Episode 52: Nancy Kress

An hour-long interview with Nancy Kress, bestselling Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon, and Campbell Award-winning author of thirty science fiction and fantasy novels and novellas and five short-story collections, including Beggars in SpainProbability Space, and Steal Across the Sky, as well as three non-fiction books for Writer’s Digest on the fundamentals of writing.

Website
www.nancykress.com

Nancy Kress’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Richard Man

Nancy Kress is the bestselling author of thirty science fiction and fantasy novels and novellas and five short-story collections. Among her books are Beggars in SpainProbability Space, and Steal Across the Sky. She’s also published three non-fiction books for Writer’s Digest on the fundamentals of writing.Nancy is a six-time Nebula Award winner, including two consecutive awards for her novellas “After the Fall,” “Before the Fall,” “During the Fall,” and “Yesterday’s Kin.” She’s also the recipient of the Sturgeon and Campbell Awards, as well as two Hugo Awards. Her fiction has been translated into nearly two dozen languages, including Klingon. She teaches writing at workshops, including Clarion West and Taos Toolbox, as well as at the University of Leipzig in Germany as a guest professor. She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband, the author Jack Skillingstead.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Nancy.

Thank you, Ed.

I don’t believe we’ve ever met in person. I’m sure we must have been at the same conventions at the same time, but I don’t think we’ve ever actually spoken in person.

Since I’ve been going to conventions for 40 years, I’m sure we were there some time together.

So, I’m very happy to have you. We’re going to talk about a couple of things, a new novella called “Sea Change” and upcoming novel, The Eleventh Gate. But before we get to that, let’s do the background information. So where did you grow up and how did you get interested in writing? Most of us started as kids, or at least we started reading as kids. And that’s what turned us on to science fiction and fantasy. Was that how it was for you?

Rumpelstiltskin from Andrew Lang’s
The Blue Fairy Book

No, not exactly. I grew up in the 1950s in a small town, and we lived way out in the country. And my mother did not drive and my father had the car away at work, so I didn’t get into town very often. The books that were available to me, other than the ones at home, were in the school library. And remember, this was the ‘50s. When I was a child, the library was divided into a boys’ section and a girls’ section, and all of the science fiction, with little rocketships on the spines, was shelved in the boys’ section, and all of the fantasy in the girls’ section. So I read Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book, and Green Fairy Book, and Plaid Fairy Book and Polka-Dot Fairy Book and all the rest of them, and some fantasy, but no science fiction.

I didn’t see any science fiction until I was fourteen. I had my first boyfriend, who lived down the road and was studying to be a concert pianist. And every day after school, I would go over to his house and hang over the piano adoringly while he practiced. And the problem with that is that I’m tone-deaf and I can only hang adoringly for about ten minutes. And after that, I started inching towards the bookshelves in his parents’ house and pulling out books at random. And one of the books that I pulled out was Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. And in five minutes, I was in love, and not with the pianist. I’d never seen anything this…wide…with such a large canvas, so grand. And I immediately got very interested in it.

But I didn’t think of myself as a writer. Again, my mother was Italian-American. She raised me in the way she’d been raised, and she sat me down when I was twelve and said, “Do you want to be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary?” Those were all the things she could imagine. And I said, “A teacher, I want to teach kids.” She said, “OK, you’ll have to go to college for that.” And that’s what I did. I taught the fourth grade for four years after I graduated from college, and I didn’t start writing until I was almost 30. It didn’t occur to me that this was even possible. As a child, a young child like eight or nine, I didn’t know that anybody was a writer. I thought all writers were dead. The writers I was reading were like Louisa May Alcott and Zane Grey and the Nancy Drew books, and I assumed it was a finite resource like oil, and we were going to run out of it eventually.

Peak author. So, you did go into writing, but you did start writing fiction, right away. You were writing…you went into the sort of corporate copy and that sort of side of writing to begin with, didn’t you?

That actually was later.

Oh, was it?

That was later. I started writing when I was pregnant with my second child. I was home, again, living out in the country, with a toddler and a difficult pregnancy and alone a lot of the day with the kids. And when they were napping, I started writing to have something to do that didn’t involve Sesame Street and had words of more than two syllables. And I didn’t take it seriously for a long time. I was a mother, and that was what I was doing, and I was taking my graduate work in elementary education because I assumed I’d go back to that, which I actually never did. And I would send stories out and they would come back and I’d send them out and they would come back. And then after a year, one of them sold. And then, after another year, another one sold, and slowly it began to dawn on me that I really like doing that better than teaching the fourth grade.

I see from the bio that you have on your website your first story was what you termed the “eminently forgettable” “The Earth Dwellers,” which appeared in Galaxy in 1976. I remember Galaxy; I had a subscription to Galaxy for a while. I probably read it.

But what I did not know, Ed, was that Galaxy, at the time they brought my story, was trembling on the verge of bankruptcy, and everybody who knew anything, which did not include me, had stopped sending them material. So, I think they bought my story partly out of desperation. And then they promptly went out of business right after that and declared bankruptcy. And it took me three years to get my $105. I kept writing to Saul Cohan over and over again, saying, “This is my first story, and I really, really want the payment.” And finally, they sent me a cheque. Whining has its uses.

Your first novel came out about five years after that, right?

Yes. And it was a fantasy. The first three novels were fantasies. And then I switched to science fiction. And I really don’t know why, because nothing about my career has been planned. I didn’t plan on being a writer. I didn’t plan on writing fantasy novels. I didn’t plan on switching to science fiction novels. I have never done what many people say you’re supposed to do, which is build a brand. And as a result, the whole thing has a certain haphazard luck to it.

Well, I think one of the things I find doing this podcast is that every writer comes to it from a different direction and in a different path. And, you know, people ask, “How do you become a writer?” And it’s, well, there’s a different story for everybody that becomes one, it seems to me.

Yes, that’s absolutely right.

You did get a master’s in English. Did you take any actual creative writing courses at any point? I ask that because I get widely varying opinions from authors as to whether those did them any good or not, the ones who took them.

I took one, and I was fortunate because the instructor liked and understood science fiction. He didn’t write it himself, but he liked it and he understood it. Other people I’ve talked to, writers, have had very bad experiences because their instructors…I know one writer whose instructor told him, “I don’t know why reality isn’t enough for you.” But this was useful to me. I had just started to write, and it was useful because it explained things like what a point of view is and why it’s nice to have one and other basic things that, even though I had always been a reader, ever since I was a little kid, I would read absolutely anything, if there was nothing else available. The back of a cereal box would do, but I’d never thought about the mechanics of it. And so, yes, it was useful. And because it was a critique class, it was also useful to get the feedback from other students in the class who were at least readers, or they wouldn’t have been there.

Yes, I often ask people who started writing as a kid, as some did, like I did. And I would share my…I sort of did the critique thing. I would share my stories with my classmates. And I found out that they actually liked my stories and that at least gave me some income, an indication that, you know, I could tell a story that maybe somebody would be interested in reading. You actually…I got ahead of myself previously, but you did work writing corporate copy and advertising copy and that sort of thing for a while.

Yeah, that came a little later. After I got my master’s degree in English and my kids were old enough to go back to school, to start school, I realized I didn’t want to teach the fourth grade, and I know I probably wouldn’t have been able to even if I had wanted to, because it was the baby bust, and they were laying off elementary teachers, not hiring them. So I took work as an adjunct at the university. And then for a couple of years, I filled in full time, not tenure track, but when somebody was going on sabbatical, I would fill in and take over for them in the English department. So I taught college for a couple of years. And then, because that’s a sort of hit-and-miss thing, I needed a real job because I was getting divorced. And that’s when I went to work for an ad agency and wrote corporate copy, internal copy, mostly for Xerox.

Did you find that type of writing has helped you in any way in your fiction writing? I always say writing is writing, and you can get some benefit out of just about any kind of writing you do.

I found it interesting and useful, not so much from a writing standpoint, but from the viewpoint…because I already published a couple of novels by then and a whole bunch of short stories…I found it useful in understanding how the world works and especially how power works. I had been in academe my whole life as a student, as a fourth-grade teacher, as a college teacher. The corporate world is much different. And it was an education for me to see how…because I was writing for executives, mostly. I would be writing scripted slideshows, speeches, things like that, starting with newsletters and then working my way up. And it was very interesting to see that the corporate world runs on entirely different principles. And it was useful in that respect. As far as the actual writing, less so, because corporations want things phrased in ways that are almost antithetical to good English. I had spent a lot of years learning to write clear sentences, but clear sentences tend not to disguise responsibility so much as the use of passive verbs. You don’t say “so-and-so decided,” you say, “it was decided that.” And large words…a Lot of terrible words were coming into use at that time. “Incentivize,” “negative profits,” things like that, that they wanted included in the copy. So, the writing was not…it didn’t help the writing in that sense, but it did help my education, which had been pretty sheltered, about how the world works.

And then, when did you start writing about writing? You said you’d already been teaching writing some. And you wrote a column for many years for Writer’s Digest. When did that all come along?

Yes. The column came first. The college where I was teaching, State University in New York at Brockport, on a hit-and-miss basis, ran a bunch of summer workshops called the Writer’s Forum, and they had a section for…where they brought in, paired one faculty member with one visiting writer. They had a section for poetry, a section for fiction, a section for journalism, all kinds of them. And somebody decided that a section for science fiction would be good. And this was very useful to me because I got to bring in, every summer for a week, another science fiction writer, who stayed at my house and we talked together. And this forged a lot of alliances and friendships that were very valuable to me. My first year, I taught with Frederick Pohl, the second with Gene Wolfe, the third with Connie Willis, and it went on and on like that. And I really, really enjoyed those.

But one of the other sections was magazine writing, which was being taught by a visiting person who was one of the editors on Writers Digest. And he said to me, “You know, you should you should write a column for us.” First, he said, “You should write some articles for us.” So, I wrote three articles, which they published, and then their regular fiction columnist, Lawrence Block, was ready to leave. He was getting tired of the whole thing. So, he left, and they hired me to do that, and I wrote the Writer’s Digest column for sixteen years. It really was just an extension of my teaching, because by that time I was teaching a lot of writing. And then out of that grew the three books on writing.

I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, my nine-month term is just wrapping up, and I’ve done that on another occasion, and I’ve taught short courses here and there along the way, and I’ve always found that trying to tell other people how to write is very beneficial to me in figuring out how I can do what I do better. Do you find that you learn from being a teacher?

Yes, very much. Every summer, Walter Jon Williams and I teach a two-week intensive workshop called Taos Toolbox in Taos, New Mexico. And our guest visiting writer is George R.R. Martin every year. And we…in fact, I’m reading manuscripts right now to choose our 18 students. And I find that going over these manuscripts…because it’s really, we work them very hard. In addition to being in class to do critiquing of each other’s work, we also assign exercises, and we do analysis of fiction, successful fiction, all kinds of things. And I get an awful lot out of that every year. The students bring different manuscripts every year, of course, and a wide variety of them. Some fantasy, some science fiction, some space opera, some military fiction. And I find it useful to me to try to figure out why a story isn’t working. It’s easy with the manuscripts that need a lot of attention, but very often at this level, you get manuscripts where they’re not quite working, but you’re not quite sure why. And sitting down, trying to pinpoint exactly why this isn’t working, and what might make it work, has a lot of carryover into my own work.

Well, let’s talk about your own work. Two pieces I wanted to talk about, and maybe we’ll start with “Sea Change,” which is the novella that’s out from Tachyon. First of all, maybe give us a synopsis of it without giving away anything you don’t want to give away.

OK. “Sea Change” concerns three things. It’s a story about the genetic engineering of crops, GMOs are a very controversial subject, obviously, and I wanted to present both sides of this, although it’s clear which side I’m going to be coming down on, I think from the beginning. That’s one strand that went into the story. Another strand that went into the story is ocean blobs that we are increasing the getting off the West Coast. Seattle is my adopted city. I love it. I came here ten years ago to marry my husband, and I just love Seattle. It’s gorgeous. Every once in a while, off the coast, beaches are closed because we get blobs, ocean blobs. And they’re usually not harmful. They’re caused by runoffs from rivers and creeks with a lot of fertilizer in them, which causes the ocean algae to just go crazy and bloom, Everything under them, because the algae bloom is so dense, dies. That wouldn’t be a problem in itself, because they do break up eventually in the fall, except that every once in a while, certain bacteria combine with the blooms and they produce a toxin called domoic acid that poisons fish, that poisons sea lions, that poisons the small fish, then the larger fish eat them, and then the sea lions eat those, and you get a perfect disaster. And then the beaches are closed because it can also poison people. 

The third strand that went into the novella was a love story. In fact, if I had it to do over again, I would probably call it “Sea Change: A Love Story.” But by the time this occurred to me, the novella had already been printed, and I didn’t think that Tachyon was going to want to go changing the title at that point. But it is very much a love story.

Now, one thing I wanted to ask you about was the difference between planning for a novella and planning for a novel. So, maybe we’ll also just flip over and you can give a brief synopsis of the novel as well. And then we’ll sort of talk about everything at once. So, the novel that’s coming out is called The Eleventh Gate, and it’s quite different. It’s a far-future space opera.

Yes, it is. I’ve always wanted to write a space opera because that was the kind of thing I was reading when I first discovered science fiction. I was reading Asimov’s Foundation series, I was reading that sort of thing, and I wanted to write a space opera. But I haven’t ever actually done it.

So, that one takes place in a pretty far future after Earth has been environmentally trashed and hardly anybody lives there anymore. There’s a couple of holdouts, but not very many. Gates have been discovered orbiting the moon. They’re hard to see, but. And we’re not up there very much. But once they get there, they find them and they lead to eight other planets. So, all of these get settled by various different groups from Earth, the eight worlds, and they are connected with these space gates that you can go through. There are ten space gates connecting the various planets because some have two, going from one planet to another. And then, someone discovers an eleventh gate. And what’s behind the eleventh gate changes everything, including the very precarious truce, balance of economic and political power among the eight worlds. And that’s what I wanted to write about, the balance of political and economic power. And I wanted to do it through certain characters, many of them women, but not all, who are very varied in belief, in temperament. None of them is somebody…well, maybe one…but other than that, nobody is someone you can say, “Oh, this is clearly the heroine. This is the good person. This is the one I want to identify with.” I was trying to make them all having the flaws of their particular backgrounds. And a few of them are just batshit crazy.

So, these are two very different stories. This is a cliched question, but it’s still a valid question, which is, I hate to say, “Where do you get your ideas?” But let’s say what inspired you to write each of these…you mentioned a little bit, I think, on “Sea Change”…and is this typical of the way that story ideas come to you?

Well, more and more, I have been writing hard SF, which “Sea Change” is. The science in it is all completely accurate. That wasn’t true when I started writing. I was writing soft science fiction, in which it didn’t really matter if the science hung together. And that transitioned into, I guess, high-viscosity science fiction, if not actually hard. And now, I write hard SF. So, although I can’t usually pinpoint where a specific idea came from, and with “Sea Change” it would also be difficult. It came off the general area of genetic engineering, which I read about a lot, and which I am obsessively interested in. I’m not trained as a scientist. I wish I were, but it’s a little late for that. But I read about it, I learn about it, because this is the future. This is where we’re going. And “Sea Change” is a direct outgrowth of that interest.

The specific idea started, as all of my stories start, with a character. And this time it was the character of an old man, a patriarch, still very powerful, who runs a world and who is brought a business proposition he can’t refuse. And from there, once I had this, I wrote, as I always do, I wrote the first scene sort of in a white-hot heat. And then I sat down and said, “OK, what have I got here? Who is this person? Who is this other person? Where is this going? What are the implications of the situation I’ve set up?” And the same thing is true of (The Eleventh Gate). The first couple of scenes came to me, and then I write them, and then I sit down and I start thinking about first the characters and the situation, and then secondly, the things I’ve learned painfully about structure. Structure came harder to me than characterization, which is one reason why my short stories for a very long time were more successful than my novels.

So it sounds like you….basically it’s a process of self-interrogation, where you have the initial thought, and then you ask yourself a lot of questions. Is that a fair way to describe that?

That’s half of it. That’s the questioning part that is intellectual. Because there are two questions that guide the construction of all fiction, basically. One is, “What do these people want?” If your characters don’t want anything, you really don’t have a piece of fiction. Sometimes maybe all they really want in a short story is to be left alone. But it’s better…and the longer the work, the more things they have to want and the more they have to want them intensely. So you ask, “What do these people want?” And the other question is, “What can go wrong?” Because that’s where the conflict comes from. If your character wants something and then they go out and get it, you really don’t have a story there, either.

So intellectually, those two questions guide me. But on the other side, it’s a little more mystical. It’s like the Stanislavski method of acting, where you become the character. I try to become this person from the inside out. When I write “Sea Change,” I am Renata. And if…when this goes well—and it doesn’t every day, but some days it does—my life disappears. I disappear. The room around me disappears. I am Renata, and I’m in this space, and what Renata would do next comes to me naturally because I’m in her mind, I’m in her heart, or she’s in mine. And that’s the other part of how I proceed. I know this sounds like a mishmash of intellectual combined with mystical. But that’s kind of how it is.

Have you done any theater?

Have I done what?

Theater. Any acting?

No. No. I don’t think…my sister is an actress. She’s a very good actress. But I don’t think I could do it. I’m…like many writers, not all, but many. I’m very much an introvert. And the idea that I have to get out there and interact with people every night for eight shows a week. It wouldn’t work. Also, I’m a morning person.

Well, that really doesn’t work.

No, it really doesn’t work. They wouldn’t let me go home at nine o’clock at night. So, no.

So, I asked that partly because I am an actor and have done, both professional…

Oh! What kind of acting do you do?

Mostly stage acting. I’ve done a lot of musicals.

That’s what my sister does. Well, she doesn’t do musicals too much anymore. She started with it. Because her voice isn’t trained, and as she’s gotten older, it’s gotten a little rusty. But she’s…she had marvelous stage presence. She still does. She does a lot of Shakespeare.

The reason I asked was what you’re describing is, of course, the acting process, you know, however you approach it, you pretend to be somebody else, you try to inhabit that person and bring them to life on stage. And the authors I’ve spoken to who have done stage acting find that it’s, the two processes are very similar. So, yeah. Absolutely. And now, what does your actual planning…

I didn’t come to it that way, though. I came to it as a reader. Even as a girl, what I would read something, the whole world would go away. My mother would get quite irritated because she’d have to say my name three or four times before I’d even hear her. I became those people in those books. And that kind of identification for me grew out of reading, not acting.

Yeah, I had both.

Doubly blessed!

So, what does your actual planning/outlining process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you do just kind of a sketch, or what does your planning look like? And how is it different for the shorter work as opposed to the longer work?

The shorter work doesn’t really have any planning. The shorter work I kind of write, and about halfway through it all comes together in my mind. By shorter, I’m saying something under 10,000 words. And when you grow things organically that way, a certain number of them die. And that has happened. I have a whole file full of unfinished short stories that will never be finished because it just dried up on me.

That doesn’t work for longer work. For novellas or novels, you have to have some sort of structure. And structure has been harder for me to learn than characterization or language. What I do now is…I don’t know everything that’s going to happen, but I have a general idea where I’m going, and what I will do, as I did this morning, is I will sit down and I’ll think, “OK, this is the next scene, and this is the one after that, and the one after that might be this.” And I’ll make notes of those three scenes, and as they get a little clearer in my mind, I’ll sit down—going with the general direction that I know I’m moving—and I’ll write…I’ll begin work on one of those scenes. And by the time I finished it, I’m hoping that a couple more will have become clear to get where I need to go. 

There are certain things I will check for, too, as I’m going along. You need to have the stakes rising throughout the story, as they do in “Sea Change.” You need to have the conflict escalating. You need to move towards some sort of climax. And you need to make sure that there isn’t too much after the climax or it will be…anticlimactic! So, there is a certain structure that I have in my head, and it’s built around, again, those two questions, “What do these people want?” and “What can go wrong?”

And what they want might change. In fact, for the length of an entire novel, it has to. When I’m teaching, I point out to my students…I can’t count that they all have read the same stuff,  although I give them some short stories and we talk about those. But I can usually count on some movies they’ve seen, one of which is Star Wars. So, we talk about that in terms of what Luke wants at the beginning, which is to get the hell off Tatooine, and what he wants after that, which is to find Obi-Wan Kenobi, and on through his changing desire to become a Jedi knight, too, and right up to where his desire is to destroy the Death Star. What he wants changes and builds, and it also raises the stakes each time. So, those things kind of guide me as I fumble my way through the manuscript.

How much of this do you write down ahead of time?

Not a lot. I make a lot of notes on the science because, again, I’m not trained on that. And I will do a lot of research and a lot of notes on the science and how I can use it. Science itself suggests a lot of plot points. The more I found out about domoic acid, the more plot points came through for “Sea Change.” So, the science itself will guide it. What the characters are like will guide it. Other characters’ reactions to my protagonist will guide it. The process…I know it sounds messy, but that’s because it is messy. I can’t…I don’t outline. I’m kind of in awe of writers who do outline in detail because I can’t do that.

I think my…the example I keep giving from the people I’ve talked to on the podcast is Peter V. Brett, author of The Demon Cycle. And he writes 150-page outlines before he starts writing. And that’s the most detailed outliner I’ve encountered yet in the podcast.

That’s amazing. I would feel like I’d written the whole book. I would need to write it, then.

Yeah, I don’t think I would work for me either. What is your actual writing process look like? Do you, you know, get a quill pen and sit under a tree, or…?

No. I write mornings. If it doesn’t get written by noon, it doesn’t get written. In the afternoon, I will do research and publicity and student manuscripts and stuff like that. But in the morning, I get up very early, like five o’clock. And that hasn’t always been the case, but it’s been…well, it’s been the case for much of my adult life. First, I needed to get up and write before my children got up, and then by that time, it was already ingrained. It was too late to change. But I get up, and for the first hour, I drink the first cup of coffee, I putter around the kitchen, I look at the e-mail, but don’t answer it, I check CNN to make sure nothing has blown up overnight, things like that. And then, around six, I settle in and I write…I work for several hours.

And do you do a…getting to the revision process, do you just barrel through to the end and then go back and revise, or do you revise along the way or how does that work for you?

Both. The plotting of scenes and the thinking about them is all done on a clipboard with yellow legal pads. The actual writing of words that will go into the story is done on a computer. And usually, I write the whole thing straight through. But if I feel that I’m in trouble, then I will stop and go back and rethink it, with my little clipboard and my yellow pages, and sometimes dump large sections of what I’ve written and then go back to the computer and write new sections. But I try not to do that too much. I try to have some sense of what I’m doing. The first half is always messier than the second half, because by the second half I really know what I’m doing.

That’s a first draft. The second draft, I will revise major things, characterization problems, scenes that are missing that I think I need now. I keep sort of running list of these as I’m working. And that’s the big stuff. The third draft, I go through and I clean up. I also, on the second draft, will pick up things where…I don’t want to stop writing, so I write in triple parentheses, “Find this out later,” and then keep going. These are details that I just don’t want to stop and research at the time.

And I have to say the computer and the Internet make this so much easier. I remember when I first started to write, this was in the ’80s, and the Internet didn’t exist, and I needed to know for some story long forgotten how high a regulation basketball hoop was from the gym floor. This required a trip over to the university library, trying to find it myself, failing, bothering the reference librarian, and she and I riffled through things till we finally find it, then I had to trudge all the way home. There’s a couple of hours involved for this stupid little detail.

I remember those days, yeah.

Oh, yeah. Now, it’s so easy. It’s so nice to be able to do it on the Internet and find out instantly how high that basketball hoop is supposed to be.

As long as you’re disciplined enough not to then end up finding yourself reading a history of the National Basketball Association or something like that along the way.

Well, with sports, that’s not really a temptation for me. The only sports I’m really interested in are the Seattle Seahawks.

Do you have anybody that reads…like, beta readers that some authors like to use, or is it just you…

My husband.

Oh, well, yeah. I was going to ask you about being married to a writer. So there you go.

Yes. Before Jack, I was married to Charles Sheffield, who died of a brain tumor in 2002. So, it’s been two writers. And in each case, we looked at each other’s manuscripts and made suggestions. And yes, that’s very, very helpful.

I married an engineer, who is not much help to me as a writer, but has been a great help to me on the family income side.

Yes, I can imagine.

Good career move on my part. She hates that joke, but it’s true. So, once you have your final draft, then it goes to the editor, what kind of editorial feedback to you typically get on your work?

Oh, it varies so much by editor. There are editors who do absolutely no editorial work. Obviously, they send it to a copy editor, who will go over it and look for factual errors and inconsistencies, and why does she have blue eyes in Chapter 3 and green eyes in Chapter 18, that kind of thing. But I’ve had editors that have made extremely useful, substantive suggestions, and I’ve had editors that I’m not absolutely positive read the manuscript.

You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers over the years, haven’t you?

Yes, yes. For a while, they kind of kept going…amalgamating or going bankrupt or whatever. I followed David Hartwell around for a while from different posts, and that was kind of nice. And then eventually, I was working with Jim Minz, his assistant, and then Jim left, and I went to a different publisher. And now I’m back with Jim Minz at Baen, that’s publishing The Eleventh Gate, which I’m very pleased to be back working with him. And in the meantime, the novella is a standalone…

Well, the novella is my favorite form. Science fiction, for reasons that defy understanding, defines a novella as between 17,500 and 40,000 words, and my novellas are usually pushing up at the 40,000-word mark. It’s my favorite form because a novella is short enough to need a single plotline to go barreling through, long enough to create an alternate world or a believable future. In a novel, on the other hand, you need not only a main plot but braided plots on top of that, and I find that more challenging. I really like novellas. Almost all of my awards are for novellas.

Is the editing process different for those than for novels?

Not really. Some editors give me useful feedback, things that they think need to be strengthened. That happened with “Sea Change.” I got some very useful information from Jacob (Weisman) about the ending on that. And I rewrote the ending to strengthen it. But some do and some don’t. It depends on both the editor and the work.

I have been with…DAW is my major publisher, and so I’ve worked with Sheila Gilbert. I’ve only had the one editor for my major books. And so, it’s always interesting to me to talk to people about working with a variety of editors. I have worked with other editors of smaller publishers, but Sheila is so good, I don’t know what it’d be like to work with a different editor.

I’ve never had the pleasure of working with Sheila.

Well, we’re getting close-ish to the end, so I want to move on to the big philosophical questions. You’ve done a lot of thinking about writing and a lot of teaching of writing, so this should be easy for you. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write, first of all, and why science fiction and fantasy specifically?

There are days when I think I have no idea why anybody writes. But, you know, actually, that’s a difficult question, Ed.  I’ve done this for so long, for forty years now, that it’s so deeply ingrained in me to think in terms of stories that I can’t imagine…oh, I can’t say I can’t imagine doing anything else, because I’ve done other things. I’ve taught the fourth grade, I wrote corporate copy. If you go back far enough in my college days, I waitressed in the summers. I mean, I have done other things. And of course, I was a full-time mother for a number of years, so I can imagine doing other things. But I have always told myself stories. Long before I knew I was going to be a writer, I told myself stories as I fell asleep, in which I was always the heroine. Since the 1950s Saturday morning consisted of cartoons and westerns, these were westerns. We weren’t allowed to watch television except on Saturday morning. So, I would invent gangs of my Western heroes, Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger and all the rest of it. And I’d be a member of this gang, too, and I’d invent all these stories and tell myself a different chapter every night. Stories were ingrained, and I think that the human brain is built to understand the world in terms of stories.

Og, sitting around the campfire, tells a story about the great hunt he did that day, and then everybody else wants to go where Og went and kill a bison where he killed one. We’re meant to understand the world in terms of stories. And I think that’s why even people who don’t read usually watch television, with its versions of stories, and movies.

And Og embellished his story, too, the more often he told it,

Oh, Og was a terrible liar. Can’t believe a word the man says.

So, why do you think we, those of us who do, why do you think we write within the science fiction and fantasy genres specifically?

So, that’s a little harder to understand. I think, though, that it’s a large enough canvas, it’s especially suited—and this really is a cliché—to exploring ideas: political ideas, scientific ideas. It’s a rehearsal for different ways that we might live, or rather an exploration of different ways that we might live. My favorite SF writer of all time is Ursula LeGuin. And I have read The Dispossessed until my copy fell apart and I had to buy a new one. I’ve also taught it on two continents. She’s taken there the idea of anarchy, and she’s saying, “Would this be a viable way for us to live? And if so, what might it look like?” And I think that’s what science fiction does.

With “Sea Change,” I’m saying, “OK, what if we really were serious about the genetic engineering of crops, what might drive us to do that and what might it look like if we did?” And I think you can do that with most fiction, and with science fiction and fantasy you can especially do it because you can alter whatever you want to alter and put it under a kind of a microscope and say, “OK, if this were different, how would it affect us as humans?” And then you can write about it and look at it.

Well, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and of course, the idea is of the writers shaping the worlds that they’re writing about, but do you think or hope that your fiction might have shaped the real world in some way, or if that’s too grand, at least shaped readers in some way to think differently?

I have readers who write me and who tell me that Beggars in Spain changed them, yes. That’s my most famous novel. It’s about people genetically engineered to not need to sleep.

I remember it well.

Well, that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about other things, as well. But I don’t know. I think there are very few books in history that have had that kind of impact—I don’t mean the kind of impact of Beggars in Spain, I mean a genuinely large impact—and even fewer that have shaped politics, economics, even science. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring would be one. Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be one in terms of giving a huge impetus to the abolition movement before the civil war.

Maybe some of Dickens?

Some of Dickens, yes, for child labor. But I don’t think there’s a lot of them. I don’t think that they shape a specific thing, so much a specific event or a specific situation, as they do shape the way that readers of science fiction, good science fiction, at least, have a certain flexibility of mind. They can look and entertain at least the possibility that things could be different than they are now.

And not everybody can do that. I have relatives who never read fiction. They say, “Why would I want to read it if it didn’t happen?” And this is completely alien to me. They also have very practical minds. They look at the world as it is and try to say, “OK, why do I want to do with what’s here?” But they never look at the world the way it is and say, “How could this be different?” And for me, that’s the most interesting part about fiction. How could this be different? How could I be different? How could what I do be different? How could what’s around me be different? And science fiction, I think, is particularly well suited to that.

And of course, there’s the fact that it’s fun.

It is fun.

Both to read and write. I think, anyway. So what are you working on now?

Well, I don’t like to talk about work in progress very much, but I am working on a novel that is about the nature of human consciousness. Nothing like taking on a large subject, is there?

So it’s a short story, then.

It’s already, it’s not done and it’s already longer than it’s supposed to be.

And coming up, we have The Eleventh Gate, I think will be out just before this goes live. So that will be the freshest thing, I think, when the podcast goes live. Where can people find you online, or learn more about you?

I have a website, nancykress.com. I have a Facebook feed, but I’m not on it, I’m afraid, very much, or at all, anymore. So, that’s probably not good. But anybody who wants to contact me can do it through the website. And the publication date for “Sea Change” has been pushed back due to the coronavirus. Jacob pointed out that there are actually no bookstores to ship this book to. So, we’re hoping that by the end of May, when is a new pub date, that there will be.

Is that for “Sea Change” or The Eleventh Gate?

Yes, both of them.

Both of them. Yes, and I was going to say, well, and people can find you at conventions, but not for a while, it looks like.

Not for a bit. And of course, both books will be available on Amazon. Along with everything else in the world.

All right. Well, I think that about wraps it up, so thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. It’s been a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

I really did. Thank you for having me, Ed. I guess I didn’t equal Scott Card’s two hours’ worth of talking, but…

Yes. Well, Scott said that he went on because I would let him talk and didn’t interrupt. And so, his default is, if the interviewer is not saying anything, I should fill the space. And so, I got two hours out of him.

Oh, OK.

Anyway, thanks so much for being on and hope to actually meet you in person sometime in the future.

Well, I’m supposed to be Guest of Honor at WorldCon in D.C. in 2021, if it happens.

Yeah, and I’d like to be there. So hopefully, I’ll see you there if not before.

That would be really nice. Take care, Ed.

You, too. Bye for now.

Bye-bye.

Episode 38: James Alan Gardner

An hour-long conversation with James Alan Gardner, author of ten science-fiction and fantasy novels and numerous short stories, including finalists for the Nebula and Hugo Awards and winners of the Aurora, the Asimov’s Readers’ Choice, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Awards, with a particular focus on his Dark vs. Spark series (Tor Books), which began with All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault.

Website
jamesalangardner.com

Twitter
@jamesagard

James Alan Gardner’s Amazon page

The Introduction

Xiaopu Fung of Xiaopu Photography

James Alan Gardner got his bachelor’s and master’s in math with a thesis on black holes, then immediately began writing science fiction instead. He has published ten novels and numerous short stories, including finalists for the Nebula and Hugo and winners for the Aurora, the Asimov’s Readers’ Choice Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His most recent novels are All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, first book in the Dark vs. Spark series, and They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, the second book, both from Tor. In his spare time, he plays a lot of tabletop roleplaying games and has recently begun writing material for Onyx Path’s Scion line. In his other spare time, he teaches kung fu to six-year-olds.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, James.

Thanks, Edward. Glad to be here.

I guess we’ve kind of known each other for a long time, but we don’t encounter each other very often. But we did see each other at When Worlds Collide, which is something…When Words Collide. It always comes out as When Worlds Collide.

Yeah, yeah. It’s a great idea and a great title. And it was a great con this year.

Was that the first time you’d been?

Yes.

It’s close to me, so I’m there most years. It gets plugged a lot on The Worldshapers, ’cause I’ve asked a number of writers to be on after I saw them at When Words Collide.

Well, if I can make it next year, I certainly will. I had a great time there.

And I guess this is a good place to mention to those interested that the website for that is WhenWordsCollide.org. It does fill up every year, so if you’re interested in going, it wouldn’t hurt to to sign up for next year, right now. But enough about that, let’s talk about you! I always start by taking guests back into the mists of time, and for you and me, it’s roughly the same amount of mists, to find out, first of all, when you became interested in writing, and when you became interested in writing science fiction. I’ve seen from other interviews that you started writing pretty early.

Yes. I still have some of the things that I wrote when I was, like, five. They are hiding in my parents’ house and I hope they will never see the light of day. The first thing…I can remember writing what would be called fanfic these days, which was in my time based on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—which tells how old I was—and me and my friends were spies: the standard thing that one writes when one is…I guess I was twele at the time…and I kept writing some of that for a while.

I wrote several plays when I was in high school, but I really got serious in my first year of university. I was in co-op at the University of Waterloo, and there the co-op program is sort of four months in school, then four months in work placement, and I was working for IBM in Toronto, where I knew no one, and didn’t have a whole lot of money. But writing was cheap. So, for four months on my work term in Toronto, I amused myself by writing science fiction. And none of that was saleable, but bit by bit, I got better.

Well, I think it’s come up a few times on here with different authors, the famous saying…I always attribute it to Stephen King, that you had to write half a million words of unpublishable stuff before you wrote anything publishable, but then somebody recently who’d met Ray Bradbury said that he used to say 800,000 words.

Yeah, yeah. A whole bunch of junk before you get down to the good stuff underneath.

Yeah, that’s what it boils down to. So, you got your bachelor’s and master’s in math, but you never actually used that? You went straight into writing? Or what happened after you graduated?

I went…for two years after I got my master’s, I tried to write something significant. I was working on a novel…and I still like the idea for the novel, I might…every now and then, I think, “Is it time to write that? Maybe. Probably not yet.” But for two years I tried to make a living writing while tutoring calculus. That was my income. And at the same time, I was also writing for a musical comedy review at the university, and someone who was associated with that show put me in contact with a group in the computer science department who wanted someone to write computer manuals for them. So, I got a job half-time writing computer manuals, and that kept me in money for long enough for me to start selling stories and things.

Well, it’s interesting, because when I decided to be a full-time writer, one of the things that got me going was there was a market for, you know, general computer books at the time. So, people ask me what my first book is, and I always say, well, my first book was actually Using Microsoft publisher for Windows 95. And my second book was the sequel, Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 97.

Ah! I have a few Unix books out there that I, you know, they’re on the shelf, but I’m not proud of them.

Well, I was never that technical, but at the time there was actually a market at the level of, “To open a file, click FILE>OPEN.” That’s the kind of level I was writing at. And I was interested, too, that you wrote plays and this musical comedy revue…

Right.

…because that’s another side of what I do. I’m an actor and singer and performer, and I’ve done…I’ve written plays, as well. And I like to ask the writers who have done that sort of thing, if you find your theater background helps in the writing of fiction. For me, it feels that it does. But I’m always interested to see if others have the same experience.

Oh, yes, immensely. So, I did…first of all, this onstage musical comedy thing, and then a group of us who helped write for that started writing straight-up plays and radio dramas. And sometime in there, I got into improv and took a number of improv classes. And all those things go together into…theater gives you immediate feedback on whether your writing works or not, by the amount you cringe when you hear your lines being said. You learn a bit on fool-proofing dialogue. And certainly, improv gives you some good practice in structuring scenes and figuring out how actions go together to make plot.

I often feel that, having directed plays and stuff like that, I feel like I have a very solid image in my head at all times of where characters are in relationship to each other in the space in which the scene is happening, and when I tutor younger or beginning writers—and I’m writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library right now—I’ve done quite a bit of that—and one thing I often find is, it’s like a gray fog in which everything is happening.

Yes.

And I’m not entirely certain where everybody is in relationship to each other. You get an image of them in one place and the next thing you know, they’re looking out the window, but they never left the fireplace in your head.

Yeah. Yeah.

I think theater helps with that.

Yeah. Certainly, just plain old scene choreography helps. Theatre contributes to that a lot. As you say, who’s where and what’s actually there. The idea of what is in the room besides the characters is hugely useful when you’re trying to figure out what the characters do in response to some problem. There’s almost always something in the room that they can use, if you’ve envisioned the room well enough to actually have stuff there.

And if you plant it in the right place and in the story so it doesn’t materialize out of thin air.

Yes. Well, you know, whenever you write a story, every scene has to take place someplace. Every time someone goes into a room, you pretty much have to describe the room and you want to describe interesting things in the room, and just that description, first of all, trying to come up with something that is interesting and not the same old, same old, will give you material to use later on in the scene.

What you said about fool-proofing dialogue is actually something that Orson Scott Card said when I interviewed him for The Worldshapers, and he’s done a lot of theatre, and he actually had a role in your breaking in, didn’t he? Because he was at Clarion West when you were there?

Yes. He was the first teacher in my year at Clarion West. He gave me really good feedback on a story that he liked a great deal, and that was actually my first published story. He put in a good word for me with the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and so when I sent that story to the editor, it sold, and that was my first pro SF sale.

Before you went to Clarion, had you taken any other formal writing training?

Alice Munro

Yeah. Between…the summer of when I got my bachelor’s, I went to Banff, the Banff Centre for Fine Arts, and took a writing course there. W.O. Mitchell was the grandfather of it all, but it was…Alice Munro was there, so, you know, hanging out with some pretty impressive people, and got a lot of good feedback on my writing and how to set about writing stories.

So, I ask science fiction fantasy writers about their formal training…now clearly, at Clarion, science fiction and fantasy is what people are writing, but usually in other writing programs it is not, and there’s sometimes a…

Right.

Sometimes it’s not a comfortable fit with what the program is about. Did you find that, or did it or did you find it helpful that it wasn’t science-fiction focused?

W. O. Mitchell

Yeah, I don’t think I wrote a great deal of science-fiction content while I was at Banff. It was mostly…the method, what W.O. Mitchell called “Mitchell’s messy method,” was just sitting down and seeing what spontaneously arose as you were at the typewriter. And at that point, I was writing a lot of memoir-type things, as opposed to actual fiction, and finding what inside of me wanted to be written was very useful for that. The real trick after that is figuring out how to shape that material into actual stories. And once I got started with that, kind of marrying my own memories with science fiction was kind of fun and useful.

Was Mitchell there when you were there?

Oh, yes.

The reason I ask is because W.O. Mitchell is famously from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, which is where I grew up, and I got to meet him once when he came doing a reading for his book, Roses Are Difficult Here, I think is what it was, when I was at the newspaper down there. He was an interesting guy.

Yeah, he’s a fun guy, and, of course, a great raconteur, or was, so he was great to have in classes. And we all had, I think, a fifteen-minute session with all of the writers in residence. It was, you know, in some sense similar to Clarion, in that the writers were brought in for, I think, four or five days, and each of the students had a chance to show the writers their stuff and get some feedback on it.

The other thing I like to mention about Mitchell is that, when I did see him in Weyburn, there was a woman there named Sadie Bowerman, who was the first white baby to be born in Weyburn, she was still alive then. And she’d been his schoolteacher, and she got after him—she must have been in her eighties by then—she got after him for using bad language. So, writers can relate. You never know who’s going to pop up out of your past.

That’s right. I have a few English teachers who have caught up with me over the years and, you know, kind of patted me on the back. And again, some of them have chided me for using bad language.

The other thing I want to mention about Weyburn, Saskatchewan, is that Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, so Weyburn is a very important place in the tapestry of…well, much more for him than me, I wasn’t born there, but I grew up there.

A hotbed of literature.

Yeah, exactly. Well, you started with short fiction. Did you write that exclusively for a while, or did you immediately try to write novels, or how did that work for you?

Well, I think I wrote a novel…back when I was in high school, I got pneumonia the year after…sorry, the summer after…I graduated, and was basically locked in the house for the entire summer and spent some time writing a novel-like thing. I wouldn’t call it a novel, but it was a long piece of fiction. So…gee, I forget about doing that. I always think that my writing started when I was in university co-op, but no, that summer where I had nothing else to do. But that was kind of an amusement more than a, “Yes, I’m going to be a writer.”

Still, part of your half a million words that you had to…

That’s right. Yeah. Never gonna rewrite that one. That was self-indulgent, as only high-school students can be.

Yeah. So, when did your first novel come along?

My…so, I wrote it…I wrote several novels before I actually published something. So, I was in Clarion in ’89 and was writing short stories and started a novel sometime after that. And I think there were two novels that didn’t go anywhere—and thank heavens they never saw the light of day—before I wrote Expendable, which was published in ’97.

And so now we’re up to how many novels?

Ten, eleven. I guess it’s eleven now.

Are you still writing a lot of short fiction?

Off and on. I can write novels for two or three hours a day, at least the first early drafts of novels, and that gives…so I write in the morning, and in the afternoon, I want to write something different. So, I sometimes write short fiction. Sometimes I write the gaming material that you mentioned in my biography. Sometimes I do freelance editing jobs for various people. So, afternoons I have several hours when I do something besides the novel in progress, and short stories are one of the things I do then.

Okay, well, that’s kind of getting us into the process part of this of the podcast, which is what I’m going to focus on next. So, let’s move on to that. So, we’re gonna focus on All Those Explosions were Someone Else’s Fault, just as an example of your creative process, and see how that ties in with the way you write everything, but before we do that…I have not finished the book; very much enjoying it, it’s a lot of fun…

Thank you!

So, perhaps you can give a synopsis for those who have not read it, without giving away anything that I haven’t read yet.

Ok. Well, the setup is that in the early 1980s, vampires, werewolves, demons, et cetera, come out of the closet and basically say, “Why have we been keeping ourselves secret? We have a saleable asset here. You want to be one of us, pay us $10 million and we’ll make you a vampire or a werewolf or a demon.” And within twenty years, all the movers and shakers, or the wealthy, influential people, are basically darklings. So…and then in the year 2000, suddenly superheroes start appearing. And so you’ve got this world where the rich one percent are essentially monsters and the ninety-nine percent are protected by the people who were stupid enough to touch the glowing meteor or fall in the vat of weird chemicals, or were just, you know, born as mutants. And so, the background setup is the dark one percent versus the super ninety-nine percent, or the supers who represent the ninety-nine percent, who protect them.

And then the story follows four science students at the University of Waterloo who get into a weird lab accident and gain superpowers and become involved in the shenanigans that were responsible for the lab accident. And a supervillain is part of it all, and a cabal of darklings who are up to no good, and the whole thing takes place in something like nine hours on the night of the winter solstice.

And it’s a humorous novel.

Yes, it is. It’s done for laughs. It could…the setup could get very dire with horrible people running the world, but I like playing it for laughs, and the four characters who get superpowers are all funny in their various ways. The first book is about Kim, who is a geology student who…queer—non-binary, anyway…who has a wry view of the world. The second centers on Jules, who is a wonderful, incautious, brash person, and the plan is for four novels, one on each of the superheroes, having them go through their big life change. I think that a novel should be about a huge moment in a character’s life, and each of the four heroes…I mean, “Hey, you’ve just become super. What does that do to you?” And for each of them, it kind of brings to the fore something that they haven’t dealt with, baggage that they haven’t dealt with. And they’re each going to be forced to confront this stuff that they’ve been ignoring for much of their life and deal with their issues one way or another.

So, what was the seed for this and how does that tie into the way that stories appear for you, in general? I’m trying to avoid saying “Where do you get your ideas?”, but that’s basically the question.

You know, I don’t…the seed was the idea of the superheroes-versus-darkling type things, and the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent, which was relevant at the time I started writing this. You know, it was…the Occupy movement had been taking place. I mean, that’s where I get the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent. And it was a time when the politics of the whole thing was kind of in your face.

And I had also done a lot of roleplaying in various contexts. So, if people are familiar with the White Wolf games, which later became Onyx Path, or were…Onyx Path started writing for the same game lines…you could be a vampire or a werewolf or some other type of creature of the night. And that was one set of roleplaying that I had done, but I’d also done a lot of superhero roleplaying.

And putting them together, as far as I know, had never been done before, but was a really cool idea. As soon as I had the idea, I Googled like mad to see if there was anything like this out there, and there wasn’t. Urban fantasy was big at that point. Superhero fiction was just starting to become more prevalent. One of the things that interests me is that superhero comics have been around for eighty years, but superheroes in prose fiction really hadn’t been done a lot before, say, fifteen years ago? There were a few novelizations of superhero movies, but until…fan fiction for sure and the Marvel superhero movies came out…there hadn’t been a lot of superheroes in prose fiction, but that kind of opened up and now there’s a whole ton of it.

Well, it is an interesting juxtaposition. Certainly, I’ve never encountered the two things put together like that, so it’s very interesting.

Yeah, I hadn’t seen it before. I still haven’t seen it. So, it’s kind of fun to be able to play with that without too much competition.

Now, that’s how this came about. Is that fairly typical of your story generation. Is it basically just ideas bubble up and bounce into each other?

I think I go back to what I said about stories being about some huge pivotal moment in a character’s life. So, whatever the seed for a story is, the next thing I want to know is what character is going to experience the setup and what sort of transition are they going to go through. So, often I think of some dramatic situation, some sort of ticking bomb that is going to cause trouble in some setting. But then immediately I say, “OK, well, what character is going to face this problem and what is it going to put them in?” When I was…you told me ahead of time that we were going to be talking about All Those Explosions, and I went back through my notes, and…on the book as I was developing it…and it’s constantly, “What problem is this going to cause for the characters and what sort of transitions are they going to go through because of it?”

Well, and that’s the very next question. What does your planning process look like once you had this idea? It sounds like the characters come perhaps even before you have the plot worked out?

Absolutely. So, it’s useful to have some sort of background problem that is going to force the characters to act—a ticking bomb, so that even if the characters are, you know, lost, or I’m lost because I don’t know what happens next, there’s going to be some pressure to deal with the situation. But I think a novel is about an overt exterior situation, but it also has to be about a character facing some sort of crisis in their life, so constantly, when I develop things, I’m thinking, “OK, what is this going to put the character through? What is the next thing? How are the screws going to tighten on the character?” Not just in terms of the urgency of the external situation, but the development of the internal situation, too.

So, how do you find those characters? How do you decide what your characters are going to be? I mean, Kim is, in her own words, I believe, a “short, queer Asian kid.”

Yeah.

Which, you know, is not you. So…

That’s right.

How did you decide?

Really…so, the first time I…the first draft…Kim was Asian, but not queer. And, she…the situation…so, for people who haven’t read the book, one of the first things she does is, she comes across an old flame of hers, someone she knew in high school. Really, her first serious boyfriend, who has become a darkling, who was always a rich kid who knew he was going to be a darkling as soon as he was old enough to be transformed. And that relationship went bad, and basically, the…Kim was a bland character who didn’t have a whole lot of personality. And one thing I often do when I’m trying to get a handle on characters, especially when trying to get a handle on personality, is sit down and improv stuff in their tone of voice—just sit at the typewriter…or the computer, of course, these days…and write a diatribe from them as fast as I can and see what just pops out. So, this is Mitchell’s messy method again, just sitting down and blast it out and see what pops out. And Kim’s queerness came from that. I was blasting away, basically a monologue, and it just completely took me by surprise when she started talking about, “No, I’m not as binary as you think,” sort of thing.

And there were several days there when I thought, “Oh, shit. Am I going to actually write a non-binary character?”, you know, a straight middle-aged white guy writing a queer young university-age Asian. Did I have the nerve to do that, and how much homework would I have to do in order to not be that guy writing someone who I had no right to write? But that’s what was…that was the voice that came to me, and eventually I said, “Yeah, OK, I’ve got to go with this.”

Well, she is a very interesting voice.

Yeah. Yeah. And once I had that handle on the character, a whole lot of things came out and the character came alive, and some of the situations that were dead on the page in the first draft took on a whole different character and really much more interesting resonance than they had been in the first draft.

Did you do something similar with your other main characters?

Yeah. So, Nicholas had the same process. I did, you know, a soliloquy from his point of view, and not so much with the other three superheroes, because I knew their books were going to be coming along later. When I did the Jules book, which is They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, the sequel to All Those Explosions, I did do soliloquies from her point of view. And for the future books, I will be doing the same thing. It’s just a really useful way to unlock what inhibitions have been keeping…holding me back from doing, going as far as I need to for a character.

Once you’ve developed the character, you have an idea for the setup, how much of an outline or planning do you do? Is it a very detailed? Are you a pantser or a plotter?

I’m mostly a pantser, but especially because I’m writing superhero things, I want there to be some great set pieces. So, I plan for interesting places where big superhero action can take place. So, in All Those Explosions, there are several big superhero-vs.-monster action things, and I figured out where they were going to take place and sort of some context for why they were happening, and an overarching plot for them.

So, in All Those Explosions…well, Waterloo has a number of tourist attractions and I want, over the course of the series, to destroy them all. So, in the first book, I trash the Waterloo market, which is the St. Jacob’s Market, which is a big farmer’s market. In the second one, I trash a popular club, the Transylvania Club, which is just, you know, a name like that is asking to be associated with monsters. And the third one, Waterloo has a clay and glass gallery, the National Clay and Glass Gallery.

Oooh!

I mean, I got to have a fight there. And Clay and Glass is right next to the Perimeter Institute, which is an institute of theoretical physics, a kind of a world-class physics research center. So, trashing both the Clay and Glass and Perimeter is kind of a gimme. And I don’t know what I’m going to trash for the final book, but we’ll see.

There is some fun to that. The last book in my young adult series, The Shards of Excalibur, the final big climactic battle takes place at a provincial park called Cannington Manor. I do a pretty good job on it, too.

Yeah, I mean, if you’re going to take a place…if you’re going to have your story take place in a real location, then let’s make use of the location. And especially with, you know, if you’re going to have superheroes, there is going to be a large set of smoking rubble.

And I still remember the Jim Butcher, I don’t remember which book it was, in the Dresden Files, where Sue the Tyrannosaurus comes to life.

Yeah, a super thing. I just loved that episode. Yeah, I don’t remember which book it was, but…

So, you talked a little bit about your actual writing process, you know, three hours in the morning and work on other things in the afternoon. Do you just work at home, are you a go-out-to-a-coffee-shop guy? I gather you type and don’t do it longhand or anything like that…

Oh, I do some things in longhand. If a particular scene is not working out well, I go longhand and I write it out. I’m working right now on a haunted-house novel, and this morning I spent writing really the first scene of a particular character, because I really wanted to slow down and cover the bases and really get the character’s voice down on the page. So, when I want to…writing fast is useful, but writing slow is also useful.

Well, then, speaking of that, are you a fast writer or a slow writer when you average the two things together?

I’m not superfast. I can I usually do about a thousand words a day. So, you know, some people do a lot more than that, several thousand words a day, and I’ve done that, but usually, a thousand is good. And that’s for my morning stuff. In the afternoon. I would do maybe the same amount again, depending on whether I’m writing new stuff or revising old stuff.

When you get to the end, you have a draft, have you done sort of rolling revisions, so it’s pretty clean at that point, or do you go back and do a complete rewrite, or how does that work for you?

I do some rolling revisions, but usually I have to go back and do several more drafts. So, as I say, I’m mostly a pantser for the first draft, which means that there’s rough-around-the-edges stuff. So, the haunted-house novel, which is the one I’m thinking of, the rough draft ending was really, “Yeah, OK, I’m gonna keep writing it, but I doubt that I’m going to keep any of it.” The second draft is pretty good. I like the action of the ending, except that the precipitating incident…so, there’s something that makes all hell break loose, and I like the hell that breaks loose, but I’m not so crazy about what actually kicks things off. So, I’m going to at least have to rewrite that again, which will probably necessitate a few other changes. So, I’m refining things as I go along and I hope it’s no more than three drafts, but…that’s about typical for what I’m doing.

You’ve been published by various publishers, which means you’ve worked with a lot of different editors. What typically comes back to you from editors to work on? If anything.

I don’t get a whole lot of structural stuff. It’s mostly cosmetic or, you know, “I didn’t understand this,” or, “This chapter is slow,” or something like that. So, I don’t get…once or twice. I’ve had people, an editor, say, “No, this ending just doesn’t work.” But mostly it’s, “I didn’t understand their motivation for doing this,” or, you know, “Polish up this section again.” So, I’m pretty lucky, in that I want a story to be as clean as possible before I send it to my agent. And she makes a few comments, but not many, and then she sends it off. So, I like things being pretty good to go before I send them out, which means I have to spend a fair length of time…I don’t send out anything that I don’t think is pretty good already.

Now, you do some editing for other people. Do you find that working on other people’s manuscripts helps you when it comes time to look at your own?

Oh, sure. It’s much easier to see problems when other people have them, but I know I have the same thing, so…and, you know, we all have words that we overuse—“really,” “quite,” “very,” all that. And as I’m reading somebody else’s stuff…I have a list of these words that I overuse, and reading somebody else’s stuff, I, you know. “Oh, yeah. There’s one of mine that I should pay attention to, too.”

Speaking of which, brilliant little thing from Brandon Sanderson that I recently heard about in their Writing Excuses podcast is to, you know, you have your list of words that you overuse or, you know…”suddenly,” there’s another one that is real easy to use too much of…just do a global replace on the word with brackets around it, square brackets, and that makes it stand out. So, when you’re reading the book, reading the manuscript, you see these things and you could say, “Do I really need that?” It really draws your attention to the words that you overuse and gets you…makes you think about them again. I really love that technique and I use it now.

Oh, yeah. That’s a good one. I think I’ll have to adopt that, too.

Yeah. Yeah. It just draws your attention to something. Sometimes “very” is a perfectly good word to use, and a lot of times the prose is stronger by crossing it out, by deleting it.

I find that my characters tend to use animal noises too much in dialogue, they growl things and snarl things and…

Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good point.

I do avoid hissed dialogue because it always bothers me when somebody hisses something that has no sibilance in it.

Generally speaking, I only let myself use “said,” “told,” “replied,” “shouted,” “whispered,” maybe a “muttered” or two…oh, and “asked.” But I do try to avoid the animal noises and so on.

Yeah, I’m aware of it, but that doesn’t mean I catch it all the time. The other thing is…you’ve probably had this experience, too…the best way to find things that you overlooked is to read your work out loud in front of an audience after it’s been published.

Yeah. Yeah. Zadie Smith has a quote, something to the effect of, “The best time to rewrite your stuff is two years after it’s been published and ten minutes before you read it at a literary festival.”

That’s about right. Well, we’ve got about ten minutes left, so I want to get to the big philosophical questions.

Sure.

It’s really one question with multiple parts. Why do you write? Why do you write this stuff? And why do you think any of us do? That’s really three questions. But it’s kind of one.

Oh, well, just like almost every other writer I write because I can’t not write. These days I get up in the morning and write, and I write to understand what’s in my head and to…because I like writing stories.

Why do I write something in particular? Because something about the idea has got its claws in me, and the only way to get free of it is to write it and write it well. So, this…again, the haunted-house story that I’m thinking of was an idea I had probably two and a half years ago. And I had no idea why I wanted to write a haunted-house story, and it’s taken me two years to crystallize what I want to say in the book and why I’m writing it.

I think…writers, as you know, sit alone for hours at a time. And what we write today will not be seen in the world for a long, long time. It’s, you know…it takes me at least a year to write a novel, often more, and after it’s written, it’ll take at least another year before it gets out for anyone to…before it gets published…and so you really have to be obsessed and in the moment to write. There has to be some sort of reward or compulsion to write, because you don’t get the fame and fortune, if ever…

I’m still waiting for that.

Yeah. Yeah. Well, in some sense, we all write to impress someone. Paul Simon said, when someone asked him why he wrote songs, “I write songs to impress girls.” And, you know, there is that aspect…

I went into theater to kiss girls.

Yeah. Yeah. And I certainly started writing to, you know, let’s impress women. But it’s a long time before that happens. I mean, a long time between sitting down to write the sentences today and before anyone is impressed by it. And I am not, you know, making a gazillion dollars or having a gazillion readers. I’d love to. So, you just kind of get the rewards, and every now and then you have a character suddenly come to life, like Kim revealing that she’s queer, and the idea that you…every once in a while, you feel as if you are telling a truth that is out there, as opposed to stuff that you’re just pulling out of your head. And it’s really cool when that happens.

The podcast is called The Worldshapers. Probably a bit grand to talk about shaping the world through fiction, but what do you hope your writing does for the readers who read it? Because you can certainly influence individuals as they read your stories.

Yeah. Well, for All Those Explosions, I wanted to make people laugh, and…

Works for me!

Good, thank you! And to have the fun that I find in superheroes. I started reading superhero comics when I was just a kid. I talked about this at When Words Collide, that my great uncle would buy me one comic book a week when I was seven years old and I bought comic books and I bought superhero comic books. And I do not know anymore any of the people that I knew when I was seven, other than my immediate family, and I still know Batman, I still know Spider-Man, I still know all of those characters that I knew back then. I keep up with them. I don’t know the people anymore, but I know the characters. And so, to be able to write superheroes…not, alas, Marvel and DC superheroes, although, if anybody from Marvel or DC are listening, I’m there, hire me!…but to be able to write superheroes and just have fun with them…I hoped that I could pass on the delight that I get from superheroes to other people, too, and to share in the joy.

And for other books, it’s almost always the same, that I get delight from various types of stories. And so, I want to be part of that conversation, be part of the fun or the delight or the concern or the thrills or the horrors or whatever. It’s such a delight to be a writer and to be part of the conversation.

That’s actually what I always say, that I started writing because I loved the stories that I was experiencing so much, I wanted to be able to create stories that other people would enjoy as much as I enjoyed the ones I’ve been reading. So, that’s probably a very common thing with writers.

Look at fanfic! I think many people get their starts in fanfic, if not actual…these days, you can actually put it in front of the public, but even if you don’t, you write your little stories and show it to your friends and so on. And that’s because whatever you’re doing fanfic of touched something in you and you want to be in that world, you want to have a piece of it, too.

You mentioned what you’re working on, the haunted-house novel, anything else that you’re working on right now?

I’m doing a re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty where nobody is stupid. It’s kind of fun to write a fairy tale with sensible people. There’s a lot of re-imagined fairy tales these days. Naomi Novik immediately comes to mind, but other people have been doing it, too. And it’s fun to write fairy tales which have that feel of depth, mythological depth, folkloric depth, but bring a modern sensibility to them that…there are just some strange things that happen in very tales that are hard to believe, and trying to justify them—or not!—Is fun.

And where can people find you online?

I am…most of my stuff is on Twitter @jamesagard. I do Twitter every day. I also have jamesalangardner.com, which I blog at occasionally. Those are the best places. I do have a Facebook page, which I almost never do anything with, so…

Well, I think that’s about the end of our time. Thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers!

It was great talking to you, Edward. Thanks for having me.

Episode 35: Lisa Kessler

An hour-long conversation with Lisa Kessler, bestselling and award-winning author of dark paranormal fiction, including The Moon Series, The Muse Chronicles, The Night Series, and the new Sentinels of Savannah series that begins with Pirate’s Passion.

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www.lisa-kessler.com

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www.facebook.com/LdyDisney

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@LdyDisney

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Lisa Kessler’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Lisa Kessler

Lisa Kessler is a bestselling author of dark paranormal fiction. She’s a two-time San Diego Book Award winner for best published fantasy/sci-fi/ horror and best published romance. Her books have also won the PRISM Award, the National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award, the HOTE Medallion Award of Merit, and an International Digital Award for Best Paranormal. Her short stories have been published in print anthologies and magazines, and her vampire story, “Immortal Beloved,” was a finalist for a Bram Stoker Award. When she’s not writing. Lisa is a professional vocalist and has performed with San Diego Opera as well as other musical theatre companies in San Diego.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Lisa.

Thank you. I’m glad to be here.

Now, I usually start the show by talking about how we know each other. This is kind of a different one, because basically I know you because I was on your show, so…

Right. Yeah. You’ve been on Book Lights a couple of times and we always have such a great time. Plus, we have the musical background. So, I feel like we already know each other so well.

We will talk a little bit about Book Lights a little later on, too, so you get a chance to talk about that….I think I hear cats in the background.

Yes, sorry. My cat never comes in here, but she just decided to come in and be on the radio. So sorry about that.

It’s quite all right. Mine’s asleep somewhere or he might join in as well.

He’ll hear the other cat, and they’ll have a conversation.

I think it was my second interview, with John Scalzi, there were cats in the background. So, it’s kind of a Worldshapers tradition, so…

Oh, well, good. Maybe my cat knew that, and I wasn’t aware.

He’s probably a long-time listener. Well, we’ll start by taking you back…I always say this, and it’s kind of appropriate, considering the book that we’re going to be focusing on, Pirate’s Passion…take you back into the mists of time, but perhaps quite not as far back as the 18th century, to find out when you became…well, first of all, where you were born and where you grew up and then how you became interested in writing and specifically in writing tales of the paranormal and the fantastic.

Well, it’s kind of an interesting story because it’s sort of paranormal and I promise that it’s true. I grew up in San Diego, and after I graduated high school, I got into our family business–we made hospital window blinds–and so I travelled a lot for trade shows. And one of those trade shows took me to New Orleans. And some background. I sang opera and musical theatre, music was my focal point, but I always wrote for fun. And I was madly in love with Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, but anyone who was a fan back in the ’90s, it took a year and a half for another book to come out. And way back in the day of the Internet, when there were…remember net groups and things like that?…there was an Anne Rice one, and I met some other women there, and we started our own Yahoo! group to write our own vampires while we would wait for the next vampire book. So I probably did that…I would write every night my own vampires just for fun, probably for like eight years. I never thought about publishing anything.

But I had a trade show in New Orleans. And so, since I was in New Orleans, I had to get my palm read. And the palm reader gave me the reading and it seemed pretty right on. And then as we were leaving, she stopped me at the door and said, “Can I ask you something?” And I said, “Sure.” And she said, “Are you a writer?” And I said, “No, I sell window shades.” And then I thought about it and I said, “Well, I write for fun every night.” And she smiled and said, “You’re gonna be a famous writer someday.” And I was like, “What?” And my brain would not let it go. And by the time I got back to the airport, I had written out a plot outline for my first book, Night Walker, which was Mayan vampires in San Diego. Very cool book, but it took me a really long time to get that published. But I wrote it in six months, and I had no idea that all those years I had been practicing.

I got to meet Ray Bradbury a couple times before he passed away, and he always believed that you had to write somewhere around 800,000 words of crap before you became a storyteller. And I never knew that that was what I was doing. I filled up a whole hard drive with text documents of my vampires and never with any inkling that I would publish it. If I hadn’t seen that palm reader, I don’t know that I ever would have gotten that nudge to try and get published.

And then I wrote short stories—that was where “Immortal Beloved” came from—because I thought, “I’m not sure I’m a good writer. I’ve just been writing for fun.” So, I wrote a bunch of short stories and I got five of them published in publications and I thought, “OK, so I’m not horrible,” And I went on from there. But without that palm reader in New Orleans, I…it just wasn’t on my radar. I was so busy singing and working. The writing was just for fun. So, she really changed the course of my life that day unexpectedly. It was very, very strange. And now I write full time. So, who knew?

So you said that you’ve always written. Did you actually start as a kid? I know many of us writers do start whenever we’re quite young. Did you start way back then?

Yeah, I did. I did write when I was a kid, but I never thought I was going to be a writer. I wrote my first book in sixth grade. They actually bound and published it for me in the school library. And thankfully, when they re-did the school library, somebody on the school board found me and brought my book back. It was called The Wonders of Unicorn Creek. It was all of like twenty pages, but that was my first book.

I thought you were going to say, “Fortunately, they threw it out when they re-did the library,” but…

Mo, I got that wonderful book back. But I never…I always wrote, but I didn’t have that, you know, I just never realized I was going to be a novelist. That was never on my radar until New Orleans.

So, when did the music come in?

Music has always been my first love. That was…my dad was a musician, and as soon as I got to junior high, I was in choir and I had all the solos and in high school and right out of high school, I was taking private voice lessons and getting in San Diego Comic Opera and Lyric Opera and stuff like that. It was just, music has always been my first love and passion, and I still have a church job, so I still do sing every week. And that was really where my focus was. And I wrote…but during all of that, I was writing every night. I was building good skills for becoming a writer without any idea that I was ever gonna be one. So it’s very, very odd.

So, you mentioned that you started with short stories. Where was “Immortal Beloved” published? It was one it was a finalist for Bram Stoker Award. Where did it fall in there? Was it like your fifth one or was it an earlier wonder? And what was it about? Because I’m not familiar with the story.

Oh, OK. “Immortal Beloved” was…I was trying to write some short stories that I could try to get published to see…because I really had no concept if I was a good storyteller or not. But I had had the idea about…because I’m very musical, I had the idea about Beethoven, and nobody has figured out, you know, who his “immortal beloved” was, and I was really into writing vampires. So I thought, “What if Beethoven’s immortal beloved really was immortal, and what if it had to be a secret because he was a man?” And so, anyway, the story takes place today, but the vampire is hearing a child prodigy playing the “Moonlight Sonata” and he’s wondering if it’s Beethoven. It’s a really cool story. And I wrote it as an experiment. I wrote it while I was listening to the “Moonlight Sonata” over and over. And it really has, like ,three different acts. And so, the story kind of follows that same kind of structure. And it got…it’s been republished quite a few times. It’s in an anthology that’s out right now called…I’ll have to look it up, I can’t remember what…Dead Souls, that’s what it’s called. It’s a paperback anthology called Dead Souls, and it’s reprinted in that right now. But it was a fabulous experiment. And the story came out really well. I was really proud of it. I did my research and I felt like at the end, maybe Beethoven was in love with a male vampire.

Well, there was a whole movie called Immortal Beloved, of course, which did not have a vampire but was also dealing with that question of exactly who the immortal beloved was.

And somebody recently, they found some DNA or something, I don’t know, but I saw it pop up again recently and they still don’t know. But they think they’re closer to figuring it out. I don’t know. It’s a great mystery, though.

So, talking about “Immortal Beloved,” and I’m also going to get into your research, because obviously there was some involved there, when we talk about the book. So, why don’t we start talking about the book? Now, you’ve written a lot of books. How many series do you have at this point?

I have five series so far. Three of them are finished and I’m currently writing two others, The Sedona Pack and also the one we’re going to be talking about, The Sentinels of Savannah.

The Sentinels of Savannah, and the first book is called Pirate’s Passion, which I read. So, why don’t you give a synopsis of it so that I don’t give away something that shouldn’t be given away?

Okay. Well, there’s actually a novella that’s like the prequel just to get you into the whole world. But basically, there is a pirate crew that sank outside of Savannah over 200 years ago, in the 1700s. But the thing was that their final plunder was supposed to be the world’s greatest treasure. But when they took over the ship, all they found was a wooden cup that seemed to always have water in it. And so, they all drank from this without realizing that they had taken a sip from the Holy Grail. So, all of these men are still alive. They’re now immortal. And so, most of them still live in Savannah and now they have regular jobs. They have made a replica of their ship so that they can still sail. And their captain is still pirating, but he’s pirating in real estate.

And so, anyway, I made this special division of the government, Department 13, who deals with paranormal threats to American citizens. And because they’re the government, they have to…there’s laws, and they can’t steal, but he meets up with the immortal pirate crew and gives them the option of stealing now for the government. So they are going back to some of their piracy ways and also helping America. So, it is really wild and fun series to write so far.

And it is, of course, a romance, as well as paranormal, paranormal romance, kind of right there in the title. So who is the romance between?

So, in Pirate’s Passion, the romance is between the ship’s pilot, do the guy who steers the ship, and a historian who works for the Maritime Museum in Savannah, Dr. Charlotte Sinclair. And she has some secrets of her own. It was a wild adventure of a book to write. And the thing is, when you’re writing romance with these big paranormal elements, it’s really hard to balance the two. because you want the romance readers to get that happy-ever-after that they want, but when you have paranormal elements, a lot of times the stakes are gigantic. You know, the world could end, there’s lots of death and all that kind of thing. So, for me, it’s always a fun juggling act to keep it even, so that the romance is achieved, but we also get a really fun adventure with lots of danger. For me as a writer, I need lots of danger. When my kids were younger and at home still, they who see me sitting at the computer chomping on gum, going, “No, the story is stalled. What’s happening?”, and I had taught my daughter, “Well, it’s time to raise the body count,” because nothing gets things moving like a dead body. So anyway, a lot of people die in my books, as well. But balancing the romance with that is always a challenge. Bu in this book, it was it was not so difficult because the hero and heroine had a lot of spark instantly, which is always fun for me.

Yeah. I was going to ask you about that element of it, because I haven’t read…you know, I’ve read a lot of urban fantasy and I’ve read a lot of paranormal stories, but not paranormal romance, and certainly that balance is different than if it were just an urban fantasy.

Right.

You know, in an urban fantasy, you might have a romantic subplot, but it’s not quite as front and centre as the romance is in Pirate’s Passion. And, of course, there’s also the difference in the cover art.

Right, definitely. Yes. If you’re writing paranormal romance, the market is that there’s some kind of man chest on there, man chest and some kind of fog. And that’s what makes readers go, “Oh, it’s paranormal.” But, yeah, in urban fantasy, there’s almost always a big romance, you know, subplot going on. But in urban fantasy, there doesn’t have to be a happily ever after, and in romance that’s the deal you’re making with the reader. So, like, if it’s a mystery, the deal with the reader is that you will solve the crime by the end of the book, and the deal with the romance is that there will be a happily ever after, somehow. You may not know how that’s going to happen, but somehow there will be a happily ever after at the end. And so it does make it tricky, because if you don’t meet that, the readers are really disappointed. And in urban fantasy, you’ve got a little more wiggle little room, because you can have happy for now, you can have that they break up at the end. But there’s another book, so maybe they’ll get back together, you know? Like Sookie in the Sookie Stackhouse books, you know, she had many happy-for-nows with all different people. So, you have a little…more options there.

You couldn’t do that in a paranormal romance because the reader is expecting a happily ever after. So, in a paranormal romance series you’ll usually see some kind of band of brothers, you know, like this one has a pirate crew, because although all those characters will be in every book, I need a different character to be able to get his happily ever after. And that’s why werewolf shifters and things like that work really well in paranormal romance because you have a whole pack, and each one gets to be the hero of a book.

Does paranormal romance draw in readers from the more regular fantasy side and also draw in readers from the romance side that might not otherwise venture into that territory? Is it like a place where they come together? Ecumenical, sort of?

Yeah, I think so. I think so. I think paranormal romance is like a gateway drug to fantasy for romance readers because they get that taste of the worldbuilding and, you know, the worldbuilding and those super high stakes. You know, the world could end, you know, a city be destroyed or something like that, and it’s a whole new thing because other…there’s lots of genres of romance, historical, contemporary, romantic suspense. Romantic suspense can sometimes have super high stakes also. But the fantasy elements are all in paranormal romance. So, if a romance reader who maybe typically reads historicals stumbles across a time-travel or a paranormal romance or something like that, that can be their first experience sometimes with that kind of genre and can lead them toward, you know, urban fantasy and maybe even high fantasy.

To be fair to the cover art with the “man chest”…

Yes.

There was, of course…for a long time, urban fantasy seemed to be distinguished by the bare midriff of the female protagonist.

Exactly. Exactly. And urban fantasy, for a long time, it had to be the female protagonist, she had to be in black leather and high-heeled boots. And it’s like, if you read the book, the, you know, the women are, like, kicking ass, and I’m sure it wasn’t in high-heel boots. But that was what needed to be on the cover. But all of that is really like marketing and bookstore…you know, what people are expecting, I think. I don’t know who came up with what those need to be, but they sure stick.

Now, we’re using Pirate’s Passion as an example of your creative process. So, where did the idea…I know that’s a cliché, “Where do your ideas come from?”, nevertheless… where did the idea, or the seed, that grew into Pirate’s Passion come from, and is that typical of the way that your ideas come to you?

Well, actually, it was really neat. I got invited to be part of an anthology for the Romantic TimesRomantic Times was a magazine that would have the Book Lovers’ Convention, a national convention, where people came from all over the world. Lots of Australian readers would come to that one, and they wanted…it was happening in Atlanta, and so they called it Moonshine and Magnolias. And they wanted…they picked twenty romance authors, of all different genres of romance, to write a novella that was set in the south. And they needed…and the only requirement was it had to include Atlanta. And I’ve been to Atlanta, and it’s not like my most favourite city, but my grandmother and her family were all from Savannah. And I love Savannah. I’ve been there before. It’s very haunted city. It’s just, it’s so gorgeous and so much history. And so, I thought about Savannah. If I set it in Savannah, I could put the bad guy in Atlanta. And then I’m thinking about it, and I’ve been to Savannah before, and Savannah is all ghosts and pirates. It was a big pirate hub back in the day. You can go The Pirates’ Inn restaurant. It used to be a bar back then, but it is still there. And you can go inside, and they will show you the pirate tunnels that are still there, where they would get…they would get you so drunk that you would pass out and they would drag you through the tunnels onto a ship. And when you wake up out in the ocean, they’re like, “Well, you’re our ship’s doctor now.” So, anyway, you can still see those in Savannah. And when you walk along River Street, you know, they have all the pirate stuff. And so anyway, I thought, “Well, if I wrote a pirate book, but I don’t want it to be historical, I want it to be now, how can I make these pirates immortal?” And then I thought about the Holy Grail and I thought, “Ah, that could work.” And the whole thing came together. 

And when I wrote the novella for that event, my agent wanted to read it, and so I sent it to her, and she wrote me back, she goes, “I forgot to eat lunch, I was reading this, and please tell me the whole crew is gonna get a book and let me sell this series.” And I was like, “Okay.” So, anyway, I started working on, you know, what the crew stories would be so that I could give her a series synopsis. And she sold the whole series. So, I’m writing…I’m finishing book four right now. And then there will be four more. There’s eight books altogether.

So….that’s kind of an unusual way for a series to come about…

Right?

…where have some of your others come from? You know, images, characters, settings, what kind of gets you going?

Ray Bradbury

My other series came from short stories that I wrote. When I…the first time I met Ray Bradbury, I had only, I had written my first book. I had written Night Walker, the palm reader told me, you know, “You’re going to be a writer.” Well, I was new, so I didn’t realize how many rejections you get. Oh, my gosh. And I would get so close with an agent and then they would go, “On second read, we’re just not sure, but we’ll be excited to see it on the shelves.” And I’m like, “What? You think it’s gonna get published and you won’t represent me?” It was very frustrating. And I was working for a literary paper in San Diego, and we did an interview with Ray, and part of the perk was that he was going to come down and speak in San Diego and we were all going to get to meet him. So I was beside myself. And so, when I finally got to meet him, I asked, I told him, I had written a book and I’m getting a lot of rejections, what can I do to improve my writing? Because I was sure it must be me. And I thought he would recommend a book, and instead he told me, “Write a new short story every week for a year.” He said, “By the end of the year, you will be a new writer.” And since I had already sold short stories and I knew you didn’t make very much money off of them, I thought, “I don’t know.” It took me a few weeks to decide, “Okay, this is Ray Bradbury. He knows what he’s talking about. I’m going to do this.”

And I wrote the first one, and I ended up having so much fun I wrote a short story every week for a year and a half. So, I have I have over 120 short stories and a few of them just stick with you. And one of them ended up being the first chapter of Moonlight, which was the first book in my Moon Series, which is still my most popular series to date, but the first chapter was that short story, and when I wrote it, I couldn’t let the idea go. So, I wrote that book and the second book in that series while I was writing a short story every week. So,  it was the best thing I ever did. Ray Bradbury is a genius and was totally right.

My Muse Chronicles series came from one of my short stories, as well. I wrote a short story called Unemployed Muses Anonymous, and it was that the Muses were still here, because they were daughters of Zeus, so they’re immortal, and they were living in New York and they were all unemployed. And each of them, their personalities were coloured by what their muse was. So, the Muse of Tragic Poetry was a pessimist and the Muse of Dance couldn’t stop wiggling, and anyway, it was a really fun short story to write, but I couldn’t let the idea go that it would be really cool to have this group of women in today’s world who maybe, when they turn eighteen, realize that, you know, they’re the vessel for this muse. And so, anyway, that series was the most incredible writing experience I’ve ever had. It was just amazing, those books, and the way the whole series turned out wasn’t anything like I expected. It was really very inspired. So, I had planned six books, but in the book where I was supposed to kill off one of the muses, it turned out that wasn’t going to happen, there was a new hero who came on the scene and he was not going to let her die, and I called my cover artist and said, “I’m super sorry, but we’re going to have one more book.” So, there actually were seven books in that series. But it was all from that short story. So that, really, those inspire me a lot.

Ok, so that just takes it back one more step, though. If you’re writing a short story every week, you’re having to come up with a lot of ideas every week. So how are you generating those?

Yes, that was the hardest part of writing a new short story every week. Oh, my gosh. So, sometimes I would be so desperate that I would go look at odd news. If you go to like Yahoo! News and CNN, there’s, way in the corner, there’s “Odd.” And if you click on it, it’s bizarre stories of things that have happened. And so, I found a lot of short story ideas that way, and I learned so much doing it, because…you need a story idea. So, you go, and you find this story about a rogue wave. I’m like, “What the heck’s a rogue wave?” And then I go look on YouTube and I’m, “Wow, those are terrifying.” So anyway, I did all this research and now they think that the wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald in the Great Lakes, they didn’t know, because we didn’t have cell phone videos and things back then, but rogue waves happen on the Great Lakes. And so now there have been ships where they have video of these rogue waves coming on the Great Lakes, and they think that’s what split the Edmund Fitzgerald. So, anyway, so I wrote a shipwreck story.

And I read about this strange hailstorm in Death Valley that basically took out all the power, and it was so strong that they closed the highway, and so I wrote a sci-fi story about that it was really aliens, and all this kind of thing. So, I found a lot of things looking at weird news.

I was so desperate, sometimes I would look at songs that I like and see if I could come up with a story to go with the song. Sometimes, the ideas just showed up and I was like, “Thank you!” Sometimes I wrote spinoff stories from other stories. The other thing, too, that was fun was I tried to challenge myself to write stories I never thought that I would, just see if I could. So, I wrote…I’m not a big sci-fi reader, but I wrote, like, five sci-fi stories. And I wrote one about a gunslinger, I was like, “Oh, my gosh. Who knew?” But it was a great experiment because you learn to research faster, you learn to get ideas faster, you write faster, you edit faster. I mean, in the beginning, it would take me an entire week to write and edit the short story, and by the end of my year, I could sit down Sunday afternoon with an idea (finally!) and then write the whole thing, edit it, and have it up by midnight, because I was so much faster by then. So, it really was a great thing for my tool kit, as a writer, to keep your brain going and coming up with ideas and writing them down and not picking it apart so much. You know, get the whole idea down and then edit it. And I feel like learning beginning, middle, end, it all works for writing novels because each chapter is, you know, similar to and has that same flow as a short story.

Is this something you recommend to other writers, to beginning writers who are looking to up their game?

Definitely. Definitely. I used to…I’ve been too busy now, so I haven’t done it…but I mentored five writers through it, and they all wrote a new short story every week for a year. And it was the coolest thing. I mean, most people would drop out partway through. It’s really hard. It’s a marathon. But five of them finished. And it was so exciting to see. And we would make it, Sunday night was deadline night, and they all would post their stories, and I would give everybody feedback on their stories and encourage them for next week, and all that kind of stuff, and to see five of them finish, and they were so much better by the end of the year, it was really inspiring. So, I hope that eventually I’ll be able to do that again, because it’s really hard to do it on your own, and I think having a group, the little bit of peer pressure and all,  it really helped. They were all cheering each other on, and it was it was a great experience.

When I did it, I did it alone, but I had a blog—this was back in MySpace days—and so for fun, I was just writing my story and I made Sunday night deadline night and I would have put it up on my blog on MySpace. And I didn’t realize at the time, but I was building a readership before I ever had a book come out. I had, I think, over 6,000 subscribers to that MySpace blog who were waiting for the free story every week. And I met Ray Garton, who is a horror master, Grand Horror Master winner and everything, I met him through that. He had stumbled across one of my stories on my blog, and he messaged me and said, “You can write! That was great. What are you doing?” And I got to meet him at Book Expo, and he gave me reference when I was looking for an agent, and all of that just happened because I was writing a new short story every week and putting it up on my blog. And it did get to be a little bit of peer pressure, because the subscribers were waiting on Sunday night, so I felt like it had to go up.

But having that group where I was, you know, cheering these writers on, it was really exciting, and they got so much better. We would compare at the end their first story with their last story, and it was amazing. Ray is right. It’s the best way to improve your writing, for sure.

Well, coming back to Pirate’s Passion, and all of your novels, once you have that idea, what does your planning and outlining process look like? Do you do a detailed outline or are you more of a make-it-up-as-you-go-and-worry-about-it-later, or how does it work for you?

Yeah, yeah. I’m a big time pantser, unfortunately. Sometimes I look at my plotting friends and I’m like, “Dang it, I wish I knew what was happening next.” But the flip side of that is for me, writing can be magical, because cool things happen that I never thought of, and they’re always so much better than what I had thought was going to happen. And so…I always feel like…Ray Bradbury used to talk about that there’s, like, a superconscious up there that wants stories told, and when…he used to think that when you get a story idea, it’s downloading in your head and it’s your job to, like, dictate that, you know, follow the story and let it spill out. You don’t get to direct it, kind of thing. And I feel like by letting myself not have a big outline, it gives me the freedom to let the story go where the story needs to go.

And there are times where I’m like, “I don’t know, this is way off…” Like, in The Muse Chronicles when I’m suddenly going, “Oh, my gosh, I have to add a book.” But it was the right thing to do for that series, and I loved that book. It was great. So, that was all good. But had I been so pinned in by my series outline, and my book outline, you know, I would have just gone, “Sorry, she has to die.”

And, you know, as a writer, for me, part of the fun is the discovery. And so, I try not to pen it in. I mean, for my publisher, they do need a series outline, so I come up with who the hero and heroine will be and sort of what the adventure will be. In the pirate series it’s, you know, which relic are we going to go after of each time, and that kind of thing. But beyond that, I leave it wide open so that I can discover it as I go. And a lot of times, character growth, too, because your characters change as events happen. And so, as a pantser, I’m constantly asking, “what if” and “why?” You know, “So, what if this happened? And why did they react like that?” And that is how the story unfolds for me, that’s my process. And, “How can I make it worse?” I’m always asking, you know, “What, if this happened, why did they react like this, and how can I make it worse?” Well, it’s Savannah, it should rain. So, for me, that’s my process.

I found when I was doing the short stories, I tried plotting for a few of them because I was doing it as an exercise to try new things, and the three stories that I tried plotting, I never finished the story, and I realized that for my writing process, if it’s already basically written, I have no impulse to put it together. I feel like it’s already done. It’s already, you know, it turns into a term paper instead of a creative experience. So, I don’t I don’t do a big outlining, even though sometimes I get stuck and I’m like, “What’s going to happen now?” And I look at my friend across the table who has notecards and she knows what’s happening, like, “Dang it!” So, you know, it all comes down to how your writer brain is fixed up, and I think there’s pluses and minuses to both, but you’ve got to go with what works for you in the end.

What does your actual writing process look like? Are you sitting in a home office a certain number of hours a day? Do you go out to coffee shops? Do you sit under a tree with a notebook and a quill pen? How do you write?

I don’t write by hand. I have to type. But I have a writing chair at home, so I usually write a little bit at home. Panera is my office away from home, and a lot of times…I have some local friends who are writers, too, so a lot of times they’ll come meet me at Panera and we’ll all write. And that’s always fun, because when you start to get stuck, if you see everyone else is writing, you’re like, “Okay, I got to keep right. I’ll come up with something.” So, that’s fun as well.

I am not an every-day…I know there are some people who say you have to write every single day, and I am not like that. Because I don’t plot. I write two chapters at a time and then I go back and edit those two chapters, because the only way I can be fearless is if I can promise myself that if I took a wrong turn, I’m only going to lose two chapters. So, I write two chapters and then I edit those two chapters, and so, it makes my book go a little bit slower, but in the end, I can turn in my first…my first draft is clean, so I turn those in. So, it works for me. It just makes that first draft…it takes a little bit longer than somebody who can just, you know, put it all out there and then rewrite. I’m not a rewrite, so… But for me, because I don’t have an outline, it’s too scary to write the whole book, and the thought of a rewrite gives me hives, so I do two chapters and then I go back and edit. So there may be, you know, where I write three days and then I edit for two, and then I write for three and I edit for two, and then, you know, I might be busy, so I’m doing something else. And sometimes I have deadlines overlap, and so when I get edits back for a book, I have to set aside the one I’m writing because my brain will not compartmentalize like that. I have friends who can write one book in the morning and edit a different book at night, and I can’t. So, when I get edits, I might have to set the book aside and do the edits on the other book and then go back. So I think…I think I lost my thread, but that’s basically my writing process.

Well, you kind of answered the next question, which I normally ask, which is about the revision process, but it sounds like you do essentially a rolling revision, two chapters at time, so that when you have that draft at the end, it’s actually a finished draft, not just a rough draft that you’re going to go back through from the beginning.

Yes.

I wanted to ask you a little bit about your theatre background, because I’ve talked to other authors who have theatre backgrounds, like Orson Scott Card, for example, who’s written multiple musicals and directed plays and things like that. And from my own experience, I want to see if you find this as well. There’s a usefulness to being a stage performer when it comes to keeping track of where people are in relationship to each other and how they interact with each other within a space. That’s what I find. And of course, I also find that being an actor ties directly into being a writer because it’s basically the same thing: you’re pretending to be somebody else and trying to make that person come alive. Is that your experience?

Definitely. And being, you know, with a musical theatre background and opera and all that kind of thing, music plays into it a lot. Like, I build playlists for my books before I even start writing, because when I get that, when I’m going to start a new book, I usually know kind of what the theme of the book is going to be. So, I look for music, movie soundtracks, classical music, even songs with words, I have those on there, too, that will back up, you know, who I think the hero is, the heroine is, the, you know, plot things, that kind of stuff. And I think if you come from a music and acting background, I think that you are able to blend those arts together to make your words, you know…to inspire your words, I guess, is what I’m trying to say. But, yeah, I definitely feel like having that background helps my helps my writing very much.

And, just speaking for myself, my current book, Master of the World, and the one before that, Worldshaper, my character likes musical theatre, so I get to make musical theatre jokes throughout the book, so that’s fun.

Oh, I love it.

Now, you mentioned then, there is still some editing, some maybe not rewriting, but what sorts of things do you find yourself editing afterwards? And I presume this is after it’s been to your editor and it comes back for comment.

Well, and I forgot to mention this, too, I do have beta readers, I have a team of four beta readers, and they read my two chapters at the same time as I’m writing the book because I like to get their feedback as far as…you know, one of them is really good at catching typos, that even after editing, I missed, I’m like, “What?” But there are a couple of them who are really good at character motivations, and they’ll tell me, “Oh, I hate that guy!” and I’ll go, “Good. You’re supposed to hate that guy,” you know, but they give me their feedback, and a couple of times it has been really helpful because, like, one of them said, “He seemed like he would have been angrier. He would have been angrier at that.” And she was right, and so I boosted that up.

So, a lot of times when I get my edits back from my editor, it’s things that I thought were clear that really aren’t clear on the page. I have a writer friend, Mary Leo, who…my favourite saying that she has is, “You don’t get to travel with your book to explain it.” And that is so true. So, sometimes, you know, and I’m sure you’ve had this experience, too, where it seems totally clear to me, you know, why he did that, but it’s because I know the character inside and out and sometimes I don’t get enough detail on the page so that, you know, the editor’s like, “Well, he seems like a jerk here.” And I’m going, “Oh, because I didn’t…” And sometimes…I know I’m a rusher when I write, I’m always wanting to get to the next good part, so I leave out details. Like, one time I had an editor note somebody had gone to urgent care with a stab wound, and I had things happening with this other character, and then suddenly a nurse came in and the editor’s like, “Whoa, there’s a nurse? When did they get into urgent care? What’s happening?” And I was like, “Oh, maybe I should have them get out of the car and walk inside.” But I was so excited to get to the next part that I completely missed getting out of the car and getting…you know. So. usually when I get my edits back, it’s things like that. Like, it was clear in my head, but I didn’t necessarily get that on the page.

And when you’re writing romance, too, a lot of times the editors will look for beats in the book that they think are coming too soon. You know, they said, “I love you” too soon. And sometimes it’s the right thing for the book, and that’s OK. But, you know, they’re looking for things like that, pacing and that kind of thing. But usually…I’ve never had to do a rewrite, thank God, but usually it’s stuff like that.

Well, we’re getting fairly close to the end of the time here, so I wanted to, first of all, before I ask you my big philosophical questions, I wanted to ask you about your program, Book Lights, and how did that come about, and what is that about? I mean, I know, I’ve been on it, but you tell us what it’s all about.

Yeah, well, Sheila English owns Circle of Seven Productions and she makes fabulous book trailers. If you’ve ever seen a commercial on cable TV for a Christine Feehan book, that was Sheila English, she makes those. She is a huge book lover, and she’s also now a published author herself, and she founded Readers’ Entertainment Radio and they have two shows, Readers’ Entertainment and Book Lights. So there’s two shows a week that we do. And, I had been on both of those shows as an author and Sheila sent out one of her newsletters, and I noticed at the bottom she said that she was looking for another host for Book Lights, “So if you know anyone, please send them my way.” So, I emailed her and I said, “Well, I would do it,” And she said, “Really?” And I said, “Oh, I love talking to writers. That would be super fun.”

So, anyway, she had me jump in and try, and I have had such a blast. I’ve been so lucky to talk to so many different writers. And I talk to them from every genre. I’ve had horror authors on and women’s fiction authors on and romance and fantasy and sci-fi. And I never get tired of, you know, hearing from all these different writers from different places. I’ve had people from England and Greece and, of course, Canada. And it’s just, it’s fascinating to me, you know, how people write books and the cool ideas that they come up with for them, where I’m like, “Wow, I never would have thought of that.” And so, it’s a really fun show, and it is not pointed at, you know, we always talk about the author’s new release at the beginning, but it devolves into what we’re all interested in and what TV shows we should binge and all this kind of thing. So, I feel like for readers, it’s a very reader-focused show. It’s readers who are listening. So, I feel like at the end the readers really get to know that author much better. And I hope if it’s a new author to them that they’ll be willing to take a chance on that new book because they’ll be going, “Oh my God, that author watches all the shows I do. And, oh my God, they ride horses and we have a horse ranch!”, you know? So, hopefully…my goal is always that hopefully new readers find new authors, because as an author myself, we’re constantly looking for new readers to fall in love with our series and go and read our backlist and all that kind of thing. So Book Lights is a really good forum for that.

Well, and The Worldshapers, of course, came about because I wanted to talk to authors about writing and so, yeah, authors are generally very interesting people to talk to you.

Yeah, I think so, too.

Now, that does bring us back to the big philosophical questions I’d like to, sort of, wrap up with. It’s really one question, which is, “Why do you write?” with subsidiary questions of, “Why do any of us write?” and, specifically, “Why do you write tales of the fantastic?”

Oh, wow. That is a philosophical question. Well, I think that writing, especially these days, is more important than ever, fiction writing, because fiction…stories have been around since human beings have been around, you know, there’s cave paintings of stories. And I think that Ray is probably not wrong, there’s a superconscious that that needs stories to be told and songs to be written and all these kind of things. And so, I feel like, when you get a reader email from somebody who says, “Thank you so much, I love your books when I’m going for dialysis and it takes me away while I’m going through this,” or somebody who has lost a loved one and they write you an email that this book, you know, gave them welcome relief from all this grief right now that they’re going through and that kind of thing… I think that books also teach us to empathize with people who are very different than we are. Obviously, I am not an immortal pirate, but writing this series…

Spoiler!

Really, I know, right? Spoiler alert. But writing this series, I really dig into the question of what would it do to you if the world around you is constantly changing and you are not? And each character, I get a different facet of that. Because it affects each of them differently. And so I learn.

And I think that fiction teaches us to empathize and learn about people, as opposed to a historical event. You know, it’s not like a textbook. When you go on a story and you go on a hero’s journey and you see people change, it reinforces to you that you can change. You can be anybody you want to be. If this person could do it, you can do it, you know, kind of thing. And I think that there is a magic in that. And so, I think that writing is important, and I feel like when I get these story ideas that they need to come out because they’re going to serve some kind of purpose that I may not even know. But they need to be told. So, we do.

Well, this is…The Worldshapers, of course, again, is the name of this podcast, and that is something you’ve kind of touched on there that I like to ask is if, you know, do you hope that your fiction is…changing the world might be a little grand, or even shaping the world might be a little grand, but at least shaping readers in some fashion and having some sort of impact on them?

Yeah. Definitely. I hope that, if nothing else, it provides an escape from, you know, something that they need a break from. And also, I hope that through the books…there is always, especially in in romance, there’s always a character arc where they’re changed by the end of the book. And I think that that’s powerful. And I hope that that helps people understand, too, and empowers them that you can change you. You know, if you don’t like who you are today or you don’t like how your life is today, it doesn’t have to stay that way. You have that power to change that. And in romance, you know, it’s the powerful emotion of love and how that changes you. But in all fiction, you know, there’s always this change, and I think that that is important. And I hope that my books help people see that that’s possible.

I wrote a novella called “Night Angel,” which…I bawled so much writing that book, but I hadn’t planned on writing it, because this character had been, he was immortal, but he had been like so damaged that he’s a shapeshifter and he shapeshifts into this big hawk, and he can’t fly anymore because part of his arm was ripped off. And, you know, he lives forever and he heals, but he doesn’t regenerate like a lizard, so… So, I wasn’t going to write his book, but readers kept asking if he was going to get a happy-ever-after. And I’m like, “Oh, my God.” But that novella was so powerful to me as a writer because I learned and I…when I was in high school, I used to be a teacher’s aide for the deaf classroom, and so I learned sign language and all this kind of thing. And so, I made the human character, she was deaf from…there was a bombing in Ireland, and so she was deaf. And he crosses paths with her and learns from her that you’re not less, you’re just different. You’re not, you know…handicapped, I think, is this label that makes people feel like they’re less. And you’re not, you’re just different. And she taught him that. And that was such a powerful thing that I learned writing that book. And so, anyway, I do hope that readers come away with a new, maybe even just a new empathy for other people around them and in their life.

Well, I think what’s interesting is that fiction doesn’t just change readers, it changes the writers as well. We all discover things, as we’re writing these stories, about ourselves and about the way we look at the world that maybe we didn’t know going into that story. Do you find that your experience?

Exactly. Yes, definitely. And that’s part of the love of writing. You know, we do all this research and then we throw it into a story, and you put them in situations, and you realize, “Oh, my gosh,” you know, and  you learn, too. So, yeah, it definitely changes you, some books more than others. But, yeah, it’s an amazing process, and as human beings, we’re so lucky that we get to do it.

And hey, we can even bring that to a musical theatre quotation because of course, in The King and I, there’s that line about, “If you become a teacher, by your students you are taught.”

So, yes, exactly. That was great.

If you’re an author, by your characters you are taught.

Yes. We definitely learn from our art, for sure.

Well, and that brings us to the end of the time. So, where do people find you online, should they wish to do so? And I’m sure they do.

My Web site is lisa-kessler.com. And I’m also on Facebook and Twitter. I’m easy to find, just Lisa Kessler, writer. And I’m also on Goodreads and Pinterest. Pinterest is really fun. I put up pictures from scenes of every book I write because I use it while I’m writing. But if you’ve read any of my books and you want to see if you were picturing people the same way I was, you can go to Pinterest. It’s pinteres.com/ldydisney, and find me there also. And I do have an author newsletter, you can sign up on Facebook or on my Web site. And I often give away free short stories, free sneak peeks into books that aren’t out yet, so there’s always something fun in there. And I’m also a Tarot card reader, so every month you’ll get a Tarot card for the month with a little reading with it. So, sign up for the newsletter, too.

And what are you working on next?

I’m finishing Pirate’s Persuasion next. And then I will be going back to the wolf pack to write Sedona Seduction. So, that’ll be fun.

All right. Well, thanks again for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I had a great time. Hope you did, too.

I did. Thank you for having me on.

And maybe I’ll be talking to you on your program again sometime. You never know.

Right? When you get that next book out, you know where to find me.

Thanks again. Bye for now.

OK, thank you. Bye bye.

Episode 23: Kim Harrison

An hour-long conversation with Kim Harrison, author of the New York Times #1 best selling Hollows series, as well as young adult novels, accelerated-science thrillers, several anthologies, and two original graphic novels set in the Hollows universe, plus traditional fantasy, written as Dawn Cook.

Website:
www.kimharrison.net

Twitter:
@BurningBunnies

Instagram:
@kim_harrison_author

Facebook:
@KimHarrisonHollows

Kim Harrison’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Kim Harrison
Photo by Myra Klarman Photography

Kim Harrison is best known as the author of the New York Times #1 best selling Hollows series, but she has written more than urban fantasy and has published more than two dozen books, spanning the gamut from young adult novels, accelerated-science thrillers, and several anthologies, to scripts for two original graphic novels set in the Hollows universe. Kim Harrison is a pen name; she has also published traditional fantasy under her real name, Dawn Cook.

Dawn was born and raised in the upper Midwest. After gaining her bachelor’s degree in the sciences, she moved to South Carolina, where she remained until relatively recently, moving back to Michigan because she missed the snow.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Dawn, I always like to start by asking my guests to go back into the mists of time, which is…you know, those mists are deeper for some of us than others…and  find out how you first got interested in…well, first of all, I presume, reading science fiction and fantasy, and then how you finally got around to writing it, which we’re all glad you did.

Yes, yes, it was reading. I was an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy back in the heyday of the ’70s and the early ’80s, and I read everything, just gobbled it up, and you can see that if you pick my work apart, because I try to pace everything like a good science fiction novel, ’cause I think that’s the way all stories should read.

But, yeah, it wasn’t until later that I thought I could actually make a go at writing. So, I did not take any classes for writing at all. I avoided it like the plague. I’ve got a science degree, actually, and I use it every day, and my dad says, “You’re kidding! You went to school for science and now you’re writing,” and I say, “But, Dad, I use my degree every single day. But when I did decide that writing was something I wanted to do, I had a big learning curve that I had to handle because, like I said, I didn’t take any classes and I still, you know, I talk to literary people and they start spouting things like “the fourth wall” and I star at them blankly because I have no clue, I have to go Google it find out what they’re talking about. But a good story is a good story and if you can get it down, you know, more power to you.

It wasn’t until I got to move down to South Carolina and I found a writers’ critique group that…oh, it was dedicated. It was my Camelot, actually, because we’d meet every single week and we’d all get a chance to share our work. And I made the connections there that allowed me to break into print and hone my work and toughen up my skin. If it wasn’t for them I don’t think it would have happened. But they’re really hard to find these days.

Yes, and of course,, when I teach writing and when people ask about writing groups, I always say that you have to be careful, because if you have writers in the group and you’re all at a kind of a beginner level, you don’t help each other as much. You need to have people who are at a higher level than you, perhaps, to help lift you up.

Yes, yes. And I was fortunate enough that there was somebody like that.

Now, what were some of the books that you read as a kid that kind of drew you into this?

Oh, Anne McCaffrey was a favorite early on. I read a lot of Isaac Asimov. I didn’t understand him at the time, but I read him. Ray Bradbury was my favorite, back then, because he was the first person who showed me that the worst monsters are the ones that live next door to people. People are monsters…well, they can be. So I read a lot of Ray Bradbury. Jack L. Chalker, loved his stuff, so probably a lot…I’ve got a lot of old names here that people are going to be scratching their heads over…Aspirin, Robert Aspirin. He actually went to school, college, near my hometown, so I got to meet him when he was thin and gawky and just starting out. That was a thrill.

Well, they don’t have me scratching my head because I think I’m a couple of years older than you are, so it’s right in my era as well. I’ve read many of those same books. Now, you mentioned that your degree was in science. What specific discipline?

Well, I’ve got a degree in science engineering and technology, but I basically ran the the…I worked in the labs and I ran the greenhouse as a work study program. But mostly biology, mostly botany, and I am an avid gardener. You know, it’s hard to find a job in the sciences. My first job was at Dow Chemical and I was chaperoning an experimental fiber. I like to tell people that’s where I learned how to type because I didn’t know how to type until then, but, you know, I’ve had really weird jobs. My favourite job was running live-animal traplines for two years, catching chipmunks and mice for a research project for one of my professors.

Where did you go to university?

Saginaw Valley State University. That’s in Michigan.

Is that where you grew up, in Michigan?

Yes, I did. I grew up just outside of Ann Arbor, Michigan, and went to school at Saginaw Valley State University and then moved down to South Carolina for about 13 years following my husband’s job. And we recently–I say recently but I think it’s been like 10 years now–we moved back to another small town outside of Ann Arbor and it just feels like home. It’s really nice to be back.

So, tell me a little bit about the the first book that you broke into with.

The first book! It was a traditional fantasy called The First Truth and it’s still in print, actually. Tt was the first one of a four-book series and it was…oh, I had everything in it. I had telepathic dragons that could shape shift all in a pre-industrial setting with dragons and wizards and that kind of thing…”and I know they’ll love it!” I went back recently to look something up, a reader had a question, and so I was thumbing through it and I got lost for an hour reading it and it was like, “Oh, yeah, I remember that, oh, yeah, it was so fun.” But yeah, that was the first thing actually that I ever wrote, to tell you the honest truth, because I didn’t write when I was growing up. This particular novel idea came to me when I was like 13 or 14 and I wrote it down when I was in my early 20s and I wrote and rewrote it and rewrote it for about four years and that’s what I honed my writing skills on. A lot of people, I’ve noticed, will write a lot of different manuscripts when they’re honing their skills and try out a lot of different ideas, but I just worked on the one manuscript trying out different things until I found what worked for me.

And that was the one you were working with the writers group?

Yes, it is.

What kind of feedback did you get from them that was helpful?

Well, the first one…one of the very first things that somebody said to me was, he leaned back, he put his hand on his hip, and he said, “This is what you’re going to use to break into print?” And I leaned forward, and I said, “Yes, it is absolutely.” I don’t want to make it sound like they were not supportive because they really, really were, it was just something very different from what what he was writing. And so, in another book that I wrote I killed him off. But it was all in fun. But, yeah.

I actually saw a T-shirt that said, “If you were in my novel I would have killed you off by now.”

That’s the one thing we get to do, legal.

So how did you go from that…how did you break in? How did that book come to the attention of publishers?

That one…well, I found an agent at a writer’s conference, and he took it on and said, “If you can do this, this, and this, I will see about, you know, I will take you as a client and I will see about getting it published,” and so I did this, this, and that, and about a year or two later it was. Now, the Truth books, they did OK, but it wasn’t until I wrote, I started writing an urban fantasy under the Kim Harrison name that I really broke into print, really in a big way. And that one was just a natural extension of taking what I like to write,,,what I like to read, which was the science fiction, and what I like to write, which was the fantasy, and merging the two. Which is kind of what urban fantasy is, you take your fantasy creatures and put them in a modern-day setting. And this was right about the time when Jim Butcher was just getting started, and Charlaine Harris, I think she only had, like, two books out, and Laurell K. Hamilton was really the front runner for the urban fantasy. So, I was getting in on the bottom row of the first tier of the big urban fantasy authors.

Yeah, it’s hard to think that, you know, say, in the ’90s, nobody ever heard of anything called urban fantasy, really, it’s all quite a new subgenre of the field.

Yeah, yeah.

So, I always get asked this because I have a couple of pseudonyms…in fact, there’s an episode of The Worldshapers where my pseudonym, E.C. Blake interviews me, Edward Willett, which was fun.

That’s fun.

He sounds a lot like me, only he has a southern accent and I don’t.

Oh, wicked, wicked.

Anyway, people always ask me, you know, why do you write under a pseudonym? And I have my answer but I’ve already done that in my interview, so, how did your pseudonym come about and why did you use it?

The Kim Harrison pseudonym came out because I switched publishers, and the easiest way to switch publishers is to take on a pen name. At the time, the Dawn Cook books were doing okay, but a publisher is kind of leery of starting up…a new publisher taking on an established author is carrying the weight of the numbers of the last book, unless they take a pen name. And sometimes they’ll take a pen name because book buyers will buy more books from an unknown author than they will one that already has an established track record. Like, if you’ve only sold 10,000 books under your old name, they’ll only buy 10,000 books if you keep that name. But if you change your name, they might take a chance on it and buy 20. So, there’s a numbers game, there’s a legality game because, you know, my original publisher only had the first-look rights to anything written under Dawn, so I was able to make a clean break and go forward as Kim with my second one.

Also, there was the issue that it was a new genre and my new publisher wanted to create a new persona to push these books. And so, I got a wig and I wore leather a couple of times and had a really good time stretching in my skin and becoming Kim, so to speak. Now it’s funny, because I’ll run into people who know me as both, and sometimes I’ll get called Kim and sometimes I’ll get called Dawn, and it might seem confusing, but people have different names–you know, there’s mom or sister or wife. It’s all the same to me, although I know some people are really fussy about their pen names and it’s like, “No, no, use this name,” but I go by anything.

Was it a secret for a while?

It was a really tight secret for a long time. I don’t know how it stayed…we’re talking years. It’s really hard to keep a secret in New York because most of the publishers know and it’s easy to let things slip, and how we managed to keep the Dawn name and the Kim name separate for so long is beyond me. But it’s out now, and it came out when I decided it should come out and the Kim Harrison career was doing well, and my publisher said that it wouldn’t be hurt by having it associated with the original Dawn books. So, it was just easier to come out at that point and not try to keep it a secret anymore. And I recently lost the wig. So, I’ll run into people again who have known me as Kim and they stare at me like, “That’s not Kim.” And we’ll go to conferences and, it’s funny, for the first couple of years when I had lost the wig, I could walk around and not get recognized unless somebody recognized my husband, who is always with me at conferences, and then it’s like, “That can’t be Kim. It’s gotta be Kim. Oh, yeah, it’s Kim!”

Did you ever do any acting when you were growing up?

Oh, I am terribly shy. I…well, yeah. I’m really, really shy and so acting was not ever on my horizon. So, no acting, no. But, you know, I daydreamed a lot, and obviously you use those same muscles when you write.

Yes. One reason I ask that question is because, you know, the pseudonym thing is a little bit like acting, but whenever I talk to–and I act, I’m an actor as well–whenever I talk to authors who’ve done acting, we all find that we are using basically the same mental muscles, because you’re pretending to be somebody else, basically.

Right, right. And, actually, it did help out quite a bit when Kim Harrison name, titles, and books got more popular and I had to do more presenting and I had to do more public appearances. It was nice to have that persona to fall into where I could be more confident and be more comfortable being confident. Now, I don’t need all the trappings that go along with it, which is really nice.

Now, you’ve got books published by more than one publisher, do you not?

Yes. Yeah. I have a couple of graphic novels out through Del Rey. I’ve got my fantasies, which are under Ace. I have the Hollows, which is under HarperCollins, and Perfection, which is under Subterranean Press.

We’re going to talk a little bit about the editing process later, so maybe I’ll save the next logical question for when we get to there. Well, we are going to focus on your brand-new book, um…Perfunctory Affection.

Yes. I call it just Perfection because it’s a mouthful, but yes.

Well, and of course the typography they use for the title highlights the Per and Fection so that you get that Perfection when you look at it. And that ties into the story, of course. I’m going to get you to do a synopsis of it, so I don’t give away something you don’t want to give away.

Oh, no.

How would you describe the book?

Oh, well, that would depend on what kind of day I’m having. At its basis, it’s about Meg, who’s dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder from a couple of accidents in her life. And she is an artist and she’s poised to take the art world by storm if she can get over her debilitating anxiety. She teaches art at one of the local universities and she’s working with a psychiatrist, too, to get through this. And she’s getting better, but she meets a couple of people who seem, you know, perfect. And her psychiatrist puts her on a new medication that makes it easier to deal with the stresses in her life, and her life seems to be turning around, and then her boyfriend starts to appear to be controlling, and not in a good way. I mean, he’s kind and he’s nice, but he’s making it easier for her to not become the person that she wants to be. And the doctor herself, she starts to look a little gray, and the waters get muddier and muddier until you’re really not sure what happened when the book is finally over.

And that was my goal, to have the reader finish the book and close it and say, “Did that just happen, or did she just imagine it?” And so, I hope that’s the way people feel when they finish the book because that’s something new for me, and I am really glad I had the opportunity to try to write that.

Yeah, I did find that interesting, you know, I would decide that something was real and then I’d think, “Wait a minute, maybe it wasn’t,” all the way to the end, so, yes, I think you accomplished exactly what you set out to accomplish.

Oh, good, good.

What was…well, specifically, what was the genesis of this book, but more generally, where do book ideas come to you from?

This one…this one I think came from–a tiny little nugget came from my husband, who drives me around and makes my life very easy. He’s…I want to say he’s the perfect house-husband without him feeling bad about that, because he does make my life easier and so I’m able to avoid the things that I don’t like to do. So, there’s a tiny nugget of that in there, but most of my book ideas come from what I’m dealing with on a daily basis, where, you know, I’m not dealing with vampires and werewolves, you know, and I’m not trying to solve crimes, issues that she deals with on an emotional level and there’s a couple of other books…oh, my Drafter series! I forgot all about my accelerated-science thrillers, the Drafter books, where the main character, her ability when she uses it in her job, her magic ability, it takes chunks of her memory so it can be debilitating. And, you know, I’m dealing with a parent who’s losing chunks of their memory, so that impacted me and I wanted to write about and try to find a way to deal with it by working with it on a daily basis in my books.

And you know, I have another series, that’s not published, about a woman who is at the top of her game, and then a medical issue comes and takes everything that she’s, you know, sacrificed for away, and she has to find a way to get the job done without that ability and find a new meaning for life. And, you know, everybody loses things. And so, that comes into my work and I put it in there.

So, the kernels of the story, besides the saving the world, what’s going on with the character, that comes from things that are, they’re hitting my life and making my life challenging, and ways for me to overcome my own obstacles. So, it’s very much…maybe I’m a method writer, I guess maybe you’d call it, by taking in what what’s around me and internalizing it before I can, excuse me, word-vomit it all over the place. But that’s where my ideas come from. The saving the world is secondary, it’s always the character development and the characters that pull me to my desk every day.

So, once you had this initial germ of an idea, how did you go about developing it? What kind of an outline or planner are you?

Oh, I have a really good balance of plotting and pantser. I used to think that I was strictly a plotter because I do outlines, and I love my outlines, and I don’t like starting a book until I have it all sketched out. And it’ll take me a couple of weeks, and I’ll start with a real quick synopsis, which grows into a three-page, and then I break it down, and I have a page per chapter–but I never hold to it. Usually about page 100 I’ve made enough changes that I have to rewrite my outline, and right about page 300 I throw my outline out and I just pants it to the end, knowing I have the goals. The goals are still there, but how I’m getting there shifts. But it’s always…the actual, when I sit down and write, it’s always dialogue first, and I’ll spend the day writing out the dialogue for a chapter, and it kind of looks like what I imagine a script might, with a little minor directions of character movement and whatnot, but it’s mostly dialogue, and if I don’t have that dialogue I start wandering off track. So that keeps me on point and I get to where I’m going that way.

It does actually sound like you should try writing plays.

My dialogue chapters look a lot like a play, yeah.

Now, you’d said that it’s the characters for you that drive the story forward and bring you back to it. How do you find the characters that you are going to put into your story?

They…the main character usually grows out of the issue that I’m dealing with. The supplemental characters come from the story itself, to fill a need, whether it be a romantic interest or a platonic relationship or of something that just brings out the issue that the character is dealing with. I find that my antagonists are often more interesting and fun to watch than my protagonist. I really enjoy my antagonists. I have very few that are fully bad. I think I have a vampire who’s totally irredeemable but most of them are redeemable. Most of them don’t get redeemed. If you’re familiar at all with the Hollows series, Trent Kalamack was supposed to be my big, bad ugly through the whole series but about Book 6 Rachel began to understand where he was coming from and that his purpose was noble and at that point she either had to kill him or start to really understand him, and by the end of the series…well, it’s not ended, actually there’s another one in the works…but by the original ending he was a love interest, and it worked. I mean,, it took a long time to get there because I like my relationships to be believable, but I did make him go from an antagonist to a protagonist.

Did you know that was going to happen when you started the series or did that happen along the way?

No, I did not. I wanted my hero to be the poor, downtrodden, wickedly smart man and my villain to be the really wealthy, rich kind of snobby boy, which…and it turned out all wrong. The readers…I do not write romance but because I pay so much attention to relationships I have a really wide following in the romance area, and my romance readers, they told me first, they said, “She should be with Trent,” so I explored it my mind a little bit and I said, “Yeah, you know what? You might be right.” And it took several books to believably turn that around—but I’m glad I did!

Now, when you are initially designing characters, do you do detailed character sheets or is it more you have an idea and it comes out on the page as you write?

It’s a little of both. I do have character sheets. They’re very messy, they’re handwritten, and they’re only there so I don’t make a mistake and have somebody with eyes blue in book and brown in the other.

The perennial problem!

But it was a real problem when I went to do my world book that I didn’t have more details on my characters. But most of them develop like you get to know a person, you know, surface stuff and then a little deeper and when you see them at their worst point, you know, the really core of a person comes out, and that’s, I think, my favourite part.

This particular book, Perfunctory Affection, has a very tight point of view. You’re in Meg’s head for the entire time, which, of course, I think the kind of book it is that pretty much was the only way you could tell it. Is that typical or do you do different points of view over different books?

Well, my first book was third, and I wrote in third person for quite a while and I enjoyed it, but it was a fantasy and you kind of need that to manage the scope. The Hollows books were written in first person, which is what most urban fantasy is because the readers like the intimacy of it, and I found I had to almost re-learn how to tell a story from a first-person point of view because, like I said, I like my villains, and I wanted to see them and get to know them, and it’s harder when you’re in only one person’s point of view. However, it does give you a more intimate feel, which I really like. And the Hollows books were, they’re kind of detective, so it fits. You can do it, it works. I’m writing in third person right now, on the work I’m working on currently, but I think first person is my favorite just because of that intimacy.

Did you consider it for Perfunctory Affection?

You know, I did but, like you noticed, it really has to be from one person’s point of view in order to…it is, isn’t it? It’s been a while since I’ve worked on it…

Yes, it’s entirely very tightly in Meg’s point of view.

I didn’t think I had anything in there from third.

It’s as tight in as if it was first person, but it’s written in third.

Yeah.

And, yeah, what I found interesting, because of the and…as I said I think it almost…okay, if I had been writing it I wouldn’t have done it in first person, either. Therefore, I think you made the correct decision.

Okay. Seriously, it’s been so long I don’t remember actually what…but now that I think about it, it was third, wasn’t it?

Yeah.

But it was all her point of view pretty much.

And I think because of the not being sure what’s real and what’s not, I thought that that also…

Yeah, it really had to be like that.

Yeah. What’s your actual…well, one question before we get to that.

Sure.

Meg, in this story, is an artist and you’ve mentioned you’ve done some art, and there’s some other…you know, what kind of research do you do going into a book?

Um…that’s tricky. I don’t do a whole lot of research. I don’t like falling into that research trap. If a place setting is important, I will do a lot of research on a  place. The Hollows books take place in Cincinnati ,and I know Cincinnati better than my hometown, you know, I’ve been in the tunnels, I’ve been on Carew Tower, I’ve been on the streets, and I’ll spend a week there if I need to, but before anything else I prefer to spend, like, maybe an hour or two online to get an idea of how I need to tackle this or move forward in it, and then I just go.

And maybe research as you encounter things along the way?

Yeah. Most of my research, if you can call it that, is just done by living. You know, I’m constantly taking things in. I’m constantly weighing them in my mind. I’m constantly trying to figure out why this is that way. And I’ll come out to my husband and say the weirdest things, like, “I think she turned around and went the other way because of blah blah blah blah blah.” And that’s how I live my life. I’m always trying to figure out why people are doing things the way they are. And that’s pretty much most of my research. Like, I didn’t do a whole lot of research on anxiety…well, I looked it up to find out what the symptoms were, you know, that kind of thing, but no, not a whole lot, to tell you the honest truth.

The question went out of my head that I was about to ask…oh, yes. So, you were talking about the researching, you know, basically by living, and you have done, as you said, a lot of different and interesting kinds of jobs, and you have that science degree which which you say you apply. How does all that feed into your work?

Oh, a lot. I look very analytically at most problems that appear on the page. I use science quite a bit. I tap into DNA as being a reason for the way things are. When I’m designing creatures like vampires and witches and pixies and and stuff I will pull on my biology background and say, “Well, it’s a pixie, it’s small, that means it needs a high-energy source, so it’s probably feeding on nectar, which means it’s going to hibernate or migrate during the winter. It’s going to have a, you know, low cold tolerance.” So, you know, it just builds on itself like that. So, that’s how I use my biology degree mostly, but I do like the beauty behind genetics and, you know, I’ve recently looked back at my body of work and I’ve got genetics in that first fantasy series that I did and I touch on it in the Hollows books and it just keeps popping up here and there. You know, it must be on my mind.

What’s your actual writing process look like? Do you sit in an office and type, do you work in a coffee shop, do you hand write, how does it work for you?

Yeah, I do, I sit in the office. I am lucky enough now to have a office that is six steps away from my back door. It’s a stand-alone octagon. I’ve got windows on all eight sides of me, and I’m basically sitting in a glass box in the middle of my garden. And, it’s been a, you know, when I’m out of my office I’m landscaping the area that I’m looking at and when I’m inside my office I’m head down over the keyboard. When I’m working on plotting there’s a section that’s handwritten, but then I graduate to typing, fairly rapidly now, and then it’s all on the keyboard. I like to work at my office and then…so that when I leave my office I can separate the book world from my real world, and if I have a physical, you know, shut-the-door sensation I think it makes it easier. I think most writers are working all the time whether they know it or not. But being able to shut the door and walk away has helped me divorce myself from whatever issues my characters are working on–because it can spill over into your everyday life if you’re not careful.

I have tried working other places. I recently was in Tucson for two months and I developed the ability to sit outside in the sunshine and work on a laptop instead of in my office off a keyboard, so, you know, I can be flexible, but–I don’t want to say it’s a nine-to-five job now, but I do work almost every day and I try to keep to a schedule. And I think that’s about the only way that I can get anything done. I’m not a splurgeist, I am a a scheduled-time-to-write person.

You mentioned that you start with dialogues, so then you flesh it out from there in your first draft?

Yes. And my first draft is really ugly. I will be the first to admit it. I don’t show my first draft to anybody but my husband and…he’s my sounding board, actually, which is really nice, to have somebody who knows your work as much as you do, and the characters, so that you can talk things over. But I don’t show that to my my editor until I’m at least on my second or third draft because they are so ugly. My first drafts have holes in them and some logic issues. The whole point of a first draft for me is to find out where you’re going and what you end up at. And then you go back and you make it work.

It’s kind of like, going back to the art, it’s sort of like having the clay, you roughly shape it out the first time and then you go in and you put in the details.

Yeah, exactly, exactly.

You mentioned your husband being a sounding board. Do you, at some point, do you use beta readers or anything like that like some writers do?

No, I do not. And I don’t know if that’s…you know, a lot of people do. But I have just never been comfortable with it.

I don’t either, so I’m glad that somebody else doesn’t.

Yeah, my editor is usually the first professional who sees it and I’m…I don’t want to say I’m particular about my editors but I have to trust them implicitly, and so, if it’s a bad fit, it goes sour really fast because if I don’t trust their judgment, you know, it’s like, “Why should I make this change?” You know, I have a little bit of a stubborn streak. But if I trust their judgment it’s like, “I will do it even if I don’t understand why because I trust your judgment.” And if it’s a good fit and they know where I’m going and we’re coming from the same place, it works. You know, I really enjoy working with an editor that I trust.

And, since you have worked with a number of different publishers, you must have worked with a number of different editors over the years.

I have. Probably fewer than most, though. I find somebody I like and I don’t want to go anywhere. I enjoy working…I enjoy feeling like I’m a part of a team even though I’m not involved a lot in in many of the decisions abut how a book is marketed and published and placed. But I enjoy feeling like I’m a part of a team, and my job is to present a product that can be tailored to an editor’s…what an editor sees can be marketable. And, you know, sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. But, yeah, I do enjoy working with my editors.

What kind of feedback do you get from editors, as in, is there a recurring theme in the sorts of things that you find yourself working on in the editorial pass? I know, for me there’s certain things that…well, of course, have basically only worked with, on the big publisher side, DAW Books, it’s been Sheila Gilbert the entire time. And I already…and everybody that’s edited by Sheila says the same thing, it’s that you get to the point where you’re saying, “Sheila is going to say something about that.” And sure enough, Sheila says something about that.

I’ve never run into that before!

Do you find that there’s certain things that you’re always getting asked to work on in the editorial revision?

I get asked a lot to put in more physical characteristics, and I think that’s just because I see people by how they act rather than what they look like. So, I have really had to work hard at describing people more. You know, I can describe them well but then I don’t…if I don’t remind myself I don’t remind the reader of what they look like throughout the book. And I hear that a lot. Other than that, it’s mostly…mostly I get a lot of questions on, “Can you clarify how this magic system works?” or “Can you flesh out the world a little bit more?” or it might be, “This reaction doesn’t wash with me. You either need to fix it or change the reaction or go back and add some more stuff so I understand why it happened.” Stuff like that.

I think that’s…I think the thing that editors, and new writers will often…they’ll say, “Well, I don’t know if I want to be edited or not. The editor’s going to change things or tell me to change things.”

Yeah…

But good editors have seen a lot of stories and they know what works and they know what doesn’t and they know where you need to kick things up a bit.

Yes. I have run in…most of my editors have been really good but occasionally you might run into one who doesn’t read your work thoroughly enough, and they’ll…I had one editor wipe out the first three pages of almost every chapter and then say, “I need more detail on this this and this.” And it was…and that’s what was in the first three pages! But I had wedged it in so carefully that she skimmed right over it. But that’s rare. I think most of the time editors really care about what they’re doing and they buy your work because they like it and they want…and they see a way to make it better. And they see a place where it can be sold. So if…my advice is, if an editor tells you to change something, unless it’s something that, you know, clearly they missed, change it. Do it. See if…it might work better. You can always change it back.

I like what you said about being part of a team because although as writers we work very independently and on our own for much of the time, once it gets up to the publication level you are part of a team and it’s becomes more of a collaborative thing. That final book has gone through, you know, copyeditors and…the editors and the copyeditors and there’s cover art and there’s blurb writing and there’s all these things that come together to actually make the book when it actually hits the shelf.

And I think if an author feels like they’re part of the process, not just giving them a manuscript and doing a copyedit and page proofs but really part of the process of helping to design the cover, and…the worst covers I’ve ever done are the ones that I’ve tried to design. So, you know, the author is not the person to design the cover but input, a little input, makes you feel involved and the more involved the author is in those later stages of the book, I think the more they’re willing to help push it through their own…like Facebook and Twitter and their…their outreaches to the readers.

And speaking of readers, you’ve already mentioned that some of the feedback from readers had you take another look at the relationship in the Hollows books and you are a, you know, very widely read author, do you get a lot of feedback from your readers, and how does that impact what you do going forward?

I listen to them because sometimes they see things before I do. Sometimes they see things that…a more interesting path than I normally would. I’m in touch with my readers a lot. I’m pretty active on my Facebook and my Twitter, Instagram not so much but I’ve got an account, and it works for me. They often come to me with questions. Rarely do they come to me with suggestions but their questions lead me to think about, “Well, maybe what if?” And that’s that’s what an author always wants to be doing, is saying, “Well, what if?” And to me, the editing, the changing, you know, once you get that first draft done, that’s the hard part. The fun part is tweaking it and tailoring it and seeing what would happen if they go through this door instead of that or they pick up the stray dog, you know, that kind of thing.

And I…going back to the idea of teamwork, ultimately a book is collaborative not just with the people who produce it, but also also with the people who read it. It doesn’t exist, in a way, until somebody reads it and what they get out of it may be quite different from what you thought you were putting in there but clearly because they got it out of there it’s in there somewhere.

Yeah, it’s in there whether you meant it to be or not.

There’s a story about Isaac Asimov, whom you mentioned, I think it was in one of his biographical books, Opus 100 or Opus 200 or Opus 300, I think he went that far, where he mentioned to being in a classroom in a university where they were teaching his classic story “Nightfall,” and he listened to the professor talk about it and then afterwards he went up to him, and he said, “that was very interesting but I’m Isaac Asimov and I wrote that story and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there.” And the professor said, “Well, I’m very glad to meet you but what makes you think that, just because you wrote it, you know what’s in there?” I’ve kept that in the back of my head for thirty, forty years now.

Yeah, that works, that really…that’s right.

Well, let’s talk a bit about the big philosophical questions here. Why do you write, do you think, after all these years, and why do you keep doing it, and specifically why do you write this kind of stuff?

I write to keep from going insane.

I get that a lot from authors.

Yeah, yeah. I think we’re all different but we’re all of a type. It’s…writing is a way for me to get a grip on reality, of what’s going on around me. I don’t want to say that I have a bad life, because I have a wonderful life, but life is full of ups and downs and minor, you know, personal tragedies. And writing helps me work through it and find a way to deal with it. I like puzzles and exploring how things fit together, and that’s what writing is to me. A lot of it is seeing, you know, you start with all these pieces and this is what you want. Well, how do you put them together to get there? And it’s just…it’s a way for me to relax, if I may say so. This is…I’m an introvert, so I need a lot of personal time, and this is the way I can do that and pay the bills. Lucky me, lucky, lucky me! And it’s an escape. You know, people read to escape. Well, I write to escape, and it’s a healthy escape. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

And why science fiction and fantasy?

Why science fiction and fantasy. Yeah, I forgot that part, didn’t I? Probably because that’s what I read growing up, and it’s tied to emotions and good feelings and there’s probably some endorphins going on in there, too–the mind’s a wonderful thing. But that’s probably why. It’s what I like to read so it’s what I like to write. I think it’s that simple.

In the case of Perfunctory Affection, if you read it in one way, it’s not just science fiction or fantasy at all.

No, no it isn’t. It is not. And that is why I really enjoyed writing it. I had just finished…well, I thought I had just finished the Hollows series and I needed something to cleanse my palate, and Perfunctory Affection was an idea that I wanted to work on for a long time and hadn’t been able to. So, I just dived right into it. And it came out to be a weird length, it’s like 68,000 words, which is about half of what I usually write…well, actually, it’s maybe a third of what I usually write for a book. But I couldn’t bear the thought of padding it to make it a full novel because it needed to be slim and trim and the way it is. I don’t really want to think about what was going on in my head or my life at the time that I wrote it because this kind of scary, but, no, it is not fantasy. It is not science fiction. I think I’d call it a psychological thriller, maybe?

Yeah, I think that would fit. I mean, it has a science element to it.

Yeah.

So, in a way it’s science fiction because it has science in it and it’s fiction. But still, I don’t think I would call it that.

And then with Haley and Rory, I don’t know, that might be fantasy.

It is if you read it one way, yeah.

Yes, it is. Yeah. Yeah. So, if it can be read multiple ways I think I’ve done my job.

Sixty-eight thousand is kind of a young adult length. That’s the length of some young adult books that I wrote, and you have written young adult, haven’t you?

I have. Oh, I forgot about those. Yes. I wrote those under Kim Harrison. Again, I think they’re urban fantasy although they don’t deal with vampires. They deal with the grim reaper and angels and that might be urban fantasy-ish.

I think I’d still call it that.

Yeah.

What do you find different writing for young adults and adults?

Not a whole lot. My young adults tend to be, like, 16 to 20, maybe. And the biggest thing that I keep in mind when I sit down is that, aside from including a parent figure in there, that the odds are higher. I think most young adults feel like they don’t have any resources compared to an adult. And…when the truth of the matter is that they’ve got tons of resources, they’ve got friends, they’ve got, you know, they’ve got their own internal power, their strength, their courage, you know, they’ve got tons and tons of of resources, they just don’t realize it. And the fun part about young adult is being able to show a character who feels like they don’t have these resources in order to surmount whatever they need to, and then showing how, yes, you do, and how they grow into it, so to speak. But young adult is where I first started reading,and I love writing young adult, it’s just…I don’t know. The adult issues I guess come up more often, or more easier perhaps, in the adult stuff, and I think for me it’s harder for me to write a young adult and put those adult issues in it, like a lot of authors do. I kind of like to keep my young adult something that I wouldn’t mind my grandma reading, so to speak.

So, we’ve talked about readers and so I guess the other…this whole podcast is called The Worldshapers. Do you hope through your writing that you are shaping…I know, shaping the real world might be a bit grand…but ate least shaping readers in some way, reaching into them and changing them a little bit?

Yes. And I have. I have gotten the feeling that I have changed…I don’t want to say I’ve changed people’s lives…people have read my work and changed their lives in certain instances. I’ve toured for a while, and one of the fun things is, I had a couple come up to me at one of my events and they told me that they met in line two years ago or last year and now they’re a couple. I mean, that’s cool in itself! My favorite story is, a reader came up to me and told me a story that he was in a coffee shop and he saw somebody reading one of my books across the way. And he looked at the woman and he made a bunny-eared kiss-kiss, which is basically a peace sign where you crook your fingers twice in quick succession, and his friend said, “Do you know that woman?” And the woman, you know, across the way, crooked her fingers and did the same thing back, and the guy said, “No, it’s a book thing, it’s a Hollows thing.” And to be able to know that you have impacted the world enough that two people who don’t know each other and share a moment across the coffee shop, you know, that’s heady stuff.

We’re just about out of time here. So, tell me what you’re working on now. What comes next?

I am actually working on American Demon. It is the next Hollows book, with Rachel and Trent. It picks up after the last book but before the epilogue in the last book. So I’ve wedged it in. I hope the readers will be pleased with it. I’m also working on a something completely out of my wheelhouse. It’s more of a hero’s journey. And I don’t really want to say much more than that but it’s not in the Hollows, it’s something else. But I’ve been enjoying being able to write on a multitude of subjects, which is something that, once you get kind of name brand into a genre, that you don’t often get a chance to do, so I’ve just been enjoying writing whatever I feel like. But American Demon is the thing that’s on my plate right now.

And Perfunctory Affection just came out.

It will be out on the March 31.

Which will probably be before this airs, I think I can say… 

Ok, yes, so it just came out.

And it’s from Subterranean Press, right?

Yes, it is. And this one is a little special. They are all signed and numbered, which is something new for me. Usually I have a small print run that’s signed and numbered. It is a small print run, but this is it. There is an audio version that will come out and I believe the e-book will come out at some point. But if you want to get a hold of this, it’s…you can get it through Amazon, but Subterranean Press is the publisher and they’re all signed and numbered.

Oh, I feel I feel fortunate to have had an advance reader copy.

There weren’t very many of them, no!

And where can people find you online?

They can find me at my Web site, kimharrison.net. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter @BurningBuddies.

Okay! Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers!

Well, thank you! This has been a fabulous interview.

Thank you very much.

Episode 18: Tosca Lee

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

Website:
www.toscalee.com

Twitter:
@ToscaLee

Facebook:
AuthorToscaLee

Instagram:
@toscalee

Tosca Lee’s Amazon Page

The Introduction:

Tosca Lee

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

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

The Lightly Edited Transcript

So, Tosca, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much for having me.

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

Yay, Mickey! Yes. He’s awesome.

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

Yes, yep.

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

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

Where did you grow up?

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

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

Very familiar. Absolutely.

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

Yes.

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

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

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

It’s hard on the body.

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

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

I know it.

You know that one?

Oh, yeah.

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

Do you still have it?

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

Oh, dear.

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

And you did. But not right away.

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

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

Seriously?

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

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

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

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

I still know two authors who use it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, overnight success.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Right, right.

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

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

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

We’re like twins!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, that’s handy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh good. Now I know, too.

There you go.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I do indeed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, yeah.

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

The editor at my publisher?

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, uh-oh.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, just the two books.

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

Well, make sure that you get the next one.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah. Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

And you’re active on there?

I’m active on there, yep.

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

Thanks for having me. I so enjoyed it.

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

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

And are there audiobook versions as well?

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

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

I love audiobooks, too.

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

Thank you so much, Edward. Thank you.

Episode 13: L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

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

Website:
lemodesittjr.com

L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

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

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

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

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

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

How old were you when you started writing poetry?

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

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

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

Did your poetry have any elements of the fantastical?

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

Do you still write poetry?

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

What part of the country did you grow up in?

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

Where did you go to university?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m a big believer in the what if.

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

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

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

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

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

How do stories tend to come to you?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do you do a lot of research along the way?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Have you had any feedback from readers to that effect?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are you working on now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And all published by Tor.

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

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

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

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

Episode 11: Joe Haldeman

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

Website:
joehaldeman.com

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The Introduction

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

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

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

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

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

The Show

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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