Brian Trent’s work regularly appears in The Magazine ofFantasy & Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the New York Times-bestselling Black Tide Rising anthologies, The Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF, Terraform, Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Pseudopod, Escape Pod, Galaxy’sEdge, Nature, and numerous year’s-best anthologies.
The author of the science fiction novels Redspace Rising and Ten Thousand Thunders, Trent is a winner of the 2019 Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF Readers’ Choice Award from Baen Books and a Writers of the Future winner. He is also a contributor to the Baen anthologies Weird World War III, Weird World War IV, Weird World War China, and the newly released Worlds Long Lost. Trent lives in New England.
Griffin spent his youth in four different countries, learning three languages, “and burning all his bridges.” Finally settled in Northern California with a day job as a police officer in a major metropolitan department, he lives the good life with his lovely wife, crazy-smart daughter, and needy dog.
The (Lightly Edited) Tranascript
So, Griffin, welcome to The Worldshapers!
Thanks so much for having me.
I’m glad to have you. I talked to your co-author on Second Chance Angel, which is one of the books we’ll be talking about, Kacey Ezell, just four days ago, I guess just the beginning of this week, maybe just two days ago. Not that that matters to anybody listening because this will go live sometime way down the road. But anyway, I did talk to her very recently and said I’ve been looking forward to talking to you. And I will start the same way I start all of these, by getting you to go back into “the mists of time” and tell me how you got interested in science fiction and fantasy and how you got interested in writing it. So, how did that all work for you? And a little bit about your, you know, general growing up and background.
So, my father was an executive with Caterpillar, and when I started reading voraciously . . . first off, I’m dyslexic, so I had a lot of challenges to learning to read and learning to read quickly and especially learning to write manually. And so, I think I was a little bit a late bloomer when it came to reading a lot of stuff. But I discovered very early on and stole from my father’s dresser a copy of The Lord of the Rings and really got into that and enjoyed it quite a bit and started reading a lot of science fiction, mostly hard science fiction, though, you know, specific titles I can’t really recall at this, you know, late day and age, until I got into my teens, when I discovered Pournelle, Dave Drake, that kind of stuff. So, this was the ’80s and, of course, Star Wars, that kind of thing, was available as far as media is concerned. But when it came to reading the stuff, I really enjoyed Hammers’ Slammers and Dave Drake’s work. Jerry Pournelle’s open universe, called War World, was another one that I just thought the world of. And, yeah, so C.J. Cherryh, Elizabeth Moon, Anne McCaffrey, just a ton of . . . I remember going to the library and checking out a lot of the Dragonriders of Pern books as a kid, so, yeah, I had a lot of science fiction influences as a kid.
Did you have friends who are into it as well, or were you kind of the only one that you knew that read this stuff?
No, actually, I kind of lucked out when I was about 10. One of the kids that moved into my neighborhood in North Carolina, still my friend today, working up in Alaska, Kyle, Kyle moved in, and we discovered that we both like science fiction and fantasy. And he remains a voracious reader and a really good, like, he’ll forward stuff to me that, you know, that he thinks I’ll enjoy, that kind of stuff. But he’s more in the fantasy vein these days as far as reading. So, he’ll give me, you know, like, he was the one . . . I hadn’t heard of The Lies of Locke Lamora, and he’s like, “Dude!” So, he gave that to me to read, and I really did enjoy it.
Yeah, I enjoyed that one a lot, too.
Yeah. And, you know, I’m a big fan of heist movies, you know, huge fan of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels and pretty much everything Guy Ritchie’s ever put on film as good examples of the heist or the multiple storylines getting tangled up.
So, where did you grow up? Did you grow up and move around, or were you in one place?
Yeah, we moved around quite a bit. I originally started out and I was born in Peoria, Illinois, and went to . . . we moved to Spain and then to Canada and then back to the States when I was, I think, six. And then stayed there until I was 16, at which point we were back in Peoria, Illinois, and then moved from Peoria to Geneva, Switzerland, and stayed there for about six years. I finished up my high school there and went to a bit of college, wasting my dad’s money, failing out from those colleges back in the States, and went back and was working as a bartender in Geneva at a Mexican restaurant’s bar that’s right outside the garre, the train station in Geneva, met my wife there and returned to the States, I guess about a year after that, to Nevada and from thence to California or actually sorry, back to Chicago, which is probably one of my favorite cities in the world, and from Chicago, Oak Park, outside of Chicago, and then off to Northern California, which is where I’ve stayed for the last, jeez, 22 years now.
You did a lot of things in there, but you ended up as a police officer, I see from your bio.
Yep. So, I joined a major metropolitan department here in Northern California, and I’ve been doing that for 20 years as of February last year.
Where did the writing fit in with all of that? When did you really start trying your hand, as a kid or later on?
I wrote a bit as a kid, got into a contest, and won the local one, won the next level up the next year. And then, they didn’t believe I’d written it myself, so they basically said I wasn’t . . . they disqualified me. And I showed them. I didn’t write again for 20 years.
That taught ‘em!
Yeah, exactly. So, then I . . . but in the meantime, I did a lot of roleplaying games. I ran a lot of D&D and Rolemaster, Space Master, Traveler. Pretty much every kind of roleplaying game out there, pen-and-paper roleplaying game out there. I usually read it, liked it, and read it.
I like to say that although theoretically, I majored in journalism at university, at Harding University in Searcy, Arkansas, really, I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and minored in everything else, based on the amount of time I spent on it.
Right. It probably taught you more about stats than the stats class, right?
I probably did. So, what was kind of . . . when you got back into trying to write, what did you start with? And how did that work with you getting into published professionally?
So, I was walking a beat and on my beat was Borderlands Bookstore . . .
. . . which is one of the premier Northern California bookstores, certainly for science fiction and horror, and hanging out with Alan Beatts, and I’d been talking about how I’d always wanted to write and was trying to finally write because . . . I had a couple of things going on as well. So, attention deficit disorder is a real thing. And I kind of resent people when they talk about, “Oh, I just got the ADD,” or whatever, ADD moment. I was diagnosed with it and finally got some medication for it after I was sitting on the counselor’s couch and blubbering about how I wanted to do all these things and never had. And she said, “Well, you know, there’s some medication you could probably take, and you could, you know, maybe do that.” And a year after that, I had my first novel written.
And so, I’m walking the beat, and I’m talking to different folks at Borderlands and stuff. And I was told by Alan Beatts, the owner there, you know, “Hey, take a look at this.” He said, “Let me take a look at it, and I’ll tell you what I think.” And I was like, “Well, sure.” So, thinking, Wow, that’s pretty cool. And he did. And he said, “This is really good, and you have to send it out.” And he was also really relieved that his beat officer actually wrote well, rather than crappily, and he’d have to let me down easy, given that I was going to be around for a while. So, that novel has been since trunked, but a lot of the work I did on it informed Second Chance Angel. I’ve always been kind of fascinated with A.I., and how do we get like an anthropomorphic A.I. that, you know, feels and talks and seems to behave more in line with humanity without having the natural instinct for survival, et cetera? So, that dealt with that, but there were some other errors and problems with it, and so it got trunked.
Well, you know, you learn to do by doing, as they say.
Exactly. Especially in writing.
When did you make the step up to the next level, then?
And so, I’d been going to . . . as an adjunct to trying to sell that novel, I had been going to World Fantasy because it was really cool. And that’s where my friend Kyle met Scott Lynch, and I’m like, “Who?” And he’s like, “It’s Scott Lynch. Lies of Locke Lamora, you’ve got to read it, it’s an awesome book.” So anyway, we had been going to that for some time and hobnobbing with a lot of these authors that are really neat people, and we attended a panel with Walter Jon Williams and Charles Gannon, Chuck Gannon, and it was on gunpowder and fantasy, I think. And the panel went really well, but there was an individual at the panel who was a little bit abrasive, and Chuck was being hunted by this guy. And Kyle and I kind of intervened to make sure that this guy didn’t harass Chuck much because we wanted to talk to him. And we ended up speaking with Chuck and having a few cocktails at the bar that evening. And he, the next morning he’s, “I read some of your stuff off your blog. And it’s really good, it’s got a very different quality. You need to write for Eric Flint, the 1632 universe.” And the Grantville Gazette was specifically what he was talking about, it was, you know, a good way to get short stories out there, get your name recognized and work with professionals, get the professional credits, et cetera. And it still remains that.
But at the time, I was, you know, like I said earlier, about how I can show people, you know, I know better because I’m not right. I was like, “Oh, you know, I’m not a big fan of time travel, number one. Number two, I’m not a, you know, I’ve got this novel I’m trying to sell.” So, he let it go and let me, you know, but a year later, when I come back to him, to World Fantasy, he’s like, “How’s it going for you?” So, I kind of bit my, you know, swallowed my pride and said, “It’s not going well. We haven’t sold it.” And he’s like, “Oh, they still need people that can tell some stories and synthesize all the history and stuff, and I think you’re, you know, you’d be good at it.” So, I wrote a story, and unlike, you know, it’s unusual in my experience of talking to other authors, that story that I wrote, bank on it sold immediately.
I’ve had both Eric and Chuck on The Worldshapers, so I’ve talked to both of them, and we talked, of course, about the 1632 universe. A lot of authors have kind of made their way in through that particular universe, it seems like.
Yeah, well, there’s a lot of words being written for it. I don’t know how many it’s up to now, I think it might be six or seven million. There’s a lot of words and a lot of different collaborators. And it’s a really neat universe. I enjoy writing in it. It’s the rigor of trying to get historical facts and characters right, combined with being a little creative with “What if?”, you know, that game that we all played as kids, “What if somebody went back and killed Hitler?” and when, and all that kind of stuff, so it’s been fun.
Now we’re going to talk about Second Chance Angel in a little bit. But just to get an idea of your creative process, we’ll take a look at the whole . . . Man-Eater, I guess, is the latest one, the whole series is called . . .
And it’s actually set in the Caine Riordan universe?
Yeah. Which is Chuck Gannon’s universe. I joked that I call Chuck, it’s Chuck “The Rainmaker” Gannon, ‘cause a lot of the opportunities I’ve had, indeed, most of the opportunities I’ve had, aside from Second Chance Angel, although he did introduce me to my agent, everything that has kind of come to me that’s been super-positive has been through Chuck Gannon, so, I owe him a lot.
Well, maybe give us an overview of Murphy’s Lawless and Maneater, specifically, whatever you want to give by way of a synopsis without, you know, giving anything away that you don’t want to give away.
So, in the core books of Chuck’s universe, the Caine Riordan books, he is basically behind enemy lines. And one of the things in his galaxy-spanning war, or our neck of the galaxy, anyway, one of the ongoing deals is this alien race has been kidnapping human soldiers and turning them out for their use. And Caine Riordan has stumbled across a group of those soldiers. They’re put in cryo-sleep for however long, in some cases hundreds of years, and then thawed out when they felt it appropriate. But Caine stumbles across a unit of these folks, or a group of soldiers stolen out of time, and he puts them to use but for their own good, kind of situation. So, it’s very much one of those tropes of soldiers out of time, kind of deal. Murphy’s Lawless is dealing with some of the guys that are a little bit more broken and perhaps not as suitable for frontline action, but they’re struggling to make it happen anyway. The characters that I specifically used were Chalmers and Jackson, they’re a criminal-investigation division from the Mogadishu era when they’re taken, and they are investigating a spy that is working for the bad guys, trying to find someone that is going to report on their troop movements before they can do too much damage.
So, working in someone else’s universe. It’s a little different than when you get to Second Chance Angel, which is something you and Kacey developed. What does that . . . I mean, obviously, there’s not as much worldbuilding involved. Is there a Bible for all of this that you have to follow, or what do you start with?
Well, for the 1632 universe, oh my, is there a Bible? There’s, as I said, there’s at least two million words. But the core novels are up to, I think, a million or something like that. It’s huge. So, you don’t necessarily have to know all of that, but it helps. And then because I’m an idiot, I shot my mouth off about India and what was going on there. So, I had to do an enormous amount of research on India, specifically Mughal India, which at the time was Islamic, but Islamic conquerors, Hindu soldiers, very inclusive kind of empire as far as, like, they took talent from wherever talent was, and they paid cash, which nobody did at the time. So, the creative process in that one and that universe is very much constrained by what’s come before and by what is plausible, given the extensive research that you have to do. So, you know, every story is a human story, right? Otherwise, we’re really not telling it. So, in this particular regard, it’s within these constraints trying to tell that human story, make it engaging and make it fun, and maybe make some points that you wanted to make as a human being or writer.
So that’s that universe. And then for Chuck Gannon’s universe, I’ve been lucky enough to be one of his alpha or beta readers for a number of years for the mainline series. So, I had read everything that exists that’s been published for that, and some that hadn’t been published yet. And then, I was kind of part of the initial skull sessions that originated the idea of doing this Murphy’s Lawless sequence and developing that, so I knew . . . I was very familiar with a lot of the background anyway, and then having read . . . he prepared a bible for us that was, I think, 127 pages, as well as a bunch of Pinterest files to kind of show what the imagery that he thought of the planet that they’re on, called R’Bak, which was cool. So . . . and I’m used to, because of my gaming background, I’m very much used to assimilating the gazette, assimilating the “this is the universe, and what’s the story you’re going to tell in that universe,” that kind of thing.
So, how did your planning/outlining process look? Is it a detailed outline for you, or how does that work?
Well, for Man-Eater, not at all, I kind of pantsed that very heavily. Because it’s a novella, it’s pretty short. So, there wasn’t a whole lot I had to do. But for Second Chance Angel and anything that you’re going to do it collaboratively, you’ve got to absolutely make certain that you have an outline that you agreed on because otherwise, things get confusing and, you know, people don’t know where you’re at, that kind of stuff.
So, is that a long, drawn-out process, the two of you going back and forth and deciding how it’s going to be?
Yeah, it’s not . . . I wouldn’t say it’s a long, drawn-out process. One of the cool things I was just able to do that Eric taught, Eric Flint, was a very easy, very simple outlining technique, using Excel or whatever equivalent you need, or Sheets or whatever for Apple. And it’s, the left-hand, left-most column is chapter, the second one is scene, the second column is scene, and then it goes who, what, when, where, and why across. And it’s just one or two sentences. Or it can be as complex as you want it to be. But one or two sentences describing what’s going on in the what, the when is really useful for connecting how, you know, what’s the time frame for everything, and where and why, again, for making sure you know where you’re at in the book and that kind of thing. Really very useful, especially if you’re like me, and you’re not necessarily all that up on actual outlining technique as far as Roman numerals and large capital letters and all that kind of stuff. And the biggest thing I found advantageous about it is that if you change something in the writing, you still want to discover something while you’re writing, you can just go in and change it, and it doesn’t have to affect the huge slew of, you know, the numeral system and everything, how you organized it in that very strict outlining kind of sense.
That’s interesting. I haven’t heard that particular one before. It sounds useful.
Yeah, I found it to be. You know, most people that I, most authors I’ve spoken to, they’re like, “Wow.” Because, you know, if outlining is not intimidating, then cool, but if it is intimidating for you and/or you feel like, “Well, that’s going to constrain me because I’m not going to be able to do al the discovery that I want to do,” well, it’s easy to continue to discover something about the characters, et cetera, and then only have to change one or two lines, or even change a row in the Excel document, so you can kind of keep track of where you turn left and that kind of thing.
So, when you’re working in someone else’s universe, was there an approval process before you went ahead?
Well, Eric and I collaborated on the outline for Mission to the Moghuls very closely. And I basically . . . yes, so the outline is definitely an approval process, and I worked very closely with him to get that squared away. And then, depending on your deal with Eric, as far as how much work he has time for, number one, and number two, also thinks he needs to do for it, he’ll, you know, either weigh in fully and be doing 50 percent of the actual writing, or he’ll do less, depending on those criteria. But the outline is always, with Eric, a very collaborative process.
What does your actual writing process look like? Are you a fast writer or a slow writer? Do you . . . . you know, considering what your job is, I would think that you have to work around things a bit.
Well, I think everybody has their strengths and weaknesses, right? I can write action very, very well, personal combat, I do pretty damn well, and part of that springs from 20 years of experience of writing down what somebody did to somebody else in an incident report, sometimes three and four times a day. So, I have lots of practice with doing that, but I am not necessarily as good at giving you an emotional scene, which for me, it runs counter to my day-job experience. You’re not supposed to put a bunch of emotion into what you’re writing about in an incident report. So, I can . . . it can go really fast, and it can go really, really slow. It really depends on how I’m feeling. But as far as, like, the logistics of it, I was writing . . . I ride a motorcycle on my commute back and forth to work. I had kind of started injuring the tendons in my hand, so typing was miserable, so I started using Dragon Dictation, and that worked pretty well. And I would do, you know, whenever I had an opportunity . . . .one of the things about police work in general, as far as being in the field, is you have ten-hour shifts, but you’re working four tens. So, you work for a few days, and you’ve got a few days off. So, I would ignore my responsibilities as a father and husband and sit down as long as I could and try and crank out some pages. I find it a lot easier to write to a contract than I do to write on spec, which is one of the reasons why Second Chance Angel, I think, really spun out fast for me because . . .the contract wasn’t necessarily for money, it was a contract between Kacey and I as both of us being similarly experienced writers and not wanting to let the other person down on this pet project that we had taken on for ourselves and that we were taking time out from other things that we might be able to do to work with one another. So, it was really important to me, just as a professional, to make sure I didn’t let her down. So, you know, I didn’t care, I was going to crank those letters and those words out that day any time I had an opportunity to work on Second Chance Angel.
Well, since we’re talking about that, and although Kacey gave her synopsis of it, somebody might not have heard that episode and is hearing about it for the first time. So, how would you describe Second Chance Angel?
A very noir mystery thriller set in a distant future with aliens and a lot of heart. And a little bit of excitement, too. There’s quite a bit going on, alien crime lords, et cetera. So, we touched on a lot of different stones in the subgenres of science fiction.
Did you alternate chapters or alternate scenes or decide who’s doing which scenes? How was that divided up between you?
So, we . . . it kind of fell naturally to us. I wrote the male Muck parts, and she wrote the Angel parts, the female . . . that sounds kind of vaguely dirty, doesn’t it? Angel parts. She wrote the A.I. Angel. As we closed in on a finish, I started to feel, and Kacey, as well, we started to feel like there was some difficulty with the . . . well, first off, the first-person perspective is a challenge for a full-length modern novel today, because people are expecting to have, you know, 100,000, 200,000 words in their inbox for their novel. We were coming in kind of slow on those numbers and were worried that that would be a problem. And then also, trying to tell the full story from only two perspectives, and they share a body, was a little bit challenging. So, we added in additional characters—characters that were already in, but we added them as a point of view characters. They were A.I.s that are not sentient. They are sophonts, but they’re not sentient. They don’t feel at the beginning of the novel. So, that was told in third person, and because they were administrative A.I.s and law-enforcement, they had a lot more data collection points to use for their point of view. And that was collaboratively written between the two of us.
Once you have a draft, either for yourself or for the collaborative novel, what did the revision process look like? Did you have beta readers or anything like that or not?
Yes, we’re both lucky enough that we have a lot of friends that are also writers and voracious readers. And I sent out . . . there’s a group of guys and gals that I have been, from World Fantasy, mostly . . . that I’ve been associated with for some time. We call ourselves the Breakfast Squad. We just basically hang out, drink too much, and make bad jokes in the mornings after. So, we get everybody up, and at breakfast we make inappropriate humor our métier. So, I sent it out to them, and all of them came back with positive, for the most part, and they had a couple of things that they found problematic, and we fixed those problematic issues and turned around, and I did principal editing, first pass, and then I think Kacey went through it again and then we sent it off to a publisher. That publisher turned us down. And we then went to our agent, Justin Bell at Spectrum Literary, and he turned around and shopped at about.
And it’s being published by . . .?
It’s Blackstone Publishing house who eventually picked it up, and they’ve put it out there, and it’s already out and swimming with the other fishes.
And Murphy’s Lawless, I presume, since it’s Caine Riordan, it’s Baen that publishes that?
No, actually. There’s only so much room in any publisher’s house for different stuff. And Chuck was looking around for places that he could put additional content for the Caine Riordan universe and contacted Chris Kennedy Publishing. And with Toni Weiskopf, the publisher and editor at Baen Books, they worked out a deal. And it’s like, “Yeah, cool, no problem. Go ahead and take this portion of the universe and play.” So, Chris Kennedy Publications did an imprint called Beyond Terra Books, and that’s what has published the Murphy’s Lawless series. So far, it’s only in one season, but they’re going to . . . we’re in the process now working on the second season, and the third season is planned, as well as Lost Signals, which is an anthology of mostly short stories—but it seems like every one of us went over the limit on the words—that was initially Kickstarted and then produced, is going to be republished with Beyond Terra Press. So, we’re excited about that, too.
What was the editorial process like for each of these books once it ended up at the publisher? What sorts of feedback did you get?
So, it’s been very different, depending on who it was with. So, Eric is, you know, he’s such an old hand with the editing of his work with co-authors, he generally tends to edit a lot of stuff upfront and then submit it to Toni and Baen, and they have a copyeditor go through it. But it seemed to me that it was harder to pass Eric for editing than it was to actually pass through to the Baen folks because they have a high degree of trust with him that he is going to furnish good copy and complete copy. When it came to the Murphy’s Lawless, sent it to Chuck, and then he sent it on once he was done editing it, and there were some challenges with the Maneater copy because I was going through, I’d had back surgery recently, and stuff like that, I was changing some of my medications, et cetera, so I was not just as focused as I would have liked to have been while I was writing that, although I do think it turned out really nicely. And Chuck had some editing to do with it and then gave it over to Mia Kleve at the Beyond Terra imprint, Chris Kennedy Publishing, and they turned around and got it out there real quick. With Second Chance Angel, it was . . . Blackstone Publishing hires some freelance writer editors, and they hired Betsy Mitchell.
Yeah, it was a huge like, “Wow, really?” We were super excited that that was how it turned out. And she was just really great to work with. She made it a much, much better book with her work.
Well, as editors, good editors do. That’s kind of what they’re all about.
It was really, really neat. And I mean, it was neat working with her because she taught us a lot about how to, you know, how to . . . how simple changes in some of the things that we were doing would lead to much better throughput as far as understanding it, what was going on. ’Cause this is a pretty complex novel, too.
And it has some nice reviews, I see, on your website. So, you must have been pleased. Publishers Weekly and well, Eric Flint gave you a good review, and David . . . you mentioned Hammer’s Slammers, and there you have a review from David Drake.
Yeah, I get choked up when I even think about that, because, you know, he’s my idol.
Yes, it’s . . . one of the great things about this field is that you, you know, we all get started, and we read people that inspire us, and the next thing you know, you’re at World Fantasy or somewhere like that, and you’re actually meeting these people that were kind of far-off distant figures, and you find out they’re there, you know, real people that you can actually . . .
Yeah, and they don’t have clay feet, necessarily. They don’t necessarily have clay feet. So, yeah, Dave was . . . I didn’t really . . . I think I read a couple of books by him, Hammer’s Slammers, beforehand, but I got into one of the anthologies when I was living in Switzerland. And, you know . . . we moved there in the summer, so school hadn’t started. So, I had, you know, zero friends for the most part, although there was one or two that I ended up meeting before school started. But, I had a lot of time on my hands and went down to the English language media store, which is called Elm Books, the anagram of their name, and I picked up, I think, The War World and . . . I can’t remember the name of it now, I just wrote about it the other day . . . but by David Drake and you know, to have him, so he was my buddy, he was writing stuff that I really wanted to read, and he was my buddy in my mind as far as narrating life. So, it was really huge for me to eventually meet him again through World Fantasy and Borderlands books. I ended up driving him around San Francisco to look at the Diego Rivera murals and that kind of stuff and just kind of hanging out and being careful not to tell him that, “I just love your work!” or descending into that kind of . . . it’s really hard when a stranger comes up to you and says, “I love you!”, you know, so you don’t want to go there as a fan. And I managed to keep my fanboy in check. And we’ve been buddies ever since. It’s been a real pleasure. And when I, with great temerity and worried about it, when I wrote him to ask him to write, to read it, he not only read it, but he enjoyed it and offered a blurb. A huge deal.
You talked about all the places you’ve lived, and of course, you’ve done lots of things. And then a police officer for the last 20 years. You did mention how working as a police officer has perhaps influenced things a bit. Do you feel that all that experience, that living experience you have, has made you a stronger writer?
Yeah, there’s no doubt in my mind that, you know . . . part of the reason why I joined the department wasn’t just for a regular paycheck, but also, you know, I wanted to have some stories. Experience informs everybody’s work. You can be a great writer and tell some really cool tales as a youngster. But I think that there is a lot to be said for your experience, life experience, and how you process those experiences can inform your work quite a bit. Certainly, for me, I don’t think I had anywhere near the talent to be able to compensate for my lack of experience when I started.
Do you feel you’re improving all the time?
Oh, yeah, definitely. If you stop learning, you’re failing. I feel like it’s . . . everything can teach you quite a bit. And part of the cool thing about collaborative work, too, is that you can learn from your co-authors immensely if you have an open ear to do so.
Are you very different as writers, the two of you?
Yeah, I think that Kacey is magnificent at emotional impact and emotionally impactful scenes. I am much less so. So, I really picked up a few things from her as far as that and then, you know . . . oftentimes when guys try and write romance, it ends up just being a little bit like porn. Or most guys. One of the things I learned from her is that . . . because there’s a strong vein of romance in this, and I think I learned quite a bit about how to portray that without being, you know, physical, being so utterly reliant on physical description.
Well, we’re getting about, right about 10 minutes left here, so we’ll take the big philosophical questions. Why do you do it? Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes? And why write science fiction and fantasy type stuff specifically?
Number one, specifically, is a lifelong love affair with it, with the genre. You know, it’s the ultimate in anything’s possible. If you can imagine it and make it plausible, you can make it possible in your work. So, that is really cool and unmatched, I think, in any other genre. With regard to why I write, I am a lot healthier when I’m writing and getting my mat out on the page rather than in my interpersonal relationships with others.
One of the things about my profession, especially in recent years and this last year, is that we are expected to be held to a standard that is very, very difficult to adhere to, first off, and secondly, it is extremely difficult when you do adhere to it to not appear as if you’re doing otherwise, because the ignorant or those that are only partially educated in what it is we do will often see something, and violence looks like violence. It looks bad. People don’t go beyond the appearance of things very much in this day and age of “the feels” to understand that the legal justifications and the legal situation that these officers often find themselves in is difficult, and it does not have the benefit of armchair quarterbacking or hindsight. It has to be done right now, in this moment. So, one of the things that the writing allows me to do is to kind of explain that and to work out some of my own feelings about situations that I’ve been in and difficulties that I’ve had on the job and personally.
And why do you think we write, any of us write? Why do you think there’s this impulse to tell stories?
Well, I think it’s one of the ways we relate things that work and things that don’t. And it’s also one of the ways that . . . you know, Dave’s a good example, Dave always talks about getting his mad out and, you know, coming back from Vietnam and not being able to talk about it. And some people find avenues to talk about it through speaking to other veterans or speaking to other people and whatever workplace that they have or, you know, support groups, that kind of thing. And some people need to write about it, and they need to explore their perspectives, that the voices in their own heads are telling them they need to talk to or talk about these things. So, I think it’s always a good thing that storytellers are how we communicate knowledge about the world and how we think it works. And for the storyteller themselves, it’s often a good way to process feelings that are otherwise troublesome.
Well, the podcast is called The Worldshapers, and I always say it’s a little grand to think of any story as particularly shaping the entire world, but certainly, stories can shape individual readers. So, when you’re writing, do you have any hope for how it might affect your readers? When they come away from your stories, what do you hope they take with them?
Well, this particular one, Second Chance Angel, is very important to me that people realize that trauma and dealing with trauma is . . . there are a number of different ways to handle it, and you can be a highly successful individual handling it, processing it and getting it, you know, working on it rather than suppressing it or not trying to think about those kinds of things. There’s a lot of different ways to deal with, to effectively deal with, trauma and issues that arise from trauma that include, rather than preclude, you doing well in your profession and in your relationships with others. So, if there’s anything that I would like people to kind of get is, there’s other people going through the same stuff that need to process it and that there are other people out there in the world that will listen.
And at the same time, I presume you’re hoping to entertain?
Yes. You know, most people are going to look at this and are going to go, “Really? I mean, there’s like there’s a singer on the cover and squiggly alien heads and stuff like that. This guy’s reaching pretty far.” But yes, the ultimate and primary goal is to tell a good story. And along the way, I would like for people to gather or take from it that there’s a lot of ways to heal thyself. And they usually include actually tackling the problem head-on, and they do not preclude getting better at your profession.
What are you working on next?
So Kacey and I just finished the outline and first couple of chapters for The Third Sin, which is the sequel to Second Chance Angel, which has a couple of references there to both the noir genre and a certain robot A.I., a famous guy’s work, certain laws of robotics, and we’re excited to be beginning work on that. I have been working on an epic fantasy for 12 years now, so I’m trying to close in on the finish of that. But I’m also rehabbing from my back injury and trying to get back to work, etc., so there’s quite a bit of stuff going on that’s slowing me down a little bit. But we’re also doing that second season of Murphy’s Lawless, and I’m hoping to have a story in that. I’ve got a bunch of short fiction that has come out in the last year. I’m hoping to get more opportunities to write short stories, as well. So, there’s a lot of different openings.
Is Second Chance Angel seen as a trilogy or endless series, or what’s the idea there?
Yeah, there’s no . . . that was one of the things that is kind of important to note, too, is that one of the things that Jim Baen, the original and the man that built Baen Books, one of the things he said to Eric Flint as related to me by Eric was, the best way to not have a series is to try and write your first novel in that series as if you have a series. So, write a complete story, write a complete novel that indicates that, you know, that it’s discrete, and the reader goes away happy. So, we tried do that with Second Chance Angel. I think we accomplished it. But we are wide open. We have got . . . we did a lot of worldbuilding in Second Chance Angel, and there’s a lot of mystery left to for both Angel and Muck to unravel and fight and suffer through. So, we are very hopeful that we’re going to be able to do a long-running series with it as long as the readers are willing to buy it and publishers want to publish it. We have no specific thing about, like, it’s going to be a five-story arc or a five-novel arc, that kind of thing. But we have the next one outlined, as I said, and we have a precis for the third one, which is tentatively titled The First Question. Because we like to mess with people’s numbering systems.
Yeah, I was just thinking that. The first one is Second Chance Angel, the third one, no, the second one is The Third Sin, and then the fourth . . .
The third one is going to be The First Question, and the fourth, I don’t know, we’re going to have to get creative on that one.
Use a fraction.
Or Four Score, or something like that. But yeah, we had a lot of fun, and we hope that people really enjoy it. It’s my favorite work, I think, so far, because I really got to . . . with Kacey, she and I basically just sat down, and we built a universe, whereas with everything else I’ve done in the past collaboratively, it was done, I was the guy, the journeyman, coming into the master’s arena. So, this was really cool to be masters of our own universe, to be able to just kind of go, “This is really cool to me,” and then hash it out between the two of us as equals rather than as one of us being previously established and the holder of the I.P.
And where can people find you, and more about the book, online?
So griffinbarber.com, and on Facebook as Griffin Barber and Twitter as @TheRantingGriffin and @GriffinBarber as well. Baldilocks is one of the nicknames I’m going with now because I am bald. Yeah, and accessible at any time to chat about stuff. I really enjoyed this, so I appreciate you giving us the opportunity to come on the show and talk about worldbuilding.
Well, you were recommended to me by Dave Butler at Bean Books, who’s been on the show and whom I met at a convention.
Yes, he’s a great guy. I met him, too.
One of the few authors I could truly say I looked up to because I’m 6’2” and he’s . . . more than that.
Yes, he is. He’s a great guy, too. He’s been really neat to get to know.
Yeah. I’ve enjoyed getting to know him a little bit myself. Well, I think that brings us to the end of the podcast. So, thanks so much for being on. 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.
He collaborates with Eric Flint in the New York Times– and Wall Street Journal– bestselling Ring of Fire series, and has worked in the Starfire, Black Tide Rising, Honor Harrington, and Man-Kzin universes. The rest of his bibliography includes many works of short fiction in venues such as Analog, numerous game design/writing credits, and television productions from his past career as a scriptwriter/producer in New York City.
Formerly a Distinguished Professor of English at St. Bonaventure University, and recipient of five Fulbright grants, his book Rumors of War & Infernal Machines won the 2006 ALA Choice Award for Outstanding Book. He is a frequent subject matter expert both for national media venues such as NPR and the Discovery Channel, as well as for various intelligence and defense agencies/contractors.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Chuck. I guess I can call you Chuck. Can I?
Absolutely. Call me Chuck. And it’s great to be here.
Now, we’ve run into each other once in a while at conventions and we actually sat at an autograph table together at DragonCon last year. I can’t remember who was to my left. It was an urban fantasy author with a huge following who had a line out the door. I didn’t. But it was it was nice to have a talk with you while we were sitting there, anyway.
Absolutely. Mine was a humble and intermittent line.
So, we’re going to talk primarily about the Caine Riordan series, as an example of your creative process. But first, I always like to take the guests back into the dark recesses of history…when you were young…and find out how you…
Oh, you mean before electricity.
Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Back then, I was there, too…how you got, first of all, interested in science fiction and fantasy and then how, specifically, you got interested in writing it. And also, you know, where you grew up and that kind of thing.
So where I grew up is about…I’ll start with that first…is about thirty miles northwest of New York City. And I say that, and people envision a sort of endless domino structure of high-rises receding into the great distance, and in actuality, our biggest problem was keeping deer out of our tomatoes. Of course, that was a long time ago. But still, the New York metro sprawl is pretty much constrained a lot closer than that. So, I had a kind of…I had an upbringing which brought me in close contact with the city fairly frequently and yet was pushed right up against the state park, which was inviolate to development. So, it was a mix of two worlds. Not a city person, I learned that early, but in the city there was something that probably was one of the earliest sparkings in me towards what science fiction or just notions of alterity in general. Excuse me, and that was the Museum of Natural History in New York City. They had a, at that time, a really, really extensive, for that time, dinosaur exhibit, I think now that’s been massively passed by others that are much more invested in that. But I could spend an inordinate amount of time amongst the various reassembled fossils, and that was where I conceived of the notion that I wanted to be a paleontologist and write about it.
Well, as time went on, I wanted to be a zoologist and write about it. And then I wanted to be an astronomer and write about it. And then briefly I wanted to be an astronaut and write about it. But that was a little bit more dangerous than I was in line for. And at about eleven or twelve, I realized what the constant was, was wanting to write about it. The other constant was to be involved with cool things. But this was about also the age when you start getting enough of a sense of the way the world works, that at eleven and twelve I was starting to realize about ninety-five percent of the time spent in those jobs, if not more, is solitary, and to my mind, kind of dull, repetitive, and almost purely…for every for every ounce of creativity in it, there was a ton of essentially quantitative assessment, proving analysis, et cetera. Not that I don’t enjoy that to a degree, but my…obviously, I think, given my chosen career, my avocation, lucky enough now to be my occupation, was to move on the creative side of things, so I kind of realized, well, what I want to do is be and talk about all those things, but to write about them. And that’s really been the best of all worlds because literally I can go to all worlds. And that sense of alterity, that sense of, if you will, unlimited possibilities and a total lack of restriction…there are no no-fly zones. There are, you know, there are no construction barriers up when it comes to the human imagination. So. that’s how I got here.
I often say when I’m doing talks and, you know, sometimes people say, “Well, why do you write this stuff?” In fact, I’m going to ask you that question later on. But if it’s coming from people who look slightly askance at science fiction, all the alterity, as you called it, alternate-world kind of fiction is, my response is always, “Well, why don’t you write it? Because it’s such an unfettered place for the imagination to play.”
Yeah, and I think there’s a lot of…oh, there’s a lot of what I’ll call…if you’re really grown up, if you’re really an adult, I think there’s no reason to feel that you have to always act in a way that is socially coded as, if you will, adult action. And I think the notion of, if you spend a lot of time in alterity, in alternate places, in thinking about things that are not connected to what’s happening in the stock market right now and what’s coming across our feed from Reuters or whatever your chosen dubious news source is–and I say that, I’m not saying Reuters is dubious, I’m saying that right now I can’t figure out what isn’t–and in consequence to me, I think if you’re really secure with yourself, why, if you have the kind of mind which is naturally one that wants to go over the next hill, to see what hasn’t been seen yet, then, of course, do that. Which is an entirely adult activity anyhow. It’s just not always coded that way. And I think that, so for me, I understand exactly what you’re saying about that.
But I always find it kind of interesting…it’s a useful endeavor…to encounter folks like that, simply because it sets up an opportunity to have a discourse, and a friendly discourse, and make people perhaps give them a sense of freedom to ask those same questions, just as you said, Ed. You know, it’s, “Well, why aren’t you writing it?” And I think that’s a really important question. I think that it’s probably highly tinctured by our media. What I mean by that is, for instance, I have four kids, and they are big fans of the various Marvel movies. And I have to say, they’re a great romp. But I think for a lot of folks, when they think of science fiction, when they think of alterity in general, they’re thinking of that. They’re thinking of Star Wars. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these things. They’re great fun. But it’s not, that’s not the workshop in which I toil. As you said in your intro, hard science fiction is pretty much where I live. And even when I’m doing fantasy, the same sort of rigour in terms of the way the world works and the way the world has been built, not to sort of preview what obviously our main topic is, worldbuilding, but, you know, this is what they think of, and they think of escapist fare. And what I think, unfortunately, it tends to blind them to, or it gets in the way of them having, finding and creating a relationship with that part of our genre which is entertaining, but escapist would probably not be the best word to use to define its center of gravity.
Now, were there books that you were exposed to that made a big impact on you and kind of helped push you in this direction?
There absolutely were. I don’t remember some of them because they were simply Scholastic Books Service Book of the month sort of things, when you’re in grade school here in America. But I do remember a couple. There was a series, it was Dig Allen…Digby Allen Space Rangers, something like this (Ed’s note: Dig Allen, Space Explorer, by Joseph Green, creator of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.) And it was just as juvenile as it sounds, but it was fascinating, because what they did…the premise was a visit to every one of the worlds of the solar system, which even in the science of that time were deeply unlikely. But that didn’t matter to me at that age, and I devoured them and obviously remembered them. And I would say then, when I read…the next two things that really sort of drove home some of the possibilities in the genre to me was War of the Worlds reading the, you know, the original unexpurgated version of H.G. Wells. And, you know, the striking thing at the end of the book, when they say, when they finally crack into the walkers and they find some of the Martians who’ve perished from biology, from bacteria here on Earth, that a sort of backward assessment of their skeleton and everything else says suggests they weren’t too unlike us earlier in their evolution. And so that really, for some reason, that book really turned me on to two things. It’s an exciting book, but it’s also a big-idea book. You know, as you as you start to get into the notion of…which I only learned much later…the history of this is, you probably know this, he was walking out in his backyard with his brother, I believe it was, and they were talking about what was going on in Tasmania, the extermination, the clearing of species that didn’t exist any place else on the earth. It was his brother who said, “Wouldn’t it be something if, you know, if there were beings from another planet that came down here and started laying about themselves the way we are in Tasmania?” and, you know, all of what’s in there, in terms of really important questions and really important perspectives about, you know, the wages of empire, what does it mean to expand, the inability, in the case of the Martians, to speak with them, both because of a lack of common ground and also because they’re disinterested, and also the notion that we’re not on the top of the food chain. That to me was really, really interesting. So that book, as I guess my long, flowing, not to say disjointed, answer may suggest, is a…it really, really, I would say, if it didn’t set me on the track, it really was a lens that clarified the vision of where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do.
So when did you actually start trying your hand at writing fiction?
Pretty much a few months after that? Actually, I’d been writing fiction beforehand and I started very, very soon thereafter and was fortunate enough to come across a great mentor and started publishing…you know, this can this can be taken by listeners as either a badge of honor or a badge of shame for me, but started writing in Star Trek fanzines back in the day before…there weren’t even photocopiers. It was that thump, thump, thump noise of a mimeo machine, which was how one got into amateur publications. And that’s what I did and went forth from there.
And that great smell of the ink.
Oh, that ink, you never get off your hands. Good Lord.
I remember that well. That and Gestetner machines, those were…with the wax stencils. I had to draw cartoons for my junior high newspaper on a Gestetner stencil, which was scraping it into the wax. That was an interesting one.
It’s a little bit like monk work in the medieval era, toiling away over these highly resistant substances of ink and vellum to leave some mark for the future. Yeah, I remember those wax papers as well. And boy, are we dating ourselves here. OK. So, on we go.
Yeah. So you…because you eventually became a distinguished professor of English. I’m assuming you were an English major at university. Is that a fair assumption?
Well, it would be, except for I went to Brown University, which had, and still has, an independent major opportunity. And while English and creative writing, they also had a distinct creative writing track, and to this day, a well-respected M.A. program in…MFA? M.A., I forget which…in creative writing. And so, I went there and I had three things that I found were sort of speaking to me, and they were theatre arts, they were semiotics, which is, you know, to use the fast rubric, the theory of signs and symbols, but actually, what it was for the most part were film courses, and English with the creative writing element in it. So, I decided I wanted to package all three, and had a…came up with a major called storytelling for creative media. And that’s what I did. That’s what my degree was in. I had a minor in English, but I always…it’s kind of interesting I went that way, because even in 1978, ’79, I felt we were moving towards cross-platform narratives, increasingly. So, whereas many people are sort of looking, I suppose, still at e-books and trying to get accustomed and acclimated to that, my question is, “So when do we start having more media start actually moving into e-books?”, which I think is something that’s coming certainly within the next fifteen years and possibly a lot sooner than that.
I always ask people who’ve had actual creative writing courses, the writers that I’ve talked to, how useful that was for them in the long run. Some have had disparaging things to say about their creative writing classes in university. What was your experience?
My experience was mixed. I would say that…so, I did it in two ways. I had some of the courses in a track, some of the courses as independent study. The independent studies were very rewarding and largely, I think, they’re because…I always knew, my motivation always was to write, but what I would call belle lettres was not ever at the center of my scope. It would be lovely if somebody noticed my writing and felt that it was meritorious from within that sort of, under that tent. But my notion was always that I wanted to do the highest quality possible fiction in speculative fiction, whatever that meant, whatever market I had to go to. And there was no small amount of pushback on that, in 1979, 1980, ’81. I mean, it’s pretty clear that not only did science fiction and fantasy come out of the ghetto, but you might say we won, in that…just given, you know, how much it’s proliferated in our media these days, I think that if you go and look at the top five grossing films of all time right now, you will find that not a one of them is anything other than alterity. They’re all, for the most part, science fiction or superhero films. What that says is probably fodder for an entirely different podcast. But, in…so, it’s a very different world for any listener who may not have been around back when, you know, as Kingsley Amis said, when he would read science fiction on the underground in London, he would always have a larger magazine, so that he could put the science fiction book inside it, so he’d read it without anybody actually seeing that he was shaming himself as a good, upstanding, serious Englishman.
And so, for me in creative writing courses, there was some pushback on my materials, but they were helpful in a lot of ways. They were not helpful in others. I think the thing about creative writing, most programs, is that the people teaching them are usually not people who have had a long-standing popular-market success. Most of them, many of them are not people who’ve had much success professionally at all. They have degrees. They have some publications. Their publications tend to be in academic journals. And if you look at a lot of the academic journals which are connected to MFA programs, you will notice that they’re primarily…or, at least they were up until fifteen years ago, the years ago…they were primarily publishing other people in this same circuit, if you will, of MFA programs. So, they were publishing each other. And so, the notion of, how do you write to entertain, how do you write to be commercially successful, how do you integrate the sort of things that you’re trying to do in an MFA or creative writing track program, are frequently just, they’re not addressed. They’re not addressed in terms of actually making a living at this or having a, whether you make a living or not, having a career of some sort in it.
When I was actually in charge of the creative writing track at St. Bonaventure, I very much focused it on, sort of, without throwing…I don’t believe that…the problem with going to either extreme of either belle lettresor just pure commercial capability is, either one, you’re throwing some baby out with the bathwater. So, I very purposely created a middle course. So that was…it offered both…people coming at it from either one of those ends of the spectrum or points in between, that it was still not making them feel unwelcome or that their issues and their ambitions were being thwarted by the presuppositions of the program.
I’m currently mentoring an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan. It’s the first time I’ve done that. And he’s writing a young-adult fantasy. And so…I’m encouraged that apparently that particular program, at least, is letting students sort of do that, come at it from whatever direction they’re particular interests take them. I had one creative writing course in university and everything else was journalism. So, it’s always interesting to talk to people about their experiences with that. So how did you…when did you…start writing and getting published?
Well, I suppose if you mean getting published as in a check comes along with that, that would have been in the…actually, I was good at making money in television before I made money in dead-tree publication. I was writing scripts. I was writing documentaries, things like that, I was a script doctor in New York City back in the mid-’80s to the late ’80s. The first print publication I had for which some money came my way was actually in gaming, and that was in 1988 for a wonderful science-fiction roleplaying game called Traveler.
I played it!
Yeah, well then you may have seen some of my stuff along the way. I was…ultimately, that was part of my freelance gig, from 1988 to 1992. And I was, for a while, I was in charge of the Traveller segment of…the house organ at that time was called Challenge magazine, and I was made the mega-Traveller guru, which was a lot of fun and taught me a lot of good lessons in there. And at about, right at about the end of that was when I had my first fiction sale, which was to one of…the late Jerry Pournelle, who was a who was a good friend of mine. Many people, I suppose, have encountered stories of him being, at the very least, forceful and direct, and at the, probably the negative end of the spectrum, irascible, but he was always just a sort of big, nice uncle to me. And it was in one of those, in his anthologies, called War World, which was connected to the whole CoDominium series, that I got…I published two things at the same time. There was a short story called “Introduction,” which was exactly that, for that second or third installment, it was called Invasion, the third installment of the War Worldseries, and then another short story in there called “The Gift of the Magi.” And so that was the, that was the first, and then things kind of came to a crashing halt for quite a while. But I returned to writing full time in 2007…late.
You mentioned that there were some lessons you learned from both scriptwriting and gaming that then applied to your fiction. What were some of those lessons?
Well, one of the ones in film…there were lessons that were really valuable to learn and other lessons you had to unlearn. So, the lessons I learned. Writing action–cinema is a great place to cut your teeth because very quickly, you realize, I think faster than you do writing a book, that there are certain things which should happen as a narrative moves towards action that really you disregard at your peril. So, some specifics. If you think about film for a second, and you move from a conversation or a scene-setting moment, a medium or long shot, right? As we move to action, the shots get closer, the shots get faster. It is cut on action. And the pace of the shots, if you were going to put it to a metronome, the pace of the metronome is increasing. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just intellectual or cognitive. It’s physical. Literally, when we get excited, what happens to our heart rate? It goes up. It speeds up. Well, that’s exactly what you’re seeing in terms of the pace of the cuts as you move into action. What don’t you see? You never have any item that’s going to be used in an action sequence explained during the middle of the action sequence. That would sort of be like, you know, dropping a bomb on a locomotive that’s just gaining steam and moving forward. So you don’t do that, unless you you’re writing a parody. You don’t have people talking with each other as they are trading blows. That might work, you know, for certain highly, I guess you could say posed or stylized events, but in general, when people are, the more…the higher the stakes are, let’s say your life, you don’t generally take time to say anything other than what absolutely needs to be said. This is not a moment for witty banter. This is not a moment for one adversary to sneer at the other as twirl their mustache with their free hand. That not what’s going on at urgent at urgent moments. And cinema teaches you that, because if you try to do that in cinema, there is no way, you will sit in front, you will sit at the editing table, back in the days that we were physically editing 16mm black and white, and you’ll realize, “Oh my God, this is ridiculous. This is utterly ridiculous.” And it teaches you that lesson for the rest of your life regarding narrative. And that translates very well into prose format, because as I move into action sequences, the paragraphs get shorter, the sentences get shorter, multisyllabic words get fewer, which I know anybody who listens to me talk for five minutes says, “Really? Can you even do that?” But the fact is, yes, I can, particularly when the action is very intense. And description is more, has now entered the realm of the verb almost exclusively. It really doesn’t want nouns at that point.
So those are all…but then then you have to unlearn a lesson. And one of the big lessons you have to unlearn from film is dialogue. Dialogue, for instance, in television you can have…and in films, we see this all the time…you know, somebody can be doing something, and they say, “Well, we’ve got to press the thingamabob before the clock hits 9.” “Why? Why do we have to do that?” And you get this explanation. That sort of pitching of a character asking why or how or what, which is the platform for the other character to explain, it really becomes a very, very tired mechanism in prose much more quickly. And the reason for that is because you can, if you plot it carefully, you can put it in…in television and put it in a car chase. You can put it in people as they’re trying to get from one subway car to another and they’re having to jostle through a crowd. In other words, it’s a little bit stylized, but there are less high-action moments, when the characters are still doing interesting things. The visuals are telling us they’re moving towards the objective, so we’re paying attention to that. But we’re getting this other track in terms of, that’s explaining what’s going to happen, foregrounding it, what needs to be done, what the objective is going to be. The lesson to learn when you’re in fiction, when you’re writing prose, is you have one track, you don’t have audio and visual, you don’t have information your eyes are gathering for you, plus listening to the dialogue. And if you try to do that same sort of thing in in prose, you will probably rue the day you thought that was a good idea.
And on the gaming side?
The gaming side teaches you a lot about collaboration. It teaches you a lot about being a good guest in somebody else’s sandbox. I actually think gaming is far better preparation for novels, novel writing, in some ways, than is filmmaking. And the reason I say that is connected to the reason why I have, you know, people will say, well, “Hope your books are going to be made into a film!” Maybe. I’d rather they were made into a game, and I’ll tell you why. If you, if, you know, you see what film directors do on set, they supposedly hold their fingers up to make a box so they can see what’s in the viewfinder, right? They say, “We’ll take this short of shot.” They’re framing things all the time. They have to. That’s their job. On film and television it is rarely important what is outside the frame. That’s just not that important. But when you’re designing a game or when you’re writing a novel, particularly if you think there’s a series there, it is very important what’s beyond the frame, because you’re going to come back to it. In the case of a game, particularly electronic games now, but also roleplaying games, the first thing that’s going to happen, any game design knows this, is that the players are going to wander away. They’re not going to follow the path that seems the most likely, and they actually…and these days, there’s largely an expectation that there should be things off the beaten path. If a game is too linear, it very often gets a black eye right now, and has probably for the last ten or fifteen years. So, understanding what worldbuilding means in a more totalized concept, that it’s not just…you don’t just develop the things that are gonna wind up in the viewfinder of your camera, because your readers or your game players’ interests are going to go off that beaten track. They’re going to want to sense that the world is real beyond the narrow confines of the of the screen or the scope through which they’re viewing things at that given moment. And so, it was great preparation for that, for worldbuilding. It’s a very orderly form of worldbuilding by definition, because in any game, whether it’s for a computer or whether it’s for something you’re playing at your home on tabletop, you know, papers and pencils as it is, and dice, the bottom line is, there’s quantities involved. There are relationships between what you attempt to do and whether you succeed. In most games, it still has some kind of simulational verity, that is at some level connected to the quantifiable elements that will either make it more or less likely that you succeed. And so, all of that is great preparation for worldbuilding that I believe readers…readers can tell if a world is fully fleshed out or not in a writer’s mind. And you will have done that work from that background.
So, when you brought all those lessons together, it was still a few years after the short story that you were talking about…that was a few years before your first novel came out, right?
Oh, more than a few years, but I was working on it. That may be another thing, which is…so in 1991, ’92, a pair of semi-braided short stories are my first publication. I have to leave the industry for…that’s a whole other story. But it had nothing to do with me. It had to do with changes of business, it had to do with broken contracts that resulted in some…lawsuits that ultimately happily only went to arbitrage, because people cancelled contracts, and in those days people in gaming didn’t understand that they couldn’t do that, not without paying a bit for the piper. And so, I had to look at Plan B, and Plan B was becoming a college professor, which I did. And the good news was I was pretty good at that, and the bad news was I was pretty good at that. But even so, what I mean by the bad news is that if you do something well, you basically get asked to do more. And that was certainly the case with me. And that was very, very gratifying. And I learned a lot through that, which found its way into my writing. But at the same time, how much time I was able to devote to actual writing slowed down. But throughout that entire time, from ’92 to 2007, although I published one or two things in that time, it was short fiction. But I kept on developing the world that would ultimately turn into the first novel.
Now the first novel of mine, Fire with Fire, which is the first novel in the Caine Riordan series, was a 2013 publication. But my first novel actually was in a shared universe once again with one of the people you mentioned earlier that you’ve already had on the show, David Weber. He had left the series called Starfire, which is a space opera military science fiction series that actually predates Honor Harrington. So, he had been doing it with Steven White. He left because, as I think we know, David Weber is a pretty busy guy right now. And he’d done that, and he was moving on to two other projects. So, I had come to Baen Books’ attention, and the attention of the lead author on the series now, Steve White, who said, “Do you want to come play in this sandbox?” And I said, you know, “Is the pope Catholic?” And so, that was the first book. And through that was, I think, the demonstration that, in fact, I, you know, as I’m sure listeners may have heard already on this program or other places, since I know that this particular venue draws in a lot of writers, there’s a huge, huge difference between people who can write well and write a great story and complete a novel. It’s a little bit like, to use the academic equivalent, there are so many more ABDs, that’s “all but dissertation,” than there are ultimate Ph.Ds. conferred, because that’s where a lot of people stop. A lot of people can tell a good story, but they can’t wrap it up in a totality that a novel is, sustain it over that period of time, and not make it feel like a lot of it is just sort of wasted noise. And so, I had the good opportunity, therefore, to show my potential publisher that I could do that with my own stuff as well. And that’s what happened, and so it was between…it was fifteen years, if we count it out between when I had to stop writing fiction more or less in 1992 and before I could resume again, and then it was another six years. So I guess, as I think back on it, horrified at the notion, it was twenty-one years.
So, we’re going to talk about the Caine Riordan series. So, for people who…I’ve read, I haven’t read the entire series, I’ve read some books, I haven’t gotten too far into Marque of Caine, the latest one, but I’ve started it and I’ve read a couple of the previous books. Can you give us sort of overall synopsis of the series for someone who inexplicably hasn’t read any of the books?
There’s a lot of inexplicable people out there, I tell you that for sure. So, it’s set a hundred years in the future. It is a…the story begins before we have any inkling that there may have been other intelligences. And what the story…I guess you could say it’s written in, at a moment in a change of history. And the change in history it really looks at is, “What happens when we learn we’re not alone? And what does that mean?” And the main character, his story is that he he’s a defense analyst, he’s a think-tanker. He has worked with and around the government, but not for the government. And he actually runs…he’s the right guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. And for his troubles he is cryoslept. He’s put into cryogenic suspension, which is a fairly new technology at the time that that it occurs, and he is awakened about thirteen years later, to go and look, to explore if the report of alien intelligence or ruins on Delta Pavonis—which is an actual star, one of the hard-science aspects of the series—if it is in fact an accurate report, if the murmurings are true. And the and the reason they pull him out of cold sleep to do this is, they’re part of an agency which has been tasked to keep an eye out for this. And they know their own people are being watched. He’s been out of…he’s essentially missing, presumed dead, because when he is cold-slept during an investigation on the moon, he is not reported as being cold-slept, he is reported as being missing. So thirteen years later, he’s awakened, and the notion is, well, we’ll get you your life and we’ll tell you what happened in the 100 hours you can’t remember before you went into cold sleep. And that’s the setup.
And what flows, goes from there is essentially first contact, and first contact turns out to not be some sort of some sort of grand encounter with other intelligences, it turns out that we are already a playing piece in a variety of…there are only five other intelligences, or four, depending on how you count them, and they all have designs on us in one way or another. We’re already part of a game for which we don’t know who the players are, and we don’t know what the rules are. And so, the first book gets to the end of a sort of a first convocation of these groups that has clearly gone very awry and indicates that, rather than a bunch of lofty intelligent beings, this is just as fraught by differences and squabbles as, for instance, our own Balkanized world is. The second book is that this first contact goes terribly awry because it turns it into an invasion that isn’t an invasion. And what I mean by that is that there are certain forces on Earth which actually, or I guess you would say power centers on Earth, that actually invite an occupation of certain areas because they feel that they are not receiving proper representation on Earth. So this is one of these ways in which also I try to…the problems of our day are something that I try to carry forward into these books, here the basic notion being if your own house isn’t in order it makes you vulnerable in all sorts of ways. And while I don’t think that therefore we’re about to be visited by aliens anytime soon, or maybe we are, it, you know, we remain as contentious as we are about so many things at our own peril. And certainly I think that, you know, just whatever you think of climate science, whatever you think of asteroid interceptors as something that we should be looking to do for earth crossing, whatever the threat is to the human race, I can absolutely feel certain of this: we are stronger together than we are apart, and the wages of remaining apart become very, very manifest in the second book of the series.
That completes what I call the contact arc. The next three books in the series of which the fifth, the one you’ve just started on, Ed…I call the emissary or the envoy arc, because now it’s time to go and meet some of these other intelligences, both to try to strike up relationships and also to prevent incidents which could lead to a resumption of hostilities. And in the fifth book, we finally get the answer to some of what was in the first book regarding these ruins that were particularly interesting because there were two ruins, and one was clearly built either by or for humans, and the other was built by somebody else. And they date to about 20,000 years in the past. And in the first four books, which take place in over the space of only three years, there is a constant, you know, we are always jumping from one fire frying pan into the next or the fire. And just hopefully the reader apparently is caught up in that same flow of events that Earth itself is, just trying to adapt to what’s, what the new crisis in front of you. And in the fifth book, we finally wind up meeting the aliens, called the Dornaani, who do know what was going on 20,000 years ago. And that answers one set of mysteries, which has been cooking through the first five books in the series, but also opens up deeper mysteries for those which will follow.
What was the initial seed for this series, and also, in general, for a new book for you, what sorts of things spark your interest and get you started on the process of developing them?
So this is a…this is a question for which I assume I’m going to have some unfortunately boring answers. What I mean by that is that, in some ways the spark was lit…remember when I said I was, you know, you asked me, when did you start writing after reading this influential book, and I said pretty much a few months later. And while what I tried to write was essentially a fairly dreadful homage to Star Trek, the original series, you know, and a couple of other things that I was interested in thrown in for good measure, none executed particularly well, this notion of contact, of what contact means, of how diplomacy is going to be very akin to anthropology at some level for a, you know, xenoanthropology in order to…how do you talk? What values do you share?…This was always part of it. And then, you know, there’s the…the reason I gravitate towards, very often, conflict motifs is not because I am enamored of war for its, you know, for its own sake. One would hope not. But I do find that the one thing you can say about conflict is it’s where the stakes are highest. And that’s always good for drama, which is why I think we see so much of that as the organizing trope in movies and in games and in a variety of things.
But then in my twenties and thirties, particularly in my thirties, I would say, between reading and also what I was experiencing during my Fulbrights, this…the sense of intrigue, of layers within layers, wheels within wheels, was really growing for me. And that put in the third part of this, which is, yes, it is, it is conflict, yes, it is first contact, and yes, there isn’t a single book which doesn’t have an intrigue element to it as well. And nested under all of that, though, is this question about what came before us. What is our place in this universe? And so, I know you asked me, what is my idea for a book, but the thing is, the series and the books were, have been percolating in my mind, since I was twelve or thirteen, in one form or another.
I was gonna say, there’s certainly, what you said about War the Worlds, you can certainly see that in these books that…
The alien intelligence that we don’t quite get.
So, how do you go about the actual process of plotting and worldbuilding? Do you start with your worldbuilding and then you develop your plot, then your characters come from matter? How does all of that initial preparation work for you. Are you a big outliner, or do you just make it all up as you go? Somehow I don’t think you make it all up as you go.
You’re absolutely right on the last conjecture. I do not make it…I couldn’t keep track of it if I made it up as I go. I think when you write intrigue particularly, and you write this sort of deep mystery, you know, if you’re going to write something that you’re only going to solve for reader, four books later, my suggestion would be to figure that out ahead of time. There will be things that you will discover in the act of writing anyhow. That’s always going to happen. But I think having a framework is really important. So for me, before I wrote the first book, I actually knew what the first seven or eight in the series were roughly going to be. So, it’s not like I sit down and say, what is the next book I want to write in this series? I kind of know what the next book I want to write is. But I don’t trouble myself with the specifics…if you troubled yourself with the specifics of each book, you’d never wind up writing any. You’d have a bunch of very interesting outlines. And what I tend to do when I outline is, when I know I’m moving towards writing a book and it starts creeping into my consciousness. I start accumulating notes. That means I have a thought when I’m on the road and I dictate something into my phone, or I am working on a story and I realize that this passage doesn’t fit here, but I know that it’s going to be needed in the next one, where I have a realization through what comes out of a character’s mouth as I’m writing, let’s say Book 1, and I realize, “Oh, my gosh, this I just realized from what this character said what must be driving X, Y and Z,” and I will simply open a new file, write that down until I’ve, it’s sort of all come out of me, and then go back to my original. So, what’s happening is I’m compiling all this other stuff.
Another thing that may happen is that I write things that I like or…so what I do is, by the time I’ve started a novel, I’ve got all these pieces, yeah? And they have to do with all sorts of things. And then I know…the story is kind of what I know. I know where we start in a story and where we end in a story. Well, beforehand, what happens, the exact course of events, that remains a little bit vague. Part of what happens is that then, as I start working with that and I know more about what the dramatic arc is, I start looking at all these notes and I wind up putting them in different places in the dramatic arc. It is not as organized as, I come up with a chapter outline. I don’t do that for a variety of reasons. Chapters for me are actually…they’re not…they are things that to me evolve spontaneously. What I mean by that is a chapter should have a really good sense of closure. I can know what sort of content I want to put at a certain point in the book, but that doesn’t necessarily tell me…I’m probably going to discover where that great closure moment, that great last line in each chapter is, as I write, because it will be characters in conversation, it will be a turning point in a battle, it will be the discovery of a new mystery or something like that, which is that great, which gives you that great tagline, which makes somebody absolutely have to turn the page to read to find out what happens as a result of this, what happens next.
So, I don’t work from an outline in chapters. What I do is, I kind of see the different dramatic blocks that the entire narrative is going to be in, and I start seeding, I start taking all those notes, all those recordings, and I start notionally putting them in the different blocks. That tells me what the topics of conversation are going to be. And very often what’s happened is, like I say, I will have a…a lot of these ideas that I have long before I start writing the book become really foundational elements in determining what the dramatic arc of the book is going to be. If this is going to be where this fact is revealed, then I kind of already have a scene in mind. And when I start having that scene in mind, I kind of get a sense of, is that the conclusion, is that the midpoint, is that the introductory part of it, and the book really kind of takes shape. So I’m very much an outliner, but not on the level of, here’s what happens in this chapter, here’s what happens in this chapter, because I actually want to leave myself to discover some of that, because I feel that an over-plotted book can sometimes feel a little bit stiff, like it’s hitting the marks, and I want to also have spontaneity. I want spontaneity as I write. That means that I have the freedom to deviate from what I thought I was going to be doing at this part because I keep on discovering as I write the book.
And when I say discovering, I mean discovering things about characters, I also mean discovering that what I thought was going to be the best dramatic driver for the book is evolving in a slightly different direction. Doesn’t mean I’m throwing it out, but I want to…I don’t want to…in the final analysis, remaining flexible saves me time, too, because if you spend a lot of time doing an outline and then you say, “Oh, my gosh, this is, I thought this was gonna work really well, but actually the primary interest is not where I thought it would be, it’s gonna be here, I need to refocus.” Well, that means, therefore, if you’ve invested all the way to the end of the book in a very tightly plotted outline based on that presumption, it means you have to go back, and you have to redo all that. So for me, I tend to remain…there’s a certain point where my outlining ends in order to retain flexibility. And for me, it makes the book more interesting to write, frankly.
What about characters? You’ve mentioned that you develop, you discover things about your characters as you’re writing. Do you do a lot of preparatory work on, you know, details of their childhood and all that sort of thing, character sheets, as some people do before you start?
I did that with a couple of major characters. These are through characters, these are characters who have through lines and whose backgrounds are very important. Of course, for me, one of the things that people will realize when they read my books is that a lot of the major characters are not even human. So the background there, obviously, is worldbuilding in terms of, their society is not like ours, so what does it mean? What is a consciousness like that comes from this very different set of evolutionary building blocks and the very different culture that will arise from that, and how do I understand that, and how are they received in that culture? One of the things that I’ve done, and it’s a…I do write on a bunch of different levels, and I do hope that that at some point maybe somebody will go back and say, “Look, he was doing this, or trying to do it, anyhow.” One of the things about the main character, as I said, who sort of winds up being the first-contact expert simply because there’s no way to really get a degree in first contact, they’re doing it for the first time, hence first contact, but it actually helps to be a little bit of an outsider. And what I mean by that is if you are, if you presume that the shibboleths and the truths, so to speak, maybe truisms is a better word, of your upbringing and your culture are absolute, they’re kissing cousins to physical law, you’re not going to probably have what I will call the freedom of intellect and the receptivity to actually meet something that is intelligent but shares almost none of that background. How do you find common points? How do you wind up seeing your…how is this a mirror held up to your own species? These sort of things are…they’re consistents, and what I…
The one commonality, for instance, and I discovered this later in the writing, is that all of the alien characters who ultimately are the opposite number in a first-contact scenario, either by chance or design, to some degree are the same way. They are…they’re not pariahs in their own society, but they don’t…they don’t rest comfortably inside it. It doesn’t answer all the questions for them. To some degree, to whatever extent…a person who is willing to question their own society is also considered a little bit dangerous by their own society. That’s what all have in common, regardless of where…because you have to have that freedom.
So, to go back to what I was mentioning earlier about through characters that actually do have that kind of initial development on the way in. Caine Riordan, the protagonist of the series, to the extent that it has one, is definitely an example of that. And my decisions regarding him were a little bit a little bit unusual, I suppose, in that I wanted a realistic character that was going to be a great lens for immediate encounters with the unknown, immediate encounters with problems. And that meant that, in addition to me wanting to break with tradition and not go with somebody who starts out as a soldier or a spy or something else like that, I wanted to choose somebody who was a little bit more reminiscent of what I’m gonna call a World War Two hero ethos, which was, World War Two was largely a war where you did not have professional militaries. You had, it was a sort of a come-as-you-are party. And so, citizen soldier and that entire idea was very important to me, and that’s one of the reasons I chose to make him an analyst and a think tanker more than anything else, because I wanted him to start out in a comfort zone.
So, he was…what I mean by that is, he’s a semi-Washington insider at the time that everything begins, and it’s…he starts, actually, in a place of strength, in his comfort zone, but as time goes on, he’s actually moving out of that that comfort zone, very much what had to happen with folks who were in World War Two, they had to learn things on the job. They hadn’t… his was not part of their plan. And I thought that was a more interesting story than the ones that…I think we’ve gone in a slightly more pre-professionalized sort of direction regarding a lot of our heroes in similar tales.
The other thing that I wanted to do about him, so I wanted to give him, what was he going to have instead of those skills? And so, I decided on a character that was a polymath, which is, of course, more than just knowing a lot of things. It is also having an ability to, if you will, employ and exploit knowledge from one field to another. To give you an example of that, the same thing that moderates, for instance, our…the principle of dynamic equilibrium is just one example. It’s at work in terms of a pendulum. It’s at work in terms of maintaining pressure between systems. It’s at work in maintaining body temperature in the human body. And a polymath will tend to see all these things as potentially informing different fields where a similar process of dynamic equilibrium might be at work. That’s the way a polymath tends to think. They tend to take concepts or paradigms from one area, apply them to another that would not necessarily be the place you would normally expect to see it applied.
So, I wanted to make him that because I wanted to give him a kind of an unusual facility that turns into, readily turns into a jack of all trades, master of none. I thought that would be interesting in a character. The other thing that I chose for him…so that is, if you will, his superpower, everybody of course, every character has to have a tragic flaw. And his tragic flaw is a sort of a virtue that can go to an extreme, which is, he really, really does not like to, and almost never does, tell a lie. And when he does “lie,” it’s a lie of omission. It’s like, well, if you presume something and I don’t, I’m not going to say any…I’m not going to correct your misperception there. And he’ll only do that with people he feels have proven themselves to be faithless.
Now, given how much, as is obvious, he obviously works with or for the government on occasion, that desire never tell a lie, never to, you know, never to spout a party line, for anybody who’s had any sort of experience with large organizations, you can understand just how costly that can be.
So, I wanted him also, with those skills, I felt that I wanted a character that readers, particularly readers, long-time readers of this, of science fiction and fantasy, would relate to. And I felt they would relate to this because, frankly, there are two places where I’ve met a lot of people who have these sort of traits, who have these desires not to march…they’re going to march to the beat of a different drum. They’re extremely intelligent. They are, they’re intelligent, their intelligence is spread across and frequently integrates a variety of different disciplines, and the two places I found that, in my experience, have been in that that big building at Langley, and as you walk past those cubicles, you’ll see the science-fictional books and all of the, if you will, the devotion again to alterity, because those are minds forever voyaging also. That’s why they’re analysts, for a large part. And also, science fiction fans themselves.
And so, in a sense, this was sort of a love letter, I guess you could say, to fans. I don’t come from fandom, but I found fandom to be exactly like this: well-read, competent in a bunch of areas, ferociously intelligent, really don’t care if they fit anybody else’s preconceived mold. So, that was who I chose him to be, and he’s evolved to the point as a character that…fans often describe my characters better than I do, and one fan, I was trying to explain who he was to somebody who didn’t read much science fiction at all, and the person with this less-exposed individual said, he sort of broke in and said, “Okay, let me put it in terms you understand. This character is a cool guy who has to sort of solve problems almost like a MacGyver, and he’s got sort of…although he’s got the head of Batman, he’s kind of got the heart of Captain America, although he doesn’t have any of their powers.” And I sat there, and I said, “Yep, that’s good. That works. I’ll take that. That’s a nice description. That’ll hook people.” So, that’s kind of who the main character is, and as you can see, this was very much a planned character for the other reason, the last thing I’ll say is, the other reason I did not want him to be a specialist at anything, why I did not want him to be in a military or rank situation, is that I frequently find it that a lot of these series, military series particularly, have this apparent driver in them to show the character from private to general and then still somehow involved in the action. And to my mind, that was never a good model because it becomes increasingly implausible as you go, as a character becomes higher and higher and higher in the command structure, that they would actually be on the sharp end of things, that they would be where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. And I did not want to take that away from the character. So I wanted…so although first contact frequently goes wrong or can put him in places where conflict arises, I didn’t want him to ever promote out of having to be in the field. So those were some things that are very much structured the character’s background and also the character’s temperament and abilities.
So, with your plan in mind and your characters, what does your actual writing process look like? Do you sit and work a certain number of hours a day? Do you write in longhand in an old notebook under a tree? How does it work for you?
So, no Thoreau for me, and…so, my work habit is not the one that I, unfortunately, that I work best on. And what I mean by that is I write toward immersion, because I think that’s one of the absolute requirements in a good piece of fiction, that…if a reader falls into your book, no matter why they’re doing it, you’re doing your job. You know, unless they’re there…and I don’t mean stick with the book, when I say fall into it, I mean, they get lost in the world, I mean, when they finally close the book, they feel like they’re re-emerging from that other world into this world. That is my objective. And so, my…I write from the same process, if you will, which is I, in a perfect world, I would get to my desk at nine or ten in the morning and I would write as long as it was in me. And there were times when I used to be able to do that. And there are one or two days of the week where I’ve got it structured that I can, but when you have four kids, two and a half of whom are still at home, that’s not quite the way it works out. So, the bottom line is, I try to get a start on every day.
I’m fortunate, very blessed, in that I never have what I would call writer’s block. And as a hint or as a possible function to other writers, I would say if I don’t know where I want to start the day or my energy isn’t ready, one of the things I’ll simply do—normally I do not start my day this way—Is I’ll go back to what I wrote the previous day or the last day that I was writing, and I’ll look at the last four pages of it, just to get myself up to speed. What I’m also winding up doing, of course, is I say, “Oh, my God, there’s a typo,” or “Oh, that’s clumsy,” or “Oops, that’s repetitive,” and by the time I’m done with those four pages, I’m ready to rock. As a matter of fact, I’m impatient to get going, because I’ve sort of put myself on the runway, I’ve backed myself up on the runway a little bit so by the time I’m hitting the blank page, so to speak, I already have a head of steam going. And that’s pretty much how I write. And if I can write for three or four hours straight such that I only stop when I suddenly realize, “Wow, my bladder is really full,” that is the way I like to write. That’s the most productive for me too, because the longer I do that, the more immersed I get in my own world. I don’t even feel like I’m writing at that point, I feel like I’m channeling and that’s, to me, the way it should feel.
When you get to the end, what does your revision process look like to you? Do you revise—you mentioned some revision as you go, when you’re doing this backing up, but do you do a complete start-to-finish rewrite at the end or are you pretty much done when you reach the end?
So, what I find that I wind up doing is…and I think this is very likely if you discover and if you…one of the reasons I don’t go back and revise as I’m writing is I find that it really slows down forward progress, because I do tend to be a perfectionist, particularly about prose and about character and about leanness. I want…whether or not you’re in an action scene, it’s very important to me that the book moves along with that kind of pacing. So, the thing I’m most likely to do in revisions is simply cut. And here’s where, here’s where part of that stuff for later novels comes in, because I’ll cut stuff that I thought was necessary in the book I’m writing, let’s say, and I realized it wasn’t. I didn’t get to that ultimately. I thought I would, but I didn’t, and it didn’t become important to the plot or the story arc in this book. But I can see where it’s going to become important down the line. So I’ll take all that stuff and I’ll move it into a file that is for later books. And that’s kind of a way of…I find that it makes it makes these, it makes the cut easier, to think that I’m not consigning all of it to a garbage bin, but that actually all I’m doing is kicking it…it’s part of the can that I’m kicking down the road.
Because when you’re writing a series, and if the series is not just, you know, “Here’s the universe and here’s this week’s adventure,” which is the model of most television series, or has been, like, for instance, in the Star Trek days and even the Babylon 5 days, although we’ve been moving more towards what I would call sustained character arcs as viewing and media options have changed. But in the original Star Trek universe, the thing that hung it together was, you knew something of the relationships of the character. But each show was essentially a self-contained experience, an adventure. Obviously not so mine, so when…so, there’s always reason, there’s…kicking stuff down the road is a very real advantage for me. And it gives me a sense of where I’m going and actually helps me pre-shape novels.
So editing, very important. And I’ll make several editing passes. The first thing I’ll do is, I will skim it and I will just highlight the text in one of three ways, not highlighted at all, yellow, or red. Red means I know I absolutely can and will get rid of this. Yellow is, “I don’t know, you know, have I said this someplace else, is gonna be repetitive, is it really necessary?” Because for whatever reason at that particular moment reading I haven’t got the whole, I haven’t got the project, the whole project, in my head at this point, ’cause this is probably my first read-through. So, after I’ve gotten to the end, then I’ll know which of those things…the red will almost always come out, the yellow, a lot of the yellow comes out, and then I’m left with what I’ll call the Ur-text at that point. And then I start doing the line edits, and the line edits are for clarity and just not to have extra stuff in there.
And I think sometimes, when I write from immersion, and like I say, I’m channeling, I’m very uncritical of what I’m writing as I write it. And so, this is the moment when the critical eye comes in, and a word…I’m not going to stop if I can’t think of precisely the word I want, because I don’t want that to jam up my writing day. But this is the point at which I’ll come back and say, eh, you know, because I put asterisks. You know, I’ll use a word, let’s say I was thinking of, you know, of a term having to do with, you know, when are you’re going to arrive, you know, and I’m thinking, “There’s a word for in military parlance, what is that? I can’t remember it, dammit.” I’m not going to stop, so I’ll write, “When are you going to arrive?”, snd I put three asterisks. I hit that when I go back and I say, “Oh, of course, insertion.” So then that comes out and insertion goes in and that edit is done.
So, there are probably two main passes. Sometimes there’s more. Interestingly, in Marque of Caine, this is the most heavily edited novel of all. It originally went in at 240,000 words, and Toni said, “You know, I think this is, for what it’s doing, I don’t think it wants to be this long.” She was absolutely right. Toni Weisskopf, by the way, owner and my editor at Baen Books. And I really looked at that, and…to give you an idea of how much I take editing and editor’s suggestions to heart is that one, that 240,000-word book ultimately came in at 158,000 words, thirty or 40,000 of which I can actually use, possibly in a standalone, or something later on, and a lot of the other things or bits. But yeah, a lot of editing and at almost every level, multiple passes.
Now I’ve got to get to the…well, you actually sort of answered this right off the top when you were talking about what drew you into science fiction and fantasy. But the big philosophical question is always, why do you write and why do you think any of us write this stuff? So, why do you why did you write it? Why do you think any of us write it?
Well. I think there are…I think people have overlap on one topic. If you were completely satisfied with the way things are in the real world in terms of all it contains in the way of experience and all of your ability to experience it, my guess is that possibly imagination would go in different directions. I think there is something about this focus on alterity, whether it is what I will call for the purposes of entertainment, and it might be self-entertainment as much as anything else, or whether it’s to ponder the imponderables, if you will, that at some level what’s in this particular mortal veil is not is not sufficient. Some…the people who write this, and I think the people who read it, want more. They want to see how else it could be. They are…there’s something that’s in them that is what I would call a positive restlessness of wanting to see what’s over the next hill. Not all human beings are like that. As a matter of fact, from having worked in advertising, I can tell you that that science fiction and fantasy sells to actually one of the rarest demographics, it’s a demographic that advertisers almost don’t go for, which is people who actually, you know, love and revel in the notion of alterity. Most people, it feels like, “That’s disorienting. You moved my cheese. Don’t do that to me.” It’s kind of hard to advertise for people who are focused on alterity and also tend to be a little bit skeptical. One of the reasons obviously they’re interested in alterity is because they have the mind reflex to essentially say, “If I’m not happy here, where else can I go? If it doesn’t fulfill, if it doesn’t check all my boxes, where do I go to get those boxes checked?” Well, science fiction, fantasy, those are great places, and this is where you find folks. So, I think all the readers and all the writers probably have that in common at some level.
Then I think there are a variety of different reasons for it. In my place, I am very much motivated by that. I’m also motivated by…I guess you could say some…first of all, it’s fun to do. If I…writing is work. It’s work I love to do. But worldbuilding, actually, if I am…I can be half asleep. I can be terribly distracted. I can…for instance, if I…some people can write in a crowded, somewhat noisy Starbucks. God love them, don’t know how they do it, but I can world-build wherever I am. For whatever reason, that exercise is such that…it’s like such a playground for me. I can be in the noisiest environment, and the only thing that will annoy me is if I don’t have a way to record my thoughts, because I’ll forget a bunch of them. And I can do that. So, that gives it… some of it from me, I think, is cognitive temperament, if I can say that? I know those sound like inherently different things, but I’m gonna put it that way.
And the other thing is that I do think that there are important questions to ponder. And I think one of them is, you know, the entire question of our future. By which I mean to say that I don’t write things–I want to be very clear about this–I am certainly not interested in predicting the future. I think it’s a fool’s errand, and as a friend of mine and fellow SIGMA member said, Steven Gould, he said, “Science fiction predicts the future the way a shotgun kills a duck.” And I think that that’s an absolutely on-target metaphor, if you will, or simile.
I haven’t heard that one before.
It’s a good one. And what I like about it is that there’s another level to it, I’m not sure Stephen intended this, which is, yes, a shotgun is firing across a broad span. But at the same time, it’s not without focused purpose. You’re aiming at the duck. You are trying to put, you’re trying to overlap, if you will, a cone of intent on an object at a distance. And I feel that’s exactly what the science fiction writer is doing. We’re trying to find what…we’re trying to project rather than predict. And we’re trying to, we’re not saying it’s likely. We don’t want it to be wholly implausible, but someplace between the realm of it’s possible, maybe even plausible, is, I think, sort of an important thing to do.
One of the things that makes human beings human beings is that we, as far as we can tell amongst all the creatures, are the ones who essentially create planning scenarios. We run through possibilities and potential scenarios in our mind, and we come up with ways of dealing with that. And this notion of forward-looking…science fiction and fantasy to some degree is just a more extreme version of that.
And I would say probably, the other component in this, which I suppose sounds a little bit goofy, but to go back to something I said before, I think there are challenges before us as a species, no matter whether it involves things from outside our own solar system or not, we have a bunch of challenges in front of us. I mean, a biosphere does not last forever. A star does not lasts forever. We are doing things to this planet, which I think anybody can say, forget the current sensitivity issues regarding climate, I’ll simply say carcinogens. We’re making a dirty environment. And what are we going to do about that?
And so, all of this is going to the notion of, there is a necessity for us to work together. There is a necessity for us to leave no one behind. Poverty and lack of education are not merely a crime against a compassionate approach to other human beings, they are wasted resources. By which I mean there are challenges before us that I really feel we will do our best if we have every human being on deck bringing their best game to the game. And we are not doing that right now. And I do believe that a movement in that direction is kind of one of the things that I’m trying to get at in my fiction, the costs potentially of not doing so.
And connected to that is that there is an interest in a different intelligence. I’m gonna say, I’m gonna use something that, as far as I know, is kind of coming from me, which is when people say, “Well, why would you think that would be any other intelligence in the universe?” And my attitude is, if you’re approach to this is deistic, well, you know, I don’t know that we can talk to begin with, not because I don’t want to talk with you, but when cosmology is the same thing as theology, essentially, you have your answers. There’s a teleology in place in the notion that, of course, we may be the only one, because that’s what we were told. OK, fine. But if that’s not what’s motivating somebody, if science and empiricism is, then my simple response to why would I think there’s other intelligence in the universe would be, “Tell me something else that nature has ever done once.” It just doesn’t. And I mean, they can say, oh, “Big Bang.” But there’s a lot that’s suggests that Big Bang itself is part of…there’s, I think, it was a scientific, or a sort of model that came out of, I think India, originally, going way back now, like twenty, thirty years, the hypersphere model, that if everything does, you know, if the universe is saddle shaped and everything goes far apart, when it goes far enough apart, it will ultimately begin to re collapse. It will recombine. And what happens? You get impossible density in a small point and “Bang!”, it starts all over again. So, I’m really wedded to that idea.
And if we are not alone, then my question is, what else is out there now or what else has been out there and what would that mean? What does it mean as we…and do we really want to say, therefore, in our own block? I think it was Tsiolkovsky, the sort of the father of Russian space technology and aeronautics and in some ways, for probably more than just Russia, said, you know, “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but you can’t remain in the cradle forever.” And indeed, you can’t. You won’t fit. Eventually it’ll rot. You know, your choices to…either we stay and die, or we move and exist and change. And my attitude is, the second is full of uncertainties. It is full of alternates that we certainly don’t see today. And that is certainly the direction in which I would want to head. So all those things kind of make me feel like, because they’re all so innate to me, I feel they’re like part of how I define myself that I kind of don’t feel that I chose science fiction. I feel science fiction chose me.
Well, now projecting your personal future. What are you working on right now? What’s coming up?
Giving shorter interviews and thereby sparing everybody’s listening audience.
I can’t wait to do the transcript for this one.
Oh, God Almighty. I’m so sorry, Ed. So, what I turn my hand to next is, I am doing a solo novel in John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising universe. Known inaccurately as his zombie apocalypse universe, which kind of was a complete surprise to me. The way it came up, I was asked to give an eight-to-ten-thousand-word short story for an anthology for that. And I certainly said, “Oh, that’d be fun.” So I did that and 35,000 words later, I turned in my piece, and there was great silence on the end of the line, so to speak, the email link. And many months later, I got an e-mail coming back saying, as I expected, “Obviously this doesn’t fit in the anthology, but if you could write as much again, we’d love to publish it as a novel.” So this was one of those moments where you break the rules and get a contract. And as Toni Weisskopf said at DragonCon, don’t any of you use this as a success model. So that’s what I’m in the midst of working on. After that, I do another 1632 novel, which I think Eric probably plugged the time he was on here. We’re doing something called 1637: No Peace Beyond the Line.
Yes, he did.
Right. A follow on to Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, and is another New World-setting novel, which at the end is going to start actually bringing some of the disparate character arcs back into contact. I won’t say more than that. And finally, after that, after working my way through the rota, because I have the wonderful quote, “problem,” I use that word very, very ironically and facetiously, is that I have a lot of books already under contract, which is the dream job. You know, I almost don’t say that because it is truly the thing I know I envied, and I feel honored and humbled by having that. So, I say all that to leaven any sense that I could at all be complaining about having more work to do than I have time to do it. That is exactly what every writer wants to have as their daily existence. But finally, I do get to write the first novel in the epic-fantasy slipstream sort of sort of trilogy that Baen contracted me to do called The Broken World.And I’m really lookin g forward to that because that’s worldbuilding again. It’s set in…it’s a different discipline in some ways than the worldbuilding for science fiction? But because rigour and consistency of worlds and everything you put in it is very important to me, there’s a lot in it that is actually reminiscent. The worldbuilding is the same. And once again, I had this world built in, in its main, long ago.
What I’ll say about it is again, the character is not the average character you would expect. Again, this character is a little bit at…not exactly at odds, but was hoping for a different life path than he got, but because of the skills he has, he doesn’t get that. He…you know, he’d hoped he was going to be a great figure in the armies of this state of which he is a part. But instead, he sort of is put in…he’s made a kind of a rolling individual scout-courier, which is hugely disappointing to him, but puts him in contact with things that suggests that there’s something wrong with this world. Things don’t add up. And that’s where I say it’s slipstream, because to some degree I am working against genre types. By the end of the novel, I hope to have largely stood a lot of the conventions of the fantasy novel straight on their heads, not the least of which a reader is quickly going to see that there are some things in this novel which certainly do draw from some of the imagery and shapes that we know of from our own history of this world and some that are not merely…they go beyond being not merely a sort of northwest tinctured, northwest European tinctured fantasy, but they become a sort of almost alien, if you will, tinctured fantasy. And that they are existing side by side is not is not a failure in artistic or aesthetic consideration, but bloodymindedly purposeful. That juxtaposition.
Sounds intriguing. And where can readers find you online?
All the usual places. My website is terribly hard to remember. It is—get a pen ready—www.charlesegannon.com. So what, the title you see on the books, the name on the books, is exactly the website, with the exception of there’s no period after my middle initial. It’s just www on one end, com on the other, and you’ll find me easily enough. I am probably…the best place to look for me is on Facebook. I’m there a lot. That makes it sound like I post a lot. I don’t, but it’s the thing I look at. I do have a mailing list that’s easy to find through the website. It’s easy to find through Facebook pretty much. If you can’t find it just let me know and I will be happy to direct you towards it. And I do have a Twitter account. I, as a matter of fact, did a Twitter interview just yesterday. No, on Friday. So I’m there. And, of course, you can find my books at Amazon. You can find them at baen.com, and they are, of course, frequently littering the shelves at Barnes and Noble and other, you know, bricks and mortar venues.
Oh, that’s great. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. It’s been a fascinating conversation. I think—I’m sure—that listeners will enjoy it.
Well, thank you very much. It’s great being here. And I’m sorry I gave you so much for your transcription efforts to untangle and present. But it’s a lot of fun. These were great questions. And you have a whole bunch of great things going on in your career right now. I see wonderful stuff with DAW Books and recently named a fellow in residence at one of Saskatchewan’s libraries. Am I right about that?
Yeah. I’ll be writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library from September through April, working with local writers and then also getting a chance to get paid for working on stuff before the publisher pays me for the stuff I’m working on, which is kind of weird, but I’ll take it.
You know, I think if you can make two dollars for every one you should make for the publication of a story. That’s a good thing. And it also sounds like I should have been interviewing you, not the other way around.
Christopher Ruocchio is the author of The Sun Eater, a space-opera fantasy series from DAW books, as well as the assistant editor at Baen Books, where he co-edited the military SF anthology Star Destroyers, as well as Space Pioneers, a collection of Golden Age reprints showcasing tales of human exploration. He’s a graduate of North Carolina State University where, in his words, “a penchant for self-destructive decision-making” caused him to pursue a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric, with a minor in Classics.
An avid student of history, philosophy, and religion, Christopher has been writing since he was eight years old, and sold his first book, Empire of Silence at twenty-two. The Sun Eater series is available from Golancz in the UK and has been translated into French and German.
Christopher lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he spends most of his time hunched over a keyboard writing. When not writing, he splits his time between his family, procrastinating with video games, and his friend’s boxing gym.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Christopher.
Well, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
We met…we’re both DAW authors, a you know, conflict of interest and all that, get that right there, and we actually met at San Jose last year at WorldCon at the DAW dinner. I think was when I first met you.
I think so.
And then you very kindly showed me around the…well, Dealer’s Room doesn’t quite cover it at DragonCon…
A shopping mall.
Yeah…when I was down there last year, so I appreciated that as well. So it’s great to have you on. And I have to confess I have not finished Empire of Silence, but I…
Neither has my fiancée, so I can’t throw stones at anybody.
But I’m well into it, so when I get you to do a synopsis in a little bit, and I say, “no spoilers,” that will be for me as much as for the listeners.
I’ll do my best.
So, I always like to start these things off by going into… I always say either the mists of time or the depths of time…into the past, to find out how you got interested, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy, and how you started writing it, You started early, apparently, at eight years old.
Oh yeah. Yeah. I think it was my dad’s fault mostly, because when I was really small we were a Disney family, and most Disney movies are…I don’t want to say are for girls, but they’re about princesses, and when you’re a three-year-old boy it’s harder to get into those necessarily, although I was I was very fond of, especially, Sleeping Beauty because there was a dragon and a sword fight…
But then I think I watched Star Wars for the first time when I was four or five, and then immediately after we got through watching the first three movies, you know, a week later and then two weeks later, because they’d spaced it out, I think I watched the original trilogy on loop. Because I wasn’t allowed to watch very much. I was allowed TV Land, the Batman cartoon from the ‘90s, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and then the Star Wars trilogy. And so, I watched those original movies obsessively, and I read a bunch of the books, and of course The Phantom Menace came out, and I was just young enough to think The Phantom Menace was awesome. And it’s, you know, actually, it’s fine. It’s Attack Of The Clones that’s bad.
But I went from that through to reading a bunch of Star Wars books. I think the first book I ever bought was the first Tim Zahn Thrawn novel. But then I found Tolkien, and Harry Potter, of course, came in. I hit…actually before Harry Potter was popular. I read it when I was like five, because I read very early, maybe even younger than that. I’d have to check with my mother. And so, all this was happening at once, and then I hit Lord Of The Rings right when the movies were starting to come out, around 2000. I tried watching the Bakshi version, and it terrified me, and I gave up. And I tried reading the books instead but struggled with those a bit more than the Star Wars books and Harry Potter.
And so, I started writing because my friends, you know, would play make believe on the playground, right? And they were playing Dragon Ball Z, which I of course had no idea what that was, because I was not allowed to watch it. And so, when I was asked,” Hey do you want to play Dragon Ball Z?” I said, “Yes! But can I be Batman? And after two weeks of careful deliberation, the other five-year-olds agreed that, yes. And so, over the years going through grade school up to about third grade, we would play make-believe, right, on the playground, and we spun out and made our own characters. So, Batman eventually got a lightsaber, and…you know all these other…he went to wizard school, I think, and became…he was very accomplished.
I think that would improve Batman.
You know, I like Batman a lot, so I hesitate to say that, but I would definitely read that.
At least with a lightsaber.
The light saber, yes…he needs one. Everyone needs one, really. But I…so I started writing down these adventures we had on the playground, and then as my friends grew up and discovered football and social skills, I sat on the edge of the parking lot with a notebook and would keep making stuff up. And, of course, once I made it to fourth grade, third-grade me didn’t know what he was talking about, and I would throw everything out and start again and again and again and again and again, until I finished a novel, I think in eighth grade, of which one copy remains printed and it is in someone’s lockbox somewhere, I don’t remember. And it is terrible, and I…I kept doing this through high school and college, mostly because, you know, Christopher Paolini got lot of flak, you know. But he wrote that book at fifteen, and he was another Christopher, and an Italian one, at that, and I was…you know, “By God, if he can do it, I can do it, too,” and…I actually got to meet him at DragonCon, when I met you, and thank him for that, because I…you know, it’s one of those things I always thought that you needed to be like forty to do when I was little and he sort of proved that wrong. And so, I kept doing this until I eventually had something worth reading.
Did you share that early writing with your friends and see how…you know, that you could tell stories that they enjoyed?
Oh, sure. That…I had…I have a few friends, actually…before we started the talk officially I mentioned my two roommates. My two roommates…I’m just moving out now, actually, into my first house, but my roommates are two friends I’ve been friends with…since third grade, I think…and them and a couple others I would…we would always pass things back and forth. We used to play, you know, like, not exactly Dungeons and Dragons but some like off-brand RPGs and stuff together, a lot of, like, Internet forum RPGs? So we would do a lot of co-writing and stuff. And I was always working on this side thing, and when I would finish, it’d be like, “Guys, look at this!”, and then hand it out. A couple of them have stuck with me and keep giving me feedback. I think one of them has that one copy that I referred to, ’cause he was always fond of this stupid story I’d written in middle school, so I gave him the last print copy I had, because God only knows what happened to the Word documents.
I always ask that because a lot of us started writing young. I wrote novels in high school and started well before that, and I talked to some writers who, you know, there’s no way they were gonna show that stuff to their friends, and yet, I always did. So I always ask people that. And I think it helps, because you get that sort of, “Oh, I could tell stories that people really enjoy,” so, you know, it’s a kind of a positive-feedback thing.
I still do…I have a couple of them. I have a little Facebook group discussion and I send them updated files of…I’m working on the third book in The Sun Eater now and so every four or five chapters I will send them another update and then wait until one of them tells me how it is. Because you don’t know, right? You don’t know if what you’re doing is really good until you get someone else’s eyes on it. It’s sort of like Schrödinger’s Cat. And it helps to have either some validation or some course correction.
Well, somewhere along the way I lost all that. So now nobody sees it until it goes to Sheila at DAW. That’s another thing I ask, and we’ll talk about that a little bit later on with your writing process, you know, whether you have people that help you out at that initial stage or not, giving you feedback. But we’ll talk about that a little bit…so, from, you grew up, then, in North Carolina, I presume, where you still live.
Oh yeah. Born and raised. I am the proverbial medieval peasant. I haven’t moved more than ten miles from where I was born.
And so, this was interesting, that you decided to get a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric with a minor in Classics. I didn’t even know there was a degree called English Rhetoric. What does that involve?
So NC State was weird, right? It’s sort of…North Carolina, Raleigh in particular, has got a bunch of colleges right around. We’ve got the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, which is a pretty famous liberal-arts school, oldest public university in the US, and we’ve got Duke, which has sort of like a semi-Ivy League reputation, but NC state was founded as an agricultural school just after the Civil War. So it’s got more of a…it has a reputation for being kind of the, like, farm school, right? But now it’s one of the best engineering universities in the state, and, I think, even in the world. But I went for an English degree because they had this internship program for English students that had a 100-percent job-placement rate and I am, if nothing else, a practical man. So, I thought that would be better than a slightly more reputable name on my diploma. And it was a great program at any rate, just a less-famous one.
So, I went, and they do this thing where they split their English degrees into what they called focuses, so I could take a focus in literature or rhetoric or film, and the rhetoric one was the technical-writing one, really. So, there was a lot of tech-writing classes, that sort of thing, but also just journalism classes, you know, just making sure you could write, you know, nonfiction articles, that sort of thing. Make sure your grammar is correct.
Hilariously, I had this very bad graduate-level rhetoric class right at the end that taught no rhetoric, I think because the professor felt left out that when the scientists got particle accelerators and lasers the English department didn’t get any toys. So, we spent a lot of time talking about the “rhetoric of physical spaces” and how…and that’s not rhetoric. And I got in a lot of trouble for repeatedly informing her that this was not rhetoric, because I had the classics background, too, which I backed into because I didn’t want to take a world-literature course because I’m less interested in them, shall we say, than in the things that I grew up with., because that’s just who I am as a person. And I didn’t want to take a language class where I had to stand and do oral conversation components to my exams because I am bad at learning languages.
Unlike your character.
Yeah. So people who say that he’s just a self-insert are wrong. I can’t do it. And so I was taking three years of high-school Japanese and by the end it was, you know, (something in Japanese), and I’d be like, “Um…um…good morning.” I’m not that bad, but I was just embarrassed, and so I took Latin. And between the taking Latin and…I took for my world literature course. I did ancient literature, so we did a bunch of Greek and Roman stuff, but we also did some middle-Eastern stuff. The Enûma Eliš and the Epic of Gilgamesh, these things, and some early Far East stuff as well, which is also fascinating, so when I say, “world literature,” I mean contemporary stuff, because I just don’t think a lot of contemporary lit-fic is very good. I know that…it just doesn’t interest me, so…the old stuff, yes, by all means. And so, I backed into it because of my interest in ancient history and the classical period in the Near East and whatnot, and through the Latin.
The rhetoric major still interests me. It doesn’t sound like it was what anybody would consider a creative writing class. It’s more like just technically creating clear sentences and paragraphs and organizing your thoughts and all that kind of thing.
Yes. So, I had a bunch of classes that actually were your sort of traditional…the sort of rhetoric classes that Shakespeare was forced to do, right, where it’s like, “OK, give us, you know, write ten examples of tricolon, as like a, you know, overnight assignment,” right, things like that. And so I actually have…I won’t say something like an ancient education where you would be drilled constantly on how to speak and how to hold your hands to present a statement before the Roman Senate, right, because there were hand positions in these things, but I at least had something sort of winking in that direction, where it was, you know, “Be aware that if you phrase things in this way, if you employ devices like hendiadys or stichomythia, you know, these things that sound like Greek incantations, that you can have an effect on an audience in a certain way.” And I did a lot of Elizabethan theater classes, as well, and a lot of that was still used by people like Shakespeare and Marlowe, and the rest, in writing those plays, because they’re very…the play is a very oral medium, right, it’s meant to be heard, it’s meant to be spoken, and I think the best prose should be the same way. And so, the rhetoric stuff ended up being really useful, I think, from a creative-writing standpoint, because I’m a big audiobook person, and so I’ve been very much affected by the sound of the language. And so, those classes were all great except for that last one, which was like, “We’re going to talk about rhetoric in paintings,” to which I said, “Shouldn’t be a design class, three buildings down?”.
How to win friends and influence professors, maybe not.
No. It was my last semester and I was grumpy, let’s say.
So, with Empire of Silenceselling when you were twenty-two, clearly you were working on this while you were at university. Is that when this began?
Yeah. The book that became this one…people ask when I started writing. I’ve always been writing, air-quotes, “the same book,” but when I started writing it at seven, eight years old, you know, it was about Batman, and it’s not about Batman at all anymore, really, although Hadrian does wear a lot of black still, that hasn’t changed. But so do I, and I don’t know if that’s a chicken or egg thing.
And so, I started this one in my freshman, sophomore year of college, really, and it was quite different still. Hadrian wasn’t quite human in the original draft. There were some near-human aliens because I also played a lot of Japanese RPG games and there are a lot of aliens that are almost human…anyway, it changed dramatically. And as I got into my final year, I had the great fortune of having John Kessel for a professor. He’s a Nebula Award-winning short-story writer, he’s got a couple of novels out from Saga, and he is an all-around just great guy, and he gave me some advice on querying, and of course I’d started my internship at Baen, so I actually had access to a SFWA directory, which has all the agencies in the back, so, I photocopied that and started going through, querying people, with John’s advice on the letter writing. There was this awful frame narrative that was in the book at the time that he convinced me to cut out. And lo and behold the minute I did that, I started getting answers to my queries that weren’t, “Go away.” And I sold…rather, I got an agent a month before I graduated and then…so that was November because I graduated a semester off schedule, I had an extra, I was late, which is part of why I was so cross with my rhetoric professor, I just really wanted to be out. And so, I had about a month over the holidays because, you know, people aren’t working in December really, and then come January I got my job at Baen on Monday, and then that Thursday I got a call from Sarah Guan, who used to work at DAW, she’s with Orbit now, she loved the book and wanted to buy it. And so, I had about the best week of my life up until I proposed to my fiancée. So that was a good time.
Well, you said this book kind of grew out of all the stories that you’d been writing all along, but was there some initial seed or image? How does that work for you when it comes to a story? How do stories come to you, or begin?
I can’t remember where this one really came from. There’s no, you know, Robert Howard talking about Conan just appearing or J.K. Rowling having the same sort of conversation about Harry Potter just sort of appearing to her on the train, because it’s been so long. Hadrian and I…although Hadrian’s had like thirteen, fourteen different names, he’s been with me in some form or other since I was a kid so, I don’t…a couple of people have noted similarities between our personalities. You know, just…this is a common thing with authors, right? Like, I’ve seen people say the same thing about Pat Rothfuss and Kvothe, that they have some similar personality traits, things like that…but I don’t know which one’s me, which one’s him, because I’ve been writing this character in some form since I was a small kid. So, like, I was talking about the black clothes. Like, I wear black pretty much all the time and so does Haddrian, it’s his family color, and I don’t know if I’m wearing black because I’m sort of low-key cosplaying my own work or if my work is borrowing from my own fashion choices.
I thought I was a Johnny Cash influence.
You know, my dad makes that joke and I’m happy to accept it because Johnny Cash is the man.
I wrote a biography of him, a children’s biography of him. So…it was kind of cool.
Did you really? I’ll have to go track that one down. I’m a big fan. I’m not usually a country guy but Cash is excellent.
So, I don’t really know. There are some other stories that I will, that I’m working on that I have some ideas for. They’re just coming to me randomly. I don’t try to go looking for them. I’m not a very stringent researcher. If it’s something completely new, if it’s something I want to be devoting a lot of time to, they’ll just sort of pop up eventually, usually because I’ll be reading or watching something and I’ll like it, I’m like, “This is cool! But…” And then something will sort of spin out of an objection or a critique of something else. And I’ll want to do something from that. I’m a very argumentative person, to my detriment, as my educational history made brief reference to.
Well, if we’re going to talk about the Sun Eaterseries, perhaps you could give a spoiler-free synopsis of the first book for those who either have not read it or, like me, have not yet finished reading it.
All right. Well, what I usually do, because I go to a lot of conventions and I do a lot of floor selling with my friend Alexi Vandenberg of Bard’s Tower, is, I tell people that my main character, Hadrian, is sort of an Anakin Skywalker, but less whiney, if becoming Darth Vader were the right thing for him to do. The story is set about 20,000 years in our future in this big galactic empire. Hadrian is a nobleman, the son of a fairly minor but high-status house, that runs away from home, and he finds himself stuck in the middle of this war between humanity and the Cielcins, this alien menace, who are the first species of technologically advanced aliens in all that 20,000-year history who have ever stood up to humankind, who have ever rivaled us for control of the galaxy. Hadrian tells you on page one that he is the man who ended that war and killed all of the Cielcin, and the story is a memoir of why and how.
Yeah, talk about a spoiler on the first page.
Yeah, I…yeah. I don’t…I’ve always taken umbrage with spoiler culture. I think that if your story has to hang together on surprise, then maybe it’s not the best story. People have started to realize this about, say, M. Night Shyamalan, after The Sixth Sense. You know, his other movies have all hung on some twists that more or less haven’t delivered and I, you know, I don’t go out of my way to ruin things, but I think that if we can take the what-if, or what might happen, off the table, and instead talk about why and how, and the details, obviously, ‘case I’m not giving away the whole ending on page one, that we can ask some more interesting questions and have a different kind of story.
I suppose there’s no particular reason…I don’t think it even works very well to try to do an entire novel version of an O. Henry short story where everything depends on a sudden twist on the last page. I don’t think readers would actually like that.
No, no. And I’m not saying that every, you know, plot twist is like that, either. I just…I think…like, I’ve gotten a lot of people who complained that these memoir-style books take a lot of the tension out of the plot, and maybe that’s true for them. But I am one of those people who always looks at Wikipedia summaries of things because I like to know. I’m more interested in the journey than the destination and seeing how things get carried off and why, and what’s layered in there. And for those people who think that this story is something that I’ve given away completely at the beginning, that presupposes that all there is to this story is this one action that I tell you about on page one, which I think would be a mistake.
Well, I was gonna say that when it comes to memoirs it’s not like, if we were reading a memoir of a famous person…we know what he did, or she did, and yet we are still interested to find out how that all came about from the internal perspective of the person who did that thing. So, that should apply just as well. If I were…we’re currently reading, of all things, I’m reading out loud Boswell’s Life of Johnsonto my wife. We still have forty-four hours to go according to the Kindle.
Oh, my gosh.
And yet, you know, it’s still interesting even though, you know, well, he did the dictionary and he did all this, and then he died, you know. And yet it’s still interesting, even though you know how it ends. And it’s not like, you know, Romeo and Julietis any less powerful because you know when you go into it how it’s going to end. In some way it’s going along the journey along the way that makes it interesting.
Right. And there’d be no point to read classical literature anyway, right? Like, take The Count of Monte Cristo, right? Like, everybody knows it’s about a guy who goes to prison unjustly and gets revenge. And now, that he gets revenge, which is usually how the book sold to anybody when you’re trying to get them to read it, presupposes his success. But the details, right, you know, and how and why and the catharsis of those moments, right? That’s why you read the thing, you don’t read it to figure out what happens.
Did I interrupt you in the synopsis of the book?
Oh no. No, no, no. That was pretty much all I wanted to say, because I don’t want to say the things in the middle, right? There are, you know, without putting anything together, there are gladiator fights and there is court intrigue and there are aliens and friendships lost and found and all of these things.
Well, that brings me around to the next question, which is, so far you’ve mostly talked about your character, but there’s an awful lot of worldbuilding going on in here and a detailed and complicated plot. What does your planning process look like? Do you outline in great detail, do you wing it, and then…how does it work for you?
So, I winged the first book because I didn’t have a deadline. I had years and years to figure it out. And so, most of it ended up gelling in my head over time as I was rewriting things and changing things. You know, “What if I did this instead?” I had to rewrite this one very quickly because my first editor, when she bought it, it was about half as long. She said, “I love it. It’s great. I read it in one shot overnight, but I have these two problems,” and I looked at the problems and they were, without getting into too much detail, they were really fundamental worldbuilding problems, and it was the sort of thing that the only way I could fix them and be sure I fixed them and it wasn’t sloppy was to rewrite the whole thing. And so, I locked myself in my room, basically, for three months. I think it took me 108 days, because I kept a spreadsheet of my progress because this encourages me. Or discourages me, at least, when I fail to write enough on one day and my spreadsheet looks bad. And I would go to work, and then I would come home, and I worked…I think I slept only, like, four hours a night for most of that period. It was not good. But I shot through the whole thing all at once, and because I had just written it, right, it was all still very crystal.
But for the second book…I’ve become pretty friendly with David Drake, working at Baen, and Dave writes these enormous outlines, you know, you can…they’re basically like fifty or sixty pages for everything he does. And Dave ticks through and writes them…he writes his books…we, you know, we can almost plan our schedule around Dave. He’s like clockwork. It’s amazing. And so, he’ll turn in a book, we’ll know how long it is, we’ll know when we’re getting it, we know how early we’re getting it, we know how clean it will be. He’s so consistent. He’s just a real pro. And he does it because of these, I think because of these, amazing outlines, and so when I wrote book two, Howling Dark, I thought, “I’m going to be like Dave Drake.” Bold, bold statement, I know, but we have the Rome thing in common, so I thought I was I was off to a good start.
So, I started this big outline, and I wrote it and then, having written it, I realized that I knew basically everything that was in it. So when I would start a chapter I would look again at the page or so I’d written for the chapter, refresh myself with it, and then not look at it again. And for book three I did kind of the same thing. Because this story starts with at least intimations of its ending. I had kind of both ends of this plot string nailed to the table and I’ve been trying to untie the knot ever since. Which is kind of hard to do. So, I’ve been clipping at it and moving things around, so when I start outlining, I will put a bunch of scenes I know need to be in the book down on sticky notes. I had this big door on my closet that was just flat, right, so I used it kind of like a like a chalkboard, and I would stick these things to it and this sort of cloud of notes would turn steadily into a column marching straight up and down the middle of the door as I knew which scene/chapter was gonna be where and what would happen. And I turned that big string of post-it notes into a sixty-page David Drake outline. And I’ve done that for the last two books. And in doing that, I haven’t taken, you know, fifteen years to write it. I did book two in about nine months and book three is going to take about six all told. So I’m getting this down to a science, I think. I hope, rather.
What length are they? I’m reading it in Kindle, I don’t know how thick it is.
Oh gosh. Empire was 238,000 words. Howling Dark was 260, and I think this one’s going to be a little bit longer than that, the third one.
They are substantial.
Yeah, I try to write about 2,000 a day, when I am not moving house (I’m moving right now, I think I said), I can do two to three pretty reliably. At least, now that I have a due date and the fear of God is in me.
Sixty pages is pretty impressive from my point of view—my synopses are more like twenty, twelve to twenty, fifteen to twenty, more or less. But you don’t win the medal for people I’ve talked to on The Worldshapers. Peter V. Brett does a 150-page outline.
Yeah, I have no ambitions of trying to take that title from him.
He’s certainly…and there’s also, you know…I guess it was Kendare Blake I talked to, whose episode just came out before this interview with you, and she basically wings everything. So it’s always interesting to hear the different approaches that people take.
You mentioned Rome, and clearly that’s a lot of influence in there, in the book. So, going back to the worldbuilding side of things, it seems like you were drawing very much on your interest and study of history and philosophy and religion, all that seems to really find its way into the story.
Yes. So I thought, when I was writing it, that it was mostly Greek and Byzantine. I was wrong, but that was what I had in my head. And I think…I had thought that a lot of the Roman influence was because I post a lot of very stupid jokes just, you know, meme images, that are about the Roman Empire and Roman history generally, because I think they’re funny and I think maybe two people I’m friends with get them all, but I share them anyway. And so, I think this impression that I had been primarily a Roman scholar sort of emerged from my stupid Facebook use, and I’ve sort of steered into the skid a little bit, because most of what I’d read was, of course, Greek, because there’s more of it, at least, dramatic literature, right, and most of it the Romans appropriated in one form or other, sometimes improved, depending on who you ask.
And because, also, I was raised and am Roman Catholic, I went to a Catholic school up through high school, up to the beginning of high school. And so, I grew up with a lot of classical history because it’s so integral to the genesis of the religion. So we talk about Egypt and Israel and the Near East generally, and then moving through to the Greeks and…the Seleucids, the Macedonians, you know, and Rome later, and the Byzantines afterwards. And, of course, much of early medieval history, which is steeped in a lot of classical philosophy. Aristotle’s influence cannot be overstated. And my best friend is an Aristotelian scholar at, he’s finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton. So, I have him check a lot of my work and give me ideas, things I wouldn’t have read because I was mostly interested in the myth and the drama, and he had the philosophy. So he helps me out a lot.
And so, a lot of it really comes from, I think, that religious background, just because, you know, you can’t escape Rome’s shadow as a Catholic, certainly. Both the Empire and the city and the church after. And a lot of that left its stamp, but I think as far as my reputation for it goes, it’s probably mostly just those stupid jokes.
You never know what you put on line is going to follow you down…
No, and you never know what thing is going to be the useful detail in your world building, right? You know, I might have only read I think a few pages of philosophers like Epictetus, right, like I…of course. your readers will think you’ve read all of it. Don’t tell anyone. But you know, you might find a line or two and that’s all you need. You know, the fiction writer’s world-building game, I think, ought to be consequensive of a pretty light touch. You know, I talked to Lois Bujold, because I did a brief stint doing the other side of the interview thing here when I did the Baen podcast for a couple of months, and I asked Lois Bujold about worldbuilding, and she told me she won’t make up anything until she needs it. And once I heard her say that, I was like, “All right, I’m not going to spend hours filling notebooks with information anymore. I will make up details as I need it and then try to stick to the rules that I have established.”
Well, I’m a stage actor and playwright and director and a lot of this bears in common with doing something on stage: you only put on there what you need to suggest the reality and the viewer, in that case, the audience member, fills in everything from that. You know, that one flat with a view over the Roman hills in the background or whatever. It’s really just a light little touch, a little detail, and yet it suggests a depth and richness that in many ways the audience actually provides.
It’s amazing how little the audience really needs in order to generate a picture, right? Like, Shakespeare…Elizabethan theatre didn’t use set design at all, right? They might, they had the balcony above the stage, but there were no tables and chairs. It was all done by costume. You had your props and what not. You know, I think it’s Measure for Measure when they say, “Exit pursued by a bear.” There was a bear-baiting pit across the street from the Globe, so I’m sure there was a real bear, but they weren’t building, you know, castle displays and these things. That’s why, at the beginning of Henry V, the chorus comes out and says, you know, “Imagine that this dome, you know, contains the varsity fields of France,” and so, you know, just a light suggestion, just an off phrase is going to generate crazy ideas in people. I remember as a kid looking at maps of Middle Earth and looking at places Tolkien doesn’t even talk about, right, like a ruin barely comes up, and thinking, “Well, I want to I want to go there,” right? That’s all it takes is literally just one name on a map and the audience is running with. And they think that you have it all planned out, and you don’t have to.
We have talked about a little bit about your actual writing process: 2,000 words a day on a good day, 2,000 to 3,000 words. You are very…it sounds that you’re very organized, like, “I sit down, and I work when it’s time for me to work.” Is that pretty much the way you work?
Yeah. Well, especially now. They give me a deadline, and it was a month sooner than I had anticipated for book three. So what I do, I wake up at about 6 a.m., I eat breakfast, and then I will write until I have to go to work just before 9, and then I will go to the office and work 9 to 5, like a good soldier, and then I will come home, make dinner, and then I will work until I hit that word count. And I try to hit, at the very least, a thousand words in a day. These days, I’m trying to bottom out at 1,500, just because I want to get it to Katie on time, and if I can do it early, because they know the deadline surprised me and wrong-footed me, then I will look really cool. And I am trying to look as cool as possible so…fortunately I had that deadline.
You’ve mentioned, also, you know, that you have these friends that you still get some feedback from. Especially when you’re working to a deadline like this, do you actually even have time to show this to anybody before you’re gonna have it done and then hand it in?
They might not…their feedback at the very end might not be that useful, but I try to get it to them in stages, you know, so they might read three chapters at a time and just sort of follow behind me. I very briefly had a stint in the noughts as a middle schooler writing fan fiction and reading it. I sort of fell out on it because I realized that I would do better writing my own stuff. I know I could make money doing that, I can’t make money writing Legend of Zelda stories. But, you know, they would update a chapter at a time every couple of weeks, right? And it was exciting. Same with comic books, right? You know, I’m a big fan of Berserk, the Japanese series, and that might get a chapter every, like, three months or something, and waiting for that little update’s really exciting. And so, my friends who came out of the same space as me no objections to getting these things in dribs and drabs and getting back to me. I have a couple who were faster than others, and some people might not answer, but that’s the virtue of having about five or six. I’ve got a couple who will read pretty reliably.
My friend the philosophy guy usually spot checks things for me. I’ll have specific questions for him or a couple of other people. My…I mentioned my friend’s boxing gym in my bio. My friend Wes runs a gym here in Raleigh. He trains boxers to actually fight, because most boxing gyms are actually aerobics studios. Not to put that down, but they’ll just stand in lines and they’ll just do drills, and their technique is not actually competitive at all. So, Wes trains people to fight, and he also does fencing and HEMA (Historic European Martial Arts) and he used to teach summer camps where he would teach kids like medieval military tactics and have them in lines with spears and stuff, it was very cool. And so I’ll have him check a lot of my action scenes, things like that.
I was gonna ask, what specific kind of feedback are you getting from people? I guess that’s one of them. Action scenes, and specific questions you have for your philosophy friend…philosophical friend?
Yeah, yeah. Marcus. He’s actually, he is who Gibson—if you’ve read the book, Gibson is Hadrian’s tutor.
Sort of the scientist monk. And they all take names, in much the same way that when you’re confirmed Catholic you take a saint’s name, these monks will take old scholar names, and he has borrowed my friend’s name, as a nod to my friend for his long years of service.
So what does your revision process look like when you get to the end? Do you revise as you go? Do you do a big revision at the end and then submit it? How does that work for you?
I do…when I have time, and I won’t this time with book three, I let it sit for a week, ideally, and then start reading it over again, and I’ll make notes about what needs to be changed and things as I go. I’ll fix, you know, bad-sounding sentences. Because I try to read aloud. The most important bit of writing advice I ever got, and I think the most important bit of writing advice I can ever give, is “read your work out loud,” because if you wrote a bad sentence it will sound stupid and you can fix it, but you can’t fix it if you can’t hear it. And so, I try to read everything aloud and catch those as I’m going and then catch things. I also find my memory is much better with things I’ve heard, so I’ll remember details better and catch things like someone’s eye color changing, which…even proofreaders are going to miss that sort of thing.
Yes, those things do crop up, and if you don’t read it out loud to yourself while you’re doing that, you will certainly find those errors when you’re doing a public reading sometime.
Oh, yeah. Every time. There’s a word missing in the first line of dialogue in Empire of Silence, I think. It’s something like “the mother of wisdom in” and it should be “is in” and that missing “is” haunts me to this day. I fixed it in the mass market, but it just…it’s in the audiobook, and every time it just…it’s too late.
It must be in the electronic ARC I’m reading, so I’ll have to look that up.
Yeah, it’s…it’s just embarrassing. But I try to do that, and I’ll do spot fixes. I try to go and find words like “very” and see if it’s an instance of the word “very” that needs to go. Words like “seems.” I have a whole list somewhere, I forget other words…
Quite a few authors have told me that. Let’s see, it was Kevin Hearne, I think, who said he suddenly became sensitive to the phrase “I couldn’t help but,” and he said, “Well, of course you could.” And so he goes through and tries to get rid of all of those. For me…I…well, of course, there’s the, you know, the basic, if you do a search for “wases” and “weres” and stuff you can see if you’re using passive tense sometimes you shouldn’t. But, I often find that my characters make animal noises too much. They’re always growling dialogue or snarling something. I try to catch some of those.
So, when it gets to DAW, and Katie, your editor there, what kind of editorial feedback do you get? I haven’t worked with her, so I don’t know how she works.
Katie is great. Katie catches a lot of things. My favorite thing about working with Katie is that Katie and I have more-or-less diametrically opposed worldviews and philosophies and backgrounds. I come from a deeply Catholic conservative background. Katie is very much a progressive. I think she was, I think she was an activist, like, a professional activist before she was an editor. And we live in very divisive times, let us say, and without getting into anyone’s opinions on anything, because I really don’t, especially publicly, don’t want to be a political person in any way whatsoever, I really appreciate that we can work together with these very different…because there are just things that you’re blind to, right? When you have opposing…when you have a different way of seeing things, there are just some parts of the world you don’t see because you’ve never seen them, these sorts of things? And Katie is conscious of things.
’Cause I’m not trying to hurt anybody with writing, so just, you know, stupid, you know, thoughtless things that might creep into your writing because it doesn’t…you don’t encounter it, right? It’s not exactly…I’m not describing, like, sensitivity reading issues, because my response is usually not…it’s not changing anything that’s in…I don’t change any of my…things that are in the text. It’s not that kind of thing. It’s…she will catch where I haven’t presented myself very clearly or I’ve sort of taken half-measures in order to express an idea or to negotiate a plot point, these sorts of things. The way I like to think about it is, in Dostoyevsky and Brothers Karamazov, right, he’s got Ivan and Alyosha, and Alyosha is kind of dim, but he’s a really decent human being. Ivan is viciously brilliant, right? And Ivan wins every single argument that he has against Alyosha, but Alyosha wins in the long run because he is a decent human being. He ends up at the end of his life better off, right? And Dostoyevsky has more in common worldview-wise with Alyosha than he does Ivan, but he makes Ivan as strong a foil as he possibly can. You know, Nietzsche used to say that he did philosophy with a hammer, well ,Dostoyevsky did literature with a hammer, right? He built the strongest possible…you know, I don’t want to say arguments, because fiction isn’t necessarily an argument…but the strongest possible avatar of things he didn’t believe in, right? He made his villains, his antagonists, as strong as he could. And Katie helps me to pull out places where I have been a weak writer because of our differences of opinion and vision and clarity of vision. And, you know, I find that absolutely wonderful and indispensable. And so, in addition to that, obviously there’s the usual stuff about, you know, just usual editing, you know, this might not work here, move this scene, that kind of thing, but that, I think, is the most useful, the most indispensable, bit of editorial help that I get.
So, Empire of Silence came out last year, right? 2018?
Yes. Yeah. July 10.
Trying to remember what year it is.
And the second one, which is called Howling Dark, is coming up very shortly. We’re recording this in early June and the book comes out in July.
I should know because there’s this guy on Twitter that’s running a daily countdown of how many days it is.
Yeah. I thought that would be fun. It’s been a lot of work.
I was looking at that, thinking, “I could do that for Master of the World,” which is my next book from DAW, but I thought, “Boy, that looks like a lot of work,” so I don’t know if I will do that or not.
Yeah, I did that all in advance, thank heavens. I don’t do it every day. I did a countdown for book one like that, where I did the one quote from each chapter per day for each number of chapters. But I had eighty chapters in this book, and doing one for three months, is…
So, what has the response been to the first book?
Overwhelmingly positive. I think I’ve got about 1,200, 1,300 reviews on Goodreads. Fifty percent of them are five stars, which is just absolutely mind-boggling, because to me this is still a bunch of goofy nonsense that I made up because, really, you know, for all this talk of, you know, differences of opinion and stuff, my only aspiration is to entertain people. It truly, truly is. People can read the book if they agree with me, if they disagree with any of this. And I hope that they have a good time, because that’s what this is about. I am ultimately no different than a medieval harlequin juggling in the streets, and that’s all I want to be, only more serious.
Well, that actually is my next question. This is the point in the podcast where I ask the big questions, and the first one is, “Why do you do this? Why do you write?” And, on a broader scope, why do why do you think any of us write, one, and two, why do you and I and other people write this kind of made-up stuff, science fiction and fantasy?
Well, I have two answers, because of course I have artistic pretensions, right? And any artist does. And I do really think that literature in particular, that the thing that separates human beings from the animals isn’t, you know, tool-building, obviously crows do that sort of thing, it’s not language even, really: it’s storytelling. The reason…we tell stories so that our narrative persona, our narrative avatars, right, our characters, can suffer and die so that we don’t have to.
Stories are instructional. The most basic story is, “I went out into the wilderness. There was a tiger. It killed the other cavemen. Bring a stick next time.” You know, that’s why fables have morals. And all stories do this. And what we’ve been trying to do with our stories…and the oldest stories, in addition to being, you know, daily news, like the tiger one, are religious, right? Religion, literature—these things overlap pretty significantly in the way that they try to define an ethic of, like, how we’re supposed to act in the world, what the right way to behave is. That’s what the hero’s journey is, right, the hero’s journey is like the Dao in Daoism, right, it’s like the eightfold path in Buddhism, it’s like the imitation of Christ in Christianity, it’s the right way to act in the world, you know, being heroic, right? Now, we can argue about the details of what that is, and that’s part of the experiment, right?
You know, I started writing this because I read Iain Banks’s Culture series, where he’s like, “Well, the minute we get into space, government’s finished,” like, you know, no one will ever control anybody. And as much as I love those books, I was like, “That’s not right. Like, well, it’s really hard to get off planets, Mr. Banks. Like, they just won’t let you.” And so, I made an empire that doesn’t let people get off planets. So, you know, it’s all part of this argument about society and how people function.
But beneath all that, and at the same time, you know, I think it was Edgar Rice Burroughs said, you know, “You have to entertain first.” Right? Maybe it was someone else, or maybe he said it, too. And all I really want to do…the reason why most of what I post online are links to obscure metal songs and stupid jokes about the Roman Empire is because I am not here to change anyone’s heart or mind. I am not. I don’t think I have the wisdom or the clarity of mind to do that, and I would be very suspicious of anybody whose job is to write stories about wizards and spaceships who tries to tell you how to live your life. All I want to do is tell you a story about wizards and spaceships.
And as for why we write stories about wizards and spaceships, you know, I think…there are a lot of people, a lot of my creative-writing professors, John Kessel aside, because the man is a rarity…hated that I was writing science fiction in my creative-writing classes. They in fact tried to stop me, and I had to negotiate with them pretty early in the class, like, “Look, this is what I want to do, like, professionally, I would really appreciate your feedback, can you please work with me?” And they very often would. A couple of them were like, “No, you must write literary, you know, lit-fic minimalist hyper-realist pieces.” Maybe magical realism, because that gets a pass for some reason. But all the old stories are fantastic, right? Literally the oldest story we have is the Enûma Eliš, or the creation myth from the Sumerians. And it is a dragon-slaying story. It is about Marduk, the God of Attention, right, he’s got eyes all around his head, right, and his ability to speak magic words, and to take the Dragon of Chaos, Tiamot, apart. He cuts her to pieces and builds the world out of the dragon’s corpse, right? So this is a dragon, and magic words, and, you know, he’s got superpowers, he can see everything, right?
It sounds like a Marvel movie.
Yeah, exactly. And that’s what it all is. Science fiction is modern mythology, because a lot of modern people have a hard time with other forms of mythology, because they go out into the world and they’re like, “Well, I don’t see anyone turning water into wine. So these stories aren’t true,” and I’m like, “Well, but what does the story mean?”, right? The story represents something. Whether or not that something is metaphysically true is irrelevant—those stories have meaning. And it’s the same…and I think it’s more digestible if we know those stories are fake to begin with, right? Like, I’m amazed by the number of people who dislike religion on principle who are Tolkien fans, right? It’s just absolutely mind-boggling to me, because it’s the same story, you know? King Arthur is literally the same story, right?
And so, I think we’re doing this because writing… because we don’t live in a society where popular culture is hagiography anymore, where we’re not writing the lives of the saints. So, instead of talking about St. George killing a dragon—because that’s the same story, too. You know, talking about St. Barlaam, who is actually just the Buddha, you know, that story traveled across Asia and arrived in Europe in a different form. You know, instead of telling all these stories as popular entertainments, instead of talking about the quest for the Holy Grail, right, which is of course a very religiously centered story, we tell stories about different dragonslayers, right? You know, Euron Greyjoy just killed a dragon in Game of Thrones, right? Now, that’s a terrible person, but it’s still the same motif, it’s the same kind of story, and it’s scratching a similar itch. Even if the ending of Game of Thrones…that’s an issue, you know, we can get into another time. But it’s still…it’s still hitting that same spot for people.
I think that fandoms are…I don’t want to say cults, but, like, cults in the Roman sense, where they’re these little tiny micro-religions, right, without the pejorative content at all, I think. People come to these things looking for meaning, and they find them in these other places.
And, you know, I think some other people just like dragons, right? They like knights, you know, because in their real life they’re pizza-delivery guys or, you know, they drive trucks, or they work in an office, or they teach school, and, you know, they…it helps. You know, Tolkien talks about writing escapist literature, because, you know, in its truest sense, because you need to be let out of prison, right, because you don’t want to go to the office every day. I work at a science-fiction publisher and I don’t want to go to the office every day, it’s an office. You know, and I love my job, but sometimes it’s Tuesday and you don’t want to go.
I don’t know if it’s Tolkien or Lewis who said that people who…who’s against escapism? Well, jailers. So, people who say, “You shouldn’t read that escapist stuff” are the jailers.
Yeah, that was my problem with those professors.
It’s interesting. I’ve talked to a lot of authors, some of whom had creative writing, and that is…that, unfortunately, it’s still there, those creative-writing types who have this deep-seated prejudice against the fantastic, which…not always. there have been some exceptions in the people I’ve talked to, but it is something that comes up quite a bit.
I will say this though, against those professors. That’s what every student in those classes wanted to write. Almost to a man and woman, every single person who was in those classes with me wanted to write science fiction or fantasy. Maybe they wanted to write, like, a thriller, right, you know, some sort of military story, spy story, but they weren’t writing, you know, literary minimalism, you know, about some person in their ordinary life having ordinary experiences. Everyone was in there with dragons or robots. So they’re losing. And I think people like Dr. Kessel will be more the mainstay in the profession here in another generation or so.
Well, we’re just about to the end of the hour. We’ve talked about the new book and you have mentioned that what you’re working on is the third book. Anything else that you’re working on at the moment?
No, none at the exact moment because I have to power through book three here and finish it before Howling Darkcomes out July 16. And so, I owe them book three August 1. I’d wanted to turn it in before this one was even out, because I turned in book two before book one was out, because it would be nice, you know, to do that. But I have some other ideas. Most of them are fantasy. I want to…there’s a famous story about the Emperor Caligula, who’s famously mad, although I think personally that he’s been defamed by oligarchs throughout history, but it’s his famous story about him ordering his soldiers to attack the ocean. And, you know, that happened up in the Netherlands, so he sounded crazy to everybody in Italy, but I’m a big Tim Powers fan and, you know, Tim Powers’s thing is, he tries to find fantastic explanations for these sort of coincidences in history and, you know, what if Caligula were actually attacking something that came from the sea, you know? That, I think, is something I want to work on after I finish this, but after I finish book three it’ll be time for book four. And then book five. So I have to do that first.
Because it’s not a trilogy, then. It’s more than that.
Oh, no, no. I’m allergic to trilogies, because everyone…it seems every time there’s a trilogy out I find people who are like, “Oh, book two is bad, oh, don’t read the second one, really dropped it in the middle,” or, “You get through the second one, the third one fixes it.” And I thought, “Well, instead of having one awkward middle book, I’ll have three. That’ll fix the problem.”
Well, I did a five-book series, so I’m right there with you. Although they were much shorter. I mean, I think the entire five books would have fit into one and a quarter of yours, but…
I just talk too much, as you can tell.
And where can people find you online?
I am on Facebook and Twitter @TheRuocchio. Someone had already taken my last name, it’s like a third cousin of mine in Pennsylvania, so I put the “The” in front, which makes me sound famous, even though I’m not.
Oddly enough, that’s why this is called “The Worldshapers” instead of just “Worldshapers,” because worldshapers.com was taken. And they offered to sell it to me for, I don’t know, $5,000 or something. I said. “You know, I think I’ll just put a ‘the’ in front of it and I’ll be fine.”
Yeah, that’s the easy solution. I wasn’t gonna try and shake down this cousin I’d never met, so…
So, Twitter and Facebook, both the same thing?
Yes. And my website is sollanempire.com. I figured that’d be easier to spell than my name.
Well, thanks so much for being a guest. I really enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.
I did. Thank you for having me. I’ve been really looking forward to this. I really enjoyed the episode you did with Dave Butler, who is a really good friend of mine, and a couple of the others, and been real excited.
Well, thank you. I think it’ll be…I’m sure that listeners will enjoy it as much as we both did. I hope, anyway.
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.
A former accountant, military contractor, firearms instructor, and machine-gun dealer, Larry has been a full-time author for several years. His first novel, Monster Hunter International,was originally self-published. He’s now published in seven countries.
Larry lives in northern Utah with his very patient wife and four children.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Larry, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thanks for having me on.
Now we met very, very, very briefly, at DragonCon this year…last year, I guess, which was my very first DragonCon. I found it a bit overwhelming. There’s a lot of people there.
Oh, yeah. It’s a giant nerd Mardi Gras.
I was at your panel on–I made a point of sitting in the front row, actually, at the panel on monsters that you were on, which was a very good panel, and then introduced myself and asked if you’d be interested being on the podcast and you said yes, and we’ve finally gotten around to it. So, very glad to have you. I’ve enjoyed your books and am looking forward to talking to you about them. We’re gonna talk specifically about The Saga of the Forgotten Warrior, your fantasy…I guess it’s going to be a trilogy? Or longer?
Well, I originally pitched it as a trilogy to Toni Weisskopf, my publisher, and she’s…you know, Toni knows this stuff very well, and I give her a kind of a plot outline for the trilogy. And she came back and she gave me a book deal for three books, and then she said, “You know, there’s no way in the world you’re going to fit this into three books, right?” Yeah. So, originally it was a trilogy but there’s probably going to be more than that. I’m working on the fourth one right now.
We’ll call it a series, then. The first book of that was Son of the Black Sword, and so we’ll talk about how that all came about a little later. But to start with, I like to talk with my guests about how they got started doing this crazy thing that they did. So, I guess, take us back into the mists of time. First of all, where did you grow up, and how did you first get interested in in science fiction and fantasy as a reader, and then as a writer. How did that all come about? You have a rather unusual path to publication.
Oh, yeah. Well I’m originally from El Nido, California, which is a little tiny town in Merced County, which is the San Joaquin Valley. It’s the part of California that’s more cows than people. That’s where I’m from. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and we were really poor, but there was a little, tiny library, a little, tiny county library. And I was a nerdy kid. I loved reading books and I read every single thing they had there–and then I discovered interlibrary loans. I was always that awkward kid that read books on the bus and read books during recess and I just always loved to read.
I know that kid. I was that kid.
I think that’s most of us. I grew up…it was a pretty rough place, we were, you know, poor dairy farmers, a lot of hard manual labor. It was a lot of of fun, but I read to escape, and I discovered science fiction and fantasy pretty early on. I mean, I started out with Westerns, because…you have to understand, my dad didn’t read. He didn’t appreciate books, he didn’t like books, he thought books were kind of a sissy activity, that was kind of how I was raised. But I got a pass on Westerns, and so I actually started out with Louis L’Amour. My dad thought Westerns were manly and cool and tough, so Westerns were okay. But then, actually, I think one of the first fantasy books I ever came across was Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, an old classic, and discovered that first. That was my gateway drug to fantasy.
That’s interesting, starting with Sword of Shannara. Of course, it was very much in the mold of Tolkien. But you came to it first instead of Tolkien.
Yeah. Well, actually, I came to Tolkien later. I went backwards on that. I mean, I got to meet Terry Brooks in person for the first time five or six years ago, and I think I really nerded out pretty hard. No, I kind of got into that and…I read a lot of different things, various genres. I love reading different genres. I pretty much wound up as a fantasy guy just because that was what I was good at and that’s what I enjoyed writing the most, but I’m kind of a multi-genre kind of guy myself, I write in a bunch of different genres, too. But fantasy is my primary thing and I love it.
So, when did you actually start putting your own words on paper and telling your own stories?
Oh, I was really young, actually. I would get like books with paper and I would illustrate the stories, too. And my mom actually saved some of these, so after I die my wife will probably be able to sell these on eBay to my fans for a lot of money. You know, there’s like, really goofy little adventure stories with cartoons and stuff.
My first attempt at seriously writing, I was in college, and at the time I was on a Tom Clancy kick. I had been reading a ton of techno-thrillers, and I decided…the very first book I ever tried to write was actually a thriller. And it was terrible. It just wasn’t very good. You know, the first thing you try to write has training wheels, and it was terrible. I didn’t know what I was doing. And that got shelved.
And then I graduated college and for about ten years I went off and had a career and a family and worked hard and didn’t really have time for it. And then I decided to give it a shot again in the mid 2000s. I started…at the time, the kick I was on was horror movies, and I’m also a gun nut, I was a firearms instructor, and so I took two things I knew a lot about, horror movies and gun nuttery, and I stuck them together, and that’s where my Monster Hunter series came from. And that book actually did really super well. It’s still going well. So, that’s kind of how I started writing, so I guess I’ve always kind of been a writer, but I took, like, a decade off to be a grown-up.
Did you do anything in the way of, you know, writers’ groups or classes or anything in all that time? I know you certainly didn’t study it at university, you became an accountant, eventually.
Yeah, I got my degree in accounting and did a bunch of things like that. I was an auditor and then I was in the gun business for a long time, then I was a military-contractor accountant, and I did that for many years. But the thing is, I never did any writing-related stuff other than business writing. I wrote nonfiction, because I actually wrote technical articles and review articles for gun magazines, and I wrote articles about, you know, I guess the best way to put this for a non-gun-nut audience is tactical stuff, because I was an instructor. And so, I wrote things like that, but I never wrote any fiction during that time. I never had any training. I took the minimal number of English classes required to graduate. I was never in any writers’ groups or anything of that nature. I just read a lot. So, I kind of learned by doing, I guess.
That, in your words, “very bad thriller” that you wrote, did you share it with anybody, you know, at least get a hint that perhaps you could you could tell a story that people were interested in?
A handful of people, a handful of friends. And actually, people liked it and they really enjoyed it and they were kind of surprised that I was literate, you know, being a big dumb knuckle-dragging farm kid, they were like, “Wow, this is actually really good.” But it just wasn’t up to snuff. It’s funny, though, because there’s no such thing as wasted writing. You know, we always save…even our worst stuff has little nuggets in it…so later on, when I was doing the Dead Six series with Mike Kupari, I stole pretty much every line of dialogue, every cool character, everything that was neat or good from that first book I stole and later on, it wound up in other books. But, you know, it was good practice. But, no, I never had a sort of organized group or anything, just, I would hand it out to friends and said, “Hey! Check this out.” But that’s about it.
I wrote novels in high school that I showed to my friends, and they, you know, they said, “This is really good,” and of course, like you, I look back at those now and I think, “No, actually they weren’t.” But at least I learned that, you know, people were interested in reading what I wrote, and that kind of was what drove me into into doing it.
You were talking about writing nonfiction. I was a journalist myself, so I wrote, you know, thousands and thousands and thousands of words of nonfiction. I would say probably–and let’s see if you would agree with me–that even though you’re not writing fiction, the mere act of putting that many words together, even if it’s for gun magazines or whatever it is, still contributes to your writing improving. Would you say that’s fair?
Oh, I would say that’s totally fair. Like I said, there’s no such thing as wasted writing. Honestly, I think that anything that you’re doing that you’re having to put together a coherent narrative is good training. It’s just good practice, just stringing words together, wordsmithing, it’s all useful. Well, I mean, maybe not Twitter.
The great Twitter novel has yet to be written.
Yeah, I don’t know if I want to read it.
Now, Monster Hunter International…it wasn’t published by a traditional publisher to begin with. was it?
No, it was not. I’m with Baen now, and I’ve been with them for about ten years…yeah, ten years this year. But originally, it was self-published, because what happened is, I wrote this book, and best way to describe is, think, you know, X Files meets The Expendables, okay? So, it’s all the tropes of the various horror movies, and, you know, the Lovecraft mythos, because I love Lovecraft, all that’s in there, only, the people…it’s not a horror story, it’s an adventure story, because the characters are not, you know, typical horror-movie characters who scream and run and get eaten. They’re my people. And so, there are a bunch of gun nuts, and military contractors, and combat vets, and all those people, and they dealt with all these monster problems like my people would. (You know, the running joke as if you made a horror movie about the average gun nut it’d be a really short horror movie.)
So, I did this, and I tried to sell it in the traditional manner. Back in those days.. this predates the e-book revolution and Kindle and all that, so I tried to sell it the traditional way, by getting it to agents and then sending it to slush piles, and I collected…it was just over a hundred rejections. I had a shoebox full of rejections, and basically I had a lot of people, you know, agents, well-known agents, come back and say, “Hey, this is really good, this is really fun, but I don’t think it’s sellable. I don’t see a market for this.” And, well, I was a business man, I was a fairly successful businessman at this point, I understood marketing, I understood market, I understood audiences. And I’m looking at this, and I’m thinking, “Well, I think there is a market for this. It might not be a market that, you know, regular Manhattan publishing understands, but I think there’s sufficient number of people out here that I can sell this book.” And so…at that point, self-publishing was kind of more of a vanity thing. You know, you didn’t have e-books, you had $25 print-on-demand paperbacks, which…that’s a pretty hard sell. But I had an audience already from some of my other work, and I was a moderator on a couple of big Internet gun forums. And so, I actually did some online fiction for free, with another guy, named Mike Kupari, who I later on wrote novels with, a great guy, a very good writer, and we put out, you know, free online fiction, and people read it and were like, “Wow, this guy can actually write fiction, this is pretty good.” And so then I launched my $25 print-on-demand paperback, and it actually did really, extremely well, which in those days of self-publishing was like, if you sold 3,000 to 5,000 copies of a print-on-demand paperback, that was huge. It was nothing like it is today, very different. But it was actually a very big success and…Uncle Hugo’s is this big independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota, great bookstore, great guys. And one of their employees read this, one of their former employees read this, and then passed it on to Uncle Hugo, or Don Blyly of Uncle Hugo’s, who wound up printing out the Word document file on his printer and read the whole thing that night, and then he called Toni Weisskopf, who was the publisher at Baen, and said, “You guys need to buy this book ’cause I could sell the heck out of it.” And that got Toni Weisskopf to take a look at it, and she thought it was great, and she…at that point my self-published book was doing pretty good…so she contacted me and made me an offer to buy it.
And this is where it really is cool. I had to discontinue the self-published version. I signed my contract, but, you know, the way publishing schedules work, it wasn’t going to come out for almost a year and a half. So what happened is, for a year and a half, everybody talked about this great self-published book that they really, really liked to their friends, and their friends couldn’t buy it, because there were no more. And nothing makes somebody want something more than not being able to have it. So, for a year and a half everybody wanted to get their hands on this book, and no one could. So then when the actual Baen version came out, it was just mass-market paperback, that was before I was in hardcover, our little print run sold out in like the first twenty-four hours, it just exploded. And so she did another print run, and it went nuts and it was just instantaneously sold out. And so she did a third print run, and it went nuts, too.
At that point it kind of slowed off, but, you know, she’d given me a contract for a few more books at that point. So, yeah, so that’s how my career got started, and I’ve been doing this for about ten years now. That was back in 2009, is when the Baen version came out, and I’m at twenty-one novels now, I think, and a couple of collections of short stories, and a bunch of novellas and miscellaneous projects. So, it’s been really busy.
It’s safe to say this is what you do full time now?
Oh, yeah, yeah, I quit my accounting job about…I want to say five or six years ago…and I’ve been a full-time writer ever since.
Well, I have to say…I had run across mentions of Monster Hunter international…I think I was actually in the hospital for some reason and I needed stuff to read, and I may have gotten it through…was it in the Baen Free Library? That may have been where I got the first book.
Yeah, once we, I think, three or four books in the series, they added the first one to the Free Library. So, yes, for your listeners, you can get my first book for free, it’s available on baen.com, or you can download a free version for your Kindle on Amazon.
But be warned that that was like a, you know, one hit and then you’re hooked, at least in my case, because then I tore through all the others and I’ve been keeping up with it ever since. Good job, Baen.
That’s why we do it. Yeah, it’s the…we follow the crack-dealer method of product distribution where the first hit is free. The rest of the books cost you.
It’s interesting. One of the things that I often get asked and, you know, I’ve asked…you’re my, what, eighteenth or twentieth interview or something in this podcast?… people always ask, well, “How do you break in, or how did you get your first book published?”, and the thing is, it’s different for absolutely everybody. So, you know, your story is fascinating, but it’s probably not going to help anybody else, because it can’t, it’s not going to happen that way to anybody else.
Well, and technology changes so rapidly now. So even though this was only ten years ago for me, the entire method of how I got into it doesn’t even exist anymore really.
And now self publishing has become so easy the challenge there is, I mean, yeah, anybody can self-publish and it’s a snap, but you have to compete with the hundred thousand other people that also self-published that month. It’s super-competitive, very different than when I did it.
I did want to ask–and the reason is that my first book with DAW had been rejected by them and then through a roundabout way got accepted by them as a paperback–had Baen–you said you had a hundred rejections. Had Baen rejected it once before it came back to them?
This is kind of funny. So actually what happened with them–’cause most of my rejections were agents, and I also submitted directly to every publisher that would let you–Baen does a slush pile. So back in those days you would just mail the manuscript to Baen, and they would have, like, a big pile in their office of typed manuscripts, and they would go through and read them, they would have their slush readers. So, I did actually mail one, I did submit one to the slush pile. However, it disappeared or never arrived, because what happened was years later they were going through their own slush pile trying to find the original Monster Hunter I mailed them, just so they could just have it. You know, it’s an international bestseller for them now, we’ve got millions of books in print, and so they were trying to find this original photocopied manuscript that I had mailed them and they could never find it. And so I don’t know. It got lost at the post office? So, no, I didn’t ever actually get rejected by Baen.
Someday it’ll turn up.
Yeah, I figure it’ll show up on eBay when some postal employee finds it in, you know, the floor boards of his car. So that was just, that was a weird one right there, but, no, I got rejected a lot. But, you know, I always tell aspiring writers, you know, “You’re going to get rejected. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just keep going.” You know, a hundred sounds like a lot, but I’m not even near the top. I want to say Laurell K. Hamilton got rejected, like, two hundred and fifty times, and that was for her Anita Blake stuff, which has gone on to sell, like, 30 million copies. But back then, that was before paranormal romance was really a thing. She’s kind of like the godmother of that genre. And so publishers just didn’t know what to do with it. People were going, “I really don’t know how I’d sell this, I don’t know what genre is this.” Urban fantasy was a weird oddball thing back then and paranormal romance didn’t even exist, so they didn’t know. And now she is super, super successful. You never know. You just gotta keep throwing stuff out there to see what’s next.
Everybody hopes that that kind of a story will be theirs and for most people it isn’t. But the possibility is always there. So that’s what keeps a lot of writers going, I think.
There’s a lot of people, we show up and it’s like, “Wow, it’s like you’re an overnight success!” Yeah, it only took five years.
Well, in my case it was, before I had anything published fiction-wise, I’d been trying to sell for fifteen years, I think, or something like that. My first book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95, and my second book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 97. So it was like a series, you know, but not quite what I was interested in.
Yeah. I mean, we all come at this from different ways. There’s no one right answer. And it’s funny, because I go to these panels, and people always ask me, like, “What is the trick? What is the secret?” And I’m like, “Dude, I wish I knew, because I would totally like, you know, sell that.”
Yeah, if I’d known, I wouldn’t have taken so long to get to where I am. Well, we’re going to talk about the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior series (not trilogy!). So, we’ll start with talking…obviously, we’ll talk about the first book, because it’s hard to talk about the second book if you haven’t read the first book, which I have, by the way. The first book is called Son of the Black Sword, and maybe I’ll let you give a synopsis, because otherwise I’m liable to spoil something that shouldn’t be spoiled.
No problem. Okay, so Son of the Black Sword is an epic fantasy. It’s set in a world that’s kind of loosely based on India. I won’t say too much about the setting. It’s a world with really brutal caste systems, but it’s not a religious society: in fact, religion has been banned for a very long time. Instead, they have an all-encompassing Law, and everybody in this society has a place. The story’s about…the main character is a fellow named Ashok Vadal, who is a magical super-warrior figure. Think of this guy as kind of a roving, magical Judge Dredd, okay? This guy is the ultimate law enforcer in a land where the law is basically God. But the story is about him and what happens to him, because it turns out he is not who he thinks he is. And that’s…
The problem with epic fantasies is you can’t over-describe them without giving away the plot, but it’s really awesome. It came out super good. I love it. It’s done really well, been very popular. The story is…basically, I describe this guy as, he’s kind of a cross between The Punisher and George Washington. And it’s the story of how he basically turns from this unflinching role enforcer to…the saga’s him becoming a human being. But these are people that have not had religion for a long time, it’s been banned, and the old gods are kind of meddling in the affairs of man once again. This is a world where the seas, where the oceans, are basically hell. And so the culture is developed up around that. No, you don’t want to be by the ocean. The ocean is bad news in this setting.
It’s a fun series. The first one is Son of the Black Sword, which came out a couple of years ago and did really well. It’s my first foray into epic fantasy, based kind of…I’m a huge Robert E. Howard fan, so I kind of think of it as sword and sorcery, but it’s epic fantasy. The sequel is called House of Assassins, and that actually comes out right now. I think by the time this airs I’ll be on book tour for it. So that’s number two. And then number three is called Destroyer of Worlds, and I’m working on that right now. That’s actually what I was typing on when you called, or when you e-mailed me. So, yeah, the series is a lot of fun. I’ve really enjoyed it. (It’s a very dark setting, so when I say fun, to put this in perspective, I’m a writer. We have…our ideas of fun are a little different.
Yeah. You know, I destroy planets for fun.
Yeah, exactly. No, this is…I get to tackle a bunch of issues and have a lot of fun with it, but I don’t…I’m not a heavy-handed message-fiction kind of guy. I’m an action-adventure guy. If a theme sneaks in there it’s usually an accident, and don’t worry, I always put the action scenes first.
So what was the genesis of this? The seed from which this is grew?
You know, this is really interesting, because this is the funny thing about how how ideas works. Many years ago, I was a panelist, when I was a new writer, I was a brand-new writer, I was on a panel at a convention called LTUE, which is Life, the Universe, and Everything, in Provo, Utah. Back then it was held on the BYU college campus. And I was the newbie writer, and I was on a panel with Lee Modesitt Jr., Brandon Sanderson, and Dave Wolverton, who, as you know, are three big-deal, big-time, very successful fantasy writers.
So, I’m on this panel and somebody, some college student in the audience, had a question about…something. I can’t remember what the question was, and I had a really good answer for it. And so, I started to answer the question, and this college student cuts me off. He goes, “No, no, no, no, you’re just an urban-fantasy writer. I want to hear from the epic-fantasy writers.” And I was like, “You little bastard.” And I sat there and I was kind of like torqued, right. Like I said, I’d only been a writer for a couple of years. And so, as soon as the panel was over I snagged Brandon Sanderson, and I was like, “Hey, Brandon, what makes something an epic fantasy?” And so, he’s like, “Well, you know, it’s gotta have a lot of characters and a big giant plot and usually world-spanning events and a lot of history and worldbuilding and that kind of stuff.”
I went, “Okay, okay, cool, cool.” And so then I hooked up with Mike Kupari, whom I’ve mentioned before, ’cause Mike’s one of my best friends, and my co-author on my thriller series, and we’re driving home, and we start brainstorming, and actually the epic fantasy that I came up with turned out to be Hard Magic, the Grimnoir Chronicles, which is my Hard Magic series. So, my first attempt epic fantasy turned into 1930s alternate-history superheroes.
And I’d actually call one science fiction. It really has a science-fiction undercurrent.
Exactly. But that was the genesis of my foray into epic fantasy. But some of the ideas I came up with during this process, brainstorming, a lot of this turned into a series, which is actually a very successful one, and critically acclaimed, and it’s won the Audie for best audio book two out of the three novels. It was like number sixteen on Audible’s top 100 audio books of all time, so it’s been really good. But the thing is, this was my first foray into epic fantasy and it turned out not epic fantasy at all.
Then the next year, actually when I was working on Monster Hunter Alpha, I still at this point really wanted to tackle an epic fantasy, just ’cause I read ’em, I enjoyed ’em, and I hadn’t written one–because, like I said, my attempt turned out to be alternate-history superheroes. So, I was like, “I’m going to write an epic fantasy.” So, while I was working on Monster Hunter Alpha…I always listen to music as I write, and I usually listen to movie soundtracks, because they’re instrumental, there’s no words to mess with me, just music. And so, I hadn’t even seen the movie yet, but I had downloaded the soundtrack for Inception, because I love Hans Zimmer, right? Hans Zimmer’s awesome. So while I was listening to Inception, there’s a song called “Waiting for a Train,” and it’s like this eight-minute-long or nine-minute-long song, that starts really, really slow, and then builds up to this just massive crescendo. And before the crescendo begins, there’s actually this woman, there are some lyrics, and this woman comes on and sings one line in French, and having not seen the movie, I had no context at all, right? But I was so struck by this song that I stopped writing the novel that I was working on, and I actually wound up writing this little two-thousand-word short scene that was just a fantasy setting set specifically to that song. Once again, I hadn’t seen the movie, so I had no context of what it actually looked like, right? Or what it was actually for. (Boy, I was off! I was nowhere near what the movie Inception was like. )
So, I wrote that one little scene, and if you’ve read Son of the Black Sword, it’s actually the scene where Ashok is returning home, after he’s learned the truth of his existence, to confront his aunt. Basically, it turned into the dinner-party scene, the dinner-party knife-fight scene. That was actually the genesis of Son of the Black Sword, I was just inspired to write this one scene to correspond with this song. And then when I finished up this, I started brainstorming it out and really came up with a big plot.
The Indian setting was actually kind of interesting, because…I’m not a crusader by any means, in fact that stuff annoys the heck out of me, and this was before the whole big push for non-Western settings because you’re supposed to, or any of that stuff–I just thought it sounded interesting. I thought it sounded fun. Plus, I watch a lot of Bollywood movies, and so I was just looking at this like, you know, that would actually be really kind of a cool setting. And plus, I’d already been thinking through with that initial scene I did, where I’d already, just off that, was using a setting with caste systems. So, at that point it made perfect sense to just kind of borrow heavily from Indian history and mythology for the setting. And so it just kind of expanded out from there, and I actually wound up expanding it out and borrowing from…well, I won’t get into it, but, like, some other elements from Southeast Asia and even East Africa. So I got to throw in a bunch of stuff in there from that for inspiration. But then it kind of morphed into its own thing. So that’s where that came from.
You know, it would be cool to have a Bollywood movie version of Son of the Black Sword. Don’t you think you could have one?
Oh, my gosh. Well, in my head canon as I’m writing this, I always like to have, like, actors or people I actually know playing various characters. That way as I write them it helps me keep them consistent. So, actually, Kumar, in my head, is Ashok. Ashok looks like the actor Kumar. He’s been in a lot of movies. You’ve probably seen him. So, if they would like to make a movie that’d be great. They’d have to add some musical numbers.
I was going to say the musical numbers would be interesting.
My daughter, my oldest daughter, who’s a writer also, she’s watched a lot of these movies with me, and she’s like, at one point, I was saying that would be funny, if they made a Bollywood version of Son of the Black Sword, and my daughter goes, “Nah, Ashok don’t dance.” This is not a man who would dance, he’s not a man given to frivoloity.
She definitely has a point. So, you’ve talked a little bit about bringing all that, all those various things, together–was there a lot of research involved at this point, then, or did that come along as you develop the plot?
Oh, I kind of–that goes in spurts because, you know, there’s always the ever-widening Wiki spiral that all authors, we tend to do as we’re researching. No, I did the basic plot outline first. I’m an outliner.
That was my next question.
Oh, yeah, yeah, I’m definitely an outliner, so…plus I learned my lesson on my earlier books: I would outline, but I didn’t necessarily keep a series bible. Which, when you’re only one or two or three books into a series, that’s not a big deal. But on Monster Hunter I’m, you know, seven books in, with three spinoffs and a short-story collection. So, all of a sudden, this universe has gotten so big. I didn’t originally have a universe guide for it, and so I’m trying to remember, like, “Whoa, did I say where this person is from? Is this guy left-handed? Did I ever say what color this person’s eyes are?” All that little stuff…
It starts to pile up.
Yeah, it does, it piles up. So, what I did from the beginning of this series is, I had my outline, but then, I also have a separate world guide. Especially when you’re writing urban fantasy, a lot of stuff you don’t need a world guide, because it’s just, you’re just taking our existing world and inserting stuff into it. So, I don’t need to, like, have a description of the city of Chicago. It’s just Chicago, right? But for this, when you make up every single city, every single place, every single family, every single culture, cultural thing, you have to have some constant reference, down to like, you know, the calendar: how you know what are the names of the days of the week and the days of the month and what are the names of the month, of the year, and how does the calendar work, and all this stuff. And so, I try not to worry too much about all that stuff up front because it messes with you and it slows you down. So, I usually outline the story first. When I say outline, I’m talking maybe four or five pages, maybe eight or ten pages tops for a book. I’m not a super-religious outliner, it’s a very loose outline, and then I’ll jump in, I’ll start writing, and then when I come to something that I need to stop and research, if I’m on a roll I’ll just mark it–for me, my mark is always XXX, because then I go back and I control-F and search for XXX, every instance of XXX, that tells me this is something I need to figure out or research.
I use that, too, because it never shows up by accident.
Exactly. Yeah. You’re never gonna find that on the middle of a word by accident…well, I guess if you’re writing porn, I mean, that could happen. Luckily that’s not an issue.
So, if I’m not on a roll and I come up with something then I’ll stop and I’ll go and I’ll do research on it and figure out how I’m going to do it. Then I’ll add that to my world guide and I’ll just go ahead and write. But if I’m on a roll and I don’t want to stop to go figure out how calendars work or how does, you know, agriculture in the northern provinces work, I’m going to put XXX and I’m going to keep plowing ahead, and then later on, when I’m stuck or bored or whatever where I’m at, I’ll flip back and that’s when I’ll do my research. I guess I do a minimal amount of research upfront for the outlining and for the opening, and then I just go.
And, of course, research has become much more easy than it was pre-Internet and pre-Google and all these wonderful tools we have now.
Oh my gosh, yeah. Even in the ten years that I’ve been doing this it’s gotten way easier. And, you know, ten years ago we did have the internet. I mean, it wasn’t that long I’ve been doing this. But, yeah, it’s funny. It’s interesting, too. I find that research, especially for fantasy novels, is super-helpful, because it just opens up so many other corridors in your brain that you otherwise hadn’t thought of.
My example of that was, I have a book under a pseudonym, E.C. Blake, I wrote a trilogy called The Masks of Aygrima, and part of it is set in a mine, and I needed some way for them to get up and down in the mine, and I thought, “Well, ladders are boring,” and then I did some research and found this thing called a “man-engine,” which is driven by water and reciprocating beams and two sets of platforms go up and down and as they go up and down they meet momentarily and you can step from one platform to the next and get carried down. And so that made its way in, and it made the whole scene more interesting and gave me all sorts of things that I could do. So, yeah, that sort of thing happens all the time.
Yeah, I love that stuff.
Now, what does your actual writing process look like. Do you write in longhand. for example?
Oh, gosh, no. My handwriting is awful.
I have met, I have talked to authors who do, which blows my mind. But some people still do it.
Yeah, Marko Kloos writes everything originally with just a nice ink pen and a Moleskine notebook. I’m like, “I don’t know how he does that.” No, I type. I was actually mentioning to you earlier I didn’t know if this program we’re using right now would work because I have an eight-year-old laptop that I’ve just never bothered to replace.
As long as the hamsters run fast enough it’ll be fine.
Well, I mean, all I really use my computer for it is Wikipedia, Facebook, and typing. So, no, I work in a pretty much normal…ever since I quit my day job I work in a normal workday, so…I’m not a morning person, I don’t try to force myself to work early in the morning, because my brain doesn’t work that way. So, about eight-thirty or nine o’clock, I will usually drift into my office. I work from home, I have a nice office. I’ll go in here and I’ll usually write until about lunchtime, and then I’ll take a break for a little while to eat lunch, unless I’m on a roll, then I eat while I type. Then I work until, usually, about three-thirty or four o’clock in the afternoon–by then my imagination is starting to peter off. Unless, again, I’m on a roll, because, you know, if you’re having one of those days where you’re on a roll, you just keep working. Then I’ll work until nine o’clock, ten o’clock at night.
If I have a deadline I work however long I need to work. I did a sixteen-hour day last week, or about two weeks ago. I had to do the short story “The Testimony of the Traitor Ratul,” and I had forgotten about that. And so I was up on my deadline and I had to do a 5,000-word short story that day. And so I did, and I was working until like, I want to say eight o’clock at night, and the story was almost done, it was pretty good. Then I went to bed and I lay there and it was about eleven-thirty or midnight, I was still awake ’cause I was so in the zone, and so I had to get back up and finish the story, writing till about two-thirty in the morning, which is always scary, ’cause I have a rule of thumb, you don’t write after midnight, because what happens is then you check it the next day and it’s crap. But this time I checked it and it was like, it was actually really good. I was like, “Okay, perfect!”
But normally, the vast majority of the time, I’m a nine-to-five kind of writer. I actually take weekends off now, which is amazing, because for the first half of my writing career I had a day job, and it wasn’t just a wimpy day job, it was a high-level management and finance-management kind of job with a, I was the finance guy for a military-contracting company. It was a high-pressure job with a lot of hours, a lot of brain, a lot of hard work, a lot of math, and so I would do that all day and I’d come home and I would write for a couple of hours at night and then I would usually do most of my writing on the weekends. So all day Saturday and Sunday would just be these marathon writing days.
It’s kind of funny, because back then I had this goal that I would try to write 10,000 words a week which, you know, that’s a good goal. I didn’t always get it, but I would try. Which is funny because my goal still today, now that I do this full-time, is still 10,000 words a week. The difference is, life is much nicer now. And also, the big thing is, that old stuff that I would cram in, 10,000 words a week here and there, writing on my lunch hour, writing late at night, writing all day Saturday, that stuff, it was funny because I would write all that and then I would have to edit it way more. I’d spend a lot more hours editing it because it was just wasn’t as good. Now I’ll try to write 10,000 words in a week and I just do my nine to five, but then when I go to edit, my editing passes are actually way cleaner, and I don’t spend nearly as many hours editing as I used to. That’s good, because writing is fun, editing is work.
That’s actually the next question. What does your revision process look like, once you have that draft. You’ve mentioned that you might mark things with XXX that you have to go back and flesh out later. So, what does your revising process look like?
Usually what I do is…so, I’ll finish the first draft, and I’m one of those guys that if I’m stuck on a scene I’ll just mark it and move to the next scene. I don’t like killing momentum because I’ve gotten to a hard part. A lot of people, you know, they’ll freeze up and they’ll get stuck on a scene forever, and I think that’s just the kiss of death. I mean skip that, go to the next one you want to do. So, when I get to the end of the book I have to go back and fill in those scenes that I skipped, or parts I skipped, or sometimes it’s just like, I skipped a paragraph because I didn’t feel like explaining how something works. So, I go back and I fill all this stuff in and usually it’s a lot easier when you do that, because by then you’ve written past that scene, so you know absolutely what must happen. That’s why these guys who write longhand on paper, I’m like, “I stand in awe,” because that is not how my brain works.
And then I go through, I’ll clean all that stuff up. I’ll usually do a clean pass, where I’ll read it from beginning to end, I’ll usually do that once or twice. And then–this is very important–I have a group of alpha readers now. These are people that I trust, these are various authors and friends of mine that I’ve gotten over the years, and also a lot of times technical experts, like…so, in this case, I’m writing a book with a lot of sword fighting. I’m not a sword-fighting expert. I’m a gun expert, but I’m not a sword guy. And so I have a couple of people that are, modern or Western martial artists or Eastern martial artists or professional sword people, and I send it to them.
Then, I give it about a month. During that month, I will not look at this manuscript at all. I will walk away from it. Because what happens is, I need to be, I need to get some distance between me and the manuscript. Because if I keep reading a book, I’m too close to it. There’s stuff that’s in my head that’s not necessarily on the page, but it’s in my head, so I don’t catch it. So during that month I’ll go work on another book. I will go outline other projects. That’s usually…I’ve written, like, fifty short stories now, and I think most of my short stories have been written between novels like this. So during that month, I will go to all sorts other stuff.
Then I will go back, I will read everything the alpha readers had to say about it, and then I will start again, and I will read it from beginning to end. And now I have some distance between me and the book. I will catch errors, I will catch mistakes, I’m, like, little things, I’ll improve them, just because a lot of that stuff, when you’re too close to a manuscript, you can’t see this stuff. You’ve got to get some distance, then you have a clean eye. And then after that it goes to my real editors. I’ve had several different editors with Baen, it just depends on which book in which series, and they’ve all been awesome. And I just take their feedback and incorporate it.
Who’s the editor on the these books? The Saga of the Forgotten Warrior books.
This is interesting, because actually, these have been popular, so I’ve had multiple…multiple people have joined in on this. So Toni is our overall publisher, but Jim Minz and also Tony Daniel have been my editors on the series.
What kind of notes do you get back from them?
Actually, apparently I’m one of their favorites because I’m easy to edit. I’m not one of those sensitive artist types, so I’m pretty much open to anything, and usually they’ll tag stuff and they’ll be like, “Hey, Larry look at this.” A lot of times they’ll just let me solve it. They know I’m pretty good at solving a problem, so if, like, a scene doesn’t work, they’ll just put a note that, “Hey, I don’t understand what’s going on here,” and they’ll just kick it back to me and I’ll go over it. Very seldom have I ever had to make any major changes in edits. But just give you an idea, in House of Assassins, the one that’s coming out right now, the sequel to Son of the Black Sword, the biggest edit in there was actually the chapter that I open with was originally Chapter Three. I opened with…Chapter 2 was originally the opening of the thing. And Jim read this, and he loved the book, but he was just like, “You know, I just think this other chapter that you have later on, I think is just a stronger opening. I think if you opened with this chapter instead of this one it would be stronger.” Now, I’d have to change stuff around in the chronology to do that, but I looked at it. The key to being edited is, you’ve got to be humble and don’t be a prideful jerk about, because, you know, your editors are smart people, too. And I looked at this and Jim was right. It was spot on. He was very correct, that that other chapter made for a much cooler, more interesting opening. You know, so stuff like that.
My favorite edit that I ever got was actually one of my Monster Hunter books, and it’s from Toni Weisskopf. Toni is a hilarious edtior. So this scene, for whatever reason, just didn’t work. And so the note on the scene says, the note at the top of the page literally says, “This scene sucks. Make it not suck.” And I looked at it, and she was right. And so I did. You know, she didn’t need to tell me how to fix it. She just said this doesn’t work. Make it work. And I did. So, I’ve had really good editors. I’ve been really lucky there. They’ve been pretty awesome.
I like to point out to writers who are worried about being edited, that, especially if you’re at a big house like Baen, or my publisher, DAW…you know, my editor, Sheila Gilbert, who’s been in the business for 30-some years now, editing…
She’s awesome, yeah.
They have seen more stuff than you have in the field and know, you know, they know when things aren’t working, and they have a pretty good feel for what does work. So, yeah, I’m very humble when it comes to being edited.
One of my favorite editing stories is…just to put this in perspective for most authors, you know, a good editor is mostly there for suggestions. It’s your story. A bad editor takes over and makes you rewrite it according to their every whim, and that’s just bad editing. That’s not a good fit. My favorite editing story, just to illustrate how a good editor works, is in one of my books, I have this scene, where it’s about…it’s from the bad guy’s perspective, and she’s… it’s this kind of this lonely scene, and she’s doing evil things, and it’s just to show that she’s an evil messed-up person, and then at the end, she gets this cupcake out of her backpack and puts a candle in it, because it turns out that today, this day she’s doing all this evil stuff, is her birthday. My editor read this scene, and he said, “No, no, no. This is what you do. How about open with the cupcake and the candle and her singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to herself? And then you back up to how you got there. And it just…all I did was move, like, two paragraphs, but all of a sudden it made the scene like a thousand times cooler. So that’s what a good editor does, you know? They just kind of help you massage stuff to make it better.
Well, we are getting close to the end here, so we will move on to the big philosophical questions I like to ask.
Yeah. This podcast is called The Worldshapers. And yes, that’s partly because my latest novel is called Worldshaper…
Notice how I eased that in there. But I guess the question I like to ask authors is, obviously we all shape, we shape our fictional worlds. Do you ever have…you’ve said you’re not, you know, you’re not focused on pushing a message by any stretch, but do you still hope that in some way you you shape, if not the world, per se, that might be a little grand but, at least have an impact on your readers in some fashion?
I do, yeah. Actually, this is a really interesting one as a writer. You know, I think how…we hear from people all the time, and I don’t like to…I get a little…I don’t like to share these stories, but I’ll just speak in general here…but we hear from readers all the time how somehow, something we wrote touched them, where they’re going through a hard time and we cheered them up or, you know, they lost a loved one, and they were sad for a while, but the first time they laughed in a month was, they read one of our books, and it made them smile. It made them forget the suckiness of what was going on in their life right then. And so, there’s little moments like that and, you know…I was on a panel one time with Jim Butcher and another author (who I will not name), and somebody asked this question, and Jim was very classy and said, “You know what, I’ve got a lot of my readers tell me I’ve improved their life or I’ve helped them out of a tough spot or, you know, I cheered them up, but those aren’t my stories to tell. Those are theirs.” And I was like, “You know, that was so classy.” And I really respected that. But then the next author went onto this really long-winded story about how he saved the day and how he was so super-important, and I just remember sitting there thinking, “Yeah, Jim’s answer was way classier.”
But as far as message, I tend to write about, I like writing about, heroic people. I like writing about brave, rugged individuals who don’t fit in, who try to do the right thing. I’m old-fashioned, I do believe in good and evil, and I like when the good guys succeed. I like when the good guys fight. They don’t always succeed, because, you know, the bad guy’s got to win sometimes, too, or there’s no tension. But, you know, I like good versus evil, I like these big epic struggles. One thing I really enjoy, and this was kind of like my point in the Grimnoir Chronicles, was, I was writing about these people that were facing all these hard odds, and they were fighting against kind of this, like, totalitarian government. And part of my, part of that was, the big question in that series was, “Do the people own the government or does the government own the people?” Because these were…you know, it was a very American 1930s book, but that was the big philosophical question. In Son of the Black Sword, I’m writing about these people with these really brutal caste systems and this Law where everybody has…what some of the people keep saying is, “Every man has a place,” because in this society everybody has what’s expected of them, and if you go outside of what’s expected of you, that’s trouble. And so, I’m writing about the people that are the oddballs, the people who don’t fit in, the people who, you know, they’re bringing crazy, crazy ideas like liberty or freedom, and how just insane that is. I love touching on that stuff. I love entertaining people. So, if I can accomplish anything, it’s just to give people a good time, you know, make them happy, cheer ’em up, give ’em some cool, fun ,action-adventure. If I brighten somebody’s day, then I did my job. I guess that’s how I look at it.
I had this conversation with Toni Weisskopf, and I was saying basically what I just said, and she kind of shot me down, because she takes a very different outlook on that, because she’s primarily a science-fiction person. She says the job of science fiction authors is to teach people to dream big so they can ry to achieve these great things, and then the job of the fantasy authors is to make people heroic enough to do it. And I thought that was kind of cool.
Well, bringing it back from effect on readers to you, why do you do it? What do you think drives any of us to write and to make up stories?
Well, on the on the very first, most base level, I love getting paid. One of the writing jokes on my blog, when I’m writing about it is, “I’m like the prophet of capitalism, man, I’m all about, ‘Hey, we tell good stories, readers like it, they buy our books.'” But, honestly, a big part of it is, I just like telling stories. I’ve always been a storyteller. I was always that kid with the big dramatic story. I was always the guy that was, you know, just telling everybody else what’s going on, telling jokes, telling tall tales, campfire stories, whatever…oh, speaking of which, when you wind up, when you get drafted to be a scoutmaster and you go on a camping trip, and, you know, you do the thing where you tell the scary stories to scare the teenagers? Nobody is better at that than a professional fantasy author. I’ve written a lot of horror, too, so, man, I can scare the crap out of some teenagers around a campfire. I am legend for that. But, no, I just like telling stories. I enjoy it.
And the fact that I get to do this for a living and get to do this all day for fun is kind of amazing. It’s like the coolest job in the world. I get to just…as my mom says. I love the way my mom, my mom phrased this one time as, “I make crap up and tell lies for a living.”
That’s about it.
Thanks, Mom! Great way to put it. But yeah, no, it’s awesome, it’s the best job ever. I absolutely love what I do and I’m very, I’m super thankful that I’ve got fans that let me do this for a living. I love my fans.
There’s a famous…I live in Saskatchewan there’s a famous author from, actually, the same town that I used to be the newspaper editor, Weyburn, W.O. Mitchell, and way back when I was young, which has been a while, there was a television program that had some of his stories have been dramatized, and he sort of did the Alfred Hitchcock thing and introduced it, but the title of the anthology series was The Magic Lie, which I think is a pretty good description of what fiction is.
Pretty much, yeah.
Now, what are you working on now?
I’m working on a couple of things simultaneously, because that’s how my brain works, but I’m working on Destroyer of Worlds, which is Book 3 in the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior, and I’m also working on another novella, which is gonna be an exclusive for Audible back home. My series is called Tom Stranger: Interdimensional Insurance Agent, which is my comedy series. It’s narrated by Adam Baldwin, the actor from Firefly and The Last Ship. He’s awesome. He’s a great guy, great sense of humor, he does wonderful comedy, and so I’m doing that right now, too. So, one really super-serious project, and one super-silly project at the same time. We’ll see how that works out.
And looking further down the road, what’s what’s still to come that you know about?
Oh, gosh. Well, so after those two I have, later on this year I have a anthology called Noir Fatale, which was edited by me and a great writer named Kacey Ezell, and Noir Fatale is a collection of science fiction and fantasy noir-themed stories, you know, hardboiled detective, femme fatales, murder mysteries. We got some great writers in there. I got David Weber, who did a new Honor Harrington story for us. I got Laurell Hamilton, who did a new Anita Blake story for us. We’ve got a bunch of really super-talented authors in there. I’ll plug my daughter, my daughter actually sold me a story that’s in there, it’s a Japanese ghost-hunting detective story, and she, you know, she had to actually…nepotism is a hell of a thing, but she had to sell it to me and it’s really good.
So I have that coming out later this year and then I also have another collection, the second volume of my collected short stories, called Target Rich Environment, Target Rich Environment Volume 2 comes out at the end of the year. Oh, yeah, Monster Hunter Guardian, the next Monster Hunter novel, this one is a collaboration with Sarah Hoyt, it comes out in August. So this is the sixth book in the regular Monster Hunter series. It’s about a character named Julie Shackleford, who is one of the main, main characters in the series, and it’s awesome. This book is really cool. The best way to describe it is…you know the movie Taken? This is the Monster Hunter version of Taken. Its intense. It’s really good.
So lots to look forward to, then.
Yeah, it’s kind of funny, there’s like a Larry Correia release every quarter this year. They keep me busy, but I like to work, so it works out well.
And if people would like to find you online, where would they look for you?
Monsterhunternation.com is my blog, but I’m also on Facebook. I am no longer on Twitter. I got banned off of there. (Laughs.) No, I’m still on Twitter, too. I gave up on it. I’m on Facebook, just under Larry Correia, but the best place to find me is my blog, monsterhunternation.com.
Ok. Well, that brings us, I think, to the end of the time, so thank you so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers.
Well, cool, thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate it.
David John Butler is a novelist living in the Rocky Mountain West. He trained in law and worked as a securities lawyer at a major international firm and in-house at two multinational semiconductor manufacturers before setting up in solo practice. He’s also a consultant and corporate trainer. He teaches business acumen to employees of world-class companies.
Dave is a lover of language and languages, a guitarist and self-recorder, a serious reader, is married to a “powerful and clever woman,” Emily Butler, who is also a novelist, and has three “devious” children. He’s been writing speculative fiction since 2010, ranging from fantasy to science fiction to horror, and writes for young readers as well as for adults. He’s published by Knopf, Word Fire, and Baen, and he’s also the acquisitions editor at Word Fire Press.
The Lightly Edited Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Dave.
Ed, thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.
We encountered each other at DragonCon. You were signing–it was actually my first DragonCon, by the way, a little overwhelming–you were signing at Bard’s Tower,which is a sort of a travelling bookstore that shows up at conventions, and speaking of towers, I was shocked by how tall you were.
Oh, yeah, I was once six foot eight. I haven’t measured myself in a long time. You know as a a kid you stand up against the the door frame and get a little pencil mark every year and a half or so. But as an adult you don’t need to. I’m pretty sure I’m shrinking now. I suspect I’m probably six-seven at this point. But, I’m still quite tall.
Well, I’m six-two, which, you know, normally is pretty tall around most people, so it’s always a surprise to me when I meet somebody that’s as tall as you are.
You’re also my third David on the podcast, which is interesting. David B. Coe was the first one, and David Weber, and now you, so…
Well, third time’s the charm.
Well, I’m wondering if I can find an author named Goliath just to get a little balance here.
It’s funny that you mentioned those guys. The editor at Baen, David Afsharirad, is putting together an anthology–and I have forgotten the title of it–in which every single short story is written by someone named David.
I should change my name.
That is a way to get in!
Well, a little later on we’re going to focus primarily on your trilogy, which began with Witchy Eye and follows up with Witchy Winter, which should be coming out in paperback about the time that this podcast goes live, but I’d like to start by–and I always say this-going back into the mists of time. How did you first begin writing? How did you become interested in writing, and also how did you become interested in writing specifically in the fantastical realm?
Yeah. It’s actually the same answer. I was seven years old and my dad, who was a professor, had been at an academic conference and he came home and he gave everybody…he had a gift for every kid, and the gift he had for me was the 25th Anniversary Silver Jubilee edition of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit paperback with the Darrell K. Sweet covers, red, blue, green, and yellow, and I laid down in bed and I didn’t come out until I had read the books, took about a week. I almost burned the house down. I had a little bedside lamp, you know, and I fell asleep with the lamp on and the lamp had just kind of nodded down and laid against the pillow. And when I woke up it burned a circular hole next to my head. Oh yeah. So so much longer that would have been really tragic.
We’re lucky we’re having this conversation, then.
We are. In an alternate universe, you know, the world never got to know the many gifts of Dave Butler because he died at the age of seven. But, yeah, so that was it. So, I was I was convinced from the age of seven that I wanted to be like Tolkien. I read and reread that, I looked for…I think many people did look for a way to recapture the experience of first reading Tolkien. I think a lot of fantasy writers of a certain era got their start basically profoundly imitating Tolkien. By the way, I think that is in some ways a fair characterisation of me, although hopefully I have more self-awareness than people who were writing in the ’70s did about the activity. And as a reader I was looking to recapture that experience. And so, from the time I have thought of myself as a big reader I have thought of myself as a reader of fantasy.
What were some of the other novels that you picked up on? I mean, seven is pretty early to read Lord of the Rings, so what else did you find after that?
It is. Well, you know, there was a limited amount. Really, the the young-adult sections and the middle-grade sections of the bookstore have exploded since that time. There was simply less of it. But there was some, you know, stuff written for younger readers, like The Moomintrolls, or I remember, you know, Pippi Longstocking with fondness. But really I was reading on the science fiction side, you know, Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven, and some of the sort of classic science fiction writers. Edgar Rice Burroughs: I loved the John Carter books more than Tarzan, but I read them all, as well as the the the Venusian series, the Venus books. I did read, over and over again, Terry Brooks, at least the first trilogy. I read..I mean. you know, seven is young for Tolkien, but it was about two years later that I was reading Stephen R. Donaldson. And I think…I don’t know, candidly, if my parents were sort of benignly neglectful and just said, “We’ll let Dave read stuff,” or if they just weren’t aware because they had too many kids. I mean there were like six of us, so you can’t really police six people’s reading. I remember going at the age of 11, walking to the library and checking out the the Gor books, which are really not for children, but no librarians ever bated an eye, they’d just check them out and send me home.
My story there is, our library had two sides, there was the adult side and the children’s side, and the librarian actually did tell my mother that, “You know, your son is checking books out of the adult side of the library.” I was about 11. And my mom said, “Oh, it’s okay, he only reads science fiction,” which made me think that Mom probably didn’t know what was in some of the books I was reading. I was reading the Gor books along about then, too.
Right, having my young mind kind of blown by that and others. So, pretty widely. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books, Andre Norton, Katharine Kurtz–loved Katharine Kurt’s Deryni books. The Earthsea stuff, Ursula Le Guin, and others. Yeah, widely.
So, you’re reading widely, but when did you actually start attempting to write?
The first teacher I ever had who told me that I should think about being a creative writer was when I was briefly…the beginning of eighth grade, the first seven weeks or so, I was in a middle school in New Jersey, and I I was in a creative writing class, and the teacher said, “You know, I think you have a gift for writing,” which…no one had ever said this before. I’d never really tried to write, except…what I would write as a kid was. you know, the inside of the book was way too big to write, so I would imagine these stories and I would write the outside of the book, the hundred-word blurb on the back, you know, the three-sentence excerpt from the inside front page, front cover. So I hadn’t really written anything. I don’t think that I wrote a coherent short story until I was in eighth grade. Then I was in creative writing classes on and off in the rest of junior high and high school, and then I stopped. And in college I didn’t go that way. I was not an English major. I majored in Near Eastern Studies. Frankly, it was sort of a fast way to get through. And I went to law school. I chickened out. I took the deal. I took the world’s deal and said, “OK, I will go have a job. I will put on a necktie and I will do the necktie thing and be one of the necktie people.”
When you were writing, in school, before you hit college, were you sharing your writing, you know finding out that people liked to read your stories?
In a limited way. You know, the creative writing classes I was in would have publications, and so I published things, and I published a few things for the same reason in college. I wrote a 14-line sonnet, formal sonnet, in Italian about a dog getting hit by a car, which I got published in the little creative writing paper, whatever it was. But really, not very much. The biggest creative outlet I had for shared creative storytelling was actually tabletop roleplaying, and I did an awful lot of that from about the age of 13. And at 13 I had no money, so I was just kind of making rules up, and then I got in high school and had little money so could buy books. So, right through to the end of college, at 23, I played a lot of role playing and then gave that up for about 20 years.
I’d like to say…well, I don’t know that I’d like to say, but it’s quite true…that although I majored in journalism at university, theoretically, with a minor in art, I really majored in Dungeons and Dragons and everything else I kind of fit in around that.
Look, I think that a lot of the interests that I have in life may may have been influenced by the roleplaying I did or, in the alternative, you may say they they manifested in the role playing I did. My interest in history and anthropology and comparative religion and myth and language really are all,,,you see them in the choices of the games I played and the way I played those games, and that’s the stuff that’s sort of then come out again as I have turned to creative writing in the last ten years.
Well, now, you did go into law, and law is very much a word-based profession.
Do you find, now that you have turned back to writing, do you find that that training as a lawyer has had any influence or effect on your writing?
Yeah, absolutely. Several things. First of all, the practice of law is absolutely a profession of writing. Now, it’s a very particular kind of writing. Accuracy, precision, really matter. You know, coming up with a long and colorful list of synonyms to avoid repeating the same word is not necessarily important. (I guess, actually, in some kinds of law practice that is, too.) Two other things: one, being a practicing lawyer gave me a lot of experience in writing as part of a team. In other words, where we are a group negotiating a contract or we are attempting to describe an underlying business that’s going to list its stock on the stock exchange. And I had a lot of experience in me being in a position of proposing language that then got discussed and edited, and me getting comfortable with the idea that, “Hey, I’m not wedded to my formulation, I’m wedded to getting the right response.” So I think that in some ways this has made being edited relatively easy for me. I’m able to step back and say, “Look, the goal here is to get the right description, the right book.” I’m able to detach myself, my ego, from the words on the page.
But another thing is, I was a full-time practicing lawyer for something like 13 years, kind of depending on how you count. Technically, I’m still a lawyer now. I have 13 years of experience being a professional, keeping obligations, being responsive and responsible, negotiating contracts, thinking clearly about business relationships. And I have found that to be very valuable as a writer. My experience is that this is an industry that is rife with people who kind of don’t really think deadlines are a big thing, who don’t really clearly understand what the deal is they’re getting into, who just sort of write a book and then hope they will be J.K. Rowling. And I have not had to be that because I have relevant experience.
When did you turn back to writing, then?
Well, in 2010 a there was a wonderful lovely day in spring. A beautiful thing happened, which was that I got fired, and I got fired in the best possible way. A company was acquiring the company where I was the senior corporate lawyer, and they weren’t going to keep me, but they needed me to stick around for the deal, so I got a parachute. It’s wasn’t a golden parachute, maybe it was bronze, but basically it meant I could get fired and I could do what I wanted for two years.
It which is great. I highly recommend it. You should you should totally do that.
And actually I had been…in the interim, I had gotten the idea of writing screenplays, and so I had written several spec scripts that went nowhere. I also had written a body of, I don’t know, a hundred songs or so, and gotten into home recordings, so I had a studio and guitars and kind of a Dave Butler songbook, but it wasn’t…it took me a few weeks of kind of casting about, thinking about different possibilities before I realized, at the suggestion of a friend of mine who had recently got a big press deal, his first publishing contract, that I thought, “Oh, yeah, this is what I always wanted to do as a kid. Now, of course, I can do it.”
So that was 2010. I wrote full-time for two years, then I had to sort of take up the practice of law for a while again, and eventually moved to the corporate training, sort of a little more stable. And that my day job at this point. I’m self-employed, but I’m a corporate trainer. That’s the majority of my income. But from 2010 to now, I don’t want to shortcut any other questions you may have, but basically in the eight years, I have got five books published by national publishers and, depending on how you count, maybe something like 10 books published by an independent publisher called Word Fire Press, and I’ve got, you know, contracts, I’ve got two books coming out next year and contracts for another four that I haven’t written yet. And on the way my wife decided to get into writing. So getting fired was literally the best thing that’s happened to me professionally in my life. It made me do this.
So what was your first professional sale then?
The first, like, to a national publisher…that’s an interesting question. So, the first thing I wrote in 2010 was terrible, but then the second thing I wrote was pretty good and I got an agent, and I had an agent for a year, and he was a big deal. He’s the head of a kind of mid-sized agency and he couldn’t sell the book. And then he dumped me. And then in the meantime, sort of a year later, my wife got her own agent, initially with a co-written book that she and I had co-written. That didn’t sell, either, but then her agent, the second thing he took out for her was…she did a rewrite of the book that originally picked me up my agent. It is not published. It was a professional sale. The book was called The Case of the Devil’s Interval. It was a middle-reader story about a young, an eight-year-old, genius who is murdered by goblins and finds herself a ghost.
In the first version I wrote it was in Victorian England, and as a ghost she kind of is a superhero, and so the first story was about her solving the mystery of her own murder and setting up as a fighter of crime. And that sold. So, I wrote it originally in Victorian England. Emily and her agent, she did a sort of a revision that reset it in Federalist Boston. And that was bought by Egmont, as part of a two-book deal. And that book should have come out in…let me think about this…should have come out, I want to say, in fall of 2015, but then in about February 2015 Egmont, which is…you may not know their name, they’re Scandinavian, and they were making a bid to try to become one of the top five publishers in the US. And in February 2015…I think I have the timing right…they decided that they were done, and they just pulled out and they orphaned all their books. So the book..we have ARCs. The book had been fully edited. We got paid. We got the rights back. It got all the way to ARC. There are reviews you can find reviews on Goodreads, because copies of the ARCs went out to reviewers, and then the book never came out.
Yeah. Now my wife’s first first debut (Freya and Zoose, published by Crown Books for Young Readers) is finally going to happen in January, which is a huge relief to her, because she’s been working at this since like 2011, and it’s sort of hard to keep going when you feel like no one…you do a ton of work and no one has any idea. So, I think it’s been harder for her than for me but, yeah, so that was my first sale. It was that co-written book, sold by my wife’s agent, and the book never came out. I think it will someday, in some form, but there’s sort of a moral there: all of the horror stories you hear about publishing, are all true. They’re all true.
Yes, they are. I have several of them myself. So, what was your first published book, then? The one that actually appeared.
So, we’re talking about from national publishers?
However you would like to define that.
Well, OK, so let me give you a couple of separate answers then. So, while I had my first agent, whose name was Peter, I realized early on during the year of having him as an agent that he was going to read my stuff at about one-fifth of the rate at which I was writing it. So, I had a call, and I said, “Look, what should I do?”, and he said, “Well, people are doing self-publishing, you should you should try to go self-published.” So I did. So, my first things published at all were self-published. They’re now out from Word Fire Press, but I had a series of novellas called Rock Band Fights Evil, which I wrote to start to find readers, to be a calling card, to get out there, to not wait for my agent. That’s the earliest thing. And that would have come out in…the first one came out something like December 29, just before year-end, 2011, I believe.
Now, my first nationally published book was with Knopf, I have a trilogy, its middle-reader steampunk action fantasy. The first book’s called The Kidnap Plot. I picked up a second agent. So, my first agent dumped me then. Then my wife got an agent and he went out selling her stuff and our stuff together. And then I took this book, The Kidnap Plot out to agents again, and I picked up an agent. Deborah Warren is my agent, still is. I love Deborah, she’s very good. And she said, “OK, I’m going to send this book to…” So this was in March 2014 or something, so about four years I’ve been doing this now at his point. She said, “I’m going to send this to one editor on a sneak-peek exclusive look for a week.” And she did, and that editor bought it. So that came out in June of 2016. So a little over two years later. And the books have come out basically one year since, and that is a completed trilogy. It was fun! Michelle Frye is very, very good. Knopf is a big publisher. I got to have stablemates. Fellow Knopf publishees include people like Christopher Paolini, whom I’ve got to meet and hang out with. You know, he’s infuriatingly young, but he’s a cool guy.
He was even more infuriatingly young when he got published.
He really was. So, that was that was my first.
You mentioned that your first was a middle-grade, or for younger readers, so you’re still writing for both young readers and older readers as Dave Butler I think, is that what that’s what you use for your younger books?
That’s right. So, The Kidnap Plot by Dave Butler is book one of the series. And that’s just a way to signal to people who the intended audience is. I am thrilled if adults want to read The Kidnap Plot and I expect some young readers are going to go read Witchy Eye stuff, too. I certainly would have been one of those who did.
Yeah, I would have to. Since you do write for both ages, I was going to ask you, what do you think is the big difference between writing for the younger and the older readers?
I think less than people often imagine. I think some people approach writing for younger readers and some publishers approach writing for younger readers as a matter of, “Oh, I can’t say certain things,” and there is an element of that, but the truth is young people need to learn about death and they need to learn about violence and so I think the bigger difference is not that you can’t touch certain topics but that you need to be providing an inner journey for your characters or a subplot or a secondary arc or whatever writing lingo you want to call it that reflects the inner journey that your readers are going through. So, the real thing that defines a book is being a middle-grade book is that the character is having a middle-grade type experience in their own life, and that means learning the answer to questions like. “Who am I? How am I different from my parents? What do I need to do to be independent in the world?” Right? Those are the those are the things that 12-year-olds and 10-year-olds are are figuring out in their own life. And the same thing goes for young adults. Young adult is the age of first romance and first jobs and first experience, sort of on the cusp of adulthood, and especially young adult books, at this point, often have fairly gritty content. The thing that really makes them young adult is that there are young-adult journeys happening to the characters.
And the age of the characters is obviously an important element to that, too, usually.
Usually. That’s sort of the external sign, right? But the thing it’s a sign of is that the internal journey is appropriate for that age.
All right, well let’s start talking about Witchy Eye and Witchy Winter and…what’s the third book going to be called?
So, well, I’ll leave it up to you, then, to provide a synopsis of, well, I guess, Witchy Eye, because that’s the first book, so that I don’t give away something that you don’t want to give away.
Well, so, Witchy Eye is in many ways a a straight-up epic fantasy, a straight up quest story, a fairy-tale-influenced story about, well, about a character who comes of age, sort of. It is my bid to be Tolkien, in many ways. Now, the main character’s named Sarah. Sarah is a witch. She is talented and clever and brave and funny and fiercely loyal and paranoid and xenophobic and mean. And the story opens on the day of the Tobacco Fair in 1815 in Nashville, because this is an epic fantasy, but it’s an epic fantasy set in an alternate America, and it’s an America that looks that looks like America in terms of its languages and people, and some of its heroes, but in terms of its power structure operates a little more like the Holy Roman Empire, with a bunch of semi-independent powers and an elected emperor who is, at the time the story opens, Thomas Penn. Penn Landholder.
So, 1815: it’s October, Sarah lives in the Nashville area, she takes the the family young’ns down to sell the crop, and Imperial Army officers try to kidnap her. And she learns that she has a secret history. a history so secret she herself is unaware of it. She is the hidden daughter of the dead Empress, Mad Hannah Penn, and her uncle, who she’d never knew was her uncle, the living emperor Thomas Penn, military hero Lord Thomas, has discovered her existence,, views her as a threat to his wealth and power, and wants her killed. She learns also that she has two siblings, that she had kind of a strange fairy-tale type birth that resulted in her birth and the birth of two other siblings. They’re hidden elsewhere in the Empire, and her quest is to find her hidden siblings, to recover the lost wealth of her mother, Hannah Penn, and the lost royal authority of her father, who was another sort of military hero and semi-legendary figure, the king of one of the seven Mound Builder kingdoms of the Ohio River Valley. So, it’s very questy, it’s very epic fantasy, it’s very fairy tale, but things are playing out in places like New Orleans and Philadelphia and Nashville.
Yes, it’s very interesting in that regard. The term that’s been applied to it I see is “flintlock fantasy,” which is actually not a term I’ve ever seen before, I don’t think. Was that invented for your book or have you seen it somewhere else?
I think it’s been…also I’ve seen black-powder fantasy. I think there is another term or two. People have been trying to find…because this isn’t. I’m not unique in having written sort of epic fantasy in a time when there are also muskets. So while I was writing this, Django Wexler was publishing his books, my friend Brian McClellan’s got, I think, six books out that, again, involve sort of both early modern gunpowder but also epic fantasy elements, and there are others. So I don’t know if there is yet a consensus term. I don’t think this was invented for me. I have seen things words like muskepunk as another one.
It’s just a bit earlier than steampunk seems to be what they’re going for.
Well, I think that’s right. I think the steampunk brand was successful enough that people have invented many other kinds of punks.
Yeah, I had a book from a publisher, which is now defunct and now I’m shopping around again, they decided to call it voltpunk because it involved magic that was vaguely like electricity. It wasn’t my idea at all, and I’m not sure it’s a very good description, but at least I hadn’t seen it before. But anyway, voltpunk was kind of catchy. So, where did the idea come from?
Oh. man. From multiple places or from multiple streams commingling in my heart. So let me let me parse out some of the streams. One of the streams is my own children. So, the three children who are at the center of this story, Sarah is the only one we meet in Book 1, but in Book 2 we meet the brother, Nathaniel, and in Book 3 we get a closer look at Margaret. The story of their birth is is as follows: their father, the king of the Mound Builder kingdom of Cahokia, is riding the bounds of his kingdom on the western edge of the Empire when he dies. In fact, he is murdered by some of his men, acting under orders from from his brother-in-law, Thomas Penn, although that’s not generally known, sorry, spoiler.
I knew it.
There you go, you knew it. With his dying breath he anoints three acorns with his blood and sends them with his Father Confessor priest back to Philadelphia. Hannah, his wife, her response causes people to suspect she has lost her mind. She treats the acorns like they are children. She sings to them and coddles them, and then one day she eats them. And then she gives birth, nine months later, to three children who are variously marked on their head. So, we meet Sarah she’s the title character we see her eye, it’s the subject of the first paragraph. She…at the age of 15, her eye has never opened. She has an eye that has never opened. It looks infected and it’s red and it oozes pus and it’s nasty and she’s already an unattractive woman and kind of a hellcat, and so this gets her negative attention on top of that. But eventually it turns out that that disfigurement is sort of a mark of her birth and her siblings have similar marks, one in her hair and then the other one in his ear.
Now, my kids…so, my son, our first child, was born with his left ear pressed flat against the side of his head and it has never fully relaxed. So, if you look at him straight on, he has one ear…the ear was pressed forward against the side of his head..so he has one ear that looks normal and then one that’s pointing out perpendicular, right? My second child, when she was very, I mean three or four weeks old, she was very young, and my brother Sam was visiting us and playing with her in the crib. And suddenly he kind of called out and said, “Hey, is it normal that her eyes are a different size?” And we rushed in, her eyes, her pupils were dramatically differently dilated. One was wide open, one was very tight shut. Now it turns out there’s nothing wrong with her. It’s a neurological condition that doesn’t hurt her at all, it’s just, I forget what it’s called, it’s got a name. Her pupils dilate at different rates. It’s not an indication…we were worried it was a concussion or something. It’s just, that’s the way her eyes are. So, I have been calling her since she was, you know, five weeks old, my witchy-eyed child. And then our third child has this shocking head of hair. It’s a recessive trait in my wife’s family, sort of one person every generation. The rest of us have kind of ordinary, more or less flat hair, and then kind of one person every generation gets this curly ‘fro, and she’s got it. So, one piece was me wanting to write a story about these children that are sort of marked, as my own children, and a story about them recovering a lost or mysterious heritage from their father. So, really, really, really really at the heart, there’s a story here about me and my children.
Now, there’s other stuff. I was reading several things at the time, I was…you know, I’d finished a book and I was trying to figure out what to write next and I was reading several things. One of them was, I was reading my kids the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and, you know, i a sort of fairly straight-up translation version where they don’t always make sense and they have very dark endings and lots of death. And at the same time I was reading…and I am not remembering now…I’ve got several different volumes…I was reading a history of the Thirty Years War. And Germany is not something that I ever really studied much in my youth. But reading those two things at the same time made me realize, and I’m embarrassed to say I was, you know, like 34 or 35 or whatever when I realized this, made me realize what the setting of the Grimm fairy tales is, because as an American kid, it’s a very striking setting, because you read something like The Musicians of Bremen and they’re wandering around, these animals, they’re in a landscape where there are princes and there are emperors but there are also mayors and there are people with guns and you kind of go, “Well, what is this crazy setting?” Well, it turns out it’s early modern Germany. It’s the Holy Roman Empire, which I had sort of never made those connections, and I was I was looking for a setting for the story of these three marked children and for a while I thought I might try to set something in, say, 16th century Germany, which would have involved, I think, an awful lot of research.
But then I read another book, which is called Albion’s Seed. It’s a book by a historian an American historian called David Hackett Fischer, who is sort of one of the great figures of American history living today. Albion’s Seed is a history of the English migrations, plural, to North America. We say casually, you know, “Hey, the English came here,” and if we say that we may think about that in terms of Plymouth Rock, but in fact there are at least four major distinct streams of migration into North America at the era of the founding, and only one of them is the Puritans from southeast England. There are also Royalists from the southwest and there are the Quakers from the, sort of the Scandinavian-influenced North Midlands. And then there are the, he calls them the North Borderers, the North British Borderers, something like that. The conventional term in America is usually the Scotch-Irish. That is to say, the people from Northern Ireland and the borders of England and Scotland who, you know, the first emigration, the Puritans came to Massachusetts Bay, the Royalists then came down to the southeast, the lowlands on the coast, the Quakers got a land grant and settled up the Delaware River in Philadelphia, and when the Appalachians arrived, they weren’t the Appalachians then, when the Scotch-Irish came, basically all the good lands near the coast already had white people on them, so they kept going and came to the mountains inland and so they settled a huge band that runs from north all the way down to the south in the Highlands. And it’s this fantastic 900-page book of anthropological history and I read this and I thought, “Man, I wish that fantasy settings were this good. I wish they were this detailed,” and then I thought, you know what, I should just write in this setting. This is it. This is the setting right right here. So, I told the story like I had been thinking in a kind of an early modern setting but I told it in a fantasy America rather than a fantasy Germany.
Well, there certainly are…in a way it’s an alternate history, because there certainly are a lot of historical figures that show up and I have to mention one that leaped out at me. I grew up in the church of Christ.
And so when Barton W. Stone makes an appearance, there was a name I never thought I would see referenced in a fantasy novel. I mean, I knew it, growing up as I did, from Restoration history and all that. But he’s hardly the only one. I mean, there’s a lot of real historical figures with very very different stories: Martin Luther, George Washington, and all these people. So, how did you decide who to throw in there? It just look it just seems like you’re having an awful lot of fun pulling these names in and giving them new backstories.
I really am. You’re the second person to mention Barton W. Stone to me. I got an email from a woman about six months ago or something…no, shortly before Book 2 came out, closer to a year ago, and she said a very similar comment to you. And I said…because in the book Bishop Barton Stone is one of the the leaders of the of the New Light, which is a kind of a Christian…there’s no Protestant Reformation as such in the setting, but there is a sort of a revival going on, which is called the New Light, and in Book 2 the sort of New Light adherents are referred to as Kissing Campbells and Swooning Stones.
So Alexander Campbell’s in there, too.
Alexander and…hold on, is Thomas the father and Alexander the son?
Yeah, Thomas was the father.
Yeah, Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. You know, so, Tolkien, in writing the Lord of the Rings, is writing on multiple levels all at once. He is writing on a level that is philological, he is finding new meanings for words; he is writing on a level that is musical, because he’s putting settings around poems and songs he’s written; he’s writing on a level that is theological, because there is some profoundly–Tolkien was a seven-day-a-week Catholic. He went to Mass every morning with his boys. After his parents died he was raised by a monk, a priest, for a while. And so his Christianity shows up in there and all of it is sort of wrapped up in him finding a mythology for England that is sort of deeply English. But it’s also deeply and uniquely Tolkien, and I tried to do the same thing actually. And so there is a degree to which I am trying to consciously look at different streams of history in our collective past and in the stories of individual cultures. But there is a degree to which, inevitably, this book can only be idiosyncratically me. You know, I set myself the task to write the epic mythology of America. It’s an impossible task. It’s gigantic. America is impossibly vast: hundreds of cultures and hundreds of languages and and ruins we don’t know who lived in there and creatures that have entirely disappeared. And I’m doing kind of a crazy thing. So, at the end of the day, you know, the whole thing has to be bounded by my own my own aesthetic and my own experience. And Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell are very interesting people to me, and they fit right in the story, and so they got to show up.
Well, how thoroughly did you plan all this out before you began. What’s your process. Do you do a very detailed synopsis ahead of time or do you find a lot of it as you write?
I don’t have a detailed synopsis. I know what things have to happen. And I have a partial outline when I sit down to write a book and usually a fairly complete outline of the first third of it, maybe. And then I know what the main posts are,, and I know where it has to end, and in each of the books in these series there are a few big things: okay this is this is the book in which X and Y are going to happen. So, as I’m writing I’m writing to sort of macro signposts as well as sort of a few signposts that I know belong, but there is an element of making things up, of finding inspiration along the way.
As we’ve just discussed there’s lots of historical people in here, and yet they aren’t really quite the historical people. What kind of research do you find yourself doing along the way?
I read a ton. I mean, I’m sitting right now in my office. I’m looking at a bookshelf that has about a third of a bookshelf worth of books on India, including the Punjab and Sanskrit and Punjabi languages, and then about two thirds of the bookshelf is Native American stuff, and it’s got language and culture and history about the Iriquois and the Ojibwe and the Delaware Indians and the Navajo, and that’s that’s one of something like 30 bookshelves in the room I’m sitting in. So, I read an absolute ton. I do read a fair amount of biography. So I’ve read…I don’t know, two or three biographies of Benjamin Franklin and I’m looking at one, actually, now, Walter Isaacson’s that I haven’t read yet, that’s sitting on the shelf in front of me. In Book 2…there are references to this stuff in Book 1, but in book 2 one of the characters we get is a hedge wizard. He is a sort of a low practitioner of magic. He’s a guy who doesn’t have the natural gifts Sarah does, and so his skills are not the high art of Gramarye where you’re imposing your will on the cosmos. It’s traditional spells. And so I’ve got a shelf full of actual medieval and early modern magic books. John George Hohman’s The Long Lost Friend and The Picatrix and the three books of occult philosophy, which I have read. And you know, all of the language in there, I am sure I have made mistakes, but all of the Dutch or the French or the German or the Ojibwe or the Eno that you encounter in there has been read by me, written by me. So I do language studies, too.
Stephen King, in his On Writing…you have to take any book that any writer writes on writing with a grain of salt, because no one keeps all their own advice and writers are all full of crap. But he does say, and I think that is absolutely right, he says, if you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the tools to write. And so, I read obsessively, and then if I have an individual question, you know, directed research is easier than ever because the Internet will help you find resources. You know, if I want to know, well, what does place X look like, I can probably find photographs online or or go there with Google Maps Street View and take a look. YouTube is also great, because…well. for example there’s a scene in Book 1 where Calvin Calhoun is casting bullets. He’s got a bunch of lead and he’s got a bullet mold and, you know, a pair of clippers, and in the conversation he’s making bullets and. And I didn’t know how to make bullets, but it turns out you got on YouTube and say, you know, hey somebody casting bullets, and you can watch people do it. Enthusiasts will show you exactly what it looks like to shoot an anvil or to make a bullet or to, you know, whatever. So, that that piece in a sense is easier than it has ever been before. But also a lot of fun. I love writing. I love reading.
How do you develop your characters? Just how do you decide who you need in the story and then how much work do you do ahead of time to pen them down in your head before you start writing? Or does that also happen on the fly?
Well, the answer is both, right? It sort of depends on how important the character is. The more important the character is, the more I will upfront say, “Hey, let me write a little backstory for this person, let me, you know, write about kind of their motivation or their thoughts or here’s a little vignette of something that happened to them when were back studying at Harvard that was formative…” But, you know, the truth is that a lot of your characters in a novel are spear carriers. They walk on stage, they deliver a couple of lines and then they get shot or, you know, they they walk off stage again or whatever. So, for a central set of characters, yeah there there is backstory. And then for much larger number, no, they’ll be quicker sort of characterizations or, you know, thinking about, hey, what do I what do I need here? Well I need a guy who’s good at accounting and totally despicable. And then I’ll assemble that character kind of on the fly.
What does your actual writing process look like? Do you work direct from the computer? I still know people who write longhand. I can’t imagine it myself, but…
Yeah, I can’t either. My 10-year-old likes to write and if we won’t let her get on the iPad, so she can’t access her Google Docs, she will…she has two stories going in all time, she will turn to her longhand legal pad story if we won’t let her type. I do not do that. I write on the computer because I’m making a living doing other stuff, my writing process is sort of either I’m doing little bits now and then when I can because I’m busy, or I’m all in working at it for 12 hours a day because I have the time. I will start usually by…if you look in my files on my hard drive, for any novel that’s finished you’ll find initially some kind of scratch documents. Usually my experience is I get one idea that comes to me for free, if you will. There’s a medieval book or a poem called The Conference of the Birds, written by a Muslim poet named Farid ud-Din Attar. And the conference is an allegory for for Islam, or for religion or faith, but there’s a group of birds meeting and a feather falls from heaven. And the appearance of a mysterious feather from heaven starts the birds looking for the rest of the bird. What else is there, right?
And that’s kind of how I experience writing. There is a feather from heaven. There is something that is free, and that is a an idea about a character or an idea about setting or an idea about a conflict or an idea about a scene. And then my scratch documents are me working out the framework that goes around it, where I say, “Oh, well if I want to get to a climactic scene that looks like this, what do I have to, you know, what has to go with it? What kind of conflict would lead to such a climactic scene? What kind of characters would participate in it? Okay, which of these is my protagonist? Who’s, you know, who’s experiencing the most interesting story here?” So, I experience an initial piece of inspiration and then a lot of craft and a lot of forcing yourself to do the work, and along the way then you find lots of other smaller bits of inspiration. So the trail is, you look back at the beginning and there is a document with me just, like, asking and answering questions to myself, and then I build that into these charts that map out some main subplots.
And then I do an outline of the book, where I’ve got sort of a rough outline of the whole thing, and a detailed outline of the beginning, and then I just start writing. Now having said that, I recently co-wrote my first book…well, no, I recently co-wrote a book with a new strategy with a guy named Aaron Michael Ritchey, this will come out from Baen next November, the novel is called The Cunning Man, and we knew we wanted to split the writing of it, so, in other words, rather than have someone write the first draft and the other guy edit, ee wanted to each write half of the first draft. To do that we had to have a really detailed outline. Neither he nor I ordinarily writes this way. So for the first time we spent about a month meeting one to two hours a day on the phone talking our way through the outline and the main characters and the backstories and the sort of magical aspects of the story. And we had a detailed chapter-by-chapter, beat-by-beat outline and then sat down and each wrote half the book. And it worked! The two halves fit together totally. So this is…all my answers are long-winded, Ed, I’m sorry, I apparently am a very long-winded guy…but the point is this is a change from my past process, but it’s one that at least Aaron and I will use again, because it made writing the rough draft shockingly easy. It was all there.
Well, and speaking of drafts, what does your rewriting process look like and what does. I presume…is Toni your editor at Baen?
I’ve had Toni Weisskopf and also Jim (Mintz) edit my books. They both asked to look at Book 3. I haven’t got notes back from either one yet. I think Jim is looking at The Cutting Man. With both books that Baen’s published I got basically one…Toni gave me an email with some comments. Some of them came from the initial reader. Some of them came from her. Not a long list of comments. The biggest comment was, it needs to be shorter. And that was a wonderful comment, because I had turned in a 240,000-word draft, and she just said needs to be shorter. And I said, “OK.” I did not want to cut any characters or scenes, and I found that by just tightening the language I could cut out 35,000 words, and that experience made me a much tighter writer, even as I’m composing, not just in the way I edit, but I just write more tightly.
Before it gets to sending it to the editor, how much rewriting do you do you find yourself doing? Do you have a fairly clean draft when you get to the end? Do you sort of do rolling drafts, where you’re fixing things along the way, or do you go back to the beginning and start all over? Do you share it with your writing group? How does that all work for you?
During the time when I was writing full time for a couple of years, what I did and what I liked very much is I would read yesterday’s chapter. I had a page-count goal every day, depending on the book it was eight or fifteen pages, somewhere in there, eight, 10, 12, fift15 pages. Easy, that’s no problem, that’s like two to four hours of writing. So I would always edit the day’s chapter before, which is great, because then I’m totally in it, and then write today’s chapter. And as notes occurred to me I would go back and revise them in the earlier chapters as they occurred to me. So, in the first several books I wrote, by the time I had a first draft it was quite complete. I was quite quite polished. I just don’t have the consistent time now. I hope to get back to that process. Now, I tend to…comments occur to me and I write them in a note. I have an Eevernote. And, by the way, this happens, I turn the book into the editor, and things are still occurring to me.
But while I’m writing, things occur to me and having written it I let it sit for a few weeks and then I go back and I go through and I read it and make all the revisions that occurred to me and more revisions occur to me and I go through a couple of passes. Then while the book is with the editors, more things occur to me, and so I build up a set of notes again and so I’ll do anothe couple or three passes whenever I get the comments back from from Jim and Toni, and that’s kind of, you know, they’ll probably give me a month or two on it and I’ll probably procrastinate half that time and then it’s been a few weeks.
So, this is a lot of work, obviously. And, you know, I know this, being a writer, as well. So, here’s my big philosophical question as we come close to the end here. Why do you do it? Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write?
Yeah. So, there is a spiritual pattern that seems to be a very, very widespread inheritance of humanity, that finds its purest expression in the sort of Siberian steppes, which is usually called shamanism. And you’ll hear anthropologists say, you know, the Midewiwin medicine men of the Ojibwe are not quite shamanism, but they have shamanistic elements, and you hear that kind of language a lot. A shaman, the distinguishing characteristic of a shaman was that the shaman left his body and travelled…so, the technical term for that is ecstasy. Ecstasy is standing out, stepping out of your body…and in a trance, he would travel to the realms of the spirit, where he would be killed and reborn, where he would find spirits that would bring healing into the tribe, where he would learn the direction they needed to go to find the elk who were not at their usual summer pastures.
And I think that that a novelist is the contemporary descendant of the shaman .I think there is a craft aspect that we talk about ad nauseum, there is a business aspect that we sort of pretend to talk about once in a while but few of us really understand what’s going on, and by the way, that’s true of editors, too, so we don’t talk about it very much, but I think the core activity is shamanistic, or if you prefer, it’s prophetic. It’s leaving your body, it’s finding the muse, it’s encountering things of the internal world, things that are meaningful for you and your tribe, and then coming back and presenting them. And just like the shaman, you have to be part visionary. But you also had to be part entertainer, you had to be a showman, because you had to tell your story as a poem or act it out to get people to listen to you.
I do it because it’s a beautiful way to try to share and communicate meaning in the world. It’s a terrible way to make money. As a money-making proposition, it’s kind of like lottery tickets. Yeah, you might be J.K. Rowling, but almost certainly not. Almost certainly you’re going to make a very tiny amount of money and that’s it. If you want money, you’re better off just getting a government job and saving your money and you’ll retire as the millionaire next door. But as a way to make beauty and make meaning it’s absolutely terrific.
Well, and on that note, in what ways are you…now, this will come out just about the time that Witchy World comes out in paperback, so looking ahead to that from when we’re doing the interview, what will you be working and focusing on in 2019?
Well, so, we just turned in the first book…Baen bought two books, and so we’ll write at least two books of them. The first book is called The Cunning Man, and that’s set in the 1930s. A cunning man is an old English. but not, now I don’t mean Anglo-Saxon, I mean like it’s just, it’s old and it’s English, word for a kind of magician A witch was somebody who was malevolent to you. A witch cursed you and was a bad person. A cunning man, the research shows that they were mostly middle class. They were business people. They were like gunssmiths, or tanners, who also had a magical practice, and because they could read and they could gather enough kind of knowledge of spells, you know, when you wanted someone to fall in love with you or you wanted to heal your cattle of the murrain or whatever. you’d go to the cunning woman or the cunning man. So, this series is set in the 1930s, about a practicing cunning man who is dealing with some of the practical problems of the Great Depression, and finding that behind the bankrupted businesses and played-out farms there are demons and curses, and he battles them with his traditional magical law. So late next year we’ll write Book 2 of that.
What I’m working on now and I think will probably hopefully be finishing up about the time…well, that’s optimistic. I’ll be working on this about the time that Witchy Winter comes out in paperback…is a standalone fantasy novel. And I think I have finally settled on the name The Other Jack for the title. I’ve had various ideas, none of it felt right, I think The Other Jack does it. This is a a secret history of the life of J. Pierpont Morgan, and the idea, the opening chapter or the prologue is in the 1830s in Cairo. There is a group of Jewish scholar-magicians, including, there’s an old man who learned in his youth that, at night, he dreams the future, one hundred years in the future. And so, in the early 1830s he’s dreaming the rise of the Nazi party. And so these scholars are trying to come up with a way to try to prevent this, to stop the rise of German fascism. And their plan is, ultimately they what they want is they want the US to forgive the debtors of World War One, France and the UK, so that France and UK will forgive Germany’s debts, so that Germany between the wars does not become an economic basket case, so that Hitler does not have fuel to to light his bonfires. Right? That’s the plan. And they want to do it by taking over the House of Morgan.
So it’s about…in the real world, J. Pierpont Morgan’s life, he was sort of the great banker of his day, of the Gilded Age, is full of all kinds of fascinating little details, including an obsession with Egypt–he would go every year and sail up the Nile–but also including, in the Civil War, after Gettysburg, his number was called up in the draft, and he did not go. He paid somebody else and that guy, in real life, he then took care of him his whole life, I mean, not as a dependent, but he just made sure the guy was OK, if the guy was out of a job or something, Morgan would help him. And he jokingly referred to him as the other Pierpont. And so, this idea of kind of a vicarious personality is already embedded in Morgan’s life, so this story is going to be about a three-way switch that happens at that moment in 1863 where J. Pierpont Morgan’s soul is put in the body of that substitute, so they can replace it with a with a body of someone who’s part of this conspiracy to try to stop 20th-century Naziism. So it’s about a three-way body switch and about these three men kind of learning what’s happened then and trying to get their own bodies back or decide what to do about it.
Sounds ambitious and very interesting.
Yeah. Should have a climax aboard the Titanic. J. Pierpont Morgan had a cabin scheduled to be on the voyage of the Titanic and then didn’t go at the last minute. So you know that’s got to be in the book.
And where can people find you online so they can follow along and see what all these things are that you’re working on?
I have a Web site but it’s pretty static. I only rarely post, www.davidjohnbutler.com. It’s easy to follow me on Twitter @DavidJohnButler. And also on Facebook, Dave.Butler.16, there’s a lot of Dave Butler it turns out in this world. David.Butler.16. Usually my profile picture has me wearing a tricorn hat.
Seems appropriate. Well, thanks so much for for being on The Worldshapers.
Ed, thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate it.
An hour-long (and then some) conversation with David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington science-fiction series, which this episode focuses on, and many others, including fantasy (Oath of Swords, The War God’s Own) other space opera (Path of the Fury, The Armageddon Inheritance) and alternate history (1632 series with Eric Flint).
David Weber was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but moved to Greenville, South Carolina with his family by the time he was two. Some of Weber’s first jobs within the writing/advertising world began after high school, when he worked as copywriter, typesetter, proofreader, and paste-up artist. He holds a Master of Arts in history from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.
Weber’s first published novels grew out of his work as a wargame designer for the Task Force game Starfire. He wrote the Starfire novel Insurrection (1990) with Stephen White. This book was the first in a tetralogy that continued through their last collaboration, The Shiva Option (2002), which made The New York Times Best Seller List.
His most famous series is the Honor Harrington series, but he’s also written epic fantasy (Oath of Swords, The War God’s Own) other space opera (Path of the Fury, The Armageddon Inheritance) and alternate history (1632 series with Eric Flint), and much more: he estimates some forty-seven published or in-the-works novels.
Weber and his wife, Sharon, live in Greenville, South Carolina. They have three children.
David Weber likes to quote Robert Aspirin: “Professional writers are like rats, if we don’t wear our fingers down on the keyboard every day, our fangs grow through our brains and kill us.”
He started writing in fifth grade and has supported himself through writing-related activities of one sort or another since he was seventeen. He wrote his first novel-length work in Grade 10, and says, “I can’t imagine not writing for my own pleasure if not for anything else.”
His first published novel, Insurrection, was the consequence of some wargame design he’d done with his friend Steve White. They started exchanging short stories set in that world, and eventually realized they had a novel—which ran some 283,000 words in the first draft. That had to be pared down, but Baen bought it in 1989.
David says he “met science fiction” when he was ten years old. Mobility-restricted because of a broken arm, he read his father’s Fantasy Press hardcover of Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space and followed that up with Genus Homo by L. Sprague de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller. He was an eclectic reader, he says, because his parents’ position was their kids could read anything they wanted to, figuring, “If we were old enough to handle it we could handle it, and if we weren’t it would sail right past us.”
Other books he mentions are (to Ed’s delight) the Swallows and Amazonsseries by Arthur Ransome. On the science fiction side, he mentions Heinlein’s juveniles, Andre Norton, H.Beam Piper, Mack Reynolds, Gordon R. Dickson, and Anne McCaffrey.
Although Insurrection was his first published novel, his first submitted novel (rejected) was fantasy. That was Sword of the South, published just a year and a half ago or so. (The manuscript had been lost for years, but one of the floppy discs—one of the really big ones, using CPM and not DOS—turned up and then another, and an IT shop was able to recover the files “for a mere $800.” David rewrote it but says it’s still very close to the original novel. Most of the rewrite was to bring it in line with other novels set in the same universe.
In university, David studied military and diplomatic history. “Forever and ever,” he says, he thought he would teach college history and write on the side, but as he was finishing up his Master’s degree he came across a study revealing that half or more all tenured positions were currently held by people forty or younger. He decide he should alter his priorities, and instead took over his mother’s small advertising agency—she’d retired to look after her own mother, then in her eighties. David sold Insurrection about a year and a half after that, and was fortunate enough to be able to support himself writing fulltime with eighteen months or so of making that first sale.
Having been both a copywriter and a production journalist has taught him not to block, he notes: “Blocking is not an option.” There are times he can edit but not write fiction, because he’s thinking through a story problem, but he says he has “never had a time when I couldn’t sit down and put words on paper that made sense.”
“Writing is the medium through which I tell the story,” he says. “It’s the story that matters.” He believes it is the writer’s voice that wins or loses a readership: two different writers can tell the exact same story, and one will succeed and one fail with a given readership because of the manner in which they tell the story. “A weak story that is strongly told will succeed where a strong story that is weakly told will fail.”
While he has written passages and entire books he’s particularly proud of, for him, if the writing style becomes so important it begins drawing the reader’s attention away from the story, then the style has failed.
“Writing is something that is sort of a physical skill,” he says. “You learn it by doing it.”
David gives a synopsis of the Honor Harrington books, beginning with, “Honor Harrington is a six-foot-two-inch Eurasian martial-artist starship camera.” He notes the book both are an aren’t about Honor: she’s the focal point for most of the stories, but they’re actually about the series of wars she’s involved in. The first few books are very tightly focused on her, but as the war begins to spread, the stories take place on a broader canvas. There are a lot of secondary characters, “named characters,” David points out.
“I hate passages where you have somebody called the lieutenant seventeen times. I try to make the character a person.”
David has been writing Honor Harrington books for twenty-five years. He originally projected the entire series to be eight books: there are currently seventeen novels and six anthologies, counting the collaborations.
David said Jim Baen, publisher of Baen books, had noted that everything David wrote spawned sequels, so he suggested they try planning a series from the beginning. David sent ten ideas, one of which was the Honor Harrington series, one of which became his Safehold series (published by Tor), one the Multiverse series that began with Hell’s Gate, and one whose first book, The Golden Protocol, written with Jacob Holo, comes out in May.
What David didn’t know was that Baen had been looking for someone to write a version of “Horatio Hornblower in space” for twenty-five things. He leaped at the Honor Harrington proposal and offered David a four-book contract. The first two books were released a month apart, which David says is “brilliant marketing.”
In fact, David says, he doesn’t think anyone else in the publishing industry has ever understood how to grow a new author’s readership so brilliantly.
Another thing Baen created was the Baen Free Library, where free ebooks of some Baen titles were made available—which is where Ed discovered Honor Harrington. “I believe it did nothing but increase readership,” David says. Baen also used to bind CDs containing earlier books and a series and other titles into the back of new hardcover releases in series.
“Spider Robinson once said Jim Baen was the only science fiction publisher who actually wanted to live in the twenty-first century, which makes it even sadder he got to see so little of the 21st century,” David says. (Baen died in 2006 at the age of sixty-three.)
Technology plays a major role in the Honor Harrington books. David said some of that comes from his background designing wargames, and some from the fact he’s been studying military and diplomatic history since he was ten or eleven years old. Before he wrote the first word of the first Honor Harrington novel (On Basilisk Station), he wrote an 80,000-plus word essay covering everything in the Harrington universe, from colonization to life sciences to technological history to politics.
The technology was in part shaped by the story David wanted to tell. It was important, he said, that there be tactical constraints. “In a lot of ways, the story is about what you character can’t do, not what about what your character can do,” he says. “It’s about the limitations they have to work around.
He decided technology would evolve over the course of the novels, and that technology would what would equalize the fight between societies where one was hugely outnumbered by the another.
He also wanted technology that made tactics important, because he’s always been interested in tactics as well as the operational and strategic levels of military campaigning. “I needed a system that would give scope to a tactician who was smart, and one which would create limitations on how you could approach a combat situation.” Readers had to be able to understand the tactical situation, as well, in order to understand why characters did what they did.
He notes that he wrote the first two books before the World Wide Web appeared, so some of his starting assumptions might be different if he was starting it today.
Ed noted that descriptions of technology often appear within action scenes, creating an odd sense of suspense by delaying the combat climax. David says he thinks this goes back to the writer’s voice.
“This is the natural way for me to tell the story. I can use that as a means to accelerate or decelerate the action tt the same time as it’s serving the function of telling the reader this is why the folks involved are really sweating what just happened or is about to happen…I’m not sure it’s a technique that would work for other writers.”
He thinks he got the balance of hardware descriptions, descriptions of societies and political systems, and development of planets and cultures write because some people tell him they don’t like some of those but like others. Almost everyone says they love the characters. “The characters are the common factor,” he says.
Some restrictions baked into the Honorverse are the impossibility of creating a self-aware AI (something David had dealt with in other novels and didn’t want to repeat), and the impossibility of faster-than-light communication—which means information can only move aboard courier starships.
“That had very interesting and significant implications for military operations. You spend a lot of time going from point A to point B. It also means a huge amount devolves onto the initiative of the station commanders, the task force commanders.” This puts the situation back to about where Earth was in the 18th or 19th century, when nobody could micromanage their forces from Washington or London or Moscow. They didn’t even now there’d been a battle until a courier came back with news, which might be that an invasion force was close behind!
That restriction, David says, is “a big part of the flavor or the books.” It allows him to “cut Honor Harrington loose from the apron strings.”
“She’s constantly aware she represents her Queen and star system, and that informs a lot of her decisions.” That means it’s her job to face overwhelming odds even with little or no chance of success…and that’s one of the things that makes her beloved by those who have followed the books.
Honor, in other words, is part of her character as well as her name (which David knew going). Her second name, Harrington, was a nod to C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels, so that she would have the same initials.
There are parallels between the Star Kingdom of Manticore and England, and apparent parallels between its rival, Haven, and the French Republic—but David says that latter paralle is a red herring, that Haven became what it becomes in the books not from a version of the French Republic but from a version of the United States, “if you look at their constitution.” David deliberately used his knowledge to create something that looked like the French Revolution within Haven—but really wasn’t. “I don’t know why people call me sneaky,” he adds.
David says he uses history as a source of building blocks rather thanb an operating model. Although Honor is set in a space-going version of the Napoleonic era, his original thought was that it would more closely follow the Punic Wars, only with Carthage winning. That changed when he realized his version of space combat meant controlling space around a planet meant controlling the planet, and planetary combat would be vanishingly rare.
“But I never intended the model I had built to be anything more than the starting point for cultures that had gone in different directions,” he says, so that readers would say to themselves, “iI know what he’s going to do here,” and then would be surprised when he did something else.
That initial lengthy monograph David wrote for himself about the Honorverse spelled out what would happen in the war through what became Honor Among Enemies. Originally, he planned to kill Honor in what became At all Costs. However, Eric Flint, writing in the Honorverse, wanted something both a Havenite and a Manticoran secret agent could hate enough to collaborate, and David gave him the genetic slave trade. By so doing, he moved a plot strand twenty years forward without really being aware of it, which meant he couldn’t kill off Honor and have her children become central characters as he’d intended.
“I think the readers would have forgiven me because of the way she would have died, the culmination and perfection of what she had lied her entire life to be and to do,” he says. “I won’t pretend I was broken-hearted when I realized I couldn’t kill her off, and not just because the character had become so successful, but because I had come to care so deeply about the character…I’ve killed characters it hurt as the author to write the death scene. This would definitely have been one of them.”
But, he notes, he’s writing military fiction. “Most people’s experience with violence is vicarious,” he says. “We form our views of it through what we see on the news in our entertainment.”
He thinks it’s important for someone writing military science fiction to make it clear that war is an ugly, ugly thing. “It can be a very noble calling to, as Heinlein said, place yourself between your home and war’s desolation, and I think the profession of arms is worthy of deep respect, but…not just bad guys die. If you’re going to be fair with the story and the weight of the story, you have to be willing to kill characters you know your readers love. It’s hard on you and them, but that’s part of what a combat situation is about…war, however exciting it may be, it is a voracious devourer of human life.”
David says the only character he did a detailed sketch of before he began was Honor—and even that wasn’t all that detailed in terms of where she finally wound up. He says he normally starts with a physical description and some aspect of their personality. As the character interacts with other characters and situations he goes back and adds notes.
When he’s writing solo, he adds, he tends not to outline (although he’s done more in the last four or five Honorverse novels just to keep things straight, by creating a detailed timeline). When he does a collaboration, there tends to be a much more detailed synopsis of where the story is going, so there’s no confusion between the two writers.
On his own, he says, “I do tend to have a very clear idea of where a series is going to begin and end, and a feel for what’s going to happen out in the middle, but I’m very much improvising on the theme as I go along in terms of getting from A to B.”
Wever says he can write 5,000 to 7,500 words a day when he’s in the groove. (The most he’s ever done was 34,000 words in a day, and then, he says, he slept for a couple of days.)
Each day, before he begins, he goes back and rereads and revises and tweaks the previous two day’s work, so every portion of th book had been revised and tweaked at least three times by the time he gets to the end. “This gives me an opportunity to strengthen and clean up as I go along, also builds storytelling momentum for the day’s work.”
David shattered his wrist in a fall about twenty years ago, which means today he can only type for about forty-five minutes at best. Since then, he’s been using Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate his books. One thing he’s noted is that Dragon prefers complete sentences, and so he now has a tendency to think more in complete sentences than when I was writing with a keyboard. “It’s interesting: the way in which you get those photons corralled on the display affects the way in which you write.”
Now the big philosophical question: why does he write this stuff?
“We are storytellers. That’s what we love to do. We love to create and craft stories. We communicate, we share those stories, by writing them down…I am fascinated by history, I am fascinated by the way that people’s personalities work, and how that motivates them to be who and what they are in real life. Telling stories lets me get inside that process…I honestly believe almost anyone could learn to love history if you could just get them to understand it is the greatest, most complex novel ever written. You have all of these characters, all of whom have their own motivations, their own responsibilities. How do they meet them? This is part of what makes us human beings, and defines the difference between responsible conscientious human beings and the predators. I think that I tell stories in part because that’s what I want to look at.
“Obviously, I want to entertain my readership, and don’t want to be in the position of lecturing. But any writer, the moment he or she begins to write, steps up onto a soapbox. If I present a character who would be unsympathetic to you under normal circumstances, but I get you inside that character…the character’s views might not be those you would espouse on your own, but you discover that you like this character…then I have made those contrarian views more accessible to you, and I think that’s something we are, especially these days, in sad need of.
“That’s why I play fair with the bad guys in the books. They are decent human beings, even if they come from a different value system…
“To me, that’s what being a human being is all about me. To me, good storytelling is about the human condition. Science fiction is a technological age’s fairy tale. It’s inspiration, its cautionary, it’s explicative, it’s all of those things…instead of using demigods and demons and what not, we’ve got scientists and cyborgs and computers, but we’re looking at the same issues, the same questions: what makes us human, and what is involved in living up to your responsibilities as a human.
“You can see that in Heinlein, in all really good science fiction.” He recalls Heinlein writing that, “Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.”
“It’s a very profound statement that cuts to the heart of what it means to e human. And I think that’s what I write about.”
Weber concludes, “It’s been a heck of a ride the last thirty years. I’ve been very fortunate in how well the books have done, and I’ve been very fortunate to be allowed to do something I love to do, and actually get paid for it.”