An hour-long conversation with Lavie Tidhar, World Fantasy Award, Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, Campbell Award, and Neukom Prize-winning author, speaker, and book columnist for the Washington Post, about his creative process, with a focus on his new novel The Escapement (Tachyon Publications).
Lavie Tidhar is the World Fantasy Award-winning author of Osama (2011), Seiun-nominated The Violent Century (2013), the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winning A Man Lies Dreaming (2014), and the Campbell Award and Neukom Prize-winning Central Station (2016), and Locus and Campbell award-nominatedUnholy Land (2018), in addition to many other works and several other awards. His latest novel is The Escapement (Tachyon Publications). Other recent novels includeBy Force Alone (2020) and debut children’s novel Candy (2018 UK; as The Candy Mafia 2020 US). He is also the author of the comics mini-series Adler..
Lavie works across genres, combining detective and thriller modes with poetry, science fiction, and historical and autobiographical material. His work has been compared to that of Philip K. Dick by the Guardian and the Financial Times, and to Kurt Vonnegut’s by Locus.
Lavie’s media appearances have included Channel 4 News, BBC Radio London and others. His speaking engagements have included a wide range of events, including for the Ministry of Defence, Cambridge University, English PEN, the Singapore Writers Festival and various Guest of Honour appearances in Japan, Poland, Spain, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, China and elsewhere. Occasional commissions include work for Conde Nast, Braingle/Puzzle Tales, I Speak Machine/Penguin Random House, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, the Jewish Museum Berlin and New Scientist.
A professor of mathematics at SUNY Oneonta, Joshua Palmatier has published nine novels—the Throne of Amenkor series (The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, The Vacant Throne) with DAW, the Well of Sorrows series (Well of Sorrows, Leaves of Flame, Breath of Heaven) with Baen and Zombies Need Brains, and the Ley series (Shattering the Ley, Threading the Needle, Reaping the Aurora) with DAW. He is currently at work on the start of a new series.
He has also published numerous short stories—“Mastihooba” in Close Encounters of the Urban Kind and “Tears of Blood” in Beauty Has Her Way (both edited by Jennifer Brozek), “The River” in River (edited by Alma Alexander), and “Daughter of the Sands” in Apollo’s Daughters (edited by Brian Young).
An hour-long conversation with David Liss, author of fourteen novels and numerous novellas and short stories, as well as a writer for numerous comics, with a focus on his newest novel, The Peculiarities.
David Liss is the author of fourteen novels, as well as numerous novellas and short stories. His previous books include A Conspiracy of Paper, which was named a New York Times Notable Book and won the 2001 Barry, MacAvity, and Edgar awards for Best First Novel. The Coffee Trader was also named a New York Times Notable Book and was selected by the New York Public Library as one of the year’s 25 Books to Remember. Many of his novels are currently being developed for television or film.
Liss has worked on numerous comics projects, including Black Panther and Mystery Men for Marvel, The Spider and Green Hornet for Dynamite, and Angelica Tomorrow.
An hour-long (and then some) conversation with fantasy author Violette Malan, author of The Godstone (DAW Books), and creator of the Dhulyn and Parno sword-and-sorcery series, The Mirror Land series, and (as V.M. Escalada) the Faraman Prophecy.
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno sword-and-sorcery series and The Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As V.M. Escalada, she’s the author of the Faraman Prophecy, including Halls of Law, and Gift of Griffins. Her latest novel is The Godstone (DAW Books).
She strongly urges you to remember that no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.
Ryan Van Loan is a fantasy author who served six years as a sergeant in the United States Army Infantry (Pennsylvania National Guard), where he served on the front lines of Afghanistan.
Ryan has traveled around the world, wandering Caribbean island haunts, exploring the palaces and cathedrals of Europe, and hiking with elephants in the rainforests of Southeast Asia. His work has appeared in numerous places, including Tor.com and Fireside Magazine. His debut novel, The Sin in the Steel(Tor Books), Book One in the Fall of the Gods series, came out in Summer 2020. The sequel, The Justice in Revenge came out July 13, 2021, and the conclusion to the series, The Memory in the Blood drops in Summer 2022.
An hour-long chat with Jess E. Owen, award-winning author of the Summer King Chronicles, short stories that have appeared in Cricket and various “furry” genre anthologies, and an upcoming contemporary young adult novel.
Jess Owen is the author of the Summer King Chronicles, a young adult fantasy adventure that she describes as Lion King meets Lord of the Rings. The first book in this debut series won a gold medal in the Global e-book awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest Self Published Book Awards. The second book, Skyfire, won an Ursa Major from the Anthropomorphic Literature & Arts Association for best novel in 2013.
Her short fiction has appeared in Cricket Magazine and various “furry” genre anthologies. She continues to write in the world of the Summer King, and has also penned a contemporary young adult novel, due out in spring 2022, by Page Street Books.
An hour-long conversation with Kristi Charish, author of the Kincaid Strange and The Adventures of Owl urban fantasy series and a scientist with a Ph.D. in Zoology who specializes in genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology.
Kristi Charish is the author of Kincaid Strange, an urban fantasy series about a voodoo practitioner living in Seattle with the ghost of a grunge rocker, and The Adventures of Owl, an “Indiana Jane”-style adventure about ex-archaeology grad student turned international antiquities thief who reluctantly navigates the hidden supernatural world.
Kristi writes what she loves; adventure heavy stories featuring strong, savvy female protagonists, pop culture, and the occasional RPG fantasy game thrown in the mix. Kristi is also a scientist. She has a BSc and MSc from Simon Fraser University in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry and a PhD in Zoology from the University of British Columbia. She specializes in genetics, cell biology, and molecular biology and gratuitously uses her expertise throughout her fiction. You can find Kristi with her laptop on Vancouver film sets, getting paid to write while filling in the background.
Christian (MIles) Cameron was born in Pittsburgh in 1962 and graduated from the University of Rochester after an outstandingly long undergraduate career. He served in the US Navy onboard aircraft carriers and elsewhere, and then moved on to a writing career.
He’s written over forty novels, including The Red Knight from Gollancz and Killer of Men from Orion Books. His latest novel is Artifact Space, an epic space opera set in the not-too-distant future.
He lives in Toronto with his wife, daughter, and too many cats.
The Automated, Lightly Edited Transcript
(Check against recording before quoting)
So, Christian, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Well, thanks for having me. Should I call you Edward or Ed?
Ed is typical. Edward is my formal byline. Ed is what most people call me. And Eddie is what people called me until I left my hometown, so when somebody that calls me Eddie, I always know they knew me back in Weyburn when I was a kid or a newspaper reporter there.
So, what is a very useful, fabulous lesson I learned from my grandmother was to never refer to anyone by their diminutive unless they told me to.
Yeah, that’s good advice. So, I’m very happy to have you on. You have a very interesting background and an amazing collection of books. And we do share a connection through Mickey Mikkelsen at Creative Edge Publicity.
And I always look for connections. This is not much of a connection, but I know that you were in the Navy in the US and I have a nephew who was in the Navy. And I know that the new book that you’re going to talk about had some inspiration from aircraft carriers. And my nephew served on the Harry S. Truman for, I think, two tours. So, there you go. That’s not much of a connection but it’s something.
So, here’s our age difference. Your nephew would have been going on board an aircraft carrier that I’m pretty sure was commissioned the year I left the Navy.
Well, he’s quite . . . I think he’s quite young, actually. I guess he’s forty something now, but we won’t talk about age too much. I’m pretty sure I’m still older than you. So anyway, so let’s start, as I always like to do with my guests, taking you back into the mists of time, and find out a little bit about your background and, you know, where you were born and grew up and how you got interested in writing—it usually starts with reading for most of us—and especially in writing . . .I mean, I know you write historical fiction as well, but especially in writing fantasy and science fiction stories. How did that all come about for you?
So, I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the USA, and I’m going to drop a dime right off on my mum. My mother was an actress and a voice actress or actor, we say now, her whole career. And one of the things that she was just glorious at was reading books aloud. And she read me The Hobbit when I was, I think, five. And it was such a success. We were in Tobermory in Canada on summer vacation and she read The Hobbit. And some days my dad would read to and, you know, he was an actor and a director and also had a good voice. And it was such a success that we moved straight on to The Lord of the Rings. And I fully admit that I did not really understand very much of The Lord of the Rings at age six or seven, but I really loved it. And I still, when I reread The Hobbit and I still reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I can both hear my mom’s voice. But also remember just the sheer sense of wonder, like I could never go back.
And I’ll just add this story when I was in first grade, so, like seven. The year after being read The Hobbit during summer vacation, we were learning to read like good little first graders in Iowa. And I lived in Iowa at the time. And they handed us these terrible storybooks. And I was like, my mom just read me The Lord of the Rings. I don’t care about Mr. Penguin. And I don’t think I ever went back to Mr. Penguin. And that actually caused me some troubles in first grade. But anyway, that’s where my love of fantasy started. It was like the first book I can remember, and I started right from there.
And continued. Any other books growing up that had that kind of impact on you?
Yeah, so weirdly, I mean, this may be too much information, but I was kind of late to reading. I was a very outdoorsy kid. You know, I’d spend my summers on a farm in upstate New York and where my grandmother, in a very traditional and somewhat 1930s way, would sort of kick me out of the house at nine in the morning and say, don’t come back till four thirty and that sort of thing. That sounds terrible. It was actually quite loving and fun. And I learned to, you know, make a fire and make my own cup of tea and all those things. So, my dad was worried that I wasn’t reading enough. And so, I think at age 10 or 11, he offered to buy me a model I wanted to build if I would read this book. And he handed me a copy of The Three Musketeers, which he had paid a quarter for at our church sale. And man, what a revelation. It turned out that The Lord of the Rings wasn’t the only book in the world. And, you know, I read The Three Musketeers because I was made to and then I can’t remember ever not reading again.
And my dad was a writer. I don’t know if you’re aware of that, but my dad was a writer his whole life. He just passed away a couple of months ago. And part of being a writer in those days, I kind of wish it still was, was that his various agents and publishers would just send him crates of books, not his own books, other people’s books from the same publisher. And so, we would always have these crates of books laying around the house with kind of utterly random books like romance novels, mystery novels, crime novels, thrillers, potboilers that no 14-year-old should have been reading at the time. And I would just read my way through the latest crate of books, and that caused me to kind of love genre fiction of all kinds, not just fantasy. And it also probably helped my vocabulary. And mostly it really caused me to fall in love with historical fiction and a particular writer, Dorothy Dunnett, whose work I still think is amongst the best ever, ever done.
So, when did you start writing?
Well, so, when I was 17, I wrote a novel, which I still have right here in this house, and you will never see it.
My first one’s right here on my on my desk.
Good. Well, it was my attempt to channel the American Revolution, which I was in love with because I had started re-enacting, as a fantasy novel with vampires. Need I say more now?
Abraham Lincoln with vampires. Wasn’t that a movie not that long ago? Wrong war, I know, but . . .
So. Yeah, well, this was more sort of George Washington with vampires. But even then, even that’s not really fair because it wasn’t really the American Revolution. It was a sort of fantasy. Eighteenth century. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, but she did it much better than I did anyway. It was really bad. But I keep it around from time to time and look at it and go like, “Wow, that’s really bad.” And that was my first attempt to write a full-length novel. And I hand wrote it on notebook paper and it was 217 pages long. So, I figured, OK, I could write a whole book.
And then, when I was in the Navy later, on night watches sorry, Navy Anti-Terrorist Alert Center, we copied in message traffic that had to do with terrorism from all over the world. And we basically built a file for senior politicians and military leaders to read in the morning. And so, it was a night watch that was important and involved a whole lot of, like, reading and analyzing. But some nights, thank goodness, there was no terrorism. And I finally sat down and wrote a novel which we will call Elves in Space. And it was also really, really bad. I was trying to be C.J. Cherryh and it turns out nobody can be C.J. Cherryh but C.J. Cherryh. So, you know, there you go.
And that was the end of my writing career until an afternoon camping with my dad. We were fishing in the Adirondack Mountains. And I said, “Dad, I have an idea for a novel.” Now, I would say that to my dad sort of every summer because he wrote novels and I always meant for him to write them. And when I said this, I was a full-time clandestine operations officer, which is like being a spy. And I had had an idea for a spy novel. And my dad said, he would always say, “You should write it.” And I feel like, “I’m not a writer. You’re the writer.” And then on this occasion, he said, “We should write it.” I’m like, “Whoa, that’s a great idea,” so we wrote that novel together and then we wrote seven more books together and we published all of them, and that’s how I became a writer.
Well, that long stretch in there when you weren’t writing, you were clearly doing some very interesting things. What else are you doing through there besides writing?
The truth is, I was writing a ton. So, being an intelligence analyst, which I was first, is really all writing. And, in fact, if you think of the Navy Anti-Terrorist Alert Center as a newspaper that just happens to be highly classified, you’d pretty much have it pegged. So, we were responsible—and this is like 30 analysts and some other officers—we were responsible for producing 50 to 100 pages of articles a day. And I was eventually the commanding officer of that, and that made me the editor of a newspaper, but before that I was just one of the analysts that, I would write articles all day, every day that the various, the sort of editorial staff, would decide if my articles were worth reading or not. So, that was like an incredible training school in writing quickly and accurately, in doing research and doing research that was accurate. And yeah, so that was writing. But yeah, I did other things before that. I flew off an aircraft carrier for three years. I don’t think that’s what my detailer thought I was going to do. Detailers in the Navy are the people who assign you your career. I was supposed to be an intelligence officer, but my squadron commander, thank heavens, decided that I would be better utilized learning how to run radars and sit in the back seat of an airplane and do things. And by sheer luck, and I have been a very lucky person, and by sheer luck, the skills that I sort of trained in were very valuable in the first Gulf War.
So, I got to fly a lot. And that was really exciting and interesting and way more what I joined the Navy for than the being an intel officer, being an analyst was. And so, I did that for a number of years and that was very interesting. And I got to go to see and, you know, I don’t know if you’ve read a lot of my books, but I love the ocean and I love being at sea and sort of living on an aircraft carrier is the best way to be a tourist. We went all over the Mediterranean and Middle East and stopped at dozens of liberty ports. And I really enjoyed that. I had never been outside the United States except to go to Canada when I joined the Navy. And suddenly, I was in France and Israel and Spain and Italy and Palmerton, America and Jerusalem. And it was just fabulous. I really enjoyed to travel and I still do. And I think travel is incredibly formative. So that was all good. And then, yes, I was after that at the Anti-Terrorist Alert Center. I sort of went to the darker side of intelligence operations, and it is a little bit dark, where you recruit assets and do all that spy stuff, which I then did for some number of years before falling in love with a Canadian, marrying her and moving to Canada. The End.
It was going to ask about your connection to Canada as well.
Yeah. So probably my greatest lifetime passion, in addition to writing, is re-enacting. And for thirty-five years I re-enacted the American Revolution and I have almost always done either British or Loyalists, not so-called Americans or Patriots or whatever you want to call it, the side that ended up winning the war and forming the United States. Continentals, we might call them. And because of that, I spent a lot of time with aCanadian group called the Kings Royal Regiment of New York, which is a name that always makes Americans smile, Kings Royal Regiment of New York. But it was a real loyalist regiment during the American Revolution that fought bravely to protect their homes from the insurgent rabble who were trying to burn them out of the Mohawk Valley. I mean, that’s one way of telling the story. And they were Canadian, and I spent a lot of time with them. And eventually, I married one.
I’m going to go back to the the analyst work, I was a newspaper reporter and a newspaper editor, you know, not classified, but what I found during those years when I was doing that was, you know, that writing every day . . . and it didn’t matter that you weren’t writing fiction, just the mere act of putting words down on paper . . . I always found very helpful. Has that been, looking back on it, do you think that really was a huge contributor to your ability to, obviously, tell stories prolifically?
Now I do. And what I’m about to say may go against the grain for some readers. And I apologize. I don’t I mean, no offense to anyone, but I believe that the fact that I almost never have anything even vaguely resembling writer’s block is because the Navy taught me to write every day whether I was happy or sad, hungover or feeling great, whether I’d had my workout or not, had my workout, whether it was four-thirty in the morning or four-thirty in the afternoon, because I had a daily production quota. And it’s the military. No one cares whether you feel good. That’s not really true. I always had pretty good commanding officers, but you have to produce whether you’re feeling good or not. And that turned out to be a very useful lesson.
Well, the newspaper business is similar because the newspaper comes out on a specific . . . it was a weekly, but it came out on a specific day at a specific time, and you had to have the stuff ready. There just wasn’t any other option. So, I’ve always said that that work helped me not have writer’s block either. So, it’s interesting to hear. Did you ever have any formal fiction writing, training of any kind?
None whatsoever. I when I was in university, I had a fabulous poetry-writing course at the time I wanted to be a poet. Just let’s blur past that. But let’s just put that in the same drawer with the not-very-good first two novels I wrote, some not-very-good poetry. I wrote a couple of pretty decent poems and convinced myself I was going to be a great poet. Many people do, I find. But that class taught me a great deal of what I know about writing, sorry, about what I know about writing imagery. And, you know, writing imagery is a definite tool of the trade. I will confess to you that my dad, who, like I say, was a professional writer and who taught university for most of my adult life, was contemptuous, would be a good word, of writing courses and believed things that I don’t necessarily believe myself, and yet I probably have been influenced by them about, you know, learning to write and the relative importance of, let’s say, a university degree or university training and writing as opposed to rich life experience or whatever. And so, no, I assumed all that. I did medieval history in university.
When you started writing with your dad, were those historical novels?
No, those were spy novels.
We wrote eight of them together, which was super funny because I was, in fact, an intelligence officer while I wrote the first three of them, like an actual functioning intelligence officer. So, every word I wrote had to be passed through a security program before it could be published. And that that was an additional wicket that no author needs to have ever.
And I also want to ask you about the other thing I found on your Web site, looking at what you have to say there, and that’s the martial arts and historical combat aspect of all this. It seems like you’ve tried a lot of different kinds of martial endeavors.
Yeah, I did that . . . again, at the risk of sounding like a maverick, I think at some level they’re all kind of the same. They’re all simulations. And the more of them I do, the more I think like, “Oh, this is kind of like that one, which probably just shows what a dilettante I am.” Yeah. I started fencing after I watched a movie of The Three Musketeers when I was twelve years old, with Michael York and Michael Walsh.
I love that one!
Yeah, well, it’s probably got some of the best fight sequences in terms of authenticity ever filmed, because William Hobbs was the fight director and he was incredible. However, what I was going to say is, my dad, who is always full of surprises, revealed after the movie was over that he, in fact, had done a fair amount of fencing and stage combat and would I like to learn? And I’m like, “Yes!” So, we made swords out of aluminum because that’s what dad knew from the stage-fighting world. And we broke each other’s fingers for a while. That wasn’t so good. And then, I mean, it was totally fun. And then I went into the world of what we now call classical fencing or Olympic fencing, which I enjoyed thoroughly. And I was not quite good enough to make the big time, but I was pretty good.
And then, I don’t know, I sort of dropped the whole thing for a few years. And when I was in the Navy, of all things, I found lots of fencers in Washington, D.C., and went back to fencing. And I’ve never stopped since then. And so. in the ’90s, what we now call Western martial arts, which is not a term I particularly love, suddenly got very popular and people started researching all of the old European techniques. So ,I think when we say martial arts to each other, we conjure up visions of samurai and, you know, sort of Asian martial arts, and goodness knows, I’ve done some Asian martial arts and found them very enjoyable, I can do Aikido and I’ve dabbled in a couple of others. And they are most excellent. Um, but the little historian in me, the little re-enactor in me. I always had questions., I’m going to use Kendo as an example, and I was like, “I don’t think this is the way you would train to fight with a katana, any more than the fencing foil is the way you would learn to fight with a small sword or a rapier. I think this is pretty fossilized,” I thought.
Now, it turns out that now there are fabulous researchers in Japan and Korea and other places who are doing all the research to indicate what the roots of Asian martial arts are. But that wasn’t sort of around in the 1970s and 80s. And so, I was sort of just swimming along in the in the cultural artifacts of the time. Yeah, I can probably go on for too long about martial arts. I did some of them. And then I mostly continue doing Western or European fencing until the historical martial arts movement caught me. And then I was really excited. And I’ve landed in the 14th century Italian art of fighting and armor, which I adore, and which to me is sort of the culmination of all the things I ever tried to learn. And it’s I won’t say it’s sad. It’s just real life. But I’m about to age out of it. You know, I’ll be 60 in a year. I’m a little more brittle. I don’t bounce as well. Wearing 80 pounds of chain and plate is a little harder than it is for the 35-year-olds.
I think I’m three years older than you, so . . .
Yeah, and the last couple of times I fought in a big competition . . . so, speed degrades. Everybody knows this, from runners to tennis players, but the skill will compensate for speed up to a point. And then, yeah, last couple of competitions, I sort of hit a point where it’s like, oh, I see, any 25-year-old who’s fast can now pretty much beat me unless I’m boringly super cautious, which is sadly not my normal characteristic. So, that’s fine. I don’t mind losing. I do mind always losing. I’d like someone to create a seniors’ league for old knights. But anyway, it is great fun. It is, of cours,e a huge part of my writing. And yet I want to say to your listeners that to me it is key to understand that every martial art ever. No matter how it bills itself, they’re all simulations, none of them are real, none of them are like real fighting. And that that’s super important to remember as a writer. Like, you can get structure and so on out of. Almost any martial art, and you can imagine how a fight would work, and that’s extremely useful, and I think the more fighting you do, the easier it is to imagine this happens than this happens. And this happens in logical terms that are easier to write. All that is true. But years ago, I received a damning piece of praise from an SS officer in Great Britain who wrote and said, “I love your Greek novels, but you got to know that all of us who have actually killed people hand to hand, we don’t remember how we did it and we don’t think about it when we’re doing it.” And I was like, “Yeah,” and I’ve now heard that from enough other people. So, all of this careful description, especially first person, like, “I did this and then I did this and I did this.” Yeah. That’s not what happens in their mind. And it’s all got a certain element of construct to it.
There’s a group in Vancouver that does sword fighting and all that sort of thing, and I was at a convention out there and I actually somehow ended up on a panel about writing, writing fight scenes with all these people who actually did all of that. And one of the comments that came up at some point was, well, you know, everything happened so fast that you don’t necessarily need to describe all of that detail, depending on your readers are, I guess, and what they’re expecting. But I think what my take-away was, if you can’t be accurate, be vague. That’s what I came away with.
Yes. It seems it’s it’s funny. Maybe it’s not funny, but I have started to write more and more . . . sorry. There’s an author whose work I love named Patrick O’Brien, he writes historical fiction, wrote historical fiction. And he had a tendency to elide over fight scenes. He had a tendency to say like, “And then it happened and then so and so was dead,” and that can be very effective and I’ve now found times when that’s how I want to write it, especially because, and this is, “I’m going to stand on a soapbox here and it might be boring, but there’s a cultural meme throughout the English speaking world, which I’m just not that fond of, and that is that whether it’s James Bond or Captain America, the hero has to have the crap beaten out of him before he can win the fight. Ah, you know what I’m talking about.
And sadly, my experience of both martial arts and actual war suggests to me that that’s nonsense. If you get the crap beaten out of you, you lose the fight. And I just can’t write those scenes. So instead, I’ve started wandering off in the direction of fight scenes where the more skilled person just wins, which is fast and often maybe a little dull. And as I said on a panel at Worldcon a couple of years ago, you know, “Sometimes writing a fight scene should be like writing about a master carpenter using a hammer, which is not that exciting, you know, and then he hit another perfectly placed nail perfectly and then another one.” And we’re titillated by the idea of violence. But like, when you watch somebody who’s really good . . . I once watched a Navy SEAL use a submachine gun on a target range. And I had never fired a submachine gun at the time. And I had a great deal of trouble hitting a man-sized target at about fifty feet. And they called in this guy whose name I never learned, and he in one magazine put two or three rounds into each of five man-sized targets just by sort of waving his gun over it. And I said, tried to say something witty, like, “That wasn’t luck, was it?” And everybody just looked at me and I thought, Like, I see. That’s what you guys spend your life learning to do. And that’s why people like me would just die entering a room there. And I know that doesn’t make a good story because the plucky hero is supposed to be able to overcome years of skill with bravery. But yeah, anyway, it’s my soapbox.
OK, well, let’s go out and talk about your writing process, and we are going to focus on the new science fiction novel that’s coming out in June, called Artifact Space. And maybe the first thing to do is to give a brief description of it so people will want to rush out and read it.
Well, so, we all love genre titles. And I’m going to say unashamedly it’s space opera and it’s space opera based on four things. Hopefully this will excite everyone. One is a conversation I had with Alistair Reynolds about aircraft carriers and about how aircraft carriers kind of resembled giant spaceships. And he and I were sitting next together. I was being a fan—boy, I adore Alistair Reynolds’s writing—at Gollancz Fest in London. And he said, “I hear you were on aircraft carriers.” And that was all we talked about for the rest of the time. So that conversation sort of put in my mind, like, “Aircraft carriers in space. I wonder if there’s something there.” And then, last January, just as Covid was sort of beginning to exist, I was reading about the Venetian great galleys, the huge galleys they sent around on trade missions in the 15th century, and Venice had them, too. And I was fascinated by these huge galleys and how, you know, they went all the way to London and all the way to Antwerp and all the way to Alexandria, and the crews would sort of know all these people. That is the Middle Ages, where you don’t think of people traveling. And yet, even the oarsmen—who were not slaves, they were pretty well paid—are sort of going all over the place, from Egypt to Spain to England to Antwerp. And that cooked away in my mind. And then, just before Covid closed the theaters, my family and I went to see Little Women and I was sitting in my seat . . . I enjoyed the movie thoroughly, in case you care. But sometimes, I’m sorry, it’s a phrase from a ballet instructor friend of mine, she says, “Art makes art.” And I was enjoying this movie thoroughly, but in some part of my mind something was cooking, and suddenly I had the whole book in my head, like late in the movie, it’s related to a particular speech one of the characters gives, and it’s sort of about feminism and sort of about roles. And anyway, the whole thing, all the characters popped into my mind. It was done.
And it’s a space opera about long-range trade in the not-very-far future when everything has gone wrong on Earth and a heroic generation, a sort of golden generation like we think of the World War Two generation, got people off Earth into our ships, found other worlds, settled them, and in the process, lost a lot of contact with each other and with culture. So, what’s holding them together is these giant trade ships for a while. And when my novel opens, we’re actually almost at the end of that period. New technologies are being discovered, science is reborn. And I tried to give the novel a very, if you’ll pardon me, 18th century feel, that feeling of the Age of Enlightenment and everything being a little bit new. Time to throw over the old time, to look carefully at assumptions and decide whether they’re real or not. So, it’s like old-new old-new science-fiction space opera.
Well, that pretty much covers the first question, which was, “Where did the particular seed of this novel come from?” But looking at all of your novels, is that very typical for you, or is there any typical way that you get ideas for novels?
So, I’m always inspired by something, and it’s usually by history. I will say that Artifact Space, like one of my historical novels, Killer of Men, literally, it’s as if it was inserted into my brain. I wrote Artifact Space in 46 days. I wrote Killer of Men in, I think, 51 days. And that it’s like divine inspiration. I assume this is what the Greeks meant when they spoke of divine inspiration. It’s like someone is dictating to me and I’m just getting it down, which is a very different feeling from other books.
My most recent historical books are a pair of novels called The Commander Series—I’m not sure I chose that name—about Philopoemen of Achea, who, in addition to being a general—and he was a great general—was a master politician and, you know, sort of saved the Greek world for another 50 years from the Romans and various other competitors and created our modern idea of federal democracy, which probably is why anybody remembers him today. And those novels did not come to me by divine inspiration. I mean, they did. I was standing in Delphi with a tour looking at at the stone dedicated to Philopoemen. And I always get this feeling in Greece. It’s the most amazing thing. You know, there’s Philopoemen’s name. I can read ancient Greek, but it’s very hard carved in stone in all caps. And yet his name jumped out at me from like 20 feet away. And I always get this feeling like, “Oh, so it’s all real.” It’s hard to explain, but it’s as if one was somewhere in the deep forest and when suddenly found proof that The Lord of the Rings had actually happened. And that makes no sense for someone who loves history as much as I do. But I looked at Philopoemen ‘s name and went, “Wow, that’s real.” And that was so deeply inspiring. Call me crazy, but I had to learn all about him and read everything that had ever been written about him. And then I had to write a novel about him that took tons of research and time and effort and was not divine inspiration. That was just work. I mean, it wasn’t unpleasant work, but it was work. And that is a very different feeling from the feeling that I had about Artifact Space.
So, once you had the general idea, you wrote it, and the muse was dictating it to you. But did you do any planning ahead of time? And do you normally do some sort of planning or outlining?
These are questions, by the way, and you know, I’ll do my best for you—as I grow older, I do more planning. Artifact Space defied that. Nothing needed to be planned because, like I say, it was in my head and I had the whole thing beginning to end. But since I wrote the Red Knight series, the Traitor Son series, I now write much more extensive outlines and much more detailed character summaries and arcs. And that’s actually an artifact in part of the industry, which, you know, agents and editors now require those things, which always struck me as slightly amusing because I’d always go like, “But I’ve produced twenty-six novels already. Can’t we just believe I can produce a twenty-seventh?” But that being said, as I get older, I just can’t necessarily keep it all in my head and that that is a fact of life. So, it’s much better to write it all down. And so, now I have pages of character. I can tell you that when I was writing the Traitor Son series, all I had was a list of character names so that I didn’t forget them. And in the middle of the series, I learned that I needed to put a plus sign next to people I’d killed off because Phillip Dubos (sp?), a jousting character in the Red Knight series, I killed three times, which was, you know, kind of an error. And yeah. So, I’ve been developing that way.
Outlines I always find very interesting. And I’m fascinated to talk to other authors about this because I have always written some form of outline and then I almost never stayed with them because things happen organically and I just roll with whatever comes to me. And I’ll give you an example from today. I’m writing a fantasy novel right now and today . . . so, I ended yesterday with a pretty big and characterful fight scene, magical fight scene, not a sword fight. And that was good. And what I was supposed to write today was the consequent political follow-on from this duel. And instead, for no reason that I could name, I discovered that I was writing my character, who was badly wounded in the fight, basically lying on a featureless gray plain and discovering that to some extent he was dead and considering his whole life and wondering if he had ever done anything worthy and if he was about to be judged. And it turned out that was all just an artifact of the healing, the magical healing process. And I did not sit down to write that scene, not even sure where exactly that scene came from. But when I looked it over just before you and I started this call, I thought, “Oh, this is really good and far better than the banal political crap I was going to write. So, we’ll just roll with it.”
Yeah, it’s certainly my experience. I mean, I’m typically, with my publisher, I’m writing maybe a seven or eight single spaced page kind of synopsis at the most. Yeah. And then I start writing, but the one I’m writing now, The Tangled Stars it’s called, it’s a space opera as well. Humorous Space Opera I. It’s just not going where the synopsis said it was going. Not exactly. I keep surprising myself with it.
So does that worry you?
It worries me a bit in that this is not one of those books that the muse is dictating to me. I seem to be struggling with that. And I think partly that’s just the change in circumstances and not . . .I tend to write out of my house in a coffee shop or something, and I haven’t been able to do that. And I find I don’t work as well at home, which is odd, but . . .
You and me both, Ed. I’ve just discovered that we are brothers separated at birth. I have a coffee shop I adore. I have written . . .I couldn’t count the books I’ve written there. Eleven? And, you know, because of Covid I’m writing at a dining room table with, until a week ago, my daughter doing her high school homework. My partner has my office on the third floor because she’s working at home. So, she’s going by in both directions. And I don’t mind people, you know, I write in a coffee shop, but somehow, it’s deeply different.
Yeah, that’s exactly been my experience. And so, I’m kind of struggling with it. But yeah, for me, it changes. From what I . . . you know, you have this . . . it all seems so clear in your head when you first think of the book, and you know what’s going to happen. But then as you write it, characters change and things develop and stuff you didn’t even know was going to happen happened. And it influences what’s going to happen further down the road. And so, one of the interesting things on the podcast is asking people that question, and everybody is so different in how it works for them. And I always go back to Peter V. Brett, who wrote The Demon Cycle.
Yeah, yeah. I know him.
I interviewed him, and he writes 150-page outlines before he writes anything of the book itself. And then he’s just basically filling in the outline. So, he’s put all that that work into the outline and then is able to just expand on it without wandering from it. And then there’s other people who just start writing and see what happens.
So, have you interviewed Evan Winter?
No, I haven’t.
I’m lucky in that I think I knew Evan a little before he was famous. And I believe he has said almost exactly the same thing, very detailed. And I mean . . . and that’s great. If that’s what works. I have always been friends with a bunch of other writers, and as you know, because you interview us, no two alike, you know.
But at the same time, I yeah, I wouldn’t write a 150-page outline because things change. Characters change. And I really do, I think I would say, I write by inspiration, it’s not seat of the pants. But my dad had . . . sorry, I’m very respectful of my dad’s writing ability, he wrote 42 books, he won prizes, he was a darn good writer. And my dad used to say there’s an idea and then there’s a book and they’re often very different and that you should never let the idea get in the way of the book. And I have often found that to be true, like I’ll have an idea and I am sometimes fooled and I think it’s a book, I have an idea and it’s usually a character, a situation, a moment, a fight scene, even an artifact, right? And I’m like, “Ah, there’s a saleable book.” No, that’s just a saleable idea. And even if I turn out an outline on it, it’s going to turn out that once I grapple with it really hard, that there was more or less. And sadly, occasionally, the answer is there’s less and I don’t really have a book at all, which is my horror, maybe everybody’s. But more usually, once I grapple with it, I go, “Oh!” So, I’ll give you a quick example. Then I’ll ask you for an example, since we seem to have some of this in common. I finished in March or, you know, earlier than that, the first fantasy novel in a series called Against All Gods. And it’s Bronze Age, and I’m very inspired by the Bronze Age. I’ll leave that alone. Somewhere about a third of the way through, I asked myself, like, “Why do we have so much violence in fantasy fiction?” And just out of nowhere created literally a race and family of pacifists and inserted them into the book, which they then began to take over. And they were not in the outline. They weren’t planned. I had to change the map to make room for them. I had to change the whole way mercantile behavior worked to justify how they survived as pacifists in a very nasty world. Yeah, good times.
I think the best example I have of things changing was a book called Terra Insegura, which is the second book in a two-book series collectively published as The Helix War when they put it out in an omnibus. The first one is Marseguro, because for some reason, I decided to use Portuguese titles, I don’t know why. But there was a character—and I’d only introduced him simply because I needed to have somebody, you know, multiple viewpoints, and there was something happening and I needed to have a character there who could be there for that scene. And then all of a sudden he had this backstory and he had different . . . he was supposed to be, like, the second in command on this spaceship, but he had a different agenda that came out of the backstory I kind of made up on the spot. And the next thing I knew, I was about two thirds of the way through the book, and I had to completely replot to the end of the book because my original plot just didn’t work anymore, because I’d introduced this character simply to solve a writing problem. So, yeah, it’s a fascinating process, which is why I have this podcast.
Yeah, well, it is a fascinating process. And like I say, I know a bunch of other writers and I really enjoy listening to them. And sometimes I, you know, I am capable of changing my modus operandi. And once in a while I hear something from somebody and I go, “That’s a good idea. Oh, yeah, that sounds very professional.” And I’ll just I’ll just take that on board. But what I can’t seem to fix is the difference between an idea and a book around page 250. I usually go, like, “And now it’s a book.”
I use a metaphor. To me, an idea is like this. When you think you have the book, it’s like there’s this shining Christmas-tree ornament, you know, it’s all silver and perfect and everything. And then you take it, and you smash it on the floor, and then you try to glue it back together using words.
That is brilliant!
And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Oh, that’s so good. I will steal that, but not claim it for my own. I’ll give you credit for that. That’s good. Yep. And very accurate. I see that—rarely, talking to other authors—you and I may have a similar creative process.
It sounds like there might be some similarities for sure. Yeah, the books that have really worked for me, you know, I wrote 50,000 words in a week once because it was that sort of being dictated, and a 60,000-word YA in two weeks flat. You know, when it’s really working, it works. Which takes us back to your writing process. Are you . . . obviously you are a fast writer sometimes. Do you think of yourself as a fast writer? And also, you said you like to write in a coffee shop. Sometimes . . . I presume you’re a, you know, you’re clearly not writing longhand anymore like you did when you were 17.
No, no, no writing on a laptop. So, yeah, I didn’t think of myself as a fast writer until I went to my first WorldCon, where I took enormous amounts of teasing for my writing speed and came to the conclusion that I was a fast writer and I will just say, not entirely as a brag, I wrote five books last year. All of them will be published. And I say to younger writers and people who are starting out and stuff like that, that I literally believe that writing is like a martial art. And that is, the more you do it, the better you are at it. And so, I don’t think of writing faster or more as being . . . let me restart that sentence. I think F. Scott Fitzgerald convinced a lot of people incorrectly that there was some magic to the first novel and that you were magically great when you were very young and then you could never really do that again. It was an interesting thing that F. Scott Fitzgerald did, but I’m not sure that that’s a valid way of approaching the art of writing. And I suspect that you get better and better the more of it you do.
I look at people like Jack Williamson, right? Started writing in covered-wagon days and was still going 70, 80 years later. So, yeah, that’s my hope, anyway.
Well, it’s my hope too and, you know, I’m not really just here to plug Artifact Space, but I think it might be the best novel I’ve written. And that makes me happy because who wants to be getting worse, right? Like, it would be nice to think one is getting better even at the advanced age of 58, anyway. Yeah, I think I’m a pretty fast writer, but part of that . . . I find again, because I talk to other writers, I’m not as fast as Sebastien de Castille, who is faster than I am. There are definitely a bunch of people out there who write faster than I do. I find that what I do well is to just sit down and write every day. And we were talking about that, you at the newspaper and me at the Anti-Terrorist Alert Center. But just learning that there really wasn’t any reason not to write. You know, if you only produce 500 words a day but you produce 500 words every day, you’re going to get done. You are going to get done. You just plow through it eventually. That’s not my acceptable output, but I’ve had 500-word days and one of the biggest breakthroughs in my writing life . . . and again, this is something that I tell younger authors . . .it was learning to write in what I call scraps of time for the longest time. And I mean right through the first Traitor Son novel. I believed that I needed four to six hours to make it a valid writing day. And I would not bother writing if I didn’t have four to six clear, uninterrupted hours. And then I suddenly was writing two historical novels and a Traitor Son novel at the same time, you know, all with contracts and due dates. And I went, “You know, what I need to do is, if I only have an hour, I need to produce the words I can produce in that hour so that I just accept whatever time I have.” And that has been a major breakthrough for me because now I could just sit . . . right, I’ll give you an example. In 2014, if I had an interview with you today, I wouldn’t have written this morning because I had a bunch of yard work and stuff to do this morning and I didn’t really get done with it till ten in the morning. And that would make for a two-and-a-half-hour writing day. And it’s not enough time, right? Except instead, I wrote 2,100 words because I’ve learned that whatever time you get is the time you have.
Good advice. I’ve been like that sometimes, and sometimes I’d still let it slip away from me because I know there’s not enough time.
Well, I’m full of useful aphorisms that I don’t always follow myself, too. Please don’t imagine that I am perfect at this. But learning that it was true was very helpful. And I had to admit to myself, even my Navy veteran self, that telling myself that two and a half hours wasn’t enough time to write was actually just one of those excuses. It’s enough time once you . . . I’m sorry. No, you go ahead.
I was going to say, once you have a first draft, presumably, what does your revision process look like to you, a rolling revision, or how does that work for you?
I only have one draft and I do a rolling revision and it works like this. I start each writing day by reading the twenty pages before it and editing and correcting. About every hundred pages, which technically should be every week and a half, but I don’t always write that fast, I go either all the way back to the beginning or at least back 100 pages and do another layer of revisions. And often, by then, I’ve thought of things I didn’t like, which could be as simple as I’ve changed a character’s name or I’ve discovered how I want the alien language to sound or something like that. But it could be quite big. It could be that I’ve decided that that character doesn’t work and she’s got to go. And so, I do that revision. But when I write the last word, the next day, I’ll revise the last 10 pages and then it’s done. And I send it in.
Well, they’re we’re different. I tend to do a full draft and then rewrite from the beginning, although sometimes I have to do one halfway through because just to sort of break through a barrier or something, I’ll go back and do a revision of the first half of the book or something so I can sort of power through some place where I’m stuck. Do you use beta readers or anything like that?
Yes, but first I want to give a plug to my high school. I went to a Jesuit high school, which is funny because I’m not Catholic, but I went to a Jesuit high school and the Jesuits taught writing. And, you know, I was unfair earlier in the interview when I said I hadn’t taken writing classes, because they taught very intense writing classes and we did a ton of writing, I should admit that. But one of the things that they said that stuck with me and, you know, believe it or don’t, Father Abluski (sp?) insisted that usually your first idea is your best idea and you should roll with that. And it’s not always true, but I hear that voice often when I attempted to make a big change and I go like, “Really? Is it really better or are you just doubting yourself?” Anyway, I felt that truth in advertising required me to give some credit to the Jesuits if credit is what’s involved. Sorry. Now ask that last question, please.
Do you use beta readers or does anybody see it before you send it off to your editor?
Yeah. So, given the time it takes editors at Orion and Gollancz to get to a manuscript, I send it out to everyone at the same time because it’s going to be three to five months before my editor looks at my manuscript when I send it, and I know that because I’m a veteran, and so I will send it to my beta readers. So, I have a . . . I won’t call them a legion, but I have a number of beta readers. And dare I say, each of them has kind of a different purpose. Some of them are truly critical. Some of them are more what I would call appreciative. Some of them are big-picture and some of them are nitpicking. And that’s great. They’re like a team and they criticize different things. And they, you know, one beta reader I can think of will tell me what she feels about a novel, which I find shockingly accurate for what future readers are going to feel, you know, over the course of 10 books. And another beta reader is really good at catching story-arc errors. And he has always been sort of my favorite beta reader because he’ll say, “You know, like, I really didn’t believe it when X happened because of this, this, and this you’d already said. And I go, “And you’re right again, Joe. Well done. Thank goodness for you.” And I trust my beta readers. If they say something is flawed, I fix it. I don’t go through long questions with myself or whatever. I just fix it. And pretty much the same thing with editing. I believe in editors. So, Gillian Redfern, my editor at Gollanz, is one of my favourite editors ever. And if she says something has to go, I think nine out of 10 times I kill it, and if she says something, it doesn’t work for her, I believe her. And that’s a decision I decided at some point to roll with. Editors are not idiots.
Yes, I do a lot of talking to young writers. I’ve been a writer in residence at the Regina and Saskatoon Public Libraries, and I’ve done classes, you know, all that sort of stuff. And I do occasionally run into somebody who’s quite terrified of editors and that they’re going to somehow ruin their prose or something and I say, no, not in my experience.
You know, this is literally . . . so, I keep praising my dad. Now I’m going to say something the opposite of my dad. My dad believed that writing was a solitary, bohemian art. A very 1950s sort of ideal of what writing was or is. I think the opposite. I think it’s a team sport and I’m on a team. I’m not even always the captain. I have an editor. I have a copy editor, a copy editor is super important for me because I use, you know, ancient Greek and Chinese and stuff in my books. Got a cover artist, got betareaders. It’s a team, it’s not just me. I am not creating on my own, and it’s silly of me to ignore my teammates if they say something is wrong.
Well, that’s we’re getting close to the end of our hour here, so let’s move on to the big philosophical questions. I’m going to put that in reverb. There’s three. The first one is,. Why do you write? The second one is, why do you think anybody writes, why do human beings, if you want to be that general, write? And then thirdly, why stories of the fantastic specifically. So, you know, three questions.
Do we have another hour? Because I’ve got an hour’s worth of answers. So, I can tell you quite easily why I write. And it’s pretty banal. I love stories and I literally have found that when I don’t have enough to read, I just have to write because I’m literally telling myself a story, and that may sound terrible, but I enjoy telling myself stories, apparently, and I just hope the rest of you enjoy them too. But I couldn’t stop myself if I tried. I have to write sometimes and stories will boil up inside of me because whatever. And then I can kill the urge to write. And this is really weird because, as you know, Ed, we live in a world where we writers get ARCs to read for other people. And in fact, you know, we owe it to other writers to support them and read their ARCs and comment and say nice things. The problem is, the happier I am reading, the less writing I get done, so that I have to cut myself off from reading to some extent to let the story bubble up inside me. So, I want to tell it, so I write it. Anyway, there it is. I write because I want to tell a story and I think that in some ways that is the human condition.
And I’m just going to say, like, I’ve been reading a lot of Anglo-Saxon stuff lately, maybe you’re going to write a historical novel in that era. But also, just, I enjoyed old English in school and I had sort of let it go and I just gone back to it. And it’s been very interesting to read sort of early Germanic prose and the Icelandic sagas, which I’d never read before and stuff like that, and go, “Oh, we really need stories.” But unfortunately, in the age of, you know, antibacterials and Trump supporters and so on, sometimes the stories are wildly inaccurate or even false. And that is a, you know, if there’s an original sin in the human condition, I think it’s the ability to tell an untrue story. And I don’t mean a fictional story. I mean a straight-out falsehood. But we need to collect information, all of us, I think, and we tend to put it into a narrative, even if there’s no narrative. And I appeal to you, Ed, in your life, is your life a narrative or is it a series of events?
I like to think of it as a narrative.
Well, I like to think of mine as a narrative, but I promise you, at times it seems pretty damn random anyway. I think we want it to fit into narrative structure. We want it to be logical. So, we tell stories to force the events into stories. And I think that is a sufficient cause, maybe not a dramatic one, but sufficient.
And then the last question. Um. Why fantastical stories? That is a fabulous question and one I ask myself often, and I’m going to say that the answer is, much as I love history as a source for adventure, plot, character, the truth is that the history of the human race is slavery, degradation, force and horror to some extent to a pretty wide extent, it is very hard to find heroism in history. It’s very difficult to find people who were good. And the more research you do, the more of your own heroes you kill off. That doesn’t mean there’s nobody heroic in history. And I’m not an utter revisionist, but sometimes you want to tell a story about how people succeeded in bettering themselves, for instance. And it’s probably going to be easier to tell that story in a fantasy or science fiction. Or sometimes the opposite. You want to tell how it all fell apart in a dystopian manner and it’s probably going to be easier.
One of the problems that really exists with writing historical novels is that people carry a lot of mythological baggage with their knowledge or their supposed knowledge of history. And that can make writing a historical novel very dangerous. Something as simple as whether Alexander the Great was Greek or Macedonian can lose you readers and also just cause them to turn off and not accept anything else you say. Whereas if you chose to write a fantasy novel about a conqueror who turned out to not be a very nice person, that’s a different kettle of fish and it’s good to go out to a different audience. And I’m a very Aristotelian writer. I believe it is my job to moralize and teach, which I admit is not a popular 21st century point of view, but it is my Aristotelian job to write, you know, The Iliad, with purpose.
Which segues very nicely into the last question, which is, what are you working on now?
Bless you. So I went through a dry spell. It’s funny. I went through a very long dry spell and wrote a bunch of novels in Covid. And then just about the time I started saying to some of my writing friends, “I don’t get it. What is this Covid depression you guys keep worrying about?”, my dad died and suddenly I couldn’t write. So recently I’ve come out of that, and all of a sudden I’m writing two books at the same time. Yes, I am. So, years ago I started a novel which in my mind I called Rangers. And it’s a pretty complicated fantasy novel. And it was meant to be the prequel to Cold Iron and my Masters and Mages series. And I started it because Gollancz said they were going to buy it and then they didn’t buy it. And then I dropped it because I don’t write for free. Suddenly, the other day I picked it up, read it and went, “This is really good. I think this will be my first self-published novel. I think I’m going to experiment with how self-publishing orks.” So, I did that. And at the same time, I am writing the sequel to Artifact Space, which is called Deep Black, and that’s super fun too. And so, it’s been very odd because I’m sort of writing 1800 to 2500 words of each, each day, and I’ve never done this exact thing before and it’s odd.
And Artifact Space comes out June 24 from Gollancz?
It does. Swords in space. That’s my shout line.
And where can people find you and follow you online?
Bless you. So I’m focused on one, on Twitter, and I have invested a lot of social media time on Twitter. I enjoy Twitter. I know not everyone does. I’m @Christian_Cameron_Author on Instagram. And you know, I’m on Instagram every day doing my doing my best to keep everybody interested. Twitter is where I sort of talk about being an author and Instagram is often about martial arts or my other passion, painting little men and women and playing tabletop games. And I don’t really talk as much about being an author, because endless self-advertising is boring as I suspect you have a feeling you may share.
I’m bored by myself all the time.
Yeah, me too. And I have a Facebook author page, but I’ve spent less and less time on Facebook since the U.S. election. I was in the military. I have many conservative friends. I don’t happen to be a conservative myself and sometimes I don’t want to read what they have to say.
Yeah, Facebook can be well . . . yeah. Facebook can be bad for finding out what people you like think about things and you want to keep liking them, so you don’t want to know what they think about something.
Yeah. I’ve had that reaction, too. All right. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. That was a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
I enjoyed it thoroughly. And I’d really like to meet you in person. And in fact, as one of the things I was going to say at some point is I have discovered since I started doing cons, which I came to very late in life, that I if I like the person, I like that person’s books, I am now going to go buy a bunch of your books.
That’s a wonderful thing to do if you ask me. Well, I’m sure I’m sure we’ll run into each other at some convention once they start up again. I hope. That would be great.
Someday again. Yeah, a great pleasure. Ed, thanks for having me.
Well, thank you very much. It’s always interesting to hear your life done in in short form. And even when I write it myself, I’m always a little behind the times.
I always like to see if I can find a connection. We have not met in person, but back when you had Jane Yolen books, you did reject me once. So, there’s that. Actually, I was a very nice rejection because you said that there was nothing wrong with the book—it was a fantasy called The Dark Unicorn—and that a larger house might very well be able to take it on, it just didn’t suit your house, which, you know, was a lot better than just getting the form rejection backroad. So, I appreciated it at the time. And the book did eventually find a not very good home, but I’m going to be revising it and bringing out it out again with my own little publishing company before too long. And it did get nominated for an award so well that that was it was very nice to get that sort of personal response from you back then.
I don’t want to make you nervous or anything, but I still get rejections. And I love my rejections because, one, they mean somebody read it, then I can move on. But the other thing is the rejections recently say things like this is lyrical, lovely writing. I love the characters. It’s not for us.
Well, I’ve had my share of rejections now after all the years I’ve been writing. And you have 400 books. I only have 60 or so, so I’m well behind you. But still. So ,we’re going to start with, what I usually say is, taking you back into the mists of time just to find out about your, you know, you’re growing up and how you got interested in and writing. Most of us started as readers and then became writers. And how did that all play out for you? So, tell me about yourself, Jane.
Well, there’s a lot to tell because I’m 82 years old. We might be on this for seventy-two hours. I grew up in a family, a Jewish family in New York, and there were books everywhere. My parents made no distinction between what books we could and we couldn’t read. If we were interested in it and we could get through it, we could read it, which meant that I was reading stuff so far over my head when I was four years old. But I loved the sound of the language and I think that stayed with me all of my life.
My father was a journalist who had become, by the time I came along, had become a head of the Overseas Press Club. But he then left journalism itself and became first, a promotion person and then became a vice president at Hill and Knowlton, which was public relations. And he was the one who was involved with getting people into newspapers, magazines, and books. So, there were always books there. And he actually wrote, I am going to use quotes around the term “wrote,” because he got other people to write for him, six or seven books under his name. He never wrote any of them. I wrote the first one that was actually my first book, but I don’t count it because my name isn’t on it. And my brother became a journalist. My mother wrote short stories, but only sold one in her life. But she also made and sold crossword puzzles and double acrostics and all their friends were known and very well-known writers. They ranged from the very known ones like Hemingway and James Thurber to people you and I still don’t know today. But it meant that as I was growing up, I thought that all grown-ups were writers, I knew they were teachers, like, librarians, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, the cop on the beat. I mean, I lived in New York City, I saw all of this. I thought that was their day job. And at night, they all went home to write. So in my little pea brain at that moment came the idea that whatever I did during the day, I would be a writer because I’d go home at night and write and that . . . it’s sometimes metaphor, but it’s absolutely true.
It’s interesting because I talk to so many writers who say, you know, when I was growing up, I never knew a writer. I didn’t know people could be writers. And then they found out they could be a writer. And you’re just quite the opposite.
Absolutely. And if you ask that, if you talk to my brother who lives in Brazil, who is a newspaper man for all of his life, he’d say pretty much the same thing.
So when did you . . . I assume you started writing as a child?
I wrote as a child. I mean, I, you know, I was the writer in my elementary school, although I wrote class plays that we all played in, I wrote poems, I wrote little lyrics to songs. And the same thing happened once I got into high school. I was the one who was known as the writer. And in college it was the same. I wrote a lot of songs, a lot of short stories, but mostly poetry.
Were there books that particularly influenced you during those early years?
Well, I was a huge King Arthur fan, so I read everything anybody ever wrote about King Arthur. So, yes, along the way I’ve written three or four King Arthur books myself, but I love folk and fairy tales. And Hans Christian Andersen. Oscar Wilde absolutely fascinated me. And it was poetry that stuck with me all through my life, I’m still writing poetry to this to this day.
What was it that drew you to poetry?
I think because I was very musical to begin with, so I started with lyrics. And, you know, we’re talking George Gershwin here, right? But then as I grew up, people like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were writing the kind of music I like, but the kind of also lyrics that I like that were really poems set to music. That kind of, you know, calcified for me.
It’s interesting. I have committed poetry, I don’t know if it’s good poetry or not, but they are very different writing disciplines, writing, writing prose and in poetry. Do you find that writing the poetry informs your prose, the way that you write prose?
I write very lyrical prose, but I tell you, I know when a picture book or a novel or short story of mine is good, I don’t know for the most part if a poem is good or good enough, I’m always surprised when people take my poems for journals, magazines, anthologies. half the time. It’s not the poems I would have taken. I’ll them say I send them seven, they take two or three. Those are not the three I would have taken, so I’m not sure why. I don’t know which one of my poems are the best, when I can tell right away if a book works or a story works.
Once you were . . . well, your first book was published when you were about . . . the first official one was published when you were 22. Is that right?
So, you were still in university or just out of university?
I was out three years, I graduated in 1960, but I had poetry published all the way through and newspaper stuff and magazine articles published. But my first book, I sold it on my twenty-second birthday. After I sold it, I ran two blocks to the overseas press club where my father was holding court at lunchtime and I said, “Daddy, Daddy, I sold my first book.” And he looked at me and then he looked at all the guys, there weren’t any women, I think, in the Press Club at that time, and he said, “Fellows, drinks are on the house. And a coke for my little girl!”
You then started doing a lot of editorial work in the ’60s, did you not?
Well, I first worked for Knox Berger before he became an agent. He was an editor at one of the paperback reprint publishers and I worked for him for about a year, and then when I sold my first book, and it was a children’s book, I thought maybe I’d better learn more about children’s books. So, I did two things. I took a course in writing for children at the New School, but at the same time I went to a head-hunter and said, “I don’t care who it is, but I want you to find me a job in children’s book publishing in New York City,” because I was living in New York City at that point, and they found me a job with a packager who did children’s books, which was interesting, because then I got to write a lot of stuff within the books that they were doing. My name never got on them, but I got to do that. So, there were a couple of problems in crossword puzzles and fiddly bits in books that I mean, they’re long gone. And this was 1961 to ’62 that I wrote that, that we’ll never know, except me and probably not even me anymore now, that I had done.
It’s a bit like the backup singers on some recordings, like I think of The Jersey Boys where they’re doing backup vocals for four other singers that nobody remembers anymore. But meanwhile, it’s the Four Seasons singing the backup songs back there.
So that’s how we got started. And then one of my fellow editors at the packager was an older woman and she was a friend of mine. And we had to show the packager anything we wrote first because they had first dibs on it. But if the editor rejected it, it was OK and we could take it elsewhere. And her name was Frances Kane. We all called her queen. And she said to me one time, I showed her a manuscript called The Witch Who Wasn’t, and she said, “I’m going to tell you a secret.” She said, “I like this very much, but I don’t want to publish it here. I’m about to take a job as head of MacMillan’s Children’s Publishing. Will you bring it to me there?” I said, “You got it.” Almost maybe my second or third book that was published. And Kate and I remained friends until her death, which was rather too, too soon. But she was very important in my early writing days.
You mentioned that you had taken a course in writing children’s literature at The New School, and I always ask authors who have taken formal writing courses how helpful they were to their career, because I get a variety of answers to that question.
Well, one of the picture books that I tried there, I thought, “Oh, well, there you go.” Things are so different now that the kind of book that I learned about and that I wrote then I would not be able to write and sell now, but I learned to be aware of how these things change. And that’s important. I think one of the reasons I’ve been so successful for so many years, whereas other people have sort of dropped by the wayside, who had started about the same time as I did, is that I’m very flexible and I’m able to do any number of things. And if the picture book world changes, I change with it. If the novel world changes, I change with it. If I can’t get a big publisher to publish something, I get a wonderful small publisher like Tachyon to publish a book of mine. So, I’m infinitely flexible and I love meeting new editors and talking ideas with them, because having been an editor, I was an editor for fifteen years, having been an editor, I know how to talk to editors. I know they’re the friends, not the enemies. Nobody buys a book to make it bad.
Yeah, there are authors, especially new authors, who are kind of scared of editors and think somehow they’re going to take their deathless prose and ruin it somehow, and that’s just not the experience you have with a professional editor. They want a good book, too. So, your experience as an editor. You’re writing and editing at the same time, how do those two things work together? Do you find that by looking at other people’s work, it makes your own work stronger? You’re able to see how other people are dealing with, you know, the same . . . we all encounter the same problems in our writing that we have to solve. You know, characterization and all that stuff. Did you find that being an editor helped you as a writer?
That’s exactly it. But that’s the second thing I learned. The first thing I learned, looking at people’s writing was, “Gee, I’m a good writer,” because a lot of bad stuff comes over the desk. Anyone who is an editor will tell you that. Eighty-five to ninety percent of the stuff that they see is so amateurish, there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s the other ten to fifteen percent that there are possibilities. And more than half of those are not the kind of book that they’re looking for. When I was an editor and editing fantasy and science fiction for middle grade and young adults, I would get coming over my desk nonfiction books, cookbooks, mystery novels, picture books, none of which was of interest to me. But I still had to send a letter back with it. So, the first thing that I say to anyone who’s a writer is look at where you’re sending it, make sure it’s the sort of thing they’re looking for. If you don’t know what they’re looking for, find out. You can ask other authors. You can join groups like the Science Fiction Writers of America or the Society of Children’s Book Writers and find out information. The more you have information about what a particular editor or a particular publisher is looking for, the easier you’re going to make your life.
I suspect the problem of inappropriate material flooding editors’ offices is even worse now with email being a way to submit. It’s just become much easier for those places that take email submissions. The volume must be enormous.
It’s not that, it’s to say we’re open to anyone. You should see who anyone is. They are people who have never finished something, they’ve started it but never finished it. They’ve written a book that’s just like their favorite book, or they’ve taken characters from their favorite book and used them, which is a no-no, unless the author is long dead or has given them permission. So, there are those sorts of things that you get over and over and over again
You’ve won a lot of awards. How did that all ramp up? I mean, you start out like anybody else. You’re selling a few books and then you’ve built and built. So, were you really gratified by the response to your writing over the years?
Well, of course, I’m gratified. Some of the awards that I’ve won, I go to some of the awards that I that I’ve won, I go, “Oh, my God, I’m so honored.” Some of them I’ve said, “I think they missed the mark on this one.” And some of them I say, “Thank you,” and put the thing up in the attic, because honestly, there are more awards out there than there are writers. And they happen year after year after year after year. The ones that I am especially proud of, those are ones that I keep where people can see them. But at this point, I must have, you know, like two or three hundred awards, certificates, that sort of thing. And occasionally they spell my name wrong on it. Occasionally it’s for a book that I think of my work is minor, but the ones that are really special to me, those are the ones that I take out and look at now.
Which one set fire to your coat?
Well, it was this Skylark Award given by the Boston Science Fiction Convention. Not for any particular work, it’s for somebody who has been doing good work and within the community, the science fiction community. And I always volunteered for things at Boskone, which is the science fiction convention. So ,they gave that to me and I took it home, as I did with any award I would get or any certificate. It would sit on my kitchen table for about a week, and then it would sort of slowly move upstairs to the attic. Now, the attic is not just an attic, it is where I store awards, where I have all my extra copies of foreign editions, where I have all my files. So, it’s a library. My entire folklore library is up there, too. So, it’s a little bit like a library/boasting place. But this award, the Skylark award, was sitting there . . . it had been a rather rainy, dark New England winter. And it was sitting in front of the kitchen window, which is a large, a huge, large window. And it was a wooden plinth with a . . . not a microscope, what is it called?
Right, a magnifying glass up top, because it was named after the Lensman series, right? And my husband and I were coming down the stairs to go actually to Smith College where I was winning a Smith Medal, I was a Smith graduate, and I said, “I smell something funny.” We ran into the to the kitchen and my good coat was smoking because it was a beautiful blue-sky day with the sun coming in from the east, pouring in through the windows. If we had gone later, the house might have gone up. So, I called up my friend Bruce Coville, who had been the one to hand me the award, and I told him what happened. And I said, “Bruce, I’m going to have to put this award where the sun don’t shine.” On the other end—Bruce is a huge laugher—dead silence. And I did what I did to say that and I hung up. So, he told the committee what had happened. The committee said that when they gave the next one would I come and say that as a warning. And so that’s become something that every year at Boskone, when they’re giving out the award, I have to run up and say, “Stop, stop, stop! Before you take that award, I need to give you this warning.” And so it’s, you know, it’s fandom at its best.
The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy world, the Aurora Award, the current one is just a plexiglass Aurora, but the original one was this piece made out of a laser-cut metal that you could disassemble and put into your suitcase if you were flying after winning one of them. And apparently the trick with that one was, because of all these sharp edges, you had to . . . people discovered that if they didn’t wrap it very carefully in their suitcase, it shredded their clothes. I have one, but I didn’t have that problem.
And I love that story. I never heard that one.
The other thing about it is, it’s very pointy metal in a base. And when I won mine, it was in Montreal, and I discovered that if you pointed it forward people decided to give you more room on the elevator because nobody wanted to get close to it.
All the fandom.
Yeah. So, we’re going to talk about your your upcoming book, Arch of Bone, and we’re going to use that as an example of your general overall writing process, so you can talk about any books you want during this process. But then, you’ve written also for adults and middle grade and young adults. And I want to get your thoughts on the differences among those three. But maybe, first of all, just tell us a little bit about Arch of Bone.
Well, there are stories that are in your heart, and wherever they started, they were in your heart and you want to tell them if you’re a writer. And this was one I carried for a long time. It takes place in 1964 in Nantucket. And it’s really tagging onto the end of one of my all-ime favorite novels, which is Moby Dick. And I was . . . I am in New York City, a Jewish kid loving Moby Dick from the first time I read it, and I would read it as I grew up every ten years because it’s a big book, it takes a long time to read. And any time I was talking to an editor, it was going to be historical, but it was going to have fantastical elements in it. Any time I talked to an editor, they looked at me shellshocked, like, “That doesn’t sound like something I want to do.” So I put it aside and I put it aside and I put it aside for years. And then I started publishing with Tachyon and Tachyon said, “We’re starting a middle-grade young-adult line now and we’d love it if you would have something for us to see.” And I talked to them about this book because it’s a book that starts out a new way. I knew how it was starting out and I knew where it was going.
But there was a major problem. And I’ll tell you that in a minute. I knew it started out with a young boy, a thirteen, fourteen-year-old boy whose mother has been sick with whatever for the whole winter. His father is on a whaling ship, so he’s away. So, the boy is kind of man of the house. His father’s been gone for about a year or so. And it’s early spring. There’s a knock on the door and he opens the door and there’s this man he’s never seen before. And, you know, normally you would know your neighbors in Nantucket. And he says, “Who were you?” And the man says, “Call me Ishmael.” It’s Ishmael coming to tell Starbuck’s wife and son that Starbuck, who was the first mate in Moby Dick, that everybody died except for himself. And so, that’s how I knew it was going to start, and I also knew that the boy being upset about the man staying at their house and thinking that his mother has gone through widowhood, you know, in the day, and now she’s looking at a new man, which is not true. He takes off on his own little cat boat with his dog and into the teeth of a nor’easter. And that’s all I knew.
A great beginning!
He was going to break up on an island. So, it’s going to be Moby Dick meets Robinson Crusoe with some miraculous dreams or oracular dreams. That’s all I knew. But the thing that stopped me over and over again just going ahead and writing it and then trying to peddle it was that you needed a good knowledge of sailing. I had not a good knowledge of . . . I mean, I lived in Massachusetts, but I lived in western Massachusetts. I could go and I could have somebody sail me around to some of the places, but I didn’t have the deep knowledge of it. Fast forward almost sixty years, and I’m working with Tachyon and they ask for it and I’m thinking about it and thinking, you know, I’m in my 80s. If I don’t write this book, it’s never going to get written. But I still am worried about this. And my husband had died 14 years earlier, so I’ve been a widow all that time. And I re-meet a guy that I had dated in college, and we fell in love, we’re married. We’re living together. We have, you know, children and grandchildren. He is a sailor, had his own boat. He would sail, he and his wife, he and his kids, they would sail on this boat all around the Nantucket area because he lives in Mystic, Connecticut. And I said, “Would you read this book?” Well, he’d been a teacher all his life, and one of his favorite books he loved to teach was, guess what, Moby Dick. It was, you know, the right time. And he read it, he showed me charts of the waters, he told me when I had a boat thing wrong, you know, “They don’t say that, they call it this.” He read it very thoroughly for me. And I couldn’t have done it, or I wouldn’t have done it, without him. So, sometimes a book has to sit, sometimes a book has to mature, and sometimes the author has to mature, and sometimes luck has to come into it.
So what did you . . . the idea obviously had been floating around for a very long time, but when you were finally able to do something with it, once you settled down to write, and your other books as well, what does your sort of planning outlining process look like? And I presume it might be different for an adult book, a YA book, and certainly for a picture book. But what does that look like for you?
You think I outlined, do you?
Oh, well, that’s the question, really.
When I first started writing novels, I did. And then I discovered that they boxed me in. Because no matter what I put on the page as where I was going, as I got into the book, things happened that I wasn’t expecting and weren’t on my outline. I’m more like what they call a pantser, flying by the seat of my pants, I like to think of it as flying into the mist. I know where the book is going. I have to get to know who the characters are. And sometimes the characters say to you, “I’m not going there.”
More like sailing into the mist on this book, I guess, instead of flying.
Exactly. I didn’t know that that he was going to have to rebuild a boat. I didn’t know he was going to have these oracular dreams. Once Tachyon said they wanted it, I knew that I had to have a fantasy element that had never been in it to begin with. So, what did I do? He finds a bone, which is a whalebone jaw, and when he leans against it, he has dreams. The first dream is of a whale telling him about how the whales have been dying and why and how things are changing. And then, the next three dreams are about the boat that his father died on. So, I read Moby Dick, annotated it, and talked to Peter about it over and over again. Some people really need to fill out, you know, everything about their world and everything about where they’re going and know everything bit by bit. That’s not how I work. Now, having said that, I just finished another middle-grade fantasy novel called Sea Dragon of Fife. And it’s part of, I think, a series that’s going to be called—we’re still fiddling with this—The Royal and Ancient Monster Hunters, so it’s R&A Monster Hunters. And in that, because I first outlined it years ago when I still thought I could outline, it turns out that stuff that I put in later changed the ending, made the ending more poignant, because as I was going along and writing it, I realized . . .these are some kids who are out there as monster hunters, they’re school kids. And the head of the group is the schoolmaster. And we’re talking 1900s, Scotland. And they’re in danger, but they’re out there to kill the Sea Dragon. The Sea Dragon’s female. They’ve already killed one of her sons, may have killed the second one, and then they finally come upon her and everybody thinks that’s fine and I’m going, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, they’re killing a mom. You have to say something about this,” and that changed the dynamics when I have the main character, who’s telling the story, saying that she feels bad about this, so she has some real criticism. Meanwhile, you know, it’s a dragon that’s tried to eat two boys and may have killed other people. So, it’s a dragon, doing what a dragon does to feed its family. So that was not in the original outline and it changed things very much.
So, what does your actual writing process itself look like, then? You’re not referring to your outline all the time and then writing things. Do you—I always ask this—do you write longhand under a tree with parchment and a quill pen or do you work set hours during the day? Do you work in your home? Do you go out? Well, not now, but have you sometimes gone out to other places to write? Or how does that work for you?
I have a fairly simple thing. I get up in the morning, I go into my writing room, still in my jammies, and start to write, and write for about an hour. It may just be, at the beginning, just looking at my email, playing a little bit of Boggle, writing a new poem, because I send out a poem a day to subscribers. And then I go downstairs, have something to eat, go back upstairs and get dressed for work as if I were going out to an office. The office is right there in my house. And then it’s butt on chairtime that I teach my students all about. Butt in chair. If you’re not there working and you’re looking for an idea and the muse comes by, she’ll give it to you. But if you’re not in your chair, she’s heading out, you know, out west to give it to someone else. And I literally, I probably work between four and eight hours a day. Some of that is just reading, some of that is writing, some of that is revising, some of that is sending stuff out. But I’m at my desk. You don’t write four hundred books if you don’t sit at your desk, and it’s been an adventure.
I mean, it’s not that I don’t go out and do things. I have a house in Scotland that I go to and I’ll write there as well. Peter and I are right now sitting in his house in Mystic, Connecticut. I was writing this morning and I do other things and I’m a very personable kind of person. I like to see friends and take walks with them and talk business with them. Or if they’re not in the children’s book field, the children’s book world, or just the writing world . . . I have many friends, a huge number of friends, who are artists. I’d love to go to their studios and see what they’re doing. But I’m always a good part of my day writing. Less time at a conference. And interestingly, the stuff that I do when I’m in my jammies feels like fiddling. But when I’m dressed for work, I mean, looking like I’ve gone out of my business clothes, that’s when I do my best work.
That is interesting. I mean, everybody approaches it differently, that’s one of the interesting things about this podcast, is getting these different approaches that people take. Do you consider yourself a fast writer or slow writer or somewhere in the middle, or how do you typify yourself?
Well, you have to say fast, given how many books I have out, but each book is different, some books practically write themselves and other books, you’re banging your head on the wall. But I am a very fast rewriter. If somebody takes the book and it needs some work still, that’s where I put all my energy until that until it’s done.
Well, that’s the next thing I was going to ask you about was the revision process. So, when you have a complete first draft, do you go back to the beginning and revise before you submit? Do you use beta readers? Beta readers are all the thing right now, I’ve never had them, but I know lots of authors talk about that. And you did mention that your husband had read your book to help you with the sailing and so forth. How does all that work for you?
Well, I first of all, even if it’s an adult book, I read it out loud. That comes from all of my work and children’s books. I always read stuff out loud and that makes me hear things that . . . I have a little sign near my desk that says the eye and the ear are different listeners. If you are reading your own manuscript, you can elide, if you’re not reading out loud, so that you miss stuff, you miss the bad stuff. And if you are reading it out loud, then you are going to hear everything that doesn’t work. I’m a good reader, so I can sometimes almost even convince myself that a line works when it doesn’t. But I’m a line-by-line reader out loud. Then I go back and I will . . . with a picture book, I might revise it five, six, eight, ten times before I ever send it out. With a novel, I probably do two really solid revisions before I ever send it out. The longer pieces, and that includes . . . I have, actually, beta readers. Peter is one. My daughter, Heidi Stemple, is another one. And then I have other readers when I’m in Scotland. My friend Debbie Harris reads for me because I think that as much as I know about writing and as much as I know about editing, there’s nothing like a new eye to look at it and say, “I didn’t get this.” The connection was in my head, but I never got it down on paper. So, I really like having those beta readers. Every time, though, I choose somebody who has written something, who has published something, I think that that they are willing to be fierce and I need a fierce reader.
Yes, if, you know, if you give it to, in my case, say my mom or somebody, and they said, “Oh, that’s really nice,” that’s not helpful. You want people to say, no, I didn’t understand what was going on on page 37 and why your character did that stupid thing and all that kind of stuff. The big criticism is actually much more helpful than just than just praise.
That’s why I choose writers. All my children are writers, published writers. My friend Debbie is a well-published fantasy writer living in Scotland. So, there’s that professionalism that says, “:I’m not going to just say nice things about you.” My kids send me stuff for me to read that they’ve done. And I’m very honest with them. From the beginning, when they first started writing, and they would leave little things for me to read on the mantelpiece, I would say to them, “Do you want the Mommy answer or do you want the editor answer?” And they would say, “Oh, we want the editor.” And this is before they were published. I’d say, “First, I’m going to give you the Mommy answer. The Mommy answer is, ‘This is wonderful. Oh, you are such a good writer.’ Now, here’s the real truth from the editor. It’s very good. It still needs work.” So, since I was always honest with them, they’re very honest with me.
When your work does get to an editor, are you still getting, “This is very good, but it needs work,” from editors even at this point in your career?
This is what I’m getting a lot from editors. They will say to my agent, if I haven’t worked with them before, they will say to my agent, “Is Jane willing to work on this?” And I think to myself, “They think tjat a person who has done as many books as I have, would not work with that, would not be revising it?” It sort of makes me stunned. Who they’ve been working with? Of course, I’ll revise. I just recently revised something that an editor liked but still had some problems with. And I sat down and thought about what she said for about a week and a half. And then I said, “She’s absolutely right.” Then I rewrote it. And it’s much better. Will she take it? I have no idea, but it’s much better. And so, somebody will take it.
My editor, my main editor, is Sheila Gilbert at DAW Books, and she’s just wonderful for for pointing out those things that, “Yeah, I can make that better. You’re absolutely right.” And editors do that for you. It’s really quite wonderful to have an editor. And I wanted to ask you about the differences between writing for middle grade, young adult, and adult. Are those just . . . you know, to a certain extent they’re kind of just marketing categories, I guess. But there are . . . do you feel there are distinct differences among those three beyond just the age of the characters?
I think that that in some ways they sort of glide into one another, it’s true. And if you realize that the term young adult had not even been invented until the early 1960s when some somebody figured out that, “Oh, we can get an extra sale out of this if we put it in into that category, as well as perhaps also selling it as an adult book.” And many books are considered young adult/adult as crossover books. In fact, I think there’s now an actual crossover designation . . .
New adult, they’re sometimes called. New adult. Is that the term?
Exactly. That’s the term. So, the problem is in the, not in the book itself, but in the age of the main character. If you have a main character who is fifteen, sixteen, it’ll be nicely read by the younger ones and the young adults. If the character is twelve, thirteen, then a lot of young adults will not look at it. Adults will, but young adults will say, “I’m more interested in kids my age.” So, a lot of times you sort of weasel out of it. You either don’t say how old they are or you put them in exciting enough places that that anyone will want to read the book. I was . . . as I said early on, I was, as a child, reading books that were way over my head. And kids who reads at a very young age will do that. But a lot of young adult readers are really very happy just reading about themselves. I think the middle graders who are still trying to figure out what it is they would like to read, how far up they’d like to read, are the ones who are more flexible. And I think the adults are the most flexible at all because we’ll still read about kids, we’ll still read about Alice in Wonderland, we’ll still read about Huck Finn, and they’re not our age anymore. But we will also read about older people.
The problem is in the packaging. Because I did a book a few years ago with Midori Snyder called Except the Queen, and the two main characters were middle-aged. They were old fairies who have been kicked out of Faerie for spying on the queen, and so they no longer have the magic that keeps them young. So now they are on the high side of middle-aged. And there were two younger characters in it. They’re not the main characters, but guess who is on the cover? Not the main characters. The young woman who is one of the minor characters was here, and when we complained, they said this is the best cover for it, nobody’s going to buy a book with two elderly women sporting around. That’s the problem. Not the readership, but how they market the book.
Do you have a preference out of all the various age levels you’ve written for? Do you love writing in all these various niches equally?
My sweet spot is short. Meaning poetry, picture books, short stories. Or a short novel, but I have written a number of longer novels, which I’m very proud of, and it’s just that they go on and on and on and on for four or five years. That’s when I get tired of that, even if I’m doing my best work. So, I think I have a very short attention span. And a very short boredom span.
We’re getting within the last 10 minutes or so here, so I want to ask my big philosophical question. There’s three. The first one is, why do you write? The second one is, why do you think anybody writes? As human beings, why do we write? And then the third one is, why write stories with fantastical elements in them? So, start at the beginning. Why do you write?
Because I can’t, because I have stories in my head all the time. I go to bed, I dream stories, I wake up, I remember parts of those stories. Sometimes I could use the parts, sometimes I can’t, which is frustrating, but I am never without ideas for books. In fact, I give ideas away to other people.
I get that a lot, actually, from writers who will say, “I can’t not write and it’s almost a compulsion.” I think there’s very much an innate writer . . . I don’t know if it’s a gene, I guess it’s related to some sort of genetic component . . . to people who become, at least become writers who are, you know, published and read and write at that kind of level. I’m reading to my wife Robertson Davies’s collection of posthumous essays . . . I always forget the name . . . The Merry Heart, it’s called . . . and he writes quite a bit about this topic and about being a writer and writers being almost born as opposed to made. Anyway. So, why do you think a lot of us write? Why do you think human beings write? Why do we tell these stories and put them down in words and share them with other people?
Partially because it gives pleasure, partially because it gives information, partially because it gives a new way of looking at something, but partially because human beings are, more than anything else, good liars. We make ourselves look better. We make our children look better. We tell stories about our family that make us look great. We boast about things. It’s a human failing that’s been turned into a human success, I think. We laugh in our family and say all Yolens, all of the Yolens we know, are good casual liars. They tell stories. They are funny, they make up stuff, but only our side of the family and one or two others, sort of outliers, became passionate storytellers. My great-grandfather, I think it was, had an inn in the Ukraine, and he loved, not the work of being a being an innkeeper—that he left to the wife and kids in the hirelings—he would sit by the fire and tell stories. And he used to tell stories that he knew came from somewhere else, but he passed them off as his own. So, he told a Yiddish version of Romeo and Juliet, which was his big piece. Now, I don’t think he ever told anyone that Shakespeare had written the story.
Well, Shakespeare probably got it from somewhere else, knowing Shakespeare
Exactly. We’re passing wonderful lies on.
When I was a kid . . . there’s a famous Canadian writer named W.O. Mitchell, who actually spent part of his childhood in the town I grew up in in Saskatchewan. And he had . . .there was a TV show on CBC, which were . . .I guess they were his stories, I don’t know, he hosted it anyway, dramatized stories. And the name of it was The Magic Lie. That’s what he’d like to call writing: the magic lie.
And that works for me.
And then the third part of the question, you have, of course, written stuff that doesn’t have a fantastical element, but you have also written a lot that does. So, why include things that are completely fantastical in these stories that we like to tell people?
Because people have been doing that forever. They’ve told folk tales and fairy tales and tales of magic and wonder. We all know we’re going to die. So, we make up these wonderful stories of what happens after, before, during, which we all hope that we will have wonderful weddings and marriages to a prince, probably, you know, a king, possibly. We want to change lives with our stories. I think those of us who write for children have a better chance of that than anyone. Once in a while, you’ll get a book that, you know, like Silent Spring, that will change a great many lives. Normally, adult books don’t change lives the way children’s book change lives, because we’re taking someone who has not yet fully constructed themselves. And the stories that we tell help them think in different ways, shape them.
I’m very aware of that. I mean, I get letters from children all the time and I and I meet grownups who say to me, the grandparents, you know, they say to me, “I read your stories all the time to my grandchildren because they were the stories I grew up on.” That makes me feel really old when they say that. But it’s true. Those are the stories that we carry with us into adulthood. And they have, for whatever reason, shaped our lives.
Certainly, the ones I read shaped mine, that’s for sure. I still remember the ones . . . you know, the stories I read as a kid are the ones that really stick with me far more than what I’ve read since as an adult. So, we’re just about out of time, so let’s find out, what are you working on now?
Well, The Sea Dragon of Fife, which is a short novel. I have a book of poems about the Jewish experience and the Shoah coming out called Kaddish. That’s for adults. I’ve written two books with one of my daughters that are being published, one that I wrote with her when she’s ten, and she’s now in law school, and the other we wrote after she said, “Oh, I’m so excited about selling this book. But, you know, I’m really going to be a lawyer.” And the next morning she had the start of a manuscript on my desk. So that’s it. Yeah, right. “OK,” I said, “stick to your day job, but you can write in the in-betweens.” So the one that’s coming out that she wrote with me when she was ten, which we have done significant rewriting since, I have to tell you, is called Nana Dances and it’s a picture book. So, it’s full of pictures and it’s all about the various nannies who dance with their children and boys, girls, different people of different shapes and sizes and colors. And it’s, I think, it’s just a very sweet and lovely book. I have a bunch of easy reader books coming out, two of which are based on the interrupting cow joke that one of my granddaughters used to tell me every time I would visit. You know that joke?
No . . .
Interrupting cow who?
Did you hear me move in the middle of your asking? So this is a cow that nobody in the stable likes because she’s always telling that horrible joke and she ends up with a variety of outsiders who love what she does. So, everybody lives happily ever after. I’m on the fourth book now.
Oh, yes, there’s many, many more. I’ve sold a book called Bird Boy, which is being illustrated, and it’s a kind of semi-sequel to Owl Moon, which I wrote, which won the Caldecott. Let’s see, what else have I sold? I have to get out my list of about maybe fifteen, eighteen more books. I have about twenty manuscripts out there. I have about, in total, 130 unsold manuscripts that are rotating around there and I’m always writing something new.
People tell me I’m prolific and I’m realizing that I’m not. That’s very impressive! It’s been great, Jane, to talk to you. I guess your website is the best place if people are looking to find out more about you?
It’s certainly the most accurate because my son Adam, who is my webmaster, and I work on it on a regular basis. If you go anywhere else, you will find that I have written over one hundred books. You will sometimes find that I’m married to Adam, who is my son. You know, I don’t trust anything other than an author’s own website because we know most about ourselves. We know what’s current, what’s not covered.
And it’s just janeyolen.com.
Ok, well, thanks so much for for doing this. Jane, I really appreciated talking to you. I certainly enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.
I did a whole lot. Thank you.
And best of luck with every single one of your many projects coming up
An hour-long conversation with Anna Mocikat, the award-nominated, internationally published author of the Behind Blue Eyes cyberpunk series, as well as the Tales of the Shadow City series, and the MUC series.
Anna Mocikat is the award-nominated, internationally published author of Behind Blue Eyes, the Tales of the Shadow City series, and the MUC series. Born in Warsaw, Poland, she spent most of her life in Germany, where, before becoming a novelist, she graduated from film school and worked as a screenwriter and game writer for more than a decade. Her MUC novels, published by a major German publisher, were nominated for Germany’s most prestigious awards for fantasy and science fiction.
In 2016, Anna moved to the US, where she continues her writing career in English. She lives in Greenville, South Carolina.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Anna, welcome to The Worldshapers!
Hi, Ed, thank you very much for inviting me.
OK, I’m going to tell what happened because . . . we started, and I realized about five minutes in that I had pressed record. So, this is take two.
Well, you’re human, you know. You’re not a cyborg or something like that. So, you’re entitled to making mistakes. That’s OK.
I don’t mind telling listeners. I’m a stage actor, and if there’s one thing you learn as a stage actor, it’s that what audiences really like is to see something go wrong.
Oh, yeah, definitely. That’s also why all the fail videos are so, so popular on YouTube. People love it just to watch how people fail with whatever, right?
Blooper reels and all that sort of thing.
Fall from a bicycle or all kinds of stuff, that’s just the best. You know, you laugh about something and are happy it didn’t happen to you.
So, I guess I should repeat again what I said the first time around, that failed to record, which is that my only connection that . . . we’ve never met, but I’ve been to Warsaw, and it was a long time ago when it was still a communist country, Poland, in the mid-1980s. And I went there as a singer with my choir from Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas. So, we went down there with a bunch of Southerners, we were in Poland, and it was a very interesting tour all over Europe. I mean, it wasn’t just Poland, obviously. We were in Hungary, and we came through Checkpoint Charlie when we came out of Eastern Europe into Western Europe. And if you told me in 1987 that that wall would be gone a year later, it would have I wouldn’t have believed it. So, I’m glad I got to go then, but I’m glad it’s not like that now.
Oh, yeah, me too. Definitely. I think everybody is.
So, we will start by taking you back into the mists of time, as I like to say, to when you were growing up and how did the whole writing thing come about for you?
So, I basically was a writer, a storyteller, always, since earliest childhood. From what my family is telling me, I basically, as soon as I started talking, I started storytelling, basically, and I was really very much into books. As long as I couldn’t read myself, somebody always had to read something to me, and I memorized it and then told it to other people. So then, I learned writing before I went to school. And I was already, when I started, \basically was writing, you know, like very, very little things. And later on, in elementary school, I went away from writing and started making little films with my dad’s VHS camera. He got this fantastic, huge thing where you could put in VHS tapes. And so that’s how I made my first films. And everybody in the neighborhood had to participate if they wanted or not.
So, were there any you . . . you mentioned that you liked books, were there any particular books that had an impact on you at that time?
I don’t really remember the early childhood stuff. I don’t really remember. I only know it from what a family member has been telling me. So, I don’t know if there was a particular book I really, really liked when I was little. I know that I liked poetry, like children’s poetry. That’s the only thing I remember. And later, yeah, I think I read most of the common children’s books, which are at least common in Europe. I think it’s different over here. So, in Europe, Astrid Lindgren books were extremely popular for kids. So, I read all of them when I was a kid, and I loved them. And then I basically jumped directly from kids’ books to adult books. I skipped the young adult.
Those early films that you made, were they, you know, gritty realism, or was there some fantastical element?
I’m not sure anymore, to be honest. I think it was fantastical. I think there were all kinds of fantastic creatures in there and people in silly outfits and so on. So, I’m really, thinking back on it, I’m really surprised that anyone wanted to participate in that. But apparently, it was fun, and yes. So, for me, it was like from earliest time, everybody always was convinced that I would do something in this area. So, there was no doubt about it at any point in my life.
When you got a little bit older in high school, were you focused then very much more on the film side than on the sort of writing story side, or are you still writing just prose stories as well as your interest in writing films?
I think when I was in high school, there was a time where I really started writing, where I started to . . . you know, I wrote short stories, I wrote a little novella, that kind of stuff, and I really began to be interested in how it works. I also went to classes, which had been organized in Munich in the theater, one of the big state theaters. And they had basically, like, a scholarship for high school students, and I got, won a place there. And that was the earliest where I really learned a little bit of professional writing. It was drama writing we learned there. And from there, I took the step to screenwriting. So, I guess this early experience, I was, I don’t know, maybe seventeen or something, was quite important for me later for the decision to go into screenwriting and into moviemaking.
When you went to film school, then, was there a strong screenwriting component to what you studied, or was it like all the aspects—you also studied, you know, camera work?
And so, I studied screenwriting in particular. Originally, I wanted to do directing, but that didn’t work out. So, it worked out . . . they basically didn’t take me for directing. They took me for screenwriting. So, I took that. And the film school system back then, at least in Germany, was that I think there were only three film schools, and everyone only took ten candidates each year, for each branch. So, there would be ten directors and producers, ten screenwriters and cinematographers. So, for me, that was actually a great thing to even get in there at this point. And in the end, it was very, very useful because I learned professional screenwriting and professional writing, which is something most writers don’t. So, I’m very grateful for this opportunity and experience.
I always ask writers about their formal training, and some have had it, and some haven’t, and some who have had it, especially if they took, like, a creative writing class, especially in the science fiction/fantasy field, they sometimes find that it was not very helpful because they had teachers who were dead set against that kind of genre stuff. But I’ve never heard of that being something that comes up in screenwriting.
No, I didn’t write science fiction. Until I became a novelist, I never wrote science fiction. And that has a very, very simple explanation: it’s just very expensive to produce. Science fiction still is, but it got better with all the digital stuff. But you have to imagine, when I was at film school, it was the year 2002, and so back then we didn’t have all of the digital stuff. So, we really made the film like in earlier times, you know, we shot on film and then and we did all the stuff. It was really complicated. It was so much more complicated than it is now. And it was just very, very expensive to produce a film. So, you choose, especially when you’re at the beginning of your career, you choose a genre that is cheap to produce. So, science fiction was completely off the table because it’s one of the most expensive genres you can pick for film production. So, what I did is I went into horror because that’s much cheaper. But I had some problems with that because back then in Germany, in the early 2000s, if you were a young woman and wanted to do horror, that was really, really an issue. So, my professors and so on, they really didn’t understand what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.
Well, horror still falls into what is sometimes called the dark fantasy side of the fantastical genre for sure. And I have interviewed some horror writers, like F. Paul Wilson and people like that on here as well. So, you also then at some point . . . well, first of all, you’re a screenwriter. Did you have stuff produced while you were a screenwriter?
So, in two different ways. So, after my screenwriting education, I actually produced my own films, mostly short films and commercials. So, I actually acted as a director and a producer. It was a scholarship I got, and so I did that for a couple of years. And besides that, I wrote other stuff for, you know, TV and such kind. I was in the writers’ room for a TV station and that kind of stuff.
And then you also did some writing for games.
Yes, that was later. That was . . . I wanted to try something new, and that’s why I went from screenwriting to game writing for a little bit.
What kind of games are you writing?
So, what I was involved most with was a strategy game, so it wasn’t very exciting, actually. It’s like, yeah, you know, the kind of stuff where you send your people somewhere, and they fight other little people, and then they build stuff and that kind of thing.
So, not a lot of, you know, the cut screens and the cut scenes and the branching possibilities. And you have to write dialogue for every possibility, that sort of thing, you know. That’s what I was thinking of.
Because it was Germany . . . you know, the gaming industry in Germany is really, really little, and there are only a couple of game studios, and most of them don’t make the cool stuff. So that was one of the problems I had, that the possibilities to be a game writer in Germany were really, really very limited. So, I had the choice between, like, a strategy game or, I don’t know, mobile games and that kind of stuff. And this was completely not interesting to me, which is why I then quickly went, after only a couple of years, I then decided to basically make my long dream come true and publish novels.
The writing . . . and I’ve done plays as well, and I’m a stage actor, and I’ve written plays, I mean, it’s . . . scriptwriting and novel writing is quite different. And the way that you have to tell the story, because, of course, in scriptwriting, especially plays, maybe in screenwriting there’s a little more freedom because you have more freedom outside of that sort of limited set that you can usually do in a play. But, you know, it’s very much dialogue-driven and kind of external because you can’t get inside people’s heads only through what they say and what they do. So how did that translate over to when you started writing prose and you started to write your novels? Do your novels still have that kind of screenwriting feel, or how did that all play out for you? Did your style change, or what happened? That was a very long-winded question.
I think my style changed over time, but it’s still very much influenced by screenwriting. I think that’s . . . when I tell people that that’s where I’m coming from, most people say, oh, yeah, OK, that shows. So, I hear it all the time that my books are very, very cinematic. And so, what I basically do is I see a movie in my head, but I write it down in prose. And I think actually that screenwriting and novel writing isn’t so far away from each other because both have the same principles of storytelling, which are universal. And I can apply almost everything I learned in screenwriting to novel writing, and I even think that it’s a very good way to start, to try to learn writing, because you really learn how to tell a story that makes sense from beginning to the end. Sometimes people who are, you know, novelists without an education, they just start writing something that comes in their head, and then it doesn’t make so much sense in the end. So, this can’t happen to you when you’re a screenwriter because you always have to know what a story is going. And you have between 90 and 120 pages to tell that. So, that’s how a screenplay, the length of a screenplay should be. Only in, I don’t know, big blockbusters and stuff like that, they can be longer than that, sometimes 130 minutes or something like that. But usually, a movie shouldn’t be longer than two hours. So that’s how you learn to put the story, the complete story, into that. And I think it’s very useful. It’s a skill I can only recommend writers to learn.
I think pacing is something that certainly you get in movies, the way that scenes cut back and forth, but just the whole keeping the story moving forward and not getting bogged down, which sometimes happens in novels. I mean, on the other hand, people sometimes read novels because they want long, leisurely, you know, long literary prose sections which maybe don’t advance the story but are really interesting. So, I mean, there’s all sorts of tastes when it comes to novels.
That’s true. Definitely. That’s absolutely true, of course. And, I mean, there are plenty of bad movies out there.
Yeah, I’ve seen a few of those . . .
So, it’s not that movies are good, and books are not, right? I mean, unfortunately, there is more trash than good stuff.
Well, in science fiction, we famously talk about Sturgeon’s Law, named after Theodore Sturgeon, who said that of course, 90 percent of science fiction is crap, 90 percent of everything is crap. So, you want to try to be in the 10 percent. So, the first novels—the MUC books, were those first your first novels?
So, I wrote one novel before, but that was when I was still working as a screenwriter, and that was just like testing out the waters a little bit, and that was a novel I self-published. But later, the MUC novels were like my official debut novels because they had been picked up by a major publisher in Germany and brought out really widely all over the country, or the three German-speaking countries. And so, this was a huge success for me to bring out those. So, I have been working with one of the top five publishers in Germany. And so, I know that the side of traditional publishing and self-publishing quite well.
What were they about?
So, they are . . . that’s a post-apocalyptic story set in Germany 100 years after a horrible virus which has rotted out 98-percent of the population, and the only ones who have survived are the ones who have a mutation on Chromosome 16. And the mutation on Chromosome 16 is something that shows in many little things like the immunity to the virus and also to red hair. So, it’s a world where there are only red-haired people alive.
That’d make a visual in a movie. So already, in that one, I mean, I don’t know, would you consider that cyberpunk, your writing cyberpunk? Did tht have elements of what you consider cyberpunk?
No, not at all. So, it’s more like a dystopian postapocalyptic thing, something like the Hunger Games, like this. You know, that’s why I went in this direction.
Now you’re in the US, and you’re writing in English. What brought you to the US?
So, I always wanted to write in English because I loved the language and I think it’s easier to express yourself in English than in German. It’s really much easier for me, at least, to write dialogues and stuff that sounds good in English. Yeah, it might be a little bit strange, but that’s how I feel about it.
And the other thing is that I basically . . . in Germany, I basically was stuck in that kind of direction, literarily that direction, like, this kind of dystopian more young-adult stuff. And I wanted to publish real science fiction and go really go into this whole genre and more adult stories. And that wasn’t possible. It wasn’t possible with my publisher, it wasn’t possible with my agent, because they all said you can’t do that as a woman. And so, there was also the point for me when I said, OK, I need to go to the English-speaking market because it’s much bigger and I have much more possibilities here.
And your first English one, was that The Shadow City?
Yes. Mm-hmm. So, I tested the waters with this one a little bit. And this is also, there are two books out now, and the third one will finish it, it was set for a trilogy, and then was Behind Blue Eyes. I basically brought out the story, which I always wanted to write and to tell. This is also planned to be multiple books.
Well, let’s talk about Behind Blue Eyes, then, as an example of your creative process, how you go about creating your books. So, let’s start at the very beginning. I know it’s a cliche, but I still ask it because it is a legitimate question. And it is . . . I hate to say where do you get your ideas, so I always say something like, what was the seed from which this book grew, and where do these seeds for stories come to you? Which sounds more poetic than where do you get your ideas.
Honestly, honestly, I don’t know. I think that’s probably something that many, many authors would tell you. I think there is somehow, like, a reality behind our reality, and that’s where human creativity is coming from. You can call it, like, a divine spark or something like that. I think most of us creatives don’t really know where it is coming from. It just comes, and it’s there. So, it’s the same for me. I just have ideas out of nowhere. And then . . . I mean, I have a notebook full of ideas for stories. I usually write them down, and some will work on me for years, and then I finally write them down or not. I mean, I was the case with Behind Blue Eyes. I had the original idea probably ten years ago, or something like that or longer, and that was brewing inside me for a long time before I finally decided to work it out and then bring it to paper.
And I guess before we go too much further, I should have you give a synopsis of Behind Blue Eyes or an explanation of what it’s about, without spoiling anything you don’t want to spoil.
OK, so, it’s a cyberpunk story with now two books out in the series. The second book just came out two weeks ago, so I’m really excited about that. And it’s the story of Nephilim. Nephilim is a killer cyborg in the year 2095, and she lives in a system which claims to be a utopia, where life is perfect for everybody, and everybody can be whatever they wish to be, and in truth, this is just a fake utopia. In truth, it’s a dystopia that controls every aspect of people’s lives. And the cyborgs like Nephilim have been created to hunt down humans who disagree with the system. And one day, she starts doubting the system, and then she ultimately decides to take a stand against it.
Nephilim, of course, is a half human, half angel. Isn’t that the offspring . . .?
Yes, yes. So, they’re . . . the cyborg squads, they have the name, they are the Guardian Angels of Olympias, Olympias, the society. And they have been called Guardian Angels. And that’s why, it’s explained in the book why they have been called like this. And every one of them, I mean, they are basically introduced into this as children and trained and educated and genetically manipulated. And then eventually, they will get all the machine parts into them, and then they are fully developed cyborgs, or angels, as they are called. And then every single one of them will get an angel name. And so that’s why Nephilim is called Nephilim. There are also many other angel names in this book,
And the Behind Blue Eyes is quite literal, is it? I’m judging from the cover art, I admit. But they actually do have blue eyes.
Yes, they have, they have neon-blue glowing eyes. And yes, so the title refers to that, but it also refers to the song. I really love the song. And the song was actually really important for the story, so if someone knows the song text, it’s a little bit like a red ribbon through the whole story. And in the end of Book One, I think it’s pretty clear who it refers to.
So, you have the idea, which brewed for a while, and then you decided you were finally going to write it. What does your planning process look like? Are you a detailed outliner or do you wing it? How does it work for you?
Mm-hmm. So, I . . . because I come from screenwriting, I am a plotter, so I usually plot out the whole story and then write it down. It’s not that I plot every single scene. I always call it, like, the skeleton of the story. So, I have the basic plot lines and the side plots and the characters and know where everything is going. I usually know the final scene in the showdown when I start writing the first sentence of the book. But on the way, I fill it up with little stuff, little scenes, so it’s not that I completely stick to the plan once it is there, I leave myself some room for improvisation.
How long would your initial outline be?
Not long. The skeleton is actually not so long, maybe two pages or something, because I just write it down in a couple of words, everything. And the funniest thing about it is that I never look at it again. I write it down, and I memorize it, and when I write the book, I never have to look at the outline I wrote. So, I basically just write it to have it kind of set into words, and after that, I won’t need it again.
Well, as plotters go, that’s a fairly low-key level of preplanning. I like to mention Peter V. Brett, who wrote an internationally bestselling series called The Demon Cycle. He told me that he writes a 150-page outline before he writes anything else, which is the most extreme outline thing I’ve run into.
So, that’s what you do in screenwriting, actually. So, I hated that when I was a screenwriter because you have to write this outline. It’s called a treatment, and it’s usually about fifty pages. And it’s really just a story. Every scene that is supposed to be in the screenplay, you will have to write the scene down and outline it and put in there what characters are there and what they’re doing, and so on. So later, you basically only enter the dialogues and the more precise action that happens.
And I always hated that because it was too much for me. So that’s why, now, when I outline it’s, yeah, it’s really just a skeleton. So personally, I just need to know what is going to happen next. And as long as I know that, I’m fine.
Do you do any preliminary work on characters, like character sketches or anything like that, or do you kind of discover them as you write? How do you decide what characters you need and how do you develop them?
So, I think that’s something . . . that’s actually a very, very good question and something I would like to suggest to a newbie author who starts out writing. It is extremely helpful to write down little character biographies for each character you have in your story and in your book. I think that’s extremely helpful. So, that’s what I usually do. I used to do it much, much more extensively. You do that as a screenwriter, too, by the way. You write a bio of a couple of pages for every character. I used to do that. Now I keep it shorter, but usually, I outline the character design precisely. Sometimes that would change in the process. Sometimes characters become more . . .develop in a different direction than I originally wanted. But usually, they stay in a certain way.
I suppose if you think of it in screenwriting or playwriting terms, you may have an idea of what the character’s going to be, but then when the actor gets hold of the lines, the character can change because of what the actor brings to it. In a way, the characters we write in our books may change our initial idea of what they’re going to be like as they come on stage and start acting. That’s the way it feels to me, anyway.
Yes. Yes, of course. I mean, they are the ones who then ultimately bring it to life. And often, once you have actors there who actually act and speak what you’ve written, you will know this stuff that works only on paper, but not as a scene.
Yes, I’ve had that experience, too, in the few plays I’ve written, and I had to change things because it sounded good in my head, but boy, did it sound stupid on stage.
So, what does your actual writing process look like? Are you a fast writer, slow writer, or do you write at home or out—well, everybody’s been writing at home, but you know, when you can, do you go out and write somewhere, in a coffee shop or something? How does that all work for you?
So, I have no idea how people can do that, that they go into a coffee shop and write. I really don’t. That’s a complete mystery to me because I wouldn’t get done anything. I would just sit there and watch people.
And so no, no way. Plus, I really need it very quiet for my writing process. So, I live in the city—Greenville is not a big city, but it’s still a city. So, I live in the city but around me everything is green, and there is a little pond and woods and so on I look at when I work, and that’s exactly the environment I need for being creative. I need it really quiet and nothing going on around me, and that’s how I like it, how I am productive the best.
I’ve actually found that I’ve been less productive when I haven’t been able to go out and write and coffee shops or pubs.
It’s not that I . . . when I’m in those locations, I tune everything out, I mean, I can look up after, you know, somebody may be sitting down having lunch or whatever at another table, and I will look up after a bit, and they’ve gone. And I never knew they were gone. I never knew they left. But for some reason, I find getting away from home, actually, more productive.
That’s really interesting.
I can manage a bit of white noise, you know, conversation. If I can tune in on words. I have to put on headphones and listen to music. I have to shut that out. But the actual movement and stuff doesn’t bother me.
Oh. So yeah, for me, I am absolutely sensitive to noise. I hate noise. So, if I would have even people in the next room talking to each other, I would already be distracted. So, I usually work . . . even though I live in a quiet place, I always work with headphones and with music so I really can completely focus on the thing I’m working on. I think that’s the thing for me. I am horrible at my multitasking. I can’t multitask. So, I really have to focus 100 percent on what I’m doing, and then I’m good at it.
Do you listen to any particular kind of music? Do you change it as you’re writing different scenes? I’ve heard of authors who, you know, put on symphonic movie music which, you know, would accompany a battle or something if they’re writing a battle, I mean, something different for other scenes.
So, I have my playlist, and the playlist is filled with movie soundtracks and video game soundtracks, which are all a little bit sci-fi, cyberpunk style. And that’s basically what I’m listening to all the time, hundreds and hundreds of times. I think it’s a playlist that is twenty hours long or something like that. And so, I have listened to all the songs on it many times.
Well, at this point, your brain has probably made the connections that when it hears that music you’re writing, and it all kind of works together like that, I would imagine.
Oh, yes. Yes, I even have themes for four different characters. So sometimes I pick them. If I’m writing a scene with a certain character and it’s a very important scene, I put on the music that I associate with this character, and then I can listen to the same song for a hundred times in a loop.
That’s very movie-like, too, having the theme music for a character.
Yes. Yeah, I make a movie in my head. I really do. I mean, I always . . . when I write action scenes, I visualize every single detail in an action scene like it would be on the screen. And I watch it in my head many times before I write it down. So, I write it down, including the, you know, the cuts you would have in a film.
Well, that was something I was going to ask you about carrying over from screenwriting job writing. I find that people who have had acting experience on stage or theatrical experience or movie experience, authors tend to sometimes have a firmer grasp of like where characters are in relationship to each other in a particular scene, and especially in an action scene, and all that kind of thing, I think the visualization that you have to do to put something on stage or in a screenplay maybe is very helpful when you’re writing prose and trying to get that same kind of visceral visualization of an action scene. Does that make sense to you?
Yeah, absolutely. It makes absolute sense to me. Yeah. And also . . . so in screenwriting, every sentence basically is one cut. So, when you make the dots, the period, at the end of the sentence, the director knows that’s supposed to be a cut. So, a screenplay is very much like a recipe, like a cooking recipe which you try to write as precisely as possible so that the director, when they are professional and they know what they’re doing, they read a screenplay and they will instantly see the movie the way the screenwriter saw it. So, um, and also other people who, like the cinematographer and others, they . . .it’s all written in such a particular way that all those people, when they read it, will see, of course, not the same, but a very similar movie to what the screenwriter saw. And there is a lot of precision required for that, of course. And that’s what I brought into my, uh, my prose writing. So that’s why it . . . probably the action scenes are my best because they’re extremely precisely written.
Are you a fast writer as you’re working away in silence?
Not as fast as I would like to. I always thought I am relatively fast, but then I found out there are people who write 100,000 words a month. So compared to them, I’m really slow.
I did that once. I wrote 100,000 words in a month.
So, I can’t do that.
I don’t do it regularly. It’s just everything worked that time around. So, once you have, you’ve gotten to the end, do you do rolling revisions as you go along, or do you write a single draft and then go back? What’s your revision process like once you get to the end of the book?
Um, so I always revise on the run. So, what I wrote yesterday, now, when we finish this conversation, I will start working. So, first of all, I will read a couple of pages I wrote yesterday and adjust them and make corrections. And so that’s like the first edit I do. And then, I will write the next scenes and edit them tomorrow. And then, once I’m finished with the whole book, I will start the editing process. So, I would edit it myself and read through it and make changes and then have an editor work over it and then edit it myself one more time and then be finished. But I usually don’t make big changes in the story and the scenes because I plan them in advance. So, I usually know if things are working or not. So, I won’t . . . it’s not like, some authors like throw out 50 pages they have written because they realize it doesn’t work or it doesn’t further the story or anything. So, this never has happened to me. But the downside is that I am slower than others because it takes a lot of effort to do that, everything on the run. So, 1,500 to 2,000 words a day, that’s like a good output for me.
Well, everybody’s different. That’s one of the great things about this podcast is finding out . . . I’ve talked to very, very fast writers, I’ve talked to very, very slow writers and people who revise as they go and people who don’t touch it ’til they get to the end and all that sort of thing. Do you use . . . you didn’t mention them, so I presume you don’t . . . beta readers, which some people like to use, or they have a group of people that they share it with before the final . . .
Yes, yes. I use beta readers, usually maybe four people or something like that. So, they get . . . not the edited version. They basically get the version right when I’m finished writing. So, they get this version, and then I tell them, OK, ignore, like, grammar stuff and then so on, just focus on the story, because that way if something really is not working, hopefully, those people would pick it up.
Have you had any challenge . . . you said you like writing in English more than German. Were there any challenges in switching from one language to the next? I mean, do any German mannerisms creep over into your English that you have to watch out for?
Yes, sometimes they do. It’s getting better. I think I’m getting better daily and that’s something that’s really encouraging and makes me very happy because I work very hard on it. I would like to be as good as a native speaker or someday, which I clearly am not yet. I make grammar mistakes and sometimes . . . so the typical grammar mistakes I make is that I scramble up . . . write a sentence and put the words in the wrong order. You know, one or two words need to be exchanged in the order, something like that. That is typical for me because that’s where the German comes into play. The grammar is different. So, the whole syntax is different in German. And then sometimes I, totally unconsciously, I will bring that into English. And another thing is that sometimes I use a wrong expression because they’re used differently in German than in English. So, I have that in my last book. They used the word plump, and this is, in English, a word which you can only apply to, like, a body of somebody, right? He has a plump body. But in German this word is used also . . . you can use it for a body, but you can also use it when someone has, for example, a primitive way of speaking.
Yeah. So, I used this word wrong, you know. I used it like somebody is trying to convince another person in a very obvious, primitive way to do something. And I used the word plump and the editor said, no, that’s not working.
Well, I’m very impressed. I’ve talked to other authors who’ve written in two languages. And, you know, I live in Canada, and we’re officially a bilingual country, but my French is limited to reading cereal boxes, which is what you do as a kid growing up. You read the French and the English side by side on the cereal box in French.
It’s difficult. I can’t blame you. It’s really difficult.
You know, they have French immersion schools that some people go to, but I didn’t, I just had school French, and it’s pretty useless to me now, I’m afraid. So, I wanted to ask you about cyberpunk.
You’re my second cyberpunk author now in fairly short order. How do you define cyberpunk, and what has drawn you into that style of science fiction writing?
Hmm. So, I guess you’re talking about Mark Everglade, who you had recently.
Yes, he’s quite passionate about cyberpunk.
Yeah. He’s very, very passionate about cyberpunk. We are friends, he’s a wonderful guy, but we disagree on a couple of points about cyberpunk, which is OK because I think no genre is set in stone. There are certain tropes that maybe should be there, but, um, yeah, it’s I mean, it’s not like rocket science where you have to put the exact numbers, or the rocket will crash. So, fortunately, we have more freedoms as authors with the stories.
So, for me, cyberpunk is more focused on cyber than the punk. Let’s say it like that. For me, it goes very much into the direction of hard science fiction. So, it has . . . everything I write always has a scientific logic and scientific reason behind it, and I research everything really thoroughly. So, like in my cyborgs, the muscles they have, the silicate muscles, how they work and why and so on and that they don’t sweat and other things, you know, everything about them. I designed them very precisely, so it makes sense how they are and how the technology inside them works. This is very important for me. So, for me, this is very much the hard sci-fi aspect which I see in cyberpunk. Whereas other sci-fi genres are more open to, let’s say, fantasy, for me, that that’s not part of cyberpunk.
What it also always should have is an urban setting, an urban, futuristic, urban setting, big cities, very often dystopian, but not necessarily. And one of the most important aspects for me is this question about the dark side of technology and how it will influence people’s lives in the future and where the human stops and the machine starts and vice versa. And my absolute favorite example of cyberpunk is Ghost in the Shell, which is a manga and anime from Japan, very famous. And that’s for me, everything that cyberpunk should have. That’s, for me, the perfect, perfect cyberpunk movie. And I think it inspired me more than anything else on my own work.
I’m glad you mentioned the research. I was going to ask you about that, but you’ve kind of answered that question. So, once the book came out—this particular series, all of your books, I guess, in English—have you been pleased with the response? Are you getting good feedback from readers, or how has that been?
So, that’s actually a funny story because I am . . . I almost had writer’s block for the first time in my life when I was writing Behind Blue Eyes 2, Fallen Angels. When I was writing it last year, I got stuck in the first hundred pages and not because I didn’t know what to write because obviously, I already had the story lined out, but because I was so horrified of failure and because this book, the first book was received so well by my readers and reviewers and bloggers. So, basically, everybody likes it or loves it. And I mean, I have written and published many books in my life, and I never experienced something like this, that really everybody would tell you, “OK, this is just fantastic. This is great. I love it.”
I still haven’t experienced that, where everybody says they love it.
So, I had no nobody who would . . . I mean, I have two one-star ratings, they are not reviews, just ratings. Otherwise, I basically only have five-star and four-star, and so that’s the ones that are actually reviews where people have written down what they like. And that’s something I never had because usually, you would always have people who say, “Uh, well, meh,” and I didn’t have that was this book. So, this gigantic amount of love I received should have been motivating for me, but it was a little bit the opposite because I was so scared I couldn’t keep up the quality, and I was . . . so I was horrified. “OK, so this was the best book I have ever written in my life. So that’s that. That’s it. I now can die because nothing better would come.” And that was a little bit the mindset I was in. And as it turns out, the second book in the series, apparently, really meets the standard, and so far, people like it as much as the first or even more, so I think I can keep going and write some more books.
Well, that’s good. OK, so now I’m going. . . I mentioned off the top, before we started recording, the big philosophical questions, which I always kind of wrap these things up with. And I guess there are three. The first one is, why do you write? What do you get out of writing? The second one is, why do you think people write? Why do you think human beings write and tell stories? And then the third one is, why stories of the fantastic? You’ve done horror and you’ve done post-apocalyptic and cyberpunk. Why do you think people tell stories like that instead of just stories about the here and now? So, there you go. Three questions.
OK, so, question number one, why do I write? Because I have no other choice. It’s essential for me. It’s like breathing. It’s really, I can’t live without being creative on a daily basis, and so that’s why I have to do it. I basically was born like that, and that’s how I am and always will be. So, this is an easy, easy question for me to answer.
Then the second was, why do people write? I think that’s a universal thing, actually. Humans create art, and that’s something, in my opinion, extremely fascinating about humans, that we are capable of creating art. That’s absolutely unique. And where this is really coming from and why and how we are able to create in the way we do, that goes beyond my imagination, to be honest with you, because humans create such incredible art, be it music or paintings or books or whatever it is. Honestly, I don’t know where this is coming from, but it’s really something very, very special about the human nature and the human mind and the human . . . I don’t know what. And why fantastic? Because that’s the stuff I like, you know, that’s the stuff I like to read, to watch.
So do I.
So, I don’t really like realism. If I want realism, I leave the house and walk into town, and there I have realism. So that’s not really interesting for me. I like the fantastic.
And what are you working on now?
So right now, I’m working on a new completely new story, a new book which I am planning to release in fall, and then right after that, the next would be Behind Blue Eyes 3, and then there will be an audiobook of the Behind Blue Eyes books in the next couple of months. So, I’m pretty busy.
And where can people find you online?
Yeah. So, I’m on social media. I am on Twitter. I’m on Facebook. I am on Instagram. I am on YouTube, and I have a newsletter. So, there are many, many ways to get into contact with me. And that’s something I enjoy very much, when readers get in touch. So, the easiest way for that is probably to sign up for my newsletter on my website, which is just my first name and my last name written together, dot com. And, um, otherwise, if someone wants to find my books, that’s really very easy. Don’t go by my name because you can misspell it. Just put in “Behind Blue Eyes” into Amazon, and the very first thing that comes up, at least on Amazon.com, will be my book. So, my book is above The Who. I don’t know how that happened, I really don’t, but it’s how it is. So, if you want to find me, think of the song “Behind Blue Eyes,” type it into Amazon, and there you go.
Well, that kind of brings us to the end here. So, thanks so much for the conversation. That was great. I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.
Oh, very much so. That was a great conversation, and you asked me some really interesting questions, and I loved answering them. So, thank you very much.