Christian (MIles) Cameron was born in Pittsburgh in 1962 and graduated from the University of Rochester after an outstandingly long undergraduate career. He served in the US Navy onboard aircraft carriers and elsewhere, and then moved on to a writing career.
He’s written over forty novels, including The Red Knight from Gollancz and Killer of Men from Orion Books. His latest novel is Artifact Space, an epic space opera set in the not-too-distant future.
He lives in Toronto with his wife, daughter, and too many cats.
Well, thank you very much. It’s always interesting to hear your life done in in short form. And even when I write it myself, I’m always a little behind the times.
I always like to see if I can find a connection. We have not met in person, but back when you had Jane Yolen books, you did reject me once. So, there’s that. Actually, I was a very nice rejection because you said that there was nothing wrong with the book—it was a fantasy called The Dark Unicorn—and that a larger house might very well be able to take it on, it just didn’t suit your house, which, you know, was a lot better than just getting the form rejection backroad. So, I appreciated it at the time. And the book did eventually find a not very good home, but I’m going to be revising it and bringing out it out again with my own little publishing company before too long. And it did get nominated for an award so well that that was it was very nice to get that sort of personal response from you back then.
I don’t want to make you nervous or anything, but I still get rejections. And I love my rejections because, one, they mean somebody read it, then I can move on. But the other thing is the rejections recently say things like this is lyrical, lovely writing. I love the characters. It’s not for us.
Well, I’ve had my share of rejections now after all the years I’ve been writing. And you have 400 books. I only have 60 or so, so I’m well behind you. But still. So ,we’re going to start with, what I usually say is, taking you back into the mists of time just to find out about your, you know, you’re growing up and how you got interested in and writing. Most of us started as readers and then became writers. And how did that all play out for you? So, tell me about yourself, Jane.
Well, there’s a lot to tell because I’m 82 years old. We might be on this for seventy-two hours. I grew up in a family, a Jewish family in New York, and there were books everywhere. My parents made no distinction between what books we could and we couldn’t read. If we were interested in it and we could get through it, we could read it, which meant that I was reading stuff so far over my head when I was four years old. But I loved the sound of the language and I think that stayed with me all of my life.
My father was a journalist who had become, by the time I came along, had become a head of the Overseas Press Club. But he then left journalism itself and became first, a promotion person and then became a vice president at Hill and Knowlton, which was public relations. And he was the one who was involved with getting people into newspapers, magazines, and books. So, there were always books there. And he actually wrote, I am going to use quotes around the term “wrote,” because he got other people to write for him, six or seven books under his name. He never wrote any of them. I wrote the first one that was actually my first book, but I don’t count it because my name isn’t on it. And my brother became a journalist. My mother wrote short stories, but only sold one in her life. But she also made and sold crossword puzzles and double acrostics and all their friends were known and very well-known writers. They ranged from the very known ones like Hemingway and James Thurber to people you and I still don’t know today. But it meant that as I was growing up, I thought that all grown-ups were writers, I knew they were teachers, like, librarians, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, the cop on the beat. I mean, I lived in New York City, I saw all of this. I thought that was their day job. And at night, they all went home to write. So in my little pea brain at that moment came the idea that whatever I did during the day, I would be a writer because I’d go home at night and write and that . . . it’s sometimes metaphor, but it’s absolutely true.
It’s interesting because I talk to so many writers who say, you know, when I was growing up, I never knew a writer. I didn’t know people could be writers. And then they found out they could be a writer. And you’re just quite the opposite.
Absolutely. And if you ask that, if you talk to my brother who lives in Brazil, who is a newspaper man for all of his life, he’d say pretty much the same thing.
So when did you . . . I assume you started writing as a child?
I wrote as a child. I mean, I, you know, I was the writer in my elementary school, although I wrote class plays that we all played in, I wrote poems, I wrote little lyrics to songs. And the same thing happened once I got into high school. I was the one who was known as the writer. And in college it was the same. I wrote a lot of songs, a lot of short stories, but mostly poetry.
Were there books that particularly influenced you during those early years?
Well, I was a huge King Arthur fan, so I read everything anybody ever wrote about King Arthur. So, yes, along the way I’ve written three or four King Arthur books myself, but I love folk and fairy tales. And Hans Christian Andersen. Oscar Wilde absolutely fascinated me. And it was poetry that stuck with me all through my life, I’m still writing poetry to this to this day.
What was it that drew you to poetry?
I think because I was very musical to begin with, so I started with lyrics. And, you know, we’re talking George Gershwin here, right? But then as I grew up, people like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were writing the kind of music I like, but the kind of also lyrics that I like that were really poems set to music. That kind of, you know, calcified for me.
It’s interesting. I have committed poetry, I don’t know if it’s good poetry or not, but they are very different writing disciplines, writing, writing prose and in poetry. Do you find that writing the poetry informs your prose, the way that you write prose?
I write very lyrical prose, but I tell you, I know when a picture book or a novel or short story of mine is good, I don’t know for the most part if a poem is good or good enough, I’m always surprised when people take my poems for journals, magazines, anthologies. half the time. It’s not the poems I would have taken. I’ll them say I send them seven, they take two or three. Those are not the three I would have taken, so I’m not sure why. I don’t know which one of my poems are the best, when I can tell right away if a book works or a story works.
Once you were . . . well, your first book was published when you were about . . . the first official one was published when you were 22. Is that right?
So, you were still in university or just out of university?
I was out three years, I graduated in 1960, but I had poetry published all the way through and newspaper stuff and magazine articles published. But my first book, I sold it on my twenty-second birthday. After I sold it, I ran two blocks to the overseas press club where my father was holding court at lunchtime and I said, “Daddy, Daddy, I sold my first book.” And he looked at me and then he looked at all the guys, there weren’t any women, I think, in the Press Club at that time, and he said, “Fellows, drinks are on the house. And a coke for my little girl!”
You then started doing a lot of editorial work in the ’60s, did you not?
Well, I first worked for Knox Berger before he became an agent. He was an editor at one of the paperback reprint publishers and I worked for him for about a year, and then when I sold my first book, and it was a children’s book, I thought maybe I’d better learn more about children’s books. So, I did two things. I took a course in writing for children at the New School, but at the same time I went to a head-hunter and said, “I don’t care who it is, but I want you to find me a job in children’s book publishing in New York City,” because I was living in New York City at that point, and they found me a job with a packager who did children’s books, which was interesting, because then I got to write a lot of stuff within the books that they were doing. My name never got on them, but I got to do that. So, there were a couple of problems in crossword puzzles and fiddly bits in books that I mean, they’re long gone. And this was 1961 to ’62 that I wrote that, that we’ll never know, except me and probably not even me anymore now, that I had done.
It’s a bit like the backup singers on some recordings, like I think of The Jersey Boys where they’re doing backup vocals for four other singers that nobody remembers anymore. But meanwhile, it’s the Four Seasons singing the backup songs back there.
So that’s how we got started. And then one of my fellow editors at the packager was an older woman and she was a friend of mine. And we had to show the packager anything we wrote first because they had first dibs on it. But if the editor rejected it, it was OK and we could take it elsewhere. And her name was Frances Kane. We all called her queen. And she said to me one time, I showed her a manuscript called The Witch Who Wasn’t, and she said, “I’m going to tell you a secret.” She said, “I like this very much, but I don’t want to publish it here. I’m about to take a job as head of MacMillan’s Children’s Publishing. Will you bring it to me there?” I said, “You got it.” Almost maybe my second or third book that was published. And Kate and I remained friends until her death, which was rather too, too soon. But she was very important in my early writing days.
You mentioned that you had taken a course in writing children’s literature at The New School, and I always ask authors who have taken formal writing courses how helpful they were to their career, because I get a variety of answers to that question.
Well, one of the picture books that I tried there, I thought, “Oh, well, there you go.” Things are so different now that the kind of book that I learned about and that I wrote then I would not be able to write and sell now, but I learned to be aware of how these things change. And that’s important. I think one of the reasons I’ve been so successful for so many years, whereas other people have sort of dropped by the wayside, who had started about the same time as I did, is that I’m very flexible and I’m able to do any number of things. And if the picture book world changes, I change with it. If the novel world changes, I change with it. If I can’t get a big publisher to publish something, I get a wonderful small publisher like Tachyon to publish a book of mine. So, I’m infinitely flexible and I love meeting new editors and talking ideas with them, because having been an editor, I was an editor for fifteen years, having been an editor, I know how to talk to editors. I know they’re the friends, not the enemies. Nobody buys a book to make it bad.
Yeah, there are authors, especially new authors, who are kind of scared of editors and think somehow they’re going to take their deathless prose and ruin it somehow, and that’s just not the experience you have with a professional editor. They want a good book, too. So, your experience as an editor. You’re writing and editing at the same time, how do those two things work together? Do you find that by looking at other people’s work, it makes your own work stronger? You’re able to see how other people are dealing with, you know, the same . . . we all encounter the same problems in our writing that we have to solve. You know, characterization and all that stuff. Did you find that being an editor helped you as a writer?
That’s exactly it. But that’s the second thing I learned. The first thing I learned, looking at people’s writing was, “Gee, I’m a good writer,” because a lot of bad stuff comes over the desk. Anyone who is an editor will tell you that. Eighty-five to ninety percent of the stuff that they see is so amateurish, there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s the other ten to fifteen percent that there are possibilities. And more than half of those are not the kind of book that they’re looking for. When I was an editor and editing fantasy and science fiction for middle grade and young adults, I would get coming over my desk nonfiction books, cookbooks, mystery novels, picture books, none of which was of interest to me. But I still had to send a letter back with it. So, the first thing that I say to anyone who’s a writer is look at where you’re sending it, make sure it’s the sort of thing they’re looking for. If you don’t know what they’re looking for, find out. You can ask other authors. You can join groups like the Science Fiction Writers of America or the Society of Children’s Book Writers and find out information. The more you have information about what a particular editor or a particular publisher is looking for, the easier you’re going to make your life.
I suspect the problem of inappropriate material flooding editors’ offices is even worse now with email being a way to submit. It’s just become much easier for those places that take email submissions. The volume must be enormous.
It’s not that, it’s to say we’re open to anyone. You should see who anyone is. They are people who have never finished something, they’ve started it but never finished it. They’ve written a book that’s just like their favorite book, or they’ve taken characters from their favorite book and used them, which is a no-no, unless the author is long dead or has given them permission. So, there are those sorts of things that you get over and over and over again
You’ve won a lot of awards. How did that all ramp up? I mean, you start out like anybody else. You’re selling a few books and then you’ve built and built. So, were you really gratified by the response to your writing over the years?
Well, of course, I’m gratified. Some of the awards that I’ve won, I go to some of the awards that I that I’ve won, I go, “Oh, my God, I’m so honored.” Some of them I’ve said, “I think they missed the mark on this one.” And some of them I say, “Thank you,” and put the thing up in the attic, because honestly, there are more awards out there than there are writers. And they happen year after year after year after year. The ones that I am especially proud of, those are ones that I keep where people can see them. But at this point, I must have, you know, like two or three hundred awards, certificates, that sort of thing. And occasionally they spell my name wrong on it. Occasionally it’s for a book that I think of my work is minor, but the ones that are really special to me, those are the ones that I take out and look at now.
Which one set fire to your coat?
Well, it was this Skylark Award given by the Boston Science Fiction Convention. Not for any particular work, it’s for somebody who has been doing good work and within the community, the science fiction community. And I always volunteered for things at Boskone, which is the science fiction convention. So ,they gave that to me and I took it home, as I did with any award I would get or any certificate. It would sit on my kitchen table for about a week, and then it would sort of slowly move upstairs to the attic. Now, the attic is not just an attic, it is where I store awards, where I have all my extra copies of foreign editions, where I have all my files. So, it’s a library. My entire folklore library is up there, too. So, it’s a little bit like a library/boasting place. But this award, the Skylark award, was sitting there . . . it had been a rather rainy, dark New England winter. And it was sitting in front of the kitchen window, which is a large, a huge, large window. And it was a wooden plinth with a . . . not a microscope, what is it called?
Right, a magnifying glass up top, because it was named after the Lensman series, right? And my husband and I were coming down the stairs to go actually to Smith College where I was winning a Smith Medal, I was a Smith graduate, and I said, “I smell something funny.” We ran into the to the kitchen and my good coat was smoking because it was a beautiful blue-sky day with the sun coming in from the east, pouring in through the windows. If we had gone later, the house might have gone up. So, I called up my friend Bruce Coville, who had been the one to hand me the award, and I told him what happened. And I said, “Bruce, I’m going to have to put this award where the sun don’t shine.” On the other end—Bruce is a huge laugher—dead silence. And I did what I did to say that and I hung up. So, he told the committee what had happened. The committee said that when they gave the next one would I come and say that as a warning. And so that’s become something that every year at Boskone, when they’re giving out the award, I have to run up and say, “Stop, stop, stop! Before you take that award, I need to give you this warning.” And so it’s, you know, it’s fandom at its best.
The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy world, the Aurora Award, the current one is just a plexiglass Aurora, but the original one was this piece made out of a laser-cut metal that you could disassemble and put into your suitcase if you were flying after winning one of them. And apparently the trick with that one was, because of all these sharp edges, you had to . . . people discovered that if they didn’t wrap it very carefully in their suitcase, it shredded their clothes. I have one, but I didn’t have that problem.
And I love that story. I never heard that one.
The other thing about it is, it’s very pointy metal in a base. And when I won mine, it was in Montreal, and I discovered that if you pointed it forward people decided to give you more room on the elevator because nobody wanted to get close to it.
All the fandom.
Yeah. So, we’re going to talk about your your upcoming book, Arch of Bone, and we’re going to use that as an example of your general overall writing process, so you can talk about any books you want during this process. But then, you’ve written also for adults and middle grade and young adults. And I want to get your thoughts on the differences among those three. But maybe, first of all, just tell us a little bit about Arch of Bone.
Well, there are stories that are in your heart, and wherever they started, they were in your heart and you want to tell them if you’re a writer. And this was one I carried for a long time. It takes place in 1964 in Nantucket. And it’s really tagging onto the end of one of my all-ime favorite novels, which is Moby Dick. And I was . . . I am in New York City, a Jewish kid loving Moby Dick from the first time I read it, and I would read it as I grew up every ten years because it’s a big book, it takes a long time to read. And any time I was talking to an editor, it was going to be historical, but it was going to have fantastical elements in it. Any time I talked to an editor, they looked at me shellshocked, like, “That doesn’t sound like something I want to do.” So I put it aside and I put it aside and I put it aside for years. And then I started publishing with Tachyon and Tachyon said, “We’re starting a middle-grade young-adult line now and we’d love it if you would have something for us to see.” And I talked to them about this book because it’s a book that starts out a new way. I knew how it was starting out and I knew where it was going.
But there was a major problem. And I’ll tell you that in a minute. I knew it started out with a young boy, a thirteen, fourteen-year-old boy whose mother has been sick with whatever for the whole winter. His father is on a whaling ship, so he’s away. So, the boy is kind of man of the house. His father’s been gone for about a year or so. And it’s early spring. There’s a knock on the door and he opens the door and there’s this man he’s never seen before. And, you know, normally you would know your neighbors in Nantucket. And he says, “Who were you?” And the man says, “Call me Ishmael.” It’s Ishmael coming to tell Starbuck’s wife and son that Starbuck, who was the first mate in Moby Dick, that everybody died except for himself. And so, that’s how I knew it was going to start, and I also knew that the boy being upset about the man staying at their house and thinking that his mother has gone through widowhood, you know, in the day, and now she’s looking at a new man, which is not true. He takes off on his own little cat boat with his dog and into the teeth of a nor’easter. And that’s all I knew.
A great beginning!
He was going to break up on an island. So, it’s going to be Moby Dick meets Robinson Crusoe with some miraculous dreams or oracular dreams. That’s all I knew. But the thing that stopped me over and over again just going ahead and writing it and then trying to peddle it was that you needed a good knowledge of sailing. I had not a good knowledge of . . . I mean, I lived in Massachusetts, but I lived in western Massachusetts. I could go and I could have somebody sail me around to some of the places, but I didn’t have the deep knowledge of it. Fast forward almost sixty years, and I’m working with Tachyon and they ask for it and I’m thinking about it and thinking, you know, I’m in my 80s. If I don’t write this book, it’s never going to get written. But I still am worried about this. And my husband had died 14 years earlier, so I’ve been a widow all that time. And I re-meet a guy that I had dated in college, and we fell in love, we’re married. We’re living together. We have, you know, children and grandchildren. He is a sailor, had his own boat. He would sail, he and his wife, he and his kids, they would sail on this boat all around the Nantucket area because he lives in Mystic, Connecticut. And I said, “Would you read this book?” Well, he’d been a teacher all his life, and one of his favorite books he loved to teach was, guess what, Moby Dick. It was, you know, the right time. And he read it, he showed me charts of the waters, he told me when I had a boat thing wrong, you know, “They don’t say that, they call it this.” He read it very thoroughly for me. And I couldn’t have done it, or I wouldn’t have done it, without him. So, sometimes a book has to sit, sometimes a book has to mature, and sometimes the author has to mature, and sometimes luck has to come into it.
So what did you . . . the idea obviously had been floating around for a very long time, but when you were finally able to do something with it, once you settled down to write, and your other books as well, what does your sort of planning outlining process look like? And I presume it might be different for an adult book, a YA book, and certainly for a picture book. But what does that look like for you?
You think I outlined, do you?
Oh, well, that’s the question, really.
When I first started writing novels, I did. And then I discovered that they boxed me in. Because no matter what I put on the page as where I was going, as I got into the book, things happened that I wasn’t expecting and weren’t on my outline. I’m more like what they call a pantser, flying by the seat of my pants, I like to think of it as flying into the mist. I know where the book is going. I have to get to know who the characters are. And sometimes the characters say to you, “I’m not going there.”
More like sailing into the mist on this book, I guess, instead of flying.
Exactly. I didn’t know that that he was going to have to rebuild a boat. I didn’t know he was going to have these oracular dreams. Once Tachyon said they wanted it, I knew that I had to have a fantasy element that had never been in it to begin with. So, what did I do? He finds a bone, which is a whalebone jaw, and when he leans against it, he has dreams. The first dream is of a whale telling him about how the whales have been dying and why and how things are changing. And then, the next three dreams are about the boat that his father died on. So, I read Moby Dick, annotated it, and talked to Peter about it over and over again. Some people really need to fill out, you know, everything about their world and everything about where they’re going and know everything bit by bit. That’s not how I work. Now, having said that, I just finished another middle-grade fantasy novel called Sea Dragon of Fife. And it’s part of, I think, a series that’s going to be called—we’re still fiddling with this—The Royal and Ancient Monster Hunters, so it’s R&A Monster Hunters. And in that, because I first outlined it years ago when I still thought I could outline, it turns out that stuff that I put in later changed the ending, made the ending more poignant, because as I was going along and writing it, I realized . . .these are some kids who are out there as monster hunters, they’re school kids. And the head of the group is the schoolmaster. And we’re talking 1900s, Scotland. And they’re in danger, but they’re out there to kill the Sea Dragon. The Sea Dragon’s female. They’ve already killed one of her sons, may have killed the second one, and then they finally come upon her and everybody thinks that’s fine and I’m going, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, they’re killing a mom. You have to say something about this,” and that changed the dynamics when I have the main character, who’s telling the story, saying that she feels bad about this, so she has some real criticism. Meanwhile, you know, it’s a dragon that’s tried to eat two boys and may have killed other people. So, it’s a dragon, doing what a dragon does to feed its family. So that was not in the original outline and it changed things very much.
So, what does your actual writing process itself look like, then? You’re not referring to your outline all the time and then writing things. Do you—I always ask this—do you write longhand under a tree with parchment and a quill pen or do you work set hours during the day? Do you work in your home? Do you go out? Well, not now, but have you sometimes gone out to other places to write? Or how does that work for you?
I have a fairly simple thing. I get up in the morning, I go into my writing room, still in my jammies, and start to write, and write for about an hour. It may just be, at the beginning, just looking at my email, playing a little bit of Boggle, writing a new poem, because I send out a poem a day to subscribers. And then I go downstairs, have something to eat, go back upstairs and get dressed for work as if I were going out to an office. The office is right there in my house. And then it’s butt on chairtime that I teach my students all about. Butt in chair. If you’re not there working and you’re looking for an idea and the muse comes by, she’ll give it to you. But if you’re not in your chair, she’s heading out, you know, out west to give it to someone else. And I literally, I probably work between four and eight hours a day. Some of that is just reading, some of that is writing, some of that is revising, some of that is sending stuff out. But I’m at my desk. You don’t write four hundred books if you don’t sit at your desk, and it’s been an adventure.
I mean, it’s not that I don’t go out and do things. I have a house in Scotland that I go to and I’ll write there as well. Peter and I are right now sitting in his house in Mystic, Connecticut. I was writing this morning and I do other things and I’m a very personable kind of person. I like to see friends and take walks with them and talk business with them. Or if they’re not in the children’s book field, the children’s book world, or just the writing world . . . I have many friends, a huge number of friends, who are artists. I’d love to go to their studios and see what they’re doing. But I’m always a good part of my day writing. Less time at a conference. And interestingly, the stuff that I do when I’m in my jammies feels like fiddling. But when I’m dressed for work, I mean, looking like I’ve gone out of my business clothes, that’s when I do my best work.
That is interesting. I mean, everybody approaches it differently, that’s one of the interesting things about this podcast, is getting these different approaches that people take. Do you consider yourself a fast writer or slow writer or somewhere in the middle, or how do you typify yourself?
Well, you have to say fast, given how many books I have out, but each book is different, some books practically write themselves and other books, you’re banging your head on the wall. But I am a very fast rewriter. If somebody takes the book and it needs some work still, that’s where I put all my energy until that until it’s done.
Well, that’s the next thing I was going to ask you about was the revision process. So, when you have a complete first draft, do you go back to the beginning and revise before you submit? Do you use beta readers? Beta readers are all the thing right now, I’ve never had them, but I know lots of authors talk about that. And you did mention that your husband had read your book to help you with the sailing and so forth. How does all that work for you?
Well, I first of all, even if it’s an adult book, I read it out loud. That comes from all of my work and children’s books. I always read stuff out loud and that makes me hear things that . . . I have a little sign near my desk that says the eye and the ear are different listeners. If you are reading your own manuscript, you can elide, if you’re not reading out loud, so that you miss stuff, you miss the bad stuff. And if you are reading it out loud, then you are going to hear everything that doesn’t work. I’m a good reader, so I can sometimes almost even convince myself that a line works when it doesn’t. But I’m a line-by-line reader out loud. Then I go back and I will . . . with a picture book, I might revise it five, six, eight, ten times before I ever send it out. With a novel, I probably do two really solid revisions before I ever send it out. The longer pieces, and that includes . . . I have, actually, beta readers. Peter is one. My daughter, Heidi Stemple, is another one. And then I have other readers when I’m in Scotland. My friend Debbie Harris reads for me because I think that as much as I know about writing and as much as I know about editing, there’s nothing like a new eye to look at it and say, “I didn’t get this.” The connection was in my head, but I never got it down on paper. So, I really like having those beta readers. Every time, though, I choose somebody who has written something, who has published something, I think that that they are willing to be fierce and I need a fierce reader.
Yes, if, you know, if you give it to, in my case, say my mom or somebody, and they said, “Oh, that’s really nice,” that’s not helpful. You want people to say, no, I didn’t understand what was going on on page 37 and why your character did that stupid thing and all that kind of stuff. The big criticism is actually much more helpful than just than just praise.
That’s why I choose writers. All my children are writers, published writers. My friend Debbie is a well-published fantasy writer living in Scotland. So, there’s that professionalism that says, “:I’m not going to just say nice things about you.” My kids send me stuff for me to read that they’ve done. And I’m very honest with them. From the beginning, when they first started writing, and they would leave little things for me to read on the mantelpiece, I would say to them, “Do you want the Mommy answer or do you want the editor answer?” And they would say, “Oh, we want the editor.” And this is before they were published. I’d say, “First, I’m going to give you the Mommy answer. The Mommy answer is, ‘This is wonderful. Oh, you are such a good writer.’ Now, here’s the real truth from the editor. It’s very good. It still needs work.” So, since I was always honest with them, they’re very honest with me.
When your work does get to an editor, are you still getting, “This is very good, but it needs work,” from editors even at this point in your career?
This is what I’m getting a lot from editors. They will say to my agent, if I haven’t worked with them before, they will say to my agent, “Is Jane willing to work on this?” And I think to myself, “They think tjat a person who has done as many books as I have, would not work with that, would not be revising it?” It sort of makes me stunned. Who they’ve been working with? Of course, I’ll revise. I just recently revised something that an editor liked but still had some problems with. And I sat down and thought about what she said for about a week and a half. And then I said, “She’s absolutely right.” Then I rewrote it. And it’s much better. Will she take it? I have no idea, but it’s much better. And so, somebody will take it.
My editor, my main editor, is Sheila Gilbert at DAW Books, and she’s just wonderful for for pointing out those things that, “Yeah, I can make that better. You’re absolutely right.” And editors do that for you. It’s really quite wonderful to have an editor. And I wanted to ask you about the differences between writing for middle grade, young adult, and adult. Are those just . . . you know, to a certain extent they’re kind of just marketing categories, I guess. But there are . . . do you feel there are distinct differences among those three beyond just the age of the characters?
I think that that in some ways they sort of glide into one another, it’s true. And if you realize that the term young adult had not even been invented until the early 1960s when some somebody figured out that, “Oh, we can get an extra sale out of this if we put it in into that category, as well as perhaps also selling it as an adult book.” And many books are considered young adult/adult as crossover books. In fact, I think there’s now an actual crossover designation . . .
New adult, they’re sometimes called. New adult. Is that the term?
Exactly. That’s the term. So, the problem is in the, not in the book itself, but in the age of the main character. If you have a main character who is fifteen, sixteen, it’ll be nicely read by the younger ones and the young adults. If the character is twelve, thirteen, then a lot of young adults will not look at it. Adults will, but young adults will say, “I’m more interested in kids my age.” So, a lot of times you sort of weasel out of it. You either don’t say how old they are or you put them in exciting enough places that that anyone will want to read the book. I was . . . as I said early on, I was, as a child, reading books that were way over my head. And kids who reads at a very young age will do that. But a lot of young adult readers are really very happy just reading about themselves. I think the middle graders who are still trying to figure out what it is they would like to read, how far up they’d like to read, are the ones who are more flexible. And I think the adults are the most flexible at all because we’ll still read about kids, we’ll still read about Alice in Wonderland, we’ll still read about Huck Finn, and they’re not our age anymore. But we will also read about older people.
The problem is in the packaging. Because I did a book a few years ago with Midori Snyder called Except the Queen, and the two main characters were middle-aged. They were old fairies who have been kicked out of Faerie for spying on the queen, and so they no longer have the magic that keeps them young. So now they are on the high side of middle-aged. And there were two younger characters in it. They’re not the main characters, but guess who is on the cover? Not the main characters. The young woman who is one of the minor characters was here, and when we complained, they said this is the best cover for it, nobody’s going to buy a book with two elderly women sporting around. That’s the problem. Not the readership, but how they market the book.
Do you have a preference out of all the various age levels you’ve written for? Do you love writing in all these various niches equally?
My sweet spot is short. Meaning poetry, picture books, short stories. Or a short novel, but I have written a number of longer novels, which I’m very proud of, and it’s just that they go on and on and on and on for four or five years. That’s when I get tired of that, even if I’m doing my best work. So, I think I have a very short attention span. And a very short boredom span.
We’re getting within the last 10 minutes or so here, so I want to ask my big philosophical question. There’s three. The first one is, why do you write? The second one is, why do you think anybody writes? As human beings, why do we write? And then the third one is, why write stories with fantastical elements in them? So, start at the beginning. Why do you write?
Because I can’t, because I have stories in my head all the time. I go to bed, I dream stories, I wake up, I remember parts of those stories. Sometimes I could use the parts, sometimes I can’t, which is frustrating, but I am never without ideas for books. In fact, I give ideas away to other people.
I get that a lot, actually, from writers who will say, “I can’t not write and it’s almost a compulsion.” I think there’s very much an innate writer . . . I don’t know if it’s a gene, I guess it’s related to some sort of genetic component . . . to people who become, at least become writers who are, you know, published and read and write at that kind of level. I’m reading to my wife Robertson Davies’s collection of posthumous essays . . . I always forget the name . . . The Merry Heart, it’s called . . . and he writes quite a bit about this topic and about being a writer and writers being almost born as opposed to made. Anyway. So, why do you think a lot of us write? Why do you think human beings write? Why do we tell these stories and put them down in words and share them with other people?
Partially because it gives pleasure, partially because it gives information, partially because it gives a new way of looking at something, but partially because human beings are, more than anything else, good liars. We make ourselves look better. We make our children look better. We tell stories about our family that make us look great. We boast about things. It’s a human failing that’s been turned into a human success, I think. We laugh in our family and say all Yolens, all of the Yolens we know, are good casual liars. They tell stories. They are funny, they make up stuff, but only our side of the family and one or two others, sort of outliers, became passionate storytellers. My great-grandfather, I think it was, had an inn in the Ukraine, and he loved, not the work of being a being an innkeeper—that he left to the wife and kids in the hirelings—he would sit by the fire and tell stories. And he used to tell stories that he knew came from somewhere else, but he passed them off as his own. So, he told a Yiddish version of Romeo and Juliet, which was his big piece. Now, I don’t think he ever told anyone that Shakespeare had written the story.
Well, Shakespeare probably got it from somewhere else, knowing Shakespeare
Exactly. We’re passing wonderful lies on.
When I was a kid . . . there’s a famous Canadian writer named W.O. Mitchell, who actually spent part of his childhood in the town I grew up in in Saskatchewan. And he had . . .there was a TV show on CBC, which were . . .I guess they were his stories, I don’t know, he hosted it anyway, dramatized stories. And the name of it was The Magic Lie. That’s what he’d like to call writing: the magic lie.
And that works for me.
And then the third part of the question, you have, of course, written stuff that doesn’t have a fantastical element, but you have also written a lot that does. So, why include things that are completely fantastical in these stories that we like to tell people?
Because people have been doing that forever. They’ve told folk tales and fairy tales and tales of magic and wonder. We all know we’re going to die. So, we make up these wonderful stories of what happens after, before, during, which we all hope that we will have wonderful weddings and marriages to a prince, probably, you know, a king, possibly. We want to change lives with our stories. I think those of us who write for children have a better chance of that than anyone. Once in a while, you’ll get a book that, you know, like Silent Spring, that will change a great many lives. Normally, adult books don’t change lives the way children’s book change lives, because we’re taking someone who has not yet fully constructed themselves. And the stories that we tell help them think in different ways, shape them.
I’m very aware of that. I mean, I get letters from children all the time and I and I meet grownups who say to me, the grandparents, you know, they say to me, “I read your stories all the time to my grandchildren because they were the stories I grew up on.” That makes me feel really old when they say that. But it’s true. Those are the stories that we carry with us into adulthood. And they have, for whatever reason, shaped our lives.
Certainly, the ones I read shaped mine, that’s for sure. I still remember the ones . . . you know, the stories I read as a kid are the ones that really stick with me far more than what I’ve read since as an adult. So, we’re just about out of time, so let’s find out, what are you working on now?
Well, The Sea Dragon of Fife, which is a short novel. I have a book of poems about the Jewish experience and the Shoah coming out called Kaddish. That’s for adults. I’ve written two books with one of my daughters that are being published, one that I wrote with her when she’s ten, and she’s now in law school, and the other we wrote after she said, “Oh, I’m so excited about selling this book. But, you know, I’m really going to be a lawyer.” And the next morning she had the start of a manuscript on my desk. So that’s it. Yeah, right. “OK,” I said, “stick to your day job, but you can write in the in-betweens.” So the one that’s coming out that she wrote with me when she was ten, which we have done significant rewriting since, I have to tell you, is called Nana Dances and it’s a picture book. So, it’s full of pictures and it’s all about the various nannies who dance with their children and boys, girls, different people of different shapes and sizes and colors. And it’s, I think, it’s just a very sweet and lovely book. I have a bunch of easy reader books coming out, two of which are based on the interrupting cow joke that one of my granddaughters used to tell me every time I would visit. You know that joke?
No . . .
Interrupting cow who?
Did you hear me move in the middle of your asking? So this is a cow that nobody in the stable likes because she’s always telling that horrible joke and she ends up with a variety of outsiders who love what she does. So, everybody lives happily ever after. I’m on the fourth book now.
Oh, yes, there’s many, many more. I’ve sold a book called Bird Boy, which is being illustrated, and it’s a kind of semi-sequel to Owl Moon, which I wrote, which won the Caldecott. Let’s see, what else have I sold? I have to get out my list of about maybe fifteen, eighteen more books. I have about twenty manuscripts out there. I have about, in total, 130 unsold manuscripts that are rotating around there and I’m always writing something new.
People tell me I’m prolific and I’m realizing that I’m not. That’s very impressive! It’s been great, Jane, to talk to you. I guess your website is the best place if people are looking to find out more about you?
It’s certainly the most accurate because my son Adam, who is my webmaster, and I work on it on a regular basis. If you go anywhere else, you will find that I have written over one hundred books. You will sometimes find that I’m married to Adam, who is my son. You know, I don’t trust anything other than an author’s own website because we know most about ourselves. We know what’s current, what’s not covered.
And it’s just janeyolen.com.
Ok, well, thanks so much for for doing this. Jane, I really appreciated talking to you. I certainly enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.
I did a whole lot. Thank you.
And best of luck with every single one of your many projects coming up
An hour-long conversation with Sebastien de Castell, award-nominated author of the swashbuckling fantasy series The Greatcoats and YA fantasy series Spellslinger, whose latest book is Way of the Argosi.
Sebastien de Castell had just finished a degree in Archaeology when he started work on his first dig. Four hours later he realized how much he actually hated archaeology and left to pursue a very focused career as a musician, ombudsman, interaction designer, fight choreographer, teacher, project manager, actor, and product strategist. His only defence against the charge of unbridled dilettantism is that he genuinely likes doing these things and that, in one way or another, each of these fields plays a role in his writing. He sternly resists the accusation of being a Renaissance Man in the hopes that more people will label him that way.
Sebastien’s acclaimed swashbuckling fantasy series, The Greatcoats, was shortlisted for both the 2014 Goodreads Choice Award for Best Fantasy, the Gemmell Morningstar Award for Best Debut, the Prix Imaginales for Best Foreign Work, and the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. His YA fantasy series, Spellslinger, was nominated for the Carnegie Medal and is published in more than a dozen languages.
Sebastien lives in Vancouver, Canada with his lovely wife and two belligerent cats.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Sebastien, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thanks so much for having me.
I should have practiced “dilettantism” before I tried to read that bio.
Yeah, that’s that’s one of those tricky words, isn’t it, where there’s just one too many syllables for what we kind of expect when our eyes go over the word
And all those Ts. It’s very confusing. But yeah. So, we are both in Canada, we haven’t met anywhere, but we do share a publicist in Mickey Mickkelsen from Creative Edge, and that’s kind of how I made connections with you. Also, you were mentioned by Chris Humphreys, whom I interviewed not that long ago, as somebody who was kind of a beta reader for his stuff. And I thought, hey, I should talk to Sebastien. So here we are.
Well, you know, I’ve only recently met Mickey and he seems lovely, but I think it’s important to get on the record that Chris Humphreys is a dastardly rogue. He’s too talented. He’s too good looking. And above all else, he’s far too British for anyone to trust.
Well, I enjoyed talking to him anyway, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy talking to you, too, as well. So, I’m going to start as I always start, which is to take my guests back into the mists of time—I’m going to put reverb on that any day now—and find out . . . well, you started in archaeology, you didn’t start in writing, but you must have been interested in reading and writing before that. So how did that all come together for you? How did you get interested in in the world of telling stories, and where did you grow up, that kind of thing?
Oh, all the all the good stuff. I grew up as a young man in a troubled small town far to the east where . . . no, I was never one of those what I think of, and perhaps inappropriately, as natural writers. I’m not sure there is such a thing as a natural writer now. But I often meet other writers who will talk about the fact that they were always writing, and I was not always writing. My first serious foray into writing was when I was 27. I was in a a beleaguered and failing rock and roll band making, you know, two hundred and fifty bucks a weekend playing cover tunes, being sued by the bass player for control of the band. And when you’re being sued over control of a of a group who fundamentally makes their living playing “Brown-Eyed Girl” in bars in the interior of British Columbia, you know, you’ve hit a creative low point in your life.
And so I did what I did, what I think I’ve always sort of done in my life when I felt like I was, you know, missing purpose and a plan, which is I went to the library. And, you know, like most writers, I’m a huge . . . not so much an advocate of libraries, but a huge user of libraries, someone whose entire existence to some degree relies on the fact that libraries are there and that at any point in your life, no matter what’s going on, no matter how confused or depressed you might be, you can walk into a library and all of a sudden there’s, you know, a million different possibilities to sort of explore.
And when I was there, I found a box of book tapes, which was a course by a guy named Ralph McInerny, and it was called Let’s Write a Mystery. And this was such a strange thing. It was a set of 24 tapes. Twelve tapes, 24 sides, cassette tapes, and an accompanying book, and the accompanying book was the draft of a novel that he writes as he’s dictating these tapes to you. And he talked in a sort of a 1960s professorial sort of voice, the kind you would have heard in science class in high school, where you would sort of say, you know, “And today we’re going to make our protagonist and he should be a guy you’d like to have a beer with.” And oddly, that kind of strange, soothing tone allowed me to do something I don’t think I’d ever been able to do before, ever would be able to do before, which is to write my way through a novel for the first time. And as it should be, as the universe demands, that novel was terrible. It’s called Skeletons in the Cloister. It’s an archaeological mystery that deeply reflects my love of archaeology, or lack thereof. But it taught me everything, you know, it suddenly changed the entire way that my mind worked, such that I was able to conceive of how to write a novel, like, nothing felt too big anymore.
And so, a few years after that. . . and I felt so good, like, it just changed my life in the sense that even having written this one terrible novel, I was just so much more confident and so much more interested in people and in the world around me. And a few years later, I decided to do what’s called the Three-Day Novel-Writing contest, which is an annual contest that’s been around forever, where you try and write, you know, something in three days. And I ended up writing 44,000 words of a novel in three days. All the while, I think I still went for runs. I slept more hours than I usually sleep. And I had a music gig where I had to learn to sing “The Lady in Red,” which is a rather painful song for me to sing for purely musical reasons. And so, somehow I ended up with this draft, which I was super happy with. And years later I decided, What the hell, I’ll give a shot at this. And I revised that novel and nearly tripled the length in the process. And that became Traitor’s Blade, which was the first book in the Greatcoats series, which launched my career. And, you know, it has gotten me to the lofty heights to which I ascend to this day.
Well, if we go back, way back, you must have been a reader. Nobody suddenly decides to write if they haven’t been a reader. What sorts of things did you read growing up?
Well, when I was . . .I came to reading actually through my sister, who when . . .I was a comic- book reader as a little kid. In fact, the first time I realized I could read in English was reading a comic, because I used to just look at the pictures. And then I went to French school, even though I only spoke English. Getting dumped into French school at six years of age when you only speak English is quite a trauma, I can tell you. And so, my first sort of actual exposure to learning to write any language was in French. And then one day, I suddenly noticed I could . . . I was looking at the same old comic books and realized I could read the words, which was a very strange experience to have. But from there, I sort of, you know . . . when I was about nine years old, my father was dying of cancer. And my mother asked my sister, who is about 15 years older than me, to take my brother and I on a trip to England and France to kind of get us out of the house, I guess. And I mean, we didn’t have much money. So, you know, how my mother and sister made that work is still baffling to this day. And she started reading to my brother and I from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. And so, I became completely enthralled with Narnia and in that world for a while.
But it wasn’t until in my teens where I really started reading in English for myself. I read when I was in French school, I wasn’t always . . . I had a period of time where—I think lots of us do—where you get kind of disconnected from other people. And again, the library, the school library, was a sort of a place of refuge. And I read a little bit there, but it was when I was around 15, 16, where a friend of mine in an English high school by the name of Edward Swatchek (sp?) was kind enough to give me a copy of a book called Jhereg by Steven Brust. And I was just blown away by this book. I mean, I still think in many ways he’s not recognized—even though he’s widely admired. I don’t know if he’s recognized to the degree to which I think he helped inform some of the stylistic options available to fantasy writers, that we didn’t have to write everything in “thees” and “thous” and things like that.
I certainly remember my encounter with him when I was probably university age, when I ran into Steven Brust and I read everything I could get my hands on.
Yeah, me too. You know, To Reign in Hell is, like, such a deeply troubling book, actually, that I . . . I adored it but could never read it other than the one time, because there’s just so much for me. There was just so much emotional trauma tied to how well that story is told. But I so I kind of fell in love with that. And that kind of led me to other books, some of which are sort of forgotten sometimes, including Keith Taylor the wonderful Australian author’s Bard books about Felimid mac Fal He wrote a series of books about an Irish bard that were just so full of sort of verve and zest that they made me want to become a bard, which to one degree or another, for the rest of my life, I’ve been sort of trying to do that, which is partly how I got stuck being sued by the bass player . . .
I was going to say . . .
The bass player is a perfectly nice guy, by the way. We’re still friends. And, you know, and into some books that I think are now being sort of reconsidered to some degree, like Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant books and things like that. So, my sort of, you know . . . which is, sorry, a very long-winded way of saying, like my sort of sense of fantasy, which is the domain in which I largely write—I also write sort of mysteries on the side, but not that I think anyone would really want to read—but my sort of sense of fantasy was really drawn from the ‘80s, which is a strange place to derive it from because it’s both too late to be the classics and sort of too out of date to entirely sit within the, kind of the present taste for fantasy.
Well, what actually then drew you into archaeology that you then found out you hated when you actually had to go on a dig?
At the time, I would have had a better answer. Positioned as I am sufficiently far away from it. I think it’s I can admit that it was Indiana Jones.
And the thought of adventure. You know, adventure is a very difficult thing to get these days. Right. You know, society isn’t really structured around adventure. The kinds of adventure that are largely available to us as human beings now involve either extreme sports, which, you know, doesn’t sort of have that kind of quest feeling to it unless you really like hiking up dangerous mountains, which is great, but not totally my thing. Or if people, you know, sort of want to join the military, which requires, you know, a sort of an ideology that not everyone necessarily shares. But there’s not all the sort of opportunities for adventure and archaeology. When I was in university, you know, I think, as many people did, I conflated it with the sort of adventurous side that’s presented in an Indiana Jones movie—which in my defense, because I realize this sounds pretty pathetic, but in my defense, the archaeology department at Simon Fraser University did once confirm to me that every time a new Indiana Jones movie came out, their enrollment shot up through the roof.
I’m pretty sure Indiana Jones’s approach to research and working in the field would not work in the real world.
But what’s absolutely fascinating about that to me now is, because I remember by the time the second or third movie was coming out, people were sort of saying, “Well, you know, that’s not proper archaeology.” And, you know, we now know that it’s not. But if you listen to or read the transcripts of the original conversations between George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and I think Larry Kasdan, who actually wrote the script, they were very intentional about the fact that this was not a good-guy archeologist. He wasn’t doing archaeology. He was a kind of antiquarian thief. And that his sort of justification was, someone’s going to raid these temples anyway, someone’s going to steal this stuff. At least if I steal it, I’ll sell it to a museum rather than a collector. And so, there was a . . . there’s a stronger element of the anti-hero in Indiana Jones than there is in Han Solo, who is regrettably often quoted or listed as being an anti-hero, when, in fact, he’s nothing of the sort.
The archaeology thing and being on a dig and realizing you didn’t like it . . . I went through the phase like many kids do, thinking I might want to be a paleontologist because, you know, dinosaurs are cool. And then I’ve had the opportunity since then to be really into paleontology digs and all that bending over in the hot sun with a toothbrush, brushing away dirt, I realized . . . much as when I went out with a veterinarian, a farm-animal veterinarian, and had to see what they did with farm animals when I was in high school and I realized that veterinary medicine was not for me either.
Yeah. My goodness. You know, paleontology is archaeology magnified in the sense that . . . I often tell people that archaeology is an excellent—like, field archaeology specifically because obviously there’s many, many different kinds of many different branches of archaeology—is actually, by the way, a good career. People do earn good livings as archaeologists, strangely enough. But field archaeology is an excellent endeavor if you really like camping, because basically that’s what you’re doing. You’re camping and then you’re out in the hot sun and then you’re pulling out the toothbrush. And, you know, at night there’s the campfire and drinking and not tons of showers. And, you know, if that’s your thing, it’s fantastic. I’m really . . . probably no one’s going to quote me when they’re putting together posters to promote archaeology programs. But it is it is a wonderful field. I’m super glad that it exists. And I’m almost equally glad that I’m not in it anymore.
Well, the drinking and camps . . .we’re not far from here is the Royal Saskatchewan Museum, and it has a cast of Scotty, who’s the largest T-Rex found in North America. And I was at the dig when they were pulling him out of the ground out in the Frenchman River Valley. But the reason he’s called Scotty is because when they found him and realized what they had, they went back to camp and drank a bottle of scotch. That’s why he’s Scotty. And the paleontologist, Tim Tokaryk, who was working on it, said that it’s like when you have a find like that, it’s, “Yeah, this is exciting.” And then, “Well, now I know what I’m working on for the next multiple years of my career.” I also wanted to ask you about being a fight choreographer. You actually are somebody who knows how to use a sword, is that right?
I am, in as much as anyone sort of knows how to use a sword without ever having to actually risk their lives with one, because obviously that changes everything. But yeah, I used to fence quite a bit. Years and years ago. And then for a while I was doing sword choreography for the theater and that, you know, informed my writing in all the ways you can imagine. But so, there are other . . . there are many other writers in fantasy who have far better credentials on that particular front than I do. I think specifically of someone like Miles Cameron, who is genuinely a historian, both more broadly and specifically of arms and armor and things like that. But, you know, I have some game
And you’ve done some acting as well. And I always ask about that because I’m a stage actor and I have found that being an actor influences my writing as well in a beneficial way. So ,I’m just curious, all these things, the archaeology, the fight choreography, the the acting, the music, does that all fit into your stories, do you think?
Oh, absolutely. I think one of the beautiful things about writing, and something I’m very passionate about, just as a human being, is everyone writing a novel. I think everyone who wants to write a novel should write a novel. I think we all have a good book in us. It’s just varying levels of effort to get it out. And often, I meet people who are nervous about . . . they’re having trouble writing their novel and they get very stressed out and they’re worried that because they’re having trouble, they won’t do it. And I always say that one of the wonderful things about writing, and I think especially fiction, is that it feeds on everything you’ve experienced. And so, there’s always time to write your novel in the sense that, you know, if this isn’t the year, it might be next year or the year after. It might be that it’s the experience of going to a place or doing a particular job that’s going to unlock it for you. And all of it feeds into it.
For me, music is probably the element that influences my writing more than anything else, because music introduces that notion of the contrast between rhythm and melody and rhythm can very loosely be attached to pacing, for example, inside of a scene or inside of dialogue, and melody can kind of loosely be attached to the sort of emotional intensity and tonality of the writing. So ,everything influences it. But I’m often more conscious, I would say, of music as driving the feeling of a scene for me as I’m writing it. And, you know, very frequently when I go . . . I run quite a bit. I’m an absolutely terrible runner, but running has this weirdly perfect combination for me that . . . it’s hard on me because I’m not good at it, and so it makes me emotionally kind of vulnerable. And so, I’ll listen to music, which also tends to make me emotionally vulnerable, and I will have to conjure up scenes, and then I’ll have these profound emotional reactions to an idea for a scene. And so, people will be wondering why this pathetically slow runner going up a hill is crying.
I would cry running up a hill, but . . .
It’s just that thing that allows you to kind of, you know, put things together at that right moment. That’s so much . . . I think what the act of creation is from the standpoint of a novelist is, it’s this combination of you have to put your body and your brain into a particular state. For some people, that’s, you know, they burn incense and light a . . . and drink the right tea and sit at the right place at the right time of day. For me, it’s actually being somewhere. It’s doing something. It’s having an experience that’s outside of my normal day that that kind of drives it. So then, it’s that putting yourself in that state and then allowing those kind of emotions to run a little bit rampant and all your dark little secrets to kind of creep up from your subconscious. So, yeah, so all those sort of activities help, but they all help in different ways. You know, the fight choreography taught me a lot about the role of a character inside of a scene because, you know, you were mentioning . . .. you’ve been a theater actor, have you done any stage fighting?
Not with weapons. There’s been a couple of fistfight things, but that’s all.
Well, you know that typically . . . you know, there’s a famous sort of Shakespeare line, “They fight,” which is . . . you’ll have this massive script full of the world’s most amazing dialogue. And then it’ll be, you know, somewhere it’ll say Romeo and Paris confront each other in the fourth act or third act of Romeo and Juliet. And they have these lines, wonderful lines of dialogue. And then it just says, “They fight.” And so, what a fight choreographer has to do is somehow put in a piece o choreography in which that conversation continues, but without words. And so, the way a character fights . . .and then, this, I think, can be expanded to the way a character moves and can be expanded to the way a character does anything is a constant reflection of the sort of the narrative that they’re telling about themselves, right? I am the hero in this fight. And, you know, I’m much more devious than you think I am. You know, all of these sorts of things can play out inside of a swordfight, which is what makes those fun for me to write
I’m not someone who typically watches or aims to watch, you know, boatloads of action movies because often those are spectacle devoid of narrative. Not always. You know, if you watch . . . I think Jackie Chan is particularly wonderful at this putting kind of a story into his fight scenes. But a lot of fight scenes now tend to be spectacle without the need for narrative. But so, that’s what I learned from fight choreography. So, to round it out, all of that kind of informs the writing and sometimes in ways that you’re conscious of and sometimes in ways that you’re not.
Well, I think for me, it’s not the fight choreography so much, but just the acting and the fact that when you’re acting . . . I’ve also directed plays, and you’re always extremely conscious of where everybody is in relationship to each other within the space. And I think that that carries over when it comes to writing scenes and having that mental image of where everybody is in relation to each other. And when I mentor younger writers or do instruction, I will sometimes find scenes that seem to happen in just kind of this amorphous grey space and there’s no sense of place and they lose track of where characters are. And I just think that the acting and directing side is kind of helps with that and obviously fight choreography even more so when it comes to writing those fight scenes.
I just wanted to say, I think I always view the actor role slightly differently in this regard, that . . . the thing I didn’t understand about acting, even probably in the time when I was an actor properly, is that an actor’s job isn’t to perform a particular set, deliver a particular set, of words while making a particular set of actions, but that it’s a much more sophisticated process in that they’re creating all of these interpretations and layers that aren’t available in the script itself. And for me, that’s what the reader does, right, that when the reader picks up the book, they’re reading the script and they’re having to direct all of the action and produce all of those, a lot of those layers of subtext themselves, which is what’s so amazing about it. It’s also one of the reasons why I absolutely adore getting, hearing, the audio books of some of my books, because there you have an actor and often an extremely skilled actor who is suddenly taking your text and adding all of these layers to it that are, that just for me, just bring the story alive in a completely different way than I expected.
Yeah. I often say that although writing is a solitary act, it’s actually a collaborative art form and that you’re collaborating with the reader and you don’t actually know what the final art form is because it happens individually in each reader’s head. Each reader is constructing their own version of your story based on their own background and understanding of the words that you were using. And it’s really, really fascinating to think about that. When you write a book, you’re actually writing a whole bunch of books, because every reader is getting a different book out of it.
Absolutely, and yeah, and I’m philosophically I’m a believer in reader response theory, which argues that the only, that the true narrative act is, is when the reader reads the text, that s the author, our, you know, our intent becomes irrelevant the moment the words are fixed to the page because it doesn’t matter what I intended or what I was thinking. That’s not available to the reader. There’s only the text and they will, from that text, conjure up whatever they want to conjure.
It’s one of the reasons I also don’t take it too personally if sometimes someone will say, you know, “Oh, this this represents this, this scene represents something horrible or this character is vile,” or, you know, this book is about something that it’s not about for me because I always recognize well, it is about those things for that reader. And it’s why I think, you know, literary criticism is such a tricky area. You know, it’s expanded so much because, you know, everyone has a YouTube channel now or lots of book bloggers are out there. And there’s sometimes a sort of an attempt to kind of consolidate a sort of a definitive interpretation of a book, which to me is a pretty problematic effort at best. Whereas, you know, sometimes when people are just trying to share what they love or even what they hate about a book, that sort of to me always feels like a more personal expression. And therefore, it always aligns better with my own sense of, as I say, a reader response theory, that every reader is the one constructing the story from the text.
That’s interesting. I’m currently reading a collection of Robertson Davies essays published just after he died in the mid 90s, and he had a line in there to the effect that he hated it when a reader would say to him, “So what you’re trying to say in this is,” and he would always say, “No. I said what I’m saying to the, you know, to the best of my ability, your job is to figure out what I’m saying.” And I thought, I don’t quite buy that.
You know, that always feels like a very Canadian thing to me. I don’t know why, but I always feel like, when I hear kind of the Canadian literati talk about books, that there’s such a strong adherence to a very old-fashioned notion of literature as this thing created by great minds that the rest of us should struggle to interpret. And if you don’t enjoy a great book, it’s because you didn’t interpret it correctly. And if you didn’t get out of it what the author later informs you through their memoirs they intended, then it’s because, you know, you didn’t interpret it correctly. So, I’m not a big fan of that perspective, I would say, which is nice, because this is my first time explicitly contradicting Robertson Davis. I’m sure that will go down in the annals of literary history.
I mean, I loved his essays. I love reading good stuff, but I did kind of push back against that. Well, now let’s move on to your process for creating great literature. But you have a book that’s just coming out, Way of the Argosi. When does that come out?
That comes out on April 19th. It’s oming out in various languages in various parts of the world, but I’m not actually sure what it’s publish date for North America is going to be. So, it’ll be available in pretty much everywhere except Canada and the United States on April 19th. It may end up being available in Canada and the United States on that date. But it’s a little wishy-washy right now.
Well, this this, as it happens, unusually for these podcasts, we’re doing this just a few days before it comes out. We’re doing this interview on a Monday, or is it Tuesday? And it will be coming out this coming weekend. So, it’ll be out very, very promptly, so, before that comes out. So, let’s start by a synopsis of it, and then we’ll talk about how you created it as an example of your creative process.
Sure. So, Way of the Argosi is a young adult fantasy novel about a young refugee who is pursued and tormented by the mages who massacred her clan. And as she sort of struggles to survive in this world, she finds herself trying to adopt the kind of archetypes of different ways that people navigate the world ,of trying to behave like a knight and, you know, trying to, you know, value honor. And when that sort of fails for her, trying to be a thief and surviving that way, but then finding the limits of that, and ultimately coming to meet one of these rather strange and enigmatic kind of what I would call a cowboy gambler, monks who are called the Argosi, who sort of offer her a somewhat different path through the world. But it’s one that comes at great cost. And so, that’s what Way of the Argosi is about. It’s the . . . the main character is Ferius Parfax, who is a character who appears prominently in the Spellslinger series. But this is her story, told for the first time.
Well, I haven’t had a chance to read the entire thing, but it immediately gripped me with the opening scene with the 11-year-old girl hiding among the corpses, you know, going on from there. Very gripping reading and opening, I think. Greatcoats, your first one that made your career, as you said, that wasn’t YA, was it?
No, no. The Greatcoats is definitely adult fantasy. Although, you know, the dividing line between adult fantasy and young adult fantasy is blurry at best. It’s very much a sort of a marketing distinction at times. If you think to the classic fantasy that we probably read as kids at various points, it very often featured younger characters who might start, you know, Way of the Argosi only briefly has Ferius as sort of 11, and then it progresses into her teenage years. But lots and lots of, you know, the Belgariad by David Eddings, for example, I think the main character starts out very young and stays very young throughout pretty much the whole series. So, it’s an odd distinction. But The Greatcoats definitely sort of fits into that classification of adult fantasy, if only because it sort of features a trio of middl-eaged men.
So why did you start focusing on YA? Because your next series was YA, was it not?
That’s right. Spellslinger sort of fit into that Y.A. category. I think . . . my wife is a librarian and she, I think, gave me the best definition of her notion of YA at one point, which was that young adult stories are about first experiences. And so, what happened was . . . Spellslinger was kind of interesting. Originally ,I was going to write it with one of my best friends and I sometimes write with a guy by the name of Eric Torin (sp?), who’s a well-regarded video game person, but also a terrific writer. And we wanted to write something together and we were spit-balling various ideas. And then. his life got very busy and he said, “No, you go off and do it.” And so, I’d written this story about an exiled former mage, you know, wandering the desert like Kwai Chang Caine from Kung Fu, which is a reference not everyone will get.
Yeah. And, you know, a more modern parallel is probably Jack Reacher in the sense that Jack Reacher is sort of like, you know, David Carradine in Kung Fu, but without the philosophy quite as much. And so, I had written this book and I I loved it and my agent loved it. And then it went through this sort of odd cycle of things where, all of a sudden, I was being asked by various publishers who are sort of saying,”Look, we would love to see a YA trilogy of prequels to this and would you be interested in doing that? And could you write a rough outline of what that would look like?” And I said, “OK,” which is always the first mistake I make when I’m asked to write a book proposal because they’re nightmarish, not so much in the process of making them, but in in the consequences where now you’ve basically given somebody nothing they can fall in love with, but something that they can critique.
And so, it kind of went through various cycles of that, where they say, “Well, now we need some chapters. Well, now we need some more chapters. Oh, this is looking really good. Can you write even more?” And I was like, I said, “You know, I’ve written almost half the novel now. I think you’re just asking me to write the novel.” But eventually, it sort of went back and forth between a couple of publishers. And I ended up with this very strange eight-book deal from Bonnier in the U.K. for world rights. And it was a really great deal. It basically meant for four years of my life, I had, you know, a ful-time, excellent income just writing those books. And so, we originally said we would do four books, would be Kellen as a young man, and four books would be Kellen as an adult. But then then an editor came on board who said, “Well, actually, I think we’d like six books, all telling the story of his youth,” which is what we did.
And then, that left two books on this contract. And I said at one point, “You know, what is it you want me to do with these other two books?” And they sort of said, “Well, you know, write whatever you want.” And I thought, Well, that’s like a really strange thing to do. And I didn’t have high hopes that doing so would result in a massive marketing push. But I was really delighted working with Bonnier and their imprint, HotKey Books. And so, as we were coming around the bend of wrapping up the six-book series about Kellie, I said, ”Look, you know, I’m if you want two more spells on your books, I’ll write two more Spellslinger books. If you want something different, I will, like, let’s talk about something that you could be passionate about.” And they were kind of interested in something that was set in that world but wasn’t just a continuation. And in the meantime, I was getting these letters. I get quite a bit of fan mail, or more than I sort of expected to get as a writer. And often the fanmail I get is from people who will say, “I read Spellslinger, I want to become an Argosi, tell me how to become at heart Argosi. And of course, you know, it’s a strange thing to try to sort of helpfully answer those letters because I am not an Argosi and there is no, you know, there’s no school of the Argosi.
But what I think people were sort of falling in love with was this notion of this system . . . the Argosi are a little bit like the Jedi, except rather than having basically magic, they kind of don’t revere magic, but they sort of mock magic. You know, in fantasy novels, magic is always this sort of moral superiority in a sense. You know, we all want to have it. And the Agosta are sort of like, “You know, that stuff’s all kind of children’s games. The real thing you need to learn how to do is dancing, you know, or singing, or learning languages.” And so, what the Argosi do is, they take very human phenomenon and, like, very human things, and they kind of elevate them almost to the level of magic. And the best example I can give is sort of martial arts, right? When you think of it, martial arts are pretty amazing, right? Like, the human body is a pretty crappy instrument for most forms of violence. We don’t have very good, you know, biting teeth. We don’t have very good claws. We’re sort of gangly-limbed. And somehow, humanity over the millennia has sort of created martial arts where all of a sudden these otherwise gangly bodies can become kind of amazing inwhat they can do. And so, I was sort of extending that with language and wit and even with something like swagger, like charisma and confidence.
And so, that’s what the Argosi kind of do. And so I . . . and because the Argosi are also an expression of my own philosophical bent towards existentialism, which, you know, of course, as with everything else, I’m not an expert on. But for anyone who’s completely confounded by what existentialism is supposed to mean, in its simplest form, it’s the idea that there’s no inherent meaning in the universe. There’s no natural purpose to anything. But humans, for whatever reason, can’t seem to live without a sense of meaning. And so, you know, existentialism is a philosophy that says, therefore, what you have to do is decide what is meaningful to you and live authentically to that. And so, the Argosi, rather than being a kind of an order of knights, as we’ve seen in the past, that have, you know, you must be this, this and this, or unlike the Jedi, let’s say, from Star Wars, the Argosi believe that every person has to find their own path and sort of take that on and embrace that and follow it where it leads. And so that seems to be, I think, very appealing for a lot of people these days who don’t feel like a lot of the traditional avenues that that, you know, our parents had or their parents had fit them very well. And so I, when it was time to deal with these last two books, I said, “You know, maybe I’ll write something that’s . . .” My original idea was was I’m going to write my own version of Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, which really nobody should do. I’m not entirely sure Coelho should have done it, because The Alchemist is basically sort of a fantasy story that is him expounding on his personal philosophy and spirituality.
And so, that’s why this got called Way of the Argosi, because I thought, Oh, I’ll just expound on all of that. But, of course, you know, it became just a very personal story of of this character, various power facts. And along the way, we sort of, you know, pick up some of those things. But it’s not a sort of a guide to how to become an Argosi in that sense. It’s a tale in which in which some of those ideas are explored. And so, yeah, I’ve been absolutely delighted with it.
I, funnily enough, I received the audiobook. They sent me the audiobook to get to listen to and the performer, Kristin Atherton, is so amazing. And, you know, going back to what we were saying about acting, she just brings that whole story to life in this whole new way. And it’s absolutely captivating for me because even though I wrote the words, you know, she takes them and she’s made them her words. And, you know, it’s like I’m getting to hear various effects for the first time.
Well, I think in all of that, we’ve kind of covered some of my usual questions about where the idea came from and the development of it. What’s your actual writing process look like? Are you an everyday writer, do you do it in long stretches or snatches around other things? Do you write with parchment and the quill pen under a tree? How does it work for you?
I write exclusively in blood. Not mine, you understand, other people’s, because I would get tired if it was my blood. I’d run out of energy. So, my process is a giant mess. And to kind of give you a sense of how big a mess it is, I’ll put it this way. In January of 2020, so, January of last year, I called my editor at HotKey Books and they were just transitioning from Felicity Johnston, who was wonderful, to go to a new fellow, Maurice Lyon, who is also wonderful. And I had this chat with her and I said, “Listen, I’ve been trying to write Way of the Argosi. It’s not working. It’s really not working. I need to push back publication by a year,” which is not a nice thing to do to your publishers. She, of course, was wonderful and said, “No problem. You know, I understand. Do you want me to read some of what you’ve written?” And I said, “OK, but it’s a disaster.” And then she took it and she shared it with Maurice. And a few weeks later, we had this conversation and they said, well, no, the stuff . . . they loved what was there, but it wasn’t quite hanging together. And in the course of a sort of a 20-minute phone call or 30-minute phone call, you know, a couple of ideas were bounced around. And Maurice said something like, “You know, I feel like you’re rushing from the moment of her trauma in that opening chapter to later events,” and that it would be OK to explore some of the stuff in between.
And that doesn’t sound like a particularly profound insight. But 60 days later, two months later, I was turning in the manuscript of Way of the Argosi, and virtually nothing changed from that manuscript to the one that is dropping in reader’s hands in the book on April 19. You know, it was copyedited by the fabulous Talia Baker, who transforms my occasionally clumsy sentences into something closer to sublime narrative. But the story was all there.
And so, my process is so messed up that I can get to a point of literally thinking there’s no hope for a book. And then, someone will say something that will seem very, very basic to anybody else. And yet, all of a sudden, that unlocks things in more sort of tactical terms or pragmatic terms, which was probably where you were headed with the question. But I’m fabulous for derailing questions. But on a tactical level, look, there’s things that I’m always very cautious when I’m asked this question. And the reason I’m cautious is because I know that a lot of listeners are either writers themselves or thinking about writing. And I’m always terrified of imparting something that will sound like the rules for a field that you and I both know really has no rules.
It’s kind of the point of this podcast, is that everybody does it different.
No, absolutely. And so, it’s one of those things where I always feel like I have to keep saying, “But of course, this may work differently.” And in my own life, in fact, I have probably done every different kind of writing, every different approach, all within the bounds of the 11 books I have published so far. So, with something like Way of the Argosi, the way that it finally came out was in part by saying, “All right, I am going to write this draft, knowing that the story may not go where I want it to go may not be anything of any value. And I’m just going to write every single day.” And that’s what I did. So, for 30 days straight, all I did was write this book and I didn’t worry about whether it was going somewhere logical or not. And then, somehow, it did. But I’ve done that again recently with a different book, and it’s gone straight to hell. I mean, it’s gone into a book that makes no sense, that has, you know, no artistic merits or values whatsoever. And so, it’s always all over the map. You know, with Knight’s Shadow, the second Greatcoats book, I think I wrote a 45-page outline, and to some extent, I followed that outline. So, I sort of use everything. And that’s the big challenge for me when I’m writing a book, you know, and I’m actually kind of glad that you’re making me talk about it here, because it sort of forces me to remind myself of this.
The biggest challenge when I set out to write a book is to figure out what is the process by which this particular book is going to come to life, because I don’t know what process that’s going to be. So, it might be, sit down and write a big outline. It might be, have no outline and just explore. And even beyond those very tactical concerns, there’s often a mental game involved, which I don’t know if you encounter this because, you know, in your writings, maybe . . . I’d be interested in hearing how you deal with this. But it seems sometimes as if we have to program our own brains or deceive our own brains or tell ourselves something . . . like, I’ll have to trick myself by saying, “All right, I’ve decided that this book isn’t going to be published and I’m just going to write, I’m going to write a book that’s going to, that’s basically intended to irritate fans of fantasy, you know, that all these people that talk about what fantasy is and what it should be and what tropes are allowed and not allowed, I’m just going to, you know . . .”, and somehow that’ll get me to a book that doesn’t offend people necessarily, but it seems to work, whereas other times I have to tell myself some other thing. And so that whole internal process, I think that’s why I’m so sensitive to not wanting to ever make any writer feel like they’re doing something wrong, because I just never know what the process is going to be.
I think my usual trick is just telling myself that I’ll get this mess out and once I get to the end, I go back and fix it. The first person I interviewed here, Robert Sawyer, and he got the term from Edo van Belkom, I think he said, he calls his first draft the vomit draft, because you just vomit it out and, you know, it makes a huge mess that you have to clean up, but you feel better so you could get on with the cleaning it up. My next book for DAW Books, The Tangled Stars, is this big, sprawling space opera that turned out to be humorous, which I didn’t really know going in, necessarily. And I’m struggling with it a bit. But that’s really what I’m telling myself, is, I’ve just got to get the words out there and then I’m going to I’ve got to fix all this stuff I know it’s horribly wrong with it right now, but not until I get to the end. That’s kind of the way I tell myself.
It’s interesting, because I sometimes correspond with Dean Wesley Smith, who, you know, is the writer of any number of Star Trek and Men in Black novels and Marvel comics, superhero novels and things like that, as well as all of his own series, the Poker Game Series and things like that. And he has a very specific philosophy about writing, which is, you write one draft, you turn off the internal critic entirely. You allow your brain to take the story wherever it’s going to go. You can cycle back while you’re writing as many times as you need to clean things up. But once you hit the end, that’s it. It’s over. It may get a sort of a typo-cleaning pass, but that’s it. And he’s very firm about this notion that you have to trust what you write and if you keep second-guessing what you write that that you’re basically training your creative brain not to trust itself, so it’s . . . and I’ve had a couple of books recently where following that is sort of process really worked for me. I’ve had others where it didn’t. But it is interesting that that even that notion of the first draft, is that the first draft, this getting stuff out of yourself so that you’re more analytical brain can fix it, or is that first draft the true and genuine expression of the story your artistic self wants to tell you, therefore you have an obligation to it? That’s the question.
I would say with my . . . OK, we’ll talk about me for a minute. I would say with my writing, with my first draft that it is, I don’t change huge, huge things in these. You know, I have things to fix. But the overall story, I don’t, like, switch scenes around or move chapters here and there or anything like that. Once I have that something to the end, that is the shape of the story for sure. So, I guess I’m following a little bit into his way of thinking about it. So, it does get worked out in my head as I’m going. It’s just that I know at times that I’ve got I’ve got to do some foreshadowing back there because I didn’t really set this up and that sort of technical stuff. But the overall shape of the story, if I do run into trouble, which I did on my last one, The Moonlit World, I got to the middle of the book, realized that I could no longer get to where I thought I was going because my brain had changed things, and I had to go back and sort of take a fresh run at it from the beginning and read through it all and change a couple of things. And then, when I hit that stop spot in the middle, I was able to power through it and carry on to the end. So, it’s not . . . as you said and as this whole podcast is about, there’s no one way to do it.
And I think, yeah, it’s interesting, because I think the middle is the true book in a way, the true book that has to be followed in the strange sense that, you know, I will very frequently write an opening to a book that I think is terrific. And n fact, I almost never struggle to write a strong opening to a novel. But once you get into that second act, you know, however, one defines the second act, that’s where things get really, really fuzzy. And that’s where one of two things will happen, either for me, either I get lucky and I’m on the right track and that middle will carry me through that, you know, will carry me all the way through to the story itself, or I won’t be. And sometimes, I’ll do sort of what you described, which is I’ll cycle back to the beginning of the book, you know, right back, and all I’ll be doing is just changing a word here or there. It’s more just me reimmersing myself in where I started from and see if I can get to a better launching point in that second act.
The thing that appeals to me, I have to say, about Dean Wesley Smith’s model is the notion is it allows for the notion of a novel from the standpoint of a writer being a journey that you begin with the first word on the page and end with the last word at the end of the book. And that’s just, psychologically, for me is so appealing, right? The notion that today I will sit down and begin a book and then, you know, X number of days from now, I will end that book and it will be finished, I will have completed that journey, I will have climbed the mountain as opposed to what very frequently happens to me. And by the way, part of what informs this is, I am not kidding, I’ve turned in the tenth draft of Play of Shadows, which is the first book in the new Greatcoats series, the tenth draft. I’ve never done 10 drafts a book and that starts to feel like you go and you climb this mountain and you get to the top and discover that you took the wrong route. You get kicked off the mountain, you roll down to the bottom, dust yourself off and start climbing again.
That doesn’t sound like fun.
It’s so, you know, I think my wildest fantasy of writing is something along the lines of this. As I travel to an exotic location, or, not even that exotic, let’s say you got to go to Paris for a month and you write a fantasy novel that’s set in a fantasy sort of version of Paris. And you start it when you get there and your afternoons are spent in a cafe, you know, somewhere on the left bank of the center. And then when you get on the plane to fly back to Canada, you’re also hitting send on the manuscript to the editor who will then fall in love with it. You know, that’s the vision of being a writer that I think I’m always desperately trying to get towards. And so that’s why I write so much now. You know, I write so many books in a given year, a couple of which are meant for publication and a couple of which will literally just be me just trying to get better as a writer so that I can one day hit that point where I can be like, “Yes, I will fly off to Cambodia and I will write a wonderful novel while going on an adventure.”
Well, I think we’re kind of down to the end of the time here. And I think although this did not follow my usual formula of questions, I think you covered pretty much everything I normally ask as we as we chatted back and forth. So, thanks for that.
I apologize for the long answers. I’m a novelist, not a short-story writer.
No, it’s fine. It was great. What are you working on now?
Yeah. So right now, I’m waiting . . . so, soon I’ll be getting notes back on Play of Shadows. I’m going to be starting up the second novel in that series, which is called Our Lady of Blades, which I which is one of those books where I’ve done a lot of climbing up the mountain and then gone, “Wait a second. There’s a there’s a more interesting story to explore here.” I just finished up another mystery novel. I’ve never published a mystery novel, but I’ve written, like, four of them, which is kind of a weird thing to do. But I suppose it allows me to kind of, you know, stretch my writing muscles a little bit. And I’m about to start copyediting on Fall of the Argosi, which is the sequel to Way of the Argosi, which is the one that’s coming out on April 19th and which I hope everyone will enjoy as much as I do.
And where can people find you online?
They can find me at . . . the best way, generally, to find me is at my website, which is decastelle.com. I will see stuff on Twitter and try to respond to it. Facebook is notoriously bad for me. Someone will sent me an incredibly heartfelt message and I don’t see it until six months later. So, my website is usually the best. But, anyway, people try to reach out to me, I will try to respond.
OK well, thanks so much for the conversation. I really enjoyed that. I hope you did too.
An hour-long conversation with Walter Jon Williams, Nebula Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author of more than forty books of historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, as well as work in film, television, comics, and games.
Walter Jon Williams is the Nebula Award-winning, New York Times-bestelling author of more than forty volumes of fiction, in addition to works in film, television, comics, and the gaming field.
He began his career writing historical fiction, the sea-adventure series Privateers & Gentlemen, then, when the market for historical novels died, began a new career as a science fiction writer. Since then, he’s written cyberpunk, near-future thrillers, classic space opera, “new” space opera, post-cyberpunk epic fantasy new weird, and the world’s only gothic western science fiction police procedural (Days of Atonement). He’s also a reasonably prolific writer of short fiction, including contributions to George RR Martin’s Wild Cards project.
Williams has been nominated for numerous literary awards, and won Nebula Awards in 205 and 2011. In addition to fiction, he’s written a number of films for Hollywood, although none have yet been made. He’s also maintained a foot in the gaming industry, having written RPGs based on his Privateers & Gentlemen series and his novel Hardwired, contributed to the alternate-reality game Last Call Poker, and written the dialog for the Electronic Arts game Spore. In 2017, he was the Guest of Honor at the 75th World Science Fiction Convention, held in Helsinki.
In addition to writing, Williams is a world traveler, scuba diver, and a black belt in Kenpo Karate. He lives in New Mexico.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Walter, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Happy to be here.
I always try to find connections, and I can think of two. You live in New Mexico, and I was born in New Mexico. So that’s something.
I was born in Silver City, New Mexico, but yeah, I didn’t live there very long. We moved to Texas, and then we moved from Texas to Canada, which is where I am now. But, yeah. So, there’s that connection.
Silver City is quite pretty and has quite a history.
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it when I was old enough to remember it. I know we went back a couple of times when I was young, but I don’t have any memories of it, unfortunately.
Well, the thing I like about certain old towns is, you know, if they were, say, a mining town, silver-mining town, which Silver City was, and then the silver mining went bust, they never had enough money to tear down their old Victorian town and build up an ugly new modern one.
So, it’s still got all these beautiful Victorian buildings still, as does all the surrounding area.
It’s a bit like Moose Jaw here in Saskatchewan. They had a couple of fires in the early years that burned everything down. So, they passed a bylaw that everything had to be built out of brick.
And then there was kind of a boom and then a bust. And a lot of those old brick buildings are still there. So, Moose Jaw has some really nice character buildings still existing. Plus, it has that name, Moose Jaw, going for it. The other connection is, we did actually eat at the same restaurant at some convention, but I can’t remember which one. I was probably Denver or Reno, but . . .
I think I’ll have to take your word for it. I’ve eaten in many restaurants at many conventions.
Yeah, so have I at this point. You more than me, I’m sure. And they do tend to kind of run together over time. Well, anyway, so, that’s not actually what we’re going to talk about. We’re going to talk about your writing process. But first, I want to take you back into the mists of time, which is getting further and further back for some of us, I guess. For all of us, really. Where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in reading and writing and all that good stuff? How did you get started in this strange way of making a living?
I was born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, and I always wanted to be a writer. As soon as I knew what a writer was, I wanted to be that. I was probably four years old. I didn’t know how to read or write yet, so I would dictate stories to my parents, who would write them down for me. And then I would illustrate them with my crayons, and fortunately, none of those have survived. And so, I mean, it wasn’t a choice for me. I was compelled to be a writer, and I just work hard at it all my life until I managed to sell some fiction. And then I worked hard at writing more fiction to sell.
If you wanted to be a writer, that must have come from having encountered books. So, was there a reading component to your wanting to become a writer, I presume?
Well, once again, I didn’t know how to read, but I had books read to me and comic books, which I think were a big influence on my very early writing development, since I was better with crayons than I was with, you know, actually crafting prose. So, let’s see. And so, my family left Duluth and moved to New Mexico when I was thirteen. And with some exceptions, I’ve been here ever since.
Did you study writing formally at some point or . . . ?
I took some creative writing classes in college. I’m not sure that they helped. Well, I think, you know, I took a lot of literature courses, and that exposed me to a lot of different material, different writers, different ways of writing, different approaches to writing. And those turned out to be quite valuable. But the actual writing classes . . . well, probably they did no harm.
Well, I often ask writers about that, and more often than not . . . I have rarely gotten a ringing endorsement of creative writing courses at the university level from anybody I’ve talked to you on the podcast. So, that’s interesting. Were there specific books, once you were reading your own books, were there specific books along the way that influenced you, do you think?
Well, science fiction was an early passion. I think I was in second grade when I . . . my mom, who was not a science fiction person at all, sort of marched through the local public library one day, and she knew I would like science fiction, so she grabbed a couple of science fiction books off the shelf and brought them home for me. And the first one was Robert Heinlein’s Have Spaceship Will Travel, which is still my favorite Heinlein novel.
Mine too, actually.
You know, I don’t know why it hasn’t been made into a movie. It would be glorious. But so. I read science fiction from second grade on. I was really fond of books about natural history and animals, including, you know, fiction about animals, you know, The Jungle Book and so on. And then I just continued, and I read a ton of history because I just love history, and that’s a big influence on one of my current projects.
Just mentioning animal books, did you read the Black Stallion books by any chance?
No, I did not. They were not available.
The only reason I ask is, I often ask if anybody has encountered them because it’s perhaps little known that Walter Farley wrote a subsection of those, the Island Stallion books, that were actually science fiction. There’s, like, aliens involved, with horse racing as well.
If I’d known that, I would have sought them out, I’m sure.
His final book that he wrote, late in life, Alec and the Black are wandering around the southwestern desert, Arizona, I think, not New Mexico, while there’s been some sort of asteroid strike or something, it’s like a post-apocalyptic almost setting, with the horse and the boy. And it’s very odd, really. So, that’s why I asked.
Yeah, it’s . . . you sort of wonder if he was running out of ideas for ordinary horse stories, you know that., OK, well, let’s have a post-Holocaust horse story and see what that seems like.
It might have been something like that, or he was just feeling really depressed. I don’t know. It kind of reads that way, too. So, you mentioned the historical, and when you did start becoming published, I know that your first books were historical novels, were they not?
My first published books were. There were some unpublished ones that weren’t. There are a whole host of projects that I never completed for one reason or another, including science fiction and fantasy. I wrote a sort of literary novel that took place in the Civil War that attracted some attention but never got published. And I followed that up with a murder mystery and then had the idea for a series of sea-adventure novels. And those were the ones that sold. It was . . . they were in the realm of C.S. Forester or Jack Aubrey, you know, except that my heroes were Americans rather than Royal Navy.
Did you have any . . . I’ve always had a fondness for these stories, one of the books, one of the series I read growing up was a series of British children’s books called Swallows and Amazons, in which the kids sail. Now, they’re not. They’re just sailing, like, little sailing dinghies around the Lake District in England for many of the books. But in their mind, they’re having these sea adventures with pirates and broadsides and all that stuff going on. And I think that’s where my interest in and see stories came. Did you have any connection to the sea other than just wanting to write about it?
Well, I think growing up on Lake Superior. Lake Superior is, you know, it’s the largest body of fresh water on the planet. And it is, it’s, you know, it’s pretty much a sea of its own. And also, growing up in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, I spent a lot of time in the water when I was a kid and on boats. So, you know, I grew up, and I became a small-boat sailor and a scuba diver. So, you know, it’s been a consistent thing in my life.
And that series you’ve brought out as ebooks now, haven’t you? After they were not available for a while. It’s called Privateers and Gentleman, right?
That’s the series title. And I also restored my original titles that the publisher . . . the original publisher was Dell, and they had a formula for how they wanted series books to be titled. Which was The (Adjective). And the adjective would change, but it had to be a two-word title, the first word had to be “the.”
That gets repetitious after a while, I would think.
Yeah, yeah. And especially as I had much better titles. Those titles are now restored to the books that needed them.
Where could people get those if they wanted to read them?
Your favorite online bookstore.
Available everywhere I can find to put it, yeah.
So how did you make the switch from the historicals to science fiction?
Oh, that was easy. The market for historical fiction in the United States completely collapsed about May of 1982. And so, what I planned as a ten-book series became a five-book series. And so, I spent a desperate six months writing proposals for things that didn’t sell. And it was across the spectrum, I mean, I wrote proposals for mysteries, for historicals, for science–not for science fiction, actually—everything but category romance, I think. And none of them sold.
And then, a science fiction proposal that I had written some years before sold. And so, I became a science fiction writer. And the science fiction proposal had been bouncing around publisher to publisher without being read. It’s kind of a fascinating saga, it’s probably too long for this interview, but it sort of explains how publishers can screw up repeatedly. And it finally ended up at Tor books. And the editor at that point was Jim Baen. And there were only three people in the office. There was Tom Doherty, who was the publisher, Jim Baen, the editor, and then there was Mrs. Doherty, who ran the account—was the accounting department. And, you know, now Tor is the largest science fiction publisher, and it doesn’t run like that anymore. But Jim Baen read the proposal and bought it. And although it had been on the market for two or three years, it actually sold to the first editor who rented.
How did it not get read at the other places that it had been?
Well, there were a lot of mergers going on in publishing, as there are now. And so, you know, I don’t recall the exact sequence, but, you know, it was sent to Ace. And Susan Allison, who was the editor, left Ace to go to Berkeley, and until she was replaced, they put a buying hold. So, then it came back, and then it was sent to Berkeley and to Susan Allison at Berkeley, and then Berkeley acquired Ace and suddenly they had too many manuscripts sitting in the office. So, another buying hold went, and then it went to David Hartwell at Timescape, and it was lost in the mailroom for about six months. And by the time that was discovered, they had put a buying hold on. And so, it just kept bouncing off of these things until it actually went to an editor who still had a publishing schedule to fill up.
That must have been satisfying when it did finally sell.
I was greatly, greatly relieved because I was, you know, beginning to look in the help wanted section of the paper so that I could make my rent. And suddenly . . . although it has to be said that the science fiction sold for a lot less money than the historical fiction did. So, I was . . . it took me a few years before I could reach my former miserable standard of living from where I was merely poor instead of in wretched poverty.
Yeah. I can relate. So, there was also a venture into writing for games, and you’ve written for . . . I know, I’ve been a full-time freelancer for thirty years, and I know you do, you know, anything for a buck, basically, but how did you get involved on the gaming side, and have you kept your hand in there?
I’d always been doing games, I’d been playing games for a long time, Avalon Hill games and spy games, historical war games and stuff and Dungeons and Dragons. And so, you know, I was familiar with the genre. And what happened was Jim Bain formed his own publishing company. He left Tor, formed Baen Books, and he also decided to get into computer games, which was a new thing. And because he had a distribution deal with Simon and Schuster, he was going to market his computer games through Simon and Schuster, and they would appear in every bookstore in America and be a huge success. Except, he didn’t realize that the crack Simon and Schuster sales force weren’t interested in computer games, didn’t know how to sell them, and didn’t care to try. And so, it ended up being a terrible failure. And I did write four computer games for Baen Software, of which only one saw print, and the company collapsed before the others could appear.
I’m curious about it because it’s, you know, I’ve never done it, and I’ve always thought it might be interesting to do. Playing them, it seems to me like there’s an . . . there’s an awful lot of dialogue that has to be written for every conceivable iteration of how the game might play. Is that a fair description of it?
Well, especially with, say, a large-scale computer game. I did write the dialogue for a game called Spore, which was sort of galactic adventure with many different alien races that fit various categories of every warlike or mercenary or capitalistic or concerned about ecosystems or whatever. And so, you know, when you say hello to one of them, depending on what kind of alien they are, which category they fit into, they will respond in character. And you end up having these long dialogues with these people. And it was done very imaginatively. They found all these artists who could do gibberish. And so, you know, you would say, “hello,” and this gibberish would come back at you along with the translation. And that was quite epic, but fortunately, I was paid quite well for it. You know, it’s incredibly tedious, mind-numbing work. And I was the second writer they hired. The first one had, I think, OD’d on it and gone kind of nuts, and so they wanted someone who could rein it in a little more.
You didn’t have to write the gibberish; the voice actors made that up?
The voice actors. Yeah.
You’ve also done some screenwriting, haven’t you?
I have. I wrote several movies that never got made, which is a typical screenwriter experience. I should point out that ninety-nine percent of scripts never get made. But I got paid for writing. The only thing you can see of mine is a science fiction show called Andromeda. And I had one episode in the first season, and it was . . . there were just epic casting problems on that particular episode. And so, it was rewritten, I think, twenty-seven times in the ten days that it took to shoot, when they realized that their guest star couldn’t act and couldn’t remember lines.
The fellow I interviewed for the last episode of this podcast, Chris Humphreys, is both a writer and actor, and he actually played a starfleet commander on Andromeda at some point, but hopefully not in that episode.
No, there weren’t any starfleet commanders in that episode.
All right. Well, let’s talk about your novels then. That does kind of tie in because I’m curious, whenever I talk to somebody who’s done screenwriting or other forms of writing like that, do you learn something doing that that you then bring to your novels? Or was it the other way around? Was the fact that you a novelist, you know. . .?
I was an established writer by the time I did any of these screenplays. So, I already knew how to write fiction. But the main thing was a kind of mental switch because, in my fiction, my characters all have strong inner lives. And they’re always thinking and reacting and having emotional responses to what’s going on, but it’s not necessarily visible to any of the other characters. And so . . . but you can’t have that in a screenplay. You can’t have somebody think in a screenplay and not tell you what he’s thinking. All the audience sees is action and dialogue, and so, I had to make that adjustment. My characters couldn’t have interior lives. It was only outer life.
Well, I do some stage acting, and I’ve written plays, and it’s much the same thing. Everything is driven by the visible action and the dialogue and whatever the actor can do to emote. But, you know, everybody interprets that differently, depending on who the person is that’s viewing it.
Yeah. You know, I did have, you know, second readers on my screenplays and stuff. And they would ask, I don’t understand why your character is doing this. And I said, “Well, because he worked it out in his head that this is what he should do and then . . . No. That’s not a viable approach for screenwriting.
There’s the few where they have a voiceover narration, but that always seems a little forced after a while.
I really miss the artist’s soliloquy. I wish I was living in Shakespearean times so that I could just have the character turn to the audience and explain what he was going to do.
If you ever get a chance, there’s a show on Amazon Prime now, it’s from the BBC, called Upstart Crow, which is a situation comedy about Shakespeare writing his plays.
It is terrific. I’ve seen all seasons.
I thought of that because the actors will turn to the front and say, “By strict convention. I can now say what I want to say, and nobody around me can hear what I’m . . .”
Well, let’s talk about your writing of novels then. Now, Fleet Elements, that’s the most recent one—well, you have a new short story collection we’ll mention as well, later on. So, using that as an example, we’ll talk about how you write your novels. And I guess the first thing would be a bit of a synopsis without giving away anything you don’t want to go away.
OK. Well, my elevator pitch is war and revolution as seen through the eyes of a pair of star-crossed lovers. Or alternatively, star-crossed lovers experience war and revolution, but it is set in the far future in a somewhat decrepit space empire in which humanity and several other alien species were conquered by another race. And that other race is gone now. They all died. And now, we, the human race, and these other species have to figure out what comes next. Because they’re very good at taking instruction from these totalitarian aliens, but the totalitarian aliens aren’t giving them instructions anymore, and now, they have to work it out on their own, and they’re not used to that, and they’re not very good at.
I should point out this was inspired by–I was reading a lot of classical history, Polybius and Livy and people like that, and they told this wide-scale history with very vivid characters. And I thought, I should be able to do that. And so, when I planned this series, twenty years ago now, I planned it for nine to twelve volumes. And for various reasons . . . anyway, the fifth or seventh one has just come out, depending on how you point them there. This is the fifth one from Harper Collins, but there was one from Tor, that was a novella, and there was another novella that I published on my own. So, I think of this, Fleet Elements, as book seven, but the publisher thinks of it as Book Five.
Do you know exactly how many volumes it’s going to be now, or is it still in flux?
I think twelve.
So not even halfway yet, depending on how you count.
I’ve plotted them all out. I know what’s going to happen in all of them. That’s part of my process. In the first trilogy, I knew what the last line of the last book was going to be before I wrote the first line of the first book. I always have the end in view, and I always know where I’m going. Sometimes there’s a certain amount of difficulty in getting there. I always know the beginning of the book really well, and I know the end of the book really well, but the middle part is sometimes a bit of a mystery. And that’s where I tend to struggle.
Well, you mentioned what the inspiration was. Was that typical of the way ideas . . . I mean, ideas come from everywhere, I know, and it’s cliche to ask, where do you get your ideas? But is that fairly typical for you, something you’ve read or just something you’re thinking about, or how does it work for you?
Very often, I get an idea just from reading other people’s fiction. And I see something that was undeveloped or something that could be viewed in some other way, and usually, you know, even my short fiction, there’s more than one idea happening. So, I tend to like the collision of ideas, so I’ll wait till I get a certain number of ideas that are kind of undeveloped, and then I will sort of have them smash each other head-on like particles in a particle beam accelerator just to see what happens.
See what kind of strange quarks emerge.
You mentioned a little bit about knowing the beginning and the end, but are you much of an outliner? I mean, this is a big sprawling series.
How much work did you do ahead of time to plan it out? What does it look like for you? Is it very detailed or more sketchy or what?
When I’m working on one project, I’m always thinking about other projects. So, I was able to plot out twelve volumes while I was writing something else. Because that’s just usually how it works, you know. I’m not a very fast writer. I’m a plodder, but I’m persistent. I don’t . . . you know, I write every day. I just don’t write a huge amount of words every day. And so, you know, I have a lot of time to think about my next project. And I have probably outlined, at least in my head, more projects than I can write in a lifetime.
What does the actual outline that’s not in your head look like?
Well, there are a couple of kinds. I mean, I have to write a synopsis for the publisher, right? Because publishers require synopsis and sample chapters even for writers that they know well now. I mean, I recently, you know, sent a proposal to an editor I knew well, right, and he said, look, the company requires me to have sample chapters. I know you can write. I know you don’t need to write these sample chapters; you don’t have to prove anything to me. But the company has this checklist, and I have to put that check there. And so, I wrote him those damn sample chapters, you know, really annoying.
I don’t have to do that with DAW. Still just getting by with the synopsis.
Well, that’s because DAW is still family owned.
Yeah, I think that’s the difference.
They aren’t owned by an international corporation. Good for them.
So, your synopsis, will it be like ten single-spaced pages or . . . ?
Yeah, something like that? Well, you know, it worked out to ten double-spaced pages. But I write outlines for myself, and they are a lot more eccentric. I tend to write them on yellow legal pads in colored ink with different characters being represented by a different colored ink and arrows and timelines and stuff like that. It would be incomprehensible to anyone else. I know what all this stuff means, all these weird scribbles, but I can’t see anyone else getting a hold of one of those outlines and being able to write a book from it.
How closely do you follow your outlines once you actually start the writing process? Do you find that you wander off as you create things along the way, or are you fairly strict?
Well, outlines are just outlines, and I don’t so much wander away from the outlines as I find other aspects of the story that would contribute to the value of the fiction, right, so, you know, I find new sidelights on characters, new sidelights on the action. And so, for me, it’s a process of addition. I start with the outline, and then I add things as I go if I think they would contribute.
And what about your characters? Do you do a lot of detailed work on them beforehand, or do you discover them as you write?
Uh, I pretty much . . . the major characters I know pretty well by the time I start. I don’t always write down their personalities or the little details and stuff, but I have that worked out in my head.
You mentioned that you write every day. What does your actual writing process look like? You outline on yellow legal paper, but I bet you don’t write on yellow legal paper longhand.
No, no, I write on a computer. I use Scrivener, which is a software that is developed specifically for writing fiction.
Yeah, I have it, and I’ve never climbed the learning curve to use it. I’m still plugging away on Word.
Well, the thing is that, as with every modern word processing program, most of it is stuff you’ll never use.
It’s certainly true of Word.
Yeah. That’s true of Scrivener, too. There’s just a lot of stuff in there that you probably won’t ever use. But it does have a very useful outlining function where it actually gives you the index cards and the little pins. And you could put them in and rearrange them and stuff. It allows you to rearrange scenes very easily, which is extremely useful in at least some of my projects where I’m not too sure on the chronology until it’s all done.
Yeah, I should probably . . . the one I’m working on now is a space opera called The Tangled Stars, and it’s kind of tangled my brain, too, so I should probably be using Scrivener. That might help. So, you said you’re not a fast writer. Do you have a set word counts you try to get done every day or . . .?
I seem to average about 500 words a day. It’s not a lot, but I get to write one book a year plus some short fiction, and that’s what it amounts to.
And once you have your first draft, how does the revision process start for you? Or do you write in drafts? Do you do a rolling revision or what?
I don’t anymore because word processors make it so easy to revise. So, probably by that, by the time I’m done with my, quote, first draft, unquote, everything’s been gone over half a dozen times. I always start my day by revising the previous day’s work. And, you know, whenever I have to go back and look something up, I’ll probably revise it a bit. So, ideally, it’s very polished by the time I get to the end of the first draft. So, revision for the second draft is generally pretty quick and easy just because I’ve been over it so many times.
That’s interesting because the very first person I interviewed on here was John Scalzi, and he was talking about how he does rolling revisions. But then I’ve talked to other people who started on typewriters, as I’m sure you did, because I did, and you’re maybe a little bit older than me, I’m not sure, but somewhere along in there. And he thought that people who wrote on typewriters tended to still do single drafts and then go back to the beginning and revise it, as you had to do on a typewritten manuscript.
But it sounds like you’ve switched more to the word processing.
I’m very pleased that I never have to use a carbon ever again.
But yeah, and since I’ve adopted a word processor as opposed to a typewriter, my books have gotten a lot more complex simply because the word processor makes that easy to do. The stuff I wrote on typewriters was very straightforward.
I still remember the first decent printer I had, because of course, dot matrix printers, editors didn’t want that. I had a daisy wheel printer, but I had to feed the paper into it just like it was a typewriter. I wasn’t typing it, but I still had to sit there, and it would make a carpet. So, I was still using carbon paper and feeding it into my daisy wheel printer. I don’t miss that. Yeah, I’m old. So, do you use beta readers or anything like that? A lot of people do.
Well, I use my wife, who was a very good beta reader and who has worked as a copyeditor in the past. So, I get a free copyedit, which is pretty cool. But I used to belong to several workshops, and I would workshop everything. And then, I started a workshop of my own called Taos Toolbox, where I actually teach writing for two weeks up in a ski lodge in northern New Mexico every summer.
And I work with Nancy Kress, who is just brilliant at teaching.
But it kind of ruined me for workshopping because, during that two weeks, I have to read and critique maybe three hundred and fifty thousand words of fiction. And I am so burnt out by that process that it takes me a year to recover. And I just don’t want to workshop anymore. I don’t want to have to read anybody else’s drafts until it’s time to do Taos Toolbox again.
Do you . . . I’ve done a smidgen of teaching, and I’ve been a writer in residence and worked with a lot of writers at a couple of libraries where I’ve been a writer in residence. Do you find that teaching writing benefits you as a writer?
Not that much. I do occasionally get excited about one of the students and, you know, but it’s mainly—I’m mainly teaching in this, I’m not necessarily out to learn new tricks.
Do you ever find—
That’s it . . . I have I encountered a dilemma in one of my, my current project, and I went back and looked at my own lecture notes. Which I normally don’t do. I looked at my notes, my lecture notes, and I found the solution to the problem I was having. And that was kind of fun. I actually took my own advice.
I was actually going to ask because that’s something I found. You know, I will confidently tell somebody, you know, you should do it like this or something like this, and then, just don’t look in that book I wrote where I didn’t do that. Because it’s easy to give advice sometimes that you don’t take yourself.
Well, writers are very individual, and they each need, you know, critique and so on that is pitched to them. And this is why Nancy and I do so well, because Nancy has a completely different approach to writing than I do. I’m a plotter, she’s a pantser, and so if my approach won’t work for you, here’s her approach,
Well, that’s one of the reasons for this podcast, is why it’s, you know, it’s focused on this kind of stuff, so that people can go and find out that there is no one right way to do this thing. You’ll hear every possible approach from somebody that I’ve interviewed or will interview in the future, I’m sure. So, going back to the revision, are there specific things you find that you have to work on in revision? Like, is there a consistent tick that you have to clean up or anything like that?
Well, my first drafts tend to have very elaborate, long sentences with peculiar syntax and a lot of words derived from Latin roots, polysyllabic words from Latin roots. And so, I have to remind myself to make the syntax a lot more straightforward, replace the Latin words with Anglo-Saxon words, which are punchier. And that’s my typical . . . I mean, if you actually saw a very first draft of mine, you would think I was hopeless. I really do need to spend a lot of time polishing it to make it readable.
But clearly, you get there.
Yeah, I think a lot of it is, English is not my first language. And so, it’s a struggle to translate the language that’s going on in my head into English.
What is your first language?
I don’t know.
Perhaps it’s Latin!
It seems to be a symbolic language. It’s like . . . when I think, it’s like laying out an array of Tarot cards. And so, I have these different symbols that together all means something, but when I translate it, I have to literally do the translation and add the grammar and all of that. I’m the only person I know who has this problem. Most people apparently think in their native language, and I guess I do, too, except it’s not English.
That rings a bell from somebody who was talking about . . . hey were startled to realize that other people didn’t think the way they thought, and I don’t remember who it was, or if it was exactly along those lines. But somebody else had told me something similar to that, which I find . . . I find it fascinating because, you know, one of the things about writing is, we present the illusion that we know how other people think, right, but really, we don’t, we don’t have a clue what goes on inside anybody else’s head.
Well, I know what’s going on in my character’s heads, and that’s kind of all that matters as far as my books go.
I know how they think.
Your readers come to that and will actually take something different than what you’re picturing in your head.
Yeah, you’re right.
Because it is a collaborative effort.
I find that people read the book that they want to read, and it isn’t necessarily the one that I wrote.
So, once you have the book and it goes off to the publisher, what does the editorial process typically look like for you? Are there things that come back, or is it pretty clean . . .?
It’s mostly sitting around for months waiting for my notes. And, you know, I won’t name any names, but I turned in a book last September, and I’m just getting the notes from it today, supposedly.
Well, it will be . . . you know, you’ll be looking at it with a fresh eye, I guess.
So, I’m going to be doing, you know, spend the next week doing a bunch of rewriting, I expect, you know, unless he says, “Oh, it’s OK, we’ll just send it to the copyeditor.”
Are there things that you typically get editorial notes about? Like, in my case, from Sheila Gilbert at DAW, it’s usually, you know, I didn’t explain enough about some aspect or, you know, the characters need a little more development, that sort of thing.
Yeah, uh, generally, I think because I know too much about the way that my characters think, I don’t necessarily explain their motives and actions as clearly as I could. So, it’s always useful to have someone say, “I need to understand why this action is happening now,” and then I can handle that. Another thing I tend to do is I can overdo things. You know, it’s just the prose just becomes too much. And I need somebody to tell me when to back down, back off, and let the story happen instead of scenes of hallucinogenic intensity.
That sounds like you really enjoy the words themselves. Is that fair to say?
I do. I have a series out now called Quillifer, which is basically my love letter to the English language. I mean, aside from being a jolly good read, you know. But I am deliberately spending a lot of time playing with the language in that series.
I do love a good, convoluted sentence myself, as people have told me, so I can appreciate that. I also wanted to . . . you have written a lot of short stories, and in fact, you have a collection out now, you said. Novellas, mostly, but some short stories.
It’s just out this week. It’s The Best of Walter Jon Williams, oddly enough, out from Subterranean Press. It’s 200,000 words of fiction, which is, you know, a couple of novels worth. Mostly it’s a longer short fiction, novelettes and novellas, and including a lot of award nominees and a few award winners. So, you know, I’m very proud of it. I just wish I could have added another 100,000 words . . .
That’s the sequel!
. . . because there are always some I wish, you know, there was room for.
Of course, if you call the first one The Best of Walter Jon Williams, would you have to call the second one The Second-Best of Walter Jon Williams?
I think Even More Best.
Even More best.
Even More Bester of Walter Jon Williams.
So, these would go back right through your entire career?
Pretty much. Yeah, it’s from the mid-’80s through the fairly recent present. And it’s sort of every stage of my career represented.
So, you write novels and short stories. Do you think you have a preference for one that you’re better at than the others? I always think some people are better at short stories and some people are better at novels. Are you good at both, or . . .?
My best work is in the shorter form because, in something that is of a modest length, everything can be perfect. You can actually put everything in it that you think ought to be there and then make sure it’s available to the reader. For a novel, something the length of a novel, something’s going to go wrong somewhere. There’s going to be a mistake, there’s going to be, you know, some of my tangled syntax got through all the editing. So, you know, I view my novels as good but necessarily flawed, which is how I view everybody’s novels. But my short fiction, I’m very proud of.
I’ve often used the metaphor of where you have this . . . in your head, the story is this beautiful, shiny Christmas ornament, absolutely perfect. And then you smash it with a hammer and try to glue it back together with words. Yeah, that’s the way it feels to me, that initial moment of, “Oh, this is going to be perfect,” and then you can’t actually get to perfect, unfortunately. Well, I’m going to ask the big philosophical questions—I’m going to put reverb on that sometime—you’ve been writing for a long time. You say you always wanted to be a writer, but the first one is why? Why do you write?
Well, it remains a mystery. It was a compulsion. It was an irresistible compulsion to be a writer. And that irresistible compulsion lasted from when I was four years old to when I was around forty, when it began to fade. And so then, I realized I was no longer compelled to do this, but it was kind of the only thing I was good at. You know, it’s not like I have a work history. My last real job was, like, in 1978, and so, I have no job history. I’m not even qualified to be a greeter at Wal-Mart, in terms of the straight world. So, but what I realized I had to do was I had to find some reason to love what I was doing and to really love the craft and love everything I was working on and find joy and delight in it. That wasn’t necessary before. I didn’t have to love it. All I had to do was just write it because I was compelled to do that. So, I think my approach to writing now comes from love, and this is what I tell my students. “If you don’t love it, don’t do it.”
Don’t do it for the money.
Yeah, because there won’t be any. Sorry.
So, you say you found a love for it. Why do you love it now? What do you love about this?
Why do you ask these complicated questions? I . . . it’s just I enjoy doing stuff that I’m good at. And this is the thing that I’m best at, is writing fiction. And I do a lot of other stuff, you know, I’m a scuba diver, I’m a martial artist, and love all that to a certain degree. But that’s not where, you know, my homeworld is. My homeworld is fiction.
Do you find some love in the love that your readers give back to you when they read something of yours and they really enjoy it?
It’s always gratifying when I hear from the readers. But see, the thing is, between the time that I finish a project and the time that it appears in print, I’ve written a bunch more on other projects. So, you know, when a novel comes out, I may have written two novels in the period of time between finishing that one and it appearing in print, so my head is in another place. And once I deliver a book, it’s kind of not mine anymore. It kind of belongs to the reader. So, there is . . . there’s a part there’s a time in which I know I’m the only person that possesses this work. Right when I’m working at it, I can really love it, and I can feel like I possess it. I can own it, and then I give it away, hopefully for money, but I give it away, and then it belongs to other people.
Who may be discovering it twenty years from now, for all you know, once they’re out there, they’re out there.
OK, so that’s why you write. Why do you think, in the bigger picture, why do any of us write? Why do human beings do this strange thing?
Well, I think storytelling is a compulsion. I think I think we make stories out of anything. I mean, you know, look at a newscast, right? They don’t just tell you this happened, they make a story about it so that you’ll be involved in it and you’ll care, and so I . . . because we’re in a covid pandemic right now and one of the things that television can shoot safely is reality TV because they can get everyone in one place and isolate. And so, I’ve watched a lot of that. And one thing that I’ve noticed is that if you’re completing a project on some reality television show, you have to tell a story about . . . it’s not just, oh, I made this cool thing. This is this, this story connects to the deepest wellsprings of my childhood, and it’s all about my grandmother, who passed away just two months ago. And I’m still, you know . . . and the audience responds to that. It may not even be true. In fact, it probably isn’t. They probably learned that they have to tell that—that soap opera is where you’re going with these kind of shows. S I don’t know why anyone else writes. I’m glad that they do. For some people, it’s a bucket list. They actually have “write a novel” on their bucket list, and then they write it and either sell it or self-publish it, and then they go on to the next item on their bucket list. I don’t understand that at all. It’s just too much work to write a novel just to tick off something on the list.
Yeah, just beat your head against the wall. It’d be simpler.
Yeah. And some just write for mercenary motives, which I don’t get either. Because so far as I can tell, these people aren’t rich.
Yeah. And the third question is, why write stories of the fantastic, specifically science fiction and fantasy. Why do we write about things that aren’t real?
Well, in my case, it seems to be what I’m good at. I just seem to come at reality from a somewhat sideways perspective. And, you know, I have written other stuff, and I have a whole lot of unsold fiction sitting around n other various categories, literary fiction or mysteries or whatever. But what I kept being told is this is too strange. We can’t publish it. They hardly ever say that with science fiction. And when I write science fiction, I can write about anything, so long as it has certain science fiction elements. So, war and revolution from the point of view of star-crossed lovers. I wrote the world’s only Gothic Western police procedural, a science fiction novel called Days of Atonement, set in Silver City, by the way, really a fictional analog Silver City, but if you know New Mexico, you know where you are. You know, I’ve written cyberpunk, I’ve written anthropological science fiction, I’ve written, I don’t know how to describe it, gonzo science fiction, I guess, really high-concept stuff. I’ve written near-future science fiction that actually got overtaken by events. I wrote a novel about the Arab Spring, and it appeared the week that the Arab Spring started. So, that’s one of my more successful predictions, I’d like to think. And oddly enough, no one cared. My agent was out there contacting every news organization in the world, saying, “my writer predicted that this was going to happen, and the book is out, and you should talk to them.” And they said, “No, we have our own analysts. We pay them.”
What was the name of it?
Deep State, the middle book of a series about alternate reality gaming, oddly, and they are also now all available for me as ebooks. But it begins with This is Not a Game, is the first one. There are four, although the last one is a novella. But it was interesting going back because I just, you know, once I mounted my own editions, I went back, and I was reading the reviews, and one of them said, “These are really good books, but this is in no way science fiction.” And I said, “They were science fiction when I wrote them. And then it all happened.” So, once again, it’s kind of a matter of timing. I wrote a Black Lives Matter novel twenty-five years ago called The Rift. And it was such a colossal commercial failure that I didn’t sell another book for five years. So timing is everything. If I were to write a Black Lives Matter novel now, it might do better.
Or there’d be so many of them that it would get lost in the . . .
Yeah, that’s true.
So, what are you working on now? You’ve touched on it a little bit.
I’m working on the next book In the Praxis series, so Fleet Elements is to be followed by The Restoration. And I’m about halfway through that book.
When is it expected out?
Probably late 2022. Because I’m scheduled to deliver it later this year, and it will spend at least a year in production.
And anything else?
Yes, I have my Quillifer series, which is high fantasy and my love letter to the English language. The third book of that will appear around the New Year. I don’t know. The final schedule hasn’t been decided yet. It makes me happy to write these books. It’s just a delight to write Quillifer, because he’s just so, so much fun. And they are sort of a swashbuckler, Rafael Sabattini meets Michael Moorcook meets Tolkien, I guess. He’s a kind of impish character, and I like writing these characters.
So, lots for people to look forward to, it sounds like, in the not-too-distant future.
And of course, the short story . . .
And they can prepare for it by reading the two earlier books in the series, which are Quillifer and Quillifer The Knight
That sounds like my cup of tea, so I’m going to check those out.
And where can people find you online?
Uh, www.WalterJonWilliams.net. I’m the only person I know who has a .net instead of a .com, but somebody had already stolen my identity with the .com.
And just for those who don’t know—you should know—it’s Jon without an H.
All right. Well, thanks so much for being on! I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.
It was great fun. Thank you.
And we say hi to Nancy the next time you see her because she was a guest on here not too long ago.
Chris (C.C.) Humphreys has played Hamlet in Calgary, a gladiator in Tunisia, and a dead immortal in Highlander; he’s waltzed in London’s West End, conned the landlord of the Rovers Return in Coronation Street, commanded a star fleet in Andromeda, and voiced Salem the cat in the original Sabrina.
He has just published The Tapestry Trilogy, set around—and through—the fabulous medieval Unicorn Tapestries in New York’s Cloisters Museum.
He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of British Columbia.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Chris, welcome to The Worldshapers!
Thank you very much for having me.
We were just talking—we know we’ve been at the same place at the same time, but we didn’t actually talk to each other at the time, because we were both at When Worlds Collide, the great literary conference that’s held in Calgary every year, a few years ago.
That’s right. Well, we might have, though we might have been drunk, and that’s why we don’t.
Entirely possible. So, we’re going to talk about specifically the Tapestry trilogy as an example of your creative process. But first, I will take you back into the mists of time, which is getting further and further back for some of us, and ask you about—well, your biography, you have an interesting upbringing—and how you got into both the acting side, which really interests me because I’ve done, nothing on your level, but I’ve done some professional stage work over the years, and then how the writing came along. So, just take me through your life and how you got interested in writing and especially on the fantastical side of things.
Right. Well, so I always really defined myself as a storyteller because I do I tell stories in all these different ways. You know, I began telling other people’s stories as an actor. I was blessed, or cursed, depending on how you look at it, because my dad was an actor and all four grandparents were actors. They also wrote, some of them. Both grandfathers wrote. My Norwegian grandfather particularly wrote. He was quite a well-known writer in Norway. And I was avoiding all the acting thing. My mother, who was not an actor but obviously grown up with one, married to one, daughter of one, did not want her dewy lamb to be an actor with all the hassles that a career in an industry like that can bring. So, I was being steered away from that. I didn’t really have any idea what I wanted to do. And then, you know, when I was about seventeen, I got cast in the lead in the school play, and suddenly all those genes kicked in. And I thought, That’s it. And I went to drama school in London, the Guildhall School, and then embarked on a pretty healthy acting career.
Over the years, I’ve done a lot of very . . . well, you listed some of them. You know, I’ve done a huge amount of screen and stage work. But the writing side began because I’d always wanted to write. I mean, you know, like a lot of people, I had a way of thinking, Oh, that’s what I really, really want to do. And I’d always had such a wild imagination. I was the kid telling stories. I was the five-year-old organizing all his friends into knights and Vikings and pirates and, you know, playing out these elaborate games, which everyone does on screen now, of course, but we didn’t have screens in my day. And so, that was me. And I always wanted to tell stories. And I particularly loved historical fiction. That’s where I lived. You know, I loved swordplay, especially. And I indeed ended up as a fencer at school, it was my main sport, and a fight choreographer later on, and essentially became an actor so I could jump around with bladed weaponry, which I managed to do an awful lot of, which was great.
But the writing side, you know, I knew that . . . you know, acting, I love acting as a pure essence of a craft, I absolutely love it. I still need to do it periodically. But the business of acting is a pain, you know, always submitting yourself for approval, you know, things so out of your own control. You can give the best performance but be an inch too tall or have the wrong colour hair, and you just don’t get the role. So, even though I did well and, you know, ended up in Hollywood at one stage and on the West End stage and played, as you said, played Hamlet, I was frustrated by the gaps, particularly the gaps between creativity. And I wanted to write, and I got into it the normal way, tried a few short stories. I didn’t understand something which I now teach, because I do quite a lot of teaching of writing now, and what I really teach is process. I thought things had to be good straight away and didn’t realize that it was a process of . . . you know, good and bad actually aren’t in my vocabulary, really, in any of the drafts I write. It’s just about what works and what doesn’t. So, a bit of craft there. I didn’t understand, but I gradually got into it, and then, I started—I actually won a twenty-four-hour playwriting competition in Vancouver, and they produced my play and gave me 500 bucks. And it was like, “Oh, I’m a professional writer now.” And so, I carried on writing plays because they felt, you know, like a small enough chunk. A novel, which is truly what I wanted to write, seemed like a mountain, whereas a play seemed like a hill to climb.
But then I had this idea for my first novel, The French Executioner, about the man who killed Anne Boleyn. And even though it’s historical fiction, it’s really got huge, fantastical elements, not least the ghost of Anne Boleyn wandering around without her head tucked under her arm, actually, which is as the old song goes. But I didn’t have the courage really to jump in, knowing I most wanted to do that. I found ways to avoid doing it, researched the absolute backside off the thing for six years, only then discovering that research is a form of procrastination, and finally jumped in and started writing it.
When I did, it just took off, and I wrote it in ten months, showed it to an agent. She took me on, she had it sold within a month, and suddenly I had a two-book deal. And then I was being published professionally by Orion in the UK. The fantastical side came a bit, actually came fairly early on, in that another agent who had taken me on my first agent lunch . . . of course, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, as they say. And she came up, she said to me, “Have you ever thought of writing young adult fiction?”
And I went, “No,” because I’d written three adult historical novels by that time. And anyway, she said, “This type of stuff, you write action-driven, character-driven family stuff. You know, it would work really well, if you’ve got any ideas.”
And I went away and thought about it and I thought, I only write what I love anyway. And I was very interested in the sort of Norwegian side of my family, which is, to put it mildly, a little spooky. It has a sort of ghostly/psychic element to it that I always found interesting. And so, I delved into that and I came up with this idea for a book called The Fetch, which is a term for, like, the doppelganger or that that sort of thing. You know, the other you that we all have inside and that can go out. Certain cultures have it. Corsicans have it. Italians have it. Indonesians have it, surprisingly, because they bought the books in the end. And I came up with this idea, dashed off a chapter and a very skimpy treatment. My agent took it to New York. They went, “Yep,” and had it sold in ten days. And suddenly I’m writing a trilogy for Knopf in New York called The Runestone Saga. So that began my fantastical journey. It’s more earth magic, I would say, than fantasy. It’s all about Runic magic and the fetch and time travel and all the stuff I love.
Before we get too far into what you’re writing now, I just want to go back a little bit back into your bio, because I did want to establish that . . .you’re thought of as British, I think. But of course, you’re actually from Canada originally, aren’t you?
I was born in Toronto, yeah. Born in Toronto. Left when I was two. Grew up in Los Angeles till I was seven because my dad was an actor having his shot in Hollywood. And then I moved to England when I was about seven. And hence the accent you’re hearing, which was laboriously crafted from years of English private school, followed by the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, getting rid of my lazy Rs, my Canadian, my American, Rs that I still had. So, then I became quite the Brit actor. But I’m not—I mean, I am. And I played that. But I’m—but it’s funny. I’ve played so many different things and I play American and Canadian. I’m making quite a career at the moment, actually, my sort of pivot in these turbulent times is to be an audiobook narrator and I’m doing a lot of that and I’m doing that American, Canadian, whatever it’s called for, you know. So yeah. So, that’s the background on the accent.
And I wanted to talk a little bit more about the acting and how it ties into the writing. Now, you said you started writing, writing plays, and you actually—you know, I think people who are naturally novelists or short story writers would think a play is the daunting task as opposed to the novel. The novel would come easy; the play would be hard because you have to tell everything strictly through dialogue and action on the stage. But how did the two things tie together for you? I mean, I often try talking to people who are involved on the acting or directing or playwriting side, that one thing they bring to their fiction writing is a very solid sense of what’s happening in the scene in a physical sense, like where characters are in relationship to each other, and you don’t have the sort of amorphous space where people suddenly seem to teleport from one place to another, which I’ve run into in some people’s writing. How do you find that the two things tie together, the play side and the prose side, the novel side?
Well, yeah, I mean, it’s interesting, my books, people always say, “Oh, I can see the film,” you know, and I go, “Well, I wish you would because obviously, I’d be much wealthier if they did.” And a number of my books have been optioned for TV or movies, but none made so far. In answer to a question, the playwriting, it was a natural progression for me, having done so much theatre. I love dialogue. I love the use of dialogue. My books tend to have a lot of dialogue because I always find dialogue is very active, and I like to keep scenes active. Obviously, the opposite is passive, and who wants to read that? So, I like to move action. And I think dialogue is particularly useful for revealing character, concealing character in some ways, because people usually don’t say what they really mean or often don’t. And yes, that sense of dramatic action, I always say that what I write really is character in action. And obviously, that’s three words rather than two, because character inaction would be really boring, but character in action. So, you know, I don’t do a lot of interior monologue. I like my characters to reveal themselves by what they do and how they react to circumstances, which actually helps me in my writing because I, you know, I very rarely get stuck because something is able to happen. I can just take my character into some situation, and things will evolve.
And that’s kind of how I write things. I, I don’t know necessarily that much about the whole book. I don’t plot, really, I have an idea where I’m going. And then I let the characters take me there by doing stuff they need to do so. So, I think that’s the acting side. It’s almost, you know, Acting 101. You’ve done some of yourself, Ed, you know that when you as an actor, what you’re always taught and what you learn is that rather than dwell on, “Oh, do I remember my lines,” or whatever, you trust that they’re there and that you’re going to react spontaneously to what happens. “What do I want?” is the key question for me. “What does this character want?” And then take that character into a scene and run into an obstacle that prevents you getting what you want. So, how do you deal with that? So, I do that a lot. And that’s a definite, that’s the most direct correlation between my acting/playwriting side and my prose side.
Yeah. And that’s something else, when I’ve talked to other actors who are also writers, as an actor, you’re trying to inhabit a character and make that character come alive. And that’s exactly what you’re doing as a writer. The only difference is that as a writer, you have to make up the dialogue. It’s not given to you by somebody else.
This is true. This is true. And that can be both good and bad. You know, if you’re doing Shakespeare, you’re relishing the fact that you’ve been given this amazing dialogue. If you’re doing some terrible television show, you’re thinking, “How do I make this work? I can’t even begin—this makes no sense at all.” So, I’ve done both, obviously.
Well, now, let’s go back to the books you were going through, the ones that you have had written. You have this . . . I can’t remember where you left off when you were talking about that, but you have the fantasy novels from Gollancz that were coming along there somewhere, I think.
Yes. Well, I’m currently I’m in the midst of those right now. I’m doing something that’s quite interesting, and I think a lot of your listeners might relate to. I’ve become what they call the hybrid author because I’m both being published by the big houses still, but I’m also doing some self-publishing, getting my—
Yeah, of course, getting the backlist back, reissuing those because, as you know, often a writer will feel that they’ve laboured for a year over this, or a year or more over a book, and then it barely registers before the publisher has moved on to another book. You know, you’re hot for about three days, and then they’ve moved on, and you think, “Well, they didn’t really. . .” You know, they expect some magic to happen, you know, so you always get frustrated because, let’s face it, we write to be read. And if people aren’t aware of your books being out there, how the hell are they going to be read? So, I’m quite interested in the whole . . . I’m not the world’s greatest. I have to tell you, I’m not a great marketer or a publicist, but I’m doing OK. And my plan is just to get all the books out there again. And so, that with the . . . Gollancz, of course, you know, they’re doing whatever they do. I don’t think they’re making them as known as they could, but, you know, there’s very few writers that aren’t going to complain about their publishers pushing their books. However, it’s . . . to write epic fantasy like that is quite interesting to me, because my other fantasy, even though I don’t really believe in marking between YA and adult, I just write a good book. And a lot of adults have read my so-called YA fantasy and vice versa. But my epic fantasy is, you know, it was an agent who actually said, you know, “Epic fantasy is kind of big right now, have you got something?” And I just thought, No, but I did what I do, which is, I sat down with a notepad, I wrote a word in the middle of the first page, and the word was “immortality.” And then I just started riffing off that and within two hours had a five-page treatment
So, I’m sure that’s going to offend a lot of your listeners, I’m sorry. It sounds too pat, but it’s that feeling of which I was talking about before, about process, and that initial process of just letting your mind go and riff and relate and word association, and all that stuff helped me come up with the idea for the Immortals Blood series, which Gollancz then, after a few hoops I had to jump through, bought, and the two books, as you said, were already out. I think it’s very different. I mean, of course, I would say that. But it’s not . . . I mean, there are battles. There are swords. There are, you know, there’s all this. But there’s nary an elf maiden with a lost king in sight. You know, it’s about immortality, and it’s about the corruption of basically the one percent, what the elites can do to a world. And three very different worlds, one kind of Viking, one kind of Greco Roman, and one kind of Mesoamerican. And what has immortality done in those three respective cultures. So that’s . . . I’ve loved writing those. I’m just about to receive book three, which is called The Wars of Gods and Men, which is the concluding book of the trilogy, back from my editor. And then that’ll be out probably until early next year.
And then that brings us to the Tapestry trilogy, which, yes, we’re going to focus on a little bit more as an example of your process. We’ve talked quite a bit about your process already, but we’ll go through it anyway. So, tell me, first of all, before we start talking about it, tell me about it.
The Tapestry trilogy. So, this is a good example of how the hybrid world works. So, I wrote—when I’d written the Runestone saga, my editor asked me to write another book. I hadn’t thought of writing so-called YA fantasy fiction at all. So, I was a little bereft of ideas. And then, as you mentioned in the bio in the intro you gave, I suddenly looked at the ring on my finger, the rampant unicorn that I’ve worn since I was 18 years old. The family crest, no less, though, my horse-auctioneer great-grandfather was the one who came up with it. So, it’s . . . I’m not hidden nobility or anything like that. Anyway, and I thought, “What does a unicorn mean?” And I started delving, and various things happened. Unicorns could only be tamed by maidens. Unicorns are indomitable, unconquerable, apart from the maiden in the mirror, actually. And they could also cure illness and poisons and, dare I say, viruses, and heal and cure pollution as well. They calm a stream to make it drinkable, that sort of thing. I was fascinated by that.
And then I discovered the Unicorn Tapestries, these amazing medieval tapestries, which are in the Cloisters museum in New York. And the great thing about—-one of the great things about them, apart from their sheer stunning beauty and, you know, no one knows exactly who made them or when they were made, like, late fifteenth century is the best guest and Flanders is the best geographical get. But no one really knows anything about them, who they were made for, who made them—someone very rich because they’re very, very expensive to make, gold, red, and silver thread, but they are stunning, absolutely stunning, you know, this whole journey of a unicorn, the hunt of the unicorn in five tapestries.
And so, I immediately glommed onto that and came up with the idea that maybe a New York young lady called Elayne or, full name, Alice Elayne, is told by her father, who’s dying, actually, he’s got leukemia, that there’s a family history. And there’s this book he reads to her that tells of the original tapestry weaver, who was their ancestor, and who had woven a gateway for a unicorn to travel back to his world because unicorns, magical beasts, were in our world, but then basically it got too hot, man got too good at killing them, so they all went back to the place they were from, which is Goloth, the land of the fabulous beast.
And so, the tapestries became a portal, you know, kind of like the wardrobe in Narnia between our world and this medieval world, Goloth, where all our myths live. And she is summoned by a five-hundred-year-old unicorn called Moonspill through the tapestries because he needs her there, he needs her help. And it’s her adventures in Goloth and how they have a complete misunderstanding because she thinks, What do I know? Because he wants her to tame him because he needs to not go mad. He needs to rescue his mate, who’s held by the tyrant king. And she goes, you know, “I barely passed calculus. What do I know about unicorn-taming anyway?” I won’t tell you the story, but there’s a rapprochement and an adventure.
And then, I was asked to write this . . .I didn’t think of writing a sequel. I thought it was a pure one-off. But as you know, unless you actually kill the characters off, they’re there. And I started wondering, you know, after all the extraordinary and terrifying adventures, what would happen to someone like that? I mean, how do you go back to your normal life in New York? How do you go back to—two years later, she’s actually at Columbia—but how do you go back to a normal life when you’ve done all these incredible things? You know, there’s probably a touch of PTSD, you know. And so, I revisited. . . and then, of course, the other thing was, I really thought, Well, I’ve had a unicorn, I’ve got to do a dragon. So, I came up with this idea, The Hunt of the Dragon, and wrote that. And then, you know, that was only published in Canada. So, I thought, now I want to take this further. But then I thought, I know what I’ll do. I’ll write a third book, because, of course, there was more. And I discovered this thing about dragons. I decided not to stick to one sort of medieval European wyvern or something like that. I incorporated all various aspects of Eastern dragons as well. And Chinese dragons particularly are able to be shapeshifters. And I thought, Wow, that’s cool. A dragon that can actually turn into a human being for a couple of hours and then wreak unspeakable havoc when it does. Because my dragons are not cozy dragons, my dragons are killers. And so, I wrote The Hunt of the Shapeshifters, which is what happens when some dragons manage to get their way back to Earth and start killing. So, serial killer dragons, I thought, that’s going to be good. So, I wrote that as the conclusion of the trilogy, a completely new book for that whole saga, and then brought them out myself and called it all the Tapestry Trilogy.
Well, you talked a little bit about the Gollancz trilogy, starting with a single word and then building out around from that. In this case, it seems like you started with a ring, but did you use a similar process? And how much planning and outlining did you do? It sounds like you don’t do a lot.
I don’t do a lot. No, I. You know, with The Hunt of the Unicorn, I mean, I suppose . . . it’s a while ago since I wrote it, actually the first iteration of it, but it would be my normal process. I tend to . . . I mean, it depends how much research I needed.
There’s, you know, there’s a misconception that that fantasy doesn’t require research. You know, they say, “Oh, it must be so much easier for you now. You’re not writing historical fiction.” And I go, “You have no idea. I mean, you know, researching weaving for a start and tapestries and then and fabulous beasts, because, of course, it’s not just the unicorn and even the dragon. There’s griffins and manticores, and each has their own mythology around it and therefore their own way of behaving.
So, there was all that. But what I tend to do is, I take . . . you know, it’s, again, another misconception that I don’t plan anything. I just don’t write out a chart or a plan. I’ll have a rough idea where I’m going. What I do is . . . what I often say is I liken it to an alphabet. The book is an alphabet, A being the beginning and the Z being the end. And, you know, I’ll have an idea of both those things. You know, what will be the, “Well, what’s the start of this journey?” The summons basically, but the set up of her life and her ancestry, which she doesn’t believe in, and her father being ill and all that stuff in New York.
And then, I know she’s going to get summoned through, and I know the unicorn is going to be facing this. So, back to the alphabet. I’ll know A, and I’ll probably know D, the summons, and I’ll know G because that’s when she meets the unicorn, and I’ll know M and then T and then, you know, W or whatever. But I don’t know how I’m going to get between them necessarily and that’s what I then write you know how and then because, I really, I believe in the process of writing, that it actually happens while you’re writing and so that the ideas I come up with in my logical mind are probably not going to be as good as the ideas that I come up with when I’m actually writing the story, you know, physically sitting there writing it.
So, all sorts of things happen. You open yourself to serendipity. You open yourself to inspiration. You literally, I mean, without being too sort of, you know, you solicit the muse. You know, I don’t make it all sound super-mystical, but it’s you know, it’s that’s part of the process for me. And so, when I get to the end of the first draft, that’s when I do a plot. That’s when I become a little nerdy and get my pencil and ruler out and literally write out this chart on butcher’s paper, which I pin to a chalkboard, which has the chapters, the rough action, and then notes about, well, you know, if this happened in Chapter 24, I’ve got to plant that in Chapter 15, that sort of thing.
On the character side, because you described your fiction as characters in action . . .
Yes, yes. Well done.
. . . how do they develop for you? Like, do you have them clearly in your mind when you start? Do they also develop through the process of writing?
Oh, no. They very much develop through the process. Yes. You know, I always say that they’re, you know, I need them to tell me who they are. I will start out with an idea of who they are. But then by putting them through the action, I will then discover, you know, who they are, how they react to circumstance and what they say to people, and that way, when I go back into the second draft—because I’m very big on separating out the different needs of each draft, you know—by the time I got to the end of the first draft, I know them so much better. So then, I go back and start writing the second draft and some of the early stuff. I think, “Oh, no, because she’s proved to me that she is this. Therefore, she wouldn’t do this in the beginning.” And that’s when my rewriting comes in.
It’s a bit like the rehearsal process on stage. You start off with a rough idea of the character, but it develops as you as you play it and bounce off the other characters in the piece.
Yeah, that’s an interesting analogy, actually. Yes. I hadn’t thought of it quite that way. But you’re right. That’s exactly right.
Because the character you end up with in performance is not the way you started when you were sitting around the table for the first time reading the script.
Yes. Well, I know. . . you hope. You hope. I mean, that’s the point of rehearsal. And often there are, you know, there are instinctive choices you make that are very good and will appear in the final performance. And there are others that you’ve gone, “Oh, that’s that,” and something one of the other actors gives you or director, you know, sometimes gives you, you know, gives you a different way of approaching and you rethink it. You rethink how you can do it, or you try something different, and you think, “Ah, that works.” So yes. So, it is similar. It’s a good analogy for the writing process as well.
What does your actual writing look like? Do you write, you know, longhand? Do you just tap on a laptop? Do you like to work in an office or out somewhere?
Yeah, no, quill and inkpot, you know, on old vellum . . . no. I’m not a very good typist, and I’ve often thought I should correct that and become a speed typist, but then I actually don’t mind because it sort of slows me down a bit, which I quite like. You know, I’m quick enough, but I do a lot of writing what I call off-piste. I have notebooks, I have these brown notebooks that I favor made by a French company called Clairefontaine. And I’m always writing stuff in there. Often, it’s research stuff. And then it’ll be, you know, I’ll say, oh, yeah, I’ll discover some interesting fact, and then I’ll put N.B. underneath it. The unicorn Moonspill could do this now because of that aspect of unicorn lore or whatever. And sometimes, though less often these days, sometimes I go off-piste entirely if it’s a particularly tricky passage and just write it longhand. I only ever wrote one book longhand, and that was Vlad – The Last Confession because the material was so dense and tough, and I tried to do what I do, which is essentially write thrillers, historical thrillers, fantastical thrillers, in a subject that was so layered and so complicated by politics and religion and myth. Actually, I thought now I need to connect the head in the heart and the hand here. So, I wrote longhand. Never do that again because it’s so bloody labour-intensive to then put it into the computer. And also, my writing is scribble. So, I go, “What’s that word? I can’t even read that anymore.”
I wrote longhand in high school, and I haven’t done it since. I still have . . . actually the first book I wrote is right here on my desk.
Yeah. I would never do that again. My writing is also really bad.
I love the feeling. I’ve got a great pen, but I keep that for sort of a bit of journaling or a bit of riffing, you know, but yeah, it’s not ideal. So, no, it goes in the computer, and then it gets revised.
OK, and that brings us to revision. What does that look like for you? Do you do start to finish? Do you do a rolling revision as you go along? It doesn’t sound like it. It sounds like you’re going start to finish
Absolutely. Yeah, I . . .one of the classes I teach is called “The Mountain.” I came up with this concept of the mountain, the novel as a series of accents. And so, you know, it’s three different climbs up the mountain. I mean, there’s more probably than that. You do some bits, you do more, you work hard and do more drafts on than others perhaps, which come more naturally. But so, the first ascent up the mountain for me is that free climb. It’s like climbing a mountain. You forget the summit. You need to reach that handhold there, that foothold there. And that . . .if you free climb up the first time, that’s the exploration for me. That’s finding the best way up the mountain. And so, you know, one of the rules of mountain climbing, apparently, I’m not really a climber, but is, “Don’t look down,” right, and so I don’t look back, very rarely will I go back. Sometimes I go back to check eye colour or something, but even then, I don’t because I know I’ll pick it up next time. And often, if I’m . . . especially with the historical fiction, if I hit a point where I go, yeah, well, you know, I’m writing World War Two at the moment, “How did the Heinkel bomber . . .” you know, I put a question mark in rather than actually go back and look it up at the time, because I don’t want to stop the flow of the inspiration.
So, yeah, no, I don’t revise as I go. I get to the end, and then I go back to the beginning, and then I read it and . . . well I do my chalk first, actually. And then I just start again. As I’ve done it more and more, I find that my first drafts have become cleaner and cleaner. There’s not a huge change now as there was before, probably. You know, when I started out, I overwrote, I think, and now I don’t do that nearly so much. I find that the first draft is pretty clean, some passages will need reworking, obviously, something I discovered will have to go in, but there’s not a huge amount of revision on the second climb up the mountain. And the second climb is much more, “Right. I’m going to fix a route that someone could follow me up.” And then the third draft is, you actually take the editor up with you, and they go, “Yeah, look at that. That really worked. But why did you go over there? Why didn’t . . .?” And that metaphorically and then literally becomes the third draft.
Do you use beta readers of any sort, or you just going straight to the editor once you’ve got it finished to your own satisfaction?
You know, I don’t normally use beta readers. I did for Shapeshifters because I was writing it entirely for myself. And so, I got five fantasy writers, no, three fantasy writers, to have a read of it and give me some notes, which was great. Sebastien de Castell, Kristi charish, another, more screenwriter, Beth Stewart, who’s a friend of mine. They all read it and gave me notes, and then I use their stuff. So, I didn’t, actually, apart from the copy edit, I didn’t run that by an editor. So, that’s the only time. But normally, no, I don’t. It goes straight to the editor because that’s the advantage, of course, of working with a big house.
Yeah., I’ve never used beta readers either, partly because when I started writing, there just wasn’t anybody else around who read the stuff that I was writing
And once I got to being published by DAW, well, I have one of the best editors in the business, so I’ll let her tell me what needs to be worked on.
Exactly. Exactly. You’ve got to trust your editor. Yeah.
So, what kind of notes do you typically get from your editors? Are there certain things that you always find yourself having to do?
No, not really. There’s nothing that springs to mind. You know, I mean, I always say . . . again, when I’m teaching this stuff about the different ascents up the mountain, you know, the editor’s job is not to write your novel for you—as they say in England, you don’t buy a dog and bark yourself, right? Their job is not to say to you, “Yeah, you should do this, you should do that.” Their job is, I think . . .it boils down to clarity. What is the writer’s vision? And is this passage of writing helping in making that vision clear? So, for me, it’s about clarity. You know, the best question an editor can ask really is—which applies to theatre as well, actually, you know, you can say to a director, if you’re assisting a director or whatever, “OK, so we’ve just watched that scene. This is what I see. Is that what you want?” And if an editor says that to me, I’ll go. “Ah, “because it might be clear to you as an author, but you might not have made it clear for a reader.
So, it’s getting you, know, those are the sort of notes I like from an editor, you know, and then being able to say, “Yeah, you’re absolutely right. That is unclear.” Or, “You know what, you’re not right because it’s ambiguous. “And I’m big on ambiguity. I like ambiguity in character. I don’t like lack of clarity. And there’s obviously a big difference between those two things.
But it’s interesting, and I often make the point, that writing and, for that matter acting, is actually a collaborative art form, but I mean between you and the audience, because what you . . . especially in writing, you’re putting something into their head. What they see in their head is not necessarily what you see in your head.
It doesn’t mean it’s not working. It just means they’re bringing themselves to it and getting something different out of it than perhaps you thought you were putting in there.
Totally. Totally. I mean, two people make a book. The writer and the reader. I mean, leaving aside the editors and all that. But, you know, you . . . and I was saying this just this morning to my girlfriend because a young lady in Russia has written to me. She loved the Runestone saga, which only the first two books of were translated into Russian. She now speaks very good English—and this is ten years ago—suddenly writing to me and saying, “My grandmother and I really want to know how that story ended. We can’t get that book.” And I said, “I’ll send you one.” So, I literally just sent off a copy of Possession, which is the third book of the Runestone saga, to her in Moscow today. And I said to my girlfriend, I said to her as well as in the inscription I wrote in the book, you know, this is, all books are a journey and a journey between, you know, we take it together. And that’s why I annoy people who are reading my books by saying, “Oh, where are you up to? Where are you up to?” You know, because I like to remember that journey then and I’m part of it and get their feelings of the journey, which, as you say, can be quite different from what you might have intended or whatever. But I think that’s an important thing to remember as an author. You know, you’ve got to leave space for the reader to be in your story. I think explaining everything is not necessarily the way to go.
You’ve talked about teaching writing, so I wanted to ask you about that. But first I wanted to ask you, because I often do with authors, did you have any formal training yourself on the writing side?
No. I mean, I know people will go, “Well, wait a second, you got an MFA. “But I got that after I’d already written nine novels, I decided I needed to get a . . . I’d never gone to university. I’d gone to drama school. And I kind of felt cheated of that experience. Plus, I thought, you know, anyone who’s trying to teach in Canada today needs a master’s degree. So, I thought maybe, you know, if I want to teach at university, which really, I did, but I thought maybe that’s an idea now. So that’s why I went and got my MFA, which would be another podcast to tell you what I actually think about creative writing training, and it’s not necessarily all good. But anyway.
I get that a lot from writers.
But I took, you know, I remember taking a short story class long before I was, you know, I was just a wannabe. And this is probably ten, twelve years before I even before I turn my hand to writing. But no, and I’m not a great manual reader either, though I’m actually considering writing one right now because of all the stuff I picked up along the way, the experiential stuff I like. But what got me writing was reading a book called Writing the Natural Way, and it was very much about left brain, right brain. And it was . . .I mean, it was maybe a little over-heavy on that side, but it really did emphasize the separation of the process. And I read that book, and that’s when I started. That’s when I wrote my first play.
Well, have you found now that you are teaching other people to write, do you find that that comes back to help you in your own writing? I certainly do. I’ve taught writing, and I’ve been a writer in residence at the public libraries in Regina in Saskatoon, working with a lot of writers, starting up writers. And I find that focusing on other people’s writing often makes me see my old work clearly. Is that your experience?
Yes, I would say that’s true. When I teach, I tend to teach in a fairly, you know, I’m not very rigid. I like to see, you know, I’ll have a series of bullet points that I’d like to work through. It’s kind of like my alphabet for writing the novel. I know I want to get from A to D, but I’m not sure where B and C are going to be or what. They’re good. So, you know, I’ll riff on stuff. Other things will come up, and I’ll come up with a phrase, something I’ll go, and I’ll stop, I’ll say, “Excuse me a second,” I’ll stop and write it down because it does apply to my writing, but, oh no, absolutely you do. You know, especially when you can clearly see someone who’s got talent but maybe doesn’t know, doesn’t have the craft and how to channel that talent. So yeah, that does definitely help.
Do you find it rewarding when people advance as a result of your teaching?
Yeah, absolutely, and I love it. I do love it. I mean, I’m you know, I never seek teaching work. I’m often asked. I’ve been doing quite a bit online this year, actually, of course. And I’m actually teaching—I don’t know if this podcast is going to go out by then, but you might want to share this.
Oh, right. OK, well, I’m teaching a fantasy writing workshop for a literary festival that’s starting on Salt Spring Island. And, of course, you know, terrible timing for the poor woman who’s tried to start this. So, it’s all online at the moment. But I’m going to be teaching a fantasy writing workshop a week on Saturday, March 6. And if people want to go to Paper Covers Rock, which is the website, they might even be able to join in if they want.
Well, unusually, we’re recording this like three days before it will go live. So that will work out. That’s a week in the future or thereabouts when this goes, so . . .
Fantastic. Well, Paper Covers Rock, which is clever because Salt Spring is known as the Rock. And so this and this woman deserves the support because she’s trying to do what had never been done before establisher a literary festival in Salt Spring, which is crazy, and then tried to do it during a pandemic. So, I’m going to be teaching that class and hopefully get a few people out. And I’ll talk very specifically about writing fantasy.
One of the things I found teaching and being a writer in residence, in particular, is telling somebody very strongly, you know, I think this is very important, and you should do this and thinking to myself, “Just don’t look in that book that I wrote where I didn’t actually do that.”
That’s what we’re getting into the last few minutes here. So, I want to . . .you thought it was a little early for big philosophical questions, but I’m going to ask you. OK, there are three, really. Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes, in the big picture of human experience? And then, why write fantastical stories in particular? You don’t just write that, but you have recently written quite a bit of that. So, those are the three questions. But the first one is, why do you personally write? You’ve been doing it for a long time.
Why, why, why? Why, why this madness? You know, yeah, I . . . there’s a wonderful . . . I don’t know if you’ve ever seen a book called The Unstrung Harp. It’s an Edward Gorey book. Mr. Earbrass writes the novel, and there’s one . . .it’s a fantastic book for writers because it’s all about the process. And at one point, there’s this gorgeous Edward Gorey picture of this man, his hand across his eyes holding a manuscript. He’s rashly decided to revisit an early draft, and he goes and he sees it for what it is, dreadful, dreadful, dreadful. Why does he go on writing when it all turns out rubbish? You know, why endure “the unexquisite agony?” Why didn’t he become a spy? “How does one become one?” he says, it’s just wonderful, you know, and sometimes you do feel that. Of course, I write because I need to tell stories. You know, I’ve done it since I was a child.
I’ve told stories, you know, just getting my mates playing games. I love stories. I think stories are important. I think that what makes us human. If you’ve read the book Sapiens by Uri Yuval Harari, he posits the theory that what allowed sapiens to become the dominant, in fact, the only hominid, was our ability to gossip, i.e., tell stories. And that’s what draws us together as humans. So, I suppose that that furthers into your other questions of why does anyone write. I think we’re trying to make sense of the world, we’re trying to share our little viewpoint. And I’ve often likened us to, we’re all little mushrooms, and we’re popping up and giving our little view of the world there. You know, there’s a wonderful Wim Wenders film called Wings of Desire. I don’t know if you have ever seen it, but it’s set in Berlin, and it’s about these two angels. And their job is to go down and listen to people. They literally just sort of fold into them. They can’t be seen. And they hear what the people are going through. Very mundane stuff often, but they kind of testify. And I like that image, the idea that one’s testifying to the world and to, you know.
Fantastical stories. Yeah, I don’t know why particularly. I know I always enjoyed fantasy without reading it exclusively. I think it can be in the right hands so imaginative. I think it can shed light on our current situation, I mean, you know, I don’t write message fiction per se, but I do, you know, I’m always aware, even with my historical novels, people say, “Oh, you are an historical novelist.” I go, “No, I’m a modern novelist. I just happened to write historical fiction. You know, the books are relevant to today, are being read today. My fantasy fiction, I mentioned before, particularly the Immortals Blood trilogy, does deal with the world as it is now. It does deal with climate change. It does deal with the elites, the one percent, without trying to spell out a big message. You know, I’m more a depicter than coming up with answers, but I love the fantasy fiction that really looks at the world in a very different way. I just recently read for the first time, shame on me, The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. Have you read that, Ed?
Yes, I did a long time ago now, when it first came out.
Oh, my goodness. Reread it. But just that worldview, that ability to take something so different and yet make it also accessible to humans, I think it allows us to explore, yeah. Explore ourselves even when we think we’re reading something that’s so different from ourselves. So it’s, you know, a human wrote it. So, therefore . . . I started my book, Vlad, which I realized . . . I was writing about Vlad the Impaler, right? And I was worrying about, was I going to whitewash this guy? Was I going to excuse him? And I didn’t want to do either. And then I realized, no, that’s not my job at all. My job is to depict him. And I literally wrote a prologue that said, “I’s not up to me to decide. You decide. You’re the reader. You decide what you think of this guy.” And I came . . . I found this quote by a Latin writer called Terence, who said, “I am a man. Nothing human is alien to me. “And I think that’s a good sort of motto for the for us in the world. And perhaps particularly as fantasy writers, you know, let’s explore, and everyone is probably, if you do it well and with integrity, going to be able to find something that they can relate to or something that’s going to make them think about their world slightly differently.
And what are you working on now?
Well, switching hats entirely, I’m back into historical fiction, though, not my more medieval stuff, which is where I’m probably better known. I’m writing a World War Two saga. Fascinated by World War Two. It is loosely based on my parents’ story because, I mean, you wonder why I grew up a storyteller, my dad was a Battle of Britain fighter pilot. My mum was a spy. So . . . she was a spy in the Norwegian resistance. So, I’m writing a story about, it’s loosely based on them, about a pilot and a spy meeting and various times they meet during the war and what their different wars look like. You know, I’m not . . . given my you know, that I don’t set out knowing the huge amount, I’m not quite sure what it is yet. I’m just writing and having a hell of a time, actually, I’m really enjoying it. It’s very close to my heart in lots of ways. I feel I’m shaped by the people who shaped me, who were shaped by World War Two.
Did your parents tell stories of those times or write them down?
My dad was a storyteller, you know, being an actor and a writer himself, and, to a certain extent. My mum . . . my dad was very gregarious and, you know, one of the lesser-told stories of the war is that for many people, it was their best time, no matter how terrible it was. You know, how do you beat being a glory boy? You know, a fighter pilot? How do you beat . . . does the world ever come close to that again? My mum not so much. You know, Norwegian, you know, saw the Germans marching down her high street on April the 9th, 1940, lost a lot of friends to it all, just escaped with her life when they bust her cell. She didn’t talk about it much at all. But I’m finding out a lot more now.
With my little publishing company I started for my own publishing purposes, Shadowpaw Press, one of the first things I put out was the First World War memoirs of my grandfather-in-law, my wife’s grandfather. And he set out to write his memoirs very late in life, and he wrote very complete memoirs of the First World War. And then it kind of petered out. It’s like he intended to go on through his life, but the rest of his life just obviously wasn’t as vivid to him as that time he spent as a truck driver at Vimy Ridge and then as a navigator on a Handley Page bomber and prisoner of war and all that stuff. It was quite a little set of war memoirs. And I was very happy to be able to bring it into the world.
Yeah. Fantastic. Well done you.
So that brings us, I think, pretty close to the end here. Just let people know where they can find you on mine.
Well, my website is AuthorChrisHumphreys.com. Chris Humphreys. People often misspell Humphreys. You can follow me on Twitter @HumphreysCC. I’m on Instagram @CCHumphreys. I have a Facebook, professional Facebook page, Chris Humphreys. But the best place to start is my website for sure.
OK, well, thanks so much for doing this and for being on The Worldshapers. And yeah, unusually, this one’s going to go out almost right away, so it’ll be very fresh.
Great! Well, fantastic. I mean, obviously, send me all the links, and I’ll publicize.
K.M. Rice, or Kellie, is a national award-winning screenwriter and independent author. Her four-part Afterworldseries launched with the first book, Ophelia, and continues with book two, Priestess.
Her first novel, Darkling, is a young adult dark fantasy that now has a companion novel titled The Watcher. Her novella The Wild Frontier is an ode to the American spirit of adventure and seeks to awaken the wildish nature in all of us. Black Irish, a dark comedy, highlights contemporary political drama in the emerald isle.
When not writing or filming, she can be found hiking in the woods, baking, running, and enjoying the company of the many animals on her family ranch in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Kellie, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you so much for having me.
Now, I laughed a little bit there because I might as well explain that this is our second take on this interview. We’ve had quite a challenge making this happen.
Something in the universe was kind of conspiring that, like, for some reason, it was meant to not happen until now.
Exactly. The first time we tried, I had a windstorm, a huge windstorm up here in Regina, Saskatchewan–the whole province, it wasn’t just the city–that took out power for hours and hours and hours. And then we rescheduled for the following week, at which point you had a windstorm that took out power. And then, when we finally made it happen the first time, the Internet just would drop us periodically throughout the hour. And during that time, I managed to lose chunks of the interview. So here we are again. And this time, it’s going to be perfect.
Well, my clan’s motto is “fortitude.”
Seems appropriate! So, we’ll just pretend we haven’t talked to each other before. So, we’ll start by going back into the mists of time, as I like to say, and talk about where you grew up and how you got interested in fantasy and science fiction and all that stuff and how you got interested in writing. How did that all come about for you?
I was one of those kids who was really lucky that I had parents who regularly read to me. Our bedtime routine was, I don’t know, like, three books or something like that, like, me and my older brother could go pick three books and have our parents read them to us. It was either my mom or my dad, and then two more siblings came along, and we would join in being read to with them, too. And also, it was just a normal day in school and stuff. I remember being read to all the time, and that just, it was so magical to me, the magic of books. And I was an eighties kid, so I remember Reading Rainbow and everything. Everything in our culture at the time was just kind of telling me, like, this is the magical thing to do, is to read stories and maybe one day write one.
So, I was actually in kindergarten when I wrote my first story. And I think it coincided that way because that was the very first time I ever learned how to write, and as soon as I could, I just I wrote, ironically, a story about a haunted house on Halloween, which . . . I say ironically because there’s a haunted house in Darkling as well, which was my debut novel. And yeah, I wrote and illustrated my very first book, the spelling’s very phonetic, but I can still read it to this day and figure out what it’s supposed to be. And I brought it into class for show and tell, and I just wanted to read it to everyone. I think I did it, then my teacher at the time told me, you know, “I’d like you to take this to the principal.” And I had no context. And I just thought that going to the principal means you’ve done something wrong.
Sent to the principal’s office.
Yeah. And I’d gotten in trouble before for, like, making fart jokes and stuff like that. And I genuinely had no understanding of why that was inappropriate. But I knew the teacher wanted me to say I did, like, “Oh yes, sorry, I shouldn’t do that,” but I’m like, “Why?” So I was like, “Oh great. I probably messed up something again.” And I just remember the long walk to the principal’s office, and she sat me down, and she smiled at me, and she said, “Well, I hear you’ve written a story. Can you read it to me?” And I read her the story, and afterwards, she said, “You know, this is a fantastic story. Can I give you a sticker?” And she wrote me this note in her beautiful cursive handwriting that I still have, because I still have that copy, about what an excellent story it was. And she put a sticker on it. And I was like, what? You can go to the principal for good things, too. This is amazing.
I remember going to the principal’s office once. I don’t remember what it was for. And I remember that same sensation of, “I have to go to the principal’s office,” and I remember sitting in a hard chair outside his office, and that’s all I remember. So, whatever it was that they were trying to ingrain in me for the future, all that they ingrained in me was that it was scary to go to the principal’s office. I don’t know what it was for at all. I don’t think it was for writing a story, though. So, that’s a very early start to writing. Did you then carry on in that vein as you grew up through elementary school and junior high and high school?
I did. Fortunately, my spelling improved. I remember in fourth grade there were, Gosh, I guess it was just a general assignment. Every two weeks, we had a story writing contest, and I would routinely win them all. I don’t mind bragging that I got cookies as a reward. My teacher would give us, like, a vanilla-sandwich cookie if you won. So then, all the other kids wanted to be my, quote, writing partner. And I was like, “I work alone, people, “ but I did, some of my friends, I let them do the story with me, but I was very disappointed that it always turned out to be, “So what are we . . . what’s the story about, Kelly?” And then I would be like, “OK, and what do you think?” “I don’t know. Just keep going. You just tell me.” And I’m like, “Other people can’t do this. Like, come on, just try to.” Because I was so lucky, too, to have been raised in a rural area where, like, my first real word other than mom and dad or mama and dada, was outside. And when you’re in that kind of environment, when you want to play a game, you’re in your head, you’re growing your imagination all the time. I had siblings that I could play with when my older brother was nice to me and wanted to play with me. I did have a couple of years alone while my younger siblings were still too small to do much of anything. And I had my friends, but even with my friends, I found that I was usually the one coming up with all the stories.
So, I think, you know, maybe it’s something innate, but also the environment I grew up in was just really conducive to learning how to push the boundaries of your own mind and expand your imagination, so that by the time I did get into junior high, high school, etc., it was already a relatively rich and fertile area of my life. And I had no problem whatsoever coming up with ideas and coming up with stories and just loved doing anything creative. That transferred then into video making or filmmaking when I was twelve, and I was given our old camera because my family got an upgrade. I wasn’t given it. I was just told I could use it. So, that was, that opened up a whole ’nother world. I’ve got hours and hours of videos of me coaching my younger siblings into being police detectives and Indiana Jones, like, for our little movies.
I, unfortunately, go back to the days before video cameras. And it was, if you’re going to have anything, it was, like, eight-millimeter film cameras, and very few of those. So, yeah, it was unusual for any of my friends to be doing anything in the film area.
I’m so jealous of kids these days who have video cameras in their pockets.
Yeah, I know. 4K video cameras.
Yeah, it’s a different era, for sure.
So, through all of that, you were writing, but were you gravitating towards the fantastical side of things, or were you more eclectic at the time? And when did you start to really kind of focus on the fantasy side of writing things?
I actually haven’t given that much thought before, but you’re right, I think I did start off in that vein. I started off writing about a haunted house, and then the stories I was writing in elementary school were about pig assassins or unicorns and. . . kind of like the bio that you just read about me, there’s a touch of whimsy, there’s a touch of the otherworldly in most everything that I write. The only time that I don’t bring that into play, like, for example, in Black Irish, is because there’s comedy there. But I do find that I entertain myself better as I’m writing if I have something to . . .a lens to look at the world through that . . . usually it’s just more interesting to me, it’s more engaging to my imagination, if it’s something that goes beyond just the here and now. And if it’s not something fantastical, then it will be . . . for example, The Wild Frontier, my challenge there was to have more lyrical prose and have the magic kind of come from the words and the way the words sound, how they feel on your tongue rather than any sort of external, fantastical presence.
But I do remember loving The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I was a little young for Lord of the Rings when I first started reading that stuff, but I eventually got round to it after having a lot of people recommend it to me. And also, Harry Potter. Like, I was not a child child . . .well, actually, I was a child when the Harry Potter books first came out, but by the time they got really popular, I think I was in high school, and I had a lot of fun reading those, so . . . I think I was always gravitating toward the escapism and the way that fantasy provides us a safe space to look at real-life drama and trauma because it’s not set in the real world, I don’t have to necessarily . . .I can imagine . . . when you read that type of book, you can imagine what you want to imagine and you can block out stuff that you . . . that maybe is too dark for you. But I do think that even as adults, fantasy gives us a safe place to look at. If that makes sense.
So, I think I was even gravitating to that as a kid.
So, as you go along and then . . . you mentioned you were introduced to video, you kind of went more in the video direction to begin with, didn’t you? When you got to . . . like, did you study writing or did you study filmmaking, or what did you study as you decided to go forward into your life?
When I was a college freshman, I entered into university thinking I was going to be a film director. And that fell apart pretty quickly because I realized that as a director, you are still working with someone else’s vision unless you’ve also written the material
And you have to work with actors, too.
Yes! You have to be a big people person, which is . . . not that I’m not a people person, but I was like, “That sounds like a lot of stress, and there’s a lot of bureaucracy that goes along with it.” And it jus, t it kind of lost its gossamer appeal to me. And I realized, the storyteller, that’s what was speaking to me all along. So I did start . . . well, actually, I went through the normal college, the “now what do I do?” experience, and I was fortunate to have a professor who was actually teaching me a kind of an archaeology hybrid class when I was a freshman about deciphering whether The Trojan War ever actually really took place. So, it was kind of exploring the Mediterranean in the Bronze Age while teaching us research skills and stuff like that. It was one of those introductory courses. And she took the time . . . one day . . . she had bad arthritis and sometimes students would help carry her stuff to her office. And so, I was always happy to do that because I enjoyed talking with her. And I remember one time I was carrying her books and stuff back to her office with her, and she said, “You know, you’re a really good writer. Do you know that?” And I’m like, “Well, I don’t know. I mean, I love it.” She goes,” I wonder if you should be an English major.”
And at the time, I was like, “That is so boring and mundane. I want to be doing something amazing.” But I do remember going home and looking in the course catalog and reading up on the courses that you were, the core classes that you needed to take on, and I’m like, “All of those actually sound really interesting and fun. So maybe I should do this,” because it’s a degree that’s broad enough you could then build on it and go on to . . . a lot of people just assume you’re going to teach, but there’s a lot more you could do with it as well. And a strong foundation in writing, especially in today’s world where so much is digital and so much communication is via email. I think it’s an important skill to have. So, I was really thankful for that conversation and that she pushed me in that direction because before that, writing was just something that was a part of me that was fun, like, writing was kind of confined to the realm of fan fiction and not really something that I was taking super seriously as a craft.
So, when you switched to become an English major, there must have been some actual writing classes. I always ask this because I’ve talked to writers, especially in the science fiction/fantasy field, who say, “Well, I took some form of creative writing, but it didn’t help me very much because they were so against the kind of writing that I wanted to do on the fantastical side. What was your experience?
Oh, absolutely. Yeah, no, I really don’t like essay writing or anything like that, but of course, I had to learn to do it, suck it up and do it as an English major. But we didn’t have a creative writing major at my university at the time. They do now. So, I was doing a creative writing minor, and I took an intro to creative writing course that was actually . . . I found it a nurturing place. It was taught by a student teacher, and maybe that made a difference, but I felt like I was stretching my wings a little bit. And then I took one more fiction course, and that professor, I thought of him as Professor Snape from Harry Potter because he was very crotchety. He could be vicious, like, he could be really mean. I remember him reading a sentence from someone’s story and going, “That’s dumb. That’s just a dumb sentence. Why would you write something so stupid?” I’m like, “How is this helpful? Like, we’re all beginning writers?”
So, I was so nervous to have my first short story read by him. And instead, he read a sentence from my short story and said, “Look, this story has its flaws, but someone who can write a sentence like that is a good writer.” So that gave me a lot of encouragement. And so, I did then apply to be part of the graduate creative writing program to get my master’s in fine arts, which I was told was highly competitive. But I got in for fiction and screenwriting. In fact, I think fiction was my main emphasis, and screenwriting was my secondary because I was also learning screenwriting at the time as an undergrad. And I found that it came extraordinarily easy and natural to me. So, I was kind of growing in the two areas at the same time. And by the time I was in graduate studies, that’s when I was starting to get bored writing anything that was ostensibly literature because I was kind of writing in the here and now, and that’s fine, I don’t have anything against that. But I was finding that my imagination was just yearning to tell these other types of stories, and to world build, and to create some fantastical elements and set rules and limitations to them and then explore our humanity within those bounds.
So, I started writing those stories, and then, yeah, the same thing happened. In fact, as a matter of fact, the first story I wrote, it’s called “The Walkers in Darkness,” which is available online for free for anyone to read if they want to. That was actually written out of my love of the Anglo-Saxon language, Old English, which I also studied when I was translating Beowulf, and there is a fantastical element to it because there’s a creature in the woods that attacks this family, this Scandinavian family, and you don’t quite know what it is, in my mind, it was like a Sasquatch or something, but it’s kind of like this Grendellesque creature. And other than that, there is no magic, nothing. It’s all just written in the world that you see through the lens of the Beowulf author, and I even went to the length of trying to exclude words with Latin roots to try to really build that old English vibe.
That would be a challenge.
It was a welcome one, though. And I was just shocked that most of the feedback I got from my classmates was, “I don’t read sword and sorcery, so I can’t really review this for you.” And I’m like, “OK, they have swords. What’s . . . what are they talking about?” And I was really let down until my professor, bless him, wrote an expletive on the back story for his review. “Bleep, yeah!” And I remember he said, “There’s no postmodern pussyfooting around here. This is just pure story.” And I think to him it had been such a relief to read something different because everyone was so desperate to write what they called the next great American novel, which I still to this day have no idea what that supposed to mean. But I’m like, “If I don’t even know what that’s supposed to mean, I’m not going to try to write it. I’m just going to write what I enjoy.” And at the time, there was this whole like . . . you know, people talk about J.K. Rowling in a negative way now for a completely different reason, but they were pooh-poohing her and Harry Potter just because it was wildly successful and it was, quote, genre. And I’m like, “Hi, I like money and I would like for my stuff to be read. Is this bad?? Am I not supposed to be like, ‘Yes, I want to write to tell stories and because I have this innate drive to do so and I’d be doing it anyway. But also, like, if I made money from it, that would be amazing, too. Like, is it wrong to have that as a whole?”
It’s even better than cookies
You were professional very early, what with the cookie thing going on, but that is even better. So how did you start writing for money?
In fact, it goes back to that Professor Snape I had. I, around that era, I had written a short story written kind of in the Edgar Allan Poe-esque genre. And it’s called “The Woe of William.” And I submitted it to a contest at our university, and I won, like, five hundred dollars or something, because my story won, and I later found out that not only did I win, but I was . . . at the time they were not separating undergrad from graduate students, so I was competing against other people in the creative writing program that I wasn’t yet a part of. So, that really put some wind in my sails, especially getting the money. I’m like, whoa, you know, at the time I was like, “Five hundred dollars. This is . . . I’m rich.” And that was a story I wrote one night in my hammock as it was getting dark out, and I wrote until my hand was so numb I couldn’t write anymore. So I came in the house and I knelt on my bed and I finished scribbling it out and it had very little editing because it was just this burst of inspiration. And I’m like, “If that fun thing I’m doing can get me somewhere, that’s really cool.”
So, that gave me the encouragement I really needed and then I had a lot . . . I had more success with my short stories in competitions such as that, but most of my financial success was coming with my screenwriting, because I was winning national screenwriting competitions with my screenplays. And I do always highly recommend that fiction writers and even probably nonfiction writers do study some screenwriting or playwriting because it really helps you hone your storytelling skills, since you’re only allowed to use actions and dialogue.
That was actually the next question, was how screenwriting has fed into your fiction and vice versa, I guess.
Yeah, I think it’s a wonderful back and forth. You’re forced to focus on the spine of the story. And without that, it’s really easy to get lost. because there was a lot of people who I was in grad school with who I would read their work and be like, “Mman, this person can really paint a scene. They are really . . . I can fully imagine this, but I just read 30 pages and I could tell you what happened in two sentences.” So, I’m like, nothing’s really happening yet in this story. And a lot should have happened by 30 pages in. So, that’s the kind of situation, one, like, that type of person or type of writer would really benefit from trying their hand at some screenwriting and forcing themselves to get down to the bare bones of storytelling.
Yeah, I recently read something where I literally got to the end of what was supposed to be the end of the book . . . it was in manuscript format, I was evaluating it . . . and I literally went up to my office to look for the rest of the book because I couldn’t believe that that was the end because nothing had happened yet.
Oh, my gosh. And I’m not really entertained by those types of stories. I know that there’s a place and time for it. I remember one of my professors pointing out to someone who was writing a historical fiction piece, he said, “I really appreciate that you’re not in a rush to tell this story that we know we’re in your hands and we’re going to go about this at a slow pace.” And I’m like, “Well, I hadn’t seen that as a plus,” but he made it, he helped me relook at it as a plus. So, it just, it’s all so subjective. It’s just, why are you reading? That’s why it is really important to figure out your target audience because if you are writing to a certain type of reader, it informs almost every decision you make when you’re telling the story.
Another thing I wanted to ask about screenwriting, I find . . . I’m more familiar on the playwriting side. I’ve written and directed plays, and I’m an actor as well, a stage actor. And I have often felt that the writing for the stage and being a director as well specifically helps with keeping a clear image in my head of what’s going on in a scene, where people are in relationship to each other, what the surroundings are, how that impacts. Because, of course, when you’re directing a play, you have very three-dimensional people who, you know, can run into each other and stuff like that. You have to know where they are, and you have to build those screen pictures, those stage pictures on them. And I feel that has helped me writing action scenes, or any scenes where there are a number of people in the space. Do you think that screenwriting gives you some of that same sort of visual component to your prose writing?
Yeah, yeah, because if you don’t have an imagination that naturally is going to envision it as a film, screenwriting is obviously going to help you get to that place where you can see it play, Peter Jackson, the director of Lord of the Rings, King Kong, and a bunch of other films, one of the things he says is, “Make sure you can watch the movie in your head from beginning to end, because if you can’t, how can you expect anyone else to?“ So, I think that’s good advice. And I also got really good advice in my Intro to Creative Writing Class a million years ago, the one that I said actually felt quite nurturing, where he advised us to, “If you’re writing about a physical space, always draw the space, because you will find your imagination is putting in rabbit holes that are not physically possible.” And I remember thinking, “That’s stupid advice, I know exactly what the house I’m writing about looks like. And I drew it, and I was like, “Oh. Oh, the staircase has two different landings that it’s impossible for it to have. OK, this is good advice.”
Yeah, especially if, you know, like, I was writing something, and it was set in an inn, which I had just sort of imagined in my head. And then, when I started drawing it, I realized that it just didn’t work, what I had been writing about, as a physical space. Yeah, I’ve encountered exactly that thing. Well, let’s move on to talk about your most current series, the Afterworld series, as a focus on how you go about creating your stories. So, we’ll begin at the very beginning. It’s a cliche, but it’s still a legitimate question . . . actually, et’s begin even a little bit before the beginning and have you give a synopsis, whatever you’d like to say about these books, before we start talking about them.
I will . . . I am, like, my own worst enemy. I’m, like, bad at the elevator pitch, which is something I really need to work on. But, so, I will read to you my little summary from my website. So, the series is called Afterworld, the first book is called Ophelia, and it’s available in ebook format for free right now, if you’re interested at all.
“The four-book Afterworld series tells the tale of a love so strong that it cannot be constrained by death… or time. Compared by readers to Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander novels, this unique epic combines ancient Irish mythology and history with the modern world.”
So, I will read you the summary of Ophelia as well. And my boyfriend’s Irish, so he’ll tear me apart for this, but I’m going to attempt an Irish accent for a moment here.
If I’d known that, I wouldn’t have attempted one earlier.
“‘What if it wasn’t random?” he whispered, and the hairs on the back of her neck rose one by one with tickling tugs. “What if sometimes people are meant to meet each other?”
“Ophelia Brighton hasn’t had a vision from the past since she was a small child. Now a grad student, both her thesis and her life are interrupted when a troubled young Irishman knocks on her door in Santa Cruz, California. Her visions return with his arrival, and Ophelia must struggle to keep her balance amidst her growing confusion over her place in the world . . .and time.
“When Ophelia’s visions of a Victorian mystery reveal a secret that will change her future, she also discovers a love that was stronger than death. But is it too late to right the wrongs of the past?”
So that’s the description of book one.
I just . . . this is completely off topic in a way, but just thinking of Irish accents, I mentioned that I’m an actor, and years ago, I was in a professional production of a play, Who Has Seen the Wind, which is based on a famous Canadian novel set on the prairies, and the character I was playing . . . well, I was playing two characters. But one of the characters was Uncle Sean, who was Irish. So, I was doing my best Irish accent. But the director was very, very Hungarian.
Oh my gosh.
Thick Hungarian accent. He was no help at all on the accent. So, he just let me do whatever I wanted. And my one thing was what I got, you know, after I’d done it. And somebody that knew said I sounded Irish. I just didn’t sound like I came from the part of Ireland the character said he came from. And I figured as long as I hit the island, I was doing OK.
I know, right? At some point, you’ve just got to pick your battles. Yeah, I love it when my boyfriend does an American accent, and he’s suddenly, like, this Southerner, I’m like, “That’s what we sound like to you?”
Funny thing is, I went to the UK when I was in college, and I went to college in the States. We were on a chorus tour, and I had all these Southerners around me, and in England, people thought they were Irish. So maybe there is a connection there.
Oh, funny. You know, like, the American accent has, especially in different regions, been formed by the Irish vowel pronunciation because obviously, they were a massive, in Canada as well, they were a massive immigrant group. So linguistically, I definitely think they influenced our accents.
Undoubtedly. That was just an aside. And so, we’re using this as an example, where do your ideas come from? The seeds from which your stories grow, and specifically this one?
Well, let me think now. So, this was actually the . . . I want to say fourth novel that I wrote, even though it wasn’t the fourth that I published, because the first book that I wrote is unpublished, and I wrote two of those. I’m waiting until I finish the series before release that. And that was inspired by a dream. So, it had what was the end of a story as a dream, and I wrote to discover how the characters got to that place. And then the second one, Darkling, was also inspired by dreams that most people would call nightmares. And just the emotions of the dream clung to me like carrion on a skeleton, which I feel is an appropriate metaphor for that book. And I just really wanted to explore that. So, both those novels I wrote very quickly because I don’t outline, I write to entertain myself, so that’s why I write in kind of these manic bursts. And I have since tested that and been relieved to find out that I can also write as a more sane individual, you know, in chunks of time when I have them. And from the feedback I’ve received so far, my work hasn’t suffered for it. So that was a great relief to me because, like I said, the first several novels that I wrote, including Ophelia, I wrote in this kind of just-lock-myself-in-my-room and tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
But, so, Ophelia did not come from a dream. In fact, it came from a very roundabout place that . . . this description, explanation, is going to have nothing to do with what you just heard of the summary of the book. But I always had this fascination with the First World War and with Irish history in general, the Irish struggle for freedom, especially as an American, that really captures the imagination. So, I love this blend of history and the fantastical, especially if it’s almost magical realism, if it’s like, well, just one there’s one twist, play with that one twist. For example, in Outlander, it’s time travel. So, how does that change things? How does that change your view of the world? And obviously, there’s some playing with time in my novels as well. And this idea of someone could have been a young man in Ireland and enlisted to go fight for the Crown–at the time, they were being told by a lot of politicians that serving the British in the First World War would be a great way to get home rule–because they were still considered a colony of the UK–it would be a great way to get home rule because it will show we’re willing to play by the rules, we’re willing to be your allies. So, a lot of young men enlisted under that belief, and the tide completely changed culturally at home over the course of those four or five years. They had the 1916 Easter rising, which was a strike at freedom and a strike that the organizers knew was pretty much doomed to fail. But they hoped that through their failure, the Irish people would be galvanized.
And that is what happened. The British sailed warships up the River Liffey and decimated a lot of Dublin in retaliation and trying to quell the rebellion. And a lot of civilians died. So, people at first were very upset at these rabble-rousers being like, “Why did you do this to us? Why did you incur their wrath? We’re just trying to go about our daily lives.” But then once word got out about how the uprisers were being treated in prison, and once they started being executed, two weeks later, which was apparently enough time for these emotions to come down . . . you know, they could hear the gunshots. Dublin isn’t that huge of a city, at least the old part of Dublin. And people just turned very much against the British occupation in terms of popular opinion. So, at the time when these veterans returned home, they were seen as people who’d betrayed the Irish because they went to serve the Crown, even though a lot of them, their motivation was the opposite. And so, that was tough. But then, on top of that, they returned home to a lot of political unrest where, as I mentioned, the cultural tide was wanting to push for freedom. So, they were in a really unique position to be young men with a lot of military training. And that’s largely how the Irish were able to organize and conduct their guerrilla tactics and win their independence from the United Kingdom in 1921, I believe it was, when the treaty was signed. Of course, Northern Ireland wasn’t part of that treaty, but the Republic of Ireland was essentially birthed then. Well, I guess that was one hundred years ago now.
So, I was fascinated that one person’s lifetime could go through all that, and that’s actually just, Like, a decade. How I came up with this really roundabout way to tell that story, that baffles even me. But I don’t question it so much because especially this series of books, I almost feel like . . . you know, the ancient Greeks talk about their muses whispering in their ears. I feel like someone’s been whispering this story in my ear and that these people are real people, and I’m just their conduit. So, by the time I got to the fourth book, I was nervous because I was like, “How do I close out a four-book series that’s on this epic scale?” And the book’s not released yet. But I do feel like personally I did the story and the characters justice, and that essentially wrote itself at that point. So that, to me, was a very magical experience, to be kind of channeling, whether it’s my subconscious or . . . I don’t know if there really are muses or whatever it is, I was able to put it to paper.
So, my next question is always about planning and outlining. It sounds to me like perhaps you’re not a huge planner or outliner?
No, not at all. I found that when I do that, which I needed to do for some of my screenplays and stuff, I then would really fight against the actual writing because part of me felt like I’d already satiated that need to tell the story and that the story was already told. So that was I realized that was kind of a passion killer for me. But I do take notes as I write, especially something as complicated as Ophelia or any of the Afterworld books, I have to keep notes to be like, “OK, remember that this was said. Remember that this is that date.” So, I have a notebook that I keep next to me. But other than that, I do . . . also enjoy editing as I go. So, if I wake up the next morning and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, wait a minute, what you just wrote yesterday, that’s going to contradict something in chapter two,” I’m more comfortable going in my Word document and editing that and changing it before I continue going forward. So, it’s all kind of always in flux.
Well, one of the interesting things about this podcast, of course, is that every writer does it differently.
So on the outlining front, I have the people who, you know, just start writing. And then there’s . . . I always mention Peter V. Brett, who writes 150-page outlines before he starts writing.
That’s just so impressive to me.
And I said, “Well, you know, doesn’t that kind of take some of the fun out of it?”, I guess, or words to that effect, and he basically said, “Well, it doesn’t have to be fun. It’s a job.” I mean, I’m . . . I kind of do a few pages of sketches, and then I rarely look at it when I write the book.
So, I mean, there’s strength to both styles. I think that that’s what I love about it. And that’s what I try. . . like, when I was doing my author’s vlog, which I don’t do writing advice so much anymore, but there’s like fifty or more episodes out there giving free writing advice, answering people’s questions, and one of the things I was always trying to emphasize is like, I’m telling you what works for me, by no means should you apply that to your life or compare yourself to that. The fact that I wrote a 90,000-word novel in two and a half weeks does not mean that I’m better or . . . it could be a crap book. And that doesn’t mean that you should be holding yourself to that. I’m just saying that this has been my experience, and almost every creative has a different way of going about it, different circumstances, different ways that their mind works. And it’s just about experimenting and finding out what works for you and encouraging that, leaning into that.
So, I always tell people, be very cautious when you’re reading these writing advice blogs or books, and they’re telling you this is what you should do. Think, “Well, no, that’s what they do and what works for them.” And you can try it and see if it works for you. But if it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to try something else.
You mentioned your writing process earlier, where you had done it in these intense bursts, and then you did it a little more sanely.
So, we kind of talked about that. And then you also talked a little bit about you do some revision as you go. But what does your revision process look like when you have a draft?
I usually have to let it sit for at least a month. I have to have that emotional and intellectual distance from it before I can go back to it. And then I’ll go back to it, and I’ll reread it. Now, I hope my answer right now is truthful, I might . . . I’m not so self-aware when I’m going through this process. I know that once I finish it, I probably don’t completely leave it and walk away. I probably first go through and read it again because what I tend to do because I write quickly is I do the broad strokes of scenes. So, I have a lot of, what do you call them, like, not filler moments but placeholders, sometimes dialogue, placeholder descriptions of the characters, facial expressions, reactions, and stuff, and because when I’m first writing the scene, especially a charged scene, it is a lot of acting and I’m feeling those emotions, and I’m just trying to get those out. And then, I need to come through and add some of the finer details to the painting or the story. And that’s when I really start getting into the nitty-gritty. And then, inevitably, I have to start challenging myself. I found there’s a couple of pieces of software out there now that I’ve found really helpful in my writing that will flag overuse of words or expressions or passive voice. And that’s been really helpful to me because I do . . .we get brain blind to our own mistakes and our own patterns. So, it’s really nice to have that pointed out to me.
Would you like to introduce those software items?
The one I’m using right now is called ProWritingAid. And I think there’s a free version you can use where you upload, or you copy and paste onto their website, but I paid for it to be incorporated into my Microsoft Word. It does bog down the process a lot because it’s it makes it freeze every once in a while, which has been . . .
I use one called PerfectIt. The longer the manuscript gets, the more painful the process is so slow. So, probably the key there is to do it in short chunks at a time instead of trying to do the whole manuscript at once.
Exactly. And then also remind yourself that this is AI, and you don’t need to be writing to get a completely 100 percent score. But that always bothers me as I watch the . . . it gives you, like, a percentage of, like, how strong it thinks your writing is. And at some point, I was getting competitive with myself and, like, I intentionally have passive voice in the sentence. It’s OK.
Sentence fragments can be used.
Yeah, this is creative writing.
So, once you’ve got a revision, the revised draft, do you use beta readers of any sort?
What’s the next step, editing and all of that kind of thing? Since you’re independently published, do you hire an editor, or how does that work for you?
Most of my edits have been done by volunteers who are in the wide swath of my beta-reader group. I am lucky that I have a few friends who are also writers and really good editors. In fact, one of my friends isn’t a writer, but she’s a voracious reader, and so she will catch stuff.
That’s more useful than another writer, sometimes, I think. Somebody who’s a really experienced reader looks at it in a different way than another writer does.
And it’s amazing. Her wealth of knowledge amazes me because I know she’s just absorbed it all from reading so much. You know, it’s like, she’s memorized stylistic traits and rules and stuff just through absorption. And like, that is one of the reasons why you hear a lot of other writers saying if you want to improve your writing, read and read and reread.
I always start there, telling people if they want to be a writer, they have to read.
So, where do you find your beta readers?
I have a Facebook group I had called my Wildling Warriors because Wildlings is kind of the nickname I came up with for my supporters because my goal is for my creative work to awaken the wild, wildish nature in everyone. Awaken your passion, awaken your zest for life, for creativity, for nature, that’s kind of what I feel like drives me. So, through my films and through the written word and my photography, that’s usually where I’m coming from, and I’ve been lucky to have a lot of support from people. Some of that came from having a successful YouTube series, The Happy Hobbit, which you mentioned, which is bringing Middle Earth into your daily life, which I do with, I co-produced with my sister. And it’s so much fun. But a lot of people found out who I was through there, then were like, “Oh, she also has a book!” and then made the hop over to my author self under my initials, and have just been incredibly supportive. I also have a group of friends who have been really supportive too. And the friends, it’s harder, because I can’t necessarily rely on them to give me brutal feedback, if brutal feedback is to be had. But it’s been good so far to get the opinions of at least ten different people on a novel, and I’ve been happy that thus far, no major plot holes or anything like that have been found because I do, before I even send it to them, I’m trying to send them as finished a book as possible so that there’s minimal work to go into it afterward.
And at some point, you have to decide that it’s ready to go. How do you decide that it’s ready to go?
You kind of have to get to the phase of good enough. Like, I still want to go back through Ophelia and look for more tweaks. That because you’re always growing as a writer, and you’re always learning more. And so, yeah, with it being an ebook, it’s very dangerous because you can . . .
You can always change it, yeah.
Yeah. You can change a lot and then just re-upload the document. I forgot to mention another part of the process, which I think is important. And a lot of people don’t do it because they either don’t have someone or they feel crazy doing it. But my little sister is my biggest fan. She loves all of my books, and she will always be my first listener. I won’t say reader because I’m reading it aloud to her. And the process of reading it aloud is really, really helpful to me, not only for the way . . . like, I will read dialogue, but I’m like, “How did I think that sounded OK?” Or I realize, “Oh, there’s no conjunction in that sentence.” But when I was reading it quickly on my own, my brain filled that in. So, I think that reading it aloud is a very powerful editing tool. And then I’m just extra lucky to have a loving little sister who, when I was writing the Afterworld series, for example, would just, “That’s it? That’s all you have written? I’m leaving. You go back in there, and you write more. I want more by tonight.” So that was a great motivator to know that there was someone out there who wanted this, even if it was just my sister. Like, not just, she’s not just, but even if it was just one person reading, reading out loud.
You know, you don’t have to have somebody to listen either. It’s the actual act of reading aloud. I tend to read it with, you know, moving my lips, basically, but still saying it out loud. Even if I’m working in a coffee shop or something, I’ll read it out loud, sort of under my breath sometimes when I’m in the editing process, because, yeah, if you don’t, it’s one of the best ways to find . . . and if you don’t find it then, you’ll find it when you’re doing a public reading and you see what you’re about to read and you think, “Oh, I wish I . . . and sometimes I have changed things in public . . .
And you go beet-red, and you’re like, “It’s OK, nobody else can see what you’re seeing . . . .”
Yeah, nobody else is reading along with you in the book, so it’s OK. Well, we’re getting close to the end here, so . . . we’ve got touched on some of this earlier on, but I do have the three “big philosophical questions.” I’m going to put reverb on that someday. They are simply, why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes, you know, the sort of the big picture, why do humans write stories, and why stories with fantastical elements specifically? So there are your three big philosophical questions.
I was . . . I’m one of those personalities who, you know, the background I’ve given you in this episode shows that it just came innately to me. It was something that I was absorbing my whole childhood and couldn’t wait to do. So, I know that . . . I am writing without an audience. I have a journal full of poetry and starts of stories and, in fact, chunks of books that have still never even been read by anyone else or seen. And I’m going to keep doing that. So, I’m not writing for the sake of . . . I’m writing to express myself, I guess, and to put these things out into the world and to explore my own psyche and imagination, and then, if I can craft a powerful story that people are going to want to read and, even better, if people are willing to pay four dollars for, then, oh, you know, all the better. But other than that, it is just this kind of innate drive I have to tell stories either through the written word or through filmmaking or photography, and I think that speaks to the nature of why we tell stories to begin with., I think that that separates us . . . I view human beings as animals just as much as any other creature on the planet, and I think that that’s one of the great things that separates us, though, is art.
And I kind of reject the idea that our creativity and our artistic expression is just an over-firing of the creativity we’ve developed to problem solve, to survive as a species. I think there’s something more soulful to it than that. Whatever your spirituality is, I think that powerful art, powerful stories, connect to us on a level, a cathartic level where we feel like we’ve just vicariously experienced something. And it really broadens the scope of your way of thinking when you have had that escape from yourself and your world, and you’ve gone into another one, and you’ve experienced life from someone else’s point of view or an alternate version of what life could be. That’s my favorite part of reading, is looking at the world in a completely different way. So, I do think that there’s this very innate part of who we are as human beings that wants to create and express ourselves.
But then why the fantastical elements? You know, you can tell stories that are set and in the real world, so why do we feel drawn to pull in these imaginary, fantastical, supernatural elements?
I think, like, what I touched on earlier, I think that the level of escapism gives us permission to examine these things more so than we would give ourselves permission to if it were in the real world. The real world is full of really horrendous, harrowing things. I don’t personally like to read stories that are set in the here and now and involve that, because to me that’s just too unlike . . . hat’s what my friend’s going through, that’s what my family members are going through, that’s what I might be going through. Why would I want to have that compounded in me even more? But if it’s in the safe space of, “Oh no, this is told through symbolism. Like, what does the ring symbolize in Tolkien? Is it power? Is it control? Is it addiction? How do the characters all respond to it differently? Sometimes it’s more palatable in that format, and you feel more comfortable exploring these ideas than you would if it was about a more real-world example, but it is funny because when I first started to write Ophelia . . . it reads kind of cozy at the start, which I don’t do cozy, but I was really trying to do cozy because I thought that’s what people want. And it progressively . . . and I found this when I did my first draft. So, of course, I went through and totally made sure that it was a gradual increase, but my imagination completely rebelled. And it was like, “You’re trying to write something cozy and cutesy? Oh, wait till you see what I have in store for you.” So, through the fantastical twists, it brought in a lot of heavy, you know, some people would say dark stuff that I don’t know if I would have felt comfortable writing if it wasn’t through a fantastical twist.
So, maybe I’m just speaking from my own personal experience. Maybe other people can’t relate to that. But I just find that fantasy is using archetype, and it’s our modern mythology that gives us this place to explore these ideas and to ask the hard questions of where do we come from? Where are we going? What values do we hold dear? And sometimes it might be a little bit simplified, but I’m a lover of mythology, and I don’t see any harm in that because most of us have lives that are already complicated enough as it is. So, if you’re going to be edifying yourself through your escapism, all the better.
And what are you working on now?
Right now, I am slowly going through my edit of book three of the Afterworld series to release at an undisclosed date this year. I’ve been plodding along because I was laptop-less for, I think, what, two years? Over two years. And I finally have one again, so I’ve been excited to get back into that world with the characters, and it’s given me the benefit of having a year, I guess, away from the book series. So, I’m coming at it with fresh eyes for the editing process, which is fun because when I forget parts of my own stories, which I often do, it’s really fun to be reading it. And I’ll be like, “I hope this happens next. Oh wow. It does. Imagine that.”
Yeah, I’m currently reading out loud to my wife one of my novels that she’s never heard from ten years ago now. And that’s long enough now that I’m reading it, I’m thinking, you know, “I don’t remember writing these sentences at all. But that was a pretty good sentence. That was a good scene.”
Isn’t that hilarious?
And, you know, I have vague memories of it, but there’s nothing . . . the specifics are long gone through my head. So, it’s like reading something somebody else wrote almost.
Yeah. And then when you have that level of detachment, you can actually appreciate your own writing without, like, trying to chisel it to death.
Yeah, it’s kind of a nice thing to go back. Of course, you can also go back to an old book and wish you could completely rewrite it, but that’s not my experience in this one, anyway.
So that’s kind of the end of the time. So, where can people find you online?
I am on social media under my pen name, so that’s my initials, K then M then Rice, RICE, and author. So, I’m on Facebook, Instagram—Instagram’s where I spend most of my time—YouTube, TikTok. I do technically have a Tumblr blog, but it’s not very exciting. It’s just where I push all the content from my other stuff. So, I’m relatively easy to find online if you want to follow my creativity.
OK. Well, I’m sure people will after we finally got this podcast done.
I know, it’s been a feat! I’m afraid to celebrate it yet.
Yes, I have . . . you know, I haven’t checked the recording, but it says it’s recording, so everything is fine. So anyway, thanks for being on The Worldshapers twice, in a way, but thanks for being a guest and a great chat. Hope you enjoyed it.
Thank you so much for having me. It was lovely talking with you, and thank you to everyone listening for giving us an hour of your time. Time is precious.
An hour-long interview with Gerald Brandt, bestselling author of the San Angeles science-fiction series and the new Quantum Empirica series that began with Threader Origins, all published by DAW Books.
Gerald Brandt is an internationally bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy. His current novel is Threader Origins, published by DAW Books, the first book in the Quantum Empirica trilogy that will continue with Threader War and Threader God.
His first novel, The Courier, Book 1 in the San Angeles series, was listed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as one of the ten Canadian science fiction books you need to read and was a finalist for the prestigious Aurora Award. Both The Courier and its sequel, The Operative, appeared on the Locus Bestsellers List.
By day, Gerald is an IT professional specializing in virtualization. In his limited spare time, he enjoys riding his motorcycle, rock climbing, camping, and spending time with his family. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife, Marnie, and their two sons, Jared and Ryan.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Hey, Ed. How are you?
I’m good. Now, we’ve known each other for quite some time now. Winnipeg and Regina are not that far apart. And we’ve showed up at the same conventions, and now we share a publisher, DAW Books.
We do. I think we first met, probably, at World Fantasy in Calgary, would have been the first time.
Yeah, that sounds about right. And I guess we share an editor, too, Sheila E. Gilbert at DAW Books.
Hugo Award-winning editor.
Oh, yes. Must mention that. Yes. And the other fun fact is that I was there in Washington, DC, at World Fantasy when you sold that first novel to DAW. And I think I was one of the first people to know about it, actually, outside of probably your family.
You may have been, actually. Yeah. That whole day is still a fog. I can’t remember all the finer details.
It was great. Well, let’s start by finding out how you got interested in writing science fiction and fantasy. Let’s take you back first to a little bit of biographical information. Did you grow up in Winnipeg? Have you always been a Winnipegger? Tell me your life story.
Yeah, I did grow up in Winnipeg, although I wasn’t born here. I was born in Berlin, Germany. So, I’m a first-generation immigrant to Canada. But I guess we moved when I was two years old. So, yeah. I don’t remember much of my first two years of my life, but so, yeah, Winnipeg has been my home for pretty much my entire life.
So, growing up in Winnipeg, when did you discover that you liked science fiction?
You know, this is going to sound cliché, and I’m sure that just about everybody you have spoken to has said the same thing, but I started out as an avid reader. Don’t we all?
Pretty much, yeah.
And the books that grabbed my attention, although I read pretty much everything, you know, if you handed me a ketchup bottle, I’d read the ingredients list just to read something . . .
And then do it again in French, since we live in Canada.
Well, no, I . . .no, no. I’m sadly a one language person.t I did not do well in school in French classes. But anyway, so yeah, the books that really seemed to draw me more than anything else were, well, mainly fantasy novels, and science fiction as well. So, yeah.
Do you remember any specific titles that had an impact on you?
Oh, my gosh. You know, the Foundation series, Asimov’s Foundation series, was a big one for me, going a ways back in my younger, younger years. Piers Anthony was a big one for me, but I find myself struggling to . . .I went back and read some of him recently, and I don’t think his books aged that well, unfortunately.
No, I loved them too. And I had kind of the same reaction when I looked back at them.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, what else? Wow. Yeah. You’re asking me to go way back. You know, I’m pretty old.
Oh, yeah, look who’s talking to me. I’m older than you are. So, you know, I can remember. I’m sure you can.
Well, I . . . you know, maybe . . . but I don’t even have many of those books on my shelf anymore. You know, I’ve gone past what really got me into the genre, I think.
Well, when did you start writing? I read in another interview, I think, that you did some in junior high?
Yeah, in junior high. I wrote . . . I started thinking that, you know, I’ve been reading all this stuff, I can start writing it. And it was much like the poetry I was writing at the time, rather angst-filled teenage garbage, but, you know, I guess we all start somewhere.
How much did you do? Like, were you writing long things or short stories or . . .?
Yeah, short stories. I didn’t even know they really existed back then. So, I was reading novels, you know, I was reading Stephen R. Donaldson and things like that. So, I was basically copying what I read. And, you know, I got well into some novels, but I never actually got anything finished back then. I think I actually still have a notebook here somewhere that has a really bad hundred pages of a handwritten fantasy novel in it, which I really should get rid of before I die because somebody will read it, and that would just be bad.
I have actually, right here on my desk, I have the handwritten manuscript of my first novel that I wrote when I was fourteen.
And it was typed up later. And you never know, I might put it online sometime under a pseudonym or something. And my worry is that it will sell better than my actual novels.
Well, you are a braver soul than I.
I don’t know. I haven’t done that yet. I’ve talked about it for a long time, but it hasn’t happened yet.
So, I also read in that interview, though, that you kind of . . . well, first before I do that, did you share your writing with people at the time? I always ask people that about their youthful writings. Were they brave enough to share it, or was it a thing you just kept to yourself?
Never. I did not share any of my writing until I got serious, quite serious, about it when I turned forty. And even then, I held off for a number of years before I thought I was good enough to have somebody else look at.
So, there was a gap in there between writing in junior high and getting serious about it.
What happened in there?
Well, in Grade 10, so, the first grade of high school, they offered a computer programming course. And on a whim, I took it. And that was the end of my world. I started, at that point, I started a career of computer programming. And I’m glad I did. It did very well for me. I’m actually not programming anymore, I’ve gone more to the IT side now, but it gave me a career that helped me, you know, let me raise a family and buy a house and do all those things that normal people do that you can’t do for, in most cases, you can’t do with a writing career.
I did programming briefly. I didn’t have a class in it, but I learned Basic, and I had a Commodore 64, and I wrote this extensive program using the Commodore 64 music chip that allowed me to input sheet music into it after a fashion. And I did that, and it took hours and hours, and it worked, after a fashion. And then when it was done, I thought, “You know, there are other people who are better at this than I am.” And I was never tempted to be a programmer after that. So I had a different reaction to you, I think.
Yeah, yeah. M first introduction in high school would have been punch cards and programming in COBOL before we moved on to the Commodore PET, which was the first microcomputer I touched. So, that was a long time ago.
I did take one programming class. I lied. I took an off-campus university programming class, and it used a Commodore PET, as well. So there something we have in common. But then you did something with it, and I never did. So, what brought you back to writing then? I mean, were you continuing to read science fiction through all those years?
Oh, absolutely. My reading has never . . . well, I’m not going to say never. My reading did not drop off at all during those years. That has changed since I’ve become a writer because I just don’t have as much time as I used to have. But yeah, I absolutely kept on writing or kept on reading, and yeah, I wouldn’t have stopped. Nothing would have stopped me from reading.
I kind of loved science fiction and fantasy together, but your writing is certainly, so far at least, more on the science fiction side. Were you more of a science fiction reader than a fantasy reader, or were you indiscriminate?
I was more of a fantasy reader than science fiction, and everything that I’ve ever written before my first sale has been fantasy, but I have never sold any of my fantasy. I’ve only sold my science fiction. So, go figure.
Hmmm. Well, how did the switch to writing seriously come about? What made you decide at the age of forty or whenever to take it seriously and really get into it?
Yeah. You know, it was always there. I mean, always the idea that, you know, I’m reading this stuff and I can do this. I want to do this. But at forty, a little bit before forty, I became a stay-at-home parent to my two boys. One was in Grade 1, and the other one hadn’t yet started preschool, I guess, so he was home all the time. And one of the parents of another kid in my son’s, in the Grade 1 class, she was a writer. And, you know, we started talking a little bit, and I just kind of woke up one morning and said, “This is it. It’s now or never. I’m forty years old. If I don’t start writing, then I probably won’t.” So, I gave myself a goal. I said, I will have something published. A novel was my goal. I will have a novel published in ten years. Or if I don’t, I’ll stop because it’s obsolete. Ten years to me was the perfect amount of time to hone whatever skills I might have had and churn out something that was publishable. And the end result was Sheila offering me a contract at roughly ten years and three months.
And at that point, you know, I wasn’t going to stop anyways because ten years of actually struggling and getting better and writing and being critiqued and critiquing, I wasn’t going to stop at fifty, at any rate. I was going to keep on going until I had something sold. But, you know, it’s interesting that it happened roughly in the time frame that I gave myself.
Well, did it just sell out of the gate, or was there some back and forth with Sheila on that particular novel?
Well, there’s a five-year story.
Yeah, I kind of knew it was there. That’s why I asked.
Yeah, I figured you did. Actually, Sheila came to the convention, KeyCon, here in Winnipeg.
Yeah, I remember. I was there too.
So, we did meet then before World Fantasy. I guess we never spoke.
Yeah. We probably didn’t notice each other.
Probably not. No. But anyway, as a big surprise to her, KeyCon had set up a pitch session, which she . . .
I remember that!
. . . . which she was not prepared for. So, I signed up for the pitch session, and it was my first pitch session ever. And it took me by surprise, probably almost as much as it took Sheila by surprise. They put thirty of us into a room with Sheila, and we all pitched to her in front of each other, which is not actually the way it works, really. But whatever, it happened.
I, unfortunately, followed somebody who had had a lot to drink the night before and showed up with bathroom-tile imprints still on the side of their face. And they tried to pitch to Sheila and finally just stood up and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this,” and walked out. And then they called me. So, I went up to the desk and, you know, did the brief introductions, and she said, “What do you have?” And I stuttered and stuttered. And I said, you know, “I’m really quite nervous. And I’m not sure that I can remember what I memorized anymore.” And she said, “Well, do you have it written down?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s right here.” And she looked me in the eye, and she said, “Oh, thank goodness.” And she took the paper, and she read it, and she requested a full.
And then, I guess, we met, that’s why I started going to World Fantasies, probably. We met at every World Fantasy after that and talked about the book. And, you know, she never actually had read it yet, but she asked me what I was working on, what was new, what was coming up to me. I guess she was kind of just pushing me to make sure that I was serious about the work. But writing this was what I wanted to do. You know, in the meantime, I pitched other books to her, and she kind of grimaced once or twice. Threader Origins was one of those. But I wrote it anyways, despite her grimace. And then, you know, we’d meet, and she said, “You know, I managed to read your synopsis on the airplane. So, we’re going to talk about your synopsis rather than The Courier.” And so, she critiqued and poked holes in that. And I kept saying, “Well, you know, this is what happens.” And, you know, so I answered all of her questions on that. In the next year, she actually read it and bought it. But it was a five-year process.
That’s an interesting initial sale. I remember . . . because I was at KeyCon, I was working on Magebaneat the time, which is by one of my pseudonyms, Lee Arthur Chane. And I remember, I actually remember after she had finished her editorial comments on that, saying to her on the elevator, “But I can write, can’t I?”
When she bought The Courier, I left our little meeting, and we arranged to meet later on in the day again. So, I went up to my room, and I phoned the wife, and she actually left a meeting to take my phone call. And she went back into the meeting, and she says, “My husband just sold his first novel.” And everybody in the meeting, including her boss, looked at her and said, “Well, you’re not quitting your job, are you?” So luckily, she said no, because the writing . . . but anyway, in that same convention, Sheila and I sat down in a quiet spot, and she gave me my first editorial on the novel at that convention. And I kind of felt like garbage because I didn’t know how things worked. But yes, the same as, you know, “I can still write? You think I can still write, right?” And then, about twenty minutes after she gave that first editorial pass, I went to my first DAW dinner.
Oh, yeah. It’s, I mean, I’ve said that to Sheila, it’s been well, you know, “I bought the book, so obviously I think you can write.”
Yeah. I think Julie Czerneda has asked her to at least say something good right at the beginning so that we actually start off thinking, “OK, maybe it’s not that bad.”
Well, we’re going to talk about the editorial process at the end of this next bit because that is part of the whole published-author thing that people are interested in. But let’s talk about now how . . . well we’ll focus on the new one, Threader Origins, which just came out as we’re recording this and will have been out for a month or so when this goes live, and use that as an example, tell me—the classic question—where do you get your ideas? Or, if you prefer, what was the seed for this particular novel? How did this particular one come along, and how does that tie into the way that ideas normally bubble up for you?
Well, this is my second series with DAW, and—although I have a bunch of trunk novels, so I guess I have experience there as well—but normally, as is the case for this one, I have a character . . .
Before we do that.
Very important. Give us a synopsis so that people know what we’re talking about.
The dreaded synopsis, how writers dislike that part. But Threader Origins is an alternate-Earth book. Darwin Lloyd is a university student. He’s going to become a physicist, and he loves quantum theories and all that stuff. And he’s following in his father’s footsteps. So, he gets an internship where his dad works, and together with, of course, the whole team, they build a machine that can basically generate unlimited electricity to power whatever you want, a whole city or whatever. And Darwin is there for the very first test where they go up to 100 percent, and things go wrong, and he gets pulled into an alternate earth by the machine. And then things go bad from there. In the world he gets pulled into, the same machine was turned on five years prior. So, they’ve had five years of this machine generating what the people call threads. And, you know, they can . . . it can not only, not quite alter reality, but it can kind of predict the future. And it can do various things. I won’t get into too much detail here. And he sees how much it’s destroyed the world he’s gone into. And his main goal is to get home and turn the machine off. And of course, nobody knows how to do that, get home or turn the machine off. So, it’s a struggle.
The overall story is called the Quantum Empirica, correct?
Yes. Now, go back to where did this one come from?
All right. We’ll go back to, again, Darwin Lloyd. He just kind of popped into my head one day as not quite a fully formed character, but pretty close. And I fleshed him out and figured out what his flaws were, what happened to him before the book started. And I figured I had a great character to build a novel around. So, it took me quite a while to figure out what kind of world to throw him in that would test him the most. And yeah, once I did that, I just started researching and writing.
Well, what does your planning and outlining process look like? I read a description of it, and it sounds quite . . . what’s the word . . . physical. Post-it notes and things like that. So how does that work for you?
All right. Yeah, I have . . . I bought a four-by-eight metal whiteboard at IKEA, and I have so many stacks of Post-it notes around here it’s ridiculous. But basically, what I do is . . . by the time I’m into the Post-it note stage, I already have my main character, and I have the majority of my world thought out, not necessarily detailed, but thought out. And I might have a couple of secondary characters. And I grab my Post-it notes and I write . . . sometimes it’s as little as one word, and sometimes it’s a sentence. And I take that, and I stick it on the board. And basically, that Post-it note becomes a scene, and sometimes the one word is an emotion, right? I know that at this point, there’s got to be a lot of pain and hurt. So that’s what I’ll put in there, because I don’t know what scene is going to bring that out yet, the details, but I know that I need it, so I’ll put it on there. And by the time I’m done, I have anywhere from 75 to 100 Post-it notes or more on my whiteboard. And it’s possible that they’re all different colors because I assign a color per point of view character. So, for example, on the San Angeles series, I probably had about six colors on my whiteboard. For Threader Origins, it’s just all Darwin Lloyd’s point of view. So, it’s all one color. In this case, it’s pink. I’m still staring at it now for book three.
And yeah, I take it, once I have all my Post-it notes written, I arrange them to make more sense. And so, I know where I have my highs, I have my lows. I don’t know chapter breaks or anything at that point yet, but I actually do my initial rough plot on that whiteboard. Once I’m sure that I have something that I like that is somewhat coherent, I take all of those notes and put them into a spreadsheet and, again, color-coded based on character point of view. And that’s where I start expanding things. You know, if for, like, for the San Angelesseries, every scene had a timestamp. So, I made sure that the timestamps matched for every point of view character, and all that stuff. For Threader Origins, I had separate color coding for the threads that Darwin was learning at a time because the colors of threads have specific meaning in the novel.
So, I fill all that in, and I take those one-word or those one-sentence scenes, and I put them into three or four sentences in the spreadsheet, and I just build it and rearrange it until, again, I’m happy with it. And then, I take the somewhat detailed description of three or four sentences, move those into a document and start writing from there. I usually end up with . . . by the time it’s all said and done, seventy-two to seventy-five scenes because I average thirteen to fourteen hundred words per scene, and that gets me a 100,000-word novel.
Wow. Not the way I work!
And you know, the thing is that none of what I’ve done up to this point is written in stone, which is good because, as you know, as you’re writing, these things just organically kind of grow. I don’t leave, at least for the first half, I don’t normally leave my plot. But there’s these little details that come in. This little, this character that you have to throw in there in order to show something becomes a little bit more important. So, you know that they’re going to be coming back in the book a bit more. So usually at the halfway point, I go through the process again for the second half of the book because things have changed enough that the second half of the plot, although it’s, the plot is probably OK, it’s the details of the interactions and the emotions that might have changed. So, I go back at the half unit, the halfway point, and rearrange that second part of the plot.
So, this Post-it approach, how did you decide to use that approach? Does that somehow relate to being a computer programmer and the way that you plan out when you’re reprogramming, or . . .?
No, not even . . . not at all, actually. You know, when you’re starting out, and again, during that time period when I wasn’t writing, but, you know, and I was doing all the computer stuff, I’d still buy all these books on how to plot and character development and all this kind of stuff. My bookshelf is filled with them. But the thing that made sense to me was . . . people were always using note cards, right? They’re saying you take your, take the note cards, and you write things down in the note cards, and that lets you rearrange things, and I tried it, and it didn’t work for me, but, you know, and then I moved to Post-it notes and just seeing it visually on the whiteboard all at once worked for me a lot better than having a stack of note cards that I would rearrange or have to lay down on the floor to look at the sequence of events. And then, at the end of that, I have to clean it up because, of course, I have kids in the family, and I can’t leave stuff like that on the floor. So, it just kind of a progression of the note cards just into Post-it notes.
“Your novel doesn’t make a lot of sense.” “Yeah, well, the cat ran through it at just the right moment.”
You know, it’s . . . you know, I read all that stuff, too, in the magazines, and yet it never, never took with me at all. So, I’m always interested in . . . you know, part of the point of this whole podcast is that everybody does it differently. So, it’s always interesting. So, once you start writing, it’s sequential because you figured it all out ahead of time. What’s your actual writing process? I know, for example, that you use rather different word processing software than most people do.
I do. I use . . . you know, I tell the world I use WordStar, which is a 1980s word processor. But, you know, having been a computer programmer for too many years to even consider, I wrote my own word processor, and I use that, and it’s WordStar compatible.
And what is your actual . . . well, first of all, what do you like about that? What were you looking for that made you do that?
Well, the first thing is that the muscle memory of just how to use WordStar, because I used it, like, in the ’80s and early ’90s, I used it for all of my other stuff, whether I was documenting or whatever, I was doing some code or whatever, I used WordStar. So, the muscle memory was certainly there. But it’s really a writer’s word processor. You know, I can . . . if you have Microsoft Word, if you highlight a block of text and you know you want to copy that somewhere, you want to do something with that text, but you’re not quite sure, and then you go and do something else, that block of text is not highlighted anymore. So, you kind of lose what you’ve highlighted with WordStar. I can highlight a block of text, and then I can write for six hours, and I could say, oh, that block of text belongs here, and boom, I can copy it. And it’s still highlighted. So, it remembers things like that. It also has bookmarks. It has ten bookmarks. So I can, say, remember this position in the document as bookmark one or whatever, and then if I’m writing and go, “OK, I have to remember,” I go back to bookmark one, and it’s one keypress, and I’m back at bookmark one, and I can go in, then I can go back to where I was writing. So, it’s easier to jump around. It’s almost like you have a printed document with your fingers in between pages, and you’re flipping between chunks of document to make sure things flow. It just seems to work better for me.
Well, when you’re writing, do you . . . where do you write? You just . . . and how do you find the time for it? You do have a full-time job. So how do you juggle all that?
I do. I had a full-time job up to the second book in the San Angeles series, and the schedule on that was so tight that things were not working out for me. So, I actually went down to three days a week on my job, and that helped a lot. But then, of course, with this whole Covid thing going on and me being the IT guy, my workload increased because nobody’s working in the office anymore. So, I have to support these people in their homes and stuff like that. So, I’m now back to four days a week, so close to full time, but not quite. So, I got into the habit of writing at five in the morning for The Courier because I was the stay-at-home dad at that point, and my kids woke up at seven. So that gave me gave a two-hour block when nobody was awake. I could just come into my office and sit down and write.
Over time that has kind of disappeared. And I started writing in the evenings, and . . . because the kids got older and whatever, I started writing in the evenings and on weekends. For the current book I’m writing, which is the third in the Quantum Empirica series, I tried dictating, which worked for a while. But I’ve now gone back to five in the morning writing because it just seems that I’m more creative at that time. I try to get up at five in the morning, try still being the keyword, and write for a couple of hours before the whole house wakes up.
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
Depends on what I’m writing. If I’m writing an action scene or something with a bunch of dialogue, I can turn that out pretty quick. If I’m writing something, you know, in between those two, where a character has to get from A to B and stuff like that, I struggle with those ones. And those, you know, if I get 200 words, 200 words, 600 words in those two hours, I’m happy. But if I’m, like, I’m doing action scenes, I can do 3,000 words in those two hours easily.
So, once you have a first draft, what does your revision process look like? But what things do you do on the and yeah, how many passes do you make and all that sort of stuff?
How many passes I make is, you know, anywhere from, well, double digits. Let’s just go double digits. Leave it at that.
It’s hard to tell when you’re working, it’s kind of an organic thing, really what you count as a pass.
It is, although I do have fixed passes in there as well. I do have a specific pass where I, I add description because when I do my first draft, I’m not a descriptive writer. My first draft could be anywhere from sixty-five to seventy-five thousand words, which is not the right size for a novel. It’s too small. And I will say one of the passes is adding the description so that you can actually get to know where you are in the book when you’re reading it. And another pass I add I use specifically for emotional content to make sure I’m hitting those points, you know, and then I have the technical passes as well, you know, don’t use passive voice and all that kind of stuff, so . . . But then there are the organic passes where you’re just kind of going through it, and it’s tough to keep track of. But I don’t revise as I’m doing that first draft. I don’t go back ever. I get the words out because I can’t fix what’s not on the paper. So, I’ve got to get that first draft out before I start any revision. So that first route, that first draft, is usually quite rough.
And how long does your revision process usually take you?
That all depends on when the contract says the book is due.
I guess I’m done revising! Yeah, I know that feeling.
Yeah, you know, that’s a tough call because it’s different for every book, really. It all depends on the details that I need to remember. For the first, the San Angeles series, every scene had a date and a time stamp. And I will never, ever, ever do that again because that is a headache. I end up using Gantt charts in order to keep track of who was where and when and what they knew, just to make sure that those timestamps were actually accurate. And, yeah, that was a struggle. So that took a lot of revision, right? So that took more time. And in this one, because it was a bit more of . . . it’s not as strict on its timelines, really, so the passes were. . . how long it takes is how long it takes, I can’t . . .I don’t think I can answer that.
Well, you did, kind of.
Well, kind of.
So what’s . . . once that deadline comes along and the book goes in, what do you find . . . well, why don’t you describe what Sheila’s editing process is for you?
All right. Before I go into that, I will say that Sheila is thankfully, thankfully happy to give you an extension if you need it. And I have used that twice now. I used it for the last book in the San Angeles series and it made me feel so bad that I swore I would never do it again. And so, I did it again on the last book in the Quantum Empirica series.
I may have taken advantage of that once or twice.
Yeah. And for this extension, I blame 2020. I take full responsibility for it, of course. But 2020 was quite hard on my creative process. So that’s why book three is late and being handed in, but it will still be, the books will still be released in a nice, timely fashion, simply because I’m ahead of the game already, right? With the first book being out and the third book being halfway done, right, I’m still, I still have time. So, things are, you know, the books will be released in good order.
But the process for dealing with Sheila, as you know . . . you read about how everybody goes, and they talk about the editorial letter and all that stuff. So, that’s what I was expecting. But that is not the way that Sheila works. As you well know, Sheila will call you up on the phone at a preplanned time, and you will be on that phone for however long it takes to for her to go through her notes. And she will go through and tell you what is wrong with your book. And it’s all verbal. It’s all done on the phone. And for my first two books, I was scribbling away so fast I might have missed half of what she said, at which point . . . because she always calls me on my cell phone, I have an app on there now that records our phone calls so that I can always go back and listen to what she’s saying again, because my notes miss things. You just can’t keep up. She’s a fast talker, and my handwriting’s not fast enough to keep up with her.
And what sorts of things are you generally, does she generally suggest you might need to expand upon or rewrite?
It’s different, I think, probably for every author, so, yeah, and I think it’s different for really every book I hand in. Right? It’s . . .I’ve never actually looked for a common thread, which is probably a weakness of mine because if there was a common thread, I should really fix it, shouldn’t I, or hand the book in?
I usually find it’s, like, you know, expanding on something that there’s just not enough information there for the reader to follow what’s going on or that sort of thing.
I would agree. It’s continuity comments or things where, yeah, there’s not enough detail to explain why the character’s going this way, or there is enough detail, and she doesn’t think that it really fits in with the character’s psyche of what she’s learned of that character and she doesn’t think it fits. I’ll take an example. The first version of Threader Origins that I handed in, the relationship between Darwin and his father was antagonistic. They did not like each other. They blamed each other for a lot of things, which I won’t get into detail with because that’s a bit spoilerish. But they butted heads a lot. They didn’t really like each other. And, you know, it created tension, and it created conflict, and it moved the book ahead, so it did its job. But when Sheila read it, she didn’t quite like it. She didn’t think that that was really what the book needed. So . . . and this is the nice thing about doing phone calls. We sat there, and we just hashed it out. We figured it out together. And she kind of tossed in ideas. And I said, you know, well, that won’t work because of and then I tossed in ideas, and she says, well, that might work. But what about, you know, we just came to something that we were both quite happy with, and that relationship changed. And because it changed, it added so much more depth to Darwin’s and the father’s character and increased the whole emotional line of the novel. It was just fantastic.
Before you were writing seriously or when you started writing seriously, did you have any fear of the editorial process? I know that some beginning writers, you know, “Well, the editor’s going to change everything, or they’re going to ruin my story.”
Way back when I didn’t even know there was an editorial process. So, no. My first experience with the editorial process would have been with Bundoran Press. When Virginia O’Dine ran Bundoran Press, Heyden Trenholm edited Blood and Water for her, and they bought a short story, my very first sale ever in 2012 maybe. So, Hayden was my first editorial process thing.
Another editor we’ve shared!
I loved working with Hayden. He was, you know . . . I expected the editorial process to be, at that point, anyways, this is wrong. This is how you can fix it. And that’s not really the way it works because the editor didn’t write the story, right? It’s my story. So, what the editor—and Hayden and Sheila will both do this—is they’ll say, “This isn’t working. What can you do to make it better? This feels a bit forced to me, or this spot feels weak, or I’m not getting the emotional hit I think I should here.” But they didn’t tell you how to fix it, right? They just tell you that it’s not working. And then you have to go back and fix it. And I think that was the biggest surprise for me. When, you know, when I first went with Hayden and when I first actually started thinking about the editorial process, is that they leave it up to you. They don’t do the changes for you, which I love.
But if you wish to consult with them about possibilities, they’re certainly willing to help out in that.
Absolutely. Absolutely. You can. And that’s what they’re there for as well, is to hash things out if you need them. As I mentioned about Sheila, she’s very, very good at that. With Hayden, I didn’t do that as much.
So, one thing I forgot to ask you about was at the point at which you have something that’s almost ready to submit, do you use beta readers of any sort, or do you have a writing group or anything like that?
I have a loose writing group. We actually used to be a critique group, but I had to bow out of that because my timelines were so tight I couldn’t read somebody else’s work and do a critique. So, I didn’t feel like I was giving in to the critique group as much as I was getting out. So, I had to pull away from that. But that group instead just became a general writing group. And we will talk and discuss ideas. You know, if I’m hitting a roadblock, you know, I’ll say, “My character’s been in this location for so bloody long, and I can’t get them out of there. What am I supposed to do?” And we’ll hash things out verbally as we meet. But it’s not a formal critique group. But I do have beta readers, for sure. I have a handful of beta readers that I trust and respect their opinion, and they get everything before I hand it in. And even then, you know, they’ll give their feedback, and one beta reader will absolutely hate a section. And every other beta reader . . . I mean, beta readers will never tell you they love a section, almost never, but they didn’t bring up the section at all, so I’ll kind of go, “OK, well, one person out of however many didn’t like it,” I’ll read it and I’ll say, “No, this is perfect for the book. I’m leaving it in as is,” or I’ll read it in context of their opinion and I’ll say, “No, he’s right. I could do this and this and this, and it would be a better scene or a better section.” But normally, if one person picks something up, it’s going, it’s not, you know, it’s not something that you’re going to change. If multiple beta readers pick up the same thing, then I don’t have a problem.
See, I’ve never, never had beta readers, still don’t have beta readers, so I always ask about them because it’s just, I’ve never been someplace where I felt I could find them. I probably could online now, of course. But when I started, I was in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. And, you know, as I’ve mentioned before on here, the writing group in Weyburn at the time consisted of elderly women who wrote stories about the Depression, and I didn’t really fit in there.
No. Yeah. I think, you know, just a couple of my beta readers are actually local. Most of them are spread far and wide. In fact, I don’t even know where two of them live. I just know they’re in the States. That’s all I know.
I was part of a writing, not online, but a by-mail critique group, for a while back in the Dark Ages, but, boy, that was a slow process.
Yeah, at the beginning, I did join an online critique group, and I think they’re actually still running because I still get some emails from them occasionally. But that was, also, I found a slow process. I can’t imagine doing it over mail. That would be a struggle.
Yeah, it was slow, but I did find a couple of really good . . . I ended up with a couple of really good people, and I guess we were sort of beta readers for each other at that point. We didn’t call it that back then. But yeah, I just never got in the habit of that. And I keep thinking . . . maybe my books would be better if I did. But, you know, I’m kind of set in my ways at this point.
You know, us old guys. We’re stubborn
Yeah. “I’ve never done it that way. I’m not going to start now.”
That’s right. Get off my lawn!
The other thing I wanted to ask you about, we talked a little bit about the characters. When you’re doing all this stuff, do you write down character sketches? Do you, you know, just sit and think about the character and try to build all the backstory and everything at that point? Or does a lot of it get discovered as you write or how does that work for you?
You know, although I do start with a fully fleshed character, I do not have a lot of their background. And I also have no idea how they look. If you read my novels, you’ll find that I almost never describe what my characters look like. I’d rather have the reader do that. And that might be because I don’t really know how they look like. I might have an image in my head, but it’s still kind of blurry. But yeah, the character, although I have a full-fleshed character when I start, I don’t know their backstory, and although I kind of know their emotional part going forward, I do that . . . yeah. I discover that as I go. It’s not part of my plotting process, not part of anything that the character develops as it goes. And then in the revision process is when I’ll go back and make sure that there’s consistency in all of that.
And the other thing I kind of forgot to ask you about, and especially this one, which is, you know, quantum, multiple universes and all that sort of stuff. What kind of research do you end up doing for most of your books?
Yeah, that . . . this is a question I really hate with the Quantum Empirica series specifically.
No, I also get asked that a lot because it is quantum strings and quantum theory. I ended up buying many, many books and doing a whole bunch of online research into quantum theory and quantum strings. And, yeah, and I realized, much to my chagrin, that I’m just not smart enough to know that stuff.
So, yeah, I did a bunch of research that really didn’t stick with me because I wasn’t smart enough, or intelligent enough, to keep all those details, you know, going. For the Quantum Empirica series, what really worked is, one of the books I bought was The Dancing Wu Li Masters, I don’t have the author’s name in my head right now. It’s quite an old book. But it kind of brought, you know, Eastern philosophies together with physics and kind of tried to meld them together into something that was explainable. And that really fed into Threader Origins. In fact, the title of the book was The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and I actually have dancers in Threader Origins based off of that. I had a friend, I was reading the book and going through it with a highlighter and marking pages, and a friend picked up the book and started reading my highlighted comments and threw it back on my desk in disgust. He says, “You haven’t highlighted any of the scientific stuff, just all the emotional content,” and I said, “Well, yeah, OK, that works.”
Yeah, research is, you know, because both of my series take place, you know, basically on Earth, I don’t have any extra, you know, planetary stuff. And, you know, and especially for Threader Origins, Google Maps was a big one, a big part of my research. And then I had the opportunity, actually, I went on holiday and drove through most of the areas that Threader Origins covers in the US, which also help me bring in a bunch of extra details on the scenes.
OK, well, we’re getting down to the last few minutes, so I’ll ask you the other question you’ve already said you’ll hate, which is the big philosophical questions.
Did I not mention that I’m not intelligent enough?
Before we started, you said you weren’t philosophical enough. So, we’ll see. But they’re really not difficult questions. I think the first one is, why do you write? The second one is, why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? And the third one is, why do you write stories of fantastic specifically? So, in whatever order you like.
All right. Well, I will do them in the order you asked. I will ask you to rephrase those questions as well, because I will have forgotten what they were about to get them. OK, why do I write? is the first one. And a lot of people I know, a lot of authors I know, say they write because they have to. If they don’t write, they’re going to go crazy. They’re going to go insane. And that is not my answer. I write because I enjoy it. I love the creation and the development of characters and the world-building. And, you know, it’s a mental exercise that I love doing. And could I go without writing? Probably. Would I be happy about it? No, no. I enjoy the process. I really, really enjoy the process. That being said, I enjoy having written more than the actual writing as well. So, I’m a complex person. How’s that?
That’s a very common affliction of our writers.
There you go.
And the second question was, why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? Why do we make stuff up? As human beings, we make. Why do we make stuff up?
I think I’ll couch that in our current times, when times get difficult and tough, you know, whether it’s Covid-19 or the politics south of our border or whatever is in the world or whatever is stressing you out or hurting you, people want and need—most people, not everybody, not everybody—but people want and need some sort of escape. And even if that escape can be as depressing or as painful as the real world, it’s an escape from where they are in their lives and where they’re at. It gives them the chance to, whether they live in your main character’s skin for a while or whatever, gives them a chance to escape from reality, you know, without the use of psychotics.
And the third question was . . . what was the third question . . .oh, why, if you’re going to tell stories for people to escape into, why make it stories of the fantastic, fantasy and science fiction?
Because it’s what I love to read, I actually . . . when I started out, I never even thought of writing a different type of book. It’s just what I love to read. It’s what I love to write. Although I also love to read thrillers. And although I’ve tossed around the idea of writing a thriller, I don’t . . . you know, by the time I’d be finished writing, the thriller would have too many fantastical things in it to be considered just a thriller.
Yeah, whenever I’ve tried to write something else, there’s always, “But if I put a ghost in here, this is really cool.”
I could put it a gryphon right here! Yeah.
So, you’ve mentioned that you are, I guess, writing the third book. The second one is in revisions, and the first one is out. So that’s what you’re working on now?
Yeah, I’m working on the third book, and again, the whole Covid year and some of the politics that have been happening have made it a struggle for me to be creative. But I am working my way through it, and I will hand this one in on its extended deadline.
And what are the titles of the second and third books?
OK, so it’s Threader Origins is the first, Threader War is the second and Threader God is the third.
And do you know roughly what the release schedule is?
I have no clue. I have not heard the release schedule on anything but the first book, which, as you said, just came out.
And do you have anything else in the works beyond that? Are you already looking beyond . . .?
I do I, I have an idea, and usually, I wake up with these ideas in the middle of the night and scribble them down on a piece of paper, and in the morning, it feels like I’m reading a doctor’s signature. So . . . and the idea is gone from my head. So what happened this time is the idea came during the day, but I was in the middle of doing writing on Threader God. So I emailed the idea to my agent, and now it’s up to her to remind me when it’s it’s time to work on it.
And you’ve got a little short fiction as well, I think, for an anthology that’s coming up?
I do. I have . . .What’s the title? It’s called Derelicts, by Zombies Need Brains. I’m one of their anchor authors. That doesn’t mean that they’ll actually buy my story if it’s garbage, but I’m hoping they enjoy it. I handed that in . . . probably December, January 1 or 2, I think, so a couple of days beyond the due date when it was due. But they will get to reading it, and I will get my editorial comments on those. And I think that book is . . .you know, I don’t have a release date on that either. But if they accept it, it’s my third short story sale.
I’m in another one that was Kickstarted at the same time. That’s why I asked. So, I turned mine in before the deadline.
Not too far from the . . .
Yeah. How’s that full-time job working for you? Sorry, that was harsh.
All right. Fair enough. Fair enough. And where can people find you online? I mentioned it off the top, but we’ll mention it again here at the end.
All right. Well, I’m geraldbrandt.com on the Web. I’m on Facebook as Gerald Brandt Author, and I’m on Twitter @GeraldBrandt.
And we should mention that’s Brandt with a D. B-R-A-N-D-T.
It is a silent D, so. Yes, yeah. If you’re not sure of the spelling, you can look at the transcript.
Exactly right. Well, thanks so much, Gerald. It’s been great chatting with you. You know, I thought about it for a long time. I have to limit the number of DAW authors I do, though. I have to space them out because I could easily do nothing but DAW authors because I’ve met so many of them at dinners and stuff.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for having me. This was a blast.
I had a great time, and best of luck with the trilogy, and I’m sure I’ll talk to you again soon. Or hopefully, we’ll see each other in person again soon.
That would be nice. I would . . . I can hardly wait to actually meet people again. This has dragged on long enough. But I think we’re looking at probably another six to nine months before something happens.
An hour-and-twenty-minute interview with Patricia C. Wrede, award-winning author of more than twenty-two fantasy novels for readers of all ages, as well as two collections of short stories and one book on writing.
Patricia will be instructing the workshop “Worldbuilding in Fantasy and Science Fiction” for Odyssey Writing Workshops in January and February. Register here by December 7, 2020.
Patricia Collins Wrede was born March 27, 1953, in Chicago. She and her siblings (she is the eldest of five) grew up in the Chicago suburbs. She attended Carleton College, where she earned an A.B. in Biology and took no English or writing courses at all. Following graduation, she earned a Masters in Business Administration from the University of Minnesota and worked for a number of years as a financial analyst and accountant. She married James Wrede in 1976; they divorced in 1991. She currently lives in Minneapolis with her cat, Karma.
She began writing fiction in seventh grade and continued off and on throughout high school and college. In 1974, she started work on Shadow Magic, which took her four and a half years to complete and another year and a half to sell. By the time the book was released in 1982, she had completed two more novels. In 1985, she left her day job to write full-time and has been making her living as a writer ever since.
To date, Patricia has published twenty-two novels, two collections of short stories, and one book on writing. Her work is available in twelve languages (including English) and has won a number of awards.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Patricia, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you very much. It’s an honor to be here.
Well, it’s great to have you. I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths at conventions or anything. But the folks at Odyssey reached out to me and suggested you’d be a great one to talk to. And I certainly agreed with that. And we are going to talk about the workshop you have coming up with Odyssey later on. But I’ll start the way I always start, which is by taking you back into the mists of time to find out how you got started (probably you started as a reader—from what I’ve read of your interviews, that’s definitely the way you started)-and how you then became interested in writing and fantasy and in science-fiction-type stories in particular. So how did that all . . .and where you grew up and all that stuff. So, how did that all come about for you?
Well, I grew up with parents who adored reading. I shocked some of my college friends when I told them that the only room in the house that I grew up in . . . I grew up in a big house because we had, my folks had, five kids, so I had four siblings, and we were parceled out. And so, it was a pretty big house. The only room in the house that did not have books in it was the dining room. And the only reason it didn’t have books in it was because there was, like, one wall of glass windows and another wall of windows and an archway door, and then you had to put the whichajigger, the sideboard for the dishes, somewhere, and that took up the last wall, and so there was no wall to put bookcases on. That was the only reason there were no books in the dining room. Officially. There were always books lying around, but they weren’t there . . . they didn’t have a home. But we had books in the kitchen, we had books in the bathrooms, we had books in the linen closet, and we had books in the upstairs hallway. The entire hallway was lined with books along one side. So, I mean, this is where I grew up and the way I grew up. And I was always, I loved reading, when I was five and started going to school, I was so excited about—I remember this, this is one of my very earliest memories—I was so excited about learning to read, I went off to school on the first day, and I came home, and I sat my brother and sister down in the backyard in the sandbox and told them I was going to teach them how to read. I was five, my sister was three, and my brother was two. This did not go well, but that’s how excited I was that, you know, everybody should know how to read as soon as they possibly could. And it just never occurred to me that, you know, two is possibly a little young, especially when you couldn’t really talk clearly.
And you grew up in Chicago, right?
I grew up in Chicago, in the Chicago suburbs. And I started writing my first novel, my very first unfinished novel, when I was in seventh grade. And it was the only thing I’ve written that isn’t technically fantasy, although it probably would have been if I’d gotten more than seven chapters. It was a kids’ wish-fulfillment adventure kind of thing. You know, they just moved into a new house, and he discovers a secret passage, and . . .
As one does.
Yes, as one does, every time you move into a new house, there’s a secret passage and secret rooms, and, you know, all kinds of fun things. And they were just heading into having discovered the secret passage that used to belong to the pirates that led to the castle. How they had a castle and pirates in, like, the middle of the Midwest in America, I have no idea. But I was in seventh grade. I, you know . . . who cared? Plausibility was not my thing. I suppose that makes it fantasy right there.
Of all the books that were lying around, were there some that were particularly influential on you in those reading years?
I read everything, and probably what I loved the most was fairy tales. I went through the entire Andrew Lang fairy tale collection. When I was in seventh grade, my beloved aunt in Alaska sent me a copy of Beowulf as a birthday present, and my parents gave me Bullfinch’s Mythology. And it was . . . I loved mythology and, you know, all of those sorts of stories, the fantasy. Older fantasies, you know, and fairy tales were what I could get my hands on, but this was really before fantasy was its own genre. You really had to hunt to find anything that was fantasy. It wasn’t until I got to high school that Lord of the Rings hit big in the United States, and suddenly you started being able to get fantasy. But there still was just not enough of it.
Yeah, I remember that. I’m a little just a little bit younger than you, I think. I was born in ’59, and I remember that. I remember as a kid, you know, you just couldn’t find the stuff. If you found something that was really fantastical, it was a rare treat. There was more science fiction, I think, but the actual fantasy stuff . . .
There was a lot more science fiction. So in high school, I mean, I read all the fantasy I could get my hands on, but most of what I read was science fiction because that was what there was. It was also what my dad read, and so I didn’t have to buy it myself. I could, you know, I mean, I only had so much allowance, and books were cheaper, but they were still expensive when you were in seventh grade. But I, you know, I got books for my birthdays. I had, you know, the Oz books. If you wanted something that’s influential, those and the Narnia chronicles were probably the first. I have almost the complete set of Oz books. I’m still missing two or three of the Ruth Plumley Thompson volumes, but I have the others, and I loved those. Probably my other big influences were The Man from Uncle and Rocky and Bullwinkle.
I remember those, too.
I’m absolutely sure those were important influences. And I get in trouble with English teachers every time I say that because they’re just not respectable. But, you know, when I grew up, fantasy wasn’t respectable either.
When you started writing, like, that first unfinished book when you were seven, did you share it? I always ask this question because some people did, and some people didn’t. I did when I was writing stuff as a teenager and so forth, and it kind of helped me know I wanted to write because people actually enjoyed what I wrote. Did you have people who are reading the stories you were writing in those early years?
Only my mother. And she was probably the other huge influence because there I was in seventh grade, and I told her I was writing this story, and she said, “Really?” And I showed her the pages, and she took them away, and she typed them up on her typewriter in proper manuscript format. Because she also wrote. I never was allowed to read her stuff because she wrote for the confessions magazines.
And that was just not something that you . . . by modern standards, they’re extremely tame, but at the time, that was something you just didn’t even admit to, to your children. She didn’t even save any of her stuff when she passed away. The only thing she had kept was a manuscript for a children’s book based on the Mother Goose fairy tales, or rhymes, Mother Goose rhymes, that she had finished. She didn’t save any of her less-respectable stuff, but she wrote for the confession magazines for a while, for a couple of years, so she knew proper manuscript format, and she typed it all up for me. And I just thought it looked so professional. And she didn’t say a word about the fact that I must have written it during my classes because, you know, that was the only time that I could have produced this much. But she didn’t say a word. She just typed it all up and gave it back to me. And I got seven chapters before life happened, and I moved on to other things.
My mom was a prolific letter writer, but she was also a secretary, and she had an IBM Selectric at home, and she typed up my first short story in proper format.
And that really made me feel very professional. I was about the same age.
It was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” was my first complete short story, so . . .
Ah-ha! Yes. I didn’t have a title for mine. It was only seven chapters, and it was never finished, but it was a novel. The first thing I tried to write is a novel. And then I had a couple of, I guess you’d call them articles, they were humorous stuff, in the high school magazine that they had. I did do a couple of things, but they were all non-fictional kind of humorous high-school slice-of-life things. And in college, I didn’t really have a lot of time to write. What I produced in college, somewhere along in between high school and the end of college, I got the notion that the proper way to write was to start with short stories and learn your craft. And then, when you had finally gotten good enough, you would write a novel. And so, I created this life plan. And I also got the . . . it had never occurred to me that you could actually make a living writing. And so, I created this plan for myself, a life plan. I was going to write and, you know, really work on my short stories from time to time as kind of a hobby for the next 15, 20 years. And when I hit . . . that would give me enough time to get really good at it and start selling my short stories and have a real track record here so that when I hit 40 and had my midlife crisis, I could quit my day job and write a book and still have something for an income. I was very practical about this.
It didn’t work out quite the way I expected. You know, I did write quite a few short stories. It turns out I’m not really a short story writer; I’m a novelist. And I kept writing them and sending them out, and I did get better. And after a while, they started coming back with notes on them from the editor saying things like, “This sounds like Chapter 3 of a novel, and this sounds like the plot outline for a novel.” And you’d think I would have bought a clue at that point, but I didn’t. I kept writing short stories and having them rejected. And finally, I had an idea for something that I knew was not a short story. It was a novel. And I wasn’t at the point where I was supposed to . . . my plan said that I was supposed to sell a bunch of short stories first, but I really wanted to write it. And so, I said, “All right, fine, I’ll write it, and I will stick it in the bottom drawer because . . . I won’t tell anybody. I just won’t tell anybody that I cheated and did the novel now. So, I did write it. It took me a long time because I wasn’t really paying that much . . . I wasn’t really focused on it. I was still trying to write short stories. And when I eventually finished it, it was sort of like, “Well, I could put it in the drawer.” But by this time, I had internalized the idea that when you finish something, you sent it out because editors do not do house-to-house searches for manuscripts. You have to put it on their desk. And so, I went, “Well, it’s done. What the heck?” So, I started, I put it in the mail, and it got rejected from the first place, with a lovely encouraging rejection letter from Lester Del Ray. And then, you know, I sent it to a couple of other places, and it got rejected. And finally, I sent it to Ace Books, and they accepted it, and they bought it. And, I was like, “Well, hey, cool.” And I never looked back from there. And that was Shadow Magic.
All those years that you were writing short stories and so forth, you’d actually studied biology, and then you got your MBA . . .
. . . were you taking any formal writing, training of any sort? Did you ever do that during those years?
Nope. Nope, none at all. I had . . . I took no English classes at all in college. The high grammar school and high school that I went to both had excellent English programs in terms of the fundamentals. I mean, diagramming sentences. Remember, diagramming sentences?
My dad taught English, and he was big on that.
Nobody does that anymore. But diagramming sentences, that was a big thing. And so, I had a pretty good grasp of grammar and essay-writing structure and that sort of thing. But I, you know, once I passed high school, when I got to college, my philosophy was, I looked at the course requirements, I skipped out of the required . . . they required, like, the basic essay-writing class, and my AP exams were enough to let me skip that . . . and I looked at the classes, and I went, “OK, all of these English classes are about reading books. I know how to read books.” But the other things in that particular distribution requirement were things like history and art and, you know, those kinds of things. And I went, “You know, OK, I’m going to take stuff that I wouldn’t do by myself because I wouldn’t know where to start or I don’t know anything about it, and I want a little more guidance.” So, I took Art of the Far East, and I took History of India, and I took classes in subjects that I would not have explored or would have had a much harder time exploring on my own. And I did indeed, you know, read a lot of Shakespeare and other stuff. But no, I did not take any . . . Carlton didn’t offer creative writing, you know, formal creative writing. They may have had, like, one English class in it, but most of the English classes were more traditional English literature, study of English literature. And I figured I could read that on my own. So I did. And never, ever did take any creative writing classes.
And all of those other things you studied, have they fed into your writing over the years?
Oh, yeah. Everything always feeds into your writing. And, you know, people ask about sources, and really, writing, it’s kind of like making stone soup. You know, that folktale?
For listeners who might not, it’s a folk tale about a guy in the middle of the plague years who comes to a town, is begging, and they say we aren’t going to, you know, we have nothing. And he says, “Well, that’s fine. You’ve got a big pot. I can make stone soup for everybody.” And so, they give him a big pot, and he puts a stone in and a whole lot of water in and lights a fire under it and starts making soup and tastes it after a while and says, “Coming along great, but you know, some onions would be just the treat.” So somebody goes and gets some onions, and they put the onions in the pot. And then, a little while later, he checks it again. He said, “Yeah, yeah, I could use . . . a few carrots would be great.” And he keeps this up with each of the possible ingredients, and the villagers keep bringing him stuff. And finally, it’s all done, and it’s great soup, and everybody has some, and they just marvel at the fact that he made it out of nothing but a stone and some water. And writing is a lot like that. You know, people say, “Oh, you made it up all out of your head,” and it doesn’t occur to them that your head has had, you know, 20, 30, 40, 50 years’ worth of inputs of, you know, everything in the world, you know, from, you know, going fishing, going on a fishing trip to, you know, playing hopscotch in grade school, to everything you’ve ever read. You know, all writing is based on the writer’s life and in some sense or degree.
I often say when I’m teaching, writing, or talking to writers, the only person you really know well is yourself, and all your characters are going to some extent draw on what you know about yourself and what you’ve observed from the people around you. So, yeah, it’s al kind of, you know . . . “filling the tank” is the expression that sometimes used.
You didn’t take any formal writing courses, but you were a member of a writer’s workshop. And I often get asked about writers workshops . . .
A critique group.
A critique group. “Extremely productive,” it says in your bio here.
So, that would be the Scribblies. And that was a group that . . . originally I think it was six of us formed it and we added a seventh, one of our members moved out of town, and we wanted to stay six, and so we added a seventh and then she came back to town and so we just stayed at seven until everybody kind of went off in their own directions. But yeah, that was me, Steve Brust, Kara Dalkey, Nate Bucklin, Pamela Dean, Will Shetterly, and Emma Bull.
Pretty good collection of names there.
Yeah. Well, at the time, none of us was published, you know, we were all beginners. Will and Emma were, I think, the only ones who had taken a creative writing class, and Pamela had a Master’s in English, so she was our grammar maven. But it turned out to be a really great balance of people because everybody was really, really good at a different thing. And so, when you gave them a piece of writing to critique, everybody would spot something different, and the people who spotted it . . . you know, Pamela was really great at doing characters and dialogue, and when she said there was something wrong with the dialogue, there was something wrong with the dialogue. There were different people who had sort of different areas of expertise. It all flowed together really well, and it was enormously helpful. And critiquing other people’s stuff was almost more useful than having my own stuff critiqued. You know, your own stuff . . . when people give you advice about your own stuff, the tendency is to think in the back of your head, “What? You don’t know anything about that. That’s perfectly all right. That’s fine.” But when you see some other person’s stuff getting torn apart into tiny, tiny little pieces, you think to yourself, “Well, I’d better check and make sure I’m not doing that because I don’t want them to do that to me.” Tat’s really useful. It’s a really useful reaction. So, yeah, the right crit group can be—it can be, sometimes they’re destructive, but you just have to be aware of that, and it’s a matter of picking the right people and the people who are destructive in a constructive way, if that makes any sense.
Something like that. People are not afraid to point out your mistakes, but who don’t make you feel like you can’t correct them or that you’re smaller because you made the mistakes. You know, you don’t need people who are showing off how great they are; you need people who are trying to make your story better, honestly and truly, and that you can help them make their story better. That’s the, I think to me, the ultimate thing in a critique group. Now, you had another question?
I was going to say you’ve done quite a bit of teaching as well over the years.
And I have found, like, I just finished a term as writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, and I was at the Regina Public Library a few years ago doing the same thing. And I always find that looking at other people’s, sort of like what you’re just talking about, looking at students’ work or other writers’ work and trying to help them with it is very helpful to mine, as well. Do you find that, you know, by . . . what’s the line from The King and I, “If you become a teacher, by your students you’ll be taught”? Do you find that to be true?
Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s one of the most rewarding things to do, but it’s also really fun to see, just to see what other people come up with because one of the things about writing is everybody’s process is different. And after doing this for 35, 40 years, the one thing I’ve discovered is that every book, the process is different. You know, there’s something that I think of as my normal process, but I think that only works on about 50 percent of the books I write. The other ones just go off on their own. They do their own thing. And you can’t predict which ones are going to be like that and which ones aren’t. They just . . . it’s how it happens and watching what other people do just . . . it fascinates me, all the different ways that people work and, you know, how they take an idea and something that I thought was very straightforward and pointing to the left and this is exactly where this is going to go, and no, it veers off, and it goes totally to the right and, you know, upends itself, and it’s just fascinating.
And that’s also what this podcast is about, so that’s a perfect segue into your particular way of writing. And as you said when we were talking about this before we did the interview, you actually have different ways of working on different books. So instead of focusing on a single book, which I often do in the podcast, we’ll just talk about your process in general in the ways that it varies for different kinds of books. And the first one is a question that everybody asks, and it’s a cliché, I know, but it’s still a legitimate question: “Where do you get the ideas?”
Where do you get your ideas . . .
Or, I often like to say, rather, “What are the seeds from which your stories grow?” because that’s not quite the same.
That’s a little better question. But the thing is that ideas are the easy part. Ideas are all over the place. It’s like, how do you stop having ideas? A question I usually ask people is, “How do you not have ideas?” You know, for me, getting the ideas, like I said, it’s the easy part. They are all over the place. Emma Bull and I a couple of years ago were at an art gallery when they were living out in Los Angeles. I was out there for a convention, and the two of us went to, a lot of us, actually, went to an art gallery, and we were in a whole room, one of the rooms of portraits of people from the seventeen and eighteen hundreds, and we said, “Well, look at that? Doesn’t she look like a ghost?” And for the next half-hour, we were going down the portraits, assigning them roles, you know, “Yes, she’s obviously the ghost. And this is obviously her husband. He must have killed her. He doesn’t look very nice. But, you know . . .”, and we had this whole thing just from looking at the portraits and looking at their faces and saying, “This is what he looks like, and this is what she looks like. And, you know, that’s the scullery maid who, you know, poisoned the soup.” I mean, it was just . . . neither one of us went there expecting that, but, you know, we came out with, I’d say, things that could have been ideas for probably two or three books or maybe a series, I don’t know. Neither one of us ever did anything with them as we were just, you know, sitting there having fun. It’s just, you know, ideas are all over the place. You look at pictures, you look at things out your window, you know, whatever.
So how do you decide which ideas are worth the time and effort to turn into a finished story?
The ones that won’t let me alone. There are always ideas that keep coming back. It’s you know, you think, “Well, that’s a good idea, but it’s not ready yet, it’s not finished.” And you put it away in . . . some of those sort of go to the great idea graveyard in the sky and nothing ever happens, and nothing ever comes of them, but other ones, you know, I finish a book, and I’m casting around for the next one, “Oh, hey, here’s that thing. Here’s that story, that idea about . . . that I was going to do . . . I’ve had that idea for ten years . . .” And some ideas, there’s one of them that I think I’ve started, I thought I was going to write that book three times. And the characters that I put into the idea didn’t go the way I thought that book would go. And so, I’ve got three books out of the same idea and never actually gotten that particular idea down on paper yet. My usual process in terms of writing is to start with all the prewriting and the outlining and the, you know, coming up with a plot, the plot outline, you know, somewhere usually between five pages and twenty-five pages of details about what’s going to happen and where. It’s usually about five to ten pages, I think it is . . . five single-spaced pages, which would be ten manuscript pages, and so I do this plot outline and then when I think I’m finally ready, I sit down, and I do the first chapter, and I look at the plot outline, and I look at the chapter. And the chapter has nothing to do with the plot outline except some of the names are the same. And so, I throw away the plot outline, and I write a new one based on the chapter that I actually wrote. And I write the second chapter, and I look at the plot outline, and the first paragraph’s fine because that describes the first chapter, which I had already written when I did this version of the plot outline. But the rest of it really is not right; it has nothing to do . . I mean, more of the names are the same. And so, I ditch that, and I write another plot, and I can continue doing this for about ten chapters, until I’m solidly in the middle of the book, at which point it takes so much psychic energy to plow through the middle of the book that I stop doing outlines and, you know, by then I usually know where I’m going. That’s kind of my standard . . . as I say, the one that works for about 50 percent of the books that I do.
It’s kind of an externalized thought process, where the thinking that would otherwise just stay in your head, you’re putting it down on paper as you go along. That’s what it sounds like to me.
Kind of. It’s . . . well, not really, because that, I mean, the plot outline, sometimes I use some of the incidents that I put in there. But more often it’s, I need the plot outline because it gives me a false sense of security. I have the plot outline, so it’s like I know where I’m going. This is going to be a book for sure. I’ve got a plot outline. I know where it’s going. I don’t know where it’s going, and it doesn’t go where I thought it was going, but I have a plot outline. And the other reason I need a plot outline is because it gives my back brain something to rebel against, which is very important for me. You know, the minute somebody tells you, you know, “Well, this is what happens,” the back brain goes, “No, it isn’t. No, it isn’t. I have this much cooler idea.” So, that’s kind of my normal process.
You said that’s for about 50 percent of your books. What would be some of the books that were written using that process?
The first three or four for sure. Shadow Magic, Daughter of Witches, Seven Towers, the first of the Frontier Magic Books, which didn’t end at all the way I thought it was going to be, it developed into a series. Mairelon the Magician. The ones that don’t work like that have other things going on. Snow White and Rose Red, it was a . . . that’s the fairy tale of “Snow White and Rose Red,” and basically, I was asked for Terri Windling’s fairy tale line to do a novel version, to do a novel adaptation of some kind, of my favorite fairy tale. A bunch of us were doing it because it was a series. And so, I started that one with the fairy tale, and it had to follow the fairy tale. So, I couldn’t let my back brain go too wild in terms of the plot. But it turns out that when you do that, fairy tales are so stripped down in terms of plot and everything else that your back brain has plenty of room to go in all kinds of interesting directions. And that was the first time I tried doing alternate history, or in that case, it wasn’t very alternate, it was more history with magic in the cracks. You know, I was setting it in Elizabethan England, and, you know, John Dee was a real character, he was the queen’s magician. So was Ned Kelly. And so, I had a lot of fun doing real history along with the Queen of Faerie and various other plot elements in there. Talking to Dragons was the first time I ever did an entire book totally pantsing. I had no plot outline, I had no plot, I had no idea who the characters were. I had, I started that book with a title and the first line. Actually, I started with the title. I got the first line on the way home, driving home from the party where I got the, was talking about the title. And I just started writing the first line when I got home. And by the time I finished writing the first line, I’d actually written a paragraph, and it’s like, “OK, fine, I’ll save that for when I figure out what this book is about.” And the next morning, I woke up. “I know what the second paragraph is!” And so I sat down to write it, and I wrote the second paragraph, and I ended up with a page and a half, and it’s like, “I don’t know what’s going on, but I really want to find out, and the only way I’m going to find out is to write the rest of this book.” So, I wrote Talking to Dragons that way. Totally, totally pantsing, I had no idea what was going on until almost the end of the book. And then, of course, the prequels to that were, to some extent, I had an outline that I was stuck with because Talking to Dragons is the fourth book in the series. So, you know, when I was asked to go back and do the first books, I kind of had to . . .I got to make a few changes, but I couldn’t change anything major. The Star Wars novelizations, of course, I had the script, and they were very strict about not making changes of any sort. About the best I could do was . . . I mean, there were things I certainly made up. I made . . . the script in that scene in The Phantom Menace, the scene at the end where the, uh, Obi-Wan and the Liam Neeson character, I can’t remember his name at the moment, anyway, they’re fighting Darth Maul, and they’re leaping over things and, you know, going around this whole space and everything is this big dramatic set-piece. All the script says is Scene 20, whatever it was, “The Jedi fight.” That was it. That was it. No description of the background, no description . . . I mean, I knew where they were because it said, you know, setting, the factory, whatever, but that was it. I had known . . .you knew that was going to be, like, a five-minute set piece. So I had to pick up a lot of that in ways that hopefully would not conflict with what they did in the final version of the film. So, that was a fun and interesting experience and very different from my usual way of working. So, yeah, different things work differently.
Clearly, with these books, I mean, you’ve had books set in the Regency, you’ve had, you mentioned, the Elizabethan era, you’ve got Ice Age, all these things, and Star Wars . . .clearly, you often end up doing quite a bit of research. What’s your research process?
I did . . . the research actually, frequently, again, it’s being life, the . . . back in the day, one of the things that I started doing on about my second or third book was I started keeping a list of questions because I kept running . . . in The Raven Ring I got to, like, the seventh chapter and the cops showed up, and I hadn’t made up the cops in that world. And so, I had to stop for, like, four weeks while I made up the cops. And it totally stalled my forward progress. And I found that very frustrating. So, I started keeping a list of questions to at least ask myself when I was getting, booting up, the story, like, you know, “OK, what are the police like here?” And since I mostly do fantasy, I had a lot of questions about how magic works and, you know, things like, “Does it need a license? Do you need a license to be a magician, or is it an inborn talent? Is it something you learn in schools, or is it more like driving a car, or is it more like getting a Ph.D.? You know, what’s the education?” You know, things like that. And at the request of some people on a newsgroup that I was on way, way, way back, they wanted to know what this was like. So, I put them up, and they got consolidated into the fantasy-worldbuilding questions, which I still have on my blog, on my website. But those were kind of, the genesis is, sort of looking through them. I don’t go through and answer all the questions, every book. But I look at them and I sort of go, you know, “Am I going to need to know this? Is this something that oh, hey, that gives me an interesting idea?” You know, “I hadn’t thought about what they do for art, but if I make that one character, they’re a painter, that would be really cool and interesting. Nobody’s done that kind of thing before. I’m going to do that.” So, it just . . . and that was really where I got interested in a lot of the aspects of worldbuilding that led me eventually to do this class for Odyssey that I’m going to be teaching in January.
Well, that seems like as good a point as any to talk about that class. What will that look like, and what’s the process if someone wants to be part of it?
Well, they would go to the Odyssey website and register, they’ve got, you know, all the details there. I don’t have . . . I should have copied that website. I think it’s Odyssey.com or Odyssey.org.
Yeah, I’ll put a link to it. I actually do have a description in front of me here somewhere . . .
Yeah. There’s . . . basically, what I want to do in the class is, there’s basically two parts to worldbuilding. There’s the part that everybody thinks of, which is the making it up part, where you’re . . . you know, the Tolkien appendices, where you’ve got massive amounts of information about, you know, what the pottery is like and what the artwork and the culture and the history and the battles and how magic works and all this other stuff. That’s the first part. And that’s important. You need to think about that. But the second part is really the key, and that’s getting it across to the reader in the text, because Tolkien is really the only one who can get away with putting a million appendices at the end of their book and having everybody actually read them. So, you know, all of the important things, getting across . . .and that worldbuilding is something that everybody has to do in every book, because whatever your characters are, wherever they are, whatever culture, even if you’re in 2020, there’s going to be a sizeable number . . if I’m writing a book set in 2020 in Minneapolis, there’s going to be a sizable portion of my readers who have never been to Minneapolis, who don’t know what it’s like, who have no idea what things . . . you know, who’ve never even seen it on television.
Even if you pick someplace like London or New York where you know what all the key buildings and such look like because everybody’s seen them on TV and the movies, there’s an awful lot of London that people just don’t know what it’s like unless they’ve been there and haven’t been there. And there’s going to be people still who haven’t seen it on TV because they just don’t watch those shows. You know, so, even when you’re looking at a real-life place and, of course, the further away it is from the experience of your initial set of readers, the harder or the clearer your presentation of that world has to be for it to be appealing. The Harry Potter books are a great example. I mean, they’re quintessentially British, you know, set in the British Isles, United Kingdom, England and Scotland. So much of it is very, very, very British, and yet she can . . you don’t have to know that to love the books because she does such a good job of getting the feel of what it’s like across, both in the Dursley’s, the real world and in the wizarding world. You know, there’s translations into Japanese and Indonesian, and all these different places and languages, and they’re appreciated by millions and millions of people all over the world who don’t need to have a cheat sheet of what this means because it’s British and they don’t, you know, they’ve never been to Britain, and they don’t really get how it works. You have to get it across to people, and that’s what I’m hoping to start with, sort of some of the basic aspects of worldbuilding, of the making-it- up part, and then talk more about the getting it across part towards the end.
Well, one of the things that’s mentioned in the description is how worldbuilding can affect the characters. And we’ve talked a bit about your plotting process. But where do you, how do you find your characters, and how much work do you do on them beforehand, and how much do they just grow during the process?
It depends on the book. It depends on the character. A lot of the times, a lot of the times, they just sort of walk into my head. If you’re starting with a character, you do the worldbuilding, and you can start anywhere. And sometimes it starts with character. You know, a character walks into your head, and you sort of look at them and go, “OK, what are they wearing? Swords and a kilt. That’s interesting. All right. We’re looking at maybe medieval Scotland or maybe some kind of roleplaying. Where is this person from? How did they get this sword? Is that a real sword, or is that just for show? Is that a kilt? You know, it’s not plaid. Why are they not wearing . . . OK, then it’s not Scotland. So, who else wears kilts? So, I’ve got a world that has . . . yeah.” And I’m just making this straight up out of, off the top of my head. This is how it works. You know, you dig into the characters, and a lot of it is digging into the character. As I write, I tend to write my way into the characters, as I usually start more with the plot, which is really kind of weird because a lot of the time, the characters are what drives the plot. But the world that you live in shapes the person in real life and in fiction, and it makes a difference. What the world is like is going to shape what the person is like. If you’re actually looking at a medieval peasantry, they’re not going to be literate, most of them. Which means they’re not going to have read books, but they will be oral storytelling, and that’s going to affect the way they see stories and process. You know, skills are going to be different. The kinds of things that they’re used to are going to be different. You take somebody from the 1100s, heck, even from the 1700s, bring them into a room and flip the light switch and they’re going to go, “Magic!”
You know, “Lights came on! Oh, my God. Magic!” It’s all in what you’re used to. There’s a wonderful book by Sylvia Louise Engdahl called Enchantress from the Stars, in which there are three different viewpoints.
I know that one!
Yeah. Where you’ve got the fairy tale version, which is the way the peasant, the native, sees it. And you’ve got the viewpoint of the highly technological aliens who are coming in a . . . to them, it’s all about the, you know, their technology and their machines, whereas, of course, to the native guy, it’s all magic. And then you have the gal from the super-advanced society that’s trying to keep these two very different cultures from clashing, to whom they’re both kind of childish. And it’s really the different views, which are predicated on the cultures and the worlds from which each of these characters come. And so, yeah, the world shapes the characters as much who the character is; if you’ve got a clear idea of the character, then that pretty much defines what the world has to be because that character came out of the world. And you can tell a lot about the world by looking at the character and understanding where they came from and how did they get these ideas or their these viewpoints or beliefs or, you know, this drive to, you know, save the world or destroy the world or whatever they’re going to do.
Once you have a plot and character and all of that, what does your actual writing process look like as far as the actual physical act? You started in typewriter days, as I did . . .
You started writing on a typewriter, I presume, as I did . . . or first, longhand, I suppose, to begin with . . .
I did. I did typing. I took typing in high school. And I’m forever grateful to my mother for making . . . it’s one of the fundamental things I think that I recommend to everybody is, if you want to be a writer, learn to type, learn to touch-type.
So, I have a very good friend who blew out several disks in her neck because she’s a hunt-and-peck typist, and she looks down at the keyboard as she types, and then she looks up at the screen to see what she typed, and she looks down at the keyboard as she types, looks up at the screen and she types, and after 40 years, she’s had several disks in her neck . . . and it’s extremely painful. And touch typing, you don’t have to worry about that.
But I presume you work on a computer now.
Yes, absolutely. As soon as practically as soon as they came out, I had one of the very first Apple II Plus’s, and I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
Yeah, a Commodore 64 was my first one.
I was doing cut and paste when cut and paste meant . . .
Cut and paste.
Scissors and . . . scissors and tape. And yeah, that was exciting. I still remember that.
Do you write a certain number of hours a day, or how does that work for you? And do you work at home or do you like . . . well, everybody works at home now, but do you like to go out to other places to write or how does that all work?
A little bit of everything. Sometimes it helps to, you know, take the laptop to a coffee shop, now that I can do that. It’s been an evolution because, of course, back in the day, you didn’t take the typewriter any place because it was too heavy. And then the computer, of course, was desktops. It wasn’t until laptops came along that it was even a possibility to take your computer out to a coffee shop casually and, you know, out any place. And so, you know, where I write has been kind of an evolution. I’ve always had a desk, at least a desk someplace, and usually had an office. You know, there’s . . . sometimes the office was the spare room, to begin with. But I had an office, and I mostly work in the office, sometimes haul it out someplace else just to get a bit of, you know, change of scenery.
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
I don’t know. I’m a plodder. I am not . . . most of the time, I’m a plodder. I’ve had a couple of books where I did a burst writing. But most of the time, it’s a, you know, if you write one page a day, every day without fail, at the end of the year, you’ll have three hundred pages, which is a book, and you can take Sundays and holidays off. And that’s what I do. That’s what I started doing. And that’s basically what I try and do. And it’s gotten harder over time as other life things keep interrupting and getting in the way. It’s been very difficult to concentrate in the past, oh, what is it now, eight, nine months?
Feels like forever.
But yeah, since about last February, it’s been really difficult to concentrate. That, too, depends on whether writing is more like a hobby or more like an escape or whether it is something that requires focus and mental energy, and really, for me, it’s kind of both those things. So, sometimes it works as an escape, and then it’s like, yeah, head down in the book because that lets me ignore all the horrible things. And sometimes, I’m so distracted by all these other things that are going on that I can’t get head down in the book. So, you know, it varies.
Once you have a finished draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you use beta readers, or do you just revise it yourself?
Oh, I use beta readers. I use beta readers everyplace. I am a rolling reviser. It’s one of the many things . . . I talked about this a lot on the blog. I also have a blog, at pcwrede.com, where I talk about writing and process and have been doing for . . . God, ten years now! That’s kind of scary. But I talk about the process, and I’m a rolling reviser. You know, some people have to do the whole book all the way through and then go back and write it. Some people have to have to get it right almost the first time because their stuff sets up like concrete after, you know, 24 hours, after they’ve let it alone for 24 hours, it’s practically impossible to change. I’m kind of . . . I need to have, what has been written, I really need to know somewhere in my back brain that it’s right, quote-unquote—picture me doing air quotes—in order to continue to make progress. I have learned over 40 years of doing this that I can at times put in a little note that says, “Fix this later,” and actually go back and fix much later. But most of the time, if I realize in Chapter 15 that I just had this brilliant idea, but for it to work, I need to plant something in Chapter 2 and remind people about it in Chapter 7 and 12, I have to stop and go back and plant it in Chapter 2 and do the reminding in Chapter 7 and in Chapter 12 before I can continue with Chapter 15 because when I do the plant, when I do the reminding, it changes what I’m having happened just a little, just enough that in order to get it right from here on out, I have to know what happened back in those places where I’m planting this thing. So, I tend to . . . and the other thing is that when I get really, really stuck, I’ll go back and I’ll start at the beginning, and I’ll just go through and fix things and revise things and reread things and fix them, and usually by the time I get back, I’m not stuck anymore, you know, because I’ve changed enough things or I’ve seen enough things where it’s like, I’ve got the ideas to move on with.
Who are your beta readers, and what do they do for you?
It’s varied a lot over the years. Lois McMaster Bujold and I trade manuscripts all the time.
Pretty good beta reader.
She was . . . I was one of her first, actually. I had . . . back when I sold Shadow Magic, I went to the Chicago WorldCon and met Lillian Stewart Carl, and we, I offered to trade manuscripts with her by mail, and she said, “Well, you know, I don’t I don’t really need that, I have a writers’ group.” This was before that, you know, when I was still hunting for more input. I was in the Scribblies, but I was still hunting for other input, outside input. And she said, “I don’t need that. I have a good writers’ group, but I have this friend in Ohio who doesn’t have anybody. She’s out in the wilds of Ohio. She doesn’t have anybody around who reads or writes science fiction fantasy. Can I give you her your contact?” And that was Lois. And so, you know, she and I started trading critique by mail. I ended up with, like, a four-inch stack of . . . this was before email. So, physical letters until we went, until we did go to email. Then eventually, she moved to town, which made it much easier. But anyway, she’s one of my beta readers. Pamela Dean still is. Caroline Stevermer frequently. Several non-writer friends . . . you know, Beth Friedman. God, I’m missing somebody . . .
That’s the trouble with starting to name names.
Yeah, yeah, it is. It’s well, especially, there’s a bunch of people that nobody would recognize that, you know, I could name the names, but, you know, it’s not going to mean anything to anybody. But, you know, sometimes the best beta readers are people who are not writers; they’re just readers who are really good at articulating what’s going, what is a problem here, or what they like about this or don’t like about this.
And what kind of feedback do you typically get from your readers that . . . what sorts of things do you find you need to work on?
It varies. Everyone . . . and sometimes it’s the same old things that you thought you had gotten rid of years ago. Sometimes it’s, you know, there’s character stuff, there’s stupid, stupid things like dialogue tags and repeated words, you know. One I remember specifically because it was so annoying was somebody who pointed out that I had used a very unusual phrasing like three times in the same chapter. And it’s like, “How did I not notice that?” You know, but I mean, it’s everything from really picky little details to questions about characters that are very enlightening, like, you know, things like, one asked, you know, “Are these two characters gay?” And I went, “Son of a gun. They are. I didn’t know that. OK.” You know, so it’s there for people who want to see it, but it’s not a big point. Mean, I didn’t know they were until somebody pointed it out. You know, it’s like, “Oh, yeah.” And so there’s things that are . . . things about the characters that I hadn’t even realized, things about the world, things about the plot. Just, you know, major things, and then, of course, the minor word dinks and nitpicks.
And then the manuscript will go to an editor. What kind of editorial feedback is typical for you? Do you find it’s pretty clean, you don’t have to do a lot, or there are occasionally some . . .
It depends on the book.
And the editor, I would presume.
And the editor. They’re very different. There is one editor that, it was always questions. She never made any recommendations; it was always questions about what was happening. I had another editor . . . Jane Yolen was lovely. I mean, she was fun. We were friends. She edited the Enchanted Forest books when she was at Harcourt. And she was . . . we were good friends. In fact, she kind of was the one who browbeat me into writing the prequels. And so, it’s all her fault. But I turned in the first one, and I got back two pages of editorial comments that started with, “Does your husband know about your love affair with a semicolon? Seventeen on one page is too many.” You know, and she was absolutely right.
I like a good semicolon, but that does seem excessive.
It was excessive. It was, like, a manuscript page was about, I think I had my printer set to do 25 lines, and 17 of them had semicolons. It was just way too much. So, yeah, it varies. And then I had one editor who basically . . . had two different editors, in two different places, I had ask for scenes, where I had not put in a particular scene the character . . . in one instance, the character wasn’t there, and in another instance, I was skating very quickly over that part, and it just didn’t seem . . . and the one where I was skating over it wanted the set-piece with that particular scene and the other one, the character wasn’t there, and the editor said, “This seems like a really important scene, and I think you should write it.” So, I had to write ten thousand words to, you know, instead of having the character told about it in a three-paragraph summary, I had to figure out how to get her to go along so she could watch it. And it took about ten thousand words to interpolate that into the book.
But it made the book better.
Oh, yeah. Oh yeah. I’m very pleased with how it came out, but it was a lot of work. So, it really depends. A lot of the time it is pretty clean, I think, but I don’t have anything to judge by except my own stuff, really. So how would I know? I don’t know what the editor sees all the time.
Yeah. They see a lot more stuff than the authors do. My editor is Sheila Gilbert at DAW. And, of course, she’s been doing this for a very long time.
She’s seen a lot of manuscripts. And she notes . . . she just sees things that I don’t see..
Yes. Yeah, yeah. They see things you don’t see.
And now we’ve actually gone past the hour, but nobody’s counting, so . . but I should wrap it up here.
Well, I should have warned you upfront, I can talk about writing for hours, literally. I thought . . . I was supposed to have a one-hour interview with somebody at my alma mater, and we ended up talking for five hours, until I got hoarse. So, yeah, I can talk for a long time about writing.
My record is still Orson Scott Card, who went for two hours by the time we were done. So, you know . . .
We’re not there yet. But just to wrap it up with the big philosophical question, really, three: Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? And why stories of the fantastic, specifically?
Let’s start backwards. Stories of the fantastic is because I can’t seem to write anything else. I tried to write a mystery once, and it had wizards in it by the second chapter, so I gave up. I was like, that’s what I write. That’s what my back brain hands me, so that’s what I write. Why I write is, again, I just, I mean, I love reading, I love writing, I love telling stories, I’ve always loved telling stories, and writing is a way of doing that. I mean, I think I would write stuff even if I wasn’t selling it and nobody was reading it. It would not be as easy, and it would be very disappointing. Certainly, at this point, it would be very difficult since this is how I make my living. But really, I like the process. I like it even though it’s frustrating and annoying as all get out and, you know, can drive you just absolutely mad at times. It’s still . . . I love the feeling that I get when I know I nailed it, when it’s like, “Yes, there’s that scene, and this is that thing.” And I have this cool thing going, and I got it. And there it is. “Yes, that’s what I wanted.” I don’t know if anybody else is seeing it, what I saw, and sometimes they don’t, and sometimes I end up having to fiddle with it. But there’s still that moment when there it is down on paper, that scene I’ve been waiting to write for so long.
And I also love the analytical side of it, you know, figuring out why things work, why using this viewpoint is more effective than using that viewpoint, you know, what’s going to work best for this story, how . . . I love doing that. I love it. I mean, that’s mostly what the blog is, is different angles of a view on everything from . . . well, just pretty much every aspect of writing, I mean, I’ve been doing it for ten years, I think I’ve covered pretty much everything, and I’m still talking about it, which tells you how long I could go on about writing. That’s me, you know, I just . . . the other thing is I do it so that the voices in my head will shut up.
I’ve heard that from a lot of authors. A lot of authors put it that way.
And it’s not necessarily the characters’ voices, it’s the stories themselves. You know, it’s . . . I’ve shot past my exit numerous times on the freeway because I’m sitting there going, “And then they go, right? No, no, no, no, they’ll go left, left. And there there’s . . . yes. And the bridge is out. And the . . .” You know, if I don’t put it down on paper, it keeps changing in my head, and it won’t leave me alone. And so, I have to go home, and I have to write the scene where the bridge is out. And then I’m done with the damn bridge. It’ll leave me alone. But I have shot past the exit multiple times doing, you know, telling myself stories in my head.
Why do you think on the bigger scale, why do any of us write? Why do you think we do this? As a species, I guess.
As a species? I think it’s to explain ourselves to ourselves. You know, it’s . . . stories are a way of transmitting life lessons and teaching people about things that are going on in a wider world. One of . . . I think I heard this bit from Jane Yolen. She had been reading about an anthropologist. She’s very big in fairy tales. And the anthropologist had been collecting fairy tales from native cultures in the north. I think the Inuit was one, but there are several others, and one of . . . and their fairy tales, their stories, are really grim, and they have this custom of, in the wintertime, when it’s dark for 24 hours or very nearly a day, everybody gathers in a hut. And, you know, the children are all there, and they tell these horrible, horrible ghost stories, creepy, scary, nightmare-inducing stories. And at the worst part of it, somebody, one of the adults, sneaks out and they beat on the outside of the tent, you know, to make the scary parts even scarier. And the woman said, “Why do you do this? Why do you do this to your children?” And the person she was interviewing said, “Because they need to be scared. They need to learn how to be scared in a safe place so that they won’t freeze up when it’s a real emergency.” Because if you freeze up when it’s 50 below zero, and you’ve just gone through the ice, you are a dead person. You have to be able to continue to function, and that’s the kind of things that stories do. Most of us are not in that dire of an environment, that we’re under those kinds of threats, but there’s still. . . they are ways of conveying lessons about people, about what is right and what is wrong about dealing with other people, about living in the world, you know, about what kinds of things are mistakes and what kinds of things, you know, you might not recognize as a mistake right now. But in 20 years or 40 years, you will. And sometimes those things are buried really, really deeply entrenched, and they are ways of explaining to ourselves what we’ve learned about ourselves and about other people and about the world. I think that’s kind of as deeply philosophical as I can possibly get on this.
Well, it certainly seems like a good answer to me. OK, let’s wrap it up by finding out what are you working on now? What’s coming up next from you?
OK, I am in the process of doing what I hope will be final revisions to another children’s book called The Dark Lord’s Daughter. It’s about a 14-year-old girl who is, uh, you know, she knows she’s been adopted, and her family has, her adopted family, has kind of fallen on . . . they’ve been having some difficulties, and she and her adopted mother and her little brother are off at the state fair, and they are approached by a gentleman in what looks sort of like a Darth Vader outfit who says, you know, “My lady, I have found you!”, and the next thing they know, the three of them have been transported to an alternate universe. And she finds out that she is the daughter of the former dark lord and is expected to come and take over his kingdom.
That’s a great setup.
And it is nothing like what either side is expecting. She is not what they were expecting to get, and they are, you know, the dark lord’s kingdom is not at all . . . well, let’s put it this way, they had ten years to deteriorate, and it’s deteriorated pretty darn bad. So, she’s got a lot of work to do. And, of course, she’s got her mother and her little brother along to make life interesting.
That sounds fun.
So I’m working on that. And, I don’t have a pub date yet because I’m way behind, and I don’t get to know when it’ll come out until I actually turn it in.
Publishers are annoying like that.
And where can people find you online?
PCWrede.com. And that’s my Web site and the blog and a lot of other useful information if you poke around on it a bit.
Any social media accounts to mention?
The blog is really the only place where I spend a lot of time. I do have a Twitter account where I mostly make announcements, and there is a Facebook business page, which again is . . . that’s not really run by me, but it also has a lot of announcements about, you know, what’s coming up with my books. Every once in a while, I post something to Twitter, but I’m not really super active there. I have too much else going on.
And once again, of course, you’re teaching the World Building in Fantasy and Science Fiction workshop for Odyssey Workshop.
Yes, I think that’ll be fun.
And that runs January 7 to February 4. And the deadline, I believe, is December 9, if anybody’s listening and wants to register.
Yeah. And it’ll be, it’s three classes with about two weeks between. So, you’ve got time to actually apply some of this stuff in between and hopefully come up with new and interesting questions to ask.
OK, well, I guess that wraps it up, then. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers.
Born in 1947, James Morrow has been writing fiction ever since. As a seven-year-old living in the Philadelphia suburbs, he dictated the story of the duck family to his mother, who dutifully typed it up and bound the pages with yarn. Upon reaching adulthood, Jim channeled his storytelling urge toward the production of speculative literature.
The majority of his eleven novels are written in satiric theological mode, including the critically acclaimedGodhead trilogy. He has won the World Fantasy Award twice, for Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah, the Nebula Award twice, for his story “The Deluge” and the novella City of Truth, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award once for the novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima.
In recent years, he’s produced historical fiction informed by a fantastical sensibility, including The Last Witchfinder, about the birth of the Enlightenment, and GalapagosRegained, about the coming of the evolutionary worldview, and his novel-in-progress sardonically reimagines the 325 AD Council of Nicaea. The French translation of his Darwin extravaganza recently received the Grand prix de l’Imaginaire. His most recent work to see print is The Purloined Republic, one of the three novellas that constitute And the Last Trump Shall Sound.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Jim, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you very much, Ed. Happy to be here.
Happy to make the connection. I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths at a convention or anything in person, but it was through Mickey Mickkelson, who’s my publicist and is doing some work as well with Arc Manor. I guess we made the connection because of And the Last Trump Shall Sound, which is out or about to come out. Is it out or about to come out? As we talk, because it will be out by the time this goes live.
September 22 is the pub date. I see you’re about to appear on The Coleman Show, which I’m also booked on. You’re doing that tomorrow, right?
Yeah. As we talk. By the time this comes out, this will all be a few weeks in the past. I sometimes forget that when I’m doing these things, that this is not a live broadcast, but it does not live, it is recorded. And at the time it comes out, all of this stuff will be out. Well, let’s that start, as I do, by taking you, as I like to say, I’m totally going to put reverb on it someday, back into the mists of time, where, as I also like to say, it is mistier for some of us than others. How did you become interested in, you know, you mentioned writing your first story when you were seven years old, so obviously, that came along early, but not just writing, but also science fiction fantasies specifically. How did that come about for you, and where did you grow up and go to school and all that good stuff?
Okay. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a little town called Roslyn. I guess there are two different tributaries feeding the river of my imagination. One comes from low culture, sort of popular culture, the other from a more literary zone, high, high culture. I’d say, unlike the majority of guests you have on The Worldshapers, I was not a voracious reader as a kid. My introduction to genre was through the more tawdry venue of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. I still have the first, Forrey Ackerman’s sort of love letter to the history of horror films, and so was watching movies on television that had that fantastic sensibility that ultimately, I would argue, led to my producing prose fiction in that genre. My friends and I in high school subscribed to Famous Monsters and would go to each other’s houses to watch these movies. And we started our own filmmaking club.
Growing up in Roslyn, Pennsylvania, I was very near a large cemetery, and this became the setting for about half the movies that we made. But we did, these were 8mm home movies, but we thought of them as feature films, and we were in them, but we thought of ourselves as adult actors. But we did adaptations of “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and the other films we did had titles like Cagliostro, The Sorcerer, and The Futurians. But let me then jump to the other tributary of more literary or high culture. In my 10th-grade world literature class taught by the amazing Mr. Giordano (sp?), I came to understand for the first time that a novel was not simply about following the vicarious adventures of non-existent people, that a novel could be a matrix of ideas, and novelists were people who had something to say. And the syllabus was just extraordinary. We read Voltaire’s Candide, we read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the plays of Ibsen, Kafka’s The Trial, Madame Bovary by Flaubert. And I just was so entranced by the sensibility of those authors. They were people who did not settle for the received wisdom of their day. They stood outside of their cultures. They were at odds with conventional thought, and they tended to be very much religious skeptics, doubters. And not just . . . it was kind of like my inverse road to Damascus. You know, I wanted to sign up for the sort of honest atheism of Albert Camus and I, you know, and I thought maybe I could do it myself someday, that I could write a novel of ideas.
Science fiction, of course, demands that you play with ideas. It’s often called the literature ideas of ideas. You get this wonderful toolkit when you join that club of robots and time travel and rocketships, all of which become techniques for getting perspective on the world, for holding reality up to a kind of funhouse mirror and, you know, and then maybe telling people a thing or two, arguing for a way of seeing the world. And one day, I found myself possessed by an idea for my first novel.
When you were doing the film work, were you doing some of the scripting for those films where you’re writing for that?
Yeah, they were my . . . I guess there were like four of us who were in this, who had created this club, and I was sort of recognized me as the one who did pretty well with dialogue and was the writer of the group. But we all took turns behind the camera, we all took turns in front of the camera. I usually did the editing as well. I love the editing process. And I would say to this day, my fiction-making for me is filmmaking by other means, that when I cut into a manuscript, when I leap into the rough draft of a chapter as it comes pouring out of my printer and I sit down with a pencil and a cup of coffee, to me, trimming and reshaping the prose is analogous to what I did for many years editing films, trimming the frames, rearranging the images.
I have to ask if you still have the story of the dog family bound in yarn by your mother, you still have a copy of that.
I do! That managed to survive. I have it in a file upstairs. And I still have most of the 8mm movies that we made. Although I haven’t played them recently. I have a feeling the splices would fall apart, and the soundtracks may have, the tape may have degenerated. I’m afraid to find out.
Were you writing prose during that time as well, your teen years, and so forth? And were you sharing those stories with people? Or was it pretty much you were in that film making side of things?
Yeah, I mean, I had an urge to tell stories. I had, I think, a feeling for narrative, but I expressed myself in other media, the filmmaking . . . we put on some plays, I used to draw my own comic strips and comic books and, you know, didn’t turn to prose fiction until, you know, my first novel, really, though I always, I loved the medium of the novel from a very young age. I thought there was just something magical and luminous about those books in my parents’ modest library that I knew were fiction. And even before I was very adept at reading and way before I would imagine composing stories myself, I would take volumes off the shelf in my parents’ living room, and then I would impose on them my own novel. I would sort of be telling a story to myself as I was turning the pages of the novel, pretending that it was something that I had written.
I have to ask because so much of your work is, as you said in your bio, theologically inspired, did you have a religious upbringing, were you learning theological material during your youth?
No. My parents took me to Presbyterian Sunday School, but I think they were not really serious Christians themselves. I think they had a kind of inoculation theory: give the kid a little bit of religion, you know, lest he someday show up announcing that he’s decided to become a monk, and you deprived me of God, and how dare you not tell me about the divine! And, you know, I honestly believe that was their theory. So, I had . . .it was a very low-level experience. I mean, even though I did have that inverse road to Damascus I mentioned earlier, thanks to Voltaire and Camus, etc., there just wasn’t that much, there’s not that much to lapse from when you’re a sort of white-bread, you know, middle-class suburban Christian. So, the impulse to critique Christianity does not come out of any kind of trauma. I was not in rebellion against a religious upbringing. I’d never been assaulted by a nun holding a ruler or anything like that. It was much more, these voices spoke to me, these doubters like Camus and Dostoyevsky and Ibsen. And I just wanted to try that myself.
Well, you mentioned that you didn’t really tackle prose until you had the idea for your first novel. When did that come along? And also, what did you study in university?
I majored in English, and my speciality was creative writing, but I still wasn’t doing a lot of prose fiction. My main project was a screenplay, and I actually had Joseph Heller as a teacher, which was a wonderful experience.
And he was very interested in what I was doing. It was a course in playwriting, and he himself had a play running on Broadway at the time called We Bombed in New Haven. And he was taken with the comedy, the three-act comedy that I was producing in his class. But I did not come out of the program at the University of Pennsylvania with a belief in myself as a novelist or as someone who was going to get into this wonderful universe of science fiction. I became an educator for a while, and I had used my filmmaking experience to become a media educator and was hired by several public school systems to, like, teach animation to junior-high-age kids or teach students how to make slide tapes. But at that time, in my circle of media educators, there was a lot of discussion about the effect that mass media was having on children. And most of that conversation was about the deleterious effects of television and movies on kids. There were books like The Plug-in Drug getting a lot of attention, very anti-television. And I said to myself, “Well, I can understand why people are worried that that TV is turning kids into lemmings, but what about the contrary argument, that television has a kind of cathartic effect, and that television maybe drains off impulses that one otherwise might be inclined to act out in the real world, anti-social impulses.” And I said, “You know, there’s kind of science-fiction novel in there. What if there was a society that was totally pacifistic, where there’d never been a robbery or a rape or a killing? And if initially this is a mystery, how in the world did they achieve this, this blessed state?” And then it turns out that they have a technology that lets them sort of hook themselves up to their television sets, except they control the content. If they’ve had some bad experience that day, an argument with the boss, or maybe even getting fired from their job, you could go home and shoot the boss on television, and nobody would get hurt and would drain off your desire you might have to commit that sort of crime in the real world. And then the plot became, what if on this utopian planet an astronaut arrives, falls in love with one of these, they’re human migrants, falls in love with them and decides that she needs just a little bit of an aggressive instinct to be fully human, that maybe, you know, you’ve got to have a dark side, you’ve got to have that dark side for real, not just in your fantasies. And so, he injects her with a little bit of the violence that these people drain off into a rive, a moat that encircles their city. And of course, this is a recipe for disaster. She has no immunity and becomes a maniac. And then he’s faced with this terrible dilemma: is he going to kill the woman he loves to save a civilization he hates?
So, the whole thing arrived full-blown, all three acts. I found an agent, and we discussed whether this was, in fact, a science fiction novel or just a novel of ideas. And we ultimately decided it should be marketed as science fiction. She took it to . . . Holt Rinehart and Winston at the time had a line of SF they were publishing, Larry Niven and Robert Checkley, and they did Heinlein. This was Donald Hunter, the late lamented Donald Hunter at Holt. And I was off and running. I never looked back. The book didn’t become a bestseller, but it got quite a bit of review attention. The Science Fiction Book Club picked it up, it came out in paperback, and I said, “Okay, I’ve sort of kept the commitment I made with myself way back in tenth grade to see if I could write a novel of ideas.”
I want to go back to the university and studying creative writing/ I often ask authors who have done that formally if it turned out to be helpful. It sounds like, in your case, maybe it actually was. Not every author tells me that it was. So, what was your experience?
Certainly, having Joseph Heller and his sensibility was a big influence on me. He was very self-effacing. I would say that, you know, Catch-22, as far as he was concerned, its unbelievable success was kind of a fluke. Every year many worthy novels come out and disappear and die a dog’s death. Now, that said, it was just, you know, Catch-22 is, as you might imagine, a touchstone for me, James Morrow the satirist. That said, the other creative writing classes I had were happening at a time . . . this is, what, circa 1968, ’69, before it was thought that you could teach the crafting of prose fiction systematically. And so, the only thing that went on in these classrooms was workshopping, because reacting to each other’s manuscripts, as opposed to, you know, the sort of, I wouldn’t call formulas, but the sort of incredibly good advice you get, you would get from, let’s say, a John Gardner in his book—On Writing Fiction, as I recall, is the title. And, you know, there was no discussion of how to negotiate the marketplace, what it meant to get a literary agent, how important that could be, you know, nor was there a whole lot of explicit teaching about how do you create a character? How do you structure a plot? You know, what are the techniques you can use to engage a reader? What is the difference between suspense and surprise, et cetera, et cetera? And so, yeah, I can’t praise the other aspects of the University of Pennsylvania’s writing program at the time. I suspect it’s rather different now, maybe much more influenced by institutions like Iowa’s writers’ workshops.
The playwrighting interests me, as well. I’m an actor. I’ve done quite a bit of stage work and have written a couple of plays and directed them and all that sort of thing, and I always feel that that’s helpful in writing my fiction in a way and that I always have a very clear image of where everybody is in relationship to each other in my head, in the scene. And I think some of that comes from writing plays. And then I also think, of course, the dialogue side of things. Do you feel that that background in playwriting and scriptwriting has benefited your fiction?
Yes, very much so. I sometimes think of myself as a playwright manque, though, of course, it’s even harder to convince money people to put on a play of yours than to publish your novel.
Yeah, that’s for sure.
To say nothing of filmmaking. But yeah, I do see my work, as it may be, both playwriting and filmmaking by other means, and I’m told that my novels are visual and vivid, and I do think in terms of scenes. Not all prose fiction makers do, they’re maybe a little more free form. They don’t break into discrete acts or scenes or sequences or the three-act structure. But that’s where I am. These epics of mine are not only patterned on the structure of films, but I actually draw inspiration a great deal from the Hollywood product. At least, it’s always, whenever I’m working on it, it becomes an excuse to look at a bunch of movies and see how I’m going to get energy.
When you, I mean, you mentioned doing it in high school, but have you done acting yourself since then?
Very, very little. No, I’ve fallen away from that.
Well, you know, if the writing doesn’t work out, you can always try acting. There’s a good, solid career choice.
I think of the criticism from Peter Ustinov, who, as you probably know, was a man of many talents, a Renaissance man, and his whole family was into the arts. I mean, they were all musicians or writers or painters.
I think I read his autobiography, yeah.
Someone brought to the Bronx, brought to the family dinner, a guy she was dating. And they asked, “Well, what does he do for a living?” And he said he was a stockbroker. And they said, “You’re a stockbroker. Can you make a living from that? Why don’t you go into something safe, like poetry?” Because they were all successful. Not the norm.
No. My favorite actor joke, which I’ve heard a few times, is, “What’s the difference between an actor and a pizza?” And it’s, “A pizza can feed a family of four.”
I’ve heard that joke as being the difference between a science-fiction writer and a pizza.
Yeah, it’s the same joke.
So, let’s talk about your creative process. We’re going to talk about The Last Witchfinder, which I’ve read a chunk of. I haven’t gotten to the end, but I certainly intend to. This came out a few years ago, but I’ll let you give a synopsis of it and explain what it is.
I had an amazing encounter, this would be 35 years ago, with a book by a physicist at the University of Massachusetts named Edward Harrison. The book is called Masks of the Universe. And the essential argument of the book is that we, the human species, will probably never know the Universe with a capital U. It will be, that kind of knowledge, absolute knowledge, will be denied to us. What we have are a succession, throughout human history, of universes, each with lowercase u, and this book, Masks of the Universe, is a kind of history of the evolution of human intellectual thought and scientific thought, vis a vis all these masks. So, Harrison takes us on a tour, from the magic universe of Paleolithic people to the mythic universe of the Sumerians, the Egyptians, and other early civilizations, the geometric universe of the Greeks, the divine universe of medieval Christian Europe, the mechanistic universe of Newton, the Age of Reason, and then our contemporaneous relativistic universe of modernity, of scientific modernity. Harrison is particularly, was particularly, obsessed with what he calls the witch universe, that time when everybody understood that demons were what made things happen, that the world was not so much enchanted as haunted.
It was called the Renaissance ex post facto. But I encountered this amazing sentence, and I just Xeroxed it, and I want to read it. This is from page 214 in Masks of the Universe. Harrison says, quote, “The supposed Renaissance was a disordered interlude between sane universes,” that is between the medieval and the Age of Reason, quote, “a bedlam of distraught world pictures terrorized by a witch universe, created by leaders with fear-crazed minds, an age in thrall to a mad universe on the rampage, which would have destroyed European society but for the intervention of science.” So, I read that sentence, and I said, “Oh, my God, there’s an idea for a novel, an entire society nearly destroyed by its own theology. I mean, I have to work with that someday. I have to be able to turn that into an epic, even if Harrison is overstating the case,” and I think perhaps it was. “But for the intervention of science, Europe would have destroyed itself. I’ve got to work with that theme!” But I couldn’t come up with an entree, year in, year out. How in the world could one traumatize an event so large and momentous?
And after a gestation of 15 years, I had a breakthrough, and I said, “You know, a character,” in this case, I intuitively knew she must be a woman, “a woman born in about 1678, would have lived through this amazing transition, this rotation from the witch universe to what we call retrospectively the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment.” And so, The Last Witchfinder was born and became the story of Jennet Stearne, who makes it her lifetime mission to try to bring down the parliamentary witchcraft statute of 1604. She has many adventures in the course of trying to fulfill this mission. It’s really, it’s both a mission and a pledge to her Aunt Isobel, a kind of deathbed promise. Isobel is herself mistaken for a witch and executed by the powers that be in the England of early modern Europe. Eventually, eventually, Jennet engages in a very creative act. She masquerades as a witch and in a sense then puts herself on trial for consorting with demons, and because she’s become good friends with the young Benjamin Franklin, she actually becomes a lover of Benjamin Franklin, this is circa 1731, she knows she will get publicity in Franklin’s periodical, the Pennsylvania Gazette. So, this sort of media circus trial occurs in Philadelphia, and Parliament takes note of it in England. And so, this is the kind of science fiction, I guess, that would be called secret history or hidden history. This is the real story that you’ve not known until now of why that statute was finally taken off the books.
So, once you had this idea, what did your planning process and research process . . . because clearly, you put a lot of research into this. I noticed in your foreword you were talking about a great deal of this is reality, with a few tweaks of what we . . . well, what we think is the real history . . . here and there to tell the story. So, what did your research and planning process look like? And is this typical of your work?
I always do a lot of research, and it’s mysterious to me. And I don’t want to become too conscious about it, self-conscious about it. How does one know when to stop the research and write the damn novel? I mean, my facetious answer to your question would be, first I write the novel, and then I do the research, you know, sort of retrofitting. But it’s more of a dance. It’s very complicated. As I did the research, a lot of actual history kind of played into my hand. I felt very fortunate that, for example, when Jennet is abducted by Indians around 1695, she’s now living, she starts out living in England, but then she goes to the colonies because that’s where her family has moved. She ends up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and it turns out that, in fact, Haverhill, Massachusetts, was attacked by the Abenaki in 1695.
A big breakthrough for me was, I always knew that I wanted to use not only Benjamin Franklin but also Isaac Newton as sort of personification of the two universes, the universes that are in play at this point in history. Franklin, sort of the avatar of the Enlightenment, cheeky and contrarian, as opposed to Newton, one of the most pious men who ever lived. Very much of a piece with the Renaissance. And it turns out that they actually almost met in 1725. Franklin is in London. He has a commission from the royal governor of Pennsylvania to buy printing equipment. And he has a letter of introduction to Newton from someone in Newton circle, I think it was the physician Pemberton, who edited the second edition of Principia Mathematica. Newton does not want to meet this cheeky kid from Philadelphia, so the meeting never occurred. But in my novel, it occurs. I have Franklin and Newton in the same carriage together, but they just talk past each other. Franklin wants to discuss electricity; Newton is preoccupied with counterfeiters at that time and with biblical prophecy. And so, it’s not simply that they are from two different generations, this is the old Newton and the young Franklin, not just two different generations, two different continents, they’re really from two different universes: Franklin of the Enlightenment and Newton of the Renaissance. So I said, well, this is playing into my hands. This is a lot of fun. It’s going to work.
And then other facts, like the Baron de Montesquieu, who ends up defending Jennet at the trial she arranges for herself, really could have ended up in Philadelphia in 1731. He was a young aristocrat taking the grand tour that European aristocrats always took at that time. There was even, according to Franklin, on a witch trial in Mount Holly, New Jersey, at this time, and I simply moved it across the Delaware to Philadelphia. Franklin’s account of the witch trial makes it clear that it never really happened, it’s simply a hoax that he put into the Pennsylvania Gazette. But I decided to take Franklin at his word. So, I guess for me, Ed, the process was like walking through a field with all of these sort of pottery shards lying around, you know, and I would pick them up and examine them and try to fit them to each other and end up with an urn of my own design.
From what I know of Franklin, I suspect he’d like this story.
He comes off very, very well. Yeah.
Did your outlining . . . do you do, like, a detailed outline or just hit some high points and then go for it? What’s that process like?
I do. It’s a kind of freeform outline. You know, I wasn’t really sure how the book was going to end, though. And that’s true of almost all of my novels. I have to kind of feel my way to the climax. But I would never plunge into a project this ambitious, or any sort of a novel, without a rough sense of what the three acts were going to be. You can hear my playwriting heritage coming out here. But that said, I always appreciate a remark that the film director John Huston once made. He said, there comes a time when every film project when you throw away the script and make the movie, by which he means, you know, don’t let the script become your master. You must allow for improvisation, things the actors are going to bring to it, camera setups you never imagined until you were actually on the set, and so forth. And I think for me, at least with prose fiction, there comes a time when you throw away the outline and write the damn novel.
Talking about the three-act structure, you know, it just now occurred to me, but almost every play I see these days is actually two acts. People always talk about the three-act structure, but they’re generally presented as two acts.
It certainly was the classic structure of musicals, right? It was almost like an unwritten but inviolable law that every musical must have two acts with an intermission.
What’s your actual writing process like? Are you a fast writer, a slow writer? Do you write with parchment, quill pen, and parchment out under a tree where an apple could fall on your head, or . . .?
I guess I wrote my first novel, The Wine of Violence, in longhand, you know, Bic pens on legal pads, and I’ve never been able to compose on a typewriter. I envy writers who could do that. So, I’d always have to . . . sometimes I would type it up myself, and then then I would often have to hire a professional typist to try to cope with all the notes I would put on my first typed draft. Now, of course, I use word processing. I’m working very hard on not being so distracted by the Internet that I stop because I just have to look up a fact, sometimes even because I know I spelled the word wrong, I have to stop to correct the spelling. These are terrible habits. And if any embryonic writers are listening, try to never acquire these bad habits that James Morrow has. I’m slow, methodical. It seems to take forever. In theory, every novel I write should be a year. I remember a remark that Stephen King makes in his quasi-autobiography, his book called Danse Macabre, “Any writer who can’t produce a novel in a year is merely dicking off,” and I agree with Stephen King, but somehow, it always takes two, three, four years. It’s been a lot of time on rewriting, workshopping, showing it to friends and colleagues. And also, I have to say, because I love the medium so much and regard it as such a privilege to work within the medium of the novel, I don’t want to surrender a given book. I want to live inside it.
And perhaps because my premises are so often ridiculous, preposterous, like Towing Jehovah, schlepping the corpse of God to its final resting place in the Arctic on a commission from an angel. Oh, come on. That’s so bold and bold and absurd that I didn’t believe it at first. But I’m living inside and retrofitting a whole lot of facts about life aboard a supertanker onto the story and talking to people who had actually lived on supertankers and then visiting, you know, visiting a lot of death-of-God theology, month in, month out, I started to believe that Towing Jehovah could be the case, but it took a while.
Well, your prose is very rich, and especially in The Last Witchfinder, you’re going for a bit of that archaic diction, I guess. Is that . . . what does your revision process look like? Does that kind of language flow out of you naturally, or do you go back and tweak it a lot to get to that level of . . . erudition, I guess.?
Yeah, Witchfinder was a difficult struggle in particular, because I was trying to . . . I was trying to hit the archaic qualities that we encounter in Restoration drama. And I read a lot of Restoration plays to try to get that voice right, and I read contemporaneous documents. And I have to say it’s the aspect of The Last Witchfinder that I’m least satisfied with. I’m not sure I got it right, but I was determined to try to not settle for modern English, where it becomes the reader’s job to imagine they’re speaking in idioms of the day. I was very influenced by John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, which is set in exactly the same time zone as The Last Witchfinder, Restoration England and Colonial America. I stole a lot of locutions from him that he had gotten from somewhere else.
But The Last Witchfinder was almost seven years in creation, and much of it was just, yes, endlessly revising the dialect to try to get it to sound right. You know, the language is in transition. They’re sort of shedding Elizabethanisms, sort of the language of Shakespeare, but a lot of that still stayed around. And so, with the novel I did subsequently . . . well, there was a modern novel in between, which was set in Victorian England. That was rather easier to do because we have a pretty good idea from Dickens how the Victorians spoke. But it’s less clear in the case of Witchfinder.
And I guess you still have to also make sure that your language is comprehensible to a modern reader.
That was the challenge, you know, and some of the positive reviews of Witchfinder complimented me on how you adjust to it fairly quickly. It seems very strange, all of this archaic diction. But you kind of figure it out, and you flow with it. I think the book is easier to negotiate than Shakespeare. For example, when you read Shakespeare, it’s a self-conscious experience. You’re constantly making little almost subconscious translations in your mind.
One reason he works better on stage, where you can kind of understand what’s going on from the action, even if you don’t know exactly. Of course, we should make the point that, at least according to the beginning of the book, you didn’t actually write it. It was written by Isaac Newton’s book, which I thought was hilarious, with all these old books that were, you know, they were actually writing these new books, and the authors weren’t really involved.
I guess that’s the other dimension of Witchfinder that owes something to my genre background. There’s a sense in which The Last Witchfinder is taking place in a universe that isn’t quite ours, a universe in which books are alive. They’re sentient creatures who have thoughts and agendas and who can nevertheless fall in love with humans, just as we fall in love with books, right? And they write other books. And what I was up to there and was, I knew the book was going to be, at one level, a celebration of the Enlightenment. I would argue that Harrison is really on to something, the Age of Reason, the scientific understanding of nature came along just when it was needed because the witch universe was a nightmare, a bedlam, as he puts it. At the same time, I said, you know, I don’t want to become an unqualified cheerleader for the Enlightenment because there is a case to be made against reason and the deification of reason, of the sort of church of reason that emerges during the French Revolution. That’s a dead end, too. And the critics of the Enlightenment always point to the French Revolution, that’s always exhibit A in any indictment of that period, which for me was, I guess I am a child of it, I’m a child of Voltaire and Candide, but this conceit of the Principia Mathematica and its somewhat sardonic understanding of the worl, enabled me to make the case against the Enlightenment through the voice of the Principia, which is privilege, which has perspective on all this. I wanted to avoid what I think is a pitfall of a lot of historical fiction, of the characters being acutely aware of how their descendants interpret their actions, which I think it is simply not given to us to know. I had an initial way of getting this perspective on history by having Jeanette’s Aunt Isobel, the woman whose death sends her on her great commission, having Isabelle writing an epic poem that she’s channeled from the ether that recounts, that narrates what’s going to happen in the next generations and the rise of experimental science. And then I said to myself, “Oh, no, that’s a kind of mystical idea, that’s one that’s at odds with the rationalism that I’m defending in this book.” So, I did something that was even more irrational than the epic poem. I did this crazy, this crazy, contemplative narrator. And I’m glad that you’re fond of it.
I guess it is Prin(k)ipia, isn’t it? I tend to give it more of a, like an Italian pronunciation, Prin(ch)ipia.
I think both are acceptable.
What’s the editing process like for you? What do editors come back to you suggesting you do at the editing level?
Well, when it comes to professional editors whose job it is, whose job description is to be an editor, that’s what it says on their door, Editor . . . the days of Maxwell Perkins, I think, are over; the days when somebody could take a manuscript that was kind of raw and rough and say, “Well, here’s how we can, here’s how I can work with this. And I’ll enter into a conversation with the author, and we’ll reimagine this book so that it’s really going to work for the reader.” That’s not what editors are paid to do anymore. They’re expected to acquire ready-to-run books on the whole. And so, I have rarely gotten suggestions that went very deep into the book. They tended . . . you know, the editor will send you a two-page letter with suggestions. And I respect the industry because the author has final cut. Rarely will an editor ever say, “If you don’t go along with this, we’re not going to publish your book”. So, I guess what I’ve said could be boiled down to the notion that you have to be your own editor. And that’s another thing that protracts the composition process for me because I don’t want to . . . sending a book out prematurely, that, I feel, is one of the worst mistakes you can make. You can’t count on an editor seeing its potential. The potential better be there upfront.
We’re getting close to the end of the hour, just a few minutes left, so I want to get to the big philosophical questions, and clearly, you have fun with those. And there’s three of them, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why literature of the fantastic in particular?
Well, why do I write? I write to change the world, to make it a better place now.
We’ve been talking about The Last Witchfinder, and I write because I feel so privileged to be part of what I would call the great post-Enlightenment conversation. The situation we find ourselves in, in modernity, where everything can be put on the table and where you can’t say, “Well, because I’ve had a revelation, we don’t need to continue this discussion any further,” that argument doesn’t work anymore. So, I just feel that I’m making my little, my small contribution to the, you know, to the fight against nihilism, really a fight against a kind of theocracy that pretends that mere human beings have ultimate answers. And they don’t. They don’t.
Why does anybody write? I can’t speak to my colleagues. Some of them would say they do it because it’s so much fun and I make money from it.
On the human scale, then, why do humans tell stories?
We are storytelling animals, Homo narratives, I think. But with science fiction in particular, I think you have an opportunity to enrich the vocabulary with which we address the big mysteries of existence, these questions of meaning, and how then shall we live? I mean, if you’re lucky, your book even ends up in the dictionary, a la Frankenstein and 1984. Frankenstein, you know, enlarged our vocabulary, it gave us . . the very name means, or has become synonymous with, the idea that with the power of science must come responsibility. And the tragedy of Victor Frankenstein is not that he was curious, I would argue, or not that he did this borderline blasphemous experiment, but that once he brought the creature into the world, he abandoned it. 1984, of course, the first and last time an author actually owned a year, expanded our vocabulary with terms like Newspeak and Doublethink and Big Brother. We have a way to talk about things that previously we couldn’t talk about. I think of Wells and The Island of Dr. Moreau, you know, a kind of metaphor for this brave new world of genetic engineering and the power we’re developing to manipulate the human genome. Certainly, Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale just gave us the concept of the handmaid, this woman who’s under the thumb of a patriarchy. And these are all science fiction titles.
Even in the case of fantasy, it’s important to remember that it also stands against nihilism. The fantasy does not in any way argue the world is up for grabs, the way the nihilist would do and say, well, therefore, my authority is the last word, because we all know reality is up for grabs, there is nothing that’s grounded anymore, which would be sort of nihilism in a nutshell. Tolkien made the point that in a fantasy saga, the trees are real trees, and the grass is real grass, and the rocks are actual rocks. It’s not a fantasy world in the sense of everything being surreal or absurdist. There is an external reality up there, out there, and the very title, Lord of the Rings, I’ve always been fascinated that it points to the villain of the story, to Sauron. Why is that? And I think it’s because the main, the big idea that Tolkien is playing with is the nature of evil, not in some dopey Manichaean sense, but just the, you know, those who think that there is no external reality and therefore they can set the terms, they can set the terms of reality themselves. The line that Gandalf has, “Let folly be our cloak,” it would never occur to Sauron that the Fellowship is going to give up this power. Evil has far less imagination than people of goodwill possess, and I think that’s a very affirming idea, and I think that’s why the book, that novel, has the title it does.
And we’ll. . . what are you working on now? But first, we should mention that you do have something out, a brand-new novella in And the Last Trump Shall Sound with Cat Rambo, whom I’ve had on the show, and Harry Turtledove. So, maybe just briefly, what is that? I have a pretty good idea, but I’ll let you describe it.
And the Last Trump Shall Sound is a set of novellas that speculate on a near-future USA in which Donald Trump won a second term, and this was followed by the election of Pence, who also got a second term, whereupon the states of Oregon, Washington, and California come together under one flag, call themselves the nation of Pacifica, and secede from the Union. That was the premise as it was pitched to me by Shahid Mahmud, the publisher who came up with this idea because he was so distressed to see the way that the nation was being torn apart on the macro scale by the Trump phenomenon and families were being torn apart on the micro-scale. And he just thought, well, maybe science fiction writers can make a valuable contribution to that conversation. I turned him down initially. I said, “Shahid, I can’t work with this. The thought of Trump being re-elected and Pence getting two terms after that is so depressing. Sorry, I’m out of here.” And so, after I rejected membership in this committee, I remembered something that Shahid had said in pitching it to me, which was that Trump would be dead when the story opened. And I said, “Well, what if Pence is falling under the spell of a spiritual adviser who is not all she seems, and was, in fact, working for Pacifica. What if Pence becomes convinced that he could bring Trump back from the dead? That could be a lot of fun. All right.” So, the very next day, I said, “Shahid, is the slot still open? Can I still join your project?” And he said yes, and I’m really glad.
So, it is still science fiction/fantasy. It’s not just political commentary.
These three novellas, they’re all in the grand tradition of sort-of near future . . . not prophecy. I think the distinction that Orwell makes between a warning and a prophecy is very important. So, I don’t think we’re saying this is going to have to be how it turns out, but we are trying to just diagnose what’s happening, and we all come at it from three very different directions. I should hasten to add that when Trump is actually resurrected in the Washington National Cathedral, what’s going on is not supernatural. It appears that Trump has come back from the dead, but in fact, it’s an audio-animatronics robot.
And what else are you working on?
Well, let’s see. For once, I think I actually have written a novel in a year, as Stephen King prescribes. It’s called Those Who Favor Fire, and it’s a comedy about climate change and a title I’ve always wanted to use. Many years ago, I wrote a nuclear war comedy, or dark comedy, that saw print as This Is the Way the World Ends. I wanted to call it Those Who Favor Fire, but at the time, another work of fiction with that title was coming out, and my editor and I said, well, we want to avoid confusion. So, I finally got to use the line from the Robert Frost poem “Fire and Ice” as the title of my climate-change novel. And very briefly, it posits that the hollow earth theory is the case, and there’s actually a race of human beings living beneath the surface of our consensus reality. And they’ve got a problem with ice. Their side of the planet has fallen victim to global cooling. So, it’s an allegory, I guess, though I like to think I can avoid the usual pitfalls of allegory where things just map neatly onto each other.
Any indication of when that will be out?
Well, yeah, sure. It’ll be done in a year, and so it will be out next year, except, no, this is James Morrow, and I’m sure I will once again trip myself up with a long rewriting and workshopping process. And it’s not a book that’s been commissioned by a publisher. And, you know, I think I’ll take it to St. Martin’s Press, who did my last novel, to see hardcover print. But there’s no guarantees. It may or may not ever find a publisher. As you may know, I don’t want to spoil your day, Ed, it could even happen to you, a writer at my age can end up in a condition that’s called post-novel, where, you know, where people will take a much harder look at your sales figures and your status, and if you’ve not had a bestseller, it becomes really hard to unload a novel.
Yeah, well, here’s hoping. And those who would like to see how you’re doing, where can they find you online?
I have a website, www.jamesmorrow.net, and I have a Facebook presence of sorts, and I do some twittering, some tweeting.
Okay, I will put those links in, as I always do. And I think that’s about our time, so, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.
An hour-long conversation with Kacey Ezell, an active-duty USAF instructor helicopter pilot who writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror/noir/alternate history fiction including Minds of Men andThe World Asunder, both Dragon Award Finalists for Best Alternate History in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and, with Griffin Barber, the far-future noir thriller Second Chance Angel.
Kacey Ezell is an active duty USAF instructor pilot with 2500+ hours in the UH-1N Huey and Mi-171 helicopters. When not teaching young pilots to beat the air into submission, she writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror/noir/alternate history fiction. Her novels Minds of Men and The World Asunder were both Dragon Award Finalists for Best Alternate History in 2018 and 2019, respectively. She’s contributed to multiple Baen anthologies and has twice been selected for inclusion in the Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction compilation. In 2018, her story “Family Over Blood” won the Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction Readers’ Choice Award.
In addition to writing for Baen Books and Blackstone Publishing, Kacey has published several novels and short stories with independent publisher Chris Kennedy Publishing. She is married with two daughters.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Kacey, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you so much for having me.
I should point out that we are speaking across a vast portion of the Earth’s surface, since you’re Tokyo, and I’m in Regina, Saskatchewan. So, yeah, 15 hours difference, I think. So, it’s an early-morning interview for you and a late-afternoon one for me, on two different days. It really is a science-fictional world.
The future is now, friends. It really is.
Exactly. Well, I’m glad to have the chance to talk to you. Your name was suggested to me by one of your fellow Baen authors. So, I’m always glad to get recommendations for people I’ve talked to. We’ve never met in person. So, this will be a good chance to get to know you. So, let’s start at the very beginning, as they say in The Sound of Music. And one interesting thing is that you were born in South Dakota, as you probably actually know where Saskatchewan is. So that’s nice.
I do vaguely. Sort of northish.
Yeah. Just go up past North Dakota, and then it’s us, basically.
So, yeah, so, let’s start with—I always say this—we’ll take you back into the mists of time, where you grew up and how you got interested in . . . well, probably you started as a reader. Most of us do. And how that led you to become a writer. And also, this whole bit of being in the Air Force and being a helicopter pilot. That’s interesting, too.
Well, yeah, so. So, I was born in South Dakota, but my parents, when I was about six years old, my parents joined the United States Air Force, as well. And so, we started moving around shortly after like first grade. And one of the very intelligent things that my mother did . . . so, I was kind of an early reader. I started reading just before kindergarten. And once I started reading, I very quickly devoured, you know, any written word I could get my hands on. And during one of our first moves, my mom, I think desperate for me to stop whining that I was bored and didn’t have any friends yet, because we had just moved, to put a copy of Anne McCaffery’s Dragondrums into my hands and said, “Here, this is for kids, read it.” And so, I read it and was immediately entranced. And that was my gateway drug to science fiction and fantasy, if you will, was the Harper Hall trilogy for Dragonriders of Pern.
That would do it.
Yeah, yeah, it really did. And, well, you know, and so here’s me, I’m like, well, so, I read Dragondrums when we lived in Albuquerque. And then very shortly after that, we moved overseas to the Philippines. And during that overseas move, my mom gave me the actual Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, the first trilogy that Anne McCaffrey wrote in that series. And for, you know, a kid who was leaving all of her friends behind to go overseas to another country, like, the idea of being a dragonrider and being telepathically paired with, like, your perfect companion who will always love you, who will never leave you, you’ll never have to move away from, was really enticing. And I got it into my head that I really, really wanted to be a dragonrider. And it turns out dragons are in fairly short supply here on mundane Earth. So, my very logical nine-year-old brain decided that I was going to be a pilot instead because that was about as close as I was going to be able to get. So that’s when I, one, both fell in love with science fiction and fantasy, and two, decided to pursue aviation as a career. It’s all Anne McCaffery’s fault.
Besides Anne McCaffery, were there some other books that were kind of inspiring to you along the way?
Oh, absolutely. You know, like I said, I, I read anything I could get my hands on, so, you know, my mom put The Lord of the Rings, she bought me that trilogy very shortly after that. And, you know, I got really into Tolkien for the, which was my introduction, as I think it is for most people, to the world of high fantasy. And, you know, in an odd way, you know, I pointed this out at a convention a couple of years ago, but there’s a connection there between, like, Tolkienesque fantasy and a lot of the military science fiction that, you know, that I read and write today because, you know, with epic fantasy, you’re talking about these sweeping movements, but you’re also a lot of times talking about armies and, you know, the movements of armies and the tactical decisions of the, you know, of their leadership and stuff. And that’s part of what makes military science fiction so interesting, too. So I think that that kind of, in a way, laid the groundwork for my interest in that, as did my, you know, my own military career, of course. And the experiences that I had growing up as a military brat, particularly living overseas in the Philippines, which was, you know, as I’m sure most people know, the Philippines was a hotly contested area back in the, you know, 1940s timeframe. And so, the opportunity to see a lot of those historical, you know, memorials and some of the battlefield sites and things of that nature was really cool and really interesting to me as a budding history enthusiast and writer.
Well, when did you actually start trying your own hand at writing?
So, my mom, somewhere in her stuff, has a notebook that I wrote, like, some of my first stories in, when I was about six years old. So, I was young. I started writing almost as soon as I started reading.
And did you . . .
Maybe that wasn’t the answer to the question that you wanted as far as, like, professionally, is that what you’re saying?
Well, how did that develop? And as you went along, I mean, OK, you started when you were six, but you wrote longer and longer stuff. And did you share it with other people? I like to ask that question because I did, but not everybody does.
Yeah. No, I did. I did. I shared it. You know, I would show my things to my mom. And my mother was . . . so, my mother’s a huge science fiction fantasy fan. She’s a, you know, she’s another voracious reader, and she’s always been, you know, probably my you know, my number one first reader and fan, obviously, you know, as moms tend to do so. Yeah, I would show me my stories to my mom. But the other thing that I would do and, you know, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was kind of a bossy little girl. So when, you know, I would get my friends together, the kids together in the neighborhood or on the playground at school or wherever, a lot of times it was like, “Hey, let’s play pretend. We’re going to pretend that we’re on a spaceship and you’re going to be the captain and I’m going to be the pilot. And you’re going to . . .” And I would make up these play scenarios that really were just stories, you know, and I was like, “OK, and now the aliens are attacking.” And, you know, it’s, so . . .
So, I used to do that. My friends never really got into it the same way I did. It was kind of annoying.
No. Well, mine rarely did. Sometimes it worked, you know, and sometimes we would play out, you know, a certain, I don’t know, scenario for a couple of days or whatever. But, yeah, in in a lot of ways, I think that was . . . well, it wasn’t necessarily writing things down, but it was still sort of making up stories and sharing, you know, sharing those stories with other people, trying to involve other people in my stories, so. Yeah. A little bit of an extrovert, so yeah, I tend to want everyone to pay attention to me and my stories.
Well, you went into the Air Force and pilot training and all that. I would have thought that would keep you fairly busy for a while.
When did you start to try to write professionally?
Well, so yeah. So, for sure, the Air Force kept me very busy. But here’s the thing, is that . . . so, I graduated in Air Force Academy in 2003, sorry, 1999. And right around that time I discovered the magical world of AOL fandom and the Dragonriders of Pern fandom groups that existed there. And so, once again, you know, Anne McCaffery comes to my rescue, right? So, even though I was busy at work and busy, you know, learning to fly and things like that, one of my hobby outlets became interacting with other fans on these groups and actually writing fan fiction.
And in those groups, you know, doing like . . . and when I say writing fan fiction, it wasn’t necessarily, like, writing stories to, you know, be produced in like a fanzine or anything like that. It was mostly, like, role play by email, essentially, where, you know, I would create a dragonrider character, and my friends would create this other one. And we would, our characters would, interact via the email. And it’s super geeky and super nerdy, I mean, don’t get me wrong, but it was an outlet, and it was something that I really enjoyed. And it allowed me to, you know, to kind of play in one of my favorite worlds. And so . . . and actually, you know, during the course of that, I learned a lot about, you know, things like character development and story pacing and, you know, what to do in dialogue, what not to do in dialogue, and how to keep your character’s thoughts confined to their own head and not go head-hopping and things like that, because you can’t act when someone else is controlling the other character in the scene, you know, it’s considered very rude.
So, yeah, super geeky, but it was fun, and it allowed me to continue . . . you know, Toni Weiskopf, the publisher of Baen Books, she has a saying that she says all the time, that writers write because they can’t help it. And I find that to be kind of true in my case, that if I’m not actually, like, writing stories, the stories are going to come out in some way, whether it’s through, you know, playing with my friends or doing online fan fiction or whatever. I’m never not writing, right? It’s kind of like breathing. It’s something that I have to do.
That sounds familiar. And you don’t have to talk to me about being geeky. I actually drew pictures for a Star Trek fanzine when I was in university. So I was . . .
Oh, that’s awesome, dude.
Doing pictures of Kirk and Spock. I think I did a pretty good Spock. And I’m not . . . that’s all I can remember. I remember doing a pretty good Spock.
That’s awesome. Yeah, I have zero talent when it comes to, like, creating visual fan art. I wish I did, because there’s some gorgeous stuff out there, and yeah, I would love to learn how to draw dragons, but . . . just never got there.
Well, I minored in art, so it actually was a potential direction to go in.
Oh, that’s cool.
But I . . . I often say that I supposedly majored in journalism because I wanted to be a writer, but really, I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and everything else was kind of a sideline to that.
Dungeons and Dragons should be a major at school.
Like, I think I put more time into that than I did my schoolwork, for sure.
Yeah. There’s a lot that you can learn from tabletop role-playing. I, I support that. Really.
So, when did you start trying to get published professionally?
So, I have a confession to make, but it happened sort of by accident. So, when I was in pilot training back in 2001, I discovered the amazing, mind-bending experience that is DragonCon in Atlanta over Labor Day week.
I’ve been once.
Oh, my gosh. Am I right, though? It’s mind-bending. It’s like walking into . . . it’s like being, you know, being away from home your whole life and then walking through the doors of the hotel and suddenly you’re on your home planet with your people. Everybody’s geeky, everybody’s into the things you’re into, and if they’re not, it’s just because they don’t know about it yet. And yeah, I love it. DragonCon is always the highlight of my year.
But my first one was in 2001, because I’m super-old, and after that, I went back several other times. And one of the . . . so in 2004, I think was the next one that I attended. And in 2004, I had the opportunity to meet a guy by the name of John Ringo, who—I didn’t know this at the time, I hadn’t read any of his work before meeting him—but he was a New York Times bestselling military science fiction author, also published by Bain Books, still is, as a matter of fact. And just talking with him, you know, he’s into MilSciFi, that’s his genre. And so, you know, we were talking about flying and about, you know, fandom and being geeks in the military and things like that. And he struck up a friendship with our group of friends that were, we were all there together, and we maintained an email correspondence. And I saw him at conventions, you know, a couple of years after that.
And then when I was deployed to Iraq in 2009, he emailed me and said, hey, I’m doing this, you know, I got asked to do this project, I’m editing this anthology of military science fiction by military veterans, and I want to include some new voices, along with some of the, you know, the reprints that we’ve done and things like that. And I know you just finished . . . so, the Air Force made me get a degree, a master’s degree, but they didn’t specify what it had to be, and so, I was like, all right, well, I’m going to get an MFA in writing, because screw you guys, I can do what I want. And so, John knew that I just finished that just, you know, because I had been like, hey, guess what, I’m done with my master’s. Right?
And he was like, “I know you just got your writing degree. Do you want to, do you have anything that you’d like to submit?” And I said, “No, but I could. Give me 24 hours.” And so, I wrote a story very quickly. But when you’re deployed, there’s very little to do. You really, like, you go to work, you fly, you go to the gym, you eat, and the rest of it is just kind of hanging-out time, right? And so, I just took that hanging-out time and knocked out this story. And it wasn’t very long. I think it was only, like, 5,000 words or something like that. But it was a cute little story. And I sent it in, and it became part of the anthology, you know, they accepted it for the anthology. And so, that was my first publication.
And then after that, Jim Minz, a couple of years later, once I was back in the States and again back at DragonCon, Jim Minz, you know, who also had, he was one of the editors on the product as well, came up to me and he was like, “So, when are you going have a novel for me? I’ve been waiting for it for a couple of years. And I was like, “Oh, well, let me get on that.” So, that was really the start of my career. I started doing, writing short stories for anthologies, again, mostly connected with John Ringo. He kind of like pulled me . . . and then I started, you know, branching out from there.
Before we go on to what you started writing at that point, I’m interested in the MFA because I’ve talked to other authors who have had, you know, that sort of formal creative writing training. And I get mixed reviews on how helpful it actually was. Was it helpful in your case? Did you find it very worthwhile?
So, aspects of it were helpful. Not necessarily from the standpoint of professional connections or anything like that, but like I said, the Air Force was going to make me get a master’s degree, and they were going to pay for it, and they didn’t really care what it was in. It was just kind of, almost like a box to be checked. So, I decided to do something, you know, knowing myself the way that I do, I really only want to spend energy and time on things that are interesting to me. And I knew that I wouldn’t, you know, if I tried to get, like, an aviation management degree, there would be aspects of it that were interesting, but there would be other aspects of it that would be deadly dull and that I would probably procrastinate and, you know, potentially not do very well. So instead, I chose to pursue the MFA in creative writing.
Where did you get that?
From National University. It’s a primarily online university that caters to a lot of military folks. I think they’re based out of San Diego. So not a real big, well-known name in academia or anything like that. But the program itself I really enjoyed. I found it to be . . . you know, because I think what I was trying to get out of it was one, just the piece of paper that said I had a master’s degree that the Air Force required, but two, I was just trying to have an enjoyable experience and kind of expand my toolbox, if you will. My concentration was in poetry, not in short fiction or . . . I mean, I guess you could kind of do a long fiction concentration . . . but I chose poetry, in part because I’ve always loved poetry. I’ve written it almost as long as I’ve written stories. And I find that a skillful . . . that a lot of the tips and techniques and, you know . . . what’s the word I’m looking for . . . just, the things that you do that make poetry poetry, can really inform your prose writing and really help to make it beautiful. So that’s why . . . well, and also poems are shorter. So again, less—typically. Not always. Sometimes they’re super long—but the graduation requirements were definitely shorter. Rather than writing a novel, I only had to write a book of 50 poems for me to complete my program. So that was a pretty big draw, too. You know, when you’re active-duty military and at the time a single mom, I was trying to balance out my requirements, and that was my strategic decision.
But I did. I loved it. Not because it necessarily got me anywhere in the publishing business, but for my own personal development. It taught me how to critique. It taught me how to take critique. And that’s probably the most immediately valuable lessons that I learned from that program, is how to how to give a constructive critique that is actually useful to the other individual and how to receive critique and to tell what’s constructive and what’s just, “Oh, I loved it. It’s great. You should write more,” you know, stuff like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with those kinds of comments. We love those kinds of comments, but they don’t necessarily help develop you as a writer.
Yeah, it’s like . . . my mom didn’t read my stuff, but my dad would, and he’d say it was great and, OK, but I need more than that to make it better in the future.
Your poetry that you were writing, did it have any fantastical element to it, or was it more straightforward?
Some did, yeah, some did. So, what I what I mostly wrote for the program was actually aviation-related because I was the only pilot in my group that was going through the program at the time and so, you know, write what you know, right? But also, not only write what you know but write about what makes you different and what makes you unique. And that’s sort of, you know, find that niche, that brand. And so, I ended up writing a lot of poetry about, I’m just thinking of my chapbook collection now, you know, a lot of it has to do with flying and, you know, being in the air force and, you know, what it’s like to fly in the daytime and nighttime and stuff like that.
So, this has nothing to do with writing a book. What drew you to helicopters as opposed to, say, fixed-wing?
They were more fun.
They’re more fun?
They seemed more fun. Yeah, no, before I went to pilot training, when I was a what’s called a casual lieutenant, I had already graduated from the Air Force Academy and been commissioned, but I was awaiting my pilot-training start date. I had the opportunity to ride on an MH-53 helicopter. It’s what the Air Force used to use for special operations. They’ve since retired that airframe. And I remember sitting on the back . . . so, it had, like, a ramp on the back, and it had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on that ramp. And we were out flying over a range. And I didn’t actually get to shoot that day, which made me very sad. But I did get to sit on the ramp next to the gunner. You know, he was sitting on one side of the weapon, and I was sitting on the other side and, you know, kicking my feet off the back of the ramp. While we’re flying 50 feet above the ground and it was pretty cool. I was like, yeah, this is a lot of fun. I want to do this.
Was it at least some of the feeling of flying on a dragon, do you think?
Oh, yeah, maybe. Maybe although, yeah, not necessarily that particular experience because we were going backward, you know, because I was sitting out the back. But sometimes, yeah, sometimes it has. You know, when you can feel . . . the thing about flying helicopters versus flying fixed-wing is that, you know, flying fixed-wing is about 50 percent art, 50 percent science, right? But flying helicopters is more like 70/30 art versus science. And the reason is because you do so much more of it, at least my helicopter. Now, I fly a UH-1 Huey, which, you know, was the quintessential Vietnam era helicopter, if that tells you anything. Every tail number that I fly was made in 1969. So, they are old birds, and we’re not talking cutting-edge technology in any sense of the word. And so, because of that, in part because of that, so much more, so much of what we do is, it’s our seat-of-the-pants muscle memory, like, you have to, it has to feel right.
And that, you know, when we’re teaching young aviators, half of what we’re teaching is just getting them to practice the maneuvers to the point where they can feel what feels right versus what feels wrong. And so, I think that when, you know, occasionally when you do a particular maneuver, and it feels just right, I think that it must be very similar to what that would feel like, you know, on the back of your own dragon to whom you were telepathically linked.
I’ve been sitting here trying to remember . . . I had characters in a helicopter in a book, two or three books ago in my current series. And so, I was researching helicopters because I’m not exactly an expert on the subject. And I went down a rabbit hole where I was reading helicopter jokes for about half an hour.
There’s a ton of them.
And unfortunately, I can’t remember any of them off the top of my head. I was going to try one on you, but . . .
Yeah, well, beating the air, we don’t fly, we beat the air into submission. That’s a very common one. Or, we don’t fly, we’re so ugly the Earth repels us.
Oh, yeah, I remember that. Yeah.
Oh, yeah. No, it’s there’s a, yeah, there’s a ton of helicopter jokes. And what’s so funny is that that, you know, like a lot of professions that, you know, have jokes about us, we tend to embrace those things. And helicopter aircrews as a whole, we have a reputation for being a little bit crazy. And what’s very interesting about that is that there’s some science to actually back that up. If you put our personality traits, and by our I mean society’s personality traits on a bell curve, helicopter aircrews are highly skewed to one end when it comes to traits of, like aggressiveness and, you know, adrenaline junkieness, whatever, whatever the proper term for that is. So, yeah, so there’s some data to back up the fact that we’re all crazy., Or you could just meet one of us and know that.
Well, taking us back to the writing side of things . . .
So, Jim Minz had suggested a novel to you, but your . . . was your first novel Minds of Man? Is that then your first novel? But that’s not a Baen book.
Yeah, no, well, no, so . . . not for lack of trying. It wasn’t. So my first . . . my first actual novel contract was with Baen, and it was for Gunpowder and Embers, which was a collaboration that I did with John Ringo and Christopher L. Smith. And that just came out last January. And while we were working on Gunpowder, and it was . . . we’d finished up the first draft, and it was in edits and development. I had this other idea to write a story about World War II aviation, but with female psychics on board.
As one does.
Right. Well, because so what got me thinking about it was, you know, I was thinking about how aircrew are kind of a different, you know . . . like a lot of subcultures, I’ll say, you know, we end up being kind of a different breed and having our own discreet ways of communicating with one another. And I kind of got to thinking about that. And then the other thing that happened was that we had an air show and I had the opportunity to see the inside of a B17 cockpit. And I’m used to flying with a relatively primitive aircraft. But I got nothing on those guys, man. I have no idea how they even navigated. I mean, it’s no wonder that they had an entire crew member whose sole job was to do navigation, because their navigation, you know, their tools that they had to use were so primitive, and to think that they took hundred-ship formations of this incredibly primitive aircraft, not just into the weather, but into the weather, out the other side, and then flew them in combat. It was, like, mind-boggling. I mean, just the amount of courage of those men who did that was, you know, it was flabbergasting when it dawned on me the magnitude of the task that they had accomplished and done so over and over and over again. And, you know, their loss rates were just staggering.
And so, I started thinking about that. And the reason I came up with the psychics was that one of the things that that could potentially compensate for, you know, in a way that we have compensated with technology, would be, you know, the instantaneous communication that a telepathic connection might provide, because . . . So, anyway, I got to thinking about that, and I decided to write a story, and it became Minds of Men. And did actually send it to Toni at Baen. And she sent it back saying, you know, “This is not for us.” It’s not for, you know, “It’s not the kind of thing that I think our readership would snap up.” However, she sent me some very, very valuable critique. And I will be forever grateful to her for that time and attention that she took to actually provide that for me instead of just saying, no thanks. And so, I took it and applied the critique. And I had recently been approached by Chris Kennedy of Chris Kennedy Publishing to do a novel in his and Mark Wandrey’s military science fiction shared world called The Four Horsemen Universe. And so, I decided to just ring him up, I guess, and say, “Hey, you know, would you be interested in looking at this?” He said, “Yeah, send it on over.” And the thing about Chris is that he’s an aviator, too, right? So, I think I kind of spoke to my audience there with that one and but yeah, he loved it. And so, I published it under Chris Kennedy’s Theogony imprint and, yeah, that was kind of the start of the Psyche of War series.
Well, we’ll take a closer look at that one as an example of your creative process. I did want to mention that I also had an opportunity to tour the inside of a B17 when it came to our local airport a couple of years ago. And my experience there, which I never thought I would have, was that this horrendous thunderstorm blew in, and we were all kind of stuck out there on the tarmac. And I’m standing under the wing of an all-aluminum airplane while lightning is cracking around and the rain’s pouring down. And I’m thinking, “I’m not sure this is the best place we could be at this moment, but . . .I have video of it somewhere. My daughter was with me, and she was quite concerned. And I wasn’t terribly happy myself.
Oh, poor girl, yeah.
But the other thing I want to mention that navigation was that my wife’s grandfather, my grandfather in law, was a First World War navigator on a Handley Page bomber. These things had an 80-foot wingspan. They were enormous. But you talk about your primitive navigation, it was mostly . . . we actually have, we actually have his notebook from when he was at navigation school, and he was like one of the top-ranking students when he was in the navigation school in the Royal Air Force. But a lot of it went down to was, “Do you recognize that church steeple over there on the horizon?”
’Cause that’s the target, right?
So, that was interesting.
Yeah. So, by the time World War Two had rolled around, they had very, very basic radio navigation available. But what they would do is, they would call on the radio to a station and get a ping and then the navigator would plot the information that they got from that ping and then just triangulate their position from there. And then, they used a lot of dead reckoning, which, you know, that’s just following, you know, flying this direction over the map for a given period of time should put us here if we maintain a constant speed. And yeah, it was just it was insane. I’ll take my GPS, thank you very much.
I always found the word “dead” in dead reckoning to be a little alarming.
It’s slightly ominous for sure, especially when we’re talking about dead reckoning into combat. Right.
So, you sort of talked about where the idea for Minds of Men came from, and you gave a hint of it. But do you want to give a bit more of a synopsis of it and then we’ll talk about it?
Yeah, so the synopsis of Minds of Men is, essentially, it’s 1943 and 8th Air Force bombers are flying out of England and they’re, you know, they’re just getting their lunch eaten by the Luftwaffe fighters because they didn’t have a long-range fighter escort that had the capability to take them all the way to their target and back. So, they were particularly vulnerable during, you know, during part of their sortie. And their loss rates were just incredible and staggering, if you actually go and read those numbers and think about, you know, how many men that represents. And in this, like I said, in this world, some women—and they’re all women because I’m sorry, I’m sexist—but some women have the ability to create psychic connections with other people and communicate with them telepathically. And one of these Air Force generals knows about it because his wife is one of these women. So they end up, you know, doing a super-secret recruiting drive, essentially, and come up with 20 women powerful enough to do this job, who end up flying with these bomber crews out of England, helping them to maintain closer formation, better formation integrity, helping them to respond quicker to, you know, threats and things like that. And that ups their success rate, but at what kind of cost, right? Because now, these women are not only experiencing the hell of warfare for themselves, but they’re experiencing it tenfold because they’re experiencing it through the minds of each of their crew members, too. And then, of course, as is every aircrew member’s nightmare, you know, at some point the main character gets shot down. And so now, she’s stuck in occupied Europe, you know, with her surviving crew, trying to find her surviving crew members from the crash. And they’re having to escape and evade their way through occupied Europe, all while being chased by . . . because it turns out that the Germans have psychics, too. So, there’s a team of German Fallschirmjäger and a psychic woman who is pursuing them.
The latter half of the book was actually a lot of fun to write. Well, the whole thing was pretty fun to write, but I really enjoyed doing the research for the latter half of the book because I really got to dig into some of the stories about resistance-led escape lines that ran throughout Europe in the Second World War. And these were organizations that would help, not just allied airmen, but they actually started, really, helping to repatriate soldiers stranded by the evacuation of Europe, you know, ones who couldn’t get out at Dunkirk, essentially. At least, that’s when one of the Belgian lines that I researched started. And they would smuggle these, you know, these allied airmen and soldiers through the Nazi lines and, you know, take them on trains and try to get them out, either get them out to sea to get picked up by, usually, Royal Navy destroyers, or over the Pyrenees into ostensibly neutral Spain and get them picked up at the British embassy there. So really fascinating stuff and it was a lot of fun to right, you know, to kind of combine those stories and put it in my own.
Well, so, what . . . that kind of brings you out to the next question. Well, first of all, you said, you know, as a helicopter pilot, you’re kind of a seat of the pants flyer. Are you also a seat of the pants writer, or are you a detailed outliner?
So, that aspect of my style is sort of evolving, honestly. And I do a lot of collaboration, and I find that when working with another author, a detailed outline is actually really helpful because it allows you to say, “OK, well, you know, I’m going to go away, and I’m going to work on this part of the outline. I’m going to bring it back. And here it is.” And then, you know, you can just get more done that way if you agree ahead of time where you’re going with the story. So, you don’t have surprises. For myself, I would say that I’m an outliner, but I outline in phases. I don’t do the whole thing right up front, all right, like the outline of the first act and then I’ll write the first act and kind of see how it’s going, and then I’ll figure out, “OK, where am I going to go in the second act?” And so, I kind of do it in chunks, if that makes sense.
And once you have the outline, what is your actual writing process. Do you write, you know, with a quill pen under a tree or . . .
No, I use my laptop.
Well, being a poet, you ever know.
Right? Yeah. No, I, I use my laptop. I actually, I enjoy Scrivner. It’s a program . . .
Yeah. I have it, and haven’t climbed the learning curve yet to use it, but I have it.
It is steep, the learning curve is steep. I got it. And I went ahead and said, “OK, you know, I paid for this program, I’m going to learn how to use it.” And I dedicated two days and just went through the tutorials. And it took that long, but I’m glad that I did it because, you know, it walked me through all of the functionality. And I’ve since forgotten a lot of it because I don’t, you know, it’s a very, very capable program. And I don’t use, you know, I probably only use about two-thirds of what it’s actually able to do. But, yeah, I like it a lot. I like the flexibility that it gives me to move things around and kind of see, “OK, this is where this is,” and, you know, link characters to different things and stuff. So. Yeah. I use Scrivener.
Do you write sequentially.
Yeah, most of the time I have to. When I don’t, it’s usually because I’m dead stuck, and I’ve just, I’ve got to skip a part and go on and come back and fill it in. But for the most part, I write sequentially. The challenge for me is always, like I think it is for many people, you know, who have day jobs and families and stuff, is always finding that balance to, you know, time to dedicate to sit down and do the writing. And not just the time, but the energy, you know, because I could for sure sit down every night at 10:00 and write for an hour, but by that time, a lot of times I’m so exhausted that, you know, what would be the point, right? I don’t know that I’d get anything useful out of it.
Yeah, it does take energy to write. I’m not . . . you know, people think you just sit there and type, but it actually takes a lot of energy to write.
Right. Right. And it’s the mental energy, which is the kind that, like, just gets sucked out of you if you have a boring day at work or whatever. So, for me, what I’ve found is that I have to have a very low but consistent daily word-count goal. And I have to keep that habit up of writing. So, mine, it’s . . . I don’t even know if it’s the goal, but my minimum is that every day, no matter how exhausted I am, I need to sit down and write 100 words, just 100 words. And if I get to 100 words, and I’m exhausted, and I want to quit, I’ll allow myself to quit and just say, “OK, this was a lower day.” But just like with . . . and I actually heard of this technique in regards to exercise, actually, where people are like, “Oh, I don’t really want to go to exercise, but let me, you know, let me get on the bike for ten minutes. And after ten minutes, if I want to quit, I let myself quit.” But most of the time, you know, by the time you’re 10 minutes in or, in the case of writing, by the time you’re a hundred words in, you know, there’s more going on in your head, and there’s more that’s ready to come out. And so, you end up getting a little bit more than that, at least.
So, my productivity has definitely fallen off this year. Like, you know, I think a lot of us who write, that’s been the case. At least, you know, among people that I’ve talked to, that’s been the case. And using this technique of forgiving myself and just being like, all right, you know, I’m going to keep, as long as I’m moving forward, forward progress is forward progress. We’re not going to harp on how much forward progress we’re getting. It’s been working for me.
Once you have a draft, what does your revision process look like?
So, I do the thing that most people say you shouldn’t do, and I edit as I go, but I do that because I, I can’t . . . it just bothers me. It bothers me to not do it. So, I do, I edit as I go. So, once I have a draft, it’s usually fairly clean. I will read through it one more time out loud because I find that that helps me catch typos, and more importantly, it helps me catch repeated words that I, you know, use too often.
Yeah, reading out loud is a great way to find things. Better to find it while you’re writing it than when you’re doing a public reading later, which is when I usually find those things. Oh, I wish I’d change that before it went into print.
That’s not what I said. Yeah. And that was another tip from Toni Weiskopf from Baen Books. So, it was read it out loud and listen to, you know, listen to how it flows and how it sounds and stuff. So, I will I’ll read through the draft out loud, start to finish, and make any changes that I, you know, that I find needs making there. And then from there, I usually send it off to the editor and let the editor, you know, take a look.
So, you don’t have any beta readers or anything like that?
Well, no, that’s not true, I do. It depends on the project, right? So . . . and again, a lot of times, you know, other than the Psyche of War series, a lot of my novels have been collaborations. So, you know, a lot of times I will bounce the ideas or . . . not the ideas, but I’ll go through it, and then my co-author will go through it, is what I’m trying to say. And sometimes, we have beta readers. But sometimes, you know, like I said, it just goes straight to the editor. A lot of times lately, we’ve been working very under, very, you know, right up to the deadlines. So, not the best practice, but . . .
But it’s an extremely common one. Let me tell you.
For Gunpowder, we had beta readers, for Second Chance Angel, we had beta readers. So, I had some beta readers for Minds of Men. I didn’t for World Asunder because I was late on it. So, it was like, all right, get it done, make sure it’s clean, send it to the editor.
What kind of editorial feedback do you get back typically?
Oh, again, you know, it varies. For Second Chance Angel, Griffin and I had the wonderful experience of working with . . . oh, I’m going to not remember her last name . . . our editor, Betsy. She’s a fantastic editor who’s been in the business for years and years. And she worked with us on a developmental level. And so, with her, you know, we sent her the draft, and she came back, and it was it was very much a conversation kind of . . . modality, I guess. You know, where it was like, all right, so, you know, “I have questions about this. What if you did this to this part?” or “What would you think about this?” or “This part threw me out, you know, of the story.” “How can you make this . . . how can you tie this back in?” And she had some . . . you know, one of the major, one of the best suggestions she gave us was, you know, Second Chance Angel is a post-war, post-galactic-war story. And Betsy, she came back, and she said, “Look, I think that what you really need to do is make a timeline of the war so that you have it very clear on how all of these things, you know, kind of came to be. It doesn’t necessarily have to be included in the text, but you guys need to know it,” and, you know, things like that. On the developmental level, some of my work, when I get edits back, it’s really just, like, copyedit-level stuff. And I find that, I get that. So, with my Psyche of War series, because it’s alternate history, I don’t have to do a lot of worldbuilding because it’s our world, there’s just psychics in it, right? So, I find that the more—maybe I’m just weak in worldbuilding—the more worldbuilding I have to do, the more, like, developmental-edit type feedback I get, whereas when there’s not that much worldbuilding to do, it’s really more on the copyeditor level, if that makes sense. And I’m happy to have it both.
You’re talking a little bit about Second Chance Angel, and that’s the other one we want to mention. I’m actually talking to your co-author, Griffin . . .
. . . actually, this week, as we’re speaking, in just a few days, I’ll be talking to him, too. So, maybe . . .
He’s a riot. You’re going to have a good time.
Maybe a quick synopsis of that one, and then we’ll talk about it a little bit.
OK, so, Second Chance Angel is a sci-fi noir thriller that Griffin Barber and I co-wrote together, and it is the story, like I said, it’s a story set in the aftermath of a great galactic war, where humans essentially joined this war on the side of this alien race, kind of mysterious alien race, that we call the Mentors. And one of ways that the Mentors enticed humanity to come into the war on their side was by offering these cybernetic upgrades that require artificial intelligence to run the upgrades or to maintain the modifications. And so, these . . . they have these AIs that were written as personal AIs that inhabit the body with the person. And it should kind of just be transparent. But one of our characters is actually one of these AIs that we call angels. And so Ralston Muck is a down-on-his-uck veteran bouncer who’s had his angel removed . . .
That’s a great name, by the way, Ralston Muck.
Yeah, that was Griffin’s idea. It’s very noir.
So, he finds himself, you know, mixed up in, and went, you know, when a singer at the club that he works at disappears and he finds himself in a position of having to go look for her and having to work with her personal AI to go find her. You know, they kind of slip into, uncover some seedy underworld stuff, as you know, as noir stories do. And, yeah, so that’s sort of the synopsis of the book is that they’re trying to find Siren . . .
Oddly enough, I just watched Chinatown last night. You know, it’s only been out for, what, 50 years and I’ve never watched it, so . . .
Well, it’s such a great movie. Yeah, it’s . . . I love the noir subgenre and Second Chance Angel for both Griffin and I is sort of our love letter, too, to the noir subgenre. A couple of years back, when I really got into it, I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, and I just I fell in love with the way that that guy could turn a phrase, you know, and the way that he would create these characters and make them, you know, just real people, just by the words that they would say and the comparisons that they would draw, you know. And so, yeah, I, I love it. I love the aesthetics of it. And so does Griffin. And so, we decided to write a book and make it noir.
And how did you do that? Did you write, like, one chapter, alternating chapters, or exactly how did that work?
Kind of, yeah. So, in the book, we have essentially three points of view represented. So, one of the noir tropes is that, you know, you have this first-person point of view narration, which has its advantages and it has its disadvantages. One of the advantages is that you can really do some cool, like, unreliable-narrator type stuff that way, right? And we did do some of that. But one of the disadvantages is that it’s by necessity a very tight POV. You know, there’s only so much that you can do. So, what we did was, we had both Angel and Muck in first person POV, and I essentially wrote Angel’s Point of View, and Griffin wrote Muck. And there was some overlap. And sometimes where we, you know, did one or the other. But for the most part, that’s how it came about. And then, kind of to address that that disadvantage, you know, we realized that there was another dimension to the story that we needed to tell. And so, we did that through some of the additional AIs that are not necessarily personal augmentation eyes like Angel, but, like, the AI that is running the admin for the space station and the AI that is the law enforcement officer AI. We rolled them in and used them to tell part of the story, too, from a third-person point-of-view perspective.
Well, it sounds quite fascinating.
Yeah, it was fun. It was . . . it kind of came about organically, you know, we didn’t sit down and say, “OK, you’re going to do this, and you’re going to do this.” It was just sort of like, “Well, here, let me see. Well, I think this is how Angel would react,” and was like, “Oh, OK, well, this is what Mike would do next and just sort of went from there.”
Well, getting close to the end of the time here. So, time to turn my attention to the big philosophical question, which is . . .
Dum dum dum.
Yeah, exactly. Why, why? Why do this? Why write? Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes? Why do we tell stories, and why specifically stories of science fiction and fantasy?
Oh, OK, well, those are a lot of questions.
I like to pretend it’s just one, but it’s actually more than one.
Yeah, really. So, the reason that I write? I write like I breathe, right? You know, I kind of alluded to this earlier when I was talking about being a little kid, and I’ve never not made up stories. I don’t know how to process life without making up stories. And I think that that’s on some level true for us as a human race. We are in so many ways defined by our stories, the stories that we tell, the stories that we remember, what we choose to remember, what we choose to forget. I think that stories are an essential part of the human experience. And because, you know, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I can tell you a story that is similar to something that you’ve experienced and that then becomes a point of connection between us. And I think that that’s something that was very important for us as humans to do, is to connect with one another, you know. So, I think that we write for all of those reasons, you know, because that’s part of what makes us who we are.
Why stories of the fantastic?
Because that also makes this part of who we are. Because we, you know, we have the amazing ability to not just talk about what is but what could be, and to get excited about what could be and to inspire ourselves and each other and. And so, I think that, you know, there’s great joy to be had there, in telling stories of the fantastic, whether it be in science fiction or in fantasy or even in, you know, even in the darker stuff, like the horror and the noir and . . .you know, they’re two very different things, but they’re all ways of processing this experience, right, so . . . you know, it’s like dark humor, for example. I mean, I’ve been in the military for 20 years, and I have a very dark sense of humor, and most of my friends have a very dark sense of humor. And, you know, the same is true of first responders who work where they see terrible things all the time, police officers who have to deal with domestic violence and social workers who have to go into these situations and stuff. One of the major coping mechanisms for all of this is dark humor, is the ability to laugh so that you don’t cry.
And I think that, you know, there’s so much out there that frightens us as humans, even, you know, even, you want to talk even on an evolutionary level, like, we’re not the biggest, baddest animal out there. We don’t have super-sharp teeth or super-sharp claws we can’t see in the dark. But what we do have is our mind and our imagination. And we have this, like I said, this ability to tell stories and this ability to inspire each other and this ability to think beyond what is, to see what could be. And that is our great evolutionary advantage. And so, you know, even taking something that’s dark and turning it into our own story, you know, telling a story about it, makes it a little bit more accessible, and it gives us the ability to process the emotions that come with fear a little bit better, in fact. I don’t know if any of that made sense.
It made sense to me.
OK, good. I’m glad.
What are you working on now?
So, Griffin and I are . . . we have started the sequel to Second Chance Angel, which . . . Second Chance Angel releases, if you don’t mind me saying this, Angel releases on September 8, which is today for me while we’re recording this, I’m not sure when this will go up, but here in Japan, it’s already release day. So, yeah, happy release day!
It will have been out for some time before this goes live.
Good. You guys can just be part of my retroactive celebration! So, we’ve started the sequel, which is called The Third Sin, and we’re about three chapters into that. I’m also working on the third book in my Psyche of War series, which is a story set in the Vietnam era. And I’m working on a sequel to Gunpowder and Embers, started outlining that, and a couple of short stories and stuff. So, I’ve got a lot of projects.
And where can people find you online? I mentioned the website off the top. Oh, I should say that’s . . . better spell that.
Yeah. So, my website kaceyezell.net. That’s sort of the hub for where you can find me. You can go there and find lists of all my books, all my social media links, and join my mailing list, actually. And if you do that, you get, like, two free stories. So, there’s that as well, if you’re into that sort of thing. But also, I’m available on Instagram at KaceyEzell and then Facebook at KaceyEzell, too. So that’s kind of usually where I’m most interactive on social media is Instagram and Facebook.
OK, great. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.
I did! Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun to talk to you.