of the most basic tools of the writer is turning things inside out,” he notes. So, what if, instead of being a young guy, the hero is an older woman, retired from a career in industrial espionage. She needs money, but all of her useful skills are “pretty much illegal.” She wants to get hired, but she’s in her 70s, and nobody will hire her, so she has to generate work for herself. “She’s kind of a freelance hellraiser. Her main disguise is that she’s old and harmless looking, and she’s not harmless at all, because she hasn’t forgotten all the derring-do she’s learned and practiced.”

Joe also writes poetry: in fact, he says, he’s been writing poetry longer than he’s been writing science fiction.  “I love poetry, I love the technical challenge, but nobody gives a shit if you’ve been published in poetry,” he says. “Who cares? Everybody writes poems. I just sort of do it for my own pleasure.”

His work as a writing instructor at MIT started as a one-semester job and extended for thirty years, when he retired himself. He liked teaching engineering students, he said: “They’re my kind of people.” He also confirms something Ed (married to an engineer) has heard from his wife—that engineers can’t spell.

“Most of them can’t,” Joe says. “But what difference does it make? They’ve got spellcheck.”

Finally, asked why he writes, Joe says, “The easy answer, which is the true one, is I get paid a lot for it. If I didn’t get paid, I probably wouldn’t do it. To continue writing book after book, you have to have something wrong with you. If you can get paid for your mental illness, that’s great.”

He notes there must be professional killers who are psychopaths who have learned to make a living from their psychopathology. At least his psychopathology is pretty harmless, he says, “I just fill up books with words.”

As to whether his writing has had any impact on the world, Joe says he hopes it has made people “more sane and forgiving in dealing with other people,” although he notes he’s met some of his readers who are crazy and think he is crazy, too.

“I used to take this seriously than I do now,” he says. “I think the world would have turned out pretty much the same if I hadn’t appeared on the scene. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am. When we’re young, we all think we can change the world. If we do change the world, we don’t like to admit it’s largely by accident. It’s what happens. I look at the lives of writers who have become famous and influential and I am continually struck with the effect that coincidence has on their lives and how little planning actually goes into it.”

He finishes, “If you’re lucky, you make a living from it.” All you have to do, he says, is have one successful book. Then other people’s lives enter into it, and all you have to do is keep writing good books, which isn’t that hard: “You just adjust the verniers and do it again.”

 

Episode 10: Seanan McGuire

An hour-long conversation with Seanan McGuire, Campbell, Hugo, and Nebula Award-winning author of more than twenty books in various series, including the bestselling October Daye and InCryptid series, with a special focus  on the first two books in her Ghost Roads series featuring the hitchchiking ghost Rose Marshall, Sparrow Hill Road and The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, published by DAW Books. Seanan also writes biomedical science fiction thrillers as Mira Grant.

Websites:
seananmcguire.com
miragrant.com

Twitter:
@SeananMcGuire

Patreon:
Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Seanan McGuire was born in Martinez, California, and raised in a wide variety of locations, most of which boasted some sort of dangerous native wildlife. Despite her almost magnetic attraction to anything venomous, she somehow managed to survive long enough to acquire a typewriter, a reasonable grasp of the English language, and the desire to combine the two.

Seanan is the author of the October Daye urban fantasies, the InCryptid urban fantasies, and several other works, both stand-alone and in trilogies or duologies. She also writes under the pseudonym “Mira Grant.”

In her spare time, Seanan records CDs of her original filk music. She is also a cartoonist, and draws an irregularly posted autobiographical web comic, “With Friends Like These…”.

Seanan was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her novel Feed (as Mira Grant) was named as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2010. In 2013 she became the first person ever to appear five times on the same Hugo Ballot. Her novella “Every Heart A Doorway” received the 2016 Nebula Award for Best Novella, the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novella, and the 2017 Locus Award for Best Novella.

Seanan lives in an “idiosyncratically designed” labyrinth in the Pacific Northwest, which she shares with her cats, a vast collection of creepy dolls and horror movies, and, she says, sufficient books to qualify her as a fire hazard.

The Show

First, we note we share an editor (Hugo Award-winning Sheila E. Gilbert) and publisher (DAW Books), but haven’t chatted much until now.

Seanan says her interest in writing “just happened”—she actually got a prescription for a typewriter as small child because she was giving herself migraines trying to write faster than she could. She says her mother associated her not being dead with the sound of the manual typewriter banging, usually around 3 a.m.,” and adds, “it’s kind of a wonder my mother did not drown me in the nearest creek.”

Her interest in writing stories (as opposed to just writing everything down) arose when she discovered that was something people could do. She recalls a show on USA Network, Ray Bradbury Presents, which featured Bradbury presenting stories, some based on his work, some on others. Every episode began with a man at a typewriter, pulling out a sheet of paper out and throwing it into the air. That paper would become the logo, and then the show would start. This annoyed Seanan because of they’d taken out the credits they’d have had thirty more seconds for stories.

Her grandmother explained the man was Ray Bradbury, who had written the stories, and so they’d let him do whatever he wanted. Until then, Seanan had never imagined that people were allowed to make up stories: for her, creating stories was almost holy. It seemed to her that for someone to be an author, a person who is the reason a story exists in the world, there should at least be an entrance exam. (There isn’t.) Upon learning that was an option, she was very firm (at age six) that this was what she was going to do.

Seanan grew up in the Concord, CA, area, a semi-rural suburb in the San Francisco Bay area. She wrote a lot of fan fiction as she grew older, “some of which was terrible, some of which quite good for a six, seven, eight years old.” She started writing her own original stories in middle school, and once she started, she said, it was hard to make her stop, even though other kids mocked her for it. “I am a perpetual motion machine of irritation.”

She wrote her first novel when she was twelve, about 60,00 words long. “It will never see the light of day.”

Seanan is also a singer/songwriter. That also began in childhood. “All little kids are singers, most are songwriters,” she says. “They make up songs all the time.” The earliest song she knows existed of her was a dishwasher-loading song, to help her remember where things went.

“It gets beaten out of you at some point,” she says. “People laugh, and humans are susceptible to mockery. We don’t like it, as a general rule. I had a very poor sense of whether I was being laughed at, so I merrily bumbled through.”

In third grade, she discovered she could make money entering poetry and songwriting competitions—very helpful, because she grew up very poor. “Finding out I could win $30 for writing a song was like free money.” The money she earned that way paid a decent number of school supply bills.

Seanan is a cartoonist, as well (“not great, but I enjoy it”). That, too, began in childhood: all children are artists, she notes.

All children are also interested in the fantastical, so it’s not surprising she started writing it. After all, she says, “Ninety percent of all children’s media is fantastical.” Her first fandom was My Little Pony, which, she notes, “is the story of a matriarchal world where talking unicorns rule the day. It’s hard to get much more fantastic than the things we hand to kids and tell them, this is normal.”

As a result, she says, “I was just writing in the spaces I had been told were mine to inhabit. I never left them.”

Seanan majored in folklore and herpetology in university. She kept writing, but she didn’t take any creative writing classes: in high school because she couldn’t afford them, and in college because she didn’t have time for elective courses that didn’t connect to one of her two majors, and as well, she lacked the prerequisite high school courses.

Her folklore major continues to play a huge role in her writing. “I write fairy tales now,” she notes. She’s amassed a huge folklore library of her own. “The biggest advantage is, I know what I’m looking for.”

Around 2002, she finished the first October Daye book, the first thing she’d finished she thought someone else might want to read, and began trying to sell it. It didn’t find a home until DAW picked it up in 2008.

But she’d been writing a lot before she was trying to sell, in the “fan fiction mines.” She wrote huge quantities of fan fiction, which people read and gave feedback on. This helped her learn a lot of useful things, such as how to take critiques, and that even if a story is “practically perfect in every way,” there are going to be people who don’t like it.

There is a strong tradition of beta readers in fan fiction. Many of hers from those days are still with her, beta reading the October Daye books before they go to DAW, which she finds “soothing,” since “I want to look perfect all the time.”

DAW was a good choice for the October Daye books for a couple of reasons. One was that DAW has a reputation for keeping all the books in an ongoing series in print, which would be important for a series as long as Seanan hoped this one would be.

As well, Tanya Huff, another DAW author and a good friend of Seanan’s, told her Sheila, who is also Tanya’s editor, was someone Seanan would be able to work with well.

Sure enough, DAW took the book, launching Seanan’s career. “Tanya was correct, DAW was a good fit for me.”

Seanan also writes as Mira Grant. (She won’t say where the pseudonym came from because “it’s a complicated horror movie joke that no one has managed to decode. Someone somewhere will get to feel very clever someday…”)

Seanan says under her own name she writes fantasy and some fantastic horror, whereas Mira writes biomedical science fiction thrillers. For Seanan, “all that matters is the nightmare.” But everything Mira writes is grounded in scientific fact. “I will generally allow Mira a single point of scientific implausibility,” Seanan says. “Everything else drawn from rigorous scientific study and research.”

How rigorous? For the parasitology series, about genetically engineered tapeworms and the frailties of the modern medical system, she spoke to multiple paristologists from multiple countries, studied up on the hygiene hypothesis, and even infected herself with a goat tapeworm for eighteen months so she could accurately document the sensation of having a tapeworm moving through her body. “That was Timmy. I miss Timmy. He’s not with us anymore.”

Mira Grant has to have a level of plausibility in her writing that Seanan doesn’t have to have in hers. Seanan says she’s far creepier at fewer than about eighty pages because she doesn’t have to set up the scientific underpinnings.

She’s so careful with scientific accuracy with Mira partially because she loves to “wallow” in these topics, but also partially because of sexism. “When you’re writing hard science fiction as a female-presenting author have to be twice as rigorous as your male peers,” she says. She notes she’s been on panels were men were applauded when they said they didn’t do any research, they just made things up, right before the women, herself included, were interrogated on a simple error that wasn’t incorrect at the time of the books’ writing. “Mira,” Seanan says, “is writing in a part of the genre where women are still asked to justify our existence.”

Seanan synopsizes the Rose Marshall books, Sparrow Hill Roadand The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, this way:

Rose Marshall is a hitchhiking ghost who died in the 1950s, run off the road on her way to her senior prom. She has continued her existence, if not her life, and is constantly grappling with the folk process: because she is a hitchhiking ghost, people tell her story in different ways, some of which she doesn’t really approve of very much. She moves along the ghost roads, in the eternal twilight underneath our daylight realms, trying to both avoid and destroy Bobby Cross, who ran her off the road and is a danger to both herself and other ghosts, who don’t want to do any harm to anyone.

Seana says Rose started as a non-player character in a 1950s supernatural game, Martin’s Passage. A friend asked her to come in and play a hitchhiking ghost for a short time for the storyline he was running. He left her creation up to Seanan, and she “just refused to give her back.”

Next, Rose became a song, “Pretty Little Dead Girl.” Seanan was already starting to play with the idea that Rose would let her experiment with the folk process. That song is the “filthy libel” version of Rose’s story, in which she’s a murderer intentionally driving motorists to her death.

Seanan wrote many more songs, each casting Rose in a different light; then Jennifer Brozek, editor of an online magazine called The Edge of Propinquity, asked her to tell the story of what really happened. Every month for a year she wrote a short story telling the truth about Rose. At the end of the year, DAW agreed to publish them as a “fix-up novel.” The Girl in the Green Silk Gownfollowed this year.

Seanan has recorded many of the songs, but the CD is currently out of print, so they’re very hard to find. She’s written a few more, but finds it hard to write the songs when she’s working with Rose in the long form, because the character is so “awake” that settling her down to intentionally tell lies about her is complicated.

Writing songs and poetry and writing books are very different, Seanan says. Songs and poetry are “linguistically heightened” form of storytelling, where you have to “turn everything up to 11” because you’re trying to make your point in such a compressed space.

Word choice is more important in songs, and the narrative beats are different. “It doesn’t make one better or worse than the other.”

The songs helped her develop the world, because they establish that within the context of the world, Rose is a story everyone has heard; everyone feels they have a relationship with her because they heard some version of her story around a campfire when they were eight.

To develop any fictional world, Seanan says, you need to figure out what you need to do: what story are you trying to tell, and what structure does the world you are putting together have to have to be able to stand up to and support that story?

Rose is a hitchhiker ghost, which have existed all throughout history—but she’s a North American hitchhiker ghost, which is unlike those anywhere else. So Seanan did a lot of research into hitchhiker ghosts. “Academic accuracy is important to me even if no one else cares.”

Then she had to set the rules of how ghosts became hitchhiker ghosts. She asked herself a lot of questions to pin everything down. “You just keep drilling down until you have a structure that can support what you need.”

On the other hand, she doesn’t lock everything down, so she has space to do other things she might need to do as the story progresses. She compares it to a really big, slow-moving game of improv, where you always have to be prepared to say, “Yes, and…”

Just as important as the rules are the exceptions. If there are no exceptions to the rules, the world is too rigid. If there are too many, the world is too loose.

Seanan starts with a synopsis of a page or two, but she does her best work when there’s a certain amount of fluidity involved: if the story is locked down too firmly, she feels she’s already told it and loses interest.

Characters do occasionally pop into existence as she’s writing, and become unexpectedly important, but so far that hasn’t happened in this series. “Everyone is very well-behaved,” shje says.

Rose is both an eternal teenager and very old; a hard balance to hit, Seanan says. Her setting makes being dead kind of a party, so she needed to be sure there were costs to continued existence, reasons Rose had to mourn her life. One reason is that ghosts don’t change, so Rose is always going to be a teenager, a little bit insecure, and lacking the emotional depth she would have been able to develop if she had lived. She doesn’t have great coping skills (neither did Seanan when she was a teen: she says Rose “is a disaster, and I love her”). Yet, Rose has seen a lot of stuff in the decades since she died, and she can’t completely cut that off. She finds actual teenagers exhausting, but wants their approval, as well. She is increasingly a girl out of time.

Seanan says some of her books are remarkably clean at the end of the first draft, so much so she feels like she slept through the writing of the second draft. Others are “a hot buttered mess.” One step all books go through is a complete retype, even though she works on a computer. She begins on page one and retypes the entire book. “It enables me to reassess every single word I’ve chose. I don’t recommend it unless you type really fast.”

She always runs her books past her beta readers. Some have been with her as long as twenty years. She calls them the “Machete Squad,” and each has his or her on specialty, from grammar to blocking to continuity.

Sheila Gilbert at DAW then reads the book and provides note. “Either I argue with her, which enables me to refine my understanding, or she’s correct, and when she’s correct I make those changes. She’s been doing this a really long time, she knows some ways better than I do what the market looks like.”

Seanan is prolific, always juggling multiple projects. Part of it is that she doesn’t sleep enough, she says, but as well, she made life choices that support working the way she does. She says whenever someone says you can have it all without giving something up, they haven’t stopped and assessed what they did and didn’t give up. She notes that she’s unmarried, and lives in a house in the Pacific Northwest with two housemates, to make sure she has money coming in from the rental of their rooms. She doesn’t have children. She didn’t make that choice for her writing career but because she didn’t think she’d be a very good parent, but if she had them, she’d have to wonder if she could support them since they would have an impact on her writing time, and that’s the source of her income. She says she doesn’t regret her choices, but it’s disingenuous to pretend they haven’t had an influence.

“You can be a full-time parent and write, I just don’t think you can write as much as I do until your kids are a little older.”

Why does she write?

“If I don’t, I go slowly out of my mind…I write because I don’t have a choice. I write stories of the fantastic because those are the stories I fell in love with and I decided that was the genre I was too stubborn to give up on. I write because if I didn’t, I’d probably be dead.”

Asked if she hopes her writing helps shape the real world, she says, “I do. Not to get political, but Terry Pratchett referred to humanity as the storytelling ape. We shape and reshape our world by telling stories both to ourselves and each other. We point to an open plain and say, what if there was a city there, let me tell you the story of the city there. We point to a disease and say, what if children didn’t have to die of this disease, let me tell you a story about a treatment, and we chase those stories and we bring them into being because that is what it means to be human.

“There is a profound alienation in not seeing yourself in story, in being presented with story after story, after world after world, where only certain kinds of people are good enough to be heroes, where only certain relationships are considered clean enough to hold up to children. If every time you paint me you paint me as a villain, eventually I’m going to start to think of myself as villainous. And that’s why we need diverse voices writing and that’s why we need diverse stories being told, and that’s why, frankly, no matter what demographic we personally fit into, we need to be including characters and people who aren’t exactly like us, because if we don’t see someone in a story, a part of us doesn’t know how to see them as human. So the way I would like to shape the world is the way I think every storyteller shapes the world. I want to shape the world by saying, “This is what humanity looks like.” But I want to be one of the people that’s holding up as wide a mirror as possible, and reflecting as much of humanity as possible, so that when I say, this is what it’s like to be human, I’m not saying, only this one small kind of person is human, I’m saying everybody is, and maybe could we just stop being assholes to each other for one goddamn minute.”

Episode 9: David B. Coe / D.B. Jackson

An hour-long conversation with David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson, award-winning author of more than twenty books, including epic fantasies, urban fantasies, historical fantasies, and more, and as many short stories, with a special focus on Time’s Children, the first book in The Islevale Cycle, published by Angry Robot Books.

Websites:
davidbcoe.com
dbjacksonauthor.com

Twitter:
@DavidBCoe
@DBJacksonAuthor

Facebook:
David B. Coe
D. B. Jackson

David B. Coe’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

David B. Coe is the award-winning author of more than twenty books — including epic fantasies, urban fantasies, historical fantasies, media tie-ins, and a book on writing — and as many short stories. His work has been translated into a dozen languages. As D.B. Jackson he writes The Islevale Cycle, a new time travel/epic fantasy series from Angry Robot Books. The first book, Time’s Children, is just out. The second novel, Time’s Demon, will be out in May 2019. A third book, Time’s Assassin, is also in the works.

D.B. also writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. The first volume, Thieftaker, came out in July 2012 from Tor Books. This was followed by Thieves’ Quarry (Tor, July 2013),  A Plunder of Souls (Tor, July 2014), and Dead Man’s Reach (Tor, July 2015).  In addition to the novels of the Thieftaker Chronicles, D.B. has written and published several short stories set in the Thieftaker world. Many of these have now been gathered in a collection called Tales of the Thieftaker (Lore Seekers Press, 2017).

As David B. Coe, he has published a contemporary urban fantasy series called The Case Files of Justis Fearsson. (Spell Blind, His Father’s Eyes, and Shadow’s Blade. All were published by Baen Books. He has also written several epic fantasy series, including the LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, and Blood of the Southlands.

David B. Coe was born in New York, and has since lived in New England, California, Australia, and Appalachia. He did his undergraduate work at Brown University, worked for a time as a political consultant, went to Stanford University, where he earned a Master’s and Ph.D. in U.S. History, and finally returned to his first love: writing fiction.

D.B. is married to a college professor who is far smarter than he is, and together they have two beautiful daughters, both of whom are also far smarter than their father. Life’s tough that way. They live in a small college town on the Cumberland Plateau.

The Episode:

We begin with a shout out to When Words Collide, “just a wonderful convention,” and DragonCon: “Mardi Gras for geeks.”

David grew up loving stories and knew early on in life telling stories what he wanted to do for a living. He got interested in Fantasy after being cast as Bilbo in The Hobbit at a summer camp. He became totally enamored of the genre and Tolkien after that.

He took a workshop-style writing class in high school which enjoyed, and went to college intending to be a creative writing major—but then found himself in a workshop where everyone hated genre fiction and picked on the kid who was writing it, so he got away from writing for a while, to the tune of four years of college and six years of graduate school getting a PhD in history.

After that he had several months to apply for academic jobs, and his wife, who had already taken an academic job, said, “You have all summer, why don’t you try writing and see if you prefer that to history?” He ended up writing the first five chapters of what became Children of Amarid, the first book in the Lontobyn Chronicle, which won the Crawford Award and launched his career.

One Thursday in March he was offered a job teaching history–and the very next day he heard from Tor, wanting to buy his novel. He had the weekend to “decide what I wanted to do when I grew up.” He decided he wanted to pursue a writing career, and hasn’t looked back.

He says it was a hard choice at the time, but absolutely the right choice, and he continues to find his academic background in environmental U.S. history valuable in worldbuilding.

He creates his own maps, and mentions when he was still a newbie he ran into George R.R. Martin at a convention and told him he was working on something new. Martin asked to see his map, looked at it for about two minutes, and then said, “That’s a good map.” David says he was “flying for the rest of the comvention.”

The world of Islevale in which Time’s Children is set is a world of islands and archipelagos,  meant as an homage to Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea, one of the earliest fantasies David read, and one he fell in love with.

After synopsizing Time’s Children (you can read a synopsis here), David explains where the D.B. Jackson pseudonym came from. He’d been writing epic fantasy for Tor, and when he switched over to the Thieftaker books, urban fantasy with a historical element, Tor was concerned about branding, so D.B. Jackson was known. Now he’s probably better known as D.B. Jackson than David B. Coe. Angry Robot was given the choice of bylines for Time’s Children and liked the critical response he’s received under D.B. Jackson. so went that route.

D.B. are, of course, his first two initials. His late father’s name was Jack, so Jackson is his way of honouring him.

David says he’s unaware of another fantasy novel dealing with time travel, which is usually done in a science fiction setting. There’s the Time Turner in the Harry Potter books, but David says (as a fan of the books), it’s a terrible device, used poorly. “If time travel is that easy,” he says, “why are Harry Potter’s parents dead, and why is Voldemort still alive?”

He sought to make time travel difficult–physically costly for the person doing the travel–and incredibly rare. There are not a lot of “Walkers,” they pay a terrible price, and the process i harrowing. (The main price is that they instantly age however many months or years they travel back in time–and again when they return.)

David thinks the book started with the idea of being a child in a man’s body, of intellect and emotion being out of sync with the body. He remembers holding his infant daughter worrying about the fact he was no responsible for her when he felt barely more than a child himself.

“I wanted to tap into that sense of taking on responsibility that we’re not ready for.”

David says his process of worddbuilding is to ask questions of himself in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Although he usually outlines very closesly, Time’s Children resisted that. “The process was more fraught and more difficult and more harrowing than any other writing experience.” He says he was winging it much of the way, and “winging it” in a time-travel story meant “my brain nearly exploded.” It also meant a huge rewrite at the end because “I’d fouled up so much of it.”

In the end, though, the challenge was worth it, even though at the time it was deeply frustrating. He mentions that when it comes to creative process, every writer works differently, and on every project the writer is forced to kind of reinvent that process. He also says that while there are things you can teach students of writing (he teaches writing quite often), when it comes to process, all you can do is offer suggestions and describe what works for you.

He says Time’s Children was the hardest book he’s ever written. He spent six months trying to outline it, until his wife said he should just write it; then, when he sent it to his agent, his agent said, “It’s not there, here’s what missing.” It took him another several months to tear the book down and rewrite it, but all that hard work makes the finished product more gratifying: he believes it’s the best book he’s ever written.

He adds that even when he’s doing his most detailed outlining, maybe a paragraph per chapter, the outlines remain fairly loose because he knows that when he gets halfway through he’ll have to re-outline because things have changed. “I like to create in the moment.”

Still, he says, “I need to know where I’m going,” and with Time’s Children he felt hw as “groping through the darkness.”

David has written novelizations (like the novelization of Robin Hood). For that he was working from a script and given very little creative leeway. He calls it “color-by-numbers” writing, and while he was thankful for the work, he didn’t find it fun: it was slog (but a fast one–he only had five weeks).

He’s now working on a novel-tie in for the History Channel series about the Knights Templar, called Knightfall. That one, he’s finding fun.

He does a fair amount of research for any project. For the Islevale books, he had to research boats, since he decided to do an Earthsea-style world, and things like weaponry and sea currents and navigation.

He remembers once spending hours to research wheelwrighting because he’d decided to make a character a wheelwright. In the end, it was only a one-page scene. “But I wanted to get it right…even if we don’t include all the things we learn in our research, the weight of that knowledge can be conveyed in just a few lines…One detail can bring so much authenticity to the entire scene.”

He sees character work as another form of worldbuilding, and researches them the same way. He creates detailed character sketches, and sometimes writes short stories (which he can sometimes sell) to develop them further.

For example, there’s a non-human character called Droë in the Islevale books, a time demon. He wrote a short story about her called “Guild of the Ancients” which was published in ana nthology.

David believes the ability to step into the emotions and thought processes of characters is the same thing that makes us good fathers and husbands and friends and siblings. “That’s what makes us helpful to the people we love in our daily lives, that ability to stretch our empathy to the point where we’re taking on their emotion.”

Because of the ages of the characters, Time’s Children might at first glance appear to be a young adult novel, and David was fine with that. “Write the novel you want to write, and when you’re done, then you figure out how you market it. ..I was aware with the romance, and even a romance triangle of an odd sort, I was writing something akin to YA novels.”

However, while there are themes that cater to a YA audience, there are also themes that an adult audience is drawn too. And, he adds, the second book, Time’s Demon, is not a YA novel at all: it’s serious and dark and also sexual in a certain way. “My editors were aware of this, they knew not to market it as a YA.”

Returning to the notion of feeling young in an old body, David says he and his wife have biologist friend who, when he was young, studied mating habits in birds, and as he got older has started studying aging patterns in birds. “Our professional lives often mirror our emotional interests and concerns.”

David is “a middle-aged guy,” and he remembers thinking, when he was in high school, that when he was his parents’ age he would feel very different because they were so old. But now that he is that age, he doesn’t feel all that different. ” I feel I’m the same person I was twenty or thirty years ago. Certainly still immature…This idea of aging but still feeling the same internally was speaking very powerfully to me.”

Baby Sofya is a major character in Time’s Children. David says that, for all the demons and assassins and time travel and magic in these books, they’re also very serious to him because they’re about family: creating family out of the ashes of chaos and loss and tragedy and violence. They’re rebuilding family in order to keep this infant alive.

He says there’s something about the  uncompromising needs of a baby that creates exigencies with which your protagonists cannot negotiate: the baby must be fed, changed, carried. It both creates intense stakes for the characters and yet also offers a certain lightness. “I’ve loved writing Baby Sofia in these books and making her central.

David says there was a lot more rewriting of this book than he usually has to do, but it was not so much a matter of the writing as the plotting. Almost all of the notes he got back from his agent had to do with narrative structure, and that was one of the best lessons he learned in this book. He was proud of the prose, which he thought sparkled: the trouble was, it didn’t “crackle.” There was no energy in it: it was all about his main character, Tobias, hiding, and it needed to be more about him being proactive. In the end, David cut 40,000 words, and then added back 60,000, totally changing the feel of the book.

Members of his writing group (the first he’s ever belonged to) provided valuable feedback, especially since none of them are fantasy writers and only a couple of them even read it. “They were able to show me places where my worldbuilding wasn’t clear enough or magic system bogged down in details too heavy for non-genre readers.”

Some of that advice was contradictory, but as he tells students, in the end, the book belongs to the writer. “There are going to be mistakes. They’re going to be my mistakes.” He says he’s all for the idea of “killing our darlings,” but ultimately the book has to speak to him as the author. “When I got contradictory advice I followed my heart and followed what my characters were telling me.”

Angry Robot is a new publisher for David, so he had a new editor, Nick Tyler, who also provided valuable input, although by that point the book was so clean “it didn’t need a lot.” He expects more editorial developmental work on the second book. “I’ve been working on it for a while, but I need fresh eyes.”

David agrees that literary fiction worlds are every bit as made-up as genre fiction worlds. “Every time we create characters and circumstance for those characters we are venturing into make believe. The distance between what I do and someone who writes realistic fiction isn’t that great.”

He says the prejudice against genre fiction has to do with either the notion that genre fiction is formulaic (which David rejects) or that somehow genre writers using plot tools like magic and time travel  in place of character, setting, or narrative cohesion, as if writing is a zero-sum game, so that if you add in these other elements you have to take out something vital. He rejects that, too. “I don’t think if I add magic I have to take out something vital from the work.”

He says, “We’re still writing about people, still dealing with human emotion, conflict, tension, all the things that make day-to-day experience something we want to write and read about. I do think its an unwarranted denigration of our genre and other related genres. Writing books is hard.”

If writing books is hard, why does he do it?

Davie laughs. “If I don’t, those voices in those heads are going to keep talking to me, and Im going to go from being a professional to being an out-patient.”

He says he has stories, characters, and ideas he wants to share. “For all the struggles, for the bad pay and the poor reviews and all the other struggles, I love, love, love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else, I can’t even imagine wanting to do anything else. Every day I get to sit down at a computer and say lets pretend. What job could be better than that?”

He also feels speculative fiction can have an impact on the real world, by holding up a mirror that allows us to explore issues of race and gender and environmentalism and class and social injustice and all sorts of other important political and social and cultural issues in ways people have never thought of before. He mentions Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a prescient book that predicts the rise of social media in our society, and Nora Jemisin, who is writing about social issues, gender, and race “in ways that can teach us so much about our world and how we can make a better world for our children.”

He’s written about environment, race, and mental illness, not because he’s trying to send out a social message or bludgeon his readers with politics, but because he believes writing should be about a lot of different issues.

Up next for David: Time’s Demon, the Knightfall novel (out in March), and editing an anthology, Temporally Deactivated, for Zombies Need Brains. Later this year he’ll be starting work on Time’s Assassin, book three in the Islevale trilogy, and he’s also got a couple of short stories to write. “I’m busy, and busy, for a writer, is good.”

 

 

Episode 8: Orson Scott Card, Part 1

The first half of a two-hour conversation with Orson Scott Card about his creative process. Part 1 focuses on how he began writing, and the genesis of his famous story “Ender’s Game.”

The Introduction:

Photo by Terry Manier

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools. His most recent series, the young adult Pathfinder series (Pathfinder, Ruins, Visitors) and the fantasy Mithermages series (Lost Gate, Gate Thief, Gatefather) are taking readers in new directions.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts, including his “freshened” Shakespeare scripts for Romeo & Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Merchant of Venice.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He frequently teaches writing and literature courses at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, where his primary activities are writing a review column for the local Rhinoceros Times and feeding birds, squirrels, chipmunks, possums, and raccoons on the patio.

Website: www.hatrack.com

Twitter: @orsonscottcard

Orson Scott Card’s Amazon page

The Show:

Card notes his family had a tradition of thinking of themselves as writers. Growing up Mormon, there was a practice of creating comedy sketches, called Road Shows, taken from one church meetinghouse to another and performed for others within the diocese. They were usually based on some Broadway show, and required a writer to make a script that would be entertaining. Card’s mother was particularly involved in writing those, but his father also thought of himself as a writer.

In school, Card found out he was good at writing. His first published work was what he calls “a stupid little poem about spring” published in the state-wide educational journal when he was in Grade 4.

In school he mostly wrote poetry or theatrical pieces, not fiction. Through junior high and high school he was known for writing satirical song parodies making fun of his friends. But he didn’t think he would be a writer: he wanted to be an archeologist. It wasn’t until he was in college he realized that while the past fascinated him, he didn’t want to do the kind of dirty, laborious work archaelogists had to do in the kinds of places they had to do them, i.e., far from flush toilets.

He switched to theatre, where he was spending all his time anyway. (Majoring in theatre, he says, is “what you do instead of getting a practical education.”) He’s used that theatrical training constantly since, “always to put on plays that cost me money and never earned me any.”

He thinks the real foundation of his writing was helping his Mom, a secretary, as a clerical helper. He wuld spend hours helping her after work when she was struggling to get something done, collating and stapling while she typed (at 100 words per minute, “like a dream.”

He also did proofreading for her. He was a good speller from an early age and also understood grammar. When he came home from his church mission in Brazil, he needed a job, and got one with Brigham Young University press as a proofreader.

At the same time, he started a theatre company, which did well in terms of getting an audience, but not in terms of making money. He ended up deeply in debt and was desperate to earn “real money.” That was when he decided it was time for him to try writing.

He notes that on his 16th birthday, his older brother and his brother’s future wife gave him two of the Foundation books by Isaac Asimov. “I was so blown away by Asimov’s clarity, and the sweep, the sage, the vision, I thought that I want to write a science fiction story.”

The initial idea that became “Ender’s Game” dates to that time: as his father was driving him to school, he was trying to think of a science-fiction story premise. His older brother was in the Army and had told stories of boot camp and Officer Candidate School. “The idea of training people to command came to mind. How would you do that if you were going to be fighting in a three-dimensional space, piloting ships and so forth when there is no up and down?”

Clearly that would have to be done in free-fall, in outer space, but it would have to be done inside something with walls, so combatants wouldn’t drift away if they made a mistake. And so was born the Battle Room: a cube a hundred metres on a side. Two opposing forces enter from opposite sides and attempt to capture the enemy position. He came up with floating objects called “stars” that could be used for concealment, etc., the number of people on a side (forty plus a commander), and how they would be divided into platoons. He invented the flash suit, to record hits and damage.

But all he had was a setting, not a story. He kept working on building the world over the next few years. Other ideas presented themselves, including one based on psionic/psychic abilities, inspired by his reading of stories by Zenna Henderson. That idea led to the stories that became what is now known as the Worthing Saga.

In college, he turned some of those stories in in creative writing classes, where the teachers had no idea what to make of them. “The teachers are trained to love and honour fiction that nobody wants to read,” Card says. “I wanted to write fiction that I wanted to read.

As an aside, Card says science fiction has never been the majority of his reading, except for a time when he was writing a quarterly review column dedicated to reviewing every short story published in the field. That burned him out on science fiction: he came to know it so well that it took all the pleasure out of reading it. He only occasionally finds a writer who is doing something he hasn’t already read in some form and can’t predict. Instead, he prefers reading historical fiction, although what he’s looking for is harder and harder to find: today, you mostly get historical romance, “sex with more interesting costumes.”

Card said his teacher of what novel should be is Jane Austen, who invented contemporary novel writing by inventing third-person limited viewpoint, and who wrote with such clarity you don’t need to take a college class to figure it out.

“Most of what kills great literature is that we received when required to read it by college professors,” he says. “Reading in an analytical way is an enemy of literature.”

Card says modernism was the in writing that captured university literature classes because it came about just as literature became a subject in university. “These were the cool guys, so everybody had to praise what they did, even when it was embarrassingly bad. And so much of it was, and is, embarrassingly bad.”

He noted university professors tend to say James Joyce’s Ulyssesis the greatest novel in English. “What a crock,” Card says. “The greatest novel in the English language is The Lord of The Rings. There’s no question. It is far more erudite and accomplished.”

He notes Tolkien had learned how to write third-person limited viewpoint, and did it with consummate skill, producing a startling melange of the modern and old-fashioned that becomes a brilliant saga. (In an detailed aside, he explains why he has little use for the Peter Jackson films: by leaving out the Scouring of the Shire, he says, Jackson proved he did not understand the story.)

When he started submitting short stories, Card first sent “Worthing Farm” and “The Tinker” to Ben Bova at Analog. Bova had just taken over from John W. Campbell, who had died. Bova liked the writing but said Analog published science fiction, not fantasy, and he considered stories with psionics in them fantasy.

This gave rise to Card’s oft-quoted observation that, “Science fiction has rivets on the cover, sheet metal, smooth surfaces. Fantasy has trees.”

Needing a science fiction story, and desperate to earn money, he returned to the idea of the Battle Room. During a trip to Salt Lake City with his girlfriend of the time, who was taking her boss’s children to the circus, it occurred to him, “What if, instead of waiting until they’re adults and have all these bad habits, the battle room is for training children?”

He wrote the first sentence, “Remember the enemies’ gate is down,” and at the top of the page he wrote the title, “Ender’s Game,” a play on the phrase “end game” that gave him his character, Ender Wiggins. He wrote the whose story in that session plus one other, in longhand. His mother typed it up, and he sent it off to Ben Bova—who rejected it. He said it was too long (he said it should be cut in half) and he thought the title should be “Professional Soldier.”

Card understood the irony of that title, but it wasn’t catchy. “I would not have a career if it had started with the ‘Professional Soldier’ saga,” he notes.

He didn’t rewrite it right away. He sent it to Galaxy, which kept it a long time and then rejected it. He then thought about what Bova had said. He realized the problem wasn’t that it was too long, it was boring: he didn’t need to describe all the battles, he just had to show enough of them to give the idea of how it worked: how Ender won and how they kept rigging the system. He cut out one battle entirely and a lot of description, about five pages in all, added in some character stuff, and sent the story back to Bova, only two pages shorter than it had been. Bova boubht it, and it appeared in the August 1977 Analog, his first published science fiction story.

Asked if his work as a playwright and director informs his fiction writing, Card says it makes it much better.

Fiction writing, he says, is essentially a form of improv:  you’re coming up with dialogue for people, and you’re playing all the parts. He says the experience of being an actor and sustaining a character that isn’t you is vital for a fiction writer, because otherwise all the characters are you, and it become hard to tell them apart.

Characterization didn’t matter in classical SF: Isaac Asimov, for instance, knew the idea stories he wrote didn’t need characterization, any more than Agatha Christie’s cozy mysteries did. More modern mystery writers like Sue Grafton are really writing American literature that begins with the finding of a dead body, and Stephen King writes American literature with “oogly boogly” stuff in it.

“Stephen King took horror out of the haunted house and put it in McDonald’s where it belongs,” Card says, adding that the place where you’ll find a record of daily life in the late twentieth century is in Stephen King and those who followed him, and, among mystery writers, Ross McDonald and those who followed him.

Card has found that it’s difficult if not impossible to write a good science fiction play. It will either be bad science fiction or a bad play, because of the expository burden. “The stage is shockingly ill-suited to worldbuilding,” is how he puts it. Even though he had written hit plays, he couldn’t make it work with science fiction: the exposition simply made them too slow.

When he first started writing a novel he tried not to use his theatrical training. His first novel, a Worthing story, Hot Sleep, petered out at 120 pages even though he had a detailed outline of (he thought) a novel’s worth of material—and yet a friend told him it was too long.

What made it feel long, Card realized, was that he hadn’t given the characters enough time to reveal who they were, and so the reader didn’t care about them. So the very thing he’d been afraid of with his science fiction plays was essential to his novel. “People had to care about the people in the story, so I had to take the time to characterizes.” The world-creation, though, he still did with great brevity.

When he started over, 120 pages in he was only through the first paragraph of the outline.”Now I was writing a novel.”

Card says everything comes to life when he’s writing dialogue. He has to curb his dialogue, because otherwise his characters (like an actor once told him about an early play) talks in quotable quotes. When he started, he says, he was a poet writing plays, and shaped his language too much. Now he strives to make people talk like people talk.

“Ender’s Game,” he says, the original novelette, is really just dialogue and stage directions. It was really his first good science fiction play.

“I knew as soon as it was done that it worked.”

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