Christian (MIles) Cameron was born in Pittsburgh in 1962 and graduated from the University of Rochester after an outstandingly long undergraduate career. He served in the US Navy onboard aircraft carriers and elsewhere, and then moved on to a writing career.
He’s written over forty novels, including The Red Knight from Gollancz and Killer of Men from Orion Books. His latest novel is Artifact Space, an epic space opera set in the not-too-distant future.
He lives in Toronto with his wife, daughter, and too many cats.
Well, thank you very much. It’s always interesting to hear your life done in in short form. And even when I write it myself, I’m always a little behind the times.
I always like to see if I can find a connection. We have not met in person, but back when you had Jane Yolen books, you did reject me once. So, there’s that. Actually, I was a very nice rejection because you said that there was nothing wrong with the book—it was a fantasy called The Dark Unicorn—and that a larger house might very well be able to take it on, it just didn’t suit your house, which, you know, was a lot better than just getting the form rejection backroad. So, I appreciated it at the time. And the book did eventually find a not very good home, but I’m going to be revising it and bringing out it out again with my own little publishing company before too long. And it did get nominated for an award so well that that was it was very nice to get that sort of personal response from you back then.
I don’t want to make you nervous or anything, but I still get rejections. And I love my rejections because, one, they mean somebody read it, then I can move on. But the other thing is the rejections recently say things like this is lyrical, lovely writing. I love the characters. It’s not for us.
Well, I’ve had my share of rejections now after all the years I’ve been writing. And you have 400 books. I only have 60 or so, so I’m well behind you. But still. So ,we’re going to start with, what I usually say is, taking you back into the mists of time just to find out about your, you know, you’re growing up and how you got interested in and writing. Most of us started as readers and then became writers. And how did that all play out for you? So, tell me about yourself, Jane.
Well, there’s a lot to tell because I’m 82 years old. We might be on this for seventy-two hours. I grew up in a family, a Jewish family in New York, and there were books everywhere. My parents made no distinction between what books we could and we couldn’t read. If we were interested in it and we could get through it, we could read it, which meant that I was reading stuff so far over my head when I was four years old. But I loved the sound of the language and I think that stayed with me all of my life.
My father was a journalist who had become, by the time I came along, had become a head of the Overseas Press Club. But he then left journalism itself and became first, a promotion person and then became a vice president at Hill and Knowlton, which was public relations. And he was the one who was involved with getting people into newspapers, magazines, and books. So, there were always books there. And he actually wrote, I am going to use quotes around the term “wrote,” because he got other people to write for him, six or seven books under his name. He never wrote any of them. I wrote the first one that was actually my first book, but I don’t count it because my name isn’t on it. And my brother became a journalist. My mother wrote short stories, but only sold one in her life. But she also made and sold crossword puzzles and double acrostics and all their friends were known and very well-known writers. They ranged from the very known ones like Hemingway and James Thurber to people you and I still don’t know today. But it meant that as I was growing up, I thought that all grown-ups were writers, I knew they were teachers, like, librarians, butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, the cop on the beat. I mean, I lived in New York City, I saw all of this. I thought that was their day job. And at night, they all went home to write. So in my little pea brain at that moment came the idea that whatever I did during the day, I would be a writer because I’d go home at night and write and that . . . it’s sometimes metaphor, but it’s absolutely true.
It’s interesting because I talk to so many writers who say, you know, when I was growing up, I never knew a writer. I didn’t know people could be writers. And then they found out they could be a writer. And you’re just quite the opposite.
Absolutely. And if you ask that, if you talk to my brother who lives in Brazil, who is a newspaper man for all of his life, he’d say pretty much the same thing.
So when did you . . . I assume you started writing as a child?
I wrote as a child. I mean, I, you know, I was the writer in my elementary school, although I wrote class plays that we all played in, I wrote poems, I wrote little lyrics to songs. And the same thing happened once I got into high school. I was the one who was known as the writer. And in college it was the same. I wrote a lot of songs, a lot of short stories, but mostly poetry.
Were there books that particularly influenced you during those early years?
Well, I was a huge King Arthur fan, so I read everything anybody ever wrote about King Arthur. So, yes, along the way I’ve written three or four King Arthur books myself, but I love folk and fairy tales. And Hans Christian Andersen. Oscar Wilde absolutely fascinated me. And it was poetry that stuck with me all through my life, I’m still writing poetry to this to this day.
What was it that drew you to poetry?
I think because I was very musical to begin with, so I started with lyrics. And, you know, we’re talking George Gershwin here, right? But then as I grew up, people like Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen were writing the kind of music I like, but the kind of also lyrics that I like that were really poems set to music. That kind of, you know, calcified for me.
It’s interesting. I have committed poetry, I don’t know if it’s good poetry or not, but they are very different writing disciplines, writing, writing prose and in poetry. Do you find that writing the poetry informs your prose, the way that you write prose?
I write very lyrical prose, but I tell you, I know when a picture book or a novel or short story of mine is good, I don’t know for the most part if a poem is good or good enough, I’m always surprised when people take my poems for journals, magazines, anthologies. half the time. It’s not the poems I would have taken. I’ll them say I send them seven, they take two or three. Those are not the three I would have taken, so I’m not sure why. I don’t know which one of my poems are the best, when I can tell right away if a book works or a story works.
Once you were . . . well, your first book was published when you were about . . . the first official one was published when you were 22. Is that right?
So, you were still in university or just out of university?
I was out three years, I graduated in 1960, but I had poetry published all the way through and newspaper stuff and magazine articles published. But my first book, I sold it on my twenty-second birthday. After I sold it, I ran two blocks to the overseas press club where my father was holding court at lunchtime and I said, “Daddy, Daddy, I sold my first book.” And he looked at me and then he looked at all the guys, there weren’t any women, I think, in the Press Club at that time, and he said, “Fellows, drinks are on the house. And a coke for my little girl!”
You then started doing a lot of editorial work in the ’60s, did you not?
Well, I first worked for Knox Berger before he became an agent. He was an editor at one of the paperback reprint publishers and I worked for him for about a year, and then when I sold my first book, and it was a children’s book, I thought maybe I’d better learn more about children’s books. So, I did two things. I took a course in writing for children at the New School, but at the same time I went to a head-hunter and said, “I don’t care who it is, but I want you to find me a job in children’s book publishing in New York City,” because I was living in New York City at that point, and they found me a job with a packager who did children’s books, which was interesting, because then I got to write a lot of stuff within the books that they were doing. My name never got on them, but I got to do that. So, there were a couple of problems in crossword puzzles and fiddly bits in books that I mean, they’re long gone. And this was 1961 to ’62 that I wrote that, that we’ll never know, except me and probably not even me anymore now, that I had done.
It’s a bit like the backup singers on some recordings, like I think of The Jersey Boys where they’re doing backup vocals for four other singers that nobody remembers anymore. But meanwhile, it’s the Four Seasons singing the backup songs back there.
So that’s how we got started. And then one of my fellow editors at the packager was an older woman and she was a friend of mine. And we had to show the packager anything we wrote first because they had first dibs on it. But if the editor rejected it, it was OK and we could take it elsewhere. And her name was Frances Kane. We all called her queen. And she said to me one time, I showed her a manuscript called The Witch Who Wasn’t, and she said, “I’m going to tell you a secret.” She said, “I like this very much, but I don’t want to publish it here. I’m about to take a job as head of MacMillan’s Children’s Publishing. Will you bring it to me there?” I said, “You got it.” Almost maybe my second or third book that was published. And Kate and I remained friends until her death, which was rather too, too soon. But she was very important in my early writing days.
You mentioned that you had taken a course in writing children’s literature at The New School, and I always ask authors who have taken formal writing courses how helpful they were to their career, because I get a variety of answers to that question.
Well, one of the picture books that I tried there, I thought, “Oh, well, there you go.” Things are so different now that the kind of book that I learned about and that I wrote then I would not be able to write and sell now, but I learned to be aware of how these things change. And that’s important. I think one of the reasons I’ve been so successful for so many years, whereas other people have sort of dropped by the wayside, who had started about the same time as I did, is that I’m very flexible and I’m able to do any number of things. And if the picture book world changes, I change with it. If the novel world changes, I change with it. If I can’t get a big publisher to publish something, I get a wonderful small publisher like Tachyon to publish a book of mine. So, I’m infinitely flexible and I love meeting new editors and talking ideas with them, because having been an editor, I was an editor for fifteen years, having been an editor, I know how to talk to editors. I know they’re the friends, not the enemies. Nobody buys a book to make it bad.
Yeah, there are authors, especially new authors, who are kind of scared of editors and think somehow they’re going to take their deathless prose and ruin it somehow, and that’s just not the experience you have with a professional editor. They want a good book, too. So, your experience as an editor. You’re writing and editing at the same time, how do those two things work together? Do you find that by looking at other people’s work, it makes your own work stronger? You’re able to see how other people are dealing with, you know, the same . . . we all encounter the same problems in our writing that we have to solve. You know, characterization and all that stuff. Did you find that being an editor helped you as a writer?
That’s exactly it. But that’s the second thing I learned. The first thing I learned, looking at people’s writing was, “Gee, I’m a good writer,” because a lot of bad stuff comes over the desk. Anyone who is an editor will tell you that. Eighty-five to ninety percent of the stuff that they see is so amateurish, there’s nothing they can do about it. It’s the other ten to fifteen percent that there are possibilities. And more than half of those are not the kind of book that they’re looking for. When I was an editor and editing fantasy and science fiction for middle grade and young adults, I would get coming over my desk nonfiction books, cookbooks, mystery novels, picture books, none of which was of interest to me. But I still had to send a letter back with it. So, the first thing that I say to anyone who’s a writer is look at where you’re sending it, make sure it’s the sort of thing they’re looking for. If you don’t know what they’re looking for, find out. You can ask other authors. You can join groups like the Science Fiction Writers of America or the Society of Children’s Book Writers and find out information. The more you have information about what a particular editor or a particular publisher is looking for, the easier you’re going to make your life.
I suspect the problem of inappropriate material flooding editors’ offices is even worse now with email being a way to submit. It’s just become much easier for those places that take email submissions. The volume must be enormous.
It’s not that, it’s to say we’re open to anyone. You should see who anyone is. They are people who have never finished something, they’ve started it but never finished it. They’ve written a book that’s just like their favorite book, or they’ve taken characters from their favorite book and used them, which is a no-no, unless the author is long dead or has given them permission. So, there are those sorts of things that you get over and over and over again
You’ve won a lot of awards. How did that all ramp up? I mean, you start out like anybody else. You’re selling a few books and then you’ve built and built. So, were you really gratified by the response to your writing over the years?
Well, of course, I’m gratified. Some of the awards that I’ve won, I go to some of the awards that I that I’ve won, I go, “Oh, my God, I’m so honored.” Some of them I’ve said, “I think they missed the mark on this one.” And some of them I say, “Thank you,” and put the thing up in the attic, because honestly, there are more awards out there than there are writers. And they happen year after year after year after year. The ones that I am especially proud of, those are ones that I keep where people can see them. But at this point, I must have, you know, like two or three hundred awards, certificates, that sort of thing. And occasionally they spell my name wrong on it. Occasionally it’s for a book that I think of my work is minor, but the ones that are really special to me, those are the ones that I take out and look at now.
Which one set fire to your coat?
Well, it was this Skylark Award given by the Boston Science Fiction Convention. Not for any particular work, it’s for somebody who has been doing good work and within the community, the science fiction community. And I always volunteered for things at Boskone, which is the science fiction convention. So ,they gave that to me and I took it home, as I did with any award I would get or any certificate. It would sit on my kitchen table for about a week, and then it would sort of slowly move upstairs to the attic. Now, the attic is not just an attic, it is where I store awards, where I have all my extra copies of foreign editions, where I have all my files. So, it’s a library. My entire folklore library is up there, too. So, it’s a little bit like a library/boasting place. But this award, the Skylark award, was sitting there . . . it had been a rather rainy, dark New England winter. And it was sitting in front of the kitchen window, which is a large, a huge, large window. And it was a wooden plinth with a . . . not a microscope, what is it called?
Right, a magnifying glass up top, because it was named after the Lensman series, right? And my husband and I were coming down the stairs to go actually to Smith College where I was winning a Smith Medal, I was a Smith graduate, and I said, “I smell something funny.” We ran into the to the kitchen and my good coat was smoking because it was a beautiful blue-sky day with the sun coming in from the east, pouring in through the windows. If we had gone later, the house might have gone up. So, I called up my friend Bruce Coville, who had been the one to hand me the award, and I told him what happened. And I said, “Bruce, I’m going to have to put this award where the sun don’t shine.” On the other end—Bruce is a huge laugher—dead silence. And I did what I did to say that and I hung up. So, he told the committee what had happened. The committee said that when they gave the next one would I come and say that as a warning. And so that’s become something that every year at Boskone, when they’re giving out the award, I have to run up and say, “Stop, stop, stop! Before you take that award, I need to give you this warning.” And so it’s, you know, it’s fandom at its best.
The Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy world, the Aurora Award, the current one is just a plexiglass Aurora, but the original one was this piece made out of a laser-cut metal that you could disassemble and put into your suitcase if you were flying after winning one of them. And apparently the trick with that one was, because of all these sharp edges, you had to . . . people discovered that if they didn’t wrap it very carefully in their suitcase, it shredded their clothes. I have one, but I didn’t have that problem.
And I love that story. I never heard that one.
The other thing about it is, it’s very pointy metal in a base. And when I won mine, it was in Montreal, and I discovered that if you pointed it forward people decided to give you more room on the elevator because nobody wanted to get close to it.
All the fandom.
Yeah. So, we’re going to talk about your your upcoming book, Arch of Bone, and we’re going to use that as an example of your general overall writing process, so you can talk about any books you want during this process. But then, you’ve written also for adults and middle grade and young adults. And I want to get your thoughts on the differences among those three. But maybe, first of all, just tell us a little bit about Arch of Bone.
Well, there are stories that are in your heart, and wherever they started, they were in your heart and you want to tell them if you’re a writer. And this was one I carried for a long time. It takes place in 1964 in Nantucket. And it’s really tagging onto the end of one of my all-ime favorite novels, which is Moby Dick. And I was . . . I am in New York City, a Jewish kid loving Moby Dick from the first time I read it, and I would read it as I grew up every ten years because it’s a big book, it takes a long time to read. And any time I was talking to an editor, it was going to be historical, but it was going to have fantastical elements in it. Any time I talked to an editor, they looked at me shellshocked, like, “That doesn’t sound like something I want to do.” So I put it aside and I put it aside and I put it aside for years. And then I started publishing with Tachyon and Tachyon said, “We’re starting a middle-grade young-adult line now and we’d love it if you would have something for us to see.” And I talked to them about this book because it’s a book that starts out a new way. I knew how it was starting out and I knew where it was going.
But there was a major problem. And I’ll tell you that in a minute. I knew it started out with a young boy, a thirteen, fourteen-year-old boy whose mother has been sick with whatever for the whole winter. His father is on a whaling ship, so he’s away. So, the boy is kind of man of the house. His father’s been gone for about a year or so. And it’s early spring. There’s a knock on the door and he opens the door and there’s this man he’s never seen before. And, you know, normally you would know your neighbors in Nantucket. And he says, “Who were you?” And the man says, “Call me Ishmael.” It’s Ishmael coming to tell Starbuck’s wife and son that Starbuck, who was the first mate in Moby Dick, that everybody died except for himself. And so, that’s how I knew it was going to start, and I also knew that the boy being upset about the man staying at their house and thinking that his mother has gone through widowhood, you know, in the day, and now she’s looking at a new man, which is not true. He takes off on his own little cat boat with his dog and into the teeth of a nor’easter. And that’s all I knew.
A great beginning!
He was going to break up on an island. So, it’s going to be Moby Dick meets Robinson Crusoe with some miraculous dreams or oracular dreams. That’s all I knew. But the thing that stopped me over and over again just going ahead and writing it and then trying to peddle it was that you needed a good knowledge of sailing. I had not a good knowledge of . . . I mean, I lived in Massachusetts, but I lived in western Massachusetts. I could go and I could have somebody sail me around to some of the places, but I didn’t have the deep knowledge of it. Fast forward almost sixty years, and I’m working with Tachyon and they ask for it and I’m thinking about it and thinking, you know, I’m in my 80s. If I don’t write this book, it’s never going to get written. But I still am worried about this. And my husband had died 14 years earlier, so I’ve been a widow all that time. And I re-meet a guy that I had dated in college, and we fell in love, we’re married. We’re living together. We have, you know, children and grandchildren. He is a sailor, had his own boat. He would sail, he and his wife, he and his kids, they would sail on this boat all around the Nantucket area because he lives in Mystic, Connecticut. And I said, “Would you read this book?” Well, he’d been a teacher all his life, and one of his favorite books he loved to teach was, guess what, Moby Dick. It was, you know, the right time. And he read it, he showed me charts of the waters, he told me when I had a boat thing wrong, you know, “They don’t say that, they call it this.” He read it very thoroughly for me. And I couldn’t have done it, or I wouldn’t have done it, without him. So, sometimes a book has to sit, sometimes a book has to mature, and sometimes the author has to mature, and sometimes luck has to come into it.
So what did you . . . the idea obviously had been floating around for a very long time, but when you were finally able to do something with it, once you settled down to write, and your other books as well, what does your sort of planning outlining process look like? And I presume it might be different for an adult book, a YA book, and certainly for a picture book. But what does that look like for you?
You think I outlined, do you?
Oh, well, that’s the question, really.
When I first started writing novels, I did. And then I discovered that they boxed me in. Because no matter what I put on the page as where I was going, as I got into the book, things happened that I wasn’t expecting and weren’t on my outline. I’m more like what they call a pantser, flying by the seat of my pants, I like to think of it as flying into the mist. I know where the book is going. I have to get to know who the characters are. And sometimes the characters say to you, “I’m not going there.”
More like sailing into the mist on this book, I guess, instead of flying.
Exactly. I didn’t know that that he was going to have to rebuild a boat. I didn’t know he was going to have these oracular dreams. Once Tachyon said they wanted it, I knew that I had to have a fantasy element that had never been in it to begin with. So, what did I do? He finds a bone, which is a whalebone jaw, and when he leans against it, he has dreams. The first dream is of a whale telling him about how the whales have been dying and why and how things are changing. And then, the next three dreams are about the boat that his father died on. So, I read Moby Dick, annotated it, and talked to Peter about it over and over again. Some people really need to fill out, you know, everything about their world and everything about where they’re going and know everything bit by bit. That’s not how I work. Now, having said that, I just finished another middle-grade fantasy novel called Sea Dragon of Fife. And it’s part of, I think, a series that’s going to be called—we’re still fiddling with this—The Royal and Ancient Monster Hunters, so it’s R&A Monster Hunters. And in that, because I first outlined it years ago when I still thought I could outline, it turns out that stuff that I put in later changed the ending, made the ending more poignant, because as I was going along and writing it, I realized . . .these are some kids who are out there as monster hunters, they’re school kids. And the head of the group is the schoolmaster. And we’re talking 1900s, Scotland. And they’re in danger, but they’re out there to kill the Sea Dragon. The Sea Dragon’s female. They’ve already killed one of her sons, may have killed the second one, and then they finally come upon her and everybody thinks that’s fine and I’m going, “Wait a minute, wait a minute, they’re killing a mom. You have to say something about this,” and that changed the dynamics when I have the main character, who’s telling the story, saying that she feels bad about this, so she has some real criticism. Meanwhile, you know, it’s a dragon that’s tried to eat two boys and may have killed other people. So, it’s a dragon, doing what a dragon does to feed its family. So that was not in the original outline and it changed things very much.
So, what does your actual writing process itself look like, then? You’re not referring to your outline all the time and then writing things. Do you—I always ask this—do you write longhand under a tree with parchment and a quill pen or do you work set hours during the day? Do you work in your home? Do you go out? Well, not now, but have you sometimes gone out to other places to write? Or how does that work for you?
I have a fairly simple thing. I get up in the morning, I go into my writing room, still in my jammies, and start to write, and write for about an hour. It may just be, at the beginning, just looking at my email, playing a little bit of Boggle, writing a new poem, because I send out a poem a day to subscribers. And then I go downstairs, have something to eat, go back upstairs and get dressed for work as if I were going out to an office. The office is right there in my house. And then it’s butt on chairtime that I teach my students all about. Butt in chair. If you’re not there working and you’re looking for an idea and the muse comes by, she’ll give it to you. But if you’re not in your chair, she’s heading out, you know, out west to give it to someone else. And I literally, I probably work between four and eight hours a day. Some of that is just reading, some of that is writing, some of that is revising, some of that is sending stuff out. But I’m at my desk. You don’t write four hundred books if you don’t sit at your desk, and it’s been an adventure.
I mean, it’s not that I don’t go out and do things. I have a house in Scotland that I go to and I’ll write there as well. Peter and I are right now sitting in his house in Mystic, Connecticut. I was writing this morning and I do other things and I’m a very personable kind of person. I like to see friends and take walks with them and talk business with them. Or if they’re not in the children’s book field, the children’s book world, or just the writing world . . . I have many friends, a huge number of friends, who are artists. I’d love to go to their studios and see what they’re doing. But I’m always a good part of my day writing. Less time at a conference. And interestingly, the stuff that I do when I’m in my jammies feels like fiddling. But when I’m dressed for work, I mean, looking like I’ve gone out of my business clothes, that’s when I do my best work.
That is interesting. I mean, everybody approaches it differently, that’s one of the interesting things about this podcast, is getting these different approaches that people take. Do you consider yourself a fast writer or slow writer or somewhere in the middle, or how do you typify yourself?
Well, you have to say fast, given how many books I have out, but each book is different, some books practically write themselves and other books, you’re banging your head on the wall. But I am a very fast rewriter. If somebody takes the book and it needs some work still, that’s where I put all my energy until that until it’s done.
Well, that’s the next thing I was going to ask you about was the revision process. So, when you have a complete first draft, do you go back to the beginning and revise before you submit? Do you use beta readers? Beta readers are all the thing right now, I’ve never had them, but I know lots of authors talk about that. And you did mention that your husband had read your book to help you with the sailing and so forth. How does all that work for you?
Well, I first of all, even if it’s an adult book, I read it out loud. That comes from all of my work and children’s books. I always read stuff out loud and that makes me hear things that . . . I have a little sign near my desk that says the eye and the ear are different listeners. If you are reading your own manuscript, you can elide, if you’re not reading out loud, so that you miss stuff, you miss the bad stuff. And if you are reading it out loud, then you are going to hear everything that doesn’t work. I’m a good reader, so I can sometimes almost even convince myself that a line works when it doesn’t. But I’m a line-by-line reader out loud. Then I go back and I will . . . with a picture book, I might revise it five, six, eight, ten times before I ever send it out. With a novel, I probably do two really solid revisions before I ever send it out. The longer pieces, and that includes . . . I have, actually, beta readers. Peter is one. My daughter, Heidi Stemple, is another one. And then I have other readers when I’m in Scotland. My friend Debbie Harris reads for me because I think that as much as I know about writing and as much as I know about editing, there’s nothing like a new eye to look at it and say, “I didn’t get this.” The connection was in my head, but I never got it down on paper. So, I really like having those beta readers. Every time, though, I choose somebody who has written something, who has published something, I think that that they are willing to be fierce and I need a fierce reader.
Yes, if, you know, if you give it to, in my case, say my mom or somebody, and they said, “Oh, that’s really nice,” that’s not helpful. You want people to say, no, I didn’t understand what was going on on page 37 and why your character did that stupid thing and all that kind of stuff. The big criticism is actually much more helpful than just than just praise.
That’s why I choose writers. All my children are writers, published writers. My friend Debbie is a well-published fantasy writer living in Scotland. So, there’s that professionalism that says, “:I’m not going to just say nice things about you.” My kids send me stuff for me to read that they’ve done. And I’m very honest with them. From the beginning, when they first started writing, and they would leave little things for me to read on the mantelpiece, I would say to them, “Do you want the Mommy answer or do you want the editor answer?” And they would say, “Oh, we want the editor.” And this is before they were published. I’d say, “First, I’m going to give you the Mommy answer. The Mommy answer is, ‘This is wonderful. Oh, you are such a good writer.’ Now, here’s the real truth from the editor. It’s very good. It still needs work.” So, since I was always honest with them, they’re very honest with me.
When your work does get to an editor, are you still getting, “This is very good, but it needs work,” from editors even at this point in your career?
This is what I’m getting a lot from editors. They will say to my agent, if I haven’t worked with them before, they will say to my agent, “Is Jane willing to work on this?” And I think to myself, “They think tjat a person who has done as many books as I have, would not work with that, would not be revising it?” It sort of makes me stunned. Who they’ve been working with? Of course, I’ll revise. I just recently revised something that an editor liked but still had some problems with. And I sat down and thought about what she said for about a week and a half. And then I said, “She’s absolutely right.” Then I rewrote it. And it’s much better. Will she take it? I have no idea, but it’s much better. And so, somebody will take it.
My editor, my main editor, is Sheila Gilbert at DAW Books, and she’s just wonderful for for pointing out those things that, “Yeah, I can make that better. You’re absolutely right.” And editors do that for you. It’s really quite wonderful to have an editor. And I wanted to ask you about the differences between writing for middle grade, young adult, and adult. Are those just . . . you know, to a certain extent they’re kind of just marketing categories, I guess. But there are . . . do you feel there are distinct differences among those three beyond just the age of the characters?
I think that that in some ways they sort of glide into one another, it’s true. And if you realize that the term young adult had not even been invented until the early 1960s when some somebody figured out that, “Oh, we can get an extra sale out of this if we put it in into that category, as well as perhaps also selling it as an adult book.” And many books are considered young adult/adult as crossover books. In fact, I think there’s now an actual crossover designation . . .
New adult, they’re sometimes called. New adult. Is that the term?
Exactly. That’s the term. So, the problem is in the, not in the book itself, but in the age of the main character. If you have a main character who is fifteen, sixteen, it’ll be nicely read by the younger ones and the young adults. If the character is twelve, thirteen, then a lot of young adults will not look at it. Adults will, but young adults will say, “I’m more interested in kids my age.” So, a lot of times you sort of weasel out of it. You either don’t say how old they are or you put them in exciting enough places that that anyone will want to read the book. I was . . . as I said early on, I was, as a child, reading books that were way over my head. And kids who reads at a very young age will do that. But a lot of young adult readers are really very happy just reading about themselves. I think the middle graders who are still trying to figure out what it is they would like to read, how far up they’d like to read, are the ones who are more flexible. And I think the adults are the most flexible at all because we’ll still read about kids, we’ll still read about Alice in Wonderland, we’ll still read about Huck Finn, and they’re not our age anymore. But we will also read about older people.
The problem is in the packaging. Because I did a book a few years ago with Midori Snyder called Except the Queen, and the two main characters were middle-aged. They were old fairies who have been kicked out of Faerie for spying on the queen, and so they no longer have the magic that keeps them young. So now they are on the high side of middle-aged. And there were two younger characters in it. They’re not the main characters, but guess who is on the cover? Not the main characters. The young woman who is one of the minor characters was here, and when we complained, they said this is the best cover for it, nobody’s going to buy a book with two elderly women sporting around. That’s the problem. Not the readership, but how they market the book.
Do you have a preference out of all the various age levels you’ve written for? Do you love writing in all these various niches equally?
My sweet spot is short. Meaning poetry, picture books, short stories. Or a short novel, but I have written a number of longer novels, which I’m very proud of, and it’s just that they go on and on and on and on for four or five years. That’s when I get tired of that, even if I’m doing my best work. So, I think I have a very short attention span. And a very short boredom span.
We’re getting within the last 10 minutes or so here, so I want to ask my big philosophical question. There’s three. The first one is, why do you write? The second one is, why do you think anybody writes? As human beings, why do we write? And then the third one is, why write stories with fantastical elements in them? So, start at the beginning. Why do you write?
Because I can’t, because I have stories in my head all the time. I go to bed, I dream stories, I wake up, I remember parts of those stories. Sometimes I could use the parts, sometimes I can’t, which is frustrating, but I am never without ideas for books. In fact, I give ideas away to other people.
I get that a lot, actually, from writers who will say, “I can’t not write and it’s almost a compulsion.” I think there’s very much an innate writer . . . I don’t know if it’s a gene, I guess it’s related to some sort of genetic component . . . to people who become, at least become writers who are, you know, published and read and write at that kind of level. I’m reading to my wife Robertson Davies’s collection of posthumous essays . . . I always forget the name . . . The Merry Heart, it’s called . . . and he writes quite a bit about this topic and about being a writer and writers being almost born as opposed to made. Anyway. So, why do you think a lot of us write? Why do you think human beings write? Why do we tell these stories and put them down in words and share them with other people?
Partially because it gives pleasure, partially because it gives information, partially because it gives a new way of looking at something, but partially because human beings are, more than anything else, good liars. We make ourselves look better. We make our children look better. We tell stories about our family that make us look great. We boast about things. It’s a human failing that’s been turned into a human success, I think. We laugh in our family and say all Yolens, all of the Yolens we know, are good casual liars. They tell stories. They are funny, they make up stuff, but only our side of the family and one or two others, sort of outliers, became passionate storytellers. My great-grandfather, I think it was, had an inn in the Ukraine, and he loved, not the work of being a being an innkeeper—that he left to the wife and kids in the hirelings—he would sit by the fire and tell stories. And he used to tell stories that he knew came from somewhere else, but he passed them off as his own. So, he told a Yiddish version of Romeo and Juliet, which was his big piece. Now, I don’t think he ever told anyone that Shakespeare had written the story.
Well, Shakespeare probably got it from somewhere else, knowing Shakespeare
Exactly. We’re passing wonderful lies on.
When I was a kid . . . there’s a famous Canadian writer named W.O. Mitchell, who actually spent part of his childhood in the town I grew up in in Saskatchewan. And he had . . .there was a TV show on CBC, which were . . .I guess they were his stories, I don’t know, he hosted it anyway, dramatized stories. And the name of it was The Magic Lie. That’s what he’d like to call writing: the magic lie.
And that works for me.
And then the third part of the question, you have, of course, written stuff that doesn’t have a fantastical element, but you have also written a lot that does. So, why include things that are completely fantastical in these stories that we like to tell people?
Because people have been doing that forever. They’ve told folk tales and fairy tales and tales of magic and wonder. We all know we’re going to die. So, we make up these wonderful stories of what happens after, before, during, which we all hope that we will have wonderful weddings and marriages to a prince, probably, you know, a king, possibly. We want to change lives with our stories. I think those of us who write for children have a better chance of that than anyone. Once in a while, you’ll get a book that, you know, like Silent Spring, that will change a great many lives. Normally, adult books don’t change lives the way children’s book change lives, because we’re taking someone who has not yet fully constructed themselves. And the stories that we tell help them think in different ways, shape them.
I’m very aware of that. I mean, I get letters from children all the time and I and I meet grownups who say to me, the grandparents, you know, they say to me, “I read your stories all the time to my grandchildren because they were the stories I grew up on.” That makes me feel really old when they say that. But it’s true. Those are the stories that we carry with us into adulthood. And they have, for whatever reason, shaped our lives.
Certainly, the ones I read shaped mine, that’s for sure. I still remember the ones . . . you know, the stories I read as a kid are the ones that really stick with me far more than what I’ve read since as an adult. So, we’re just about out of time, so let’s find out, what are you working on now?
Well, The Sea Dragon of Fife, which is a short novel. I have a book of poems about the Jewish experience and the Shoah coming out called Kaddish. That’s for adults. I’ve written two books with one of my daughters that are being published, one that I wrote with her when she’s ten, and she’s now in law school, and the other we wrote after she said, “Oh, I’m so excited about selling this book. But, you know, I’m really going to be a lawyer.” And the next morning she had the start of a manuscript on my desk. So that’s it. Yeah, right. “OK,” I said, “stick to your day job, but you can write in the in-betweens.” So the one that’s coming out that she wrote with me when she was ten, which we have done significant rewriting since, I have to tell you, is called Nana Dances and it’s a picture book. So, it’s full of pictures and it’s all about the various nannies who dance with their children and boys, girls, different people of different shapes and sizes and colors. And it’s, I think, it’s just a very sweet and lovely book. I have a bunch of easy reader books coming out, two of which are based on the interrupting cow joke that one of my granddaughters used to tell me every time I would visit. You know that joke?
No . . .
Interrupting cow who?
Did you hear me move in the middle of your asking? So this is a cow that nobody in the stable likes because she’s always telling that horrible joke and she ends up with a variety of outsiders who love what she does. So, everybody lives happily ever after. I’m on the fourth book now.
Oh, yes, there’s many, many more. I’ve sold a book called Bird Boy, which is being illustrated, and it’s a kind of semi-sequel to Owl Moon, which I wrote, which won the Caldecott. Let’s see, what else have I sold? I have to get out my list of about maybe fifteen, eighteen more books. I have about twenty manuscripts out there. I have about, in total, 130 unsold manuscripts that are rotating around there and I’m always writing something new.
People tell me I’m prolific and I’m realizing that I’m not. That’s very impressive! It’s been great, Jane, to talk to you. I guess your website is the best place if people are looking to find out more about you?
It’s certainly the most accurate because my son Adam, who is my webmaster, and I work on it on a regular basis. If you go anywhere else, you will find that I have written over one hundred books. You will sometimes find that I’m married to Adam, who is my son. You know, I don’t trust anything other than an author’s own website because we know most about ourselves. We know what’s current, what’s not covered.
And it’s just janeyolen.com.
Ok, well, thanks so much for for doing this. Jane, I really appreciated talking to you. I certainly enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.
I did a whole lot. Thank you.
And best of luck with every single one of your many projects coming up
A Philadelphia native, these days David does most of his writing in Washington, DC, where he lives with his family—because he uses a laptop now, he doesn’t keep them awake with his typing—and where he works at Georgetown University, teaching creative writing and literature at the Center for Jewish Civilization and promoting student-centered teaching at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, David, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you so much for having me. And I should say, by the way, that the typewriter was at least enormous when I was small. It wasn’t as big as I remember,
We had this little Smith-Corona portable, which took me right through university. And I loved it because it was mechanical. There was a key that would occasionally quit working, but I knew how to fix it. And as long as I could get ribbons, I actually quite liked it. It had a nice it was easy to type on, and yeah. So, I kind of miss it some, but I don’t really miss the sound of the tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, and then the carriage. I don’t miss carriage returns flipping.
Yeah, that part was not the best, yeah.
And when I started as a newspaper reporter, started my career, we were on big manual typewriters. So, I did my share of that for sure.
That typewriter was practically a weapon. I mean, if you picked it up and dropped it on somebody, that would be the last time you talked to them.
That’s right. I don’t think we have . . . I know for a fact, in fact, I think that we have never met. I don’t know, we might have been at a convention at the same time, but we’ve never met in person. But you came to me through Tachyon, who’s publishing your upcoming book, How to Mars, that we’re going to talk about. And we were talking before we started about what a great publishing company they are. And I’ve talked to several authors who have worked with them and have heard good things about them. So, I’m glad to have you on, again, as another representative from the Tachyon stable of authors.
I’m delighted to be here. And especially as that kind of representative, I’ve got to say, and it’s not just because they’re publishing my novel, Tachyon is spectacular. They’re consummate professionals, but they’re also just a ton of fun. And they seem to have hit it just right. They’re publishing just the number of books that allow them to get a lot of stuff out there but to be able to devote a lot of attention to each book. So, it’s just been a real pleasure. And the stuff that Tachyon publishes, you could easily just pause, you know, if you’re listening to this interview, you can pause it and go grab a bunch of books from Tachyon, almost at random, and you’d be really happy.
They have really great covers. I really like Tachyon covers.
Yes. Elizabeth Story does the covers, or at least most of them. And she did mine. And that was a great day when I saw that design.
Well, we’ll talk about How to Mars a little later on, but first, I will take you back into the mists of time, and we will find out . . . well, I know from your bio that you started writing young. So how did that all begin? How did you get interested? I presume you started as a reader and then became interested in writing, but. . . and you grew up in Philadelphia . . . so tell me all about that and how you got into this writing habit.
It was the books, of course. You know, I mean, I was reading from a pretty young age, and the stuff that little kids get to read is full of wonder and fascination. The first book that I ever read out loud was a book called Crictor, which is about this sentient boa constrictor that can form all the letters of the alphabet and all the numbers but also can thwart crime in Paris. Really kind of a remarkable snake. And I’ll never forget that. I still have that book. And I just absorbed a ton from everything that I was reading and also things that I was watching. So, I had this enormous typewriter, of course, and I banged out what I considered my first novel when I was eight years old, and it was . . . it would get me into serious copyright issues if people were to look at it today because the main characters were the Smurfs. They were close at hand, and I just grabbed them. And it’s this surprisingly violent spy novel about the Smurfs, actually. And I still have a copy of that on my shelf. And I was typing with so much enthusiasm some of the letters pretty much went through the paper altogether and left little letter-sized, letter-shaped holes in the paper. And I just went on from there.
I still remember a very early picture book, and it’s not exactly obscure. Harold and the Purple Crayon. I very much remember reading that as a kid and how much I wanted to be able to, you know, create things just by drawing them. And instead, I create things by writing them, so I do think that was an influence on the whole sort of wanting to make up things. Those very early books can have quite an impact.
Exactly. And, you know, that’s a really interesting point you make. I lived down the block from these two really talented visual artists. I mean, they were kids, but to my mind, they could draw things that look like things. The Minott Brothers. And I was not great at that. And so, I had a kind of breakthrough moment one year when I said, “Well, OK, I’m going to make a comic strip like they’re doing. But first, I’m going to write the story out, and then I’ll see if I can figure out how to draw it.” And then I had this writing of a story, and I thought, “Well, maybe this has something already without the pictures.” And that broke open the floodgates for sure. So that transition from the books with pictures to books with words was a real light bulb moment for me.
Where did the giant manual typewriter come from?
My parents. I don’t know where in the world they got it. It was very old. You know, it just was must have been sitting around as junk somewhere in the house, and they decided that my hands needed something to do. So, it got hauled up to the desk that I had in my room, and I just banged banged banged.
So, you were eight, I presume you continued writing then as you went on through school and high school. How did that all work for you?
Yeah, I kept going in high school. I wrote a lot of pretty bad twist ending stories for the high school literary magazine. I think probably the worst thing I ever wrote, but that I was so proud of at the time, is from the point of view of this narrator who is walking through this post-apocalyptic landscape. Everything is destroyed, it’s sort of a nuclear wasteland. And then, the narrator looks in a puddle and sees its reflection. And the last line of the story is, “Cockroaches: the sole survivors of a war that couldn’t be won.” Terrible. So, this narrator the whole time was a cockroach. And to me, that was like the height of cleverness, but I suppose it at least got me started.
I did . . . at Denver WorldCon, I suggested a panel that they accepted, and it was writers reading their juvenilia, which I think has been done in other places as well. But it was me and Connie Willis and Sarah Hoyt and Joshua Palmatier. And we were all reading . . . Connie actually read from the romance stories, true romance stories, that she wrote when she was starting out for the confessions magazines. But I actually read from some of my high school stuff. So, I was brave.
Solid gold, that stuff. Right? I mean, where would we be, right, if we hadn’t done that? And not only if we hadn’t done that, but if we hadn’t felt good about it at the time. You know, we can look back and question it, but it’s great that we had some early moments of pride, even around stuff that later on we might even regret a little bit.
Did you have a teacher or somebody along the way there that was influential on you in the, sort of the high school years?
Yeah, unbelievably so. There was this teacher . . . I went to Central High School in Philadelphia, which is a big, big school, and I suppose you could get lost in there. Maybe a thousand students, something like that. But this one teacher, Carole Nehaz, taught a creative writing class that just brought me fully to life. I felt, you know, I thought endlessly about that class. I poured a ton into what I was doing there. And even though she must have seen as a grown-up that I was writing things that were kind of silly and kind of predictable in a way, she just gave me a lot of encouragement . . .or more like she gave me a lot of license to keep going. And that really mattered a lot. So, yeah, I have put her on the acknowledgment page of my books because she mattered enormously.
I did that in a novel of mine called The Cityborn. I dedicated it to Tony Tunbridge, who was my Grade 7 or 8 English teacher, because I wrote my first complete short story about that age. It was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.”
If I can ever find it, it’s going online for sure. But I don’t know what happened to the copy of it. But he took it seriously, and he, you know, he said,” I don’t understand why your aliens act like this, and I don’t understand what your character did this stupid thing.” And he, you know, he marked it up and took it very seriously. And I’ve credited him because if you find an adult who takes your writing seriously, it makes you think, you know, “Next thing I’m going to write is going to be better,” at least that’s how it was for me.
Yeah. Same here.
Now, once you got to university, did you study creative writing, or what exactly did you go into?
Well, that’s a little bit of a story. I chose my college because it had a strong creative writing program. But then I got there, and I felt like everything I encountered was really kind of pretentious. And I really didn’t enjoy my creative writing classes there. I just took a couple, and then I backed out, and I picked a major for maybe the dumbest reason that you could pick a major. But I was taking a psychology class at the time. It was supposed to be a philosophy class, but my handwriting on the sheet that I filled out for what classes I wanted was so bad that they thought it said psychology.
So, I got into psychology class, and everybody was really nice. And so, I kept going with psychology, and I sort of dropped out of the creative writing, the academic piece of that, though I was always writing along the side. And I went off to graduate school in psychology at the University of Wisconsin, and I really enjoyed that. And I went for my Ph.D. there. But all along, I was running off and cheating on psychology with creative writing. I was taking classes in creative writing. Jesse Lee Kercheval is another name of a professor who turned my life around by taking me seriously at a crucial moment. And it got to the point where I actually enrolled in an MFA program while I was finishing up my Ph.D. in psychology because it was becoming clearer to me that that was the direction I had to go. There was a long detour, and I don’t regret it, a lot of cool things happened in psychology, but it is undeniably not a straight path.
Well, the fact that you did go so far in psychology and you write, well, characters are all about psychology to a certain extent. Has your training in psychology helped you when it comes to things like characterization and storytelling, do you think?
Gosh, you would think so, you know? But I think the distinction for me was I studied social psychology, which is really about how the environment affects an individual, other people, how social pressure and social opportunity affect people. I was really trying to save the world, you know, “How do you make people recycle or take on racism?” And I was looking at that. So, what you do is you run these studies, and you take averages across lots of people. And it’s a great way to learn about folks. But it’s almost, in a way, the opposite of fiction, where in psychology, you ask lots of people a question and average them in fiction. You look at one person really closely and generalize to everybody, or at least to a lot of people. So, they’re quite different from each other. And it ends up that the fiction way of knowing is much closer to the way I think and the way I the way I’m interested in thinking.
So, when did the creative writing start to turn into actual published things?
During that same period before I enrolled in the MFA program, but while I was doing the psychology degree, this teacher, Jesse Lee Kercheval, just kept encouraging me to take myself seriously and to send stuff out. And I got really, really lucky that the first story that got published, first of all, it wasn’t rejected a ton of times, it was rejected, I think eight times, which is nothing in the grand scheme of things. And the magazine that took it, this little magazine from Florida called Oasis, and they only had five hundred subscriptions or something like that, but the letter from the editor was . . . it’s usually not like this, usually it’s, “We’d like to publish this.” But this was so detailed about why he wanted to publish that story. It was so affirming and positive. The publishing world can be really bruising, but it was such a gentle start that it maybe made it easier when the bruises started coming.
They did come?
Oh, yeah. I had one story that . . . this is a story I like to tell because at first it sounds like I’m bragging, but then you realize how dark everything is. So, my first collection of stories (Between Camelots – Ed.) won a prize, and it was the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. And that’s maybe the prize I wanted most in the whole world. And it won another prize as well. And the title story of that collection also won a prize when it was published. But before it was published, that story was rejected sixty-one times.
So, you know, if I had held back, maybe it wouldn’t be in print. Maybe that book wouldn’t exist. If I had said, “Well, 50 rejections is a lot. Maybe I should give up on this thing.” Who knows? Would I be here now? So, the thing I’m always telling my students, I tell them that story, and I say, “What’s the number of rejections before you should give up on a story?” Well, you should give up once you’ve asked every single magazine that exists.
I was going to say I’m not even sure I could find sixty-one markets, at least not when I started out. In pre-Internet days, I certainly couldn’t have.
Well, there’s so many places out there. I had my copy of Novel and Short Story Writers Market, and I just went alphabetically.
Hmm, that’s a lot. Well, I guess were those . . . this is really dating me . . . these would be electronic submissions? You didn’t have to send them out with postage attached.
Now, unfortunately, I predate that time. So those were all sent in the mail.
Oh, boy. I remember those days. Not particularly fondly.
Yeah. I’m so glad to not be doing that anymore. Though there was something, there was, in a way, a nice ritual about going to the post office, and I would kind of wave my hands over the envelopes. “Godspeed, may you find a home!” kind of thing. But it is much nicer to be able to seek them out from the computer at home, especially these days, of course,
I think there’s a . . . I mean, an email rejection is one thing, but when that envelope actually came back with the story still in it, that was always a sad moment.
Oh, yeah. And sometimes, if it was a long story and they sort of jammed it into the return envelope, I thought, “Well, I wasn’t even meaning for you to return it. I thought you were just going to, you know, send the rejection note,” and they’d clearly, like, laboured to force it into this envelope. It was a sad sight for sure.
Oh, well. You now teach creative writing and literature. So how did you end up doing that?
Sort of little by little. You know, I had this degree in psychology, and the natural thing would have been to teach in that. And I did a little bit, just adjunct in Philadelphia when I moved back there after the degree. But I was really just trying to build up some publications. And so, I tried to get more and more things published, and then we moved to New York, and there’s a great outfit there called Gotham Writers Workshops that you may have seen online. But they took a chance on me, who hadn’t taught creative writing before, and they just let me try myself out a little bit, and I got some great experience there. And then, you know, a little adjuncting here, a little adjuncting there. I got a teaching gig at a wonderful college called Earlham College for five years out in Indiana, and then after that came to Georgetown.
And it’s sort of a weird situation at Georgetown, in a very nice way, that I teach creative writing in a Jewish studies program, which, as far as I can tell, I’m the only person in the world doing that. But basically, the program felt, well, we’ve got to have some humanities, or else this becomes entirely about the Holocaust, entirely about Middle East politics. And we can’t just have Judaism be about conflict. It also has to be about the things that we’ve created and made. And there are so many wonderful Jewish authors that it’s not hard to put together some courses where students learn to write and the folks that they’re studying are Jewish authors. So, I teach poetry. I teach fiction. I teach a little bit about identity development. I do some literature. They give me a lot of room to teach the things I’m excited about. And then I’m in another program that’s . . . folks who want to go on and shape the higher education landscape are in this master’s program, and I teach a course on creativity for those folks. And that’s what I’m teaching this semester.
Sounds very interesting. Now, I often ask authors who teach, and I’ve done a very small amount of teaching and mentoring and been a writer in residence and that sort of thing, do you find that teaching feeds back into your own writing in some ways so that you, you know, like the line from The King and I, “if you become a teacher by your students you are taught,” do you find that that’s true for you?
It is true for me and in a variety of different ways. Sometimes it produces a kind of pressure that I hadn’t realized I was missing out on. So, one of the things I’ve done when I’ve taught introduction to creative writing, you know, I teach a little poetry, a little fiction, a little nonfiction, a little drama. And after a while, I realized I was teaching drama, but I wasn’t writing it, and something felt off about that. So, I started writing plays, and I’ve done a little bit of that since then, all because the class made me feel like I ought to. And it turns out they’re really fun to work with. But also, I learn a lot from students . . . in particular, students who are just getting started, get themselves into the most interesting possible messes. You know, they write a story, and something crazy happens that makes the story kind of fall apart at the end. And I think, “What is it? What went wrong here?” And watching that and studying that helps me to see what you need to do to make a story work. And then, of course, there’s also that when they succeed at something that’s a model, too.
Yeah, I think it’s . . . when you’re doing any kind of teaching or mentoring or whatever, you’re concentrating very much on a lot of different work often, but it’s that very close reading of something to try to figure out what works and what doesn’t work, I find that that impacts me thinking about my work when it comes time for revision and that sort of thing as well.
Now, when did your first novel come along?
Well, that’s a sort of ridiculous story. So, you know, first published novel versus first novel. I have seven unpublished novels, which, God willing, will never be published because they’re not very good. But I wrote my first one in college. That doesn’t count the Smurf one, which is actually under ten pages. So, calling it a novel was a little presumptuous. But yeah, I wrote a full-length novel in college that was not very good, and I started another one in college, also not very good. And I wrote five others that were not very good. Apparently, it takes a lot of practice to do this well. But I didn’t see it that way. At a certain point, I thought, “You know what, I’m a short story writer.” By that point, I’d had a couple of published short story collections. I felt like, “OK, maybe I know how to do stories at least a little bit. I don’t understand novels, and I’m not going to keep forcing it.” I had one novel that I sent to an agent who said, “You are distorting a short story. This should be a short story, and you’ve turned it into a novel.” It was very kind of her actually to do that.
So, I decided I’m not going to try this anymore. So, I set out to write a short story called Miss Portland. And, of course, that turned into my first published novel. Because, you know, I decided I’m not going to distort this thing. I’m going to take it as long as it needs to go. And no shorter and no longer. And then it was novel-length, and apparently, it worked out. And here we are.
Does all of your fiction fall into the sort of speculative fiction side of things or some fantastical element, or have you written mainstream fiction, as they call it?
It’s actually quite a mix. The novel Miss Portland is entirely realistic.
That’s what I thought from reading the description.
Yeah. It’s about a woman who is suffering from bipolar disorder and is trying to figure out how to get her life right. It’s quite realistic. But then there are stories in my collection, The Guy We Didn’t Invite to the Orgy and Other Stories, that are magical realist or otherwise speculative . . .
That’s a great title, by the way.
Oh, thanks. Yeah, well, I was at an artist colony one time, and somebody came to the breakfast table, and they said they’d heard a rumor about this place before they got there. And the rumor was that there had been an orgy at this place. And I thought, “OK.” And she said, “But the thing is, one guy wasn’t invited.” And I thought, “Now that’s a story, right?” I mean, an orgy is not a story, but an orgy where one guy doesn’t get invited is a story. So, that became the genesis of that whole collection. So those range quite a bit. And then you have this How to Mars, which is quite speculative. And then the novel I’m working on that hopefully will come after that is also speculative. So, I do range a bit, though. I think I’m getting more and more drawn into the speculative world.
But we’ll talk about why you’re drawn into it when I get to the big philosophical questions at the end, I have two things I want to put reverb on mists of time and big philosophical questions. I haven’t done it yet.
I support you if you do,
You also write poetry, which interests me. I committed one book of poetry, so I was interested, but I certainly don’t think of myself as a poet. It was a very odd way that came about. But when did you start writing poetry, and what drew you into that?
Well, first of all, I just want to applaud your courage and admitting that you write poetry. It’s socially unacceptable, but we all have to be honest about who we are. Yeah, I do. Hi, my name is David, and I write poetry, and I do it because there’s material I have that doesn’t make sense in any other form. I’ve written stories that didn’t want to be stories, and so they had to become poems because I was more interested in the imagery or the language than I was on the this happens and then this happens, and then this happens. So, I found that poetry is a great outlet for me to do different things. And I like to have room to do different things so that I don’t lose any of the things that interest me.
Well, to be fair to real poets, my poetry book came about because of . . . during Poetry Month in 2018, I think, the poet laureate of Saskatchewan, Gerald Hill, started this thing where he sent out every day, every weekday during poetry month, to every member of the Saskatchewan Writer’s Guild, he sent out two lines of published Saskatchewan poetry, published Saskatchewan poets, I should say, and the challenge was to either create a new poem using those two lines or creating a poem that was inspired by those two lines and they were, you know, not necessarily connected in any way, and much to my surprise, I wrote a new poem every day using the two lines that he provided. But they’re really stories in poetic form. They’re not poems in some ways because I was still a story writer, but I just put them into a kind of a poetic form, and it turned out quite successfully. Of course, at the end of that, I had twenty-four poems, and so I put out my only book of poetry.
Well, so far. So far. So far. Life is long, God willing. So, well, we’ll see how that goes.
Oh, nice. Well, you know, I think there’s a lot of room to try a lot of things in this world. And I think none of us should allow ourselves to get pinned down as being one kind of thing. It’s too limiting.
I like to imagine I can write anything. That just may be ego, but . . .
No, I think you can write anything.
OK, so let’s talk about How to Mars as an example of your creative process. Before we do that, perhaps you should synopsize it for those who may not have read it yet because it’s not out, so . . .
Right. So fair enough. How to Mars on a certain level is about these six people who, for various personal reasons, agree to go on a one-way mission to Mars. And it’s a pretty, to be honest, dubious mission because it’s run by a really eccentric organization that’s funding the whole thing with a reality TV show. And they have one rule, which is no sex on Mars because it’s dangerous. But of course, everybody breaks that rule. Or, actually, a couple of people in the book break the rules. So, the novel starts with the line, “This is how I find out Jenny is pregnant on Mars.” And the book takes us through the experience of these folks trying to figure out what to do about new life on Mars. And meanwhile, the engineer is getting a little bit angrier and more difficult to work with and perhaps dangerous, and they’re encountering some signs of indigenous life that might not be entirely friendly, and they’re also trying to figure out whether they’ve really left behind the things that they meant to leave behind.
So that, you know, that’s kind of the one level of reading the book. And on the other level, I think it’s really just about how to live life, given that we’re thrown onto a planet without a lot of instructions. In our case, it’s Earth, in their case, it’s Mars, but it’s sort of, “How do you do this thing? How do you deal with life when we don’t know exactly what we’re here for or what we’re supposed to do? How do you do it? How do you Mars? How do you Earth?”
So, what was the inspiration for this, and how does that compare to the way that you normally find . . . you mentioned how the story about the guy who wasn’t invited to the orgy came about. How do stories usually come to you, and how did this one specificallycome to you?
They come in so many different ways. Sometimes a thing happens in my life that I am having trouble getting a grip on. So, I want to write my way into it. Sometimes I hear a really strange anecdote, or I encounter something in the news that’s baffling. The one thing that holds it all in common is it always starts from a place of me not understanding something and feeling nonetheless like I want to. So, I start writing my way in order to try and figure something out. And in this case . . . were you aware as it was happening of the Mars One project?
Oh, yes. Yes, I remember that, yeah.
So, if any of your listeners are not aware, it was this crazy project that possibly was a scam. In any case, it’s gone quite dark now. But the original idea was to send some people on a one-way trip to Mars, and they too had the rule, no sex. And I thought, well, that’s crazy. No one’s going to sign up for that. And then they announced something like 200,000 people had applied. Turns out they probably inflated that number, but certainly, thousands of people applied. And I watched a number of application videos, and my bafflement just grew and grew. I thought, who are these folks who would be willing to never see a tree again, never see the people they love? Some of these folks were married, you know, maybe not very, very happy marriages.
Makes you wonder.
Yeah, right. Some of them were parents, which is sort of inherently tragic. They wouldn’t feel a breeze on their face ever again unless it came from the HVAC system inside the dome on Mars. So, who are they? What would make you want to leave a planet forever? And that became the genesis of the whole book. And of course, Mars One, turns out they’re probably not going to send anybody to Mars, but my folks are already there. So, I guess I won that battle.
You do make the connection somewhere I was reading to Ray Bradbury’s Mars stories . . .
The Martian Chronicles.
The Martian Chronicles. For some reason, that name escaped me. It’s not like it’s a difficult one. The Martian Chronicles.
Yes, well, you know, he obviously . . . I grew up reading in particular the dinosaur stories, but also Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451, all that good stuff. And what I like about the way he approaches Mars is that he clearly didn’t know anything about Mars. I mean, it was 1950. We hadn’t sent any probes by. So, he puts breathable air on Mars. He puts canals full of water. There are birds there, there are Martians who have families and are psychic, can do all kinds of crazy things. And so, he thrived on the lack of science that we had available to us about Mars. And he engaged in what he called mythology instead of hard science. And to some extent, I mean, my stuff is, I think, quite a bit more realistic than that. But it’s not totally realistic, and I’m much less interested in the science than I am in the people. So, in that sense, I’m trying to, I guess, live in his legacy of what kind of interesting things we learn about life and about people by being on this planet, not just about Mars.
So, once you had the idea, what does your planning/outlining process look like? Are you a big outliner, or do you just kind of launch into it?
I bounce back and forth, and this was a particularly unusual case because many of the chapters stand alone as short stories, or at least they originally did, and I massaged them a bit so that they do that a little bit less now. But so, they sort of popped out one by one here and there. But it’s like holding a handful of marbles. Once you have enough of them, you have to get a container because you can’t hold on to all of them. So, I sort of throw myself in, and then I come back out, and I organize, and I make a plan. And usually, the plan is substantially wrong. So, I come, I throw myself into the plan, and I come back out once I’ve realized how wrong it is, and I make a new plan and keep bashing myself against it until I have something. So, it’s a back and forth for me.
What do you actually write down in the way of notes or outlining?
Before the first thing I almost never write anything. I just sort of . . . the very first thing that happened to me was the line, “This is how I find out Jenny is pregnant on Mars.” And that line just came into my head, and I thought, “OK, let’s find out a lot more about that.” And I just wrote my way forward. And then, I wrote a second chapter, which is part of the instruction manual that my Marsonauts were given, and it’s called What You Can’t Bring with You. And it’s this list of really strange instructions about what they can and can’t bring on this trip. And some of it’s very physical, like, “You can’t bring an umbrella because it won’t fit in your bag.” And some of it’s much less practical, like, “You can’t bring the view out in your backyard, out your back window. Can you bring yourself? I don’t know. You’ll have to see.” So, I just threw myself into those things. And then when I had a few of them, I said, “OK, well, do they go together? And what would have to happen next for this to make sense as a book?” And I started filling in some of the gaps. And then that kept going forever. You know, I sent it to my agent who took it. But he then said that “I think you need a couple more chapters.” So, I filled in those spots, Tachyon took the book, and then they had some ideas about some things, so I filled that stuff in . . . it’s a long, long, long process, and it’s not always fun, but it is really fun to be on this side of it, that’s for sure. And at times during it, it’s also really fun.
How does that compare to your previous novels in the way that came together?
Miss Portland came together much more. I got much deeper into it before I had to come out and do any outlining because it’s a much simpler story. How to Mars has a lot of characters, several characters whose point of view you get. Miss Portland is really just from Zoe’s point of view, a close third-person point of view. And you stay with her, and it’s a pretty narrow period of time, it’s about two weeks, whereas How to Mars takes place across the length of a pregnancy and a little bit beyond. So, there’s just a lot more going on. And I even have to think about how to write from the point of view of Martians, you know, that I had made up. So, I had to come back out a lot more often and do planning. And at times, I was not sure at all that it was going to work. There were definitely times when I thought, “This can’t be a book.” But I guess the secret to being a writer is not listening to yourself very much when the self-doubt comes to a peak,
That’s for sure. What does your actual writing process look like?
Well, that varies, too. I think the way I like to do it. I actually didn’t really do it with this book. I like to write by hand first and then to type that up into a document. I like it because that way, I mean, it feels good writing. I have a nice fountain pen that I bought myself, and I enjoy using that. And I get a kind of free revision when I type it up where I what I type up is better than what I have down on the page because I’m not willing to just kind of put it over word for word, and I can see where things are problematic. But in this case, it was mostly done on the computer kind of directly. And then I would, when I was working on it, I would print it out write notes all over it, type up the revisions and then go from there.
I always wish I could still write by hand sometimes, but when I tried it a few years ago, I realized that I absolutely hate it now. I like the idea of it, but I just . . . I can barely handwrite anymore because I type everything and have for so long. I’m almost losing the knack of it.
It is a habit that you can either be in or out of. And it’s not always a great idea. You know, parts of this book, How to Mars, are in unusual formats. The astrophysicists, her chapters are all in the form of charts and graphs and tables and formulas. And that was relatively easy to do in Microsoft Word, and it would have been really tricky to do in handwriting. So, it’s not always the best move, but I do take a kind of pleasure in it when I can.
Do you get a chance to work for long, uninterrupted periods, or do you have to sort of fit it in around all the other things that you’re doing?
It’s more the latter, yeah, that I’m fitting in and around stuff. But over the summer, I typically take a couple of weeks and just take myself somewhere where I can get a lot of time, where I can kind of work all day. There are some retreat centers, one that I go back to a lot is the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, which is a great place in Virginia, obviously. And there are other artists and writers there. And so, you have interesting conversations over meals, and then you go back to your studio, and you just work continuously. And I find that if I could work four hours continuously, it’s not like four one-hour writing stretches, it’s . . . I get so much more done in four continuous hours than I do in four separate one-hour sessions, and so I count on that. I get a ton of my work done in the summer,
Our best version of that . . . well, there’s many . . . but the one that I have been to is the Banff Centre, Banff, Alberta, right up in the mountains. And yeah, yeah, you can do a self-directed residency up there where they basically just give you a cheap, cheap place to stay in beautiful surroundings. And then you just write. I did 50,000 words in a week up there once, working on a book. So, I’ve only been twice, I think I’ve done for a couple of other programs but only done the writing residency, maybe only once. But yeah, it’s great to be able to do something like that.
It’s beautiful, isn’t it. I mean, think about that. Fifty thousand words. It’s amazing.
Yeah, it was. I was amazed.
So, you have the manuscript or whatever for . . . you said you sent it to your agent and there were revisions, and you sent it to the editor and there were revisions. Was that because of the nature of this book? Was that revision process perhaps a bit more intense than on your other books?
Well, I have to say, I always find revision incredibly painful. I think some people love revision because it’s the time when you’re getting it more right. And I feel that a little bit, but mostly revision makes me want to weep, like just soak my laptop with tears basically every time I’m revising because it’s like breaking a vase to try and build a new better vase, is how it feels to me. In reality, of course, it’s nothing like that, but it feels that way. So, every time I got revisions back, I thought, “Oh, God,” you know, and I went through the five stages of revision, which are for me being overwhelmed, being resentful, depression, deep depression, and then reluctant. . . so, you know, eventually I did what I needed to do in each case. And I luckily kept my resentment to myself because I got tons of good feedback. My agent is a really good reader, the folks at Tachyon are really good readers, but none of it makes me like revision. The only reason I do revision is because I care more about the book than I do about whether I feel bad or not. And that’s the key for me.
It’s interesting. I actually kind of enjoy revision, although I don’t enjoy being told what’s wrong with the book.
Wouldn’t it be great if someone just says, “Oh, you’re a genius,”
Yeah, there’s a famous Peanuts cartoon where Snoopy has gotten a rejection back, and he’s typing, he says, “Dear Editor, in regard to the recent rejection letter you sent me, what I really wanted you for you to do was to publish my novel and send me a hundred thousand dollars. What part of that did you not understand?”
I love that.
So, with the revision and now you’ve got your editorial process, and this book is not out yet, but the books that have come out, what’s that feeling like for you and what kind of feedback have you gotten from readers and how does that impact you?
It’s a really, really nice thing for the most part, when something comes out and you’ve gotten something published, even if it’s an individual poem or a story, but it’s amplified a lot if it’s a whole book, because there’s a different kind of attention that gets put on a book. And I think of it as the victory lap. That you get to just kind of share it with people, and you often get to share it with them to their faces and see their reactions happen in real time as you read to them. If it’s funny, and I hope that a lot of my stuff is funny, they laugh, right there in front of you. You know, if it’s sad that they make these little sounds of sympathy. I love that. And I love when there are reviews that come out. Those tend to be a really nice experience.
One thing that’s going to be interesting, though, of course, is this book’s coming out May 25, 2021, this year, which is to say still kind of during the pandemic, maybe a lot of people will have been vaccinated. I still don’t think they’re going to be a lot of bookstore events. So, the publicity staff at Tachyon is really energetic and creative and thoughtful. And they’re doing lots of cool things to promote this book. But bookstore readings, that really hasn’t been one of the things, because are people going to want to go sit next to each other, masks or not, no masks, and listen to a reading. So, I think this victory lap is going to be much more virtual than the others, which has its advantages, I get to talk to people from everywhere, I’m talking to you right now while I’m sitting in my bedroom, basically. But it also means that I don’t get to physically go places and interact with people in person. And also, I have to delay my trip to Mars, Pennsylvania, which I am looking forward to doing at some point for a photo op with the flying saucer they have in their town square.
I’ve always wanted to do, there’s a town in Saskatchewan called Rama, and I’ve always wanted to go there and stand in front of the sign, shake hands with somebody, get the picture taken, and then post it as a Rendezvous with Rama, which, of course, is the famous Arthur C. Clarke novel.
Oh, well, I wanted to go back just a minute because one thing I kind of forgot in the writing process was about characters. I mean, I asked you about psychology and characters earlier on, but how do you find the characters that populate your stories? How do they come to you, and how do you develop them?
Sometimes they come to me with a lot already done. The novel, Miss Portland, on some level, was an attempt for me to get a little bit closer to a couple of women in my family who I lost over the last dozen years. And so, things that it had always struck me about them were present in this character as I began to write, and she went on to become her own person and quite different from them in her way. But I started on the page with a lot because there were these people in my life. The folks on Mars were not connected to people that I knew and are not connected to people I know. And so, it was a slower process. And in fact, one of the greatest things that anyone did for me in this process is, the Kenyon Review offered to publish the first chapter of the book as a story, but they wanted me to do some revision, which, of course, made me want to cry. But it was really good advice. They said they just needed to know more about why they were there, why were they on Mars. And it was a thing that I had been sort of thinking about and never really solved to my own satisfaction. And that question . . . and especially because there was some pressure on, like, they weren’t going to publish this if I didn’t figure that out. So, there was some pressure there, and it was the key question and unlocked the whole book. And from that point, I kind of thought, “I think this is going to be a book. I think this is going to work.” And it’s really thanks to that editor who asked me a tough question.
Characters are always interesting because ultimately, the only people we really understand, and we may not even understand that, is ourselves. And so, characters are really versions of ourselves, influenced by observations of the people around us, I think is the way I usually kind of think of that. Do you feel that there’s a lot of you in your character sometimes?
Yeah, I think in one way or another, there has to be, though, for me, what it often takes the form of is my confusion. And as I say, I’m always writing out of this lack of understanding that seems to be my perennial problem. But it’s a really productive problem, so I’m OK with it. And what I’m writing into it, these characters are things that I that have stuck in me that I don’t understand either about me or about something I’ve observed about other people. I’m often trying to write my way into a position of empathy when I’ve encountered somebody that I’m not sure I get or even that I’m not sure that I like a lot. I want to understand what’s going on for them because I really believe everybody has a story that helps us. If we knew, it would help us to empathize with where they are right now, so that those moments of confusion caused by encounters get lodged in me. And I write characters out of those places a lot of the time.
Well, this may tie in now to my big philosophical questions. There are three. The first one is, why do you write? Why do you do this? Why, why? Why? The second one is, why do any of us write on, you know, like a species level or the level of humanity as a whole? Why do people write? And then, I guess, the third one is why stories of the fantastic, because you said you’re getting more and more into that side of writing. So, those are the three big philosophical questions.
They’re good ones. Thank you for those. “Why do you write?” is really tied to what I’ve been saying about not understanding things. I write basically to figure things out. There’s so much that I see in the world that baffles me and that I find confusing, and that I want to understand better. And so, I try to write my way towards understanding. So, for example, when I was looking at this Mars One project, I was thinking, who would do this? Who in the world would do this? And the answer couldn’t be nobody, because I’m looking at the videos and seeing people are signing up to go to Mars forever. So that made me want to understand who they might be and what that might mean, so that that was a motivation there. But all of my stuff comes out of trying to figure things out. And also, on a side note, I just feel good when I’m, you know, not necessarily in the moment that I’m writing, but if I write regularly, I am a happier person. Then if I take long periods of time off, you know, if I get really grumpy, a lot of times my wife will say to me, would you just go write already? Because you’re getting on my nerves? And I’ll grump and say something like, “It’s not that.” And then I go write, and I come out and I say, “It was that.” Thank you for being so nice to me. So, I do it also because it’s the way I’m at my happiest, I think. So that’s, “Why do I write?”
It’s a harder question to answer, “Why do I think anybody writes?” I mean, my assumption is that there are lots of reasons why. There’s pleasure that we can have and possibilities we can encounter when we mess with words. Maybe we’re trying to learn something or articulate something or capture something. Maybe we’re just having fun. Maybe we’re getting revenge on somebody who was mean to us in middle school. I think there could be a ton of reasons, but I think the one thing that all of us have in common is that we’re not just talking to ourselves, that when you write, you’re using a medium that is interpersonal. Even if you don’t share it with anybody, you’re using language, which is an interpersonal tool. So, there’s a kind of an invisible listener, and most of us do want to share our stuff with others. So, there’s a kind of a larger conversation that we’re participating in or that we want to. And, when I was growing up, my mother, she was wonderfully, she kept her books in bookshelves out in the hallway, or when we moved to another place, in the living room, they weren’t in her room. And that meant that we all, my sister and I, could go read them whenever we wanted, which was wonderful. And I looked at those bookshelves, and I thought, “There’s a conversation going on here, and I want to be part of that.” And I think that was part of what fueled me, is looking at all these authors talking and wanting to get into that conversation.
So. That’s that one. And then, why fantastical stories? Well, we talked about Ray Bradbury earlier. He has a quote that I love. He says, “Science fiction is a great way to pretend you are writing about the future when in reality you are attacking the recent past and the present.” I just love that. You know, I think we think when we read science fiction, this is this isn’t about now, but I think a lot of really good science fiction is about now. And I write about fantastical worlds because it’s an exciting way for me to write about this world, you know, or, put another way, I didn’t write about Mars because I wanted to study Mars, I wrote about Mars because I wanted to study people, Earth people. And Mars seemed like a place where I could just isolate a few of them to look really closely and get to know them really, really well under circumstances that would be likely to test them and show who they really were.
And what are you working on now?
Well, I’m finishing up a novel that has time manipulation at the center of it that I hope will be my next novel, and I’m also thinking a little bit about whether How to Mars is the end of the story or whether there might be room for a sequel or two. So, you know, as I finish up this next book, the question becomes what’s next. And I’m missing Mars a little bit. And I’m wondering if I want to go back.
And where can your readers find you online?
Well, my last name is a bit of a pain, I’ll admit right now, but on my website is David Ebenbach.com. And I would say just look at the Web page of the podcast you’re looking at right now and get the spelling from there. So, you can find me at DavidEbenbach. com. But I’m also on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram. I’m on Reddit. I’m one of the rare people on Reddit who uses his real name. Find me there and all around, do a little Googling and you won’t have any trouble.
All right. Well, that’s kind of brings us to the end of the time here. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I certainly enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.
Thank you. This has been really fun.
And the book comes out when?
May 25th of 2021, this year.
From Tachyon Publications, I guess is the name. Or is it Tachyon Books?
I was right the first time. So, I will have links and all that kind of stuff when this goes live, which will still be before the book comes out. So, watch for it in the very near future as this podcast comes out. So again, thanks so much, David.
An avid reader of science fiction, Mark Everglade takes both its warnings and opportunities for change to heart. His first novel, Hemispheres, published through RockHill Publishing, has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon and went to number five in its category during its launch week.
Mark holds a Master’s of Science in Conflict Theory. His previous works have been featured in Expolanet Magazine and Unrealpolitik. He has appeared on numerous podcasts and newscasts for his books and social activism.
Equally serious about music, Mark has jammed with one of the Rolling Stones, met Randy Bachman, and used to have Jim Morrison’s stage equipment in his basement.
He currently resides in Florida with his wife and four children.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Mark, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you, Ed, great to be here.
Great to have you. And thanks for reaching out. A lot of these podcasts are people I’ve, you know, I encounter, or I just see somebody online, and I think they’d make a good interview. But you reached out to me, and I’m glad you did because I think this should be an interesting conversation. You’re down in Florida, I understand, where spring has probably already sprung. We’re still kind of waiting for it here.
I was walking around the lake this morning, which is not far from the house, and the lake is still quite frozen. I wouldn’t want to go to the ice, but the geese are still on the ice without worrying about it.
So, we’re going to start, as I always do, by taking you back into the mists of time—I don’t know how far back that is for you, it’s getting further back for me—to find out how you . . . well, first of all, where you grew up and your education and all that, but especially how you got interested in science fiction. And probably you started as a reader and then moved into the writing side of it. But how did that all work for you? Where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in writing?
Absolutely. Well, I grew up about 20 miles north of Baltimore City, Maryland, U.S. And I’m 40 now, but growing up, I was very interested in some of the books that came out in the ’80s and ’90s that were cyberpunk books that really got me involved in science fiction, science fiction such as Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash and William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. And I was reading a lot of that at the time, but I was also reading a lot of philosophy, a lot of Hegel and Kant and transcendental idealism, and the classic transcendentalists in America, Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, et cetera. And that really generated an interest in me in studying society, so I went on to move to the South and got a Masters of Science degree in sociology. And I’m currently employed as a professional IT manager and sociologist with the state.
Looking at, yeah, those early books, though, like Snow Crash and Pattern Recognition, you know, I saw that . . . I eventually kind of branched off into shows like The Twilight Zone and Star Trek, decades after the rest of the world had already discovered them. You know, books like 1984,Brave New World, Fahrenheit 451, you know, all the classics that we all agree are at the top of the list, although I never read Dune until about five years ago and I wish I would have read it as a boy. Of course, I realized there was something truly unique and intellectual going on here that wasn’t really about futuristic science. It was about the present day’s cultural conflicts. And perhaps nowhere is that more distinguished than in some of the cyberpunk and early proto-cyberpunk literature.
So, when did you decide to try your own hand at writing it? I see from what you have on your website that that was pretty early. You felt that you could write better endings than you were seeing in some of these stories.
Yes. And so, yeah, I was just revising, like, X-Men episodes and other things, you know, writing, writing endings of things, even in sixth grade. However, over time I wrote about four or five novels, but none of them were really up to par. And so, I just destroyed them over the years, cut bits and pieces out from them, until finally arrived at Hemispheres, which took about 4,500 hours to write. And part of that has to do with the planning process, which we’ll go into later. But a lot of that . . . some of those chapters, even though released last year, were written twenty-five years ago that just became kind of cut and paste from all these other works that I destroyed.
So this is something that’s been simmering around in your head for a long time.
Well, are you . . . did you have any formal writing training at any point, or is this something you just kind of taught yourself?
Yeah, I started out as an English major and took some creative writing classes in college, but then switched over to social sciences, psychology, and then sociology, and I feel like when you do that, when you have that social science understanding, you’re able to create a character’s interiority and motivations and kind of create that complex cognitive dissidence in a character really, really well. On the other hand, without having a full creative writing background, some of the easier things, such as the dialogue, for instance, were very, very challenging to write without having that practice in a formal institutional atmosphere.
Oh, I don’t know. I always ask that question of authors, and an awful lot of them, especially in the science fiction and fantasy field, who did have some sort of formal creative writing classes, they found that they were of limited use because you so often run into a pushback against the very idea of writing that science fiction and fantasy stuff, so some people still run into that even today. You’d think that mindset would be in the past, but it apparently still exists in some creative writing programs.
I never took creative writing myself, exactly. I took one class. I went into journalism. And that’s where my, you know, first-hand writing experience was. So, everybody comes to it from a different direction.
Yeah. Do you feel that science fiction and fantasy are less respected in the literary world than other genres?
I still think there’s some of that around. I think there’s hopefully less than there used to be. But when I talk to different authors, they’ve had different experiences. It also depends on the age of the author. And, you know, when they had these classes and that sort of thing. And others, you know, have gotten the full Master of Fine Arts approach. So, one thing I’ve found in this podcast is that everybody does it differently. And that’s one of the interesting things about it.
So, you’re currently still working as a sociologist. You’re not a full-time writer or anything like that. It seems clear from what you’ve said that your career that you went into is very much informing your fiction.
Oh, yeah, absolutely, and the whole . . . and sociological theory and the writers such as Hegel and Durkheim, et cetera, all of this kind of neo-Marxist theory, the book is not overly political, but there is a lot of social conflict between classes, between the haves and the have nots, so to speak, that we can speak more about. But, yeah, those dialectical conflicts really inspire it, classism and things like that.
Well, and you also write quite a bit of commentary about cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is . . . it was a very new thing at one point, and now it almost seems old hat. Is there a renaissance happening in cyberpunk, do you think?
It’s definitely considered old hat in a lot of ways, even by the old writers. M<any of the older cyberpunk writers have told me they’ve given up the cyberpunk name, the title. They don’t associate themselves with it anymore. However, yes, there is a revival. The Cyberpunk Coalition is a group of about twenty-five published cyberpunk authors, including Eric Malikyte, Patrick Tilley, Matthew A. Goodwin, etc., and we’ve recently put out a Neo Cyberpunk anthology of short stories that showcased what is called the new wave of cyberpunk here that’s coming up. And a lot of it is a throwback to the early ‘80s, not so much the spacefaring cyberpunk that we had in novels such as cat’s World or Halo, for instance, or Frontera or Vacuum Flowers, not so much the space-oriented cyberpunk, but the more dystopian near-future cyberpunk, the Gibson style, that’s experienced like a full revival. And in fact, it’s somewhat a shame at times that William Gibson’s style was so definitive on the genre that it’s almost become inconceivable to write cyberpunk without paying homage to him.
I think my favorite story about that . . . Robert J. Sawyer, who’s a science fiction writer that I interviewed right off the bat, and I’ve known him for a long time because he’s Canadian, he often likes to point out as an example of how science changes in that the beginning of Gibson’s, I guess, Neuromancer, is “The sky over the port was the color of a TV tuned to a dead channel. And of course, that used to mean grey and cloudy, and now it means bright blue.
Yes, that’s true.
And of course, that is one of the things we’ll talk about when we talk about Hemispheres as well. You know, the shifting science and technology. So, before we get to that, first of all, how would you define cyberpunk? Do you have a definition for it?
I mean, it’s difficult to define it without destroying it because it should be something that’s a punk, that is to say, an opposition or reaction to the zeitgeist of the times, to the kind of dystopian times we find ourselves in. So, because those times are always changing, the definition should kind of change with it. But overall, it is a subgenre of science fiction that is dystopian and essentially explores antagonists that are global corporations that are manipulating people for profit and creating wage slaves and corporations that have become more powerful than countries and are relying on technology such as artificial intelligence and other things to oppress the masses and then a sort of anti-hero that goes against that system. Now, in post-cyberpunk, the anti-hero becomes basically a chosen one, like in The Matrix or to some degree in Hemispheres. So, you know, there is a more . . . and in post-cyberpunk, you find more optimistic views of technology than you did in the classic cyberpunk, but classic cyberpunk’s looking at that intersection of technology and culture and class.
OK, now give me a synopsis of Hemispheres before we start talking about it.
Sure. So, Hemispheres is a cyberpunk space opera novel about a tidally locked planet, Gliese 581 G. It’s solar-tidal locked, so it’s locked to the sun and only—It’s a real planet—and only one hemisphere receives light. It’s called Evig Natt, which means eternal darkness. So since one side of the hemisphere receives, or since one side of the planet receives light, this causes war over land, and eventually, there are disputes that come to be regulated by an AI in a sort of technocracy, we would call it. So, with one side, with one hemisphere always dark, the government has limited all sources of light, with even fire being banned, except for one source of light, fireflies. When the ship colonized the planet, fireflies occurred at just the right frequency to be both a light source and a suitable currency. And as new forms of light were redeveloped, those who had their wealth in fireflies resisted the processing of tungsten and other elements, meaning that the poor, using light as currency, they didn’t always have enough light to live by. And basically, the whole thing is a metaphor for how the poor are kept in the dark, both literally and metaphorically, by the elites.
So anyway, Severum Rivenshear works for this government as a mercenary. And he’s previously been a terraformer, but now he’s involved in militant actions, and he has second thoughts about protecting a system that results in so much inequality. So, when a group of radicals attempts to increase the planet’s rotation to bring daylight cycles to both sides of the planet, he’s ordered to shut them down. If daylight comes to the dark hemisphere, the economy based on light would break down. On the other hand, if the planet’s rotation is increased, then it will result in ecological disasters such as floods, earthquakes, and environmental destruction. So, he’s kind of caught in this moral and ethical conundrum that’s almost very solarpunk in the ecological vibes.
OK, there’s a lot going on there.
Yeah, there is.
So, how did this all come about? You said some of it goes back 25 years. So how—this is the cliche question, “Where do you get your ideas?” but it’s a legitimate question because people are curious to know how things are inspired and how they come together. So, what was the process here for you? What brought this all together as an idea?
The process for me started when I was playing mandolin in the park outside of a college in the South, and I met this wonderful, beautiful woman who became my wife and came up with the idea for the novel.
Oh, that’s a good one.
So yeah, she came up with the idea. It was actually, you know, we were, you know, we keep up to date on science as much as possible, and Gleise 581G was one of these planets that had been discovered at that time as being just like Earth. The planet’s like a Goldilocks planet, it’s absolutely perfect to live on, except for the fact that it’s 20 million light-years away and, in addition, the planet is . . . half of it’s always dark, so half of it’s always frozen. And so those are things that are, you know, would have to be surmounted, but otherwise, it’s a perfect planet. So, studying the science really brought a lot of this inspiration of mine. And my wife came up with the idea and, you know, lay down some things, and then finally submitted it, got my first rejection letter from Philip K. Dick’s publisher, Twilight something, who has been absorbed by Kensington. And then, after I got one rejection, I put the book down for two years and said, it must be crap.
Then eventually, I got some feedback from beta readers, you know, which is very important, and from other editors, and eventually edited it. And I learned that Dune had been submitted twenty-nine times before it had finally been picked up by a publisher. And so, I decided I would submit Hemispheres twenty-nine times, and if it wasn’t published by a publisher at that point, I would give up on the twenty-ninth time. After twenty-eight rejections, Rockhill Publishing, a traditional publisher in Virginia, picked it up, and so that was that.
Now, I saw on your website, you had in your little “About You” there, you had said that you don’t plan, you don’t plan or outline. That’s usually my next question, is planning and outlining. So, what does that really mean? You must do some planning, at least mentally.
Yes. So, the planning is something that I’ve actually increasingly done over time because that’s one of the reasons that it took, you know, thousands of hours to write a book that’s 300 pages because of the lack of outlining and planning. I believe that if you create situations that are rife with conflict and that your characters have internal conflict as well and realistic motivations, that the plot kind of writes itself when they’re put into conflict, atmospheres of conflict. On the other hand, it’s really, you can really get your head underwater if you’re not careful with this approach.
Yes, well, this is the old what we call in the field plotting versus pantsing. So, it sounds like you’re a hero.
Yes, but I’m a wannabe plotter because when I plot even a simple, short, short story, the process goes, like, so much faster. You do feel at times that you’re kind of contrived to connect point A to point B, and it’s almost just like following a line path that’s already developed. It kind of takes away some of the free will and spontaneity of the writing, I think. But at the same time, it keeps the plot intact and compelling and cohesive and comprehensible.
Well, certainly, the authors I’ve talked to run the gamut from complete pantser, or, you know, well, “I have a couple of characters and, you know, two characters go into a bar, and a novel comes out.” And there’s also the other extreme, and I’ve mentioned it several times, I hope he doesn’t mind, Peter V. Brett, who wrote an internationally bestselling series called The Demon Cycle. He writes 150-page outlines before he begins writing, and then he just fills in the blanks. So, he puts all of that creativity into the outline. And other people say, “Well, I couldn’t write like that. It would spoil the fun.” He says, “Well, it’s not supposed to be fun. It’s a job.”
So that’s the thing. You know, five percent of it is the writing, and ninety-five percent is the editing, the marketing, and everything else. And it’s work.
So, your actual writing process, then you’re obviously just writing. But that process, I mean, do you sit with a pen and use parchment under a tree or do you like to go out of your house for variety, do you write in an office, what’s your process like?
You know, interruption is really the main enemy of writing, I think. And I have to do it on the computer because I have to constantly reorganize entire pages and paragraphs for flow and, you know, constantly jumbling them back together in different orders. But, you know, a couple of glasses of sake helps lubricate the narratives as well, especially with some of the more intimate scenes. I think they come across a lot easier for someone who’s a little bit more bashful like me there.
There is a whiskey that I’ve run across called Writers’ Tears. I think it’s from Ireland, which would make sense.
Perfect. What a history of writing there.
So, do you work in long, uninterrupted stretches, or do you have to snatch bits and pieces when you can, what with having a full-time job?
Yeah, I have four kids, so I wrote ten minutes here and ten minutes there. You know, if I could, I would spend 12 hours a day just unmoving like I did in college, writing, you know, whatever. But you have to create that work/life balance and the family hobby balance as well. It’s very easy to become self-absorbed when you do this as you’re creating these whole very immersive worlds, and with me being extremely introverted anyway, you really have to balance that with familial duties and responsibilities and, you know, kind of letting the ego go away and setting limits for yourself and how much . . . sometimes writing can be a very selfish process because it’s an individual process. I look at other arts, and lots of arts are group arts. They’re creative arts, where you can get a whole band together or get their family together and play five or six instruments at a time, and it’s wonderful. But writing is an isolated process. So, I’m becoming increasingly hesitant to isolate myself for long periods on end because of the impacts that can have on the family, especially when you’re spending thousands of hours on a book.
Yeah, I do this, writing, but I’ve also done professional theatre, which is on the other end of the scale of being surrounded by people and working, you know, that way. And yet, I also like to say that, see what you think about this, that although writing is solitary and it’s something you do by yourself, the end product is really a collaborative product. So, you’re putting ideas in other people’s heads, but they don’t really exist until those people reassemble those ideas inside their heads. So, you’re really collaborating with readers all the time that you’re writing.
You know, that’s an excellent point, because once you’re done, the whole interpretation of the book becomes a collective discourse, either literally, like in situations like this, or like you said, tacitly when the readers are reading it, it’s almost a conversation between the writer and the reader.
Now, you mentioned that you, you know, are moving stuff around. Do you work in Word, or do you use something like Scrivner, which makes that process perhaps a little easier? What do you use?
Just word. I mean, most people I know use Scrivner, however.
Yeah, I have it, but I don’t use it. I keep meaning to learn. But it’s like, well, there’s this learning curve, and I just want to write. So, I haven’t done that yet.
So, OK, you’re writing a . . . how long a process was writing this book. Do you end up with what you’d call a first draft, or are you doing so much revision as you go that when you get to the end, it’s kind of finished, and you’re past just an initial draft kind of stage?
I do so much editing that it destroys the writing to some degree. You know, editing things for conciseness, editing things for tone and everything. You can actually over-edit a book. I was talking to Jeff Vandermeer, who did the Annihilation movie and books, you know, and Jeff told me that if he wants a character to really read a certain way, like Rawls, he just doesn’t edit their text at all. He doesn’t edit those sections because he told me there’s a risk when you edit and edit the same thing over and over, yes, it can look more concise and more proper and everything else, but you lose some of that tone, which is really hard to maintain as a writer, a unique tone of voice. So, yeah, I read it.
So, you end up with something that’s fairly polished when you get to the point where you say “The End”?
And then go straight into the . . . well, you mentioned beta readers, so tell me about those. Where did you find them and how many do you use, and what do they do for you?
It’s important for any author to have an author group. I have a few that I’ve I’ve been in. And for me, I reached out to a cyberpunk author, Matthew Goodwin, who was putting together an author group. And we ended up . . . he ended up coming up with a concept of Cyberpunk Day, and it’s cyberpunkday.com, to recognize cyberpunk as a cultural phenomenon and celebrate it every year on October 10th, 1010, like binary code. So, because of that, having an event and having one day a year and having an author group, you know, that surrounds it with projects like coming up with anthologies and all, it really inspires you to write. But you also get that kind of reciprocity of beta feedback. And so, you know, authors have to join together, especially if they’re indie authors, like many of these authors are, who are self-published, then they have no choice but to constantly envelop themselves in the author community.
So, what kind of feedback do you get?
Half the people say that the book is way too slow, and the other half say that it is way too fast-paced. And som that’s the kind of feedback you get. There are editors, there are other writers, there are critics, and then there’s your reader, and it’s hard to please even one or two of those groups. And so, if you can please a couple of those groups, you’re doing well. But that’s about . . . you have to know, say, in cyberpunk, people expect it to be disorienting, fast-paced, you know, but the average hard science fiction reader is going to expect a very gradual, slow exposition. So, you have to know your target audience.
So, with conflicting responses coming back, how do you ultimately decide which advice to take in and which to set aside?
I read the classics, most of the cyberpunk classics, and then tried to decide, well, what was the pacing like in those books? And when I read Neuromancer or Vacuum Flowers, it’s extremely fast-paced and they’re very disorienting. And I kind of copy that style of just throwing the reader into the action without a whole lot of exposition and then kind of feel their way through it, you know. And cyberpunk authors love that. But the average sci-fi reader is sometimes turned off by the lack of not having ten pages of infodump worldbuilding first.
Yeah, it very much depends on the reader. I mean, I’ve always found that part of the excitement of reading science fiction is being simply thrown into a strange situation and figuring out what’s going on.
Yeah. Yeah, exactly.
So, I’ve never had a problem with the kind of, you know . . . and I wasn’t able to finish Hemispheres, but I started it, and I never have that problem with being thrown into something like that and trying to figure it out. But, yeah. And I think non-genre readers have an even bigger problem with it and trying to orient themselves. And it’s one thing that turns off people that say they don’t like science fiction or fantasy is that “I don’t know what’s going on” feeling.
Oh, yeah. Even in fantasy, you have so many different terms and different races and everything, and sometimes, you know, you’re left to kind of figure it out.
Do you get any, like, line-by-line feedback from beta readers, or is that something you’re looking more towards the editing?
Sure. Sure. Both from editor and beta readers, you get line-by-line feedback, and it’s hard to take sometimes. The same line that somebody likes another person may not like. The main difference seems to be the level of metaphor that people like. I like extremely dense, metaphorical, poetic prose. Some people say, oh, they love the book for that reason. Others say that it makes it too obtuse and slow to read, you know, having to piece out all the metaphors constantly. So, you know, that’s one thing that science fiction in general, a lot of the people who read it, I think, want more concrete texts that are less abstract or philosophical and less poetic and flowery prose. Well, I think in fantasy, you can get away with some of the more eloquent, poetic prose and aphorisms.
Well, and as you said about finding your audience, there are so many niches and so many different readers out there.
You can now, you can now write for a fairly small niche and still find quite a few readers if you can just connect with them.
Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
And yes, your prose is quite . . . quite dense. That just comes naturally to you? That’s just the way you write?
No, it comes from the overhead editing, you know, constantly taking away. And, you know, when writing it, the first editor, before I signed with RockHill, asked me to cut 20,000 words before they would consider it. So, those 20,000 words that got cut. Yeah, that’s part of the reason why everything became more dense. That’s not always a bad thing.
And with RockHill, you’re working then with an editor at some point. What’s the editorial process like for you?
Well, the editors greater. Athina Paris is an author herself, and she’ll, you know, read through it, and then I read through it a few times, and we both, you know, go back and forth. You know, if we argue about anything, it’s just a single comma, usually. And so, it’s a very amicable process. It’s a back and forth. But when you’re with a small publisher that may produce a dozen books a year like RockHill, then you have to be part of that publishing group and part of their weekly meetings and part of their marketing strategy and, you know, giving your skills, whether it’s graphic design, marketing, et cetera, you know, giving your skills to that group. Small publishers really benefit from the participation of their authors. But I think that’s becoming the case even with the larger publishers now. I look at large, very popular authors who stopped promoting themselves, say, on social media. And within a couple of years, they disappear, and people just don’t know them as much.
Yeah . . . it’s interesting with this because really, really long-established authors seem to do fine without doing a lot on social media, but it seems like anybody starting up or that perhaps does not have, like, decades and decades of fan support built up, seems to rely more and more on doing their own marketing. I know, I’m, you know, I’m constantly posting this and that and the other thing.
The one thing I remember from . . . because I studied public relations, among other things, when I got my journalism degree, which was in Arkansas, by the way, closer to Florida than I have now . . . was one thing I remember was that 90 percent of public relations is wasted, but nobody knows which 90 percent it is. It certainly seems to hold true for marketing in general.
Oh, absolutely. I mean, there’s the two methods, the spraying method, spray and pray, I think they call it, where you just try to reach 100,000 people, you know, at random. Or you can try to put the effort in to reach those 100 people that are actually in your niche and might read your book. And, you know, that’s my method. It’s just reaching that small group. When you’re in a niche like cyberpunk, you want to reach that specific audience.
Now, when did the book officially come out?
So, what . . . well, first of all, you brought out your first book when there were a few other things going on in the world last year.
How did that affect you?
The formatting ended up getting rushed in some ways. The final product, things like the cover, the resolution and contrast, a lot of things ended up kind of . . . everything was very hurried, I felt. And all publishing was in the tubes right then. You know, originally we had planned on releasing it, like, maybe in April, but that didn’t seem good. But you don’t want to delay these things inevitably. You know, I was going to do a book tour, but any kind of physical book tour was canceled. So that’s why I relied on, you know, great podcasts like yours to kind of, you know, be the book tour and get the word out. So that’s really helped.
Yeah. And hopefully, in the not-too-distant future and we may be able to start doing physical book launches and things again. That would be nice.
I’ve missed . . . I sell a lot of my books . . . I do, you know, I go to a couple of local ComicCon-type things, and I’ve always sold, you know, I’ll sell a thousand dollars worth of books off my table over the weekend, which is, you know, not insignificant.
And that was all gone last year. So right now, I’m looking forward to that coming back. And of course, even the books that are in bookstores, bookstores have been closed. And, yeah, it’s been crazy.
I tried to get . . . oh, I reached out to 200, you know, independent bookstores, and nine of them picked the book up, but a lot of them, they said they were asking me, actually saying, “We can’t buy your book right now. Can you make a donation so we can keep our doors open?”
And so a lot of them are going out and . . .
Yeah, hopefully, there’ll be a bounce back after this is all over, but I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
But once you had the actual book, I mean, that’s always exciting. Your first physical book in hand. What was your reaction when it came out? How did that feel to you?
Overwhelming. I mean, there was an immediate like 500 hours of things I had to do to build my author platform. You know, your author platform needs to be built two years before you publish your book. No less than one year. But I had about three months to build my author platform before I launched. And so that, you know, took 125 hours to develop my website, you know, just the initial version of it, for instance, and all those things that, you know, that you have to do, creation of your marketing plan and meeting with the marketers, etc. It takes a tremendous amount of time, and it’s very overwhelming.
This is also why you don’t want to figure out your income from writing on an hourly basis.
It wouldn’t make sense. It’d be pennies on the hour, no matter how much you sold.
So, how was the reaction? What has the reaction to it been? And have you been pleased with the way people reacted to it?
Absolutely. It went to number five in this category during the launch week and had a few hundred readers pick it up, you know, just during the launch weekend. And so, yeah, it did very well at first. Sales tapered off over time as I marketed it less and less. But, you know, really, today, if I put one an hour into marketing, you know, you may get a few book sales if you’re doing . . . but you have to constantly be at it. That’s the thing. Releasing more books, however . . . I’ve just written twenty thousand words to a sequel, for instance, and I have a couple of other things that are out there being queried and reviewed. But yeah, that kind of, you know, hopefully, a sequel would, you know, help promote the original book as well.
You had a couple of short stories, did you not? In a couple of other collections.
Yeah, I’ve had about dozen by now published in a variety of different areas.
So how do you find the difference between writing, for you, writing short fiction as opposed to writing a novel?
It’s much harder, and I have to plan it and outline it. A three-page short story, you know, could be sold for thirty dollars, but it may also take twenty hours to write three pages. It’s more difficult to write concisely and try to put a plot and a character arc into, you know, into the normal three or four thousand words than it is to write it in a novel. I think the short story is the most challenging form.
There’s . . . I don’t remember who it was who famously wrote in a letter, “I’m sorry for the length of this letter, but I didn’t have time to make it shorter,” or something like that.
Short fiction can feel like that for sure.
But with the short fiction, do you find that more or less satisfying than writing a novel? Which way do you think is really your natural storytelling length?
You know, they’re both satisfying in a sense that . . . you need quick wins to keep you encouraged and to keep you going. And if you can spend a weekend writing a short story and, you know, query it out and get it published in a competitive journal, that’s very inspiring. And people will read that and want to read your longer works. But at the same time, you know, having kind of all of your accomplishments in one place, you know, so to speak, and being able to plan the complexity of a novel, you know, there’s a lot of joy in that, too. But, you know, you need long-term goals and quick wins, or you stop doing it.
One thing I meant to ask about when we were talking about writing the novel, and because I touched on it earlier, was about the, you know, rapid pace of technological advancement.
That does seem to play . . . now, you’re writing cyberpunk set in the far future on a, you know, an interstellar setting.
But with the pace of technology changing, is that a challenge for cyberpunk writers so that you don’t? And I still remember watching an X Files where they were talking about, I think it was a T3, and how this was such an amazingly fast . . .
Oh, right. Right.
. . . cable. And even at the time that was in The X Files . . . my wife’s a telecommunications engineer, and I knew that the T3 was already old hat, and this was not the latest cutting-edge thing that they were trying to make it sound like.
Do you think there’s an issue like that with trying to write cyberpunk and trying to stay ahead of the advancement of artificial intelligence and all the other things that are going on?
I think that, you know, people are paying attention to cybernetic augmentations, you know, in prosthetics and, you know, false eyes and virtual reality and augmented reality. They’re paying attention to all those developments—nanomachines—but cyberpunk authors are not paying attention to little things like kitchen appliance technology or, you know, different types of technology that are in everyday common goods. There’s one video game, for instance, Techno Babylon, that’s a cyberpunk game that looks at small technological devices and how they can have a huge impact on society. You know, we look at the . . . I think major technology devices being like, you know, whether it’s the Internet or the radio or the TV, et cetera, but there are much smaller devices that are less significant that had large impacts based on kind of the technology that emerged out of them. But cyberpunk is really, technologically, it’s just interested in government monitoring technology and cybernetic augmentations. And that’s really a very limited perspective.
Well, it’s interesting when you look through the history of, you know, any advancement, the unexpected side effects of what seems like fairly minor things.
Think about how the automobile, for example, changed society, sexual mores, and everything else. You’re a sociologist. This must be something that sociology has studied and continues to study. Is it?
Absolutely. Like, ideas of the speed of transmission, looking at how fast different cultures can communicate and how it affects their military strategy and their economy, et cetera. For instance, they introduced cellphones to Indian fishing villages in Asia, and it entirely impacted everything because they could call local fishermen and—or local places where they would sell fish—and see if those fish that they caught that day were necessary or whether they would have a market if they went off to that location. But basically, this impacted the local fishermen because before, they would just randomly go from dock to dock to see which market needed their fish to sell. And a lot of the fish would die and become rotten by the time they actually found a market for that. So being able to increase the speed of their communication, increase the efficiency of their economy, reduce food waste and had an impact on the population, and then from a functionalist perspective, impacts on population then affect every other aspect of society because it causes things like gentrification, regentrification, cultural diffusion, etc.
Well, all of science fiction is supposed to be . . . well, that’s too broad a brush because there are so many different kinds of science fiction. But of course, the classic idea of science fiction is that there are two questions. “What if?” and “If this goes on . . . ” and if this goes on, is where you’re starting to get into all that kind of stuff. And again, that’s where the cyberpunk, I guess, comes in is, if this goes on with this level of technology and corporate control and all that, this might be where we end up.
Did you do any special research while you were writing Hemispheres?
The research I did was mostly on the astronomy of tidal planets and how they work, reading NASA research, reading about the physics of entropy and things like that, because that was outside of my field. And I touched very briefly in the book on the actual mechanisms of controlling the planet’s angular momentum to increase its rotation. The reason I don’t touch on it more than a few paragraphs here and there is because they say, write what you know, and as a sociologist, I’m able to write things, like, create a religion based around a panopticon. I could create a religion based on . . . in the book they worship this god, Orbis, who represents the panopticon of George Barclay, the Scottish philosopher. But in any regard, you kind of write what you know, you know, if you know religion, philosophy, you write that. I mainly had to study the astronomy side,
But it’s also worth noting, and certainly, in far-future science fiction, it’s not like we today go around and explain to each other how things work. We just accept it. That’s our world. And so, how much of that you have to explain very much has to do with what kind of story you’re telling, I think.
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
So, is Hemispheres a standalone? You are . . . you said you were working on a sequel, is that right?
Yes, the publisher has rights to an entire series, so the sequel will be out in a year. And, you know, the first twenty thousand words went very well, and now I’m stuck, and so, I’m going to have to reach out to a couple of guys that read my other work earlier and see if they can help me out with the plot.
Did you do more planning and outlining on this one, or are you winging it?
Far more planning and outlining, yes, but it all resolved within twenty thousand words. The whole conflict was resolved. The characters were too efficient.
Maybe it’s really a novella.
Right. Maybe so.
Well, we’re getting in the last ten, fifteen minutes here. So, I’ll ask you my big philosophical questions.
You’re a sociologist. You should be good with these. The first one is simply, why do you write? I mean, you started doing it when you were young. You spent years at it. All these hours you put into it, you’ve got a book. What is it that drives you to keep doing it? Why do you write?
I mean, I believe that there has to be a certain value that comes out of it that, you know, some kind of moral value that comes out of literature. You don’t want to overly moralize things, but to write for your entertainment purposes is somewhat vain, I think. You know, these values . . . in this case, I wanted to create two different sides and kind of mix up the conservatives and liberals, kind of mix up their beliefs, and show that they weren’t as different as they really appeared to be on the surface, to kind of break down . . . like all the characters or shades of gray. There’s no good and evil. And when you can create, you know, characters that are shades of gray, that are all flawed but still can work together to produce something good, you know, there’s a certain value statement that comes out of that. And so that’s, you know, one of the reasons. And it’s very cathartic and therapeutic. You know, most authors will say that it’s cathartic to write, and it’s getting out all this repressed stuff in the unconscious that emerges. Most writers, I think most writers are probably writing for more along the lines of entertainment. I do think there’s some degree, even in myself, of ego and narcissism involved. And to some degree, I think that you have to be a little bit narcissistic to be an author. You have to believe that you have something special and unique to contribute, even if you don’t and you’re standing on the shoulders of giants, simply to put up with 100 rejections, you know, all the rejection, the emails that you’ll get back, you kind of have some kind of shell there and believe that you have, you know, something to give. But I do find a lot of both sensitivity but also narcissism in the art community overall.
Yeah, I think I go along with that. And having worked as an actor as well, I can, yeah, I think I could see that. On the slightly bigger image, picture, you talk about why writers write, but why, as a human race, do we feel compelled to tell stories? Why do we feel compelled to make things up and tell stories?
Oh, it’s so fascinating. Yeah, I guess . . . first, the background question to that is how much do we make up? You know, have we socially constructed our entire reality, right down to religion and the gods? You know, is it all socially constructed, or, you know to what degree does the material world influence the social world? You look at what’s called cultural materialism and anthropology. I also have a degree in anthro. And in cultural materialism, we look at how nature and natural pressures shape culture and shape discourse and narrative and how those narratives serve different functions. Narratives that we tell in our society serve functions to replicate the system to a large degree, whether it’s replicating patriarchy or replicating our values, etc. They are ways of stabilizing the system. So that’s when it’s really special when you see something like cyberpunk, that’s very subversive, and it wants to undermine the most commonly accepted discourse on the subject, you know, making us examine things like the power that we give corporations and the lack of regulation and the abuses that come out of this. You know, these subversive literatures are very interesting for that reason. But I think a lot of our discourse is just replicating and keeping the status quo.
It must come from evolution ultimately. What is the survival benefit to the species of telling stories?
Well, metaphor itself has been linked to bridging societies together that . . . let me give you an example. I saw . . . there was a woman who was very racist and went into a Mexican restaurant and refused to try anything. But she was with a friend, and I watched her in line, and somebody said, “Oh, you got to try the quesadilla.” And they were able to convince her to try quesadillas by telling her that it is basically a grilled cheese. And when they said that, she tried the quesadilla, and then I looked over at the table, and she absolutely loved it. And so, I always remember that because it’s basically by making a metaphor there, that the quesadilla is like a grilled cheese. She was able to assimilate to an important aspect of Mexican culture, food, culinary culture. So, metaphors overall or how we interact with situations that we’re uncomfortable with or that we can’t anticipate, we relate them back to what we know. And so, promulgating what we know helps us adapt more to different environments and social environments and expectations. So that’s part of it, I think.
Well, then why take . . . and this is my third question . . . why take the next step and tell stories about things that are clearly not so or, you know, fantasy worlds of science fiction worlds, the far future? Why take that next step?
Well, there, it’s a lot of escapism? They did studies on, you know, the personality types of people who like science fiction, and they’re not necessarily extroverted or introverted, but they are people who are kind of pariahs to some degree or on the fringes of society in some way or another based on their personality characteristics, the status, their own choice, et cetera. So . . . and it binds them together, is what the study found, that by having a unique form of escapism that’s collectively acknowledged where we can all talk about, say, Star Wars or Star Trek, then it creates a subgroup identity for pariahs.
I can identify with that.
I can, too.
All right. Well, you’ve already mentioned what you’re working on. Is there anything else in the works beyond that sequel?
I wrote a story, a novel, Digital Enlightenment, and it is a new universe, and it’s basically about a society where they cannot write at all and another society where everything they think is written down across TV screens that stretch out across the city. And so, all their thoughts, you know, twelve thousand thoughts a day per person, are all on display for the entire world to see. And so, this woman from a culture that can’t write at all goes into a culture where everything that people think is written down and it’s about how those two societies interact, with a lot of satire on social media and what we choose to display to the world on social media.
And where can people find you online?
MarkEverglade.com would be probably the best place.
OK, are you on Twitter?
Yeah, @Mark Everglade or @MarkEverglade1, one of those two.
Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. That was a fascinating chat. I hope you enjoyed it.
An hour-long conversation with Walter Jon Williams, Nebula Award-winning, New York Times-bestselling author of more than forty books of historical fiction, fantasy, and science fiction, as well as work in film, television, comics, and games.
Walter Jon Williams is the Nebula Award-winning, New York Times-bestelling author of more than forty volumes of fiction, in addition to works in film, television, comics, and the gaming field.
He began his career writing historical fiction, the sea-adventure series Privateers & Gentlemen, then, when the market for historical novels died, began a new career as a science fiction writer. Since then, he’s written cyberpunk, near-future thrillers, classic space opera, “new” space opera, post-cyberpunk epic fantasy new weird, and the world’s only gothic western science fiction police procedural (Days of Atonement). He’s also a reasonably prolific writer of short fiction, including contributions to George RR Martin’s Wild Cards project.
Williams has been nominated for numerous literary awards, and won Nebula Awards in 205 and 2011. In addition to fiction, he’s written a number of films for Hollywood, although none have yet been made. He’s also maintained a foot in the gaming industry, having written RPGs based on his Privateers & Gentlemen series and his novel Hardwired, contributed to the alternate-reality game Last Call Poker, and written the dialog for the Electronic Arts game Spore. In 2017, he was the Guest of Honor at the 75th World Science Fiction Convention, held in Helsinki.
In addition to writing, Williams is a world traveler, scuba diver, and a black belt in Kenpo Karate. He lives in New Mexico.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Walter, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Happy to be here.
I always try to find connections, and I can think of two. You live in New Mexico, and I was born in New Mexico. So that’s something.
I was born in Silver City, New Mexico, but yeah, I didn’t live there very long. We moved to Texas, and then we moved from Texas to Canada, which is where I am now. But, yeah. So, there’s that connection.
Silver City is quite pretty and has quite a history.
I don’t believe I’ve ever seen it when I was old enough to remember it. I know we went back a couple of times when I was young, but I don’t have any memories of it, unfortunately.
Well, the thing I like about certain old towns is, you know, if they were, say, a mining town, silver-mining town, which Silver City was, and then the silver mining went bust, they never had enough money to tear down their old Victorian town and build up an ugly new modern one.
So, it’s still got all these beautiful Victorian buildings still, as does all the surrounding area.
It’s a bit like Moose Jaw here in Saskatchewan. They had a couple of fires in the early years that burned everything down. So, they passed a bylaw that everything had to be built out of brick.
And then there was kind of a boom and then a bust. And a lot of those old brick buildings are still there. So, Moose Jaw has some really nice character buildings still existing. Plus, it has that name, Moose Jaw, going for it. The other connection is, we did actually eat at the same restaurant at some convention, but I can’t remember which one. I was probably Denver or Reno, but . . .
I think I’ll have to take your word for it. I’ve eaten in many restaurants at many conventions.
Yeah, so have I at this point. You more than me, I’m sure. And they do tend to kind of run together over time. Well, anyway, so, that’s not actually what we’re going to talk about. We’re going to talk about your writing process. But first, I want to take you back into the mists of time, which is getting further and further back for some of us, I guess. For all of us, really. Where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in reading and writing and all that good stuff? How did you get started in this strange way of making a living?
I was born and raised in Duluth, Minnesota, and I always wanted to be a writer. As soon as I knew what a writer was, I wanted to be that. I was probably four years old. I didn’t know how to read or write yet, so I would dictate stories to my parents, who would write them down for me. And then I would illustrate them with my crayons, and fortunately, none of those have survived. And so, I mean, it wasn’t a choice for me. I was compelled to be a writer, and I just work hard at it all my life until I managed to sell some fiction. And then I worked hard at writing more fiction to sell.
If you wanted to be a writer, that must have come from having encountered books. So, was there a reading component to your wanting to become a writer, I presume?
Well, once again, I didn’t know how to read, but I had books read to me and comic books, which I think were a big influence on my very early writing development, since I was better with crayons than I was with, you know, actually crafting prose. So, let’s see. And so, my family left Duluth and moved to New Mexico when I was thirteen. And with some exceptions, I’ve been here ever since.
Did you study writing formally at some point or . . . ?
I took some creative writing classes in college. I’m not sure that they helped. Well, I think, you know, I took a lot of literature courses, and that exposed me to a lot of different material, different writers, different ways of writing, different approaches to writing. And those turned out to be quite valuable. But the actual writing classes . . . well, probably they did no harm.
Well, I often ask writers about that, and more often than not . . . I have rarely gotten a ringing endorsement of creative writing courses at the university level from anybody I’ve talked to you on the podcast. So, that’s interesting. Were there specific books, once you were reading your own books, were there specific books along the way that influenced you, do you think?
Well, science fiction was an early passion. I think I was in second grade when I . . . my mom, who was not a science fiction person at all, sort of marched through the local public library one day, and she knew I would like science fiction, so she grabbed a couple of science fiction books off the shelf and brought them home for me. And the first one was Robert Heinlein’s Have Spaceship Will Travel, which is still my favorite Heinlein novel.
Mine too, actually.
You know, I don’t know why it hasn’t been made into a movie. It would be glorious. But so. I read science fiction from second grade on. I was really fond of books about natural history and animals, including, you know, fiction about animals, you know, The Jungle Book and so on. And then I just continued, and I read a ton of history because I just love history, and that’s a big influence on one of my current projects.
Just mentioning animal books, did you read the Black Stallion books by any chance?
No, I did not. They were not available.
The only reason I ask is, I often ask if anybody has encountered them because it’s perhaps little known that Walter Farley wrote a subsection of those, the Island Stallion books, that were actually science fiction. There’s, like, aliens involved, with horse racing as well.
If I’d known that, I would have sought them out, I’m sure.
His final book that he wrote, late in life, Alec and the Black are wandering around the southwestern desert, Arizona, I think, not New Mexico, while there’s been some sort of asteroid strike or something, it’s like a post-apocalyptic almost setting, with the horse and the boy. And it’s very odd, really. So, that’s why I asked.
Yeah, it’s . . . you sort of wonder if he was running out of ideas for ordinary horse stories, you know that., OK, well, let’s have a post-Holocaust horse story and see what that seems like.
It might have been something like that, or he was just feeling really depressed. I don’t know. It kind of reads that way, too. So, you mentioned the historical, and when you did start becoming published, I know that your first books were historical novels, were they not?
My first published books were. There were some unpublished ones that weren’t. There are a whole host of projects that I never completed for one reason or another, including science fiction and fantasy. I wrote a sort of literary novel that took place in the Civil War that attracted some attention but never got published. And I followed that up with a murder mystery and then had the idea for a series of sea-adventure novels. And those were the ones that sold. It was . . . they were in the realm of C.S. Forester or Jack Aubrey, you know, except that my heroes were Americans rather than Royal Navy.
Did you have any . . . I’ve always had a fondness for these stories, one of the books, one of the series I read growing up was a series of British children’s books called Swallows and Amazons, in which the kids sail. Now, they’re not. They’re just sailing, like, little sailing dinghies around the Lake District in England for many of the books. But in their mind, they’re having these sea adventures with pirates and broadsides and all that stuff going on. And I think that’s where my interest in and see stories came. Did you have any connection to the sea other than just wanting to write about it?
Well, I think growing up on Lake Superior. Lake Superior is, you know, it’s the largest body of fresh water on the planet. And it is, it’s, you know, it’s pretty much a sea of its own. And also, growing up in Minnesota, the land of 10,000 lakes, I spent a lot of time in the water when I was a kid and on boats. So, you know, I grew up, and I became a small-boat sailor and a scuba diver. So, you know, it’s been a consistent thing in my life.
And that series you’ve brought out as ebooks now, haven’t you? After they were not available for a while. It’s called Privateers and Gentleman, right?
That’s the series title. And I also restored my original titles that the publisher . . . the original publisher was Dell, and they had a formula for how they wanted series books to be titled. Which was The (Adjective). And the adjective would change, but it had to be a two-word title, the first word had to be “the.”
That gets repetitious after a while, I would think.
Yeah, yeah. And especially as I had much better titles. Those titles are now restored to the books that needed them.
Where could people get those if they wanted to read them?
Your favorite online bookstore.
Available everywhere I can find to put it, yeah.
So how did you make the switch from the historicals to science fiction?
Oh, that was easy. The market for historical fiction in the United States completely collapsed about May of 1982. And so, what I planned as a ten-book series became a five-book series. And so, I spent a desperate six months writing proposals for things that didn’t sell. And it was across the spectrum, I mean, I wrote proposals for mysteries, for historicals, for science–not for science fiction, actually—everything but category romance, I think. And none of them sold.
And then, a science fiction proposal that I had written some years before sold. And so, I became a science fiction writer. And the science fiction proposal had been bouncing around publisher to publisher without being read. It’s kind of a fascinating saga, it’s probably too long for this interview, but it sort of explains how publishers can screw up repeatedly. And it finally ended up at Tor books. And the editor at that point was Jim Baen. And there were only three people in the office. There was Tom Doherty, who was the publisher, Jim Baen, the editor, and then there was Mrs. Doherty, who ran the account—was the accounting department. And, you know, now Tor is the largest science fiction publisher, and it doesn’t run like that anymore. But Jim Baen read the proposal and bought it. And although it had been on the market for two or three years, it actually sold to the first editor who rented.
How did it not get read at the other places that it had been?
Well, there were a lot of mergers going on in publishing, as there are now. And so, you know, I don’t recall the exact sequence, but, you know, it was sent to Ace. And Susan Allison, who was the editor, left Ace to go to Berkeley, and until she was replaced, they put a buying hold. So, then it came back, and then it was sent to Berkeley and to Susan Allison at Berkeley, and then Berkeley acquired Ace and suddenly they had too many manuscripts sitting in the office. So, another buying hold went, and then it went to David Hartwell at Timescape, and it was lost in the mailroom for about six months. And by the time that was discovered, they had put a buying hold on. And so, it just kept bouncing off of these things until it actually went to an editor who still had a publishing schedule to fill up.
That must have been satisfying when it did finally sell.
I was greatly, greatly relieved because I was, you know, beginning to look in the help wanted section of the paper so that I could make my rent. And suddenly . . . although it has to be said that the science fiction sold for a lot less money than the historical fiction did. So, I was . . . it took me a few years before I could reach my former miserable standard of living from where I was merely poor instead of in wretched poverty.
Yeah. I can relate. So, there was also a venture into writing for games, and you’ve written for . . . I know, I’ve been a full-time freelancer for thirty years, and I know you do, you know, anything for a buck, basically, but how did you get involved on the gaming side, and have you kept your hand in there?
I’d always been doing games, I’d been playing games for a long time, Avalon Hill games and spy games, historical war games and stuff and Dungeons and Dragons. And so, you know, I was familiar with the genre. And what happened was Jim Bain formed his own publishing company. He left Tor, formed Baen Books, and he also decided to get into computer games, which was a new thing. And because he had a distribution deal with Simon and Schuster, he was going to market his computer games through Simon and Schuster, and they would appear in every bookstore in America and be a huge success. Except, he didn’t realize that the crack Simon and Schuster sales force weren’t interested in computer games, didn’t know how to sell them, and didn’t care to try. And so, it ended up being a terrible failure. And I did write four computer games for Baen Software, of which only one saw print, and the company collapsed before the others could appear.
I’m curious about it because it’s, you know, I’ve never done it, and I’ve always thought it might be interesting to do. Playing them, it seems to me like there’s an . . . there’s an awful lot of dialogue that has to be written for every conceivable iteration of how the game might play. Is that a fair description of it?
Well, especially with, say, a large-scale computer game. I did write the dialogue for a game called Spore, which was sort of galactic adventure with many different alien races that fit various categories of every warlike or mercenary or capitalistic or concerned about ecosystems or whatever. And so, you know, when you say hello to one of them, depending on what kind of alien they are, which category they fit into, they will respond in character. And you end up having these long dialogues with these people. And it was done very imaginatively. They found all these artists who could do gibberish. And so, you know, you would say, “hello,” and this gibberish would come back at you along with the translation. And that was quite epic, but fortunately, I was paid quite well for it. You know, it’s incredibly tedious, mind-numbing work. And I was the second writer they hired. The first one had, I think, OD’d on it and gone kind of nuts, and so they wanted someone who could rein it in a little more.
You didn’t have to write the gibberish; the voice actors made that up?
The voice actors. Yeah.
You’ve also done some screenwriting, haven’t you?
I have. I wrote several movies that never got made, which is a typical screenwriter experience. I should point out that ninety-nine percent of scripts never get made. But I got paid for writing. The only thing you can see of mine is a science fiction show called Andromeda. And I had one episode in the first season, and it was . . . there were just epic casting problems on that particular episode. And so, it was rewritten, I think, twenty-seven times in the ten days that it took to shoot, when they realized that their guest star couldn’t act and couldn’t remember lines.
The fellow I interviewed for the last episode of this podcast, Chris Humphreys, is both a writer and actor, and he actually played a starfleet commander on Andromeda at some point, but hopefully not in that episode.
No, there weren’t any starfleet commanders in that episode.
All right. Well, let’s talk about your novels then. That does kind of tie in because I’m curious, whenever I talk to somebody who’s done screenwriting or other forms of writing like that, do you learn something doing that that you then bring to your novels? Or was it the other way around? Was the fact that you a novelist, you know. . .?
I was an established writer by the time I did any of these screenplays. So, I already knew how to write fiction. But the main thing was a kind of mental switch because, in my fiction, my characters all have strong inner lives. And they’re always thinking and reacting and having emotional responses to what’s going on, but it’s not necessarily visible to any of the other characters. And so . . . but you can’t have that in a screenplay. You can’t have somebody think in a screenplay and not tell you what he’s thinking. All the audience sees is action and dialogue, and so, I had to make that adjustment. My characters couldn’t have interior lives. It was only outer life.
Well, I do some stage acting, and I’ve written plays, and it’s much the same thing. Everything is driven by the visible action and the dialogue and whatever the actor can do to emote. But, you know, everybody interprets that differently, depending on who the person is that’s viewing it.
Yeah. You know, I did have, you know, second readers on my screenplays and stuff. And they would ask, I don’t understand why your character is doing this. And I said, “Well, because he worked it out in his head that this is what he should do and then . . . No. That’s not a viable approach for screenwriting.
There’s the few where they have a voiceover narration, but that always seems a little forced after a while.
I really miss the artist’s soliloquy. I wish I was living in Shakespearean times so that I could just have the character turn to the audience and explain what he was going to do.
If you ever get a chance, there’s a show on Amazon Prime now, it’s from the BBC, called Upstart Crow, which is a situation comedy about Shakespeare writing his plays.
It is terrific. I’ve seen all seasons.
I thought of that because the actors will turn to the front and say, “By strict convention. I can now say what I want to say, and nobody around me can hear what I’m . . .”
Well, let’s talk about your writing of novels then. Now, Fleet Elements, that’s the most recent one—well, you have a new short story collection we’ll mention as well, later on. So, using that as an example, we’ll talk about how you write your novels. And I guess the first thing would be a bit of a synopsis without giving away anything you don’t want to go away.
OK. Well, my elevator pitch is war and revolution as seen through the eyes of a pair of star-crossed lovers. Or alternatively, star-crossed lovers experience war and revolution, but it is set in the far future in a somewhat decrepit space empire in which humanity and several other alien species were conquered by another race. And that other race is gone now. They all died. And now, we, the human race, and these other species have to figure out what comes next. Because they’re very good at taking instruction from these totalitarian aliens, but the totalitarian aliens aren’t giving them instructions anymore, and now, they have to work it out on their own, and they’re not used to that, and they’re not very good at.
I should point out this was inspired by–I was reading a lot of classical history, Polybius and Livy and people like that, and they told this wide-scale history with very vivid characters. And I thought, I should be able to do that. And so, when I planned this series, twenty years ago now, I planned it for nine to twelve volumes. And for various reasons . . . anyway, the fifth or seventh one has just come out, depending on how you point them there. This is the fifth one from Harper Collins, but there was one from Tor, that was a novella, and there was another novella that I published on my own. So, I think of this, Fleet Elements, as book seven, but the publisher thinks of it as Book Five.
Do you know exactly how many volumes it’s going to be now, or is it still in flux?
I think twelve.
So not even halfway yet, depending on how you count.
I’ve plotted them all out. I know what’s going to happen in all of them. That’s part of my process. In the first trilogy, I knew what the last line of the last book was going to be before I wrote the first line of the first book. I always have the end in view, and I always know where I’m going. Sometimes there’s a certain amount of difficulty in getting there. I always know the beginning of the book really well, and I know the end of the book really well, but the middle part is sometimes a bit of a mystery. And that’s where I tend to struggle.
Well, you mentioned what the inspiration was. Was that typical of the way ideas . . . I mean, ideas come from everywhere, I know, and it’s cliche to ask, where do you get your ideas? But is that fairly typical for you, something you’ve read or just something you’re thinking about, or how does it work for you?
Very often, I get an idea just from reading other people’s fiction. And I see something that was undeveloped or something that could be viewed in some other way, and usually, you know, even my short fiction, there’s more than one idea happening. So, I tend to like the collision of ideas, so I’ll wait till I get a certain number of ideas that are kind of undeveloped, and then I will sort of have them smash each other head-on like particles in a particle beam accelerator just to see what happens.
See what kind of strange quarks emerge.
You mentioned a little bit about knowing the beginning and the end, but are you much of an outliner? I mean, this is a big sprawling series.
How much work did you do ahead of time to plan it out? What does it look like for you? Is it very detailed or more sketchy or what?
When I’m working on one project, I’m always thinking about other projects. So, I was able to plot out twelve volumes while I was writing something else. Because that’s just usually how it works, you know. I’m not a very fast writer. I’m a plodder, but I’m persistent. I don’t . . . you know, I write every day. I just don’t write a huge amount of words every day. And so, you know, I have a lot of time to think about my next project. And I have probably outlined, at least in my head, more projects than I can write in a lifetime.
What does the actual outline that’s not in your head look like?
Well, there are a couple of kinds. I mean, I have to write a synopsis for the publisher, right? Because publishers require synopsis and sample chapters even for writers that they know well now. I mean, I recently, you know, sent a proposal to an editor I knew well, right, and he said, look, the company requires me to have sample chapters. I know you can write. I know you don’t need to write these sample chapters; you don’t have to prove anything to me. But the company has this checklist, and I have to put that check there. And so, I wrote him those damn sample chapters, you know, really annoying.
I don’t have to do that with DAW. Still just getting by with the synopsis.
Well, that’s because DAW is still family owned.
Yeah, I think that’s the difference.
They aren’t owned by an international corporation. Good for them.
So, your synopsis, will it be like ten single-spaced pages or . . . ?
Yeah, something like that? Well, you know, it worked out to ten double-spaced pages. But I write outlines for myself, and they are a lot more eccentric. I tend to write them on yellow legal pads in colored ink with different characters being represented by a different colored ink and arrows and timelines and stuff like that. It would be incomprehensible to anyone else. I know what all this stuff means, all these weird scribbles, but I can’t see anyone else getting a hold of one of those outlines and being able to write a book from it.
How closely do you follow your outlines once you actually start the writing process? Do you find that you wander off as you create things along the way, or are you fairly strict?
Well, outlines are just outlines, and I don’t so much wander away from the outlines as I find other aspects of the story that would contribute to the value of the fiction, right, so, you know, I find new sidelights on characters, new sidelights on the action. And so, for me, it’s a process of addition. I start with the outline, and then I add things as I go if I think they would contribute.
And what about your characters? Do you do a lot of detailed work on them beforehand, or do you discover them as you write?
Uh, I pretty much . . . the major characters I know pretty well by the time I start. I don’t always write down their personalities or the little details and stuff, but I have that worked out in my head.
You mentioned that you write every day. What does your actual writing process look like? You outline on yellow legal paper, but I bet you don’t write on yellow legal paper longhand.
No, no, I write on a computer. I use Scrivener, which is a software that is developed specifically for writing fiction.
Yeah, I have it, and I’ve never climbed the learning curve to use it. I’m still plugging away on Word.
Well, the thing is that, as with every modern word processing program, most of it is stuff you’ll never use.
It’s certainly true of Word.
Yeah. That’s true of Scrivener, too. There’s just a lot of stuff in there that you probably won’t ever use. But it does have a very useful outlining function where it actually gives you the index cards and the little pins. And you could put them in and rearrange them and stuff. It allows you to rearrange scenes very easily, which is extremely useful in at least some of my projects where I’m not too sure on the chronology until it’s all done.
Yeah, I should probably . . . the one I’m working on now is a space opera called The Tangled Stars, and it’s kind of tangled my brain, too, so I should probably be using Scrivener. That might help. So, you said you’re not a fast writer. Do you have a set word counts you try to get done every day or . . .?
I seem to average about 500 words a day. It’s not a lot, but I get to write one book a year plus some short fiction, and that’s what it amounts to.
And once you have your first draft, how does the revision process start for you? Or do you write in drafts? Do you do a rolling revision or what?
I don’t anymore because word processors make it so easy to revise. So, probably by that, by the time I’m done with my, quote, first draft, unquote, everything’s been gone over half a dozen times. I always start my day by revising the previous day’s work. And, you know, whenever I have to go back and look something up, I’ll probably revise it a bit. So, ideally, it’s very polished by the time I get to the end of the first draft. So, revision for the second draft is generally pretty quick and easy just because I’ve been over it so many times.
That’s interesting because the very first person I interviewed on here was John Scalzi, and he was talking about how he does rolling revisions. But then I’ve talked to other people who started on typewriters, as I’m sure you did, because I did, and you’re maybe a little bit older than me, I’m not sure, but somewhere along in there. And he thought that people who wrote on typewriters tended to still do single drafts and then go back to the beginning and revise it, as you had to do on a typewritten manuscript.
But it sounds like you’ve switched more to the word processing.
I’m very pleased that I never have to use a carbon ever again.
But yeah, and since I’ve adopted a word processor as opposed to a typewriter, my books have gotten a lot more complex simply because the word processor makes that easy to do. The stuff I wrote on typewriters was very straightforward.
I still remember the first decent printer I had, because of course, dot matrix printers, editors didn’t want that. I had a daisy wheel printer, but I had to feed the paper into it just like it was a typewriter. I wasn’t typing it, but I still had to sit there, and it would make a carpet. So, I was still using carbon paper and feeding it into my daisy wheel printer. I don’t miss that. Yeah, I’m old. So, do you use beta readers or anything like that? A lot of people do.
Well, I use my wife, who was a very good beta reader and who has worked as a copyeditor in the past. So, I get a free copyedit, which is pretty cool. But I used to belong to several workshops, and I would workshop everything. And then, I started a workshop of my own called Taos Toolbox, where I actually teach writing for two weeks up in a ski lodge in northern New Mexico every summer.
And I work with Nancy Kress, who is just brilliant at teaching.
But it kind of ruined me for workshopping because, during that two weeks, I have to read and critique maybe three hundred and fifty thousand words of fiction. And I am so burnt out by that process that it takes me a year to recover. And I just don’t want to workshop anymore. I don’t want to have to read anybody else’s drafts until it’s time to do Taos Toolbox again.
Do you . . . I’ve done a smidgen of teaching, and I’ve been a writer in residence and worked with a lot of writers at a couple of libraries where I’ve been a writer in residence. Do you find that teaching writing benefits you as a writer?
Not that much. I do occasionally get excited about one of the students and, you know, but it’s mainly—I’m mainly teaching in this, I’m not necessarily out to learn new tricks.
Do you ever find—
That’s it . . . I have I encountered a dilemma in one of my, my current project, and I went back and looked at my own lecture notes. Which I normally don’t do. I looked at my notes, my lecture notes, and I found the solution to the problem I was having. And that was kind of fun. I actually took my own advice.
I was actually going to ask because that’s something I found. You know, I will confidently tell somebody, you know, you should do it like this or something like this, and then, just don’t look in that book I wrote where I didn’t do that. Because it’s easy to give advice sometimes that you don’t take yourself.
Well, writers are very individual, and they each need, you know, critique and so on that is pitched to them. And this is why Nancy and I do so well, because Nancy has a completely different approach to writing than I do. I’m a plotter, she’s a pantser, and so if my approach won’t work for you, here’s her approach,
Well, that’s one of the reasons for this podcast, is why it’s, you know, it’s focused on this kind of stuff, so that people can go and find out that there is no one right way to do this thing. You’ll hear every possible approach from somebody that I’ve interviewed or will interview in the future, I’m sure. So, going back to the revision, are there specific things you find that you have to work on in revision? Like, is there a consistent tick that you have to clean up or anything like that?
Well, my first drafts tend to have very elaborate, long sentences with peculiar syntax and a lot of words derived from Latin roots, polysyllabic words from Latin roots. And so, I have to remind myself to make the syntax a lot more straightforward, replace the Latin words with Anglo-Saxon words, which are punchier. And that’s my typical . . . I mean, if you actually saw a very first draft of mine, you would think I was hopeless. I really do need to spend a lot of time polishing it to make it readable.
But clearly, you get there.
Yeah, I think a lot of it is, English is not my first language. And so, it’s a struggle to translate the language that’s going on in my head into English.
What is your first language?
I don’t know.
Perhaps it’s Latin!
It seems to be a symbolic language. It’s like . . . when I think, it’s like laying out an array of Tarot cards. And so, I have these different symbols that together all means something, but when I translate it, I have to literally do the translation and add the grammar and all of that. I’m the only person I know who has this problem. Most people apparently think in their native language, and I guess I do, too, except it’s not English.
That rings a bell from somebody who was talking about . . . hey were startled to realize that other people didn’t think the way they thought, and I don’t remember who it was, or if it was exactly along those lines. But somebody else had told me something similar to that, which I find . . . I find it fascinating because, you know, one of the things about writing is, we present the illusion that we know how other people think, right, but really, we don’t, we don’t have a clue what goes on inside anybody else’s head.
Well, I know what’s going on in my character’s heads, and that’s kind of all that matters as far as my books go.
I know how they think.
Your readers come to that and will actually take something different than what you’re picturing in your head.
Yeah, you’re right.
Because it is a collaborative effort.
I find that people read the book that they want to read, and it isn’t necessarily the one that I wrote.
So, once you have the book and it goes off to the publisher, what does the editorial process typically look like for you? Are there things that come back, or is it pretty clean . . .?
It’s mostly sitting around for months waiting for my notes. And, you know, I won’t name any names, but I turned in a book last September, and I’m just getting the notes from it today, supposedly.
Well, it will be . . . you know, you’ll be looking at it with a fresh eye, I guess.
So, I’m going to be doing, you know, spend the next week doing a bunch of rewriting, I expect, you know, unless he says, “Oh, it’s OK, we’ll just send it to the copyeditor.”
Are there things that you typically get editorial notes about? Like, in my case, from Sheila Gilbert at DAW, it’s usually, you know, I didn’t explain enough about some aspect or, you know, the characters need a little more development, that sort of thing.
Yeah, uh, generally, I think because I know too much about the way that my characters think, I don’t necessarily explain their motives and actions as clearly as I could. So, it’s always useful to have someone say, “I need to understand why this action is happening now,” and then I can handle that. Another thing I tend to do is I can overdo things. You know, it’s just the prose just becomes too much. And I need somebody to tell me when to back down, back off, and let the story happen instead of scenes of hallucinogenic intensity.
That sounds like you really enjoy the words themselves. Is that fair to say?
I do. I have a series out now called Quillifer, which is basically my love letter to the English language. I mean, aside from being a jolly good read, you know. But I am deliberately spending a lot of time playing with the language in that series.
I do love a good, convoluted sentence myself, as people have told me, so I can appreciate that. I also wanted to . . . you have written a lot of short stories, and in fact, you have a collection out now, you said. Novellas, mostly, but some short stories.
It’s just out this week. It’s The Best of Walter Jon Williams, oddly enough, out from Subterranean Press. It’s 200,000 words of fiction, which is, you know, a couple of novels worth. Mostly it’s a longer short fiction, novelettes and novellas, and including a lot of award nominees and a few award winners. So, you know, I’m very proud of it. I just wish I could have added another 100,000 words . . .
That’s the sequel!
. . . because there are always some I wish, you know, there was room for.
Of course, if you call the first one The Best of Walter Jon Williams, would you have to call the second one The Second-Best of Walter Jon Williams?
I think Even More Best.
Even More best.
Even More Bester of Walter Jon Williams.
So, these would go back right through your entire career?
Pretty much. Yeah, it’s from the mid-’80s through the fairly recent present. And it’s sort of every stage of my career represented.
So, you write novels and short stories. Do you think you have a preference for one that you’re better at than the others? I always think some people are better at short stories and some people are better at novels. Are you good at both, or . . .?
My best work is in the shorter form because, in something that is of a modest length, everything can be perfect. You can actually put everything in it that you think ought to be there and then make sure it’s available to the reader. For a novel, something the length of a novel, something’s going to go wrong somewhere. There’s going to be a mistake, there’s going to be, you know, some of my tangled syntax got through all the editing. So, you know, I view my novels as good but necessarily flawed, which is how I view everybody’s novels. But my short fiction, I’m very proud of.
I’ve often used the metaphor of where you have this . . . in your head, the story is this beautiful, shiny Christmas ornament, absolutely perfect. And then you smash it with a hammer and try to glue it back together with words. Yeah, that’s the way it feels to me, that initial moment of, “Oh, this is going to be perfect,” and then you can’t actually get to perfect, unfortunately. Well, I’m going to ask the big philosophical questions—I’m going to put reverb on that sometime—you’ve been writing for a long time. You say you always wanted to be a writer, but the first one is why? Why do you write?
Well, it remains a mystery. It was a compulsion. It was an irresistible compulsion to be a writer. And that irresistible compulsion lasted from when I was four years old to when I was around forty, when it began to fade. And so then, I realized I was no longer compelled to do this, but it was kind of the only thing I was good at. You know, it’s not like I have a work history. My last real job was, like, in 1978, and so, I have no job history. I’m not even qualified to be a greeter at Wal-Mart, in terms of the straight world. So, but what I realized I had to do was I had to find some reason to love what I was doing and to really love the craft and love everything I was working on and find joy and delight in it. That wasn’t necessary before. I didn’t have to love it. All I had to do was just write it because I was compelled to do that. So, I think my approach to writing now comes from love, and this is what I tell my students. “If you don’t love it, don’t do it.”
Don’t do it for the money.
Yeah, because there won’t be any. Sorry.
So, you say you found a love for it. Why do you love it now? What do you love about this?
Why do you ask these complicated questions? I . . . it’s just I enjoy doing stuff that I’m good at. And this is the thing that I’m best at, is writing fiction. And I do a lot of other stuff, you know, I’m a scuba diver, I’m a martial artist, and love all that to a certain degree. But that’s not where, you know, my homeworld is. My homeworld is fiction.
Do you find some love in the love that your readers give back to you when they read something of yours and they really enjoy it?
It’s always gratifying when I hear from the readers. But see, the thing is, between the time that I finish a project and the time that it appears in print, I’ve written a bunch more on other projects. So, you know, when a novel comes out, I may have written two novels in the period of time between finishing that one and it appearing in print, so my head is in another place. And once I deliver a book, it’s kind of not mine anymore. It kind of belongs to the reader. So, there is . . . there’s a part there’s a time in which I know I’m the only person that possesses this work. Right when I’m working at it, I can really love it, and I can feel like I possess it. I can own it, and then I give it away, hopefully for money, but I give it away, and then it belongs to other people.
Who may be discovering it twenty years from now, for all you know, once they’re out there, they’re out there.
OK, so that’s why you write. Why do you think, in the bigger picture, why do any of us write? Why do human beings do this strange thing?
Well, I think storytelling is a compulsion. I think I think we make stories out of anything. I mean, you know, look at a newscast, right? They don’t just tell you this happened, they make a story about it so that you’ll be involved in it and you’ll care, and so I . . . because we’re in a covid pandemic right now and one of the things that television can shoot safely is reality TV because they can get everyone in one place and isolate. And so, I’ve watched a lot of that. And one thing that I’ve noticed is that if you’re completing a project on some reality television show, you have to tell a story about . . . it’s not just, oh, I made this cool thing. This is this, this story connects to the deepest wellsprings of my childhood, and it’s all about my grandmother, who passed away just two months ago. And I’m still, you know . . . and the audience responds to that. It may not even be true. In fact, it probably isn’t. They probably learned that they have to tell that—that soap opera is where you’re going with these kind of shows. S I don’t know why anyone else writes. I’m glad that they do. For some people, it’s a bucket list. They actually have “write a novel” on their bucket list, and then they write it and either sell it or self-publish it, and then they go on to the next item on their bucket list. I don’t understand that at all. It’s just too much work to write a novel just to tick off something on the list.
Yeah, just beat your head against the wall. It’d be simpler.
Yeah. And some just write for mercenary motives, which I don’t get either. Because so far as I can tell, these people aren’t rich.
Yeah. And the third question is, why write stories of the fantastic, specifically science fiction and fantasy. Why do we write about things that aren’t real?
Well, in my case, it seems to be what I’m good at. I just seem to come at reality from a somewhat sideways perspective. And, you know, I have written other stuff, and I have a whole lot of unsold fiction sitting around n other various categories, literary fiction or mysteries or whatever. But what I kept being told is this is too strange. We can’t publish it. They hardly ever say that with science fiction. And when I write science fiction, I can write about anything, so long as it has certain science fiction elements. So, war and revolution from the point of view of star-crossed lovers. I wrote the world’s only Gothic Western police procedural, a science fiction novel called Days of Atonement, set in Silver City, by the way, really a fictional analog Silver City, but if you know New Mexico, you know where you are. You know, I’ve written cyberpunk, I’ve written anthropological science fiction, I’ve written, I don’t know how to describe it, gonzo science fiction, I guess, really high-concept stuff. I’ve written near-future science fiction that actually got overtaken by events. I wrote a novel about the Arab Spring, and it appeared the week that the Arab Spring started. So, that’s one of my more successful predictions, I’d like to think. And oddly enough, no one cared. My agent was out there contacting every news organization in the world, saying, “my writer predicted that this was going to happen, and the book is out, and you should talk to them.” And they said, “No, we have our own analysts. We pay them.”
What was the name of it?
Deep State, the middle book of a series about alternate reality gaming, oddly, and they are also now all available for me as ebooks. But it begins with This is Not a Game, is the first one. There are four, although the last one is a novella. But it was interesting going back because I just, you know, once I mounted my own editions, I went back, and I was reading the reviews, and one of them said, “These are really good books, but this is in no way science fiction.” And I said, “They were science fiction when I wrote them. And then it all happened.” So, once again, it’s kind of a matter of timing. I wrote a Black Lives Matter novel twenty-five years ago called The Rift. And it was such a colossal commercial failure that I didn’t sell another book for five years. So timing is everything. If I were to write a Black Lives Matter novel now, it might do better.
Or there’d be so many of them that it would get lost in the . . .
Yeah, that’s true.
So, what are you working on now? You’ve touched on it a little bit.
I’m working on the next book In the Praxis series, so Fleet Elements is to be followed by The Restoration. And I’m about halfway through that book.
When is it expected out?
Probably late 2022. Because I’m scheduled to deliver it later this year, and it will spend at least a year in production.
And anything else?
Yes, I have my Quillifer series, which is high fantasy and my love letter to the English language. The third book of that will appear around the New Year. I don’t know. The final schedule hasn’t been decided yet. It makes me happy to write these books. It’s just a delight to write Quillifer, because he’s just so, so much fun. And they are sort of a swashbuckler, Rafael Sabattini meets Michael Moorcook meets Tolkien, I guess. He’s a kind of impish character, and I like writing these characters.
So, lots for people to look forward to, it sounds like, in the not-too-distant future.
And of course, the short story . . .
And they can prepare for it by reading the two earlier books in the series, which are Quillifer and Quillifer The Knight
That sounds like my cup of tea, so I’m going to check those out.
And where can people find you online?
Uh, www.WalterJonWilliams.net. I’m the only person I know who has a .net instead of a .com, but somebody had already stolen my identity with the .com.
And just for those who don’t know—you should know—it’s Jon without an H.
All right. Well, thanks so much for being on! I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.
It was great fun. Thank you.
And we say hi to Nancy the next time you see her because she was a guest on here not too long ago.
An hour-long interview with Gerald Brandt, bestselling author of the San Angeles science-fiction series and the new Quantum Empirica series that began with Threader Origins, all published by DAW Books.
Gerald Brandt is an internationally bestselling author of science fiction and fantasy. His current novel is Threader Origins, published by DAW Books, the first book in the Quantum Empirica trilogy that will continue with Threader War and Threader God.
His first novel, The Courier, Book 1 in the San Angeles series, was listed by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation as one of the ten Canadian science fiction books you need to read and was a finalist for the prestigious Aurora Award. Both The Courier and its sequel, The Operative, appeared on the Locus Bestsellers List.
By day, Gerald is an IT professional specializing in virtualization. In his limited spare time, he enjoys riding his motorcycle, rock climbing, camping, and spending time with his family. He lives in Winnipeg with his wife, Marnie, and their two sons, Jared and Ryan.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Hey, Ed. How are you?
I’m good. Now, we’ve known each other for quite some time now. Winnipeg and Regina are not that far apart. And we’ve showed up at the same conventions, and now we share a publisher, DAW Books.
We do. I think we first met, probably, at World Fantasy in Calgary, would have been the first time.
Yeah, that sounds about right. And I guess we share an editor, too, Sheila E. Gilbert at DAW Books.
Hugo Award-winning editor.
Oh, yes. Must mention that. Yes. And the other fun fact is that I was there in Washington, DC, at World Fantasy when you sold that first novel to DAW. And I think I was one of the first people to know about it, actually, outside of probably your family.
You may have been, actually. Yeah. That whole day is still a fog. I can’t remember all the finer details.
It was great. Well, let’s start by finding out how you got interested in writing science fiction and fantasy. Let’s take you back first to a little bit of biographical information. Did you grow up in Winnipeg? Have you always been a Winnipegger? Tell me your life story.
Yeah, I did grow up in Winnipeg, although I wasn’t born here. I was born in Berlin, Germany. So, I’m a first-generation immigrant to Canada. But I guess we moved when I was two years old. So, yeah. I don’t remember much of my first two years of my life, but so, yeah, Winnipeg has been my home for pretty much my entire life.
So, growing up in Winnipeg, when did you discover that you liked science fiction?
You know, this is going to sound cliché, and I’m sure that just about everybody you have spoken to has said the same thing, but I started out as an avid reader. Don’t we all?
Pretty much, yeah.
And the books that grabbed my attention, although I read pretty much everything, you know, if you handed me a ketchup bottle, I’d read the ingredients list just to read something . . .
And then do it again in French, since we live in Canada.
Well, no, I . . .no, no. I’m sadly a one language person.t I did not do well in school in French classes. But anyway, so yeah, the books that really seemed to draw me more than anything else were, well, mainly fantasy novels, and science fiction as well. So, yeah.
Do you remember any specific titles that had an impact on you?
Oh, my gosh. You know, the Foundation series, Asimov’s Foundation series, was a big one for me, going a ways back in my younger, younger years. Piers Anthony was a big one for me, but I find myself struggling to . . .I went back and read some of him recently, and I don’t think his books aged that well, unfortunately.
No, I loved them too. And I had kind of the same reaction when I looked back at them.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, what else? Wow. Yeah. You’re asking me to go way back. You know, I’m pretty old.
Oh, yeah, look who’s talking to me. I’m older than you are. So, you know, I can remember. I’m sure you can.
Well, I . . . you know, maybe . . . but I don’t even have many of those books on my shelf anymore. You know, I’ve gone past what really got me into the genre, I think.
Well, when did you start writing? I read in another interview, I think, that you did some in junior high?
Yeah, in junior high. I wrote . . . I started thinking that, you know, I’ve been reading all this stuff, I can start writing it. And it was much like the poetry I was writing at the time, rather angst-filled teenage garbage, but, you know, I guess we all start somewhere.
How much did you do? Like, were you writing long things or short stories or . . .?
Yeah, short stories. I didn’t even know they really existed back then. So, I was reading novels, you know, I was reading Stephen R. Donaldson and things like that. So, I was basically copying what I read. And, you know, I got well into some novels, but I never actually got anything finished back then. I think I actually still have a notebook here somewhere that has a really bad hundred pages of a handwritten fantasy novel in it, which I really should get rid of before I die because somebody will read it, and that would just be bad.
I have actually, right here on my desk, I have the handwritten manuscript of my first novel that I wrote when I was fourteen.
And it was typed up later. And you never know, I might put it online sometime under a pseudonym or something. And my worry is that it will sell better than my actual novels.
Well, you are a braver soul than I.
I don’t know. I haven’t done that yet. I’ve talked about it for a long time, but it hasn’t happened yet.
So, I also read in that interview, though, that you kind of . . . well, first before I do that, did you share your writing with people at the time? I always ask people that about their youthful writings. Were they brave enough to share it, or was it a thing you just kept to yourself?
Never. I did not share any of my writing until I got serious, quite serious, about it when I turned forty. And even then, I held off for a number of years before I thought I was good enough to have somebody else look at.
So, there was a gap in there between writing in junior high and getting serious about it.
What happened in there?
Well, in Grade 10, so, the first grade of high school, they offered a computer programming course. And on a whim, I took it. And that was the end of my world. I started, at that point, I started a career of computer programming. And I’m glad I did. It did very well for me. I’m actually not programming anymore, I’ve gone more to the IT side now, but it gave me a career that helped me, you know, let me raise a family and buy a house and do all those things that normal people do that you can’t do for, in most cases, you can’t do with a writing career.
I did programming briefly. I didn’t have a class in it, but I learned Basic, and I had a Commodore 64, and I wrote this extensive program using the Commodore 64 music chip that allowed me to input sheet music into it after a fashion. And I did that, and it took hours and hours, and it worked, after a fashion. And then when it was done, I thought, “You know, there are other people who are better at this than I am.” And I was never tempted to be a programmer after that. So I had a different reaction to you, I think.
Yeah, yeah. M first introduction in high school would have been punch cards and programming in COBOL before we moved on to the Commodore PET, which was the first microcomputer I touched. So, that was a long time ago.
I did take one programming class. I lied. I took an off-campus university programming class, and it used a Commodore PET, as well. So there something we have in common. But then you did something with it, and I never did. So, what brought you back to writing then? I mean, were you continuing to read science fiction through all those years?
Oh, absolutely. My reading has never . . . well, I’m not going to say never. My reading did not drop off at all during those years. That has changed since I’ve become a writer because I just don’t have as much time as I used to have. But yeah, I absolutely kept on writing or kept on reading, and yeah, I wouldn’t have stopped. Nothing would have stopped me from reading.
I kind of loved science fiction and fantasy together, but your writing is certainly, so far at least, more on the science fiction side. Were you more of a science fiction reader than a fantasy reader, or were you indiscriminate?
I was more of a fantasy reader than science fiction, and everything that I’ve ever written before my first sale has been fantasy, but I have never sold any of my fantasy. I’ve only sold my science fiction. So, go figure.
Hmmm. Well, how did the switch to writing seriously come about? What made you decide at the age of forty or whenever to take it seriously and really get into it?
Yeah. You know, it was always there. I mean, always the idea that, you know, I’m reading this stuff and I can do this. I want to do this. But at forty, a little bit before forty, I became a stay-at-home parent to my two boys. One was in Grade 1, and the other one hadn’t yet started preschool, I guess, so he was home all the time. And one of the parents of another kid in my son’s, in the Grade 1 class, she was a writer. And, you know, we started talking a little bit, and I just kind of woke up one morning and said, “This is it. It’s now or never. I’m forty years old. If I don’t start writing, then I probably won’t.” So, I gave myself a goal. I said, I will have something published. A novel was my goal. I will have a novel published in ten years. Or if I don’t, I’ll stop because it’s obsolete. Ten years to me was the perfect amount of time to hone whatever skills I might have had and churn out something that was publishable. And the end result was Sheila offering me a contract at roughly ten years and three months.
And at that point, you know, I wasn’t going to stop anyways because ten years of actually struggling and getting better and writing and being critiqued and critiquing, I wasn’t going to stop at fifty, at any rate. I was going to keep on going until I had something sold. But, you know, it’s interesting that it happened roughly in the time frame that I gave myself.
Well, did it just sell out of the gate, or was there some back and forth with Sheila on that particular novel?
Well, there’s a five-year story.
Yeah, I kind of knew it was there. That’s why I asked.
Yeah, I figured you did. Actually, Sheila came to the convention, KeyCon, here in Winnipeg.
Yeah, I remember. I was there too.
So, we did meet then before World Fantasy. I guess we never spoke.
Yeah. We probably didn’t notice each other.
Probably not. No. But anyway, as a big surprise to her, KeyCon had set up a pitch session, which she . . .
I remember that!
. . . . which she was not prepared for. So, I signed up for the pitch session, and it was my first pitch session ever. And it took me by surprise, probably almost as much as it took Sheila by surprise. They put thirty of us into a room with Sheila, and we all pitched to her in front of each other, which is not actually the way it works, really. But whatever, it happened.
I, unfortunately, followed somebody who had had a lot to drink the night before and showed up with bathroom-tile imprints still on the side of their face. And they tried to pitch to Sheila and finally just stood up and said, “I’m sorry, I can’t do this,” and walked out. And then they called me. So, I went up to the desk and, you know, did the brief introductions, and she said, “What do you have?” And I stuttered and stuttered. And I said, you know, “I’m really quite nervous. And I’m not sure that I can remember what I memorized anymore.” And she said, “Well, do you have it written down?” And I said, “Yeah, it’s right here.” And she looked me in the eye, and she said, “Oh, thank goodness.” And she took the paper, and she read it, and she requested a full.
And then, I guess, we met, that’s why I started going to World Fantasies, probably. We met at every World Fantasy after that and talked about the book. And, you know, she never actually had read it yet, but she asked me what I was working on, what was new, what was coming up to me. I guess she was kind of just pushing me to make sure that I was serious about the work. But writing this was what I wanted to do. You know, in the meantime, I pitched other books to her, and she kind of grimaced once or twice. Threader Origins was one of those. But I wrote it anyways, despite her grimace. And then, you know, we’d meet, and she said, “You know, I managed to read your synopsis on the airplane. So, we’re going to talk about your synopsis rather than The Courier.” And so, she critiqued and poked holes in that. And I kept saying, “Well, you know, this is what happens.” And, you know, so I answered all of her questions on that. In the next year, she actually read it and bought it. But it was a five-year process.
That’s an interesting initial sale. I remember . . . because I was at KeyCon, I was working on Magebaneat the time, which is by one of my pseudonyms, Lee Arthur Chane. And I remember, I actually remember after she had finished her editorial comments on that, saying to her on the elevator, “But I can write, can’t I?”
When she bought The Courier, I left our little meeting, and we arranged to meet later on in the day again. So, I went up to my room, and I phoned the wife, and she actually left a meeting to take my phone call. And she went back into the meeting, and she says, “My husband just sold his first novel.” And everybody in the meeting, including her boss, looked at her and said, “Well, you’re not quitting your job, are you?” So luckily, she said no, because the writing . . . but anyway, in that same convention, Sheila and I sat down in a quiet spot, and she gave me my first editorial on the novel at that convention. And I kind of felt like garbage because I didn’t know how things worked. But yes, the same as, you know, “I can still write? You think I can still write, right?” And then, about twenty minutes after she gave that first editorial pass, I went to my first DAW dinner.
Oh, yeah. It’s, I mean, I’ve said that to Sheila, it’s been well, you know, “I bought the book, so obviously I think you can write.”
Yeah. I think Julie Czerneda has asked her to at least say something good right at the beginning so that we actually start off thinking, “OK, maybe it’s not that bad.”
Well, we’re going to talk about the editorial process at the end of this next bit because that is part of the whole published-author thing that people are interested in. But let’s talk about now how . . . well we’ll focus on the new one, Threader Origins, which just came out as we’re recording this and will have been out for a month or so when this goes live, and use that as an example, tell me—the classic question—where do you get your ideas? Or, if you prefer, what was the seed for this particular novel? How did this particular one come along, and how does that tie into the way that ideas normally bubble up for you?
Well, this is my second series with DAW, and—although I have a bunch of trunk novels, so I guess I have experience there as well—but normally, as is the case for this one, I have a character . . .
Before we do that.
Very important. Give us a synopsis so that people know what we’re talking about.
The dreaded synopsis, how writers dislike that part. But Threader Origins is an alternate-Earth book. Darwin Lloyd is a university student. He’s going to become a physicist, and he loves quantum theories and all that stuff. And he’s following in his father’s footsteps. So, he gets an internship where his dad works, and together with, of course, the whole team, they build a machine that can basically generate unlimited electricity to power whatever you want, a whole city or whatever. And Darwin is there for the very first test where they go up to 100 percent, and things go wrong, and he gets pulled into an alternate earth by the machine. And then things go bad from there. In the world he gets pulled into, the same machine was turned on five years prior. So, they’ve had five years of this machine generating what the people call threads. And, you know, they can . . . it can not only, not quite alter reality, but it can kind of predict the future. And it can do various things. I won’t get into too much detail here. And he sees how much it’s destroyed the world he’s gone into. And his main goal is to get home and turn the machine off. And of course, nobody knows how to do that, get home or turn the machine off. So, it’s a struggle.
The overall story is called the Quantum Empirica, correct?
Yes. Now, go back to where did this one come from?
All right. We’ll go back to, again, Darwin Lloyd. He just kind of popped into my head one day as not quite a fully formed character, but pretty close. And I fleshed him out and figured out what his flaws were, what happened to him before the book started. And I figured I had a great character to build a novel around. So, it took me quite a while to figure out what kind of world to throw him in that would test him the most. And yeah, once I did that, I just started researching and writing.
Well, what does your planning and outlining process look like? I read a description of it, and it sounds quite . . . what’s the word . . . physical. Post-it notes and things like that. So how does that work for you?
All right. Yeah, I have . . . I bought a four-by-eight metal whiteboard at IKEA, and I have so many stacks of Post-it notes around here it’s ridiculous. But basically, what I do is . . . by the time I’m into the Post-it note stage, I already have my main character, and I have the majority of my world thought out, not necessarily detailed, but thought out. And I might have a couple of secondary characters. And I grab my Post-it notes and I write . . . sometimes it’s as little as one word, and sometimes it’s a sentence. And I take that, and I stick it on the board. And basically, that Post-it note becomes a scene, and sometimes the one word is an emotion, right? I know that at this point, there’s got to be a lot of pain and hurt. So that’s what I’ll put in there, because I don’t know what scene is going to bring that out yet, the details, but I know that I need it, so I’ll put it on there. And by the time I’m done, I have anywhere from 75 to 100 Post-it notes or more on my whiteboard. And it’s possible that they’re all different colors because I assign a color per point of view character. So, for example, on the San Angeles series, I probably had about six colors on my whiteboard. For Threader Origins, it’s just all Darwin Lloyd’s point of view. So, it’s all one color. In this case, it’s pink. I’m still staring at it now for book three.
And yeah, I take it, once I have all my Post-it notes written, I arrange them to make more sense. And so, I know where I have my highs, I have my lows. I don’t know chapter breaks or anything at that point yet, but I actually do my initial rough plot on that whiteboard. Once I’m sure that I have something that I like that is somewhat coherent, I take all of those notes and put them into a spreadsheet and, again, color-coded based on character point of view. And that’s where I start expanding things. You know, if for, like, for the San Angelesseries, every scene had a timestamp. So, I made sure that the timestamps matched for every point of view character, and all that stuff. For Threader Origins, I had separate color coding for the threads that Darwin was learning at a time because the colors of threads have specific meaning in the novel.
So, I fill all that in, and I take those one-word or those one-sentence scenes, and I put them into three or four sentences in the spreadsheet, and I just build it and rearrange it until, again, I’m happy with it. And then, I take the somewhat detailed description of three or four sentences, move those into a document and start writing from there. I usually end up with . . . by the time it’s all said and done, seventy-two to seventy-five scenes because I average thirteen to fourteen hundred words per scene, and that gets me a 100,000-word novel.
Wow. Not the way I work!
And you know, the thing is that none of what I’ve done up to this point is written in stone, which is good because, as you know, as you’re writing, these things just organically kind of grow. I don’t leave, at least for the first half, I don’t normally leave my plot. But there’s these little details that come in. This little, this character that you have to throw in there in order to show something becomes a little bit more important. So, you know that they’re going to be coming back in the book a bit more. So usually at the halfway point, I go through the process again for the second half of the book because things have changed enough that the second half of the plot, although it’s, the plot is probably OK, it’s the details of the interactions and the emotions that might have changed. So, I go back at the half unit, the halfway point, and rearrange that second part of the plot.
So, this Post-it approach, how did you decide to use that approach? Does that somehow relate to being a computer programmer and the way that you plan out when you’re reprogramming, or . . .?
No, not even . . . not at all, actually. You know, when you’re starting out, and again, during that time period when I wasn’t writing, but, you know, and I was doing all the computer stuff, I’d still buy all these books on how to plot and character development and all this kind of stuff. My bookshelf is filled with them. But the thing that made sense to me was . . . people were always using note cards, right? They’re saying you take your, take the note cards, and you write things down in the note cards, and that lets you rearrange things, and I tried it, and it didn’t work for me, but, you know, and then I moved to Post-it notes and just seeing it visually on the whiteboard all at once worked for me a lot better than having a stack of note cards that I would rearrange or have to lay down on the floor to look at the sequence of events. And then, at the end of that, I have to clean it up because, of course, I have kids in the family, and I can’t leave stuff like that on the floor. So, it just kind of a progression of the note cards just into Post-it notes.
“Your novel doesn’t make a lot of sense.” “Yeah, well, the cat ran through it at just the right moment.”
You know, it’s . . . you know, I read all that stuff, too, in the magazines, and yet it never, never took with me at all. So, I’m always interested in . . . you know, part of the point of this whole podcast is that everybody does it differently. So, it’s always interesting. So, once you start writing, it’s sequential because you figured it all out ahead of time. What’s your actual writing process? I know, for example, that you use rather different word processing software than most people do.
I do. I use . . . you know, I tell the world I use WordStar, which is a 1980s word processor. But, you know, having been a computer programmer for too many years to even consider, I wrote my own word processor, and I use that, and it’s WordStar compatible.
And what is your actual . . . well, first of all, what do you like about that? What were you looking for that made you do that?
Well, the first thing is that the muscle memory of just how to use WordStar, because I used it, like, in the ’80s and early ’90s, I used it for all of my other stuff, whether I was documenting or whatever, I was doing some code or whatever, I used WordStar. So, the muscle memory was certainly there. But it’s really a writer’s word processor. You know, I can . . . if you have Microsoft Word, if you highlight a block of text and you know you want to copy that somewhere, you want to do something with that text, but you’re not quite sure, and then you go and do something else, that block of text is not highlighted anymore. So, you kind of lose what you’ve highlighted with WordStar. I can highlight a block of text, and then I can write for six hours, and I could say, oh, that block of text belongs here, and boom, I can copy it. And it’s still highlighted. So, it remembers things like that. It also has bookmarks. It has ten bookmarks. So I can, say, remember this position in the document as bookmark one or whatever, and then if I’m writing and go, “OK, I have to remember,” I go back to bookmark one, and it’s one keypress, and I’m back at bookmark one, and I can go in, then I can go back to where I was writing. So, it’s easier to jump around. It’s almost like you have a printed document with your fingers in between pages, and you’re flipping between chunks of document to make sure things flow. It just seems to work better for me.
Well, when you’re writing, do you . . . where do you write? You just . . . and how do you find the time for it? You do have a full-time job. So how do you juggle all that?
I do. I had a full-time job up to the second book in the San Angeles series, and the schedule on that was so tight that things were not working out for me. So, I actually went down to three days a week on my job, and that helped a lot. But then, of course, with this whole Covid thing going on and me being the IT guy, my workload increased because nobody’s working in the office anymore. So, I have to support these people in their homes and stuff like that. So, I’m now back to four days a week, so close to full time, but not quite. So, I got into the habit of writing at five in the morning for The Courier because I was the stay-at-home dad at that point, and my kids woke up at seven. So that gave me gave a two-hour block when nobody was awake. I could just come into my office and sit down and write.
Over time that has kind of disappeared. And I started writing in the evenings, and . . . because the kids got older and whatever, I started writing in the evenings and on weekends. For the current book I’m writing, which is the third in the Quantum Empirica series, I tried dictating, which worked for a while. But I’ve now gone back to five in the morning writing because it just seems that I’m more creative at that time. I try to get up at five in the morning, try still being the keyword, and write for a couple of hours before the whole house wakes up.
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
Depends on what I’m writing. If I’m writing an action scene or something with a bunch of dialogue, I can turn that out pretty quick. If I’m writing something, you know, in between those two, where a character has to get from A to B and stuff like that, I struggle with those ones. And those, you know, if I get 200 words, 200 words, 600 words in those two hours, I’m happy. But if I’m, like, I’m doing action scenes, I can do 3,000 words in those two hours easily.
So, once you have a first draft, what does your revision process look like? But what things do you do on the and yeah, how many passes do you make and all that sort of stuff?
How many passes I make is, you know, anywhere from, well, double digits. Let’s just go double digits. Leave it at that.
It’s hard to tell when you’re working, it’s kind of an organic thing, really what you count as a pass.
It is, although I do have fixed passes in there as well. I do have a specific pass where I, I add description because when I do my first draft, I’m not a descriptive writer. My first draft could be anywhere from sixty-five to seventy-five thousand words, which is not the right size for a novel. It’s too small. And I will say one of the passes is adding the description so that you can actually get to know where you are in the book when you’re reading it. And another pass I add I use specifically for emotional content to make sure I’m hitting those points, you know, and then I have the technical passes as well, you know, don’t use passive voice and all that kind of stuff, so . . . But then there are the organic passes where you’re just kind of going through it, and it’s tough to keep track of. But I don’t revise as I’m doing that first draft. I don’t go back ever. I get the words out because I can’t fix what’s not on the paper. So, I’ve got to get that first draft out before I start any revision. So that first route, that first draft, is usually quite rough.
And how long does your revision process usually take you?
That all depends on when the contract says the book is due.
I guess I’m done revising! Yeah, I know that feeling.
Yeah, you know, that’s a tough call because it’s different for every book, really. It all depends on the details that I need to remember. For the first, the San Angeles series, every scene had a date and a time stamp. And I will never, ever, ever do that again because that is a headache. I end up using Gantt charts in order to keep track of who was where and when and what they knew, just to make sure that those timestamps were actually accurate. And, yeah, that was a struggle. So that took a lot of revision, right? So that took more time. And in this one, because it was a bit more of . . . it’s not as strict on its timelines, really, so the passes were. . . how long it takes is how long it takes, I can’t . . .I don’t think I can answer that.
Well, you did, kind of.
Well, kind of.
So what’s . . . once that deadline comes along and the book goes in, what do you find . . . well, why don’t you describe what Sheila’s editing process is for you?
All right. Before I go into that, I will say that Sheila is thankfully, thankfully happy to give you an extension if you need it. And I have used that twice now. I used it for the last book in the San Angeles series and it made me feel so bad that I swore I would never do it again. And so, I did it again on the last book in the Quantum Empirica series.
I may have taken advantage of that once or twice.
Yeah. And for this extension, I blame 2020. I take full responsibility for it, of course. But 2020 was quite hard on my creative process. So that’s why book three is late and being handed in, but it will still be, the books will still be released in a nice, timely fashion, simply because I’m ahead of the game already, right? With the first book being out and the third book being halfway done, right, I’m still, I still have time. So, things are, you know, the books will be released in good order.
But the process for dealing with Sheila, as you know . . . you read about how everybody goes, and they talk about the editorial letter and all that stuff. So, that’s what I was expecting. But that is not the way that Sheila works. As you well know, Sheila will call you up on the phone at a preplanned time, and you will be on that phone for however long it takes to for her to go through her notes. And she will go through and tell you what is wrong with your book. And it’s all verbal. It’s all done on the phone. And for my first two books, I was scribbling away so fast I might have missed half of what she said, at which point . . . because she always calls me on my cell phone, I have an app on there now that records our phone calls so that I can always go back and listen to what she’s saying again, because my notes miss things. You just can’t keep up. She’s a fast talker, and my handwriting’s not fast enough to keep up with her.
And what sorts of things are you generally, does she generally suggest you might need to expand upon or rewrite?
It’s different, I think, probably for every author, so, yeah, and I think it’s different for really every book I hand in. Right? It’s . . .I’ve never actually looked for a common thread, which is probably a weakness of mine because if there was a common thread, I should really fix it, shouldn’t I, or hand the book in?
I usually find it’s, like, you know, expanding on something that there’s just not enough information there for the reader to follow what’s going on or that sort of thing.
I would agree. It’s continuity comments or things where, yeah, there’s not enough detail to explain why the character’s going this way, or there is enough detail, and she doesn’t think that it really fits in with the character’s psyche of what she’s learned of that character and she doesn’t think it fits. I’ll take an example. The first version of Threader Origins that I handed in, the relationship between Darwin and his father was antagonistic. They did not like each other. They blamed each other for a lot of things, which I won’t get into detail with because that’s a bit spoilerish. But they butted heads a lot. They didn’t really like each other. And, you know, it created tension, and it created conflict, and it moved the book ahead, so it did its job. But when Sheila read it, she didn’t quite like it. She didn’t think that that was really what the book needed. So . . . and this is the nice thing about doing phone calls. We sat there, and we just hashed it out. We figured it out together. And she kind of tossed in ideas. And I said, you know, well, that won’t work because of and then I tossed in ideas, and she says, well, that might work. But what about, you know, we just came to something that we were both quite happy with, and that relationship changed. And because it changed, it added so much more depth to Darwin’s and the father’s character and increased the whole emotional line of the novel. It was just fantastic.
Before you were writing seriously or when you started writing seriously, did you have any fear of the editorial process? I know that some beginning writers, you know, “Well, the editor’s going to change everything, or they’re going to ruin my story.”
Way back when I didn’t even know there was an editorial process. So, no. My first experience with the editorial process would have been with Bundoran Press. When Virginia O’Dine ran Bundoran Press, Heyden Trenholm edited Blood and Water for her, and they bought a short story, my very first sale ever in 2012 maybe. So, Hayden was my first editorial process thing.
Another editor we’ve shared!
I loved working with Hayden. He was, you know . . . I expected the editorial process to be, at that point, anyways, this is wrong. This is how you can fix it. And that’s not really the way it works because the editor didn’t write the story, right? It’s my story. So, what the editor—and Hayden and Sheila will both do this—is they’ll say, “This isn’t working. What can you do to make it better? This feels a bit forced to me, or this spot feels weak, or I’m not getting the emotional hit I think I should here.” But they didn’t tell you how to fix it, right? They just tell you that it’s not working. And then you have to go back and fix it. And I think that was the biggest surprise for me. When, you know, when I first went with Hayden and when I first actually started thinking about the editorial process, is that they leave it up to you. They don’t do the changes for you, which I love.
But if you wish to consult with them about possibilities, they’re certainly willing to help out in that.
Absolutely. Absolutely. You can. And that’s what they’re there for as well, is to hash things out if you need them. As I mentioned about Sheila, she’s very, very good at that. With Hayden, I didn’t do that as much.
So, one thing I forgot to ask you about was at the point at which you have something that’s almost ready to submit, do you use beta readers of any sort, or do you have a writing group or anything like that?
I have a loose writing group. We actually used to be a critique group, but I had to bow out of that because my timelines were so tight I couldn’t read somebody else’s work and do a critique. So, I didn’t feel like I was giving in to the critique group as much as I was getting out. So, I had to pull away from that. But that group instead just became a general writing group. And we will talk and discuss ideas. You know, if I’m hitting a roadblock, you know, I’ll say, “My character’s been in this location for so bloody long, and I can’t get them out of there. What am I supposed to do?” And we’ll hash things out verbally as we meet. But it’s not a formal critique group. But I do have beta readers, for sure. I have a handful of beta readers that I trust and respect their opinion, and they get everything before I hand it in. And even then, you know, they’ll give their feedback, and one beta reader will absolutely hate a section. And every other beta reader . . . I mean, beta readers will never tell you they love a section, almost never, but they didn’t bring up the section at all, so I’ll kind of go, “OK, well, one person out of however many didn’t like it,” I’ll read it and I’ll say, “No, this is perfect for the book. I’m leaving it in as is,” or I’ll read it in context of their opinion and I’ll say, “No, he’s right. I could do this and this and this, and it would be a better scene or a better section.” But normally, if one person picks something up, it’s going, it’s not, you know, it’s not something that you’re going to change. If multiple beta readers pick up the same thing, then I don’t have a problem.
See, I’ve never, never had beta readers, still don’t have beta readers, so I always ask about them because it’s just, I’ve never been someplace where I felt I could find them. I probably could online now, of course. But when I started, I was in Weyburn, Saskatchewan. And, you know, as I’ve mentioned before on here, the writing group in Weyburn at the time consisted of elderly women who wrote stories about the Depression, and I didn’t really fit in there.
No. Yeah. I think, you know, just a couple of my beta readers are actually local. Most of them are spread far and wide. In fact, I don’t even know where two of them live. I just know they’re in the States. That’s all I know.
I was part of a writing, not online, but a by-mail critique group, for a while back in the Dark Ages, but, boy, that was a slow process.
Yeah, at the beginning, I did join an online critique group, and I think they’re actually still running because I still get some emails from them occasionally. But that was, also, I found a slow process. I can’t imagine doing it over mail. That would be a struggle.
Yeah, it was slow, but I did find a couple of really good . . . I ended up with a couple of really good people, and I guess we were sort of beta readers for each other at that point. We didn’t call it that back then. But yeah, I just never got in the habit of that. And I keep thinking . . . maybe my books would be better if I did. But, you know, I’m kind of set in my ways at this point.
You know, us old guys. We’re stubborn
Yeah. “I’ve never done it that way. I’m not going to start now.”
That’s right. Get off my lawn!
The other thing I wanted to ask you about, we talked a little bit about the characters. When you’re doing all this stuff, do you write down character sketches? Do you, you know, just sit and think about the character and try to build all the backstory and everything at that point? Or does a lot of it get discovered as you write or how does that work for you?
You know, although I do start with a fully fleshed character, I do not have a lot of their background. And I also have no idea how they look. If you read my novels, you’ll find that I almost never describe what my characters look like. I’d rather have the reader do that. And that might be because I don’t really know how they look like. I might have an image in my head, but it’s still kind of blurry. But yeah, the character, although I have a full-fleshed character when I start, I don’t know their backstory, and although I kind of know their emotional part going forward, I do that . . . yeah. I discover that as I go. It’s not part of my plotting process, not part of anything that the character develops as it goes. And then in the revision process is when I’ll go back and make sure that there’s consistency in all of that.
And the other thing I kind of forgot to ask you about, and especially this one, which is, you know, quantum, multiple universes and all that sort of stuff. What kind of research do you end up doing for most of your books?
Yeah, that . . . this is a question I really hate with the Quantum Empirica series specifically.
No, I also get asked that a lot because it is quantum strings and quantum theory. I ended up buying many, many books and doing a whole bunch of online research into quantum theory and quantum strings. And, yeah, and I realized, much to my chagrin, that I’m just not smart enough to know that stuff.
So, yeah, I did a bunch of research that really didn’t stick with me because I wasn’t smart enough, or intelligent enough, to keep all those details, you know, going. For the Quantum Empirica series, what really worked is, one of the books I bought was The Dancing Wu Li Masters, I don’t have the author’s name in my head right now. It’s quite an old book. But it kind of brought, you know, Eastern philosophies together with physics and kind of tried to meld them together into something that was explainable. And that really fed into Threader Origins. In fact, the title of the book was The Dancing Wu Li Masters, and I actually have dancers in Threader Origins based off of that. I had a friend, I was reading the book and going through it with a highlighter and marking pages, and a friend picked up the book and started reading my highlighted comments and threw it back on my desk in disgust. He says, “You haven’t highlighted any of the scientific stuff, just all the emotional content,” and I said, “Well, yeah, OK, that works.”
Yeah, research is, you know, because both of my series take place, you know, basically on Earth, I don’t have any extra, you know, planetary stuff. And, you know, and especially for Threader Origins, Google Maps was a big one, a big part of my research. And then I had the opportunity, actually, I went on holiday and drove through most of the areas that Threader Origins covers in the US, which also help me bring in a bunch of extra details on the scenes.
OK, well, we’re getting down to the last few minutes, so I’ll ask you the other question you’ve already said you’ll hate, which is the big philosophical questions.
Did I not mention that I’m not intelligent enough?
Before we started, you said you weren’t philosophical enough. So, we’ll see. But they’re really not difficult questions. I think the first one is, why do you write? The second one is, why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? And the third one is, why do you write stories of fantastic specifically? So, in whatever order you like.
All right. Well, I will do them in the order you asked. I will ask you to rephrase those questions as well, because I will have forgotten what they were about to get them. OK, why do I write? is the first one. And a lot of people I know, a lot of authors I know, say they write because they have to. If they don’t write, they’re going to go crazy. They’re going to go insane. And that is not my answer. I write because I enjoy it. I love the creation and the development of characters and the world-building. And, you know, it’s a mental exercise that I love doing. And could I go without writing? Probably. Would I be happy about it? No, no. I enjoy the process. I really, really enjoy the process. That being said, I enjoy having written more than the actual writing as well. So, I’m a complex person. How’s that?
That’s a very common affliction of our writers.
There you go.
And the second question was, why do you think any of us write? Why do we tell stories? Why do we make stuff up? As human beings, we make. Why do we make stuff up?
I think I’ll couch that in our current times, when times get difficult and tough, you know, whether it’s Covid-19 or the politics south of our border or whatever is in the world or whatever is stressing you out or hurting you, people want and need—most people, not everybody, not everybody—but people want and need some sort of escape. And even if that escape can be as depressing or as painful as the real world, it’s an escape from where they are in their lives and where they’re at. It gives them the chance to, whether they live in your main character’s skin for a while or whatever, gives them a chance to escape from reality, you know, without the use of psychotics.
And the third question was . . . what was the third question . . .oh, why, if you’re going to tell stories for people to escape into, why make it stories of the fantastic, fantasy and science fiction?
Because it’s what I love to read, I actually . . . when I started out, I never even thought of writing a different type of book. It’s just what I love to read. It’s what I love to write. Although I also love to read thrillers. And although I’ve tossed around the idea of writing a thriller, I don’t . . . you know, by the time I’d be finished writing, the thriller would have too many fantastical things in it to be considered just a thriller.
Yeah, whenever I’ve tried to write something else, there’s always, “But if I put a ghost in here, this is really cool.”
I could put it a gryphon right here! Yeah.
So, you’ve mentioned that you are, I guess, writing the third book. The second one is in revisions, and the first one is out. So that’s what you’re working on now?
Yeah, I’m working on the third book, and again, the whole Covid year and some of the politics that have been happening have made it a struggle for me to be creative. But I am working my way through it, and I will hand this one in on its extended deadline.
And what are the titles of the second and third books?
OK, so it’s Threader Origins is the first, Threader War is the second and Threader God is the third.
And do you know roughly what the release schedule is?
I have no clue. I have not heard the release schedule on anything but the first book, which, as you said, just came out.
And do you have anything else in the works beyond that? Are you already looking beyond . . .?
I do I, I have an idea, and usually, I wake up with these ideas in the middle of the night and scribble them down on a piece of paper, and in the morning, it feels like I’m reading a doctor’s signature. So . . . and the idea is gone from my head. So what happened this time is the idea came during the day, but I was in the middle of doing writing on Threader God. So I emailed the idea to my agent, and now it’s up to her to remind me when it’s it’s time to work on it.
And you’ve got a little short fiction as well, I think, for an anthology that’s coming up?
I do. I have . . .What’s the title? It’s called Derelicts, by Zombies Need Brains. I’m one of their anchor authors. That doesn’t mean that they’ll actually buy my story if it’s garbage, but I’m hoping they enjoy it. I handed that in . . . probably December, January 1 or 2, I think, so a couple of days beyond the due date when it was due. But they will get to reading it, and I will get my editorial comments on those. And I think that book is . . .you know, I don’t have a release date on that either. But if they accept it, it’s my third short story sale.
I’m in another one that was Kickstarted at the same time. That’s why I asked. So, I turned mine in before the deadline.
Not too far from the . . .
Yeah. How’s that full-time job working for you? Sorry, that was harsh.
All right. Fair enough. Fair enough. And where can people find you online? I mentioned it off the top, but we’ll mention it again here at the end.
All right. Well, I’m geraldbrandt.com on the Web. I’m on Facebook as Gerald Brandt Author, and I’m on Twitter @GeraldBrandt.
And we should mention that’s Brandt with a D. B-R-A-N-D-T.
It is a silent D, so. Yes, yeah. If you’re not sure of the spelling, you can look at the transcript.
Exactly right. Well, thanks so much, Gerald. It’s been great chatting with you. You know, I thought about it for a long time. I have to limit the number of DAW authors I do, though. I have to space them out because I could easily do nothing but DAW authors because I’ve met so many of them at dinners and stuff.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, thank you so much for having me. This was a blast.
I had a great time, and best of luck with the trilogy, and I’m sure I’ll talk to you again soon. Or hopefully, we’ll see each other in person again soon.
That would be nice. I would . . . I can hardly wait to actually meet people again. This has dragged on long enough. But I think we’re looking at probably another six to nine months before something happens.
An hour-long interview with Robert G. Penner, author of Strange Labour (Radiant Press), named one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Science Fiction Books of 2020, and editor of the online science-fiction zine Big Echo.
Robert G. Penner is the author of Strange Labour, one of Publishers Weekly‘s Best Science Fiction Books of 2020. He’s also the editor of the online science fiction zine Big Echo, and has published more than 30 short stories and a wide range of speculative and literary journals under the pseudonym of William Squirrell.
Originally from Winnipeg, he currently lives in western Pennsylvania, but will soon be returning to Canada.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers.
Well, thank you, it’s great to be here.
I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths in person, but we do have a kind of a secondhand connection in that the publisher of Strange Labour, Radiant Press, is based right here in Regina, Saskatchewan, where I live. And I know John Kennedy, who’s the publisher over there, very well. And in fact, the anthology that came out of the first year of this podcast, Shapers of Worlds, is being distributed through LitDistCo, a Canadian distribution company, through the good graces of Radiant Press. So, there’s kind of a connection there, I think.
Yeah, that’s a connection. That’s the real deal.
And so, we’ll talk a little bit about your Canadian roots and how you got interested in all this science fiction stuff. So, where did you grow up?
I was born in Winnipeg, but very shortly after birth, my parents took me and my brother off to Africa, where they were development workers with the Mennonite Central Committee. So, the first six years of my life were in Zambia. Then we came back to Winnipeg for four or five, then to Swaziland, and then back to Winnipeg. But I do identify as a Winnipegger.
Well, that’s an interesting combination of countries.
So, how did you become interested in the . . . well, I presume, like most of us. You started as a reader. When did you first find your interest in reading and writing? And was it science fiction that you started with, or did you come to that later?
It was very young. But when we were in Zambia, when we were small children, my dad . . . we were in fairly rural Zambia, so there wasn’t much to do. And my dad read us the whole of the Lord of the Rings a couple of times and the whole of the Narnia series and some of those classic fantasy books when we were very small. So, we grew up, both me and my brother, already very engaged in sort of speculative fiction and the pleasures of, like, fantasy. And when we got back to Winnipeg, and we had access to the big public libraries, my brother, my older brother, started taking on a lot of science fiction from the libraries, and I followed his path.
Yeah, I had two older brothers, and one of them, in particular, read quite a bit of science fiction, so that was the stuff that was always around the house. And so, I kind of picked it up, and that’s kind of how I got really interested in it as well. How old were you when you came back to Winnipeg?
I was six. My brother was . . . I was five or six, and my brother was about eight. So, we were still very young. But like I said, because of the environment we grew up in, we were sort of hyperliterate because that’s all there was for entertainment. So, by the time I was 10 or 11, I was reading science fiction fairly regularly and already thinking about writing, writing as play, as just an extension of both reading and your usual childish sort of fantasy life. Writing was just a part of it.
When did you write your first sort of complete thing? I mean, I remember that stage where I was writing, you know, I’d write a few pages or something, but I never finished anything until a little bit later. So how was that for you?
I don’t know. You could say I still haven’t. But I think the first time was probably, again, 10 or 11, like very short pieces, nothing very extensive, but by 10 or 11, I was writing little short stories, I think.
Yeah, that’s about when I wrote my first complete one. “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot,” it was called, so you could sort of say . . .
That’s awesome. That’s a great title.
I thought science fiction characters had to have weird names.
Well, that’s a keeper.
Yeah, I wish I could find it. It’s . . . my mom typed it up for me, and it’s tucked away in a box somewhere. And if I ever find it, it’s going online like that, just to show people. So, did you continue writing through high school? Was that something that you kind of went through?
Not as much. I’d say in high school, I trailed off quite a bit in terms of my writing. And then when I went . . . I mean, you’re just busy with a lot of things in high school, and it just wasn’t super high up on my agenda. I was . . . my friends and I at that stage were playing a fair amount of Dungeons and Dragons and Traveller and things like that. So that’s a type of writing, too, when you’re preparing games.
But serious writing wasn’t until I think I went to university, in the very late ’80s and early ‘’90s. And then I started writing more and more again. And in some ways, it might have been triggered again by isolation. In my late teens, I spent some time working on a farm in Germany, and there was nothing left . . . and again, there’s nothing to do but read. So, I read an awful lot. And I think that sort of reinvigorated my sort of my ambitions to write. So, probably late ’80s, early ’90s, I started writing again, and it was a combination of both university and sort of periods of isolation doing different kinds of work where I was thrown upon my own imagination for entertainment.
What did you . . . did you study any writing formally, like, did you take any classes? What did you study?
I guess when I started university, I did take some . . .I took a couple of English Lit courses at the University of Winnipeg, and that influenced me, and I . . . at Red River, Red River Community College has, like, a journalism program, creative communications. I did that in my early adulthood as well. So, that was some fairly formal training. But I would say the biggest influences in terms of sort of establishing style and voice would have been just reading, just picking up independent books and experimenting on my own. I did tend to always be a fairly experimental writer, and I think music, the type of music I was listening to, influenced that.
What kind of music were you listening to?
Oh, punk rock and . . . well, especially punk rock, but sort of more avant-garde-ish pop music where there was a lot of room for sort of play and experimentation. Even something like the Talking Heads, there’s an awful lot going on lyrically that isn’t very typical and just gets a young writer thinking about what’s possible with language if you really push or stretch.
You referenced punk rock in an interview with you. I read about Big Echo, so I was wondering if that was the kind of music you were listening to.
It was. And also, actually, for writing, I listen to a lot of, I guess, what you call old country stuff like Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam. And that’s a lot more sort of a standardized style of writing. But I think that country, country and western probably also shaped . . . that curious combination of punk rock and country and western probably shaped my style and my voice.
One of the interesting things about country music is that there’s a lot more storytelling in it, I think, than other forms of music, so many country songs are actually little stories of one sort or another.
Absolutely, yeah. And my dad listened to a lot of country. Well, he grew up playing country music, and so there was some country music fairly early on in my life as well. I wasn’t a big fan or anything, but there was always, you know, I mean, I learned about Wilf Carter and Hank Snow and that kind of thing fairly early on. And as you say, that’s like, they write little stories. And so, I was aware from quite young of this idea of the little story as being highly entertaining.
So, when did you start writing little stories and attempting to get them published? When did the publication thing start happening for you, and how?
Very late. So, we moved down to the States about seven or eight years ago, and I had just started writing again. I’d finished a Ph.D. in history, and one of the ways to distract myself from preparing for class, I think, was to write fiction. And so, I started writing a lot more fiction at the tail end of my Ph.D. But then, when we moved down here, my partner was working, and I was on a visa that required me not to work. I wasn’t allowed to make any money while we were down here, while I was on that visa. And so, there was really nothing to do but shop and cook and take care of the kid and write. So, I started really writing a lot right when we first moved down here and started publishing in small zines fairly regularly and compulsively, I’d say, So I would say that really picking up the energy, that was about seven or eight years ago, I started really writing.
And down here, I was lucky as well. There’s a guy called Andy Stewart who’s published occasionally for Fantasy & Science Fiction, and he has a new book, a novella, coming out with Tor. And he happened to be living here at the same time. So, we had similar reading and writing interests, and we started working together a lot and reading each other’s stuff. So that also was a big invigoration.
You weren’t entirely writing science-fiction kind of stuff, were you? You mentioned literary writing as well in your little bio there.
Yeah, I do both. When I was younger, it was very much more literary. It was all a sort of this like, I don’t know, like, sort of male-confessional Charles Bukowski type stuff that a lot of young men might be interested in, and I found it ultimately a little boring, and I started retreating into sort of my childhood, looking for more inspiring things, more fun things to write about, and I began to realize that speculative fiction really gives you a lot of freedom to just do whatever you want in terms of your writing. And so, I started reading more, revisiting old texts, and trying to experiment and write science fiction in ways that I hadn’t before, certainly not since I was a child. And there’s this idea that I think academics sometimes have that you can just start writing science fiction or fantasy, and it’s very easy. And it’s . . . I mean, it is in one sense in that it’s play, but in another sense, there was quite a steep learning curve. I started reading an awful lot of short-form science fiction and fantasy venues and more novels and novellas and sort of trying to understand the craft from a speculative perspective. And that was all in the last seven or eight years. And that was also . . . Andy (Stewart) 11:49 was again a fairly big influence because he’d been to Clarion, he was a part of that scene in ways I wasn’t and had a very good eye for what sort of contemporary science fiction and speculative fiction was like. And so, that was all in the last seven or eight years, I’d say, I started really thinking hard about it. That doesn’t mean I stopped writing the literary stuff or reading it. That was going on at the same time, but there was that influence; Andy’s influence was very significant.
Yeah, we often say in the field that it’s a field in conversation with itself. And, you know, it’s very easy for people, I think, who come into it and haven’t read widely, and experienced it, to write something that, you know, would have been perfectly fresh 50 years ago, but the field has perhaps dealt with that or is now taking that idea in unexpected directions. There are all sorts of things going on that . . . when I work with young writers, and I do quite a bit of work with young writers, I will often get stuff that it’s pretty clear they’ve watched science fiction like Star Wars, stuff like that, but they haven’t actually read it.
Absolutely. And so, I was shocked at how, in some ways, how hard it was to write something fresh, like really fresh and original, because it’s been an awful lot of very clever people being very creative over a long period of time. And it’s pretty hard to just walk in and think, well, I can start writing this stuff and impress people.
So, we’ll move on to the novel. Was this your first attempt at a novel, Strange Labour, or had you written something before?
I self-published sort of a speculative political horror thing a little while ago, but I wouldn’t call it a novel. It was more of an experiment, I would say, in terms of just a fairly straightforward narrative novel. This was my first serious attempt.
Well, pretty good initial attempt then, considering. So, I guess the first thing to do is to give listeners a synopsis of it without giving away anything you don’t want to give away.
The basic idea is that people wake up one morning and the vast majority of the population has become overwhelmed by a compulsion to leave the cities and dig these massive earthen mazes or labyrinths. And there’s a handful of people that are not sort of compelled to do so, and they have to find a way to live in this new world where everyone has left the cities, and they’re just building, working themselves to death to build these massive mounds, these earthen mounds. These people don’t talk. They just communicate somehow to themselves. And so, you have this isolated, this small, isolated community of people who aren’t digging, who have to make sense of this new world and find a way to live meaningfully, sort of in the margins. That’s the book. And so, the structure, the narrative structure, is a young woman traveling across the United States, what was the United States, because she wants to find out what happened to her parents, whether they joined the diggers or whether they’re like her. So, it’s this sort of this combination of a kind of an eerie or weird post-apocalypse with a fairly traditional road novel. And so, she meets various people on the way and various little communities that are striving to make sense of the world, this new world they find themselves in. And that’s the book.
You could say the structure goes back to, oh, say, the Odyssey, traveling to strange places.
Absolutely. Yeah. And it’s . . . I mean, it has a fairly episodic feel in some ways, too, like the Odyssey, where it’s just one thing after another. It is . . . yeah, it does actually hearken back to that very old style of storytelling.
And what was the inspiration and in general, what is your . . . I know it’s a cliché, where do your ideas come from, but it’s a legitimate question. How do these things come to you? What sorts of things spark story ideas, and this idea in particular?
That was a dream fragment. There was a very small element of it that just originated in a dream fragment, and then just playing around with it. After that, it was originally a short story, and the short story became the end of the novel. So, in a lot of ways, the writing was writing backstory for this short story that I really liked and couldn’t get published. I don’t know. I guess in terms of just where the ideas come from, just life. One has odd thoughts. You write them down. Occasionally a dream. Occasionally it might be something more pointed, like a very specific idea, like a what-if idea. But I’m a . . . . I would say I’m a mood writer. And so, most of my ideas come from trying to capture a certain mood or feeling about the world rather than a sort of a very classic science fiction axiom. Like, if X then Y kind of writing, which I really enjoy and I wish I was better at it, but it tends to be more sort of particular moods or atmospheres that trigger ideas and narratives rather than sort of a scientific notion.
Well, in Strange Labour . . . do you explain at some point, or is it more about the mood of this strange world, and nobody knows what’s going on, and nobody finds out?
I don’t explain. I don’t. So, there’s no . . . I can’t even give it away because, I mean, I have my own theories and ideas, but in a lot of ways, I think the book wasn’t about this interesting thing that happened, but rather this thing has happened and how do people respond and how do they make meaning out of something they don’t understand? So, if you’re going to boil it down to a single sort of philosophical idea, it would be that these people are stuck in this incomprehensible universe that they can’t make sense of, and they need to somehow keep living despite this. And so, if you do provide a solution to that problem, it kind of undercuts the whole purpose, which is to try to think about what it’s like to live in a universe you can’t quite understand and still live.
Well, isn’t that the question we all face?
Yeah, it is. And I mean, that’s part of why I was writing it, just trying to think through on a sort of . . . personal problems on a, in an aesthetic way.
You have a Ph.D. in history. Has your knowledge of history, does it play into these sorts of things? I mean, there’s been many times down through history when people have found themselves in such circumstances, completely out of their control, and not understanding what’s going on. Do you draw on some of that knowledge of history in writing things like this?
I do. Strange Labour isn’t a particularly historical book or anything like that. But one of the things that’s really interesting in history, like, sort of professional archival history, is you tend to always start finding yourself looking back at the big events sort of through the margins because you’re doing archival work, because you’re looking at these really subjective experiences of history, in some ways you stop thinking historically, right? You stop thinking in terms of these big economic and social sweeps, and you find yourself often thinking in very personal terms because you get attached to particular archival voices or perspectives, and these people never know what’s going to happen. They’re stuck in the world, and they’re trying to understand it. And there you are, like 200 or 300 or 400 years later, and you know what’s happened. But you’re still sort of obliged to try and enter the world that these people exist in and try to understand what it looks like and what it feels like when you don’t understand what’s happening or what’s going to happen. So that very sort of, very, like, working historian perspective of like, how do you enter the world of someone who’s dead, who’s living in the far reaches of the past and doesn’t know what’s happening, what’s going to happen, how do you understand their experience of the world and how do they make sense of the world and what’s sort of the raw material, the cultural and the social and the economic raw materials through which they live in this world, that you have a sort of a post facto sense of that they’re stuck in the middle of?
So, when you’re writing a novel, it’s actually quite similar. You’ve got these characters that don’t have access to the world in the way you do, and I think, for me, the practice of history really showed me ways to sort of think about it. Well, what do they have access to? How can they think? What are the raw materials of their life, and how do they construct meaning out of that? So, in that sense, it’s sort of, a meta sense, history
was very important to the writing of Strange Labour. And other than that, I mean, you have access to interesting facts, I guess, you can use as spice and flavor in a novel as well, the way most people might not. But, yeah, I think, philosophically, history has been very important specifically to Strange Labour, and to my writing in general, just for that, this is this way of sticking yourself into the head of someone who doesn’t have the same access to the facts as you do, but trying to do so as respectfully and thoughtfully as possible.
There have been several authors I’ve interviewed who have a background in history, so it’s interesting . . . and folklore, in the case of Seanan Maguire, was a folklorist, I think, and, of course, that plays into it as well. So, once you had the idea, you said it started as a short story, and then you had to create a back story. So, what did you’re planning and outlining process look like? This is your first novel, so it would have been kind of deciding how to do it.
Yeah, it is. It’s, I mean, you play around a little, but I mean, it was actually, it made it easier to know what the ending was. So, in a sense, everything’s focused on getting to a certain point. The problem, the biggest problem, I faced was that I like the original short story very much. And I like the characters in the short story very much. So, I didn’t want to mess it up. I wanted to keep it sort of true to the original tone and style of the piece, but it was just, it was fun, I think it was mostly just fun. You say, “I’ve got to get to X, and I’m starting it at A, and how do I get there?”
There wasn’t a whole lot of planning initially. I started writing, and it just took off from there. You mentioned the Odyssey earlier, and so, one of the things that was a little difficult was to keep it, like, structured and not episodic. I think the biggest danger was it would just turn into a sequence of events, just sort of that kind of very plotty way of getting from A to B to C. I think that was the big danger, particularly for a novice, was trying to have a fairly classic novelistic structure and get to where I wanted without it just being like a straight linear procession.
Yeah, so I started writing, and then when I was about halfway done, I kind of had to reevaluate the structure and sort of start, maybe start, I think I started to think of it in terms of acts. Well, if the original short story is act three, what has to happen in that one? And act two, how can I give it structure and meaning, so the reader doesn’t feel like they’re just being dragged along.
Did you ever write anything down as formal as an outline or a synopsis or something, or was it more feeling your way through and then, you know, taking notes as necessary to . . .?
No synopsis ’til late, but lots of lists, lots of flowcharts. I’m a big flowchart fan. So, there was, I would say, about a third of the way through, all of a sudden, I started writing flow charts, making flow charts, and just trying to figure out what was happening, when, and how. And once I started working with Radiant Press, I had to do that a little more seriously because they wanted more sort of background than I provided in the original draft, which was very sort of existential. And they wanted a little more back story. So then . . .and then you start doing this thing where you’re tracking the backstories as well as the current story. So, I have to think about Miranda’s—the main character’s name is Miranda—I had to think about her previous life and start working that into the material. And that’s probably when I started writing, like, a novel proper, and started struggling with the usual kinds of problems that novelists struggle with. But there were definitely, I think, flowcharts and catalog cards getting rearranged on tables and all kinds of desperate efforts t fight through the problem of structure.
You mentioned the character, and obviously, there are other characters. How did you discover the characters you needed for this story, and how much thinking and detailing of them did you do before you started writing them, or did they also emerge as the story advanced?
The main characters were there in the original. The two main characters were there in the original short story, and they were just there. I just started writing the story, and I needed these characters, and I came up with them. When I started doing the novel, then you need to put in a lot more sort of . . . well, you need a lot more words about them, and they need a lot more shape and form. So, I started thinking about them more in sort of dramatic terms as characters, what’s this character like, and so on. I’ve mentioned this in a previous interview before, but there were two main characters, Miranda and Dave, and my partner really liked Miranda, but she didn’t care much for Dave, who was sort of the foil for Miranda, and I really like Dave, so a good portion of the middle of the book is me trying to convince Nicole, my partner, that Dave’s OK, that Dave’s actually all right. And that was a very productive way to do it, because it really, because then you think about, “What are the things she doesn’t like about Dave?” and you don’t want to get rid of them because you think it’s part of who Dave is. But then you also want to start showing and illuminating other aspects of his character. So, for me, the most satisfying part of the writing process in terms of character building was to build Dave up in such a way that he was fuller and more understandable than he had been in the beginning. I enjoy writing characters. It’s one of my favorite things about writing. I don’t know if I’m particularly good at it, I sometimes feel like they all tend to look a little the same, but I guess that really is a lot of the pleasure for me in the writing is you get these fairly basic characters, and then you start building them up into sort of three-dimensional forms and trying to establish how they’re distinct from each other and so on.
Well, ultimately, all our characters are really aspects of ourselves because we’re the only ones that we really understand—if we understand ourselves.
Exactly. Which is why it was particularly distressing when Nicole didn’t like Dave because there’s an awful lot of me in Dave.
What does your actual writing process look like? Are you a certain number of hours a day, or do you go out in under a tree with a quill pen? How does it work for you?
It’s shifted a little. When we first got here, I’d get my daughter off to school, and I’d do the shopping or whatever and then have a few hours, and I would put in the writing. Once I got a visa that allowed me to work, that changed. Then you find yourself sort of scrabbling and scratching for writing time. A lot more in the last couple of months. I mean, we’ve all been locked in with the pandemic. It’s actually been a lot easier. So, my daughter is now online in school. So, once I get her set up in the morning, I mean, I have a couple of hours just to write. So, it’s actually been . . . the last six months or so, it’s actually been relatively easy. You just get up, you take care of some basic chores and housework, and you get everyone fed, and then you write for a couple of hours until you get tired. Particularly over the Christmas holidays, I’ve just . . . it’s been very easy to get up in the morning and start writing.
On the novel, did you write it quite sequentially, just started at the beginning and kept pressing through until you got to the end? You mentioned that halfway through, you had to kind of reevaluate, but you did it sequentially?
Yeah, I do. I don’t know what it means, but the novel I’m working on now, again, it’s just . . . I just start at the beginning and start writing. And I mean, obviously, at a certain point, you’ve got to go back and reevaluate and rethink and restructure, and you never know how much of it you’re going to have to just destroy. But yeah, A to B to C is basically how I proceed.
There are a few people who write piecework and do scenes and then stitch them all together later. But most people, I think, find it easier to just tell the story and then worry about fixing it later.
Yeah. And every once in a while, if I’m feeling stuck, I might jump ahead, right, and go, “Well, OK, I know this one scene has to happen later, so I’m going to flesh it out at least, and then maybe that will help me, and go back. But in general, yeah, it’s just full steam ahead and try to get to the end.
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
I would characterize myself as fairly fast. I guess it kind of depends. In genre, I find people write fairly quickly, whereas like in literature, in the literary, like the high-end literary stuff, they seem to write a lot slower. I’d say I’m kind of in the middle. I’m probably very fast for a literary writer and sort of a little slow for a spec-fic kind of a guy.
I remember years ago hearing of someone who had spent, like, 11 years writing, I don’t know, half a dozen short stories or something. And I can’t even fathom that. I could not write that slow if my life depended on it.
I’m pretty sure I’d get bored. There’s actually, on Netflix there’s this great movie with . . . Meryl Streep plays a writer, sort of a Margaret Atwoodish writer, and she’s horrified, she’s on a boat, and she’s horrified when she meets a mystery writer who turns books out, like, two or three a year and she spends four years on a single book.
It’s a different approach, that’s for sure. So, you’ve mentioned that you were trying, you know, part of your work was making your wife like Dave. Yeah. Did you have any other sort of first readers or beta readers that you showed work to give you feedback? You’d mentioned your friend there?
Yeah. Andy Stewart. 31:47 I was incredibly lucky to find him. We were in a small town in western Pennsylvania, and both our wives were teaching at the university here. So, we were very lucky to find each other. And yeah, so he was a beta reader. He gave me an awful lot of feedback, and he was very, very useful because, again, because he was much more grounded in sort of the culture of speculative fiction than I was. And so, I tend to be fairly pretentious . . . oh, let’s call it avant-garde, experimental . . . and so it was very useful to write with him because he would help me ground myself and just always remind me, keep reminding myself, that you’re writing for an audience. I mean, you don’t have to. If you just want to write for yourself, that’s fine. But I was trying to write for an audience. So, Andy was very good at trying to get me to think through sort of technical issues, like, “Well, OK, so what’s your idea and how do you want to communicate it to your readers sort of efficiently and easily so that they’re not constantly having to try to catch up with you?” So, he was tremendously important in that way in sort of keeping me grounded and not sort of off into the experimental stratosphere or anything like that
When you were reading, did you read any of the New Wave stuff from the ‘60s in science fiction?
Actually, I didn’t. I mean, it was in the back of my mind. I was reading . . . when I was writing Strange Labour, I was reading mostly sort of modern literary textbooks of post-War Europe. And that kind of influenced the mood. And since then, I’ve started going back to that, to the New Wave stuff. I was a little leery while I was doing it. I didn’t want to read anything that would be too closely connected to it in style. So, one of the things that always happened is people would say, “Oh, you have to read The Road.”
I would think that’s what you would not want to read while you’re writing something like this.
Exactly. So, I was terrified of reading it, and I didn’t want to go near it until I was finished. And now I feel free, that there’s all these books that people told me I should read that now I can go back to. I mean, you just don’t want to read a book and then find someone’s done it way better than you already because then you’re hooped.
Well, I was a kid when the New Wave was happening, and I was reading science fiction, and it did not click with me at the age of, say, 10 or 12, and I’ve never gone back to see what I think of those stories now, but it would be an interesting experiment. The only one I really remember, I don’t remember the story. I just remember the weird typography. It was a story that was printed in a spiral on the page that you read from the outside, following the words around in the spiral to whatever happened in the middle. I don’t remember the story. I remember that image of those spiraling words on the page.
Yeah. And I think that was always the danger for me, was ending up in the spiral.
So, once you had a draft, what did your revision process look like? You’ve gotten some feedback. Were you working on language or . . . you’ve mentioned structure? What were some of the things you had to continue polishing? And I guess this ties in as well to the editorial process because you mentioned that some of that feedback came from Radiant. So maybe before we talk about that, how did you find Radiant Press? It’s a small press, puts out excellent stuff, but it’s a very small press.
It is a small press, and actually, I heard about it through a friend, Stephen Whitworth, who runs the Prairie Dogin Regina. So that’s how I heard about them. But before I sent it to them, I’d sent it to a whole bunch of agents all over the United States. And one of the agents, a fairly big name, got back to me, and he said, “Well, send me more. I’m curious.” And so I did, and he was disappointed with the rest of the book. And so, I talked to him a little about that. I wanted to find out why he was disappointed. And he felt like in the middle, it got sort of trite and typical of post-apocalyptic fiction. So whereas in the beginning, he found it very fresh and original and engaging, it sort of just became . . . I blew it all up, I just destroyed the middle of the book and started writing it again. So, that was the first sort of major intervention, just getting rid of the middle of the book. Not quite entirely, but I would say, like, 20 percent of the book, I just deleted. And so, I had this big hole in the middle that I had to fill up. And so, the middle part of the rewrite was all that, was like trying to restructure the middle of the book in ways that were satisfying and not stereotypical or cliched.
And then once I had that done, I sent it to Radiant Press because Steve had said, “Oh, you should try these people.” And Debra at Radiant Press got back to me, and she was interested. And then we started working. And that was sort of the next stage of development was . . . she’s a very good reader and some other good readers had a look at it. And a lot of their critique was what I had mentioned earlier, was that that the characters needed more backstory because I was just being too existential. I didn’t want the reader to have any access to the world sort of before this had happened, except in the most superficial ways. And readers were like, “No, you know what? You need to build your characters up a little more. You have to give the readers at least something to hang on to.” And so, a lot of the sort of the next stage of development was the really, really quite pleasant work of just trying to build up these characters a little more, sort of flashback stuff, just little bits here and there, just to try and give them depth.
So, those would be some of the major revision stages other than copyediting, was this agent got back to me and said the middle was disappointing, so I blew it up and restructured it, then I got hold of Radiant Press, and they were interested, and in the conversations with Debra, she told me what her concerns were, in particular, characterization. And I guess, as far as Debra and I are concerned, I solved them in that draft. And then, after that, it was just tweaking and fine-tuning.
Well, then Radiant went out, they got some pretty good blurbs. Kim Stanley Robinson, for example, that’s a pretty big name to have attached to your first novel as a favorable comment.
It is. It’s actually still kind of confusing that he would have read the book and responded in that way. A lot of those blurbs I got because I was running that science fiction zine, Big Echo. I interviewed a lot of these people, and so I sort of, I got a little bit of social capital, and then I spent it to get the blurbs, so . . . that wasn’t my plan when I did the interviews or the zine, but I realized, though, I’ve talked to all of these people that are pretty clever and well known and kind, and maybe they’ll help me out. And they did.
Now, generally, people in the field are . . . there’s this whole pay-it-forward idea that Heinlein talked about that. Yeah, it’s something that I think a lot of people in the field are very, very good about. And then when did it come out? It was in October, was it?
It was in October.
So, what was your reaction when you saw the finished book and then read the response that you’ve had to it?
Positive, good. It’s exciting. It is a first book, and it is a weird time for it to come out. So, we have been expecting to do, you know, like readings and that sort of thing. And obviously, that can happen very easily. And I was stuck in the States as well, which didn’t make things easier, but it was exciting. It would have been fun to do a little more of the typical kind of readings and bookstores and that sort of thing. But it’s just, I mean, it’s just odd to have a book, right? Like, you do all this writing your whole life, and you do all this reading and then all of a sudden, you’re writing’s in an actual book and an actual thing. And it’s a little disconcerting to see it there and exciting.
Well, at that point, it’s out of your control, and it’s in going into the heads of readers who are getting all sorts of things out of it that you might not even have known you put in there, so . . .
Oh, absolutely. So, we got one really good review, and that was from Publishers Weekly. So that’s a pretty good one. And the reader was fantastic. So, this anonymous reader gave it a great read, and they saw a number of things in it that I hadn’t really been paying attention to. So, for instance, in terms of these people digging versus people not digging, there’s a suggestion in the book that it has something to do with sort of neurotypicality, right, that there’s something neurologically different about the people that aren’t digging than the people that are digging. And so, what that reader picked out was that there’s a theme here about what it means to be neurotypical or neurotypical or what have you. Like, what do these distinctions mean in terms of what it means to be human, et cetera? And I hadn’t intended a particularly sensitive or thoughtful take about that in the book, yet this reader picked it out and showed this thing about my book that I never thought was particularly valuable, or something that can be valuable to some readers. So that was very exciting, very inspiring, actually, to see something in your book that’s positive that you hadn’t thought of, or deliberately thought through, or put there. But this sensitive reader can pick it out and show it to you and say, look what you did here. This is good.
There’s a story that I’ve I think I’ve told before on the podcast that came out of Isaac Asimov’s Opus 100, I think, which was the first of his autobiographical books. And he talked about going to Columbia University, I think it was, a class where a professor was teaching his famous story, “Nightfall,” and he sat at the back and he listened to that. And afterwards, he went up to the professor, and he said, “Well, that was very interesting, but I’m Isaac Asimov, 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 the story, what makes you think you know what’s in it? It’s kind of an interesting thought. And I think there is certainly . . . we all put stuff in that we don’t know necessarily where it comes from, and then readers find things there that we didn’t necessarily think we were putting in specifically, and I think it’s because I always like to say that writing actually . . . it feels very like a loner activity, something you do by yourself, but it’s really collaborative.
It is. I think that word’s tremendously important. And it’s collaborative all the way down. So, from the very beginning, when you first start writing a project, and it’s yours, and it’s your own until your beta readers, and then if you start publishing, you’re always having conversations with the publishers and with editors. And then when readers get it, there’s a whole other conversation. And you really have very little control over the types of meanings that people are going to extract from a text. And it can be a little scary when you start thinking about it, about how little control you have of the language once it’s left your grasp.
Of course, sometimes they can completely misconstrue what you had in mind, but you don’t have any control there either, so . . .
That’s the danger.
I wanted to go back to the zine, which you mentioned and I mentioned, Big Echo. Where did that all come from? And you’ve mentioned that you’ve had a number of writers that you’ve interviewed. And I was looking at it online and saw some recognizable names had provided, you know, short stories for it. So, how did that come about?
Boredom. Like all good things, it came from boredom. So, we moved down here, and I had some time on my hands, and I had a friend who does graphics and web pages and also loves science fiction. And he was actually, he’s in Regina, too.
All of the best people are.
That’s right. Almost all. So, I said, “Well, why don’t we put together a scene?” And he said, “OK.” And so, then we did. And the issue when you’re putting together a zine like that is you don’t have money, and you can’t pay, so it’s really hard to get the writers you’re necessarily interested in. So, the first year or so was a lot of hustle, of cold-calling writers I liked and asking if they’d be interested in contributing something. And one of the, I think in the first summer, one of the first people I contacted was Rudy Rucker, of cyberpunk fame. He ran a zine called Blurb, which was quite similar. And I contacted him and asked if he had anything lying around we could use in Big Echo. And he was very excited about it and very enthusiastic, and as you say, about Heinlein and paying it forward, he’s a very generous kind of an artist, and so he gave us a story, and that was the biggest name we’d had up to then, and then he also mentioned in our conversation that the next time he had a book out, if we wanted, we could interview him, and then that just got me thinking of interviews. And because it was Rudy Rucker, I could contact people that knew who Rudy Rucker was and say, “Hey, Rudy Rucker did this with us. And now we’re doing interviews, and we’re wondering if you’d be interested.” So, Bruce Sterling and Cory Doctorow were both amongst our first interviews, and I’m pretty sure that’s a lot of it. I mean, they’re both also very generous guys who give a lot of interviews.
Yeah, Cory Doctorow was on here a little while ago.
Yeah, he never runs out of things to say, and he’s always happy to speak to a lot of people. And so, both of those guys came on very early and helped us out and made a big difference. And once you get a few of those big names and it’s a lot easier to attract other writers. Kim Stanley Robinson was actually . . . I got in touch with him through Andy Stewart 48:27, whom I’ve mentioned a couple of times already, and he knew him from California. I think he might have been taking a class with Stan, I’m not sure. But so, I contacted him through Andy Stewart. So, again, a lot of it just has to do with, like, a little bit of hustle right in the beginning and then social networks kicking in in good ways.
Well, the field is a lot bigger than it was, say, back in the Golden Age. But it is still a fairly small group of people, so everybody knows each other. So, I thought I saw on the website that you had the final issue of Big Echo. So, is it done now?
Yeah, we’re wrapping up. I’m just I’m a little tired. It’s not . . . I’m not a particularly outgoing or extroverted person, so the hustle part of it is a little difficult for me. And I’m not super comfortable as an editor. I don’t like tweaking people’s voices or anything like that. So, it was hard work in that sense. It’s also fairly niche. So, we’re looking for a very particular type of writing, and there’s only . . . it’s a sort of a subset of a subset of science fiction, so there’s not that much out there. It’s not particularly sort of popular science fiction we were interested in. So, it was just kind of running out of gas. It would have been a lot of work to keep up the standard we’d set. And I was tired. So, I just sort of . . . we wrapped it up. We’re going to put out an anthology shortly, probably within the next couple of months, a Big Echo anthology for a minimal cost just to try and generate a bit of revenue, just to keep the website up, just to keep costs up. So that’ll probably be the last thing we do with Big Echo. But it’s been awfully fun. It’s been a heck of a ride. And again, I’ll come back to, again, what you mentioned about the generosity of people in the field, it’s really quite amazing that you can just cold call someone and say, “Hey, I’m putting together this zine. Would you be interested?” And depending where they are in their career, they might help you out. And they generally do.
Well, we’re getting close to the end of the time, so I need to ask you the big philosophical questions, which is ultimately . . . there’s three of them. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do we write stories of the fantastic in particular as opposed to limiting ourselves to stories of the here and now? So, those are the three questions. Why do you write? Why do any of us write, and why write science fiction and fantasy?
For me, it’s, I mean, the two sort of key aspects of it are our pleasure and therapy. I mean, it really . . .ever since I was small, I’ve had a hyperactive sort of creative life. I love the play of imagination, and it’s a way to just keep doing it, that you can always be experimenting and playing with language and ideas with writing. It’s just fun. It’s just flat-out fun. I know that’s not true for everyone. I know for a lot of people, it’s something sort of horrifying, the idea of writing. But for me, I was always an introverted kid, I was always hypercreative, it was just a way of entertaining myself. And that whole thing about, if you can’t find a book you enjoy, then you need to write your own. I think that’s true. It’s, like, just, yeah, you can write a book you’ll love, and it’s fun to do. And the therapy . . . I tend to write fairly, fairly dark stories on the whole, and it’s just a way of working through sort of emotional and psychic stresses, sort of . . . certainly when you’re living through the last four years of the Trump administration as an immigrant in the United States, and the epidemic, there’s a lot of psychic stress on you all the time. And so, writing about it, fictionalizing the anxieties you feel, is a way of coping with them, as well. So, for me, that was always important.
Why do people write? I think mostly for the same reasons, the pleasure and the sort of the therapy of it goes hand in glove. I think, also, the collaborative thing you mentioned is also important. This idea of . . . like, you can do it for the pleasure or the therapy, you can do that, and nobody else has to read it. But there’s this next step where you start getting other people to read it as well. And there’s this collaboration and conversation going on. And that’s very important in all sorts of ways as well, just the sheer fact of exchanging ideas, sort of an exchange of ideas and views and perspectives on the world is obviously important. But just also, again, the pleasure of having a conversation with someone about an idea is wonderful. It’s . . . one of the best things about writing is when you do write something, and you get positive feedback from someone you don’t know, like someone says, “Oh, I really enjoyed this, this was good, or this was fun.” That’s a tremendous charge. It’s a big rush, I think. Once that starts happening to someone, they probably write more and more and more because it’s a really wonderful thing, in a very innocent sort of way, to just do something fun and to share it and have people you don’t know say, “You know what? That was great. That was fun.”
And the final part, why speculation, why the fantastic, why science fiction? Again, I think . . . for me, it was really freeing. I’d been reading a lot of social realism and super serious, ideological-type stuff about like, you know, boo capitalism, life sucks, just angry, loud music, and then I started rereading old spec fic and science fiction and there was just a freedom to it and a more . . . a more honest sense of one of the reasons we write and we read is for fun. And it can be super serious science fiction, you know, but there’s always an element of fun to it and the freedom of someone taking an idea and running with it as far as they can and pushing it to its limits. That’s very exciting and invigorating. So, I’m the least fannish person you’ll ever meet, but one of the things I like a lot about science fiction and fantasy writing is the fan community and the enthusiasm, right, just the flat -out enthusiasm for having a stonking good time when you’re reading a text. To me, that’s one of the most attractive things about science fiction and fantasy is that the audience really wants you to succeed because they want to have fun when they’re reading the text as well. I think that’s important to me.
And what are you working on now?
I’m writing historical fiction, a different kind of genre, a little bit of drift into sort of speculative material, about the fur trade, the 19th-century fur trade in the Hudson’s Bay territories. So, it’s from the perspective . . . for my Ph.D., I wrote about the fur trade, missions in the fur trade, some other things as well. So, I’m going back to some of that archival material and trying to turn it into a novel.
Sounds very interesting. And where can people find you online, if anywhere?
I got a Twitter feed @BillSquirrell. I think it’s . . . probably the safest way to find me is, there’s, for the book we have a webpage called robertgpenner.com, and there’ll be links on that page to other social media sites.
OK. Well, thanks so much for on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did, too.
I did. Thanks very much.
I’ll tell the folks at Radiant Press that I talked to you. They were actually the ones who suggested it because I didn’t know about the . . . I knew that they were going to publish some speculative fiction because I talked to John about it, and then Strange Labour came along, and it’s getting lots of great attention. So, I was very happy to be able to talk to you. And also, it’s not very often I talk to somebody that has any kind of connection to Regina, Saskatchewan. So that was nice to know.
John had nothing but good things to say about you. He was very enthusiastic.
That’s great. All right. Well, thanks so much. Bye for now.
Frank J. Fleming is the author of the Superego series of science-fiction novels. He’s also a humor writer for the Babylon Bee, New York Post, and USA Today, and has been a scriptwriter (Love Gov).
Fleming is a Carnegie Mellon University graduate and works as an electrical and software engineer when he’s not writing. He has also been a pioneer in virtual-reality video. He lives in Austin with his wife and four kids.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Frank, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Hey, thanks for having me.
I reached out to you because I . . . of course, I encountered you actually through the Babylon Bee. And this may not surprise you because you live in Texas, so you will know that when I say that I grew up in the Church of Christ, the Babylon Bee has humor in there that appeals to me because . . . I’m often passing along, not so much the political stuff, which is funny too, but often the church-related stuff I can pass on to people that I went to school with, I grew up with, and we all get those . . . we all get that satire.
That’s funny. I’ve thought about doing some more specific Church of Christ jokes, but I’m not sure how many people would get them.
Yeah, well, there’s a few of us, but it might not be exactly . . . it might be a bit of a niche audience, I’m afraid.
So, that’s kind of where I encountered you. And then I was following you on Twitter, and then I said, “Hey, you write science fiction.” And I looked that up, and it looked interesting. And I thought, “Well, that’s why I have this podcast.” So, I would reach out, and here you are.
Well, yeah, thanks. I really like talking about my fiction writing. The satire, I think, gets a lot more attention lately.
Yeah. It’s that kind of a world we’re living in at the moment.
The other thing I didn’t know until I got your bio here was that you’re an engineer and although I am not an engineer, I am married to an engineer. So, I hang out with engineers a lot. My wife, Margaret Anne Hodges, is past president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan.
And so, I’ve hung out with engineers a lot over the years, too.
Yeah, it’s one of my favorite topics, actually. I have lots of strong opinions on different programming languages. It just doesn’t come up as much.
We probably won’t talk much about that. All right. Well, let’s start at the very beginning. I always say that I like to take my guests back into the mists of time—I don’t know how far back that is for you; it’s getting increasingly far back for me—to find out how you got . . . well, first of all, where you grew up and went to school, all that sort of thing, but how you got interested in science fiction and how you got interested in writing, and how those two things came together. So how did that all work for you?
And it’s hard to say. You know, as far back as I can think, I’ve always wanted to do little stories. You know, it’s funny, like, I work with Ethan Nicolle, you know, who did that Axe Cop. He illustrated stories from, like, his five-year-old brother, and I’m thinking, like, same age, I would always, like, play with stuffed animals or make up stories and things. And I can think back to . . . I think when I was a teenager, I probably made my first attempt at writing a science-fiction novel. It’s just, you know, I can’t help but think of stories. You know, I didn’t have much of the writing skill back then. And I just come at it, you know, and keep coming back to it. It’s just, I also found I had a bit of a knack for writing satire, particularly political satire, and I eventually started a blog and wrote more on that. But eventually, just because it’s always been a passion, I did, I think it was 2005. I actually did Superego as a short story. I just wrote it piece by piece and completely planned it out, and it actually ended up being a bit of a hit. I think I’m a bit embarrassed by the original short-story version, but it was pretty popular at the time, and eventually, I decided I have to, you know, if something’s my passion, I have to set more time aside for it eventually. So, you know, I need to work on my fiction every day. And eventually, I started just getting up at five a.m. every morning. So, I had time to both do the humor and satire and write on, novel writing, before my regular day job. And just, you know, if you do a bit of it every day, eventually it gets done.
You mentioned that you wrote a little bit in high school when you . . . well, first of all, where did you grow up?
That’s a complicated question. High school was in New Jersey. That’s, I think, still the single place I’ve lived the most. I lived there nine years, from age nine to eighteen.
And did you have books that got you interested in reading and writing in those and those early days?
It’s funny, I was a very avid reader up until high school, and for some reason, I’m not sure why, I kind of dropped off then. I remember reading, let’s see, the Dragonlance series was one of my favorites as a kid, and, you know, I read some Michael Crichton, but at some point, I dropped off, and eventually, I just was not finding time for reading. That’s something I had to reintegrate into my life and realize, you know, as they always say, if you want to be a writer, you have to read a lot. And so, that’s now something I make a priority each day. It’s usually what I do in the morning when drinking my coffee. I find that’s a lot better a way to wake up than, like, you know, looking at the news or social media.
What are some of the authors you’re reading now?
Let’s see. I actually, I just finished today, Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles. I really try to alternate nonfiction and fiction. And then I try to draw from, you know, fantasy, science fiction, thrillers. You know, I try to, every once in a while, to go a little bit out of my comfort zone, just to try a lot of different authors. Lately, I’ve been enjoying Jim Butcher and is, uh . . .
Yeah, Dresden Files.
Yeah, I love those, too.
I think I’m more the style, you know, I know there’s the hard science fiction things in me, I’m more, I just I want to write something that, you know, maybe makes you think and has a few themes to it, but my main goal is just make something fun and end up . . . I really want to make a page-turner, I’d say.
Well, you went into engineering. Why did you decide to pursue that? What drew you to it?
I’ve always had a very analytical mind, and this is something . . . it feels like I have, like, two sides of me that I’ve never been able to join. I have a very creative side, a very . . . I always loved creative writing, I always loved humor. But I also, I love solving puzzles, and I just love computer programming. I love debugging. I love figuring things out. I love, especially, really complex problems where you can’t just Google the answer, and you got to be like, you know, the one go out there and solve things no one else has figured out before. And I really enjoy both. I’ve just never been able to merge the two sides.
And how did the satire writing start coming about? I mean, yeah, you said you found a knack for it, but how did you end up getting . . . I mean, you were published in some fairly major places, and you had satirical books published. How did that all come about?
Well, that, I mean, that goes back . . . I always loved humor. I think for a while as a kid . . . I almost feel embarrassed, it was like, I was like a big fan of Garfield, I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I used to write and draw comics and things. But eventually, it’s just . . .I don’t know, I played around. I found out, you know, politics is something to make fun of. We had a . . . in my high school, they had . . . a local paper was going to run editorial from a high schooler, and so, they had people submit, and I wrote a joke one about how economic and political ideas need to be tested on monkeys first before they’re tried on humans, and that got published, that was the one chosen, it got published. And then, when I was in college, I just started writing, like, joke columns. You know, I’d say I’d been influenced by, like, Dave Barry, I just wrote, like, humorous columns for the school paper and, you know, just kind of did that a little bit, then set it aside. And then, I became what back in the day was known as a war blogger. You know, a little bit after 9/11, everybody started blogging and trying to get involved in the news. And I think I was about, let’s say, I’d be about 23 at the time. And I said, “Well, I’ll write some on politics.” But I also realized, “I’m too young to lecture anybody on politics. I don’t know anything, so, I’ll just write really stupid opinions that will at least be entertaining,” and made that my niche, and first started out as blogging and eventually started writing some columns and things.
As opposed to stupid opinions that aren’t entertaining, and there’s lots of those around.
Yeah, but, well, stupid opinions are the most entertaining. Smart opinions are usually very simple.
Well, I have to ask you about the Babylon Bee, because that’s how I found you. How did . . . are you one of the founders of that or . . . you’re listed as a senior writer. So, how did that all come about?
I’m one of the earlier writers. I’m not a founder. I think they were out maybe about two years because I remember being a fan of them before I got involved. I knew, you know, I already mentioned Ethan Nicolle, and I was a big fan of his. And I ended up just meeting him online, becoming friends with him. And then he went working for them full-time, and he dropped my name with them. And it’s just, I’d been blogging, writing similar-type humor for over a decade, so it just was a real good fit. Because I used to write full columns where I’d have, like, a joke, a funny idea, and I’d have to fill out 600 to a thousand, and really I’d just have one joke, and so that’s all padding. I like the Bee because I just come up with a funny concept and usually only write, like, 200 words or so. And so, it’s usually pretty fun to write for.
My background is in journalism, and when I was working as a newspaper reporter and photographer at the little Weyburn Review—Weyburn has a population of 10,000, so this wasn’t exactly a huge newspaper—and I had a weekly column, and I would sometimes dip into satire. And I found that people would get madder at me for the satire than things that I had written, you know, serious news stories about serious topics. But people were sometimes . . . especially if they took the satire seriously and then found out afterwards that it was satire and they’d missed the joke. Does that . . . ?
Well, yeah, that’s always the problem. My very first paid column, I actually co-wrote it with Jonah Goldberg for USA Today. And there, they were very particular. It said, like, satire right in the title and satire right at the end. And, you know, I know why they do that, but I always feel that puts you off on a bad foot, like, you’re like, “You’re too dumb to get this was a joke if we didn’t tell you right away.” For a while, I wrote, though, for the New York Post, and there, they didn’t label it, but no one seemed to get that mad. I seemed to, you know, I never had, like, these most strident, ardent opinions that really worked people up. I think a few people wrote in some angry letters who didn’t get it was satire, but it didn’t seem to be a big deal. Of course, now, at the Babylon Bee, we keep having all these times where people share it for real, and, of course, we get accused, like we’re trying to do that. We’ve never written one where we’re trying to trick people. It’s just, it so often takes us off guard, like, which ones people thought were real and end up getting shared as, you know, fake news, and that that will get people angry.
And a few times, your satire has turned into almost what actually happens a few weeks later on, too.
Yeah, that’s what I was saying recently, is satire these days is just figuring out what’s going to be real news in about, you know, two days in the future.
And I guess that’s where a Not the Bee came along because those are real news items that read like they could be satire.
Yeah, yeah. It’s . . . and that’s, I think, actually a challenge for satire. If things are already crazy and funny, you can’t really . . . you know, it’s better if something’s really serious and you make fun of it, you know, like, you throw a pie in the face of some stiff, you know, upper-crust guy, throwing a pie in the face of a clown, not as funny. And it’s . . . and with things so crazy, it’s a little bit more challenge for the humor. You have to learn how to, like, work with it instead of against it. It’s . . . as I describe to people, if you, like, a decade or two ago, you pitched, “Hey, Donald Trump is going to be president,” you know, no one would do that as a drama. That’s a comedy. And so, I explain people are living in a comedy premise. And you have to learn to, like, flow with that and be with it and not get all too serious about it, or you’re going to end up like Dean Wormer from Animal House.
I also wanted to ask you about the scriptwriting side. We’re working our way around to the fiction, but I’m touching on everything else that you’ve done. You mentioned being a scriptwriter. How did you get into scriptwriting?
I had an opportunity where I worked with a production company in Austin. It’s what moved me to Texas. They’re called Emergent Order. They’re probably most famous . . . they did, like, a Keynes versus Hayek rap battle explaining economics. And I did with them a series which portrayed government as, like, kind of this bad boyfriend who’s always butting in, and had a lot of fun. That was my first time writing and getting to see it filmed, which is a lot more complicated. And I thought . . . and it kind of ruins TV and movies for you afterwards, because now I’m always thinking practically, like, “Oh, how many extras have they got, where did they film this, what camera angles.” In a way, you can enjoy TV more before you know all the background stuff. And now, I’m actually writing some scripts for, you know, Babylon Bee started doing some animation. They’re really expanding what they’re doing on YouTube. And so, having some fun there.
Well, one reason I ask about scriptwriting is because, as we’ve come around to your fiction, all these other kinds of writing that you have done, have you found them helpful when you started turning your attention to fiction? I think in scriptwriting—and I’ve done plays, and a few video scripts, mostly more plays than anything else—one thing that you quickly learn is that dialogue has to carry a lot of the action in a play. So, do you find, for example, that being a scriptwriter has helped with the dialogue in your fiction?
Well, I think my problem is I love dialogue. I want to start with the dialogue. It’s like, I’ll do the dialogue and then start to get the plot around it. And that’s kind of the wrong way to do things. So, I’ve actually, with scriptwriting, had to learn more discipline to outline and get the plot points and beats. And after I get everything, then I can finally write the dialogue, because that’s my favorite part. And so . . . and you know, there’s the length of it, because a lot of the, you know, I’d say, like, the humor writing, that doesn’t really contribute much to the fiction writing. To me, I love the fiction writing because it’s different when you actually have a plot and characters, and you need to make it all come together. And to me, it’s more like engineering in that it’s a bit of a puzzle, in that, you know, there’s no exact right way to come at it. But you have to work at it and try different things until it finally fits together and works.
Well, let’s get around to the fiction. You sort of talked a little bit about how you decided to start doing it, but before we do anything else, maybe we should get a synopsis, however much you want to say, about the Superego books.
Well, it’s funny. I’m not even sure how I ended up with this character because it’s . . . I like funnier, lighter things, but, of course, the main character of Superego is a psychopath. He’s an intergalactic hitman who just . . . and basically, it’s, to me, I guess it was an exploration of morality by . . . I came up with a character who has absolutely no practical use for it. He doesn’t feel guilt. He doesn’t have to, usually, worry about retribution for anything he does. So, is there any use of morality for a character like that? And that’s where I think, in a way, the story’s exploring.
You’re not sure where he came from?
Yeah, I’m not sure how I ended up with someone with absolutely no . . . like, a psychopath without any feeling of guilt. It just . . . it seemed like an interesting character to work with. I think at the time, I remember it was back, I was watching that show House, and I also liked the idea of just this cranky character who can say whatever he’s thinking because he doesn’t really care about other people.
And then, do you want to give a little outline of the plot?
Well, in the first one, he, let’s see, he ends up having to pretend to be with law enforcement when he’s on a planet doing a job and ends up working with a detective whom he begins to fall in love with. But he, you know, finds out that the job isn’t what it seems. And he ends up sort of a . . . well, I don’t know how much to give away, but it just thinks his basically his whole life starts to collapse around him when he hadn’t really thought much about it. The second one has him . . . now he’s decided to be somebody different and exploring how different can he be considering who he is. In a way, he’s trying to be a hero, even though, again, he doesn’t get the feelings of, like, any good feelings from helping people or anything. And so, we’re seeing how far he can push that.
The other interesting thing I found . . . he has an AI in his head who struck me as, like, Jiminy Cricket, actually, he’s the conscience of the puppet in Pinocchio, and it was a bit like that. So, where did that come from?
I’m not sure where the character first came from. I figure . . . I think it’s just, in a way, logical. He is not a people person, he doesn’t do well with people, but he needs help. I actually have a short story that is kind of a prequel that shows him first activating AI. He’s lonely, but he also doesn’t do well with people. And so, he ended up with an AI. He figured he could deal better with that. And so . . . and then, yeah, it’s like a conscience forum, but in a way, he can understand because, you know, it’s an AI, it has to logically think through, you know, what’s the right thing to do here. And that’s what he’s stuck with doing because he has no feeling of like, you know, this is a good thing, or this is a bad thing.
Well, let’s start at the very beginning of the writing process, then. Once you had your character, what did your planning, and what does your planning/outlining process, look like? Are you a detailed outliner, or do you just sort of start writing and see what happens?
I’m somewhere in between. I once tried . . . I read, like, Stephen King’s On Writing book, where he seems to be, let’s just, like, come up with the characters and let happen what happens. And I tried that with the novel Side Quest, but I ended up . . . to me, I need at least a skeleton of what I think the whole story is going to map out, like, where different plot points are, where it’s going to end up. And I tend to just kind of walk around, play with it in my head, until I think I have a solid structure for the plot and what are the main beats of the story in my head, and then I start to write it out. And then . . . but it usually then, it usually takes a few twists and turns from what I originally planned, because you have to, you know, let the characters do what seems logical for them. Because, of course, the problem, if you map out a plot too much, is you’re trying to make your characters fit into doing what you need them to do, and sometimes that just doesn’t work out.
What you put down on paper before you start writing? Is it fairly sketchy, sort of just to remind you of what you thought about, or do you do something pretty detailed? Like, would it be five pages or ten pages or . . . I talked to one author, Peter V. Brett, who does 150-page outlines. So, he’s the extreme.
I’m definitely on the other end. I have a . . . for the current, I’ve written a third Superego, I have a very simple Excel sheet that just maps out a few different plot points, and only because this one’s a little bit more complicated than the others because I’m juggling a few more storylines.
Do you do anything like character sheets or detailed character sketches, that sort of thing?
No. I’m starting to think I need to do that because part of it also is just all the, you know, different names of planets and . . .
. . . characters . . . and then, you know, it goes back to the first two books, and it’s, sometimes, I’m just writing a note. I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got to go look back up in the second book, what was the name of this planet?” And fill this in later. And it’s . . . my first drafts tend to be completely unreadable, filled with holes, have whole sections that need to be rewritten because I said something else is going to happen, so I need to rewrite the old part. But I like to keep momentum, so I don’t . . . for the first draft, if it’s something I’m stuck on, I’ll just write a note, what I want, you know, and then move on, because I like to move through the first thing and say I finished the first draft, even though it’s unreadable, and then go back and pound it into something I can give to a beta reader.
You mentioned a little bit about your actual writing process taking place largely early in the morning. I would presume you write on a computer, you’re not with a quill pen on parchment, under a tree somewhere.
Yeah, I’ve been a computer word-processor since I was a kid. Of course, first it was on a Tandy, but now I usually write in Google Docs because it’s just easy to access from anywhere. And then, for the more final revisions, I move to a Word document.
I like to say that . . . my first computer that I wrote on was a Commodore 64. There was word processing software called Paperclip, which was pretty good, but it was not what-you-see-is-what-you-get, it was just text scrolling across the page. No line breaks at the end of the text unless you put in a hard return, and it was 499 lines of text, which worked out in manuscript format to about ten pages. And so, for quite a while, all my books had ten-page chapters because that’s where I ran out of space on the word processer, and I just adapted to that. It’s funny how your technology can affect the way that you work.
Yeah. I mean, we’re still dealing with things set by typewriters, because that’s, you know, that’s what we’re imitating.
Yeah. And I also had . . . because publishers would not take dot-matrix printouts, and I certainly didn’t have a laser printer, I got a daisy-wheel printer, which was faster than typing, but I had to manually feed each sheet of paper into it as it typed it. So, I would just sit there and scroll in new paper every time it got to the end of the page. It was . . . I don’t miss that at all.
Yeah, I prefer the all-digital route, and I’m one of those . . . I like my books on a Kindle because I now find a physical book kind of cumbersome.
Well, as I get older, I like the fact it’s bright, and you can make the print bigger if you need to. That’s helped.
So, are you a fast writer or a slow writer? How many words would you crank out in a writing session?
I am a slow writer, and that’s by necessity because I have, like, a couple of hours in the morning, and I’m also writing, you know, I write at least one Babylon Bee article per day. And sometimes, I have other writing projects going on; before, I was a co-writing a movie script. And so, I write what I can per day. I, you know, I’m happy if I do over a thousand words. You know, I’d love to write longer, you know, be able to write faster. Right now, I just . . . my goal is to get out a novel a year. But it really does change the novel by writing that slow because I have more time to think out each part and allow some more time for the story to evolve, to think, “Oh, wait, wouldn’t this work instead?” And, you know, sometimes that involves having to go back and change huge sections, but I think it makes the story stronger overall to write it that slowly.
Now, you’re writing far-future science fiction and interstellar travel, that sort of thing. And you’re engineer. How hard do you work to make it as scientifically plausible as possible?
Yeah, that seems to be, I say, a contradiction. I am a . . . future tech is just magic, and I don’t really care how it works unless that would help with the plot. You know, you add limitations as you need to. I could say, one of them was, “OK, I have it. They use some sort of tech to jump.” And then, I realize in the second book I need to add some limitation where it takes a long time to charge up so you can’t just jump away quickly because I just need that for the plot. And so, I add things like that as I go, because to me, I guess, it’s . . . the characters are more what I’m interested in than the technology. And the thing is, I really like hard science fiction where they obviously put a lot of thought into it, but I guess that’s just not my focus in my own stories.
Well, and I always feel that as soon as you stipulate faster-than-light travel and maybe artificial gravity on your starships, you’re pretty much playing with technology that you can do whatever you want.
It’s, yeah, there’s stuff you just handwave because it would take so much time out of the story. I have some, you know, they have a universal translator. It’s one of those things where maybe eventually I’ll go into where that works if it’s plot-relevant, it would be interesting if that fails at some point. But, yeah, a lot of it is just, you know, some of it’s just handwaves to do what you need to do in the story. But, you know, when I establish something, then you have to logically follow, “OK, how does this affect things?” If you can jump quickly anywhere, how does that affect laws between, like, planets? It’s very easy to just escape and go somewhere else in the universe and never be found again. And so, you know, to me, those implications are what’s interesting.
It’s like working out the rules for a magic system. Have you ever had any desire to write on the fantasy side of things? Or have you?
Yes, I’ve . . . it’s like, one of my oldest stories that’s been in my head is a fantasy epic. I think it goes back to, like, I played Dungeons & Dragons a little bit as a kid. And I’ve always had this story, developing a long time, it’s . . . eventually I hope to get to that. It’s just, you know, I have my writing schedule. I try . . . right now, I focus on getting one novel done at a time, I don’t try to write multiple at the same time, so . . . but, yeah, I don’t think I’d be doing a very strict magic system. But, you know, again, it has to follow at least some logic, so people understand, you know, limitations and things like that, which you need for a plot to work.
Yeah. Otherwise, it’s just . . . you can’t tell a story without limiting what your characters could do. It just doesn’t work. So, you mentioned a little bit about your revision, that you get to the end, you have a first draft that’s full of holes and things you have to go back and fix. So, tell me about your revision process. What happens when you get to the end of the first draft?
Well, first, I think . . . I’m getting close to that now for the third one and . . . what I guess the first thing I do is, some of the biggest holes are actually names for made-up things because I hate coming up with made-up names. I never came up with a good process for that. I think I use street names for some things in the first Superego.
I have one where my character names are . . . I was doing a production of—I’m an actor as well—I was doing a production of Beauty and the Beast up in Saskatoon while I was writing this book, and as a result, about six characters are named after actors who are in that production.
Yeah, to me . . . I had some street names nearby that sounded at least a bit like, you know, planet names or something. So, I used those. And then I’ve used a few, like, online random-name generators and things like that, especially. I use that all the time with the Babylon Bee if I just need some random name, you know, but they’re good for human names. You come up with alien names, and it always gets like, you know, you want at least a certain style to each certain alien and things like that. And it’s not something, again, that I care about. It’s one of those things like, you know, you have to do. So, part of it’s filling in the names. And then, I tend to . . . my habit is to write in brackets notes for myself. And so, to get from my first draft to something readable, which at first will go to my alpha reader, which is always my wife, whose job it is to make sure I don’t embarrass myself too much, I just can search for brackets. And once I’m getting all the brackets out of the story, then it’s done, and it’s readable now. And so, what I do is, I’ll go back, and I’ll start to fill in those sections and rewrite the sections that now have to be changed because I decided to go somewhere else later on, and I’ll fill in all the names, and then once I search the document and all the brackets are gone, now I have something someone else can read.
Just on the writing side itself, do you, like, go back and do all the tightening up the language and making scenes more vivid and all that sort of stuff at this stage? Or do you get it right the first time?
Some of it . . . my biggest weakness, I think, is describing things. It’s one of those things I never felt very good at. And again, it’s like, I want to get on to the action. I want to get on to the character drama. And so, I just want to describe things enough so you understand what’s going on, what you can see. But sometimes, you know, you need to add a bit more, really, to draw people into it. And so, that’s one of those things I really have to force myself to concentrate more on. So, yeah, I’ll try to increase the descriptions when I come back to it and also just notice the flow. And then, one of the biggest things I worry about is repetition, where I, you know, because I write over such a long time, I forget, “Oh, I already had the character say something similar in the previous section.” So, I do need to read through a few times and make sure things don’t get repeated and just sort of look at the flow of it, which is . . . it’s hard to tell because you’re . . . especially for something you’ve read over so many times.
You mentioned your wife is your alpha reader, but you also mentioned that you have beta readers.
Where do you find them, and what do they do for you?
I just go to . . . I’ve been lucky to at least have fans been lucky at least have fans, at least initially for my blog and now for my fiction writing. And I keep an email list, and I usually just go to them and see who’s interested, and I’ll send out copies to get feedback. And, you know, and . . . of course, that’s one of those things is, how do you react to the feedback? And usually, you know, if a number of different people mention the same thing, then, you know, that’s something you need to really pay attention to.
How many beta readers do you have?
At least . . . just probably a little over a dozen. It’s just, you know, it’s whoever’s interested. Last time, for the Superego sequel, I had quite a number because a number of people were fans of the first one. I probably did more than a dozen, but we’ll see. I don’t know what’s, like, a good number there, but I feel like as long as I get some quality feedback, it’ll help me know what I need to fix. I didn’t do as many big revisions on Superego: Fathom. I think that worked out pretty well by the time I got it to beta readers.
Do they tend to give you consistent feedback, or is it all over the map?
Sometimes over the map, but, you know, sometimes you really have to read between the lines and see if people run into the same problems. I got some pretty bad feedback on . . . Superego: Fathom, I think that worked out really well, I was really happy with that one. Hellbender, I think, had a bit more problems. That was more of a straight comedy one. And I went back and had to, I think, make the characters a little bit nicer. To me, I don’t like stories where people don’t like the main characters. I know you have a lot of that in fiction these days, especially TV shows. And so, I try to make them a bit more likable because I feel you get into the story more if you’re at least rooting for people.
Well, your main character’s likable; he just happens to be a psychopath.
Yeah, a lot of people, that’s the problem, and that’s . . . it’s not going to be for everyone. Some people are just not going to like Rico. But a lot of people seem to respond well to him. Because you have to sympathize with him, or the story’s just not going to work. And even though he’s kind of out there, I need the reader to see something of themselves in there. I think in a way, they’re situations they can relate to, his awkwardness around other people. And yeah, if you’re not . . . if you just hate the guy and you’re not rooting for him, the story doesn’t work.
So, once you have taken into account all of those revisions, I presume you get an editor involved at some point . . .or do you?
Yes, I get editors . . . before, my wife has actually worked on editing Superego, sometimes I’ve had other people just, you know, hired out editors, but I am not technically . . . let’s say I’m very bad at proofing myself. I would never trust myself to edit one of these things. And I always tend to be really lousy with passive voice, and I’m bad at spotting it in my own writing, so I need a lot of fixes there.
So that sounds more like copyediting. Do you get a developmental editor of any sort involved, or is that sort of taken care of by the beta readers?
Yeah, a bit with the beta readers, though, you know, I do like editors who actually look at, like, story-wise, does this work, and did you establish just enough. So not, yeah, not just the writing, but actually making things fit together, spotted where I inconsistently used a planet name, that sort of thing.
Yeah. It’s always helpful to have somebody else look at your stuff, that’s for sure. And I do some editing, and I’m looking at other people’s stuff, and I sometimes find by editing other people, I find, I realize stuff that I’m doing in mine that I shouldn’t be doing. So, it’s kind of educational reading other people’s stuff as well as working on your own.
Yeah, I think it’d probably be useful if I tried editing others to get better at it myself. But it’s is so hard for me to see my own writing. To me, that’s . . . I really like when I get to the Audible version, because to me, that’s the first time I really get to detach enough that I can really hear my story for the first time all and complete because it’s there now, someone else is interpreting it, acting it out a bit. But just going back and reading your own writing and trying to see it as other people would see it is so hard.
I was interested in the audiobook and the fact that you listen to them because I often ask authors if they listen to the audiobooks of their books and, more often than not, they say they don’t. They might listen to a little bit, but they don’t listen to the whole thing. It sounds like you like to listen to the whole thing. And do you find that helpful for the next book after you’ve heard it with those sort of fresh ears?
Yes, I think that, to me, was very helpful with the first Superego. That was actually a surprise, I didn’t know the publisher was going to do an audiobook. And so, that was my first experience. To me, it was very surreal when I got sent a list of all my made-up science-fiction names and was asked how to pronounce them. At least, I did have a pronunciation in my head for each one. And then listening to it, you know, like I said, I really got to feel it for the first time. I got to see what parts where I was not paying attention and what parts really drew me in. I know at one point I was like, you know, as I’d listen to, like, in my car on a commute, you know, I’d get home ,and I’d stay in the car for a while listening because, “Oh, this is interesting what happens,” because, you know, this is all, right now, a couple of years since I wrote it, so at least I’d forgotten some of it. And that helped me determine, I think . . . with the first one, a lot of people . . . like, the beginning part of Superego, I felt it takes a little time to get the momentum. And to me, there’s one chapter where afterwards it has this momentum that just really grips you until the very end. And so, that influenced the sequel because I wanted to start with that at the beginning and try to keep up that pace for the entire novel.
Now, the publisher, NTM Publishing, I have not heard of them, so . . .
Well, that one . . . originally I was with Liberty Island . . .
I have heard of that one.
NTM is my own imprint. Now I’ve decided to go the self-publishing route. To me, it’s just less stressful, because I’m only having to worry about . . . the only one I’m answering to about sales is myself. And also, that’s part of the reason I do want to listen to the audiobooks because I’m paying for those and I want to make sure, you know, there’s no errors and things in them before they get released, because I think . . . for quality ones, you know, it’s not cheap.
The only audiobooks that I . . . I do both, I’m published by DAW Books in New York, but I’m also published by myself through Shadowpaw Press, which is named after our cat. And there are some books that I had the audio rights to that were published by somebody else. And so, I did that where I found . . . I’ve narrated some of my own, but in this case, the main character is a teenage girl, and I don’t really have the voice for that . . . I don’t have much voice today, I’m quite hoarse . . . so, I got a narrator to do that. And that was, I think, the only time I’ve listened to my books all the way through. But I really liked that narrator, though, and I really enjoyed my own books because she found things in it that I had not, you know, they got tweaked a little differently. So, I do . . . but you have to have a good narrator. Have you had the same narrator for both of the Superego books?
Yes, I went back because . . . I wasn’t the one who hired him for the first one. But I did, I went back and approached him for the sequel, and so, I got the same narrator, and, you know, if you want to get, you know, it’s not cheap to pay for these things, especially if you’re paying someone, like, who’s at union rates. But I think, yeah, it’s very worthwhile to get somebody who knows what they’re doing and also, like I said, knows how to really perform and pull something out of the text. Sometimes, they find things maybe you didn’t even see in there. And like I said, it’s interesting because now, like, the story’s not completely just yours anymore. When someone else reads it like that, they are adding their own take to it.
Well, and I like to think, and to say, that even though it’s very obvious in an audiobook that somebody else is getting something a little different out of it. That, of course, is happening with every one of your readers because although we sit alone and we write our stories, the story is actually re-created in the head of each reader as they read it. And they’re all going to actually have a different a slightly different take on your story than what’s going on in your head when you write it. And I think . . . when I think about that, I’m always kind of fascinated by that. It’s a very . . . it feels like a solo activity, but it’s really a collaborative activity.
Yeah. And I wish I could experience how they read it in their head because, to me, that’s the sort of feedback I would like to. You know, I work on, you know, Babylon Bee, or work on Twitter. I have these things where, you know, I write them and then sometimes, you know, it’s usually within seconds I get feedback or, you know, within a day I get feedback and see how people are reacting. The novel writing is a bit lonelier. It takes sometimes years to get it out there, and you don’t get, like, the line-by-line feedback you’d quite like to. But, you know, I’d really like to . . . I mean, to me, I would love to get in people’s heads and see exactly how they read each section and see that. Like I said, you get a little bit of that with the audiobook.
Might be a science fiction story there with an author who develops the way to see inside readers’ heads as they’re reading his story. It sounds like a good idea. So, what has the reaction been for your fiction? Has it has been well-received?
Yeah, I feel it’s been really well received. Superego’s been quite popular. That’s definitely my most-read book so far. Part of that was also actually because of the audiobook. It got featured once . . . was made Audible’s deal of the day. So, I got to experience being the number-one audiobook for a day. And some people, they really reacted to the main character, really liked it, and then I feel the sequel’s been a big success, people who like the first one seems to love the second one. I’m hoping . . . most people consider that one even better than the first one, and I got a lot of feedback to that. And now I’m just scared with the third one because I’m trying something a bit different. And it’s going to . . .the pacing is going to be a bit different. But, you know, you have to try new things with each story. I wish I could have, like, a rut where I’m making, like, the same character and same story beats each time. But I don’t think I can do that. I’m more . . . I want an epic scope, so it’s all, you know, all these books are going to fit together in one big story. It does, it will have a conclusion. They’ll be, like, we have two books out, and there’ll be two more. And that will end the story.
So, it’ll be four all together. A quadrology.
Yeah. I mean, originally, I wrote the book, the first book, without necessarily thinking there’d be a sequel. It was the idea that it had an ambiguous ending, where you weren’t sure if Rico died or not, but no one thought he did, and everyone was asking where the sequel was. And since then, I’ve kind of thought out the rest of this story and it’s just going to fit, it’s going to be, you know, three more books after the first one, well, I have to out now, working on the third one, then I’ll have a fourth coming.
Well, we’re getting into the last little bit of this, so I’ll go to my big philosophical questions—and I’m totally going to put reverb on that one of these days, “big philosophical questions.” Three questions, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think people, in general, write? And why science fiction in particular? So, we’ll start with, why do you write? Why do you do all this?
It’s . . . I have these ideas. I want to share them. And writing is the easiest way, I think, to do that. It’s something accessible to everyone. I say it’s . . . and this is something I determined a while ago. It’s just, I’m always going to come up with stories in my head, ever since I was a little kid, and they’re always going to . . . they’re almost like demons I have to exorcise. The only way to do that is to write the story down because once I’ve written the story, I don’t think about it anymore. I don’t keep thinking, “Oh, we could do this, do this.” It’s done. It’s out there. And so, the only way to get these stories to stop bothering me is to write them down. And so, it’s one of those things where it’s like, I have to write, you know, regardless of what success I have there, it’s something I need to do.
And why do you think humans, in general, tell stories through writing and through other media? Where does that come from?
That isn’t . . . yeah, that is not a philosophical question I think I’ve thought long on. But, you know, it’s yeah, we’re very compelled to communicate these ideas through stories. You know, it’s funny because, you know, I’m an engineer, I’ll, you know, I don’t always use metaphorical language. I’ll tell you very succinctly exactly what I’m thinking and what I want to get done. But stories, I think they allow you to tackle much more complex subjects, things you can’t just write out and have, you know, a simple answer to explain. You have to follow characters. You have to see stories. You have to see how they react and just kind of develop an understanding, even if you can’t verbalize all of it.
You’ve done some work with virtual reality and, in a way, fiction is a form of virtualreality. If it’s done well, you feel immersed into a world that’s not real, and yet it feels real to you. So, it’s sort of the same impulse, I think, to experience other lives and other ways of seeing things and have experiences, virtual experiences, that aren’t real experiences that you probably wouldn’t want to have. You wouldn’t actually want to experience what Rico goes through. But it’s exciting to experience it virtually.
Yeah. I mean, that’s a good analogy. You’re trying to draw people into . . . I mean, if you can do it well, people really immerse, you forget about things for a while. And, you know, that’s my main goal of a story, is to entertain and give people, you know, a little bit of a vacation from things. It’s funny; things are so crazy, even as bad as things get, like, you know, in Superego: Fathom you have this entity trying to take over the universe, and no one knows about it, and it’s a crazy world, but in a way, it’s a nice little . . . jumping in there is still a vacation from how crazy things have gotten in the real world. So, I think people could appreciate that. And I like, you know, I write a lot in satire and politics and things like that. But it’s I like, I mainly like to stay away from that in my fiction. I think I want to tackle bigger subjects than, like, you know, temporary issues, and give people a break from all those real-world things.
And is that why science fiction/fantasy? Because it’s a way that you can talk about bigger issues, but sort of disconnected from the here and now?
Yeah, in a way, I think of myself as a fantasy writer, even when doing science fiction, because it allows you, you know, you have less of a box you’re stuck in. You can do a lot more things. You can do whatever you want. And some of it’s laziness, too, because I don’t have to research as much. I can just make things up. And that’s part of why I write, like, political satire and things like that. I don’t have to do all this research for these well-thought-out opinions, I just make things up.
Well, and you sort of mentioned that you’re working on the third book, but is there anything else that you have in the works that are coming up soon?
Yeah, well, I’m working on the third book . . .
And when will that third book be?
I don’t . . . I’m hoping, sometime early next year. We’ll see how that works out. You know, there’s a number of things to get, you know, you get it done, you get it edited, you get a cover. But then I think I’m going to take a little break to do a sequel to Hellbender. Superego’s a bit dark. Hellbender is straight comedy, and I think I’d like a little break into that for a little while before I write the fourth and final . . . probably final . . . And then I, you know, my other writing right now has been doing lots of stuff with the Babylon Bee, and I’m hoping to do more animation projects with them too.
We should probably mention just a little bit more about Hellbender. You’ve mentioned it a couple of times but haven’t really said what it is. So, here’s your opportunity.
Okay, that is a science fiction comedy about . . . like, you know, it’s sort of a post-apocalyptic world, but for orphans who are . . . it’s kind of them against the world, and it’s always been a hard one to describe, plot-wise. But that’s one where . . . I think that was the most me novel, where I’m just having fun and having lots of jokes in it. But I still felt the need to have a solid plot that draws you in, and you don’t know where it’s going to go. And then, I also have one other novel, Sidequest, which to me is a stand-alone, and a lot of people . . .that also got a very big reaction. It’s probably my most Christian novel, even though God isn’t mentioned in it at all. It’s sort of a metaphorical one, but that’s, I’d say, between a straight comedy and Superego, and I really enjoyed that one, though I don’t know if I’ll go back to it. A lot of people . . . I got mixed things on the ending. I thought I stuck the landing on the ending, and a lot of people didn’t like it.
You can’t please everyone. You may have noticed that. And where can people find you online?
Well, I’m very active on Twitter, quite a following there. Just look for Frank J. Fleming on Twitter. My handle is based on my blog name, it’s @IMAO_, because IMAO was already taken. And then, you can catch my writing on the Babylon Bee, go to BabylonBee.com. And also, you know, I have a website where you can see some short stories and also just shows all my novels, and that’s FrankJFleming.com.
All right. Well, I guess this brings us to the end, so thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.
K. Eason started telling stories (to pets, stuffed animals, and anyone who might listen) in her early childhood. She ended up with two degrees in English literature before she decided that she needed to stop writing about everyone else’s stories and get back to telling her own.
She lives with her husband and a trio of disreputable cats in Southern California, where she teaches first-year college students about zombies, Beowulf, and food (though not all at once). Her short fiction has appeared in Cabinet-des-Fées, Postcards from Hell: The First Thirteen, Jabberwocky 4, Crossed Genres, and Kaleidotrope. She is the author of the On the Bones of Gods trilogy and The Thorne Chronicles, the second book of which, How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge, came out from DAW Books in October. When she’s not writing or commenting on essays, she’s probably playing D&D.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, K., welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you. Thank you for having me.
Fellow DAW author. We’ve never met, but we are both published by DAW, though we actually have different editors. Mine is Sheila (Gilbert). Who’s your editor as DAW?
Katie (Hoffman). OK. One of the young’ns.
So, yeah, we do share that little thing in common. It’s quite a big thing, actually. So, let’s go back, as I like to say, into the mists of time and find out . . . that’s a cliche on here at this point. I’m going to put reverb on it, MISTS OF TIME . . . find out how you got interested in . . .you talked about telling stories from a very young age. How did you get interested in writing them down? And were you always interested in science fiction, or how did that all come together for you? And where did you grow up? Basic biography.
OK. Where I grew up is . . . my dad is Air Force, so, everywhere. We spent no longer than three years in any given place. So, I sort of just hopped around, mostly the United States, but we did spend a couple of years in the Philippines when I was very small. So, I grew up all over. But how did I get into . . . my mother got me started with books when I was very . . . she used to just sort of, I guess, prop me up and just show me pictures of books. So, books were always this cool thing to me. And I decided when I was barely old enough to read—and I don’t remember learning to read, I just apparently, one day . . . I just only remember knowing how to read—I decided I should write my own books. And so, I tried to write my own books with whatever it is small children try and tell stories about. I know there were probably dogs involved and crayons and crayon-drawn dogs, and there were probably . . . I don’t know, but I know there was a dog in my first book because I remember trying to draw the dog and doing a terrible job of it and realizing with, like, a three-year-old or four-year-old’s brain that this is not really a dog, but it will do, so . . .
Science fiction was also my mother’s fault, and it was really fantasy that started it. She brought me The Prydain Chronicles, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, when I was, I think, in fifth grade. I don’t know what possessed her to bring those home to me, but she did. And then we were off and running. And she got me off of the horses, all of the horse and animal books. I think she was maybe just tired of those? And then it became everything having to do with fantasy. And then I found reruns of Star Trek, and I was like, “This is cool, too.” And then it was just . . . it was all over.
Were the Black Stallion books among your first books?
Oh, God, all of them.
Well, see, there’s science fiction in the Black Stallion books. The Island Stallion books are actually science fiction. I don’t know if you remember that or not.
Yeah, OK. It’s been a long time. It’s been a really long time since those books.
Yeah, it’s been a while for me too. But I remember that because it was, like, “I’m reading a horse book, and now it’s got aliens in it. This is cool. Now I’ve got two things that I like in one book.
There you go.
Actually, his last–completely off the topic, but his last book that he wrote, that Walter Farley himself wrote, I think, is very strange. It’s got Alex and The Black off in the desert somewhere, and there’s like an apocalyptic meteor strike or something happening. And civilization is being destroyed. And it really comes out of left field.
That actually would probably be right up my alley now. Yeah. We can go back to this and the magic horse and the . . . you know, pretty much it was a magic horse. We all knew that.
And I remember Prydain . . . The Prydain Chronicles were favorites of mine, too. So yeah. Names that I remember.
The Mabinogion, right? It was the children’s version of a very not children’s story.
Yeah. That’s for sure.
But so great.
When did you start writing stories down, and did you share them with other people? I always ask that question because many people, when they start out writing young, they keep it to themselves, but some of us share it with our friends. So, which were you?
I wrote a story in my elementary school, I think, for an English class that . . . I remember it won. It was about a horse because of course it was. But they wanted me to read it out loud to the auditorium or whatever, and I freaked out. I would not. I fled. So after that, I stopped showing people my writing for a long time because I was afraid they would make me read it out loud. And I could think of very few things worse than having to read my own writing out loud.
But you kept writing?
But I did keep writing. I did. I did keep writing on and off. It was how I got through high school. They thought I was taking notes back in the day when we took notes with, you know, pencils and paper, and no, no, no, I was back there writing. Probably super-derivative stuff because it was whatever I was reading, and then sometimes those books just needed to have a female character in them, or a talking horse, or who knew what. And I would be, you know, writing stuff.
Did you have any teachers or anybody in school that encouraged your writing?
Um, not really, because I didn’t show it to them.
That would do it!
I just kept it hidden. My mother knew I was writing, and she was super-supportive of it. I think she probably read the terribly derivative fan-fiction Pern Chronicles, sort of, because who didn’t want a dragon? You graduate from horses to dragons. Of course, you do. And I wrote some terrible thing. And I remember she read it. She’s a tough one, my mom. She sat there, and she read those handwritten spiral notebooks and did not say, “Please never do this to me again. And, no, you’re going to get an engineering degree.” No, she didn’t say that. She should have, but she didn’t.
My mom actually typed up my first short story, which was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” So, I subjected her to some of that, too.
Nice. See, mothers are tough. They do a lot.
So, at some point, you decided, you know, you weren’t getting an engineering degree, you were getting English literature degrees.
What took you in that direction?
Getting the English Lit degree, truthfully?
You can lie if you want to, but preferably truthfully.
I was going to be a genetic engineer of some sort because I’d read C.J Cherry’s Cyteen in high school and decided I’m going to do that. Not even thinking about the ethical-moral problems, like, “No, we don’t really need to make. . . that’s, no, OK, but no.” So, I was going to be a genetic engineer, and I hit microbiology and realized I hated labs. I hated biology labs. Chemistry labs were fine, but biology was just not fun for me, and calculus was awful. I hated calculus, and I thought, “You know what, you need to stop right . . . you just need to go do something else.” And I was good at reading, and I liked reading. And I thought, “Why not just get a degree reading stuff and then writing about it?” Because I was good at the nonfiction writing for sure. That was not a problem. So, I went off and did that because it seemed easier. And yeah, that was . . . it seemed easier. That’s exactly why we want to tell people why we do a major. But it was true.
Did you take formal writing courses at some point during that process?
I took one creative writing class. My undergraduate institution had a split between creative writing and literature. It wasn’t a combined degree; you had to choose a track. And I chose the literature track because there was, at least in that particular creative writing department, there was quite a bias against, quote-unquote, “genre fiction.” And I knew what I wanted to write, and I knew what I didn’t want to write. And I just decided that was not a fight I felt like having for years, so I just went and I did the literature degree. I did write, in my one creative writing class, I did write a cyberpunk story, and I got an A, and I got a side-eye from the instructor, like, “You’re writing cyberpunk?” Like, “I just read William Gibson. Of course, I’m writing cyberpunk.”
I always ask that about because I get . . . it surprises me that there is still that level of animosity towards tales of the fantastic from some creative -writing teachers, and yet I still hear that from so many authors I talk to, that they took a, you know, they took a formal writing class and maybe it was helpful, but they didn’t dare write what they really wanted to write and things like that. So . . .
Yeah. So, when did you actually start writing for publication?
I started trying to get published . . .. once I got my graduate degree, I couldn’t write fiction at all anymore. It died, and it probably took about four or five years before I could even start to turn off the editor brain long enough to start writing. And then, I guess it was probably right around 2000, I started trying to write for publication, short stories, when I realized that I’m a lousy short story writer because I just write bigger than that, I just, I have a hard time writing short stories, I’m much better at writing long-form. But I discovered that the hard way by trying to write short stories. So, right around the year 2000, I think my first pub was 2004 or 2006, I’d have to look. But right around there.
Do you think that some people are just naturally short fiction writers and some people are just naturally long fiction writers because it does seem to be that people are better at one than the other? With some exceptions.
I don’t know if it’s. . . I tend to . . . part of my knee jerk response is, “Well, yeah, I think some people are just better at telling the shorter, tighter story, and some people are much more into telling the long developmental stories.” And it’s not . . . there’s no value judgment either way. It’s just . . . I think some of us are just . . . the way our stories and the way our thoughts are structured might work better in different forms. But I certainly think it’s possible to write both pretty well. There’s people who do that, too. And I’m like, “Yeah, you go.”
Well, I just interviewed . . . actually, today, in fact, I interviewed, because I’m doing two today, which is unusual . . . I just interviewed F. Paul Wilson, who has this enormous list of publications, both short and long. So, there are certainly people who can write both short and long, equally. When did you then tackle a novel?
After we’d moved to California, so it was right, it was probably after I’d gotten my first couple of short stories out there and then decided I was going to try and write a novel. And I did . . . the first one is a trunk novel, we won’t talk about it. I wrote one with somebody. We won’t talk about that one, either, just because we were both learning to write, and also, it’s really hard to do collaborative work. Really hard. So, yeah, I wrote a couple that will never see the light of day. Ever. But it was enough to teach me that, “Oh, I can sustain a long narrative, I can do the character building. I can . . .” Basically, at that point, I was putting into practice what I had learned DMing. You know, we’re all playing games for a decade and saying, “You know what? You can tell long stories. You’ve done it. Now, do it without your players helping you.”
Yeah, I was interested in the D&D connection. I often say that although I have a degree in journalism and I officially minored in art, the truth is that I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and minored in everything else, based on the number of hours that I put into it.
I feel that. I feel seen. Yeah. Yeah. Seriously. I gamed a lot in college.
I always liked DMing far more than I like to play. And part of that was that I did want to tell a story through the game. I wanted to create this world that the characters . . . and I would . . . I was perhaps . . . I was always trying to push them in the direction of the quest I wanted them to take, as opposed to all the side things that would pop up. And one reason I stopped . . . well, one reason I stopped being a DM and playing was because I had no nobody to play with anymore because there was anybody in my town when I moved back to Canada from university, where I went . . . and the other one was that I discovered . . . that I felt that my story-writing impulse should be better put into my writing my fiction than in my DMing. But I still kind of wish I’d kept doing it because I miss it. But now I haven’t done it, like . . . we won’t say how long. And I’m sure the rules are so far different from what I was playing that I wouldn’t even recognize the game. But have you found that DMing has fed . . . you mentioned one way that it did . . . overall, do you think it’s actually benefited your writing?
Oh, yeah. I joke that D&D is, like, the life skill that makes me a better teacher and it makes me a better writer because it makes me . . . it taught me how to write, how to do the long-form story creation and sort of thinking out branches. Well, what could happen here? Well, what could happen here? And there’s nothing like having—and I’m sure you know this—players who find the hole in your plot immediately.
And you’re just like, “Oh, crap, I didn’t think of that.” And so now I have an internal voice that tries to think of those things. When I’m plotting, I’ll be like, “Well, I need them to do this. Yes, but why would they do that? How am I going to coerce a reluctant player or character into doing that? Oh, well, I have to give them a motive. Oh, well . . .” So, yeah, D&D has definitely helped me think about, not just good and evil, but all the different layers and the politics and the different valences and all of the different pressures that can drive people to do what they do, because . . . sorry, go ahead.
I was just going to say that the whole concept of characters taking on a life of their own is a literal thing when you’re playing D&D because the characters are being run by other people is.
And that’s where I started, you know, as a player. And I loved it. I thought it was great, but I was always the one who had to . . . if there was a new game, I was the one who would agree to DM it. So, whether it was a D&D module or cyberpunk, Tellurian cyberpunk or, you know, White Wolf’s Vampire or Werewolf or whatever new game was coming out, it was like, “OK, Cat will run it.”
So, what was your first published novel?
My first published novel was Enemy, which is the first of the On the Bones of God trilogy. Um, that was in 2014, I think? 2015? I should know that, but I don’t. It was so long ago. So that was my first, and it was fantasy. Dark, grim fantasy. But not grimdark.
Well, and that brings us to the Thorne Chronicles, so this is where we’ll talk about your creative process, from start to finish. So, we’ll start with the . . . well, first of all, the first thing we’ll do is, give us a synopsis of the Thorne Chronicles. There are two books so far. So, whatever you could say without giving away something to somebody who hasn’t read any of it. It’s up to you.
OK, I should . . . if I had known that, I would have pulled one up already. The Thorne Chronicles are . . . well, the first one, How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, is the story of princess, basically, who at her naming is given 13 gifts from a bunch of alien fairies, one of which is that she will . . . well, the curse, the 13th fairy gives her the curse, that is, “You will always know when someone’s lying to you.” And the 12th fairy, who had been circumvented, stepped in and said, “Yes, but you’ll always also have the courage to do something about that.” And, so, Rory ends up . . .she’s supposed to be the queen, but then her little brother is born, and because of stupid old rules, she’s shunted off to a neighboring kingdom’s space station, it’s a conglomerate of worlds, to marry the prince. Only when she gets there, she discovers that there is a political coup underway and that the prince is missing and in trouble, and she needs to fix things and make sure that she sets the world to right, which doesn’t perhaps go quite as well as she might have hoped.
And what was the impetus for this sort of . . where did the genesis of all of this come from?
Truthfully, it probably heat exhaustion on the 405 when we were stuck in traffic at Long Beach. And I was . . . I don’t remember what it was, but I was complaining about fairy tales and feminism, and I was like, “You know what, I’m going to write this book. I’m going to write a story, and it’s going to, like, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ except the fairies are going to be, like, the 13th will be a punk. She won’t be an evil witch. She’s going to be a punk.” My husband’s like, “OK, all right, you do that. And that’s where the idea came from. The genesis came from. And then it kept bugging me. The idea just kept bugging me, and I kept thinking about what I would do. I could set in space. Could I set it in space? I could set it in space. What would I do if I set it in space? And so, there was no great plan. It was just sort of . . . it wouldn’t stop bugging me until I said, “OK, how can I tell this?” And so, I went and wrote the first chapter and thought, “OK, there was a short story. Hey, I wrote a short story. This doesn’t suck. I’m going to try and get this published. This is chapter one. Oh, crap. Oh, no. This is going to be . . . OK. I guess I’m writing this book.”
It sounds like your idea process is, you know, you have a germ, and then you self-interrogate, you ask questions and try to build out from that idea. You know, “What if what if, what if?” Is that a fair statement? Is that the way it usually works for you?
Yeah, I think so, because I’m trying to think . . . the Rory Thorne Chronicles are very different than On the Bones of God, stylistically, flavor, all of it. And I’m thinking, what is my similarity in process? It’s, yeah, there’s a lot of, “What if? What if? What if?” I usually start with an idea or a character or a couple of characters or a situation or a moment, a scene just happens, and I see it, and I say, “OK, what led to that? And where’s it going?” So yeah, it starts tiny, and then I have to feel my way through the dark.
So, asking questions presumably leads you into the planning/outlining process. What how much of that do you do? How much of an outliner/planner are you?
Terrible at it. The first . . . the trilogy, there was no outlining, and I learned . . . I mean, I threw away 30,000 words, where the story would start going the wrong direction, and I realized it had gone the wrong direction. And it wasn’t 30,000 all at once. It would be, like, ten here or a chapter here. And I’d have to yank it back, like, “No, no, no, no, no, come back here. What did I do to set you off? OK, let me fix that.”
It was a little more structured with The Thorne Chronicles, at least the first one, because I was pulling off of the idea of a fairy tale, and I very much had the idea in my mind that I wanted to be in the same ballpark as, like, The Princess Bride, that sort of I’m-telling-you-a-story feeling, so I was like, “OK, I’ve got a narrator. They have a voice. They have . . . they interject, it’s a chronicler. How am I going to do this? And how does a fairy tale work? And what happens with a fairy tale? Obviously, I’m not going to do ‘Sleeping Beauty’ the whole way through. So, what other pieces am I going to pick? What other parts of fairy tales are necessary? What can I subvert? What can I flip?” You know, and that was a lot more structured, just because I knew I was playing with that particular genre and breaking it and messing with it.
So, what did you actually have written down when you began?
So this mostly happens in your head?
Yeah, this mostly happens in my head. If I, you know, if I die in a car crash tomorrow, the books are gone. There’s no . . . there’s almost nothing. I had to come up with, like, projections for material. You know, when you’re trying to get your publisher to buy more books, you come up with these little projections. And I’m, like, “Oh, I think this is what would happen in this book. I think?” knowing full well that I’m going to get like ten steps into it and it’s probably going to go pear-shaped and sideways, but . . . yeah, I don’t do a lot of outlining, I would like to learn how to do that because I think that would probably save me a lot of heartache and aggravation, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I’m working on it. I’m trying to do it, but it’s not working.
Well, it’s another one of those things, doing the podcast and talking to so many authors is how different everybody is about that. So, it’s ranged from people who do none to . . . I think it was Peter v. Brett who writes 150-page detailed outlines and then just kind of fills that in. I tend to do a synopsis of a few pages because, again, that’s what I’m selling the book from, right? And then I sometimes don’t look at it again until I’m finished, so . . .
Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of where . . . I go for a feeling or a thought or, “Here’s how I’d like it to end up.” But I’m very much . . . I like to explore, and if I already know where it’s going to go, I’m afraid I’m going to get good and bored. And I don’t want to get bored. I want to still be discovering as my characters are discovering, “What the hell are we doing?”
Well, and speaking of your characters, I guess you’re not one of those people that does extensive character sheets, like you would for a D&D character. You’re discovering them as you go along, too? I mean, you have some idea from what you’ve been thinking about that’s in your head, but do you discover them very much as you go along as well?
Um, it depends how long the character’s been living in my head. With Rory, I was figuring her out as I went along. With the narrator, I had a pretty good idea before, you know, I could have put him on a character sheet. I had . . . I knew who he was. I just knew who he was. But, yeah, I don’t do a lot of background development because I’ve been gaming for so many years, I could make up a character pretty fast and pretty in-depth pretty quickly, and I just . . . that’s how I think my way through. “OK, you know, who are we going to meet? We’re going to meet a so-and-so. All right. Well, what kind of person is this likely to be? Who do I need them to be? How might they be this way? What?” You know, just sketch it out super fast, and there we go. Does that kind of answer the question?
I’m curious, too, as you’re doing, as you’re writing, because you are a holder of literature degrees and you do some instructing as well, does what you have learned in your study of literature feed into the writing of your own material?
Oh, yeah, definitely. Because I have read things that I would never have chosen to read in the course of getting the degrees. Like, you get asked to read stuff you would never pick up off the shelf on purpose, and you learn, even if you don’t like it—and there was a lot I did not like—I learned to appreciate different ways to tell stories, different ways to . . . different techniques, different things in the box, different structures like, you know, “Oh, I’ve now read medieval romances. I see. This is . . . OK, this is how this works. OK.” So, I learned a lot of different techniques for ways that stories can be told. And then they just sort of . . . I put them all in my little bag of tricks and then yank them out as necessary. So, definitely, that has helped me as a writer, I think, just knowing the breadth of what’s out there.
Have you ever done a formal study of fairy tales since you’re working in a version of that?
No, I actually haven’t. I did not do it. I’ve never done a formal version of fairy tales. I was in the Tolkien phase when I was in grad school. So, I was doing a lot of writing about Tolkien at the time and not so much the fairy tales. Those came later. My fascination with them actually came after grad school. And so, that’s been self-educated.
What fascinated you about them?
Just the ways that I . . . like, my very first short story that I published was a ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ where Little Red Riding Hood is a werewolf, and it’s also cyberpunk. It’s a future with, you know, semi-mechanical rats and things. And it was just that . . well, how many different ways . . . what about a fairy tale is timeless? What about a fairy tale can be . . . what is essential to a fairy tale, that you can move through time and space—and you always see the recastings in the resettings. And I’d read . . . there was a series of books . . . I want to say it was Terri Windling who did them, but I can picture the covers in my head, and they were all these retellings of fairy tales, and I always really liked that. But I’d never had the opportunity to take a class in it because that was just not cool enough when I was going through grad school. We did not talk about fairy tales in my department, particularly. We talked about literary theory. So, you know, Focault, not fairy tales.
What does your actual writing process look like, then? Are you a fast writer, a slow writer? Do you write, you know, longhand or . . .?
No, never. I can’t read my own handwriting.
Do you write at the same time every day? What’s it like for you?
You know, I try to do the same time, more or less the same time. Every day I try to say, “OK, you have a word count. Go, go. Hit your 1,000, 1,500, 2,000, whatever it is.” And it’s just sit there . . . and some days it is super. When it’s working, it’s fast. And when it’s not working, oh, dear God, it’s pulling teeth until I finally just give up and like, “OK, you need to stop, you need to stop, or you’re just going to throw the computer across the room.” But I try and keep it regular when I’m actually writing and try to, “OK, now is a writing time.” Even if it’s not every day, it might be . . . if I’m teaching, especially, it’ll be “Tuesdays are writing days” because I will move heaven and earth to make sure I don’t have anything to comment on that particular day. Like, maybe I’ll get two or three days of a week where I can lay out a couple of hours that I know will be just for the fiction. And then I just sit there, and I write, and sometimes it’s crap, and I know it’s crap as I’m doing it. And I’m going to have to go back and clean it up. It just needs to be written. I mean, I always tell my students, and I believe this for myself, like, “You have to write the bad words to get to the good ones sometimes.”,
Well, it’s funny. I mentioned that I just interviewed F. Paul Wilson, and he used a term which was actually used by Robert J. Sawyer, who was my very first guest on the podcast, and he got it from somebody else, but they referred to that first draft as the “vomit draft” because you just have to get it out and it’s a big mess, and then you have to clean it up. But you feel so much better.
Yeah, exactly. Like, OK, what is even happening? And sometimes it’s really clean, and sometimes it’s just like slogging, and I know there’s going to be a problem, and I’m going to have to come back to it, but I can’t obsess over it. Here is a thing that I learned. I trashed a 92,000-word not-completed manuscript a couple of years ago because I got into the rut of, “Oh, I’m writing it. Oh, I’m changing my mind about what I’m doing. Oh, I really don’t like this. Let me go back and keep revising the hell out of it.” And I just destroyed it. Like, by the end I couldn’t. . . there was nothing to resurrect from this. It was a pile of bones. It was just . . . “There’s ideas, there’s moments, that are really awesome. And you have no clue what you’ve done because you’ve revised it to death. So never do that again.” That is what I learned. Never do that again. Just write it, even if it’s crappy.
And then, when you do get to the end of it, what does your revision process look like? And do you use beta readers or alpha readers or anything like that? How does that work for you?
I do have a beta reader, my bestie, my best friend forever, my BFF from high school, my first DM, too, the first person to get me into D&D. And she reads . . . poor thing, she reads almost the raw stuff. She will read pretty much anything I send her, bless her heart, and sometimes it’s chapter by chapter, sometimes it’s an entire manuscript. But even I won’t send her the very raw, almost raw stuff. I’ll just . . . once I’ve done the vomit draft and then I go through and make sure that there are complete sentences that I remember what the heck is going on, that there’s, you know, there’s a little bit of a voice happening . . . mostly at that point, I’m looking for plot holes. Character is never my problem, or rarely my problem, but there can occasionally be plot inconsistencies. And since she’s one of my players in D&D who will also punch holes in my plots on a regular basis, she’s good at finding those for me. So, she’s my first reader. And then I go through and clean it up again. And then . . . I’ll probably at that point, I’ll send it to my agent. You know, once I’ve gone through it a few times and decided it doesn’t suck, then I’ll send it to her, and then she gives me notes. Which have been getting shorter as the years have been going on, so that’s good. I guess I’m getting better at turning in good drafts.
What kind of notes do you get?
Sometimes it’s structural. There was the memorable, “OK, yes, but I think you need another 15,000 words because you dropped this arc in the middle.” “Oh, damn, you noticed. OK, yeah, I need to pick that up.” Sometimes it’s, you know, the big structural things where you need to come back to this or you need to play this part up, or this scene seems really flat because I don’t know what’s happening with the voice, but this character seems really distant. So those sorts of comments are what I get from her. And she’ levels it up. She always levels up the manuscript big time.
And then it goes to Katie at DAW.
And then it goes to Katie. And then it goes to Katie, and she always finds new things, too. So then, you know . . .
I haven’t worked with Katie. So, what is her process? Does she do a written editor’s letter or phone call? With Sheila, it’s a phone call. Nothing in writing.
Oh, no. That would give me the vapors. Yeah. She writes me a letter, and she does some commentary inside the manuscript. She’ll do some in-line, periodically . . . not like copyediting, but just you know, “You’ve said the same thing, these two places. Or maybe you could combine it this way.” But she’s. . . I mean, she’s good. She tells me . . . she finds the good places that need help or the places where she has questions, and she marks them for me. And then I can think about, “Well, how do I solve that? How can I solve that problem?” Because she’s very good at finding, “Here’s a problem. Here’s the problem.” Or, “Here’s a place where you sent us in one direction. Did you mean to do that?” And I know I probably didn’t or, “Oh, yeah, I totally did, and I haven’t followed up three pages later.” But she gives us, she gives me, a lot of room to figure out how to fix it. She trusts me to fix it if there’s a problem. Which is good.
There’s a lot of, you know, beginning writers or wannabe writers who are sometimes worried about the editorial process. And I’ve always found that editors are extremely helpful things to have on your side.
Oh, God, yes. Editors are fantastic.
I mean, I suppose there is such a thing as a bad editor, but I haven’t really run into one myself.
No, I haven’t either. And granted, I don’t have a huge number of books behind me, but I have not run into a bad editor yet. Now that I’ve said that . . . but no, as long as I stay with Katie, I’ll be fine.
It’s one of those things that I learned from D&D is that there needs to be a healthy level of willingness to collaborate and a willingness to listen as a writer to what other people say, but at the same time, keep that balancing act and know what you . . . be able to, at some point, as I always tell my students, trust yourself. Trust yourself. It’s, you know, this is opinion, this is a suggestion, but it’s not holy writ, and it’s not . . . you know, it’s not to get a grade, it’s. . . you have to be happy with the thing that you are writing, and you have to fight for the thing that you are writing, but at the same time be willing to say, “OK, but what am I trying to do? And what is the editor or the feedback telling me that I am perhaps not doing that I mean to do?
Are you teaching any creative writing or . . . you’re teaching literature, and so you are talking about essays when you’re doing . . .?
I’m teaching the worst of the worst. I’m teaching writing composition, first-year writing to non-majors. And I say the worst of the worst, but they’re my favorite. My absolute favorite. But they’re the ones who are hostile to writing to begin with, and they hate to read. And so, they’re a hostile audience, and they’re just awesome when you can get them to realize what they can do with writing, that it doesn’t need to be their enemy, but it can be their ally, and it can be their tool or their weapon. Some of them discover, “This is a weapon.” Yes. Yes, it can be. Go, go with God. Small one. Do that.
Do you find that teaching other people writing has benefited your own writing? Does it make you look at your own stuff more critically sometimes?
Um, my nonfiction, for sure. I definitely have internalized my, “What would I tell my students about this? What would . . . you know, what is the editor going to say about this?” But for fiction . . . I mean, yeah, I guess if nothing else, teaching writing all the time makes me think about, you know, the word choices and the sentence structures, and very much more aware of audience at all times than I might be if I were just, you know, 15 again and writing for myself.
Do you ever get the feeling because you are working with words all the time . . . there’s a song in My Fair Lady (sings) “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words.” You ever get that feeling?
Yeah. Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes.
Because I’ve done some . . . I was just writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library for nine months, and I’ve done it at another library, and I’ve taught some writing classes and stuff, and sometimes . . . and a newspaper reporter and editor before that. And there are times occasionally when I think, “You know, maybe not working with words wouldn’t be such a bad thing.” And yet, I’m still doing it.
Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing. It’s like, “Well, sure, it would be fun to do something else.” Like, “One, I’m a little old and cranky to be switching gears now. I’ve got ‘expertise,’ quote-quote, in a field. And also, what else, really, at this point, what I do . . . like what else, what else would I do? This is what I’m good at. This is what I’m trained to do, and this is what makes me happy. Even though sometimes I’m pulling my hair out and, you know, lamenting my existence and swearing that I’d be better off being a mechanic or a mathematician or anything else than this, but I don’t mean it. I never mean it.
What kind of feedback from readers have you had on the, well, on the Rory Thorne books and particularly in your books in general? And how . . . have you been pleased by the way that people have reacted to your work?
I truly don’t read reviews. I just . . . that’s a sanity saver. I don’t read them. I’ve had, you know, readers who e-mail me or DM on Twitter or whatever.
I was thinking more about than reviews.
Yeah. So then, yeah, I’ve gotten, you know, people seem to like this or, you know, they react strongly to particular characters, or they tell me, “Oh, this, you know, made me laugh or this made me smile, or I really loved it.” So that’s. . . those are always nice to hear, like, “Good, hooray, I have brought . . .” Especially with The Thorne Chronicles, with Rory, it was like, there needs to be something happy and bright. The first three are not happy and bright. They’re not meant to be, but Rory was meant to be. So, it’s nice that she’s getting the emotional reaction that I was hoping she would get.
And they have very striking covers.
Oh, God, those are so pretty. They’re so gorgeous. I just, every time I see them, I just sort of, you know, squeal and do a small-child dance and clap my hands.
They’re certainly beautiful.
Yeah. They’re very, very attractive.
And they make you think, this is going to be fun. This is going to be something that I’m going to enjoy.
Yeah, they are like . . . I never thought a lot about book covers before, but then I thought, “You know what? No, really, they can . . . you don’t judge a book by its cover, but you do buy one sometimes because of its cover and it’s its own communication.” So, I really love the covers.
Well, now let’s get to some of the big questions I wonder about.
And they’re really just one . . . well, a three-part question, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do we write these kinds of crazy stories about things that aren’t real and never could be?
I write because I have something to say. And I may be just arrogant enough to think that it’s something that needs to be read or heard. Like, I have something important to say or something interesting to say, or something worthwhile to say. And because I like creating stories. The second part . . . remind me of the second part because the third part is why do I write science fiction and fantasy.
The second part is why, in the bigger picture, do you think any of us write. Why do human beings tell stories?
I think stories are one of the ways that we make sense of the world. I think we . . . obviously we told stories long before we ever wrote them down. But I think stories and narratives are one of the ways that we make sense of things. We just, we understand stories, stories click with us in ways that just raw data or reports don’t necessarily. We do like . . . we like to be able to see ourselves. We like to empathize—at least, I think we do. We want to have feelings. Stories that let us have feelings, even if they also seriously can make us think.
And your study of literature would seem to indicate that there are . . . what’s the Rudyard Kipling . . . there’s one and a thousand ways of constructing tribal lays or something. There’s a lot of ways to tell stories, aren’t there?
Yeah, I mean, there’s. . . culturally, historically all over the place. And it’s just, it’s fascinating to me what they all have in common at the same time as looking at all of the differences, just all the different ways, you know, from structure to content. Because I loved the medieval stuff, because that to me was fantasy, that was, you know, we still had magic, we still had that mythic world of you, the natural philosophy before the Age of Enlightenment. And so, understanding the world and making sense of things that don’t make sense, that’s part of why I think people write stories so much, is we’re trying to make sense of things that may or may not make sense. And stories are imposing a structure.
So why then tell stories of the fantastic?
Hmm. One, the real world is very boring. No, it’s not, but I always wanted magic to be a thing. Or . . . I don’t think science fiction and fantasy aren’t about the real world; I think they are a frame that we can use to imagine a world that looks different or imagine a world that is dealing with the same problems we’re dealing with in a slightly different setting, that gives us a different perspective. You know, we can talk about all these issues, we can talk about what makes us people and what is personhood and, you know, how do we deal with difference, how do we deal with the other, how do we deal with race? How do we deal with gender? We can look at those through different lenses and think about, with the different frames from science fiction or fantasy or whatever hybrid genre you come up with. And so, a lot of the themes can still be there, but they’re there in a different format. And so, we look at them, and we might see them in a different way. We might see something different about them. But I don’t think they’re completely fanciful, you know, they come from somewhere. Maybe if they . . . I’m sorry, go ahead?
No, finish what you’re saying.
I’m feeling my way through it. This is much how I write, this is also how I talk, I think my way through things, and it can get pretty wild. But I think there’s a level of imagination, too, like, even if you’re not writing a dystopia, but you’re trying to imagine a world in which, you know, gender doesn’t matter. OK, well, what would that look like? How would that change things? How would that . . . ? And then you get into that cool world-building aspect, which is, “Why do I write science fiction and fantasy? Because I get to make up a whole world. Everything. It’s all . . .I get to make it up. And that’s awesome.
Well, the podcast is, of course, called The Worldshapers. And I actually picked Shapers deliberately as opposed to builders because . . . also, it happens to be the name of my current series, but anyway . . . but also, I like the idea that we’re not . . . we don’t really create worlds out of nothing, ex nihilo, we’re shaping the real world in some fashion, imagining it to be different in some way. But we’re still starting with the raw material of human beings and human nature and all that kind of stuff, and then shaping it like a potter might shape clay. So that’s kind of the way I’ve always thought of it. Do you hope that your stories are in some way . . . maybe shaping the world’s a bit grand; very, very little fiction has actually changed the world significantly. Some, maybe. But do you at least hope that you are having an effect on readers in some fashion, shaping them a little bit, perhaps?
Sure. I mean, even if it’s even . . . if it’s as little as, “Oh, this made me laugh today when I desperately needed to,” or, you know, “This took me away from the world for a couple of hours.” Even if it’s just escapism . . . I say “just,” I don’t mean to make that, minimalize that, because that’s a huge thing to be transported elsewhere for any period of time. That’s pretty, pretty damn powerful. But yeah, of course, I hope something sticks, something remains. There’s some echo.
And what are you working on now?
I am working on two things. One is the second book in a series that the first book hasn’t come out yet, but there you go. You know how those work. So, I’m working on the second book in that. And it’s. . it’s up the timeline from Rory, it’s the same world, the same arithmancy, you know, all of the lost paradigms of science, all of that. But it’s way up the timeline. It’s the things that Rory has done that have changed the multiverse or changed the world in that. So I’m working on the second book of that, and I’m trying, messing, vaguely stabbing at the idea . . . one of my friends said to me, “At some point, you should write a book about Grit. I would totally read a book about Grit.” And I thought, “What if I wrote a book about Grit?” So I’m poking at that from, you know, Grit from Rory, because she turned out to be a favorite character with a couple of folks that are near and dear to me. So. I want to see if I can write a story with her, a book with her. I don’t know. We’ll see if I can. So, that’s what I’m working on.
And where can people find you online?
I have a blog that is updated occasionally, but mostly with pictures of cats, at mythistoria.com. And I’m on Twitter @svartjager, from the first trilogy, the favorite character. Yeah, that’s where I generally . . . I am on Facebook, but shh!, no. That’s only for family. That’s only for family and people I know in meatspace.
Yeah, it’s nice to have a place like that sometimes.
Yeah, like these are my gaming groups. These are the people I hang with.
Yeah. Well, thanks so much for taking time to be on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did too.
I did. Thank you so much for having me. This has been a lot of fun.
Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist, and journalist. His latest book is Attack Surface, a standalone adult sequel to Little Brother. He is also the author How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, nonfiction about conspiracies and monopolies; and of Radicalized and Walkaway, science fiction for adults, a YA graphic novel called In Real Life; and young adult novels like Homeland, Pirate Cinema, and Little Brother. His first picture book was Poesy the Monster Slayer (August 2020).
He maintains a daily blog at Pluralistic.net. He works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate, is a Visiting Professor of Computer Science at Open University, a Visiting Professor of Practice at the University of North Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science, and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Born in Toronto, Canada, he now lives in Los Angeles.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Corey, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thank you. Thank you for having me on. It’s nice to talk to you.
Yeah. We met a long time ago, with the Canadian connection . . . I think it might have been in Edmonton, at ConSpec, about 2000 or something? Were you there?
Maybe Saskatchewan, I wasn’t at that, but I think . . . or Winnipeg, at the WorldCon.
Oh, yeah. Yeah. And I think I said hi to you at a WorldCon somewhere else at some point or another.
That also sounds possible.
So, thanks so much for doing this. We’re going to talk about the Little Brother series in particular as an example of your creative process. But before we get to that, I always take my guests back into the mists of time. And so, I’d like to take you back into the mists of time and find out, you know, all that biographical stuff. Where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in writing and, in particular, science fiction and fantasy? Well, science fiction. I don’t think you wr9te a lot of fantasy, perhaps.
I’ve written some. I’ve got one fantasy novel, although it’s a fantasy novel about WiFi, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, and I’ve written some fantasy stories, so, yeah, a little bit. So, my dad was a comics and fantasy fan, Conan fan, and when I was little, he used to tell me modified Conan stories. He was a Trotskyists, so he was telling me modified Conan stories in which Conan was replaced by a trio called Harry, Larry, and Mary, and in which their end game was after, you know, felling the grand vizier, was not to install themselves on the throne, but rather to create, like, a socialist cooperative.
And when my mom was in grad school, my dad used to turn on the TV, and we would watch Judith Merrill introduce Doctor Who on TV Ontario. And I was very excited to watch Doctor Who. My dad knew Judy through radical political circles, and when I was about nine or ten years old, my school went on a trip to the Spaced-Out Library, which is the science-fiction reference library that she founded in Toronto, where she was the writer in residence. And she came out and said, “You know, kids, if you write a story, you can bring it to me, and I’ll critique it for you,” which is, you know, really a remarkable thing. I mean, the closest Canadian analogy I came up with is it’s like Wayne Gretzky coming out and going like, “Look, kids, if you’re ever having a pickup game and you want some tips, just give me a call and I’ll come by and help you out with it.” So, you know—except Judy wasn’t a Tory, and Gretzky is. But that was, like, very inspiring. And I knew Judy from TV and recognized her, and so it was, like, doubly exciting to have her invite us down to the library to give her manuscripts.
And then, you know, within a year or two, we also went down to Bakka Science Fiction Bookstore, the oldest science-fiction bookstore in the world. And I get on a school trip, and the woman behind the counter was a writer who was just about to sell her first story, named Tanya Huff. And I was, you know, maybe ten or maybe 11, and I had a dollar, and Tanya asked me what kind of books I liked to read. And I told her, and she took me back to the U.S., and she found me a copy of Little Fuzzy that was a dollar, by H. Beam Piper, and was the first book I ever spent my own money on.
And I started bringing manuscripts to Judy and to Tonya. I had started writing a few years before. The first thing I remember writing was after seeing Star Wars at the University Theater on Bloor Street and, you know, having a really exciting time, not because it’s, like, the greatest movie ever written, but because kids’ audiovisual material was so poor. You know, it was like David and Goliath and a few other terrible shows. And then, just having a complex narrative was very exciting for me, really chimed with me. And I went home, and I just started writing out the Star Wars story over and over again like a kid practicing scales on the piano. And so, I started writing stories and start ed bringing them to Judy and to Tanya, who, you know, bless her socks, would actually, like, while working in the bookstore, allow, you know, a callow fourteen-year-old to bring her stories and would critique them for me and give me writing advice. And Judy, what she would do is use these workshops, or these one-on-one sessions, as a way to start workshops. So, she would find writers who were writing about the same level and get them to start meeting together, you know, the library had a spare room and so on.
So that’s how I started workshopping eventually with the Cecil Street Irregulars, which, you know, it’s Karl Schroeder and David Nickel and Peter Watts from time to time and Madeline Ashby and Hugh Spencer and many other writers over the years, a really exciting group of people. And I also started writing, going to a writing workshop at my high school, this kind of groovy alternative school in downtown Toronto. And it was run exactly like all these other workshops I’d been to, and I couldn’t figure it out until I learned that Judy had actually started that workshop, too, as part of a writer-in-the-schools program. And so, and then, you know, when I started selling stories, I sold my first story to OnSpec when I was seventeen to their youth issue. And when I started selling stories, I joined SF Canada, and I started going to the Hydra meetings. And these were again a thing that Judy started. They were potluck dinners that would be a moveable feast from one house to another every six or eight weeks. And that’s how I met the Prisoners of Gravity people and got involved with TV Ontario and helped out on the show. And so, you know, really, like, there are a lot of people in the story, but the one name that comes up over and over again is Judy Merrill. And while Judy was, like, hugely important to my life, I mean, she liked me just fine, but it wasn’t like I was her protege, right? She did this for so many people. She basically created a formal science fiction writers’ apprenticeship in Toronto that I lucked into.
You know, there were other factors, too, like, it was the early days of online writerdom and fandom, and for a time, there was a dial-up service called GEnie that General Electric ran. It was very expensive to use during the day. They used it to absorb their excess capacity at night, so it was a flat rate to use it from six p.m. to eight a.m., and then it was like twenty dollars an hour during the day. But they gave free, unlimited access to Science Fiction Writers of America members, and every SFWA member who had a modem was on Genie. So every famous writer in the world was on GEnie, and it’s like, as a seventeen-year-old, I joined this BBS and was, like, trading quips with, you know, Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin and, you know, hanging out with Damon Knight. And that’s how I ended up going to Clarion, that’s how I met my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, you know, people, they all pitched in, like, fifteen bucks each to send me to Clarion, all the writers there. And so, it was really, it was a remarkable time. I don’t think there’s ever been a time quite like it for becoming a writer. I mean, there are other things that are that writers today have going for them, like Archive of our Own and Wattpad and other ways of forming communities and so on. But that was a fabulous moment.
Unfortunately, I lived in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where I didn’t have any of that stuff. I never got on GEnie.
You needed to do what Karl did, which is move from Saskatchewan to Toronto.
Tanya was actually my second or third guest on here, so I had her on . . .
And Rob Sawyer. So, you know, I had the Canadian connection, Julie Czerneda, I had that Canadian thing going on very early on here on the podcast.
Well, Tanya likes to embarrass me by telling a story about when we were at the London WorldCon and chatting, and someone came up to her after and said, “Do you know Cory Doctorow?” And she was like, “Yeah, I know him. I’ve known him since ye was, you know, wetting his pants.”
Well, just looking at your bio, you said you attended four universities without obtaining a degree.
So, how did your career evolve from all of that?
Well, you know, I kept writing and selling, and I went to Clarion and then had a drought after that. I sold some stories beforehand, but it took me a long time to integrate the really excellent stuff that I learned there and then, you know, eventually figured it out. And university was not really for me. I had gone to an amazing alternative school where, you know, really we’d been in charge of designing our own curriculum. And I’d spent seven years in this four-year program, you know, taking a year out to write and taking a year to organize street demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq under the first George Bush, and doing just all kinds of stuff that was highly educational but not formally recognized, until I finally got a diploma and went to university. And the university was far more regimented and really felt like a giant step backwards. And so, I got a job in the burgeoning tech industry doing hypertext for Voyager, which was the best CD-ROM publisher the world had ever seen, really an amazing, you know, dream-come-true job. And from there, I got into the Web and sort of never looked back. But I kept on writing and kept on selling stories and then eventually books and novels.
What was your first novel?
It was Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. So, it was a short novel, and it was in part inspired by Bob Wilson. So, I went to his signing for Spin at Bakka, and Spin is a great book, but the first thing I noticed about it was that it was only 200 pages long. And I was like, you know, “Bob, this book is 200 pages long. Is it even a novel?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, 50,000 words is a novel,” and I was like, “Rally?” And he’s like, “Yeah, totally, 50,000 words is novel.” And I was like, “Well, finally I figured out how I’m going to finish a book. I’m only going to write one that’s 50,000 words long,” and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a 50,000-word novel. And you know, I was writing on it, and I went to New York, we took the Amtrak to New York for Christmas and stayed with my cousin in Midtown and had lunch with the Neilson Haydens who were at Tor, and now Patrick Nielsen Hayden is vice president there, but he was the senior editor there. And I had gone and read slush at Tor before and hung out with Patrick and, you know, knew him from GEnie. And, you know, over lunch, he said, like, “When are you going to write me a novel?” And I said, “Well, I have a book that I’m working on now.” And he said, “Well, how’s it coming?” And I said, “Well, I’ve got you, know, I’ve gotten quite a ways into it.” And he said, “Have you got three chapters and an outline?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, then, you better send it to me. And that was December. And he bought it in June.”
And that was what year?
That was . . . I want to say it was, like, 2000, but it didn’t come out till 2003. That was my second book. I had written a book with Karl Schroeder beforehand. Someone I knew from The Well, which was another online service started by the people who did The Whole Earth Catalog, had seen that I was selling a lot of short stories. And she said, “Do you want to write a book on how to publish science fiction?” And I said, “Yes, but I’ve never published a novel. I need to a novelist.” And she said, “Oh, go find a novelist.” So, I asked Karl if he would write the novel chapters, and I would write the short-story chapters. And we wrote this, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, together.
I have a copy of it somewhere. I was just looking at my bookshelf here to see if I could spot it. I remember getting it when it came out.
Yeah, that was very . . . it was a good first-book project because it’s super structured. They had a real verse, verse, chorus formula, you know, like down to, like, each chapter has so many sections, each section has so many paragraphs, here is what, you know, makes a complete section and so on. If you could tick all the boxes, you would have a functional book at the end.
I never did a Complete Idiot’s. I did write Genetics Demystified, which is pretty funny considering I had to teach myself genetics to write. I always worry about that just a little bit.
I have a friend who writes very good books about genomics, Adam Rutherford, whose latest book is a brilliant genomics book called How to Argue With a Racist, which is a terrific title.
Yeah, it is. You moved from short stories to novels. What do you find the difference between the two is for you? Do you think you’re more of a short story writer by temperament or a novelist, or do you think there’s a difference?
I mean, there’s definitely a difference. I mean, at this point, in terms of, like, how much work I put into one versus the other, I’m definitely a novelist. I have probably written more words of novel than of short story, although I’ve written a lot more short stories than novels. But in terms of overall volume. And I’ve won prizes for both. And I think the major difference is how much ornamentation you get. You know, I liken it to packing for a trip, which is a thing we used to do before the plague. And, you know, there’ll be some trips where you just take a carry-on bag, and that’s a short story, and you’ve got to be pretty ruthless with what goes in that bag. And then somewhere you take, like, a suitcase, and that’s like a novella. And you can, you know, you can carry some comfort items maybe, like, you know, when I go on tour, I always bring a big suitcase, and it’s got an air press and a collapsible kettle and some coffee and a nice flask of whiskey in it. You can add some comfort items. You can have some ornamentation. You can have a nice jacket to wear if you’re, in case you go to a good dinner. And then, with a novel, it’s like getting a shipping container, and you get to put everything in it.
We’ve written a lot of nonfiction as well, with all of your interest in electronic rights and freedom of information and all that stuff. Do you find that the nonfiction writing feeds into your fiction writing both on the skill side and on . . . I mean, obviously, you tend to have the same kind of overall philosophy, I guess, going through your nonfiction and your fiction. Is that safe to say?
Yeah, for the most part. I mean, it really depends on what you mean by the nonfiction. I wouldn’t divide it so rigorously into fiction and nonfiction or short- and long-form pieces. I would divide it into what’s sometimes called stalk and flow. So, stalk is the longer synthetic pieces that are really significant and that kind of stand on their own, and flow is the stuff that you do from moment to moment. And so, for me, flow is blogging. And blogging is a thing that I have done for now almost twenty years, in fact, more than twenty years if you count a bunch of things that I did that were indistinguishable from blogging, except the word blogging hadn’t been invented yet. And for me, blogging is the process of taking the thing that a writer might jot in a commonplace book to remind themselves of it later, and instead publishing it along with enough context that a notional stranger can understand why you’re taking notes on it, what it is that snagged your attention about it.
And that process of writing that material for strangers is powerfully mnemonic. It makes you think through why this is important to you, why this has caught your interest, and it makes you be rigorous, and you can’t cheat the way that you do with your own notes, where you make these notes that you think are very clear, and then you go back, and they’re very cryptic, and they don’t make any sense to you. And that creates a kind of supersaturated solution, fragmentary story ideas or fragmentary ideas overall, that can be synthesized into fiction and nonfiction and so on. And what happens is over time, this solution has these little fragments in it, and they bump together, and they kind of nucleate and they crystallize into a speech or a story or a novel or an essay or a book-length work of nonfiction or what have you. And, you know, that stock represents a synthesis. It represents a kind of dialectic where two things that are in dialogue with one another, maybe in opposition to each other, get together and kind of duke it out in your imagination and in your critical analysis. And what comes out is something that is recognizably descended from both, but not obviously latent in either.
Well, I think this is tying into talking about your process for creating novels, which always starts with where do you get your ideas, which you kind of just explained in a way.
We’re going to talk about Attack Surface, which is the new one in the Little Brother series, but maybe give a quick overview of Little Brother, Homeland, and Attack Surface, for those who have not, unimaginably, read any of them.
Hmm. Well, so Little Brother and Homeland are YA novels, and they’re books about kids who use technology to resist technology, right? Kids who find themselves in circumstances of dire personal and social peril because of technology that is being wielded against them and who fashion their own counterattacks out of the technology that they figure out how to master and wield on their own behalf. And Little Brother is a book about the war on terror. So, it opens with this young man, Marcus Gallo, and his friends being caught in a terrorist attack on San Francisco, which is traumatic enough. But what’s far more traumatic is the immediate transformation of the city into an armed police state with mass surveillance checkpoints and so on. And they are so appalled by this that they build a resistance movement. They used hacked Xboxes with cryptographically secured wireless communications to communicate with one another and build a network that the NSA can’t wiretap. And they conspire together to kick the Department of Homeland Security out of the city and restore their constitutional rights.
In Homeland, the sequel, the reputation they have ends up with them inheriting a collection of really sensitive government leaks that reveal a lot of government wrongdoing. And they set about trying to release these leaks in a way that will hold the powerful to account. And they do this in a way where they try to be as careful as they can, and they’re doing it in the midst of an election campaign that they’re running, but they’re beset on the one hand by mercenaries from private military contractors who want to suppress these leaks, who’ve been paid to suppress the leaks, and on the other hand by hacktivists who want the leaks released as soon as possible with no redactions and no selectivity. And they’re in the middle of this pincer.
And the third book, the one that’s just come out, is Attack Surface, and it’s not exactly a sequel. It’s the third Little Brother book, but it’s a standalone book, and it’s intended for adults, not because it has sex in it—speaking as a fifty-year-old, I’m here to tell you that being an adult doesn’t mean that you have more sex than a teenager—rather because it is about confronting your life’s work and having a moral reckoning with what you have done, which I think is a thing that mostly adults do. And it involves this young woman, Masha, who appears in the other two books. She’s something of the antagonist of the other two books. In the first book, she works for the Department of Homeland Security, trying to catch the heroes, and in the second book, she moves to Iraq, where she is a military contractor, hunting insurgents, using technology, and in the third book, in this new book, she has moved on to the private sector and is supplying cyber weapons to post-Soviet dictators in Eastern Europe who want to crush pro-democracy movements by hacking people’s phones and figuring out who to arrest and torture. Basically, sort of the Belarus situation that we’re living through as we record this now. And she has, through her whole career, compartmentalized. She’s found ways to rationalize what she’s doing and to not think too hard about the negative consequences of it. And she’s finally reached a point where she can’t rationalize it anymore, where the tactics that she engages in to convince herself that she’s one of the good guys have reached a breaking point.
So, you know, by the time we meet her, her day job is installing surveillance equipment in the National Telco’s Main Data Center, and her hobby is teaching the activists she’s supposed to be catching with it how to evade it. And her bosses, who are not exactly the forgiving type, figure out what she’s doing, and she has to flee the country. And when she gets back to San Francisco, she realizes to her horror that her childhood best friend, who she’s been relishing the prospect of being reacquainted with, is now a Black Lives Matter activist who’s being targeted by the same cyber weapons that she herself spent her whole career building. And that’s when she has to have this reckoning.
And the Little Brother books are interesting as artifacts in the world because of the impact that they had. There are a lot of technologists and cyber lawyers and cryptographers and human rights workers and activists who started off by reading Little Brother and Homeland. And it convinced them, on the one hand, that technology could be abused in terrible ways and, on the other hand, that the liberatory power of technology is real. If you watch the documentary about Edward Snowden, Citizen Four, you can see that as he’s fleeing Hong Kong, he grabs a copy of Homeland off his bedside table and sticks it in his go-bag. And that is, you know, really one of my proudest accomplishments, right? That you have these people who have acquired these rare and important technical skills for the express purpose of using them to help people and not hurt people and to defend people from corporate power and state power. And this third one is addressed to a different cohort, a cohort who got in for other reasons, you know, just because of their passion for the field and because it looked like a good job, but who’ve grown increasingly discontented with the compromises that they had to make along the way. You know, the 20,000 Googlers who walked out last year, or the workers at Amazon and at Facebook and at Microsoft and at Salesforce and at Apple who have voiced their concerns or quit their jobs or walked off the job over surveillance, over censorship, over manipulation, and over sexual harassment and impunity in their workplaces. And, you know, that group of people really is waiting to be radicalized. And this is a book, in some ways, for them. It’s a book to show them what redemption looks like when you’ve spent your career rationalizing your way into doing things that you know in your heart you shouldn’t be doing.
Was there a specific impetus for this, a specific group of ideas that came together to inspire you to write this third book? Because you talked about how ideas will bounce around, synthesize.
Yeah, no, no one instigating incident, really more like there was a critical mass of fragments, right? You know, one of the things that I’ve spent a lot of time campaigning on is transparency, modifiability, interoperability, and user control over smart devices, that as computers infiltrate our cars and our medical implants and our tractors and our homes, rather than these computers being designed to be responsive to the people who own them and who trust their lives to them, these computers have been increasingly designed to extract revenue from those people by subjugating them and by surveilling them and by putting their interests behind the interests of the shareholders, the companies that made them. And not only does this expose us to risk from the companies themselves, but a device that’s designed to be treacherous, to hide its workings from you, to prevent you from reconfiguring it to work how you need it to work, is a device that, if it’s never compromised by a bad guy, whether that’s the state or whether that’s a criminal or a rival company or what have you, that device by design is not going to let you reconfigure it so that it listens to you. It’s designed to hide its workings from you. And so, I really wanted to illustrate the way in which a world of devices designed to control their users presents a kind of endless playground for the worst impulses in our species and to show what that would mean for human rights in a digital era.
What did your planning/outlining process look like? And what does it look like generally when you set out to write a novel? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you do a sketchy outline, and then it evolves as you write? How does that work for you?
It’s really a different book by book. Mostly, what I have done is written a sort of treatment that explains what kind of thing will go on in the book and then written the book. I use a kind of heuristic where at every turn, I ask myself, “What problem is the character trying to solve? How are they going to fail through no fault of their own? How will things get worse and raise the stakes? And what will that new problem look like, and how will they try to solve that?” And if you do that enough times, you reach a climax because eventually, things can’t get any worse, and then that’s the climax. I ran into trouble with this one because it went really long. I had a really hard time bringing it in for a landing, and it came in at over 170,000 words. And I knew that I wanted a book of about 130,000 to 140,000 words.
So, I actually hired an external editor for this book, a woman named Juliette Ollman, and Juliette was a Random House editor who now works for the New York Transit Authority. And she gave me some really good suggestions for tightening up the book. We eliminated the love interest and replaced him with the sidekick, basically. And that was a pretty major piece of surgery on the book, and it was somewhat traumatic to undergo, but it made the book much better. It also got the book down to about 134,000 words, which is perfect. And it convinced me that I needed to be more outline oriented for the next book, that whatever I would lose in the spontaneity I would gain in the lack of a need for that kind of dramatic rewrite. And so, the book that I’m working on now, I wrote a very detailed outline, and I’m keeping it updated as I go because obviously, the first casualty of every battle is the plan of attack. So, I’m changing the outline as I go so that I have a kind of as-built drawing when I’m done. And I found it to be quite relieving. Like, I mean, every book in my experience feels like you’re cheating, right? It feels like . . . because there’s no way you can hold all the pieces of a book in your head. And so, at a certain point, there’s a lot of kind of unconscious work being done to keep the book consistent. And it always comes, there always comes a time writing a book where you feel like Wile E. Coyote having run off the cliff, and knowing that if you look down that there’s just empty air below you. And a lot of finishing a book is down to not looking down. It’s trusting that you’ll get to the other side if you just keep running. And this feels like cheating, too, but in a different way, in that I’m following this recipe I wrote, and the part of my brain that writes the recipe is not the part of my brain that does the writing. And it kind of feels like, almost hacky, like I got an outline from someone, and now I’m just following their instructions, except that someone is me.
What does your actual writing process look like? I mean, you have a lot of things that you do. Do you write . . . when you’re working on fiction, do you work a certain time every day, or how does that work for you?
No, I long ago lost the luxury of being able to set aside a certain time every day. I really just squeeze it in. And what I do is, I have a word count I hit every day. And the book that I’m working on right now, it’s a 500-word-a day word count. It’s two pages generally, takes about 15 or 20 minutes. It’s a little easier with the outline, I have to say. And I just sit down, and I write it. And the thing that freed me up to do that kind of daily work was the realization that although there were days when I felt like my writing was very good and days when I felt like my writing was terrible, and although there were days, or there were parts of the work that were very good and parts that needed revision, that they were unconnected, right? That the quality of the work was completely unrelated to how I felt about the quality of the work. Some of the stuff I felt great about was garbage, and some of the stuff I felt was garbage was great. And that the thing that the feeling related to was not the objective quality of the work, but rather to, like, my blood sugar and my anxiety and stress levels and how much sleep I’d gotten. And once I realized that the quality of words was unrelated to my feeling in the words, then I could just write whatever words there were, even if they were stupid-sounding words. And later on, I could go back and fix them if it turned out that the way I felt about them was true. And, you know, that was liberating. But it’s also somewhat depressing over time because it is anhedonic, right? That the joy that you feel when you feel like you’re writing really, really well kind of gets leached out of the thing once you acknowledge that how you feel about the work is not connected to the objective quality of the work. And you start to realize, oh, I feel great about this, maybe it’s crap.
Well, maybe the operative word is work because it is, of course, work sometimes. Sometimes it feels like play, but a lot of the time, it feels like work. I at least I find.
Much as I, you know, I enjoy having written, but yeah. So, do you write sequentially? Like, you start at the beginning, you write to the end?
That’s exactly it. Yep.
You’re not one of these people that strings scenes together along the way.
Nothing of the sort, I do write, like, TK, for to come, which is a journalistic convention, if there’s a thing that I need to go look up later, like, you know, the name of a minor character that I didn’t bother to make a note of it. And I do write FCK for a fact check if there’s a thing that I think I might have gotten wrong. That’s mostly to stop, like, getting into a Wikipedia click trance. And I just write with a plain old text editor, you know, like, not even a word processor.
Do you find that you have to do a lot of research on these books? I mean, you’re dealing with, you know, cutting-edge technology and that sort of thing. And I know you’ve got to kind of deal with that all the time, but do you find things that you have to research as you’re writing?
It’s really the other way around. I mean, there are sometimes a detail or two that will come up like that, but mostly what’s going on is this process of taking everything that seems significant and turning it into a blog post gives you a wealth of material that you have already researched. So, you’re doing research for a book you don’t know you’re writing. And the book you write comes out of the research you do instead of the other way around. I did write a book that was set in China and India and spent some time there. In Homeland, there’s a sequence where they propose an alternative way of running an insurgent election campaign. And I canvassed a bunch of people I knew who worked in netroots politics and a young man named Aaron Swartz, who was one of the Reddit founders, who very tragically killed himself the year the book came out, gave me a really, really good sequence for it. And, you know, that was just like, there was just a TK, like, I will figure out what goes in the scene later. And then, when the book was done, I wrote to Aaron for advice, and he just sent me a couple of paragraphs I dropped in.
Once you have your completed draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you use beta readers or people like that? Or how does that work for you?
I use my editor and my agent, and in the case of the last book, I used this outside editor, but I don’t tend to use a lot of beta readers. I did have some sensitivity readers for Walkaway, particularly for the sequences in which there’s a trans character. And I did have a sensitivity reader for Radicalized, where it’s a story about African-American relations with the US police, but for the most part, it’s editor, agent, and sometimes outside editor.
And what does your actual revision process look like personally? Do you go through it line by line, are you making big changes, or more just cleaning up the language? Or what sort of things do you find yourself working on?
Well, it’s strongly varied by book. Obviously, with Attack Surface there was this major surgery. With Walkaway, I decided that I wanted that book to be shorter as well, and I went through it line by line. I just basically took 5,000 words out of the book every morning and put them in a new file, and just tinkered with it until I was 4,000 words. And what I found was that in doing this, I started to identify tics of bad habits of my own, where I would be needlessly verbose. And it got really fast. I got really good at doing it. And both fortunately and unfortunately, the practice of doing that with the whole book meant that by the time I wrote my next one, I wasn’t making those mistakes anymore. So, when I wanted to cut down in Attack Surface, I didn’t have twenty percent fat at the sentence level that I could just trim out because I taught myself a better habit. And, you know, often what I’ll do is read the book aloud. I find that that’s a really powerful way to revise. I know Bruce Sterling told me once that when he did a residency out here in L.A. at Art Center in Pasadena, he drove a trailer of stuff from Texas to L.A. for his residency. And he had a new book out, I think it was The Caryatids, and he strapped his laptop into the passenger seat and had it do text to speech for the entire book while he drove cross-country. And he would just pull over whenever he heard a line that sounded wrong and fix it.
There’d be a lot of pulling over if I were doing that. Yeah, reading out loud is a great way . . . well, it forces you to read every line, of course, every word. You don’t skip over anything in your head. And if you don’t find the mistakes while you’re reading it out loud, doing revision, you will totally find them when you’re doing a public reading later on when it’s too late to change.
Yeah, you certainly do. Very true. Or f you’re producing an audiobook when the reader gets to them.
Yeah, I actually have a copy of the first edition of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. And of course, he lives in Saskatchewan, he lives in Saskatoon. And he was at the Saskatchewan Book Awards a few years ago as the speaker, and he opened it up and went to one particular place and made a correction that had made it all the way through into publication. So now we have this hand-corrected copy, autographed copy, of Life of Pi. And I put it in a plastic bag and put it away somewhere.
Yeah, Damon Knight used to do this. . . there was a book that I think John Campbell had retitled The Rithian Terror that originally had a title like, you know, A Happy Story About Space or something. And every time someone would bring in a copy of the book, he would open it to the title page and cross out Campbell’s title and write in his own.
Well, you talked about, in this particular case, having an editor before it went to the editor. Once it gets to the publication level, with the publisher’s editor, what kind of feedback do you typically get?
So, my editor, Patrick, whom I’ve known since I was seventeen, he tends to be pretty macro. He usually will have one or two things where he’s like, “This thing really needs a fix,” but mostly he, you know, the way that he approaches I think is that science fiction is a story in which you have a kind of a micro and a macrocosm. And the microcosm is the character, and the macrocosm is the world. And they need to be parallel to one another. They need to have they need to be sort of an as-above-so-below, powers-of-ten kind of relationship to one another. And, you know, the character is like a little cogwheel that spins around and around interfacing with this very big wheel that is the world, and the character spins and spins and spins until the world makes a full revolution and you see it in the round. And a lot of the times when the books falter, it’s because the teeth aren’t meshing, because there’s some way in which the world and the character are not matched for each other. So, a lot of the time, his suggestions will be sort of thematic. He’ll be like, “If you do this with a character and or this with the world, you’ll get a much better mesh.”
Does he work with, like, an editorial letter that you get, or is it a conversation or . . .?
Yeah, oftentimes it’s a conversation, but we notionally . . . well, I mean, what actually usually happens is he says, “I will get you an editorial letter,” and then time will go by, and he’ll go like, “Actually, let’s just talk on the phone.”
Well, that’s what I’m used to. Sheila Gilbert at DAW is my editor. And it’s always phone conversations. So, when people talk about getting these massive editorial letters, I’ve never actually had one of those. So, I always wonder what they’re like.
Well, and Juliet gave me a proper editorial letter, but, you know, that was a separate process.
Now, I also wanted to mention you’re doing something interesting with a Kickstarter for the audiobook version of this. So, that has funded, it’ll be over, so, you can’t, you know, people hearing this can’t contribute. But tell me about that and how that came about and why you did it.
Yeah, sure. So, I will not make my work available under DRM, and there’s a lot of reasons for that. But, you know, from an author’s perspective, the most important one is that under the revisions to the Canadian Copyright Act in 2011 and under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, we as creators, as the owners of those copyrights, cannot authorize our readers to remove the DRM. And so, if we sell work that’s locked to Amazon with Amazon’s DRM and then Amazon and we have a dispute, and we walk away from Amazon and find another publisher for our work or another retailer for our work, those books are locked into Amazon’s silo. It’s like, if every time you sold a book at Wal-Mart, they got to decide which light bulbs and bookcases and chairs you could read them in. And yes, if you wanted to, you could get another chair and another light bulb and another bookcase for, you know, the Indigo books that you’re going to go buy now, but you could see that that switching cost would really lock in the suppliers, that is, us, to this monopoly platform. And so, Amazon will thankfully allow you to sell e-books without DRM, but not audiobooks. And they completely dominate the audiobook market. They have more than 90 percent of it through their Audible division, which, when they bought it in 2008, they promised they would remove the DRM from and then reneged. And I won’t allow my books to be sold, which means that I’m cutting myself off from more than 90 percent of the market. And understandably, MacMillan is not all that interested in acquiring the rights to a book that they can’t sell in the place where 90 percent of the shoppers are. And I don’t blame them. And so, I retain those rights.
And I live in Southern California, which means that I’m a fifty-minute drive from one of the powerhouse audiobook studios, Skyboat Media, and I’m only a few minutes away from my friend Amber Benson’s house. She’s a writer, a DAW writer, but she’s also an actor, she played Tara on Buffy, and she’s a wonderful, wonderful voice actor and audiobook reader. And so, I had Amber read the book, paid her SAG actor rates and paid the director Cassandra De Cuir, and paid my editor, John Taylor Williams, who’s been editing my podcast for more than a decade. And we produced a really kickass audiobook, and I’ve done this before with other books, but this time I really wanted to make a statement, in part because there’s finally this pro-competitive anti-monopoly energy in the world. And I decided I would pre-sell the audiobook on Kickstarter along with the e-books. I’m my publisher’s e-book retailer so that you can buy my e-books at all the major retail platforms, you know, Kobo and B.N. and Indigo and Amazon and so on, but you can also just buy them from me, and I get the 30 percent that would otherwise be taken by one of those companies when you buy for me, and I take the 70 percent that remains, and I send it to my publisher, and they take the 25 percent that would be my royalty and send it back to me. So, it comes out to like 47 1/2 percent. So, I’m selling the e-book, pre-selling the audiobook, I’m selling the backlist titles, the first two books all on Kickstarter, and I’ve discounted the audiobook. It’s going to sell for twenty-five bucks, but I’m selling it for fifteen. And, as I speak, the Kickstarter is sitting at $238,883, and that’s a really good sum of money.
What was your goal?
Well, seven thousand bucks was the goal, but that’s just like the amount of money that it would sort of cost me to do the listing and the fulfillment and whatever. It’s just an opportunity cost. I wasn’t really . . . I wanted about this much. This was kind of where I was shooting. In fact, I’m hoping to get significantly more because the last four or five days of the campaign are when you get a whole lot of pledges. What I really want is to sell 10,000 audiobooks. And I think that if I sell 10,000 audiobooks to 10,000 customers, that it will tempt McMillan into buying the audio rights to my next book and into helping me produce it and market it this way with another crowdfunder. And that if we can do that, we can probably tempt other bestselling writers into eschewing Amazon Audible, and we can start creating a new kind of Audible exclusive, the book that’s exclusive of Audible, that’s available in all the places. You know, it’s first life is as a discount title on Kickstarter for pre-order and then all the major retailers except Amazon. And I think that will bring Amazon to the table. I think that gets Amazon where it hurts. That is what they care about. And not being able to sell your bestsellers, the best sellers in the field, is a big deal for them. And then maybe we can get a more equitable proposition, one where we get to decide as the copyright owners whether we want their so-called protection.
Well, a lot of your activity is as an activist as well as a writer. And that does probably kind of tie into my big philosophical questions that I always ask at the end, which is, why do you write? Why do you write, and do you consider the writing or the other things that you do . . . are they all one piece or they are two separate things? Are you an activist and a writer? Are you an activist first and then a writer? How do you put all those pieces together? But at the core of that, why do you write, and why do you write science fiction and fantasy particularly?
Yeah, well, so I think that in terms of rhetoric and politics, writing is a way to carry on the argument. It puts a lot of blood and sinew on what could otherwise be a very dry academic kind of argument about tech policy questions. But, you know, more importantly, or just as importantly, I write for the reason anyone who makes art makes art, right? Because we have this like important, difficult-to-stop need to make art. You know, one of the reasons that artistic markets are so dysfunctional is because people make art even when they don’t have a reasonable expectation of a return, right? When people are traumatized by, you know, war and torture and so on, we give them art therapy, you know, like, art’s important, and I make art because I’m an artist and artists make art and all humans make art, and it’s really important to the human condition. In terms of, like, what happens when you write, there’s . . . it is a weird question, right? You know, the more I think about writing, the weirder writing gets. Because when you read fiction, you have a limbic involuntary emotional response to the plight of imaginary people who you know to be inconsequential, like, by definition, like, things that happen to imaginary people have no consequences. Right? Like, the yogurt you ate with your breakfast this morning had a more tragic death than Romeo and Juliet because they were never alive. And so, they didn’t die, whereas that yogurt was once alive and then you killed it, right?
And I think what’s going on is that we have an automatic and voluntary process by which we learn to model other people in order to empathize with them, that, you know, from the models you build up of people you’ve never met, you know, whether that’s someone, you know, on the Internet or someone that you hear about second hand, like a celebrity or like the new kid at school, you haven’t met yet, but the other kids are talking about them. And it gives you . . . you create a kind of picture of who they are and what they would do under certain circumstances. And that’s how you predict what they’ll do and how you empathize with them. And this process, it’s very naive and automatic. There’s no conscious intervention needed to do it. And it can be tricked into spending time building and maintaining models of people that you can’t encounter, like imaginary people, like strangers and like dead people. Like, you can probably imagine what your grandma would say if she could see you now. And that’s drawing on that model. And I think when you read, you experience the empathic cognitive version of an optical illusion where the writer tricks your model maker into modeling the imaginary person that is the subject of the story, and then you experience empathy for them.
And I think that when you write a similar thing happens. That when we start writing it can feel masturbatory, right, like you’re putting on a puppet show for yourself, because you know you’re making it up and you’re like, you know, “Hey, let’s all go on a quest!” “Sure, that sounds great to me!”, right? But over time, that same part of your brain that readers use to experience empathy and have the aesthetic experience of reading a novel builds up the model of your characters, and they start to tell you what they want to do. You’re kind of inhaling your own farts, basically, right? You’ve got the exhaust of your very regimented planning, of your specific imaginative process, in which you say, “What imaginary thing can my characters do?”, becomes the source of a bunch of intuition about what these imaginary people would do that arrives in exactly the same way that your intuition about what real people would do arrives. And that’s a pretty cool thing. And then, as to why science fiction, well, you know, it’s kind of in my DNA. It’s, you know, between Judy and living in the 21st century and being so engaged with technological subjects, science fiction really is the natural genre for me.
Well, and I think you’ve kind of answered the next question, too, which is, do you hope that your fiction has some impact on the real world? I think very clearly, you do.
Yeah, I really do. I mean, I would do it, you know, even if I didn’t have that. But, you know, one of the things that keeps me going when, you know, things are low, and I don’t feel like working, and it’s not very satisfying and everything’s terrible, is the thought that I’m making a difference in the world, that this thing has meaning in the world and will make the world a better place.
And you’ve mentioned that you’re working on something, what are you working on now?
I’m writing a utopian post-Green NewDeal novel called The Lost Cause that is in many ways indistinguishable from a dystopian environmental novel in that it is full of floods and fires, zoonotic plagues, refugees, and so on. But the difference is that the people in the book have met the crisis head-on, and they have begun a multi-century-long process of addressing it. So, there’re like . . . a bunch of them are working on relocating all the coastal cities in the world twenty kilometres inland. You know, they have high-density living plans to accommodate refugees as ever-larger parts of the world become uninhabitable. They are replacing major aviation routes with high-speed rail links. They’re just, they’re doing the work. And they call themselves the first generation in two hundred years not to fear the future. And they start with something called the Canadian miracle that starts after a hung Parliament triggers, or a no-confidence vote triggers, a snap election in Canada. And election surprises mire the Tory and Liberal candidates in scandal, and (a) Metis woman becomes the PM, and she ushers in what they call the Canadian miracle, the first Green New Deal, the first Leap Manifesto, implementation after Calgary is basically washed away. And she, they relocate all of the parts of Calgary that are in the flood plain and create a new way of thinking about climate work and care work. And after the Canadian miracle is well underway, there’s this practice of what they call the blue helmets, who are exchange workers, who go all around the world to learn methods and to teach methods from their home countries. And this large circulating population of blue helmets are really at the center of this story. And so the story, I should mention, turns on truth and reconciliation with the white nationalist militias who think that they’re not living in a utopia, but rather a dystopia going on there.
A lot going on there.
Well, glad to hear there’s still some Canadian content.
Oh, yes, very much so.
And when will that come out?
Oh, I haven’t sold it. I never sell my books before I write them. I always sell them after they’re done. So, it doesn’t have a publication date. But my editor is really excited about it. I sent it to him.
I suspect it will find a home.
Yeah. Oh, yeah.
And where can people find you online? You are online, I presume?
Oh yes. So you can find all my work at pluralistic.net.
Pluralistic is available, If you go there, you’ll find out how to get it as a Twitter feed. So, I post several essays a day as Twitter threads, or you can read them on the web or full-text RSS. I podcast a lot of them. They’re also available as a daily email newsletter, and they’re also available on Mastadon and Tumblr. Everything except Tumblr and Twitter is is surveillance-free. There’s no analytics, no tracking, no cookies set. It’s licensed Creative Commons attribution only.
Okay, well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I really appreciate it. I enjoyed the chat. Hope you did, too.
And best of luck with Attack Surface.
Thank you very much. Thanks for the chat. It’s been really nice.