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: Lee Modesitt Jr.

 

An hour-long conversation with Lee 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

Lee 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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Joe Haldeman’s Amazon Page

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.”