Episode 68: James Morrow

An hour-plus interview with James Morrow, World Fantasy Award, Nebula Award, Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and Grand prix de l’Imaginaire-winning author of eleven novels and many shorter works.

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The Introduction

Born in 1947, James Morrow has been writing fiction ever since. As a seven-year-old living in the Philadelphia suburbs, he dictated the story of the duck family to his mother, who dutifully typed it up and bound the pages with yarn. Upon reaching adulthood, Jim channeled his storytelling urge toward the production of speculative literature.

The majority of his eleven novels are written in satiric theological mode, including the critically acclaimed Godhead trilogy. He has won the World Fantasy Award twice, for Only Begotten Daughter and Towing Jehovah, the Nebula Award twice, for his story “The Deluge” and the novella City of Truth, and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award once for the novella Shambling Towards Hiroshima.

In recent years, he’s produced historical fiction informed by a fantastical sensibility, including The Last Witchfinder, about the birth of the Enlightenment, and Galapagos Regained, about the coming of the evolutionary worldview, and his novel-in-progress sardonically reimagines the 325 AD Council of Nicaea. The French translation of his Darwin extravaganza recently received the Grand prix de l’Imaginaire. His most recent work to see print is The Purloined Republic, one of the three novellas that constitute And the Last Trump Shall Sound.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Jim, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you very much, Ed.  Happy to be here.

Happy to make the connection. I don’t believe we’ve ever crossed paths at a convention or anything in person, but it was through Mickey Mickkelson, who’s my publicist and is doing some work as well with Arc Manor. I guess we made the connection because of And the Last Trump Shall Sound, which is out or about to come out. Is it out or about to come out? As we talk, because it will be out by the time this goes live.

September 22 is the pub date. I see you’re about to appear on The Coleman Show, which I’m also booked on. You’re doing that tomorrow, right?

Yeah. As we talk. By the time this comes out, this will all be a few weeks in the past. I sometimes forget that when I’m doing these things, that this is not a live broadcast, but it does not live, it is recorded. And at the time it comes out, all of this stuff will be out. Well, let’s that start, as I do, by taking you, as I like to say, I’m totally going to put reverb on it someday, back into the mists of time, where, as I also like to say, it is mistier for some of us than others. How did you become interested in, you know, you mentioned writing your first story when you were seven years old, so obviously, that came along early, but not just writing, but also science fiction fantasies specifically. How did that come about for you, and where did you grow up and go to school and all that good stuff?

Okay. I grew up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, a little town called Roslyn. I guess there are two different tributaries feeding the river of my imagination. One comes from low culture, sort of popular culture, the other from a more literary zone, high, high culture. I’d say, unlike the majority of guests you have on The Worldshapers, I was not a voracious reader as a kid. My introduction to genre was through the more tawdry venue of Famous Monsters of Filmland Magazine. I still have the first, Forrey Ackerman’s sort of love letter to the history of horror films, and so was watching movies on television that had that fantastic sensibility that ultimately, I would argue, led to my producing prose fiction in that genre. My friends and I in high school subscribed to Famous Monsters and would go to each other’s houses to watch these movies. And we started our own filmmaking club.

Growing up in Roslyn, Pennsylvania, I was very near a large cemetery, and this became the setting for about half the movies that we made. But we did, these were 8mm home movies, but we thought of them as feature films, and we were in them, but we thought of ourselves as adult actors. But we did adaptations of “The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner,” and Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” and the other films we did had titles like Cagliostro, The Sorcerer, and The Futurians. But let me then jump to the other tributary of more literary or high culture. In my 10th-grade world literature class taught by the amazing Mr. Giordano (sp?), I came to understand for the first time that a novel was not simply about following the vicarious adventures of non-existent people, that a novel could be a matrix of ideas, and novelists were people who had something to say. And the syllabus was just extraordinary. We read Voltaire’s Candide, we read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, the plays of Ibsen, Kafka’s The TrialMadame Bovary by Flaubert. And I just was so entranced by the sensibility of those authors. They were people who did not settle for the received wisdom of their day. They stood outside of their cultures. They were at odds with conventional thought, and they tended to be very much religious skeptics, doubters. And not just . . . it was kind of like my inverse road to Damascus. You know, I wanted to sign up for the sort of honest atheism of Albert Camus and I, you know, and I thought maybe I could do it myself someday, that I could write a novel of ideas.

Science fiction, of course, demands that you play with ideas. It’s often called the literature ideas of ideas. You get this wonderful toolkit when you join that club of robots and time travel and rocketships, all of which become techniques for getting perspective on the world, for holding reality up to a kind of funhouse mirror and, you know, and then maybe telling people a thing or two, arguing for a way of seeing the world.  And one day, I found myself possessed by an idea for my first novel.

When you were doing the film work, were you doing some of the scripting for those films where you’re writing for that?

Yeah, they were my . . . I guess there were like four of us who were in this, who had created this club, and I was sort of recognized me as the one who did pretty well with dialogue and was the writer of the group. But we all took turns behind the camera, we all took turns in front of the camera. I usually did the editing as well. I love the editing process. And I would say to this day, my fiction-making for me is filmmaking by other means, that when I cut into a manuscript, when I leap into the rough draft of a chapter as it comes pouring out of my printer and I sit down with a pencil and a cup of coffee, to me, trimming and reshaping the prose is analogous to what I did for many years editing films, trimming the frames, rearranging the images.

I have to ask if you still have the story of the dog family bound in yarn by your mother, you still have a copy of that.

I do! That managed to survive. I have it in a file upstairs. And I still have most of the 8mm movies that we made. Although I haven’t played them recently. I have a feeling the splices would fall apart, and the soundtracks may have, the tape may have degenerated. I’m afraid to find out.

Were you writing prose during that time as well, your teen years, and so forth? And were you sharing those stories with people? Or was it pretty much you were in that film making side of things?

Yeah, I mean, I had an urge to tell stories. I had, I think, a feeling for narrative, but I expressed myself in other media, the filmmaking . . . we put on some plays, I used to draw my own comic strips and comic books and, you know, didn’t turn to prose fiction until, you know, my first novel, really, though I always, I loved the medium of the novel from a very young age. I thought there was just something magical and luminous about those books in my parents’ modest library that I knew were fiction. And even before I was very adept at reading and way before I would imagine composing stories myself, I would take volumes off the shelf in my parents’ living room, and then I would impose on them my own novel. I would sort of be telling a story to myself as I was turning the pages of the novel, pretending that it was something that I had written.

I have to ask because so much of your work is, as you said in your bio, theologically inspired, did you have a religious upbringing, were you learning theological material during your youth?

No. My parents took me to Presbyterian Sunday School, but I think they were not really serious Christians themselves. I think they had a kind of inoculation theory: give the kid a little bit of religion, you know, lest he someday show up announcing that he’s decided to become a monk, and you deprived me of God, and how dare you not tell me about the divine! And, you know, I honestly believe that was their theory. So, I had . . .it was a very low-level experience. I mean, even though I did have that inverse road to Damascus I mentioned earlier, thanks to Voltaire and Camus, etc., there just wasn’t that much, there’s not that much to lapse from when you’re a sort of white-bread, you know, middle-class suburban Christian. So, the impulse to critique Christianity does not come out of any kind of trauma. I was not in rebellion against a religious upbringing. I’d never been assaulted by a nun holding a ruler or anything like that. It was much more, these voices spoke to me, these doubters like Camus and Dostoyevsky and Ibsen. And I just wanted to try that myself.

Well, you mentioned that you didn’t really tackle prose until you had the idea for your first novel. When did that come along? And also, what did you study in university?

I majored in English, and my speciality was creative writing, but I still wasn’t doing a lot of prose fiction. My main project was a screenplay, and I actually had Joseph Heller as a teacher, which was a wonderful experience.

Not bad!

And he was very interested in what I was doing. It was a course in playwriting, and he himself had a play running on Broadway at the time called We Bombed in New Haven. And he was taken with the comedy, the three-act comedy that I was producing in his class. But I did not come out of the program at the University of Pennsylvania with a belief in myself as a novelist or as someone who was going to get into this wonderful universe of science fiction. I became an educator for a while, and I had used my filmmaking experience to become a media educator and was hired by several public school systems to, like, teach animation to junior-high-age kids or teach students how to make slide tapes. But at that time, in my circle of media educators, there was a lot of discussion about the effect that mass media was having on children. And most of that conversation was about the deleterious effects of television and movies on kids. There were books like The Plug-in Drug getting a lot of attention, very anti-television. And I said to myself, “Well, I can understand why people are worried that that TV is turning kids into lemmings, but what about the contrary argument, that television has a kind of cathartic effect, and that television maybe drains off impulses that one otherwise might be inclined to act out in the real world, anti-social impulses.” And I said, “You know, there’s kind of science-fiction novel in there. What if there was a society that was totally pacifistic, where there’d never been a robbery or a rape or a killing? And if initially this is a mystery, how in the world did they achieve this, this blessed state?” And then it turns out that they have a technology that lets them sort of hook themselves up to their television sets, except they control the content. If they’ve had some bad experience that day, an argument with the boss, or maybe even getting fired from their job, you could go home and shoot the boss on television, and nobody would get hurt and would drain off your desire you might have to commit that sort of crime in the real world. And then the plot became, what if on this utopian planet an astronaut arrives, falls in love with one of these, they’re human migrants, falls in love with them and decides that she needs just a little bit of an aggressive instinct to be fully human, that maybe, you know, you’ve got to have a dark side, you’ve got to have that dark side for real, not just in your fantasies. And so, he injects her with a little bit of the violence that these people drain off into a rive, a moat that encircles their city. And of course, this is a recipe for disaster. She has no immunity and becomes a maniac. And then he’s faced with this terrible dilemma: is he going to kill the woman he loves to save a civilization he hates? 

So, the whole thing arrived full-blown, all three acts. I found an agent, and we discussed whether this was, in fact, a science fiction novel or just a novel of ideas. And we ultimately decided it should be marketed as science fiction. She took it to . . . Holt Rinehart and Winston at the time had a line of SF they were publishing, Larry Niven and Robert Checkley, and they did Heinlein. This was Donald Hunter, the late lamented Donald Hunter at Holt. And I was off and running. I never looked back. The book didn’t become a bestseller, but it got quite a bit of review attention. The Science Fiction Book Club picked it up, it came out in paperback, and I said, “Okay, I’ve sort of kept the commitment I made with myself way back in tenth grade to see if I could write a novel of ideas.”

I want to go back to the university and studying creative writing/ I often ask authors who have done that formally if it turned out to be helpful. It sounds like, in your case, maybe it actually was. Not every author tells me that it was. So, what was your experience?

Certainly, having Joseph Heller and his sensibility was a big influence on me. He was very self-effacing. I would say that, you know, Catch-22, as far as he was concerned, its unbelievable success was kind of a fluke. Every year many worthy novels come out and disappear and die a dog’s death. Now, that said, it was just, you know, Catch-22 is, as you might imagine, a touchstone for me, James Morrow the satirist. That said, the other creative writing classes I had were happening at a time . . . this is, what, circa 1968, ’69, before it was thought that you could teach the crafting of prose fiction systematically. And so, the only thing that went on in these classrooms was workshopping, because reacting to each other’s manuscripts, as opposed to, you know, the sort of, I wouldn’t call formulas, but the sort of incredibly good advice you get, you would get from, let’s say, a John Gardner in his book—On Writing Fiction, as I recall, is the title. And, you know, there was no discussion of how to negotiate the marketplace, what it meant to get a literary agent, how important that could be, you know, nor was there a whole lot of explicit teaching about how do you create a character? How do you structure a plot? You know, what are the techniques you can use to engage a reader? What is the difference between suspense and surprise, et cetera, et cetera? And so, yeah, I can’t praise the other aspects of the University of Pennsylvania’s writing program at the time. I suspect it’s rather different now, maybe much more influenced by institutions like Iowa’s writers’ workshops.

The playwrighting interests me, as well. I’m an actor. I’ve done quite a bit of stage work and have written a couple of plays and directed them and all that sort of thing, and I always feel that that’s helpful in writing my fiction in a way and that I always have a very clear image of where everybody is in relationship to each other in my head, in the scene. And I think some of that comes from writing plays. And then I also think, of course, the dialogue side of things. Do you feel that that background in playwriting and scriptwriting has benefited your fiction?

Yes, very much so. I sometimes think of myself as a playwright manque, though, of course, it’s even harder to convince money people to put on a play of yours than to publish your novel.

Yeah, that’s for sure.

To say nothing of filmmaking. But yeah, I do see my work, as it may be, both playwriting and filmmaking by other means, and I’m told that my novels are visual and vivid, and I do think in terms of scenes. Not all prose fiction makers do, they’re maybe a little more free form. They don’t break into discrete acts or scenes or sequences or the three-act structure. But that’s where I am. These epics of mine are not only patterned on the structure of films, but I actually draw inspiration a great deal from the Hollywood product. At least, it’s always, whenever I’m working on it, it becomes an excuse to look at a bunch of movies and see how I’m going to get energy.

When you, I mean, you mentioned doing it in high school, but have you done acting yourself since then?

Very, very little. No, I’ve fallen away from that.

Well, you know, if the writing doesn’t work out, you can always try acting. There’s a good, solid career choice.

I think of the criticism from Peter Ustinov, who, as you probably know, was a man of many talents, a Renaissance man, and his whole family was into the arts. I mean, they were all musicians or writers or painters.

I think I read his autobiography, yeah.

Someone brought to the Bronx, brought to the family dinner, a guy she was dating. And they asked, “Well, what does he do for a living?” And he said he was a stockbroker. And they said, “You’re a stockbroker. Can you make a living from that? Why don’t you go into something safe, like poetry?” Because they were all successful. Not the norm.

No. My favorite actor joke, which I’ve heard a few times, is, “What’s the difference between an actor and a pizza?” And it’s, “A pizza can feed a family of four.”

I’ve heard that joke as being the difference between a science-fiction writer and a pizza.

Yeah, it’s the same joke.

So, let’s talk about your creative process. We’re going to talk about The Last Witchfinder, which I’ve read a chunk of. I haven’t gotten to the end, but I certainly intend to. This came out a few years ago, but I’ll let you give a synopsis of it and explain what it is.

I had an amazing encounter, this would be 35 years ago, with a book by a physicist at the University of Massachusetts named Edward Harrison. The book is called Masks of the Universe. And the essential argument of the book is that we, the human species, will probably never know the Universe with a capital U. It will be, that kind of knowledge, absolute knowledge, will be denied to us. What we have are a succession, throughout human history, of universes, each with lowercase u, and this book, Masks of the Universe, is a kind of history of the evolution of human intellectual thought and scientific thought, vis a vis all these masks. So, Harrison takes us on a tour, from the magic universe of Paleolithic people to the mythic universe of the Sumerians, the Egyptians, and other early civilizations, the geometric universe of the Greeks, the divine universe of medieval Christian Europe, the mechanistic universe of Newton, the Age of Reason, and then our contemporaneous relativistic universe of modernity, of scientific modernity. Harrison is particularly, was particularly, obsessed with what he calls the witch universe, that time when everybody understood that demons were what made things happen, that the world was not so much enchanted as haunted.

It was called the Renaissance ex post facto. But I encountered this amazing sentence, and I just Xeroxed it, and I want to read it. This is from page 214 in Masks of the Universe. Harrison says, quote, “The supposed Renaissance was a disordered interlude between sane universes,” that is between the medieval and the Age of Reason, quote, “a bedlam of distraught world pictures terrorized by a witch universe, created by leaders with fear-crazed minds, an age in thrall to a mad universe on the rampage, which would have destroyed European society but for the intervention of science.” So, I read that sentence, and I said, “Oh, my God, there’s an idea for a novel, an entire society nearly destroyed by its own theology. I mean, I have to work with that someday. I have to be able to turn that into an epic, even if Harrison is overstating the case,” and I think perhaps it was. “But for the intervention of science, Europe would have destroyed itself. I’ve got to work with that theme!” But I couldn’t come up with an entree, year in, year out. How in the world could one traumatize an event so large and momentous?

And after a gestation of 15 years, I had a breakthrough, and I said, “You know, a character,” in this case, I intuitively knew she must be a woman, “a woman born in about 1678, would have lived through this amazing transition, this rotation from the witch universe to what we call retrospectively the Age of Reason or the Enlightenment.” And so, The Last Witchfinder was born and became the story of Jennet Stearne, who makes it her lifetime mission to try to bring down the parliamentary witchcraft statute of 1604. She has many adventures in the course of trying to fulfill this mission. It’s really, it’s both a mission and a pledge to her Aunt Isobel, a kind of deathbed promise. Isobel is herself mistaken for a witch and executed by the powers that be in the England of early modern Europe. Eventually, eventually, Jennet engages in a very creative act. She masquerades as a witch and in a sense then puts herself on trial for consorting with demons, and because she’s become good friends with the young Benjamin Franklin, she actually becomes a lover of Benjamin Franklin, this is circa 1731, she knows she will get publicity in Franklin’s periodical, the Pennsylvania Gazette. So, this sort of media circus trial occurs in Philadelphia, and Parliament takes note of it in England. And so, this is the kind of science fiction, I guess, that would be called secret history or hidden history. This is the real story that you’ve not known until now of why that statute was finally taken off the books.

So, once you had this idea, what did your planning process and research process . . . because clearly, you put a lot of research into this. I noticed in your foreword you were talking about a great deal of this is reality, with a few tweaks of what we . . . well, what we think is the real history . . . here and there to tell the story. So, what did your research and planning process look like? And is this typical of your work?

I always do a lot of research, and it’s mysterious to me. And I don’t want to become too conscious about it, self-conscious about it. How does one know when to stop the research and write the damn novel? I mean, my facetious answer to your question would be, first I write the novel, and then I do the research, you know, sort of retrofitting. But it’s more of a dance. It’s very complicated. As I did the research, a lot of actual history kind of played into my hand. I felt very fortunate that, for example, when Jennet is abducted by Indians around 1695, she’s now living, she starts out living in England, but then she goes to the colonies because that’s where her family has moved. She ends up in Haverhill, Massachusetts, and it turns out that, in fact, Haverhill, Massachusetts, was attacked by the Abenaki in 1695.

A big breakthrough for me was, I always knew that I wanted to use not only Benjamin Franklin but also Isaac Newton as sort of personification of the two universes, the universes that are in play at this point in history. Franklin, sort of the avatar of the Enlightenment, cheeky and contrarian, as opposed to Newton, one of the most pious men who ever lived. Very much of a piece with the Renaissance. And it turns out that they actually almost met in 1725. Franklin is in London. He has a commission from the royal governor of Pennsylvania to buy printing equipment. And he has a letter of introduction to Newton from someone in Newton circle, I think it was the physician Pemberton, who edited the second edition of Principia Mathematica. Newton does not want to meet this cheeky kid from Philadelphia, so the meeting never occurred. But in my novel, it occurs. I have Franklin and Newton in the same carriage together, but they just talk past each other. Franklin wants to discuss electricity; Newton is preoccupied with counterfeiters at that time and with biblical prophecy. And so, it’s not simply that they are from two different generations, this is the old Newton and the young Franklin, not just two different generations, two different continents, they’re really from two different universes: Franklin of the Enlightenment and Newton of the Renaissance. So I said, well, this is playing into my hands. This is a lot of fun. It’s going to work.

And then other facts, like the Baron de Montesquieu, who ends up defending Jennet at the trial she arranges for herself, really could have ended up in Philadelphia in 1731. He was a young aristocrat taking the grand tour that European aristocrats always took at that time. There was even, according to Franklin, on a witch trial in Mount Holly, New Jersey, at this time, and I simply moved it across the Delaware to Philadelphia. Franklin’s account of the witch trial makes it clear that it never really happened, it’s simply a hoax that he put into the Pennsylvania Gazette. But I decided to take Franklin at his word. So, I guess for me, Ed, the process was like walking through a field with all of these sort of pottery shards lying around, you know, and I would pick them up and examine them and try to fit them to each other and end up with an urn of my own design.

From what I know of Franklin, I suspect he’d like this story.

He comes off very, very well. Yeah.

Did your outlining . . . do you do, like, a detailed outline or just hit some high points and then go for it? What’s that process like?

I do. It’s a kind of freeform outline. You know, I wasn’t really sure how the book was going to end, though. And that’s true of almost all of my novels. I have to kind of feel my way to the climax. But I would never plunge into a project this ambitious, or any sort of a novel, without a rough sense of what the three acts were going to be. You can hear my playwriting heritage coming out here. But that said, I always appreciate a remark that the film director John Huston once made. He said, there comes a time when every film project when you throw away the script and make the movie, by which he means, you know, don’t let the script become your master. You must allow for improvisation, things the actors are going to bring to it, camera setups you never imagined until you were actually on the set, and so forth. And I think for me, at least with prose fiction, there comes a time when you throw away the outline and write the damn novel.

Talking about the three-act structure, you know, it just now occurred to me, but almost every play I see these days is actually two acts. People always talk about the three-act structure, but they’re generally presented as two acts.

It certainly was the classic structure of musicals, right? It was almost like an unwritten but inviolable law that every musical must have two acts with an intermission.

What’s your actual writing process like? Are you a fast writer, a slow writer? Do you write with parchment, quill pen, and parchment out under a tree where an apple could fall on your head, or . . .?

I guess I wrote my first novel, The Wine of Violence, in longhand, you know, Bic pens on legal pads, and I’ve never been able to compose on a typewriter. I envy writers who could do that. So, I’d always have to . . . sometimes I would type it up myself, and then then I would often have to hire a professional typist to try to cope with all the notes I would put on my first typed draft. Now, of course, I use word processing. I’m working very hard on not being so distracted by the Internet that I stop because I just have to look up a fact, sometimes even because I know I spelled the word wrong, I have to stop to correct the spelling. These are terrible habits. And if any embryonic writers are listening, try to never acquire these bad habits that James Morrow has. I’m slow, methodical. It seems to take forever. In theory, every novel I write should be a year. I remember a remark that Stephen King makes in his quasi-autobiography, his book called Danse Macabre, “Any writer who can’t produce a novel in a year is merely dicking off,” and I agree with Stephen King, but somehow, it always takes two, three, four years. It’s been a lot of time on rewriting, workshopping, showing it to friends and colleagues. And also, I have to say, because I love the medium so much and regard it as such a privilege to work within the medium of the novel, I don’t want to surrender a given book. I want to live inside it.

And perhaps because my premises are so often ridiculous, preposterous, like Towing Jehovah, schlepping the corpse of God to its final resting place in the Arctic on a commission from an angel. Oh, come on. That’s so bold and bold and absurd that I didn’t believe it at first. But I’m living inside and retrofitting a whole lot of facts about life aboard a supertanker onto the story and talking to people who had actually lived on supertankers and then visiting, you know, visiting a lot of death-of-God theology, month in, month out, I started to believe that Towing Jehovah could be the case, but it took a while.

Well, your prose is very rich, and especially in The Last Witchfinder, you’re going for a bit of that archaic diction, I guess. Is that . . . what does your revision process look like? Does that kind of language flow out of you naturally, or do you go back and tweak it a lot to get to that level of . . . erudition, I guess.?

Yeah, Witchfinder was a difficult struggle in particular, because I was trying to . . . I was trying to hit the archaic qualities that we encounter in Restoration drama. And I read a lot of Restoration plays to try to get that voice right, and I read contemporaneous documents. And I have to say it’s the aspect of The Last Witchfinder that I’m least satisfied with. I’m not sure I got it right, but I was determined to try to not settle for modern English, where it becomes the reader’s job to imagine they’re speaking in idioms of the day. I was very influenced by John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, which is set in exactly the same time zone as The Last Witchfinder, Restoration England and Colonial America. I stole a lot of locutions from him that he had gotten from somewhere else.

But The Last Witchfinder was almost seven years in creation, and much of it was just, yes, endlessly revising the dialect to try to get it to sound right. You know, the language is in transition. They’re sort of shedding Elizabethanisms, sort of the language of Shakespeare, but a lot of that still stayed around. And so, with the novel I did subsequently . . . well, there was a modern novel in between, which was set in Victorian England. That was rather easier to do because we have a pretty good idea from Dickens how the Victorians spoke. But it’s less clear in the case of Witchfinder.

And I guess you still have to also make sure that your language is comprehensible to a modern reader.

That was the challenge, you know, and some of the positive reviews of Witchfinder complimented me on how you adjust to it fairly quickly. It seems very strange, all of this archaic diction. But you kind of figure it out, and you flow with it. I think the book is easier to negotiate than Shakespeare. For example, when you read Shakespeare, it’s a self-conscious experience. You’re constantly making little almost subconscious translations in your mind.

One reason he works better on stage, where you can kind of understand what’s going on from the action, even if you don’t know exactly. Of course, we should make the point that, at least according to the beginning of the book, you didn’t actually write it. It was written by Isaac Newton’s book, which I thought was hilarious, with all these old books that were, you know, they were actually writing these new books, and the authors weren’t really involved.

I guess that’s the other dimension of Witchfinder that owes something to my genre background. There’s a sense in which The Last Witchfinder is taking place in a universe that isn’t quite ours, a universe in which books are alive. They’re sentient creatures who have thoughts and agendas and who can nevertheless fall in love with humans, just as we fall in love with books, right? And they write other books. And what I was up to there and was, I knew the book was going to be, at one level, a celebration of the Enlightenment. I would argue that Harrison is really on to something, the Age of Reason, the scientific understanding of nature came along just when it was needed because the witch universe was a nightmare, a bedlam, as he puts it. At the same time, I said, you know, I don’t want to become an unqualified cheerleader for the Enlightenment because there is a case to be made against reason and the deification of reason, of the sort of church of reason that emerges during the French Revolution. That’s a dead end, too. And the critics of the Enlightenment always point to the French Revolution, that’s always exhibit A in any indictment of that period, which for me was, I guess I am a child of it, I’m a child of Voltaire and Candide, but this conceit of the Principia Mathematica and its somewhat sardonic understanding of the worl, enabled me to make the case against the Enlightenment through the voice of the Principia, which is privilege, which has perspective on all this. I wanted to avoid what I think is a pitfall of a lot of historical fiction, of the characters being acutely aware of how their descendants interpret their actions, which I think it is simply not given to us to know. I had an initial way of getting this perspective on history by having Jeanette’s Aunt Isobel, the woman whose death sends her on her great commission, having Isabelle writing an epic poem that she’s channeled from the ether that recounts, that narrates what’s going to happen in the next generations and the rise of experimental science. And then I said to myself, “Oh, no, that’s a kind of mystical idea, that’s one that’s at odds with the rationalism that I’m defending in this book.” So, I did something that was even more irrational than the epic poem. I did this crazy, this crazy, contemplative narrator. And I’m glad that you’re fond of it.

I guess it is Prin(k)ipia, isn’t it? I tend to give it more of a, like an Italian pronunciation, Prin(ch)ipia.

I think both are acceptable.

What’s the editing process like for you? What do editors come back to you suggesting you do at the editing level?

Well, when it comes to professional editors whose job it is, whose job description is to be an editor, that’s what it says on their door, Editor . . . the days of Maxwell Perkins, I think, are over; the days when somebody could take a manuscript that was kind of raw and rough and say, “Well, here’s how we can, here’s how I can work with this. And I’ll enter into a conversation with the author, and we’ll reimagine this book so that it’s really going to work for the reader.” That’s not what editors are paid to do anymore. They’re expected to acquire ready-to-run books on the whole. And so, I have rarely gotten suggestions that went very deep into the book. They tended . . . you know, the editor will send you a two-page letter with suggestions. And I respect the industry because the author has final cut. Rarely will an editor ever say, “If you don’t go along with this, we’re not going to publish your book”. So, I guess what I’ve said could be boiled down to the notion that you have to be your own editor. And that’s another thing that protracts the composition process for me because I don’t want to . . . sending a book out prematurely, that, I feel, is one of the worst mistakes you can make. You can’t count on an editor seeing its potential. The potential better be there upfront.

We’re getting close to the end of the hour, just a few minutes left, so I want to get to the big philosophical questions, and clearly, you have fun with those. And there’s three of them, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why literature of the fantastic in particular?

Well, why do I write? I write to change the world, to make it a better place now.

We’ve been talking about The Last Witchfinder, and I write because I feel so privileged to be part of what I would call the great post-Enlightenment conversation. The situation we find ourselves in, in modernity, where everything can be put on the table and where you can’t say, “Well, because I’ve had a revelation, we don’t need to continue this discussion any further,” that argument doesn’t work anymore. So, I just feel that I’m making my little, my small contribution to the, you know, to the fight against nihilism, really a fight against a kind of theocracy that pretends that mere human beings have ultimate answers. And they don’t. They don’t.

Why does anybody write? I can’t speak to my colleagues. Some of them would say they do it because it’s so much fun and I make money from it.

On the human scale, then, why do humans tell stories?

We are storytelling animals, Homo narratives, I think. But with science fiction in particular, I think you have an opportunity to enrich the vocabulary with which we address the big mysteries of existence, these questions of meaning, and how then shall we live? I mean, if you’re lucky, your book even ends up in the dictionary, a la Frankenstein and 1984. Frankenstein, you know, enlarged our vocabulary, it gave us . . the very name means, or has become synonymous with, the idea that with the power of science must come responsibility. And the tragedy of Victor Frankenstein is not that he was curious, I would argue, or not that he did this borderline blasphemous experiment, but that once he brought the creature into the world, he abandoned it. 1984, of course, the first and last time an author actually owned a year, expanded our vocabulary with terms like Newspeak and Doublethink and Big Brother. We have a way to talk about things that previously we couldn’t talk about. I think of Wells and The Island of Dr. Moreau, you know, a kind of metaphor for this brave new world of genetic engineering and the power we’re developing to manipulate the human genome. Certainly, Margaret Atwood in The Handmaid’s Tale just gave us the concept of the handmaid, this woman who’s under the thumb of a patriarchy. And these are all science fiction titles.

Even in the case of fantasy, it’s important to remember that it also stands against nihilism. The fantasy does not in any way argue the world is up for grabs, the way the nihilist would do and say, well, therefore, my authority is the last word, because we all know reality is up for grabs, there is nothing that’s grounded anymore, which would be sort of nihilism in a nutshell. Tolkien made the point that in a fantasy saga, the trees are real trees, and the grass is real grass, and the rocks are actual rocks. It’s not a fantasy world in the sense of everything being surreal or absurdist. There is an external reality up there, out there, and the very title, Lord of the Rings, I’ve always been fascinated that it points to the villain of the story, to Sauron. Why is that? And I think it’s because the main, the big idea that Tolkien is playing with is the nature of evil, not in some dopey Manichaean sense, but just the, you know, those who think that there is no external reality and therefore they can set the terms, they can set the terms of reality themselves. The line that Gandalf has, “Let folly be our cloak,” it would never occur to Sauron that the Fellowship is going to give up this power. Evil has far less imagination than people of goodwill possess, and I think that’s a very affirming idea, and I think that’s why the book, that novel, has the title it does.

And we’ll. . . what are you working on now? But first, we should mention that you do have something out, a brand-new novella in And the Last Trump Shall Sound with Cat Rambo, whom I’ve had on the show, and Harry Turtledove. So, maybe just briefly, what is that? I have a pretty good idea, but I’ll let you describe it.

And the Last Trump Shall Sound is a set of novellas that speculate on a near-future USA in which Donald Trump won a second term, and this was followed by the election of Pence, who also got a second term, whereupon the states of Oregon, Washington, and California come together under one flag, call themselves the nation of Pacifica, and secede from the Union. That was the premise as it was pitched to me by Shahid Mahmud, the publisher who came up with this idea because he was so distressed to see the way that the nation was being torn apart on the macro scale by the Trump phenomenon and families were being torn apart on the micro-scale. And he just thought, well, maybe science fiction writers can make a valuable contribution to that conversation. I turned him down initially. I said, “Shahid, I can’t work with this. The thought of Trump being re-elected and Pence getting two terms after that is so depressing. Sorry, I’m out of here.”  And so, after I rejected membership in this committee, I remembered something that Shahid had said in pitching it to me, which was that Trump would be dead when the story opened. And I said, “Well, what if Pence is falling under the spell of a spiritual adviser who is not all she seems, and was, in fact, working for Pacifica. What if Pence becomes convinced that he could bring Trump back from the dead? That could be a lot of fun. All right.” So, the very next day, I said, “Shahid, is the slot still open? Can I still join your project?” And he said yes, and I’m really glad.

So, it is still science fiction/fantasy. It’s not just political commentary.

These three novellas, they’re all in the grand tradition of sort-of near future . . . not prophecy. I think the distinction that Orwell makes between a warning and a prophecy is very important. So, I don’t think we’re saying this is going to have to be how it turns out, but we are trying to just diagnose what’s happening, and we all come at it from three very different directions. I should hasten to add that when Trump is actually resurrected in the Washington National Cathedral, what’s going on is not supernatural. It appears that Trump has come back from the dead, but in fact, it’s an audio-animatronics robot.

Like Disneyland.

Exactly.

And what else are you working on?

Well, let’s see. For once, I think I actually have written a novel in a year, as Stephen King prescribes. It’s called Those Who Favor Fire, and it’s a comedy about climate change and a title I’ve always wanted to use. Many years ago, I wrote a nuclear war comedy, or dark comedy, that saw print as This Is the Way the World Ends. I wanted to call it Those Who Favor Fire, but at the time, another work of fiction with that title was coming out, and my editor and I said, well, we want to avoid confusion. So, I finally got to use the line from the Robert Frost poem “Fire and Ice” as the title of my climate-change novel. And very briefly, it posits that the hollow earth theory is the case, and there’s actually a race of human beings living beneath the surface of our consensus reality. And they’ve got a problem with ice. Their side of the planet has fallen victim to global cooling. So, it’s an allegory, I guess, though I like to think I can avoid the usual pitfalls of allegory where things just map neatly onto each other.

Any indication of when that will be out?

Well, yeah, sure. It’ll be done in a year, and so it will be out next year, except, no, this is James Morrow, and I’m sure I will once again trip myself up with a long rewriting and workshopping process. And it’s not a book that’s been commissioned by a publisher. And, you know, I think I’ll take it to St. Martin’s Press, who did my last novel, to see hardcover print. But there’s no guarantees. It may or may not ever find a publisher. As you may know, I don’t want to spoil your day, Ed, it could even happen to you, a writer at my age can end up in a condition that’s called post-novel, where, you know, where people will take a much harder look at your sales figures and your status, and if you’ve not had a bestseller, it becomes really hard to unload a novel.

Yeah, well, here’s hoping. And those who would like to see how you’re doing, where can they find you online?

I have a website, www.jamesmorrow.net, and I have a Facebook presence of sorts, and I do some twittering, some tweeting.

Okay, I will put those links in, as I always do. And I think that’s about our time, so, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.

I enjoyed it very much. You’re welcome.

Episode 66: Kacey Ezell

An hour-long conversation with Kacey Ezell, an active-duty USAF instructor helicopter pilot who writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror/noir/alternate history fiction including Minds of Men and The World Asunder, both Dragon Award Finalists for Best Alternate History in 2018 and 2019, respectively, and, with Griffin Barber, the far-future noir thriller Second Chance Angel.

Website
www.kaceyezell.net

Facebook
@KaceyEzell

Instagram
@KaceyEzell

Kacey Ezell’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Kacey Ezell is an active duty USAF instructor pilot with 2500+ hours in the UH-1N Huey and Mi-171 helicopters.  When not teaching young pilots to beat the air into submission, she writes sci-fi/fantasy/horror/noir/alternate history fiction. Her novels Minds of Men and The World Asunder were both Dragon Award Finalists for Best Alternate History in 2018 and 2019, respectively. She’s contributed to multiple Baen anthologies and has twice been selected for inclusion in the Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction compilation. In 2018, her story “Family Over Blood” won the Year’s Best Military and Adventure Science Fiction Readers’ Choice Award.

In addition to writing for Baen Books and Blackstone Publishing, Kacey has published several novels and short stories with independent publisher Chris Kennedy Publishing. She is married with two daughters. 

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kacey, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much for having me.

I should point out that we are speaking across a vast portion of the Earth’s surface, since you’re Tokyo, and I’m in Regina, Saskatchewan. So, yeah, 15 hours difference, I think. So, it’s an early-morning interview for you and a late-afternoon one for me, on two different days. It really is a science-fictional world.

The future is now, friends. It really is.

Exactly. Well, I’m glad to have the chance to talk to you. Your name was suggested to me by one of your fellow Baen authors. So, I’m always glad to get recommendations for people I’ve talked to. We’ve never met in person. So, this will be a good chance to get to know you. So, let’s start at the very beginning, as they say in The Sound of Music. And one interesting thing is that you were born in South Dakota, as you probably actually know where Saskatchewan is. So that’s nice.

I do vaguely. Sort of northish.

Yeah. Just go up past North Dakota, and then it’s us, basically.

Yeah, right.

So, yeah, so, let’s start with—I always say this—we’ll take you back into the mists of time, where you grew up and how you got interested in . . . well, probably you started as a reader. Most of us do. And how that led you to become a writer. And also, this whole bit of being in the Air Force and being a helicopter pilot. That’s interesting, too.

Well, yeah, so. So, I was born in South Dakota, but my parents, when I was about six years old, my parents joined the United States Air Force, as well. And so, we started moving around shortly after like first grade. And one of the very intelligent things that my mother did . . . so, I was kind of an early reader. I started reading just before kindergarten. And once I started reading, I very quickly devoured, you know, any written word I could get my hands on. And during one of our first moves, my mom, I think desperate for me to stop whining that I was bored and didn’t have any friends yet, because we had just moved, to put a copy of Anne McCaffery’s Dragondrums into my hands and said, “Here, this is for kids, read it.” And so, I read it and was immediately entranced. And that was my gateway drug to science fiction and fantasy, if you will, was the Harper Hall trilogy for Dragonriders of Pern.

That would do it.

Yeah, yeah, it really did. And, well, you know, and so here’s me, I’m like, well, so, I read Dragondrums when we lived in Albuquerque. And then very shortly after that, we moved overseas to the Philippines. And during that overseas move, my mom gave me the actual Dragonriders of Pern trilogy, the first trilogy that Anne McCaffrey wrote in that series. And for, you know, a kid who was leaving all of her friends behind to go overseas to another country, like, the idea of being a dragonrider and being telepathically paired with, like, your perfect companion who will always love you, who will never leave you, you’ll never have to move away from, was really enticing. And I got it into my head that I really, really wanted to be a dragonrider. And it turns out dragons are in fairly short supply here on mundane Earth. So, my very logical nine-year-old brain decided that I was going to be a pilot instead because that was about as close as I was going to be able to get. So that’s when I, one, both fell in love with science fiction and  fantasy, and two, decided to pursue aviation as a career. It’s all Anne McCaffery’s fault.

Besides Anne McCaffery, were there some other books that were kind of inspiring to you along the way?

Oh, absolutely. You know, like I said, I, I read anything I could get my hands on, so, you know, my mom put The Lord of the Rings, she bought me that trilogy very shortly after that. And, you know, I got really into Tolkien for the, which was my introduction, as I think it is for most people, to the world of high fantasy. And, you know, in an odd way, you know, I pointed this out at a convention a couple of years ago, but there’s a connection there between, like, Tolkienesque fantasy and a lot of the military science fiction that, you know, that I read and write today because, you know, with epic fantasy, you’re talking about these sweeping movements, but you’re also a lot of times talking about armies and, you know, the movements of armies and the tactical decisions of the, you know, of their leadership and stuff. And that’s part of what makes military science fiction so interesting, too. So I think that that kind of, in a way, laid the groundwork for my interest in that, as did my, you know, my own military career, of course. And the experiences that I had growing up as a military brat, particularly living overseas in the Philippines, which was, you know, as I’m sure most people know, the Philippines was a hotly contested area back in the, you know, 1940s timeframe. And so, the opportunity to see a lot of those historical, you know, memorials and some of the battlefield sites and things of that nature was really cool and really interesting to me as a budding history enthusiast and writer.

Well, when did you actually start trying your own hand at writing?

So, my mom, somewhere in her stuff, has a notebook that I wrote, like, some of my first stories in, when I was about six years old. So, I was young. I started writing almost as soon as I started reading.

And did you . . .

Maybe that wasn’t the answer to the question that you wanted as far as, like, professionally, is that what you’re saying?

Well, how did that develop? And as you went along, I mean, OK, you started when you were six, but you wrote longer and longer stuff. And did you share it with other people? I like to ask that question because I did, but not everybody does.

Yeah. No, I did. I did. I shared it. You know, I would show my things to my mom. And my mother was . . . so, my mother’s a huge science fiction fantasy fan. She’s a, you know, she’s another voracious reader, and she’s always been, you know, probably my you know, my number one first reader and fan, obviously, you know, as moms tend to do so. Yeah, I would show me my stories to my mom. But the other thing that I would do and, you know, I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was kind of a bossy little girl. So when, you know, I would get my friends together, the kids together in the neighborhood or on the playground at school or wherever, a lot of times it was like, “Hey, let’s play pretend. We’re going to pretend that we’re on a spaceship and you’re going to be the captain and I’m going to be the pilot. And you’re going to . . .”  And I would make up these play scenarios that really were just stories, you know, and I was like, “OK, and now the aliens are attacking.” And, you know, it’s, so . . . 

So, I used to do that. My friends never really got into it the same way I did. It was kind of annoying.

No. Well, mine rarely did. Sometimes it worked, you know, and sometimes we would play out, you know, a certain, I don’t know, scenario for a couple of days or whatever. But, yeah, in in a lot of ways, I think that was . . . well, it wasn’t necessarily writing things down, but it was still sort of making up stories and sharing, you know, sharing those stories with other people, trying to involve other people in my stories, so. Yeah. A little bit of an extrovert, so yeah, I tend to want everyone to pay attention to me and my stories.

Well, you went into the Air Force and pilot training and all that. I would have thought that would keep you fairly busy for a while.

Absolutely.

When did you start to try to write professionally?

Well, so yeah. So, for sure, the Air Force kept me very busy. But here’s the thing, is that . . . so, I graduated in Air Force Academy in 2003, sorry, 1999. And right around that time I discovered the magical world of AOL fandom and the Dragonriders of Pern fandom groups that existed there. And so, once again, you know, Anne McCaffery comes to my rescue, right? So, even though I was busy at work and busy, you know, learning to fly and things like that, one of my hobby outlets became interacting with other fans on these groups and actually writing fan fiction.

And in those groups, you know, doing like . . . and when I say writing fan fiction, it wasn’t necessarily, like, writing stories to, you know, be produced in like a fanzine or anything like that. It was mostly, like, role play by email, essentially, where, you know, I would create a dragonrider character, and my friends would create this other one. And we would, our characters would, interact via the email. And it’s super geeky and super nerdy, I mean, don’t get me wrong, but it was an outlet, and it was something that I really enjoyed. And it allowed me to, you know, to kind of play in one of my favorite worlds. And so . . . and actually, you know, during the course of that, I learned a lot about, you know, things like character development and story pacing and, you know, what to do in dialogue, what not to do in dialogue, and how to keep your character’s thoughts confined to their own head and not go head-hopping and things like that, because you can’t act when someone else is controlling the other character in the scene, you know, it’s considered very rude.

So, yeah, super geeky, but it was fun, and it allowed me to continue . . . you know, Toni Weiskopf, the publisher of Baen Books, she has a saying that she says all the time, that writers write because they can’t help it. And I find that to be kind of true in my case, that if I’m not actually, like, writing stories, the stories are going to come out in some way, whether it’s through, you know, playing with my friends or doing online fan fiction or whatever. I’m never not writing, right? It’s kind of like breathing. It’s something that I have to do.

That sounds familiar. And you don’t have to talk to me about being geeky. I actually drew pictures for a Star Trek fanzine when I was in university. So I was . . . 

Oh, that’s awesome, dude.

Doing pictures of Kirk and Spock. I think I did a pretty good Spock. And I’m not . . . that’s all I can remember. I remember doing a pretty good Spock.

That’s awesome. Yeah, I have zero talent when it comes to, like, creating visual fan art. I wish I did, because there’s some gorgeous stuff out there, and yeah, I would love to learn how to draw dragons, but . . . just never got there.

Well, I minored in art, so it actually was a potential direction to go in.

Oh, that’s cool.

 But I . . . I often say that I supposedly majored in journalism because I wanted to be a writer, but really, I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and everything else was kind of a sideline to that.

Dungeons and Dragons should be a major at school.

Like, I think I put more time into that than I did my schoolwork, for sure.

Yeah. There’s a lot that you can learn from tabletop role-playing. I, I support that. Really.

So, when did you start trying to get published professionally?

So, I have a confession to make, but it happened sort of by accident. So, when I was in pilot training back in 2001, I discovered the amazing, mind-bending experience that is DragonCon in Atlanta over Labor Day week.

I’ve been once.

Oh, my gosh. Am I right, though? It’s mind-bending. It’s like walking into . . . it’s like being, you know, being away from home your whole life and then walking through the doors of the hotel and suddenly you’re on your home planet with your people. Everybody’s geeky, everybody’s into the things you’re into, and if they’re not, it’s just because they don’t know about it yet. And yeah, I love it. DragonCon is always the highlight of my year.

But my first one was in 2001, because I’m super-old, and after that, I went back several other times. And one of the . . . so in 2004, I think was the next one that I attended. And in 2004, I had the opportunity to meet a guy by the name of John Ringo, who—I didn’t know this at the time, I hadn’t read any of his work before meeting him—but he was a New York Times bestselling military science fiction author, also published by Bain Books, still is, as a matter of fact. And just talking with him, you know, he’s into MilSciFi, that’s his genre. And so, you know, we were talking about flying and about, you know, fandom and being geeks in the military and things like that. And he struck up a friendship with our group of friends that were, we were all there together, and we maintained an email correspondence. And I saw him at conventions, you know, a couple of years after that.

And then when I was deployed to Iraq in 2009, he emailed me and said, hey, I’m doing this, you know, I got asked to do this project, I’m editing this anthology of military science fiction by military veterans, and I want to include some new voices, along with some of the, you know, the reprints that we’ve done and things like that. And I know you just finished . . . so, the Air Force made me get a degree, a master’s degree, but they didn’t specify what it had to be, and so, I was like, all right, well, I’m going to get an MFA in writing, because screw you guys, I can do what I want. And so, John knew that I just finished that just, you know, because I had been like, hey, guess what, I’m done with my master’s. Right?

And he was like, “I know you just got your writing degree. Do you want to, do you have anything that you’d like to submit?” And I said, “No, but I could. Give me 24 hours.” And so, I wrote a story very quickly. But when you’re deployed, there’s very little to do. You really, like, you go to work, you fly, you go to the gym, you eat, and the rest of it is just kind of hanging-out time, right? And so, I just took that hanging-out time and knocked out this story. And it wasn’t very long. I think it was only, like, 5,000 words or something like that. But it was a cute little story. And I sent it in, and it became part of the anthology, you know, they accepted it for the anthology. And so, that was my first publication.

And then after that, Jim Minz, a couple of years later, once I was back in the States and again back at DragonCon, Jim Minz, you know, who also had, he was one of the editors on the product as well, came up to me and he was like, “So, when are you going have a novel for me? I’ve been waiting for it for a couple of years. And I was like, “Oh, well, let me get on that.” So, that was really the start of my career. I started doing, writing short stories for anthologies, again, mostly connected with John Ringo. He kind of like pulled me . . . and then I started, you know, branching out from there.

Before we go on to what you started writing at that point, I’m interested in the MFA because I’ve talked to other authors who have had, you know, that sort of formal creative writing training. And I get mixed reviews on how helpful it actually was. Was it helpful in your case? Did you find it very worthwhile?

So, aspects of it were helpful. Not necessarily from the standpoint of professional connections or anything like that, but like I said, the Air Force was going to make me get a master’s degree, and they were going to pay for it, and they didn’t really care what it was in. It was just kind of, almost like a box to be checked. So, I decided to do something, you know, knowing myself the way that I do, I really only want to spend energy and time on things that are interesting to me. And I knew that I wouldn’t, you know, if I tried to get, like, an aviation management degree, there would be aspects of it that were interesting, but there would be other aspects of it that would be deadly dull and that I would probably procrastinate and, you know, potentially not do very well. So instead, I chose to pursue the MFA in creative writing.

Where did you get that?

From National University. It’s a primarily online university that caters to a lot of military folks. I think they’re based out of San Diego. So not a real big, well-known name in academia or anything like that. But the program itself I really enjoyed. I found it to be . . . you know, because I think what I was trying to get out of it was one, just the piece of paper that said I had a master’s degree that the Air Force required, but two, I was just trying to have an enjoyable experience and kind of expand my toolbox, if you will. My concentration was in poetry, not in short fiction or . . . I mean, I guess you could kind of do a long fiction concentration . . . but I chose poetry, in part because I’ve always loved poetry. I’ve written it almost as long as I’ve written stories. And I find that a skillful  . . . that a lot of the tips and techniques and, you know . . . what’s the word I’m looking for . . . just, the things that you do that make poetry poetry, can really inform your prose writing and really help to make it beautiful. So that’s why . . . well, and also poems are shorter. So again, less—typically. Not always. Sometimes they’re super long—but the graduation requirements were definitely shorter. Rather than writing a novel, I only had to write a book of 50 poems for me to complete my program. So that was a pretty big draw, too. You know, when you’re active-duty military and at the time a single mom, I was trying to balance out my requirements, and that was my strategic decision.

But I did. I loved it. Not because it necessarily got me anywhere in the publishing business, but for my own personal development. It taught me how to critique. It taught me how to take critique. And that’s probably the most immediately valuable lessons that I learned from that program, is how to how to give a constructive critique that is actually useful to the other individual and how to receive critique and to tell what’s constructive and what’s just, “Oh, I loved it. It’s great. You should write more,” you know, stuff like that. Not that there’s anything wrong with those kinds of comments. We love those kinds of comments, but they don’t necessarily help develop you as a writer.

Yeah, it’s like . . . my mom didn’t read my stuff, but my dad would, and he’d say it was great and, OK, but I need more than that to make it better in the future.

Right. Right.

Your poetry that you were writing, did it have any fantastical element to it, or was it more straightforward?

Some did, yeah, some did. So, what I what I mostly wrote for the program was actually aviation-related because I was the only pilot in my group that was going through the program at the time and so, you know, write what you know, right? But also, not only write what you know but write about what makes you different and what makes you unique. And that’s sort of, you know, find that niche, that brand. And so, I ended up writing a lot of poetry about, I’m just thinking of my chapbook collection now, you know, a lot of it has to do with flying and, you know, being in the air force and, you know, what it’s like to fly in the daytime and nighttime and stuff like that.

So, this has nothing to do with writing a book. What drew you to helicopters as opposed to, say, fixed-wing?

They were more fun.

They’re more fun?

They seemed more fun. Yeah, no, before I went to pilot training, when I was a what’s called a casual lieutenant, I had already graduated from the Air Force Academy and been commissioned, but I was awaiting my pilot-training start date. I had the opportunity to ride on an MH-53 helicopter. It’s what the Air Force used to use for special operations. They’ve since retired that airframe. And I remember sitting on the back . . . so, it had, like, a ramp on the back, and it had a 50-caliber machine gun mounted on that ramp. And we were out flying over a range. And I didn’t actually get to shoot that day, which made me very sad. But I did get to sit on the ramp next to the gunner. You know, he was sitting on one side of the weapon, and I was sitting on the other side and, you know, kicking my feet off the back of the ramp. While we’re flying 50 feet above the ground and it was pretty cool. I was like, yeah, this is a lot of fun. I want to do this.

Was it at least some of the feeling of flying on a dragon, do you think?

A USAF UH-1N Huey.

Oh, yeah, maybe. Maybe although, yeah, not necessarily that particular experience because we were going backward, you know, because I was sitting out the back. But sometimes, yeah, sometimes it has. You know, when you can feel . . . the thing about flying helicopters versus flying fixed-wing is that, you know, flying fixed-wing is about 50 percent art, 50 percent science, right? But flying helicopters is more like 70/30 art versus science. And the reason is because you do so much more of it, at least my helicopter. Now, I fly a UH-1 Huey, which, you know, was the quintessential Vietnam era helicopter, if that tells you anything. Every tail number that I fly was made in 1969. So, they are old birds, and we’re not talking cutting-edge technology in any sense of the word. And so, because of that, in part because of that, so much more, so much of what we do is, it’s our seat-of-the-pants muscle memory, like, you have to, it has to feel right.

And that, you know, when we’re teaching young aviators, half of what we’re teaching is just getting them to practice the maneuvers to the point where they can feel what feels right versus what feels wrong. And so, I think that when, you know, occasionally when you do a particular maneuver, and it feels just right, I think that it must be very similar to what that would feel like, you know, on the back of your own dragon to whom you were telepathically linked.

I’ve been sitting here trying to remember . . . I had characters in a helicopter in a book, two or three books ago in my current series. And so, I was researching helicopters because I’m not exactly an expert on the subject. And I went down a rabbit hole where I was reading helicopter jokes for about half an hour.

There’s a ton of them.

And unfortunately, I can’t remember any of them off the top of my head. I was going to try one on you, but . . .

Yeah, well, beating the air, we don’t fly, we beat the air into submission. That’s a very common one. Or, we don’t fly, we’re so ugly the Earth repels us.

Oh, yeah, I remember that. Yeah.

Oh, yeah. No, it’s there’s a, yeah, there’s a ton of helicopter jokes. And what’s so funny is that that, you know, like a lot of professions that, you know, have jokes about us, we tend to embrace those things. And helicopter aircrews as a whole, we have a reputation for being a little bit crazy. And what’s very interesting about that is that there’s some science to actually back that up. If you put our personality traits, and by our I mean society’s personality traits on a bell curve, helicopter aircrews are highly skewed to one end when it comes to traits of, like aggressiveness and, you know, adrenaline junkieness, whatever, whatever the proper term for that is. So, yeah, so there’s some data to back up the fact that we’re all crazy., Or you could just meet one of us and know that. 

Well, taking us back to the writing side of things . . .

Sure.

So, Jim Minz had suggested a novel to you, but your . . . was your first novel Minds of Man? Is that then your first novel? But that’s not a Baen book.

Yeah, no, well, no, so . . . not for lack of trying. It wasn’t. So my first . . . my first actual novel contract was with Baen, and it was for Gunpowder and Embers, which was a collaboration that I did with John Ringo and Christopher L. Smith. And that just came out last January. And while we were working on Gunpowder, and it was . . . we’d finished up the first draft, and it was in edits and development. I had this other idea to write a story about World War II aviation, but with female psychics on board.

As one does.

Right. Well, because so what got me thinking about it was, you know, I was thinking about how aircrew are kind of a different, you know . . . like a lot of subcultures, I’ll say, you know, we end up being kind of a different breed and having our own discreet ways of communicating with one another. And I kind of got to thinking about that. And then the other thing that happened was that we had an air show and I had the opportunity to see the inside of a B17 cockpit. And I’m used to flying with a relatively primitive aircraft. But I got nothing on those guys, man. I have no idea how they even navigated. I mean, it’s no wonder that they had an entire crew member whose sole job was to do navigation, because their navigation, you know, their tools that they had to use were so primitive, and to think that they took hundred-ship formations of this incredibly primitive aircraft, not just into the weather, but into the weather, out the other side, and then flew them in combat. It was, like, mind-boggling. I mean, just the amount of courage of those men who did that was, you know, it was flabbergasting when it dawned on me the magnitude of the task that they had accomplished and done so over and over and over again. And, you know, their loss rates were just staggering.

And so, I started thinking about that. And the reason I came up with the psychics was that one of the things that that could potentially compensate for, you know, in a way that we have compensated with technology, would be, you know, the instantaneous communication that a telepathic connection might provide, because . . . So, anyway, I got to thinking about that, and I decided to write a story, and it became Minds of Men. And did actually send it to Toni at Baen. And she sent it back saying, you know, “This is not for us.” It’s not for, you know, “It’s not the kind of thing that I think our readership would snap up.” However, she sent me some very, very valuable critique. And I will be forever grateful to her for that time and attention that she took to actually provide that for me instead of just saying, no thanks. And so, I took it and applied the critique. And I had recently been approached by Chris Kennedy of Chris Kennedy Publishing to do a novel in his and Mark Wandrey’s military science fiction shared world called The Four Horsemen Universe. And so, I decided to just ring him up, I guess, and say, “Hey, you know, would you be interested in looking at this?” He said, “Yeah, send it on over.” And the thing about Chris is that he’s an aviator, too, right? So, I think I kind of spoke to my audience there with that one and but yeah, he loved it. And so, I published it under Chris Kennedy’s Theogony imprint and, yeah, that was kind of the start of the Psyche of War series.

Well, we’ll take a closer look at that one as an example of your creative process. I did want to mention that I also had an opportunity to tour the inside of a B17 when it came to our local airport a couple of years ago. And my experience there, which I never thought I would have, was that this horrendous thunderstorm blew in, and we were all kind of stuck out there on the tarmac. And I’m standing under the wing of an all-aluminum airplane while lightning is cracking around and the rain’s pouring down. And I’m thinking, “I’m not sure this is the best place we could be at this moment, but . . .I have video of it somewhere. My daughter was with me, and she was quite concerned. And I wasn’t terribly happy myself.

Oh, poor girl, yeah.

But the other thing I want to mention that navigation was that my wife’s grandfather, my grandfather in law, was a First World War navigator on a Handley Page bomber. These things had an 80-foot wingspan. They were enormous. But you talk about your primitive navigation, it was mostly . . . we actually have, we actually have his notebook from when he was at navigation school, and he was like one of the top-ranking students when he was in the navigation school in the Royal Air Force. But a lot of it went down to was, “Do you recognize that church steeple over there on the horizon?”

Right.

’Cause that’s the target, right?

Yeah, absolutely.

So, that was interesting.

Yeah. So, by the time World War Two had rolled around, they had very, very basic radio navigation available. But what they would do is, they would call on the radio to a station and get a ping and then the navigator would plot the information that they got from that ping and then just triangulate their position from there. And then, they used a lot of dead reckoning, which, you know, that’s just following, you know, flying this direction over the map for a given period of time should put us here if we maintain a constant speed. And yeah, it was just it was insane. I’ll take my GPS, thank you very much.

I always found the word “dead” in dead reckoning to be a little alarming.

It’s slightly ominous for sure, especially when we’re talking about dead reckoning into combat. Right.

So, you sort of talked about where the idea for Minds of Men came from, and you gave a hint of it. But do you want to give a bit more of a synopsis of it and then we’ll talk about it?

Yeah, so the synopsis of Minds of Men is, essentially, it’s 1943 and 8th Air Force bombers are flying out of England and they’re, you know, they’re just getting their lunch eaten by the Luftwaffe fighters because they didn’t have a long-range fighter escort that had the capability to take them all the way to their target and back. So, they were particularly vulnerable during, you know, during part of their sortie. And their loss rates were just incredible and staggering, if you actually go and read those numbers and think about, you know, how many men that represents. And in this, like I said, in this world, some women—and they’re all women because I’m sorry, I’m sexist—but some women have the ability to create psychic connections with other people and communicate with them telepathically. And one of these Air Force generals knows about it because his wife is one of these women. So they end up, you know, doing a super-secret recruiting drive, essentially, and come up with 20 women powerful enough to do this job, who end up flying with these bomber crews out of England, helping them to maintain closer formation, better formation integrity, helping them to respond quicker to, you know, threats and things like that. And that ups their success rate, but at what kind of cost, right? Because now, these women are not only experiencing the hell of warfare for themselves, but they’re experiencing it tenfold because they’re experiencing it through the minds of each of their crew members, too. And then, of course, as is every aircrew member’s nightmare, you know, at some point the main character gets shot down. And so now, she’s stuck in occupied Europe, you know, with her surviving crew, trying to find her surviving crew members from the crash. And they’re having to escape and evade their way through occupied Europe, all while being chased by . . . because it turns out that the Germans have psychics, too. So, there’s a team of German Fallschirmjäger and a psychic woman who is pursuing them.

The latter half of the book was actually a lot of fun to write. Well, the whole thing was pretty fun to write, but I really enjoyed doing the research for the latter half of the book because I really got to dig into some of the stories about resistance-led escape lines that ran throughout Europe in the Second World War. And these were organizations that would help, not just allied airmen, but they actually started, really, helping to repatriate soldiers stranded by the evacuation of Europe, you know, ones who couldn’t get out at Dunkirk, essentially. At least, that’s when one of the Belgian lines that I researched started. And they would smuggle these, you know, these allied airmen and soldiers through the Nazi lines and, you know, take them on trains and try to get them out, either get them out to sea to get picked up by, usually, Royal Navy destroyers, or over the Pyrenees into ostensibly neutral Spain and get them picked up at the British embassy there. So really fascinating stuff and it was a lot of fun to right, you know, to kind of combine those stories and put it in my own.

Well, so, what . . . that kind of brings you out to the next question. Well, first of all, you said, you know, as a helicopter pilot, you’re kind of a seat of the pants flyer. Are you also a seat of the pants writer, or are you a detailed outliner?

So, that aspect of my style is sort of evolving, honestly. And I do a lot of collaboration, and I find that when working with another author, a detailed outline is actually really helpful because it allows you to say, “OK, well, you know, I’m going to go away, and I’m going to work on this part of the outline. I’m going to bring it back. And here it is.” And then, you know, you can just get more done that way if you agree ahead of time where you’re going with the story. So, you don’t have surprises. For myself, I would say that I’m an outliner, but I outline in phases. I don’t do the whole thing right up front, all right, like the outline of the first act and then I’ll write the first act and kind of see how it’s going, and then I’ll figure out, “OK, where am I going to go in the second act?” And so, I kind of do it in chunks, if that makes sense.

And once you have the outline, what is your actual writing process. Do you write, you know, with a quill pen under a tree or . . .

No, I use my laptop.

Well, being a poet, you ever know.

Right? Yeah. No, I, I use my laptop. I actually, I enjoy Scrivner. It’s a program . . .

Yeah. I have it, and haven’t climbed the learning curve yet to use it, but I have it.

It is steep, the learning curve is steep. I got it. And I went ahead and said, “OK, you know, I paid for this program, I’m going to learn how to use it.” And I dedicated two days and just went through the tutorials. And it took that long, but I’m glad that I did it because, you know, it walked me through all of the functionality. And I’ve since forgotten a lot of it because I don’t, you know, it’s a very, very capable program. And I don’t use, you know, I probably only use about two-thirds of what it’s actually able to do. But, yeah, I like it a lot. I like the flexibility that it gives me to move things around and kind of see, “OK, this is where this is,” and, you know, link characters to different things and stuff. So. Yeah. I use Scrivener.

Do you write sequentially.

Yeah, most of the time I have to. When I don’t, it’s usually because I’m dead stuck, and I’ve just, I’ve got to skip a part and go on and come back and fill it in. But for the most part, I write sequentially. The challenge for me is always, like I think it is for many people, you know, who have day jobs and families and stuff, is always finding that balance to, you know, time to dedicate to sit down and do the writing. And not just the time, but the energy, you know, because I could for sure sit down every night at 10:00 and write for an hour, but by that time, a lot of times I’m so exhausted that, you know, what would be the point, right? I don’t know that I’d get anything useful out of it.

Yeah, it does take energy to write. I’m not . . . you know, people think you just sit there and type, but it actually takes a lot of energy to write.

Right. Right. And it’s the mental energy, which is the kind that, like, just gets sucked out of you if you have a boring day at work or whatever. So, for me, what I’ve found is that I have to have a very low but consistent daily word-count goal. And I have to keep that habit up of writing. So, mine, it’s . . . I don’t even know if it’s the goal, but my minimum is that every day, no matter how exhausted I am, I need to sit down and write 100 words, just 100 words. And if I get to 100 words, and I’m exhausted, and I want to quit, I’ll allow myself to quit and just say, “OK, this was a lower day.” But just like with . . . and I actually heard of this technique in regards to exercise, actually, where people are like, “Oh, I don’t really want to go to exercise, but let me, you know, let me get on the bike for ten minutes. And after ten minutes, if I want to quit, I let myself quit.” But most of the time, you know, by the time you’re 10 minutes in or, in the case of writing, by the time you’re a hundred words in, you know, there’s more going on in your head, and there’s more that’s ready to come out. And so, you end up getting a little bit more than that, at least.

So, my productivity has definitely fallen off this year. Like, you know, I think a lot of us who write, that’s been the case. At least, you know, among people that I’ve talked to, that’s been the case. And using this technique of forgiving myself and just being like, all right, you know, I’m going to keep, as long as I’m moving forward, forward progress is forward progress. We’re not going to harp on how much forward progress we’re getting. It’s been working for me.

Once you have a draft, what does your revision process look like?

So, I do the thing that most people say you shouldn’t do, and I edit as I go, but I do that because I, I can’t . . . it just bothers me. It bothers me to not do it. So, I do, I edit as I go. So, once I have a draft, it’s usually fairly clean. I will read through it one more time out loud because I find that that helps me catch typos, and more importantly, it helps me catch repeated words that I, you know, use too often.

Yeah, reading out loud is a great way to find things. Better to find it while you’re writing it than when you’re doing a public reading later, which is when I usually find those things. Oh, I wish I’d change that before it went into print.

That’s not what I said. Yeah. And that was another tip from Toni Weiskopf from Baen Books. So, it was read it out loud and listen to, you know, listen to how it flows and how it sounds and stuff. So, I will I’ll read through the draft out loud, start to finish, and make any changes that I, you know, that I find needs making there. And then from there, I usually send it off to the editor and let the editor, you know, take a look.

So, you don’t have any beta readers or anything like that?

Well, no, that’s not true, I do. It depends on the project, right? So . . . and again, a lot of times, you know, other than the Psyche of War series, a lot of my novels have been collaborations. So, you know, a lot of times I will bounce the ideas or . . . not the ideas, but I’ll go through it, and then my co-author will go through it, is what I’m trying to say. And sometimes, we have beta readers. But sometimes, you know, like I said, it just goes straight to the editor. A lot of times lately, we’ve been working very under, very, you know, right up to the deadlines. So, not the best practice, but . . . 

But it’s an extremely common one. Let me tell you.

For Gunpowder, we had beta readers, for Second Chance Angel, we had beta readers. So, I had some beta readers for Minds of Men. I didn’t for World Asunder because I was late on it. So, it was like, all right, get it done, make sure it’s clean, send it to the editor.

What kind of editorial feedback do you get back typically?

Oh, again, you know, it varies. For Second Chance Angel, Griffin and I had the wonderful experience of working with . . . oh, I’m going to not remember her last name . . . our editor, Betsy. She’s a fantastic editor who’s been in the business for years and years. And she worked with us on a developmental level. And so, with her, you know, we sent her the draft, and she came back, and it was it was very much a conversation kind of . . . modality, I guess. You know, where it was like, all right, so, you know, “I have questions about this. What if you did this to this part?” or “What would you think about this?” or “This part threw me out, you know, of the story.” “How can you make this . . . how can you tie this back in?” And she had some . . . you know, one of the major, one of the best suggestions she gave us was, you know, Second Chance Angel is a post-war, post-galactic-war story. And Betsy, she came back, and she said, “Look, I think that what you really need to do is make a timeline of the war so that you have it very clear on how all of these things, you know, kind of came to be. It doesn’t necessarily have to be included in the text, but you guys need to know it,” and, you know, things like that. On the developmental level, some of my work, when I get edits back, it’s really just, like, copyedit-level stuff. And I find that, I get that. So, with my Psyche of War series, because it’s alternate history, I don’t have to do a lot of worldbuilding because it’s our world, there’s just psychics in it, right? So, I find that the more—maybe I’m just weak in worldbuilding—the more worldbuilding I have to do, the more, like, developmental-edit type feedback I get, whereas when there’s not that much worldbuilding to do, it’s really more on the copyeditor level, if that makes sense. And I’m happy to have it both.

You’re talking a little bit about Second Chance Angel, and that’s the other one we want to mention. I’m actually talking to your co-author, Griffin . . .

Yes.

. . . actually, this week, as we’re speaking, in just a few days, I’ll be talking to him, too. So, maybe . . .

He’s a riot. You’re going to have a good time.

Maybe a quick synopsis of that one, and then we’ll talk about it a little bit.

OK, so, Second Chance Angel is a sci-fi noir thriller that Griffin Barber and I co-wrote together, and it is the story, like I said, it’s a story set in the aftermath of a great galactic war, where humans essentially joined this war on the side of this alien race, kind of mysterious alien race, that we call the Mentors. And one of ways that the Mentors enticed humanity to come into the war on their side was by offering these cybernetic upgrades that require artificial intelligence to run the upgrades or to maintain the modifications. And so, these . . .  they have these AIs that were written as personal AIs that inhabit the body with the person. And it should kind of just be transparent. But one of our characters is actually one of these AIs that we call angels. And so Ralston Muck is a down-on-his-uck veteran bouncer who’s had his angel removed . . .

That’s a great name, by the way, Ralston Muck.

Yeah, that was Griffin’s idea. It’s very noir.

Very.

So, he finds himself, you know, mixed up in, and went, you know, when a singer at the club that he works at disappears and he finds himself in a position of having to go look for her and having to work with her personal AI to go find her. You know, they kind of slip into, uncover some seedy underworld stuff, as you know, as noir stories do. And, yeah, so that’s sort of the synopsis of the book is that they’re trying to find Siren . . .

Oddly enough, I just watched Chinatown last night. You know, it’s only been out for, what, 50 years and I’ve never watched it, so . . .

Well, it’s such a great movie. Yeah, it’s . . . I love the noir subgenre and Second Chance Angel for both Griffin and I is sort of our love letter, too, to the noir subgenre. A couple of years back, when I really got into it, I was reading a lot of Raymond Chandler, and I just I fell in love with the way that that guy could turn a phrase, you know, and the way that he would create these characters and make them, you know, just real people, just  by the words that they would say and the comparisons that they would draw, you know. And so, yeah, I, I love it. I love the aesthetics of it. And so does Griffin. And so, we decided to write a book and make it noir.

And how did you do that? Did you write, like, one chapter, alternating chapters, or exactly how did that work?

Kind of, yeah. So, in the book, we have essentially three points of view represented. So, one of the noir tropes is that, you know, you have this first-person point of view narration, which has its advantages and it has its disadvantages. One of the advantages is that you can really do some cool, like, unreliable-narrator type stuff that way, right? And we did do some of that. But one of the disadvantages is that it’s by necessity a very tight POV. You know, there’s only so much that you can do. So, what we did was, we had both Angel and Muck in first person POV, and I essentially wrote Angel’s Point of View, and Griffin wrote Muck. And there was some overlap. And sometimes where we, you know, did one or the other. But for the most part, that’s how it came about. And then, kind of to address that that disadvantage, you know, we realized that there was another dimension to the story that we needed to tell. And so, we did that through some of the additional AIs that are not necessarily personal augmentation eyes like Angel, but, like, the AI that is running the admin for the space station and the AI that is the law enforcement officer AI. We rolled them in and used them to tell part of the story, too, from a third-person point-of-view perspective.

Well, it sounds quite fascinating.

Yeah, it was fun. It was . . . it kind of came about organically, you know, we didn’t sit down and say, “OK, you’re going to do this, and you’re going to do this.” It was just sort of like, “Well, here, let me see. Well, I think this is how Angel would react,” and was like, “Oh, OK, well, this is what Mike would do next and just sort of went from there.”

Well, getting close to the end of the time here. So, time to turn my attention to the big philosophical question, which is . . .

Dum dum dum.

Yeah, exactly. Why, why? Why do this? Why write? Why do you write? Why do you think anybody writes? Why do we tell stories, and why specifically stories of science fiction and fantasy?

Oh, OK, well, those are a lot of questions.

I like to pretend it’s just one, but it’s actually more than one.

Yeah, really. So, the reason that I write? I write like I breathe, right? You know, I kind of alluded to this earlier when I was talking about being a little kid, and I’ve never not made up stories. I don’t know how to process life without making up stories. And I think that that’s on some level true for us as a human race. We are in so many ways defined by our stories, the stories that we tell, the stories that we remember, what we choose to remember, what we choose to forget. I think that stories are an essential part of the human experience. And because, you know, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but I can tell you a story that is similar to something that you’ve experienced and that then becomes a point of connection between us. And I think that that’s something that was very important for us as humans to do, is to connect with one another, you know. So, I think that we write for all of those reasons, you know, because that’s part of what makes us who we are.

Why stories of the fantastic?

Because that also makes this part of who we are. Because we, you know, we have the amazing ability to not just talk about what is but what could be, and to get excited about what could be and to inspire ourselves and each other and. And so, I think that, you know, there’s great joy to be had there, in telling stories of the fantastic, whether it be in science fiction or in fantasy or even in, you know, even in the darker stuff, like the horror and the noir and . . .you know, they’re two very different things, but they’re all ways of processing this experience, right, so . . . you know, it’s like dark humor, for example. I mean, I’ve been in the military for 20 years, and I have a very dark sense of humor, and most of my friends have a very dark sense of humor. And, you know, the same is true of first responders who work where they see terrible things all the time, police officers who have to deal with domestic violence and social workers who have to go into these situations and stuff. One of the major coping mechanisms for all of this is dark humor, is the ability to laugh so that you don’t cry.

And I think that, you know, there’s so much out there that frightens us as humans, even, you know, even, you want to talk even on an evolutionary level, like, we’re not the biggest, baddest animal out there. We don’t have super-sharp teeth or super-sharp claws we can’t see in the dark. But what we do have is our mind and our imagination. And we have this, like I said, this ability to tell stories and this ability to inspire each other and this ability to think beyond what is, to see what could be. And that is our great evolutionary advantage. And so, you know, even taking something that’s dark and turning it into our own story, you know, telling a story about it, makes it a little bit more accessible, and it gives us the ability to process the emotions that come with fear a little bit better, in fact. I don’t know if any of that made sense.

It made sense to me.

OK, good. I’m glad.

What are you working on now?

So, Griffin and I are . . . we have started the sequel to Second Chance Angel, which . . . Second Chance Angel releases, if you don’t mind me saying this, Angel releases on September 8, which is today for me while we’re recording this, I’m not sure when this will go up, but here in Japan, it’s already release day. So, yeah, happy release day!

It will have been out for some time before this goes live.

Good. You guys can just be part of my retroactive celebration! So, we’ve started the sequel, which is called The Third Sin, and we’re about three chapters into that. I’m also working on the third book in my Psyche of War series, which is a story set in the Vietnam era. And I’m working on a sequel to Gunpowder and Embers, started outlining that, and a couple of short stories and stuff. So, I’ve got a lot of projects.

And where can people find you online? I mentioned the website off the top. Oh, I should say that’s . . . better spell that.

Yeah. So, my website kaceyezell.net. That’s sort of the hub for where you can find me. You can go there and find lists of all my books, all my social media links, and join my mailing list, actually. And if you do that, you get, like, two free stories. So, there’s that as well, if you’re into that sort of thing. But also, I’m available on Instagram at KaceyEzell and then Facebook at KaceyEzell, too. So that’s kind of usually where I’m most interactive on social media is Instagram and Facebook.

OK, great. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.

I did! Thank you so much for having me. It was really fun to talk to you.

Episode 65: Cat Rambo

A 45-minute chat with Cat Rambo, Nebula Award-winning author of more than 200 published short stories and several novels, editor, writing teacher, and past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, about her creative process.

Website
www.catrambo.com

Twitter
@catrambo

Facebook
@catrambo

Cat Rambo’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Cat Rambo’s more than 200 published short stories have appeared in Asimov’sWeird TalesClarkesworldStrange Horizons, and many others, and consistently garner mentions and appearances in year’s-best-of anthologies. Cat’s collectionEyes Like Smoke and Coal and Moonlight, was an Endeavor Award finalist in 2010 and followed their collaboration with Jeff Vandermeer, The Surgeon’s Tale & Other Stories. Their most recent collection is Neither Here Nor There, which follows Near + Far, containing Nebula-nominated “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain.” Their most recent novel is Hearts of Tabat from Wordfire Press, Book Two of the Tabat Quartet. They have edited anthologies, including the political-SF anthology If This Goes On, as well as the online, award-winning, critically acclaimed Fantasy Magazine. The work there earned a nomination for World Fantasy Award in 2012.

Cat runs the decade-old online writing school the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, a highly successful series of online classes featuring some of the best fantasy and science fiction writers in the business, and has also taught for Bellevue College, Johns Hopkins, Towson State University, Clarion West, the King County Library System, Blizzard, the Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Cascade Writers, and countless convention workshops. And although no longer actively involved with the game, Cat is one of the minds behind Armageddon MUD, the oldest roleplay-intensive MUD (interactive text-based game) on the Internet. They continue to do some game writing, as well as technology, journalism, and book reviews.

A long-time volunteer with the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, Cat served as its vice-president from 2014 to 2015 and its president for two terms, from 2015 to 2019, and continues to volunteer with the organization.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you.

You may not remember…we did meet, actually, at the SFWA table in San Jose, I think. I was volunteering, and you happened to come by.

Oh, nice.

Like I said, you wouldn’t remember, but I remember you.

Conventions become a giddy world for you when you’re SFWA president, unfortunately.

I’m sure. So, we’ll start, as I always start by taking the guest, you in this case, back into the mists of time, which…as I keep saying, especially when I’m talking to young authors, the mists of time is deeper for some of us than for others. But, how did you get…well, first of all, where did you grow up and all that kind of stuff? And how did you begin to become interested in science fiction and fantasy and in the writing of it particularly?

Well, I grew up in South Bend, Indiana, which is northern Indiana, and I was a child who read ravenously and early on discovered that I loved fantasy and science fiction. My babysitter was reading Tolkien’s The Hobbit aloud to me, and I began sneaking chapters on weekends when she wasn’t there. And at the same time, it was always assumed that I was going to write because I loved to read so much and because my grandmother wrote young adult novels, under her initials because they were sports novels. So, she was the author of such classics as Football Flash, Basketball Bones, and my favorite Martha Norton, Operation Fitness USA.

I’ll have to look those up. So, when did you start writing? I.

I started…when I was, I want to see nine or ten, I had a poem published. My grandmother had actually given me a book on writing, and I started writing poetry and sent something off to a contest. So, I was writing from nine or ten. After a fashion. Some of them were, I think, more story-shaped than others.

I always like to say that—because it’s true–that my first published work was in Cat Fancy Magazine when I was about 12 years old or something like that. They had something called Young Authors Open, and you could send stuff in. And it was a terrible pun about…they were looking for a replacement for Santa Claus, and they found this guy that looked like he’d be perfect, but the previous Santa observed him all year, and when he saw what his garden was like, he realized he could never be Santa because he wouldn’t hoe, hoe, hoe.

Oh, that’s cute. That’s awesome, though.

So, I think I got like fifteen dollars or something. So, my first professional sale.

I remember that magazine? So, yeah. Oh, that’s too funny.

When you started writing, did you…you had the poem, but were you writing other stuff, and were you sharing with other people? I always ask that because I shared my writing and with my classmates and so forth, and that’s how I found out I could tell stories.

I was. I had a story, a serial story that I was writing instead of actually practicing in typing class, because my parents and the parents of four of my friends enrolled us in summer school in typing class because they thought it would be good for us. And my act of rebellion was to actually write a long serial space opera that the other girls loved. And so, I did. I learned that people enjoyed my stories and kept writing them after that.

Did you write longer and…I guess, when did you start trying to get your stories published? I guess that’s the next step.

I had a few stories published in high school, usually connected to gaming, like, in gaming magazines. I had a couple of game reviews and book reviews and a terrible, terrible short story. So that, yeah, in high school pretty much.

Did you study writing formally at some point?

I did. I was one of those people who took a while to go through college, and so I dropped out and worked in a bookstore for a long time and then came back and actually dropped out a second time, just to make sure I was totally confused. But then, after I came back to college, I ended up going off to get a master’s in writing at Johns Hopkins, where I studied with John Barth and enjoyed myself very much.

I often ask people who did do formal writing training if it was helpful. And it sounds like in your case, it was.

Well, I think it was. But I also want to say that it wasn’t until I came to fantasy and science fiction that I got a lot of the nuts-and-bolts stuff. I felt like Hopkins was a lot of theory, which certainly is very useful, but it wasn’t until I got to Clarion West that we started talking about kind of, like, here’s the advantages of, say, first-person versus third-person. The more crafty sort of stuff.

And when the longer there, did you start making sales?

I…let’s see, I started selling stuff when I was in grad school, to small literary magazines, which meant I was making like five dollars or ten dollars a sale. And then I got kind of sidetracked and went into computers. And it wasn’t until 2005 that I sort of came back and started sending stuff out again, began sort of taking it seriously. And so, after about 2005, I started making some decent sales.

Yeah, well, I was interested in the writing, working in computers. My first books that I wrote were all these sort of basic computer manuals. My first book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95.

Then you will appreciate, that’s what I did, I was a documentation manager, and we were documenting VisualBasic.net.

And has any of that fed into your writing in any other way, the working on that side of things, has that fed into your stories at all?

Well, I tend to be more open to new technology and interested, particularly in new computer stuff, I think, than some other writers. One of the things I found, paradoxically, about science fiction writers is that many of them seem to sort of freeze at a particular technological level. And apparently, I haven’t encountered the one I’m going to freeze at yet.

When did you move on to the longer work, your novels?

I went to Clarion West, which is a local fantasy and science fiction workshop in 2005, and started writing a book immediately out of that, but it didn’t get published until eight years later. It went through, like, thirteen drafts and various convulsions. One of the jokes in my family is that I could never leave my husband because he’d read thirteen drafts. Which I’m not sure…we don’t need to tell him this, I’m not sure I would have done for him. I mean, can you imagine reading thirteen drafts of the same book? Holy crap.

I get tired of reading my own books, much less somebody else’s.

Oh, God.

Do you think that you’re…I mean, people do seem to specialize in one thing or another. You’ve clearly written more short fiction than long fiction. Do you think you’re more naturally a short-story writer than a longer fiction writer? Or do you even think that’s true, that people tend to be one or the other?

Well, I think they’re very different forms, and I think that they play to different strengths. One of the things I have to tell my students often is that a novel is not just sort of a bunch of short stories clumped together. It’s a lot more complicated than that. I think I’m good at both of them. I think I’m better at short stories. But I don’t want anybody to go, “Oh, shitty at novels. Why should I check them out?” Because my novels rock. Go buy them immediately.

Yeah, I was not suggesting that people not go out and…

No, but a good short story is, just can be, so pleasurable and so interesting and, at the same time not be the huge investment of time that a novel is, right? Depending on how fast you read, a novel can be a substantial investment of time, and a short story can be fit into standing in line somewhere.

Well, you’ve also done editing. How did you fall into that?

I was very stubborn about sending out stories. And so, I was sending stories to Fantasy Magazine, and at some point, the editor asked me if I was interested in, I think in reading slush, and then, was I interested in editing? And it was because we had done a lot of talking and I had been, I think, very persistent about sending him stories. So, I became the editor. I sort of fell into it. And since then, I’ve pursued a couple of projects. I’ve actually got a project coming up that I’m really excited about, which is going to be an anthology of near-future science-fiction relationship stories, because I think one of the things that science fiction has fallen short on is…often it’s very good at projecting what technology will change, but not so much on what the social dynamics are that will change.

What have you found…I mean, the editing I’ve done, and I’ve done a lot of…and so have you, you teach writing, and this will tie into that, too. But all that kind of working with other people’s work, how does that fit into your own work? Do you learn, you know, by…what’s that thing from The King and I, that by your students you are taught, if you become a teacher by your students you are taught?

Oh, you do. No, you really do learn so much. And I think that critiquing and editing other people’s stuff gives you some distance that lets you learn things that you might not from reading your own. But the other advantage of the school is that I go out and pursue teachers that I want to study with. And so, like, Seanan Maguire has done four classes for me now. I just got Henry Lien to do an awesome workshop that I’m very excited about. And so, I don’t just have the benefit of teaching. I have the advantage of, at least once a week, I’m sitting in on a class with someone world-class talking about fantasy and science fiction, and I count myself incredibly lucky.

So, despite all the teaching and everything you have published, you still feel that you’re learning the craft as well as teaching the craft?

Oh, absolutely. You’re always learning. It would be sad to stop learning.

Well, we’re going to talk about two things here. You have a…so, we’ll start with the joint project that’s coming up from Arc Manor, you and Harry Turtledove and James Morrow. James Morrow is going to be on the podcast; I’m talking to him in a couple of weeks, as well. So, tell me a little bit about that and how that came about and what your contribution to it is.

Well, A, how fricking intimidating, to write something with Harry Turtledove and James Morrow. Harry and I are Twitter friends, you know, and then we’ve met at a few conventions and talked back and forth. I’m a huge admirer of his work. And he said, are you interested in being the third in this project that Arc Manor is putting together? And I said, sure. And it was…I don’t know, it’s a really interesting project. The three novellas are incredibly different. I don’t know that you could find three more different pieces.

Three very different writers.

And Harry’s is very considered, and it’s full of quotes from Confederate history and civil war history. And you could tell he really knows his politics and stuff. So, I’m reading it, and I’m thinking, “OK, so this is what I need to do.” And then I read James’s, and James’s has a cross-dressing porn star persuading Mike Pence to do increasingly improbable things, and I’m just like, “Well, this is so like, OK, you know,” and so my story is, I just went in a completely different, different direction and went rather Black Mirror and depressing because I figured all the humor had been absorbed by James.

So, the name of the book is The Last Trump Shall Sound, is that right?

And the Last Trump Shall Sound. Yeah, it’s got a great cover based on that Grant Wood, “American Gothic,” Trump and Pence dressed up as that couple.

And that’s coming up in September, right?

It is coming out in September. And that was surreal. I’m going to say…I just did an essay about this. It’s coming out in the SFWA blog, where it was just weird. I had turned the novella in January, and I got the copy edits back a few months later. And I was just like, “Wow, the world has changed radically in the last three months.” And it was hard knowing whether to go back and insert some of the incredibly improbable things that had happened in the meantime.

Yeah, this is one of those years that should have been a science fiction novel about, oh, 1990.

Yeah.

Except nobody would have believed it, so…and then the other one, and we’re going to use this one as kind of focusing on your creative process. You have the Nebula Award-winning novelette Carpe Glitter.

 Mm-hmm.

So, for those who have not read it, can you give a quick synopsis?

Carpe Glitter is about a young woman who goes to sort through the belongings of her grandmother, who was not just a hoarder, but a stage magician. And in the course of sorting through not just one but three houses worth of clutter, she discovers a magical legacy that has influenced her family history in a way that she was not aware of.

OK, so how did this one come about and how does, more generally, I know this is a cliché question, and yet it’s a legitimate question…

It is a legitimate question.

…where do you get your ideas? Or as I like to say sometimes, what was the seed of this particular…?

What was the seed? So, with this one, it actually was the title. I was playing around with phrases, and I really liked “carpe glitter.” And I started thinking about what sort of person might have that as a life motto. And at the same time, I had been reading a book that was talking about hoarders, and I started thinking about that idea of kind of seizing the glitter and then never letting it go. And at the same time, there was a call for dieselpunk short stories. And so, I threw in a dieselpunk context and started writing from there. As far as where ideas come from, I find that the more that I am both reading short fiction and writing down ideas as they come to me, the more ideas come. It’s when I’m not reading or not paying attention to inspiration that things dry up.

I can’t remember who I was talking to, maybe it was James Alan Gardner, who said ideas are like neutrinos. They’re everywhere, but you have to be dense enough to stop them, or something like that.

I like to think of it as…your unconscious mind is a lot like a cat, and it will bring you small dead-animal story ideas as long as you are praising it. And if you are not sufficiently appreciative of the little bodies, then it will stop bringing them to you. It’s actually a pretty bad metaphor.

I like it. So, once you have your idea and you’ve decided you’re going to write this story, what does your plan…and this applies to all of your stories and also to your novels, because they often would take more planning, I would think. Are you an outliner, or are you more of a just launch right in and get writing…?

That is something that has changed a lot over the course of my writing career. And I used to be a total pantser, and now I’m much more of an outliner. But I also…I have, actually, a book called Moving from Ideas to Draft, which is about the fact that…I think ideas come in different forms. And the question I often get asked at conventions is how do I tell the bad ideas from the good ideas, by which people mean, you know, how do I tell the idea that I can turn into a story versus the one that I get halfway into and then abandon? And my theory is that there are no bad ideas. It’s simply that different ideas give you different things. And so, I have stories that started as titles. I have stories that started as characters. I have stories that started as, I want to write a story about how people carry grudges around with them and how it gets in the way. I have stories that have come about in all sorts of different ways, including just springing into my head full-fledged, which is very nice and does not happen half as often as it should.

Yeah, and sometimes…well, I have a metaphor I use sometimes, which is when you have that initial idea, it’s like you have this beautiful Christmas ornament and it’s perfect and round. And then you smash it with a hammer, and you try to get back together using words.

That’s perfect. That’s exactly what it’s like.

Because sometimes those ideas are, like, this is brilliant! And then somehow, the process of actually turning them into story can be a challenge.

The thing I always say to my students is, I used to be like, “Well, yes, sure, there’s some ideas you just, you can’t do anything with.” And then I read a story by Michael Swanwick, which basically is a story of people journeying across the surface of a giant grasshopper. And I was like, “OK, if Michael could carry that off, you can do whatever you like in a story,” because that is the dopiest idea I had ever heard. And he did it.

I always think of Cory Doctorow, who’s also going to be on the show, no too long from now. 

Oh, awesome.

And, you know, he had the one with one of the characters was a mountain and one was a washing machine.

Was it, like, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town?

Yeah, that was it. Yeah.

That was an excellent, excellent book. Yeah. Yeah.

So, once you begin writing, are you a straightforward start-to-finish, or do you write, especially in longer stuff, do you tend to write scenes and piece it together, or how does that work for you?

The longer the piece is, the more likely I am to write it as a sort of a creation of scenes. I just got…Beneath Ceaseless Skies just took a novelette from me. And one of the things I was very worried about, in fact, that it was that it had gotten written out of order. And I was worried that in the rewrite I had not made it, put it all in order. But apparently, I seem to have. So, yeah, it’s…and it’s hard. I just finished designing a class called “Principles for Pantsers,” which is basically about kind of like what to do when you’ve got these huge lumps where you’re just like, none of this makes sense. How do you untangle it?

That’s interesting that…you know, you’re teaching all these classes, and as I said, I’ve done some teaching as well, and I sometimes find that I will be telling, you know…I was writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library for nine months, this last September to May, although I was writer-in-residence in my residence for the last two and a half months of that, but anyway. And, you know, I’ll tell them something, and I’m all confident and, you know, this is this…and then I think, you know, if they look in that book of mine, they’re going to see that I didn’t actually do any about it. Do you ever feel that when you’re, a little of that, when you’re teaching writing, that, you know, that sometimes you don’t do what you teach?

Oh, every once in a while, yeah. Because I’m…one of the things I’m big about is, for example, is telling people that they need to build enough time into the writing process for revision. And I suggest that they put the story away for a week at least, and then come back to it. And of course, you do that because the story in your head and the story on the paper are, as you said, one is a Christmas ornament that is beautiful, and the other is much less beautiful. And I do try to do that, but I’m also aware that I am human, and I am prone to procrastination and there is always at least a few times each year where I am like, “Holy crud, this story is due tomorrow. Why is it not done yet? Oh, oh, oh, and then turn it in at the last minute.

I always think of the…I guess it was Douglas Adams that had the quote that he loved deadlines, he loved the whooshing sound they made as they rushed by.

And as an editor, you become aware of what a pain in the ass those writers are, right? And so, you don’t want to be that person. I just had a friend, bought a reprint from me, and she sent me an email that said, basically, “We cannot send this to the audio folks until you send in the contract,” and I was like, all right, that was a really smart thing to say, because if it was just sort of like, we’re not going to pay you till you get the contract, you know, it’s ten dollars. So, of course, I’m going to probably procrastinate because, you know, ten dollars. But when I know that I’m holding people up, I’m going to be much better about it. At least, I’d like to think so.

You mentioned the revision process. So, what is your revision process…first of all, do you do it all yourself? Do you use beta readers, or how does that work for you?

I try to use beta readers, particularly for longer work, and I do have a fairly structured process where I do try to put it aside, and then I read, I create a sort of plan of attack. I move the big, kind of look for the big-ticket items, and I try to sort of work my way in with finer and finer-grained edits because it doesn’t make sense to polish a scene if you’re going to cut it out. So, the line edits are the last thing, and then the read-out-loud pass, which has to happen, is one of the very last steps.

Do you find that you have certain things that you find yourself having to polish every time?

Oh, yeah.

We all have tics that…

Oh, yeah. One of the things I do, which your listeners may find handy, is if you run a word-frequency count, you will catch, for example, the fact that you had characters tilt their head twenty-seven times over the course of a single book. So, I look for that sort of stuff because, you know, sometimes it’s basically, your mind is just saying sort of “insert body language here” and you have defaults. And so, you stick in your default, and you need to go back and just sort of make sure that you aren’t constantly tilting your head.

Yeah, I saw somebody on Twitter today who was talking about writing, say, “Is there any way that characters…” I don’t know what he was reading, or maybe it was something he was writing… “where the characters express emotion other than taking deep breaths, taking short breaths…”

Yes. And you find yourself doing whatever you’re doing. I can remember writing a short story at one point, it was when I was a smoker, and I went back and looked at the draft and realized that I’d had the character light a new cigarette like every two pages and that they surely had an ashtray smoldering in front of them, just disgustingly full of cigarette.

Somebody asked me if my character was perhaps drinking too much and if I had a problem. But no, it was just, you know, again, it’s business to fill. Sometimes you need something for the character to do. And I said, you’re probably right. I should maybe not have her, especially when she’s, like, about to be interrogated or something. She probably shouldn’t be having that second glass, whatever.

Yeah.

I also find that my characters tend to make a lot of animal noises, like, they tend to growl dialogue or snarl dialogue. And I try to catch all that, although my most recent one has werewolves and vampires in it, so the werewolves, I guess, you know, they do growl dialogue. So then, once you have this polished to your satisfaction and it goes to an editor, what kind of editorial feedback do you typically…in short stories, it’s there’s sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. In longer stuff, you’re more likely to get more editorial feedback.

Some places I get no changes at all, or they’ll fix a typo or whatever, but, like, the novelette with Beneath Ceaseless Skies, I’ve just got a second round of edits from the editor, which is kind of, that’s actually outside the norm for there to be that much. But Scott Andrews is just super, super careful with the sentences. Plus, I think he has learned to explain things at length when he makes changes because he knows I will push back if I don’t understand the change. I love Scott, and just we really go back and forth on the edits, so that may be atypical. I think most of the time when you sell stories, though, there’s not that many edits.

And if they are, I mean, I think you probably run into this when talking to starting writers and some writers are worried about what an editor will do to their…

Oh, yeah.

…deathless prose. And I always say they make it better. Typically, they make it better. If it’s a good editor.

Yeah. And it’s so rarely…I mean, I can only think of a couple of times when I have run into an editor where I thought, “OK, they are they are not doing happy things to my prose.” And I think most of the time editors are also very good about letting you push back if you can say why you’re pushing back, and” because it’s my deathless prose” is unfortunately not sufficient reason to push back.

Now, Carpe Glitter is a novelette. Was it published as a standalone originally, or did it appear somewhere else or…?

It was a standalone. Meerkat Press came to me and asked if I had any novelettes or novellas because they were starting a standalone series. And I think it had been to a couple of markets. And it actually was sort of sitting on my shelf because, as you know, longer stories are harder to sell. And so, I gave it to them, and I was so happy to work with them. And then it surprised me by winning a Nebula Award, which was super cool. 

Yeah. What was that like?

That was a ton of fun. I’m kind of sad that I didn’t get to go to the Nebulas in person, but they did just a glorious job with the online events. And honestly, I had talked myself out of it by the time that they announced it, you knew, as you do, you’re just like,” I’m not going to be disappointed. I know I haven’t won.” And so, when I won, it was just…really, it was very cool.

You’d been nominated before. But that was the first time you’d won.

That was the first time I’d won. And I’d…actually I had been nominated once and stayed on the ballot, and then I had been nominated once and there was an unfortunate issue with it having been put in the wrong category. And I ended up withdrawing from the ballot that year because if I had moved categories, I would have bumped three people off of the other ballot because they were tied and I didn’t want to do that.

You’ve been nominated for a World Fantasy Award, too. Do you think awards are valuable?

Oh…no.

I mean, aside from the, “It’s really nice to win one because it makes you feel good.”

Well…I do know that…I think it increases your stock a little bit. I know that I’ve talked to Ann Leckie, who was a classmate at Clarion West and sort of irritated us all by winning, like, every single award that she could the first year she published a novel, and she said, yeah, it’s made a difference to her career. Because she won the Hugo, she won a Nebula, she won a, I forget…Compton Crook, and she won a Clarke Award. She’s just disgusting. And I love Ann, but if I didn’t, I would have to kill her because she’s just way too talented.

Yeah. I mean, the one I’ve won is the Aurora Award here in Canada. Won it for this podcast, actually the first time I won it for a novel, but then I won it the podcast last year. And it’s really nice, and it gives you something. But, especially in the case of the Aurora, which…this is a pretty small market up here…I can’t say I’ve noticed any uptick in sales or anything. But every time a book comes out, they’ll put…you know, you can legally…not legally, but morally, say, award-winning author. So it does that.

Yeah. And you get an award. Like, I have my Nebula sitting on my shelf. I can look at it, and it’s really pretty. And it reminds me that people read my books and like them. Because writing is so solitary, as you know, it’s nice to be reminded that it’s not entirely.

That’s kind of the big philosophical question which I was headed to, which is, why do it, then? Why do you write, and why do you think any of us write, and why write this kind of stuff in particular?

Well, I think to a certain extent…at least, I meet a lot of writers who, like myself, we write because we kind of have to. We are always making stories. We are watching a paper cup floating down in the gutter, kind of going along the street, and we’re constructing a narrative in our head where it’s the brave little paper cup, and it’s, you know, that sort of thing. I mean, we just, we make stories all the time, and we like making them because making art is pleasurable. Making art is very pleasurable when other people like it, it builds to our ego. But making art is simply pleasurable for the sake of making art and knowing that you created something cool that nobody else could create.

Well, I think most writers would…or have, actually, at least for part of their career, wrote without any particular expectation that anybody much was going to, you know…it wasn’t going to get published. And even if you weren’t getting published, would you still write?

Oh, yeah. Yeah, definitely.

Now, I want to go back to the teaching of writing. I have to ask you about the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers. Where did it come from, and how did it get the name?

So, I was teaching for Bellevue College, and no offense to any Bellevue College people that are listening, but I looked at my paycheck, and then I looked at the brochure and noticed the amount that they were paying me versus the amount that they were charging the students. And I thought, well, that seems like…kind of like a big discrepancy, actually, because I was making, like, twenty-five bucks an hour. And Google Hangouts had just come out, and I was, I had a lot of people who were also coming up to me at conventions and saying, “I really want to take a class with you, but you’re not in my area. How do you do it?” And so, I started teaching classes online about ten, eleven years ago. And at some point, I talked to my friend Rachel Swirsky and said, “You’re interested in teaching, will you come talk to my students about a class?” And then, I forget…Ann Leckie, actually, I think was the second person I brought in, I said, “Ann, will you come talk to them about space opera?” And after that, I started going after people that I wanted to take classes from. And we now have on-demand and live classes. We have a virtual campus, which, during the pandemic, we actually have been doing daily coworking sessions, and we have a short-story discussion group, and the people play writing games for an hour every week. So, the school has become a very important part of my life, actually. Particularly nowadays, that virtual campus is a place that I’m hanging out. Yeah, it’s my community.

How did you get started teaching to begin with? What drew you to, from just writing to start trying to teach other people how to write?

That was how…for Hopkins, for grad school, I got a teaching assistantship. And they had us teaching absolutely hapless Johns Hopkins freshman creative writing. Talk about the blind leading the blind. And it was this class called Introduction to Contemporary American Letters, which was basically, in my opinion, a scam to sell books by the faculty members. And so basically, they were like, here’s a list of twelve books, it just happened to be twelve books of fiction by our faculty members that you will teach. And so, it was always a very eclectic and kind of weird mix of fiction and poetry. But you have not lived until you have tried to explain John Barth to freshmen that are actively hostile to the idea that fiction might actually have something more than just sort of a story in it. It’s just…it was hysterical and wonderful.

But clearly, you got the bug.

I did. I like doing it. I like teaching. I like explaining things. I don’t even know…I like talking to people. And I think I’ve always been one of those people who enjoys talking to people and giving them advice. I suspect, were I not a writer, I would be a counselor of some kind.

Well, and is that side of things kind of what led you into becoming so involved with SFWA?

A long time ago, when I was up at DragonCon, I took one of my first writing workshops with Ann Crispin, who was a long-time super volunteer. This would have been in 2004. And she said to us, “You write a story and you qualify for membership. You join SFWA and you volunteer. And that is what you do. That is the career path you will all take.” And I was like, “Yes, ma’am.” And so, I qualified and joined. I was on a committee actually with Cory Doctorow on copyright. So, that was interesting. So, yes, that was one of my first experiences.

And then you rose up through the ranks…

Rose up…

And is it as much like herding cats as has sometimes been said?

Oh, God. It’s hysterical. Because you’ve got…like, there’s two thousand members and they are all strong, most of them are what I would call strong personalities, and even the ones that are very shy are very capable of being very strong personalities online, and you have a lot of ego, and writers are by nature insecure and prone to imagining things, which is not a good quality in a membership, in my opinion, but I mean, I had so much fun with SFWA. I made so many good friends, and one of the things that I did when I was done that last month was I sat down and I wrote a thank you note, and wrote them to all the people who had helped me or who I had encountered. And I’m sure I left out a bunch of them, but I sent out over 800 thank you notes to people.

Did you get any sense of the…state of the union, I guess, state of the genre, from your time there? You would have a different window on things than I think those of us who are just writing our stories and sending them to editors.

Oh, I think right now science fiction is in an absolutely marvelous time in some ways. I think that you’re seeing a lot of potential with independent publishing. You’ve seen a lot of potential with stuff like games that are also fiction. One of the things SFWA has done is that they now have a game writing award, which includes interactive novels and stuff like that. And it’s also a time when people, many people are working to bring a more diverse group into publishing and trying to help the already diverse folks that are there, and to me, I see a community that is so well-meaning and so good about helping each other that it is, quite frankly, one of the things that still gives me faith in humanity in, as we said, today’s odd world.

Well, I guess we can wrap things up here pretty much. First of all, though, what are you working on now?

I am writing a book two in a space opera series, the first of which is coming out from Tor Macmillan next March.

And what’s it called?

It is called You Sexy Thing, which is the name of the intelligent bioship that my protagonists steal.

So, it sounds like a far-future space opera.

It is. It’s a bunch of retired mercenaries who have started a restaurant aboard a space station. And then a mysterious package arrives, things start exploding, and we are off on adventure.

And anything else that’s in the offing?

I have a fantasy novel that should be coming out soon. It is the third book of the Tabat series, Exiles of Tabet, and I’m finishing up the edits on that right now.

And where can people find you online?

You can always find me on Twitter as @CatRambo. Most social media I’m there as Cat Rambo or findable thereon, or find me at catrambo.com.

OK! Well, I think that kind of wraps up everything I have to ask. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed it. I hope you did, too.

I did. Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

Episode 63: Kathrin Hutson

An hour-long conversation with Kathrin Hutson, internationally bestselling author of dark fantasy, science fiction, and LGBTQ+ speculative fiction, ghostwriter, fiction co-editor of Mud Season Review, and director of interviews for TopShelf Magazine.

Website
kathrinhutsonfiction.com

Facebook
@KathrinHutsonFiction

Instagram
@KathrinHutsonFiction

Twitter
@ExquisitelyDark

Kathrin Hutson’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

International bestselling author Kathrin Hutson has been writing dark fantasy, sci-fi, and LGBTQ speculative fiction since 2000. With her wildly messed-up heroes, excruciating circumstances, impossible decisions, and happily never-afters, she’s a firm believer in piling on the intense action, showing a little character skin, and never skimping on violent means to bloody ends.

In addition to writing her own dark and enchanting fiction, Kathryn spends the other half of her time as a fiction ghostwriter of almost every genre, as fiction co-editor for Burlington’s Mud Season Review, as director of Top Shelf interviews for TopShelf Magazine, and is an active member of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the Horror Writers’ Association. Kathrin lives in Colorado with her husband, their young daughter, and their two dogs, Sadie and Bruce Willis.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kathrin, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much for having me, Edward. I’m really glad to be here.

Well, I’m very glad to have you. We made the connection through Mickey Mikkelson, who’s my publicist and has been doing some publicity for you, too. I’ve got some really good interviews coming up, thanks to Mickey. So, I appreciate his help.

I’m going to start the same way I always start, which is kind of a cliche on here. I keep saying I’ll put reverb on it. I’m going to take you into the mists of time, which is, you know, considerably mistier for some of us than others. But anyway, I will go back to when you were growing up and how you got interested in writing. Most of us started as readers. Is that how it started for you? And where did you grow up, for that matter?

Yes, well, I did actually grow up here in Colorado. We have just recently returned after having lived, you know, in three other states across the country. But I yeah, I started reading at a very young age. I think I was probably almost three, or three same age as my daughter. And she’s reading now, too. So, it doesn’t surprise me. But yeah, I have always been an avid reader, and I always loved the escape of hopping into stories that had nothing to do with reality, my own personal life, hence, probably, my love for writing speculative fiction, sci-fi, fantasy, the whole bit. And I actually started writing when I was ten. I was having this recurring nightmare that, you know, it doesn’t seem scary at all now, but at the time it was terrifying and aggravating, that I was in my favorite movie, which when I was ten was FernGully, and I could not change the ending of that movie, which is the only thing that I didn’t like about it. So, I kept having this dream that I was in the movie and I should have been able to change it, but I could never change the ending, and it just really, really got me. I’d been having this dream for like two weeks, and I woke up, on my 10th birthday, actually, after having this dream again, and I was just so frustrated and so upset. And then it occurred to me, just suddenly out of nowhere, that I could write the end of the movie if I wanted, and maybe that would get the dreams to stop. I didn’t actually write the end, rewrite the ending, of FernGully, but I dove into my very first attempt at writing any kind of story at all, and over the next, oh, I think, two years, it turned into, oh, something like three hundred printed pages of a book about fairies that actually, you know, turned out to be very dark and depressing and, you know, it set me up for success. And that’s where it started.

Well, what were some of the books you were reading that had an impact on you, do you think?

Around that time, I know…the only thing that stands out in my mind a lot was The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, and I can’t even remember who the author is.

Patricia McKillip.

Thank you so much! It always slips my mind.

I read it too!

OK, good. I love that. I love that you have. A lot of people haven’t, or at least people I’ve spoken to have not read it. And I also think I’d also read all of The Chronicles of Narnia, C.S. Lewis’s big giant collection. I’d already read those. And I may have at the time been diving into this His Dark Materials series…is it Philip Pullman?

Philip Pullman.

Yes. Thank you. And so, you know, I was already reading things…oh, I also read Stephen King’s It when I was ten, as well. So that, like, probably had a lot to do with that. A little bit of an eclectic reading list for sure.

A lot of early readers…I mean, I didn’t start reading quite as early as you did, but I did learn to read in kindergarten. We had a teacher that wasn’t so much teaching us how to read but was setting us up for it and taught us the sounds of the letters. And I immediately made the connection and said, “Oh!” I started reading, and I actually skipped the first grade. They put me straight into grade two because I’d already learned how to read.

Very nice!

So yeah, I, I was always reading, you know, I’d be reading the kids’ stuff, and I liked reading stuff for kids my age in it, obviously, but then I was also reading stuff that was, you know, wildly inappropriate.

Yes, absolutely.

I remember reading…I think I read The Caine Mutiny when I was about 10, and I was asking my mom what some of the words were, and she was going, “What are you reading?”

That’s hilarious. My dad actually gave me his childhood copy of Robinson Crusoe when I turned 10, as well, and I started reading that too. It was just a crazy amount of words.

So, all these words and stories and things are going into your head. It’s no wonder you’re first…that’s a fairly lengthy thing for your first thing to write, 300 pages of fairy story.

Yeah, it was. I mean, it will never see the light of day, and it will never…nope! I still have it, but it’s not being taken back out. But it started me on the process.

So, what happened after that? You kept writing on through school and into high school?

I did. I kept writing…mostly, I’d work on random short stories here and there, just because it felt, obviously, you know, as they do, so much easier and faster to finish short stories. And then I started writing this dark fantasy, big, gigantic, enormous; it turned out to be altogether, when I finished the first chapters, 250,000 words. And I had finished at 11:57 on New Year’s Eve in 2007. I had told all of my friends that I wasn’t going out for New Year’s or going anywhere because I had to finish this book. And I did. I had to finish it before the New Year. And I had written that all through my first three years of high school at that point and during classes as well. Everyone thought I was such a wonderfully attentive student, taking so many notes, but I was writing a book instead. And then that later, once I sat on it for years and years and years and then had some extensive revisions, that giant first novel became my first two books, the Gyenona’s Children duology, Daughter of the Drackan and Mother of the Drackan, and that launched my author career, as well. So, I wrote them forever ago, but they stuck around.

When you were writing as a young person, were you sharing your writing with your friends? I always ask that because I get differing answers, but it’s always interesting to me because I did. And I wonder what other people did.

Oh, yeah. I tried as hard as I possibly could to share them. Unfortunately, I was the only one among my friends who was interested in writing and creative writing and sharing that process and, you know, getting and receiving feedback and probably even reading fantasy and sci-fi at all, in any way. So, a few friends would read it. And the only feedback I ever got was, “Oh, it’s good. I liked it.”

You don’t always get very useful feedback from your high school chums.

Yeah. And, you know, I’d definitely push for them to, like, tell me, like, what doesn’t work, what do you not like, which I want to hear. And no one could say anything, so…and I think eventually they stopped actually reading it, would probably just leave, you know, the manuscript on, I don’t know, a table somewhere and never actually read it. So, I got a little bit but not very much at all.

Did you study, formally, writing at any point during there? And then when you got to university level, did you do any formal study of writing?

I did.

And was it helpful? Yeah, there, that’s an even better question. I went to the University of Colorado at Boulder for a bachelor’s in creative writing fiction, and it was a great experience at first, immediately, because I was rejected. Like, my application for the creative writing fiction program was rejected the first time I applied, and I was like, you’ve got to be kidding me, because if I’m not going to college for this, I’m not going to college for anything. This is all I want to do. And so, that was my first little dose of, like, “OK, I’m not as great as I think I am. Excellent. I have room for growth.” And then, I applied again and was accepted, with a different short story, which was wonderful. And so, then I went through those undergraduate classes, and it was all writing short stories. And for our finals, we had to write and complete a full-length novel and then return with, it was either one acceptance letter of any of our short stories or if we caught an agent’s interest by querying or…I think it was something like 15 to 20 rejection letters. So it’s like, either you get one in, and that’s your final, or you at least make sure that you are applying and being rejected by people.

That’s interesting.

Yeah. But, you know, it had a lot to do with just preparing, I think, you know, budding writers for the process of what comes, ahead of time. And this is definitely before self-publishing was very much of an option at all. But I did find a lot of things particularly helpful in those classes and my formal creative writing education at the university level. And I think there was one workshop that sticks with me particularly, where I had turned in a short story. It was my week for my story to be workshopped. And then, when that arrived, I had written the story just as, like a…I had no inspiration, no motivation. I just kind of vomited words onto the page, and I knew it wasn’t good. And then, when it came time to workshop this story, my classmates just absolutely tore it apart, just ripped a new one in that thing, and I just remember sitting there and being like, “Yep, yep, I know, I know. It’s awful. Yeah. OK. So that didn’t work. All right.” And that was an important experience for me to have because I hadn’t had that, I guess, aggressive level of critique before. And then it also, you know…I got to kick myself back into gear after that, and then I have always been highly aware of the fact that I can’t lower my own expectations for myself and my own writing, and I’m not going to be able to fool anyone by writing something that I know is awful. And that was great. That was a wonderful learning experience. And I got a lot out of crafting character and natural dialogue and other things, of course, that just are always honed over time and with practice, right?

Where are you writing the kind of stuff you write now during those courses, and was there any pushback on that? Certainly, when I’ve talked to some writers, they encountered the, “Oh, you can’t write that crap. We’re literary here” kind of a pushback from some of their instructors.

Right. Yeah. It was very literary-centric, and so I didn’t write any speculative fiction for the short stories and the assignment. It wasn’t…I suppose it was more or less frowned upon. I think perhaps that magical realism may have been as far as toward the line, not even across it, as was accepted, but I did dive into humor, too, which was just really fun. But no, I wasn’t writing any fantasy or sci-fi at that time just because I didn’t have time to keep writing other things. I was writing all these pieces for my classes, which was great because I was still writing, and that was the point.

Yeah, well, just…you know, I was a newspaper reporter because I decided as I was heading into college that, well, nobody can make a living as a writer, so… not right off the bat, anyway. So I decided to do something that would involve writing, and what I found was that, you know, writing three features a week and news stories and columns and everything else, because I was working at a weekly where you write everything, just putting words down on paper, you know, hundreds and thousands of words, it’s the practice of putting words together is valuable no matter what kind of words they are, almost.

Yeah, right. As long as they make sense.

As long as they make sense. I think they usually did.

Yeah, that’s good. I would hope so.

So, you talked a little bit about, you know, some of your early books actually then became the ones that got you started on your professional career. And how did that come about? How did you break in?

Ah, yes. Well, so, I queried the heck out of the first book in that duology, Daughter of the Drakan, and did more revisions and more querying, and I racked up 115 rejection letters for this first book. And I had, you know, previously been seeing and hearing some stuff from other people about, you know, like indie publishing is becoming a thing, it’s an option, it’s something you can do. And I was like, all right, I promised myself that, if no one wanted to pick up this book traditionally and, you know, where I would find an agent and hopefully a publisher and I was going to exhaust all my other resources and options, like a query to literally everyone in the Writers’ Marketplace who accepted queries for fantasy.

And then, when no one picked it up, I was like, “OK, well, I just want to put this book out there. I just want to…you know, I wrote it, I want people to be able to read it. So, I went through the indie publishing process, and as a first-time indie author, first-time indie publisher, I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, and I can 100-percent admit that because there was a huge learning curve. And so, you know, some things that I did in the very beginning were, you know…I release books a lot more professionally and with a lot more experience under my belt now. But that first book was really, really well received, and a lot of people loved it, and it’s still a favorite, I think, with some of my core readers who stick around and pick up everything that I put out these days, still, since Daughter of the Dracken came out. So, that has been very cool.

And yeah, it has just been a learning process the entire time along the way, and I’ve, you know, found mentors and guides and have read all the how-to’s I could find, and I’ve also learned so much through ghostwriting and seeing kind of behind the scenes, how things work in the industry with my quite big clients who I go straight for, and I get to take a peek at their little secret processes and their own formulas for things, and that’s been very helpful, too.,

How did the ghostwriting come about? You probably can’t say who you ghostwrite for…

No, I can’t.

…but how did that come about for you? It’s interesting. It’s not exactly ghostwriting, but I’ve done, like, a house-name sort of writing, and it’s always…it was an interesting process because I was handed the plot and the characters and it’s…

Yeah.

And yet, you still have to make it work for yourself as the writer.

Right.

So, anyway, how did that come about for you?

Well, I had…I was watching this company for a while who…I guess that they’re, like, a do-it-for-you kind of service for indie authors and handling ads and reader engagement and that publication process. And I didn’t actually do anything with this company, but they had forwarded a link to this webinar that was about ghostwriting and that, you know…and I know absolutely nothing about it in the beginning, so I was going in with an open mind. You know, they had a great pitch about like, “This is how you make six figures a year writing fiction,” if that’s what you want to do, and you don’t care about not doing it for yourself. And so I was like, “Wow, that sounds like…is that really true? I have to see.”

And so, I watched this webinar. And I found out more about ghostwriting was and I saw some of these numbers that were coming up for projects and I just felt this, like, huge pull into this, it was like, “Oh, my gosh, if I could get paid this much to just write all the time, doesn’t matter what it is, just fiction, just…and, like, have everything handed to me and all I have to do is write it, that sounds literally like the most phenomenal thing. You know, second, of course, to making tons and tons and tons of money on my own books and being able to write full time just for myself. And so, I applied for this mentorship after this webinar, and I didn’t…I got accepted after having sent in writing samples and stuff, but it was one of those, you know, it was a course and, of course, there’s a certain amount of investment coming from my part that had to be contributed beforehand. And it was more at the time than I could afford, and so I sent email after email after email. “I really want into this mentorship. I really want to know how to do this.” I’d try to haggle and barter and make deals. And that went on for like three weeks until finally, I was like, “All right, this probably isn’t going to happen. It’s probably not going to happen.” And then I got an email saying, “You know what, we’re willing to do this with you, for this and this and this, these terms. How does it sound?” And I was like, “Yes! Yes!” so, it paid off. 

And then I dove into it with both feet. And at that time, my daughter was seven…no. No, no. She was…I’m so sorry, I sound like a ridiculous person. My daughter was just over one and a half years old at that time. So, I started this process of diving into the mentorship and then learning how to navigate freelancing as a ghostwriter. And actually, the person who was leading this mentorship turned out to act as sort of an agent for me for finding clients and projects directly through him after the program ended, which is wonderful because I didn’t have to, you know, do the freelancer hustle. And then, I just started landing, just kind of one big client right after the other. And I don’t think I’ve had a new client for the last 14, 15 months, which has been really great. This has been a consistent, repetitive thing, and the opportunities just keep opening up, just really great.

What have you learned from being a ghostwriter that you apply to your own writing?

Oh. That is a great question. I have learned that there’s a big difference between what I write for myself under my own name and the type of story that appeals to a much wider audience. I may be a little bit of a specialty writer, I suppose. And I’ve heard that, you know, some people have read my stuff and said, “Oh, this is too dark for me. I can’t do it. It’s not happy enough.” And I just…I can’t go there. And I’ve gotten a few poor reviews because of that as well, which I actually really appreciate because it tells me that what I am writing, I am writing for a very specific group of people. And so, I’ve been ghostwriting almost in every genre. I know I can’t write romance. I tried it once and failed, and that was that. But everything else, I’ve learned a lot about the kinds of tropes that consistently need to be filled, book after book, series after series, that the characters may change and the storylines change, obviously, that more people are willing to read and will enjoy, you know, kind of balancing the escapist reading with the reading that…for me personally, I always choose books that have a little more to offer underneath the surface, and I love dark stuff. So that’s, you know, that’s where I go automatically.

Ever since you were ten, apparently.

Yes. Quite. A lifelong love affair with evil! And so, I’m actually writing this new dark urban-fantasy series, which…under my own name, I will be publishing the first in that series fairly soon…and it’s actually been really interesting for me to take, you know, what I’ve learned with my ghostwriting work and, you know, writing in someone else’s voice and to the tropes that they…that are necessary in the books that this client publishes…and, hence, picking out those bits and pieces after two years of seeing what makes these books good and what makes people love them and crave more of them, and bringing that into my own little super-dark flavor. So, this new series is not nearly as dark as I truly love to go, but it does get there, and then it comes right back out again. And it uses a lot of the tricks and sort of…perhaps it’s not as angsty maybe as some of the things I’ve written or not as depressing, perhaps, but it’s…yeah, it’s been really, really fun to learn what works well for a much wider range of people who are reading to escape real life and, you know, instead of to dive deeper into real life or…relatable discoveries, I guess I could say. So, that’s been fun. That’s probably been the biggest thing, the biggest thing that I’ve learned is to not take myself so seriously. I can write a lot of things if I just let it happen and not try to make it so perfect.

Well, we’re going to talk specifically on this podcast about…well, I guess it’s two books…I keep wanting to say Sleepwalker, but it’s not Sleepwalker, it’s Sleepwater, Sleepwater Beat and Sleepwater Static.

Yes.

So, without spoiling anything, tell us what they’re about.

Yes! This is…these are the first two books in the Blue Helix series, which is LGBTQ+ dystopian sci-fi and also…a total mash-up, including noir and horror elements, and I’ve had some readers even categorize it as urban fantasy, which was not really where I was going.

Well, it’s an urban setting, and it’s a fantastical story. So, there you go.

Yeah. Yeah, you know, there’s some supernatural elements to it that, you know. The series is like…at least, Sleepwater Beat, the first book was…I like to describe it as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo meets X-Men. That seems very fitting to me. The entire Blue Helix series revolves around a minority group of people in the world who have developed this supernatural ability to affect people around them physically by storytelling, basically verbal storytelling, so this visibility is called the beat. And so, it is kind of like X-Men in a way, where all these people have these abilities, no one really knows how they got them, and they’re different for everyone, but it’s all telling stories and speaking.

And so, the storyline through the whole series follows these people with the ability, and they are part of this organization called Sleepwater, and it explores how Sleepwater was born, and where they’re headed into the future and, you know, they are a minority group of people who are feared by the world and misunderstood and hated and hunted and discriminated against. And that was one of the major points that I wanted to touch on, even when I first started writing Sleepwater Beat and had no idea that this was going to be a series, but, surprise!, and I to touch on marginalized communities and kind of take a deeper look at discrimination and bigotry in the broad sense, by looking at it through the lens of, you know, a group of people that doesn’t exist in real life, that…

Well, that’s what they want you think.

Very true! They’re hiding. And, you know, so, Sleepwater Beat focused on Leo Tieffler. She was the main character in book one, and she had more of me poured into her than any other character I’ve written, just because it felt right to the story, which is odd, but I did it. And so I touched on homelessness and drug addiction and the LGBTQ community and broken homes and…oh, there’s all kinds of deep, dark places, survivors of drug addiction and family issues…I’ll leave it at that…and so, I wanted to bring all these things to light through this really awesome, fun, amazing story that follows this group, Sleepwater, who all have this ability and who are hunted down because of it.

And then, Sleepwater Static continues that story, but we have a new main character, Bernadette Manney, and she…she’s a minor supporting character in Sleepwater Beat, and then she got her own book for Sleepwater Static, book two. And I really…it was really important to me to dive deep into exploring discrimination when it came to racism and racial injustice, and that is what Sleepwater Static was kind of based around. And so, it’s set…pretty much all of it is set in the American South, and Bernadette is a white woman in her 70s, with arthritis, and she’s still super-incredible and strong and amazing and doesn’t take crap from anybody. And we get to see reflections of her past and her relationship with Darrell, who’s a black man. And they’re in South Carolina and, you know, the difficulties that they faced through growing up in the ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, and having a child, and being together, and then also seeing them reconnect again, if you will, in their 70s, when Bernadette and this group of Sleepwater are being chased across the country and hunted and just looking for kind of a place to settle down for a second and catch a breath. There you have it.

So, it’s you obviously have some big themes you want to explore. Did you start with the themes, or did you start somewhere else? In other words, where do you get your ideas? It’s a bit of a cliché, but it’s a legitimate question. And, the way this story began, is that typical of the way that ideas, the seeds of ideas come to you?

Right. No! The beginning of Sleepwater Beat is completely atypical. One hundred percent. Absolutely. It started with me writing an experimental short story. I had, you know…one scene popped into my head of a, like, I don’t know, teenage girl punching a guy in the face and knocking him over the edge of a frozen waterfall. So I have, like, fairly violent daydreams, as well, and they get written into my books. So I wanted to…you know, I sat with it for a little while, when that scene popped into my head, and sort of thinking about it, and then decided that I wanted to try a sort of experimental short story where I wanted to see if I could create a coherent story with scenes that were completely out of chronological order from beginning to end. And it sort of worked. And I got the point across in the story, but it wasn’t finished. And I had actually workshopped it with the writers’ group I was a part of in Charleston, South Carolina, when I lived there with my husband. And they were so enthralled by what I had started in this short story that they asked so many questions and just opened up so many doors and told me that they wanted to see more and that it had to be a book. And I was like, “Wow. Wow, OK. I agree with you.” And then I took two years to rip apart that short story and decide what I wanted to keep and what I wanted to change and turn it into, you know, 105,000 words. So, that was rough. Not at all the way I normally do things, but it turned out very well. But most of my ideas do come from a dream or a random daydream of something that I think would be very cool.

So, you tend to start with an image, then?

I do. I do start with it with an image, and then I kind of let it hang out in my head for six months and see what happens. And then I start writing.

Well, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline, or are you more of a let’s-start-writing-and-see-what happens? Again, with these Sleepwater books, but also, since they seem a little different more typically.

Mm-hmm. So, I don’t do detailed outlines at all. I’ve tried, hoping that that would solidify my writing process a little more, but I have realized that when I outline in detail, I get bored. It feels like I’ve already tried to figure out the whole story, and then I lose the excitement. The best part for me, where I have the most fun, is when I’m just writing, and I’m in the zone and I’m going, and all the pieces come together, just like…I don’t know, like machinery. It’s just so much fun to see the characters I thought would be one thing turn into something completely different and go down a path that I didn’t expect. I solve the mysteries that I create with the beginning as I’m writing them, so I never know what’s going to happen. But I…I probably right now, I’m somewhere in between, in the hybrid range. I will write beats for my books, and I definitely always do this for my ghostwriting work because it enables me to keep up my ridiculous speed with writing those projects. And that’s, you know, anywhere from four thousand to eight thousand words of just summary about the whole plot of the book, and it has all the big moments and big reveals in it. And then, I will just write from there, and I get to fill in all the extra space. And that is what works best for me, I’ve found.

Yeah, writing is weird because in a way it’s a very conscious act, you’re sitting there typing and putting words, and yet there’s this huge unconscious thing going on behind the words that are coming out, where your brain is…and you have no, you know, it’s inside your head, and yet somehow you’re not really part of the process, it feels like sometimes.

Yeah, it’s not…or it maybe is just not in my head at all. It’s just going through me. Yeah. And I, you know, a lot of the time I will go back and look at something I’ve written a week before and not recognize it. I think, “Wow, I don’t remember writing this part.”

Yeah. When I look back at all the stuff I’ve written, I sometimes have that…well, that’s not bad. I don’t actually remember doing it, but…

Right. It’s very strange. It’s very strange. I love it.

Well, I mentioned sitting and typing. Is that actually…I presume that’s how you work, and you’re not parchment under a tree with a quill pen.

Oh, no, no, no. I just got a brand-new desktop set-up in my office. We moved almost two months ago now from Vermont, so everything kind of had a major recall. But I sit and type. I do take breaks during the day, stand up, move around, get my body realigned after sitting.

Do you tend to just work at home, or do you ever go out for a change of scenery?

I just work at home. I used to be able…when I was in college, I could write anywhere as long as I had headphones in and…I don’t know if I’m entering more of that, like, writer’s stereotype, but I have gotten significantly more anxious and public as I’ve gotten older.

It’s not like people look over your shoulders and critique as you write…

I know. I know. I think maybe part of that is also because I type so fast. I had about 130 words a minute when I’m transcribing something or, you know, I don’t have to think. And so, I type faster than I think when I’m writing and that…I get weird about it when any of my family members say that they heard me typing. So, I stay home.

I think I was, at least I used to be, at about 110 words a minute, and it’s like…

Excellent!

…people look at you funny when you’re…

They do. They’re like, are you writing real words? Yes.

I wear out a lot of keyboards. My keyboards wear out really fast.

Yes.

I also learned on a manual typewriter, so I think I hit the keys harder than is actually required on a computer.

Yeah, that would do it.

Do you write sequentially then when you start writing, or is there a lot of threading and going back and filling in scenes and…

I have to write sequentially. The only time I didn’t do that was when I wrote Sleepwater Beat because I was pulling in things from the short story…

The short story, yeah.

Yeah. It was major surgery, and it was bloody and awful, and it took me two years. And I don’t like that. No, I start at the beginning, and I just keep going, and I push through. And sometimes, I’ll come across something where I realize that, “Oh, this tiny little detail needs to be changed in a thread from the beginning,” and I’ll go back. And, you know, that happens more towards the end, or I’ll make a note as I’m writing to go back and do that, and then afterwards with my own revisions and edits before it sees my editor. Yeah, I don’t think I could write non-sequentially now after having done it this way for so long this much.

Yeah. I’ve always been, start at the beginning and go to the end and then go back and fix things up. And speaking of that, what does your revision process look like? And do you use…do you have beta readers or even alpha readers at some point that pitch in? Or how does that all work for you? And when you are revising, what’s the kind of things you find yourself having to revise?

Ah-ha! Oh, all good questions. I think I’ll start with…when I’m sitting down and writing any book, the most important thing for me is to, of course, you don’t have a book until it’s finished, so, to get to the end, right? To just sit down and write all the way straight through and get to the end. And so, when I am writing, and I get in that zone, I don’t want to break it up by having to do research for like very, very specific things. I don’t want to break it up by having to go back into other books or other notes and find names or places. So I will leave those to-be-found details in brackets, so you know, typing away, typing away, “I don’t remember this character’s name!” and I’ll just put in brackets, Girl 1, or whatever. And that enables me to just get the words down so much faster. And I’ll leave notes for myself, too, comment in margins, to go back and check if this is a thing.

And then when I, you know, write the last words, then I go back through, and I search for all of the instances of brackets that I placed and then I will do the necessary research, and I will either make up names that I needed or places that I needed or go back and find them. And I’ll fill in all of those details at the end. That’s the first step for me. And that just makes the writing process for me so much faster, and also doesn’t break up my flow, you know, like, you’re getting really into an intense scene, but you can’t I can’t remember the name of that kind of gun that he had. So, you know, I don’t want to go fall through the rabbit hole of Internet research.

Yeah, that’s very easy to do.

Yeah, right. Yeah.

You’re looking up a type of gun, and the next thing you know, it’s 17th-century silver mining in Asia, and you don’t remember how you got there.

Exactly. Those are how the conversations with my dad go, like, just by speaking to each other, so I don’t need to see that when I’m writing. And I’ll go back through that, and then, while I’m reading through and filling in the brackets as well, I’m also doing as much proofreading as I can. And before I was writing full-time, I was editing full-time, and I’ve been doing that for…oh, I stopped last November, so, like seven years, eight years, and so, I would like to think that I catch most typos and reading errors, but I know that I absolutely do not catch all of them, so I do have an editor as well, and she is amazing.

And I do have a few alpha readers, I’ve got about four or five, who are completely thrilled to read anything and everything I send them, and with previous books, that has helped me stay excited and inspired and on track with the story, when I, you know, I hear, I get feedback from these operators, and they’re telling me like, “Oh, I love this part. I can’t wait to see what happens next. Like, I think it’s this, la la la.” And so, I sit in my corner and, you know, have an evil grin, just like, “Well, you have no idea what’s coming next. And I’m so excited.” And then that helps me stay there.

And I don’t…I don’t know if I’ve ever used beta readers, and I think that is because I trust my editor quite a bit, and my alpha readers give me enough feedback during the process that…I don’t know, I guess I just haven’t felt the need to use beta readers. I have used sensitivity readers, though, which is super-important for me, especially with Sleepwater Static, because I was…the closest I could write to anyone who experiences racial injustice in this country and anywhere in the world was from a white woman’s perspective, and it’s important to…sensitivity readers are so, so important to make sure that we’re not perpetuating harmful stereotypes and just getting things plain wrong. And that was an incredible experience, as well. And…as far as I heard from her, I hadn’t done anything wrong, so…

That’s always nice to hear.

Yes, it is. And then…that’s about it. You know, I have advance readers, when I’m, you know, before a book’s publication. And that’s the process.

I’ve never used beta readers, mainly because I just never had any to speak of. So, the first person that sees it usually is my editor. Which brings us to the editing process. What sorts of things do editors…do you use the same editor all the time and…because I presume you’re hiring an editor, since this is independently published.

Yes, I am.

Have you always used the same editor or have you use different editors? What sorts of things do they come back with you?

Yeah. I have had a few different editors. The editor I have now, she’s so phenomenal and the best I’ve ever had, and she edits like I did when I was editing, so…

One would think you’d like that.

Yes, absolutely. I’m a bit full of myself! But I, you know, some…the most that I get back beyond proofreading is usually, you know, like, “This sentence is extremely convoluted, and I have no idea what you were trying to say,” and those pop up every once in a while and, I, you know…

So, it’s more line editing then? You’re not getting big structural changes suggested or anything like that?

Correct. I have been fortunate enough to not have received suggestions for huge structural edits and changes. And I like to give credit for that to the fact that I spent so many years editing other people’s manuscripts, as well. And that helped me develop…you know, of course, along with all the reading for fun that I do…editing helped me develop kind of an ingrained understanding of, you know, genre elements and the rhythm and pacing of writing these stories. And so, I’ve never really had to do overhauls like that beyond my first book that had a lot of work put it through.

Yeah, I’ve done quite a bit of editing and mentoring and writer-in-residence kind of work, and I find that it’s really very easy to see flaws in other people’s work.

Oh, of course!

And it does help you eventually to pull yourself out of your own and say, “Well, you know, I did the same thing here.” And actually one of the things of being, like, a writer in residence, I’ll tell people that you shouldn’t do this and you shouldn’t do that, and then I think, “You know, if they look back in that book I wrote, I’m pretty sure I did that.”

Whoops! Yeah.

But it is very helpful, I find.

Yes, absolutely.

Well, we’re getting close to the end here, so it’s time for the…more reverb!…big philosophical questions, which is…I don’t know how big they are or how philosophical they are, but basically, it boils down to why. Why do you write this stuff? Why do you write at all? Why do you write this stuff, this kind of fantastical stuff? And why do you think anybody does? Why do we tell stories? So, kind of three questions, I guess.

Excellent. Yes. So, why do I write? It’s gotten to the point now where I write because I literally have to. If I go longer than, you know, thirty-six hours without writing any fiction at all, I get itchy and sweaty and irritable.

So, it’s an addiction.

It is, and, you know, I will openly admit it. It is the best addiction I’ve had. We’re good to go. But yeah, no, it is. My husband has had commented multiple times, if I’m having a rough day, he’ll ask me, “Have you written today?” And more often than not, the answer is no. So, I’ve learned just to accept the fact that I can’t take too much time away from writing. It’s just become so much of a part of me. I am so fortunate enough to be able to say that my greatest passion is now my full-time job. And that’s incredible.

So, why do I write what I write? And I’ll go ahead and say this, you know, what I write being dark fiction in general, just dark stuff. And, you know, I was asked, someone asked me a while ago if writing what I write is a way for me to process my own past pain or get a better understanding of certain concepts or ideas about the world. And I realized, it was a great realization to have, in trying to answer these questions, that I don’t…like, I do write for me physically, like I have to, it is an addiction, but the content that I write isn’t for me in regards to, you know, working through past pain or trauma or realizations. It’s cathartic, but it’s not therapeutic, I guess I could say. But I do write with the intention, every single time, of helping other people access their ability to work through their own stuff and to better understand concepts and ideas that they may be struggling with and to frame a lot of topics and subjects and issues, a lot of social issues, to frame them in a way that is more accessible to other people who may not otherwise have been open to discussing or reading or even thinking about these things, or who may have never even had the opportunity to consider these discussions from a different perspective or a different angle. So, I find that particularly easy to do in dark fiction because I can really take the characters and the story and the readers just down. And maybe that’s cruel of me, but I know that I like that to see that as a reader, and I know I’m not the only one.

Well, certainly not, because you have lots of readers, so…

Right. Yeah. So, that’s great. So, I write the way I enjoy, as well, and I write to go really, really into those deep, deep, dark places to then better illuminate, you know, the hope and the possibility and potential for more, and, you know, oh, one of my firm beliefs in my own life and in writing being that our mistakes and the poor decisions that we make in life don’t define who we are or what we’re capable of becoming after the fact. So that’s why I write these things and…yeah, why does anyone write?

Why do human beings do this?

Yeah. Because it’s so much fun. I mean, that’s just how we learn about the world, right? That’s how it’s always been for humans, learning about the world and teaching each other about the world through story and then, you know, connecting with each other. It’s…sometimes it feels a lot easier and even potentially a lot more fulfilling to connect with characters than with real people. And I think that’s probably the end of my answer. To learn about the world and each other and to connect and to form those bonds and understand one another. Story is completely universal. Maybe not the content or the characters, where it goes, but telling story. That applies to everyone.

Seems like a good answer to me. Well, we’ll just wrap up here with what are you working on now? You mentioned this, the new urban-fantasy, dark urban-fantasy series. 

Yes. The Witching Vault is book one of Accessory to Magic. That’ll be out fairly soon. A couple of months, I think.

And anything else to mention?

Yeah, I’ll have another, first in at a super, very, very dark, darker than anything I’ve ever done, LGBTQ+ dark-fantasy theories. That’s Imlach Fractured. It’s the first book in Vessel Broken, and that is…oh, I’m working on two very different projects, but that one is dark and gruesome and just has a huge occult influence, and I’m so excited about it. That is slated to be out at the end of November this year.

And where can people find your online, so they can keep up with all of this stuff that you’re doing?

Of course, my website is kathrinhutsonfiction.com.

You should probably spell your name because it’s…

Yes, it is very different. That’s K-A-T-H-R-I-N H-U-T-S-O-N fiction, dot com. If there are E’s in there at all, it’s wrong. And I am probably the most active on Facebook, my author page on Facebook. My author page there is @KathrinHutsonFiction, and I’m also @KathrinHutsonFiction on Instagram and on Twitter as @ExquisitelyDark.

Seems appropriate. All right, well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, Kathrin. I enjoyed that. I hope you did, too.

I sure did. Thank you so much for having me.

Episode 62: Kate Elliott

An hour-long-plus conversation with Kate Elliott, author of Unconquerable Sun, “gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space,” and many others, including the Crown of Stars epic fantasy series, the Afro-Celtic post-Roman alt-history fantasy with lawyer-dinosaurs, Cold Magic, and sequels, the science fiction novels of the Jaran, the YA fantasy Court of Fives, and the epic fantasy Crossroads Trilogy,

Websites
www.kateelliott.com
imakeupworlds.com

Twitter
@KateElliottSFF

Kate Elliott’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by April Quintanilla

Kate Elliott has been writing stories since she was nine years old, which has led her to believe that writing like breathing, keeps her alive. As a child in rural Oregon, she made up stories because she longed to escape to a world of lurid adventure fiction. Her most recent is Unconquerable Sun, “gender-swapped Alexander the Great in space.”

She is also known for her Crown of Stars epic fantasy series, the Afro-Celtic post-Roman alt-history fantasy with lawyer-dinosaurs, Cold Magic, and sequels, the science fiction novels of the Jaran and the YA fantasy Court of Fives, and the epic- fantasy Crossroads Trilogy, with giant justice eagles. Her particular focus is immersive world-building and centering women in epic stories of adventure and transformative cultural change.

She lives in Hawaii, where she paddles outrigger canoes and spoils her schnauzer.

So, Kate, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Ed, thank you so much. I want to say that at the moment, the usual club outrigger canoe practice has been cancelled or suspended, I’ll say, due to the pandemic. So, that’s the one thing that I’m not paddling my usual six-man six-feet canoe three to four times a week.

Well, here in the middle of the continent, we don’t have a lot of that anyway. So, I hadn’t really noticed that that was one of the things that had been cancelled. Well, we have met because we’ve both been published by DAW and we met at one of the lovely DAW dinners. For your DAW books is Sheila your editor, Sheila Gilbert?

Yes, yeah.

And she’s mine, as well. So, we share that.

She’s a fantastic editor.

Yes, she certainly is. So, I’m going to start, as I always do, by taking you—this has become a cliche on the program, “back into the mists of time,z’ and I’m going to put reverb on it. One of these days, I’m going to do that, “back into the mists of time,” to find out…well, I know from your little bio that you’ve been writing since you were very young. So, how did you get interested in writing and…well, reading and writing and all that kind of stuff? What led you down the garden path to being a writer?

You know, this is the big question, isn’t it? And I think there’s an even deeper question that goes even below that, which is like, why do human beings create at all? What is the, let’s say, the evolutionary advantage of the way our minds work, which is sometimes in amazing ways and sometimes it really debilitating ways. I think they’re all kind of linked. Why? I guess I would say is that I believe that human beings, part of what makes us who we are, is pattern making and creativity. And there would be survival mechanism in that, in, like, seeing that we could eat this food, right, or seeing that if these seeds dropped here, in the next season, when I came back, there was stuff here I could eat. So, that then develops to language and to all the other ways that we think about, not just art, but about science and about religion, all the ways that we understand the world.

So really, the question I would ask is, why do some people not feel they’re creative, which to me is a tragedy and something I think that is imposed on people from the outside, not part of who people are, really, kind of at root? But then, the other question is, why did I decide to write? Why did I want to tell stories as opposed to designing clothes or playing music or woodworking and building furniture? And I don’t know. I could say maybe why I didn’t do some of the other things. So, it’s easier to define that negatively, in a way. But I just know, from a very early age, I liked to draw maps, and I liked to draw large underground domiciles where, you know, where thousands of people were living. And I was doing that at age 10, 11. I don’t know why. It just intrigued me. I would tape pieces of paper together and then draw these just huge architectural things that had nothing to do with how anything would really be built. But I enjoyed it. And that went to maps, and then I guess, partly because I grew up in rural Oregon and I loved being outdoors, but it was also kind of boring. So, when I started reading science fiction and fantasy, then, of course, as a teenager, I was like, “Oh, I want to live science fiction and fantasy.” And since I couldn’t figure out a portal, I couldn’t figure out where the portal was to that other world that I really wanted to be in, the best portal I had was to write stories.

Yeah, kids in stories are always stumbling these things, and I was never able to find one either. It seemed totally unfair.

I know, right?

My wardrobe, I didn’t have a wardrobe, but my closet didn’t lead anywhere. And, you know, there wasn’t any hole in the backyard that led to the world of Óg or whatever. Yeah, it’s very unfair. And tornadoes are a terrible means of transportation.

I haven’t, yeah. I’ve actually not experienced a tornado yet. Who knows? But I would like one, like, if I would go out hiking…my family camped a lot when I was a kid. We would go on camping trips…and I would always look for those two trees growing close together whose branches intertwine, and I would say, “Maybe this is the one. I’ll step through, and it will be the portal into that other world.” But, yeah.

What were some of the books that kind of woke you up to science fiction and fantasy when you started reading them?

The earliest chapter books I remember reading are ones…they were these editions of books that my father had read as a child that we still had, and they were by Thornton Burgess, the Mother West Wind stories. And most people my age aren’t aware of them. And I only knew them because they were in the house. And I think today he’s probably mostly forgotten. But back in the day, when my dad was young, these were stories written, set in the…I can’t even remember…the Wild Woods. Anyway, they were in the woods, and everything was anthropomorphized, so that Mother West Wind was…she had thoughts, and she had the merry little breezes, and then all the animals, and they all had these little adventures. And I read those obsessively when I was very, very young. And I always feel like they were my gateway into this idea that there could be this fantastic other world of things that I wasn’t aware of.

And from there, I would say, I read Scholastic Book Fair books that had fantasy in them or science fiction. I couldn’t give you any particular titles now. The big one for me was reading Lord of the Rings at 13, and that kind of kicked me onto the path that I then never left. Also, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, that was…those were two in what was then called junior high school, now would be called middle school. And then, you know, in high school, I began to read Le Guin and just…

Yeah, I think we’re almost exactly the same age, and that’s a very familiar set of books and pathway. It’s almost the same ages at which I was reading those things, as well.

Yeah.

But you started writing stories, as well, very early. Did you share those stories with other people, or was it just kind of a solitary thing you did to entertain yourself?

Um, when I was in ninth grade, I think it was, my best friend and I wrote kind of a shared set of stories. We drew a map and then wrote a shared set of stories. And interestingly, that set of stories, there were these two main characters, one was hers and one was mine, and they were both men. And that’s like…because when I was 14, that’s who was in those stories. So, if you were going to write a fantasy story, it had to be about men. But by the next year, I had switched over and started writing stories about women. And I wrote a lot in high school, and I’m not sure that anybody read it.

I always ask that question because I wrote in high school, three novels in high school, and I did share them with my classmates, and it was one of the things that actually told me maybe I could tell stories. So, I always like to ask that question, and I get differing answers from different authors. Some people say, “Oh, I would never have shared anything at that level.” Have you…well, OK, here’s another question. Have you shared it since? Has anybody read your juvenilia?

No, not a chance. Not a chance. Although I have recently…I’m actually really intrigued that you shared the books with your friends, which I think is fantastic. And they read them all, and they asked for more and wanted to read the next one?

Yeah. Well, they weren’t a series, but I had a teacher—I had more than one teacher!—but I had one particular teacher, we were required to keep a writing book, so you had to write a page of something every day. And most kids were copying stuff or, you know, not doing much with it. But I started writing The Golden Sword when I was 14 years old, and it was only for one semester that we had that class. And it’s all dated in the book I was writing it. And so, you get to December and the dates at the top stop, but the story just keeps going because I was way ahead and going on to the end. And I learned to type in Grade 10, and as soon as I learned to type—I was just dying to learn to type—and as soon as I learnt how to type, I would type these things up, and I bound them up, and I handed them out to my classmates. And people really seemed to enjoy them. So, it was kind of a thing for me to kind of help point me in the direction of being a writer.

That’s…I just think that’s fantastic. I also remember learning to type in high school and how great it was because I could type so fast. You know, it’s interesting. I didn’t share as much. I wouldn’t have shared it. I think a lot of it was too personal to me. I did find, some years ago, I hunted down and found the journal I kept when I was 16, which was not a normal journal because it was me pretending to be a person going…I had drawn this map, it was like my special map, my, like, the map that the portal would take me to, right?. And then this journal was me going to different places on the map and describing them and describing the journey, and then whatever else a 16-year-old would put in there. And before I wrote Court of Fives, or maybe in the early stages of writing Court of Fives, which of course is a young adult novel, I thought, “Oh, you know what? I’m going to go back and see if I can gain some inspiration and insight into my 16-year-old self.” I could not get through two pages of it, not because it was badly written, but because I was 16 when I wrote it. And it wasn’t bad. I’m not saying that in any way to criticize myself, but I was just like, “Whoa, whoa, man!” That mindset was, like, so much for me. It was so intense. But it was interesting to realize how intense being a teenager is.

As they say, the past is a different country, and it’s true of your own past as well as some of the world’s past, I think.

Well, I could see me. I mean, it was me. I recognized me. And I recognized things that are very much still me in it. But, wow. Yeah. It was enlightening. And then, another thing that happened recently is…my first full novel, I wrote in high school, and I was talking to my editor about it, and she said, “Oh, you should put that up on Wattpad.” So, I again dug down, down deep, deep, and I found it. And I’ve been looking at it and thinking, “I wonder if this would be worth cleaning up a little and putting on Wattpad just for the fun of it.”

It’s funny you should say that because I’ve been looking at my magnum opus from high school, which I wrote when I was sixteen.

Which is called?

Slavers of Thok.

Oh, wow.

It’s a big fantasy novel. It has a map because, of course, as you know very well, maps are essential to a true fantasy novel.

Yeah.

With really terrible place names. And I typed it, so I was able to do an optical character recognition, kind of, because my ribbon was dim in a lot of places, and I have been thinking the same thing. I might just throw it up somewhere and see what comes of it. It’s not horrible in some places. It’s a pretty good story, actually. So, we’ll see.

I think we’re probably better. I didn’t actually start reading mine. I just found it. And there was a lot of it, single-spaced on legal-size paper. A lot of it. Both sides. So, but yeah, I, I think we’re better, and also inexperienced, as teenage writers, better than we perhaps think we are and not as good as we think we are. So, it kind of goes hand in hand, right?

I think that describes it exactly. So, you left Oregon to go to university in California, I believe.

Ed, I have to say, sorry, it’s Oregon.

So, what am I saying?

You’re saying OreGON.

Oh, sorry.

Sorry. No, no, I don’t…I hate to be pedantic about it, but…

No, no. It’s hilarious, because I live in Saskatchewan and nobody can pronounce Saskatchewan.

Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan.

So, people say SaskatcheWAN, just like I’m saying, OreGON. Oregon. There you go.

Oregon. Perfect. It’s just kind of like….yeah.

And the other one is Newfoundland. NewfoundLAND. You have to emphasize the land. So, yeah, there’s a lot of things like that. OK, Oregon. So, you left Oregon and went to California. What did you study in college? Did you study writing or something completely different?

Well, college was strange for me. I went to Mills College in Oakland, California. I only actually went there two years. My senior year in high school, I took enough college class credit classes at the local community college that I came in with a full year already. And then I went one year to Mills, and I didn’t love it. So, the next year I did my, what was by then my junior year, abroad at the University of Wales in Wales, at Bangor, Wales. Then I worked for a year at the BBC in the radio division on a student work visa. And then I came back and finished my degree at Mills. So, I had kind of an eclectic…I did some history, I did some anthropology, and I ended up majoring in English, mostly because that was what I had enough credits to do. So…and I did get a…I think I got like a minor or a…I didn’t call it a minor, but a minor in creative writing, which frankly was kind of a waste of time.

That was my next question.

Well, they were so full of, you know, why are…these were literally the people saying to me, “Why are you writing science fiction and fantasy? You should be writing real literature.” So, it wasn’t…you know, it’s just not useful to take courses from people like that.

I’ve asked that question of a lot of the writers I’ve interviewed, and of those who have taken formal writing classes, I would say there are more that say that than say that they were really helpful to them, which I always find interesting.

Well, I think it could have been helpful if people hadn’t been so dismissive of science fiction and fantasy.

Now, I also wanted to mention, because I’ve seen, in things I’ve read about you, that you were active in Society for Creative Anachronism, and I dabbled in that. But it not very active where I am here now. And that’s where you met your husband, isn’t it?

Well, I’m no longer married, but yeah, yeah. But what I loved about the SCA, I wasn’t that interested in the re-creation aspects. I’m an athlete. So, I was really what they called in the ACA in those days, they called a stick jock. I just went there to fight, to put on armor and fight, so that’s what…I did that, and actually, that was pretty great. And it was useful as a fantasy writer, not because we were actually, you know…well, I did get a broken arm once…but it was useful because it gave me a sense of how it feels to have people around you, how it feels to be lying wounded on a battlefield, not that I was really wounded, but how space worked, the physical function of space, people nearby, people far away, what you could hear, what the sun might feel like, you know, how skirmishes might act, how they would run. So, that was useful information for me to have, especially when I wrote Crown of Stars, which is a seven-volume epic fantasy series set in a…well, it’s really inspired by early medieval Germany. So, smaller units, you didn’t have big armies. And I really got a lot of use out of that, in that series, of that experience of fighting in the SCA. So, I’m glad I did it.

Has the history and anthropology you studied also come in useful in your writing? I would expect they would.

Well, I still read a lot of…I mean, history is my main reading. The thing I read most is history. My dad was a history teacher, and so I’m very much still reading history and anthropology. I consider myself still a student of it, I guess I would say.

And that figures into your worldbuilding and everything?

Oh, absolutely.

Well, let’s talk about how you broke in, then. How did you go from being, you know, writing, but then writing professionally? How did that all work for you?

So, you know, when I broke in back in the day, things were very different. Social media didn’t exist. The Internet was in it…even in its early days, you could get together. I got on, like, bulletin boards like Genie, back in the late eighties. And it was very much a query culture. You would write to agents and hope someone would want to represent you, and then they would send, you know, your work to editors. Some publishers still had slush piles. So, I did what a lot of people did. I wrote around until I finally got an agent who was willing to represent me and then they eventually sold something of mine, and then it just proceeded from there. I later switched agents. So…does that explain enough? I don’t know that it’s a particularly relevant story in terms of what people can know today. It just…you just have to be persistent.

Yeah. And I’m from the same era, but I didn’t break in as early as you did, but I was certainly going through that whole process as well. So, yeah,

And I also wanted to say that I didn’t come up come in through the science fiction/fantasy community. I know a fair number of people who were fans first, which is another way. I mean, there’s no, like…there is no one right way or better way to do it. So, I know people who came in through fandom. And they were in fandom and then they got published. And that’s another way to do it. I’d never attended a science fiction/fantasy convention until after I was published. So, they weren’t anything I really knew about until then.

We didn’t have a lot of them around Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where I was growing up. I think the first one I was at was when WorldCon was in Winnipeg. That was the first major convention I was at.

Yeah, yeah. So, I didn’t…I just wasn’t aware of things like that. And I was probably a little too reserved to ever have gone just on my own anyway.

Well, let’s talk about your making of books, which is what this podcast is about. And also, you know, you already mentioned that everybody does it differently. And that’s one thing I’ve certainly found out in talking to…I think you’ll be like my sixtieth author or something like that I’ve interviewed.

Wow.

Everybody does it differently. But let’s find out how you do it, and we’ll focus on Unconquerable Sun, which is the new one. And I’ve delved into it. I haven’t finished it, which is fine because I’m going to get you to give a synopsis of it without giving any spoilers.

Well, I just say what the pitch is, which is it is gender-bent Alexander the Great in space.

That’s pretty much a perfect elevator pitch.

It is. And I’m not even good at elevator pitches, but that is literally what it is. So, the first book is what I would call young Alexander. So, it takes place in a set period of time. It takes place…there’s an opening sequence of things and then a time skip, and then the rest of the book takes place in about two weeks. Based on our understanding of a week, not on theirs. Right?

That’s a fast pace.

Yeah.

For a big space-opera type story.

Yeah. So, it’s…yeah. I’m not good at describing plots, that’s why I…

Well, I think the pitch does a good job of presenting an intriguing set-up, that’s for sure. And I have enjoyed what I’ve read of it, delving into it. How many…well, it’s obviously more than one book. How many books do you envision in this?

Well, I do want to say that the first book is a complete story. It doesn’t end on a cliff-hanger, it’s a complete story. Which I did on purpose because I think if one is going to use…I’ve written…let me just backtrack a moment to say that I have, of course, written trilogies that had cliff-hangers at the end of every volume. And with this one, I wanted to try to give people the chance to read a book, feel really satisfied at the end that they had read a complete story, things had been resolved, but that there were other threads now that they would want to follow. And that was my intention all along with book one, and that’s why I call it Young Alexander, because it takes place at what would have been the Court of Macedon, more or less. Yeah. So…where were we going with this question?

How many books do you envision eventually?

A trilogy.

Trilogy.

Yeah.

All right, so we have our elevator pitch here, which almost sounds like the idea that came to you to start this whole process. But what was the genesis of this and the kernel that this grew from? And is that typical of the way that you start growing stories? 

It isn’t, because actually, it did kind of come from the, “What if I did gender-bend Alexander the Great in space?” And normally, my stories start with, like, an image or a moment, as if almost as if seen in a motion-picture sense. So, for example, Crown of Stars, which is seven volumes, the seed of the idea for that was me, in my head, seeing a young man who’s walking between the village where he was born and grew up, as far as he knows, walking over…it’s on the ocean, and he’s walking up and over a ridge pathway that leads, on the other side of the ridge, to a monastery, where he’s taking something for the monks that his aunt is sending him with. And as he’s walking up over them, he sees this massive storm coming in, way too fast, off the sea, and as it overtakes him on the ridge, a woman, a middle-aged woman wearing battered armor, with a sword, rides out of the storm toward him. That’s the beginning of that book. That’s the seed image of that book. Everything else grows out of that.

Or Cold Magic, the Spirit Walker trilogy, the first book is called Cold Magic. This is the afro-Celtic post-Roman lawyer-dinosaur book. So with that one, it’s similar, in the sense that, in my mind, I saw these two young women sitting in a paned, p.a.n.e.d,  like windowpane, window seat, looking out over a courtyard as a carriage arrives, and they know that something unpleasant or something that means something bad for them…they have a bad feeling about that carriage and what or who is coming in with that carriage. So that again…and that’s the whole seed of that story. And in both of those cases, what you see is, you have a person with something about to meet them. You know, there’s your conflict, right?

And then, but also in my mind’s eye, what I see also tells me something about the kind of the general historical era it’s going to be in. So, on the one hand, the armor she’s wearing is chainmail, it’s not plate. So now we’re going earlier, and it’s there’s a medieval sense because there’s a monastery. So, now I know that I’m in a more early medieval period. And the other one there is a carriage and the way they’re dressed, and I could see that it was kind of a late 18th-, early 19th-century setting.

But with gender-bent Alexander the Great in space, that’s a very concept-driven idea. And I’m not, in that sense, concept driven. I’m more like emotional-moment, meeting-a-landscape, meeting-a-conflict driven. That’s where most of my stories come out of. So, for me, with that concept—and there’s, in a way, more to it than that, but I won’t…you know, I had just written Court of…well, first of all, I have a son named Alexander, you know, so I’ve been interested in the story. And he is named after Alexander the Great. And so, I’ve been interested in the story of Alexander the Great for a long time, just in general. But then when I wrote the young adult fantasy trilogy, Court of Fives, that…I drew a lot of inspiration from the Hellenistic-era Egypt, in which people from Macedonia, Macedonians, came and established themselves as the rulers of Egypt over this large indigenous population. And I…and the last Ptolemaic, the last of those rulers, was Cleopatra, who we…she was actually the seventh Cleopatra of that lineage, but she’s the Cleopatra we all know, right?

So, writing that…and I did so much reading about the Hellenistic era, which is that period…it’s the period basically from Alexander to Cleopatra. And that’s called the Hellenistic period, when the Hellenic, the Greek, culture was spread throughout the Mediterranean. And it was kind of, it was kind of the multinational American pop Hollywood culture of its day. That’s a terrible, terrible simplification, but there’s a similar sense. So…and I think that kind of rolled me toward gender-bent Alexander the Great in space, if you see what I mean.

But conceptually, what I had to do then was to say, “OK, I’m going to do it like this. I want to do this concept. But now, what do I want it to mean? What do I want to do with that concept?” And that’s, for me, a different direction to build a universe from than what I’m used to, because in the other cases it’s more like, “Oh, I see, I’m in this place already. Now I need to discover it by writing it and deciding what aspects I want to see. And where does this road go to, right?” But in this case, I could have done anything because I didn’t have that visual seed image already in it.

So, what was your approach to planning it out, and how does that match up with the usual approach? Do you do a lot of outlining, or how does that work for you?

Well, I’m not really a…I outline, and I don’t outline. So, I kind of do both. But I can actually. I can. So, what I had to do was to ask myself specific questions. And there’s two main questions I had to ask. So, the first one is, if I’m going to make the Alexander character a woman, the first question I have to ask myself is, “How does this princess…?” Well, actually, let me step back to a third question. So, the first thing I have to do is I have to say, “OK, Alexander the Great as a story only works if I have a kind of a monarchy, and I have a lot of war.” So, either you’re going to want to write that story or not, right? And, you know, I get tired of writing about monarchies. I’ve written stories that weren’t about monarchies because I was like, “I’m done with writing about monarchy.” So, that was partly an issue for me. It was like, “Do I really want to go back to…do I really want to do this again?” But I really wanted to do it. I really loved the concept. So, that was my first thing, was to accept that it’s not that story if you don’t have those things. So…do you see what I’m saying? It’s like, “I want to write a Sherlock Holmes story, but he doesn’t solve any of the mysteries.” Then it’s not a Sherlock Holmes story.

Yeah, exactly.

Or if he’s super well-adjusted about everything, well, then it’s not really a Sherlock Holmes story, you know, and he doesn’t have his sidekick, Watson. Well, I mean, part of that…that story is based also on their relationship. So, when you’re taking something, a concept like that, that has a relationship to things that readers know, but that, you know, there’s a—for me, and I’m not saying anybody has to do this—but for me, there is…I have to decide what essential things are absolutely necessary to make it still that story or to be a Sherlock Holmes retelling, right? What do I have to have for that? So, what would I have to have for it to be an Alexander the Great retelling? So, that was stage one.

Stage two was, “What am I going to do with the princess?” Is she going to be the…because, you know, Macedon, like the ancient Greece of its time, was a patriarchal society, where men ruled. Now, women had more scope, in Macedon especially, and women had more scope in the Hellenistic era. It’s quite interesting. And for those who are interested in this issue, please read Elizabeth Carney. I highly recommend her book, Women and Monarchy in Macedonia. It’s an easy read. She really knows her stuff.

I’ll put a link to it in the transcript when I do this.

Yeah, do. Because there’s a lot more interesting stuff going on than one is generally taught in school and then, you know, and the stereotype of what it was like. But nevertheless, it was a patriarchal society. So, this question two is, “Is she the scrappy princess who proves that she’s worth ruling even though she has to fight against misogyny and sexism?” Or…one of the most important things about the story of Alexander is that he was raised as heir in a society where it was absolutely assumed that he was worthy of being heir, right? He had to prove his competency to lead troops in battle because it was, Macedonia, at that time, was very focused on war. The reason that Alexander’s father, Philip, became king was because his older brother died with a, like, a three-year-old son, and a three-year-old son can’t lead an army. So, Philip became king.

And this is actually common. And this is true in, like, Anglo-Saxon England as well. Alfred the Great, whom many of us have heard of, became King because he was like the fifth or sixth of six brothers. And the other ones all died one by one, killed in wars with the Vikings. And any children they left were too young to lead armies. And so, it passed down the brother line, not father-to-son line. And that’s an important difference in how rulership is seen. So…and that’s where the history comes in useful, right/ Just to know that that exists, that it doesn’t have to go father to infant son. It can go father to brother, or it can go adult to adult.

But anyway, one of the things about Alexander—sorry I’m so geeky about history—but one of the things about Alexander is he was made for the moment, everything about his life, who he was, his capabilities, made him for that moment. He didn’t make that moment. He was there, the right person at the right time. And when I looked at the story, I thought, “You know, if the scrappy princess fights against sexism to prove her worth, it’s not that story anymore, is it?” So, that was the first thing, the first decision, the first worldbuilding thing that fell into place was, it’s absolutely commonplace. They don’t care in this society. Gender doesn’t matter in that sense.

So…and, in fact, I swap a lot of, you know, I spin a lot of gender. So, the Phillip character is…so the Alexander character’s name Sun, like the sun in the Sky, and her mother, Eirini, which means peace, by the way, it’s an ironic name, is the Philip analogue. So…but Eirini in the book has three older brothers. And, in fact, Philip had two older brothers and they had a sister, these three brothers. So that’s kind of borrowed from history, as well. And they were all…they all ruled before her but were killed in war, and it came to her down that line. So, deciding that that aspect of it was that rulership wasn’t based on gender, it wasn’t that only women ruled or only men ruled, it was, you know, the most competent person ruled if they were part of the royal house. So, that made that decision for me.

And then, the third question I asked myself was, “Am I going to create a setting, a space opera setting, that is completely unattached to Earth?” It’s kind of like Star Wars, right? There’s nothing in Star—I mean, except for the fact that it’s written by us and we see it—it’s not—there’s no references to Earth that I know of in the Star Wars universe.

No.

So, I could either do that, or I could do that thing where there are connections to Earth. And for my own purposes, mostly because, in large part because I thought it would be more fun because I really like Easter eggs and stories, I decided to go for a connection with Earth and then I had to decide how I wanted that connection to be. Did I want it to be a close connection or a very, very distant connection? And my decision was to make, to set this, in the far, far future, very far away, you know, an unfathomable distance away, that the people, that humans, had settled it via generation ships and that the separation between this place, where they have spread out now into a rich network of worlds, their relationship to Earth is that for them, Earth is the mythic celestial empire. And their understanding…and because the archives that came on the ships, this isn’t really a spoiler, it’s referenced, people reference it, kind of, in the story, but it’s never explained because they wouldn’t think to explain it. So, all the archives that came with the ships were contaminated and broken down.

So, it’s basically, when we look at ancient Sumeria or when we look at the Harapan civilizations of the Indus Valley of four, five, six thousand years ago, we have fragments, and we try to build an understanding of their past by looking at these fragments and by filtering them through our understanding. And that was the core worldbuilding principle I chose to use, which is they have fragments of the past, but they don’t even know Earth is…they wouldn’t even call Earth, Earth. They call it the Celestial Empire, you know, the world…so, they have fragments of it, and how they put that together into their own society is the way…is the foundation on which I built the world. And I did it partly for the Easter eggs, partly so I could use familiar names and not have to use made-up names. And then, it just allows me to play a lot…both with expectations, it allows me to make references that the reader will get, but that the people in the world don’t know is a reference to that thing. It just allows me…it allowed me a lot of leeway to make commentary and also to have fun. And I think space opera should be fun.

I agree. Did you then…doing all this worldbuilding, at what point does the actual plotting come in? Do you work out a detailed plot, or do you write and then use the revision to pull everything together?

Well, again, this story is a little different because it comes with a plot. And it’s not that I use that plot exactly. But I drew heavily, heavily from the actual history of Alexander the Great. And I changed things up and moved stuff around, and that’s ongoing as I work on the subsequent books, right?

But, for example, and this, again, isn’t really a spoiler, the plot kind of works outward. Like, the first scene I specifically had in mind that I knew I wanted to use is a famous incident from the life of Alexander when he was…he would have been, I guess, at this point, 20…his father, Philip—Philip had like, I don’t know, six, seven wives. Not—and in those days, the king would marry for alliances, alliance purposes, and so you could, you would have more than one wife at once, it just wasn’t the same concept of what marriage was for—but his father, having…Philip was actually an amazing character who accomplished an incredible amount, which I won’t go into here, but he kind of had a festival celebrating himself. He was not a man of small ego. He had a festival celebrating himself, at which he also married Alexander’s full sister—so Alexander had one full sister, Cleopatra—he married Cleopatra to…their mother, Alexander and Cleopatra’s mother, was the famous Olympias. She had two children by Philip. Her brother was king of Epirus, which was a neighboring kingdom. And that’s…you used alliances to link those things…so, Philip had a festival to celebrate himself and to marry his daughter, Cleopatra, to her uncle. Because that’s what you did in those days and…

No, I’m wrong. Never mind. OK. Sorry, that’s a different episode. Let me step back. Let me step back a moment. I’m still with the banquet. No, it’s because what I’m writing right now has me in that headspace. This is, see, this is the difficulty of writing history.

OK, when Alexander was 18, move back two years…I knew I was on the right road when I talked about the six wives. Anyway, Phillip had married all these women for alliance purposes, and now he’s in his mid-forties or late forties, and he marries a young Macedonian—oh, and all the wives he had married were not Macedonian. They were Illyrian. They were Epirote, like Olympias. They were…I think there was one from Thalassia. I don’t know. Anyway. So, but they were alliance marriages, right? And now he’s older, and he decides to…evidently he actually fell in love with this young, probably 18, 17, 18-year-old, young Macedonian woman who was highborn and whose uncle was one of Philip’s companions, one of his intimate friends who were his supporters and the people he trusted most, right? So, this man was her guardian. And he, Philip, decided to marry her to, to marry Cleopatra, which angered Alexander’s mother, because, you know, there’s always more rivals, right? Especially if there’s someone in court who can be pushing for this woman. And Philip is still young at this point, mid-forties was still, he wasn’t an old man, he was still young. There was no reason to think he could live easily another twenty years as long as he didn’t die in battle or whatever, right?

So, at the banquet, which Olympias did not attend because of the insult to her, even though she was the fourth of six wives, at the banquet, everyone got drunk. And there were no women at the banquet, I should say. Besides the fact Olympias wasn’t at the palace, there were no women at these banquets. Everyone gets drunk, and the uncle of the new bride stands up. So, remember, Alexander’s mother is Epirote. So, she’s not Macedonian. She’s Epirote, from the neighboring kingdom.

The uncle of the bride, the young bride, stands up and toasts her and says, “Now, at last, we can have a true Macedonian heir.” Right? Well, Alexander was quick to take offense to this. He was drunk and he was eighteen. He jumps up, and he threw a cup at this man, right? And hit him in the head, which, of course, is a horrible, horrible insult in guest terms since Philip was hosting the party. So, Philip, who was also drunk, jumps up and he’s like…I won’t use bad words…anyway, he uses the equivalent of an “eff you, you!” to his own son, right? Grabs a spear and makes to throw the spear at his own son, who has already proven himself in battle at this point, by the way, as a competent war leader. But he trips and falls, and it all goes…and then Alexander says something like, “Well, look, there’s the man who says he’s going to conquer Asia. He can’t even stand upright, you know, because he’s so drunk.” So, then Alexander leaves court for a while, while things cool off, you know. But, of course… and then, the new wife gives birth to a girl baby. So, Alexander comes back, right? So, we’re all good, right. Anyway, that scene is so great on so many levels. That’s the scene, like, that I built the book out from.

What does your actual writing process look like? Are you…I think you’ve said somewhere that you think you’re a fairly slow writer? Do you write with parchment under a tree somewhere or do you go out, do you write in your own office? How do you like to work?

Oh, I write in my own office. I’m fortunate. A back…I know this happened…this was like, a thousand years ago, I also would sometimes go to, like, the library or to the coffee shop to work for a change of scene.

I work in coffee shops. Well, not right now, but I work in the coffee shops some myself.

Sometimes I just want the change, you know, to kind of shake things up a bit. I have a book that I mostly wrote at the library because I found that if I was at home, I wasn’t working on it. But if I went to the library—and this was back when the library, it was hard, it was so hard to get on the Internet at the library, or maybe there were only, like, two limited slots, I think it was before wi-fi, that it was really great or before this whole library had…yeah. So, I was like, I had nothing to do but write there. But yeah, I work at home.

Do you work sequentially, just start the beginning and write to the end of the story, or do you do it scenes and then stitch them together later? How does that work for you?

I am a sequential writer. I know people who stitch, which I find fascinating. It’s not something I can do.

Me, either. So, I always ask.

No, but I know people who do it, who will, like, write out of order. Katherine Kerr, for example, who wrote the Deverry series. She writes scenes…well, you should ask her, but she just had a book out in February called Sword of Fire, a standalone Deverry novel, in fact.

She’d be a good guest. I should definitely reach out.

She would. She would be she’d be a great guest. But, yeah, I tend to…I both outline and don’t outline, so I’m kind of a major-points outliner. I need to know where my endpoint is. I know some of the major scenes along the way. And then…but then I discover. So, it’s kind of like islands, the Hawaiian Islands, for example. So, I can see the point I want to get to, but I’ve got to go underwater to get there. And underwater is the stuff I don’t quite know. But I’ve also…I said before that I’m an athlete. One of the interesting things to me about writing is, I’ve heard of people who can plot everything in their head before they start writing. But I have to…like, literally physically for me, I swear, the act of going from my head through my arms, through my hands onto that motion. I think that’s part of the process for me.

Yeah, I’m not much of an athlete, but I feel that myself as well. There’s something about the actual process of typing that makes it happen.

Yeah. There’s a kinesthetic thing there. And I feel like, if it doesn’t go through my hands, I’m losing a step.

And I have talked to, well, David Weber, for example, because of an accident, dictates most of his work. And I have done that once for a nonfiction book. And it wasn’t too bad for nonfiction, but I’m not sure, I don’t know what would come out if I tried to dictate a story. I may try it sometime just to see what happens.

I know Kevin Anderson dictates his first drafts, I believe.

Because to me, it seems like it’s just such a completely different way of translating what’s in your head into words than the typing process. So, anyway…

Yeah, yeah, yeah,

Everybody does it different, as we said. And that brings us around to the revision process. Once you have that draft…and I know you’ve written extensively about this on your website, so I should point people to that, that you have a three-part, the revision process in three parts on your website, which goes, I think it’s about eleven pages when I printed it out. But, in brief, what’s your revision process look like?

Well, one of the things that happens to me is, when I say I write sequentially, I do, but I don’t. Often, I will write forward to a certain point, and then I’ll say, “Ooh, wait, now I’ve moved myself off onto this other path. I need to go back and fix some of the things that were pointing me to a different path,” because I somehow just can’t, I can’t keep going till the end if stuff is pointing the wrong direction. So, I revise…it’s not that I…I try to write straight through to get a complete draft because I can’t really understand the book until I have a complete draft. But at the same time, often there’s a couple of pause points where I’ll often stop and go back and revise forward and then go on.

But my revision process has a lot to do with structure. I need my books to be structured, like, the framework needs to be right. So, the first thing I always do is, look, “Do these scenes lead to each other? Have I set up the…not the mystery, but I have set up like the character journey or the plot way that I’m presenting?” Like, I might be presenting ideas that and foreshadowing and set up, so that, you know, at three-quarters of the way through the book, the reader will suddenly go, “Oh, my gosh, these two people are going to meet, aren’t they?” Right? And so, that’s kind of my first thing, is to see, “Are these things set up the right way for the ending I want.” Once I’ve done that—and sometimes revising the structural aspects can be a major, major task. My novel Black Wolves, I must have restructured it three times before I settled on the structure that I wanted.

Then I’ll go back…and I would call that a structural revision…then I would go back and do large scene revisions, where I have to ask myself, “Does this scene even need to be here? What do I need this scene to do? Is it helping? Is it helping the larger story? Is it pointed the right way? Are they saying the things they need to say to get me…and, does it lead into the next scene? Maybe I need to flip two chapters because they make more sense.” So, that’s kind of that level. So, it’s kind of like the big level, the broad camera level, the widescreen level, and then the kind of the medium-screen level.

And then, after I’ve done that revision, then I’ll go in and kind of fine-tune the scenes, you know, “Can I cut out any of this dialogue? Can I collapse these two sentences into one? Can I cut out some details that I don’t need? What’s the one detail I need for this scene to pop out?”, you know.

And then the last revision stage for me would be what I would call line edit, where I would just go through and close read it, to cut what I can and to make sure that the language is good and the sentences make sense and, you know, are most felicitous to read.

I think you’ve said in something that I read that you do use beta readers. Where do you find those people, and what do they do for you?

Well…the beta readers I use are just, they’re really just other writers I know. So, I don’t, like, go looking for them. I just build…as I have built community, I have people who will beta read for me. Does that make sense?

Yeah.

And another thing that happens is that you may go through a phase where, like, I’ll have, like, you know, I might have one series that one person beta read a lot of it, but then, the next series they were doing stuff and couldn’t read it and so they haven’t read anything of some other series. So, sometimes it’s just…I go through phases where one person might do a lot of beta reading for me for a couple-of-years period and then maybe none after that, or, you know. So, it comes and goes, what people have time for. I’m the same. I’ve beta read for people as well and, you know. Like, right now, there’s a couple of people who I’ve done a fair bit of reading for. And in ten years, maybe I won’t have, you know, I mean, I just don’t know. It’s just kind of cyclical.

What do you find as a benefit of having beta readers?

The benefit of just, different eyes. They’re looking at it in a way I’m not. And one of the important things about beta readers…it’s useful to have what I call alpha readers, and those are people who just pat you on the back? Sometimes you just need someone to say, “Hey, this is great. Hey, can I have something more? Hey, I love this. Hey, keep writing!” if you maybe are struggling or aren’t sure. But a beta reader is supposed to be there to say, “Hey, I didn’t understand this.” I just read a science fiction novel, beta-read it, and I said, “I don’t understand how this spaceship is laid out. And a lot of the story, the story has a kind of a mystery-thriller aspect. And so, they would say, “Well, I went down to the X,” and I’m like, “I have no idea where the X is.” So, they ended up just dropping in early in. There’s this, like, three-sentence description, and it’s done in a way that the main character is talking about it or thinking about it, where it just lays out how the ship works, how the ship is laid out physically, in very clear terms. Because to the writer, he knew it in his head. He could see it. And he thought that his two words using, I think he used cylinder and torus, well, that should be enough. Right? And I’m like, “I don’t understand where I am.”

That’s actually something I often mention when I work with new writers is yes, you understand everything that’s going on. It’s all very clear in your head, but you have to put enough on the page for the reader to be able to make that jump and get some sense. Yeah, that’s a…it’s a common thing.

But I still struggle with that all the time. Every book.

Yeah, me too.

I mean, do we ever get this fully right?

And this is something…we’re getting up to the editor stage now, where you send it in, and the editor takes a look at it. That’s often something that I’ve found that the editor will come back and say, “You didn’t explain enough of this, or there’s a connection here that’s missing or something.” Do you get that same kind of feedback?

Well, that’s what a good editor does, right? So, there’s for me, a…I’m going to say, bad editor. I hate using that word bad…a bad editor wants you to write the story that they think it should be. A good editor says, “What’s the story you want to tell here? And how can we make sure that you’ve told that in the clearest, most engaging and most accessible way possible?” Accessible based on what your goal is. I mean, if your goal is to write a very dense inaccessible tome, that’s fine. I mean, seriously, that’s fine. But you want it to be that. So, a good editor will look at what you’re doing, and they’ll be able to get what you’re doing, and they’ll be able to dig into you and say, “Is this what you want? What are you trying to get here? How can you bring this out more clearly?”

And we mentioned that we both worked with Sheila Gilbert at DAW.

Yeah.

And one of the things I’d like to point out about editors, and Sheila is a great example, is they have seen so much. So many stories and so many ways of telling stories. They’ve seen all the mistakes and they….yeah. And I always really appreciate the feedback I get from Sheila for that reason.

Well, and the other thing about an experienced editor is that an experienced editor is patient for that reason, because they love books. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t love books. And they’re patient with your flaws. So, sometimes…some people will go over and over and over a book because they want to turn in something that could be immediately typeset. And sometimes it’s because they don’t want other people, other hands in it, which is fine, I mean, we all get to process how we do that. And others, I think it’s because they’re uncomfortable with people reading something flawed. But I’m a youngest child. I do not care. I want to ultimately write, I ultimately want published, the best book I can. And so, I’m happy for my editor to see it at a little earlier stage if that means that she can help me with some of the places that I might not be seeing, you know, and then that allows me to to get my fingers in there at an earlier stage when the narrative is more elastic, because I find for me that as I do each stage of revision, you know, down to the line edit, by the time at the line edit stage, things are less elastic now, I can’t make big changes without having to rip apart the whole book. But I can make larger changes earlier on. It’s not solidified yet. So, I would, you know, I would rather…I like getting feedback at that earlier stage and then in the other stages as well.

Well, we are kind of at the end of the time here. So, I do want to ask you…you kind of touched on part of what I usually ask at this point, why people create and write. You mentioned that right off the top. But to bring it down to you…and this is sort of in the bio, breathing and writing, right? Why do you write? Why do you do this? What do you get out of it, and what do you hope that your readers get out of what you present to them?

It’s a particularly interesting question, because what I…I still get out of it what I got out when I was young, which is just the joy of telling stories and kind of the amazement of telling stories about people who don’t exist, you know, doing things that never happened. Why do we enjoy these things? It’s kind of bizarre when you think about it, but it’s also really cool. So, I still have that. But then, as you spend decades doing it, as I have, and as you have, right, then other things happen.

I mean, partly for me, it’s like, I have no other skill at this point. You know, it’s like this is my marketable skill. This is what I know how to do. I have a habit. I’m used to doing this. But the other reason is that I just want to do, I want to keep getting better. So, part of it for me is just that I want to write, I want to do better with my next book. I want to do something that I couldn’t do ten books ago, but now I can do it. Now, I know, because for me the process is just this, the excitement of challenging myself. So, I can continually challenge myself at something that I like to think I have gained skill at, that I am no longer an apprentice, but a master at doing. And I just love that sense of challenge and of getting closer to, you know, having that product and…not product, but that story at the end where I say, “Yes, yes, this was it. This was what I wanted to write. This matches more closely than ever before that thing I had in my head.” 

I’ve sometimes used the metaphor of writing is, when you first have the idea and the concept, it’s like this beautiful Christmas tree ornament, and it’s shiny and it’s perfect, and then you smash it, and you try to glue it back together with words.

That’s great. Yeah.

And what are you working…oh, the other part of that there was, what do you hope your readers get from your writing?

Well, you know, I hope that they feel immersed in the world and that it gives them that…I hope that while they’re reading it, they really feel that they are in that other place, you know, living with these people through whatever they’re going through. That’s really my goal as a writer, is that immersion.

So, you’re offering them that portal that you never found when you were a kid?

That’s right. That’s right, Ed.

And what are you working on now? I mean, obviously, the next book in this series, but…

Yeah. Yeah, I am.

Does it have a title?

Yes. Book two is called Furious Heaven.

And anything else in the works?

Yes, but nothing I can talk about at the moment.

OK. And where can people find you online?

I am on Twitter @Kate ElliottSFF. That’s Sam Frank Frank. On Twitter. Did I say that, Twitter, already? And I do have a website called I Make Up Worlds, which I haven’t been posting on recently. So mostly it’s Twitter these days for me. I’ve backed off on other things. It’s just too much.

Yes. So often, social media seems like too much.

Yeah. Yeah. And I…yeah. And I’ll be backing off online quite a bit for the rest of the year to just really focus on writing.

All right. Well, thank you so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I really enjoyed the chat. I hope you did too.

I did, Ed. And I’m sorry I went so history geeky. I just can’t…I just love history. And I want to say one last thing about worldshaping and about worldbuilding and how much I recommend to people that they read widely about human culture and human experience. I think that is really the best foundation any of us can have as writers.

An excellent recommendation. OK, well, thanks so much.

Thank you.

Episode 61: Jeremy Szal

An hour-long conversation with Jeremy Szal, author of Stormblood, Book 1 in the dark space-opera Common trilogy (Gollancz), author of more than 40 science fiction short stories, and former editor of the Hugo-winning online audio magazine Starship Sofa.

Website
www.jeremyszal.com

Twitter
@JeremySzal

Facebook
@ Jeremy.J.Szal

Jeremy Szal’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Jeremy Szal was born in 1995 and, he says, “was raised by wild dingoes.” He spent his childhood exploring beaches, bookstores, “and the limits of people’s patience.”

He’s the author of more than 40 science fiction short stories, and his debut novel, Stormblood, a dark space opera, came out from Gollancz in June 2020 and is the first of a trilogy. He was the editor of the Hugo-winning Starship Sofa until 2020, and has a B.A. in film studies and creative writing from the University of New South Wales. He carves out a living in Sydney, Australia, with his family.

He loves watching weird movies, collecting boutique gins, exploring cities, cold weather, and dark humor.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Jeremy.

Thank you very much, Edward. Lovely to be here

Well, thanks so much for being on. I haven’t been able to finish your book, but I’ve delved into it enough to know that it looks really cool. So, I’m looking forward to talking with you about it. But before we do that, we will do…well, first of all, we should point out that we are talking across a vast expanse of the planet since I’m in Saskatchewan and you’re in… Sydney, is it?

Sydney, Australia, yeah. I think fourteen hours difference.

Fourteen hours.

Yeah.

So, he’s actually…you’re actually in the future, from my point of view. 

I am in the future. It’s not too bad here, you know. Another day has dawned, we haven’t, you know, destroyed ourselves. Aliens haven’t invaded. Not yet. Yeah.

Well, that’s good to know. I can get up in the morning without fear then. So let’s start, as I always do with my guests, by taking you back into the…I’m going to put reverb on this someday…the mists of time, and find out how you, well, first of all, where you grew up, and how you got interested in science fiction, and how you got interested in writing. So, how did that all work for you?

Yeah, I grew up here in Sydney, Australia. I was always a reader, and I never really thought of genre in any particular fashion. I just read the books I liked reading. But when I was ten years old, we moved to Austria for a couple of years, basically to a small mountain village, because my dad’s from Poland and my uncle and grandfather had died in a very short period of time and he needed to go out and sort some things there.

Anyway, so I’m living there in tall mountain regions of Austria. And for some reason, whatever reason, the local school library has a small English section. And, you know, obviously, they all speak German there. Alas, the world does not speak the language I speak wherever I go. You do have to learn the local tongue. And so, I hadn’t spoken German yet, and so I was still picking through what they had for me to read. And, you know, I quickly devoured a lot. But then, you know, my mother is an English teacher, and she was very, very determined to get me books. And so, whenever we would go to London, we’d always stop at the bookstore and I’d always, you know, devour whatever they had there. Like, I picked up whatever I still thought was interesting, you know, there was no, as I said, it was no genre, I didn’t think of fiction as science fiction or not. I just picked up whatever I wanted to pick up. And one of those things happened to be the Artemis Fowl series. And then I picked up the GONE series by Michael Grant. And then I picked up a few books by Stephen King. And again, I didn’t think of them…I just bought whatever I liked reading. And the covers appealed to me. I liked the action, I liked the adventure, I liked the weirdness of it.

And then, I remember distinctly seeing a cover from Iain M. Banks when I walked into a Waterstones when I was thirteen, fourteen, and something about it just appealed to me, you know, the spaceship, the planet, the weirdness of it, the technology. And I couldn’t put my finger on it. Like, I couldn’t think, “OK, why do I like this?” I just did. You know, obviously I’d seen Star Wars, I’d seen my own fair share of science fiction, I was an avid videogamer, and so I had a little science fiction, but I never really thought of it as sci-fi. But then, when I came back to Australia and when I, you know, finished, started going into high school, I took up a few creative writing courses, and I found that I quite liked it.

And then, I started reading the whole Song of Ice and Fire series, when I was way, way too young to read those books. And then I saw the first season of Game of Thrones, again when I was way, way, way too young for it–I don’t even think I legally could have seen it at the time–and something about the whole idea of fantasy just appealed to me, you know, the idea of a magical realm with its dragons and creatures and these different cultures and different landscapes and all this weird stuff going on like that, this really appealed to me. And so, when I started acknowledging, you know, the idea of science fiction through video games like Halo and Mass Effect, it just really grabbed me. And so, when I did finish high school, I just started reading, going to the bookstores, and going to a science fiction bookstore, science fiction section of the bookstore, deliberately, like, I started picking up The Witcher books, I started picking up Brandon Sanderson, I started picking up Karen Travis, Greg Bear, a bunch of other people and, you know, as I say, the rest is history.

Well, you said that you took some creative writing classes in high school. Were you writing outside of class at the time? When did you start writing your own stories?

Yeah, it was probably earlier. I just basically parroted whatever the hell I was reading at the time, you know? And, you know, I didn’t really think of myself as a writer. I just thought of myself as someone who, you know, I liked typing, and so I just started getting it all down. I mean, like, I don’t even think it was, you know, anything remotely cohesive. I just, you know, did whatever jumped to mind. But then, when I was in high school, and I started taking those classes, I did start thinking of the idea of writing to be published, you know, writing to be read. And one of the things that did that was reading the adaptation of Halo, one of the video games, novelizations by Karen Travis. And I just…it was very, very little action, but it was a very human story. And I just found that I could visualize it very easily because I’d played the video games. And so, it just…I was able to pick it up very, very easily. And I had a very short attention span, so that was, you know, priceless. And so I started thinking, “Hell, I’d like to do this!” And so, yeah, I started doing it seriously. And when I did finish high school, I started pursuing it seriously.

But you didn’t actually study writing when you went on to university. You did film studies, right?

I did both. I did creative writing and film studies. I don’t actually think the creative writing was anywhere near as much help as the film studies thing was. I think the film studies really did hone in on the nature of craft and the nature of scriptwriting and the nature of pushing your characters forward, always intriguing the audience, always having something behind the next corner. A lot of the creative writing classes were, “OK, how do we allude to metaphysical imagery that this obscure 1920s writer was trying to get out, probably while he was depressed, high, and on his deathbed? How can we apply that to our own, you know, creative process, our own creative lives?” And, you know, I zoned out pretty early on in most classes. But the film study was quite educational. So, I think it’s very good to get a diverse range of inspirations.

I often ask people who have taken creative writing in university how helpful they found it for the kind of writing they ended up doing. And you just answered that. And I often get that, especially from people who write in science fiction and fantasy.

Yeah.

It’s just still not a genre that is particularly welcome at university creative-writing programs.

Absolutely not. I straight-up had one teacher tell me that any sort of science fiction, fantasy, anything like that, is just bad. And you could just hear a groan go around the audience, and some girl put her hand up and said, “Yeah, but why?” And I don’t remember the answer because I was too annoyed to pay attention.

But I do remember this one creative writing class where this one girl literally showed up to class with, not a story, she just pasted together all these newspaper clippings of various things that happened around the world and then wrote her own sub-stories about the Salem witch trials, but not really. And so, there were newspaper clippings on this big canvas sheet, like a collage. But the thing is that there was a massive bloodstain on it. And we’re all sitting there, thirty of us, looking at this bloodstain, and wondering who this, you know, ultra-Goth writer, this girl who, what she’d given us. And the teacher’s like, “Uh, what is this?” And she’s like, “Oh, yeah, I was cutting together all these newspaper clippings with a box cutter and accidently sliced my own fingers. And I started bleeding all over the pages. But I’ve decided, you know what? Instead of that, instead of just getting a new one, I’m just going to keep it.”

And I looked at the teacher, waiting for her to tear her down, and she’s like, “Oh, yeah, I can see there that there’s a bit of an arterial spray around the word ‘pain’, there’s a big, big splatter around the word ‘witch,’ there’s a big clump of hair and, you know, residue of nails and tissue right there around the words, the time, you know, and  it’s like echoing back to the blood spilled by generations lost.” I almost flipped the table across. I’ve never been closer to picking up a chair and hitting someone with it in my life.

And because one of my friends at the time, she–who ended up ultimately beta reading Stormblood and is in the acknowledgments for Stormblood–she was a filmmaker, and she’d just come off making a short film that had been screened around the world. And a lot of the actors, some of the actors in the short film have gone on to do bigger things, like, one of the actresses, she’s in a movie, just finished a movie with Jason Clarke and Helen Mirren. And she’s in these, like, another TV show that’s going to be on HBO, and, you know. So, my friend basically helped discover her in short film. And so, we both of us had a background in what we were doing, a semi-professional background. So, we just looked at each other, and we were just boiling. And this other girl, of course, got top marks, for doing, like not even, she didn’t even do any writing. She just cut newspapers together and bled all over them. I think that, if nothing else, that summarizes what my experience at university was like.

Well, you’ve written a lot of short stories, and you’re not a particularly aged individual. So, when did you get started on the short stories, getting-published short stories,?

I think when I was 19, I started getting good news from short-fiction editors. The responses weren’t just, “No, we don’t want this,” The responses were, “This is interesting, but we’re going to pass.” And so, I kept sending them out and sending them out and sending them out, and eventually, one of them sold for actual money. And I was over the moon. I’m like, “OK, I’ve cracked the code. I actually can do this. There is actually a way for me to do this,” because, you know, if you look at that wall, that impenetrable wall between you and being a published writer, it looks unscalable. But now that I actually had done it, I’d actually reached out and found some measure of success, it boosted my confidence.

And so, I kept writing and kept writing and kept writing and I kept sending them out. And eventually, one of those stories, when I was 19, ended up selling to Nature magazine. So…and that was pretty amazing, for me to actually sell to a professional magazine published by Macmillan and to be able to have that, you know, see my story in print and know that it’s widely distributed all around the world. It was an incredible feeling and showed that I actually could do it. And so, yeah, I just kickstarted from there, and I kept writing short fiction over the years and getting them out, and I kept getting my stuff published. And it was, yeah, it was pretty interesting.

I still don’t think that I’m a good short-fiction writer, and I only say that because, as someone who has edited short fiction for about six years and has read thousands of thousands of stories, I think there’s a very, very, very specific sort of story that most short-fiction magazines want these days, all the sort of structure, the sort of style that they’re after. Short stories are not condensed novels. They’re not truncated novels. They’re not very, very quick stories. Short stories, I think, have a very, very specific sort of style to them, not just the way they’re written but the sort of writers that they appeal to. And that’s great, you know, the more, the merrier. But that sort of style generally isn’t for me. I say generally, because sometimes there’s a sort of freedom being able to just go wild and experiment with something, try a new POV, try a new setting, try any of that, you know, and I’m writing 180,000-word epic dark space operas, that are all from first person, voice-driven, and so sometimes it’s a relief to break away from that and just go crazy. But yeah, I don’t think I’ve quite cracked the sort of thing that most short-fiction readers and editors would like to read

I mean, if you look at something like Ted Cheung, he’s never written a novel, but he’s probably the best short-fiction writer living today. And he’s probably one of the only short-fiction writers, modern writers, who’s had his work adapted to an incredible film. That’s how good he is, not only how good his work is, but how widely it appeals, and that in itself is a skill. And I don’t think that’s something I have quite yet.

I did want to ask you about the editing for Starship Sofa. You’re both a short-fiction editor, but it’s also an audio…magazine, I guess. How has that fed into your own writing and the way that you work with words? Has it been…doing all that editing and reading those thousands of short stories, do you think that has benefited your own writing going forward? And also, how does the audio aspect of that fit in?

It absolutely has benefited me. I mean, it’s hard not to, because I’m reading all this fiction and, you know, you have to come to a conclusion. You know, there’s no, “I don’t know if I like this or not,” it’s, “Do I think this is something I want to buy and give money for? Do I want to accept this and be responsible for helping adapt it to audio and putting it on the podcast as something that I’ve edited? Do I want to work with this story?” The answer is yes or no. And in order to come to that conclusion, you have to look at a story, quote-unquote, “objectively,” and think, “OK, is it ticking the right boxes? Does it appeal to me? Do I like the genre? Do I find the style engaging? Do I want to keep reading? Do I like the ending? Do I like the approach that it’s taking?” You know, you do have to sit down and think, “Yes or no, this is something I want to read?” I mean, we’ve all read books that, we’re not quite sure we love them, but we kept reading them anyway. But doing the short fiction, I think, really helped me know, “OK, yes or no.” And one reason why I did that was, I’d read the first page, the first couple of pages, and think, “OK, do I want to continue.” And knowing, being able to say yes or no, would save me, not only so much time but so many headaches, because I’ve gotten fiction that’s made my eyes bleed, not literally bleed, but close to it, but thankfully that’s not the majority. The majority of the stuff is good, or it’s just OK. But, yeah, I would look at the fiction I was getting and make, come to a conclusion either way.

And it really helped me, I guess, nail down not only what I thought was engaging fiction, but what I liked, you know, “I like this!” And a lot of that…for a long time, I thought I was an epic-fantasy person. And now…I moved on kind of to cyberpunk, and then I started developing a taste for space opera. And so, being able to know that when I get something that was set in space or set in a future or set in an urban city, or something that, especially if it was first-person or especially if it was voice-driven, I’d always get excited, like, “Yes, this is my thing.” And knowing that helped me quantify my niche, I think. And that really helped me establish, “OK, this is the sort of thing that I’m into.” And so, when I’d be reading, I’d think, “OK, this is what I don’t do. And all this is a really good trick. This is a really good method of easing you into a universe.” And so, I did slowly accumulate knowledge in that way.

The last question, the answer to your next question, is slightly less interesting, I think. The audio version, the way it basically works, I read it, I decide if it is something that can be read aloud in audio, on top of whether if it’s a good story, I send it to a narrator, they do all the hard work of actually reading aloud the thing and editing it and cutting it together. They send it back to me, I just pop up on the show, I just pop it up to my the editor in chief, Tony, and he broadcasts it. That’s pretty much it.

How did you end up being the editor for Starship Sofa? How did you make that connection?

I think it was Neil Asher who shared a post by Tony C. Smith, the editor-in-chief at the time, and still is. The other guy had left…I don’t know why or whatever, I think just didn’t work there anymore, and so I just messaged him and said, “Hey, can I have the job?” And a short Skype interview later, I got the job. I wish everything in my life came to me as easily as that did.

You mentioned that, you know, sort of going through the different genres and seeing what you like. In your own short fiction, has it gone through various genres as well, or have you tended to write in one genre in your short fiction? Or subgenre, I should say?

Yeah, definitely. I think I started off very, very much sort of fantasy, a bit weird. Mythological sort of style, you know, like the sort of Skyrim, Game of Thrones-esque sort of low fantasy, Joe-Abercrombie-sort-of-style fantasy. And I still love Joe Abercrombie, but that’s not the sort of fiction I ever want to write. It’s just not me. And I think I did kind of develop more into cyberpunk, sort of New Age punk fiction, like China Mieville, Ian MacDonald, Paolo Bacigalupi, that sort of thing. But then I started, you know, getting more into space opera as I consumed, you know, Alastair Reynolds, Iain M. Banks, Peter Hamilton, that sort of thing. And I just felt, “OK, this is the sort of thing that I like.” And I thought, “OK, can I write this?” And of course, no one tells you what you can or cannot write. And so I thought, you know, I’m just going to take a stab at it. And I did.

But I found that short fiction was a little bit constrictive for the space opera genre, especially the sort of space opera that I wanted to write, and so I started developing it more into novels. And that’s more or less the trend. I think the transition that happened in late 2015, early 2016. I’d just come off writing an epic fantasy, a YA fantasy, that I absolutely loathed. I got about two-thirds of the way in, and I’m like, “I never want to read fantasy, write fantasy, ever again. I can’t stand it. This is not the sort of thing, that is not me,” because I go, you know, “OK, I just got rejected for a YA sci-fi novel and 50 percent of the rejections said, “YA sci-fi is a very hard sell,” like, “Science fiction is a hard sell, YA science fiction is an even harder sell.”

And I’d just come off reading Red Rising, and I thought, “You know, this is the sort of thing that I’d like to do.” But I was writing in a fantasy and I’m like, I felt trapped by the genre. And I thought, “You know, screw it. I’m just going to write whatever I want to write. If it sells, doesn’t sell, that’s fine.” I did look at the market a little bit and think, “OK, what’s the sort of thing that is appealing to agents?” And I’ve always loved crime, always loved murder mysteries, and I thought…I had the great, I had the barnstorming, original idea, “Hey, what if we had a murder mystery in space?” And so I wrote it, and I’m glad I did because I wrote that novel in three months, it was incredibly powerful for me to be able to just sit down every day, no matter what I had on, and just pour out a thousand words or two thousand words every single day. Just get it down. No thought of, you know, “Is this good? Is this not good?” I just thought, “I’ll come back and I’ll fix it later.” I just powered it down, punched it out, and in about three months, literally three months, I wrote a whole space-opera novel, and I must’ve done something right because a year later I got an agent with that novel. So, I’m very, very glad I did it. I did do that.

Now, it was that Stormblood or was that a novel before Stormblood?

That is a novel before Stormblood.

Because I didn’t think Stormblood was–it didn’t seem to be a mystery novel set in outer space.

No, it’s not. It was a previous one called The Rogue Galaxy. It was about, you know, the whole premise of it, basically, what if you were convicted for committing a murder you didn’t remember committing? And so that was…and you had to go to the other side of the galaxy to find that answer.

But no, I’d finished that. I’d written it in third person and about halfway through I’m like, “This would really work well in first,” because I was reading a lot of first-person fiction. And it was a little bit too late, and I thought, “OK, at the end, I’ll just go back and change it.” And when I did get to the end, I’m like, “OK, I can’t be bothered about changing it.” So I thought, “I’ll just write a novel,” I think about the end of that year, I decided to just punch out another novel. I mean, even if you do get an agent, having another project under your belt is always a good thing. Having another project, you know, in the percolator is, you know, it’s always good to keep those juices flowing.

And so I started writing in December, either November or December 2016, page one, chapter one of Stormblood. And I thought, you know, “What if we had, you know, a fiction that was very set in space, but it was also very voice-driven, it was first-person, it had an edge to it?” And that idea just appealed to me. And I wrote that first draft in six months, and I must have done something right because a year and a half later I sold it to Gollancz.

Well, this seems like a good place for you to give us a synopsis of it without giving away anything you don’t want to give away.

All right. Stormblood, yeah?

Yeah.

All right. OK, Stormblood. The basic premise is that the DNA of an extinct alien race is used as a drug, and it makes people addicted to adrenaline and aggression. And so, of course, this one empire injected it into those soldiers and got them to fight off a brutal invading empire. And, you know, all seemed well and good. You know, these soldiers are literally addicted to killing, they’re literally addicted to running headfirst into a bullet-storm. What could possibly go wrong?

Well, everything, because it’s permanent and the high didn’t stop when the enemy was over, and the high didn’t stop when the battle came to a close. And they also had these, all these soldiers restless and not knowing what to do with their own bodies. And it didn’t stop when the war was over, and they got sent home, and they had these tens of thousands of soldiers permanently addicted to being on a battlefield. And so, the main premise of this is that the main character is one of these soldiers, comes back from a war, you know, traumatized, ridden with PTSD, but looking for a way to get his life back together. Anyway, the main forces that injected the DNA into him, the Galactic Empire, whatever you’d like to call it, they call him back and say, “We need you to do something for us.” And he wants nothing to do with them, for obvious reasons, because they ruined his life. They lied to him. They’ve lied to millions of people, the cost of winning a war, but at great consequence. And he says, “Why should I talk to you?” And it turns out that his fellow soldiers, the ones that he knows and loves, are all being murdered, being killed off, being overdosed. And it turns out that his brother is the prime suspect. His estranged brother is the prime suspect.

And so, as the book unfolds, you find out his history, you find out his history with his brother, you found his history with his teammates, and their whole central conflict is that he was very, very close to his brother, they developed a very strong brotherhood, you know, when they were surviving together on a brutal backwater planet, when they were surviving an abusive father. And he transferred that same sense of brotherhood and camaraderie to fighting in a war where the only people who knew what it was like to have an alien organism actually, like, squirming around in your head and sniffing up your chest and sniffing up your backbone was to be with, and, you know, what it felt like to be in cover and see the enemy charging towards you and like, get excited, “Yes! There are people shooting at me,” to actually get an adrenaline spike. The only people who knew what that was like were his fellow soldiers. What it was like to want to be suicidal. And so, he developed a very, very strong personal relationship with them.

And he comes home, as I said, and finds out they’re being murdered, potentially by…his brothers are being murdered by his flesh-and-blood brother. And so, the whole central conflict is him keeping the balance between that, being able to hunt down his brothers’ killers while dealing with the fact that his own brother is murdering them. And, of course, because this wouldn’t be a good story without a central personal conflict, the more he investigates danger, the more addicted to adrenaline and aggression he gets. Because he’s been out of the war for a few years, so he’s able to control his body’s, able to control his urges, but, of course, when he’s going up against killers and a shadowy organization, that doesn’t quite work out. And so, the more confrontations he gets into, the more hyped up and the more dangerous he gets and the more dangerous his body gets. And so, there’s that balancing act of keep of trying to get this all done while still not going insane, basically.

Well, it’s a bit of a cliche question, but, you know, it’s still a legitimate one, where do you get your ideas? So what was the seed for this? Where did this the seed for this novel come from that then sprouted to do this trilogy?

Oh, it was just my original genius, just sitting in a dark room and just thinking at all. No, not at all. I borrow very, very heavily from cinema and gaming because I’m a very visual person. And so, the idea of a far-future society has always intrigued me, both in the ideas level and a visual level, to be able to go to some central city on a spaceship, you know, galactic skyscrapers, you know, kind of like Coruscant from Star Wars, and to go down in all these neon dark cities, on all these busy streets that are frantic with these different alien species and different spaceships. You know, that idea has always very, very much appealed to me. And so, I knew that I pretty much wanted to set my story in that sort of universe.

And one thing I found is that there was very little of a Star Wars-esque sort of fiction being written that is not tie-in. There’s a lot of, you get a lot of alien stories that are either first-contact stories or the stories that are basically war-driven stories, that these humans are fighting a war against these aliens, but there’s not quite as many stories about a future society where humans and aliens have, you know, have joined forces or, you know, there’s this multi-species society, like, sort of Mass Effect. And that’s my bread and butter of fiction, and there wasn’t quite as much a lot as I would have liked.

But, so, I wanted to write that, but then I thought, “OK, what about, you know, let’s make it a little bit weirder. You know, what if the idea of, you know, this, how will we people upgrade ourselves and what sort of modifications would we make?” And then I thought, “You know, what if the modifications we made were from the DNA of aliens, how would that work, and how would we grant ourselves with alien, you know, biometrics or whatever?” But then I thought, “Let’s make it a little bit more interesting. What’s the cost of that? Surely there has to be a cost.” And the cost was that it’s a drug and it makes you addicted to getting an adrenaline spike. It makes you addicted to your own body chemistry. And so, then I started developing the idea of a brother, of two brothers who had a very good relationship but then were estranged, and then started developing that relationship slowly as I wrote the book. But yeah, I am definitely a character-driven author. I am not a plot sort of guy. So, I definitely did combine the idea of this alien DNA with the idea of these two brothers and just mashed them together and just sort of went on from there.

Well, what did your planning process look like? You talked about developing the characters, as you wrote. Did you do a lot of outlining ahead of time or just…what did that look like for you?

That’s a pretty good question. I’m most fascinated by this question, as well, because it’s very hard to tell when you see a finished product, knowing what went into it.

And I get a lot of different answers.

Yeah, yeah. In my case, I outlined the broad strokes of it. I knew that I wanted to have this to happen and I wanted the antagonist to be doing this, and I wanted this sort of resolution midway, and I wanted to have this sort of scene, and I wanted to have this sort of arc, but more or less how I got slithered in between that, I pretty much just wrote on the go. But as I did that, I more or less figured out, “OK, this is not what I want to do.” And one of those things was one of the side characters. I’m like, “OK, I haven’t quite gotten his voice down. I haven’t quite gotten his approach, his personality,” and in order for me to write a character, I have to know the sort of person they are because who they are influences the behavior, the relationship, the dialogue. And I can’t just…you know, if I don’t get a concrete answer, it’s going to be wet clay. And so I went back a little bit and did a bit of character tweaking, but more or less, I just went, you know, started going from point to point and just weaseling my way through those points, deciding, “OK, this has happened, OK, how are they going to get to the next point?” And I just rocked up one day and decided, “You know, OK, they will do this, they’ll go here, they’ll do that.” But the broad strokes of the narrative, the big anchor points, were definitely outlined. And I think that comes from film, of all things, because I’ve said, I’m very inspired by film. And one of my favorite sort of films are films where I feel like the director has a very tight control over the narrative, over every shot, over every scene, of the emotion that you’re expected to get from every point in the film.

Like, I’m a very, very big fan of something like a film, like, for example, the film There Will Be Blood with Daniel Day-Lewis. You know, that film is so incredibly tight. You just know that every, behind the camera, he was in absolute control. Like, a director like Martin Scorsese or Christopher Nolan or Denis Villeneuve, you get like something like Blade Runner 2049. Like, this is what they want to do, and this is how we achieve this…they achieved exactly that. And so that sort of thing that I enjoy doing, being able to control my narrative.

Unfortunately, the human brain sometimes has other ideas. And as I’ve discovered with writing book two, and outlining book three, sometimes that doesn’t always go to plan. And so, sometimes being able to adapt and figure out, “OK, this is actually what I want to do.” I mean, you get to a certain point in the narrative, and you’re like, “Actually, my characters don’t want to do this. Well, I don’t want to do this.” Or, “I could think of something better.” And you have to adapt. You have to be able to go along with it. And I refuse to write anything that I don’t want to write because I feel like, “OK, the narrative needs it” or “this is what I planned.” I can’t do that. I need to be able to write something that I feel is what I want to write.

What does your actual writing process look like? Are you a fast writer, are you a slow writer? Do you use parchment under a tree in the backyard, or do you go to a coffee shop? How does it work for you?

No, I siphon the lifeblood of other authors’ dreams, and I distill that into pen and paper.

I should try that.

Well, I’m pretty sure that girl from university, I’m pretty sure she was doing that. No, what I do do is, I am a fast writer. I can do three thousand, four thousand, five thousand words a day. When I was writing Stormblood, that’s the sort of mileage that I was pounding out. I was doing approximately four thousand words a day. Sometimes only a few thousand of those words were good. Sometimes I would write a thousand words and all of them were good. I wish those days happened more frequently than they do.

But no, I do typically go to cafes because I have a studio apartment and I have a lot of things, all my books, all my games here, and a multitude of distractions, either from my dog or my family or anything else that comes along, take me away from my little world. And so, being able to go to a cafe…you know, for some reason being around screaming children and coffee and, you know, waiters and whatever, for that reason, somehow helps me to cope. You know, if I eat, it doesn’t matter what it is. If I’m away from home, I can write more easily than I can when I’m at home. And so, being able to go down to a beachside cafe near where I live and pound out three thousand, four thousand words, I go to the pub, pout out a few words there in the afternoon, it really does help me distill what I need to do. Editing is a little bit more tricky because I’m, as I said, I try to be in control of my craft, and so, being able to be at home and on my big monitor, I think, helps me more specifically. But being able to get out the raw words, nothing gets it out like I do when I’m going out to a cafe or going somewhere public. It really just helps me get those words down. And sometimes that’s just what you need to do, is to make a fiction work.

Yeah, I ask a lot of authors that, obviously, and I personally like to write outside somewhere when I can, hasn’t been a lot of that recently, but one of the things that I have found, and other authors have mentioned this to me, is that they’re fine with the wash of sound from a busy place but if you get a sort of a quieter place, but there’s somebody sitting close to you having a conversation with somebody else, those words can really interfere when they’re writing. At least, I find that. Are you able to just tune all that out in the background no matter what’s going on?

No, I definitely agree. Like, unless everything is so cluttered that it turns into a white noise, no, I can’t. If someone is having a conversation right next to me, it does filter in. I do have a very nice pair of noise-canceling headphones that I make very, very good use of.

That’s when I listen to music. Instrumental music, though, because words in the music are the same problem.

Yeah, exactly. Exactly the same. So I’ve just got this massive playlist of, you know, soundtracks, Hans Zimmer and John Johnson and Brian Eno and all these other great artists and great music soundtracks that really help me distill the sort of thing that I’m trying to write. It’s very, very useful.

You mentioned editing, so what does your revision process look like? Do you write straight through and then edit from start to finish? Do you do a rolling revision as you go? How do you work?

That’s an interesting question because working with an editor is far different than it is working, editing, self-editing your own project. And my editor is Gillian Redfearn at Gollancz. She edits Joe Abercrombie, Richard Morgan, Alastair Rennolds, Joe Hill, a bunch of other fantastic writers. So she very, very much knows her craft. So, the way that we did Stormblood one was that we edited the first half of the book once. Because we did structural changes. And so, she edited the first half of it, I went back, did my editing, made those changes. She looked at it, saw the sort of changes that I had made, and then edited the second half of the book to apply the ripple effects from the first half. So basically, the things that changed in the first half she then helped edit with those changes in mind for the second half.

And so, she basically edited the first half of the book twice, basically. And so, I’ve actually had to keep that in mind when I am writing, doing my editing, I’m thinking, OK, I kind of look at it as a concentric circle. “OK, what’re the big structural things that I’ve got to change? Is it character? Is it worldbuilding? Is it, you know, the big plot revelations.? What are the big things I’m changing?” You know, I’m not preoccupied with small things like one scene or, you know, chopping down an action scene, or at least I shouldn’t be. I’m trying to think of the big things. “OK, do I actually need an action scene here?” Because you can edit your life, your heart out of a scene, and this is actually applicable for something that I just did in book two. I had all these different plot points going on in those one scene that was taking up a lot of time, and it wasn’t getting too much. And so I’d wilt it down and wilt it down and wilt it down and chop it back, chop it back and chop it back, and it came to the point where I realized, “OK, this is getting me absolutely nothing. I’ve got three action scenes in one hundred or so pages. Why don’t I just chop two of those out and just make one big action scene, and that way I can stack on the tension instead of being a stop-start, stop-start sort of approach.” And being able to do that, being able to look at the whole thing in my head and being able to see, “OK, this is what I need, this is what I don’t need,” helps a lot as opposed to going in and picking up minute details, because I’ll do that forever. Honestly, my editors need to pry the final book away from my cold hands because I’m just, “Wait, no, no, no, there’s one word, I’m not sure to call it a spacecraft or ship. I’m not sure to call it a warp drive or hyperspace. Just let me change it, one thing.”

And so being able to look at the big picture really does help. I mean, to be able to say, “OK, I’m not going to be too preoccupied in this line of dialogue from this character. I’m going to be preoccupied with, is this what I want the background to be? Is this what I want their approach to these, is what I want their arc to be. And that really helps, being able to look at the big picture and hold the big thing in my head. It’s a great help. And being able to do that helps me, you know, really self-interrogate, I guess, the sort of book that I’m trying to write. And even if it’s a waste of time, even if you’re like,”OK, I’ve spent a whole day looking at this character. Yes. I’m happy with the way…I don’t want to change it.” That reaffirms in your mind. “Yes, I’ve made the right decision. This is what I want. And that can be a really good thing.”

You mentioned in your acknowledgments quite a few beta readers. Where do they come into the process?

They came in by telling me, not what I wanted to hear, but what I needed to hear. And yeah, they…one of the best comments I got was from a writer called Gemma Anderson, or she writes under G.V. Anderson, and she said to me, and she’s a writer on her own, she’s won a World Fantasy Award, she’s brilliant. And she said to me, “Your characters, these two main characters, they always clash professionally. They never clash personally. What they argue about is always about the job. It’s never about each other or about each other’s attitudes.” And so, that really helped me separate that when I’m writing characters. OK, are these people just arguing because of a small office problem, or are they arguing because of a big character flaw? And that really helped me shift, I guess, from plot to character, and I always try to get my books as character-driven as I can, And so that really, really helped. And so basically they all did help, you know, help me, you know, understand, come to an understanding of what works, what doesn’t work. And beta readers are always going to disagree. They’re always going to give you conflicting information, which is absolutely fine. But being able to hear from a bunch of people, “OK, this is the sort of thing I like. This is the sort of thing that I think works well,” I think that is more helpful than simply, “OK, well, I didn’t like this, or this isn’t working.” Being able to see, “OK, what’s ticking people’s boxes,” I think that’s a really good way to find out what’s working in your book.

How did you find your beta readers?

Well, I knew a few of them, from Starship Sofa partially, from a few other things, but I did, I emailed a few of them or told a few people, “Hey, I would like to do a beta reader swap,” and I read some of their books and they read mine and, yeah, they just, that’s basically how it happened. There’s no lottery, alas, there were not people clamoring to read my scribblings, it was just me reaching out to some people that I knew and asking them, “Hey, want to read my book?” And not all of them ran away screaming for the hills. So they’re the ones that didn’t run away screaming for the hills.

So the book came out in June. It’s your first novel. What was the experience like for you to get that first book and see it in print?

Oh, exhilarating. I mean, it was probably the worst time in the world to be having a debut novel.

Not great.

Yeah, well, you know, COVID, but case in point, the hardback got canceled for my book, but the reason it got cancelled is because Goldsborough Books, a very, very nice independent seller in London who collects first-edition, signed hardbacks and gives them sprayed edges, so they’ve got everything, they’ve got a signed edition of Catch-22, they’ve got all the signed editions of all the James Bonds, every major author pretty much gets, you know, a hardcover signed with them. Like, you know, I think I’ve got a very nice hardcover from Joe Abercrombie, and some of them are still going up for, like, five thousand, ten thousand pounds, for a first edition. Anyway, so, I got 250 copies from them, they decided to take 250 hardbacks, and I got a very nice, gold-sprayed edges. And so, they sold out within a week, 250 copies sold out in hardback, the week before the book had even come out officially, and according to my agent, that’s incredibly rare to happen for science fiction, although that happens all the time for fantasy, but less so for science fiction, apparently. But that was quite a shock to realize, “OK, wow, there is actually an audience,” because it’s impossible to gauge how many people actually know about your book, how many people actually know what people are interested in. And so, that was quite a bit of a shock

But nothing, I think, compares to being able to get that package and being able to open it up and see, you know, your name on the cover and all your words written in these pages. It was exhilarating. But being able to go out and see, go to the bookstore and actually see it in the wild, see it ready for purchase and see people walking past it, that is another thing entirely and being able to see who your neighbors are as well as quite interesting. My actual neighbors, I have pretty good neighbors in my name. I’ve got John Scalzi, Neal Stephenson, Tade Thompson, and Adrian Tchaikovsky and some little known hack called Tolkien. I imagine he’ll be quite big someday. That is more or less my neighbors, depending on what’s in the bookstore. But, yes, that’s quite fun.

As somebody with a last name of W, I tend to be on the very bottom shelf, which is always annoying, but I’m down there with Ted Williams. So that can’t hurt.

No, no, no, definitely not. But yeah, it is quite fun to be able to go there and say, “OK, it’s actually a real thing now,” because the way the industry works is you don’t actually know if anything is going to go pear-shaped at any time, but being able to see, it’s in the wild, it’s a real thing, it’s in people’s homes, people can buy it and read it. It feels real, feels done, like, this is a book that’s part of science fiction canon. And we’re all readers, and so to be able to know that you’ve contributed to that canon, you’ve actually contributed to literature, is quite amazing.

Well, that kind of segues nicely into my other reverb question, the big philosophical questions, which is really, why? Why? Why do you do this? And also, you know, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and I often say that, you know, it’s a lot asking any fiction to actually shape the world, I think very little fiction has had a huge impact on the world as a whole. But you’re shaping readers in some fashion with your fiction. So, why do you write, and what do you hope your writing, what impact your writing will have on readers?

I write so the lambs stop screaming. No, no, no. I write because I enjoy it. I do actually enjoy the process of getting those words down. I enjoy being able to create something that didn’t exist and being able to transplant that idea of, something that prior to me sitting down and putting words to it, didn’t exist. It wasn’t a thing. And being able to have it be concrete and being able to put that in other people’s heads, is something that I quite enjoy, and being able to impact people is even better. But to answer your question, I’m getting a lot of people, quite a lot of people saying to me how much, how touched they were by the portrayal of brotherhood in my book, and how much they, you know, really felt for the main character and his feelings and how heartbreaking that relationship, that deteriorating relationship was with his brother and how heartwarming it was to see him gaining that relationship with his fellow soldiers and his friends and being able to see it slowly built up.

And that’s something that’s quite special to me, because in a lot of fiction, especially between men, I think there’s a lot of…it’s very rarely platonic, it always seems to be sexualized, and a lot of fiction as well, even between men and women, automatically, it seems to be sexualized or automatically seems to be building up to a romance. And my point–and that’s great, you know, and there’s definitely romance in my book, but I do come from a perspective of friendship, of brotherhood, of, you know, really doing what you can for your friends, no matter how much it hurts, and being able to see that it worked, that I actually…that’s something that appeals to me very much, of being able to see that my stab at it, that my attempt of portraying brotherhood and showing the heartbreakingess of it and showing the highs and lows and the benefits and being slowly built up and what it means to people and how, you know, guilt influences people and how people try to get redemption and go out of the way for forgiveness, just so the people that matters to them, that they can build that relationship back. You know, that’s a very messy and sticky, you know, sort of topic, and being able to see so many people have reached out to me saying how much this meant to them, is…it’s great. I mean, that’s all I could want. I mean, I could have people tell me the worldbuilding is good, the plot is interesting, I didn’t see this coming, but really, at the end of the day, if I can, if some people say to me, “These two characters, the emotions that they were feeling, I felt them, and it touched me.” You know, that’s all I can want.

And we are getting close to the end here, so what are you working on now? Obviously, book two and book three in the trilogy.

Yeah, book two and book three. Book two is done in the sense that the words are on the page. Not all of them are in the right order yet, but I am working on that. And I’ve just been talking about it with my editor. I’ve been slowly outlining what I’m going to do in book three, which is a little bit scary. I mean, when I first got the deal, way back in, like, 2018, when we could still go outside, I never, it didn’t cross my mind that I’d be writing a trilogy, because I try to just write my books as a singular product. So, now that I actually I’m sitting down thinking, “OK, I’m going to do that in book three, I’m going to have that plot thing happen in book three,” it’s quite a different feeling, I think. And so, that’s what I’m kind of doing now, really sitting down and distilling that, you know. But it is a slow process, it is happening slowly, but it’s keeping me out of trouble. So, that’s always good.

And have you thought beyond this trilogy to what might come next?

No. No, I’m not allowing myself to do that, I’m just working on this now, I mean, I have ideas, of course, I’ve got plenty of ideas. Not all of them are worth, most of them aren’t worth the page they printed on, and since mine are in the computer that’s absolutely none at all. But I am, of course, you know, always having things churning on back in the mental percolator, but not at the moment. I’m just really focusing on making these the best books that I can. I mean, even if I never get to write another trilogy, I just want to make sure that these count. So this is where all my attention is going.

And where can people find you online?

They can find me on JeremySzal.com, or on Twitter @JeremySzal, or on Facebook, or on GoodReads, all the usual places.

And Szal is S, Zed, A, L. Do you say zed in Australia like we do in Canada?

We say zed, yeah, not zee, not like Americans, you know, we are from English descent.

S, Zed, A, L. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I had a great time talking to you. I hope you enjoyed it.

All right, thank you very much, and thank you very much for checking out Stormblood as well. I really do appreciate it.

Well, I’m looking forward to finishing it. I found the writing really driving me forward and very rich and very descriptive and great characterization and all the stuff I like. And I’m a big fan of space opera. In fact, one of my proposals to DAW right now is for a space opera. So, yeah, so I’m looking forward to finishing it and then carrying on and reading the rest of the trilogy as it comes up.

All right. Thank you very much.

Bye for now. 

Bye for now. Thank you.

Episode 60: Helen Dale

An hour-long interview with Helen Dale, youngest-ever winner of Australia’s prestigious Miles Franklin Award and author of the two-part alternate-history novel Kingdom of the Wicked, shortlisted for the Prometheus Award.

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Helen Dale’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Helen Dale is a Queenslander by birth and a Londoner by choice. She read law at Oxford (where she was at Brasenose) and has previously worked as a lawyer, political staffer, and advertising copywriter (among other things).

She became the youngest winner of Australia’s Miles Franklin Award with her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, leaving the country shortly after it caused a storm of controversy. Her second novel, Kingdom of the Wicked, is published in two volumes by Ligature; it was shortlisted for the Prometheus Award for libertarian science fiction novels, given annually by the Libertarian Futurist Society.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Helen, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Hello, Edward, how are you?

I’m fine, and so glad to have you on. I’ve followed you on Twitter for a while now, and then when I saw that you were shortlisted for the Prometheus Award, I realized that you were in my ballpark when it came to my interviews, and I thought you would be somebody interesting to talk to. So I’m very glad to have you on, even if we are speaking to each other from across an ocean and a large chunk of Canada.

Well, yes, it’s quarter past 4:00 in the afternoon here.

And just after 9:00 here, and I’m still drinking coffee. So if you hear weird noises, that’s what that is.

Worshipping at the shrine at the Great God Cafe.

So we’ll launch into it. And I always start, as I say, with taking my guests back into the mists of time, which, you know, is further back for some of us than others, to talk about how you got where you grew up, how you started writing, your background that led you to writing, and all that sort of thing. And, of course, you’re kind of new to the science fiction and fantasy genre, alternate history, with your latest one. But that’s not how you started, is it?

No. And I’m a slightly peculiar creature in terms of writing in that I didn’t intend to be a writer. That was kind of a mistake. By training, I’m a lawyer, and certainly, in the UK, I’m best known for writing fairly technical, detailed analysis of the legal issues arising out of Brexit. Australia is a bit different. I am best known in Australia as a novelist, but that is purely because my first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, won the Australian equivalent of the Booker Prize, or for you Canadians, the Governor General’s Award or for Americans, the Pulitzer. It’s called the Miles Franklin Award, and it’s Australia’s sort of oldest and most prestigious literary award. And my first novel won that. And that’s a literary prize. To give you an idea of how literary it is, Book One and Book Two of Kingdom of the Wicked are actually not eligible for it, no matter how good they are. I couldn’t win if I tried, basically. So, I have shifted so dramatically in terms of genre that it’s just…I actually had, I’ve had a couple of reviews in, it’s only the Australian press, the British press have been fine, but I have had one review in a major publication which shall remain nameless that basically smacked me for going down-market. You know, you shouldn’t have a Miles Franklin winner, you know, going and writing science fiction, that’s sort of not acceptable.

Oh, horrors.

Oh, dear, horrors. Yes.

Well, did you start off with an interest in writing, or how did that come about for you?

Um, no, no, except in the sense that I obviously have to write things for school and university, that kind of thing. No intention to be a writer. Became a writer completely by accident. There are four of us in my family, and we were all quite sort of scholarly at school. And we didn’t have a horrible time, fortunately, because we were also quite good at sport. And in Australia, you really don’t want to be very clever and uncoordinated, you know, the kind of kid who couldn’t catch a cold, because you will not have a very good time. But fortunately, that didn’t happen to the four of us because we were all quite sporty as well. And my family had produced–I’m the youngest–had produced successively a doctor, a mechanical engineer, an accountant, tax accountant, and then me. And we were all sort of–my family’s relatively traditional, so we went to study what our parents told us to study, basically, based on what we were good at at school. It was like, I had friends of mine, this was just when large numbers of Chinese immigrants were coming to Australia, and I would get the inevitable comment would be, “Ah, your family is very Chinese,” because this is what Chinese families are like: the children, the parents work out what they’re good at and go, “Right, you’re going off to study whatever.”

So no, it was not a plan at all. But what was happening, what would happen is…this is when I was in high school and then when I was at university as well…I would inevitably get comments written on my papers that I handed in, and even examinations, because examinations are done blind, so the markers don’t know who has written the paper. And one of my tutors at Oxford actually said, “This is a completely pointless exercise in your case, Helen, because everybody knows when they get one of your papers because you’re the only person who puts jokes in an examination paper while they’ve been sitting in schools writing it for three hours.”

I’m sure that was a huge relief.

It was just sort of, “Oh, thanks. Right. OK, so I can’t hide. There’s no way for me to hide. They know who I am.”

Were you, because you ended up writing, were you at least like reading fiction during these years when you were growing up?

Oh gosh, I read enormously and widely, and my parents would have been deeply disappointed if I had not.

It would be very odd if you hadn’t read and then became a writer.

No, no. I mean, I was sort of stereotypical of a sort of certain social-class British person. I mean, I’m a dual national of Australia and the UK, but both my parents were British, and my father came from that sort of minor aristocracy, that kind of background where the expectation is that people are literate and well-read and well-formed, have well-formed characters. And so, I read enormously and very widely when I was at school. I read everything that was put in front of me and formed views on it. You know, like, “I don’t think this book is particularly good” or “I do think this book is particularly good.” At one point, I had read every single book in the school library, and this meant that I was, like, sitting and reading the maths ones and the chemistry ones and things like that because I was just running out of things to read.

So yes, I was widely read, but it was very much…I read the newspaper, I did the cryptic crossword, you know, I’d sit in the library and do the crossword and have those sorts of interests, sort of literary things, but it was not in the sense of becoming a novelist, it was in the sense of being a lawyer who could talk about something other than law with the clients, if that makes sense? Yes.

So then, how did that first novel come about?

Well, I mean, I just continually got papers back from academic staff saying…and this is going to sound like I’m skiting, I’m sorry, but it’s nonetheless true…inevitably, I’d get the top mark, but I’d also get, “Oh, this is beautifully written. It’s a pleasure to read,” and so on and so forth. And so, I had a flair for putting words together, that became reasonably clear. And anyway, I got a good idea for a book, and that book became The Hand that Signed the Paper, which is my first novel.

What was it about? What was your good idea?

Basically, what was happening at the time in Australia–this is going back quite a long time ago now, but at the time in Australia, there were a number of war crimes trials, and the people who were being charged were never German. They were always from one of the minority nationalities who, for whatever reason, had allied themselves with the Nazis during the Second World War. So they were Ukrainians and Belarusians and Latvians and Lithuanians and so on. And Australia is a very multi-ethnic, multicultural country, so there were large numbers of them, of people from these ethnic groups.

Big Ukrainian population here in Saskatchewan.

Yes, yours is huge. I mean, I know it’s like an entire cultural phenomenon in Canada. Australia probably took more Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, so we had more the Balkans than Ukraine. But we still have a decent number of Ukrainians, and certainly, the high-profile case, the Polyukhovich case, went all the way to the high court, because there was a serious argument as to the constitutionality of the trial, because of the presumption against retroactive laws.

I’m not going to go into any more detail about it, otherwise, I’ll bore you all rigid, but it was the kind of thing that was interesting to lawyers, and it became very controversial, and it became even more controversial when the jury in the criminal trial–because there were two trials going on, there was the constitutional, whether it could even be heard, and then there was the criminal trial of Ivan Polyukhovich, and the jury took forty-five minutes to acquit, which is as short as it can possibly be, basically. Generally, when you hear that a jury has acquitted someone in forty-five minutes, it literally means they’ve gone into the retiring room, where the jurors retire to consider their verdict, for a cup of tea and a biscuit, and the only reason they’re not making the decision in ten minutes is because they want the cup of tea and the biscuit at the state’s expense. I mean, long experience of jury trials, I assure you this is how the system works.

And so, that caused a big stink as well, because there was this perception that the Crown had a very strong case against Polyukhovich because they had military records and so on and so forth, and it looked like for a long time, and there’s still all sorts of speculation about this, it looked for a long time that the jury had engaged in a form of jury nullification, which exists in Australia as well, which is where we don’t care if you’ve got X bang to rights, we think that this is a dog of a law, so, therefore, we’re not going to convict. And so, I took that basic outline and turned it into a novel, and it…I sent it when it was mostly finished; I think maybe I had a couple of chapters left…

And you’re still in university at the time?

Oh, gosh, yes. Yes, I was about twenty. And I sent it to…I did my first degree, my classics degree, at the University of Queensland, which is in the news at the moment for not-good reasons, basically being far too matey with the People’s Republic of China.

There’s a lot of that going around.

Yes, there’s a lot of that going around. But none of this was an issue in the early 1990s when I was a student there, it was just a perfectly normal…a bit like Toronto, I suppose, sort of university, that style of reasonably good quality, but without being Oxford or Harvard or that kind of place.

Where my daughter is a student right now. University of Toronto.

Yes, Toronto, yes. So, that sort of thing. A decent Commonwealth University without being Oxford or Harvard. And so, there was none of this issue there, and I sent it to…they had a press, the University of Queensland Press, which does have to this day a very good reputation for nurturing Australian literature. And probably their most famous product from UQP is Peter Carey, who’s won the Booker Prize twice and also won the Miles Franklin Award twice. So, he is sort of a big deal in Australian letters, and he started at UQP. And anyway, I sent it to them, it wasn’t quite finished, but it was clearly read and read relatively quickly, which surprised me. And I got a letter back from one of the senior editors at UQP saying you should enter this for the Australian Vogel Literary Award.

Now, that is an award for a first novel, the Australian/Vogel Literary Award. And it’s for an unpublished novel, first novel. So I sent it in to this competition, which is sponsored by the Vogel company, does bread, good bread, has a great reputation, and The Australian is a newspaper. It’s the country’s main national daily, and I still write for it to this day–that created a relationship with that newspaper that is nearly thirty years old now, and it’s…the book is published by an Australian publishing company called Allen & Unwin, but they also exist in Britain. And so, I won that prize, and that was a good prize, it was worth having, it was guaranteed publication, it was this big check from the company and free publicity from the newspaper. And I thought, “Oh, well, this is quite good. I sort of wasn’t expecting that.”

And then it proceeded to start winning a lot of other prizes as well, one of which was the Miles Franklin, which is the top award in Australia. And as a result of that, it became an enormous bestseller. And I certainly became very controversial because of all the war-crimes trials issues that I was talking about earlier and the jury acquitting so quickly and so on and so forth. So, I sort of fictionalized that story. And, anyway, I didn’t have another good idea for a book. I mean, it is very nice to get a bestseller from your first book.

In your early twenties, yeah, that’s not bad.

Yeah, I mean, not a bestseller in the J.K. Rowling sense, but a solid bestseller and plus literary awards as well, which have significant sums of money attached to them. You know, you can do this, you walk into the estate agent and say, “I want that one,” and they see your age, of course, you know, “How are you going to pay for it?” And I go, “By check!”, this kind of thing. So, it was quite a shock.

But I didn’t have an idea for another book. And I tried to start writing one just because there was this expectation, because I’d written this bestseller, that I could produce another one. And I started to write other things, and I was just awful. I’m one of these people, I can’t force myself to write fiction, I have to have a good idea. And so, I eventually just let it drop and went back to doing what my family wanted me to do, which was to become a lawyer, and I didn’t really think about writing anymore for quite a long time. I was just a lawyer.

And changed countries in there, too.

Oh, yeah. Well, I mean, I’m as much British as Australian. I’m as much Australian as I am British. This is the thing. I’m a true dual national. I’ve been educated partly in one country and partly in the other.

That’s me, too. I’m Canadian-American. I was born in the States, moved up here, went back to school for university in the States, came back to Canada.

Yes. So, yes, I didn’t think about doing anything more with writing for quite a long time. I did do quite a lot of journalism, though. So…

You’d been writing, just not fiction.

Yes. Just not fiction yet, I was sort of being funneled…not very deliberately, once again, it wasn’t really planned…I was kind of slowly pushed towards writing and then nonfiction. And so, I was writing political commentary and features in the newspaper and that kind of thing. But they were, none of them were fiction, no short stories or anything.

So that brings us up to Kingdom of the Wicked, when apparently you did have another good idea.

Yes, I did have a good idea.

So, this is where you can read the blurb on the back of the book, and…

Right, yes. I’m going to read this out because my editor is much better at these than me. This is on the back of, the blurb for Book One of The Kingdom of the Wicked. There are two books. Book One is Rules, and Book Two is Order. And they both quite fat books.

I’m looking at them in ebooks, so they look quite skinny to me.

“784 ab urbe condita–31 AD. Jerusalem sits uneasily in a Roman Empire that has seen an industrial revolution and now has cable news and flying machines—and rites and morals that are strange and repellent to the native people of Judaea. A charismatic young leader is arrested after a riot in the Temple. He seems to be a man of peace, but among his followers are Zealots and dagger-men sworn to drive the Romans from the Holy Land. As the city spirals into violence, the stage is set for a legal case that will shape the future—-the trial of Yeshua Ben Yusuf. Intricately imagined and ferociously executed, Kingdom of the Wicked is a stunning alternative history and a story for our time.” And I realize I’ve just read an encomium from a critic on the back as well, which I probably shouldn’t have done, but anyway, there we are.

Well, so that’s…it’s a very interesting premise. And of course, alternate history has a long history as being considered a branch of science fiction. I guess that comes from the multi-worlds hypothesis, I guess.

Yes.

So, how did this come about? Where did the idea come from? I mean, I know…well, I’ll let you tell it. Because we talked a little bit beforehand, but now it’s your turn.

Yes, well, it’s once again, it just struck me as a good idea. It was a good concept. I’d read quite a lot of–I mean, because I’m one of these people who just reads a lot–I read quite a lot of people like Philip K. Dick and S.M. Stirling…

Who’s been on the program.

Oh, you’ve had S.M. Stirling on the program?

Yes.

Yes, the Draka books. And I also liked Len Deighton’s SSGB, which is what would have happened if Operation Sea Lion, which was the Nazi plan to invade the United Kingdom, following in the steps of William the Conqueror, had been successful.

So, I read quite a few books of that type in amongst all my other reading, and every single time I read a good one–and for mine, the one that most struck me is an extraordinary work of fiction that was so persuasive was Len Deighton’s SSGB–I sat there and thought, “It would be very cool to come up with an idea that I could execute as well as he has in that book. And the thing is because, even though it was twenty years earlier, because of The Hand that Signed the Paper, I knew I could write, I know I can put a sentence together. And because of my journalism, and the feedback that I got from working as a journalist and also little things like, you have pleadings, which is part of the role of a lawyer, drafting pleadings, drafting advice, that kind of thing, inevitably, I would be the one who sort of would be patted on the head by the judge along the lines of, “What a beautifully drafted set of pleadings,” so I knew that I could still, I had “it,” this thing. Once you’ve written a book, written a couple of books, you sort of know what’s what. And so I thought, “This would be a really good idea, if I could come up with one that is as good as Len Deighton’s.” And so then I did come up with one that was as good as Len Deighton’s. And I was able to use the fact that I can read Latin…

That helps.

I did it at school and then at university as well. And then also, I was a lawyer and had done a lot of practitioner work and seen a lot of trials, a lot of court work. So, I know the cut and thrust of a criminal trial. And I’m also…relatively unusually, I’ve got experience and training in Scots law. And Scotland is a mixed system, so it has a lot of Roman law in a way that the system in England or Australia does not. So, I was aware of this other great legal tradition that’s not…that is less familiar to a lot of people in the Anglosphere, with the exception of Scottish people, who are familiar with Roman law because of their legal system. And so, I was able to bring that knowledge to bear. And I just kept…I thought, “Well, what would happen if you got someone who turned up who was like this Jesus figure now?” And I’d watched or read all the various interpretations. There are lots of them out there, like Jesus of Montreal and The Last Temptation of Christ by Nikos Kazantzakis, even the humorous ones, Monty Python’s Life of Brian and so on and so forth, because one of the Pythons was a classicist, which is why all the Latin jokes in that work. The gags work because the people writing them really know their stuff. And so, I did all of this kind of reading, and I just thought I would use the point-of-departure principle that speculative fiction writers do, but I would also do a retelling of the story. So, I would keep the story and change the context of it, which is not quite the same as what Len Deighton did in SSGB, which is where he’s got a point of departure and history actually changes. I haven’t got history actually changing in the context of the Gospels. What I’ve done is I’ve imagined a modernized Roman Empire, but with something roughly akin to our science and technology, but with their moral values and their beliefs.

And your point of departure goes to Archimedes, right? And he survives and develops calculus.

Yes. Well, basically, my point of departure is the siege of Syracuse, where the Roman general at the time desperately wanted Archimedes left…

Archimedes. I said Archimedes.

It probably is Archimedes…Archimedes, it would be Greek. But Marcellus, the Roman general, wanted him captured because the Romans wanted to do, you know, they wanted him to be their DARPA guy, basically, you know, that kind of thing. And he was finished up being killed, and the evidence we have is that basically, it was a mistake. And Marcellus, the Roman general, was absolutely furious and completely losing his whatnot as a result of this. But, I just changed that. Archimedes doesn’t die, and so he does finish up the Roman DARPA guy, and you then…and then there are other sorts of things going on in the period of the late republic, which various economic historians and political historians have written about over here–to of them, Stephen Davies, who’s at the University of Manchester, and another chap called Douglas Carswell, who who was actually a politician for many years, he was an MP–and you get very productive…there’s a period of Roman history for a couple of hundred years of very productive innovation, which we now know, based on sort of economic history, is the precursor that you need for a society to industrialize. And so, I basically inject a living Archimedes into this ferment that is meant to…that resembles, in many respects, England and Scotland in the 17th and 18th century, or the Dutch Republic, where you’ve got this sustained innovation and economic development, which is what tips societies over the line into industrialization. And so, I did a lot of research reading…

That was my next question is, what was the preparation for writing like for this? What kind of outlining and research did you have to do to pull this off?

I did a lot of reading in economic history. And there are various scholars who, and I mentioned two of them, Stephen Davies and Douglas Carswell, there’s also Mark Koyama, Koyama and Johnson, who wrote a book called Persecution and Toleration, but they’ve done a lot of academic papers, and theirs is economic history and a history of innovation, basically. Stephen Davies has done a lot of work in this area, and there’s also a scholar called Peter Temin, whose retired now, but he used to be at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he wrote a book called The Roman Market Economy, which basically blew up what we thought the Roman economic system was like. There’d been this sort of history, and it’s kind of unfortunate, where a scholar called Moses Finley, who was a Marxist, allowed his political views to color his scholarship, and…

That never happens.

And so had put..well, yeah, well, it does happen, that’s the problem. And had basically tried to argue for the existence of a great civilization that didn’t have a capitalist economy. And…it’s not very good. And Peter Temin…and the thing is, generations of classicists were taught Moses Finlay’s take on the Roman economy. And the thing is, if you were studying Roman law at the same time, you knew it had to be false because all of the stuff you’re learning in the legal system is all about contract, commercial loans, you know, what constitutes delivery? What’s the difference between a contract of hire and a contract of sale? How do you draft all this up? You know, how do you work out interest rates and repayments? And all of the things…what sort of corporate structure should you have if you wish to go into business? These are not the considerations of a non-capitalist society. This is an intensely market-oriented society.

And so, in a way, Peter Timen–and he goes into this in The Roman Market Economy—it’s a more complicated picture. Having the Romans as capitalists is great, it explains how they nearly, nearly had an industrial revolution and only just missed. And Douglas Carswell goes into some of the reasons for that. But what it does do is that…the rather Pollyannaish view of capitalism is that if you have economic liberty, then a society will develop political or civil liberty. Turns out not to be true. So whilst the Romans were nothing like what Moses Finley said they were, they were capitalist, they were capitalists, they were innovative, you started to get sustained levels of prosperity, intensive growth, which is where the outputs exceed the inputs, which is quite hard to do in economic terms, although we do it routinely now, but they also had slavery.

So, you’re forced to confront the reality that a society can have a lot of things going for it, and be really, really impressive at a lot of things, but be absolutely morally repugnant in other respects. And the modern country that is really showing this up in spades, and a few people have written to me after reading Kingdom of the Wicked and said, “Gee, you predicted China well, didn’t you?” Because this is the thing: capitalism has made China rich. There’s no getting away from that. It’s the second-largest economy in the world, it will overtake the United States fairly soon, but it has not made it democratic or liberal. If anything, the intensive growth and sustained innovation that capitalism has produced in China has actually made it easier for the government to spy on the population, made it easier for the government to control them. And when something does go wrong, like with coronavirus, yes, the state has the power to just lock people up in their homes and wall them in.

Yeah.

And we saw that happen.

And one of the things that struck me reading the book, I hadn’t made the China connection, but that makes perfect sense, but it’s like the there’s a…what’s the word…a graininess to the society. It feels real in a way that sometimes reimagined words don’t. There’s…L.E. Modesitt, Jr., is somebody I’ve had on the program, and he has economics training and he makes a point in his books that, you know, people have to have real jobs and they have to do real things no matter what else is going on. There’s a real economic thing that has to be happening there, too. And I really felt that in your book, a sort of solid grounding that you’re talking about with all the research. But once you did all that research, how did you plot out the book? What did that look like for you? Did you do a detailed outline, or did you just start writing?

No, no, I did a fairly detailed outline because I had to work out how all the events were going to sequence. And that’s quite tricky to do. So, I did a detailed outline, and I also prepared a character matrix. I was one of these people who played Dungeons and Dragons at school…

Oo, me, too.

…which is really going to date me now. And I used the character matrix that you use for Dungeons and Dragons, so, I mean…and it will be of no surprise to you at all that Saleh is chaotic neutral. So, my policy is to develop characters and to slot them into the matrix.

Well, you had some characters decided for you because you’re retelling the…

Well, that’s right. So, that’s…although what I would try to do is, where people are ambiguous or not clear what sort of personality they actually have, I tried to be a bit more creative, but some are already known, yes. And I have…although I have made him a corporate lawyer and quite capable in certain areas, you will have read enough of the book now to know that Pilate can be quite indecisive. You know, he can struggle to make up his mind. He’s got the lawyer’s tendency of seeing both sides and then not being able to come down and take a side. And that causes him problems.

That’s certainly true to the original story, so…

Yes. Hence the whole handwashing and that kind of thing, and not wanting to be saddled with someone else’s moral failures and issues. And so, some of them were decided for me, but then I just started doing…once I’ve fleshed out my characters, I then put them in different situations and see how they react. And I just gradually built the stories up over time doing that. I’m quite a traditional writer in that my chart that I had on the wall with all the timelines was all done by hand, and my…and then the great bulk of the writing was handwritten as well. But by this stage…I mean, with my first novel, it was a manual typewriter, whereas by this stage, I’d have it handwritten, and then I was able to type it into my word-processing software and then fiddle with it once I typed it up, basically. But, yes.

So, was your…you mentioned writing longhand, is your writing process…were you writing, like scenes, and then piecing them together, or did you write start to finish, or how did that work for you? It sounds like maybe you do sort of the piecemeal approach.

Yes, it’s much more piecemeal and working out, then bolting it all together in such a way that the plotting works because it’s very tightly plotted. And that was really quite tricky because if there’s going to be something that I stuffed up in a book, it will be to do with dates and calendars. And I had to be so careful to make sure I had the right thing happening over here at the same time as this was happening over here. Otherwise, I’d just lose control of my narrative, and I didn’t want that to happen, obviously, because there are people out there who notice.

Oh, there are, yes.

You’ve got someone in the same place twice, you know, this guy. How is this?

Yeah, it’s interesting because sometimes…I don’t know if you’ve encountered this, but when I’m doing my books, you will have…something is happening, and you have to have a certain amount of time for it to happen, but your other character’s over here are doing something else, and you don’t really have anything for them to do during the time that you need for this other thing to happen. So you have to find something for them to do just to make the timelines work.

Yes. Yeah. And you don’t want to…you don’t want the waking up in the shower, oh it was all a dream, kind of thing because nobody believes that anymore and I don’t think anybody believed it then.

Oh, that does is because that’s, of course, a Dallas joke, so that…

A Dallas joke, yes. You just know the people are going to see straight through you if you do that.

I have YA book, and when I’d originally written it, I wrote some character, saying that she looked like she had come out of…wore kind of 80s clothes…had come out of a Dallas-themed costume party. And my editor, who was, like, half my age, or less, said, “What’s Dallas besides a city in Texas?” And I knew that I was getting old.

Yes, I am officially old.

So, how long did this process take you, writing the first draft and getting it typed in and all that sort of thing?

Well, I think…I mean, bearing in mind you’ve got two 450-page-plus novels here, I think, all up, they probably took me probably about ten years to get them written. But you’ve got to remember, of course, I mean, but that’s, you know…

You were doing other things.

I was doing other things. I was not a full-time writer. So, yes, it’s a thousand…call it just…900 pages worth of of of fiction. But I was working full time while I was doing this, so it would only ever be something I could do first thing in the morning. I would sometimes get up in the morning and write for an hour, and maybe an hour before I went to bed, and I just knew that it was going to take me…I accepted that it was going to take me quite a while to get them finished because I was not a full-time writer. The irony is, of course, that Book One came out in 2017, and Book Two came out in 2018, because they were finished and publisher, Bloomsbury over here and Ligature in Australia, just split them into two, and that worked quite well. Otherwise, it was just going to be this tome, War and Peace, and I said, “No, no, science fiction is often in sequence, and so you’ve got two of them, although I have now, of course, occasionally had people ask, “Are you going to do a third one?” and I’m sort of going, “With what?”

It sounds like you…because of the way you work, where you write longhand, and then you type it in…undoubtedly you do a considerable amount of line-to-line revision as you’re doing the typing-in process.? I mean, when I used to work that way–and when I was in high school, that’s how I worked, because computers, nobody had them–and I wrote longhand, and then I typed it into my manual typewriter, but I never typed on the typewriter what I had written longhand, I was revising as I went.

Yeah, of course. That’s exactly how it works. I mean, sometimes pieces are carried across entire, but sometimes they’re not. You know, it just depends. But yes, I’ve never really got into the habit, and I’ve got lots scribbled on pieces of paper all through the house here and a spiral notebook that’s full of scribbles, and I even do this…maybe not with the same degree of intensity, but I still do this to a very large degree, even with journalism. I’m writing a thousand-word column for The Spectator or something, and I take notes first before I turn it into typed stuff.

Once you have a complete typed or word-processed manuscript, is there another level of revision? Do you go through it again?

Yes, yes, I print them out and go through them again and constantly tinker and fiddle and move stuff around and try to improve the… the thing that I particularly aim for is to have unobtrusive and very naturalistic dialogue. You might have noticed that already, that people sound like normal people. I dislike badly written dialogue. And I don’t have a background in theatre or script editing or anything like that, but I have…a friend of mine, Gareth Roberts, has written a lot over, hee’s a friend of mine over here, ee’s written a lot for Doctor Who over the years…

Oh, yes, I’ve heard of that.

Yeah. And he actually wrote, co-wrote with Russell T. Davies, six episodes. And he then did the spin-off, The Sarah Jane Adventures. And he and I were discussing, we’ve discussed this a lot, and he said, “You’ve got the same thing as a script editor or a scriptwriter. You absolutely are obsessive about making people sound like normal people and not weird,” because a lot of novelists, they can do good description and good characterization, but then they don’t get the dialogue right, and it sounds like everybody’s giving speeches. But, yes, I’ve never done script work, but it was interesting just that…he read them, bought them at Waterstones and read them, and then we subsequently caught up, and he just said, you’ve got the scriptwriter thing.

Well, I do theatre, I’m a stage actor I’ve done,  mostly just for fun, but I do some professional work, too, and the people I’ve talked to who do have any sort of theatrical background, they do find that it helps in that regard, in their fiction, because so much in theatre or in scripts is told through the dialogue, it has to work in a way that perhaps novelists don’t necessarily make it work sometimes.

Sometimes. I mean, and some are very bad. I know in the canon of science fiction, there are some fabulously good writers who just can’t write dialogue for toffee. And it’s just…

We all have our weaknesses and strengths.

Yes, yes. So that’s the thing.

Do you have…once you have the complete manuscript, do you have beta readers or first readers, people who look at it and give you feedback at that point before it goes to an editor?

Not…I didn’t do that with The Hand that Signed the Paper, I just sent it off to UQP and got the advice to enter that competition, which I did. And then, of course, as soon as I won that competition, I was contracted to a publishing company and went through the normal editorial process that you do with a publishing company. And so, I hadn’t had this concept of people, of road-testing my work on anybody else.

I did, however, because it was such a change of genre to go to science fiction, even though I was fairly widely read, I was very eclectically read because I was not obsessed with any particular novelist or genre of writing. I just picked up books of science fiction that I thought might be interesting because I read the blurb on the back, I’d read that, and I just read it. But I knew it was outside of my tradition as such because the books that I read a lot of in high school are just, I basically read a lot of pretty much everything by Russians. And so, I went through a phase of just Russians, I was just reading Russians all the time, all very bleak, very good, but very depressing. And so, I knew that I didn’t have the same grounding that I did in high literature, highbrow literature, basically, so I did get friends to, once the manuscript was largely written, to have a read of it and go, “Does this make sense? Does this work?” And I also, what I tended to do, rather than get novelists, other novelists, to look at it, is I got an economic historian to read it because I was using so much economic history. I am.  I’ve got a list of them here in the back…sorry, it’s a while since…

Yeah, I was looking at the acknowledgments at the back of the book.

Yes, so, I got a religious specialist who knew a bit about religion. I got another classicist. I got a straight economist, as well as an economic historian, a specialist in Roman law, a retired Air Force pilot, a doctor, you know, that kind of thing, to read it and go…I’ve portrayed people in these professions, in this society, in this way. “Is this how it works?” basically, because one of the things that I have learned in my life is I hate watching police procedurals and I hate watching courtroom dramas and law shows and so on and so forth, unless they’re very, very good, like Rumpole of the Bailey, which only makes the tiniest concession to nonlawyers. I mean, there have been times where I have thrown shoes at police procedurals.

That could get expensive if you hit your TV.

Yes. Along the lines of “Inadmissible!” “Fraud!” “Can’t put that in front of the jury.” You know, I don’t just sit there and say things like that but…

I think that’s common with anything you know a lot about. When you see how it’s portrayed in the media, you’ll go, “No…”

And so, I didn’t want to do that in my novels about professions other than mine. I mean, I could obviously get the lawyers right because I know how legal systems work, and I know how Roman law works and so on and so forth. But I wanted to get all the other jobs that people do, like you were talking about earlier, real jobs in the real economy. I wanted them to ring true, at least, to people who were reading them. So my beta readers, this concept is so foreign to me…

I don’t use them myself.

…were people who were sort of not so much other novelists, but people who are technically proficient in certain fields.

And what kind of feedback could you get back?

Well, I mean, this is the advantage. It’s sort of like, the medical doctor was going, “No, no, you don’t do this when you do triage, you do that.” And technical advice along the lines of, “No, this is what actually happens here. This is, you know, when you’re learning to fly an aircraft, this is the kind of stuff you do,” that kind of advice. You know, so basically, I didn’t make schoolgirl howlers all the way through the book.

Just getting technical details straightened out.

Yes, a lot of it was technical stuff, and sort of the shape of values that people have…like, the chap who did medicine, he, like me…he might be a doctor now, but he, like me, had done classics at school. And he said, “You have to deal with the fact that if you give a society like that advanced biochemistry and genetics and modern medicine, they’re not going to have the same values that we do.” And even modern medicine doctors will fight over, you know, when is a life worth saving and those kinds of things.

So, he was the one that sort of got across to me, things like–that I knew about, like, I mean, the Romans actually didn’t have any compunction about putting down the ugly ones like unwanted kittens and this kind of thing. You have to deal with the fact that you’re dealing with a society that’s probably going to have eugenics, but it’s not going to do it in the incompetent way that the Americans did where the state is running it all, it’s going to be left in…the decisions are going to be made internally in the household, but there’s going to be overarching sets of values that will drive that. So you’ve got, on one level, you’ve got this grave and quite striking appreciation for beauty, which is very Roman, and it’s why their artwork and their sculpture has got this lovely, eye-pleasing rhythmical quality to it, that even the great art of the Renaissance can’t capture, because they’re trying to go back into the past and recreate this other society, forgetting that that art that the Greeks and the Romans produced were organic expressions of the way they viewed the world. And it’s very, very hard to go back and retrieve that mindset because you have to, like, basically get everybody’s brain and think like them.

That’s kind of what you’re trying to do in the whole book.

Yes, yes. So, I’m acutely aware of how difficult this is to achieve. So, you’ve got this sort of society that’s got a resonant respect for beauty and is never going to inflict Brutalist architecture on anyone, but by the same token, “Well, of course, you don’t want any more Down’s Syndrome babies to be born. Why would you want to keep them?”,  that attitude as well, which is deeply Roman.

Once the book was off to the editor, what kind of editorial feedback did you get? Any major changes at that point? Or was it pretty set?

No, it was probably pretty set. I mean, I always accept editorial suggestions in terms of improving the smoothness of the style.

You must have dealt with a lot of editors being a journalist and writing for magazines.

Yes. And so I tend to, nine times out of ten, I just accept whatever an editor suggests because they’ve seen something that I haven’t. And only very occasionally will I say “No, no, no, I actually want to keep that. I’m doing that deliberately.” But most of the time, any changes that my editors did…I had two for  Kingdom of the Wicked, and I had two, I think, for The Hand that Signed the Paper, different people doing different things, technical editing, copy editing, stylistic, structural editing. I remember there was at some point with one of the Kingdom of the Wicked books I’d stuffed up a timeline, what we were talking about earlier, and my editor picked it up, and I had to shift a piece of furniture, otherwise, I had the whole someone trying to be in two places at once, basically. “Do you have a time turner, like out of Harry Potter?” “No, I don’t. Whoops, I think I need to fix this.”

Yeah, it’s great when they get stuff like that. I had one that caught a big mistake in geography I had made where I had people sailing off the West Coast into the Pacific Ocean, and he pointed out gently, or she, that where I had them leaving the coast, they were actually in Puget Sound and they would run into land in pretty short order again. 

Oh, dear.

So I had to move them south on the coast.

So this is kind of thing, it’s just, if I’m going to make a mistake as a writer, it is always, always, I get my dates and times wrong and I have a character…finishing up needing to clone a character, basically.

Well, we’re getting close to the end here. So I want to move over to my big philosophical question, which is, “Why? Why do you write? Why do you write anything, but why this? And why do you think any of us write? And specifically, why do people want to write these kinds of alternate worlds, do you think?

I think I can answer the last question better than the others because it’s a conversation I’ve had with economic historians, I don’t know if you’re familiar with this, but there was probably about 40 to 50 years ago, spilling over until as recently as maybe 20 years ago, there was a huge fight in the historical profession over the salience of using alternative history. And basically, there was this, for a long time. the Marxists, who are dead against it, won this argument and would say, no, history is material reality, the basis of Marxism is material reality and materialism, so, therefore, you shouldn’t be going on speculating about stuff that actually didn’t happen.

Other historians, coming out of different intellectual traditions, and particularly the economists, once you could start to get good data sets from countries, which you have at various periods, particularly from Japan, the Dutch Golden Age, and English and Scottish parish records are really quite striking, so you can get an enormous amount of information, rich societies kept very good records, so it was the economic historians who started to push back against this and go, “There are actually major questions that we cannot answer and have no hope of answering unless we allow are allowed to engage in alternative history.” And people like Stephen Davies and Peter Temin and Niall Ferguson and Antonia Fraser were at the vanguard of that movement amongst historians. So, that points that historians made has passed over to, I think, novelists in that it can be very fruitful, intellectually fruitful, to do alternative history. You can also tell a story…

Yeah, I was going to say, it can also be a lot of fun.

It can be a lot of fun. You’ve got the classic British expression, “a ripping yarn,’ you know, and get people right in. So that’s, I think, what’s going on there.

 But why you?

But why me? Well, I just need a good idea. And that’s why I’ve only written three novels. I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words of journalism all over the world and outlets all over the place, and it looks like I’m very productive as a novelist, but that’s only because two of the novels are very fat. But I have to have a good idea to write a novel. And the speculative fiction idea just seemed to be such a good idea that I would pursue it. And I got two novels out of it, and people seem to like them, and they sell quite well. I mean, I’ve got the classic thing that I think they’re better than my first novel, but the first novel was the enormous bestseller. But I mean, I did an interview with a musician over here, his name is Zuby, and he’s had a top 20 single.

I follow him on Twitter, too.

Yeah, and he just said that “Perseverance,” the song was a big hit for him and sort of made his name, he said, “It’s not my best song. I’ve done way better.” But the thing is if he doesn’t do it as the encore at every single gig, I mean, people get, like, he will get filthy, rotten, nasty emails sent to him. So, what your readers like, or what your listeners like is just, different from, you know, it’s not, they’re not necessarily going to agree with you about the quality of your work.

Are you working on any more fiction at the moment?

Yes, I am. I’m working on another novel now. Once again, speculative fiction. At the moment I’m still at the reading and researching stage for it because I build the world first and work…and then I work out the characters, and then the plot comes last up. But it’s what happened, the point of departure here is, a lot of people outside the UK aren’t aware of this. The UK actually held two referendums on membership of the European Union. You’ve heard about, everyone’s heard about the 2016 one where they voted to leave, but there was actually another referendum in 1975 where they had been, the UK had been in the EU for a couple of years, but it was causing enormous electoral difficulty, in this period, for the Labour Party, not the Conservatives, the Conservatives were very pro, as it was then, the European Economic Community. And so, a referendum was held in 1975. The question was framed differently, but basically the same thing: Leave or Remain. And in 1975, Remain won. And my speculative fiction is, “What if Leave won in 1975?” So, a more recent historical…

So, I’m doing a Brexit book, basically. I wrote about, I’ve written about 100,000 words on Brexit, I might as well put them to some use.

Any timeline on that?

Not really. No. I mean, I just know it will be written because the idea hasn’t gone away. I mean, to the greatest extent possible, I try to ignore ideas for novels because I’m a full-time journalist/writer now. I haven’t practiced as a lawyer since mid-2016. And the thing is, novels take a long time to work through the system and to make money for you, whereas I can write a piece of journalism for The Spectator or the Telegraph or whoever, and I get my three hundred quid for it, and I get it in a couple of days. There’s a bit of difference.

Yes, certainly. I mean, I write nonfiction, too, and usually, I get that money way faster than anything that ever comes back from any fiction I write.

From any fiction. Yes. So yes, I will do it. I’m not quite sure when. And also, coronavirus has completely thrown everything up the spout because my Australian publisher, in line with a British publisher, called Biteback, which does political writing, because I’ve done a lot of politics coverage, wanted to do, they wanted to do a collection of my commentary, political commentary. And that was supposed to come out this year, but, of course, everything’s been delayed because of coronavirus. So that book’s just been put on the backburner until I can even visit Australia. I can’t even go back and visit at the moment because of all the closed borders.

I guess the other question is, before we finish off, I wanted to ask…because this program is called The Worldshapers, I often ask authors…you know, there’s very little fiction that has really changed the world. Maybe Dickens had some effect at one point and, you know, of course, Shakespeare, I suppose. But do you hope that your fiction in some ways shapes the real world or at least readers within the world, is there a polemical side to it at all? Or is it just because the idea won’t go away and you have to put it down?

No, no. I want to my…this is the old slogan of the Lord Reith model of public broadcasting, to educate, to inform, and to entertain. And if I do one of those well, let alone three, then I’ll be very happy. I don’t…I’m under no illusions about people becoming better or worse or anything else as a result of reading novels.

I have had occasionally a piece of journalism really take off, and a lot of people read it, and that has had an impact. And in one instance, I also had a piece of legislative drafting, parliamentary…I can draft legislation that is then enacted into law, I’ve got the drafting skill that…it’s part of being able to draft contracts and commercial leases and that kind of thing. I can draft legislation, and it’s a particular school, you’re known as Office of Parliamentary Counsel or Parliamentary Draughtsman. And I have drafted two bits of legislation, one in Scotland and one in Australia, that have probably had more influence on people’s lives than anything I’ll ever write in a novel.

That’s probably true. Yeah. Well, that kind of brings us to the end. I guess the other thing is, where can people find you online?

Well, I’m…I have a reasonably decent Twitter presence, I’m @_HelenDale, there is an underscore first because my name is common and someone else got it before me basically. So @_HelenDale, all one word. And I’m on Facebook, but I tend to just use it for pictures of my cats. And likewise, Instagram is just pictures of cats.

My cat pictures get way more interest than anything I post about me. My cat is much more popular than I am.

So I’m on Twitter with the @_HelenDale. I’m on Parler, the new one, a French company, and I’m @HelenDale without the underscore there. So…I’ve got…I’m one of the blue tick people on Twitter that…I got that. I think…because you just wake up one morning and it’s there. And I think it’s because I put in my profile that I was a Miles Franklin Award winner and a major national literary award, that’s the kind of thing that Twitter gives you for blue tick for. So, yes, you can…and my pinned tweet has got as many links to unpaid world journalism that I’ve done at various outlets that I could fit into one tweet, basically. I didn’t put links to anything that I’ve written for, like, The Spectator or the Australian or Wall Street Journal or anything like that, because they’re paywalled and people can’t get in and then get cross with you. So, the first one is just all the un-paywalled stuff that people want to read some of my journalism. It’s a British and, to a lesser extent Australian focus, given who I write for and what I write about.

All right. Well, there will be links to this on this page once this goes live. So I guess that brings us to the end. So, thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did, too.

Yes. Thank you very much..

Bye for now.

Catch you later. Bye.

Episode 59: Marie Brennan

An hour-long conversation with Marie Brennan, author of the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series, The Memoirs of Lady Trent, the Onyx Court series, and, as half of M.A. Carrick with Alyc Helms, the upcoming Rook and Rose trilogy.

Website
www.swantower.com

Twitter
@Swan_Tower

Patreon
New Worlds

Marie Brennan’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Perry Reichanadter

Marie Brennan holds an undergraduate degree in archaeology and folklore from Harvard University and pursued graduate studies in cultural anthropology and folklore at Indiana University before leaving to write full-time. Her academic background fed naturally into her work, providing her with the tools to build fantastical worlds.s a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for material.

Her first series, the Doppelganger duology of Warrior and Witch, came out in 2006. From there she moved to historical fantasy, first with the Onyx Court series (Midnight Never Come (2008), In Ashes Lie (2009), A Star Shall Fall(2010), With Fate Conspire (2011)), spanning three hundred years of London’s history, and then with the acclaimed pseudo-Victorian Memoirs of Lady Trent. The first book of that series, A Natural History of Dragons (2013), was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award, and won the Prix Imaginales in France for Best Translated Novel; the final book, Within the Sanctuary of Wings (2017), won the RT Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Novel. The series as a whole was a finalist for both the Hugo Award and the Grand Prix l’Imaginaire.

Brennan is a member of the Book View Café authors’ cooperative, where she has published the Wilders urban fantasies Lies and Prophecy (2012) and Chains and Memory (2016) as well as several short story collections and nonfiction works, including Writing Fight Scenes and the Patreon-supported New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides. Her fondness for role-playing games has led her to write both fiction and setting material for several game lines, including Legend of the Five Rings and Tiny d6. Together with fellow author Alyc Helms, she is the author of the upcoming Rook and Rose epic fantasy trilogy, which will come out under the joint name of M.A. Carrick.

She has taught creative writing to both college students and twelve-year-olds, and run several convention workshops on the art of fight scenes. When not writing or playing RPGs, she practices photography and shōrin-ryū karate. She lives with her husband in the San Francisco Bay Area.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers. Marie.

Thank you for having me.

I said Marie, should you say Marie and not Mary?

Yes, Marie. Yeah, I do run into that in Britain. I run into more people there who pronounce it Mary, which always throws me for a loop.

Well, of course, I’m in Canada, so we have a certain amount of British influence, so I have run into that as well. That’s why I thought, maybe I should just ask. Well, I don’t think we’ve ever actually met in person, although I suspect we’ve been at conventions together, like World Fantasy and WorldCon, I get to once in a while, I was at (World Fantasy) in Los Angeles last fall, but we never met. But I’m happy to have you on the show.

I’m very glad to be here.

We’re going to start the way I always start, and it’s kind of a cliché on here. I’m going to take you back into the mists of time, which, you know, has a nice science-fictional and fantasy ring to it right there, and find out, well, first of all, where you grew up, and how you got interested in writing, and particularly in writing this kind of stuff. It probably started with reading, as it does with most of us…?

Yeah, well, so, I grew up in Dallas. I actually lived in Texas for the first eight years of my life, all in one house, which is sort of remarkable. My parents still live in the house that they moved into about six months or so before I was born. So, I definitely have a feeling of deep roots there, which is sort of funny for people in other parts of the world, where deep roots mean something on the order of centuries. Yeah, six months before I was born! But that counts as deep.

It does in Texas.

Yeah, well, and, you know, it’s interesting to me because, at this point, the period of time that I lived in Texas is now less than half my life. I’ve been living in…I went to college in Massachusetts and then graduate school in Indiana. Now I live in California. But don’t try to tell me I’m not a Texan, which is probably how I prove I am a Texan, by contesting any claims to the contrary.

As I mentioned before we started, I wasn’t born in Texas, but I started school and everything in Texas and moved up here to Canada from Texas. And I clung to being Texan all the way through school up here.

Yeah, yeah.

I still self-identified as a Texan more than anything else.

Yeah. I wonder if there’s a point where that will go away, but I haven’t found it yet. As for how I got started with writing, I mean, yeah, like, I read a lot as a kid, but for me, what happened was, you know, most kids make up stories, it’s just a really common thing for children to do. But specifically, when I was about nine or ten years old, I read a novel by Diana Wynne Jones, who was a British young adult and children’s author, really a children’s author, because the YA category kind of didn’t exist for a lot of her career, not as we think of it now. She’s got a novel called Fire and Hemlock, and in that there are two characters who are making up a story together and they’re, like, sending chunks of story back and forth from one to the other. And I remember putting that book down and thinking, I want to tell a story. And it wasn’t the first time I had, like, told stories. I’d made things up prior to then. But it was the first time that I really thought about telling a story for other people, for an audience. So, I pretty much decided at that age that I wanted to be a writer and kind of didn’t let go of that.

Well, did you share what you were writing? I mean, did you start writing to share it with your friends, or how did that work for you?

Remarkably little, all things considered, because, yeah, I did start writing things and, you know, some of them were for class because we had, like, creative-writing exercises. But I did this weirdly for somebody who had decided, “OK, clearly, I want to write stories for other people to read.” I then proceeded to turn inward and show virtually nothing of what I was doing to anybody.

Actually, for a good deal of time, I was really fairly self-taught with writing, I think in part because I was doing it in a way where my critical eye for what I was doing and my skill kind of developed in tandem, which was nice in some ways because…like, I’ve talked to a friend of mine who’s a professional artist about how the problem I have with trying to draw things is, at this stage of my life my critical eye is vastly better than my skill. So, I draw something, and I look at it and go, “That’s terrible!” And I don’t want to put in the work to go through all the terrible things before I get to the stuff that’s not terrible. But with writing, I basically…there’s the proverbial, “You have to write a million words of crap before you start writing anything good.” I wrote my million words of crap where I could only see, like, ten percent of the crappiness of it, and the other ninety percent, I was like, “That’s pretty good!” So, you know, I was able to kind of get through that stage at a period of time where I could see enough that I was improving, but not so much that I despaired that what I was writing was terrible, and I should just stop.

But yeah, during that time, I could probably count on the fingers of, definitely both hands, probably just one, the number of people I really showed my writing to, until I got to college. And then, my science fiction and fantasy group there had a writers’ group that would meet on a, like, weekly or every-other-week basis. And that was the first time that I kind of had, like, accountability for, “All right. I promised I was going to finish something for the next meeting, so I guess I’d better finish that.” And that was very good for my productivity. So, that actually led to me finishing my first novel—rather than my previous length, which had been an unfinished novel. That was all I ever wrote. I finished my first novel. I wrote the bulk of it the summer after my freshman year of college and finished it early my sophomore year. And that really got the ball rolling because that was the point at which I got serious about writing, and it stopped being a, “Oh yeah, theoretically someday I’d like to be a writer,” and started being, “OK, I have a finished novel. How do you submit those things?”

What was it that specifically drew you to science fiction and fantasy?

I mean, I was always interested in that kind of thing. And with regards to college, I tell people that I didn’t actually pick my major by saying what would be useful to me as a fantasy writer, but that’s kind of the effect that it wound up having. My studies, both in undergrad and graduate, I did archaeology and anthropology and folklore, which is all great stuff for a fantasy writer. And those were always just the things that interested me. I liked reading about the past. I liked reading about other parts of the world. I liked reading about mythology. It was all just…that’s what I liked from the start.

There was a brief period of time as a kid where I would have called myself a mystery reader because I imprinted hard on Nancy Drew for a while in elementary school and read truly stupendous quantities of the…like, I read the old hardcovers and then the paperbacks that they did for a while. And then they started doing the Case Files, which were those little, like, white-covered books, and I think I had over a hundred of them. It was, like, it was something absurd.

She’s been rebooted so many times, Nancy Drew.

Oh yeah. Yeah. Well, and actually I recently watched part of the CW series for Nancy Drew, which…it’s really sort of bizarre because it’s like somebody said, “You know what Nancy Drew needs? She needs to be cross-bred with Supernatural.” Like, there’s straight-up ghosts going on all over the place. I’m a little confused by it. But I watched the movie that was made a couple of years ago, and that was a lot of fun. It actually kind of reminded me of what I loved about Nancy Drew as a kid. But as I was starting to peter out on the mystery stuff, I hit a point where…I’ve got a brother who’s three years older than I am and I kind of ransacked his bookshelves and he had some, like, you know, adult fantasy novels there. And that’s kind of when I made the jump into reading fantasy, through Terry Brooks, actually,

I was going to say, were there any specific books that you credit with some of this.

Yeah, the first one that I read in adult fantasy was Magic Kingdom for Sale—Sold!, which was his kind of like humorous, portal-fantasy thing.

I remember that one.

Yeah. And then I went from that to Sword of Shannara, which was something of a jarring awakening because that’s not the same kind of book. But the kind of absurd thing is that I’d read The Hobbit as a little kid, and I think I’d made like an attempt or two to read Lord of the Rings, but I hadn’t really gotten into it. But I did read Sword of Shannara, which, if anybody’s read that, you know, it’s basically a one-volume redo of Lord of the Rings with the names changed. And then, some years later, when I was in high school, I picked up the beginning of The Wheel of Time. And I’m probably the only person on the planet who read The Eye of the World and thought, “This reminds me of Terry Brooks,” rather than Tolkien, because I still hadn’t read Lord of the Rings at that point.

Yes, I remember when Sword of Shannara came out and reading it, and I had read Lord of the Rings, and thinking, “Wow, that’s really close.”

Yeah, it is basically a point-by-point retelling. But this is actually something that’s interesting to me because I mentioned that I studied folklore. There’s a concept in folklore studies called a tale type where, you know, you’ll have a tale type that is basically like Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella or something like that, where there’s kind of a skeleton of the plot and certain motifs that show up. And then there’s many different variants that you will find of that story in different parts of the world and different time periods and so on. So, like, with Cinderella, you’ve got Cenerentola, you’ve got Aschenputtel, you’ve got different versions in Italy, Germany, and so on. And actually, The Lord of the Rings is essentially a tale type that people like Terry Brooks and David Eddings and, to a lesser extent, Robert Jordan have kind of retold, in exactly the way that you see in folklore. So, it’s kind of neat to look at it from that direction because then it’s not, “Oh, my God, this is so derivative,” it’s, “What’s different in this variation? And what does that difference tell us? Like, what’s interesting about that?”

And of course, Tolkien’s whole idea was to create a kind of a mythology, a Northern Europe mythology.

Exactly.

And he was drawing on all the stuff that he knew. And he knew a lot, so…

Right. Yeah. You can, you know, certainly trace things to what were his inspirations for his bits. But in a way, it’s very appropriate that people then, you know, went and did a bunch of remixes of Lord of the Rings because that’s exactly what we do with mythology.

Now, you studied, as you mentioned, archaeology and folklore and all of that, and you went on to graduate studies. But somewhere in there, you decided writing was the thing instead of what you’d been studying all that time. What brought that about? Why did you make that choice?

So, it happened while I was in graduate school. Just as I finished up…like, I continued writing novels all through college or grad school, and just as I finished up my coursework in grad school, I actually sold my first novel, which meant that basically writing moved from being a hobby to being an actual paying job right at the point when I lost to that, like, daily engagement with academia. So, a couple of years went by in which I didn’t really make the progress I should have towards, like, doing my qualifying exams and putting together a dissertation committee. And I had actually started writing the Onyx Court series, which were…I’d written Midnight Never Come, and I was about to do In Ashes Lie, with then the intent of doing two others. And I had possibly deluded myself, who knows, that I was going to be able to write novels while also writing a dissertation. But writing research-intensive novels while also writing a dissertation seemed more difficult.

And honestly, at that point, you know, it’s a time-honored thing to be a professor and a writer at the same time but I could kind of tell that, like, the dissertation and then the job hunt for your kind of, like, entry-level academic positions, that was going to eat a lot of time and energy in a way that I was worried was going to be detrimental to the writing career; that, you know, here I have this thing that is ongoing and making me money, not huge amounts of it, but money, and I didn’t want to, like, hamstring my writing career in order to do that. But if I wasn’t going to get an academic job, then was there any reason other than stubborn pride—which, let’s not discount the power of stubborn pride—but was there any reason to finish the PhD? And I was kind of going back and forth and wondering.

And then while I was asking myself that question, my husband, the company that he was working for, went bankrupt, and so, he didn’t have a job anymore. He works in IT. And so, southern Indiana, not a lot of IT jobs to be had, whereas if we moved to California, he could have a job basically tomorrow. So, we talked it over and basically decided, yeah, you know, if I’m questioning whether I should finish my PhD in the first place, let’s just go ahead and bail out of that and go to California. He got a job here, and since then, I’ve been writing full time.

That very first novel. How did the selling and that come about? How did you break in? That’s the question.

In a little bit of a roundabout way, because at the time—and mind you, I started submitting things back when submission involved print it out and stick it in an envelope and go to the post office.

Tell me about it.

Yeah. Yeah. So, the way I usually phrase it to people is, like, it wasn’t quite the Cretaceous, but I’m not sure anatomically modern Homo sapiens had appeared on the scene yet. So, I had been sending it to publishers because at that point, a number of them did still accept, like, over-the-transom subs from authors without agents, and not only accepted them but would respond in something less than a geological epoch. And so, I was submitting novels, and I was also querying agents. And the second novel that I had written, which at the time was titled Doppelganger, it’s now Warrior, I had basically run out of publishers that took unagented subs to send it to. But I’d heard from somebody that you could sometimes kind of, like, sneak in the back door by sending them just a query letter, saying, “I’ve got this book, would you like me to send you the manuscript?” And at that point, it was no longer an unsolicited submission, they had said yes.

So, I sent off, like, two or three of those letters. I think it was Del Rey wrote back saying, “When we say we don’t look at unsolicited submissions, we mean it.” I think maybe one of them never responded, and the other one happened to land on the desk of Devi Pillai, who was an editor that I had met in passing at a convention. And she said, “Sure, go ahead and send it to me.” So I sent her the manuscript and, like a month later or so, I came home and found a message on my answering machine from Devi saying, “So, I read this, and I found it really interesting, and I showed it to my senior editor, and she reminded me that we don’t take submissions from people without agents, so go get an agent.” So I did. And this is something that will still happen occasionally now. Like I mean, unsolicited submissions are less of a thing, but if you get an editor saying, “Yeah, I’m interested in this thing,” you then go to the agents and say, “So, I’ve got, like, a provisional offer pending, basically.” And that helps get the agents to…not necessarily, they don’t all, like, offer, they still are looking at your body of work and whether you’re, like, a good match for them. But it means that they will respond more rapidly and say, “Oh, OK, there’s a thing that might be happening here.” So, I queried a couple of agents that I was particularly interested in, and one of them offered me representation. So, she then ended up negotiating that deal for me.

Yeah, that’s…in my case, I actually got the offer, and then I said to an agent, “Look, I have a contract. Would you like 15 percent of it?” And boy, that was easy to get an agent that way.

Yeah, but I would say, like, actually one of the agents I queried, said, “You know, I read through this and like, you know, I wish you the best of luck, but I just I don’t think I’m a good match for you.” And I think actually, you know, good agents will still pay attention to that rather than saying, “Oh, well, you know, it’s easy money,” but then they’re stuck with a client that maybe they’re not actually a good agent for them. And that’s not great for them in the long run. So…

Yeah, there are lots of pitfalls, that’s for sure, you can run into. And if you started in the Cretaceous or whatever it was, I started when it was still single-cellular life forms. So, I did a lot of that mailing into the great unknown and waiting, you know, a year or two for them to get back to you with rejection.

Yeah.

Well, let’s move on. You’ve written a lot of books since then…

Yeah.

And there’s been awards and…have you been surprised by the response you’ve had?

I mean, it’s sort of a weird question because, like, yes and no. On the one hand, I have healthy self-esteem. I actually have much less imposter syndrome, I think, than, especially, a lot of women tend to. And I don’t know why I managed to dodge a fair bit of that bullet. But in, like, specific instances, every time I’ve been told, like, “Oh, you’ve been nominated for this award,” it has completely blindsided me. It’s not that I’ve been like, “Ah, yes, that is my due, and of course, it is coming to me.” No, every single time, I’ve just kind of stared and said, “Really?” So, I kind of hope I never start to take that for granted because, at that point, somebody should slap me. But The Memoirs of Lady Trent, I will say, it did actually surprise me—because that’s the series that has gotten the most attention.

I love the covers.

Oh, the covers are fantastic. And that’s a chunk of why they’ve done so well, I fully believe. They’ve just had such amazing covers. But the previous series, The Onyx Court, like, that, to me, was an ambitious series. Like, it was my dive into historical fantasy, I was doing all of this research, I was, like, you know, grappling with some kind of big questions about, like, change over time and all these things. And, like, I was super ambitious with those and the books did fine, but there was no award attention or anything like that for them. And the Memoirs of Lady Trent, when I started writing them, I was, like, “OK, well, this is going to be this kind of, like, fluffy pulp adventure, like, Victorian kind of memoir thing.” I did not actually think of them as being all that deep when I started out. And the depth that they have, they very much kind of developed organically over time, as I found myself ultimately dealing with a lot of interesting questions in them. But I still sort of thought of them as being like, “Yeah, that fluffy adventure series that is kind of like lightweight compared to what I was doing before.” But I do think, yeah, they developed a lot more depth and complexity than I expected when I started. And so, yeah, those are the ones that have, you know, gotten the most, like, award nominations and some wins and such.

You’ve touched on the fact that you draw on your academic training and archaeology and folklore. And it’s interesting. I think you’re the, uh, you’re well…I’ve talked to more than fifty authors, so it’s hard to remember, but certainly Seanan McGuire comes to mind as somebody who has plumbed her knowledge of folklore.

And also of medicine. Jesus, the things that she talks about.

Yeah, she has those two sides, for sure.

Yeah.

So, you’re still drawing heavily on that. Do you find you’ve found that that’s been a really helpful thing to have in your background?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, that is honestly the wellspring from which my stories are coming. I think it was in, like, the last year I found myself calling myself an anthropological compost heap from which stories occasionally sprout up. It might not be the most dignified image, but I think it might be the most accurate.

I’ll remember it!

Yeah! I do a lot of reading about, like, different parts of the world, different time periods, and just kind of chucking all of that into the mental hopper. And so, you know, one of the questions writers will sometimes get asked is, “Do your story ideas start with a character or with a plot?” And I have the knee-jerk tendency to any such question to say, “I reject your false dichotomy.” But the smartass answer I’ll often give to that one is I start with a world. Which isn’t exactly true, but for me, the character and the problems that they’re dealing with and the world all of that is taking place in are so intertwined that in some instances I can, like, pull it apart and say, “OK, I can tell that I started with this bit over here.” Like, The Memoirs of Lady Trent, the idea for that one actually sprang partly out of a Dungeons and Dragons book and partly out of the Dragonology…I know there’s a book, but actually, for me, it was the wall calendars that I had, which are just like a field guide to dragons around the world. And D&D had a book called The Draconomicon, which was all about dragons, including things about, like, their life cycle and so forth. And it gave me the idea of, “What if I ran a D&D game where instead of, like, killing dragons and taking their stuff, the goal was to study them instead?” And I very rapidly realized that D&D’s mechanics are miserably suited to doing anything other than killing monsters and taking their stuff, so it turned into novels instead in my head. And so, with that one, it was kind of a character, of, OK, somebody who’s going to be studying dragons.

But it was about half a second later that that immediately became this kind of Victorian setting in my mind, because it’s a time period where there’s a huge amount of scientific inquiry, but it’s also so new that it’s possible to just kind of like leap in and make huge discoveries, whereas a lot of the science we have now, you’ve got to spend years studying it and learning all of the basic stuff before you can go and then make new discoveries, kind of on the edges of what’s known. So, I wanted that earlier period, where it was really easy to make the big exciting discoveries, and then that ended up shaping a lot of stuff about the character and so forth, because I can’t really think of characters not as part of their world. It’s why there’re whole genres of fan fiction out there that I just can’t get into, because to me, if you take characters out of the setting that they were in and make them, like, coffee-shop baristas or something, they’re not the same people. And it doesn’t work for me at all.

Yeah, my daughter was telling me about some of that kind of thing. She’s nineteen, so she’s much more plugged into kind of the fanfiction and things like that. And I thought, “Really? People do that?” Apparently, they do.

Well, but I mean, fanfiction as a whole is not remotely a new thing. And honestly, a lot of it goes back to what I was saying about mythology, that, yeah, we take these stories and we retell them. We’ve been doing that for as long as we’ve been human.

I suppose that’s true.

Yeah.

I wanted to mention on the Dragon studying side, years ago for a magazine called…what was it called? InQuest, I think? I think it was a Magic: The Gathering-focused magazine. And I wrote a few articles for them, and I wrote one, which was a fictionalized account of the last draconologist, whom I called Vladimir Kapusianyk, he was like one hundred and some years old, and he was living in a nursing home in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. And I had all this, you know, these theories about how dragons breathe fire and all that was really the core of it. And much to my surprise, I actually got letters that had been sent to the magazine, mostly from kids, saying, “Oh, I read the story about Vladimir Kapusianyk, and I really want to take up the mantle of being the next draconologist. And I had to send a note back saying, “I’m sorry, I made it all up.”

Yeah.

But it showed up on the Internet for years. I would find this as if it was… somebody had taken it seriously. And it was very strange. Well, speaking of worlds, that brings us very nicely to Driftwood, because that seems to be something that’s very much based around a very interesting world. Or fragments of a once-existing world, I guess.

Yeah, many, many fragments. I don’t even remember how I got the idea for Driftwood. It just came to me at one point when I was in graduate school. Yeah. Driftwood, the sort of bleak tagline for it is, “where worlds go to die.” The idea behind it is that worlds have some kind of apocalypse like, you know, Ragnarok or whatever equivalent, but maybe not all of the world gets destroyed. And the fragment that is left drifts through what they refer to as the mist and eventually kind of runs into this mass of world fragments that’s called Driftwood. And they continue kind of decaying while they’re there because the…there’s sort of more of a high-level idea behind Driftwood than I normally have with my settings, which is that it is fundamentally a place that is about entropy and liminality, because it’s all of these fragments pushed together, and you’re constantly crossing borders within there in two different worlds where things operate a little bit differently, and then entropy, because they do keep decaying, they start out kind of large usually when they hit the edge, but then they sort of move inward toward a place that inhabitants of Driftwood call The Crush, which is the centre where the last few fragments basically get ground out of existence. And so, like, it’s odd because in some ways it’s a very bleak and nihilistic setting, and yet the stories that I’ve been telling there have all been about how do people adapt to that and how do they decide to hold on to the things that still matter to them and keep moving forward.

So, the Publishers Weekly review for the book Driftwood talked about it as being “hope in the face of apocalypse,” which was a much more timely phrase than I really expected when I was writing the book. This is an interesting year for that to be coming out here.

Well, it’s a collection of short stories. Some of them had been previously published. And then you wrote some new material for the book, is that right?

Yeah, it’s kind of a thing that used to be called a fix-up novel, which is to say, yeah, the bulk of the stuff in it is made up of short stories that I had published before. But then, I wrote a framed story to give context to why these stories are being told and, like, build a plot around them. And then there’s a new large piece, it’s a novelette, actually, longer than a short story, that I wrote to give, like, kind of a big centerpiece to it all. So, yeah, it’s not quite a short story collection. It’s a little bit like a mosaic novel because the different stories are told from different perspectives, which actually is very fitting, obviously, for Driftwood.

From the moment that I began publishing Driftwood short stories, I had people asking me…they thought the setting was great, and they’re like, “Will you ever do a novel there?” And my answer was always no, because it felt like a novel was the wrong thing for Driftwood. It’s about fragments. It’s about incomplete, like, bits and pieces, and a novel is a big, coherent, singular thing. But then when the idea came of doing it as this kind of mosaic fix-up novel sort of thing, that’s really appropriate for Driftwood, that it is something which is made out of smaller pieces brought together. And so, the form of what I’m putting out reflects the thing that it is describing in an interesting way.

Form follows function.

Yeah.

Well, this is the point at which I ask how you go about planning things, but it sounds like this one’s a little different. So, maybe let’s talk about what your planning process looked like for making this fix-up, but also what more typical for you and one of your novels.

So, I’ve had some changes happen with that over time. Like, I definitely am naturally more on the end of being kind of a discovery writer, or “pantser,” as sometimes is what people will say, which is that I’ll start off with, “OK, here’s a character in a situation with a problem. Let’s see what they do.” And I just kind of write my way through it. And that is more or less how I have written most of my novels. I’ll usually, at least by the time I’m partway through, have some ideas of things that I know I want to have happen later on. And then the metaphor that I’ll usually use is, there’s this big field in front of me, and I need to get to the other side of it. And I’ll go out there, and I’ll hammer a couple of pegs into the ground at various points and say, “OK, like, halfway across the field, I need to be over here.” And then I’ll kind of figure out an interesting path toward that peg on my way there.

So, a lot of the in-between stuff is very much make-it-up-as-I-go-along. But it does vary, because obviously with Driftwood, that was something where I didn’t so much have pegs as entire chunks of field that were already mapped. The interesting challenge there was figuring out how to sequence them, because the stories had nothing in them saying what was the order in which they had happened. They’ve all got a unifying thread, which is there’s this guy that everybody just calls Last, because he is the only survivor of the world that he comes from. His world is long gone. He should be dead. He’s still around. He appears to be immortal. And so, all of the stories have people interacting with Last for one reason or another, and so he actually also becomes the unifying thread for the novel, or for the book. But it meant I had to go through those stories and figure out, more kind of on a thematic level than a plot one, what was the effective order to put them in with the different kinds of moods that the stories had, and what was the reason those stories were being told at that moment. So, there was a lot of…I printed stuff out, very, very tiny, so that I could kind of arrange them all on my floor and move the stories around, looking at them and trying to get a feel for what was the best flow between them.

And then, at the far end of the spectrum, there’s this trilogy that I’ve been writing with my friend Alyc Helms, where, because we’re collaborating, I can’t rely on my usual thing of, I’ve got this vague cloud in my head that sort of evolves as I go along and I solidify bits of it as I go. Like, until we have telepathy, that doesn’t work. There’s another human being whose head also needs to hold what we’re doing. And so, for that one, it’s actually been much more rigorously planned than either of us ever does on our own, down to, there’s like a color-coded spreadsheet of the scenes with the color-coding showing whose point of view we’re using in each thing. It’s much more rigorously plotted than we tend to do. So, mostly I figure it out as I go along, except when I completely and totally don’t.

Well, how does that work in with all the research you’ve done for some of your stories? With the deep research, it would seem to me, would kind of, I don’t know, need a certain amount of planning along the way to know what you needed to research.

Yeah. I mean. It actually, in some ways, goes the other direction, which is that those pegs that I’m hammering into the ground, some of them come from the research. I’ll discover something and say, “Oh, that’s awesome. That needs to go into the book. Now, let me come up with a reason for it.” That actually happened, not even really a research thing, but the second of the memoirs, The Tropic of Serpents, I saw a photo of a portion of Iguazu Falls in South America where…it’s this huge extended, like, arc of waterfalls, basically, and there’s a spot in it where there’s kind of this, like, island of cliff jutting out in the middle of the waterfall. And I looked at that and thought, “That’s amazing. I am putting that in this book.” Why? “I don’t know. I’ll figure it out later.” So, like, there’s a whole chunk of plot in The Tropic of Serpents that happened because I wanted this island in the middle of a waterfall.

So, that was true a lot with the Onyx Court stuff, where I was…I could say very clearly, “OK, I need to read up on this time period.” And I would read books about daily life in that time period. And I did have slight amounts of outline for those just because…I mentioned that I play roleplaying games, and I ran a game, for people who know this one, Changeling: The Dreaming, I did a game where I wanted to make use of the fact that changelings reincarnate in that setting, that it’s the, you know, basically are born into a human host, and then when that host dies, they get reborn. And so, I wanted to do something that made use of that. So, I ran a game where the characters were reincarnating from lifetime to lifetime, doing this thing over a long period of time. Only they don’t always remember their previous lives. So, I was like, “I don’t want to make everybody buy high levels of the remembrance background to justify why they know…well, what if I did it backward?” And so, if you know the movie Memento, I called the game Memento, because it was all run in reverse. It started off in the present day with them finding out that apparently, they’d been doing something for hundreds of years that they didn’t remember, and then they drank from this magical well to remember. And the rest of the campaign, up until the very end, proceeded through flashbacks, where they were going back to their previous lives, remembering what they had already done that they didn’t remember. And I set this in London because I wanted an area that had been sort of continuously occupied for hundreds of years, which is hard to find in the United States. And London, you know, has a really nice, interesting, deep history. It also is an English-language country, which made research much easier. 

And I didn’t do nearly the levels of research for the game that I did for the novels, but actually, the Onyx Courtseries ended up spinning out of some of the material from the game in kind of relatively loose ways in most of the books. But it meant that I knew things like, “OK, I’m going to a book that is set in the 17th century where the big climactic thing is going to be the great fire. OK, I’m going to go read about the Great Fire. Oh, there was that plague the year before. I guess I need to read about the Great Plague as well.” And then it ended up being, I wanted to do the warfare stuff that led up to that, so I had to go read about the English Civil War, which, wow, that was not something you should try to research in three months flat. But I would just, like, read about stuff in that time period and then build my plot out of the pieces that I found was actually the way that a lot of it worked rather than, “I know that I need to know this thing for my plot.”

Well, once you have whatever level of planning and outlining you’re doing on the specific project, what does your actual writing process look like? Do you, you know, take a quill pen out under the trees, or…?

No. I started writing on a computer when I was nine, and I never looked back. I have very occasionally written things longhand. Actually, there’s a prequel story for my Wilders series called The Bottle Tree, which I wrote as a reward to my Kickstarter backers for the second book, that I did write the entirety of that longhand while I was traveling. And that was bizarre. I’m not sure why I did that, but I did. Mostly it is on the computer, and…I’m strangely a solar-powered night owl. Like, I really need sunshine. If I don’t get sunshine, my batteries run down and I don’t function well. But I operate at my best, usually, from about 10 p.m. until two or three a.m. So, that’s actually when I do the bulk of my writing, is late at night.

So, that would be writing at home, not writing in a coffee shop then, probably.

Yes, I am lucky in that I’ve basically always had kind of a home office. You know, we’ve been able to have apartments or now a house where there’s a room that can just be my office. Though in college I had the ability to stick on headphones and work on a novel while my roommates were sitting like three feet away watching TV, I’ve lost that level of focus, I think.

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

Um, really, the answer to that question depends on who I’m being compared to, so, I guess, middle of the pack in the grand scheme of things. The math that I’ll do for, “How long is it going to take me to write this novel?” is that I average about a thousand words a day, which some people think is fast, some people think is slow. For me, that ties in partly with being more on the figure-it-out-as-I-go along kind of writing. I’ve found by trial and error that most of the time a thousand words a day is the pace at which I can figure out my plot. Like, I’m laying track right ahead of the train, and at that pace, I don’t run out of track. Usually, if I try to go faster, I’ll basically write myself into a corner, though I will go faster if I hit a stretch where I’m like, “Oh, yeah, I know the next several things that are going to happen. It’s just a matter of getting through them.” Then I will speed up.

It’s like the difference between laying truck on the prairie and laying track north of Lake Superior as the CPR did.

Yeah, I was about to say, the Rocky Mountains were what came to mind for me. Like, yeah, there are some Rocky Mountains stretches where it is slower. But then, when Alyc and I were drafting the first of the Rook and Rose books, we basically did NaNoWriMo for four months straight. We wrote a 200,000-word novel in four months, and that was in part because swapping off between us made the work feel lighter. It wasn’t like we were each doing half the work, but we helped keep each other’s enthusiasm up and, like, one of us might have ideas when the other was stuck, but also because we had to plan it so much that when we had a plan, it was like, “Well, is there any reason we shouldn’t write two chapters this week? No? Let’s go.”

Once you have whatever your first draft looks like, what does that first draft look like? Is it something that takes a lot of polishing and revision? What’s your revision process like?

No, I started off, and still am mostly, on the end of relatively clean first drafts. Now, I will say in the early days the relatively clean first drafts were in part because my revision skills weren’t as well developed. I say, not even really jokingly, that of the basic skills you need to be just, like, a competent writer who can be submitting your work somewhere, the last one I acquired was finishing what I started. So, on the level of, like, prose and characterization and so forth, like, I had those down before I had down the ability to have a complete story. But I definitely got a lot better at revision, at being able to see where it was possible to change things rather than feeling like it was kind of this fixed text in my mind. I’ve gotten better at being able to pull things apart and rework them for, you know, overall benefit. So, I do more revision now than I used to, but I’m also somewhat prone to doing chunks of that revision while I’m still drafting. So, I still frequently will wind up with a pretty solid first draft by the time that I’m done, as opposed to people I know where the first draft is, like, that’s where they figure out what story they’re actually writing, and once that’s done, they go back and write the real book. So, I’m not on that level of changing things.

My first guest on here was Robert J. Sawyer, whom I’ve known for a long time, and he was quoting Edo van Belkom, I think, another Canadian writer, who calls it “the vomit draft,” their first draft, because you kind of get everything out there, and it makes a huge mess, but you feel better, and then you just have to clean it up.

Yeah, yeah. I’m not quite that level of things. So, the first draft often pretty closely resembles the finished one.

What sorts of things do you find yourself revising as you go along, the things you have to watch for, and then catch in your own writing? Because we all have little things that we’re prone to. At least, I do.

Yeah. If it’s not a massive change, a lot of it is stuff like, “OK, I want to make a mention of this strand sooner so that it doesn’t kind of come out of nowhere later on when it becomes important,” or, “Oh, I tossed in that idea thinking I was going to do something with it and then it never went anywhere, so let me go back and remove that.” Then a lot of it is just going to be things of, kind of smaller-scale alterations just for pacing and such. Like, “OK, let’s get to the action here a little bit sooner,” or “Oh, I didn’t set that up well enough, so let me add in some more detail to give it context.” It is relatively rare most of the time for me to cut a whole scene or add in a whole scene, though that does happen, and that’s been happening more lately. That has definitely happened with the Rook and Rose stuff, because, in part, the plot there is so complex. And actually, the novel that I most recently finished, which is a book for the game Legend of the Five Rings, I was, like, super-excited to finish the book, in part because I had gotten behind and really needed to finish by deadline. And so, I kind of mushed through one night and, like, wrote the whole end of the book, and then stopped and looked at the last couple of chapters and went, “Those are crap.” Like, I just need to completely redo them. I should not have tried to finish the book that fast. So, I did actually have to do a rewrite, not in an “I’ve changed my idea about the plot” kind of way, but just in an “I did a bad job of that” way.

You’ve worked with a number of different editors, I would presume, with the number of books and different publishers. What sorts of feedback do you usually get from editors? Do they find your drafts as clean as you think they are?

It has varied. I will say that editors these days, they’re so overworked that a lot of them just don’t have the time for editing that, you know, they might have had, like, fory years ago in the days that you hear stories about. But it has varied a lot, also, depending on the editor’s personality. It’s ranged from, you know, fairly hands-off, like, Midnight Never Come, the first of the Onyx Court books, I think my edit letter from Devi was, like, half a page, Like, it was really brief. She did not want a lot of changes made, whereas Priyanka Krishnan, who’s the one we’re working with for Rook and Rose, is very much more hands-on and, you know, really getting into the text. She asked for us to add in a couple of scenes to flesh out certain things with the relationships in the story.

And I also wound up writing some new material for Turning Darkness into Light, the sequel to the memoirs, not because Miriam Weinberg, the editor for that one, specifically asked for it, but because she had concerns about this one flashback that was in the story, which her suggested fix for dealing with that flashback, I was like, “Oh, that doesn’t work for me for X, Y, Z reasons,” but the underlying reason she’d suggested that was that the flashback felt jarring, that it was like this one moment where it stops being kind of the present-day of the story and goes to something that happened five years ago. And so, when I talked with her, I said, “You know, I could flesh out some other things in the story if I gave a couple of the other characters similar kinds of flashbacks. What do you think of that?” And she said, “Yes, that works fantastically.” So, we were able to solve that problem by basically making that be not the only time the narrative jumped out of order like that. And it ended up assisting a bunch of other things that could use some, like complexity.

Well, I kind of jumped straight to the editor, but there are many authors who will take an intermediate step of beta readers or people like that. Is that something you’ve ever done? I never think of it because I’ve never done it. But I know it’s done!

I mostly haven’t. The sort of stepping-stone exception is Alyc Helms, the writer I mentioned, whom I’m working on Rook and Rose with, has been essentially my best writing buddy since the year 2000 when we met, because we think enough alike when it comes to writing and how we approach stories that…usually it’s not a finished draft, it’s, like, I’m halfway or three-quarters of the way through a book and I’m stuck, and I would fling the manuscript in Alix, going, “Help me!”, and they would read through what I had, and we would talk it over, and they would help me figure out how to proceed with the rest of it, which then ended up being part of how we wrote the Rook and Rose stuff together, because we said, “You know, we think a lot alike about this kind of stuff, like, hey, what if we tried writing something together?” And for that book, at Alyc’s suggestion, we did actually have a couple of beta readers, you know, people that we sent a finished draft to, but not the polished, fully ready-to-go one, and made some revisions based on the feedback that we got from that.

I guess the benefit of both beta readers and eventually the editor, of course, is just getting that fresh set of eyes on something that maybe you’re a little too close to.

Very much so. And that was why we were really eager for it with Rook and Rose, because that is a book with a lot of intrigue and a lot of stuff around, like, mysteries and misdirection and things involving…the Rook, actually, of the series title is this, like, you know, mysterious vigilante, et cetera. And so, we’re doing a lot of stuff around, “Who is the Rook?”, and it’s really difficult to judge that in your own work because you know all the answers to the mysteries and all the twists of the intrigue and who the Rook is, and so you can’t really judge very accurately whether you are providing enough information, but not too much information. Is the information in the right spot? You’ve got to get some outside eyes on that to tell you whether or not that makes sense. And those outside eyes have to be from somebody who doesn’t know the story already. Because we also had, my sister was serving as kind of our alpha reader in the, “We’re super excited about this thing we’re writing, and we want somebody to squee! at us about it. So, hey, you need to read the chapters as we finish them and tell us how clever we are.” She’s been very tolerant and patient with us, but she already knew the ideas behind the story, so she couldn’t tell us that stuff. We had to then get the beta readers once there was a finished draft.

I can remember who said it, but some writer said all that writers really want in a review is twelve single-spaced pages of closely recent praise.

Yeah. I mean, I will say I have gotten some reviews that had critical feedback in them that I did actually find useful. The one that particularly stuck with me, because it was such a simple thing, there was a review of Doppelganger when it was first published, when it was under that title, where the reviewer commented on me overusing italics for emphasis and things, and I looked at the text and was like, “You know, you’re right.” And so, I have since very much dialed back my italics.

I’m a little prone to…ellipses. Dot-dot-dot.

Oh, ellipses, semicolons, em-dashes, even colons, which are really not much in fashion in 21t-century fiction, but spending about five years writing like a Victorian lady had some bad influences on my prose. I want to use all the punctuation, thank you very much.

Just because you mentioned Rook and the Rook and Rose, I realized I kind of skipped over one step, which is characters. How do you find the characters for your story, and how do you develop them?

That is very much an organic back of the brain process for me. I’m not the sort of person who sits down and consciously constructs like, “OK, let me figure out, like, go through a questionnaire and create the character.” The part of the process that does get a little more conscious is, I will try to prod myself out of certain defaults about like gender, sexuality, ethnicity, et cetera, and say, “Well, like, whatever I default to, maybe I should try to do something different,” just to be, like, aware of that and make sure I’m not doing the same thing over and over again. But characters are kind of a subconscious gestalt thing for me. I don’t get emotionally invested in them if I construct them in a very logical sort of way. And I need them to…in a way, I need them to be able to surprise me, because some of the best moments in my stories tend to be the ones where, “I didn’t plan that!” It was just the moment where I’m in the middle of writing the scene and the thing that I intended for the character to do, there’s just kind of this feeling of, “No, that’s not the right thing. The thing that they would do in this moment is this other thing.” And that invariably is actually the more interesting thing to have happen rather than what I had planned.

And this does mean that I wind up with random things sometimes where I’m, like, “Why do I know this about that character? Like, this isn’t even relevant to the story,” but just, I am sure of that fact. There’s an incredibly minor character who shows up in, I think, one scene in the third Onyx Court book where, he’s gay, I know that he’s gay. Why do I know this? I don’t know. It just, it’s not relevant to the story, and I’m not looking for anybody to pat me on the back for a thing that you completely cannot tell by reading the book, but it’s just a fact about him that my brain has provided to me.

Well, and that is one of the fascinating things about the whole writing process, is the way that, you know, what are our brains doing in there while we’re writing?

Yeah.

Because every writer has similar stories.

Yeah. It’s a neurologically weird thing, because we are wired to kind of model human behavior in our minds and to, like, imagine what people might do in certain situations. And so, creating characters is kind of a process of, you know, leveraging that for fictional purposes. And if you do it well, then it does start to feel like there’s…or it can, because, I mean, obviously not every writer works the same way. But for me, if I have done a good job of creating the character in a believable fashion, then it does feel a little bit like there’s this real thing and I need to figure it out as opposed to I need to make the decisions. And that’s just kind of how I approach it.

Well, I guess I kind of brings me to the other cliché on here: the big philosophical questions of why? Why do you write, why do you write this kind of stuff, and why do you think any of us write?

Because we’re too dumb not to? I don’t know. Like, it is just something where, this is what my brain has always done. And over the years since I was nine and decided I wanted to be a writer, I have encouraged my brain to do more of this. You know, we kind of respond to rewards, and so if I enjoy doing the writing, which I do, then I have this feeling of, “Oh, I want more of that enjoyment, let’s do more of that.” And so, my brain generates more ideas for me. I’m not the sort of person…I think it was Vonnegut who said, you know, “I hate writing, I love having written.” I love writing when it’s going well. There are days where it’s like pulling teeth, but when it’s going well, I’m discovering things. That’s part of why I write the way that I do, with less planning, usually, because I want that feeling of, “Oh, I didn’t see that coming. And now I get to enjoy it kind of in the way that the reader does.”

And there is a dark side to that reward cycle of, “OK, I have trained my brain to understand that I will be happy if I do these things,” which is that it will continue to offer up ideas, sometimes is the most inappropriate ways. The one that really sticks with me—and this was, again, during the I stuff, when I was writing A Star Shall Fall—you know, like, you wake up in the morning, and there’s that period of time where you’re awake, but you don’t quite have clear thoughts going through your head yet, and so, I’m lying there in bed, and I stretch, and the first clear thought that emerges in my head is “Vivisection!” And I’m just lying there going, “OK. Yes, that is a really good idea for the plot because that works very well with X, Y, and Z. Could you not have waited like ten minutes? Let me get vertical first?” No, first thought of the morning, “Vivisection!” Because clearly, I’d been thinking about the story in my sleep and that was what popped out of. So yeah. Every so often…and I recognize it’s weird to talk about my brain like it’s somehow separate from me, but it’s like I’m standing there looking at my brain going, “Really? Really? That’s what you give me?”

Yeah. I can identify. Well, as someone whose studied folklore, you know that, you know, humans have always told stories. Where do you think that comes from?

It’s part and parcel, I think, of us being social creatures, that some of the storytelling is ways for us to understand the behavior of the other people around us and to prepare ourselves for, “If other people do this then I can do that, and this will produce good results.” But it is interesting to me that to the best of our knowledge, to the best of my knowledge, anyway, we are the only creatures that do tell stories. Because it’s been fascinating watching studies in animal cognition, kind of taking the things that we thought were uniquely human and sort of one by one saying, “Well, we might do that more than other animals do, but we’re not the only ones who do it,” like, you know, language and such. No other creatures have, that we know of, languages the way that we do, but they communicate in some incredibly complex ways. Like, there are cetaceans, like whales and dolphins and such, that have names, like, there are specific sounds that are used to identify specific creatures within a pod, and so, that’s names. And, like, killer whales have culture, in the sense that different pods have different ways of playing that get passed down between the generations, and as an anthropologist, I don’t know of any definition of culture that would not include pod-specific methods of playing passed down between generations.

But storytelling, we don’t, that I know of, have any evidence that other creatures do this. And so, that’s kind of a unique thing about humans. And I think it’s an evolutionary advantage. It’s something where we can imagine what might happen in the future and teach ourselves to be ready for that. Even if what we’re doing it with is stuff that’s not realistic, we’re still learning useful brain lessons from that.

Well, the name of the podcast is The Worldshapers. Do you hope that you’re writing in some way…I mean, shaping the whole world is a bit grand, very little fiction has ever done that, but perhaps shaping other people or, you know, shaping it in some small way?

Yeah, I mean, I try not to think about that too directly while I’m writing because I know me, and I know that tends to lead me in very kind of didactic, preachy directions. I can’t have that at the forefront of my mind, or it winds up resulting in bad stories. But I do have that as a general…like, I hope that my stories do some good in the world. The memoirs, in particular, have gotten a lot of responses from, you know, women working in different fields of science who tell me how much it means to them to see this kind of character, like, “Who’s this lady doing science?”

My wife’s an engineer, so…

Yeah, yeah. And like, there’s a character in the memoirs who is…the term asexual doesn’t get used for her, but she is, she kind of talks about it in ways that make that apparent if you’re looking for that kind of thing. And so, I’ve gotten messages from some ace readers who are just like, “Oh, my God, it makes me so happy to see a character like this in a story,” because it’s really important to us to see people like us being reflected in fictional worlds rather than being written out of them. And so, that is part of why I do this, like prodding the default thing of saying, “OK, well, you know, I haven’t really talked about people who are like X, Y, Z. How can I fit that in here?” Because I do want people to have that feeling of recognition and feeling like they’ve been seen and that they’re a part of the world. But I try to kind of, like, think about that at the moments when it will be a good inspiration rather than, “Now I will do the very special episode of…,” because that’s just…nobody wants to read that. 

“A very special episode…” Well, you’ve talked a little bit about what you’re working on, but just want to reiterate that you have the collaboration coming up, The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rosetrilogy with…who was your co-writer?

Alyc Helms, but it’s coming out under the joint name of M. A. Carrick.

Is this the first time you’ve written as M.A. Carrick together?

Yeah. We knew that editors might ask for a joint pen name, so we had one picked out just in case.

And what are you working on yourself?

So, The Night Parade of Demons is the Legend of the Five Rings novel I mentioned, that’s going to be coming out in February of next year, not too long after The Mask of Mirrors, and obviously, Driftwood is coming out in August. Other than that, short fiction, stuff for the Patreon. I figure having three novel projects kind of at various stages of production is enough for the moment.

And you wanted to make a mention of your Patreon?

Oh, yes, because Worldshapers! The Patreon is called New Worlds, and it is all about worldbuilding. The genesis of it is, basically, I love worldbuilding, I love talking about anthropology and such, and for a long time I felt like I wanted to write a book about that, but I couldn’t figure out how to wrangle a topic that large into book shape. And then eventually it came to me that, well, if I did it as a Patreon, then, rather than trying to tackle the whole thing at once, I could just do weekly essays on different aspects of culture and worldbuilding. And then, maybe after I had written those, I could shuffle them into book shape. So, I started that up. It’s now over three years and counting that I have been writing weekly essays about different aspects of worldbuilding, and I’m not done yet. So, that feeling of, “It’s a ittle difficult to put this in book shape!” was not wrong. What I’ve been doing is, at the end of each year, I put out an e-book that collects the essays from that year, organized into the best shape possible, with the topics that my patrons have voted for. And I think probably when I do finish, whenever that happens, I’ll probably go back and reorganize them into some larger volumes that will be a little bit more kind of thematically organized around different spheres of human culture. But that is some way off, because I’ll need to finish going through all the bits and pieces before I can put together the whole thing. So, yes, it’s proven really, really useful for me, because it means I don’t have to figure out the organization ahead of time. I can just kind of dive into all the interesting little corners and then organize them afterward.

And where can people find you online? You use Swan Tower rather than your name for most of your things, it looks like.

Yeah, that actually dates back to when I thought I was going to be in academia as well, and I wanted a like kind of website and general branding that could cover my academic studies, because I was studying science fiction and fantasy stuff, as well as my fiction work. That ended up not being necessary, but I like Swan Tower. So, SwanTower.com, as one word, is the website, and that has links to the Patreon, which is New Worlds, and that’s also, Swan_Tower is my username there. I am Swan_Tower on Twitter. That’s pretty much it for me on social media. I’m not on Facebook or anything like that.

Ok, well, thanks so much for being a guest of The Worldshapers today. I enjoyed that. I hope you did too.

I did, too. Yeah. Thank you very much for doing this.

And this should come out…well, of course, whoever’s listening to this will know when it’s out. It should come out about the same time as Driftwood, in August. So perfect timing.

Sounds good.

Thanks again for being on.

Well, thank you.

Episode 58: Faith Hunter

An hour-long conversation with award-winning New York Times– and USA Today-bestselling author Faith Hunter, author of the Jane Yellowrock and Soulwood series, the Junkyard Cats novella series, and the Rogue Mage series, as well as thrillers under the pen names Gary Hunter and Gwen Hunter.

Website
www.faithhunter.net

Facebook
@Official.Faith.Hunter

Twitter
@HunterFaith

Faith Hunter’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by Kim Hunter.

Faith Hunter is the award-winning New York Times– and USA Today-bestselling author of the Jane Yellowrock series and the Soulwood series. She also wrote and sold the first of the Junkyard Cats novella series as an Audible Original. Junkyard Cats was the number-one selling book at Audible when released. She also has written three Rogue Mage series novels, two anthologies in that series, and coauthored a role-playing game.

She is the coauthor and author of sixteen thrillers under pen names Gary Hunter and Gwen Hunter. Altogether, she has forty-plus books and dozens of short stories in print ,and is juggling multiple projects. She sold her first book in 1989 and hasn’t stopped writing since.

Faith collects orchids and animal skulls, loves thunderstorms, and writes. She likes to cook soup, bake bread, garden, and kayak Class III whitewater rivers. She edits the occasional anthology and drinks a lot of tea.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you for having me. This is so much fun.

Thanks so much for being on. We made the connection because we’re both with Penguin Random House, and I mentioned to my publicist that, you know, I had this podcast and I could talk to authors, and next thing I knew, there you were. So . . . 

I am just absolutely thrilled to be here. This is wonderful.

So, we’ll start with my usual sort of taking you back into the mists of time–someday I’m going to put reverb on that, THE MISTS OF TIME, and also at the end when I do the big philosophical questions.

Well, you’ve got a big voice. You can pull it off without the reverb. It’s very impressive.

Yeah, I echo in my own head. But, going back into the mists of time, how did you get interested in . . . most of us, it starts with books . . . reading and writing and particularly the kind of, you know, fantastical stuff that you write. How did that all come about for you?

First book in the Dragonriders
of Pern, original cover.

I started out as, like a lot of writers, as the weird kid in school who didn’t fit in anywhere, who fell between all of the cracks and just had a reputation of being strange. So, when you’re strange, you start reading, and you read strange things, and I read Pern and I read all of the old masters of science fiction, as they’re called, and I read fantasy and mystery and began to work my way through thrillers and just simply found a place where my head and my heart could be at peace, and that was in somebody else’s world, So, when I hit 10th grade, and my 10th-grade teacher told me that I had writing talent and I should make writing my career, I believed her, for better or worse. And thank you, Carol Koller (sp?), for telling me that that little gem of poetry, horrible poetry that I wrote, had merit. And she set my life, my 10th-grade teacher set my life on its course.

I’m glad you mentioned that because I often ask if there were, you know, teachers or mentors or something early on. And I think many of us, if we’re lucky, we encounter somebody like that. So, that was in the 10th grade.

Yes.

Did you do a lot of writing in high school, and did you share your writing with other people?

I did. And we had a literary magazine, which all of the literary pieces were turned in anonymously and I turned in about, I don’t know, forty. And when the literary magazine–and no one knew. Different people picked everything. And when the literary magazine came out, of about sixty pieces, something like twenty were mine, which cemented my teacher’s recognition of my work. And so, that was my first moment to really think that I might be a writer, to really believe that it was possible. And being my father’s daughter, he was an engineer, I started working to discover how writers lived, how they did their job. So, I spent hours at the local library talking with the librarians and letting them give me magazines to sit and study and asking permission, “May I please tear out this form here so I can get this magazine at my house?” And being given the opportunity to learn the hard things about writing, as it was at the time, which is you have to have a finished project to be paid, and you have to go through a process to be paid by New York. And I worked for three solid years through 10th, 11th, and 12th grade to educate myself on the business of writing as it was way back in the Dark Ages, and to teach myself as much about the tools of writing, the methods of writing, as I possibly could.

It’s interesting that you mentioned your father was an engineer. I’m married to an engineer. My wife is an engineer and a past president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan, in fact.

Wow.

And one thing I have found, being married to an engineer, is that engineers approach problems very analytically.

Yes.

More so that perhaps comes naturally to me. So sometimes, when she’s approaching something, I think, “Oh, I never thought of that question.”

I tend to, because of my father’s deliberate training in debate, I tend to think of worst-case scenarios, which is really, really helpful when you’re writing fiction because you want your character to face the worst thing possible short of death and come out some sort of a hero. That’s your goal as a writer, to make that transition from flawed character to successful character take place amidst the conflict that the characters are facing. So, because of Dad demanding that I debate him constantly, I think in two different ways when I’m writing. Part of me is deeply involved in the methodologies and the toolbox things. “How do you phrase this? How many times? What is the meter of my prose? Where’s the last time I used a gerund? Oh, this sentence runs on too long.” Versus the worst-case scenario, which is, “This isn’t bad enough. I have to make this worse for my reader to really get into this scene.” So, those two parts of my brain are always working together now, my mother’s creative self and my father’s engineering lessons in the reality of logic.

Where did you grow up?

All over the South. Dad worked for a paper company. And back in the day, big international paper companies would, because everybody was, I mean, they were everywhere because everyone was reading newspapers. And so, he was in the newspaper-making arm, and he was an electrical engineer. So we moved to different . . . we never spent more than four years in any one place. And usually, it was closer to two years. It was two years in Mississippi and two years in Louisiana and two–I mean, it was just all over the southeast. And then Dad took a job in a little town called Rock Hill, South Carolina, with a different paper company, and we stayed there for many, many years, and that’s where I went to school.

Now, when you went to university, did you study writing? Because you initially started in, what, biomedical laboratory work?

Yes. No, I went to tech school. This was long enough ago that you could go to a two-year tech school and the post-World War Two scholastic situation was still in place. So, you could go to school for two years in a science-based or an engineering-based job. And in a lot of them, you could then take the four-year test, and you could get credit for four years of school. So that’s what I did. Dad, in all of his debating, never told me that I was going to have to pay for my own schooling because he wasn’t going to do that, and so I had to go to school the cheapest way it was possible to do it. And that meant the local tech school and study really, really, really hard so I could pass that test, which I did. And I had a good job with benefits for 40 years before I felt brave enough and strong enough in my writing career to quit.

Yeah, I . . . when I was looking into writing, when I was in high school, I made the decision that you can’t actually make a living at it right off the front. And so I went into journalism so at least I was doing something with words.

I thought about journalism. And there was a local college I could have gone to. It would have taken me about six years to pay my way through or maybe eight. But the idea of working in hospitals and being helpful to people was another part of my personality, and clearly, I liked it enough to stay with it. So that was . . . and learning the sciences and having a science background gave me an opportunity to learn a different type of writing, because report writing is very much like journalistic writing in the sense that you have a different timeline and you have different verbiage and you have different methodologies of reaching a point. So that was helpful in its own odd, unique way.

Were there other helpful things about working in that job for all those years. Does that fit into your writing in any other way?

Well, let’s see. Yes. I worked for, spent many years at small hospitals, and in small hospitals, there’s an awful lot of job crossover. So, I took part with . . . I was the assistant for lots of autopsies, and I was the person who went to the morgue and drew vitreous fluid or did a suprapubic stick to get urine or did a heart stick to get blood from the accident victims or murder victims or whatever was down there. And I was a part of the in-house first-response team for all codes, which means if someone stopped breathing or crashed in surgery or whatever, I was right there and then took the samples back to the lab and actually did the processing. So, in a small hospital, you very often get to do and see more, a lot more, than the average person does today. I don’t know if that’s the answer you really wanted, but, yes, I’ve put all of that, all of that learning together. So, when I describe a dead body, at any point, I can do it at least a modicum of success because I’ve seen it, and when I need an injury that doesn’t kill someone, I’ve also got that. I’ve seen everything. So, yeah, it was very handy to my writing.

I usually say that no matter what you do, you’ll find elements of it useful in your fiction writing, it’s like you have to have something in the tank before you can, you know, have anything to write about.

Absolutely. People who sit in an ivory tower don’t know how to write about real-life problems. They have to get out there in some kind of a trench. Now, it could be politics. It could be . . . it can be anything. But sitting in your basement or your living room or anywhere on your heinie and not being involved in the world does not prepare you for the writing life. You have to have a background or a knowledge, not just of the English language, but of the world.

And I would think, working in that kind of environment, you also saw a wide range of people.

Yes. And a wide range of victims and a wide range of perpetrators and a wide range of everything that . . . to start out with I didn’t have the life skills to deal with because I started my on-the-job training at 18. And that was difficult,

I would imagine. Were you writing, then, all through this time as you got your two-year . . . and then into the workforce?

I gave myself two years off from writing. I did no writing during those two years except what I had to do for school, which was report writing, essays, the usual college stuff you still have to do even if you’re at a tech school. You still have to take writing courses and English courses and your basic math and that sort of thing. But I gave myself time off because my job was to get a four-year education in two years. So, the day I got out of school, I walked across the stage, and the day after that I went to work researching for my next book, which had been percolating–my first book, I should say–which had been percolating in the back of my mind for two years.

Did you take any formal writing training at any time? I always ask that because some writers do, and then they say, but it wasn’t very useful.

I did. I took, uh, three options in the tech school. One was actually a . . . oh, gosh, that’s been a long time ago . . . it was a creative writing course of some sort, I don’t remember what now, and then when I was trying to write my first book, I took a poetry course from a two-time Gutenberg winner at the local college and I took a short-story course from a writer who was a critically acclaimed writer and also taught on the side. I learned a lot from those two classes, and the poetry class taught me to cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, action words, all the things that you need to make your prose really strong. And the short story course taught me things about plot and conflict and story arc that I needed. So, those two courses did come in handy. I don’t think I needed much else at that point, and I was ready to go because, as I said before, I studied hard for three years. I read every book I could find on writing. I read every magazine. Every possible writing magazine came to my house, and I studied them and marked them up and dog-eared pages and–not of the books because I got those from the library–but of my magazines, I made it a point to study. And if you really work hard at it, you can teach yourself a lot of things in life.

What was that first look, and how long did it take you then to complete it and presumably submit it? And did it get published?

It actually was finished, and I had about two inches tall of rejection letters–because back then there were probably 150 publishers out there. And I put it aside when I met a cop in the emergency room one night, and I heard him talking about wanting to write a book when he retired. We got chatting and started working together, our first lines were . . . I wish I could remember that first line that we came up with together . . . something about a warehouse with the stink of winter and rats that only a good raising could cure. And at the time, it sounded very poetic to me. But that first book–that second book for me, our first book together–took five years for us to write and the first editor who looked at it bought it.

What was its title?

Either Death Sentence or Death Warrant, I’m not sure which came first, but it was a two-book series, it was a police procedural. Long, long ago.

And you’ve written a great many since then, forty-plus, I believe your bio said.

Yes, I only count up when I think I might have hit another ten. So, I don’t know where I am right now. I do know that I have one book coming out in July, the end of July, which is Spells for the Dead. And I have a . . . I’m in the middle of rewrites for the Junkyard Cats number two, which doesn’t have a real title yet, but I’m calling it Junkyard Bargain. Just for funsies. So I know I’ve got those still coming, and then I have turned and book fourteen in the Jane Yellowrock series, which is my most popular series at this point, and it is in the hands of the editor waiting for that lovely thing writers call a rewrite letter but is really the letter of devastation and misery.

Well, we’re going to talk about that because we’re going to talk about your process. So, first of all, then, maybe we should have a synopsis of Spells for the Dead.  And I want to talk about the Junkyard Cat series, too, because I want to ask you about the difference between writing direct for audio and writing for print.

Oh, dear, you want to know about . . . and of course, my brain is not on Spells for the Dead. Wait a minute.

I know, something that you did a long time ago because you’re working on the next thing. I know how that goes.

Right. I just…wait a minute. Let me see. Let me pull it up so I can look at it. Wait a minute. It’s horrible when you have to . . . sometimes I can’t even remember my own titles. That really happens a lot. Okay, well, Nell Ingram is the main character in the Soulwood series. And that series is a paranormal police procedural slash with . . . well, fantasy, with a little tiny bit of romance woven through it, not enough to turn off my male readers, but, you know, enough to to make my female readers happy, Nell works in Tennessee, out of Knoxville, and she’s called to the Tennessee mansion of a country music star and finds a disturbing scene–which takes you back to something we said just a few minutes ago–she sees dead bodies rapidly decaying before everyone’s eyes. And the witch on her team has never seen magic that can steal life forces like this. So Nell and the team have to go in and solve this mystery and prevent these new dark magics from spiraling out of control.

Okay. And what’s Junkyard Cats about?

Junkyard Cats is science fiction. And it is fabulous. I am having the most fun with it. The series is about post-World War Three, post-alien invasion, and forced peace on the Earth by the aliens because we were destroying ourselves and our planet, and my character is in hiding because she was accidentally contaminated by two different kinds of nanobots and they’ve done something to her. So, Shining Smith is her name, she’s a former biker with the Outlaws, and she runs Smith’s Junk and Scrap Yard in the middle of West Virginia, in the middle of the West Virginian desert. And the Cats part is because she has cats, which you discover at some point in book one are actually sentient thanks to her.

Hmm. Those both sound very interesting. What were . . . okay, this is a cliché question. “Where do you get your ideas?” But it’s a valid question. How do ideas come to you? How do you get the seeds of stories? These ones specifically, but in general, how is that process work for you?

Well, of course, when you’re writing a series, you don’t have to worry about worldbuilding or character creation or character relationships, all of those are already in place. So, when I’m working on the Soulwood series or the Jane Yellowrock series, what I’m planning is mostly plot-related and character-development related. That process is very different because you start out in the middle of a well-designed, hopefully, world, and you bring in the little bits of the world that you need for this particular book. But you have to also be smart and know that maybe your readers haven’t read all of the other books, and so you have to be very clear and concise about the necessary history for your character that you present in this new book. So, you start out in a different place from a stand-alone book or the beginning of a new series.

So, when I start with a Jane Yellowrock or Soulwood book, it’s usually with plot. Who’s died, who’s in trouble? What conflict are they facing? Is it natural or is it mundane? Is it magical? Is it, in the case of the science fiction, is it technological? Is it related to the damage that was done to the Earth in the war? What problem is this now-established character facing that will do two things, number one, challenge the new and the remaining weaknesses in that character, that’s number one, and number two, take that character through a journey where that character has to change and become better or worse in order to accomplish the end. So, if I’m just looking at an established character and all I’m doing is the plot planning, that’s one type of book to start. And I do that with an extremely heavily detailed seven- to thirty-five-page single-spaced outline.

That was my next question.

Now, when I’m doing something brand-new, for instance, Junkyard Cats, all I knew was the beginning and the end. My proposal to myself was about two pages, and it was as much worldbuilding as anything else. And then I realized, of course, I have to have help. So, I got two physicists to help me set up the changes in technology in the world. And they were extremely helpful. And I got some readers handy who would be able to help me with some genetic changes. So, then I just, for the first time in literally well, since 2006, I pantsed something. I flew by the seat of my pants, and I actually wrote the outline so I would have a way to keep track of what had happened as I wrote each day’s writing. So, I would write what I wanted to that day and I would transfer it to the outline. Then I would go back and write the next day’s work, and I would transfer the necessary information to the outline. And then about halfway through, I realized I needed to start my bible because I was loving this. And the bible is all of the things that are going to happen in a series. And in this case, it was technology and characters. So, I have about a twenty-five page single-spaced bible now, and I’ve only got one novella published.

So, the process is different. I was . . . when I started Junkyard Cats, it was all about the creation of this character, the creation of the world, and how much did I need and how much was just fluff and how much do I put away and how much satisfies me as a writer. Because sometimes, as a writer, I need to be satisfied with the craft of writing. I need to have that good poetic feel to things, to my work, that makes me happy and may not do anything for my reader. So, it’s a juggling aspect when I’m pantsing it. It’s very different. It’s . . . Okay, it’s more fun. Let me just say this right up front. Pantsing a novella is WAY more fun than writing from an outline.

When you started working on that, were you thinking direct to audio, or did that come along later, or how did that work?

I finished it, and I sent it to my agent, and I said . . . let’s see, how did that work? Oh, I remember. Audible had asked me if I had anything that they could use as an Audible original. This was some time ago. And I said, “Nope, not a thing. Everything is under contract. But I’ve kind of got an idea in the back of my head, if I ever get time to write it, I’ll let my agent know.” So, I finished all of this, and I sent it to her, and I said, “I doubt that this is anything that Audible would be interested in, but if you think they would be, here.” And she read it and made some significant suggestions, because she’s the excellent, wonderful agent she is. Am I permitted to say her name?

Yes, of course.

Okay, Lucianne Diver of the Night Agency is fabulous, and she made lots of suggestions, which I incorporated into a rewrite. And then she took it to Audible, and they bought it as an Audible original. So it is still under . . . they had a six-month exclusive on it, where it can’t be in print anywhere, and the six months will be out at the end of July, so sometime in August, the end of August, I think, it will come out as an e-book from a small press.

I’m sure you’ve had . . . most of your books have been audiobooks. Do you ever listen to them?

Really, I don’t. I hate to say that because my fans adore my narrator. They think she’s the cat’s meow. Khristine Hvam can do all of the voices, and she’s really good about keeping them in place between book and book and from the beginning to the end, and the characters always sound like they’re supposed to. But if I listen to the way she speaks my characters’ voices, it won’t be what I hear inside my head. So, no, I don’t, and that’s embarrassing, but–love you, Khristine!–but no, have not ever, ever listened to a book.

That seems to be fairly common in authors I’ve talked to. And I haven’t listened to . . . Except for the ones that I commissioned myself and I had to do the proof-listening, and I liked them, fortunately . . . but yeah, the ones that I’ve had that have been done by some other company, I’ve never actually listened to the whole thing. And it’s kind of the same thing. It’s like, well, that’s not quite the way it sounded in my head, so.

Right. I mean . . . and then when you go back to starting the next book, do you . . . I would have to go back and reread a whole bunch in a previous book to find that voice again, because my characters . . . My books don’t sound alike. The authorial voice is totally different in every book, I mean, in every series, so . . . The way I write, the syntax, the punctuation, every little thing is different in the Jane Yellowrock books from the books that I wrote as Gwen, which are much more purple. Those have a lot more flavor to them, in a sense, because the characters are not warriors, and Jane is a warrior, so my authorial voice is so different. If I listen to anything, I would have to go back and reread, and that would annoy me, I guess, some.

What’s your actual writing process? I think I read that you aim for a certain number of pages a day.

I do.

Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?

Well, COVID has changed the answer to that. Normally, I . . . when I was writing and trying to get a book out every six months and working full-time, I wrote for 12 hours a day, five days a week, and then worked to 16- to 17-hour days at the hospital. And while I was fast, I was doing two books a year, so I was always behind, and a good week was 10,000 words. Then I quit the job and realized I was killing myself, so I switched from a book every six months to a book every eight months. And that was much more doable. I was not killing myself anymore. And so, if I could do, let’s see, how much would that be, if I could do 8,000 words a week to 10,000 words a week over seven days, that was a lot easier on me.

And then COVID hit, and I can’t go anywhere, so I’m back up writing way faster, and I’m getting caught up on all of my deadlines, and I’m not sitting at the desk but about six to eight hours a day. And it’s pretty wonderful. So, I hate to say that COVID has been beneficial in any way, but it makes me concentrate on my writing so I don’t have to think about the world. And I think . . . I know that a lot of my writing friends have had the opposite effect where they can’t think about their writing because the only thing they can think about is the world. And it’s horrible, and everything’s on fire. But for me, I’m hiding from that when I’m writing, I’m not watching the news, I’m not checking Facebook or Twitter, I’m not going anywhere but into this world and I can sit and write, and it’s pouring out of me, and it’s wonderful. Now, I don’t know if that will continue. What has it done to you? I mean, I’m really curious about how other people have reacted to this.

Hasn’t really changed much for me. I’m . . . you know, I work at home. I was writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, which is a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of here. So, I would go up on Tuesday morning, and I stayed overnight, and I was in the library for two days meeting with writers and going . . . you know, stuff like that. And all that changed was that I no longer made the trip to Saskatoon and I just sat here and did it all virtually, and it actually benefited me because I wasn’t spending money on that hotel room one night a week up in Saskatoon so that that all went by, and, you know, I always sit in my house and type, so it hasn’t really changed much from my point of view. But yeah, I’ve heard that, you know, different things for different people. I assume from what you said that you mostly write at home anyway, you’re not a go out into the coffee shops or scribble under a tree with a pen or something.

Absolutely not. I want my computer system set up exactly as it’s set up. When we go somewhere to paddle, I still have to write, and I take all my computer system with me. So we travel in an RV, and it has a big, deep dash. So, when we are stopped, and I am working, I still have my two great big screens and my laptop to the side, and so that gives me two keyboards. So, I have two full systems to write with because, especially now that when I’m writing a series, I have to have so many different files open. I’ve got to have the bible open. I’ve got to have maybe the previous book open. I might have to have the writing order and the time schedule open. I might have to have the editor’s notes open. So, when I’m writing, I always have at least four files open at a time. And all of them are related to this project that I’m working on. So, I have to . . . I just . . . when I go somewhere else, I replicate my office.

What . . . once you have that first draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you have a very clean draft? When you get to the end you’re done, you don’t have to go through it again? How does that work for you?

Well. I’ve been writing for a long time. When my father was passing away, I had about three years there where I did not turn in very clean drafts, and I felt very sorry for my editor. And they kindly, at Penguin Random House, kept working with me through those three years. But normally, except for those three years, I start out the day revising everything I wrote the day before and then putting in another X number of words to get to where I need to be for that day to meet a deadline for the week. So, for instance, if I know I’ve got a 40,000-word document due on Monday, and I’ve got seven days to do it, then each day I’ve got to . . . each week I’ve got to do 10,000 words. So I just divide it up, and normally I’m able to make it. Lately, though, I’ve given . . . I’ve had some health issues myself, so I’ve given myself a little bit longer. I’m not pushing myself. I’m just letting my COVID brain write all the time, and I’m not watching word count as much as I did before. So . . . everything changes. It just . . . life changes, people get sick, people die, your dog dies, you, I mean . . . you and your husband get to go on vacation to Ireland, and you don’t write the whole time you’re there, and then you come home with all these ideas and you have a brand-new concept, and you sit down, and you write like crazy. So, life is just odd, and the process is . . . the writing processes always have to change based on the reality of the world.

As they say, life is just one darn thing after another.

Yes, it is.

Do you . . . it doesn’t sound like you have beta readers or anybody like that. Or do you?

I used to not, but I do now. I have one beta reader who keeps up with the timeline and the bible and makes sure that all of the characters are where they should be at the start of one book, based on where they were, where they last appeared in the series, So if I’ve killed off the character, the character is not back in this book. So, I have her, and she is in . . . 

Well, in your book, couldn’t that happen? In your series?

Yes, well, it did three times by accident. And that forced me to reintroduce to . . . not to reintroduce but to introduce . . . an accidental time-loop situation. So, that gave the book, gave the Jane Yellowrock series five more books, because I made that accident, so no one’s complaining except the poor person who has to keep up with what I’ve done. And she was . . . the timeline editor has also been a non-fiction editor, so she’s really good about, um, the broad strokes in the editing process. So she’s a beta reader, but I also now . . . she started out as a beta reader. I now pay her to be my timeline editor. And I have a genetics person who does plants and people genetics. And she’s also my, one of my PR people. I have personal PR people as well as the wonderful people at Penguin. So, yes, I have two really regular beta readers that I use, and then this last time, I have two people who are . . . three, excuse me, three new people who are beta readers for mindset and weapons from so that a new character, I’ve never written in his brain before, so that he thinks properly when he’s faced with danger. My character, Eli Younger, is a former Ranger, active duty in the Middle East. And when he comes home, he’s injured. Now I’m writing a story where he has to face a bad guy, that he doesn’t have any of the weapons needed to fight. So, part of this new novella I’m working on is through his point of view. And I needed to make sure that the weapons he would choose, the number of shots fired at this creature, the way he would, his body mechanics would, work during a fight and the way his brain would work, because those are all parts of one whole. And so, I have three brand-new beta readers who were very helpful in this new novella.

Once you get the book submitted–and you mentioned the letter of devastation from the editor–what says what sorts of things do you usually find yourself having to do in the editorial pass?

Really, really good stuff. I have the best editor at Penguin ever. I’ve already told her if she ever retires, I’m quitting, and she laughs, and I go, “I might be serious here!”, but she catches things like plot holes like, “This makes no sense. You said this here, then you said this here forty pages later, and they have no connectivity. So you need to address this, and you need to bring this. You need to create a connectivity between these two events, and your character needs to work through this.” And she’ll say things like, “Your character sounds mean.” Or, “Your character sounds like you,” or, “Why would your character know this? This character does not have any backstory that gives him or her a knowledge base in this area. And you sound like an expert.” Because, you know, I did my research, but off the fly, a character wouldn’t have time to. So, it’s not just the nit-picky things, it’s the big, broad strokes of the novel. It usually starts out with, “This was so much fun. I always loved getting back into this. Here’s five single-spaced paragraphs of what’s wrong with it. And then here’s all the nit-picky things,” the next five pages, single-spaced.

And who is your wonderful editor?

My wonderful editor is Jessica Wade at Ace at Penguin Random House. And I cannot recommend her enough if you can get in with her. She’s fabulous.

Well, my editor is the only editor . . . well, I’ve worked with multiple editors . . . but the only one in my major publisher is Sheila Gilbert at DAW, just down the hall from Ace, actually, in the Penguin building.

Very good. Well, but they’re all working at home now, so . . . 

Yeah, yeah. She’s actually is in New Jersey.

Is she? 

Yeah. But what’s interesting about Sheila is that . . . because I talk to authors, and everybody gets these written letters and Sheila doesn’t give you a written letter. We have very long phone conversations, which is, you know, just different. But it’s the same thing, you know, “This character can’t do that, or never set that up,” or, you know, it’s the same sort of thing. And when I work with new writers, as I did as writer-in-residence, there’s occasionally, people are concerned about working with editors. They think they’re going to somehow damage their deathless prose or something. And I explain that editors actually make things better. That seems to be your experience.

Yes. I would not work without an editor. I just I wouldn’t do it. And when I say an editor, let me back up. In case someone is out there who doesn’t know about editors, there’s multiple kinds. There’s a developmental editor, which is what Jessica is, and there’s copy editors, and those are the people who do the timeline, nit-picky, but very important stuff like, you killed this character on page 12, and they’re back doing a fight scene over here. Or, you change this character’s gender midway through the scene, or you started out in a truck and now they’re in an airplane, that kind of thing. And then there’s the line editors who do the even more nit-picky things like fixing quotations and that sort of thing and making sure there’s no duplicated words. Jessica can do all of those, but her primary importance to my work is as a developmental editor. And she rips the plot to shreds, which is what I asked her to do when we first met.

Now, you’ve been writing a long time, have you been surprised by how people have embraced your words over all these years? Or pleased, at least?

I don’t know if happy or pleased fit exactly what I feel, I think embarrassed and humbled and sort of tongue-tied when people gush? I just . . . I don’t know what to say when people like what I’ve written, I’ve learned to say “thank you” with some sort of regularity in the appropriate–most of the time–in the appropriate spot. But I will admit, it’s difficult to believe that people like my work.

They seem to. Well, we’re towards the end here, and so now it’s time for the big philosophical questions, which is not that big. Well, maybe it’s a big question. I don’t know if it’s particularly philosophical. But the question is, why do you do this? Why do you write? And on a bigger scope, why do any of us write and then, being more specific, why this kind of stuff, this kind of science fiction and fantasy stuff?

Uh, well, I’ve written . . . let me answer the last one first. The last part first. I’ve written science fiction/fantasy because I got bored with the format required from thrillers and mystery. I know that sounds dreadful to all of my mystery fans, but they were always current-world driven, and that put limitations on.the writing methodology that I just got tired of. And I had always loved, back when I was even more strange than I am now, that strange young girl, that odd young girl who buried her nose in books, I had always liked other worlds and flying dragons and knights in shining armor and more importantly, women who could fight their own battles. So, I got tired of writing in the real world, which to me, mystery is, and I wanted to write other things, and that’s where I am now.

And it’s so much more fulfilling to me as a creator because it takes a lot more effort. When you’re writing mystery or even just . . . anything . . . that is real-world based you are kept in these constraints, and. They’re known, and they’re easy. When you create a new world, a new world system, you have to have the checks and balances in place before you start, and you have to know how they differ from reality and how they make your world harder to live in for your characters. And that’s something that a lot of real-world writers don’t realize. They actually will make fun of people who write fantasy and sci-fi, and you go, “Wait a minute, I have to do everything you’re doing, in a world with entirely different rules and many more pitfalls, so stop and think what you’re saying, you’re actually taking the easy way out. And I know that because I used to write that way.” And they tend to get very quiet.

And why, in general, tell stories of any sort?

Because I’m still that strange little girl with a beast living inside me. I need to write. I write for my mental health, I write because when I wake up in the morning, I want the day to go well, and I can make sure it does in my writing. I can bring it to a point of fabulous conclusion if I choose at the end of each day, where something great happens, or something horrible happens that I know is going to be solved tomorrow or the day after that. And there is a blessing in living that way that I don’t have when I don’t write. And I have thought many times over the years of giving up and when I would retire and if I would retire. And now I’m having so much fun writing again, now that I’m pantsing this new series, this new novella series, I don’t want to quit anymore. I’m back to, “Oh, this is fun. Yay!” And I’m looking forward to the new projects.

This podcast is called The Worldshapers, and we’ve talked about the worldbuilding side of that. But the other side of that is, do you hope that your fiction . . . I know, I don’t think very many stories have actually shaped the world, a few classics, maybe. But what do you hope that your readers . . . are they shaped in some way by your fiction? Even if it’s just be entertained.

I . . . yeah. I think what I get right now is, ‘I’m so glad I have your books to read. I just discovered them, and I’m hiding from the world in your books. And I’m so glad you have a female character who doesn’t sit on the train tracks and scream, ‘Help me, help me!'” Like Dudley Doolittle’s characters, female characters, always did. They’re very happy that my characters are take-charge women and take-charge fighters and go after the bad guys who are hurting the underdogs, and that makes them happy. When I was writing as Gwen, it was a different thematic thing, although my characters did take charge and kill their own snakes, as we say in the South. They lived in a world that was different, and they had more back-up. They had people they could depend on most of the time to help. So, it was different . . . it was a different world. And what people got from that was, “Thank you for addressing this issue in this wonderful story you told,” about polygamy or about some trigger element that this person needed to see in print at the time and it would help them through some problem that is ongoing in their past and now in their present. So there’s . . . it’s different things for different people, and I’m just happy people are reading my books, it makes me weep with . . . mm, I said that word, and I almost wanted to. It makes me weep with happiness, I guess, I’m going to go back to your word. It doesn’t feel real. But then, I write fiction! So, there you go.

And you have mentioned what you’re working on, but maybe just reiterate what you’re working on now.

I am working on novella number two in the Junkyard Cat series right now, it’s being rewritten to go back to the editor, hopefully soon. I have Spells for the Dead, which is Nell Ingram, and the series of Soulwood. It is number five in that series. It’s coming out in July.

I think I called it Souls of the Dead when I mentioned it.

Spells for the Dead and Soulwood, so . . . and I do that too, and I have to stop and think . . . that’s why I had to go look it up when you ask me what the title was, because I couldn’t remember. And then I have turned in True Dead, which is Jane Yellowrock fourteen, to the lovely and brutal and fabulous Jessica Wade. And so, I’m waiting for that rewrite letter, and I hope that letter of devastation stays at least another couple of weeks away and I’ll be all caught up. Yay!

And where can people find you online?

I am on Facebook. You can just hunt for Faith Hunter Author on Facebook. I have FaithHunter.net, where I have a website, I don’t do a whole lot on it. And then I have two fan pages, or three, on Facebook, which you can find if you look for Faith Hunter Discussion Group and Faith Hunter Spoiler Group, you can do a search for tha, and it should pull both of them up…all of them up.

Okay. That’s kind of the end of our time. So, thanks so much for being on. I really enjoyed the conversation.

Thank you for letting me ramble on. It was incoherent much of the time, but you’re very good at pulling me back on track. Thank you.

Thank you.

Episode 57: Edward Savio

An hour-long conversation with successful screenwriter and novelist Edward Savio, author of Alexander X, Book 1 in the Battle for Forever series, the audiobook version of which, narrated by Wil Wheaton, was a number-one overall bestseller on Audible.

Website
edwardsavio.com

Twitter
@EdwardSavio

Instagram
@EdwardSavio

Edward Savio’s Amazon page

The Introduction

Edward Savio grew up in the bucolic bedroom community of Berlin, Connecticut. After Howard University, he moved to Los Angeles to pursue screenwriting, where he became a ten-year overnight success, selling the first of a half-dozen scripts a decade after arriving in Hollywood.

Savio’s first long-form novel, Idiots in the Machine, was his anti-screenplay, giving him the freedom to explore and develop deeper characters, multiple narratives, and play with language. He wrote Idiots with the certain belief that no one could make it into a movie, not even him, and then Sony Pictures optioned Idiots for the Academy Award-winning producers of Forrest Gump for seven figures.

After three more six-figure deals with Sony and Disney, Savio moved to San Francisco to start a family. And after years of commuting between homes in SF and LA, he chose to shift the focus of his writing towards novels so he could spend more time with his children. He lives and writes in the home where Danielle Steel wrote her first two breakout novels.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Edward, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Hey, how are you? Good to have this time with you today.

I like your first name. You’re the first Edward. I’ve done it on the podcast.

So are you…see, I’m an Edward. Are you an Ed or an Edward?

I write under Edward. That’s my byline. But people that know me call me Ed. Unless they knew me in high school. Then I’m Eddie. So it’s one easy way to tell when somebody knew me, is by what they call me.

See, I used to be Ed in high school, but then when I got to college, people, you know, across the campus would be yelling, “Ehh!”, like, any noise, and I just kept turning around. So finally, I was like, “Okay, can we just be Edward?” And it just worked out that way. But yeah, I mean, I know. And of course, my mother, when she’s upset with me, would call me Eddie. So I have those three personalities as well.

Yeah, I was always Eddie right up until I started working for a newspaper. And then I decided my byline as Eddie Willett…I was only twenty when I graduated from university and started working as a newspaper reporter, and I decided I needed to seem older than I was. So I went from Eddie to Edward at that point. And it’s been my proper byline ever since.

Smart.

So, we’re gonna talk about your series, which started with Alexander X, but before we get to that–and, of course, the real focus of this podcast is on your creative process. We’ll use that as an example of your creative process–but before we do that, there’s a…it’s kind of a cliché on The Worldshapers, and someday I’m going to put reverb on it…I’m going to take you back into the mists of time and find out how you got started at all this. I know you grew up in Connecticut. Were you a big reader? When did you get interested in words?

You know, it’s funny. I am a student of words. I love words. I didn’t start out that way. You know, I think, like, how did I get interested in writing or writing sci-fi or writing worldbuilding? Like, there are so many different questions there. Which one do you want to start with?

Which came first?

Writing. You know, I think with writing, I have to say that I was a…most writers start out as readers. Right? I was not a reader first. I really wanted to become a director when I was a kid. I loved movies.

All you really wanted to do was direct.

All I really wanted to do was direct. And I knew that from the time I was in seventh grade. And I knew that the two most common ways to become a director were through the visual side, cinematography, cameraperson. And the other was writing. Actors, of course, have become directors, but most directors come from either cinematography or writing. And since I didn’t have a camera and I couldn’t develop my own film, you know? I wrote–a lot. I wrote dialogue-heavy plays and then screenplays, and I wrote a musical in order to graduate high school, because in between my sophomore and junior year in high school, I went to France and French girls just kind of got in my head and I needed one more credit to graduate, and so I had to do an independent study at the end of, or during, my senior year, when everyone else was loafing. And a lot of it was comedy and action, but when I wrote prose, it was always short stories, and almost exclusively science fiction. The screenplays I wrote, they might have a magic element to them, but almost all of them were mainstream comedies and actions.

So, after selling screenplays to the studios and making a good living and writing mainstream novels, I wanted to go back to my roots, and I think writing sci-fi and building a world is a way to do that. And, you know, there are so many ways into science fiction. As a kid, I–because I was this visual person because I wanted to do movies. You know, I loved watching Lost in Space before school or, you know, of course, the Star Trek reruns. That’s how I got into sci-fi. And I didn’t begin reading the classic science fiction until I was in my 20s. And I have this inverted life, right? Like I said, most writers, a lot of writers are big readers.

I think you’re the first one I’ve talked who said they didn’t start as a reader.

So, yeah, I mean, most people do that. And I was always a big writer. I wrote my way out of everything, feelings, and all of that. And so, I made a lot of mistakes that probably would have been fixed if I had read more. But I made my own mistakes. But that’s how I got into the idea of writing and specifically sci-fi.

When you were writing whatever you were writing as a kid, were you sharing it with other people and letting them see what you were doing and getting feedback that way?

Yes. So, you know, I wrote a lot. I wrote poetry. I would read it. It would be, you know, like I would read it in front of a class or do it in front of an assembly. I did stand-up comedy in front of assemblies when I was a kid. I did this musical that needed to be performed in order for me to, you know, get the grade. So, yeah, I was not shy about showing my work, but it was funny, when I went and talked to my English teachers, my English teachers looked at my work and went, “You’re writing in present tense all the time. And you should be writing…this sounds like a script.” And I was like, “Yeah.” So, even my prose, in the beginning, was in present tense, which helped me a lot. You know, I go through and use a lot of different tenses, even in the same book, because, you know, with Alexander X, there’s the past, but sometimes in the past, I’ll use the present tense. But I use tense to either make the action more visceral or to show a difference between when someone is talking and when someone is talking about the past, even if it’s reversing the present tense versus the past tense. But yeah, I didn’t have a problem with showing my work to other people. And I know that’s a big problem for a lot of writers. They just never show anyone that first work. And I’m so glad I did it early on because, you know, I’m proud of everything I’ve written. But the stuff I’ve written when I was younger, it’s still pretty good, but it wouldn’t have gotten better if I didn’t have some feedback.

And that’s why I always ask. Because it does vary from writer to writer. But…I was someone who wrote my first short story when I was 11, and it was called “Kastra Glass: Hypership Test Pilot,” so you could see where my mind was right away.

Exactly.

But I was always sharing it. And it was…if I hadn’t shared that story with a teacher who gave me some critiquing on it, I might have not had that little spark that made go, “I want to keep doing this because readers actually enjoy what I’m doing for them.”

Yeah, I mean, I always made people laugh in school, you know, or I was the person that, whenever we had a big assembly, I would be, like, the M.C. or the person that would gather…you know, would be up at the mike. I was not shy about that.

You know, you mentioned something about the musical. Did you perform in that? Did you do some acting as well?

I did. I’m an average-to-poor actor, you know. I was just watching Hamilton this weekend…

So were we!

…and, you know, I’d seen the play earlier this year in person in San Francisco, and it was amazing. And I think they did a great job in what they showed in the film. But it was interesting because, you know, as much as it is…I wanted to see Lin-Manuel do this because he is amazing at it, but he’s the writer and the creator. And in many ways, most of those other people are better, quote-unquote, actors than he is better singers than he is. He brought something no one else could bring to that part. But that’s how I would feel if I was doing something. I don’t even know if I’d be that good at all, but I’m saying that when I did my own stuff, when I was acting in my own stuff, I was the weakest link of it. But the writing is what gets you. And then also, understanding playing things is important.

One of the things that people have talked to me about is, in the Alexander X series, Wil Wheaton is the narrator. And people have said, “You know, is it weird when he does something different?” I said, “Well, a lot of novelists get weird about when someone makes a choice about their words. That’s all I started out with. I was never going to be the one that was in your head. When I wrote a screenplay, it was never going to be me telling you this story. It was going to be someone else. It was through someone else’s filter.” So, for me, it was actually a lot easier. I think it’s a lot harder for some writers to make that jump from book to audiobook. When they hear it, they go, “Oh, God, I didn’t mean that.” And it’s like, “Well, yeah, you didn’t, but a performance was built and was born out of your words.”

Well, I’m a stage actor, and I’ve talked to other authors who have some sort of theatrical experience. And I do find that it gives people a different idea on their regular writing. One thing that I often say is that, you know, you’re talking about, “Does it sound weird when somebody makes a different choice with the words than you did?” But that’s exactly what happens in every reader’s head. You don’t know how they’re hearing those words in their head. They’re essentially acting them out in their head the way that they would interpret them if they were an actor on stage. So really, everything that we write is being interpreted differently than we perhaps have it in our heads as soon as it crosses over into somebody else’s head.

I agree. I mean, I remember driving home from this girl’s house at like 2:00 in the morning. I was, like, seventeen years old or something. And I remember we had just, like, been, we were making out, it was like this my whole mind is like, “Oh, my God, this is amazing.” And I’m driving home, and it’s late, and this…I don’t know who it was, it was a late-night deejay or something…and he gets on, and he says this sentence and I will never forget it. And it’s absolutely influenced my writing ever since. And he said, “I can say the words ‘I never said he stole my coat.’ And if I inflect each word differently, it changes the meaning. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat. I never said he stole my coat.”

I’m going to remember that now.

Yeah. Each one of those means something different. And I will never forget that I’m gonna write this sentence and someone can read it, as many different words as are in there, they can put an inflection on there differently. And so, in writing, you know, I do use italics at points where I really feel like something is necessary and has to be there. I let the reader have their own mind for a lot of it. But I learned because of writing screenplays that I needed to be very specific in how I wanted something to be said. An actor and a director are gonna do what they’re going to do. But at least you have to give them your intent, so they can go, “I don’t want to do that.” Or, “Oh, I get what you’re saying here and I’m going to bring something different to it.” But you at least have to give them the intent. And it’s a wonderful thing.

One of the things that I find most interesting about writing is when you get criticism. People, you know, people tend to be only either lovers or haters when they write a critique. There aren’t a lot of “meh” in-between critiques. And what’s funny is when someone is negative, when someone doesn’t like something, it is usually not liking the very thing that either I as the author or the majority of people who love the piece enjoy. It, you know, someone’s like, “Oh, you write too much about history,” or “You do this or X or that.” And it’s like, and then other people are like, “I love when you go into the deep dives into history.” And so, you know, he can’t make everyone happy. But, you know, you’re at least trying to find your audience so that…it’s interesting, like, the first book, Alexander X, has a very good rating. But the second book has a much better rating. Now, is it because I wrote so much better? I think it is a better…I mean, I’ve developed the story, it grows…but I think it’s because I’m starting to find the audience and the people that aren’t going to like that first book aren’t going to go to the second book.

I think it’s Robert J. Sawyer, whom I interviewed, that said that you’re not trying to be…it’s impossible to be the favourite author of everybody, but you want to be the favourite author of a nice, solid chunk of people, is how most people find success. It’s not by being the most popular author of everybody, because you can’t please everybody.

No, you can’t. You really can’t. And you can’t even try. And, you know, you can’t even try. It’s just something that that doesn’t work. So, you know, I think one of the most interesting things about building a world, and that’s what you love to talk to people about, and I think in your own work, you love to build worlds, is that, you know, we get to create something. I’m not a believer in simplistic worldbuilding because, you know, when you have everyone, you know…there’s movies, television, there’s books, where you have a conceit, and you break people into five different groups, or you have certain different factions and those factions are very, very cut and dried. Well, if it’s a metaphor, I get it. But in the world, most things would never happen like that. But it is interesting to be able to create a world that is both familiar and shines a light on who we are, yet brings us into something completely different. Alexander X is very realistic science fiction, and so the worldbuilding is about the people themselves. I’m coming out with something, it’ll probably be next year, called Flux Capacity, and it is a very different concept, very much where I can go and play in this playground.

You spoke about, you know, Idiots in the Machine being the anti-screenplay, my first novel. I didn’t start writing sci-fi in terms of long-form until my kids were a little bit older, and I wanted to write something that they might be interested in. And that’s how, you know, I came about to write Alexander X. But with Idiots in the Machine, you know, I had this idea that I was going to just do the opposite of a screenplay. I was going to…I was tired of, you know, before I sold my first screenplay to a studio, I had written fifteen, maybe eighteen screenplays? I had made money, a little bit of money, from about the eighth or ninth? I was a starving writer living at about eight to ten thousand dollars a year, you know, living with roommates, living my life, not working other than writing. And then I started to write this novel, and nobody cared at all. No one gave me any money. And so, I had to start working. And so, I worked at this talent agency, and I got to see how the product was handled. And I learned a lot of things about the business. Those people never helped me at all. But I did meet someone who was an assistant, who became my agent, who helped change my life. She introduced me to the woman who became my wife and the mother of my children, and also, I learned about lit agents, and she was a talent agent, and I worked with her and developed how we could talk to people about the scripts. But, building a world is something that starts…it starts with a kernel of an idea.

Well, just before you get there, because that’s the main focus of what we’re gonna get you in a minute, I did just want to back you up to the university level. Did you study writing formally at some point?

So, again, I was very much a film person, you know, and I went for screenwriting and for film making. And I ended up just writing and writing and writing and writing and writing while I was doing that and it became the thing that I realized…again, learning how to get behind the camera was okay, but if I was going to do anything I had to be writing, I couldn’t be…it couldn’t be someone else’s…I couldn’t take someone else’s vision. I had to take my own vision if I wanted to be out there. That was the risk I took. And so, there were plenty of people that made more money in the beginning because they went and worked in the industry and moved their way up through things. But what I did was I took a gamble and, you know, I paid a lot of…you know, cheap food when I was in my twenties, but I put…I invested in what I felt was my best chance, which was to create my own things.

So now we’ll go back to the kernel idea. Because I want to go through your creative process. And the very first thing is, of course, that kernel of an idea. So, where do those kernels come from for you and specifically for the Alexander X books?

So, Battle for Forever

Oh, one more thing before we say that. We should have a synopsis, so people know what we’re talking about who haven’t read the book. 

So, yeah. So, okay. So, Alexander X. So, here’s the kernel, the start, right? So, the idea is…I had this idea as a screenplay idea, that there was this guy who was very good at everything. Mid-thirties. And what we find out is he’s a couple of hundred years old. And so he’s able to be really good at everything he does. And I put that idea away in a drawer. And then later on, when I was thinking about writing for my kids, I wrote this book called, you know, it was called The Stuperheroes vs. Dr. Earwax. And I did the illustrations that were just horrible, but they loved it. And my kids read up. They read above their weight class. And so, I started thinking about teenagers and young adults. And what if this character wasn’t 200 years old? What if he was a hundred times that, or a hundred times as old as a normal person? And what if it wasn’t one character, but maybe a few hundred? And they’ve been kings and queens and generals and some of the most famous people in history. But they’re not immortal, right? They step in front of a train. They die. Except, they have this genetic defect–what we now know is a genetic defect–that kills most people born with it. But the ones who survive have lived many lives, pretended to die, disappeared, started again as someone else. But for the last hundred years or so, they’ve been mostly living in the shadows because fingerprints, surveillance, DNA, biometrics, make it too risky. If they become great or even well-known, people are going to figure it out, and even if they pretend to age and die, their secret is going to be revealed the next time they show up, the next time they want to be great again. And they want to be great again. And the older ones, they’ve never gone this long without that kind of power and adulation. So, what would they do?

Mm-hmm.

So, that’s the world. That’s before we even start the idea. That’s the backdrop for meeting our hero, Alexander X, who is a junior at a small high school in the Berkshires. And he’s known as Alexander Grant at the moment. And he’s never been famous or great, but he’s lived a lot, and he’s seen a lot, fifteen hundred years of it. But his mind, his body, and his emotions are that of a fifteen-to-seventeen-year-old. With all the good and bad that comes with that, right? So, everything’s going along fine and maybe a little boring, but fine, until someone tries to kidnap him and use him to get to his father, who is one of the most powerful of their kind. So that’s the jumping-off point. And Alexander is basically trying to figure out what the hell is going on. And so, that’s both the synopsis and the kernel of where the idea came from.

Spreading it out a little wider, how do how do story ideas typically come to you? Not just this one, but of all the things that you’ve written?

You know, I mean, so for me, you know, I have a lot of different ways. I have three different ways of putting information down. And I have hundreds of snippets of stories and thoughts and ideas. Things have come in many different ways. You know, one of my original…originally, screenplays, sometimes we would take an idea that was a classic. And so, the first thing sold to Disney was Swiss Family Rubinstein, which was, you know, it’s Swiss Family Robinson, but written for if Bette Midler and her family are rich in New York and they get lost on an island because of all of this reason, what would that be? So, it’s like taking a kernel of something old and making it new again.

Or, it’s a snippet of something. I read–for Idiots in the Machine. I read the front or the back cover and saw the cover, the book cover’ and read the first few paragraphs of a book called The Confederacy of Dunces. It was just a brilliant book that won the Pulitzer Prize. And I thought it was gonna be a certain book. It ended up being this other book. But a couple of years later, I was thinking about my first thoughts, about the ideas I’d put down when I first picked up that book in the bookstore before I ever read it. I had driven home thinking about what this book was gonna be. And I wrote that book. I wrote the book that I was thinking about, you know? So there’s…so, I am still…I am…like, about half of what I write is something I thought of 15 years ago, and the other half is something…like Flux Capacity is a new idea. Alexander X, I had that idea ten years before I wrote the book. So, they come from different places. And that’s why you just have to…honestly, the greatest advice I can ever give to anybody is–and I’m only about seventy percent of the way there–is have the best, most searchable database of ideas that you can so that you can go find them and look things up when you need them.

Once you have the idea, I’m looking at the novels here, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? Or do you just start writing?

So, when I was writing screenplays, I was, oh my God, I was completely so very anal. I’m not an anal person at all. But in writing, I have to pretend to be one. And I would go through and use index cards and later use programs that mimicked index cards and write out everything, you know, everything, including indirect dialogue, including the major type of scenes. And then, by the time I went to go write the screenplay, I was going boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, and I’m there. When I wrote Idiots in the Machine, again, because it was this anti-screenplay, I did exactly the opposite. I had an idea–that, because, it was this thought in my head, through this idea that I had with the book–and I might have had an ending in mind. I had this vision, this one shot. It’s one image. Like I was filming a movie. I had one image. And then from everything else, I went and just went off. And so it’s all of these…imagine you take your fingers, your ten fingers, and they’re all spread out, and they’re just completely separate, and then all of a sudden they start interlocking like a zipper till the end. And that’s how it went and how it came together like that. My anal side kind of came in about halfway through the process, but it started out freeform.

Now, my writing process is a little bit more of both. I have three different ways that I write. I have tablets and digitized paper where I make some longhand notes. Obviously, I do most of my writing on a computer, typing. But I also make notes using voice-recognition software. I have a large space where I work, with screens on either side of this room, and I have a headset like those that the pop stars or the performers in Hamilton use. And I will walk around and act out action scenes. So, I may peek my head around the corner, pretending that I have a gun in my hand or I might block out how I’m going to do a fight scene. Now, I have large windows in my place, and it may be possible for my neighbours to see me from some angles and I can only imagine what they think of me when I’m doing this. I must look like a complete crazy person because I am literally fighting with myself and acting all of this out. And so, I put those things down on…you know, the biggest problem as a writer, my most time-consuming thing is to then reorganize those stream of consciousness ideas, which are well-formed in their little packets, I can write a whole scene or a section of a scene, but it’s reorganizing them in a coherent way to make them into a book because that…you know, they’re just ideas until you put them together.

Once you start doing that, do you work sequentially, then?

I tend to work sequentially, mostly. I will write big scenes. I may write a rough draft of an ending, you know, somewhere around halfway through the process. I already know something of the ending, usually. As a screenwriter, I’ve always started with two things. I know the first shot. I know what’s going to, what I’m gonna see, and so I know the first words or the first image in a book, and I’m going to know the last image I want people to know. And…but I tend to work sequentially. I tend to write and rewrite a lot of the first part of a book, you know, getting through till I’m comfortable, at least with usually about a third of it, about maybe 40 percent. And then I start moving onward.

And one of the reasons why I really develop the beginning is because spending time there at the beginning really makes the last part go a little bit faster, where I have a voice, I have a style, I have a thing that I know what I’m doing here, and I can go through and move further. I tend to do a lot of rewriting. Rewriting is, you know, I think…I mean, I think many people talk about this, right? But rewriting is the most important thing. And I do this one process where I write on a piece of paper or a digital version of it–usually, I use a PDF and an iPod–and it’s non-destructive editing, and I can make all the changes that I want, put funny lines in or ideas that I have, and nothing has changed in the original document. Because going into a computer is destructive editing, and a lot of writers have…they clench up, they get constipated, they literally clench up, and they can’t move forward because they’re like, “Ugh, I don’t know where I’m going.” But when you do it in a non-destructive way, you can do anything you want. And then later on, when you come back and put it into the computer and put it together, “Yeah, I guess it’s not that great of an idea,” or, “That other idea that I had later is completely contrary to this idea.” So, let me work those two out before I’ve done all this work.

I think you’re the first one who has told me of a process quite like that. People revise as they go, but most of us tend to just do it on the computer and not have a separate, non-destructive way to make those suggestions to ourselves and then come back to it.

It’s really the most freeing thing. It really is. I mean, it is the most freeing thing. And when I figured out how to do this–because I used to do it on paper and have these thick, just reams of things that I would always lose or, like, I couldn’t find them when I needed them. And on a PDF, I can at least search for the words near where I’m looking for or something, and I can just put it right there, and it’s on my iPad and then, “Oh, it’s on my computer right next to my what I’m working on.” It is the most freeing thing I’ve ever found.

I know it’s happened to me once or twice where I have rewritten something and then think, “You know, the original maybe was better,” but I don’t have the original anymore.

Right.

So, yeah, I can certainly see to see the benefit of that. Do you…it sounds like, with the process you’re working, I’ll bet you work almost entirely in your dedicated writing space, and you’re not somebody that goes out and works in a coffee shop or something like that.

I don’t work in a coffee shop, but I don’t work necessarily in a dedicated space. I actually have a few spaces where I write. So, I’m…right now, I’m in the booth where I do audio work. So, this is a creative space. But in terms of writing, I have three other creative spaces for the actual writing. I have a stand-up desk where I do a lot of this walking back and forth with this monitor on the other side of the room. I will go out on my balcony, and I will take my computer out and write looking out at the bay. You know, this house, this place has a lot of Chi, writing Chi, you know, Danielle Steele wrote two of her books here, so it really does have a good feel. And I use her bookcase. She built this one bookcase in here, this big, giant bookcase, which is my quote, hallway library. But I also can go and walk and talk, and I may go out and ride or walk and make notes to myself out in different places, because sometimes that is the most amazing…like, you get stimulated by whatever you’re seeing.

You know, I was, I got to go to Rome last October and some of the scenes in the third book in the Battle for Forever series, take place in Rome. And I already had an idea of what I was going to do. I already knew–I didn’t know if I was gonna go there. I was going there for… A friend was having a birthday party and I got invited, and it was this eye-opening experience. I’d never…my family is five generations on one side and four generations on the other of Italians. But we’re not, like…because we’ve so been here so long, we’re not like the new Italians coming over. So, you know, we have this, a little bit of our culture, but I had never gone to Italy. And I’ve been to Paris, I’ve been to Europe, I had all of these things, and I put them in my writing. But when I went to Rome, I was like, man, I could not have imagined what I’m looking at. The pictures don’t do it justice. The feelings that I’m feeling don’t do it justice. And I just started to walk around and mostly…like, the first couple days I just experienced. I didn’t try to intrude on my experience. But there were moments, you know, where I would pull out my phone and make notes to myself, audio notes, or think about what I was doing or where I would put this, and almost kind of do a live version of that thing I do in my house where I’m blocking out something. I might be in a place and go, “How would I run up these stairs if I was going to do something illegal here? How am I gonna get to that roof if I’m gonna use that great piece of architecture, you know?”

And so,. I think it’s important…a lot of writers create…you know, when I was younger, I had a small little room, nine by ten, and I used to sit in it, and I loved writing like that. And a lot of people love that little cozy writing space. But I also think it’s important for writers to get out and create in an open space. Take your computer, take your iPod, take your…whatever you’re doing, and go completely off-grid or in the middle of a city and start writing something. And maybe later on, it is going to turn out to be nothing, but it might be the kernel that you need for a scene or a whole story.

Yeah, I think the most productive I ever was, was getting out of my office and going to the Banff Centre for a week, for a self-directed residency, and I wrote 50,000 words in a week. You had this magnificent mountain scenery all around you. And it…although the odd thing was, the book I was writing was set on the prairies, but it was still…it was, you know, just the change of scenery alone stimulates, I think. So, once you get the first draft…well, first of all, are you a fast writer, would you say, or how does this process work?

I’m a bit…I’m about…I would say that I’m a fast writer, with a ponderous amount of pondering. So, when I’m writing, writing, I can do a lot of work, but when I’m thinking, it’s a long time, and when I’m editing, I can go through and agonize over a sentence or, you know, a group of phrasings here and there. So, it’s a little bit of a mix. I would say that overall, I’m not a fast writer. I’m not a slow writer. But I’m very fast and prolific at certain times.

When you get to the end, with all the revision that you do as you go along, is there then still a complete revision process for you where you go back to the beginning and work your way through? What does that look like?

I am, you know. Yeah. I mean, I am literally just…I am constantly rewriting. You know, I have…it’s very funny. So, I wrote the Idiots in the Machine years ago. And finally, you know, now that sort of had this second boost through Alexander X and everything…you know, I had a successful career as a screenwriter, and then, you know, I had this book that did something and then, you know, I raised kids and didn’t do much because I wanted to raise my kids, and I changed my life. I would fly back and forth, but it became too much if I wanted to be…and have a life. And so, it was a difficult choice, but I didn’t…you know, I kind of got rid of my apartment in Los Angeles, even though I kept it for years, and I just started writing.

But so, with that said, this book came back into the realm after Alexander X hit number one on Audible, and the opportunity to do an audiobook version of Idiots in the Machine became real, and I could get the type of people that I wanted to get. I rewrote some of it. I rewrote some of it because I looked back at it as I was going through and I was like, well, you know, I mean, most of it was just things that didn’t play well to me or just didn’t, you know, didn’t seem to age well? A joke here and there where you’re just like, “Okay, that doesn’t work.” And I’m always reminded of this thing that Tennessee Williams said, you know, someone was interviewing him, he was in his 80s, and they came into his office, and he had Cat on a Hot Tin Roof on his desk with pencilled notes on it. And they’re like, “What are you doing?” He’s like, “It’s not finished yet.” It’s been a movie. It’s been a play on Broadway. No one’s going to redo his thing. But to him, it wasn’t finished yet.

So, yeah, I go through, and I rewrite a lot and, you know, I use that, like I say, that non-destructive editing. I go in and I write. I have people read and give me some notes. I don’t very much listen to notes directly. And I learned this in screenwriting where I almost got fired off of a job because I actually listened to the studio executives. I came back with this version based on every single one of their notes. I had gone down, point by point by point, and done everything they wanted, and they’re like, “This is horrible.” And I’m like, “This is all, these are all your ideas.” I mean, that’s what I wanted to say. So, two things happened after that. From then on, I walked into meetings and I would put a recording device in the middle of our meeting, and the red light would stare at them, and they became seventy-five-percent smarter, knowing that their voices and their ideas would be saved for all eternity. And the second thing I learned was, don’t do what they say, do what they mean. And if someone or a few someones tell you something’s wrong, their answer is not right. But they do, they are coming up against a speed bump or a pothole in your story. And you need to figure out how to fix that.

How do you find the people who do this reading for you? Are they just friends, or…?

It could be. Yeah. I mean, so, I have a group of maybe about a couple of hundred people who have grown to love this so much that they’ve kind of, you know, the first two books, I’m giving them pieces of things. In general, you know, my kids were really important in reading this. They are really tough critics. They do not pull any punches. I have a few adult friends who have read things. My manager or agent will look at stuff, you know, but it’s mostly been people that are that I know or that love something already.

You know, here’s the thing. It’s always tough because when you give something to people that are fans of your work, they tend to, you know, either they’re really helpful, but they want to love it, and they also feel like, well, you know, you’re the writer, and they’re going to say nice things to you. So, I usually have people that I say to them, “Hey, I know it’s really good. You don’t need to tell me it’s really good. You need to tell me what you have a problem with. Again, I may not listen to anything you say, and I’m probably not going to listen to any of the ideas that you have. But I’m going to listen to what you mean and why you’re saying that. And I may ask you some questions about that. But don’t be afraid to be critical.”

Now, it’s published by Babelfish Press...

Yes.

Do you bring in editors or an editor that works on it at some point?

You know, so yeah, I mean, we did this…Babelfish is a very small thing that I started with a couple of writers and literally, the people…we are now getting interest from bigger publishers, which is one of the reasons why I’m sorry, readers, that things are taking a little bit longer because the process is a bit…is a bit more lengthy, but we’re working through that. So, you know, I’ve had editors work with me, but really, the most important thing is that you have people that know how to write. You have people that know how to read. And they tell you what’s wrong. And, you know, my job is to try to figure out a way to fix it. And one of the things…if I’ve gotten any good compliments in my life, there’s one thing I’ve heard, over and over, which is, “I will take your criticism. I will not get mad at you, I will not do that, and I will try to find a solution that not only makes, you know, not only answers your problem but also tries to take it to the next level because you’re challenging me to do something better. And if I’m going to waste…not waste, but if I’m gonna take time to address something better, I better well address it, you know, as best I can.

Now, we mentioned the audiobook, obviously, with Wil Wheaton. How did that come about? That’s a pretty top of the line, narrator you got there?

Yeah, so. So, well, a couple of things. You’ve interviewed John Scalzi, and I’m a big fan of Scalzi’s, and I’m also a fan of Ernie Clines’s Ready Player One. And so…you know, when I was writing this, I didn’t have a voice in my head. I had my own voice. But I was…I had been reading…so my kids, again, read above their weight class and to keep ahead of them when they were younger, I would read and also listen to audiobooks because I’m out walking around or doing something or working out, and I would listen, because my kids could just read much faster than I could. And they had more time to deal with that. And so, I started listening…one of my sons got Ready  Player One as a gift. The book. And I got the audiobook and the book, and I was reading the book, and I also was listening to the audiobook, and I was like, “Wil Wheaton. I like Wil Wheaton. This is great.”

And then, I also had read John Scalzi’s earlier work, Old Man’s War, which was not done by Wil Wheaton. But then I started getting into his later work, and I was again, I’m an adult, I don’t have as much time to read, I listened to some of them, and a lot of his later work, most of it now, is done by Will. And so, when we were sitting down to come up with narrators, I had a first, a second, and a third choice. And every single one of them was Wil. And I just…I just fought for the ability to do this. And luckily, the people…Wil goes through and will read what he’s…obviously takes a look at what he’s going to look at, and he has, he’s very picky and only chooses certain things. But before you can even get to Wil, you have to get through sort of a gauntlet of a few people that know what he likes and know his wheelhouse. And Wil started out as…I mean, you know, this child actor…

We just watched Stand By Me with my daughter not too long ago.

Wil Wheaton

It’s great. Right? Amazing. And he’s this child actor who then grew up. And so, in some ways, he’s really perfect for this because this is a teenager, this character, who is really an old soul. Right? So, a lot of people have, you know, until he went on to other things, you know, his voice work and Big Bang Theory appearances and things like that, they always thought of him as this teenager. And he was kind of locked into that and battled with that personally, about how that affected him in his business. And if you read his blog or his writings, he talks about that, and he’s come to terms with it. And it was so…and he brings that to every sentence in this book. He brings that lifetime struggle that he dealt with to this struggle that this lead character deals with. You know, he is a fifteen-to-seventeen-year-old biologically. He has all of the hormones, the brain, the brain development, everything of that. But he’s lived so long, and he’s got so much information, but he doesn’t have the maturity. And he struggles with what that means and how other people see him because he’s smarter, knows a lot more than someone who is going to look at him and go, “Oh, you’re just a teenager.” So, it was a really great thing. And when I heard him, when I heard the first version, I was blown away. And what’s funny is, I’ve done voice work, and I recorded a new book that’s coming out of mine that’s an adult, you know, mainstream fiction. And it’s called Velvet Sledgehammer and very personal, so I really had to be the one that did it. And the amount of time and effort and strength and, you know, exhaustion that you feel working to get this done. You know, he did a 10-hour, 45-minute recording in, I don’t know, you know, four days or something. Five, four, you know, four and a half days. And it’s insane how someone could do that.

Yeah, I’ve done some myself. And it is…it’s the time commitment and everything else that goes into it. It was way more work than I anticipated when I thought, “I should do some audiobook recording.”

Yeah. Everyone’s like, “Hey, how hard can it be.” Yeah. And you know, it really…and what I love also, Wil opened up a whole different audience for me. And also, he…you know, everybody’s like, “Do you think about what he’s going to say, how he’s gonna sound?” And I’m like, “I don’t think about how he’s gonna sound.” But I was really thankful that…before I ever did this, I always had a problem with the he-said-she-said nightmare that happens in books, you know, where…when we read he said, and she said, we don’t see them.

Yeah. They’re pretty much transparent.

They’re transparent. They’re like names on a script, you know, the character names, or in a play. We don’t read them, we just know who’s speaking. But when you hear them, they become very annoying. And so, I was glad that I had figured out a lot of ways to avoid a lot of that repetition before, because if…because, I just felt that way about even reading them. And I was grateful when he read, and it didn’t sound like some books.

Well, we’re getting close to the end of our time. So I have to ask you–this is where I need more reverb again, the big philosophical questions, which are basically why? Why? Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And specifically, why write science fiction? You’ve sort of talked about this earlier on, but now you get to sum it all up.

So, yeah, the big question. Why do we write? Why do I write? Why does anyone write? For me, the answer’s pretty simple. I have to write. There’s no choice for me. You know, like, it’s like asking like, whether I want to breathe or not. You know, we have to eat well, we have to exercise our bodies, but we also have to exercise our minds and whatever that means, right? Not everybody can do this or wants to do this, but human beings are human beings because we think. One of the things I talk about in the Battle for Forever series, one of the themes, is that you can do anything you want. You can become great at anything if you focus on it. Now, we don’t have hundreds of years to learn how to play the piano or study martial arts, but it’s a metaphor. And writing for me is something that I’m constantly striving to be better at. And in some ways, it’s this interesting balance of the, almost the opposite of what our English teachers taught us in high school, because as kids, we write very simple ideas, very simple sentence structures. And in school, we start to learn how to complicate our ideas, you know, with flowery language and big dictionary words. Right? And storytelling needs words. But we have to find the balance between how we tell a story and how we phrase it. You know, I’m a firm believer in the em dash and long, complicated sentences.

Me, too.

And I feel that in creative writing, the semicolon is like an intersection where everyone has a yield sign, and no one knows what to do with it. Right? In fiction, I think we should get rid of semicolons. But, you know, there are also these moments when you need to just write like you’re Hemingway, where it’s he did this, dun-dun-dun dun-dun-dun dun-dun. Right? It’s changing the different cadences. So, I have to write, right? It’s what keeps me sane.

You know, when I was writing comedy more exclusively, I didn’t think I was crazy enough to be a comedy writer. And in my thirties, I found out I was crazy enough. But I also found out that writing is like a daily meditation and therapy. And I think most writers, whether they are famous, not yet famous, or maybe never will be famous, that’s why they write, because they have to write. And I tell people I work with, people who have either interned with me or, you know, come to me for advice, that if I say anything to you, any criticism that I give you, because I’m going to give you tough, tough criticism, if any of it can stop you from writing, discourage you from writing, then you probably aren’t in the right business. Because there is nothing anyone can say to me about writing, no criticism, no negative comment, nothing that would stop me from what I’m doing. You know, because I have to do it. You know, and I just have to say one last thing about this, which is, I’m so grateful that others want to hear or read what I have written, what I have to say. It gives me pleasure, and it drives me farther, and it makes me try harder. But it is only the turbocharging. It’s the nitrous oxide booster, right? It makes it easier. It makes it faster. But it’s not the main fuel.

Yes, because most of us wrote an awful lot before anybody read any of it. And yet we still did it.

I would write if no one saw it.

Yeah, me, too. So what are you working on now? Obviously, there’s the next book in the…Battle for Forever, I guess, is the name of the entire series.

Yeah, Battle for Forever is interesting because there’s going to be four books and I’m writing the third, and the last book is going to be called Battle for Forever, which will really screw everybody up when they come to the series and they sit down and try to read the first book with the title of the series and they go, “Wait, hold on. This is…I’m in the middle of something here.”

So, I’m writing League of Auld right now, I’m about 90,000 words into what will be 110,000 words, but I’ll probably write another thirty or forty thousand before I start cutting back down. I’ve already…you know, I’ve probably already written about a hundred, a hundred and twenty thousand, and gotten down to my ninety, so… And I’m working on Flux Capacity, which is this cool, fun story that I’m working on as well. And I have this very inappropriate, totally not safe for work Velvet Sledgehammer story that is about basically the coming…a person who is reaching adulthood…well, their mid-30s, real adulthood…and is starting to face the fact that children are coming. And in the middle of creating what turns out to be the World Trade Organization, because he’s the trade representative for the United States, and it takes place in 1993, that he…his girlfriend decides that they should get married and have children, and he thinks he’s the last person in the world that should have kids. And so it’s this coming-of-age story for an adult and how we have to deal with all of the things in our past and our present and find those things in us to pass them on to the next generation and screw them up just right.

And do you have any dates for when these things will be appearing?

So, most of the things are in a little bit of a nebulous space because of dealing with the larger publishers. And…like, Velvet Sledgehammer is ready to go. And if anybody contacts me and they want to read an advance copy or they want to give me some feedback on both the audiobook and the book themselves, they can look at that. But they want to hold it back because it’s so different than my sci-fi stuff that they don’t know where to put it yet. But League of Auld by the end of 2020. And I will take a break and not finish the fourth book for maybe a year, year and a half. And in the meantime, I will finish Flux Capacity for next year.

And if anyone wants to find you online, where can they do so?

They can basically find me, Edward Savio, @EdwardSavio, Twitter, Instagram, dot com. Those are the best ways to get me. I will respond on Twitter and Instagram as well. I’m not on there as much because words a little bit more than visual are my thing. But that’s where they can reach me. And if they want to check out Battle for Forever, but don’t necessarily want to yet get into that, they can go to battleforforever.com, and they can get a free novella that is told from a different character, a female character who I just love, she’s great, who’s about 2,000 years old, and it will give you an idea both of the story and some things that might be coming in the future, but it will not ruin anything in the books themselves. You can read it before you read them or in the middle or after. It will just give you a greater understanding of what’s going on.

Okay. And when I do the transcript and everything, I’ll put links on the website, The Worldshapers website for the stuff.

Thank you.

So, thank you so much for being on The Worldshapers. That was that was a fun conversation. At least, I thought it was fun. I hope you did.

Yeah, that was good.

All right. Well, thank you so much.

Thanks!