Episode 41: Mary Robinette Kowal

An hour-plus chat with Mary Robinette Kowal, Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Award-winning author of the Lady Astronaut trilogy (Tor Books) and many more novels and short stories, member of the Writing Excuses podcast, professional puppeteer, and audiobook narrator.

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The Introduction

Mary Robinette Kowal

Mary Robinette Kowal is the author of The Lady Astronaut trilogy and the historical fantasy novels The Glamourist History series and Ghost Talkers. She’s a member of the award-winning podcast Writing Excuses and has received the Astounding Award for Best New Writer, four Hugo Awards, the RT Reviews Award for Best Fantasy novel, and the Nebula and Locus Awards. Her stories have appeared in Strange HorizonsAsimov’s, several year’s best anthologies, and her collections Word Puppets and Scenting the Dark and Other Stories. Her novel Calculating Stars is one of only eighteen novels to win the Hugo, Nebula, and Locus Awards in a single year.

As a professional puppeteer and voice actor, Mary Robinette has performed for Lazy Town, the Center for Puppetry Arts, and Jim Henson Pictures, and founded Other Hand Productions. Her designs have garnered two Unima-USA Citations of Excellence, the highest award an American puppeteer can achieve, and she records fiction for authors such as Seanan McGuire, John Scalzi, and Cory Doctorow. Mary Robinette lives in Nashville with her husband, Rob, and over a dozen manual typewriters.

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Mary Robinette.

Thank you so much for having me.

I’m glad to have you. I have to confess, I haven’t quite finished Calculating Stars. I was working on it, so I’m about, I don’t know, three quarters of the way through. But you won’t give any spoilers anyway, because I’m going to get you to synopsize here in a little bit for people who haven’t read it.

Okay.

But I’m enjoying it very much. And not least because I’m married to an engineer…

Ah, yes.

…who identifies with some of the situations in the story.

Yes. Yes. I’ve found that the people in STEM have a strong connection to certain aspects, especially women in STEM.

Well, before we get to that, I’ll take you back into—I always say this, it’s becoming a cliché on the podcast—I will take you back into the mists of time, to find out how you, first of all, became interested in writing, and specifically writing science fiction. How you got started, in other words, and maybe a little bit about, you know, where you grew up and all that kind of stuff.

So, I grew up in North Carolina. My dad worked for IBM and he used to take me to visit him at work sometimes. They had the…it was in the days when the computers were still ginormous rooms and we didn’t yet have personal computers. There were gerbil tubes connecting the buildings. The first programming that I did was my name with punch cards. And so that was…it felt very science fictional. It felt very much like what you’d see on the Jetsons and things like that. And then we also would watch…like, I got connected to Doctor Who, you know, Tom Baker was my doctor. And we listened to Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy on the radio. So there is not a point in my life where I remember discovering science fiction, it was something that was just always present. Like, the earliest books that I read that I have concrete memories of are things like Enchantress from the Stars.

I remember that one.

Yeah, so good. And you know, of course, other things like A Wrinkle in Time, and all of these books, which were just shelved as books. But I gravitated to the ones that had a fantastic element. When I started writing, which I did pretty young, my mom sent me to a writing workshop camp. I was basically writing the things that I was reading, and since I was reading science fiction and fantasy, it seemed only natural that that’s what I was also writing. My friends also were into that.

So, some of the earliest stuff that I was writing was actually…we had this, we called it “The Note.” It was a notebook. And we would pass it to each other between classes and write a co-operative story and then pass it to the next person who would pick it up and continue on. So, it was very much a part of my life, but I was also one of those kids who wanted to do everything, so…

I was an art major—I went to school to be an art major—and I performed with a puppet company, a puppet troupe, in high school, and then my junior year of college left to do an internship at the Center for Puppetry Arts in Atlanta, Georgia, intending to go back…and never did, and then had a twenty-five-year career in puppetry. But the first ten of that, more or less, somewhere in there, I stopped writing because I was getting my creative jollies from puppetry. So for me, it’s all varying forms of storytelling.

You’re the first one I’ve talked to who’s done puppetry. I’ve talked to several authors, myself included, who have a theatrical background. And I always like to ask if that theatrical side, and I mean, puppetry is a form of theatre, it’s a little different than moving actors around on stage, but you’re still moving, you know, things in relationship to each other and characters interacting with each other. Have you found that your puppetry has helped you with your writing?

Yes, absolutely. It absolutely has. First of all, because puppeteers are actors and we are doing theatre. It’s just that the…rather than putting on a costume, we have an external manifestation. But we are still acting. We…the derogatory term that we have for poor people who do not do puppetry are “meat puppets,” or “meat actors.” Meat actors is what we usually go with, or a “fleshy” as opposed to a “plushy.”.

I’m going to remember that.

Yeah. But it is very much acting. I think of it as the Ginger Rogers of theatre. I have to do everything that you’d have to do, backwards in high heels. So, there’s multiple advantages to it, one of which is that, because I am working an inanimate object, my job as a puppeteer requires me to take the body language that we do naturally, that we often don’t even think about, we just do it, break it apart into its semantic components, and then reconstruct it in an inanimate object in a form that is human-readable.

That is essentially what I am doing as a writer, as well. I have to understand the basic components, semantic pieces of body language, and here I am, the tool that I’m using to reconstruct them, are words on a page. But the basic building blocks or components are the same. For instance, if someone is curious about something, they’ll do what we call an aggressive motion, which is a movement towards. If there’s something they don’t want to engage with, they’ll do a regressive motion. And while it’s very easy to do that with a puppet—and as an actor, you’ll do it without even thinking about it, very naturally—on the page, it also plays out the same way. There’s a very big difference between, “‘What did you say?” She leaned across the table,” and, “‘What did you say?’ She pushed back from the table.” One of those is the aggressive motion, one is the regressive, but it tells you a great deal about the character’s reaction without having to use a Tom-Swifty dialogue tag to denote tone.

That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought of it in that way, but yeah, I can…in a way, our characters are puppets, and we are making them come alive, something that is actually not alive. We are trying to communicate that to the reader.

Yeah. With theater, with writing, regardless of which form you’re using, I think that a lot of what we’re trying to do is to create an emotional response in our audience’s brain, whether they are reading or viewing. But the things that we have emotional responses to, those actually remain fairly consistent from medium to medium. It’s just the mechanical technique that you use to convey it. And that’s one of the things that I’m trained in as a puppeteer, that there are principles that make a puppet look alive, but the mechanics differ when you move from one style to another. Like, the mechanical movement that I will do with my arm for a regressive motion if I’m doing something that’s very much like a Muppet is completely different than the mechanical motion that I’m doing, also with my arms, but holding a marionette control. It’s mechanically very different. But the thing that I’m trying to create for the audience, that illusion, is still the same illusion. It’s still that regressive motion, or it’s still the sense of muscle, where I’m using a compress/expand to mimic the moment when you bend your knees to jump. All of those things are still there. It’s still trying to create that same effect for the audience. And I feel that way when I move to writing, it’s like I’m still trying to create that effect, it’s just I have a different mechanical tool now.

And when did you then move back into writing after your twenty-five years of puppetry? What brought that about?

Well, I moved back probably about fifteen years into the puppetry career because I had a severe puppet injury. And again, people don’t think about puppetry as being particularly dangerous, but I was doing  Little Shop of Horrors and working an eighty-pound puppet, and we had something go a tiny bit wrong onstage. We’d done it three months without any injuries, and just a little bit wrong and the puppet sheared to the side. Someone hit it on stage at a time that I had it up off the ground. No one should have touched it. And I tried to control it, and something in my wrist went pfft! I essentially popped the ligament. It was…for various reasons, it was complicated and I wound up in a cast for a year, and then did another year of physical therapy after that to regain range of motion.

During that time, kind of simultaneously with that, my brother had moved to China with his kids, working for the State Department, and I wanted to stay connected to the kids, but they are not really going to…it was before Skype was really a thing, so I started writing a serial for them, and remembered that I really enjoyed writing. In hindsight, I understand that what happened was…the reason I had stopped for a long time was because I was getting my creative jollies from the puppetry and that it uses, puppet design and construction uses, exactly the same parts of my brain as writing. It’s all worldbuilding, character creation, problem-solving. So when I could no longer do that, I had to take a substantial break from it, it gave me the energy to apply that in another form, one that I hadn’t visited for a while.

I often say that…it’s not quite the same thing, but it’s similar. I was a huge Dungeons and Dragons player in university and one reason I quit playing was because I looked at the stack of maps and, you know, characters and monsters and stuff that I had built up for my world in Dungeons and Dragons and said, “You know, that’s exactly the energy I should be putting into writing my fiction.” And I hardly ever played again after that.

Yeah.

It was the same thing. You’re using the same muscles, but it’s, if you use them all in one way, it’s harder sometimes to use it the other way.

Yeah, I used to play D&D with a group when I was in high school as well. Although, you know, in high school I would do anything to avoid doing homework. So, I would just write and play D&D. But now I will only do a one-off for exactly those reasons, because the, you know, the narrative is so seductive and interesting and fun. And I as I get older I have less and less energy.

And I think I’m ten years older than you, so I definitely identify. So, when did you break in? And how?

So, my first sale was 2005—I think that’s correct—to a small press magazine called The First Line. And I love this small press. They…the theory is that the first line of anything is so important. But if you hand the same first line to Mark Twain, you know, if you hand him, “Call me Ishmael,” he will not write Moby Dick. He will write something totally different. So, the first line gives you a first line, and then every story in that issue begins with the same first line, and they’re all wildly different. So, my first couple of sales were to them, and then I started selling to other markets, as well.

And you started with short fiction.

Mm-hmmm.

And did quite well at short fiction, looking at the awards and so forth. What did that…were you surprised by the level of acceptance and appreciation that your fiction begin to garner?

Oh, yeah, absolutely. And I should say that what I actually started writing were novels, but I had been told that if you wanted to break in, you needed to write short fiction, which it turns out is not true. Jim C. Hines did a survey, and it turns out that debut authors, when you ask them, “How did you break in?”, whether with short fiction first or just straight to novel sales, that it was actually 50/50. But I like short fiction quite a bit. And I think that it was very good for me because it allowed me to experiment with a lot of different things without having to commit so many words. So it’s like doing a bunch of, using the D&D metaphor again, it’s like doing a one-off campaign versus something that’s a multi-session campaign. So, doing a one-off, it was very easy to say, “Oh, this time I’m going to I’m going to focus on character and try to hone my character skills,” or, “This time I’m going to focus on description.” But I was also…I was surprised at how quickly I was able to start making sales, but also in hindsight, it’s not surprising, because by that point I had spent fifteen years coming to understand narrative and audience. And so much of what I know from theater translates over. Some of it doesn’t, but so much of it does. So. in hindsight, I had a leg up when I came back to prose.

So when did the novels start coming along, then?

So, as I said, I had started with novels. So the thing, the serial, that I wrote for my niece and nephew was…it turned into a novel very quickly, which was actually the thing that made me go, “Huh.” Because I had started doing it just kind of for kicks. And then I got a little bit into it and thought, “I think I have something here. How do you write a novel?” and started trying to sort that out. And in the process of that, at some point, not long after I started doing this, I discovered NaNoWriMo and decided that this was a great thing, and I was very excited about it. And I did my first one and it was a murder mystery—and let me tell you that doing a murder mystery without outlining is questionable as a choice. And then the second one that I did was Shades of Milk and Honey, which was my first novel, first published novel. So…there was another novel I call Novel Zero. That was the novel that I wrote in high school through college and then finished on my second or third year on tour. But Shades of Milk and Honey was the, I guess the third…the second novel that I completed after I got serious about it.

But yeah, I did NaNoWriMo. And we, you know, I shopped that…I had shopped the thing that I wrote for my niece and nephew, but it has first-novel problems that I am not invested enough in the book now to go back and fix.

Did your niece and nephew enjoy it?

They did.

Well, that’s the main thing.

Yeah, exactly.

Well, of course, your novel that just won the Hugo Award and the Nebula and Locus, Calculating Stars, we’ll move on to talk about that as an example of your overall creative process. And you know… I know it’s a cliché, and I know writers hate to be asked it…the question is, “Where did the idea come from?” But, on a bigger scale, how do you generally generate ideas for stories? How does that work for you?

Sure. So, the funny thing is, actually, the...Calculating Stars began with a…

You know what? I skipped over one very important thing. You should give a quick description of Calculating Stars for people who haven’t read it…

Oh, sure.

…before we start talking about it.

OK. Calculating Stars is set in 1952. It’s Apollo-era science fiction, it’s women-centered. I slam an asteroid into Washington, D.C., and kick off the space program fast and early and with international cooperation. My main character, Elma York, is a mathematician and a pilot and she is working with her husband, who was the lead engineer, rocket designer, for the NACA—which was a real organization, it was NASA’s precursor—and becomes the lead engineer for the International Aerospace Coalition. And she realizes that the asteroid has caused a runaway greenhouse effect. So, we’re actually looking at an extinction event, which gives impetus to get people off the planet. As a side note, I will just let people know, the science…you know how you see those disaster films and there’s an asteroid coming at the Earth and they divert it into the ocean.

It would be a bad idea.

It turns out that’s a really bad idea, because when you have an asteroid come through, it tears a hole in the atmosphere. And then you get something called ejecta, which ejects part of the planet up into the upper atmosphere. And then, if it’s rocks, it’ll fall back down. If it’s water, what happens is the water vapor gets locked in the upper atmosphere. It doesn’t precipitate out, and you can trigger a runaway greenhouse effect. There is some speculation that this might be what happened to Venus. So, anyway…

I was just going to say, my feeling when that initially comes up and she does the math and realizes that’s what going to happen is, it felt very much like a Titanic: The Musical, which I’ve been in, and Titanic, the actual thing, which is that the engineer went down, took one look at what had happened and said, “This ship is going down,” even though there were still, you know, two or three hours of floating around and people not believing it.

Yeah.

It was inevitable at that point. And I had that same feeling when I got to that point in the book.

Yeah, that was a…like, when I started looking at it, and I will also say that I’m very cautious in this book to not tell you exactly how big the asteroid is, because the science on that is super complicated. And I decided that rather than being wrong about it, I was like, “Well, I know that this is how it works, and it is big enough to trigger these conditions. But I don’t know how big that is because I don’t have access to a university supercomputer modeling system to come up with something that’s exactly right.” And even there, it would still be…there’s still opportunity for error.

So, anyway, so that’s what the book is about. It’s basically getting into space in the 1950s. And it’s the push towards the moon. The idea came because I had written a novelette called “The Lady Astronaut of Mars,” which I wrote for an anthology called Rip-Off! It was an audio anthology. And the premise of Rip-Off! was actually very much like the First Line magazine, which was that the first line is so important. But instead of us all having the same first line, we each got to pick a first line, a famous classic first line, and then write a different story. And I picked the opening line of The Wizard of Oz, and wrote something that was…I wanted a Bradberry homage, something that reminded me of The Martian Chronicles, and that created the story of Elma York and her husband, Nathaniel, who were both in “Lady Astronaut of Mars,” older, Elma is in her 60s, Nathaniel is older than she is, he’s in his 70s, and the decisions that they have to make. And the backstory for this piece of fiction was this asteroid strike.

And the more I started thinking about it, the more I was like, “You know, it would be really interesting to know what she was doing when that happened.” And I had written a couple of other short pieces in this universe before I really decided to unpack it into a novel. It’s…I jokingly call it my punch-card-punk universe because they’re much…the computing is a little bit behind where the real timeline went.

I love the fact that the computers are having to check the work of the IBM machine.

Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, that was true.

Yeah, I read that.

Yeah. Yeah, that was really…they were not completely reliable. And we lost…oh was it the, one of the Voyagers? the name’s just gone out of my head…but we lost an early rocket because they had…the computers, who were women, had written the code, had written, you know, this is the plan, and then they had given it to the Air Force and they had keyed it into the punch-cards to load it onto the, you know, onto the rocket, and had transposed something. And so the rocket wound up crashing. So, it’s a really interesting era in computing, in rocketry. And I just got more and more…like, I’ve always been interested in space, but the longer I work in this universe and become versed in the early space program and the contemporary space program, the more interested I am in what we’re doing and how it affects people.

It’s…I find it very interesting because, of course, they’re doing all this, they’re heading to the moon and everything, but it’s ten years earlier than it actually happened, and the technology is that much more primitive, and yet it could have been done then. And it’s very much in that golden age of science fiction era, you know, with Heinlein and rockets being built by teenagers in the backyard, practically.

Yes! Well, and when you start, like, when you really start looking at the early history of spacecraft, of spaceflight…I recommend Breaking the Chains of Gravity by Amy Shira Teitel,, which is a history of pre-NASA spaceflight, the history of spaceflight up until NASA exists, basically. And the early days were actually teenagers and rockets in Germany, there was this whole Rocketry Club. That’s where Wernher von Braun came from, the V-2 is a descendant of that. And it was, you know, it was kids who were like, “I’d love to go to the moon. Can I build this thing?”

Now, you’ve talked about a couple of stories which started with first lines that came from elsewhere. When you’re not starting with the first line…

Yeah.

Where do story ideas tend to come to you from?

It’s random. The thing people always say is the idea is not the hard part. The challenge is turning it into a story. So, I will approach it in a couple of different ways, depending on the situation. Sometimes I will sit down, I’ll just free-write something, and then I will sort of do a diagnostic look at it to see where I’m going and what I need to do to continue this in a satisfying way. Other times, you know, if I’m writing for an anthology or I have an idea that I’m having trouble getting traction on, then I will do something that’s much more mechanical, where I will start breaking this story apart in different permutations to see where the idea could come from.

There’s an organizational theory called the MICE quotient, which holds that every story is basically made up of four components: milieu, which is setting, characters, inquiries, questions that you have, and events. Sorry, milieu, inquiry, character, event. And you can tell pretty much every story, you can reshape and refocus it, depending on which of those you want to be the driver. Most stories have more than one element in them. And so, what I will sometimes do if I’m having trouble kind of getting traction on a story is that I’ll start with what I call the gee-whiz idea, which is, you know, any story prompt you want to throw at me, and then, if I don’t have an immediate hit on it, then I start interrogating it to see, you know, what are the things that could go wrong with the environment, what are the things that, you know, how could I trap someone someplace around this idea? Because a milieu story is about trying to exit, a journey story.

What questions might they have or not be able to answer? Is my character angsting about something or is there something angsty that could be around this, which gives you a character story? Or is there something about this that disrupts the status quo, which is an event? And so, I’ll dig into those. And what I’m looking for is very Marie Kondo. I’m looking for that, you know, that moment like, “Oooh!”, whatever sparks joy. And then that’s the thing that I’ll chase.

And if nothing sparks joy, then there’s not a story there.

Yeah. I mean, there is a story there, but sometimes you have to scratch at it a little bit harder. There’s…you can…I mean, I really think you can tell a story about anything. And you can make it compelling. Like, the first novel, the first thing that I won a Hugo for, is a story called “For Want of a Nail.” And that story, the gee-whiz idea, literally, I mean, seriously, this is what’s…you know, when I came up with this, because this was one that I had to write at a workshop on a deadliney kind of thing, I was, I just, I did the whole mechanical thing to jumpstart me into it. But the gee-whiz idea was trouble plugging in a cable. Proprietary cable. That was, that was it, it was like when you don’t have the right cable…

A situation we’ve all been in.

Yeah. That was the gee-whiz idea. And what I wound up writing, which completely is about not being able to find the right proprietary cable, is a story about a family on a generation ship, and the AI, which they use to record their history from generation to generation, gets dropped. There’s a cable in a housing that’s damaged, so it can no longer store in long-term memory, it can only keep things for a couple of hours and then it’s going to have to start ditching memories, and there’s trouble finding this cable. And the process of finding it and getting it uncovers that the AI has been masking for a couple of different people who have Alzheimer’s, and it’s been covering for them because it can whisper in their ear. And so it’s…the story unpacks into something else. But the story seed is “can’t find the right proprietary cable.” Which is not a particularly compelling story seed. That’s where I’m like, “Ideas are everywhere. It’s just…you just have to scratch up for a little while, sometimes.

It’s something I say when I do school presentations about writing. You know, I can look around a school room and have twenty different story ideas just from what they’ve got stuck on the walls…

Yeah, absolutely.

…or on their desks or whatever So now, going back to Calculating Stars, once you have your story idea, what does your planning process look like for a novel. Are you a detailed outliner, or how does that work for you? And there must’ve been a lot of research involved in this one too, I would think.

It varies. So this one, I had a pretty good…I had a pretty solid outline for this one. And my general approach is that I’ll come up with kind of a what I call a thumbnail sketch, which is left over from my art days, which gives me sort of the basic compositional structure. And then I unpack that into a synopsis, which is like, you know, doing a rough sketch on the page. And then from there, I’ll unpack the synopsis into an outline, which is kind of my armature. And at each of those stages, things get adjusted and moved around as I come to understand the story a little bit more and what I want to get out of it. And I see opportunities, usually opportunities to make things worse for my characters. 

And then…at each phase, I’m also doing research, and it gets more specific the deeper into the process I get. So, with this one, I did fairly broad research on the early space program. I also, when I’m doing something that’s historical, always assume that there were women and people of color there in real life and that they’ve been written out of the narrative. So, one of the things that I actively do is go looking for them. And usually, those stories are significantly more interesting than the ones we’ve always heard, partly because we haven’t heard them. They’re newer stories. Like, when I was working on this was before Hidden Figures came out, so the involvement of women of color in the space industry was something that I became aware of and it was really cool and not something that I had heard of. And some the women…like, you know, Katherine Johnson, who basically wrote…that is how we knew how to get to the moon, because of the programs that she wrote, the math she did, the equations, excuse me. So I look for those and that helps me kind of shape the story.

And then I get more specific in the research. So, like, with these novels, my main character is a pilot. So she needs…so I need to know how rockets are flown. But she’s not an engineer, so I don’t need to know how they’re built. Or rather, I need to know just enough so that when something goes wrong, I can handle it. And this is why I kind of wait until I get an outline, because what I generally find is the stuff that I need to know is related to the things that my character directly interacts with. So, as I get more specific, I get a better idea about which things my character is going to need to interact with, which allows me to then hone my research.

For these particular books, there is so much math and science in there that I don’t have, and the level of understanding that I need to have in order to put sometimes a detail that is like three words long, but if it’s the wrong three words, it’s very apparent to anyone in the industry. Sometimes, it’s a ton of research to do that. So, I hired a science consultant and then I also found a number of people who were willing to…you know, subject-matter experts who are just willing to participate and help me. So I had, you know, I had literal rocket scientists for my science consultants. And then I had a couple of astronauts who were willing to read along and helped me with things. So, when I got, you know, when I would be writing, I would hit a thing, it was a really specific crunchy detail in a scene, but also kind of a grace note, right? It’s not something in spreading the plot, but it’s letting you know that my character is competent. It’s setting the stage. It’s that kind of thing. And so I would play what I call Astronaut Mad Libs. I would write it, and it would be something like, “As she jobbed the job,” or “’Jargon,’” the captain said, as he jargonned the jargon,” and then send it over to the astronauts, and I would say, “Could you just fill in the blanks? Could you just play Mad Libs?” So, technically, parts of these books are written by astronauts.

I was thinking as I was reading it that it’s a lot scarier and harder work actually to write an alternate history, especially that recent an alternate history, than writing a far-future handwavium sort of science, because there are so many opportunities for you to mess up something that people actually know.

Yeah. Yeah. It’s really fascinating. There are a couple of times where I am tempted to just, like, throw some random acronyms on the page, and, you know, just keep going. “That’s a thing.” But what I run into with my own brain is that I know how many people learn their science from fiction and if I have the opportunity to put the right science down on the page, then I will. If…and most of the time, the constraints of getting the science right cause me to have a better story. If I can’t get the science right, then I go vague, or don’t build a plot point around it. Which is why with, as I mentioned before, the asteroid, I know that a water strike, and particularly a shallow water strike, can cause the runaway greenhouse effect. But I didn’t…it was not important to the book to have the size of the asteroid be defined. It’s not a plot point.

We knew what it did. That’s all that matters, really.

That’s right. So again, it’s what she interacts with. So, I did just enough. There I hand-waved the math…let me rephrase it. The math, she’s…there’s a point where she’s trying to figure out how big it is, and she’s…so what she does is, she needs to figure out what it would take to heat up the Chesapeake Bay to the point that it got heated up. So I have them do the math for that, for heating up the Chesapeake Bay. And I had Steven Granade, my science consultant, I’m like, “What is…I found this formula for figuring out what it would take to heat something up a body of water like this, but I don’t do this math. Please help me.” And he did that and walked me through the steps that he had to go through to do the math. And then I took that and used sections of it as my character was kind of working through the problem. So I would have them hum a little bit and just talk out loud, so you just get these pieces of the equation, which…

Yeah, I remember that.

Yeah. So it really makes it look like I know what I’m doing.

It’s all an illusion.

I basically am treating math like a magic system. I established that my character can do magic using numbers. And then later when I say things like, “Elma did the equations,” you believe that she can do those equations.

Without having to specify what those equations were.

That’s correct. Because I was just like, oh, this is…this is a lot.

So, what did your actual writing process look like? I notice you say in your bio that you have a lot of manual typewriters. Do you write on a manual typewriter, or is that just something you’d like to collect?

We like to collect them. I will sometimes do short fiction on manual typewriters. But we just collect them. I predominantly write on my computer, either in Scrivener or…these days, my favorite thing is 4 the Words, 4thewords.com, which is a roleplaying game that…in which the metric for defeating monsters and going on quests is the number of words you write and the time in which you write them.

Oh…

It’s really good.

I should check that out, for sure.

It’s embarrassingly effective. I will write to earn a pair of wings with a dedication that I will not write for a paycheck. So it’s embarrassing how well it works, but it does.

That might be something I could use to motivate me, I admit.

There are quests. You have an avatar. There are little tiny pets that you can get. Yeah, it’s really good.

Hm. Do you work mostly, then, in a home office, or do you like to go out to other places, get away from the house, or what’s your…

All of the above. Since so much of my writing was done, early writing was done, in transit, I’m very comfortable writing kind of wherever I am. Sometimes I will go to a coffee shop because I just need to get out of the house because I’ve been there for so long. Sometimes I write at home in a chair, sometimes I write at a desk. I’m staying with friends right now and I’ve been writing…they have a solarium, so I’ve been sitting out there on a couch and their cat comes and sits with me. So it varies. The only things that are really super consistent are that if there is a conversation, a single conversation near me in which I can distinguish dialogue, I have difficulty concentrating, and I can’t write to music with lyrics. Or, actually, not just lyrics, I cannot write with the human voice. So even if it’s in another language, it will…there’s a part of my brain that’s trying to figure out what they’re saying.

It’s interesting, because I’m exactly the same way. In a coffee shop, I can write if it’s white noise, but otherwise…I have to put on headphones if somebody starts talking close enough to me to follow their conversation. Yeah. And I can’t listen to lyrics, either. I listen to classical or instrumental jazz. And it’s just background noise is just to block out the other noise.

Yeah. The thing that I figured out…so, I just finished writing Relentless Moon, which is Book Three in the Lady Astronaut series, or universe, and while I was in the process of writing it, I had had a flight in which I saw Captain Marvel and the soundtrack for that is so good and empowering and completely stuck in my head, but it’s full of all of these lyrics. So I assembled a Spotify list, which are instrumental versions. It’s an instrumental Captain Marvel playlist and it’s great. And I am now like, “Ah.” This is…because it’s all this really driving music and this is something that I will consider for future projects as well.

Something I didn’t ask you, but this is a good place to ask you because we’re getting to the point now…you’ve got a manuscript. What do you do next in the revision process? Do you have beta…well, you talked about some of the people who read it along the way, like astronauts and so forth.

Yes.

But, do you have more traditional beta readers? And when you were starting out, were there writing groups and  support groups like that that helped you along the way?

Yeah, I started with a writing group very, very early. And I…we recently moved to Nashville and I don’t have one in Nashville, and I miss having a writing group. But what I do with my beta readers is…this is very much influenced by the fact that I come from theater, in that I perform better for an audience. So, the only times I have gotten the stereotypical writer anxiety was the one novel where I decided not to use beta readers until I’d write the thing and then start showing it to people. And I got, I don’t know, ten chapters in and was having “this is a terrible book” reactions. And the thing that I do is, I use…so I’ll write, as I said, in Scrivener, and then I use Google Drive, Google Docs, and I’ll upload a chapter. And I have a list of beta readers who will read it. And I ask them to tell me just four basic things: awesome (so I don’t accidentally fix things); when they get bored, when their attention flags; when they’re confused; and when they don’t believe things. Then, I also tell them, like, stream-of-consciousness thoughts are great, and I enjoy those, but not to give me any kind of line notes at all, because all I’m interested in is whether or not the scene plays.

So, I think of it as inviting someone to a rehearsal. It’s like, it’s not even to a dress rehearsal stage, maybe, but I’ve just, you know, I’ve got the show up on its feet, I want to see if this plays. And then I’ll…just based on what they’re confused about, and that helps me kind of…so, I’m kind of doing a rolling revision as I go. I stay two chapters ahead of them. So, like, if I post Chapter One, that means I have finished writing Chapter Three. Then when I finish…and I should say that I usually talk through the outline with someone, like my writers’ group or with my agent or editor, so I’m pretty structurally solid by the time I start actually writing. And then this kind of rolling revision process means that I wind up with a fairly clean draft, though there’s usually things where I’ll have a retcon…and I just tell the readers, if I have a major retcon that I need to go back and do, I’ll just tell them like, you know, “In a previous scene, the evacuation is going to take place using a repelling line instead of the inflatable slide,” and then I just keep writing as if I’ve already made that change.

Then, when you have got that final draft, you do another revision just on your own?

Yeah.

And what do you look for in that pass?

I look for the same things that I ask my readers to look for. So, a lot of times I think a thing that writers will forget is that they have been thoroughly trained as readers for their entire life and that we can still have an emotional response to something, even if we know exactly what’s going to happen. There’s a piece of media that you’ve seen that you love, that, you know, you can probably recite lines from and you’ve seen multiple times. You know, like The Princess Bride. “Anybody got a peanut?” So, the fact that you know where something is going doesn’t stop you from having these emotional responses and  this cathartic satisfaction.

So, with my fiction, if I am not having reader responses, like if I find myself getting bored with something, it’s probably boring. It probably means that it’s not going to stand up to a reread. And, you know, as a writer, if people want to reread my stuff, that’s real good. So, I try to do a read through in which I am thinking about my own emotional responses to things. Usually when I finish it there’s some big-picture stuff that I know I need to do and I’ll do that. But then, like, when I have something, that’s pretty clean, I’ll do a reread and look for the problems. Look for the things where I get a little bored. You know, like, “Look, you just started skimming there. Maybe you should do something with that.” The number of times that I’m reading something that I’ve written, I’m like, “What does that even mean?” So, I’ll fix everything that I can identify. And these days, unless I have done a really major structural change, after that, I will send it off to my agent or editor. Before I was agented and had books that were for sale, or books that had been sold, I would run it through a different set of beta readers and see how it played for them, to see whether or not I had accidentally introduced a problem. If I’ve done a really big structural change, I will often run it through beta readers before turning it in, through another set of iterators, but not always. It depends.

And what does your agent and/or editor, what sorts of things do they most often flag for you to take another look at? If anything?

It depends on the book. A lot of times it’s a pacing issue. Sometimes they’ll flag that there’s a character opportunity that I missed, motivation is not clear, and those are the things where it’s most likely to have been in my head and to not hit the page. So, it’s usually something to do with the characters, in either the main character’s or a secondary character’s internal life. And those are usually pretty easy adjustments to make. But that’s for me the things that I’m usually getting flagged with. Sometimes it’s something else that’s more…fundamental, a large change. But since I have them involved from the outline phase, it’s usually pretty sound by the time we get in there.

Have you had the same editor for multiple books or have you worked with different editors?

So, the first…until Relentless Moon, it has all been Liz Gorinsky for the novels, and now Relentless Moon is Beth Meacham. I’m still with Tor, but Liz left and now has her own company, Erewhon, and is doing quite well. But it was an interesting process. switching editors. I’ve been edited, of course, by a lot of different short-fiction editors, but figuring out what the rhythms were and our communication style and things like that, it’s an interesting shift. And they flag different things. Each good, but it’s an interesting, interesting change.

My main publisher is DAW, I’m on my tenth novel with him and of course, that’s Sheila Gilbert, so I’m very, very familiar with Sheila’s style of editing. So, whenever I work with anybody else, it’s like, “Well, that’s different.”

Yeah. Right. Yeah.

’Cause it is kind of a…it’s not exactly a marriage, but it’s some sort of long-term relationship, anyway.

Yeah. Yeah, it really is. I mean it’s…in a lot of ways you’re business partners, because you’re building a product together. It sounds really crass, but it is a thing that is happening. Or, you know, theater, it’s…you’re putting on a show together now.

Now, you are…I would suspect…pleased with your response that the book has gotten.

Yeah. Yeah. No, that’s been very nice. I mean, the…I’ll tell you that the awards are…I mean, it’s been amazing. And I…like, the whole hitting all three was…staggering, I would say. But the thing that has been really…I’m not sure…this is a…it’s a tricky thing to talk about because it was an unexpected thing…the discussions of anxiety and mental illness in the book. There are a lot of people for whom that hits very hard and that deal with anxiety and feel like they have never seen themselves on the page before. And so, the emails, the fan mail that I get with these books, is of a different sort than I’ve gotten with the other things I’ve written. And it is really humbling. Like, I am…again, you know, again, it’s a theater thing, and it’s a fiction thing, too, but there’s a thing that I create. And then there’s the thing that the audience sees. And a puppet…you know,  a puppet is an inanimate object, right? My job is to pick it up and move it. But the thing we say in puppet theater is that the difference between playing with dolls and putting on a puppet show is the audience. Because the audience has to invest part of their belief in the character in order for it to come alive. It doesn’t matter how skilled I am at manipulating it. If there’s not someone there to watch it and invest part of themselves, it’s still just a figure. And so, the puppet exists in this liminal space between the performer and the audience. And I feel like books are very much the same way. Like, I wrote a book that satisfied me and that I intended to have an emotional impact on my readers. But I did not set out to write a book that was going to speak directly to people with anxiety. Like, that was…the goal was to tell a story about getting to the moon. That was the goal. And I wrote a character that I loved and I connected with, but this thing that has happened, that exists in this liminal space between my book and the reader, is something that the reader is responsible for. Like, each reader who picks it up is bringing part of themselves to it. And so, it’s this humbling thing where I am involved in this act of discovery for these readers. And what I’m doing is that I am…I’ve given them a tool, but the discovery is generated by them.

Yeah, I often like to say that writing is, we think of it as a solo thing that we do on our own, but it is in fact a completely collaborative art form, because, it does not exist until it exists in the head of somebody who reads it. And every reader is going to craft, really, a different story out of the story that you created. It’s actually a different story for every individual that reads it in some way or other.

Yeah, yeah. I mean, certainly, I also get the people who have clearly never realized that there are people in their lives who have anxiety. “Why is Elma so whiny? She can fly a plane, but she can’t talk in front of a group of people. I don’t believe that.” I’m like, “Oh, yeah, yeah. Anyone who has anxiety, they’re the best people to have with you in a crisis, because they’re like, what, stress hormones? That’s Tuesday.”

And I would think that you’ve had some good response…I haven’t…okay, I mentioned to you before we started the show that my wife is an engineer and has long been involved in the efforts to get more women involved in engineering. And there’s an effort in Canada right now called 30 by 30, which is to try to increase the percentage of women in the profession to thirty percent by 2030. And her mother was a doctor who graduated from medical school in 1947 when there were not a lot of other women in her class with her at the University of Toronto. So I would think that there would be a segment of the population whom that part really speaks to as well.

Yeah, yeah, that’s really true. A lot of people in STEM, women in particular, contact me to tell me that it’s like, “Oh, yeah, my story was Elma’s.” But what’s horrifying, is, it’s really easy to read the book and go, “But that was the 1950s.” And the number of women who have had that experience in the 21st century, of being the only woman in their math class…the fact that there’s a campaign to get thirty percent women, that’s still not a lot.

And I will say, I think at the University of Toronto, where my daughter, she’s not in engineering, but she just started this year, and I was there for their…when the engineers were having their big thing that they do the first day, there are all these people in yellow shirts and hard hats running around. And I was watching them go by. And it was, it looked pretty much 50/50. And I think they’re pretty darn close at the University of Toronto and the engineering program right now. So…

So, I’m going to challenge you on that, when you say that it looks 50/50, to find out. Because there is a thing that happens, and this is real, this is like well-documented, that when there are thirty percent women in a room, or on a bookshelf, that it is perceived as being predominantly women, even though it’s not.

Well, in this case, I asked my wife and she believes that it is close…closer than 30 percent in the high 40s maybe. So, you know, pretty close. OK. I confess I haven’t looked at up myself, but I think the University of Toronto at least is certainly working hard…

Good.

…to make that happen. So I also wanted to touch, before I get to my big philosophical question here—we’re just about out of time, but I want to get those in…but I did just want to ask you about the audiobook narration. That’s another form of theater.

Yes.

And I’ve…I do some of that myself. I’m currently narrating my own books, but I’ve done a couple of other people’s, too. How did that come about?

I like to say it’s like puppetry, but without the pain. You know, I have this long career doing character voices and talking to myself because usually there’s two performers and you have to do the entire cast, so often you are in dialogue with yourself. So, I had that skill set and my minor in college was theater and speech, specifically doing radio performance. So, honestly, I like, I auditioned and audiobooks are just like trying to do any other form of, you know, any form of writing, where there’s submission guidelines and you go and you read the submission guidelines and then you follow those instructions and you turn in a tape. And then sometimes they’ll have you do what is essentially a callback, where they’ll say, “Yeah, we’re thinking about you for this audiobook. Here’s a page. Please read that page to us.” And then you see what happens. I got lucky. I did a couple of different things, but then started doing the Seanan Maguire series. I was just in the booth this morning to record the fixes on book thirteen in the series. So it’s nice to have a little bit of job security there. She keeps writing these.

But I have to ask, because, having done it…it’s an enormously time-consuming thing, recording books. Does that…how do you balance out writing your own stuff and recording the other stuff. You just have time for it? Because I find it’s a huge…you know, it just takes so much time.

Well, I don’t do self-producing. So I have an engineer, which means that I only have to do the recording part.

And true, I do my own engineering.

Yeah. And that’s the part that I’m just like, no. if I had to do that, yeah, then the balancing of those two things would be, I think, well-nigh impossible. But balancing just narrating and writing is not bad. Usually it’s, you know, six to eight hours a day of the narration, depending on the book and who I’m recording for. And then I’ll get in an hour or so of writing before or after, depending again on the book and where I am. Sometimes, I’m doing it…like, editing and narration. I will often do my edits on my lunch break or something. So it’s…I don’t find it any different than balancing writing with any other day job. And I don’t do it often. Like…I mean, I’ve done seventy-some books, but I’m not recording every day.

I could be if I did, if I were willing to do, home records or self-records. But I…most of my career has been trying to turn down the gigs I don’t want to do. And it’s not something I’m interested in doing. So I don’t, even though that means I have less audiobook work. And then there’s also books that I don’t want to record. There was a series that I was recording for a company and the books were very rapey and I recorded the second one and said, “I can’t, I can’t record these. I’m so sorry. I know that you don’t want to change narrators mid-series, but I just, I don’t want to be involved with these books.” I was already using a pseudonym for them and…which, like, they don’t…I don’t do a lot of. But I’m like, I don’t need to do these books and I don’t want to. So I don’t. Which makes it significantly easier to balance.

Yeah. Well, it’s you, when you’re reading something out loud it’s…yeah, if you’re not comfortable with the narrative, it would be very difficult, I would think, to…

I mean…yeah, I can do it. Like, I can turn in a good performance. It’s compelling and all of that. But I’m just like, “But I don’t want to participate in that.”

I’m just gonna back up for a minute. I was listening, but I was also checking the enrollment at the University of Toronto, and they’re at…I did overestimate. They are apparently at about thirty-five percent women at this point.

Yep. Thank you for checking. And that was what I, sorry, that was what I guessed.

I had heard a higher number than that, but clearly that was incorrect. So, just to finish up here, with the sort of the big philosophical question, and you sort of touched on this already, with the sort of reaction and, you know, talking about the collaboration with readers. But, the first question is, “Why do you do this? Why do you tell stories?”, and then the second question is, “And what do you hope to accomplish by telling stories?” So, why do you write, and specifically, why do you write science fiction? Why do you write this crazy stuff?

So I write, and I write, I guess, science fiction, because…for the same reasons that I do puppetry. It is the theater of the possible. It allows me to take the natural world, tip it on its side, and look at the interconnective tissue, which helps me understand the real world more. The reason I write instead of just doing daydreams is so that I can share those things with other people. It’s also, I think…I mean, I am a storyteller and it’s something that gives me satisfaction. I like the give and take. I like that conversation with the reader. So, really, I guess, ultimately, I write because it’s fun. I enjoy it. As I said, I am working to turn down gigs I don’t want to do, so ultimately and selfishly, I write because I enjoy it.

But the goal with each book is to provoke an emotional response in the reader and usually to have them share the same emotional journey that I have had when I’ve been thinking about a character. But each book is different. Each short story is different. Like, the specifics of what that emotional response is vary. With the Lady Astronaut books, a lot of what I am thinking about kind of consciously are ways in which to demonstrate a different path. Because we do learn so much from fiction. We use it as a means of cathartic experimentation, trying on different selves. And…as a reader, I mean, not as a writer. We do that as writers, too, but as readers, that’s what…we’re trying on these different lives and these thought experiments. And sometimes the thing we want to try on is just escaping the stuff that’s going on around us. Sometimes it is purely just for fun, which I think is also a valuable and important thing. But it is…each book we pick up, we pick up for a reason, to have this journey of some sort. And so I am, as a writer, wanting to create the experience that I have as a reader.

Something that…I always say that the reason I write is because I want to give to other people the experience I had as a reader.

Yeah.

You know, and create something that people will enjoy as much as I’ve enjoyed the stuff that I’ve read.

Yeah.

I think that’s a common thread. And what are you working on now?

I am doing the final edits for Relentless Moon. It was actually due day before yesterday, but I’m…one of my astronauts got back to me with notes at 10:30 the night before it was due, which is…fortunately, my editor was like, “Wait, you got astronaut notes? You get some extra days.” So I am actually rewriting a scene based on those notes right now. That is literally what I was doing right before this interview and what I’m going to do immediately when we’re done. And then, once I turn that in, I get to start working on a book that is not in the Lady Astronaut universe that I’m very excited about. It’s the next book that’s gonna come out from Tor. So, Relentless Moon comes out in 2020. The book after that is called The Spare Man, and it is a locked-room murder mystery on an interplanetary cruise ship. And it’s basically The Thin Man in space. It’s, you know, retired detective and a socialite and sparkling witty banter, but on a cruise ship going from the moon to Mars.

That sounds like fun.

It’s…I have written the first three chapters of it and the outline. I’m so excited to be writing this book. I cannot tell you. It is frolicking.

And where can people find you online?

The easiest way is to go to my Web site, maryrobinettekowal.com. And you can check out the Web site, but actually, signing up for my newsletter is probably the best thing, because I’ll tell you when I’m teaching classes, when I’m going to be traveling, and I will sometimes put out calls for beta readers and invite people to read my stuff while I’m working on it.

And are you active on Twitter?

Yes. @MaryRobinette, and on Instagram @MaryRobinetteKowal. Generally speaking, if you type in my name, Mary Robinette, I will pop up.

Yes, I think you’re the only one I’ve ever heard of.

So, funny thing, I actually met another Mary Robinette. But it was her last name. And that was very funny. But it’s…and Joe Biden’s middle name is also Robinette. But there’s not a lot of us.

I did not know that about Joe Biden, so that says…you learn something new every day. I knew it was Joe R. Biden, but I know that was his middle name.

Yeah, my double take on Inauguration Day was pretty epic.

Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers.

Thank you for having me.

I enjoyed it. Hope you did, too.

I did.

Episode 37: Susan Forest

An hour long conversation with Susan Forest, award-winning author of science fiction and fantasy that has appeared in Asimov’s Science FictionAnalog Science Fiction and FactIntergalactic Medicine ShowBeneath Ceaseless Skies, and OnSPEC Magazine, among others, and the new young-adult fantasy novel Bursts of Fire, the first in a seven-volume series, Addicted to Heaven, from Laksa Media.

Website:
www.speculative-fiction.ca

Twitter:
@SusanJForest

Instagram:
@SusanForestWrites

Facebook:
@SusanForest

Susan Forest’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Susan Forest

Susan Forest’s short fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science FictionAnalog Science Fiction and FactIntergalactic Medicine ShowBeneath Ceaseless Skies, and OnSPEC Magazine, among others. Her collection of short fiction, Immunity to Strange Tales, was published by Five Rivers Publishing, and her nonfiction has appeared in Legacy MagazineAlberta Views Magazine, and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Blog. Her short stories, “Back,” “Turning It Off,” and “The Gift” were finalists for the Prix Aurora Award, and her novella, Lucy, won the Galaxy Project, juried by Robert Silverberg, David Drake, and Barry Malzburg. “For a Rich Man to Enter” is nominated for the Prix Aurora Award this year (2019).

Bursts of Fire, the first in a seven-volume young-adult epic fantasy series, Addicted to Heaven, came out in August from Laksa Media, and will be followed by Flights of Marigolds in 2020.

Susan was the editor for Technicolor Ultra Mall (Edge), a finalist for the Prix Aurora Award in 2013. Strangers Among Us, and The Sum of Us, both of which she edited for Laksa Media, each won the Prix Aurora Award, in 2017 and 2018. The third in Laksa Media’s social issues anthology series, Shades Within Us, was released in 2018 and is nominated for the 2019 Prix Aurora Award.

Susan served two terms as Secretary for the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (2015-2016). She has judged the Endeavor and Sunburst Awards, teaches creative writing in Calgary, and presents at international writing conventions several times each year.

Susan is also a painter and visual artist whose landscapes have been displayed as part of the Stampede Western Showcase in her hometown of Calgary, Alberta.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome, Susan.

Hello, hello, hello.

Now, we’ve known each other for a few years.

Yes.

Because a science fiction convention in Calgary, which turned into When Words Collide in a roundabout sort of way, was what first started me going over to Calgary on a yearly basis. And I think probably the first time I went, I probably met you. And that’s been a long time ago now.

Probably. Yes, I remember.

Well, I always like to start these by taking guests…I usually say back into the mists of time, which is becoming almost a cliché on the show, but I’m going to say it anyway, because it fits…going back into the mists of time, how did you first become interested in science fiction and fantasy and how did you become interested in writing it? And you know, where did you grow up and all that kind of thing?

Yes. Well, I think the first books I really remember reading, like full novels, were Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Tarzan series. My dad, actually, was a big fan…oh, way back in the ‘30s, when they were super popular, and he would go to second-hand bookstores and bring them back from my older brother to read, actually. And so we didn’t necessarily start with Tarzan of the Apes. We started with whatever second-hand book he could find at the store. So, my brother would read them and then he would pass them on to me. So, that’s a huge memory as far as reading is concerned.

But, yeah, I always thought of myself as a writer from the time I was quite small, I think I was in Grade 2, and I wrote a book called Jimmy, the Fish that Couldn’t Swim. That’s the first thing I remember writing. And then, when I was in Grade 7, I used to…I was a very studious person, and I would…I had a big binder with all my subjects in it, and when the teacher was finished teaching, they’d usually give us some time to do some homework. So, I’d sit at the back, I’d get my homework done, and then I had a novel at the back of my binder, and I would just open that up and just work away on that a little bit at a time. So that’s my earliest writing that I can think of.

And did that continue as you went on through high school?

Oh, yeah, yeah. No, I never did stop writing. That’s for sure. I don’t know that it’s something that I pursued professionally for a long time, but I always had a book that I was working on.

Did you share it when you were young readers? Did you share your writing? I always ask that because I think it’s a valuable thing for young writers to do, to let other people read it and get an idea if you’re telling stories that other people will enjoy reading.

Only to a very small degree, maybe a very few close friends. It’s kind of interesting, Even today, like if I’m…I like to go skiing, and I’ll be on the ski lift, and people say, “Oh, well, what do you do?” And I say, “I’m a writer.” And they say, “Oh, yeah, what have you published?”, all this sort of stuff. But they say, “What do you write?” I say, “Science fiction,” and it tends to stop the conversation.

Yes, it does.

Because people don’t have anything to relate to. So, yeah.

Well, and I, of course, live in Regina, Saskatchewan, as you know, but listeners may not necessarily, and our professional football team here is called the Saskatchewan Roughriders, which are the Riders for short. So half the time if I say I’m a writer, people will look at me funny. “Aren’t you a little old to be a football player?” “No, a writer, it’s a wri-TER. So, around here you have to really careful how you pronounce it.

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. Yeah.

Well, was it science fiction and fantasy from the start, or were some of your early…well, I guess The Fish that Couldn’t Swim could be considered a fantasy.

I suppose. Yeah, you know I really did enjoy reading the horse stories. So Alec Ramsay, The Black Stallion, was huge, absolutely. I remember one time going to visit my cousin, though. She would read the Tarzan books and she said, “Guess what? Edgar Rice Burroughs also write science fiction. He writes John Carter of Mars!” So, of course, I got into that whole series. A little bit later, I was really interested in Ursula K. LeGuin, you know, the whole Earthsea series, Left Hand of Darkness, some of those books I really enjoyed reading. And I have a really strong memory of first getting involved with Tolkien. Again, it was my older brother who came up with this book, and we had one copy and everybody in our family was reading it, so you had to look right and left to see who had the book, right? And one time he just got so mad at me, he was going out and I knew he was gonna take the book with him, and I grabbed the book and I ran to the local school, the local junior high school that I attended. It had a courtyard that was almost three-quarters blocked off from the street. And I had the book and I was walking around in there and reading it. And he came along and he just glared at me, grabbed the book, and left. He never yelled at me or anything, but I knew I was big trouble.

So, when you got on through high school and university, did you study writing or what did you focus on?

Actually, my first…well, I’ve got a couple of university degrees, but they’re both in education. I was a teacher for many years. I was interested in taking creative writing, but it was quite difficult because the university tended to stream people. If you were in certain fields, there were courses that you couldn’t take in other fields. It was actually after I was teaching for a while that I was able to go back and take a course at the university with Aretha van Herk, it was just an introduction to creative writing. And the way I got into it was kind of funny because it was August, and I wanted to take a course in September, and I went and I got on the website and I signed up, and it looked like a great course to take. And I showed up at the first class, it was an evening course, it was on a Thursday night, and it was absolutely crammed with people. I don’t know, there were like 40 people in this room, which I thought was a little odd. And the teacher, the professor, came in, and she was angry. She said, “Half of you don’t belong here. We vetted the people who were going to come into this course way back in the spring, and the registrar let a whole pile bunch of people in. And there’s only allowed to be a maximum of 16 people in this class, so half of you don’t belong here.” But then she turned around and said, “However, if you have a chapter in your bottom drawer and you send it to me in the next day, I might let somebody in.” And guess what, I had a chapter in the bottom of the drawer. I didn’t know anything, so I went ahead and just sent it in, and she let me in. And I think of those extra 20 people, I was the only person that got into the course. So, yeah.

So, I often ask writers who have taken any sort of formal creative writing whether they ran into a pushback on the genre that they wish to write in. Were you writing something in the speculative fiction genre for that, that chapter that you sent in, or was it something else?

Oh, yes, absolutely. It was a fantasy novel. I always thought of myself as a fantasy novelist, especially before I knew myself better. But I did write a variety of different things while I was in that class, so I was using it as an opportunity to experiment. I learned a lot in that course. I know that…if I can brag just a little bit, I have a daughter who got her Ph.D. in creative writing, and yes, it certainly was her experience that writing in the fantasy and science fiction genres, she did experience that. And I have in other circumstances, as well. But I think the issue for me was I knew so little at that time that I was just a sponge. I was just soaking up every, every possible thing that I could get. I think I wound up with a C on that course, and I really think I deserved it. I think it might even have been generous, I don’t know. But I continued to learn from that course for like two years after I took it, just because I knew so little, and there was so much. And I would go back and I would revisit in my mind and experiment and try new things. So it was a really good course for me.

Well, as I’ve mentioned previously on the podcast, my degree was in journalism. So, I only took one creative writing course in university, and the name of our textbook was actually Three Genres, and I thought, “Oh, wow,” you know, “what is it? Like romance, mystery, and science fiction?” But no, it was plays, short stories, and poetry. And I don’t recall what I wrote for fiction for that—it must have been science fiction or fantasy, because that’s all I wrote, but the one thing I got the highest praise on from the teacher was actually a piece of poetry, which really startled me.

Whoa.

You know, just the fact that you’re writing…because I’d never thought of, you know, writing poetry, but I had to for the course, and it just…those classes and things like that do expose you  to different ideas and different writing. Even if they don’t like what you would like to write, you can often learn things from them, I think.

Oh, yeah, absolutely.

So when did you start seriously pursuing publication?

Well, way back, actually, a number of years ago, I…although I didn’t belong to any writers’ groups, I would, you know, worry away at my little project—I would work during the day and come home and write at night—and I belonged to the Writers Guild of Alberta. That was a…I mean, the result of that was simply I got a magazine once every three months or something like that. But I would look at the back, and there would be markets listed, and this particular time I was looking Gage Educational Publishing was looking for novels. So, I had a novel, so I sent it off, and that was my first published book. It’s something I don’t tend to talk about very much because I’m really amazed when I look back at that work right now and think, “They published that? Really?” It was really a two-edged sword because on the one hand I now had a published book, so that put me into a whole other category, for all kinds of things. Because it was a young adult book, I’d been working with the Young Writers Conference for a number of years here in Calgary, it meant that I could apply for grants, it meant that I could do all kinds of things because I had a book. The flip side of it is, it’s a terrible book. You know how they say editors do you a great favor when they don’t buy your book that isn’t ready? Yeah, no, that’s a really true thing. So, on the one hand, I’m really glad I got it published. On the other hand, I’m kind of embarrassed by it.

But that was your first one.

That was the first one.

When did the second publication come around, and was it short fiction? Because you started with short fiction before you went back to novels, didn’t you?

Yes, absolutely. Well, a number of things came together. For one thing, I did start to meet other writers, I belonged to writers’ groups—we actually met face to face and critiqued each other’s work—I took a number of workshops, so my writing was really growing. And one of the things that I decided to do was to try short fiction, as I said. I always thought of myself…my image of myself was as a fantasy novelist. So, I didn’t think I could write short fiction. I didn’t think I could write science fiction: all these limitations that I  placed on myself. But one of the things I discovered was that I was spending a lot of time at the beginning of long works and I was not learning, I guess, to write a full arc. And I thought, “Let’s work away with short stories and try to write a full arc.” And I would put them on the table for my critiques and they would say, “Yep, that’s Chapter 1 of another novel,” you know? So, definitely I had quite a learning curve as far as writing short stories was concerned, but I pursued and I persisted, and again…I know your mileage may vary and I know other people have found this does not necessarily work for them, but maybe it was because I just happened to belong to a very knowledgeable and supportive writers group, which…I’ll give them a little plug, it’s the Imaginative Fiction Writers Association of Calgary. Very large group. As long as you’re serious about writing, you can join it. You don’t have to be published. So, it goes from rank beginners right up to very well-published writers. Robert J. Sawyer is an honorary member. So, it was a really good place to learn a lot. And one of the things I learned was, when an editor is new to a publication or moves up within a publication to take a stronger editorial role, they may be trying to develop their own stable of authors. And I had a short story that I wanted to submit just about the time that Sheila Williams became editor for Asimov’s Magazine. She didn’t take the first story or even the second story that I submitted to her, but she did take the third story that I submitted to her. And so, that was my burst into what I would call really much more professional writing.

That’s one of the top markets in the field when it comes to short fiction, for sure, that one and Analog and Fantasy and Science Fiction used to be the big three. I mean, there’s a lot more stuff out there now.

Yeah, I’ve never got into F&SF. But my story about getting into Analog was kind of interesting. So, I mentioned that I went to a number of workshops and one of them was…the pro who ran it was Mike Resnick, and, oh, he was really tough on everybody around the table. One of the women, unfortunately…well, she did something that she probably shouldn’t have done. She took out an old trunk piece she hadn’t even looked at and put it on the table. And he kind of gave her a good tongue-lashing. He said. “You have 12 people around this table who have spent time and energy on your work and you didn’t care enough to give us your best.” So, he was pretty tough on us. But one of the things I remember was the absolute look of horror on his face when he looked around the table and he said, this is probably a direct quote, I remember it so well, “You all want to be professional writers and you don’t go to WorldCon?”, you know. So, one of the things that I did start doing was going to international conventions. And, you know, when you have friends like Robert J. Sawyer, who was able to make a few introductions, that really helped.

So, I met Stan from Analog, and I think making that connection maybe made a bit of a difference. But the other thing, too, was just, you know, talking to other writers, people would say, “If you want to get into Analog, try something short and funny.” So, I had sent something in that he called bleak. And then I sent in another one that was full of puns. And he really liked it. He said he laughed out loud, but it wasn’t a piece he thought that his readers would really think of as science fiction. And again, it was the third one that I sent in.

But, I’ll tell you a little story. I also go on a fairly regular basis to the Rainforest Writers’ Retreat in northwest Washington state. And I happened to be there one time, and just in a position to overhear the conversation between two editors, and one of them was saying to the other, “Do you know such and such a writer? Hs she submitted to your magazine?” And the other one said, “Yeah, yeah, she’s pretty good. Have you published anything by her?” “No, no, not yet.” “Well, have you heard anything about her recently?” “No, I haven’t heard anything.” I wonder if she stopped one sale, one story short of a sale. And, you know, it just really struck me that people in the business do know one another and are aware and in some ways, I think, are encouraging new writers…I mean, they have to have the best of the best for their publications…but that that they’re aware and are encouraging. At least, that’s been my experience anyway.

So you would recommend to new writers that they make an effort to get to these conventions and things like that, it sounds like?

Yes. I think…

I mean, it’s a lot of money to go to an international convention.

Oh, it certainly is. And I certainly have to watch which ones I’m able to go to. But, again, Rob Sawyer said something that kind of stuck with me a number of years ago. He said, “Always put your stories into the top markets first. If it gets rejected from there, there are the mid-tier markets and so forth that you can still try.” And his reasoning for this was, he said, “In your mind, you need to think of yourself as at that level,” right? If you think of yourself at that level, then you will write to that level and you will be at that level, which kind of makes sense. So I think the same thing with going to the conventions…by the fact that you attend—you can learn a lot from one thing, you can also meet people, which is helpful—but also, you see yourself at that level. I am a professional. This is what I do.

Well, certainly since those early sales, you’ve racked up a considerable number of short fiction sales. But now we’re going to talk about your novel, which is starting a pretty ambitious project, a seven-volume epic fantasy series.

Yes.

So this…and this still goes back to the short fiction, as well. I mean, I know it’s a cliché, in these sorts of things, to ask, “Where do you get your ideas?” But it is a valid question. I know, ideas are everywhere, but at the same time we all have little things that tend to spark them in us, and spark story ideas. So, first of all…well, first of all, before we do that, let’s get a brief synopsis of Bursts of Fire, the first book. Without spoilers, because I’m only about halfway through it.

Okay. Well, Bursts of Fire, the first book, it’s the story of three sisters. Meg is the eldest…she’s 17 and she’s essentially the protagonist, but the other two sisters are very important as well…they are magic wielders. But they are very highly placed. They’re like princesses. They’ve grown up in a castle, with all of the benefits of that and very little life experience. Their mother is the magic wielder for the king, who has the second-most powerful prayer stone in this fantasy world. Their mother sees a glimpse of the future and she sees that war is coming. She wants to save her daughters. She also wants to save this magical prayer stone, and she wants to save the balance of the world, which is quite healthy at this point. So, yes, their castle is attacked, right away in Chapter 1, and the mother, because she has this bit of premonition, she is able to help her daughters flee. And so, the three daughters flee with their nurse, who is killed almost immediately, and the three sisters are in this world as refugees alone. You were going to say something?

I was going to say I knew the nurse was doomed because you have to get your young protagonists on their own as quickly as possible.

Yeah, exactly. So, they meet…of course, now when something huge like this happens in a world, things don’t stay static. You have people who are going to rise up and say, “Hey, this is wrong. We want to do something about it.” And so, a very nascent rebel group starts to form and the sisters get involved with that. So that’s how the story begins now.

Now, I can go back to the question, what was the seed for this story? Where did that seed come from for you? And is it typical of the way that you come up with story ideas?

You know, it’s been a very interesting process to work on this series, because…I think I heard somebody say this very recently, but I think it’s quite true, that fantasy in particular, I think it tends to take itself very seriously, and a lot of the writing that I had been doing in the fantasy genre, I think, really, I was feeling, “Oh, this is this is dark and getting darker,” and I have a very strong memory. I can’t place the memory in time, but a very strong memory of camping and being in a tent in the morning, waking up, it was so beautiful, it was warm in the tent, the sun was shining through, and just thinking, “Oh, my goodness, what I really want to do is, I want to write a heist romp. I want to do something light, something, just, you know, with maybe even some comic moments and what have you.” And that is actually where the idea came from. I think I had an image of a young female thief climbing up the outside of a castle tower, was kind of the image that I think this whole thing sprang from. And it does happen later in the series. It’s still there. But when I was when I was a teacher, one of the experiences that I was very fortunate to have was to take up a course that was called mini-counselling. It was, like, a three-day course in counselling, because teachers do have to counsel students all the time. And one of the gems that came out of that was, as a counselor, it’s not necessary to talk to a client and say, you know, “What is your deepest, darkest secret that you fear?” You can start anywhere, because whatever is bothering somebody is going to come out in its own good time. And I think that is also true in the writing process, that the themes and the ideas that you yourself are wrestling with may be very sub…you know, you’re not aware of them, they’re in your subconscious, but they’re going to come out in your themes and in your writing anyway. And so, yeah, I wanted to write a really lighthearted heist romp, but no…

I can’t say that’s the way it’s coming out.

No, the book gets into a whole lot of deeper issues because that’s just what’s bubbling up out of my subconscious.

So is that sort of seeing an image, is that a fairly typical way for you to latch on to a story idea? Just something in your mind that’s, “Oh, that would be cool!”

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think there’s a lot of visualization, for sure, that happens in the early stages of my writing. Yeah, absolutely.

So, as you begin to develop this, what does your…I mean, there’s quite a bit of…a fairly complicated magical thing going on here.

Yes.

And something…I don’t believe I’ve read anything quite like it before. So, was there are a lot of worldbuilding before you even begin plotting, or how did all that planning and synopsizing work for you?

Yeah. Well, I need a lot of people who are pantsers, and I understand that there’s some great advantages to writing by the seat of your pants. A friend of mine once said, “You know, when I’m writing by the seat of my pants, I can surprise myself. And if I can surprise myself, I can surprise the reader.” And, you know, surprise is a wonderful thing to be able to have in your stories, for sure. But I have never been a pantser. I’ve always plotted my stories, right from the very beginning. However, my process is a bit more complex than that, because I do tend to go back and forth in the initial stages between just writing scenes and planning and then writing some more scenes and planning. And I think it’s because I really don’t know enough about my world and I don’t know enough about my characters until I see them in action. So, I have to write some chapters or some scenes before I can really get deep into the planning. On the other hand, I don’t get too deep into the book before I do create a complete of…quite a detailed outline.

And do you follow that outline as you write or does it wander off occasionally?

I tend to follow it fairly closely in the broad strokes. Having said that, you know what? If your story is telling you you need to do something, you need to listen to that because, you know, that’s where the surprise comes from. I remember one time very clearly writing along, and I had two conmen—this was in the same series, it’s a little later on…and one of them said, “All we need is a miracle.” And I thought, “Yeah, that’s perfect.” And then I thought, “OK, now I have to come up with a miracle.” But, you know, as a writer, you have time, because…if you are a performing artist, as you know, because you’re a performing artist, when you’re on stage doing something, whatever comes out of your mouth, well, it’s out of your mouth, whether it’s good, bad, or indifferent, right? As a writer, we do have that to a degree. I mean, eventually there are deadlines, but to a degree, we have the opportunity to go back and rewrite. And if you need a miracle, you can do some research and you can come up with a miracle.

Well, how did you come up with the idea for this particular magic system? Maybe you should explain a little bit about what the magic is like in this book.

This…I’m really enjoying working with this magic system because it’s giving me so many tools to do so much in the books that I really enjoy. For your listeners, I’m sure they’re quite aware that magic systems always have to have a cost. And so, it’s important that the magic system does not allow your magic wielder to just do anything in the world. There have to be limitations. The magic is based on the manipulation of time. So, the people who have this ability can hold an object still in time, so it doesn’t move as the timestream moves around it, or they can take it back in time, or they can take it forward in time. But usually, just a very small object, maybe, I dunno, something the size of a pea is about all they can do. So, they can’t just take the entire world and stop it in time.

But also, let me just give an example, which is right away in the early part of the book, these three girls are trying to escape the city. The gate is locked. They’re able to find a time when that lock was open, and then they walk through the gate. So, it works in these very small ways. The cost of the magic is that once you have used magic, you have disturbed the timestream, and that therefore you live bits and pieces of your own life out of order. There’s no way of knowing how that’s going to happen. It’s quite random. You may suddenly find yourself at a time in your past, but only for a few seconds. Or you may find yourself at a time in your future, but again, only for a few seconds. And that is really important, because take, for instance, the fact that the three girls mother knows something bad is gonna happen, but she doesn’t know what, she doesn’t know when. So, she’s preparing for her girls to get out of the city, but the bad thing happens before the preparations are complete because she doesn’t know when. So it allows for a little bit more adventure, a little bit more, you know, surprise.

One of the things that you sometimes find in fantasy novels that I find quite irritating is the prophecy. Prophecies are very problematic. Either the prophecy is right, in which case it’s kind of boring because you’ve got the prophecy and then you get the adventure, and they’re the same, so there’s no surprise, or the prophecy is wrong, in which case it wasn’t a very good prophecy. So, people tend to write prophecies in very cryptic language that could be interpreted in a whole lot of different ways, which in my mind…I just find it kind of irritating.

It’s like, if you’re a prophet, why can’t you be clear?

Yeah, exactly. So, the advantage to this is that we can see bits and pieces of the future, just not enough to tell what the whole story is. So, you can get that foreshadowing, you can you can get the tool to use to help you to a degree, but without giving away the whole story.

So, once you actually start writing, what does your writing process look? Like, do you write longhand on a parchment out under the stars? How does it work for you?

Does anybody really? Maybe some people do. No, I’m very much…I think through my fingers. In fact, sometimes, you know, I might be helping somebody with something else, and I’ll say, “Just let me write this,” and then I’ll know what I want to say and then tell it to them. You know, I can really think through my fingers on the keyboard. I do tend to be a…I’ve planned it, I’m going to start with scene one, chapter one, and work my way through. But recently, I have been experimenting a little bit more with quilting. So, you’ve heard of writing by the seat of your pants or pantsing, planning, and then quilting is where you write a theme or chapter, and it could fit anywhere in the book or it may not be in the book at all. And then you string your quilted scenes together with the other scenes that you require. And I have been experimenting with that a little bit for a couple of reasons. One is, I love to ride on the back of my husband’s motorcycle, and especially on the winding, twisty roads, it’s like riding a roller coaster. It’s tons of fun. But, you know, not all riding on the motorcycle is hills and curves. Some of it is straight boring highway for hours at a stretch. And we don’t have the means to talk to each other in our helmets, so what I do is, I get a tape recorder and I’ve got a lovely little tiny microphone that I can stuff inside my helmet, and of course have to stuff a lot of padding in there so I don’t get any road noise, and I can write all usually about four scenes in a day of motorcycle riding, which is about 4,000 words. And you know what? If you go on a 10-day motorcycle trip, you can get a chunk of your book done that way.

Well, you’re the first person I’ve talked to that writes on the back of a motorcycle. That’s a new one.

So, what I do is, I know what’s in the scene because I made the plan, I write a little point-form note that maybe has three or four things that I want to occur in this scene, and then I dictate the scene. When I get…you know, if we stay in a hotel, usually by the end of the day, my husband’s really tired because he did all the work, so he’ll have a nap, and then I can get out the tape recorder and I transcribe onto my iPad—you have to carry very small equipment on a motorcycle—and then, I usually just transcribe and I need to do it right away, because sometimes, you know, with the road noise, it’s  hard to get some of the words.

I was going to ask you about that, yeah.

There’s no way I would ever try to use Dragon on a motorcycle ‘cause I would get complete gobbledygook. So, I transcribe it right away and maybe do a little bit of editing at that point. But because of this method, I need to be very clear in my mind about the scene that I’m doing. So I pick, like, the best scenes. I pick the most active ones, or the ones with the greatest interpersonal conflict, or the ones that are clearest in my mind, which means that the ones that are still a bit fuzzy in my head, those are the ones that I really need to have that focus and concentration to do my initial drafts.

Well, once you got this all assembled, and you have your first draft, what is your revision process look like? Do you go back to the very beginning and rewrite the whole thing? Or, by the time, you get to the end, have you sort of rewritten as you go along and it’s pretty much done.

Lots of times, there are going to be problems somewhere in the book. Usually multiple places in the book. So, my first go to is going to probably just be a complete read-through to see, “How is this whole thing hanging together?” And you know, the low-hanging fruit, capturing those things that are really obvious. I do a number of edits. I’m not…I think I do actually a fairly clean first draft, but…like, something that I’m dictating, for instance, is not gonna be a very clean first draft. It’s going to be…have all kinds of problems with it. So I revise, revise, revise, revise. And I’m looking for story arcs, I’m looking for character arcs, I’m looking for interweaving the worldbuilding. And worldbuilding is so important because it’s way more than just the physical description, right? It’s the technological development, it’s the social development, the attitudes of people toward everything that’s going on, that you never have—and this is a truism—an entire group that thinks the same way, there are going to be people who disagree within a group. So, ensuring that that layering in that complexity is in? And then, finally, of course, you do have to look at the words and the sentences and making it the best it can be.

And this is where I wanted to talk about your editing career. Because you…how did you get started editing other people, and how does your experience as an editor play into editing your own stuff?

Oh, it has been absolutely amazing. It is one of the best things that I ever could have done. I had…oh, I’m guessing, 20 years of critiquing other people’s works, because I’ve belonged to a couple of…three or four…different critique groups at different times. So, I got lots of practice with that. Between giving critiques and receiving critiques, you learn a lot, and you learn so much by critiquing other people’s work. Lots of times what you do yourself, the mistakes you make yourself, you can’t see them until you see them in somebody else’s work. So that was a, I think, a really solid basis. And then, when I stopped teaching, I was actually approached by Edge Science Fiction and Fantasy Publishing to edit for them. So, I edited, in total, three novels for them, one of which was nominated for the Prix Aurora Award, so I was really happy about that. And then, I also became a freelance editor as well. And then, when was it, I guess four or five years ago, when Laksa Media first got started, again, I was invited to edit for them. And that was a bit of a daunting experience  because…I remember being at World Fantasy Convention one year and sitting with a bunch of editors at a table at various stages and saying, “I’m starting on this new project, the publisher has invited some really high-level authors, and it’s just making me a bit nervous.” And the advice I got back was, “The bigger the author, the more professional and the easier they are to work with.” And, you know, that was absolutely true. I have to say, I can remember one particular story I edited where the author was really busy with a deadline, and so we got the story a little bit late. And I went through it and I thought, “Oh, this is a really good story, but it’s got a couple of plot holes.” And I really didn’t want to write the letter saying, “Can you fix this and this?” But I did. And the author got back to me and said, “I’ve done all the things you wanted. Have a look.” I looked at it. Not only had this author done all the things I wanted, but way more. And it was an amazing story and I felt so good about it. But the best part was I ran into that author at a convention later, who said to me that that really appreciated my editing. And, oh, I was thrilled.

Well, it’s something that, and, you know, I do a lot of editing, too, and I find the same thing, that editing other people’s stuff and mentoring other writers and all that stuff that I do feeds right back into my own writing, and I start to see things that maybe I wouldn’t see if it weren’t for the fact that I’m seeing it in other people’s stuff.

Oh, absolutely.

I think it is very useful. Well, OK, so now you’ve done your revisions. You’re actually an editor at Laksa Media, but presumably you’re not your own editor.

No, no, no. It’s unfortunate that it’s…it’s a little bit incestuous that way. I did start working as an editor with Laksa Media first, but I did have this novel that I was working on. And Lucas Law…for people who don’t know, Laksa Media is very small. So, it was Lucas law. And he said to me, “I’m interested in your novel, and can we talk about it?” We talked about it, actually, for at least a full year, probably closer to a year and a half, before we finally said, “Yeah, this novel would fit with Laksa Media.” And here’s something that I found really interesting. I found Lucas to be an excellent editor for my work, but one of the things he said early on that was really huge was he said, “I enjoy your story. I think you’ve got something here that we can work with, but Laksa Media has its niche. It is into social causes.” So, the first anthology they put out, Strangers Among Us, was about mental health and mental illness. The second one, The Sum of Us, was about caregivers and caregiving. The third one was about migrations, Shades Within Us. And so, he said, “What is the social cause that your book is really dealing with?” And it was interesting, because that was not something I had thought about up until that point. But, as you say, you know, what you’re wrestling with in your subconscious comes out, and I just took one look at him and I said, “Addictions.” That’s exactly what it’s dealing with. And as soon as he asked me that question, I knew the answer.

Now, having said that, sometimes thematic threads that are nascent that are in the book, but kind of bubbling under the surface, then you want to go back with your edit and say, “Okay, how am I developing this? What is it that I have to say and how is it coming through?” So, for instance, as you mentioned earlier, this is a seven-book series, and the topic of addictions is absolutely huge, which is a wonderful, wonderful way that these things work together, because Bursts of Fire is dealing…exactly like the title says. It’s first tastes. It’s a YA take on a novel. The girls are 17, 16 and 11, and they are out in this world where they have never seen or heard any of the stuff that’s going on around them. So, they get first taste of all kinds of different things, including spells that are…in our world the analogue would be like drugs…that give them all sorts of mystical experiences, as well as, you know, healing spells and curses and all of these sorts of things. So, they’re getting first tastes of alcohol, first case of love, all of these bursts of fire that are happening around them. So, that’s book one. Book two deals with interdependence…codependents, that’s what I’m trying to say. Codependents and enabling. Book three deals with the social conditions that may underlie why certain groups may become more at risk for addictions than other groups. One of the later books deals with Prohibition. You know, there’s issues of recovery and relapse. There’s seven books. You can you can really dig your teeth into a whole lot of different aspects of the theme.

Should probably say, though, that although those are the themes, it’s still a heck of an adventure story.

Yes, that’s primary. And that’s really important, because nobody wants to read a book that’s a) a downer. “Oh, my goodness, addictions, da-da-duh-da,” right? But b) you know, hitting you over the head with, “You should do this or you should do that,” or, you know, whatever. So, it is the thematic content, but there…it’s an epic saga. It is…it’s dealing with war and sword sorcery and magic and, you know, the fantasy.

How detailed is your plot for the entire series? Do you have, like, the future books get sort of a paragraph and you’ll figure that out later as you get there, or is it all figured out to great detail already?

Book two was submitted, so it’s completely written. Book three is completely plotted out and I’d say 85 to 90 percent written. I know it doesn’t come out until 2021, but it’s really nice to be ahead of the curve. The other thing is, by working further into the books, down the series, that makes sure that I can have the proper seeds planted in the earlier books. Books four, five and six, all have some writing in them. All are relatively plotted out, but in broad strokes—more than a paragraph, but still fairly broad strokes—and book seven is planned, and I know how the series ends, it’s definitely ending with book seven, but I haven’t done any of the writing on book seven yet.

Well, we’re getting close to our time being up—not that there’s exactly a firm deadline on these things. It’s not like it’s a live radio show—but this is the point where I ask the big philosophical questions, or question, which is basically, why do you write, first of all, and why do you write science fiction and fantasy, second of all, specifically. And I guess, why do you think any of us write this crazy stuff?

I think that there is a lot to be said for…you know, my initial idea, the fantasy heist romp, you know, just the fun book. I think there’s a lot to be said for that. But I don’t think we ever even write a very light book without some of that thematic stuff percolating away underneath. I think it always happens even if we’re not in control of it. But more important, I think all art is a type of leadership within our culture and within our society. If you look at politics, for instance, political leaders in a democracy need to satisfy the masses or they’re not going to get re-elected, right? The masses, on the other hand, feel kind of powerless because they’ll say, “Well, the leaders are deciding everything.” So I think you’ve got this kind of loop going back and forth between the electorate and the politicians. But where does change come from? It comes from the discourse. The major discourse will determine what both groups are going to pursue. And it is the artist who can influence the discourse. It is the artist who brings up new ideas, who brings up arguments, of ways of thinking, and gets people talking.

And I’ll give you an example of this. I think that for many, many, many years…okay, I’m in Alberta, right? Oh, my goodness. we love our oil in Alberta. If there’s going to be any kind of a development project, oh, yeah, maybe there are some hoops to jump through, but it’s going to go through. You know it’s gonna go through, right? In recent years, the assurance of that has been wavering. It’s not necessarily for sure anymore that these big mega-dams are going to go through. And it’s because the discourse is changing. It’s because other voices are coming forward and saying, “Hey, you know, we need to pay attention to climate change. We need to pay attention to the farmland that’s gonna be flooded by that dam.” And those voices are coming forward, and now the major discourse is starting to shift. So, our voices coming forward…and I think artists are a key component of that.

I guess that kind of answers the other question I often ask, which is, because this program is called The Worldshapers, if you think…I mean, shaping the world is perhaps a bit grand, but if you are at least shaping the way that individuals think about things in your writing, and is that something you hope you are accomplishing, that you hope that you’re having some impact on the way individuals think about the world and everything. Life, the universe, and everything.

Life, the universe, and everything. Yes, absolutely. I think that is the purpose and function of art, and as writers, we are artists, and I think it’s important to be aware of and in control, as much as we can, of the thematic elements that we’re putting forward. But at the same time, the story is primary. I mean, you may have ideas that you need, that you want to bring forward, but, yeah, that is always the under-layer, that is always something that just percolates up. It’s story that has to be first and foremost.

And you’ve said something about things percolating up, whether you know they’re there or not. And there is a story…I’ve told it before, but I always like to, that Isaac Asimov put in his Opus 100, I think, one of his autobiographical books, how he had gone to a university class in science fiction at some university—it would been in New York since he barely traveled—and he heard the professor talking about his story “Nightfall.” And he sat at the back and he listened to him going on about it, then at the end, he went up the professor and he said, “That was a very interesting class, but, you know, I’m Isaac Asimov and I wrote that story and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there.” And the professor said, “Well, I’m very glad to meet you, but just because you wrote the story, what makes you think you know what’s in it?”

You know what? I had heard that story, but I did not realize it was Isaac Asimov’s “Nightfall.”

Yeah, definitely “Nightfall,” and I think it’s in Opus 100.

Yeah. Oh, I learned something new. That’s cool.

So, what are you working on next? I think I know the answer to that—it’s probably the next book in this series—but are there  other things as well?

Yes. Absolutely. Actually I’m really excited about a book project that I’ve got on the go. One reason I’m kind of glad to be already at book three in this series is because I think, over the winter, if there’s not too many edits, I’ve got still a year and a half before it’s due, I’m working on one that is a World War Two fantasy, and it’s kind of a mystery thriller as well. The magical element is a character who can step outside of his body for brief periods to see and hear things without being seen and heard. So he would make a great spy, right? Except that he’s had some bad experiences and he is in hiding. He’s living on a small farm in rural Alberta. And I’m doing tons of research on rural Alberta in the 1940s, it’s really interesting. The book is actually from his wife’s point of view, and he gets kidnapped and she does not know where he’s gone. So, it is her journey to find and rescue her husband, it does take her over to Europe, but also to find and learn about magic. And it also deals with disabilities and mental illness. Now, I don’t have a publisher for this book. It’s not even written. But I’m really excited about working on it.

Are you still writing short fiction?

You know what? I wish I was. I have, like, one short fiction story that is out circulating right now, and I really should be doing more short fiction. But yeah, no, I’m just so busy with so many other things, I have not been getting to it this year. Maybe it’ll come up in the winter. Maybe I’ll get something done this winter.

And you’re still doing freelance editing as well?

Yes. Yeah. All of the above. And teaching at the Alexandra Writers Center.

So, one or two things going on.

Yeah. Keeps me busy.

So, where can people find you online?

Well, my website is called speculative-fiction.ca.

Yeah. How’d you get that?

Oh, yeah, I was very lucky. And then, let’s see, I’m on Instagram, @SusanForestWrites, I’m on Twitter @SusanJForest, and Facebook @SusanForest, and, oh, can I just mention, we just put out a wonderful video to support the first book, Bursts of Fire, and it’s on YouTube, just look up Susan Forest, and you’ll find me there. 

All right. Good stuff. And so thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.

Thank you

And I’m sure I’ll see you in…probably in Calgary at When Words Collide next year, if not before.

Yep. And I’m going to see you in Ottawa this fall.

Oh, you’re gonna be a Can*Con for the Auroras, so I’ll see you there. Because, of course, this podcast is also nominated for an Aurora this year.

Yeah, good luck.

Yeah. Looking forward to that. And my editor, Sheila Gilbert from DAW Books, will be there again this year. So that’ll be great as well. All right, so I’ll let you go now. Thanks again for being a guest.

Thank you.

Episode 36: Tim Pratt

An hour-long conversation with Tim Pratt, author of more than twenty novels (most recently the Axiom space-opera series, Philip K. Dick Award finalist The Wrong Stars, The Dreaming Stars, and The Forbidden Stars), a Hugo Award winner for short fiction and a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards.

Website:
timpratt.org

Twitter:
@TimPratt

Tim Pratt’s Patreon page

Tim Pratt’s Amazon page

The Introduction

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is the author of more than twenty novels: most recently, the Axiom space-opera series, including Philip K. Dick Award finalist The Wrong Stars, The Dreaming Stars, and the forthcoming third volume, The Forbidden Stars, out this month (October 8, two days after this episode released. – Ed.). He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction and has been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. His collection, Miracles and Marvels, is also coming in November…or, coming in November. Not also, because The Forbidden Stars is out in October, it’s coming after that. He tweets incessantly (he says) as @TimPratt and publishes a new story every month for patrons at patreon.com/timpratt.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Tim.

Hi, Ed, thanks so much for having me.

Could’ve sworn it said November for The Forbidden Stars. Anyway…

I probably told you the wrong date. Like most authors, I have only the vaguest idea of when anything is coming out. I think last year it came out…the second book came out in September, the first one might have come out in November. That’s probably what happened.

Close enough, anyway. Yeah, and I just finished reading the first two, so I’m looking forward to talking to you about them. Usually at this point in the podcast, I will talk about how we met at some convention or other, but I’m not sure we’ve ever met at a convention. I might have seen you at a WorldCon or World Fantasy, but I can’t say for sure that we’ve ever actually spoken. So, this is a new one.

Yeah. Nice to meet you. I used to go to a lot of conventions, and then I had a child about twelve years ago and have only in the last couple of years kind of gotten back into getting back into the convention scene. But there was a long stretch there where I only went if it was, you know, twenty minutes from my house.

Which most of them aren’t.

Well, you know, I’m in the Bay Area, so it’s not absolutely none, but yeah, it’s not that many.

Well, we’re gonna talk about the Axiom series in particular as an example of your creative process, but before we do that, let’s go back, as I like to say, into the mists of time, which you’re getting further back for some of us than others. I say that having just had a 60th birthday not that long ago…

Oh, happy birthday.

…and find out how you first became interested in, first of all, in science fiction fantasy, and how you became interested in writing the same.

Oh, absolutely. Really, my parents were just really big readers. I grew up fairly poor, travelled around a lot with my mom. She was a single mom for the first six years of my life and we lived all over the south and kind of had no fixed address. We stayed with relatives or we spent some time in West Virginia, Texas, wherever. But she was always a science fiction fan, so those books were around. When I was about six, she married my stepdad and we settled down in North Carolina. And, you know, my dad’s a welder and my mom for a long time was, you know, just worked the cash register in a store, although later she became a paramedic when I was in high school. And so, not sort of the classic literary upbringing. There was no beautiful library full of volumes, but what they would do is whenever they were at the thrift store they would pick up all the cheap paperbacks, right, and they would bring them home. So, there are always millions of books in my house, and the majority of them were science fiction, fantasy, and horror. So that was just early exposure. You know, by the time I was eight years old, I was reading Stephen King novels, not entirely understanding everything that was happening in them, but I was reading them.

And then, in summers, I would stay with my great-grandmother, Annie, who would watch me while my parents were working. And she was a huge science fiction novel fan. And she was like, she didn’t mess around with fantasy, she didn’t mess around with horror. She was a Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov science-fiction fan, and her guestroom was just full of shelves and just full of hundreds of books. And so in the summer, you know, I would like to eat ice cream and watch TV, but she would be like, “No, you can’t watch TV all day. Go weed the garden and, you know, and you can read.” And so I’d read her books. And that, I mean, honestly, that was my education and my grounding in science fiction.

Not a bad one.

Really, no.

So when did you become interested in writing it, or writing in general?

The oldest story that my mom still has in the shoebox is from when I was in second grade, so before I remember not being into writing, right, I don’t have a memory of not being interested in it. You know, kids play around with all the arts, right? I wanted to be a visual artist. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be a chef. All these things. Honestly, I think writing stuck because writing had the lowest barrier to entry. You know, if I wanted to play music, well, I had to get a guitar from somewhere, right? If I wanted to be an artist. I needed to get art supplies. If I wanted to write. I just needed a spiral-bound notebook and a pencil. I had that anyway to go to school. So that’s sort of the artistic endeavor that I just started and kept at. My learning curve was incredibly slow because I didn’t sell any fiction until I was in my twenties, but I was working at it.

So, did you write, as you went through school, were you writing a lot of stories? And were you sharing them with friends to see what they thought or anything like that?

I did. Yeah, I was collaborating with a friend in fourth grade. I actually just recently was digging through some old files and found something. I was like, “Oh, yeah, we wrote this thing together.” When I was in high school, once I was in typing class–not keyboarding class, we had, they were electric, but we had typewriters–I started making just a little satirical like joke-filled newspaper thing for my friends that I would just type there and it would end up getting sort of circulated around–I mean, one copy at a time, but it would get passed around the school. I was always writing and in high school I was sort of, I was known as the writer. I have no idea why, I’d published on a couple of like, you know, school literary magazines or whatever. But somehow, like, my senior year, I was voted “most talented.” I’m like, “How? Why? Like, it should go to someone who’s like playing in a band or like doing art that’s hanging in the halls, at least. Like, how does anybody know I do anything?” But I guess I never shut up about it. so people knew that I was doing it.

Did you write make longer stuff, like novels, or you sort of on the shorter side during all of that time?

Most of that time I was writing short stories. I really love short stories. I did take a couple of stabs at longer things and probably in high school produced some novella-length stuff that wasn’t very good. It was college before I really settled down and thought, “You know, I’d like to sort of figure out how to do novels now.” And I wrote a few of those through college and I went to Clarion right after college and after Clarion…so, at Clarion they warn you, “You know, you’ve been here, you’ve been so intense, you’ve been so focused, a lot of people, they come out declaring they’re just blocked. They’re, like, too hypercritical of their work, they can’t produce anything just because they freeze up about everything they’re doing wrong.”

It sounds like telling people that would be a good way to make that happen.

Right. Yeah, let’s plant the seed of fear. But, so I sort of thought, well, I’m not gonna let that happen. So I came back from Clarion and I did a novel there, which was…there were a bunch of people online who would do, like, dare each other to write a novel in thirty days. So, sort of NaNoWriMo-ish, except usually longer, like an eighty-, ninety-, hundred-thousand-word novel that you would try to write in thirty days, and sort of just boost each other up online. And so, I did one of those, like, immediately after clearing. And that book was also terrible, but the book I wrote after that, I sold.

Well, it’s that old thing, and it’s attributed to various people–somebody told me Ray Bradbury said you had write 800,000 words and Stephen King said you only had to write 500,000. So it’s getting better, you know, as you go along.

That’s right. Yeah.

You’re talking about writing a novella-length…I had thought I had written novels in high school because they were typed up and they made a substantial stack of paper. But recently, I scanned the first one I wrote, when I was fourteen, which I typed up as soon as I had my–and it was on a typewriter–my typing classes. And, you know, I thought it was long, but when I scanned it and did a word count, it’s like 38,000 words.

That’s close.

Pretty close, but it wasn’t really a novel. But still, it looks like one. So… I’m thinking about putting it out online under my…I was known as Eddie Willett when I was a kid…putting it out under my Eddie Willett byline on Amazon. My worry is it might sell better than my other stuff.

You know, it’s a fear. I took the first novel that I finished, that I wrote when I was probably a sophomore in college…and it’s not very good, it’s sort of contemporary fantasy thing…and I do a Patreon where I read a new story every month, I’ve been doing it for years, and I do bonus material sometime, and usually it’s like trunk stories or fragments or audio, just, like, weird stuff. But I was like, “You know, I have this novel. I’m just going to resist the urge to clean it up. Really. I’ll go through it and make sure there’s not anything too, like, horrific because it was written by a twenty-year-old white guy,” and I posted it to my Patreon as a bonus novel. So, there are at least a couple of hundred people who’ve potentially been able to read my juvenilia. I don’t think I’d put it on Amazon.

Back at the Denver WorldCon, I think it was, I suggested a panel of writers reading their juvenilia, because I had this, and we had Connie Willis on it…

Oh, that’s great.

…Josh Palmatier, Sarah Hoyt and me, and we all read. Connie didn’t really have juvenilia, but she read some of her early romance short stories that she had written.

Oh, yeah. She used to write for the magazines.

Yes, she did. And I read from my novel, and I don’t know what the others read. It actually went over really, really well. It’s sometimes hard to find authors who are willing to do it, though.

Well, I think it’s fun. And sometimes you get, like, “It Came from the Slush Pile,” reading terrible things that, you know, were submitted. That always makes me a little bit twitchy because God knows I’ve submitted some terrible things and I would be embarrassed. But if you’re an author and you’re embracing your own terribleness, you know, you can get the same laughs, I think.

The fear of going to “It Came from a Slush Pile” would be, you’d be sitting there prepared to laugh at this stuff, and then they read something you submitted.

Exactly. A frisson of terror.

So, you mentioned Clarion. You were an actual English major, were you not, at university?

I was. I took the very laziest path. In retrospect, I got more out of my history classes, and I probably should have majored in that. I almost double majored, but I needed to take one more class, and instead I went to Clarion, so I said, “Fine, I’ll do a history minor.” But yeah, it was just, you know, “I like to write. I like to read…” I thought I was going to…I went into college intending to become an English teacher. I thought that was, you know, the safe path, like, a plausible thing to do.

And then when I was a freshman, I ended up taking a workshop, a ten-day workshop that Orson Scott Card ran, because he had an association with my university. And they…like, the university…had this apartment, or I guess it was like a little townhouse, in Washington, D.C., and Scott would go up there and run these ten-day workshops for, you know, eight or ten college kids. And I went in there and I took some stories and Scott kind of took me aside and said, “I think you have it in you to do this professionally.” And that was only encouragement I needed. I then immediately threw away all my plans to have any kind of reasonable backup, you know, professional safety net and said, “Okay, I’m just going to be a writer. I’m going to do it.”

Well, I was going to ask about your experience as an English major, because when I’ve talked to some writers who have done that and they’ve taken creative writing, they say that they had a…they would run into pushback because of what they wanted to write. And obviously, you at least had some classes with Orson Scott Card, a previous guest on here, so I’m guessing there wasn’t a particular problem with the genre you were writing.

Well, it’s funny, because I took…it actually didn’t have to be genre fiction to get into that workshop, and I submitted literary stories because I had sort of been beaten about the head and told, “Oh, we don’t really want to cover the science fiction and fantasy stuff,” right? And so, I was writing…you know, they were still weird and they had elements of crime and stuff like that, but I was writing stories without supernatural or science fictional elements. So, once I got to the workshop, I freed myself. I was like, “This is a sympathetic audience. I’ll do this.” I did end up doing my honors thesis in poetry instead of fiction, because the woman who ran the fiction department, though she was lovely, just did not get science fiction and fantasy, she just didn’t really understand it. I found the poets in the department much more sympathetic, so I came out with a degree with a concentration in creative writing, but my thesis was poetry.

So, what happened after university? How did you break in?

Yeah, so I went to Clarion, I took a couple of stories, I met a bunch of great people who I’m still close friends with, Tobias Buckell, Jenn Reese are both still writing a lot. Lots of other people, honestly. I learned so much from my instructors. It was really huge for me. And like I said, then I came back and I wrote a novel to make sure that I hadn’t broken my brain by being at Clarion and came to California pretty much on a whim. I was living in the mountains of North Carolina. I was working in advertising, so I was making money, but I really did not enjoy my job. I kind of didn’t like the face I saw in the mirror every morning. I mean, it’s fine. You can do advertising and do it ethically. I worked for a company whose explicit approach was to go into small towns and put the locally owned businesses out of business. Like, they had specific strategies to do this so that they could dominate the local markets, and I just felt kind of twitchy about it. So, I had a friend who is studying astronomy in grad school in Santa Cruz, and he said, “Santa Cruz is beautiful, you should move out here. I need a housemate in the fall anyway. I’m going to have to move.” So I said, “Sure.” And I loaded up the car and drove for four days across the country.

Loaded up the car, and you moved to…

I did. I moved to…

Not quite Beverly…

Not quite. A little bit farther north. But, you know, the whole time I was still writing, and I had…around ’99, 2000, started to occasionally sell stories to, like, very tiny small-press magazines and stuff like that. So I was getting some encouragement. I got up here and I lived in Santa Cruz for a while and I moved up to Oakland after I met Heather Shaw, whom I eventually married, also a writer and editor. We started dating, and dating up and down the coast from Santa Cruz to Oakland proved to be a little bit tiring, so I moved up to Oakland, and I got a job at Locus. I applied at Locus Magazine, and was fortunate in that one of my Clarion instructors was Michaela Roessner, who was very good friends with Charles Brown, who was still alive and running Locus. So, I came up for the interview and he said, “Oh, I asked Mikey about you and, you know, you got the job if you want it. Here’s what the job is.” So that helped a lot.

For those who don’t know, you should maybe explain what Locus is.

Oh, sure. Locus is a trade publishing magazine for science fiction and fantasy. So, we run book reviews, we run interviews, we run obituaries–I write those–we run listings of science fiction books, we do all sorts of features, we cover the conventions, we do quarterly forthcoming books listing where we painstakingly gather information from publishers big and small about all the science fiction and fantasy books that are coming out in the next nine months. And that’s a really helpful issue. Booksellers and librarians really love that issue because they can go through and see what’s coming down the road that they’re interested in.

Lots of little tiny print.

You know, we’ve revamped a little bit. Our reviews are a bigger type size than they used to be. But yeah, the listings of books…there’s just so many books now, right? With all the small-press stuff, the barrier to entry to self-publish is so low that, you know, we used to get on the order of, you know, hundreds of books in a month, and now sometimes we’ll see, you know, several hundred bucks a month, right, instead of like a couple hundred. And, you know, it’s got squeezed in there somewhere. 

I was just gonna say, you know, I’ve been reading books for a long time. And there’s this thing among authors known as Locus Envy, where you’re looking in the news and you see that, you know, somebody you never heard of just landed a twelve-book deal for $14 million and the mini-series is coming out next week…yeah, so.

It’s an issue, but I write the People in Publishing column, which has all of those deals in it, and it used to drive me nuts, especially when I was, like, desperate to sell a novel, because I had been at Locus for a few years before I sold the book. I’d been at Locus for a couple of years before I sold the story professionally. But I’ve actually come around to say, “You know, what this tells me is that there are still publishers out there that will value science fiction and fantasy to that degree, right? They’re willing to invest in it.” And the thing to remember is that, like, somebody else’s hugely successful book is the thing that subsidizes your potentially less successful book, right? I had the same editor as George R.R. Martin for a little while. And you know what? My books didn’t do like George’s did, but George’s made enough money that they could take chances on books like mine.

In my case, I’m at DAW, and Patrick Rothfuss has helped a lot in that regard.

Oh, absolutely right. Rising tides, they lift all boats.

So, we should probably talk about your books…

Sure!

…and how you write them, because that’s what this is all about. So, looking at the Axiom series, maybe you can give a synopsis so I don’t give it away. I have read the first two books and enjoyed them very much. I just came back from St. John’s, Newfoundland, because my wife is an engineer and she was on a committee of Engineers Canada and she had to go up there for a meeting, so I tagged along, since I’d never been out there. But it’s a three-hour flight to Toronto and another three hours to St. John’s. I think I finished the first book in that first trip to St. John’s and I read the other while I was there. So I got them both read before I talked to. So, I enjoyed it very much, but maybe you can explain what the premise is.

Yeah, I always try to do an elevator pitch and I always say I need a very slow freight elevator and a very tall building. Essentially, they’re set about 600 years in the future. Humankind has made contact with a species of aliens, which we call Liars because we don’t know what they’re really called, because they lie about everything, which leads to some funny first-contact shenanigans that I sort of exposit, talk about a little bit, but it’s all deep pre-history to my characters. Right? They’ve known about these aliens for centuries. But the liars just confabulate. They make up stories about their own origins, about the nature of the universe. You can’t really rely on them to tell the truth about anything. But eventually, once humans figure out what they’re dealing with, they manage to work out some trade, right? If you make sure that the thing that they’re giving you is the thing that, you know, you think it is, sometimes the trade works out okay. And one of the things that the liars give us is the location of these wormhole gates. There’s one out near Jupiter, and we don’t know it’s there because until it’s bombarded with exactly the right kind of radiation, it’s nothing. It’s empty space. But when it’s bombarded with the right combination of radiation, it opens up into this portal that leads, potentially, to various other places. So, there are about thirty known wormhole gates scattered throughout the galaxy, and what they enable humans to do is go out and colonize, right? They can spread. So, a lot of these systems have habitable planets or planets that can be terraformed, which the Liars also have great technology for.

So, the first book starts with a bunch of, sort of ragtag post-humans, a crew, because I like a nice misfit crew, and they’re working salvage and security for a space station, the stuff out in the outer fringes of our solar system, out beyond the orbit of Neptune, and they find this wrecked ship. And when they open up the wrecked ship, they find a bunch of destroyed cryopods and one cryopod that still has a human being in it. And this is pretty weird because they realize promptly that this ship was what they call a Goldilocks ship. So, back before we met the Liars, back before we got some technological remediation, the planet was not doing very well, and in a sort of desperate last-ditch effort to save humanity, we sent out a bunch of ships, just slow, sublight speed, with people cryogenically frozen. They’re seed ships, right, so they have lots of embryos and lots of seed stock and they just send them out to various stars that look like they have planets in the Goldilocks zones, right, so planets that might conceivably be habitable. Probably most of them aren’t. Probably ninety-nine percent of them aren’t. But things were so desperate and there were enough people who were willing to volunteer to take this shot that they sent these colony ships out. The funny thing is then, you know, while they were all still taking their slow journeys, then we met aliens, and the aliens helped us, and they helped us fix Earth. And so, most of those colony ships were sort of forgotten. And, in fact, some of them would arrive to find the planet that they were going to try to colonize already having a thriving colony, right, if it happened to be one that had a wormhole gate in that system.

So, they find this Goldilocks ship, and it’s baffling because it should not be in our solar system. It should be really, really far away by now, right? It left 500 years ago. And so, they wake up the one person who’s in the ship, who’s a biologist named Elena, and ask her what happens. She says, “Oh, our ship, it was incredible, it was amazing. We met aliens.” And they all say, “Oh, yeah, we know. We know about the aliens. That’s kind of old news. I’m sorry.” And she says, “No, no, no, not those aliens. These are different aliens.” As far as humans know, Liars are the only other intelligence pieces of aliens in the universe. We’ve never met any other ones. And it turns out there’s a reason for that. So the aliens Elena met are much more terrifying, much more uninterested in working with humans and more interested in scouring humans from life. And eventually, I mean, this is a little bit of a spoiler, but it’s the name of the trilogy, they discover that there’s this ancient alien race called the Axiom, and one hates to make generalizations about entire species, but as a culture, the Axiom were not nice. They were about domination and control and exterminating anything that might be a threat to them. The Liars they kept around because the Liars  could be useful to them. They were essentially, you know, a servitor species, which is not fun for them. The Axiom, thousands of years ago, mostly went dormant as they wait for various long-term projects that they have set to go into fruition.

So, essentially what my ragtag crew discovers is that the galaxy is littered with these space stations and these facilities and these things that look like planets–but they’re not actually planets–that the Axiom have built that are doing stuff we don’t even understand, that have technology way beyond anything we can imagine. And so, there’s extremely dangerous toys lying around. The problem is, if the Axiom happened to wake up and notice us like, say, if we start messing with their toys, they’d probably exterminate all humanity. So now my crew has this terrible secret that they want to tell anybody about, because humans, being humans, will go try to pillage these treasure boxes to see what they can find, and as a consequence, they might kill everybody. So my crew is trying to sort of, with the help of a Liar named Lantern, who’s from a sect that knows about the Axiom, this crew, they’re trying to figure it out. They’re trying to deal with it. So the books are about them, basically, like running into Axiom stuff and attempting to deal with. And then, over the course of the trilogy, trying to sort of figure out a larger strategy to deal with this huge existential threat that no people know about. And there’s all kinds of deeper stuff in it, like why the Liars tell lies is one of the big reveals in the first book, you know, the cultural reason for why they make up all these stories. And the second book is about a giant virtual reality engine, because I like VR stuff. That was really fun. And then the third book, The Forbidden Stars, the one that’s coming out, which you have not read…

No, I have not.

So I sort of mentioned, what I like to do in series, I’ve done a few series, I like to sort of, you know, put some Chekhov’s guns, not even on the mantelpiece, but like way out in the front yard, you know? So, in book one, I’ll mention something and I’ll come back to it three books later. And that’s essentially what this book is about. I mentioned that, of the wormhole gates, there’s one gate that people just stopped coming back through. Right? Like, colonists went in, for a while there was communication, and then it just shut down. And various, you know, ships have been sent in to try to figure out what happened on the other side, what happened to the system. They never come back, either. Right? So it becomes known as the forbidden system, the interdicted system. Nobody’s allowed, you know, the militaries, or the polities, that control the wormhole gates don’t let anybody go there because it seems to be a one-way ticket. You seem to not come back. The assumption is that something horrible happened there. Well, in the course of the series, my ragtag crew of post-humans, they get hold of technology that nobody else has, Axiom technology. They can open wormholes anywhere they want to in the galaxy, so they can go places that no one else can go. And they decide, for various reasons, that they should go see what’s happening in the Vanir System, that’s the system that’s interdicted.

I’m going to predict the Axiom has something to do with it.

You know, it’s possible that mean, bad aliens could be involved. So, that’s what The Forbidden Stars is about. They’re able to go. And it’s the Vanir system is the most remote of all the colonized systems. It’s so far out in the galaxy that conventionally, you know, it would take thousands of years for a ship to get there. So ,it really is a complete mystery. And the crew pops in and they find out all sorts of interesting things that are happening. And the third book, because it’s the last one in the trilogy, I also reveal like some big fundamental stuff about the axiom. You know, it ends up having sort of…it’s a book with two climaxes, because they have to sort of deal with the local problem, and then I want to like address the sort of global, bigger problem, which is that, like, six people are trying to save the galaxy, which is a great story, but practically maybe, maybe the scale is a little bit beyond what they can deal with. So…

In your dialogue, which is very witty and fun, because it is, like, this ragtag bunch trying to save the galaxy, it did have for me certain Guardians of the Galaxy vibes.

Yeah, right?

A completely different crew, but it was still that kind of joking, and the banter was…it’s really a lot of fun to read.

Well, you know, I love that sense of, sort of a found family that the bumbling around in space, you know, the Firefly feel, right, I mean, The Killjoys feel, like there’s a lot of things that kind of have that vibe. And I think it’s fun. And you either have…if you’re trapped on a ship with a bunch of people, either you poisonously hate each other–and that’s, you know, one way you can go in space opera to have drama–or you sort of figure out how to, like, tolerate and enjoy one another’s weird qualities and foibles.

Now, how did this all come about? What was the seed for this trilogy? And is the way that it came about fairly typical of the way that you find your stories to tell?

The first book in Tim Pratt’s Marla Mason series.

So, this one’s a little bit odd in that I am historically a fantasy writer. The thing I was probably best known for before this was an urban fantasy series about a character named Marla Mason that I did ten books and a prequel, a short novel, and a collection right? And so I had spent a decade of my working life doing urban fantasy. And other things, too, but mostly always contemporary fantasy. A little bit of sword and sorcery and stuff. So I thought, well, one thing I really love that I’ve never written much, except the occasional short story, I love space opera. And I always felt this resistance because I have a great respect for science and a great respect for math. And I’m not very good, especially at the math. I have friends who are astronomers who can help me out with stuff, but when it comes to, like, calculating orbital mechanics and stuff, I am hopeless. The Internet has been a great help because there are all sorts of calculators where you can plug in values and sort of figure out things, but it’s just not the way my mind works. And I always thought, you know, if I write it, I’m going to screw it up, I’m not going to be able to do it well enough. Just in the back of my head, I thought, “I’m not qualified to write space opera.” And then I stopped myself and I thought, “But really, space opera is a big tent, right? Like, you can have, you know, The Expanse is pretty crunchy, right, like it’s pretty much…they try to stay within the realm of feasibility for the most part. But at the other end, you know, you have stuff like Firefly, right, you have stuff like Farscape. So, somewhere in there is a range where I can exist happily, right? So, sort of the small-scale local solar system stuff, I thought, “Okay, I will try and learn enough that I can do this halfway plausibly, like see what it’s actually, you know, how the spaceships would actually work, actually pay attention to it, and then as quickly as I can, I will get magical alien technology, right? The stuff the Axiom has, like, they can violate laws of physics, right? Like they can do all sorts of things. Once I was got that, I was like, oh…

Very much Clarke’s Law stuff there.

I can have artificial gravity at that point, okay, right? Like, there’s all these things I can do. I can have, you know, wormhole travel so that it doesn’t take, you know, thousands or millions of years to get from point A to point B. And once I sort of told myself, “It’s OK, I can find a place that is reasonable to use my level of science and math knowledge. It’ll be okay. A space opera has a lot of flexibility, right? It’s not like it’s hard science fiction anyway. It’s supposed to be sort of adventure stories in space,” I decided I could do that. So I sat down with a notebook and I wrote down everything that I like in space opera. And you know, I love Iain Banks, you know, I like Lois McMaster Bujold, I like M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract stuff, like, my taste in space opera is super broad. So, I just wrote down all the stuff I like, post-human weirdos, like Peter Watts’s Blindside I love, it’s a great book. It’s super depressing, but it’s about a spaceship full of post-human weirdos and they all have a weird thing about them, right? You know, there’s the person who has a bifurcated brain, and there’s a technologically plausible vampire, and there’s, you know, somebody who has multiple personalities. There’s…and I really like that sort of assemblage of bizarre characters. So that was one of the things. I like weird, menacing alien technology. I like wormholes. I like really huge-scale space stations floating around, right, where there are entire sort of hothouse cultures that develop on space stations. So I made a list of all the things I love.

Then, I made a somewhat shorter list of things I hate. Like, alien cultures that are monocultures, right? I used to see this lot more in old science fiction. People have gotten better about it. But you know, sort of the Star Trek thing, where this is a planet of, they’re all worriers, they all have bumpy foreheads, and they all follow the Bushido code, right? Like, I always thought that was kind of boring because just in my neighborhood in South Berkeley, there are probably 400 overlapping cultures and subcultures, right? And so I thought, if I’m going to have aliens, they need to have that level of complexity.

Now, there’s a reason that most science fiction writers don’t do that, and that’s because it impossible. You can’t have anything approaching the granularity of actual culture and subculture in an alien species. That’s why you have the shorthand that says, oh, they’re all warriors. And then maybe you point out, “Well, there’s some pacifists over here and there’s some guys who just really like writing bicycles over here.” But sort of the way that I approach that was by having the Liars, who create their own version of their culture, their own history. So every group of them you meet, whether it’s a giant ship or if it’s, you know, a small, you know, half a dozen of them living together on a hollowed-out asteroid. They all have their own made-up story about where they come from and what they are and their purpose in the universe. You know, they have religions and it’s unclear for much of the series whether they believe the things that they tell you or whether they’re just messing with outsiders, or what. And eventually it does, as I said, get revealed in book one, why they are the way they are. But that was my approach to dealing with that thing that, you know, that I don’t like so much in science fiction.

So, I took my big list of things I loved and things I didn’t love, and I bashed together, you know, sixty pages of prose and an outline, and I started sending it around. And I remember my agent had sent it out to a bunch of places, and I had reached out to some (publishers) that I knew personally, and, you know, it was like any novel submission, we were getting some rejections and some “close, but not quite”s, and all that. 

So I was walking around Lake Merritt, the beautiful jewel of Oakland, out with my friend Sarah, walking around, enjoying the weather and just talking about stuff, and I got an email from Mark Gascoigne, who was then at Angry Robot, the science fiction publisher that he founded. And I had known Mark a little bit from back in the day. He’d worked on some anthologies that I had had stories in and stuff like that. We had a friendly relationship. So I’d said, “Hey, Mark, I have this space opera, maybe you’ll take a look.” And he wrote me back and he said he loved it and he wanted to buy it. So that was that was a happy thing. And, you know, I jumped around and said, “Hooray!” And then we talked about sort of the nitty-gritty. And the cool thing was, I sold them one book, and Mark liked what I had so much that he came back to me and said, “Actually, how would you like to do a couple more books?” And so, pretty soon I had, not just not just one book, but I had a trilogy deal, which was awesome because I like to be gainfully employed for years.

It’s funny when publishers say things like that, no author ever says, “No, no, I think I’d just like to do the one.”

“I’ll just do the one.” There are circumstances under which I would decline, like, if the money was really terrible…

It is possible to write a book that just…sequels make no sense to, of course.

Oh, absolutely. And you know, if it was a publisher, I wasn’t sure about, maybe, right? But I had, you know, I had a good feeling about Mark. He’d done me some good turns that he did not have to do earlier in my career. So, I was absolutely thrilled. And, you know, I had friends who’d published with Angry Robot and I’d done all my due diligence, so I was pretty happy. And they’ve done great with the books. They got Paul Scott Canavan, did these wonderful covers.

Yeah, they’re very nice.

Yeah, right? Like, I got a book with a spaceship on the cover. I thought I’d never have that my career. You know, I write about weird magicians who live in cities and stuff.

I had a book called Falcon’s Egg, which was the second book in a duology I did for a small Canadian press called Bundoran Press. And it has an exploding spaceship on the cover…

Oh, that’s great.

…and that been a dream of mine since I was like eleven, so.

Oh, yeah, that’s beautiful.

It’s also a bit of a spoiler because it’s about two-thirds of the way through the book with that particular spaceship explodes, and it’s also on the cover of the first book. So you know which spaceship it is. There’s only one spaceship, really, one big spaceship. But still, it’s an exploding spaceship, so I like it.

Well, it creates suspense. People are reading, waiting to see when the spaceship is going to explode.

I suppose that’s true. So, just to back away from the trilogy for a minute, when you’re writing your short stories and things like that, what’s a typical way for you to get an idea for something like that or for some of your other work?

You know, I just…my brain is always looking for stuff. You know, I read a lot of popular science, I read a lot of history and mythology, I read a whole lot of fiction. And what a lot of writers do, I’m sure you know, is, you’ll read something and be like, “Oh, that’s great idea. I could have done that better.” Or, “Oh, I would have taken that in a different direction, right?” And so, sometimes you do that. You go, you just take it in a different direction.

It is a field that we often say is in conversation with itself. And that’s part of it, all these ideas are floating around and people deal with them differently. And you think, “Well, I don’t like the way you dealt with it. I’m going to write it this way,” or, “Well, she did a good job on that. But I would have taken it over here.” So we all are always feeding off of this stuff.

Yeah. And I love that. You know, I love the sense that we’re working within this huge sort of shared universe of tropes and ideas and possibilities that we can ring all these changes on. And we can interrogate and we can critique things, right, that other people have done or that have just been common in the field. So, I think about that stuff a lot. And, you know, I’m a character-driven writer, honestly, so I come up with a neat idea or cool situation and then I try to come up with a character who would be the most fun to torture in that situation, right? And then I just attempt to sort of build them up psychologically into my mind and model what they would be likely to do.

Is that how you came up with the characters for the Axiom trilogy?

Absolutely. I wanted to have somebody, you know, I wanted to have sort of an acerbic space captain, right, who’s a little bit abrasive, but is ultimately good, good-hearted. I wanted to have a weird cyborg. There’s a character named Ashok who a lot of people love…

I like him.

Ashok is great.

I know a lot of engineers. So he kind of…

Exactly. Yeah. Ashok is a classic engineer, right? He doesn’t care as much about why as about how he’s going to know fix it or exploit it. He’s an early adopter. You know, I have friends who are always…you know, I live in the Bay Area. I’m surrounded by tech people. So I know people, whenever the new thing is out there, they’re the first one in line or, you know, the first one to order it online. And so I thought, you know, you take that far enough in the future where there’s better prosthetics and stuff, then maybe you would have people who would say, “You know, my human arm is fine, but it wouldn’t be so terrible if I was in a horrible salvage accident and lost it, because then I could get this amazing new prosthetic that has the in-built microsurgery tools or whatever.” Right? So that’s Ashok. He just, he wants to improve what nature gave him. And I wanted to have sort of a morose ship’s doctor to kind of ground the crew and be sort of a voice of reason. So I put him in there. And, you know, I have a ship’s AI, who is in love with the captain for complicated reasons.

And so I sort of put together…I wanted to have a crew that had lots of strong personalities that would sort of act in conflict with each other. You know, they’re a family. They love each other. But that doesn’t mean they always get along, they always agree. I’m also a hopeless romantic, like a lot of my stuff is love stories. And there is a love story that’s central to the trilogy. And throughout the trilogy, I resisted making a plot point…it’s the captain and the woman who they thaw out of the cryopod, so it’s a time-slip romance, sort of…I resisted the urge to make a source of conflict them getting into a fight, because I really wanted to demonstrate them as a partnership. Right. Even when they disagree, they support one another. They have each other’s back. So that was important to me in that book.

When you were outlining and synopsizing, what do those look like for you? You said you did like sixty pages. That’s a fairly lengthy synopsis.

That was text. That was sample chapters. I wrote sixty pages of actual book, and then then about a page of what I thought the rest of the book was going to be, which was sort of semi-accurate. And then for the other two, they said, “We just need something written on a piece of paper so that we can justify writing you checks, right?”

Nice.

So essentially…well, you know, I’ve done a lot of books and Mark was familiar with my work and knew that I would…you know, I’ve done work for hire, like I if I’m known for anything in this business, it’s for being reliable and turning in decent copy on time. And so, for those I just was able to write a couple paragraphs, kind of about what I thought they were about. So those were cool. But I will tell you my trick for writing outlines and synopses if you want.

I’m sure people will be interested.

So, I had, I struggled like hell with it for the longest time. I would sit down and I would write, you know, what was going to happen in the book, and it would be the driest, most boring recitation. It would be like a third-grade book report of a book you didn’t like that much. And it drove me nuts. And then one day, I was at a party and I’d had a couple of drinks, and a friend of mine who was a writer asked me what I was working on. I started telling them how excited I was about this book, that I was going to work on. And I was telling them all the coolest things about it, and like all the things I was most excited about and how amazing it was, and something clicked in my head. And I said, “This is the way I need to write synopses. I need to write my synopsis like I’m slightly drunk at a party telling an editor how awesome my book is going to be.” And so that’s what I did. You know, I still hit the highlights, I talk about what happens in the book, I talk about the plot and the characters, but I do it with the energy and the enthusiasm. And, you know, I’m not plodding and sequential, I talk about it in a way that conveys my excitement about it. And since I have done that, every proposal I have tried to write like that has sold. I mean, maybe it’s taken a few times, but they’ve all sold.

I’m actually…I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library. So I’m working with anybody that wants to come in and say hi and ask me questions or give me something to critique. And actually, I had a fellow in yesterday who was asking that specific question, about how to create a successful synopsis. So I’ll be sure to point him to your answer.

Yeah. You don’t have to be drunk. You know, this is…that’ just me. But something…whatever helps you convey that enthusiasm in an uninhibited way.

What’s your actual writing process look like? I presume you work directly on the keyboard. You’re not writing in longhand under a tree somewhere in a parchment notebook.

I used to, and when I write poetry, I do tend to write longhand. I feel like I get a little bit closer to the language somehow when I write longhand. But for novels and for stories, I pretty much compose straight into the keyboard. Back in the old days, I would sometimes draft longhand and then my first round of revision would be when I typed it in.

Yeah, I used to do that.

In practice, I eventually hit a point where I had to hustle, like, a lot. I was writing two and a half, three books a year for a while, just because, you know, I had a kid and I work for a non-profit, and so I had to make some money. Things have eased off since then. But just for time reasons, I stopped writing longhand and I started typing directly because it was just faster. And I’ve kept it up. I compose pretty comfortably on my little laptop.

Do you work at home or do you work out somewhere? Where do you like to work?

I was sort of your classic coffee-shop writer for a long time. This was especially when I lived in places where I had housemates. It could be hard to find a place that was quiet. And so I would go out and, you know, find the corner of a coffee shop and write. As I said, I had a kid about twelve years ago and that stopped me going out quite so much. So now mostly I tend to write at home. I’ll write wherever with my laptop in my lap. if it’s only an hour or two, if I am on deadline and I’m having to work for hours and hours at a stretch, I acknowledge my forty-something-year-old body and set up a little more ergonomically at a desk, plug the laptop into the monitor and the keyboard.

Are you a fast writer?

I am a slow thinker and a fast writer. Yeah. So I tend to think about stuff a lot, and by the time I sit down to type, it comes out pretty quickly.The Axiom books in particular…I’ve always been kind of a binge driver by preference, like, I’ll not write at all week, and then on a day I’ll spend seven or eight hours writing. And I had to adjust that after I had a kid, especially when he was little, because I didn’t have long stretches of uninterrupted time anymore. So, I had to retrain my brain to be able to write in sort of ten-minute snatches or half-Hour snatches. And so, as a result, I’m a much more flexible writer now than I used to be. But my preference is still long stretches of time and to draft things very quickly. The Dreaming Stars was written…like, actual days spent typing, probably in less than a month, and half of it I wrote in a week at a writing retreat where I went. You know, I have a kid, I have a day job, like, so if I take the time away to go write, I have to maximize that time. I have to really use it. So I was writing 10 or 12,000 words a day at that retreat.

I got a chance to do that with a book called Magebane, which is…it’s written under a pseudonym, Lee Arthur Chane, but it’s me, as I keep telling people when I’m trying to sell it to. “No, really, it’s me. I’ll sign it Lee Arthur Chane. But really, it’s me”. But there’s…the Banff Center has a self-directed retreat you can go on, where you stay in…they’re basically dorms, hotels, a cheap way to stay in Banff…and then you just write, and I did 50,000 words in a week. I don’t do that usually. And I have a kid, too. She’s gone to university as of this year, but still.

Oh, yeah. Well, in my house I can’t produce to that level. But if I’m in a place where my only job is to write a lot? And for The Forbidden Stars, I went…I had some friends who have a place up in Marin that’s in the country, and they kindly let me stay up there for a few days, and I pounded out, not quite half, but a big chunk of The Forbidden Stars I wrote up there, going slowly stir-crazy all alone in the forest.

What does your revision process look like once you have that draft? You do produce polished prose? Do you have to go back and do a lot of fixing and rewriting? Do you show it to beta readers? How does it work for you?

Yeah, it’s not super polished. It tends to be pretty schematic because I’m writing very quickly. So, I get down the situation that’s happening, I usually get down some good lines of dialogue. My next pass I go through and I flesh out the world. You know, I remember, “Oh, sometimes things have odours, right? Sometimes people have physical reactions to things that, you know, they say to each other.” So I go through and I do an extra layer. So my stuff always gets longer. So my first drafts will be maybe 70,000 words. And then. I’ll go back through and flesh them out and, like, I’ll foreshadow and I’ll touch up my subplots and all that, and they’ll grow by ten or fifteen or 20,000 words in the course of revision. I’m a putter-inner rather than taker-outer…

Yeah, me too.

…as a reviser. Yeah, I mean, I feel like it’s more efficient that way. You’re not throwing away words you could get paid for. That’s my feeling.

How long are the books? I read them in e-book, so I have no idea.

Yeah. They’re like eighty-five, ninety, around that range. That’s a pretty comfortable range. Like, most of my novels are about that long.

That’s kind of what I felt, because it wasn’t like I felt like I was slogging through Game of Thrones, which, you know I enjoyed, but they’re very long. But because they were in e-book—and I read both of them in e-book, but certainly I got through yours fashion than I did his. So I knew they were shorter.

Yeah. You know, I love a big immersive fantasy. It’s just not what I write. You know, I tend to, you know, lean and mean…I think the longest book I’ve written is maybe a 110, 120,000 words long.

Does it go straight to your editor once you’re happy with it, or do you have other people who look at it first?

Well, when I was newer, when I was first starting out, I had a lot of beta readers. And, you know, I have a lot of friends who are writers. If there’s something that I feel like isn’t working, I will reach out to some trusted friends, whose biases I know and understand, and I will ask them about things. In practice, like, in terms of deadlines, I don’t have a lot of time to send out stuff for the most part. And at this point, I’ve done, you know, thirty-some novels or something like that. I can usually tell if it’s kind of working, you know, so I’ll do my round of vision to clean it up, and then I’ll sort of read…put it aside if I can for a little while, read the whole thing, and sort of minimally mark it up as I read through it, because what I’m looking for in that read is like horrible failures of pacing, or horrible, you know, changes in tone, things that just…you know, I try to get a sense of the gestalt of the whole thing to see if it’s working. And if it’s not, then I sort of fine tune that. And then I do…I love to line edit I will line edit things all day, I do a line-edit pass or two, and then I send it off to my editor and deal with whatever they want dealt with. But for the most part, I tend to clean it…by the time I turn it into my editor, it’s usually pretty clean.

My agent is good, especially about character issues, so sometimes I’ll run a book past her. I’ve…you know, I went to Charlie Finlay’s Blue Heaven writing workshop once back in the day. So, I have done more of a critique process, but for the most part…Tim Powers said once that he never shows his books to anyone who’s not in a position to write him a check for them, which is not…he’s a little bit stretching the truth. He does show it to them. I know his wife helps him out stuff, but I sort of thought, “Oh, that’s a nice ethos. I can get behind that.”

Well, I’ve just always lived someplace where there wasn’t anybody around to help. So I’ve always…pretty much it just go straight to my editor. And what does your editor come back with typically? What are the sorts of things…I know you’ve worked with more than one editor…what sorts of things do they typically come back with you to maybe tweak a little more?

You know, I probably block all these things out. Revision is very traumatic. I remember on The Forbidden Stories, it was kind of cool, I had Simon Spanton, the venerable British editor, is now…who’s worked with all sorts of, you know, big science fiction, space opera, people…he edited the third book, which was cool. And he came back with a lot of really interesting stuff about me maybe not fully thinking through the implications of some of the technologies that I was introducing, right.? Because I had all this, “Oh, here’s all this cool stuff.” And Simon said, “Well, that’s cool, but you have to think if you have this in your universe, that implies this and implies this. And why don’t they just do this?” Right? So he had me sort of scale back some of my more godlike technology and make stuff  a little bit more grounded and plausible. And it is also, like, if your character can wave a magic wand and defeat, you know, a battalion of enemies, that’s not quite as exciting, right, as having them have to struggle a little more. So Simon was great. You know, it’s stuff like, “Maybe beef up this character a little more or, you know, I thought this thing came out of nowhere. Could you maybe set it up and prepare it a little better?” But yeah, I mean, honestly, turning in pretty clean drafts is just one of the things, it’s one of the things that came in the box for me. It’s one of things I’m pretty good at.

My editor at DAW, of course, is Sheila Gilbert, and she’s great about picking up on things that maybe don’t quite make sense. My current fantasy series, we worked a lot on it because she was making sure that I had thought through things like that, so I didn’t get in trouble further down the road. Has that ever happened to you where you’ve put something into a book in a series, you had a long series, and you got bitten by it later down the road because you put it in as a sort of a throwaway moment, then you want to do something later and you can’t do it because you’ve established in your world that that’s not possible. Anything like that ever happened to you?

It is a difficulty. Yeah.

Continuity, I guess.

Yeah, it has happened. In my urban fantasy series, I could usually find ways to route around that damage, because it’s magic. I can come up with magic or a new kind of magic or a more powerful magic or whatever. So, usually I could work on it. I did think of another editorial feedback thing that was helpful. So, in The Dreaming Stars, they go to the Jovian system, they spend some time there and they spend some time on Ganymede. And I did a lot of research about Ganymede, and Ganymede is fascinating. And so, I just filled the book with all these wonderful Ganymede facts. And my editor came back and said, “You know, this book is really enjoyable. I love the banter and the interplay with the characters. Nothing happens for the first quarter of this book. They just talk about Ganymede. Maybe we could scale back on the Ganymede facts and increase the tension here and there.” And so I said, “Fine.” I did I did a reading where I was like, “So here, I’m going to read to you the Ganymede facts I had to cut from my novel.

Well, at least you had have a use for them.

That’s right.

Well, we’re getting within the last ten minutes or so here, so I’m going to move to the big philosophical questions. I’d like to change my voice for that: Big Philosophical Questions. It’s really just one question, with multiple parts, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you write science fiction fantasy? And why do you think anybody writes science fiction fantasy? Why do we do this?

This is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m going to be principal speaker at PhilCon in November and I have to write a speech, and so I was thinking about things I could talk about. And it dovetails pretty neatly into this question. So, for me, I grew up in rural North Carolina, lived in a trailer park, right? The people that I knew were factory workers or they were farm workers, right? Like the fancy people had retail jobs or like office jobs, right? There was no sense that there was like a literary or creative life, right, that you could be more, that you could pursue a life in the arts, that you could, you know, move more than ten miles away from where your family had grown up. And there’s some good things to be said about that. You know, my dad’s side of the family, especially, is very close-knit, and there’s a real sense of community there. But for me, I always kind of had my head in the clouds and my eyes on the stars. And so, the fact that I had access to all these books that were in my parents’ house and that were in my grandmother’s house, what they did was show me the possibility of other worlds, right? That there could be something more than living in, you know, among the swamps and the soybean fields in eastern North Carolina, that if that didn’t feel like the right world for me, that there might be another world that did feel right. And it just opened my eyes.

When I was a kid, it was everything. You know, it’s the reason that I had the courage to go off to college, you know, I was the first person in my family to go to college. It was the reason that I was able to move out to California, which was just not…you know, my mom traveled around, but even she mostly stayed in the South. And that was all down the books, it was all down to showing me there’s all these other kinds of people and all these other worlds. And, you know, like, I’m a weird liberal bisexual person, like all sorts of things that didn’t really fit in super well where I grew up. And books showed me that it was okay, and there were places where it was OK. And I think a lot of why I wrote was because I loved the feeling that I had when I read books and I thought if I wrote, I could have that same feeling in worlds that I’d created, and that always worked, right? I write the books that I want to read. But as I got older and thought about it more and started to have a career and thought about, “What am I doing?”, sort of bigger-level, like, “What kind of books do I want to write?” I want to write books that do for other people what books did for me, right? I want to show them that there are other ways of being and there are places where you can be accepted for who you are and that it’s worth taking chances, and sometimes you’re gonna get a smacked down, sometimes it will hurt, but it’s still worth it to take the chance, and that you should live your life open-hearted. All these things that I learned from books that I certainly wasn’t getting from where I grew up, right? You know, we were pretty poor, and it was…you know, my parents always made sure we were fed. We had a roof over our heads. But, you know, it could be a little rough sometimes…that there was a world beyond that. And so, that’s what I tried to do in my books, you know? I want a kid who picks up one of my books to feel like there’s magic in the world, right? To feel that they’re gonna find their tribe, right, or at least that it’s possible that they can find their tribe. And, you know, let them go out there.

As for, “Why science fiction and fantasy?” Honestly, I think it was just early exposure. You know, I could have written other kinds of books–perhaps not crime novels, since they have a somewhat darker world view than what I’m talking about. I love reading them., but part of why I love reading them is because I don’t write them, so I can enjoy them purely as a reader and not analyze them. But, you know, it’s just, that’s what I grew up with. That’s what my parents loved.

You know, the first books that I remember reading were, you know, Stephen King, and I had an aunt who gave me some Clive Barker, you know, my grandmother gave me Heinlein and Asimov, right? And it was just, that was just the kind of story…I read comic books, you know, I watched The Twilight Zone. For whatever reason, all that stuff really appealed to me. And when I think about it intellectually, I love the ability to make metaphors literal. I love thinking about how people react to extreme circumstances, and science fiction and fantasy allow you to create really extreme circumstances, like, way more extreme than most people are going to plausibly encounter in their day to day life,

I hope.

Yeah, right. And, you know, I think the…like my favorite short story writer, dead short story writer, I suppose…is Theodore Sturgeon, and I just loved that when he wrote about technology, he wrote about how technology impacted people, how it affected humans. So, when I do science fiction, that’s always my interest, too, right? It’s like, how this changes what it means to be human, how this changes how we relate to each other as humans. I mean, that’s the stuff that I like. So, I think that’s why  science fiction and fantasy.

It sounds like a good reason to do what you do. Well, that’s kind of the end of our time, I think, so thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. Oh, but before we go, what are you working on now?

So, I have another novel that it looks like is going to get bought. The contract is not signed yet, so I have to be a little bit skimpy with the details. But it is a multiverse book. I’ve wanted to write a multiverse book for ages. I love, and in my short stories I write a lot about, alternate dimensions, parallel dimensions, mirror universes, all that stuff. And I get to write a book that’s a multiverse book. So, that’s the next thing.

That’s actually…my current series is the characters moving from world to world, Shaped worlds that have been created by people that live in them. And so…the first one was kind of a version of our world, only with differences, but the second one that’s out right now is a Jules Verne-inspired world.

Oh, that’s cool.

And the one after that is…it doesn’t have a real title, but the working titled is Werewolves and Vampires and Peasants, Oh, My!

That’s great!

So, I’m having a lot of fun with that. And where can people find you online?

I am at timpratt.org, which is my sporadically updated website where I put sort of officially things.

You’re an organization.

Well, yeah, unfortunately, the dot coms and all of the various other dots were taken, so I became an org. And I’m on Twitter a lot. That’s sort of my social media presence. TimPratt on Twitter. And yeah, and I’ve been doing for four or five years, for years going into my fifth year, a story a month on Patreon, because I love writing short stories and that’s a great excuse to do it every month.

Great. Well, again, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, I had a great time talking with you. I hope you enjoyed it.

Yes, it was fun. Thanks for having me.

Episode 34: John Kessel

An hour-long conversation with John Kessel, author of Pride and Prometheus, The Moon and the Other (both from Saga Press) and other novels, and, as a short-fiction writer, winner of two Nebula Awards, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Locus Award, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award.

Website
johnjosephkessel.wixsite.com/kessel-website

Facebook
www.facebook.com/john.kessel3

John Kessel’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

John Kessel

John Kessel‘s most recent book is the 2018 novel Pride and Prometheus, published by Saga Press. He’s the author of the earlier novels The Moon and the Other, Good News from Outer Space, and Corrupting Dr. Nice, and, in collaboration with James Patrick Kelly, Freedom Beach. His short-story collections are Meeting in Infinity, a New York Times notable book, The Pure Product, and The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories

His stories have twice received the Nebula Award, given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in addition to the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Locus Award, and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. His play Faust Feathers won the Paul Green Playwrights Prize, and his story “A Clean Escape” was adapted as an episode of the ABC TV series Masters of Science Fiction. In 2009, his story Pride and Prometheus, on which the novel was based, received both the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. With James Patrick Kelly, he has edited five anthologies of stories revisiting contemporary short SF, most recently Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Kessel holds a B.A. in Physics and English and a Ph.D. in American Literature. He helped found and served as the first director of the MFA program in creative writing at North Carolina State University, where he has taught since 1982. He and his wife, the novelist Therese Anne Fowler, live and work in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, John.

Thank you. Glad to be here.

Now, we’ve never met in person, but the way you ended up on this show…I’ve been aware of your name for a long time, obviously, with your record, and being in the field, but I’d never run across you at a convention or anything like that. But Christopher Ruocchio, who was a guest on the program a little while ago, was one of your students, and he mentioned your name. And I thought, “You know, I should have him on.”

Well, I’m glad you had him on. You know, Christopher seems to be well-launched now with his first novel. I guess the second novel in that series is coming out, is that right?

Yeah. Just came out. And he’s a fellow DAW Books author, so I’d met him at a DAW dinner at WorldCon last year. That’s how we made that connection. In this field, you know, you sort of, you know somebody, then they know somebody…everybody’s connected

Even though it’s much bigger than it was when I started, it’s still a fairly small pond, and you will run into people, and everyone eventually knows everyone else in some connection.

Yep.. Well, we’ll start the way I always start, which is by taking you back into the mists of time to find out how you became interested in science fiction and fantasy and specifically in writing it. Most of us, it starts with reading as kids. Is that how it worked out for you?

Pretty much, yes. I was reading science fiction and fantasy…really from, it seems like, from the beginning. I cannot remember the first book I ever read that was science fiction. There were children’s books–and I was born a long time ago, I was born in 1950, so we’re talking, you know, late ’50s, early ’60s, I was definitely already hooked on science fiction and fantasy. I liked fairy tales an awful lot, and then I somehow, you know, I went to the library and got books from the science fiction section of the library.

And back then, they had…a number of publishers had fairly serious attempts to write, publish, YA science fiction, and Robert Heinlein wrote a series of juvenile novels that I really snapped up. And also André Norton, who was Alice Mary Norton, wrote a whole series of YA science fiction novels that I loved. It was quite a shock to me when I discovered that Andre Norton was a woman. It was years later. And then around…I think it was 1963 exactly…I pretty much know exactly when it was…I was at my grandfather’s house on a Sunday, and I had had my library book there and I finished it and I had nothing else to read, and I was bored, and I asked if I could go down the block–this was in Buffalo, New York–to see if I could buy some comic books. And they said, “okay,” and so I walked down to this delicatessen, Cosentino’s Delicatessen, and they had some comic books, but they also had science fiction magazines, which I had never seen. I knew they existed, but I had never seen one. And immediately I bought my first science fiction magazines, and then I was well and truly hooked, pretty much. I had subscriptions to Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction and Analog starting in the early ’60s, so I was really much a pretty much a science fiction nerd from day one.

Well, it’s interesting, because—I’m a little bit younger than you, I was born in ’59–but that’s exactly my list of books that got me interested in it, Heinlein  and Andre Norton. Somehow I knew Andre Norton was a woman. I don’t know remember ever being surprised to find it out. So I must have read a bio or something of her early on.

I think it became much more public knowledge by the late ’60s, but up until the mid-’60s, I think, you know, she basically kept her identity close to the best.

There was James Tiptree, Jr. I was surprised to find…

Yes. Right. Me too, really. Yeah.

Well, by the time I was reading it would’ve been the late ’60s, so that’s probably why I knew it from the beginning. But that’s sort of the same list of things that I became interested in as well. So, when did you start trying your hand at writing?

Well, you know, I often tell students, my writing students, that one of the seven warning signs that you might become a writer is that you are writing fiction which is not on command by your English teacher before the age of ten, and indeed, I was writing stories and I actually made a little magazine, I would compel my friends to write them and I would illustrate stories myself, probably…maybe I was eleven or twelve. And so, I was trying to do that, and I remember there was a contest in Fantasy & Science Fiction in the mid-’60s that asked for submissions, and I submitted an entry there and I got my first rejection slip and I still have it. And so, I was at it pretty early.

I was, you know, in my early teens when I submitted my first story. I didn’t ever submit another story until I was in college. But, you know, I really…I knew that there was the possibility of an ordinary person writing stories and sending them off. And it was really quite…I was felt empowered by the fact that they had sent me a rejection slip. The idea that I, you know, John Kessel, a kid from Buffalo, New York, could write a story and send it into the magazine and they would read it and say “No,”  but they would send me a slip, just as if I were, you know, a published writer. And so, that was cool.

Yeah, I remember that that same feeling. My first published story, though, was actually…at about that age…I actually got a story published in something called Young Authors’ Open in Cat Fancy Magazine.

Wow, good for you.

It was a terrible, terrible pun about Santa Claus looking for a replacement, and he searched the world over, and he found this guy he thought was perfect, but the guy wouldn’t weed his garden and he knew he couldn’t be Santa Claus because he wouldn’t hoe-hoe-hoe. That was the…

Well, you know, it’s funny because my first submission to F&SF was what was called a Feghoot and it involved a pun.

Oh, I remember those.

Yeah.

So, were you focused on short fiction entirely? Did you try your hand at longer stuff during those years, or…?

Pretty much short fiction. I really loved short stories–still do! And so, that was my thing, was short fiction. Although I read a lot of novels, I’d never tried to write one till I was in my twenties, late twenties, and really had to learn…I mean, novels are different from short stories. And I don’t think the short story is a less important form, although, you know, in terms of making a living, certainly it’s hard to do writing short fiction. But I think artistically the short story is a beautiful form. And it’s not a practice for the novel, it’s not a less worthy or less important form, but it is different.

Somewhere on my bookshelf right behind me, I was just turning around to look, is a collection of science fiction short stories , one of those anthologies from the late ’50s, early ’60s. And, yeah, short fiction was sort of my introduction to it, and that’s sort of the way I started writing it as well. But it turns out I more of a novelist, I think, than a short story writer. Did you show your stories? You said you had this little magazine. Were you letting people read your stories?

You know, in a way, my friends were not as interested in this as I was. So, you know, it was just my thing, at that stage anyway, when I’m talking about junior high school or middle school. So, no, I didn’t. I didn’t really advertise them to people.

I usually ask that because when I’m teaching writing, and I know you’re much more of a writing teacher than I am, but I often recommend to people that they do let other people read their work because it’s a way to find out if you can tell stories that people are interested in.

Well, I think ultimately you do have to submit the story to an audience, either an audience of, you know, a teacher or mentor, or other writers. And so, I’ve actually been very active in workshopping. I like workshopping, and not just as a teacher in the university, but…I went, I was invited to, one of the last Milford workshops, run by Ed Bryant, in 1980 and then again in ’81. That was a real revelatory experience for me in 1980 because I met these other writers, many, many of them up-and-coming writers, but also they were, most of them, unknown. I mean, among the writers who were at this first workshop I went to were Ed Bryant, who was well-established at that point and was sort of a writing hero of mine, although people don’t remember him anymore.

I remember the name.

But then, Connie Willis was there, she had only published a few stories. Cynthia Felice. One of the other people that who had not published a single story at that point, who was one of the workshop members, was Dan Simmons. And George R.R. Martin was one of the writers there. So, I got to know these people really early, and it was really heartening that they would read my stories and give me critiques, so that was good.

Well, when you went to university…where did you go to university?

I went as an undergraduate to the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. It’s a small private school. And I studied astrophysics, I wanted to be an astronomer. And then I double majored. By the time I graduated, it was a degree in physics and English.

What drew you out of astrophysics to add the English?

Probably you could say that tensor calculus had something to do with it. I could do the math pretty well through the first couple of years, but by the time I got to the really higher math, and the higher physics, too, it’s tremendously mathematical. It especially was at that time, where I think the slogan was, you know, “Shut up and calculate” in physics. And so, I could…I had to struggle to do that, the really advanced math. And I could see other physics majors around me, and they were very…it was a small group of physics majors, maybe there were…I think there were twenty in my graduating class…some of them could do it much better and with more facility, more naturally, than I could. So…and I also saw that my GPA in English classes, which I was taking for fun, was like a grade-point higher than my math class. Great. So, I thought, “Well, and I’m enjoying English classes. I’ll double major.” I didn’t know what exactly I was gonna do at that point, but I know I loved reading and I at that point was starting to write stories again.

And so, I took my first creative writing class in my second semester, senior year at Rochester, and wrote a science fiction story for my final project there. And so, I was getting more serious about that. And then I went to graduate school at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. And the main reason I went there was that there was a science fiction writer on the faculty there, James Gunn, who’s, you know, still alive, ninety-six years old, I believe, and was…he’s a Grand Master of SFWA. And, so, he was my mentor there. I was in his classes and he directed my master’s thesis, which was in fiction writing. And then, on my Ph.D. dissertation, I persuaded the university to let me write a collection of stories, rather than a scholarly work, for my Ph.D. in American Lit, and so I wrote a bunch of stories and he was also on my committee at that point.

Were those science fiction and fantasy stories?

They all were. And one of them in my dissertation was “Another Orphan,” which won the Nebula Award in 1982. So, I guess I, you know, I was glad I was able to do that. I mean, I was writing anyway. I would have written the stories anyway. But it was…I probably wouldn’t have finished my dissertation if I had had to write a scholarly dissertation, because I knew at that point, although I’m very interested in, you know, literary study, and I’ve taught American Lit for thirty, almost forty, years, I really wasn’t interested in writing books about, you know, canonical writers and being a scholar, I wanted to write fiction, so most of my energy went there.

Well, this is…it’s interesting to me that…I ask most authors about their, you know, if they had any formal creative writing training, and you get a really mixed bag with science fiction and fantasy authors. There are some who did it and it was not a particularly good experience for them because they met so much pushback against writing science fiction and fantasy. Fortunately, you found James Gunn.

Right.

Was he the only one teaching at that level at that time?

Well, there were very few. I think the only one I can think of…this is 1972, when I went to grad school…is Jack Williamson, who was teaching, I think, at the University of New Mexico.

Right.

 I don’t know if he was a regular faculty member or not, and I didn’t even know he was teaching there. So, the only one I knew about was Gunn, and that’s why I went there. So, I guess you could say that that was instrumental there, that he did not turn up his nose at my writing science fiction. I’m very aware of what you say, that many creative writing teachers, at least in the past, have been very skeptical of anyone who wants to write genre fiction in a, you know, a literary workshop.

Do you think that’s changing?

I think it’s changing to a degree. It depends on what kind of genre fiction you write now. If you write a story with aliens and spaceships and, you know, basically a space opera or that kind of background, in a MFA program, you’ll probably have a hard time unless you go to one of the specialized programs like the Stone Coast Non-Resident MFA, which has people like James Patrick Kelly and Liz Hand and others as teachers. But, I do think there is, you know, there’s a lot more fiction being published now by, we’ll call them mainstream writers, that has fantastic elements in it. I mean, it’s everywhere in our culture now. So…and there, you know, bestselling novels that are written that have time travel in it say or, you know, an apocalyptic plague like Station Eleven, that kills off pretty much everybody. Things that would have been in science fiction novels in 1960 now are published and they’re not really called science fiction, but they have the material of science fiction. They generally treat it a little different than a science fiction writer would, as well. But if you’re going to do spaceships and aliens, then you’re still, I think, going to be put in a different pen.

It’s interesting for me because I’m…I was asked this year to mentor an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan, the first time I’ve done that, and he’s writing a young adult fantasy novel. So it was…I was pleased, in fact, that the University Saskatchewan didn’t seem to have a problem with people writing in those kinds of genres. And it’s been interesting for me, too.

Well, there are many more professors and teachers in these programs who have genre credentials. So, I think that it is a lot better now than it was in 1972.

So, in between graduating university and starting teaching at North Carolina State University, what were you doing in that interim there?

Well, I finished my coursework for the Ph.D….must have been by ’78 or something like that…and I was supposedly writing a dissertation. Not very fast. I was writing stories. And I took a crack at being a full-time writer and didn’t have much success at it, just writing short stories. So, I got a job at a wire service as an editor. Fortunate to get that. It was a very good job. For three years, I was a copyeditor and then a news editor for a wire service called Commodity News Services out of Kansas City, which was owned by… half-owned by Knight-Ridder newspapers and also by UPI, the United Press International wire service…and I learned an awful lot from that. That was very interesting work. So, that was what I was doing while I was on the side trying to finish my dissertation.

And thenm when I finished it and got my degree in ’81, I looked for a teaching job. Because I found that, as a wire-service editor, it was very high-pressure work, I was editing text all day, and I didn’t feel like writing when I got home. So, I thought, “Well, if I get a teaching job, I can have the summers off at the very least, and my schedule during the week, I won’t have to be sitting in an office from eight to five every day doing high-pressure work. And I was fortunate enough to get the job at N.C. State and I came here in fall of ’82.

And been there ever since.

And been there ever since, yeah. Yeah.

Were your first sales, then, along in their somewhere? Short fiction sales?

So my first fiction sale was in 1975 to an anthology called Black Holes that…they paid me for the story, but it never came out, ’cause the publisher went under. It was…as with so many young writers, often you’re selling to marginal markets. You can’t get into the top paying markets, so you’re just trying to get in somewhere. And that actually happened to my first three stories. I sold them to markets that folded before the stories came out.

It starts to make you a little paranoid.

Yeah, I began to feel pretty discouraged. But then, it was in the late…I think it was in the ’70s, ’77, I sold a story to Galileo, and then I also sold one to Fantasy & Science Fiction, a month apart. And what happened was, a bunch of stories I had written already sold, then, one after another. And so…if I said ’80s earlier, I mean the late ’70s was when I really started to break in. So ’77, ’78, ’79, I started to see stories come out.

And then, of course, you mentioned you won the Nebula in ’82.

Cover of September 1982 issue of F&SF, containing John Kessel’s Nebula Award-winning novella “Another Oprhan.”

Right, which was a huge shock. It was the first time I was nominated, and I was a complete unknown, and I think it was quite shocking to people that I won. And of course, the story was…it showed my background. because it’s a story about…your listeners may not know…it’s about a commodities broker who wakes up on page one and he’s on a sailing ship and he doesn’t know how he got there. And it turns out it’s the Pequod, and he’s in the middle of Moby Dick. And he read it… had to read it in college…and he knows that at the end everybody dies except Ishmael, and he’s not Ishmael. So, that that was my premise, and it used my literary study, ’cause I’m a huge Herman Melville fan, but also it had this sort of fantasy element, and it also used my commodities-editing knowledge, so it really came out of a lot of things that were going on in my life. I wrote it in 1979 and ’80, and it came out in fall of ’82, and won the award in ’83.

You mentioned the commodities feeding into that story? Has your astrophysics background played into any of your science fiction writing over the years?

Certainly I know a lot of astronomy and I try to get the science accurate. I know physics, and I’m not any kind of genius at it, but I know basic physics. And so, when I’m doing science fiction stories, I do try to make it as plausible as I can, but I’m not afraid to violate fundamental laws of nature in order to write a story. And I’m not considered really a techie writer, I think I’m more considered a literary science fiction writer. And then I write stories that I think of as fantasies…and when I say that, everyone thinks, “Oh, it’s like Game of Thrones, castles, dragons, you know, lords and ladies. No. I don’t…I’ve never written a story of that sort in my entire career. What I mean by fantasy is a story that violates reality, has some element of the fantastic in it, could be set in the present, the past, but it’s not explained by an appeal to science.

Well, we’re gonna talk about your creative process using Pride and Prometheus as a sort of a template for how you work. But I also wanted to ask you before we did that about…I noted that you had written a play, Faust Feathers. Have you done other playwriting? I’ve done some playwriting and I’m a professional actor, so I’m always curious about that sort of thing. So, have you done a lot of playwriting?

I have done some playwriting. I wrote a one-act back in the late ’80s called “A Clean Escape,” based on a short story I wrote, that was performed here in Raleigh, and I was very pleased to see that happen. And later on I adapted it for a thing called Seeing Ear Theater, which is an audio play thing run by the Sci-Fi Channel. And then I wrote Faust Feathers, which won the Paul Green Prize, and it got produced somewhere in Nebraska but I never got to see it. And “A Clean Escape” actually eventually got adapted for that show Masters of Science Fiction. So, I have written some plays and I did take an acting class, although…I actually am in a couple movies. I’m in a very low-budget movie called The Delicate Art of the Rifle. I play…it’s kind of typecasting, I play an obnoxious college professor who gets murdered. So, I’ve done a little bit of that stuff. But, you know, mostly I have stuff stuck to prose fiction.

I’m always interested in the crossover between fiction and plays because they are very different kinds of writing. In the play world, of course, it’s very much dialogue driven.

Right. It’s very much that’s the case. But there’s also…when you’re writing, you have to cast yourself into the mind of a character who may not be like you in order to write a book. And it seems to me that’s what actors do. You know, the idea that you’re portraying someone who’s not you, but you have to make their behavior rational and to act in a way that they would act but somehow make it your own. And that, to me is a kind of mental trick that writers do as well as actors.

Yeah, I often make that point when I’m talking to people about the two things. All right, well, let’s move on to Pride and Prometheus. And before we get into talking about how it all came about, and your creative writing process, maybe a synopsis and what the book is. I’ve not quite finished it, but I’ve read most of it.

Well, it’s a kind of a crossbreed. I’ve written a number of stories over the course of my career where I’ll use characters or situations created by other authors. “Another Orphan,” which won the Nebula, puts my character into Moby Dick. In this story I’m basically crossing Frankenstein with Jane Austen’s character, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And this kind of story really appeals to me in that, in a way…it’s a way of sort of thinking about the story and the characters, the way maybe a literary critic might do it, but instead of doing it in terms of literary analysis, I just want to see, you know, what sorts of situations would happen. Because…

I got the idea for the story from a workshop where we were reading a story by a writer named Benjamin Rosenbaum, a wonderful writer, who had a story that was a parody of Jane Austen. And it occurred to me, as I was talking about this story there at the workshop, that Jane Austen and Mary Shelley were contemporaries. They were…if you went to a bookstore in 1818 in London, you could find Jane Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice, on the shelf next to Frankenstein. And yet they’re very, very different books. And I never, as an English professor, very seldom ever heard anyone talk about Mary Shelley and Jane Austen in the same context. Now, I think they do a lot more, but not back then. And so I thought, “Well, they’re so different.” I mean, you know, putting a Jane Austen character in Frankenstein, that doesn’t work. I mean, that kind of character, what would they do in Frankenstein? And then putting one of, you know, Victor Frankenstein or the monster into a Jane Austen setting, you know, they don’t belong in a ballroom, OK? But that, to me, intrigued me, and so I got carried…and I wrote originally a novelette version of this, I took the character of Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and imagined her a decade or more after the end of that book, and had her meet Victor Frankenstein and eventually meet his monster.

Yeah, and I guess it’s hard to synopses it without sort of…

Oh, well, yeah, it’s…you know, Mary is the…she’s the old-maid character, the middle sister in Pride and Prejudice, who’s really not very attractive. She’s kind of bookish and moralistic, she’s always preaching at people. In Pride and Prejudice, she’s hardly even in the book, and when she’s there, she’s sort of the butt of the joke. She’s the only one of the Bennet sisters who’s not pretty. If you know Jane Austen’s books, they’re almost all about finding the right mate and marrying. And I imagine that Mary is going to have a hard time of that. So, I imagine her as, you know, thirty-two years old and on the brink of old-maid-dom, and she gets dragged to a ball by her mother and her younger sister, Kitty, who’s still trying to get married. And there she meets Victor Frankenstein, who is in England–she doesn’t know this, but–in Frankenstein, Victor goes to England, after he’s created the monster. The monster gets abandoned by him and has a terrible time of it and becomes very alienated, and eventually finds out that Victor created him, and goes to Victor’s home and strangles his younger brother, and then threatens Victor with killing everyone in his family if Victor does not create a mate for him. Since no human being will have anything to do with him, he needs to have someone to give him solace, and so he forces Victor to agree to make a female creature. And so Victor travels to England with his friend Henry–this is all in Frankenstein–and travels around and eventually goes up to Scotland, on an island, to create the female, the bride of the monster.

And so, my story begins where Mary’s at this ball in London and Victor is there with his friend Henry, Henry drags him to the ball, and they dance together and strike up a conversation, and it turns out they like each other. And so, that’s the beginning of it. And the rest of it, it sort of follows Mary’s encounters with Victor. Victor is being tormented by the fact the monster’s following him, and then the monster is desperate to have Victor follow through on his promise. And the story alternates between the points of view of these three characters. It’s mostly Mary’s point of view, but it’s also in Victor’s point of view and also in the monster’s point of view, which, in Frankenstein, that’s true, too, if you’ve read it, both Victor and the creature, his creature get to have their own points of view.

Yes, one reason it was interesting…I mean, I’ve read a little Jane Austen, but I’ve read Frankenstein twice, and I think I read it for the first time–and you mentioned this in an interview somewhere, that it was Brian W. Aldiss who perhaps first suggested that Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel–and it was after reading his history of the field that I thought I should read Frankenstein, as opposed to just relying on what we all kind of know from the miasma of Frankenstein stuff that’s around.

That’s right. And, frankly, the image we get of Frankenstein from movies is very much not the creature that was…well, one thing is that people call the monster Frankenstein, and it’s Victor who is Frankenstein. The creature has no name in the book. And so, yes, I wanted to present the monster, the creature–I prefer to call him the creature–as he is in the novel. He’s incredibly intelligent, he’s agile, he’s strong. He’s becomes a kind of…he educates himself remarkably. He’s incredibly articulate. He speaks very well, which is so weird because we’re not used to that from the movies. And so, one of the things that Viktor warns people against when he tells them about these creatures, is, “Don’t listen to him because he’s so persuasive.” That’s really interesting. And he’s sort of a social critic of human behavior. So I wanted to get into that. In a way…

You know, Aldiss did say that this was the first science fiction book, and I had not read it until I read Aldiss, back in the ’70s. and it seemed to me that if Mary Shelley wrote the first true science fiction novel in English, and Jane Austen was sort of the ancestor of the novel of manners…so these are the two great streams in literature, it seems to me, since the early 1800s to the present. We have the novel of the fantastic, the science fiction novel, and then we have the realistic novel like, you know, Henry James and Virginia Woolf, following In the footsteps of Jane Austen. And so, in a way, cramming these two things together in the same book is really sort of unnatural, but also, to me, fascinating.

I read it again…I read it out loud to my wife for the 150th anniversary of the novel, because we have…I read out loud while she’s cooking because our kitchen’s too small for us to cook side by side. And so, it was very interesting to read it out loud, too, and to say that  sort of early 19th century prose, but also the fact that, you know, Mary Shelley was a teenager when she wrote it, nineteen.

Really, eighteen, nineteen years old. And I think it was published when she just turned twenty, right, so…

And I have a daughter who’s eighteen.

Okay. Actually, it was 200 years ago, 200 years ago in 1818.

Right, 200. Yeah, yeah. I just lost half a century there somewhere. So, you’ve talked about how the inspiration for this came about. Just pulling back from it a little bit, is that fairly typical of the way that your story ideas come to you, things sort of colliding and sparks coming off of it?

Often the collision of two things that don’t fit together is a good way to get a story started, it seems to me. And I’ve written a number of works, as I say, that take off from other literary works, but that’s not all the stuff I write, and so…like, my last novel, in 2017, before this one, was The Moon and the Other, which is a science fiction novel set on the moon in the twenty-second century. Very complex future background, lots of technology, I tried to make it as accurate as I could, showing how people might live on the moon, so that one really comes from a different place. And that’s sort of how it works, really.

But yes, the collision of things…to me, it’s always interesting to have things that don’t seem like they ought to go together put together. Or, another way of putting that is, I really like paradoxes. I like when things don’t easily settle themselves out. You know, where all of the…for instance, all of the morality, or the rightness and wrongness, doesn’t all land on one side. I don’t really like stories where there’s the hero and the villain and  there’s just no…it’s easy to choose between them and there’s no confusion or complication of that way of seeing things.

Once you have the idea, for this novel or other novels, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? And how does it differ from your short fiction writing?

Well, again, it depends a little bit on the project. With novels, I do quite a bit of outlining and sketches and notes. I will try to figure out what the inciting incident is, the beginning incident, and then have some sense of where it’s going in the end. Although, when I was younger, I always had to know the ending before I could start a story, but now I’m more willing to get started without a firm idea of how it’s going to end. Well, one thing with Pride and Prometheus is I had many things given to me from Frankenstein. I knew I was going to follow Frankenstein’s plot. And so, I know eventually that Victor ends up in the Orkney Islands, there trying to create the female. So, that to me was a place I was going to get to. I knew I was gonna get up in the Orkney Islands when he’s trying to create the bride for the monster. How he gets there and how Mary gets involved in it, that was not all worked out.

But then, those things are also given to you. For instance, one of the things that happened was…I think I mentioned that in Jane Austen novels, the spring for many of the plots, or maybe all the plots, is finding the right mate. You have these young women heroines who are maybe attracted to one man, who…or someone is being courted by one man…but it turns out there’s someone else who is really the person they should be with. And finding the right mate is the crucial decision of a young woman’s life in Jane Austen’s period, of her social class, anyway. And so, what hit me was that in Frankenstein, Frankenstein is about a lonely guy, the creature, who can’t find a mate. And so, he has to find a female who will love him. And then Victor’s part in this is, he has to create this female. And in order to do that, he’s going to have to come up with a female body. So I thought, “Well, gosh, you know, that’s sort of scary. He’s going to meet my character, Mary, who’s a lonely old maid, and, you know, what sort of things could happen?” And so this sort of offers certain possibilities of scenes that I could imagine. And if you have certain scenes you want to write in a narrative, you can connect them, connect the dots really, like beads on a string. You know, I know I’m driving from here to San Francisco, and I know I’m going to stop in Memphis and Kansas City and Denver and Salt Lake City, but I don’t know where I’m going in between. And so, you sort of try to arrange those, and you drive your characters, you know your characters, you know your characters, you know what they want, what they don’t want, the circumstances around them. The circumstances will change, depending on what happens in the story, and then, you know, given who they are, the kind of people they are, how would they react to that and what would they do to respond to it? And so, that can help you plot a story out. That seems to me a pretty natural way to create a story.

One of the interesting things about Pride and Prometheus is you’ve got this Jane Austen…and it’s also, it’s three viewpoints. I guess there’s third person for Mary, and then you’ve got two first persons, you’ve got the creature and you’ve got Frankenstein and all of them…the prose is…it seems to me that it reminds you of the prose of Austen and Shelley without being…trying to really get into that very convoluted early-nineteenth-century style where you can have one sentence that goes on for like a full page, almost.

Right. Well, thank you. I actually spent a lot of time thinking about that. And so…I tried not to completely imitate Jane Austen’s or Mary Shelley styles, which are quite different. And it’s right, you know, Frankenstein is written in first person from the point of view of these characters, and Jane Austen’s novels are all in third person. But I wanted to allude to them, so that someone who is familiar with those books would feel that this was reminiscent of that, without being so convoluted that it would be difficult to read. So that was my take on it. I hope I did that well enough. I’m pretty proud of how I did it, actually.

It’s…you know, in a lot of ways, the writing of a book is a process of discovery and you have to–I’ve said this to my students, that when you write any fiction, that it’s a collaboration between your conscious mind and your unconscious mind. And if you have everything planned out like a, you know, an architect, it seems to me you can stifle your imagination, because you have everything all worked out and there’s no discovery involved. So, I think that you have to depend on…at least, the life of a narrative can come from you allowing your mind to ruminate over something that you don’t really know the answer to. And that…Jim Kelly, my friend James Patrick Kelly, says that if the writer writing a story is never surprised by anything that happens, then no reader will ever be surprised. And it seems to me that, you know, to a greater or lesser degree, that there have to be things that you didn’t plan that turn up on the page.

I don’t know what your experiences is, but haven’t you ever had the experience where something just sort of comes to you as you’re writing that is exactly the thing you needed, and you did not know it, but there it is, and it proves to be much smarter than anything you could have thought up in advance?

Oh, yeah, that happens. Happens all the time.

Yeah. It’s funny how that works. It seems to me that our minds are more complex than we can easily understand.

The book I’m writing now, which is the third book in a series of mine, much to my surprise, there’s this long discussion on God’s relationship to time that pops up in one scene, which I had no intention of the two characters talking about at that time. But that just seemed to make sense. So there it is, so far, anyway. So, yeah. It’s interesting. It’s very interesting the way the writing mind works.

What’s your actual physical process of writing? Did you write this in longhand in a notebook like they might have, Austen and Shelley, or do you write on the computer? How do you work?

I’m a computer writer, a keyboard writer. I’ve been writing on keyboards since, you know, 1970 with typewriters. I never…I used to…I’ve done some longhand writing, but very little. Very little. And I know some writers who say that they can’t think unless they’re writing longhand, but I work with a keyboard. I work with a laptop right now, although I have it connected to a big screen at my desk.

I tend to work at my desk in my home office. Although there have been times when I will, when I’m having trouble, I will say, OK, I’m going to go to Panera Bread or Starbucks and sit there in the corner and try to write, and that’s worked, too. So, whatever it takes to get the work done, I think, is what I need.

And when I’m teaching, I have a lot of other responsibilities, so I can’t always write every day. And I’m not one of those…actually, I think one of the things that’s told to young writers that can be very intimidating to them is that you can’t be a writer unless you write every day. And it seems to me that…it’s certainly good to encourage the habit of writing regularly, okay? I think that that’s absolutely true. If you want to write anything of any length or…you need to be…you have your head in the game regularly, all the time. But I don’t write every day and I never have. There’ve been periods where I’ve written every day for, you know, a couple of months, when I’ve had the time to do that or when I’ve been hot on a project and I want to finish it, but there are other times when I, you know, I’ll write three days a week, okay, or I’ll, between projects, be sitting around reading and playing the guitar and watching bad movies and thinking. So my process…I mean, I do have habits that work for me. I try to be regular in them. But, you know, other people say, “Oh, we have to write, you write the same time of day every day.” Well, I generally will try to work in the morning, but it doesn’t always work that way. So whenever it comes to me to work, then I will work. And sometimes I do have to kick myself in the pants and say, “OK, you need to sit down there. You need to close the door. You need to stare at the screen. You can’t look at your e-mail. You cannot go to Facebook. You are a writer.”

Yeah, that’s…I know that feeling. Deadlines help sometimes, too, to motivate you.

I like deadlines. I know George R.R. Martin, I think, is a writer who hates deadlines and sort of fights against them. I am one who,  a deadline focuses my attention, and I like deadlines because it tells me exactly what I have to do. I have to have this done by September 1st, it’ll be done by September 1st. In my entire undergraduate career and graduate career, I don’t think I ever turned in a paper late, because something about it, the idea of being late on it would be worse. I mean, I would just…not so much that I’d get a bad grade, but rather that psychologically I might never get it done if I don’t make it by the date that I’m supposed to turn it in.

What does your…once you have a draft. What does your revision process look like?

Well, I will certainly go over it and make sure it reads smoothly and revise and edit to a degree until I’ve got a fairly polished version of it. But then I will show it to other people who are writers who I trust to give me feedback. And one of them is my wife, Therese Anne Fowler, who is extremely successful. I mean, she’s much more successful than I am. She wrote a novel called Z, a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which was a bestseller and made into a TV show on Amazon. And so, she’s a very experienced novelist, and so she gives me feedback. I often talk to her about it over supper. We’ll be working, we’re both writers, and so we’re working and then we have meals together. “How’s your day, dear?” “Oh, you know…” And she doesn’t talk as much about her work as I do, but I often talk about what I’m doing and what the problems are and what’s going on. But then when I get a draft done, I show it to her.

I always ask James Patrick Kelly to read it, and he’s been my faithful critique and critic for, you know, forty years now, really. A very wonderful guy, wonderful writer, so knowledgeable. And other writers who I have regularly…and get feedback…are my friend Richard Butner, who lives here in Raleigh, and Lewis Shiner, a well-known science fiction writer. He lives in Raleigh and we’ve been friends for more than thirty years. Karen Joy Fowler has helped me a lot with my female characters and Gregory Frost…and often actually for a couple of my things, Bruce Sterling, a writer who many people…I mean, back in the ’80s when he was the head cyberpunk and I was labeled as a humanist writer, people thought we would, you know, we hated each other, but that wasn’t the case, even though we disagreed about an awful lot of stuff. But he’s give me some very good readings over the years.

Are there sort of consistent things you find that your readers come back with that you need to…per up?

I usually find, when I have some women readers, that my women characters need attention, OK? And so…I’m trying to do my best. But, you know, I think it’s good to have someone put their eyes on it who has experienced the things that a woman experiences. And so, that to me is a consistent thing that I have had to pay attention to. The editing of…editing things down. I tend to be, in my early drafts, a lot more wordy than I do in the later. As I’ve gotten older, I’m less and less that way, I think. And Jim Kelly has been very helpful with that. He’s a much more efficient writer than I am, and I have to sort of work to get to that point.

What other things? You know, there are sometimes story-logic issues, but generally, my stories, when I get a draft done…I’ve done a lot of time thinking. I don’t write really fast, so it generally has had a lot of thought put into it, and it’s very seldom that I get told something that causes me to drastically change what I’ve written, like the structure or something.

You teach writing. Do you ever find people telling you to do things that you tell your students to do but you overlook in your own writing?

Gosh, probably. One of my colleagues at NC State is a novelist named Wilton Barnhardt, also a wonderful novelist who has given me much, much good advice. He’s not afraid to tell me, you know, but I think as far as the things that I tell my students, it’s not usually so much that, you know.

Well I ask because, you know, I mentor writers. And then when I’m editing my own stuff, I’ll say, nope, there it is, that’s exactly what I told them not to do, and I did it in my first draft.

Well, it’s certainly true that I will make grammar or usage errors that I would complain about to them. I generally…I know the difference between lie and lay, okay, but it’s possible for me to make a mistake there. Or I will sometimes put an apostrophe in its, a possessive its, when it doesn’t belong there.

Yeah, that’s a pernicious one. That just happens sometimes.

Right. It’s, you know, it’s a matter of you writing fast and not thinking.

So once the book goes to the publisher, what does the editing…we should say Pride and Prometheus is from Saga, is that right?

Saga. That’s right? And my previous book, The Moon and the Other, was also from Saga. And that was…my editor there is Joe Monti, who’s is good. I had never worked with them before The Moon and the Other. And actually, I said that I very seldom change structure, but with The Moon and the Other, I sold on the book, and I…he had the whole manuscript. It was finished, you know, before…I thought it was done. And he read it, and we met in New York City, and he said, “You know, it’s a slow start on this book.” It’s a big book. It’s like, 600 pages long, and it’s got four main characters and it alternates point of view between these four characters.

And I said, “Yeah, I know, it starts really slow because I have to do all four characters and they’re in different places, they don’t know each other, it’s complicated.” And so, he said, “Do you know how long it takes before all four characters are introduced?”, and I said, “Jeez, I don’t know. Maybe eighty pages? Seventy pages?” He says, “108 pages.” “Wow. Okay.” And he said, “Is there something you can do?” I mean, he said…also, the first chapter originally was taking place ten years before the body of the book. It was sort of like a prologue. And he said, “Do you have to have that chapter? Can you take it out?” And I said, “I absolutely cannot take out the chapter because it mirrors the last chapter of the book, and there are all these reasons why I just could not do it. There are too many things introduced there that are vital to the storyline.” And then I went home, and I said, “OK, so…” He didn’t say I had to do it, but he said, “Is there anything you do speed up this this book?”

And so I went home, and I thought, “All right, is it possible to take out that first chapter? What happens if I take out the first chapter? There’s things in that chapter I absolutely need. Is there someplace else I could put them?” So, I took the first chapter out, and one thing that immediately became evident is that I would have to rearrange the order of the next six or seven chapters. And so, I did that. And then I had to rearrange what was in those chapters, because the chapters depended on what happened in previous chapters. And then, I had to get the first chapter stuff in there somewhere else. And anyway, it ended up changing the first seven chapters of the book, and considerable revision. And it got much better. I mean, it started much better. And I’m so glad he…he didn’t tell me to do it, he didn’t say, “You have to do this,” but he made me think about it. And it really was vitally important to the book, I think, to do it, to get that chapter moved. And it really made it better.

And I think, you know, new writers sometimes are concerned about the editing process, you know, they’re going to change my deathless prose and all that sort of thing.

Right. Right.

And certainly my experience has been with my editors, Sheila E Gilbert at DAW Books, Hugo Award winning editor, and my experience has been, editors make things better for the most part.

I think they want the book to be as good as it can be. And, you know, you may have some differences of opinion, but it doesn’t help you to be stiff-necked and defensive about things. You know, actually, Christopher, who was in my undergraduate class, was writing the novel…I can’t remember the title of the first novel in the series…but he had it in my, parts of it in my class, and I remember we met in my office one time, and it had a prologue on it, and I felt the prologue was slow to start, and then the first chapter was a completely different situation than the first, than the prologue. And I said, “OK, so you’re opening this story with a frame here. When do you close the frame? Do you close the frame at the end of the book?” Because I hadn’t seen the whole book. He said, “No, I close the frame at the end of the trilogy.” And I said, “That’s not going to work. You need to…if you’re going to have a frame in front of a book, you need to close it by the end of the book. Or at least that’s my strong prejudice. Think about that, okay.” And so, what he did was, he ended up throwing it out. And I don’t know what he did with the material, if it shows up elsewhere, but he changed that. And to me, I thought that was a, you know, I mean, I didn’t make him do it, but that just was my advice for a better opening. And it’s funny, it’s similar to what Joe Monti told me, although it happened before that. So, you know, I guess it helps to be able to listen to things, even if you don’t, in the end, do what the editor says.

Empire of Silence. That’s the first book.

That’s it. Empire of Silence.

Howling Dark is the one that just came out. Well, now we’re getting close to the end, so I want to move to the big philosophical questions. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do you and I and others write science fiction and fantasy?

Wow, those are tough questions. I don’t know if I can speak for everyone else, but…

For yourself, then.

Yeah. Frederick Pohl, science fiction writer Frederick Pohl, said science fiction is a way of thinking about things, and I like that definition a lot. It seems to me that you can think about things in terms of, in science-fictional terms, the same kinds of things you can think about in a realistic story, but you do it differently. So if you think about, say, marriage, okay, or death or love or parenthood or something like that, in science fiction you can twist things in a way that sort of exposes the workings or…I think of it sometimes as like a lever that you can shove into the machine and pry it open and see the workings in a different way than a realistic novelist or story writer can, so that one of the appeals of science fiction, is that you can…

The very. the fantastic element. to me. should be essential to the story. And in fact, that’s one of my principles, is that. if I could tell this story without the science fiction or the fantasy element, then I should tell it without it, okay? That it has to be vital to the story, has to be essential to make the point I’m trying to make that is in there. So, you know, in other words, I could…

You know, The Moon and the Other started from me watching my daughter at the daycare center when she was a toddler. And I was watching the kids in the playground, the little kids, two, three years old, playing out back. And it seemed to me that the boys’ way of playing was different from the girls’ way of playing. And I started thinking about, “Well, is that inherent or is this culturally determined, okay? When did they start behaving differently?” And so that got me thinking about the difference between men and women–not that I hadn’t thought about it before, but… and I ended up writing this big novel set on the moon in the twenty-second century about gender issues. And yet, another person would have written a story about a father at a daycare center with his daughter and the other kids, you see? But that’s not what I wrote. I wrote a science fiction novel. So, there’s something about that tropism for the strange, or the fantastic, that I’ve always had, and I think I always will.

I think that, you know…why does anyone write? It’s a very good question. I think it’s something about…trying to figure out the world, it seems to me. Or maybe just to entertain yourself or entertain somebody. There’s an element also of sort of showing off, isn’t there? Where you want everyone to admire you. And so…I remember there was a TV production company that did sitcoms and stuff, and at the end of every show, they’d have this little logo and they’d have a kid’s voice that would say, “I made this!” And I always liked that, because a kid makes things just to make them and to be proud, you know, to sort of say, “I made this myself. No one else made this.” And I still have that kid feeling, you know, “No one else wrote these books. No one else could write these books exactly the way I wrote them. Maybe for better, for worse, someone might have written them better, but I made this book myself,” and I like that, you now?

That is one of the rewarding things about it, for sure.

It’s bad when they reject your story and say, “Oh, my God, that stinks.”.

Yeah, there’s that, too.

Yeah.

Well, that’s kind of the end of our time. So, what are you working on now?

I have a novella that I just told you about that is on submission right now that is a weird kind of thing. It’s about the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 at a World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York, and it’s also about a trip to the moon in 1901. And it sort of alternates between the realistic historical story and this fantastic scientific romance about the inhabited moon full of Selenites.

I miss that moon.

Yeah. It’s based on a ride that was there at the at the fair, called A Trip to the Moon. It was the first dark ride, if you know what a dark ride is, like at Universal City or Disney World, where they have these rides, you’re in a vehicle and they show you things. So that one’s going out. It’s a kind of political story. I’ve got a ghost story. I wrote my first ghost story and that is on submission right now. And I don’t know, we’ll see what happens with that. You’d think I would have written a ghost story before now, but I didn’t. And who knows? I like to write different kinds of stories. So, you know, if there’s a kind of story I haven’t written yet, I’m thinking, well, what kind of what kind of monster story would I write?

And where can people find you online?

Oh, I have a Web site…and also, there’s a…I have a pretty active Facebook page, which is open to the public and has lots of things on there. You can find things about me. And I’m in the bookstores. Look for Saga books.

OK, well, I think that’s the end of our time, so, thanks so much for being a guest on The World shapers. That was a fun conversation.

Well, thank you very much. I certainly didn’t lack for things to say. I hope I didn’t get too far off the bat.

No, no, it was great. So, thanks a lot, and bye for now.

Take care.

Episode 33: Kameron Hurley

An hour-long conversation with Kameron Hurley, award-winning author of the recently released military science fiction novel The Light Brigade, the short-story collection Meet Me in the FutureThe Stars are Legion, the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, the God’s War trilogy, and the Worldbreaker Saga.

Website
www.kameronhurley.com

Twitter
@KameronHurley

Instagram
@KameronHurley

Kameron Hurley’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Kameron Hurley is the author of the recently released military science fiction novel The Light Brigade, the short-story collection Meet Me in the FutureThe Stars are Legion, the essay collection The Geek Feminist Revolution, the award-winning God’s War trilogy, and the Worldbreaker Saga. Kameron has won the Hugo Award, the Locus Award, the Kitschy Award for Debut Novel, and Sidney J. Bounds Award for Best Newcomer. She was also a finalist for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, the Nebula Award, and the Gemmell Morningstar Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Popular Science magazine, Lightspeed, and numerous anthologies. Kameron has also written for The AtlanticWriter’s DigestEntertainment WeeklyThe Village VoiceL.A. WeeklyBitch Magazine, and Locus Magazine, and she blogs regularly at her website, www.kameronhurley.com.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kameron, welcome toThe Worldshapers.

Oh, thank you so much for having me.

I was just saying before we started that usually at this point, when I’m just getting started, I say, “Oh, yeah, well, I met you, you know, this WorldCon or that WorldCon,” but we’ve never actually crossed paths before this.

No, yeah.

So, I’m very happy to have you on. And I just, as I said, also before we started, I just finished reading The Light Brigade last night, so it’s very fresh in my mind.

Excellent.

And we’ll talk about that one primarily as an example of your creative process, but my first step is always…I say this all the time, but I don’t know any better way to say it: I’m gonna take you back into the mists of time and find out how you, first of all, got started being interested in science fiction and fantasy, probably starting as a reader, as most of us did, and then how you got into the writing of it. So, let’s go let’s go way back and then find out how that all started for you.

Way back…yeah. No, I have always had a very vivid imagination, even, I think, when I was in kindergarten, to the point where they would have us, you know, make little storybooks and everything, and I was making this story with, you know, space explorers who went to this strange planet that was blowing up flowers out of the volcanoes and had weird creatures that were crawling around. I had always done stuff like that, and I really enjoyed it. I really enjoyed it, and I got a lot of positive feedback from it. And I think that’s important, too, when you think about encouraging young people, right, with things that they enjoy and are interested in. My teachers and my family were just like, “Wow, you’ve got quite an imagination, Hurley,” and so I started doing that for, you know, just as part of the English curriculum stuff.

And then it just turned out that that was what I started to do after school, as well. It just sort of became my hobby. I, gosh, I think I wrote…I typed out…I remember typing on an electric typewriter at one point, a story of mine, an early one. And I think that about 1994, when I was thirteen or fourteen, we finally got a word processor. And that was exciting—I could I could actually keep an entire book on, like, four or five floppy disks. So that was great.

But I…you know, it was just something that I wanted to do because I had all of these stories in my head, and I loved this idea that I could take these things that were in my head that no one else could see or experience or whatever, and I could communicate that to people. I thought that was really cool. And I think that that just sort of sparked my interest in kind of delving deeper and how do I, you know, create a book that absolutely gets across this feeling the best way possible, right, to people, and that’s totally clear. So, yeah, I’ve been doing it a long time.

Where there are things that you were reading that kind of also sparked your interest in telling stories?

Sure. Yeah. Tamora Pierce wrote a really great series, The Song of the Lioness, which is about a young girl who swaps places with her twin brother and goes off and pretends to be a male knight, and she gets knight training, and then she gets revealed.

I read that one!

But it was cool when I was a kid because I think it was the first time that someone really wrote that idea in a way that made sense to me, where I bought it, right? I was like, “Oh, I can see how this happened.” Of course, you look at history…that would happen all the time. But it was someone who actually did that in a way that felt really cool. And so I think that was some of the early stuff. And again, I read The Phantom Tollbooth and all that. I think we all really start with fantasy and science fiction, right? Like talking animal stories. And it’s just a matter of, you know, do we continue reading or do we kind of veer off in another direction?

I think a real formative moment was, I think again, at thirteen, fourteen, I had a family friend and I said, “Hey, I’m running out of stuff to read.” There wasn’t really a YA category, right, when I was a kid. So it’s like, I was in that weird stage where the younger-people, the middle-grade, books were too young, but the older-people books, I just didn’t even know where to start, because some of…a lot of them were just like, I had no interest in. It was old-people problems, right? And he said, “Hey, why don’t I give you some of my fantasy and science fiction books?” So, he brought to me a paper bag full of Forgotten Realms and Dragonlance, and the first, The Eye of the World, the first Robert Jordan book. And that, like, really, really, I just loved. Those Dragonlance books…I’d never read Tolkien, so the Dragonlance books were like my Tolkien. I was like, “This is so original and amazing!” you know, at the time. And I really loved it and enjoyed it. And again, The Wheel of Time, I really got into that one. And that sort of was my gateway into science fiction and fantasy, and yeah, I’ve kind of stuck with that ever since.

Now you mentioned that, you know, your family and friends and all that said, “Oh, what an imagination!” That sounds like you were probably sharing your writing with people along the way. You weren’t just keeping it to yourself?

Oh, yeah. No, absolutely. Actually, what I would do is, I would base characters on some of my friends at school, and so they wanted to read it, to know what happened to their character. And I look at some people who have kind of gotten into D&D and stuff like that, and it’s a very similar sort of idea where it’s like, it’s something you can…it’s something that’s very social, so that if you’re not really good at making friends, not very social, which I was not, it was something to talk about, you know, with people. And it was like, oh, you know, “The scullery maid is revealed as the princess!”, you know, stuff like that. And people did, they really liked it. And all of sudden people said, “Oh, Kameron’s writing stories,” and people that I didn’t even think would ever talk to me were like, “Well, I want to be a character in your story.” And so, yeah, it was…it ended being a little bit of a social activity as well.

Hm. I wonder if you put, like, Oprah as a character in your story if you’d get in her book club or that sort of thing?

I know. Right. Right. It’s like that Obama-Biden comic book. I’m sure he was thinking, “Yeah, maybe Obama and Biden will call me.” Yeah. No.

Were you writing just shorter things? Or were you writing…were these like novel-length, or…?

I just writing pretty long stuff. I called them books. I mean, it was 150 pages, was my first one. And then I think, yeah, we got up to about 200 pages for some of the other ones when I was in my mid- and late teens. I probably wrote, you know, eight or nine books before my first book was published, and some of those early ones were definitely, you know, they were…they were book-sized, for sure.

Well, I ask a couple these questions of everybody. And one reason is because, of course, comparing it to my own experience. My first short story was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” so you can see where my mind was. But I wrote these longer works, too. And actually mine…I was calling them books, too. And I thought it was novel-length, too, but I recently got the typed manuscript of the one I wrote when I was fourteen, called The Golden Sword, and I scanned it, word recognition, and it’s only about 38,000 words. And I felt it was like this huge, epic fantasy.

Yeah, it feels, yeah, it feels like this. Yeah, absolutely.

I may throw it up on Amazon as by Eddie Willett, which is what I went by back then. The scary thing is it might sell better than my real stuff. That would be really scary. Were there teachers or people along the way who encouraged you at that stage?

There were! One of them—again, it’s somebody you always remember their names, right?—and one was Barbara Kreinbring, who was like my seventh- or eighth-grade English teacher, and she was very, very passionate about it, very encouraging, loved that I had this thing that I did outside of class that, you know, engaged me and I was interested in and, again, something academic. I was from a pretty small town, too, and I think that there was certainly this, you know, push to, hey, you know, “If you’ve got it, let’s go.” You know, “If you’ve got something, let’s get you out of town!” And, yeah, she was super-encouraging. She’s probably the most encouraging one.

I’m trying to think, kind of later on…later on, you know, in college and stuff, I actually had a writer, David Marusek, who’s a science fiction writer, who was teaching a class, and he was actually the one who told me, “Hey, you need to reapply to Clarion,” the writing workshop Clarion, because I had and I was rejected, and he’s like, “No, no, your stuff really is good enough.” You know, I was doing stuff in this class all semester and he said, “Apply again.” And I went to Clarion later on. and it really was transformative for my writing career, just meeting new people and forcing myself to write a story a week. You know, you do level up like two years in six weeks. And so that was a really good kind of a moment as well.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in a town called Battleground, Washington. It’s just north of Portland, Oregon. I think now that they’ve extended the freeway a little bit it’s basically, my mom was saying, I was just talking to her about this, basically it’s become like a suburb of Portland because it’s about forty-five minutes away and there’s no housing in Portland, so it’s like, there’s all this growth. But when I was there, it was like…cows. Which is great! I loved it. We had two and a half acres, I had a great imagination, I wandered around. It was a great place to grow up, it was just definitely a small town.

Well, you mentioned going to Clarion. I want to ask you about that in a minute. But you didn’t actually study writing in university to start with, did you? Your degree was in historical studies?

Yeah, yeah. I considered doing an English degree until I realized that basically what they wanted you to do was just read the classics. And I said, “Well, gonna read the classics anyway, why don’t I do something that is writing-adjacent that will…that I feel like I’m actually learning something.” I mean, one of the things that…and that was, again, that came from a teacher, I do not remember his name, but that was…he was a college teacher, but I was still in high school, I was in community-college classes as part of my high school curriculum…but anyway, he was an amazing history teacher because he’d tell it like a story, and all these wild things, right, that people have done in the past, and what motivates them and all of that, and as someone writing fiction and sort of struggling with, you know, character motivation and where do ideas come from and what are some twists and things, that was really awesome for me to take those notes and be like, “OK, how can I work this into what I’m doing?” And I realized that, “You know, it’s probably going to serve me better to go straight to the source of where all the stories come from,” right, which is our own history. And so that was that sort of leading me more and more…

There was another teacher, again, at the same community college, she was exceptional. I think it was a feminist history course of some kind, and it was amazing learning about…it was wild. So we had a really great time with that one, too. And it just…yeah, it just sparked my interest. And my parents were like, “We’ll disown you if you don’t go to college,” so I had to go to college. But I chose to do something and study something that I found really interesting.

And it has, it’s really changed and transformed my writing, because I’m going straight to the source stuff. As I’ve said, people have said, “Oh, your stories are so weird and stuff happens, it’s so creepy,” and whatever, and I’m like, “You don’t understand, this is sanitized. This is sanitizedfrom actual events.” There’s stuff like…I researched…I spent two years living in South Africa, where I got my master’s degree in history, and I researched all these archives from something called the Truth and Reconciliation Committee, which is what they did after the end of apartheid in that country, where people could come forward and actually tell stories of the horrors that had happened under the state, and they would be, they’d be given political immunity. Oh, my gosh. Like, the stuff you read is just…you know, I’d have to stop and take a break, like, just the things that people do to each other. But to me that was a much better way of spending my time, like researching the real world and what has happened, than just reading books, which I was going to do anyway.

It’s interesting. You’re my twenty-ninth author, I think, that I’ve interviewed so far, and… I don’t want to say names because I’ll forget somebody…but you’re about the third or fourth who actually has a history background.

Yeah!

And that does seem to feed into their writing, and clearly it feeds into yours as well.

Oh, for sure.

So how did you—and when did you—break into writing?

Let’s see. I sold…I sold a non-fiction piece, I think, when I was sixteen, to, like, a local newspaper, which was a nice little jolt. I think I got like twenty bucks or something for it. It was like, “Wow, I got twenty bucks!” And you know, my mom cut it out of the paper, and it was so exciting. And then I think I sold my first genre…I started submitting when I was fifteen to genre magazines, like Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Science Fiction and Fantasy Magazine, and I think Intergalactic Medicine Show was around then, and Talebones. And I think my first professional…I sold one when I was, like, seventeen to an online magazine for five dollars. And then I think my first professional story was to Talebones, and that was when I was…twenty, I think? And so, that was the first one where I actually felt like, “Oh, I’m a real writer,” like, “a publication I’ve heard of is pushing my…” And it was great, though, because I met, oh, I forget his name (Patrick Swenson – Ed.), but I met the editor of that publication like, ten years later. I had just published a book, my first book. And he said, “Oh, I love to talk about you, it’s like, ah-ha, I first published Kameron Hurley.” He’s like, “But honestly, the reason that you were in that particular issue was because I had a spot of exactly 3,000 words, and I had a pile of stories that were on the maybe pile, and your story happened to be about 3,000 words.” I said, “God bless you.” Sometimes that’s all it is, right? It’s so funny.

Well, having been a newspaper editor early in my career, I know exactly what it’s like to have a specific space that you need to fill. And I’ve added a magazine since then and, yeah, it’s like, “That one’s a good story, but I can’t use 5,000 words. This one’s not quite is good, but…”

But it fits!

You mentioned selling to the local newspaper and I was laughing a little bit. My first sale I got paid for was to Cat Fancy magazine.

Oh, yes.

They had something called Young Writers’ Corner. When I was thirteen I sold them this terrible pun about Santa Claus looking for a replacement. And he found a guy who wouldn’t weed his garden and he knew that he could never work out because he wouldn’t hoe-hoe-hoe.

Oh, my God.

And I got paid for that.

And you got paid for that!

So, you know, you take what you can get.

You take what you can get. Exactly. A sale is a sale.

So, you carried on from there. So, were you largely short fiction for quite a while before you tried something longer?

You know, I actually was trying longer stuff. I feel like I’m a natural novelist, so I was writing very long stuff and I think it was from actually encountering other writers. And at the time, you know, the popular wisdom in the genre was, “You need to publish short fiction so that you get known, and then you publish the longer stuff because your stuff will, you know, stand out on the pile or whatever.”

Yeah, I hated that bit of common wisdom.

Oh, man. I hated it. And so I did. So I tried to write short fiction, especially, again, when I went to, again, the Clarion Writing Workshop, they specifically are like, “We would prefer you do a short story, a complete, you know, arc, every week.” And so that gave me a lot of a lot of experience doing that. Again, I think I was twenty when I went to that one, as well. And, yeah, it just…I don’t know. I did a lot of short fiction. I sent a lot of stuff out, and at the same time I was working on longer work, on novels. I think I finally…I sent out a partial, I sent out a novel to several publishers, without…unagented, just to the slush piles, when I was…twenty-two, I think? And, of course, it was rejected across the board and I was like, “Oh, well.” And then I sent out another manuscript again when I was twenty-three, twenty-four, looking for an agent, and all of those are rejected as well. “Well, yay!”, you know, whatever. And again, it’s like I was not having a ton of luck with the short fiction. I sold some stuff to Strange Horizons, again, I had the Talebones sale. I had some stuff to some smaller magazines. I did get into a Year’s Best SF at some point, which was really cool, for one of my Strange Horizons stories, but it just wasn’t…and I could tell, right, that, you know, I could make a short story, but it wasn’t anything special. Like, I look at some of the short story writers who are writing today, Alyssa Wong, Brooke Bolander, like, they put stuff out and everybody’s like, “Ohhh!” The crowd goes wild! And I was not like that. It was just like, well, that was a story. Again, it fits the 3,000-word thing. So I’m like, there’s clearly something I’m missing in short fiction that I was not, you know, it just wasn’t gelling, it wasn’t coming together. 

Whereas I think when I finally wrote my first novel, the one that was actually published—ha-ha, “first novel,” again like the tenth one or whatever—when I finally wrote God’s War, I just was like, “Let’s just put in everything. Since I can, I have the space, I’m just going to throw in bug magic and worlds at war and a desert planet, it’s like Mad Max Apocalypse, I’m going to do all this stuff, and—cutting off heads,” and I did, and I ended up sending it out to, I think, three agents, and one came back and said, “Yeah, I’d like to represent this.” And I was like, “Wow, cool.” And, you know, we sent it out and got tons of rejections.

And here’s the…now, here’s the irony, okay? And this is why I tell people that how I broke in is not how you break in today. It’s all very different. Same thing with, like, Scalzi, you know? How it’s done is very different. But I…so the agent sent it all around, we got rejections across the board, nobody wanted it. And then she gets an email from somebody a…an editor at a house that she’d already sent it to, but she’d sent it to a different editor at that publishing house. Well, this editor said, “Hey, I heard Kameron Hurley is shopping a novel, heard it online somewhere, and I read a short story of hers that I really liked, could you send me this novel? I think it’s weird you haven’t sent this to me.” And she, my agent, was like, “Oh, well, I sent to this other, you know, editor. She didn’t want it.” So she sent it to this editor who had read a short story that she liked, and, yep, twenty-four hours later, we had a three-book deal. And that one eventually…there’s a whole thing with that, that didn’t go through, and there was a bunch of messed-up stuff because that editor was fired, it was 2008, it was a disaster. But it was eventually published somewhere else. But that was…like, my first experience was, “Oh, wow,” And then me thinking, “I guess that short story thing really does work,” though I hate to write them. Oh, yeah.

So, yeah, everybody’s story is different. And I do the same thing, when I talk about how I got in with DAW Books, which is my major publisher, it was almost the “here’s a 3,000-word story that fits,” because they had a hole in their publishing schedule, and I had a book published through Marty Greenberg’s…what was it called…Five Star. And they said, “Well, send over some of your stuff and we’ll see if there’s anything that fits,” and they picked mine. And so that’s how I got in at DAW…they had a hole, and I filled it.

That was what they needed. Yeah, totally.

That was…ten books later, I’m still with DAW, so…I also wanted to mention, going back to Clarion, where did that fall in there? Because one thing I often ask writers about their formal writing training, and I get “hit or miss.” You did mention David Marusek was a teacher, so you must have taken some formal writing classes in university at some point. But I get a lot of hit or miss with authors as to whether formal writing training was helpful or not. It sounds like for you, it was.

For me, it was. And it really would depend. I think I started going to, like, local workshops and stuff from the time I was about fourteen, that’s actually when I started reading Writer’s Digest thinking, “OK, if I really…” Again, when I was twelve, I said, “Wow, I could be a writer. How cool is that?” Sometimes I get really mad when I think, you know, how many years I spent studying writing and how long it’s taken, right, to get to where I am, but I also go to the point where, for some people I feel story and structure and all of that stuff comes a lot more naturally, and others of us really have to start early because we have to work at it. But I did, I had to work it, and a lot of it, that was plot and structure. And actually my current agent has been really great with helping me with plot and structure. But I struggled quite a bit when I first was starting out because I could write sentences and there were characters and people did things, but it wasn’t a story, if that makes any sense, it wasn’t…you didn’t get that feeling of catharsis or emotion at the end of it, it was just like, “Okay, so what?” Which is, you know, what Damon Knight would kind of write at the end of somebody’s story that, he’s like, you know, it just tailed off: “So what?” And I had to learn what, the reason I’m writing the story.

So, yeah, I started out doing some of those, some creative writing classes in college, and what I found with a lot of them is, I felt I was a stronger writer than a lot of those people. And I also found that, you know, still, they’re quite hostile toward genre. I think more so than they are now, but nobody likes science fiction and fantasy. They treat it like you are a little kid or something.

I hear that a lot.

Right? All the time. So I got very frustrated with it, and especially having teachers who clearly had, like, they’d published one poem in a literary journal when they were twenty-five. And I’m like, “Okay, what do you have to teach me?” And I think, yeah. David Marusek was the first…I think by that point he had sold about a dozen short stories and possibly had sold his first novel. But it was someone who actually worked in the genre, who took it seriously, who had been published in it, and I was in a class with other people who wrote genre. And it was really very useful to me because they were not only genre, you know, writers—they were also readers, and it was really nice to kind of get that feedback. And I think that was definitely the jumping off point to…again, as I said, he encouraged me to go to Clarion, and then from going from, you know, this sort of small pool of, “Okay, cool, genre writers,” to, like, professional-level, oh-shit genre writers at Clarion, was really, really…it was kind of…there was this feeling of both awe and fear and…I don’t…I can’t explain it. It was one of those things where I went to the writing workshop, and there were seventeen of us, and some had been to Oxford and Stanford and a bunch of them are…one’s a doctor, and all this stuff…and I thought, at the end of the first few weeks, I was like, “You know, we all have different strengths and weaknesses, but I am performing at a similar level to all of these people.” And I think at the time I was like, “Oh, I’m just going to live in a cabin in Alaska, I’m going to write, and I’m not going to…” I wasn’t thinking about all the things I could do with my life. And there was just something about going into that environment and being really inspired and thinking, “These are my peers. Like, I’m not like the lowest person here or the one who just kind of slid in, you know, on my backside. I’m actually writing…I’m performing.” I wrote a short story every week. They weren’t necessarily very good, but I wrote them. Some people didn’t, they weren’t able to do it. I totally get that. But I was there to learn, and I was there to do the work. And I think that there was something about…it’s something about how you approach these experiences and how you decide or not to make the most of them. I think for some people, that kind of environment is not good. It is true. A lot of people can’t do, like, the criticism and the like, the pressure cooker, you know, sort of thing. And there’s, you know, cliques form, I mean it’s six weeks, so it’s like a…ugh, it’s a mess. So some people can’t do it. But I really enjoyed it. I felt it forced me again to kind of push myself and to level up my craft, so…

Well, and your craft was leveled up quite nicely since then, with all these awards and everything. But let’s talk about your craft. So, as I said, I just finished reading The Light Brigade, which came out in March 2019. And so, let’s talk about that one as an example of your creative process. First of all, this isn’t…you know the first question is going to be some variation on, “Where do you get your ideas?” And I’m sorry, but you have to start there. So, let’s put it this way: what was the seed from which this impressive growth sprang?

Well, I have always loved military science fiction, certain military science fiction. I love Conan, too. Now, both of these genres are very problematic in many ways. You know, Conan is a throwback to very racist, sexist times, and a lot of military SF, it’s like people talk about Heinlein, especially like, “Oh, this is just him spouting on about, like, fascism is good.” And I’m like, “I understand that. I also love a lot of things about it.” I think John Steakley wrote a really great military SF novel called Armor, and of course, Joe Haldeman, you know, The Forever War, which is an amazing anti-war novel, which is great.

He was a guest on the program.

Oh, was he?

Yeah.

So, there are some really wonderful military SF titles I really like—Marko Kloos is doing some interesting things as well now—and I, weirdly enough, like, I studied, you know, resistance movements and war for my master’s degree in graduate school. And funnily enough, I was like, “I haven’t written a military science fiction novel.” And we had sold…we had done a two-book deal with Saga Press. One was for The Stars Are Legion, which was a weird-ass feminist space opera, and the second one, it was like, “Well, what do we do now?” And my agent actually came to me and she said, “Hey, you wrote a short story for your Patreon,” ’cause I have a Patreon, which is basically supporting us right now, and she said, “Hey, why don’t you—I really love the voice in that, why don’t you expand that to a novel?” And I said, “Oh, I could do that,” And it was a short story, and I had gotten that initial idea because I love time-travel stories, I love military SF, and I was actually playing World of Warcraft, and there’s this point where you can get between two locations where it actually transforms you into a ball of light, and you sort of follow the ball of light, you know, to the next location, and I thought, “How cool is that? What if you broke down people into light and you, you know, took them to different battlefronts?” And I was like, “Well, so once you start messing with light, then you can start messing with time travel and quantum mechanics and all that stuff.” And so that’s sort of where that idea came from, right, playing World of Warcraft.

We should probably at this point have some sort of synopsis of the book for those who have not yet read it, because otherwise that may have been just a little confusing.

Yes. The Light Brigade is a novel about a disgruntled soldier who signs up to fight a war against Mars to get revenge for her family, who has died, and soldiers are broken down into light to get them to these interplanetary battlefronts. And what she starts to realize, as she experiences this war out of order, is that the reasons for the war are not at all what, you know, they’ve been told they are. So, that’s the journey of the novel, it’s sort of her learning what exactly this war is really about and trying to take control of that situation.

So, that sort of, you know, coming from anywhere…is that how ideas come to you in general? Some people, you know, they tend to start with ae character, or they start with an image or something. It sounds like it can come from anywhere for you.

It can. It can come from anywhere. I think a lot of times, you know, they do start with a character. And then I will actually start with…I’ll start with a character, an idea for a character, and say, “Well, what kind of a world would make that character,” right? And in this particular case, I had this idea…and that’s the thing, too, is that one idea does not make a novel. You have to take a great many ideas. And I can say, “Yes, this…idea of beaming people back and forth, that started it,” but that by itself is nothing. I had to come up with, you know, Dietz as a character, and say, “Okay, what kind of a world will make this person?” And then I had to figure out the structure of the novel, which is a pain in the ass. I had to do all, you know, all these other things, all of the military…

There’s a lot of stories in there that actually come from people that I know who have been in the military, also from a really great book called The Unwomanly Face of War, which is actually an oral history of women who fought in World War Two in Russia. And there, they had a ton of, you know, just first-person accounts of some of these harrowing and heartbreaking and hilarious, also, things, and those sort of also made it into the novel in various different forms. And it all had to come from the media and the books and the writing and all of those things that you sort of soak up throughout the world and your experiences of it, and you then distill it down into a story.

So what does your planning and outlining and all that look like for you? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you…I’m pretty sure in this one you didn’t just make it up as you go, because the structure is complicated.

I tried. I tried the first time, the first time writing it, I sat down, I got to the 40,000-word mark, which was all through the basic, her basic training, and then, yeah, once stuff started going out of order, I…all of a sudden I, it just stopped, and I, you know, called my agent, I said, “Listen, I don’t know how to make this work.” And she said, “Okay, well, tell me what’s going on.” I said, “Well, here’s what I want to happen, but I can’t make it logically happen.” And she said, “Oh, my gosh, you really have made a mess.” And I was like, “Yes, I have. Yes, I have!” Well, it turns out her husband has a Ph.D. in mathematics, he actually teaches in California, and he saw her with a whiteboard trying to figure out, “Okay, how does this, and check the jump that…now they’re back and they’re doing…” And he said, “Oh, well, you just need to…” I don’t know, it’s whatever I said in the back of the book, it’s this, whatever, kind of graph that links these things together. He’s like, “This is okay, you can just use this mathematical equation to make sure that everything is happening in logical order,” and she’s like, “Oh. Oh, great!”

So, we actually sat down, and what she would do is run characters through this graph to make sure that the events as they were happening out of order…because first I had to note how everything happened in order, so I made an Excel spreadsheet of that. Then I would chuck those out of Excel and mix them up, and then I would go to her and say, “Does this make sense?”, you know, just make consistent sense with math. And she’d run it through and be like, “Okay, yes, math says that make sense,” and then I’d go, and I could write the, you know, each section. And it was a matter of me having to say, you know, “Here’s who’s alive at this time. Here’s, you know, here’s what she believed happened last time. Here’s what her squad actually experienced last time.” And I did need to be incredibly detailed and really pay attention to this book in a way that I don’t think I have with any other book.

I was telling my agent, I think it was the third read through of the novel, for the finished novel for me, where I said, “You know, this feels effortless.” And I was like, “How amazing.” Like that….as an author, like, that’s your goal, is to make it look easy. And I mean, you know, the third time I read it through, I said, “It’s at that point where it feels like, ‘Oh, how obvious, you know? Oh, this was easy.’” And again, and still up until, you know, up until we were in proofs, my agent was double-checking, running stuff through, making sure that it all made logical sense, because we knew, with any time-travel novel, we know…and military SF, right?…people are gonna check, they’re gonna re-read it several times and they’re going to check to make sure that you’re right.

So, yes, this was a very different sort of book for me. I think you look at, you know, my first series, The God’s War series, was just, it was a classic quest plot. It was just, it was Conan, it was a female Conan, so it was just like, “Hey, there’s this object of power or person that they need to find,” and they go about, and they have silly hijinks, and they do it. Like that’s, that’s a…I love writing those sorts of plots because they’re just very easy. This was not that…

No math required?

Yeah, no math required, no running it through the graphs. But this one, you know, was a real level up, where it was…I felt like I could say, “I’m writing science fiction now. We used math!” But, yeah, for the most part, with other things I’ll do broad outlines. I used to be almost entirely, you know, a gardener writer, where I would just sort of throw stuff on the page and wander around and I’d have some big set piece like, “Here’s where I want to go and here’s the kind of the big things I want to happen,” but it was just, you know, wandering around. I can’t do that as much anymore because I’m on contract, so what I’ve found is if I try to do that, I end up spending, you know, six times as long editing the book as I would if I do all the work up front like I did with Light Brigade.

Yeah, those deadlines have a way of doing that.

They change your process. It’s a pain in the butt, yeah.

So what does your actual writing day look like? Are you a plant-yourself-at-the-office-chair-and-type-for-twelve-hours-a-day writer, or how does it work for you?

Well, it usually depends. I think my…I’m a binge writer. So, what I like to do is make sure I have big chunks of time. I like to, you know, be sitting at the computer, certainly by about nine o’clock, and I will usually work straight through, with a little break for lunch, until two o’clock or so. By the time it gets about three o’clock, it’s like, my brain is done, I’m done, and I’m ready to do other things, which is great, because then I can spend the early morning hours responding to email, reviewing contracts, and then the later hours doing whatever. So, that’s really kind of the ideal.

Now, does that mean that’s always what happens? No. Right now, I’m working constantly because I’m on deadline. I have a book due Thursday, a big rewrite of some stuff due Thursday, so now it’s like, “Oh, get up at six, type-type-type-type-aaaah!”, you know, and then go to bed late. So, it really depends on where I am in the process. ’Cause there are some other days, you know, once this book is in, I have another book that I’m actually in the research and ideation process right now, and that means going to the library and taking notes and researching things. And that’s a different process. I’m not necessarily making words, but I am preparing to create that outline and flesh that out and get the world in order before I really start it in earnest. And so that’s kind of different mode of work.

Do you ever get lost in your research?

You know, I try a lot more now to stay on target, just like with deadlines, right?

“Stay on target…”

Right, yeah. That’s also, I think, the reason I like to go to the library, because if I’m just like, oh, I’m a hundred percent doing my research online, it’s way easier to lose yourself online than it is in the library, ’cause at the library you have to physically get up, to look for stuff, you have to put this away, do that, so you’ve got to be very clear about…it is much harder to get caught in that. But yeah, if I try and do stuff online, it’s, I feel like, “Oh, it’s been six hours and now I’m watching a YouTube video about basket weaving, how did that even happen?”

So now…I’m presuming you type and work directly onto a computer because you started with word processors when you were a kid, so…

Mm-hmm.

I have talked to one person, I think, who still likes to write longhand, but…once you have your draft, what does your rewriting process look like? Do you have beta readers? Do you just get it done and send it off to your editor? How does it work for you?

At this point in my career, my agent is basically my beta reader. In fact, she is involved…again, I talked about working with structure, she’s very analytical and very much involved and hands-on from the early draft stage…so, when I finish a draft, I usually send it to her first. Occasionally we’ve had ones where, you know, it’s due to the editor and I’ve got to send it to them both at the same time and I just ran out of time, but for most of my work, yeah, she reads the first draft, she gives me her first big batch of notes, I rewrite it based on her notes—that’s usually when the big structural stuff happens—send it back to her, she reads it again, I clean up any last little things, and that’s when it goes to the editor. And that’s ideal, right? But sometimes it just goes straight to the editor, in which case, yeah, then I just end up having…

Like, this last book, The Broken Heavens, which is the third in my fantasy series, The Worldbreaker Saga…that one is so late, and so it ended up going to my editor and to my agent at the same time. They both read it and I had to incorporate both of their comments—sometimes contradictory, so it’s like any other way of taking notes, some of the times you’re just like, “Well, which one best fits my view of the novel and the way the novel should be. Do I agree with them?” and throw them out if you don’t like them. And then again, I just sent it back, and I got the notes back again, fewer notes every time from my agent and editor at the same time. And so, I work on those.

But yeah, I worked with beta readers for my first series, and I think after my first series, the issue became, you know, a lot of my first readers were from my Clarion class, and over time we all became professional writers, and then none of us had time to actually read each other’s books. We didn’t have time. And by the time I had a draft finished, it was already…there would only be, like, a week before it was due to the editor, and that wasn’t enough time to give them time to read it, so, it just…that just kind of fell by the wayside. But early on in my career, yeah, I did have beta readers.

See, I basically never did. I pre-date the Internet, when I was getting started, and I didn’t have any friends…well, that’s not quite true…but I didn’t have any, you know, people that were going to be any use to me. So I’ve always just kind of gotten it written and sent it off to an editor. It’s kind of the way I’ve always worked. Before you send it to your agent, what does your personal rewriting look like? Or are you perfect at the end of your first draft and ready to send it off?

Ha-ha. That’s only John Scalzi is that way. It drives me crazy.

He was, like, my second interview, so I remember him saying…

Oh, my gosh, yeah, no, he drives me crazy. But no, I…some of it is…I do, I revise as I go, but a lot of times when I finish something, I do go back and say, “Okay, what are…were there any notes I made…”, see, sometimes I’ll make notes along the way, “Hey, remember to go back and fix that, remember to go back and do this,” and I will go back and I will kind of fix those things up. But, you know, more and more I do…because I am writing to deadline…I wait for my huge edits until my agent sees it. And then I incorporate my edits and my agent’s edits into it, to be like, okay, kind of a gut check, like the things that I thought were wrong, “Oh, look, she thinks are wrong,” or “Oh, she didn’t even think about that.” So, yeah. And I do, I try to take…when feedback comes in, you know, I try and take the small stuff first and get all the small stuff done, and then look at the bigger ones. “Okay, now we have to go through and fix these large sections. This motivation doesn’t seem right, you know, this sequence of events is messed up.” So, I do kind of try and keep track while I’m writing of all the things that I need to address on the next pass.

And yeah, then I’ll go through, I will read it through, address those things. I’m not terribly worried about, like, word choice and things like that. I will spellcheck it at that point, but I wait to really layer on, you know, worldbuilding stuff and work on sentence-level things once I’ve gotten all of the feedback from my editor and my agent, because I found if I try to work at that level first off, a lot of times it takes a lot longer, and then it might turn out that I have a big section that I spent all this time on that in fact needs to be deleted completely. So, I’d rather make sure all of that big structural stuff is in there—in fact, that’s what I’m doing for Broken Heavens right now—all the big structural stuff is fixed, and then I go back, layer on worldbuilding, layer on character stuff, go to the sentence level and say, “OK, let’s clean this up, let’s make this a little bit more poetic,” and that’s the point at which I really start…again, now it is a polish. It’s really shining it up right before it goes to the copy editor.

My final sentence revisions usually happen when I’m doing a public reading and I come across something I wish I’d changed before it got into print.

Oh, yes, we all have that. “What did I do?”

Yeah, it’s funny. Well, it’s not funny, it’s kind of sad, really, but it happens. Well, that’s the novel we were talking about. I also wanted to mention the short story collection that’s just come out. Where do the short stories come from? How did you assemble this collection? You said you don’t write a lot of short stories? Are these all previously published? Are there some unpublished ones in there? It’s called Meet Me the Future.

Yes. Meet Me in the Future. So, two years ago, I think, I started a Patreon. And a Patreon is where my fans can sign up and they get subscribe for a buck a month and get a short story for me. And yes, I’m like, “Oh, I hate short stories, to write short fiction.” Well, when you’re writing short fiction every month for two years…

They pile up.

You do get better. Yeah, you do get better. It’s amazing. But it was really cool, because, I mean, at this point, I was laid off from my day job a few months ago, and so Patreon and my book earnings are basically what we’re living on right now, and, you know, when you have to pay the bills with it, it’s very easy to write a short story. So, I had been doing that. Yeah, I had quite a few lined up for the last two, two and a half years, and what I did is…and I also took some much older stuff, again some of those old Strange Horizonsstories, some other ones that ended up in anthologies. It’s really a “best of,” and it was me taking the best of the Patreon stories, the best of my older stories, and then I basically presented over 100,000 words of these to Jacob (Weisman), the editor at Tachyon Press, and said, “I don’t know what to do with these, you tell me which ones are best. You tell me what you think is good and what order it should go in.” And he read through them, and he’s like, “Wow, this is like…there’s so many, They’re all so great.” And he picked out the ones that he thought were the best. He ordered them in the way that he felt made sense again. Again, he’s an editor, he does it all time. And it’s getting really great reviews, it got two starred reviews, and people have been really happy with it, which is great, again, for someone who’s like, “I don’t know how to write short stories.” It turns out that if you apply…like again, my whole career, if you apply yourself and you work really hard at it, you know, you can get better. And I think that that’s, you know, this short-story collection especially is a really good example of how, you know, doing something over and over again, but with the intent of excelling and getting better and studying, can pay off for sure.

Well, we’ve got about ten minutes left, and this is where I like to get the big philosophical questions. (See, my voice even goes deeper when I say that, “The big philosophical questions.”) And it’s not that…well, it is a big question, really. It’s, “Why do you write and why do you think any of us write?” and concurrently, “Why do you write this crazy stuff?”

I write to change the world. That’s all. I enjoy exploring ways that the world can be really different. And that’s something Joanna Russ actually had said in one of her essay collections. She realized science fiction was the place where she could actually explore how things could be really different. And something about that really struck me, and I really identified with it, because I felt I was writing, especially when I first started, I was writing the fiction I wanted to read then that I wasn’t seeing. And I like, yeah, I kind of grew up in the age of the New Weird genre movement, and which is really strange, really strange, and it’s weird stuff. And I love that stuff because I believe it gets us to think about the world differently. Stories are how we make sense of the world, and kind of pushing that envelope and having people think about the world a little bit differently is really a powerful thing. And I think…my day job, work, you know, the last, like, fifteen years, has been in marketing and advertising, and one of the things that marketing and advertisers know is that stories, and emotional stories especially, can change people’s behavior. You can get people to buy your toothpaste and wear seatbelts or not and smoke or not, and it’s really powerful. And I think they understand that in a way that some other folks don’t.

I think even in genre that sometimes we don’t understand, really, the power of our stories. One of the things that Geoff Ryman, an author, told me the second week of Clarion, he said, “You know, we have to take responsibility for the images that we put on the page, whatever those images are, because they are part of the storytelling, storytelling world that we come from, and that’s how we are each building our own consciousness.” So, I write because I like to show people how it could be different, for better or worse.

I was gonna say, the world of the The Light Brigade is not one for the better.

It’s not a great one. It’s not a great one. It is ultimately, I feel, a hopeful book, but it’s certainly, you know, yeah, it turns around and shows us, you know, a mirror image of certainly some of the things that we deal with now, for sure, so…

A little out of order from my questions, but I meant to mention back when we were talking about it that when I got into it and where the time shift starts happening, I kept being reminded of Gene Wolfe’s book, Soldier of the Mist.

Oh, yes.

With, you know, the soldier who forgets day to day unless he writes things down. A completely different book in almost every way, but that was something that kind of struck me as a similar kind of thing. And I guess that kind of ties in. I mean, science fiction is often said to be a field that’s constantly in conversation with itself. And I think you mentioned that earlier about, you know, you were reading Conan, and then you wrote a feminine Conan, a feminist Conan. Do you feel that you are a part of this great conversation of what’s come before and what might still be coming?

Oh, gosh, absolutely. And that that to me, again, is what so much of Light Brigadereally was. And I think it really depends…a lot of people have asked me, “Oh, can you write down, you know, all the call-backs and Easter eggs and stuff in Light Brigade?” I said, “No, I can’t,” because some of those are actually just in there for specific people. But it’s a book that’s absolutely in conversation with, you know, all those older military SF books, which I think a lot of people really got in there like, oh, here’s our military SF book for this decade. I’m like, “Yeah, see?” It really is, you know, kind of my riposte to a lot of those books.

And it’s in conversation, certainly, with a lot of those books, with Forever War, with Armor, with, you know, Starship Troopersand all the rest. And I don’t think you can say that your work isn’t, unless you don’t read. I mean, if don’t read the genre, then sure, it’s probably not. But one of the things that I actually love about writing genre is that there is still an established…there’s sort of an established community and a discussion of, you know, that we all have about the work, and that you can actually kind of contribute to that conversation as a writer if you’re kind of plugged into it. So, I do appreciate that. I like it because it feels like…you feel like you’re building on something, right? Like, you’re all building toward something. And no one knows what that is, but everybody is contributing to it. And no matter how much one will try and get away from whatever thing in the past, like, influenced all this other work, it’s like, if you are influenced by someone who is influenced by someone who is influenced by someone, you’re part of that kind of timeline. I don’t know. I find it interesting.

So do I. And I guess that’s one reason I got into the field as well. Although I predate you by some time, when I was doing all my reading and writing. Well, what are you working on now? I mean, we’ve mentionedThe Light Brigade, which came out in March. The short story collection is out now.

Mm-hm. Yep.

What’s coming next for you?

Next up, in January of 2020, is the third book—third and final, whew!—in my fantasy series, The Worldbreaker Saga. That’s called The Broken Heavens. And then I actually just sold a book called Losing Gravity, which I pitched to my editor as “Killing Eve meets Die Hard in space.” And he loved that, and the movie people loved that, too. They called immediately.

That’s an elevator pitch.

And I said, “There’s no book! There’s no book yet, guys. That’s a pitch.” So I now have to write that book. So, that’s the stuff I’m doing research and stuff on now while finishing up edits on Broken Heavens.

We haven’t mentioned your non-fiction writing, but you do a lot of columns and that sort of thing. Is that continuing?

That is, that is. I do a column for Locus Magazine every other month, and I also do an essay for Patreon subscribers every month. Occasionally, I do still do stuff when I am, you know, someone pitches me and wants me to write a column. It depends on, really, my schedule, so…

And finally, where can people find you online?

Best place is probably Twitter or Instagram. And that is @KameronHurley, and that’s Kameron with a K, and then, of course, my website, which is KameronHurley.com.

Ok. Well, I think that we’ll wrap it up. So, that was a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.

Great. Yes. Thank you so much for having me.

Episode 32: Fonda Lee

An hour-long conversation with Fonda Lee, author of the Green Bones Saga (Jade City, winner of the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, Jade War, just released, and Jade Legacy, in progress, all from Orbit Books), as well as of the acclaimed young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer, Exo, and Cross Fire.

Website
www.fondalee.com

Twitter
@FondaJLee

Facebook
@fonda.lee.94

Fonda Lee’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Fonda Lee

Fonda Lee is the author of the Green Bones Saga, beginning with Jade City, which won the 2018 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and continuing in Jade War, which came out in August. Book 3, Jade Legacy, is currently in progress. She is also the author of the acclaimed young adult science fiction novels Zeroboxer, Exo, and Cross Fire.

Fonda’s work has been nominated for the Nebula, Andre Norton, and Locus Awards and been named two best-of-year lists by NPR, Barnes and Noble, Powells Books, and SyFy Wire, among others. She won the Aurora Award, Canada’s National Science Fiction and Fantasy Award, twice in the same year for best novel and best young adult novel. Fonda is a recovering corporate strategist, black-belt martial artist, and action-movie aficionado residing in Portland, Oregon.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Fonda, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thanks, Edward, it’s great to be here.

Now, we kind of almost crossed paths last year at When Words Collide in Calgary, which is where you were born, right? You were born in Calgary?

Yes. Yes.

Was that your first time at that convention?

No, I’ve been to that convention a few times and I’m gonna be there next year as the guest of honor. I still have family in Calgary, so it’s always a great opportunity for me to combine visiting family with making it out to When Worlds Collide.

Well, I always like to plug When Worlds collide because it’s such a great event. We go every year.

It is, yeah. I like the fact that it’s it’s a great size. It’s not too huge, but it’s still very vibrant. And I like the fact that it’s very much modeled after an SF con, but it is cross-genre, and so I always end up seeing some panels and talks about mystery and thriller and romance and other genres besides my own.

Even poetry pops up.

Yeah.

Yeah. I like it a lot. And so, since I have plugged it now, we have plugged it, we should mention that the website for it is whenwordscollide.org. It’s capped at 750 or something like that, or 500, I don’ remember what it is.

Yeah. And unfortunately, I won’t be there this year because I’ll be traveling in Ireland before Worldcon in Dublin, but I will be there next year and I’m always happy to make it over there when I can.

Will you be at World Fantasy this year in Los Angeles?

Unclear. Still up in the air. I’ve got a bunch of travel for the rest of the year, so I’m trying to parse it out so that I’m not totally overloaded. I actually have to write a book sometime this year.

That’s such a nuisance, isn’t it? All these other things you can do, and then, oh, yeah, you’ve still got to write the books.

That’s right.

Well, and speaking of writing books, we’re going to talk primarily about the Jade–I guess it’s called the Green Bones Saga, is the name for the series. I am reading Jade City. I haven’t finished it, but I’ve read quite a bit of it, so I have a good sense of the setting, and I’m enjoying it very much. And Jade War is…is it out now? This is July 15, I guess, when we are conducting this conversation. Is it out, or is it coming out later this month?

It is not out quite yet. It comes out next week. We are one week away from release.

Well, it will definitely be out when this goes live, so…

Yes.

So, we’ll talk about that and how it all came about. But to start with, I always take my guests back into the mists of time–further back for some of us than others, and my mists of time are starting to get quite far back–to find out how you, first of all, became interested in writing science fiction and fantasy, and secondly, how you started writing. You were born in Calgary, but I know then that you moved to the States, so how did that all work out and when did writing kick in for you there?

Yeah. So, I wanted to be a writer when I was quite young. I think I was probably around ten or so. And I was a voracious reader as a child and loved to make up stories. So, at some point I told my parents, “I want to be a writer,” and I think they said, “Oh, that’s nice,” and patted me on the head and encouraged me to get a real job that would allow me to support myself as a functional adult when I grew up. And so, over the rest of my childhood, writing was something that I still loved to do. I always was doing it in my spare time. I had an extremely boring and long forty-five-minute bus ride to school and then another forty-five minutes back, and did not have, at that time, Gameboy or an iPad and whatever else that kids have these days to distract themselves. So, I had a very large pad of paper and I wrote a novel. So, my first novel I wrote when I was in fifth grade, and it ended up being 300 pages of handwritten prose about a young dragon and his motley crew of assorted magical forest friends on a quest for a magical amulet. That was my very first novel, which is possibly still bound with elastic bands in my parents’ attic. I then wrote a second novel when I was in high school that was a pulpy superhero saga, where I cast all of my classmates into this story about cyborgs and superheroes and nefarious corporate tycoons, and printed it out as a graduation gift to all of them. I wrote it, co-wrote it, with a classmate of mine during biology class by passing a graphing calculator.

What do they call that? Tuckerization. when you use real names in your book?

Yes. So that was that. And then I…I didn’t really think that writing would ever amount to more than that for me. I went off and got a business degree, and then an MBA, and I worked in management consulting and corporate jobs and eventually ended up…well, lived in Toronto for a while, then ended up moving to Portland, Oregon, to work at Nike, which is located here. And it wasn’t it until I was in my thirties when I kind of had this epiphany that I wasn’t writing anymore because I just gotten way too busy. I had a full-time job, I had two small children, and writing had just completely fallen off to the wayside. And that’s when I realized, “Wow, something really feels like it’s missing in my life and I need to get back to what I really enjoy.” So I took writing much more seriously than I ever had before and made changes to my work schedule, to what my priorities were in life. And then, once I did that, I was like, “No, I’m in it 100 percent. I want to be published and I want to make this my career.”

Well, you mentioned that you were a voracious reader. What were some of the books that you read that… because clearly you were reading the kinds of books that led you to write your first story as a fantasy.

The Book of Three, Book 1 of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain

Yeah. So, I was a fantasy/science fiction reader from the start. I loved…The Chronicles of Prydain was one of my favorite early books. I read Monica Hughes. I don’t know if many readers remember Monica Hughes books. She was a Canadian science fiction author.

I do!

Yeah! Devil on My Back was a book I really loved when I was a kid. I read, well, Narnia, of course, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising, all of those books. And I also loved animal stories. I read, like, all of those Black Stallion books.

Devil on my Back by Monica Hughes

Oh, me too. You know, I always like to point this out. Walter Farley actually wrote science fiction in the that arc with…the Island Stallion books actually have a science fiction twist.

Yeah! Yeah, so I loved those stories as well. So, I graduated later on in my teens to Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Anne McCaffrey, all of the science fiction/fantasy greats at that time. So, I’ve been very much in this genre as a fan since the start.

Well, those are all the same books I read, which…and I also wrote my first…well, I didn’t write it, I didn’t write my novel quite as young as you, but you were mentioning it, and I just happened to have it on my desk, my first novel, which I wrote when I was fourteen. And you were…yours was 300. Mine was only 201 when I hit THE END, so you outdid me. And it’s in a binder that says “Eddie Willett, Algebra,” on the front of it.

Oh, that’s great. It’s an artifact now.

And it has little drawings of race cars on it. I sometimes take it to school readings to show off. So, how did the first…was the first book you wrote trying to get published, published, or did you have some false starts along the way? How did you break in, I guess?

I wrote a practice novel that I knew would not be published, but I just wanted to teach myself how to write a novel. So, I wrote a novel that never saw the light of day at all. Then I wrote a young-adult fantasy novel that I wanted to see published and I began querying it after it was done. It went through quite a few rounds of querying and it picked up some interest from agents, but nothing…but it didn’t go anywhere beyond that. And while I was querying that novel, I wrote Zeroboxer, which would become my debut. And I took that novel, as well as the one I had been querying previous to it, to a writing conference here in Portland called Willamette Writers. And I didn’t really know which of these projects I should pitch, but Zeroboxer was hot off the press, I had just recently finished writing and revising it and felt like it was in shape to start being sent out, so I pitched that, and I got a lot of agent interest. A number of agents said, “Send me the manuscript right away.”

So at that point, I sent out queries to those agents as well as others that were on my list, and within a couple of weeks in offers of representation, I signed with my agent now, who…I’ve had him since the start…and we did a round of revision, took it out, and within three months we had an offer. So, between me finishing that novel, that would have been August…that conference would’ve been August of 2013. And we had a book deal in December of 2013. So when it happened, it happened quickly.

It doesn’t happen that way for everyone.

I know, it’s funny, because publishing often does feel like it’s slow, slow, slow, wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. Then it happens and it’s like, boom, all these things start cascading.

Well, I often ask authors if they showed their work to people when they were starting out, but clearly you did, since you wrote with a classmate and put all your classmates in it and gave it to them as a graduation present. And the reason I asked that is because it’s…for me, that was when I kind of discovered that, “I’m writing stories that people actually do enjoy reading.” Did you have any formal creative writing, training or anything along the way? Or were you just…you read and then you wrote, which is what I did, so I often ask that question, too.

Yeah. So, I did not, when it came to formal educatio. In fact, I regret that fact, because when I was in college, I took an English class, and then I think…I probably took a couple of English classes that were required. But I also had finance and accounting and marketing and all of those. And my English classes were…the English department was sort of against giving out As to what no matter what I did, I would always get, like, a B-plus, sort of regardless of, you know, the quality of whatever essay I was writing. It seemed like everyone in the class got somewhere between like a B-minus and a B plus. So, you know, academic overachiever that I was, I was like, “Well, I’m not going to have this dragging me down.” So, I ended up not taking future English classes in in the latter half of my undergrad except for one class that I couldn’t resist. And that was a class on the history of science fiction. And I ended up doing a term paper on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and we read stories by Sawyer and Bradbury. And that was, of all the classes I have taken…I don’t remember a thing from Finance 101, but I remember that undergrad science fiction class.

But, in terms of craft of writing, once I started getting serious about it as an adult, I took an online writing class through continuing-ed classes, I applied and got into the Viable Paradise Writing Workshop–which I’m going back to this year as a faculty member, which is pretty cool. And those were ways for me to get into, first of all, the discipline and habit of writing and treating it really seriously and improving my craft, and also a way to meet other writers and find a community and get validated that, yeah, like, “This is this is really something I could do and want to do.”

Have you ever had any writing groups that you belong to, like critique groups or anything like that, that some writers have?

Yeah, I have…actually my Viable Paradise classmates. I’ve asked them to read for me on occasion. I have a beta reader group. So, I don’t have a critique group that follows the model of meeting once every couple of weeks or every week to share small pieces. I need to write my novels in isolation and I don’t show them to anyone until they’re in pretty decent shape. So, I’ll go for a year or more without showing my work to anyone. And that’s…especially with these novels, thay’re so long. So, I need to write by myself and get it into…see the whole shape of it first. And then I will send it out to beta readers. I’ll have a few people read it and I’ll send it to my agent and he reads it before it goes to my editor.

Well, we’re going to focus on the Green Bones Saga as an example of your creative process, but I did want to mention your earlier books, too, because you started in YA, and now you’re writing adult. And I’ve kind of crossed that divide myself, and back and forth, and sometimes there seems to be…and I was reading an interview with you in Locus, actually, and you were talking about this. There can be a kind of a confusion sometimes if your voice is YA, but your story is more adult, and I think you mentioned that in connection with Zeroboxer, and I’ve run into that, as well. So, what in your mind is the difference between writing YA and writing adult, and how do you go back and forth between them?

So…over the years it’s clarified in my mind that young adult is very much about voice and perspective. I don’t approach the writing of my YA novels differently than my adult novels, process-wise, the same amount of work goes into developing the world and the characters and the storyline. But with my young adult novels I have…I’m conscious of wanting to make them much tighter in terms of the perspective and making sure that that teen mindset, that teen voice, is there, because you can have any number of things going on in a YA speculative fiction world.

Exo is a good example of this, my duology. It has not just global stakes, but interplanetary stakes, where there’s a war between alien races and Earth is potentially caught in the middle, and there’s…entire human cities get demolished. So, it is very…it’s the same stakes as you would find in any big space opera. But it is very focused on the main character, this seventeen-year-old guy named Donovan, and everything is filtered through his experience and him trying to figure out what he should do, what his responsibilities are to his friends, his family, his cohort, to humanity. And that is, I think, the defining characteristic of young adult, is that, no matter what’s going on, it is still about the teen character.

And a good example of this is Hunger Games. Hunger Games…by the end, Katniss is leading a revolution against the capital, but it doesn’t zoom out like an adult novel might and go to whatever political machinations are occurring in the glass towers of the capital. It’s always with Katniss and her situation, her romantic tribulations and her struggle to survive and so on.

So, with my adult fiction, I feel a lot more free to expand the perspective and the scope. And that was certainly the case with the Green Bones Saga, because I knew from the start that it would be a family saga, and that it wasn’t about one character, especially one teen character. It was going to be a cast of characters, different ages. Their relationships were gonna take center stage. The world was going to be a very…there was gonna be a lot of stuff happening in different places. So, from the start, it was pretty clear to me that it was an adult novel. And my very first novel, Zeroboxer, I think could have gone either way. And that was..it ended up being picked up by a young adult imprint and published as young adult, but looking back on it, it could have gone either way. And now I’m more cognizant of deciding early on, figuring out early on what type of story this is.

See, what happened in my case was my…I wrote under the pseudonym E.C. Blake–who was a guest host on here and interviewed me–E.C. Blake interviewed Edward Willett in an earlier episode of the podcast. E.C. Blake wrote a fantasy trilogy, Masks of Aygrima, with a fifteen-year-old female protagonist. And it was always conceived as a YA book in my mind. But DAW wanted it, and DAW doesn’t have a YA line, so it was published in the adult fantasy market. And I got it from two directions, with people saying, “Oh, this read like a YA book”–well, yeah–and others saying, “Well, this is too adult for my YA readers.” So, yeah, I’ve been caught like that too. And the funny thing is Worldshaper, my latest novel from DAW, is up for a…well, it’s longlisted for the Starburst Award for best young adult novel.

Congratulations?

Yeah, but there’s not a teenager in the entire story. The main character is in her late twenties, and I still don’t know how it ended up being considered a YA novel. So…

Well, there is a grey zone, certainly, there’s kind of this blurry line, and what I see is a lot of young adult conventions filtering up into adult fiction. There’s more adult spec-fic these days that features young protagonists that kind of adopt some of that YA pacing and tone. So, there is certainly a gray zone in between there, but eventually, at the end of the day, your book has to sit on a shelf somewhere and the publishing powers that be need to be able to tell the buyers at bookstores this is where you’re your book is going to sit.

And the young adult’s over there, and the adult’s over there, and they’re two different things.

Right.

Well, let’s talk about the Green Bones Saga. Well, first of all, perhaps a synopsis without giving away anything you don’t want to give away, because if I talked about it, I might give away something you don’t want to give away so you synopsize it, and then we’ll go from there.

So, the Green Bones Saga is a modern-era epic urban-fantasy gangster-family saga that I have on multiple occasions described as The Godfather with magic and Kung Fu. It takes place in a…

That’s pretty much I would have described it, so…

It seems to work for people. You know, it’s nice when you can encapsulate your book in a couple of sentences, because you get asked to do it quite a bit. So, it is set in a secondary world on this fictional Asian-inspired island metropolis called Kecon. And what distinguishes this island is that it is the world’s only source of magic jade. And this magic jade is this resource that the Keconese people have long had to themselves. And it gives those who wear it these superhuman abilities that are not unlike superhuman abilities you might see in Wu Chia-Hsiang Kung Fu-movie martial-arts heroes. So they can…they have enhanced strength and speed and perception. And they can, not exactly fly, but they can, you know, jump great distances.

So, they have over time developed this warrior caste called the Green Bones. And the Green Bones can use jade, but not without cost, because it’s not like anyone can use it, they have to train for a very long period of time. And if you have too much jade or you’re too sensitive to it, bad things happened, including madness and death.

So, the story follows one of the two clans that ostensibly rule the city. And these two clans used to be united back when they were patriotic organizations that fought against foreign colonialist powers, but have since become rivals. And the No Peak clan is one of these clans, and it’s led by a family called the Kaul family that has this aging, bitter patriarch who has four grandchildren. And the story is really about them. The brother Lan is the head of the family now, and he has a younger brother, a younger sister, and they have an adopted sibling. And clan war is looming on the horizon. And one thing leads to another and all hell breaks loose. So that is pretty much the summary of Jade City. And Jade War

I think the title gives something away there.

Yeah! So, Jade War is the second book, and it expands on a lot of the things that happened in Jade City and takes this conflict between the clans and then sees it become an international one on the world stage. So, that pretty much sums it up. You know, it’s very much a mash up of things that I’ve loved. I’m, you know, a big fan of. of Wu Chia-Hsiang Kung Fu films, gangster movies like The Godfather and Goodfellas, and epic fantasy. So, all of those came together and and became this mash-up in my mind that I created in the Green Bones Saga.

Was there…and I guess this applies to all your novels..is there a kind of..do ideas come to you in sort of the same way, is it like an image, or something you’ve read, or two ideas banging together? Or…how do how do stories begin for you? And how did this one in particular begin?

Yeah, so, stories come to me in different ways. With Zeroboxer, it was the storyline that came to me first, the plot came to me first. With my young adult duology, Exo and Cross Fire, the character came to me first. And with the Green Bones Saga, it was the world.

So, this story came to me actually as just the premise of this magic jade and the aesthetic that this world would be, this kind of gangster fantasy. And the first thing I wrote down in my writing notebook was Jade City, was the title. So, that was the first spark. And I wrote Jade City, and then I wrote, “Modern-era world where combat is hand-to-hand. There’s guns and cars and so on, but power rests with those who have magic jade.” And that was it. I had no plot, I had no characters, I had nothing. I just had that idea. And then it sat in my notebook for a very long time. And like many good ideas, it accreted material around it like a piece of sand in a oyster shell, until I had enough to grasp onto it and then start turning it into a book.

Well, and what does that process look like for you, when you start building on the initial idea? How do you then develop a story, and do you end up doing a detailed outline, or are you more of a “let’s just get started and see what happens” kind of writer?

I do write an outline. For me to start writing. I need to know the beginning, I need to know the end, and I need to know some of the big turning points in there between the beginning and the end. And I won’t start writing until I have that. And I will do at least two to three months of just research and brainstorming. And for every book that looks different, but it involves a lot of reading and just absorbing as much information as I can that will help me in that creation process.

What are the things you researched for Jade City?

So, I did everything from, you know, watch a lot of Hong Kong crime dramas to read up on the gangs of New York and the history of the Italian American Mafia and Cosa Nostra, and articles, non-fiction articles about the Yakuza and the Triads and, you know, everything. And oh, jade mining, you know, drug production and smuggling. Anything that I knew would kind of have some bearing in this fantasy world. So I kept a notebook. I have a Scrivener file where I’m just dumping loads of research, and I’m just collecting a lot of stuff and seeing the connections and figuring out how that works. So, for example, you know, I’m seeing connections between…how the Italian-American Mafia family structure could be combined with, like, the flowery titles and ranks used in the Triads. “OK, I like both of those ideas. How am I going to work those into the story?” So, things like that.

And then I will do a lot of just free writing, outlining, writing, like character, little profiles of characters. And then at some point I feel like I have enough of an outline. The outline is helpful to me only as a safety net, for me to feel like, “Oh, I can finally start writing,” because I know that it will change. I know the outline is most likely not going to stay the same. But I have it to at least get started. So, then I set everything aside, close all the research files so that I’m not tied to them, I’m just keeping them in the back of my mind. And then I start writing.

You mentioned doing character profiles. What do those…well, first of all, how do you find the characters that you need for the story and how do you go about developing them?

So, they they start off as fulfilling particular roles in the story I want to tell. So, the siblings, I knew the main characters would be members of this family. And so, it helps to have a vision of what you want this story to be. And because I knew this was a family saga, I knew the main points of view would revolve around this family. And then I started kind of fleshing out, what would the roles be? “What characters do I want to have in this story?” So, I knew there would be a character who is going to be sort of the responsible one, you know, the prudent, reasonable leader. And, you know, he was the elder brother.

And then I knew that other characters were going to be playing off of each other, and there was going to be a much more emotional, impulsive, charismatic brother, and he would be this counterpoint to his older brother, but he would also have this rivalry with his sister, who was very similar in age. And she was bringing a different perspective because she rejected their upbringing and all the constraints of that patriarchal society and left. And she’s coming back. So, I knew that she would have a particular character arc.

So, I just started off, and then I was like, “Okay, well, I also want a character who is new to this, like, he’s the protege, and through him, I’m going to be able to introduce how this jade magic works and how people come up in this world, because that’ll be…the fact that he’s in school, he’s going to be able to show the reader, you know, how people train to be able to harness this magic.

So, they start off as fulfilling specific rules in the story, and then they gain their own unique identity, and then the story starts responding to them. So there’s this interplay. It’s not like, you know, the characters come first and then the plot, or the plot comes first and then the characters, they’re very much sort of interacting, and there’s this whole iterative process between them and the storyline.

Characters change as you write, at least, mine do, from what you might have initially. But as you throw them into situations, you see how they react and how they interact with each other. And I’m always fascinated by that, because these things…we set out with an idea in our head, and yet somehow, as the words flow out of your fingers, it’s not always an entirely conscious process. It’s quite fascinating to me.

Yeah, definitely. I mentioned the outline changing. I initially had…even though I knew how the story would end, I didn’t have the specifics of it correct. So, I had an idea of what the final big climax would be. And as I wrote, I realized, “No, based on what the characters would do, that’s not going to be how it how it goes.” So, you’re right, there’s this…things change, because you get to know the characters better. You start off…they sort of start off as puppets doing your will, having…you’re just trying to move them around. And then by the time you’re finished, get to near the end of the book, you know them a lot better, and you go back to the beginning and start revising and you’re like, “Oh, yeah, no, that’s not really how he would say that. So, yeah.”

So, yeah, and I want to talk about revision process in a mintue. But I also wanted to ask about the…there’s a great fascination in people who are interested in writing fantasy with creating magic systems. And this one is unique, I think. I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite like this. And I kind of like the fact that it’s just this one single magical thing in a world that is otherwise very much like ours, and how that changes things. Is that kind of what you were going for?

Yes, definitely. I really like my fantasy to feel very grounded. And, you know, I’ve never really gravitated towards writing high fantasy, if you will. And before I wrote this series, I was writing science fiction.

And this does have a certain amount of a science fiction feel to it just because it is a high-tech world.

Right. And I’ve had that comment before, that this feels like a fantasy where the magic is treated in a science fiction away. You know, there’s…you may not have reached this chapter yet, but there’s a scene where the Jade is being referred to by these foreigners, and they’re calling it bio-energetic jade. Because, you know, it’s not magic in this world. It’s magic…

To us.

To us, but the characters just see it as, “This is just the way it was,” just sort of…I mean, it’s something that we don’t totally understand. I mean, I’m not sure I totally understand quantum physics. It’s magic to me, but it exists. And so, these characters don’t think of it like magic. In fact, there’s never the use of the word magic in the entire series.

So, I like to write the use of, the existence of, this substance as a way to to heighten and examine the social conflicts. So, the fact that this jade exists creates the particular structure of this civilization, and the fact that other countries are coveting it and that technology is impacting its use is also playing in here, because if there was this substance in our world, you know, it wouldn’t be like a fantasy novel where there is birthright and only certain people are born with magic. There’s a drug being created that would allow other people to use it. And that’s just feels very real to me. Like, yes, of course, like, someone would apply science to this magic thing and figure out how to use it more widely. And so, all of those things are playing into the story.

And it was very much my intention that, you know, this magic substance is a resource. And with any scarce resource, it’s going to create disparity of distribution. It’s going to create conflict. It’s going to create, you know, social questions of, you know, how it’s viewed religiously and socially. So, all of that is part of the story, and it’s not, you know, it’s not treated like magic. It’s just treated like a fact.

In the family and the clans and the whole society, there are all sorts of different points of view being presented and bouncing off of each other. And I noticed in your previous interview that you were a high-school debater, which stuck out for me because I was also a high school debater. And I do think–and I think you mentioned it, this was in the Locus interview–when you do formal debate, you have to argue both sides.

Right!

It doesn’t matter which one you personally are drawn to, you have to argue both sides to the best of your ability. And I think that does come through in the book.

Yeah, I think it is very much present in, I think, almost all of my writing, honestly, I feel like I don’t ever want to write just obviously good characters and obviously bad characters. I like to write stories where you can see the point of view of the other side. Like, the main antagonist in the Green Bones Saga is Ayt Mada, who is the leader of the opposing clan. And, you know, she makes some pretty good points. You know, she wants to kill all of our protagonist characters, but, you know, she has reasons for why she’s doing what she’s doing. And I like to think that I can rewrite the story again from the other clan’s point of view and make a case for your sympathies that way.

That was certainly my approach when I was writing my young adult duology as well. It would be easy to write a teen protagonist who is just, you know, plucky hero fighting against the aliens. But I made him a security officer whose job is to enforce the laws under alien governance. And, you know, there is…because of his position, he can see a lot of the good things that have come out of the intergalactic trade and being part of this larger alien empire. And so, there’s…I like to…I like having characters in that gray zone of, you know, moral ambiguity and which side is right. Is there a right side? And I think that does come through in my writing, even if it…regardless of whether it’s YA or adult or fantasy or science fiction.

So going back to your actual process, what…you said, you have to write in isolation, do you sit at your desk for four or five or six hours a day in your home office? Do you go off and write in a notebook under a tree somewhere? What’s your actual writing process look like?

Much more like the former, the sitting in my chair at the desk for four to five hours. Not always in my home because…well, sometimes in my home, maybe about half the time. and sometimes I just need to get out and have a change of scene. So, I’ll go to a coffee shop or the library and I will write there. But I try to…not necessarily write the same amount of time or the same number of words every day, but I have short-term and medium-term goals that I set for myself by backing in from what I need to get things done. So, I know that I have to hit some deadline at some point and I’ll back out from there and say, “OK, well, that means I need to have a second draft by this date, which means I need a first draft by this date so I have time to give it to better readers…” So, if I know when I need to get a first draft done, then I’ll be like, “OK, I really should try and get the first half done by the end of summer,” for example. And that means I need to really get about X number of words, or this week I’m going to try and get these two scenes done. and then I’ll block out time to do that. So it’s, you know, it’s always thrown for a loop by the schedule, whether I’m traveling or, you know, other things are going on.

But I work best when I am by myself and it’s quiet. I don’t even listen to music. I put on noise-canceling headphones with ambient noise just in the background, like rain falling–it’s actually quite easy because Portland is usually raining, so there’s usually background noise of rain falling–and a big cup of tea. If I can get a solid three to five hours, that’s what I’m most productive.

Now we’ll circle back around to the revision process. So, you mentioned first draft, second draft, so I’m guessing you do a complete first draft and then go back and rewrite from the beginning. Is that how it works?

You know, it depends. It’s kind of…every book sort of is different in that regard. I don’t always do a full first draft and then go back from the beginning and start rewriting. Sometimes that is the case. That was the case with Zeroboxer. I just got, boom!, all the way through and wrote a first draft, but other books have sort of defied that model. Jade War is a good example because I had multiple POVs and they were in different places and I couldn’t write straight through. I would lose the thread of the overall narrative, so I had to write non-linearly. I would write one character’s POV, and then I would write another character’s POV, and I would try to figure out how to stitch the…where they were intersecting and where they fell in the overall timeline…and then stitch them together. And it was…it was more like quilting then like one straight, you know, knitting process. So, I couldn’t even tell you what draft I was on at any given time because it would be like, “I don’t know, is this like 2.34?” Because there would be parts where I had written it and then I had revised that part, but I had still not written the first draft of this other part. And so, it was just all piecemeal and all over the place. So, you know, at some point the idea of even like first, second draft just sort of fell apart.

Once you had it to the point where you considered it more-or-ess complete…you mentioned beta readers. So, what do they provide for you?

So, I will send it to beta readers to have them read the whole thing and give reactions on the structure, which parts felt like they needed more work. Maybe where things were not clear. It really is just to get outside eyes on it.

How many do you have? And where did you find them?

I have, you know, usually between three to five people read it, not including my husband, who I also use as a reader. And I’ve found them from, generally, just the writing community here in Portland, and other spec-fic writers who are also working on novels, because though we don’t have these expectations of meeting every second week, we just are very much…we’ve set it up so that it’s a…we get in touch when one of us has a novel that is done.

So you do the same thing for other writers as well?

Right.

And then once it gets to the editor, what what does your editorial feedback look like?

Well, my editor is…I’ve had multiple editors. So, I have an editor for my YA–I’ve had two different editors there–and obviously my editor at Orbit, and usually it goes to my editor, and then there’s silence for a little while, and then I get this very long, very daunting letter back, you know, with all the reactions and what needs work. And then I look at the letter and I panic for forty-eight hours, and then I set up a phone call with my editor and we talk through it.

And I find…I really…the editorial process is one of the best parts of of the whole writing process, even though it is very stressful at times. It’s where the book really gets better. The editorial feedback is just so intensely valuable. And the editor is both a source of misery, but a real…but also, your greatest champion. Because my editor wants the book to be true to my vision and to be the best possible version of itself that it can be. So, it’s really a partnership. And my editor is frighteningly efficient. I think I turned in Jade War…I can’t even remember exactly when I turned it in…but she read it and had this long edit letter for me like two weeks later, I don’t think I’d even really fully recovered from finishing it and handing it in. So when the edit letter came back it was like whiplash, ’cause she had read the whole thing and gotten back to me with notes so quickly.

But I think a lot of aspiring writers fear the editorial process. I get this a lot. I’ll teach writing workshops and writers will say things like, “Oh, but like, you know, what’s it like when the editor wants to change your book? Like, do you have to listen to them?” And these…they’ll have comments that make it seem like the editor is your enemy. And, you know, “What do you do if they want you to change your book?” Most of the time, that is not not how the relationship goes at all. I mean, I’m not saying there are no bad editor relationships. There certainly are. But in my experience, you know, you and the editor are working toward the same goal. And every one of my editors has made my books better.

Well, you have  a pretty impressive list of awards that you’ve picked up along the way. What have those meant to you, to get that kind of professional feedback?

I mean, they’ve been…they’ve meant a lot because, you know, they are…they’re first of all, a sense of, “Wow, like people actually are reading my books and they like them and they think they’re good.” So, I often say this, it’s funny because awards are both very meaningful and meaningless at the same time. So, they are very meaningful in the sense that you have received outside validation that you’re doing pretty well and other people in the know, especially if it’s a pure award like the Nebula nomination, I know I’m being nominated not just by, you know, any random person, but all my fellow science fiction and fantasy writers, whom I respect and I know that that isn’t a nomination that’s given lightly. They’re not going to nominate something that they don’t think is well written. So, it’s very meaningful. The World Fantasy Award, which I won, was hugely meaningful because I knew that…it’s a juried award, and these jurors are chosen carefully, and they’re like experts in their field, they’ve read a lot. They read–I don’t know how many books in order to come up with the shortlist and then to decide. So, it’s incredibly important. It’s a huge honor to get nominated for any of those major awards and to win an award like that.

At the same time, it doesn’t change your day-to-day life or routine. Like, you have this burst of achievement and joy and people are congratulating you, and it feels amazing for a short while, and then it’s, you know, it’s back to work. You know, you’ve still got a sit down, your life doesn’t change overnight or anything like that. It’s not like, you know, you’ve won the lottery in publishing and now from now on, you know, you’re not going to get rejected anymore like you. It’s not a magic sales ticket. It’s not like, you know, the next day suddenly you’re, you know, raking in dough. You get the validation and you enjoy it and you bask in that achievement and then you sit right back down in your chair, and you’re still facing the blank screen the next day.

And, of course, with a lot of these things, you get recognized for something that to you is now way in the past and you’re struggling with something brand new.

Oh, definitely.

It’s like, you know, when get your book, and you…people say, “Isn’t it exciting to get your book?” Well, it is, but I have no desire to read it because it’s in the past, right? I’m working on something new.

Yeah. I remember actually feeling quite stressed after won the World Fantasy Award. I was smack dab in the middle of writing the second book. And the amount of…after the, you know, the excitement wore off, there was the pressure of, “Oh, great. Like, how am I going to write a sequel to live up to the first book?” Because now there’s expectations. So…and I feel the same way.

The same thing happens with book launches. Book launches are very funny because, you know, you’re launching a thing that you worked on so long ago. And you’re, you know, talking to interviewers and you’re doing bookstore events and you’re talking about this thing that you wrote and you’re acting happy and excited. You are happy and excited, but, you know, in the back of your mind, you’re stressing about whatever it is you’re working on right now. You know, “I still can’t figure out this plot point.” So it’s funny. Your brain is always kind of broken up based on the projects that are going on.

Well, we’re getting close to the end here, so this is where I asked the big philosophical questions. Well, one really, Which is simply…well, it’s kind of a three-parter. Why do you write, why do you think anybody writes, and in particular, why do you and I and other people write science fiction and fantasy?

So, I write because I love stories. And I think that stories are the truest form of human communication. I think everything that we do to relate to each other revolves around stories. Have you sat down with a bunch of friends that you haven’t seen for a few years or weeks? You immediately start telling stories, saying, “Oh, how’s it going?” And someone says like, “Oh, well, you know, last month I went here and this and that.” And they’ll, you know, they start telling a story.

I think that the stories are how we share ourselves with others. And everything that I write, I feel like I’m sharing something about myself with the world. And ideally. I’m sending that out into the world so that other people who read it will find something in those words that connects with them, and they’ll be like, “Yeah, like I feel like I relate and I understand and I see myself in that, too.” So, you know, there’s something personal about writing that…I think writers feel very drawn to kind of put their own truth out there. And, you know, when you see things in the world and, you know, you have personal experiences, you know, you can…part of, for me, the way to process them and to talk about them is to tell a story.

And when it comes to, you know, why science fiction and fantasy in particular? I think it’s a way to really stretch the imaginative boundaries of our minds, but then use that to tell fundamental truth or to reflect the human experience. So, if I’m going to tell a story about war, I could write about a specific war in our real history, but I can say something more, both broader and kind of more underlying about war itself in general, by putting it in a fantasy world or a science fiction world where, you know, there’s two alien races or, you know, it’s humans against cyborgs or whatever, and tell a story about war that way. And then I’m not bringing the real-life baggage of a specific event in history from our world into the conversation. Then it’s just a story about the truth of war and how it affects those characters and those characters are a stand in for, you know, any number of humans or people in our world.

So, I think that science fiction/fantasy really builds empathy in a way because, can you make a reader relate to a human who’s living 300 years in the future or an alien or a magical being or a robot? If you can, then you’re asking them to empathize with someone who’s very different than them. And that’s something that we can all use more of in the world.

I was going to say, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and so I’ll ask you, as I’ve asked others, do you hope in some way that through your fiction you are…shaping the world might be a little grand, but at least shaping individuals and changing them in some way when they read your stories?

I certainly hope so. And I think that, you know, that is really probably the most validating thing about being an author, is when you hear from a reader who has really connected with your work and for whom your book means a lot. We all have those books in our lives where, you know, you feel like you read this book and it really shapedd, you know, our view on something, fiction or, you know, some  issue or what have you. And having those moments…I mean, I’ve I’ve been honestly amazed and thrilled by how much international enthusiasm the Green Bones Saga has gotten. You know, I’ve had readers from the Philippines and New Zealand and Britain, like, people all over the world, who’ve said that they really love the fact that, you know, it’s a different take on fantasy, that it’s not fantasy that is set in some version of medieval northern Europe, that they are seeing fantasy worlds that that aren’t sort of the traditional mold of fantasy and that that meant a lot to them. That has been really, really awesome. And, you know, I think the fantasy genre as a whole is seeing a lot of that, just a broadening of, like, what sort of voices and stories are being told in fantasy. And I am really glad I get to be a part of that.

And what are you working on now?

Well, my answer is gonna be the same for the next year or so. And that is the third book of the Green Bones saga.

Does it have a title?

Yeah, there is, and I can’t announce it yet. Maybe by the time this podcast goes live, it will be public (It is, as you can see from the cover art at left – Ed.), but it does have a title. Orbit will be announcing it soon. And that will be my monster project for a while, because capping this trilogy is going to be no mean feat. And then I’ve got some other projects in the works that…well, I won’t speak of yet, but stay tuned.

And where can people find you online?

They can find me on my Web site, which is fondalee.com. I am on Twitter @FondaaJLee, and occasionally on Facebook. But yeah, people can certainly find me on the interweb.

I’m just curious, why is there a J in the Twitter handle and not on your website?

Only because the Twitter handle was taken by some sort of egg.

That’s so annoying.

Yeah.

Yeah. The reason this is called…well, it wasn’t a Twitter problem, but it was a domain name problem. This podcast is called The Worldshapers because Worldshapers was just being held by somebody who said, “Oh, well, we’ll sell it to you for $2,000 or $5,000, whatever it was. I said, “You know, I don’t think I need to spend that money on that.”

Right.

Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did, too.

I did! Thank you, Ed. And I will be sure to signal boost once it goes live. And good luck with the rest of your interviews you have lined up. Sounds like you’ve got quite a lineup the rest of this summer and year.

Yeah, it’s going really well. So, I hope to keep doing it for a long time. Anyway…

Awesome!

Bye for now.

OK, bye. Take care.

Episode 30: Charles E. Gannon

A in-depth interview with Dr. Charles E. Gannon, bestselling Nebula and Dragon Award-nominee and Compton Crook winner, about his creative process, focusing on his Caine Riordan/Terran Republic hard science fiction novels, the fifth of which, Marque of Caine, just came out from Baen Books.

Website
www.charlesegannon.com

Facebook
@chuck.gannon.01

Twitter
@cegannon1

Charles E. Gannon’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Dr. Charles E. Gannon‘s Caine Riordan/Terran Republic hard science fiction novels, published by Baen Books, have all been national best-sellers, and include three finalists for the Nebula, two for the Dragon Award, and a Compton Crook winner. The fifth, Marque of Caine, came out in July 2019. His epic fantasy trilogy, The Broken World, launches in  2020.

He collaborates with Eric Flint in the New York Times– and Wall Street Journal– bestselling Ring of Fire series, and has worked in the Starfire, Black Tide Rising, Honor Harrington, and Man-Kzin universes. The rest of his bibliography includes many works of short fiction in venues such as Analog,  numerous game design/writing credits, and television productions from his past career as a scriptwriter/producer in New York City.  

Formerly a Distinguished Professor of English at St. Bonaventure University, and recipient of five Fulbright grants, his book Rumors of War & Infernal Machines won the 2006 ALA Choice Award for Outstanding Book. He is a frequent subject matter expert both for national media venues such as NPR and the Discovery Channel, as well as for various intelligence and defense agencies/contractors. 

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Chuck. I guess I can call you Chuck. Can I?

Absolutely. Call me Chuck. And it’s great to be here.

Now, we’ve run into each other once in a while at conventions and we actually sat at an autograph table together at DragonCon last year. I can’t remember who was to my left. It was an urban fantasy author with a huge following who had a line out the door. I didn’t. But it was it was nice to have a talk with you while we were sitting there, anyway.

Absolutely. Mine was a humble and intermittent line.

So, we’re going to talk primarily about the Caine Riordan series, as an example of your creative process. But first, I always like to take the guests back into the dark recesses of history…when you were young…and find out how you…

Oh, you mean before electricity.

Yeah, exactly. Yeah. Back then, I was there, too…how you got, first of all, interested in science fiction and fantasy and then how, specifically, you got interested in writing it. And also, you know, where you grew up and that kind of thing.

So where I grew up is about…I’ll start with that first…is about thirty miles northwest of New York City. And I say that, and people envision a sort of endless domino structure of high-rises receding into the great distance, and in actuality, our biggest problem was keeping deer out of our tomatoes. Of course, that was a long time ago. But still, the New York metro sprawl is pretty much constrained a lot closer than that. So, I had a kind of…I had an upbringing which brought me in close contact with the city fairly frequently and yet was pushed right up against the state park, which was inviolate to development. So, it was a mix of two worlds. Not a city person, I learned that early, but in the city there was something that probably was one of the earliest sparkings in me towards what science fiction or just notions of alterity in general. Excuse me, and that was the Museum of Natural History in New York City. They had a, at that time, a really, really extensive, for that time, dinosaur exhibit, I think now that’s been massively passed by others that are much more invested in that. But I could spend an inordinate amount of time amongst the various reassembled fossils, and that was where I conceived of the notion that I wanted to be a paleontologist and write about it.

Well, as time went on, I wanted to be a zoologist and write about it. And then I wanted to be an astronomer and write about it. And then briefly I wanted to be an astronaut and write about it. But that was a little bit more dangerous than I was in line for. And at about eleven or twelve, I realized what the constant was, was wanting to write about it. The other constant was to be involved with cool things. But this was about also the age when you start getting enough of a sense of the way the world works, that at eleven and twelve I was starting to realize about ninety-five percent of the time spent in those jobs, if not more, is solitary, and to my mind, kind of dull, repetitive, and almost purely…for every for every ounce of creativity in it, there was a ton of essentially quantitative assessment, proving analysis, et cetera. Not that I don’t enjoy that to a degree, but my…obviously, I think, given my chosen career, my avocation, lucky enough now to be my occupation, was to move on the creative side of things, so I kind of realized, well, what I want to do is be and talk about all those things, but to write about them. And that’s really been the best of all worlds because literally I can go to all worlds. And that sense of alterity, that sense of, if you will, unlimited possibilities and a total lack of restriction…there are no no-fly zones. There are, you know, there are no construction barriers up when it comes to the human imagination. So. that’s how I got here.

I often say when I’m doing talks and, you know, sometimes people say, “Well, why do you write this stuff?” In fact, I’m going to ask you that question later on. But if it’s coming from people who look slightly askance at science fiction, all the alterity, as you called it, alternate-world kind of fiction is, my response is always, “Well, why don’t you write it? Because it’s such an unfettered place for the imagination to play.”

Yeah, and I think there’s a lot of…oh, there’s a lot of what I’ll call…if you’re really grown up, if you’re really an adult, I think there’s no reason to feel that you have to always act in a way that is socially coded as, if you will, adult action. And I think the notion of, if you spend a lot of time in alterity, in alternate places, in thinking about things that are not connected to what’s happening in the stock market right now and what’s coming across our feed from Reuters or whatever your chosen dubious news source is–and I say that, I’m not saying Reuters is dubious, I’m saying that right now I can’t figure out what isn’t–and in consequence to me, I think if you’re really secure with yourself, why, if you have the kind of mind which is naturally one that wants to go over the next hill, to see what hasn’t been seen yet, then, of course, do that. Which is an entirely adult activity anyhow. It’s just not always coded that way. And I think that, so for me, I understand exactly what you’re saying about that. 

But I always find it kind of interesting…it’s a useful endeavor…to encounter folks like that, simply because it sets up an opportunity to have a discourse, and a friendly discourse, and make people perhaps give them a sense of freedom to ask those same questions, just as you said, Ed. You know, it’s, “Well, why aren’t you writing it?” And I think that’s a really important question. I think that it’s probably highly tinctured by our media. What I mean by that is, for instance, I have four kids, and they are big fans of the various Marvel movies. And I have to say, they’re a great romp. But I think for a lot of folks, when they think of science fiction, when they think of alterity in general, they’re thinking of that. They’re thinking of Star Wars. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with these things. They’re great fun. But it’s not, that’s not the workshop in which I toil. As you said in your intro, hard science fiction is pretty much where I live. And even when I’m doing fantasy, the same sort of rigour in terms of the way the world works and the way the world has been built, not to sort of preview what obviously our main topic is, worldbuilding, but, you know, this is what they think of, and they think of escapist fare. And what I think, unfortunately, it tends to blind them to, or it gets in the way of them having, finding and creating a relationship with that part of our genre which is entertaining, but escapist would probably not be the best word to use to define its center of gravity.

Now, were there books that you were exposed to that made a big impact on you and kind of helped push you in this direction?

There absolutely were. I don’t remember some of them because they were simply Scholastic Books Service Book of the month sort of things, when you’re in grade school here in America. But I do remember a couple. There was a series, it was Dig Allen…Digby Allen Space Rangers, something like this (Ed’s note: Dig Allen, Space Explorer, by Joseph Green, creator of Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.) And it was just as juvenile as it sounds, but it was fascinating, because what they did…the premise was a visit to every one of the worlds of the solar system, which even in the science of that time were deeply unlikely. But that didn’t matter to me at that age, and I devoured them and obviously remembered them. And I would say then, when I read…the next two things that really sort of drove home some of the possibilities in the genre to me was War of the Worlds reading the, you know, the original unexpurgated version of H.G. Wells. And, you know, the striking thing at the end of the book, when they say, when they finally crack into the walkers and they find some of the Martians who’ve perished from biology, from bacteria here on Earth, that a sort of backward assessment of their skeleton and everything else says suggests they weren’t too unlike us earlier in their evolution. And so that really, for some reason, that book really turned me on to two things. It’s an exciting book, but it’s also a big-idea book. You know, as you as you start to get into the notion of…which I only learned much later…the history of this is, you probably know this, he was walking out in his backyard with his brother, I believe it was, and they were talking about what was going on in Tasmania, the extermination, the clearing of species that didn’t exist any place else on the earth. It was his brother who said, “Wouldn’t it be something if, you know, if there were beings from another planet that came down here and started laying about themselves the way we are in Tasmania?” and, you know, all of what’s in there, in terms of really important questions and really important perspectives about, you know, the wages of empire, what does it mean to expand, the inability, in the case of the Martians, to speak with them, both because of a lack of common ground and also because they’re disinterested, and also the notion that we’re not on the top of the food chain. That to me was really, really interesting. So that book, as I guess my long, flowing, not to say disjointed, answer may suggest, is a…it really, really, I would say, if it didn’t set me on the track, it really was a lens that clarified the vision of where I wanted to go, and what I wanted to do.

So when did you actually start trying your hand at writing fiction?

The very first issue of the very first Star Trek fanzine, Spockanalia, from 1968.

Pretty much a few months after that? Actually, I’d been writing fiction beforehand and I started very, very soon thereafter and was fortunate enough to come across a great mentor and started publishing…you know, this can this can be taken by listeners as either a badge of honor or a badge of shame for me, but started writing in Star Trek fanzines back in the day before…there weren’t even photocopiers. It was that thump, thump, thump noise of a mimeo machine, which was how one got into amateur publications. And that’s what I did and went forth from there.

And that great smell of the ink.

Oh, that ink, you never get off your hands. Good Lord.

I remember that well. That and Gestetner machines, those were…with the wax stencils. I had to draw cartoons for my junior high newspaper on a Gestetner stencil, which was scraping it into the wax. That was an interesting one.

It’s a little bit like monk work in the medieval era, toiling away over these highly resistant substances of ink and vellum to leave some mark for the future. Yeah, I remember those wax papers as well. And boy, are we dating ourselves here. OK. So, on we go.

Yeah. So you…because you eventually became a distinguished professor of English. I’m assuming you were an English major at university. Is that a fair assumption?

Well, it would be, except for I went to Brown University, which had, and still has, an independent major opportunity. And while English and creative writing, they also had a distinct creative writing track, and to this day, a well-respected M.A. program in…MFA? M.A., I forget which…in creative writing. And so, I went there and I had three things that I found were sort of speaking to me, and they were theatre arts, they were semiotics, which is, you know, to use the fast rubric, the theory of signs and symbols, but actually, what it was for the most part were film courses, and English with the creative writing element in it. So, I decided I wanted to package all three, and had a…came up with a major called storytelling for creative media. And that’s what I did. That’s what my degree was in. I had a minor in English, but I always…it’s kind of interesting I went that way, because even in 1978, ’79, I felt we were moving towards cross-platform narratives, increasingly. So, whereas many people are sort of looking, I suppose, still at e-books and trying to get accustomed and acclimated to that, my question is, “So when do we start having more media start actually moving into e-books?”, which I think is something that’s coming certainly within the next fifteen years and possibly a lot sooner than that.

I always ask people who’ve had actual creative writing courses, the writers that I’ve talked to, how useful that was for them in the long run. Some have had disparaging things to say about their creative writing classes in university. What was your experience?

My experience was mixed. I would say that…so, I did it in two ways. I had some of the courses in a track, some of the courses as independent study. The independent studies were very rewarding and largely, I think, they’re because…I always knew, my motivation always was to write, but what I would call belle lettres was not ever at the center of my scope. It would be lovely if somebody noticed my writing and felt that it was meritorious from within that sort of, under that tent. But my notion was always that I wanted to do the highest quality possible fiction in speculative fiction, whatever that meant, whatever market I had to go to. And there was no small amount of pushback on that, in 1979, 1980, ’81. I mean, it’s pretty clear that not only did science fiction and fantasy come out of the ghetto, but you might say we won, in that…just given, you know, how much it’s proliferated in our media these days, I think that if you go and look at the top five grossing films of all time right now, you will find that not a one of them is anything other than alterity. They’re all, for the most part, science fiction or superhero films. What that says is probably fodder for an entirely different podcast. But, in…so, it’s a very different world for any listener who may not have been around back when, you know, as Kingsley Amis said, when he would read science fiction on the underground in London, he would always have a larger magazine, so that he could put the science fiction book inside it, so he’d read it without anybody actually seeing that he was shaming himself as a good, upstanding, serious Englishman.

And so, for me in creative writing courses, there was some pushback on my materials, but they were helpful in a lot of ways. They were not helpful in others. I think the thing about creative writing, most programs, is that the people teaching them are usually not people who have had a long-standing popular-market success. Most of them, many of them are not people who’ve had much success professionally at all. They have degrees. They have some publications. Their publications tend to be in academic journals. And if you look at a lot of the academic journals which are connected to MFA programs, you will notice that they’re primarily…or, at least they were up until fifteen years ago, the years ago…they were primarily publishing other people in this same circuit, if you will, of MFA programs. So, they were publishing each other. And so, the notion of, how do you write to entertain, how do you write to be commercially successful, how do you integrate the sort of things that you’re trying to do in an MFA or creative writing track program, are frequently just, they’re not addressed. They’re not addressed in terms of actually making a living at this or having a, whether you make a living or not, having a career of some sort in it.

When I was actually in charge of the creative writing track at St. Bonaventure, I very much focused it on, sort of, without throwing…I don’t believe that…the problem with going to either extreme of either belle lettresor just pure commercial capability is, either one, you’re throwing some baby out with the bathwater. So, I very purposely created a middle course. So that was…it offered both…people coming at it from either one of those ends of the spectrum or points in between, that it was still not making them feel unwelcome or that their issues and their ambitions were being thwarted by the presuppositions of the program.

I’m currently mentoring an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan. It’s the first time I’ve done that. And he’s writing a young-adult fantasy. And so…I’m encouraged that apparently that particular program, at least, is letting students sort of do that, come at it from whatever direction they’re particular interests take them. I had one creative writing course in university and everything else was journalism. So, it’s always interesting to talk to people about their experiences with that. So how did you…when did you…start writing and getting published?

Well, I suppose if you mean getting published as in a check comes along with that, that would have been in the…actually, I was good at making money in television before I made money in dead-tree publication. I was writing scripts. I was writing documentaries, things like that, I was a script doctor in New York City back in the mid-’80s to the late ’80s. The first print publication I had for which some money came my way was actually in gaming, and that was in 1988 for a wonderful science-fiction roleplaying game called Traveler.

I played it!

Yeah, well then you may have seen some of my stuff along the way. I was…ultimately, that was part of my freelance gig, from 1988 to 1992. And I was, for a while, I was in charge of the Traveller segment of…the house organ at that time was called Challenge magazine, and I was made the mega-Traveller guru, which was a lot of fun and taught me a lot of good lessons in there. And at about, right at about the end of that was when I had my first fiction sale, which was to one of…the late Jerry Pournelle, who was a who was a good friend of mine. Many people, I suppose, have encountered stories of him being, at the very least, forceful and direct, and at the, probably the negative end of the spectrum, irascible, but he was always just a sort of big, nice uncle to me. And it was in one of those, in his anthologies, called War World, which was connected to the whole CoDominium series, that I got…I published two things at the same time. There was a short story called “Introduction,” which was exactly that, for that second or third installment, it was called Invasion, the third installment of the War Worldseries, and then another short story in there called “The Gift of the Magi.” And so that was the, that was the first, and then things kind of came to a crashing halt for quite a while. But I returned to writing full time in 2007…late.

You mentioned that there were some lessons you learned from both scriptwriting and gaming that then applied to your fiction. What were some of those lessons?

Well, one of the ones in film…there were lessons that were really valuable to learn and other lessons you had to unlearn. So, the lessons I learned. Writing action–cinema is a great place to cut your teeth because very quickly, you realize, I think faster than you do writing a book, that there are certain things which should happen as a narrative moves towards action that really you disregard at your peril. So, some specifics. If you think about film for a second, and you move from a conversation or a scene-setting moment, a medium or long shot, right? As we move to action, the shots get closer, the shots get faster. It is cut on action. And the pace of the shots, if you were going to put it to a metronome, the pace of the metronome is increasing. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not just intellectual or cognitive. It’s physical. Literally, when we get excited, what happens to our heart rate? It goes up. It speeds up. Well, that’s exactly what you’re seeing in terms of the pace of the cuts as you move into action. What don’t you see? You never have any item that’s going to be used in an action sequence explained during the middle of the action sequence. That would sort of be like, you know, dropping a bomb on a locomotive that’s just gaining steam and moving forward. So you don’t do that, unless you you’re writing a parody. You don’t have people talking with each other as they are trading blows. That might work, you know, for certain highly, I guess you could say posed or stylized events, but in general, when people are, the more…the higher the stakes are, let’s say your life, you don’t generally take time to say anything other than what absolutely needs to be said. This is not a moment for witty banter. This is not a moment for one adversary to sneer at the other as twirl their mustache with their free hand. That not what’s going on at urgent at urgent moments. And cinema teaches you that, because if you try to do that in cinema, there is no way, you will sit in front, you will sit at the editing table, back in the days that we were physically editing 16mm black and white, and you’ll realize, “Oh my God, this is ridiculous. This is utterly ridiculous.” And it teaches you that lesson for the rest of your life regarding narrative. And that translates very well into prose format, because as I move into action sequences, the paragraphs get shorter, the sentences get shorter, multisyllabic words get fewer, which I know anybody who listens to me talk for five minutes says, “Really? Can you even do that?” But the fact is, yes, I can, particularly when the action is very intense. And description is more, has now entered the realm of the verb almost exclusively. It really doesn’t want nouns at that point.

So those are all…but then then you have to unlearn a lesson. And one of the big lessons you have to unlearn from film is dialogue. Dialogue, for instance, in television you can have…and in films, we see this all the time…you know, somebody can be doing something, and they say, “Well, we’ve got to press the thingamabob before the clock hits 9.” “Why? Why do we have to do that?” And you get this explanation. That sort of pitching of a character asking why or how or what, which is the platform for the other character to explain, it really becomes a very, very tired mechanism in prose much more quickly. And the reason for that is because you can, if you plot it carefully, you can put it in…in television and put it in a car chase. You can put it in people as they’re trying to get from one subway car to another and they’re having to jostle through a crowd. In other words, it’s a little bit stylized, but there are less high-action moments, when the characters are still doing interesting things. The visuals are telling us they’re moving towards the objective, so we’re paying attention to that. But we’re getting this other track in terms of, that’s explaining what’s going to happen, foregrounding it, what needs to be done, what the objective is going to be. The lesson to learn when you’re in fiction, when you’re writing prose, is you have one track, you don’t have audio and visual, you don’t have information your eyes are gathering for you, plus listening to the dialogue. And if you try to do that same sort of thing in in prose, you will probably rue the day you thought that was a good idea.

And on the gaming side?

The gaming side teaches you a lot about collaboration. It teaches you a lot about being a good guest in somebody else’s sandbox. I actually think gaming is far better preparation for novels, novel writing, in some ways, than is filmmaking. And the reason I say that is connected to the reason why I have, you know, people will say, well, “Hope your books are going to be made into a film!” Maybe. I’d rather they were made into a game, and I’ll tell you why. If you, if, you know, you see what film directors do on set, they supposedly hold their fingers up to make a box so they can see what’s in the viewfinder, right? They say, “We’ll take this short of shot.” They’re framing things all the time. They have to. That’s their job. On film and television it is rarely important what is outside the frame. That’s just not that important. But when you’re designing a game or when you’re writing a novel, particularly if you think there’s a series there, it is very important what’s beyond the frame, because you’re going to come back to it. In the case of a game, particularly electronic games now, but also roleplaying games, the first thing that’s going to happen, any game design knows this, is that the players are going to wander away. They’re not going to follow the path that seems the most likely, and they actually…and these days, there’s largely an expectation that there should be things off the beaten path. If a game is too linear, it very often gets a black eye right now, and has probably for the last ten or fifteen years. So, understanding what worldbuilding means in a more totalized concept, that it’s not just…you don’t just develop the things that are gonna wind up in the viewfinder of your camera, because your readers or your game players’ interests are going to go off that beaten track. They’re going to want to sense that the world is real beyond the narrow confines of the of the screen or the scope through which they’re viewing things at that given moment. And so, it was great preparation for that, for worldbuilding. It’s a very orderly form of worldbuilding by definition, because in any game, whether it’s for a computer or whether it’s for something you’re playing at your home on tabletop, you know, papers and pencils as it is, and dice, the bottom line is, there’s quantities involved. There are relationships between what you attempt to do and whether you succeed. In most games, it still has some kind of simulational verity, that is at some level connected to the quantifiable elements that will either make it more or less likely that you succeed. And so, all of that is great preparation for worldbuilding that I believe readers…readers can tell if a world is fully fleshed out or not in a writer’s mind. And you will have done that work from that background.

So, when you brought all those lessons together, it was still a few years after the short story that you were talking about…that was a few years before your first novel came out, right?

Oh, more than a few years, but I was working on it. That may be another thing, which is…so in 1991, ’92, a pair of semi-braided short stories are my first publication. I have to leave the industry for…that’s a whole other story. But it had nothing to do with me. It had to do with changes of business, it had to do with broken contracts that resulted in some…lawsuits that ultimately happily only went to arbitrage, because people cancelled contracts, and in those days people in gaming didn’t understand that they couldn’t do that, not without paying a bit for the piper. And so, I had to look at Plan B, and Plan B was becoming a college professor, which I did. And the good news was I was pretty good at that, and the bad news was I was pretty good at that. But even so, what I mean by the bad news is that if you do something well, you basically get asked to do more. And that was certainly the case with me. And that was very, very gratifying. And I learned a lot through that, which found its way into my writing. But at the same time, how much time I was able to devote to actual writing slowed down. But throughout that entire time, from ’92 to 2007, although I published one or two things in that time, it was short fiction. But I kept on developing the world that would ultimately turn into the first novel.

Now the first novel of mine, Fire with Fire, which is the first novel in the Caine Riordan series, was a 2013 publication. But my first novel actually was in a shared universe once again with one of the people you mentioned earlier that you’ve already had on the show, David Weber. He had left the series called Starfire, which is a space opera military science fiction series that actually predates Honor Harrington. So, he had been doing it with Steven White. He left because, as I think we know, David Weber is a pretty busy guy right now. And he’d done that, and he was moving on to two other projects. So, I had come to Baen Books’ attention, and the attention of the lead author on the series now, Steve White, who said, “Do you want to come play in this sandbox?” And I said, you know, “Is the pope Catholic?” And so, that was the first book. And through that was, I think, the demonstration that, in fact, I, you know, as I’m sure listeners may have heard already on this program or other places, since I know that this particular venue draws in a lot of writers, there’s a huge, huge difference between people who can write well and write a great story and complete a novel. It’s a little bit like, to use the academic equivalent, there are so many more ABDs, that’s “all but dissertation,” than there are ultimate Ph.Ds. conferred, because that’s where a lot of people stop. A lot of people can tell a good story, but they can’t wrap it up in a totality that a novel is, sustain it over that period of time, and not make it feel like a lot of it is just sort of wasted noise. And so, I had the good opportunity, therefore, to show my potential publisher that I could do that with my own stuff as well. And that’s what happened, and so it was between…it was fifteen years, if we count it out between when I had to stop writing fiction more or less in 1992 and before I could resume again, and then it was another six years. So I guess, as I think back on it, horrified at the notion, it was twenty-one years.

So, we’re going to talk about the Caine Riordan series. So, for people who…I’ve read, I haven’t read the entire series, I’ve read some books, I haven’t gotten too far into Marque of Caine, the latest one, but I’ve started it and I’ve read a couple of the previous books. Can you give us sort of overall synopsis of the series for someone who inexplicably hasn’t read any of the books?

There’s a lot of inexplicable people out there, I tell you that for sure. So, it’s set a hundred years in the future. It is a…the story begins before we have any inkling that there may have been other intelligences. And what the story…I guess you could say it’s written in, at a moment in a change of history. And the change in history it really looks at is, “What happens when we learn we’re not alone? And what does that mean?” And the main character, his story is that he he’s a defense analyst, he’s a think-tanker. He has worked with and around the government, but not for the government. And he actually runs…he’s the right guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. And for his troubles he is cryoslept. He’s put into cryogenic suspension, which is a fairly new technology at the time that that it occurs, and he is awakened about thirteen years later, to go and look, to explore if the report of alien intelligence or ruins on Delta Pavonis—which is an actual star, one of the hard-science aspects of the series—if it is in fact an accurate report, if the murmurings are true. And the and the reason they pull him out of cold sleep to do this is, they’re part of an agency which has been tasked to keep an eye out for this. And they know their own people are being watched. He’s been out of…he’s essentially missing, presumed dead, because when he is cold-slept during an investigation on the moon, he is not reported as being cold-slept, he is reported as being missing. So thirteen years later, he’s awakened, and the notion is, well, we’ll get you your life and we’ll tell you what happened in the 100 hours you can’t remember before you went into cold sleep. And that’s the setup.

And what flows, goes from there is essentially first contact, and first contact turns out to not be some sort of some sort of grand encounter with other intelligences, it turns out that we are already a playing piece in a variety of…there are only five other intelligences, or four, depending on how you count them, and they all have designs on us in one way or another. We’re already part of a game for which we don’t know who the players are, and we don’t know what the rules are. And so, the first book gets to the end of a sort of a first convocation of these groups that has clearly gone very awry and indicates that, rather than a bunch of lofty intelligent beings, this is just as fraught by differences and squabbles as, for instance, our own Balkanized world is. The second book is that this first contact goes terribly awry because it turns it into an invasion that isn’t an invasion. And what I mean by that is that there are certain forces on Earth which actually, or I guess you would say power centers on Earth, that actually invite an occupation of certain areas because they feel that they are not receiving proper representation on Earth. So this is one of these ways in which also I try to…the problems of our day are something that I try to carry forward into these books, here the basic notion being if your own house isn’t in order it makes you vulnerable in all sorts of ways. And while I don’t think that therefore we’re about to be visited by aliens anytime soon, or maybe we are, it, you know, we remain as contentious as we are about so many things at our own peril. And certainly I think that, you know, just whatever you think of climate science, whatever you think of asteroid interceptors as something that we should be looking to do for earth crossing, whatever the threat is to the human race, I can absolutely feel certain of this: we are stronger together than we are apart, and the wages of remaining apart become very, very manifest in the second book of the series.

That completes what I call the contact arc. The next three books in the series of which the fifth, the one you’ve just started on, Ed…I call the emissary or the envoy arc, because now it’s time to go and meet some of these other intelligences, both to try to strike up relationships and also to prevent incidents which could lead to a resumption of hostilities. And in the fifth book, we finally get the answer to some of what was in the first book regarding these ruins that were particularly interesting because there were two ruins, and one was clearly built either by or for humans, and the other was built by somebody else. And they date to about 20,000 years in the past. And in the first four books, which take place in over the space of only three years, there is a constant, you know, we are always jumping from one fire frying pan into the next or the fire. And just hopefully the reader apparently is caught up in that same flow of events that Earth itself is, just trying to adapt to what’s, what the new crisis in front of you. And in the fifth book, we finally wind up meeting the aliens, called the Dornaani, who do know what was going on 20,000 years ago. And that answers one set of mysteries, which has been cooking through the first five books in the series, but also opens up deeper mysteries for those which will follow.

What was the initial seed for this series, and also, in general, for a new book for you, what sorts of things spark your interest and get you started on the process of developing them?

So this is a…this is a question for which I assume I’m going to have some unfortunately boring answers. What I mean by that is that, in some ways the spark was lit…remember when I said I was, you know, you asked me, when did you start writing after reading this influential book, and I said pretty much a few months later. And while what I tried to write was essentially a fairly dreadful homage to Star Trek, the original series, you know, and a couple of other things that I was interested in thrown in for good measure, none executed particularly well, this notion of contact, of what contact means, of how diplomacy is going to be very akin to anthropology at some level for a, you know, xenoanthropology in order to…how do you talk? What values do you share?…This was always part of it. And then, you know, there’s the…the reason I gravitate towards, very often, conflict motifs is not because I am enamored of war for its, you know, for its own sake. One would hope not. But I do find that the one thing you can say about conflict is it’s where the stakes are highest. And that’s always good for drama, which is why I think we see so much of that as the organizing trope in movies and in games and in a variety of things.

But then in my twenties and thirties, particularly in my thirties, I would say, between reading and also what I was experiencing during my Fulbrights, this…the sense of intrigue, of layers within layers, wheels within wheels, was really growing for me. And that put in the third part of this, which is, yes, it is, it is conflict, yes, it is first contact, and yes, there isn’t a single book which doesn’t have an intrigue element to it as well. And nested under all of that, though, is this question about what came before us. What is our place in this universe? And so, I know you asked me, what is my idea for a book, but the thing is, the series and the books were, have been percolating in my mind, since I was twelve or thirteen, in one form or another.

I was gonna say, there’s certainly, what you said about War the Worlds, you can certainly see that in these books that…

Absolutely.

The alien intelligence that we don’t quite get.

Yeah.

So, how do you go about the actual process of plotting and worldbuilding? Do you start with your worldbuilding and then you develop your plot, then your characters come from matter? How does all of that initial preparation work for you. Are you a big outliner, or do you just make it all up as you go? Somehow I don’t think you make it all up as you go.

You’re absolutely right on the last conjecture. I do not make it…I couldn’t keep track of it if I made it up as I go. I think when you write intrigue particularly, and you write this sort of deep mystery, you know, if you’re going to write something that you’re only going to solve for reader, four books later, my suggestion would be to figure that out ahead of time. There will be things that you will discover in the act of writing anyhow. That’s always going to happen. But I think having a framework is really important. So for me, before I wrote the first book, I actually knew what the first seven or eight in the series were roughly going to be. So, it’s not like I sit down and say, what is the next book I want to write in this series? I kind of know what the next book I want to write is. But I don’t trouble myself with the specifics…if you troubled yourself with the specifics of each book, you’d never wind up writing any. You’d have a bunch of very interesting outlines. And what I tend to do when I outline is, when I know I’m moving towards writing a book and it starts creeping into my consciousness. I start accumulating notes. That means I have a thought when I’m on the road and I dictate something into my phone, or I am working on a story and I realize that this passage doesn’t fit here, but I know that it’s going to be needed in the next one, where I have a realization through what comes out of a character’s mouth as I’m writing, let’s say Book 1, and I realize, “Oh, my gosh, this I just realized from what this character said what must be driving X, Y and Z,” and I will simply open a new file, write that down until I’ve, it’s sort of all come out of me, and then go back to my original. So, what’s happening is I’m compiling all this other stuff.

Another thing that may happen is that I write things that I like or…so what I do is, by the time I’ve started a novel, I’ve got all these pieces, yeah? And they have to do with all sorts of things. And then I know…the story is kind of what I know. I know where we start in a story and where we end in a story. Well, beforehand, what happens, the exact course of events, that remains a little bit vague. Part of what happens is that then, as I start working with that and I know more about what the dramatic arc is, I start looking at all these notes and I wind up putting them in different places in the dramatic arc. It is not as organized as, I come up with a chapter outline. I don’t do that for a variety of reasons. Chapters for me are actually…they’re not…they are things that to me evolve spontaneously. What I mean by that is a chapter should have a really good sense of closure. I can know what sort of content I want to put at a certain point in the book, but that doesn’t necessarily tell me…I’m probably going to discover where that great closure moment, that great last line in each chapter is, as I write, because it will be characters in conversation, it will be a turning point in a battle, it will be the discovery of a new mystery or something like that, which is that great, which gives you that great tagline, which makes somebody absolutely have to turn the page to read to find out what happens as a result of this, what happens next.

So, I don’t work from an outline in chapters. What I do is, I kind of see the different dramatic blocks that the entire narrative is going to be in, and I start seeding, I start taking all those notes, all those recordings, and I start notionally putting them in the different blocks. That tells me what the topics of conversation are going to be. And very often what’s happened is, like I say, I will have a…a lot of these ideas that I have long before I start writing the book become really foundational elements in determining what the dramatic arc of the book is going to be. If this is going to be where this fact is revealed, then I kind of already have a scene in mind. And when I start having that scene in mind, I kind of get a sense of, is that the conclusion, is that the midpoint, is that the introductory part of it, and the book really kind of takes shape. So I’m very much an outliner, but not on the level of, here’s what happens in this chapter, here’s what happens in this chapter, because I actually want to leave myself to discover some of that, because I feel that an over-plotted book can sometimes feel a little bit stiff, like it’s hitting the marks, and I want to also have spontaneity. I want spontaneity as I write. That means that I have the freedom to deviate from what I thought I was going to be doing at this part because I keep on discovering as I write the book.

And when I say discovering, I mean discovering things about characters, I also mean discovering that what I thought was going to be the best dramatic driver for the book is evolving in a slightly different direction. Doesn’t mean I’m throwing it out, but I want to…I don’t want to…in the final analysis, remaining flexible saves me time, too, because if you spend a lot of time doing an outline and then you say, “Oh, my gosh, this is, I thought this was gonna work really well, but actually the primary interest is not where I thought it would be, it’s gonna be here, I need to refocus.” Well, that means, therefore, if you’ve invested all the way to the end of the book in a very tightly plotted outline based on that presumption, it means you have to go back, and you have to redo all that. So for me, I tend to remain…there’s a certain point where my outlining ends in order to retain flexibility. And for me, it makes the book more interesting to write, frankly.

What about characters? You’ve mentioned that you develop, you discover things about your characters as you’re writing. Do you do a lot of preparatory work on, you know, details of their childhood and all that sort of thing, character sheets, as some people do before you start?

I did that with a couple of major characters. These are through characters, these are characters who have through lines and whose backgrounds are very important. Of course, for me, one of the things that people will realize when they read my books is that a lot of the major characters are not even human. So the background there, obviously, is worldbuilding in terms of, their society is not like ours, so what does it mean? What is a consciousness like that comes from this very different set of evolutionary building blocks and the very different culture that will arise from that, and how do I understand that, and how are they received in that culture? One of the things that I’ve done, and it’s a…I do write on a bunch of different levels, and I do hope that that at some point maybe somebody will go back and say, “Look, he was doing this, or trying to do it, anyhow.” One of the things about the main character, as I said, who sort of winds up being the first-contact expert simply because there’s no way to really get a degree in first contact, they’re doing it for the first time, hence first contact, but it actually helps to be a little bit of an outsider. And what I mean by that is if you are, if you presume that the shibboleths and the truths, so to speak, maybe truisms is a better word, of your upbringing and your culture are absolute, they’re kissing cousins to physical law, you’re not going to probably have what I will call the freedom of intellect and the receptivity to actually meet something that is intelligent but shares almost none of that background. How do you find common points? How do you wind up seeing your…how is this a mirror held up to your own species? These sort of things are…they’re consistents, and what I…

The one commonality, for instance, and I discovered this later in the writing, is that all of the alien characters who ultimately are the opposite number in a first-contact scenario, either by chance or design, to some degree are the same way. They are…they’re not pariahs in their own society, but they don’t…they don’t rest comfortably inside it. It doesn’t answer all the questions for them. To some degree, to whatever extent…a person who is willing to question their own society is also considered a little bit dangerous by their own society. That’s what all have in common, regardless of where…because you have to have that freedom.

So, to go back to what I was mentioning earlier about through characters that actually do have that kind of initial development on the way in. Caine Riordan, the protagonist of the series, to the extent that it has one, is definitely an example of that. And my decisions regarding him were a little bit a little bit unusual, I suppose, in that I wanted a realistic character that was going to be a great lens for immediate encounters with the unknown, immediate encounters with problems. And that meant that, in addition to me wanting to break with tradition and not go with somebody who starts out as a soldier or a spy or something else like that, I wanted to choose somebody who was a little bit more reminiscent of what I’m gonna call a World War Two hero ethos, which was, World War Two was largely a war where you did not have professional militaries. You had, it was a sort of a come-as-you-are party. And so, citizen soldier and that entire idea was very important to me, and that’s one of the reasons I chose to make him an analyst and a think tanker more than anything else, because I wanted him to start out in a comfort zone.

So, he was…what I mean by that is, he’s a semi-Washington insider at the time that everything begins, and it’s…he starts, actually, in a place of strength, in his comfort zone, but as time goes on, he’s actually moving out of that that comfort zone, very much what had to happen with folks who were in World War Two, they had to learn things on the job. They hadn’t… his was not part of their plan. And I thought that was a more interesting story than the ones that…I think we’ve gone in a slightly more pre-professionalized sort of direction regarding a lot of our heroes in similar tales.

The other thing that I wanted to do about him, so I wanted to give him, what was he going to have instead of those skills? And so, I decided on a character that was a polymath, which is, of course, more than just knowing a lot of things. It is also having an ability to, if you will, employ and exploit knowledge from one field to another. To give you an example of that, the same thing that moderates, for instance, our…the principle of dynamic equilibrium is just one example. It’s at work in terms of a pendulum. It’s at work in terms of maintaining pressure between systems. It’s at work in maintaining body temperature in the human body. And a polymath will tend to see all these things as potentially informing different fields where a similar process of dynamic equilibrium might be at work. That’s the way a polymath tends to think. They tend to take concepts or paradigms from one area, apply them to another that would not necessarily be the place you would normally expect to see it applied.

So, I wanted to make him that because I wanted to give him a kind of an unusual facility that turns into, readily turns into a jack of all trades, master of none. I thought that would be interesting in a character. The other thing that I chose for him…so that is, if you will, his superpower, everybody of course, every character has to have a tragic flaw. And his tragic flaw is a sort of a virtue that can go to an extreme, which is, he really, really does not like to, and almost never does, tell a lie. And when he does “lie,” it’s a lie of omission. It’s like, well, if you presume something and I don’t, I’m not going to say any…I’m not going to correct your misperception there. And he’ll only do that with people he feels have proven themselves to be faithless.

Now, given how much, as is obvious, he obviously works with or for the government on occasion, that desire never tell a lie, never to, you know, never to spout a party line, for anybody who’s had any sort of experience with large organizations, you can understand just how costly that can be. 

So, I wanted him also, with those skills, I felt that I wanted a character that readers, particularly readers, long-time readers of this, of science fiction and fantasy, would relate to. And I felt they would relate to this because, frankly, there are two places where I’ve met a lot of people who have these sort of traits, who have these desires not to march…they’re going to march to the beat of a different drum. They’re extremely intelligent. They are, they’re intelligent, their intelligence is spread across and frequently integrates a variety of different disciplines, and the two places I found that, in my experience, have been in that that big building at Langley, and as you walk past those cubicles, you’ll see the science-fictional books and all of the, if you will, the devotion again to alterity, because those are minds forever voyaging also. That’s why they’re analysts, for a large part. And also, science fiction fans themselves.

And so, in a sense, this was sort of a love letter, I guess you could say, to fans. I don’t come from fandom, but I found fandom to be exactly like this: well-read, competent in a bunch of areas, ferociously intelligent, really don’t care if they fit anybody else’s preconceived mold. So, that was who I chose him to be, and he’s evolved to the point as a character that…fans often describe my characters better than I do, and one fan, I was trying to explain who he was to somebody who didn’t read much science fiction at all, and the person with this less-exposed individual said, he sort of broke in and said, “Okay, let me put it in terms you understand. This character is a cool guy who has to sort of solve problems almost like a MacGyver, and he’s got sort of…although he’s got the head of Batman, he’s kind of got the heart of Captain America, although he doesn’t have any of their powers.” And I sat there, and I said, “Yep, that’s good. That works. I’ll take that. That’s a nice description. That’ll hook people.” So, that’s kind of who the main character is, and as you can see, this was very much a planned character for the other reason, the last thing I’ll say is, the other reason I did not want him to be a specialist at anything, why I did not want him to be in a military or rank situation, is that I frequently find it that a lot of these series, military series particularly, have this apparent driver in them to show the character from private to general and then still somehow involved in the action. And to my mind, that was never a good model because it becomes increasingly implausible as you go, as a character becomes higher and higher and higher in the command structure, that they would actually be on the sharp end of things, that they would be where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. And I did not want to take that away from the character. So I wanted…so although first contact frequently goes wrong or can put him in places where conflict arises, I didn’t want him to ever promote out of having to be in the field. So those were some things that are very much structured the character’s background and also the character’s temperament and abilities.

So, with your plan in mind and your characters, what does your actual writing process look like? Do you sit and work a certain number of hours a day? Do you write in longhand in an old notebook under a tree? How does it work for you?

So, no Thoreau for me, and…so, my work habit is not the one that I, unfortunately, that I work best on. And what I mean by that is I write toward immersion, because I think that’s one of the absolute requirements in a good piece of fiction, that…if a reader falls into your book, no matter why they’re doing it, you’re doing your job. You know, unless they’re there…and I don’t mean stick with the book, when I say fall into it, I mean, they get lost in the world, I mean, when they finally close the book, they feel like they’re re-emerging from that other world into this world. That is my objective. And so, my…I write from the same process, if you will, which is I, in a perfect world, I would get to my desk at nine or ten in the morning and I would write as long as it was in me. And there were times when I used to be able to do that. And there are one or two days of the week where I’ve got it structured that I can, but when you have four kids, two and a half of whom are still at home, that’s not quite the way it works out. So, the bottom line is, I try to get a start on every day.

I’m fortunate, very blessed, in that I never have what I would call writer’s block. And as a hint or as a possible function to other writers, I would say if I don’t know where I want to start the day or my energy isn’t ready, one of the things I’ll simply do—normally I do not start my day this way—Is I’ll go back to what I wrote the previous day or the last day that I was writing, and I’ll look at the last four pages of it, just to get myself up to speed. What I’m also winding up doing, of course, is I say, “Oh, my God, there’s a typo,” or “Oh, that’s clumsy,” or “Oops, that’s repetitive,” and by the time I’m done with those four pages, I’m ready to rock. As a matter of fact, I’m impatient to get going, because I’ve sort of put myself on the runway, I’ve backed myself up on the runway a little bit so by the time I’m hitting the blank page, so to speak, I already have a head of steam going. And that’s pretty much how I write. And if I can write for three or four hours straight such that I only stop when I suddenly realize, “Wow, my bladder is really full,” that is the way I like to write. That’s the most productive for me too, because the longer I do that, the more immersed I get in my own world. I don’t even feel like I’m writing at that point, I feel like I’m channeling and that’s, to me, the way it should feel.

When you get to the end, what does your revision process look like to you? Do you revise—you mentioned some revision as you go, when you’re doing this backing up, but do you do a complete start-to-finish rewrite at the end or are you pretty much done when you reach the end?

So, what I find that I wind up doing is…and I think this is very likely if you discover and if you…one of the reasons I don’t go back and revise as I’m writing is I find that it really slows down forward progress, because I do tend to be a perfectionist, particularly about prose and about character and about leanness. I want…whether or not you’re in an action scene, it’s very important to me that the book moves along with that kind of pacing. So, the thing I’m most likely to do in revisions is simply cut. And here’s where, here’s where part of that stuff for later novels comes in, because I’ll cut stuff that I thought was necessary in the book I’m writing, let’s say, and I realized it wasn’t. I didn’t get to that ultimately. I thought I would, but I didn’t, and it didn’t become important to the plot or the story arc in this book. But I can see where it’s going to become important down the line. So I’ll take all that stuff and I’ll move it into a file that is for later books. And that’s kind of a way of…I find that it makes it makes these, it makes the cut easier, to think that I’m not consigning all of it to a garbage bin, but that actually all I’m doing is kicking it…it’s part of the can that I’m kicking down the road.

Because when you’re writing a series, and if the series is not just, you know, “Here’s the universe and here’s this week’s adventure,” which is the model of most television series, or has been, like, for instance, in the Star Trek days and even the Babylon 5 days, although we’ve been moving more towards what I would call sustained character arcs as viewing and media options have changed. But in the original Star Trek universe, the thing that hung it together was, you knew something of the relationships of the character. But each show was essentially a self-contained experience, an adventure. Obviously not so mine, so when…so, there’s always reason, there’s…kicking stuff down the road is a very real advantage for me. And it gives me a sense of where I’m going and actually helps me pre-shape novels.

So editing, very important. And I’ll make several editing passes. The first thing I’ll do is, I will skim it and I will just highlight the text in one of three ways, not highlighted at all, yellow, or red. Red means I know I absolutely can and will get rid of this. Yellow is, “I don’t know, you know, have I said this someplace else, is gonna be repetitive, is it really necessary?” Because for whatever reason at that particular moment reading I haven’t got the whole, I haven’t got the project, the whole project, in my head at this point, ’cause this is probably my first read-through. So, after I’ve gotten to the end, then I’ll know which of those things…the red will almost always come out, the yellow, a lot of the yellow comes out, and then I’m left with what I’ll call the Ur-text at that point. And then I start doing the line edits, and the line edits are for clarity and just not to have extra stuff in there.

And I think sometimes, when I write from immersion, and like I say, I’m channeling, I’m very uncritical of what I’m writing as I write it. And so, this is the moment when the critical eye comes in, and a word…I’m not going to stop if I can’t think of precisely the word I want, because I don’t want that to jam up my writing day. But this is the point at which I’ll come back and say, eh, you know, because I put asterisks. You know, I’ll use a word, let’s say I was thinking of, you know, of a term having to do with, you know, when are you’re going to arrive, you know, and I’m thinking, “There’s a word for in military parlance, what is that? I can’t remember it, dammit.” I’m not going to stop, so I’ll write, “When are you going to arrive?”, snd I put three asterisks. I hit that when I go back and I say, “Oh, of course, insertion.” So then that comes out and insertion goes in and that edit is done.

So, there are probably two main passes. Sometimes there’s more. Interestingly, in Marque of Caine, this is the most heavily edited novel of all. It originally went in at 240,000 words, and Toni said, “You know, I think this is, for what it’s doing, I don’t think it wants to be this long.” She was absolutely right. Toni Weisskopf, by the way, owner and my editor at Baen Books. And I really looked at that, and…to give you an idea of how much I take editing and editor’s suggestions to heart is that one, that 240,000-word book ultimately came in at 158,000 words, thirty or 40,000 of which I can actually use, possibly in a standalone, or something later on, and a lot of the other things or bits. But yeah, a lot of editing and at almost every level, multiple passes.

Now I’ve got to get to the…well, you actually sort of answered this right off the top when you were talking about what drew you into science fiction and fantasy. But the big philosophical question is always, why do you write and why do you think any of us write this stuff? So, why do you why did you write it? Why do you think any of us write it?

Well. I think there are…I think people have overlap on one topic. If you were completely satisfied with the way things are in the real world in terms of all it contains in the way of experience and all of your ability to experience it, my guess is that possibly imagination would go in different directions. I think there is something about this focus on alterity, whether it is what I will call for the purposes of entertainment, and it might be self-entertainment as much as anything else, or whether it’s to ponder the imponderables, if you will, that at some level what’s in this particular mortal veil is not is not sufficient. Some…the people who write this, and I think the people who read it, want more. They want to see how else it could be. They are…there’s something that’s in them that is what I would call a positive restlessness of wanting to see what’s over the next hill. Not all human beings are like that. As a matter of fact, from having worked in advertising, I can tell you that that science fiction and fantasy sells to actually one of the rarest demographics, it’s a demographic that advertisers almost don’t go for, which is people who actually, you know, love and revel in the notion of alterity. Most people, it feels like, “That’s disorienting. You moved my cheese. Don’t do that to me.” It’s kind of hard to advertise for people who are focused on alterity and also tend to be a little bit skeptical. One of the reasons obviously they’re interested in alterity is because they have the mind reflex to essentially say, “If I’m not happy here, where else can I go? If it doesn’t fulfill, if it doesn’t check all my boxes, where do I go to get those boxes checked?” Well, science fiction, fantasy, those are great places, and this is where you find folks. So, I think all the readers and all the writers probably have that in common at some level.

Then I think there are a variety of different reasons for it. In my place, I am very much motivated by that. I’m also motivated by…I guess you could say some…first of all, it’s fun to do. If I…writing is work. It’s work I love to do. But worldbuilding, actually, if I am…I can be half asleep. I can be terribly distracted. I can…for instance, if I…some people can write in a crowded, somewhat noisy Starbucks. God love them, don’t know how they do it, but I can world-build wherever I am. For whatever reason, that exercise is such that…it’s like such a playground for me. I can be in the noisiest environment, and the only thing that will annoy me is if I don’t have a way to record my thoughts, because I’ll forget a bunch of them. And I can do that. So, that gives it… some of it from me, I think, is cognitive temperament, if I can say that? I know those sound like inherently different things, but I’m gonna put it that way.

And the other thing is that I do think that there are important questions to ponder. And I think one of them is, you know, the entire question of our future. By which I mean to say that I don’t write things–I want to be very clear about this–I am certainly not interested in predicting the future. I think it’s a fool’s errand, and as a friend of mine and fellow SIGMA member said, Steven Gould, he said, “Science fiction predicts the future the way a shotgun kills a duck.” And I think that that’s an absolutely on-target metaphor, if you will, or simile.

I haven’t heard that one before.

It’s a good one. And what I like about it is that there’s another level to it, I’m not sure Stephen intended this, which is, yes, a shotgun is firing across a broad span. But at the same time, it’s not without focused purpose. You’re aiming at the duck. You are trying to put, you’re trying to overlap, if you will, a cone of intent on an object at a distance. And I feel that’s exactly what the science fiction writer is doing. We’re trying to find what…we’re trying to project rather than predict. And we’re trying to, we’re not saying it’s likely. We don’t want it to be wholly implausible, but someplace between the realm of it’s possible, maybe even plausible, is, I think, sort of an important thing to do.

One of the things that makes human beings human beings is that we, as far as we can tell amongst all the creatures, are the ones who essentially create planning scenarios. We run through possibilities and potential scenarios in our mind, and we come up with ways of dealing with that. And this notion of forward-looking…science fiction and fantasy to some degree is just a more extreme version of that.

And I would say probably, the other component in this, which I suppose sounds a little bit goofy, but to go back to something I said before, I think there are challenges before us as a species, no matter whether it involves things from outside our own solar system or not, we have a bunch of challenges in front of us. I mean, a biosphere does not last forever. A star does not lasts forever. We are doing things to this planet, which I think anybody can say, forget the current sensitivity issues regarding climate, I’ll simply say carcinogens. We’re making a dirty environment. And what are we going to do about that?

And so, all of this is going to the notion of, there is a necessity for us to work together. There is a necessity for us to leave no one behind. Poverty and lack of education are not merely a crime against a compassionate approach to other human beings, they are wasted resources. By which I mean there are challenges before us that I really feel we will do our best if we have every human being on deck bringing their best game to the game. And we are not doing that right now. And I do believe that a movement in that direction is kind of one of the things that I’m trying to get at in my fiction, the costs potentially of not doing so.

And connected to that is that there is an interest in a different intelligence. I’m gonna say, I’m gonna use something that, as far as I know, is kind of coming from me, which is when people say, “Well, why would you think that would be any other intelligence in the universe?” And my attitude is, if you’re approach to this is deistic, well, you know, I don’t know that we can talk to begin with, not because I don’t want to talk with you, but when cosmology is the same thing as theology, essentially, you have your answers. There’s a teleology in place in the notion that, of course, we may be the only one, because that’s what we were told. OK, fine. But if that’s not what’s motivating somebody, if science and empiricism is, then my simple response to why would I think there’s other intelligence in the universe would be, “Tell me something else that nature has ever done once.” It just doesn’t. And I mean, they can say, oh, “Big Bang.” But there’s a lot that’s suggests that Big Bang itself is part of…there’s, I think, it was a scientific, or a sort of model that came out of, I think India, originally, going way back now, like twenty, thirty years, the hypersphere model, that if everything does, you know, if the universe is saddle shaped and everything goes far apart, when it goes far enough apart, it will ultimately begin to re collapse. It will recombine. And what happens? You get impossible density in a small point and “Bang!”, it starts all over again. So, I’m really wedded to that idea.

And if we are not alone, then my question is, what else is out there now or what else has been out there and what would that mean? What does it mean as we…and do we really want to say, therefore, in our own block? I think it was Tsiolkovsky, the sort of the father of Russian space technology and aeronautics and in some ways, for probably more than just Russia, said, you know, “Earth is the cradle of humanity, but you can’t remain in the cradle forever.” And indeed, you can’t. You won’t fit. Eventually it’ll rot. You know, your choices to…either we stay and die, or we move and exist and change. And my attitude is, the second is full of uncertainties. It is full of alternates that we certainly don’t see today. And that is certainly the direction in which I would want to head. So all those things kind of make me feel like, because they’re all so innate to me, I feel they’re like part of how I define myself that I kind of don’t feel that I chose science fiction. I feel science fiction chose me.

Well, now projecting your personal future. What are you working on right now? What’s coming up?

Giving shorter interviews and thereby sparing everybody’s listening audience.

I can’t wait to do the transcript for this one.

Oh, God Almighty. I’m so sorry, Ed. So, what I turn my hand to next is, I am doing a solo novel in John Ringo’s Black Tide Rising universe. Known inaccurately as his zombie apocalypse universe, which kind of was a complete surprise to me. The way it came up, I was asked to give an eight-to-ten-thousand-word short story for an anthology for that. And I certainly said, “Oh, that’d be fun.” So I did that and 35,000 words later, I turned in my piece, and there was great silence on the end of the line, so to speak, the email link. And many months later, I got an e-mail coming back saying, as I expected, “Obviously this doesn’t fit in the anthology, but if you could write as much again, we’d love to publish it as a novel.” So this was one of those moments where you break the rules and get a contract. And as Toni Weisskopf said at DragonCon, don’t any of you use this as a success model. So that’s what I’m in the midst of working on. After that, I do another 1632 novel, which I think Eric probably plugged the time he was on here. We’re doing something called 1637: No Peace Beyond the Line.

Yes, he did.

Right. A follow on to Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, and is another New World-setting novel, which at the end is going to start actually bringing some of the disparate character arcs back into contact. I won’t say more than that. And finally, after that, after working my way through the rota, because I have the wonderful quote, “problem,” I use that word very, very ironically and facetiously, is that I have a lot of books already under contract, which is the dream job. You know, I almost don’t say that because it is truly the thing I know I envied, and I feel honored and humbled by having that. So, I say all that to leaven any sense that I could at all be complaining about having more work to do than I have time to do it. That is exactly what every writer wants to have as their daily existence. But finally, I do get to write the first novel in the epic-fantasy slipstream sort of sort of trilogy that Baen contracted me to do called The Broken World.And I’m really lookin g forward to that because that’s worldbuilding again. It’s set in…it’s a different discipline in some ways than the worldbuilding for science fiction? But because rigour and consistency of worlds and everything you put in it is very important to me, there’s a lot in it that is actually reminiscent. The worldbuilding is the same. And once again, I had this world built in, in its main, long ago.

What I’ll say about it is again, the character is not the average character you would expect. Again, this character is a little bit at…not exactly at odds, but was hoping for a different life path than he got, but because of the skills he has, he doesn’t get that. He…you know, he’d hoped he was going to be a great figure in the armies of this state of which he is a part. But instead, he sort of is put in…he’s made a kind of a rolling individual scout-courier, which is hugely disappointing to him, but puts him in contact with things that suggests that there’s something wrong with this world. Things don’t add up. And that’s where I say it’s slipstream, because to some degree I am working against genre types. By the end of the novel, I hope to have largely stood a lot of the conventions of the fantasy novel straight on their heads, not the least of which a reader is quickly going to see that there are some things in this novel which certainly do draw from some of the imagery and shapes that we know of from our own history of this world and some that are not merely…they go beyond being not merely a sort of northwest tinctured, northwest European tinctured fantasy, but they become a sort of almost alien, if you will, tinctured fantasy. And that they are existing side by side is not is not a failure in artistic or aesthetic consideration, but bloodymindedly purposeful. That juxtaposition.

Sounds intriguing. And where can readers find you online?

All the usual places. My website is terribly hard to remember. It is—get a pen ready—www.charlesegannon.com. So what, the title you see on the books, the name on the books, is exactly the website, with the exception of there’s no period after my middle initial. It’s just www on one end, com on the other, and you’ll find me easily enough. I am probably…the best place to look for me is on Facebook. I’m there a lot. That makes it sound like I post a lot. I don’t, but it’s the thing I look at. I do have a mailing list that’s easy to find through the website. It’s easy to find through Facebook pretty much. If you can’t find it just let me know and I will be happy to direct you towards it. And I do have a Twitter account. I, as a matter of fact, did a Twitter interview just yesterday. No, on Friday. So I’m there. And, of course, you can find my books at Amazon. You can find them at baen.com, and they are, of course, frequently littering the shelves at Barnes and Noble and other, you know, bricks and mortar venues.

Oh, that’s great. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. It’s been a fascinating conversation. I think—I’m sure—that listeners will enjoy it.

Well, thank you very much. It’s great being here. And I’m sorry I gave you so much for your transcription efforts to untangle and present. But it’s a lot of fun. These were great questions. And you have a whole bunch of great things going on in your career right now. I see wonderful stuff with DAW Books and recently named a fellow in residence at one of Saskatchewan’s libraries. Am I right about that?

Yeah. I’ll be writer in residence at the Saskatoon Public Library from September through April, working with local writers and then also getting a chance to get paid for working on stuff before the publisher pays me for the stuff I’m working on, which is kind of weird, but I’ll take it.

You know, I think if you can make two dollars for every one you should make for the publication of a story. That’s a good thing. And it also sounds like I should have been interviewing you, not the other way around.

Well, I interviewed myself for a previous episode.

Oh, did you? Well, that must have sounded wonderful, if pathological.

Well, it was my Masks of Aygrima pseudonym, E.C. Blake, who interviewed me. So, anyway, thanks, Charles…Chuck.

Thank you so much.

Episode 29: Christopher Ruocchio

An hour-long conversation with Christopher Ruocchio, author of the The Sun Eater, a space-opera fantasy series from DAW books (published by Gollancz in the UK), which began with Empire of Silence in 2018 and continues with Howling Dark in 2019, and assistant editor at Baen Books, where he co-edited the military SF anthology Star Destroyers, as well as Space Pioneers, a collection of Golden Age reprints.

Website
www.sollanempire.com

Twitter
@TheRuocchio

Facebook
@TheRuocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Christopher Ruocchio is the author of The Sun Eater, a space-opera fantasy series from DAW books, as well as the assistant editor at Baen Books, where he co-edited the military SF anthology Star Destroyers, as well as Space Pioneers, a collection of Golden Age reprints showcasing tales of human exploration. He’s a graduate of North Carolina State University where, in his words, “a penchant for self-destructive decision-making” caused him to pursue a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric, with a minor in Classics.

An avid student of history, philosophy, and religion, Christopher has been writing since he was eight years old, and sold his first book, Empire of Silence at twenty-two. The Sun Eater series is available from Golancz in the UK and has been translated into French and German.

Christopher lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he spends most of his time hunched over a keyboard writing. When not writing, he splits his time between his family, procrastinating with video games, and his friend’s boxing gym.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

 Welcome to The Worldshapers, Christopher.

Well, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.

We met…we’re both DAW authors, a you know, conflict of interest and all that, get that right there, and we actually met at San Jose last year at WorldCon at the DAW dinner. I think was when I first met you.

I think so.

And then you very kindly showed me around the…well, Dealer’s Room doesn’t quite cover it at DragonCon…

A shopping mall.

Yeah…when I was down there last year, so I appreciated that as well. So it’s great to have you on. And I have to confess I have not finished Empire of Silence, but I…

Neither has my fiancée, so I can’t throw stones at anybody.

But I’m well into it, so when I get you to do a synopsis in a little bit, and I say, “no spoilers,” that will be for me as much as for the listeners.

I’ll do my best.

So, I always like to start these things off by going into… I always say either the mists of time or the depths of time…into the past, to find out how you got interested, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy, and how you started writing it, You started early, apparently, at eight years old.

Oh yeah. Yeah. I think it was my dad’s fault mostly, because when I was really small we were a Disney family, and most Disney movies are…I don’t want to say are for girls, but they’re about princesses, and when you’re a three-year-old boy it’s harder to get into those necessarily, although I was I was very fond of, especially, Sleeping Beauty because there was a dragon and a sword fight…

Me, too.

But then I think I watched Star Wars for the first time when I was four or five, and then immediately after we got through watching the first three movies, you know, a week later and then two weeks later, because they’d spaced it out, I think I watched the original trilogy on loop. Because I wasn’t allowed to watch very much. I was allowed TV Land, the Batman cartoon from the ‘90s, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and then the Star Wars trilogy. And so, I watched those original movies obsessively, and I read a bunch of the books, and of course The Phantom Menace came out, and I was just young enough to think The Phantom Menace was awesome. And it’s, you know, actually, it’s fine. It’s Attack Of The Clones that’s bad.

But I went from that through to reading a bunch of Star Wars books. I think the first book I ever bought was the first Tim Zahn Thrawn novel. But then I found Tolkien, and Harry Potter, of course, came in. I hit…actually before Harry Potter was popular. I read it when I was like five, because I read very early, maybe even younger than that. I’d have to check with my mother. And so, all this was happening at once, and then I hit Lord Of The Rings right when the movies were starting to come out, around 2000. I tried watching the Bakshi version, and it terrified me, and I gave up. And I tried reading the books instead but struggled with those a bit more than the Star Wars books and Harry Potter.

And so, I started writing because my friends, you know, would play make believe on the playground, right? And they were playing Dragon Ball Z, which I of course had no idea what that was, because I was not allowed to watch it. And so, when I was asked,” Hey do you want to play Dragon Ball Z?” I said, “Yes! But can I be Batman? And after two weeks of careful deliberation, the other five-year-olds agreed that, yes. And so, over the years going through grade school up to about third grade, we would play make-believe, right, on the playground, and we spun out and made our own characters. So, Batman eventually got a lightsaber, and…you know all these other…he went to wizard school, I think, and became…he was very accomplished.

I think that would improve Batman.

You know, I like Batman a lot, so I hesitate to say that, but I would definitely read that.

At least with a lightsaber.

The light saber, yes…he needs one. Everyone needs one, really. But I…so I started writing down these adventures we had on the playground, and then as my friends grew up and discovered football and social skills, I sat on the edge of the parking lot with a notebook and would keep making stuff up. And, of course, once I made it to fourth grade, third-grade me didn’t know what he was talking about, and I would throw everything out and start again and again and again and again and again, until I finished a novel, I think in eighth grade, of which one copy remains printed and it is in someone’s lockbox somewhere, I don’t remember. And it is terrible, and I…I kept doing this through high school and college, mostly because, you know, Christopher Paolini got lot of flak, you know. But he wrote that book at fifteen, and he was another Christopher, and an Italian one, at that, and I was…you know, “By God, if he can do it, I can do it, too,” and…I actually got to meet him at DragonCon, when I met you, and thank him for that, because I…you know, it’s one of those things I always thought that you needed to be like forty to do when I was little and he sort of proved that wrong. And so, I kept doing this until I eventually had something worth reading.

Did you share that early writing with your friends and see how…you know, that you could tell stories that they enjoyed?

Oh, sure. That…I had…I have a few friends, actually…before we started the talk officially I mentioned my two roommates. My two roommates…I’m just moving out now, actually, into my first house, but my roommates are two friends I’ve been friends with…since third grade, I think…and them and a couple others I would…we would always pass things back and forth. We used to play, you know, like, not exactly Dungeons and Dragons but some like off-brand RPGs and stuff together, a lot of, like, Internet forum RPGs? So we would do a lot of co-writing and stuff. And I was always working on this side thing, and when I would finish, it’d be like, “Guys, look at this!”, and then hand it out. A couple of them have stuck with me and keep giving me feedback. I think one of them has that one copy that I referred to, ’cause he was always fond of this stupid story I’d written in middle school, so I gave him the last print copy I had, because God only knows what happened to the Word documents.

I always ask that because a lot of us started writing young. I wrote novels in high school and started well before that, and I talked to some writers who, you know, there’s no way they were gonna show that stuff to their friends, and yet, I always did. So I always ask people that. And I think it helps, because you get that sort of, “Oh, I could tell stories that people really enjoy,” so, you know, it’s a kind of a positive-feedback thing.

I still do…I have a couple of them. I have a little Facebook group discussion and I send them updated files of…I’m working on the third book in The Sun Eater now and so every four or five chapters I will send them another update and then wait until one of them tells me how it is. Because you don’t know, right? You don’t know if what you’re doing is really good until you get someone else’s eyes on it. It’s sort of like Schrödinger’s Cat. And it helps to have either some validation or some course correction.

Well, somewhere along the way I lost all that. So now nobody sees it until it goes to Sheila at DAW. That’s another thing I ask, and we’ll talk about that a little bit later on with your writing process, you know, whether you have people that help you out at that initial stage or not, giving you feedback. But we’ll talk about that a little bit…so, from, you grew up, then, in North Carolina, I presume, where you still live.

Oh yeah. Born and raised. I am the proverbial medieval peasant. I haven’t moved more than ten miles from where I was born.

And so, this was interesting, that you decided to get a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric with a minor in Classics. I didn’t even know there was a degree called English Rhetoric. What does that involve?

So NC State was weird, right? It’s sort of…North Carolina, Raleigh in particular, has got a bunch of colleges right around. We’ve got the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, which is a pretty famous liberal-arts school, oldest public university in the US, and we’ve got Duke, which has sort of like a semi-Ivy League reputation, but NC state was founded as an agricultural school just after the Civil War. So it’s got more of a…it has a reputation for being kind of the, like, farm school, right? But now it’s one of the best engineering universities in the state, and, I think, even in the world. But I went for an English degree because they had this internship program for English students that had a 100-percent job-placement rate and I am, if nothing else, a practical man. So, I thought that would be better than a slightly more reputable name on my diploma. And it was a great program at any rate, just a less-famous one.

So, I went, and they do this thing where they split their English degrees into what they called focuses, so I could take a focus in literature or rhetoric or film, and the rhetoric one was the technical-writing one, really. So, there was a lot of tech-writing classes, that sort of thing, but also just journalism classes, you know, just making sure you could write, you know, nonfiction articles, that sort of thing. Make sure your grammar is correct.

Hilariously, I had this very bad graduate-level rhetoric class right at the end that taught no rhetoric, I think because the professor felt left out that when the scientists got particle accelerators and lasers the English department didn’t get any toys. So, we spent a lot of time talking about the “rhetoric of physical spaces” and how…and that’s not rhetoric. And I got in a lot of trouble for repeatedly informing her that this was not rhetoric, because I had the classics background, too, which I backed into because I didn’t want to take a world-literature course because I’m less interested in them, shall we say, than in the things that I grew up with., because that’s just who I am as a person. And I didn’t want to take a language class where I had to stand and do oral conversation components to my exams because I am bad at learning languages.

Unlike your character.

Yeah. So people who say that he’s just a self-insert are wrong. I can’t do it. And so I was taking three years of high-school Japanese and by the end it was, you know, (something in Japanese), and I’d be like, “Um…um…good morning.” I’m not that bad, but I was just embarrassed, and so I took Latin. And between the taking Latin and…I took for my world literature course. I did ancient literature, so we did a bunch of Greek and Roman stuff, but we also did some middle-Eastern stuff. The Enûma Eliš and the Epic of Gilgamesh, these things, and some early Far East stuff as well, which is also fascinating, so when I say, “world literature,” I mean contemporary stuff, because I just don’t think a lot of contemporary lit-fic is very good. I know that…it just doesn’t interest me, so…the old stuff, yes, by all means. And so, I backed into it because of my interest in ancient history and the classical period in the Near East and whatnot, and through  the Latin.

The rhetoric major still interests me. It doesn’t sound like it was what anybody would consider a creative writing class. It’s more like  just technically creating clear sentences and paragraphs and organizing your thoughts and all that kind of thing.

Yes. So, I had a bunch of classes that actually were your sort of traditional…the sort of rhetoric classes that Shakespeare was forced to do, right, where it’s like, “OK, give us, you know, write ten examples of tricolon, as like a, you know, overnight assignment,” right, things like that. And so I actually have…I won’t say something like an ancient education where you would be drilled constantly on how to speak and how to hold your hands to present a statement before the Roman Senate, right, because there were hand positions in these things, but I at least had something sort of winking in that direction, where it was, you know, “Be aware that if you phrase things in this way, if you employ devices like hendiadys or stichomythia, you know, these things that sound like Greek incantations, that you can have an effect on an audience in a certain way.” And I did a lot of Elizabethan theater classes, as well, and a lot of that was still used by people like Shakespeare and Marlowe, and the rest, in writing those plays, because they’re very…the play is a very oral medium, right, it’s meant to be heard, it’s meant to be spoken, and I think the best prose should be the same way. And so, the rhetoric stuff ended up being really useful, I think, from a creative-writing standpoint, because I’m a big audiobook person, and so I’ve been very much affected by the sound of the language. And so, those classes were all great except for that last one, which was like, “We’re going to talk about rhetoric in paintings,” to which I said, “Shouldn’t be a design class, three buildings down?”.

How to win friends and influence professors, maybe not.

No. It was my last semester and I was grumpy, let’s say.

So, with Empire of Silenceselling when you were twenty-two, clearly you were working on this while you were at university. Is that when this began?

Yeah. The book that became this one…people ask when I started writing. I’ve always been writing, air-quotes, “the same book,” but when I started writing it at seven, eight years old, you know, it was about Batman, and it’s not about Batman at all anymore, really, although Hadrian does wear a lot of black still, that hasn’t changed. But so do I, and I don’t know if that’s a chicken or egg thing.

And so, I started this one in my freshman, sophomore year of college, really, and it was quite different still. Hadrian wasn’t quite human in the original draft. There were some near-human aliens because I also played a lot of Japanese RPG games and there are a lot of aliens that are almost human…anyway, it changed dramatically. And as I got into my final year, I had the great fortune of having John Kessel for a professor. He’s a Nebula Award-winning short-story writer, he’s got a couple of novels out from Saga, and he is an all-around just great guy, and he gave me some advice on querying, and of course I’d started my internship at Baen, so I actually had access to a SFWA directory, which has all the agencies in the back, so, I photocopied that and started going through, querying people, with John’s advice on the letter writing. There was this awful frame narrative that was in the book at the time that he convinced me to cut out. And lo and behold the minute I did that, I started getting answers to my queries that weren’t, “Go away.” And I sold…rather, I got an agent a month before I graduated and then…so that was November because I graduated a semester off schedule, I had an extra, I was late, which is part of why I was so cross with my rhetoric professor, I just really wanted to be out. And so, I had about a month over the holidays because, you know, people aren’t working in December really, and then come January I got my job at Baen on Monday, and then that Thursday I got a call from Sarah Guan, who used to work at DAW, she’s with Orbit now, she loved the book and wanted to buy it. And so, I had about the best week of my life up until I proposed to my fiancée. So that was a good time.

Well, you said this book kind of grew out of all the stories that you’d been writing all along, but was there some initial seed or image? How does that work for you when it comes to a story? How do stories come to you, or begin?

I can’t remember where this one really came from. There’s no, you know, Robert Howard talking about Conan just appearing or J.K. Rowling having the same sort of conversation about Harry Potter just sort of appearing to her on the train, because it’s been so long. Hadrian and I…although Hadrian’s had like thirteen, fourteen different names, he’s been with me in some form or other since I was a kid so, I don’t…a couple of people have noted similarities between our personalities. You know, just…this is a common thing with authors, right? Like, I’ve seen people say the same thing about Pat Rothfuss and Kvothe, that they have some similar personality traits, things like that…but I don’t know which one’s me, which one’s him, because I’ve been writing this character in some form since I was a small kid. So, like, I was talking about the black clothes. Like, I wear black pretty much all the time and so does Haddrian, it’s his family color, and I don’t know if I’m wearing black because I’m sort of low-key cosplaying my own work or if my work is borrowing from my own fashion choices.

I thought I was a Johnny Cash influence.

You know, my dad makes that joke and I’m happy to accept it because Johnny Cash is the man.

I wrote a biography of him, a children’s biography of him. So…it was kind of cool.

Did you really? I’ll have to go track that one down. I’m a big fan. I’m not usually a country guy but Cash is excellent.

So, I don’t really know. There are some other stories that I will, that I’m working on that I have some ideas for. They’re just coming to me randomly. I don’t try to go looking for them. I’m not a very stringent researcher. If it’s something completely new, if it’s something I want to be devoting a lot of time to, they’ll just sort of pop up eventually, usually because I’ll be reading or watching something and I’ll like it, I’m like, “This is cool! But…” And then something will sort of spin out of an objection or a critique of something else. And I’ll want to do something from that. I’m a very argumentative person, to my detriment, as my educational history made brief reference to.

Well, if we’re going to talk about the Sun Eaterseries, perhaps you could give a spoiler-free synopsis of the first book for those who either have not read it or, like me, have not yet finished reading it.

All right. Well, what I usually do, because I go to a lot of conventions and I do a lot of floor selling with my friend Alexi Vandenberg of Bard’s Tower, is, I tell people that my main character, Hadrian, is sort of an Anakin Skywalker, but less whiney, if becoming Darth Vader were the right thing for him to do. The story is set about 20,000 years in our future in this big galactic empire. Hadrian is a nobleman, the son of a fairly minor but high-status house, that runs away from home, and he finds himself stuck in the middle of this war between humanity and the Cielcins, this alien menace, who are the first species of technologically advanced aliens in all that 20,000-year history who have ever stood up to humankind, who have ever rivaled us for control of the galaxy. Hadrian tells you on page one that he is the man who ended that war and killed all of the Cielcin, and the story is a memoir of why and how.

Yeah, talk about a spoiler on the first page.

Yeah, I…yeah. I don’t…I’ve always taken umbrage with spoiler culture. I think that if your story has to hang together on surprise, then maybe it’s not the best story. People have started to realize this about, say, M. Night Shyamalan, after The Sixth Sense. You know, his other movies have all hung on some twists that more or less haven’t delivered and I, you know, I don’t go out of my way to ruin things, but I think that if we can take the what-if, or what might happen, off the table, and instead talk about why and how, and the details, obviously, ‘case I’m not giving away the whole ending on page one, that we can ask some more interesting questions and have a different kind of story.

I suppose there’s no particular reason…I don’t think it even works very well to try to do an entire novel version of an O. Henry short story where everything depends on a sudden twist on the last page. I don’t think readers would actually like that.

No, no. And I’m not saying that every, you know, plot twist is like that, either. I just…I think…like, I’ve gotten a lot of people who complained that these memoir-style books take a lot of the tension out of the plot, and maybe that’s true for them. But I am one of those people who always looks at Wikipedia summaries of things because I like to know. I’m more interested in the journey than the destination and seeing how things get carried off and why, and what’s layered in there. And for those people who think that this story is something that I’ve given away completely at the beginning, that presupposes that all there is to this story is this one action that I tell you about on page one, which I think would be a mistake.

Well, I was gonna say that when it comes to memoirs it’s not like, if we were reading a memoir of a famous person…we know what he did, or she did, and yet we are still interested to find out how that all came about from the internal perspective of the person who did that thing. So, that should apply just as well. If I were…we’re currently reading, of all things, I’m reading out loud Boswell’s Life of Johnsonto my wife. We still have forty-four hours to go according to the Kindle.

Oh, my gosh.

And yet, you know, it’s still interesting even though, you know, well, he did the dictionary and he did all this, and then he died, you know. And yet it’s still interesting, even though you know how it ends. And it’s not like, you know, Romeo and Julietis any less powerful because you know when you go into it how it’s going to end. In some way it’s going along the journey along the way that makes it interesting.

Right. And there’d be no point to read classical literature anyway, right? Like, take The Count of Monte Cristo, right? Like, everybody knows it’s about a guy who goes to prison unjustly and gets revenge. And now, that he gets revenge, which is usually how the book sold to anybody when you’re trying to get them to read it, presupposes his success. But the details, right, you know, and how and why and the catharsis of those moments, right? That’s why you read the thing, you don’t read it to figure out what happens.

Did I interrupt you in the synopsis of the book?

Oh no. No, no, no. That was pretty much all I wanted to say, because I don’t want to say the things in the middle, right? There are, you know, without putting anything together, there are gladiator fights and there is court intrigue and there are aliens and friendships lost and found and all of these things.

Well, that brings me around to the next question, which is, so far you’ve mostly talked about your character, but there’s an awful lot of worldbuilding going on in here and a detailed and complicated plot. What does your planning process look like? Do you outline in great detail, do you wing it, and then…how does it work for you?

So, I winged the first book because I didn’t have a deadline. I had years and years to figure it out. And so, most of it ended up gelling in my head over time as I was rewriting things and changing things. You know, “What if I did this instead?” I had to rewrite this one very quickly because my first editor, when she bought it, it was about half as long. She said, “I love it. It’s great. I read it in one shot overnight, but I have these two problems,” and I looked at the problems and they were, without getting into too much detail, they were really fundamental worldbuilding problems, and it was the sort of thing that the only way I could fix them and be sure I fixed them and it wasn’t sloppy was to rewrite the whole thing. And so, I locked myself in my room, basically, for three months. I think it took me 108 days, because I kept a spreadsheet of my progress because this encourages me. Or discourages me, at least, when I fail to write enough on one day and my spreadsheet looks bad. And I would go to work, and then I would come home, and I worked…I think I slept only, like, four hours a night for most of that period. It was not good. But I shot through the whole thing all at once, and because I had just written it, right, it was all still very crystal.

But for the second book…I’ve become pretty friendly with David Drake, working at Baen, and Dave writes these enormous outlines, you know, you can…they’re basically like fifty or sixty pages for everything he does. And Dave ticks through and writes them…he writes his books…we, you know, we can almost plan our schedule around Dave. He’s like clockwork. It’s amazing. And so, he’ll turn in a book, we’ll know how long it is, we’ll know when we’re getting it, we know how early we’re getting it, we know how clean it will be. He’s so consistent. He’s just a real pro. And he does it because of these, I think because of these, amazing outlines, and so when I wrote book two, Howling Dark, I thought, “I’m going to be like Dave Drake.” Bold, bold statement, I know, but we have the Rome thing in common, so I thought I was I was off to a good start.

So, I started this big outline, and I wrote it and then, having written it, I realized that I knew basically everything that was in it. So when I would start a chapter I would look again at the page or so I’d written for the chapter, refresh myself with it, and then not look at it again. And for book three I did kind of the same thing. Because this story starts with at least intimations of its ending. I had kind of both ends of this plot string nailed to the table and I’ve been trying to untie the knot ever since. Which is kind of hard to do. So, I’ve been clipping at it and moving things around, so when I start outlining, I will put a bunch of scenes I know need to be in the book down on sticky notes. I had this big door on my closet that was just flat, right, so I used it kind of like a like a chalkboard, and I would stick these things to it and this sort of cloud of notes would turn steadily into a column marching straight up and down the middle of the door as I knew which scene/chapter was gonna be where and what would happen. And I turned that big string of post-it notes into a sixty-page David Drake outline. And I’ve done that for the last two books. And in doing that, I haven’t taken, you know, fifteen years to write it. I did book two in about nine months and book three is going to take about six all told. So I’m getting this down to a science, I think. I hope, rather.

What length are they? I’m reading it in Kindle, I don’t know how thick it is.

Oh gosh. Empire was 238,000 words. Howling Dark was 260, and I think this one’s going to be a little bit longer than that, the third one.

They are substantial.

Yeah, I try to write about 2,000 a day, when I am not moving house (I’m moving right now, I think I said), I can do two to three pretty reliably. At least, now that I have a due date and the fear of God is in me.

Sixty pages is pretty impressive from my point of view—my synopses are more like twenty, twelve to twenty, fifteen to twenty, more or less. But you don’t win the medal for people I’ve talked to on The Worldshapers. Peter V. Brett does a 150-page outline.

Yeah, I have no ambitions of trying to take that title from him.

He’s certainly…and there’s also, you know…I guess it was Kendare Blake I talked to, whose episode just came out before this interview with you, and she basically wings everything. So it’s always interesting to hear the different approaches that people take.

You mentioned Rome, and clearly that’s a lot of influence in there, in the book. So, going back to the worldbuilding side of things, it seems like you were drawing very much on your interest and study of history and philosophy and religion, all that seems to really find its way into the story.

Yes. So I thought, when I was writing it, that it was mostly Greek and Byzantine. I was wrong, but that was what I had in my head. And I think…I had thought that a lot of the Roman influence was because I post a lot of very stupid jokes just, you know, meme images, that are about the Roman Empire and Roman history generally, because I think they’re funny and I think maybe two people I’m friends with get them all, but I share them anyway. And so, I think this impression that I had been primarily a Roman scholar sort of emerged from my stupid Facebook use, and I’ve sort of steered into the skid a little bit, because most of what I’d read was, of course, Greek, because there’s more of it, at least, dramatic literature, right, and most of it the Romans appropriated in one form or other, sometimes improved, depending on who you ask.

And because, also, I was raised and am Roman Catholic, I went to a Catholic school up through high school, up to the beginning of high school. And so, I grew up with a lot of classical history because it’s so integral to the genesis of the religion. So we talk about Egypt and Israel and the Near East generally, and then moving through to the Greeks and…the Seleucids, the Macedonians, you know, and Rome later, and the Byzantines afterwards. And, of course, much of early medieval history, which is steeped in a lot of classical philosophy. Aristotle’s influence cannot be overstated. And my best friend is an Aristotelian scholar at, he’s finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton. So, I have him check a lot of my work and give me ideas, things I wouldn’t have read because I was mostly interested in the myth and the drama, and he had the philosophy. So he helps me out a lot.

And so, a lot of it really comes from, I think, that religious background, just because, you know, you can’t escape Rome’s shadow as a Catholic, certainly. Both the Empire and the city and the church after. And a lot of that left its stamp, but I think as far as my reputation for it goes, it’s probably mostly just those stupid jokes.

You never know what you put on line is going to follow you down…

No, and you never know what thing is going to be the useful detail in your world building, right? You know, I might have only read I think a few pages of philosophers like Epictetus, right, like I…of course. your readers will think you’ve read all of it. Don’t tell anyone. But you know, you might find a line or two and that’s all you need. You know, the fiction writer’s world-building game, I think, ought to be consequensive of a pretty light touch. You know, I talked to Lois Bujold, because I did a brief stint doing the other side of the interview thing here when I did the Baen podcast for a couple of months, and I asked Lois Bujold about worldbuilding, and she told me she won’t make up anything until she needs it. And once I heard her say that, I was like, “All right, I’m not going to spend hours filling notebooks with information anymore. I will make up details as I need it and then try to stick to the rules that I have established.”

Well, I’m a stage actor and playwright and director and a lot of this bears in common with doing something on stage: you only put on there what you need to suggest the reality and the viewer, in that case, the audience member, fills in everything from that. You know, that one flat with a view over the Roman hills in the background or whatever. It’s really just a light little touch, a little detail, and yet it suggests a depth and richness that in many ways the audience actually provides.

It’s amazing how little the audience really needs in order to generate a picture, right? Like, Shakespeare…Elizabethan theatre didn’t use set design at all, right? They might, they had the balcony above the stage, but there were no  tables and chairs. It was all done by costume. You had your props and what not. You know, I think it’s Measure for Measure when they say, “Exit pursued by a bear.” There was a bear-baiting pit across the street from the Globe, so I’m sure there was a real bear, but they weren’t building, you know, castle displays and these things. That’s why, at the beginning of Henry V, the chorus comes out and says, you know, “Imagine that this dome, you know, contains the varsity fields of France,” and so, you know, just a light suggestion, just an off phrase is going to generate crazy ideas in people. I remember as a kid looking at maps of Middle Earth and looking at places Tolkien doesn’t even talk about, right, like a ruin barely comes up, and thinking, “Well, I want to I want to go there,” right? That’s all it takes is literally just one name on a map and the audience is running with. And they think that you have it all planned out, and you don’t have to.

We have talked about a little bit about your actual writing process: 2,000 words a day on a good day, 2,000 to 3,000 words. You are very…it sounds that you’re very organized, like, “I sit down, and I work when it’s time for me to work.” Is that pretty much the way you work?

Yeah. Well, especially now. They give me a deadline, and it was a month sooner than I had anticipated for book three. So what I do, I wake up at about 6 a.m., I eat breakfast, and then I will write until I have to go to work just before 9, and then I will go to the office and work 9 to 5, like a good soldier, and then I will come home, make dinner, and then I will work until I hit that word count. And I try to hit, at the very least, a thousand words in a day. These days, I’m trying to bottom out at 1,500, just because I want to get it to Katie on time, and if I can do it early, because they know the deadline surprised me and wrong-footed me, then I will look really cool. And I am trying to look as cool as possible so…fortunately I had that deadline.

You’ve mentioned, also, you know, that you have these friends that you still get some feedback from. Especially when you’re working to a deadline like this, do you actually even have time to show this to anybody before you’re gonna have it done and then hand it in?

They might not…their feedback at the very end might not be that useful, but I try to get it to them in stages, you know, so they might read three chapters at a time and just sort of follow behind me. I very briefly had a stint in the noughts as a middle schooler writing fan fiction and reading it. I sort of fell out on it because I realized that I would do better writing my own stuff. I know I could make money doing that, I can’t make money writing Legend of Zelda stories. But, you know, they would update a chapter at a time every couple of weeks, right? And it was exciting. Same with comic books, right? You know, I’m  a big fan of Berserk, the Japanese series, and that might get a chapter every, like, three months or something, and waiting for that little update’s really exciting. And so, my friends who came out of the same space as me no objections to getting these things in dribs and drabs and getting back to me. I have a couple who were faster than others, and some people might not answer, but that’s the virtue of having about five or six. I’ve got a couple who will read pretty reliably.

My friend the philosophy guy usually spot checks things for me. I’ll have specific questions for him or a couple of other people. My…I mentioned my friend’s boxing gym in my bio. My friend Wes runs a gym here in Raleigh. He trains boxers to actually fight, because most boxing gyms are actually aerobics studios. Not to put that down, but they’ll just stand in lines and they’ll just do drills, and their technique is not actually competitive at all. So, Wes trains people to fight, and he also does fencing and HEMA (Historic European Martial Arts) and he used to teach summer camps where he would teach kids like medieval military tactics and have them in lines with spears and stuff, it was very cool. And so I’ll have him check a lot of my action scenes, things like that.

I was gonna ask, what specific kind of feedback are you getting from people? I guess that’s one of them. Action scenes, and specific questions you have for your philosophy friend…philosophical friend?

Yeah, yeah. Marcus. He’s actually, he is who Gibson—if you’ve read the book, Gibson is Hadrian’s tutor.

Yes.

Sort of the scientist monk. And they all take names, in much the same way that when you’re confirmed Catholic you take a saint’s name, these monks will take old scholar names, and he has borrowed my friend’s name, as a nod to my friend for his long years of service.

So what does your revision process look like when you get to the end? Do you revise as you go? Do you do a big revision at the end and then submit it? How does that work for you?

I do…when I have time, and I won’t this time with book three, I let it sit for a week, ideally, and then start reading it over again, and I’ll make notes about what needs to be changed and things as I go. I’ll fix, you know, bad-sounding sentences. Because I try to read aloud. The most important bit of writing advice I ever got, and I think the most important bit of writing advice I can ever give, is “read your work out loud,” because if you wrote a bad sentence it will sound stupid and you can fix it, but you can’t fix it if you can’t hear it. And so, I try to read everything aloud and catch those as I’m going and then catch things. I also find my memory is much better with things I’ve heard, so I’ll remember details better and catch things like someone’s eye color changing, which…even proofreaders are going to miss that sort of thing.

Yes, those things do crop up, and if you don’t read it out loud to yourself while you’re doing that, you will certainly find those errors when you’re doing a public reading sometime.

Oh, yeah. Every time. There’s a word missing in the first line of dialogue in Empire of Silence, I think. It’s something like “the mother of wisdom in” and it should be “is in” and that missing “is” haunts me to this day. I fixed it in the mass market, but it just…it’s in the audiobook, and every time it just…it’s too late.

It must be in the electronic ARC I’m reading, so I’ll have to look that up.

Yeah, it’s…it’s just embarrassing. But I try to do that, and I’ll do spot fixes. I try to go and find words like “very” and see if it’s an instance of the word “very” that needs to go. Words like “seems.” I have a whole list somewhere, I forget other words…

Quite a few authors have told me that. Let’s see, it was Kevin Hearne, I think, who said he suddenly became sensitive to the phrase “I couldn’t help but,” and he said, “Well, of course you could.” And so he goes through and tries to get rid of all of those. For me…I…well, of course, there’s the, you know, the basic, if you do a search for “wases” and “weres” and stuff you can see if you’re using passive tense sometimes you shouldn’t. But, I often find that my characters make animal noises too much. They’re always growling dialogue or snarling something. I try to catch some of those.

So, when it gets to DAW, and Katie, your editor there, what kind of editorial feedback do you get? I haven’t worked with her, so I don’t know how she works.

Katie is great. Katie catches a lot of things. My favorite thing about working with Katie is that Katie and I have more-or-less diametrically opposed worldviews and philosophies and backgrounds. I come from a deeply Catholic conservative background. Katie is very much a progressive. I think she was, I think she was an activist, like, a professional activist before she was an editor. And we live in very divisive times, let us say, and without getting into anyone’s opinions on anything, because I really don’t, especially publicly, don’t want to be a political person in any way whatsoever, I really appreciate that we can work together with these very different…because there are just things that you’re blind to, right? When you have opposing…when you have a different way of seeing things, there are just some parts of the world you don’t see because you’ve never seen them, these sorts of things? And Katie is conscious of things.

’Cause I’m not trying to hurt anybody with writing, so just, you know, stupid, you know, thoughtless things that might creep into your writing because it doesn’t…you don’t encounter it, right? It’s not exactly…I’m not describing, like, sensitivity reading issues, because my response is usually not…it’s not changing anything that’s in…I don’t change any of my…things that are in the text. It’s not that kind of thing. It’s…she will catch where I haven’t presented myself very clearly or I’ve sort of taken half-measures in order to express an idea or to negotiate a plot point, these sorts of things. The way I like to think about it is, in Dostoyevsky and Brothers Karamazov, right, he’s got Ivan and Alyosha, and Alyosha is kind of dim, but he’s a really decent human being. Ivan is viciously brilliant, right? And Ivan wins every single argument that he has against Alyosha, but Alyosha wins in the long run because he is a decent human being. He ends up at the end of his life better off, right? And Dostoyevsky has more in common worldview-wise with Alyosha than he does Ivan, but he makes Ivan as strong a foil as he possibly can. You know, Nietzsche used to say that he did philosophy with a hammer, well ,Dostoyevsky did literature with a hammer, right? He built the strongest possible…you know, I don’t want to say arguments, because fiction isn’t necessarily an argument…but the strongest possible avatar of things he didn’t believe in, right? He made his villains, his antagonists, as strong as he could. And Katie helps me to pull out places where I have been a weak writer because of our differences of opinion and vision and clarity of vision. And, you know, I find that absolutely wonderful and indispensable. And so, in addition to that, obviously there’s the usual stuff about, you know, just usual editing, you know, this might not work here, move this scene, that kind of thing, but that, I think, is the most useful, the most indispensable, bit of editorial help that I get.

So, Empire of Silence came out last year, right? 2018?

Yes. Yeah. July 10.

Trying to remember what year it is.

I know.

And the second one, which is called Howling Dark, is coming up very shortly. We’re recording this in early June and the book comes out in July.

Mm-hmm.

I should know because there’s this guy on Twitter that’s running a daily countdown of how many days it is.

Yeah. I thought that would be fun. It’s been a lot of work.

I was looking at that, thinking, “I could do that for Master of the World,” which is my next book from DAW, but I thought, “Boy, that looks like a lot of work,” so I don’t know if I will do that or not.

Yeah, I did that all in advance, thank heavens. I don’t do it every day. I did a countdown for book one like that, where I did the one quote from each chapter per day for each number of chapters. But I had eighty chapters in this book, and doing one for three months, is…

So, what has the response been to the first book?

Overwhelmingly positive. I think I’ve got about 1,200, 1,300 reviews on Goodreads. Fifty percent of them are five stars, which is just absolutely mind-boggling, because to me this is still a bunch of goofy nonsense that I made up because, really, you know, for all this talk of, you know, differences of opinion and stuff, my only aspiration is to entertain people. It truly, truly is. People can read the book if they agree with me, if they disagree with any of this. And I hope that they have a good time, because that’s what this is about. I am ultimately no different than a medieval harlequin juggling in the streets, and that’s all I want to be, only more serious.

Well, that actually is my next question. This is the point in the podcast where I ask the big questions, and the first one is, “Why do you do this? Why do you write?” And, on a broader scope, why do why do you think any of us write, one, and two, why do you and I and other people write this kind of made-up stuff, science fiction and fantasy?

Well, I have two answers, because of course I have artistic pretensions, right? And any artist does. And I do really think that literature in particular, that the thing that separates human beings from the animals isn’t, you know, tool-building, obviously crows do that sort of thing, it’s not language even, really: it’s storytelling. The reason…we tell stories so that our narrative persona, our narrative avatars, right, our characters, can suffer and die so that we don’t have to.

Stories are instructional. The most basic story is, “I went out into the wilderness. There was a tiger. It killed the other cavemen. Bring a stick next time.” You know, that’s why fables have morals. And all stories do this. And what we’ve been trying to do with our stories…and the oldest stories, in addition to being, you know, daily news, like the tiger one, are religious, right? Religion, literature—these things overlap pretty significantly in the way that they try to define an ethic of, like, how we’re supposed to act in the world, what the right way to behave is. That’s what the hero’s journey is, right, the hero’s journey is like the Dao in Daoism, right, it’s like the eightfold path in Buddhism, it’s like the imitation of Christ in Christianity, it’s the right way to act in the world, you know, being heroic, right? Now, we can argue about the details of what that is, and that’s part of the experiment, right?

You know, I started writing this because I read Iain Banks’s Culture series, where he’s like, “Well, the minute we get into space, government’s finished,” like, you know, no one will ever control anybody. And as much as I love those books, I was like, “That’s not right. Like, well, it’s really hard to get off planets, Mr. Banks. Like, they just won’t let you.” And so, I made an empire that doesn’t let people get off planets. So, you know, it’s all part of this argument about society and how people function.

But beneath all that, and at the same time, you know, I think it was Edgar Rice Burroughs said, you know, “You have to entertain first.” Right? Maybe it was someone else, or maybe he said it, too. And all I really want to do…the reason why most of what I post online are links to obscure metal songs and stupid jokes about the Roman Empire is because I am not here to change anyone’s heart or mind. I am not. I don’t think I have the wisdom or the clarity of mind to do that, and I would be very suspicious of anybody whose job is to write stories about wizards and spaceships who tries to tell you how to live your life. All I want to do is tell you a story about wizards and spaceships.

And as for why we write stories about wizards and spaceships, you know, I think…there are a lot of people, a lot of my creative-writing professors, John Kessel aside, because the man is a rarity…hated that I was writing science fiction in my creative-writing classes. They in fact tried to stop me, and I had to negotiate with them pretty early in the class, like, “Look, this is what I want to do, like, professionally, I would really appreciate your feedback, can you please work with me?” And they very often would. A couple of them were like, “No, you must write literary, you know, lit-fic minimalist hyper-realist pieces.” Maybe magical realism, because that gets a pass for some reason. But all the old stories are fantastic, right? Literally the oldest story we have is the Enûma Eliš, or the creation myth from the Sumerians. And it is a dragon-slaying story. It is about Marduk, the God of Attention, right, he’s got eyes all around his head, right, and his ability to speak magic words, and to take the Dragon of Chaos, Tiamot, apart. He cuts her to pieces and builds the world out of the dragon’s corpse, right? So this is a dragon, and magic words, and, you know, he’s got superpowers, he can see everything, right?

It sounds like a Marvel movie.

Yeah, exactly. And that’s what it all is. Science fiction is modern mythology, because a lot of modern people have a hard time with other forms of mythology, because they go out into the world and they’re like, “Well, I don’t see anyone turning water into wine. So these stories aren’t true,” and I’m like, “Well, but what does the story mean?”, right? The story represents something. Whether or not that something is metaphysically true is irrelevant—those stories have meaning. And it’s the same…and I think it’s more digestible if we know those stories are fake to begin with, right? Like, I’m amazed by the number of people who dislike religion on principle who are Tolkien fans, right? It’s just absolutely mind-boggling to me, because it’s the same story, you know? King Arthur is literally the same story, right?

And so, I think we’re doing this because writing… because we don’t live in a society where popular culture is hagiography anymore, where we’re not writing the lives of the saints. So, instead of talking about St. George killing a dragon—because that’s the same story, too. You know, talking about St. Barlaam, who is actually just the Buddha, you know, that story traveled across Asia and arrived in Europe in a different form. You know, instead of telling all these stories as popular entertainments, instead of talking about the quest for the Holy Grail, right, which is of course a very religiously centered story, we tell stories about different dragonslayers, right? You know, Euron Greyjoy just killed a dragon in Game of Thrones, right? Now, that’s a terrible person, but it’s still the same motif, it’s the same kind of story, and it’s scratching a similar itch. Even if the ending of Game of Thrones…that’s an issue, you know, we can get into another time. But it’s still…it’s still hitting that same spot for people.

I think that fandoms are…I don’t want to say cults, but, like, cults in the Roman sense, where they’re these little tiny micro-religions, right, without the pejorative content at all, I think. People come to these things looking for meaning, and they find them in these other places.

And, you know, I think some other people just like dragons, right? They like knights, you know, because in their real life they’re pizza-delivery guys or, you know, they drive trucks, or they work in an office, or they teach school, and, you know, they…it helps. You know, Tolkien talks about writing escapist literature, because, you know, in its truest sense, because you need to be let out of prison, right, because you don’t want to go to the office every day. I work at a science-fiction publisher and I don’t want to go to the office every day, it’s an office. You know, and I love my job, but sometimes it’s Tuesday and you don’t want to go.

I don’t know if it’s Tolkien or Lewis who said that people who…who’s against escapism? Well, jailers. So, people who say, “You shouldn’t read that escapist stuff” are the jailers.

Yeah, that was my problem with those professors.

It’s interesting. I’ve talked to a lot of authors, some of whom had creative writing, and that is…that, unfortunately, it’s still there, those creative-writing types who have this deep-seated prejudice against the fantastic, which…not always. there have been some exceptions in the people I’ve talked to, but it is something that comes up quite a bit.

I will say this though, against those professors. That’s what every student in those classes wanted to write. Almost to a man and woman, every single person who was in those classes with me wanted to write science fiction or fantasy. Maybe they wanted to write, like, a thriller, right, you know, some sort of military story, spy story, but they weren’t writing, you know, literary minimalism, you know, about some person in their ordinary life having ordinary experiences. Everyone was in there with dragons or robots. So they’re losing. And I think people like Dr. Kessel will be more the mainstay in the profession here in another generation or so.

Well, we’re just about to the end of the hour. We’ve talked about the new book and you have mentioned that what you’re working on is the third book. Anything else that you’re working on at the moment?

No, none at the exact moment because I have to power through book three here and finish it before Howling Darkcomes out July 16. And so, I owe them book three August 1. I’d wanted to turn it in before this one was even out, because I turned in book two before book one was out, because it would be nice, you know, to do that. But I have some other ideas. Most of them are fantasy. I want to…there’s a famous story about the Emperor Caligula, who’s famously mad, although I think personally that he’s been defamed by oligarchs throughout history, but it’s his famous story about him ordering his soldiers to attack the ocean. And, you know, that happened up in the Netherlands, so he sounded crazy to everybody in Italy, but I’m a big Tim Powers fan and, you know, Tim Powers’s thing is, he tries to find fantastic explanations for these sort of coincidences in history and, you know, what if Caligula were actually attacking something that came from the sea, you know? That, I think, is something I want to work on after I finish this, but after I finish book three it’ll be time for book four. And then book five. So I have to do that first.

Because it’s not a trilogy, then. It’s more than that.

Oh, no, no. I’m allergic to trilogies, because everyone…it seems every time there’s a trilogy out I find people who are like, “Oh, book two is bad, oh, don’t read the second one, really dropped it in the middle,” or, “You get through the second one, the third one fixes it.” And I thought, “Well, instead of having one awkward middle book, I’ll have three. That’ll fix the problem.”

Well, I did a five-book series, so I’m right there with you. Although they were much shorter. I mean, I think the entire five books would have fit into one and a quarter of yours, but…

I just talk too much, as you can tell.

And where can people find you online?

I am on Facebook and Twitter @TheRuocchio. Someone had already taken my last name, it’s like a third cousin of mine in Pennsylvania, so I put the “The” in front, which makes me sound famous, even though I’m not.

Oddly enough, that’s why this is called “The Worldshapers” instead of just “Worldshapers,” because worldshapers.com was taken. And they offered to sell it to me for, I don’t know, $5,000 or something. I said. “You know, I think I’ll just put a ‘the’ in front of it and I’ll be fine.”

Yeah, that’s the easy solution. I wasn’t gonna try and shake down this cousin I’d never met, so…

So, Twitter and Facebook, both the same thing?

Yes. And my website is sollanempire.com. I figured that’d be easier to spell than my name.

Well, thanks so much for being a guest. I really enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.

I did. Thank you for having me. I’ve been really looking forward to this. I really enjoyed the episode you did with Dave Butler, who is a really good friend of mine, and a couple of the others, and been real excited.

Well, thank you. I think it’ll be…I’m sure that listeners will enjoy it as much as we both did. I hope, anyway.

I hope so, too.

Okay, bye for now.

Bye. Thank you.

Episode 27: Eric Flint

An hour-long conversation with Eric Flint, New York Times-bestselling author of the Ring of Fire alternate-history series, which began with 1632, and more than 50 other science-fiction and fantasy novels, both on his own and in collaboration, as well as many pieces of short fiction and dozens of anthologies.

Website
www.ericflint.net

Facebook
Eric’s Public Page

Eric’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Eric Flint’s writing career began with the science-fiction novel Mother of Demons. With David Drake, he has collaborated on the six-volume Belisarius series, as well as a novel entitled The Tyrant. His alternate-history novel 1632 was published in 2000 and has led to a long-running series with many novels and anthologies in print. In addition, he’s written a number of science fiction and fantasy novels, and now has more than 50 novels in print, as well as many pieces of short fiction and dozens of anthologies that he’s edited. He currently resides in Northwest Indiana with his wife, Lucille.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Eric.

Thank you.

We met very, very briefly at DragonCon last year, which was the first time I had ever been to DragonCon—I found it a bit overwhelming, but I did find the Baen Books table and actually signed up a couple of people to be guests, and you’re one of the ones that I talked to there. Other than that, we’ve never crossed paths, I don’t think, at conventions anywhere, or anything like that.

Not that I recall, no.

Well, we’ll get into 1632 a little bit later, and the Ring of Fireseries, but I always like to start off by taking people back—and I always say this, “into the mists of time,” to find out how you first became interested…well, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy, probably as a reader, because that’s how we almost all start, and then how you got around to trying your hand at writing and how that all worked out for you. So, when did you first become interested in the field?

Well, I started reading science fiction when I was about 12 years old, I think. My mother bought me a copy of, a hardcover copy of one of those Winston juveniles, of Robert Heinlein’s Citizen of the Galaxy, and I was very taken by it. And shortly thereafter I remember reading Andre Norton’s Star Rangers, and I also remember reading…it has two titles. The one that it was originally published under was The Survivors and its re-title is Space Prison. It was written by Tom Godwin. And those three books really got me into it, and after that I would read everything I could get in the school library. I started writing science fiction when I was about 14, and I kept writing it through high school. I once had a very nice rejection letter from John Campbell, whose handwritten, two-page letter, which I lost decades ago—I feel bad about now—at the time, to me, was just a rejection letter, you know. I don’t know who Campbell was. Then I did some more writing in college and then I stopped writing pretty much for about 25 years, and then I started again when I was in my mid-40s. I had one novel that I had started and not finished and it kept nagging at me, and when I reached the age of 44, I think, I just realized I didn’t want to be lying on my deathbed regretting the fact that I never tried to finish the book. So, I went ahead and finished it.

In 1992 I took a part of that novel and rewrote it as a short story and submitted it to the Writers of the Future contest, and it won first place in the winter quarter of 1992. And that’s really what got my career off the ground. I didn’t publish anything else for four years. I tried several times, but with short stories, but I’m really not…I’m really a novelist. I finally just said, “Oh, to hell with it,” and I just concentrated on writing novels. I finished the novel that I’d started back in…Jesus, when was it…I started when I was 22 years old, back in 1969. I got that one finished. I submitted…I got an agent. She warned me, she liked the book, but she warned me it was going to be a very hard book to sell, which it proved to be. After a couple of years, I told her take it off the market because there’s no point just racking up rejection slips.

I had written in the meantime a much more straightforward science-fiction novel called Mother of Demons. And so, we started shopping that around, and that’s actually my second book I wrote, first one I sold, Baen Books decided to buy it in 1996 and it was published in September of ’97. And right at the same time, Jim Baen offered me a collaborative series with David Drake, which became the Belisarius series. And that’s what I worked on next. That wound up being six books. I did the first four back to back, right in a row, didn’t work on anything else. And then I wrote my next solo novel. which was 1632, which came out in the year 2000, and my career took off quite rapidly after that.

Well, going back to when you were first writing as a as a kid, did you have people who encouraged you along the way, or were you sharing it with other, you know, with your friends, and finding out that you could tell stories, or…? What were you doing back then?

Well, in high school I was sharing it with girlfriend, not, pretty much, anybody else. She was quite supportive. My mother was, too, and a more distant…you know, somewhat greater distance. I was quite self-contained, so I didn’t really talk much, either. There’s a line…early in my life that said there’s nothing quite as ridiculous as an unpublished author and I sort of always kind of felt that way, so I didn’t really talk much about it until I get published. I talked more about it in college because that novel I started was originally a collaborative project for me and three of my friends, two of whom dropped off fairly early. The second one, Richard Roach, has stayed with that project ever since. The novel, the first one I wrote, is actually a collaborative novel with him. So, obviously I’d talked it over with them because we were all working together.

You started collaborating early.

Oh, yeah, very early. You know, not in high school, but once I got to college.

You actually studied history at college. Did any of that ever play into your fiction or did just the mere study of it help you when it came to writing some of your…?

Almost all of my fiction, one way or another, is historically rooted. That’s obviously true of the alternate history, which is what I’m best known for. Now, alternate history represents a little less than half of what I write, so I write a lot of other stuff. But, for instance, my science-fiction novel The Course of Empire is modeled after, or inspired after, my thinking about the Roman conquest of the Greeks. My first novel, Mother of Demons, is based on episodes in southern Balkan history, in the late 18th, early 19th century, which is what I was studying in college. Americans don’t recognize it. My friend Dave Freer is South African, he spotted it right away. That’s just generally true, that I’ll look to historical models as the basis for telling a story, even though the story itself might not technically be an historical fiction, but straight science fiction, but it’s going to almost always have an historical basis to it. So, yeah, I’ve been, in that sense, an historian my whole life.

Now I like to ask authors, because some have and some haven’t and some who have wished they hadn’t…have you ever had any formal creative-writing training?

I took a course in creative writing in junior college one semester. The teacher was quite nice, and I learned some about the use of language. The problem is…the problem with creative-writing courses is that they can sometimes be helpful teaching you how to write, but they’re not usually very helpful at all in terms of teaching you how to tell a story, which is not the same skill They overlap but they’re not the same. And, from the point of view of being commercially successful, it’s being able to tell a story that really matters, not so much how well you write. So, I took one semester of that. I don’t regret taking it, but I can’t say it particularly helped me much.

Yeah, I get a variety of answers on that. A lot of authors who write science fiction and fantasy in particular found that it was not something that their creative-writing teachers were comfortable with or supportive of in any way, and there was often some conflict along the way, when they were trying to write that kind of thing in a creative-writing session.

Well, that was certainly true in the time I was going through college. That was way back in the ’60. Today, there’s a lot more flexibility in the academic world toward genre fiction in general, science fiction in particular, but in those days there wasn’t. I knew a case of a professor who actually got fired from  a college because they found out he’d published a mystery novel, which he did under a pseudonym, but they, you know, the word leaked out. So…you know, there’s that. I think…I don’t know, I think the bigger problem is simply that…it depends on your orientation. What’s called literary fiction is today a genre of its own. It’s very rigid, it has all kinds of tropes you pretty much have to follow, and I personally would find it quite stultifying. And a lot of great literature of the past wouldn’t fit into it all. My first novel written, Forward the Mage, is based on the satires of the 17th and 18th centuries, which were fantasies, most of them. That’s what it was based on. But it would have been hard to try to get that through in a kind of literary [fashion].

Now during the 25 years that you weren’t writing, you were doing a lot of things: meatpacker, longshoreman, truck driver, auto forge worker, glassblower. That’s a lot of practical hands-on experience doing things that a lot of writers aren’t exposed to. We do get a lot of writers who have had a lot of odd jobs over the course of their career. Do you find that having had that sort of, I don’t know, I want to call it salt-of-the-earth, I guess, experience, does that feed into your fiction?

Yeah. Particularly the 1632 series…

Yeah, I notice it there, for sure.

Yeah, that’s probably where you see the most. That town of Grantville is actually very closely modelled on the town of Mannington, West Virginia. I lived in that area for about a year and a half. I find one thing that tends to be absent…not entirely, but it’s pretty thin on the ground in science fiction…is the working class. It’s…they kind of show up as spear carriers, if they show up at all. And I just wanted to write a story whose protagonists were, you know, not engineers, not Navy SEALs, you know, just working stiffs. And that’s pretty much who populates, well, the American characters who populate the 1632 series. Once the time-travel event happens it gets broader than that. There are kings and cardinals and all kinds of other people get into it. But the town itself was just a small coal-mining town in northern West Virginia.

Did you ever work in a coal mine?

No. I tried when I lived there. I always wondered why anyone worked in a coal mine, and when I got to West Virginia I discovered real quick that it was the only job that paid worth a damn. So, I went through the course—you have to go through an 80-hour course in main safety. I went through it, got my certificate, but they were not hiring at the time. So, I wound up kicking around a machine shop, driving a cab, doing shape-up at glass factories. That’s where I learned some parts of glassblowing.

Well, my big brother actually did work in a coal mine, although it was an open-pit mine, it wasn’t an underground mine. But he had worked in an underground mine, a nickel mine in northern Manitoba. So, he has some of that experience. And I actually recently wrote the history, a history of the mine-rescue competition that they run every year here in Saskatchewan, so I hung out with the volunteers that do that kind of mine safety and mine rescue. That was very interesting, to talk to those guys.

So, well, let’s talk about 1632, because we’re going to kind of focus on that as an example of your creative process. I’ll let you give the synopsis so I don’t give away something that shouldn’t be given away to somebody who somehow hasn’t managed to read any of the books yet.

Well, the basic premise is really quite simple. There is a cosmic act, the nature of which I explain in a three-page preface, which is just handwaving. This is just a MacGuffin to get the story going. I thought I came up with a clever one. But it’s essentially a cosmic accident that causes a time transposition event, where a chunk of the modern United States—and by modern we’re talking about the year 2000, because that’s when I wrote the book—Is transposed in time and place into the middle of Germany in the year 1631, which is right smack in the middle of the Thirty Years War, which was probably the most destructive war in European history, at least since the collapse of the Roman Empire. So, what happens is, this small town, about 3,500 people, just literally materializes, about a six-mile diameter. and finds itself in the middle of that part of Germany. It’s called Thuringia, which during the Cold War would have been the southern part of East Germany. And they find themselves in the middle of one of the greatest wars of history, which went on…it wasn’t really a war, it was a whole running cascade of wars. It went on for 30 years. It’s estimated that possibly a quarter of the population of Central Europe died in that war. So, basically, what the series is about is simply, all right, you’ve got 3,500 Americans from the year 2000, with whatever resources they had in this small town…and I was very strict about the resources available. The basic rule, which I’ve applied ever since and everyone who writes in that universe has to obey it, is that if you can find something in Mannington, the real town of Mannington, then you can put it in Grantville, but if it’s not there, you can’t. The one exception, what we call “wild cards,” which is…I will allow a certain number of those. What I mean by “wild cards” is, for instance, in the second novel, 1633, my co-author, David Weber, and I introduced an aircraft designer who builds an actual plane. Well, the odds of there being a retired aeronautical engineer in a small town or low, but any small town in America with 3,500 people in it is going to have a certain number of people that aren’t likely to be there, but they are. So, I allow that as long as people don’t overdo it.

So, that’s the basic premise. All the books have followed, and we are now up to…Baen Books has published—I really lose count—I think we’re up to 24 novels, with the one I just wrote that just was published last month. That’s 24 novels that Baen publishes, and I have my own publishing house, called Ring of Fire Press, and we publish, also publish, stuff in the series, and there’s another probably dozen novels that we’ve published. In addition, there are 12 anthologies of short fiction in paper, and back in, 12 years ago, we launched a magazine, an electronic magazine called the Grantville Gazette, that’s been in operation now for 12 years. It’s a professional magazine, it’s recognized by the science fiction writers’ association as a qualified professional venue. It’s made a profit for 12 years. It’s become a very big, sprawling enterprise. And by now, something like 200 people have written something in this setting, most of them just one or two stories, but…most of my co-authors, quite a few of them, are actually people who started as fans and sort of learned to write within the series. And if they got good enough, and I thought they were ready for it, I’d offer them, you know, I’d ask if they wanted to try their hand at collaborating on a novel, and that’s where most of my authors—not all of them, but most of my collaborative authors—actually began, that way, not as established professionals.

Well, it’s been 20 years, then, since you wrote the first one. Do you remember what the initial seed of the idea was that gave birth to all this?

Yeah, I had…just from living in the area…I can’t remember how far back the idea came to me. I’d had the idea for a long, long time that a small coal-mining town would make a terrific collective protagonist in some kind of adventure. I just couldn’t figure out the adventure. And then, years later, I was working with David Drake and he had a new novel he wanted to do, and I was originally going to co-author, it wound up eventually being someone else, but the basic premise of that novel is near-future, and it was posited that China had broken up and Vietnam and southern China were about to go to war, and a band of alien mercenaries show up and offer their services to the Vietnamese using an American intermediary who lives in Hanoi, he’s an expatriate, he used to be…he was, is, a Vietnam veteran. David did not develop the…he had the plot well-developed, but he didn’t develop the background of the alien mercenaries. And I asked him if he minded if I fleshed it out, and he said, “No, go ahead.” So, I started thinking, “Well, I’ll use a historical model, just to give me a framework,” which is what I usually do. And the great era in modern times of…well, “modern,” using the term broadly…of mercenary armies was the Renaissance and what’s called the early modern period, and they were very prominent in the Thirty Years War.

So, it had been many, many years—decades—since I’d read anything about the Thirty Years War. I don’t think I read anything about it since a little bit in college. So, I decided to study it, and I started reading…there’s a classic narrative history by C.V. Wedgewood called The Thirty Years War, and I picked it up and started reading it, and about halfway through it dawned on me that this would be the perfect setting for my…that collective protagonist. And that’s where the idea came from. I then sat down and developed it into a plot and submitted it to Jim Baen at Baen Books. He liked it, and it took off.

How does that look for you, when you develop an idea into a plot? Or you a staunch outliner…what exactly do you do?

Yes. I outline quite thoroughly. What I will wind up with is a chapter-by-chapter outline of the book—not lengthy: I do it on an Excel sheet and my rule is that each chapter has to be summarized in one line, so I don’t get long-winded. I just want to capture the heart of it. I don’t start there. I start with thinking it through. But, yeah, before I start writing, I try to have the story well-plotted out. In the course of writing, things change—that always happens—and that outline will, to some degree or another, get transmuted, although it never gets transmuted too much, because you have to have a coherent story arc, and if you don’t have an ending and a beginning and the link between, you don’t actually have a story. So, nothing tremendous changes, but things can change.

For instance, in 1632, the book actually ends three months before I’d planned to end it. I’d planned to end with the Battle of Whitsun, which took place in the fall of 1632. But after I wrote the big scene at the high school, big battle at the high school, I realized I’d actually resolved all the issues there. So, I called up Jim on the phone and said, “Jim, I actually think this book is finished.” So, he said, “Let me see it.” I sent it to him, and he said, “Yeah, you’re right. This is where we should end it.” So, you know, you might not necessarily end at exactly the same place, but the basic…the ending is the same in the sense of what it resolves, let’s put it that way.

How long would your outline be when you complete one, ready to start writing?

It depends. If I’m submitting an outline as a proposal to a publisher, where they want something, it’ll be around, I don’t know, 3,000 to 7,000 words. If I’m just doing it for myself I tend to do a lot of the initial outlining just in my own head, and I don’t start really putting stuff on paper until I’m ready to actually do this final chapter-by-chapter outline. But by the time I get to that point I’ve thought about it a lot.

I liked something in your frequently asked questions on your website where you made a distinction between, you know…a plot is not just a sequence of events, it’s an actual structure, a skeleton that you hang a story on, and I liked that distinction, because when you’re plotting, when you’re a young writer, a beginning writer, and you’re plotting, it is easy to try to, you know, “Well, I’ll just add on a bunch of things that happen and then somehow I’ll have a story,” but a story is more than that, isn’t it?”

Yeah, yeah, it’s …the way I try to explain this to people is have them do a mental experiment. Just write down everything that happened to you yesterday, from the time you woke up to the time you fell asleep. Just, you know, write it all down, like a story. Do you have a story? And the answer is, no, you don’t have a story. You just have a sequence of events. It’s not…I mean, it’s coherent, there’s reasons for everything you did, but there’s no beginning to it. There’s no end to it. Every story has some kind of conflict of some kind that has to be resolved by the end of it, at least to a degree. That’s…I don’t think there’s ever been a story, at least not a  story that very many people are going to read very often, that doesn’t have that characteristic. And when I write, the first thing I start with is actually not a plot or characters. I start with figuring out…a conflict, basically. And since my interests tend to be very social and political, in my case it’s usually a social or political conflict of some kind that I’m interested in and think is important, and then I just start thinking about it and figuring out ways that you could put that into fiction. That’s where the 1632series came from. And then I start working my way down in, you know, different levels of concreteness, as far as developing goes.

One of the points…you often hear writers say they write character-driven stories. And there are many who think they’re working that way, and consciously they are, but if they’re any good what they’re really doing is plotting without realizing it, because the thing is this: what makes a character a character is what they do. And if you don’t know what they do, then you don’t have a plan. So, you really have to have a plot to develop a character in the first place. Otherwise, what you’ve got is not really a character, it’s just a collection of personality traits. And what kills more stories is just that they ramble around and don’t seem to have much point to them and eventually just sort of come to an end. But…when I was editor of Jim Baen’s Universe Magazine, I…the stories that got up to me had to get through readers, so that they were, they were well-written, I mean, they weren’t badly written, those would be rejected before I ever saw them. But the most common reason I would reject a story is just because it…there was nothing wrong, the writing was usually quite competent, and there was nothing really wrong with the story, exactly, but there was nothing right with it either. I mean, you know, it just wasn’t much of a story. And it’s hard to explain that. If there’s any one single talent to being an author that’s hard to teach anyone, it’s how to recognize what’s a good story and what isn’t. That’s the place where talent itself really comes in. I can teach people pretty much everything else, but that’s hard to teach.

You mentioned characters. How do you…how do you identify the characters that you need in the story, and then how do you…how much do you work on developing them before you start the actual writing?

Well, I don’t know. I mean, the characters kind of emerge, just in the process of thinking about a plot. Honestly, I’ve never had any trouble coming up with characters. It’s not something I have to spend any time really thinking much about, except—the one time I do have to think about it is if I want to use an actual historical figure. For instance, the series I’ve started, there’s two books in it, and I will within a year be starting a third one, and it’s a series set in Jacksonian America. It’s all from history. The first book’s called 1812: The Rivers of War, and the second one is called 1824: The Arkansas War. And…it’s written during the Jacksonian era, and one of the main characters in the series is Andrew Jackson. And I studied Andrew…and also, the central hero is Sam Houston. So, you know, this is where I was working with real people, I mean, this is not characters I invented, so I had to…I read…Jesus, I don’t know…half a dozen biographies of Houston and a whole lot of Andrew Jackson, to figure out if I could work with them, you know, in fiction, and I became comfortable that I could. And I’m pleased with the result, but that’s where you do have to spend some time thinking about it, because, you know, you have to stay reasonably true to what we know of the person’s character. You’re not just inventing something.

Well, and you have mentioned somewhere in what you had in your website, as well, that for 1632, the research could be quite intensive because you’re writing about a real period in history. I think somewhere you mentioned you would sometimes take an hour to write one paragraph because of the research you had to do to make sure you got all the facts right that were in that paragraph.

Yeah, sometimes. Yeah, that happens. I mean, happily with something like the 16…that problem has gotten less and less as time goes on, partly because…well, there’s a number of reasons, one of them is, it’s an alternate history, so the further you go, the more the history has changed, so it’s hard for anybody to prove me wrong. The second is I just get more and more familiar with it. And the third is that by now that series has a very active and dedicated…I don’t even want to call it a fan base, because a lot of these people are much more than fans, many have become writers themselves, and it’s an important project for them, too. You know, it’s become a very collaborative effort on the part of a lot of people, and a lot of those people know things I don’t know. So, you know…one of the major writers, Virginia DeMarce, with whom I’ve co-authored two novels…she has her Ph.D., and basically she’s a specialist in the social history of 17th-century Germany. I mean, you know, her knowledge of it is way deeper than mine. That’s the kind of thing you don’t get from just reading books. I mean, you have to read, do the kind of studying that an actual professor does.

So, I try to develop friends and contacts who are experts on all kinds of things, who are people I can go to if I need to find out something. If any issue comes up involving guns, I will run it by Larry Correia and David Drake, every single time, just to make sure I’m not making some mistake. I’m fairly familiar with guns, but they’re complex, and so…I used to, unfortunately she passed away a few years ago, I used to have Karen Bergstralh, who was an expert horsewoman, so anything involving horses I would run it by Karen to make sure I wasn’t missing something, because there’s a lot of things about horses that people think they know or understand, but they really don’t.

Yeah, I’ve heard that from horse people many times, about how horses in books don’t have much relationship to real horses.

No, they don’t, they don’t. Movies are even worse. So, with something like the 1632 series that’s gone on for 20 years, that makes life a lot easier for me, than if it’s something new I’m starting with, then I kind of have to do all the, you know, the initial spadework myself.

One thing I like to ask series writers…the longest thing I’ve written is a five-book young adult series, which was only about 300,000 words in total, and yet, I started to find that there were, you know, concerns about continuity and occasionally writing something in a sort of a throwaway that comes back to bite you later. Have you ever encountered anything like that in your in your series?

Oh, sure. I have a saying, and my friends and co-authors, I’ve said it so many times that they like to repeat it, but the motto is, “Vague is your friend.” And what I mean by that is that 95 percent of what’s in a novel is put there by the reader, not the author. A novel is not a photograph, it’s much, much more like a pointillist painting, where the artist is giving you a framework, but a lot of it you’re filling in yourself. And, the thing you do is… some things you’re very concrete about, very specific, if you know you’re right about it. Then you put in some very detailed and, you know, nail it down, cross all the “T”s, dot the “I”s, and so on and so forth. If you do that fairly often, then the reader feels secure that they’re in a real story, and what they don’t really notice is how often you’re vague about what exactly, where exactly it’s happening, when exactly it’s happening, who exactly might be around there, so that you don’t have that problem…which you can have even a single novel, much less a series, of discovering you’ve stumbled over your own, what you’ve already put down. But, yeah, I try not to.

It’s a lesson I got from Jim Baen, he died years ago, but he was my publisher. He said, “Don’t tell the readers anything they don’t need to know and don’t tell it to them until they need to know it.” And that’s pretty much a rule I’ve tried to follow. And don’t put something in just because you researched it and you know it, and so, what the hell, you’re gonna put it in. Every scene in a novel should be part of the plot. And we all get a little loose and sloppy about that, including me. I mean, we’ll all write some scenes that are just there for the fun of it. But in theory, at least, and I did try to pay attention to this, every episode, every plot point, I mean, every scene in a novel, most of it at any rate, what is it doing to advance the plot? And if the answer is, it’s not doing anything to advance a plot, then why is it in the story? There another saying I like, which was invented…not invented by me, it’s by Anton Chekhov. It’s called Chekhov’s Dictum, which is…he was the great Russian playwright…and it was, “If there’s a shotgun on the mantelpiece in the beginning of Act One in the play, it needs to have figured somehow in the story by the end of Act Three, or it doesn’t belong there in the first place.” And that’s something that that I think you need to follow, and I find a lot of writers don’t. There’s a lot of novels out there that are honestly pretty ramshackle. There’s just all kinds of baggage in there that really isn’t doing much of anything.

Well, when you have written a draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you bang out a first draft and then go back, and do you revise a lot, do you keep it revised as you go, or how does that work for you?

I’m fortunate in that I have…I sort of have the authorial equivalent of perfect pitch. Typically, a chapter I write is the final draft. Now, I will polish continuously as I go along. What I mean by that is, after a day or two or three, I’ll go back and reread and, you know, I’ll polish the prose, but I’m hardly ever rewriting the actual chapter. Occasionally I get a chapter that I just decide didn’t work and I’ll just scrap it altogether. But I don’t do the kind of rewriting that a lot of authors do. And the reason I don’t is just ’cause I found I really don’t need to. I’m lucky that way. I mean, it’s not…it’s like perfect pitch for a musician, you’re lucky if you have it, but if not, you know, it’s not something you learn. But it enables me to write pretty quickly. I do polish all the time. I mean, I’m constantly going back over, but when I’m looking for there is specific word usage, that kind of thing, not changing or rewriting major plot points and so on.

And I see, from your website, again, that once you start writing you just write through, like, you sort of write in a burst to finish the book?

Yeah, I…yes. I don’t…writers all have different work habits. There are some writers who religiously write every day and they set goals, you know, 500 words a day, whatever. I don’t write like that. I will…when I get rolling in a novel I’ll start really getting into it and I will…pretty much, that’s what I’m doing. And then, once the novel is finished, I’ll take several weeks off before I try to start writing anything else. Now in my case, because I do so much collaborative writing, I’m not…it’s not like I’m not busy, because my co-authors will have drafts they want me to look at, you know, so there is a lot of editing work I do also, and I’ll do that, but I don’t try to…and I don’t ever try to write two novels at the same time.

Speaking of editing, do you get much in the way of editorial revision then, coming back from Baen, or suggestions?

The only time I’ve gotten…I’m trying to think. Mostly when I get editorial input from Baen, it’s actually not at the novel stage, it’s at the proposal stage. For instance, my friend and co-author David Carrico and I submitted a proposal for a science fiction novel called Hydra to Toni Weisskopf…oh, it’s been over a year now…and she read it, and she had problems with a number of pieces, parts, of it, and she laid it out: “This doesn’t seem to work to me, that doesn’t…”, and so we did a pretty major rewrite of the proposal, because I agreed with her points. So, that’s mostly where I get the input. Once the story’s written, the only time I’ve gotten a lot of input, was early on…I think it was the third Belisariusbook, which was about the fourth novel I wrote. Toni Weisskopf, who was then the chief editor, did a very detailed line edit of the novel. But what she was trying to do was show me was…I had certain tics and habits as a writer I wasn’t even aware of…

I think we all do.

Yeah, and she was just going through and showing them to me so I could see it. And I learned a great deal from that. It was very helpful. That’s the only time I’ve had that. I did get a lot of input from Jim on 1632. He was very taken by that book and he worked more closely with me on that book than any other I ever did. I would send him…once I’d written a few chapters I’d send it to him and he’d read it and get back to me. So, that…there was a lot of editorial feedback. It wasn’t…he wasn’t sending anything…he wasn’t sending me manuscripts with red ink on them. We’d talk on the phone. And I did two books with Del Rey. I got a lot of editorial input from Steve Saffel and later from Jim Minz. Steve edited the first book, Jim edited the second. And…that’s kind of it.

Well, we’re getting a little short on time here, because I know you have to break off here in a few minutes, so I do want to get the big philosophical question out, which is, “Why do you do this, and why do you think any of us do this? Why do we write science fiction and fantasy?”

Well, I’ve always been interested…I’ve always been interested, and I’ve always enjoyed it. So, when I considered, you know, when I decided I was going to write again, I didn’t really have to think about whether I was going to write science fiction or something else. I just figured I’d have a lot more artistic leeway and freedom in science fiction than I would in anything else, which was true. In my case…my whole life, I was a political activist for close to 30 years, which is why I stopped writing, and…issues of, social issues in general, how human society works, the moral and ethical issues and values that come out of that, are things that have been central to my life ever since I was a kid. And that’s, one way or another, usually what I’m writing about in my novels.

Now, I’m writing novels to entertain people, so I’m not trying to beat anybody over the head with my own specific political viewpoint. And I think fiction is really lousy at that anyway. I can explain why—it takes some detail—but there’s a contradiction between the way political theory works and the way fiction works, which is that, if you want to analyze things as a politician or as a campaign manager or whatever, you have to abstract the individual out of the equation. You have to, because if you don’t, everybody’s different and you can’t…so you have to take a look and see, however you’re dividing up the population, it might be by class, it might be by gender, it might be by race, it might be by whatever. You have to abstract the individual out of it and be talking in some sense about social abstractions.

You can’t write fiction like that. Stories are about individual people, and they have to seem like people to readers. They have to seem real. And if they’re just clanking around like stereotypes, it doesn’t work. People don’t like that. For one thing, they get irritated if you happen to be stamping all over their particular viewpoint, but leaving that aside, it’s just not attractive. So that means you have to find individual characters, and once you start doing that they tend to get quirky. They tend to…well, let me not turn this into a lecture, but the upshot of it is this: fiction is lousy for educating anybody about politics, but what it is very good at is imparting broad moral and ethical values. There are certain values I have that are reflected, one or another, in almost any book I write. And…obviously the first thing you have to do is entertain people, because that’s why they’re reading a book, they want to be entertained, but I try to do more than that. And it varies from one book to the next, what I’m particularly trying to portray. But I’m trying to portray something…every good writer I know is doing that, to one extent or another and to one degree of consciousness or another. I know very few writers, that includes genre writers who are just…although they’ll often say they’re just trying to write a good read, there’s almost always something more going on.

Well, and what are you working on now?

Right now I am starting…well, I had several little small projects I had to get finished, but the novel I’m working on now is…I’ve written several novels with David Weber in his Honor Harrington universe, which is very popular, and we’ve done three novels together in that universe and I am starting the fourth, which is a sequel to the third. And I’ve gotten into it pretty well. It’s a complex novel and it’s somewhat difficult to write for reasons I don’t want to go into because they’d take too long, but I think everything is pretty well squared away. It’ll be a long book.

And if people…and you did mention there’s a Ring of Firebook that is just out?

I just published one…well, I didn’t, Baen Books did…it came out in April, last month. It’s called 1637: The Polish Maelstrom, and…that’s not a collaborative novel, I wrote that on my own…and it’s one of what I call the mainline novels, and what I mean by that is it’s a big sprawling complex series, but there is a spinal cord to it, and there are seven novels that are in that, what I call the main line, and five out of the seven I wrote on my own, two of them I did with David Weber. And this one is the seventh and most recent of them, and it’s a direct sequel to the book that preceded it, which is 1636: The Ottoman Onslaught. That just came out. The next one that’s coming out is coming out in September, and it’s a book I wrote with Iver Cooper, it’s called 1636: The China Venture. And this will be the first time the series goes into China. And Iver has written a number of things, he wanted to collaborate on a novel with me, we’ve been working on it for quite a while. He has done…I know quite a bit of Chinese history, but Iver has done an enormous amount of research on it over the past few years. So that’s coming out in September.

Then, in November…this is a book…my name is not on it because I didn’t have anything to do with the writing, although I did help him work out some of the things… but it’s by David Carrico. It’s called The Flight of the Nightingale and it’s got two short novels in it, and that’s coming out in November. And then…well, there’ll be more stuff coming out, but I don’t know exactly when they’ll be coming out. Chuck Gannon and I have just started to work…will be just starting to work on the sequel to 1636: Commander Cantrell in the West Indies, and the new book will be called 1637: No Peace Be on the Line. And that’s a book, a naval…maritime adventures in the Caribbean, let’s put it that way.

So, lots to come.

Oh yeah, oh yeah.

Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. I should just mention where people can find you online.

Yeah, there’s a number of different places. I have my own website, which you can find at www.ericflint.net. Somebody had bought .com and wanted me to pay him $2,000. I said, “Screw you.” Actually, I do post there, but I tend not to post on a regular basis. I’m more active on Facebook, so you can find me on Facebook. There’s also a 1632fan site, it’s www.1632.org. There’s the magazine’s web site, which is grantvillegazette.com, and, for the past three four years now, we’ve launched our own publishing house, so that’s called Ring of Fire press and that’s got its own website. And Baen’s Bar, I drop by there pretty often. So…that’s Baen Books’ website, where they have a big discussion area called Baen’s Bar. So, I’m not hard to find online.

I guess not. Well, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. I’ve enjoyed the conversation.

I have, too. Thank you very much.

Thank you!

Episode 25: Derek Künsken

An hour-long conversation with Canadian science fiction author Derek Künsken, author of The Quantum Magician (Solaris) and its upcoming sequel, The Quantum Garden (due out in October 2019), as well as the webcomic (with artist Wendy Muldon) Briarworld, and numerous short stories, which have appeared in places like Asimov’s, AnalogClarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a number of year’s-best anthologies, and podcasts.

Website
www.derekkunsken.com

Twitter
@DerekKunsken

Derek’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Derek Künsken left molecular biology to work with street kids in Honduras and upon his return to Canada found his way into the Canadian Foreign Service. After working in embassies in Colombia and Cuba he settled and Gatineau, Quebec, where he writes science fiction and fantasy and raises his son. Derek’s short fiction has appeared in places like Asimov’s, AnalogClarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and a number of year’s-best anthologies, as well as in foreign magazines in translation, and many have been reprinted in podcasts, available for free. His first novel, The Quantum Magician, came out in 2018 from Solaris. Its sequel, The Quantum Garden, will be in stores everywhere in October 2019. He also writes a fun “jetpack planetary-romance webcomic” with Argentinean artist Wendy Muldon, called Briarworld, which updates every Tuesday on Webtoons.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Derek.

Thanks so much.

We’ve kind of known each other, mainly because of Can-Con in Ottawa, which I’ve been to the last three years or something like that, so that’s usually when I see you.

Yeah. You make quite a trek across the country to get here.

Well, I got invited to be Guest of Honour that one year, and then I liked it so much I’ve been going back ever since. So, we’re going to talk primarily about The Quantum Magician, and how that all came about, which…I have to confess I haven’t quite finished it but I’m well into it and enjoying it very much.

The butler did it.

So, when I give you a chance to synopsize it later, I always say don’t give any spoilers, and this time it’s for me, too. But first, let’s go back into the mists of time and find out, how did you first become interested in science fiction and fantasy and…reading it, presumably, we all start as readers, and then from there, how did you begin writing it?

So, I didn’t start as a reader. My sort of creative primordial soup was Saturday-morning cartoons. I watched the Super Friends, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Spiderman, Batman, Space Ghost, and stuff like that. And I was a kid when Star Wars came out and my parents brought me to see it in the drive-in, and there was Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers, and I think all of that together I had in in my brain right when I was ten years old and my mother gave me my first comic books and I became a voracious reader of comic books. And then you know how in comics they always have those little asterisks where, like, they’ll refer to a story and say, you know, “Go back to this issue.” In one, John Carter, Warlord of Mars, they had an asterisk and it wasn’t a comic book they were referring to but The Princess of Mars, and I’m like, “What on earth is this?” So, I went to a second-hand store and found my first novel that I bought on purpose, and was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, and from then on, you know, picking up a wider and wider selection of stuff. So, I didn’t come to sci-fi by reading right away but I knew I wanted to be a writer as soon as I could write, although I don’t know why.

Well, what were some of the other books that you gravitated to after you started with Edgar Rice Burroughs?

So, I was a really…I’m not a well-read writer. I would pick one writer and read most of their stuff until I couldn’t stand it. And so, I read a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which is terrible training for a writer because it was pulp. I read a lot of comic books until end of university. Katherine Kurtz was really good. I liked her Deryni series, and I found that because of a class they’d made in Dragon Magazine back when I was playing D&D as a teen. I discovered Asimov in high school and also Tolkien, and then when I got to university, there was a second-hand bookstore nearby, and I discovered Robert Holdstock and a few other writers. I started to try and really broaden my reading, though, in my early thirties, after I’d failed so often to write anything that anybody would want to buy. And I started picking…I just went through all the Hugo and Nebula lists and just tried to see what I could find in second-hand shops and, you know, I just started reading a lot more.

I never read Edgar Rice Burroughs, I admit. But Katherine Kurtz was one that I did pick up as well. I’m obviously older than you because you saw Star Wars as a child, and I saw it as a college student so there’s roughly that gap in there. But I also played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons in university. I often say that I supposedly majored in journalism but really I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and minored in journalism, based on the amount of hours I put into it. And I do hear that a lot from authors. A lot of authors have played D&D.

Yes. Yes. Because, you know, it’s either that or have friends, right, back in the ’80s?

Now, I admit that when I did it I actually preferred to be the dungeonmaster and I realized one reason I quit playing it very much was I ran out of people to play with, because I moved away from university, but also I realized that a lot of the muscles I was using and creating my Dungeons and Dragons world were the ones I could be using in creating fictional worlds.

That’s really cool. Yeah, I can’t say I had the same experience, in part just because the D&D community I was with split up, you know, when I was still in high school, so…yeah.

Well, my roommate was the one that introduced me to it, and he’d started playing when D&D came in three paperback, badly printed pamphlets, basically.

Oh, wow.

For $10 each. I still have those original books somewhere, at least two of them.

Oh, my goodness.

They’re probably worth, like, $30. So, anyway, enough about Dungeons and Dragons. So, did you just begin to start trying to write in college or along that timeframe?

Oh, no. I wrote my first book in Grade 4. I just, I don’t know why. My father had a typewriter and there was something pretty…so, I had written…so, I went to French Immersion, because I am in Ontario, and that means you didn’t learn any English until about Grade 2 and even then it was only an hour. So, by the time I was in Grade 3 I could put together…I could write English sentences, and pretty early I started already trying to write stories–I remember doing it at that age–and then when I was in Grade 4, my dad’s typewriter was there, and there was something really, really magical about it not being in my awful handwriting, and being on the page and looking so official, and that typewriter really motivated me, and then my dad got me a better electric one in Grade 7 and I wrote a, you know, many more things then, but just piddling-around sort of stuff. And then in Grade 8 I wrote another book. But, I mean, these are all childish attempts, right? But they point at some of the urges and the needs that are in us that we know how to express now but we didn’t know how to express then. By the time I was fifteen, though, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be associated with kid stuff anymore and the novel I started at fifteen was very much intended to be a novel that would be sold to adults, that would be put out by a publisher and everything else.

Did you finish it?

Oh, yeah. It took me…by the time I got to eighteen years old I realized that the roots of the book were, like, the beginning of it, were not strong enough to sustain it and so I just kind of restarted. Which is not a bad thing to do. And so, from eighteen to twenty-five I got two university degrees and then also finished the novel and sent it off while I was still in grad school. And that got rejection from Tor, but I was pretty motivated that…you know, there were lines in the margins and little notes like, “Oh, this sounds cool,” sort of thing from whichever reader had gotten it. And so it was cool to have had my turn at bat but by the time I got the rejection back after a year, I looked at it and I saw, “Well, you know, I can do way better now and I can see all sorts of flaws and so I put it aside.”

Did you share your writing with anybody during all that time?

I took one creative writing course in university but as you can imagine in university it’s more lit-focused and I was writing sci-fi. I had friends I could share stuff with, and they were good friends that, you know, they would read through a 100,000-word novel, but they weren’t writers. And so…I really think there’s something you need in a critiquing group, like it has to be writers, it has to be somebody who can say, “You know, I see the technique you’re using here. This technique is not the appropriate one because I’ve tried it and, you know, this is another technique you may want to try to get this effect.” So, yeah, I didn’t have a writers’ community if that’s what you’re asking. In fact, I didn’t have a writers’ community until I was about thirty-five, thirty-six.

Well, it was that but also…like, I wrote, I started writing fairly lengthy stuff about Grade 8, 9, and wrote three novels in high school and all that. And I did share them with my classmates, and the reason I ask it is because it’s often…you find out at least that you’re telling stories that people enjoy even if maybe the techniques not really there, but you you’re kind of getting those stories out there. I was wondering if that was your experience.

Yeah, no. Well,. the thing is I didn’t share I think…I don’t know why. But why did you start writing? Like, did you consciously, like were you self-aware that I am a writer therefore I am writing? Or did you just start to do it the way a beaver builds a dam, which is a bit the way I feel I started?

I was a huge reader and I decided that I wanted to tell a story, too, and most of them didn’t go anywhere to begin with but then I wrote a complete short story when I was eleven years old with a friend, something to do on a rainy day. And my junior-high English teacher, Tony Tunbridge…it was science fiction, it was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot”…and he took it seriously. and that kind of spurred me on to try to write more and more and write better things and somewhere along in there I realized that that was what I really wanted to do. So, I always ask writers about that. And you also mentioned the creative writing class…you’re my twenty-fifth author. I’ve interviewed on the podcast. And a few of them have taken formal creative writing and most of them say that their formal creative writing wasn’t much help to them as a science fiction and fantasy writer. It sounds like you fall into that ballpark, too.

Actually, to be fair, I think I took…it was a second-year course at the University of Guelph. It made me read things I wouldn’t have normally read. It made me critique things that I wouldn’t have normally critiqued. And it exposed me to Strunk and White, for example, and all of his rules of writing, and then even some of the ways the prof talked about what you’re trying to do with fiction was useful, and so I think there are a lot of things that translated over, most especially the techniques, but even just the, you know, trying to read CanLit. It wasn’t for me, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I could appreciate some of what they were doing and it’s, you know…I think I read Dune in university and then, you know, I tried to reread it ten or fifteen years later and I found there was a huge difference in what I could appreciate out of it, in part because some of the technique and the way he wrote, and I attribute that to just that sort of Launchpad of what I got from that course. Not all bad.

I was going to say, I suppose nothing is entirely wasted, even if you’re in a course that doesn’t really fit right into what you’re doing. You always pick up something from it if you’re if you’re open to it.

Yeah, yeah.

Now what you were studying was science, was it? You said you got two degrees.

Yeah, I did a degree in biology at Guelph and then I did a master’s in biology at McMaster, and so…Guelph was a plant-genetics sort of school, and so I did genetics and molecular biology, and I really loved it, and that still provides a lot of the sort of foundational stuff for when I’m making aliens and things. And then, for my master’s degree I worked in a cancer lab building genetically engineered viruses to see, you know, if these would be good vectors to carry immunotherapy into tumours. So, that was also a really interesting experience, which exposed me a lot to, you know, the viral world as well, which is really cool genetically.

And genetics certainly plays an important role in your novel, too, which we’ll talk about shortly.

Yeah.

But then, you didn’t stick with that.

No.

How did you end up working with street kids in Honduras?

I think the reason I got into genetics…it’s not a crapshoot. I actually loved biology and molecular biology but the only reason I knew about it was from The Uncanny X-Men comic books, because Moira McTaggart and Professor X were both geneticists and it just sounded like a cool thing and so, when I got into high school I, you know, I twigged right away when we were learning genetics in high school, and so, I’ve…the only job I knew you could do with genetics was to be a prof. And so, I decided to head for grad school and, you know, be on the researcher sort of career path.

But as soon as I got into grad school I saw, you know, the kind of quality of life that professors have and the sort of uncertainty they have and how much, you know, almost independent of how smart you are is your success, which is based on luck of, did you pick the right field, did you pick the right time, did you pick the right set of experiments, did you pick the right gene? And I thought, “Wow, it’s just so unstable.”

And the other thing is, it’s…I worked in a big lab so there are always people around. but in the end you’re all working on your own experiments and it felt a bit lonely in the work part. Like, it wasn’t like I was working with others. And I found that there were sort of emotional muscles that weren’t being flexed in that work. And so, about midway through my master’s I decided I didn’t want to be a professor anymore and I did want to do something a little more people-focused.

And, yeah, after grad school I wanted to work with street kids, and I had a cousin who was already working with children who worked in the street in Honduras. And so, she set me up with an NGO in a different city who gave me room and board and I worked with, you know, kids who were, you know, drug-addicted, living in the streets, being abused, some here in prostitution. And it was a sort of first-contact job where, you know, you had to make some kind of emotional contact, some trust contact, quite quickly to try and see if, after a while, they might take themselves out of the situation of vulnerability and at least come to the centre, where they could get food and clothing, medical attention, where they wouldn’t be preyed upon by, you know, people, and, you know, eventually, if it’s possible, see if they could be reunited with their families, and in some cases they were, you know, the families were the reasons they were on the street, but in other cases it was just, you know, seduced out by different factors and stuff. So, I did that for about ten or twelve months. And, yeah, it was a life-changing experience.

Does that still inform your writing, those experiences?

I don’t know what it does. I subscribe a bit to this sort of Tolkeining thing, which is, you know, you absorb a lot of stuff and you don’t exactly follow any individual leaf that’s falling down in your brain. It’s just…there’s a mulch at the bottom and out of that mulch grows stuff. I’ve tried to write stories about street kids and I’ve had a couple that worked, but far more often I feel pretty strong imposter syndrome, even to be somebody trying to write about that topic and so, you know, like, I just don’t feel I know enough or understand enough of their lives to do it authentically, and so I kind of shy away from it.

But then after that you ended up in the Canadian Foreign Service.

Yes. Because in the late ’90s the only people who were hiring was the Foreign Service. And if you had a master’s degree and foreign experience and bilingual, you know, you could apply. And so, I did, and managed to score high enough that I got picked, and about a year later they shipped me off to Colombia for three years, where I worked on their special refugee program that they had there, which was really cool. And then, you know, after three years I was cross-posted to Havana, where I was working basically in what you could call anti-people smuggling, where, you know, I would work with airlines and the Ministry of the Interior of Cuba to, you know, just pass around information to try and stop people from using false passports and fake visas and imposters, how do you detect them, and stuff like that. And, you know, both of those places were very, very interesting but it was…it’s hard on a marriage, because your wife can’t necessarily work in a country like that, where the income and the language are so different. But also, I knew that artistically I was far away from other writers and I needed to be closer to other writers who were writing in English, whom…I needed to be able to interact with them. So, we decided to come back to Canada, and I’ve been in Gatineau now since.

Oh, since.

Yeah. Sorry, since, yeah.

I was waiting for a year there.

Oh, no.

And I thought, “Oh, you still there?”

Since, period.

Since, period. Okay. You need that…have you ever seen the visual punctuation thing that Victor Borge used to do? If you don’t, you should look it up.

Okay.

There’s little sound effects like comma is a “gzzzzk!”, and there’s all these…sometimes I think I’d be useful in radio and podcast things like.

Oh, that’s funny.

So, you were writing through all that time? You were still…

Yes. Yeah, I was, and…

When did you shell sell your first short story?

I sold my first short story in 2006. It was in 2006…one of the issues of 2006’s On Spec, and…so. I would’ve been thirty-five at that time, and so that would’ve been just when I had gotten back to Canada.

And a lot of short stories since.

Yes. Yes. Well, in part…my second short story sale was to Asimov’s, which is, you know, one of the top markets and I thought, “Well, I made it now. Oh, now I can go back to my novels,” of which I had two failed ones, and so I decided to write a third novel because now that I’d made it, you know, in terms of competence, of course my novel would sell, and so I wrote a third novel and then, you know, that didn’t work. But so, basically I had a period of…the last ten years has been write a bunch of short stories, write a novel, write a bunch of short stories, write a novel, and the short stories mostly got sold, everything after 2011 is pretty much sold, but the novels…I ended up having five in the end that were, you know, just not there, and so I think I was learning skills on the short story side maybe faster than on the novel side or…I don’t know. It’s hard to pick apart your own failures, but it’s…yeah.

One question I have because I read it in the bio and then I thought that sounds a little odd. They’ve been “reprinted in podcasts?” What does that mean. Are they audio, then?

Yeah, yeah. So, for example, Escape Pod, Pod Castle, and Pseudo Pod are three big markets and I have three stories in there that have all been published elsewhere. And, yeah, I kind of consider podcast to be reprint markets because I always go for the print first.

The other thing I wanted to ask, because you are bilingual, have you…do you write in French at all, or do you just write in English?

Yeah. I didn’t do a lot of homework on French grammar when I was a kid except when my mother made me. So, no. I…my reading is good. My writing is fine, but fine is not what you need for fiction, you need something, you know, much more expansive.

Do you do quite a bit of reading in French?

No, no almost none. I’m impatient. So, what happens is, I find that reading in French is slow enough that I get bored of it. And then I stop. It’s only if I have to, or if I think I should a little bit, like eating vegetables, I’ll read in French to make sure I’m staying current, because with the government I do have an obligation to keep my French at a certain level and luckily my oral French is quite good and I enjoy speaking French quite a bit, and I treat reading and writing in French as, you know, “I should eat my vegetables,” sort of thing, and also go to the gym.

So, you’re still with the Foreign Service or some other government…?

So, I left the foreign service and became a policy guy for about nine years and then I took a leave from work because we were driving with my son somewhere once and, you know, those conversations where, you know, “I’ll tell you when you’re eighteen” sort of thing.

And he was quiet after that for a little while and then, you know, a minute after I’d said that, he said, “That’s in eight years,” and I nearly had a heart attack because then I realized, “Wait a second, he’s ten,” and, you know, I go to work and I only see him a couple of hours a day because of the work hours and everything else. And in three years he’s not going to want to be with me anymore because he’s gonna be a teenager and he’s gonna be, you know, chasing after girls and stuff. So, I took a leave from work to be with my son more. And that’s been absolutely fantastic. We spent four summers so far together, I think. And, I pick him up from school at three, I drop him off at school at eight, and it’s fantastic. And then, when he’s at school, that’s when I write. And so, it’s been a very nice balance. But I eventually have to head back to work, ’cause my leave…it’s an unpaid leave. You can only live for so long on unpaid leave.

Yeah, well let’s move on and talk about your first novel which has now been published, The Quantum Magician. First, before we talk about how it came about, synopsize it without spoiling anything.

Well, I got to my agent by saying, “It’s Ocean’s Eleven meets Guardians of the Galaxy.” And then she sold it to the publisher by saying it was Ocean’s Eleven in space.

Spaaaace…

Spaaace, yeah. No, it’s…there is…like, it’s a space-opera book. There are a set of…one of the tropes of space opera that I really enjoy is that. you know. there are lost civilizations that have gone extinct and what they’ve left is behind this technology that we know nothing about. And so, there’s this wormhole network left behind by these forerunners and the nations in space that control those are these big patron nations, and they have client nations who are allowed access to them but, you know, under conditions and for service and stuff. So, there is one of these client nations that comes to a con man called Belisarius and they say, “You know, we have some stuff we want to move across this wormhole but they’re not going to let us through. We’d like you, as a con man, to help us move our stuff across this wormhole.” And that’s the beginning of the story. And the fun stuff with a con plot structure is, you know, you’ve got certain things that are really, really fun for the audience, like finding the allies and, you know, going through the training and then figuring out where things are gonna go wrong and how they have to improvise and stuff like that. So, it was a very fun book to write.

Well I’m glad you expressed it as Ocean’s Eleven because I was going to say it seems a lot like an Ocean’s Eleven or that kind of caper story. So obviously that was a deliberate thing.

Yeah. Well, also the sting. I enjoy heist movies a lot. And to be honest, as well, I wanted to go with a plot structure that I understood pretty well, whose beats I understood pretty well, because I had five failed novels. I sort of was lacking the confidence to embark on a sixth unless I had a bit of a boost, so to speak. It’s not training wheels, it’s a boost. And so, I went with a plot structure that I think I understood. And I think it also worked because some of the worldbuilding is weird enough that for the audience, as well, having a structure they’re more familiar with allows me to put a lot of stuff on it that is unfamiliar and a little weird.

So, did you choose the structure and then thought about a way to make a space-opera version of that, or was the impetus something different. How did…where did you get your idea? What was the seed for this?

So, I did…so, one of the…I subscribe to the theory of John Truby, who is this Hollywood script doctor. And he says, when you’re writing a screenplay, write down all of the things you’ve seen in other screenplays that you think are fascinating, ideas you’d love to play with, and then just see which ones could go together and what you get. And so, one of the ideas I had was a con structure like The Sting or Ocean’s Eleven. I also wanted to use some of the aliens I’d created in some of my other stories, like the Homo eridanus, the mongrels in the story. I wanted to create a few others. I knew I wanted to make a quantum man because I had read a story by Stephen Baxter where he had somebody who could perceive things in the quantum world, but the way he did it is not the way I would do it, and that’s often the way I get inspired, I look at what other people have done and I said, “Is that the way I would do it?”, and then as soon as I say “No,” you know, that sends me off on a tangent of my own creativity. It’s just looking at what questions other writers have asked. And I think I wanted to do something about…do I really think that access to space is going to be as equitable as we think. Because there’s all this talk about. you know. well there’s so many resources in space and so on. But. you know. we haven’t gotten there yet and I’m sure there’s gonna be choke points. And so, for me, the wormholes were the stand and choke points for everything else, and that’s why there are only four big patron nations and everybody else who is in space, you know, is under the thumb of one of those patron nations.

So, once you had your sort of general idea, what does your…and this applies to all your writing…what does your outlining and planning process look like? Are you a staunch outliner?

Yeah. Yeah. Because I’ve had a lot of failed stories where I think the ending didn’t land. And so, for me, I have to know the ending, because at least, when I outline the ending, what I can do then is I can start interrogating it and say, well, is this ending surprising? Is this ending satisfying? If it isn’t surprising, are there ways that I can come up with a different ending or are there ways that I can misdirect it so that it is surprising and stuff like that. So, I do outline, and my creative process also involves a fair bit of worldbuilding, because for me the setting is really important because I am a sense-of-wonder junkie, and so, a lot of what I get really excited about is the, you know, “We’re on asteroids,” or, “Oh, look, they, you know, engineered these people and look at how weird they are,” and stuff like that. And so, those are all the elements I put in. But also understanding, in this one novel, that I was using a particular structure that had audience expectations with it that I could play with as well was part of that, too, was part of my calculus.

Well, with all that worldbuilding…and there was, you know, little asides on the history of playing cards and things like that…what does your research process look like?

So, on this one…I did a science fact article for Analog Magazine on this book, because it also got serialized in Analog.

Right, I was going to ask you about that. Yeah.

And I found…they wanted me to do the science in The Quantum Magician, and I found that, you know, maybe one quarter of the science was physics or chemistry and then three quarters was biology, and I hadn’t realized that when I was writing it, it just…that’s the way it came out. And I think because I was trying to look at the different ways that genetic engineering of our children can go wrong, that really means you’re going to spend a lot of time on the biology and the unintended consequences. And so, for me, because I did two degrees in biology there’s a lot less stuff I really need to look up.

And I think in science fiction, as well, you often have two questions. One is, “Is it possible?” and the other is, “How would you do it?” And in…as far as engineering. you know. of genes and stuff goes. it’s all possible. I mean, you know, everything from a goldfish to a human to a whale to whatever you can imagine, all sorts of things that could be alive. And really it’s just a different combination of genes and so, anything you want to make, you don’t really have to worry too much and explain too much. So, the research was a lot lighter on that side. I had to research more on the physics, I think. And the cards, in fact.

There were a few other things like that, you know, little historical notes and some of the naming and things like that. It seems you’d done a little digging around. Do you ever get lost in your in your research where you go down a rabbit path just because it’s so interesting?

I think…I don’t know if I do it as much as other writers do because. you know. I’m friends with a lot of writers and we’ll be talking on Twitter and then somebody will come back up and say. “I just spent two hours down a rabbit hole,” and I’m like, “Whoa I’m so glad I don’t, you know, do that.” I generally go for what I want and then pick it up because I’m always conscious of time that could be writing or I could be doing something else, and so when I’m writing I try and stay on writing as much as possible. That being said, I’m also human, and so, when I find something interesting or when it just isn’t working for me that day, yeah, I’ll end up researching a little more than maybe I plan to.

So, in addition to the researching you did ahead of time before you started writing, you do find things along the way that you have to do a bit of research on as well I presume?

Yeah, it’s…I outline to the point that the metaphor where they say it’s like taking a drive. you know that if you’re driving from Ottawa to Toronto you know you’re going to pass Kingston and Brockville and Belleville and Trenton and Coburg.

Well, I wouldn’t know that, but those who live in Ontario would know that…and Quebec.

So, you’re going to pass all those places and you know those are landmarks. But in between, you know, it’s almost…the discovery is the in-between stuff for me, and the imagining…like, when I get to a new city like Belleville or something then I say, “OK, what does it look like in Belleville,” or, like, I know where I’m going to go there. But, so, I outline lightly enough that research happens, you know, on the spot as well as ahead of time.

How long would your outline be?

Probably fifteen to twenty pages single-spaced. I just do it in bullet form, and so a scene could take one sentence, which means that when I get to actually writing it, you know, I’m going to have to do some thinking, or it could be I’ve got snippets of conversation and other stuff and little details that I’ve already got in mind and that will all be one bullet that maybe lasts a whole half page or something. So, when I get to that it will be far easier to write and just that mishmash of different things, roughly put in order, is how I write, even though I don’t necessarily always write in order.

Do you find yourself departing from your outline as you write?

Uh, yeah. Yeah.

Have you ever had to replot to the end? I’ve had to do that. That’s what I ask.

Yeah. No, I…once I’ve got the end and I’ve done my interrogation of the end, I tend to stick to that because having the end and knowing the denouement, the sort of emotional feel of the denouement, is what gives me the confidence to proceed. And I’m self-aware enough as a writer, that if I don’t have that confidence I won’t be able to write, that I know that I have to preserve that confidence. I do spend a lot of time trying to figure out what makes me tick as a writer, what motivates me. As you’ve probably seen on Twitter, having challenges with other people, like, “Hey, let’s do forty-five minutes right now,” that keeps me relatively honest and productive, and also counting the words helps, but also knowing my ending is a big thing for me too.

Now the other aspect, obviously, of the story is, you’ve got your world and you’ve got your plot, but there have to be characters in there. So, how do you find the characters you need and how do you flesh them out?

A lot of stealing. So, you know, the Belisarius character is, you know, every character is a stand in for you. But in the end…

For me?

Yes. Every character is Ed Willett! No, the Belisarius character, I think, is the sort of straight man of the whole thing, right? He’s got his own thing to go through, but essentially he’s the everyman of the future that we’re gonna follow through, even though obviously he’s very special. The Iekanjika character, the major, is a military person, and I wanted her to have a chip on his shoulder and I wanted her to have her own grudges she wants to solve and so, that comes through. The puppet, Gates-15, he was really interesting to do because I had to think, “Okay, if you’ve got somebody who’s chemically addicted to the smell of somebody else and that is hardwired to the centre that produces religious awe in your brain, what kind of culture would you have around that?”, and so, the puppet characters in the story were very, very informed by their biology and the history of captivity and then the history of being captors now in the story. The Marie character was a mix of, you know, somebody I know mixed with that Muppet who likes to blow things up, and then Stills is another character with a different kind of chip on his shoulder and a different way of taking the sort of not being the first-class citizen, and what does he do with it and what do his people do with it, and, you know, what kind of cultural baggage do they take on to make…to sort of defend themselves against the world where power. of course. is important.

Well, it certainly is a fascinating cast of characters. And for anybody who hasn’t read it yet, just hearing your description of the puppets, for example, will make you think, “Wow, there’s some interesting stuff going on in that book.” So, what does your actual writing process look like? Do you sit and work in your office same time every day, you said you write in your sons at school, so…?

Yeah. So, The Quantum Magician I actually wrote on my last year while I was still at work, and basically what I did there was I would show up at a coffee shop every day at 7:00, I would write from 7:00 till 8:00, and hopefully get somewhere between 500 and 600 words, and then I would be at work by 8 a.m. and that would often be the only writing I would be able to get for the day. And if I had a weekend where I was free, then I would obviously try and add more, but really it’s about regularity for me. Now, I, while I’m not at work, I can obviously spend more time, you know, if I have a three-hour session I can get, you know, a good 1,500 words done, sometimes 2,000, and, yeah. There’s enough other stuff, as you know as a writer, there’s promotion, there’s other projects you’re working on, there’s, you know, a bit of writer hustle you have to do, so… I sometimes let those things slide and I don’t, I’m not happy about that, so I try and keep myself to a word limit per day and then after that I just do all those other projects.

And you work directly on the computer or do you…are you one of these amazing people that writes longhand?

I tried that once for my fourth novel. Because I didn’t have enough writing time, what I would do is, I would write on the bus longhand, in both directions if I had a seat, and I think on the way to work and on the way back I would be able to get about 350 words a day. But then I found that the time it took to type it in was about as much as it would take to write it in the first place. So, I’m not sure I save myself time, but, I don’t know, it’s sort of a piece of reclaiming time that would otherwise have just been wasted in the bus.

I cannot write longhand anymore. I can barely do anything anymore.

My writing is deteriorating, the penmanship is.

Yeah, and mine was never good to begin with, so…

Ok.

All right, so you have a completed draft. How long did that take you in the case of The Quantum Magician, to have your first draft done?

I think I started it in September and I probably finished it in June, and near the end I was hurrying a bit because just in the May of that year I had been at the Nebulas conference of 2015, where I met the person who was going to be my agent, and I had said to her, “Well, I can send you The Quantum Magician at the end of September,” and I was saying this in May and then being very optimistic about what I could get done. So, I had a bit of fire under me to try and get it done on time.

Deadlines can be very useful that way.

Yes, they sharpen the mind!

So, do you…did you do a complete draft. do you do a rolling revision as you go, do you revise it all when you get to the end, how does that work for you?

So, in 2005, it was the first time I did NaNoWriMo–successfully–and I got the book by Baty, the guy who invented NaNoWriMo, and he said…you know. it’s basically a field manual for. like. how to write a lot in a short period of time. And one of the keys he said is, “Don’t look back, ever.” Like, draft with one mind, edit with another? And I find that that’s true for me, it works for the way my personality works, because again it’s a confidence thing. If I look back and see bad writing there, I think it’ll sap my confidence for writing the rest of what’s going on. And the other thing is, if I spend…like, looking back over what I’ve got can be a procrastination tool for me just to just not draft. So, for me it’s better to just write the whole thing and then just do a whole ugly first read when I’ve got it done, and boy, can that be a painful process!

Well, Rob Sawyer, who was the first person I interviewed on the podcast, calls his first draft “the vomit draft” that’s, you just get it out then you feel better and then you go back and clean it up.

I wouldn’t disagree.

That’s kind of the way I work, too. I get it down, and then I go back and do the revision. So, what do you find you’re having to work on when you go back to revise and polish?

I don’t think I’m a natural storyteller, which means that I’ve had to learn story structure over time and that, like I said, is one of the reasons why I leaned a little more on to the heist structure for this novel, because I didn’t want my story structure to be the thing that holds me back. And so, yeah, structure and pacing are things that I still feel I have a lot of work to do on, characterization…I mean, it’s almost everything. There’s nothing you can’t name that isn’t bad in a first draft, except the worldbuilding in my case, I think the world building’s good, and I’m happy with that usually and don’t change much. But, yeah, the structure and pacing is often the thing that kicks me, and luckily I have a critique group and an agent who can then say, “Well, you know, this person sort of vanished at this point,” or, “I don’t understand why this person did this,” or…you know, those are all helpful things that point out your flaws. But I think everybody has the same flaws and nobody ever really outgrows them.

You mentioned the critique group before, and you just mentioned it again. How many people is that that sees your work in progress and make suggestions?

So, I’m a member of the East Block Irregulars–it’s an Ottawa sci-fi critique group that was formed by Matt Moore and I in late 2007–and they have been instrumental in my development as a writer And, I think…so. what we do is. you know. everybody commits to reading all short fiction that is sent; novels are on the basis of negotiation. And so, I think five people, maybe, or six in the group had read The Quantum Magician and gave me comments, and then I had a couple of other people from outside the group who also gave me comments. And then, in the end, then I went through four more drafts with my agent.

And then she sold it!

And then she sold it, to not one but two editors. It was great.

And that’s at Solaris?

Yeah, yeah, Solaris in the UK. They’re under Rebellion. They’re a nice mid-sized publisher and…I had never heard of them when I got the offer, and so I looked them up and they said they’re a mid-list publisher, and I thought, “Wow, I thought those sort of had gone the way of the dinosaur!” But, no, it’s wonderful, because the expectations are you’ll perform as a mid-list writer, which are far more manageable to meet. And if you go beyond that then, you know, everyone is happy.

And so, there would have been another editorial pass once you got to an editor at the publishing house.

Well, yes. The edits were relatively light at Solaris, but then, when we sold it to Analog, Trevor Quachri, the editor there, said, “Could we see a little more of the big bad?” And so, I said to the editor at Solaris, you know, “This is the comment. Do you agree with it?” And he said, “Sure, go for it.” And so, I ended up writing an extra 6,000 words of, you know, the sort of cop figure who is after the whole group. And I’m really, really happy that we got that comment, and so, going through Analog meant that it had two sets of proofs, two sets of structural edits, and it helped to polish it a lot more.

So, the serialization comes out before the book is released? I’ve never had anything serialized so I don’t really know how it works.

Yeah. I think the deal is the last instalment of the serialization has to come out six months before the first book drops. So, the timing is important. But I’m very happy that it got serialized because it got to a bunch of readers who would not have otherwise seen it.

Well, and the Analog readers are the true sort of hard-science-fiction space-opera types generally.

Yeah. They do love their science.

So, how did how did they respond. Because you would have had response from the Analog readers before it ever appeared as a book, presumably.

So, I’ve seen some reviews by Analog readers on Goodreads and those seem very positive and I think there were a couple of people who wrote in, like, fan comments and stuff and I would have others that came on Twitter. It was all very positive. I feel that it’s a hard-SF space opera, and when it’s read by people who are looking for hard-SF space opera, it does well. You know for people a little outside that Venn Diagram circle, you know, their mileage may vary, but…

But you’ve had some good response to the book as well and some really good attention within the field, haven’t you?

Yeah, yeah. It got onto the Locus recommended reading list, Barnes and Noble picked it as one of their 2018 books to watch, their favourites. I think it got long-listed at the BSFA, as well, the British Science Fiction Award. But, I mean, where I’ve been happiest is the foreign sales, because China really liked it and they’ve been helping promote it there and they’ve been very, very supportive, and it’s coming out in French in 2020. And then, there are two other deals that are pending right now. These things take a long time to negotiate. So, I don’t know when I’ll be able to announce, but I’m pretty happy with the way things are going in that sense, that there’s enough editors around that are interested in this.

Well, and there’s a sequel coming.

There is, there is.

Is that what you’re working on now?

No, no, I wrote that one basically as soon as my agent had this other one going. I started the second one right away because I had heard from experience, from, you know common friends of ours, that, you know, if you get a two-book deal or something, sometimes they may want the second book in a hurry. And I didn’t want to be in a position where being rushed would lead to blocking, and so I started to get ahead of that process a bit. And I think I had finished much of the second already by the time we inked the deal on the first.

So, was it a two-book deal?

Yeah, yeah, it was right away.

If, if, you know, it does well, would there be possibilities of more books in the series, or a trilogy, or what?

So, with Solaris I gave them two books. They liked them both. I then offered them a third, which is a novel set 250 years before the events in The Quantum Magician, and set in the same universe, and they bought that as well. And now I’ve got the sequel to The Quantum Garden, which I am in the process of writing right now and hopefully they’ll be interested in that. But so far the sales on The Quantum Magician seem to be good. Which is, which is heartening.

Yeah. That’s always heartening.

Yeah, yeah it is. Yeah, I wasn’t sure how the first royalty statement was gonna go, but I got it for, just covering the first two months of the book, and it was very promising.

Well, that’s good,.

Yeah.

Well, I’m gonna ask you the big philosophical questions.

Oh, goodness.

Why do you write and why do you think any of us write? And particularly, why do you. and why do you think any of us, write this kind of stuff? Science fiction and fantasy.

Yeah. So, you want good answers?

Whatever answer you feel that you would like to give me.

So, when we had first discussed doing this podcast and we had talked a bit about what might come up, I was thinking on this question. I was like. “All I have is facetious answers.” I mean, do we write because we’re broken? Are we writing because one of our dials is turned too high? Is it that we’re all people that just have the transmit function on and we’re just hoping that somebody is receiving somewhere? I think the third one might be the right one for me, in that, it’s not that I have a particular message I’m trying to send. It’s not that I want to influence anybody in any way. It’s just a need. My thumb is on the transmit button and I’m just hoping that somebody is out there listening.

And, it’s interesting, because when people, you know, podcasts come up and interviews come up and people start to say things about, you know, “I really like these themes in your Quantum Magician of, you know, decolonization and, you know, a lot of what you did with the unintended consequences of genetic engineering and what that means to us now,” and all that, and people are getting messages that I’m not necessarily consciously aware of putting in, but now that I look back I realize, “Well, yeah, I mean, those things are in there and they are there on purpose,” but I was putting them in there because I thought it would be the right thing for the story not, again, because I was sending a message, but I…

Why do we write? I’m not sure. And like Harlan Ellison said, I think, if you could, if you can persuade somebody to stop writing you really should, because it’s not like we’re making a whole lot of money or that, you know, people are throwing sports cars at us or stuff like that, it’s, you know, we do this because we want to and if we can afford to make a living at it, you know, we’re already, that’s one of the highest things we can get out of it.

Because, you know, the idea about the message and things not being in there, that’s an opportunity for me to tell a story I like to tell. I’ve probably told it before in the podcast, but you mentioned discovering Asimov, and it was in one of his autobiographical books, probably Opus 100, his 100th book where he was attending a class in a New York university, some university in New York, and the professor was teaching his classic short story “Nightfall,” and he sat at the back and he listened, and when it was over he went up to the professor and he said, “Well, you know that was a very interesting class, but I’m Isaac Asimov and I wrote that story and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there.” And the professor said, “Well, I’m very happy to meet you, but just because you wrote it, what makes you think you know what’s in there?”

That’s a good point. And I think that…over the last few years I’ve come to subscribe to the idea, too, that in the end, all you do is you write a story, and it is a transmission, and the act of interpretation by the reader is the final story. And that means there’s many, many final stories. And, yeah. Because once you put it out it’s got a life of its own.

Well, I like that too. It’s something I often say, that although writing is a solitary act, reading is a collaborative act, I guess. Or the creation of stories is a collaborative act because the writer creates something, but the ultimate story is different for every person who reads it because of their own background. And I’m also a playwright, in fact I just had a play that was up this last week here in Regina.

Oh, congratulations.

It’s…that’s much, much more collaborative. But there, you actually see actors taking your words and interpreting them and bringing these characters to life that maybe, you know, they’re completely different from the little actors in my head who are moving around on the set in my head when I was writing the story. And it’s also the same thing that happens with writing anything, writing science fiction and fantasy, that readers are like the actors in the play and they’re bringing the characters to life and they’re bringing the story to life in a way that you may not have imagined when you put it into words.

And not only that, I mean, there’s so many people who will interpret things with different backgrounds that you couldn’t have imagined, and their interpretations come out to be, you know, more complex, more interesting, just because they’re seeing dimensions that, you know, I didn’t. And it’s fascinating.

So, you’ve already said what you’re working on next. I guess we will just sort of bring this to a close by telling people how they can find you online should they so desire.

Yeah, I’m a Twitter user, so I’m just @DerekKunsken, that’s just my name, on Twitter, and I have a website, too, which is just my name, as well, dot com, and I blog every couple of weeks at BlackGate.com, and otherwise you know my stuff is in bookstores everywhere, and I’d be happy to hear from any listeners who want to reach out.

We should also mention the webcomic.

Oh, yeah, yeah.

Just tell me a little bit about that and where people can find that.

So, WebToons is this gigantic, gigantic South Korean company platform where people who make a comic can post the equivalent of two to three comic book pages per week, and you get readers or, you know, if people like your stuff, and…there’s monetization in in different ways and that’s not necessarily what myself and the artist are going for first and foremost, but, no I’ve been experimenting with doing a comic book in this format so people can read it, and it’s a female jetpack planetary-romance adventure, a bit pulpy, but at the same time I wanted to do something fun and romantic and cute at the same time. And, yeah, it’s up that WebToons and it’s free to read, and if you just look for Briarworld at WebToons you can find it there, and Briarworld has its own Twitter, which is just @BriarWorld and it’s fun. It’s…a mercenary has to go rescue a prince in a weird Mungoesque planet.

Well, I’ll have to go check it out. Well, thanks very much for being on The Worldshapers, Derek.

This has been wonderful!

And I suspect I’ll be seeing you at Can-Con this year in Ottawa?

I hope so, I hope so.

All right. Well thanks a lot.

All right. See you, Ed.

’Bye for now.