An hour-plus conversation with Jean-Louis Trudel, author of twenty-nine books in French for both young adults and adults, more than a hundred short stories in French and English, and one-half with Yves Meynard of the nom de plume Laurent McAllister.
Jean-Louis Trudel is the author of twenty-nine books in French for both adults and young adults, as well as a history of science fiction in Quebec (among other works of science fiction criticism). He is also the author of more than a hundred short stories in French published in magazines such as imagine… and Solaris, as well as in Canadian, French, and Belgian anthologies. He has collaborated with Canadian writer Yves Meynard on several stories, in French and in English, writing under the pen name Laurent McAllister.
In English, he is the author of short stories published in multiple anthologies and magazines, including Asimov’s and ON SPEC. A few more stories have appeared in English translation. Finally, he is the author of a handful of poems, most recently “Summer Encroaching, Winter Yielding”, a 2022 Rhysling Award nominee.
He’s also translated, into French, stories by Canadian author John Park and, into English, stories by French author Jean-Claude Dunyach, among others. He was the translator, from the French, of the novel The Dragon’s Eye (Tor, 1999) by Joël Champetier. His translations into French of the young adult novels of Monica Hughes’ Isis Trilogy came out in 2002 and 2003.
Jean-Louis Trudel has been an Aurora Award finalist and winner many times since 1992, a Prix Boréal finalist and winner more than once since 1994, and one of the three finalists in 1994, 1995, 1999, and 2001 for the Grand Prix de la Science-Fiction et du Fantastique québécois, winning in 2001. In 1996, he was among the finalists for Ontario’s Trillium Book Award in the French-language category. His stories have been translated into English, French, Russian, Greek, Portuguese, Italian, Chinese, and Romanian. He has organized or helped organize science fiction conventions and festivals including Boréal and the World Science Fiction Convention.
His educational background includes a bachelor’s degree in physics at the University of Ottawa, a master’s degree in astronomy at the University of Toronto, a second master’s degree in history and philosophy of science and technology at the University of Toronto, and a doctorate in history from the Université du Québec à Montréal. He has taught in five different universities.
An hour-long interview with Gerald Brandt, bestselling author of the San Angeles science-fiction series and the new Quantum Empirica series that began with Threader Origins, all published by DAW Books.
Gerald Brandt is an internationally bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy. His current novel is Threader Origins, published by DAW Books, the first book in the Quantum Empirica trilogy that will continue with Threader War and Threader God.
His first novel, The Courier, Book 1 in the San Angeles series, was listed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as one of the ten Canadian science fiction books you need to read and was a finalist for the prestigious Aurora Award. Both The Courier and its sequel, The Operative, appeared on the Locus Bestsellers List.
By day, Gerald is an IT professional specializing in virtualization. In his limited spare time, he enjoys riding his motorcycle, rock climbing, camping, and spending time with his family. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife, Marnie, and their two sons, Jared and Ryan.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Hey, Ed. How are you?
I’m good. Now, we’ve known each other for quite some time now. Winnipeg and Regina are not that far apart. And we’ve showed up at the same conventions, and now we share a publisher, DAW Books.
We do. I think we first met, probably, at World Fantasy in Calgary, would have been the first time.
Yeah, that sounds about right. And I guess we share an editor, too, Sheila E. Gilbert at DAW Books.
Hugo Award-winning editor.
Oh, yes. Must mention that. Yes. And the other fun fact is that I was there in Washington, DC, at World Fantasy when you sold that first novel to DAW. And I think I was one of the first people to know about it, actually, outside of probably your family.
You may have been, actually. Yeah. That whole day is still a fog. I can’t remember all the finer details.
It was great. Well, let’s start by finding out how you got interested in writing science fiction and fantasy. Let’s take you back first to a little bit of biographical information. Did you grow up in Winnipeg? Have you always been a Winnipegger? Tell me your life story.
Yeah, I did grow up in Winnipeg, although I wasn’t born here. I was born in Berlin, Germany. So, I’m a first-generation immigrant to Canada. But I guess we moved when I was two years old. So, yeah. I don’t remember much of my first two years of my life, but so, yeah, Winnipeg has been my home for pretty much my entire life.
So, growing up in Winnipeg, when did you discover that you liked science fiction?
You know, this is going to sound cliché, and I’m sure that just about everybody you have spoken to has said the same thing, but I started out as an avid reader. Don’t we all?
Pretty much, yeah.
And the books that grabbed my attention, although I read pretty much everything, you know, if you handed me a ketchup bottle, I’d read the ingredients list just to read something . . .
And then do it again in French, since we live in Canada.
Well, no, I . . .no, no. I’m sadly a one language person.t I did not do well in school in French classes. But anyway, so yeah, the books that really seemed to draw me more than anything else were, well, mainly fantasy novels, and science fiction as well. So, yeah.
Do you remember any specific titles that had an impact on you?
Oh, my gosh. You know, the Foundation series, Asimov’s Foundation series, was a big one for me, going a ways back in my younger, younger years. Piers Anthony was a big one for me, but I find myself struggling to . . .I went back and read some of him recently, and I don’t think his books aged that well, unfortunately.
No, I loved them too. And I had kind of the same reaction when I looked back at them.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, what else? Wow. Yeah. You’re asking me to go way back. You know, I’m pretty old.
Oh, yeah, look who’s talking to me. I’m older than you are. So, you know, I can remember. I’m sure you can.
Well, I . . . you know, maybe . . . but I don’t even have many of those books on my shelf anymore. You know, I’ve gone past what really got me into the genre, I think.
Well, when did you start writing? I read in another interview, I think, that you did some in junior high?
Yeah, in junior high. I wrote . . . I started thinking that, you know, I’ve been reading all this stuff, I can start writing it. And it was much like the poetry I was writing at the time, rather angst-filled teenage garbage, but, you know, I guess we all start somewhere.
How much did you do? Like, were you writing long things or short stories or . . .?
Yeah, short stories. I didn’t even know they really existed back then. So, I was reading novels, you know, I was reading Stephen R. Donaldson and things like that. So, I was basically copying what I read. And, you know, I got well into some novels, but I never actually got anything finished back then. I think I actually still have a notebook here somewhere that has a really bad hundred pages of a handwritten fantasy novel in it, which I really should get rid of before I die because somebody will read it, and that would just be bad.
I have actually, right here on my desk, I have the handwritten manuscript of my first novel that I wrote when I was fourteen.
And it was typed up later. And you never know, I might put it online sometime under a pseudonym or something. And my worry is that it will sell better than my actual novels.
Well, you are a braver soul than I.
I don’t know. I haven’t done that yet. I’ve talked about it for a long time, but it hasn’t happened yet.
So, I also read in that interview, though, that you kind of . . . well, first before I do that, did you share your writing with people at the time? I always ask people that about their youthful writings. Were they brave enough to share it, or was it a thing you just kept to yourself?
Never. I did not share any of my writing until I got serious, quite serious, about it when I turned forty. And even then, I held off for a number of years before I thought I was good enough to have somebody else look at.
So, there was a gap in there between writing in junior high and getting serious about it.
What happened in there?
Well, in Grade 10, so, the first grade of high school, they offered a computer programming course. And on a whim, I took it. And that was the end of my world. I started, at that point, I started a career of computer programming. And I’m glad I did. It did very well for me. I’m actually not programming anymore, I’ve gone more to the IT side now, but it gave me a career that helped me, you know, let me raise a family and buy a house and do all those things that normal people do that you can’t do for, in most cases, you can’t do with a writing career.
I did programming briefly. I didn’t have a class in it, but I learned Basic, and I had a Commodore 64, and I wrote this extensive program using the Commodore 64 music chip that allowed me to input sheet music into it after a fashion. And I did that, and it took hours and hours, and it worked, after a fashion. And then when it was done, I thought, “You know, there are other people who are better at this than I am.” And I was never tempted to be a programmer after that. So I had a different reaction to you, I think.
Yeah, yeah. M first introduction in high school would have been punch cards and programming in COBOL before we moved on to the Commodore PET, which was the first microcomputer I touched. So, that was a long time ago.
I did take one programming class. I lied. I took an off-campus university programming class, and it used a Commodore PET, as well. So there something we have in common. But then you did something with it, and I never did. So, what brought you back to writing then? I mean, were you continuing to read science fiction through all those years?
Oh, absolutely. My reading has never . . . well, I’m not going to say never. My reading did not drop off at all during those years. That has changed since I’ve become a writer because I just don’t have as much time as I used to have. But yeah, I absolutely kept on writing or kept on reading, and yeah, I wouldn’t have stopped. Nothing would have stopped me from reading.
I kind of loved science fiction and fantasy together, but your writing is certainly, so far at least, more on the science fiction side. Were you more of a science fiction reader than a fantasy reader, or were you indiscriminate?
I was more of a fantasy reader than science fiction, and everything that I’ve ever written before my first sale has been fantasy, but I have never sold any of my fantasy. I’ve only sold my science fiction. So, go figure.
Hmmm. Well, how did the switch to writing seriously come about? What made you decide at the age of forty or whenever to take it seriously and really get into it?
Yeah. You know, it was always there. I mean, always the idea that, you know, I’m reading this stuff and I can do this. I want to do this. But at forty, a little bit before forty, I became a stay-at-home parent to my two boys. One was in Grade 1, and the other one hadn’t yet started preschool, I guess, so he was home all the time. And one of the parents of another kid in my son’s, in the Grade 1 class, she was a writer. And, you know, we started talking a little bit, and I just kind of woke up one morning and said, “This is it. It’s now or never. I’m forty years old. If I don’t start writing, then I probably won’t.” So, I gave myself a goal. I said, I will have something published. A novel was my goal. I will have a novel published in ten years. Or if I don’t, I’ll stop because it’s obsolete. Ten years to me was the perfect amount of time to hone whatever skills I might have had and churn out something that was publishable. And the end result was Sheila offering me a contract at roughly ten years and three months.
And at that point, you know, I wasn’t going to stop anyways because ten years of actually struggling and getting better and writing and being critiqued and critiquing, I wasn’t going to stop at fifty, at any rate. I was going to keep on going until I had something sold. But, you know, it’s interesting that it happened roughly in the time frame that I gave myself.
Well, did it just sell out of the gate, or was there some back and forth with Sheila on that particular novel?
Well, there’s a five-year story.
Yeah, I kind of knew it was there. That’s why I asked.
Yeah, I figured you did. Actually, Sheila came to the convention, KeyCon, here in Winnipeg.
Yeah, I remember. I was there too.
So, we did meet then before World Fantasy. I guess we never spoke.
Yeah. We probably didn’t notice each other.
Probably not. No. But anyway, as a big surprise to her, KeyCon had set up a pitch session, which she . . .
I remember that!
. . . . which she was not prepared for. So, I signed up for the pitch session, and it was my first pitch session ever. And it took me by surprise, probably almost as much as it took Sheila by surprise. They put thirty of us into a room with Sheila, and we all pitched to her in front of each other, which is not actually the way it works, really. But whatever, it happened.
I, unfortunately, followed somebody who had had a lot to drink the night before and showed up with bathroom-tile imprints still on the side of their face. And they tried to pitch to Sheila and finally just stood up and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this,” and walked out. And then they called me. So, I went up to the desk and, you know, did the brief introductions, and she said, “What do you have?” And I stuttered and stuttered. And I said, you know, “I’m really quite nervous. And I’m not sure that I can remember what I memorized anymore.” And she said, “Well, do you have it written down?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s right here.” And she looked me in the eye, and she said, “Oh, thank goodness.” And she took the paper, and she read it, and she requested a full.
And then, I guess, we met, that’s why I started going to World Fantasies, probably. We met at every World Fantasy after that and talked about the book. And, you know, she never actually had read it yet, but she asked me what I was working on, what was new, what was coming up to me. I guess she was kind of just pushing me to make sure that I was serious about the work. But writing this was what I wanted to do. You know, in the meantime, I pitched other books to her, and she kind of grimaced once or twice. Threader Origins was one of those. But I wrote it anyways, despite her grimace. And then, you know, we’d meet, and she said, “You know, I managed to read your synopsis on the airplane. So, we’re going to talk about your synopsis rather than The Courier.” And so, she critiqued and poked holes in that. And I kept saying, “Well, you know, this is what happens.” And, you know, so I answered all of her questions on that. In the next year, she actually read it and bought it. But it was a five-year process.
That’s an interesting initial sale. I remember . . . because I was at KeyCon, I was working on Magebaneat the time, which is by one of my pseudonyms, Lee Arthur Chane. And I remember, I actually remember after she had finished her editorial comments on that, saying to her on the elevator, “But I can write, can’t I?”
When she bought The Courier, I left our little meeting, and we arranged to meet later on in the day again. So, I went up to my room, and I phoned the wife, and she actually left a meeting to take my phone call. And she went back into the meeting, and she says, “My husband just sold his first novel.” And everybody in the meeting, including her boss, looked at her and said, “Well, you’re not quitting your job, are you?” So luckily, she said no, because the writing . . . but anyway, in that same convention, Sheila and I sat down in a quiet spot, and she gave me my first editorial on the novel at that convention. And I kind of felt like garbage because I didn’t know how things worked. But yes, the same as, you know, “I can still write? You think I can still write, right?” And then, about twenty minutes after she gave that first editorial pass, I went to my first DAW dinner.
Oh, yeah. It’s, I mean, I’ve said that to Sheila, it’s been well, you know, “I bought the book, so obviously I think you can write.”
Yeah. I think Julie Czerneda has asked her to at least say something good right at the beginning so that we actually start off thinking, “OK, maybe it’s not that bad.”
Well, we’re going to talk about the editorial process at the end of this next bit because that is part of the whole published-author thing that people are interested in. But let’s talk about now how . . . well we’ll focus on the new one, Threader Origins, which just came out as we’re recording this and will have been out for a month or so when this goes live, and use that as an example, tell me—the classic question—where do you get your ideas? Or, if you prefer, what was the seed for this particular novel? How did this particular one come along, and how does that tie into the way that ideas normally bubble up for you?
Well, this is my second series with DAW, and—although I have a bunch of trunk novels, so I guess I have experience there as well—but normally, as is the case for this one, I have a character . . .
Before we do that.
Very important. Give us a synopsis so that people know what we’re talking about.
The dreaded synopsis, how writers dislike that part. But Threader Origins is an alternate-Earth book. Darwin Lloyd is a university student. He’s going to become a physicist, and he loves quantum theories and all that stuff. And he’s following in his father’s footsteps. So, he gets an internship where his dad works, and together with, of course, the whole team, they build a machine that can basically generate unlimited electricity to power whatever you want, a whole city or whatever. And Darwin is there for the very first test where they go up to 100 percent, and things go wrong, and he gets pulled into an alternate earth by the machine. And then things go bad from there. In the world he gets pulled into, the same machine was turned on five years prior. So, they’ve had five years of this machine generating what the people call threads. And, you know, they can . . . it can not only, not quite alter reality, but it can kind of predict the future. And it can do various things. I won’t get into too much detail here. And he sees how much it’s destroyed the world he’s gone into. And his main goal is to get home and turn the machine off. And of course, nobody knows how to do that, get home or turn the machine off. So, it’s a struggle.
The overall story is called the Quantum Empirica, correct?
Yes. Now, go back to where did this one come from?
All right. We’ll go back to, again, Darwin Lloyd. He just kind of popped into my head one day as not quite a fully formed character, but pretty close. And I fleshed him out and figured out what his flaws were, what happened to him before the book started. And I figured I had a great character to build a novel around. So, it took me quite a while to figure out what kind of world to throw him in that would test him the most. And yeah, once I did that, I just started researching and writing.
Well, what does your planning and outlining process look like? I read a description of it, and it sounds quite . . . what’s the word . . . physical. Post-it notes and things like that. So how does that work for you?
All right. Yeah, I have . . . I bought a four-by-eight metal whiteboard at IKEA, and I have so many stacks of Post-it notes around here it’s ridiculous. But basically, what I do is . . . by the time I’m into the Post-it note stage, I already have my main character, and I have the majority of my world thought out, not necessarily detailed, but thought out. And I might have a couple of secondary characters. And I grab my Post-it notes and I write . . . sometimes it’s as little as one word, and sometimes it’s a sentence. And I take that, and I stick it on the board. And basically, that Post-it note becomes a scene, and sometimes the one word is an emotion, right? I know that at this point, there’s got to be a lot of pain and hurt. So that’s what I’ll put in there, because I don’t know what scene is going to bring that out yet, the details, but I know that I need it, so I’ll put it on there. And by the time I’m done, I have anywhere from 75 to 100 Post-it notes or more on my whiteboard. And it’s possible that they’re all different colors because I assign a color per point of view character. So, for example, on the San Angeles series, I probably had about six colors on my whiteboard. For Threader Origins, it’s just all Darwin Lloyd’s point of view. So, it’s all one color. In this case, it’s pink. I’m still staring at it now for book three.
And yeah, I take it, once I have all my Post-it notes written, I arrange them to make more sense. And so, I know where I have my highs, I have my lows. I don’t know chapter breaks or anything at that point yet, but I actually do my initial rough plot on that whiteboard. Once I’m sure that I have something that I like that is somewhat coherent, I take all of those notes and put them into a spreadsheet and, again, color-coded based on character point of view. And that’s where I start expanding things. You know, if for, like, for the San Angelesseries, every scene had a timestamp. So, I made sure that the timestamps matched for every point of view character, and all that stuff. For Threader Origins, I had separate color coding for the threads that Darwin was learning at a time because the colors of threads have specific meaning in the novel.
So, I fill all that in, and I take those one-word or those one-sentence scenes, and I put them into three or four sentences in the spreadsheet, and I just build it and rearrange it until, again, I’m happy with it. And then, I take the somewhat detailed description of three or four sentences, move those into a document and start writing from there. I usually end up with . . . by the time it’s all said and done, seventy-two to seventy-five scenes because I average thirteen to fourteen hundred words per scene, and that gets me a 100,000-word novel.
Wow. Not the way I work!
And you know, the thing is that none of what I’ve done up to this point is written in stone, which is good because, as you know, as you’re writing, these things just organically kind of grow. I don’t leave, at least for the first half, I don’t normally leave my plot. But there’s these little details that come in. This little, this character that you have to throw in there in order to show something becomes a little bit more important. So, you know that they’re going to be coming back in the book a bit more. So usually at the halfway point, I go through the process again for the second half of the book because things have changed enough that the second half of the plot, although it’s, the plot is probably OK, it’s the details of the interactions and the emotions that might have changed. So, I go back at the half unit, the halfway point, and rearrange that second part of the plot.
So, this Post-it approach, how did you decide to use that approach? Does that somehow relate to being a computer programmer and the way that you plan out when you’re reprogramming, or . . .?
No, not even . . . not at all, actually. You know, when you’re starting out, and again, during that time period when I wasn’t writing, but, you know, and I was doing all the computer stuff, I’d still buy all these books on how to plot and character development and all this kind of stuff. My bookshelf is filled with them. But the thing that made sense to me was . . . people were always using note cards, right? They’re saying you take your, take the note cards, and you write things down in the note cards, and that lets you rearrange things, and I tried it, and it didn’t work for me, but, you know, and then I moved to Post-it notes and just seeing it visually on the whiteboard all at once worked for me a lot better than having a stack of note cards that I would rearrange or have to lay down on the floor to look at the sequence of events. And then, at the end of that, I have to clean it up because, of course, I have kids in the family, and I can’t leave stuff like that on the floor. So, it just kind of a progression of the note cards just into Post-it notes.
“Your novel doesn’t make a lot of sense.” “Yeah, well, the cat ran through it at just the right moment.”
You know, it’s . . . you know, I read all that stuff, too, in the magazines, and yet it never, never took with me at all. So, I’m always interested in . . . you know, part of the point of this whole podcast is that everybody does it differently. So, it’s always interesting. So, once you start writing, it’s sequential because you figured it all out ahead of time. What’s your actual writing process? I know, for example, that you use rather different word processing software than most people do.
I do. I use . . . you know, I tell the world I use WordStar, which is a 1980s word processor. But, you know, having been a computer programmer for too many years to even consider, I wrote my own word processor, and I use that, and it’s WordStar compatible.
And what is your actual . . . well, first of all, what do you like about that? What were you looking for that made you do that?
Well, the first thing is that the muscle memory of just how to use WordStar, because I used it, like, in the ’80s and early ’90s, I used it for all of my other stuff, whether I was documenting or whatever, I was doing some code or whatever, I used WordStar. So, the muscle memory was certainly there. But it’s really a writer’s word processor. You know, I can . . . if you have Microsoft Word, if you highlight a block of text and you know you want to copy that somewhere, you want to do something with that text, but you’re not quite sure, and then you go and do something else, that block of text is not highlighted anymore. So, you kind of lose what you’ve highlighted with WordStar. I can highlight a block of text, and then I can write for six hours, and I could say, oh, that block of text belongs here, and boom, I can copy it. And it’s still highlighted. So, it remembers things like that. It also has bookmarks. It has ten bookmarks. So I can, say, remember this position in the document as bookmark one or whatever, and then if I’m writing and go, “OK, I have to remember,” I go back to bookmark one, and it’s one keypress, and I’m back at bookmark one, and I can go in, then I can go back to where I was writing. So, it’s easier to jump around. It’s almost like you have a printed document with your fingers in between pages, and you’re flipping between chunks of document to make sure things flow. It just seems to work better for me.
Well, when you’re writing, do you . . . where do you write? You just . . . and how do you find the time for it? You do have a full-time job. So how do you juggle all that?
I do. I had a full-time job up to the second book in the San Angeles series, and the schedule on that was so tight that things were not working out for me. So, I actually went down to three days a week on my job, and that helped a lot. But then, of course, with this whole Covid thing going on and me being the IT guy, my workload increased because nobody’s working in the office anymore. So, I have to support these people in their homes and stuff like that. So, I’m now back to four days a week, so close to full time, but not quite. So, I got into the habit of writing at five in the morning for The Courier because I was the stay-at-home dad at that point, and my kids woke up at seven. So that gave me gave a two-hour block when nobody was awake. I could just come into my office and sit down and write.
Over time that has kind of disappeared. And I started writing in the evenings, and . . . because the kids got older and whatever, I started writing in the evenings and on weekends. For the current book I’m writing, which is the third in the Quantum Empirica series, I tried dictating, which worked for a while. But I’ve now gone back to five in the morning writing because it just seems that I’m more creative at that time. I try to get up at five in the morning, try still being the keyword, and write for a couple of hours before the whole house wakes up.
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
Depends on what I’m writing. If I’m writing an action scene or something with a bunch of dialogue, I can turn that out pretty quick. If I’m writing something, you know, in between those two, where a character has to get from A to B and stuff like that, I struggle with those ones. And those, you know, if I get 200 words, 200 words, 600 words in those two hours, I’m happy. But if I’m, like, I’m doing action scenes, I can do 3,000 words in those two hours easily.
So, once you have a first draft, what does your revision process look like? But what things do you do on the and yeah, how many passes do you make and all that sort of stuff?
How many passes I make is, you know, anywhere from, well, double digits. Let’s just go double digits. Leave it at that.
It’s hard to tell when you’re working, it’s kind of an organic thing, really what you count as a pass.
It is, although I do have fixed passes in there as well. I do have a specific pass where I, I add description because when I do my first draft, I’m not a descriptive writer. My first draft could be anywhere from sixty-five to seventy-five thousand words, which is not the right size for a novel. It’s too small. And I will say one of the passes is adding the description so that you can actually get to know where you are in the book when you’re reading it. And another pass I add I use specifically for emotional content to make sure I’m hitting those points, you know, and then I have the technical passes as well, you know, don’t use passive voice and all that kind of stuff, so . . . But then there are the organic passes where you’re just kind of going through it, and it’s tough to keep track of. But I don’t revise as I’m doing that first draft. I don’t go back ever. I get the words out because I can’t fix what’s not on the paper. So, I’ve got to get that first draft out before I start any revision. So that first route, that first draft, is usually quite rough.
And how long does your revision process usually take you?
That all depends on when the contract says the book is due.
I guess I’m done revising! Yeah, I know that feeling.
Yeah, you know, that’s a tough call because it’s different for every book, really. It all depends on the details that I need to remember. For the first, the San Angeles series, every scene had a date and a time stamp. And I will never, ever, ever do that again because that is a headache. I end up using Gantt charts in order to keep track of who was where and when and what they knew, just to make sure that those timestamps were actually accurate. And, yeah, that was a struggle. So that took a lot of revision, right? So that took more time. And in this one, because it was a bit more of . . . it’s not as strict on its timelines, really, so the passes were. . . how long it takes is how long it takes, I can’t . . .I don’t think I can answer that.
Well, you did, kind of.
Well, kind of.
So what’s . . . once that deadline comes along and the book goes in, what do you find . . . well, why don’t you describe what Sheila’s editing process is for you?
All right. Before I go into that, I will say that Sheila is thankfully, thankfully happy to give you an extension if you need it. And I have used that twice now. I used it for the last book in the San Angeles series and it made me feel so bad that I swore I would never do it again. And so, I did it again on the last book in the Quantum Empirica series.
I may have taken advantage of that once or twice.
Yeah. And for this extension, I blame 2020. I take full responsibility for it, of course. But 2020 was quite hard on my creative process. So that’s why book three is late and being handed in, but it will still be, the books will still be released in a nice, timely fashion, simply because I’m ahead of the game already, right? With the first book being out and the third book being halfway done, right, I’m still, I still have time. So, things are, you know, the books will be released in good order.
But the process for dealing with Sheila, as you know . . . you read about how everybody goes, and they talk about the editorial letter and all that stuff. So, that’s what I was expecting. But that is not the way that Sheila works. As you well know, Sheila will call you up on the phone at a preplanned time, and you will be on that phone for however long it takes to for her to go through her notes. And she will go through and tell you what is wrong with your book. And it’s all verbal. It’s all done on the phone. And for my first two books, I was scribbling away so fast I might have missed half of what she said, at which point . . . because she always calls me on my cell phone, I have an app on there now that records our phone calls so that I can always go back and listen to what she’s saying again, because my notes miss things. You just can’t keep up. She’s a fast talker, and my handwriting’s not fast enough to keep up with her.
And what sorts of things are you generally, does she generally suggest you might need to expand upon or rewrite?
It’s different, I think, probably for every author, so, yeah, and I think it’s different for really every book I hand in. Right? It’s . . .I’ve never actually looked for a common thread, which is probably a weakness of mine because if there was a common thread, I should really fix it, shouldn’t I, or hand the book in?
I usually find it’s, like, you know, expanding on something that there’s just not enough information there for the reader to follow what’s going on or that sort of thing.
I would agree. It’s continuity comments or things where, yeah, there’s not enough detail to explain why the character’s going this way, or there is enough detail, and she doesn’t think that it really fits in with the character’s psyche of what she’s learned of that character and she doesn’t think it fits. I’ll take an example. The first version of Threader Origins that I handed in, the relationship between Darwin and his father was antagonistic. They did not like each other. They blamed each other for a lot of things, which I won’t get into detail with because that’s a bit spoilerish. But they butted heads a lot. They didn’t really like each other. And, you know, it created tension, and it created conflict, and it moved the book ahead, so it did its job. But when Sheila read it, she didn’t quite like it. She didn’t think that that was really what the book needed. So . . . and this is the nice thing about doing phone calls. We sat there, and we just hashed it out. We figured it out together. And she kind of tossed in ideas. And I said, you know, well, that won’t work because of and then I tossed in ideas, and she says, well, that might work. But what about, you know, we just came to something that we were both quite happy with, and that relationship changed. And because it changed, it added so much more depth to Darwin’s and the father’s character and increased the whole emotional line of the novel. It was just fantastic.
Before you were writing seriously or when you started writing seriously, did you have any fear of the editorial process? I know that some beginning writers, you know, “Well, the editor’s going to change everything, or they’re going to ruin my story.”
Way back when I didn’t even know there was an editorial process. So, no. My first experience with the editorial process would have been with Bundoran Press. When Virginia O’Dine ran Bundoran Press, Heyden Trenholm edited Blood and Water for her, and they bought a short story, my very first sale ever in 2012 maybe. So, Hayden was my first editorial process thing.
Another editor we’ve shared!
I loved working with Hayden. He was, you know . . . I expected the editorial process to be, at that point, anyways, this is wrong. This is how you can fix it. And that’s not really the way it works because the editor didn’t write the story, right? It’s my story. So, what the editor—and Hayden and Sheila will both do this—is they’ll say, “This isn’t working. What can you do to make it better? This feels a bit forced to me, or this spot feels weak, or I’m not getting the emotional hit I think I should here.” But they didn’t tell you how to fix it, right? They just tell you that it’s not working. And then you have to go back and fix it. And I think that was the biggest surprise for me. When, you know, when I first went with Hayden and when I first actually started thinking about the editorial process, is that they leave it up to you. They don’t do the changes for you, which I love.
But if you wish to consult with them about possibilities, they’re certainly willing to help out in that.
Absolutely. Absolutely. You can. And that’s what they’re there for as well, is to hash things out if you need them. As I mentioned about Sheila, she’s very, very good at that. With Hayden, I didn’t do that as much.
So, one thing I forgot to ask you about was at the point at which you have something that’s almost ready to submit, do you use beta readers of any sort, or do you have a writing group or anything like that?
I have a loose writing group. We actually used to be a critique group, but I had to bow out of that because my timelines were so tight I couldn’t read somebody else’s work and do a critique. So, I didn’t feel like I was giving in to the critique group as much as I was getting out. So, I had to pull away from that. But that group instead just became a general writing group. And we will talk and discuss ideas. You know, if I’m hitting a roadblock, you know, I’ll say, “My character’s been in this location for so bloody long, and I can’t get them out of there. What am I supposed to do?” And we’ll hash things out verbally as we meet. But it’s not a formal critique group. But I do have beta readers, for sure. I have a handful of beta readers that I trust and respect their opinion, and they get everything before I hand it in. And even then, you know, they’ll give their feedback, and one beta reader will absolutely hate a section. And every other beta reader . . . I mean, beta readers will never tell you they love a section, almost never, but they didn’t bring up the section at all, so I’ll kind of go, “OK, well, one person out of however many didn’t like it,” I’ll read it and I’ll say, “No, this is perfect for the book. I’m leaving it in as is,” or I’ll read it in context of their opinion and I’ll say, “No, he’s right. I could do this and this and this, and it would be a better scene or a better section.” But normally, if one person picks something up, it’s going, it’s not, you know, it’s not something that you’re going to change. If multiple beta readers pick up the same thing, then I don’t have a problem.
See, I’ve never, never had beta readers, still don’t have beta readers, so I always ask about them because it’s just, I’ve never been someplace where I felt I could find them. I probably could online now, of course. But when I started, I was in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. And, you know, as I’ve mentioned before on here, the writing group in Weyburn at the time consisted of elderly women who wrote stories about the Depression, and I didn’t really fit in there.
No. Yeah. I think, you know, just a couple of my beta readers are actually local. Most of them are spread far and wide. In fact, I don’t even know where two of them live. I just know they’re in the States. That’s all I know.
I was part of a writing, not online, but a by-mail critique group, for a while back in the Dark Ages, but, boy, that was a slow process.
Yeah, at the beginning, I did join an online critique group, and I think they’re actually still running because I still get some emails from them occasionally. But that was, also, I found a slow process. I can’t imagine doing it over mail. That would be a struggle.
Yeah, it was slow, but I did find a couple of really good . . . I ended up with a couple of really good people, and I guess we were sort of beta readers for each other at that point. We didn’t call it that back then. But yeah, I just never got in the habit of that. And I keep thinking . . . maybe my books would be better if I did. But, you know, I’m kind of set in my ways at this point.
You know, us old guys. We’re stubborn
Yeah. “I’ve never done it that way. I’m not going to start now.”
That’s right. Get off my lawn!
The other thing I wanted to ask you about, we talked a little bit about the characters. When you’re doing all this stuff, do you write down character sketches? Do you, you know, just sit and think about the character and try to build all the backstory and everything at that point? Or does a lot of it get discovered as you write or how does that work for you?
You know, although I do start with a fully fleshed character, I do not have a lot of their background. And I also have no idea how they look. If you read my novels, you’ll find that I almost never describe what my characters look like. I’d rather have the reader do that. And that might be because I don’t really know how they look like. I might have an image in my head, but it’s still kind of blurry. But yeah, the character, although I have a full-fleshed character when I start, I don’t know their backstory, and although I kind of know their emotional part going forward, I do that . . . yeah. I discover that as I go. It’s not part of my plotting process, not part of anything that the character develops as it goes. And then in the revision process is when I’ll go back and make sure that there’s consistency in all of that.
And the other thing I kind of forgot to ask you about, and especially this one, which is, you know, quantum, multiple universes and all that sort of stuff. What kind of research do you end up doing for most of your books?
Yeah, that . . . this is a question I really hate with the Quantum Empirica series specifically.
No, I also get asked that a lot because it is quantum strings and quantum theory. I ended up buying many, many books and doing a whole bunch of online research into quantum theory and quantum strings. And, yeah, and I realized, much to my chagrin, that I’m just not smart enough to know that stuff.
So, yeah, I did a bunch of research that really didn’t stick with me because I wasn’t smart enough, or intelligent enough, to keep all those details, you know, going. For the Quantum Empirica series, what really worked is, one of the books I bought was The Dancing Wu Li Masters, I don’t have the author’s name in my head right now. It’s quite an old book. But it kind of brought, you know, Eastern philosophies together with physics and kind of tried to meld them together into something that was explainable. And that really fed into Threader Origins. In fact, the title of the book was The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and I actually have dancers in Threader Origins based off of that. I had a friend, I was reading the book and going through it with a highlighter and marking pages, and a friend picked up the book and started reading my highlighted comments and threw it back on my desk in disgust. He says, “You haven’t highlighted any of the scientific stuff, just all the emotional content,” and I said, “Well, yeah, OK, that works.”
Yeah, research is, you know, because both of my series take place, you know, basically on Earth, I don’t have any extra, you know, planetary stuff. And, you know, and especially for Threader Origins, Google Maps was a big one, a big part of my research. And then I had the opportunity, actually, I went on holiday and drove through most of the areas that Threader Origins covers in the US, which also help me bring in a bunch of extra details on the scenes.
OK, well, we’re getting down to the last few minutes, so I’ll ask you the other question you’ve already said you’ll hate, which is the big philosophical questions.
Did I not mention that I’m not intelligent enough?
Before we started, you said you weren’t philosophical enough. So, we’ll see. But they’re really not difficult questions. I think the first one is, why do you write? The second one is, why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? And the third one is, why do you write stories of fantastic specifically? So, in whatever order you like.
All right. Well, I will do them in the order you asked. I will ask you to rephrase those questions as well, because I will have forgotten what they were about to get them. OK, why do I write? is the first one. And a lot of people I know, a lot of authors I know, say they write because they have to. If they don’t write, they’re going to go crazy. They’re going to go insane. And that is not my answer. I write because I enjoy it. I love the creation and the development of characters and the world-building. And, you know, it’s a mental exercise that I love doing. And could I go without writing? Probably. Would I be happy about it? No, no. I enjoy the process. I really, really enjoy the process. That being said, I enjoy having written more than the actual writing as well. So, I’m a complex person. How’s that?
That’s a very common affliction of our writers.
There you go.
And the second question was, why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? Why do we make stuff up? As human beings, we make. Why do we make stuff up?
I think I’ll couch that in our current times, when times get difficult and tough, you know, whether it’s Covid-19 or the politics south of our border or whatever is in the world or whatever is stressing you out or hurting you, people want and need—most people, not everybody, not everybody—but people want and need some sort of escape. And even if that escape can be as depressing or as painful as the real world, it’s an escape from where they are in their lives and where they’re at. It gives them the chance to, whether they live in your main character’s skin for a while or whatever, gives them a chance to escape from reality, you know, without the use of psychotics.
And the third question was . . . what was the third question . . .oh, why, if you’re going to tell stories for people to escape into, why make it stories of the fantastic, fantasy and science fiction?
Because it’s what I love to read, I actually . . . when I started out, I never even thought of writing a different type of book. It’s just what I love to read. It’s what I love to write. Although I also love to read thrillers. And although I’ve tossed around the idea of writing a thriller, I don’t . . . you know, by the time I’d be finished writing, the thriller would have too many fantastical things in it to be considered just a thriller.
Yeah, whenever I’ve tried to write something else, there’s always, “But if I put a ghost in here, this is really cool.”
I could put it a gryphon right here! Yeah.
So, you’ve mentioned that you are, I guess, writing the third book. The second one is in revisions, and the first one is out. So that’s what you’re working on now?
Yeah, I’m working on the third book, and again, the whole Covid year and some of the politics that have been happening have made it a struggle for me to be creative. But I am working my way through it, and I will hand this one in on its extended deadline.
And what are the titles of the second and third books?
OK, so it’s Threader Origins is the first, Threader War is the second and Threader God is the third.
And do you know roughly what the release schedule is?
I have no clue. I have not heard the release schedule on anything but the first book, which, as you said, just came out.
And do you have anything else in the works beyond that? Are you already looking beyond . . .?
I do I, I have an idea, and usually, I wake up with these ideas in the middle of the night and scribble them down on a piece of paper, and in the morning, it feels like I’m reading a doctor’s signature. So . . . and the idea is gone from my head. So what happened this time is the idea came during the day, but I was in the middle of doing writing on Threader God. So I emailed the idea to my agent, and now it’s up to her to remind me when it’s it’s time to work on it.
And you’ve got a little short fiction as well, I think, for an anthology that’s coming up?
I do. I have . . .What’s the title? It’s called Derelicts, by Zombies Need Brains. I’m one of their anchor authors. That doesn’t mean that they’ll actually buy my story if it’s garbage, but I’m hoping they enjoy it. I handed that in . . . probably December, January 1 or 2, I think, so a couple of days beyond the due date when it was due. But they will get to reading it, and I will get my editorial comments on those. And I think that book is . . .you know, I don’t have a release date on that either. But if they accept it, it’s my third short story sale.
I’m in another one that was Kickstarted at the same time. That’s why I asked. So, I turned mine in before the deadline.
Not too far from the . . .
Yeah. How’s that full-time job working for you? Sorry, that was harsh.
All right. Fair enough. Fair enough. And where can people find you online? I mentioned it off the top, but we’ll mention it again here at the end.
All right. Well, I’m geraldbrandt.com on the Web. I’m on Facebook as Gerald Brandt Author, and I’m on Twitter @GeraldBrandt.
And we should mention that’s Brandt with a D. B-R-A-N-D-T.
It is a silent D, so. Yes, yeah. If you’re not sure of the spelling, you can look at the transcript.
Exactly right. Well, thanks so much, Gerald. It’s been great chatting with you. You know, I thought about it for a long time. I have to limit the number of DAW authors I do, though. I have to space them out because I could easily do nothing but DAW authors because I’ve met so many of them at dinners and stuff.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for having me. This was a blast.
I had a great time, and best of luck with the trilogy, and I’m sure I’ll talk to you again soon. Or hopefully, we’ll see each other in person again soon.
That would be nice. I would . . . I can hardly wait to actually meet people again. This has dragged on long enough. But I think we’re looking at probably another six to nine months before something happens.
An hour-long interview with Robert G. Penner, author of Strange Labour (Radiant Press), named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Science Fiction Books of 2020, and editor of the online science-fiction zine Big Echo.
Robert G. Penner is the author of Strange Labour, one of Publishers Weekly‘s Best Science Fiction Books of 2020. He’s also the editor of the online science fiction zine Big Echo, and has published more than 30 short stories and a wide range of speculative and literary journals under the pseudonym of William Squirrell.
Originally from Winnipeg, he currently lives in western Pennsylvania, but will soon be returning to Canada.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers.
Well, thank you, it’s great to be here.
I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths in person, but we do have a kind of a secondhand connection in that the publisher of Strange Labour, Radiant Press, is based right here in Regina, Saskatchewan, where I live. And I know John Kennedy, who’s the publisher over there, very well. And in fact, the anthology that came out of the first year of this podcast, Shapers of Worlds, is being distributed through LitDistCo, a Canadian distribution company, through the good graces of Radiant Press. So, there’s kind of a connection there, I think.
Yeah, that’s a connection. That’s the real deal.
And so, we’ll talk a little bit about your Canadian roots and how you got interested in all this science fiction stuff. So, where did you grow up?
I was born in Winnipeg, but very shortly after birth, my parents took me and my brother off to Africa, where they were development workers with the Mennonite Central Committee. So, the first six years of my life were in Zambia. Then we came back to Winnipeg for four or five, then to Swaziland, and then back to Winnipeg. But I do identify as a Winnipegger.
Well, that’s an interesting combination of countries.
So, how did you become interested in the . . . well, I presume, like most of us. You started as a reader. When did you first find your interest in reading and writing? And was it science fiction that you started with, or did you come to that later?
It was very young. But when we were in Zambia, when we were small children, my dad . . . we were in fairly rural Zambia, so there wasn’t much to do. And my dad read us the whole of the Lord of the Rings a couple of times and the whole of the Narnia series and some of those classic fantasy books when we were very small. So, we grew up, both me and my brother, already very engaged in sort of speculative fiction and the pleasures of, like, fantasy. And when we got back to Winnipeg, and we had access to the big public libraries, my brother, my older brother, started taking on a lot of science fiction from the libraries, and I followed his path.
Yeah, I had two older brothers, and one of them, in particular, read quite a bit of science fiction, so that was the stuff that was always around the house. And so, I kind of picked it up, and that’s kind of how I got really interested in it as well. How old were you when you came back to Winnipeg?
I was six. My brother was . . . I was five or six, and my brother was about eight. So, we were still very young. But like I said, because of the environment we grew up in, we were sort of hyperliterate because that’s all there was for entertainment. So, by the time I was 10 or 11, I was reading science fiction fairly regularly and already thinking about writing, writing as play, as just an extension of both reading and your usual childish sort of fantasy life. Writing was just a part of it.
When did you write your first sort of complete thing? I mean, I remember that stage where I was writing, you know, I’d write a few pages or something, but I never finished anything until a little bit later. So how was that for you?
I don’t know. You could say I still haven’t. But I think the first time was probably, again, 10 or 11, like very short pieces, nothing very extensive, but by 10 or 11, I was writing little short stories, I think.
Yeah, that’s about when I wrote my first complete one. “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” it was called, so you could sort of say . . .
That’s awesome. That’s a great title.
I thought science fiction characters had to have weird names.
Well, that’s a keeper.
Yeah, I wish I could find it. It’s . . . my mom typed it up for me, and it’s tucked away in a box somewhere. And if I ever find it, it’s going online like that, just to show people. So, did you continue writing through high school? Was that something that you kind of went through?
Not as much. I’d say in high school, I trailed off quite a bit in terms of my writing. And then when I went . . . I mean, you’re just busy with a lot of things in high school, and it just wasn’t super high up on my agenda. I was . . . my friends and I at that stage were playing a fair amount of Dungeons and Dragons and Traveller and things like that. So that’s a type of writing, too, when you’re preparing games.
But serious writing wasn’t until I think I went to university, in the very late ’80s and early ‘’90s. And then I started writing more and more again. And in some ways, it might have been triggered again by isolation. In my late teens, I spent some time working on a farm in Germany, and there was nothing left . . . and again, there’s nothing to do but read. So, I read an awful lot. And I think that sort of reinvigorated my sort of my ambitions to write. So, probably late ’80s, early ’90s, I started writing again, and it was a combination of both university and sort of periods of isolation doing different kinds of work where I was thrown upon my own imagination for entertainment.
What did you . . . did you study any writing formally, like, did you take any classes? What did you study?
I guess when I started university, I did take some . . .I took a couple of English Lit courses at the University of Winnipeg, and that influenced me, and I . . . at Red River, Red River Community College has, like, a journalism program, creative communications. I did that in my early adulthood as well. So, that was some fairly formal training. But I would say the biggest influences in terms of sort of establishing style and voice would have been just reading, just picking up independent books and experimenting on my own. I did tend to always be a fairly experimental writer, and I think music, the type of music I was listening to, influenced that.
What kind of music were you listening to?
Oh, punk rock and . . . well, especially punk rock, but sort of more avant-garde-ish pop music where there was a lot of room for sort of play and experimentation. Even something like the Talking Heads, there’s an awful lot going on lyrically that isn’t very typical and just gets a young writer thinking about what’s possible with language if you really push or stretch.
You referenced punk rock in an interview with you. I read about Big Echo, so I was wondering if that was the kind of music you were listening to.
It was. And also, actually, for writing, I listen to a lot of, I guess, what you call old country stuff like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. And that’s a lot more sort of a standardized style of writing. But I think that country, country and western probably also shaped . . . that curious combination of punk rock and country and western probably shaped my style and my voice.
One of the interesting things about country music is that there’s a lot more storytelling in it, I think, than other forms of music, so many country songs are actually little stories of one sort or another.
Absolutely, yeah. And my dad listened to a lot of country. Well, he grew up playing country music, and so there was some country music fairly early on in my life as well. I wasn’t a big fan or anything, but there was always, you know, I mean, I learned about Wilf Carter and Hank Snow and that kind of thing fairly early on. And as you say, that’s like, they write little stories. And so, I was aware from quite young of this idea of the little story as being highly entertaining.
So, when did you start writing little stories and attempting to get them published? When did the publication thing start happening for you, and how?
Very late. So, we moved down to the States about seven or eight years ago, and I had just started writing again. I’d finished a Ph.D. in history, and one of the ways to distract myself from preparing for class, I think, was to write fiction. And so, I started writing a lot more fiction at the tail end of my Ph.D. But then, when we moved down here, my partner was working, and I was on a visa that required me not to work. I wasn’t allowed to make any money while we were down here, while I was on that visa. And so, there was really nothing to do but shop and cook and take care of the kid and write. So, I started really writing a lot right when we first moved down here and started publishing in small zines fairly regularly and compulsively, I’d say, So I would say that really picking up the energy, that was about seven or eight years ago, I started really writing.
And down here, I was lucky as well. There’s a guy called Andy Stewart who’s published occasionally for Fantasy & Science Fiction, and he has a new book, a novella, coming out with Tor. And he happened to be living here at the same time. So, we had similar reading and writing interests, and we started working together a lot and reading each other’s stuff. So that also was a big invigoration.
You weren’t entirely writing science-fiction kind of stuff, were you? You mentioned literary writing as well in your little bio there.
Yeah, I do both. When I was younger, it was very much more literary. It was all a sort of this like, I don’t know, like, sort of male-confessional Charles Bukowski type stuff that a lot of young men might be interested in, and I found it ultimately a little boring, and I started retreating into sort of my childhood, looking for more inspiring things, more fun things to write about, and I began to realize that speculative fiction really gives you a lot of freedom to just do whatever you want in terms of your writing. And so, I started reading more, revisiting old texts, and trying to experiment and write science fiction in ways that I hadn’t before, certainly not since I was a child. And there’s this idea that I think academics sometimes have that you can just start writing science fiction or fantasy, and it’s very easy. And it’s . . . I mean, it is in one sense in that it’s play, but in another sense, there was quite a steep learning curve. I started reading an awful lot of short-form science fiction and fantasy venues and more novels and novellas and sort of trying to understand the craft from a speculative perspective. And that was all in the last seven or eight years. And that was also . . . Andy (Stewart) 11:49 was again a fairly big influence because he’d been to Clarion, he was a part of that scene in ways I wasn’t and had a very good eye for what sort of contemporary science fiction and speculative fiction was like. And so, that was all in the last seven or eight years, I’d say, I started really thinking hard about it. That doesn’t mean I stopped writing the literary stuff or reading it. That was going on at the same time, but there was that influence; Andy’s influence was very significant.
Yeah, we often say in the field that it’s a field in conversation with itself. And, you know, it’s very easy for people, I think, who come into it and haven’t read widely, and experienced it, to write something that, you know, would have been perfectly fresh 50 years ago, but the field has perhaps dealt with that or is now taking that idea in unexpected directions. There are all sorts of things going on that . . . when I work with young writers, and I do quite a bit of work with young writers, I will often get stuff that it’s pretty clear they’ve watched science fiction like Star Wars, stuff like that, but they haven’t actually read it.
Absolutely. And so, I was shocked at how, in some ways, how hard it was to write something fresh, like really fresh and original, because it’s been an awful lot of very clever people being very creative over a long period of time. And it’s pretty hard to just walk in and think, well, I can start writing this stuff and impress people.
So, we’ll move on to the novel. Was this your first attempt at a novel, Strange Labour, or had you written something before?
I self-published sort of a speculative political horror thing a little while ago, but I wouldn’t call it a novel. It was more of an experiment, I would say, in terms of just a fairly straightforward narrative novel. This was my first serious attempt.
Well, pretty good initial attempt then, considering. So, I guess the first thing to do is to give listeners a synopsis of it without giving away anything you don’t want to give away.
The basic idea is that people wake up one morning and the vast majority of the population has become overwhelmed by a compulsion to leave the cities and dig these massive earthen mazes or labyrinths. And there’s a handful of people that are not sort of compelled to do so, and they have to find a way to live in this new world where everyone has left the cities, and they’re just building, working themselves to death to build these massive mounds, these earthen mounds. These people don’t talk. They just communicate somehow to themselves. And so, you have this isolated, this small, isolated community of people who aren’t digging, who have to make sense of this new world and find a way to live meaningfully, sort of in the margins. That’s the book. And so, the structure, the narrative structure, is a young woman traveling across the United States, what was the United States, because she wants to find out what happened to her parents, whether they joined the diggers or whether they’re like her. So, it’s this sort of this combination of a kind of an eerie or weird post-apocalypse with a fairly traditional road novel. And so, she meets various people on the way and various little communities that are striving to make sense of the world, this new world they find themselves in. And that’s the book.
You could say the structure goes back to, oh, say, the Odyssey, traveling to strange places.
Absolutely. Yeah. And it’s . . . I mean, it has a fairly episodic feel in some ways, too, like the Odyssey, where it’s just one thing after another. It is . . . yeah, it does actually hearken back to that very old style of storytelling.
And what was the inspiration and in general, what is your . . . I know it’s a cliché, where do your ideas come from, but it’s a legitimate question. How do these things come to you? What sorts of things spark story ideas, and this idea in particular?
That was a dream fragment. There was a very small element of it that just originated in a dream fragment, and then just playing around with it. After that, it was originally a short story, and the short story became the end of the novel. So, in a lot of ways, the writing was writing backstory for this short story that I really liked and couldn’t get published. I don’t know. I guess in terms of just where the ideas come from, just life. One has odd thoughts. You write them down. Occasionally a dream. Occasionally it might be something more pointed, like a very specific idea, like a what-if idea. But I’m a . . . . I would say I’m a mood writer. And so, most of my ideas come from trying to capture a certain mood or feeling about the world rather than a sort of a very classic science fiction axiom. Like, if X then Y kind of writing, which I really enjoy and I wish I was better at it, but it tends to be more sort of particular moods or atmospheres that trigger ideas and narratives rather than sort of a scientific notion.
Well, in Strange Labour . . . do you explain at some point, or is it more about the mood of this strange world, and nobody knows what’s going on, and nobody finds out?
I don’t explain. I don’t. So, there’s no . . . I can’t even give it away because, I mean, I have my own theories and ideas, but in a lot of ways, I think the book wasn’t about this interesting thing that happened, but rather this thing has happened and how do people respond and how do they make meaning out of something they don’t understand? So, if you’re going to boil it down to a single sort of philosophical idea, it would be that these people are stuck in this incomprehensible universe that they can’t make sense of, and they need to somehow keep living despite this. And so, if you do provide a solution to that problem, it kind of undercuts the whole purpose, which is to try to think about what it’s like to live in a universe you can’t quite understand and still live.
Well, isn’t that the question we all face?
Yeah, it is. And I mean, that’s part of why I was writing it, just trying to think through on a sort of . . . personal problems on a, in an aesthetic way.
You have a Ph.D. in history. Has your knowledge of history, does it play into these sorts of things? I mean, there’s been many times down through history when people have found themselves in such circumstances, completely out of their control, and not understanding what’s going on. Do you draw on some of that knowledge of history in writing things like this?
I do. Strange Labour isn’t a particularly historical book or anything like that. But one of the things that’s really interesting in history, like, sort of professional archival history, is you tend to always start finding yourself looking back at the big events sort of through the margins because you’re doing archival work, because you’re looking at these really subjective experiences of history, in some ways you stop thinking historically, right? You stop thinking in terms of these big economic and social sweeps, and you find yourself often thinking in very personal terms because you get attached to particular archival voices or perspectives, and these people never know what’s going to happen. They’re stuck in the world, and they’re trying to understand it. And there you are, like 200 or 300 or 400 years later, and you know what’s happened. But you’re still sort of obliged to try and enter the world that these people exist in and try to understand what it looks like and what it feels like when you don’t understand what’s happening or what’s going to happen. So that very sort of, very, like, working historian perspective of like, how do you enter the world of someone who’s dead, who’s living in the far reaches of the past and doesn’t know what’s happening, what’s going to happen, how do you understand their experience of the world and how do they make sense of the world and what’s sort of the raw material, the cultural and the social and the economic raw materials through which they live in this world, that you have a sort of a post facto sense of that they’re stuck in the middle of?
So, when you’re writing a novel, it’s actually quite similar. You’ve got these characters that don’t have access to the world in the way you do, and I think, for me, the practice of history really showed me ways to sort of think about it. Well, what do they have access to? How can they think? What are the raw materials of their life, and how do they construct meaning out of that? So, in that sense, it’s sort of, a meta sense, history
was very important to the writing of Strange Labour. And other than that, I mean, you have access to interesting facts, I guess, you can use as spice and flavor in a novel as well, the way most people might not. But, yeah, I think, philosophically, history has been very important specifically to Strange Labour, and to my writing in general, just for that, this is this way of sticking yourself into the head of someone who doesn’t have the same access to the facts as you do, but trying to do so as respectfully and thoughtfully as possible.
There have been several authors I’ve interviewed who have a background in history, so it’s interesting . . . and folklore, in the case of Seanan Maguire, was a folklorist, I think, and, of course, that plays into it as well. So, once you had the idea, you said it started as a short story, and then you had to create a back story. So, what did you’re planning and outlining process look like? This is your first novel, so it would have been kind of deciding how to do it.
Yeah, it is. It’s, I mean, you play around a little, but I mean, it was actually, it made it easier to know what the ending was. So, in a sense, everything’s focused on getting to a certain point. The problem, the biggest problem, I faced was that I like the original short story very much. And I like the characters in the short story very much. So, I didn’t want to mess it up. I wanted to keep it sort of true to the original tone and style of the piece, but it was just, it was fun, I think it was mostly just fun. You say, “I’ve got to get to X, and I’m starting it at A, and how do I get there?”
There wasn’t a whole lot of planning initially. I started writing, and it just took off from there. You mentioned the Odyssey earlier, and so, one of the things that was a little difficult was to keep it, like, structured and not episodic. I think the biggest danger was it would just turn into a sequence of events, just sort of that kind of very plotty way of getting from A to B to C. I think that was the big danger, particularly for a novice, was trying to have a fairly classic novelistic structure and get to where I wanted without it just being like a straight linear procession.
Yeah, so I started writing, and then when I was about halfway done, I kind of had to reevaluate the structure and sort of start, maybe start, I think I started to think of it in terms of acts. Well, if the original short story is act three, what has to happen in that one? And act two, how can I give it structure and meaning, so the reader doesn’t feel like they’re just being dragged along.
Did you ever write anything down as formal as an outline or a synopsis or something, or was it more feeling your way through and then, you know, taking notes as necessary to . . .?
No synopsis ’til late, but lots of lists, lots of flowcharts. I’m a big flowchart fan. So, there was, I would say, about a third of the way through, all of a sudden, I started writing flow charts, making flow charts, and just trying to figure out what was happening, when, and how. And once I started working with Radiant Press, I had to do that a little more seriously because they wanted more sort of background than I provided in the original draft, which was very sort of existential. And they wanted a little more back story. So then . . .and then you start doing this thing where you’re tracking the backstories as well as the current story. So, I have to think about Miranda’s—the main character’s name is Miranda—I had to think about her previous life and start working that into the material. And that’s probably when I started writing, like, a novel proper, and started struggling with the usual kinds of problems that novelists struggle with. But there were definitely, I think, flowcharts and catalog cards getting rearranged on tables and all kinds of desperate efforts t fight through the problem of structure.
You mentioned the character, and obviously, there are other characters. How did you discover the characters you needed for this story, and how much thinking and detailing of them did you do before you started writing them, or did they also emerge as the story advanced?
The main characters were there in the original. The two main characters were there in the original short story, and they were just there. I just started writing the story, and I needed these characters, and I came up with them. When I started doing the novel, then you need to put in a lot more sort of . . . well, you need a lot more words about them, and they need a lot more shape and form. So, I started thinking about them more in sort of dramatic terms as characters, what’s this character like, and so on. I’ve mentioned this in a previous interview before, but there were two main characters, Miranda and Dave, and my partner really liked Miranda, but she didn’t care much for Dave, who was sort of the foil for Miranda, and I really like Dave, so a good portion of the middle of the book is me trying to convince Nicole, my partner, that Dave’s OK, that Dave’s actually all right. And that was a very productive way to do it, because it really, because then you think about, “What are the things she doesn’t like about Dave?” and you don’t want to get rid of them because you think it’s part of who Dave is. But then you also want to start showing and illuminating other aspects of his character. So, for me, the most satisfying part of the writing process in terms of character building was to build Dave up in such a way that he was fuller and more understandable than he had been in the beginning. I enjoy writing characters. It’s one of my favorite things about writing. I don’t know if I’m particularly good at it, I sometimes feel like they all tend to look a little the same, but I guess that really is a lot of the pleasure for me in the writing is you get these fairly basic characters, and then you start building them up into sort of three-dimensional forms and trying to establish how they’re distinct from each other and so on.
Well, ultimately, all our characters are really aspects of ourselves because we’re the only ones that we really understand—if we understand ourselves.
Exactly. Which is why it was particularly distressing when Nicole didn’t like Dave because there’s an awful lot of me in Dave.
What does your actual writing process look like? Are you a certain number of hours a day, or do you go out in under a tree with a quill pen? How does it work for you?
It’s shifted a little. When we first got here, I’d get my daughter off to school, and I’d do the shopping or whatever and then have a few hours, and I would put in the writing. Once I got a visa that allowed me to work, that changed. Then you find yourself sort of scrabbling and scratching for writing time. A lot more in the last couple of months. I mean, we’ve all been locked in with the pandemic. It’s actually been a lot easier. So, my daughter is now online in school. So, once I get her set up in the morning, I mean, I have a couple of hours just to write. So, it’s actually been . . . the last six months or so, it’s actually been relatively easy. You just get up, you take care of some basic chores and housework, and you get everyone fed, and then you write for a couple of hours until you get tired. Particularly over the Christmas holidays, I’ve just . . . it’s been very easy to get up in the morning and start writing.
On the novel, did you write it quite sequentially, just started at the beginning and kept pressing through until you got to the end? You mentioned that halfway through, you had to kind of reevaluate, but you did it sequentially?
Yeah, I do. I don’t know what it means, but the novel I’m working on now, again, it’s just . . . I just start at the beginning and start writing. And I mean, obviously, at a certain point, you’ve got to go back and reevaluate and rethink and restructure, and you never know how much of it you’re going to have to just destroy. But yeah, A to B to C is basically how I proceed.
There are a few people who write piecework and do scenes and then stitch them all together later. But most people, I think, find it easier to just tell the story and then worry about fixing it later.
Yeah. And every once in a while, if I’m feeling stuck, I might jump ahead, right, and go, “Well, OK, I know this one scene has to happen later, so I’m going to flesh it out at least, and then maybe that will help me, and go back. But in general, yeah, it’s just full steam ahead and try to get to the end.
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
I would characterize myself as fairly fast. I guess it kind of depends. In genre, I find people write fairly quickly, whereas like in literature, in the literary, like the high-end literary stuff, they seem to write a lot slower. I’d say I’m kind of in the middle. I’m probably very fast for a literary writer and sort of a little slow for a spec-fic kind of a guy.
I remember years ago hearing of someone who had spent, like, 11 years writing, I don’t know, half a dozen short stories or something. And I can’t even fathom that. I could not write that slow if my life depended on it.
I’m pretty sure I’d get bored. There’s actually, on Netflix there’s this great movie with . . . Meryl Streep plays a writer, sort of a Margaret Atwoodish writer, and she’s horrified, she’s on a boat, and she’s horrified when she meets a mystery writer who turns books out, like, two or three a year and she spends four years on a single book.
It’s a different approach, that’s for sure. So, you’ve mentioned that you were trying, you know, part of your work was making your wife like Dave. Yeah. Did you have any other sort of first readers or beta readers that you showed work to give you feedback? You’d mentioned your friend there?
Yeah. Andy Stewart. 31:47 I was incredibly lucky to find him. We were in a small town in western Pennsylvania, and both our wives were teaching at the university here. So, we were very lucky to find each other. And yeah, so he was a beta reader. He gave me an awful lot of feedback, and he was very, very useful because, again, because he was much more grounded in sort of the culture of speculative fiction than I was. And so, I tend to be fairly pretentious . . . oh, let’s call it avant-garde, experimental . . . and so it was very useful to write with him because he would help me ground myself and just always remind me, keep reminding myself, that you’re writing for an audience. I mean, you don’t have to. If you just want to write for yourself, that’s fine. But I was trying to write for an audience. So, Andy was very good at trying to get me to think through sort of technical issues, like, “Well, OK, so what’s your idea and how do you want to communicate it to your readers sort of efficiently and easily so that they’re not constantly having to try to catch up with you?” So, he was tremendously important in that way in sort of keeping me grounded and not sort of off into the experimental stratosphere or anything like that
When you were reading, did you read any of the New Wave stuff from the ‘60s in science fiction?
Actually, I didn’t. I mean, it was in the back of my mind. I was reading . . . when I was writing Strange Labour, I was reading mostly sort of modern literary textbooks of post-War Europe. And that kind of influenced the mood. And since then, I’ve started going back to that, to the New Wave stuff. I was a little leery while I was doing it. I didn’t want to read anything that would be too closely connected to it in style. So, one of the things that always happened is people would say, “Oh, you have to read The Road.”
I would think that’s what you would not want to read while you’re writing something like this.
Exactly. So, I was terrified of reading it, and I didn’t want to go near it until I was finished. And now I feel free, that there’s all these books that people told me I should read that now I can go back to. I mean, you just don’t want to read a book and then find someone’s done it way better than you already because then you’re hooped.
Well, I was a kid when the New Wave was happening, and I was reading science fiction, and it did not click with me at the age of, say, 10 or 12, and I’ve never gone back to see what I think of those stories now, but it would be an interesting experiment. The only one I really remember, I don’t remember the story. I just remember the weird typography. It was a story that was printed in a spiral on the page that you read from the outside, following the words around in the spiral to whatever happened in the middle. I don’t remember the story. I remember that image of those spiraling words on the page.
Yeah. And I think that was always the danger for me, was ending up in the spiral.
So, once you had a draft, what did your revision process look like? You’ve gotten some feedback. Were you working on language or . . . you’ve mentioned structure? What were some of the things you had to continue polishing? And I guess this ties in as well to the editorial process because you mentioned that some of that feedback came from Radiant. So maybe before we talk about that, how did you find Radiant Press? It’s a small press, puts out excellent stuff, but it’s a very small press.
It is a small press, and actually, I heard about it through a friend, Stephen Whitworth, who runs the Prairie Dogin Regina. So that’s how I heard about them. But before I sent it to them, I’d sent it to a whole bunch of agents all over the United States. And one of the agents, a fairly big name, got back to me, and he said, “Well, send me more. I’m curious.” And so I did, and he was disappointed with the rest of the book. And so, I talked to him a little about that. I wanted to find out why he was disappointed. And he felt like in the middle, it got sort of trite and typical of post-apocalyptic fiction. So whereas in the beginning, he found it very fresh and original and engaging, it sort of just became . . . I blew it all up, I just destroyed the middle of the book and started writing it again. So, that was the first sort of major intervention, just getting rid of the middle of the book. Not quite entirely, but I would say, like, 20 percent of the book, I just deleted. And so, I had this big hole in the middle that I had to fill up. And so, the middle part of the rewrite was all that, was like trying to restructure the middle of the book in ways that were satisfying and not stereotypical or cliched.
And then once I had that done, I sent it to Radiant Press because Steve had said, “Oh, you should try these people.” And Debra at Radiant Press got back to me, and she was interested. And then we started working. And that was sort of the next stage of development was . . . she’s a very good reader and some other good readers had a look at it. And a lot of their critique was what I had mentioned earlier, was that that the characters needed more backstory because I was just being too existential. I didn’t want the reader to have any access to the world sort of before this had happened, except in the most superficial ways. And readers were like, “No, you know what? You need to build your characters up a little more. You have to give the readers at least something to hang on to.” And so, a lot of the sort of the next stage of development was the really, really quite pleasant work of just trying to build up these characters a little more, sort of flashback stuff, just little bits here and there, just to try and give them depth.
So, those would be some of the major revision stages other than copyediting, was this agent got back to me and said the middle was disappointing, so I blew it up and restructured it, then I got hold of Radiant Press, and they were interested, and in the conversations with Debra, she told me what her concerns were, in particular, characterization. And I guess, as far as Debra and I are concerned, I solved them in that draft. And then, after that, it was just tweaking and fine-tuning.
Well, then Radiant went out, they got some pretty good blurbs. Kim Stanley Robinson, for example, that’s a pretty big name to have attached to your first novel as a favorable comment.
It is. It’s actually still kind of confusing that he would have read the book and responded in that way. A lot of those blurbs I got because I was running that science fiction zine, Big Echo. I interviewed a lot of these people, and so I sort of, I got a little bit of social capital, and then I spent it to get the blurbs, so . . . that wasn’t my plan when I did the interviews or the zine, but I realized, though, I’ve talked to all of these people that are pretty clever and well known and kind, and maybe they’ll help me out. And they did.
Now, generally, people in the field are . . . there’s this whole pay-it-forward idea that Heinlein talked about that. Yeah, it’s something that I think a lot of people in the field are very, very good about. And then when did it come out? It was in October, was it?
It was in October.
So, what was your reaction when you saw the finished book and then read the response that you’ve had to it?
Positive, good. It’s exciting. It is a first book, and it is a weird time for it to come out. So, we have been expecting to do, you know, like readings and that sort of thing. And obviously, that can happen very easily. And I was stuck in the States as well, which didn’t make things easier, but it was exciting. It would have been fun to do a little more of the typical kind of readings and bookstores and that sort of thing. But it’s just, I mean, it’s just odd to have a book, right? Like, you do all this writing your whole life, and you do all this reading and then all of a sudden, you’re writing’s in an actual book and an actual thing. And it’s a little disconcerting to see it there and exciting.
Well, at that point, it’s out of your control, and it’s in going into the heads of readers who are getting all sorts of things out of it that you might not even have known you put in there, so . . .
Oh, absolutely. So, we got one really good review, and that was from Publishers Weekly. So that’s a pretty good one. And the reader was fantastic. So, this anonymous reader gave it a great read, and they saw a number of things in it that I hadn’t really been paying attention to. So, for instance, in terms of these people digging versus people not digging, there’s a suggestion in the book that it has something to do with sort of neurotypicality, right, that there’s something neurologically different about the people that aren’t digging than the people that are digging. And so, what that reader picked out was that there’s a theme here about what it means to be neurotypical or neurotypical or what have you. Like, what do these distinctions mean in terms of what it means to be human, et cetera? And I hadn’t intended a particularly sensitive or thoughtful take about that in the book, yet this reader picked it out and showed this thing about my book that I never thought was particularly valuable, or something that can be valuable to some readers. So that was very exciting, very inspiring, actually, to see something in your book that’s positive that you hadn’t thought of, or deliberately thought through, or put there. But this sensitive reader can pick it out and show it to you and say, look what you did here. This is good.
There’s a story that I’ve I think I’ve told before on the podcast that came out of Isaac Asimov’s Opus 100, I think, which was the first of his autobiographical books. And he talked about going to Columbia University, I think it was, a class where a professor was teaching his famous story, “Nightfall,” and he sat at the back and he listened to that. And afterwards, he went up to the professor, and he said, “Well, that was very interesting, but I’m Isaac Asimov, I wrote that story, and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there. And the professor said, “Well, I’m very happy to meet you. But just because you wrote the story, what makes you think you know what’s in it? It’s kind of an interesting thought. And I think there is certainly . . . we all put stuff in that we don’t know necessarily where it comes from, and then readers find things there that we didn’t necessarily think we were putting in specifically, and I think it’s because I always like to say that writing actually . . . it feels very like a loner activity, something you do by yourself, but it’s really collaborative.
It is. I think that word’s tremendously important. And it’s collaborative all the way down. So, from the very beginning, when you first start writing a project, and it’s yours, and it’s your own until your beta readers, and then if you start publishing, you’re always having conversations with the publishers and with editors. And then when readers get it, there’s a whole other conversation. And you really have very little control over the types of meanings that people are going to extract from a text. And it can be a little scary when you start thinking about it, about how little control you have of the language once it’s left your grasp.
Of course, sometimes they can completely misconstrue what you had in mind, but you don’t have any control there either, so . . .
That’s the danger.
I wanted to go back to the zine, which you mentioned and I mentioned, Big Echo. Where did that all come from? And you’ve mentioned that you’ve had a number of writers that you’ve interviewed. And I was looking at it online and saw some recognizable names had provided, you know, short stories for it. So, how did that come about?
Boredom. Like all good things, it came from boredom. So, we moved down here, and I had some time on my hands, and I had a friend who does graphics and web pages and also loves science fiction. And he was actually, he’s in Regina, too.
All of the best people are.
That’s right. Almost all. So, I said, “Well, why don’t we put together a scene?” And he said, “OK.” And so, then we did. And the issue when you’re putting together a zine like that is you don’t have money, and you can’t pay, so it’s really hard to get the writers you’re necessarily interested in. So, the first year or so was a lot of hustle, of cold-calling writers I liked and asking if they’d be interested in contributing something. And one of the, I think in the first summer, one of the first people I contacted was Rudy Rucker, of cyberpunk fame. He ran a zine called Blurb, which was quite similar. And I contacted him and asked if he had anything lying around we could use in Big Echo. And he was very excited about it and very enthusiastic, and as you say, about Heinlein and paying it forward, he’s a very generous kind of an artist, and so he gave us a story, and that was the biggest name we’d had up to then, and then he also mentioned in our conversation that the next time he had a book out, if we wanted, we could interview him, and then that just got me thinking of interviews. And because it was Rudy Rucker, I could contact people that knew who Rudy Rucker was and say, “Hey, Rudy Rucker did this with us. And now we’re doing interviews, and we’re wondering if you’d be interested.” So, Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow were both amongst our first interviews, and I’m pretty sure that’s a lot of it. I mean, they’re both also very generous guys who give a lot of interviews.
Yeah, Cory Doctorow was on here a little while ago.
Yeah, he never runs out of things to say, and he’s always happy to speak to a lot of people. And so, both of those guys came on very early and helped us out and made a big difference. And once you get a few of those big names and it’s a lot easier to attract other writers. Kim Stanley Robinson was actually . . . I got in touch with him through Andy Stewart 48:27, whom I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, and he knew him from California. I think he might have been taking a class with Stan, I’m not sure. But so, I contacted him through Andy Stewart. So, again, a lot of it just has to do with, like, a little bit of hustle right in the beginning and then social networks kicking in in good ways.
Well, the field is a lot bigger than it was, say, back in the Golden Age. But it is still a fairly small group of people, so everybody knows each other. So, I thought I saw on the website that you had the final issue of Big Echo. So, is it done now?
Yeah, we’re wrapping up. I’m just I’m a little tired. It’s not . . . I’m not a particularly outgoing or extroverted person, so the hustle part of it is a little difficult for me. And I’m not super comfortable as an editor. I don’t like tweaking people’s voices or anything like that. So, it was hard work in that sense. It’s also fairly niche. So, we’re looking for a very particular type of writing, and there’s only . . . it’s a sort of a subset of a subset of science fiction, so there’s not that much out there. It’s not particularly sort of popular science fiction we were interested in. So, it was just kind of running out of gas. It would have been a lot of work to keep up the standard we’d set. And I was tired. So, I just sort of . . . we wrapped it up. We’re going to put out an anthology shortly, probably within the next couple of months, a Big Echo anthology for a minimal cost just to try and generate a bit of revenue, just to keep the website up, just to keep costs up. So that’ll probably be the last thing we do with Big Echo. But it’s been awfully fun. It’s been a heck of a ride. And again, I’ll come back to, again, what you mentioned about the generosity of people in the field, it’s really quite amazing that you can just cold call someone and say, “Hey, I’m putting together this zine. Would you be interested?” And depending where they are in their career, they might help you out. And they generally do.
Well, we’re getting close to the end of the time, so I need to ask you the big philosophical questions, which is ultimately . . . there’s three of them. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do we write stories of the fantastic in particular as opposed to limiting ourselves to stories of the here and now? So, those are the three questions. Why do you write? Why do any of us write, and why write science fiction and fantasy?
For me, it’s, I mean, the two sort of key aspects of it are our pleasure and therapy. I mean, it really . . .ever since I was small, I’ve had a hyperactive sort of creative life. I love the play of imagination, and it’s a way to just keep doing it, that you can always be experimenting and playing with language and ideas with writing. It’s just fun. It’s just flat-out fun. I know that’s not true for everyone. I know for a lot of people, it’s something sort of horrifying, the idea of writing. But for me, I was always an introverted kid, I was always hypercreative, it was just a way of entertaining myself. And that whole thing about, if you can’t find a book you enjoy, then you need to write your own. I think that’s true. It’s, like, just, yeah, you can write a book you’ll love, and it’s fun to do. And the therapy . . . I tend to write fairly, fairly dark stories on the whole, and it’s just a way of working through sort of emotional and psychic stresses, sort of . . . certainly when you’re living through the last four years of the Trump administration as an immigrant in the United States, and the epidemic, there’s a lot of psychic stress on you all the time. And so, writing about it, fictionalizing the anxieties you feel, is a way of coping with them, as well. So, for me, that was always important.
Why do people write? I think mostly for the same reasons, the pleasure and the sort of the therapy of it goes hand in glove. I think, also, the collaborative thing you mentioned is also important. This idea of . . . like, you can do it for the pleasure or the therapy, you can do that, and nobody else has to read it. But there’s this next step where you start getting other people to read it as well. And there’s this collaboration and conversation going on. And that’s very important in all sorts of ways as well, just the sheer fact of exchanging ideas, sort of an exchange of ideas and views and perspectives on the world is obviously important. But just also, again, the pleasure of having a conversation with someone about an idea is wonderful. It’s . . . one of the best things about writing is when you do write something, and you get positive feedback from someone you don’t know, like someone says, “Oh, I really enjoyed this, this was good, or this was fun.” That’s a tremendous charge. It’s a big rush, I think. Once that starts happening to someone, they probably write more and more and more because it’s a really wonderful thing, in a very innocent sort of way, to just do something fun and to share it and have people you don’t know say, “You know what? That was great. That was fun.”
And the final part, why speculation, why the fantastic, why science fiction? Again, I think . . . for me, it was really freeing. I’d been reading a lot of social realism and super serious, ideological-type stuff about like, you know, boo capitalism, life sucks, just angry, loud music, and then I started rereading old spec fic and science fiction and there was just a freedom to it and a more . . . a more honest sense of one of the reasons we write and we read is for fun. And it can be super serious science fiction, you know, but there’s always an element of fun to it and the freedom of someone taking an idea and running with it as far as they can and pushing it to its limits. That’s very exciting and invigorating. So, I’m the least fannish person you’ll ever meet, but one of the things I like a lot about science fiction and fantasy writing is the fan community and the enthusiasm, right, just the flat -out enthusiasm for having a stonking good time when you’re reading a text. To me, that’s one of the most attractive things about science fiction and fantasy is that the audience really wants you to succeed because they want to have fun when they’re reading the text as well. I think that’s important to me.
And what are you working on now?
I’m writing historical fiction, a different kind of genre, a little bit of drift into sort of speculative material, about the fur trade, the 19th-century fur trade in the Hudson’s Bay territories. So, it’s from the perspective . . . for my Ph.D., I wrote about the fur trade, missions in the fur trade, some other things as well. So, I’m going back to some of that archival material and trying to turn it into a novel.
Sounds very interesting. And where can people find you online, if anywhere?
I got a Twitter feed @BillSquirrell. I think it’s . . . probably the safest way to find me is, there’s, for the book we have a webpage called robertgpenner.com, and there’ll be links on that page to other social media sites.
OK. Well, thanks so much for on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did, too.
I did. Thanks very much.
I’ll tell the folks at Radiant Press that I talked to you. They were actually the ones who suggested it because I didn’t know about the . . . I knew that they were going to publish some speculative fiction because I talked to John about it, and then Strange Labour came along, and it’s getting lots of great attention. So, I was very happy to be able to talk to you. And also, it’s not very often I talk to somebody that has any kind of connection to Regina, Saskatchewan. So that was nice to know.
John had nothing but good things to say about you. He was very enthusiastic.
That’s great. All right. Well, thanks so much. Bye for now.
An hour-long conversation with New York Times-bestselling author Kelley Armstrong, author of numerous fantasy, mystery, and thriller novels in multiple series for adults, including the thirteen-book Otherworld series, which began with her first novel, Bitten, and other series and standalone novels for young adults and middle-grade readers.
Kelley Armstrong is the bestselling author of numerous fantasy novels, mysteries, and thrillers, for adults, young adults, and middle-grade readers, both standalones and in multiple series.
Born in Sudbury, Ontario, she grew up in London, Ontario. She went to the University of Western Ontario to study psychology, with plans to become a clinical psychologist, but on the brink of grad school, realizing such a career would limit her writing time for many years, switched paths and went to Fanshawe College in London, studying computer programming.
While getting her education, she married and had first child, a daughter, then took a full-time job programming for a bank while continuing writing. She sold her first novel, Bitten, in 1999, and had two more children, sons, before it was released in 2001, at which point she quit her job to write full-time, which she’s been doing ever since.
Now we’re both authors in Canada, but I don’t know that we’ve ever actually met each other in person anywhere at any conventions or anything like that. I can’t think of a time.
I don’t think so. We’ve probably passed somewhere at some convention because it’s a, you know, relatively restricted literary landscape. But, yeah, I don’t know. I don’t recall.
Yeah, it’s a small literary landscape, but it’s a very, very large physical landscape. And Saskatchewan and…you’re in Ontario?
Yeah, they’re actually a long way away from each other.
When we moved up here from Texas when I was eight years old, it was the year of Expo ’67. And I was excited as we were leaving Texas because I thought, we’re going to Canada, and I’d get to go to Expo 67, and my parents had to point out to me that…
It’s a long way.
…we would be closer–we’d be just as far away from Montreal in Saskatchewan as we were in Texas; basically, it was pretty much the same distance. In my defense, I was only eight, so.
Well, so this…you have two books coming out this week–month–which we are going to talk about a little bit. But first, I’ll do what I always do with this, which is take you back into the mists of time–I’m going to put reverb on that one of these days, the mists of time–and find out, well, first of all, where you grew up and then how you got interested in writing. And probably you started as a reader, because we all do, and the sorts of things that drew you into this field and, you know, all of that stuff. So, how did that all happen for you?
Yeah. So I grew up in London, Ontario, and it is that typical thing where you start off by reading. I was a very young reader. I was the oldest child, and my parents were very keen on teaching me how to read. Neither of them was a huge reader themselves, but they understood literacy was important, and so, their first kid, they were doing everything right, making sure that I was learning to read. So, every night, after dinner, while Mom cleaned up, Dad would be reading these books. And I very quickly learned to read that way. And for me, it turned into, “I want to do that.” I would take those stories and do what we would now call fanfiction, where I would take what I had heard and maybe create a new story for those characters or a story with different characters in that world as some way of working on what the author had created and building my own stories on it and then, getting older, was moving into creating entirely my own stories.
Well, what were some of the books that influenced you back then?
So, certainly back when I was very young, I can’t really recall. We have sort of gone through trying to work that out. It was a whole lot of really simple Golden Book readers. So, none of them stuck. So, the ones that stuck came later. There was one series about Irish setters, and they were adventure series where each…one was Big Red…and each one had a different Irish setter.
I remember reading Big Red.
Yeah, exactly. So all those…Hardy Boys, too. Read so many Hardy Boys. They always had much more interesting adventures than Nancy Drew, so I devoured Hardy Boys. And some of the classics, but really I was looking at the adventure stories, the mystery stories, and the stories with the animals.
So when did the fantasy side of things start to creep in?
So yeah, people always ask, where did that come from? And I always jokingly blame too many early Saturday mornings watching Scooby-Doo. That supernatural-combined-with-the-mystery was perfect. But I think it was more, when it comes to stories, mythology has them, so I very quickly got into mythology. I knew the Dewey Decimal System number for the myth and folklore section. So I would be there pulling down those books when I sort of ran out of stories in my own area to read.
When you started writing as a young person, well, did you share your writing with other people? I always ask that because I did, and I found it was like, oh, people actually like the stories that I tell.
Exactly. Yeah. Because I was so young and I was telling stories before I could write them down, so, at that age, you don’t have any of that…when people get older, and they start thinking, do I want to share this or not? As a kid, no, of course you share it because you have created this thing. So certainly, early on, sharing everything with parents, siblings, etc., friends and so on. It’s only when you get older that you start double-guessing, do I want to actually share this?
Did you have any teachers that sort of encouraged your writing along the way in high school or around that time?
I did. I certainly did, certainly in both elementary and high school. I was doing a lot of writing and getting a lot of really good feedback on my writing. So I often joke that, you know, they really tried to steer me away from the fantasy, the supernatural, etc. “You could write normal things,” but the normal things were what interested me. So it’s good that they still encouraged me despite the fact that I was not necessarily writing the kinds of stories that they were hoping for.
I always tell a story that when I was about eleven, I wrote my first complete short story that I remember actually finishing, and it was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” So you could tell where my mind was early on. And there was a teacher who, you know, he was my junior high English teacher, and I showed it to him and he took it seriously, and he critiqued it and said, you know, “I don’t understand why your aliens to this and why does your character do that?” And I still credit that with taking it seriously, taking the writing seriously, with having helped set my mind on, “Well, I’m going to keep writing, and I’m going to write better things going forward.”
It is, and it’s very important because, yes, even if it’s not necessarily what they’re hoping you would write, or it’s not a genre that they read, just that overall encouragement means a lot. Without that, I wouldn’t have gone on.
But you didn’t actually go immediately into writing. You studied psychology to begin with, I believe, is that right?
Yeah. I went to Western for psychology undergrad. I was planning on going on to masters and doctorate and becoming a psychologist. I was heading into grad school and realized I was heading into that kind of a career where there’d be a lot more schooling, and I would not be writing, because university was the one time where I didn’t have time to actually write fiction. So I thought, I’ve got this long time where I’m probably not going to be writing, do I want to wait that long before I try to at least…? My sort of goal was, maybe someday I’ll be able to be a part-time writer and part-time at some other career. So I switched gears there and went to college for computer programming. I had been doing that way back from the Commodore 64. It was a big interest of mine. So I did that. Got your typical corporate cubicle job that let me write and study the craft of writing.
Do you find…I mean, psychology would tend to tie into writing in some way. Did you find that what you studied in that field has been beneficial in your writing career? And the computer programming? I mean, I always say, nothing you do is wasted when you’re a writer. Have you found that?
It’s true. Because people always sort of look back and they say, you know, was that a waste, or when I see young people heading into college, university, and their ultimate career is writing, and they just want to totally focus on that. And I say, anything that you take is going to help. Psychology for characters, absolutely. Because it helps with my character backgrounds to know if I want a character who is like this at 35, what type of background did they probably have to get them there or what life experiences could they have had that get them where I want them to be at that age? And of course, programming meant that I did not have to hire anyone to, you know, code those early websites.
I had a Commodore 64 for years, and I did a lot of programming at the time, too, in BASIC, and I did some quite complicated things. You know, I created a whole music entry system to use that synthesizer chip that it had. And you had to put in like three different values for each note. And yet I did all that, and it worked. And then I thought, “But, you know, other people do it better than I do.” And I was never tempted to stick with programming because, again, it was more like, well, that takes a lot of time. I could be writing.
It did. Yeah. I was doing the old text-based adventure game, so I was writing text-based adventure games, which of course took a whole lot of work just for a very short, short and simple one.
Well, your first novel was Bitten, which came out in 1999 or was sold in 1999. It came out in 2001. How did that come about? That’s kind of your breaking-in moment. Or had you had some short stories before that, or how did that work for you?
Yeah, I had had a couple of short stories published, but nothing significant. And I had been writing novels. So, when I made that choice to go into programming instead of going on to graduate school, that meant that I then knew that I had to get serious about writing. And it meant writing novels, joining writers’ groups, taking writing courses. So I was doing that. I was writing novels. I was writing novels that were to market. So whatever was…I had one that was, for example, a female private eye, in the time period when we were seeing a lot of that. When I got to…so, I finished three novels, no interest, no interest from publishers or agents. And then, I decided I was going to work on this one idea that I had for a book about female werewolves. And I figured nobody’s going to ever want this, so this is just totally for me. And it was all freeing that way, too, like not be saying, “I’m writing this in hopes of getting it published,” But just I’m tired of trying to get stuff published. I’m just going to write something for myself. Got it done, and of course, started thinking, “Well, is there any chance?” So I had a writing instructor take a look at it, and he thought that it had promise, so he offered to recommend me to an agent, and she took it on, and it took off from there.
And there’s been quite a few since then.
There has been, yeah.
So is it a fairly straightforward, you know, once that one came out, it was successful, and you’ve been doing it ever since?
Yeah. Not…certainly now people look back and say, well, clearly Bitten was successful, and I’m like, not actually, no. The publisher, my American publisher, bought the first two and then was not interested in a third book because they just weren’t selling. They started selling more with the third book. But yeah, you certainly get that where…they were successful enough that I was able to keep publishing, and from where I stand now, 20 years later, that’s the big measure of success, is not how much you make or how many copies you sell, but just can you keep finding a publisher to want more books?
Yeah, that sounds familiar.
Now, I’m going to ask you this, even though as somebody who’s worked in Canada as well. I think I know the answer. But have you ever…has being a Canadian author but published in the US market, has it been a good thing or a bad thing, or has it made any difference at all, do you think?
It’s been a good thing for me because certainly I make more. I mean, having that extra market…I mean, a Canadian bestseller is, what, 5,000 copies? I mean, that’s not going to give you an annual income even if you’re doing one per year. I mean, being able to have that US market, that’s where sort of the much bigger incomes coming from. And then that drives getting a UK publisher, getting the foreign publishers, and it’s all of that. I mean, Canada is great, but actually being able to make a living off of strictly being published in Canada would be tough.
Yeah. Well, let’s talk about what you have coming out this month. You know, two books in a month is not bad.
It’s weird, yeah,
And another one coming in October, I think.
Yeah. And it was kind of an odd thing because, yes, so what is my second middle grade came out early this month. There was supposed to be a standalone thriller coming out in August, because they usually obviously don’t keep them quite so close, but the standalone thriller got bumped up to the end of June. So I end up…because it’s the same publisher in Canada for them, Random House, and they didn’t see any crossover t you’ve got. You’ve got, like, your fantasy middle-grade book and your standalone adult thriller, they’re like, “There is no crossover.” So it’s not like I’m going to be competing with myself. It just makes it tougher for me promoting to be making sure to mention that I have two books coming out.
Well, and I did want to ask you, even before we start talking about The Gryphon’s Lair, which is the middle grade, um….when did you make the step into the. Both middle grade and young adult markets, I guess?
Yeah. So for a young adult, that came back…so, the first one came out 2008. Would have meant I was writing it in 2005. And that was back when you were seeing a little bit more interest in young adult books. I had a daughter who was hitting that age, she was twelve, thirteen, and she wanted to read Bitten. And I was like, “Absolutely not.” So I said, how would I write something that is that type of book in that world, but with teenage characters. So that became The Summoning. And then after it was written, you were seeing publishers wanting that, because that’s when Twilight started taking off. So, they were looking for more paranormal YA, and I happened to have some. So then that one sold. Middle grade took a little longer. I have sons, too, so when they got to be the middle-grade age, I was writing with a friend (Melissa Marr), she also has a son that age, and we decided that we would co-write middle grade for our son. So that was the first trilogy, the Blackwell Pages, based on Norse mythology. And then I kind of took a break from middle grade there and then went back. Last year was the first in this new series.
OK. I have to ask you, does your daughter read your books? Did she read that? Because I have a daughter who’s nineteen now and the only one of mine she’s read are ones I’ve actually read out loud to her, and she really seems to be reluctant to read my stuff. And I think it’s because if she doesn’t like it, she wouldn’t know how to tell me.
I know. And that’s really tough. Now, my daughter reads everything, and she’s obviously, she’s like twenty-eight now, so if she read everything…
She’s probably read Bitten by now.
Yeah, exactly. She reads early…she reads sort of drafts when they’re at the point where I want her to take a look at it. She helps with that. Now, my sons are a different thing. Yes. They read the trilogy that I wrote them, but let’s just say that they are not exactly saying, “Hey, Mom, what else do you have?”
So I had, I still have, a niece, when she was a teenager–this is a long time ago now, probably my first book–and she said she didn’t want to read it because she didn’t want to know what was going on in her uncle’s head. Which I thought was funny.
Exactly. I mean, that is the weird thing, too, if you write. Yeah. Bitten has some sex scenes in it, and it was like, yeah, do you really want to know what your mom’s going to write for that scene? No, the answer is no.
Yeah, that’s certainly part of it. Well, we’re gonna talk primarily about The Gryphon’s Lair book, but we’ll also mention Every Step She Takes, which is the standalone that’s coming out, because we’re going to talk about your creative process and it will be interesting for me to hear the difference between your planning and writing for an adult novel, and your planning and writing for the younger age group. But first of all, how about a synopsis about The Gryphon’s Lair?
So, The Gryphon’s Lair is book two in a series. The basic concept is that we’ve got this set in a fantasy world, completely fantasy world, with monsters. This world has monsters, but they’re based on science. So, there’s no magic in this world. If you’re going to have a, say, a basilisk that can turn people into a stone, it can’t really do that, but it can shoot a neurotoxin that can paralyze someone. So you’re doing things that are science-based rather than magic-based. The main character is a princess. I mean, there are a lot of princess books out there. I wanted to take my try at going ahead and doing that in a slightly different way. And she is a twin. She’s supposed to become queen, and her brother is supposed to become the Royal Monster Hunter. That’s how this always works. And she would much rather be the Royal Monster Hunter. He would make a better king.
So, an accident happens and they’re able to switch places. So, in the book one, we saw her first sort of forays as the Royal Monster Hunter, book two, we’ve got, she is in charge of a young gryphon, because while it’s called A Royal Guide to Monster Slaying, the slaying part is pretty light. It’s really more like being a monster conservator or a monster ranger, where you’re trying to help people live with, you know, monsters being in that land. And sort of moving the monsters out when they get in, killing them if you have to, but it’s more about a conservationist idea. So, she is raising a young orphan gryphon, and it becomes a little big and dangerous. So in book two, she has to take it into the mountains where the gryphons live and try to take it back home.
Sounds like a great setup for a story.
It’s a lot of fun.
Maybe just a brief bit about Every Step She Takes, too. When I say they’re coming this month, I should explain to listeners that we’re recording this in June. I guess Gyphon’s Lair is already out, right?
Yes. And then, yeah, every step she takes comes out on the 30th.
So it’ll be out when this airs, which goes live, which will probably be…it might be August. So if you’re hearing this, you can get these books.
So, Every Step She Takes, maybe a little bit about that.
Yeah. Every Step She Takes, standalone thriller. It’s about a woman, Genevieve, who is living in Rome, and she’s living a very ordinary life. She’s a music teacher, has a boyfriend. She’s very happy with this life. She’s a former American. And she gets this package addressed to Lucy Calahan, which is a name she hasn’t used in 10 years. Turns out that she was the victim of a scandal when she was 18. It was a celebrity scandal, and in trying to get out of that, she ended up finally just leaving and coming…and going abroad, and ended up in Rome. Now she’s getting a call from somebody who was involved, who wants to make peace with it, who wants, who has come to understand that her role in it was not what she thought and called Genevieve back to make peace. And she goes back to make peace, and the woman ends up dead. So, that’s kind of a problem, because she is dead and Genevieve is being framed for it.
So these are two very different books…
Very different books, exactly.
So let’s talk about how these things come about. I mean, it’s a cliche to ask, where do your ideas come from, and yet, it’s a valid question. Maybe if you don’t like it that way, I often say, what was the seed from which this novel grew?
Exactly. Exactly. And for the Royal Guide series, that was actually…it comes from two things. So it comes from video games. Witcher. I was playing Witcher years ago, playing probably the second or third one, and thinking, “You know, I really like the monster hunter concept. I really it. I feel like I’d love to do something with it in fiction. Not that idea obviously, but just that very basic monster-hunting concept. And I played around with it as a young adult book. So the book was pretty much the concept was the same in that it was a princess who had a twin brother, they really wanted to switch roles. I wrote about 5,000 words of it, and it wasn’t really gelling. Just something wasn’t working. And I put it away, and every now and then I would come back to it and say, “I really like this concept. What’s not working?” And one day just had this epiphany of, “What if it was middle grade? What if, instead of being seventeen, she’s twelve.” So that, of course, meant a total rewrite, but when I rewrote, I could see, yes, that absolutely works with…it had that level of fun and lightness that it needed. The original version with the teens made it much darker, and it just wasn’t quite gelling. But in the middle-grade version, it just popped.
And that one came from sort of…not exactly random, but, you know, just something else that you were doing. Is that kind of typical of where ideas come from? They can come from anywhere, in other words?
Yeah, it certainly can be, where it’ll come from something that sort of sparks an idea, and then I run with it, and by the time you get to the final product, it doesn’t necessarily bear any resemblance to the original concept, or the original where I sort of took that from. I mean, nobody’s going to read Royal Guide and think, “Aha, she was clearly influenced by Witcher,” which is a very adult and very different story. But yes, I can sort of say that that’s where it started, and then my brain keeps on spinning on that concept until I make it my own.
On the mystery side, is it any different?
No, it’s very similar. Certainly with the, sort of grain for Every Step She Takes, we see a lot of things now, particularly when we see #MeToo coming out, where we see these stories of young women who made mistakes in some way and the way they were demonized for them. I feel like, I hope we would not necessarily do at this point, where we can look, where, at the time, it was very clearly the young woman had seduced the guy who was in power, etc. But I was fascinated by the way that we presumed that she was guilty, even when you can look back now and she would have been like, you know, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, early twenties, and the guy’s like forty or something, and yet we still somehow see that Lolita complex, where clearly she was the instigator, and she’s the one who got all of the fallout. That’s where that idea started from, but of course, once I took it and ran with it, it does not bear any resemblance to any actual case.
Now, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? You know, are you a pantser a plotter? There’s another cliche question for you, but what does it look like to you?
Yeah, I think like a lot of writers, I’m somewhere in the middle, and I’ve developed my own sort of process by now, where, when I go into a book, I have a very good idea of that Act 1. I know what the setup is going to be. So if we were to take something like Royal Guide, for the first book, I know exactly what the setup is: these two twins, and they’re in the wrong positions, and we’re going to have…a gryphon is attacking, and we’re going to have, the brother goes off after it, sister is left behind, and she’s going to sneak off after them. Things are going to go horribly bad, and we’re going to lose our current Royal Monster Hunter, which then means that that position is now open for someone who’s way too young. So that’s Act 1. And I know that going in. I know my characters. I know my setting. Once you get past that, I know the major points. So I would know, how do these two add up switching rules? What is she going to have to do to prove herself? What is her voyage going to be? What do I want? I mean, often in a story like that, you get this very elongated training session, where a character is going to be the Royal Monster Hunter, so now let’s spend half the book showing her in training. And I knew I did not want that. So, how do I work around that? So, I would know all the major parts, and the final act, what she’s going to face down, she’s obviously going to face down that, you know, gryphon that killed her aunt in the early part of the book. She’s going to have to come full circle and face down that gryphon. So I know that’s what’s going to have to happen. I have no clue when I start writing where this is going to happen or how it’s going to happen. Because, if I was to go and decide exactly how that happens, by the time I reach that point in the book, it would no longer fit.
On the mystery side, you often…they’re often quite intricate, and you have to be careful about what information you provide and when. Do you do more detailed planning for mysteries than you would for a straight-ahead kind of fantasy story?
You would think that I would, but I actually don’t, and it’s because a lot of the mystery is shaped through editing. So I will go into it certainly knowing who I think is the killer, etc., that could change. And mystery fans hate hearing that you get like partway through the book and change who the killer is, but it’s not like you’re being cheated because then you continue writing that, and then you finish that book and go back and you craft and edit and you put in the correct clues, you get rid of the clues that pointed in the wrong direction. It’s not as if you sort of go off on a 90-degree angle and cheat halfway through. A lot of it really is formed through that editing process of saying, OK, now that I am done, where did I put in clues that led nowhere? I mean, yes, you want some red herrings, you don’t want too many of them, or where am I missing clues that would have pointed towards this, and going back and filling all of that in.
What does your actual writing process look like? Are you like, know, a quill pen under the tree on a piece of parchment writer or…?
Computer. Yeah, because I grew up on computers. Now, I did write…my earliest stories were on a typewriter, and so, having done the longhand and done typewriters in my past, I’m still that generation that remembers what a glorious thing word processors were. Like, you did not…you could edit to your heart’s content. You didn’t have to be, you know, getting it right the first time. You could go in and edit and change things. So, yes, totally computer-based.
Do you work at home or do you go out…I mean, right now, we’re all working at home, basically, but…
Exactly. Yeah. No, I’ve got a writing cabin in the back field. So I live rural. We live on 10 acres or so, and so I’ve got a little cabin in the way, far back. It’s off-grid. No Internet. No, you know, everything. So I just go back there and work.
I was going to mention, on the word-processor side, since you are familiar with the Commodore 64, you probably remember a program called PaperClip?
That was my first word processor, and for a long time, in my early books, they all had 10-page chapters, because you got 499 lines of text in a PaperClip file, and that was as far as you could go.
Right, yeah, exactly.
And that works out to about ten pages of manuscript format. So for a while, all my books had the same length of chapters because of PaperClip.
I think mine, still, if you were to look at my chapters, they’d probably all be between eight and 12 pages.
Yeah. I think I still fall into that kind of a zone as well. So, you talked a little bit about working on the mystery side, on revision, and so forth, but in general, once you have a first draft, what does your revision process look like?
So, I write a first draft right through. I don’t stop. If I decide that I’m going to make a change in plot, I mean, something as drastic even as getting halfway through a book and saying, “OK, I’ve decided that this character’s father is now dead,” even though he’s been alive until this point, I’m going to decide that he died, like, ten years ago, I don’t actually stop and go back and fix it up. I just keep on going as if he’s been dead for ten years and making lots of notes on things that I want to change. So, once it’s done, put it aside for a couple of months, come back to it. Do usually once sort of go-through on the computer, which is more of a revision one, where I’m moving stuff around, adding stuff in, you know, killing off father, you know, ten years ago, etc., going and fixing all of that. And then, if I have time, doing a round of paper edits, because even though I’m so computer-based for my writing, I still find that I edit best on paper, paper and pen, so I can see it, and it looks like an actual book story. And then it goes off to the editor after that.
Yeah, it’s…I’m a little bit older than you, but I also started on a typewriter and then switched to the computer, and the way that you write sounds very much like the way that I do, too, and I was…who was it I talked to? I guess it was John Scalzi I talked to…one of my very first interviews on here, and he talked about how he does a rolling revision, but he’s always written on a computer. And he never went back to that time when you pretty much had to do a single draft all the way through before you did your revisions. And he thought that there is a connection between having once worked on a typewriter and doing it that way. I don’t know about that.
I don’t know, because, yes, certainly in my early word-processing days, even with Bitten and my early novels, I did that, where I would write, and I would go back and edit and I would write and go back and edit. But I got so caught in that endless editing, and I would be editing things that I would later just cut right out because I’m pretty ruthless in the revision and I will cut out entire chapters. I will lift out 20,000 words and put in 20,000 words of stuff. It’s much harder to do that if I’ve spent time perfecting this, you know, chapter. It’s easier to pull out a first draft chapter than a chapter that I have polished, you know, five times, so…
And the working on paper resonates with me too. I am currently doing page proofs for my next book from DAW, The Moonlit World, which, by the way, is werewolves and vampires. But yeah, you know, once you get to page proofs, there’s stuff that you can’t believe that you left in the original file that you sent because it just somehow comes out differently when you see it in print than when you see it on the screen.
It does, yeah.
Now, once you’ve got a draft, you mentioned that your daughter reads stuff, do you have other beta readers? Do you do that, or are you self-contained more?
Yeah. It completely depends on what the project is. If I’m gonna be working on a series, if I’m partway through a series, there’s fewer early editors at that point. But if it’s a brand-new standalone or if it’s a new first novel or if it’s a new novella, I’m more likely to send it to my daughter, or I’ve got critique partners, and they will see it before my editor does. Now, if it’s, you know, say book three in a series, book four in a series, it’s going to go to my editor first, because by that point, I kind of know what I’m doing, and there’s not as much of that, “Is this working?” The editor knows what to expect, and I can go there. And then a critique partner or my daughter may come in at a later point if they just say, “I’d just like to read it.”
What sorts of things do you get…you mentioned, “Is this working?” Is that kind of the focus of that level of reading?
Yes, certainly for that first–if it’s standalone, if it’s first in a series–I’m really sending it to somebody to say, just generally, “Is this working? Is this flowing? Do you see any major issues with it? Do you see that it’s too close to anything that you may have read?,” even, because you never know, you can send it to somebody, and they’re like, “I just read something that’s very similar to this recently.” So, it helps to have that totally trustworthy critique partner who, before the editorial process, can help me get it cleaned up, because, by the time the editor sees it, I don’t want to be embarrassed.
One thing I forgot to ask was, are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
I am fast, and I do a fast first draft. I think it’s because of that mow right through it, not stopping to edit. I want to stay in the voice. I want to stay in the mood, and I want to keep that going. So I’m going to…now I’m not nearly as fast as some people I have met. I am relatively fast in getting that first draft done.
It’s always relative. There’s…no matter how fast you are, there’s somebody else…
…who says, “Oh, I did a hundred and fifty thousand words in a week.” When you get to the editorial stage, what sorts of things do you generally find the editor commenting on? What kind of changes are requested, if any?
There are always…it’s always interesting to go back and see because there are always those things that, in the back of my mind, I knew was a problem. But even after 30-odd books, I’m still at the stage where, “Yeah. OK, that’s probably a problem,” but I’m hoping it’s just me because fixing it is a lot of work. And then they come back and say, “Yes, that is a problem,” OK, thanks. And then they say it independently, where I don’t say, “Is this a problem?” I do, sometimes, if I’m concerned. But that independent verification of, maybe a plot point that I feel like, eh, that’s not quite gelling for me. Or they might come back…certainly in a series, especially, coming back with, like, “We need more of a reminder of who these characters are, we need less of a reminder of, you know, plot points from previous books because we don’t want to…if someone hasn’t read previous books, we don’t want them to be not willing to go back. If they already know who the killer is in the past two books, they’re not going to want to go back and read them, right?
You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers, which means you’ve worked with a lot of different editors. How has that been?
It’s been good. Ninety percent of the time it’s such a good experience. They bring up the things…I always say that, you know, most of my editors, there’s about 80 percent of what they say I dead-on know, “Yes, you’re totally right. Either I already knew it or, as soon as they say it, I see it. Then it’s about 15 percent where I’m not sure, and I have to think more about it. And it’s only about five percent where I can say, “I understand what you mean, but that’s not right for my book.” So, 90 percent of my editors have fallen into that group. There’s always the occasional one that you’re just not going to gel with. Whatever I’m working on, they are looking for something different. They very clearly are looking for a different kind of story than the type of story that I tell. And I can’t sort of twist myself to give them the type of story they want, because that’s not what my vision is for that book.
You were talking about the editors saying things that you kind of knew in the back of your head. My main editor, of course, is Sheila Gilbert at DAW Books. And all of us who work for DAW, like Tanya Huff and Julie Czerneda, and all those people. We all have this thing in the back of the head, “What would Sheila say?” And even though, you know…I do exactly the same thing. I will know that there’s something there that, you know, “I bet she says something,” but I’ll think, “Maybe not.” And sure enough, she always comes back and says, “You know, I didn’t…this needs…whatever,” you know. So…
Yeah, this needs to work. This little area here, this motivation or this plot point just needs a bit of work.
And that’s what editors are for. When I work with new writers, you know, sometimes, I’ll run into people who are concerned about what editors will do to their work. And I say they will generally make it better. That is really what they’re about.
Exactly. There’s a lot of fear, I think, with new writers, they get some kind of feeling, or they’ve heard stories where the editor is going to demand bizarre changes, like demand that you change your werewolves into vampires or your female main character into a male main character. That doesn’t happen. What they’re in there doing is just helping you shape that story, because it’s hard to tell when you’re that close to your story, whether or not it’s actually working.
And speaking of characters, one thing I kind of forgot to ask along the way was how you go about developing characters. I mean, you know who you need in the story, from the big picture. But then how do you flesh them out? Do you do a lot of character sketches or writing in their voice or any of these various tricks that some people use, or how does that work for you?
Yeah…I’ve sort of learned to do this combination where I certainly do dive in at the beginning, and I want to know who they are, what’s their biggest fear, what’s their main goal, what do they want most from life, and what do they want most from this situation? And, you know, what are some of their hobbies? What are some of their interests? What are some of their dislikes, their past experiences, all that psychology stuff? But I still have to get into the writing because I can certainly say that if it’s the first book in a series or it’s a standalone novel, when I start writing, I can say the character is like this, and by the time I’ve hit, you know, ten, twenty thousand words, that character has shifted. And then I have to go back and adjust that early part.
Yeah, that’s often a revision step for me is to make sure that the character’s consistent.
Do you ever find, as some do, that minor characters become major characters without your knowing it was going to happen?
It definitely happens, where, yes, you come up with what you expect to be a minor character…I always use one example from my first book, Bitten. So, there was this renegade werewolf, he was one of the bad guys, and in the first draft, I killed him off at the end of chapter three. But then was like, “I really like him. I feel like he has more to him.” So I thought, OK, fine, I’ll keep him alive till the end of the book. I kept him alive till the end of the book, and I killed him, and then I still was like, I still feel like he had more. So then, I let him live. He eventually ended up becoming part of the pack and becoming a major character. And in the last book of the series, he appears to have died, and it was kind of an in-joke for everybody who knows how hard I try to kill this character early on.
Well, I did want to ask you about series writing. I’ve been on a panel–at CanCon, I think it was–talking about writing series–the most I’ve ever done as a five-book series–what the struggles of writing a series? The challenges and the rewards, I guess.
Yeah. I guess…the rewards are easy because that readership growth and that readership loyalty, that, if the series takes off, if it finds its audience, they are right there hungry for the next book. And that’s a whole lot easier than standalones, where you’re reinventing the wheel every single time and looking for a fresh audience. So, the series has that built-in audience if it works. The drawbacks are obviously, especially when you go into a long series, running out of ideas, running out of originality. Certainly, with the Otherworld, the only reason that it got to 13 books was because I changed narrators. So, every few books, one of the minor, one of the secondary, characters would become the narrator, and the other characters would fall into the background. So, it would instead be a story about this character’s corner of the world, so you’d start with werewolves for two books, and then spin-off to a witch and get her corner of the world for two books. And then, you spun off to a ghost and get her corner of the world for a book. That kept it going through 13. Nowadays, I don’t think I would ever get that long because even by 13, by changing characters, by the time I finished the series and went on to something else, I realized how tired I really getting. I didn’t see it until I went on and did something new.
I often wonder about the challenges of continuity…I mean, even in a trilogy, continuity could be a problem. Did you do something to try to keep track of all those little details that just pile your pile up?
Yeah, yeah. There’s the series bibles. And now what I do is my daughter is in charge of those and she…when she’s doing her reading, she’ll usually read one of my books for just that, you know, for fun and for general feedback, but then later on, after it’s completely done, past proofs, everything, she’ll take it and enter it into the bible. So if there’s new information, it goes in there. And then, on the next book, when she goes and does that first read-through, she can first read through the bible, and she will in that read through notice, “OK, Mom, you said this here, and it seems to contradict something.” You know, something like, you get a minor character’s age wrong, you know, you said they were twenty-eight here, and they’re twenty-seven now in book two. Unless they regressed, that does not happen.
Yeah. There’s that and, the other one that that’s happened to me, is that because I’m writing…you know, sort of like you, I have a kind of a general idea, but then I’m making up a lot of stuff as I go..and this was in the five-book young adult series. And I made up something in the first book. And by the time I got to the third book, I really wished I had not made up that particular aspect of how the magic worked, is what it was, because I wanted them to be able to do something, and I had shut that door in my face without even knowing I was doing it, three books before.
Yeah. And it really is that you kind of learn to try to not give absolutes. You try to, you know, learn with that first series, to try to, in future series, instead of saying, “It’s not possible to do this,” you will say, “It’s usually done this way,” or “As far as we know, it’s not possible to do this..
“It’s never been done.” That’s a good one.
Well, let’s move on to–this is where the reverb should come in again–the big philosophical questions. Why do you write? And why do you think any of us write? And in particular, why do you write the kind of stuff that you choose to write?
Exactly. And for me, I think it still is…I’m still that reader. I’m still the kid who was the reader who wanted to tell stories. And it still is for me. You know, I love reading other people’s work because I don’t know what’s going to happen. You know, you can read someone else’s story, and it’s entertaining in a way that is original to me and fresh. However, writing my own story, it’s exactly what I want to write. It’s exactly the type of story that I most want to tell. So, all my favorite themes, my favorite tropes, my favorite character types, archetypes, are going to be in there because that’s what I’m doing. I always, still, because I started as a reader who was trying to write to entertain herself, I’ve kept that where, I still have to be my own first reader. And if I’m bored with a story, I need to stop and look at it and say, “Where did I lose interest?” Because for now, it still is, I love writing, and I always tell a story of…I think I had about three or four books out, and I was on a panel, and somebody said, “Now that you’re doing this for a living, do you still love writing?” And so they went down the panel, and when it got to me, I was, “I absolutely still love this. I can’t believe that I can make a living doing this.” And after the panel, one of the panelists said, “Oh, honey, you just wait until you’re at Book 10, that that will change.” And I’m at 35, whatever it is. And no, that has not changed. And I think that’s really important for me, that I still love what I’m doing and I still can’t believe that they actually pay me for this.
Well, on a bigger scale, what do you think is the impetus for telling stories for all of us who do this?
Yeah, and I don’t even…it’s really hard to say. I mean, certainly, the reader feedback is lovely. I mean, that sort of moment when somebody tells you how much a book of yours meant to them. And it can be that it meant something because it came at a difficult time in their life and it provided escape, etc., or it can just be, “I love these books, and I’ve read them to death.” And that’s a really important thing, and it’s a wonderful ego boost, and it feels like you’ve shared something of yourself with them. But I’m not even sure whether that’s the main thing. I mean, that’s obviously important, and the feedback is wonderful. But if I was to say that I could never get feedback again, would I keep on writing? I would. It probably wouldn’t be as enjoyable because I would be constantly worrying, are people out there actually liking what I am writing? That feedback helps to reassure me, but I just feel like, for me, it’s that storytelling. I feel like for a lot of us–I mean, when people say they want to become a writer and you tell–and once they really realize what that means, I think they figure they’re going to write a book and make a lot of money, or…I always figured, as a kid, if I could finish a book, like finishing a 100,000-word book would be so huge that very clearly it would get published. Ha-ha-ha, no. And I think once they realize…I’ve had so many people have said to me, “I wanted to be a writer, but then I got to know you and saw you, like, on a personal level how hard you work,” and said, “I don’t actually want it that badly.” And I’m like, that’s OK because I do.
I mean, I’m twenty…well, more than 60 books with all the nonfiction and everything…and I still love writing. And the thing is, you know, the whole thing of would I do it even I wasn’t knowing that people were reading it, well, I did, you know, a good nine or ten novels before I published anything. So I guess…and I was still enjoying the mere fact of writing the stories, even though I wasn’t finding a readership.
It is, because certainly with those early books, the unpublished ones, I would finish it and it wouldn’t sell. And there’s that moment of, “I shouldn’t even bother continuing,” but I couldn’t do that because every time I would go back and say, “I’ll right this next one for me,” because I couldn’t not write even when it wasn’t working out.
Well, and what are you working on now?
What I’m working on now is a young-adult thriller. I’ve taken a couple of years off of doing young adult while I got my middle grade going, and I wanted to come up with an idea, I felt like I wasn’t coming up with the right concept for next one. So I am working on that.
Yeah. I always struggle with Instagram. I would like to be more active on it, but I keep forgetting about that one somehow.
Exactly. I do, too.
And perhaps should mention everybody should know that it’s Kelley with an e, K-e-l-l-e-y.
It is. Yes. Although I also have the domain without the extra E, so if you type it in wrong, it should redirect you.
I should do that with Willett because that second T is constantly dropped off. Even if they put it in right–like, the Saskatchewan Book Awards judges put out their comments from this year’s, and I had a book nominated, and in the first part of it they put two Ts on it, by the time they got to the end of it, they dropped that second.
Yes, it does. It is not…I mean, I get so much that doesn’t have the E, that was one of the first things I did was snag that domain that didn’t have the second E.
I should look and see if it’s available. That would be a good thing.
All right. Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers.
That was a fun conversation. I hope you enjoyed it.
Now, I say I feel like I’m kind of an honorary member of the IFWA, because we’ve known each other for a long time through conventions in Calgary, and so, although I’ve never, you know, really been a member of the organization, I’ve been part of the Writers at the Improv that that group does every year, for many, many years now.
That is so much fun, Writers at the Improv.
I’ve done it a couple of times as a program. In fact, I did it when I was writer-in-residence at the Regina Public Library, and I did it again this year at the Saskatoon Public Library. Except I didn’t really have anybody show…it was just before everything closed down and I think people were a little iffy. All I had was an English As a Second Language class, and none of them wanted to compete. So what I did was, I just took words from them…because for those…I guess I should explain…Writers at the Improv is like any improv, you get words in the audience and you write a story using those words. I wrote a story on the words that they gave me. So that was kind of fun for me. It wasn’t quite the usual kind of a process, though. But anyway, enough about me. You’re actually here to talk about you. So, we have known each other a long time and you’ve been a writer all that time that I’ve known you. So, let’s take you back into the mists of time, as I like to say. How did you get interested…well, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy…and in writing? Which came first, or how did those two things come together for you?
Well, I can…of course, that’s why my phone rings…I have definitely been a reader and a fan of science fiction and fantasy since before I could even read. According to my mom, I demanded to be taught how to read before kindergarten because I was tired of waiting for people to have time to read to me. So, I’ve always been a reader. I read The Lord of the Rings at age eight for the first time. And I reread it several times, and launched me into reading Heinlein and stuff that I just hadn’t even thought I was old enough for yet. But always, always been a very avid reader. And then, somewhere along the way, when I realized I had to have a job in the big wide world, I realized that that writing the books that I loved so much could be a thing.
Well, you studied…well, first of all, you grew up in Calgary, I presume, or is that correct?
Northern Alberta. So when you went to…when you were in school, did you start writing stories and sharing them with your friends and that sort of thing?
Yeah, and I was attempting to write novels at that point. I was still uncertain about short fiction, but I was always a book lover and I was attempting to write at that time. But being a sensible girl raised by sensible parents, I thought that I should go to journalism school and get a job that I could write for a living and maybe get a paycheque.
Yes, and that’s exactly what I did, because in high school I wrote novels and short stories and I knew I wanted to be a writer. And then I looked at it and I said, “Well, you can’t make a living as a writer,” and I went into journalism for that very reason, so I’d be doing something where I would be I would be writing. And, you know, it wasn’t what I wanted to write necessarily, but I thought it’d be useful. So, did you find that useful, your journalism training, and then the work you did there? Did that help with the fiction writing later on?
I got told several times, both in photojournalism and in the writing classes, that I was on the wrong side of the tracks. So, anyone from Calgary knows that SATE is on one side of the C-train tracks and the art school, ACAD, is on the other side of the tracks. And so, I actually had a couple of instructors tell me, “You’re on the wrong side of the tracks. You should be in art school.” And, of course, I fought that and graduated with honors and worked as a freelancer. I’ve been published in several magazines and newspapers, especially around Alberta. But it didn’t take me very many years before I realized that there might possibly be more truth in the fiction I wrote than in the journalism, and I decided that it was time to step away from that and focus more on the fiction, which is where my heart was.
I still find…and, yeah, I was kind of there, I mean, I, I did journalism and I, you know, for eight years I worked for a newspaper as a reporter and then as editor of the newspaper, and then I was a communications officer for the Saskatchewan Science Centre. All that time I was writing fiction, but I did find that the mere act of having to put words on paper is helpful, no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, that the discipline of writing helps you write. Did you find that, as well, that there was some benefit in all that nonfiction when you got around to focusing on fiction?
Sure. Definitely. And just even, as you say, words on the paper, but even the act of it, the physical act of putting words on the paper, the more you do it, the easier it gets to get started. And that seems to always be the hang-up for everyone, is getting started.
Well, I often say that as a newspaper reporter, you don’t have the luxury of not writing because the newspaper is going to come out and there have to be words in it to go around the advertising. So, you have to provide those words. So, I did find it a very useful side of writing. But all that time I was writing fiction. Were you writing fiction even while you were working mostly as a non-fiction freelancer?
I was, sporadically. I also spent several years chasing wildlife photography and sold a bunch of pictures to magazines and postcards and calendar companies and all kinds of neat things, back in the day where you still had to mail the slides physically to the company. And so, I was writing and always reading, but it was a little sporadic. I chased a lot of other interesting things. And I think that just lends itself to good fiction, too.
Well, you have to have something in the tank that you turn into words about other things, I think. And that’s another thing that I found writing nonfiction is that, you know, it broadens your horizons a little bit from focusing just on the stuff that you make up. It exposes you to other things. So when did…
Kind of like reading outside your genre will sometimes open your mind up to things you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
Yeah. Well, you did mention the imaginative Fiction Writers Association. When did you become involved with that excellent writing group?
Oh, I became a member…I believe it was ’96, or ’97. And my very first ever short story critique was performed by Randy and someone else who I don’t remember anymore.
That very first one? I mean, I was just in my mid-20s, it was the first time I attempted short fiction, I hadn’t even really read anything. The story was atrocious, and Randy did his best to tell me so in the kindest way. But it was quite an experience. And it was…it brought me back actually to the journalism-school days when, you know, you would have to write and write and write your assignments and then have them trashed. But it was very eye-opening and I learned a lot. And IFWA has, through the years, brought me so much, just…it’s hard to even express my gratitude because it’s so big.
Well, it’s good to hear because, you know, I’ve talked to a lot of authors and I always ask about their formal training, and that was, in your case, the journalism, but also if you can find a good writers group. And some of us have never had a handy writers’ group. And then there’s people who’ve been in writer’s groups, but they were not helpful. So it’s nice to know that there’s one out there that really works.
And IFWA has had its ups and downs, I mean, we became so big that the only way to be helpful and manage the numbers was to have splinter groups. And I was involved in one of those–well, a few of those splinter groups–but one in particular that went on for several years. And that kind of small focus can…that’s where you really get your value, is if you can find just a…usually between six or 10 people seems to be ideal…and you share work amongst you and you focus on one person’s work at a time. And, oh, my goodness, you can make leaps and bounds of progress that you just simply wouldn’t have been able to without them.
So when did you start selling short fiction?
That would be after attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop out in New Hampshire. Odyssey, we used to jokingly say, is a lot like Survivor because it is six weeks long. But we used to joke that it’s like Survivor, but you can’t vote anyone out. And it’s 16 students that critique each other and take courses and classes and workshops and do assignments for six weeks. It’s an MFA-equivalent course that’s crammed into a very short amount of time and it’s very intense. Because of that, the requirements for that course, I had to really get into short fiction a lot more than I ever had before. Even though I was a member of IFWA coming up to that time, Odyssey was what really got me looking at short fiction, reading it, writing it, really exploring it. And it was just shortly after that. So, my roommate got her first short story sale while we’re there. And then I got my first one shortly after, and it was written while I was at Odyssey.
When was that first one and what was it?
So let’s see. That was 2006. Oh, my goodness, I can remember the story, ‘course the title runs right out of my head. And it was published in a little online journal. It was a Christian journal, I believe. Just a small thing. But, of course, being the first one, I was really excited.
Yes, it’s…I was in…where was I? I was in Zurich, of all places, on a choir tour with my university choir, which I had gone back to as an alumnus just a few years after I graduated and I got a, you know, a mailgram, because we didn’t have email in those days, an aerogram from my mother telling me that I had sold a short story. So I still remember that very clearly. It wasn’t science fiction, either, that first one. But it was my first short story. So, yeah, you always remember the first one, that’s for sure.
Now though, you have…your first novel has come out. When did you start focusing or thinking about novels, or were there some unpublished ones in there before you published one? How did that work out for you?
There are several unpublished novels in my history. I, like I said earlier, love, love book-length fiction. I love the ability to just really immerse yourself in that world and those characters. And personally, short stories just aren’t long enough to really have the same impact on you. So, yeah, there’re a few novels sitting there that still need to find a home. The interesting thing is, Jumpship Hope began, as well, at Odyssey. We had an assignment to write up a flash piece, which I’d never heard of before. So here I was, already struggling with writing short stories because I wasn’t used to being so brief, and now I had an assignment to write flash fiction, a thousand words or less. And it was to be read out loud in public at a bookstore. It had to be five minutes or less. So that scene was actually inspired by my roommate, she said, “Just take one impactful moment and turn it into a story.” Just one. She said if you try and put too many moments in, then you won’t have flash fiction. So I took an impactful moment and turned it into, you know, threw it onto a spaceship. And, of course, immediately saw everything that led up to that moment and everything that came after it, and I had to write a book.
Well, this seems like a good place to give a synopsis of said book. So…without giving away anything you don’t want to give away...
Jumpship Hope is about first contact. And, of course, you know, that wonderful space-opera thing of being able to jump or fold space. And it’s an adventure about, you know, learning what we stand for. And it deals with humanity in a time where Earth has become pretty unlivable, and they’re trying to survive in orbit, on the moon, and on Mars. And things aren’t going so great, of course, because that makes good fiction.
And, you talked a little bit about how it came about, coming out of this this flash fiction. What was the impactful scene that you wrote that then triggered the rest of it? Or will that give something away?
Well, the impactful scene is very much that mirror moment in the middle where our hero, Janlin Kavanaugh, stops being chased and starts chasing. It’s where she puts her foot down and she says, “I’ve had enough and I’m going to make some changes.”
Well, how did you go about planning out the novel? Are you a detailed outliner…are you a pantser or a plotter, is the usual way to say that…?
Right. I’m a bit of a pantser, but I’m a bit of an organized pantser. I like to sail in the first 20, 30 thousand words, just feeling my way around. And then I will start plotting more and making sure that the pieces that I want are in place and in order. And then that gives me more confidence to move forward without running, you know, too many detours. Yeah. That would be it.
So what do you end up with in actual pre-writing, like a 400-page synopsis or a paragraph scribbled on the back of an envelope? What did it look like?
I usually end up with, when I’m still getting that first thirty thousand, then I usually end up with a lot of random scenes from all over the place in a scribbled notebook. And then, that’s when, at that point, I need to step back and say, “What’s important? Where am I going with this?” And that’s when I’ll start planning and I’ll start doing a proper outline. Having learned so much about story structure and fiction elements and plotting, I understand the importance of backing up in that moment and taking a look and making sure that I’m focusing on what I really want to say and not just one thing after another.
Well, other than that impactful scene, what was the impetus for telling this particular story? Where did the, you know, where do you get your ideas? That’s the other cliché we ask. And how does that, you know, this is for Jumpship Hope, but, you know, you’ve written short stories as well. What is your general sort of idea-generating process?
Mm hmm. Usually, there is an endpoint. That’s pretty clear. And it’s all about finding out what happened to end up at that point. Without an endpoint…and I actually read an interesting article not long ago about a triangle setup where, if you understand the inciting incident and you understand your mirror moment in the middle, and you understand the transformation at the end, once you have those three pieces, you can just go ahead and fill in what’s needed to get there to those points. So…I’m sorry, I lost track of the question.
Well, when you’re coming up with the story, how does it start for you? Does it start with like an image or a character or a plot idea or what’s typical for you?
It’s often a scene with the people and the dialogues coming to me. I can hear the characters, I can see the scene, I understand the tone and the emotion that’s taking place. And those scenes are what become this notebook full of scribbled bits and pieces that I then have to string together and bridge with more prose to make it a readable novel.
What’s your actual writing process? Do you write, you know, in long bursts or short bursts or in your office or off in a coffee shop or on a piece of parchment under a tree with a quill pen? How do you write?
Do you know, I really miss coffee shops. I used to write in coffee shops all the time when my kid was little. It was my way of being able to step away from the house, being an at-home mom and a freelancer working from home, right? But these days, I’m usually on the couch with the laptop or the notebook on my knees. I tend to write in spurts, so I’ll do an hour, take a break, another hour, take a break…but I also tend to take a whole day and just focus on the novel and not try to look at other jobs, like the editing jobs that I may be on that day, or that at that time. So I try to just let the book fill my head for that day and then I can maybe set it aside and take a few days to do all the other life-stuff. So it’s kind of…I work in spurts and then I take breaks.
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
I’m pretty darn fast. While I was in between the journalism years and getting the novel published and becoming a freelance editor, I ran my own freelance copywriting business. So you learn, just like with the journalism, you learn to write fast. You learn to get words down on the page and you learn to meet deadlines, which, I’m very sad to say, I missed the deadline with the sequel to Jumpship Hope.
Well, deadlines. I always remember, I think it was Douglas Adams who said that, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by.”
Yes, that’s an awesome quote!
So, once you have a first draft, what’s your revision process look like? Or do you do, like, a rolling revision and it’s all polished when you get to the end of that draft? Or do you go back to the beginning and do it all from the beginning? How does that work for you and what sorts of things do you find yourself working on in the revision passes?
Well, with that messy, rough first draft, I tried to just keep plowing forward, though sometimes it is important to step back and look at what you’re doing. But I try to keep pushing forward until I get to the end. But especially since I’ve become an editor over the past five years, I find it very difficult to take the editor hat off and just write. So it’s…some of the biggest discipline I’ve ever had to have is now to be able to just say, “Stop worrying about the editing, stop trying to make it perfect right now, it’s just a first draft. Get to the end.” And then, once that first draft is done, as you come back to the beginning, then I get to put my editor hat on, and I feel much more confident and equipped, better equipped, to do a good job.
Well, I was going to ask you about the editing. Have you found that editing…t sounds like you’ve found that editing other people’s work helps you to look at your own critically. I certainly find that.
It definitely does. And I really enjoy it. It can be incredibly monotonous, and of course, anyone can edit for themselves to a certain degree, but I know for myself, even as an editor, I need other people’s eyes on the work. When it’s your muddle and your head’s just too far in it, you often can’t see it from the same perspective as someone else can for you.
So, what to do when you get to that point? Do you have beta readers or do you bring in an external editor or how do you like to do that? Or critiquers?
Yeah, yeah. I’ve got a couple of wonderful beta readers and some author friends who are always happy to exchange manuscripts. So then, I can help them without them feeling like they should be paying me because that’s my job as well. And they get to help me and we just get to do it as friends, which is wonderful, and very talented people that I call friends. I’m incredibly blessed in that way. And then, of course, with the particular work in progress, my publisher is waiting for that, and they will do a wonderful editing job for me there.
What sorts of things do you find yourself having to work on, both in revision, and then when somebody else looks at it, are there sort of consistent things that you find you have to spruce up?
Mm hmm. Consistent, yeah…on all levels of editing, there are things that every author has, like tics, I guess? Bad habits. One of mine is the word “very.” So, I will actually go and do a seek-and-destroy that one. There’s a few others on my list that are pretty bad, but that one is always number.
I actually thought for a minute you said the word-fairy, like the word-fairy, like this fairy that flies around and gives you words or something, not the word “very.”
Oh, a word-fairy!
A word-fairy would be a very good thing. Put your manuscript under your pillow and the word fairy comes and fixes it all up.
Ed, that’s a great idea.
I’m going to have to write that story!
Yeah. We need some word-fairies! Yeah, no, it’s a word “very.”
V-E-R-Y. That one gets me. Apparently it’s my way of trying to…often I mark them and I’ll go through. A lot of times you can just take them right out and it’s fine. But sometimes it’s because I simply have not taken the time to do good word-choice thinking, right? To really think it through and get the right word instead of ones that need the word bury in front of it.
Yeah. And that’s something as writer-in-residence, that’s actually–which I just finished at the Saskatoon Public Library–I found myself pointing out to other people, You know, don’t use a weak verb with a modifier if you can find a strong verb, that sort of thing.
Or a weak noun with a modifier.
The other one that I’m often catching and other people’s work, which I now catch as I’m writing, is instead of saying what something is not, say what it is. So instead of saying, “That’s not bad,” say, “It’s good.” And if those words don’t seem to cut it, then you’re not choosing the right words.
And the other one that I catch myself and I do this–it’s not a search to replace, but I often do a search for passive voice like was and had and things like that, and see if there’s some way to turn that one around as well. And that’s another one I often point out to people.
It just makes the writing so much more powerful. We don’t realize…I guess it’s kind of like that quote that good, easy reading is really hard writing?
So, when you got to your editor, your publisher, which is Tyche Books, what was the editing process like at that side of things for you? How do they approach editing?
I was pleased to see that they approach their editing very much the same way I do. Lots of comments and suggestions and track changes, so that I could go through and approve, accept, or reject, because like I tell my clients, it’s your story and you should always have the final say. So, I was really happy to see that I got a chance to look through the suggested changes and give my own feedback on that and make the changes I wanted or, you know, deny the changes that I didn’t think were appropriate. So, that pretty important. I know there’s been other Canadian authors that have had to fight things like Canadian spelling and things like that.
Yeah, that’s always a tough one for me, because my publisher’s in the U.S., but I have my own little publishing company where I adhere to Canadian spelling, and I’m constantly having to do a check on spelling to make sure I’ve either not used it for the American publisher or I’m using it in the stuff I’m doing myself or the Canadian publishers I work for. So, half the time, I’m not sure. And then I was just editing somebody else’s manuscript and they wanted UK spelling, which is not quite the same again. But there’s some software tools to help you with stuff like that. And I did want to ask you about editing, since we’re talking about it. How did you get into freelance editing?
Being a journalist and a freelance journalist for many years and then a freelance copywriter for many years, I was always really interested into getting into editing as well for fiction, because that’s my first love. And for a long time, I simply didn’t feel qualified. I wanted to make sure that I really did know my stuff. I actually took some courses and brushed up on my editing and grammar and a whole bunch of other things before I hung my shingle out. I really wanted to be sure that if I was asking people to pay me for my time, that they were going to get a good return on investment. So when I did go ahead and start doing that, my first couple of jobs were with IFWA members, actually, and that really helped me gain in my confidence and get started. It sounds like a really easy job, and I love to say, “Pinch me, I get paid to read for a living.” But like I said earlier, it can be incredibly tedious and monotonous and almost meditative at times. And it’s certainly not easy.
No, it’s not. And I do it, too.
It’s hard work.
Yeah, it is. And it does…well, and of course, basically, as the writer in residence I was editing, I was taking up to 3,000 words at a time, and I would go over that with a fine-tooth comb and then I would meet with people for an hour. And I met with some 70 individuals over the course of my time there. And there’s a song from My Fair Lady that kept running through my head, which is, “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words. I get words all day through, first from him, then from you. Is that all you blighters can do?” It’s just the perfect editing…not ht it means in the context of the musical, but it’s the perfect editor’s song!
It’s the perfect editor’s song. It really is. And unfortunately, in these past years that I’ve been working as an editor, I actually stepped away from writing for a little while. And I don’t read as much as I like to. My to-be-read pile has gone completely nuts because I keep buying books. And when you read all day at the end of the day, you want to do almost anything else.
Yeah. It’s an occupational hazard, I think.
I think so.
The other thing about editor–you may have heard this, having worked in journalism, but my publisher at the Wayburn Review once put it one of his columns as a joke: “Editor is actually an acronym, it stands for Expensive Dummy in the Other Room.”
I think he meant it as a joke.
Oh, here’s hoping.
He didn’t fire me, so it could have been too bad. So, how has the reception been to Jumpship Hope? Have you…you know, are people enjoying it?
Yeah, it’s been really great. And I’ve had some surprising feedback. In fact, just last night I got the message from my auntie and she said, “Adrià, I don’t usually read science fiction, but you had me right till the end and I can’t wait for the next one.” So, it’s lovely to hear things like that, especially when you’re, you know, neck-deep in the sequel and you’re doubting everything.
Yeah, well, that’s sort of the middle part of the book when you’re just, you’re not sure. I had something like that from my father once. One of my first…I guess my first novel. And he actually, he did read this kind of stuff some, and he read it and he actually said to me, “When did you learn so much about human nature?”
Oh, well, that’s nice. That’s actually a really good compliment.
Yeah. I thought it was, too.
So you mentioned that you are working on the sequel…?
Jumpship Dissonance. And the final book, which is also getting little bits of scribbles, just as I try to sort everything, is Jumpship Freedom, and that will create the trilogy.
Is there a set release date for these, or is it a little amorphous yet?
Jumpship Dissonance was initially set to launch at When Words Collide in 2020, but 2020 isn’t going so well, and I missed my deadline anyway, so we’re shooting for 2021.
I was hoping to launch a book at When Words Collide, as well. So, yeah.
Yeah, it it’s going to be a fun one. Online.
I wanted to ask you as well about the woodworking because it’s interesting that creative people are often creative in more than one way. You mentioned the photography, which you focused on–ha ha!–focused on it for a while. So where did the woodworking side of things come in?
Now, that’s a fun one because, yes, creative people do often have a lot of things that they want to try, at least. And a lot of creatives will have many talents. But I struggled for a long time wanting to learn how to carve and just feeling like I should just get my butt in the chair and keep writing because that was the focus, that was my hobby. You know, I had work and parenting and yada-yada. But a few years ago, actually, when I backed off from the writing and the reading and I was doing more and more editing, I needed something else that took me away from the screen and the words and allowed me to work with my hands. So, I took a class at Lee Valley and then another one a few years later at Black Forest Wood Company. And I just absolutely fell in love. Woodcarving has a certain soul to it, like nothing else I’ve ever met. And I’ve always been a big nature girl, I love being in the trees. So it doesn’t surprise me that I like to carve wood. And I just kind of gave myself permission to go ahead and play and have some fun. And it’s really taken off for me. To me, it’s part of my soul-survival kit, if that makes any sense.
What sorts of things do you carve?
I’ve tried all kinds of neat things. I carve a lot of what’s known as cottonwood bark, which is the thick bark that grows on balsam poplar trees. And it’s very soft and forgiving. It’s really easy for beginners to play with and it has a beautiful grain. It’s known for those little fairy houses, you know, carved out of the bark? That is usually cottonwood bark. And it’s carved, you know, the faces, like the old man with fear and the mustache, wood spirits. One of my favorites is a whale tale that I carved, that I wear as a pendant. And one of my favorite, favorite subjects to carve is Celtic knots and weaves.
So it’s all a form of creating something from…not exactly nothing, but shaping materials into something else, which I think is a, as you might guess from the fact this podcast is called The Worldshapers, is actually a metaphor that I like, that we don’t really create things from nothing, but we take the material that we have inside us and we we shape it into stories and into new creations. So, woodcarving is very much a good metaphor for that.
It’s funny that you would put it that way, Ed, because I actually noticed one day that as an editor and a woodcarver, it’s all about taking things away.
That’s true. I guess that’s true.
I actually am a little jealous of sculptors because they add the clay until it’s right. Whereas a woodcarver, or a stone carver, has to remove material until it’s right.
Well, that’s Michelangelo’s famous thing, it’s attributed to him, that, “How do you carve David? Well, you get a piece of marble and you cut away everything that’s not David.”
Not David. It’s that simple. Very simple. Just like writing. You just put some words on the page. It’s that simple.
You could say that we’re starting with the entire English language and we just take away the parts of it that we don’t need for the specific book. So, it’s all in how you look at it.
Well, then, on the big philosophical side, why do you do this? Why do you tell stories? Or why do you think any of us tell stories? And why, in particular science fiction and fantasy stories?
Oh, we desperately need them. Science fiction and fantasy has given an outlet to talk about things, in all of our history, has given us an outlet to talk about things that weren’t supposed to be talked about. And we could hide underneath the the the wizards and the spaceships, but we could still tell a story about people. And for me, life’s not worth living if there’s no story. So how philosophical is that for you, Ed?
Where do you think that impulse comes from, for human beings to tell stories? Because we’ve been doing it our whole existence.
Well, it’s so important for us to work out what happened and to help us to think it through and decide how we really feel about it after initial reaction, which is, you know, usually either fear or celebration. But I think stories also help us to share information with those that maybe weren’t able to be on the scene for that moment. Right now, in our world as it is, which is a pretty scary one, we’re seeing a huge uprising like, possibly like none before, and I’m really hoping it is, it will be like none before. And that, of course, is around the Black Lives Matter. And, it’s… I’ve spent a lot of time on Facebook and other media sites reading and reading and reading people’s accounts and their firsthand stories of being black and living in America and what it looks like every day and what it feels like every day. And without those stories, how can someone like me in privilege and safety understand why they need to get so upset right now? So we need story. Without story, there’s no understanding.
Well, and I mentioned that this is called The Worldshapers. It’s probably too grand to save that any one story shapes the world in any significant fashion. But do you hope you’re at least shaping your readers in some fashion through your stories?
Oh, that’d be great. Do you know what would be great? Star Trek. A lot of the great ideas that they came up with have now come to pass. Like, the little communication devices seem an awful lot like flip-phones. It would be really great if someday we really can get in a jumpship and fold space and visit other solar systems. And if I inspire the little brain that’s capable of figuring that out, then that would be really something. But I’m not sure that I have that kind of power, I just like to tell a good story.
So you mentioned what you’re working on. Do you have any short fiction in the works or anything on that side of things?
No, I don’t. I haven’t spent a lot of time with short fiction recently, although I am reading Rhonda Parrish’s Earth anthology, the one with the golems and giants? It’s really god.
I think most of are either novelists or short story writers, and although we might do both, there’s one we tend to gravitate to. And certainly, in my case, it’s always been the longer stuff. I don’t write…I finally put out a collection of my short stories and I had to go from my first short story sale in the ’80s up until last year in order to have enough to make a collection. Not a huge short story writer for sure.
Well, how many stories did it come to that?
Twenty-two, I think. But there were at least three of them that hadn’t been published before. So they were one that I included that way. So actually published short stories? I wouldn’t think I’m more than about 20 in my entire career.
Well, I know that book exists and it’s on my wish list but I don’t own it yet.
Yes, please, please do buy it. Everybody listening now, please. Paths to the Stars. Shadowpaw Press. Twenty-two short stories by Edward Willett
It looks amazing and I can’t wait to read it.
So, where can people who would like to know more about you find you online?
AdriaLaycraft.com Is a quick way to find me. And I do have a Facebook account that I’m pretty regular on. Other than that, I try not to spend too much time online. Oh, but you can definitely go to the Tyche Books website. Not only do they have amazing authors and amazing books, you can get your favorite Tyche Book on a travel mug and they’re really nice travel mugs, a sweater, a hoodie, a sticker, a poster, a wall hanging. They’ve got it all.
And the YouTube channels you mentioned in the bio?
Oh, yes. You know, it would be really great to have a YouTube channel about writing, but it’s kind of a boring thing to film.
That’s why no, you know, writing competition TV shows. This week, the contestants will type!
Exactly. But Carving the Cottonwood is the first YouTube channel I started, and it was my way of giving back…so many YouTube channels about carving are just people learning and showing what they’re doing. And I was able to learn from them as I was, you know, figuring out how to do this, so filming myself is now my way of giving back to those people and to inspire those who would just like to give it a try. Now, the Girl Gone Vagabond channel, it did get renamed. It’s called Girl Gone to Ground. And it’s going to be now a focus on me finding a little piece of land out here on the West Coast and building a little cabin and a garden and a woodshop. And it should be a lot of fun to see how it works out.
People can find those just with a search on YouTube, I presume.
Yes. You bet.
All right. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, Adria. I enjoyed that. I hope you did?
Oh, I did. Thank you so much for inviting me, Ed. It’s such an honor.
And hopefully we’ll see each other in Calgary again one of these days, if nowhere else.
Maybe not this summer, but I’ve really got my hopes set on next summer.
Candas Jane Dorsey is the internationally known, award-winning author of novels Black Wine (originally Tor 1997, 1998, re-released Five Rivers 2013) and Paradigm of Earth (2001, 2002, Tor); upcoming mystery series The Adventures of Isabel, What’s the Matter with Mary Jane? and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2020-2022 ECW); upcoming YA novel The Story of My Life, Ongoing, by C.J.Cobb; short story collections Machine Sex and Other Stories (1988), Dark Earth Dreams (1994), Vanilla and Other Stories (2000) and ICE & Other Stories (2018); four poetry books; several anthologies edited/co-edited, and numerous published stories, poems, reviews, and critical essays.
Candas was editor/publisher for fourteen years of the literary press The Books Collective, including River Books and Tesseract Books. She teaches writing to adults and youth, professional communications at MacEwan University, and speaks widely on SF and other topics. She was founding president of SF Canada, and has been president of the Writers Guild of Alberta.
She has received a variety of awards and honours for her books and short fiction. In 2005 she was awarded the Province of Alberta Centennial Gold Medal for her artistic achievement and community work, and in 2017 the WGA Golden Pen Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts. She was inducted into the City of Edmonton Arts and Cultural Hall of Fame in 2019.
Other awards include the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame (2018), YWCA Woman of the Year Arts and Culture (1988), and an Edmonton Arts Achievement Award (1988). She is also a community activist, advocate, and leader who has won two human rights awards and served on many community boards and committees for working for neighbourhoods, heritage, social planning, and human rights advocacy.
Welcome to The Worldshapers.
We have known each other for…I always start these podcasts by trying to make a connection, but in our case, we’ve known each other for quite a long time at this point, haven’t we?
I believe so. I believe we could measure that in numbers of decades.
Yeah, it’s getting there, for sure. And. of course, I’ve also been plugging When Words Collide, which is where I asked you to be on the podcast this year, because it’s a great writing convention that I’ve found several of my guests on over the last couple of years…or at…and I do like to tell people about it because I think it is really always a fun weekend for me, anyway. And I hope for you.
Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where you’re recognized for doing the thing you think of as primary. You know, we do so many things to make a living, but they’re not all things that we want to be remembered for the annals of history, you might say. Whereas, when you go to When Words Collide, it’s about writers and being writers and it’s like your primary environment. You get to submerge yourself in talking to people about books. I think it’s marvelous.
And I should mention for anyone who is interested that whenwordscollide.org is the Web site if you want to check it out. Not “when worlds collide,” whenwordscollide.org.
So, we’re gonna talk about your collection of short stories, Ice & Other Stories, which came out last November, and that’s a little different ’cause we normally talk about novels on here, but that’s good because short fiction is, you know, it’s own thing, which I think maybe I should talk about more on The Worldshapers. But before we do that, I would like to take you back, back into the mists of time, which is becoming a cliche on here, because I say that to everyone, to find out how you became interested in writing in general, but also how you became interested in writing stories of the fantastic, and a little bit about where you grew up and all that sort of thing.
OK, well, I’m one of those rare people who was born and grew up in the place that I still live, which is Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. And I’ve never really left for any period of time, although I’ve traveled a lot. I was the youngest in a family of three children, and it was a reading-and-doing-things family. My father had a day job, but he was…what he really was as a musician. My mother was a kind of self-taught historian who turned that into an entire career after I was in high school and was also very much a secret visual artist—you know, she never did much with it, but she loved it. And in her later years, she decided that she was just going to do it. So, it was kind of an interesting group of individuals. My brother is a professional musician and is also a visual artist. And my sister was a kind of a philosopher, really. But she had a day job editing for Hansard and she also did, you know, she sang in the choir, she made things with primitive Japanese woodworking tools just to see if she could, and that sort of thing. So…and, of course, we were all great readers.
So, one of the problems I had as a kid when I came along, I was nine years after my sister and eight years after my brother, they had taken up a number of the art forms, and I was acutely conscious of the competition factor. And so, I think without really…I mean, I already loved reading and I was reading and writing above my grade level, so it was fun to show off, to write things. But I really began to realize that I loved it, and it was also a field where I could just go to town without worrying about an older sibling competing. So I kind of dug into that in my school years, but by high school, I really was kind of committed to it and started to really take it quite seriously. And I have a sideline in visual art, which I did then and then kind of stopped doing for a number of years, and just in the last ten or twelve years, I’ve started doing visual art again and selling paintings. So, that’s more of what my students these days call a “side hustle,” and the writing is always the thing.
So, I’ve been a writer and an editor. I’ve also run a book-publishing company with a group of other people that included for a while Tesseract Books, the Canadian science fiction and fantasy press, which we bought from Beach Holme Publishing, and we later sold to Edge Publishing, and we ran that for about nine years. And I’ve also run an arts newspaper and I teach writing, to various continuing education…like the University of Alberta, and the local school board has something called Metro Continuing Education…and I also teach in communication studies at MacEwan University for the last few years.
And somewhere in there I also got an MFA. I thought it might be a good credential to have. And by then it was kind of interesting because I had more books published than about half of my professors, and of that, half of those minded and half of them didn’t. So, it was kind of a fun experience to dip my toe into academe and discover the politics thereof, but I enjoyed it for the most part. And that’s where I wrote for young adults for the first time, took a children’s and young adults’ writing course from Glen Huser, and realized that I actually had a voice in my head for that. So, that book, if I actually sign my contract and send it back and work out a few technical issues, that book should be coming out next year or the year after.
Well, we’ll certainly talk about that a little later on, too. When you were starting out writing as a young person, did you share your writing with…you know, you said you liked to show off a little bit…were you sharing your writing with classmates and that sort of thing? I always ask that because I think it’s important to get that audience feedback when you’re starting out and realize that you can tell stories that people might like. That’s certainly what I did and kind of what made me think, you know, maybe I really can do this.
.Well, mostly I shared them with the teachers. I had…I had only a very few classmates that I had good friendships with, and high school got a little better, but I was one of those kids who was alone by circumstance rather than by choice in school. I was sick a lot. I was away a lot. And when I was there, I was often ridiculed and called the teacher’s pet because I actually read the books and did the assignments and so on. But I did…it’s kind of interesting. I have been teaching this course for Metro Continuing Education called Introduction to Creative Writing, and a couple of years ago, they moved the classroom that they used, because they use school classrooms at night, right? They moved it to the place where I went to high school, and I realized when I went in there that that had been fifty years ago. This was quite a shock to my system because I don’t really tend to think of myself as old enough to have had, you know, a span of fifty years of sort of higher consciousness, you know, as opposed to, you know, vague memories from long ago. But indeed, I am.
And so, there I was in the school, which, although it had been renovated in terms of paint job and new doors and new lockers, visually is very much the same, and it’s the school where..well, OK, to start that sentence in a different place, I started school when I was four. I think my mother was sort of glad to get me out of the house because I was a very talkative, questioning kid, and probably quite tiring. But anyway…and she also recognized I could already read and was interested in stuff…and so she talked the school into taking me a little bit early because I was supposed to be five. So, when I got to high school, I was a little younger and a little..and a lot…less cool than the popular kids. But high school is a place that had things like the newspaper club and the debating club and the Reach for the Top team and places where my particular kind of weirdness was actually valued for a change. So that was quite nice. But also, I had a Grade 10 English teacher who was awesome, just awesome. She was herself an artist. I found later she was a talented violinist. She’d had her first recital when she was very young and it was, you know, a big sensation around town.
And I think this is in part because, sadly, I just last week attended her funeral service. She was 91 when she died. And…so she was 40 when she was teaching me, and she just had…she had a warmth and an interest in her students that meant that she actually recognized me as having potential or having something to do, and she showed an unfailing interest in my writing, and then she took a little bundle of my writing and she sent it off to Mel Hurtig, who at that point was running his bookstore in Edmonton. He later, of course, became a publisher and published a bunch of Canadian, amazing Canadian classics, like, so many of the works of Inuit writers in the 1970s. He published Mini Aodla Freeman’s Life Among the Qallunaat, and he published People from Our Side…and he published a number of books of the artists up there and their memoirs. He also published The Canadian Encyclopedia. But in those days, he still ran his bookstore. And if you’ve ever been to Audreys in Edmonton, he sold his bookstore to two women named Audrey, who worked for him, and that’s why Audreys, which is Edmonton’s only general independent bookstore at the moment, that’s why they have no apostrophe in their name, because it means the two Audreys. But that was later.
So, there I went…and she sent me downtown to talk to him in his bookstore. He had this big bookstore and then there was a little raised, like, three-steps-up section at the back where his office was. And there I went. Grade 10 self, so I’m like, fourteen, fifteen years old, and I’m shy and nervous. And this just wonderfully kind and intelligent man greets me and talks to me a little bit about writing and books, and then he sent me over to the university to a professor of children’s literature named Alison White, who welcomed me and gave me some books and read my poems and talked to me about them. And I…by then it was summer, and I got the excitement of going sort of all by myself on the bus, which was kind of a big deal for me because I didn’t go out much in that way, over to the university and into one of the historic buildings there where her office was and have this, you know, exciting moment of recognition.
And I have to say that it changed and possibly even saved my life and my sense of self to actually be seen at that point. And I don’t know about you, but those years of sort of thirteen to seventeen are not my favorite years in memory. They really aren’t. They were the time of maximum…well, not to be euphemistic, maximum misery. So, you know, she certainly changed my life and she may have saved it in a kind of metaphysical way because she really gave me to understand that at some point down the road, life would be different and interesting and I might have something to say to the world. So it was…I was thinking about all this week because, of course, it was a bit of a shock to realize that that was fifty years ago and that she had just died and I had met her since then and been able to express my appreciation, thank goodness. But then I went to this service and there was her daughter, who was her only child, and who looked very much like she looked when I knew her first. And so it was kind of an interesting conversation. And I think I was the only person there who was from her teaching life. And, I just, you know, I saw it in the paper. But so I was…I sort of brought all this up from memory and talked to them about her, her sister, and her daughter and her nephew were there, and they invited me to sit at their table. It was a Ukrainian funeral, so there was this absolutely delicious meal, lunch, sit-down lunch afterwards of the Alberta Ukrainian fare, which is, you know, cabbage rolls and meat and chicken and so on. And so it was this hearty and wonderful lunch. And then, just being able to tell her family something about what she was like for us, for her students. So, that was cool.
A lot of writers have somebody like that in their past, I think, that one person that maybe made them realize that maybe this was, you know, there was some value there and what they were doing and maybe they had some talent in that area.
Yes. And I’ve come to think…and I teach a lot of introductory writing courses, and I generally teach pretty much the same thing each time, but that’s because I think there are a few basics that people need to know and then they just need to get out there and write. But I sort of…iI think about what is the nature of a writer in general. And I think that writers are a peculiar combination of nervousness and ego. I was in theater when I was in school, I took drama classes, I went to…the local flagship theater is called The Citadel, I went to drama classes there…I crewed shows. I was gonna be in technical theater. When I realized I couldn’t act very well, I went into technical theater. And there were some opportunities that now I kick myself. I mean, I could have been a stage designer by now and had a completely different life, because Phil Silver, the stage designer at the time, who later went on to Stratford and other heights, invited me to be his model maker, which is a bit like saying you can apprentice with me. And I was young and kind of stupid and I decided I was going to, you know, go back to university and save the world. I don’t know what I decided. That was a long time ago, too. But I didn’t do it.
So, I was in theater and I began to realize that the talents that…I loved improv, but I was not good at preparing a role and losing myself in the role. And I realized that the thing that was wrong with that was the losing myself. And I had this conversation with a guy called Edward Atienza, who was a tenor…he came to Edmonton to do the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado when my partner was the…sidekick…you know, I can never remember their names…Ko-Ko and Poo-Bah.
Ko-Ko is the main character. He’s the Lord High Executioner. And there’s Poo-Bah and there’s Pish-Tush, I played Pish-Tush, that’s how I know.
Yeah. OK. Well, you guys could get together, have a little reunion, and, you know, put your arms over each other’s shoulders and sway back and forth and sing Mikado songs. But, anyway, so there was Edward Atienza, and we were at the sort of first-night party, and I happened to get seated next to him. And I don’t know how we started trading biographies, you know, that, you know, try to find common ground. But, for some reason, I made this mention of having been involved in theater, but realizing it wasn’t…performing was not…I wasn’t temperamentally suited to any other performing except improv. And he said. “That’s really interesting,” because when he was in university, he had wanted to be a writer. Like, in all his teenage years. And he’d gone…and he was British…so he’d gone to university to prepare for this and realized what he was there, that he couldn’t stand the kind of vulnerability that you have as a writer. He couldn’t put himself out there. Even in fiction, you have a kind of vulnerability when you write it. And that just didn’t suit him. And so he moved over into performing, because he could take his creative impulses and clothe them in inhabiting a role.
And so, there were these two people who had basically gone opposite directions, had kind of crisscrossed over in order to find the thing that suited their temperament. Because even when I was a kid, even when I was a very unhappy little kid, I was not…I was quite confident that I would grow up and I would have a life and it would be an interesting life and it would be full of writing. And I find that kind of interesting, that I never really doubted that part. I doubted my ability to write well, I had all the usual angst and worry that young writers have. But I also had some peculiar kind of confidence or ego that kind of saw me through that early part.
Well, I think a lot of the challenge of writing is, like you said, you have to have some sort of ego there that makes you keep doing it and doing it and doing it and thinking that, you know, somebody eventually is going to recognize what you’re doing.
Yeah, and that you’re writing a thing that’s important to be written. You’re not wasting your time and so on. Right? So, yeah, so it kind of interests me, you know, and I try to…I had some really encouraging writing teachers and I had some that basically believed that the way you went about it was extreme tough love and that you would just…and that they would just…well, there was in particular, he would discourage anyone, you know, “You’re wasting your time, don’t do this,” kind of thing. And what I discovered is that the encouraging kind of teacher is not going to bring people into the field who or bad at it because the field will just cull them out. What they will do is bring people into the field who need encouragement—and the word courage is in that word encouragement—who need the courage of their own conviction to get into their career. So, the kind of tough-love writing teacher only is only good for the egoist or the stubborn people or the people whose kind of social fight-or-flight response is to fight back. But there are a lot of writers who are quiet and who don’t want to have a public fight, but they want to write. And so I think, when I’m teaching, I try to indicate to people that, you know, the world of writing and of readers and of publishing is going to narrow you down into the people who are going to get accepted, and so, you know, obviously for them a part of their career is to just get better at doing that thing until they get good enough to pass the bar. But I don’t sort of sit them down and say, “You should really open a 7-Eleven,” because you can’t decide for other people how they’re going to carry out that drive and whether they’re going to…whether they’re going to fix all other technical errors because they are so driven, like some writers that I have known, that I have taught, who you would have thought would be, would never get anywhere because they had so many technical errors, but they fixed them all because they loved, loved writing.
Well, and I’ve done quite a bit of writing teaching as well, and do try to be on the encouraging side myself. I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, so it’s very much people coming in at all different levels of ability. And sometimes I see stuff and I think, “There’s just no way.” But I tell them what I think could make it better and try to be encouraging because, you know, you never know.
Oh, you know, I don’t hold back. You know, if I see somebody with a lot of technical errors, I will say to them, “You must fix these. Because otherwise you will have a miserable time being rejected.” But, you know, once they know they have to fix them, there’s no reason why they can’t. You know? I mean, I know it sounds kind of like, I don’t know what it sounds like, but basically I have seen people coming up into my writing classes for the past few years who have been taught by the whole-language or process-learning approach, and they really don’t know their own written language and they’re terribly disadvantaged, but they have the same desire to do the work and to tell the stories as the other writers have had. And so, I’ve often had to say, “Hey, it’s not your fault. It’s how you were taught. But you will have to learn this,” and many of them do, because they understand that it’s a tool, it’s their technology, the language is their technology, and they need to use it to do what they want to do.
And you know, I find that pretty, pretty…encouraging, I guess, because I knew all this stuff very early and I was also taught…I was schooled at a time where you were drilled in all the rules of grammar. So, when I sit down to write, I am extraordinarily lucky that my sentences come out as proper sentences, right? So, I can start kind of down the road. If I didn’t have that, though, I still would probably have the impulse to write, I would just have to do more work. So, you know, even people who come to the task with technical skills that need improving, I have seen them…I mean, it’s not just sort of a greeting card here, I have seen them improve and become published writers, and I’ve seen others who had great skills, but they didn’t have kind of the fire. They didn’t want to do the extra work to do a second draft. And their extremely promising stories didn’t even go as far as the other ones. So, this at this point, after having taught since 1983 different writing classes and started, and sent…many of my classes, I send them off to be writing groups…I’ve decided you can’t predict which horse is going to finish the race. You just can’t. So, you give everyone the same skills and encouragement and then tell them it’s a tough business. And so you have…
Sorry. Just give me a second…okay, let’s try that sentence again. I tell them it’s a tough business and that they have to meet a quality standard, but…and that they’re going to have to learn a lot of that on their own…and I think it’s a much better way to prepare them for the writing world than to try and be mean to them.
You may hear my little dog in the background.
He won’t be the first animal noises in the background. John Scalzi had cats going on in the background and somebody else did, too. So it’s not uncommon. And Peter V. Brett had somebody doing construction work outside his window, so…so, you studied English and drama in university and also social work. Were you…when did you start writing for publication, or attempting to be published? When did you break in?
I started writing seriously in high school and in the first couple of years of university, and my mother actually talked me into staying at university after the first year rather than going walkabout, as so many students did in the ’70s, because W. O. Mitchell was coming to teach writing at the university. And so, I did stay in my second year and took classes from Doug Barbour, who you know through his work in the science fiction field, and that’s who introduced me to Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel Delany…in a big way. I mean, my father had been a big science fiction reader and I think I’d read Le Guin before, but some of the others I hadn’t…Alfred Bester, Joanna Russ, all these amazing writers…he had done his thesis on. And this is 1971, so, you know, people listening to your podcast will realize how long ago, how ancient I am. I’m not that old, but I feel it sometimes.
In any case, so I went back. I studied with Mitchell, who was a wonderful teacher. He was nurturing but demanding in a really wonderful way. And he never forgot anything or anyone. So, I would meet him years later and he would say, “Kid, you didn’t quit. You didn’t quit.” And that was his big thing. “Never quit. Just keep writing. Keep doing it.” And I remember one time I asked for a letter of reference for a grant I was applying for and I remember him saying, “I don’t know, my letter might be the kiss of death, kid, because, you know, I’m just not, you know, they don’t…I don’t think they’d like me that much.” And I’m saying, “I don’t know, you know. Big name.” In any case, I think I got the grant. So I think he wasn’t the kiss of death, but he was a lovely guy, and so…
Doug Barbour was editing White Pelican in those days and he’d gotten Samuel Delaney, for instance, to write for White Pelican. I think I still have that somewhere, that issue. And he and some other people got together and started NeWest Press. George Melnyk had started the NeWest Review and the NeWest Institute, which were to study Western Canadian culture. And I went to the first NeWest Forum on the Arts. It was out at Rudy Wiebe’s Strawberry Creek Lodge when the lodge wasn’t…it was just barely completed, it didn’t have carpets, or, you know, all the amenities, but there was. And we looked at, you know, questions…I mean, this was is in the 1970s and we’re talking about indigeneity. And somebody had made a film about spring burning for ecological reasons in First Nations before settlement and just all sorts of very cool stuff.
So, they decided to start a press. So they got a little board together and they started NeWest Press, which is of course, still in existence. And the very first book they did was called Getting Here…Getting There?…no, Getting Here. And it was a book of Edmonton writers, all of whom were women, as I recall. It’s way up too high on the shelf to reach to verify this for sure. But I know that…yeah. I’m pretty sure it was all women writers and that was part of the point. And Doug edited or co-edited it. And that was…I had had some other things published in things like the university newspaper, and so on, but that was sort of the first time a story was anthologized. And it was a science fiction story of sorts, a kind of slipstream science fiction story, which was called, “You’ll Remember Mercury.” Which was a line from someone’s poem, who had written a kind of very creepy, almost horror-like poem, where the astronauts come to Mercury and they get changed and transformed in ways that they perhaps didn’t intend, and the last line was, “Oh, yes, you’ll remember Mercury.” So I’d written this story, which was, quite, I guess, a little surreal, but it took all the science-fiction tropes and it had them in there. You know, the faster-than-light travel, the spaceship captain, the et cetera, et cetera. And eventually…what it was was, in essence, was a space ship full of sort of outcasts, including First Nations people and so on, who were making a gesture against what we today call colonialism, I guess. And who have the spaceship and who ceremonially dive into the heart of the sun. And, you know, I mean, I was twenty, right? And so that was my first kind of breakout.
And I had a lot of stories published in literary magazines. All of them were science fiction and fantasy, really. Or slipstream or kind of surrealism or whatever they were. There wasn’t much in the way of realism, but I just thought of myself as a writer, you know, not particularly as a genre writer. I didn’t have any trouble with those markets, either. Like, you know, there’s a certain kind of town and gown kind of thing, of, you know, the literary world looks down on us, but I have been…I had no hesitation in submitting to those markets, and getting published, places like A Room of One’s Own and Prairie Fire and various magazines that no longer exist, Blue Buffalo, and so on.
And I also had no hesitation in applying for literary grants. I just thought, “Well, I’m a writer. That’s what they’re here for.” And I would apply and by and large, I would get them. I think, you know, the odds of getting a literary grant is somewhere between one and six and one in ten and probably more by now. But I figured that was pretty good odds for spending an afternoon on an application. And so, I would say that I probably got over half of those that I applied for, and was fairly philosophical about the ones I didn’t. I definitely urge, you know, if listeners are Canadian writers, almost all the provinces and the Canada Council have these grant programs and many cities do, as well. I live in Edmonton, and the Edmonton Arts Council has grant programs, and I would really urge people to apply and not be weird and reverse-snobby about how those are for literary writers and they will discriminate. They’re all decided by juries. The juries differ from time to time. So one jury may love your work. The other jury may put you a little bit below the red line. You have to think of it as buying a lottery ticket, in essence. You apply, and then you forget about it. And if a nice letter comes in the mail down the road, yay, you won the lottery. If it doesn’t, then, OK, you hadn’t counted on it anyway.
And, you know, I don’t think artists have a right to…I mean, I think we’re very lucky to have a grant system, but I have to recognize that historically, the state, as it were, and private patrons who had a lot of money were the reasons why the arts even got made. You think about the Renaissance and all those huge paintings of Saint Sebastian taking on the arrows that are now in the Louvre, they were all in private castles and artists went from castle to castle, making their daily bread by painting or they wrote a long poem and they dedicated it to the guy who was going to pay for it, right? And I don’t think…I think government is the best patronage system there is, because it’s objective. So, I really strongly feel that developing writers should look at all the options, and they shouldn’t think of themselves as being…especially developing speculative writers or developing genre writers, they shouldn’t think of themselves as being the little match girl outside the outside the house while the party goes on inside. We’re all part of the same thing.
Well, let’s move on to your current collection of short stories. Your first book was a collection of short stories, Machine Sex and Other Stories, and now you have Ice & Other Stories, which also starts with “Machine Sex.” So…I know you can’t really synopsize a collection of short stories, but tell us about the book.
Well, the book started as all the stories that had been in something, but not in a book. So there were thirteen or 14 stories. And every couple of years I’d get a story published. I’m a very slow writer. And sometimes that was because of life and reasons and sometimes it’s just because it takes me a while to develop a story. So I had these stories and I went through a period where my mother was aging and she was in a nursing home and I had some health issues, and it wasn’t the best time for getting things out into the world. But I had this collection. So, every now and then I would think about, “Where should I send it?” And it’s hard to get short-story collections published. It’s not easy to sell them, so only certain publishers want to do them.
So, I did…Ursula Plug did a book of short stories with PS Publishing in England, Pete and Mickey Crowther run it, and they do these beautiful hardcovers and they do a limited, a signed, limited edition, and so on. And she asked me to write the forward for it. So then I was in touch with these people and they seemed…and then I went to the London WorldCon and there were all their books, and they were just beautiful. They were beautiful. There wasn’t a small-literary-press-deathwish cover among them. They were all just beautiful and beautifully produced and a lot of hardcovers. And they were really sincere people. And I still can’t figure out their business model, because they do these beautiful books in small editions. They bind them beautifully. The signed editions are still well within a collector’s or regular collector’s budget. And they ship their author’s copies to me without charging for shipping, so I’m kind of amazed at their business model. But…so I got in touch with them and I sent them a manuscript, and…Nick Gevers is the short-fiction editor that works with them, and he lives in South Africa. And nothing really happened to this book for a while. And so finally, when I was in a little better state, I sort of sent a reminder saying, “Oh, yeah, I sent you guys a book,” and he sent me back a message and, interestingly, my mother had just died, which is why…and I was sort of getting back into having more time in my life. And so, he sent back a letter, and his mother had also been in care and dying at a similar elderly age, in their nineties. And so he said, “I haven’t read your manuscript yet, but I will,” and within a week I had a publication offer.
So, that started out one of the new years very well. And then we worked on what stories from previous books might be known to people that we should put into a retrospective, because this is 30 years of stories. They wanted a new story, and that took me a while, I must say. But so, then what would be kind of the first one? So we decided to put “Machine Sex”—”(Learning About) Machine Sex” is its real name—put that into it as the first story, because that’s the story of mine that has been most anthologized. And we’ve put in “Sleeping in a Box,” which won what was then the Casper Award and is now the Aurora Award, and there were a couple of others that I felt kind of still had…still should be seen there, and we ended up with, I think it’s twenty-one stories now, if I’m not mistaken. For a while, it was seventeen, and then it increased again.
And, basically, they cover thirty years, and so when I was writing the notes for it, I started writing the notes with a little bit of an eye toward the history. So, if you read the notes, you get a little bit of the secret history of Canadian SF. I talk in there about the SF Canada workshop in 1986 in Peterborough. And Michael Skeet was there. I was there, John Park…trying to remember if Karl Schroeder…anyway, I have all the names in the book. And there were eight people there and their various spouses. Ursula Pflug was there, Wendy Pearson was there, who’s now mainly an academic, but she was writing fiction in those days. She’s at Western, University of Western Ontario, I think it is. And her partner, Susan Knabe, who is also an academic in the field now. Ursula was there with her baby and her husband, who’s a filmmaker, and Michael was there, and Lorna Toolis, of course, the librarian at the Merrill Collection for all those years was there when she could be, she had to work. And Judy Merrill ran it.
So, that was then. And things have changed considerably over the time, and so each…we decided to arrange the stories in chronological order by publication and just talk, I would talk about what was going on at the time in the notes. So, it’s been actually, I think, an interesting exercise. Like, if people really want to start thinking about how the network fit together, who was helping whom, who was talking to whom, in the field, they will find some good information in the back pages there. And also, they’ll find all these, thirty years of short fiction. And the last story is actually a brand-new story. Probably, it has some…I mean, I know that some of my stories were more intense than others, and there’s some that I particularly love.
The one that I wrote for Ursula Plug’s anthology, and Colleen Anderson’s anthology, Playground of Lost Toys, is one that I’m particularly proud of. It’s really an example of me as a slow writer, though, because I started writing that story when Nalo Hopkinson put out a call for her anthology called Mojo Conjure Stories, which were stories about, in essence, everyday magic, and people doing folkloric magic. And it always bugs me that writers in the fantasy field will swipe the folklore of other people and turn it into their plot devices and they won’t look necessarily to their own heritage, because, you know, Wendigo is cool, so I’m gonna write a story about Wendigo, kind of thing. And some of those stories you need to be given. And if you’re given them, if you do the work, if you go to the people who own them and you ask, then that’s a different matter. But just to say, oh, I think it’s really interesting that, you know, Voudon says this or, you know, Candomblé is based on this and I’ll just use it in my story. You have…you’re walking a fine line between colonialism or, you know, imperialism of some kind, and true homage.
And so, I just thought I would look at what’s the kind of magic that my people would do. You know, I’m a third- or fourth-generation settler on the prairies from a sort of Scots-English background, almost completely that. I have a few random…I have a probably a random Mennonite several, a couple of hundred years ago, and so on. But it’s mostly Scots and English. So, I’m thinking, “What’s the heritage I have?” And so I started thinking about my relatives and the kinds of things that prairie people do, like make flapper pie and eat Kraft dinners and put together jigsaw puzzles and wear L’eggs pantyhose and work at the dollar store, and so on. And I crafted those into a story about, what would the everyday magic be for those people? So, it’s around putting together jigsaw puzzles makes magic. And it ended up being a lovely story, but it was also, like, many years after Mojo Conjure Stories was gone and published and so on. And it just never made it, So, when Playground of Lost Toys came along. I figured, “Jigsaw puzzles equal toys. Hey!” And I finished the last little bits of it and sent it in, and I’m very pleased with it. It’s the kind of story that I can only read it and it makes me sniff with a little bit of emotion, and so, I like that.
Well, a lot about what I talk about on the podcast is, you know, the process of creating stories. And one of the great things about the story notes at the end of the book is that you do tell where these stories came from. But I don’t know that I see a particular theme as to how ideas come to you. It looks, like many of us, all sorts of things can spark a story idea in you. Is that fair to say?
Yes. And stories sort of start at different points, too. Like, I have had stories, and one of my novels, that started from a dream I had. And the novel became a novel because it took that long to make the elements of the dream into a story that made sense in anything other than an emotional arc, right? So…one of the things you need to know about me is I started writing short and started writing longer and longer pieces. So, it’s like that Eastern European proverb about, “How do you lift an ox? You start the day it’s born and you lift it every day.”
So, I wasn’t a natural novel writer. And, in general, my process is to start with a thing…and maybe you could think of it as, I don’t know if you save wrapping paper, but sometimes in my family we did, and there’d be this big tangle of ribbon and you’d pull the end of the ribbon and you’d just keep pulling it out and untangling it from all the stuff that isn’t that piece of ribbon. And so, I would assemble little pieces and move them around and it’s only later in my career have I written this…and I did it on purpose to see if I could…written a book where I started with, sort of the beginning, the first scene, and went in order to the end. And that’s the first mystery… I’ve just sold this series of three mysteries to ECW Press. Two of them are written, and I’m supposed to be writing the third one, probably right this minute, when you think about it.
But the first one came from, sort of an assignment I gave myself to just start at the beginning and write to the end. And I probably also did that when I was working with Nora Abercrombie on the three-day novel that we won. But I had, at least I had someone there to help me. Yeah, that was Hardwired Angel. And I think I’ve actually empowered certain of my students by saying, you know, you don’t have to write an order and you don’t have to write fast. It’s true that the industry demands a book a year from some kinds of writers and you can get into that rhythm once, you know, once you have the experience, but everybody is their own kind of writer, and you just have to learn what kind you are. Which is not like…I say to them, it’s not an excuse to be lazy, it’s not an excuse to say, “Well, I’m not going to do that because it’s too much work and I’m not that kind of writer anyway,” you know? No, that’s not what I’m saying. But if you’re like me and you hate to know the ending…like, I truly find that if I have an entire outline planned out before I start, my impetus to write goes down to ten percent of what it was, if that, because I just, I write to find out what happens.
And other people love the outlining, and they put up their little index cards and stuff, and then they write for a while, and of course then the characters take over and create chaos within the story. And so, you know, there’s a moment when I have to get organized, but it’s usually when I’ve got quite a bit of stuff written and I have to think about what comes next in a more organized way. But quite often my instinct for story will drive me down a certain road when I’m not even sure I should be including that in the book, and it’ll turn out to be the right thing.
What is your actual…like, do you write in a keyboard, Do you write longhand? How do you like to work?
Well, that depends on what I’m writing. I pretty much always write poems longhand. And I do have a notebook beside my bed that I will occasionally write a scene down in. But, over the years…I was an early adopter of computers. I was actually an early adopter of typewriters, because my godfather gave me his 1922 Underwood when he got a modern typewriter in the 1960s, and I learned to type quite early. And I understood that if I typed it right, I would never have to type it again, and that was kind of powerful. When computers came out, I was freelance writing and I pretended that it was all about my business, and that it was a business decision. But what it really was, was, “Oh, my gosh, I get to do this where if I do it right, I will never have to retype another manuscript, and I can do this cutting and pasting stuff and I can do this alteration stuff,” it was tremendously exciting. And so, my first computer was this twenty-six-pound KayPro, which was considered portable in those days, made by an oscilloscope company…
I remember those!
Yeah. Ten-inch screen, and the first one had 63K of memory, and then you put a floppy disk in it to save your files, and the floppy disks were 5 1/4 inch. And then, they got a hard drive. It was ten whole megabytes. I thought I would never need another storage device in my life. It was so exciting. Anyway, so I was an early adopter. So, I got trained pretty early to type stuff. So, for the prose, I generally tend to type, but if something strikes me, if I have a good idea while I’m just about to go to sleep, I will grab the notebook and write it and then transcribe it later. But I know people who still write, like, their first draft in fountain pen, and…in one of the courses I teach, I have to talk about this, but, there is actually science to say that writing on a keyboard, if you’re taking notes, gives you less retention than writing.
Yeah, I saw that.
But I don’t know what that means if you’re generating it. I do know that if I were a better typist, there are all sorts of cool techniques that people that I know have done to make their first drafts were better. And one of them is a woman I knew who turned off her monitor for the first draft. But she was a good enough typist that what was there made sense when she turned them back on. Whereas I’m a terrible typist and I’m always correcting. And I look at, you know, I look at the screen and the keyboard all the time, I never learned any of the typing techniques. The attitude to typing that they had then was that it led to a stenographic career, so girls didn’t take typing. And I was very careful not to cross that line, but I kind of regretted it, because I wanted to write. But my sister taught me, who had taken typing, taught me to type on my Underwood when I was just a little kid. But I had such weak…like, I had tiny hands. And you have to lift the carriage return, or the capital key, the Shift key, was a literal shift, and you had to push it down, and it was very heavy. So as a result, I never learned to type with the right fingers.
But it doesn’t really matter. I think that the computer has been so helpful for so many because it’s a lot like writing by hand. You can write things that aren’t in order. You can go back and forth. You can cut and paste. You can add things. You can move lots of texts. You can copy things. You can keep…I mean, people who write with Scrivener can keep files on all their characters and all their settings and all their research in the same place. I mean, it’s just…it’s quite marvelous. And I think it actually helps the creative process have that kind of freedom from linearity.
What does your revision process look like? Is it all kind of a unit, where you just work away at it and it takes shape and then it’s done? Or do you ever go back and start at the beginning and do a complete rewrite, or how does that work for you?
I am not a complete-rewrite person. I hate to talk about this because I don’t think it’s common. But the thing that I write down, by the time I write it down, is very close to the end thing. So my revision consists of fiddling around a little bit. Like, I hardly ever…I have hardly ever in my whole career taken a scene and just axed it and written a whole new scene. But I might put something aside. That doesn’t seem to fit. More often than not…like, I have very little of that had-to-try-this detritus lying around in my hard drive. It’s…to talk about my own process, I actually want to talk about my partner, Timothy Anderson’s, process, because he can be quite infuriating to sit across the room from while he’s writing and I’m writing, because he has everything in his head and he types it out. Like, he doesn’t…and it’s not conscious, he’s not walking around saying, “Oh, this character needs to do this,” but somehow there’s this story build-up that goes on in his head that’s way more conscious than it is in mine. And when he has some time, he sits down from across…and he can type fast, so he can write four to twelve thousand words in a day, if that’s all he’s doing, because he just types. It’s absolutely infuriating. It’s just so infuriating. Because I go type, type, type. Silence, silence, silence. Type, type. Silence. Type a bit. Silence. But when I put the thing on paper, it’s as if part of my mind is doing the same as his. It’s putting the story together, but it’s not doing it in my conscious sight.
So, when I type, what I’ve had to learn is to just trust, to type what’s there, what’s coming out, and see where it fits later. And especially with novels. I remember…your listeners might or might not know that the novel I’m best known for is called Black Wine, and it’s a rather complicated fantasy novel in which a number of braided stories turn out to all be related in the end. And when I first started writing it, it was…I thought it was gonna be a longish short story that was sort of a quest: young woman goes off looking for her mother who went away when she was a child, all in a fantasy landscape. And it was Marie Jakober, when I was telling her about it, who said, “Oh, Candas, this sounds like a novel.” And I was thinking, “Oh, no, oh, please, no.” But yeah, it was a novel. So I started typing.
And one day, I had gone to my friend’s, David Greer’s, house on Pender Island for a writing retreat, he had a lovely little cabin there, and I’m typing on my KayPro, and all of a sudden, the sentence I type, like, the first sentence I typed that day is, “There is a madwoman in a cage in the courtyard.” Now, this just came out of nowhere, nowhere, and luckily. I was smart enough not to say to myself, “Oh, this has nothing to do with what you’re writing. Don’t type any further.” And so, I just kept typing, and suddenly there was this young woman with amnesia who was sort of like a waif figure, and she was bringing this woman food, and they were talking in this language that the waif hadn’t realized she knew until she heard the woman speaking it…because amnesia, right? And I’m thinking, “What is this?” But something in me said, “This is part of your story.” And that ended up being the first scene in the book.
Once I had written all these pieces of book, I then arranged them in a bunch of orders, and some of the orders worked and some of the orders didn’t, and that ended up the first scene. And how I got smart enough to just keep typing, I have no idea. But I’ve always been really grateful for it, because many years later that novel emerged and that was the beginning of it. And then we discover later how it all fits with quest-girl and her mother and all the other people in the book, and it all kind of fits together, but you don’t really find out till about page 100, and even then, speaking of the revision process, David Hartwell bought that novel for Tor Books. That was funny, too, because he was buying a story of mine and one of the forwards to the Tesseracts Anthologies for his book Northern Stars, which was a Canadian science fiction anthology he co-edited with Glenn Grant and…I think it was Northern Stars, which was the first one…anyway…when my voice gets fades away, there’s because I’m looking up at my shelf of books to see if I can see the spine of it…but in any case, so he has me on the phone and I said, “Oh, David, you know, I’ve had this novel sitting on my desk for like a year now and I don’t know who to send it to. Could you give me some some some hints, some suggestions about who you think might want it?” And there’s this silence at the other end of the phone. And then this exasperated voice says, “Well, send it to me.” And I thought, “Oh, yeah, right, you’re the, you know, one of the most influential editors at the most influential publishing house, but I never thought of that.” And, indeed, he bought it. And what he…the only real change he made was, he said, “People have to wait till about page 150 or 175 to find out what’s going on for sure. They’re not going to wait that long. You have to move one of these scenes up a little earlier in the book.” So I moved it up to about page 100 and then he said, “That’s good.” And so, really his editing consisted of, “Move these things around a little.”
He was more active with the second book, because he would say things like, “These scenes are too long, you’ve got to fix them.” And I then figured out why and fixed them. But the first book, there was almost, almost nothing was changed. It was just moved a bit. And on the level of the sentences, some sentences were sanded until they had smoother edges. Including that very first sentence.
We’ve done an hour here, so I want to wrap things up. But I have to wrap it up with the big philosophical question that I ask everyone. And you spend a lot of time thinking about writing and you teach writing. And so the big question is simply, why? Why do you write and why do you think any of us write. And, specifically, why do we write stories of the fantastic? Why do we tell stories?
Well, when I’m being flippant, I say I write because there’s only two things I do well, and the other one is illegal to sell. But, no, I think…well, I know that it’s a human imperative to tell stories and to make sense of our environment through storytelling and through arranging things into a story. There’s even research…this woman whose name I forget at the moment, who pioneered a lot of research into nursing practice using narrative inquiry, which in itself is storytelling, right? It’s “ask the nurses to tell the stories of their practice.” And she actually did a study where she particularly interviewed bad nurses and asked them the same thing she asked the nurses in her general studies. And the main finding she had was that bad nurses could not make narrative out of their experience. They could not tell the story of their nursing practice.
And this, of course, makes me think of, in my social-work years and child-care work years, makes me think of the dysfunctional families, who would have secrets and lies but they don’t have stories that they pass on. They don’t have, they don’t know when the kids were born or when they moved here from Ontario or when so-and-so started school or whether they won an award or whatever. Whereas, certainly in my family, those memories were dearly, dearly kept and re-told as story. So, I think all humans try to make sense of their situation. And you think about someone who was raised in a dysfunctional family and they go to therapy. What’s the first thing they tell them to do? They tell him to tell his story. They tell them to, the first thing they do is to tell them to tell the story of their own lives. So they try and put together a coherent narrative out of their memories and what happened to them and their lives. That’s a kind of storytelling, too, right? It’s a kind of making order out of the universe. And I think those of us who…well, I don’t know if I can generalize, but certainly, when I look at the body of my work, it’s all about justice and injustice. It’s about hope and transformation because of things…
Particularly, when I was twenty years old, I got a job as a child-care worker for four years with teenage girls. And at that point, I was still complaining about my family of origin and how mean they were or whatever. Well, no, they weren’t. They were brilliant. I mean, there may have been some dysfunction in our family, as there is in every family. But I saw things that were horrifying and tragic and just left me with enough anger to basically fuel all the stories for life, and to some degree, I’m still telling those stories. And I thought about John Gardner’s book On Moral Fiction and how he talks about moral fiction is a fiction that kind of seeks justice. And fantasy novels are considered one of the kinds. The quest novel or the good-versus-evil novel, mystery novels, and romance. So he talks very specifically about the genres, and the reason that they’re so popular is because they restore order in the universe and in that way they are not religiously moral, but they are moral in the sense of a universal order, an ethical way of living, whatever.
So, I think we tell stories to create order and restore order and give people hope that there are solutions and answers and that there are people like them and that there are things they can do in the world. They don’t have to be inert. They can be agents of their own change and other people’s change. And I think, at the base level, that’s why I tell stories. The challenge is not to tell lectures, because I could give, as I am doing now, a little rant on why that’s important, or I could tell a story. But if I try to tell a story and all it is is a rant, it’s not a successful story. So, you have to put real people in a situation where their lives and love and emotional well-being and physical well-being depend on the resolution of these issues, and that then becomes an allegory for other people who read it to say, “I can submerge myself in this and I can see parallels to my own life and I can learn new things.
I do urge people…the last thing I’ll say is, I urge people to have a look, in our field, to have a look at John Clute and his fellow editors..it was John Klute and John Grant for one, and John Clute and Peter Nichols for another…the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. And there is a definition of fantasy in there that has something that I say to all my writing classes. It talks about the progression of a story from an initial wrongness through a state of thinning, where the world or the person’s reality is kind of thinned and hollowed out. And then comes a moment…and this is a beautiful sentence that I love, and I might as well finish with this, “A moment where the protagonist gazes upon the shriveled heart of the thinned world and knows what to do.” And that revelation is followed by a metamorphosis or a set of actions that lead to what Klute calls the eucatastrophe, like, the good, the resolution of the story, basically. And that leads to a return, a healing, a return of just governance, all the things that we recognize in fantasy.
But in my mind, you can put any type of fiction on that loom and look at that journey, and I often say to my students that modern literary fiction, especially what is sometimes called the MFA short story, is trapped in thinning every bit as much as a horror story is, right? So, literary fiction is still on it, too, and it fits in with his taxonomy. So if people want to know more about that, they just should look at the encyclopedia. It’s online. They can just look for the definition of fantasy and read the whole thing.
But I think that’s why people tell stories. Certainly why I do. And for a while, I was thinking it was also the only thing I knew really how to do and how to earn money doing. And that was when I started doing the visual art, because it was wordless and I could paint things and just feel the sense of creating for the sake of creating. And that created for me…that gave me a return to the way I had felt when I was first writing, and then I was able to kind of renew my own writing. So that’s that’s where I’m at now. And I’m actually quite happily writing away on this new book and I have another book waiting and another editor. So, if things work out, I’ll have this little cluster of about five books coming. Well, counting Ice, that’ll be six, coming out within a few years after a very long period of not publishing much.
And that was actually my next question. You mentioned the young adult book as one thing that was potentially coming up. And what are the other things that you’re working on right now?
Well, there’s a series of three mystery novels that are kind of nameless, slightly hard-bitten detective. But what she is, is a bisexual, downsized social worker with a cat who’s called Bunnywit, that he’s only called Bunnywit because she used to call him Fuckwit, but then when her cousin, the born-again Christian, came to visit, she was insulted by the cat having an obscenity in its name, so she had to learn to call it Bunnywit. And she’s been unemployed for a year, and things are getting to…she’s gotten down to her last box of fish sticks when someone offers her a job that’s related to a crime has been committed, and she sort of becomes an unwilling, unwillingly involved in the crime. And it goes on from there. So. the first one is called The Adventures of Isabel, and all the chapter headings were taken from the Ogden Nash poem. The second one is called What’s The Matter With Mary Jane? and all the headings are taken from the AA Milne poem. And the third one is called, that I’m working on right now, not sure if it’s called, The Man Who Wasn’t There, or He Wasn’t There Again Today. But it’s that little poem about, “As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. Oh, how I wish he’d go away.” And so, they’re a bit of a series. Things happen as do happen in mystery series. And they’re also a little bit stylistically different with each one, which is part of the fun.
And then, so there’s the YA, which is called The Story of My Life Ongoing, and it’s narrated, sort of…it’s epistolary, and it has an intersex teen who is going through some stuff. But it’s not about being intersex, it’s about the stuff, and another teen that they meet that’s also going through stuff. So, we’ll see how that goes. And I wrote it quite a long time ago, so my struggle is I have to update it for the modern, much more aware era, thirteen years later. So there’s the three mystery novels, there’s that, then there’s the great looming serious novel that I worked on for years, which is now sitting with an editor who, as usual, is taking some time. I probably should send him a message saying, “Er, um, excuse me?”
I should mention, too, that Wayne Arthurson, the Edmonton nystery writer, decided that he’d like to try being an agent, and he took on my mystery novels and he was the one that placed it. So it was his first deal as an agent and my first deal with an agent. So it was a tremendously exciting moment. And I also joke that I never thought I would actually get to say the words “three-book deal” about my own books, because I’m not usually that kind of a writer. I’m usually a slow one-at-a-time writer. But this was a bit different, and then…I never mention the advances because I read all these stories in the American media, but about six-figure advances. And I say, “Well, I got a six-figure advance, but it had a decimal point in it.”
Yeah, I’ve gotten those.
And I’m actually happy with that because, frankly, you want to earn your advance out. You don’t want to be paid a huge amount of money. And then what if the book doesn’t sell enough to earn out? Then you have a bad reputation in the industry, whether it’s fair or not. And I don’t think it’s fair. So I’d rather have a small advance and then a success.
For readers who want to keep up with what you’re doing, can they find you online and where can they find you?
Oh, that’s something that’s a work in progress because I’ve actually…I had a Web site and I was just about to populate it when WordPress updated and broke it and I never got back to it. So my project for the winter, in order to avoid writing, is I thought I would try to get my website back in order and start a bit of a blog and I don’t know if what I will do is blog about things of interest, little rants, or whether I would make it specific to the process of writing and try and accumulate enough of that material for a book or what? And we’ll see. So you can find me in a search, but it’s not going to give you an up-to-date Web site. It’s going to give you a site that the Writers Union put up years ago and a Wikipedia entry that’s out of date and a little bit wrong, not a lot wrong, but just a teeny bit. They don’t allow you to edit your own.
And so I’m sort of there. I’m visible. But you can find out how to order my book, though, because it, most of the orders that PS Publishing does are mail orders. And so, just look up PS Publishing and Ice & Other Stories. And it is really a pretty book. So you will like…I say this to all your listeners…you will like it. I know you will.
Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, Candace. It’s been a great chat.
OK. Well, thank you for letting me go on and on. I really enjoyed it. And I’m looking forward to hearing it and the others that you’re talking about, because you told me you have some great people coming up, and so, it’s always good to follow.
James Alan Gardner got his bachelor’s and master’s in math with a thesis on black holes, then immediately began writing science fiction instead. He has published ten novels and numerous short stories, including finalists for the Nebula and Hugo and winners for the Aurora, the Asimov’s Readers’ Choice Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His most recent novels are All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, first book in the Dark vs. Spark series, and They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, the second book, both from Tor. In his spare time, he plays a lot of tabletop roleplaying games and has recently begun writing material for Onyx Path’s Scion line. In his other spare time, he teaches kung fu to six-year-olds.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, James.
Thanks, Edward. Glad to be here.
I guess we’ve kind of known each other for a long time, but we don’t encounter each other very often. But we did see each other at When Worlds Collide, which is something…When Words Collide. It always comes out as When Worlds Collide.
Yeah, yeah. It’s a great idea and a great title. And it was a great con this year.
Was that the first time you’d been?
It’s close to me, so I’m there most years. It gets plugged a lot on The Worldshapers, ’cause I’ve asked a number of writers to be on after I saw them at When Words Collide.
Well, if I can make it next year, I certainly will. I had a great time there.
And I guess this is a good place to mention to those interested that the website for that is WhenWordsCollide.org. It does fill up every year, so if you’re interested in going, it wouldn’t hurt to to sign up for next year, right now. But enough about that, let’s talk about you! I always start by taking guests back into the mists of time, and for you and me, it’s roughly the same amount of mists, to find out, first of all, when you became interested in writing, and when you became interested in writing science fiction. I’ve seen from other interviews that you started writing pretty early.
Yes. I still have some of the things that I wrote when I was, like, five. They are hiding in my parents’ house and I hope they will never see the light of day. The first thing…I can remember writing what would be called fanfic these days, which was in my time based on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—which tells how old I was—and me and my friends were spies: the standard thing that one writes when one is…I guess I was twele at the time…and I kept writing some of that for a while.
I wrote several plays when I was in high school, but I really got serious in my first year of university. I was in co-op at the University of Waterloo, and there the co-op program is sort of four months in school, then four months in work placement, and I was working for IBM in Toronto, where I knew no one, and didn’t have a whole lot of money. But writing was cheap. So, for four months on my work term in Toronto, I amused myself by writing science fiction. And none of that was saleable, but bit by bit, I got better.
Well, I think it’s come up a few times on here with different authors, the famous saying…I always attribute it to Stephen King, that you had to write half a million words of unpublishable stuff before you wrote anything publishable, but then somebody recently who’d met Ray Bradbury said that he used to say 800,000 words.
Yeah, yeah. A whole bunch of junk before you get down to the good stuff underneath.
Yeah, that’s what it boils down to. So, you got your bachelor’s and master’s in math, but you never actually used that? You went straight into writing? Or what happened after you graduated?
I went…for two years after I got my master’s, I tried to write something significant. I was working on a novel…and I still like the idea for the novel, I might…every now and then, I think, “Is it time to write that? Maybe. Probably not yet.” But for two years I tried to make a living writing while tutoring calculus. That was my income. And at the same time, I was also writing for a musical comedy review at the university, and someone who was associated with that show put me in contact with a group in the computer science department who wanted someone to write computer manuals for them. So, I got a job half-time writing computer manuals, and that kept me in money for long enough for me to start selling stories and things.
Well, it’s interesting, because when I decided to be a full-time writer, one of the things that got me going was there was a market for, you know, general computer books at the time. So, people ask me what my first book is, and I always say, well, my first book was actually Using Microsoft publisher for Windows 95. And my second book was the sequel, Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 97.
Ah! I have a few Unix books out there that I, you know, they’re on the shelf, but I’m not proud of them.
Well, I was never that technical, but at the time there was actually a market at the level of, “To open a file, click FILE>OPEN.” That’s the kind of level I was writing at. And I was interested, too, that you wrote plays and this musical comedy revue…
…because that’s another side of what I do. I’m an actor and singer and performer, and I’ve done…I’ve written plays, as well. And I like to ask the writers who have done that sort of thing, if you find your theater background helps in the writing of fiction. For me, it feels that it does. But I’m always interested to see if others have the same experience.
Oh, yes, immensely. So, I did…first of all, this onstage musical comedy thing, and then a group of us who helped write for that started writing straight-up plays and radio dramas. And sometime in there, I got into improv and took a number of improv classes. And all those things go together into…theater gives you immediate feedback on whether your writing works or not, by the amount you cringe when you hear your lines being said. You learn a bit on fool-proofing dialogue. And certainly, improv gives you some good practice in structuring scenes and figuring out how actions go together to make plot.
I often feel that, having directed plays and stuff like that, I feel like I have a very solid image in my head at all times of where characters are in relationship to each other in the space in which the scene is happening, and when I tutor younger or beginning writers—and I’m writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library right now—I’ve done quite a bit of that—and one thing I often find is, it’s like a gray fog in which everything is happening.
And I’m not entirely certain where everybody is in relationship to each other. You get an image of them in one place and the next thing you know, they’re looking out the window, but they never left the fireplace in your head.
I think theater helps with that.
Yeah. Certainly, just plain old scene choreography helps. Theatre contributes to that a lot. As you say, who’s where and what’s actually there. The idea of what is in the room besides the characters is hugely useful when you’re trying to figure out what the characters do in response to some problem. There’s almost always something in the room that they can use, if you’ve envisioned the room well enough to actually have stuff there.
And if you plant it in the right place and in the story so it doesn’t materialize out of thin air.
Yes. Well, you know, whenever you write a story, every scene has to take place someplace. Every time someone goes into a room, you pretty much have to describe the room and you want to describe interesting things in the room, and just that description, first of all, trying to come up with something that is interesting and not the same old, same old, will give you material to use later on in the scene.
What you said about fool-proofing dialogue is actually something that Orson Scott Card said when I interviewed him for The Worldshapers, and he’s done a lot of theatre, and he actually had a role in your breaking in, didn’t he? Because he was at Clarion West when you were there?
Yes. He was the first teacher in my year at Clarion West. He gave me really good feedback on a story that he liked a great deal, and that was actually my first published story. He put in a good word for me with the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and so when I sent that story to the editor, it sold, and that was my first pro SF sale.
Before you went to Clarion, had you taken any other formal writing training?
Yeah. Between…the summer of when I got my bachelor’s, I went to Banff, the Banff Centre for Fine Arts, and took a writing course there. W.O. Mitchell was the grandfather of it all, but it was…Alice Munro was there, so, you know, hanging out with some pretty impressive people, and got a lot of good feedback on my writing and how to set about writing stories.
So, I ask science fiction fantasy writers about their formal training…now clearly, at Clarion, science fiction and fantasy is what people are writing, but usually in other writing programs it is not, and there’s sometimes a…
Sometimes it’s not a comfortable fit with what the program is about. Did you find that, or did it or did you find it helpful that it wasn’t science-fiction focused?
Yeah, I don’t think I wrote a great deal of science-fiction content while I was at Banff. It was mostly…the method, what W.O. Mitchell called “Mitchell’s messy method,” was just sitting down and seeing what spontaneously arose as you were at the typewriter. And at that point, I was writing a lot of memoir-type things, as opposed to actual fiction, and finding what inside of me wanted to be written was very useful for that. The real trick after that is figuring out how to shape that material into actual stories. And once I got started with that, kind of marrying my own memories with science fiction was kind of fun and useful.
Was Mitchell there when you were there?
The reason I ask is because W.O. Mitchell is famously from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, which is where I grew up, and I got to meet him once when he came doing a reading for his book, Roses Are Difficult Here, I think is what it was, when I was at the newspaper down there. He was an interesting guy.
Yeah, he’s a fun guy, and, of course, a great raconteur, or was, so he was great to have in classes. And we all had, I think, a fifteen-minute session with all of the writers in residence. It was, you know, in some sense similar to Clarion, in that the writers were brought in for, I think, four or five days, and each of the students had a chance to show the writers their stuff and get some feedback on it.
The other thing I like to mention about Mitchell is that, when I did see him in Weyburn, there was a woman there named Sadie Bowerman, who was the first white baby to be born in Weyburn, she was still alive then. And she’d been his schoolteacher, and she got after him—she must have been in her eighties by then—she got after him for using bad language. So, writers can relate. You never know who’s going to pop up out of your past.
That’s right. I have a few English teachers who have caught up with me over the years and, you know, kind of patted me on the back. And again, some of them have chided me for using bad language.
The other thing I want to mention about Weyburn, Saskatchewan, is that Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, so Weyburn is a very important place in the tapestry of…well, much more for him than me, I wasn’t born there, but I grew up there.
A hotbed of literature.
Yeah, exactly. Well, you started with short fiction. Did you write that exclusively for a while, or did you immediately try to write novels, or how did that work for you?
Well, I think I wrote a novel…back when I was in high school, I got pneumonia the year after…sorry, the summer after…I graduated, and was basically locked in the house for the entire summer and spent some time writing a novel-like thing. I wouldn’t call it a novel, but it was a long piece of fiction. So…gee, I forget about doing that. I always think that my writing started when I was in university co-op, but no, that summer where I had nothing else to do. But that was kind of an amusement more than a, “Yes, I’m going to be a writer.”
Still, part of your half a million words that you had to…
That’s right. Yeah. Never gonna rewrite that one. That was self-indulgent, as only high-school students can be.
Yeah. So, when did your first novel come along?
My…so, I wrote it…I wrote several novels before I actually published something. So, I was in Clarion in ’89 and was writing short stories and started a novel sometime after that. And I think there were two novels that didn’t go anywhere—and thank heavens they never saw the light of day—before I wrote Expendable, which was published in ’97.
And so now we’re up to how many novels?
Ten, eleven. I guess it’s eleven now.
Are you still writing a lot of short fiction?
Off and on. I can write novels for two or three hours a day, at least the first early drafts of novels, and that gives…so I write in the morning, and in the afternoon, I want to write something different. So, I sometimes write short fiction. Sometimes I write the gaming material that you mentioned in my biography. Sometimes I do freelance editing jobs for various people. So, afternoons I have several hours when I do something besides the novel in progress, and short stories are one of the things I do then.
Okay, well, that’s kind of getting us into the process part of this of the podcast, which is what I’m going to focus on next. So, let’s move on to that. So, we’re gonna focus on All Those Explosions were Someone Else’s Fault, just as an example of your creative process, and see how that ties in with the way you write everything, but before we do that…I have not finished the book; very much enjoying it, it’s a lot of fun…
So, perhaps you can give a synopsis for those who have not read it, without giving away anything that I haven’t read yet.
Ok. Well, the setup is that in the early 1980s, vampires, werewolves, demons, et cetera, come out of the closet and basically say, “Why have we been keeping ourselves secret? We have a saleable asset here. You want to be one of us, pay us $10 million and we’ll make you a vampire or a werewolf or a demon.” And within twenty years, all the movers and shakers, or the wealthy, influential people, are basically darklings. So…and then in the year 2000, suddenly superheroes start appearing. And so you’ve got this world where the rich one percent are essentially monsters and the ninety-nine percent are protected by the people who were stupid enough to touch the glowing meteor or fall in the vat of weird chemicals, or were just, you know, born as mutants. And so, the background setup is the dark one percent versus the super ninety-nine percent, or the supers who represent the ninety-nine percent, who protect them.
And then the story follows four science students at the University of Waterloo who get into a weird lab accident and gain superpowers and become involved in the shenanigans that were responsible for the lab accident. And a supervillain is part of it all, and a cabal of darklings who are up to no good, and the whole thing takes place in something like nine hours on the night of the winter solstice.
And it’s a humorous novel.
Yes, it is. It’s done for laughs. It could…the setup could get very dire with horrible people running the world, but I like playing it for laughs, and the four characters who get superpowers are all funny in their various ways. The first book is about Kim, who is a geology student who…queer—non-binary, anyway…who has a wry view of the world. The second centers on Jules, who is a wonderful, incautious, brash person, and the plan is for four novels, one on each of the superheroes, having them go through their big life change. I think that a novel should be about a huge moment in a character’s life, and each of the four heroes…I mean, “Hey, you’ve just become super. What does that do to you?” And for each of them, it kind of brings to the fore something that they haven’t dealt with, baggage that they haven’t dealt with. And they’re each going to be forced to confront this stuff that they’ve been ignoring for much of their life and deal with their issues one way or another.
So, what was the seed for this and how does that tie into the way that stories appear for you, in general? I’m trying to avoid saying “Where do you get your ideas?”, but that’s basically the question.
You know, I don’t…the seed was the idea of the superheroes-versus-darkling type things, and the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent, which was relevant at the time I started writing this. You know, it was…the Occupy movement had been taking place. I mean, that’s where I get the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent. And it was a time when the politics of the whole thing was kind of in your face.
And I had also done a lot of roleplaying in various contexts. So, if people are familiar with the White Wolf games, which later became Onyx Path, or were…Onyx Path started writing for the same game lines…you could be a vampire or a werewolf or some other type of creature of the night. And that was one set of roleplaying that I had done, but I’d also done a lot of superhero roleplaying.
And putting them together, as far as I know, had never been done before, but was a really cool idea. As soon as I had the idea, I Googled like mad to see if there was anything like this out there, and there wasn’t. Urban fantasy was big at that point. Superhero fiction was just starting to become more prevalent. One of the things that interests me is that superhero comics have been around for eighty years, but superheroes in prose fiction really hadn’t been done a lot before, say, fifteen years ago? There were a few novelizations of superhero movies, but until…fan fiction for sure and the Marvel superhero movies came out…there hadn’t been a lot of superheroes in prose fiction, but that kind of opened up and now there’s a whole ton of it.
Well, it is an interesting juxtaposition. Certainly, I’ve never encountered the two things put together like that, so it’s very interesting.
Yeah, I hadn’t seen it before. I still haven’t seen it. So, it’s kind of fun to be able to play with that without too much competition.
Now, that’s how this came about. Is that fairly typical of your story generation. Is it basically just ideas bubble up and bounce into each other?
I think I go back to what I said about stories being about some huge pivotal moment in a character’s life. So, whatever the seed for a story is, the next thing I want to know is what character is going to experience the setup and what sort of transition are they going to go through. So, often I think of some dramatic situation, some sort of ticking bomb that is going to cause trouble in some setting. But then immediately I say, “OK, well, what character is going to face this problem and what is it going to put them in?” When I was…you told me ahead of time that we were going to be talking about All Those Explosions, and I went back through my notes, and…on the book as I was developing it…and it’s constantly, “What problem is this going to cause for the characters and what sort of transitions are they going to go through because of it?”
Well, and that’s the very next question. What does your planning process look like once you had this idea? It sounds like the characters come perhaps even before you have the plot worked out?
Absolutely. So, it’s useful to have some sort of background problem that is going to force the characters to act—a ticking bomb, so that even if the characters are, you know, lost, or I’m lost because I don’t know what happens next, there’s going to be some pressure to deal with the situation. But I think a novel is about an overt exterior situation, but it also has to be about a character facing some sort of crisis in their life, so constantly, when I develop things, I’m thinking, “OK, what is this going to put the character through? What is the next thing? How are the screws going to tighten on the character?” Not just in terms of the urgency of the external situation, but the development of the internal situation, too.
So, how do you find those characters? How do you decide what your characters are going to be? I mean, Kim is, in her own words, I believe, a “short, queer Asian kid.”
Which, you know, is not you. So…
How did you decide?
Really…so, the first time I…the first draft…Kim was Asian, but not queer. And, she…the situation…so, for people who haven’t read the book, one of the first things she does is, she comes across an old flame of hers, someone she knew in high school. Really, her first serious boyfriend, who has become a darkling, who was always a rich kid who knew he was going to be a darkling as soon as he was old enough to be transformed. And that relationship went bad, and basically, the…Kim was a bland character who didn’t have a whole lot of personality. And one thing I often do when I’m trying to get a handle on characters, especially when trying to get a handle on personality, is sit down and improv stuff in their tone of voice—just sit at the typewriter…or the computer, of course, these days…and write a diatribe from them as fast as I can and see what just pops out. So, this is Mitchell’s messy method again, just sitting down and blast it out and see what pops out. And Kim’s queerness came from that. I was blasting away, basically a monologue, and it just completely took me by surprise when she started talking about, “No, I’m not as binary as you think,” sort of thing.
And there were several days there when I thought, “Oh, shit. Am I going to actually write a non-binary character?”, you know, a straight middle-aged white guy writing a queer young university-age Asian. Did I have the nerve to do that, and how much homework would I have to do in order to not be that guy writing someone who I had no right to write? But that’s what was…that was the voice that came to me, and eventually I said, “Yeah, OK, I’ve got to go with this.”
Well, she is a very interesting voice.
Yeah. Yeah. And once I had that handle on the character, a whole lot of things came out and the character came alive, and some of the situations that were dead on the page in the first draft took on a whole different character and really much more interesting resonance than they had been in the first draft.
Did you do something similar with your other main characters?
Yeah. So, Nicholas had the same process. I did, you know, a soliloquy from his point of view, and not so much with the other three superheroes, because I knew their books were going to be coming along later. When I did the Jules book, which is They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, the sequel to All Those Explosions, I did do soliloquies from her point of view. And for the future books, I will be doing the same thing. It’s just a really useful way to unlock what inhibitions have been keeping…holding me back from doing, going as far as I need to for a character.
Once you’ve developed the character, you have an idea for the setup, how much of an outline or planning do you do? Is it a very detailed? Are you a pantser or a plotter?
I’m mostly a pantser, but especially because I’m writing superhero things, I want there to be some great set pieces. So, I plan for interesting places where big superhero action can take place. So, in All Those Explosions, there are several big superhero-vs.-monster action things, and I figured out where they were going to take place and sort of some context for why they were happening, and an overarching plot for them.
So, in All Those Explosions…well, Waterloo has a number of tourist attractions and I want, over the course of the series, to destroy them all. So, in the first book, I trash the Waterloo market, which is the St. Jacob’s Market, which is a big farmer’s market. In the second one, I trash a popular club, the Transylvania Club, which is just, you know, a name like that is asking to be associated with monsters. And the third one, Waterloo has a clay and glass gallery, the National Clay and Glass Gallery.
I mean, I got to have a fight there. And Clay and Glass is right next to the Perimeter Institute, which is an institute of theoretical physics, a kind of a world-class physics research center. So, trashing both the Clay and Glass and Perimeter is kind of a gimme. And I don’t know what I’m going to trash for the final book, but we’ll see.
There is some fun to that. The last book in my young adult series, The Shards of Excalibur, the final big climactic battle takes place at a provincial park called Cannington Manor. I do a pretty good job on it, too.
Yeah, I mean, if you’re going to take a place…if you’re going to have your story take place in a real location, then let’s make use of the location. And especially with, you know, if you’re going to have superheroes, there is going to be a large set of smoking rubble.
And I still remember the Jim Butcher, I don’t remember which book it was, in the Dresden Files, where Sue the Tyrannosaurus comes to life.
Yeah, a super thing. I just loved that episode. Yeah, I don’t remember which book it was, but…
So, you talked a little bit about your actual writing process, you know, three hours in the morning and work on other things in the afternoon. Do you just work at home, are you a go-out-to-a-coffee-shop guy? I gather you type and don’t do it longhand or anything like that…
Oh, I do some things in longhand. If a particular scene is not working out well, I go longhand and I write it out. I’m working right now on a haunted-house novel, and this morning I spent writing really the first scene of a particular character, because I really wanted to slow down and cover the bases and really get the character’s voice down on the page. So, when I want to…writing fast is useful, but writing slow is also useful.
Well, then, speaking of that, are you a fast writer or a slow writer when you average the two things together?
I’m not superfast. I can I usually do about a thousand words a day. So, you know, some people do a lot more than that, several thousand words a day, and I’ve done that, but usually, a thousand is good. And that’s for my morning stuff. In the afternoon. I would do maybe the same amount again, depending on whether I’m writing new stuff or revising old stuff.
When you get to the end, you have a draft, have you done sort of rolling revisions, so it’s pretty clean at that point, or do you go back and do a complete rewrite, or how does that work for you?
I do some rolling revisions, but usually I have to go back and do several more drafts. So, as I say, I’m mostly a pantser for the first draft, which means that there’s rough-around-the-edges stuff. So, the haunted-house novel, which is the one I’m thinking of, the rough draft ending was really, “Yeah, OK, I’m gonna keep writing it, but I doubt that I’m going to keep any of it.” The second draft is pretty good. I like the action of the ending, except that the precipitating incident…so, there’s something that makes all hell break loose, and I like the hell that breaks loose, but I’m not so crazy about what actually kicks things off. So, I’m going to at least have to rewrite that again, which will probably necessitate a few other changes. So, I’m refining things as I go along and I hope it’s no more than three drafts, but…that’s about typical for what I’m doing.
You’ve been published by various publishers, which means you’ve worked with a lot of different editors. What typically comes back to you from editors to work on? If anything.
I don’t get a whole lot of structural stuff. It’s mostly cosmetic or, you know, “I didn’t understand this,” or, “This chapter is slow,” or something like that. So, I don’t get…once or twice. I’ve had people, an editor, say, “No, this ending just doesn’t work.” But mostly it’s, “I didn’t understand their motivation for doing this,” or, you know, “Polish up this section again.” So, I’m pretty lucky, in that I want a story to be as clean as possible before I send it to my agent. And she makes a few comments, but not many, and then she sends it off. So, I like things being pretty good to go before I send them out, which means I have to spend a fair length of time…I don’t send out anything that I don’t think is pretty good already.
Now, you do some editing for other people. Do you find that working on other people’s manuscripts helps you when it comes time to look at your own?
Oh, sure. It’s much easier to see problems when other people have them, but I know I have the same thing, so…and, you know, we all have words that we overuse—“really,” “quite,” “very,” all that. And as I’m reading somebody else’s stuff…I have a list of these words that I overuse, and reading somebody else’s stuff, I, you know. “Oh, yeah. There’s one of mine that I should pay attention to, too.”
Speaking of which, brilliant little thing from Brandon Sanderson that I recently heard about in their Writing Excuses podcast is to, you know, you have your list of words that you overuse or, you know…”suddenly,” there’s another one that is real easy to use too much of…just do a global replace on the word with brackets around it, square brackets, and that makes it stand out. So, when you’re reading the book, reading the manuscript, you see these things and you could say, “Do I really need that?” It really draws your attention to the words that you overuse and gets you…makes you think about them again. I really love that technique and I use it now.
Oh, yeah. That’s a good one. I think I’ll have to adopt that, too.
Yeah. Yeah. It just draws your attention to something. Sometimes “very” is a perfectly good word to use, and a lot of times the prose is stronger by crossing it out, by deleting it.
I find that my characters tend to use animal noises too much in dialogue, they growl things and snarl things and…
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good point.
I do avoid hissed dialogue because it always bothers me when somebody hisses something that has no sibilance in it.
Generally speaking, I only let myself use “said,” “told,” “replied,” “shouted,” “whispered,” maybe a “muttered” or two…oh, and “asked.” But I do try to avoid the animal noises and so on.
Yeah, I’m aware of it, but that doesn’t mean I catch it all the time. The other thing is…you’ve probably had this experience, too…the best way to find things that you overlooked is to read your work out loud in front of an audience after it’s been published.
Yeah. Yeah. Zadie Smith has a quote, something to the effect of, “The best time to rewrite your stuff is two years after it’s been published and ten minutes before you read it at a literary festival.”
That’s about right. Well, we’ve got about ten minutes left, so I want to get to the big philosophical questions.
It’s really one question with multiple parts. Why do you write? Why do you write this stuff? And why do you think any of us do? That’s really three questions. But it’s kind of one.
Oh, well, just like almost every other writer I write because I can’t not write. These days I get up in the morning and write, and I write to understand what’s in my head and to…because I like writing stories.
Why do I write something in particular? Because something about the idea has got its claws in me, and the only way to get free of it is to write it and write it well. So, this…again, the haunted-house story that I’m thinking of was an idea I had probably two and a half years ago. And I had no idea why I wanted to write a haunted-house story, and it’s taken me two years to crystallize what I want to say in the book and why I’m writing it.
I think…writers, as you know, sit alone for hours at a time. And what we write today will not be seen in the world for a long, long time. It’s, you know…it takes me at least a year to write a novel, often more, and after it’s written, it’ll take at least another year before it gets out for anyone to…before it gets published…and so you really have to be obsessed and in the moment to write. There has to be some sort of reward or compulsion to write, because you don’t get the fame and fortune, if ever…
I’m still waiting for that.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, in some sense, we all write to impress someone. Paul Simon said, when someone asked him why he wrote songs, “I write songs to impress girls.” And, you know, there is that aspect…
I went into theater to kiss girls.
Yeah. Yeah. And I certainly started writing to, you know, let’s impress women. But it’s a long time before that happens. I mean, a long time between sitting down to write the sentences today and before anyone is impressed by it. And I am not, you know, making a gazillion dollars or having a gazillion readers. I’d love to. So, you just kind of get the rewards, and every now and then you have a character suddenly come to life, like Kim revealing that she’s queer, and the idea that you…every once in a while, you feel as if you are telling a truth that is out there, as opposed to stuff that you’re just pulling out of your head. And it’s really cool when that happens.
The podcast is called The Worldshapers. Probably a bit grand to talk about shaping the world through fiction, but what do you hope your writing does for the readers who read it? Because you can certainly influence individuals as they read your stories.
Yeah. Well, for All Those Explosions, I wanted to make people laugh, and…
Works for me!
Good, thank you! And to have the fun that I find in superheroes. I started reading superhero comics when I was just a kid. I talked about this at When Words Collide, that my great uncle would buy me one comic book a week when I was seven years old and I bought comic books and I bought superhero comic books. And I do not know anymore any of the people that I knew when I was seven, other than my immediate family, and I still know Batman, I still know Spider-Man, I still know all of those characters that I knew back then. I keep up with them. I don’t know the people anymore, but I know the characters. And so, to be able to write superheroes…not, alas, Marvel and DC superheroes, although, if anybody from Marvel or DC are listening, I’m there, hire me!…but to be able to write superheroes and just have fun with them…I hoped that I could pass on the delight that I get from superheroes to other people, too, and to share in the joy.
And for other books, it’s almost always the same, that I get delight from various types of stories. And so, I want to be part of that conversation, be part of the fun or the delight or the concern or the thrills or the horrors or whatever. It’s such a delight to be a writer and to be part of the conversation.
That’s actually what I always say, that I started writing because I loved the stories that I was experiencing so much, I wanted to be able to create stories that other people would enjoy as much as I enjoyed the ones I’ve been reading. So, that’s probably a very common thing with writers.
Look at fanfic! I think many people get their starts in fanfic, if not actual…these days, you can actually put it in front of the public, but even if you don’t, you write your little stories and show it to your friends and so on. And that’s because whatever you’re doing fanfic of touched something in you and you want to be in that world, you want to have a piece of it, too.
You mentioned what you’re working on, the haunted-house novel, anything else that you’re working on right now?
I’m doing a re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty where nobody is stupid. It’s kind of fun to write a fairy tale with sensible people. There’s a lot of re-imagined fairy tales these days. Naomi Novik immediately comes to mind, but other people have been doing it, too. And it’s fun to write fairy tales which have that feel of depth, mythological depth, folkloric depth, but bring a modern sensibility to them that…there are just some strange things that happen in very tales that are hard to believe, and trying to justify them—or not!—Is fun.
And where can people find you online?
I am…most of my stuff is on Twitter @jamesagard. I do Twitter every day. I also have jamesalangardner.com, which I blog at occasionally. Those are the best places. I do have a Facebook page, which I almost never do anything with, so…
Well, I think that’s about the end of our time. Thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers!
It was great talking to you, Edward. Thanks for having me.
Arthur Slade was raised on a ranch in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan. In addition to the award-winning novels mentioned above, he co-created the graphic novel Modo: Ember’s End. An interesting fact that the Art likes to point out is that he does all of his writing on a treadmill desk while listening to heavy metal, and the strangest thing of all is he does it in a place called Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which, I can assure you is not as fictional as it sounds.
Art says he was inspired to write fantasy by The Hobbit. His Grade 4 teacher read it out loud to his class, and he says it was the first book read to them that he really “fell into.” In fact, he was so “agog” at it that when his parents took him away from school for a week to go on a family trip to Disneyland he actually felt kind of sad he was going to miss a whole week of the The Hobbit.
He was a creative kid who always wrote “bits and pieces,” but it wasn’t until Grade 11 that writing really took hold: “I love to blame my English teacher for my career,” he says. She had the class write a short story, and Art wrote, “Under Heaven, Over Hell” (“If you want to get your teacher’s attention, make sure you put a swear word in there!”). He got a grade of 100, which he found “kind of astounding.” That was his “first big reward” as a writer, and he carried on from there.
Art wrote six novels that were never published. His sixth, a novel for adults, he sent to the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, which offers a manuscript evaluation service. The reader wrote that Art had written an amazing novel for young adults, which incensed him: he felt insulted that he’d been accused of writing for young adults. And yet, that was a moment that changed the direction of his career.
Art notes that he has a kind of “sparse style,” perfect for writing for young adults and for children, so once he got over the “insult,” he decided to try it, and the next book he wrote, the seventh, was accepted right away. “So I’m really glad that that reader insulted me so deeply, because it really opened up all these doors for me that I might not have thought about.”
One reason he likes to write for young readers is that he loved books the most between the ages of eight to thirteen. “Back then, I could just disappear into a book. It was really an amazing immersive experience.” So now, when he’s writing, he’s often thinking about that younger version of himself, and it’s natural to make the characters that age.
The other reason he likes writing for young readers is that “everything is fresh to them, they’re learning everything for the first time, even if they’re sixteen or seventeen and they believe they know everything—and believe me, the real teenagers do—it’s all new. They seem to have this new energy.”
As part of his ongoing experimentation with self-publishing, Art has written a novel called Amber Fang with characters a little bit older, twenty or twenty-one, still young, but a bit more knowledgeable about the world, so they can make jokes about Shakespeare and other references that wouldn’t work for a thirteen-year-old.
Art says he had the original idea for Crimson (and even wrote a novel based on it) when he was seventeen. He threw out all of that original book except for one character, Mansren, who, although bound at the beginning of the story, was “almost a God,” a being of pure magic, completely malevolent and yet capable of being charming. What would happen, he wondered, when someone like that was suddenly unleashed?
Crimsonis about Fen, who is thirteen when the book starts, and fifteen a couple of chapters in. In the very first scene, she loses her hand because she has stolen something, leaving her able to perform only odd jobs around her village.
Fen lives in a world that has been controlled by a Queen for a thousand years. The Queen uses magic that she mines from the ground, in the form of red dust, to control everyone. She can make people into whatever shape she wants, so she has soldiers who look just like her, and she can also control what people think.
Every once in a while, there are people who go “crimson”: their hair suddenly turns red and they acquire magical ability. This happens to Fen: her hair suddenly goes red, which means she has an immediate death sentence. She has to flee the village before the Queen’s guards come after her. What she gradually learns is that there is something new growing where her hand was, and that’s the magic that she has. Eventually she runs into Mansren.
Art notes that he’s never really tackled a full-fledged fantasy novel until now: he’d mostly moved into dark fantasy, real-life stories where fantasy squeezes itself in. He found writing a full-blown fantasy challenging. “It was so hard to think about the magic and think about how you make everything feel real. I can write a book set in 1930s and do all this research and really make that feel real, but when I’m making this other world, how do I make people believe that they are someplace entirely different? That was kind of a major step for me.”
Art says if he’s going to spend a year on a story, there has to be something in it he really cares about. “Part of that the idea behind Crimson is this queen, because she’s so powerful, has basically destroyed all the cultures and is trying to reshape everything to her. She has even made it so that people only have first names, because it’s too complicated to have last name.”
The Queen wants the world to be perfect and simple. As a result, all the world’s cultures are being lost. It’s against the law for people to speak any languages than the language the Queen has decreed.
“When I was thinking about character Fen,” Art notes, “I was also thinking about my own daughter. My wife and I adopted from China in 2010, so it’s a while ago now, and I realized I’d never written anything where she could go, ‘You know, that’s me in the story. That’s someone just like me.’”
So Fen is a character who comes from a Chinese-like culture. (Although he made sure to say to his daughter that Fen was not her, “because some horrible things happen to the character.”) That feeling of doing something that his daughter would read and that would reflect her culture was really important to Art, and helped energize him while he was doing the research.
Some of that research, he says with a laugh, “is in my house all the time, walking around.” He’d also read about China for a long time because of adopting from that country, and in fact, the place where the book begins is based on the part of China where his daughter comes from, and where he spent a week. “I really wanted to re-create what it felt like there….to be a reflection of my daughter’s character.”
Art says he writes very much by the seat of the pants, rather than plotting things out in detail. He knows the basic story, but a lot of his process begins with the first chapter. “I sit down and start writing it.” He says it takes forever because he’s thinking about what the world will look like, and he’s trying to put everything together in that first chapter. “It’s like my brain is unlocking all these little kind of mysteries about what could happen next. I follow the breadcrumbs, in a way, that that I’ve left or that I’ve discovered just by the process of going through that the first chapter.”
After that, he tends to write a few little scenes that he know will appear somewhere further along. Getting to a scene he’d first thought about three months earlier is like a reward, although the reward is, “Now you have to make it to the next place that you dreamed about sixmonths ago!”
Eventually, he says, after many words and often many mistakes, he gets to the ending, which usually comes to him about the halfway point, once he has a lot of the characters and events in play. He says he’s learned it’s okay to have a wrong ending: you can fix it later.
The only time he tried to do a really details synopsis was for his novel Flickers, and he says he found that book the hardest to write: working like that seemed to mess up his process, so he’s kind of scared of it now, even though, “I’d love to do it. That seems to make more sense to me. Everything is all laid out and you just write this much every day, but that’s not how my brain works so far.”
Everyone works differently, Art agrees, and when he teaches writing, he always starts by saying, “This is what works for me, take whatever is helpful for you, but it’s not necessarily going to work for you.”
The magic system in Crimson unfolded as he wrote, and solved problems—like the magical armour of the Queen’s guards, a kind of second skin that they never take off. He had to figure out how that worked. In the process, he wrote some 30,000 or 40,000 words that ended up cut from the novel, from the point of view of one of the Queen’s guards. While writing that helped him understand how the process worked and its effect on the men involved, in the end, he didn’t need all that detail. “It was really kind of exploring.”
Another problem: Fen has lost her hand, and something new is growing there—what is it? It’s magical, but what kind of magic. “It’s that whole process of finding the words that make it sound real, finding a way to make himself and the reader believe that the magic is real, and indicate what the limits are, and how uncontrollable it can be. “It’s someone who is learning, not sure if the magic is even part of her or if it’s something else working through her, partly because it just doesn’t work when she wants it to.”
Waking up one morning and find you’re a completely different person is a terrifying idea for young people, Ed suggests, and Art agrees: “In some ways it’s like puberty, except overnight, and people are going to kill you.”
One reason so many words were cut was that originally the book was going to be a back-and-forth between Fen and Marcus, but when his editor read it, she said, “Oh, this is amazing, this is great…and by the way, we should cut out that character, you know, the one that takes up half the novel.”
Art likes stories that “just don’t slow down,” and realized the editor was right. The actual rewriting didn’t take that long: he likened it to a woodcarver cutting a sculpture out of wood. He says he could quickly see, “This is how the book was meant to be.”
“I’m just really thankful, because that’s what editors can do. A good editor will look at it and go, ‘You know, this is actually what you meant to do,’ and you go, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right, I am that smart.’”
Art notes that when you’re self-publishing, you have to pay for an editor, and they’ll typically only take one pass through the book. He notes that working with an editor from a traditional publisher can be extremely frustrating if they don’t “get” your work, but a lot of the time, they’ll actually find out what’s missing, something to do with a character, maybe, or the overall tone. “That’s what a really good editor does.”
He adds sometimes editors will say something mysterious (he thinks maybe they take a course in how to say mysterious things to authors to motivate them). For his novel Dust, the editor said, “You know, there just seems to be something missing from that second last chapter.” He looked at it, trying to figure out what she was talking about, and suddenly a new aspect of the chapter came clear to him, a whole scene that wouldn’t have appeared if she hadn’t made that comment.
Art says he tries to make his submitted manuscript “as clean as possible” so his editor doesn’t have to do a lot of work, but he doesn’t do the really fine line-by-line polishing until after the editor has seen a draft. He says he’s sometimes amazed by the themes editors find in his work, though afterwards he says, “Oh, yeah, that is what it’s about, that’s exactlywhat I was thinking.”
Writing is a collaborative art, a conversation with readers, in a way, Art says. Rather like editors, “They’re bringing all their own experiences to the book, so they will see things in a different way.”
He likes the term used for his podcast, worldshaping, rather than the more commonly used term worldbuilding.”It’s a process of taking what you already have, the clay of this world we live in, and shaping it into something else.” He notes that in Crimson, the Queen’s realm is based on the Roman Empire, and his main character has a Chinese-like background. “I’m not building something new, I’m taking something that already was there and shaping it so that it can fit into this other world that I’m imagining.”
Art says the reason for writing these kinds of stories ultimately boils down to “Because it’s there…because I can, or you can.” He says when the first image of a story comes to him, like that of Fen knowing she’s about to have her hand cut off, “there’s a kind of rush to it…It’s not a real event in terms of a memory, but it feels almost as real as a memory, and so I want to create it and make it as real as a memory of something that has really happened.
Creating a novel, and feeling like it worked out, “that you made this new thing,” he says, is the real pay-off for him. (Although he’s not averse to “cold, hard cash,” either.)
“I like that whole experience, and I get a high from it,” he says. “I can’t imagine not doing it. I can’t imagine just watching movies, I have to create my own movies. I can’t imagine just reading books, I have to create my own books.”
He thinks one reason people like his books is because they often include characters who are fighting against something larger than themselves, while coping with a disability or something else that holds them back. “People respond to that.”
They also respond to his style of writing: it moves ahead quickly, but still has emotion in it.
Art says is first and main goal is to entertain, but, he adds, “I guess I like making people think of different things, or perhaps getting to them to look at the story or the characters in a different way.”
He gives as an example the hunchbacked main character from The Hunchback Assignments. “I really loved the idea of him not being this beautiful handsome prince who conquers all the dragons. I love that idea because it kind of twists the normal Disney version on its head, and says, ‘You can be unattractive and you can be a powerful, thoughtful, intelligent character, too. To make it more interesting, he does have this ability to change his shape and look like other people, so he can become beautiful, and is always trying to, not only just battle the outside forces, but the forces that are inside him, saying, ‘You kow you’re not good enough, you’re not attractive.’”
Art says it’s important for him to crate characters that are different in some way. “Anybody who’s a geek or a nerd like me, you always felt a little different growing up, and you felt like you were in a different place, and so that’s why I enjoy that process. And if that makes somebody who feels like they’re on the outside a little bit better, then that’s great.”
Ed notes that it’s quite common for people interested in science fiction and fantasy to feel like that, and Art wonders if that will continue to be true in, say, twenty years, since it seems like nerd culture is so much stronger now, and so much more normal, than wen he was a kid. “You can find your tribe a lot faster.”
Art is playing with an idea for a sequel for Crimson, which he hadn’t expected. He’s also continuing on with his Amber Fang series, and just finished writing a shorter piece of fantasy, currently called Dragon Assassin.
Those interested in his ongoing experiments with self-publishing can follow along on his blog at arthurslade.com.
An hour-long conversation with Julie Czerneda ( bestselling author of The Clan Chronicles books and many, many others) about her creative process, with a special focus on her upcoming fantasy The Gossamer Mage.
Julie Czerneda was born in Exeter, Ontario, and grew up on air force bases, her family moving with each transfer, from Ontario to Prince Edward Island and finally to Nova Scotia. When her father became a civilian, the family moved to Ontario, settling in what was then a rural setting near the shores of Lake Ontario (and is now that not-so-rural setting known as Mississauga.
Julie studied biology at the Universities of Waterloo, Saskatchewan, and Queen’s, accompanied by her former chemistry partner (and now husband) Roger. They moved a few times before settling back in Ontario, where they still live.
Julie began her writing career in educational publishing, beginning when she was on maternity leave from a university teaching. She became a full-time author and editor of non-fiction educational materials, primarily in science, in 1985, contributing to more than 250 titles from elementary to college level. But she also had twenty-three unpublished and unfinished science fiction novels tucked away in file folders, and with encouragement from husband, she finished the one in file folder X, Beholder’s Eye, which was bought by DAW Books. That same year, Julie was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and DAW contracted for three more novels.
She’s been published by DAW ever since: eighteen novels, including the popular nine-book The Clan Chronicles series. She’s also written many short stories, edited anthologies, and taught writing. Her books have received international acclaim, multiple awards, and best-selling status.
She says her parents conspired to make her a writer. Her father brought home the first two Tarzan books, but only gave her the first one, which “doesn’t end well.” She came running out of her room, yelling, she was so furious, and “instead of explaining to me what a cliff-hanger was, my Mom lent me her typewriter and said, ‘Fix it.’” Julie proceeded to write a page that satisfied her much more than the book, and never stopped. She wrote so much as a child her parents bought her a file cabinet to hold it all.
We discussed whether moving from place to place as a child of a military family influenced her writing; Julie said only in that, when they left the Air force and moved into a civilian neighbourhood, all the other kids had gone off to summer cottages. That left her alone and exited to have time to write.
She encountered new science fiction for the first time in her university bookstore. “To be able to buy them myself was liberating.”
Julie studied biology. She feels her interest in science and her interest in science fiction arise from the same place. “It seemed like a lot things I read as a kid were finite. They just ended, or they were real life, and while real life is marvellous, I’d rather talk to real people about it. So, when I discovered things that were showing me something beyond what was here, it was the same itch being scratched that takes me into science.” She said she went into science because she wanted to explore how the world works, and read science fiction because she wanted new, interesting ways of thinking about the world.
She originally wanted a joint degree in physics and biology, so she could be the first person to go into place equipped to communicate with aliens (a plan she wrote out in third grade). However, the University of Waterloo wasn’t set up for that, so her courses conflicted.
Much of her early fiction writing was really biological thought experiments. Asked if being a scientist makes it difficult for her to write fantasy, she notes a good fantasy novel, because it takes her out of herself, so she doesn’t worry about the real-world impossibility of it. She was herself hesitant about writing fantasy for a long time because she felt the language was so rich, and the landscapes so intense, she couldn’t see herself doing it.
However, after DAW began publishing her, she was asked to write a fantasy story for an anthology being edited by Martin H. Greenberg. “You don’t say no, so I wrote my first fantasy.”
Still, the prospect of writing a fantasy novel terrified her. She finally did (A Turn of Light), but she says it took her five years to work up the courage to start, and two years (and deleting 400,000 words) to figure out how to do it.
She notes her popular Esen character, who has an ability associated with magic in fantasy, didn’t begin as a shapeshifter—she was the result of a thought experiment, trying to figure out what would be necessary for a biological organism to be semi-immortal. The Esen books continue to be her “biological playground,” Julie says. “I have a very large filing cabinet full of weird biology and all of it goes into those books. Most of the weird stuff is real.”
Her upcoming fantasy, The Gossamer Mage, grew out of a fantasy novella Eric Flint asked her to write. She was inspired by a pen in the Lee Valley catalogue, which included words for parts of a pen she’d never heard before. She did some more research, and realized she wanted to write a magic system based on pen and ink. She clipped the image from the catalogue, and that, in turn, gave her the main character, because the story opens with the pen in his hand after many years of use. (She also researched the history of ink, “which is full of great drama and crime and all manner of skullduggery. It’s amazing!”)
Julie says her research differs from science fiction to fantasy and gives some examples.
Whereas when she’s writing science fiction, Julie says, she tends to know enough about the question she wants to ask to get going and what she additionally needs to research. (For example, for something she won’t be writing for a couple of years, she’s currently researching plate tectonics.)
For fantasy, her research focuses mostly on the worldbuilding, “because everything past the worldbuilding is me, making it up.”
She likes to physically visit places: in A Turn of Light there are a lot of log cabins, so she spent a lot of time in cabins. She also went to a running mill, so she could feel how the building shakes and moves.
The amount of outlining Julie does depends on the book. She did little for A Turn of Light, wanting to see where it went. For the next two Esen books, she’s made a note of their shape and the major plot threads. The Gossamer Mage is quite different: it’s a series of novellas, each of which moves the story forward, but which can be read separately or in a different order. She’s outlining those more tightly. Usually she doesn’t outline a book until she’s almost finished, so she can go back and make sure she’s covered every point—more to check herself than to plot to.
She doesn’t have much problem with continuity while writing series, she says, but she does have to work to keep the voices consistent.
She likes to put as much as she can into a story so she can draw on it latter—such as the giant lobsteresque alien from A Thousand Words for Stranger who has a pool in his suite in which he has “carnivorous non-verbal wives.” The implication is they’re non-sentient, but Julie never intended for them to stay that way, and they became major players in the final finale trilogy. “I never knew if I would do that. I just put it in, because the more you put into a story, the richer it reads.”
Julie notes her editor (and mine), Sheila E. Gilbert, told her a long time ago that she likes to have the sense the world she’s reading about continues off the page—places the main characters haven’t been, unexplored areas, things that don’t get mentioned but you know that they exist.
Julie gives a bit of a synopsis of The Gossamer Mage, with its magicians spending their life with every act of magic, sometimes just to create beautiful things. “It’s very much a case of, if you want to keep magic, what are you willing to do? And is there a value to just random beauty, or not?” She adds, “I myself don’t know how it will end.”
The two main characters are the magic user from the original novella, “Intended Words,” now the first novella in the book, who is trying to destroy the deathless goddess because he’s seen so many of his friends turn old and die for nothing, and one of the daughters who serves the goddess, who, in the second novella, “Consequential Phrases,” shows what things look like from her side.
Sometimes minor characters threaten to take over a book. Julie remembers that in her second book in The Clan Chronicles, Ties of Power, the character of Simon, someone from the past of the main character who made him who he was, started to get too important. She told Sheila Gilbert she either needed to kill him off or she needed another book, and Sheila told her to go ahead and write another book, in which he got his “satisfying comeuppance.”
Julie does very little rewriting, possibly because she did so much non-fiction writing. “I write the best I can first time around.” After a spell-check, she sends it. Sheila comes back with requests for elaboration in certain areas, she writes that, and she’s done.
Part of that is the confidence and experience of having done this full-time for twenty years. What’s important to her is to make sure she has been “generous enough to the reader” in terms of worldbuilding, scene, and description. She’s also come to realize that any book “can only be so good.”
“I could pick up any book off the shelf that I’ve written and I’m sure I’ll find things I’d like to fix, or have someone read it to me and think, oh, that’s awkward, but if I’ve told the story I want, and at the end of it the person feels the way I meant them to feel, I still love the book, and I’m fine with that.”
Sheila Gilbert, she says, is “the ultimate beta reader,” who brings her own enormous amount of experience to the book. “For me she’s the one who’s forever slapping me on the wrist in a very calm and thoughtful way when I’ve been lazy, when I’ve left something out, when I’ve tried to skip over some important revelation…I think she’s got a wonderful instinct for the emotional content, and she’s got a great instinct for crap.”
We talked a bit about the goofs we sometimes make as writers. Julie recounts how at one point she began to confuse aft and bow on ships and would have characters go from the aft to the stern—which, of course, are the same thing. No one picked that up for years—it’s in all The Clan Chronicles books. “Everyone had missed this, and we’re talking about twenty years of proofreading. Even readers have never called me on this.”
Julie says her fiction has an optimistic bent because she doesn’t like dark, grim fiction, nor does she believe in it. “I love a really good tragedy…what I don’t like is violence used as pornography and I don’t like the victim mentality…in my experience and the way I look at the word, most people muddle along. We’re not great heroes, but we’re not great villains, either.”
She also doesn’t write grim fiction because she doesn’t want to inhabit a world like that for the long period of time it takes to write a book. “I get too engrossed in the work, and I don’t want to be there. That’s not how I want to make my living.”
The difference between writing mainstream fiction and speculative fiction, Julie says, is that when you’re writing every day, slice-of-life stories, you’re relying on your reader already being an expert on that world, which allows you to use very broad brushstrokes for most of it, only focusing in on the places you choose as your settings.
Some of that happens even in science fiction: experienced SF readers already have a mental image of a spaceship, for example, so you don’t have to describe it in detail. “I’m not shaping the world so much as pointing my flashlight at a part of it where I want their attention, as if they’re all cats and I’ve got a little pointer.” Fantasy, Julie says, requires more detailed, specific description of many of the elements of the world.
Julie thinks science fiction and fantasy writers are partly driven by dissatisfaction: “You’re not getting what you want as a reader, so you’re going to write it yourself.”
But, she adds, “I also think there are so many questions we want to answer as human beings that science fiction lets us play with, and so many things we want to say that we care deeply about that fantasy gives us a platform to say. To me, those are both very powerful draws to writing science fiction and fantasy. And I think I will always write both for that reason.”
She doesn’t write with a message in mind, except, perhaps, for, “Take care of the planet, take care of yourselves, be nice to other people.”