Episode 15: Peter V. Brett

An hour-long conversation with Peter V. Brett, the internationally bestselling author of the Demon Cycle series (The Warded Man, The Desert Spear, The Daylight WarThe Skull Throne, and The Core), which has sold more than three million copies in 26 languages worldwide.

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The Introduction

Photo by Karsten Moran

Peter V. Brett is the internationally bestselling author of the Demon Cycle series, which has sold more than three million copies in 26 languages worldwide. Novels include The Warded Man, The Desert Spear, The Daylight WarThe Skull Throne, and the final novel in the series, The Core. He lives in Brooklyn.






The Lightly Edited Transcript

I seem to start a lot of these by saying, “Oh, we met in Calgary. For some reason I’ve met a lot of authors in Calgary and you’re one of the most recent ones. We met at When Words Collide in Calgary this last summer, which is a convention I like to give a shout out to whenever I can because I think it’s a really good one. Hope you had a good time there.

Yeah, that was a fantastic convention. I didn’t really know what to expect, I’d never been to it before and wasn’t really familiar with it, but it actually ended up being one of the most welcoming and friendly and enjoyable conventions I’ve been to in a while.

I think one of the nice things about it is that it’s so focused on writing, and not just within science fiction fantasy but all sorts of writing. So, I think that’s nice change from just the typical science fiction convention or fantasy convention.

Yeah, I agree. And there were locals there who sort of know the area and are really welcoming and also a lot of guests from all over. So, there’s a good mix and I really had a good time there. And Canadians are just nicer.

Maybe. I’m both Canadian and American so I can’t really speak to that.

We’re going to talk, of course, about the Demon Cycle as we as we go ahead here, but I like to go back into the mists of time with my guests and find out how they got started. First of all, how did you become interested in the fantastical? I understand it’s from an older brother.

Yeah, I mean, some of that I think is from my older brother. Some, I think, it’s just when I reached the age where I was old enough to sort of read a novel on my own, the novel that happened to be hand was The Hobbit. That, I think, was probably the first book without pictures that I ever read of my own accord. And I think that definitely set me on the path.

And then I had an older brother, and you know, in the ’80s I was playing Dungeons & Dragons. We were those kids in Stranger Things playing Dungeons & Dragons. And so, between the two I think that I really get heavily invested in fantasy from an early age. And then when I started prowling the bookstores looking for things to read, I ended up in the fantasy section.

I have two older brothers who both read this stuff and that’s kind of how I got hooked on it as well, although, oddly enough, I tried reading The Hobbitas a kid, but I couldn’t get into it until I was quite a bit older. My start-up stuff was Heinlein juveniles and things like that, because I was more on the science fiction than the fantasy side. But I’m a bit older than you too so.

So, when did you actually start writing, and was it science fiction and fantasy from the beginning, or did you start writing and then sort of find your way into writing the fantastical stuff?

I started writing in school. From an early age I knew that I wanted to be a writer. First, I wanted to write comic books, and so for a while I was into comic books, and then probably in high school was when I realized that comic books are sort of a codependent relationship where you have to have a relationship with an artist, or you have to do the art yourself, in order to write comics.

I had a friend that I was doing that with who just couldn’t draw as fast as I could write and would often have opinions over how the story should go or what should happen, and I like being in control of everything, and I liked not having to be on someone else’s schedule, so I sort of gravitated from there to prose. And that’s when I moved into science fiction and fantasy. The first book I wrote was a hybrid of the two, it was like a space fantasy. From there I went on to writing sort of basically novelization of D&D adventures, and then from there moved into sort of my own area.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in New Rochelle, New York. I went to New Rochelle High School. I wrote my first novel when I was 17. I finished it the beginning of my senior year of high school. It was terrible, never published, never will be published. I don’t let anyone see it.

But you still have it?

I printed up 10 copies of it. I had them bound at the print shop and gave the to my friends, and I have systematically hunted down and destroyed all but one of those copies, which I keep locked safely away.

I was going to ask if you shared your writing. I wrote novels in high school, too, and I didn’t make copies but I had one copy that I’d typed up and I handed around to people to read. I often encourage writers, starting writers, to let other people read their stuff because that’s one way you find out whether you’re telling stories that anybody wants to read or not. So, did your friends actually enjoy it, even though you now think it’s terrible?

Yeah, all my friends read it and had plenty to say about it and acted like it was good. And maybe for a 17-year-old it was good. But when I look at it back at now I just cringe. But, yeah, you have to share your writing with people. I mean, some people tend to just write for themselves and never show it to anyone and that’s fine. But if you want to be a writer, if you want to actually communicate to other people, you have to show it. You have to be willing to take the risk of showing it to other people.

Now, you went into university. You studied English, but you didn’t particularly focus on creative writing, is that right?

Well, they didn’t have a creative writing program at the school that I went to. I wanted to go to a state university because that was what we could afford. The one that I got into was the best state university that I applied to, but they didn’t have a creative writing major. So, I majored in English and just took all the writing classes I could in trying to craft my own writing major. It didn’t really work out. I wouldn’t say that my college education had a massive influence on my writing.

Most of the writers I’ve talked to who took creative writing don’t usually say very good things about the creative writing that they took, I’ve noticed, especially if they write science fiction and fantasy.

Yeah, I mean, science fiction and fantasy is generally looked down on at the university level, which is undeserved, but nevertheless that’s the way of things. I took a bunch of creative writing classes that were, like, poetry even though I didn’t really want to write poetry, or that were literary fiction even though literary fiction had always sort of bored me. There certainly weren’t any science fiction and fantasy writing classes until later. After I graduated, I was living in New York City and I took a science fiction and fantasy writing class, a night school continuing education class at NYU, and that class actually did help me in my career. I actually wrote the first chapter of The Warded Manin that class, which ended up being what started my career off.

But there were a lot of years in there between that first novel at 17 and The Warded Man, weren’t there?

Yeah, there were a lot of years and a lot of terrible novels. The Warded Manwas my fifth novel. So, I wrote four other novels prior to that that were terrible. I mean, each one had good things in it, each one had things that even to this day I’m proud of, but they also had a lot of cringeworthy, horrible things. But you need to get through that in order to write on a professional level, and so every writer that I know, every professional writer that I know, has a few, you know, corpses of books left in their wake that have never seen light of day and never should see the light of day.

Yeah, I can I can vouch for that. And I started writing at high school and didn’t actually sell anything, and even then, it wasn’t too much of a publisher, for about the same timespan that you are talking about. So, yeah, lots of lots of bad writing in there. But you’re learning all the time.

I didn’t even try to get anything published until I was 35. I looked at my own work and sort of was my own harshest critic and I didn’t feel that I was writing on a professional level, so I wasn’t attempting to sell it. I mean, I was waiting to either get bored of doing it or to hit that point where I started to feel like I was in control and really knew what I was doing.

What were you doing for a living?

Well, I had a degree in English and I knew that I wanted to be a writer and so I moved to New York City and I took the first editorial-related job I could find. I started out editing business-to-business directories, which essentially means editing phone books, which is exactly as fun as it sounds. From there, I got a job as an assistant editor, doing medical journals. I did that for a little over a year. And from that I went on to get an editorial job doing pharmaceutical publishing. Basically we would send journalists to medical conferences and they would cover presentations there and write up reports that we would publish and mail out to doctors and nurses and things like that. And so that basically became my career.

I did that for almost 10 years and was doing very well. You know, I made a good living, I had good insurance. I was able to do the work with only a small percentage of my overall brain-processing power, so I didn’t really take my work home with me. I would go to work and I would work a full day and I would go home and sort of forget about it until I went back. It was it was a passable career that I could have gone on to do for the rest of my life.

But all along, at night, I was working on my novels and sort of hoping that that could turn into something, and eventually I was fortunate enough to have it turned into my fulltime career.

Yes, it worked out well for you. That sort of non-fiction pharmaceutical writing, all that stuff you were doing, do you find that that had benefit when it comes to writing fiction, or were they completely separate things for you?

It did. It had a big benefit, I think, but in ways that were sort of unforeseen. I mean, certainly I was wearing all of the editorial hats,. I was an editor who was assigning stories to journalists and then I was talking to them about the sort of theme of their story and then I was doing first- and second-pass edits to that story. There were a bunch of other editors and we would trade with each other. I would do copy edits on their stories, and they would do copy edits on my story, and then for a third editor we would do a proofread, and so because of that I sort of had to wear all the hats. So, I learned the proofreader’s job and how it’s different from the copyeditor’s job, I learned the copyeditor’s job and how it’s different from the regular editor’s job, and I did project management and I did art direction and I did print production, and we made promotional items and we built websites for our clients, and so I learned how to do a wide variety of publishing and marketing things. Because I was working in this sort of small boutique publishing company, I got to learn how to do all of those things.

I don’t think any of that really affected my prose, I don’t know that it affected the content of the book so much, but the editing skills allowed me to deliver a really clean manuscript to my agent for the initial hurdle and also for the publishers when we were trying to sell it, and then once I managed to sell the series I had a whole set of skills that I was able to apply to promoting myself. I knew how to build a website. I knew how to make promotional items. I knew how to art direct. So, I was able to hire artists to provide content for my website and provide content for my social media feeds and make me professional-looking business cards and all sorts of things like that. And so, all of those skills definitely had a positive effect on my career overall, although I don’t know that any of them really affected the stories themselves.

It sounds like…of course, when this started it wasn’t as big a thing as it is now…but had you chosen to, with those skills you could probably have done quite well within the self-published world as well as the traditional publishing world.

Absolutely. I think that being a success in self-publishing requires a certain skill set, and it’s a skill set that, to be honest, most people don’t have. The people who do have it, though, can be very successful in that realm, and I think that that career that I had in medical publishing and marketing gave me most of those skills, but also gave me an appreciation of just how much work all of those things are, and in the end I decided that I would much rather have a traditional publisher to do all of that stuff for me so that I could just focus on the creative part rather than take on all of the additional headaches of marketing and print production and mailing and selling myself and establishing mailing lists. There are so many things that you have to do to have a successful career in publishing that I think that I’m capable of doing, but I just don’t want to do. I’d much rather focu on writing stories and doing fan outreach.

While you were doing all your fiction writing, when you were doing this during the day and then you were writing the unpublished novels, were you also doing things like writing workshops, or were you’re in a writers’ group? Who encouraged you during all that time?

I never was in a formal writing group or writing workshop. My best friend, Myke Cole, is a science fiction and fantasy author as well…

Yes, I hope to have him on the show at some point.

Well, I can probably make that happen! He and I have been best friends…we met in high school, but we’ve been best friends since college. We both wanted to be writers and we were both sort of reading each other’s work and editing each other’s work and encouraging each other’s work from the beginning. And that, I think, was a big help to both of us. If you look at our first novels, there’s a lot of his influence in my early novels and there’s a lot of my influence in his early novels, because we were passing them back and forth to each other and offering ideas. So that, for the most part. was my creation partnership.

Mike is also a much more social person than I am, and so he was very keyed into the New York publishing scene and getting invited to parties with other authors, and he joined the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and had connections there. I was the introvert that he adopted to sort of break into that world.

Those connections certainly paid off later. But I spent, most of that time that he spent building that network, I spent that time focused on my writing and trying to get up to a level where I was willing to risk putting it out there.

Well, we’re going to talk in more detail about the Demon Cycle. But first, how do you describe them to people who, unimaginably, have never read any of them?

The Demon Cycle books are set in a world where demons rise out of the ground each night and basically ravage the land. They will hunt and kill any living thing, but their main focus and preference is humans. These creatures are magical and immortal and mostly immune to regular weapons, and so the only way to protect yourself is to draw these magical symbols called wards around your home, around your crops, around your property, to form a barrier of protection that the demons can’t pass, sort of like holding up a cross to a vampire. The book begins 300 years after the demons have reappeared in the world and knocked what was once a very technologically advanced society down to about a Little House on the Prairielevel of technology. Humanity has been hunted nearly to extinction, and so when the story begins there are very few people left. They live in very isolated communities and it’s really hard to get from one place to another because anywhere, anytime you travel overnight, you run the risk of being attacked by demons.

The series follows a group of characters, each of whom we meet in their childhood, and each of whom is scarred by some sort of demon encounter in their childhood that pushes them off what would have been the normal path of their life and forced them down a different path. Each one of them learns sort of a different way to resist the demons and start learning how to fight back. And that, as they grow up into adulthood, becomes this sort of last push for humanity to fight back from the brink of extinction and make a comeback.

And it’s a five-book series?

It’s a five-book series, and the last book is out. It’s a finished series, so if you’re the sort of person who likes to wait until a series is done to give it a chance you can binge the whole thing right now. There are five books and then there are four companion novellas that aren’t really essential to the main story, but if you’re enjoying the main story they are nice little side adventures that give you more development of some of the secondary characters in the series.

So, what was the initial spark? Where did you get your idea? That’s the classic question…

Yeah. You know, the thing is, this question is always the hardest to answer because any real author knows that you don’t just get anidea. A book is full of many, many, many, many ideas. And so, I don’t think there was any one thing that made me start writing the series. It was more something that built up over time.

One of my favorite books ever was The Elfstones of Shanarraby Terry Brooks, and that story, very similarly, was about demons coming back into the world after having been banished for thousands of years, and how the world wasn’t really ready for them. They had forgotten how to fight them, they had basically forgotten that they exist, and so suddenly these demons are coming back and people just don’t know how to deal with it and aren’t prepared for it. That, I think, was a big influence in my storytelling. But it was only a tiny part of the puzzle. I mean, I also spent a long time building a magic system that I thought were…sorry if there’s a little banging. They’re doing work outside of my window.

I figured that. That’s a very New York sound. 

Yeah. I didn’t expect it to be banging, like, literally outside of my window…

I think, what really made the story click for me was September 11th. I was in New York City on September 11th and I could see the towers burning from my office window and see people running around on the streets and everybody was terrified. My father-in-law at the time was in the World Trade Center at the time of the attack. He was evacuated, but we didn’t know that at the time. We didn’t have the sort of cellphone technology that we do now where you can get right in touch with somebody and see if they’re OK. It took hours before we found out.

And so, all of this had the effect of me seeing how fear and terror affected a large group of people. Some people immediately ran away. Some people said, “I have to get home to my family,” and they ran out of the building and went home, and some people just said, “OK, we have to move away from wherever the smoke and the fire is,” and other people said, “No, we have to run to the smoke and fire and help people,” and there were people lining up down the street to give blood and there were people rushing into the wreckage to try and help people out and clear it out. And there were other people who were just standing around bewildered and not knowing what to do, and there were other people who, you know, went and needed to go somewhere to cry, and there were other people who threw up their hands and said, “Oh well, the subways are screwed and we’re not going anywhere, so we might as get a six-pack of beer and wait this out.” The way that every one of those people was afraid but they all dealt with it differently was something that really struck me and something that I think became the basis of that first book, that there are all these people who were living in fear every night as the demons come out. How does that make them behave? What are the different ways that individuals deal with that fear? How do you treat your neighbor when you know that both of you might get eaten by demons that night? How do you treat your friends, how do you treat your family, how you treat the people that you’re sort of locked up with at night because you can’t go anywhere until the sun comes up? Those were some of the ideas that I really explored in that first book that made it more than just like a legend or a myth, it made it something that really felt real and visceral and hopefully draws the reader in and makes them feel like they’re part of what’s going on.

Well it certainly drew me in. So, I can vouch that you succeeded in that.

Thank you.

Where did the symbol-based magic system come from? Why did you go that route? Do you remember?

Well, I think that magical symbols that offer protection from evil are something that every culture in the world shares. Even cultures that sort of evolved independently of each other have their own version of the evil eye or the cross that holds back a vampire or whatever. And so, I was dealing with these sort of big concepts that everybody can understand: fear of the monsters that come out in the dark, the magical symbol that you hope will protect you. I wanted to have magic in the series, but I didn’t want magic to be something that people depended on overly. I wanted the series to be very much grounded in the real world, but then have this sort of magical element that you could understand, that the reader can understand, to the point where they would understand that magic wasn’t going to just suddenly save the day unexpectedly in a way that wasn’t satisfying. Because there’s a lot of fantasy books where magic is just sort of like, at the at the end, “Oh, the good guys won, and it was magic and it’s great!” I very much didn’t want that. I wanted a magic system where people knew the rules, so that they could understand that something unexpected wasn’t going to happen, but also be sort of surprised when that magic system was used in creative ways that maybe they hadn’t thought of. And I did it in such a way that it could be built up over the course of the series. So, in the first book there’s very little magic, other than these sort of protective symbols, but then by the end of the series, when people are throwing lightning bolts around and flying, the reader understands it because you got there through a very slow incremental way, where each step, each advancement in the understanding of how the magic system works, the reader was going along for the ride. So, you got there gradually enough that when it got spectacular it didn’t seem out of nowhere.

Well, that is course one of the challenges of writing a series, especially one that builds to a conclusion. I presume that you had the outline of the entire five-book cycle when you began, or did you develop some of it as you went along?

My original pitch to Random House was for five books, and I delivered to them a completed first book; maybe 30 percent of a second book, plus extensive notes on how it would end; probably about three pages on what would happen in the third book; one page on what would happen in the fourth book; and then one paragraph on what happened in the final book. But I’m happy to say that 10 years later I hit that paragraph pretty much exactly. So, it’s nice to know that, even when you sort of take a shot in the dark, years later I was able to hit the target anyway.

Did you have the book titles before you started or did they come as you went along?

I had a set of titles, not all of which ended up getting used. Sometimes when you’re writing a book series like that you have these story beats that you want to hit and you think you’re going to hit them in a certain rhythm and then that rhythm changes as the series goes along, and so some things that I thought were going to happen in book two didn’t happen until book three and some things that I thought were going to happen in book three didn’t happen until book four, and so the titles needed to be a little fluid to deal with that.

Now, I think I read that you are a very fairly detailed outliner of books before you began. Is that the case? What do your outlines look like?

Ridiculously outlined. My book outlines can be 150 pages. I will write down literally everything that happens in the story. Every chapter will be broken down to say, “OK the chapter opens up with this person’s POV, Section 1 of the chapter, this happens, Section 2 of the chapter, this happens, Section 3 of the chapter, this happens, and it ends on this note, and then that is the shift that brings us to this other character, who starts off in a similar way that picks up that beat.”

I do that throughout the entire book, so that I know the entire story. Before I sit down and start writing the prose of the story, I know exactly how the story is going to end. And that is essential to me, because I don’t run the risk of writing myself into a corner. I know exactly how the story’s going to go, and then I can spend my prose time focusing on the character’s emotional state. How did they feel about what’s happening? I already know what’s going to happen. W\hat state of mind does that put them in? How does that affect how they treat each other? How does that affect their emotional state? What is the relationship between the characters as they go through this or that trying event? And so, that is sort of how I approach the prose portion of the writing. A lot of the creative questions and problem solving is done in the planning stage and then a lot of the emotional writing is done in the prose.

A lot of authors will tell me that they don’t like to do a detailed outline because then they feel like they’ve already written the book and then it just becomes a slog actually writing the book. Does it feel like that to you?

It absolutely does. But this is the mistake that I think a lot of writers make, is that they think that their job should be fun. And you know what? It doesn’t have to be fun. Writing is your job, and the way that gets you to the best end product is the way that you should do it. If you’re writing because it’s fun, that’s fine, but I think that if that’s not the method that produces the best work for you, then it doesn’t always have to be fun. So, there’s a lot of times where I do feel like, “OK, I’ve sucked all the joy out of this story because I’ve already solved all the problems and done all the discovery and now I’m just doing the hard work part.” But, you know, a job should involve some hard work. Every artist hhas to spend time doing tedious tasks in addition to the very creative parts of things. I don’t resent that because I think that it gets me to the end point that I want to be in, wich is a book that I’m really proud of.

During the discovery process, when you’re doing the outlining, clearly you will be deciding what characters will be doing what. How do you decide who you need in a story, and then how do you go about bringing them to life? You have a multiple viewpoint characters, multiple protagonists, I guess you could you could call them, people we follow throughout and get to know. It’s not like it’s always just the one guy. You have a lot of interesting characters. How do you decide who you need and who’s going to be telling the story and how do you bring them to life?

Well, I sort of think of my series as a series of character studies going on in this sort of pivotal part of history. There’s this great upheaval as humanity tries to fight its way back from extinction and I’m exploring the interesting people who are involved in that. And so, each one of those characters is completely different from all of the others and each one of them has their own story and their own sort of path to achieving agency in this world, and those stories are as interesting to me as the overall overarching story.

So, you have this series of origin stories that all sort of build up to this group of characters that reaches the final battle, as it were. And so I wrote out stories that I thought were interesting and characters that I thought were interesting. I felt, like, “OK let’s take your sort of typical hero characters and then instead of focusing on them when they’re adults and they’re already awesome, why don’t we go back and look at them when they’re children and sort of see how they got there?” That’s what’s interesting to me, and as the series progresses there are a lot of times when I’ll take a character and say, “OK, we’re going to jump back a few years and you’re going to see where this person came from, and the trials that they went through when they were younger, so that when they encounter something similar as an adult you understand why they decide to do what they decide to do.” I think it’s a lot more satisfying in that way because when you know where a character came from, then you can understand why they make decisions that might be different from what you would have made under those circumstances.

I noticed on your website that on the about page about you, you actually have a character sheet for yourself. Does that match up what you do with your characters or is that just a visual, fun element for your website?

Honestly, that was something that I did as a goof for the website when I first made it. You know, this was at the very beginning of my career, when I had no reason to think that this was going to be even a fulltime job, much less any kind of success. And so, I just did it. I thought it’d be funny. I did two things. I did a Dungeons & Dragons character sheet about myself and I did a Marvel Universe entry. Marvel Universe was this book in the ’80s, it was basically an encyclopedia of all of the superheroes and supervillains in the Marvel Universe that you refer to. I love those books because it would give you all of the background information on every single character, whether they’re a bit character or a big hero, and would allow you to say, like, oh, you know, “Fantastic Four is fighting Annihilus and obviously there’s a lot of history there but I don’t have those older issue, and it’s pre-Internet age and I can’t really look it up, but I can go look up Annihilus in Marvel Universe and see what his deal is.” I used to spend a lot of time reading those books, and I think that that certainly influenced my writing, and so I made this entry in the same format as those old Marvel Universe 

entries, about myself.

Known associations and all that sort of thing.

Yeah, like alias and group affiliations and superpowers But, it was really just a goof. None of that was expected to go anywhere, really.

What’s your actual writing process look like? I remember reading that you actually wrote The Warded Man quite a bit while commuting, didn’t you?

Yeah. That first book, I submitted it to an agent, and at that point I was kind of at a stage where I wasn’t sure if I was ever going to be published. I was in my 30s already and I thought that I was getting too old for this sort of thing and submitted the book to an agent, and he rejected it. But he asked if I had anything else, and I showed him one of my older books, and he rejected that, too, but he said, “Look, you’ve got a lot of potential but it’s clear that your writing is self-taught and you’re making a lot of amateur mistakes.” And he gave me a book on writing and told me to read it and said go back and take that first book, it was called The Painted Manback then, take that book and fix it and then come back.

And so, at this point I had a real legit agent who represented bestselling authors telling me I had what it took if I would just get some focus. But at the time I had a full-time job in Times Square in New York City and I lived out in Brooklyn, and so I had a two-hour commute each day plus my time at work and I also had a love life and friends and everything else and didn’t really have a lot of writing time, and so I decided that I would give up my reading time on my morning and afternoon commute and try and spend that time writing.

And so I bought this smartphone, this was pre-iPhone, I bought a Windows phone that had a very broken-down version of Microsoft Word, and I broke the book into separate chapters. I would get on the subway in the morning and I would open up the chapter that I was working on and I would put my headphones on and for 45 minutes to an hour I would write on the way to work and I would do the same thing on the way home. I would write maybe three or four hundred words on the way to work and three or four hundred words on the way back, and then at night I would sync that back to my computer and I would fix all the typos from writing with my thumbs and add another couple of hundred words so I would average around a thousand words a day. And I did that for a year.

I would say probably 60 percent of The Warded Manwas written on the subway like that in that first year, and a decent portion of The Desert Spearas well. After that I got an office and started writing in a more traditional fashion, but I still make sure that all my mobile devices are writing-capable so if I’m out and about somewhere and I want to get some writing in I can do it pretty much anywhere.

Yeah, I did a lot of writing on a phone as well. Only I had a little fold-up Bluetooth keyboard so I could do proper typing on it. I wrote a book called Marseguro, which won the Aurora Award in 2009, largely wrote on this little tiny fold-up keyboard on my phone. So when I first saw an interview with you not long after The Warded Man came out , I thought, “Oh, I’m not the only one that writes on a phone.”

It’s good to remember that writing is not something that needs to be contained in a certain ritual or in a certain place or a certain device. You can do it pretty much anywhere.

Lots of people still like to write longhand. I can’t do it myself, but I’ve talked to some who do.

I don’t understand that. I mean, for me, it’s just the worry that’s, like, what if you lose those pages? What if you spill your drink on it and they all blur? What if the wind blows them away? What if you forget your bag somewhere? Then everything is lost.

What if you can’t read your own writing?

Yeah, yeah. And so that’s what worries me more than anything else. My daughter is writing a novel and she’s writing it longhand in a notebook that she carries with her everywhere. And I live in terror that one day she’s going to lose that notebook and lose, you know, a year of work, more than a year at this point. But, you know, I don’t want to transfer all of my anxieties onto her.

Because of the way you work, with a very, very detailed outline I’m going to make a guess that there’s not a lot of rewriting when you get to the end of the book. Is that fair? Or do you actually have to do quite a bit of prose touching up?

I don’t want to lie and say that I don’t have to do rewriting. I don’t tend to write myself into a corner. I usually will write one book all the way through to the end and then turn it in to my agent and my editor. And usually Myke Cole will do a read to. And then I do read myself. And then all four of those people will deliver their own sort of edited manuscript and I will go through them all simultaneously and make sort of a master edit copy that breaks down what I need to work on, and then I do one rewrite from beginning to end to fix all of the problems.

There is always a lot of rewriting to do, but it’s usually like, “Oh, you told instead of showed in this section, or you got lazy here and did a shortcut to get to the interesting part but you still have to go back and fill in all of these details to make this make sense or, like, this emotional encounter doesn’t feel right, these characters might not have acted that way.”

It’s rare that I have to go out and delete a whole section or change something really significant with regards to the path of the story. I’ve never had to change the ending or something like that. But there are a lot of times where my writing was lazy because I was distracted or because I was more excited to get to a different part and I jumped ahead or because I was telling and not showing in the first draft. I do that a lot in the first draft. So, the second draft is always massively different and massively better. Structurally it’s mostly the same, but every sentence has been touched and improved. Usually I’ll go through and take two to three words out of every sentence and two sentences out of every paragraph, so I streamline a lot. I make things a lot tighter. Occasionally I’ll expand a little bit if there was a scene missing that I needed to add in, but I do all of that in one path and then usually that second draft is the final.

Have you had the same editor for the entire series?

No, actually I’m on my third editor, which is somewhat frustrating. My first editor was laid off when Random House combined. They had multiple science fiction and fantasy imprints and they sort of combined them all into Del Rey. My editor was a casualty of that. Then I was assigned another editor, but she had been assigned a huge pile of novels from different authors at the same time. As some editors were laid off the other editors got a bunch of extra work added onto them, and so this editor was swamped. She was a great editor, but I also feel like, she wasn’t the one who had acquired my books, she didn’t have the sort of passion for them that I had, and so on the third book I shifted editors again to Tricia Narwani, who is the managing editor at Del Rey Books, and she’s been my editor for the last three books. We have an excellent relationship. She’s been wonderful and has really helped make the books better.

I’ve written a much smaller five-book series, where the books are only 60,000 words each. That’s like, what, two of yours? One of yours?

That basically slightly more than one of my books.

Exactly. But even with that there’s always a certain continuity problem, keeping track of details. Now, maybe because of your detailed outlines…does that make that easier for you, so you can look back at an outline or something more easily if there’s a name or a description or something that you have to recall? Or is it just me that has that problem?

Well, I’m sort of an obsessive writer. There’s basically three files that I have at any given time. There’s the outline file, which I call a step sheet, there’s the actual prose file, and then there’s my appendices file, where I basically create a glossary that lists everything that I’ve made up in the story. So, every person, place, or thing, every distance between two points, every bestiary of magical creatures, the currency systems and individual locations, all of that stuff, is put into one big appendix file that is searchable, so that if I have questions or if I forget something I have a way to look them up. So that’s been extremely helpful to me, to give me a solid reference point.

More of us should do that, I think.

Well, again, I mean, it’s one of those things that takes the fun out. And so, if you’re the type of author who needs the fun, then that can be a problem. It certainly is an advantage to have that to refer to.

You’ve written novellas that are set in the same world, shorter pieces. I would think that would be very helpful, to, well, even as an idea generator, to have all this detailed information to see where there are places where stories could be told about other elements of the world that aren’t part of the main cycle. Is that fair to say?

Yeah, and I sort of have a running list of those story ideas that I keep handy. I’ve only written four of those novellas, but I have plots for maybe another four or five of them that I just will do when I have time. I always have sort of a running list of, like, “Oh, I never got to explore down that side road because I was building towards this thing and so I kept heading towards that, but I had this cool idea to explore it over there,” and I make a note and then I never got around to it. So those stories are always just sort of waiting for their chance to be told.

Well, I’m going to get the big philosophical questions as we get close to the end here. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write, and particularly, why do you think you and others write fantasy? What is the reason? Why do we do this?

I think that every person, in order to maintain sanity and good mental health, needs to have some creative outlet. And it’s different for all of us. I mean, some of it is what you’re naturally inclined towards doing, some of the things are what your skill set is, based on your personal makeup. For some people it’s art, for some people it’s quilting, for some people it’s fashion, for some people it’s music, and for me it was writing. Whether it’s something you do professionally or something you do as a hobby, I really think that without that we stagnate. And so, that was a big part of why I did it. And also, I like the idea that my books will outlast me. You know, the sense that, after I’m gone, here’s something I did that will hopefully stick around and be remembered and be a way to remember me in a fashion. There’s an immortality that comes with being published that I certainly reach for.

As for why fantasy? Fantasy is what I love, fantasy is what I enjoy. I mean, if maybe that first book that I had read it was Sherlock Holmesor Tarzanor H.G. Wells, or something, maybe what I write would be different. But my first book was The Hobbitand that really sort of set the tone for what I like to read, and so that’s why I do it, I think.

What do you think the appeal of fantasy is for readers?

I think it lets us explore things that we might not otherwise be able to. Writing a fantasy world gives me the ability to talk about a lot of real-world things, but in a once-removed fashion that doesn’t point a finger at anyone individually or anything individually. So, I can talk about religion, I can talk about politics, I can talk about culture, I can talk about all sorts of things, gender relations, but I can do it in a way where no one can say I’m talking about them in particular. And so that, I think, gives me a lot of freedom to explore and discuss things.

And I think that the magical world is somewhere where our brains go naturally. It’s part of everyone’s childhood in one way or another and something that I really like exploring and playing with. I think that fairy tales still have a lot to tell us in the modern world, to tell us a lot about ourselves and about the world around us.

Well, and so you’ve kind of touched on the next thing I was going to ask, which is, what impact do you want your stories to have on readers? What do you want them to go away with? This podcast is called The Worldshapers, and you’ve shaped a very detailed and fascinating world. But by having readers in our world read it, are you hoping that in some fashion you’re shaping them or shaping our world in some way?

I guess. I don’t want to be so hubristic as to claim that I have some ulterior motive to, like, shape people’s worldview or outlook or anything, but I do think that one of the things that I do in my books is take a character that you think you understand in one book and then do a deep dive into them in the next book and make the readers realize that they didn’t really know that person at all. The character who is set up to be the villain in the first book is the hero and protagonist in the second book and by the time a couple of chapters go by you’re rooting for them and want them to succeed. That is something that I did multiple times, and I think that if it teaches anything it’s that, whether someone is the hero or the villain is very often a matter of perspective. People can have the same goals, saving the world, being a good leader, protecting the people, and, depending on which side of the fence you’re on, the same person could be a hero or a villain. What I hope is that what people take away from that is that maybe they shouldn’t be so quick to judge people that they don’t really know very well.

That was something that was a really major theme for me, especially during those early years after 9/11, when the United States was getting into a war that we didn’t really understand with people that we hadn’t bothered to research, and making a lot of really stupid mistakes. And so, that’s something that I wanted to explore a little and give a sense of, like, all right, maybe if you’d taken the time to understand what you were doing you would have done things differently. It’s definitely a theme in the book.

You’ve finished the five-book series. What’s next.?

I’ve got another three-book series that I’ve started. The first book is called The Desert Prince and should be out probably in very early 2020. The series will take place in the same world as the Demon Cycle books but 15 years later and we’ll have a new cast of characters. Some of the older characters may show up for a cameo, but for the most part it’s going to be all-new characters and explore different parts of the world that we didn’t really get a close look at in the first series. You won’t need to read the older series to read the new series, but those people who have will have a different take on it than people who come in as new readers.

When will those start to appear, do you think?

The first one is due summer of next year and so it will probably be out in early 2020. And then I’m hoping they’ll be out more or less once a year after that. The first one is always the hardest.

And where can people find you online if they want to keep in touch with what you’re up to?

I’m on most of the social media feeds under the username PVBrett, so Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, all of those used the same username, PVBrett, or you can just go to www.petervbrett.com. Eaverything’s linked there as well. I keep a fairly active blog showing fan art. I run a lot of giveaway contests because I have a small New York apartment and don’t have a place for all of the books the publishers send me, like every publisher’s required to send me 20 copies of each edition of each book, nd if I don’t give them away a quickly pile up on me, and so I very regularly run giveaway contests for signed books.

“Author found crushed in apartment under own free copies of books.”

Yeah.

Thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I hope you enjoyed it. I sure did.

Yeah, it was a great time. Thank you so much for inviting me. I really appreciate it.

Episode 13: Lee Modesitt Jr.

 

An hour-long conversation with Lee Modesitt Jr., bestselling author of more than seventy novels of fantasy and science fiction, including the Recluce Saga, the Spellsong Cycle, the Imager Portfolio, and more, about his creative process, with a special focus on his science fiction novel Haze.

Website:
lemodesittjr.com

L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Lee Modesitt Jr. is the bestselling author of more than 70 novels, encompassing two science fiction series and four fantasy series, as well as several other science fiction novels. He has been a delivery boy, a lifeguard, an unpaid radio disc jockey, a U.S. Navy pilot, a market research analyst, a real estate agent, a director of research for a political campaign, a legislative assistant and staff director for U.S. congressmen, director of legislation and congressional relations for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, consultant on environmental regulatory and communications issues, and a college lecturer and writer-in-residence. In addition to his novels Lee has published technical studies and articles columns poetry and a number of science fiction short stories. His first story was published in 1973 we’ll find out about that in the course of the interview. He lives in Cedar City, Utah.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

We’re going to focus on Haze, but first: how did you start writing fiction and how did your interest in science fiction and fantasy develop. Was this a childhood thing or did it come along later?

I always was interested in science fiction and fantasy. I started reading it at a very young age and actually my mother was the one who introduced me to it. My father was an attorney and he didn’t have much interest in that sort of sky-blue stuff that just wasn’t hard and fast, whereas my mother was much more of a speculative mindset. And we lived in what was then the countryside, so to speak, and we weren’t close to libraries and we weren’t close to stores. But she did have this great painted bookcase in the front of her bedroom, and it was filled with paperback science fiction novels. And seeing as there was nothing else much interesting to read—I wasn’t going to read my father’s law books—I started reading science fiction But I never really thought I was going to write it. As a matter of fact I, was going to be the next William Butler Yeats, because my interest initially was in poetry. I read poetry, wrote it, did projects on it, essentially had a minor in it in college, although it wasn’t called that because they didn’t offer that minor, but I actually spent two years studying under William Jay Smith who later became the poet for the congressional reference service in Washington D.C., and that position then became the poet laureate of the United States. And I wrote poetry for some 15 years before I even thought of writing science fiction.

As matter of fact that I was turned down with form rejections from the Yale Younger Poets contest every year until I was too old to be a younger poet. Then I was in my late 20s, and my first ex-wife basically suggested that maybe I should try something besides poetry and she suggested science fiction, since I read it.

So, I thought I could try that, and I wrote a short story and I sent it off to Ben Bova who has just taken over as the editor of Analog, and he sent back a rejection. The rejection letter said this isn’t half bad but you made a terrible mess out of page 13. It’s good enough that if you can fix it I’ll look at it again.

I did, and he bought it. (The title was) “The Great American Economy.” I  was an economist by training and it seemed like a good place to go. It took me something like somewhere in the neighborhood of another 26 stories before I could sell the second one. And it was maybe 17 or 18 before I sold the third one. And this went on for maybe, I guess, five or six years, and then Ben sent me another rejection letter, and it began with the words, ‘Don’t send me any more stories–I won’t buy them.’ And after I got over the shock of those, I looked at the next paragraph, which said, ‘it’s clear that you are a novelist trying to cram novels into short stories. Go write a novel. After that we’ll talk about stories.’ Now, I hadn’t wanted to write a novel. At the time I was working as, at that particular point, legislative director for a U.S. Congressmen in Washington. Long hours, and I didn’t want to write a half million words to sell ninety thousand. But Ben didn’t give me any choice. So, I wrote a novel, and it sold, and that’s another story, but it did sell and every novel I’ve ever written since then has sold, so Ben was absolutely right about the fact that I was probably a better novelist than a short story writer.

How old were you when you started writing poetry?

I started getting published when I was about 15, only in small literary magazines.

There’s not a lot of other markets for poetry except small literary magazines anymore, is there?

Well, there is, I mean, you can theoretically publish it in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and a few other places like that, but that’s about it.

Did your poetry have any elements of the fantastical?

Oh, I think I one or two maybe had a few hints of the fantastical in it. I did write one poem, as I recall, about Atlantis, so I guess that had a certain fantastical element to it, but most of them weren’t.

Do you still write poetry?

Oh, yes. And I’ve incorporated into a lot of my novels. I mean, there are two novels in the Recluce series that are literally linked together by a book of poetry and the resolution of the second novel is partly shaped by that poetry and the existence of that poetry.

What part of the country did you grow up in?

I grew up in the suburbs south of Denver, Colorado. When I was very young my father decided he wanted to practice law in Hawaii. So, we moved to Honolulu and we lived there for a year and a half. He decided it wasn’t the best place to practice law or raise children, so we moved back to Denver, and we lived there until I went away to college.

Where did you go to university?

I went to Williams College in Massachusetts. I studied Economics and Political Science, a double major.

That sounds like the sort of thing that would help you with the creation of societies in science fiction and fantasy. Is that true?

Oh, I think it helped a great deal. Plus, 20 years, or 18 years, in the national political arena certainly didn’t hurt any. And I had a couple of years, actually a year, as n industrial market researcher, which was basically economic, and it was probably the most boring job one can possibly imagine, because my job was to forecast the sales patterns of compressed air filters, regulators, lubricators, and valves.

It sounds utterly fascinating. Have you ever gotten a story out of that?

I never could make a story out of that one. I’ve made stories out of a few other jobs I had but not that one.

You were also in the U.S. Navy for a few years and were a pilot. What kind of aircraft did you fly?

Actually, I started out as an amphibious officer, and I hated small boats so much that in the middle of the Vietnam War I volunteered for flight training, and the Navy decided I was a decent pilot but not a great pilot. So, I ended up flying helicopters and was a search and rescue pilot.

In Haze, the character is a military man of sorts. Does your military experience play into your writing, as well?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’m not certainly extensively a writer of military science fiction, but the military does fit into an awful lot of my books in one way or another. Maybe 40 percent. That’s just a guess, but yeah, it’ been a big factor.

I seem to remember that at ConVersion, the Calgary convention where we first met, you talked about economic systems in fantasy and science fiction and how there are a lot of unworkable ideas of how societies might work. Is that something you like to bring into your fiction, trying to create a more realistic society?

That’s exactly how I got into writing fantasy. I wrote strictly science fiction for almost the first 20 years I was writing. I got into writing fantasy because I got really tired of all of these fantasies where people go off on quests with no visible means of support, or where there are 10,000 armed knights on a side. One of the things that it dawned on me in terms of writing fantasy is, almost never, especially in the fantasy that was being published when I first started writing, did anybody have a real job. And one of the things that I’ve done in all my fantasies and which is still very rare is, all of my characters and fantasies have real jobs. They have to make a living. And the magic system has to be monetized. This is still very rare. A lot of people basically have a character, “Oh, he’s got a real job, but he’s on vacation or the job gets lost. And they just go off with the fantasy stuff.” When I’m writing fantasy, the economics and the magic are all integral. Maybe it’s because I was trained as an economist, maybe because I’ve been in politics, but I realized something about, call it technology, and that is, we don’t hang on to technology. We don’t use it unless it’s good for one of two things. It’s either a tool that will make somebody money or it will entertain somebody.

Well, magic would be the same way. If magic were real, nobody would bother with it unless they could do something with it, make money out of it or if they could entertain people, because we as a species are tool users. We are pretty much pragmatic but we like to be entertained. So, if magic can’t do one of those two things, it’s not really gonna be terribly useful in a society. And that’s probably too much of a soapbox. But anyway, that’s where I’m coming from.

It seems like there’s a preponderance of people are like thieves, bards, or mercenaries. That seems to be the three going job opportunities in a lot of fantasy worlds.

I think part of that is because people don’t think through what fantasy and magic can be used for. I do think that in my fantasies I come up with, shall we say, both practical and ingenious ways of using magic because people would.

Well, I’ve been accused of writing fantasy with rivets, so I’m not sure I agree with that one, but my feeling is, it’s simply the ground rules. In science fiction, the ground rules are, shall we say, the standard model of physics, if you will, and in fantasy, it’s whatever set of, call it a universal operating system, the author wants to put together. In the Recluce books my operating system is the balance between order and chaos

I basically use a different operating system for each fantasy universe, but I make a great effort to be rigidly consistent with the operating system, whether it’s science fiction or whether it’s fantasy. But beyond that I don’t treat them any differently. The characters just have to work within the operating system.

Let’s talk more specifically about your novelHaze. I’ll let you synopsize it so you don’t give away anything that you don’t want to give away.

Well, it’s set roughly 5,000 years in the future. You’ve got a Chinese Federation ruling the world. What used to be the United States is a client state, if you will, of China, and the main character is an American-born intelligence agents agent working for this Chinese Federation. In essence there are, if you will, two and a half storylines, although both of the storylines concern the main character. One’s in the present and one’s a flashback through the past. He’s basically tasked with investigating a planet, which is called Haze, because none of the Chinese federation’s surveillance gear will penetrate the, shall we say, the armada of A.I. spy devices that circle this planet. And he is one of several teams plunked onto this planet to try and discover what’s behind it all. That’s the setup.

What was the genesis of the novel? What was the seed that led to development of the novel?

I honestly can’t tell you, except part of it was the idea of what would happen if China continued on its present course, and American politics continue on their present course. The Chinese have always tended toward imperial states of one sort or another, and they tended to be both ruthless and bureaucratic simultaneously and that I guess was the background that I created and they pretty much co-opted every culture with its tried to co-opt them.

That was the background. And, of course, somebody is going to want to get out from underneath this. And that’s the genesis of the people on ??? or Haze.

Often when you’re talking about science fiction, there are the two big questions that start a story off, “What if?” and “If this goes on.”

I’m a big believer in the what if.

That’s a very long time in the future, five thousand years.Did you feel that you captured the changes that you’d have in technology and all that sort of thing over that amount of time?

I think a lot of people would say, “Why isn’t it more fantastic?” Well, people forget how fantastic things are right now. For example, we now communicate as fast as it is possible to communicate on a planet. We have essentially pretty much instantaneous communication—if we have the technology. but the ability is there—anywhere on the planet. We can get to any place on the planet in a matter of hours. There’s not that much difference in terms of the culture and the society between, even if we had matter transporters, between instantly and a few hours. There is a huge difference between a few hours and weeks or months, as was once the historical case. You can analogize all of these things to, there’s only so much further ahead you can go with technology. You can’t talk any faster than instantaneously, and it takes a certain amount of energy, no matter what you want to do to create things.

Theoretically, we could, I suppose, put together food replicators that could create anything from constituent elements, but the technology and the energy required…well, with that, it’s a heck a lot cheaper to simply go to Natural Foods. I don’t think you’re going to see changes in those things. So, basically, yes the society I postulated is much further ahead. I did suspect that the Chinese, and I did this in 2010 before this became well known, that the Chinese would find a way to, shall we say co-opt the Internet, and pretty much move into a world spy state. And I also postulated that certain parts of the world would not be at that point inhabitable for various reasons.

I also wondered if part of what you were going for was that it is a very static society. The federation is very static and doesn’t seem likely to evolve very quickly if at all, which I suppose is also a feature of Chinese Imperial States over the centuries.

Well, it’s not only Chinese Imperial States, but I mean, if you go back to ancient Egypt, which was in essence a water empire, that actually is the longest period of maintaining a similar government structure in human history that we know of. It’s actually outlasted the Chinese. I mean, yes, there are pharaohs, and you have the first dynasty and the second, all of these various dynasties, but basically, governmental structure in Egypt stayed pretty much the same from like 4,500 B.C. through the time of when the Romans finally conquered it, and even into Tomake ? Egypt it was somewhat similar.

How do stories tend to come to you?

Sometimes it’s just thinking about thing but probably a lot of it comes from the fact that I still study a huge amount of both history and technology. My wife laughs. She says that every time the mailman comes to our house he heaves a sigh of relief, because of the amount of periodicals we take. I admit that I like print periodicals because I can browse them at odd places at odd times. I think I take three archeology magazines, a couple of history magazines, and a lot of technology magazines, economic magazines. Of course, my wife takes all sorts of music periodicals and I read them all. I’m not sure I could say, oh, gee, this story came from this particular point.

I think the best resource that an author can have is a well-educated subconscious. We don’t remember all of it consciously. You can maybe call it up, but you don’t remember everything that you read. But I’m convinced that your subconscious, or your latent memory, if you will, remembers most of it, and the more stuff you pile in there the more likely you are, at least I believe so, to come up with good ideas.

Do you read a lot of other fiction or do you mostly read non-fiction?

At one point, even before I started writing, I was probably reading four to six hundred science fiction books a year. Right now, it’s more like 40 to 50. Most of my reading is non-fiction. Now I’m fortunate. I can I can read very quickly and I can retain most of what I read. which I find is a tremendous advantage.

With that initial idea in mind for any book, how do you go about shaping the world? Do you set out a plot and the characters develop, or how does the process work for you?

Well, it varies a little bit from book to book, but in general I tend to start with the world, the structure of the society, the religion, the environment, those factors, because they shape an awful lot of what you can do with the book. Resources are a factor. How do you get them? Where are they? Who controls them? Geography and obviously religious or belief structures, those shape people and people shape government. And I come up with those sorts of governments.

I mean, it’s not monolithic. When you look at the Recluse series, which is my biggest series, it set across over 2.000 years. And in the course of the 20-plus volumes, there are ,stories set on five different continents and more than 20 countries and the government systems that I have in those countries vary tremendously.There are military matriarchies, trading councils, hereditary monarchies, various other structures, an imperial structure in one particular case, based a lot on their past history and also the cultures and the geographies there.

Do you write all of this down before you start? Do you take copious notes and outline and do a detailed synopsis?

I don’t do synopses. I do have a set of notes when I’m doing a fantasy. I have a rather large-scale, rather large and rather messy, scale map of the countries and the world that I’m working in. I’m very big on scale maps because when I was younger, I got really irritated at writers who over the course of a book had the same journey take quite varying times without any changes in the climate or the cargo or what have you. So I try and be fairly accurate about that. I try and set up a structure that fits and then work within it.

Do you set out the plot in detail before you begin, or does a lot of that happen as you write?

I know pretty much the beginning and the ending. How I get there is something that I have to work out as I go along because you got to work. I mean, there are times when I have gotten to a point in the book and I’ve thought, well I thought this character was gonna do that, but the way I’ve written this character, he or she is not going to act that way. And so, I’ll have to figure out another way for that character to get to that, given their character.

Well, speaking of characters, how do they arrive on the scene to you? How do you decide what characters you need, and then how do you go about bringing them to life?

A lot of that depends. I mean, it’s the chicken and the egg thing. A lot of that depends on the structure and what you’re trying to do. In the first book of the Recluce Saga, I was thinking about Lerris in terms of a very bright but almost Asperger’s-like clueless young man, who was goodhearted. The reason why it was written in the first person, past tense, rather than the third person is, if I’d written in the third person, Lerris would have come off as the most obnoxious self-centered young man you could possibly imagine. He wasn’t. He was good hearted, essentially clueless and dense about a lot of things, but yoou wouldn’t be able to see that from the outside. So that’s one of the ways where the character defines the structure. In other cases, I mean, if you go to Adiamante, which is one of my science fiction novels, it was actually taken from life in a way. An acquaintance of ours in his, shall we say, late middle age, suddenly lost his wife to a fast-moving form of cancer and I started thinking about what would that be like. And then I put it in a science fiction setting, and so it’s really a science fiction novel about a man in either late middle age or early old age who’s had a certain amount of power in the past and is called on to deal with a very difficult situation, because of that expertise, And how he deals with it is intertwined with, call it his grief, and his understanding of where he’s been.

So that’s another way of bringing a character into a story. Soprano Sorceress from the Spellsong Cycle is a music fantasy set in what I would call a Germanic misogynistic society, and I came up with that particular idea because I was thinking about how well today singers are trained (because my wife is a singer and trains them) and what would happen if you had a society governed by song magic, and a lot of things fell into place there because one of the things I realized was even if you had song magic you’re not going to have very many sorcerers or sorceresses. And the reason for this is a confluence of two events that everybody overlooks. First, to really train somebody well as a singer, you really have to train them young. I mean, basically, after puberty and before 30. Second, that’s the most self-centred time in human existence. And if you are going to give somebody the power that could kill you…you’re going to be very careful about who you train. Then you add to this an outside sorceress from our world who’s got all those abilities in a misogynistic society. Well I thought it would make for an interesting conflict and it did.

So, it sounds like a lot of your stories actually arise because of the interplay of the character with the world that you’ve created.

Exactly. But I mean, that’s life. Everything we do is created by the interplay of the character with society and what goes on.

Do you do a detailed character sketch, or does it arise more organically as you write?

I think more I have a feel for the character to begin with. Call it a sense of who he or she is. Then I fill in some of the details and then we start filling in the society and the conflicts. And it goes from there.

A lot of writers—it’s happened to me—will put in a character simply because, for example, there needs to be view of something the readers need to know about and the main character is elsewhere, and that character then turns into a more major character than anticipated. Does that sort of thing happen to you?

I can’t say that it happens in that fashion, although there have been some characters who were minor characters in one book that I thought, “I really want to find out more about this character,” and so I wrote a book about them.

And usually if you want to find out more about the character the reader wants to find out about the character, too, so that works out.

What does your actual writing process look like? Do you write by hand? Do you write on a computer, do you write on a typewriter?  Do you write in an office or in a coffee shop? How does that work for you?

Okay. One, I do not write long hand, I’m left handed. I probably wasn’t trained properly in penmanship. And I get writer’s cramp after 200 words writing longhand. I started writing on a typewriter when I was 15 years old, just for school and what have you. I moved to computers as soon as computers had enough memory to accommodate my style of writing. I write on a computer. In terms of schedule, my wife laughs when people ask, do I have time for writing. She just says, “He writes anytime he can, which is pretty much all the time.” But to be fair about this, I don’t neglect her, because when I proposed to her, I said, “Well, you know, I need time to write. And her reaction was really simple. She just started laughing, and when she finished laughing, she said, “You are going to have more time to write than you have have ever had in your life. And she was right, because basically, she is a classically trained lyric soprano who’s done some work in opera, but she basically runs the university opera program and the voice program, and her schedule is 9 to 10 in the morning until 7 to 11 at night, depending on the time of year. She was right. I have plenty of time to write.

And you’re quite prolific. You’ve done as many as two or three books a year haven’t you?

I’ve averaged two and a half books a year for the last 20-plus years.

That makes me wonder what your revision process looks like. Do you have a very clean manuscript when it’s finished? Do you have to go back and do a lot of rewriting? Do you use beta readers?  How does that work for you?

Actually, according to my editors, I turn to a very clean manuscript. I revise continuously as I am writing and then I generally revise again after I’ve finished with the first draft of the manuscript, which is a little misleading, because there are probably some parts of that manuscript that written a dozen times before I finally finish it.

Revisions for me are both fun and by far the easiest part of the process.

As far as editorial revisions, I’ve had the same process with both of my editors, and I’ve only had two editors in the entire time I’ve been in the field. One was David Hartwell, who was my editor from my first book until his death a couple of years ago, and the second is my current editor Jen Gunnels, who was David’s assistant, and I’ve been working for her for about a year and a half before David died and she and I worked together well so I just stayed with her. But in terms of dealing with the editors, I’ve always had a very simple formula. Find anything you can that’s wrong with the manuscript. Tell me what it is. Don’t tell me how to fix it. Just tell me what the problem is. If I can’t fix it, then we’ll talk. In 40 years I’ve never had to have the second conversation.

You’re at 70-some books at this point aren’t you?

Seventy-three published, three more that will be published in the next year and a half.

Do you do a lot of research along the way?

Yes and no. I do a lot of research, but a lot of the research I’ve done in advance, just simply by all the things that I read. Every once in a while, I’ll have to look up something to make sure that I’ve remembered it or I’ve gotten the details correct.

It’s been said that all men are collectors. I don’t know if this is true, but an awful lot of men I know collect things. I don’t. What I collect is information. I love information. I love learning about things and I think I probably always will. And as an author, it serves me very well.

One of the things about Hazethat this struck me was, you know, we talk about science fiction as a literature of ideas, and it seemed to me that one of the things you were doing in Hazewas offering different views of how society might work, and bouncing these off of each other, through things like freedom and individual responsibility and empire and what happens when societies of different technological abilities clash. Is that kind of a feature of your work?

I’m not sure my work would exist without that. I’m always bouncing various ideas of how people respond to duty. responsibility. political structures. beliefs. I guess in a lot of ways that’s really what I do.

Well, certainly in Haze it comes through quite a lot with the difference between the Federation and the society on the planet.

One thing I would say is that the conflict that you that you’re talking about is a little stronger in my science fiction. It’s a little more subterranean, a little deeper and a little quieter in the fantasy, but it’s there.

How does it break down for you between science fiction and fantasy right now, in numbers of books?

We’re talking, with the ones I’ve turned in 29 science fiction novels, and 45 fantasy novels. In recent years it’s been more than two to one fantasy to science fiction.

Do you find an overlap in your readership between the two? Or do you find you have a science fiction readership and a fantasy readership?

Actually, I’d say I have three readerships. I have a science fiction readership, a fantasy readership, and a readership that does both.

There are definitely more fantasy readers. Sometimes the science fiction readers get a little irritated and say why don’t you write more science fiction stuff instead of that fantasy stuff.

I was on a panel recently at CanCon in Ottawa, talking about the challenges of writing series. Do you find that continuity and keeping everything straight becomes difficult as a series expands?

It’s difficult, but I’m not sure it becomes more difficult the way I do it. I think it would be very difficult done the way the Wheel of Time was done, but most of my series are not exactly series in what one would consider the traditional thing What I mean by that is, the Recluce series is now something like 22 books, but with one exception, there are no more than two books and sometimes only one book about one character. In a lot of ways, the continuing factor in Recluce is the world and the cultures, not the characters. Same thing is true of the Imager Portfolio. There is, in essence, a trilogy, followed by a five-book series about a different character, and then two two-book series. Spellsong Cycle, three about one character, two about another character. The Corean Chronicles was three, three, and two. So I have to keep the world consistent, but I don’t have quite as much to do with keeping the characters consistent over a long arc.

Do you have to go back and reread books when you go back into a series after you’ve written something else?

A little bit, but not a huge amount. Once I get it get back into a series it seems like most of the main threads and the pieces come back to me. I mean, I often have to check up on little details, particularly if I’ve got minor character that carries through the books. Usually with the major characters I can remember, and I have notes on them.

The name of this podcast is The Worldshapers. One of the things I’d like to ask all the guests is, do you hope that your fictional worlds will help shape the real world in some fashion? What impact, if any, would you like your fiction to have on the real world, or at least on your readers within the real world?

That’s one of the reasons why I write, because we tend to get bogged down in the real world, and I speak from almost 20 years in national U.S. politics. When you bring up a problem in the context of the real world, people get hung up with their tribe, they get hung up with everything around them. When you take that same problem and you put it in a fictional world or a fantasy world or a future world, people can look at the problem far more objectively and think, oh, there might be another way to deal with this.

I had a rather hard lesson with this very earlier in my career. With Bruce Levinson, we wrote a book called The Green Progression, and it actually got a review from the Washington Times that said it was one of the best views of contemporary politics ever written. It’s also one of the worst -selling books that Tor ever published. And to me that just proves the point. People really don’t want to look hard and fast at the current political structure, at their beliefs and how they affect the current political structure. They’re locked into it by their neighbors, their culture, their friends. You take the same problem and you put it in a fictional world, they’re much more open minded about it, and I hope somehow that some of what I do in that sense will help people look at these problems in a different light.

Have you had any feedback from readers to that effect?

I have. I’ve had more than a few people say that they wish I had either stayed in politics or got back gotten back into it. But no.

The other big question that I like to ask is very basic, and that is simply, why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? In particular, what do you think is the appeal of writing within the science fiction and fantasy genres, for you, and for anyone?

I don’t know that I can speak to anybody else. I write because I have to write. I wouldn’t be complete without writing. And that’s very selfish, but I try and leaven that with hopefully entertaining people and making them think. One of the things I try and leave all readers with in any of my books is at least a shred of hope, if not more.

There’s certainly a lot of fiction out there that seems to go the other way.

Yeah, and some of it’s very well written, but that’s just not my cup of tea. I think that, especially now, there’s way too much gloom, doom, and despair, and a lot of it is justified, but in the fictional world, I’d just like to give people shreds of hope, and sometimes more.

You’ve talked about in at least one interview I read about how important telling a good story is. Why did what do you think the appeal is of story to people? Why are we so interested in stories?

Because human beings are anecdotal. We have trouble with statistics. We’re innately number hampered. And we don’t really like facts. Stories are what we think about. Stories are what influence us. I can’t tell you why, but I know it’s so. Stories are what motivates us, and I’d like to be one of those doing some of the motivating.

What are you working on now?

I just turned in a very far-future hard science-fiction…actually, it’s a hard science-fantasy novel…entitled Quantum Shadows. The subtitle is Forty-Five Ways of Looking at a Raven.  That’s because every one of the 45 chapters is prefaced by a couplet to the Raven. who is one of the main characters. So that’s what  just happened.

Forty-Five Ways of Looking at a Raven sounds like a poetry book title.

Well, that’s why the subtitle. That’s why Quantum Shadows is the novel title. But there are only 45 couplets and I have 93,000 words. I think readers can deal with 45 couplets.

Currently I’m writing another Recluce book. It’s about a new character that nobody’s seen, so I don’t want to say much about it because I’ve only written about 65,000 words and I means I have another 120,000 words to go.

What will be the very next thing that’s published?

The next thing that will be published is the last book in the Imager Porfolio. That’s End Games and it’ll be out February 5 of next year (2019). After that, next August (2019) will be the Mage Fire War, which is the third book about Beltur in the Recluce Saga. And then after that’ll be Quantum Shadows.

And all published by Tor.

Right. As a matter of fact, my first two books were published by other publishers, but all my books are now under Tor and have been for 30 some years.

You said you’ve only ever worked with two editors. It sounds like you’ve had good experience with your editors.

I can’t tell you how fortunate I am that Jen and I get along and she pretty much followed in a lot of ways the example set by David, but I also realized something rather amusing about the whole thing. Most people don’t know that David, although he’s been a fixture in science fiction for years, most people outside of the inside don’t realize that he also had a PhD in comparative medieval literature, and what’s interesting here is that Jen has a PhD in theater history. So, I may be one of the few novelists who’s been edited by academic PhDs who are also very strong on science fiction and fantasy.

I think it has made it a lot easier for me dealing with them, because I tend to…let’s put it this way: there is a lot of subterranean depth in what I write, and it’s helpful to have editors who can recognize it.

 

Episode 10: Seanan McGuire

An hour-long conversation with Seanan McGuire, Campbell, Hugo, and Nebula Award-winning author of more than twenty books in various series, including the bestselling October 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.

Websites:
seananmcguire.com
miragrant.com

Twitter:
@SeananMcGuire

Patreon:
Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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.

The Show

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.”

Episode 9: David B. Coe / D.B. Jackson

An hour-long conversation with David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson, award-winning author of more than twenty books, including epic fantasies, urban fantasies, historical fantasies, and more, and as many short stories, with a special focus on Time’s Children, the first book in The Islevale Cycle, published by Angry Robot Books.

Websites:
davidbcoe.com
dbjacksonauthor.com

Twitter:
@DavidBCoe
@DBJacksonAuthor

Facebook:
David B. Coe
D. B. Jackson

David B. Coe’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

David B. Coe is the award-winning author of more than twenty books — including epic fantasies, urban fantasies, historical fantasies, media tie-ins, and a book on writing — and as many short stories. His work has been translated into a dozen languages. As D.B. Jackson he writes The Islevale Cycle, a new time travel/epic fantasy series from Angry Robot Books. The first book, Time’s Children, is just out. The second novel, Time’s Demon, will be out in May 2019. A third book, Time’s Assassin, is also in the works.

D.B. also writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. The first volume, Thieftaker, came out in July 2012 from Tor Books. This was followed by Thieves’ Quarry (Tor, July 2013),  A Plunder of Souls (Tor, July 2014), and Dead Man’s Reach (Tor, July 2015).  In addition to the novels of the Thieftaker Chronicles, D.B. has written and published several short stories set in the Thieftaker world. Many of these have now been gathered in a collection called Tales of the Thieftaker (Lore Seekers Press, 2017).

As David B. Coe, he has published a contemporary urban fantasy series called The Case Files of Justis Fearsson. (Spell Blind, His Father’s Eyes, and Shadow’s Blade. All were published by Baen Books. He has also written several epic fantasy series, including the LonTobyn Chronicle, Winds of the Forelands, and Blood of the Southlands.

David B. Coe was born in New York, and has since lived in New England, California, Australia, and Appalachia. He did his undergraduate work at Brown University, worked for a time as a political consultant, went to Stanford University, where he earned a Master’s and Ph.D. in U.S. History, and finally returned to his first love: writing fiction.

D.B. is married to a college professor who is far smarter than he is, and together they have two beautiful daughters, both of whom are also far smarter than their father. Life’s tough that way. They live in a small college town on the Cumberland Plateau.

The Episode:

We begin with a shout out to When Words Collide, “just a wonderful convention,” and DragonCon: “Mardi Gras for geeks.”

David grew up loving stories and knew early on in life telling stories what he wanted to do for a living. He got interested in Fantasy after being cast as Bilbo in The Hobbit at a summer camp. He became totally enamored of the genre and Tolkien after that.

He took a workshop-style writing class in high school which enjoyed, and went to college intending to be a creative writing major—but then found himself in a workshop where everyone hated genre fiction and picked on the kid who was writing it, so he got away from writing for a while, to the tune of four years of college and six years of graduate school getting a PhD in history.

After that he had several months to apply for academic jobs, and his wife, who had already taken an academic job, said, “You have all summer, why don’t you try writing and see if you prefer that to history?” He ended up writing the first five chapters of what became Children of Amarid, the first book in the Lontobyn Chronicle, which won the Crawford Award and launched his career.

One Thursday in March he was offered a job teaching history–and the very next day he heard from Tor, wanting to buy his novel. He had the weekend to “decide what I wanted to do when I grew up.” He decided he wanted to pursue a writing career, and hasn’t looked back.

He says it was a hard choice at the time, but absolutely the right choice, and he continues to find his academic background in environmental U.S. history valuable in worldbuilding.

He creates his own maps, and mentions when he was still a newbie he ran into George R.R. Martin at a convention and told him he was working on something new. Martin asked to see his map, looked at it for about two minutes, and then said, “That’s a good map.” David says he was “flying for the rest of the comvention.”

The world of Islevale in which Time’s Children is set is a world of islands and archipelagos,  meant as an homage to Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea, one of the earliest fantasies David read, and one he fell in love with.

After synopsizing Time’s Children (you can read a synopsis here), David explains where the D.B. Jackson pseudonym came from. He’d been writing epic fantasy for Tor, and when he switched over to the Thieftaker books, urban fantasy with a historical element, Tor was concerned about branding, so D.B. Jackson was known. Now he’s probably better known as D.B. Jackson than David B. Coe. Angry Robot was given the choice of bylines for Time’s Children and liked the critical response he’s received under D.B. Jackson. so went that route.

D.B. are, of course, his first two initials. His late father’s name was Jack, so Jackson is his way of honouring him.

David says he’s unaware of another fantasy novel dealing with time travel, which is usually done in a science fiction setting. There’s the Time Turner in the Harry Potter books, but David says (as a fan of the books), it’s a terrible device, used poorly. “If time travel is that easy,” he says, “why are Harry Potter’s parents dead, and why is Voldemort still alive?”

He sought to make time travel difficult–physically costly for the person doing the travel–and incredibly rare. There are not a lot of “Walkers,” they pay a terrible price, and the process i harrowing. (The main price is that they instantly age however many months or years they travel back in time–and again when they return.)

David thinks the book started with the idea of being a child in a man’s body, of intellect and emotion being out of sync with the body. He remembers holding his infant daughter worrying about the fact he was no responsible for her when he felt barely more than a child himself.

“I wanted to tap into that sense of taking on responsibility that we’re not ready for.”

David says his process of worddbuilding is to ask questions of himself in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Although he usually outlines very closesly, Time’s Children resisted that. “The process was more fraught and more difficult and more harrowing than any other writing experience.” He says he was winging it much of the way, and “winging it” in a time-travel story meant “my brain nearly exploded.” It also meant a huge rewrite at the end because “I’d fouled up so much of it.”

In the end, though, the challenge was worth it, even though at the time it was deeply frustrating. He mentions that when it comes to creative process, every writer works differently, and on every project the writer is forced to kind of reinvent that process. He also says that while there are things you can teach students of writing (he teaches writing quite often), when it comes to process, all you can do is offer suggestions and describe what works for you.

He says Time’s Children was the hardest book he’s ever written. He spent six months trying to outline it, until his wife said he should just write it; then, when he sent it to his agent, his agent said, “It’s not there, here’s what missing.” It took him another several months to tear the book down and rewrite it, but all that hard work makes the finished product more gratifying: he believes it’s the best book he’s ever written.

He adds that even when he’s doing his most detailed outlining, maybe a paragraph per chapter, the outlines remain fairly loose because he knows that when he gets halfway through he’ll have to re-outline because things have changed. “I like to create in the moment.”

Still, he says, “I need to know where I’m going,” and with Time’s Children he felt hw as “groping through the darkness.”

David has written novelizations (like the novelization of Robin Hood). For that he was working from a script and given very little creative leeway. He calls it “color-by-numbers” writing, and while he was thankful for the work, he didn’t find it fun: it was slog (but a fast one–he only had five weeks).

He’s now working on a novel-tie in for the History Channel series about the Knights Templar, called Knightfall. That one, he’s finding fun.

He does a fair amount of research for any project. For the Islevale books, he had to research boats, since he decided to do an Earthsea-style world, and things like weaponry and sea currents and navigation.

He remembers once spending hours to research wheelwrighting because he’d decided to make a character a wheelwright. In the end, it was only a one-page scene. “But I wanted to get it right…even if we don’t include all the things we learn in our research, the weight of that knowledge can be conveyed in just a few lines…One detail can bring so much authenticity to the entire scene.”

He sees character work as another form of worldbuilding, and researches them the same way. He creates detailed character sketches, and sometimes writes short stories (which he can sometimes sell) to develop them further.

For example, there’s a non-human character called Droë in the Islevale books, a time demon. He wrote a short story about her called “Guild of the Ancients” which was published in ana nthology.

David believes the ability to step into the emotions and thought processes of characters is the same thing that makes us good fathers and husbands and friends and siblings. “That’s what makes us helpful to the people we love in our daily lives, that ability to stretch our empathy to the point where we’re taking on their emotion.”

Because of the ages of the characters, Time’s Children might at first glance appear to be a young adult novel, and David was fine with that. “Write the novel you want to write, and when you’re done, then you figure out how you market it. ..I was aware with the romance, and even a romance triangle of an odd sort, I was writing something akin to YA novels.”

However, while there are themes that cater to a YA audience, there are also themes that an adult audience is drawn too. And, he adds, the second book, Time’s Demon, is not a YA novel at all: it’s serious and dark and also sexual in a certain way. “My editors were aware of this, they knew not to market it as a YA.”

Returning to the notion of feeling young in an old body, David says he and his wife have biologist friend who, when he was young, studied mating habits in birds, and as he got older has started studying aging patterns in birds. “Our professional lives often mirror our emotional interests and concerns.”

David is “a middle-aged guy,” and he remembers thinking, when he was in high school, that when he was his parents’ age he would feel very different because they were so old. But now that he is that age, he doesn’t feel all that different. ” I feel I’m the same person I was twenty or thirty years ago. Certainly still immature…This idea of aging but still feeling the same internally was speaking very powerfully to me.”

Baby Sofya is a major character in Time’s Children. David says that, for all the demons and assassins and time travel and magic in these books, they’re also very serious to him because they’re about family: creating family out of the ashes of chaos and loss and tragedy and violence. They’re rebuilding family in order to keep this infant alive.

He says there’s something about the  uncompromising needs of a baby that creates exigencies with which your protagonists cannot negotiate: the baby must be fed, changed, carried. It both creates intense stakes for the characters and yet also offers a certain lightness. “I’ve loved writing Baby Sofia in these books and making her central.

David says there was a lot more rewriting of this book than he usually has to do, but it was not so much a matter of the writing as the plotting. Almost all of the notes he got back from his agent had to do with narrative structure, and that was one of the best lessons he learned in this book. He was proud of the prose, which he thought sparkled: the trouble was, it didn’t “crackle.” There was no energy in it: it was all about his main character, Tobias, hiding, and it needed to be more about him being proactive. In the end, David cut 40,000 words, and then added back 60,000, totally changing the feel of the book.

Members of his writing group (the first he’s ever belonged to) provided valuable feedback, especially since none of them are fantasy writers and only a couple of them even read it. “They were able to show me places where my worldbuilding wasn’t clear enough or magic system bogged down in details too heavy for non-genre readers.”

Some of that advice was contradictory, but as he tells students, in the end, the book belongs to the writer. “There are going to be mistakes. They’re going to be my mistakes.” He says he’s all for the idea of “killing our darlings,” but ultimately the book has to speak to him as the author. “When I got contradictory advice I followed my heart and followed what my characters were telling me.”

Angry Robot is a new publisher for David, so he had a new editor, Nick Tyler, who also provided valuable input, although by that point the book was so clean “it didn’t need a lot.” He expects more editorial developmental work on the second book. “I’ve been working on it for a while, but I need fresh eyes.”

David agrees that literary fiction worlds are every bit as made-up as genre fiction worlds. “Every time we create characters and circumstance for those characters we are venturing into make believe. The distance between what I do and someone who writes realistic fiction isn’t that great.”

He says the prejudice against genre fiction has to do with either the notion that genre fiction is formulaic (which David rejects) or that somehow genre writers using plot tools like magic and time travel  in place of character, setting, or narrative cohesion, as if writing is a zero-sum game, so that if you add in these other elements you have to take out something vital. He rejects that, too. “I don’t think if I add magic I have to take out something vital from the work.”

He says, “We’re still writing about people, still dealing with human emotion, conflict, tension, all the things that make day-to-day experience something we want to write and read about. I do think its an unwarranted denigration of our genre and other related genres. Writing books is hard.”

If writing books is hard, why does he do it?

Davie laughs. “If I don’t, those voices in those heads are going to keep talking to me, and Im going to go from being a professional to being an out-patient.”

He says he has stories, characters, and ideas he wants to share. “For all the struggles, for the bad pay and the poor reviews and all the other struggles, I love, love, love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else, I can’t even imagine wanting to do anything else. Every day I get to sit down at a computer and say lets pretend. What job could be better than that?”

He also feels speculative fiction can have an impact on the real world, by holding up a mirror that allows us to explore issues of race and gender and environmentalism and class and social injustice and all sorts of other important political and social and cultural issues in ways people have never thought of before. He mentions Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a prescient book that predicts the rise of social media in our society, and Nora Jemisin, who is writing about social issues, gender, and race “in ways that can teach us so much about our world and how we can make a better world for our children.”

He’s written about environment, race, and mental illness, not because he’s trying to send out a social message or bludgeon his readers with politics, but because he believes writing should be about a lot of different issues.

Up next for David: Time’s Demon, the Knightfall novel (out in March), and editing an anthology, Temporally Deactivated, for Zombies Need Brains. Later this year he’ll be starting work on Time’s Assassin, book three in the Islevale trilogy, and he’s also got a couple of short stories to write. “I’m busy, and busy, for a writer, is good.”

 

 

Episode 8: Orson Scott Card, Part 1

The first half of a two-hour conversation with Orson Scott Card about his creative process. Part 1 focuses on how he began writing, and the genesis of his famous story “Ender’s Game.”

The Introduction:

Photo by Terry Manier

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools. His most recent series, the young adult Pathfinder series (Pathfinder, Ruins, Visitors) and the fantasy Mithermages series (Lost Gate, Gate Thief, Gatefather) are taking readers in new directions.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts, including his “freshened” Shakespeare scripts for Romeo & Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Merchant of Venice.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He frequently teaches writing and literature courses at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, where his primary activities are writing a review column for the local Rhinoceros Times and feeding birds, squirrels, chipmunks, possums, and raccoons on the patio.

Website: www.hatrack.com

Twitter: @orsonscottcard

Orson Scott Card’s Amazon page

The Show:

Card notes his family had a tradition of thinking of themselves as writers. Growing up Mormon, there was a practice of creating comedy sketches, called Road Shows, taken from one church meetinghouse to another and performed for others within the diocese. They were usually based on some Broadway show, and required a writer to make a script that would be entertaining. Card’s mother was particularly involved in writing those, but his father also thought of himself as a writer.

In school, Card found out he was good at writing. His first published work was what he calls “a stupid little poem about spring” published in the state-wide educational journal when he was in Grade 4.

In school he mostly wrote poetry or theatrical pieces, not fiction. Through junior high and high school he was known for writing satirical song parodies making fun of his friends. But he didn’t think he would be a writer: he wanted to be an archeologist. It wasn’t until he was in college he realized that while the past fascinated him, he didn’t want to do the kind of dirty, laborious work archaelogists had to do in the kinds of places they had to do them, i.e., far from flush toilets.

He switched to theatre, where he was spending all his time anyway. (Majoring in theatre, he says, is “what you do instead of getting a practical education.”) He’s used that theatrical training constantly since, “always to put on plays that cost me money and never earned me any.”

He thinks the real foundation of his writing was helping his Mom, a secretary, as a clerical helper. He wuld spend hours helping her after work when she was struggling to get something done, collating and stapling while she typed (at 100 words per minute, “like a dream.”

He also did proofreading for her. He was a good speller from an early age and also understood grammar. When he came home from his church mission in Brazil, he needed a job, and got one with Brigham Young University press as a proofreader.

At the same time, he started a theatre company, which did well in terms of getting an audience, but not in terms of making money. He ended up deeply in debt and was desperate to earn “real money.” That was when he decided it was time for him to try writing.

He notes that on his 16th birthday, his older brother and his brother’s future wife gave him two of the Foundation books by Isaac Asimov. “I was so blown away by Asimov’s clarity, and the sweep, the sage, the vision, I thought that I want to write a science fiction story.”

The initial idea that became “Ender’s Game” dates to that time: as his father was driving him to school, he was trying to think of a science-fiction story premise. His older brother was in the Army and had told stories of boot camp and Officer Candidate School. “The idea of training people to command came to mind. How would you do that if you were going to be fighting in a three-dimensional space, piloting ships and so forth when there is no up and down?”

Clearly that would have to be done in free-fall, in outer space, but it would have to be done inside something with walls, so combatants wouldn’t drift away if they made a mistake. And so was born the Battle Room: a cube a hundred metres on a side. Two opposing forces enter from opposite sides and attempt to capture the enemy position. He came up with floating objects called “stars” that could be used for concealment, etc., the number of people on a side (forty plus a commander), and how they would be divided into platoons. He invented the flash suit, to record hits and damage.

But all he had was a setting, not a story. He kept working on building the world over the next few years. Other ideas presented themselves, including one based on psionic/psychic abilities, inspired by his reading of stories by Zenna Henderson. That idea led to the stories that became what is now known as the Worthing Saga.

In college, he turned some of those stories in in creative writing classes, where the teachers had no idea what to make of them. “The teachers are trained to love and honour fiction that nobody wants to read,” Card says. “I wanted to write fiction that I wanted to read.

As an aside, Card says science fiction has never been the majority of his reading, except for a time when he was writing a quarterly review column dedicated to reviewing every short story published in the field. That burned him out on science fiction: he came to know it so well that it took all the pleasure out of reading it. He only occasionally finds a writer who is doing something he hasn’t already read in some form and can’t predict. Instead, he prefers reading historical fiction, although what he’s looking for is harder and harder to find: today, you mostly get historical romance, “sex with more interesting costumes.”

Card said his teacher of what novel should be is Jane Austen, who invented contemporary novel writing by inventing third-person limited viewpoint, and who wrote with such clarity you don’t need to take a college class to figure it out.

“Most of what kills great literature is that we received when required to read it by college professors,” he says. “Reading in an analytical way is an enemy of literature.”

Card says modernism was the in writing that captured university literature classes because it came about just as literature became a subject in university. “These were the cool guys, so everybody had to praise what they did, even when it was embarrassingly bad. And so much of it was, and is, embarrassingly bad.”

He noted university professors tend to say James Joyce’s Ulyssesis the greatest novel in English. “What a crock,” Card says. “The greatest novel in the English language is The Lord of The Rings. There’s no question. It is far more erudite and accomplished.”

He notes Tolkien had learned how to write third-person limited viewpoint, and did it with consummate skill, producing a startling melange of the modern and old-fashioned that becomes a brilliant saga. (In an detailed aside, he explains why he has little use for the Peter Jackson films: by leaving out the Scouring of the Shire, he says, Jackson proved he did not understand the story.)

When he started submitting short stories, Card first sent “Worthing Farm” and “The Tinker” to Ben Bova at Analog. Bova had just taken over from John W. Campbell, who had died. Bova liked the writing but said Analog published science fiction, not fantasy, and he considered stories with psionics in them fantasy.

This gave rise to Card’s oft-quoted observation that, “Science fiction has rivets on the cover, sheet metal, smooth surfaces. Fantasy has trees.”

Needing a science fiction story, and desperate to earn money, he returned to the idea of the Battle Room. During a trip to Salt Lake City with his girlfriend of the time, who was taking her boss’s children to the circus, it occurred to him, “What if, instead of waiting until they’re adults and have all these bad habits, the battle room is for training children?”

He wrote the first sentence, “Remember the enemies’ gate is down,” and at the top of the page he wrote the title, “Ender’s Game,” a play on the phrase “end game” that gave him his character, Ender Wiggins. He wrote the whose story in that session plus one other, in longhand. His mother typed it up, and he sent it off to Ben Bova—who rejected it. He said it was too long (he said it should be cut in half) and he thought the title should be “Professional Soldier.”

Card understood the irony of that title, but it wasn’t catchy. “I would not have a career if it had started with the ‘Professional Soldier’ saga,” he notes.

He didn’t rewrite it right away. He sent it to Galaxy, which kept it a long time and then rejected it. He then thought about what Bova had said. He realized the problem wasn’t that it was too long, it was boring: he didn’t need to describe all the battles, he just had to show enough of them to give the idea of how it worked: how Ender won and how they kept rigging the system. He cut out one battle entirely and a lot of description, about five pages in all, added in some character stuff, and sent the story back to Bova, only two pages shorter than it had been. Bova boubht it, and it appeared in the August 1977 Analog, his first published science fiction story.

Asked if his work as a playwright and director informs his fiction writing, Card says it makes it much better.

Fiction writing, he says, is essentially a form of improv:  you’re coming up with dialogue for people, and you’re playing all the parts. He says the experience of being an actor and sustaining a character that isn’t you is vital for a fiction writer, because otherwise all the characters are you, and it become hard to tell them apart.

Characterization didn’t matter in classical SF: Isaac Asimov, for instance, knew the idea stories he wrote didn’t need characterization, any more than Agatha Christie’s cozy mysteries did. More modern mystery writers like Sue Grafton are really writing American literature that begins with the finding of a dead body, and Stephen King writes American literature with “oogly boogly” stuff in it.

“Stephen King took horror out of the haunted house and put it in McDonald’s where it belongs,” Card says, adding that the place where you’ll find a record of daily life in the late twentieth century is in Stephen King and those who followed him, and, among mystery writers, Ross McDonald and those who followed him.

Card has found that it’s difficult if not impossible to write a good science fiction play. It will either be bad science fiction or a bad play, because of the expository burden. “The stage is shockingly ill-suited to worldbuilding,” is how he puts it. Even though he had written hit plays, he couldn’t make it work with science fiction: the exposition simply made them too slow.

When he first started writing a novel he tried not to use his theatrical training. His first novel, a Worthing story, Hot Sleep, petered out at 120 pages even though he had a detailed outline of (he thought) a novel’s worth of material—and yet a friend told him it was too long.

What made it feel long, Card realized, was that he hadn’t given the characters enough time to reveal who they were, and so the reader didn’t care about them. So the very thing he’d been afraid of with his science fiction plays was essential to his novel. “People had to care about the people in the story, so I had to take the time to characterizes.” The world-creation, though, he still did with great brevity.

When he started over, 120 pages in he was only through the first paragraph of the outline.”Now I was writing a novel.”

Card says everything comes to life when he’s writing dialogue. He has to curb his dialogue, because otherwise his characters (like an actor once told him about an early play) talks in quotable quotes. When he started, he says, he was a poet writing plays, and shaped his language too much. Now he strives to make people talk like people talk.

“Ender’s Game,” he says, the original novelette, is really just dialogue and stage directions. It was really his first good science fiction play.

“I knew as soon as it was done that it worked.”

Get Part 2 of this episode!

Episode 8: Orson Scott Card, Part 2

The second half of a two-hour conversation with Orson Scott Card about his creative process. Part 2 focuses more on his recent Mithermages fantasy series.

The Introduction:

Photo by Terry Manier

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools. His most recent series, the young adult Pathfinder series (Pathfinder, Ruins, Visitors) and the fantasy Mithermages series (Lost Gate, Gate Thief, Gatefather) are taking readers in new directions.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts, including his “freshened” Shakespeare scripts for Romeo & Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Merchant of Venice.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He frequently teaches writing and literature courses at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, where his primary activities are writing a review column for the local Rhinoceros Times and feeding birds, squirrels, chipmunks, possums, and raccoons on the patio.

Website: www.hatrack.com

Twitter: @orsonscottcard

Orson Scott Card’s Amazon page

The Show:

Returning to the discussion of how theatrical experience contributes to his writing, Card says writing is much like directing actors on stage: you have a kind of top-down map in your head, almost like the way football plays (is it an accident they’re called plays) are marked with Xs and Os. “The difference is, in a football game you have no control over what the other team does, while in a play you control everybody.”

Card notes he does very little description—just enough to make the setting clear. Ultimately, he notes, a play rises and falls on what the audience hears, on the dialogue and how it’s delivered.

Fiction “is a play the readers put on by themselves” he says. If there’s a wrong way say a line, an actor will find a way to do it, so playwrights have to learn to actor-proof their lines. Readers can also read a line the wrong way, so again, it has to be reader-proofed. If the author doesn’t do that, the reader will misread and get lost.

The greatest teacher of this kind of clarity was a man who never wrote a play in his life, as far as Card knows: Isaac Asimov, a man who wrote a un-put-downable, thick, two-volume autobiography of a life in which nothing happened.

Card said he read that autobiography, staying up all night, and in the end though Asimov gets no credit for being “the finest writer of prose in the history of the English language. No one has ever done what we call the American plain style better than Isaac Asimov.”

In an Asimov story, he notes, you always know what is going on.

Good writers, however, are not the best exemplars for teaching writing, Card says: he earned the most from rewriting inept prose. As noted before, he doesn’t like description (comes from being a playwright); what he wants to do is get inside a character’s head.

He took the dialogue and stage directions of plays and combined it with deep-penetration viewpoint, and tried to make it so clear readers aren’t aware of the language. Card says if he writes lovely passage he’s proud of he removes and it rewrites it plainly and clearly. He doesn’t want readers thinking about him, the writer; he wants them thinking about the characters.

“I learned as a playwright how to have two characters walk on stage, or have a curtain open on two characters, and within two sentences, the audience cares. If I don’t do that, why am I doing anything at all?”

Card provides a synopsis of the Mithermages trilogy. The idea came about when he was working as a proofreader. It occurred to him that fantasy stories are always about the magic system, because that’s what gives you the story.

He came up with the idea of a universe in which everything is alive, every particle is an intelligence merely obeying the law it was given. In a universe like that, you could, for example, move a table by persuading all of the particles of the table to relocate at once.

So if you wanted power over something like Sand (the first Mithermages story was “Sand Magic,” in the late 1970s), you’d have to serve the interests of sand…the first of which is, it wants to be dry.

When writing the Alvin Maker books, Card realized that what makes magic work in a story isn’t the power it gives but the sharp limitations on it. That’s where the story arises.

He began to refine the rules of his magic system.

Another inspiration was his lifelong habit of doodling maps. He created a detailed map, copied it, and changed it, to show the changes in the countries over time. The history of that world became real to him. The main mountain range was called the Mitherkame, and that’s where the Mithermages lived.

All of that tied into “Sand Magic,” about a magical war that transforms a world, leaving a huge desert. But then Card moved on. He wrote science fiction, not fantasy: nobody wanted fantasy from him and there weren’t a lot of markets for it.

After he sold the Alvin Maker books to Tor his mind turned back to fantasy. He had a deal with Tor that they would publish his science fiction and fantasy, but he could sell contemporary fantasy to other publishers. Which he did, with Treasure Box and Homebody and Lost Boys. When he wanted to get started on Mithermages, Tor had so many books of his under contract they couldn’t take it, so he decided to make it a contemporary fantasy…and that was what suddenly opened up the book for him.

He realized if he made the mages of the Mithermages world actually from Earth, who gained great power by travelling through gateways between the worlds, it would make things more interesting. He started coming up with rules for how it would work, and realized there would need to be gate mages (which he hadn’t thought of before). And then he came up with a history in which these Mithermages had once been the Indo-European gods.

That brought everything to life. He created the North family, descendants of the worshipers of the Nordic gods, and put them on a family compound in Western Virginia. They were aware of the modern world—they weren’t witches, they were gods, but gods who were sick and old and fading, and they well knew it. They had banned gate mages because a gate mage had closed all the gates, a former member of the North family, the one then wearing the name Loki (whom we meet in the other world, where he is known as Wad—he has been eating the gates of any gate mage who tries to create a great gate between the worlds).

Then Card came up with his main character, Danny North, a boy who doesn’t know he is a gate mage. When he finds out he is, he has to flee for his life. He runs away to Washington, DC, where he becomes a very effective burglar, and a friend teaches him how to get along in the world of non-magical “drowthers.” In the first book, we follow the story of Wad, but the bulk of the story is Danny in Washington, growing up on a farm in Ohio, and then moving close to his family compound to go to high school in the school he used to sneak up to spy on as a kid.

So, in the end, it became a contemporary novel with gods. (Card has read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and admired it, but says it has absolutely nothing to do with what he was doing.)

Asked about an outline, Card said he has learned he has to have an outline, but since he never follows it, what really matters is the creative process of coming up with it. He doesn’t write on out now, although he’ll sometimes give one to an editor, with the note that “this is what I’m thinking now,” but a warning that it always changes.

With Mithermages, he took so long to write the second book that the original publisher gave up, cancelled the contract, and demanded the return of the advance. Card though it was becoming something wonderful, so he took it to Tor and asked if they would take it, for the exact amount he had to repay the original publisher. They did; but if it had started with them, it would never have been a contemporary fantasy, and would have been far weaker, Card says.

Another major change from his original vision was the introduction of Set, the villain. Card was reading a book on Egyptian mythology, and realized there was a healer god who is also the messenger of the gods—which fit nicely into his rules for gate makers. Nothing else in the mythology worked, though, so obviously (within his world) they came from a different magical world. Set became the enemy of the other mages and all humans, and so Danny North’s cause became, not fighting the other Indo-European families (as originally envisioned) but finding, fighting, and destroying Set.

Card had originally thought the climax would be the gods taking human, modern weaponry to the medieval-tech world of the Mithermages, but he realized that wouldn’t work because any mage who had passed through a Great Gate was more than a match for a tank. While Danny’s family takes steps in that direction, coopting the U.S. military into giving them tanks, which they power magically, the plan is subverted by the competition between Danny and Wad.

Card says the most fun he had was making the Mithermages the complete explanation for everything from the gods to elves and fairies and ghosts and poltergeists. (His only restriction: no vampires, which he detests, and no zombies, which he loathes.)

Card says the great thing about writing cotemporary fantasy is that things can come to life in a way they can’t when you’re working in an invented world. The root of all successful fantasies is Earth, he says. He offers praise for Brandon Sanderson’s stories, but says even with such a “prolific and profligate creator of magic,” the closer the ties to Earth, the stronger the story is, because “we have to be able to identify with these people.”

As another example, he mentions Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward. The aliens in it live on the surfaceof a neutron star, but even though their world is unimaginably strange, the aliens still aspire and have relationships. “You can create a planet that’s nothing like Earth, but readers will only care if you have human or human-like characters,” Card says. “They have to want things and care about the kinds of things we can care about. If they’re too alien, you might as well just type what monkeys will type with their thousand typewriters. No one will care.”

Why does he write? Why do any of us write?

Card says he used to ask his professors that in grad school, and they hated the question. “Why is any of this worth studying, why is any of this worth reading?” He says he asked it to debunk modernism. When people is hungry for a story, they only go for modernism if they’ve been trained by college professors, he says. Left to themselves, they’re going to pick up Agatha Christie or Stephen King or Danielle Steel. “That’s the literature of the American people,” Card said, “not the stuff you’re teaching here. You’re teaching a foreign language, a religion, Torah to people who don’t speak Hebrew, the Koran to people who don’t speak Arabic. They don’t want to read it. They want to read the stories that are written to them. So why aren’t you teaching the stories that are written to actual volunteer readers?”

Card said we invented our own critical standards within science fiction, “the next revolution in literature after modernism,” because modernism already owned the universities.

It’s a human universal, he says: “People love hearing made-up stories about people.”

That’s because, John Donne to the contrary, “every man is an island.” We don’t really know anybody: even our parents are capable of shocking us by something they say or do. “Every single human we know exists in our mind as a work of fiction. We don’t know people. We know characters. They may be walking around and wearing a skin suit, but they’re just characters in our imagination.”

What fiction writers promise is, “We will tell you a story, and we will tell you why the people do what they do.” And that, Card says, “is the majesty of fiction.”

 

 

 

Episode 6: E.C. Blake interviews Edward Willett

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.

The Introduction

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 Excalibur YA 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.

Website: www.edwardwillett.com

Twitter: @ewillett

Facebook: edward.willett

Instagram: @ecwillett

Edward Willett’s Amazon page

The Show

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 Producer agricultural 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 Star came 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.

 

Episode 4: Julie Czerneda

An hour-long conversation with Julie Czerneda ( bestselling author of The Clan Chronicles books and many, many others) about her creative process, with a special focus on her upcoming fantasy The Gossamer Mage.

The Introduction:

Julie Czerneda was born in Exeter, Ontario, and grew up on air force bases, her family moving with each transfer, from Ontario to Prince Edward Island and finally to Nova Scotia. When her father became a civilian, the family moved to Ontario, settling in what was then a rural setting near the shores of Lake Ontario (and is now that not-so-rural setting known as Mississauga.

Julie studied biology at the Universities of Waterloo, Saskatchewan, and Queen’s, accompanied by her former chemistry partner (and now husband) Roger. They moved a few times before settling back in Ontario, where they still live.

Julie began her writing career in educational publishing, beginning when she was on maternity leave from a university teaching. She became a full-time author and editor of non-fiction educational materials, primarily in science, in 1985, contributing to more than 250 titles from elementary to college level. But she also had twenty-three unpublished and unfinished science fiction novels tucked away in file folders, and with encouragement from husband, she finished the one in file folder X, Beholder’s Eye, which was bought by DAW Books. That same year, Julie was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and DAW contracted for three more novels.

She’s been published by DAW ever since: eighteen novels, including the popular nine-book The Clan Chronicles series. She’s also written many short stories, edited anthologies, and taught writing. Her books have received international acclaim, multiple awards, and best-selling status.

Website: czerneda.com

Twitter:  @JulieCzerneda

Julie Czerneda’s Amazon page

The Show:

She says her parents conspired to make her a writer. Her father brought home the first two Tarzan books, but only gave her the first one, which “doesn’t end well.” She came running out of her room, yelling, she was so furious, and “instead of explaining to me what a cliff-hanger was, my Mom lent me her typewriter and said, ‘Fix it.’” Julie proceeded to write a page that satisfied her much more than the book, and never stopped. She wrote so much as a child her parents bought her a file cabinet to hold it all.

We discussed whether moving from place to place as a child of a military family influenced her writing; Julie said only in that, when they left the Air force and moved into a civilian neighbourhood, all the other kids had gone off to summer cottages. That left her alone and exited to have time to write.

She encountered new science fiction for the first time in her university bookstore. “To be able to buy them myself was liberating.”

Julie studied biology. She feels her interest in science and her interest in science fiction arise from the same place. “It seemed like a lot things I read as a kid were finite. They just ended, or they were real life, and while real life is marvellous, I’d rather talk to real people about it. So, when I discovered things that were showing me something beyond what was here, it was the same itch being scratched that takes me into science.” She said she went into science because she wanted to explore how the world works, and read science fiction because she wanted new, interesting ways of thinking about the world.

She originally wanted a joint degree in physics and biology, so she could be the first person to go into place equipped to communicate with aliens (a plan she wrote out in third grade). However, the University of Waterloo wasn’t set up for that, so her courses conflicted.

Much of her early fiction writing was really biological thought experiments. Asked if being a scientist makes it difficult for her to write fantasy, she notes a good fantasy novel, because it takes her out of herself, so she doesn’t worry about the real-world impossibility of it. She was herself hesitant about writing fantasy for a long time because she felt the language was so rich, and the landscapes so intense, she couldn’t see herself doing it.

However, after DAW began publishing her, she was asked to write a fantasy story for an anthology being edited by Martin H. Greenberg. “You don’t say no, so I wrote my first fantasy.”

Still, the prospect of writing a fantasy novel terrified her. She finally did (A Turn of Light), but she says it took her five years to work up the courage to start, and two years (and deleting 400,000 words) to figure out how to do it.

She notes her popular Esen character, who has an ability associated with magic in fantasy, didn’t begin as a shapeshifter—she was the result of a thought experiment, trying to figure out what would be necessary for a biological organism to be semi-immortal. The Esen books continue to be her “biological playground,” Julie says. “I have a very large filing cabinet full of weird biology and all of it goes into those books. Most of the weird stuff is real.”

Her upcoming fantasy, The Gossamer Mage, grew out of a fantasy novella Eric Flint asked her to write. She was inspired by a pen in the Lee Valley catalogue, which included words for parts of a pen she’d never heard before. She did some more research, and realized she wanted to write a magic system based on pen and ink. She clipped the image from the catalogue, and that, in turn, gave her the main character, because the story opens with the pen in his hand after many years of use. (She also researched the history of ink, “which is full of great drama and crime and all manner of skullduggery. It’s amazing!”)

Julie says her research differs from science fiction to fantasy and gives some examples.

Whereas when she’s writing science fiction, Julie says, she tends to know enough about the question she wants to ask to get going and what she additionally needs to research. (For example, for something she won’t be writing for a couple of years, she’s currently researching plate tectonics.)

For fantasy, her research focuses mostly on the worldbuilding, “because everything past the worldbuilding is me, making it up.”

She likes to physically visit places: in A Turn of Light there are a lot of log cabins, so she spent a lot of time in cabins. She also went to a running mill, so she could feel how the building shakes and moves.

The amount of outlining Julie does depends on the book. She did little for A Turn of Light, wanting to see where it went. For the next two Esen books, she’s made a note of their shape and the major plot threads. The Gossamer Mage is quite different: it’s a series of novellas, each of which moves the story forward, but which can be read separately or in a different order. She’s outlining those more tightly. Usually she doesn’t outline a book until she’s almost finished, so she can go back and make sure she’s covered every point—more to check herself than to plot to.

She doesn’t have much problem with continuity while writing series, she says, but she does have to work to keep the voices consistent.

She likes to put as much as she can into a story so she can draw on it latter—such as the giant lobsteresque alien from A Thousand Words for Stranger who has a pool in his suite in which he has “carnivorous non-verbal wives.” The implication is they’re non-sentient, but Julie never intended for them to stay that way, and they became major players in the final finale trilogy. “I never knew if I would do that. I just put it in, because the more you put into a story, the richer it reads.”

Julie notes her editor (and mine), Sheila E. Gilbert, told her a long time ago that she likes to have the sense the world she’s reading about continues off the page—places the main characters haven’t been, unexplored areas, things that don’t get mentioned but you know that they exist.

Julie gives a bit of a synopsis of The Gossamer Mage, with its magicians spending their life with every act of magic, sometimes just to create beautiful things. “It’s very much a case of, if you want to keep magic, what are you willing to do? And is there a value to just random beauty, or not?” She adds, “I myself don’t know how it will end.”

The two main characters are the magic user from the original novella, “Intended Words,” now the first novella in the book, who is trying to destroy the deathless goddess because he’s seen so many of his friends turn old and die for nothing, and one of the daughters who serves the goddess, who, in the second novella, “Consequential Phrases,” shows what things look like from her side.

Sometimes minor characters threaten to take over a book. Julie remembers that in her second book in The Clan Chronicles, Ties of Power, the character of Simon, someone from the past of the main character who made him who he was, started to get too important. She told Sheila Gilbert she either needed to kill him off or she needed another book, and Sheila told her to go ahead and write another book, in which he got his “satisfying comeuppance.”

Julie does very little rewriting, possibly because she did so much non-fiction writing. “I write the best I can first time around.” After a spell-check, she sends it. Sheila comes back with requests for elaboration in certain areas, she writes that, and she’s done.

Part of that is the confidence and experience of having done this full-time for twenty years. What’s important to her is to make sure she has been “generous enough to the reader” in terms of worldbuilding, scene, and description. She’s also come to realize that any book “can only be so good.”

“I could pick up any book off the shelf that I’ve written and I’m sure I’ll find things I’d like to fix, or have someone read it to me and think, oh, that’s awkward, but if I’ve told the story I want, and at the end of it the person feels the way I meant them to feel, I still love the book, and I’m fine with that.”

Sheila Gilbert, she says, is “the ultimate beta reader,” who brings her own enormous amount of experience to the book. “For me she’s the one who’s forever slapping me on the wrist in a very calm and thoughtful way when I’ve been lazy, when I’ve left something out, when I’ve tried to skip over some important revelation…I think she’s got a wonderful instinct for the emotional content, and she’s got a great instinct for crap.”

We talked a bit about the goofs we sometimes make as writers. Julie recounts how at one point she began to confuse aft and bow on ships and would have characters go from the aft to the stern—which, of course, are the same thing. No one picked that up for years—it’s in all The Clan Chronicles books. “Everyone had missed this, and we’re talking about twenty years of proofreading. Even readers have never called me on this.”

Julie says her fiction has an optimistic bent because she doesn’t like dark, grim fiction, nor does she believe in it. “I love a really good tragedy…what I don’t like is violence used as pornography and I don’t like the victim mentality…in my experience and the way I look at the word, most people muddle along. We’re not great heroes, but we’re not great villains, either.”

She also doesn’t write grim fiction because she doesn’t want to inhabit a world like that for the long period of time it takes to write a book. “I get too engrossed in the work, and I don’t want to be there. That’s not how I want to make my living.”

The difference between writing mainstream fiction and speculative fiction, Julie says, is that when you’re writing every day, slice-of-life stories, you’re relying on your reader already being an expert on that world, which allows you to use very broad brushstrokes for most of it, only focusing in on the places you choose as your settings.

Some of that happens even in science fiction: experienced SF readers already have a mental image of a spaceship, for example, so you don’t have to describe it in detail. “I’m not shaping the world so much as pointing my flashlight at a part of it where I want their attention, as if they’re all cats and I’ve got a little pointer.” Fantasy, Julie says, requires more detailed, specific description of many of the elements of the world.

Julie thinks science fiction and fantasy writers are partly driven by dissatisfaction: “You’re not getting what you want as a reader, so you’re going to write it yourself.”

But, she adds, “I also think there are so many questions we want to answer as human beings that science fiction lets us play with, and so many things we want to say that we care deeply about that fantasy gives us a platform to say. To me, those are both very powerful draws to writing science fiction and fantasy. And I think I will always write both for that reason.”

She doesn’t write with a message in mind, except, perhaps, for, “Take care of the planet, take care of yourselves, be nice to other people.”

Episode 2: Tanya Huff

The second episode of The Worldshapers features the talented and popular author Tanya Huff, with a special focus on her Aurora-Award-winning novel The Silvered.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/tanya.huff.5

Twitter: @TanyaHuff

Tanya Huff’s Amazon page

The Introduction:

Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Tanya grew up in Kingston, Ontario, and made her first professional writing sale to The Picton Gazette when she was ten. They paid her a dollar for every year of her life, for two poems.

Tanya joined the Canadian Naval Reserve in 1975 as a cook, serving for four years, then attended Ryerson Polytechnical Institute in Toronto, obtaining a Bachelor of Applied Arts in Radio and Television Arts alongside Robert J. Sawyer—my very first guest on this podcast.

In the early 1980s she worked at a game store in downtown Toronto, and from 1984 to 1992 she worked at the science fiction bookstore Bakka. All the time she was writing—seven novels and nine short stories, many of which were subsequently published. Here second professional sale was to to George Scithers, then editing Amazing Stories, in 1985: “Third Time Lucky”.Presumably he paid her more than a dollar per year of life.

In 1992 she moved from downtown Toronto to rural Ontario, where she continues to lie with her wife, Fiona Patton, also a fantasy writer, along with many pets.

Her diverse array of fantasies range from the highly popular “Blood” books, which mix vampires, fantasy ,and romance and were the basis of the TV series Blood Ties, to the Torin Kerr military SF novels, and the humorous fantasies of The Keeper Chronicles. Her publisher is DAW Books, and in the US alone, according to her agent, more than 1,200,000 copies of her work are in print.

The Show:

Although we’ll be discussing her book The Silvered, we actually start with a discussion of her (and my) interest in theatre.

Then we move on to a discussion of her early writing. Although her first published poems were “ten-year-old angst,” she says she was interested in fantasy from the beginning of her reading career.

The first two books she remembers checking out of the library were Greek Gods and Goddesses, “which was almost as big as I was,” and The Water-Babies, “a weird Victorian choice” about a boy who runs away to join the water sprites that live in the pond at the bottom of the garden. “Cleanliness is next to fantasy, apparently.” It also featured a heavy dose of morality.

Even earlier than the 10-year-old-angst poems, Tanya (at age three) dictated a letter to her grandmother to send to her father, then at sea in the Navy, featuring a story about a spider who lived in the garden. Tanya also did the illustration, without notable success: the spider looked more like a pom-pom, eight legs apparently being too challenging for her three-year-old hand.

One summer when her cousin had an operation for scoliosis and spent weeks in a cast, she told her stories to help her pass the time. As well, Tanya says, “At recess, I was always the one who directed the games.”

She says she stumbled over science fiction by accident. She had run out of things to read in the children’s section of her local library (the upstairs) and was deemed too young to be sent into the adult section (downstairs). But when she started in the As and began reading everything in order, they decided maybe she could go downstairs. There she discovered little yellow stickers with rocket ships on them, the marker for science fiction novels. “I picked up everything with a rocket ship on it,” she says.

Her Grade 7/8 school library had all of the Robert A. Heinlein “juveniles,” plus the books for young people by Andre Norton and Isaac Asimov. “I just ploughed through all of those.” The first Andre Norton book she read was Year of the Unicorn, and it made such an impression that a few years ago she bought a first-edition copy of it.

Tanya says the first complete fiction she wrote was when she met a girl in Grade 9 who was writing pastiches of Zenna Henderson. “It was the first time it occurred to me that people wrote books. (I have no idea where I thought they came from before that.) I thought, well, if people write books, I’m a people, I can write books.” So in short order she wrote a western, a spy novel, a science fiction novel called Light Years, and  a book called: Richard the Lionhearted Was an Overmuscled Thug, or the Facts Behind Robin’s Merry Men. She says she also illustrated them, albeit with little more success than she had illustrating the spider story when she was three. Illustrated them.

Her friend Karen and she created the Insult Your Intelligence Book Club. They wrote the books on paper with carbon paper underneath it, to create two copies.

Despite her interest in writing, it didn’t occur to her it could be a career. Tanya notes she comes from a working-class family: she was the first person in her family to graduate from high school and the only person who had ever gone to university.  “Writing books was not something one saw as a career,” she says, and notes her grandmother was much more thrilled the summer she got a job as a Teamster, a good strong union.

After her four years in the military, she went to Los Angeles to become a TV writer, but, she says, she was “too Canadian”: when she ran out of money (in about four months) she packed up her typewriter and came home instead of getting an illegal job, even though she had an in with the company producing the TV series Operation Petticoat. “If I had had half a brain I’d be running the CW right now.”

Instead she decided to go to Ryerson, because she’d discovered “there’s a hell of a lot of money in television programming, and I wanted some of it.”

At Ryerson she had three years of scriptwriting. She notes she’s always been a visual writer, so she had less trouble writing scripts than some text-based writers. “Rob Sawyer and I did our third-year project together. In retrospect, it might have been better if instead of two writers we had pulled one of the tech guys in.” She also had a creative writing class with Rob, although she was writing science fiction and “the teacher absolutely did not get it. I had to explain everything to her.”

She actually started writing Child of the Grove in her TV tech class, “which could possibly explain my mark in my TV tech class,” but she started writing seriously at novel length “with intent to be published” while working part-time at Bakka books: the part-time job gave her time to write. Her first short story sale came at about the same time DAW Books was looking at Child of the Grove; editor Sheila E. Gilbert asked if she had anything published previously, and she was able to say she’d just gotten a letter from George Scithers.

She’s been at DAW her entire career, and sees no reason to leave. “They’re wonderful people. I’ve always said if Sheila retires, I retire, too.”

The Silvered was pitched as “the Napoleonic Werewolf Book.” It deals with the transition point between the manners and mores of Regency England and the Victorian era, with its greater emphasis on technology. “Werewolf culture is essentially Regency England, the opposing culture is essentially Napoleonic.”

But ultimately, “like all of my books, it’s a story not so much about, ‘Who am I?’, but ‘Who do I decide to be?'”

Tanya says the The Silvered “was one of those books you have kicking around in your head for a long time,” one with a “long gestational period,” and partlly arose from the fact that she loves Georgette Heyer, like many fantasy writers do, “probably because she pretty much wrote a fantasy version of the Regency,”

It wasn’t a book with “one big solid idea” that can be encapsulated in an elevator pitch, but more a lot of little things building up over the years. Tanya says in a lot of her books (like the Blood Books) each book deals with one idea thread. In The Silvered, she was dealing with many little things, and not just one big heavy thing–but she figures she did it well because “it’s the only book of mine that’s ever won an award” (the Aurora Award for Best Novel).

When she writes, Tanya says, she knows where she’s going but she doesn’t always know how she’s going to get there. “I have the beginning, and then the end, then I travel my characters through it. I try to look at characters to build them up like you would meeting a person for the first time. You observe what they are like, over the course of the book.”

She notes that for The Silvered she put the characters into groups. There was the redemption character, the young hero, the old hero, the young heroine, the old heroine. The complexity of the multiple characters and situations mean she created more story structure than she usually does: she says she’s usually much more of a “pantser” than she was with this book.

While she can outline if she has to (she did a work-for-hire book in the Ravenloft series for TSR that had to be very strictly outlined), one of the advantages of having done 32 books with one editor is that she doesn’t have to outline anymore to sell a book.

For The Silvered she spent a full month doing nothing but research notes, handwriting them, because she finds when she handwrites things, they stay in their head, whereas if she types them, “it’s just typing.” Since she knew where the story was located, she had pages of notes on the geography, botany, climate, and more. While writing, she sometimes looks for specific things like how long it takes a person to walk twenty-five miles, although she notes you have to beware the “Wikipedia rabbit hole,” where “suddenly you find yourself researching cornbread in Central America.”

She had to spend a lot of time thinking about werewolf society, things like clothing (which has to be easy to get out of), the lack of a nudity taboo or body modesty, the fact furniture is chewed up (“because, puppies”), and more.

Tanya says she’s very much a “one thing at a time” writer: if she’s doing a short story she has to stop working on her latest novel, because otherwise “they would both sound exactly the same.”

Speaking of voice, for The Silvered she pulled out all of the sections from each POV character so she could keep their voices consistant.

Humour is always a part of Tanya’s book, although she notes that the Keeper Chronicles, which are meant to be funny, were the hardest thing to write.

We spent some time talking about an apparently minor incident involving a rabbit, which proves in fact to be major foreshadowing of something much more significant later on. Tanya said as soon as she got to the rabbit she realized how what happened to it could resolve the greater issue later on. (Those who have read the book will understand these vague references.)

Tanya says her first draft is probably 80 to 85 percent of what is actually published, then she layers it up from there. She compares this to contractors, who build a house layer by layer. There are other writers, she notes, who are more masons building a wall: pull out one brick at the bottom and the whole thing collapses.

For Tanys, Sheila Gilbert’s feedback is usually to add more detail. She thinks this may relate to the fact that her actual writing training is in television, where details are put in “by the other 75 people who work on the property.” She says she’s worked so long with Sheila she can hear her voice in her head when she’s writing.

Tanya claims to be terrible with titles: The Silvered took a two-hour discussion with Sheila to settle on.

If she ever stops writing fantasy and science fiction (maybe because Sheila has retired) she has an idea for a series of cozy mysteries set more or less in rural Ontario, where she lives. The first book would be called Strawberry Fields. She’d also like to do “a lesbian Regency romance,” which she figures has bounced around in her head long enough she could probably write right now.

Why write science fiction and fantasy? “The cynical version is it’s the main income coming into the house and I’d like to make a living… the other answer is because you write what you love.”

She says SF and fantasy allow writers to look at the “heart topics.” In Touch Magic Jane Yolen has a list of these: things like sacrifice, duty, honour, love. She notes it’s not odd that those are at the heart of so much SF and fantasy, because when you put people in extreme conditions, it exposes what’s at their core. “Any genre is just telling stories about people to other people. It’s how you do it that is the difference.”

Tanya feels her work has touched a lot of readers. She notes that she hasn’t been at a convention in the past twenty years without someone, usually a young woman, coming up to her in tears, saying things like they had read the Quarter books in high school, and it was the first time they had seen themselves in fiction, the first time they had seen a bisexual character.

The chairman of WindyCon in 2016 told her that her Keeper books got him through his Master’s degree program when he was “falling apart in every other way,” she adds.

“That kind of  response is better than an award. (Which is not to say I wouldn’t take  a Hugo if someone offered it to me.)…I get so much emotional response back from people who have read my books that I feel very nourished by my readers.”