An hour-long conversation with fantasy and science-fiction writer Marshall Ryan Maresca, author of the Maradaine Saga : four braided series set amid the bustling streets and crime-ridden districts of the exotic city called Maradaine.
Marshall Ryan Maresca is a fantasy and science-fiction writer, author of the Maradaine Saga: Four braided series set amid the bustling streets and crime-ridden districts of the exotic city called Maradaine, which includes The Thorn of Dentonhill, A Murder of Mages, The Holver Alley Crew and The Way of the Shield, as well as the dieselpunk fantasy, The Velocity of Revolution.
He is also the co-host of the Hugo-nominated, Stabby-winning podcast Worldbuilding for Masochists, and has been a playwright, an actor, a delivery driver and an amateur chef. He lives in Austin, Texas with his family.
A professor of mathematics at SUNY Oneonta, Joshua Palmatier has published nine novels—the Throne of Amenkor series (The Skewed Throne, The Cracked Throne, The Vacant Throne) with DAW, the Well of Sorrows series (Well of Sorrows, Leaves of Flame, Breath of Heaven) with Baen and Zombies Need Brains, and the Ley series (Shattering the Ley, Threading the Needle, Reaping the Aurora) with DAW. He is currently at work on the start of a new series.
He has also published numerous short stories—“Mastihooba” in Close Encounters of the Urban Kind and “Tears of Blood” in Beauty Has Her Way (both edited by Jennifer Brozek), “The River” in River (edited by Alma Alexander), and “Daughter of the Sands” in Apollo’s Daughters (edited by Brian Young).
An hour-long (and then some) conversation with fantasy author Violette Malan, author of The Godstone (DAW Books), and creator of the Dhulyn and Parno sword-and-sorcery series, The Mirror Land series, and (as V.M. Escalada) the Faraman Prophecy.
Violette Malan is the author of the Dhulyn and Parno sword-and-sorcery series and The Mirror Lands series of primary world fantasies. As V.M. Escalada, she’s the author of the Faraman Prophecy, including Halls of Law, and Gift of Griffins. Her latest novel is The Godstone (DAW Books).
She strongly urges you to remember that no one expects the Spanish Inquisition.
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.
K. Eason started telling stories (to pets, stuffed animals, and anyone who might listen) in her early childhood. She ended up with two degrees in English literature before she decided that she needed to stop writing about everyone else’s stories and get back to telling her own.
She lives with her husband and a trio of disreputable cats in Southern California, where she teaches first-year college students about zombies, Beowulf, and food (though not all at once). Her short fiction has appeared in Cabinet-des-Fées, Postcards from Hell: The First Thirteen, Jabberwocky 4, Crossed Genres, and Kaleidotrope. She is the author of the On the Bones of Gods trilogy and The Thorne Chronicles, the second book of which, How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge, came out from DAW Books in October. When she’s not writing or commenting on essays, she’s probably playing D&D.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, K., welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Fellow DAW author. We’ve never met, but we are both published by DAW, though we actually have different editors. Mine is Sheila (Gilbert). Who’s your editor as DAW?
Katie (Hoffman). OK. One of the young’ns.
So, yeah, we do share that little thing in common. It’s quite a big thing, actually. So, let’s go back, as I like to say, into the mists of time and find out . . . that’s a cliche on here at this point. I’m going to put reverb on it, MISTS OF TIME . . . find out how you got interested in . . .you talked about telling stories from a very young age. How did you get interested in writing them down? And were you always interested in science fiction, or how did that all come together for you? And where did you grow up? Basic biography.
OK. Where I grew up is . . . my dad is Air Force, so, everywhere. We spent no longer than three years in any given place. So, I sort of just hopped around, mostly the United States, but we did spend a couple of years in the Philippines when I was very small. So, I grew up all over. But how did I get into . . . my mother got me started with books when I was very . . . she used to just sort of, I guess, prop me up and just show me pictures of books. So, books were always this cool thing to me. And I decided when I was barely old enough to read—and I don’t remember learning to read, I just apparently, one day . . . I just only remember knowing how to read—I decided I should write my own books. And so, I tried to write my own books with whatever it is small children try and tell stories about. I know there were probably dogs involved and crayons and crayon-drawn dogs, and there were probably . . . I don’t know, but I know there was a dog in my first book because I remember trying to draw the dog and doing a terrible job of it and realizing with, like, a three-year-old or four-year-old’s brain that this is not really a dog, but it will do, so . . .
Science fiction was also my mother’s fault, and it was really fantasy that started it. She brought me The Prydain Chronicles, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, when I was, I think, in fifth grade. I don’t know what possessed her to bring those home to me, but she did. And then we were off and running. And she got me off of the horses, all of the horse and animal books. I think she was maybe just tired of those? And then it became everything having to do with fantasy. And then I found reruns of Star Trek, and I was like, “This is cool, too.” And then it was just . . . it was all over.
Were the Black Stallion books among your first books?
Oh, God, all of them.
Well, see, there’s science fiction in the Black Stallion books. The Island Stallion books are actually science fiction. I don’t know if you remember that or not.
Yeah, OK. It’s been a long time. It’s been a really long time since those books.
Yeah, it’s been a while for me too. But I remember that because it was, like, “I’m reading a horse book, and now it’s got aliens in it. This is cool. Now I’ve got two things that I like in one book.
There you go.
Actually, his last–completely off the topic, but his last book that he wrote, that Walter Farley himself wrote, I think, is very strange. It’s got Alex and The Black off in the desert somewhere, and there’s like an apocalyptic meteor strike or something happening. And civilization is being destroyed. And it really comes out of left field.
That actually would probably be right up my alley now. Yeah. We can go back to this and the magic horse and the . . . you know, pretty much it was a magic horse. We all knew that.
And I remember Prydain . . . The Prydain Chronicles were favorites of mine, too. So yeah. Names that I remember.
The Mabinogion, right? It was the children’s version of a very not children’s story.
Yeah. That’s for sure.
But so great.
When did you start writing stories down, and did you share them with other people? I always ask that question because many people, when they start out writing young, they keep it to themselves, but some of us share it with our friends. So, which were you?
I wrote a story in my elementary school, I think, for an English class that . . . I remember it won. It was about a horse because of course it was. But they wanted me to read it out loud to the auditorium or whatever, and I freaked out. I would not. I fled. So after that, I stopped showing people my writing for a long time because I was afraid they would make me read it out loud. And I could think of very few things worse than having to read my own writing out loud.
But you kept writing?
But I did keep writing. I did. I did keep writing on and off. It was how I got through high school. They thought I was taking notes back in the day when we took notes with, you know, pencils and paper, and no, no, no, I was back there writing. Probably super-derivative stuff because it was whatever I was reading, and then sometimes those books just needed to have a female character in them, or a talking horse, or who knew what. And I would be, you know, writing stuff.
Did you have any teachers or anybody in school that encouraged your writing?
Um, not really, because I didn’t show it to them.
That would do it!
I just kept it hidden. My mother knew I was writing, and she was super-supportive of it. I think she probably read the terribly derivative fan-fiction Pern Chronicles, sort of, because who didn’t want a dragon? You graduate from horses to dragons. Of course, you do. And I wrote some terrible thing. And I remember she read it. She’s a tough one, my mom. She sat there, and she read those handwritten spiral notebooks and did not say, “Please never do this to me again. And, no, you’re going to get an engineering degree.” No, she didn’t say that. She should have, but she didn’t.
My mom actually typed up my first short story, which was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” So, I subjected her to some of that, too.
Nice. See, mothers are tough. They do a lot.
So, at some point, you decided, you know, you weren’t getting an engineering degree, you were getting English literature degrees.
What took you in that direction?
Getting the English Lit degree, truthfully?
You can lie if you want to, but preferably truthfully.
I was going to be a genetic engineer of some sort because I’d read C.J Cherry’s Cyteen in high school and decided I’m going to do that. Not even thinking about the ethical-moral problems, like, “No, we don’t really need to make. . . that’s, no, OK, but no.” So, I was going to be a genetic engineer, and I hit microbiology and realized I hated labs. I hated biology labs. Chemistry labs were fine, but biology was just not fun for me, and calculus was awful. I hated calculus, and I thought, “You know what, you need to stop right . . . you just need to go do something else.” And I was good at reading, and I liked reading. And I thought, “Why not just get a degree reading stuff and then writing about it?” Because I was good at the nonfiction writing for sure. That was not a problem. So, I went off and did that because it seemed easier. And yeah, that was . . . it seemed easier. That’s exactly why we want to tell people why we do a major. But it was true.
Did you take formal writing courses at some point during that process?
I took one creative writing class. My undergraduate institution had a split between creative writing and literature. It wasn’t a combined degree; you had to choose a track. And I chose the literature track because there was, at least in that particular creative writing department, there was quite a bias against, quote-unquote, “genre fiction.” And I knew what I wanted to write, and I knew what I didn’t want to write. And I just decided that was not a fight I felt like having for years, so I just went and I did the literature degree. I did write, in my one creative writing class, I did write a cyberpunk story, and I got an A, and I got a side-eye from the instructor, like, “You’re writing cyberpunk?” Like, “I just read William Gibson. Of course, I’m writing cyberpunk.”
I always ask that about because I get . . . it surprises me that there is still that level of animosity towards tales of the fantastic from some creative -writing teachers, and yet I still hear that from so many authors I talk to, that they took a, you know, they took a formal writing class and maybe it was helpful, but they didn’t dare write what they really wanted to write and things like that. So . . .
Yeah. So, when did you actually start writing for publication?
I started trying to get published . . .. once I got my graduate degree, I couldn’t write fiction at all anymore. It died, and it probably took about four or five years before I could even start to turn off the editor brain long enough to start writing. And then, I guess it was probably right around 2000, I started trying to write for publication, short stories, when I realized that I’m a lousy short story writer because I just write bigger than that, I just, I have a hard time writing short stories, I’m much better at writing long-form. But I discovered that the hard way by trying to write short stories. So, right around the year 2000, I think my first pub was 2004 or 2006, I’d have to look. But right around there.
Do you think that some people are just naturally short fiction writers and some people are just naturally long fiction writers because it does seem to be that people are better at one than the other? With some exceptions.
I don’t know if it’s. . . I tend to . . . part of my knee jerk response is, “Well, yeah, I think some people are just better at telling the shorter, tighter story, and some people are much more into telling the long developmental stories.” And it’s not . . . there’s no value judgment either way. It’s just . . . I think some of us are just . . . the way our stories and the way our thoughts are structured might work better in different forms. But I certainly think it’s possible to write both pretty well. There’s people who do that, too. And I’m like, “Yeah, you go.”
Well, I just interviewed . . . actually, today, in fact, I interviewed, because I’m doing two today, which is unusual . . . I just interviewed F. Paul Wilson, who has this enormous list of publications, both short and long. So, there are certainly people who can write both short and long, equally. When did you then tackle a novel?
After we’d moved to California, so it was right, it was probably after I’d gotten my first couple of short stories out there and then decided I was going to try and write a novel. And I did . . . the first one is a trunk novel, we won’t talk about it. I wrote one with somebody. We won’t talk about that one, either, just because we were both learning to write, and also, it’s really hard to do collaborative work. Really hard. So, yeah, I wrote a couple that will never see the light of day. Ever. But it was enough to teach me that, “Oh, I can sustain a long narrative, I can do the character building. I can . . .” Basically, at that point, I was putting into practice what I had learned DMing. You know, we’re all playing games for a decade and saying, “You know what? You can tell long stories. You’ve done it. Now, do it without your players helping you.”
Yeah, I was interested in the D&D connection. I often say that although I have a degree in journalism and I officially minored in art, the truth is that I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and minored in everything else, based on the number of hours that I put into it.
I feel that. I feel seen. Yeah. Yeah. Seriously. I gamed a lot in college.
I always liked DMing far more than I like to play. And part of that was that I did want to tell a story through the game. I wanted to create this world that the characters . . . and I would . . . I was perhaps . . . I was always trying to push them in the direction of the quest I wanted them to take, as opposed to all the side things that would pop up. And one reason I stopped . . . well, one reason I stopped being a DM and playing was because I had no nobody to play with anymore because there was anybody in my town when I moved back to Canada from university, where I went . . . and the other one was that I discovered . . . that I felt that my story-writing impulse should be better put into my writing my fiction than in my DMing. But I still kind of wish I’d kept doing it because I miss it. But now I haven’t done it, like . . . we won’t say how long. And I’m sure the rules are so far different from what I was playing that I wouldn’t even recognize the game. But have you found that DMing has fed . . . you mentioned one way that it did . . . overall, do you think it’s actually benefited your writing?
Oh, yeah. I joke that D&D is, like, the life skill that makes me a better teacher and it makes me a better writer because it makes me . . . it taught me how to write, how to do the long-form story creation and sort of thinking out branches. Well, what could happen here? Well, what could happen here? And there’s nothing like having—and I’m sure you know this—players who find the hole in your plot immediately.
And you’re just like, “Oh, crap, I didn’t think of that.” And so now I have an internal voice that tries to think of those things. When I’m plotting, I’ll be like, “Well, I need them to do this. Yes, but why would they do that? How am I going to coerce a reluctant player or character into doing that? Oh, well, I have to give them a motive. Oh, well . . .” So, yeah, D&D has definitely helped me think about, not just good and evil, but all the different layers and the politics and the different valences and all of the different pressures that can drive people to do what they do, because . . . sorry, go ahead.
I was just going to say that the whole concept of characters taking on a life of their own is a literal thing when you’re playing D&D because the characters are being run by other people is.
And that’s where I started, you know, as a player. And I loved it. I thought it was great, but I was always the one who had to . . . if there was a new game, I was the one who would agree to DM it. So, whether it was a D&D module or cyberpunk, Tellurian cyberpunk or, you know, White Wolf’s Vampire or Werewolf or whatever new game was coming out, it was like, “OK, Cat will run it.”
So, what was your first published novel?
My first published novel was Enemy, which is the first of the On the Bones of God trilogy. Um, that was in 2014, I think? 2015? I should know that, but I don’t. It was so long ago. So that was my first, and it was fantasy. Dark, grim fantasy. But not grimdark.
Well, and that brings us to the Thorne Chronicles, so this is where we’ll talk about your creative process, from start to finish. So, we’ll start with the . . . well, first of all, the first thing we’ll do is, give us a synopsis of the Thorne Chronicles. There are two books so far. So, whatever you could say without giving away something to somebody who hasn’t read any of it. It’s up to you.
OK, I should . . . if I had known that, I would have pulled one up already. The Thorne Chronicles are . . . well, the first one, How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, is the story of princess, basically, who at her naming is given 13 gifts from a bunch of alien fairies, one of which is that she will . . . well, the curse, the 13th fairy gives her the curse, that is, “You will always know when someone’s lying to you.” And the 12th fairy, who had been circumvented, stepped in and said, “Yes, but you’ll always also have the courage to do something about that.” And, so, Rory ends up . . .she’s supposed to be the queen, but then her little brother is born, and because of stupid old rules, she’s shunted off to a neighboring kingdom’s space station, it’s a conglomerate of worlds, to marry the prince. Only when she gets there, she discovers that there is a political coup underway and that the prince is missing and in trouble, and she needs to fix things and make sure that she sets the world to right, which doesn’t perhaps go quite as well as she might have hoped.
And what was the impetus for this sort of . . where did the genesis of all of this come from?
Truthfully, it probably heat exhaustion on the 405 when we were stuck in traffic at Long Beach. And I was . . . I don’t remember what it was, but I was complaining about fairy tales and feminism, and I was like, “You know what, I’m going to write this book. I’m going to write a story, and it’s going to, like, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ except the fairies are going to be, like, the 13th will be a punk. She won’t be an evil witch. She’s going to be a punk.” My husband’s like, “OK, all right, you do that. And that’s where the idea came from. The genesis came from. And then it kept bugging me. The idea just kept bugging me, and I kept thinking about what I would do. I could set in space. Could I set it in space? I could set it in space. What would I do if I set it in space? And so, there was no great plan. It was just sort of . . . it wouldn’t stop bugging me until I said, “OK, how can I tell this?” And so, I went and wrote the first chapter and thought, “OK, there was a short story. Hey, I wrote a short story. This doesn’t suck. I’m going to try and get this published. This is chapter one. Oh, crap. Oh, no. This is going to be . . . OK. I guess I’m writing this book.”
It sounds like your idea process is, you know, you have a germ, and then you self-interrogate, you ask questions and try to build out from that idea. You know, “What if what if, what if?” Is that a fair statement? Is that the way it usually works for you?
Yeah, I think so, because I’m trying to think . . . the Rory Thorne Chronicles are very different than On the Bones of God, stylistically, flavor, all of it. And I’m thinking, what is my similarity in process? It’s, yeah, there’s a lot of, “What if? What if? What if?” I usually start with an idea or a character or a couple of characters or a situation or a moment, a scene just happens, and I see it, and I say, “OK, what led to that? And where’s it going?” So yeah, it starts tiny, and then I have to feel my way through the dark.
So, asking questions presumably leads you into the planning/outlining process. What how much of that do you do? How much of an outliner/planner are you?
Terrible at it. The first . . . the trilogy, there was no outlining, and I learned . . . I mean, I threw away 30,000 words, where the story would start going the wrong direction, and I realized it had gone the wrong direction. And it wasn’t 30,000 all at once. It would be, like, ten here or a chapter here. And I’d have to yank it back, like, “No, no, no, no, no, come back here. What did I do to set you off? OK, let me fix that.”
It was a little more structured with The Thorne Chronicles, at least the first one, because I was pulling off of the idea of a fairy tale, and I very much had the idea in my mind that I wanted to be in the same ballpark as, like, The Princess Bride, that sort of I’m-telling-you-a-story feeling, so I was like, “OK, I’ve got a narrator. They have a voice. They have . . . they interject, it’s a chronicler. How am I going to do this? And how does a fairy tale work? And what happens with a fairy tale? Obviously, I’m not going to do ‘Sleeping Beauty’ the whole way through. So, what other pieces am I going to pick? What other parts of fairy tales are necessary? What can I subvert? What can I flip?” You know, and that was a lot more structured, just because I knew I was playing with that particular genre and breaking it and messing with it.
So, what did you actually have written down when you began?
So this mostly happens in your head?
Yeah, this mostly happens in my head. If I, you know, if I die in a car crash tomorrow, the books are gone. There’s no . . . there’s almost nothing. I had to come up with, like, projections for material. You know, when you’re trying to get your publisher to buy more books, you come up with these little projections. And I’m, like, “Oh, I think this is what would happen in this book. I think?” knowing full well that I’m going to get like ten steps into it and it’s probably going to go pear-shaped and sideways, but . . . yeah, I don’t do a lot of outlining, I would like to learn how to do that because I think that would probably save me a lot of heartache and aggravation, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I’m working on it. I’m trying to do it, but it’s not working.
Well, it’s another one of those things, doing the podcast and talking to so many authors is how different everybody is about that. So, it’s ranged from people who do none to . . . I think it was Peter v. Brett who writes 150-page detailed outlines and then just kind of fills that in. I tend to do a synopsis of a few pages because, again, that’s what I’m selling the book from, right? And then I sometimes don’t look at it again until I’m finished, so . . .
Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of where . . . I go for a feeling or a thought or, “Here’s how I’d like it to end up.” But I’m very much . . . I like to explore, and if I already know where it’s going to go, I’m afraid I’m going to get good and bored. And I don’t want to get bored. I want to still be discovering as my characters are discovering, “What the hell are we doing?”
Well, and speaking of your characters, I guess you’re not one of those people that does extensive character sheets, like you would for a D&D character. You’re discovering them as you go along, too? I mean, you have some idea from what you’ve been thinking about that’s in your head, but do you discover them very much as you go along as well?
Um, it depends how long the character’s been living in my head. With Rory, I was figuring her out as I went along. With the narrator, I had a pretty good idea before, you know, I could have put him on a character sheet. I had . . . I knew who he was. I just knew who he was. But, yeah, I don’t do a lot of background development because I’ve been gaming for so many years, I could make up a character pretty fast and pretty in-depth pretty quickly, and I just . . . that’s how I think my way through. “OK, you know, who are we going to meet? We’re going to meet a so-and-so. All right. Well, what kind of person is this likely to be? Who do I need them to be? How might they be this way? What?” You know, just sketch it out super fast, and there we go. Does that kind of answer the question?
I’m curious, too, as you’re doing, as you’re writing, because you are a holder of literature degrees and you do some instructing as well, does what you have learned in your study of literature feed into the writing of your own material?
Oh, yeah, definitely. Because I have read things that I would never have chosen to read in the course of getting the degrees. Like, you get asked to read stuff you would never pick up off the shelf on purpose, and you learn, even if you don’t like it—and there was a lot I did not like—I learned to appreciate different ways to tell stories, different ways to . . . different techniques, different things in the box, different structures like, you know, “Oh, I’ve now read medieval romances. I see. This is . . . OK, this is how this works. OK.” So, I learned a lot of different techniques for ways that stories can be told. And then they just sort of . . . I put them all in my little bag of tricks and then yank them out as necessary. So, definitely, that has helped me as a writer, I think, just knowing the breadth of what’s out there.
Have you ever done a formal study of fairy tales since you’re working in a version of that?
No, I actually haven’t. I did not do it. I’ve never done a formal version of fairy tales. I was in the Tolkien phase when I was in grad school. So, I was doing a lot of writing about Tolkien at the time and not so much the fairy tales. Those came later. My fascination with them actually came after grad school. And so, that’s been self-educated.
What fascinated you about them?
Just the ways that I . . . like, my very first short story that I published was a ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ where Little Red Riding Hood is a werewolf, and it’s also cyberpunk. It’s a future with, you know, semi-mechanical rats and things. And it was just that . . well, how many different ways . . . what about a fairy tale is timeless? What about a fairy tale can be . . . what is essential to a fairy tale, that you can move through time and space—and you always see the recastings in the resettings. And I’d read . . . there was a series of books . . . I want to say it was Terri Windling who did them, but I can picture the covers in my head, and they were all these retellings of fairy tales, and I always really liked that. But I’d never had the opportunity to take a class in it because that was just not cool enough when I was going through grad school. We did not talk about fairy tales in my department, particularly. We talked about literary theory. So, you know, Focault, not fairy tales.
What does your actual writing process look like, then? Are you a fast writer, a slow writer? Do you write, you know, longhand or . . .?
No, never. I can’t read my own handwriting.
Do you write at the same time every day? What’s it like for you?
You know, I try to do the same time, more or less the same time. Every day I try to say, “OK, you have a word count. Go, go. Hit your 1,000, 1,500, 2,000, whatever it is.” And it’s just sit there . . . and some days it is super. When it’s working, it’s fast. And when it’s not working, oh, dear God, it’s pulling teeth until I finally just give up and like, “OK, you need to stop, you need to stop, or you’re just going to throw the computer across the room.” But I try and keep it regular when I’m actually writing and try to, “OK, now is a writing time.” Even if it’s not every day, it might be . . . if I’m teaching, especially, it’ll be “Tuesdays are writing days” because I will move heaven and earth to make sure I don’t have anything to comment on that particular day. Like, maybe I’ll get two or three days of a week where I can lay out a couple of hours that I know will be just for the fiction. And then I just sit there, and I write, and sometimes it’s crap, and I know it’s crap as I’m doing it. And I’m going to have to go back and clean it up. It just needs to be written. I mean, I always tell my students, and I believe this for myself, like, “You have to write the bad words to get to the good ones sometimes.”,
Well, it’s funny. I mentioned that I just interviewed F. Paul Wilson, and he used a term which was actually used by Robert J. Sawyer, who was my very first guest on the podcast, and he got it from somebody else, but they referred to that first draft as the “vomit draft” because you just have to get it out and it’s a big mess, and then you have to clean it up. But you feel so much better.
Yeah, exactly. Like, OK, what is even happening? And sometimes it’s really clean, and sometimes it’s just like slogging, and I know there’s going to be a problem, and I’m going to have to come back to it, but I can’t obsess over it. Here is a thing that I learned. I trashed a 92,000-word not-completed manuscript a couple of years ago because I got into the rut of, “Oh, I’m writing it. Oh, I’m changing my mind about what I’m doing. Oh, I really don’t like this. Let me go back and keep revising the hell out of it.” And I just destroyed it. Like, by the end I couldn’t. . . there was nothing to resurrect from this. It was a pile of bones. It was just . . . “There’s ideas, there’s moments, that are really awesome. And you have no clue what you’ve done because you’ve revised it to death. So never do that again.” That is what I learned. Never do that again. Just write it, even if it’s crappy.
And then, when you do get to the end of it, what does your revision process look like? And do you use beta readers or alpha readers or anything like that? How does that work for you?
I do have a beta reader, my bestie, my best friend forever, my BFF from high school, my first DM, too, the first person to get me into D&D. And she reads . . . poor thing, she reads almost the raw stuff. She will read pretty much anything I send her, bless her heart, and sometimes it’s chapter by chapter, sometimes it’s an entire manuscript. But even I won’t send her the very raw, almost raw stuff. I’ll just . . . once I’ve done the vomit draft and then I go through and make sure that there are complete sentences that I remember what the heck is going on, that there’s, you know, there’s a little bit of a voice happening . . . mostly at that point, I’m looking for plot holes. Character is never my problem, or rarely my problem, but there can occasionally be plot inconsistencies. And since she’s one of my players in D&D who will also punch holes in my plots on a regular basis, she’s good at finding those for me. So, she’s my first reader. And then I go through and clean it up again. And then . . . I’ll probably at that point, I’ll send it to my agent. You know, once I’ve gone through it a few times and decided it doesn’t suck, then I’ll send it to her, and then she gives me notes. Which have been getting shorter as the years have been going on, so that’s good. I guess I’m getting better at turning in good drafts.
What kind of notes do you get?
Sometimes it’s structural. There was the memorable, “OK, yes, but I think you need another 15,000 words because you dropped this arc in the middle.” “Oh, damn, you noticed. OK, yeah, I need to pick that up.” Sometimes it’s, you know, the big structural things where you need to come back to this or you need to play this part up, or this scene seems really flat because I don’t know what’s happening with the voice, but this character seems really distant. So those sorts of comments are what I get from her. And she’ levels it up. She always levels up the manuscript big time.
And then it goes to Katie at DAW.
And then it goes to Katie. And then it goes to Katie, and she always finds new things, too. So then, you know . . .
I haven’t worked with Katie. So, what is her process? Does she do a written editor’s letter or phone call? With Sheila, it’s a phone call. Nothing in writing.
Oh, no. That would give me the vapors. Yeah. She writes me a letter, and she does some commentary inside the manuscript. She’ll do some in-line, periodically . . . not like copyediting, but just you know, “You’ve said the same thing, these two places. Or maybe you could combine it this way.” But she’s. . . I mean, she’s good. She tells me . . . she finds the good places that need help or the places where she has questions, and she marks them for me. And then I can think about, “Well, how do I solve that? How can I solve that problem?” Because she’s very good at finding, “Here’s a problem. Here’s the problem.” Or, “Here’s a place where you sent us in one direction. Did you mean to do that?” And I know I probably didn’t or, “Oh, yeah, I totally did, and I haven’t followed up three pages later.” But she gives us, she gives me, a lot of room to figure out how to fix it. She trusts me to fix it if there’s a problem. Which is good.
There’s a lot of, you know, beginning writers or wannabe writers who are sometimes worried about the editorial process. And I’ve always found that editors are extremely helpful things to have on your side.
Oh, God, yes. Editors are fantastic.
I mean, I suppose there is such a thing as a bad editor, but I haven’t really run into one myself.
No, I haven’t either. And granted, I don’t have a huge number of books behind me, but I have not run into a bad editor yet. Now that I’ve said that . . . but no, as long as I stay with Katie, I’ll be fine.
It’s one of those things that I learned from D&D is that there needs to be a healthy level of willingness to collaborate and a willingness to listen as a writer to what other people say, but at the same time, keep that balancing act and know what you . . . be able to, at some point, as I always tell my students, trust yourself. Trust yourself. It’s, you know, this is opinion, this is a suggestion, but it’s not holy writ, and it’s not . . . you know, it’s not to get a grade, it’s. . . you have to be happy with the thing that you are writing, and you have to fight for the thing that you are writing, but at the same time be willing to say, “OK, but what am I trying to do? And what is the editor or the feedback telling me that I am perhaps not doing that I mean to do?
Are you teaching any creative writing or . . . you’re teaching literature, and so you are talking about essays when you’re doing . . .?
I’m teaching the worst of the worst. I’m teaching writing composition, first-year writing to non-majors. And I say the worst of the worst, but they’re my favorite. My absolute favorite. But they’re the ones who are hostile to writing to begin with, and they hate to read. And so, they’re a hostile audience, and they’re just awesome when you can get them to realize what they can do with writing, that it doesn’t need to be their enemy, but it can be their ally, and it can be their tool or their weapon. Some of them discover, “This is a weapon.” Yes. Yes, it can be. Go, go with God. Small one. Do that.
Do you find that teaching other people writing has benefited your own writing? Does it make you look at your own stuff more critically sometimes?
Um, my nonfiction, for sure. I definitely have internalized my, “What would I tell my students about this? What would . . . you know, what is the editor going to say about this?” But for fiction . . . I mean, yeah, I guess if nothing else, teaching writing all the time makes me think about, you know, the word choices and the sentence structures, and very much more aware of audience at all times than I might be if I were just, you know, 15 again and writing for myself.
Do you ever get the feeling because you are working with words all the time . . . there’s a song in My Fair Lady (sings) “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words.” You ever get that feeling?
Yeah. Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes.
Because I’ve done some . . . I was just writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library for nine months, and I’ve done it at another library, and I’ve taught some writing classes and stuff, and sometimes . . . and a newspaper reporter and editor before that. And there are times occasionally when I think, “You know, maybe not working with words wouldn’t be such a bad thing.” And yet, I’m still doing it.
Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing. It’s like, “Well, sure, it would be fun to do something else.” Like, “One, I’m a little old and cranky to be switching gears now. I’ve got ‘expertise,’ quote-quote, in a field. And also, what else, really, at this point, what I do . . . like what else, what else would I do? This is what I’m good at. This is what I’m trained to do, and this is what makes me happy. Even though sometimes I’m pulling my hair out and, you know, lamenting my existence and swearing that I’d be better off being a mechanic or a mathematician or anything else than this, but I don’t mean it. I never mean it.
What kind of feedback from readers have you had on the, well, on the Rory Thorne books and particularly in your books in general? And how . . . have you been pleased by the way that people have reacted to your work?
I truly don’t read reviews. I just . . . that’s a sanity saver. I don’t read them. I’ve had, you know, readers who e-mail me or DM on Twitter or whatever.
I was thinking more about than reviews.
Yeah. So then, yeah, I’ve gotten, you know, people seem to like this or, you know, they react strongly to particular characters, or they tell me, “Oh, this, you know, made me laugh or this made me smile, or I really loved it.” So that’s. . . those are always nice to hear, like, “Good, hooray, I have brought . . .” Especially with The Thorne Chronicles, with Rory, it was like, there needs to be something happy and bright. The first three are not happy and bright. They’re not meant to be, but Rory was meant to be. So, it’s nice that she’s getting the emotional reaction that I was hoping she would get.
And they have very striking covers.
Oh, God, those are so pretty. They’re so gorgeous. I just, every time I see them, I just sort of, you know, squeal and do a small-child dance and clap my hands.
They’re certainly beautiful.
Yeah. They’re very, very attractive.
And they make you think, this is going to be fun. This is going to be something that I’m going to enjoy.
Yeah, they are like . . . I never thought a lot about book covers before, but then I thought, “You know what? No, really, they can . . . you don’t judge a book by its cover, but you do buy one sometimes because of its cover and it’s its own communication.” So, I really love the covers.
Well, now let’s get to some of the big questions I wonder about.
And they’re really just one . . . well, a three-part question, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do we write these kinds of crazy stories about things that aren’t real and never could be?
I write because I have something to say. And I may be just arrogant enough to think that it’s something that needs to be read or heard. Like, I have something important to say or something interesting to say, or something worthwhile to say. And because I like creating stories. The second part . . . remind me of the second part because the third part is why do I write science fiction and fantasy.
The second part is why, in the bigger picture, do you think any of us write. Why do human beings tell stories?
I think stories are one of the ways that we make sense of the world. I think we . . . obviously we told stories long before we ever wrote them down. But I think stories and narratives are one of the ways that we make sense of things. We just, we understand stories, stories click with us in ways that just raw data or reports don’t necessarily. We do like . . . we like to be able to see ourselves. We like to empathize—at least, I think we do. We want to have feelings. Stories that let us have feelings, even if they also seriously can make us think.
And your study of literature would seem to indicate that there are . . . what’s the Rudyard Kipling . . . there’s one and a thousand ways of constructing tribal lays or something. There’s a lot of ways to tell stories, aren’t there?
Yeah, I mean, there’s. . . culturally, historically all over the place. And it’s just, it’s fascinating to me what they all have in common at the same time as looking at all of the differences, just all the different ways, you know, from structure to content. Because I loved the medieval stuff, because that to me was fantasy, that was, you know, we still had magic, we still had that mythic world of you, the natural philosophy before the Age of Enlightenment. And so, understanding the world and making sense of things that don’t make sense, that’s part of why I think people write stories so much, is we’re trying to make sense of things that may or may not make sense. And stories are imposing a structure.
So why then tell stories of the fantastic?
Hmm. One, the real world is very boring. No, it’s not, but I always wanted magic to be a thing. Or . . . I don’t think science fiction and fantasy aren’t about the real world; I think they are a frame that we can use to imagine a world that looks different or imagine a world that is dealing with the same problems we’re dealing with in a slightly different setting, that gives us a different perspective. You know, we can talk about all these issues, we can talk about what makes us people and what is personhood and, you know, how do we deal with difference, how do we deal with the other, how do we deal with race? How do we deal with gender? We can look at those through different lenses and think about, with the different frames from science fiction or fantasy or whatever hybrid genre you come up with. And so, a lot of the themes can still be there, but they’re there in a different format. And so, we look at them, and we might see them in a different way. We might see something different about them. But I don’t think they’re completely fanciful, you know, they come from somewhere. Maybe if they . . . I’m sorry, go ahead?
No, finish what you’re saying.
I’m feeling my way through it. This is much how I write, this is also how I talk, I think my way through things, and it can get pretty wild. But I think there’s a level of imagination, too, like, even if you’re not writing a dystopia, but you’re trying to imagine a world in which, you know, gender doesn’t matter. OK, well, what would that look like? How would that change things? How would that . . . ? And then you get into that cool world-building aspect, which is, “Why do I write science fiction and fantasy? Because I get to make up a whole world. Everything. It’s all . . .I get to make it up. And that’s awesome.
Well, the podcast is, of course, called The Worldshapers. And I actually picked Shapers deliberately as opposed to builders because . . . also, it happens to be the name of my current series, but anyway . . . but also, I like the idea that we’re not . . . we don’t really create worlds out of nothing, ex nihilo, we’re shaping the real world in some fashion, imagining it to be different in some way. But we’re still starting with the raw material of human beings and human nature and all that kind of stuff, and then shaping it like a potter might shape clay. So that’s kind of the way I’ve always thought of it. Do you hope that your stories are in some way . . . maybe shaping the world’s a bit grand; very, very little fiction has actually changed the world significantly. Some, maybe. But do you at least hope that you are having an effect on readers in some fashion, shaping them a little bit, perhaps?
Sure. I mean, even if it’s even . . . if it’s as little as, “Oh, this made me laugh today when I desperately needed to,” or, you know, “This took me away from the world for a couple of hours.” Even if it’s just escapism . . . I say “just,” I don’t mean to make that, minimalize that, because that’s a huge thing to be transported elsewhere for any period of time. That’s pretty, pretty damn powerful. But yeah, of course, I hope something sticks, something remains. There’s some echo.
And what are you working on now?
I am working on two things. One is the second book in a series that the first book hasn’t come out yet, but there you go. You know how those work. So, I’m working on the second book in that. And it’s. . it’s up the timeline from Rory, it’s the same world, the same arithmancy, you know, all of the lost paradigms of science, all of that. But it’s way up the timeline. It’s the things that Rory has done that have changed the multiverse or changed the world in that. So I’m working on the second book of that, and I’m trying, messing, vaguely stabbing at the idea . . . one of my friends said to me, “At some point, you should write a book about Grit. I would totally read a book about Grit.” And I thought, “What if I wrote a book about Grit?” So I’m poking at that from, you know, Grit from Rory, because she turned out to be a favorite character with a couple of folks that are near and dear to me. So. I want to see if I can write a story with her, a book with her. I don’t know. We’ll see if I can. So, that’s what I’m working on.
And where can people find you online?
I have a blog that is updated occasionally, but mostly with pictures of cats, at mythistoria.com. And I’m on Twitter @svartjager, from the first trilogy, the favorite character. Yeah, that’s where I generally . . . I am on Facebook, but shh!, no. That’s only for family. That’s only for family and people I know in meatspace.
Yeah, it’s nice to have a place like that sometimes.
Yeah, like these are my gaming groups. These are the people I hang with.
Yeah. Well, thanks so much for taking time to be on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did too.
I did. Thank you so much for having me. This has been a lot of fun.
Christopher Ruocchio is the author of The Sun Eater, a space-opera fantasy series from DAW books, as well as the assistant editor at Baen Books, where he co-edited the military SF anthology Star Destroyers, as well as Space Pioneers, a collection of Golden Age reprints showcasing tales of human exploration. He’s a graduate of North Carolina State University where, in his words, “a penchant for self-destructive decision-making” caused him to pursue a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric, with a minor in Classics.
An avid student of history, philosophy, and religion, Christopher has been writing since he was eight years old, and sold his first book, Empire of Silence at twenty-two. The Sun Eater series is available from Golancz in the UK and has been translated into French and German.
Christopher lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he spends most of his time hunched over a keyboard writing. When not writing, he splits his time between his family, procrastinating with video games, and his friend’s boxing gym.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Christopher.
Well, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
We met…we’re both DAW authors, a you know, conflict of interest and all that, get that right there, and we actually met at San Jose last year at WorldCon at the DAW dinner. I think was when I first met you.
I think so.
And then you very kindly showed me around the…well, Dealer’s Room doesn’t quite cover it at DragonCon…
A shopping mall.
Yeah…when I was down there last year, so I appreciated that as well. So it’s great to have you on. And I have to confess I have not finished Empire of Silence, but I…
Neither has my fiancée, so I can’t throw stones at anybody.
But I’m well into it, so when I get you to do a synopsis in a little bit, and I say, “no spoilers,” that will be for me as much as for the listeners.
I’ll do my best.
So, I always like to start these things off by going into… I always say either the mists of time or the depths of time…into the past, to find out how you got interested, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy, and how you started writing it, You started early, apparently, at eight years old.
Oh yeah. Yeah. I think it was my dad’s fault mostly, because when I was really small we were a Disney family, and most Disney movies are…I don’t want to say are for girls, but they’re about princesses, and when you’re a three-year-old boy it’s harder to get into those necessarily, although I was I was very fond of, especially, Sleeping Beauty because there was a dragon and a sword fight…
But then I think I watched Star Wars for the first time when I was four or five, and then immediately after we got through watching the first three movies, you know, a week later and then two weeks later, because they’d spaced it out, I think I watched the original trilogy on loop. Because I wasn’t allowed to watch very much. I was allowed TV Land, the Batman cartoon from the ‘90s, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and then the Star Wars trilogy. And so, I watched those original movies obsessively, and I read a bunch of the books, and of course The Phantom Menace came out, and I was just young enough to think The Phantom Menace was awesome. And it’s, you know, actually, it’s fine. It’s Attack Of The Clones that’s bad.
But I went from that through to reading a bunch of Star Wars books. I think the first book I ever bought was the first Tim Zahn Thrawn novel. But then I found Tolkien, and Harry Potter, of course, came in. I hit…actually before Harry Potter was popular. I read it when I was like five, because I read very early, maybe even younger than that. I’d have to check with my mother. And so, all this was happening at once, and then I hit Lord Of The Rings right when the movies were starting to come out, around 2000. I tried watching the Bakshi version, and it terrified me, and I gave up. And I tried reading the books instead but struggled with those a bit more than the Star Wars books and Harry Potter.
And so, I started writing because my friends, you know, would play make believe on the playground, right? And they were playing Dragon Ball Z, which I of course had no idea what that was, because I was not allowed to watch it. And so, when I was asked,” Hey do you want to play Dragon Ball Z?” I said, “Yes! But can I be Batman? And after two weeks of careful deliberation, the other five-year-olds agreed that, yes. And so, over the years going through grade school up to about third grade, we would play make-believe, right, on the playground, and we spun out and made our own characters. So, Batman eventually got a lightsaber, and…you know all these other…he went to wizard school, I think, and became…he was very accomplished.
I think that would improve Batman.
You know, I like Batman a lot, so I hesitate to say that, but I would definitely read that.
At least with a lightsaber.
The light saber, yes…he needs one. Everyone needs one, really. But I…so I started writing down these adventures we had on the playground, and then as my friends grew up and discovered football and social skills, I sat on the edge of the parking lot with a notebook and would keep making stuff up. And, of course, once I made it to fourth grade, third-grade me didn’t know what he was talking about, and I would throw everything out and start again and again and again and again and again, until I finished a novel, I think in eighth grade, of which one copy remains printed and it is in someone’s lockbox somewhere, I don’t remember. And it is terrible, and I…I kept doing this through high school and college, mostly because, you know, Christopher Paolini got lot of flak, you know. But he wrote that book at fifteen, and he was another Christopher, and an Italian one, at that, and I was…you know, “By God, if he can do it, I can do it, too,” and…I actually got to meet him at DragonCon, when I met you, and thank him for that, because I…you know, it’s one of those things I always thought that you needed to be like forty to do when I was little and he sort of proved that wrong. And so, I kept doing this until I eventually had something worth reading.
Did you share that early writing with your friends and see how…you know, that you could tell stories that they enjoyed?
Oh, sure. That…I had…I have a few friends, actually…before we started the talk officially I mentioned my two roommates. My two roommates…I’m just moving out now, actually, into my first house, but my roommates are two friends I’ve been friends with…since third grade, I think…and them and a couple others I would…we would always pass things back and forth. We used to play, you know, like, not exactly Dungeons and Dragons but some like off-brand RPGs and stuff together, a lot of, like, Internet forum RPGs? So we would do a lot of co-writing and stuff. And I was always working on this side thing, and when I would finish, it’d be like, “Guys, look at this!”, and then hand it out. A couple of them have stuck with me and keep giving me feedback. I think one of them has that one copy that I referred to, ’cause he was always fond of this stupid story I’d written in middle school, so I gave him the last print copy I had, because God only knows what happened to the Word documents.
I always ask that because a lot of us started writing young. I wrote novels in high school and started well before that, and I talked to some writers who, you know, there’s no way they were gonna show that stuff to their friends, and yet, I always did. So I always ask people that. And I think it helps, because you get that sort of, “Oh, I could tell stories that people really enjoy,” so, you know, it’s a kind of a positive-feedback thing.
I still do…I have a couple of them. I have a little Facebook group discussion and I send them updated files of…I’m working on the third book in The Sun Eater now and so every four or five chapters I will send them another update and then wait until one of them tells me how it is. Because you don’t know, right? You don’t know if what you’re doing is really good until you get someone else’s eyes on it. It’s sort of like Schrödinger’s Cat. And it helps to have either some validation or some course correction.
Well, somewhere along the way I lost all that. So now nobody sees it until it goes to Sheila at DAW. That’s another thing I ask, and we’ll talk about that a little bit later on with your writing process, you know, whether you have people that help you out at that initial stage or not, giving you feedback. But we’ll talk about that a little bit…so, from, you grew up, then, in North Carolina, I presume, where you still live.
Oh yeah. Born and raised. I am the proverbial medieval peasant. I haven’t moved more than ten miles from where I was born.
And so, this was interesting, that you decided to get a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric with a minor in Classics. I didn’t even know there was a degree called English Rhetoric. What does that involve?
So NC State was weird, right? It’s sort of…North Carolina, Raleigh in particular, has got a bunch of colleges right around. We’ve got the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, which is a pretty famous liberal-arts school, oldest public university in the US, and we’ve got Duke, which has sort of like a semi-Ivy League reputation, but NC state was founded as an agricultural school just after the Civil War. So it’s got more of a…it has a reputation for being kind of the, like, farm school, right? But now it’s one of the best engineering universities in the state, and, I think, even in the world. But I went for an English degree because they had this internship program for English students that had a 100-percent job-placement rate and I am, if nothing else, a practical man. So, I thought that would be better than a slightly more reputable name on my diploma. And it was a great program at any rate, just a less-famous one.
So, I went, and they do this thing where they split their English degrees into what they called focuses, so I could take a focus in literature or rhetoric or film, and the rhetoric one was the technical-writing one, really. So, there was a lot of tech-writing classes, that sort of thing, but also just journalism classes, you know, just making sure you could write, you know, nonfiction articles, that sort of thing. Make sure your grammar is correct.
Hilariously, I had this very bad graduate-level rhetoric class right at the end that taught no rhetoric, I think because the professor felt left out that when the scientists got particle accelerators and lasers the English department didn’t get any toys. So, we spent a lot of time talking about the “rhetoric of physical spaces” and how…and that’s not rhetoric. And I got in a lot of trouble for repeatedly informing her that this was not rhetoric, because I had the classics background, too, which I backed into because I didn’t want to take a world-literature course because I’m less interested in them, shall we say, than in the things that I grew up with., because that’s just who I am as a person. And I didn’t want to take a language class where I had to stand and do oral conversation components to my exams because I am bad at learning languages.
Unlike your character.
Yeah. So people who say that he’s just a self-insert are wrong. I can’t do it. And so I was taking three years of high-school Japanese and by the end it was, you know, (something in Japanese), and I’d be like, “Um…um…good morning.” I’m not that bad, but I was just embarrassed, and so I took Latin. And between the taking Latin and…I took for my world literature course. I did ancient literature, so we did a bunch of Greek and Roman stuff, but we also did some middle-Eastern stuff. The Enûma Eliš and the Epic of Gilgamesh, these things, and some early Far East stuff as well, which is also fascinating, so when I say, “world literature,” I mean contemporary stuff, because I just don’t think a lot of contemporary lit-fic is very good. I know that…it just doesn’t interest me, so…the old stuff, yes, by all means. And so, I backed into it because of my interest in ancient history and the classical period in the Near East and whatnot, and through the Latin.
The rhetoric major still interests me. It doesn’t sound like it was what anybody would consider a creative writing class. It’s more like just technically creating clear sentences and paragraphs and organizing your thoughts and all that kind of thing.
Yes. So, I had a bunch of classes that actually were your sort of traditional…the sort of rhetoric classes that Shakespeare was forced to do, right, where it’s like, “OK, give us, you know, write ten examples of tricolon, as like a, you know, overnight assignment,” right, things like that. And so I actually have…I won’t say something like an ancient education where you would be drilled constantly on how to speak and how to hold your hands to present a statement before the Roman Senate, right, because there were hand positions in these things, but I at least had something sort of winking in that direction, where it was, you know, “Be aware that if you phrase things in this way, if you employ devices like hendiadys or stichomythia, you know, these things that sound like Greek incantations, that you can have an effect on an audience in a certain way.” And I did a lot of Elizabethan theater classes, as well, and a lot of that was still used by people like Shakespeare and Marlowe, and the rest, in writing those plays, because they’re very…the play is a very oral medium, right, it’s meant to be heard, it’s meant to be spoken, and I think the best prose should be the same way. And so, the rhetoric stuff ended up being really useful, I think, from a creative-writing standpoint, because I’m a big audiobook person, and so I’ve been very much affected by the sound of the language. And so, those classes were all great except for that last one, which was like, “We’re going to talk about rhetoric in paintings,” to which I said, “Shouldn’t be a design class, three buildings down?”.
How to win friends and influence professors, maybe not.
No. It was my last semester and I was grumpy, let’s say.
So, with Empire of Silenceselling when you were twenty-two, clearly you were working on this while you were at university. Is that when this began?
Yeah. The book that became this one…people ask when I started writing. I’ve always been writing, air-quotes, “the same book,” but when I started writing it at seven, eight years old, you know, it was about Batman, and it’s not about Batman at all anymore, really, although Hadrian does wear a lot of black still, that hasn’t changed. But so do I, and I don’t know if that’s a chicken or egg thing.
And so, I started this one in my freshman, sophomore year of college, really, and it was quite different still. Hadrian wasn’t quite human in the original draft. There were some near-human aliens because I also played a lot of Japanese RPG games and there are a lot of aliens that are almost human…anyway, it changed dramatically. And as I got into my final year, I had the great fortune of having John Kessel for a professor. He’s a Nebula Award-winning short-story writer, he’s got a couple of novels out from Saga, and he is an all-around just great guy, and he gave me some advice on querying, and of course I’d started my internship at Baen, so I actually had access to a SFWA directory, which has all the agencies in the back, so, I photocopied that and started going through, querying people, with John’s advice on the letter writing. There was this awful frame narrative that was in the book at the time that he convinced me to cut out. And lo and behold the minute I did that, I started getting answers to my queries that weren’t, “Go away.” And I sold…rather, I got an agent a month before I graduated and then…so that was November because I graduated a semester off schedule, I had an extra, I was late, which is part of why I was so cross with my rhetoric professor, I just really wanted to be out. And so, I had about a month over the holidays because, you know, people aren’t working in December really, and then come January I got my job at Baen on Monday, and then that Thursday I got a call from Sarah Guan, who used to work at DAW, she’s with Orbit now, she loved the book and wanted to buy it. And so, I had about the best week of my life up until I proposed to my fiancée. So that was a good time.
Well, you said this book kind of grew out of all the stories that you’d been writing all along, but was there some initial seed or image? How does that work for you when it comes to a story? How do stories come to you, or begin?
I can’t remember where this one really came from. There’s no, you know, Robert Howard talking about Conan just appearing or J.K. Rowling having the same sort of conversation about Harry Potter just sort of appearing to her on the train, because it’s been so long. Hadrian and I…although Hadrian’s had like thirteen, fourteen different names, he’s been with me in some form or other since I was a kid so, I don’t…a couple of people have noted similarities between our personalities. You know, just…this is a common thing with authors, right? Like, I’ve seen people say the same thing about Pat Rothfuss and Kvothe, that they have some similar personality traits, things like that…but I don’t know which one’s me, which one’s him, because I’ve been writing this character in some form since I was a small kid. So, like, I was talking about the black clothes. Like, I wear black pretty much all the time and so does Haddrian, it’s his family color, and I don’t know if I’m wearing black because I’m sort of low-key cosplaying my own work or if my work is borrowing from my own fashion choices.
I thought I was a Johnny Cash influence.
You know, my dad makes that joke and I’m happy to accept it because Johnny Cash is the man.
I wrote a biography of him, a children’s biography of him. So…it was kind of cool.
Did you really? I’ll have to go track that one down. I’m a big fan. I’m not usually a country guy but Cash is excellent.
So, I don’t really know. There are some other stories that I will, that I’m working on that I have some ideas for. They’re just coming to me randomly. I don’t try to go looking for them. I’m not a very stringent researcher. If it’s something completely new, if it’s something I want to be devoting a lot of time to, they’ll just sort of pop up eventually, usually because I’ll be reading or watching something and I’ll like it, I’m like, “This is cool! But…” And then something will sort of spin out of an objection or a critique of something else. And I’ll want to do something from that. I’m a very argumentative person, to my detriment, as my educational history made brief reference to.
Well, if we’re going to talk about the Sun Eaterseries, perhaps you could give a spoiler-free synopsis of the first book for those who either have not read it or, like me, have not yet finished reading it.
All right. Well, what I usually do, because I go to a lot of conventions and I do a lot of floor selling with my friend Alexi Vandenberg of Bard’s Tower, is, I tell people that my main character, Hadrian, is sort of an Anakin Skywalker, but less whiney, if becoming Darth Vader were the right thing for him to do. The story is set about 20,000 years in our future in this big galactic empire. Hadrian is a nobleman, the son of a fairly minor but high-status house, that runs away from home, and he finds himself stuck in the middle of this war between humanity and the Cielcins, this alien menace, who are the first species of technologically advanced aliens in all that 20,000-year history who have ever stood up to humankind, who have ever rivaled us for control of the galaxy. Hadrian tells you on page one that he is the man who ended that war and killed all of the Cielcin, and the story is a memoir of why and how.
Yeah, talk about a spoiler on the first page.
Yeah, I…yeah. I don’t…I’ve always taken umbrage with spoiler culture. I think that if your story has to hang together on surprise, then maybe it’s not the best story. People have started to realize this about, say, M. Night Shyamalan, after The Sixth Sense. You know, his other movies have all hung on some twists that more or less haven’t delivered and I, you know, I don’t go out of my way to ruin things, but I think that if we can take the what-if, or what might happen, off the table, and instead talk about why and how, and the details, obviously, ‘case I’m not giving away the whole ending on page one, that we can ask some more interesting questions and have a different kind of story.
I suppose there’s no particular reason…I don’t think it even works very well to try to do an entire novel version of an O. Henry short story where everything depends on a sudden twist on the last page. I don’t think readers would actually like that.
No, no. And I’m not saying that every, you know, plot twist is like that, either. I just…I think…like, I’ve gotten a lot of people who complained that these memoir-style books take a lot of the tension out of the plot, and maybe that’s true for them. But I am one of those people who always looks at Wikipedia summaries of things because I like to know. I’m more interested in the journey than the destination and seeing how things get carried off and why, and what’s layered in there. And for those people who think that this story is something that I’ve given away completely at the beginning, that presupposes that all there is to this story is this one action that I tell you about on page one, which I think would be a mistake.
Well, I was gonna say that when it comes to memoirs it’s not like, if we were reading a memoir of a famous person…we know what he did, or she did, and yet we are still interested to find out how that all came about from the internal perspective of the person who did that thing. So, that should apply just as well. If I were…we’re currently reading, of all things, I’m reading out loud Boswell’s Life of Johnsonto my wife. We still have forty-four hours to go according to the Kindle.
Oh, my gosh.
And yet, you know, it’s still interesting even though, you know, well, he did the dictionary and he did all this, and then he died, you know. And yet it’s still interesting, even though you know how it ends. And it’s not like, you know, Romeo and Julietis any less powerful because you know when you go into it how it’s going to end. In some way it’s going along the journey along the way that makes it interesting.
Right. And there’d be no point to read classical literature anyway, right? Like, take The Count of Monte Cristo, right? Like, everybody knows it’s about a guy who goes to prison unjustly and gets revenge. And now, that he gets revenge, which is usually how the book sold to anybody when you’re trying to get them to read it, presupposes his success. But the details, right, you know, and how and why and the catharsis of those moments, right? That’s why you read the thing, you don’t read it to figure out what happens.
Did I interrupt you in the synopsis of the book?
Oh no. No, no, no. That was pretty much all I wanted to say, because I don’t want to say the things in the middle, right? There are, you know, without putting anything together, there are gladiator fights and there is court intrigue and there are aliens and friendships lost and found and all of these things.
Well, that brings me around to the next question, which is, so far you’ve mostly talked about your character, but there’s an awful lot of worldbuilding going on in here and a detailed and complicated plot. What does your planning process look like? Do you outline in great detail, do you wing it, and then…how does it work for you?
So, I winged the first book because I didn’t have a deadline. I had years and years to figure it out. And so, most of it ended up gelling in my head over time as I was rewriting things and changing things. You know, “What if I did this instead?” I had to rewrite this one very quickly because my first editor, when she bought it, it was about half as long. She said, “I love it. It’s great. I read it in one shot overnight, but I have these two problems,” and I looked at the problems and they were, without getting into too much detail, they were really fundamental worldbuilding problems, and it was the sort of thing that the only way I could fix them and be sure I fixed them and it wasn’t sloppy was to rewrite the whole thing. And so, I locked myself in my room, basically, for three months. I think it took me 108 days, because I kept a spreadsheet of my progress because this encourages me. Or discourages me, at least, when I fail to write enough on one day and my spreadsheet looks bad. And I would go to work, and then I would come home, and I worked…I think I slept only, like, four hours a night for most of that period. It was not good. But I shot through the whole thing all at once, and because I had just written it, right, it was all still very crystal.
But for the second book…I’ve become pretty friendly with David Drake, working at Baen, and Dave writes these enormous outlines, you know, you can…they’re basically like fifty or sixty pages for everything he does. And Dave ticks through and writes them…he writes his books…we, you know, we can almost plan our schedule around Dave. He’s like clockwork. It’s amazing. And so, he’ll turn in a book, we’ll know how long it is, we’ll know when we’re getting it, we know how early we’re getting it, we know how clean it will be. He’s so consistent. He’s just a real pro. And he does it because of these, I think because of these, amazing outlines, and so when I wrote book two, Howling Dark, I thought, “I’m going to be like Dave Drake.” Bold, bold statement, I know, but we have the Rome thing in common, so I thought I was I was off to a good start.
So, I started this big outline, and I wrote it and then, having written it, I realized that I knew basically everything that was in it. So when I would start a chapter I would look again at the page or so I’d written for the chapter, refresh myself with it, and then not look at it again. And for book three I did kind of the same thing. Because this story starts with at least intimations of its ending. I had kind of both ends of this plot string nailed to the table and I’ve been trying to untie the knot ever since. Which is kind of hard to do. So, I’ve been clipping at it and moving things around, so when I start outlining, I will put a bunch of scenes I know need to be in the book down on sticky notes. I had this big door on my closet that was just flat, right, so I used it kind of like a like a chalkboard, and I would stick these things to it and this sort of cloud of notes would turn steadily into a column marching straight up and down the middle of the door as I knew which scene/chapter was gonna be where and what would happen. And I turned that big string of post-it notes into a sixty-page David Drake outline. And I’ve done that for the last two books. And in doing that, I haven’t taken, you know, fifteen years to write it. I did book two in about nine months and book three is going to take about six all told. So I’m getting this down to a science, I think. I hope, rather.
What length are they? I’m reading it in Kindle, I don’t know how thick it is.
Oh gosh. Empire was 238,000 words. Howling Dark was 260, and I think this one’s going to be a little bit longer than that, the third one.
They are substantial.
Yeah, I try to write about 2,000 a day, when I am not moving house (I’m moving right now, I think I said), I can do two to three pretty reliably. At least, now that I have a due date and the fear of God is in me.
Sixty pages is pretty impressive from my point of view—my synopses are more like twenty, twelve to twenty, fifteen to twenty, more or less. But you don’t win the medal for people I’ve talked to on The Worldshapers. Peter V. Brett does a 150-page outline.
Yeah, I have no ambitions of trying to take that title from him.
He’s certainly…and there’s also, you know…I guess it was Kendare Blake I talked to, whose episode just came out before this interview with you, and she basically wings everything. So it’s always interesting to hear the different approaches that people take.
You mentioned Rome, and clearly that’s a lot of influence in there, in the book. So, going back to the worldbuilding side of things, it seems like you were drawing very much on your interest and study of history and philosophy and religion, all that seems to really find its way into the story.
Yes. So I thought, when I was writing it, that it was mostly Greek and Byzantine. I was wrong, but that was what I had in my head. And I think…I had thought that a lot of the Roman influence was because I post a lot of very stupid jokes just, you know, meme images, that are about the Roman Empire and Roman history generally, because I think they’re funny and I think maybe two people I’m friends with get them all, but I share them anyway. And so, I think this impression that I had been primarily a Roman scholar sort of emerged from my stupid Facebook use, and I’ve sort of steered into the skid a little bit, because most of what I’d read was, of course, Greek, because there’s more of it, at least, dramatic literature, right, and most of it the Romans appropriated in one form or other, sometimes improved, depending on who you ask.
And because, also, I was raised and am Roman Catholic, I went to a Catholic school up through high school, up to the beginning of high school. And so, I grew up with a lot of classical history because it’s so integral to the genesis of the religion. So we talk about Egypt and Israel and the Near East generally, and then moving through to the Greeks and…the Seleucids, the Macedonians, you know, and Rome later, and the Byzantines afterwards. And, of course, much of early medieval history, which is steeped in a lot of classical philosophy. Aristotle’s influence cannot be overstated. And my best friend is an Aristotelian scholar at, he’s finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton. So, I have him check a lot of my work and give me ideas, things I wouldn’t have read because I was mostly interested in the myth and the drama, and he had the philosophy. So he helps me out a lot.
And so, a lot of it really comes from, I think, that religious background, just because, you know, you can’t escape Rome’s shadow as a Catholic, certainly. Both the Empire and the city and the church after. And a lot of that left its stamp, but I think as far as my reputation for it goes, it’s probably mostly just those stupid jokes.
You never know what you put on line is going to follow you down…
No, and you never know what thing is going to be the useful detail in your world building, right? You know, I might have only read I think a few pages of philosophers like Epictetus, right, like I…of course. your readers will think you’ve read all of it. Don’t tell anyone. But you know, you might find a line or two and that’s all you need. You know, the fiction writer’s world-building game, I think, ought to be consequensive of a pretty light touch. You know, I talked to Lois Bujold, because I did a brief stint doing the other side of the interview thing here when I did the Baen podcast for a couple of months, and I asked Lois Bujold about worldbuilding, and she told me she won’t make up anything until she needs it. And once I heard her say that, I was like, “All right, I’m not going to spend hours filling notebooks with information anymore. I will make up details as I need it and then try to stick to the rules that I have established.”
Well, I’m a stage actor and playwright and director and a lot of this bears in common with doing something on stage: you only put on there what you need to suggest the reality and the viewer, in that case, the audience member, fills in everything from that. You know, that one flat with a view over the Roman hills in the background or whatever. It’s really just a light little touch, a little detail, and yet it suggests a depth and richness that in many ways the audience actually provides.
It’s amazing how little the audience really needs in order to generate a picture, right? Like, Shakespeare…Elizabethan theatre didn’t use set design at all, right? They might, they had the balcony above the stage, but there were no tables and chairs. It was all done by costume. You had your props and what not. You know, I think it’s Measure for Measure when they say, “Exit pursued by a bear.” There was a bear-baiting pit across the street from the Globe, so I’m sure there was a real bear, but they weren’t building, you know, castle displays and these things. That’s why, at the beginning of Henry V, the chorus comes out and says, you know, “Imagine that this dome, you know, contains the varsity fields of France,” and so, you know, just a light suggestion, just an off phrase is going to generate crazy ideas in people. I remember as a kid looking at maps of Middle Earth and looking at places Tolkien doesn’t even talk about, right, like a ruin barely comes up, and thinking, “Well, I want to I want to go there,” right? That’s all it takes is literally just one name on a map and the audience is running with. And they think that you have it all planned out, and you don’t have to.
We have talked about a little bit about your actual writing process: 2,000 words a day on a good day, 2,000 to 3,000 words. You are very…it sounds that you’re very organized, like, “I sit down, and I work when it’s time for me to work.” Is that pretty much the way you work?
Yeah. Well, especially now. They give me a deadline, and it was a month sooner than I had anticipated for book three. So what I do, I wake up at about 6 a.m., I eat breakfast, and then I will write until I have to go to work just before 9, and then I will go to the office and work 9 to 5, like a good soldier, and then I will come home, make dinner, and then I will work until I hit that word count. And I try to hit, at the very least, a thousand words in a day. These days, I’m trying to bottom out at 1,500, just because I want to get it to Katie on time, and if I can do it early, because they know the deadline surprised me and wrong-footed me, then I will look really cool. And I am trying to look as cool as possible so…fortunately I had that deadline.
You’ve mentioned, also, you know, that you have these friends that you still get some feedback from. Especially when you’re working to a deadline like this, do you actually even have time to show this to anybody before you’re gonna have it done and then hand it in?
They might not…their feedback at the very end might not be that useful, but I try to get it to them in stages, you know, so they might read three chapters at a time and just sort of follow behind me. I very briefly had a stint in the noughts as a middle schooler writing fan fiction and reading it. I sort of fell out on it because I realized that I would do better writing my own stuff. I know I could make money doing that, I can’t make money writing Legend of Zelda stories. But, you know, they would update a chapter at a time every couple of weeks, right? And it was exciting. Same with comic books, right? You know, I’m a big fan of Berserk, the Japanese series, and that might get a chapter every, like, three months or something, and waiting for that little update’s really exciting. And so, my friends who came out of the same space as me no objections to getting these things in dribs and drabs and getting back to me. I have a couple who were faster than others, and some people might not answer, but that’s the virtue of having about five or six. I’ve got a couple who will read pretty reliably.
My friend the philosophy guy usually spot checks things for me. I’ll have specific questions for him or a couple of other people. My…I mentioned my friend’s boxing gym in my bio. My friend Wes runs a gym here in Raleigh. He trains boxers to actually fight, because most boxing gyms are actually aerobics studios. Not to put that down, but they’ll just stand in lines and they’ll just do drills, and their technique is not actually competitive at all. So, Wes trains people to fight, and he also does fencing and HEMA (Historic European Martial Arts) and he used to teach summer camps where he would teach kids like medieval military tactics and have them in lines with spears and stuff, it was very cool. And so I’ll have him check a lot of my action scenes, things like that.
I was gonna ask, what specific kind of feedback are you getting from people? I guess that’s one of them. Action scenes, and specific questions you have for your philosophy friend…philosophical friend?
Yeah, yeah. Marcus. He’s actually, he is who Gibson—if you’ve read the book, Gibson is Hadrian’s tutor.
Sort of the scientist monk. And they all take names, in much the same way that when you’re confirmed Catholic you take a saint’s name, these monks will take old scholar names, and he has borrowed my friend’s name, as a nod to my friend for his long years of service.
So what does your revision process look like when you get to the end? Do you revise as you go? Do you do a big revision at the end and then submit it? How does that work for you?
I do…when I have time, and I won’t this time with book three, I let it sit for a week, ideally, and then start reading it over again, and I’ll make notes about what needs to be changed and things as I go. I’ll fix, you know, bad-sounding sentences. Because I try to read aloud. The most important bit of writing advice I ever got, and I think the most important bit of writing advice I can ever give, is “read your work out loud,” because if you wrote a bad sentence it will sound stupid and you can fix it, but you can’t fix it if you can’t hear it. And so, I try to read everything aloud and catch those as I’m going and then catch things. I also find my memory is much better with things I’ve heard, so I’ll remember details better and catch things like someone’s eye color changing, which…even proofreaders are going to miss that sort of thing.
Yes, those things do crop up, and if you don’t read it out loud to yourself while you’re doing that, you will certainly find those errors when you’re doing a public reading sometime.
Oh, yeah. Every time. There’s a word missing in the first line of dialogue in Empire of Silence, I think. It’s something like “the mother of wisdom in” and it should be “is in” and that missing “is” haunts me to this day. I fixed it in the mass market, but it just…it’s in the audiobook, and every time it just…it’s too late.
It must be in the electronic ARC I’m reading, so I’ll have to look that up.
Yeah, it’s…it’s just embarrassing. But I try to do that, and I’ll do spot fixes. I try to go and find words like “very” and see if it’s an instance of the word “very” that needs to go. Words like “seems.” I have a whole list somewhere, I forget other words…
Quite a few authors have told me that. Let’s see, it was Kevin Hearne, I think, who said he suddenly became sensitive to the phrase “I couldn’t help but,” and he said, “Well, of course you could.” And so he goes through and tries to get rid of all of those. For me…I…well, of course, there’s the, you know, the basic, if you do a search for “wases” and “weres” and stuff you can see if you’re using passive tense sometimes you shouldn’t. But, I often find that my characters make animal noises too much. They’re always growling dialogue or snarling something. I try to catch some of those.
So, when it gets to DAW, and Katie, your editor there, what kind of editorial feedback do you get? I haven’t worked with her, so I don’t know how she works.
Katie is great. Katie catches a lot of things. My favorite thing about working with Katie is that Katie and I have more-or-less diametrically opposed worldviews and philosophies and backgrounds. I come from a deeply Catholic conservative background. Katie is very much a progressive. I think she was, I think she was an activist, like, a professional activist before she was an editor. And we live in very divisive times, let us say, and without getting into anyone’s opinions on anything, because I really don’t, especially publicly, don’t want to be a political person in any way whatsoever, I really appreciate that we can work together with these very different…because there are just things that you’re blind to, right? When you have opposing…when you have a different way of seeing things, there are just some parts of the world you don’t see because you’ve never seen them, these sorts of things? And Katie is conscious of things.
’Cause I’m not trying to hurt anybody with writing, so just, you know, stupid, you know, thoughtless things that might creep into your writing because it doesn’t…you don’t encounter it, right? It’s not exactly…I’m not describing, like, sensitivity reading issues, because my response is usually not…it’s not changing anything that’s in…I don’t change any of my…things that are in the text. It’s not that kind of thing. It’s…she will catch where I haven’t presented myself very clearly or I’ve sort of taken half-measures in order to express an idea or to negotiate a plot point, these sorts of things. The way I like to think about it is, in Dostoyevsky and Brothers Karamazov, right, he’s got Ivan and Alyosha, and Alyosha is kind of dim, but he’s a really decent human being. Ivan is viciously brilliant, right? And Ivan wins every single argument that he has against Alyosha, but Alyosha wins in the long run because he is a decent human being. He ends up at the end of his life better off, right? And Dostoyevsky has more in common worldview-wise with Alyosha than he does Ivan, but he makes Ivan as strong a foil as he possibly can. You know, Nietzsche used to say that he did philosophy with a hammer, well ,Dostoyevsky did literature with a hammer, right? He built the strongest possible…you know, I don’t want to say arguments, because fiction isn’t necessarily an argument…but the strongest possible avatar of things he didn’t believe in, right? He made his villains, his antagonists, as strong as he could. And Katie helps me to pull out places where I have been a weak writer because of our differences of opinion and vision and clarity of vision. And, you know, I find that absolutely wonderful and indispensable. And so, in addition to that, obviously there’s the usual stuff about, you know, just usual editing, you know, this might not work here, move this scene, that kind of thing, but that, I think, is the most useful, the most indispensable, bit of editorial help that I get.
So, Empire of Silence came out last year, right? 2018?
Yes. Yeah. July 10.
Trying to remember what year it is.
And the second one, which is called Howling Dark, is coming up very shortly. We’re recording this in early June and the book comes out in July.
I should know because there’s this guy on Twitter that’s running a daily countdown of how many days it is.
Yeah. I thought that would be fun. It’s been a lot of work.
I was looking at that, thinking, “I could do that for Master of the World,” which is my next book from DAW, but I thought, “Boy, that looks like a lot of work,” so I don’t know if I will do that or not.
Yeah, I did that all in advance, thank heavens. I don’t do it every day. I did a countdown for book one like that, where I did the one quote from each chapter per day for each number of chapters. But I had eighty chapters in this book, and doing one for three months, is…
So, what has the response been to the first book?
Overwhelmingly positive. I think I’ve got about 1,200, 1,300 reviews on Goodreads. Fifty percent of them are five stars, which is just absolutely mind-boggling, because to me this is still a bunch of goofy nonsense that I made up because, really, you know, for all this talk of, you know, differences of opinion and stuff, my only aspiration is to entertain people. It truly, truly is. People can read the book if they agree with me, if they disagree with any of this. And I hope that they have a good time, because that’s what this is about. I am ultimately no different than a medieval harlequin juggling in the streets, and that’s all I want to be, only more serious.
Well, that actually is my next question. This is the point in the podcast where I ask the big questions, and the first one is, “Why do you do this? Why do you write?” And, on a broader scope, why do why do you think any of us write, one, and two, why do you and I and other people write this kind of made-up stuff, science fiction and fantasy?
Well, I have two answers, because of course I have artistic pretensions, right? And any artist does. And I do really think that literature in particular, that the thing that separates human beings from the animals isn’t, you know, tool-building, obviously crows do that sort of thing, it’s not language even, really: it’s storytelling. The reason…we tell stories so that our narrative persona, our narrative avatars, right, our characters, can suffer and die so that we don’t have to.
Stories are instructional. The most basic story is, “I went out into the wilderness. There was a tiger. It killed the other cavemen. Bring a stick next time.” You know, that’s why fables have morals. And all stories do this. And what we’ve been trying to do with our stories…and the oldest stories, in addition to being, you know, daily news, like the tiger one, are religious, right? Religion, literature—these things overlap pretty significantly in the way that they try to define an ethic of, like, how we’re supposed to act in the world, what the right way to behave is. That’s what the hero’s journey is, right, the hero’s journey is like the Dao in Daoism, right, it’s like the eightfold path in Buddhism, it’s like the imitation of Christ in Christianity, it’s the right way to act in the world, you know, being heroic, right? Now, we can argue about the details of what that is, and that’s part of the experiment, right?
You know, I started writing this because I read Iain Banks’s Culture series, where he’s like, “Well, the minute we get into space, government’s finished,” like, you know, no one will ever control anybody. And as much as I love those books, I was like, “That’s not right. Like, well, it’s really hard to get off planets, Mr. Banks. Like, they just won’t let you.” And so, I made an empire that doesn’t let people get off planets. So, you know, it’s all part of this argument about society and how people function.
But beneath all that, and at the same time, you know, I think it was Edgar Rice Burroughs said, you know, “You have to entertain first.” Right? Maybe it was someone else, or maybe he said it, too. And all I really want to do…the reason why most of what I post online are links to obscure metal songs and stupid jokes about the Roman Empire is because I am not here to change anyone’s heart or mind. I am not. I don’t think I have the wisdom or the clarity of mind to do that, and I would be very suspicious of anybody whose job is to write stories about wizards and spaceships who tries to tell you how to live your life. All I want to do is tell you a story about wizards and spaceships.
And as for why we write stories about wizards and spaceships, you know, I think…there are a lot of people, a lot of my creative-writing professors, John Kessel aside, because the man is a rarity…hated that I was writing science fiction in my creative-writing classes. They in fact tried to stop me, and I had to negotiate with them pretty early in the class, like, “Look, this is what I want to do, like, professionally, I would really appreciate your feedback, can you please work with me?” And they very often would. A couple of them were like, “No, you must write literary, you know, lit-fic minimalist hyper-realist pieces.” Maybe magical realism, because that gets a pass for some reason. But all the old stories are fantastic, right? Literally the oldest story we have is the Enûma Eliš, or the creation myth from the Sumerians. And it is a dragon-slaying story. It is about Marduk, the God of Attention, right, he’s got eyes all around his head, right, and his ability to speak magic words, and to take the Dragon of Chaos, Tiamot, apart. He cuts her to pieces and builds the world out of the dragon’s corpse, right? So this is a dragon, and magic words, and, you know, he’s got superpowers, he can see everything, right?
It sounds like a Marvel movie.
Yeah, exactly. And that’s what it all is. Science fiction is modern mythology, because a lot of modern people have a hard time with other forms of mythology, because they go out into the world and they’re like, “Well, I don’t see anyone turning water into wine. So these stories aren’t true,” and I’m like, “Well, but what does the story mean?”, right? The story represents something. Whether or not that something is metaphysically true is irrelevant—those stories have meaning. And it’s the same…and I think it’s more digestible if we know those stories are fake to begin with, right? Like, I’m amazed by the number of people who dislike religion on principle who are Tolkien fans, right? It’s just absolutely mind-boggling to me, because it’s the same story, you know? King Arthur is literally the same story, right?
And so, I think we’re doing this because writing… because we don’t live in a society where popular culture is hagiography anymore, where we’re not writing the lives of the saints. So, instead of talking about St. George killing a dragon—because that’s the same story, too. You know, talking about St. Barlaam, who is actually just the Buddha, you know, that story traveled across Asia and arrived in Europe in a different form. You know, instead of telling all these stories as popular entertainments, instead of talking about the quest for the Holy Grail, right, which is of course a very religiously centered story, we tell stories about different dragonslayers, right? You know, Euron Greyjoy just killed a dragon in Game of Thrones, right? Now, that’s a terrible person, but it’s still the same motif, it’s the same kind of story, and it’s scratching a similar itch. Even if the ending of Game of Thrones…that’s an issue, you know, we can get into another time. But it’s still…it’s still hitting that same spot for people.
I think that fandoms are…I don’t want to say cults, but, like, cults in the Roman sense, where they’re these little tiny micro-religions, right, without the pejorative content at all, I think. People come to these things looking for meaning, and they find them in these other places.
And, you know, I think some other people just like dragons, right? They like knights, you know, because in their real life they’re pizza-delivery guys or, you know, they drive trucks, or they work in an office, or they teach school, and, you know, they…it helps. You know, Tolkien talks about writing escapist literature, because, you know, in its truest sense, because you need to be let out of prison, right, because you don’t want to go to the office every day. I work at a science-fiction publisher and I don’t want to go to the office every day, it’s an office. You know, and I love my job, but sometimes it’s Tuesday and you don’t want to go.
I don’t know if it’s Tolkien or Lewis who said that people who…who’s against escapism? Well, jailers. So, people who say, “You shouldn’t read that escapist stuff” are the jailers.
Yeah, that was my problem with those professors.
It’s interesting. I’ve talked to a lot of authors, some of whom had creative writing, and that is…that, unfortunately, it’s still there, those creative-writing types who have this deep-seated prejudice against the fantastic, which…not always. there have been some exceptions in the people I’ve talked to, but it is something that comes up quite a bit.
I will say this though, against those professors. That’s what every student in those classes wanted to write. Almost to a man and woman, every single person who was in those classes with me wanted to write science fiction or fantasy. Maybe they wanted to write, like, a thriller, right, you know, some sort of military story, spy story, but they weren’t writing, you know, literary minimalism, you know, about some person in their ordinary life having ordinary experiences. Everyone was in there with dragons or robots. So they’re losing. And I think people like Dr. Kessel will be more the mainstay in the profession here in another generation or so.
Well, we’re just about to the end of the hour. We’ve talked about the new book and you have mentioned that what you’re working on is the third book. Anything else that you’re working on at the moment?
No, none at the exact moment because I have to power through book three here and finish it before Howling Darkcomes out July 16. And so, I owe them book three August 1. I’d wanted to turn it in before this one was even out, because I turned in book two before book one was out, because it would be nice, you know, to do that. But I have some other ideas. Most of them are fantasy. I want to…there’s a famous story about the Emperor Caligula, who’s famously mad, although I think personally that he’s been defamed by oligarchs throughout history, but it’s his famous story about him ordering his soldiers to attack the ocean. And, you know, that happened up in the Netherlands, so he sounded crazy to everybody in Italy, but I’m a big Tim Powers fan and, you know, Tim Powers’s thing is, he tries to find fantastic explanations for these sort of coincidences in history and, you know, what if Caligula were actually attacking something that came from the sea, you know? That, I think, is something I want to work on after I finish this, but after I finish book three it’ll be time for book four. And then book five. So I have to do that first.
Because it’s not a trilogy, then. It’s more than that.
Oh, no, no. I’m allergic to trilogies, because everyone…it seems every time there’s a trilogy out I find people who are like, “Oh, book two is bad, oh, don’t read the second one, really dropped it in the middle,” or, “You get through the second one, the third one fixes it.” And I thought, “Well, instead of having one awkward middle book, I’ll have three. That’ll fix the problem.”
Well, I did a five-book series, so I’m right there with you. Although they were much shorter. I mean, I think the entire five books would have fit into one and a quarter of yours, but…
I just talk too much, as you can tell.
And where can people find you online?
I am on Facebook and Twitter @TheRuocchio. Someone had already taken my last name, it’s like a third cousin of mine in Pennsylvania, so I put the “The” in front, which makes me sound famous, even though I’m not.
Oddly enough, that’s why this is called “The Worldshapers” instead of just “Worldshapers,” because worldshapers.com was taken. And they offered to sell it to me for, I don’t know, $5,000 or something. I said. “You know, I think I’ll just put a ‘the’ in front of it and I’ll be fine.”
Yeah, that’s the easy solution. I wasn’t gonna try and shake down this cousin I’d never met, so…
So, Twitter and Facebook, both the same thing?
Yes. And my website is sollanempire.com. I figured that’d be easier to spell than my name.
Well, thanks so much for being a guest. I really enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.
I did. Thank you for having me. I’ve been really looking forward to this. I really enjoyed the episode you did with Dave Butler, who is a really good friend of mine, and a couple of the others, and been real excited.
Well, thank you. I think it’ll be…I’m sure that listeners will enjoy it as much as we both did. I hope, anyway.
An hour-long conversation with California-based fantasy superstar Tad Williams, whose genre-creating (and genre-busting) books have sold tens of millions worldwide, and whose writing has strongly influenced a generation of writers. with a focus on the Osten Ard series that began with the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy (The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower) and is now continuing with The Last King of Osten Ard (The Witchwood Crown and the forthcoming Empire of Grass and The Navigator’s Children).
Robert Paul “Tad” Williams was born in San Jose, California, and grew up in Palo Alto, the town that grew up around Stanford University. His mother gave him the nickname “Tad” after the young characters in Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo.
Before becoming a full time fiction author Tad held many jobs, including delivering newspapers, food service, shoe sales, branch manager of a financial institution, and drawing military manuals.
In his mid-twenties, he turned to writing and submitted the manuscript of his novel Tailchaser’s Song to DAW Books.DAW Books liked it and published it, and DAW continues to be Tad’s American publisher.. Tad continued working various jobs for a few more years, including three years from 1987 to 1990 as a technical writer at Apple Computer’s Knowledge Engineering Department, taking problem-solving field material from engineers and turning it into research articles, before making fiction writing his full-time career.
Since then, his books have sold tens of millions worldwide. He is married to Deborah Beale, a former publisher who is also a writer, and he and his family live in the Santa Cruz mountains in, to quote his website, a “suitably strange and beautiful house.”
The Lightly Edited Transcript
Hi, Tad, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Hello. Good to be here.
I’m very glad to have you. Now, I always like to figure out the connections I have with people and of course, in our case, we share our publisher, DAW Books, and we have met at a few of the famous DAW family dinners over the years as well, at least twice that I know of.
Now, the focus of the podcast is on the creative process, but before we get to that specifically, I always like to take my guests back into the dim, receding mists of time, and find out how they got started. So, how did you become interested in writing, and in particular, how did you become interested in writing the kind of stuff that we both write, science fiction and fantasy?
Well, actually it was a bit of a roundabout path in the sense that I’ve always been a reader, and starting quite young I was always very interested in the fantastical. I was raised on a lot of the classic English and early American fantasy fiction for kids, things like The Wind in the Willows, the Oz books, you know, the the E. Nesbit books, all kinds of things like that when I was young. Including The Lord of the Rings, which I think I probably read for the first time when I was about eleven and actually read before I read The Hobbit. So, I was kind of predisposed.
But when I was in my teens and even my early 20s, I was much more interested in other creative things that I was doing than writing. As I said, I was always a reader, but I was an artist and a cartoonist and I played music and I did theatre and radio in my early 20s. So, there were a number of other kinds of things that I was involved in creatively, trying to make one of them work, and writing only really came about when I got frustrated with always having to work with other people, who weren’t always as serious about this stuff, or at least not as punctual. You know, when you’re playing in a band and the drummer breaks up with his girlfriend and just doesn’t show up for rehearsal and, you know, that that kind of stuff that just drove me absolutely nuts. So, I kind of began to focus more on things that I could do in my own time and control my time and, you know, do it myself.
So, somewhere along in that process I decided to try writing a book. I was probably about 24 or 25 at the time, and I had played around with an idea about cats and kind of making up a mythology and folklore for cats, mostly to amuse myself, because my now-ex-wife, who I had moved in with, had cats and I’d never lived with them. So, I was kind of taken aback by the whole thing. The cat/human bargain was sort of beyond me. So I was just playing with that idea, and then when I decided to try writing a book, that was my first idea, “Oh, I could write a novel from the point of view of cats,” and because I was already interested in fantasy, I thought, “OK, well, I’ll make it a fantasy novel.”
And that was pretty much what happened. I spent a couple of years working other jobs and writing at night on my kitchen table and that was my first novel, Tailchaser’s Song, which I was lucky enough to be able to sell. And once my publishers, you know, asked me if I had some more stuff I wanted to do, I just continued on from there until it became pretty clear to me that this was going to be a career if I kept working at it, or had the chance to be a career. So that’s how I went.
Well, what were some of the other jobs that you were working on,before you became a full-time writer?
You mean, as opposed to the creative stuff?
I mean, every kind of godawful job you can imagine, Ed. I mean, you know, I folded burritos, I sold insurance, I sold shoes, I did a lot of retail management, I worked and managed in a Savings and Loan Company, almost you-name-it sort of thing, because I had not gone to college directly after high school, I was very interested in pursuing my creative stuff. So, although I did eventually go back and do some college, that wasn’t my area of interest, so I was I was not working career-type jobs, I was working whatever jobs I could get, sometimes using my creative side, like, you know, I worked doing technical art and things like that.
You actually did some technical writing, turning engineers’ writing into research articles, which caught my attention because I’m married to an engineer.
Yeah, the last normal job I had was in the late 1980s at Apple, and that’s where I did that, and started out doing purely tech writing, which was exactly what you said, it was taking the engineers in the field and turning what they were doing into technical information like, you know, researchable stuff. But then I got very interested in other things, too, including what was then called multimedia or interactive multimedia and, in fact, later on, that’s where my Otherlaand books came from, was that period of being very deeply interested in interactive multimedia.
Well, just because my wife is an engineer, I have to ask you: Did you find when you were working with engineers that they can spell?
Some of them could. Some of them obviously thought it was not part of their job description. My dad is a chemical engineer, so I had kind of a familiarity with this particular type, anyway, and I always got the feeling it wasn’t that they couldn’t spell, it was more like it was boring and that wasn’t what they were really interested.
My wife actually got a T-shirt that says “I’m an enginer…I’m an engineier… engineer misspelled three ways…and they’re all crossed out, and the last line is, “I’m good at maths.”.
Yeah, right, exactly.
The other thing that I wanted to ask you about is…well, I always see parallels with other writers, and in your case, there’s a couple of them, one is that I’m almost exactly the same age as you–I’m a couple of years younger–I think…
You have my sympathy.
But you had this interest in music, which was also something I had. You did some radio and television and I’ve hosted a TV show and I’ve posted radio shows, and you did theater,, as well and particularly, I wanted to ask you about the theater, because I’ve often found in talking to authors who have been involved in the theater, I always like to ask them if they think that some of the skills of being on stage, acting, creating stuff in the theater, if that is very helpful for writing the kind of stuff that you write now. Do you find any carry-over there?
Oh, absolutely. Both the theater and music. I think that whether those specific things are a big part of how I write or whether those are all facets of me that work together in my writing is hard to say. But absolutely. One of the things about doing live theater or live–I also did improvisational comedy–and one of the things about those kinds of pursuits is that, first of all, it’s live, so you’re dealing with actual people in the moment. And one of the only things I don’t like about writing is that you do not have a live audience. So, sometimes you are literally years separated from getting honest reactions to what you’re doing.
But one of the things, for instance, that theater makes you very aware of is holding attention and what kinds of things hold people’s attention. And I’m not just talking about the obvious things, like chase scenes, sex scenes, I’m talking about things like intonation and pacing, which also by the way is stuff that comes up in the music background and I think is also useful for writing. When you’re on stage and you have people out there and you’re kind of hooked into how they’re responding to you, you’re very aware how things like slowing down, getting louder, getting quieter, all of these kinds of things, affect people in a very physical way, and you can bring some of those lessons over to writing. And there’s a number of other things like that, I mean, that’s a simplistic explanation, but, yes, definitely. I think for me, and any writer who’s done it, doing theater or doing radio definitely becomes part of how you work and how you judge your own work.
It seems to me that many of the skills that you bring as an actor to trying to bring a character to life, inhabiting that character, for me, at least, carries over into inhabiting the characters that I create on the page, as well.
Oh, I think so, absolutely, yeah. And that’s also, you know, that’s getting into a slightly smaller, more specific aspect of it. Yes, absolutely, because again you are trying to create an audience identification–not always a positive one, but you’re trying to get the audience connected to a character quickly. And so, there are certain things to do, and only some of those are what they say. Some of them are little visual clues you’re dropping, body language clues, just the same way you would as an actor. You know things about how they stand, how they talk, when they talk, to whom they speak, and all those kinds of things. So, yeah, absolutely.
Yeah, and I often find when I’m looking at…and I do quite a bit of mentoring and stuff like that is that one thing that people sometimes lose track of is the visuals of the scene and their story, and so characters might suddenly pop from one place to another without crossing the intervening space, and having directed plays, you’re always conscious of where people are standing.
Absolutely. Blocking is a big part of writing, as well, because, you know, if you want people to move around, and that’s either in the sort of granular sense of within a scene or in the larger sense of a story, you have to find ways to describe that or signal that, without necessarily telling everybody everything but at the same time giving them enough information that they don’t feel cheated, they don’t feel like the character is, as you said, simply appearing, you know, after having been somewhere else completely. So, yes, that’s all part of the process. And actually, one of the things that I frequently liken my my job to is it’s very much like being a theatrical or film director, but you have all the other jobs too. So you’ve got to write the script and you’ve got a cast of characters and you have to do props and you have to do the backgrounds and all that kind of stuff as well. But it’s very much a case of telling a story with all of these tools to the best of your ability.
You even have to do the special effects.
So, you didn’t really focus on writing until your 20s, but you were writing when you were younger. I was reading an interview somewhere, something about writing a folktale assignment that was supposed to be three pages long and with really, really long…
Like 17, plus another four or five pages of illustrations. No, I mean, I did write, and one of the actual kind of surprising things for me was, some years back, I found one of my old yearbooks. I remember one or two projects I’d done with my my best friend at the time, sort of parodies and stuff that I’d written, but other than that I thought of my high school days as mostly having done drawing and theater and and music, playing in a band. But a lot of people said, you know, “Keep writing,” so I guess I was writing little funny things for people even back then. I just didn’t remember that as being a major part of my my high school, junior high school years.
And you must have been sharing it with people, too, if they remember you.
I guess so. As I said it was kind of a surprise to me but I mean, yeah, I’m sure at some level we were passing things that we found amusing around to share with people.
Now, coming up this May, you have another major release from DAW Books, so, do you wat to explain what that’s going to be?
Sure. Thank you. What I’m in the middle of right now is, after about 30 years, roughly, I have gone back to…I mentioned Tailchaser’s Song, the book about cats…well, the next thing I did in my writing career, back in the late ’80s, was to write a big epic fantasy trilogy, of which the first book was The Dragonbone Chair. Now, I’ve never before intentionally gone back and written a novel based in anything I’d already done before. But for various reasons I’ve decided that I wanted to do that now. So, I’m in the middle of a another multi-volume story like that one, set in the same world but about the same distance after that as had passed in the real world. So, in my world thirty years have passed since I published those books. In the world of Osten Ard, which is where the story takes place, thirty years roughly have also passed. So, the first book of that series–well, actually there was a very short one, called The Heart of What was Lost, and then the first full-sized volume was called The Witchwood Crown, and now the second of three major volumes is coming out, and that’s called Empire of Grass and that’s coming out in May. And then there’ll be a final volume called Navigator’s Children, and some other short fiction in that world that won’t necessarily be part of the main story.
For those who, unimaginably, have not read any of these books..
Shocking, I know, but it could have happened, could you give a brief explanation of the setting and what the stories are about?
Well, I can’t. It’s hard to explain these in a way that makes them sound any different from most other epic fantasy, but, basically, Osten Ard is a very vibrant sort of pre-industrial world. A lot of the action centers around a castle called the Hayholt that was once the the seat of power for the immortal race which has now largely been fractioned and driven out of human habitations, and specifically a young character named Simon who’s a kitchen boy at the time the story starts,, as these kinds of characters often are going right back to mythology. And then, of course, he winds up in the middle of a world-changing war and supernatural forces and all these kinds of things.
So, on the surface, it’s very much like a lot of other epic fantasies. But I wrote it at the time very much with the idea that I wanted to modernize the genre, and explaining that would take a while. So, I’ll hold off on that for a moment. But in part because of that, say, for instanc,e and here I’m going to brag on myself a little bit, that George R.R. Martin decided that epic fantasy, based on reading my stuff…and he’s said this several times, so, I’m not making this up and he’s been very kind about this attribution…that, you know, “Oh, epic fantasy, you can do interesting things in epic fantasy and not just rewrite Tolkien, you know, over and over and over again. So, that my purpose was to kind of drag epic fantasy forward and keep the stuff that we love about it but also try to modernize its approach, examine some of the tropes of that kind of fiction that had become pretty musty and hidebound because people were imitating Tolkien rather than trying to understand what Tolkien had done. So, in a nutshell it’s that kind of big epic fantasy with many different races and peoples, but I think also with very…I don’t want to say human characters because not all of them are human…but with very complex characters who are not just cutouts but they are people of all kinds who have very complicated inner lives and difficult moral decisions and all the stuff that makes fiction interesting no matter whether it’s genre fiction or not.
When you returned to the world after a considerable gap, did you find that you had to do a lot of research into your own world in order to remember what you’d written?
Oh, my God, Ed, I’ve been cursing myself for years. It actually was rather funny because I have been so reliant on some of my best readers, my most constant and faithful readers, because, you know, when I was young, as I said, I read The Lord of the Rings the first time when I was quite young, I fell in love with it and I read it over and over and over again, as so many of us did, you know, back in that era, but, you know, when I wrote The Dragonbone Chair, and Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower, the original series, I hadn’t actually read it again since in those 30 years. So, I was going back to this material, and I realized very quickly there’s like several people out there in the world who know this material far better than I do because they read those books like I read Tolkien, including one of them who actually made an RPG out of my world of Osten Ard, you know, and he was into the geography and, you know, everything. So, I really had to get help from people like that–who fortunately were not only wonderful people but they were already friends due to their being readers of mine–to go forward, because the Osten Ard world is, without a doubt, you know one of the more complex and developed epic-fantasy worlds there is, just be’cause that’s what I like, I like worldbuilding. So, it had a very complete history and, you know, hundreds of characters, and when I was starting these new books, I was suddenly going, “Huh,” and I was so happy that I had someone I could call up and say, “You know, I want to use so-and-so in this new book. Where where was he last?” And they’d go, “You killed him, Tad, you killed him in the second book back there. Can’t use him again.” I’d be like, “Damn! Okay, I’ll have to think of somebody else. Got any suggestions.
So, I was really beholden to these people, specifically two of them, Ilba and Ron, who have been the most help in terms of, you know, just kind of keeping me clear on whether I’m outside of my own canon or not. But, you know, that was the point, obviously, which I did go back and reread the books and reread all my old notes and have reread them at least one times since then, because I think I started this back in like 2015 or something, or 2014, so I’ve had to have a big learning curve of re-learning my own world, because, I don’t know about you, Ed, but I don’t go back and look at my own work and I certainly don’t memorize things I’ve already written because I’m on to something else.
I think a lot of readers don’t realize that for authors, by the time the book has been published, you’ve read it and read it and read it and read it and read it and read it…
…and you can barely stand to read it again, so…
I know. I’m in that process right now. I actually just had a shoulder operation, so my my my wife has been working very, very hard–Deborah Beale, who was a former publisher and is now writing, also, herself, my wife–has been very helpful with, you know, going through the copyedited proofs, but we still have another round of proofs, and of course I read through it like, four or five times during rewrites. So, yeah, you’re absolutely right. We’ve read a book so many times in the last year that most of us writers don’t ever want to see it again.
It is interesting, I found–and I presume your books have been turned into audio books?
It is interesting to listen to somebody else read your books, I’ve found, although I don’t have anything your length, so I don’t have to sit through as many hours of my own stuff read to me, but…
Well, that’s one of the problems is how much time. That’s one of the things I’ve often expressed to people when they’ve asked me questions about this, like, have I heard such-and-such an audio thing or have I done this or that or have I reread this, I’ve said, “You know, honest to God, you guys have to remember, I’m just like you, I’ve got it I’ve got a home, I’ve got family, you know, what little time I have to read is mostly put into reading, doing research. So, I don’t have a huge amount of free time that I can spend. I don’t commute anywhere, so I don’t have dead car time when I could be listening to audiobooks, even my own audiobooks, so, as with everything at this stage of life, it’s about trying to find time to do anything other than just work and, you know, be a parent or a partner or whatever.
There would be something a little creepy about spending all your time sitting in a darkened room listening to somebody read you your own books. That would be just a little odd.
I’m so glad you agree. That’s also the other thing, too, is there’s a limited amount of time I can spend rereading or listening to my own work. For one thing it’s not going to surprise me very much.
Not much suspense left.
No, no. Exactly. So what you tend to do whenever you do that is, you have to spend most of your time trying to avoid worrying about things that you did wrong 20 years ago that, you know, it’s way too late to fix.
But, having but having been forced to read what you had written all those years ago, have you found that your writing style has changed in that time?
I would say a little bit. I would say the main thing that I’ve noticed is I’m probably a little bit less flowery. But you can see that process beginning even in The Dragonbone Chair, where the first 20 or 30 pages of it, which, again this is something that was published back in, I think, 1988, or ’87, anyway, during the first 50 pages it’s more flowery than it is even for the rest of that book. So, I think that what I would call the Ray Bradbury influence has toned down a little bit. And I’m sure that there were some readers who were disappointed by that, but, you know, as I’ve gotten older and written more I’ve also become more interested in telling a story cleanly, and not necessarily stopping to write a beautiful set-piece if it’s not actually necessary. I think it’s like a lot of things in life: you start to say, “What’s the most important thing I can do here?”, rather than, “What’s the thing I can do here that will make everybody say, ‘Ooo, you’re so special!”
Now, we’ll focus on Osten Ard, specifically but in, general…you’ve talked about the theme of it, your take on the Tolkien epic fantasy, but what were the initial ideas that gave rise to it? And is that typical of the way that you start books?
Actually, yeah. Most of my books start with an idea, and oftentimes a kind of a thematic idea rather than a specific character or a specific setting. It tends to be thematic. In the case of the Osten Ard books, I know, when I’d written my first book for my publishers, DAW Books, who are still my American publishers, as we’ve just talked about since we were just at the last DAW dinner together, back then they said, well, you know, “Do you want to write something else in fantasy or science fiction?”
I said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write a big fantasy.” So that was my only thing that I went into it with the idea already in place, that I want to write a big epic fantasy, not with any specific story idea, but the story that came to me was very loosely based around the idea that both in fiction and in history, in the real world almost all great monarchies or kingdoms or whatever you want to call them have largely collapsed if they were built around a single very well-known and very powerful ruler. And I said, this is both in mythology and in history, it’s both in King Arthur and the actual Charlemagne or Alexander the Great or,, you know any number of other people. King Arthur, in the folklore, you have this great monarch who dies and the kingdom falls apart because it was not that structurally sound without them and their charisma or power or whatever. So, the initial idea I had about this was that something like that would happen in these new books, that there would be a kind of King Arthur or Charlemagne-like figure who would be dying at the beginning of the book, and then the action would be between two of his heirs, and that would be the fundamental thing,the struggle between two of his heirs for the power. And then, of course, I had to start looking for characters to tell this story, because I had already figured out that I wanted to try and tell the story on a more broad basis than just picking a couple of royal characters.
So, one of the first things I did was create this kitchen boy, who would have a whole kind of plotline of his own, but would have an interesting way of looking into the storyline, and very quickly he and some other characters became the actual focal-point characters. So, while there were still the two royal brothers, and they were, you know, important characters, they were no longer who we as readers were seeing the story through their eyes. (That’s a rather complicated, ungrammatical use of prepositions there, but, you know.) I created characters who would be the viewpoint characters and then they rapidly took over the story and became very important on their own, and the story spread, and more and more of it became about the kitchen boy and the daughter of one of the royal brothers, and et cetera, et cetera. And before I knew it it had kind of metastasized into this very broad and complicated plot. But it started out with that thematic idea, great monarch dies, heirs squabbling kingdom falls apart.
And you actually used the name, at least, of a folkloric character, Preston John, that you know, has his own folklore in the real world. Does he not?
Right, right, absolutely.There are still, especially in the first book, there are still some archeological remnants of, when I started the book, I was going to make it happen in an imaginary country but in the real world. So, it was going to share at least some of its history with the history that, you know, that we all know from Western civilization classes and the mythology that we have learned and all that kind of stuff. So, it was actually originally going to be the semi-historical, semi-mythical Preston John, and then that kind of, for various reasons, fell by the wayside, but I liked the name. The first name of the novel was The Sons of Preston John, and, so, it was a long time before I got to the point where I had to decide, well keep it or get rid of it, it’s not about the world you live in anymore and I decide to keep that aspect, because, obviously, there are many parallels with the real world. It’s not our world, but it’s a world very similar to, say, 13th-century Europe. At least the parts we’re exposed to at the beginning are: it gets weirder and stranger as the characters move out from the beginning of the story.
I think not calling it The Sons of Preston John was probably a good choice in the end.
Ha! It was never a too-serious title but, you know…I don’t know about you, but I hate writing outlines, because I’ve never ready. I’m always kind of solving things in outlines that are terrible solutions to the problems. They’re not organic, you know, they’re just like, “Okay, then I have to tell the publishers that this is going to happen, and why is it going to happen? I don’t know, because blah blah blah.” So I hate writing outlines anyway and I hate titling things before I’m ready for it. So, yeah, it was just kind of like, “Okay, that’s my working title.”.
Because that actually reminds me of the old John Wayne movie The Sons of Katie Elder.
Yeah, yeah exactly.
Well, you mentioned outline, and that was actually my next question. Once you’ve got your ideas, what does your planning look like before you actually start writing. How much do you figure out ahead of time and how much happens organically, as you said?
Well, it’s difficult to have a hard-and-fast rule, because as you know, I’m sure, and most of the other writers out there know, you know, these things are literally organic processes. They are very complicated. Some of them happen in your subconscious. Some of them are conscious decisions, but basically…and the other thing with me, as I mentioned, is, I don’t like outlines, because for me, those are artificial. I don’t know how three quarters of the story is going to work. I need to know something about the ending of it even before I start, or at least before I finished the first volume, if it’s a multi-volume story, because my multi-volume stories are really single stories that are just cut up into multiple volumes. So, I need to be able to prefigure, to, you know, drop hints, to put clues in in the first volume that may not pay off until the end of the story, maybe several years later. So, I have to know at least enough that I can do some of that, but other than that, I’m going to discover a lot of this stuff along the way as I’m writing.
I mean, as I mentioned with this book, I had, you know, some very vague ideas about what the story was going to be about. So, especially in the early stages, it’s a combination of both: a lot of thinking–and that’s unfettered thinking, that’s not sitting at the keyboard being impatient with myself thinking–that’s literally just going away and just walking around with the beginnings of the story in my mind and starting to try out different random connections–or not random, but, you know, different connections of what could happen, which character could go where, which characters we might need that don’t exist yet, et cetera et cetera.
At a certain point, though, you have to start putting things down, because that helps to shape the narrative also, because you’ll be sitting down with an idea like, “Okay, I’m gonna introduce this minor character,” and then by the time you’ve written 10 pages with that character you suddenly realize, “Oh, actually this is a much more major character than I thought he or she was going to be, so I’m going to have to incorporate him or her into more stuff here.”
What I always liken it to is kind of a tightrope act between, on the one hand, knowing too much when you begin and being stale when you’re actually writing it, and on the other hand knowing too little and not being able to prefigure, to drop hints and clues, to do all that kind of stuff. But I do spend a very long amount of time away from the keyboard thinking about the world itself and the history of the place and what it’s like at the time the stories taking place and what the general kind of,you know, political, technological, geographical setup is, and then I fill in details as I’m writing.
So you don’t do an outline per se but a lot of notes about these things as you figure them out, so you can refer to it as your writing and try to be consistent?
Yes, I mean, I definitely do when it’s things like languages and stuff and characters’ names and things, just so I can be consistent. I will also occasionally do, like, a little tiny mini-essay on certain aspects of history that I figured out but that aren’t going to show up again for maybe a volume or so,so I don’t lose what I was thinking about. But I actually write, probably, a lot fewer notes than most people. I’ve always found that for me–and this is very personal and it’s not a recommendation to other writers, everybody has to find their own path–for me, it works better to have as little as possible written down in the way of ideas, that I try not to write things down until I’m pretty certain I’m going to go forward with them. And before that, it’s just all kind of carried around in my head so that I can try different possibilities.
I think of it as like playing a game of chess in my head ahead of the moves. Instead of actually touching the pawn and then having to move it, I spend a lot of time thinking, “Well, this could happen, but then the knock-on effect would be this, and I’m not sure I want that to happen so early, so maybe how about this?” So, I do these very complicated thinking-through processes without writing things down. So, I actually have comparatively few notes. I mean, not only does my story diverge from my outline that I have to turn in at the beginning, because that’s what publishers want, but then I don’t make a huge amount of notes along the way. I suspect I’m one of those writers that if I suddenly pitch over dead at my keyboard it’s not going to be all that easy for somebody to pick up my work and finish it. They may finish it, but it wouldn’t necessarily have much to do with what I thought, because a lot of what I’m planning to write is only in my head at this point.
Well, I think you’re the eighteenth author I’ve interviewed for the podcast so far, and, yeah, it’s all over the place. I interviewed Peter V. Brett, and he writes extremely detailed outlines, like 150-page outlines with every detail in it and then other people like you, and me…I write a synopsis because. you know. as you said that’s what the publisher wants to see, and then I usually don’t look at it unless I’m getting into trouble somewhere along the way.
Yeah, exactly, I’ve never, I don’t think I’ve ever gone back and looked at any of my outlines except long after the fact, just to amuse myself. But I don’t actually use them when I’m writing, because by the time I’ve finished an outline, you know, it’s in my head, what the general thing that I want to do is, and I already, in the course of writing it, have already written down things that I look at and go, “I will never put that in the book. That’s crap.” I have to have it in the outline it because explains how they get from Part D to Part E or something, but I don’t, you know, I’m not going to use that. That’s just a crappy solution.
I suspect, then, you also don’t do detailed character sheets with every detail about the characters life, and…
No, although again, you know, it’s whatever works for you. Whatever works for you. By the time I’m into one of these long things, you know, it all feels pretty real to me. I mean, not in a hallucinatory sense, but I mean just in the sense that I’ve kind of got these characters…and especially with these new books. because. you know many of them are characters that, you know, I was writing about their younger selves 30 years ago, so they are in my system already. So I don’t really have to have a lot of details. Now, of course I will always, you know, forget people’s eye colors, and that’s why it’s so valuable to have friends around to say, “Actually you did mention that in such-and-such a book and his eyes are brown. But other than that, no, I don’t tend to do that, again because, just for me personally, having lots of flexibility and lots of things being open-ended is just what works best.
What does your actual writing process look like, you know, so many hours a day. Do you do it in an office, do you do it in coffee shops? How do you work?.
I’m actually having to think about this for a moment because I just, not too long ago, had a shoulder operation, and before that I had several months where I couldn’t work at all. I haven’t been able to work until just, literally, the last day or so. So, I’m having to remember now, but generally my process is that I get up in the morning, I do my correspondence, I do whatever social media I’m going to be doing, which I try to keep to a fairly low amount. Then I think about what I want to work on that day in terms of what the specifics are, you know, I want to work on this chapter, and that chapter is probably going to have these characters in it and these characters in it and these characters in it, and, you know, it’s a continuation of such and such a plotline, blah blah blah.
So then I will go away, for usually several hours, and I will literally lie on my back if I can, that’s my preferred position, with some earbuds in and some ambient music or something playing to drown out the sound of all of the young people who live in our household. And then I just think about what I’m going to do. And eventually, you know, 2 or 3 in the afternoon I will get up, and then usually write till dinner. But because I have thought it through ahead of time, there’s very little staring at a blank page. I’ve usually pretty much planned in a general sense what I’m going to do that day, what the scene is going to be about, how it’s going to go, roughly, what important notes I want to hit, what little bits, you know, what I hope will be little gems of dialogue that I want to use or whatever, so that when I’m actually sitting down I’m only sitting down at the computer maybe for two or three hours, but I’m doing, you know, six or seven hours worth of work, because I’ve already thought it all through. And that’s generally how my process works.
How does that translate into how long it takes you to write one of these monsters?
Well, it really depends. I try to do a minimum five pages of manuscript at about three hundred and something words per page. I try to do five to 10 pages per day. Sometimes I do more. Occasionally I do less. A lot of it has to do with what kind of thing I’m writing. Obviously, if I’m writing dialogue it will fill up pages faster, if I’m doing something that requires a great deal of research while I’m doing it, that will go slower. Certain kinds of books, say, for instance, these books, or the Otherland books, which are the big multivolume ones, those are a little slower to write because you’re usually, in the course of writing 10 or 15 pages, you’re usually doing at least two different sets of character interactions, it’s like two different segments, whereas when I was writing what I call the Bobby Dollar books, which are this kind of angel detective series, it’s all first-person, he’s the only character who’s giving information. They’re much faster to write. I could do, like, a chapter a day, like a 15- to 20-page chapter a day with those. So, it really depends. So, you know probably a year per book without, you know, medical problems or something like that getting in the way.
You mentioned research. Do you find that you have to do a lot? I think it sometimes surprises people that people writing fantasy have to do any research because they’re making it all up.
I know, it’s amusing isn’t it? I know, people oftentimes have said that to me, like, kind of in a congratulatory tone. “Aren’t you lucky. You know, you’re writing fantasy, you’re just making stuff up!” And I always say to them, “Well, I kind of think of myself as writing what I would call hard fantasy. I’m trying to create worlds that feel very real. So, if I’m writing about a pre-industrial world–and I’m sure this is true for you to, Ed–if I’m writing about a pre-industrial world I want to understand how that kind of world actually works, how the economies work, how the actual mechanism of people feeding themselves and sheltering themselves work, what the different options are among different cultures in the real world, and pick and choose the things that seem to fit best.
So, yeah, it’s actually impinged on my reading of fiction, because I read so much non-fiction, primarily history and science, and, yeah, I mean, I’m researching all the time. There’s more with some books than with others but, you know, I mean, probably again like you, I’ve got, you know, my office is literally full of books that are research books for me on every bloody nonfiction topic under the sun, because I do want these things to feel authentic and I do want these worlds to feel real and it’s more important, I think, for a fantasy writer or a science fiction writer to have a grip on that stuff, because when you know a person who’s writing a thriller or a mystery novel set in the world that we know says, “And a mail carrier walked up the front path and knocked on the door,” you know, we already know what all of those things probably mean. We know what a mail carrier is, we know the kinds of things they tend to be carrying, we know what a front path probably looks like or at least we can invent one in our heads, e know why people knock on doors in our culture, whereas in a fantasy novel or world none of that is written in stone. None of that is necessarily the same. So you need to have a firm foundation underneath this imagination.
Once you have a draft, what’s your revision process look like? Do you have beta readers or do you do it all yourself, or how does it work for you?
I have just for these last set of books, these, again, what I call Osten Ard books, which is the new series, The Witchwood Crown, Empire of Grass, and the previous series, The Dragonbone Chair, etc., because that’s the place they take place, Osten Ard. With the Osten Ard books, for the first time I’ve actually done a much, what I would call a dirtier, or a more basic, first draft because, especially, with the first one of the new books, I wanted to get a reaction from some of my most faithful readers of the old books, since it’s been 30 years. I wanted to make sure that people felt like, “Yes, this is the same world. Yes, the writer is approaching it in the same way, no, there’s not a huge disconnect in terms of, like, ‘Oh God, this feels totally different than the old books,'” because one of the shocking realizations I had when I decided to do a sequel was how invested, you know, a lot of readers were in the original set of books, which was a little daunting, to be honest. I realized, like, “Hey, if I screw this book up, I’m not just screwing this book up but I’m screwing up the books that have been a major part of my career.” You know, people will be forever change in their view of those books by, like, “Ah, and then he wrote that horrible sequel,” much like, say, for instance, George Lucas now has to carry the burden of The Phantom Menace around on top of all the affection people had for Star Wars.
So, because of that, with these new Osten Ard books I actually wrote a more basic first draft and sent it out so that people could give me reactions to it. Normally, I do a very complete, quite close to finalized first draft. Then I got them back and I did another kind of a clean first draft and then, you know, that went off to my publishers. We had a, you know, an editorial conference. Unlike most DAW authors, I actually get edited by both editors, both Betsy Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert, so they double-team me. And then I will do, usually, two more drafts. In the old days, I would simply do one very complete first draft, send it to Betsy and Sheila, my agent, my wife, Deborah, who is, as I mentioned, a publisher herself, and then do two fairly quick rewrites because I’d spent so much time…and I still do spend a lot of time… in the first draft because the plots are so complex and there’s so many characters I have to fit them together carefully because they’re not easy to pull apart and fix if something’s drastically wrong.
What sorts of things do you find yourself fixing after you’ve had the feedback?
One of the things is that oftentimes, as a writer, especially a writer of, you know, where you’ve been working on a book for a year or two years or something, sometimes you put in more of something than you really need simply because for you it’s been three months since you last wrote that particular plotline. So, as you go back into it you’ll kind of wind up hitting a lot of notes again that are part of that plotline. I remember, for instance, when I was writing the Otherland books, which are near-future science fiction (but you don’t need to know anything about them to understand this), one of the characters was trying to give up smoking. She was one of the main characters, if not the main character. And so, during the course of, almost every time she showed up, because we’d be a couple of weeks between her parts of the plot for me,, there would be some mention of that again. Well that was fine, because I was essentially sort of reminding myself that that was an ongoing struggle for her. But then when I actually sent the first draft out to my publishers, they went, “Jesus God, every nine seconds she’s talking about how much she wants cigarette,” and I realized, “Oh, Okay.” So, there are issues like that that you look out for where an outside eye will say to you either, “You’re doing too much of that,” or, “This character doesn’t seem very sympathetic,” and you’ll say, “Oh, well I didn’t want it to come off that way. OK. That’s interesting.” You know, you’ll get feedback on things that you probably missed, that you thought, you know, “Oh, this is obvious, and no it wasn’t as obvious as you thought it was, or stuff like that.”
Because I did the first draft faster, there’s been a little more rewriting involved with these books, but generally, I think, compared to a lot of writers, I tend to write a pretty complete first draft, again, just because it’s easier than trying to strip stuff out after the fact.
All right, well, we’re getting closer to the end here…obviously we’re getting closer to the end, we wouldn’t be getting further from the end…so I’ll get to the big philosophical questions here. Why do you write, why do you think any of us write, and more specifically, why do we write fantasy and science fiction? What’s with that?
Well, I always like fantasy and science fiction, first of all because, starting in childhood, the idea of these other places and other experiences that were not available to most of us in our ordinary lives was very intriguing and exciting for me. I mentioned Nesbit. obviously C.S. Lewis. there is a whole kind of tradition in fantasy fiction for kids of this idea that the magic is just on the other side of the door, the walls, the wardrobe, whatever. You find some magic object, blah blah blah, and everything changes. Obviously this was a big part of what made the Harry Potter book so appealing to people, was this idea that, you know, if you go to the King’s Cross Station there’s a track 9 1/2, or whatever it was, that nobody else can get to, but it’ll take you to this crazy magical school, you know, and all these kinds of things. So, that was the first level on which this stuff appealed to me, that right next to us all these exciting things could be happening and we just don’t know about it.
Then, the other thing that really worked for me when I was young in things like The Lord of the Rings was the completeness of the worldbuilding, the idea that this is a very real, real place that has a history independent of the story that we’re currently following. That, for some reason, was really appealing to me, also. I’ve always loved history. I’ve always loved knowing the story behind things.
And then, last, but I think also very critical to me in terms of loving fantasy and science fiction, is I’ve always loved the fact that you can walk the line. You’re sort of making a bargain when you write genre fiction with readers, and that bargain is, as I jokingly say sometimes, it’s like, “I can make it as artistic as I want it to be or as literary as I want it to be, as long as every five pages or so something tries to meet the main characters.” And in a sense, I kind of think was a writing genre fiction a being a bit like any other formalized artistic expression, like, say, ballet. Now, in modern dance you can do virtually anything. And that’s great. That’s absolutely fine. In ballet, you have to observe certain kinds of expected things. In fiction, we call them tropes, in ballet they’re called, you know, positions, and, you know, certain kinds of expressions, and all this kind of stuff. But if you observe those things, you’re still allowed to be as artistic as you want to be, to be as abstract as you want to be. But it sets a certain framework on what you’re doing that you then have to work with, but you also get to play with the expectations of people who like that framework. So, I’ve always loved genre fiction because it allows you to do that, to work with a framework but also to exploit and sometimes even explode a framework. So, all of those things appealed to me.
Why do you think we as humans love stories so much? Not just fantasy stories, but any stories. Why are we driven to to tell stories and to listen to stories?
Well, I think actually that’s a very big question, and I think the answers are are potentially huge. One of the things is that we are human beings. I mean, the fact that, you know, most of how we think about the universe we live are actually constructions that we place on it, you know. Because we die in a hundred years or less most of the time, ee tend to think of the amount of time it takes things to happen on a universal or even a galactic scale is astoundingly long. Well ,that’s our perspective on it, you know, we have this very limited way of looking at things. But at the same time, we, in a sense, because our imagination is what we’re all living in all the time, we’re also creating that reality. We are creating the reality where a billion years is a long time, but a hundred years is only a long time to a single human being. And because we’re creating these realities for ourselves, we’re actually making all of life and all of reality into stories. That’s what human beings do. We recast the universe in our own conception and by our own imagination.
And we’re also applying concepts like beginning, middle, and end onto the universe. The universe doesn’t, as far as we know at this point, we don’t know anything about how the universe began. We only have some very vague ideas about how it might end. We’re in the middle of billions of years of it existing, but that’s not how humans are. So we like to think about beginnings, middles, and ends, and we tend to put those onto things. We make stories out of everything. You ask somebody about the Civil War, the American Civil War, they will tell you a story. It may not be the right story,, it’s the story they know or learn, or feel comfortable with, but it’s a story: you know, it has heroes and villains, it has a beginning, it has an end. And that’s true with everything.
So, human beings like to make things, and we also like to make the universe over into something that we can understand and that we fit into. So all of those are very, very strong driving forces for people who write fiction. We like to have a little more control over that than others. We like to make our own universes, or at least sub-universes. But we’re still doing a very human thing, which is we’re making the universe over in our own image and through our own thoughts and imagination.
Well, that’s one reason this podcast is called The Worldshapers (the other being, of course, that my latest book is called Worldshaper), but, still, it’s a good name for the podcast. What do you hope that readers who come to you work take away from it?
I hope my readers of my books–and fortunately this does happen, I mean, it doesn’t happen with every reader obviously, but it does happen–all I want is, I want readers to have the same feeling of connection with my work that I felt with the people whose work has moved me, has changed me as a person, has given me ways of looking at the universe I wouldn’t have had otherwise. That’s real. I mean, yes, oh, and the practical things, like, you know, I don’t want my children to starve, you know, all that kind of stuff. But primarily I want to make things and share them with other people, and I hope that the things that I make, in this case books, stories, have the same effect of bringing imagination and pleasure into other people’s lives that my favorite books have had me. And if along the way they do some of the other things that my favorite books have done for me, like help them to look at the world differently, help them to think about things differently than they had before, then that’s a plus. But essentially, I just want to make things and share them with people.
And once…you have the Osten Ard books coming up, but what’s after that for you?
That is a real good question, Ed, and for once in my life I don’t have a specific thing lined up. I’ve got a couple of more smaller Osten Ard projects I’m going to be doing. And then, while I’m doing that, you know, I’m also in the stage where a lot of writers are, which is now I’m not entirely in charge of my own destiny. I can’t…I’m not Stephen King. I’m not J.K. Rowling, I can’t literally write anything at this point and a large number of people will buy it. I have an audience that is wanting me to do fantasy and science fiction. I’d be a fool to turn away from that. Beyond that, I’m not really sure. I have to write whatever idea is the one that’s screaming in my ear that it needs to be written. I’m still a couple of years away from that, probably, and I have no idea what it’ll be. I’m thinking more now than I used to about approaching some of my old material, though. So, for instance, I’ve mentioned Otherland a couple of times. I might do another Otherland book, but I have many, many other ideas that are completely new things as well. I’ll just kind of have to see.
There’s never a shortage of ideas. It goes back to time all the time, doesn’t it?
It certainly does. I mean, almost every writer has had the experience of having someone come up to them at a party or whatever and say like, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a story,” you know, but “I’m not a writer” or “I don’t have time to write it” or whatever. “Why don’t I give it to you and we’ll split it halfway?” I always just kind of laugh and say, “You know, I’m sorry, but I’ve got more ideas than I know what to do with.” It’s not a lack of ideas. As you said, just now, it’s time. It’s time.
And, for people who would like to find you online, where can they do that?
Well they can find me several places. There is a website that’s embarrassingly all about me, or mostly about, that’s tadwilliams.com.
Well, who else would it be about?
Exactly. Well nobody, but, I mean, we have a very active message board and so, you know, we we learn a lot about the lives of people who are on the message boy, too, and see things that they like to pos,t and sometimes they have their own creative endeavors. So, tadwilliams.com obviously is kind of the best one-stop source of information, but I’m very present on Facebook and I’m also on Twitter, and my wife does a lot of Twitter stuff, including things about my books and writing @MrsTad at Twitter. So any one of those places is a good place to start.
An hour-long conversation with Seanan McGuire, Campbell, Hugo, and Nebula Award-winning author of more than twenty books in various series, including the bestsellingOctober Daye and InCryptid series, with a special focus on the first two books in her Ghost Roads series featuring the hitchchiking ghost Rose Marshall, Sparrow Hill Road and The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, published by DAW Books. Seanan also writes biomedical science fiction thrillers as Mira Grant.
Seanan McGuire was born in Martinez, California, and raised in a wide variety of locations, most of which boasted some sort of dangerous native wildlife. Despite her almost magnetic attraction to anything venomous, she somehow managed to survive long enough to acquire a typewriter, a reasonable grasp of the English language, and the desire to combine the two.
Seanan is the author of the October Daye urban fantasies, the InCryptid urban fantasies, and several other works, both stand-alone and in trilogies or duologies. She also writes under the pseudonym “Mira Grant.”
In her spare time, Seanan records CDs of her original filk music. She is also a cartoonist, and draws an irregularly posted autobiographical web comic, “With Friends Like These…”.
Seanan was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her novel Feed (as Mira Grant) was named as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2010. In 2013 she became the first person ever to appear five times on the same Hugo Ballot. Her novella “Every Heart A Doorway” received the 2016 Nebula Award for Best Novella, the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novella, and the 2017 Locus Award for Best Novella.
Seanan lives in an “idiosyncratically designed” labyrinth in the Pacific Northwest, which she shares with her cats, a vast collection of creepy dolls and horror movies, and, she says, sufficient books to qualify her as a fire hazard.
First, we note we share an editor (Hugo Award-winning Sheila E. Gilbert) and publisher (DAW Books), but haven’t chatted much until now.
Seanan says her interest in writing “just happened”—she actually got a prescription for a typewriter as small child because she was giving herself migraines trying to write faster than she could. She says her mother associated her not being dead with the sound of the manual typewriter banging, usually around 3 a.m.,” and adds, “it’s kind of a wonder my mother did not drown me in the nearest creek.”
Her interest in writing stories (as opposed to just writing everything down) arose when she discovered that was something people could do. She recalls a show on USA Network, Ray Bradbury Presents, which featured Bradbury presenting stories, some based on his work, some on others. Every episode began with a man at a typewriter, pulling out a sheet of paper out and throwing it into the air. That paper would become the logo, and then the show would start. This annoyed Seanan because of they’d taken out the credits they’d have had thirty more seconds for stories.
Her grandmother explained the man was Ray Bradbury, who had written the stories, and so they’d let him do whatever he wanted. Until then, Seanan had never imagined that people were allowed to make up stories: for her, creating stories was almost holy. It seemed to her that for someone to be an author, a person who is the reason a story exists in the world, there should at least be an entrance exam. (There isn’t.) Upon learning that was an option, she was very firm (at age six) that this was what she was going to do.
Seanan grew up in the Concord, CA, area, a semi-rural suburb in the San Francisco Bay area. She wrote a lot of fan fiction as she grew older, “some of which was terrible, some of which quite good for a six, seven, eight years old.” She started writing her own original stories in middle school, and once she started, she said, it was hard to make her stop, even though other kids mocked her for it. “I am a perpetual motion machine of irritation.”
She wrote her first novel when she was twelve, about 60,00 words long. “It will never see the light of day.”
Seanan is also a singer/songwriter. That also began in childhood. “All little kids are singers, most are songwriters,” she says. “They make up songs all the time.” The earliest song she knows existed of her was a dishwasher-loading song, to help her remember where things went.
“It gets beaten out of you at some point,” she says. “People laugh, and humans are susceptible to mockery. We don’t like it, as a general rule. I had a very poor sense of whether I was being laughed at, so I merrily bumbled through.”
In third grade, she discovered she could make money entering poetry and songwriting competitions—very helpful, because she grew up very poor. “Finding out I could win $30 for writing a song was like free money.” The money she earned that way paid a decent number of school supply bills.
Seanan is a cartoonist, as well (“not great, but I enjoy it”). That, too, began in childhood: all children are artists, she notes.
All children are also interested in the fantastical, so it’s not surprising she started writing it. After all, she says, “Ninety percent of all children’s media is fantastical.” Her first fandom was My Little Pony, which, she notes, “is the story of a matriarchal world where talking unicorns rule the day. It’s hard to get much more fantastic than the things we hand to kids and tell them, this is normal.”
As a result, she says, “I was just writing in the spaces I had been told were mine to inhabit. I never left them.”
Seanan majored in folklore and herpetology in university. She kept writing, but she didn’t take any creative writing classes: in high school because she couldn’t afford them, and in college because she didn’t have time for elective courses that didn’t connect to one of her two majors, and as well, she lacked the prerequisite high school courses.
Her folklore major continues to play a huge role in her writing. “I write fairy tales now,” she notes. She’s amassed a huge folklore library of her own. “The biggest advantage is, I know what I’m looking for.”
Around 2002, she finished the first October Daye book, the first thing she’d finished she thought someone else might want to read, and began trying to sell it. It didn’t find a home until DAW picked it up in 2008.
But she’d been writing a lot before she was trying to sell, in the “fan fiction mines.” She wrote huge quantities of fan fiction, which people read and gave feedback on. This helped her learn a lot of useful things, such as how to take critiques, and that even if a story is “practically perfect in every way,” there are going to be people who don’t like it.
There is a strong tradition of beta readers in fan fiction. Many of hers from those days are still with her, beta reading the October Daye books before they go to DAW, which she finds “soothing,” since “I want to look perfect all the time.”
DAW was a good choice for the October Daye books for a couple of reasons. One was that DAW has a reputation for keeping all the books in an ongoing series in print, which would be important for a series as long as Seanan hoped this one would be.
As well, Tanya Huff, another DAW author and a good friend of Seanan’s, told her Sheila, who is also Tanya’s editor, was someone Seanan would be able to work with well.
Sure enough, DAW took the book, launching Seanan’s career. “Tanya was correct, DAW was a good fit for me.”
Seanan also writes as Mira Grant. (She won’t say where the pseudonym came from because “it’s a complicated horror movie joke that no one has managed to decode. Someone somewhere will get to feel very clever someday…”)
Seanan says under her own name she writes fantasy and some fantastic horror, whereas Mira writes biomedical science fiction thrillers. For Seanan, “all that matters is the nightmare.” But everything Mira writes is grounded in scientific fact. “I will generally allow Mira a single point of scientific implausibility,” Seanan says. “Everything else drawn from rigorous scientific study and research.”
How rigorous? For the parasitology series, about genetically engineered tapeworms and the frailties of the modern medical system, she spoke to multiple paristologists from multiple countries, studied up on the hygiene hypothesis, and even infected herself with a goat tapeworm for eighteen months so she could accurately document the sensation of having a tapeworm moving through her body. “That was Timmy. I miss Timmy. He’s not with us anymore.”
Mira Grant has to have a level of plausibility in her writing that Seanan doesn’t have to have in hers. Seanan says she’s far creepier at fewer than about eighty pages because she doesn’t have to set up the scientific underpinnings.
She’s so careful with scientific accuracy with Mira partially because she loves to “wallow” in these topics, but also partially because of sexism. “When you’re writing hard science fiction as a female-presenting author have to be twice as rigorous as your male peers,” she says. She notes she’s been on panels were men were applauded when they said they didn’t do any research, they just made things up, right before the women, herself included, were interrogated on a simple error that wasn’t incorrect at the time of the books’ writing. “Mira,” Seanan says, “is writing in a part of the genre where women are still asked to justify our existence.”
Seanan synopsizes the Rose Marshall books, Sparrow Hill Roadand The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, this way:
Rose Marshall is a hitchhiking ghost who died in the 1950s, run off the road on her way to her senior prom. She has continued her existence, if not her life, and is constantly grappling with the folk process: because she is a hitchhiking ghost, people tell her story in different ways, some of which she doesn’t really approve of very much. She moves along the ghost roads, in the eternal twilight underneath our daylight realms, trying to both avoid and destroy Bobby Cross, who ran her off the road and is a danger to both herself and other ghosts, who don’t want to do any harm to anyone.
Seana says Rose started as a non-player character in a 1950s supernatural game, Martin’s Passage. A friend asked her to come in and play a hitchhiking ghost for a short time for the storyline he was running. He left her creation up to Seanan, and she “just refused to give her back.”
Next, Rose became a song, “Pretty Little Dead Girl.” Seanan was already starting to play with the idea that Rose would let her experiment with the folk process. That song is the “filthy libel” version of Rose’s story, in which she’s a murderer intentionally driving motorists to her death.
Seanan wrote many more songs, each casting Rose in a different light; then Jennifer Brozek, editor of an online magazine called The Edge of Propinquity, asked her to tell the story of what really happened. Every month for a year she wrote a short story telling the truth about Rose. At the end of the year, DAW agreed to publish them as a “fix-up novel.” The Girl in the Green Silk Gownfollowed this year.
Seanan has recorded many of the songs, but the CD is currently out of print, so they’re very hard to find. She’s written a few more, but finds it hard to write the songs when she’s working with Rose in the long form, because the character is so “awake” that settling her down to intentionally tell lies about her is complicated.
Writing songs and poetry and writing books are very different, Seanan says. Songs and poetry are “linguistically heightened” form of storytelling, where you have to “turn everything up to 11” because you’re trying to make your point in such a compressed space.
Word choice is more important in songs, and the narrative beats are different. “It doesn’t make one better or worse than the other.”
The songs helped her develop the world, because they establish that within the context of the world, Rose is a story everyone has heard; everyone feels they have a relationship with her because they heard some version of her story around a campfire when they were eight.
To develop any fictional world, Seanan says, you need to figure out what you need to do: what story are you trying to tell, and what structure does the world you are putting together have to have to be able to stand up to and support that story?
Rose is a hitchhiker ghost, which have existed all throughout history—but she’s a North American hitchhiker ghost, which is unlike those anywhere else. So Seanan did a lot of research into hitchhiker ghosts. “Academic accuracy is important to me even if no one else cares.”
Then she had to set the rules of how ghosts became hitchhiker ghosts. She asked herself a lot of questions to pin everything down. “You just keep drilling down until you have a structure that can support what you need.”
On the other hand, she doesn’t lock everything down, so she has space to do other things she might need to do as the story progresses. She compares it to a really big, slow-moving game of improv, where you always have to be prepared to say, “Yes, and…”
Just as important as the rules are the exceptions. If there are no exceptions to the rules, the world is too rigid. If there are too many, the world is too loose.
Seanan starts with a synopsis of a page or two, but she does her best work when there’s a certain amount of fluidity involved: if the story is locked down too firmly, she feels she’s already told it and loses interest.
Characters do occasionally pop into existence as she’s writing, and become unexpectedly important, but so far that hasn’t happened in this series. “Everyone is very well-behaved,” shje says.
Rose is both an eternal teenager and very old; a hard balance to hit, Seanan says. Her setting makes being dead kind of a party, so she needed to be sure there were costs to continued existence, reasons Rose had to mourn her life. One reason is that ghosts don’t change, so Rose is always going to be a teenager, a little bit insecure, and lacking the emotional depth she would have been able to develop if she had lived. She doesn’t have great coping skills (neither did Seanan when she was a teen: she says Rose “is a disaster, and I love her”). Yet, Rose has seen a lot of stuff in the decades since she died, and she can’t completely cut that off. She finds actual teenagers exhausting, but wants their approval, as well. She is increasingly a girl out of time.
Seanan says some of her books are remarkably clean at the end of the first draft, so much so she feels like she slept through the writing of the second draft. Others are “a hot buttered mess.” One step all books go through is a complete retype, even though she works on a computer. She begins on page one and retypes the entire book. “It enables me to reassess every single word I’ve chose. I don’t recommend it unless you type really fast.”
She always runs her books past her beta readers. Some have been with her as long as twenty years. She calls them the “Machete Squad,” and each has his or her on specialty, from grammar to blocking to continuity.
Sheila Gilbert at DAW then reads the book and provides note. “Either I argue with her, which enables me to refine my understanding, or she’s correct, and when she’s correct I make those changes. She’s been doing this a really long time, she knows some ways better than I do what the market looks like.”
Seanan is prolific, always juggling multiple projects. Part of it is that she doesn’t sleep enough, she says, but as well, she made life choices that support working the way she does. She says whenever someone says you can have it all without giving something up, they haven’t stopped and assessed what they did and didn’t give up. She notes that she’s unmarried, and lives in a house in the Pacific Northwest with two housemates, to make sure she has money coming in from the rental of their rooms. She doesn’t have children. She didn’t make that choice for her writing career but because she didn’t think she’d be a very good parent, but if she had them, she’d have to wonder if she could support them since they would have an impact on her writing time, and that’s the source of her income. She says she doesn’t regret her choices, but it’s disingenuous to pretend they haven’t had an influence.
“You can be a full-time parent and write, I just don’t think you can write as much as I do until your kids are a little older.”
Why does she write?
“If I don’t, I go slowly out of my mind…I write because I don’t have a choice. I write stories of the fantastic because those are the stories I fell in love with and I decided that was the genre I was too stubborn to give up on. I write because if I didn’t, I’d probably be dead.”
Asked if she hopes her writing helps shape the real world, she says, “I do. Not to get political, but Terry Pratchett referred to humanity as the storytelling ape. We shape and reshape our world by telling stories both to ourselves and each other. We point to an open plain and say, what if there was a city there, let me tell you the story of the city there. We point to a disease and say, what if children didn’t have to die of this disease, let me tell you a story about a treatment, and we chase those stories and we bring them into being because that is what it means to be human.
“There is a profound alienation in not seeing yourself in story, in being presented with story after story, after world after world, where only certain kinds of people are good enough to be heroes, where only certain relationships are considered clean enough to hold up to children. If every time you paint me you paint me as a villain, eventually I’m going to start to think of myself as villainous. And that’s why we need diverse voices writing and that’s why we need diverse stories being told, and that’s why, frankly, no matter what demographic we personally fit into, we need to be including characters and people who aren’t exactly like us, because if we don’t see someone in a story, a part of us doesn’t know how to see them as human. So the way I would like to shape the world is the way I think every storyteller shapes the world. I want to shape the world by saying, “This is what humanity looks like.” But I want to be one of the people that’s holding up as wide a mirror as possible, and reflecting as much of humanity as possible, so that when I say, this is what it’s like to be human, I’m not saying, only this one small kind of person is human, I’m saying everybody is, and maybe could we just stop being assholes to each other for one goddamn minute.”
Guest host E.C. Blake interviews Aurora Award-winning writer Edward Willett (the usual host of The Worldshapers), author of more than sixty books of science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction for readers of all ages, about his creative process, focusing on his newest book, Worldshaper (DAW Books).
About the Guest Host
E.C. Blake is the author of the Masks of Aygrima fantasy trilogy (Masks, Shadows, and Faces) for DAW Books. He was born in New Mexico and lived in Texas before moving to Saskatchewan, where he continues to reside. He has known Edward Willett his entire career.
Edward Willett is the award-winning author of more than sixty books of science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction for readers of all ages. Besides Worldshaper, other recent novels include the stand-alone science fiction novel The Cityborn(DAW Books) and the five-book Shards of ExcaliburYA fantasy series for Coteau Books. In 2002 Willett won the Regina Book Award for best book by a Regina author at the Saskatchewan Book Awards, and in 2009 won the Aurora Award (honoring the best in Canadian science fiction and fantasy) for Best Long-Form Work in English for Marseguro (DAW Books). The sequel, Terra Insegura, was shortlisted for the same award. He has been shortlisted for Saskatchewan Book Awards and Aurora Awards multiple times since.
His nonfiction runs the gamut from local history to science books for children and adults to biographies of people as diverse as Jimi Hendrix and the Ayatollah Khomeini. In addition to writing, he’s a professional actor and singer, who has performed in numerous plays, musicals, and operas.
Willett lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, with his wife, Margaret Anne Hodges, P.Eng., their teenaged daughter, Alice, and their black Siberian cat, Shadowpaw.
Guest host E.C. Blake, author of the Masks of Aygrima trilogy for DAW Books, introduces himself and explains that Edward Willett has a new book coming out, Worldshaper, and asked E.C. to guest host so he could be a guest on his own podcast. They have a lot in common: both born in New Mexico, both lived in Texas, both moved to Saskatchewan. For some reason, though, E.C. still has a southern twang to his voice.
E.C. asks Ed which came first for him: the interest in science fiction, or the interest in writing?
Ed says first came his interest in reading, and especially reading science fiction. He learned to read in kindergarten and skipped a grade, so he was always the youngest in his class, which may have helped draw him to books. His two older brothers, Jim and Dwight, both read science fiction, so those kinds of books around the house: one of the earliest books he remembers is Robert Silverberg’s Revolt on Alpha C. He still has the copy he read, which has his brother Dwight’s name in the front of it.
He read his way through all the science fiction he could find in the public library in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, helpfully marked with little yellow stickers with rockets on their spines.
Ed thinks he started writing in elementary school, but the first complete short story he remembers writing was when he was in Grade 7, as something to do on a rainy day. It was called “Kastra Glazz, Hypership Test Pilot” (11-year-old Ed was convinced all characters in science fiction had to have funny names).
Ed’s Mom typed it up and then he gave it to his Grade 7 English teacher, Tony Tunbridge, to read. Tunbridge took it seriously, critiquing it and pointing out problems.This triggered something in Ed: he wanted to keep writing, and make the next thing he wrote better. (He dedicatedThe Citybornto Tony Tunbridge.)
E.C. asked if Ed kept using funny names for characters, and Ed says he did. The next major thing he wrote was a space opera (too short to be a novel, but longer than a short story) called “The Pirate Dilemma,” in which the main characters were named Samuel L. Domms and Roy B. Savexxy.
He and his best friend in high school, John “Scrawney” Smith, used to get together in an empty classroom after school and write, then read to each other what they had written, alternating sentences. They got some funny effects, but more importantly, it kept Ed writing.
He wrote a novel a year in Grades 10, 11, and 12. His English teacher, Mr. Wieb, required students to write a page a day in a notebook. Some kids would just copy stuff, but Ed started writing a story, which became his first novel, The Golden Sword. He wrote Ship from the Unknown and The Slavers of Thok in his subsequent high-school years. He shared the stories with his classmates and discovered he could write stories people enjoyed. Somewhere in there, he decided to become a writer.
However, he didn’t study creative writing in university. He knew it would be hard to make a living as a fiction writer, at least to start with, so instead he studied journalism. He attended Harding University in Searcy, AR, graduating in December 1979.
He went straight home to Saskatchewan and was hired at the weekly Weyburn Review, where he worked as a reporter/photographer for four years, then became news editor (at the age of twenty-four). From there he moved to Regina as communications officer for the brand-new Saskatchewan Science Centre. After five years, he quit to become a fulltime freelance writer.
All through those years, he wrote fiction. His first short sale was a non-science-fiction story to Western People, the magazine supplement of the Western Produceragricultural newspaper. (Later, he sold a science fiction story, “Strange Harvest,” to Western People, probably the only SF story ever published there. That story was later reprinted in On Spec, and even broadcast nationally on CBC Radio.)
He also wrote lots of unpublished novels. It wasn’t until 1997 that he sold his first, Soulworm, which was followed by The Dark Unicorn. Both were nominated for Saskatchewan Book Awards, Soulworm for Best First Novel and The Dark Unicorn for Best Children’s Book.
Ed tells the story of how he started being published by DAW Books. He’d written a book called Lost in Translation, published by Five Star, which sold books to libraries on a subscription basis. The science fiction books for Five Star were packaged by Tekno Books, which was headed up by Martin H. Greenberg (John Helfers was the editor). Greenberg had a connection to DAW, because he’d done some original anthologies for them. He called Ed one morning and said DAW had hole in its publishing schedule and had asked to see some of his Five Star books to see if anything could plug that hole—and DAW had picked Lost in Translation.
Ed got his agent, Ethan Ellenberg, with that contract in hand. His next book for DAW, Marseguro, won the Aurora Award for Best Long-Form Work in English. The award was presented at the 2009 World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal, with Sheila Gilbert and Betsy Wollheim, owners/publishers/editors of DAW, in attendance.
Worldshaper, Ed’s ninth novel for DAW, begins with someone coming through a portal from another world. Then we meet Shawna Keys, who’s living a peaceful life, starting up a new pottery studio in a small Montana city…peaceful, except a stranger has been staring up at her bedroom window in the middle of the night, and there’s a storm coming no one else seems to see. Then her best friend is killed in a terrorist-style attack on a coffee shop. The leader of the attackers calls her by name, touches her, and then is about to shoot her—but she refuses to believe any of this can be happening, and, suddenly, it isn’t. It never happened. But the people who were killed have not only vanished, nobody remembers they ever existed, not even her best friend.
The stranger who has been staring up at her window contacts her, and explains she actually Shaped the world she’s living in it—it isn’t the real world at all, but a construct. He tells her that the attacker from the coffee shop, called the Adversary, is going to take over her world and all other myriad Shaped worlds in what he calls the Labyrinth, unless she can visit them, contact their Shapers, retrieve the knowledge of the Shaping of those worlds, and convey that knowledge to Ygrair, the woman at the heart of the Labyrinth, who found it, opened it, and gave the Shapers their worlds to Shape.
E.C. asks what the typical novel-seed is for Ed.
Ed says it can be a number of things. For example, his science-fiction novel The Cityborn began with a mental image of a towering city, squatting over a canyon filled with a massive garbage dump, in which there are people scavenging to survive.
His YA science-fiction novel Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Starcame out of an exhibit at the Saskatchewan Science Centre about how memory works, combined with a news item about teenaged Japanese pop stars who were one-hit wonders. In the book, there are aliens whose memory works differently, and Andy is plucked off the street to become a one-hit superstar—it’s drugs, rock and roll, and aliens for teenagers.
For Worldshaper, the trigger was wondering what it would be like if the creators of fictional worlds could actually live in them.
Worldshaper was originally conceived as a fantasy novel, set in a medieval village in an endless, inescapable valley, along which were strung caves that were portals into different worlds. Despite the changes to that concept, the main character has always been a potter: the perfect metaphor for a Shaper.
Ed’s process of developing a story is to ask himself questions In The Cityborn, who are those people living in the garbage dump? Why are they there? Why has this city been fouling its environment for so long? Where did it come from? Who lives inside it? Conflict, and hence plot, arises from the answers to those questions: the people in the garbage want into the city. What would they do if someone from the top of the city, where the rich people would logically live, ended up down in the garbage dump? Every answered question presents other questions that must be answered.
Ed hastens to add it’s not really as formal a process as it sounds: a lot of the asking and answering of questions happens quickly inside Ed’s head as he types, but that’s how he interprets what he’s doing.
E.C. asks how detailed a plan Ed has before he starts writing. Ed says he writes a four- or five-page synopsis, not a chapter-by-chapter outline, just a rough description.
He doesn’t follow that synopsis particularly closely, either. The overall shape of the book is there, but the writing process may take him in a very different direction. He mentions how in Terra Insegura, sequel to Marseguro, a character introduced only because a viewpoint character was needed in space while everyone else was on the surface of the planet became so important that Ed had to replot everything about two-thirds of the way in.
The synopsis is just a guide to keep him on track, and maybe provide a hint of a way forward when he runs into a bump in the road.
E.C. asks how much of Ed’s worldshaping is done on the fly.
Ed says when he’s writing, he writes almost as fast as he types. He figures he averages 1,000 words an hour or more. “Things just come out of your head, onto the paper.” It’s hard for him to figure out exactly how that process works because it’s so seamless.
What flows out through his fingers feeds on itself. One sentence leads to another, which leads to new characters, new problems, new solutions.
Ed says he finds this “really fascinating,” and that’s why he asks all the authors he talks to on The Worldshapers about their writing process. It also ties into Worldshaper, because Shawna, is often trying to Shape her world on the fly, and sometimes it goes awry—just as it does with authors.
E.C. asks about Ed’s research process, and Ed says there was quite a bit of research involved in Worldshaper, because it’s set in a world very much like ours. He researched things like helicopters, radio call-signs, camping equipment, and what the surveyors’ mark at the top of a pass would look like—an important detail which makes Shawna wonder why this thing she didn’t even know existed exists in the world she supposedly Shaped.
E.C. asks how Ed develops characters. Ed says for Worldshaper there were obviously three characters who had to exist—the Shaper (Shawna Keys), the Mysterious Stranger (Karl Yatsar), who clue her and the readers into what’s going on, and the antagonist (the Adversary).
Ed originally thought the whole book would be first-person, from Shawna’s POV, but in consultation with his editor, Sheila Gilbert, he realized he needed to make Karl and the Adversary POV characters as well. Karl’s POV is third-person, fairly close in, while the Adversary’s POV is a more detached third-person. Mixing that with Shawna’s first-person narrative was an interesting challenge.
Ed says that, possibly because he began writing on a typewriter, he writes a complete first draft and then rewrites, typically focusing in the second draft in on sprucing up language and dialogue. He estimated his first draft is maybe eighty percent of the way to how the published novel will read, his own rewrite gets it to ninety or ninety-five percent, and editorial suggestions provide the impetus for the last five percent.
Ed has worked with a great many editors. Sheila Gilbert at DAW, he says, is particularly good at discovering the weakness in plot, characterization, back story, and asking the author to answer questions either not asked (or, more likely, ignored or papered over) during the writing process. Worldshaper had more editorial input than most of Ed’s books because of the need for the initial set-up to support a (hopefully) long-running series.
Ed says the great thing about the series is that, while the first world is much like ours, future worlds won’t be. As in the original Star Trek and Doctor Who, the overarching storyline is an excuse to play in all kinds of different worlds and settings. Books could have a film noir setting, or a vampire setting—the possibilities are endless.
E.C. asks if there are any embarrassing errors or omissions editors have found. Ed says there was a big one in Worldshaper. The copyeditor pointed out that when characters sailed out into the open ocean, they were described as doing so from a place along the Washington coastline that would actually have taken them into Puget Sound, where they would very soon have encountered land again. That was fixed by relocating the scene much further south along the West Coast.
That’s an example of the value of editors!
E.C. asks why Ed is using the term “worldshaping” for the podcast, instead of the more commonly used term worldbuilding.
Ed explains that, apart from the marketing synergy of the podcast and the book having similar names, he feels worldshaping better describes what writers do. He points out writers aren’t really building new worlds, they’re shaping worlds from the raw material of the real world. After all, we have nothing else to draw on. The image of the potter taking clay and shaping it into something interesting seems to him a better metaphor than building a world.
Ed goes on to say that he feels strongly that literary writers’ fictional worlds are every bit as much made up as those of science fiction and fantasy. The real world cannot be contained within a construction of words, he says. “The symbol is not the thing.” So while literary fiction may appearto be set in a world more like ours than the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, that’s an illusion—those worlds are equally fictional. The only difference is that in science fiction and fantasy, authors are taking their raw material and shaping it more extravagantly.
Ed says the title of the book came first, not the title of the podcast, but that he’s been thinking of a podcast or something similar for a long time, in which he can use his journalistic familiarity with interviewing people to compare notes with other writers of science fiction and fantasy about the process of creating the stuff they create, in the hope other authors and readers might find it interesting.
E.C. asks Ed to answer the question, “Why do we write this stuff?”
Curiosity is innate in human beings, Ed replies: its part of the brain. The theological answer, he continues, is that God created man in His image, and since God creates things, so do we. This is Tolkien’s concept of “sub-creation.” As he put it, “We make still by the law in which we’re made.”
Evolutionarily, Ed says, there’s clearly a survival benefit to being creative, thinking up new ways to do things. Our ancestors survived because they were creative, and that creativity has been handed down.
On a personal level, though, Ed says he writes stories “because it’s fun,” and he thinks that’s why most writers write. After all, most writers start as kids, and what do kids do? They play. Writers go from building sandcastles in sandboxes to building castles in fantasy realms. Yes, writing professionally is work…but at heart, it’s play.
E.C. asks if Ed is trying to shape the real world through his fiction. Ed says he doesn’t really have any control over it, noting that very few authors’ work has really changed the world, so that, while aspiring to change the world is a great goal, it’s not necessarily a realistic one.
Ed thinks that if he’s changing the world it’s one person at a time, by entertaining readers, adding enjoyment to their lives, maybe making them a little happier. If along the way they find some ideas in his fiction that change the way they think about the world, or feel better about the world, that’s good, too. But all he can really do is write the books he wants to write to the best of his ability, and hope that readers enjoy them.
E.C. asks what’s coming next.
Ed says he’ll soon be writing Master of the World, Book 2 of the Worldshapersseries. In addition, he recently wrote a middle-grade modern-day fantasy, The Fire Boy, currently with his agent, and has agreed to write a horror-flavoured YA novel for another publisher (still nameless because no contract has been signed yet). In addition, he’s writing a play-with-music, The Music Shoppe, for Reginal Lyric Musical Theatre.
Ed says he’s done quite a bit of theatre: he’s a member of Canadian Actors’ Equity and has done a certain amount if professional stage work (and a lot more just for fun). He also sings with choirs: he’s sung with the Canadian Chamber Choir and currently is a member of the Prairie Chamber Choir.
Finally, E.C. asks why Ed always mentions Shadowpaw the Siberian cat in his biography, and Ed explains it’s partly because Shadowpaw has a literary history: Betsy Wollheim from DAW picked him out, and Ed went down to New York to visit DAW and pick Shadowpaw up. Shadowpaw’s name and photo also graces the new books from Shadowpaw Press, Ed’s new publishing company, which has brought out his short story collection Paths to the Stars and will be releasing other of his work—and a few other things—going forward.
And that’s that!
E.C. doesn’t imagine he’ll be guest hosting again, but he enjoyed it.