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

Instagram:
@VESchwab

Facebook:
VESchwab

Victoria/V.E. Schwab’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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 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.

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

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.

Episode 18: Tosca Lee

An hour-long conversation with Tosca Lee, the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of The Progeny, Firstborn, Iscariot, The Legend of Sheba, Demon: A Memoir, Havah: The Story of Eve, and the Books of Mortals series with New York Times bestseller Ted Dekker (Forbidden, Mortal, Sovereign), with a focus on her new thriller, The Line Between, just released by Simon and Schuster.

Website:
www.toscalee.com

Twitter:
@ToscaLee

Facebook:
AuthorToscaLee

Instagram:
@toscalee

Tosca Lee’s Amazon Page

The Introduction:

Tosca Lee is the the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of The Progeny, Firstborn, Iscariot, The Legend of Sheba, Demon: A Memoir, Havah: The Story of Eve, and the Books of Mortals series with New York Times bestseller Ted Dekker (Forbidden, Mortal, Sovereign),

A notorious night-owl, she loves watching TV, eating bacon, playing video games with her kids, and sending cheesy texts to her husband. You can find Tosca hanging around the snack table or wherever bacon is served.

The Lightly Edited Transcript

So, Tosca, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much for having me.

Now, we’ve never met in person, but we do have something in common: we both share a publicist, Mickey Mickelson, at Creative Edge. So, I think we ought to give him a shout out off the top here.

Yay, Mickey! Yes. He’s awesome.

He is. Now, we’re going to focus a little later on in the interview on your very latest novel, The Line Between, which will, I think, when this goes live it will have just released, so this will be very timely. January 29, I believe is the release date.

Yes, yep.

So, we’ll talk about that in detail. I finished reading it just this morning, actually, as we’re recording this, and so it’s very fresh in my mind. But let’s go back in the mists of time to find out what path actually took you to writing, ’cause you didn’t start out planning to be a writer, did you when you were a kid?

No, I didn’t. I really wanted to be a professional ballerina and it was something I pursued very ardently and very seriously, up until I had a…I tore a groin when I was a teenager. So, that takes a long time to heal, and then I grew six inches, which can…you know, on pointe shoes I’m six-foot tall, so it takes a special kind of partner to be tall enough to partner me now. So, yeah, it kind of became apparent maybe that was not going to be the path for me, so I went off to college and was thinking maybe I’d go into some kind of business. My dad was a lifelong business management professor. And I thought, maybe, I’ll do something in business, or maybe I’ll…at some point my parents said, “Why don’t you become a news anchor or something?” I don’t know why, and I was like, “Oh, yeah,” and then I thought, well, maybe I’ll go into advertising. I don’t know why I thought these things. But it was not really at the forefront of my mind, even though I had been writing my whole life. I grew up, you know, writing stories and poems and things, and I won contests, and went off to little young people’s writing conferences and stuff. But I just never really thought of it as a thing.

Where did you grow up?

So, I was born in Virginia and we moved, right before I started First Grade. So, I did most of my growing up in Nebraska, where my dad taught at the University until just a few years ago, when he retired.

Well, I’m in Saskatchewan, so I kind of that whole Great Plains thing is very familiar.

Very familiar. Absolutely.

And all my relatives are in places like Missouri and Oklahoma and places like that stand.

Yes.

Also, the ballerina aspect is interesting to me because my daughter is a dancer and she’s taken ballet and tap and, never really thought of doing it professionally, because she doesn’t have the a body type either, but it’s interesting because she has commented on the fact that she has friends who wanted to be professional dancers, and then they injure themselves as a teenager and that dream kind of fades at that moment. So, she’s actually thinking of going into kinesiology and wants to help people like that work through their problems, and sports psychology and all that kind of stuff.

That’s wonderful, because it’s become, even in the last couple of decades, since…well, it was slightly longer than that I guess for me, but in the last couple decades even, dancing has become so competitive and the bar is so much higher, I think, than it was even then. So, it’s very extreme.

Yeah, I’m just as glad she’s not trying to pursue it professionally, speaking as a father.

It’s hard on the body.

And, speaking of fathers, your dad, actually…I was reading an interview with you…he actually had a lot to do with you writing your first novel, didn’t he?

Yeah, he did. Well, what happened is, so I went off to college and went to Smith College in Massachusetts, and I was back for spring break for some reason, I’d come back for spring break, and I was, we were in the car, and I was talking with my dad and I was talking about…talk about the mists of time, I was talking about one of my favorite books, which was called The Mists of Avalon, by Marion Zimmer Bradley.

I know it.

You know that one?

Oh, yeah.

I just loved that book and I’ve read it many times. It’s a retelling of the women behind King Arthur’s throne, the women behind the King, basically. And it’s fascinating, the characters are amazing, and I was having this conversation with my dad and talking about how books are like emotional roller coasters and they’ve got twists and turns and sometimes you’re upside down. And I just blurted it out that day and said, “You know, I think I’d like to write a book,” and the thought was, you know, maybe it’d be fun to see if I could write something like that for somebody else to enjoy. And so, my dad made me a deal that day. He said, “Okay, look. I will I will pay you what you would have made this coming summer working at the bank. which I had done the summer before and I was supposed to go back and work again as a bank teller, which I’m terrible at because I’m horrible with numbers, and my drawer would never balance, and it was just a fiasco, but he said, “I will pay you what you would have made working at the bank if you will very seriously spend your summer writing full time, writing a novel. Your first novel.” And I said yes. And so, I did, I spent that summer writing my first novel. And of course, I couldn’t do anything just kind of simple for starters. I had to write this Neolithic historical novel about the people of Stonehenge, England. And of course, I spent the early part of my summer over in Oxford, I was studying economics the first part of the summer, so I bought all these books because, you know, we didn’t have the Internet then, or any of that stuff. So, I bought all these books about Stonehenge and all this and brought them back with me and by then I had about two months left, and I didn’t really know that you can’t really do this, most people can’t do this, in about two months. But I didn’t know this. So, ignorance is bliss. And I read these books and I researched, and I tried to kind of piece together an outline and I wrote my first novel that summer…and it was not very good.

Do you still have it?

Yeah, it’s in the basement with my skeletons. I spent the next summer…I actually submitted it to Writers House, which is one of the premier agencies in New York. And I did everything you’re not supposed to do. Like, back in the day you were supposed to print it, but not bind it. Well, I bound it. You’re not supposed to put a cover on it. Well, I put a cover on it with a nice cute little picture of Stonehenge and everything. And I wrote my synopsis and I sent it off…and the other day I found the rejection letter from Writers House, and it starts off with, “Even after reading the twenty-three-page synopsis, we’re still not sure what this novel is about.”

Oh, dear.

Never write a twenty-three-page synopsis. Oh, my gosh. And, you know, they said, “Your characters are two dimensional, and the story lacks tension,” and all this, but somewhere in the in the letter–and it was a great letter because it was personal feedback, I mean, it was real feedback instead of just a form letter which is what you so often get these days. At some point in the letter they said, “But it is strangely reminiscent of Clan of the Cave Bear, which was also one of my other favorite novels. So, what I took away from that is my book is like Clan of the Cave Bear. And I said to myself, I’m going to do this again!

And you did. But not right away.

No. No, not right away. I ended up graduating from college and I went to work for a computer magazine. So that  was fun, and it was very cool because I became a professional writer in that way and learned about the process of editing and publishing and I wrote two computer books during that time as well. So, it was it was very educational.

See, that caught my eye as well because I went into journalism–I’m ten years older than you, I think–I went into journalism and worked as a newspaper reporter and editor. And, yeah, writing was what I did, but my first published book when I became a freelancer was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95.

Seriously?

My second book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 97. So, I had a series going.

Yes, you did, you did. Was it a do ology or a longer series?

It turned out to just be a duology. After that, I moved on to writing about other exciting topics like Microsoft Office and Creating Cool Web Pages on AOL and stuff like that. So yeah, my writing books actually started with computer books as well. So that’s also caught my eye.

That’s awesome. I remember writing tutorials for the magazine on how to use WordStar. Remember WordSstar?

I still know two authors who use it.

George R.R. Martin uses it, I think.

Robert J. Sawyer does as well, and another fellow DAW author, Gerald Brandt, uses it.

Oh, my gosh. I didn’t even know it was really still around until I read that, I think about George R.R. Martin, and I remember thinking, “Oh, my gosh. I used to know all those commands by heart. That’s what I read in my college papers on. So crazy.

And there was another interesting thing that happened there in the ‘90s. You did beauty pageants.

Yeah, that was a classic case of somebody saying, “You should go try this, or do that,” and I was like, “Okay,” so that happened. And I had never really grown up doing anything like that. It had just never really been in my realm of possibility. But the one thing that taught me was that when people believe in you or believe you can go do something, suddenly in your mind something opens up and it becomes possible. And so, I tried it, and I didn’t win. And then my sister-in-law at the time said, “I think you should go back and try it again.” I was like, “No, no, I’ve already done that,” and she’s like, “No, I think you have unfinished business. Go back.” And…I really learned through that process and through the second time especially, which was the time that I won, that, you know, people want to…and you want to think a beauty pageant would teach you this…that people want to make connection. They want to be seen. They want to feel that they are connecting with others. And I learned that very much through that through that whole process and through the appearances that I was fortunate enough to get to do on behalf of a lot of charities and things around the state. And actually, that experience has served me really well in this new job of being an author. I say new, it’s been a while, but in this job of being an author, especially when it comes to doing things like interviewing or interacting with people or going out and meeting readers and speaking and signing, you know, stuff like that, because I think that’s basically what we all want, to connect and to know that we’re not alone.

And you were also writing, during that time, your second novel, weren’t you?

Yeah, I was writing a book that I that I never finished that I fondly call “the book that will kill me.” And then I wrote another book very quickly, in about six weeks. I wrote a book that would become my first published novel, but that then took about six years to publish actually.

Yeah, overnight success.

It always seems like, and people always think that you are, even though they don’t know how many years have come into that process.

Well, especially in the days when you had to print things off and you mailed them off in boxes and then you waited and waited and waited.

And you have to send the self-addressed stamped envelope and it came with all these ominous warnings, remember: if he didn’t send it you would not hear back.

Well, I lived in Canada, so I had to send International Reply Coupons. It was awful. So, tell me about that first novel, Demon: A Memoir.

I was part of an online gaming community at the time, and I was trying to think of a new gaming character, and I was actually thinking about doing like an angel or something, and I thought a fallen angel would be much more interesting and I just really got to thinking about life as a fallen angel and witnessing history and the progression of time. And I came home, and I started writing that book. I wrote, like, I don’t know forty-some pages that night by hand. And within about six weeks I had a first draft. But the narrative was kind of unconventional and it took a few editors…well, the editor who finally acquired it is the one who said, “Look, I think you need to frame it more like this,” and it gave me the guidance to go in and redo it and then, so that one was picked up in a three-book deal. And I remember them saying, “What else do you have?”, and during that time I had briefly entertained the idea of writing a book about Eve, from her point of view, and I had written like one page, and I pulled that page out and I was like, “Well, I’ve got this I’ve got this one page about Eve,” and they are like, “Great! We’ll take it and one other book,” and I was like, “I don’t have any other ideas,” and they said, ‘You’ll think of something. So, that was that. So, yeah, suddenly I had this three book. But I say suddenly, you know, very tongue in cheek.

Yeah, it’s always in retrospect it may seem suddenly but…

Right, right.

I was interested because a lot of your early books and even the current one, there is certainly a Christian element and you’ve been published in the Christian market. What’s your religious background?

I grew up Christian. I grew up non-denominational, in just a Bible-teaching church, and so when I was writing about this fallen angel, it just made sense for me to go to the Scriptures and form it that way, because for me that’s the authority on those things that I have grown up with. So, that’s been really important to me as I wrote the story of Eve, and then I went on to write the story of Judas Iscariot and the Queen of Sheba. And so, I’m trying to keep things as scripturally accurate as possible. When you are writing Biblical stories, it has been really important. And to that end I’ve always maintained like a small cadre of experts that I can always go to, theologians, academics, you know, scriptural experts, that I can go to pick their brains and get help as I needed it.

So that struck me as well, because I grew up in the church of Christ, and my dad was a preacher and an elder and so all of that stuff is very familiar to me as well.

We’re like twins!

Well, you’re a bestseller and I’m not. There’s that difference.

Well, yeah, that’s an overnight thing too…no, it’s not.

So, all of that strikes me, and my own fiction has a lot of religious references and it does play a part in the plot as well, so that kind of struck my eye as well. Now, moving on to your current one, which we want to talk about, The Line Between,  maybe you could give a synopsis so that I don’t give away something you don’t want to give away.

Well, The Line Between is about a disease that has emerged from the melting permafrost and it’s causing madness in its victims and it’s spiraling towards a pandemic by the time that the main character, whose name is Winter Roth, is expelled from a doomsday cult on the American prairie, in Iowa, and so as she’s trying to acclimate to life outside this cult, in a world that she’s been taught to regard as evil, this seeming apocalypse is happening, and it seems like all the things that she was taught to fear and to expect are actually happening. And so, that’s the premise of the story and it’s…I don’t know if I can say a lot more without giving it away. She ends up on a mad race across the Midwest…yeah.

That’s why I wanted you to do it and not me so I didn’t give away something I shouldn’t. So, what was…this will be a very apt metaphor considering that the New Life cult sells seeds…what was the seed from which this book grew?

Well, two things. It was actually two separate ideas. One was about the disease coming out of the permafrost–and that was taken straight out of headlines, actually. There’s quite a few headlines in the last couple years talking about microbes and things coming out of the permafrost that are still viable. There was also a news story a couple of years ago in Siberia about a reindeer carcass that thawed from the permafrost, and it was full of anthrax, and it made an entire Siberian village sick and a little boy died. So, this kind of you, know menace, you know, trapped in the frozen tundra and stuff was very interesting to me and there’s been some stories about that. So, in that way it’s not completely unheard of or completely original. So, I took that in and then I also had this idea about a girl leaving a cult and just what it would be like to look at the world through her eyes as she tries to start over. And I was in New York with my publisher, Simon and Schuster, and we were having a meeting, and I was talking through some of these ideas–I came with a short list of some favorites. And my publisher at the time said, “I like these two, why don’t you put them together,” and I said, “Oh, I didn’t think of that, but that could be cool.” So, I really have to…I think it worked out really well and I really have to give credit to my publisher for that.

Well this kind of, I would call it near-future science-fiction thriller, that’s what I would call it, it seems a bit of a departure from what your previous books have been. So, is this kind of a new direction for you?

Well, it is only in so much that it’s a little bit apocalyptic. The two books I did before that were thrillers, also. So, this is my third thriller, so I kind of took a right turn somewhere after doing several historical, biblical historical novels, and started doing these thrillers. My duology before this, The Progeny and Firstborn are what they’re called, had a historical element in it. So, there was a little bit of that, but, yeah, it’s a little different. I’m really enjoying the thrillers. It’s just a completely different animal.

So, with that initial idea, what happened next? There was obviously a lot of research involved in this book. Is that how you start?

Yeah, I’m pretty obsessive about research. There’s not as much research as I have experienced for some of my other books like Iscariot, about Judas Iscariot, and the Queen of Sheba. So, I do my research, I form my outline…this one I ended up going round and round with a few times. It took me a little longer than normal.

Yeah, I’ve got a new series that just started, and the first book was back and forth with my editor because you have to make sure you have everything in that first book that will then support the books that come afterwards.

Yes. The smart thing to do would be to plan out all the, you know, what’s going to happen throughout the books, except I never do that.

I recently interviewed Peter V Brett, who wrote The Demon Cycle books that start with The Warded Man. And he writes like a hundred and fifty pages of outline, so everything is planned out in the tiniest detail, and I thought, “That sounds like a great idea, but I’m never going to do it.”

I dream about outlining like that and it doesn’t ever happen. But I think for me that the more outline I have, it is better. I know people who write completely free of any outlines, and I’ve tried that before, and it’s never worked out very well for me.

So, what does your outline look like? How long is it?

Well, it may it may turn out to be about nineteen or twenty pages, but it’s a loose kind of list of events that happen throughout the book. And then sometimes I plug in little bits of research or things, kind of more or less where I would need them. So, it’s really just a document with things more or less in order as far as I can tell.

Do you find that you do some of your research as you’re going along, like you get to a point and you say, “Oh, I don’t know what Council Bluffs looks like or whatever, and you have to do a little research at that point?

Absolutely. I’m always looking things up and I’m just afraid that someday some government person is going to come knock on my door because of the of my searches.

Yeah, I’ve thought of that. I recently had to look up, “What’s the best way to kill somebody from behind with a knife?”, and I thought, “You know, that could look bad.”

Yeah, I have looked up so many killing things and weapon things and strange, strange things. Yeah.

And this particular one, of course, there is the medical/scientific aspect of it. Who did you talk to about that?

My sister is a doctor and she also teaches medical school.

Oh, that’s handy!

Yeah! So, it is a prion disease in this book which is the same…it’s the kind of disease that Mad Cow is. It’s called Creutzfeldt-Jacobs Disease when it’s in humans. It’s very insidious, it’s very scary. We had to accelerate it a little bit for this book and so…it was really kind of fun and scary and a little weird to realize that you’re like basically designing this, like, designer disease to wipe out a bunch of people.

So, with this, I mean, The Line Between has a fairly complex structure, with flashbacks mixed with the present-day action. It’s largely first-person, but not quite entirely. Did you…does your outline say, well, “Here we’ll have the flashback, and then this part will be present-day, and then here’s another flashback,” or does that sort of happen as you’re writing?

That kind of thing happens as I’m writing. I’m not I’m not quite that visionary or organized ahead of time. You know, I kind of know what I want to happen, and then when I go in, I just have to kind of see how it feels. And a lot of things happen in the process of writing. I mean, I find that I can outline to my heart’s content, but things always change, and things always come up in the actual process of writing and I compare it to looking down at a map or down at the ground from 30,000 feet, but it’s very different when you have boots on the ground. So, it’s a completely different perspective. So, things happen in the process of writing. For that one, I wanted to show what had transpired to lead to Winter’s being expelled from this cult, but I didn’t want to slow down the narrative, or drain out the tension. And so, that’s why I decided to go with this kind of back-and-forth, like past-present-past-present structure in the book.

I thought it worked very well, because, it was like, just when you wonder about something in the present day, then you get this little nugget of information from back in the enclave of how it got to that point. I thought it worked really, really well.

Thank you. Well, it took a little massaging through some of the some of the drafts, that I am very happy with how that part too. So, thank you.

And then there’s a couple of not-first-person sections was that just a place where you felt you needed to get some information out and that was the best way was to give a short scene with another viewpoint?

I’ve got these kind of odd little one-off scenes with these, just where the camera…I always think of it kind of like a movie or TV show where the camera pans over to somewhere else where we see what’s going on. Those were just fun. I don’t know how to say it any differently. I mean, I wanted to show a little bit of…you know, the story could have done without them, but it was just fun.

Well, the one with the farmer and the pigs and the carcass being uncovered, that’s the sort of thing in a movie, that happens, and then you go, “Uh-oh! That’s bad!”.

Is it bad to say I kind of enjoyed that one, where, you know, where the…it’s at the very beginning of the book so we’re not we’re not giving anything away…it’s the farmer finds that his pigs have savaged one another after they’ve dug up this carcass that came up out of the permafrost. And that was actually really fun to write.

What about settings, like the enclave in particular? Do you have a detailed map of things like that, or just as, it’s sort of, as you need it, you’ll figure out where things are?

For that, I kind of had to just form a mental map of where the things are. So, the enclave is the cult compound, basically. It’s a self-contained compound where these cult members live and work and they grow their own food and all this stuff, and they also have a seed company that they use to help support themselves. And, I did kind of have to have, like, a mental layout of where everything was just for my own sanity.

I suppose one thing about writing a present-day or near-future is that at least the world itself doesn’t have to be created. People know what gas stations look like and bars and things like that.

Yeah, that’s one of the hardest things when you’re doing, like, ancient historical…I mean, I literally spent a whole day once researching ancient toilets, ancient Israel…I’ve actually seen some, you know, when I was over there before…researching how that worked and what people used as toilet paper and stuff like that. And I remember thinking, “Wow, I just spent a whole day doing this.” So, that’s the luxury of writing present-day stuff is you don’t have to inform everyone how these things work, or what people are eating or wearing or whatever.

Yeah, it’s the challenge of writing any form of far-future science fiction or historical novels or fantasy novels is you always have to figure out these things. But at least now you know ancient Israeli toilets, and if it comes up at a party, you’ve got something to say.

It was a sponge on a stick. That’s what they used.

Oh good. Now I know, too.

There you go.

How do you develop the characters? You have a first-person character, Winter. How do you go about developing a character? Well, first of all, how do you decide who your character should be, and then how do you develop them, bring them to life?

Well, it’s prescribed for me when I do my historical novels, so that that much is already informed, in the case of, for instance, Judas Iscariot or Eve or the Queen of Sheba. So, for that, it’s all about the research and what the research might tell me about the character, what has impacted this character and how it may have formed their personality. And when I do my historicals, my role is that those characters have to very much be a product of their day. So, for the thrillers, my main characters have been younger women, women in their twenties, I think just because that’s what I have been able to identify with. They are characters that…for me, I need to be able to respect them, I need to be able to feel like I’m offering someone who might be respect-worthy for readers, while at the same time offering somebody that readers can also identify with. I mentioned before I used to be part of a gaming community, a roleplaying community. And I say this, and it’s kind of weird, but I feel like I learned a lot about characterization from doing that, because I did it for so many years and we used to write stories about our characters, and I feel like I am putting on that other skin and roleplaying that character whenever I’m writing a novel. So, it’s pretty organic for me.

How do you create a role? Going back to roleplaying…I was also a big role-player at one point…Dungeons and Dragons was my actual major in university, not journalism. Do you do a character sheet, like you list all these details about the character that you work from, or is again more of a sort of as-you-go thing for you?

I don’t. I know people who do. I know people who, friends, they’ll have…they’re so organized, and maybe I’m just disorganized…but they’ll have pictures all their characters. I mean, they’ve got all this stuff, you know? And for me, though, I just…I kind of try to get that character very firmly in my mind and I really try to get that character’s neuroses and background and injuries and wounds and hopes and all that, all that stuff very firmly in my mind, so that so that I can go into a scene and I can be that character and I can respond organically as that character. So, for instance, Winter in The Line Between has been spiritually abused, basically, and she leaves and she’s contending with PTSD and she has OCD and she’s got OCD in a world that’s being taken over by a pandemic. It was…I loaned her a couple of my own things, because I, too, have OCD, so in that way maybe she’s a little bit similar to me, but I try to just keep it really organic and just go in and go, you know?

I think really all of our characters have at least a little bit of us in them, because what else do we know to write from when it comes to writing people. There’s always a little bit of us in there.

Absolutely. And you know, when I was maybe…do you remember the game Myst, the computer game Myst?

I do indeed.

So, when I was writing for Smart Computing, I interviewed those guys–I think they were brothers that wrote that game–and I was asking them about it, and they said, you know, we just want to make a game that we would like to play. And I think about that when I write books. I want to write a book that I would want to read, about a character that I would want to follow around. So that’s really my intent when it comes to characterization and plotting and everything.

What is your actual writing process? Do you write on computer, do you write longhand, do you dictate? How does it work for you? And where do you do it?

Well, I…so I live on a farm, and a couple of years ago I married a single father and farmer. So, I write upstairs–I call the attic, it’s the old part of the farm house–and I do it on a computer, just in the interest of time. I think…I’ve gotten used to it over the years. but I think that my original desire would have been to write everything in longhand first, but it’s too time-consuming, so I do it on the computer. I procrastinate for as long as possible. And I keep thinking I’m going to mature one of these days and get over this. But I turn fifty this year, I will turn fifty this year, and at this point I don’t know if I’m going to change that much. I’ve been this way since school, when I used to write my papers the night before they were due. So, I procrastinate as long as I can, and then a few months before my deadline I freak out and then I decide I’d better get going and then I write and I get tired here and there, and then the last month or a few weeks or so I’m going very hard at it. In the last couple weeks, I’ll write up to twenty hours a day, and I just…I don’t know how long I can keep doing it that way because it’s very physically draining…but that’s my process. It’s a matter of obsession and panic after a bunch of procrastination.

So, once you have that novel crafted, or at least a draft of it, what’s your rewriting process? Do you use beta readers, or how does that work for you?

I have an editor friend who’s been with me through quite a few…most of my novels, I think almost all of them except for the first one and maybe one of the ones I co-authored… and so I will usually turn to him, to have him read it. He’s very familiar with all my writing tics, he’s often helped me, you know, structure it ahead of time, and so I have him read it, and then I go in and I rewrite. And I rewrite pretty obsessively, and I edit pretty obsessively and it’s very hard for me to turn a novel in. I actually like the process of editing better than the process of writing the first draft. I find first drafts really painful. But I like it when I have something to work with and I can really go in and shape it up. I think that’s a lot of fun. And it’s hard for me to turn it in, though, because I want to keep picking at it. I’m a picker.

You mentioned writing tics. What are some of yours that you have to watch out for?

I’ve worked really hard to try to get rid of them. I used to use a lot of dashes and I used to like to jumble up kind of the order of my sentences and, like, where you’d get the clause in front or whatever it’s called. I used to really overuse the phrase “for the first time.” I write in first person a lot and my characters would often say, “For the first time in blah blah blah I felt this, or I saw this,” or “The first time in my life this…” Those are items that my friend Steve, my editor friend, calls Toscaisms.

I have to watch out watch out for my characters making animal noises, you know, growling and snarling…

Oh, yeah.

So…I had another question about the rewriting process…your editor! What does the editor contribute then, when the manuscript comes in? How much editorial revision do you typically end up with?

The editor at my publisher?

Yes.

Okay. Well it just depends. I mean, for The Line Between, she had some suggestions around the structure in order to keep that pacing that’s so important for thrillers. But it just depends on the book. When I re-did it and I sent it in, we did several rounds on that one, but on my most recent one that I turned in, the one that went really, really quickly, actually, and I think that’s how you know that it’s fairly clean, she sent it back and she said, “This is the shortest editorial letter I’ve ever written.” And I was like, “This is either really good or really bad, I don’t know.” So, I went through and I made just the few changes she had and sent it back in and she sent me the line edit and she goes, “I think this is the shortest line edit I’ve ever done.” So, it just really depends on the book and kind of what’s going on. The Line Between took me a few rounds to really wrestle into shape and I think…I don’t think it was so much the story. I think there was a lot of upheaval happening at my publisher at the time, and I think that all those things can kind of go in and play with your confidence as you are working. So, I think that probably affected my writing I was working on it.

Yeah, there’s been a lot of a publishing upheaval over the last few years, that’s for sure. One thing I found in the book that was interesting was the little, the ads for the seed business. Was that something that..at what point did you decide those needed to be in the book?

Yeah, I’ve got an ad, and I’ve got a web page for it, I think. I just thought, I just…there are these little things that, once again, that just kind of come up while you’re working on something and where you think, “You know, this might be kind of helpful?” We’re so used to looking at web pages, we’re Googling things, and I thought, “Let’s just slam a web page in here, right here, for the seed business,” because it’s a little piece of extra information, and your eye can go over it quickly, you can read it.

Well, I was reading it on my iPad and my first inclination was to poke at the link…even though I knew it wouldn’t work, but that’s, I had this urge to poke at it.

I should I should have thought of that, because that would be so funny, to make some of those links live, like, on the Kindle or something.

It doesn’t work in a PDF, I can tell you that. I also wanted to ask you about…you have collaborated with Ted Dekker. What does a collaboration…how did that work for you?

Collaborations are fun and they’re educational, I think, for both parties. And if you’re ever considering doing it, my advice is always to know what your strengths are as a writer and to know what you’re bringing to the table, because, as in any partnership, whether it’s a business partnership, whether it’s a friendship, whether it’s a writing collaboration, it’s important to know how your strengths will complement the other person’s. And so, it takes time to kind of iron out the process, and I’ve known many people who have collaborated, many authors, and I’ve never heard of anybody having exactly the same process. I mean, I know coauthors that literally sit in the same room together and write each word together, looking over each other’s shoulders at the screen, which would drive me crazy, and I know other people that trade off chapters and trade off characters. Over the course of three books, we had a few different processes for that, Ted and I, and I can tell you that the first book, generally, it took quite a lot longer and the second book was much faster. And then the third book just flew by because by then we had the process down.

So, we should probably say what those three books are.

Oh, sorry, okay. So, it’s the Books of Mortals trilogy, and they are Forbidden, Mortal, and Sovereign. And I’ve actually collaborated with another author since then, but we have not put that book out yet, so…and it was again a very rewarding experience and also a very different process from the way that Ted and I wrote. So, I think it’s always different and I think it’s really important always, as a writer, to know yourself well enough to know how you work best, and to bring that to the collaboration, too.

Well, now we’ll go on to the big philosophical questions.

Oh, uh-oh.

They’re not that hard. Well, maybe they are, I don’t know, but hopefully not. Well, first of all, why do you write, and then second, in the  more general sense, why do you think anybody writes? Especially, why do we write things like historical novels and fantasies and science fiction, things that are counterfactual or alternative worlds or however you want to think of that?

I think for several reasons, I think because, a) it’s fun. You know, when you’re a kid, you tell stories. At some point we grow up and we think maybe we shouldn’t spend our time doing stuff like that, but I think on its most basic level we write, and we tell stories because it’s fun. And I think also because it’s entertaining. I think at the beginning of my career I wanted to write to see if I could do it and I wanted to write to connect with history and connect with other people. And I think, as I said earlier, that we all basically want to know that we’re not alone. And so that’s why we read and that’s why we write. These days, though…that is still there, and the fun part is still there, but I also really enjoy entertaining readers. And it took me a while off doing signings and stuff. I had…I would occasionally have people come up and give me a hug or something. and some of them would start crying. and there was some emotional response there, and what I didn’t know is that the books I had written…and the crying was not about me, and it wasn’t even really about my book, it was the fact that they, we, all turn to fiction to escape for a time, whether it’s just boredom or whether it’s just to go enjoy ourselves or whether it’s, you know, we’re going through something difficult like a divorce or we’re caretaking for an older parent or something. We all need to escape. And I realized that there were people coming and telling me, “I read your book when I was in the hospital and I was very sick, and I read your book when I was going through this difficult time.” And so, there’s an emotional connection there. And I think of those readers when I write, a lot, because it’s such a privilege to offer them those adventures or those escapes. And I love doing that.

That seems like a good reason. When you write these, you’re shaping…this is called World shapers, so I’ll use the term “shaping” your fictional worlds…are you hoping in some fashion to shape your readers, to have some impact on the real world, and if so, in what way? And if not, why not?

Well, yes, I mean I always hope that there’s something that they will take away, that they will think about, or that they will learn. And in the historical novels it’s really easy to say that, because I want them to have experienced and seen or learned something new about the history or about that time period that maybe they didn’t know before. But I really also just want them to have something to chew on when they finish reading and they’re still thinking about the book. I really like that. I like that for myself as a reader, when a part of me is still in that world and I’m still thinking about something in it. I don’t really try to dictate what that might be because I’ve learned that what it is that people take away from a book depends so much on what they bring to it and what’s going on with them at that time. So. Yeah.

So, it sounds like connecting with your readers is something that’s very important to you.

Yeah, it is, in stories and in the books but even on social media and stuff like that too. That’s one of the funnest parts about being an author to me, being invited into the lives of my readers and being able to join them for a time.

And what are you working on now? And what’s after that?

Well, currently on my desk I’ve got edits for A Single Light, which is the sequel to The Line Between, which comes out in September, I think the 17th or something like that. I have just sent over to my agent a concept for my next book proposal, which is also a thriller with a historical element. So, we’ll see what happens there. And…yeah, those two things. Oh, and it’s that busy time right before a book releases, and so it’s a little bit crazy right now but I’m trying to do these edits and stuff in the midst of all.

Is it just the two books, then, in this particular story?

Yeah, just the two books.

Well, I got to the end of it and was anxious to find out what happened next, so I’ll be looking to the next one.

Well, make sure that you get the next one.

It’s not exactly a cliffhanger but there’s definitely a sense of something is about to happen.

I put a terrible cliffhanger at the end of The Progeny, and I have some people who just wanted to murder me, I guess, over that one, so I really tried not to do that with this one, so…

I’ve discovered that. My first book in my series ends with a very definite cliffhanger and I’ve discovered there are readers who really, really hate books that end with cliffhangers, or they might like the book, but they don’t like the cliffhanger.

Yeah. If they have to wait, they don’t like it. Now it’s the book, the sequel’s already out then they’re usually okay, I think.

It’s always nice if you can get a complete series and read it from start to finish.

Yeah. Yeah.

Maybe not for the author who wants the book to sell as it comes out, but….

Well, you know, we live in this society that so used to bingeing everything now, so I think we’re used to it in that way, to being able to watch and read and consume everything all at once.

Well, you mentioned George R.R. Martin. I finally read the books, last fall, I think, and I thought there were so many of them that he’d surely have the last one out by the time I finished the ones that are already out. But no.

He missed his deadline. I felt so bad for him. He wrote this long post about how he had missed his deadline and I just thought, “Oh, gosh, you know, the pressure for him must be so immense.”

Yeah, it has to be. So, where can people find you online if they want to connect with you.

Well my Web site, which is ToscaLee.com. I’m on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat (I’m not very good at Snapchat). But, I’m on social media…

And you’re active on there?

I’m active on there, yep.

That’s great. Well, I think that’s about it. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers.

Thanks for having me. I so enjoyed it.

And we should just mention, what’s the new book called and when does it come out?

It’s The Line Betweenand it’s out January 29, so it’ll be out now when this airs, and then the follow-up is A Single Lightand it’s coming in September.

And are there audiobook versions as well?

Yes, and I’m very happy to say that Cassandra Campbell–she did my last novel, Firstborn, but she must recently did Bird Boxas well–she’s narrating, and she’s fabulous.

Okay, so something else. Because there certainly are people that love audiobooks.

I love audiobooks, too.

All right. Well thank you very much for being on. I’ll let you go for now. But I really enjoyed it.

Thank you so much, Edward. Thank you.

Episode 17: David John Butler

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

Website:
www.davidjohnbutler.com

Twitter:
@DavidJohnButler

Facebook:
David.Butler.16

David’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

The Lightly Edited Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Dave.

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

Well, third time’s the charm.

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

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

I should change my name.

That is a way to get in!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s true.

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

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

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

When did you turn back to writing, then?

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

Cool!

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

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

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

So what was your first professional sale then?

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

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

That’s annoying.

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

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

So, we’re talking about from national publishers?

However you would like to define that.

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

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

He was even more infuriatingly young when he got published.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Witchy Kingdom.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I knew it.

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

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

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

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

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

Okay.

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

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

So Alexander Campbell’s in there, too.

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

Yeah, Thomas was the father.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sounds ambitious and very interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 16: Thoraiya Dyer

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

The Introduction

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

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

The Lightly Edited Transcript

Thoraiya, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, did you read The Magic Faraway Tree?

No, no, I didn’t read that one.

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

Yeah, I was going to say…

Great books.

So, when did you start trying to write?

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

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

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

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

No worries.

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

Found yourself a niche?

Yeah. So, what was your first published fiction?

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

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

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

Mm-hm.

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

Oh, boy.

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

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

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

What drew you into veterinary medicine?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, absolutely.

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

Goes for quantum physics, as well.

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

Echoes of Understory.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m curious to know.

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do you decide what characters you need?

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

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

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

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

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

That’s very disciplined.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m sensing a theme here.

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

No, I don’t.

I’m a silence person, so…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That worked out nicely.

Yes.

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

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

Have the books been done as audiobooks?

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

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

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

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

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

I didn’t know that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I would agree.

Which is too bad, as a writer.

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

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

Good luck.

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

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

I have, yep.

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

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

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

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

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

Meeting actual people is good, too.

It’s good. Yeah. Talking to humans.

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

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

And the three novels of Titan’s Forestare…?

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

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

Hooray! Thank you.

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

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

Thank you.

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

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

It’s so beautiful. You must go there.

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

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

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

Thank you so much for having me!

Episode 15: Peter V. Brett

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

Website
www.petervbrett.com

Twitter
@PVBrett

Instagram
PVBrett

Facebook
PVBrett

Peter V. Brett’s Amazon page

The Introduction

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

The Lightly Edited Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where did you grow up?

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

But you still have it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were you doing for a living?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s a five-book series?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

entries, about myself.

Known associations and all that sort of thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if you can’t read your own writing?

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

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

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

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

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

Have you had the same editor for the entire series?

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

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

That basically slightly more than one of my books.

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

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

More of us should do that, I think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When will those start to appear, do you think?

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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