An hour-long conversation with Christian (Miles) Cameron, author of more than forty novels, including the just-released epic space opera Artifact Space (Gollancz).
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.
The Automated, Lightly Edited Transcript
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So, Christian, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Well, thanks for having me. Should I call you Edward or Ed?
Ed is typical. Edward is my formal byline. Ed is what most people call me. And Eddie is what people called me until I left my hometown, so when somebody that calls me Eddie, I always know they knew me back in Weyburn when I was a kid or a newspaper reporter there.
So, what is a very useful, fabulous lesson I learned from my grandmother was to never refer to anyone by their diminutive unless they told me to.
Yeah, that’s good advice. So, I’m very happy to have you on. You have a very interesting background and an amazing collection of books. And we do share a connection through Mickey Mikkelsen at Creative Edge Publicity.
And I always look for connections. This is not much of a connection, but I know that you were in the Navy in the US and I have a nephew who was in the Navy. And I know that the new book that you’re going to talk about had some inspiration from aircraft carriers. And my nephew served on the Harry S. Truman for, I think, two tours. So, there you go. That’s not much of a connection but it’s something.
So, here’s our age difference. Your nephew would have been going on board an aircraft carrier that I’m pretty sure was commissioned the year I left the Navy.
Well, he’s quite . . . I think he’s quite young, actually. I guess he’s forty something now, but we won’t talk about age too much. I’m pretty sure I’m still older than you. So anyway, so let’s start, as I always like to do with my guests, taking you back into the mists of time, and find out a little bit about your background and, you know, where you were born and grew up and how you got interested in writing—it usually starts with reading for most of us—and especially in writing . . .I mean, I know you write historical fiction as well, but especially in writing fantasy and science fiction stories. How did that all come about for you?
So, I was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the USA, and I’m going to drop a dime right off on my mum. My mother was an actress and a voice actress or actor, we say now, her whole career. And one of the things that she was just glorious at was reading books aloud. And she read me The Hobbit when I was, I think, five. And it was such a success. We were in Tobermory in Canada on summer vacation and she read The Hobbit. And some days my dad would read to and, you know, he was an actor and a director and also had a good voice. And it was such a success that we moved straight on to The Lord of the Rings. And I fully admit that I did not really understand very much of The Lord of the Rings at age six or seven, but I really loved it. And I still, when I reread The Hobbit and I still reread The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, I can both hear my mom’s voice. But also remember just the sheer sense of wonder, like I could never go back.
And I’ll just add this story when I was in first grade, so, like seven. The year after being read The Hobbit during summer vacation, we were learning to read like good little first graders in Iowa. And I lived in Iowa at the time. And they handed us these terrible storybooks. And I was like, my mom just read me The Lord of the Rings. I don’t care about Mr. Penguin. And I don’t think I ever went back to Mr. Penguin. And that actually caused me some troubles in first grade. But anyway, that’s where my love of fantasy started. It was like the first book I can remember, and I started right from there.
And continued. Any other books growing up that had that kind of impact on you?
Yeah, so weirdly, I mean, this may be too much information, but I was kind of late to reading. I was a very outdoorsy kid. You know, I’d spend my summers on a farm in upstate New York and where my grandmother, in a very traditional and somewhat 1930s way, would sort of kick me out of the house at nine in the morning and say, don’t come back till four thirty and that sort of thing. That sounds terrible. It was actually quite loving and fun. And I learned to, you know, make a fire and make my own cup of tea and all those things. So, my dad was worried that I wasn’t reading enough. And so, I think at age 10 or 11, he offered to buy me a model I wanted to build if I would read this book. And he handed me a copy of The Three Musketeers, which he had paid a quarter for at our church sale. And man, what a revelation. It turned out that The Lord of the Rings wasn’t the only book in the world. And, you know, I read The Three Musketeers because I was made to and then I can’t remember ever not reading again.
And my dad was a writer. I don’t know if you’re aware of that, but my dad was a writer his whole life. He just passed away a couple of months ago. And part of being a writer in those days, I kind of wish it still was, was that his various agents and publishers would just send him crates of books, not his own books, other people’s books from the same publisher. And so, we would always have these crates of books laying around the house with kind of utterly random books like romance novels, mystery novels, crime novels, thrillers, potboilers that no 14-year-old should have been reading at the time. And I would just read my way through the latest crate of books, and that caused me to kind of love genre fiction of all kinds, not just fantasy. And it also probably helped my vocabulary. And mostly it really caused me to fall in love with historical fiction and a particular writer, Dorothy Dunnett, whose work I still think is amongst the best ever, ever done.
So, when did you start writing?
Well, so, when I was 17, I wrote a novel, which I still have right here in this house, and you will never see it.
My first one’s right here on my on my desk.
Good. Well, it was my attempt to channel the American Revolution, which I was in love with because I had started re-enacting, as a fantasy novel with vampires. Need I say more now?
Abraham Lincoln with vampires. Wasn’t that a movie not that long ago? Wrong war, I know, but . . .
So. Yeah, well, this was more sort of George Washington with vampires. But even then, even that’s not really fair because it wasn’t really the American Revolution. It was a sort of fantasy. Eighteenth century. I don’t know if you’ve ever read Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, but she did it much better than I did anyway. It was really bad. But I keep it around from time to time and look at it and go like, “Wow, that’s really bad.” And that was my first attempt to write a full-length novel. And I hand wrote it on notebook paper and it was 217 pages long. So, I figured, OK, I could write a whole book.
And then, when I was in the Navy later, on night watches sorry, Navy Anti-Terrorist Alert Center, we copied in message traffic that had to do with terrorism from all over the world. And we basically built a file for senior politicians and military leaders to read in the morning. And so, it was a night watch that was important and involved a whole lot of, like, reading and analyzing. But some nights, thank goodness, there was no terrorism. And I finally sat down and wrote a novel which we will call Elves in Space. And it was also really, really bad. I was trying to be C.J. Cherryh and it turns out nobody can be C.J. Cherryh but C.J. Cherryh. So, you know, there you go.
And that was the end of my writing career until an afternoon camping with my dad. We were fishing in the Adirondack Mountains. And I said, “Dad, I have an idea for a novel.” Now, I would say that to my dad sort of every summer because he wrote novels and I always meant for him to write them. And when I said this, I was a full-time clandestine operations officer, which is like being a spy. And I had had an idea for a spy novel. And my dad said, he would always say, “You should write it.” And I feel like, “I’m not a writer. You’re the writer.” And then on this occasion, he said, “We should write it.” I’m like, “Whoa, that’s a great idea,” so we wrote that novel together and then we wrote seven more books together and we published all of them, and that’s how I became a writer.
Well, that long stretch in there when you weren’t writing, you were clearly doing some very interesting things. What else are you doing through there besides writing?
The truth is, I was writing a ton. So, being an intelligence analyst, which I was first, is really all writing. And, in fact, if you think of the Navy Anti-Terrorist Alert Center as a newspaper that just happens to be highly classified, you’d pretty much have it pegged. So, we were responsible—and this is like 30 analysts and some other officers—we were responsible for producing 50 to 100 pages of articles a day. And I was eventually the commanding officer of that, and that made me the editor of a newspaper, but before that I was just one of the analysts that, I would write articles all day, every day that the various, the sort of editorial staff, would decide if my articles were worth reading or not. So, that was like an incredible training school in writing quickly and accurately, in doing research and doing research that was accurate. And yeah, so that was writing. But yeah, I did other things before that. I flew off an aircraft carrier for three years. I don’t think that’s what my detailer thought I was going to do. Detailers in the Navy are the people who assign you your career. I was supposed to be an intelligence officer, but my squadron commander, thank heavens, decided that I would be better utilized learning how to run radars and sit in the back seat of an airplane and do things. And by sheer luck, and I have been a very lucky person, and by sheer luck, the skills that I sort of trained in were very valuable in the first Gulf War.
So, I got to fly a lot. And that was really exciting and interesting and way more what I joined the Navy for than the being an intel officer, being an analyst was. And so, I did that for a number of years and that was very interesting. And I got to go to see and, you know, I don’t know if you’ve read a lot of my books, but I love the ocean and I love being at sea and sort of living on an aircraft carrier is the best way to be a tourist. We went all over the Mediterranean and Middle East and stopped at dozens of liberty ports. And I really enjoyed that. I had never been outside the United States except to go to Canada when I joined the Navy. And suddenly, I was in France and Israel and Spain and Italy and Palmerton, America and Jerusalem. And it was just fabulous. I really enjoyed to travel and I still do. And I think travel is incredibly formative. So that was all good. And then, yes, I was after that at the Anti-Terrorist Alert Center. I sort of went to the darker side of intelligence operations, and it is a little bit dark, where you recruit assets and do all that spy stuff, which I then did for some number of years before falling in love with a Canadian, marrying her and moving to Canada. The End.
It was going to ask about your connection to Canada as well.
Yeah. So probably my greatest lifetime passion, in addition to writing, is re-enacting. And for thirty-five years I re-enacted the American Revolution and I have almost always done either British or Loyalists, not so-called Americans or Patriots or whatever you want to call it, the side that ended up winning the war and forming the United States. Continentals, we might call them. And because of that, I spent a lot of time with aCanadian group called the Kings Royal Regiment of New York, which is a name that always makes Americans smile, Kings Royal Regiment of New York. But it was a real loyalist regiment during the American Revolution that fought bravely to protect their homes from the insurgent rabble who were trying to burn them out of the Mohawk Valley. I mean, that’s one way of telling the story. And they were Canadian, and I spent a lot of time with them. And eventually, I married one.
I’m going to go back to the the analyst work, I was a newspaper reporter and a newspaper editor, you know, not classified, but what I found during those years when I was doing that was, you know, that writing every day . . . and it didn’t matter that you weren’t writing fiction, just the mere act of putting words down on paper . . . I always found very helpful. Has that been, looking back on it, do you think that really was a huge contributor to your ability to, obviously, tell stories prolifically?
Now I do. And what I’m about to say may go against the grain for some readers. And I apologize. I don’t I mean, no offense to anyone, but I believe that the fact that I almost never have anything even vaguely resembling writer’s block is because the Navy taught me to write every day whether I was happy or sad, hungover or feeling great, whether I’d had my workout or not, had my workout, whether it was four-thirty in the morning or four-thirty in the afternoon, because I had a daily production quota. And it’s the military. No one cares whether you feel good. That’s not really true. I always had pretty good commanding officers, but you have to produce whether you’re feeling good or not. And that turned out to be a very useful lesson.
Well, the newspaper business is similar because the newspaper comes out on a specific . . . it was a weekly, but it came out on a specific day at a specific time, and you had to have the stuff ready. There just wasn’t any other option. So, I’ve always said that that work helped me not have writer’s block either. So, it’s interesting to hear. Did you ever have any formal fiction writing, training of any kind?
None whatsoever. I when I was in university, I had a fabulous poetry-writing course at the time I wanted to be a poet. Just let’s blur past that. But let’s just put that in the same drawer with the not-very-good first two novels I wrote, some not-very-good poetry. I wrote a couple of pretty decent poems and convinced myself I was going to be a great poet. Many people do, I find. But that class taught me a great deal of what I know about writing, sorry, about what I know about writing imagery. And, you know, writing imagery is a definite tool of the trade. I will confess to you that my dad, who, like I say, was a professional writer and who taught university for most of my adult life, was contemptuous, would be a good word, of writing courses and believed things that I don’t necessarily believe myself, and yet I probably have been influenced by them about, you know, learning to write and the relative importance of, let’s say, a university degree or university training and writing as opposed to rich life experience or whatever. And so, no, I assumed all that. I did medieval history in university.
When you started writing with your dad, were those historical novels?
No, those were spy novels.
We wrote eight of them together, which was super funny because I was, in fact, an intelligence officer while I wrote the first three of them, like an actual functioning intelligence officer. So, every word I wrote had to be passed through a security program before it could be published. And that that was an additional wicket that no author needs to have ever.
And I also want to ask you about the other thing I found on your Web site, looking at what you have to say there, and that’s the martial arts and historical combat aspect of all this. It seems like you’ve tried a lot of different kinds of martial endeavors.
Yeah, I did that . . . again, at the risk of sounding like a maverick, I think at some level they’re all kind of the same. They’re all simulations. And the more of them I do, the more I think like, “Oh, this is kind of like that one, which probably just shows what a dilettante I am.” Yeah. I started fencing after I watched a movie of The Three Musketeers when I was twelve years old, with Michael York and Michael Walsh.
I love that one!
Yeah, well, it’s probably got some of the best fight sequences in terms of authenticity ever filmed, because William Hobbs was the fight director and he was incredible. However, what I was going to say is, my dad, who is always full of surprises, revealed after the movie was over that he, in fact, had done a fair amount of fencing and stage combat and would I like to learn? And I’m like, “Yes!” So, we made swords out of aluminum because that’s what dad knew from the stage-fighting world. And we broke each other’s fingers for a while. That wasn’t so good. And then, I mean, it was totally fun. And then I went into the world of what we now call classical fencing or Olympic fencing, which I enjoyed thoroughly. And I was not quite good enough to make the big time, but I was pretty good.
And then, I don’t know, I sort of dropped the whole thing for a few years. And when I was in the Navy, of all things, I found lots of fencers in Washington, D.C., and went back to fencing. And I’ve never stopped since then. And so. in the ’90s, what we now call Western martial arts, which is not a term I particularly love, suddenly got very popular and people started researching all of the old European techniques. So ,I think when we say martial arts to each other, we conjure up visions of samurai and, you know, sort of Asian martial arts, and goodness knows, I’ve done some Asian martial arts and found them very enjoyable, I can do Aikido and I’ve dabbled in a couple of others. And they are most excellent. Um, but the little historian in me, the little re-enactor in me. I always had questions., I’m going to use Kendo as an example, and I was like, “I don’t think this is the way you would train to fight with a katana, any more than the fencing foil is the way you would learn to fight with a small sword or a rapier. I think this is pretty fossilized,” I thought.
Now, it turns out that now there are fabulous researchers in Japan and Korea and other places who are doing all the research to indicate what the roots of Asian martial arts are. But that wasn’t sort of around in the 1970s and 80s. And so, I was sort of just swimming along in the in the cultural artifacts of the time. Yeah, I can probably go on for too long about martial arts. I did some of them. And then I mostly continue doing Western or European fencing until the historical martial arts movement caught me. And then I was really excited. And I’ve landed in the 14th century Italian art of fighting and armor, which I adore, and which to me is sort of the culmination of all the things I ever tried to learn. And it’s I won’t say it’s sad. It’s just real life. But I’m about to age out of it. You know, I’ll be 60 in a year. I’m a little more brittle. I don’t bounce as well. Wearing 80 pounds of chain and plate is a little harder than it is for the 35-year-olds.
I think I’m three years older than you, so . . .
Yeah, and the last couple of times I fought in a big competition . . . so, speed degrades. Everybody knows this, from runners to tennis players, but the skill will compensate for speed up to a point. And then, yeah, last couple of competitions, I sort of hit a point where it’s like, oh, I see, any 25-year-old who’s fast can now pretty much beat me unless I’m boringly super cautious, which is sadly not my normal characteristic. So, that’s fine. I don’t mind losing. I do mind always losing. I’d like someone to create a seniors’ league for old knights. But anyway, it is great fun. It is, of cours,e a huge part of my writing. And yet I want to say to your listeners that to me it is key to understand that every martial art ever. No matter how it bills itself, they’re all simulations, none of them are real, none of them are like real fighting. And that that’s super important to remember as a writer. Like, you can get structure and so on out of. Almost any martial art, and you can imagine how a fight would work, and that’s extremely useful, and I think the more fighting you do, the easier it is to imagine this happens than this happens. And this happens in logical terms that are easier to write. All that is true. But years ago, I received a damning piece of praise from an SS officer in Great Britain who wrote and said, “I love your Greek novels, but you got to know that all of us who have actually killed people hand to hand, we don’t remember how we did it and we don’t think about it when we’re doing it.” And I was like, “Yeah,” and I’ve now heard that from enough other people. So, all of this careful description, especially first person, like, “I did this and then I did this and I did this.” Yeah. That’s not what happens in their mind. And it’s all got a certain element of construct to it.
There’s a group in Vancouver that does sword fighting and all that sort of thing, and I was at a convention out there and I actually somehow ended up on a panel about writing, writing fight scenes with all these people who actually did all of that. And one of the comments that came up at some point was, well, you know, everything happened so fast that you don’t necessarily need to describe all of that detail, depending on your readers are, I guess, and what they’re expecting. But I think what my take-away was, if you can’t be accurate, be vague. That’s what I came away with.
Yes. It seems it’s it’s funny. Maybe it’s not funny, but I have started to write more and more . . . sorry. There’s an author whose work I love named Patrick O’Brien, he writes historical fiction, wrote historical fiction. And he had a tendency to elide over fight scenes. He had a tendency to say like, “And then it happened and then so and so was dead,” and that can be very effective and I’ve now found times when that’s how I want to write it, especially because, and this is, “I’m going to stand on a soapbox here and it might be boring, but there’s a cultural meme throughout the English speaking world, which I’m just not that fond of, and that is that whether it’s James Bond or Captain America, the hero has to have the crap beaten out of him before he can win the fight. Ah, you know what I’m talking about.
And sadly, my experience of both martial arts and actual war suggests to me that that’s nonsense. If you get the crap beaten out of you, you lose the fight. And I just can’t write those scenes. So instead, I’ve started wandering off in the direction of fight scenes where the more skilled person just wins, which is fast and often maybe a little dull. And as I said on a panel at Worldcon a couple of years ago, you know, “Sometimes writing a fight scene should be like writing about a master carpenter using a hammer, which is not that exciting, you know, and then he hit another perfectly placed nail perfectly and then another one.” And we’re titillated by the idea of violence. But like, when you watch somebody who’s really good . . . I once watched a Navy SEAL use a submachine gun on a target range. And I had never fired a submachine gun at the time. And I had a great deal of trouble hitting a man-sized target at about fifty feet. And they called in this guy whose name I never learned, and he in one magazine put two or three rounds into each of five man-sized targets just by sort of waving his gun over it. And I said, tried to say something witty, like, “That wasn’t luck, was it?” And everybody just looked at me and I thought, Like, I see. That’s what you guys spend your life learning to do. And that’s why people like me would just die entering a room there. And I know that doesn’t make a good story because the plucky hero is supposed to be able to overcome years of skill with bravery. But yeah, anyway, it’s my soapbox.
OK, well, let’s go out and talk about your writing process, and we are going to focus on the new science fiction novel that’s coming out in June, called Artifact Space. And maybe the first thing to do is to give a brief description of it so people will want to rush out and read it.
Well, so, we all love genre titles. And I’m going to say unashamedly it’s space opera and it’s space opera based on four things. Hopefully this will excite everyone. One is a conversation I had with Alistair Reynolds about aircraft carriers and about how aircraft carriers kind of resembled giant spaceships. And he and I were sitting next together. I was being a fan—boy, I adore Alistair Reynolds’s writing—at Gollancz Fest in London. And he said, “I hear you were on aircraft carriers.” And that was all we talked about for the rest of the time. So that conversation sort of put in my mind, like, “Aircraft carriers in space. I wonder if there’s something there.” And then, last January, just as Covid was sort of beginning to exist, I was reading about the Venetian great galleys, the huge galleys they sent around on trade missions in the 15th century, and Venice had them, too. And I was fascinated by these huge galleys and how, you know, they went all the way to London and all the way to Antwerp and all the way to Alexandria, and the crews would sort of know all these people. That is the Middle Ages, where you don’t think of people traveling. And yet, even the oarsmen—who were not slaves, they were pretty well paid—are sort of going all over the place, from Egypt to Spain to England to Antwerp. And that cooked away in my mind. And then, just before Covid closed the theaters, my family and I went to see Little Women and I was sitting in my seat . . . I enjoyed the movie thoroughly, in case you care. But sometimes, I’m sorry, it’s a phrase from a ballet instructor friend of mine, she says, “Art makes art.” And I was enjoying this movie thoroughly, but in some part of my mind something was cooking, and suddenly I had the whole book in my head, like late in the movie, it’s related to a particular speech one of the characters gives, and it’s sort of about feminism and sort of about roles. And anyway, the whole thing, all the characters popped into my mind. It was done.
And it’s a space opera about long-range trade in the not-very-far future when everything has gone wrong on Earth and a heroic generation, a sort of golden generation like we think of the World War Two generation, got people off Earth into our ships, found other worlds, settled them, and in the process, lost a lot of contact with each other and with culture. So, what’s holding them together is these giant trade ships for a while. And when my novel opens, we’re actually almost at the end of that period. New technologies are being discovered, science is reborn. And I tried to give the novel a very, if you’ll pardon me, 18th century feel, that feeling of the Age of Enlightenment and everything being a little bit new. Time to throw over the old time, to look carefully at assumptions and decide whether they’re real or not. So, it’s like old-new old-new science-fiction space opera.
Well, that pretty much covers the first question, which was, “Where did the particular seed of this novel come from?” But looking at all of your novels, is that very typical for you, or is there any typical way that you get ideas for novels?
So, I’m always inspired by something, and it’s usually by history. I will say that Artifact Space, like one of my historical novels, Killer of Men, literally, it’s as if it was inserted into my brain. I wrote Artifact Space in 46 days. I wrote Killer of Men in, I think, 51 days. And that it’s like divine inspiration. I assume this is what the Greeks meant when they spoke of divine inspiration. It’s like someone is dictating to me and I’m just getting it down, which is a very different feeling from other books.
My most recent historical books are a pair of novels called The Commander Series—I’m not sure I chose that name—about Philopoemen of Achea, who, in addition to being a general—and he was a great general—was a master politician and, you know, sort of saved the Greek world for another 50 years from the Romans and various other competitors and created our modern idea of federal democracy, which probably is why anybody remembers him today. And those novels did not come to me by divine inspiration. I mean, they did. I was standing in Delphi with a tour looking at at the stone dedicated to Philopoemen. And I always get this feeling in Greece. It’s the most amazing thing. You know, there’s Philopoemen’s name. I can read ancient Greek, but it’s very hard carved in stone in all caps. And yet his name jumped out at me from like 20 feet away. And I always get this feeling like, “Oh, so it’s all real.” It’s hard to explain, but it’s as if one was somewhere in the deep forest and when suddenly found proof that The Lord of the Rings had actually happened. And that makes no sense for someone who loves history as much as I do. But I looked at Philopoemen ‘s name and went, “Wow, that’s real.” And that was so deeply inspiring. Call me crazy, but I had to learn all about him and read everything that had ever been written about him. And then I had to write a novel about him that took tons of research and time and effort and was not divine inspiration. That was just work. I mean, it wasn’t unpleasant work, but it was work. And that is a very different feeling from the feeling that I had about Artifact Space.
So, once you had the general idea, you wrote it, and the muse was dictating it to you. But did you do any planning ahead of time? And do you normally do some sort of planning or outlining?
These are questions, by the way, and you know, I’ll do my best for you—as I grow older, I do more planning. Artifact Space defied that. Nothing needed to be planned because, like I say, it was in my head and I had the whole thing beginning to end. But since I wrote the Red Knight series, the Traitor Son series, I now write much more extensive outlines and much more detailed character summaries and arcs. And that’s actually an artifact in part of the industry, which, you know, agents and editors now require those things, which always struck me as slightly amusing because I’d always go like, “But I’ve produced twenty-six novels already. Can’t we just believe I can produce a twenty-seventh?” But that being said, as I get older, I just can’t necessarily keep it all in my head and that that is a fact of life. So, it’s much better to write it all down. And so, now I have pages of character. I can tell you that when I was writing the Traitor Son series, all I had was a list of character names so that I didn’t forget them. And in the middle of the series, I learned that I needed to put a plus sign next to people I’d killed off because Phillip Dubos (sp?), a jousting character in the Red Knight series, I killed three times, which was, you know, kind of an error. And yeah. So, I’ve been developing that way.
Outlines I always find very interesting. And I’m fascinated to talk to other authors about this because I have always written some form of outline and then I almost never stayed with them because things happen organically and I just roll with whatever comes to me. And I’ll give you an example from today. I’m writing a fantasy novel right now and today . . . so, I ended yesterday with a pretty big and characterful fight scene, magical fight scene, not a sword fight. And that was good. And what I was supposed to write today was the consequent political follow-on from this duel. And instead, for no reason that I could name, I discovered that I was writing my character, who was badly wounded in the fight, basically lying on a featureless gray plain and discovering that to some extent he was dead and considering his whole life and wondering if he had ever done anything worthy and if he was about to be judged. And it turned out that was all just an artifact of the healing, the magical healing process. And I did not sit down to write that scene, not even sure where exactly that scene came from. But when I looked it over just before you and I started this call, I thought, “Oh, this is really good and far better than the banal political crap I was going to write. So, we’ll just roll with it.”
Yeah, it’s certainly my experience. I mean, I’m typically, with my publisher, I’m writing maybe a seven or eight single spaced page kind of synopsis at the most. Yeah. And then I start writing, but the one I’m writing now, The Tangled Stars it’s called, it’s a space opera as well. Humorous Space Opera I. It’s just not going where the synopsis said it was going. Not exactly. I keep surprising myself with it.
So does that worry you?
It worries me a bit in that this is not one of those books that the muse is dictating to me. I seem to be struggling with that. And I think partly that’s just the change in circumstances and not . . .I tend to write out of my house in a coffee shop or something, and I haven’t been able to do that. And I find I don’t work as well at home, which is odd, but . . .
You and me both, Ed. I’ve just discovered that we are brothers separated at birth. I have a coffee shop I adore. I have written . . .I couldn’t count the books I’ve written there. Eleven? And, you know, because of Covid I’m writing at a dining room table with, until a week ago, my daughter doing her high school homework. My partner has my office on the third floor because she’s working at home. So, she’s going by in both directions. And I don’t mind people, you know, I write in a coffee shop, but somehow, it’s deeply different.
Yeah, that’s exactly been my experience. And so, I’m kind of struggling with it. But yeah, for me, it changes. From what I . . . you know, you have this . . . it all seems so clear in your head when you first think of the book, and you know what’s going to happen. But then as you write it, characters change and things develop and stuff you didn’t even know was going to happen happened. And it influences what’s going to happen further down the road. And so, one of the interesting things on the podcast is asking people that question, and everybody is so different in how it works for them. And I always go back to Peter V. Brett, who wrote The Demon Cycle.
Yeah, yeah. I know him.
I interviewed him, and he writes 150-page outlines before he writes anything of the book itself. And then he’s just basically filling in the outline. So, he’s put all that that work into the outline and then is able to just expand on it without wandering from it. And then there’s other people who just start writing and see what happens.
So, have you interviewed Evan Winter?
No, I haven’t.
I’m lucky in that I think I knew Evan a little before he was famous. And I believe he has said almost exactly the same thing, very detailed. And I mean . . . and that’s great. If that’s what works. I have always been friends with a bunch of other writers, and as you know, because you interview us, no two alike, you know.
But at the same time, I yeah, I wouldn’t write a 150-page outline because things change. Characters change. And I really do, I think I would say, I write by inspiration, it’s not seat of the pants. But my dad had . . . sorry, I’m very respectful of my dad’s writing ability, he wrote 42 books, he won prizes, he was a darn good writer. And my dad used to say there’s an idea and then there’s a book and they’re often very different and that you should never let the idea get in the way of the book. And I have often found that to be true, like I’ll have an idea and I am sometimes fooled and I think it’s a book, I have an idea and it’s usually a character, a situation, a moment, a fight scene, even an artifact, right? And I’m like, “Ah, there’s a saleable book.” No, that’s just a saleable idea. And even if I turn out an outline on it, it’s going to turn out that once I grapple with it really hard, that there was more or less. And sadly, occasionally, the answer is there’s less and I don’t really have a book at all, which is my horror, maybe everybody’s. But more usually, once I grapple with it, I go, “Oh!” So, I’ll give you a quick example. Then I’ll ask you for an example, since we seem to have some of this in common. I finished in March or, you know, earlier than that, the first fantasy novel in a series called Against All Gods. And it’s Bronze Age, and I’m very inspired by the Bronze Age. I’ll leave that alone. Somewhere about a third of the way through, I asked myself, like, “Why do we have so much violence in fantasy fiction?” And just out of nowhere created literally a race and family of pacifists and inserted them into the book, which they then began to take over. And they were not in the outline. They weren’t planned. I had to change the map to make room for them. I had to change the whole way mercantile behavior worked to justify how they survived as pacifists in a very nasty world. Yeah, good times.
I think the best example I have of things changing was a book called Terra Insegura, which is the second book in a two-book series collectively published as The Helix War when they put it out in an omnibus. The first one is Marseguro, because for some reason, I decided to use Portuguese titles, I don’t know why. But there was a character—and I’d only introduced him simply because I needed to have somebody, you know, multiple viewpoints, and there was something happening and I needed to have a character there who could be there for that scene. And then all of a sudden he had this backstory and he had different . . . he was supposed to be, like, the second in command on this spaceship, but he had a different agenda that came out of the backstory I kind of made up on the spot. And the next thing I knew, I was about two thirds of the way through the book, and I had to completely replot to the end of the book because my original plot just didn’t work anymore, because I’d introduced this character simply to solve a writing problem. So, yeah, it’s a fascinating process, which is why I have this podcast.
Yeah, well, it is a fascinating process. And like I say, I know a bunch of other writers and I really enjoy listening to them. And sometimes I, you know, I am capable of changing my modus operandi. And once in a while I hear something from somebody and I go, “That’s a good idea. Oh, yeah, that sounds very professional.” And I’ll just I’ll just take that on board. But what I can’t seem to fix is the difference between an idea and a book around page 250. I usually go, like, “And now it’s a book.”
I use a metaphor. To me, an idea is like this. When you think you have the book, it’s like there’s this shining Christmas-tree ornament, you know, it’s all silver and perfect and everything. And then you take it, and you smash it on the floor, and then you try to glue it back together using words.
That is brilliant!
And sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Oh, that’s so good. I will steal that, but not claim it for my own. I’ll give you credit for that. That’s good. Yep. And very accurate. I see that—rarely, talking to other authors—you and I may have a similar creative process.
It sounds like there might be some similarities for sure. Yeah, the books that have really worked for me, you know, I wrote 50,000 words in a week once because it was that sort of being dictated, and a 60,000-word YA in two weeks flat. You know, when it’s really working, it works. Which takes us back to your writing process. Are you . . . obviously you are a fast writer sometimes. Do you think of yourself as a fast writer? And also, you said you like to write in a coffee shop. Sometimes . . . I presume you’re a, you know, you’re clearly not writing longhand anymore like you did when you were 17.
No, no, no writing on a laptop. So, yeah, I didn’t think of myself as a fast writer until I went to my first WorldCon, where I took enormous amounts of teasing for my writing speed and came to the conclusion that I was a fast writer and I will just say, not entirely as a brag, I wrote five books last year. All of them will be published. And I say to younger writers and people who are starting out and stuff like that, that I literally believe that writing is like a martial art. And that is, the more you do it, the better you are at it. And so, I don’t think of writing faster or more as being . . . let me restart that sentence. I think F. Scott Fitzgerald convinced a lot of people incorrectly that there was some magic to the first novel and that you were magically great when you were very young and then you could never really do that again. It was an interesting thing that F. Scott Fitzgerald did, but I’m not sure that that’s a valid way of approaching the art of writing. And I suspect that you get better and better the more of it you do.
I look at people like Jack Williamson, right? Started writing in covered-wagon days and was still going 70, 80 years later. So, yeah, that’s my hope, anyway.
Well, it’s my hope too and, you know, I’m not really just here to plug Artifact Space, but I think it might be the best novel I’ve written. And that makes me happy because who wants to be getting worse, right? Like, it would be nice to think one is getting better even at the advanced age of 58, anyway. Yeah, I think I’m a pretty fast writer, but part of that . . . I find again, because I talk to other writers, I’m not as fast as Sebastien de Castille, who is faster than I am. There are definitely a bunch of people out there who write faster than I do. I find that what I do well is to just sit down and write every day. And we were talking about that, you at the newspaper and me at the Anti-Terrorist Alert Center. But just learning that there really wasn’t any reason not to write. You know, if you only produce 500 words a day but you produce 500 words every day, you’re going to get done. You are going to get done. You just plow through it eventually. That’s not my acceptable output, but I’ve had 500-word days and one of the biggest breakthroughs in my writing life . . . and again, this is something that I tell younger authors . . .it was learning to write in what I call scraps of time for the longest time. And I mean right through the first Traitor Son novel. I believed that I needed four to six hours to make it a valid writing day. And I would not bother writing if I didn’t have four to six clear, uninterrupted hours. And then I suddenly was writing two historical novels and a Traitor Son novel at the same time, you know, all with contracts and due dates. And I went, “You know, what I need to do is, if I only have an hour, I need to produce the words I can produce in that hour so that I just accept whatever time I have.” And that has been a major breakthrough for me because now I could just sit . . . right, I’ll give you an example. In 2014, if I had an interview with you today, I wouldn’t have written this morning because I had a bunch of yard work and stuff to do this morning and I didn’t really get done with it till ten in the morning. And that would make for a two-and-a-half-hour writing day. And it’s not enough time, right? Except instead, I wrote 2,100 words because I’ve learned that whatever time you get is the time you have.
Good advice. I’ve been like that sometimes, and sometimes I’d still let it slip away from me because I know there’s not enough time.
Well, I’m full of useful aphorisms that I don’t always follow myself, too. Please don’t imagine that I am perfect at this. But learning that it was true was very helpful. And I had to admit to myself, even my Navy veteran self, that telling myself that two and a half hours wasn’t enough time to write was actually just one of those excuses. It’s enough time once you . . . I’m sorry. No, you go ahead.
I was going to say, once you have a first draft, presumably, what does your revision process look like to you, a rolling revision, or how does that work for you?
I only have one draft and I do a rolling revision and it works like this. I start each writing day by reading the twenty pages before it and editing and correcting. About every hundred pages, which technically should be every week and a half, but I don’t always write that fast, I go either all the way back to the beginning or at least back 100 pages and do another layer of revisions. And often, by then, I’ve thought of things I didn’t like, which could be as simple as I’ve changed a character’s name or I’ve discovered how I want the alien language to sound or something like that. But it could be quite big. It could be that I’ve decided that that character doesn’t work and she’s got to go. And so, I do that revision. But when I write the last word, the next day, I’ll revise the last 10 pages and then it’s done. And I send it in.
Well, they’re we’re different. I tend to do a full draft and then rewrite from the beginning, although sometimes I have to do one halfway through because just to sort of break through a barrier or something, I’ll go back and do a revision of the first half of the book or something so I can sort of power through some place where I’m stuck. Do you use beta readers or anything like that?
Yes, but first I want to give a plug to my high school. I went to a Jesuit high school, which is funny because I’m not Catholic, but I went to a Jesuit high school and the Jesuits taught writing. And, you know, I was unfair earlier in the interview when I said I hadn’t taken writing classes, because they taught very intense writing classes and we did a ton of writing, I should admit that. But one of the things that they said that stuck with me and, you know, believe it or don’t, Father Abluski (sp?) insisted that usually your first idea is your best idea and you should roll with that. And it’s not always true, but I hear that voice often when I attempted to make a big change and I go like, “Really? Is it really better or are you just doubting yourself?” Anyway, I felt that truth in advertising required me to give some credit to the Jesuits if credit is what’s involved. Sorry. Now ask that last question, please.
Do you use beta readers or does anybody see it before you send it off to your editor?
Yeah. So, given the time it takes editors at Orion and Gollancz to get to a manuscript, I send it out to everyone at the same time because it’s going to be three to five months before my editor looks at my manuscript when I send it, and I know that because I’m a veteran, and so I will send it to my beta readers. So, I have a . . . I won’t call them a legion, but I have a number of beta readers. And dare I say, each of them has kind of a different purpose. Some of them are truly critical. Some of them are more what I would call appreciative. Some of them are big-picture and some of them are nitpicking. And that’s great. They’re like a team and they criticize different things. And they, you know, one beta reader I can think of will tell me what she feels about a novel, which I find shockingly accurate for what future readers are going to feel, you know, over the course of 10 books. And another beta reader is really good at catching story-arc errors. And he has always been sort of my favorite beta reader because he’ll say, “You know, like, I really didn’t believe it when X happened because of this, this, and this you’d already said. And I go, “And you’re right again, Joe. Well done. Thank goodness for you.” And I trust my beta readers. If they say something is flawed, I fix it. I don’t go through long questions with myself or whatever. I just fix it. And pretty much the same thing with editing. I believe in editors. So, Gillian Redfern, my editor at Gollanz, is one of my favourite editors ever. And if she says something has to go, I think nine out of 10 times I kill it, and if she says something, it doesn’t work for her, I believe her. And that’s a decision I decided at some point to roll with. Editors are not idiots.
Yes, I do a lot of talking to young writers. I’ve been a writer in residence at the Regina and Saskatoon Public Libraries, and I’ve done classes, you know, all that sort of stuff. And I do occasionally run into somebody who’s quite terrified of editors and that they’re going to somehow ruin their prose or something and I say, no, not in my experience.
You know, this is literally . . . so, I keep praising my dad. Now I’m going to say something the opposite of my dad. My dad believed that writing was a solitary, bohemian art. A very 1950s sort of ideal of what writing was or is. I think the opposite. I think it’s a team sport and I’m on a team. I’m not even always the captain. I have an editor. I have a copy editor, a copy editor is super important for me because I use, you know, ancient Greek and Chinese and stuff in my books. Got a cover artist, got betareaders. It’s a team, it’s not just me. I am not creating on my own, and it’s silly of me to ignore my teammates if they say something is wrong.
Well, that’s we’re getting close to the end of our hour here, so let’s move on to the big philosophical questions. I’m going to put that in reverb. There’s three. The first one is,. Why do you write? The second one is, why do you think anybody writes, why do human beings, if you want to be that general, write? And then thirdly, why stories of the fantastic specifically. So, you know, three questions.
Do we have another hour? Because I’ve got an hour’s worth of answers. So, I can tell you quite easily why I write. And it’s pretty banal. I love stories and I literally have found that when I don’t have enough to read, I just have to write because I’m literally telling myself a story, and that may sound terrible, but I enjoy telling myself stories, apparently, and I just hope the rest of you enjoy them too. But I couldn’t stop myself if I tried. I have to write sometimes and stories will boil up inside of me because whatever. And then I can kill the urge to write. And this is really weird because, as you know, Ed, we live in a world where we writers get ARCs to read for other people. And in fact, you know, we owe it to other writers to support them and read their ARCs and comment and say nice things. The problem is, the happier I am reading, the less writing I get done, so that I have to cut myself off from reading to some extent to let the story bubble up inside me. So, I want to tell it, so I write it. Anyway, there it is. I write because I want to tell a story and I think that in some ways that is the human condition.
And I’m just going to say, like, I’ve been reading a lot of Anglo-Saxon stuff lately, maybe you’re going to write a historical novel in that era. But also, just, I enjoyed old English in school and I had sort of let it go and I just gone back to it. And it’s been very interesting to read sort of early Germanic prose and the Icelandic sagas, which I’d never read before and stuff like that, and go, “Oh, we really need stories.” But unfortunately, in the age of, you know, antibacterials and Trump supporters and so on, sometimes the stories are wildly inaccurate or even false. And that is a, you know, if there’s an original sin in the human condition, I think it’s the ability to tell an untrue story. And I don’t mean a fictional story. I mean a straight-out falsehood. But we need to collect information, all of us, I think, and we tend to put it into a narrative, even if there’s no narrative. And I appeal to you, Ed, in your life, is your life a narrative or is it a series of events?
I like to think of it as a narrative.
Well, I like to think of mine as a narrative, but I promise you, at times it seems pretty damn random anyway. I think we want it to fit into narrative structure. We want it to be logical. So, we tell stories to force the events into stories. And I think that is a sufficient cause, maybe not a dramatic one, but sufficient.
And then the last question. Um. Why fantastical stories? That is a fabulous question and one I ask myself often, and I’m going to say that the answer is, much as I love history as a source for adventure, plot, character, the truth is that the history of the human race is slavery, degradation, force and horror to some extent to a pretty wide extent, it is very hard to find heroism in history. It’s very difficult to find people who were good. And the more research you do, the more of your own heroes you kill off. That doesn’t mean there’s nobody heroic in history. And I’m not an utter revisionist, but sometimes you want to tell a story about how people succeeded in bettering themselves, for instance. And it’s probably going to be easier to tell that story in a fantasy or science fiction. Or sometimes the opposite. You want to tell how it all fell apart in a dystopian manner and it’s probably going to be easier.
One of the problems that really exists with writing historical novels is that people carry a lot of mythological baggage with their knowledge or their supposed knowledge of history. And that can make writing a historical novel very dangerous. Something as simple as whether Alexander the Great was Greek or Macedonian can lose you readers and also just cause them to turn off and not accept anything else you say. Whereas if you chose to write a fantasy novel about a conqueror who turned out to not be a very nice person, that’s a different kettle of fish and it’s good to go out to a different audience. And I’m a very Aristotelian writer. I believe it is my job to moralize and teach, which I admit is not a popular 21st century point of view, but it is my Aristotelian job to write, you know, The Iliad, with purpose.
Which segues very nicely into the last question, which is, what are you working on now?
Bless you. So I went through a dry spell. It’s funny. I went through a very long dry spell and wrote a bunch of novels in Covid. And then just about the time I started saying to some of my writing friends, “I don’t get it. What is this Covid depression you guys keep worrying about?”, my dad died and suddenly I couldn’t write. So recently I’ve come out of that, and all of a sudden I’m writing two books at the same time. Yes, I am. So, years ago I started a novel which in my mind I called Rangers. And it’s a pretty complicated fantasy novel. And it was meant to be the prequel to Cold Iron and my Masters and Mages series. And I started it because Gollancz said they were going to buy it and then they didn’t buy it. And then I dropped it because I don’t write for free. Suddenly, the other day I picked it up, read it and went, “This is really good. I think this will be my first self-published novel. I think I’m going to experiment with how self-publishing orks.” So, I did that. And at the same time, I am writing the sequel to Artifact Space, which is called Deep Black, and that’s super fun too. And so, it’s been very odd because I’m sort of writing 1800 to 2500 words of each, each day, and I’ve never done this exact thing before and it’s odd.
And Artifact Space comes out June 24 from Gollancz?
It does. Swords in space. That’s my shout line.
And where can people find you and follow you online?
Bless you. So I’m focused on one, on Twitter, and I have invested a lot of social media time on Twitter. I enjoy Twitter. I know not everyone does. I’m @Christian_Cameron_Author on Instagram. And you know, I’m on Instagram every day doing my doing my best to keep everybody interested. Twitter is where I sort of talk about being an author and Instagram is often about martial arts or my other passion, painting little men and women and playing tabletop games. And I don’t really talk as much about being an author, because endless self-advertising is boring as I suspect you have a feeling you may share.
I’m bored by myself all the time.
Yeah, me too. And I have a Facebook author page, but I’ve spent less and less time on Facebook since the U.S. election. I was in the military. I have many conservative friends. I don’t happen to be a conservative myself and sometimes I don’t want to read what they have to say.
Yeah, Facebook can be well . . . yeah. Facebook can be bad for finding out what people you like think about things and you want to keep liking them, so you don’t want to know what they think about something.
Yeah. I’ve had that reaction, too. All right. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. That was a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
I enjoyed it thoroughly. And I’d really like to meet you in person. And in fact, as one of the things I was going to say at some point is I have discovered since I started doing cons, which I came to very late in life, that I if I like the person, I like that person’s books, I am now going to go buy a bunch of your books.
That’s a wonderful thing to do if you ask me. Well, I’m sure I’m sure we’ll run into each other at some convention once they start up again. I hope. That would be great.
Someday again. Yeah, a great pleasure. Ed, thanks for having me.
Thank you. Bye for now.