Episode 14: David Brin

An hour-long conversation with world-renowned, bestselling author (and scientist, speaker, and technical consultant) David Brin, winner of multiple Hugos, Nebulas, and other awards, with a focus on his books The Postman, Kiln People, and Foundation’s Triumph, as well as his thoughts and advice on writing…and many other topics.

David’s Website

David’s blog

David’s Amazon page

Other links David provided or mentioned:

Critters Workshop

TASAT (There’s a Story About That)

That Existence trailer

David has been speaking and writing about Artificial Intelligence a lot.  Here’s video of his talk on the future of AI to a packed house at IBM’s World of Watson Congress, offering big perspectives on both artificial and human augmentation.

David on science fiction

David on using science fiction to teach science

David on teaching science fiction

Pop Culture: Star Wars to Tolkien to…

Articles and speculations about Existence

The Introduction

David Brin

David Brin is a scientist, speaker, technical consultant, and world-renowned author. His novels have been New York Times bestsellers. He’s won multiple Hugos, Nebulas, and other awards, and his books have been translated into more than 20 languages.

David serves on advisory committees dealing with subjects as diverse as national defense and homeland security, astronomy and space exploration, SETI (the search for extraterrestrial intelligence), nanotechnology, and philanthropy. He’s served since 2010 on the council of external advisors for NASA’s Innovative and Advanced Concepts Group, which supports the most inventive and potentially ground-breaking new endeavors.

In 2013 David helped establish the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination at the University of California San Diego. He’s been awarded numerous honors, including the American Library Association’s Freedom of Speech Award for his nonfiction book The Transparent Society: Will technology forces to choose between freedom and privacy?, which deals with secrecy in the modern world. David appears frequently on television, including most recently on many episodes of The Universe and on the History Channel’s most-watched show ever, Life After People. His scientific work covers an eclectic range of topics from astronautics, astronomy, and optics to alternative dispute resolution and the role of neoteny in human evolution. He holds a Ph.D. in physics from the University of California at San Diego, which followed a Master’s in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. He was a postdoctoral fellow at the California Space Institute and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He has a number of patents that directly confront some of the faults of old=fashioned screen=based interaction, aiming to improve the way human beings converse online. He lives in San Diego County with his wife, three children, and one hundred very demanding trees.

The Lightly Edited Transcript

Now, the first thing I have to ask you is, what makes trees demanding?

Oh, well, it’s Southern California, you know. It’s not an area where trees of substance would normally grow. As you drive north from San Diego to L.A. you pass through Camp Pendleton, the great big Marine base, and you see what Southern California was like back for the Native Americans and the early Spanish, and it’s not a lot of oak trees and not a lot of anything else but it had its own ecosystem, and we have to try to respect nature.

Well, one reason I asked, I live on the Great Plains, in Saskatchewan, northern plains, very northern plains, and there’s a famous writer from Saskatchewan, his name is W.O. Mitchell, and one of his books was called Roses Are Difficult Here, and that’s what that reminded me of.

Now, we met, I think for the first time we’d actually spoken to each other, at the World Science Fiction Convention in San Jose this year when you just happened to stop by the SFWA, Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America table where I was volunteering, and that’s when I took the chance to invite you to be a guest. So, thank you for saying yes.

It’s terrific. We’re colleagues in a very, very strange cult. There are some religion and cult-like aspects to science fiction, but it’s a cult that believes in raising its children to out to have doubt and ask questions. It’s a sort of a fundamental ethos. If your children come up to you, having been raised in this culture, and they say, “I have different ideas than you, Mom and Dad,” our reflexive response is, “Ooh, tell us about it.”

In most of these episodes I’ve focused on a single book that the author wants to talk about. But you suggested three you wanted to talk about, The PostmanKiln People, and Foundation’s Triumph, which are all quite different.

We’ll get to those in a bit, but first, I want to take you back into the mists of time. When did you first develop your interest in this strange cult of science fiction and when did you start writing it—and which came first?

Well, I began writing in the fifth grade. I had a teacher who encouraged her students, and I enjoyed it. Of course, I came from a family of writers, going back generations.

But what’s interesting is that I knew from the start that history shows that every human civilization had artists. Now, in our civilization the artists and the entertainers are in charge of the mythic system, and so they extol how important art and entertainment and storytelling are and they are. They’re wonderfully human and important but they’re not rare. If you look across human history there’s never been a human civilization that didn’t have art, it fizzes from our pores, it bubbles, it pours out of us. Our greatest human talent is delusion and artists cater to it honestly by saying, “Hey, here’s another cool delusion,” whereas often politicians and priests and some other professions are shysters. They say, “this untrue thing is true.” But I looked around and I saw that only a couple of human civilizations ever devoted anywhere near as much in resources and attention to actually finding out what’s actually true.

I’m a child of Sputnik and I saw that we were developing hundreds of thousands of skilled people to try to find out what’s actually, objectively true, instead of artistic “Truth.” And I wanted to be part of that. I wanted to be part of something that was profoundly honest, a team effort that was going to transform human civilization. So, I made my writing a hobby rather than my central focus. I went to Caltech and then I went on to UCSD, got my doctorate in astrophysics, but all along the way I had this hobby and I developed it calmly and gradually. That’s the way I recommend to bright young writers: find something that you love that you will be paid for and make that your day job because usually you have to, you know, you can’t ignore the alarm clock if you have a job. But passionately have an avid artistic avocation and grow into it.

You know, parents all through time have said the right message in the wrong way to kids, and that is, “Well, it’s nice you want to go into this art, but have a backup plan.” But if it’s a backup plan and you wind up doing that thing for the rest of your life, then it’s always something that failed. The exact same message could be, “You are large. You can do several things. You’re a positive sum, you know, you’re more than one thing. So be good at something that people will pay you for and be good at something that you don’t give a flying patoot if anybody pays you for it. That’s means you’re an actual artist. If you have to write just for yourself, then you’re writing just for yourself because you must. As it happened, I did good work in science, but civilization very rapidly decided that it valued my delusions, my industrial-grade fabricated artistic delusions, much more, was willing to pay me more, willing to flatter me more, and so I was dragged kicking and screaming mostly out of science. May that happen to you. But if it hadn’t happened, I would still be coming out with books more seldom while I did something solid as my day job.

You said you started writing about the fifth grade. Did you share that writing while you were still a young a young writer? This is something I often ask young writers when I’m teaching writing: it’s important to find out if you’re telling stories that people want to read. Did you take that approach or were you keeping it all to yourself there for a while?

Well, I find that writers are just about the most varied type of profession. Some people, they’re a shy, they don’t want to share what they’re doing or if they tell the story even verbally, describing it to somebody, it takes away from the need to tell it. I’ve never understood that way of looking at things. The more often I describe a story or talk about it or poke at it the more I know about it and the more I the more I want to tell it well. So, you know, we’re varied, we’re very different.

Same thing with attitude toward criticism. If you want to be good at something, you have to get past your delusions of how to do it because, you know, you’re just not going to do it right at the beginning. You’re going to make a lot of mistakes, and there are a lot of skills, especially in writing, especially in fiction, that are almost invisible. The only way you’re going to get better in most arts is through apprenticeship or through taking criticism.

But the problem is that although criticism is the only known antidote to delusion, we hate it. We inherently hate criticism and so we make sure that others can’t criticize us. This is the root of the horrible thing that’s called human history. The horrible story of terrible events called history is rooted in the fact that leaders are human, and they therefore suppress criticism. They don’t want to have criticism. It’s anathema to them. The more mature they are the more they try to overcome this. And if they’re immature they try to repress criticism.

The most mature profession is science because in science, all of the apprentices in science at university are taught to recite or to know the great mantra of science, which is, “I might be wrong. Let’s find out.” And so, after 6,000 years of civilization, science has led the way, journalism also and some others, to enshrining criticism as the central antidote to error. But we’re still human and we try to avoid it almost reflexively. Even if you’re a leader and you say, “Give me the bad news.” your body language warns your subordinates that they’d better be careful. But the great breakthrough of our enlightenment was not freedom per se, not justice or equality per se, but the things that freedom and justice and equality and enable. And that is a confident civilization filled with a maximum number of people who can criticize each other because reciprocal criticism is how we find mistakes as we charge into the future.

Well, all right, so I got a little carried away there. The point is that the one thing that you can do as a writer that will make the biggest difference is to enter into situations where you cannot avoid your work being criticized and getting feedback. And that means workshops. One of the things I did was I took creative writing classes at local community colleges. Don’t be a creative writing major, for heaven’s sake. I mean, that’s the silliest thing you could possibly do. As I said, study something that would be useful for honorable and fun day job, because you need to have that alarm clock, but take, you know, creative writing classes because they give you a deadline: I have to hand in ten pages of a chapter I’m working on or a short story next week. It’s a deadline. I have to fulfill it. So, you write 10 pages. Well, at the end of a ten-week class you’ve got 100 pages. And if it’s discussed in class you can find out where you failed to get the point across, where you failed to communicate. I mean if the other people in the class said, “I was confused here, I didn’t get it,” you know, you don’t respond by saying, “Oh, but didn’t you understand on page two where I said…” No! What you did on page two failed and it’s up to you to find a way to do it better.

When you get a little more advanced you can collect names and create a workshop that’s a little more a little more ahead, a little more professional. We had one in San Diego when I was getting started that had Peyton Murphy, Richard Kearns, Michael Reeves, Greg Bear, occasionally Kim Stanley Robinson.

That’s not bad.

It was an amazing workshop, and boy were we brutal with each other. And there are writers out there who do not want to be brutalized with criticism. It’s not their fault that they’re a little more shaky and fearful. So, you find another way to do what I’m talking about and you can do it online. There’s a website called Critters, which is a site where, if you’ve participated in the criticizing of, say, 10 other people’s manuscripts, then it’s your turn to have yours critiqued. And, of course, that leads into the fact that the Web has offered people a way to get published that was never available before. Because there are basically two ways to get to get your art noticed. One is to be plucked up by the publishers, to be noticed by the great agents or publishers out there. And that used to be the only way to get a book published. But there was a second method for music. You might get suddenly noticed, your demo tape, by a music company, or you could climb the ramp—because the arts are all pyramidal. There’s 10 people who dream of writing for everyone who writes or even tries. There are 10 who try for every one that ever finishes anything. There’s 10 who finish something for every one that ever tries to submit something for publication. There are 10 of those for every one who gets anything published, and so on up the up the line.

My daughter’s a dancer, and we always say that at the peak there’s a couple of dancers who’ve come out of the studio who have gone into professional careers, but you start with 300 little girls in pink body suits down at the bottom. And then over time it gets winnowed down and down and down until eventually somebody emerges at the top. So that’s quite true, all forms of art I think are like that.

Yeah, well, for every 10 writers who can, you know, sort of make a basic living at writing, you know, there’s one of me, but for every ten of me who are comfortable from writing there’s a Stephen King out there and we’re shaking our fists up at him. “Curse you!” But actually, he’s a sweet guy.

J.K. Rowling and her castle.

Right. Absolutely. And fortunately, she’s very sweet, too. So, you can’t really hate her. The point is that climbing that pyramid used to take being plucked by a publisher or an agent who notices you out of the slush pile and that slush pile process still exists and it existed for music, but for music there was a ramp of the pyramid, and that was the ramp of merit, local merit. You would give a local concert, you’d be the opening act for a local concert, you’d do well on amateur night, you’d become the relief band on weeknights. You cut a local album, get a little scene going, and work your way up. Well, now that ramp exists for writing. That’s a long-winded story to basically get to the same point. Now you can have that ramp by publishing your works online. And the good news is, nothing’s going to stop you from having a book. What used to be called vanity press, well, now it’s hard to tell the difference. And you’re going to have a book. The bad news is that a million bazillion bazillion bajillion other people have their self-published books. So, getting it to stand out is going to take entering some kind of a rumor mill or self-publicization things, like that. And, you know, we all know the examples of people who really made it that way—Fifty Shades of Color Purpleor whatever. But the bad news is it’s hard to stand out in that world. But I suppose we should move on and talk about books.

So, when you started writing, when was your first sale? What was your first professional success as a writer?

Well, I spent three years writing my first novel, Sundiver. I wrote a couple of short stories, and usually people do their apprenticeship with short stories, and workshopped a few, but I didn’t really do much of anything with them. My story’s very atypical. The very first publisher to which I ever submitted anything was Bantam Books, for my novel Sundiver, when I felt it was ready. And it took them a little while to get around to reading it through the slush pile, but they made me an offer three times the usual starting rate for the first thing I ever submitted. So, I only started getting rejection slips after my first novel was in the works for publication. And when people shake their fists at me for that I can just sing, “Fairy tales can come true, it can happen to you, if you’re young at heart,” and there, now I just sang on radio.

Well, on the Internet anyway. I would say I think you would say too that most of your science fiction falls into what’s called “hard” science fiction with a lot of technological speculation. What do you make of that distinction between hard and soft science fiction? Sometimes I think they’re not really even in the same genre. In some ways, soft science fiction, some of it is so soft that it’s indistinguishable from fantasy. I’m thinking things like Star Wars. What do you make of that?

I think it’s multispectral. I think it goes in many directions. For example, I think the biggest difference between fantasy and science fiction is not the furniture. Star Wars, for example, has spaceships and lasers, but it is fundamentally fantasy because of the power arrangements, because it’s a feudal mythological society in which these superior beings, those with Force, are all important and average people are not. Well, this goes back to the myths of the Iliadand The Odysseyand most of mythology in most of human history. So, this is the old mother art form, and, you know, one could call it fantasy today, but science fiction is impudent. And so, I call a science fiction story one in which change is the topic: not so much science, not so much technology, but the notion that, sociologically, our society might shift under our feet and that the old ways may come apart. That could lead to dystopias where the old ways are our ways and they come apart, like the greatest self-preventing prophecy called 1984, which helped to prevent itself from happening (God, I hope so) by, you know, delivering dire warnings. Soylent Greenwarned us about climate change and ecological destruction and recruited millions of people to be environmentalists. Dr. StrangeloveOn the BeachFail Safe. These all helped to prevent nuclear war by pointing out ways that it might accidentally happen.

So, this is what science fiction is to me. And so, you know, the hard-scientific aspects of the furniture, of the situation, aren’t central to me. Now it’s true I always just pile in stuff that I’ve learned and I’m a packrat. There’s more biology in my books than astrophysics because that’s where a lot of exciting stuff is happening these days. But The Postmanhas very little in the way of science and technology because it’s about the fears that I grew up with as a Baby Boomer, diving under my desk when I was a child in elementary school because the teacher did a nuclear war drill. And a lot of people are writing to me about The Postmanbecause, you know, not just because of the movie but because nowadays it’s looking frighteningly as if there’s some relevance to the story.

Since we’re going into that and that’s one of the ones we want to talk about, maybe you can give a very brief synopsis or description of it for those who for some unfathomable reason have neither read it nor seen the movie.

This is my most famous book because of the Kevin Costner movie. He made a movie in 1998 and in probably one of the greatest fails of movie-release timing in the history of the world, released it…he sent out an email saying we’ve got it made this Christmas holiday release, our only competition is James Cameron’s silly remake about a sinking boat. So, he released this movie opposite Titanic,and I don’t know why that’s not the most famous aspect of this whole thing. Anyway, so people ask me what I think of the movie and sometimes they’re surprised to hear that I’m even-tempered. It’s certainly not something that I’m ecstatic over the way Andy Weir is so happy over The Martianor Ted Chiang is so happy over the movie The Arrival. They had reason to be delighted there, and they were treated very well, by the way, by the directors and producers of those flicks, asking them advice and all that sort of thing. Kevin Costner didn’t treat me well. We exchanged maybe 12 words. You’d think that if you were going to make a movie of somebody’s book that you’d take them out to dinner. I never had a beer. But Hollywood is kind of like that. It’s, you know, what ego does to people. You have to take it with a grain of salt. It makes for very frail, very large egos. What mattered more to me was that the script by Brian Helgeland, with a lot of input by Costner, was sweet. It was bighearted. It conveyed a lot of the heart message of my book and that was the most important thing. If they had betrayed the soul…

The book is a post-apocalyptic story. It’s about the fall of human civilization, the thing we fear most, but it’s sort of an answer to the whole Mad Maxgenre in that the saving of whatever there is to be saved is not done by the lone hero and a sidekick. The hero does not defeat the bad guy by punching him in the face. To whatever extent good things happen, the good news is brought by the real heroes of our civilization, and that is citizens: people who remember that they were once mighty beings called citizens with great power, magnificent power, of cooperation and to get things done, and the hero’s principal job in this story is that he tells a lie. He tells people in isolated villages that the United States still exists and that it’s coming and he’s a postman and he’s delivering mail and people are so ashamed of how far they’ve fallen, they’ve let themselves fall, that they reopen schools, they reopen the post office, and everywhere he goes, like Johnny Appleseed, America is reborn, just because people believe that America has been reborn. They’re the ones whose start the rebirth.

And this is something that Costner captured. He captured this basic heart essence beautifully, and for that I forgive the fact that he scooped out and threw away almost all the brains. One thing about Kevin Costner is that I think he’s a cinematographer genius. I think this movie is musically and visually one of the dozen or so most gorgeous ever shot. So, what are you left with? You’re left with gorgeous, bighearted and dumb. Well, you know, there are worse things in the world than gorgeous, bighearted, and dumb. That’s what my wife married!

What was the original genesis? I mean, The Postmanactually started as a short story, did it not? I seem to remember reading it as a short story.

Gordon, the character in The Postman, whose name is never mentioned in the movie for some weird Costnerian reason, he’s the only character in the history of science fiction to come in second for three Hugo Awards, for short story, for novella, and for novel. But, yeah, it was a short story first and it was just about, you know, my thinking, pondering, what would I do under this circumstance? And I’m afraid my conclusion was that my biggest talent is creating delusions so that I had the character create a delusion. He’s ashamed of it, but ironically, because I love irony, he winds up doing far more good than harm.

Now the next one you wanted to talk about Kiln People. What was the genesis for that? You should perhaps explain what the story’s about, too.

Well, you know, it’s about being able to make copies of yourself. And that’s very simple. Not clones, because clones are living humans. An identical twin is a clone, and so, they have rights, you know, they’re gonna live for 80, 90 years, they should have their right to their own destiny, their own thoughts, but, no, this is a machine where you can put a cheap clay golem blank of yourself. It’s inspired by the legend of the clay golem of Prague or the clay terracotta soldiers of China of Xi’an or Adam being made from clay. In this world you have a freezer, it has a bunch of these clay blanks, and you put one in your home kiln and you put your head between these receivers, and you can imprint your soul and memory into this clay copy that lasts for 24 hours. It’s going to dissolve at the end of 24 hours, but if it makes it home from this day that you send it out on errands and things then it’ll download its memories of that day into you. And now you’ve been in two places. If you make five copies, at the end of the day you’ve been five places doing five different things. So instead of adding more life, the way a lot of science fiction does by making people immortal linearly, instead you get more life in parallel. And the genesis of this, you asked the question, is that it’s a cry for help from a busy person.

I was going to say it sounds like something a busy writer would really think was a great idea.

Almost any busy person would love to be able to make a copy. That copy doesn’t even have to be told what to do because it remembers what you were thinking just before you made it. It gets off the machine and looks down and it says, “Aw, man, I’m the green one today.” Well, it knows what to do. it has to go and clear the gutters, you know, and unclog the toilet. Meanwhile, the expensive grey model that you made goes off to the library, or you know does the research, because that model doesn’t have any sexual organs. It doesn’t have distractions.

The novel is a detective story. The detective makes four copies of himself at the beginning of this day and sends them out and he goes out himself in his original body, which you’re not supposed to do if you’re a detective because, you know, you could get killed, but all five of them go out, and what’s choice about this is you know some of them are going to die. You know some of them are going to get really, really destroyed. And so, unlike your typical detective story, there’s not this little voice at the back of your head saying, “It’s all right, it’s all right, he’s going to succeed, he’s going to live, they’ll pull him out, they can’t kill the main character. No. And it’s a great example of the ticking clock, which has been used in a great many movies and detective stories. And that is, you know that the detective has to get things done within 24 hours or the bomb in his neck will explode, you know, like in Escape from New Yorkor, you know, he has to get the antidote to the disease within 24 hours. Well, in this case, if you don’t make it home to download your memories in 24 hours you’re automatically gone. You’re just going to dissolve.

So, it was fun stuff and it led to…people should be warned that there are some puns. People have called it my most fun book since my third novel, The Practice Effect.

Well, it was one of my favorites for sure.

Well, I’m glad. And there’s a lot of movie interest that comes and goes. With Hollywood you never get your hopes up. You wait until there’s a check to cash.

This idea of downloadable consciousness in whatever form does pop up in science fiction, I know, for example, Rob Sawyer’s book Mind Scanwas about downloading consciousness into an artificial body and sending the original body off to die on the far side of the moon, but then the original body got cured, and, you know, who has the rights and all that. But do you think that’s actually ever going to be feasible, that we will be able to do that download consciousness into any form of artificial body?

Well, in a sense that’s what the teleporter on Star Trekis, only, it deals with some of the problems by destroying the original body. So, Dr. McCoy is right to be creeped out. I don’t know—how would I know?—you know, I am all the time giving talks about artificial intelligence—I just gave one on AI in defense at the Naval Postgraduate School, the same day that I gave one on AI and software security at VMware. This is one of the things that’s been slowing down my fiction writing has been a lot of public speaking about the future because people are very concerned and they want sort of out-of-the-box, you know, outside-the-envelope looks at what might be coming in them, and that’s my specialty. But the notion of whether or not we’ll be able to make AI…one of the six approaches is to copy a human brain. And if that happened and you were able to copy a human brain, well, then, you’d have this person in software. And Robin Hanson has a non-fiction—well, it’s actually fiction, but it’s written as nonfiction—book called The Age of Em, which talks about what the economy would be like if you could fill, you know, giant computers with emulated real human beings and what some of the results would be.

So, you know, all we can do is explore some of the consequences in advance. That’s what science fiction is about. And so, one of the things we did at the Arthur C. Clarke Center for Human Imagination (if you live in the San Diego area be sure and get on the mailing list) is we’ve created something called TASAT. It stands for “there’s a story about that.” It’s an attempt to get the group memory of science fiction readers engaged in this business of helping navigate the future. There’s a vast, vast number of gedanken experiments, or what Einstein called thought experiments, in science fiction—what if this, what if that—-and almost none of them are available to policymakers. I give speeches, you know, at the CIA and places like that, and very few of them have access to just this group-mind history of thought experiments. Like, for instance, let’s say that one day mole people come out of the earth. With TASAT, government officials or corporations or whatever could go to the TASAT site and say, “Hey, group mind out there, you nerds, are there any stories about mole people?” and get an instant access to what’s out there, what’s in our past, and at least have those thought experiments available to have a glimpse. You know, what if we meet aliens and they are total libertarian individualists with no concept of nations. That’s what I portray in my Mars invasion story, “Mars Opposition,” which you can find in my third short story collection, called Insistence of Vision (notice how I worked in a plug there).

Very good.

So, I urge your listeners to give TASAT a look, maybe a tickler to check in once a month to the discussions, because someday you might save humanity just by pointing out a story, because here’s the deal about a science fiction story. If it’s a first-contact story or something like that, the thing is, the people who are making first contact have reason to think that it’s about X, but it’s not a story unless it’s actually about Y. So, most stories about first contact are about how the first thing that you think is wrong and that’s exactly the kind of thing you want. A government commission that’s looking into something weird, that’s the first thing you want them to read, is ways in which they might be making a mistake. So that’s tasat.ucd.edu, and Ed will have it conveniently available along with my Web site and some links on his page.

I will indeed. Now speaking of stories from science fiction the other thing that you wanted to mention wasFoundation’s Triumphwhich was a continuation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundationseries, and it was part of a trilogy (and I thought this was interesting): Gregory Benford wrote Foundation’s Fear, Greg Baer wrote Foundation in Chaos, and I think you’re lucky to have gotten the gig since although your last name starts with B your first name is not Greg. 

We’re known as the “killer Bs” of science fiction. We invited Stephen Baxter in, and if you’re drunk, you can include Vernor Vinge. The thing is that we did what’s called the Second Foundation Trilogyand Janet Asimov was so happy with it that she retired the series. Now, the novels can be read separately. Greg Benford’s is the least like an Asimov book but has some fun stuff. Greg Bear’s is very much like an Asimov murder mystery. In my case, since I did the cleanup in Foundation’s Triumph, I felt it was my job to tie up Isaac’s loose ends. So, I read just about everything, including ancient things like The Stars Like Dustand Pebble in the Skyand Caves of Steel.

They don’t seem that ancient to me. I remember reading them!

Well, they’re wonderful books from the 1940s, but since they are officially part of his canon, I wove in everything. You can readFoundation’s Triumphby itself, but I tied together…I looked very carefully at where he was going in the last years of his life with his fiction, and it came to me that he was planning to go full circle. He was planning to pull things around full circle back to the very first book, Foundation. So, I deal with the last three weeks of Hari Seldon’s life, after the Foundation is already launched and nobody really needs him anymore. He winds up sniffing a clue to something and, a frail old man in a wheelchair, an anti-gravity chair, he winds up going on the greatest adventure of his life.

I remember reading, I think it was probably in Opus 100, Asimov’s first autobiographical book, that he had sort of stopped working on Foundationafter a while because he found the necessity of going back and rereading everything and trying to be consistent was a huge challenge, and then that’s pretty much what you had to do in this case. Was it a huge challenge?

Well, yeah, but it’s very strange. I never had a very good memory for mathematical equations, but I have always had a great memory for stories. So, you know, it wasn’t that hard.

But I wanted to have your audience have a little bit of a…now, it’s interesting, some of them are thinking, you know, why hasn’t he mentioned the Upliftseries, because if it weren’t for The Postmanthat would be by far my most famous series, and the one that I owe people, and I’m hoping to really get back to moving along on the long-awaited conclusion novel in that series. That’s the one about a universe in which sapient races like humanity create new sapient races by genetically altering them. And so, we alter dolphins and chimpanzees to give them a hand, to give them a leg up, so to speak, and help them to become fully assertive sapient species. That includes Startide Risingand The Uplift War. I suppose I should mention both of those won the Hugo Award.

Oh, a person who was just at our house the other day was Liu Cixin, the Chinese author of The Three-Body Problem, which won the Hugo two years ago. He was down for an event at the Clarke Center.

Now, what’s your actual writing process like? Do you do a detailed outline ahead of time or how much of it happens through the process itself? What is that like for you?

Yes. (Laughs.) I have written from outlines and it’s been very successful. I’ve been very happy with the effects and I just can’t do it very often. What happens is I usually just dive into a book and the characters start telling me what’s going on and then I jump up and down and I go, “Oo! Oo! Oo! Oo!,” and I just thought of this and I just saw that, and this is especially true in my most rigorous and most meticulous books, which you would think had been outlined. Those would be my near-future projections, the books I wrote for grown-ups, called EarthandExistence.

If you if you want to have fun in three minutes with your clothes on, go to my website and go to the novel Existenceand click on the three-minute video trailer with gorgeous artwork by Patrick Farley. It’s really three incredible minutes, but it talks about the central topic: what if we have contact with alien civilizations that are all dead, but they have sent out these crystals with embedded beings in them, embedded emulated versions of themselves, and we find that our solar system is filled with these crystals and they don’t all agree with each other and they can’t do anything to us. I mean, they are software entities inside crystal, except they can mess with our heads and that’s the most dangerous thing of all. And then there’s the earlier novel,Earth, for which my fans keep a Wiki tracking the predictions. There were a few scary on-targets.

Both of those were not outlined in great detail, they just kind of developed?

I was trying to do Stand on Zanzibarby John Brunner, because that’s such a wonderful, wonderful book. What he did was he took the future and he made it come alive, partly through glimpses of the world of 2018. It turns out we’re living in the world now that he predicted in in 1968 and so much of it came true. He had a President Obomi. Now a lot of people are saying he predicted President Obama as president of the United States. No. That was president of a small African country, but it’s still creepy.

Well, once you’ve got the draft, especially the ones that you’re not writing from an outline, do you find you do a lot of rewriting or do you kind of do a rolling rewrite where you’re keeping everything clean and consistent along the way?

It’s the latter. I write maybe the first 20 percent of the book, and then I circulate it. I have massive numbers of pre-readers because I live by what I recommended and that is get the criticism and find out where people were confused, where they were even able to put the book down. And I’ll tighten that scene.

Then I’ll do a rewrite on that first 20 percent of the book and then I’ll write another 20 percent. And now I really know what the book is about, so after getting some more circulated feedback I rewrite that 40 percent and then write another 20 percent. And now I really know what the book is about. So, I get feedback and I rewrite that first 60 percent and add another 20. It’s a way that works for me, and as a result I deal with my weakness, and my weaknesses is the beginnings. I don’t need a lot of work in the ends. I really know how to how to end stories. I seldom need any rewrite at that point, and I should have collaborated with Robert Heinlein, because it’s the exact opposite problem. He knew how to begin a story fantastically. The first half of his novels are wonderful and it’s the second halves that kind of fall apart.

But if I have one thing to say to would-be writers, it’s to remember what your relationship with the reader is and it is a sadomasochistic one, and I’m only 90 percent joking. Your job is to create a situation in which the reader cannot put the book down, in which the reader will be late for work, will miss a report, will forget to feed the cat, forget to feed her children. A sultry voice over the reader’s shoulder says, “Honey, coming to bed?” and he just waves her away, causing stress in marriages. That’s your job. If you do that, the highest compliment somebody can say to you when they meet you is, “Damn you, damn you, I almost lost my job because of you.” You get a little chill up your spine and you say, “Thank you!”

So that’s what I meant by it being a sadomasochistic relationship. Right now, you’re the masochist side. You want to look for good stuff that’ll do that to you. And may I recommend my books. I generally I’m pretty good at that. But if you’re going to be a writer, your job is to cause those problems in other people. And if you do, I guarantee they’ll buy your next book. Especially when they find out who done it, you know, two thirds, three quarters of the way into the book, you want them to slap their heads and say, “Oh, it was all there but I never noticed it!” The reader wants to hate himself. Because every aspect of the story was all there, there were hints, there were clues, but he just barely missed them. You want the reader to be so exasperated that she tears the book in half, throws it out the window, and dives after it. That’s what you’re trying to achieve. And the only way to achieve that is by learning the tricks.

And I mentioned Heinlein…one way to do it is to retype the opening lines because your book will never be read out of the slush pile for all of its brilliant ideas, on the basis of your outline. Forget the outline. It’s the first line that gets them to read the first paragraph. If the first paragraph is great, they’ll read the first page. If they read the first page and they think that’s great stuff, they’ll read the first chapter. And even if the rest of the book sucks, you’ll get a personal letter.

So, find someone whose opening for a book really grabbed you and retype it. Don’t just read it, because you have to understand that writing fiction is the last and greatest of all forms of magic. It uses incantations to create subjective realities in the victim’s—I mean, the subject’s, I mean, the reader’s—head. If you do it well the incantation will cause a magical spell to happen in which you experience the conversation. You aren’t reading it. The little black squiggles on the page disappear.

You all have experienced this. The little black squiggles disappear because the incantation that you are unrolling is causing star-spanning explosions, deep human insights, kissy-kissy love-love. If you just read an expert section by an expert writer that you enjoyed the incantation is just gonna work again and you won’t see how they did it. But if you retype that scene, then you’ll understand how conversation is done by a master, or how action is done by a master, how scene description is done by a master, or, most important of all, how an opening works. So that’s my biggest advice to would-be writers out there: find a section that really moved you that you’d like to know how the author did that and retype it, because it’ll go through a different part of your brain than if you read it.

Good advice. And we are running just about out of time here…so, what are you working and focusing on now, on the writing side?

I just had my third short-story collection, called Insistence of Vision. I’m very proud of all three of the collections, the others are Othernessand The River of Time. I think that short fiction is one of the greatest parts of science fiction. Science fiction kept the English-language short story alive. I think people would enjoy that. I’m working on a sequel to Startide Risingbut I really need to focus more because I wind up spending just way too much time on public speaking and interviews. Oops.

Sorry about that! And finally, where can people find you online?

Oh, well, there’s davidbrin.com. I have a blog called Contrary Brin that’s ornery and contrary and has the oldest and best commentary community down in comments on the Web. Let’s see now…and Ed will post a number of links, like for instance to my speech about AI that made some surprising predictions at World of Watson a couple of years ago.

I guess I will.

All right.

Well, thank you very much, David, I really appreciate it.

Sure thing. And best of luck to all of you out there. Write well, but above all, fight for a science fictional, open-minded scientific civilization.

Excellent advice. Thanks, David.


Episode 13: Lee Modesitt Jr.

 

An hour-long conversation with Lee Modesitt Jr., bestselling author of more than seventy novels of fantasy and science fiction, including the Recluce Saga, the Spellsong Cycle, the Imager Portfolio, and more, about his creative process, with a special focus on his science fiction novel Haze.

Website:
lemodesittjr.com

L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Lee Modesitt Jr. is the bestselling author of more than 70 novels, encompassing two science fiction series and four fantasy series, as well as several other science fiction novels. He has been a delivery boy, a lifeguard, an unpaid radio disc jockey, a U.S. Navy pilot, a market research analyst, a real estate agent, a director of research for a political campaign, a legislative assistant and staff director for U.S. congressmen, director of legislation and congressional relations for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, consultant on environmental regulatory and communications issues, and a college lecturer and writer-in-residence. In addition to his novels Lee has published technical studies and articles columns poetry and a number of science fiction short stories. His first story was published in 1973 we’ll find out about that in the course of the interview. He lives in Cedar City, Utah.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

We’re going to focus on Haze, but first: how did you start writing fiction and how did your interest in science fiction and fantasy develop. Was this a childhood thing or did it come along later?

I always was interested in science fiction and fantasy. I started reading it at a very young age and actually my mother was the one who introduced me to it. My father was an attorney and he didn’t have much interest in that sort of sky-blue stuff that just wasn’t hard and fast, whereas my mother was much more of a speculative mindset. And we lived in what was then the countryside, so to speak, and we weren’t close to libraries and we weren’t close to stores. But she did have this great painted bookcase in the front of her bedroom, and it was filled with paperback science fiction novels. And seeing as there was nothing else much interesting to read—I wasn’t going to read my father’s law books—I started reading science fiction But I never really thought I was going to write it. As a matter of fact I, was going to be the next William Butler Yeats, because my interest initially was in poetry. I read poetry, wrote it, did projects on it, essentially had a minor in it in college, although it wasn’t called that because they didn’t offer that minor, but I actually spent two years studying under William Jay Smith who later became the poet for the congressional reference service in Washington D.C., and that position then became the poet laureate of the United States. And I wrote poetry for some 15 years before I even thought of writing science fiction.

As matter of fact that I was turned down with form rejections from the Yale Younger Poets contest every year until I was too old to be a younger poet. Then I was in my late 20s, and my first ex-wife basically suggested that maybe I should try something besides poetry and she suggested science fiction, since I read it.

So, I thought I could try that, and I wrote a short story and I sent it off to Ben Bova who has just taken over as the editor of Analog, and he sent back a rejection. The rejection letter said this isn’t half bad but you made a terrible mess out of page 13. It’s good enough that if you can fix it I’ll look at it again.

I did, and he bought it. (The title was) “The Great American Economy.” I  was an economist by training and it seemed like a good place to go. It took me something like somewhere in the neighborhood of another 26 stories before I could sell the second one. And it was maybe 17 or 18 before I sold the third one. And this went on for maybe, I guess, five or six years, and then Ben sent me another rejection letter, and it began with the words, ‘Don’t send me any more stories–I won’t buy them.’ And after I got over the shock of those, I looked at the next paragraph, which said, ‘it’s clear that you are a novelist trying to cram novels into short stories. Go write a novel. After that we’ll talk about stories.’ Now, I hadn’t wanted to write a novel. At the time I was working as, at that particular point, legislative director for a U.S. Congressmen in Washington. Long hours, and I didn’t want to write a half million words to sell ninety thousand. But Ben didn’t give me any choice. So, I wrote a novel, and it sold, and that’s another story, but it did sell and every novel I’ve ever written since then has sold, so Ben was absolutely right about the fact that I was probably a better novelist than a short story writer.

How old were you when you started writing poetry?

I started getting published when I was about 15, only in small literary magazines.

There’s not a lot of other markets for poetry except small literary magazines anymore, is there?

Well, there is, I mean, you can theoretically publish it in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and a few other places like that, but that’s about it.

Did your poetry have any elements of the fantastical?

Oh, I think I one or two maybe had a few hints of the fantastical in it. I did write one poem, as I recall, about Atlantis, so I guess that had a certain fantastical element to it, but most of them weren’t.

Do you still write poetry?

Oh, yes. And I’ve incorporated into a lot of my novels. I mean, there are two novels in the Recluce series that are literally linked together by a book of poetry and the resolution of the second novel is partly shaped by that poetry and the existence of that poetry.

What part of the country did you grow up in?

I grew up in the suburbs south of Denver, Colorado. When I was very young my father decided he wanted to practice law in Hawaii. So, we moved to Honolulu and we lived there for a year and a half. He decided it wasn’t the best place to practice law or raise children, so we moved back to Denver, and we lived there until I went away to college.

Where did you go to university?

I went to Williams College in Massachusetts. I studied Economics and Political Science, a double major.

That sounds like the sort of thing that would help you with the creation of societies in science fiction and fantasy. Is that true?

Oh, I think it helped a great deal. Plus, 20 years, or 18 years, in the national political arena certainly didn’t hurt any. And I had a couple of years, actually a year, as n industrial market researcher, which was basically economic, and it was probably the most boring job one can possibly imagine, because my job was to forecast the sales patterns of compressed air filters, regulators, lubricators, and valves.

It sounds utterly fascinating. Have you ever gotten a story out of that?

I never could make a story out of that one. I’ve made stories out of a few other jobs I had but not that one.

You were also in the U.S. Navy for a few years and were a pilot. What kind of aircraft did you fly?

Actually, I started out as an amphibious officer, and I hated small boats so much that in the middle of the Vietnam War I volunteered for flight training, and the Navy decided I was a decent pilot but not a great pilot. So, I ended up flying helicopters and was a search and rescue pilot.

In Haze, the character is a military man of sorts. Does your military experience play into your writing, as well?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’m not certainly extensively a writer of military science fiction, but the military does fit into an awful lot of my books in one way or another. Maybe 40 percent. That’s just a guess, but yeah, it’ been a big factor.

I seem to remember that at ConVersion, the Calgary convention where we first met, you talked about economic systems in fantasy and science fiction and how there are a lot of unworkable ideas of how societies might work. Is that something you like to bring into your fiction, trying to create a more realistic society?

That’s exactly how I got into writing fantasy. I wrote strictly science fiction for almost the first 20 years I was writing. I got into writing fantasy because I got really tired of all of these fantasies where people go off on quests with no visible means of support, or where there are 10,000 armed knights on a side. One of the things that it dawned on me in terms of writing fantasy is, almost never, especially in the fantasy that was being published when I first started writing, did anybody have a real job. And one of the things that I’ve done in all my fantasies and which is still very rare is, all of my characters and fantasies have real jobs. They have to make a living. And the magic system has to be monetized. This is still very rare. A lot of people basically have a character, “Oh, he’s got a real job, but he’s on vacation or the job gets lost. And they just go off with the fantasy stuff.” When I’m writing fantasy, the economics and the magic are all integral. Maybe it’s because I was trained as an economist, maybe because I’ve been in politics, but I realized something about, call it technology, and that is, we don’t hang on to technology. We don’t use it unless it’s good for one of two things. It’s either a tool that will make somebody money or it will entertain somebody.

Well, magic would be the same way. If magic were real, nobody would bother with it unless they could do something with it, make money out of it or if they could entertain people, because we as a species are tool users. We are pretty much pragmatic but we like to be entertained. So, if magic can’t do one of those two things, it’s not really gonna be terribly useful in a society. And that’s probably too much of a soapbox. But anyway, that’s where I’m coming from.

It seems like there’s a preponderance of people are like thieves, bards, or mercenaries. That seems to be the three going job opportunities in a lot of fantasy worlds.

I think part of that is because people don’t think through what fantasy and magic can be used for. I do think that in my fantasies I come up with, shall we say, both practical and ingenious ways of using magic because people would.

Well, I’ve been accused of writing fantasy with rivets, so I’m not sure I agree with that one, but my feeling is, it’s simply the ground rules. In science fiction, the ground rules are, shall we say, the standard model of physics, if you will, and in fantasy, it’s whatever set of, call it a universal operating system, the author wants to put together. In the Recluce books my operating system is the balance between order and chaos

I basically use a different operating system for each fantasy universe, but I make a great effort to be rigidly consistent with the operating system, whether it’s science fiction or whether it’s fantasy. But beyond that I don’t treat them any differently. The characters just have to work within the operating system.

Let’s talk more specifically about your novelHaze. I’ll let you synopsize it so you don’t give away anything that you don’t want to give away.

Well, it’s set roughly 5,000 years in the future. You’ve got a Chinese Federation ruling the world. What used to be the United States is a client state, if you will, of China, and the main character is an American-born intelligence agents agent working for this Chinese Federation. In essence there are, if you will, two and a half storylines, although both of the storylines concern the main character. One’s in the present and one’s a flashback through the past. He’s basically tasked with investigating a planet, which is called Haze, because none of the Chinese federation’s surveillance gear will penetrate the, shall we say, the armada of A.I. spy devices that circle this planet. And he is one of several teams plunked onto this planet to try and discover what’s behind it all. That’s the setup.

What was the genesis of the novel? What was the seed that led to development of the novel?

I honestly can’t tell you, except part of it was the idea of what would happen if China continued on its present course, and American politics continue on their present course. The Chinese have always tended toward imperial states of one sort or another, and they tended to be both ruthless and bureaucratic simultaneously and that I guess was the background that I created and they pretty much co-opted every culture with its tried to co-opt them.

That was the background. And, of course, somebody is going to want to get out from underneath this. And that’s the genesis of the people on ??? or Haze.

Often when you’re talking about science fiction, there are the two big questions that start a story off, “What if?” and “If this goes on.”

I’m a big believer in the what if.

That’s a very long time in the future, five thousand years.Did you feel that you captured the changes that you’d have in technology and all that sort of thing over that amount of time?

I think a lot of people would say, “Why isn’t it more fantastic?” Well, people forget how fantastic things are right now. For example, we now communicate as fast as it is possible to communicate on a planet. We have essentially pretty much instantaneous communication—if we have the technology. but the ability is there—anywhere on the planet. We can get to any place on the planet in a matter of hours. There’s not that much difference in terms of the culture and the society between, even if we had matter transporters, between instantly and a few hours. There is a huge difference between a few hours and weeks or months, as was once the historical case. You can analogize all of these things to, there’s only so much further ahead you can go with technology. You can’t talk any faster than instantaneously, and it takes a certain amount of energy, no matter what you want to do to create things.

Theoretically, we could, I suppose, put together food replicators that could create anything from constituent elements, but the technology and the energy required…well, with that, it’s a heck a lot cheaper to simply go to Natural Foods. I don’t think you’re going to see changes in those things. So, basically, yes the society I postulated is much further ahead. I did suspect that the Chinese, and I did this in 2010 before this became well known, that the Chinese would find a way to, shall we say co-opt the Internet, and pretty much move into a world spy state. And I also postulated that certain parts of the world would not be at that point inhabitable for various reasons.

I also wondered if part of what you were going for was that it is a very static society. The federation is very static and doesn’t seem likely to evolve very quickly if at all, which I suppose is also a feature of Chinese Imperial States over the centuries.

Well, it’s not only Chinese Imperial States, but I mean, if you go back to ancient Egypt, which was in essence a water empire, that actually is the longest period of maintaining a similar government structure in human history that we know of. It’s actually outlasted the Chinese. I mean, yes, there are pharaohs, and you have the first dynasty and the second, all of these various dynasties, but basically, governmental structure in Egypt stayed pretty much the same from like 4,500 B.C. through the time of when the Romans finally conquered it, and even into Tomake ? Egypt it was somewhat similar.

How do stories tend to come to you?

Sometimes it’s just thinking about thing but probably a lot of it comes from the fact that I still study a huge amount of both history and technology. My wife laughs. She says that every time the mailman comes to our house he heaves a sigh of relief, because of the amount of periodicals we take. I admit that I like print periodicals because I can browse them at odd places at odd times. I think I take three archeology magazines, a couple of history magazines, and a lot of technology magazines, economic magazines. Of course, my wife takes all sorts of music periodicals and I read them all. I’m not sure I could say, oh, gee, this story came from this particular point.

I think the best resource that an author can have is a well-educated subconscious. We don’t remember all of it consciously. You can maybe call it up, but you don’t remember everything that you read. But I’m convinced that your subconscious, or your latent memory, if you will, remembers most of it, and the more stuff you pile in there the more likely you are, at least I believe so, to come up with good ideas.

Do you read a lot of other fiction or do you mostly read non-fiction?

At one point, even before I started writing, I was probably reading four to six hundred science fiction books a year. Right now, it’s more like 40 to 50. Most of my reading is non-fiction. Now I’m fortunate. I can I can read very quickly and I can retain most of what I read. which I find is a tremendous advantage.

With that initial idea in mind for any book, how do you go about shaping the world? Do you set out a plot and the characters develop, or how does the process work for you?

Well, it varies a little bit from book to book, but in general I tend to start with the world, the structure of the society, the religion, the environment, those factors, because they shape an awful lot of what you can do with the book. Resources are a factor. How do you get them? Where are they? Who controls them? Geography and obviously religious or belief structures, those shape people and people shape government. And I come up with those sorts of governments.

I mean, it’s not monolithic. When you look at the Recluse series, which is my biggest series, it set across over 2.000 years. And in the course of the 20-plus volumes, there are ,stories set on five different continents and more than 20 countries and the government systems that I have in those countries vary tremendously.There are military matriarchies, trading councils, hereditary monarchies, various other structures, an imperial structure in one particular case, based a lot on their past history and also the cultures and the geographies there.

Do you write all of this down before you start? Do you take copious notes and outline and do a detailed synopsis?

I don’t do synopses. I do have a set of notes when I’m doing a fantasy. I have a rather large-scale, rather large and rather messy, scale map of the countries and the world that I’m working in. I’m very big on scale maps because when I was younger, I got really irritated at writers who over the course of a book had the same journey take quite varying times without any changes in the climate or the cargo or what have you. So I try and be fairly accurate about that. I try and set up a structure that fits and then work within it.

Do you set out the plot in detail before you begin, or does a lot of that happen as you write?

I know pretty much the beginning and the ending. How I get there is something that I have to work out as I go along because you got to work. I mean, there are times when I have gotten to a point in the book and I’ve thought, well I thought this character was gonna do that, but the way I’ve written this character, he or she is not going to act that way. And so, I’ll have to figure out another way for that character to get to that, given their character.

Well, speaking of characters, how do they arrive on the scene to you? How do you decide what characters you need, and then how do you go about bringing them to life?

A lot of that depends. I mean, it’s the chicken and the egg thing. A lot of that depends on the structure and what you’re trying to do. In the first book of the Recluce Saga, I was thinking about Lerris in terms of a very bright but almost Asperger’s-like clueless young man, who was goodhearted. The reason why it was written in the first person, past tense, rather than the third person is, if I’d written in the third person, Lerris would have come off as the most obnoxious self-centered young man you could possibly imagine. He wasn’t. He was good hearted, essentially clueless and dense about a lot of things, but yoou wouldn’t be able to see that from the outside. So that’s one of the ways where the character defines the structure. In other cases, I mean, if you go to Adiamante, which is one of my science fiction novels, it was actually taken from life in a way. An acquaintance of ours in his, shall we say, late middle age, suddenly lost his wife to a fast-moving form of cancer and I started thinking about what would that be like. And then I put it in a science fiction setting, and so it’s really a science fiction novel about a man in either late middle age or early old age who’s had a certain amount of power in the past and is called on to deal with a very difficult situation, because of that expertise, And how he deals with it is intertwined with, call it his grief, and his understanding of where he’s been.

So that’s another way of bringing a character into a story. Soprano Sorceress from the Spellsong Cycle is a music fantasy set in what I would call a Germanic misogynistic society, and I came up with that particular idea because I was thinking about how well today singers are trained (because my wife is a singer and trains them) and what would happen if you had a society governed by song magic, and a lot of things fell into place there because one of the things I realized was even if you had song magic you’re not going to have very many sorcerers or sorceresses. And the reason for this is a confluence of two events that everybody overlooks. First, to really train somebody well as a singer, you really have to train them young. I mean, basically, after puberty and before 30. Second, that’s the most self-centred time in human existence. And if you are going to give somebody the power that could kill you…you’re going to be very careful about who you train. Then you add to this an outside sorceress from our world who’s got all those abilities in a misogynistic society. Well I thought it would make for an interesting conflict and it did.

So, it sounds like a lot of your stories actually arise because of the interplay of the character with the world that you’ve created.

Exactly. But I mean, that’s life. Everything we do is created by the interplay of the character with society and what goes on.

Do you do a detailed character sketch, or does it arise more organically as you write?

I think more I have a feel for the character to begin with. Call it a sense of who he or she is. Then I fill in some of the details and then we start filling in the society and the conflicts. And it goes from there.

A lot of writers—it’s happened to me—will put in a character simply because, for example, there needs to be view of something the readers need to know about and the main character is elsewhere, and that character then turns into a more major character than anticipated. Does that sort of thing happen to you?

I can’t say that it happens in that fashion, although there have been some characters who were minor characters in one book that I thought, “I really want to find out more about this character,” and so I wrote a book about them.

And usually if you want to find out more about the character the reader wants to find out about the character, too, so that works out.

What does your actual writing process look like? Do you write by hand? Do you write on a computer, do you write on a typewriter?  Do you write in an office or in a coffee shop? How does that work for you?

Okay. One, I do not write long hand, I’m left handed. I probably wasn’t trained properly in penmanship. And I get writer’s cramp after 200 words writing longhand. I started writing on a typewriter when I was 15 years old, just for school and what have you. I moved to computers as soon as computers had enough memory to accommodate my style of writing. I write on a computer. In terms of schedule, my wife laughs when people ask, do I have time for writing. She just says, “He writes anytime he can, which is pretty much all the time.” But to be fair about this, I don’t neglect her, because when I proposed to her, I said, “Well, you know, I need time to write. And her reaction was really simple. She just started laughing, and when she finished laughing, she said, “You are going to have more time to write than you have have ever had in your life. And she was right, because basically, she is a classically trained lyric soprano who’s done some work in opera, but she basically runs the university opera program and the voice program, and her schedule is 9 to 10 in the morning until 7 to 11 at night, depending on the time of year. She was right. I have plenty of time to write.

And you’re quite prolific. You’ve done as many as two or three books a year haven’t you?

I’ve averaged two and a half books a year for the last 20-plus years.

That makes me wonder what your revision process looks like. Do you have a very clean manuscript when it’s finished? Do you have to go back and do a lot of rewriting? Do you use beta readers?  How does that work for you?

Actually, according to my editors, I turn to a very clean manuscript. I revise continuously as I am writing and then I generally revise again after I’ve finished with the first draft of the manuscript, which is a little misleading, because there are probably some parts of that manuscript that written a dozen times before I finally finish it.

Revisions for me are both fun and by far the easiest part of the process.

As far as editorial revisions, I’ve had the same process with both of my editors, and I’ve only had two editors in the entire time I’ve been in the field. One was David Hartwell, who was my editor from my first book until his death a couple of years ago, and the second is my current editor Jen Gunnels, who was David’s assistant, and I’ve been working for her for about a year and a half before David died and she and I worked together well so I just stayed with her. But in terms of dealing with the editors, I’ve always had a very simple formula. Find anything you can that’s wrong with the manuscript. Tell me what it is. Don’t tell me how to fix it. Just tell me what the problem is. If I can’t fix it, then we’ll talk. In 40 years I’ve never had to have the second conversation.

You’re at 70-some books at this point aren’t you?

Seventy-three published, three more that will be published in the next year and a half.

Do you do a lot of research along the way?

Yes and no. I do a lot of research, but a lot of the research I’ve done in advance, just simply by all the things that I read. Every once in a while, I’ll have to look up something to make sure that I’ve remembered it or I’ve gotten the details correct.

It’s been said that all men are collectors. I don’t know if this is true, but an awful lot of men I know collect things. I don’t. What I collect is information. I love information. I love learning about things and I think I probably always will. And as an author, it serves me very well.

One of the things about Hazethat this struck me was, you know, we talk about science fiction as a literature of ideas, and it seemed to me that one of the things you were doing in Hazewas offering different views of how society might work, and bouncing these off of each other, through things like freedom and individual responsibility and empire and what happens when societies of different technological abilities clash. Is that kind of a feature of your work?

I’m not sure my work would exist without that. I’m always bouncing various ideas of how people respond to duty. responsibility. political structures. beliefs. I guess in a lot of ways that’s really what I do.

Well, certainly in Haze it comes through quite a lot with the difference between the Federation and the society on the planet.

One thing I would say is that the conflict that you that you’re talking about is a little stronger in my science fiction. It’s a little more subterranean, a little deeper and a little quieter in the fantasy, but it’s there.

How does it break down for you between science fiction and fantasy right now, in numbers of books?

We’re talking, with the ones I’ve turned in 29 science fiction novels, and 45 fantasy novels. In recent years it’s been more than two to one fantasy to science fiction.

Do you find an overlap in your readership between the two? Or do you find you have a science fiction readership and a fantasy readership?

Actually, I’d say I have three readerships. I have a science fiction readership, a fantasy readership, and a readership that does both.

There are definitely more fantasy readers. Sometimes the science fiction readers get a little irritated and say why don’t you write more science fiction stuff instead of that fantasy stuff.

I was on a panel recently at CanCon in Ottawa, talking about the challenges of writing series. Do you find that continuity and keeping everything straight becomes difficult as a series expands?

It’s difficult, but I’m not sure it becomes more difficult the way I do it. I think it would be very difficult done the way the Wheel of Time was done, but most of my series are not exactly series in what one would consider the traditional thing What I mean by that is, the Recluce series is now something like 22 books, but with one exception, there are no more than two books and sometimes only one book about one character. In a lot of ways, the continuing factor in Recluce is the world and the cultures, not the characters. Same thing is true of the Imager Portfolio. There is, in essence, a trilogy, followed by a five-book series about a different character, and then two two-book series. Spellsong Cycle, three about one character, two about another character. The Corean Chronicles was three, three, and two. So I have to keep the world consistent, but I don’t have quite as much to do with keeping the characters consistent over a long arc.

Do you have to go back and reread books when you go back into a series after you’ve written something else?

A little bit, but not a huge amount. Once I get it get back into a series it seems like most of the main threads and the pieces come back to me. I mean, I often have to check up on little details, particularly if I’ve got minor character that carries through the books. Usually with the major characters I can remember, and I have notes on them.

The name of this podcast is The Worldshapers. One of the things I’d like to ask all the guests is, do you hope that your fictional worlds will help shape the real world in some fashion? What impact, if any, would you like your fiction to have on the real world, or at least on your readers within the real world?

That’s one of the reasons why I write, because we tend to get bogged down in the real world, and I speak from almost 20 years in national U.S. politics. When you bring up a problem in the context of the real world, people get hung up with their tribe, they get hung up with everything around them. When you take that same problem and you put it in a fictional world or a fantasy world or a future world, people can look at the problem far more objectively and think, oh, there might be another way to deal with this.

I had a rather hard lesson with this very earlier in my career. With Bruce Levinson, we wrote a book called The Green Progression, and it actually got a review from the Washington Times that said it was one of the best views of contemporary politics ever written. It’s also one of the worst -selling books that Tor ever published. And to me that just proves the point. People really don’t want to look hard and fast at the current political structure, at their beliefs and how they affect the current political structure. They’re locked into it by their neighbors, their culture, their friends. You take the same problem and you put it in a fictional world, they’re much more open minded about it, and I hope somehow that some of what I do in that sense will help people look at these problems in a different light.

Have you had any feedback from readers to that effect?

I have. I’ve had more than a few people say that they wish I had either stayed in politics or got back gotten back into it. But no.

The other big question that I like to ask is very basic, and that is simply, why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? In particular, what do you think is the appeal of writing within the science fiction and fantasy genres, for you, and for anyone?

I don’t know that I can speak to anybody else. I write because I have to write. I wouldn’t be complete without writing. And that’s very selfish, but I try and leaven that with hopefully entertaining people and making them think. One of the things I try and leave all readers with in any of my books is at least a shred of hope, if not more.

There’s certainly a lot of fiction out there that seems to go the other way.

Yeah, and some of it’s very well written, but that’s just not my cup of tea. I think that, especially now, there’s way too much gloom, doom, and despair, and a lot of it is justified, but in the fictional world, I’d just like to give people shreds of hope, and sometimes more.

You’ve talked about in at least one interview I read about how important telling a good story is. Why did what do you think the appeal is of story to people? Why are we so interested in stories?

Because human beings are anecdotal. We have trouble with statistics. We’re innately number hampered. And we don’t really like facts. Stories are what we think about. Stories are what influence us. I can’t tell you why, but I know it’s so. Stories are what motivates us, and I’d like to be one of those doing some of the motivating.

What are you working on now?

I just turned in a very far-future hard science-fiction…actually, it’s a hard science-fantasy novel…entitled Quantum Shadows. The subtitle is Forty-Five Ways of Looking at a Raven.  That’s because every one of the 45 chapters is prefaced by a couplet to the Raven. who is one of the main characters. So that’s what  just happened.

Forty-Five Ways of Looking at a Raven sounds like a poetry book title.

Well, that’s why the subtitle. That’s why Quantum Shadows is the novel title. But there are only 45 couplets and I have 93,000 words. I think readers can deal with 45 couplets.

Currently I’m writing another Recluce book. It’s about a new character that nobody’s seen, so I don’t want to say much about it because I’ve only written about 65,000 words and I means I have another 120,000 words to go.

What will be the very next thing that’s published?

The next thing that will be published is the last book in the Imager Porfolio. That’s End Games and it’ll be out February 5 of next year (2019). After that, next August (2019) will be the Mage Fire War, which is the third book about Beltur in the Recluce Saga. And then after that’ll be Quantum Shadows.

And all published by Tor.

Right. As a matter of fact, my first two books were published by other publishers, but all my books are now under Tor and have been for 30 some years.

You said you’ve only ever worked with two editors. It sounds like you’ve had good experience with your editors.

I can’t tell you how fortunate I am that Jen and I get along and she pretty much followed in a lot of ways the example set by David, but I also realized something rather amusing about the whole thing. Most people don’t know that David, although he’s been a fixture in science fiction for years, most people outside of the inside don’t realize that he also had a PhD in comparative medieval literature, and what’s interesting here is that Jen has a PhD in theater history. So, I may be one of the few novelists who’s been edited by academic PhDs who are also very strong on science fiction and fantasy.

I think it has made it a lot easier for me dealing with them, because I tend to…let’s put it this way: there is a lot of subterranean depth in what I write, and it’s helpful to have editors who can recognize it.

 

Episode 12: David Weber

An hour-long (and then some) conversation with David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington science-fiction series, which this episode focuses on, and many others, including fantasy (Oath of Swords, The War God’s Own) other space opera (Path of the Fury, The Armageddon Inheritance) and alternate history  (1632 series with Eric Flint).

Website:
davidweber.net

David Weber’s Amazon Page

The Introduction:

David Weber was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but moved to Greenville, South Carolina with his family by the time he was two. Some of Weber’s first jobs within the writing/advertising world began after high school, when he worked as copywriter, typesetter, proofreader, and paste-up artist. He holds a Master of Arts in history from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina. 

Weber’s first published novels grew out of his work as a wargame designer for the Task Force game Starfire. He wrote the Starfire novel Insurrection (1990) with Stephen White. This book was the first in a tetralogy that continued through their last collaboration, The Shiva Option (2002), which made The New York Times Best Seller List.

His most famous series is the Honor Harrington series, but he’s also written epic fantasy (Oath of Swords, The War God’s Own) other space opera (Path of the Fury, The Armageddon Inheritance) and alternate history  (1632 series with Eric Flint), and much more: he estimates some forty-seven published or in-the-works novels.

Weber and his wife, Sharon, live in Greenville, South Carolina. They have three children.

The Show:

David Weber likes to quote Robert Aspirin: “Professional writers are like rats, if we don’t wear our fingers down on the keyboard every day, our fangs grow through our brains and kill us.”

He started writing in fifth grade and has supported himself through writing-related activities of one sort or another since he was seventeen. He wrote his first novel-length work in Grade 10, and says, “I can’t imagine not writing for my own pleasure if not for anything else.”

His first published novel, Insurrection, was the consequence of some wargame design he’d done with his friend Steve White. They started exchanging short stories set in that world, and eventually realized they had a novel—which ran some 283,000 words in the first draft. That had to be pared down, but Baen bought it in 1989.

David says he “met science fiction” when he was ten years old. Mobility-restricted because of a broken arm, he read his father’s Fantasy Press hardcover of Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space and followed that up with Genus Homo by L. Sprague de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller. He was an eclectic reader, he says, because his parents’ position was their kids could read anything they wanted to, figuring, “If we were old enough to handle it we could handle it, and if we weren’t it would sail right past us.”

Other books he mentions are (to Ed’s delight) the Swallows and Amazonsseries by Arthur Ransome. On the science fiction side, he mentions Heinlein’s juveniles, Andre Norton, H.Beam Piper, Mack Reynolds, Gordon R. Dickson, and Anne McCaffrey.

Although Insurrection was his first published novel, his first submitted novel (rejected) was fantasy. That was Sword of the South, published just a year and a half ago or so. (The manuscript had been lost for years, but one of the floppy discs—one of the really big ones, using CPM and not DOS—turned up and then another, and an IT shop was able to recover the files “for a mere $800.” David rewrote it but says it’s still very close to the original novel. Most of the rewrite was to bring it in line with other novels set in the same universe.

In university, David studied military and diplomatic history. “Forever and ever,” he says, he thought he would teach college history and write on the side, but as he was finishing up his Master’s degree he came across a study revealing that half or more all tenured positions were currently held by people forty or younger. He decide he should alter his priorities, and instead took over his mother’s small advertising agency—she’d retired to look after her own mother, then in her eighties. David sold Insurrection about a year and a half after that, and was fortunate enough to be able to support himself writing fulltime with eighteen months or so of making that first sale.

Having been both a copywriter and a production journalist has taught him not to block, he notes: “Blocking is not an option.” There are times he can edit but not write fiction, because he’s thinking through a story problem, but he says he has “never had a time when I couldn’t sit down and put words on paper that made sense.”

“Writing is the medium through which I tell the story,” he says. “It’s the story that matters.” He believes it is the writer’s voice that wins or loses a readership: two different writers can tell the exact same story, and one will succeed and one fail with a given readership because of the manner in which they tell the story. “A weak story that is strongly told will succeed where a strong story that is weakly told will fail.”

While he has written passages and entire books he’s particularly proud of, for him, if the writing style becomes so important it begins drawing the reader’s attention away from the story, then the style has failed.

“Writing is something that is sort of a physical skill,” he says. “You learn it by doing it.”

David gives a synopsis of the Honor Harrington books, beginning with, “Honor Harrington is a six-foot-two-inch Eurasian martial-artist starship camera.” He notes the book both are an aren’t about Honor: she’s the focal point for most of the stories, but they’re actually about the series of wars she’s involved in. The first few books are very tightly focused on her, but as the war begins to spread, the stories take place on a broader canvas. There are a lot of secondary characters, “named characters,” David points out.

“I hate passages where you have somebody called the lieutenant seventeen times. I try to make the character a person.”

David has been writing Honor Harrington books for twenty-five years. He originally projected the entire series to be eight books: there are currently seventeen novels and six anthologies, counting the collaborations.

David said Jim Baen, publisher of Baen books, had noted that everything David wrote spawned sequels, so he suggested they try planning a series from the beginning. David sent ten ideas, one of which was the Honor Harrington series, one of which became his Safehold series (published by Tor), one the Multiverse series that began with Hell’s Gate, and one whose first book, The Golden Protocol, written with Jacob Holo, comes out in May.

What David didn’t know was that Baen had been looking for someone to write a version of “Horatio Hornblower in space” for twenty-five things. He leaped at the Honor Harrington proposal and offered David a four-book contract.  The first two books were released a month apart, which David says is “brilliant marketing.”

In fact, David says, he doesn’t think anyone else in the publishing industry has ever understood how to grow a new author’s readership so brilliantly.

Another thing Baen created was the Baen Free Library, where free ebooks of some Baen titles were made available—which is where Ed discovered Honor Harrington. “I believe it did nothing but increase readership,” David says. Baen also used to bind CDs containing earlier books and a series and other titles into the back of new hardcover releases in series.

“Spider Robinson once said Jim Baen was the only science fiction publisher who actually wanted to live in the twenty-first century, which makes it even sadder he got to see so little of the 21st century,” David says. (Baen died in 2006 at the age of sixty-three.)

Technology plays a major role in the Honor Harrington books. David said some of that comes from his background designing wargames, and some from the fact he’s been studying military and diplomatic history since he was ten or eleven years old. Before he wrote the first word of the first Honor Harrington novel (On Basilisk Station), he wrote an 80,000-plus word essay covering everything in the Harrington universe, from colonization to life sciences to technological history to politics.

The technology was in part shaped by the story David wanted to tell. It was important, he said, that there be tactical constraints. “In a lot of ways, the story is about what you character can’t do, not what about what your character can do,” he says. “It’s about the limitations they have to work around.

He decided technology would evolve over the course of the novels, and that technology would what would equalize the fight between societies where one was hugely outnumbered by the another.

He also wanted technology that made tactics important, because he’s always been interested in tactics as well as the operational and strategic levels of military campaigning. “I needed a system that would give scope to a tactician who was smart, and one which would create limitations on how you could approach a combat situation.” Readers had to be able to understand the tactical situation, as well, in order to understand why characters did what they did.

He notes that he wrote the first two books before the World Wide Web appeared, so some of his starting assumptions might be different if he was starting it today.

Ed noted that descriptions of technology often appear within action scenes, creating an odd sense of suspense by delaying the combat climax. David says he thinks this goes back to the writer’s voice.

“This is the natural way for me to tell the story. I can use that as a means to accelerate or decelerate the action tt the same time as it’s serving the function of telling the reader this is why the folks involved are really sweating what just happened or is about to happen…I’m not sure it’s a technique that would work for other writers.”

He thinks he got the balance of hardware descriptions, descriptions of societies and political systems, and development of planets and cultures write because some people tell him they don’t like some of those but like others. Almost everyone says they love the characters. “The characters are the common factor,” he says.

Some restrictions baked into the Honorverse are the impossibility of creating a self-aware AI (something David had dealt with in other novels and didn’t want to repeat), and the impossibility of faster-than-light communication—which means information can only move aboard courier starships.

“That had very interesting and significant implications for military operations. You spend a lot of time going from point A to point B. It also means a huge amount devolves onto the initiative of the station commanders, the task force commanders.” This puts the situation back to about where Earth was in the 18th or 19th century, when nobody could micromanage their forces from Washington or London or Moscow. They didn’t even now there’d been a battle until a courier came back with news, which might be that an invasion force was close behind!

That restriction, David says, is “a big part of the flavor or the books.” It allows him to “cut Honor Harrington loose from the apron strings.”

“She’s constantly aware she represents her Queen and star system, and that informs a lot of her decisions.” That means it’s her job to face overwhelming odds even with little or no chance of success…and that’s one of the things that makes her beloved by those who have followed the books.

Honor, in other words, is part of her character as well as her name (which David knew going). Her second name, Harrington, was a nod to C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels, so that she would have the same initials.

There are parallels between the Star Kingdom of Manticore and England, and apparent parallels between its rival, Haven, and the French Republic—but David says that latter paralle is a red herring, that Haven became what it becomes in the books not from a version of the French Republic but from a version of the United States, “if you look at their constitution.” David deliberately used his knowledge to create something that looked like the French Revolution within Haven—but really wasn’t. “I don’t know why people call me sneaky,” he adds.

David says he uses history as a source of building blocks rather thanb an operating model. Although Honor is set in a space-going version of the Napoleonic era, his original thought was that it would more closely follow the Punic Wars, only with Carthage winning. That changed when he realized his version of space combat meant controlling space around a planet meant controlling the planet, and planetary combat would be vanishingly rare.

“But I never intended the model I had built to be anything more than the starting point for cultures that had gone in different directions,” he says, so that readers would say to themselves, “iI know what he’s going to do here,” and then would be surprised when he did something else.

That initial lengthy monograph David wrote for himself about the Honorverse spelled out what would happen in the war through what became Honor Among Enemies. Originally, he planned to kill Honor in what became At all Costs. However, Eric Flint, writing in the Honorverse, wanted something both a Havenite and a Manticoran secret agent could hate enough to collaborate, and David gave him the genetic slave trade. By so doing, he moved a plot strand twenty years forward without really being aware of it, which meant he couldn’t kill off Honor and have her children become central characters as he’d intended.

“I think the readers would have forgiven me because of the way she would have died, the culmination and perfection of what she had lied her entire life to be and to do,” he says. “I won’t pretend I was broken-hearted when I realized I couldn’t kill her off, and not just because the character had become so successful, but because I had come to care so deeply about the character…I’ve killed characters it hurt as the author to write the death scene. This would definitely have been one of them.”

But, he notes, he’s writing military fiction. “Most people’s experience with violence is vicarious,” he says. “We form our views of it through what we see on the news in our entertainment.”

He thinks it’s important for someone writing military science fiction to make it clear that war is an ugly, ugly thing. “It can be a very noble calling to, as Heinlein said, place yourself between your home and war’s desolation, and I think the profession of arms is worthy of deep respect, but…not just bad guys die. If you’re going to be fair with the story and the weight of the story, you have to be willing to kill characters you know your readers love. It’s hard on you and them, but that’s part of what a combat situation is about…war, however exciting it may be, it is a voracious devourer of human life.”

David says the only character he did a detailed sketch of before he began was Honor—and even that wasn’t all that detailed in terms of where she finally wound up. He says he normally starts with a physical description and some aspect of their personality. As the character interacts with other characters and situations he goes back and adds notes.

When he’s writing solo, he adds, he tends not to outline (although he’s done more in the last four or five Honorverse novels just to keep things straight, by creating a detailed timeline). When he does a collaboration, there tends to be a much more detailed synopsis of where the story is going, so there’s no confusion between the two writers.

On his own, he says, “I do tend to have a very clear idea of where a series is going to begin and end, and a feel for what’s going to happen out in the middle, but I’m very much improvising on the theme as I go along in terms of getting from A to B.”

Wever says he can write 5,000 to 7,500 words a day when he’s in the groove. (The most he’s ever done was 34,000 words in a day, and then, he says, he slept for a couple of days.)

Each day, before he begins, he goes back and rereads and revises and tweaks the previous two day’s work, so every portion of th book had been revised and tweaked at least three times by the time he gets to the end. “This gives me an opportunity to strengthen and clean up as I go along, also builds storytelling momentum for the day’s work.”

David shattered his wrist in a fall about twenty years ago, which means today he can only type for about forty-five minutes at best. Since then, he’s been using Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate his books. One thing he’s noted is that Dragon prefers complete sentences, and so he now has a tendency to think more in complete sentences than when I was writing with a keyboard. “It’s interesting: the way in which you get those photons corralled on the display affects the way in which you write.”

Now the big philosophical question: why does he write this stuff?

“We are storytellers. That’s what we love to do. We love to create and craft stories. We communicate, we share those stories, by writing them down…I am fascinated by history, I am fascinated by the way that people’s personalities work, and how that motivates them to be who and what they are in real life. Telling stories lets me get inside that process…I honestly believe almost anyone could learn to love history if you could just get them to understand it is the greatest, most complex novel ever written. You have all of these characters, all of whom have their own motivations, their own responsibilities. How do they meet them? This is part of what makes us human beings, and defines the difference between responsible conscientious human beings and the predators. I think that I tell stories in part because that’s what I want to look at.

“Obviously, I want to entertain my readership, and don’t want to be in the position of lecturing. But any writer, the moment he or she begins to write, steps up onto a soapbox. If I present a character who would be unsympathetic to you under normal circumstances, but I get you inside that character…the character’s views might not be those you would espouse on your own, but you discover that you like this character…then I have made those contrarian views more accessible to you, and I think that’s something we are, especially these days, in sad need of.

“That’s why I play fair with the bad guys in the books. They are decent human beings, even if they come from a different value system…

“To me, that’s what being a human being is all about me. To me, good storytelling is about the human condition. Science fiction is a technological age’s fairy tale. It’s inspiration, its cautionary, it’s explicative, it’s all of those things…instead of using demigods and demons and what not, we’ve got scientists and cyborgs and computers, but we’re looking at the same issues, the same questions: what makes us human, and what is involved in living up to your responsibilities as a human.

“You can see that in Heinlein, in all really good science fiction.” He recalls Heinlein writing that, “Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.”

“It’s a very profound statement that cuts to the heart of what it means to e human. And I think that’s what I write about.”

Weber concludes, “It’s been a heck of a ride the last thirty years. I’ve been very fortunate in how well the books have done, and I’ve been very fortunate to be allowed to do something I love to do, and actually get paid for it.”

 

Episode 11: Joe Haldeman

An hour-long conversation with Joe Haldeman, Hugo and Nebula Award-winning author of The Forever WarThe Hemingway Hoax , Forever Peace and many others (more than two dozen), a SFWA Grand Master and a member of the Science Fiction Hall of Fame. Joe has also won the John W. Campbell Memorial Award, the Locus Award, the Rhysling Award, the World Fantasy Award, and the James Tiptree, Jr. Award.

Website:
joehaldeman.com

Facebook

Joe Haldeman’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Joe William Haldeman (born June 9, 1943) is an American science fiction author. He is best known for his 1974 novel The Forever War. That novel, and other of his works, including The Hemingway Hoax (1991) and Forever Peace (1997), have won major science fiction awards, including the Hugo Award and Nebula Award. He is a Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America Grand Master and was inducted into the Science Fiction Hall of Fame in 2012.

Joe was born in Oklahoma City, OK. His family traveled, and he lived in Puerto Rico, New Orleans, Washington, DC, Bethesda, MD, and Anchorage, AK, as a child. In 1965, Haldeman married Mary Gay Potter, known as “Gay.” He received a Bachelor of Science in physics and astronomy from the University of Maryland in 1967.

He was immediately drafted into the United States Army and served as a combat engineer in Vietnam. He was wounded in combat and received a Purple Heart. His wartime experience was the inspiration for War Year, his first novel; later books such as The Hemingway Hoax and Old Twentieth have also dealt extensively with the experience of combat soldiers in Vietnam and other wars.

In 1975, he received an MFA degree in Creative Writing from the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop.

Haldeman resides in Gainesville, FL. For thirty years, he was an Adjunct Professor teaching writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which is also the fictional setting for his 2007 novel, The Accidental Time Machine. In addition to being an award-winning science-fiction writer, Haldeman is a painter and poet.

The Show

Your host first met Joe and Gay Haldeman at a convention in Calgary, as has been the case for several authors interviewed on The Worldshapers.

Joe started reading SF at around age eight or nine, when his father would come back with travels with books for both Joe and his brother, Jack, usually Norton science fiction novels. The one joe remembers the best is Rocket Jockey by Philip St. John, a pen name for Lester del Rey: basically, Grand Prix racing in outer space with rockets instead of race cars.

Joe was always interested in space and astronomy. There was no space travel until he was a teenager, and, he says, he was ready for it. “I don’t know what they were waiting on. Invent those rockets, I want to get into space!” He got his first telescope in Grade 4.

About the same time, he started writing. His father would bring yellow-lined paper tablets home from the office, and Joe would write comics in them, full of space travel, aliens, spies, “and stuff.”

“At age fourteen or fifteen, the presence of girls complicated my life and cut into my science-fiction activities,” he notes, but, “I survived that and went back to science fiction.”

He majored in astronomy at university, and was drafted straight out of college, which, he says, was pretty common because “they were sucking us up as fast as they could get us.”

While in the service he wrote long letters home, which eventually took the shape of a war diary, with the notion that Gay, whom he married in 1965, would keep the letters in order, so that when he came back, he could assemble them into a book about Vietnam.

He came back as a disabled war vet, and his first book was indeed about the war. War Yearwas written as part of a series of books for young readers—18, 19, or 20 years old—with limited reading abilities. He was given a vocabulary list of 1,000 words he could use, along with whatever technical terms he needed. He says it was an interesting challenge, and not a bad idea for a beginning writer. “Art thrives under restrictions,” he says.

The Forever War was essentially his master’s thesis at the University of Iowa. “The academic establishment, if you can call it that, thought I was crazy to write a science fiction novel,” he says; they saw that as children’s literature.

However, his advisor at the University of Iowa was himself a combat veteran who thought it was a good idea. His first novel had also been about his wartime experience. “After all, what has happened to you that is more interesting than being shot at and almost dying?”

Ed mentioned One Lucky Devil: The First World War Memoirs of Sampson J. Goodfellow, his grandfather-in-law’s First World War memoirs, which he just edited and published through his new publishing company Shadowpaw Press.

After the war, Joe and Gay went to Mexico, where Gay had been before (she has a degree in Spanish). “I said, sure, I’ve been to one foreign country, it would be fun to go to one where they aren’t shooting at you. That was the beginning of a lifelong pattern of exploration and investigating foreign places and foreign ways of living.”

The powerful notion at the center of The Forever War: taking his Vietnam experience and treating it as a metaphor, about going to another world and being changed by the relativistic aspects of spaceflight, coming back to a world that’s completely different because so much time had passed.

The title came about in conversation with his brother, Jack C. Haldeman (who would also write science fiction). He told his brother during a car trip about the idea, and wondered what to title it. His brother said, “How about, ‘The War that Went Forever,’ which became The Forever War.

Joe gave the synopsis: a young man trained to be a scientist is snatched by the political system he’s in and made into a soldier against his will. He goes through the usual military rites of passage and comes out the other end rather beaten up and older and not sure what he’s going to do with his life. He meets a girl, as a fellow soldier (a big new idea at the time, Joe says), and they have to face life after the war.

Joe says he was written books both from very detailed outlines (some early projects, which proved to be pretty good training) and, mostly without.

The Forever War, he notes, was actually written as a series of novelettes. He was writing for a living, needed to make money, and knew he could sell novelettes to Analog (formerly Astounding). John W. Campbell was the editor there when he started, but Campbell died while he was writing the series. Fortunately, the new editor, Ben Bova, suggested he continue—which he did.

St. Martin’s Press published the book, even though it hadn’t done science fiction before. Joe says he met the editor of young adult books at St. Martin’s at a cocktail party and pitched him the idea as a YA novel. “He said, cool, let’s do that.” Joe adds, “We were both kind of plastered.”

The editor said to create an outline for the book and send it over. He bought it, and published it, and Joe’s career was on its way.

Joe doesn’t rewrite very much, he says. He writes very slowly, so that his first draft is pretty much his last draft. Editors usually don’t suggest many changes. Later on, as a writing teacher, he realized he couldn’t teach people to write that way. “You can’t just say, ‘Well, just figure it out and write the goddamned thing.’ If it was that easy everybody could do it.”

He mostly writes long-hand. “I like the fluidity of handwriting,” he says. However, some books are a mix of handwriting, typing, and computer printouts.

He enjoys taking a blank, bound book and writing a book in it, “so that when I have finished the novel, I have a handwritten book, or several volumes. I’ve got them up on my bookcase here, a whole eight or nine series of handwritten books.”

Fortunately, he says, his handwriting is very legible, although he doesn’t know where that comes from.

Joe says he likes the physical connection with the manuscript handwriting gives him. “I like to form the letters and make the paragraphs and everything. It’s like the difference between art and craft. Craft contains art, art is expressed by craft. I think many writers are both craftsmen and artists.”

Asked about characterization, Joe notes that by the time he’d finished his first science fiction novel, he’d read ‘probably a dozen’ books on how to write books, many of which discussed characterization exhaustively, as a result, when he teaches writing, “ I answer my students’ questions about this and I’m usually not sure if it’s something I figured out myself or something I read in a library book.”

He says one thing “unusual but salutary” is to write a main character with a different gender or sexual orientation than yourself, so the details of the emotional parts of the character have to be invented. “It makes it easier because everything isn’t autobiographical.”

The Forever War achieved great acclaim. Asked if he was surprised by the success, Joe jokes, “I don’t think any successful writer is every surprised by his success. Of course, it’s going to be a bestseller. What am I, chopped liver? I am a writer. I’m going to make a lot of money, be famous, and get the girls.”

He goes on to say he had a tremendous amount of luck. “I knew the right people. I didn’t go out trying to meet the right people, but I stumbled into wonderful men and women who guided me along the way. If I didn’t start off writing science fiction, it would have been a lot harder to go through an apprenticeship. But science fiction writers hang together. If they see some young person trying to do it, they’ll say, ‘Well, here, let me look at that and I’ll give you my opinion.’”

He adds, “I had a lot of honest opinions thrown at me, some of which I ignored, many of which I followed.”

One accolade he received meant more to him than bestsellerdom: a letter from Robert A. Heinlein praising the book. “I grew up reading his books, and to have him, without him being solicited write a fan letter…that was incredible.”

In Calgary, Joe talked about the community aspect of SF. He agrees, a lot of SF writers find a family within the genre, although he thinks that may be less true now because there are so many more science fiction writers and so many subgroups. When he was treasurer of SFWA, there were only about 175 members, of whom only about half were fulltime writers. Now he guesses the total membership is around 5,000, and probably 1,000 call themselves SF writers as their main profession.

Joe notes people wanted a sequel from the very beginning, even though he thought the book didn’t need a sequel. “They kept pestering,” he notes, “and there was this soft rustling sound of folding money.” That was a big part of it, he says, as well as the appeal of writing a book that he wouldn’t even have to sell. “You just say, this will be a sequel to The Forever War and people will come to you with check books.” In the end there were two sequels, Forever Peace (a thematic sequel) and Forever Free (a direct sequel).

There has also been a graphic novel series based on The Forever War. Joe notes he didn’t know anything about graphic novels, but head read a few and thought they were cool. Then, at a science fiction convention, an artist came up to me and pitched a graphic novel of The Forever War. “I said, wonderful, let’s go do it. He wrote up a few pages of storyboards, and we pitched it together.” That began a long collaboration with artist Marvano. “Marv is an extremely good artist, and I like his style. We were very much in parallel all the way.”

There has also been a stage play, produced by Stuart Gordon, with whom Joe also worked on the movie Robot Jox. The basic idea of that, Joe says, was “huge clanking robots that had people inside them,” the was somewhat inspired by Transformers. He notes the original title was RoboJox, but someone thought that was too close to RoboCop.

A film version of The Forever War has been in development for years. Joe says all he can say about that is “that it has probably given me about a third of the money I’ve earned in my lifetime, even though the film hasn’t been made.”

His current project inverts a classic SF situation. As Joe explains it, your basic SF hero is a guy, about thirty years old, involved in some sort of an adventure job, he does things that requires facing danger and going into exotic locales and interacting with bad people and doing stuff and being a hero.

“One of the most basic tools of the writer is turning things inside out,” he notes. So, what if, instead of being a young guy, the hero is an older woman, retired from a career in industrial espionage. She needs money, but all of her useful skills are “pretty much illegal.” She wants to get hired, but she’s in her 70s, and nobody will hire her, so she has to generate work for herself. “She’s kind of a freelance hellraiser. Her main disguise is that she’s old and harmless looking, and she’s not harmless at all, because she hasn’t forgotten all the derring-do she’s learned and practiced.”

Joe also writes poetry: in fact, he says, he’s been writing poetry longer than he’s been writing science fiction.  “I love poetry, I love the technical challenge, but nobody gives a shit if you’ve been published in poetry,” he says. “Who cares? Everybody writes poems. I just sort of do it for my own pleasure.”

His work as a writing instructor at MIT started as a one-semester job and extended for thirty years, when he retired himself. He liked teaching engineering students, he said: “They’re my kind of people.” He also confirms something Ed (married to an engineer) has heard from his wife—that engineers can’t spell.

“Most of them can’t,” Joe says. “But what difference does it make? They’ve got spellcheck.”

Finally, asked why he writes, Joe says, “The easy answer, which is the true one, is I get paid a lot for it. If I didn’t get paid, I probably wouldn’t do it. To continue writing book after book, you have to have something wrong with you. If you can get paid for your mental illness, that’s great.”

He notes there must be professional killers who are psychopaths who have learned to make a living from their psychopathology. At least his psychopathology is pretty harmless, he says, “I just fill up books with words.”

As to whether his writing has had any impact on the world, Joe says he hopes it has made people “more sane and forgiving in dealing with other people,” although he notes he’s met some of his readers who are crazy and think he is crazy, too.

“I used to take this seriously than I do now,” he says. “I think the world would have turned out pretty much the same if I hadn’t appeared on the scene. I can’t tell you how disappointed I am. When we’re young, we all think we can change the world. If we do change the world, we don’t like to admit it’s largely by accident. It’s what happens. I look at the lives of writers who have become famous and influential and I am continually struck with the effect that coincidence has on their lives and how little planning actually goes into it.”

He finishes, “If you’re lucky, you make a living from it.” All you have to do, he says, is have one successful book. Then other people’s lives enter into it, and all you have to do is keep writing good books, which isn’t that hard: “You just adjust the verniers and do it again.”

 

Episode 10: Seanan McGuire

An hour-long conversation with Seanan McGuire, Campbell, Hugo, and Nebula Award-winning author of more than twenty books in various series, including the bestselling October Daye and InCryptid series, with a special focus  on the first two books in her Ghost Roads series featuring the hitchchiking ghost Rose Marshall, Sparrow Hill Road and The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, published by DAW Books. Seanan also writes biomedical science fiction thrillers as Mira Grant.

Websites:
seananmcguire.com
miragrant.com

Twitter:
@SeananMcGuire

Patreon:
Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Seanan McGuire was born in Martinez, California, and raised in a wide variety of locations, most of which boasted some sort of dangerous native wildlife. Despite her almost magnetic attraction to anything venomous, she somehow managed to survive long enough to acquire a typewriter, a reasonable grasp of the English language, and the desire to combine the two.

Seanan is the author of the October Daye urban fantasies, the InCryptid urban fantasies, and several other works, both stand-alone and in trilogies or duologies. She also writes under the pseudonym “Mira Grant.”

In her spare time, Seanan records CDs of her original filk music. She is also a cartoonist, and draws an irregularly posted autobiographical web comic, “With Friends Like These…”.

Seanan was the winner of the 2010 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and her novel Feed (as Mira Grant) was named as one of Publishers Weekly’s Best Books of 2010. In 2013 she became the first person ever to appear five times on the same Hugo Ballot. Her novella “Every Heart A Doorway” received the 2016 Nebula Award for Best Novella, the 2017 Hugo Award for Best Novella, and the 2017 Locus Award for Best Novella.

Seanan lives in an “idiosyncratically designed” labyrinth in the Pacific Northwest, which she shares with her cats, a vast collection of creepy dolls and horror movies, and, she says, sufficient books to qualify her as a fire hazard.

The Show

First, we note we share an editor (Hugo Award-winning Sheila E. Gilbert) and publisher (DAW Books), but haven’t chatted much until now.

Seanan says her interest in writing “just happened”—she actually got a prescription for a typewriter as small child because she was giving herself migraines trying to write faster than she could. She says her mother associated her not being dead with the sound of the manual typewriter banging, usually around 3 a.m.,” and adds, “it’s kind of a wonder my mother did not drown me in the nearest creek.”

Her interest in writing stories (as opposed to just writing everything down) arose when she discovered that was something people could do. She recalls a show on USA Network, Ray Bradbury Presents, which featured Bradbury presenting stories, some based on his work, some on others. Every episode began with a man at a typewriter, pulling out a sheet of paper out and throwing it into the air. That paper would become the logo, and then the show would start. This annoyed Seanan because of they’d taken out the credits they’d have had thirty more seconds for stories.

Her grandmother explained the man was Ray Bradbury, who had written the stories, and so they’d let him do whatever he wanted. Until then, Seanan had never imagined that people were allowed to make up stories: for her, creating stories was almost holy. It seemed to her that for someone to be an author, a person who is the reason a story exists in the world, there should at least be an entrance exam. (There isn’t.) Upon learning that was an option, she was very firm (at age six) that this was what she was going to do.

Seanan grew up in the Concord, CA, area, a semi-rural suburb in the San Francisco Bay area. She wrote a lot of fan fiction as she grew older, “some of which was terrible, some of which quite good for a six, seven, eight years old.” She started writing her own original stories in middle school, and once she started, she said, it was hard to make her stop, even though other kids mocked her for it. “I am a perpetual motion machine of irritation.”

She wrote her first novel when she was twelve, about 60,00 words long. “It will never see the light of day.”

Seanan is also a singer/songwriter. That also began in childhood. “All little kids are singers, most are songwriters,” she says. “They make up songs all the time.” The earliest song she knows existed of her was a dishwasher-loading song, to help her remember where things went.

“It gets beaten out of you at some point,” she says. “People laugh, and humans are susceptible to mockery. We don’t like it, as a general rule. I had a very poor sense of whether I was being laughed at, so I merrily bumbled through.”

In third grade, she discovered she could make money entering poetry and songwriting competitions—very helpful, because she grew up very poor. “Finding out I could win $30 for writing a song was like free money.” The money she earned that way paid a decent number of school supply bills.

Seanan is a cartoonist, as well (“not great, but I enjoy it”). That, too, began in childhood: all children are artists, she notes.

All children are also interested in the fantastical, so it’s not surprising she started writing it. After all, she says, “Ninety percent of all children’s media is fantastical.” Her first fandom was My Little Pony, which, she notes, “is the story of a matriarchal world where talking unicorns rule the day. It’s hard to get much more fantastic than the things we hand to kids and tell them, this is normal.”

As a result, she says, “I was just writing in the spaces I had been told were mine to inhabit. I never left them.”

Seanan majored in folklore and herpetology in university. She kept writing, but she didn’t take any creative writing classes: in high school because she couldn’t afford them, and in college because she didn’t have time for elective courses that didn’t connect to one of her two majors, and as well, she lacked the prerequisite high school courses.

Her folklore major continues to play a huge role in her writing. “I write fairy tales now,” she notes. She’s amassed a huge folklore library of her own. “The biggest advantage is, I know what I’m looking for.”

Around 2002, she finished the first October Daye book, the first thing she’d finished she thought someone else might want to read, and began trying to sell it. It didn’t find a home until DAW picked it up in 2008.

But she’d been writing a lot before she was trying to sell, in the “fan fiction mines.” She wrote huge quantities of fan fiction, which people read and gave feedback on. This helped her learn a lot of useful things, such as how to take critiques, and that even if a story is “practically perfect in every way,” there are going to be people who don’t like it.

There is a strong tradition of beta readers in fan fiction. Many of hers from those days are still with her, beta reading the October Daye books before they go to DAW, which she finds “soothing,” since “I want to look perfect all the time.”

DAW was a good choice for the October Daye books for a couple of reasons. One was that DAW has a reputation for keeping all the books in an ongoing series in print, which would be important for a series as long as Seanan hoped this one would be.

As well, Tanya Huff, another DAW author and a good friend of Seanan’s, told her Sheila, who is also Tanya’s editor, was someone Seanan would be able to work with well.

Sure enough, DAW took the book, launching Seanan’s career. “Tanya was correct, DAW was a good fit for me.”

Seanan also writes as Mira Grant. (She won’t say where the pseudonym came from because “it’s a complicated horror movie joke that no one has managed to decode. Someone somewhere will get to feel very clever someday…”)

Seanan says under her own name she writes fantasy and some fantastic horror, whereas Mira writes biomedical science fiction thrillers. For Seanan, “all that matters is the nightmare.” But everything Mira writes is grounded in scientific fact. “I will generally allow Mira a single point of scientific implausibility,” Seanan says. “Everything else drawn from rigorous scientific study and research.”

How rigorous? For the parasitology series, about genetically engineered tapeworms and the frailties of the modern medical system, she spoke to multiple paristologists from multiple countries, studied up on the hygiene hypothesis, and even infected herself with a goat tapeworm for eighteen months so she could accurately document the sensation of having a tapeworm moving through her body. “That was Timmy. I miss Timmy. He’s not with us anymore.”

Mira Grant has to have a level of plausibility in her writing that Seanan doesn’t have to have in hers. Seanan says she’s far creepier at fewer than about eighty pages because she doesn’t have to set up the scientific underpinnings.

She’s so careful with scientific accuracy with Mira partially because she loves to “wallow” in these topics, but also partially because of sexism. “When you’re writing hard science fiction as a female-presenting author have to be twice as rigorous as your male peers,” she says. She notes she’s been on panels were men were applauded when they said they didn’t do any research, they just made things up, right before the women, herself included, were interrogated on a simple error that wasn’t incorrect at the time of the books’ writing. “Mira,” Seanan says, “is writing in a part of the genre where women are still asked to justify our existence.”

Seanan synopsizes the Rose Marshall books, Sparrow Hill Roadand The Girl in the Green Silk Gown, this way:

Rose Marshall is a hitchhiking ghost who died in the 1950s, run off the road on her way to her senior prom. She has continued her existence, if not her life, and is constantly grappling with the folk process: because she is a hitchhiking ghost, people tell her story in different ways, some of which she doesn’t really approve of very much. She moves along the ghost roads, in the eternal twilight underneath our daylight realms, trying to both avoid and destroy Bobby Cross, who ran her off the road and is a danger to both herself and other ghosts, who don’t want to do any harm to anyone.

Seana says Rose started as a non-player character in a 1950s supernatural game, Martin’s Passage. A friend asked her to come in and play a hitchhiking ghost for a short time for the storyline he was running. He left her creation up to Seanan, and she “just refused to give her back.”

Next, Rose became a song, “Pretty Little Dead Girl.” Seanan was already starting to play with the idea that Rose would let her experiment with the folk process. That song is the “filthy libel” version of Rose’s story, in which she’s a murderer intentionally driving motorists to her death.

Seanan wrote many more songs, each casting Rose in a different light; then Jennifer Brozek, editor of an online magazine called The Edge of Propinquity, asked her to tell the story of what really happened. Every month for a year she wrote a short story telling the truth about Rose. At the end of the year, DAW agreed to publish them as a “fix-up novel.” The Girl in the Green Silk Gownfollowed this year.

Seanan has recorded many of the songs, but the CD is currently out of print, so they’re very hard to find. She’s written a few more, but finds it hard to write the songs when she’s working with Rose in the long form, because the character is so “awake” that settling her down to intentionally tell lies about her is complicated.

Writing songs and poetry and writing books are very different, Seanan says. Songs and poetry are “linguistically heightened” form of storytelling, where you have to “turn everything up to 11” because you’re trying to make your point in such a compressed space.

Word choice is more important in songs, and the narrative beats are different. “It doesn’t make one better or worse than the other.”

The songs helped her develop the world, because they establish that within the context of the world, Rose is a story everyone has heard; everyone feels they have a relationship with her because they heard some version of her story around a campfire when they were eight.

To develop any fictional world, Seanan says, you need to figure out what you need to do: what story are you trying to tell, and what structure does the world you are putting together have to have to be able to stand up to and support that story?

Rose is a hitchhiker ghost, which have existed all throughout history—but she’s a North American hitchhiker ghost, which is unlike those anywhere else. So Seanan did a lot of research into hitchhiker ghosts. “Academic accuracy is important to me even if no one else cares.”

Then she had to set the rules of how ghosts became hitchhiker ghosts. She asked herself a lot of questions to pin everything down. “You just keep drilling down until you have a structure that can support what you need.”

On the other hand, she doesn’t lock everything down, so she has space to do other things she might need to do as the story progresses. She compares it to a really big, slow-moving game of improv, where you always have to be prepared to say, “Yes, and…”

Just as important as the rules are the exceptions. If there are no exceptions to the rules, the world is too rigid. If there are too many, the world is too loose.

Seanan starts with a synopsis of a page or two, but she does her best work when there’s a certain amount of fluidity involved: if the story is locked down too firmly, she feels she’s already told it and loses interest.

Characters do occasionally pop into existence as she’s writing, and become unexpectedly important, but so far that hasn’t happened in this series. “Everyone is very well-behaved,” shje says.

Rose is both an eternal teenager and very old; a hard balance to hit, Seanan says. Her setting makes being dead kind of a party, so she needed to be sure there were costs to continued existence, reasons Rose had to mourn her life. One reason is that ghosts don’t change, so Rose is always going to be a teenager, a little bit insecure, and lacking the emotional depth she would have been able to develop if she had lived. She doesn’t have great coping skills (neither did Seanan when she was a teen: she says Rose “is a disaster, and I love her”). Yet, Rose has seen a lot of stuff in the decades since she died, and she can’t completely cut that off. She finds actual teenagers exhausting, but wants their approval, as well. She is increasingly a girl out of time.

Seanan says some of her books are remarkably clean at the end of the first draft, so much so she feels like she slept through the writing of the second draft. Others are “a hot buttered mess.” One step all books go through is a complete retype, even though she works on a computer. She begins on page one and retypes the entire book. “It enables me to reassess every single word I’ve chose. I don’t recommend it unless you type really fast.”

She always runs her books past her beta readers. Some have been with her as long as twenty years. She calls them the “Machete Squad,” and each has his or her on specialty, from grammar to blocking to continuity.

Sheila Gilbert at DAW then reads the book and provides note. “Either I argue with her, which enables me to refine my understanding, or she’s correct, and when she’s correct I make those changes. She’s been doing this a really long time, she knows some ways better than I do what the market looks like.”

Seanan is prolific, always juggling multiple projects. Part of it is that she doesn’t sleep enough, she says, but as well, she made life choices that support working the way she does. She says whenever someone says you can have it all without giving something up, they haven’t stopped and assessed what they did and didn’t give up. She notes that she’s unmarried, and lives in a house in the Pacific Northwest with two housemates, to make sure she has money coming in from the rental of their rooms. She doesn’t have children. She didn’t make that choice for her writing career but because she didn’t think she’d be a very good parent, but if she had them, she’d have to wonder if she could support them since they would have an impact on her writing time, and that’s the source of her income. She says she doesn’t regret her choices, but it’s disingenuous to pretend they haven’t had an influence.

“You can be a full-time parent and write, I just don’t think you can write as much as I do until your kids are a little older.”

Why does she write?

“If I don’t, I go slowly out of my mind…I write because I don’t have a choice. I write stories of the fantastic because those are the stories I fell in love with and I decided that was the genre I was too stubborn to give up on. I write because if I didn’t, I’d probably be dead.”

Asked if she hopes her writing helps shape the real world, she says, “I do. Not to get political, but Terry Pratchett referred to humanity as the storytelling ape. We shape and reshape our world by telling stories both to ourselves and each other. We point to an open plain and say, what if there was a city there, let me tell you the story of the city there. We point to a disease and say, what if children didn’t have to die of this disease, let me tell you a story about a treatment, and we chase those stories and we bring them into being because that is what it means to be human.

“There is a profound alienation in not seeing yourself in story, in being presented with story after story, after world after world, where only certain kinds of people are good enough to be heroes, where only certain relationships are considered clean enough to hold up to children. If every time you paint me you paint me as a villain, eventually I’m going to start to think of myself as villainous. And that’s why we need diverse voices writing and that’s why we need diverse stories being told, and that’s why, frankly, no matter what demographic we personally fit into, we need to be including characters and people who aren’t exactly like us, because if we don’t see someone in a story, a part of us doesn’t know how to see them as human. So the way I would like to shape the world is the way I think every storyteller shapes the world. I want to shape the world by saying, “This is what humanity looks like.” But I want to be one of the people that’s holding up as wide a mirror as possible, and reflecting as much of humanity as possible, so that when I say, this is what it’s like to be human, I’m not saying, only this one small kind of person is human, I’m saying everybody is, and maybe could we just stop being assholes to each other for one goddamn minute.”

Episode 8: Orson Scott Card, Part 1

The first half of a two-hour conversation with Orson Scott Card about his creative process. Part 1 focuses on how he began writing, and the genesis of his famous story “Ender’s Game.”

The Introduction:

Photo by Terry Manier

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools. His most recent series, the young adult Pathfinder series (Pathfinder, Ruins, Visitors) and the fantasy Mithermages series (Lost Gate, Gate Thief, Gatefather) are taking readers in new directions.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts, including his “freshened” Shakespeare scripts for Romeo & Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Merchant of Venice.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He frequently teaches writing and literature courses at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, where his primary activities are writing a review column for the local Rhinoceros Times and feeding birds, squirrels, chipmunks, possums, and raccoons on the patio.

Website: www.hatrack.com

Twitter: @orsonscottcard

Orson Scott Card’s Amazon page

The Show:

Card notes his family had a tradition of thinking of themselves as writers. Growing up Mormon, there was a practice of creating comedy sketches, called Road Shows, taken from one church meetinghouse to another and performed for others within the diocese. They were usually based on some Broadway show, and required a writer to make a script that would be entertaining. Card’s mother was particularly involved in writing those, but his father also thought of himself as a writer.

In school, Card found out he was good at writing. His first published work was what he calls “a stupid little poem about spring” published in the state-wide educational journal when he was in Grade 4.

In school he mostly wrote poetry or theatrical pieces, not fiction. Through junior high and high school he was known for writing satirical song parodies making fun of his friends. But he didn’t think he would be a writer: he wanted to be an archeologist. It wasn’t until he was in college he realized that while the past fascinated him, he didn’t want to do the kind of dirty, laborious work archaelogists had to do in the kinds of places they had to do them, i.e., far from flush toilets.

He switched to theatre, where he was spending all his time anyway. (Majoring in theatre, he says, is “what you do instead of getting a practical education.”) He’s used that theatrical training constantly since, “always to put on plays that cost me money and never earned me any.”

He thinks the real foundation of his writing was helping his Mom, a secretary, as a clerical helper. He wuld spend hours helping her after work when she was struggling to get something done, collating and stapling while she typed (at 100 words per minute, “like a dream.”

He also did proofreading for her. He was a good speller from an early age and also understood grammar. When he came home from his church mission in Brazil, he needed a job, and got one with Brigham Young University press as a proofreader.

At the same time, he started a theatre company, which did well in terms of getting an audience, but not in terms of making money. He ended up deeply in debt and was desperate to earn “real money.” That was when he decided it was time for him to try writing.

He notes that on his 16th birthday, his older brother and his brother’s future wife gave him two of the Foundation books by Isaac Asimov. “I was so blown away by Asimov’s clarity, and the sweep, the sage, the vision, I thought that I want to write a science fiction story.”

The initial idea that became “Ender’s Game” dates to that time: as his father was driving him to school, he was trying to think of a science-fiction story premise. His older brother was in the Army and had told stories of boot camp and Officer Candidate School. “The idea of training people to command came to mind. How would you do that if you were going to be fighting in a three-dimensional space, piloting ships and so forth when there is no up and down?”

Clearly that would have to be done in free-fall, in outer space, but it would have to be done inside something with walls, so combatants wouldn’t drift away if they made a mistake. And so was born the Battle Room: a cube a hundred metres on a side. Two opposing forces enter from opposite sides and attempt to capture the enemy position. He came up with floating objects called “stars” that could be used for concealment, etc., the number of people on a side (forty plus a commander), and how they would be divided into platoons. He invented the flash suit, to record hits and damage.

But all he had was a setting, not a story. He kept working on building the world over the next few years. Other ideas presented themselves, including one based on psionic/psychic abilities, inspired by his reading of stories by Zenna Henderson. That idea led to the stories that became what is now known as the Worthing Saga.

In college, he turned some of those stories in in creative writing classes, where the teachers had no idea what to make of them. “The teachers are trained to love and honour fiction that nobody wants to read,” Card says. “I wanted to write fiction that I wanted to read.

As an aside, Card says science fiction has never been the majority of his reading, except for a time when he was writing a quarterly review column dedicated to reviewing every short story published in the field. That burned him out on science fiction: he came to know it so well that it took all the pleasure out of reading it. He only occasionally finds a writer who is doing something he hasn’t already read in some form and can’t predict. Instead, he prefers reading historical fiction, although what he’s looking for is harder and harder to find: today, you mostly get historical romance, “sex with more interesting costumes.”

Card said his teacher of what novel should be is Jane Austen, who invented contemporary novel writing by inventing third-person limited viewpoint, and who wrote with such clarity you don’t need to take a college class to figure it out.

“Most of what kills great literature is that we received when required to read it by college professors,” he says. “Reading in an analytical way is an enemy of literature.”

Card says modernism was the in writing that captured university literature classes because it came about just as literature became a subject in university. “These were the cool guys, so everybody had to praise what they did, even when it was embarrassingly bad. And so much of it was, and is, embarrassingly bad.”

He noted university professors tend to say James Joyce’s Ulyssesis the greatest novel in English. “What a crock,” Card says. “The greatest novel in the English language is The Lord of The Rings. There’s no question. It is far more erudite and accomplished.”

He notes Tolkien had learned how to write third-person limited viewpoint, and did it with consummate skill, producing a startling melange of the modern and old-fashioned that becomes a brilliant saga. (In an detailed aside, he explains why he has little use for the Peter Jackson films: by leaving out the Scouring of the Shire, he says, Jackson proved he did not understand the story.)

When he started submitting short stories, Card first sent “Worthing Farm” and “The Tinker” to Ben Bova at Analog. Bova had just taken over from John W. Campbell, who had died. Bova liked the writing but said Analog published science fiction, not fantasy, and he considered stories with psionics in them fantasy.

This gave rise to Card’s oft-quoted observation that, “Science fiction has rivets on the cover, sheet metal, smooth surfaces. Fantasy has trees.”

Needing a science fiction story, and desperate to earn money, he returned to the idea of the Battle Room. During a trip to Salt Lake City with his girlfriend of the time, who was taking her boss’s children to the circus, it occurred to him, “What if, instead of waiting until they’re adults and have all these bad habits, the battle room is for training children?”

He wrote the first sentence, “Remember the enemies’ gate is down,” and at the top of the page he wrote the title, “Ender’s Game,” a play on the phrase “end game” that gave him his character, Ender Wiggins. He wrote the whose story in that session plus one other, in longhand. His mother typed it up, and he sent it off to Ben Bova—who rejected it. He said it was too long (he said it should be cut in half) and he thought the title should be “Professional Soldier.”

Card understood the irony of that title, but it wasn’t catchy. “I would not have a career if it had started with the ‘Professional Soldier’ saga,” he notes.

He didn’t rewrite it right away. He sent it to Galaxy, which kept it a long time and then rejected it. He then thought about what Bova had said. He realized the problem wasn’t that it was too long, it was boring: he didn’t need to describe all the battles, he just had to show enough of them to give the idea of how it worked: how Ender won and how they kept rigging the system. He cut out one battle entirely and a lot of description, about five pages in all, added in some character stuff, and sent the story back to Bova, only two pages shorter than it had been. Bova boubht it, and it appeared in the August 1977 Analog, his first published science fiction story.

Asked if his work as a playwright and director informs his fiction writing, Card says it makes it much better.

Fiction writing, he says, is essentially a form of improv:  you’re coming up with dialogue for people, and you’re playing all the parts. He says the experience of being an actor and sustaining a character that isn’t you is vital for a fiction writer, because otherwise all the characters are you, and it become hard to tell them apart.

Characterization didn’t matter in classical SF: Isaac Asimov, for instance, knew the idea stories he wrote didn’t need characterization, any more than Agatha Christie’s cozy mysteries did. More modern mystery writers like Sue Grafton are really writing American literature that begins with the finding of a dead body, and Stephen King writes American literature with “oogly boogly” stuff in it.

“Stephen King took horror out of the haunted house and put it in McDonald’s where it belongs,” Card says, adding that the place where you’ll find a record of daily life in the late twentieth century is in Stephen King and those who followed him, and, among mystery writers, Ross McDonald and those who followed him.

Card has found that it’s difficult if not impossible to write a good science fiction play. It will either be bad science fiction or a bad play, because of the expository burden. “The stage is shockingly ill-suited to worldbuilding,” is how he puts it. Even though he had written hit plays, he couldn’t make it work with science fiction: the exposition simply made them too slow.

When he first started writing a novel he tried not to use his theatrical training. His first novel, a Worthing story, Hot Sleep, petered out at 120 pages even though he had a detailed outline of (he thought) a novel’s worth of material—and yet a friend told him it was too long.

What made it feel long, Card realized, was that he hadn’t given the characters enough time to reveal who they were, and so the reader didn’t care about them. So the very thing he’d been afraid of with his science fiction plays was essential to his novel. “People had to care about the people in the story, so I had to take the time to characterizes.” The world-creation, though, he still did with great brevity.

When he started over, 120 pages in he was only through the first paragraph of the outline.”Now I was writing a novel.”

Card says everything comes to life when he’s writing dialogue. He has to curb his dialogue, because otherwise his characters (like an actor once told him about an early play) talks in quotable quotes. When he started, he says, he was a poet writing plays, and shaped his language too much. Now he strives to make people talk like people talk.

“Ender’s Game,” he says, the original novelette, is really just dialogue and stage directions. It was really his first good science fiction play.

“I knew as soon as it was done that it worked.”

Get Part 2 of this episode!

Episode 8: Orson Scott Card, Part 2

The second half of a two-hour conversation with Orson Scott Card about his creative process. Part 2 focuses more on his recent Mithermages fantasy series.

The Introduction:

Photo by Terry Manier

Orson Scott Card is the author of the novels Ender’s Game, Ender’s Shadow, and Speaker for the Dead, which are widely read by adults and younger readers, and are increasingly used in schools. His most recent series, the young adult Pathfinder series (Pathfinder, Ruins, Visitors) and the fantasy Mithermages series (Lost Gate, Gate Thief, Gatefather) are taking readers in new directions.

Besides these and other science fiction novels, Card writes contemporary fantasy (Magic Street, Enchantment, Lost Boys), biblical novels (Stone Tables, Rachel and Leah), the American frontier fantasy series The Tales of Alvin Maker (beginning with Seventh Son), poetry (An Open Book), and many plays and scripts, including his “freshened” Shakespeare scripts for Romeo & Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and The Merchant of Venice.

Card was born in Washington and grew up in California, Arizona, and Utah. He served a mission for the LDS Church in Brazil in the early 1970s. Besides his writing, he teaches occasional classes and workshops and directs plays. He frequently teaches writing and literature courses at Southern Virginia University.

Card currently lives in Greensboro, North Carolina, with his wife, Kristine Allen Card, where his primary activities are writing a review column for the local Rhinoceros Times and feeding birds, squirrels, chipmunks, possums, and raccoons on the patio.

Website: www.hatrack.com

Twitter: @orsonscottcard

Orson Scott Card’s Amazon page

The Show:

Returning to the discussion of how theatrical experience contributes to his writing, Card says writing is much like directing actors on stage: you have a kind of top-down map in your head, almost like the way football plays (is it an accident they’re called plays) are marked with Xs and Os. “The difference is, in a football game you have no control over what the other team does, while in a play you control everybody.”

Card notes he does very little description—just enough to make the setting clear. Ultimately, he notes, a play rises and falls on what the audience hears, on the dialogue and how it’s delivered.

Fiction “is a play the readers put on by themselves” he says. If there’s a wrong way say a line, an actor will find a way to do it, so playwrights have to learn to actor-proof their lines. Readers can also read a line the wrong way, so again, it has to be reader-proofed. If the author doesn’t do that, the reader will misread and get lost.

The greatest teacher of this kind of clarity was a man who never wrote a play in his life, as far as Card knows: Isaac Asimov, a man who wrote a un-put-downable, thick, two-volume autobiography of a life in which nothing happened.

Card said he read that autobiography, staying up all night, and in the end though Asimov gets no credit for being “the finest writer of prose in the history of the English language. No one has ever done what we call the American plain style better than Isaac Asimov.”

In an Asimov story, he notes, you always know what is going on.

Good writers, however, are not the best exemplars for teaching writing, Card says: he earned the most from rewriting inept prose. As noted before, he doesn’t like description (comes from being a playwright); what he wants to do is get inside a character’s head.

He took the dialogue and stage directions of plays and combined it with deep-penetration viewpoint, and tried to make it so clear readers aren’t aware of the language. Card says if he writes lovely passage he’s proud of he removes and it rewrites it plainly and clearly. He doesn’t want readers thinking about him, the writer; he wants them thinking about the characters.

“I learned as a playwright how to have two characters walk on stage, or have a curtain open on two characters, and within two sentences, the audience cares. If I don’t do that, why am I doing anything at all?”

Card provides a synopsis of the Mithermages trilogy. The idea came about when he was working as a proofreader. It occurred to him that fantasy stories are always about the magic system, because that’s what gives you the story.

He came up with the idea of a universe in which everything is alive, every particle is an intelligence merely obeying the law it was given. In a universe like that, you could, for example, move a table by persuading all of the particles of the table to relocate at once.

So if you wanted power over something like Sand (the first Mithermages story was “Sand Magic,” in the late 1970s), you’d have to serve the interests of sand…the first of which is, it wants to be dry.

When writing the Alvin Maker books, Card realized that what makes magic work in a story isn’t the power it gives but the sharp limitations on it. That’s where the story arises.

He began to refine the rules of his magic system.

Another inspiration was his lifelong habit of doodling maps. He created a detailed map, copied it, and changed it, to show the changes in the countries over time. The history of that world became real to him. The main mountain range was called the Mitherkame, and that’s where the Mithermages lived.

All of that tied into “Sand Magic,” about a magical war that transforms a world, leaving a huge desert. But then Card moved on. He wrote science fiction, not fantasy: nobody wanted fantasy from him and there weren’t a lot of markets for it.

After he sold the Alvin Maker books to Tor his mind turned back to fantasy. He had a deal with Tor that they would publish his science fiction and fantasy, but he could sell contemporary fantasy to other publishers. Which he did, with Treasure Box and Homebody and Lost Boys. When he wanted to get started on Mithermages, Tor had so many books of his under contract they couldn’t take it, so he decided to make it a contemporary fantasy…and that was what suddenly opened up the book for him.

He realized if he made the mages of the Mithermages world actually from Earth, who gained great power by travelling through gateways between the worlds, it would make things more interesting. He started coming up with rules for how it would work, and realized there would need to be gate mages (which he hadn’t thought of before). And then he came up with a history in which these Mithermages had once been the Indo-European gods.

That brought everything to life. He created the North family, descendants of the worshipers of the Nordic gods, and put them on a family compound in Western Virginia. They were aware of the modern world—they weren’t witches, they were gods, but gods who were sick and old and fading, and they well knew it. They had banned gate mages because a gate mage had closed all the gates, a former member of the North family, the one then wearing the name Loki (whom we meet in the other world, where he is known as Wad—he has been eating the gates of any gate mage who tries to create a great gate between the worlds).

Then Card came up with his main character, Danny North, a boy who doesn’t know he is a gate mage. When he finds out he is, he has to flee for his life. He runs away to Washington, DC, where he becomes a very effective burglar, and a friend teaches him how to get along in the world of non-magical “drowthers.” In the first book, we follow the story of Wad, but the bulk of the story is Danny in Washington, growing up on a farm in Ohio, and then moving close to his family compound to go to high school in the school he used to sneak up to spy on as a kid.

So, in the end, it became a contemporary novel with gods. (Card has read Neil Gaiman’s American Gods and admired it, but says it has absolutely nothing to do with what he was doing.)

Asked about an outline, Card said he has learned he has to have an outline, but since he never follows it, what really matters is the creative process of coming up with it. He doesn’t write on out now, although he’ll sometimes give one to an editor, with the note that “this is what I’m thinking now,” but a warning that it always changes.

With Mithermages, he took so long to write the second book that the original publisher gave up, cancelled the contract, and demanded the return of the advance. Card though it was becoming something wonderful, so he took it to Tor and asked if they would take it, for the exact amount he had to repay the original publisher. They did; but if it had started with them, it would never have been a contemporary fantasy, and would have been far weaker, Card says.

Another major change from his original vision was the introduction of Set, the villain. Card was reading a book on Egyptian mythology, and realized there was a healer god who is also the messenger of the gods—which fit nicely into his rules for gate makers. Nothing else in the mythology worked, though, so obviously (within his world) they came from a different magical world. Set became the enemy of the other mages and all humans, and so Danny North’s cause became, not fighting the other Indo-European families (as originally envisioned) but finding, fighting, and destroying Set.

Card had originally thought the climax would be the gods taking human, modern weaponry to the medieval-tech world of the Mithermages, but he realized that wouldn’t work because any mage who had passed through a Great Gate was more than a match for a tank. While Danny’s family takes steps in that direction, coopting the U.S. military into giving them tanks, which they power magically, the plan is subverted by the competition between Danny and Wad.

Card says the most fun he had was making the Mithermages the complete explanation for everything from the gods to elves and fairies and ghosts and poltergeists. (His only restriction: no vampires, which he detests, and no zombies, which he loathes.)

Card says the great thing about writing cotemporary fantasy is that things can come to life in a way they can’t when you’re working in an invented world. The root of all successful fantasies is Earth, he says. He offers praise for Brandon Sanderson’s stories, but says even with such a “prolific and profligate creator of magic,” the closer the ties to Earth, the stronger the story is, because “we have to be able to identify with these people.”

As another example, he mentions Dragon’s Egg by Robert Forward. The aliens in it live on the surfaceof a neutron star, but even though their world is unimaginably strange, the aliens still aspire and have relationships. “You can create a planet that’s nothing like Earth, but readers will only care if you have human or human-like characters,” Card says. “They have to want things and care about the kinds of things we can care about. If they’re too alien, you might as well just type what monkeys will type with their thousand typewriters. No one will care.”

Why does he write? Why do any of us write?

Card says he used to ask his professors that in grad school, and they hated the question. “Why is any of this worth studying, why is any of this worth reading?” He says he asked it to debunk modernism. When people is hungry for a story, they only go for modernism if they’ve been trained by college professors, he says. Left to themselves, they’re going to pick up Agatha Christie or Stephen King or Danielle Steel. “That’s the literature of the American people,” Card said, “not the stuff you’re teaching here. You’re teaching a foreign language, a religion, Torah to people who don’t speak Hebrew, the Koran to people who don’t speak Arabic. They don’t want to read it. They want to read the stories that are written to them. So why aren’t you teaching the stories that are written to actual volunteer readers?”

Card said we invented our own critical standards within science fiction, “the next revolution in literature after modernism,” because modernism already owned the universities.

It’s a human universal, he says: “People love hearing made-up stories about people.”

That’s because, John Donne to the contrary, “every man is an island.” We don’t really know anybody: even our parents are capable of shocking us by something they say or do. “Every single human we know exists in our mind as a work of fiction. We don’t know people. We know characters. They may be walking around and wearing a skin suit, but they’re just characters in our imagination.”

What fiction writers promise is, “We will tell you a story, and we will tell you why the people do what they do.” And that, Card says, “is the majesty of fiction.”

 

 

 

Episode 7: Gareth L. Powell

An hour-long conversation with British author Gareth L. Powell, exploring the creative process behind his works of science fiction, with a special focus on his latest novel, Embers of War (Titan Books), first in a new trilogy.

The Introduction:

Photo by Tom Parker of TomShot Photography

Gareth L. Powell’s alternate history thriller Ack-Ack Macaque (Solaris Books) won the 2013 BSFA Award for Best Novel and was a finalist in the best translated novel category for the 2016 Seiun Awards in Japan. In 2018, Indian technology news service Factor Daily hailed his novel Embers of War as a, “contemporary classic.”

Gareth’s other books include Fleet of Knives (Book 2 in the Embers of War trilogy, coming out February 19, 2019 from Titan Books), Light of Impossible Stars (Book 3, due out February, 2020), Hive Monkey, and Macaque Attack (Books 2 and 3 in the trilogy that began with Ack-Ack Macaque), The Recollection, and Silversands, as well as the horror novella Ragged Alice, and the short fiction collections Entropic Angel and The Last Reef.

His novels have been translated into French, German, Japanese, and Czech, and his short stories into many other languages, including Greek, Polish, Portugese and Hebrew. His short fiction has appeared in Interzone, Clarkesworld, and The Year’s Best Science Fiction, and his story “Ride The Blue Horse” was shortlisted for the 2015 BSFA Award.

Gareth was born and raised in Bristol, UK, and was once fortunate enough to have Diana Wynne Jones critique one of his early short stories over coffee. Later, he went on to study creative writing under Helen Dunmore at the University of Glamorgan.

He has run creative writing workshops and given guest lectures at several UK universities, including Aberystwyth, Bath Spa, Bucks New Uni, and York, as well as at the Arvon Foundation in Shropshire, and the Bristol Literature Festival. Luna Press will publish About Writing, his field guide for aspiring authors, in 2019.

In addition to his fiction, Gareth has written for The Guardian, The Irish Times, 2000 AD, and SFX. He has also written scripts for corporate training videos, and is currently at work on a screenplay.

He lives near Bristol and is represented in all professional matters by Alexander Cochran of the C&W literary agency.

Website: www.garethlpowell.com

Twitter: @garethlpowell

Instagram: @garethlpowell

Gareth L. Powell’s Amazon page

The Show:

After noting that Gareth is the first guest on The Worldshapers Ed has never met before, we begin with the usual question of how long Gareth has been interested in writing and the fantastical.

Gareth says he’s always made up stories. He learnd to read before he went to school, and some of his earliest memories are of watching Star Trek as a preschooler. Then came Star Wars in 1977. “There’s just no looking back after that.”

He read his way through the big shelf of science fiction at his local library, from the books for younger readers all the way up to people like Arthur C. Clarke, Larry Niven, and Robert Heinlein.

At age ten, he filled three notebooks with a “massive sci-fi epic pretty much ripped off from episodes of Doctor Who and Blake’s 7.”

Writing was always in the cards, he says, but he never thought he’d have the stamina or time to write a novel, and certainly didn’t think you could do such things as a real job.

At the turn of the millennium, as hew as about to turn thirty, he decided to make some big resolutions. One was to quit smoking; the other was to seriously start writing a novel. The result was his first novel, Silversands, which he calls “retread of that early stuff I’d read,” with a bit of Niven, a  bit of Heinlein, etc. Nevertheless, he notes, “There were sparks in there of what I would write later.”

Then is fiancée (now his wife) gave him a copy of Neuromancer by William Gibson, and “that just about changed everything,” because it showed him heroes don’t have to be hyper-capable Star Fleet captain. “This was science fiction at the level of the street,” he says. “It’s like what people say about the first Velvet Underground album, which was that everyone who bought a copy of it started their own band.” He realized he didn’t have to write like the authors he’d grown up reading, he could write the stuff he wanted to write, that was more meaningful to him: in effect, Gibson gave him permission to do what he wanted to do.

Gareth is definitely a science fiction author, not  a fantasy author. He notes that he read a lot of Michael Moorcock as a teenager, “and that kind of did fantasy for me…I kind of got my fill of it.” He admits he’s never made it to the end of the Lord of the Rings, either in print or on film.

He says fantasy just doesn’t involve him the way science fiction does, because in SF he can imagine that things could plausibly happen. When he reads fantasy, he says, “the part of my brain that writes stories starts going well, if Gandalf had all these fireworks and Dwarves are so good at metallurgy, surely they could have come up with a howitzer by now.”

He hastens to add he has nothing against fantasy, he just can’t immerse himself in it.

That said, his novella coming out from Tor.com next year, Ragged Alice, does have some supernatural elements. “It’s based around a police officer going back to the small Welsh coastal town where she grew up to investigate a hit-and-run and finding much more sinister goings-on going on,” he says. “There’s definitely a supernatural element there that is utter fantasy.”

The story came about, he notes, because he discussed with his agent writing an airport thriller. What came out was this “slightly whimsical” story about a police detective who can see guilt in people’s souls. “It’s about as far from an airport thriller as you can get.”

Gareth studied creative writing at university. He says he made the decision he wanted to be a writer very early. At around age fourteen, his parents bought him a portable typewriter. “I sat there and would clack out these stories, most of which were really terrible, but I was learning.”

Then he won a competition his English teachers had entered one of his stories in, to have coffee with Diana Wynne Jones. He went into town to a cafe, and “this kind of wild-haired wonderful lady came in and sat there and took me task for a line where the heroine sighed when she saw a spaceship taking off.” He says she opened his eyes to a lot of things, and that was a turning point for him.

Still, as he noted earlier, it wasn’t until the turn of the millennium he actually started coming up with stuff he wanted to write about. “I always wanted to write, but I didn’t always have the subject matter or the ability. It wasn’t until I’d live a bit and read a lot more that I kind of got to the point where everything clicked into place and I felt I could write a novel.”

While his biography notes his creative writing classes at university, he says while there he encountered outright hostility toward genre writing–not from Helen Dunmore, who was a visiting tutor he saw a few times a month, but from the regular tutor, who ran the weekly workshops. “He refused to workshop any science fiction or fantasy, point-blank.”

Gareth admits he used to write to annoy that tutor in a way. He’d make a big pronouncement about not liking poetry without punctuation, so Gareth would submit a completely unpunctuated poem. He used to sneak in science-fictioni “easter eggs” in the background of literary stories.

That tutor, he says, “filled me with this idea that if you’re not trying to write literary fiction, you’re wasting your time,” and adds, “deciding to stop trying to write literary fiction and to write what I love was one of the most freeing decisions I made. Suddenly it wasn’t hard work. Suddenly I was writing what I wanted to write.”

Asked if his university courses in creative writing have benefitted his work, Gareth is definite: “Absolutely not.”

He notes that the classes were run as critiquing workshops, where everyone submitted work anonymously, everyone sat in a circle and commented on the pieces, and then at the end the author would acknowledge it was theirs. He says “it was really unhelpful, because we were the blind leading the blind.”

He says it boiled down to students telling other students how they though their work should be written, which he found “excruciatingly unhelpful.” He wanted authors and editors to tell him how things should be written.

” I don’t think we really learned anything in three years at all,” he says, adding that he wouldn’t recommend it as a pathway to writing for anyone. “In a lot of ways I had to unlearn everything that we were told in those classes.”

That’s one reason he goes out of his way to help aspiring writers–conducting university workshops for example, talking about the brass tucks of writing as a career, and that’s why he’s bringing out his book On Writing, “a field guide for aspiring authors,” next year.

His own first foray into commercial novel writing was Silversands. When he finished it in 2002 it was only 49,000 words. He’d read that 40,000 words made a novel, and didn’t realize most publishers were looking for much more. He shopped it to agents, and didn’t really get anywhere.

He also started writing short stories. A couple were published online, of which one was picked up by Interzone. That led to a now-defunct small press, Elastic Press, asking if they could publish a collection, which became his first “proper book,” The Last Reef and Other Stories, in 2008. Abut the same time Pendragon Press, another small press, asked if he had a novel, and he gave them Silversands, which was published in 2010. Both had very small print runs, he says, “just enough to put me on the radar.”

At the 2010 Eastercon he pitched a longer novel, The Recollection, to a publisher who thought it would better suit another publisher. They introduced him to the editor at Solaris, who commissioned it: it came out in 2011, and became what he considers his first “proper novel.”

What came next was Ack Ack Macaque.  His editor at Solaris, John Oliver, asked him if he had another book he wanted to write. “I said yes, he said,’ What is it?’, I said, give me half an hour.”

He’d been toying with the idea of a whodunit set aboard a giant, floating, city-sized zeppelin, and he had the character of Ack-Ack (who is, indeed, a macaque) from a short story, and he found the two slotted together. The result was a murder mystery thriller set in an alternate universe, in which Europe is politically aligned a bit differently than in ours. The cover featured a monkey in a Second World War pilot’s outfit, complete with cigar and massive gun. The cover caught people’s attention, Brett said, and though some thought it must be a one-joke, simplistic kind of story, those who picked it up found something more serious…serious enough to become a trilogy, in fact, although he didn’t intend for it to be one. The first book created so much attention even that the second book was commissioned before it was even published, he says, adding it was a lot of fun to see a character he’d originally created for a short story to go on to star in a huge trilogy.

Gareth likens the process of coming up with the a story idea to dust coming together in space, clumping together more and more “until it reaches a critical mass and undergoes gravitational collapse  and becomes a star.”

With Embers of War, he says, the closest thing he had to one big idea behind t was something he read about how the sinking of the Titanic wasn’t the first ocean liner disaster or even the worst, but the first where the ship had radio and could call for help, so that there were survivors who could tell the tale.

“Before, liners just sailed off into North Atlantic never to be seen again,” he notes.

He transferred that to outer space, thinking, “wouldn’t it be great if there was a rescue organization that could go out and rescue these stranded spaceship.” That got him thinking about where these ships would come from, who would crew them, etc., and that brought in the idea of people who had fought on different sides of a war now working together for good. “Once the characters come through, the book’s off and running,” he says.

Gareth doesn’t write a detailed outline. He says he needs to know how a story is going to end, and a few incidents, but how the story will get from incident to incident and then to the ending isn’t clear as he starts. He says it’s the “creative improvisation” that’s the “fun bit.”

For most of his books, there’s not a lot of research involved. He did do some research into European politics of the 1950s for the Macaque books, since it’s based on an alternate history in which the UK and France have merged politically, to the annoyance of the Americans, but for Embers of War, not so much, because “nobody knows how a faster-than-light engine works.” In fact, he says, the main bit of research he did was into the correct method for performing a chest drain on someone who’s been shot in the chest.

Acknowledging some writers do a lot of research and worldbuilding, he says, “for me, that feels too much like work.”

There’s a fairly detailed backstory in Embers of War concerning the aforementioned war, which Gareth says developed “organically.” He’ll mention something a few times as he writes, realize it’s becoming important, fleshes it out, has different characters look at it from their different viewpoints, and so it grows. One specific incident, it became apparent, was really the defining moment of the story. He moved it from a chapter later into the book into the prologue, “so you get the event up front, and then three years later the story starts.” That event, he says, “evolved very organically through the characters, their responses, and their trauma.”

Whereas sometimes he comes up with a character and then builds a story around them, in the case of Embers of War, he came up with the story first, then created characters to provide the viewpoints he needed–although, he says, he tries “not to put characters you would necessarily expect” at those viewpoints. For example, his heroic space captain is “full of self-doubt, very solitary, quite badly traumatized,” and not at all like Captain Kirk, who can “polish off ten Klingon warbirds before breakfast and feel fine about it.”

One of the most interesting characters is Trouble Dog, the sentient ship, “a killing machine that is accidentally developing a conscience.” He notes that a lot of the book is about the ship’s struggle to come to terms with who she is and what she’s done in the past.

He also had a sentient ship in The Recollection. In Embers, the ship is a character because it seemed to him that if he wanted soldiers from this big interstellar war as characters, those soldiers would actually be the ships, which could think faster, act faster, and were thousands of times more powerful than humans. “If they’re sentient, that gives them a chancne to understand what they’ve done and what they’ve been through,” especially since the core of their brains are actually created from cloned stem cells, which are allowing emotions to leak through into Trouble Dog. “It’s as if one of the star destroyers in Star Wars started saying, ‘Hang on a minute, why are we shooting all these rebels down?'” Gareth says.

Another interesting characters is the alien, Nod. “At heart his motivation is just to keep the ship flying,” Gareth says. A spider-like creature, Nod grew up on a planet where there’s just one big tree, the World Tree, and his species evolved to fix the tree and maintain it. As a result, they’ve become the default species for ships’ engineers.

Nod speaks in a very clipped, simple fashion, repeats himself a lot, and mutters to himself, but “in amongst all the muttering and complaining and grumpiness some pearls of wisdom.” In some ways he’s the wisest of the characters, Gareth says, even though the rest of the crew treat him a bit like a piece of furniture.

Gareth says he doesn’t do a lot of rewriting: instead, he edits on the fly as he’s writing, so that he has fairy clean draft when he reaches the end. He’ll go back to check for errors and smooth any clunky writing, then he sends it to his agent, who returns it with suggestions, and then to the publisher, who of course also returns suggestions. “Usually they’re fairly minor,” he says.

Fleet of Knives, out in February 2019, takes what seems to be a good thing at the end of the first book, an event that gets the heroes out of trouble, and makes it clear it’s not as beneficial as they’d expected. He promises new characters and new places to venture, while the consequences of the first book rebound through his universe.

Ed asks Gareth if he agrees with the notion that even those who claim to be writing realistic “literary” fiction are in fact making up worlds as imaginary as those of genre writers.

Gareth does agree.  “All our experiences of the world are subjective,” he says. “Your idea of thee real world might different from mine.”

He adds, “I think it was Neil Gaiman who wrote, ‘The world is always ending for someone.’ What we think of as the real world is our internal world, and as a writer that’s what you’re reporting on. if your internal world is expressed through a medium such as science fiction, that’s equally valid to if your view of the world is expressed through a middle aged college professor who has a tempestuous fling with a 16-year-old student. It’s no less fantasy.” Science fiction, he says, “is a lens we use to look at our world and interpret our world and comment on our world.”

He notes one of his recurring themes is what it means to be human, what it means to be intelligent and self-aware and vulnerable. But also, he says, he writes about “what it means to form attachments to other humans and their subjective experiences,” which he likens to “building bridges to other worlds.”

He says he hopes he’s telling emotional truths through his characters, noting that many people respond strongly to his characters because of their flaws and unhappiness: they’re relatable, and not super-heroic types who brush things off. “Everything has left a scar.”

The series he’s planning to follow the Embers series is one he hopes will influence readers. “It’s optimistic, insomuch as it involves humanity going out into the universe and doing good things. I want it to be a novel where there are no evil mega-corporations, no evil empire. People have come together and they’re going out and they’re doing good things. It’s kind of my reaction to the world we’re in at the moment…I want to believe that there is cause for optimism in the future again.”

Why do we write stories? Gareth says he thinks it’s one of the oldest human behaviours, going back to “Ugg” the caveman bragging about his hunting exploits, and embellishing events until “the next thing you know Ugg has walked all the way to Mordor and dropped a ring into Mount Doom.”

Humans are a narrative species, Gareth says. “We all have the narrative of our own lives and we’re all constantly adjusting that narrative. We’re not creatures of the moment, we’re creatures of where we come from and where we’re going. We have a story, it has a beginning and it has an end.”

As for why he, personally, writes stories?

“Because I  can’t imagine doing anything else.”

Episode 6: E.C. Blake interviews Edward Willett

Guest host E.C. Blake interviews Aurora Award-winning writer Edward Willett (the usual host of The Worldshapers), author of more than sixty books of science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction for readers of all ages, about his creative process, focusing on his newest book, Worldshaper (DAW Books).

About the Guest Host

E.C. Blake is the author of the Masks of Aygrima fantasy trilogy (Masks, Shadows, and Faces) for DAW Books. He was born in New Mexico and lived in Texas before moving to Saskatchewan, where he continues to reside. He has known Edward Willett his entire career.

The Introduction

Edward Willett is the award-winning author of more than sixty books of science fiction, fantasy, and non-fiction for readers of all ages. Besides Worldshaper, other recent novels include the stand-alone science fiction novel The Cityborn (DAW Books) and the five-book Shards of Excalibur YA fantasy series for Coteau Books. In 2002 Willett won the Regina Book Award for best book by a Regina author at the Saskatchewan Book Awards, and in 2009 won the Aurora Award (honoring the best in Canadian science fiction and fantasy) for Best Long-Form Work in English for Marseguro (DAW Books). The sequel, Terra Insegura, was shortlisted for the same award. He has been shortlisted for Saskatchewan Book Awards and Aurora Awards multiple times since.

His nonfiction runs the gamut from local history to science books for children and adults to biographies of people as diverse as Jimi Hendrix and the Ayatollah Khomeini. In addition to writing, he’s a professional actor and singer, who has performed in numerous plays, musicals, and operas.

Willett lives in Regina, Saskatchewan, with his wife, Margaret Anne Hodges, P.Eng., their teenaged daughter, Alice, and their black Siberian cat, Shadowpaw.

Website: www.edwardwillett.com

Twitter: @ewillett

Facebook: edward.willett

Instagram: @ecwillett

Edward Willett’s Amazon page

The Show

Guest host E.C. Blake, author of the Masks of Aygrima trilogy for DAW Books, introduces himself and explains that  Edward Willett has a new book coming out, Worldshaper, and asked E.C. to guest host so he could be a guest on his own podcast. They have a lot in common: both born in New Mexico, both lived in Texas, both moved to Saskatchewan. For some reason, though, E.C. still has a southern twang to his voice.

E.C. asks Ed which came first for him: the interest in science fiction, or the interest in writing?

Ed says first came his interest in reading, and especially reading science fiction. He learned to read in kindergarten and skipped a grade, so he was always the youngest in his class, which may have helped draw him to books. His two older brothers, Jim and Dwight, both read science fiction, so those kinds of books around the house: one of the earliest books he remembers is Robert Silverberg’s Revolt on Alpha C. He still has the copy he read, which has his brother Dwight’s name in the front of it.

He read his way through all the science fiction he could find in the public library in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, helpfully marked with little yellow stickers with rockets on their spines.

Ed thinks he started writing in elementary school, but the first complete short story he remembers writing was when he was in Grade 7, as something to do on a rainy day. It was called “Kastra Glazz, Hypership Test Pilot” (11-year-old Ed was convinced all characters in science fiction had to have funny names).

Ed’s Mom typed it up and then he gave it to his Grade 7 English teacher, Tony Tunbridge, to read. Tunbridge took it seriously, critiquing it and pointing out problems.This triggered something in Ed: he wanted to keep writing, and make the next thing he wrote better. (He dedicatedThe Citybornto Tony Tunbridge.)

E.C. asked if Ed kept using funny names for characters, and Ed says he did. The next major thing he wrote was a space opera (too short to be a novel, but longer than a short story) called “The Pirate Dilemma,” in which the main characters were named Samuel L. Domms and Roy B. Savexxy.

He and his best friend in high school, John “Scrawney” Smith, used to get together in an empty classroom after school and write, then read to each other what they had written, alternating sentences. They got some funny effects, but more importantly, it kept Ed writing.

He wrote a novel a year in Grades 10, 11, and 12. His English teacher, Mr. Wieb, required students to write a page a day in a notebook. Some kids would just copy stuff, but Ed started writing a story, which became his first novel, The Golden Sword. He wrote Ship from the Unknown and The Slavers of Thok in his subsequent high-school years. He shared the stories with his classmates and discovered he could write stories people enjoyed. Somewhere in there, he decided to become a writer.

However, he didn’t study creative writing in university. He knew it would be hard to make a living as a fiction writer, at least to start with, so instead he studied journalism. He attended Harding University in Searcy, AR, graduating in December 1979.

He went straight home to Saskatchewan and was hired at the weekly Weyburn Review, where he worked as a reporter/photographer for four years, then became news editor (at the age of twenty-four). From there he moved to Regina as communications officer for the brand-new Saskatchewan Science Centre. After five years, he quit to become a fulltime freelance writer.

All through those years, he wrote fiction. His first short sale was a non-science-fiction story to Western People, the magazine supplement of the Western Producer agricultural newspaper. (Later, he sold a science fiction story, “Strange Harvest,” to Western People, probably the only SF story ever published there. That story was later reprinted in On Spec, and even broadcast nationally on CBC Radio.)

He also wrote lots of unpublished novels. It wasn’t until 1997 that he sold his first, Soulworm, which was followed by The Dark Unicorn. Both were nominated for Saskatchewan Book Awards, Soulworm for Best First Novel and The Dark Unicorn for Best Children’s Book.

Ed tells the story of how he started being published by DAW Books. He’d written a book called Lost in Translation, published by Five Star, which sold books to libraries on a subscription basis. The science fiction books for Five Star were packaged by Tekno Books, which was headed up by Martin H. Greenberg (John Helfers was the editor). Greenberg had a connection to DAW, because he’d done some original anthologies for them. He called Ed one morning and said DAW had hole in its publishing schedule and had asked to see some of his Five Star books to see if anything could plug that hole—and DAW had picked Lost in Translation.

Ed got his agent, Ethan Ellenberg, with that contract in hand. His next book for DAW, Marseguro, won the Aurora Award for Best Long-Form Work in English. The award was presented at the 2009 World Science Fiction Convention in Montreal, with Sheila Gilbert and Betsy Wollheim, owners/publishers/editors of DAW, in attendance.

Worldshaper, Ed’s ninth novel for DAW, begins with someone coming through a portal from another world. Then we meet Shawna Keys, who’s living a peaceful life, starting up a new pottery studio in a small Montana city…peaceful, except a stranger has been staring up at her bedroom window in the middle of the night, and there’s a storm coming no one else seems to see. Then her best friend is killed in a terrorist-style attack on a coffee shop. The leader of the attackers calls her by name, touches her, and then is about to shoot her—but she refuses to believe any of this can be happening, and, suddenly, it isn’t. It never happened. But the people who were killed have not only vanished, nobody remembers they ever existed, not even her best friend.

The stranger who has been staring up at her window contacts her, and explains she actually Shaped the world she’s living in it—it isn’t the real world at all, but a construct. He tells her that the attacker from the coffee shop, called the Adversary, is going to take over her world and all other myriad Shaped worlds in what he calls the Labyrinth, unless she can visit them, contact their Shapers, retrieve the knowledge of the Shaping of those worlds, and convey that knowledge to Ygrair, the woman at the heart of the Labyrinth, who found it, opened it, and gave the Shapers their worlds to Shape.

E.C. asks what the typical novel-seed is for Ed.

Ed says it can be a number of things. For example, his science-fiction novel The Cityborn began with a mental image of a towering city, squatting over a canyon filled with a massive garbage dump, in which there are people scavenging to survive.

His YA science-fiction novel Andy Nebula: Interstellar Rock Star came out of an exhibit at the Saskatchewan Science Centre about how memory works, combined with a news item about teenaged Japanese pop stars who were one-hit wonders. In the book, there are aliens whose memory works differently, and Andy is plucked off the street to become a one-hit superstar—it’s drugs, rock and roll, and aliens for teenagers.

For Worldshaper, the trigger was wondering what it would be like if the creators of fictional worlds could actually live in them.

Worldshaper was originally conceived as a fantasy novel, set in a medieval village in an endless, inescapable valley, along which were strung caves that were portals into different worlds. Despite the changes to that concept, the main character has always been a potter: the perfect metaphor for a Shaper.

Ed’s process of developing a story is to ask himself questions In The Cityborn, who are those people living in the garbage dump? Why are they there? Why has this city been fouling its environment for so long? Where did it come from? Who lives inside it? Conflict, and hence plot, arises from the answers to those questions: the people in the garbage want into the city. What would they do if someone from the top of the city, where the rich people would logically live, ended up down in the garbage dump? Every answered question presents other questions that must be answered.

Ed hastens to add it’s not really as formal a process as it sounds: a lot of the asking and answering of questions happens quickly inside Ed’s head as he types, but that’s how he interprets what he’s doing.

E.C. asks how detailed a plan Ed has before he starts writing. Ed says he writes a four- or five-page synopsis, not a chapter-by-chapter outline, just a rough description.

He doesn’t follow that synopsis particularly closely, either. The overall shape of the book is there, but the writing process may take him in a very different direction. He mentions how in Terra Insegura, sequel to Marseguro, a character introduced only because a viewpoint character was needed in space while everyone else was on the surface of the planet became so important that Ed had to replot everything about two-thirds of the way in.

The synopsis is just a guide to keep him on track, and maybe provide a hint of a way forward when he runs into a bump in the road.

E.C. asks how much of Ed’s worldshaping is done on the fly.

Ed says when he’s writing, he writes almost as fast as he types. He figures he averages 1,000 words an hour or more. “Things just come out of your head, onto the paper.” It’s hard for him to figure out exactly how that process works because it’s so seamless.

What flows out through his fingers feeds on itself. One sentence leads to another, which leads to new characters, new problems, new solutions.

Ed says he finds this “really fascinating,” and that’s why he asks all the authors he talks to on The Worldshapers about their writing process. It also ties into Worldshaper, because Shawna, is often trying to Shape her world on the fly, and sometimes it goes awry—just as it does with authors.

E.C. asks about Ed’s research process, and Ed says there was quite a bit of research involved in Worldshaper, because it’s set in a world very much like ours. He researched things like helicopters, radio call-signs, camping equipment, and what the surveyors’ mark at the top of a pass would look like—an important detail which makes Shawna wonder why this thing she didn’t even know existed exists in the world she supposedly Shaped.

E.C. asks how Ed develops characters. Ed says for Worldshaper there were obviously three characters who had to exist—the Shaper (Shawna Keys), the Mysterious Stranger (Karl Yatsar), who clue her and the readers into what’s going on, and the antagonist (the Adversary).

Ed originally thought the whole book would be first-person, from Shawna’s POV, but in consultation with his editor, Sheila Gilbert, he realized he needed to make Karl and the Adversary POV characters as well. Karl’s POV is third-person, fairly close in, while the Adversary’s POV is a more detached third-person. Mixing that with Shawna’s first-person narrative was an interesting challenge.

Ed says that, possibly because he began writing on a typewriter, he writes a complete first draft and then rewrites, typically focusing in the second draft in on sprucing up language and dialogue. He estimated his first draft is maybe eighty percent of the way to how the published novel will read, his own rewrite gets it to ninety or ninety-five percent, and editorial suggestions provide the impetus for the last five percent.

Ed has worked with a great many editors. Sheila Gilbert at DAW, he says, is particularly good at discovering the weakness in plot, characterization, back story, and asking the author to answer questions either not asked (or, more likely, ignored or papered over) during the writing process. Worldshaper had more editorial input than most of Ed’s books because of the need for the initial set-up to support a (hopefully) long-running series.

Ed says the great thing about the series is  that, while the first world is much like ours, future worlds won’t be. As in the original Star Trek and Doctor Who, the overarching storyline is an excuse to play in all kinds of different worlds and settings. Books could have a film noir setting, or a vampire setting—the possibilities are endless.

E.C. asks if there are any embarrassing errors or omissions editors have found. Ed says there was a big one in Worldshaper. The copyeditor pointed out that when characters sailed out into the open ocean, they were described as doing so from a place along the Washington coastline that would actually have taken them into Puget Sound, where they would very soon have encountered land again. That was fixed by relocating the scene much further south along the West Coast.

That’s an example of the value of editors!

E.C. asks why Ed is using the term “worldshaping” for the podcast, instead of the more commonly used term worldbuilding.

Ed explains that, apart from the marketing synergy of the podcast and the book having similar names, he feels worldshaping better describes what writers do. He points out writers aren’t really building new worlds, they’re shaping worlds from the raw material of the real world. After all, we have nothing else to draw on. The image of the potter taking clay and shaping it into something interesting seems to him a better metaphor than building a world.

Ed goes on to say that he feels strongly that literary writers’ fictional worlds are every bit as much made up as those of science fiction and fantasy. The real world cannot be contained within a construction of words, he says. “The symbol is not the thing.” So while literary fiction may appearto be set in a world more like ours than the worlds of science fiction and fantasy, that’s an illusion—those worlds are equally fictional. The only difference is that in science fiction and fantasy, authors are taking their raw material and shaping it more extravagantly.

Ed says the title of the book came first, not the title of the podcast, but that he’s been thinking of a podcast or something similar for a long time, in which he can use his journalistic familiarity with interviewing people to compare notes with other writers of science fiction and fantasy about the process of creating the stuff they create, in the hope other authors and readers might find it interesting.

E.C. asks Ed to answer the question, “Why do we write this stuff?”

Curiosity is innate in human beings, Ed replies: its part of the brain. The theological answer, he continues, is that God created man in His image, and since God creates things, so do we. This is Tolkien’s concept of “sub-creation.” As he put it, “We make still by the law in which we’re made.”

Evolutionarily, Ed says, there’s clearly a survival benefit to being creative, thinking up new ways to do things. Our ancestors survived because they were creative, and that creativity has been handed down.

On a personal level, though, Ed says he writes stories “because it’s fun,” and he thinks that’s why most writers write. After all, most writers start as kids, and what do kids do? They play. Writers go from building sandcastles in sandboxes to building castles in fantasy realms. Yes, writing professionally is work…but at heart, it’s play.

E.C. asks if Ed is trying to shape the real world through his fiction. Ed says he doesn’t really have any control over it, noting that very few authors’ work has really changed the world, so that, while aspiring to change the world is a great goal, it’s not necessarily a realistic one.

Ed thinks that if he’s changing the world it’s one person at a time, by entertaining readers, adding enjoyment to their lives, maybe making them a little happier. If along the way they find some ideas in his fiction that change the way they think about the world, or feel better about the world, that’s good, too. But all he can really do is write the books he wants to write to the best of his ability, and hope that readers enjoy them.

E.C. asks what’s coming next.

Ed says he’ll soon be writing Master of the World, Book 2 of the Worldshapersseries. In addition, he recently wrote a middle-grade modern-day fantasy, The Fire Boy, currently with his agent, and has agreed to write a horror-flavoured YA novel for another publisher (still nameless because no contract has been signed yet). In addition, he’s writing a play-with-music, The Music Shoppe, for Reginal Lyric Musical Theatre.

Ed says he’s done quite a bit of theatre: he’s a member of Canadian Actors’ Equity and has done a certain amount if professional stage work (and a lot more just for fun). He also sings with choirs: he’s sung with the Canadian Chamber Choir and currently is a member of the Prairie Chamber Choir.

Finally, E.C. asks why Ed always mentions Shadowpaw the Siberian cat in his biography, and Ed explains it’s partly because Shadowpaw has a literary history: Betsy Wollheim from DAW picked him out, and Ed went down to New York to visit DAW and pick Shadowpaw up. Shadowpaw’s name and photo also graces the new books from Shadowpaw Press, Ed’s new publishing company, which has brought out his short story collection Paths to the Stars and will be releasing other of his work—and a few other things—going forward.

And that’s that!

E.C. doesn’t  imagine he’ll be guest hosting again, but he enjoyed it.

 

Episode 4: Julie Czerneda

An hour-long conversation with Julie Czerneda ( bestselling author of The Clan Chronicles books and many, many others) about her creative process, with a special focus on her upcoming fantasy The Gossamer Mage.

The Introduction:

Julie Czerneda was born in Exeter, Ontario, and grew up on air force bases, her family moving with each transfer, from Ontario to Prince Edward Island and finally to Nova Scotia. When her father became a civilian, the family moved to Ontario, settling in what was then a rural setting near the shores of Lake Ontario (and is now that not-so-rural setting known as Mississauga.

Julie studied biology at the Universities of Waterloo, Saskatchewan, and Queen’s, accompanied by her former chemistry partner (and now husband) Roger. They moved a few times before settling back in Ontario, where they still live.

Julie began her writing career in educational publishing, beginning when she was on maternity leave from a university teaching. She became a full-time author and editor of non-fiction educational materials, primarily in science, in 1985, contributing to more than 250 titles from elementary to college level. But she also had twenty-three unpublished and unfinished science fiction novels tucked away in file folders, and with encouragement from husband, she finished the one in file folder X, Beholder’s Eye, which was bought by DAW Books. That same year, Julie was a finalist for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, and DAW contracted for three more novels.

She’s been published by DAW ever since: eighteen novels, including the popular nine-book The Clan Chronicles series. She’s also written many short stories, edited anthologies, and taught writing. Her books have received international acclaim, multiple awards, and best-selling status.

Website: czerneda.com

Twitter:  @JulieCzerneda

Julie Czerneda’s Amazon page

The Show:

She says her parents conspired to make her a writer. Her father brought home the first two Tarzan books, but only gave her the first one, which “doesn’t end well.” She came running out of her room, yelling, she was so furious, and “instead of explaining to me what a cliff-hanger was, my Mom lent me her typewriter and said, ‘Fix it.’” Julie proceeded to write a page that satisfied her much more than the book, and never stopped. She wrote so much as a child her parents bought her a file cabinet to hold it all.

We discussed whether moving from place to place as a child of a military family influenced her writing; Julie said only in that, when they left the Air force and moved into a civilian neighbourhood, all the other kids had gone off to summer cottages. That left her alone and exited to have time to write.

She encountered new science fiction for the first time in her university bookstore. “To be able to buy them myself was liberating.”

Julie studied biology. She feels her interest in science and her interest in science fiction arise from the same place. “It seemed like a lot things I read as a kid were finite. They just ended, or they were real life, and while real life is marvellous, I’d rather talk to real people about it. So, when I discovered things that were showing me something beyond what was here, it was the same itch being scratched that takes me into science.” She said she went into science because she wanted to explore how the world works, and read science fiction because she wanted new, interesting ways of thinking about the world.

She originally wanted a joint degree in physics and biology, so she could be the first person to go into place equipped to communicate with aliens (a plan she wrote out in third grade). However, the University of Waterloo wasn’t set up for that, so her courses conflicted.

Much of her early fiction writing was really biological thought experiments. Asked if being a scientist makes it difficult for her to write fantasy, she notes a good fantasy novel, because it takes her out of herself, so she doesn’t worry about the real-world impossibility of it. She was herself hesitant about writing fantasy for a long time because she felt the language was so rich, and the landscapes so intense, she couldn’t see herself doing it.

However, after DAW began publishing her, she was asked to write a fantasy story for an anthology being edited by Martin H. Greenberg. “You don’t say no, so I wrote my first fantasy.”

Still, the prospect of writing a fantasy novel terrified her. She finally did (A Turn of Light), but she says it took her five years to work up the courage to start, and two years (and deleting 400,000 words) to figure out how to do it.

She notes her popular Esen character, who has an ability associated with magic in fantasy, didn’t begin as a shapeshifter—she was the result of a thought experiment, trying to figure out what would be necessary for a biological organism to be semi-immortal. The Esen books continue to be her “biological playground,” Julie says. “I have a very large filing cabinet full of weird biology and all of it goes into those books. Most of the weird stuff is real.”

Her upcoming fantasy, The Gossamer Mage, grew out of a fantasy novella Eric Flint asked her to write. She was inspired by a pen in the Lee Valley catalogue, which included words for parts of a pen she’d never heard before. She did some more research, and realized she wanted to write a magic system based on pen and ink. She clipped the image from the catalogue, and that, in turn, gave her the main character, because the story opens with the pen in his hand after many years of use. (She also researched the history of ink, “which is full of great drama and crime and all manner of skullduggery. It’s amazing!”)

Julie says her research differs from science fiction to fantasy and gives some examples.

Whereas when she’s writing science fiction, Julie says, she tends to know enough about the question she wants to ask to get going and what she additionally needs to research. (For example, for something she won’t be writing for a couple of years, she’s currently researching plate tectonics.)

For fantasy, her research focuses mostly on the worldbuilding, “because everything past the worldbuilding is me, making it up.”

She likes to physically visit places: in A Turn of Light there are a lot of log cabins, so she spent a lot of time in cabins. She also went to a running mill, so she could feel how the building shakes and moves.

The amount of outlining Julie does depends on the book. She did little for A Turn of Light, wanting to see where it went. For the next two Esen books, she’s made a note of their shape and the major plot threads. The Gossamer Mage is quite different: it’s a series of novellas, each of which moves the story forward, but which can be read separately or in a different order. She’s outlining those more tightly. Usually she doesn’t outline a book until she’s almost finished, so she can go back and make sure she’s covered every point—more to check herself than to plot to.

She doesn’t have much problem with continuity while writing series, she says, but she does have to work to keep the voices consistent.

She likes to put as much as she can into a story so she can draw on it latter—such as the giant lobsteresque alien from A Thousand Words for Stranger who has a pool in his suite in which he has “carnivorous non-verbal wives.” The implication is they’re non-sentient, but Julie never intended for them to stay that way, and they became major players in the final finale trilogy. “I never knew if I would do that. I just put it in, because the more you put into a story, the richer it reads.”

Julie notes her editor (and mine), Sheila E. Gilbert, told her a long time ago that she likes to have the sense the world she’s reading about continues off the page—places the main characters haven’t been, unexplored areas, things that don’t get mentioned but you know that they exist.

Julie gives a bit of a synopsis of The Gossamer Mage, with its magicians spending their life with every act of magic, sometimes just to create beautiful things. “It’s very much a case of, if you want to keep magic, what are you willing to do? And is there a value to just random beauty, or not?” She adds, “I myself don’t know how it will end.”

The two main characters are the magic user from the original novella, “Intended Words,” now the first novella in the book, who is trying to destroy the deathless goddess because he’s seen so many of his friends turn old and die for nothing, and one of the daughters who serves the goddess, who, in the second novella, “Consequential Phrases,” shows what things look like from her side.

Sometimes minor characters threaten to take over a book. Julie remembers that in her second book in The Clan Chronicles, Ties of Power, the character of Simon, someone from the past of the main character who made him who he was, started to get too important. She told Sheila Gilbert she either needed to kill him off or she needed another book, and Sheila told her to go ahead and write another book, in which he got his “satisfying comeuppance.”

Julie does very little rewriting, possibly because she did so much non-fiction writing. “I write the best I can first time around.” After a spell-check, she sends it. Sheila comes back with requests for elaboration in certain areas, she writes that, and she’s done.

Part of that is the confidence and experience of having done this full-time for twenty years. What’s important to her is to make sure she has been “generous enough to the reader” in terms of worldbuilding, scene, and description. She’s also come to realize that any book “can only be so good.”

“I could pick up any book off the shelf that I’ve written and I’m sure I’ll find things I’d like to fix, or have someone read it to me and think, oh, that’s awkward, but if I’ve told the story I want, and at the end of it the person feels the way I meant them to feel, I still love the book, and I’m fine with that.”

Sheila Gilbert, she says, is “the ultimate beta reader,” who brings her own enormous amount of experience to the book. “For me she’s the one who’s forever slapping me on the wrist in a very calm and thoughtful way when I’ve been lazy, when I’ve left something out, when I’ve tried to skip over some important revelation…I think she’s got a wonderful instinct for the emotional content, and she’s got a great instinct for crap.”

We talked a bit about the goofs we sometimes make as writers. Julie recounts how at one point she began to confuse aft and bow on ships and would have characters go from the aft to the stern—which, of course, are the same thing. No one picked that up for years—it’s in all The Clan Chronicles books. “Everyone had missed this, and we’re talking about twenty years of proofreading. Even readers have never called me on this.”

Julie says her fiction has an optimistic bent because she doesn’t like dark, grim fiction, nor does she believe in it. “I love a really good tragedy…what I don’t like is violence used as pornography and I don’t like the victim mentality…in my experience and the way I look at the word, most people muddle along. We’re not great heroes, but we’re not great villains, either.”

She also doesn’t write grim fiction because she doesn’t want to inhabit a world like that for the long period of time it takes to write a book. “I get too engrossed in the work, and I don’t want to be there. That’s not how I want to make my living.”

The difference between writing mainstream fiction and speculative fiction, Julie says, is that when you’re writing every day, slice-of-life stories, you’re relying on your reader already being an expert on that world, which allows you to use very broad brushstrokes for most of it, only focusing in on the places you choose as your settings.

Some of that happens even in science fiction: experienced SF readers already have a mental image of a spaceship, for example, so you don’t have to describe it in detail. “I’m not shaping the world so much as pointing my flashlight at a part of it where I want their attention, as if they’re all cats and I’ve got a little pointer.” Fantasy, Julie says, requires more detailed, specific description of many of the elements of the world.

Julie thinks science fiction and fantasy writers are partly driven by dissatisfaction: “You’re not getting what you want as a reader, so you’re going to write it yourself.”

But, she adds, “I also think there are so many questions we want to answer as human beings that science fiction lets us play with, and so many things we want to say that we care deeply about that fantasy gives us a platform to say. To me, those are both very powerful draws to writing science fiction and fantasy. And I think I will always write both for that reason.”

She doesn’t write with a message in mind, except, perhaps, for, “Take care of the planet, take care of yourselves, be nice to other people.”