An hour-long conversation with award-winning writer Roy M. Griffis, author of historical, alternate-history, and the humorous Cthulhu, Amalgmated fantasy cycle, as well as poetry, plays, and screenplays.
Roy “Griff” Griffis calls himself a “Storyteller” for a lot of reasons.
He decided to be a writer when he was ten and never looked back. Along the way, he’s done all the usual starving artist jobs (janitor, waiter, bookstore clerk) and a few unusual ones (he was the 62nd Aviation Rescue Swimmer in the US Coast Guard––he doesn’t just write action-adventure, he lived a little of it himself).
He’s written poetry, plays, and screenplays. He’s also the author of twelve novels, including the epic historical fiction saga By the Hands of Men and the alternative history series The Lonesome George Chronicles, as well as the comic fantasy Cthulhu, Amalgamated cycle. In 2018 he received the first The John Milius Screenwriting Award for his original film script Cold Day in Hell.
Born in 1947, James Morrow has been writing fiction ever since. As a seven-year-old living in the Philadelphia suburbs, he dictated the story of the duck family to his mother, who dutifully typed it up and bound the pages with yarn. Upon reaching adulthood, Jim channeled his storytelling urge toward the production of speculative literature.
The majority of his eleven novels are written in satiric theological mode, including the critically acclaimedGodhead trilogy. He has won the World Fantasy Award twice, for Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah, the Nebula Award twice, for his story “The Deluge” and the novella City of Truth, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award once for the novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima.
In recent years, he’s produced historical fiction informed by a fantastical sensibility, including The Last Witchfinder, about the birth of the Enlightenment, and GalapagosRegained, about the coming of the evolutionary worldview, and his novel-in-progress sardonically reimagines the 325 AD Council of Nicaea. The French translation of his Darwin extravaganza recently received the Grand prix de l’Imaginaire. His most recent work to see print is The Purloined Republic, one of the three novellas that constitute And the Last Trump Shall Sound.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Jim, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you very much, Ed. Happy to be here.
Happy to make the connection. I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths at a convention or anything in person, but it was through Mickey Mickkelson, who’s my publicist and is doing some work as well with Arc Manor. I guess we made the connection because of And the Last Trump Shall Sound, which is out or about to come out. Is it out or about to come out? As we talk, because it will be out by the time this goes live.
September 22 is the pub date. I see you’re about to appear on The Coleman Show, which I’m also booked on. You’re doing that tomorrow, right?
Yeah. As we talk. By the time this comes out, this will all be a few weeks in the past. I sometimes forget that when I’m doing these things, that this is not a live broadcast, but it does not live, it is recorded. And at the time it comes out, all of this stuff will be out. Well, let’s that start, as I do, by taking you, as I like to say, I’m totally going to put reverb on it someday, back into the mists of time, where, as I also like to say, it is mistier for some of us than others. How did you become interested in, you know, you mentioned writing your first story when you were seven years old, so obviously, that came along early, but not just writing, but also science fiction fantasies specifically. How did that come about for you, and where did you grow up and go to school and all that good stuff?
Okay. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a little town called Roslyn. I guess there are two different tributaries feeding the river of my imagination. One comes from low culture, sort of popular culture, the other from a more literary zone, high, high culture. I’d say, unlike the majority of guests you have on The Worldshapers, I was not a voracious reader as a kid. My introduction to genre was through the more tawdry venue of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. I still have the first, Forrey Ackerman’s sort of love letter to the history of horror films, and so was watching movies on television that had that fantastic sensibility that ultimately, I would argue, led to my producing prose fiction in that genre. My friends and I in high school subscribed to Famous Monsters and would go to each other’s houses to watch these movies. And we started our own filmmaking club.
Growing up in Roslyn, Pennsylvania, I was very near a large cemetery, and this became the setting for about half the movies that we made. But we did, these were 8mm home movies, but we thought of them as feature films, and we were in them, but we thought of ourselves as adult actors. But we did adaptations of “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and the other films we did had titles like Cagliostro, The Sorcerer, and The Futurians. But let me then jump to the other tributary of more literary or high culture. In my 10th-grade world literature class taught by the amazing Mr. Giordano (sp?), I came to understand for the first time that a novel was not simply about following the vicarious adventures of non-existent people, that a novel could be a matrix of ideas, and novelists were people who had something to say. And the syllabus was just extraordinary. We read Voltaire’s Candide, we read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the plays of Ibsen, Kafka’s The Trial, Madame Bovary by Flaubert. And I just was so entranced by the sensibility of those authors. They were people who did not settle for the received wisdom of their day. They stood outside of their cultures. They were at odds with conventional thought, and they tended to be very much religious skeptics, doubters. And not just . . . it was kind of like my inverse road to Damascus. You know, I wanted to sign up for the sort of honest atheism of Albert Camus and I, you know, and I thought maybe I could do it myself someday, that I could write a novel of ideas.
Science fiction, of course, demands that you play with ideas. It’s often called the literature ideas of ideas. You get this wonderful toolkit when you join that club of robots and time travel and rocketships, all of which become techniques for getting perspective on the world, for holding reality up to a kind of funhouse mirror and, you know, and then maybe telling people a thing or two, arguing for a way of seeing the world. And one day, I found myself possessed by an idea for my first novel.
When you were doing the film work, were you doing some of the scripting for those films where you’re writing for that?
Yeah, they were my . . . I guess there were like four of us who were in this, who had created this club, and I was sort of recognized me as the one who did pretty well with dialogue and was the writer of the group. But we all took turns behind the camera, we all took turns in front of the camera. I usually did the editing as well. I love the editing process. And I would say to this day, my fiction-making for me is filmmaking by other means, that when I cut into a manuscript, when I leap into the rough draft of a chapter as it comes pouring out of my printer and I sit down with a pencil and a cup of coffee, to me, trimming and reshaping the prose is analogous to what I did for many years editing films, trimming the frames, rearranging the images.
I have to ask if you still have the story of the dog family bound in yarn by your mother, you still have a copy of that.
I do! That managed to survive. I have it in a file upstairs. And I still have most of the 8mm movies that we made. Although I haven’t played them recently. I have a feeling the splices would fall apart, and the soundtracks may have, the tape may have degenerated. I’m afraid to find out.
Were you writing prose during that time as well, your teen years, and so forth? And were you sharing those stories with people? Or was it pretty much you were in that film making side of things?
Yeah, I mean, I had an urge to tell stories. I had, I think, a feeling for narrative, but I expressed myself in other media, the filmmaking . . . we put on some plays, I used to draw my own comic strips and comic books and, you know, didn’t turn to prose fiction until, you know, my first novel, really, though I always, I loved the medium of the novel from a very young age. I thought there was just something magical and luminous about those books in my parents’ modest library that I knew were fiction. And even before I was very adept at reading and way before I would imagine composing stories myself, I would take volumes off the shelf in my parents’ living room, and then I would impose on them my own novel. I would sort of be telling a story to myself as I was turning the pages of the novel, pretending that it was something that I had written.
I have to ask because so much of your work is, as you said in your bio, theologically inspired, did you have a religious upbringing, were you learning theological material during your youth?
No. My parents took me to Presbyterian Sunday School, but I think they were not really serious Christians themselves. I think they had a kind of inoculation theory: give the kid a little bit of religion, you know, lest he someday show up announcing that he’s decided to become a monk, and you deprived me of God, and how dare you not tell me about the divine! And, you know, I honestly believe that was their theory. So, I had . . .it was a very low-level experience. I mean, even though I did have that inverse road to Damascus I mentioned earlier, thanks to Voltaire and Camus, etc., there just wasn’t that much, there’s not that much to lapse from when you’re a sort of white-bread, you know, middle-class suburban Christian. So, the impulse to critique Christianity does not come out of any kind of trauma. I was not in rebellion against a religious upbringing. I’d never been assaulted by a nun holding a ruler or anything like that. It was much more, these voices spoke to me, these doubters like Camus and Dostoyevsky and Ibsen. And I just wanted to try that myself.
Well, you mentioned that you didn’t really tackle prose until you had the idea for your first novel. When did that come along? And also, what did you study in university?
I majored in English, and my speciality was creative writing, but I still wasn’t doing a lot of prose fiction. My main project was a screenplay, and I actually had Joseph Heller as a teacher, which was a wonderful experience.
And he was very interested in what I was doing. It was a course in playwriting, and he himself had a play running on Broadway at the time called We Bombed in New Haven. And he was taken with the comedy, the three-act comedy that I was producing in his class. But I did not come out of the program at the University of Pennsylvania with a belief in myself as a novelist or as someone who was going to get into this wonderful universe of science fiction. I became an educator for a while, and I had used my filmmaking experience to become a media educator and was hired by several public school systems to, like, teach animation to junior-high-age kids or teach students how to make slide tapes. But at that time, in my circle of media educators, there was a lot of discussion about the effect that mass media was having on children. And most of that conversation was about the deleterious effects of television and movies on kids. There were books like The Plug-in Drug getting a lot of attention, very anti-television. And I said to myself, “Well, I can understand why people are worried that that TV is turning kids into lemmings, but what about the contrary argument, that television has a kind of cathartic effect, and that television maybe drains off impulses that one otherwise might be inclined to act out in the real world, anti-social impulses.” And I said, “You know, there’s kind of science-fiction novel in there. What if there was a society that was totally pacifistic, where there’d never been a robbery or a rape or a killing? And if initially this is a mystery, how in the world did they achieve this, this blessed state?” And then it turns out that they have a technology that lets them sort of hook themselves up to their television sets, except they control the content. If they’ve had some bad experience that day, an argument with the boss, or maybe even getting fired from their job, you could go home and shoot the boss on television, and nobody would get hurt and would drain off your desire you might have to commit that sort of crime in the real world. And then the plot became, what if on this utopian planet an astronaut arrives, falls in love with one of these, they’re human migrants, falls in love with them and decides that she needs just a little bit of an aggressive instinct to be fully human, that maybe, you know, you’ve got to have a dark side, you’ve got to have that dark side for real, not just in your fantasies. And so, he injects her with a little bit of the violence that these people drain off into a rive, a moat that encircles their city. And of course, this is a recipe for disaster. She has no immunity and becomes a maniac. And then he’s faced with this terrible dilemma: is he going to kill the woman he loves to save a civilization he hates?
So, the whole thing arrived full-blown, all three acts. I found an agent, and we discussed whether this was, in fact, a science fiction novel or just a novel of ideas. And we ultimately decided it should be marketed as science fiction. She took it to . . . Holt Rinehart and Winston at the time had a line of SF they were publishing, Larry Niven and Robert Checkley, and they did Heinlein. This was Donald Hunter, the late lamented Donald Hunter at Holt. And I was off and running. I never looked back. The book didn’t become a bestseller, but it got quite a bit of review attention. The Science Fiction Book Club picked it up, it came out in paperback, and I said, “Okay, I’ve sort of kept the commitment I made with myself way back in tenth grade to see if I could write a novel of ideas.”
I want to go back to the university and studying creative writing/ I often ask authors who have done that formally if it turned out to be helpful. It sounds like, in your case, maybe it actually was. Not every author tells me that it was. So, what was your experience?
Certainly, having Joseph Heller and his sensibility was a big influence on me. He was very self-effacing. I would say that, you know, Catch-22, as far as he was concerned, its unbelievable success was kind of a fluke. Every year many worthy novels come out and disappear and die a dog’s death. Now, that said, it was just, you know, Catch-22 is, as you might imagine, a touchstone for me, James Morrow the satirist. That said, the other creative writing classes I had were happening at a time . . . this is, what, circa 1968, ’69, before it was thought that you could teach the crafting of prose fiction systematically. And so, the only thing that went on in these classrooms was workshopping, because reacting to each other’s manuscripts, as opposed to, you know, the sort of, I wouldn’t call formulas, but the sort of incredibly good advice you get, you would get from, let’s say, a John Gardner in his book—On Writing Fiction, as I recall, is the title. And, you know, there was no discussion of how to negotiate the marketplace, what it meant to get a literary agent, how important that could be, you know, nor was there a whole lot of explicit teaching about how do you create a character? How do you structure a plot? You know, what are the techniques you can use to engage a reader? What is the difference between suspense and surprise, et cetera, et cetera? And so, yeah, I can’t praise the other aspects of the University of Pennsylvania’s writing program at the time. I suspect it’s rather different now, maybe much more influenced by institutions like Iowa’s writers’ workshops.
The playwrighting interests me, as well. I’m an actor. I’ve done quite a bit of stage work and have written a couple of plays and directed them and all that sort of thing, and I always feel that that’s helpful in writing my fiction in a way and that I always have a very clear image of where everybody is in relationship to each other in my head, in the scene. And I think some of that comes from writing plays. And then I also think, of course, the dialogue side of things. Do you feel that that background in playwriting and scriptwriting has benefited your fiction?
Yes, very much so. I sometimes think of myself as a playwright manque, though, of course, it’s even harder to convince money people to put on a play of yours than to publish your novel.
Yeah, that’s for sure.
To say nothing of filmmaking. But yeah, I do see my work, as it may be, both playwriting and filmmaking by other means, and I’m told that my novels are visual and vivid, and I do think in terms of scenes. Not all prose fiction makers do, they’re maybe a little more free form. They don’t break into discrete acts or scenes or sequences or the three-act structure. But that’s where I am. These epics of mine are not only patterned on the structure of films, but I actually draw inspiration a great deal from the Hollywood product. At least, it’s always, whenever I’m working on it, it becomes an excuse to look at a bunch of movies and see how I’m going to get energy.
When you, I mean, you mentioned doing it in high school, but have you done acting yourself since then?
Very, very little. No, I’ve fallen away from that.
Well, you know, if the writing doesn’t work out, you can always try acting. There’s a good, solid career choice.
I think of the criticism from Peter Ustinov, who, as you probably know, was a man of many talents, a Renaissance man, and his whole family was into the arts. I mean, they were all musicians or writers or painters.
I think I read his autobiography, yeah.
Someone brought to the Bronx, brought to the family dinner, a guy she was dating. And they asked, “Well, what does he do for a living?” And he said he was a stockbroker. And they said, “You’re a stockbroker. Can you make a living from that? Why don’t you go into something safe, like poetry?” Because they were all successful. Not the norm.
No. My favorite actor joke, which I’ve heard a few times, is, “What’s the difference between an actor and a pizza?” And it’s, “A pizza can feed a family of four.”
I’ve heard that joke as being the difference between a science-fiction writer and a pizza.
Yeah, it’s the same joke.
So, let’s talk about your creative process. We’re going to talk about The Last Witchfinder, which I’ve read a chunk of. I haven’t gotten to the end, but I certainly intend to. This came out a few years ago, but I’ll let you give a synopsis of it and explain what it is.
I had an amazing encounter, this would be 35 years ago, with a book by a physicist at the University of Massachusetts named Edward Harrison. The book is called Masks of the Universe. And the essential argument of the book is that we, the human species, will probably never know the Universe with a capital U. It will be, that kind of knowledge, absolute knowledge, will be denied to us. What we have are a succession, throughout human history, of universes, each with lowercase u, and this book, Masks of the Universe, is a kind of history of the evolution of human intellectual thought and scientific thought, vis a vis all these masks. So, Harrison takes us on a tour, from the magic universe of Paleolithic people to the mythic universe of the Sumerians, the Egyptians, and other early civilizations, the geometric universe of the Greeks, the divine universe of medieval Christian Europe, the mechanistic universe of Newton, the Age of Reason, and then our contemporaneous relativistic universe of modernity, of scientific modernity. Harrison is particularly, was particularly, obsessed with what he calls the witch universe, that time when everybody understood that demons were what made things happen, that the world was not so much enchanted as haunted.
It was called the Renaissance ex post facto. But I encountered this amazing sentence, and I just Xeroxed it, and I want to read it. This is from page 214 in Masks of the Universe. Harrison says, quote, “The supposed Renaissance was a disordered interlude between sane universes,” that is between the medieval and the Age of Reason, quote, “a bedlam of distraught world pictures terrorized by a witch universe, created by leaders with fear-crazed minds, an age in thrall to a mad universe on the rampage, which would have destroyed European society but for the intervention of science.” So, I read that sentence, and I said, “Oh, my God, there’s an idea for a novel, an entire society nearly destroyed by its own theology. I mean, I have to work with that someday. I have to be able to turn that into an epic, even if Harrison is overstating the case,” and I think perhaps it was. “But for the intervention of science, Europe would have destroyed itself. I’ve got to work with that theme!” But I couldn’t come up with an entree, year in, year out. How in the world could one traumatize an event so large and momentous?
And after a gestation of 15 years, I had a breakthrough, and I said, “You know, a character,” in this case, I intuitively knew she must be a woman, “a woman born in about 1678, would have lived through this amazing transition, this rotation from the witch universe to what we call retrospectively the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment.” And so, The Last Witchfinder was born and became the story of Jennet Stearne, who makes it her lifetime mission to try to bring down the parliamentary witchcraft statute of 1604. She has many adventures in the course of trying to fulfill this mission. It’s really, it’s both a mission and a pledge to her Aunt Isobel, a kind of deathbed promise. Isobel is herself mistaken for a witch and executed by the powers that be in the England of early modern Europe. Eventually, eventually, Jennet engages in a very creative act. She masquerades as a witch and in a sense then puts herself on trial for consorting with demons, and because she’s become good friends with the young Benjamin Franklin, she actually becomes a lover of Benjamin Franklin, this is circa 1731, she knows she will get publicity in Franklin’s periodical, the Pennsylvania Gazette. So, this sort of media circus trial occurs in Philadelphia, and Parliament takes note of it in England. And so, this is the kind of science fiction, I guess, that would be called secret history or hidden history. This is the real story that you’ve not known until now of why that statute was finally taken off the books.
So, once you had this idea, what did your planning process and research process . . . because clearly, you put a lot of research into this. I noticed in your foreword you were talking about a great deal of this is reality, with a few tweaks of what we . . . well, what we think is the real history . . . here and there to tell the story. So, what did your research and planning process look like? And is this typical of your work?
I always do a lot of research, and it’s mysterious to me. And I don’t want to become too conscious about it, self-conscious about it. How does one know when to stop the research and write the damn novel? I mean, my facetious answer to your question would be, first I write the novel, and then I do the research, you know, sort of retrofitting. But it’s more of a dance. It’s very complicated. As I did the research, a lot of actual history kind of played into my hand. I felt very fortunate that, for example, when Jennet is abducted by Indians around 1695, she’s now living, she starts out living in England, but then she goes to the colonies because that’s where her family has moved. She ends up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and it turns out that, in fact, Haverhill, Massachusetts, was attacked by the Abenaki in 1695.
A big breakthrough for me was, I always knew that I wanted to use not only Benjamin Franklin but also Isaac Newton as sort of personification of the two universes, the universes that are in play at this point in history. Franklin, sort of the avatar of the Enlightenment, cheeky and contrarian, as opposed to Newton, one of the most pious men who ever lived. Very much of a piece with the Renaissance. And it turns out that they actually almost met in 1725. Franklin is in London. He has a commission from the royal governor of Pennsylvania to buy printing equipment. And he has a letter of introduction to Newton from someone in Newton circle, I think it was the physician Pemberton, who edited the second edition of Principia Mathematica. Newton does not want to meet this cheeky kid from Philadelphia, so the meeting never occurred. But in my novel, it occurs. I have Franklin and Newton in the same carriage together, but they just talk past each other. Franklin wants to discuss electricity; Newton is preoccupied with counterfeiters at that time and with biblical prophecy. And so, it’s not simply that they are from two different generations, this is the old Newton and the young Franklin, not just two different generations, two different continents, they’re really from two different universes: Franklin of the Enlightenment and Newton of the Renaissance. So I said, well, this is playing into my hands. This is a lot of fun. It’s going to work.
And then other facts, like the Baron de Montesquieu, who ends up defending Jennet at the trial she arranges for herself, really could have ended up in Philadelphia in 1731. He was a young aristocrat taking the grand tour that European aristocrats always took at that time. There was even, according to Franklin, on a witch trial in Mount Holly, New Jersey, at this time, and I simply moved it across the Delaware to Philadelphia. Franklin’s account of the witch trial makes it clear that it never really happened, it’s simply a hoax that he put into the Pennsylvania Gazette. But I decided to take Franklin at his word. So, I guess for me, Ed, the process was like walking through a field with all of these sort of pottery shards lying around, you know, and I would pick them up and examine them and try to fit them to each other and end up with an urn of my own design.
From what I know of Franklin, I suspect he’d like this story.
He comes off very, very well. Yeah.
Did your outlining . . . do you do, like, a detailed outline or just hit some high points and then go for it? What’s that process like?
I do. It’s a kind of freeform outline. You know, I wasn’t really sure how the book was going to end, though. And that’s true of almost all of my novels. I have to kind of feel my way to the climax. But I would never plunge into a project this ambitious, or any sort of a novel, without a rough sense of what the three acts were going to be. You can hear my playwriting heritage coming out here. But that said, I always appreciate a remark that the film director John Huston once made. He said, there comes a time when every film project when you throw away the script and make the movie, by which he means, you know, don’t let the script become your master. You must allow for improvisation, things the actors are going to bring to it, camera setups you never imagined until you were actually on the set, and so forth. And I think for me, at least with prose fiction, there comes a time when you throw away the outline and write the damn novel.
Talking about the three-act structure, you know, it just now occurred to me, but almost every play I see these days is actually two acts. People always talk about the three-act structure, but they’re generally presented as two acts.
It certainly was the classic structure of musicals, right? It was almost like an unwritten but inviolable law that every musical must have two acts with an intermission.
What’s your actual writing process like? Are you a fast writer, a slow writer? Do you write with parchment, quill pen, and parchment out under a tree where an apple could fall on your head, or . . .?
I guess I wrote my first novel, The Wine of Violence, in longhand, you know, Bic pens on legal pads, and I’ve never been able to compose on a typewriter. I envy writers who could do that. So, I’d always have to . . . sometimes I would type it up myself, and then then I would often have to hire a professional typist to try to cope with all the notes I would put on my first typed draft. Now, of course, I use word processing. I’m working very hard on not being so distracted by the Internet that I stop because I just have to look up a fact, sometimes even because I know I spelled the word wrong, I have to stop to correct the spelling. These are terrible habits. And if any embryonic writers are listening, try to never acquire these bad habits that James Morrow has. I’m slow, methodical. It seems to take forever. In theory, every novel I write should be a year. I remember a remark that Stephen King makes in his quasi-autobiography, his book called Danse Macabre, “Any writer who can’t produce a novel in a year is merely dicking off,” and I agree with Stephen King, but somehow, it always takes two, three, four years. It’s been a lot of time on rewriting, workshopping, showing it to friends and colleagues. And also, I have to say, because I love the medium so much and regard it as such a privilege to work within the medium of the novel, I don’t want to surrender a given book. I want to live inside it.
And perhaps because my premises are so often ridiculous, preposterous, like Towing Jehovah, schlepping the corpse of God to its final resting place in the Arctic on a commission from an angel. Oh, come on. That’s so bold and bold and absurd that I didn’t believe it at first. But I’m living inside and retrofitting a whole lot of facts about life aboard a supertanker onto the story and talking to people who had actually lived on supertankers and then visiting, you know, visiting a lot of death-of-God theology, month in, month out, I started to believe that Towing Jehovah could be the case, but it took a while.
Well, your prose is very rich, and especially in The Last Witchfinder, you’re going for a bit of that archaic diction, I guess. Is that . . . what does your revision process look like? Does that kind of language flow out of you naturally, or do you go back and tweak it a lot to get to that level of . . . erudition, I guess.?
Yeah, Witchfinder was a difficult struggle in particular, because I was trying to . . . I was trying to hit the archaic qualities that we encounter in Restoration drama. And I read a lot of Restoration plays to try to get that voice right, and I read contemporaneous documents. And I have to say it’s the aspect of The Last Witchfinder that I’m least satisfied with. I’m not sure I got it right, but I was determined to try to not settle for modern English, where it becomes the reader’s job to imagine they’re speaking in idioms of the day. I was very influenced by John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, which is set in exactly the same time zone as The Last Witchfinder, Restoration England and Colonial America. I stole a lot of locutions from him that he had gotten from somewhere else.
But The Last Witchfinder was almost seven years in creation, and much of it was just, yes, endlessly revising the dialect to try to get it to sound right. You know, the language is in transition. They’re sort of shedding Elizabethanisms, sort of the language of Shakespeare, but a lot of that still stayed around. And so, with the novel I did subsequently . . . well, there was a modern novel in between, which was set in Victorian England. That was rather easier to do because we have a pretty good idea from Dickens how the Victorians spoke. But it’s less clear in the case of Witchfinder.
And I guess you still have to also make sure that your language is comprehensible to a modern reader.
That was the challenge, you know, and some of the positive reviews of Witchfinder complimented me on how you adjust to it fairly quickly. It seems very strange, all of this archaic diction. But you kind of figure it out, and you flow with it. I think the book is easier to negotiate than Shakespeare. For example, when you read Shakespeare, it’s a self-conscious experience. You’re constantly making little almost subconscious translations in your mind.
One reason he works better on stage, where you can kind of understand what’s going on from the action, even if you don’t know exactly. Of course, we should make the point that, at least according to the beginning of the book, you didn’t actually write it. It was written by Isaac Newton’s book, which I thought was hilarious, with all these old books that were, you know, they were actually writing these new books, and the authors weren’t really involved.
I guess that’s the other dimension of Witchfinder that owes something to my genre background. There’s a sense in which The Last Witchfinder is taking place in a universe that isn’t quite ours, a universe in which books are alive. They’re sentient creatures who have thoughts and agendas and who can nevertheless fall in love with humans, just as we fall in love with books, right? And they write other books. And what I was up to there and was, I knew the book was going to be, at one level, a celebration of the Enlightenment. I would argue that Harrison is really on to something, the Age of Reason, the scientific understanding of nature came along just when it was needed because the witch universe was a nightmare, a bedlam, as he puts it. At the same time, I said, you know, I don’t want to become an unqualified cheerleader for the Enlightenment because there is a case to be made against reason and the deification of reason, of the sort of church of reason that emerges during the French Revolution. That’s a dead end, too. And the critics of the Enlightenment always point to the French Revolution, that’s always exhibit A in any indictment of that period, which for me was, I guess I am a child of it, I’m a child of Voltaire and Candide, but this conceit of the Principia Mathematica and its somewhat sardonic understanding of the worl, enabled me to make the case against the Enlightenment through the voice of the Principia, which is privilege, which has perspective on all this. I wanted to avoid what I think is a pitfall of a lot of historical fiction, of the characters being acutely aware of how their descendants interpret their actions, which I think it is simply not given to us to know. I had an initial way of getting this perspective on history by having Jeanette’s Aunt Isobel, the woman whose death sends her on her great commission, having Isabelle writing an epic poem that she’s channeled from the ether that recounts, that narrates what’s going to happen in the next generations and the rise of experimental science. And then I said to myself, “Oh, no, that’s a kind of mystical idea, that’s one that’s at odds with the rationalism that I’m defending in this book.” So, I did something that was even more irrational than the epic poem. I did this crazy, this crazy, contemplative narrator. And I’m glad that you’re fond of it.
I guess it is Prin(k)ipia, isn’t it? I tend to give it more of a, like an Italian pronunciation, Prin(ch)ipia.
I think both are acceptable.
What’s the editing process like for you? What do editors come back to you suggesting you do at the editing level?
Well, when it comes to professional editors whose job it is, whose job description is to be an editor, that’s what it says on their door, Editor . . . the days of Maxwell Perkins, I think, are over; the days when somebody could take a manuscript that was kind of raw and rough and say, “Well, here’s how we can, here’s how I can work with this. And I’ll enter into a conversation with the author, and we’ll reimagine this book so that it’s really going to work for the reader.” That’s not what editors are paid to do anymore. They’re expected to acquire ready-to-run books on the whole. And so, I have rarely gotten suggestions that went very deep into the book. They tended . . . you know, the editor will send you a two-page letter with suggestions. And I respect the industry because the author has final cut. Rarely will an editor ever say, “If you don’t go along with this, we’re not going to publish your book”. So, I guess what I’ve said could be boiled down to the notion that you have to be your own editor. And that’s another thing that protracts the composition process for me because I don’t want to . . . sending a book out prematurely, that, I feel, is one of the worst mistakes you can make. You can’t count on an editor seeing its potential. The potential better be there upfront.
We’re getting close to the end of the hour, just a few minutes left, so I want to get to the big philosophical questions, and clearly, you have fun with those. And there’s three of them, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why literature of the fantastic in particular?
Well, why do I write? I write to change the world, to make it a better place now.
We’ve been talking about The Last Witchfinder, and I write because I feel so privileged to be part of what I would call the great post-Enlightenment conversation. The situation we find ourselves in, in modernity, where everything can be put on the table and where you can’t say, “Well, because I’ve had a revelation, we don’t need to continue this discussion any further,” that argument doesn’t work anymore. So, I just feel that I’m making my little, my small contribution to the, you know, to the fight against nihilism, really a fight against a kind of theocracy that pretends that mere human beings have ultimate answers. And they don’t. They don’t.
Why does anybody write? I can’t speak to my colleagues. Some of them would say they do it because it’s so much fun and I make money from it.
On the human scale, then, why do humans tell stories?
We are storytelling animals, Homo narratives, I think. But with science fiction in particular, I think you have an opportunity to enrich the vocabulary with which we address the big mysteries of existence, these questions of meaning, and how then shall we live? I mean, if you’re lucky, your book even ends up in the dictionary, a la Frankenstein and 1984. Frankenstein, you know, enlarged our vocabulary, it gave us . . the very name means, or has become synonymous with, the idea that with the power of science must come responsibility. And the tragedy of Victor Frankenstein is not that he was curious, I would argue, or not that he did this borderline blasphemous experiment, but that once he brought the creature into the world, he abandoned it. 1984, of course, the first and last time an author actually owned a year, expanded our vocabulary with terms like Newspeak and Doublethink and Big Brother. We have a way to talk about things that previously we couldn’t talk about. I think of Wells and The Island of Dr. Moreau, you know, a kind of metaphor for this brave new world of genetic engineering and the power we’re developing to manipulate the human genome. Certainly, Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale just gave us the concept of the handmaid, this woman who’s under the thumb of a patriarchy. And these are all science fiction titles.
Even in the case of fantasy, it’s important to remember that it also stands against nihilism. The fantasy does not in any way argue the world is up for grabs, the way the nihilist would do and say, well, therefore, my authority is the last word, because we all know reality is up for grabs, there is nothing that’s grounded anymore, which would be sort of nihilism in a nutshell. Tolkien made the point that in a fantasy saga, the trees are real trees, and the grass is real grass, and the rocks are actual rocks. It’s not a fantasy world in the sense of everything being surreal or absurdist. There is an external reality up there, out there, and the very title, Lord of the Rings, I’ve always been fascinated that it points to the villain of the story, to Sauron. Why is that? And I think it’s because the main, the big idea that Tolkien is playing with is the nature of evil, not in some dopey Manichaean sense, but just the, you know, those who think that there is no external reality and therefore they can set the terms, they can set the terms of reality themselves. The line that Gandalf has, “Let folly be our cloak,” it would never occur to Sauron that the Fellowship is going to give up this power. Evil has far less imagination than people of goodwill possess, and I think that’s a very affirming idea, and I think that’s why the book, that novel, has the title it does.
And we’ll. . . what are you working on now? But first, we should mention that you do have something out, a brand-new novella in And the Last Trump Shall Sound with Cat Rambo, whom I’ve had on the show, and Harry Turtledove. So, maybe just briefly, what is that? I have a pretty good idea, but I’ll let you describe it.
And the Last Trump Shall Sound is a set of novellas that speculate on a near-future USA in which Donald Trump won a second term, and this was followed by the election of Pence, who also got a second term, whereupon the states of Oregon, Washington, and California come together under one flag, call themselves the nation of Pacifica, and secede from the Union. That was the premise as it was pitched to me by Shahid Mahmud, the publisher who came up with this idea because he was so distressed to see the way that the nation was being torn apart on the macro scale by the Trump phenomenon and families were being torn apart on the micro-scale. And he just thought, well, maybe science fiction writers can make a valuable contribution to that conversation. I turned him down initially. I said, “Shahid, I can’t work with this. The thought of Trump being re-elected and Pence getting two terms after that is so depressing. Sorry, I’m out of here.” And so, after I rejected membership in this committee, I remembered something that Shahid had said in pitching it to me, which was that Trump would be dead when the story opened. And I said, “Well, what if Pence is falling under the spell of a spiritual adviser who is not all she seems, and was, in fact, working for Pacifica. What if Pence becomes convinced that he could bring Trump back from the dead? That could be a lot of fun. All right.” So, the very next day, I said, “Shahid, is the slot still open? Can I still join your project?” And he said yes, and I’m really glad.
So, it is still science fiction/fantasy. It’s not just political commentary.
These three novellas, they’re all in the grand tradition of sort-of near future . . . not prophecy. I think the distinction that Orwell makes between a warning and a prophecy is very important. So, I don’t think we’re saying this is going to have to be how it turns out, but we are trying to just diagnose what’s happening, and we all come at it from three very different directions. I should hasten to add that when Trump is actually resurrected in the Washington National Cathedral, what’s going on is not supernatural. It appears that Trump has come back from the dead, but in fact, it’s an audio-animatronics robot.
And what else are you working on?
Well, let’s see. For once, I think I actually have written a novel in a year, as Stephen King prescribes. It’s called Those Who Favor Fire, and it’s a comedy about climate change and a title I’ve always wanted to use. Many years ago, I wrote a nuclear war comedy, or dark comedy, that saw print as This Is the Way the World Ends. I wanted to call it Those Who Favor Fire, but at the time, another work of fiction with that title was coming out, and my editor and I said, well, we want to avoid confusion. So, I finally got to use the line from the Robert Frost poem “Fire and Ice” as the title of my climate-change novel. And very briefly, it posits that the hollow earth theory is the case, and there’s actually a race of human beings living beneath the surface of our consensus reality. And they’ve got a problem with ice. Their side of the planet has fallen victim to global cooling. So, it’s an allegory, I guess, though I like to think I can avoid the usual pitfalls of allegory where things just map neatly onto each other.
Any indication of when that will be out?
Well, yeah, sure. It’ll be done in a year, and so it will be out next year, except, no, this is James Morrow, and I’m sure I will once again trip myself up with a long rewriting and workshopping process. And it’s not a book that’s been commissioned by a publisher. And, you know, I think I’ll take it to St. Martin’s Press, who did my last novel, to see hardcover print. But there’s no guarantees. It may or may not ever find a publisher. As you may know, I don’t want to spoil your day, Ed, it could even happen to you, a writer at my age can end up in a condition that’s called post-novel, where, you know, where people will take a much harder look at your sales figures and your status, and if you’ve not had a bestseller, it becomes really hard to unload a novel.
Yeah, well, here’s hoping. And those who would like to see how you’re doing, where can they find you online?
I have a website, www.jamesmorrow.net, and I have a Facebook presence of sorts, and I do some twittering, some tweeting.
Okay, I will put those links in, as I always do. And I think that’s about our time, so, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.
An hour-long conversation with Kacey Ezell, an active-duty USAF instructor helicopter pilot who writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror/noir/alternate history fiction including Minds of Men andThe World Asunder, both Dragon Award Finalists for Best Alternate History in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and, with Griffin Barber, the far-future noir thriller Second Chance Angel.
Kacey Ezell is an active duty USAF instructor pilot with 2500+ hours in the UH-1N Huey and Mi-171 helicopters. When not teaching young pilots to beat the air into submission, she writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror/noir/alternate history fiction. Her novels Minds of Men and The World Asunder were both Dragon Award Finalists for Best Alternate History in 2018 and 2019, respectively. She’s contributed to multiple Baen anthologies and has twice been selected for inclusion in the Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction compilation. In 2018, her story “Family Over Blood” won the Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction Readers’ Choice Award.
In addition to writing for Baen Books and Blackstone Publishing, Kacey has published several novels and short stories with independent publisher Chris Kennedy Publishing. She is married with two daughters.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Kacey, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you so much for having me.
I should point out that we are speaking across a vast portion of the Earth’s surface, since you’re Tokyo, and I’m in Regina, Saskatchewan. So, yeah, 15 hours difference, I think. So, it’s an early-morning interview for you and a late-afternoon one for me, on two different days. It really is a science-fictional world.
The future is now, friends. It really is.
Exactly. Well, I’m glad to have the chance to talk to you. Your name was suggested to me by one of your fellow Baen authors. So, I’m always glad to get recommendations for people I’ve talked to. We’ve never met in person. So, this will be a good chance to get to know you. So, let’s start at the very beginning, as they say in The Sound of Music. And one interesting thing is that you were born in South Dakota, as you probably actually know where Saskatchewan is. So that’s nice.
I do vaguely. Sort of northish.
Yeah. Just go up past North Dakota, and then it’s us, basically.
So, yeah, so, let’s start with—I always say this—we’ll take you back into the mists of time, where you grew up and how you got interested in . . . well, probably you started as a reader. Most of us do. And how that led you to become a writer. And also, this whole bit of being in the Air Force and being a helicopter pilot. That’s interesting, too.
Well, yeah, so. So, I was born in South Dakota, but my parents, when I was about six years old, my parents joined the United States Air Force, as well. And so, we started moving around shortly after like first grade. And one of the very intelligent things that my mother did . . . so, I was kind of an early reader. I started reading just before kindergarten. And once I started reading, I very quickly devoured, you know, any written word I could get my hands on. And during one of our first moves, my mom, I think desperate for me to stop whining that I was bored and didn’t have any friends yet, because we had just moved, to put a copy of Anne McCaffery’s Dragondrums into my hands and said, “Here, this is for kids, read it.” And so, I read it and was immediately entranced. And that was my gateway drug to science fiction and fantasy, if you will, was the Harper Hall trilogy for Dragonriders of Pern.
That would do it.
Yeah, yeah, it really did. And, well, you know, and so here’s me, I’m like, well, so, I read Dragondrums when we lived in Albuquerque. And then very shortly after that, we moved overseas to the Philippines. And during that overseas move, my mom gave me the actual Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, the first trilogy that Anne McCaffrey wrote in that series. And for, you know, a kid who was leaving all of her friends behind to go overseas to another country, like, the idea of being a dragonrider and being telepathically paired with, like, your perfect companion who will always love you, who will never leave you, you’ll never have to move away from, was really enticing. And I got it into my head that I really, really wanted to be a dragonrider. And it turns out dragons are in fairly short supply here on mundane Earth. So, my very logical nine-year-old brain decided that I was going to be a pilot instead because that was about as close as I was going to be able to get. So that’s when I, one, both fell in love with science fiction and fantasy, and two, decided to pursue aviation as a career. It’s all Anne McCaffery’s fault.
Besides Anne McCaffery, were there some other books that were kind of inspiring to you along the way?
Oh, absolutely. You know, like I said, I, I read anything I could get my hands on, so, you know, my mom put The Lord of the Rings, she bought me that trilogy very shortly after that. And, you know, I got really into Tolkien for the, which was my introduction, as I think it is for most people, to the world of high fantasy. And, you know, in an odd way, you know, I pointed this out at a convention a couple of years ago, but there’s a connection there between, like, Tolkienesque fantasy and a lot of the military science fiction that, you know, that I read and write today because, you know, with epic fantasy, you’re talking about these sweeping movements, but you’re also a lot of times talking about armies and, you know, the movements of armies and the tactical decisions of the, you know, of their leadership and stuff. And that’s part of what makes military science fiction so interesting, too. So I think that that kind of, in a way, laid the groundwork for my interest in that, as did my, you know, my own military career, of course. And the experiences that I had growing up as a military brat, particularly living overseas in the Philippines, which was, you know, as I’m sure most people know, the Philippines was a hotly contested area back in the, you know, 1940s timeframe. And so, the opportunity to see a lot of those historical, you know, memorials and some of the battlefield sites and things of that nature was really cool and really interesting to me as a budding history enthusiast and writer.
Well, when did you actually start trying your own hand at writing?
So, my mom, somewhere in her stuff, has a notebook that I wrote, like, some of my first stories in, when I was about six years old. So, I was young. I started writing almost as soon as I started reading.
And did you . . .
Maybe that wasn’t the answer to the question that you wanted as far as, like, professionally, is that what you’re saying?
Well, how did that develop? And as you went along, I mean, OK, you started when you were six, but you wrote longer and longer stuff. And did you share it with other people? I like to ask that question because I did, but not everybody does.
Yeah. No, I did. I did. I shared it. You know, I would show my things to my mom. And my mother was . . . so, my mother’s a huge science fiction fantasy fan. She’s a, you know, she’s another voracious reader, and she’s always been, you know, probably my you know, my number one first reader and fan, obviously, you know, as moms tend to do so. Yeah, I would show me my stories to my mom. But the other thing that I would do and, you know, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was kind of a bossy little girl. So when, you know, I would get my friends together, the kids together in the neighborhood or on the playground at school or wherever, a lot of times it was like, “Hey, let’s play pretend. We’re going to pretend that we’re on a spaceship and you’re going to be the captain and I’m going to be the pilot. And you’re going to . . .” And I would make up these play scenarios that really were just stories, you know, and I was like, “OK, and now the aliens are attacking.” And, you know, it’s, so . . .
So, I used to do that. My friends never really got into it the same way I did. It was kind of annoying.
No. Well, mine rarely did. Sometimes it worked, you know, and sometimes we would play out, you know, a certain, I don’t know, scenario for a couple of days or whatever. But, yeah, in in a lot of ways, I think that was . . . well, it wasn’t necessarily writing things down, but it was still sort of making up stories and sharing, you know, sharing those stories with other people, trying to involve other people in my stories, so. Yeah. A little bit of an extrovert, so yeah, I tend to want everyone to pay attention to me and my stories.
Well, you went into the Air Force and pilot training and all that. I would have thought that would keep you fairly busy for a while.
When did you start to try to write professionally?
Well, so yeah. So, for sure, the Air Force kept me very busy. But here’s the thing, is that . . . so, I graduated in Air Force Academy in 2003, sorry, 1999. And right around that time I discovered the magical world of AOL fandom and the Dragonriders of Pern fandom groups that existed there. And so, once again, you know, Anne McCaffery comes to my rescue, right? So, even though I was busy at work and busy, you know, learning to fly and things like that, one of my hobby outlets became interacting with other fans on these groups and actually writing fan fiction.
And in those groups, you know, doing like . . . and when I say writing fan fiction, it wasn’t necessarily, like, writing stories to, you know, be produced in like a fanzine or anything like that. It was mostly, like, role play by email, essentially, where, you know, I would create a dragonrider character, and my friends would create this other one. And we would, our characters would, interact via the email. And it’s super geeky and super nerdy, I mean, don’t get me wrong, but it was an outlet, and it was something that I really enjoyed. And it allowed me to, you know, to kind of play in one of my favorite worlds. And so . . . and actually, you know, during the course of that, I learned a lot about, you know, things like character development and story pacing and, you know, what to do in dialogue, what not to do in dialogue, and how to keep your character’s thoughts confined to their own head and not go head-hopping and things like that, because you can’t act when someone else is controlling the other character in the scene, you know, it’s considered very rude.
So, yeah, super geeky, but it was fun, and it allowed me to continue . . . you know, Toni Weiskopf, the publisher of Baen Books, she has a saying that she says all the time, that writers write because they can’t help it. And I find that to be kind of true in my case, that if I’m not actually, like, writing stories, the stories are going to come out in some way, whether it’s through, you know, playing with my friends or doing online fan fiction or whatever. I’m never not writing, right? It’s kind of like breathing. It’s something that I have to do.
That sounds familiar. And you don’t have to talk to me about being geeky. I actually drew pictures for a Star Trek fanzine when I was in university. So I was . . .
Oh, that’s awesome, dude.
Doing pictures of Kirk and Spock. I think I did a pretty good Spock. And I’m not . . . that’s all I can remember. I remember doing a pretty good Spock.
That’s awesome. Yeah, I have zero talent when it comes to, like, creating visual fan art. I wish I did, because there’s some gorgeous stuff out there, and yeah, I would love to learn how to draw dragons, but . . . just never got there.
Well, I minored in art, so it actually was a potential direction to go in.
Oh, that’s cool.
But I . . . I often say that I supposedly majored in journalism because I wanted to be a writer, but really, I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and everything else was kind of a sideline to that.
Dungeons and Dragons should be a major at school.
Like, I think I put more time into that than I did my schoolwork, for sure.
Yeah. There’s a lot that you can learn from tabletop role-playing. I, I support that. Really.
So, when did you start trying to get published professionally?
So, I have a confession to make, but it happened sort of by accident. So, when I was in pilot training back in 2001, I discovered the amazing, mind-bending experience that is DragonCon in Atlanta over Labor Day week.
I’ve been once.
Oh, my gosh. Am I right, though? It’s mind-bending. It’s like walking into . . . it’s like being, you know, being away from home your whole life and then walking through the doors of the hotel and suddenly you’re on your home planet with your people. Everybody’s geeky, everybody’s into the things you’re into, and if they’re not, it’s just because they don’t know about it yet. And yeah, I love it. DragonCon is always the highlight of my year.
But my first one was in 2001, because I’m super-old, and after that, I went back several other times. And one of the . . . so in 2004, I think was the next one that I attended. And in 2004, I had the opportunity to meet a guy by the name of John Ringo, who—I didn’t know this at the time, I hadn’t read any of his work before meeting him—but he was a New York Times bestselling military science fiction author, also published by Bain Books, still is, as a matter of fact. And just talking with him, you know, he’s into MilSciFi, that’s his genre. And so, you know, we were talking about flying and about, you know, fandom and being geeks in the military and things like that. And he struck up a friendship with our group of friends that were, we were all there together, and we maintained an email correspondence. And I saw him at conventions, you know, a couple of years after that.
And then when I was deployed to Iraq in 2009, he emailed me and said, hey, I’m doing this, you know, I got asked to do this project, I’m editing this anthology of military science fiction by military veterans, and I want to include some new voices, along with some of the, you know, the reprints that we’ve done and things like that. And I know you just finished . . . so, the Air Force made me get a degree, a master’s degree, but they didn’t specify what it had to be, and so, I was like, all right, well, I’m going to get an MFA in writing, because screw you guys, I can do what I want. And so, John knew that I just finished that just, you know, because I had been like, hey, guess what, I’m done with my master’s. Right?
And he was like, “I know you just got your writing degree. Do you want to, do you have anything that you’d like to submit?” And I said, “No, but I could. Give me 24 hours.” And so, I wrote a story very quickly. But when you’re deployed, there’s very little to do. You really, like, you go to work, you fly, you go to the gym, you eat, and the rest of it is just kind of hanging-out time, right? And so, I just took that hanging-out time and knocked out this story. And it wasn’t very long. I think it was only, like, 5,000 words or something like that. But it was a cute little story. And I sent it in, and it became part of the anthology, you know, they accepted it for the anthology. And so, that was my first publication.
And then after that, Jim Minz, a couple of years later, once I was back in the States and again back at DragonCon, Jim Minz, you know, who also had, he was one of the editors on the product as well, came up to me and he was like, “So, when are you going have a novel for me? I’ve been waiting for it for a couple of years. And I was like, “Oh, well, let me get on that.” So, that was really the start of my career. I started doing, writing short stories for anthologies, again, mostly connected with John Ringo. He kind of like pulled me . . . and then I started, you know, branching out from there.
Before we go on to what you started writing at that point, I’m interested in the MFA because I’ve talked to other authors who have had, you know, that sort of formal creative writing training. And I get mixed reviews on how helpful it actually was. Was it helpful in your case? Did you find it very worthwhile?
So, aspects of it were helpful. Not necessarily from the standpoint of professional connections or anything like that, but like I said, the Air Force was going to make me get a master’s degree, and they were going to pay for it, and they didn’t really care what it was in. It was just kind of, almost like a box to be checked. So, I decided to do something, you know, knowing myself the way that I do, I really only want to spend energy and time on things that are interesting to me. And I knew that I wouldn’t, you know, if I tried to get, like, an aviation management degree, there would be aspects of it that were interesting, but there would be other aspects of it that would be deadly dull and that I would probably procrastinate and, you know, potentially not do very well. So instead, I chose to pursue the MFA in creative writing.
Where did you get that?
From National University. It’s a primarily online university that caters to a lot of military folks. I think they’re based out of San Diego. So not a real big, well-known name in academia or anything like that. But the program itself I really enjoyed. I found it to be . . . you know, because I think what I was trying to get out of it was one, just the piece of paper that said I had a master’s degree that the Air Force required, but two, I was just trying to have an enjoyable experience and kind of expand my toolbox, if you will. My concentration was in poetry, not in short fiction or . . . I mean, I guess you could kind of do a long fiction concentration . . . but I chose poetry, in part because I’ve always loved poetry. I’ve written it almost as long as I’ve written stories. And I find that a skillful . . . that a lot of the tips and techniques and, you know . . . what’s the word I’m looking for . . . just, the things that you do that make poetry poetry, can really inform your prose writing and really help to make it beautiful. So that’s why . . . well, and also poems are shorter. So again, less—typically. Not always. Sometimes they’re super long—but the graduation requirements were definitely shorter. Rather than writing a novel, I only had to write a book of 50 poems for me to complete my program. So that was a pretty big draw, too. You know, when you’re active-duty military and at the time a single mom, I was trying to balance out my requirements, and that was my strategic decision.
But I did. I loved it. Not because it necessarily got me anywhere in the publishing business, but for my own personal development. It taught me how to critique. It taught me how to take critique. And that’s probably the most immediately valuable lessons that I learned from that program, is how to how to give a constructive critique that is actually useful to the other individual and how to receive critique and to tell what’s constructive and what’s just, “Oh, I loved it. It’s great. You should write more,” you know, stuff like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with those kinds of comments. We love those kinds of comments, but they don’t necessarily help develop you as a writer.
Yeah, it’s like . . . my mom didn’t read my stuff, but my dad would, and he’d say it was great and, OK, but I need more than that to make it better in the future.
Your poetry that you were writing, did it have any fantastical element to it, or was it more straightforward?
Some did, yeah, some did. So, what I what I mostly wrote for the program was actually aviation-related because I was the only pilot in my group that was going through the program at the time and so, you know, write what you know, right? But also, not only write what you know but write about what makes you different and what makes you unique. And that’s sort of, you know, find that niche, that brand. And so, I ended up writing a lot of poetry about, I’m just thinking of my chapbook collection now, you know, a lot of it has to do with flying and, you know, being in the air force and, you know, what it’s like to fly in the daytime and nighttime and stuff like that.
So, this has nothing to do with writing a book. What drew you to helicopters as opposed to, say, fixed-wing?
They were more fun.
They’re more fun?
They seemed more fun. Yeah, no, before I went to pilot training, when I was a what’s called a casual lieutenant, I had already graduated from the Air Force Academy and been commissioned, but I was awaiting my pilot-training start date. I had the opportunity to ride on an MH-53 helicopter. It’s what the Air Force used to use for special operations. They’ve since retired that airframe. And I remember sitting on the back . . . so, it had, like, a ramp on the back, and it had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on that ramp. And we were out flying over a range. And I didn’t actually get to shoot that day, which made me very sad. But I did get to sit on the ramp next to the gunner. You know, he was sitting on one side of the weapon, and I was sitting on the other side and, you know, kicking my feet off the back of the ramp. While we’re flying 50 feet above the ground and it was pretty cool. I was like, yeah, this is a lot of fun. I want to do this.
Was it at least some of the feeling of flying on a dragon, do you think?
Oh, yeah, maybe. Maybe although, yeah, not necessarily that particular experience because we were going backward, you know, because I was sitting out the back. But sometimes, yeah, sometimes it has. You know, when you can feel . . . the thing about flying helicopters versus flying fixed-wing is that, you know, flying fixed-wing is about 50 percent art, 50 percent science, right? But flying helicopters is more like 70/30 art versus science. And the reason is because you do so much more of it, at least my helicopter. Now, I fly a UH-1 Huey, which, you know, was the quintessential Vietnam era helicopter, if that tells you anything. Every tail number that I fly was made in 1969. So, they are old birds, and we’re not talking cutting-edge technology in any sense of the word. And so, because of that, in part because of that, so much more, so much of what we do is, it’s our seat-of-the-pants muscle memory, like, you have to, it has to feel right.
And that, you know, when we’re teaching young aviators, half of what we’re teaching is just getting them to practice the maneuvers to the point where they can feel what feels right versus what feels wrong. And so, I think that when, you know, occasionally when you do a particular maneuver, and it feels just right, I think that it must be very similar to what that would feel like, you know, on the back of your own dragon to whom you were telepathically linked.
I’ve been sitting here trying to remember . . . I had characters in a helicopter in a book, two or three books ago in my current series. And so, I was researching helicopters because I’m not exactly an expert on the subject. And I went down a rabbit hole where I was reading helicopter jokes for about half an hour.
There’s a ton of them.
And unfortunately, I can’t remember any of them off the top of my head. I was going to try one on you, but . . .
Yeah, well, beating the air, we don’t fly, we beat the air into submission. That’s a very common one. Or, we don’t fly, we’re so ugly the Earth repels us.
Oh, yeah, I remember that. Yeah.
Oh, yeah. No, it’s there’s a, yeah, there’s a ton of helicopter jokes. And what’s so funny is that that, you know, like a lot of professions that, you know, have jokes about us, we tend to embrace those things. And helicopter aircrews as a whole, we have a reputation for being a little bit crazy. And what’s very interesting about that is that there’s some science to actually back that up. If you put our personality traits, and by our I mean society’s personality traits on a bell curve, helicopter aircrews are highly skewed to one end when it comes to traits of, like aggressiveness and, you know, adrenaline junkieness, whatever, whatever the proper term for that is. So, yeah, so there’s some data to back up the fact that we’re all crazy., Or you could just meet one of us and know that.
Well, taking us back to the writing side of things . . .
So, Jim Minz had suggested a novel to you, but your . . . was your first novel Minds of Man? Is that then your first novel? But that’s not a Baen book.
Yeah, no, well, no, so . . . not for lack of trying. It wasn’t. So my first . . . my first actual novel contract was with Baen, and it was for Gunpowder and Embers, which was a collaboration that I did with John Ringo and Christopher L. Smith. And that just came out last January. And while we were working on Gunpowder, and it was . . . we’d finished up the first draft, and it was in edits and development. I had this other idea to write a story about World War II aviation, but with female psychics on board.
As one does.
Right. Well, because so what got me thinking about it was, you know, I was thinking about how aircrew are kind of a different, you know . . . like a lot of subcultures, I’ll say, you know, we end up being kind of a different breed and having our own discreet ways of communicating with one another. And I kind of got to thinking about that. And then the other thing that happened was that we had an air show and I had the opportunity to see the inside of a B17 cockpit. And I’m used to flying with a relatively primitive aircraft. But I got nothing on those guys, man. I have no idea how they even navigated. I mean, it’s no wonder that they had an entire crew member whose sole job was to do navigation, because their navigation, you know, their tools that they had to use were so primitive, and to think that they took hundred-ship formations of this incredibly primitive aircraft, not just into the weather, but into the weather, out the other side, and then flew them in combat. It was, like, mind-boggling. I mean, just the amount of courage of those men who did that was, you know, it was flabbergasting when it dawned on me the magnitude of the task that they had accomplished and done so over and over and over again. And, you know, their loss rates were just staggering.
And so, I started thinking about that. And the reason I came up with the psychics was that one of the things that that could potentially compensate for, you know, in a way that we have compensated with technology, would be, you know, the instantaneous communication that a telepathic connection might provide, because . . . So, anyway, I got to thinking about that, and I decided to write a story, and it became Minds of Men. And did actually send it to Toni at Baen. And she sent it back saying, you know, “This is not for us.” It’s not for, you know, “It’s not the kind of thing that I think our readership would snap up.” However, she sent me some very, very valuable critique. And I will be forever grateful to her for that time and attention that she took to actually provide that for me instead of just saying, no thanks. And so, I took it and applied the critique. And I had recently been approached by Chris Kennedy of Chris Kennedy Publishing to do a novel in his and Mark Wandrey’s military science fiction shared world called The Four Horsemen Universe. And so, I decided to just ring him up, I guess, and say, “Hey, you know, would you be interested in looking at this?” He said, “Yeah, send it on over.” And the thing about Chris is that he’s an aviator, too, right? So, I think I kind of spoke to my audience there with that one and but yeah, he loved it. And so, I published it under Chris Kennedy’s Theogony imprint and, yeah, that was kind of the start of the Psyche of War series.
Well, we’ll take a closer look at that one as an example of your creative process. I did want to mention that I also had an opportunity to tour the inside of a B17 when it came to our local airport a couple of years ago. And my experience there, which I never thought I would have, was that this horrendous thunderstorm blew in, and we were all kind of stuck out there on the tarmac. And I’m standing under the wing of an all-aluminum airplane while lightning is cracking around and the rain’s pouring down. And I’m thinking, “I’m not sure this is the best place we could be at this moment, but . . .I have video of it somewhere. My daughter was with me, and she was quite concerned. And I wasn’t terribly happy myself.
Oh, poor girl, yeah.
But the other thing I want to mention that navigation was that my wife’s grandfather, my grandfather in law, was a First World War navigator on a Handley Page bomber. These things had an 80-foot wingspan. They were enormous. But you talk about your primitive navigation, it was mostly . . . we actually have, we actually have his notebook from when he was at navigation school, and he was like one of the top-ranking students when he was in the navigation school in the Royal Air Force. But a lot of it went down to was, “Do you recognize that church steeple over there on the horizon?”
’Cause that’s the target, right?
So, that was interesting.
Yeah. So, by the time World War Two had rolled around, they had very, very basic radio navigation available. But what they would do is, they would call on the radio to a station and get a ping and then the navigator would plot the information that they got from that ping and then just triangulate their position from there. And then, they used a lot of dead reckoning, which, you know, that’s just following, you know, flying this direction over the map for a given period of time should put us here if we maintain a constant speed. And yeah, it was just it was insane. I’ll take my GPS, thank you very much.
I always found the word “dead” in dead reckoning to be a little alarming.
It’s slightly ominous for sure, especially when we’re talking about dead reckoning into combat. Right.
So, you sort of talked about where the idea for Minds of Men came from, and you gave a hint of it. But do you want to give a bit more of a synopsis of it and then we’ll talk about it?
Yeah, so the synopsis of Minds of Men is, essentially, it’s 1943 and 8th Air Force bombers are flying out of England and they’re, you know, they’re just getting their lunch eaten by the Luftwaffe fighters because they didn’t have a long-range fighter escort that had the capability to take them all the way to their target and back. So, they were particularly vulnerable during, you know, during part of their sortie. And their loss rates were just incredible and staggering, if you actually go and read those numbers and think about, you know, how many men that represents. And in this, like I said, in this world, some women—and they’re all women because I’m sorry, I’m sexist—but some women have the ability to create psychic connections with other people and communicate with them telepathically. And one of these Air Force generals knows about it because his wife is one of these women. So they end up, you know, doing a super-secret recruiting drive, essentially, and come up with 20 women powerful enough to do this job, who end up flying with these bomber crews out of England, helping them to maintain closer formation, better formation integrity, helping them to respond quicker to, you know, threats and things like that. And that ups their success rate, but at what kind of cost, right? Because now, these women are not only experiencing the hell of warfare for themselves, but they’re experiencing it tenfold because they’re experiencing it through the minds of each of their crew members, too. And then, of course, as is every aircrew member’s nightmare, you know, at some point the main character gets shot down. And so now, she’s stuck in occupied Europe, you know, with her surviving crew, trying to find her surviving crew members from the crash. And they’re having to escape and evade their way through occupied Europe, all while being chased by . . . because it turns out that the Germans have psychics, too. So, there’s a team of German Fallschirmjäger and a psychic woman who is pursuing them.
The latter half of the book was actually a lot of fun to write. Well, the whole thing was pretty fun to write, but I really enjoyed doing the research for the latter half of the book because I really got to dig into some of the stories about resistance-led escape lines that ran throughout Europe in the Second World War. And these were organizations that would help, not just allied airmen, but they actually started, really, helping to repatriate soldiers stranded by the evacuation of Europe, you know, ones who couldn’t get out at Dunkirk, essentially. At least, that’s when one of the Belgian lines that I researched started. And they would smuggle these, you know, these allied airmen and soldiers through the Nazi lines and, you know, take them on trains and try to get them out, either get them out to sea to get picked up by, usually, Royal Navy destroyers, or over the Pyrenees into ostensibly neutral Spain and get them picked up at the British embassy there. So really fascinating stuff and it was a lot of fun to right, you know, to kind of combine those stories and put it in my own.
Well, so, what . . . that kind of brings you out to the next question. Well, first of all, you said, you know, as a helicopter pilot, you’re kind of a seat of the pants flyer. Are you also a seat of the pants writer, or are you a detailed outliner?
So, that aspect of my style is sort of evolving, honestly. And I do a lot of collaboration, and I find that when working with another author, a detailed outline is actually really helpful because it allows you to say, “OK, well, you know, I’m going to go away, and I’m going to work on this part of the outline. I’m going to bring it back. And here it is.” And then, you know, you can just get more done that way if you agree ahead of time where you’re going with the story. So, you don’t have surprises. For myself, I would say that I’m an outliner, but I outline in phases. I don’t do the whole thing right up front, all right, like the outline of the first act and then I’ll write the first act and kind of see how it’s going, and then I’ll figure out, “OK, where am I going to go in the second act?” And so, I kind of do it in chunks, if that makes sense.
And once you have the outline, what is your actual writing process. Do you write, you know, with a quill pen under a tree or . . .
No, I use my laptop.
Well, being a poet, you ever know.
Right? Yeah. No, I, I use my laptop. I actually, I enjoy Scrivner. It’s a program . . .
Yeah. I have it, and haven’t climbed the learning curve yet to use it, but I have it.
It is steep, the learning curve is steep. I got it. And I went ahead and said, “OK, you know, I paid for this program, I’m going to learn how to use it.” And I dedicated two days and just went through the tutorials. And it took that long, but I’m glad that I did it because, you know, it walked me through all of the functionality. And I’ve since forgotten a lot of it because I don’t, you know, it’s a very, very capable program. And I don’t use, you know, I probably only use about two-thirds of what it’s actually able to do. But, yeah, I like it a lot. I like the flexibility that it gives me to move things around and kind of see, “OK, this is where this is,” and, you know, link characters to different things and stuff. So. Yeah. I use Scrivener.
Do you write sequentially.
Yeah, most of the time I have to. When I don’t, it’s usually because I’m dead stuck, and I’ve just, I’ve got to skip a part and go on and come back and fill it in. But for the most part, I write sequentially. The challenge for me is always, like I think it is for many people, you know, who have day jobs and families and stuff, is always finding that balance to, you know, time to dedicate to sit down and do the writing. And not just the time, but the energy, you know, because I could for sure sit down every night at 10:00 and write for an hour, but by that time, a lot of times I’m so exhausted that, you know, what would be the point, right? I don’t know that I’d get anything useful out of it.
Yeah, it does take energy to write. I’m not . . . you know, people think you just sit there and type, but it actually takes a lot of energy to write.
Right. Right. And it’s the mental energy, which is the kind that, like, just gets sucked out of you if you have a boring day at work or whatever. So, for me, what I’ve found is that I have to have a very low but consistent daily word-count goal. And I have to keep that habit up of writing. So, mine, it’s . . . I don’t even know if it’s the goal, but my minimum is that every day, no matter how exhausted I am, I need to sit down and write 100 words, just 100 words. And if I get to 100 words, and I’m exhausted, and I want to quit, I’ll allow myself to quit and just say, “OK, this was a lower day.” But just like with . . . and I actually heard of this technique in regards to exercise, actually, where people are like, “Oh, I don’t really want to go to exercise, but let me, you know, let me get on the bike for ten minutes. And after ten minutes, if I want to quit, I let myself quit.” But most of the time, you know, by the time you’re 10 minutes in or, in the case of writing, by the time you’re a hundred words in, you know, there’s more going on in your head, and there’s more that’s ready to come out. And so, you end up getting a little bit more than that, at least.
So, my productivity has definitely fallen off this year. Like, you know, I think a lot of us who write, that’s been the case. At least, you know, among people that I’ve talked to, that’s been the case. And using this technique of forgiving myself and just being like, all right, you know, I’m going to keep, as long as I’m moving forward, forward progress is forward progress. We’re not going to harp on how much forward progress we’re getting. It’s been working for me.
Once you have a draft, what does your revision process look like?
So, I do the thing that most people say you shouldn’t do, and I edit as I go, but I do that because I, I can’t . . . it just bothers me. It bothers me to not do it. So, I do, I edit as I go. So, once I have a draft, it’s usually fairly clean. I will read through it one more time out loud because I find that that helps me catch typos, and more importantly, it helps me catch repeated words that I, you know, use too often.
Yeah, reading out loud is a great way to find things. Better to find it while you’re writing it than when you’re doing a public reading later, which is when I usually find those things. Oh, I wish I’d change that before it went into print.
That’s not what I said. Yeah. And that was another tip from Toni Weiskopf from Baen Books. So, it was read it out loud and listen to, you know, listen to how it flows and how it sounds and stuff. So, I will I’ll read through the draft out loud, start to finish, and make any changes that I, you know, that I find needs making there. And then from there, I usually send it off to the editor and let the editor, you know, take a look.
So, you don’t have any beta readers or anything like that?
Well, no, that’s not true, I do. It depends on the project, right? So . . . and again, a lot of times, you know, other than the Psyche of War series, a lot of my novels have been collaborations. So, you know, a lot of times I will bounce the ideas or . . . not the ideas, but I’ll go through it, and then my co-author will go through it, is what I’m trying to say. And sometimes, we have beta readers. But sometimes, you know, like I said, it just goes straight to the editor. A lot of times lately, we’ve been working very under, very, you know, right up to the deadlines. So, not the best practice, but . . .
But it’s an extremely common one. Let me tell you.
For Gunpowder, we had beta readers, for Second Chance Angel, we had beta readers. So, I had some beta readers for Minds of Men. I didn’t for World Asunder because I was late on it. So, it was like, all right, get it done, make sure it’s clean, send it to the editor.
What kind of editorial feedback do you get back typically?
Oh, again, you know, it varies. For Second Chance Angel, Griffin and I had the wonderful experience of working with . . . oh, I’m going to not remember her last name . . . our editor, Betsy. She’s a fantastic editor who’s been in the business for years and years. And she worked with us on a developmental level. And so, with her, you know, we sent her the draft, and she came back, and it was it was very much a conversation kind of . . . modality, I guess. You know, where it was like, all right, so, you know, “I have questions about this. What if you did this to this part?” or “What would you think about this?” or “This part threw me out, you know, of the story.” “How can you make this . . . how can you tie this back in?” And she had some . . . you know, one of the major, one of the best suggestions she gave us was, you know, Second Chance Angel is a post-war, post-galactic-war story. And Betsy, she came back, and she said, “Look, I think that what you really need to do is make a timeline of the war so that you have it very clear on how all of these things, you know, kind of came to be. It doesn’t necessarily have to be included in the text, but you guys need to know it,” and, you know, things like that. On the developmental level, some of my work, when I get edits back, it’s really just, like, copyedit-level stuff. And I find that, I get that. So, with my Psyche of War series, because it’s alternate history, I don’t have to do a lot of worldbuilding because it’s our world, there’s just psychics in it, right? So, I find that the more—maybe I’m just weak in worldbuilding—the more worldbuilding I have to do, the more, like, developmental-edit type feedback I get, whereas when there’s not that much worldbuilding to do, it’s really more on the copyeditor level, if that makes sense. And I’m happy to have it both.
You’re talking a little bit about Second Chance Angel, and that’s the other one we want to mention. I’m actually talking to your co-author, Griffin . . .
. . . actually, this week, as we’re speaking, in just a few days, I’ll be talking to him, too. So, maybe . . .
He’s a riot. You’re going to have a good time.
Maybe a quick synopsis of that one, and then we’ll talk about it a little bit.
OK, so, Second Chance Angel is a sci-fi noir thriller that Griffin Barber and I co-wrote together, and it is the story, like I said, it’s a story set in the aftermath of a great galactic war, where humans essentially joined this war on the side of this alien race, kind of mysterious alien race, that we call the Mentors. And one of ways that the Mentors enticed humanity to come into the war on their side was by offering these cybernetic upgrades that require artificial intelligence to run the upgrades or to maintain the modifications. And so, these . . . they have these AIs that were written as personal AIs that inhabit the body with the person. And it should kind of just be transparent. But one of our characters is actually one of these AIs that we call angels. And so Ralston Muck is a down-on-his-uck veteran bouncer who’s had his angel removed . . .
That’s a great name, by the way, Ralston Muck.
Yeah, that was Griffin’s idea. It’s very noir.
So, he finds himself, you know, mixed up in, and went, you know, when a singer at the club that he works at disappears and he finds himself in a position of having to go look for her and having to work with her personal AI to go find her. You know, they kind of slip into, uncover some seedy underworld stuff, as you know, as noir stories do. And, yeah, so that’s sort of the synopsis of the book is that they’re trying to find Siren . . .
Oddly enough, I just watched Chinatown last night. You know, it’s only been out for, what, 50 years and I’ve never watched it, so . . .
Well, it’s such a great movie. Yeah, it’s . . . I love the noir subgenre and Second Chance Angel for both Griffin and I is sort of our love letter, too, to the noir subgenre. A couple of years back, when I really got into it, I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, and I just I fell in love with the way that that guy could turn a phrase, you know, and the way that he would create these characters and make them, you know, just real people, just by the words that they would say and the comparisons that they would draw, you know. And so, yeah, I, I love it. I love the aesthetics of it. And so does Griffin. And so, we decided to write a book and make it noir.
And how did you do that? Did you write, like, one chapter, alternating chapters, or exactly how did that work?
Kind of, yeah. So, in the book, we have essentially three points of view represented. So, one of the noir tropes is that, you know, you have this first-person point of view narration, which has its advantages and it has its disadvantages. One of the advantages is that you can really do some cool, like, unreliable-narrator type stuff that way, right? And we did do some of that. But one of the disadvantages is that it’s by necessity a very tight POV. You know, there’s only so much that you can do. So, what we did was, we had both Angel and Muck in first person POV, and I essentially wrote Angel’s Point of View, and Griffin wrote Muck. And there was some overlap. And sometimes where we, you know, did one or the other. But for the most part, that’s how it came about. And then, kind of to address that that disadvantage, you know, we realized that there was another dimension to the story that we needed to tell. And so, we did that through some of the additional AIs that are not necessarily personal augmentation eyes like Angel, but, like, the AI that is running the admin for the space station and the AI that is the law enforcement officer AI. We rolled them in and used them to tell part of the story, too, from a third-person point-of-view perspective.
Well, it sounds quite fascinating.
Yeah, it was fun. It was . . . it kind of came about organically, you know, we didn’t sit down and say, “OK, you’re going to do this, and you’re going to do this.” It was just sort of like, “Well, here, let me see. Well, I think this is how Angel would react,” and was like, “Oh, OK, well, this is what Mike would do next and just sort of went from there.”
Well, getting close to the end of the time here. So, time to turn my attention to the big philosophical question, which is . . .
Dum dum dum.
Yeah, exactly. Why, why? Why do this? Why write? Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes? Why do we tell stories, and why specifically stories of science fiction and fantasy?
Oh, OK, well, those are a lot of questions.
I like to pretend it’s just one, but it’s actually more than one.
Yeah, really. So, the reason that I write? I write like I breathe, right? You know, I kind of alluded to this earlier when I was talking about being a little kid, and I’ve never not made up stories. I don’t know how to process life without making up stories. And I think that that’s on some level true for us as a human race. We are in so many ways defined by our stories, the stories that we tell, the stories that we remember, what we choose to remember, what we choose to forget. I think that stories are an essential part of the human experience. And because, you know, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I can tell you a story that is similar to something that you’ve experienced and that then becomes a point of connection between us. And I think that that’s something that was very important for us as humans to do, is to connect with one another, you know. So, I think that we write for all of those reasons, you know, because that’s part of what makes us who we are.
Why stories of the fantastic?
Because that also makes this part of who we are. Because we, you know, we have the amazing ability to not just talk about what is but what could be, and to get excited about what could be and to inspire ourselves and each other and. And so, I think that, you know, there’s great joy to be had there, in telling stories of the fantastic, whether it be in science fiction or in fantasy or even in, you know, even in the darker stuff, like the horror and the noir and . . .you know, they’re two very different things, but they’re all ways of processing this experience, right, so . . . you know, it’s like dark humor, for example. I mean, I’ve been in the military for 20 years, and I have a very dark sense of humor, and most of my friends have a very dark sense of humor. And, you know, the same is true of first responders who work where they see terrible things all the time, police officers who have to deal with domestic violence and social workers who have to go into these situations and stuff. One of the major coping mechanisms for all of this is dark humor, is the ability to laugh so that you don’t cry.
And I think that, you know, there’s so much out there that frightens us as humans, even, you know, even, you want to talk even on an evolutionary level, like, we’re not the biggest, baddest animal out there. We don’t have super-sharp teeth or super-sharp claws we can’t see in the dark. But what we do have is our mind and our imagination. And we have this, like I said, this ability to tell stories and this ability to inspire each other and this ability to think beyond what is, to see what could be. And that is our great evolutionary advantage. And so, you know, even taking something that’s dark and turning it into our own story, you know, telling a story about it, makes it a little bit more accessible, and it gives us the ability to process the emotions that come with fear a little bit better, in fact. I don’t know if any of that made sense.
It made sense to me.
OK, good. I’m glad.
What are you working on now?
So, Griffin and I are . . . we have started the sequel to Second Chance Angel, which . . . Second Chance Angel releases, if you don’t mind me saying this, Angel releases on September 8, which is today for me while we’re recording this, I’m not sure when this will go up, but here in Japan, it’s already release day. So, yeah, happy release day!
It will have been out for some time before this goes live.
Good. You guys can just be part of my retroactive celebration! So, we’ve started the sequel, which is called The Third Sin, and we’re about three chapters into that. I’m also working on the third book in my Psyche of War series, which is a story set in the Vietnam era. And I’m working on a sequel to Gunpowder and Embers, started outlining that, and a couple of short stories and stuff. So, I’ve got a lot of projects.
And where can people find you online? I mentioned the website off the top. Oh, I should say that’s . . . better spell that.
Yeah. So, my website kaceyezell.net. That’s sort of the hub for where you can find me. You can go there and find lists of all my books, all my social media links, and join my mailing list, actually. And if you do that, you get, like, two free stories. So, there’s that as well, if you’re into that sort of thing. But also, I’m available on Instagram at KaceyEzell and then Facebook at KaceyEzell, too. So that’s kind of usually where I’m most interactive on social media is Instagram and Facebook.
OK, great. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.
I did! Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun to talk to you.
Helen Dale is a Queenslander by birth and a Londoner by choice. She read law at Oxford (where she was at Brasenose) and has previously worked as a lawyer, political staffer, and advertising copywriter (among other things).
I’m fine, and so glad to have you on. I’ve followed you on Twitter for a while now, and then when I saw that you were shortlisted for the Prometheus Award, I realized that you were in my ballpark when it came to my interviews, and I thought you would be somebody interesting to talk to. So I’m very glad to have you on, even if we are speaking to each other from across an ocean and a large chunk of Canada.
Well, yes, it’s quarter past 4:00 in the afternoon here.
And just after 9:00 here, and I’m still drinking coffee. So if you hear weird noises, that’s what that is.
Worshipping at the shrine at the Great God Cafe.
So we’ll launch into it. And I always start, as I say, with taking my guests back into the mists of time, which, you know, is further back for some of us than others, to talk about how you got where you grew up, how you started writing, your background that led you to writing, and all that sort of thing. And, of course, you’re kind of new to the science fiction and fantasy genre, alternate history, with your latest one. But that’s not how you started, is it?
No. And I’m a slightly peculiar creature in terms of writing in that I didn’t intend to be a writer. That was kind of a mistake. By training, I’m a lawyer, and certainly, in the UK, I’m best known for writing fairly technical, detailed analysis of the legal issues arising out of Brexit. Australia is a bit different. I am best known in Australia as a novelist, but that is purely because my first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, won the Australian equivalent of the Booker Prize, or for you Canadians, the Governor General’s Award or for Americans, the Pulitzer. It’s called the Miles Franklin Award, and it’s Australia’s sort of oldest and most prestigious literary award. And my first novel won that. And that’s a literary prize. To give you an idea of how literary it is, Book One and Book Two of Kingdom of the Wicked are actually not eligible for it, no matter how good they are. I couldn’t win if I tried, basically. So, I have shifted so dramatically in terms of genre that it’s just…I actually had, I’ve had a couple of reviews in, it’s only the Australian press, the British press have been fine, but I have had one review in a major publication which shall remain nameless that basically smacked me for going down-market. You know, you shouldn’t have a Miles Franklin winner, you know, going and writing science fiction, that’s sort of not acceptable.
Oh, dear, horrors. Yes.
Well, did you start off with an interest in writing, or how did that come about for you?
Um, no, no, except in the sense that I obviously have to write things for school and university, that kind of thing. No intention to be a writer. Became a writer completely by accident. There are four of us in my family, and we were all quite sort of scholarly at school. And we didn’t have a horrible time, fortunately, because we were also quite good at sport. And in Australia, you really don’t want to be very clever and uncoordinated, you know, the kind of kid who couldn’t catch a cold, because you will not have a very good time. But fortunately, that didn’t happen to the four of us because we were all quite sporty as well. And my family had produced–I’m the youngest–had produced successively a doctor, a mechanical engineer, an accountant, tax accountant, and then me. And we were all sort of–my family’s relatively traditional, so we went to study what our parents told us to study, basically, based on what we were good at at school. It was like, I had friends of mine, this was just when large numbers of Chinese immigrants were coming to Australia, and I would get the inevitable comment would be, “Ah, your family is very Chinese,” because this is what Chinese families are like: the children, the parents work out what they’re good at and go, “Right, you’re going off to study whatever.”
So no, it was not a plan at all. But what was happening, what would happen is…this is when I was in high school and then when I was at university as well…I would inevitably get comments written on my papers that I handed in, and even examinations, because examinations are done blind, so the markers don’t know who has written the paper. And one of my tutors at Oxford actually said, “This is a completely pointless exercise in your case, Helen, because everybody knows when they get one of your papers because you’re the only person who puts jokes in an examination paper while they’ve been sitting in schools writing it for three hours.”
I’m sure that was a huge relief.
It was just sort of, “Oh, thanks. Right. OK, so I can’t hide. There’s no way for me to hide. They know who I am.”
Were you, because you ended up writing, were you at least like reading fiction during these years when you were growing up?
Oh gosh, I read enormously and widely, and my parents would have been deeply disappointed if I had not.
It would be very odd if you hadn’t read and then became a writer.
No, no. I mean, I was sort of stereotypical of a sort of certain social-class British person. I mean, I’m a dual national of Australia and the UK, but both my parents were British, and my father came from that sort of minor aristocracy, that kind of background where the expectation is that people are literate and well-read and well-formed, have well-formed characters. And so, I read enormously and very widely when I was at school. I read everything that was put in front of me and formed views on it. You know, like, “I don’t think this book is particularly good” or “I do think this book is particularly good.” At one point, I had read every single book in the school library, and this meant that I was, like, sitting and reading the maths ones and the chemistry ones and things like that because I was just running out of things to read.
So yes, I was widely read, but it was very much…I read the newspaper, I did the cryptic crossword, you know, I’d sit in the library and do the crossword and have those sorts of interests, sort of literary things, but it was not in the sense of becoming a novelist, it was in the sense of being a lawyer who could talk about something other than law with the clients, if that makes sense? Yes.
So then, how did that first novel come about?
Well, I mean, I just continually got papers back from academic staff saying…and this is going to sound like I’m skiting, I’m sorry, but it’s nonetheless true…inevitably, I’d get the top mark, but I’d also get, “Oh, this is beautifully written. It’s a pleasure to read,” and so on and so forth. And so, I had a flair for putting words together, that became reasonably clear. And anyway, I got a good idea for a book, and that book became The Hand that Signed the Paper, which is my first novel.
What was it about? What was your good idea?
Basically, what was happening at the time in Australia–this is going back quite a long time ago now, but at the time in Australia, there were a number of war crimes trials, and the people who were being charged were never German. They were always from one of the minority nationalities who, for whatever reason, had allied themselves with the Nazis during the Second World War. So they were Ukrainians and Belarusians and Latvians and Lithuanians and so on. And Australia is a very multi-ethnic, multicultural country, so there were large numbers of them, of people from these ethnic groups.
Big Ukrainian population here in Saskatchewan.
Yes, yours is huge. I mean, I know it’s like an entire cultural phenomenon in Canada. Australia probably took more Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, so we had more the Balkans than Ukraine. But we still have a decent number of Ukrainians, and certainly, the high-profile case, the Polyukhovich case, went all the way to the high court, because there was a serious argument as to the constitutionality of the trial, because of the presumption against retroactive laws.
I’m not going to go into any more detail about it, otherwise, I’ll bore you all rigid, but it was the kind of thing that was interesting to lawyers, and it became very controversial, and it became even more controversial when the jury in the criminal trial–because there were two trials going on, there was the constitutional, whether it could even be heard, and then there was the criminal trial of Ivan Polyukhovich, and the jury took forty-five minutes to acquit, which is as short as it can possibly be, basically. Generally, when you hear that a jury has acquitted someone in forty-five minutes, it literally means they’ve gone into the retiring room, where the jurors retire to consider their verdict, for a cup of tea and a biscuit, and the only reason they’re not making the decision in ten minutes is because they want the cup of tea and the biscuit at the state’s expense. I mean, long experience of jury trials, I assure you this is how the system works.
And so, that caused a big stink as well, because there was this perception that the Crown had a very strong case against Polyukhovich because they had military records and so on and so forth, and it looked like for a long time, and there’s still all sorts of speculation about this, it looked for a long time that the jury had engaged in a form of jury nullification, which exists in Australia as well, which is where we don’t care if you’ve got X bang to rights, we think that this is a dog of a law, so, therefore, we’re not going to convict. And so, I took that basic outline and turned it into a novel, and it…I sent it when it was mostly finished; I think maybe I had a couple of chapters left…
And you’re still in university at the time?
Oh, gosh, yes. Yes, I was about twenty. And I sent it to…I did my first degree, my classics degree, at the University of Queensland, which is in the news at the moment for not-good reasons, basically being far too matey with the People’s Republic of China.
There’s a lot of that going around.
Yes, there’s a lot of that going around. But none of this was an issue in the early 1990s when I was a student there, it was just a perfectly normal…a bit like Toronto, I suppose, sort of university, that style of reasonably good quality, but without being Oxford or Harvard or that kind of place.
Where my daughter is a student right now. University of Toronto.
Yes, Toronto, yes. So, that sort of thing. A decent Commonwealth University without being Oxford or Harvard. And so, there was none of this issue there, and I sent it to…they had a press, the University of Queensland Press, which does have to this day a very good reputation for nurturing Australian literature. And probably their most famous product from UQP is Peter Carey, who’s won the Booker Prize twice and also won the Miles Franklin Award twice. So, he is sort of a big deal in Australian letters, and he started at UQP. And anyway, I sent it to them, it wasn’t quite finished, but it was clearly read and read relatively quickly, which surprised me. And I got a letter back from one of the senior editors at UQP saying you should enter this for the Australian Vogel Literary Award.
Now, that is an award for a first novel, the Australian/Vogel Literary Award. And it’s for an unpublished novel, first novel. So I sent it in to this competition, which is sponsored by the Vogel company, does bread, good bread, has a great reputation, and The Australian is a newspaper. It’s the country’s main national daily, and I still write for it to this day–that created a relationship with that newspaper that is nearly thirty years old now, and it’s…the book is published by an Australian publishing company called Allen & Unwin, but they also exist in Britain. And so, I won that prize, and that was a good prize, it was worth having, it was guaranteed publication, it was this big check from the company and free publicity from the newspaper. And I thought, “Oh, well, this is quite good. I sort of wasn’t expecting that.”
And then it proceeded to start winning a lot of other prizes as well, one of which was the Miles Franklin, which is the top award in Australia. And as a result of that, it became an enormous bestseller. And I certainly became very controversial because of all the war-crimes trials issues that I was talking about earlier and the jury acquitting so quickly and so on and so forth. So, I sort of fictionalized that story. And, anyway, I didn’t have another good idea for a book. I mean, it is very nice to get a bestseller from your first book.
In your early twenties, yeah, that’s not bad.
Yeah, I mean, not a bestseller in the J.K. Rowling sense, but a solid bestseller and plus literary awards as well, which have significant sums of money attached to them. You know, you can do this, you walk into the estate agent and say, “I want that one,” and they see your age, of course, you know, “How are you going to pay for it?” And I go, “By check!”, this kind of thing. So, it was quite a shock.
But I didn’t have an idea for another book. And I tried to start writing one just because there was this expectation, because I’d written this bestseller, that I could produce another one. And I started to write other things, and I was just awful. I’m one of these people, I can’t force myself to write fiction, I have to have a good idea. And so, I eventually just let it drop and went back to doing what my family wanted me to do, which was to become a lawyer, and I didn’t really think about writing anymore for quite a long time. I was just a lawyer.
And changed countries in there, too.
Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, I’m as much British as Australian. I’m as much Australian as I am British. This is the thing. I’m a true dual national. I’ve been educated partly in one country and partly in the other.
That’s me, too. I’m Canadian-American. I was born in the States, moved up here, went back to school for university in the States, came back to Canada.
Yes. So, yes, I didn’t think about doing anything more with writing for quite a long time. I did do quite a lot of journalism, though. So…
You’d been writing, just not fiction.
Yes. Just not fiction yet, I was sort of being funneled…not very deliberately, once again, it wasn’t really planned…I was kind of slowly pushed towards writing and then nonfiction. And so, I was writing political commentary and features in the newspaper and that kind of thing. But they were, none of them were fiction, no short stories or anything.
So that brings us up to Kingdom of the Wicked, when apparently you did have another good idea.
Yes, I did have a good idea.
So, this is where you can read the blurb on the back of the book, and…
Right, yes. I’m going to read this out because my editor is much better at these than me. This is on the back of, the blurb for Book One of The Kingdom of the Wicked. There are two books. Book One is Rules, and Book Two is Order. And they both quite fat books.
I’m looking at them in ebooks, so they look quite skinny to me.
“784 ab urbe condita–31 AD. Jerusalem sits uneasily in a Roman Empire that has seen an industrial revolution and now has cable news and flying machines—and rites and morals that are strange and repellent to the native people of Judaea. A charismatic young leader is arrested after a riot in the Temple. He seems to be a man of peace, but among his followers are Zealots and dagger-men sworn to drive the Romans from the Holy Land. As the city spirals into violence, the stage is set for a legal case that will shape the future—-the trial of Yeshua Ben Yusuf. Intricately imagined and ferociously executed, Kingdom of the Wicked is a stunning alternative history and a story for our time.” And I realize I’ve just read an encomium from a critic on the back as well, which I probably shouldn’t have done, but anyway, there we are.
Well, so that’s…it’s a very interesting premise. And of course, alternate history has a long history as being considered a branch of science fiction. I guess that comes from the multi-worlds hypothesis, I guess.
So, how did this come about? Where did the idea come from? I mean, I know…well, I’ll let you tell it. Because we talked a little bit beforehand, but now it’s your turn.
Yes, well, it’s once again, it just struck me as a good idea. It was a good concept. I’d read quite a lot of–I mean, because I’m one of these people who just reads a lot–I read quite a lot of people like Philip K. Dick and S.M. Stirling…
Who’s been on the program.
Oh, you’ve had S.M. Stirling on the program?
Yes, the Draka books. And I also liked Len Deighton’s SSGB, which is what would have happened if Operation Sea Lion, which was the Nazi plan to invade the United Kingdom, following in the steps of William the Conqueror, had been successful.
So, I read quite a few books of that type in amongst all my other reading, and every single time I read a good one–and for mine, the one that most struck me is an extraordinary work of fiction that was so persuasive was Len Deighton’s SSGB–I sat there and thought, “It would be very cool to come up with an idea that I could execute as well as he has in that book. And the thing is because, even though it was twenty years earlier, because of The Hand that Signed the Paper, I knew I could write, I know I can put a sentence together. And because of my journalism, and the feedback that I got from working as a journalist and also little things like, you have pleadings, which is part of the role of a lawyer, drafting pleadings, drafting advice, that kind of thing, inevitably, I would be the one who sort of would be patted on the head by the judge along the lines of, “What a beautifully drafted set of pleadings,” so I knew that I could still, I had “it,” this thing. Once you’ve written a book, written a couple of books, you sort of know what’s what. And so I thought, “This would be a really good idea, if I could come up with one that is as good as Len Deighton’s.” And so then I did come up with one that was as good as Len Deighton’s. And I was able to use the fact that I can read Latin…
I did it at school and then at university as well. And then also, I was a lawyer and had done a lot of practitioner work and seen a lot of trials, a lot of court work. So, I know the cut and thrust of a criminal trial. And I’m also…relatively unusually, I’ve got experience and training in Scots law. And Scotland is a mixed system, so it has a lot of Roman law in a way that the system in England or Australia does not. So, I was aware of this other great legal tradition that’s not…that is less familiar to a lot of people in the Anglosphere, with the exception of Scottish people, who are familiar with Roman law because of their legal system. And so, I was able to bring that knowledge to bear. And I just kept…I thought, “Well, what would happen if you got someone who turned up who was like this Jesus figure now?” And I’d watched or read all the various interpretations. There are lots of them out there, like Jesus of Montreal and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, even the humorous ones, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and so on and so forth, because one of the Pythons was a classicist, which is why all the Latin jokes in that work. The gags work because the people writing them really know their stuff. And so, I did all of this kind of reading, and I just thought I would use the point-of-departure principle that speculative fiction writers do, but I would also do a retelling of the story. So, I would keep the story and change the context of it, which is not quite the same as what Len Deighton did in SSGB, which is where he’s got a point of departure and history actually changes. I haven’t got history actually changing in the context of the Gospels. What I’ve done is I’ve imagined a modernized Roman Empire, but with something roughly akin to our science and technology, but with their moral values and their beliefs.
And your point of departure goes to Archimedes, right? And he survives and develops calculus.
Yes. Well, basically, my point of departure is the siege of Syracuse, where the Roman general at the time desperately wanted Archimedes left…
Archimedes. I said Archimedes.
It probably is Archimedes…Archimedes, it would be Greek. But Marcellus, the Roman general, wanted him captured because the Romans wanted to do, you know, they wanted him to be their DARPA guy, basically, you know, that kind of thing. And he was finished up being killed, and the evidence we have is that basically, it was a mistake. And Marcellus, the Roman general, was absolutely furious and completely losing his whatnot as a result of this. But, I just changed that. Archimedes doesn’t die, and so he does finish up the Roman DARPA guy, and you then…and then there are other sorts of things going on in the period of the late republic, which various economic historians and political historians have written about over here–to of them, Stephen Davies, who’s at the University of Manchester, and another chap called Douglas Carswell, who who was actually a politician for many years, he was an MP–and you get very productive…there’s a period of Roman history for a couple of hundred years of very productive innovation, which we now know, based on sort of economic history, is the precursor that you need for a society to industrialize. And so, I basically inject a living Archimedes into this ferment that is meant to…that resembles, in many respects, England and Scotland in the 17th and 18th century, or the Dutch Republic, where you’ve got this sustained innovation and economic development, which is what tips societies over the line into industrialization. And so, I did a lot of research reading…
That was my next question is, what was the preparation for writing like for this? What kind of outlining and research did you have to do to pull this off?
I did a lot of reading in economic history. And there are various scholars who, and I mentioned two of them, Stephen Davies and Douglas Carswell, there’s also Mark Koyama, Koyama and Johnson, who wrote a book called Persecution and Toleration, but they’ve done a lot of academic papers, and theirs is economic history and a history of innovation, basically. Stephen Davies has done a lot of work in this area, and there’s also a scholar called Peter Temin, whose retired now, but he used to be at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he wrote a book called The Roman Market Economy, which basically blew up what we thought the Roman economic system was like. There’d been this sort of history, and it’s kind of unfortunate, where a scholar called Moses Finley, who was a Marxist, allowed his political views to color his scholarship, and…
That never happens.
And so had put..well, yeah, well, it does happen, that’s the problem. And had basically tried to argue for the existence of a great civilization that didn’t have a capitalist economy. And…it’s not very good. And Peter Temin…and the thing is, generations of classicists were taught Moses Finlay’s take on the Roman economy. And the thing is, if you were studying Roman law at the same time, you knew it had to be false because all of the stuff you’re learning in the legal system is all about contract, commercial loans, you know, what constitutes delivery? What’s the difference between a contract of hire and a contract of sale? How do you draft all this up? You know, how do you work out interest rates and repayments? And all of the things…what sort of corporate structure should you have if you wish to go into business? These are not the considerations of a non-capitalist society. This is an intensely market-oriented society.
And so, in a way, Peter Timen–and he goes into this in The Roman Market Economy—it’s a more complicated picture. Having the Romans as capitalists is great, it explains how they nearly, nearly had an industrial revolution and only just missed. And Douglas Carswell goes into some of the reasons for that. But what it does do is that…the rather Pollyannaish view of capitalism is that if you have economic liberty, then a society will develop political or civil liberty. Turns out not to be true. So whilst the Romans were nothing like what Moses Finley said they were, they were capitalist, they were capitalists, they were innovative, you started to get sustained levels of prosperity, intensive growth, which is where the outputs exceed the inputs, which is quite hard to do in economic terms, although we do it routinely now, but they also had slavery.
So, you’re forced to confront the reality that a society can have a lot of things going for it, and be really, really impressive at a lot of things, but be absolutely morally repugnant in other respects. And the modern country that is really showing this up in spades, and a few people have written to me after reading Kingdom of the Wicked and said, “Gee, you predicted China well, didn’t you?” Because this is the thing: capitalism has made China rich. There’s no getting away from that. It’s the second-largest economy in the world, it will overtake the United States fairly soon, but it has not made it democratic or liberal. If anything, the intensive growth and sustained innovation that capitalism has produced in China has actually made it easier for the government to spy on the population, made it easier for the government to control them. And when something does go wrong, like with coronavirus, yes, the state has the power to just lock people up in their homes and wall them in.
And we saw that happen.
And one of the things that struck me reading the book, I hadn’t made the China connection, but that makes perfect sense, but it’s like the there’s a…what’s the word…a graininess to the society. It feels real in a way that sometimes reimagined words don’t. There’s…L.E. Modesitt, Jr., is somebody I’ve had on the program, and he has economics training and he makes a point in his books that, you know, people have to have real jobs and they have to do real things no matter what else is going on. There’s a real economic thing that has to be happening there, too. And I really felt that in your book, a sort of solid grounding that you’re talking about with all the research. But once you did all that research, how did you plot out the book? What did that look like for you? Did you do a detailed outline, or did you just start writing?
No, no, I did a fairly detailed outline because I had to work out how all the events were going to sequence. And that’s quite tricky to do. So, I did a detailed outline, and I also prepared a character matrix. I was one of these people who played Dungeons and Dragons at school…
Oo, me, too.
…which is really going to date me now. And I used the character matrix that you use for Dungeons and Dragons, so, I mean…and it will be of no surprise to you at all that Saleh is chaotic neutral. So, my policy is to develop characters and to slot them into the matrix.
Well, you had some characters decided for you because you’re retelling the…
Well, that’s right. So, that’s…although what I would try to do is, where people are ambiguous or not clear what sort of personality they actually have, I tried to be a bit more creative, but some are already known, yes. And I have…although I have made him a corporate lawyer and quite capable in certain areas, you will have read enough of the book now to know that Pilate can be quite indecisive. You know, he can struggle to make up his mind. He’s got the lawyer’s tendency of seeing both sides and then not being able to come down and take a side. And that causes him problems.
That’s certainly true to the original story, so…
Yes. Hence the whole handwashing and that kind of thing, and not wanting to be saddled with someone else’s moral failures and issues. And so, some of them were decided for me, but then I just started doing…once I’ve fleshed out my characters, I then put them in different situations and see how they react. And I just gradually built the stories up over time doing that. I’m quite a traditional writer in that my chart that I had on the wall with all the timelines was all done by hand, and my…and then the great bulk of the writing was handwritten as well. But by this stage…I mean, with my first novel, it was a manual typewriter, whereas by this stage, I’d have it handwritten, and then I was able to type it into my word-processing software and then fiddle with it once I typed it up, basically. But, yes.
So, was your…you mentioned writing longhand, is your writing process…were you writing, like scenes, and then piecing them together, or did you write start to finish, or how did that work for you? It sounds like maybe you do sort of the piecemeal approach.
Yes, it’s much more piecemeal and working out, then bolting it all together in such a way that the plotting works because it’s very tightly plotted. And that was really quite tricky because if there’s going to be something that I stuffed up in a book, it will be to do with dates and calendars. And I had to be so careful to make sure I had the right thing happening over here at the same time as this was happening over here. Otherwise, I’d just lose control of my narrative, and I didn’t want that to happen, obviously, because there are people out there who notice.
Oh, there are, yes.
You’ve got someone in the same place twice, you know, this guy. How is this?
Yeah, it’s interesting because sometimes…I don’t know if you’ve encountered this, but when I’m doing my books, you will have…something is happening, and you have to have a certain amount of time for it to happen, but your other character’s over here are doing something else, and you don’t really have anything for them to do during the time that you need for this other thing to happen. So you have to find something for them to do just to make the timelines work.
Yes. Yeah. And you don’t want to…you don’t want the waking up in the shower, oh it was all a dream, kind of thing because nobody believes that anymore and I don’t think anybody believed it then.
Oh, that does is because that’s, of course, a Dallas joke, so that…
A Dallas joke, yes. You just know the people are going to see straight through you if you do that.
I have YA book, and when I’d originally written it, I wrote some character, saying that she looked like she had come out of…wore kind of 80s clothes…had come out of a Dallas-themed costume party. And my editor, who was, like, half my age, or less, said, “What’s Dallas besides a city in Texas?” And I knew that I was getting old.
Yes, I am officially old.
So, how long did this process take you, writing the first draft and getting it typed in and all that sort of thing?
Well, I think…I mean, bearing in mind you’ve got two 450-page-plus novels here, I think, all up, they probably took me probably about ten years to get them written. But you’ve got to remember, of course, I mean, but that’s, you know…
You were doing other things.
I was doing other things. I was not a full-time writer. So, yes, it’s a thousand…call it just…900 pages worth of of of fiction. But I was working full time while I was doing this, so it would only ever be something I could do first thing in the morning. I would sometimes get up in the morning and write for an hour, and maybe an hour before I went to bed, and I just knew that it was going to take me…I accepted that it was going to take me quite a while to get them finished because I was not a full-time writer. The irony is, of course, that Book One came out in 2017, and Book Two came out in 2018, because they were finished and publisher, Bloomsbury over here and Ligature in Australia, just split them into two, and that worked quite well. Otherwise, it was just going to be this tome, War and Peace, and I said, “No, no, science fiction is often in sequence, and so you’ve got two of them, although I have now, of course, occasionally had people ask, “Are you going to do a third one?” and I’m sort of going, “With what?”
It sounds like you…because of the way you work, where you write longhand, and then you type it in…undoubtedly you do a considerable amount of line-to-line revision as you’re doing the typing-in process.? I mean, when I used to work that way–and when I was in high school, that’s how I worked, because computers, nobody had them–and I wrote longhand, and then I typed it into my manual typewriter, but I never typed on the typewriter what I had written longhand, I was revising as I went.
Yeah, of course. That’s exactly how it works. I mean, sometimes pieces are carried across entire, but sometimes they’re not. You know, it just depends. But yes, I’ve never really got into the habit, and I’ve got lots scribbled on pieces of paper all through the house here and a spiral notebook that’s full of scribbles, and I even do this…maybe not with the same degree of intensity, but I still do this to a very large degree, even with journalism. I’m writing a thousand-word column for The Spectator or something, and I take notes first before I turn it into typed stuff.
Once you have a complete typed or word-processed manuscript, is there another level of revision? Do you go through it again?
Yes, yes, I print them out and go through them again and constantly tinker and fiddle and move stuff around and try to improve the… the thing that I particularly aim for is to have unobtrusive and very naturalistic dialogue. You might have noticed that already, that people sound like normal people. I dislike badly written dialogue. And I don’t have a background in theatre or script editing or anything like that, but I have…a friend of mine, Gareth Roberts, has written a lot over, hee’s a friend of mine over here, ee’s written a lot for Doctor Who over the years…
Oh, yes, I’ve heard of that.
Yeah. And he actually wrote, co-wrote with Russell T. Davies, six episodes. And he then did the spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures. And he and I were discussing, we’ve discussed this a lot, and he said, “You’ve got the same thing as a script editor or a scriptwriter. You absolutely are obsessive about making people sound like normal people and not weird,” because a lot of novelists, they can do good description and good characterization, but then they don’t get the dialogue right, and it sounds like everybody’s giving speeches. But, yes, I’ve never done script work, but it was interesting just that…he read them, bought them at Waterstones and read them, and then we subsequently caught up, and he just said, you’ve got the scriptwriter thing.
Well, I do theatre, I’m a stage actor I’ve done, mostly just for fun, but I do some professional work, too, and the people I’ve talked to who do have any sort of theatrical background, they do find that it helps in that regard, in their fiction, because so much in theatre or in scripts is told through the dialogue, it has to work in a way that perhaps novelists don’t necessarily make it work sometimes.
Sometimes. I mean, and some are very bad. I know in the canon of science fiction, there are some fabulously good writers who just can’t write dialogue for toffee. And it’s just…
We all have our weaknesses and strengths.
Yes, yes. So that’s the thing.
Do you have…once you have the complete manuscript, do you have beta readers or first readers, people who look at it and give you feedback at that point before it goes to an editor?
Not…I didn’t do that with The Hand that Signed the Paper, I just sent it off to UQP and got the advice to enter that competition, which I did. And then, of course, as soon as I won that competition, I was contracted to a publishing company and went through the normal editorial process that you do with a publishing company. And so, I hadn’t had this concept of people, of road-testing my work on anybody else.
I did, however, because it was such a change of genre to go to science fiction, even though I was fairly widely read, I was very eclectically read because I was not obsessed with any particular novelist or genre of writing. I just picked up books of science fiction that I thought might be interesting because I read the blurb on the back, I’d read that, and I just read it. But I knew it was outside of my tradition as such because the books that I read a lot of in high school are just, I basically read a lot of pretty much everything by Russians. And so, I went through a phase of just Russians, I was just reading Russians all the time, all very bleak, very good, but very depressing. And so, I knew that I didn’t have the same grounding that I did in high literature, highbrow literature, basically, so I did get friends to, once the manuscript was largely written, to have a read of it and go, “Does this make sense? Does this work?” And I also, what I tended to do, rather than get novelists, other novelists, to look at it, is I got an economic historian to read it because I was using so much economic history. I am. I’ve got a list of them here in the back…sorry, it’s a while since…
Yeah, I was looking at the acknowledgments at the back of the book.
Yes, so, I got a religious specialist who knew a bit about religion. I got another classicist. I got a straight economist, as well as an economic historian, a specialist in Roman law, a retired Air Force pilot, a doctor, you know, that kind of thing, to read it and go…I’ve portrayed people in these professions, in this society, in this way. “Is this how it works?” basically, because one of the things that I have learned in my life is I hate watching police procedurals and I hate watching courtroom dramas and law shows and so on and so forth, unless they’re very, very good, like Rumpole of the Bailey, which only makes the tiniest concession to nonlawyers. I mean, there have been times where I have thrown shoes at police procedurals.
That could get expensive if you hit your TV.
Yes. Along the lines of “Inadmissible!” “Fraud!” “Can’t put that in front of the jury.” You know, I don’t just sit there and say things like that but…
I think that’s common with anything you know a lot about. When you see how it’s portrayed in the media, you’ll go, “No…”
And so, I didn’t want to do that in my novels about professions other than mine. I mean, I could obviously get the lawyers right because I know how legal systems work, and I know how Roman law works and so on and so forth. But I wanted to get all the other jobs that people do, like you were talking about earlier, real jobs in the real economy. I wanted them to ring true, at least, to people who were reading them. So my beta readers, this concept is so foreign to me…
I don’t use them myself.
…were people who were sort of not so much other novelists, but people who are technically proficient in certain fields.
And what kind of feedback could you get back?
Well, I mean, this is the advantage. It’s sort of like, the medical doctor was going, “No, no, you don’t do this when you do triage, you do that.” And technical advice along the lines of, “No, this is what actually happens here. This is, you know, when you’re learning to fly an aircraft, this is the kind of stuff you do,” that kind of advice. You know, so basically, I didn’t make schoolgirl howlers all the way through the book.
Just getting technical details straightened out.
Yes, a lot of it was technical stuff, and sort of the shape of values that people have…like, the chap who did medicine, he, like me…he might be a doctor now, but he, like me, had done classics at school. And he said, “You have to deal with the fact that if you give a society like that advanced biochemistry and genetics and modern medicine, they’re not going to have the same values that we do.” And even modern medicine doctors will fight over, you know, when is a life worth saving and those kinds of things.
So, he was the one that sort of got across to me, things like–that I knew about, like, I mean, the Romans actually didn’t have any compunction about putting down the ugly ones like unwanted kittens and this kind of thing. You have to deal with the fact that you’re dealing with a society that’s probably going to have eugenics, but it’s not going to do it in the incompetent way that the Americans did where the state is running it all, it’s going to be left in…the decisions are going to be made internally in the household, but there’s going to be overarching sets of values that will drive that. So you’ve got, on one level, you’ve got this grave and quite striking appreciation for beauty, which is very Roman, and it’s why their artwork and their sculpture has got this lovely, eye-pleasing rhythmical quality to it, that even the great art of the Renaissance can’t capture, because they’re trying to go back into the past and recreate this other society, forgetting that that art that the Greeks and the Romans produced were organic expressions of the way they viewed the world. And it’s very, very hard to go back and retrieve that mindset because you have to, like, basically get everybody’s brain and think like them.
That’s kind of what you’re trying to do in the whole book.
Yes, yes. So, I’m acutely aware of how difficult this is to achieve. So, you’ve got this sort of society that’s got a resonant respect for beauty and is never going to inflict Brutalist architecture on anyone, but by the same token, “Well, of course, you don’t want any more Down’s Syndrome babies to be born. Why would you want to keep them?”, that attitude as well, which is deeply Roman.
Once the book was off to the editor, what kind of editorial feedback did you get? Any major changes at that point? Or was it pretty set?
No, it was probably pretty set. I mean, I always accept editorial suggestions in terms of improving the smoothness of the style.
You must have dealt with a lot of editors being a journalist and writing for magazines.
Yes. And so I tend to, nine times out of ten, I just accept whatever an editor suggests because they’ve seen something that I haven’t. And only very occasionally will I say “No, no, no, I actually want to keep that. I’m doing that deliberately.” But most of the time, any changes that my editors did…I had two for Kingdom of the Wicked, and I had two, I think, for The Hand that Signed the Paper, different people doing different things, technical editing, copy editing, stylistic, structural editing. I remember there was at some point with one of the Kingdom of the Wicked books I’d stuffed up a timeline, what we were talking about earlier, and my editor picked it up, and I had to shift a piece of furniture, otherwise, I had the whole someone trying to be in two places at once, basically. “Do you have a time turner, like out of Harry Potter?” “No, I don’t. Whoops, I think I need to fix this.”
Yeah, it’s great when they get stuff like that. I had one that caught a big mistake in geography I had made where I had people sailing off the West Coast into the Pacific Ocean, and he pointed out gently, or she, that where I had them leaving the coast, they were actually in Puget Sound and they would run into land in pretty short order again.
So I had to move them south on the coast.
So this is kind of thing, it’s just, if I’m going to make a mistake as a writer, it is always, always, I get my dates and times wrong and I have a character…finishing up needing to clone a character, basically.
Well, we’re getting close to the end here. So I want to move over to my big philosophical question, which is, “Why? Why do you write? Why do you write anything, but why this? And why do you think any of us write? And specifically, why do people want to write these kinds of alternate worlds, do you think?
I think I can answer the last question better than the others because it’s a conversation I’ve had with economic historians, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but there was probably about 40 to 50 years ago, spilling over until as recently as maybe 20 years ago, there was a huge fight in the historical profession over the salience of using alternative history. And basically, there was this, for a long time. the Marxists, who are dead against it, won this argument and would say, no, history is material reality, the basis of Marxism is material reality and materialism, so, therefore, you shouldn’t be going on speculating about stuff that actually didn’t happen.
Other historians, coming out of different intellectual traditions, and particularly the economists, once you could start to get good data sets from countries, which you have at various periods, particularly from Japan, the Dutch Golden Age, and English and Scottish parish records are really quite striking, so you can get an enormous amount of information, rich societies kept very good records, so it was the economic historians who started to push back against this and go, “There are actually major questions that we cannot answer and have no hope of answering unless we allow are allowed to engage in alternative history.” And people like Stephen Davies and Peter Temin and Niall Ferguson and Antonia Fraser were at the vanguard of that movement amongst historians. So, that points that historians made has passed over to, I think, novelists in that it can be very fruitful, intellectually fruitful, to do alternative history. You can also tell a story…
Yeah, I was going to say, it can also be a lot of fun.
It can be a lot of fun. You’ve got the classic British expression, “a ripping yarn,’ you know, and get people right in. So that’s, I think, what’s going on there.
But why you?
But why me? Well, I just need a good idea. And that’s why I’ve only written three novels. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words of journalism all over the world and outlets all over the place, and it looks like I’m very productive as a novelist, but that’s only because two of the novels are very fat. But I have to have a good idea to write a novel. And the speculative fiction idea just seemed to be such a good idea that I would pursue it. And I got two novels out of it, and people seem to like them, and they sell quite well. I mean, I’ve got the classic thing that I think they’re better than my first novel, but the first novel was the enormous bestseller. But I mean, I did an interview with a musician over here, his name is Zuby, and he’s had a top 20 single.
I follow him on Twitter, too.
Yeah, and he just said that “Perseverance,” the song was a big hit for him and sort of made his name, he said, “It’s not my best song. I’ve done way better.” But the thing is if he doesn’t do it as the encore at every single gig, I mean, people get, like, he will get filthy, rotten, nasty emails sent to him. So, what your readers like, or what your listeners like is just, different from, you know, it’s not, they’re not necessarily going to agree with you about the quality of your work.
Are you working on any more fiction at the moment?
Yes, I am. I’m working on another novel now. Once again, speculative fiction. At the moment I’m still at the reading and researching stage for it because I build the world first and work…and then I work out the characters, and then the plot comes last up. But it’s what happened, the point of departure here is, a lot of people outside the UK aren’t aware of this. The UK actually held two referendums on membership of the European Union. You’ve heard about, everyone’s heard about the 2016 one where they voted to leave, but there was actually another referendum in 1975 where they had been, the UK had been in the EU for a couple of years, but it was causing enormous electoral difficulty, in this period, for the Labour Party, not the Conservatives, the Conservatives were very pro, as it was then, the European Economic Community. And so, a referendum was held in 1975. The question was framed differently, but basically the same thing: Leave or Remain. And in 1975, Remain won. And my speculative fiction is, “What if Leave won in 1975?” So, a more recent historical…
So, I’m doing a Brexit book, basically. I wrote about, I’ve written about 100,000 words on Brexit, I might as well put them to some use.
Any timeline on that?
Not really. No. I mean, I just know it will be written because the idea hasn’t gone away. I mean, to the greatest extent possible, I try to ignore ideas for novels because I’m a full-time journalist/writer now. I haven’t practiced as a lawyer since mid-2016. And the thing is, novels take a long time to work through the system and to make money for you, whereas I can write a piece of journalism for The Spectator or the Telegraph or whoever, and I get my three hundred quid for it, and I get it in a couple of days. There’s a bit of difference.
Yes, certainly. I mean, I write nonfiction, too, and usually, I get that money way faster than anything that ever comes back from any fiction I write.
From any fiction. Yes. So yes, I will do it. I’m not quite sure when. And also, coronavirus has completely thrown everything up the spout because my Australian publisher, in line with a British publisher, called Biteback, which does political writing, because I’ve done a lot of politics coverage, wanted to do, they wanted to do a collection of my commentary, political commentary. And that was supposed to come out this year, but, of course, everything’s been delayed because of coronavirus. So that book’s just been put on the backburner until I can even visit Australia. I can’t even go back and visit at the moment because of all the closed borders.
I guess the other question is, before we finish off, I wanted to ask…because this program is called The Worldshapers, I often ask authors…you know, there’s very little fiction that has really changed the world. Maybe Dickens had some effect at one point and, you know, of course, Shakespeare, I suppose. But do you hope that your fiction in some ways shapes the real world or at least readers within the world, is there a polemical side to it at all? Or is it just because the idea won’t go away and you have to put it down?
No, no. I want to my…this is the old slogan of the Lord Reith model of public broadcasting, to educate, to inform, and to entertain. And if I do one of those well, let alone three, then I’ll be very happy. I don’t…I’m under no illusions about people becoming better or worse or anything else as a result of reading novels.
I have had occasionally a piece of journalism really take off, and a lot of people read it, and that has had an impact. And in one instance, I also had a piece of legislative drafting, parliamentary…I can draft legislation that is then enacted into law, I’ve got the drafting skill that…it’s part of being able to draft contracts and commercial leases and that kind of thing. I can draft legislation, and it’s a particular school, you’re known as Office of Parliamentary Counsel or Parliamentary Draughtsman. And I have drafted two bits of legislation, one in Scotland and one in Australia, that have probably had more influence on people’s lives than anything I’ll ever write in a novel.
That’s probably true. Yeah. Well, that kind of brings us to the end. I guess the other thing is, where can people find you online?
Well, I’m…I have a reasonably decent Twitter presence, I’m @_HelenDale, there is an underscore first because my name is common and someone else got it before me basically. So @_HelenDale, all one word. And I’m on Facebook, but I tend to just use it for pictures of my cats. And likewise, Instagram is just pictures of cats.
My cat pictures get way more interest than anything I post about me. My cat is much more popular than I am.
So I’m on Twitter with the @_HelenDale. I’m on Parler, the new one, a French company, and I’m @HelenDale without the underscore there. So…I’ve got…I’m one of the blue tick people on Twitter that…I got that. I think…because you just wake up one morning and it’s there. And I think it’s because I put in my profile that I was a Miles Franklin Award winner and a major national literary award, that’s the kind of thing that Twitter gives you for blue tick for. So, yes, you can…and my pinned tweet has got as many links to unpaid world journalism that I’ve done at various outlets that I could fit into one tweet, basically. I didn’t put links to anything that I’ve written for, like, The Spectator or the Australian or Wall Street Journal or anything like that, because they’re paywalled and people can’t get in and then get cross with you. So, the first one is just all the un-paywalled stuff that people want to read some of my journalism. It’s a British and, to a lesser extent Australian focus, given who I write for and what I write about.
All right. Well, there will be links to this on this page once this goes live. So I guess that brings us to the end. So, thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did, too.
S.M. Stirling was born in France in 1953, to Canadian parents—although his mother was born in England and grew up in Peru. After that, he lived in Europe, Canada, Africa, and the US and visited several other continents. He graduated from law school in Canada but “had his dorsal fin surgically removed,” and published his first novel (Snowbrother) in 1984, going full-time as a writer in 1988, the year of his marriage to Janet Moore of Milford, Massachusetts, who he met, wooed and proposed to at successive World Fantasy Conventions. In 1995 he suddenly realized that they could live anywhere and they decamped from Toronto, “that large, cold, gray city on Lake Ontario,” and moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico. He became an American citizen in 2004.
His latest books are Shadows of Annihilation, Theater of Spies, and Black Chamber(Roc/Penguin Random House), a trilogy of related alternate-history novels set in the 1910s and involving Teddy Roosevelt, dirigibles, and spies. His hobbies mostly involve reading—history, anthropology, archaeology, and travel, besides fiction—but he also cooks and bakes for fun and food. For twenty years he also pursued the martial arts, until hyperextension injuries convinced him he was in danger of becoming “the most deadly cripple in human history.” Currently, he lives with Janet and the compulsory authorial cats.
As a professional puppeteer and voice actor, Mary Robinette has performed for Lazy Town, the Center for Puppetry Arts, and Jim Henson Pictures, and founded Other Hand Productions. Her designs have garnered two Unima-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve, and she records fiction for authors such as Seanan McGuire, John Scalzi, and Cory Doctorow. Mary Robinette lives in Nashville with her husband, Rob, and over a dozen manual typewriters.
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Mary Robinette.
Thank you so much for having me.
I’m glad to have you. I have to confess, I haven’t quite finished Calculating Stars. I was working on it, so I’m about, I don’t know, three quarters of the way through. But you won’t give any spoilers anyway, because I’m going to get you to synopsize here in a little bit for people who haven’t read it.
But I’m enjoying it very much. And not least because I’m married to an engineer…
…who identifies with some of the situations in the story.
Yes. Yes. I’ve found that the people in STEM have a strong connection to certain aspects, especially women in STEM.
Well, before we get to that, I’ll take you back into—I always say this, it’s becoming a cliché on the podcast—I will take you back into the mists of time, to find out how you, first of all, became interested in writing, and specifically writing science fiction. How you got started, in other words, and maybe a little bit about, you know, where you grew up and all that kind of stuff.
So, I grew up in North Carolina. My dad worked for IBM and he used to take me to visit him at work sometimes. They had the…it was in the days when the computers were still ginormous rooms and we didn’t yet have personal computers. There were gerbil tubes connecting the buildings. The first programming that I did was my name with punch cards. And so that was…it felt very science fictional. It felt very much like what you’d see on the Jetsons and things like that. And then we also would watch…like, I got connected to Doctor Who, you know, Tom Baker was my doctor. And we listened to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio. So there is not a point in my life where I remember discovering science fiction, it was something that was just always present. Like, the earliest books that I read that I have concrete memories of are things like Enchantress from the Stars.
I remember that one.
Yeah, so good. And you know, of course, other things like A Wrinkle in Time, and all of these books, which were just shelved as books. But I gravitated to the ones that had a fantastic element. When I started writing, which I did pretty young, my mom sent me to a writing workshop camp. I was basically writing the things that I was reading, and since I was reading science fiction and fantasy, it seemed only natural that that’s what I was also writing. My friends also were into that.
So, some of the earliest stuff that I was writing was actually…we had this, we called it “The Note.” It was a notebook. And we would pass it to each other between classes and write a co-operative story and then pass it to the next person who would pick it up and continue on. So, it was very much a part of my life, but I was also one of those kids who wanted to do everything, so…
I was an art major—I went to school to be an art major—and I performed with a puppet company, a puppet troupe, in high school, and then my junior year of college left to do an internship at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, intending to go back…and never did, and then had a twenty-five-year career in puppetry. But the first ten of that, more or less, somewhere in there, I stopped writing because I was getting my creative jollies from puppetry. So for me, it’s all varying forms of storytelling.
You’re the first one I’ve talked to who’s done puppetry. I’ve talked to several authors, myself included, who have a theatrical background. And I always like to ask if that theatrical side, and I mean, puppetry is a form of theatre, it’s a little different than moving actors around on stage, but you’re still moving, you know, things in relationship to each other and characters interacting with each other. Have you found that your puppetry has helped you with your writing?
Yes, absolutely. It absolutely has. First of all, because puppeteers are actors and we are doing theatre. It’s just that the…rather than putting on a costume, we have an external manifestation. But we are still acting. We…the derogatory term that we have for poor people who do not do puppetry are “meat puppets,” or “meat actors.” Meat actors is what we usually go with, or a “fleshy” as opposed to a “plushy.”.
I’m going to remember that.
Yeah. But it is very much acting. I think of it as the Ginger Rogers of theatre. I have to do everything that you’d have to do, backwards in high heels. So, there’s multiple advantages to it, one of which is that, because I am working an inanimate object, my job as a puppeteer requires me to take the body language that we do naturally, that we often don’t even think about, we just do it, break it apart into its semantic components, and then reconstruct it in an inanimate object in a form that is human-readable.
That is essentially what I am doing as a writer, as well. I have to understand the basic components, semantic pieces of body language, and here I am, the tool that I’m using to reconstruct them, are words on a page. But the basic building blocks or components are the same. For instance, if someone is curious about something, they’ll do what we call an aggressive motion, which is a movement towards. If there’s something they don’t want to engage with, they’ll do a regressive motion. And while it’s very easy to do that with a puppet—and as an actor, you’ll do it without even thinking about it, very naturally—on the page, it also plays out the same way. There’s a very big difference between, “‘What did you say?” She leaned across the table,” and, “‘What did you say?’ She pushed back from the table.” One of those is the aggressive motion, one is the regressive, but it tells you a great deal about the character’s reaction without having to use a Tom-Swifty dialogue tag to denote tone.
That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but yeah, I can…in a way, our characters are puppets, and we are making them come alive, something that is actually not alive. We are trying to communicate that to the reader.
Yeah. With theater, with writing, regardless of which form you’re using, I think that a lot of what we’re trying to do is to create an emotional response in our audience’s brain, whether they are reading or viewing. But the things that we have emotional responses to, those actually remain fairly consistent from medium to medium. It’s just the mechanical technique that you use to convey it. And that’s one of the things that I’m trained in as a puppeteer, that there are principles that make a puppet look alive, but the mechanics differ when you move from one style to another. Like, the mechanical movement that I will do with my arm for a regressive motion if I’m doing something that’s very much like a Muppet is completely different than the mechanical motion that I’m doing, also with my arms, but holding a marionette control. It’s mechanically very different. But the thing that I’m trying to create for the audience, that illusion, is still the same illusion. It’s still that regressive motion, or it’s still the sense of muscle, where I’m using a compress/expand to mimic the moment when you bend your knees to jump. All of those things are still there. It’s still trying to create that same effect for the audience. And I feel that way when I move to writing, it’s like I’m still trying to create that effect, it’s just I have a different mechanical tool now.
And when did you then move back into writing after your twenty-five years of puppetry? What brought that about?
Well, I moved back probably about fifteen years into the puppetry career because I had a severe puppet injury. And again, people don’t think about puppetry as being particularly dangerous, but I was doing Little Shop of Horrors and working an eighty-pound puppet, and we had something go a tiny bit wrong onstage. We’d done it three months without any injuries, and just a little bit wrong and the puppet sheared to the side. Someone hit it on stage at a time that I had it up off the ground. No one should have touched it. And I tried to control it, and something in my wrist went pfft! I essentially popped the ligament. It was…for various reasons, it was complicated and I wound up in a cast for a year, and then did another year of physical therapy after that to regain range of motion.
During that time, kind of simultaneously with that, my brother had moved to China with his kids, working for the State Department, and I wanted to stay connected to the kids, but they are not really going to…it was before Skype was really a thing, so I started writing a serial for them, and remembered that I really enjoyed writing. In hindsight, I understand that what happened was…the reason I had stopped for a long time was because I was getting my creative jollies from the puppetry and that it uses, puppet design and construction uses, exactly the same parts of my brain as writing. It’s all worldbuilding, character creation, problem-solving. So when I could no longer do that, I had to take a substantial break from it, it gave me the energy to apply that in another form, one that I hadn’t visited for a while.
I often say that…it’s not quite the same thing, but it’s similar. I was a huge Dungeons and Dragons player in university and one reason I quit playing was because I looked at the stack of maps and, you know, characters and monsters and stuff that I had built up for my world in Dungeons and Dragons and said, “You know, that’s exactly the energy I should be putting into writing my fiction.” And I hardly ever played again after that.
It was the same thing. You’re using the same muscles, but it’s, if you use them all in one way, it’s harder sometimes to use it the other way.
Yeah, I used to play D&D with a group when I was in high school as well. Although, you know, in high school I would do anything to avoid doing homework. So, I would just write and play D&D. But now I will only do a one-off for exactly those reasons, because the, you know, the narrative is so seductive and interesting and fun. And I as I get older I have less and less energy.
And I think I’m ten years older than you, so I definitely identify. So, when did you break in? And how?
So, my first sale was 2005—I think that’s correct—to a small press magazine called The First Line. And I love this small press. They…the theory is that the first line of anything is so important. But if you hand the same first line to Mark Twain, you know, if you hand him, “Call me Ishmael,” he will not write Moby Dick. He will write something totally different. So, the first line gives you a first line, and then every story in that issue begins with the same first line, and they’re all wildly different. So, my first couple of sales were to them, and then I started selling to other markets, as well.
And you started with short fiction.
And did quite well at short fiction, looking at the awards and so forth. What did that…were you surprised by the level of acceptance and appreciation that your fiction begin to garner?
Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I should say that what I actually started writing were novels, but I had been told that if you wanted to break in, you needed to write short fiction, which it turns out is not true. Jim C. Hines did a survey, and it turns out that debut authors, when you ask them, “How did you break in?”, whether with short fiction first or just straight to novel sales, that it was actually 50/50. But I like short fiction quite a bit. And I think that it was very good for me because it allowed me to experiment with a lot of different things without having to commit so many words. So it’s like doing a bunch of, using the D&D metaphor again, it’s like doing a one-off campaign versus something that’s a multi-session campaign. So, doing a one-off, it was very easy to say, “Oh, this time I’m going to I’m going to focus on character and try to hone my character skills,” or, “This time I’m going to focus on description.” But I was also…I was surprised at how quickly I was able to start making sales, but also in hindsight, it’s not surprising, because by that point I had spent fifteen years coming to understand narrative and audience. And so much of what I know from theater translates over. Some of it doesn’t, but so much of it does. So. in hindsight, I had a leg up when I came back to prose.
So when did the novels start coming along, then?
So, as I said, I had started with novels. So the thing, the serial, that I wrote for my niece and nephew was…it turned into a novel very quickly, which was actually the thing that made me go, “Huh.” Because I had started doing it just kind of for kicks. And then I got a little bit into it and thought, “I think I have something here. How do you write a novel?” and started trying to sort that out. And in the process of that, at some point, not long after I started doing this, I discovered NaNoWriMo and decided that this was a great thing, and I was very excited about it. And I did my first one and it was a murder mystery—and let me tell you that doing a murder mystery without outlining is questionable as a choice. And then the second one that I did was Shades of Milk and Honey, which was my first novel, first published novel. So…there was another novel I call Novel Zero. That was the novel that I wrote in high school through college and then finished on my second or third year on tour. But Shades of Milk and Honey was the, I guess the third…the second novel that I completed after I got serious about it.
But yeah, I did NaNoWriMo. And we, you know, I shopped that…I had shopped the thing that I wrote for my niece and nephew, but it has first-novel problems that I am not invested enough in the book now to go back and fix.
Did your niece and nephew enjoy it?
Well, that’s the main thing.
Well, of course, your novel that just won the Hugo Award and the Nebula and Locus, Calculating Stars, we’ll move on to talk about that as an example of your overall creative process. And you know… I know it’s a cliché, and I know writers hate to be asked it…the question is, “Where did the idea come from?” But, on a bigger scale, how do you generally generate ideas for stories? How does that work for you?
Sure. So, the funny thing is, actually, the...Calculating Stars began with a…
You know what? I skipped over one very important thing. You should give a quick description of Calculating Stars for people who haven’t read it…
…before we start talking about it.
OK. Calculating Stars is set in 1952. It’s Apollo-era science fiction, it’s women-centered. I slam an asteroid into Washington, D.C., and kick off the space program fast and early and with international cooperation. My main character, Elma York, is a mathematician and a pilot and she is working with her husband, who was the lead engineer, rocket designer, for the NACA—which was a real organization, it was NASA’s precursor—and becomes the lead engineer for the International Aerospace Coalition. And she realizes that the asteroid has caused a runaway greenhouse effect. So, we’re actually looking at an extinction event, which gives impetus to get people off the planet. As a side note, I will just let people know, the science…you know how you see those disaster films and there’s an asteroid coming at the Earth and they divert it into the ocean.
It would be a bad idea.
It turns out that’s a really bad idea, because when you have an asteroid come through, it tears a hole in the atmosphere. And then you get something called ejecta, which ejects part of the planet up into the upper atmosphere. And then, if it’s rocks, it’ll fall back down. If it’s water, what happens is the water vapor gets locked in the upper atmosphere. It doesn’t precipitate out, and you can trigger a runaway greenhouse effect. There is some speculation that this might be what happened to Venus. So, anyway…
I was just going to say, my feeling when that initially comes up and she does the math and realizes that’s what going to happen is, it felt very much like a Titanic: The Musical, which I’ve been in, and Titanic, the actual thing, which is that the engineer went down, took one look at what had happened and said, “This ship is going down,” even though there were still, you know, two or three hours of floating around and people not believing it.
It was inevitable at that point. And I had that same feeling when I got to that point in the book.
Yeah, that was a…like, when I started looking at it, and I will also say that I’m very cautious in this book to not tell you exactly how big the asteroid is, because the science on that is super complicated. And I decided that rather than being wrong about it, I was like, “Well, I know that this is how it works, and it is big enough to trigger these conditions. But I don’t know how big that is because I don’t have access to a university supercomputer modeling system to come up with something that’s exactly right.” And even there, it would still be…there’s still opportunity for error.
So, anyway, so that’s what the book is about. It’s basically getting into space in the 1950s. And it’s the push towards the moon. The idea came because I had written a novelette called “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” which I wrote for an anthology called Rip-Off! It was an audio anthology. And the premise of Rip-Off! was actually very much like the First Line magazine, which was that the first line is so important. But instead of us all having the same first line, we each got to pick a first line, a famous classic first line, and then write a different story. And I picked the opening line of The Wizard of Oz, and wrote something that was…I wanted a Bradberry homage, something that reminded me of The Martian Chronicles, and that created the story of Elma York and her husband, Nathaniel, who were both in “Lady Astronaut of Mars,” older, Elma is in her 60s, Nathaniel is older than she is, he’s in his 70s, and the decisions that they have to make. And the backstory for this piece of fiction was this asteroid strike.
And the more I started thinking about it, the more I was like, “You know, it would be really interesting to know what she was doing when that happened.” And I had written a couple of other short pieces in this universe before I really decided to unpack it into a novel. It’s…I jokingly call it my punch-card-punk universe because they’re much…the computing is a little bit behind where the real timeline went.
I love the fact that the computers are having to check the work of the IBM machine.
Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, that was true.
Yeah, I read that.
Yeah. Yeah, that was really…they were not completely reliable. And we lost…oh was it the, one of the Voyagers? the name’s just gone out of my head…but we lost an early rocket because they had…the computers, who were women, had written the code, had written, you know, this is the plan, and then they had given it to the Air Force and they had keyed it into the punch-cards to load it onto the, you know, onto the rocket, and had transposed something. And so the rocket wound up crashing. So, it’s a really interesting era in computing, in rocketry. And I just got more and more…like, I’ve always been interested in space, but the longer I work in this universe and become versed in the early space program and the contemporary space program, the more interested I am in what we’re doing and how it affects people.
It’s…I find it very interesting because, of course, they’re doing all this, they’re heading to the moon and everything, but it’s ten years earlier than it actually happened, and the technology is that much more primitive, and yet it could have been done then. And it’s very much in that golden age of science fiction era, you know, with Heinlein and rockets being built by teenagers in the backyard, practically.
Yes! Well, and when you start, like, when you really start looking at the early history of spacecraft, of spaceflight…I recommend Breaking the Chains of Gravity by Amy Shira Teitel,, which is a history of pre-NASA spaceflight, the history of spaceflight up until NASA exists, basically. And the early days were actually teenagers and rockets in Germany, there was this whole Rocketry Club. That’s where Wernher von Braun came from, the V-2 is a descendant of that. And it was, you know, it was kids who were like, “I’d love to go to the moon. Can I build this thing?”
Now, you’ve talked about a couple of stories which started with first lines that came from elsewhere. When you’re not starting with the first line…
Where do story ideas tend to come to you from?
It’s random. The thing people always say is the idea is not the hard part. The challenge is turning it into a story. So, I will approach it in a couple of different ways, depending on the situation. Sometimes I will sit down, I’ll just free-write something, and then I will sort of do a diagnostic look at it to see where I’m going and what I need to do to continue this in a satisfying way. Other times, you know, if I’m writing for an anthology or I have an idea that I’m having trouble getting traction on, then I will do something that’s much more mechanical, where I will start breaking this story apart in different permutations to see where the idea could come from.
There’s an organizational theory called the MICE quotient, which holds that every story is basically made up of four components: milieu, which is setting, characters, inquiries, questions that you have, and events. Sorry, milieu, inquiry, character, event. And you can tell pretty much every story, you can reshape and refocus it, depending on which of those you want to be the driver. Most stories have more than one element in them. And so, what I will sometimes do if I’m having trouble kind of getting traction on a story is that I’ll start with what I call the gee-whiz idea, which is, you know, any story prompt you want to throw at me, and then, if I don’t have an immediate hit on it, then I start interrogating it to see, you know, what are the things that could go wrong with the environment, what are the things that, you know, how could I trap someone someplace around this idea? Because a milieu story is about trying to exit, a journey story.
What questions might they have or not be able to answer? Is my character angsting about something or is there something angsty that could be around this, which gives you a character story? Or is there something about this that disrupts the status quo, which is an event? And so, I’ll dig into those. And what I’m looking for is very Marie Kondo. I’m looking for that, you know, that moment like, “Oooh!”, whatever sparks joy. And then that’s the thing that I’ll chase.
And if nothing sparks joy, then there’s not a story there.
Yeah. I mean, there is a story there, but sometimes you have to scratch at it a little bit harder. There’s…you can…I mean, I really think you can tell a story about anything. And you can make it compelling. Like, the first novel, the first thing that I won a Hugo for, is a story called “For Want of a Nail.” And that story, the gee-whiz idea, literally, I mean, seriously, this is what’s…you know, when I came up with this, because this was one that I had to write at a workshop on a deadliney kind of thing, I was, I just, I did the whole mechanical thing to jumpstart me into it. But the gee-whiz idea was trouble plugging in a cable. Proprietary cable. That was, that was it, it was like when you don’t have the right cable…
A situation we’ve all been in.
Yeah. That was the gee-whiz idea. And what I wound up writing, which completely is about not being able to find the right proprietary cable, is a story about a family on a generation ship, and the AI, which they use to record their history from generation to generation, gets dropped. There’s a cable in a housing that’s damaged, so it can no longer store in long-term memory, it can only keep things for a couple of hours and then it’s going to have to start ditching memories, and there’s trouble finding this cable. And the process of finding it and getting it uncovers that the AI has been masking for a couple of different people who have Alzheimer’s, and it’s been covering for them because it can whisper in their ear. And so it’s…the story unpacks into something else. But the story seed is “can’t find the right proprietary cable.” Which is not a particularly compelling story seed. That’s where I’m like, “Ideas are everywhere. It’s just…you just have to scratch up for a little while, sometimes.
It’s something I say when I do school presentations about writing. You know, I can look around a school room and have twenty different story ideas just from what they’ve got stuck on the walls…
…or on their desks or whatever So now, going back to Calculating Stars, once you have your story idea, what does your planning process look like for a novel. Are you a detailed outliner, or how does that work for you? And there must’ve been a lot of research involved in this one too, I would think.
It varies. So this one, I had a pretty good…I had a pretty solid outline for this one. And my general approach is that I’ll come up with kind of a what I call a thumbnail sketch, which is left over from my art days, which gives me sort of the basic compositional structure. And then I unpack that into a synopsis, which is like, you know, doing a rough sketch on the page. And then from there, I’ll unpack the synopsis into an outline, which is kind of my armature. And at each of those stages, things get adjusted and moved around as I come to understand the story a little bit more and what I want to get out of it. And I see opportunities, usually opportunities to make things worse for my characters.
And then…at each phase, I’m also doing research, and it gets more specific the deeper into the process I get. So, with this one, I did fairly broad research on the early space program. I also, when I’m doing something that’s historical, always assume that there were women and people of color there in real life and that they’ve been written out of the narrative. So, one of the things that I actively do is go looking for them. And usually, those stories are significantly more interesting than the ones we’ve always heard, partly because we haven’t heard them. They’re newer stories. Like, when I was working on this was before Hidden Figures came out, so the involvement of women of color in the space industry was something that I became aware of and it was really cool and not something that I had heard of. And some the women…like, you know, Katherine Johnson, who basically wrote…that is how we knew how to get to the moon, because of the programs that she wrote, the math she did, the equations, excuse me. So I look for those and that helps me kind of shape the story.
And then I get more specific in the research. So, like, with these novels, my main character is a pilot. So she needs…so I need to know how rockets are flown. But she’s not an engineer, so I don’t need to know how they’re built. Or rather, I need to know just enough so that when something goes wrong, I can handle it. And this is why I kind of wait until I get an outline, because what I generally find is the stuff that I need to know is related to the things that my character directly interacts with. So, as I get more specific, I get a better idea about which things my character is going to need to interact with, which allows me to then hone my research.
For these particular books, there is so much math and science in there that I don’t have, and the level of understanding that I need to have in order to put sometimes a detail that is like three words long, but if it’s the wrong three words, it’s very apparent to anyone in the industry. Sometimes, it’s a ton of research to do that. So, I hired a science consultant and then I also found a number of people who were willing to…you know, subject-matter experts who are just willing to participate and help me. So I had, you know, I had literal rocket scientists for my science consultants. And then I had a couple of astronauts who were willing to read along and helped me with things. So, when I got, you know, when I would be writing, I would hit a thing, it was a really specific crunchy detail in a scene, but also kind of a grace note, right? It’s not something in spreading the plot, but it’s letting you know that my character is competent. It’s setting the stage. It’s that kind of thing. And so I would play what I call Astronaut Mad Libs. I would write it, and it would be something like, “As she jobbed the job,” or “’Jargon,’” the captain said, as he jargonned the jargon,” and then send it over to the astronauts, and I would say, “Could you just fill in the blanks? Could you just play Mad Libs?” So, technically, parts of these books are written by astronauts.
I was thinking as I was reading it that it’s a lot scarier and harder work actually to write an alternate history, especially that recent an alternate history, than writing a far-future handwavium sort of science, because there are so many opportunities for you to mess up something that people actually know.
Yeah. Yeah. It’s really fascinating. There are a couple of times where I am tempted to just, like, throw some random acronyms on the page, and, you know, just keep going. “That’s a thing.” But what I run into with my own brain is that I know how many people learn their science from fiction and if I have the opportunity to put the right science down on the page, then I will. If…and most of the time, the constraints of getting the science right cause me to have a better story. If I can’t get the science right, then I go vague, or don’t build a plot point around it. Which is why with, as I mentioned before, the asteroid, I know that a water strike, and particularly a shallow water strike, can cause the runaway greenhouse effect. But I didn’t…it was not important to the book to have the size of the asteroid be defined. It’s not a plot point.
We knew what it did. That’s all that matters, really.
That’s right. So again, it’s what she interacts with. So, I did just enough. There I hand-waved the math…let me rephrase it. The math, she’s…there’s a point where she’s trying to figure out how big it is, and she’s…so what she does is, she needs to figure out what it would take to heat up the Chesapeake Bay to the point that it got heated up. So I have them do the math for that, for heating up the Chesapeake Bay. And I had Steven Granade, my science consultant, I’m like, “What is…I found this formula for figuring out what it would take to heat something up a body of water like this, but I don’t do this math. Please help me.” And he did that and walked me through the steps that he had to go through to do the math. And then I took that and used sections of it as my character was kind of working through the problem. So I would have them hum a little bit and just talk out loud, so you just get these pieces of the equation, which…
Yeah, I remember that.
Yeah. So it really makes it look like I know what I’m doing.
It’s all an illusion.
I basically am treating math like a magic system. I established that my character can do magic using numbers. And then later when I say things like, “Elma did the equations,” you believe that she can do those equations.
Without having to specify what those equations were.
That’s correct. Because I was just like, oh, this is…this is a lot.
So, what did your actual writing process look like? I notice you say in your bio that you have a lot of manual typewriters. Do you write on a manual typewriter, or is that just something you’d like to collect?
We like to collect them. I will sometimes do short fiction on manual typewriters. But we just collect them. I predominantly write on my computer, either in Scrivener or…these days, my favorite thing is 4 the Words, 4thewords.com, which is a roleplaying game that…in which the metric for defeating monsters and going on quests is the number of words you write and the time in which you write them.
It’s really good.
I should check that out, for sure.
It’s embarrassingly effective. I will write to earn a pair of wings with a dedication that I will not write for a paycheck. So it’s embarrassing how well it works, but it does.
That might be something I could use to motivate me, I admit.
There are quests. You have an avatar. There are little tiny pets that you can get. Yeah, it’s really good.
Hm. Do you work mostly, then, in a home office, or do you like to go out to other places, get away from the house, or what’s your…
All of the above. Since so much of my writing was done, early writing was done, in transit, I’m very comfortable writing kind of wherever I am. Sometimes I will go to a coffee shop because I just need to get out of the house because I’ve been there for so long. Sometimes I write at home in a chair, sometimes I write at a desk. I’m staying with friends right now and I’ve been writing…they have a solarium, so I’ve been sitting out there on a couch and their cat comes and sits with me. So it varies. The only things that are really super consistent are that if there is a conversation, a single conversation near me in which I can distinguish dialogue, I have difficulty concentrating, and I can’t write to music with lyrics. Or, actually, not just lyrics, I cannot write with the human voice. So even if it’s in another language, it will…there’s a part of my brain that’s trying to figure out what they’re saying.
It’s interesting, because I’m exactly the same way. In a coffee shop, I can write if it’s white noise, but otherwise…I have to put on headphones if somebody starts talking close enough to me to follow their conversation. Yeah. And I can’t listen to lyrics, either. I listen to classical or instrumental jazz. And it’s just background noise is just to block out the other noise.
Yeah. The thing that I figured out…so, I just finished writing Relentless Moon, which is Book Three in the Lady Astronaut series, or universe, and while I was in the process of writing it, I had had a flight in which I saw Captain Marvel and the soundtrack for that is so good and empowering and completely stuck in my head, but it’s full of all of these lyrics. So I assembled a Spotify list, which are instrumental versions. It’s an instrumental Captain Marvel playlist and it’s great. And I am now like, “Ah.” This is…because it’s all this really driving music and this is something that I will consider for future projects as well.
Something I didn’t ask you, but this is a good place to ask you because we’re getting to the point now…you’ve got a manuscript. What do you do next in the revision process? Do you have beta…well, you talked about some of the people who read it along the way, like astronauts and so forth.
But, do you have more traditional beta readers? And when you were starting out, were there writing groups and support groups like that that helped you along the way?
Yeah, I started with a writing group very, very early. And I…we recently moved to Nashville and I don’t have one in Nashville, and I miss having a writing group. But what I do with my beta readers is…this is very much influenced by the fact that I come from theater, in that I perform better for an audience. So, the only times I have gotten the stereotypical writer anxiety was the one novel where I decided not to use beta readers until I’d write the thing and then start showing it to people. And I got, I don’t know, ten chapters in and was having “this is a terrible book” reactions. And the thing that I do is, I use…so I’ll write, as I said, in Scrivener, and then I use Google Drive, Google Docs, and I’ll upload a chapter. And I have a list of beta readers who will read it. And I ask them to tell me just four basic things: awesome (so I don’t accidentally fix things); when they get bored, when their attention flags; when they’re confused; and when they don’t believe things. Then, I also tell them, like, stream-of-consciousness thoughts are great, and I enjoy those, but not to give me any kind of line notes at all, because all I’m interested in is whether or not the scene plays.
So, I think of it as inviting someone to a rehearsal. It’s like, it’s not even to a dress rehearsal stage, maybe, but I’ve just, you know, I’ve got the show up on its feet, I want to see if this plays. And then I’ll…just based on what they’re confused about, and that helps me kind of…so, I’m kind of doing a rolling revision as I go. I stay two chapters ahead of them. So, like, if I post Chapter One, that means I have finished writing Chapter Three. Then when I finish…and I should say that I usually talk through the outline with someone, like my writers’ group or with my agent or editor, so I’m pretty structurally solid by the time I start actually writing. And then this kind of rolling revision process means that I wind up with a fairly clean draft, though there’s usually things where I’ll have a retcon…and I just tell the readers, if I have a major retcon that I need to go back and do, I’ll just tell them like, you know, “In a previous scene, the evacuation is going to take place using a repelling line instead of the inflatable slide,” and then I just keep writing as if I’ve already made that change.
Then, when you have got that final draft, you do another revision just on your own?
And what do you look for in that pass?
I look for the same things that I ask my readers to look for. So, a lot of times I think a thing that writers will forget is that they have been thoroughly trained as readers for their entire life and that we can still have an emotional response to something, even if we know exactly what’s going to happen. There’s a piece of media that you’ve seen that you love, that, you know, you can probably recite lines from and you’ve seen multiple times. You know, like The Princess Bride. “Anybody got a peanut?” So, the fact that you know where something is going doesn’t stop you from having these emotional responses and this cathartic satisfaction.
So, with my fiction, if I am not having reader responses, like if I find myself getting bored with something, it’s probably boring. It probably means that it’s not going to stand up to a reread. And, you know, as a writer, if people want to reread my stuff, that’s real good. So, I try to do a read through in which I am thinking about my own emotional responses to things. Usually when I finish it there’s some big-picture stuff that I know I need to do and I’ll do that. But then, like, when I have something, that’s pretty clean, I’ll do a reread and look for the problems. Look for the things where I get a little bored. You know, like, “Look, you just started skimming there. Maybe you should do something with that.” The number of times that I’m reading something that I’ve written, I’m like, “What does that even mean?” So, I’ll fix everything that I can identify. And these days, unless I have done a really major structural change, after that, I will send it off to my agent or editor. Before I was agented and had books that were for sale, or books that had been sold, I would run it through a different set of beta readers and see how it played for them, to see whether or not I had accidentally introduced a problem. If I’ve done a really big structural change, I will often run it through beta readers before turning it in, through another set of iterators, but not always. It depends.
And what does your agent and/or editor, what sorts of things do they most often flag for you to take another look at? If anything?
It depends on the book. A lot of times it’s a pacing issue. Sometimes they’ll flag that there’s a character opportunity that I missed, motivation is not clear, and those are the things where it’s most likely to have been in my head and to not hit the page. So, it’s usually something to do with the characters, in either the main character’s or a secondary character’s internal life. And those are usually pretty easy adjustments to make. But that’s for me the things that I’m usually getting flagged with. Sometimes it’s something else that’s more…fundamental, a large change. But since I have them involved from the outline phase, it’s usually pretty sound by the time we get in there.
Have you had the same editor for multiple books or have you worked with different editors?
So, the first…until Relentless Moon, it has all been Liz Gorinsky for the novels, and now Relentless Moon is Beth Meacham. I’m still with Tor, but Liz left and now has her own company, Erewhon, and is doing quite well. But it was an interesting process. switching editors. I’ve been edited, of course, by a lot of different short-fiction editors, but figuring out what the rhythms were and our communication style and things like that, it’s an interesting shift. And they flag different things. Each good, but it’s an interesting, interesting change.
My main publisher is DAW, I’m on my tenth novel with him and of course, that’s Sheila Gilbert, so I’m very, very familiar with Sheila’s style of editing. So, whenever I work with anybody else, it’s like, “Well, that’s different.”
Yeah. Right. Yeah.
’Cause it is kind of a…it’s not exactly a marriage, but it’s some sort of long-term relationship, anyway.
Yeah. Yeah, it really is. I mean it’s…in a lot of ways you’re business partners, because you’re building a product together. It sounds really crass, but it is a thing that is happening. Or, you know, theater, it’s…you’re putting on a show together now.
Now, you are…I would suspect…pleased with your response that the book has gotten.
Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s been very nice. I mean, the…I’ll tell you that the awards are…I mean, it’s been amazing. And I…like, the whole hitting all three was…staggering, I would say. But the thing that has been really…I’m not sure…this is a…it’s a tricky thing to talk about because it was an unexpected thing…the discussions of anxiety and mental illness in the book. There are a lot of people for whom that hits very hard and that deal with anxiety and feel like they have never seen themselves on the page before. And so, the emails, the fan mail that I get with these books, is of a different sort than I’ve gotten with the other things I’ve written. And it is really humbling. Like, I am…again, you know, again, it’s a theater thing, and it’s a fiction thing, too, but there’s a thing that I create. And then there’s the thing that the audience sees. And a puppet…you know, a puppet is an inanimate object, right? My job is to pick it up and move it. But the thing we say in puppet theater is that the difference between playing with dolls and putting on a puppet show is the audience. Because the audience has to invest part of their belief in the character in order for it to come alive. It doesn’t matter how skilled I am at manipulating it. If there’s not someone there to watch it and invest part of themselves, it’s still just a figure. And so, the puppet exists in this liminal space between the performer and the audience. And I feel like books are very much the same way. Like, I wrote a book that satisfied me and that I intended to have an emotional impact on my readers. But I did not set out to write a book that was going to speak directly to people with anxiety. Like, that was…the goal was to tell a story about getting to the moon. That was the goal. And I wrote a character that I loved and I connected with, but this thing that has happened, that exists in this liminal space between my book and the reader, is something that the reader is responsible for. Like, each reader who picks it up is bringing part of themselves to it. And so, it’s this humbling thing where I am involved in this act of discovery for these readers. And what I’m doing is that I am…I’ve given them a tool, but the discovery is generated by them.
Yeah, I often like to say that writing is, we think of it as a solo thing that we do on our own, but it is in fact a completely collaborative art form, because, it does not exist until it exists in the head of somebody who reads it. And every reader is going to craft, really, a different story out of the story that you created. It’s actually a different story for every individual that reads it in some way or other.
Yeah, yeah. I mean, certainly, I also get the people who have clearly never realized that there are people in their lives who have anxiety. “Why is Elma so whiny? She can fly a plane, but she can’t talk in front of a group of people. I don’t believe that.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Anyone who has anxiety, they’re the best people to have with you in a crisis, because they’re like, what, stress hormones? That’s Tuesday.”
And I would think that you’ve had some good response…I haven’t…okay, I mentioned to you before we started the show that my wife is an engineer and has long been involved in the efforts to get more women involved in engineering. And there’s an effort in Canada right now called 30 by 30, which is to try to increase the percentage of women in the profession to thirty percent by 2030. And her mother was a doctor who graduated from medical school in 1947 when there were not a lot of other women in her class with her at the University of Toronto. So I would think that there would be a segment of the population whom that part really speaks to as well.
Yeah, yeah, that’s really true. A lot of people in STEM, women in particular, contact me to tell me that it’s like, “Oh, yeah, my story was Elma’s.” But what’s horrifying, is, it’s really easy to read the book and go, “But that was the 1950s.” And the number of women who have had that experience in the 21st century, of being the only woman in their math class…the fact that there’s a campaign to get thirty percent women, that’s still not a lot.
And I will say, I think at the University of Toronto, where my daughter, she’s not in engineering, but she just started this year, and I was there for their…when the engineers were having their big thing that they do the first day, there are all these people in yellow shirts and hard hats running around. And I was watching them go by. And it was, it looked pretty much 50/50. And I think they’re pretty darn close at the University of Toronto and the engineering program right now. So…
So, I’m going to challenge you on that, when you say that it looks 50/50, to find out. Because there is a thing that happens, and this is real, this is like well-documented, that when there are thirty percent women in a room, or on a bookshelf, that it is perceived as being predominantly women, even though it’s not.
Well, in this case, I asked my wife and she believes that it is close…closer than 30 percent in the high 40s maybe. So, you know, pretty close. OK. I confess I haven’t looked at up myself, but I think the University of Toronto at least is certainly working hard…
…to make that happen. So I also wanted to touch, before I get to my big philosophical question here—we’re just about out of time, but I want to get those in…but I did just want to ask you about the audiobook narration. That’s another form of theater.
And I’ve…I do some of that myself. I’m currently narrating my own books, but I’ve done a couple of other people’s, too. How did that come about?
I like to say it’s like puppetry, but without the pain. You know, I have this long career doing character voices and talking to myself because usually there’s two performers and you have to do the entire cast, so often you are in dialogue with yourself. So, I had that skill set and my minor in college was theater and speech, specifically doing radio performance. So, honestly, I like, I auditioned and audiobooks are just like trying to do any other form of, you know, any form of writing, where there’s submission guidelines and you go and you read the submission guidelines and then you follow those instructions and you turn in a tape. And then sometimes they’ll have you do what is essentially a callback, where they’ll say, “Yeah, we’re thinking about you for this audiobook. Here’s a page. Please read that page to us.” And then you see what happens. I got lucky. I did a couple of different things, but then started doing the Seanan Maguire series. I was just in the booth this morning to record the fixes on book thirteen in the series. So it’s nice to have a little bit of job security there. She keeps writing these.
But I have to ask, because, having done it…it’s an enormously time-consuming thing, recording books. Does that…how do you balance out writing your own stuff and recording the other stuff. You just have time for it? Because I find it’s a huge…you know, it just takes so much time.
Well, I don’t do self-producing. So I have an engineer, which means that I only have to do the recording part.
And true, I do my own engineering.
Yeah. And that’s the part that I’m just like, no. if I had to do that, yeah, then the balancing of those two things would be, I think, well-nigh impossible. But balancing just narrating and writing is not bad. Usually it’s, you know, six to eight hours a day of the narration, depending on the book and who I’m recording for. And then I’ll get in an hour or so of writing before or after, depending again on the book and where I am. Sometimes, I’m doing it…like, editing and narration. I will often do my edits on my lunch break or something. So it’s…I don’t find it any different than balancing writing with any other day job. And I don’t do it often. Like…I mean, I’ve done seventy-some books, but I’m not recording every day.
I could be if I did, if I were willing to do, home records or self-records. But I…most of my career has been trying to turn down the gigs I don’t want to do. And it’s not something I’m interested in doing. So I don’t, even though that means I have less audiobook work. And then there’s also books that I don’t want to record. There was a series that I was recording for a company and the books were very rapey and I recorded the second one and said, “I can’t, I can’t record these. I’m so sorry. I know that you don’t want to change narrators mid-series, but I just, I don’t want to be involved with these books.” I was already using a pseudonym for them and…which, like, they don’t…I don’t do a lot of. But I’m like, I don’t need to do these books and I don’t want to. So I don’t. Which makes it significantly easier to balance.
Yeah. Well, it’s you, when you’re reading something out loud it’s…yeah, if you’re not comfortable with the narrative, it would be very difficult, I would think, to…
I mean…yeah, I can do it. Like, I can turn in a good performance. It’s compelling and all of that. But I’m just like, “But I don’t want to participate in that.”
I’m just gonna back up for a minute. I was listening, but I was also checking the enrollment at the University of Toronto, and they’re at…I did overestimate. They are apparently at about thirty-five percent women at this point.
Yep. Thank you for checking. And that was what I, sorry, that was what I guessed.
I had heard a higher number than that, but clearly that was incorrect. So, just to finish up here, with the sort of the big philosophical question, and you sort of touched on this already, with the sort of reaction and, you know, talking about the collaboration with readers. But, the first question is, “Why do you do this? Why do you tell stories?”, and then the second question is, “And what do you hope to accomplish by telling stories?” So, why do you write, and specifically, why do you write science fiction? Why do you write this crazy stuff?
So I write, and I write, I guess, science fiction, because…for the same reasons that I do puppetry. It is the theater of the possible. It allows me to take the natural world, tip it on its side, and look at the interconnective tissue, which helps me understand the real world more. The reason I write instead of just doing daydreams is so that I can share those things with other people. It’s also, I think…I mean, I am a storyteller and it’s something that gives me satisfaction. I like the give and take. I like that conversation with the reader. So, really, I guess, ultimately, I write because it’s fun. I enjoy it. As I said, I am working to turn down gigs I don’t want to do, so ultimately and selfishly, I write because I enjoy it.
But the goal with each book is to provoke an emotional response in the reader and usually to have them share the same emotional journey that I have had when I’ve been thinking about a character. But each book is different. Each short story is different. Like, the specifics of what that emotional response is vary. With the Lady Astronaut books, a lot of what I am thinking about kind of consciously are ways in which to demonstrate a different path. Because we do learn so much from fiction. We use it as a means of cathartic experimentation, trying on different selves. And…as a reader, I mean, not as a writer. We do that as writers, too, but as readers, that’s what…we’re trying on these different lives and these thought experiments. And sometimes the thing we want to try on is just escaping the stuff that’s going on around us. Sometimes it is purely just for fun, which I think is also a valuable and important thing. But it is…each book we pick up, we pick up for a reason, to have this journey of some sort. And so I am, as a writer, wanting to create the experience that I have as a reader.
Something that…I always say that the reason I write is because I want to give to other people the experience I had as a reader.
You know, and create something that people will enjoy as much as I’ve enjoyed the stuff that I’ve read.
I think that’s a common thread. And what are you working on now?
I am doing the final edits for Relentless Moon. It was actually due day before yesterday, but I’m…one of my astronauts got back to me with notes at 10:30 the night before it was due, which is…fortunately, my editor was like, “Wait, you got astronaut notes? You get some extra days.” So I am actually rewriting a scene based on those notes right now. That is literally what I was doing right before this interview and what I’m going to do immediately when we’re done. And then, once I turn that in, I get to start working on a book that is not in the Lady Astronaut universe that I’m very excited about. It’s the next book that’s gonna come out from Tor. So, Relentless Moon comes out in 2020. The book after that is called The Spare Man, and it is a locked-room murder mystery on an interplanetary cruise ship. And it’s basically The Thin Man in space. It’s, you know, retired detective and a socialite and sparkling witty banter, but on a cruise ship going from the moon to Mars.
That sounds like fun.
It’s…I have written the first three chapters of it and the outline. I’m so excited to be writing this book. I cannot tell you. It is frolicking.
And where can people find you online?
The easiest way is to go to my Web site, maryrobinettekowal.com. And you can check out the Web site, but actually, signing up for my newsletter is probably the best thing, because I’ll tell you when I’m teaching classes, when I’m going to be traveling, and I will sometimes put out calls for beta readers and invite people to read my stuff while I’m working on it.
And are you active on Twitter?
Yes. @MaryRobinette, and on Instagram @MaryRobinetteKowal. Generally speaking, if you type in my name, Mary Robinette, I will pop up.
Yes, I think you’re the only one I’ve ever heard of.
So, funny thing, I actually met another Mary Robinette. But it was her last name. And that was very funny. But it’s…and Joe Biden’s middle name is also Robinette. But there’s not a lot of us.
I did not know that about Joe Biden, so that says…you learn something new every day. I knew it was Joe R. Biden, but I know that was his middle name.
Yeah, my double take on Inauguration Day was pretty epic.
Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers.
An hour-long conversation with Eric Flint, New York Times-bestselling author of the Ring of Fire alternate-history series, which began with 1632, and more than 50 other science-fiction and fantasy novels, both on his own and in collaboration, as well as many pieces of short fiction and dozens of anthologies.
Eric Flint’s writing career began with the science-fiction novel Mother of Demons. With David Drake, he has collaborated on the six-volume Belisarius series, as well as a novel entitled The Tyrant. His alternate-history novel 1632 was published in 2000 and has led to a long-running series with many novels and anthologies in print. In addition, he’s written a number of science fiction and fantasy novels, and now has more than 50 novels in print, as well as many pieces of short fiction and dozens of anthologies that he’s edited. He currently resides in Northwest Indiana with his wife, Lucille.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Eric.
We met very, very briefly at DragonCon last year, which was the first time I had ever been to DragonCon—I found it a bit overwhelming, but I did find the Baen Books table and actually signed up a couple of people to be guests, and you’re one of the ones that I talked to there. Other than that, we’ve never crossed paths, I don’t think, at conventions anywhere, or anything like that.
Not that I recall, no.
Well, we’ll get into 1632 a little bit later, and the Ring of Fireseries, but I always like to start off by taking people back—and I always say this, “into the mists of time,” to find out how you first became interested…well, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy, probably as a reader, because that’s how we almost all start, and then how you got around to trying your hand at writing and how that all worked out for you. So, when did you first become interested in the field?
Well, I started reading science fiction when I was about 12 years old, I think. My mother bought me a copy of, a hardcover copy of one of those Winston juveniles, of Robert Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy, and I was very taken by it. And shortly thereafter I remember reading Andre Norton’s Star Rangers, and I also remember reading…it has two titles. The one that it was originally published under was The Survivors and its re-title is Space Prison. It was written by Tom Godwin. And those three books really got me into it, and after that I would read everything I could get in the school library. I started writing science fiction when I was about 14, and I kept writing it through high school. I once had a very nice rejection letter from John Campbell, whose handwritten, two-page letter, which I lost decades ago—I feel bad about now—at the time, to me, was just a rejection letter, you know. I don’t know who Campbell was. Then I did some more writing in college and then I stopped writing pretty much for about 25 years, and then I started again when I was in my mid-40s. I had one novel that I had started and not finished and it kept nagging at me, and when I reached the age of 44, I think, I just realized I didn’t want to be lying on my deathbed regretting the fact that I never tried to finish the book. So, I went ahead and finished it.
In 1992 I took a part of that novel and rewrote it as a short story and submitted it to the Writers of the Future contest, and it won first place in the winter quarter of 1992. And that’s really what got my career off the ground. I didn’t publish anything else for four years. I tried several times, but with short stories, but I’m really not…I’m really a novelist. I finally just said, “Oh, to hell with it,” and I just concentrated on writing novels. I finished the novel that I’d started back in…Jesus, when was it…I started when I was 22 years old, back in 1969. I got that one finished. I submitted…I got an agent. She warned me, she liked the book, but she warned me it was going to be a very hard book to sell, which it proved to be. After a couple of years, I told her take it off the market because there’s no point just racking up rejection slips.
I had written in the meantime a much more straightforward science-fiction novel called Mother of Demons. And so, we started shopping that around, and that’s actually my second book I wrote, first one I sold, Baen Books decided to buy it in 1996 and it was published in September of ’97. And right at the same time, Jim Baen offered me a collaborative series with David Drake, which became the Belisarius series. And that’s what I worked on next. That wound up being six books. I did the first four back to back, right in a row, didn’t work on anything else. And then I wrote my next solo novel. which was 1632, which came out in the year 2000, and my career took off quite rapidly after that.
Well, going back to when you were first writing as a as a kid, did you have people who encouraged you along the way, or were you sharing it with other, you know, with your friends, and finding out that you could tell stories, or…? What were you doing back then?
Well, in high school I was sharing it with girlfriend, not, pretty much, anybody else. She was quite supportive. My mother was, too, and a more distant…you know, somewhat greater distance. I was quite self-contained, so I didn’t really talk much, either. There’s a line…early in my life that said there’s nothing quite as ridiculous as an unpublished author and I sort of always kind of felt that way, so I didn’t really talk much about it until I get published. I talked more about it in college because that novel I started was originally a collaborative project for me and three of my friends, two of whom dropped off fairly early. The second one, Richard Roach, has stayed with that project ever since. The novel, the first one I wrote, is actually a collaborative novel with him. So, obviously I’d talked it over with them because we were all working together.
You started collaborating early.
Oh, yeah, very early. You know, not in high school, but once I got to college.
You actually studied history at college. Did any of that ever play into your fiction or did just the mere study of it help you when it came to writing some of your…?
Almost all of my fiction, one way or another, is historically rooted. That’s obviously true of the alternate history, which is what I’m best known for. Now, alternate history represents a little less than half of what I write, so I write a lot of other stuff. But, for instance, my science-fiction novel The Course of Empire is modeled after, or inspired after, my thinking about the Roman conquest of the Greeks. My first novel, Mother of Demons, is based on episodes in southern Balkan history, in the late 18th, early 19th century, which is what I was studying in college. Americans don’t recognize it. My friend Dave Freer is South African, he spotted it right away. That’s just generally true, that I’ll look to historical models as the basis for telling a story, even though the story itself might not technically be an historical fiction, but straight science fiction, but it’s going to almost always have an historical basis to it. So, yeah, I’ve been, in that sense, an historian my whole life.
Now I like to ask authors, because some have and some haven’t and some who have wished they hadn’t…have you ever had any formal creative-writing training?
I took a course in creative writing in junior college one semester. The teacher was quite nice, and I learned some about the use of language. The problem is…the problem with creative-writing courses is that they can sometimes be helpful teaching you how to write, but they’re not usually very helpful at all in terms of teaching you how to tell a story, which is not the same skill They overlap but they’re not the same. And, from the point of view of being commercially successful, it’s being able to tell a story that really matters, not so much how well you write. So, I took one semester of that. I don’t regret taking it, but I can’t say it particularly helped me much.
Yeah, I get a variety of answers on that. A lot of authors who write science fiction and fantasy in particular found that it was not something that their creative-writing teachers were comfortable with or supportive of in any way, and there was often some conflict along the way, when they were trying to write that kind of thing in a creative-writing session.
Well, that was certainly true in the time I was going through college. That was way back in the ’60. Today, there’s a lot more flexibility in the academic world toward genre fiction in general, science fiction in particular, but in those days there wasn’t. I knew a case of a professor who actually got fired from a college because they found out he’d published a mystery novel, which he did under a pseudonym, but they, you know, the word leaked out. So…you know, there’s that. I think…I don’t know, I think the bigger problem is simply that…it depends on your orientation. What’s called literary fiction is today a genre of its own. It’s very rigid, it has all kinds of tropes you pretty much have to follow, and I personally would find it quite stultifying. And a lot of great literature of the past wouldn’t fit into it all. My first novel written, Forward the Mage, is based on the satires of the 17th and 18th centuries, which were fantasies, most of them. That’s what it was based on. But it would have been hard to try to get that through in a kind of literary [fashion].
Now during the 25 years that you weren’t writing, you were doing a lot of things: meatpacker, longshoreman, truck driver, auto forge worker, glassblower. That’s a lot of practical hands-on experience doing things that a lot of writers aren’t exposed to. We do get a lot of writers who have had a lot of odd jobs over the course of their career. Do you find that having had that sort of, I don’t know, I want to call it salt-of-the-earth, I guess, experience, does that feed into your fiction?
Yeah. Particularly the 1632 series…
Yeah, I notice it there, for sure.
Yeah, that’s probably where you see the most. That town of Grantville is actually very closely modelled on the town of Mannington, West Virginia. I lived in that area for about a year and a half. I find one thing that tends to be absent…not entirely, but it’s pretty thin on the ground in science fiction…is the working class. It’s…they kind of show up as spear carriers, if they show up at all. And I just wanted to write a story whose protagonists were, you know, not engineers, not Navy SEALs, you know, just working stiffs. And that’s pretty much who populates, well, the American characters who populate the 1632 series. Once the time-travel event happens it gets broader than that. There are kings and cardinals and all kinds of other people get into it. But the town itself was just a small coal-mining town in northern West Virginia.
Did you ever work in a coal mine?
No. I tried when I lived there. I always wondered why anyone worked in a coal mine, and when I got to West Virginia I discovered real quick that it was the only job that paid worth a damn. So, I went through the course—you have to go through an 80-hour course in main safety. I went through it, got my certificate, but they were not hiring at the time. So, I wound up kicking around a machine shop, driving a cab, doing shape-up at glass factories. That’s where I learned some parts of glassblowing.
Well, my big brother actually did work in a coal mine, although it was an open-pit mine, it wasn’t an underground mine. But he had worked in an underground mine, a nickel mine in northern Manitoba. So, he has some of that experience. And I actually recently wrote the history, a history of the mine-rescue competition that they run every year here in Saskatchewan, so I hung out with the volunteers that do that kind of mine safety and mine rescue. That was very interesting, to talk to those guys.
So, well, let’s talk about 1632, because we’re going to kind of focus on that as an example of your creative process. I’ll let you give the synopsis so I don’t give away something that shouldn’t be given away to somebody who somehow hasn’t managed to read any of the books yet.
Well, the basic premise is really quite simple. There is a cosmic act, the nature of which I explain in a three-page preface, which is just handwaving. This is just a MacGuffin to get the story going. I thought I came up with a clever one. But it’s essentially a cosmic accident that causes a time transposition event, where a chunk of the modern United States—and by modern we’re talking about the year 2000, because that’s when I wrote the book—Is transposed in time and place into the middle of Germany in the year 1631, which is right smack in the middle of the Thirty Years War, which was probably the most destructive war in European history, at least since the collapse of the Roman Empire. So, what happens is, this small town, about 3,500 people, just literally materializes, about a six-mile diameter. and finds itself in the middle of that part of Germany. It’s called Thuringia, which during the Cold War would have been the southern part of East Germany. And they find themselves in the middle of one of the greatest wars of history, which went on…it wasn’t really a war, it was a whole running cascade of wars. It went on for 30 years. It’s estimated that possibly a quarter of the population of Central Europe died in that war. So, basically, what the series is about is simply, all right, you’ve got 3,500 Americans from the year 2000, with whatever resources they had in this small town…and I was very strict about the resources available. The basic rule, which I’ve applied ever since and everyone who writes in that universe has to obey it, is that if you can find something in Mannington, the real town of Mannington, then you can put it in Grantville, but if it’s not there, you can’t. The one exception, what we call “wild cards,” which is…I will allow a certain number of those. What I mean by “wild cards” is, for instance, in the second novel, 1633, my co-author, David Weber, and I introduced an aircraft designer who builds an actual plane. Well, the odds of there being a retired aeronautical engineer in a small town or low, but any small town in America with 3,500 people in it is going to have a certain number of people that aren’t likely to be there, but they are. So, I allow that as long as people don’t overdo it.
So, that’s the basic premise. All the books have followed, and we are now up to…Baen Books has published—I really lose count—I think we’re up to 24 novels, with the one I just wrote that just was published last month. That’s 24 novels that Baen publishes, and I have my own publishing house, called Ring of Fire Press, and we publish, also publish, stuff in the series, and there’s another probably dozen novels that we’ve published. In addition, there are 12 anthologies of short fiction in paper, and back in, 12 years ago, we launched a magazine, an electronic magazine called the Grantville Gazette, that’s been in operation now for 12 years. It’s a professional magazine, it’s recognized by the science fiction writers’ association as a qualified professional venue. It’s made a profit for 12 years. It’s become a very big, sprawling enterprise. And by now, something like 200 people have written something in this setting, most of them just one or two stories, but…most of my co-authors, quite a few of them, are actually people who started as fans and sort of learned to write within the series. And if they got good enough, and I thought they were ready for it, I’d offer them, you know, I’d ask if they wanted to try their hand at collaborating on a novel, and that’s where most of my authors—not all of them, but most of my collaborative authors—actually began, that way, not as established professionals.
Well, it’s been 20 years, then, since you wrote the first one. Do you remember what the initial seed of the idea was that gave birth to all this?
Yeah, I had…just from living in the area…I can’t remember how far back the idea came to me. I’d had the idea for a long, long time that a small coal-mining town would make a terrific collective protagonist in some kind of adventure. I just couldn’t figure out the adventure. And then, years later, I was working with David Drake and he had a new novel he wanted to do, and I was originally going to co-author, it wound up eventually being someone else, but the basic premise of that novel is near-future, and it was posited that China had broken up and Vietnam and southern China were about to go to war, and a band of alien mercenaries show up and offer their services to the Vietnamese using an American intermediary who lives in Hanoi, he’s an expatriate, he used to be…he was, is, a Vietnam veteran. David did not develop the…he had the plot well-developed, but he didn’t develop the background of the alien mercenaries. And I asked him if he minded if I fleshed it out, and he said, “No, go ahead.” So, I started thinking, “Well, I’ll use a historical model, just to give me a framework,” which is what I usually do. And the great era in modern times of…well, “modern,” using the term broadly…of mercenary armies was the Renaissance and what’s called the early modern period, and they were very prominent in the Thirty Years War.
So, it had been many, many years—decades—since I’d read anything about the Thirty Years War. I don’t think I read anything about it since a little bit in college. So, I decided to study it, and I started reading…there’s a classic narrative history by C.V. Wedgewood called The Thirty Years War, and I picked it up and started reading it, and about halfway through it dawned on me that this would be the perfect setting for my…that collective protagonist. And that’s where the idea came from. I then sat down and developed it into a plot and submitted it to Jim Baen at Baen Books. He liked it, and it took off.
How does that look for you, when you develop an idea into a plot? Or you a staunch outliner…what exactly do you do?
Yes. I outline quite thoroughly. What I will wind up with is a chapter-by-chapter outline of the book—not lengthy: I do it on an Excel sheet and my rule is that each chapter has to be summarized in one line, so I don’t get long-winded. I just want to capture the heart of it. I don’t start there. I start with thinking it through. But, yeah, before I start writing, I try to have the story well-plotted out. In the course of writing, things change—that always happens—and that outline will, to some degree or another, get transmuted, although it never gets transmuted too much, because you have to have a coherent story arc, and if you don’t have an ending and a beginning and the link between, you don’t actually have a story. So, nothing tremendous changes, but things can change.
For instance, in 1632, the book actually ends three months before I’d planned to end it. I’d planned to end with the Battle of Whitsun, which took place in the fall of 1632. But after I wrote the big scene at the high school, big battle at the high school, I realized I’d actually resolved all the issues there. So, I called up Jim on the phone and said, “Jim, I actually think this book is finished.” So, he said, “Let me see it.” I sent it to him, and he said, “Yeah, you’re right. This is where we should end it.” So, you know, you might not necessarily end at exactly the same place, but the basic…the ending is the same in the sense of what it resolves, let’s put it that way.
How long would your outline be when you complete one, ready to start writing?
It depends. If I’m submitting an outline as a proposal to a publisher, where they want something, it’ll be around, I don’t know, 3,000 to 7,000 words. If I’m just doing it for myself I tend to do a lot of the initial outlining just in my own head, and I don’t start really putting stuff on paper until I’m ready to actually do this final chapter-by-chapter outline. But by the time I get to that point I’ve thought about it a lot.
I liked something in your frequently asked questions on your website where you made a distinction between, you know…a plot is not just a sequence of events, it’s an actual structure, a skeleton that you hang a story on, and I liked that distinction, because when you’re plotting, when you’re a young writer, a beginning writer, and you’re plotting, it is easy to try to, you know, “Well, I’ll just add on a bunch of things that happen and then somehow I’ll have a story,” but a story is more than that, isn’t it?”
Yeah, yeah, it’s …the way I try to explain this to people is have them do a mental experiment. Just write down everything that happened to you yesterday, from the time you woke up to the time you fell asleep. Just, you know, write it all down, like a story. Do you have a story? And the answer is, no, you don’t have a story. You just have a sequence of events. It’s not…I mean, it’s coherent, there’s reasons for everything you did, but there’s no beginning to it. There’s no end to it. Every story has some kind of conflict of some kind that has to be resolved by the end of it, at least to a degree. That’s…I don’t think there’s ever been a story, at least not a story that very many people are going to read very often, that doesn’t have that characteristic. And when I write, the first thing I start with is actually not a plot or characters. I start with figuring out…a conflict, basically. And since my interests tend to be very social and political, in my case it’s usually a social or political conflict of some kind that I’m interested in and think is important, and then I just start thinking about it and figuring out ways that you could put that into fiction. That’s where the 1632series came from. And then I start working my way down in, you know, different levels of concreteness, as far as developing goes.
One of the points…you often hear writers say they write character-driven stories. And there are many who think they’re working that way, and consciously they are, but if they’re any good what they’re really doing is plotting without realizing it, because the thing is this: what makes a character a character is what they do. And if you don’t know what they do, then you don’t have a plan. So, you really have to have a plot to develop a character in the first place. Otherwise, what you’ve got is not really a character, it’s just a collection of personality traits. And what kills more stories is just that they ramble around and don’t seem to have much point to them and eventually just sort of come to an end. But…when I was editor of Jim Baen’s Universe Magazine, I…the stories that got up to me had to get through readers, so that they were, they were well-written, I mean, they weren’t badly written, those would be rejected before I ever saw them. But the most common reason I would reject a story is just because it…there was nothing wrong, the writing was usually quite competent, and there was nothing really wrong with the story, exactly, but there was nothing right with it either. I mean, you know, it just wasn’t much of a story. And it’s hard to explain that. If there’s any one single talent to being an author that’s hard to teach anyone, it’s how to recognize what’s a good story and what isn’t. That’s the place where talent itself really comes in. I can teach people pretty much everything else, but that’s hard to teach.
You mentioned characters. How do you…how do you identify the characters that you need in the story, and then how do you…how much do you work on developing them before you start the actual writing?
Well, I don’t know. I mean, the characters kind of emerge, just in the process of thinking about a plot. Honestly, I’ve never had any trouble coming up with characters. It’s not something I have to spend any time really thinking much about, except—the one time I do have to think about it is if I want to use an actual historical figure. For instance, the series I’ve started, there’s two books in it, and I will within a year be starting a third one, and it’s a series set in Jacksonian America. It’s all from history. The first book’s called 1812: The Rivers of War, and the second one is called 1824: The Arkansas War. And…it’s written during the Jacksonian era, and one of the main characters in the series is Andrew Jackson. And I studied Andrew…and also, the central hero is Sam Houston. So, you know, this is where I was working with real people, I mean, this is not characters I invented, so I had to…I read…Jesus, I don’t know…half a dozen biographies of Houston and a whole lot of Andrew Jackson, to figure out if I could work with them, you know, in fiction, and I became comfortable that I could. And I’m pleased with the result, but that’s where you do have to spend some time thinking about it, because, you know, you have to stay reasonably true to what we know of the person’s character. You’re not just inventing something.
Well, and you have mentioned somewhere in what you had in your website, as well, that for 1632, the research could be quite intensive because you’re writing about a real period in history. I think somewhere you mentioned you would sometimes take an hour to write one paragraph because of the research you had to do to make sure you got all the facts right that were in that paragraph.
Yeah, sometimes. Yeah, that happens. I mean, happily with something like the 16…that problem has gotten less and less as time goes on, partly because…well, there’s a number of reasons, one of them is, it’s an alternate history, so the further you go, the more the history has changed, so it’s hard for anybody to prove me wrong. The second is I just get more and more familiar with it. And the third is that by now that series has a very active and dedicated…I don’t even want to call it a fan base, because a lot of these people are much more than fans, many have become writers themselves, and it’s an important project for them, too. You know, it’s become a very collaborative effort on the part of a lot of people, and a lot of those people know things I don’t know. So, you know…one of the major writers, Virginia DeMarce, with whom I’ve co-authored two novels…she has her Ph.D., and basically she’s a specialist in the social history of 17th-century Germany. I mean, you know, her knowledge of it is way deeper than mine. That’s the kind of thing you don’t get from just reading books. I mean, you have to read, do the kind of studying that an actual professor does.
So, I try to develop friends and contacts who are experts on all kinds of things, who are people I can go to if I need to find out something. If any issue comes up involving guns, I will run it by Larry Correia and David Drake, every single time, just to make sure I’m not making some mistake. I’m fairly familiar with guns, but they’re complex, and so…I used to, unfortunately she passed away a few years ago, I used to have Karen Bergstralh, who was an expert horsewoman, so anything involving horses I would run it by Karen to make sure I wasn’t missing something, because there’s a lot of things about horses that people think they know or understand, but they really don’t.
Yeah, I’ve heard that from horse people many times, about how horses in books don’t have much relationship to real horses.
No, they don’t, they don’t. Movies are even worse. So, with something like the 1632 series that’s gone on for 20 years, that makes life a lot easier for me, than if it’s something new I’m starting with, then I kind of have to do all the, you know, the initial spadework myself.
One thing I like to ask series writers…the longest thing I’ve written is a five-book young adult series, which was only about 300,000 words in total, and yet, I started to find that there were, you know, concerns about continuity and occasionally writing something in a sort of a throwaway that comes back to bite you later. Have you ever encountered anything like that in your in your series?
Oh, sure. I have a saying, and my friends and co-authors, I’ve said it so many times that they like to repeat it, but the motto is, “Vague is your friend.” And what I mean by that is that 95 percent of what’s in a novel is put there by the reader, not the author. A novel is not a photograph, it’s much, much more like a pointillist painting, where the artist is giving you a framework, but a lot of it you’re filling in yourself. And, the thing you do is… some things you’re very concrete about, very specific, if you know you’re right about it. Then you put in some very detailed and, you know, nail it down, cross all the “T”s, dot the “I”s, and so on and so forth. If you do that fairly often, then the reader feels secure that they’re in a real story, and what they don’t really notice is how often you’re vague about what exactly, where exactly it’s happening, when exactly it’s happening, who exactly might be around there, so that you don’t have that problem…which you can have even a single novel, much less a series, of discovering you’ve stumbled over your own, what you’ve already put down. But, yeah, I try not to.
It’s a lesson I got from Jim Baen, he died years ago, but he was my publisher. He said, “Don’t tell the readers anything they don’t need to know and don’t tell it to them until they need to know it.” And that’s pretty much a rule I’ve tried to follow. And don’t put something in just because you researched it and you know it, and so, what the hell, you’re gonna put it in. Every scene in a novel should be part of the plot. And we all get a little loose and sloppy about that, including me. I mean, we’ll all write some scenes that are just there for the fun of it. But in theory, at least, and I did try to pay attention to this, every episode, every plot point, I mean, every scene in a novel, most of it at any rate, what is it doing to advance the plot? And if the answer is, it’s not doing anything to advance a plot, then why is it in the story? There another saying I like, which was invented…not invented by me, it’s by Anton Chekhov. It’s called Chekhov’s Dictum, which is…he was the great Russian playwright…and it was, “If there’s a shotgun on the mantelpiece in the beginning of Act One in the play, it needs to have figured somehow in the story by the end of Act Three, or it doesn’t belong there in the first place.” And that’s something that that I think you need to follow, and I find a lot of writers don’t. There’s a lot of novels out there that are honestly pretty ramshackle. There’s just all kinds of baggage in there that really isn’t doing much of anything.
Well, when you have written a draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you bang out a first draft and then go back, and do you revise a lot, do you keep it revised as you go, or how does that work for you?
I’m fortunate in that I have…I sort of have the authorial equivalent of perfect pitch. Typically, a chapter I write is the final draft. Now, I will polish continuously as I go along. What I mean by that is, after a day or two or three, I’ll go back and reread and, you know, I’ll polish the prose, but I’m hardly ever rewriting the actual chapter. Occasionally I get a chapter that I just decide didn’t work and I’ll just scrap it altogether. But I don’t do the kind of rewriting that a lot of authors do. And the reason I don’t is just ’cause I found I really don’t need to. I’m lucky that way. I mean, it’s not…it’s like perfect pitch for a musician, you’re lucky if you have it, but if not, you know, it’s not something you learn. But it enables me to write pretty quickly. I do polish all the time. I mean, I’m constantly going back over, but when I’m looking for there is specific word usage, that kind of thing, not changing or rewriting major plot points and so on.
And I see, from your website, again, that once you start writing you just write through, like, you sort of write in a burst to finish the book?
Yeah, I…yes. I don’t…writers all have different work habits. There are some writers who religiously write every day and they set goals, you know, 500 words a day, whatever. I don’t write like that. I will…when I get rolling in a novel I’ll start really getting into it and I will…pretty much, that’s what I’m doing. And then, once the novel is finished, I’ll take several weeks off before I try to start writing anything else. Now in my case, because I do so much collaborative writing, I’m not…it’s not like I’m not busy, because my co-authors will have drafts they want me to look at, you know, so there is a lot of editing work I do also, and I’ll do that, but I don’t try to…and I don’t ever try to write two novels at the same time.
Speaking of editing, do you get much in the way of editorial revision then, coming back from Baen, or suggestions?
The only time I’ve gotten…I’m trying to think. Mostly when I get editorial input from Baen, it’s actually not at the novel stage, it’s at the proposal stage. For instance, my friend and co-author David Carrico and I submitted a proposal for a science fiction novel called Hydra to Toni Weisskopf…oh, it’s been over a year now…and she read it, and she had problems with a number of pieces, parts, of it, and she laid it out: “This doesn’t seem to work to me, that doesn’t…”, and so we did a pretty major rewrite of the proposal, because I agreed with her points. So, that’s mostly where I get the input. Once the story’s written, the only time I’ve gotten a lot of input, was early on…I think it was the third Belisariusbook, which was about the fourth novel I wrote. Toni Weisskopf, who was then the chief editor, did a very detailed line edit of the novel. But what she was trying to do was show me was…I had certain tics and habits as a writer I wasn’t even aware of…
I think we all do.
Yeah, and she was just going through and showing them to me so I could see it. And I learned a great deal from that. It was very helpful. That’s the only time I’ve had that. I did get a lot of input from Jim on 1632. He was very taken by that book and he worked more closely with me on that book than any other I ever did. I would send him…once I’d written a few chapters I’d send it to him and he’d read it and get back to me. So, that…there was a lot of editorial feedback. It wasn’t…he wasn’t sending anything…he wasn’t sending me manuscripts with red ink on them. We’d talk on the phone. And I did two books with Del Rey. I got a lot of editorial input from Steve Saffel and later from Jim Minz. Steve edited the first book, Jim edited the second. And…that’s kind of it.
Well, we’re getting a little short on time here, because I know you have to break off here in a few minutes, so I do want to get the big philosophical question out, which is, “Why do you do this, and why do you think any of us do this? Why do we write science fiction and fantasy?”
Well, I’ve always been interested…I’ve always been interested, and I’ve always enjoyed it. So, when I considered, you know, when I decided I was going to write again, I didn’t really have to think about whether I was going to write science fiction or something else. I just figured I’d have a lot more artistic leeway and freedom in science fiction than I would in anything else, which was true. In my case…my whole life, I was a political activist for close to 30 years, which is why I stopped writing, and…issues of, social issues in general, how human society works, the moral and ethical issues and values that come out of that, are things that have been central to my life ever since I was a kid. And that’s, one way or another, usually what I’m writing about in my novels.
Now, I’m writing novels to entertain people, so I’m not trying to beat anybody over the head with my own specific political viewpoint. And I think fiction is really lousy at that anyway. I can explain why—it takes some detail—but there’s a contradiction between the way political theory works and the way fiction works, which is that, if you want to analyze things as a politician or as a campaign manager or whatever, you have to abstract the individual out of the equation. You have to, because if you don’t, everybody’s different and you can’t…so you have to take a look and see, however you’re dividing up the population, it might be by class, it might be by gender, it might be by race, it might be by whatever. You have to abstract the individual out of it and be talking in some sense about social abstractions.
You can’t write fiction like that. Stories are about individual people, and they have to seem like people to readers. They have to seem real. And if they’re just clanking around like stereotypes, it doesn’t work. People don’t like that. For one thing, they get irritated if you happen to be stamping all over their particular viewpoint, but leaving that aside, it’s just not attractive. So that means you have to find individual characters, and once you start doing that they tend to get quirky. They tend to…well, let me not turn this into a lecture, but the upshot of it is this: fiction is lousy for educating anybody about politics, but what it is very good at is imparting broad moral and ethical values. There are certain values I have that are reflected, one or another, in almost any book I write. And…obviously the first thing you have to do is entertain people, because that’s why they’re reading a book, they want to be entertained, but I try to do more than that. And it varies from one book to the next, what I’m particularly trying to portray. But I’m trying to portray something…every good writer I know is doing that, to one extent or another and to one degree of consciousness or another. I know very few writers, that includes genre writers who are just…although they’ll often say they’re just trying to write a good read, there’s almost always something more going on.
Well, and what are you working on now?
Right now I am starting…well, I had several little small projects I had to get finished, but the novel I’m working on now is…I’ve written several novels with David Weber in his Honor Harrington universe, which is very popular, and we’ve done three novels together in that universe and I am starting the fourth, which is a sequel to the third. And I’ve gotten into it pretty well. It’s a complex novel and it’s somewhat difficult to write for reasons I don’t want to go into because they’d take too long, but I think everything is pretty well squared away. It’ll be a long book.
And if people…and you did mention there’s a Ring of Firebook that is just out?
I just published one…well, I didn’t, Baen Books did…it came out in April, last month. It’s called 1637: The Polish Maelstrom, and…that’s not a collaborative novel, I wrote that on my own…and it’s one of what I call the mainline novels, and what I mean by that is it’s a big sprawling complex series, but there is a spinal cord to it, and there are seven novels that are in that, what I call the main line, and five out of the seven I wrote on my own, two of them I did with David Weber. And this one is the seventh and most recent of them, and it’s a direct sequel to the book that preceded it, which is 1636: The Ottoman Onslaught. That just came out. The next one that’s coming out is coming out in September, and it’s a book I wrote with Iver Cooper, it’s called 1636: The China Venture. And this will be the first time the series goes into China. And Iver has written a number of things, he wanted to collaborate on a novel with me, we’ve been working on it for quite a while. He has done…I know quite a bit of Chinese history, but Iver has done an enormous amount of research on it over the past few years. So that’s coming out in September.
Then, in November…this is a book…my name is not on it because I didn’t have anything to do with the writing, although I did help him work out some of the things… but it’s by David Carrico. It’s called The Flight of the Nightingale and it’s got two short novels in it, and that’s coming out in November. And then…well, there’ll be more stuff coming out, but I don’t know exactly when they’ll be coming out. Chuck Gannon and I have just started to work…will be just starting to work on the sequel to 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, and the new book will be called 1637: No Peace Be on the Line. And that’s a book, a naval…maritime adventures in the Caribbean, let’s put it that way.
So, lots to come.
Oh yeah, oh yeah.
Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. I should just mention where people can find you online.
Yeah, there’s a number of different places. I have my own website, which you can find at www.ericflint.net. Somebody had bought .com and wanted me to pay him $2,000. I said, “Screw you.” Actually, I do post there, but I tend not to post on a regular basis. I’m more active on Facebook, so you can find me on Facebook. There’s also a 1632fan site, it’s www.1632.org. There’s the magazine’s web site, which is grantvillegazette.com, and, for the past three four years now, we’ve launched our own publishing house, so that’s called Ring of Fire press and that’s got its own website. And Baen’s Bar, I drop by there pretty often. So…that’s Baen Books’ website, where they have a big discussion area called Baen’s Bar. So, I’m not hard to find online.
I guess not. Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.