Episode 29: Christopher Ruocchio

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

Website
www.sollanempire.com

Twitter
@TheRuocchio

Facebook
@TheRuocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

 Welcome to The Worldshapers, Christopher.

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

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

I think so.

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

A shopping mall.

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

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

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

I’ll do my best.

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

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

Me, too.

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

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

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

I think that would improve Batman.

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

At least with a lightsaber.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlike your character.

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

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

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

How to win friends and influence professors, maybe not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I thought I was a Johnny Cash influence.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, talk about a spoiler on the first page.

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

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

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

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

Oh, my gosh.

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

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

Did I interrupt you in the synopsis of the book?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They are substantial.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. Yeah. July 10.

Trying to remember what year it is.

I know.

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

Mm-hmm.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It sounds like a Marvel movie.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that was my problem with those professors.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I just talk too much, as you can tell.

And where can people find you online?

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

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

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

So, Twitter and Facebook, both the same thing?

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

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

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

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

I hope so, too.

Okay, bye for now.

Bye. Thank you.

Episode 28: John C. Wright

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

Website
scifiwright.com

John’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

John C. Wright

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, John.

Excellent. Wonderful to be here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, I miss the jungles of Venus. But…

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

Yes, I noticed that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that’s…I kind of remember that…

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

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

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

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

Well, it sounds like a great preparation for writing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course. As one does.

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

Well, I think…

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

I’ve read it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So, do editors tell you to rewrite it?

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

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

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

Oh, yeah, I’ll do that, I’ll do that.

So that’s a form of rolling rewrite.

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

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

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

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

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

How fast are you as a writer?

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

A useful skill.

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

Yeah. I was going to say…

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

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

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

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

Besides the space princesses, yeah.

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

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

Oh, I hadn’t heard that before.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I love big philosophical questions, those are my favorite.

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

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

Three questions, yeah.

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

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

Oh, I have.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Okay.

And what are you working on now?

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

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

Oh, that sounds like a lot of fun.

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

And where can fans find you online?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 27: Eric Flint

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

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www.ericflint.net

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The Introduction

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Eric.

Thank you.

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

Not that I recall, no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

You started collaborating early.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. Particularly the 1632 series…

Yeah, I notice it there, for sure.

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

Did you ever work in a coal mine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think we all do.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, and what are you working on now?

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

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

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

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

So, lots to come.

Oh yeah, oh yeah.

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

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

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

I have, too. Thank you very much.

Thank you!

Episode 26: Kendare Blake

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

Website
kendareblake.com

Twitter
@KendareBlake

Facebook
Kendare.Blake

Instagram
@KendareBlake

Kendare Blake’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Kendare Blake

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



The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

Well, thank you. Thanks for reaching out.

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

Nice!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is. Yeah. Learning to finish is important.

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

I know! I agree.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why London?

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

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

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

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

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

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

How’s it going?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Um…slightly.

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Usually not. I like to be surprised.

You are a lawful pantser!

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

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

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

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

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

Exactly. That’s how I feel about it!

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

How fast a writer are you?

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

Publishers tend to want you to keep producing books.

I know!

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

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

That also sounds familiar!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Things that I think…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, that’s nice.

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

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

What are the two middle books called?

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

They don’t even add up!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s where stories come from!

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

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

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

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

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

Ooh.

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

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

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

Does it have a title yet?

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

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

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

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

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

I think I said Ken-dare off the top.

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

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

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

Episode 25: Derek Künsken

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

Website
www.derekkunsken.com

Twitter
@DerekKunsken

Derek’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Derek.

Thanks so much.

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

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

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

The butler did it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, wow.

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

Oh, my goodness.

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

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

Did you finish it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, yeah.

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

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

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

Yeah.

But then, you didn’t stick with that.

No.

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

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

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

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

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

Does that still inform your writing, those experiences?

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

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

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

Oh, since.

Yeah. Sorry, since, yeah.

I was waiting for a year there.

Oh, no.

And I thought, “Oh, you still there?”

Since, period.

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

Okay.

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

Oh, that’s funny.

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

Yes. Yeah, I was, and…

When did you shell sell your first short story?

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

And a lot of short stories since.

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

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

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

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

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

Do you do quite a bit of reading in French?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spaaaace…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How long would your outline be?

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

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

Uh, yeah. Yeah.

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

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

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

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

For me?

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

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

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

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

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

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

My writing is deteriorating, the penmanship is.

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

Ok.

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

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

Deadlines can be very useful that way.

Yes, they sharpen the mind!

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

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

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

I wouldn’t disagree.

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

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

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

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

And then she sold it!

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

And that’s at Solaris?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. They do love their science.

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

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

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

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

Well, and there’s a sequel coming.

There is, there is.

Is that what you’re working on now?

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

So, was it a two-book deal?

Yeah, yeah, it was right away.

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

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

Yeah. That’s always heartening.

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

Well, that’s good,.

Yeah.

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

Oh, goodness.

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

Yeah. So, you want good answers?

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

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

And, it’s interesting, because when people, you know, podcasts come up and interviews come up and people start to say things about, you know, “I really like these themes in your Quantum Magician of, you know, decolonization and, you know, a lot of what you did with the unintended consequences of genetic engineering and what that means to us now,” and all that, and people are getting messages that I’m not necessarily consciously aware of putting in, but now that I look back I realize, “Well, yeah, I mean, those things are in there and they are there on purpose,” but I was putting them in there because I thought it would be the right thing for the story not, again, because I was sending a message, but I…

Why do we write? I’m not sure. And like Harlan Ellison said, I think, if you could, if you can persuade somebody to stop writing you really should, because it’s not like we’re making a whole lot of money or that, you know, people are throwing sports cars at us or stuff like that, it’s, you know, we do this because we want to and if we can afford to make a living at it, you know, we’re already, that’s one of the highest things we can get out of it.

Because, you know, the idea about the message and things not being in there, that’s an opportunity for me to tell a story I like to tell. I’ve probably told it before in the podcast, but you mentioned discovering Asimov, and it was in one of his autobiographical books, probably Opus 100, his 100th book where he was attending a class in a New York university, some university in New York, and the professor was teaching his classic short story “Nightfall,” and he sat at the back and he listened, and when it was over he went up to the professor and he said, “Well, you know that was a very interesting class, but I’m Isaac Asimov and I wrote that story and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there.” And the professor said, “Well, I’m very happy to meet you, but just because you wrote it, what makes you think you know what’s in there?”

That’s a good point. And I think that…over the last few years I’ve come to subscribe to the idea, too, that in the end, all you do is you write a story, and it is a transmission, and the act of interpretation by the reader is the final story. And that means there’s many, many final stories. And, yeah. Because once you put it out it’s got a life of its own.

Well, I like that too. It’s something I often say, that although writing is a solitary act, reading is a collaborative act, I guess. Or the creation of stories is a collaborative act because the writer creates something, but the ultimate story is different for every person who reads it because of their own background. And I’m also a playwright, in fact I just had a play that was up this last week here in Regina.

Oh, congratulations.

It’s…that’s much, much more collaborative. But there, you actually see actors taking your words and interpreting them and bringing these characters to life that maybe, you know, they’re completely different from the little actors in my head who are moving around on the set in my head when I was writing the story. And it’s also the same thing that happens with writing anything, writing science fiction and fantasy, that readers are like the actors in the play and they’re bringing the characters to life and they’re bringing the story to life in a way that you may not have imagined when you put it into words.

And not only that, I mean, there’s so many people who will interpret things with different backgrounds that you couldn’t have imagined, and their interpretations come out to be, you know, more complex, more interesting, just because they’re seeing dimensions that, you know, I didn’t. And it’s fascinating.

So, you’ve already said what you’re working on next. I guess we will just sort of bring this to a close by telling people how they can find you online should they so desire.

Yeah, I’m a Twitter user, so I’m just @DerekKunsken, that’s just my name, on Twitter, and I have a website, too, which is just my name, as well, dot com, and I blog every couple of weeks at BlackGate.com, and otherwise you know my stuff is in bookstores everywhere, and I’d be happy to hear from any listeners who want to reach out.

We should also mention the webcomic.

Oh, yeah, yeah.

Just tell me a little bit about that and where people can find that.

So, WebToons is this gigantic, gigantic South Korean company platform where people who make a comic can post the equivalent of two to three comic book pages per week, and you get readers or, you know, if people like your stuff, and…there’s monetization in in different ways and that’s not necessarily what myself and the artist are going for first and foremost, but, no I’ve been experimenting with doing a comic book in this format so people can read it, and it’s a female jetpack planetary-romance adventure, a bit pulpy, but at the same time I wanted to do something fun and romantic and cute at the same time. And, yeah, it’s up that WebToons and it’s free to read, and if you just look for Briarworld at WebToons you can find it there, and Briarworld has its own Twitter, which is just @BriarWorld and it’s fun. It’s…a mercenary has to go rescue a prince in a weird Mungoesque planet.

Well, I’ll have to go check it out. Well, thanks very much for being on The Worldshapers, Derek.

This has been wonderful!

And I suspect I’ll be seeing you at Can-Con this year in Ottawa?

I hope so, I hope so.

All right. Well thanks a lot.

All right. See you, Ed.

’Bye for now.

Episode 24: Kevin Hearne

An hour-long conversation with Kevin Hearne, author of the Seven Kennings trilogy, The Tales of Pell (with co-author Delilah S. Dawson) and the New York Times-bestselling series The Iron Druid Chronicles.

Website:
www.kevinhearne.com

Twitter:
@KevinHearne

Instagram:
@KevinHearne

Facebook:
@authorkevin

Kevin Hearne’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Kevin Hearne is the author of the Seven Kennings trilogy, The Tales of Pell (with co-author Delilah S. Dawson) and the New York Times-bestselling series The Iron Druid Chronicles. In his own words, “he loves doggies and trees and art of all kinds and is astounded at how much college costs now.”

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Kevin.

Hey thanks so much for having me, Edward.

Now, we met at Can-Con last year in Ottawa. That was your first time at that convention, I think?

Yeah, it was.

Yeah, it’s a great one, and we were on a panel together about writing series, which I felt kind of overmatched on because my longest series was five…a YA series with five books, 60,000 words each, and The Iron Druid is…more than that.

Yeah. It’s up to nine novels and then there’s a collection of short stories and a bunch of novellas, things like that.

Well, I wanted to tell you how I came across the Iron Druid books first. I was at a World Fantasy Convention in…I guess it was in Washington, DC, that year. And, of course, they have a book bag as…people who haven’t been to them, you get this great bag of books that they give you at World Fantasy, and even if you don’t like the books, you’ve got a great bag. And one of the books in there was the first book in the Iron Druid Chronicles and it was actually my publisher, Betsy Wollheim at DAW—co-publisher with Sheila Gilbert at DAW—who made a point of showing me your book and saying, “You should read this,” because I think she was one of the publishers in the mix when it was being shopped around, and she’d wanted it but of course it went with…Ace, right?

Del Rey.

Del Rey. Oh, sorry!

No worries!

It’s because I hadn’t looked at my notes…I looked at them at the wrong moment there. So, yeah, it was actually another publisher that pointed out the Iron Druidbooks to me and then I read them all. So, I’m well prepared for this.

Well, thank you.

Now, we’ll talk specifically about the creative process, your creative process, and the writing of those books specifically a little later on, but I always like to take my guests back into the mists of time and find out how they got started…well, first of all, interested in…it usually starts with reading the fantastical…and then how they got interested in writing it. So, I know you grew up in Arizona. I was born in New Mexico, by the way, right next door. And so, how did that all begin for you? Did you start reading it and then get interested in writing?  What was the process for you?

Oh, I did start reading. I guess my first love of action-adventure and fantasy and that kind of stuff came from comic books, superhero comic books, when I was a wee lad, and, you know, reading Spider-Man especially. And then, as I got older, I think my first introduction to fantasy and then really science fiction both was through the author Alan Dean Foster.

Ah, yes.

He’s got over 120 novels to his name now, I mean, talk about prolific. He’s still going. I read his Spellsinger books and they got me really loving the fantasy period. You know, I mean, there’s talking animals in ’em, so there’s an inspiration for you. Then he had the Pip and Flinx books, where you had a redhead with a telepathic connection with a mini-dragon and the redhead kept getting in trouble a lot and, you know, had this really strong bond with his mini-dragon and so, that’s also an inspiration, you know, for Atticus and Oberon down the road. So, that’s where I really got into fantasy. And if you want to look for inspiration for, you know, the Iron Druid chronicles I would look at those old books rather than anything newer. The inspiration to write, though, or my desire to start writing, didn’t happen until college. I was really interested in some first-person points of view that I was reading at the time and how that could simultaneously reveal so much of the character’s thought process but also keep a lot of things secret because, you know, i the first person narrator doesn’t interact with them, you know, they’re not gonna be aware of it. So, I kind of liked that. So, anyway, that got me started, but I didn’t get published for another twenty years. I was writing for a very long time before I got published.

So, you didn’t do any writing at all in high school, or…? That’s that’s what a lot of people start.

I didn’t! In high school I was into music and art. I was actually a graphic-design major originally and I was doing cartooning and things like that.

That’s something else we have in common. I was editorial cartoonist for a weekly newspaper for several years in my twenties when I started as a journalist.

Well, no kidding. I did that, too, I did the editorial cartooning for the college newspaper.

You’re probably a better artist than I was, but anyway…

It was a lot of fun, but ultimately it wasn’t…it didn’t really appeal to me in terms of creative freedom, being a graphic designer, because you would always have some sort of corporate client, probably, and then you’re making cool stuff to sell things, which…I suppose that’s also what writing a novel is. But it’s different, somehow.

It worked out for Andy Warhol. I mean he started drawing shoes, and then…

Yeah, right. But I just, I switched from graphic design to English, and then got into reading, of course, a whole lot more, and, you know, that just inspired me to write, as well.

Your degree was actually in English education.

Yes.

Did you have creative writing courses along the way?

I did not. See…so, the very bizarre thing is that I never took a creative writing course, and I never took a writing workshop or went to a writing conference. I’m entirely self-taught, which is, you know, considering how long it took me to get published, that might not be the best way to go in retrospect—maybe I should have gone to some writing conferences, I would have learned quicker—but I basically learned from a lot of mistakes, a lot of trial and a whole lot of error, basically, and gradually figured out how to tell a story that way.

So, you were actually teaching high school English over most of those years, weren’t you?

Yes, I was. I was teaching mostly freshmen through juniors. I didn’t do the seniors so much.

Do you find that having…I presume you were teaching some creative writing as part of your classes…did you find that teaching it helped you on your own writing in any way?

Not so much. A lot of times…unfortunately, a lot of what we were supposed to teach was not creative at all. We were kind of required…you know, education at the time, it was going through the throes of this, you know, standardized testing and having your pay tied to performance and all of that kind of stuff, and it’s still going through that, I think. And it really kind of changed the focus from growing people’s minds to “let’s make sure people can pass the test.” And so, there was a lot of essay writing and using a rubric to grade them and so often we found that there was a dire need just to figure out structure, that a lot of the creative stuff we never even got a chance to get to because we were spending so much time on kind of remediation.

I’ve had a few opportunities to teach high school but only for short periods of time. I was a writer-in-residence at a local high school and worked with kids but that was very different because they were very much the kids who were interested in creative writing and were coming to me for advice as opposed to trying to teach just the general student population. I did find out, though, that with a week, spending a week in high school, I was glad I had not followed my father’s footsteps and actually become a teacher. I don’t think it would have worked out well for me.

Yeah, it can be a tough job, but of course it’s a necessary one, and I do miss the kids. I don’t miss taking attendance, though, or faculty meetings. But I do miss the kids. They’re always a lot of fun, even if you’re teaching the same thing every single year. It never gets old, because the kids always have different reactions to it and no day is the same, and that was delightful.

So, somewhere along in there you decided to try to write an epic fantasy novel.

Yeah. I tried to write an epic fantasy, and I did. I wrote an epic fantasy, and it was like 240,000 words, but it was really full of clichés and kind of structural crutches. But it was my first attempt at writing something that was really specifically genre and I learned a lot of what not to do next time.

That’s a lot of practice words.

Yeah. I think I definitely put in how many hours you’re supposed to put in to become an expert in something. I don’t know what that phrase is, is it 10,000 hours or something. I don’t know.

I’ve heard variations of it. I think Stephen King said half a million words of unpublished stuff before you ever write anything publishable. I sometimes think that’s low.

Yeah. I think I definitely hit that benchmark by the time I started working on Hounded. And Hounded was a lot of fun, and that’s what I was doing, actually. I was writing it to entertain myself, and because, I think, I did that it just…when I got finished with it I actually didn’t think anybody would want to read it because it was, really, all of my kind of geek-outs, but my wife convinced me to seek out an agent and I got one. So, basically, it just kind of proved once again that my wife is always right.

That’s a good philosophy. So, for those who may not have read…unbelievably, have not read…any of the Iron Druid books, I’ll let you do a synopsis of what they’re about, because that way I don’t give away anything you don’t want to give away.

All right. Basically, it follows the…I started with the dog. I wanted to have a dog that could be a character that a human could talk to, and that kind of wound up being the inspiration for Atticus, a Druid. So, this follows the adventures of Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,100-year-old Druid still living among us today, who stole a magical sword from the Tuatha Dé Danann, the gods or the Irish, pagan Irish, and they want it back. So, basically his decision to fight them…well, he’s a fugitive for thousands of years…but when he eventually decides to fight, that has consequences that snowball on him. And that is basically your series, this fellow who decided to fight the gods instead of run.

And he lives in the same part of the world that you lived in.

Yeah. I really enjoy reading fantasies, or urban fantasies I should say, that are set in real-world locales that you can actually go and visit. I think that the reality of the urban setting is a really fun anchor for the really fantastical elements that you wouldn’t believe otherwise, but because you have a real setting, it helps you swallow that. So, that’s one of the reasons I kind of stay faithful to the actual settings and try to make them come to life as much as possible.

So, you were writing Hounded while your epic fantasy was making the rounds. But Hounded itself made a significant number of rounds of publishers before it got published, didn’t it?

Yeah, it…well, my agent sent it to nine different publishers and four of them decided to put in a bid on it. So, you know, that was super fortunate. I actually wound up getting to go to auction and then I chose one based on proposals that I was given and was super-happy with the result. Del Rey has been wonderful.

Now, it’s become a series. Did you have that in mind from the very beginning?

Oh, yeah. What we did is, we wrote the first book so that it could be a stand-alone, but with series potential. So, it was pitched to the publishers that way. So, I had Hounded complete. And then I had Hexed outlined, and then I had, like, one sentence for Book 3, which is, you know, Atticus goes to Asgard. And that was the proposal basically given to all the publishers. They knew that I had a complete Book 1 and plans for more if they wanted them. And on the basis of that they offered me three-book contract. Every single one of them gave me a three-book contract offer. We just didn’t know what we were gonna get. A lot of times they like to try to get series and see if they work and then, since they did work, thank goodness, they let me write more, so, that was great.

Okay, I want to go back to the writing process itself. You mentioned having an outline for the second book when you did the submission. But, what does your preparatory work look like for a novel? What does your outlining process look like? Do you do a very complete one or very minimal one, or how does it how does it work for you?

Well, for Hounded I had none at all. And that, you know, that’s because I guess I had no deadline, right? You know, I was just making it up as I went, and so I have the experience of writing by the seat of the pants, as one says, but what I do now is, I write chapter summaries, and I’ll try to get anywhere from twenty-four to thirty chapters in, and if we average around 3,000 or so words per chapter, then you’re getting into a ballpark of what you need in terms of word count for an urban fantasy, which is 80,000 to 110,000 kind of range, somewhere in there.

So, Hounded was actually just 81,000 words to begin with. It expanded a tiny bit in its editing stages. All of my books do; I wind up expanding upon revision instead of cutting. So now my outlines are just these chapter summaries that may have snippets of dialogue in them, because I do wind up…I believe that a lot of character is revealed through dialogue and through those conversations we really have, actually, a lot of plot resolved sometimes, or character revealed, so those go into my outlines when I feel them. So, I guess my outlines wind up being about seven to ten pages single-spaced. And what I do then is, I write non-sequentially. I don’t feel that…once I have an outline, I don’t feel that I have to go from the beginning to the end. I already know what end is, kind-of sort-of. So, whatever I’m feeling that day, that’s what I write. If I get stuck on Chapter 3, I don’t have to sit there and stare at the page and bang my head against the monitor, I guess. What I do instead is, “Hey, Chapter 7 looks fun. Let’s write that instead!”, you know? So, I’m just basically productive every day because I have the outline, and I’m kind of a slow and steady fella, writing anywhere from one to two thousand a day in terms of word count, but because I’m kind of, you know, consistent with it, it winds up being a pretty good way to get a couple of books done a year.

I don’t think I could work non-sequentially. You’re the first…I think you’re the first author I’ve talked to that works that way. So that’s interesting.

Yeah. I understand that it’s completely…I didn’t realize it either, at first. Like, I did work sequentially at first, but in the process of writing a second book, when I really did have my outline there, and I realized I had to…to make the book better I kind of had to switch around the sequence of chapters anyway. And some of these I had written, some of them I’d not, and in the process of switching things around, I realized there’s no reason I have to go from beginning to end anyway. I can write this out of order and then kind of do an edit part in sequence when it’s all done and make sure everything fits together right.

Going back to Hounded, you didn’t have an outline. Did you find yourself occasionally running into dead ends or having to back up and take another run at something, or what was that process like when you were working literally by the seat of your pants?

I don’t think I had too many dead ends there, in the sense that I had to go back and start over again. I did keep going forward but what I had to do was take breaks for…well, for teaching school, of course, but also for some research, because I was doing a lot of research in the background on worldbuilding stuff and making sure things would kind of fit together logically. There’s a magic system. So that’s what took so long, I guess, is figuring out how everything would work. So…and then my editor or, I’m sorry, my agent, got a hold of it and he asked for a couple of revisions, mostly a fight scene in the first chapter, I didn’t have one in my original draft, so I had to put a fight scene in the first chapter, makes some few adjustments, and then it was sent out.

You mentioned research, and that’s something I do like to ask about what, and particularly this book…these books…eventually seem to pull in just about…every mythology you can think of shows up at some point or another…so it looks like there’s been a lot of research involved. What does that look like for you? How do you research?

I try to do primary sources where possible when it comes to religion. And, for the Tuatha Dé Danann mythology, or the pagan religion of the time, there’s not a lot of great extant sources on Druidry that, you know, that are actually real. Everything is…the Druids themselves were an entirely oral culture, so nothing in writing survived. What we have instead are archaeological records, and some stories that were written down by Christian monks years later. So, they were preserving the culture and all of that, which is fantastic. However, you do have to realize that these were written by folks who might not have actually been believers at the time.

So, anyway, I was reading those original sources, kind of dry, ’cause they didn’t write, you know, stories the same way back then that they do now. But fascinating characters, and I tried to imagine what they would be like in a more modern day. The same thing with the Norse and so on, all of those myths, you go back to the original source material and you pull from that and then you find holes in it. That’s what I was doing, I was…you know, there’s plot holes in there, and one of the biggest plot holes that I found was that Fragarach, the sword that could cut through any armor, was given to Conn of the Hundred Battles in the first century by the Tuatha Dé Danann, and it was never given back—and there’s no explanation for that. And so, that was my, the hole that I found that I could exploit and say, well, the reason it was never given back is because my character stole it. And so, that what I love about going back in the original material and finding things where I can kind of put my stories alongside what’s already there.

Now, obviously you have a main character, because it’s a first-person narrative. How do you find the other characters that you need to tell the story, and do you do preliminary work to develop them or do they sort of develop on the page as you write?

I’ve done a little bit of preliminary stuff, yeah, for some of those characters, but some of them, you know, just walk on in when I need them.

Hal and Gunnar—Hal Hauk and Gunnar Magnusson—were these kind of werewolf lawyers that I kind of just made up as I went along. And other than the idea that I wanted the werewolves to have white-collar jobs, because I kept seeing them have blue-collar jobs in a whole bunch of books that I’d read…I didn’t know why that was a trope, you know, why are werewolves blue-collar workers?…but I just wanted to flip that around and have fun with it. So, I did. And then, same thing with a vampire. There was a trope that usually there’s going to be…in urban fantasy at the time the vampire was probably going to be a sexy one and might be part of a love interest or something like that, so I made sure that this vampire was not sexy and was not really anybody’s love interest at any point. So, just to kind of flip the script the tiny bit, you know.

So, it sounds like you were reading widely in the field in the years leading up to writing in the field. Is that a safe thing to say?

Yeah, I read it quite a bit of stuff and noticed patterns and was doing my best to make sure it fit in the genre, because it did have werewolves and vampires in it, for example, but also at the same time I was being a little bit different by, you know, nobody else was really writing about a druid, for example. So, I was trying to take things in a slightly different direction.

So, writing in first person—you mentioned earlier that that was something that attracted you when you first started writing, and the challenges of everything has to be seen by that character. My current book series that I’ve started, Worldshapers, has largely a first-person narrative, and it is an interesting challenge. Have you ever occasionally wished you could throw in another viewpoint?

I not only wished that, I did it.

I had forgotten that!

Yeah, I put in Granuaile and Owen in the later books…

Oh, that’s right. I remember now.

Yeah, yeah. That allowed me to basically tell parts of the story that had previously been hidden, and also, it really frees you up a little bit to put some tension in there, because one of the drawbacks of a first-person character is the reader isn’t really afraid they’re ever going to die, otherwise they can’t be telling the story, right? So, by having different characters in there, then there’s the possibility of some danger for any of them because their narrative can end and be taken up or continued by somebody else.

Yeah. Writing first-person…also you don’t get a different take on anything that’s happening. Like, if you’re first-person you always have this one person’s opinion of things and other people may have a completely different view of what has just happened.

Exactly, yeah.

My current series is largely first-person, but I from the very beginning I introduced one other character, so it’s not a pure first-person narrative even from the start.

So, what does your is your actual writing look like. I mean, you’ve talked about how you don’t write sequentially, but I mean, do you…I’m talking about the physical act. Do you write in your office, do you write in coffee shops, do you scribbled on the back of, you know, old test papers, like Tolkien started writing The Hobbit?

I do a lot of different things. I don’t have a set schedule. I just…the only thing I try to do is make sure I get, you know, a thousand to two thousand words a day, and how I accomplish that does vary quite a bit. So, sometimes I’m in my office, sometimes I’m out in the kitchen, sometimes I’m in a coffee shop or a bar somewhere, just wherever I feel that I can be inspired. I’m often listening to music, and it’s instrumental metal or classical, something without lyrics, because I find the words in songs wind up being distracting when I’m trying to, you know, pull words out of my brain and put them on the paper. So, I have also written manually on an old-fashioned typewriter. I’ve also written a story by hand and journal and then had it typed later. So, I tried a whole bunch of different stuff and I enjoy it all, but, yeah, the laptop is the fastest method of doing things.

It’s interesting you mentioned music. There was a news item I just saw this week about a study that showed that listening to music, at least for some people, interferes with the creative process. And so, I started sort of paging writers to see whether they listen to music or not, and it sounds like you do, but it’s not…there’s no lyrics. And I agree with you, that’s what…that’s almost impossible, to have words going on in your ears while you’re trying to write words.

Yeah, unless it’s very low volume and stuff that, I don’t know, that you can basically treat as background noise, you know? Then I don’t think…I think in those cases, where it’s a background kind of thing, that maybe you’d be able to get away with having lyrics. But usually I’m using instrumental metal. I have a couple of different playlists. I really like a band called Polyphia, and another band called Scale the Summit, and they have multiple albums out, and so you can listen to them for hours, and that will allow you to get your entire writing session done without ever hearing anything on repeat.

And you’re actually the second author I’ve talked to who listens to metal when they write, which is…Arthur Slade, who’s a young adult fantasy author here in Saskatchewan, where I live, listens to heavy metal when he writes, which I think is an interesting choice.

Yeah, well, I kind of need it to do…I’m not very much of a fighter, you know, I’m a pretty peaceful fellow, and ironically I write fight scenes a lot, so I need to get my brain in, I guess, a more aggressive mode, and metal helps, so that’s why I do it, because it helps me get to the action scene, or, you know, get me in the right frame of mind, I guess, for action sequences.

You mentioned a little bit about the revision, with your agent, and he asked you to put in a fight scene and things like that…when you had your draft, and when you have a draft of your later books in the series, what does your revision process look like? Do you show it to other people and then revise, do you do a pass through at first…how does it work for you?

The first few books I had an “alpha reader” (I call him instead of a “beta reader”). I had a friend who would look at my chapters as I went and give me some feedback on them. He was a very logical person and…well, he still is, he has a doctorate in math, so a very logical person, who would point out some flaws here and there. But over time, I got more confident and better at avoiding some of the pitfalls that, you know, that I fell into early on, and I didn’t need that as much. So now, I basically write it and send it to my editor and just go from there and there is nobody else who sees it besides my editor, so…I’ll share some chapters here and there with my wife, but she likes to read the finished copies, so…that’s kind of my process now, but I did start out with having an alpha reader. But I never had a writing critique group or anything like that.

What does your own revision process look like, just when you’ve got a draft and you’re publishing it up before you submit it? What sorts of things do you find yourself having to correct in that pass?

Okay, so earlier I mentioned that I tend to look at dialogue as being revealing of character. Dialogue and action. What a person decides to say and do usually tells you a lot more about them than how they’re dressed one day, for example. And I don’t consider appearance to be a huge indicator of a person’s actual character, it’s just their appearance. And appearance is important for the reader to give them a mental picture of what’s going on, but it doesn’t it doesn’t matter to me as a writer when I’m interested in exploring the character. So, what I find that I do is that I don’t ever describe the characters. I keep forgetting to do it, basically. So, when I do my revision I have to go back in and insert little passages saying, you know, this is what they look like. And I’ll still miss a few. And my editor will come back and say, “Hey, Kevin, we don’t know who this major character…we don’t know what they look like. Are they tall, are they short? Give us something, please.” And they do it book after book. You know, my edtior keeps doing this, and she says, “Well it’s a strange…you know. you’re the only person I really have to do this with.” And that’s kind of strange. But, you know, there are worse faults. So, I’ll take it, right? So, that’s one of things I’m usually doing is, I’m going back in and putting in descriptions of characters during my revisions.

Do you do a lot of tweaking of the actual prose on that pass-through?

I do a little bit. I will sometimes…I actually do a lot of that kind of stuff as I go. One of the reasons I might have a slower word count, or a lower word count, per day is because I do self-edit as I go, being…this is part of the English teacher thing, I guess. So, it’s fairly clean, you know, my first draft, but then a lot of what I have to do is, I will occasionally expand on things and tweak some of the language. I will look for repetitive words.

One of the things I started to do recently is ruthlessly cut out any phrase that uses the construction “couldn’t help but.” “He or she or they couldn’t help but smile, or…”, you know. I saw it in my own work and then I started seeing it in a bunch of other books, too, and realized that this phrase had become kind of stealthily incorporated in a whole lot of people’s everyday vocabulary and they weren’t, or at least I, was not really thinking about how often it was being used. And so, I now seek it out and I find I find it quite often, honestly, or I used to. Now that I’ve been doing it and I’m careful against using it I don’t use it anymore. For a while there it was popping up everywhere.

You realize I’m now going to have to go do a search on my last book and see if I’m using it that much.

Yeah, it’s…I don’t know how that phrase became so popular. But if you think about it, you can  help but do something, and there’s probably a better way to say it. And I think that it has become an easy way to, or a shorthand, I guess, for describing someone’s reaction to something instead of really exploring how it affected them. And so, that’s one of those things where I wanted to try to do better than lean on that phrase.

You know, that is interesting, and the more I think about it the more…yeah, I will definitely do a search for that in my last manuscript I find…I mean, every author I talk to who has these little things that they, you know, have cropped up and they’ve become aware of. And once you’re aware of them in your writing, you’re right, it seems like you see them everywhere because you’ve been working so hard to cut them out of your own.

Right.

My case is, my characters have a tendency to make animal noises too much, like, they’ll growl dialogue, or they’ll snarl something. I try to watch out for that.

Yeah. I think almost every writer you talk to might have some, yeah, some kind of story like that where they become aware of some crutch that they’ve become dependent on and they’d like to, you know, stop using it and write normally, if that makes any sense. Write in the way that they were used to writing before they started using it.

Now, you mentioned that your books typically get longer in the editorial revision process. That can’t all be adding fight scenes and character descriptions. What are some of the other things that you usually end up building in after the editorial comments?

Yeah, my editor will say, “Hey, can we see a little bit more development of this particular relationship,” or, “This character over here is really interesting, but, you know, it looks like they should have a very strong character arc and development going from point A to point B, but they don’t seem to have that, they just kind of stay at point A the whole time, so can you build an arc for this particular character and have them change.” And so, I’ve done that a couple of times, where I built in some extra goodies or some of the smaller…or. not smaller. but. you know. more minor role characters…and, you know, just to make sure that everybody is really the hero of their own story and they all have some depth to them.

The curious exception to that is Oberon. He is the flat character that everybody loves. He always likes, you know, meat and poodles and so on, and he doesn’t really change in that regard, but that’s one of the characteristics of what a dog is, right? They’re loyal and they love food and playing and, you know. So that’s one of the ironies of the series, I guess. My most popular character is the character that I don’t have to work on very much to develop.

So, you started with the three books, but the series has gone on. How do you…and this goes back to the panel we were on about writing series…how did you find the nuggets for the future books as it extends out. You weren’t building in stuff for Book 10 when you were on Book 2, so how do you tease out the threads that will enable you to continue the series further?

Well, when I was writing Book 3 I was very conscious at the time of wanting to…you know, it was the end of the contract, but I wanted to write more. So, I did put in a whole bunch of stuff that could be developed later on, and Book 3 really is…a lot of the stuff that winds up happening down the road in the series has its origins in Book 3. Although, of course, Books 1 and 2 lead up to three, so I mean, you can, you know, you can always see the origins of things in the them as well, but the decisions that Atticus makes in Book 3 just have incredible consequences. They really do snowball on him. So that’s what I was doing with that particular book. I was conscious…I didn’t know how long they would let me go. I might…I was prepared to do it in six books, but I would have preferred to do nine because, I guess to be consistent with Irish mythology or pagan, you know, the pagan tradition, nine was a really important number in the old Irish myths. They did everything in multiples of nine: nine weeks, nine days, nine months, whatever. So, I thought a character from that culture would tell his own story in nine books, and that’s what I was really aiming for once I got down to Book 3 and was thinking about, “How am I going to go forward? I’d like to write nine books.” So, thankfully, folks, you know, bought enough copies of the first ones that they would, that they let me do that.

Now, one of the things I think we talked about on that panel at Can-Con as well was, at least something that I was aware of just in my little series: continuity. There’s a lot of facts and details that build up over the course of that many books and some of them are created on the spur of the moment as you’re writing. Do you keep detailed notes about things that might come back to bite you…now, of course, you said you don’t describe your characters, and that’s one of the things that often continuity crops up. But do you find that a problem, continuity?

I’ve been…I think by keeping it under ten books I just sort of skated under the necessity for having a huge bible. I know that that kind of stuff can be totally helpful, and I’m realizing in my epic fantasy series that I probably do need to keep some sort of bible like that or start thinking about compiling one for the third book. But for The Iron Druid I didn’t do that. However, I did have occasional continuity errors and I did have to go back and look up…like Greta, for one example, was a character who had appeared in every book but didn’t get developed really until Book 7. I had to wait until I could really start developing her. And so, we’re getting into Book 7 and I’m giving her a bigger role in things, and then I had to go back and figure out, “Wait! Did I ever say what color her hair was?”, for example. I couldn’t remember some of the details of her appearance.

Another thing a copyeditor saved me on was the color of Hal’s car. I had made it…I think I described it as blue in one place, and then in the subsequent draft I’d made it silver, or vice versa, maybe I’d made it silver first and then I made it blue. See, now I still can’t remember the color of Hal’s car! But the copyeditor saved me on that so it was consistent from book to book.

So those kinds of small details, yeah, those can trip you up sometimes, but in terms of the characters’ arcs, you know, and continuity in terms of what they’re doing and where they’re going as a person, I was pretty…I was able to do that without help. But small details, yeah, I probably I should have employed something there to help me out a little bit more.

So, is Atticus’s story complete?

I would say now pretty much yeah. I just came out with Death and Honey this week, and it includes an “Oberon’s Meaty Mystery” that is set five months after the end of Scourge. Atticus, Oberon, and Starbuck in Tasmania, and Oberon is the narrator, but he speaks quite a bit about what Atticus has been going through ever since the end of Scourged, so that’s kind of an extended coda to the series where…and I really couldn’t just write an epilogue at the end and say, “Oh, here’s what happened later,” kind of thing, because there’s a lot to it and it didn’t seem it that it would work at the end of the novel.

So, this last novella was a fun adventure, you know, a little “meaty mystery,” but it was also a way for me to explore some of the things like, how did Atticus resolve and process everything that happened to him in Scourged. Yeah, and so if I do tell it, Atticus himself, he’s not going to be a narrator anymore. If I do write anymore of Atticus’s story it’ll be probably from Oberon’s point of view or even from Owen’s point of view. I have Owen in a novelette that that’s going to be coming out this summer.

But then I do, I have a new spinoff series set in the Iron Druid universe called Ink and Sigil, and I’m working on that now, and it’ll be out, I guess next year, late next year, and that’ll be…it won’t be…It’s set in theIron Druid universe, but it has a completely different character that was introduced in a short story as the main character. His name is Aloysius MacBharrais…and he’s a Scots wizard detective.

Where do these shorter pieces come out?

I sometimes self-publish them, sometimes they were in anthologies, and then in one case, the one that I’m talking about here, Al showed up in a story in Besieged, which was a collection of Iron Druid short stories that really basically functioned as Book 8 1/2. They could be read in sequence and they would really kind of take you from the events of Book 8 to Book 9.

Well, that kind of touched on something I was going to ask, “Which is what are you working on now?” So, good for that…

Yeah. I’m working on several things. I’m copyediting The Princess Beard, which is the third book of the Tales of Pell. The second book comes out in April, it’s called No Country for Old Gnomes.

I love that title.

Thanks. A lot of fun. And then, I’m also working on A Blight of Black Wings, which is the sequel to A Plague of Giants. That’s the epic fantasy stuff. And then I am working on Ink and Sigil, as I was saying a little bit earlier here, the new Iron Druid spinoff series. It’s going to be a lot of fun. Set in Glasgow, Philadelphia, and Chattanooga.

So, keeping busy!

Yeah, that for sure. I’ve had to say no to a couple of invitations. I’m just too busy to contribute to everything. But I do have one short story that I’ll be contributing to an anthology soon here.

So now I want to talk the, you know, the big picture, the big philosophical questions. So, why do you do this? And, you know, ultimately why do you keep writing, why do you think any of us write, and particularly why do we write these crazy stories of Druids and magic and things like that?

I think that fantasy and science fiction are vehicles for…we can kind of rent that car for a while and take a drive and see what it might be like to look at things out on the road, get out of our own space and see something else for a while. I think it helps us reimagine better futures, or take a look at our current state of the world and really kind of approach issues that we might be resistant to if somebody said them straight out, but if it’s presented as a story and as a character that we care about and they’re going through things, then we can relate to that and maybe understand the issues a little bit differently. It gives us empathy.

So, I think that’s really the point of a lot of fiction. And there’s some research to bear this out, that people who read have more empathy than folks who don’t, because they have read fiction about people who lived different experiences than theirs, and since they wind up liking those characters and identifying with aspects of it they may wind up having more empathy for folks who are different than them.

Is that something that you specifically hope readers take from your work?

Actually, yeah. It’s really baked into the series. There’s just this bedrock assumption in the Iron Druid chronicles that all faiths are equally valid, that they’re all real and that they’re all worthwhile. And so…you know, it came down to a basic worldbuilding question at the very beginning. If I’m going to have my main character believe in the Irish pagan pantheon and then say that they are real, why aren’t all of these others real, as well? And once the answer was, of course, they’re all real, then that really made it a lot of fun and also an opportunity for us to really see how a lot of different faiths are really wanting us to be better human beings.

Well, and you talk about the function of telling stories; in a way, all of these faiths are storytelling. They’re telling stories about how the world was created, how the world works, how people relate to the world, so it does seem to form a very solid basis for something like this.

Absolutely. And so that’s kind of why I do it. I do the same thing with my epic fantasy series. I have a bunch of different faiths living alongside each other. They find other things to fight about than their faith. There’s plenty of things where people that get into conflicts about without throwing religion into the mix. And that’s kind of what I’d like to…well, that’s what I kind of put into my fiction, the idea that all faiths are equally valid and valuable.

Just because I’m not familiar with it and readers might not be either, can you just give a quick synopsis of the epic fantasy books, as well?

Oh, all right. It’s called…well, the trilogy is called The Seven Kennings, a kenning being a form of elemental-based magic: the word kenning meaning you know something very well. So, at the beginning of A Plague of Giants there are basically five kennings. They suspect the existence of a sixth, and then it gets revealed that there is a seventh, but they don’t know what it is. And basically, we have a world that’s been at peace for quite some time, and then this one continent is suddenly invaded on either coast by two different races of giants and they’re not…one of them is really bent on genocide and the other one is bent on colonialism, or colonizing the population. So, it’s kind of an indictment of both of those things, and it’s also an exploration of, you know, how, when you are beset by forces that are so much bigger than you, how do you not only survive, but then how do you rebuild afterwards? What comes after your world has been upended by war? That’s kind of what I’m exploring there.

And ultimately I guess you must write because…you find it fun?

Yeah, there’s that too. I wind up kind of giggling to myself quite a bit over my silly jokes here and there and, you know, I like to make my wife laugh, too, so that’s part of the bonus is hearing her laugh out loud when she’s reading my stuff. So, yeah, that’s certainly a perk.

Now, where can people find you online if they would like to know more or keep up with what you’re doing?

Well, kevinhearne.com. I spell my name with an “e” at the end, Hearne. I’m Kevin Hearne on Instagram and Twitter as well, so I recommend that if you’re…I do a lot of bird pictures in the spring and summer when the birds are around and then I do a lot of other stuff as well, but then my Twitter feed is a bunch of random stuff, but I’m happy to talk to anybody if you just @ me. Or e-mail, that’s easy, too, kevin@kevinhearne.com.

All right. Well, I’ve certain enjoyed talking to you. Hope you enjoyed the chat as well!

Thank you, I have, yes. I appreciate you having me on.

And I guess that’s it for now. So, thanks so much.

Thanks everybody!

Bye.

Episode 22: Victoria/V. E. Schwab

A 45-minute conversation with Victoria/V.E. Schwab, the number-one New York Times bestselling author of more than a dozen books, including the acclaimed Shades of Magicseries, The Savage SongOur Dark Duet, ViciousVengeful, The Near Witch, and City of Ghosts.

Website:
www.veschwab.com

Twitter:
@VESchwab

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@VESchwab

Facebook:
VESchwab

Victoria/V.E. Schwab’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Victoria/V.E. Schwab

Victoria/V.E. Schwab is the number-one New York Times best-selling author of more than a dozen books, including the acclaimed Shades of Magicseries, The Savage SongOur Dark Duet, ViciousVengeful, The Near Witch, and City of Ghosts. . Her work has received critical acclaim, been featured in the New York TimesEntertainment Weekly, the Washington Post, and more, has been translated into more than a dozen languages, and has been optioned for television and film. When she’s not haunting Paris streets or trudging up English hillsides, she’s usually tucked in the corner of a coffee shop, dreaming up monsters. She currently lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome, Victoria.

Thank you for having me.

Before we started recording this, I was just telling you that my daughter is a fan, and the way I came to your books, was my niece, she’s a lawyer, actually, in her 30s, had recommended the Shades of Magic to my daughter, who then read them and then recommended them to me. So, it’s what, you know, they say, “Word of mouth is the best possible publicity.”

I think, especially, weirdly word of mouth is more powerful these days when there’s so much buzz in so many different directions that I think there’s an authenticity that comes with word of mouth that really makes it very special. So, I’m incredibly flattered that that’s how you came to my work.

I always like to see if I can find any connections with the authors, your about the twenty-third I’ve interviewed here, and it’s a stretch with you, but you grew up in Nashville, and I went to university at Harding University, in Searcy, AR, which is in the neighborhood, church of Christ, you’ll be familiar with that if you grew up in Nashville.

Uh-huh.

And I spent a month with a family in Edinburgh, before you were born, so there you go, there’s a connection.

That’s a good connection, that’s like, what, five degrees of separation, not six.

Yeah, not bad at all. So how did you, first of all, become interested in reading—I presume you started as a reader of the fantastic—and then moved on from there to start writing it. Did that all start when you were a kid or what was your story?

I definitely wasn’t one of those children who grew up in a library. I think those are really beautiful narratives to hear. I was a jock. I was a really serious athlete all growing up. I wanted to go to the World Cup for soccer long before I ever thought about telling stories for a living. But I had a lot of health problems as well and so I wasn’t able to compete in sports at that level, but really I was a proficient reader, in that I was a very capable reader, but I had not had the experience that many children have growing up where they read something that makes them forget that they’re reading, that transportative  experience. And the first time that ever really happened with me was with Harry Potter. And that can seem like a very trite answer these days, when almost everyone, it seems, has read those books, but you have to remember I’m 31, and so I read the first Harry Potterbook when it came out and I was 11 and Harry Potter was 11. So, I had the, based purely on the year in which I was born, the immense (privilege) of ageing with a protagonist in that way, and of becoming part of something that was such a phenomenon, such a worldwide phenomenon. And so, Harry Potterwould come to dominate and inform my entire teen years, my entire youth, in that way.

And that was a really special thing, because if I hadn’t had that series, I’m not sure how long it would have taken for me to find a series that transported me in that sense, that made me realize the power of narrative, because I grew up in love with poetry. And poetry is incredible, poetry, everything from William Blake to Shel Silverstein, is wonderful but it’s not transportative in the same way. It gives you an intense appreciation for language, but it doesn’t make you forget at any point that you’re reading.

And so, that’s really the power that Harry Potterhad for me, and being a true World-Domination-seeking Slytherin, my first reaction was, oh wow, this is cool, and my second reaction as an eleven, twelve-year-old was, “Wow, words are very powerful.” You know, the idea of words on a page being something which could psychologically impact you in that way, which could emotionally transport you, was to me a very intoxicating premise. And so it wasn’t very long before I started trying to write as well, though it would be, I would be 18 or 19 before I tried to write a book.

Did you write stuff before that, short stories or pieces?

I was particularly into fragments, yeah, really into poems, very dark, apocalyptic poems. All teenagers should write bad poetry. I was really into short stories. I was really into narrative non-fiction. Basically. I was really into anything that wasn’t novel-length because I was so convinced, to be honest, sixteen books I’m still convinced, that I don’t have the attention span for a novel. I was very afraid of the idea of having to keep a novel in my head while putting it down on paper. And so, I really…one of the only reasons that it even took me until college to try and write a novel was because I tried every other form first and then I realized that, as a sophomore in college I realized that the reason I hadn’t tried to write a novel was because I was afraid of failing. And I have a very antagonistic relationship to fear. The moment somebody points out that I’m afraid of something, or the moment I realize I’m afraid of something, I have a kind of combative reaction to that. So I realized I had a fear of heights and I jumped out of an airplane when I turned 18, and I realized I had a fear of change and I chopped off all my hair, and I realized I had a fear of being away from my comforts and so I traveled around Europe, like backpacking, and so, when I realized that I was afraid of failing to do this thing I immediately sat down and was determined to start and finish a novel.

Well, when you were writing fragments and bad teenage poetry—and I’ve edited magazines of teenaged writing, and I can assure that teenagers still write bad teenage  poetry—were people encouraging you that, you know, you’ve got something here, maybe you should be writing it. Did you have encouragement along the way?

I did have some reinforcement in that, I struggled a lot as a teenager, and I felt very displaced at the time. I was so in the closet that I had no concept that I was gay, but I just felt continuously othered. I had been dropped into an all-girls Southern preparatory school at age thirteen in a completely different state, and I felt so out of place and so out of my element that writing became something that was just a tether. It was just an outlet for me. And then I had a couple of teachers who began to encourage me. And you know, God knows if they saw something or if they were just trying to say, “Here’s an anchor, here’s a life raft, but it really helped. And I, because I grew up with poetry I had a really, really good ear for cadence. And so, I actually…I mean, I was 15 or 16 when I started submitting poetry and winning contests with it. And by the time I graduated high school I was my high school’s Poet Laureate, and I had a sense from there on that I really wanted to do something with words, that words gave me a sense of power that I didn’t feel in the rest of my environment.

So, when you got to university, did you study writing, or did you study something else and write on the side?

When I first went to university I started out in astrophysics, and so needless to say I was a great departure. I would end up changing my major six times…and I stand by this. though. I wasn’t changing it because I wasn’t capable in any one discipline. I was changing it because the idea of choosing only one was terrifying to me. And that was really one of the first indicators I should have had that I wanted a creative profession because one of the beauties of writing fiction is that you get to become somebody else for a limited period of time. You get to become an astrophysicist, you get to become an explorer, you get to become an archaeologist, a scholar, a write,r you get to become all of these things and kind of dive into different lives. And that was something which really, really appealed to me. I do have a minor in creative writing.

I’m of very many minds when it comes to pursuing creative writing from an academic perspective instead of from a exploratory perspective. I still believe that the best education that I’ve gotten towards my own writing has been reading. I still believe that the vast majority of what I took away from those programs was, if anything, simply a…not a comfort, I don’t think I ever became comfortable with sharing my work, but the necessity of getting over that fear of critique, that was something that I took away from the programs. But the writing was something which happened in the background. It was something that I protected throughout university as a creative outlet.

It’s interesting, because several authors I’ve talked, some of whom did have formal creative writing classes, are also of two minds. I went into journalism myself, when I made my decision I wanted to work with words, because I was very, very practical and thought, “I can get a job,” as opposed to just trying to make a living just writing stories or something. So, how did the first novel come about? How did you break in, I guess is the question.

So, my…weirdly, because of my background in poetry, because I had an interesting or unusual cadence, I was able to get a literary agent with that first, first novel that I ever wrote, the one that I wrote when I was a sophomore in college. Now, that book never got published. It got very far up the acquisitions ladder at multiple houses and got rightfully rejected because it had no plot, because I didn’t actually know how to write a book. It was the first time I’d ever even tried. And what I was good at was writing very pretty sentences and what I had not yet figured out how to do was write a story. And so, I was so busy, that happened when I was a sophomore, I got an agent, from my sophomore year through my junior year that book was on submission to publishers and being summarily rejected from them. I hit my senior year, it was my second semester senior, and at that point I was doing an arts program. I had moved from astrophysics into set design into art history into English into…oh, God, one other one…and then—Japanese cultures and mythologies—and then into graphic design and marketing and design, and because I had come into the program so late, I was really behind. So I had this intense course load that I was having to take because most of the design majors had been in their program for like, four years, and I had been in it for a year and a half. So I had no time. It would have been very, very easy to put writing aside, and I would have followed that classic narrative arc of going off and doing something else for ten, fifteen, twenty years and then saying, “Oh I always wanted to write a book, I always wanted to be an author,” and find my way back to it. And I had this crystal-clear, almost out-of-body experience, on a February night as a second-semester senior, thinking, like, “This is where I make this choice. I either sit down right now and try again and try to write another book. or it is going to be something that I come back to after I have had another life,” and I didn’t want it to be that.

And so I began checking out of my art studio space for two hours every night from 9 p.m. to 11 p.m., walking off-campus to a coffee shop across the street, and sitting down and writing for two hours a night. It was time I really didn’t have, but I made this decision that I did not want to…I didn’t want the first book I had ever written to be a fluke and I didn’t want to give up on this path. And so, some nights I would write 500 words and some nights I would write 2,000 words, but essentially by the time I graduated that spring I had a draft of another novel and that novel was called The Near Witch, which is about a village where a stranger appears one night, and the following night all of the children begin to disappear one by one, and that would go on to be my debut novel

And there’s been several since then.

Yeah, several.

How many are you up to now, after about ten years?

Well, sixteen in about eight years, because it sold ten years ago, but I had several gaps. I had an eighteen-month gap between when it came out and when my next book came out. So for a while there, it was a two-year gap between when it sold and when it was published and…so, but yeah, it will come out to about seventeen books in ten years.

Now, you write both young adult and adult. Was the first book young adult or adult?

The first book was young adult, and I’ve actually written a few middle grade in ther,e as well, so for the age bracket below young adult. The Near Witchwas young adult. My first three books, The Near WitchThe Archived, and The Unbound, were all young adult, and then my fourth novel, Vicious, was my first adult novel.

When I started, my first unpublished novels were all basically young adult because that’s how old I was.

Yeah.

Is that one reason why you started in the young adult market? Because you were quite young when you wrote that first book.

Interestingly…and this is something that I had to do a lot of, like, soul-searching with afterwards, I have never written very comfortably into YA. Even my books that we were talking about earlier, The Savage Songand Our Dark Duet, they’re very, very much upper YA. And it has nothing to do with any of the arbitrary boundaries. I find that I tend to write very dark and very adult and less…I write almost no romance and I write very little coming-of-age, and so, it’s not that I ever fell cleanly in one category or another, it’s simply that my agent said, this will work in this category or this will work in this. I have always tried very hard to do what’s right for the story, and and try to worry about where it fits on a shelf later, because, you know, YA is a category of which more than half the readers are adults, and adult is a category of which more than half the readers teenagers. And so, I think it could be really unnecessarily divisive when we think creatively about these boundaries and about these thresholds. My primary interest is writing stories for a version of myself. So, when I write middle-grade novels, I am writing the book that I would have wanted to read at ten or eleven. Now I was a very morbid, strange ten- and eleven-year-old reading Jason Bourne and Stephen King. I was a very morbid and strange and outsider seventeen-year-old, which is who I wrote The Savage Songand Our Dark Duetand the Archivebooks for, and I’m a very morbid and strange thirty-one-year-old, which is who I wrote Vengefulfor earlier this year, and so, I think that’s really the only way that I fathom the boundaries between my books.

And I think you’ve pointed out, I’ve seen in interviews, that there are different categories in different countries.

Exactly. Yeah, my threshold for young adult in France is like twenty-three, and the threshold in, what is it, let’s see, in Brazil it’s quite high…or it’s quite low…oh, but in like the UK, which is where I live, you’ll see the young adult spaces on the shelves really skew younger. So, what we would consider a lower YA in the US, in terms of that kind of, like, fourteen and fifteen and much more contemporary, that’s the bulk of the young adult shelf in the UK. So, even books of mine which are published as YA in the US then are published as adult in the UK

I want to talk specifically about the Shades of Magic trilogy, and…so, I’m going to ask you the classic question. I won’t say where do you get your ideas, but I will say, what was the spark for that particular trilogy? And there’s more books coming in the series.

There are, there are. So, I’m a bit of a magpie writer. I have a slow process in which I collect many shiny bits and pieces of an idea before it coalesces into something, before I have a nester or whatever. I…so, it’s never like, one thing. I’m not a person who dreams entire stories. I’m not a person who sits down and has an entire character spill out. It’s usually a collection of fragments that simply…something comes along to become the codifying ingredient. And so, for Shades of MagicA Darker Shade of Magic is the first book, and for those who don’t know, it’s about a magician with the ability to move between alternate versions of the world, officially as a messenger and unofficially as a smuggler, and he comes into possession of something he should not have. It all came about from several, several sources, gathered together slowly, but essentially, I wanted to write a love letter to Harry Potterbut not to any of the specifics of Harry Potter. I wanted to write a love letter to the nostalgia of wanting to visit a place, because at the time I was thinking about Shades of Magic, the market was inundated with dystopia and with narratives in which…the narratives themselves were incredibly compelling, but you as the reader would never want to go back and visit just to spend time in those worlds. Whereas, with Harry Potter, like, you wanted to go back to Hogwarts and you could kind of visually, mentally extrapolate what house you would be in and what you would study and do all these things, and it kind of gave you a world of nostalgia that existed outside of the actual plots of the characters. And I missed that, I missed having a world that I wanted to simply spend time in. So, I wanted to design that.

I also wanted to…I really like designing magical structures because I think that magical structures work best when they are at their most intuitive. And so, I wanted to design an intuitive magical structure. I wanted to do a nod to Avatar: The Last Airbender, which I was very much in love with at the time and still am, and I just…I had a visual in my head, along with all of those other elements. I had this still-frame picture, which I get sometimes, I get still-frame pictures in my head, and it was a man in a red coat walking through a wall and colliding with a girl dressed as a boy. And I had no story to go with it. And so, that was that was actually the first piece of the puzzle that I had. And then I was piecing through a snowfield garden, talking to a friend of mine, trying to figure out what I was going to write next, and I mentioned that picture, and I thought about how I write about a lot of different kinds of doors in my books, metaphorical and physical, but I had never written, at that point, alternate worlds, alternate realities. And when I mentioned that, I immediately thought back to that visual in my head and thought, “Oh, what if he wasn’t walking through a wall between rooms, like, what if he was walking through a wall between worlds?” And all of a sudden all of the other little shiny magpie pieces that I had just kind of started clicking, cascading into place.

One of the, I would almost call it a character in the book, is the city of London, and it’s three different iterations. Why London?

You know, it’s twofold. My cheeky answer is that London is the most overused setting in fantasy, and I wanted to play with that, because while all three to four of the Londoners in the series are called London, only one of them is actually London as we know it? And the rest is kind of a semantic anomaly. And so, you can go in assuming you know what the setting of this book is going to be and be proven very wrong because we spend very little time in our London, and the other answer is that the way that my magic systems are designed is, essentially, I wanted to build different bodies on the same bones. So I wanted to strip the geography down to its base elements and then build new cities on top of that. So, one step in our London is one step in Red London, is one step in Grey London. They have the exact same geographic footprint. And then I build the cities on top of them based on their relationships to magic. So, in Red London magic has thrived and so have the people and so the way that their environment works is a very magic-driven system, whereas in White London magic is being controlled and dominated and constrained by the people and it’s starving out all of the nutrients of their city, et cetera, et cetera. And so, I needed a geographic foundation that was easily recognizable, and London is one of those that is…it’s easy division. I mean, it has two banks and it has a river in the middle. And that’s essentially what I needed to do. I needed them all to be on the same footing pretty quickly.

Now once you had your actual idea, and all these elements that you had together, what did…and does…your planning process look like? Are you a detailed outliner or are you more of an on-the-fly kind of writer?

No, no. I plan. So, but I don’t plan everything. I think people hear the word outliner and they think like I’ve, you’ve stripped all of the magic from the process, like that you’ve somehow left no room for discovery and I disagree pretty strongly with that idea of an outliner. I have to know certain things when I go into a book. I have to know how it ends because I work backwards. So, I need to know how the story ends and where all of the characters are at the end so I can know who they should be and where they should be at the beginning. And so, I have a little bit of a rewind process when I’m writing. 

Normally, I will then figure out five to ten of the most important kind of beats, the pins in the map, and then I will give myself enough space to explore and find my way between those pins. For A Darker Shade of Magic, it was a little unique because I was selling it to Tor, my US publisher, on a proposal, and so, essentially, because it was quite an ambitious project, I sat down and I wrote a five- to six-thousand word synopsis that was essentially a beat sheet for the story that I wanted to tell. And that’s more detailed than I had ever done before, but I knew that I…I am somebody who feels more comfortable with a map. I don’t hold myself to that map I don’t but it gives me a sense of where the world ends. It gives me a sense of, “Oh, if I go this way I’m gonna fall off a cliff and I don’t want to do that.” So, I use the map as giving me a safe environment to explore without getting derailed too far.

It’s interesting, again, talking to so many different authors, how different that process is for everyone. I think Peter V. Brett, who wrote the Demon Cycle books, writes like a 150-page outline, so he’s just very, very, very precise. Then there are people who say, “Well, I do a page, and then I go for it.”

I think it’s really interesting it’s so important to remember that there’s no right way to write. I think the what what works for you is whatever allows you to get out of your own way. So, for me, I get scared by not having a plan, and so that eliminates any of the joy that would come from discovery. Whereas there are other writers who—ninety percent of their joy comes from just wandering in the dark. I am somebody who gets a huge amount of joy from executing a strategy.

What does your actual writing process look like? Do you, you know, sit down at a desk for eight hours a day? Do you write in a coffee shop? Do you write in longhand? How do you do it?

A little bit of everything. I probably max out about two to three hours a day, because my job also requires me to…I mean, it’s an embarrassment of riches but I am really, really lucky to be at a point in my career where there are a lot of other demands on my job that are not actually word making. So, whether it’s, I’m about to set out on tour for almost three months straight, and so that obviously will change, and I will need to adapt and write in airports and write in hotel bars and in my room and things like that. I am somebody, though, who writes in twenty- to twenty-five-minute sprints because I have very short focus and it’s going many directions usually, and I try to do two to three hours of those twenty-minute sprints a day. And obviously, some days I exceed that and some days I don’t.

But I think it’s also really important to remember that there’s a difference between time spent creating and time spent typing. So, while I only sit down at my computer for two to three hours a day to write, I am creatively cogs turning all day, when I am at the gym, when I am walking my dog, when I am on a train or a plane, I am constantly turning over pieces of the story, so that when I sit down I can work. And sometimes I write by hand when I’m stuck. I don’t draft by hand, but I plot and I strategize and I create myself beat sheets for a scene by hand. I will do whatever I need to do to keep creative momentum. And some days when I’m travelling I don’t actually write any words but I spend time with the story so that I keep the creative door propped open in my head.

It sounds like you probably are a little different on every book in the way that it all comes together.

Absolutely. I will say that my process differs based on whether I’m writing a 45,000- word middle grade installment for my City of Ghostsseries or the adult novel that I’m working on right now, which is a book that has been in the process for almost a decade.

Once you have that draft, what does your revision process look like?

My revision process is really interestingly consistent considering I have three different editors at three different publishing houses. I think the more books I write the more I hate first drafts, because you become more and more aware of the things you’re doing wrong but you still have to do them wrong before you can do them right so that you have something to work with. I really do, it goes straight to my editor, first of all, like, I have a beta reader, she’s wonderful, and her job is essentially to keep me from quitting. And then I have very close relationships with all three of my editors. And so, I go…I turn in the first draft. Well, but also, I should sidebar or footnote and say that I do revise as I go. I don’t zero draft. So, when I say I turn in my first draft to my editor, I have been told, at least, that my quote-unquote first draft looks a lot more like perhaps a third draft because. By the time I’m turning it in I have outlined and strategized and plotted and kind of polished what I have as I’m going.

So, I turn that to my editors and then I usually do three to five rounds of revision, in kind of concentric circles. So, the first round of revision is very broad. It’s big picture. It’s plot and arc and pacing and worldbuilding. And then from there we move in kind of Russian-doll style to character and, again, pacing because by then I will have made some structural changes that need to be shored up and tightening of internal motivations. And of, you know, a lot of the emotional cogs. And then the third round, we start looking at the actual wording, tightening up any of the line edits, perhaps cutting one last scene in order to just to make sure that it’s functioning in its absolute strongest form. And from there it’s just last polish.

Are there any things that you find that you consistently end up doing getting in revision that for some reason you just didn’t notice in the first draft. We all have weaknesses that are caught by our editors.

Yeah, I do try. I do think that the more books I write the more I’m aware of those weaknesses. It doesn’t always stop me from making them, but I usually…I really have gotten better listening to the voice in my head that throws up a little warning light that something’s not working. And so even if I don’t know how to fix it I’ve gotten better at flagging it for my editor, as saying like, hey I know this moment isn’t achieving the right emotional piece or the right number of beats or whatever it is. That is probably the only thing that I feel like I’ve gained over the course of drafting. But the middle of the book and I always fight. The tension in the middle. I am quite confident in my last notes and in my first notes but there’s usually always something in the middle that I struggle with.

Using characters…and this question kind of goes back to the first draft…but how do you decide what characters you need and who are going to be your characters that carry the story forward. And do you do a lot of character planning?

No, I don’t, like do a sheet, I don’t, like, put them through their, like, psychological profiles and Meyers Briggs. My rule with characters is that they need to be fully realized enough that I could give them their own book, even if this is not their book, and they would be able to hold it up as the protagonist. And that is the rule that I hold for characters who are on-page for one scene. If you meet them in the course of my book, they should have enough depth, even if you never see it all, that they could have been the protagonist of a different story. And so, in the early stages of a book I don’t necessarily always know which characters are going to take up more space as the story goes on. A classic example of that is, there’s a character in the Shades of Magicseries who becomes kind of our, like, doorway to grey London, to our London, named Ned, Ned Tuttle, and Ned Tuttle is a human character with no magical powers who was only supposed to show up in one page of the first book. And…but because I try very hard to give characters enough potential, enough depth, he became somebody that my editor and my readers wanted to see more of as the books went on, and so he started to show up more and more.

And so that is the luxury of treating each of your characters as though they are a main character, simply not of this book. I make sure that for every one of my characters I can answer the questions, “What are they afraid of, what do they want, and what are they willing to do to get it?” Because I think understanding those core psychological tenants, those core kind of ethical and motivational tenants, are some of the most important for grasping a character, even if they aren’t going to be the central one of the narrative.

You had mentioned that briefly you had studied set design. Have you done any other…like, been an actress?

No. God, no.

The only reason I ask is because I am an actor.

Yeah.

The process that you talked about with characters, sounds very much like what actors do to try to bring characters to life, even if you have a walk on, you try to make them in some way memorable.

Well, that doesn’t surprise me. I mean, I do think that authors…I think one of the… I don’t want to call it a failing One of the frustrations I’ve had with some of the novels that I’ve read lately is, I think, in the interests of plot and pacing, sometimes authors are forsaking character a little bit and they have to remember that, if we don’t care about the people that the plot is happening to, we will not care about the plot when it is over. Like, you have to, if you think about it, if you’re writing a series, we come to the first book in a series for the plot because we don’t know the characters yet. Right? So, we have to be drawn to the first book in a series solely based on the concept and the plot. But we don’t come back to a series for the plot. We come back to the subsequent books for the characters.

Now this is going to be a little shorter than some of these, because I know that you’re very, very busy, so I’m going to come to the final couple of questions…

I have a nine-month-old puppy who keeps coming into the kitchen and looking at me like, “Hey!”

So, a couple of big philosophical questions here. You’ve talked a little bit about why you started, but why do you think anybody writes. Why do we tell stories, and particularly stories of the fantastic?

Oh, God, that’s such a big question. I’m not sure I have an answer to it. I mean, I can’t…this is the thing, I can’t speak to it a general…writing is such a personal process. I think many of us probably have slightly different motivations. I have friends who write because they’re good at it and they make money and I have friends who write because it is an exorcism of internal chaos and I probably fall somewhere in the middle. Like, I love my job. I see it as a job. But even if I weren’t being published, I would write, because it is the only way to make straight lines out of all of the tangles in my head.

Another way to ask is, why do you think readers read stories and are interested in what we right. And also, because this is the others the other question I would ask is, What do you hope your books give to readers. What do you hope they take it away from them?

I think sometimes it’s escapism and sometimes it’s mirror. Like, sometimes we want to be somebody else and sometimes we want to see ourselves. And so, I think that can depend, really, on the story. I think a goal for me when I write is to give them both, is just, show somebody who isn’t usually centered in the narrative, to give them space in the middle, to let them see themselves in that way, but also sometimes to let them escape their reality. I mean, I write fantasy because…and this is the dedication at the beginning A Darker Shade of Magic…but I grew up wanting the world to be stranger than it was. I grew up looking for cracks in stone walls that might be doorways and I may I still believe in magic and I still believe that there’s so much more to this world than we understand and it’s that potential for magic that makes me want my readers to doubt their reality. That’s my goal. I want you to pick up one of my books and ask yourself by the end, like, I mean, “Is that possible?”, because, for instance, I have a series called The Villainsseries. The first book is Viciousand the second book is Vengeful. And these books are built on a sci-fi concept, on the concept that superpowers can evolve from a specific kind of near-death experience, right? And, like, it’s an extrapolation of science, of the kind of the phenomenon that happen s when adrenal responses overload under immense stress. But I tried to write it with an eye toward utmost realism. And it’s funny to say I tried to write a supervillain novel with an eye towards realism, but every few months I will get an email from somebody, usually a guy, a like, grown man, who will say, “Hey, like, I read these books and, like, I just want you to, like, confirm this isn’t real, is it? Like, this phenomenon isn’t real.” And that entire interaction right there is my goal. That entire interaction, whether I’m writing fantasy or science fiction. I want readers to doubt, because when we’re when we’re young we doubt. When we’re young we believe so easily, and that’s something that we seem so loathe to hold onto or so unable to hold on to. And that’s what I love about fantasy, both as a reader and as a writer, is that it reintroduces doubt and possibility.

You talked about the crack in reality. I think it’s a great metaphor. That was Doctor Whowhen the crack opens up in the wall in Amy Pond’s room.

Absolutely.

And we’re thinking, “That could happen. That could totally happen.”

We read to believe something can happen, if we are not sure about it, in our own world, or if we don’t think it’s possible in our own world, whether that’s a person, whether that’s magic, whether that’s simply a better, stronger, stranger, darker, freer version of ourselves

So, you are going on book tour. Perhaps we should at least mention that book.

What’s really interesting is I’m going on book tour in part for The Near Witch, which is the book that I mentioned at the very beginning, the very first novel. It went out of print…I mean, this is the thing. Writing is an art and publishing is a business. And when The Near Witchcame out in 2011 it was strange and quiet at a time when the things which were successful were very loud. And I had no readership yet, it was my debut novel, and it wasn’t particularly given the time that it needed to find its strange little morbid audience. And I have the immense fortune now, almost a decade later, that my readership has grown and is full of readers who like my strange, morbid, peculiar stories. And so, The Near Witchis finally being rereleased after five, six years not on shelves, and so I’m going on tour for that and for the graphic-novel release of my comic book series, which is set in the Shades of Magicworld, called The Steel Prince.

It’s interesting, because The Near Witch is going to seem like a brand-new book, then, to most people.

Some people have been, like, “Why did somebody put on the blurb that this is her debut novel, like, this is obviously her sixteenth or seventeenth book,” and I’m like, “Well, this is the weird paradox of it, isn’t it?” Like, it is a brand-new book and it has a novella with it that was never published. And it’s gonna be really interesting to see what the readers’ reception is to this book, for those who assume it is a new book

Now, for those who want to follow along and try and find out where you are and what you do doing, and all that stuff, how do they find you online?

Oh, I live inside the Internet, so it’s very, very simple. Probably the best places to find me are on Twitter and Instagram. On Instagram I post my tour schedules when they’re finalized, so it’s a good way to figure out where I’m going to be, a little bit more static than Twitter. But I’m @VESchwab on both of those platforms

When this airs, you’ll actually be well into the tour, this will probably be on in April sometime, I think. So, have a great tour.

Thank you.

Thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. It’s been a great pleasure talking to you.

Thank you so much for having me.

Episode 21: Larry Correia

An hour-long conversation with Larry Correia, the New York Times-bestselling, award-winning author of the Monster Hunter International series, the Grimnoir Chronicles trilogy, the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior epic fantasy series, and the Dead Six thrillers, all from Baen Books. He also writes novels set in the Warmachine game universe.

Website:
www.monsterhunternation.com

Facebook:
Larry Correia

Larry Correia’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Larry Correia

LarryCorreia is the New York Times-bestselling, award-winning author of the Monster Hunter International series, the Grimnoir Chroniclestrilogy, the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior epic fantasy series, and the Dead Six thrillers, all from Baen Books. He also writes novels set in the Warmachine game universe.

A former accountant, military contractor, firearms instructor, and machine-gun dealer, Larry has been a full-time author for several years. His first novel, Monster Hunter International,was originally self-published. He’s now published in seven countries.

Larry lives in northern Utah with his very patient wife and four children.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Larry, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thanks for having me on.

Now we met very, very, very briefly, at DragonCon this year…last year, I guess, which was my very first DragonCon. I found it a bit overwhelming. There’s a lot of people there.

Oh, yeah. It’s a giant nerd Mardi Gras.

I was at your panel on–I made a point of sitting in the front row, actually, at the panel on monsters that you were on, which was a very good panel, and then introduced myself and asked if you’d be interested being on the podcast and you said yes, and we’ve finally gotten around to it. So, very glad to have you. I’ve enjoyed your books and am looking forward to talking to you about them. We’re gonna talk specifically about The Saga of the Forgotten Warrior, your fantasy…I guess it’s going to be a trilogy? Or longer?

Well, I originally pitched it as a trilogy to Toni Weisskopf, my publisher, and she’s…you know, Toni knows this stuff very well, and I give her a kind of a plot outline for the trilogy. And she came back and she gave me a book deal for three books, and then she said, “You know, there’s no way in the world you’re going to fit this into three books, right?” Yeah. So, originally it was a trilogy but there’s probably going to be more than that. I’m working on the fourth one right now.

We’ll call it a series, then. The first book of that was Son of the Black Sword, and so we’ll talk about how that all came about a little later. But to start with, I like to talk with my guests about how they got started doing this crazy thing that they did. So, I guess, take us back into the mists of time. First of all, where did you grow up, and how did you first get interested in in science fiction and fantasy as a reader, and then as a writer. How did that all come about? You have a rather unusual path to publication.

Oh, yeah. Well I’m originally from El Nido, California, which is a little tiny town in Merced County, which is the San Joaquin Valley. It’s the part of California that’s more cows than people. That’s where I’m from. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and we were really poor, but there was a little, tiny library, a little, tiny county library. And I was a nerdy kid. I loved reading books and I read every single thing they had there–and then I discovered interlibrary loans. I was always that awkward kid that read books on the bus and read books during recess and I just always loved to read.

I know that kid. I was that kid.

I think that’s most of us. I grew up…it was a pretty rough place, we were, you know, poor dairy farmers, a lot of hard manual labor. It was a lot of of fun, but I read to escape, and I discovered science fiction and fantasy pretty early on. I mean, I started out with Westerns, because…you have to understand, my dad didn’t read. He didn’t appreciate books, he didn’t like books, he thought books were kind of a sissy activity, that was kind of how I was raised. But I got a pass on Westerns, and so I actually started out with Louis L’Amour. My dad thought Westerns were manly and cool and tough, so Westerns were okay. But then, actually, I think one of the first fantasy books I ever came across was Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, an old classic, and discovered that first. That was my gateway drug to fantasy.

That’s interesting, starting with Sword of Shannara. Of course, it was very much in the mold of Tolkien. But you came to it first instead of Tolkien.

Yeah. Well, actually, I came to Tolkien later. I went backwards on that. I mean, I got to meet Terry Brooks in person for the first time five or six years ago, and I think I really nerded out pretty hard. No, I kind of got into that and…I read a lot of different things, various genres. I love reading different genres. I pretty much wound up as a fantasy guy just because that was what I was good at and that’s what I enjoyed writing the most, but I’m kind of a multi-genre kind of guy myself, I write in a bunch of different genres, too. But fantasy is my primary thing and I love it.

So, when did you actually start putting your own words on paper and telling your own stories?

Oh, I was really young, actually. I would get like books with paper and I would illustrate the stories, too. And my mom actually saved some of these, so after I die my wife will probably be able to sell these on eBay to my fans for a lot of money. You know, there’s like, really goofy little adventure stories with cartoons and stuff.

My first attempt at seriously writing, I was in college, and at the time I was on a Tom Clancy kick. I had been reading a ton of techno-thrillers, and I decided…the very first book I ever tried to write was actually a thriller. And it was terrible. It just wasn’t very good. You know, the first thing you try to write has training wheels, and it was terrible. I didn’t know what I was doing. And that got shelved.

And then I graduated college and for about ten years I went off and had a career and a family and worked hard and didn’t really have time for it. And then I decided to give it a shot again in the mid 2000s. I started…at the time, the kick I was on was horror movies, and I’m also a gun nut, I was a firearms instructor, and so I took two things I knew a lot about, horror movies and gun nuttery, and I stuck them together, and that’s where my Monster Hunter series came from. And that book actually did really super well. It’s still going well. So, that’s kind of how I started writing, so I guess I’ve always kind of been a writer, but I took, like, a decade off to be a grown-up.

Did you do anything in the way of, you know, writers’ groups or classes or anything in all that time? I know you certainly didn’t study it at university, you became an accountant, eventually.

Yeah, I got my degree in accounting and did a bunch of things like that. I was an auditor and then I was in the gun business for a long time, then I was a military-contractor accountant, and I did that for many years. But the thing is, I never did any writing-related stuff other than business writing. I wrote nonfiction, because I actually wrote technical articles and review articles for gun magazines, and I wrote articles about, you know, I guess the best way to put this for a non-gun-nut audience is tactical stuff, because I was an instructor. And so, I wrote things like that, but I never wrote any fiction during that time. I never had any training. I took the minimal number of English classes required to graduate. I was never in any writers’ groups or anything of that nature. I just read a lot. So, I kind of learned by doing, I guess.

That, in your words, “very bad thriller” that you wrote, did you share it with anybody, you know, at least get a hint that perhaps you could you could tell a story that people were interested in?

A handful of people, a handful of friends. And actually, people liked it and they really enjoyed it and they were kind of surprised that I was literate, you know, being a big dumb knuckle-dragging farm kid, they were like, “Wow, this is actually really good.” But it just wasn’t up to snuff. It’s funny, though, because there’s no such thing as wasted writing. You know, we always save…even our worst stuff has little nuggets in it…so later on, when I was doing the Dead Six series with Mike Kupari, I stole pretty much every line of dialogue, every cool character, everything that was neat or good from that first book I stole and later on, it wound up in other books. But, you know, it was good practice. But, no, I never had a sort of organized group or anything, just, I would hand it out to friends and said, “Hey! Check this out.” But that’s about it.

I wrote novels in high school that I showed to my friends, and they, you know, they said, “This is really good,” and of course, like you, I look back at those now and I think, “No, actually they weren’t.” But at least I learned that, you know, people were interested in reading what I wrote, and that kind of was what drove me into into doing it.

You were talking about writing nonfiction. I was a journalist myself, so I wrote, you know, thousands and thousands and thousands of words of nonfiction. I would say probably–and let’s see if you would agree with me–that even though you’re not writing fiction, the mere act of putting that many words together, even if it’s for gun magazines or whatever it is, still contributes to your writing improving. Would you say that’s fair?

Oh, I would say that’s totally fair. Like I said, there’s no such thing as wasted writing. Honestly, I think that anything that you’re doing that you’re having to put together a coherent narrative is good training. It’s just good practice, just stringing words together, wordsmithing, it’s all useful. Well, I mean, maybe not Twitter.

The great Twitter novel has yet to be written.

Yeah, I don’t know if I want to read it.

Now, Monster Hunter International…it wasn’t published by a traditional publisher to begin with. was it?

No, it was not. I’m with Baen now, and I’ve been with them for about ten years…yeah, ten years this year. But originally, it was self-published, because what happened is, I wrote this book, and best way to describe is, think, you know, X Files meets The Expendables, okay? So, it’s all the tropes of the various horror movies, and, you know, the Lovecraft mythos, because I love Lovecraft, all that’s in there, only, the people…it’s not a horror story, it’s an adventure story, because the characters are not, you know, typical horror-movie characters who scream and run and get eaten. They’re my people. And so, there are a bunch of gun nuts, and military contractors, and combat vets, and all those people, and they dealt with all these monster problems like my people would. (You know, the running joke as if you made a horror movie about the average gun nut it’d be a really short horror movie.)

So, I did this, and I tried to sell it in the traditional manner. Back in those days.. this predates the e-book revolution and Kindle and all that, so I tried to sell it the traditional way, by getting it to agents and then sending it to slush piles, and I collected…it was just over a hundred rejections. I had a shoebox full of rejections, and basically I had a lot of people, you know, agents, well-known agents, come back and say, “Hey, this is really good, this is really fun, but I don’t think it’s sellable. I don’t see a market for this.” And, well, I was a business man, I was a fairly successful businessman at this point, I understood marketing, I understood market, I understood audiences. And I’m looking at this, and I’m thinking, “Well, I think there is a market for this. It might not be a market that, you know, regular Manhattan publishing understands, but I think there’s sufficient number of people out here that I can sell this book.” And so…at that point, self-publishing was kind of more of a vanity thing. You know, you didn’t have e-books, you had $25 print-on-demand paperbacks, which…that’s a pretty hard sell. But I had an audience already from some of my other work, and I was a moderator on a couple of big Internet gun forums. And so, I actually did some online fiction for free, with another guy, named Mike Kupari, who I later on wrote novels with, a great guy, a very good writer, and we put out, you know, free online fiction, and people read it and were like, “Wow, this guy can actually write fiction, this is pretty good.” And so then I launched my $25 print-on-demand paperback, and it actually did really, extremely well, which in those days of self-publishing was like, if you sold 3,000 to 5,000 copies of a print-on-demand paperback, that was huge. It was nothing like it is today, very different. But it was actually a very big success and…Uncle Hugo’s is this big independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota, great bookstore, great guys. And one of their employees read this, one of their former employees read this, and then passed it on to Uncle Hugo, or Don Blyly of Uncle Hugo’s, who wound up printing out the Word document file on his printer and read the whole thing that night, and then he called Toni Weisskopf, who was the publisher at Baen, and said, “You guys need to buy this book ’cause I could sell the heck out of it.” And that got Toni Weisskopf to take a look at it, and she thought it was great, and she…at that point my self-published book was doing pretty good…so she contacted me and made me an offer to buy it.

And this is where it really is cool. I had to discontinue the self-published version. I signed my contract, but, you know, the way publishing schedules work, it wasn’t going to come out for almost a year and a half. So what happened is, for a year and a half, everybody talked about this great self-published book that they really, really liked to their friends, and their friends couldn’t buy it, because there were no more. And nothing makes somebody want something more than not being able to have it. So, for a year and a half everybody wanted to get their hands on this book, and no one could. So then when the actual Baen version came out, it was just mass-market paperback, that was before I was in hardcover, our little print run sold out in like the first twenty-four hours, it just exploded. And so she did another print run, and it went nuts and it was just instantaneously sold out. And so she did a third print run, and it went nuts, too.

At that point it kind of slowed off, but, you know, she’d given me a contract for a few more books at that point. So, yeah, so that’s how my career got started, and I’ve been doing this for about ten years now. That was back in 2009, is when the Baen version came out, and I’m at twenty-one novels now, I think, and a couple of collections of short stories, and a bunch of novellas and miscellaneous projects. So, it’s been really busy.

It’s safe to say this is what you do full time now?

Oh, yeah, yeah, I quit my accounting job about…I want to say five or six years ago…and I’ve been a full-time writer ever since.

Well, I have to say…I had run across mentions of Monster Hunter international…I think I was actually in the hospital for some reason and I needed stuff to read, and I may have gotten it through…was it in the Baen Free Library? That may have been where I got the first book.

Yeah, once we, I think, three or four books in the series, they added the first one to the Free Library. So, yes, for your listeners, you can get my first book for free, it’s available on baen.com, or you can download a free version for your Kindle on Amazon.

But be warned that that was like a, you know, one hit and then you’re hooked, at least in my case, because then I tore through all the others and I’ve been keeping up with it ever since. Good job, Baen.

That’s why we do it. Yeah, it’s the…we follow the crack-dealer method of product distribution where the first hit is free. The rest of the books cost you.

It’s interesting. One of the things that I often get asked and, you know, I’ve asked…you’re my, what, eighteenth or twentieth interview or something in this podcast?… people always ask, well, “How do you break in, or how did you get your first book published?”, and the thing is, it’s different for absolutely everybody. So, you know, your story is fascinating, but it’s probably not going to help anybody else, because it can’t, it’s not going to happen that way to anybody else.

Well, and technology changes so rapidly now. So even though this was only ten years ago for me, the entire method of how I got into it doesn’t even exist anymore really.

Yeah.

And now self publishing has become so easy the challenge there is, I mean, yeah, anybody can self-publish and it’s a snap, but you have to compete with the hundred thousand other people that also self-published that month. It’s super-competitive, very different than when I did it.

I did want to ask–and the reason is that my first book with DAW had been rejected by them and then through a roundabout way got accepted by them as a paperback–had Baen–you said you had a hundred rejections. Had Baen rejected it once before it came back to them?

This is kind of funny. So actually what happened with them–’cause most of my rejections were agents, and I also submitted directly to every publisher that would let you–Baen does a slush pile. So back in those days you would just mail the manuscript to Baen, and they would have, like, a big pile in their office of typed manuscripts, and they would go through and read them, they would have their slush readers. So, I did actually mail one, I did submit one to the slush pile. However, it disappeared or never arrived, because what happened was years later they were going through their own slush pile trying to find the original Monster Hunter I mailed them, just so they could just have it. You know, it’s an international bestseller for them now, we’ve got millions of books in print, and so they were trying to find this original photocopied manuscript that I had mailed them and they could never find it. And so I don’t know. It got lost at the post office? So, no, I didn’t ever actually get rejected by Baen.

Someday it’ll turn up.

Yeah, I figure it’ll show up on eBay when some postal employee finds it in, you know, the floor boards of his car. So that was just, that was a weird one right there, but, no, I got rejected a lot. But, you know, I always tell aspiring writers, you know, “You’re going to get rejected. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just keep going.” You know, a hundred sounds like a lot, but I’m not even near the top. I want to say Laurell K. Hamilton got rejected, like, two hundred and fifty times, and that was for her Anita Blake stuff, which has gone on to sell, like, 30 million copies. But back then, that was before paranormal romance was really a thing. She’s kind of like the godmother of that genre. And so publishers just didn’t know what to do with it. People were going, “I really don’t know how I’d sell this, I don’t know what genre is this.” Urban fantasy was a weird oddball thing back then and paranormal romance didn’t even exist, so they didn’t know. And now she is super, super successful. You never know. You just gotta keep throwing stuff out there to see what’s next.

Everybody hopes that that kind of a story will be theirs and for most people it isn’t. But the possibility is always there. So that’s what keeps a lot of writers going, I think.

There’s a lot of people, we show up and it’s like, “Wow, it’s like you’re an overnight success!” Yeah, it only took five years.

Well, in my case it was, before I had anything published fiction-wise, I’d been trying to sell for fifteen years, I think, or something like that. My first book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95, and my second book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 97. So it was like a series, you know, but not quite what I was interested in.

Yeah. I mean, we all come at this from different ways. There’s no one right answer. And it’s funny, because I go to these panels, and people always ask me, like, “What is the trick? What is the secret?” And I’m like, “Dude, I wish I knew, because I would totally like, you know, sell that.”

Yeah, if I’d known, I wouldn’t have taken so long to get to where I am. Well, we’re going to talk about the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior series (not trilogy!). So, we’ll start with talking…obviously, we’ll talk about the first book, because it’s hard to talk about the second book if you haven’t read the first book, which I have, by the way. The first book is called Son of the Black Sword, and maybe I’ll let you give a synopsis, because otherwise I’m liable to spoil something that shouldn’t be spoiled.

No problem. Okay, so Son of the Black Sword is an epic fantasy. It’s set in a world that’s kind of loosely based on India. I won’t say too much about the setting. It’s a world with really brutal caste systems, but it’s not a religious society: in fact, religion has been banned for a very long time. Instead, they have an all-encompassing Law, and everybody in this society has a place. The story’s about…the main character is a fellow named Ashok Vadal, who is a magical super-warrior figure. Think of this guy as kind of a roving, magical Judge Dredd, okay? This guy is the ultimate law enforcer in a land where the law is basically God. But the story is about him and what happens to him, because it turns out he is not who he thinks he is. And that’s…

The problem with epic fantasies is you can’t over-describe them without giving away the plot, but it’s really awesome. It came out super good. I love it. It’s done really well, been very popular. The story is…basically, I describe this guy as, he’s kind of a cross between The Punisher and George Washington. And it’s the story of how he basically turns from this unflinching role enforcer to…the saga’s him becoming a human being. But these are people that have not had religion for a long time, it’s been banned, and the old gods are kind of meddling in the affairs of man once again. This is a world where the seas, where the oceans, are basically hell. And so the culture is developed up around that. No, you don’t want to be by the ocean. The ocean is bad news in this setting.

It’s a fun series. The first one is Son of the Black Sword, which came out a couple of years ago and did really well. It’s my first foray into epic fantasy, based kind of…I’m a huge Robert E. Howard fan, so I kind of think of it as sword and sorcery, but it’s epic fantasy. The sequel is called House of Assassins, and that actually comes out right now. I think by the time this airs I’ll be on book tour for it. So that’s number two. And then number three is called Destroyer of Worlds, and I’m working on that right now. That’s actually what I was typing on when you called, or when you e-mailed me. So, yeah, the series is a lot of fun. I’ve really enjoyed it. (It’s a very dark setting, so when I say fun, to put this in perspective, I’m a writer. We have…our ideas of fun are a little different.

Yeah. You know, I destroy planets for fun.

Yeah, exactly. No, this is…I get to tackle a bunch of issues and have a lot of fun with it, but I don’t…I’m not a heavy-handed message-fiction kind of guy. I’m an action-adventure guy. If a theme sneaks in there it’s usually an accident, and don’t worry, I always put the action scenes first.

So what was the genesis of this? The seed from which this is grew?

You know, this is really interesting, because this is the funny thing about how how ideas works. Many years ago, I was a panelist, when I was a new writer, I was a brand-new writer, I was on a panel at a convention called LTUE, which is Life, the Universe, and Everything, in Provo, Utah. Back then it was held on the BYU college campus. And I was the newbie writer, and I was on a panel with Lee Modesitt Jr., Brandon Sanderson, and Dave Wolverton, who, as you know, are three big-deal, big-time, very successful fantasy writers.

So, I’m on this panel and somebody, some college student in the audience, had a question about…something. I can’t remember what the question was, and I had a really good answer for it. And so, I started to answer the question, and this college student cuts me off. He goes, “No, no, no, no, you’re just an urban-fantasy writer. I want to hear from the epic-fantasy writers.” And I was like, “You little bastard.” And I sat there and I was kind of like torqued, right. Like I said, I’d only been a writer for a couple of years. And so, as soon as the panel was over I snagged Brandon Sanderson, and I was like, “Hey, Brandon, what makes something an epic fantasy?” And so, he’s like, “Well, you know, it’s gotta have a lot of characters and a big giant plot and usually world-spanning events and a lot of history and worldbuilding and that kind of stuff.”

I went, “Okay, okay, cool, cool.” And so then I hooked up with Mike Kupari, whom I’ve mentioned before, ’cause Mike’s one of my best friends, and my co-author on my thriller series, and we’re driving home, and we start brainstorming, and actually the epic fantasy that I came up with turned out to be Hard Magic, the Grimnoir Chronicles, which is my Hard Magic series. So, my first attempt epic fantasy turned into 1930s alternate-history superheroes.

And I’d actually call one science fiction. It really has a science-fiction undercurrent.

Exactly. But that was the genesis of my foray into epic fantasy. But some of the ideas I came up with during this process, brainstorming, a lot of this turned into a series, which is actually a very successful one, and critically acclaimed, and it’s won the Audie for best audio book two out of the three novels. It was like number sixteen on Audible’s top 100 audio books of all time, so it’s been really good. But the thing is, this was my first foray into epic fantasy and it turned out not epic fantasy at all.

Then the next year, actually when I was working on Monster Hunter Alpha, I still at this point really wanted to tackle an epic fantasy, just ’cause I read ’em, I enjoyed ’em, and I hadn’t written one–because, like I said, my attempt turned out to be alternate-history superheroes. So, I was like, “I’m going to write an epic fantasy.” So, while I was working on Monster Hunter Alpha…I always listen to music as I write, and I usually listen to movie soundtracks, because they’re instrumental, there’s no words to mess with me, just music. And so, I hadn’t even seen the movie yet, but I had downloaded the soundtrack for Inception, because I love Hans Zimmer, right? Hans Zimmer’s awesome. So while I was listening to Inception, there’s a song called “Waiting for a Train,” and it’s like this eight-minute-long or nine-minute-long song, that starts really, really slow, and then builds up to this just massive crescendo. And before the crescendo begins, there’s actually this woman, there are some lyrics, and this woman comes on and sings one line in French, and having not seen the movie, I had no context at all, right? But I was so struck by this song that I stopped writing the novel that I was working on, and I actually wound up writing this little two-thousand-word short scene that was just a fantasy setting set specifically to that song. Once again, I hadn’t seen the movie, so I had no context of what it actually looked like, right? Or what it was actually for. (Boy, I was off! I was nowhere near what the movie Inception was like. )

So, I wrote that one little scene, and if you’ve read Son of the Black Sword, it’s actually the scene where Ashok is returning home, after he’s learned the truth of his existence, to confront his aunt. Basically, it turned into the dinner-party scene, the dinner-party knife-fight scene. That was actually the genesis of Son of the Black Sword, I was just inspired to write this one scene to correspond with this song. And then when I finished up this, I started brainstorming it out and really came up with a big plot.

The Indian setting was actually kind of interesting, because…I’m not a crusader by any means, in fact that stuff annoys the heck out of me, and this was before the whole big push for non-Western settings because you’re supposed to, or any of that stuff–I just thought it sounded interesting. I thought it sounded fun. Plus, I watch a lot of Bollywood movies, and so I was just looking at this like, you know, that would actually be really kind of a cool setting. And plus, I’d already been thinking through with that initial scene I did, where I’d already, just off that, was using a setting with caste systems. So, at that point it made perfect sense to just kind of borrow heavily from Indian history and mythology for the setting. And so it just kind of expanded out from there, and I actually wound up expanding it out and borrowing from…well, I won’t get into it, but, like, some other elements from Southeast Asia and even East Africa. So I got to throw in a bunch of stuff in there from that for inspiration. But then it kind of morphed into its own thing. So that’s where that came from.

You know, it would be cool to have a Bollywood movie version of Son of the Black Sword. Don’t you think you could have one?

Oh, my gosh. Well, in my head canon as I’m writing this, I always like to have, like, actors or people I actually know playing various characters. That way as I write them it helps me keep them consistent. So, actually, Kumar, in my head, is Ashok. Ashok looks like the actor Kumar. He’s been in a lot of movies. You’ve probably seen him. So, if they would like to make a movie that’d be great. They’d have to add some musical numbers.

I was going to say the musical numbers would be interesting.

My daughter, my oldest daughter, who’s a writer also, she’s watched a lot of these movies with me, and she’s like, at one point, I was saying that would be funny, if they made a Bollywood version of Son of the Black Sword, and my daughter goes, “Nah, Ashok don’t dance.” This is not a man who would dance, he’s not a man given to frivoloity.

She definitely has a point. So, you’ve talked a little bit about bringing all that, all those various things, together–was there a lot of research involved at this point, then, or did that come along as you develop the plot?

Oh, I kind of–that goes in spurts because, you know, there’s always the ever-widening Wiki spiral that all authors, we tend to do as we’re researching. No, I did the basic plot outline first. I’m an outliner.

That was my next question.

Oh, yeah, yeah, I’m definitely an outliner, so…plus I learned my lesson on my earlier books: I would outline, but I didn’t necessarily keep a series bible. Which, when you’re only one or two or three books into a series, that’s not a big deal. But on Monster Hunter I’m, you know, seven books in, with three spinoffs and a short-story collection. So, all of a sudden, this universe has gotten so big. I didn’t originally have a universe guide for it, and so I’m trying to remember, like, “Whoa, did I say where this person is from? Is this guy left-handed? Did I ever say what color this person’s eyes are?” All that little stuff…

It starts to pile up.

Yeah, it does, it piles up. So, what I did from the beginning of this series is, I had my outline, but then, I also have a separate world guide. Especially when you’re writing urban fantasy, a lot of stuff you don’t need a world guide, because it’s just, you’re just taking our existing world and inserting stuff into it. So, I don’t need to, like, have a description of the city of Chicago. It’s just Chicago, right? But for this, when you make up every single city, every single place, every single family, every single culture, cultural thing, you have to have some constant reference, down to like, you know, the calendar: how you know what are the names of the days of the week and the days of the month and what are the names of the month, of the year, and how does the calendar work, and all this stuff. And so, I try not to worry too much about all that stuff up front because it messes with you and it slows you down. So, I usually outline the story first. When I say outline, I’m talking maybe four or five pages, maybe eight or ten pages tops for a book. I’m not a super-religious outliner, it’s a very loose outline, and then I’ll jump in, I’ll start writing, and then when I come to something that I need to stop and research, if I’m on a roll I’ll just mark it–for me, my mark is always XXX, because then I go back and I control-F and search for XXX, every instance of XXX, that tells me this is something I need to figure out or research.

I use that, too, because it never shows up by accident.

Exactly. Yeah. You’re never gonna find that on the middle of a word by accident…well, I guess if you’re writing porn, I mean, that could happen. Luckily that’s not an issue.

So, if I’m not on a roll and I come up with something then I’ll stop and I’ll go and I’ll do research on it and figure out how I’m going to do it. Then I’ll add that to my world guide and I’ll just go ahead and write. But if I’m on a roll and I don’t want to stop to go figure out how calendars work or how does, you know, agriculture in the northern provinces work, I’m going to put XXX and I’m going to keep plowing ahead, and then later on, when I’m stuck or bored or whatever where I’m at, I’ll flip back and that’s when I’ll do my research. I guess I do a minimal amount of research upfront for the outlining and for the opening, and then I just go.

And, of course, research has become much more easy than it was pre-Internet and pre-Google and all these wonderful tools we have now.

Oh my gosh, yeah. Even in the ten years that I’ve been doing this it’s gotten way easier. And, you know, ten years ago we did have the internet. I mean, it wasn’t that long I’ve been doing this. But, yeah, it’s funny. It’s interesting, too. I find that research, especially for fantasy novels, is super-helpful, because it just opens up so many other corridors in your brain that you otherwise hadn’t thought of.

My example of that was, I have a book under a pseudonym, E.C. Blake, I wrote a trilogy called The Masks of Aygrima, and part of it is set in a mine, and I needed some way for them to get up and down in the mine, and I thought, “Well, ladders are boring,” and then I did some research and found this thing called a “man-engine,” which is driven by water and reciprocating beams and two sets of platforms go up and down and as they go up and down they meet momentarily and you can step from one platform to the next and get carried down. And so that made its way in, and it made the whole scene more interesting and gave me all sorts of things that I could do. So, yeah, that sort of thing happens all the time.

Yeah, I love that stuff.

Now, what does your actual writing process look like. Do you write in longhand. for example?

Oh, gosh, no. My handwriting is awful.

I have met, I have talked to authors who do, which blows my mind. But some people still do it.

Yeah, Marko Kloos writes everything originally with just a nice ink pen and a Moleskine notebook. I’m like, “I don’t know how he does that.” No, I type. I was actually mentioning to you earlier I didn’t know if this program we’re using right now would work because I have an eight-year-old laptop that I’ve just never bothered to replace.

As long as the hamsters run fast enough it’ll be fine.

Well, I mean, all I really use my computer for it is Wikipedia, Facebook, and typing. So, no, I work in a pretty much normal…ever since I quit my day job I work in a normal workday, so…I’m not a morning person, I don’t try to force myself to work early in the morning, because my brain doesn’t work that way. So, about eight-thirty or nine o’clock, I will usually drift into my office. I work from home, I have a nice office. I’ll go in here and I’ll usually write until about lunchtime, and then I’ll take a break for a little while to eat lunch, unless I’m on a roll, then I eat while I type. Then I work until, usually, about three-thirty or four o’clock in the afternoon–by then my imagination is starting to peter off. Unless, again, I’m on a roll, because, you know, if you’re having one of those days where you’re on a roll, you just keep working. Then I’ll work until nine o’clock, ten o’clock at night.

If I have a deadline I work however long I need to work. I did a sixteen-hour day last week, or about two weeks ago. I had to do the short story “The Testimony of the Traitor Ratul,” and I had forgotten about that. And so I was up on my deadline and I had to do a 5,000-word short story that day. And so I did, and I was working until like, I want to say eight o’clock at night, and the story was almost done, it was pretty good. Then I went to bed and I lay there and it was about eleven-thirty or midnight, I was still awake ’cause I was so in the zone, and so I had to get back up and finish the story, writing till about two-thirty in the morning, which is always scary, ’cause I have a rule of thumb, you don’t write after midnight, because what happens is then you check it the next day and it’s crap. But this time I checked it and it was like, it was actually really good. I was like, “Okay, perfect!”

But normally, the vast majority of the time, I’m a nine-to-five kind of writer. I actually take weekends off now, which is amazing, because for the first half of my writing career I had a day job, and it wasn’t just a wimpy day job, it was a high-level management and finance-management kind of job with a, I was the finance guy for a military-contracting company. It was a high-pressure job with a lot of hours, a lot of brain, a lot of hard work, a lot of math, and so I would do that all day and I’d come home and I would write for a couple of hours at night and then I would usually do most of my writing on the weekends. So all day Saturday and Sunday would just be these marathon writing days.

It’s kind of funny, because back then I had this goal that I would try to write 10,000 words a week which, you know, that’s a good goal. I didn’t always get it, but I would try. Which is funny because my goal still today, now that I do this full-time, is still 10,000 words a week. The difference is, life is much nicer now. And also, the big thing is, that old stuff that I would cram in, 10,000 words a week here and there, writing on my lunch hour, writing late at night, writing all day Saturday, that stuff, it was funny because I would write all that and then I would have to edit it way more. I’d spend a lot more hours editing it because it was just wasn’t as good. Now I’ll try to write 10,000 words in a week and I just do my nine to five, but then when I go to edit, my editing passes are actually way cleaner, and I don’t spend nearly as many hours editing as I used to. That’s good, because writing is fun, editing is work.

That’s actually the next question. What does your revision process look like, once you have that draft. You’ve mentioned that you might mark things with XXX that you have to go back and flesh out later. So, what does your revising process look like?

Usually what I do is…so, I’ll finish the first draft, and I’m one of those guys that if I’m stuck on a scene I’ll just mark it and move to the next scene. I don’t like killing momentum because I’ve gotten to a hard part. A lot of people, you know, they’ll freeze up and they’ll get stuck on a scene forever, and I think that’s just the kiss of death. I mean skip that, go to the next one you want to do. So, when I get to the end of the book I have to go back and fill in those scenes that I skipped, or parts I skipped, or sometimes it’s just like, I skipped a paragraph because I didn’t feel like explaining how something works. So, I go back and I fill all this stuff in and usually it’s a lot easier when you do that, because by then you’ve written past that scene, so you know absolutely what must happen. That’s why these guys who write longhand on paper, I’m like, “I stand in awe,” because that is not how my brain works.

And then I go through, I’ll clean all that stuff up. I’ll usually do a clean pass, where I’ll read it from beginning to end, I’ll usually do that once or twice. And then–this is very important–I have a group of alpha readers now. These are people that I trust, these are various authors and friends of mine that I’ve gotten over the years, and also a lot of times technical experts, like…so, in this case, I’m writing a book with a lot of sword fighting. I’m not a sword-fighting expert. I’m a gun expert, but I’m not a sword guy. And so I have a couple of people that are, modern or Western martial artists or Eastern martial artists or professional sword people, and I send it to them.

Then, I give it about a month. During that month, I will not look at this manuscript at all. I will walk away from it. Because what happens is, I need to be, I need to get some distance between me and the manuscript. Because if I keep reading a book, I’m too close to it. There’s stuff that’s in my head that’s not necessarily on the page, but it’s in my head, so I don’t catch it. So during that month I’ll go work on another book. I will go outline other projects. That’s usually…I’ve written, like, fifty short stories now, and I think most of my short stories have been written between novels like this. So during that month, I will go to all sorts other stuff.

Then I will go back, I will read everything the alpha readers had to say about it, and then I will start again, and I will read it from beginning to end. And now I have some distance between me and the book. I will catch errors, I will catch mistakes, I’m, like, little things, I’ll improve them, just because a lot of that stuff, when you’re too close to a manuscript, you can’t see this stuff. You’ve got to get some distance, then you have a clean eye. And then after that it goes to my real editors. I’ve had several different editors with Baen, it just depends on which book in which series, and they’ve all been awesome. And I just take their feedback and incorporate it.

Who’s the editor on the these books? The Saga of the Forgotten Warrior books.

This is interesting, because actually, these have been popular, so I’ve had multiple…multiple people have joined in on this. So Toni is our overall publisher, but Jim Minz and also Tony Daniel have been my editors on the series.

What kind of notes do you get back from them?

Actually, apparently I’m one of their favorites because I’m easy to edit. I’m not one of those sensitive artist types, so I’m pretty much open to anything, and usually they’ll tag stuff and they’ll be like, “Hey, Larry look at this.” A lot of times they’ll just let me solve it. They know I’m pretty good at solving a problem, so if, like, a scene doesn’t work, they’ll just put a note that, “Hey, I don’t understand what’s going on here,” and they’ll just kick it back to me and I’ll go over it. Very seldom have I ever had to make any major changes in edits. But just give you an idea, in House of Assassins, the one that’s coming out right now, the sequel to Son of the Black Sword, the biggest edit in there was actually the chapter that I open with was originally Chapter Three. I opened with…Chapter 2 was originally the opening of the thing. And Jim read this, and he loved the book, but he was just like, “You know, I just think this other chapter that you have later on, I think is just a stronger opening. I think if you opened with this chapter instead of this one it would be stronger.” Now, I’d have to change stuff around in the chronology to do that, but I looked at it. The key to being edited is, you’ve got to be humble and don’t be a prideful jerk about, because, you know, your editors are smart people, too. And I looked at this and Jim was right. It was spot on. He was very correct, that that other chapter made for a much cooler, more interesting opening. You know, so stuff like that.

My favorite edit that I ever got was actually one of my Monster Hunter books, and it’s from Toni Weisskopf. Toni is a hilarious edtior. So this scene, for whatever reason, just didn’t work. And so the note on the scene says, the note at the top of the page literally says, “This scene sucks. Make it not suck.” And I looked at it, and she was right. And so I did. You know, she didn’t need to tell me how to fix it. She just said this doesn’t work. Make it work. And I did. So, I’ve had really good editors. I’ve been really lucky there. They’ve been pretty awesome.

I like to point out to writers who are worried about being edited, that, especially if you’re at a big house like Baen, or my publisher, DAW…you know, my editor, Sheila Gilbert, who’s been in the business for 30-some years now, editing…

She’s awesome, yeah.

They have seen more stuff than you have in the field and know, you know, they know when things aren’t working, and they have a pretty good feel for what does work. So, yeah, I’m very humble when it comes to being edited.

One of my favorite editing stories is…just to put this in perspective for most authors, you know, a good editor is mostly there for suggestions. It’s your story. A bad editor takes over and makes you rewrite it according to their every whim, and that’s just bad editing. That’s not a good fit. My favorite editing story, just to illustrate how a good editor works, is in one of my books, I have this scene, where it’s about…it’s from the bad guy’s perspective, and she’s… it’s this kind of this lonely scene, and she’s doing evil things, and it’s just to show that she’s an evil messed-up person, and then at the end, she gets this cupcake out of her backpack and puts a candle in it, because it turns out that today, this day she’s doing all this evil stuff, is her birthday. My editor read this scene, and he said, “No, no, no. This is what you do. How about open with the cupcake and the candle and her singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to herself? And then you back up to how you got there. And it just…all I did was move, like, two paragraphs, but all of a sudden it made the scene like a thousand times cooler. So that’s what a good editor does, you know? They just kind of help you massage stuff to make it better.

Well, we are getting close to the end here, so we will move on to the big philosophical questions I like to ask.

Sweet.

Yeah. This podcast is called The Worldshapers. And yes, that’s partly because my latest novel is called Worldshaper

Nice.

Notice how I eased that in there. But I guess the question I like to ask authors is, obviously we all shape, we shape our fictional worlds. Do you ever have…you’ve said you’re not, you know, you’re not focused on pushing a message by any stretch, but do you still hope that in some way you you shape, if not the world, per se, that might be a little grand but, at least have an impact on your readers in some fashion?

I do, yeah. Actually, this is a really interesting one as a writer. You know, I think how…we hear from people all the time, and I don’t like to…I get a little…I don’t like to share these stories, but I’ll just speak in general here…but we hear from readers all the time how somehow, something we wrote touched them, where they’re going through a hard time and we cheered them up or, you know, they lost a loved one, and they were sad for a while, but the first time they laughed in a month was, they read one of our books, and it made them smile. It made them forget the suckiness of what was going on in their life right then. And so, there’s little moments like that and, you know…I was on a panel one time with Jim Butcher and another author (who I will not name), and somebody asked this question, and Jim was very classy and said, “You know what, I’ve got a lot of my readers tell me I’ve improved their life or I’ve helped them out of a tough spot or, you know, I cheered them up, but those aren’t my stories to tell. Those are theirs.” And I was like, “You know, that was so classy.” And I really respected that. But then the next author went onto this really long-winded story about how he saved the day and how he was so super-important, and I just remember sitting there thinking, “Yeah, Jim’s answer was way classier.”

But as far as message, I tend to write about, I like writing about, heroic people. I like writing about brave, rugged individuals who don’t fit in, who try to do the right thing. I’m old-fashioned, I do believe in good and evil, and I like when the good guys succeed. I like when the good guys fight. They don’t always succeed, because, you know, the bad guy’s got to win sometimes, too, or there’s no tension. But, you know, I like good versus evil, I like these big epic struggles. One thing I really enjoy, and this was kind of like my point in the Grimnoir Chronicles, was, I was writing about these people that were facing all these hard odds, and they were fighting against kind of this, like, totalitarian government. And part of my, part of that was, the big question in that series was, “Do the people own the government or does the government own the people?” Because these were…you know, it was a very American 1930s book, but that was the big philosophical question. In Son of the Black Sword, I’m writing about these people with these really brutal caste systems and this Law where everybody has…what some of the people keep saying is, “Every man has a place,” because in this society everybody has what’s expected of them, and if you go outside of what’s expected of you, that’s trouble. And so, I’m writing about the people that are the oddballs, the people who don’t fit in, the people who, you know, they’re bringing crazy, crazy ideas like liberty or freedom, and how just insane that is. I love touching on that stuff. I love entertaining people. So, if I can accomplish anything, it’s just to give people a good time, you know, make them happy, cheer ’em up, give ’em some cool, fun ,action-adventure. If I brighten somebody’s day, then I did my job. I guess that’s how I look at it.

I had this conversation with Toni Weisskopf, and I was saying basically what I just said, and she kind of shot me down, because she takes a very different outlook on that, because she’s primarily a science-fiction person. She says the job of science fiction authors is to teach people to dream big so they can ry to achieve these great things, and then the job of the fantasy authors is to make people heroic enough to do it. And I thought that was kind of cool.

Well, bringing it back from effect on readers to you, why do you do it? What do you think drives any of us to write and to make up stories?

Well, on the on the very first, most base level, I love getting paid. One of the writing jokes on my blog, when I’m writing about it is, “I’m like the prophet of capitalism, man, I’m all about, ‘Hey, we tell good stories, readers like it, they buy our books.'” But, honestly, a big part of it is, I just like telling stories. I’ve always been a storyteller. I was always that kid with the big dramatic story. I was always the guy that was, you know, just telling everybody else what’s going on, telling jokes, telling tall tales, campfire stories, whatever…oh, speaking of which, when you wind up, when you get drafted to be a scoutmaster and you go on a camping trip, and, you know, you do the thing where you tell the scary stories to scare the teenagers? Nobody is better at that than a professional fantasy author. I’ve written a lot of horror, too, so, man, I can scare the crap out of some teenagers around a campfire. I am legend for that. But, no, I just like telling stories. I enjoy it.

And the fact that I get to do this for a living and get to do this all day for fun is kind of amazing. It’s like the coolest job in the world. I get to just…as my mom says. I love the way my mom, my mom phrased this one time as, “I make crap up and tell lies for a living.”

That’s about it.

Thanks, Mom! Great way to put it. But yeah, no, it’s awesome, it’s the best job ever. I absolutely love what I do and I’m very, I’m super thankful that I’ve got fans that let me do this for a living. I love my fans.

There’s a famous…I live in Saskatchewan there’s a famous author from, actually, the same town that I used to be the newspaper editor, Weyburn, W.O. Mitchell, and way back when I was young, which has been a while, there was a television program that had some of his stories have been dramatized, and he sort of did the Alfred Hitchcock thing and introduced it, but the title of the anthology series was The Magic Lie, which I think is a pretty good description of what fiction is.

Pretty much, yeah.

Now, what are you working on now?

I’m working on a couple of things simultaneously, because that’s how my brain works, but I’m working on Destroyer of Worlds, which is Book 3 in the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior, and I’m also working on another novella, which is gonna be an exclusive for Audible back home. My series is called Tom Stranger: Interdimensional Insurance Agent, which is my comedy series. It’s narrated by Adam Baldwin, the actor from Firefly and The Last Ship. He’s awesome. He’s a great guy, great sense of humor, he does wonderful comedy, and so I’m doing that right now, too. So, one really super-serious project, and one super-silly project at the same time. We’ll see how that works out.

And looking further down the road, what’s what’s still to come that you know about?

Oh, gosh. Well, so after those two I have, later on this year I have a anthology called Noir Fatale, which was edited by me and a great writer named Kacey Ezell, and Noir Fatale is a collection of science fiction and fantasy noir-themed stories, you know, hardboiled detective, femme fatales, murder mysteries. We got some great writers in there. I got David Weber, who did a new Honor Harrington story for us. I got Laurell Hamilton, who did a new Anita Blake story for us. We’ve got a bunch of really super-talented authors in there. I’ll plug my daughter, my daughter actually sold me a story that’s in there, it’s a Japanese ghost-hunting detective story, and she, you know, she had to actually…nepotism is a hell of a thing, but she had to sell it to me and it’s really good.

So I have that coming out later this year and then I also have another collection, the second volume of my collected short stories, called Target Rich Environment, Target Rich Environment Volume 2 comes out at the end of the year. Oh, yeah, Monster Hunter Guardian, the next Monster Hunter novel, this one is a collaboration with Sarah Hoyt, it comes out in August. So this is the sixth book in the regular Monster Hunter series. It’s about a character named Julie Shackleford, who is one of the main, main characters in the series, and it’s awesome. This book is really cool. The best way to describe it is…you know the movie Taken? This is the Monster Hunter version of Taken. Its intense. It’s really good.

So lots to look forward to, then.

Yeah, it’s kind of funny, there’s like a Larry Correia release every quarter this year. They keep me busy, but I like to work, so it works out well.

And if people would like to find you online, where would they look for you?

Monsterhunternation.com is my blog, but I’m also on Facebook. I am no longer on Twitter. I got banned off of there. (Laughs.) No, I’m still on Twitter, too. I gave up on it. I’m on Facebook, just under Larry Correia, but the best place to find me is my blog, monsterhunternation.com.

Ok. Well, that brings us, I think, to the end of the time, so thank you so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers.

Well, cool, thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate it.

It’s been great fun.

All right. And that will be close.

Episode 20: Robyn Bennis

An hour-long conversation with Robyn Bennis, author of the Signal Airship series, which begins with The Guns Above and continues with By Fire Above, published by Tor Books and edited by Diana M. Pho.

Website:
www.robynbennis.com

Twitter:
@According2Robyn

Facebook:
@robynbenniswriteringpun

Robyn Bennis’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Robyn Bennis

Robyn Bennis has done research and development involving human gene expression, neural connectomics, cancer diagnostics, rapid flu testing, gene synthesis, genome sequencing, being so preoccupied with whether she could that she never stopped to think if she should, and systems integration.

She wrote most of The Guns Above within sight of Hangar One at Moffett Airfield, which was once the West Coast home to one of America’s largest airships, the USS Macon.

She currently resides in Madison, WI, where she has one cat, two careers, and an apartment full of dreams.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Robyn, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you for having me.

Now, I always like to start off these things by trying to figure out my connections to the author, but I think in this case it’s that I met your editor Diane Pho at WorldCon in San Jose and she suggested that you would be somebody to talk to and I’m very glad that she did because I really enjoyed the book.

I loved Diana. She’s fantastic. She is a great coach have on your team.

And I think I just said Diane but I meant Diana. It was interesting, because she was up for the Hugo Award this year, but so my editor at DAW, Sheila Gilbert, and I couldn’t really wish her the best of luck when I met her. And Sheila won. So, yay! But Diana has put me in touch with two or three authors that I’ve been talking to for the podcast.

She has an amazing roster.

Yeah, she sure does. Well, we’re going to talk about your book The Guns Above and a little bit about the sequel By Fire Above, but first I want to take you back into history, perhaps not quite back to the ages of airships but back to when you started becoming interested in writing and in writing, particularly, this kind of stuff. Did you start with an interest in sort of the science-fiction/fantastical/ and then the writing came later, or how did that work for you?

Well, if we’re talking about steampunk and airships in general, it started on an airship, strangely enough, in the age of airships, which not many people know extended into the mid-aughts. There was an airship–people in the San Francisco Bay Area might remember the airship Eureka, which used to fly overhead and flew out of Moffett Field–and through a company, the biotech company that I was working at at the time, I had the chance to go up in it, and it was an amazing experience. Airships, as–you know, we might talk a bit later about how impractical they are, but once you actually manage to get them working and you manage to get them in the air safely they are just a magical experience. You are floating above the world and it’s relatively quiet. It is a nice stable platform to see around in. And it is just…there is a certain sort of calm wonderment that overcomes just about everyone who steps into an airship.

Very few people have that opportunity, though. There aren’t very many of them around.

No, they’re incredibly impractical to run. In fact, I was…we were ticketed to fly on the airship Eureka about a month and a half before we actually managed to get onto it. Its daily run was scrubbed due to weather twice before we actually managed to get up in the air on it.

But going back a little further than that, when did you first become interested in science-fiction/fantasy and in particular in writing. First of all, I guess, where did you grow up and all that sort of stuff?

Well, those answers are related to each other, because I got interested in SF/F…probably second or third grade is when I started reading fantasy novels and getting into that. And this would have been in Dunedin, Florida, where I grew up, not perhaps the most inspiring town in the country.

I grew up in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, so, you know…

So, yeah, there you go. We both come from a little podunk towns, I guess. But, you know, perhaps I wanted to escape it, and fantasy books and science fiction books, which I got into a little bit later, really provided a doorway into an entirely different world that I could just step into. And almost as soon as I started reading them I wanted to start writing them. I think I wrote my first short story in, maybe, fourth grade? It was obviously godawful, but I never really stopped after that, just kind of kept writing. I was always writing something. I was usually writing just for myself and, you know, as is the case for most people who start writing, it’s terrible at first, but after you know 20, 25 years I think it started to get a little better.

Do you remember any of the books that first got you interested? I always like to ask that, I get some interesting responses. Was there anything that really stuck out for you in your early life?

I remember…I can remember a few images. I do not remember any titles. They were mostly pulp kind of books that even if you showed me the title I might not remember it. They were not from the big names. I was reading out of the school library and I’m not sure the library was the most supported department in that school. It mostly had just kind of paperback novels that, you know, didn’t have legs but were probably available cheap at some estate sale.

I grew up I read a lot of Ace doubles and things like that and I remember reading a book once, we were in the car with my parents, and I was maybe ten or nine or eight or something, and they wanted to know…I got really excited. and I read them this section where some guy with a laser beam cut the head off of somebody and it rolled across the floor and there wasn’t any blood because the thing was an android, there was just this glistening gray mass at the top of the neck, and there was a sort of dead silence after I read that out loud, and then my mom said, “What are you reading?”.

Yes!

I would really like to find out what that book was because I remember that scene so distinctly because of my parents’ reaction, but I don’t remember the book.

That doesn’t ring a bell for me, either.

So, you continued writing then as you were in high school and getting a little older. Did you ever start sharing your writing with your classmates or anything like that?

Woo, boy, I was always way too embarrassed. It was, you know…and I have occasionally–and by occasionally, I mean every five years or so–gone back to look at some of that early stuff that I wrote in high school and in college and in my early 20s, and at the time I was too embarrassed to show it to anyone. And in hindsight I believe I was 100 percent right about that. It was the correct choice to not show that to anyone. I did join a writing group briefly and, you know, from the comfort of anonymity showed some of my my short works to the crowd. I will never admit which one. So that you can never track those stories down. And I think that was kind of critical in making some improvements that just are sometimes not possible on your own. You can’t always find your own flaws, and also, just critiquing other people’s work is an excellent tool set for finding flaws in your own work and working on the areas where you’re weakest.

Hence, I always recommend when I teach writing that people find some way to share their work with somebody, because you don’t really know if you’re doing something that readers will connect with until you actually have a reader.

Yeah. You know, there’s a certain amount that you can do, you know, you can recognize on your own when something is just godawful, which you probably will be when you start out, that’s just, that’s how it goes, none of us are good at things right away except by unlikely statistical chance, but yeah, there comes a point where you just can’t objectively evaluate your own work, you have to turn to someone else to see if there’s something worth keeping there. And, you know, even if there isn’t anything worth keeping there they can show you and help you find the areas where you can improve. And, you know, you just try to improve your work in that area. And if you do that enough times, if you go through enough iterations of that, you will eventually become a really good writer.

Now, after high school, you went to university, and you did not study writing at university.

I sure didn’t.

Where did you go and what was your degree in?

I went to the Ivy League school, Florida State University–we have a proud tradition of burning ivy. So, I studied biology there and went into biotech afterwards, because I had the mistaken impression that by going into biotech I would be able to revolutionize the world, I would find a cure for cancer and, you know, make dogs fly, and just do all kinds of amazing things and, you know, not everybody can do that.

But you stayed in the field for a long time. Are you still working in the field as well as writing?

I do occasional consulting, but I would say I’m semi-retired from biotech now.

Your book deals with the first female airship captain in the world that you’ve created, and I’m married to an engineer…

Oh. I see where this is going…

Yes. So, did you did you experience in a still, I would assume, somewhat male-dominated field–although that does seem to be changing, I know a lot of women who are going into biology–did that inform your story when it came time to write it?

Not yes, but hell yes! My experience, in biotech was…I would not say it was positive overall. There were definitely some bright spots, often when I had a female boss. Hello! I think if any of them are listening they probably know who they are. Hi! You’re awesome! But most of the time it was such a slog to even get people to believe your math. You would think that that would be one thing that would be objective, right? Like, you know, “Hello mister male surface chemist, you have a calculator you can you can demonstrate this on your own, you don’t have to trust me.” But, no, it’s kind of amazing the degree to which women just get shut down in data meetings and experimental planning. You just…you wouldn’t think that that would still be happening today, but it happens in subtle little ways that you definitely notice it when you’re on the receiving end.

Were you writing during all this time?

I was. Yes. I wrote a terrible young adult novel, which if I ever have a Patreon it will be on the $10,000-a-month tier. You’ll be able to see that, because it is…it’s not good. But I would say that that was kind of my final hurdle to becoming a pretty darn good writer, if I say so myself. That was kind of my senior year of writing class that taught me what I was missing. And, you know, the end of it’s definitely better than the beginning, I can certainly say that. It took me three years to finish it, so you can kind of almost see it as an archeological record of my improvement as a writer. And once I was done with that, I was ready to do it for real. You know, I stepped out of that and thought, “Hey, let’s do this for real. Let’s write something that’s marketable.”

Where did the writing group fall into that timeline? Was that still while you were in university or…?

That stretched out…that was a bit after. That was probably when I was in biotech. I definitely remember that being connected to San Diego, where I worked for a year at a small company. So, kind of right in the middle, in between those initial forays into writing and actually getting serious about it. But I took the lessons that I learned from that and I’m still using them even today. Just be…the things I learned critiquing other people and having myself critiqued are still…you know, there are definitely elements of that that I’m still looking for when I go through my own work to edit it today and to evaluate it.

Well, that brings us to By Fire Above. Before we delve into the process of writing that maybe give a synopsis.

Do you want me to talk about By Fire Above or The Guns Above?

Oh sorry. Yeah. The Guns Above and whatever you want to say about By Fire Above that won’t spoil The Guns Above.

All right. So, The Guns Above follows the exploits of Josette Dupre, who has unfortunately been promoted into an airship where she is going to be the first female commander in the nation of Garnia. Her chief enemies are her superior officers, her own crew, and then the actual military enemies of her nation, in that order. She is being countermanded and undermined at every step. But, you know, no spoilers, it’s just possible that she might win some of these folks on her side by the end of the book.

One would hope so.

Not to give anything away.

Yeah. No, that’s why I always ask the author to do the synopsis so I don’t accidentally give away something that shouldn’t be given away.

Yeah.

So, what was the genesis for this. How did this all begin?

Well I so I have always enjoyed Aubrey-Maturin series, which is an early 19th-century setting, which follows the captain of first, the captain of a brig, a rather small ship in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and later the captain of a frigate. And if you’ve seen the movie Master and Commander, that was based on this series of books. I’ve always loved them. I’ve always enjoyed the technical aspects of them as well as the interpersonal relationships between the characters, and when I stepped aboard the Eureka at Moffett Field I thought maybe I could bring that, bring airships into that world and tell the same sort of story. You know, obviously, theft is better than creativity when you’re trying to sell something. Kind of bring airships into that world, tell the same kind of story with the same kind of characters and an attention towards technical detail, and see what happens. And, you know, I believe it turned out pretty well.

I would agree with that. I enjoyed it very much. So, with that idea in mind, how did you go about further developing it into an actual novel?

Oh, boy. So, that started with about three months of research and brainstorming. About the moment I stepped off the Eureka I went to Amazon and started ordering books about airships, non-fiction books, some of them written by the war department during the brief flirtation with airships during the ’20s and ’30s,  some of them just, you know, historical pieces from secondary sources, and I kind of learned everything I could about airships, not only about the people who flew them and what they were intended to be used for but also the, you know, the technical aspects of putting them together. It’s kind of funny, you know, you don’t really think of it today when you look at these ships, the grand airships of the ’20s and ’30s, but at the beginning of that period nobody really knew how to make them work optimally, and there are some interesting books that are almost arguments with other engineers about the best ways to build airships. I got an interesting kind of background that is reflected in the first act of the book, where my captain is lamenting the fact that she is being put in an airship that is a “revolutionary new design,” which is otherwise known as a death trap. Of course, at the time I had no idea how I was going to use that. It was just, you know, I just kind of built up this knowledge base in my head for later use without considering how it might be useful. I just picked up as many facts as I could along the way and brainstormed as many little elements to the world. I was kind of building the setting, or at least the building blocks from which I would later build the setting at this time. And after that, I spent a while outlining it. I didn’t actually start writing until five or six months after I actually began the project.

I’m going to ask you about your outline and what it looks like in a minute, but I want to go back to the airship. First of all, how closely does your airship design model anything that we had in the real world?

It doesn’t model any particular airship. It does take elements from various ships, however. There was never, to my knowledge, a successful design that used a steam turbine, for example–that was outdated technology by the time we were actually building large airships in earnest. The one element that I know people may be least credulous about is, however one that is rooted in the history, and that’s the fact that for a little while we made airships out of wood. The…I’m probably blowing this pronunciation, it’s German…the Schütte-Lanz Company actually built airships out of wood for about a 10-year period, and in many ways they were superior in performance to the contemporary aluminum, or duralumin designs being produced by the Zeppelin Company at the same time. The downside was that the airships fell to pieces in a few years because wood doesn’t stand up well to moisture, of course.

Which you comment on with the steam power and its effect on wood.

That’s the way I cheat about that. I say, “Well, you know, we’re always scraping off the laminates and repainting it.” That’s my little nod to realism there. There’s a few of those little moments where I say, “Well, you know, yeah, this might not be very practical, but we work hard at it.”

I went through a period when I was fascinated with First World War aviation and I still remember as a kid being startled to find out that the airplanes were made out of wood with doped fabric stretched across them and I read a story years later about the Mosquito bombers in the Second World War, which were also made out of wood.

You know, it has its qualities. It’s not practical overall but there are definite definitely niche applications. I was recently, in fact, at the Boeing Museum in Seattle, and they have an example of one of the very first fighter aircraft up, and the damn thing looks like it’s going to fall apart on the ground. When you look at it, you look at this thing and you think, “This is made from string and papier mâché, probably.” It’s just an absolute mess, and you wonder about the bravery/madness of the people who went up in these things.

You touch on that, too. But we’ll talk about that in a minute when we get to characters. We never in our world had airship-to-airship combat, did we?

I don’t believe we did. Unless there’s some obscure historical incident that I don’t know about. Mostly it was airships versus fixed-wing aircraft. And it was a race, you know, essentially it was a race into the air. The most famous examples, of course, being zeppelins flying over Great Britain. And they would, you know, start out at a fairly high altitude, which they could achieve with relatively little effort. The aircraft that were scrambled to shoot them down had to first climb up to that altitude and then had to catch the airships. The speed difference at that time between an airship and a fixed-wing aircraft was not huge. So, it took quite a bit of work, actually, on the part of the fixed-wing pilots to actually get those Jerries.

Were they still using hydrogen in the First World War? Weren’t they?

They were, in fact. Yes. Which, you know, not a super great idea, nut I believe Germany was simply limited by the resources. This is another thing that I just kind of dance around in The Guns Above, where the hell they get their luftgas, which is this world’s version of helium. In the real world it requires natural gas deposits or oil deposits, where the helium tends to collect in domes above those deposits. And it also requires extremely low-temperature separation technologies. So, I just kind of decided to not mention it. That’s my way around that particular problem.

So, when it came to the airship combat, which is lovingly detailed, that must have taken a considerable amount of thought on your part. I realize that some of it does bear resemblance to sailing ships trying to maneuver to, you know, rake them from the stern, that sort of thing. It comes across as very believable.

Well, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how it might actually work. This is something that never happened in the real world, so, you know, that is both a problem and an opportunity. It’s a problem because I have to come up with a convincing way to get these folks shooting at each other. Of course, it’s an opportunity in that I could be completely wrong, and no one will ever know because hopefully this will never happen. But I really did make an attempt, including to the point of doing, you know, calculating angles and determining the apparent size of vessels at varying distances to try to get an idea of what this would be like. I think I spent several days just trying to get in the heads of my tacticians and, you know, what would you want to do. If I was trying to blow up an airship from another airship which, you know, is not hard to think about, because that’s one of the coolest things you can imagine except for all the death and chaos. Once you sanitize that, though, it’s pretty awesome. What would I be trying to do? What would I be trying to hit? How would I try to avoid taking damage? What would the situation be on deck? What would be going through the minds of the people involved in this in, you know, in this terrifying chaos? I just spent several days trying to get inside their heads and, you know, I think the results speak for themselves.

Now we go back to the outline. What did that look like? What does your outline look like? You’ve done two and I presume there’s a third one coming? I hope?

Well, we’ll see. I’m not currently contracted for a third one. So, if you like the first two, tell your friends, get those sales numbers up so we can get a third book. But my initial outline actually looks surprisingly like the finished product. There are a couple of chapters that are in the outline that did not show up in the final book because I was running out of space. You know, some of your listeners may know this and some may not, but when you’re writing a debut novel in this sort of SF/F genre, you kind of want to keep the links under 100,000 words. Anything above that has a tendency–this isn’t a rule, but there is a tendency to scare off potential publishers if your book is too long, and so, I had to kind of cut out a couple of chapters in my outline. But other than that, it is largely what I originally wrote.

How detailed was it?

Not super detailed, which…you may have gotten to the heart of the reason it didn’t change very much. I tend to write in broad strokes in my outline. I think it might have been two or three pages long, and then I write slightly more detailed smaller outlines for individual chapters as I’m going through the book.

You started with…obviously the airship was the big idea…but then you had to have characters. So, how did you come up with the characters that you needed? There are two main characters, I guess. How did you decide what characters you wanted to tell the story and then how did you make them come alive?

Well, initially, I stole them, which, you know, I’m not ashamed to admit that. I stole from the best. though. I stole from the Aubrey-Maturin series, and I think astute readers who have read that series and my own books will notice elements of Captain Jack Aubrey in Josette, and they will notice elements of Dr. Maturin in Bernie, but, you know, from there, obviously, you’ve got to file the serial numbers off. So, I did much the same thing that I do when I’m approaching technical problems. I tried to spend a few days in their heads. Times when I was not writing or outlining or researching, I just kind of spent my free time during the day, you know, during boring biotech meetings, just trying to imagine how these characters think. I think this gets to what some authors describe as letting the characters speak for themselves. And I’m not sure if I buy into that, but it’s certainly true that when you start thinking about how a person, how a fictional person thinks, it doesn’t take you very long to develop their moods, their quirks, their driving goals, you know, you just kind of have to find those moments to think about this and to put yourselves in their head, and it just kind of seems to emerge.

You mentioned, you know, sort of approaching it like you’ve got a technical problem and you’ve talked about how your experience and biotech influences Josette’s experiences, and you just mentioned that sitting in boring meetings gave you time to think about this, so, are there any other ways in which your experiences in the sciences helped you with the writing of the book, or influenced it in some way?

Certainly, you know, I think you might have just gotten to the heart of Josette’s problems right there. You know, I’m sitting in a data meeting where people are ignoring me, and I’m like, “Well, how would she feel about this? I think she’d want to shoot somebody. Hmm. Interesting character trait.” I do think that just having a background in science or technology in general does certainly teach you, one, to do your homework, and two, to really think things through before you commit to them. Anyone who has worked in biotech for very long knows that the best ideas don’t pan out. Nine times out of ten you can have the best most succinct and most elegant idea for, you know, a particular chemical process to deposit the chemistry that you need on your device, and then you run it in the lab and it’s a complete disaster. You get used to that kind of stuff, and I think it teaches you to…I always hate these succinct one-sentence bits of advice, but I think this is essentially the equivalent of the “kill your darlings advice,” which, you know, if you could expand on it is, “Don’t get too attached to any given concept, to any given plot point, to any given scene that you want to put in your book. Be willing to adapt to the needs of the story and the needs of the character. Let the character takes you where they want to. Don’t railroad them into a particular path.” Be willing to let go of your brilliant ideas. You can always use them later in a different book.

Now, of course, this is a war novel, which meant setting up a geopolitical situation that would support the war, and then it’s also…I mentioned that I have the interest in First World War aviation, and also recently I edited the memoirs of my grandfather-in-law, who was in the Canadian military to start with in the First World War, first as a truck driver in France and then he decided that wasn’t exciting enough, so he joined the Royal Air Force.

Oh, good Lord!

As a navigator on a Handley-Page Bomber.

Wow.

Peter Jackson’s WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old

Which typically, you got about six missions and then you crashed, or were shot down, and he indeed was shot down, but he survived. And reading your book…and also, recently, you may be aware of Peter Jackson’s movie They Shall Not Grow Old.

Yeah, I saw that, that was excellent.

And all of that related to this a little bit, because the people in your book are fighting this war. They’re really just doing a job, but they’re kind of trapped in this war that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

No. I mean. I’m sure it makes sense to the higher-ups. Of course, they’re not the ones who have to do the dying. As someone points out in the second book, they’ve got people to do their dying for them. And, of course, all of their little desires for land and influence and power make perfect sense to them, even as the war devolves into a pointless morass, which is evident to anyone who opens their eyes to it. And I did very much draw from the, just the pure pointlessness of the First World War, to capture that, you know, that sense of, you know, patriotism/just complete incomprehensibility of what the hell we’re fighting for.

And yet, you know, essentially the characters are fighting for their comrades and for each other, which does seem to be very true to the way things work in real-life wars as well.

Yeah. Once, you know…and that’s the trick, right? That is what allows a guy in a funny hat to tell you to go die on that hill is, you know, you would tell him to get lost if it was just you and him. But, you know, you’re there with everyone else and everyone’s going there. So, you know you can’t abandon your friends.

Now with the book written…did you write the book and then sell it?

I did. Which is usually the case with debuts with rare exceptions. I had the entire thing written and then did, you know, essentially cold emailing to catch the attention of agents. Out of, I believe, thirty-two agents that I submitted a query to, one was interested in the book straight through. A couple asked for, you know, twenty pages, and a few asked for the complete manuscript, but only one saw the, you know, the full potential of this book when he read through it, and that was Paul Lucas who is a rock star. And then he went about, you know, shopping it around.

I should back up just one step. Once you had the draft written, what did your rewriting process look like, your revision process?

Ooh, it was a lot of trimming. I went through and tried to trim out every extraneous technical detail on my first edit pass–and there sure were a lot of them. My ultimate goal, which, you know, I was semi-successful at, was to not have any information dumps, to not have anything that feels like it’s just information for information sake.

“As you know, Bernie, this and this and this and this…” In this case he didn’t know, but…

Oh, yeah. That really gets my goat. So, I tried to cut…there was a bit of that, certainly, and there was a lot of people wandering around thinking about the technical aspects of the things around them, which is another thing that kind of gets me. So, I took that out wherever it was not absolutely necessary for a reader to understand the environment that, you know, that I’ve put them in. So that was my first draft, or rather my second draft, and then I just kind of went through it over and over and over again, paying particular attention to the beginning and the end and the most critical plot critical points in the story, just trying to make it a little bit better with every draft. I think I ended up with something like 16 or 17 drafts by the end of that.

Did you share it with anybody to read along that way, or were you doing it yourself?

At that point I did. I shared it with a combat veteran that was working with me at the time, and I shared it with a couple of writing pals, and, you know, I think they really did help make it better. They saw things that I missed.

How long was this entire process before you were ready to submit?

I think that might’ve taken about three to four months. I really took my time on this one.

Now, you did sell it to Tor, and your editor was Diana Pho, Hugo-nominated editor. What was her…what’s her editorial process? What did she come back to you with?

So, she came back with a lot of questions about the world and just an amazing depth of understanding. I mean, I think she connected with this book immediately and she wanted to make it better in the same way, you know, a parent wants to make their child better. She had a real passion for it and she really pushed me to flesh out the world, to make it feel lived in, to make it feel as if it had depth. That was three or four more edit passes, just kind of going through and getting her feel each time and, you know, making adjustments as necessary. She was wonderful.

So, then it was time to think about the sequel. Did you have more than one book in mind when you wrote the first one, or was this one where you had to discover a way to carry on the story?

I did have more than one book in mind, mostly because I had heard that you always want series potential when you’re shopping your first book. And so, I kept that in mind from the outline process onwards. I wanted to tell a complete story, but I also wanted to leave room open, and people who read carefully will notice that there are a few little nuggets, little nuclei, seeded throughout the first book that will come back in the second book. And if we get a third book, there are more in the first and second books that will come back in the third book.

Would it be a trilogy, or would it be an ongoing series?

I would love for it to be an ongoing series.

It’s always an “if,” I know.

I will milk this for as long as it’s a cash cow. I mean, I love writing and I wish to continue…I have always been the kind of writer who thinks out the potential. And so, yeah, I, just in my idle moments without even trying, I’m coming up with ideas for more and more sequels. I could keep writing this indefinitely, essentially, because I come up with thoughts on two additional books for every one I write so far.

What was the response from readers when the book came out? How did how did you feel about the response that you had?

I was, you know, ready for the worst. I had braced myself for, you know, all these these…”Not everybody is going to like your book, Robin,” is what they told me. “You’ve got to be ready for those horrible reviews.” But everybody seemed to love it. So, I don’t mean to pat my own back here, but I really had no trouble with the feedback that readers and reviewers gave me, because it was almost all glowing. I’m awesome, it turns out.

Have you done the convention thing, where you meet your readers in person sometimes?

I have. I’ve been going around to conventions and I’ve been to, you know, ReaderCon and WisCon, hung out at some of the Bay Area cons while I was still living there. I’ve since moved to Wisconsin. And I love to meet readers. I just love talking to them about anything but my book, which usually I managed to get them off of after a few minutes.

Well, it is something that I think readers sometimes don’t realize, that by the time a book comes out you’ve seen it a lot.

Yes.

And you might perhaps like to discuss something other than the thing that you have spent so much time reading and thinking about.

Yeah. You would never think that you would get tired, you know, talking with someone who loved your work, but just…you know, I have been over and over this book so many times that, you know…”Hey, let’s talk about that new CERN super-collider that they want to make. Let’s talk about SpaceX. Let’s talk about the Mars probe. Let’s talk about anything but my book.

Now, brings me to the more philosophical questions. You started writing because you started reading, as many of us do. Why are you still doing it? Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write?

Boy. Well, you know, I see human beings as natural storytellers. That seems to be a fundamental part of our psychology, rooted so deep inside of us that you could never shake it out. People that you meet on the street, you know, telling you about their brother-in-law or something will tell stories in a three-act structure about their own life. It just comes so naturally to people to want to tell a compelling story that interests somebody. There is a thrill, you know, a little hit of some kind of addictive substance that is released into the human brain every time you look across the table at somebody and see them captivated by the story that you’re telling them, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. And, you know, it’s an addiction. Once you get into that you are never getting out. You’re just going to want more and more hits of that, and you are going to keep on writing.

If somebody could turn it into a…you know. somebody in the biotech industry…could turn it into a drug, they’d make a killing.

Liquid writing!

You wouldn’t have to read anymore. You just, you know, inject something and you feel like you’ve read a great book.

I would not be able to get anything else done. Yeah, I would be terrified to do that. That might be the end of the human race right there.

And have you ever thought of writing something outside of the science fiction and fantasy field? Are there other kinds of stories that would appeal to you as a writer?

Hoo boy. There certainly are. I don’t have anything in particular in mind, apart from the notebook full of random ideas, rather the eight notebooks full of random ideas that I’ve kept over the years. I kind of love the freedom, though, that fantasy and science fiction give you. You’re not restricted by the real world. You can, you know, you can think of something cool and have it happen, whereas with boring old reality you have to make it actually make 100 percent sense, not only makes sense on a theoretical level but, you know, make sense on an empirical level, because people know how stuff works in the real world. So, yeah, I think I’m probably gonna stick to SF/F for now, but, you never know.

Are there people writing in the field right now that you are particularly enjoying their work? That you would like to mention?

Oh. my God. Becky Chambers keeps putting out such wonderful stuff. She has…and, you know, she is one of the people who in fact read The Guns Above before anyone else did and gave me very valuable feedback on it and, she just…the things that come out of her mind. I am in awe of. Justina Ireland, too, is just writing these amazing books. I did not think zombies could be cool again. I was extremely skeptical when I heard about Dread Nation, but holy crap, she has such amazing skills as a writer. Everybody who hasn’t read that just needs to pick it up immediately.

Do you find that as a writer you read differently than you did when you were just a reader…or was there ever a time when you were just a reader?

Unfortunately, yes. This is, you know, being a writer kind of ruins some books for you. You start to notice tropes that you’ve used. And in particular you notice ideas that writers fifty years ago somehow managed to steal from you. You know, like, somehow Terry Pratchett went forward in time, stole one of my notebooks and took some of my ideas, and I really resent that. You know, when I’ve built my own time machine I’m going to go back and have a talk with him.

I find that…one thing I find. I do quite a bit of copyediting, too, and one thing that certainly leaps out at me from anything I read now is whenever there’s a repeated word or, you know, some sort of infelicity in that way. It really jumps out at me now. Usually it doesn’t ruin the story for me, but I’m suddenly aware of the…you know, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain?” I’m suddenly aware of what’s going on behind curtain. So, you don’t have a third book contracted yet. Are you working on it anyway, or what are you working on right now?

Right now, I am working on a urban fantasy which will hopefully be out sometime this year, and tentatively entitled The Devil’s Guide to Managing Difficult People. It is about a woman who speaks to the Devil and gets unwanted life advice from her. It is semi-autobiographical and it’s a bit more of a fun kind of romp. It’s a little less serious, but hopefully also stabs the reader in the heart at least a couple of times. I just can’t avoid doing that, obviously.

There’s not a firm publication date on that?

No, not yet. At the advice of my agent, we’re going to try self-publishing this, which is, you know…I want to see how that world works It’s becoming more and more popular and it is becoming more and more practical for a writer to do self-publishing. So, you know, I’d like to dip my toe into that.

Well, it does have the advantage, too, that you don’t have…one thing I’ve found–I’ve dabbled in it myself, I have a publishing company called Shadowpaw Press that I put up the those First World War memoirs through, and also a collection of my short fiction–and one of the things is you don’t have that enormous “hurry up and wait” thing that happens in traditional publishing, where you write the book and then you wait, and then you revise the book, and then you have to wait for publication. So I think you’ll find the speed at least is something…and you don’t do it until you’re ready, of course.

Yes, of course. And that is that is one of the nice things, you know. This book has to be perfect before I will put it out. That is kind of part of my psychology. And I have found that, you know, this is somewhat…you know, publishing a book is never a calm process but, you know, this is a bit less of that stressful “we have just come up with these changes we want you to make, you have a week” kind of kind of situation that occurs to you after your book has been sitting in a line somewhere for three months. Which is, you know, that’s just a natural part of publishing with a big publishing house, they’ve got a lot of other authors, so that “hurry up and wait” is going to be part of your life.

I think, too,  perhaps…I’m guessing…that in your time in biotech that you have quite a bit of project-management experience which should also be a valuable skill in self-publishing.

It certainly is. It’s certainly helpful to juggling all of the different tasks that your publisher will usually take care of for you, such as the cover and the copyediting and the marketing and all of that stuff. Being able to do all of that and work on other projects is an incredibly valuable life skill for an author. So I definitely suggest that any author who wants to succeed spend 25 years in biotech.

Well, as I mentioned, my wife is an engineer, with a lot of project management, and I really should get her to give me a few tips because I’m not very good at it myself.

It’s definitely helpful. It will cut down on your stress level. I can just about guarantee that to you.

So just wrapping up here, where can people find you online?

They can find me at www.robynbennis.com. They can also find me on Twitter, if they if they like that particular format, at @According2Robyn, and if they want to see me in person they can go to Geneva Steam Con in Delevan, Wisconsin, which starts the 8th of March. They can also go to the International Steampunk Symposium in Cincinnati, Ohio, which runs from March 29 to 31, and I will be the Guest of honor there. Coming up in the world. Oh, let me give you one more: I will also be at the New Hampshire Writers Retreat from the 26th to the 28th. So check out the links to that through my Facebook page.

The 26th to 28th of…?

Of April. Yeah.

Well this should go live sometime, probably towards the end of February, I think, so this will time out well for that. And if by any chance you’re listening to this after that, because of course it doesn’t go anywhere once it’s up, I’m sure if you go to Robyn’s website you’ll be able to find out where she’s going to be next.

Yes, correct. And this is 2009 for you folks in the future. It was an interesting year, at least, starting in January I feel like we’ve lived about five or six years since January 1st.

Actually it’s 2019.

Oh!

Or else we’re already in the future. I guess we are in a way.

Yeah. Yeah, ’cause that future sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?

It sure does. Well, thanks so much for doing this, Robyn. I really enjoyed the chat.

Thank you very much. This was fantastic.

Episode 19: Tad Williams

An hour-long conversation with California-based fantasy superstar Tad Williams, whose genre-creating (and genre-busting) books have sold tens of millions worldwide, and whose writing has strongly influenced a generation of writers. with a focus on the Osten Ard series that began with the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy (The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower) and is now continuing with The Last King of Osten Ard (The Witchwood Crown and the forthcoming Empire of Grass and The Navigator’s Children).

Website:
www.tadwilliams.com

Twitter:
@TadWilliams

Facebook:
@AuthorTadWilliams

Tad Williams’s Amazon Page

The Introductiion

Photo by Deborah Beale

Robert Paul “Tad” Williams was born in San Jose, California, and grew up in Palo Alto, the town that grew up around Stanford University. His mother gave him the nickname “Tad” after the young characters in Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo.

Before becoming a full time fiction author Tad held many jobs, including delivering newspapers, food service, shoe sales, branch manager of a financial institution, and drawing military manuals.

In his mid-twenties, he turned to writing and submitted the manuscript of his novel  Tailchaser’s Song to DAW Books. DAW Books liked it and published it, and DAW continues to be Tad’s American publisher.. Tad continued working various jobs for a few more years, including three years from 1987 to 1990 as a technical writer at Apple Computer’s Knowledge Engineering Department, taking problem-solving field material from engineers and turning it into research articles, before making fiction writing his full-time career.

Since then, his books have sold tens of millions worldwide. He is married to Deborah Beale, a former publisher who is also a writer, and he and his family live in the Santa Cruz mountains in, to quote his website, a “suitably strange and beautiful house.”

The Lightly Edited Transcript

Hi, Tad, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Hello. Good to be here.

I’m very glad to have you. Now, I always like to figure out the connections I have with people and of course, in our case, we share our publisher, DAW Books, and we have met at a few of the famous DAW family dinners over the years as well, at least twice that I know of.

Indeed, yeah.

Now, the focus of the podcast is on the creative process, but before we get to that specifically, I always like to take my guests back into the dim, receding mists of time, and find out how they got started. So, how did you become interested in writing, and in particular, how did you become interested in writing the kind of stuff that we both write, science fiction and fantasy?

Well, actually it was a bit of a roundabout path in the sense that I’ve always been a reader, and starting quite young I was always very interested in the fantastical. I was raised on a lot of the classic English and early American fantasy fiction for kids, things like The Wind in the Willows, the Oz books, you know, the the E. Nesbit books, all kinds of things like that when I was young. Including The Lord of the Rings, which I think I probably read for the first time when I was about eleven and actually read before I read The Hobbit. So, I was kind of predisposed.

But when I was in my teens and even my early 20s, I was much more interested in other creative things that I was doing than writing. As I said, I was always a reader, but I was an artist and a cartoonist and I played music and I did theatre and radio in my early 20s. So, there were a number of other kinds of things that I was involved in creatively, trying to make one of them work, and writing only really came about when I got frustrated with always having to work with other people, who weren’t always as serious about this stuff, or at least not as punctual. You know, when you’re playing in a band and the drummer breaks up with his girlfriend and just doesn’t show up for rehearsal and, you know, that that kind of stuff that just drove me absolutely nuts. So, I kind of began to focus more on things that I could do in my own time and control my time and, you know, do it myself.

So, somewhere along in that process I decided to try writing a book. I was probably about 24 or 25 at the time, and I had played around with an idea about cats and kind of making up a mythology and folklore for cats, mostly to amuse myself, because my now-ex-wife, who I had moved in with, had cats and I’d never lived with them. So, I was kind of taken aback by the whole thing. The cat/human bargain was sort of beyond me. So I was just playing with that idea, and then when I decided to try writing a book, that was my first idea, “Oh, I could write a novel from the point of view of cats,” and because I was already interested in fantasy, I thought, “OK, well, I’ll make it a fantasy novel.”

And that was pretty much what happened. I spent a couple of years working other jobs and writing at night on my kitchen table and that was my first novel, Tailchaser’s Song, which I was lucky enough to be able to sell. And once my publishers, you know, asked me if I had some more stuff I wanted to do, I just continued on from there until it became pretty clear to me that this was going to be a career if I kept working at it, or had the chance to be a career. So that’s how I went.

Well, what were some of the other jobs that you were working on,before you became a full-time writer?

You mean, as opposed to the creative stuff?

Yeah.

I mean, every kind of godawful job you can imagine, Ed. I mean, you know, I folded burritos, I sold insurance, I sold shoes, I did a lot of retail management, I worked and managed in a Savings and Loan Company, almost you-name-it sort of thing, because I had not gone to college directly after high school, I was very interested in pursuing my creative stuff. So, although I did eventually go back and do some college, that wasn’t my area of interest, so I was I was not working career-type jobs, I was working whatever jobs I could get, sometimes using my creative side, like, you know, I worked doing technical art and things like that.

You actually did some technical writing, turning engineers’ writing into research articles, which caught my attention because I’m married to an engineer.

Yeah, the last normal job I had was in the late 1980s at Apple, and that’s where I did that, and started out doing purely tech writing, which was exactly what you said, it was taking the engineers in the field and turning what they were doing into technical information like, you know, researchable stuff. But then I got very interested in other things, too, including what was then called multimedia or interactive multimedia and, in fact, later on, that’s where my Otherlaand books came from, was that period of being very deeply interested in interactive multimedia.

Well, just because my wife is an engineer, I have to ask you: Did you find when you were working with engineers that they can spell?

Some of them could. Some of them obviously thought it was not part of their job description. My dad is a chemical engineer, so I had kind of a familiarity with this particular type, anyway, and I always got the feeling it wasn’t that they couldn’t spell, it was more like it was boring and that wasn’t what they were really interested.

My wife actually got a T-shirt that says “I’m an enginer…I’m an engineier… engineer misspelled three ways…and they’re all crossed out, and the last line is, “I’m good at maths.”.

Yeah, right, exactly.

The other thing that I wanted to ask you about is…well, I always see parallels with other writers, and in your case, there’s a couple of them, one is that I’m almost exactly the same age as you–I’m a couple of years younger–I think…

You have my sympathy.

But you had this interest in music, which was also something I had. You did some radio and television and I’ve hosted a TV show and I’ve posted radio shows, and you did theater,, as well and particularly, I wanted to ask you about the theater, because I’ve often found in talking to authors who have been involved in the theater, I always like to ask them if they think that some of the skills of being on stage, acting, creating stuff in the theater, if that is very helpful for writing the kind of stuff that you write now. Do you find any carry-over there?

Oh, absolutely. Both the theater and music. I think that whether those specific things are a big part of how I write or whether those are all facets of me that work together in my writing is hard to say. But absolutely. One of the things about doing live theater or live–I also did improvisational comedy–and one of the things about those kinds of pursuits is that, first of all, it’s live, so you’re dealing with actual people in the moment. And one of the only things I don’t like about writing is that you do not have a live audience. So, sometimes you are literally years separated from getting honest reactions to what you’re doing.

But one of the things, for instance, that theater makes you very aware of is holding attention and what kinds of things hold people’s attention. And I’m not just talking about the obvious things, like chase scenes, sex scenes, I’m talking about things like intonation and pacing, which also by the way is stuff that comes up in the music background and I think is also useful for writing. When you’re on stage and you have people out there and you’re kind of hooked into how they’re responding to you, you’re very aware how things like slowing down, getting louder, getting quieter, all of these kinds of things, affect people in a very physical way, and you can bring some of those lessons over to writing. And there’s a number of other things like that, I mean, that’s a simplistic explanation, but, yes, definitely. I think for me, and any writer who’s done it, doing theater or doing radio definitely becomes part of how you work and how you judge your own work.

It seems to me that many of the skills that you bring as an actor to trying to bring a character to life, inhabiting that character, for me, at least, carries over into inhabiting the characters that I create on the page, as well.

Oh, I think so, absolutely, yeah. And that’s also, you know, that’s getting into a slightly smaller, more specific aspect of it. Yes, absolutely, because again you are trying to create an audience identification–not always a positive one, but you’re trying to get the audience connected to a character quickly. And so, there are certain things to do, and only some of those are what they say. Some of them are little visual clues you’re dropping, body language clues, just the same way you would as an actor. You know things about how they stand, how they talk, when they talk, to whom they speak, and all those kinds of things. So, yeah, absolutely.

Yeah, and I often find when I’m looking at…and I do quite a bit of mentoring and stuff like that is that one thing that people sometimes lose track of is the visuals of the scene and their story, and so characters might suddenly pop from one place to another without crossing the intervening space, and having directed plays, you’re always conscious of where people are standing.

Absolutely. Blocking is a big part of writing, as well, because, you know, if you want people to move around, and that’s either in the sort of granular sense of within a scene or in the larger sense of a story, you have to find ways to describe that or signal that, without necessarily telling everybody everything but at the same time giving them enough information that they don’t feel cheated, they don’t feel like the character is, as you said, simply appearing, you know, after having been somewhere else completely. So, yes, that’s all part of the process. And actually, one of the things that I frequently liken my my job to is it’s very much like being a theatrical or film director, but you have all the other jobs too. So you’ve got to write the script and you’ve got a cast of characters and you have to do props and you have to do the backgrounds and all that kind of stuff as well. But it’s very much a case of telling a story with all of these tools to the best of your ability.

You even have to do the special effects.

Absolutely.

So, you didn’t really focus on writing until your 20s, but you were writing when you were younger. I was reading an interview somewhere, something about writing a folktale assignment that was supposed to be three pages long and with really, really long…

Like 17, plus another four or five pages of illustrations. No, I mean, I did write, and one of the actual kind of surprising things for me was, some years back, I found one of my old yearbooks. I remember one or two projects I’d done with my my best friend at the time, sort of parodies and stuff that I’d written, but other than that I thought of my high school days as mostly having done drawing and theater and and music, playing in a band. But a lot of people said, you know, “Keep writing,” so I guess I was writing little funny things for people even back then. I just didn’t remember that as being a major part of my my high school, junior high school years.

And you must have been sharing it with people, too, if they remember you.

I guess so. As I said it was kind of a surprise to me but I mean, yeah, I’m sure at some level we were passing things that we found amusing around to share with people.

Now, coming up this May, you have another major release from DAW Books, so, do you wat to explain what that’s going to be?

Sure. Thank you. What I’m in the middle of right now is, after about 30 years, roughly, I have gone back to…I mentioned Tailchaser’s Song, the book about cats…well, the next thing I did in my writing career, back in the late ’80s, was to write a big epic fantasy trilogy, of which the first book was The Dragonbone Chair. Now, I’ve never before intentionally gone back and written a novel based in anything I’d already done before. But for various reasons I’ve decided that I wanted to do that now. So, I’m in the middle of a another multi-volume story like that one, set in the same world but about the same distance after that as had passed in the real world. So, in my world thirty years have passed since I published those books. In the world of Osten Ard, which is where the story takes place, thirty years roughly have also passed. So, the first book of that series–well, actually there was a very short one, called The Heart of What was Lost, and then the first full-sized volume was called The Witchwood Crown, and now the second of three major volumes is coming out, and that’s called Empire of Grass and that’s coming out in May. And then there’ll be a final volume called Navigator’s Children, and some other short fiction in that world that won’t necessarily be part of the main story.

For those who, unimaginably, have not read any of these books..

Shocking, shocking!

Shocking, I know, but it could have happened, could you give a brief explanation of the setting and what the stories are about?

Well, I can’t. It’s hard to explain these in a way that makes them sound any different from most other epic fantasy, but, basically, Osten Ard is a very vibrant sort of pre-industrial world. A lot of the action centers around a castle called the Hayholt that was once the the seat of power for the immortal race which has now largely been fractioned and driven out of human habitations, and specifically a young character named Simon who’s a kitchen boy at the time the story starts,, as these kinds of characters often are going right back to mythology. And then, of course, he winds up in the middle of a world-changing war and supernatural forces and all these kinds of things.

So, on the surface, it’s very much like a lot of other epic fantasies. But I wrote it at the time very much with the idea that I wanted to modernize the genre, and explaining that would take a while. So, I’ll hold off on that for a moment. But in part because of that, say, for instanc,e and here I’m going to brag on myself a little bit, that George R.R. Martin decided that epic fantasy, based on reading my stuff…and he’s said this several times, so, I’m not making this up and he’s been very kind about this attribution…that, you know, “Oh, epic fantasy, you can do interesting things in epic fantasy and not just rewrite Tolkien, you know, over and over and over again. So, that my purpose was to kind of drag epic fantasy forward and keep the stuff that we love about it but also try to modernize its approach, examine some of the tropes of that kind of fiction that had become pretty musty and hidebound because people were imitating Tolkien rather than trying to understand what Tolkien had done. So, in a nutshell it’s that kind of big epic fantasy with many different races and peoples, but I think also with very…I don’t want to say human characters because not all of them are human…but with very complex characters who are not just cutouts but they are people of all kinds who have very complicated inner lives and difficult moral decisions and all the stuff that makes fiction interesting no matter whether it’s genre fiction or not.

When you returned to the world after a considerable gap, did you find that you had to do a lot of research into your own world in order to remember what you’d written?

Oh, my God, Ed, I’ve been cursing myself for years. It actually was rather funny because I have been so reliant on some of my best readers, my most constant and faithful readers, because, you know, when I was young, as I said, I read The Lord of the Rings the first time when I was quite young, I fell in love with it and I read it over and over and over again, as so many of us did, you know, back in that era, but, you know, when I wrote The Dragonbone Chair, and Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower, the original series, I hadn’t actually read it again since in those 30 years. So, I was going back to this material, and I realized very quickly there’s like several people out there in the world who know this material far better than I do because they read those books like I read Tolkien, including one of them who actually made an RPG out of my world of Osten Ard, you know, and he was into the geography and, you know, everything. So, I really had to get help from people like that–who fortunately were not only wonderful people but they were already friends due to their being readers of mine–to go forward, because the Osten Ard world is, without a doubt, you know one of the more complex and developed epic-fantasy worlds there is, just be’cause that’s what I like, I like worldbuilding. So, it had a very complete history and, you know, hundreds of characters, and when I was starting these new books, I was suddenly going, “Huh,” and I was so happy that I had someone I could call up and say, “You know, I want to use so-and-so in this new book. Where where was he last?” And they’d go, “You killed him, Tad, you killed him in the second book back there. Can’t use him again.” I’d be like, “Damn! Okay, I’ll have to think of somebody else. Got any suggestions.

So, I was really beholden to these people, specifically two of them, Ilba and Ron, who have been the most help in terms of, you know, just kind of keeping me clear on whether I’m outside of my own canon or not. But, you know, that was the point, obviously, which I did go back and reread the books and reread all my old notes and have reread them at least one times since then, because I think I started this back in like 2015 or something, or 2014, so I’ve had to have a big learning curve of re-learning my own world, because, I don’t know about you, Ed, but I don’t go back and look at my own work and I certainly don’t memorize things I’ve already written because I’m on to something else.

I think a lot of readers don’t realize that for authors, by the time the book has been published, you’ve read it and read it and read it and read it and read it and read it…

God, yeah.

…and you can barely stand to read it again, so…

I know. I’m in that process right now. I actually just had a shoulder operation, so my my my wife has been working very, very hard–Deborah Beale, who was a former publisher and is now writing, also, herself, my wife–has been very helpful with, you know, going through the copyedited proofs, but we still have another round of proofs, and of course I read through it like, four or five times during rewrites. So, yeah, you’re absolutely right. We’ve read a book so many times in the last year that most of us writers don’t ever want to see it again.

It is interesting, I found–and I presume your books have been turned into audio books?

Yeah.

It is interesting to listen to somebody else read your books, I’ve found, although I don’t have anything your length, so I don’t have to sit through as many hours of my own stuff read to me, but…

Well, that’s one of the problems is how much time. That’s one of the things I’ve often expressed to people when they’ve asked me questions about this, like, have I heard such-and-such an audio thing or have I done this or that or have I reread this, I’ve said, “You know, honest to God, you guys have to remember, I’m just like you, I’ve got it I’ve got a home, I’ve got family, you know, what little time I have to read is mostly put into reading, doing research. So, I don’t have a huge amount of free time that I can spend. I don’t commute anywhere, so I don’t have dead car time when I could be listening to audiobooks, even my own audiobooks, so, as with everything at this stage of life, it’s about trying to find time to do anything other than just work and, you know, be a parent or a partner or whatever.

There would be something a little creepy about spending all your time sitting in a darkened room listening to somebody read you your own books. That would be just a little odd.

I’m so glad you agree. That’s also the other thing, too, is there’s a limited amount of time I can spend rereading or listening to my own work. For one thing it’s not going to surprise me very much.

Not much suspense left.

No, no. Exactly. So what you tend to do whenever you do that is, you have to spend most of your time trying to avoid worrying about things that you did wrong 20 years ago that, you know, it’s way too late to fix.

But, having but having been forced to read what you had written all those years ago, have you found that your writing style has changed in that time?

I would say a little bit. I would say the main thing that I’ve noticed is I’m probably a little bit less flowery. But you can see that process beginning even in The Dragonbone Chair, where the first 20 or 30 pages of it, which, again this is something that was published back in, I think, 1988, or ’87, anyway, during the first 50 pages it’s more flowery than it is even for the rest of that book. So, I think that what I would call the Ray Bradbury influence has toned down a little bit. And I’m sure that there were some readers who were disappointed by that, but, you know, as I’ve gotten older and written more I’ve also become more interested in telling a story cleanly, and not necessarily stopping to write a beautiful set-piece if it’s not actually necessary. I think it’s like a lot of things in life: you start to say, “What’s the most important thing I can do here?”, rather than, “What’s the thing I can do here that will make everybody say, ‘Ooo, you’re so special!”

Now, we’ll focus on Osten Ard, specifically but in, general…you’ve talked about the theme of it, your take on the Tolkien epic fantasy, but what were the initial ideas that gave rise to it? And is that typical of the way that you start books?

Actually, yeah. Most of my books start with an idea, and oftentimes a kind of a thematic idea rather than a specific character or a specific setting. It tends to be thematic. In the case of the Osten Ard books, I know, when I’d written my first book for my publishers, DAW Books, who are still my American publishers, as we’ve just talked about since we were just at the last DAW dinner together, back then they said, well, you know, “Do you want to write something else in fantasy or science fiction?”

I said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write a big fantasy.” So that was my only thing that I went into it with the idea already in place, that I want to write a big epic fantasy, not with any specific story idea, but the story that came to me was very loosely based around the idea that both in fiction and in history, in the real world almost all great monarchies or kingdoms or whatever you want to call them have largely collapsed if they were built around a single very well-known and very powerful ruler. And I said, this is both in mythology and in history, it’s both in King Arthur and the actual Charlemagne or Alexander the Great or,, you know any number of other people. King Arthur, in the folklore, you have this great monarch who dies and the kingdom falls apart because it was not that structurally sound without them and their charisma or power or whatever. So, the initial idea I had about this was that something like that would happen in these new books, that there would be a kind of King Arthur or Charlemagne-like figure who would be dying at the beginning of the book, and then the action would be between two of his heirs, and that would be the fundamental thing,the struggle between two of his heirs for the power. And then, of course, I had to start looking for characters to tell this story, because I had already figured out that I wanted to try and tell the story on a more broad basis than just picking a couple of royal characters.

So, one of the first things I did was create this kitchen boy, who would have a whole kind of plotline of his own, but would have an interesting way of looking into the storyline, and very quickly he and some other characters became the actual focal-point characters. So, while there were still the two royal brothers, and they were, you know, important characters, they were no longer who we as readers were seeing the story through their eyes. (That’s a rather complicated, ungrammatical use of prepositions there, but, you know.) I created characters who would be the viewpoint characters and then they rapidly took over the story and became very important on their own, and the story spread, and more and more of it became about the kitchen boy and the daughter of one of the royal brothers, and et cetera, et cetera. And before I knew it it had kind of metastasized into this very broad and complicated plot. But it started out with that thematic idea, great monarch dies, heirs squabbling kingdom falls apart.

And you actually used the name, at least, of a folkloric character, Preston John, that you know, has his own folklore in the real world. Does he not?

Right, right, absolutely.There are still, especially in the first book, there are still some archeological remnants of, when I started the book, I was going to make it happen in an imaginary country but in the real world. So, it was going to share at least some of its history with the history that, you know, that we all know from Western civilization classes and the mythology that we have learned and all that kind of stuff. So, it was actually originally going to be the semi-historical, semi-mythical Preston John, and then that kind of, for various reasons, fell by the wayside, but I liked the name. The first name of the novel was The Sons of Preston John, and, so, it was a long time before I got to the point where I had to decide, well keep it or get rid of it, it’s not about the world you live in anymore and I decide to keep that aspect, because, obviously, there are many parallels with the real world. It’s not our world, but it’s a world very similar to, say, 13th-century Europe. At least the parts we’re exposed to at the beginning are: it gets weirder and stranger as the characters move out from the beginning of the story.

I think not calling it The Sons of Preston John was probably a good choice in the end.

Ha! It was never a too-serious title but, you know…I don’t know about you, but I hate writing outlines, because I’ve never ready. I’m always kind of solving things in outlines that are terrible solutions to the problems. They’re not organic, you know, they’re just like, “Okay, then I have to tell the publishers that this is going to happen, and why is it going to happen? I don’t know, because blah blah blah.” So I hate writing outlines anyway and I hate titling things before I’m ready for it. So, yeah, it was just kind of like, “Okay, that’s my working title.”.

Because that actually reminds me of the old John Wayne movie The Sons of Katie Elder.

Yeah, yeah exactly.

Well, you mentioned outline, and that was actually my next question. Once you’ve got your ideas, what does your planning look like before you actually start writing. How much do you figure out ahead of time and how much happens organically, as you said?

Well, it’s difficult to have a hard-and-fast rule, because as you know, I’m sure, and most of the other writers out there know, you know, these things are literally organic processes. They are very complicated. Some of them happen in your subconscious. Some of them are conscious decisions, but basically…and the other thing with me, as I mentioned, is, I don’t like outlines, because for me, those are artificial. I don’t know how three quarters of the story is going to work. I need to know something about the ending of it even before I start, or at least before I finished the first volume, if it’s a multi-volume story, because my multi-volume stories are really single stories that are just cut up into multiple volumes. So, I need to be able to prefigure, to, you know, drop hints, to put clues in in the first volume that may not pay off until the end of the story, maybe several years later. So, I have to know at least enough that I can do some of that, but other than that, I’m going to discover a lot of this stuff along the way as I’m writing.

I mean, as I mentioned with this book, I had, you know, some very vague ideas about what the story was going to be about. So, especially in the early stages, it’s a combination of both: a lot of thinking–and that’s unfettered thinking, that’s not sitting at the keyboard being impatient with myself thinking–that’s literally just going away and just walking around with the beginnings of the story in my mind and starting to try out different random connections–or not random, but, you know, different connections of what could happen, which character could go where, which characters we might need that don’t exist yet, et cetera et cetera.

At a certain point, though, you have to start putting things down, because that helps to shape the narrative also, because you’ll be sitting down with an idea like, “Okay, I’m gonna introduce this minor character,” and then by the time you’ve written 10 pages with that character you suddenly realize, “Oh, actually this is a much more major character than I thought he or she was going to be, so I’m going to have to incorporate him or her into more stuff here.”

What I always liken it to is kind of a tightrope act between, on the one hand, knowing too much when you begin and being stale when you’re actually writing it, and on the other hand knowing too little and not being able to prefigure, to drop hints and clues, to do all that kind of stuff. But I do spend a very long amount of time away from the keyboard thinking about the world itself and the history of the place and what it’s like at the time the stories taking place and what the general kind of,you know, political, technological, geographical setup is, and then I fill in details as I’m writing.

So you don’t do an outline per se but a lot of notes about these things as you figure them out, so you can refer to it as your writing and try to be consistent?

Yes, I mean, I definitely do when it’s things like languages and stuff and characters’ names and things, just so I can be consistent. I will also occasionally do, like, a little tiny mini-essay on certain aspects of history that I figured out but that aren’t going to show up again for maybe a volume or so,so I don’t lose what I was thinking about. But I actually write, probably, a lot fewer notes than most people. I’ve always found that for me–and this is very personal and it’s not a recommendation to other writers, everybody has to find their own path–for me, it works better to have as little as possible written down in the way of ideas, that I try not to write things down until I’m pretty certain I’m going to go forward with them. And before that, it’s just all kind of carried around in my head so that I can try different possibilities.

I think of it as like playing a game of chess in my head ahead of the moves. Instead of actually touching the pawn and then having to move it, I spend a lot of time thinking, “Well, this could happen, but then the knock-on effect would be this, and I’m not sure I want that to happen so early, so maybe how about this?” So, I do these very complicated thinking-through processes without writing things down. So, I actually have comparatively few notes. I mean, not only does my story diverge from my outline that I have to turn in at the beginning, because that’s what publishers want, but then I don’t make a huge amount of notes along the way. I suspect I’m one of those writers that if I suddenly pitch over dead at my keyboard it’s not going to be all that easy for somebody to pick up my work and finish it. They may finish it, but it wouldn’t necessarily have much to do with what I thought, because a lot of what I’m planning to write is only in my head at this point.

Well, I think you’re the eighteenth author I’ve interviewed for the podcast so far, and, yeah, it’s all over the place. I interviewed Peter V. Brett, and he writes extremely detailed outlines, like 150-page outlines with every detail in it and then other people like you, and me…I write a synopsis because. you know. as you said that’s what the publisher wants to see, and then I usually don’t look at it unless I’m getting into trouble somewhere along the way.

Yeah, exactly, I’ve never, I don’t think I’ve ever gone back and looked at any of my outlines except long after the fact, just to amuse myself. But I don’t actually use them when I’m writing, because by the time I’ve finished an outline, you know, it’s in my head, what the general thing that I want to do is, and I already, in the course of writing it, have already written down things that I look at and go, “I will never put that in the book. That’s crap.” I have to have it in the outline it because explains how they get from Part D to Part E or something, but I don’t, you know, I’m not going to use that. That’s just a crappy solution.

I suspect, then, you also don’t do detailed character sheets with every detail about the characters life, and…

No, although again, you know, it’s whatever works for you. Whatever works for you. By the time I’m into one of these long things, you know, it all feels pretty real to me. I mean, not in a hallucinatory sense, but I mean just in the sense that I’ve kind of got these characters…and especially with these new books. because. you know many of them are characters that, you know, I was writing about their younger selves 30 years ago, so they are in my system already. So I don’t really have to have a lot of details. Now, of course I will always, you know, forget people’s eye colors, and that’s why it’s so valuable to have friends around to say, “Actually you did mention that in such-and-such a book and his eyes are brown. But other than that, no, I don’t tend to do that, again because, just for me personally, having lots of flexibility and lots of things being open-ended is just what works best.

What does your actual writing process look like, you know, so many hours a day. Do you do it in an office, do you do it in coffee shops? How do you work?.

I’m actually having to think about this for a moment because I just, not too long ago, had a shoulder operation, and before that I had several months where I couldn’t work at all. I haven’t been able to work until just, literally, the last day or so. So, I’m having to remember now, but generally my process is that I get up in the morning, I do my correspondence, I do whatever social media I’m going to be doing, which I try to keep to a fairly low amount. Then I think about what I want to work on that day in terms of what the specifics are, you know, I want to work on this chapter, and that chapter is probably going to have these characters in it and these characters in it and these characters in it, and, you know, it’s a continuation of such and such a plotline, blah blah blah.

So then I will go away, for usually several hours, and I will literally lie on my back if I can, that’s my preferred position, with some earbuds in and some ambient music or something playing to drown out the sound of all of the young people who live in our household. And then I just think about what I’m going to do. And eventually, you know, 2 or 3 in the afternoon I will get up, and then usually write till dinner. But because I have thought it through ahead of time, there’s very little staring at a blank page. I’ve usually pretty much planned in a general sense what I’m going to do that day, what the scene is going to be about, how it’s going to go, roughly, what important notes I want to hit, what little bits, you know, what I hope will be little gems of dialogue that I want to use or whatever, so that when I’m actually sitting down I’m only sitting down at the computer maybe for two or three hours, but I’m doing, you know, six or seven hours worth of work, because I’ve already thought it all through. And that’s generally how my process works.

How does that translate into how long it takes you to write one of these monsters?

Well, it really depends. I try to do a minimum five pages of manuscript at about three hundred and something words per page. I try to do five to 10 pages per day. Sometimes I do more. Occasionally I do less. A lot of it has to do with what kind of thing I’m writing. Obviously, if I’m writing dialogue it will fill up pages faster, if I’m doing something that requires a great deal of research while I’m doing it, that will go slower. Certain kinds of books, say, for instance, these books, or the Otherland books, which are the big multivolume ones, those are a little slower to write because you’re usually, in the course of writing 10 or 15 pages, you’re usually doing at least two different sets of character interactions, it’s like two different segments, whereas when I was writing what I call the Bobby Dollar books, which are this kind of angel detective series, it’s all first-person, he’s the only character who’s giving information. They’re much faster to write. I could do, like, a chapter a day, like a 15- to 20-page chapter a day with those. So, it really depends. So, you know probably a year per book without, you know, medical problems or something like that getting in the way.

You mentioned research. Do you find that you have to do a lot? I think it sometimes surprises people that people writing fantasy have to do any research because they’re making it all up.

I know, it’s amusing isn’t it? I know, people oftentimes have said that to me, like, kind of in a congratulatory tone. “Aren’t you lucky. You know, you’re writing fantasy, you’re just making stuff up!” And I always say to them, “Well, I kind of think of myself as writing what I would call hard fantasy. I’m trying to create worlds that feel very real. So, if I’m writing about a pre-industrial world–and I’m sure this is true for you to, Ed–if I’m writing about a pre-industrial world I want to understand how that kind of world actually works, how the economies work, how the actual mechanism of people feeding themselves and sheltering themselves work, what the different options are among different cultures in the real world, and pick and choose the things that seem to fit best.

So, yeah, it’s actually impinged on my reading of fiction, because I read so much non-fiction, primarily history and science, and, yeah, I mean, I’m researching all the time. There’s more with some books than with others but, you know, I mean, probably again like you, I’ve got, you know, my office is literally full of books that are research books for me on every bloody nonfiction topic under the sun, because I do want these things to feel authentic and I do want these worlds to feel real and it’s more important, I think, for a fantasy writer or a science fiction writer to have a grip on that stuff, because when you know a person who’s writing a thriller or a mystery novel set in the world that we know says, “And a mail carrier walked up the front path and knocked on the door,” you know, we already know what all of those things probably mean. We know what a mail carrier is, we know the kinds of things they tend to be carrying, we know what a front path probably looks like or at least we can invent one in our heads, e know why people knock on doors in our culture, whereas in a fantasy novel or world none of that is written in stone. None of that is necessarily the same. So you need to have a firm foundation underneath this imagination.

Once you have a draft, what’s your revision process look like? Do you have beta readers or do you do it all yourself, or how does it work for you?

I have just for these last set of books, these, again, what I call Osten Ard books, which is the new series, The Witchwood Crown, Empire of Grass, and the previous series, The Dragonbone Chair, etc., because that’s the place they take place, Osten Ard. With the Osten Ard books, for the first time I’ve actually done a much, what I would call a dirtier, or a more basic, first draft because, especially, with the first one of the new books, I wanted to get a reaction from some of my most faithful readers of the old books, since it’s been 30 years. I wanted to make sure that people felt like, “Yes, this is the same world. Yes, the writer is approaching it in the same way, no, there’s not a huge disconnect in terms of, like, ‘Oh God, this feels totally different than the old books,'” because one of the shocking realizations I had when I decided to do a sequel was how invested, you know, a lot of readers were in the original set of books, which was a little daunting, to be honest. I realized, like, “Hey, if I screw this book up, I’m not just screwing this book up but I’m screwing up the books that have been a major part of my career.” You know, people will be forever change in their view of those books by, like, “Ah, and then he wrote that horrible sequel,” much like, say, for instance, George Lucas now has to carry the burden of The Phantom Menace around on top of all the affection people had for Star Wars.

So, because of that, with these new Osten Ard books I actually wrote a more basic first draft and sent it out so that people could give me reactions to it. Normally, I do a very complete, quite close to finalized first draft. Then I got them back and I did another kind of a clean first draft and then, you know, that went off to my publishers. We had a, you know, an editorial conference. Unlike most DAW authors, I actually get edited by both editors, both Betsy Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert, so they double-team me. And then I will do, usually, two more drafts. In the old days, I would simply do one very complete first draft, send it to Betsy and Sheila, my agent, my wife, Deborah, who is, as I mentioned, a publisher herself, and then do two fairly quick rewrites because I’d spent so much time…and I still do spend a lot of time… in the first draft because the plots are so complex and there’s so many characters I have to fit them together carefully because they’re not easy to pull apart and fix if something’s drastically wrong.

What sorts of things do you find yourself fixing after you’ve had the feedback?

One of the things is that oftentimes, as a writer, especially a writer of, you know, where you’ve been working on a book for a year or two years or something, sometimes you put in more of something than you really need simply because for you it’s been three months since you last wrote that particular plotline. So, as you go back into it you’ll kind of wind up hitting a lot of notes again that are part of that plotline. I remember, for instance, when I was writing the Otherland books, which are near-future science fiction (but you don’t need to know anything about them to understand this), one of the characters was trying to give up smoking. She was one of the main characters, if not the main character. And so, during the course of, almost every time she showed up, because we’d be a couple of weeks between her parts of the plot for me,, there would be some mention of that again. Well that was fine, because I was essentially sort of reminding myself that that was an ongoing struggle for her. But then when I actually sent the first draft out to my publishers, they went, “Jesus God, every nine seconds she’s talking about how much she wants cigarette,” and I realized, “Oh, Okay.” So, there are issues like that that you look out for where an outside eye will say to you either, “You’re doing too much of that,” or, “This character doesn’t seem very sympathetic,” and you’ll say, “Oh, well I didn’t want it to come off that way. OK. That’s interesting.” You know, you’ll get feedback on things that you probably missed, that you thought, you know, “Oh, this is obvious, and no it wasn’t as obvious as you thought it was, or stuff like that.”

Because I did the first draft faster, there’s been a little more rewriting involved with these books, but generally, I think, compared to a lot of writers, I tend to write a pretty complete first draft, again, just because it’s easier than trying to strip stuff out after the fact.

All right, well, we’re getting closer to the end here…obviously we’re getting closer to the end, we wouldn’t be getting further from the end…so I’ll get to the big philosophical questions here. Why do you write, why do you think any of us write, and more specifically, why do we write fantasy and science fiction? What’s with that?

Well, I always like fantasy and science fiction, first of all because, starting in childhood, the idea of these other places and other experiences that were not available to most of us in our ordinary lives was very intriguing and exciting for me. I mentioned Nesbit. obviously C.S. Lewis. there is a whole kind of tradition in fantasy fiction for kids of this idea that the magic is just on the other side of the door, the walls, the wardrobe, whatever. You find some magic object, blah blah blah, and everything changes. Obviously this was a big part of what made the Harry Potter book so appealing to people, was this idea that, you know, if you go to the King’s Cross Station there’s a track 9 1/2, or whatever it was, that nobody else can get to, but it’ll take you to this crazy magical school, you know, and all these kinds of things. So, that was the first level on which this stuff appealed to me, that right next to us all these exciting things could be happening and we just don’t know about it.

Then, the other thing that really worked for me when I was young in things like The Lord of the Rings was the completeness of the worldbuilding, the idea that this is a very real, real place that has a history independent of the story that we’re currently following. That, for some reason, was really appealing to me, also. I’ve always loved history. I’ve always loved knowing the story behind things.

And then, last, but I think also very critical to me in terms of loving fantasy and science fiction, is I’ve always loved the fact that you can walk the line. You’re sort of making a bargain when you write genre fiction with readers, and that bargain is, as I jokingly say sometimes, it’s like, “I can make it as artistic as I want it to be or as literary as I want it to be, as long as every five pages or so something tries to meet the main characters.” And in a sense, I kind of think was a writing genre fiction a being a bit like any other formalized artistic expression, like, say, ballet. Now, in modern dance you can do virtually anything. And that’s great. That’s absolutely fine. In ballet, you have to observe certain kinds of expected things. In fiction, we call them tropes, in ballet they’re called, you know, positions, and, you know, certain kinds of expressions, and all this kind of stuff. But if you observe those things, you’re still allowed to be as artistic as you want to be, to be as abstract as you want to be. But it sets a certain framework on what you’re doing that you then have to work with, but you also get to play with the expectations of people who like that framework. So, I’ve always loved genre fiction because it allows you to do that, to work with a framework but also to exploit and sometimes even explode a framework. So, all of those things appealed to me.

Why do you think we as humans love stories so much? Not just fantasy stories, but any stories. Why are we driven to to tell stories and to listen to stories?

Well, I think actually that’s a very big question, and I think the answers are are potentially huge. One of the things is that we are human beings. I mean, the fact that, you know, most of how we think about the universe we live are actually constructions that we place on it, you know. Because we die in a hundred years or less most of the time, ee tend to think of the amount of time it takes things to happen on a universal or even a galactic scale is astoundingly long. Well ,that’s our perspective on it, you know, we have this very limited way of looking at things. But at the same time, we, in a sense, because our imagination is what we’re all living in all the time, we’re also creating that reality. We are creating the reality where a billion years is a long time, but a hundred years is only a long time to a single human being. And because we’re creating these realities for ourselves, we’re actually making all of life and all of reality into stories. That’s what human beings do. We recast the universe in our own conception and by our own imagination.

And we’re also applying concepts like beginning, middle, and end onto the universe. The universe doesn’t, as far as we know at this point, we don’t know anything about how the universe began. We only have some very vague ideas about how it might end. We’re in the middle of billions of years of it existing, but that’s not how humans are. So we like to think about beginnings, middles, and ends, and we tend to put those onto things. We make stories out of everything. You ask somebody about the Civil War, the American Civil War, they will tell you a story. It may not be the right story,, it’s the story they know or learn, or feel comfortable with, but it’s a story: you know, it has heroes and villains, it has a beginning, it has an end. And that’s true with everything.

So, human beings like to make things, and we also like to make the universe over into something that we can understand and that we fit into. So all of those are very, very strong driving forces for people who write fiction. We like to have a little more control over that than others. We like to make our own universes, or at least sub-universes. But we’re still doing a very human thing, which is we’re making the universe over in our own image and through our own thoughts and imagination.

Well, that’s one reason this podcast is called The Worldshapers (the other being, of course, that my latest book is called Worldshaper), but, still, it’s a good name for the podcast. What do you hope that readers who come to you work take away from it?

I hope my readers of my books–and fortunately this does happen, I mean, it doesn’t happen with every reader obviously, but it does happen–all I want is, I want readers to have the same feeling of connection with my work that I felt with the people whose work has moved me, has changed me as a person, has given me ways of looking at the universe I wouldn’t have had otherwise. That’s real. I mean, yes, oh, and the practical things, like, you know, I don’t want my children to starve, you know, all that kind of stuff. But primarily I want to make things and share them with other people, and I hope that the things that I make, in this case books, stories, have the same effect of bringing imagination and pleasure into other people’s lives that my favorite books have had me. And if along the way they do some of the other things that my favorite books have done for me, like help them to look at the world differently, help them to think about things differently than they had before, then that’s a plus. But essentially, I just want to make things and share them with people.

And once…you have the Osten Ard books coming up, but what’s after that for you?

That is a real good question, Ed, and for once in my life I don’t have a specific thing lined up. I’ve got a couple of more smaller Osten Ard projects I’m going to be doing. And then, while I’m doing that, you know, I’m also in the stage where a lot of writers are, which is now I’m not entirely in charge of my own destiny. I can’t…I’m not Stephen King. I’m not J.K. Rowling, I can’t literally write anything at this point and a large number of people will buy it. I have an audience that is wanting me to do fantasy and science fiction. I’d be a fool to turn away from that. Beyond that, I’m not really sure. I have to write whatever idea is the one that’s screaming in my ear that it needs to be written. I’m still a couple of years away from that, probably, and I have no idea what it’ll be. I’m thinking more now than I used to about approaching some of my old material, though. So, for instance, I’ve mentioned Otherland a couple of times. I might do another Otherland book, but I have many, many other ideas that are completely new things as well. I’ll just kind of have to see.

There’s never a shortage of ideas. It goes back to time all the time, doesn’t it?

It certainly does. I mean, almost every writer has had the experience of having someone come up to them at a party or whatever and say like, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a story,” you know, but “I’m not a writer” or “I don’t have time to write it” or whatever. “Why don’t I give it to you and we’ll split it halfway?” I always just kind of laugh and say, “You know, I’m sorry, but I’ve got more ideas than I know what to do with.” It’s not a lack of ideas. As you said, just now, it’s time. It’s time.

And, for people who would like to find you online, where can they do that?

Well they can find me several places. There is a website that’s embarrassingly all about me, or mostly about, that’s tadwilliams.com.

Well, who else would it be about?

Exactly. Well nobody, but, I mean, we have a very active message board and so, you know, we we learn a lot about the lives of people who are on the message boy, too, and see things that they like to pos,t and sometimes they have their own creative endeavors. So, tadwilliams.com obviously is kind of the best one-stop source of information, but I’m very present on Facebook and I’m also on Twitter, and my wife does a lot of Twitter stuff, including things about my books and writing @MrsTad at Twitter. So any one of those places is a good place to start.

And your Twitter handle is just @TadWilliams, right?

Right. Yes.

All right, well thanks so much for doing this, Ted. I really appreciate it. It was a great conversation.

My pleasure, Ed. I enjoyed it, too, and I wish you tons and tons of success with your own work and continued good luck.

Thank you very much. And bye for now.

All right. Bye for now.