Episode 15: Peter V. Brett

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

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The Introduction

Photo by Karsten Moran

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






The Lightly Edited Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where did you grow up?

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

But you still have it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What were you doing for a living?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s a five-book series?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

entries, about myself.

Known associations and all that sort of thing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What if you can’t read your own writing?

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

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

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

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

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

Have you had the same editor for the entire series?

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

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

That basically slightly more than one of my books.

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

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

More of us should do that, I think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When will those start to appear, do you think?

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

Episode 14: David Brin

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

David’s Website

David’s blog

David’s Amazon page

Other links David provided or mentioned:

Critters Workshop

TASAT (There’s a Story About That)

That Existence trailer

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

David on science fiction

David on using science fiction to teach science

David on teaching science fiction

Pop Culture: Star Wars to Tolkien to…

Articles and speculations about Existence

The Introduction

David Brin

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

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

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

The Lightly Edited Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s not bad.

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

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

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

J.K. Rowling and her castle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it was one of my favorites for sure.

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

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

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

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

Very good.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I guess I will.

All right.

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

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

Excellent advice. Thanks, David.


Episode 12: David Weber

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

Website:
davidweber.net

David Weber’s Amazon Page

The Introduction:

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

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

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

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

The Show:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Episode 10: Seanan McGuire

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

Websites:
seananmcguire.com
miragrant.com

Twitter:
@SeananMcGuire

Patreon:
Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

The Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why does she write?

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

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

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

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

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

Websites:
davidbcoe.com
dbjacksonauthor.com

Twitter:
@DavidBCoe
@DBJacksonAuthor

Facebook:
David B. Coe
D. B. Jackson

David B. Coe’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

The Episode:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Episode 8: Orson Scott Card, Part 1

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

The Introduction:

Photo by Terry Manier

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

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

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

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

Website: www.hatrack.com

Twitter: @orsonscottcard

Orson Scott Card’s Amazon page

The Show:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get Part 2 of this episode!

Episode 8: Orson Scott Card, Part 2

The second half of a two-hour conversation with Orson Scott Card about his creative process. Part 2 focuses more on his recent Mithermages fantasy series.

The Introduction:

Photo by Terry Manier

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

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

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

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

Website: www.hatrack.com

Twitter: @orsonscottcard

Orson Scott Card’s Amazon page

The Show:

Returning to the discussion of how theatrical experience contributes to his writing, Card says writing is much like directing actors on stage: you have a kind of top-down map in your head, almost like the way football plays (is it an accident they’re called plays) are marked with Xs and Os. “The difference is, in a football game you have no control over what the other team does, while in a play you control everybody.”

Card notes he does very little description—just enough to make the setting clear. Ultimately, he notes, a play rises and falls on what the audience hears, on the dialogue and how it’s delivered.

Fiction “is a play the readers put on by themselves” he says. If there’s a wrong way say a line, an actor will find a way to do it, so playwrights have to learn to actor-proof their lines. Readers can also read a line the wrong way, so again, it has to be reader-proofed. If the author doesn’t do that, the reader will misread and get lost.

The greatest teacher of this kind of clarity was a man who never wrote a play in his life, as far as Card knows: Isaac Asimov, a man who wrote a un-put-downable, thick, two-volume autobiography of a life in which nothing happened.

Card said he read that autobiography, staying up all night, and in the end though Asimov gets no credit for being “the finest writer of prose in the history of the English language. No one has ever done what we call the American plain style better than Isaac Asimov.”

In an Asimov story, he notes, you always know what is going on.

Good writers, however, are not the best exemplars for teaching writing, Card says: he earned the most from rewriting inept prose. As noted before, he doesn’t like description (comes from being a playwright); what he wants to do is get inside a character’s head.

He took the dialogue and stage directions of plays and combined it with deep-penetration viewpoint, and tried to make it so clear readers aren’t aware of the language. Card says if he writes lovely passage he’s proud of he removes and it rewrites it plainly and clearly. He doesn’t want readers thinking about him, the writer; he wants them thinking about the characters.

“I learned as a playwright how to have two characters walk on stage, or have a curtain open on two characters, and within two sentences, the audience cares. If I don’t do that, why am I doing anything at all?”

Card provides a synopsis of the Mithermages trilogy. The idea came about when he was working as a proofreader. It occurred to him that fantasy stories are always about the magic system, because that’s what gives you the story.

He came up with the idea of a universe in which everything is alive, every particle is an intelligence merely obeying the law it was given. In a universe like that, you could, for example, move a table by persuading all of the particles of the table to relocate at once.

So if you wanted power over something like Sand (the first Mithermages story was “Sand Magic,” in the late 1970s), you’d have to serve the interests of sand…the first of which is, it wants to be dry.

When writing the Alvin Maker books, Card realized that what makes magic work in a story isn’t the power it gives but the sharp limitations on it. That’s where the story arises.

He began to refine the rules of his magic system.

Another inspiration was his lifelong habit of doodling maps. He created a detailed map, copied it, and changed it, to show the changes in the countries over time. The history of that world became real to him. The main mountain range was called the Mitherkame, and that’s where the Mithermages lived.

All of that tied into “Sand Magic,” about a magical war that transforms a world, leaving a huge desert. But then Card moved on. He wrote science fiction, not fantasy: nobody wanted fantasy from him and there weren’t a lot of markets for it.

After he sold the Alvin Maker books to Tor his mind turned back to fantasy. He had a deal with Tor that they would publish his science fiction and fantasy, but he could sell contemporary fantasy to other publishers. Which he did, with Treasure Box and Homebody and Lost Boys. When he wanted to get started on Mithermages, Tor had so many books of his under contract they couldn’t take it, so he decided to make it a contemporary fantasy…and that was what suddenly opened up the book for him.

He realized if he made the mages of the Mithermages world actually from Earth, who gained great power by travelling through gateways between the worlds, it would make things more interesting. He started coming up with rules for how it would work, and realized there would need to be gate mages (which he hadn’t thought of before). And then he came up with a history in which these Mithermages had once been the Indo-European gods.

That brought everything to life. He created the North family, descendants of the worshipers of the Nordic gods, and put them on a family compound in Western Virginia. They were aware of the modern world—they weren’t witches, they were gods, but gods who were sick and old and fading, and they well knew it. They had banned gate mages because a gate mage had closed all the gates, a former member of the North family, the one then wearing the name Loki (whom we meet in the other world, where he is known as Wad—he has been eating the gates of any gate mage who tries to create a great gate between the worlds).

Then Card came up with his main character, Danny North, a boy who doesn’t know he is a gate mage. When he finds out he is, he has to flee for his life. He runs away to Washington, DC, where he becomes a very effective burglar, and a friend teaches him how to get along in the world of non-magical “drowthers.” In the first book, we follow the story of Wad, but the bulk of the story is Danny in Washington, growing up on a farm in Ohio, and then moving close to his family compound to go to high school in the school he used to sneak up to spy on as a kid.

So, in the end, it became a contemporary novel with gods. (Card has read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and admired it, but says it has absolutely nothing to do with what he was doing.)

Asked about an outline, Card said he has learned he has to have an outline, but since he never follows it, what really matters is the creative process of coming up with it. He doesn’t write on out now, although he’ll sometimes give one to an editor, with the note that “this is what I’m thinking now,” but a warning that it always changes.

With Mithermages, he took so long to write the second book that the original publisher gave up, cancelled the contract, and demanded the return of the advance. Card though it was becoming something wonderful, so he took it to Tor and asked if they would take it, for the exact amount he had to repay the original publisher. They did; but if it had started with them, it would never have been a contemporary fantasy, and would have been far weaker, Card says.

Another major change from his original vision was the introduction of Set, the villain. Card was reading a book on Egyptian mythology, and realized there was a healer god who is also the messenger of the gods—which fit nicely into his rules for gate makers. Nothing else in the mythology worked, though, so obviously (within his world) they came from a different magical world. Set became the enemy of the other mages and all humans, and so Danny North’s cause became, not fighting the other Indo-European families (as originally envisioned) but finding, fighting, and destroying Set.

Card had originally thought the climax would be the gods taking human, modern weaponry to the medieval-tech world of the Mithermages, but he realized that wouldn’t work because any mage who had passed through a Great Gate was more than a match for a tank. While Danny’s family takes steps in that direction, coopting the U.S. military into giving them tanks, which they power magically, the plan is subverted by the competition between Danny and Wad.

Card says the most fun he had was making the Mithermages the complete explanation for everything from the gods to elves and fairies and ghosts and poltergeists. (His only restriction: no vampires, which he detests, and no zombies, which he loathes.)

Card says the great thing about writing cotemporary fantasy is that things can come to life in a way they can’t when you’re working in an invented world. The root of all successful fantasies is Earth, he says. He offers praise for Brandon Sanderson’s stories, but says even with such a “prolific and profligate creator of magic,” the closer the ties to Earth, the stronger the story is, because “we have to be able to identify with these people.”

As another example, he mentions Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward. The aliens in it live on the surfaceof a neutron star, but even though their world is unimaginably strange, the aliens still aspire and have relationships. “You can create a planet that’s nothing like Earth, but readers will only care if you have human or human-like characters,” Card says. “They have to want things and care about the kinds of things we can care about. If they’re too alien, you might as well just type what monkeys will type with their thousand typewriters. No one will care.”

Why does he write? Why do any of us write?

Card says he used to ask his professors that in grad school, and they hated the question. “Why is any of this worth studying, why is any of this worth reading?” He says he asked it to debunk modernism. When people is hungry for a story, they only go for modernism if they’ve been trained by college professors, he says. Left to themselves, they’re going to pick up Agatha Christie or Stephen King or Danielle Steel. “That’s the literature of the American people,” Card said, “not the stuff you’re teaching here. You’re teaching a foreign language, a religion, Torah to people who don’t speak Hebrew, the Koran to people who don’t speak Arabic. They don’t want to read it. They want to read the stories that are written to them. So why aren’t you teaching the stories that are written to actual volunteer readers?”

Card said we invented our own critical standards within science fiction, “the next revolution in literature after modernism,” because modernism already owned the universities.

It’s a human universal, he says: “People love hearing made-up stories about people.”

That’s because, John Donne to the contrary, “every man is an island.” We don’t really know anybody: even our parents are capable of shocking us by something they say or do. “Every single human we know exists in our mind as a work of fiction. We don’t know people. We know characters. They may be walking around and wearing a skin suit, but they’re just characters in our imagination.”

What fiction writers promise is, “We will tell you a story, and we will tell you why the people do what they do.” And that, Card says, “is the majesty of fiction.”

 

 

 

Episode 7: Gareth L. Powell

An hour-long conversation with British author Gareth L. Powell, exploring the creative process behind his works of science fiction, with a special focus on his latest novel, Embers of War (Titan Books), first in a new trilogy.

The Introduction:

Photo by Tom Parker of TomShot Photography

Gareth L. Powell’s alternate history thriller Ack-Ack Macaque (Solaris Books) won the 2013 BSFA Award for Best Novel and was a finalist in the best translated novel category for the 2016 Seiun Awards in Japan. In 2018, Indian technology news service Factor Daily hailed his novel Embers of War as a, “contemporary classic.”

Gareth’s other books include Fleet of Knives (Book 2 in the Embers of War trilogy, coming out February 19, 2019 from Titan Books), Light of Impossible Stars (Book 3, due out February, 2020), Hive Monkey, and Macaque Attack (Books 2 and 3 in the trilogy that began with Ack-Ack Macaque), The Recollection, and Silversands, as well as the horror novella Ragged Alice, and the short fiction collections Entropic Angel and The Last Reef.

His novels have been translated into French, German, Japanese, and Czech, and his short stories into many other languages, including Greek, Polish, Portugese and Hebrew. His short fiction has appeared in Interzone, Clarkesworld, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction, and his story “Ride The Blue Horse” was shortlisted for the 2015 BSFA Award.

Gareth was born and raised in Bristol, UK, and was once fortunate enough to have Diana Wynne Jones critique one of his early short stories over coffee. Later, he went on to study creative writing under Helen Dunmore at the University of Glamorgan.

He has run creative writing workshops and given guest lectures at several UK universities, including Aberystwyth, Bath Spa, Bucks New Uni, and York, as well as at the Arvon Foundation in Shropshire, and the Bristol Literature Festival. Luna Press will publish About Writing, his field guide for aspiring authors, in 2019.

In addition to his fiction, Gareth has written for The Guardian, The Irish Times, 2000 AD, and SFX. He has also written scripts for corporate training videos, and is currently at work on a screenplay.

He lives near Bristol and is represented in all professional matters by Alexander Cochran of the C&W literary agency.

Website: www.garethlpowell.com

Twitter: @garethlpowell

Instagram: @garethlpowell

Gareth L. Powell’s Amazon page

The Show:

After noting that Gareth is the first guest on The Worldshapers Ed has never met before, we begin with the usual question of how long Gareth has been interested in writing and the fantastical.

Gareth says he’s always made up stories. He learnd to read before he went to school, and some of his earliest memories are of watching Star Trek as a preschooler. Then came Star Wars in 1977. “There’s just no looking back after that.”

He read his way through the big shelf of science fiction at his local library, from the books for younger readers all the way up to people like Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, and Robert Heinlein.

At age ten, he filled three notebooks with a “massive sci-fi epic pretty much ripped off from episodes of Doctor Who and Blake’s 7.”

Writing was always in the cards, he says, but he never thought he’d have the stamina or time to write a novel, and certainly didn’t think you could do such things as a real job.

At the turn of the millennium, as hew as about to turn thirty, he decided to make some big resolutions. One was to quit smoking; the other was to seriously start writing a novel. The result was his first novel, Silversands, which he calls “retread of that early stuff I’d read,” with a bit of Niven, a  bit of Heinlein, etc. Nevertheless, he notes, “There were sparks in there of what I would write later.”

Then is fiancée (now his wife) gave him a copy of Neuromancer by William Gibson, and “that just about changed everything,” because it showed him heroes don’t have to be hyper-capable Star Fleet captain. “This was science fiction at the level of the street,” he says. “It’s like what people say about the first Velvet Underground album, which was that everyone who bought a copy of it started their own band.” He realized he didn’t have to write like the authors he’d grown up reading, he could write the stuff he wanted to write, that was more meaningful to him: in effect, Gibson gave him permission to do what he wanted to do.

Gareth is definitely a science fiction author, not  a fantasy author. He notes that he read a lot of Michael Moorcock as a teenager, “and that kind of did fantasy for me…I kind of got my fill of it.” He admits he’s never made it to the end of the Lord of the Rings, either in print or on film.

He says fantasy just doesn’t involve him the way science fiction does, because in SF he can imagine that things could plausibly happen. When he reads fantasy, he says, “the part of my brain that writes stories starts going well, if Gandalf had all these fireworks and Dwarves are so good at metallurgy, surely they could have come up with a howitzer by now.”

He hastens to add he has nothing against fantasy, he just can’t immerse himself in it.

That said, his novella coming out from Tor.com next year, Ragged Alice, does have some supernatural elements. “It’s based around a police officer going back to the small Welsh coastal town where she grew up to investigate a hit-and-run and finding much more sinister goings-on going on,” he says. “There’s definitely a supernatural element there that is utter fantasy.”

The story came about, he notes, because he discussed with his agent writing an airport thriller. What came out was this “slightly whimsical” story about a police detective who can see guilt in people’s souls. “It’s about as far from an airport thriller as you can get.”

Gareth studied creative writing at university. He says he made the decision he wanted to be a writer very early. At around age fourteen, his parents bought him a portable typewriter. “I sat there and would clack out these stories, most of which were really terrible, but I was learning.”

Then he won a competition his English teachers had entered one of his stories in, to have coffee with Diana Wynne Jones. He went into town to a cafe, and “this kind of wild-haired wonderful lady came in and sat there and took me task for a line where the heroine sighed when she saw a spaceship taking off.” He says she opened his eyes to a lot of things, and that was a turning point for him.

Still, as he noted earlier, it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium he actually started coming up with stuff he wanted to write about. “I always wanted to write, but I didn’t always have the subject matter or the ability. It wasn’t until I’d live a bit and read a lot more that I kind of got to the point where everything clicked into place and I felt I could write a novel.”

While his biography notes his creative writing classes at university, he says while there he encountered outright hostility toward genre writing–not from Helen Dunmore, who was a visiting tutor he saw a few times a month, but from the regular tutor, who ran the weekly workshops. “He refused to workshop any science fiction or fantasy, point-blank.”

Gareth admits he used to write to annoy that tutor in a way. He’d make a big pronouncement about not liking poetry without punctuation, so Gareth would submit a completely unpunctuated poem. He used to sneak in science-fictioni “easter eggs” in the background of literary stories.

That tutor, he says, “filled me with this idea that if you’re not trying to write literary fiction, you’re wasting your time,” and adds, “deciding to stop trying to write literary fiction and to write what I love was one of the most freeing decisions I made. Suddenly it wasn’t hard work. Suddenly I was writing what I wanted to write.”

Asked if his university courses in creative writing have benefitted his work, Gareth is definite: “Absolutely not.”

He notes that the classes were run as critiquing workshops, where everyone submitted work anonymously, everyone sat in a circle and commented on the pieces, and then at the end the author would acknowledge it was theirs. He says “it was really unhelpful, because we were the blind leading the blind.”

He says it boiled down to students telling other students how they though their work should be written, which he found “excruciatingly unhelpful.” He wanted authors and editors to tell him how things should be written.

” I don’t think we really learned anything in three years at all,” he says, adding that he wouldn’t recommend it as a pathway to writing for anyone. “In a lot of ways I had to unlearn everything that we were told in those classes.”

That’s one reason he goes out of his way to help aspiring writers–conducting university workshops for example, talking about the brass tucks of writing as a career, and that’s why he’s bringing out his book On Writing, “a field guide for aspiring authors,” next year.

His own first foray into commercial novel writing was Silversands. When he finished it in 2002 it was only 49,000 words. He’d read that 40,000 words made a novel, and didn’t realize most publishers were looking for much more. He shopped it to agents, and didn’t really get anywhere.

He also started writing short stories. A couple were published online, of which one was picked up by Interzone. That led to a now-defunct small press, Elastic Press, asking if they could publish a collection, which became his first “proper book,” The Last Reef and Other Stories, in 2008. Abut the same time Pendragon Press, another small press, asked if he had a novel, and he gave them Silversands, which was published in 2010. Both had very small print runs, he says, “just enough to put me on the radar.”

At the 2010 Eastercon he pitched a longer novel, The Recollection, to a publisher who thought it would better suit another publisher. They introduced him to the editor at Solaris, who commissioned it: it came out in 2011, and became what he considers his first “proper novel.”

What came next was Ack Ack Macaque.  His editor at Solaris, John Oliver, asked him if he had another book he wanted to write. “I said yes, he said,’ What is it?’, I said, give me half an hour.”

He’d been toying with the idea of a whodunit set aboard a giant, floating, city-sized zeppelin, and he had the character of Ack-Ack (who is, indeed, a macaque) from a short story, and he found the two slotted together. The result was a murder mystery thriller set in an alternate universe, in which Europe is politically aligned a bit differently than in ours. The cover featured a monkey in a Second World War pilot’s outfit, complete with cigar and massive gun. The cover caught people’s attention, Brett said, and though some thought it must be a one-joke, simplistic kind of story, those who picked it up found something more serious…serious enough to become a trilogy, in fact, although he didn’t intend for it to be one. The first book created so much attention even that the second book was commissioned before it was even published, he says, adding it was a lot of fun to see a character he’d originally created for a short story to go on to star in a huge trilogy.

Gareth likens the process of coming up with the a story idea to dust coming together in space, clumping together more and more “until it reaches a critical mass and undergoes gravitational collapse  and becomes a star.”

With Embers of War, he says, the closest thing he had to one big idea behind t was something he read about how the sinking of the Titanic wasn’t the first ocean liner disaster or even the worst, but the first where the ship had radio and could call for help, so that there were survivors who could tell the tale.

“Before, liners just sailed off into North Atlantic never to be seen again,” he notes.

He transferred that to outer space, thinking, “wouldn’t it be great if there was a rescue organization that could go out and rescue these stranded spaceship.” That got him thinking about where these ships would come from, who would crew them, etc., and that brought in the idea of people who had fought on different sides of a war now working together for good. “Once the characters come through, the book’s off and running,” he says.

Gareth doesn’t write a detailed outline. He says he needs to know how a story is going to end, and a few incidents, but how the story will get from incident to incident and then to the ending isn’t clear as he starts. He says it’s the “creative improvisation” that’s the “fun bit.”

For most of his books, there’s not a lot of research involved. He did do some research into European politics of the 1950s for the Macaque books, since it’s based on an alternate history in which the UK and France have merged politically, to the annoyance of the Americans, but for Embers of War, not so much, because “nobody knows how a faster-than-light engine works.” In fact, he says, the main bit of research he did was into the correct method for performing a chest drain on someone who’s been shot in the chest.

Acknowledging some writers do a lot of research and worldbuilding, he says, “for me, that feels too much like work.”

There’s a fairly detailed backstory in Embers of War concerning the aforementioned war, which Gareth says developed “organically.” He’ll mention something a few times as he writes, realize it’s becoming important, fleshes it out, has different characters look at it from their different viewpoints, and so it grows. One specific incident, it became apparent, was really the defining moment of the story. He moved it from a chapter later into the book into the prologue, “so you get the event up front, and then three years later the story starts.” That event, he says, “evolved very organically through the characters, their responses, and their trauma.”

Whereas sometimes he comes up with a character and then builds a story around them, in the case of Embers of War, he came up with the story first, then created characters to provide the viewpoints he needed–although, he says, he tries “not to put characters you would necessarily expect” at those viewpoints. For example, his heroic space captain is “full of self-doubt, very solitary, quite badly traumatized,” and not at all like Captain Kirk, who can “polish off ten Klingon warbirds before breakfast and feel fine about it.”

One of the most interesting characters is Trouble Dog, the sentient ship, “a killing machine that is accidentally developing a conscience.” He notes that a lot of the book is about the ship’s struggle to come to terms with who she is and what she’s done in the past.

He also had a sentient ship in The Recollection. In Embers, the ship is a character because it seemed to him that if he wanted soldiers from this big interstellar war as characters, those soldiers would actually be the ships, which could think faster, act faster, and were thousands of times more powerful than humans. “If they’re sentient, that gives them a chancne to understand what they’ve done and what they’ve been through,” especially since the core of their brains are actually created from cloned stem cells, which are allowing emotions to leak through into Trouble Dog. “It’s as if one of the star destroyers in Star Wars started saying, ‘Hang on a minute, why are we shooting all these rebels down?'” Gareth says.

Another interesting characters is the alien, Nod. “At heart his motivation is just to keep the ship flying,” Gareth says. A spider-like creature, Nod grew up on a planet where there’s just one big tree, the World Tree, and his species evolved to fix the tree and maintain it. As a result, they’ve become the default species for ships’ engineers.

Nod speaks in a very clipped, simple fashion, repeats himself a lot, and mutters to himself, but “in amongst all the muttering and complaining and grumpiness some pearls of wisdom.” In some ways he’s the wisest of the characters, Gareth says, even though the rest of the crew treat him a bit like a piece of furniture.

Gareth says he doesn’t do a lot of rewriting: instead, he edits on the fly as he’s writing, so that he has fairy clean draft when he reaches the end. He’ll go back to check for errors and smooth any clunky writing, then he sends it to his agent, who returns it with suggestions, and then to the publisher, who of course also returns suggestions. “Usually they’re fairly minor,” he says.

Fleet of Knives, out in February 2019, takes what seems to be a good thing at the end of the first book, an event that gets the heroes out of trouble, and makes it clear it’s not as beneficial as they’d expected. He promises new characters and new places to venture, while the consequences of the first book rebound through his universe.

Ed asks Gareth if he agrees with the notion that even those who claim to be writing realistic “literary” fiction are in fact making up worlds as imaginary as those of genre writers.

Gareth does agree.  “All our experiences of the world are subjective,” he says. “Your idea of thee real world might different from mine.”

He adds, “I think it was Neil Gaiman who wrote, ‘The world is always ending for someone.’ What we think of as the real world is our internal world, and as a writer that’s what you’re reporting on. if your internal world is expressed through a medium such as science fiction, that’s equally valid to if your view of the world is expressed through a middle aged college professor who has a tempestuous fling with a 16-year-old student. It’s no less fantasy.” Science fiction, he says, “is a lens we use to look at our world and interpret our world and comment on our world.”

He notes one of his recurring themes is what it means to be human, what it means to be intelligent and self-aware and vulnerable. But also, he says, he writes about “what it means to form attachments to other humans and their subjective experiences,” which he likens to “building bridges to other worlds.”

He says he hopes he’s telling emotional truths through his characters, noting that many people respond strongly to his characters because of their flaws and unhappiness: they’re relatable, and not super-heroic types who brush things off. “Everything has left a scar.”

The series he’s planning to follow the Embers series is one he hopes will influence readers. “It’s optimistic, insomuch as it involves humanity going out into the universe and doing good things. I want it to be a novel where there are no evil mega-corporations, no evil empire. People have come together and they’re going out and they’re doing good things. It’s kind of my reaction to the world we’re in at the moment…I want to believe that there is cause for optimism in the future again.”

Why do we write stories? Gareth says he thinks it’s one of the oldest human behaviours, going back to “Ugg” the caveman bragging about his hunting exploits, and embellishing events until “the next thing you know Ugg has walked all the way to Mordor and dropped a ring into Mount Doom.”

Humans are a narrative species, Gareth says. “We all have the narrative of our own lives and we’re all constantly adjusting that narrative. We’re not creatures of the moment, we’re creatures of where we come from and where we’re going. We have a story, it has a beginning and it has an end.”

As for why he, personally, writes stories?

“Because I  can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Episode 6: E.C. Blake interviews Edward Willett

Guest host E.C. Blake interviews Aurora Award-winning writer Edward Willett (the usual host of The Worldshapers), author of more than sixty books of science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction for readers of all ages, about his creative process, focusing on his newest book, Worldshaper (DAW Books).

About the Guest Host

E.C. Blake is the author of the Masks of Aygrima fantasy trilogy (Masks, Shadows, and Faces) for DAW Books. He was born in New Mexico and lived in Texas before moving to Saskatchewan, where he continues to reside. He has known Edward Willett his entire career.

The Introduction

Edward Willett is the award-winning author of more than sixty books of science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction for readers of all ages. Besides Worldshaper, other recent novels include the stand-alone science fiction novel The Cityborn (DAW Books) and the five-book Shards of Excalibur YA fantasy series for Coteau Books. In 2002 Willett won the Regina Book Award for best book by a Regina author at the Saskatchewan Book Awards, and in 2009 won the Aurora Award (honoring the best in Canadian science fiction and fantasy) for Best Long-Form Work in English for Marseguro (DAW Books). The sequel, Terra Insegura, was shortlisted for the same award. He has been shortlisted for Saskatchewan Book Awards and Aurora Awards multiple times since.

His nonfiction runs the gamut from local history to science books for children and adults to biographies of people as diverse as Jimi Hendrix and the Ayatollah Khomeini. In addition to writing, he’s a professional actor and singer, who has performed in numerous plays, musicals, and operas.

Willett lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, with his wife, Margaret Anne Hodges, P.Eng., their teenaged daughter, Alice, and their black Siberian cat, Shadowpaw.

Website: www.edwardwillett.com

Twitter: @ewillett

Facebook: edward.willett

Instagram: @ecwillett

Edward Willett’s Amazon page

The Show

Guest host E.C. Blake, author of the Masks of Aygrima trilogy for DAW Books, introduces himself and explains that  Edward Willett has a new book coming out, Worldshaper, and asked E.C. to guest host so he could be a guest on his own podcast. They have a lot in common: both born in New Mexico, both lived in Texas, both moved to Saskatchewan. For some reason, though, E.C. still has a southern twang to his voice.

E.C. asks Ed which came first for him: the interest in science fiction, or the interest in writing?

Ed says first came his interest in reading, and especially reading science fiction. He learned to read in kindergarten and skipped a grade, so he was always the youngest in his class, which may have helped draw him to books. His two older brothers, Jim and Dwight, both read science fiction, so those kinds of books around the house: one of the earliest books he remembers is Robert Silverberg’s Revolt on Alpha C. He still has the copy he read, which has his brother Dwight’s name in the front of it.

He read his way through all the science fiction he could find in the public library in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, helpfully marked with little yellow stickers with rockets on their spines.

Ed thinks he started writing in elementary school, but the first complete short story he remembers writing was when he was in Grade 7, as something to do on a rainy day. It was called “Kastra Glazz, Hypership Test Pilot” (11-year-old Ed was convinced all characters in science fiction had to have funny names).

Ed’s Mom typed it up and then he gave it to his Grade 7 English teacher, Tony Tunbridge, to read. Tunbridge took it seriously, critiquing it and pointing out problems.This triggered something in Ed: he wanted to keep writing, and make the next thing he wrote better. (He dedicatedThe Citybornto Tony Tunbridge.)

E.C. asked if Ed kept using funny names for characters, and Ed says he did. The next major thing he wrote was a space opera (too short to be a novel, but longer than a short story) called “The Pirate Dilemma,” in which the main characters were named Samuel L. Domms and Roy B. Savexxy.

He and his best friend in high school, John “Scrawney” Smith, used to get together in an empty classroom after school and write, then read to each other what they had written, alternating sentences. They got some funny effects, but more importantly, it kept Ed writing.

He wrote a novel a year in Grades 10, 11, and 12. His English teacher, Mr. Wieb, required students to write a page a day in a notebook. Some kids would just copy stuff, but Ed started writing a story, which became his first novel, The Golden Sword. He wrote Ship from the Unknown and The Slavers of Thok in his subsequent high-school years. He shared the stories with his classmates and discovered he could write stories people enjoyed. Somewhere in there, he decided to become a writer.

However, he didn’t study creative writing in university. He knew it would be hard to make a living as a fiction writer, at least to start with, so instead he studied journalism. He attended Harding University in Searcy, AR, graduating in December 1979.

He went straight home to Saskatchewan and was hired at the weekly Weyburn Review, where he worked as a reporter/photographer for four years, then became news editor (at the age of twenty-four). From there he moved to Regina as communications officer for the brand-new Saskatchewan Science Centre. After five years, he quit to become a fulltime freelance writer.

All through those years, he wrote fiction. His first short sale was a non-science-fiction story to Western People, the magazine supplement of the Western Producer agricultural newspaper. (Later, he sold a science fiction story, “Strange Harvest,” to Western People, probably the only SF story ever published there. That story was later reprinted in On Spec, and even broadcast nationally on CBC Radio.)

He also wrote lots of unpublished novels. It wasn’t until 1997 that he sold his first, Soulworm, which was followed by The Dark Unicorn. Both were nominated for Saskatchewan Book Awards, Soulworm for Best First Novel and The Dark Unicorn for Best Children’s Book.

Ed tells the story of how he started being published by DAW Books. He’d written a book called Lost in Translation, published by Five Star, which sold books to libraries on a subscription basis. The science fiction books for Five Star were packaged by Tekno Books, which was headed up by Martin H. Greenberg (John Helfers was the editor). Greenberg had a connection to DAW, because he’d done some original anthologies for them. He called Ed one morning and said DAW had hole in its publishing schedule and had asked to see some of his Five Star books to see if anything could plug that hole—and DAW had picked Lost in Translation.

Ed got his agent, Ethan Ellenberg, with that contract in hand. His next book for DAW, Marseguro, won the Aurora Award for Best Long-Form Work in English. The award was presented at the 2009 World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal, with Sheila Gilbert and Betsy Wollheim, owners/publishers/editors of DAW, in attendance.

Worldshaper, Ed’s ninth novel for DAW, begins with someone coming through a portal from another world. Then we meet Shawna Keys, who’s living a peaceful life, starting up a new pottery studio in a small Montana city…peaceful, except a stranger has been staring up at her bedroom window in the middle of the night, and there’s a storm coming no one else seems to see. Then her best friend is killed in a terrorist-style attack on a coffee shop. The leader of the attackers calls her by name, touches her, and then is about to shoot her—but she refuses to believe any of this can be happening, and, suddenly, it isn’t. It never happened. But the people who were killed have not only vanished, nobody remembers they ever existed, not even her best friend.

The stranger who has been staring up at her window contacts her, and explains she actually Shaped the world she’s living in it—it isn’t the real world at all, but a construct. He tells her that the attacker from the coffee shop, called the Adversary, is going to take over her world and all other myriad Shaped worlds in what he calls the Labyrinth, unless she can visit them, contact their Shapers, retrieve the knowledge of the Shaping of those worlds, and convey that knowledge to Ygrair, the woman at the heart of the Labyrinth, who found it, opened it, and gave the Shapers their worlds to Shape.

E.C. asks what the typical novel-seed is for Ed.

Ed says it can be a number of things. For example, his science-fiction novel The Cityborn began with a mental image of a towering city, squatting over a canyon filled with a massive garbage dump, in which there are people scavenging to survive.

His YA science-fiction novel Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Star came out of an exhibit at the Saskatchewan Science Centre about how memory works, combined with a news item about teenaged Japanese pop stars who were one-hit wonders. In the book, there are aliens whose memory works differently, and Andy is plucked off the street to become a one-hit superstar—it’s drugs, rock and roll, and aliens for teenagers.

For Worldshaper, the trigger was wondering what it would be like if the creators of fictional worlds could actually live in them.

Worldshaper was originally conceived as a fantasy novel, set in a medieval village in an endless, inescapable valley, along which were strung caves that were portals into different worlds. Despite the changes to that concept, the main character has always been a potter: the perfect metaphor for a Shaper.

Ed’s process of developing a story is to ask himself questions In The Cityborn, who are those people living in the garbage dump? Why are they there? Why has this city been fouling its environment for so long? Where did it come from? Who lives inside it? Conflict, and hence plot, arises from the answers to those questions: the people in the garbage want into the city. What would they do if someone from the top of the city, where the rich people would logically live, ended up down in the garbage dump? Every answered question presents other questions that must be answered.

Ed hastens to add it’s not really as formal a process as it sounds: a lot of the asking and answering of questions happens quickly inside Ed’s head as he types, but that’s how he interprets what he’s doing.

E.C. asks how detailed a plan Ed has before he starts writing. Ed says he writes a four- or five-page synopsis, not a chapter-by-chapter outline, just a rough description.

He doesn’t follow that synopsis particularly closely, either. The overall shape of the book is there, but the writing process may take him in a very different direction. He mentions how in Terra Insegura, sequel to Marseguro, a character introduced only because a viewpoint character was needed in space while everyone else was on the surface of the planet became so important that Ed had to replot everything about two-thirds of the way in.

The synopsis is just a guide to keep him on track, and maybe provide a hint of a way forward when he runs into a bump in the road.

E.C. asks how much of Ed’s worldshaping is done on the fly.

Ed says when he’s writing, he writes almost as fast as he types. He figures he averages 1,000 words an hour or more. “Things just come out of your head, onto the paper.” It’s hard for him to figure out exactly how that process works because it’s so seamless.

What flows out through his fingers feeds on itself. One sentence leads to another, which leads to new characters, new problems, new solutions.

Ed says he finds this “really fascinating,” and that’s why he asks all the authors he talks to on The Worldshapers about their writing process. It also ties into Worldshaper, because Shawna, is often trying to Shape her world on the fly, and sometimes it goes awry—just as it does with authors.

E.C. asks about Ed’s research process, and Ed says there was quite a bit of research involved in Worldshaper, because it’s set in a world very much like ours. He researched things like helicopters, radio call-signs, camping equipment, and what the surveyors’ mark at the top of a pass would look like—an important detail which makes Shawna wonder why this thing she didn’t even know existed exists in the world she supposedly Shaped.

E.C. asks how Ed develops characters. Ed says for Worldshaper there were obviously three characters who had to exist—the Shaper (Shawna Keys), the Mysterious Stranger (Karl Yatsar), who clue her and the readers into what’s going on, and the antagonist (the Adversary).

Ed originally thought the whole book would be first-person, from Shawna’s POV, but in consultation with his editor, Sheila Gilbert, he realized he needed to make Karl and the Adversary POV characters as well. Karl’s POV is third-person, fairly close in, while the Adversary’s POV is a more detached third-person. Mixing that with Shawna’s first-person narrative was an interesting challenge.

Ed says that, possibly because he began writing on a typewriter, he writes a complete first draft and then rewrites, typically focusing in the second draft in on sprucing up language and dialogue. He estimated his first draft is maybe eighty percent of the way to how the published novel will read, his own rewrite gets it to ninety or ninety-five percent, and editorial suggestions provide the impetus for the last five percent.

Ed has worked with a great many editors. Sheila Gilbert at DAW, he says, is particularly good at discovering the weakness in plot, characterization, back story, and asking the author to answer questions either not asked (or, more likely, ignored or papered over) during the writing process. Worldshaper had more editorial input than most of Ed’s books because of the need for the initial set-up to support a (hopefully) long-running series.

Ed says the great thing about the series is  that, while the first world is much like ours, future worlds won’t be. As in the original Star Trek and Doctor Who, the overarching storyline is an excuse to play in all kinds of different worlds and settings. Books could have a film noir setting, or a vampire setting—the possibilities are endless.

E.C. asks if there are any embarrassing errors or omissions editors have found. Ed says there was a big one in Worldshaper. The copyeditor pointed out that when characters sailed out into the open ocean, they were described as doing so from a place along the Washington coastline that would actually have taken them into Puget Sound, where they would very soon have encountered land again. That was fixed by relocating the scene much further south along the West Coast.

That’s an example of the value of editors!

E.C. asks why Ed is using the term “worldshaping” for the podcast, instead of the more commonly used term worldbuilding.

Ed explains that, apart from the marketing synergy of the podcast and the book having similar names, he feels worldshaping better describes what writers do. He points out writers aren’t really building new worlds, they’re shaping worlds from the raw material of the real world. After all, we have nothing else to draw on. The image of the potter taking clay and shaping it into something interesting seems to him a better metaphor than building a world.

Ed goes on to say that he feels strongly that literary writers’ fictional worlds are every bit as much made up as those of science fiction and fantasy. The real world cannot be contained within a construction of words, he says. “The symbol is not the thing.” So while literary fiction may appearto be set in a world more like ours than the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, that’s an illusion—those worlds are equally fictional. The only difference is that in science fiction and fantasy, authors are taking their raw material and shaping it more extravagantly.

Ed says the title of the book came first, not the title of the podcast, but that he’s been thinking of a podcast or something similar for a long time, in which he can use his journalistic familiarity with interviewing people to compare notes with other writers of science fiction and fantasy about the process of creating the stuff they create, in the hope other authors and readers might find it interesting.

E.C. asks Ed to answer the question, “Why do we write this stuff?”

Curiosity is innate in human beings, Ed replies: its part of the brain. The theological answer, he continues, is that God created man in His image, and since God creates things, so do we. This is Tolkien’s concept of “sub-creation.” As he put it, “We make still by the law in which we’re made.”

Evolutionarily, Ed says, there’s clearly a survival benefit to being creative, thinking up new ways to do things. Our ancestors survived because they were creative, and that creativity has been handed down.

On a personal level, though, Ed says he writes stories “because it’s fun,” and he thinks that’s why most writers write. After all, most writers start as kids, and what do kids do? They play. Writers go from building sandcastles in sandboxes to building castles in fantasy realms. Yes, writing professionally is work…but at heart, it’s play.

E.C. asks if Ed is trying to shape the real world through his fiction. Ed says he doesn’t really have any control over it, noting that very few authors’ work has really changed the world, so that, while aspiring to change the world is a great goal, it’s not necessarily a realistic one.

Ed thinks that if he’s changing the world it’s one person at a time, by entertaining readers, adding enjoyment to their lives, maybe making them a little happier. If along the way they find some ideas in his fiction that change the way they think about the world, or feel better about the world, that’s good, too. But all he can really do is write the books he wants to write to the best of his ability, and hope that readers enjoy them.

E.C. asks what’s coming next.

Ed says he’ll soon be writing Master of the World, Book 2 of the Worldshapersseries. In addition, he recently wrote a middle-grade modern-day fantasy, The Fire Boy, currently with his agent, and has agreed to write a horror-flavoured YA novel for another publisher (still nameless because no contract has been signed yet). In addition, he’s writing a play-with-music, The Music Shoppe, for Reginal Lyric Musical Theatre.

Ed says he’s done quite a bit of theatre: he’s a member of Canadian Actors’ Equity and has done a certain amount if professional stage work (and a lot more just for fun). He also sings with choirs: he’s sung with the Canadian Chamber Choir and currently is a member of the Prairie Chamber Choir.

Finally, E.C. asks why Ed always mentions Shadowpaw the Siberian cat in his biography, and Ed explains it’s partly because Shadowpaw has a literary history: Betsy Wollheim from DAW picked him out, and Ed went down to New York to visit DAW and pick Shadowpaw up. Shadowpaw’s name and photo also graces the new books from Shadowpaw Press, Ed’s new publishing company, which has brought out his short story collection Paths to the Stars and will be releasing other of his work—and a few other things—going forward.

And that’s that!

E.C. doesn’t  imagine he’ll be guest hosting again, but he enjoyed it.

 

Episode 5: Arthur Slade

An hour-long conversation with Arthur Slade, bestselling author of twenty-two novels for young readers, including Dust (which won Canada’s Governor General’s Award for children’s literature), and The Hunchback Assignments (winner of the TD Canada Canadian Children’s Literature Award), focusing on his new young adult fantasy novel Crimson.

The Introduction:

Arthur Slade was raised on a ranch in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan. In addition to the award-winning novels mentioned above, he co-created the graphic novel Modo: Ember’s End. An interesting fact that the Art likes to point out is that he does all of his writing on a treadmill desk while listening to heavy metal, and the strangest thing of all is he does it in a place called Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which, I can assure you is not as fictional as it sounds.

Website: arthurslade.com

Twitter: @arthurslade

Instagram: @arthurslade

Arthur Slade’s Amazon page

The Show:

Art says he was inspired to write fantasy by The Hobbit. His Grade 4 teacher read it out loud to his class, and he says it was the first book read to them that he really “fell into.” In fact, he was so “agog” at it that when his parents took him away from school for a week to go on a family trip to Disneyland he actually felt kind of sad he was going to miss a whole week of the The Hobbit.

He was a creative kid who always wrote “bits and pieces,” but it wasn’t until Grade 11 that writing really took hold: “I love to blame my English teacher for my career,” he says. She had the class write a short story, and Art wrote, “Under Heaven, Over Hell” (“If you want to get your teacher’s attention, make sure you put a swear word in there!”). He got a grade of 100, which he found “kind of astounding.” That was his “first big reward” as a writer, and he carried on from there.

Art wrote six novels that were never published. His sixth, a novel for adults, he sent to the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, which offers a manuscript evaluation service. The reader wrote that Art had written an amazing novel for young adults, which incensed him: he felt insulted that he’d been accused of writing for young adults. And yet, that was a moment that changed the direction of his career.

Art notes that he has a kind of “sparse style,” perfect for writing for young adults and for children, so once he got over the “insult,” he decided to try it, and the next book he wrote, the seventh, was accepted right away. “So I’m really glad that that reader insulted me so deeply, because it really opened up all these doors for me that I might not have thought about.”

One reason he likes to write for young readers is that he loved books the most between the ages of eight to thirteen. “Back then, I could just disappear into a book. It was really an amazing immersive experience.” So now, when he’s writing, he’s often thinking about that younger version of himself, and it’s natural to make the characters that age.

The other reason he likes writing for young readers is that “everything is fresh to them, they’re learning everything for the first time, even if they’re sixteen or seventeen and they believe they know everything—and believe me, the real teenagers do—it’s all new. They seem to have this new energy.”

As part of his ongoing experimentation with self-publishing, Art has written a novel called Amber Fang with characters a little bit older, twenty or twenty-one, still young, but a bit more knowledgeable about the world, so they can make jokes about Shakespeare and other references that wouldn’t work for a thirteen-year-old.

Art says he had the original idea for Crimson (and even wrote a novel based on it) when he was seventeen. He threw out all of that original book except for one character, Mansren, who, although bound at the beginning of the story, was “almost a God,” a being of pure magic, completely malevolent and yet capable of being charming. What would happen, he wondered, when someone like that was suddenly unleashed?

Crimsonis about Fen, who is thirteen when the book starts, and fifteen a couple of chapters in. In the very first scene, she loses her hand because she has stolen something, leaving her able to perform only odd jobs around her village.

Fen lives in a world that has been controlled by a Queen for a thousand years. The Queen uses magic that she mines from the ground, in the form of red dust, to control everyone. She can make people into whatever shape she wants, so she has soldiers who look just like her, and she can also control what people think.

Every once in a while, there are people who go “crimson”: their hair suddenly turns red and they acquire magical ability. This happens to Fen: her hair suddenly goes red, which means she has an immediate death sentence. She has to flee the village before the Queen’s guards come after her. What she gradually learns is that there is something new growing where her hand was, and that’s the magic that she has. Eventually she runs into Mansren.

Art notes that he’s never really tackled a full-fledged fantasy novel until now: he’d mostly moved into dark fantasy, real-life stories where fantasy squeezes itself in. He found writing a full-blown fantasy challenging. “It was so hard to think about the magic and think about how you make everything feel real. I can write a book set in 1930s and do all this research and really make that feel real, but when I’m making this other world, how do I make people believe that they are someplace entirely different? That was kind of a major step for me.”

Art says if he’s going to spend a year on a story, there has to be something in it he really cares about. “Part of that the idea behind Crimson is this queen, because she’s so powerful, has basically destroyed all the cultures and is trying to reshape everything to her. She has even made it so that people only have first names, because it’s too complicated to have last name.”

The Queen wants the world to be perfect and simple. As a result, all the world’s cultures are being lost. It’s against the law for people to speak any languages than the language the Queen has decreed.

“When I was thinking about character Fen,” Art notes, “I was also thinking about my own daughter. My wife and I adopted from China in 2010, so it’s a while ago now, and I realized I’d never written anything where she could go, ‘You know, that’s me in the story. That’s someone just like me.’”

So Fen is a character who comes from a Chinese-like culture. (Although he made sure to say to his daughter that Fen was not her, “because some horrible things happen to the character.”) That feeling of doing something that his daughter would read and that would reflect her culture was really important to Art, and helped energize him while he was doing the research.

Some of that research, he says with a laugh, “is in my house all the time, walking around.” He’d also read about China for a long time because of adopting from that country, and in fact, the place where the book begins is based on the part of China where his daughter comes from, and where he spent a week. “I really wanted to re-create what it felt like there….to be a reflection of my daughter’s character.”

Art says he writes very much by the seat of the pants, rather than plotting things out in detail. He knows the basic story, but a lot of his process begins with the first chapter. “I sit down and start writing it.” He says it takes forever because he’s thinking about what the world will look like, and he’s trying to put everything together in that first chapter. “It’s like my brain is unlocking all these little kind of mysteries about what could happen next. I follow the breadcrumbs, in a way, that that I’ve left or that I’ve discovered just by the process of going through that the first chapter.”

After that, he tends to write a few little scenes that he know will appear somewhere further along. Getting to a scene he’d first thought about three months earlier is like a reward, although the reward is, “Now you have to make it to the next place that you dreamed about sixmonths ago!”

Eventually, he says, after many words and often many mistakes, he gets to the ending, which usually comes to him about the halfway point, once he has a lot of the characters and events in play. He says he’s learned it’s okay to have a wrong ending: you can fix it later.

The only time he tried to do a really details synopsis was for his novel Flickers, and he says he found that book the hardest to write: working like that seemed to mess up his process, so he’s kind of scared of it now, even though, “I’d love to do it. That seems to make more sense to me. Everything is all laid out and you just write this much every day, but that’s not how my brain works so far.”

Everyone works differently, Art agrees, and when he teaches writing, he always starts by saying, “This is what works for me, take whatever is helpful for you, but it’s not necessarily going to work for you.”

The magic system in Crimson unfolded as he wrote, and solved problems—like the magical armour of the Queen’s guards, a kind of second skin that they never take off. He had to figure out how that worked. In the process, he wrote some 30,000 or 40,000 words that ended up cut from the novel, from the point of view of one of the Queen’s guards. While writing that helped him understand how the process worked and its effect on the men involved, in the end, he didn’t need all that detail. “It was really kind of exploring.”

Another problem: Fen has lost her hand, and something new is growing there—what is it? It’s magical, but what kind of magic. “It’s that whole process of finding the words that make it sound real, finding a way to make himself and the reader believe that the magic is real, and indicate what the limits are, and how uncontrollable it can be. “It’s someone who is learning, not sure if the magic is even part of her or if it’s something else working through her, partly because it just doesn’t work when she wants it to.”

Waking up one morning and find you’re a completely different person is a terrifying idea for young people, Ed suggests, and Art agrees: “In some ways it’s like puberty, except overnight, and people are going to kill you.”

One reason so many words were cut was that originally the book was going to be a back-and-forth between Fen and Marcus, but when his editor read it, she said, “Oh, this is amazing, this is great…and by the way, we should cut out that character, you know, the one that takes up half the novel.”

Art likes stories that “just don’t slow down,” and realized the editor was right. The actual rewriting didn’t take that long: he likened it to a woodcarver cutting a sculpture out of wood. He says he could quickly see, “This is how the book was meant to be.”

“I’m just really thankful, because that’s what editors can do. A good editor will look at it and go, ‘You know, this is actually what you meant to do,’ and you go, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right, I am that smart.’”

Art notes that when you’re self-publishing, you have to pay for an editor, and they’ll typically only take one pass through the book. He notes that working with an editor from a traditional publisher can be extremely frustrating if they don’t “get” your work, but a lot of the time, they’ll actually find out what’s missing, something to do with a character, maybe, or the overall tone. “That’s what a really good editor does.”

He adds sometimes editors will say something mysterious (he thinks maybe they take a course in how to say mysterious things to authors to motivate them). For his novel Dust, the editor said, “You know, there just seems to be something missing from that second last chapter.”  He looked at it, trying to figure out what she was talking about, and suddenly a new aspect of the chapter came clear to him, a whole scene that wouldn’t have appeared if she hadn’t made that comment.

Art says he tries to make his submitted manuscript “as clean as possible” so his editor doesn’t have to do a lot of work, but he doesn’t do the really fine line-by-line polishing until after the editor has seen a draft. He says he’s sometimes amazed by the themes editors find in his work, though afterwards he says, “Oh, yeah, that is what it’s about, that’s exactlywhat I was thinking.”

Writing is a collaborative art, a conversation with readers, in a way, Art says. Rather like editors, “They’re bringing all their own experiences to the book, so they will see things in a different way.”

He likes the term used for his podcast, worldshaping, rather than the more commonly used term worldbuilding.”It’s a process of taking what you already have, the clay of this world we live in, and shaping it into something else.” He notes that in Crimson, the Queen’s realm is based on the Roman Empire, and his main character has a Chinese-like background. “I’m not building something new, I’m taking something that already was there and shaping it so that it can fit into this other world that I’m imagining.”

Art says the reason for writing these kinds of stories ultimately boils down to “Because it’s there…because I can, or you can.” He says when the first image of a story comes to him, like that of Fen knowing she’s about to have her hand cut off, “there’s a kind of rush to it…It’s not a real event in terms of a memory, but it feels almost as real as a memory, and so I want to create it and make it as real as a memory of something that has really happened.

Creating a novel, and feeling like it worked out, “that you made this new thing,” he says, is the real pay-off for him. (Although he’s not averse to “cold, hard cash,” either.)

“I like that whole experience, and I get a high from it,” he says. “I can’t imagine not doing it. I can’t imagine just watching movies, I have to create my own movies. I can’t imagine just reading books, I have to create my own books.”

He thinks one reason people like his books is because they often include characters who are fighting against something larger than themselves, while coping with a disability or something else that holds them back. “People respond to that.”

They also respond to his style of writing: it moves ahead quickly, but still has emotion in it.

Art says is first and main goal is to entertain, but, he adds, “I guess I like making people think of different things, or perhaps getting to them to look at the story or the characters in a different way.”

He gives as an example the hunchbacked main character from The Hunchback Assignments. “I really loved the idea of him not being this beautiful handsome prince who conquers all the dragons. I love that idea because it kind of twists the normal Disney version on its head, and says, ‘You can be unattractive and you can be a powerful, thoughtful, intelligent character, too. To make it more interesting, he does have this ability to change his shape and look like other people, so he can become beautiful, and is always trying to, not only just battle the outside forces, but the forces that are inside him, saying, ‘You kow you’re not good enough, you’re not attractive.’”

Art says it’s important for him to crate characters that are different in some way. “Anybody who’s a geek or a nerd like me, you always felt a little different growing up, and you felt like you were in a different place, and so that’s why I enjoy that process. And if that makes somebody who feels like they’re on the outside a little bit better, then that’s great.”

Ed notes that it’s quite common for people interested in science fiction and fantasy to feel like that, and Art wonders if that will continue to be true in, say, twenty years, since it seems like nerd culture is so much stronger now, and so much more normal, than wen he was a kid. “You can find your tribe a lot faster.”

Art is playing with an idea for a sequel for Crimson, which he hadn’t expected. He’s also continuing on with his Amber Fang series, and just finished writing a shorter piece of fantasy, currently called Dragon Assassin.

Those interested in his ongoing experiments with self-publishing can follow along on his blog at arthurslade.com.