Episode 74: Frank J. Fleming

An hour-long chat with Frank J. Fleming, author of the Superego science-fiction series and senior writer for the satire site, The Babylon Bee.

Website
www.frankjfleming.com

Twitter
@IMAO_

Frank J. Fleming’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Frank J. Fleming is the author of the Superego series of science-fiction novels. He’s also a humor writer for the Babylon BeeNew York Post, and USA Today, and has been a scriptwriter (Love Gov).

Fleming is a Carnegie Mellon University graduate and works as an electrical and software engineer when he’s not writing. He has also been a pioneer in virtual-reality video. He lives in Austin with his wife and four kids. 

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Frank, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Hey, thanks for having me.

I reached out to you because I . . . of course, I encountered you actually through the Babylon Bee. And this may not surprise you because you live in Texas, so you will know that when I say that I grew up in the Church of Christ, the Babylon Bee has humor in there that appeals to me because . . . I’m often passing along, not so much the political stuff, which is funny too, but often the church-related stuff I can pass on to people that I went to school with, I grew up with, and we all get those . . . we all get that satire.

That’s funny. I’ve thought about doing some more specific Church of Christ jokes, but I’m not sure how many people would get them.

Yeah, well, there’s a few of us, but it might not be exactly . . . it might be a bit of a niche audience, I’m afraid.

Yeah.

So, that’s kind of where I encountered you. And then I was following you on Twitter, and then I said, “Hey, you write science fiction.” And I looked that up, and it looked interesting. And I thought, “Well, that’s why I have this podcast.” So, I would reach out, and here you are.

Well, yeah, thanks. I really like talking about my fiction writing. The satire, I think, gets a lot more attention lately.

Yeah. It’s that kind of a world we’re living in at the moment. 

Mm-hmm.

The other thing I didn’t know until I got your bio here was that you’re an engineer and although I am not an engineer, I am married to an engineer. So, I hang out with engineers a lot. My wife, Margaret Anne Hodges, is past president of the Association of Professional Engineers and Geoscientists of Saskatchewan. 

Oh, wow.

And so, I’ve hung out with engineers a lot over the years, too.

Yeah, it’s one of my favorite topics, actually. I have lots of strong opinions on different programming languages. It just doesn’t come up as much.

We probably won’t talk much about that. All right. Well, let’s start at the very beginning. I always say that I like to take my guests back into the mists of time—I don’t know how far back that is for you; it’s getting increasingly far back for me—to find out how you got . . . well, first of all, where you grew up and went to school, all that sort of thing, but how you got interested in science fiction and how you got interested in writing, and how those two things came together. So how did that all work for you?

And it’s hard to say. You know, as far back as I can think, I’ve always wanted to do little stories. You know, it’s funny, like, I work with Ethan Nicolle, you know, who did that Axe Cop. He illustrated stories from, like, his five-year-old brother, and I’m thinking, like, same age, I would always, like, play with stuffed animals or make up stories and things. And I can think back to . . . I think when I was a teenager, I probably made my first attempt at writing a science-fiction novel. It’s just, you know, I can’t help but think of stories. You know, I didn’t have much of the writing skill back then. And I just come at it, you know, and keep coming back to it. It’s just, I also found I had a bit of a knack for writing satire, particularly political satire, and I eventually started a blog and wrote more on that. But eventually, just because it’s always been a passion, I did, I think it was 2005. I actually did Superego as a short story. I just wrote it piece by piece and completely planned it out, and it actually ended up being a bit of a hit. I think I’m a bit embarrassed by the original short-story version, but it was pretty popular at the time, and eventually, I decided I have to, you know, if something’s my passion, I have to set more time aside for it eventually. So, you know, I need to work on my fiction every day. And eventually, I started just getting up at five a.m. every morning. So, I had time to both do the humor and satire and write on, novel writing, before my regular day job. And just, you know, if you do a bit of it every day, eventually it gets done.

You mentioned that you wrote a little bit in high school when you . . . well, first of all, where did you grow up?

That’s a complicated question. High school was in New Jersey. That’s, I think, still the single place I’ve lived the most. I lived there nine years, from age nine to eighteen.

And did you have books that got you interested in reading and writing in those and those early days?

It’s funny, I was a very avid reader up until high school, and for some reason, I’m not sure why, I kind of dropped off then. I remember reading, let’s see, the Dragonlance series was one of my favorites as a kid, and, you know, I read some Michael Crichton, but at some point, I dropped off, and eventually, I just was not finding time for reading. That’s something I had to reintegrate into my life and realize, you know, as they always say, if you want to be a writer, you have to read a lot. And so, that’s now something I make a priority each day. It’s usually what I do in the morning when drinking my coffee. I find that’s a lot better a way to wake up than, like, you know, looking at the news or social media.

What are some of the authors you’re reading now?

Let’s see. I actually, I just finished today, Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles. I really try to alternate nonfiction and fiction. And then I try to draw from, you know, fantasy, science fiction, thrillers. You know, I try to, every once in a while, to go a little bit out of my comfort zone, just to try a lot of different authors. Lately, I’ve been enjoying Jim Butcher and is, uh . . .

Dresden Files.

Yeah, Dresden Files.

Yeah, I love those, too.

I think I’m more the style, you know, I know there’s the hard science fiction things in me, I’m more, I just I want to write something that, you know, maybe makes you think and has a few themes to it, but my main goal is just make something fun and end up . . . I really want to make a page-turner, I’d say.

Well, you went into engineering. Why did you decide to pursue that? What drew you to it?

I’ve always had a very analytical mind, and this is something . . . it feels like I have, like, two sides of me that I’ve never been able to join. I have a very creative side, a very . . . I always loved creative writing, I always loved humor. But I also, I love solving puzzles, and I just love computer programming. I love debugging. I love figuring things out. I love, especially, really complex problems where you can’t just Google the answer, and you got to be like, you know, the one go out there and solve things no one else has figured out before. And I really enjoy both. I’ve just never been able to merge the two sides.

And how did the satire writing start coming about? I mean, yeah, you said you found a knack for it, but how did you end up getting . . . I mean, you were published in some fairly major places, and you had satirical books published. How did that all come about?

Well, that, I mean, that goes back . . . I always loved humor. I think for a while as a kid . . . I almost feel embarrassed, it was like, I was like a big fan of Garfield, I wanted to be a cartoonist, and I used to write and draw comics and things. But eventually, it’s just . . .I don’t know, I played around. I found out, you know, politics is something to make fun of. We had a . . . in my high school, they had . . . a local paper was going to run editorial from a high schooler, and so, they had people submit, and I wrote a joke one about how economic and political ideas need to be tested on monkeys first before they’re tried on humans, and that got published, that was the one chosen, it got published. And then, when I was in college, I just started writing, like, joke columns. You know, I’d say I’d been influenced by, like, Dave Barry, I just wrote, like, humorous columns for the school paper and, you know, just kind of did that a little bit, then set it aside. And then, I became what back in the day was known as a war blogger. You know, a little bit after 9/11, everybody started blogging and trying to get involved in the news. And I think I was about, let’s say, I’d be about 23 at the time. And I said, “Well, I’ll write some on politics.” But I also realized, “I’m too young to lecture anybody on politics. I don’t know anything, so, I’ll just write really stupid opinions that will at least be entertaining,” and made that my niche, and first started out as blogging and eventually started writing some columns and things.

As opposed to stupid opinions that aren’t entertaining, and there’s lots of those around.

Yeah, but, well, stupid opinions are the most entertaining. Smart opinions are usually very simple.

Well, I have to ask you about the Babylon Bee, because that’s how I found you. How did . . . are you one of the founders of that or . . . you’re listed as a senior writer. So, how did that all come about?

I’m one of the earlier writers. I’m not a founder. I think they were out maybe about two years because I remember being a fan of them before I got involved. I knew, you know, I already mentioned Ethan Nicolle, and I was a big fan of his. And I ended up just meeting him online, becoming friends with him. And then he went working for them full-time, and he dropped my name with them. And it’s just, I’d been blogging, writing similar-type humor for over a decade, so it just was a real good fit. Because I used to write full columns where I’d have, like, a joke, a funny idea, and I’d have to fill out 600 to a thousand, and really I’d just have one joke, and so that’s all padding. I like the Bee because I just come up with a funny concept and usually only write, like, 200 words or so. And so, it’s usually pretty fun to write for.

My background is in journalism, and when I was working as a newspaper reporter and photographer at the little Weyburn Review—Weyburn has a population of 10,000, so this wasn’t exactly a huge newspaper—and I had a weekly column, and I would sometimes dip into satire. And I found that people would get madder at me for the satire than things that I had written, you know, serious news stories about serious topics. But people were sometimes . . . especially if they took the satire seriously and then found out afterwards that it was satire and they’d missed the joke. Does that . . . ?

Well, yeah, that’s always the problem. My very first paid column, I actually co-wrote it with Jonah Goldberg for USA Today. And there, they were very particular. It said, like, satire right in the title and satire right at the end. And, you know, I know why they do that, but I always feel that puts you off on a bad foot, like, you’re like, “You’re too dumb to get this was a joke if we didn’t tell you right away.” For a while, I wrote, though, for the New York Post, and there, they didn’t label it, but no one seemed to get that mad. I seemed to, you know, I never had, like, these most strident, ardent opinions that really worked people up. I think a few people wrote in some angry letters who didn’t get it was satire, but it didn’t seem to be a big deal. Of course, now, at the Babylon Bee, we keep having all these times where people share it for real, and, of course, we get accused, like we’re trying to do that. We’ve never written one where we’re trying to trick people. It’s just, it so often takes us off guard, like, which ones people thought were real and end up getting shared as, you know, fake news, and that that will get people angry.

And a few times, your satire has turned into almost what actually happens a few weeks later on, too.

Yeah, that’s what I was saying recently, is satire these days is just figuring out what’s going to be real news in about, you know, two days in the future.

And I guess that’s where a Not the Bee came along because those are real news items that read like they could be satire.

Yeah, yeah. It’s . . . and that’s, I think, actually a challenge for satire. If things are already crazy and funny, you can’t really . . . you know, it’s better if something’s really serious and you make fun of it, you know, like, you throw a pie in the face of some stiff, you know, upper-crust guy, throwing a pie in the face of a clown, not as funny. And it’s . . . and with things so crazy, it’s a little bit more challenge for the humor. You have to learn how to, like, work with it instead of against it. It’s . . . as I describe to people, if you, like, a decade or two ago, you pitched, “Hey, Donald Trump is going to be president,” you know, no one would do that as a drama. That’s a comedy. And so, I explain people are living in a comedy premise. And you have to learn to, like, flow with that and be with it and not get all too serious about it, or you’re going to end up like Dean Wormer from Animal House.

I also wanted to ask you about the scriptwriting side. We’re working our way around to the fiction, but I’m touching on everything else that you’ve done. You mentioned being a scriptwriter. How did you get into scriptwriting?

I had an opportunity where I worked with a production company in Austin. It’s what moved me to Texas. They’re called Emergent Order. They’re probably most famous . . . they did, like, a Keynes versus Hayek rap battle explaining economics. And I did with them a series which portrayed government as, like, kind of this bad boyfriend who’s always butting in, and had a lot of fun. That was my first time writing and getting to see it filmed, which is a lot more complicated. And I thought . . . and it kind of ruins TV and movies for you afterwards, because now I’m always thinking practically, like, “Oh, how many extras have they got, where did they film this, what camera angles.” In a way, you can enjoy TV more before you know all the background stuff. And now, I’m actually writing some scripts for, you know, Babylon Bee started doing some animation. They’re really expanding what they’re doing on YouTube. And so, having some fun there.

Well, one reason I ask about scriptwriting is because, as we’ve come around to your fiction, all these other kinds of writing that you have done, have you found them helpful when you started turning your attention to fiction? I think in scriptwriting—and I’ve done plays, and a few video scripts, mostly more plays than anything else—one thing that you quickly learn is that dialogue has to carry a lot of the action in a play. So, do you find, for example, that being a scriptwriter has helped with the dialogue in your fiction?

Well, I think my problem is I love dialogue. I want to start with the dialogue. It’s like, I’ll do the dialogue and then start to get the plot around it. And that’s kind of the wrong way to do things. So, I’ve actually, with scriptwriting, had to learn more discipline to outline and get the plot points and beats. And after I get everything, then I can finally write the dialogue, because that’s my favorite part. And so . . . and you know, there’s the length of it, because a lot of the, you know, I’d say, like, the humor writing, that doesn’t really contribute much to the fiction writing. To me, I love the fiction writing because it’s different when you actually have a plot and characters, and you need to make it all come together. And to me, it’s more like engineering in that it’s a bit of a puzzle, in that, you know, there’s no exact right way to come at it. But you have to work at it and try different things until it finally fits together and works.

Well, let’s get around to the fiction. You sort of talked a little bit about how you decided to start doing it, but before we do anything else, maybe we should get a synopsis, however much you want to say, about the Superego books.

Well, it’s funny. I’m not even sure how I ended up with this character because it’s . . . I like funnier, lighter things, but, of course, the main character of Superego is a psychopath. He’s an intergalactic hitman who just . . . and basically, it’s, to me, I guess it was an exploration of morality by . . . I came up with a character who has absolutely no practical use for it. He doesn’t feel guilt. He doesn’t have to, usually, worry about retribution for anything he does. So, is there any use of morality for a character like that? And that’s where I think, in a way, the story’s exploring.

You’re not sure where he came from?

Yeah, I’m not sure how I ended up with someone with absolutely no . . . like, a psychopath without any feeling of guilt. It just . . . it seemed like an interesting character to work with. I think at the time, I remember it was back, I was watching that show House, and I also liked the idea of just this cranky character who can say whatever he’s thinking because he doesn’t really care about other people.

And then, do you want to give a little outline of the plot?

Well, in the first one, he, let’s see, he ends up having to pretend to be with law enforcement when he’s on a planet doing a job and ends up working with a detective whom he begins to fall in love with. But he, you know, finds out that the job isn’t what it seems. And he ends up sort of a . . . well, I don’t know how much to give away, but it just thinks his basically his whole life starts to collapse around him when he hadn’t really thought much about it. The second one has him . . . now he’s decided to be somebody different and exploring how different can he be considering who he is. In a way, he’s trying to be a hero, even though, again, he doesn’t get the feelings of, like, any good feelings from helping people or anything. And so, we’re seeing how far he can push that.

The other interesting thing I found . . . he has an AI in his head who struck me as, like, Jiminy Cricket, actually, he’s the conscience of the puppet in Pinocchio, and it was a bit like that. So, where did that come from?

I’m not sure where the character first came from. I figure . . . I think it’s just, in a way, logical. He is not a people person, he doesn’t do well with people, but he needs help. I actually have a short story that is kind of a prequel that shows him first activating AI. He’s lonely, but he also doesn’t do well with people. And so, he ended up with an AI. He figured he could deal better with that. And so . . . and then, yeah, it’s like a conscience forum, but in a way, he can understand because, you know, it’s an AI, it has to logically think through, you know, what’s the right thing to do here. And that’s what he’s stuck with doing because he has no feeling of like, you know, this is a good thing, or this is a bad thing.

Well, let’s start at the very beginning of the writing process, then. Once you had your character, what did your planning, and what does your planning/outlining process, look like? Are you a detailed outliner, or do you just sort of start writing and see what happens?

I’m somewhere in between. I once tried . . . I read, like, Stephen King’s On Writing book, where he seems to be, let’s just, like, come up with the characters and let happen what happens. And I tried that with the novel Side Quest, but I ended up . . . to me, I need at least a skeleton of what I think the whole story is going to map out, like, where different plot points are, where it’s going to end up. And I tend to just kind of walk around, play with it in my head, until I think I have a solid structure for the plot and what are the main beats of the story in my head, and then I start to write it out. And then . . . but it usually then, it usually takes a few twists and turns from what I originally planned, because you have to, you know, let the characters do what seems logical for them. Because, of course, the problem, if you map out a plot too much, is you’re trying to make your characters fit into doing what you need them to do, and sometimes that just doesn’t work out.

What you put down on paper before you start writing? Is it fairly sketchy, sort of just to remind you of what you thought about, or do you do something pretty detailed? Like, would it be five pages or ten pages or . . . I talked to one author, Peter V. Brett, who does 150-page outlines. So, he’s the extreme.

I’m definitely on the other end. I have a . . . for the current, I’ve written a third Superego, I have a very simple Excel sheet that just maps out a few different plot points, and only because this one’s a little bit more complicated than the others because I’m juggling a few more storylines.

Do you do anything like character sheets or detailed character sketches, that sort of thing?

No. I’m starting to think I need to do that because part of it also is just all the, you know, different names of planets and . . .

Continuity.

. . . characters . . . and then, you know, it goes back to the first two books, and it’s, sometimes, I’m just writing a note. I was like, “Oh, yeah, I’ve got to go look back up in the second book, what was the name of this planet?” And fill this in later. And it’s . . . my first drafts tend to be completely unreadable, filled with holes, have whole sections that need to be rewritten because I said something else is going to happen, so I need to rewrite the old part. But I like to keep momentum, so I don’t . . . for the first draft, if it’s something I’m stuck on, I’ll just write a note, what I want, you know, and then move on, because I like to move through the first thing and say I finished the first draft, even though it’s unreadable, and then go back and pound it into something I can give to a beta reader.

You mentioned a little bit about your actual writing process taking place largely early in the morning. I would presume you write on a computer, you’re not with a quill pen on parchment, under a tree somewhere.

Yeah, I’ve been a computer word-processor since I was a kid. Of course, first it was on a Tandy, but now I usually write in Google Docs because it’s just easy to access from anywhere. And then, for the more final revisions, I move to a Word document.

I like to say that . . . my first computer that I wrote on was a Commodore 64. There was word processing software called Paperclip, which was pretty good, but it was not what-you-see-is-what-you-get, it was just text scrolling across the page. No line breaks at the end of the text unless you put in a hard return, and it was 499 lines of text, which worked out in manuscript format to about ten pages. And so, for quite a while, all my books had ten-page chapters because that’s where I ran out of space on the word processer, and I just adapted to that. It’s funny how your technology can affect the way that you work.

Yeah. I mean, we’re still dealing with things set by typewriters, because that’s, you know, that’s what we’re imitating.

Yeah. And I also had . . . because publishers would not take dot-matrix printouts, and I certainly didn’t have a laser printer, I got a daisy-wheel printer, which was faster than typing, but I had to manually feed each sheet of paper into it as it typed it. So, I would just sit there and scroll in new paper every time it got to the end of the page. It was . . . I don’t miss that at all.

Yeah, I prefer the all-digital route, and I’m one of those . . . I like my books on a Kindle because I now find a physical book kind of cumbersome.

Well, as I get older, I like the fact it’s bright, and you can make the print bigger if you need to. That’s helped.

Yeah. Yeah.

So, are you a fast writer or a slow writer? How many words would you crank out in a writing session?

I am a slow writer, and that’s by necessity because I have, like, a couple of hours in the morning, and I’m also writing, you know, I write at least one Babylon Bee article per day. And sometimes, I have other writing projects going on; before, I was a co-writing a movie script. And so, I write what I can per day. I, you know, I’m happy if I do over a thousand words. You know, I’d love to write longer, you know, be able to write faster. Right now, I just . . . my goal is to get out a novel a year. But it really does change the novel by writing that slow because I have more time to think out each part and allow some more time for the story to evolve, to think, “Oh, wait, wouldn’t this work instead?” And, you know, sometimes that involves having to go back and change huge sections, but I think it makes the story stronger overall to write it that slowly.

Now, you’re writing far-future science fiction and interstellar travel, that sort of thing. And you’re engineer. How hard do you work to make it as scientifically plausible as possible?

Yeah, that seems to be, I say, a contradiction. I am a . . . future tech is just magic, and I don’t really care how it works unless that would help with the plot. You know, you add limitations as you need to. I could say, one of them was, “OK, I have it. They use some sort of tech to jump.” And then, I realize in the second book I need to add some limitation where it takes a long time to charge up so you can’t just jump away quickly because I just need that for the plot. And so, I add things like that as I go, because to me, I guess, it’s . . . the characters are more what I’m interested in than the technology. And the thing is, I really like hard science fiction where they obviously put a lot of thought into it, but I guess that’s just not my focus in my own stories.

Well, and I always feel that as soon as you stipulate faster-than-light travel and maybe artificial gravity on your starships, you’re pretty much playing with technology that you can do whatever you want.

It’s, yeah, there’s stuff you just handwave because it would take so much time out of the story. I have some, you know, they have a universal translator. It’s one of those things where maybe eventually I’ll go into where that works if it’s plot-relevant, it would be interesting if that fails at some point. But, yeah, a lot of it is just, you know, some of it’s just handwaves to do what you need to do in the story. But, you know, when I establish something, then you have to logically follow, “OK, how does this affect things?” If you can jump quickly anywhere, how does that affect laws between, like, planets? It’s very easy to just escape and go somewhere else in the universe and never be found again. And so, you know, to me, those implications are what’s interesting.

It’s like working out the rules for a magic system. Have you ever had any desire to write on the fantasy side of things? Or have you?

Yes, I’ve . . . it’s like, one of my oldest stories that’s been in my head is a fantasy epic. I think it goes back to, like, I played Dungeons & Dragons a little bit as a kid. And I’ve always had this story, developing a long time, it’s . . . eventually I hope to get to that. It’s just, you know, I have my writing schedule. I try . . . right now, I focus on getting one novel done at a time, I don’t try to write multiple at the same time, so . . . but, yeah, I don’t think I’d be doing a very strict magic system. But, you know, again, it has to follow at least some logic, so people understand, you know, limitations and things like that, which you need for a plot to work.

Yeah. Otherwise, it’s just . . . you can’t tell a story without limiting what your characters could do. It just doesn’t work. So, you mentioned a little bit about your revision, that you get to the end, you have a first draft that’s full of holes and things you have to go back and fix. So, tell me about your revision process. What happens when you get to the end of the first draft?

Well, first, I think . . . I’m getting close to that now for the third one and . . . what I guess the first thing I do is, some of the biggest holes are actually names for made-up things because I hate coming up with made-up names. I never came up with a good process for that. I think I use street names for some things in the first Superego.

I have one where my character names are . . . I was doing a production of—I’m an actor as well—I was doing a production of Beauty and the Beast up in Saskatoon while I was writing this book, and as a result, about six characters are named after actors who are in that production.

Yeah, to me . . . I had some street names nearby that sounded at least a bit like, you know, planet names or something. So, I used those. And then I’ve used a few, like, online random-name generators and things like that, especially. I use that all the time with the Babylon Bee if I just need some random name, you know, but they’re good for human names. You come up with alien names, and it always gets like, you know, you want at least a certain style to each certain alien and things like that. And it’s not something, again, that I care about. It’s one of those things like, you know, you have to do. So, part of it’s filling in the names. And then, I tend to . . . my habit is to write in brackets notes for myself. And so, to get from my first draft to something readable, which at first will go to my alpha reader, which is always my wife, whose job it is to make sure I don’t embarrass myself too much, I just can search for brackets. And once I’m getting all the brackets out of the story, then it’s done, and it’s readable now. And so, what I do is, I’ll go back, and I’ll start to fill in those sections and rewrite the sections that now have to be changed because I decided to go somewhere else later on, and I’ll fill in all the names, and then once I search the document and all the brackets are gone, now I have something someone else can read.

Just on the writing side itself, do you, like, go back and do all the tightening up the language and making scenes more vivid and all that sort of stuff at this stage? Or do you get it right the first time?

Some of it . . . my biggest weakness, I think, is describing things. It’s one of those things I never felt very good at. And again, it’s like, I want to get on to the action. I want to get on to the character drama. And so, I just want to describe things enough so you understand what’s going on, what you can see. But sometimes, you know, you need to add a bit more, really, to draw people into it. And so, that’s one of those things I really have to force myself to concentrate more on. So, yeah, I’ll try to increase the descriptions when I come back to it and also just notice the flow. And then, one of the biggest things I worry about is repetition, where I, you know, because I write over such a long time, I forget, “Oh, I already had the character say something similar in the previous section.” So, I do need to read through a few times and make sure things don’t get repeated and just sort of look at the flow of it, which is . . . it’s hard to tell because you’re . . . especially for something you’ve read over so many times.

You mentioned your wife is your alpha reader, but you also mentioned that you have beta readers.

Mm-hmm.

Where do you find them, and what do they do for you?

I just go to . . . I’ve been lucky to at least have fans been lucky at least have fans, at least initially for my blog and now for my fiction writing. And I keep an email list, and I usually just go to them and see who’s interested, and I’ll send out copies to get feedback. And, you know, and . . . of course, that’s one of those things is, how do you react to the feedback? And usually, you know, if a number of different people mention the same thing, then, you know, that’s something you need to really pay attention to.

How many beta readers do you have?

At least . . . just probably a little over a dozen. It’s just, you know, it’s whoever’s interested. Last time, for the Superego sequel, I had quite a number because a number of people were fans of the first one. I probably did more than a dozen, but we’ll see. I don’t know what’s, like, a good number there, but I feel like as long as I get some quality feedback, it’ll help me know what I need to fix. I didn’t do as many big revisions on Superego: Fathom. I think that worked out pretty well by the time I got it to beta readers.

Do they tend to give you consistent feedback, or is it all over the map?

Sometimes over the map, but, you know, sometimes you really have to read between the lines and see if people run into the same problems. I got some pretty bad feedback on . . . Superego: Fathom, I think that worked out really well, I was really happy with that one. Hellbender, I think, had a bit more problems. That was more of a straight comedy one. And I went back and had to, I think, make the characters a little bit nicer. To me, I don’t like stories where people don’t like the main characters. I know you have a lot of that in fiction these days, especially TV shows. And so, I try to make them a bit more likable because I feel you get into the story more if you’re at least rooting for people.

Well, your main character’s likable; he just happens to be a psychopath.

Yeah, a lot of people, that’s the problem, and that’s . . . it’s not going to be for everyone. Some people are just not going to like Rico. But a lot of people seem to respond well to him. Because you have to sympathize with him, or the story’s just not going to work. And even though he’s kind of out there, I need the reader to see something of themselves in there. I think in a way, they’re situations they can relate to, his awkwardness around other people. And yeah, if you’re not . . . if you just hate the guy and you’re not rooting for him, the story doesn’t work.

So, once you have taken into account all of those revisions, I presume you get an editor involved at some point . . .or do you?

Yes, I get editors . . . before, my wife has actually worked on editing Superego, sometimes I’ve had other people just, you know, hired out editors, but I am not technically . . . let’s say I’m very bad at proofing myself. I would never trust myself to edit one of these things. And I always tend to be really lousy with passive voice, and I’m bad at spotting it in my own writing, so I need a lot of fixes there.

So that sounds more like copyediting. Do you get a developmental editor of any sort involved, or is that sort of taken care of by the beta readers?

Yeah, a bit with the beta readers, though, you know, I do like editors who actually look at, like, story-wise, does this work, and did you establish just enough. So not, yeah, not just the writing, but actually making things fit together, spotted where I inconsistently used a planet name, that sort of thing.

Yeah. It’s always helpful to have somebody else look at your stuff, that’s for sure. And I do some editing, and I’m looking at other people’s stuff, and I sometimes find by editing other people, I find, I realize stuff that I’m doing in mine that I shouldn’t be doing. So, it’s kind of educational reading other people’s stuff as well as working on your own.

Yeah, I think it’d probably be useful if I tried editing others to get better at it myself. But it’s is so hard for me to see my own writing. To me, that’s . . . I really like when I get to the Audible version, because to me, that’s the first time I really get to detach enough that I can really hear my story for the first time all and complete because it’s there now, someone else is interpreting it, acting it out a bit. But just going back and reading your own writing and trying to see it as other people would see it is so hard.

I was interested in the audiobook and the fact that you listen to them because I often ask authors if they listen to the audiobooks of their books and, more often than not, they say they don’t. They might listen to a little bit, but they don’t listen to the whole thing. It sounds like you like to listen to the whole thing. And do you find that helpful for the next book after you’ve heard it with those sort of fresh ears?

Yes, I think that, to me, was very helpful with the first Superego. That was actually a surprise, I didn’t know the publisher was going to do an audiobook. And so, that was my first experience. To me, it was very surreal when I got sent a list of all my made-up science-fiction names and was asked how to pronounce them. At least, I did have a pronunciation in my head for each one. And then listening to it, you know, like I said, I really got to feel it for the first time. I got to see what parts where I was not paying attention and what parts really drew me in. I know at one point I was like, you know, as I’d listen to, like, in my car on a commute, you know, I’d get home ,and I’d stay in the car for a while listening because, “Oh, this is interesting what happens,” because, you know, this is all, right now, a couple of years since I wrote it, so at least I’d forgotten some of it. And that helped me determine, I think . . . with the first one, a lot of people . . . like, the beginning part of Superego, I felt it takes a little time to get the momentum. And to me, there’s one chapter where afterwards it has this momentum that just really grips you until the very end. And so, that influenced the sequel because I wanted to start with that at the beginning and try to keep up that pace for the entire novel.

Now, the publisher, NTM Publishing, I have not heard of them, so . . .

Well, that one . . . originally I was with Liberty Island . . .

I have heard of that one.

NTM is my own imprint. Now I’ve decided to go the self-publishing route. To me, it’s just less stressful, because I’m only having to worry about . . . the only one I’m answering to about sales is myself. And also, that’s part of the reason I do want to listen to the audiobooks because I’m paying for those and I want to make sure, you know, there’s no errors and things in them before they get released, because I think . . . for quality ones, you know, it’s not cheap.

The only audiobooks that I . . . I do both, I’m published by DAW Books in New York, but I’m also published by myself through Shadowpaw Press, which is named after our cat. And there are some books that I had the audio rights to that were published by somebody else. And so, I did that where I found . . . I’ve narrated some of my own, but in this case, the main character is a teenage girl, and I don’t really have the voice for that . . . I don’t have much voice today, I’m quite hoarse . . . so, I got a narrator to do that. And that was, I think, the only time I’ve listened to my books all the way through. But I really liked that narrator, though, and I really enjoyed my own books because she found things in it that I had not, you know, they got tweaked a little differently. So, I do . . . but you have to have a good narrator. Have you had the same narrator for both of the Superego books?

Yes, I went back because . . . I wasn’t the one who hired him for the first one. But I did, I went back and approached him for the sequel, and so, I got the same narrator, and, you know, if you want to get, you know, it’s not cheap to pay for these things, especially if you’re paying someone, like, who’s at union rates. But I think, yeah, it’s very worthwhile to get somebody who knows what they’re doing and also, like I said, knows how to really perform and pull something out of the text. Sometimes, they find things maybe you didn’t even see in there. And like I said, it’s interesting because now, like, the story’s not completely just yours anymore. When someone else reads it like that, they are adding their own take to it.

Well, and I like to think, and to say, that even though it’s very obvious in an audiobook that somebody else is getting something a little different out of it. That, of course, is happening with every one of your readers because although we sit alone and we write our stories, the story is actually re-created in the head of each reader as they read it. And they’re all going to actually have a different a slightly different take on your story than what’s going on in your head when you write it. And I think . . . when I think about that, I’m always kind of fascinated by that. It’s a very . . . it feels like a solo activity, but it’s really a collaborative activity.

Yeah. And I wish I could experience how they read it in their head because, to me, that’s  the sort of feedback I would like to. You know, I work on, you know, Babylon Bee, or work on Twitter. I have these things where, you know, I write them and then sometimes, you know, it’s usually within seconds I get feedback or, you know, within a day I get feedback and see how people are reacting. The novel writing is a bit lonelier. It takes sometimes years to get it out there, and you don’t get, like, the line-by-line feedback you’d quite like to. But, you know, I’d really like to . . . I mean, to me, I would love to get in people’s heads and see exactly how they read each section and see that. Like I said, you get a little bit of that with the audiobook.

Might be a science fiction story there with an author who develops the way to see  inside readers’ heads as they’re reading his story. It sounds like a good idea. So, what has the reaction been for your fiction? Has it has been well-received?

Yeah, I feel it’s been really well received. Superego’s been quite popular. That’s definitely my most-read book so far. Part of that was also actually because of the audiobook. It got featured once . . . was made Audible’s deal of the day. So, I got to experience being the number-one audiobook for a day. And some people, they really reacted to the main character, really liked it, and then I feel the sequel’s been a big success, people who like the first one seems to love the second one. I’m hoping . . . most people consider that one even better than the first one, and I got a lot of feedback to that. And now I’m just scared with the third one because I’m trying something a bit different. And it’s going to . . .the pacing is going to be a bit different. But, you know, you have to try new things with each story. I wish I could have, like, a rut where I’m making, like, the same character and same story beats each time. But I don’t think I can do that. I’m more . . . I want an epic scope, so it’s all, you know, all these books are going to fit together in one big story. It does, it will have a conclusion. They’ll be, like, we have two books out, and there’ll be two more. And that will end the story.

So, it’ll be four all together. A quadrology.

Yeah. I mean, originally, I wrote the book, the first book, without necessarily thinking there’d be a sequel. It was the idea that it had an ambiguous ending, where you weren’t sure if Rico died or not, but no one thought he did, and everyone was asking where the sequel was. And since then, I’ve kind of thought out the rest of this story and it’s just going to fit, it’s going to be, you know, three more books after the first one, well, I have to out now, working on the third one, then I’ll have a fourth coming.

Well, we’re getting into the last little bit of this, so I’ll go to my big philosophical questions—and I’m totally going to put reverb on that one of these days, “big philosophical questions.” Three questions, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think people, in general, write? And why science fiction in particular? So, we’ll start with, why do you write? Why do you do all this?

It’s . . . I have these ideas. I want to share them. And writing is the easiest way, I think, to do that. It’s something accessible to everyone. I say it’s . . . and this is something I determined a while ago. It’s just, I’m always going to come up with stories in my head, ever since I was a little kid, and they’re always going to . . . they’re almost like demons I have to exorcise. The only way to do that is to write the story down because once I’ve written the story, I don’t think about it anymore. I don’t keep thinking, “Oh, we could do this, do this.” It’s done. It’s out there. And so, the only way to get these stories to stop bothering me is to write them down. And so, it’s one of those things where it’s like, I have to write, you know, regardless of what success I have there, it’s something I need to do.

And why do you think humans, in general, tell stories through writing and through other media? Where does that come from?

That isn’t . . . yeah, that is not a philosophical question I think I’ve thought long on. But, you know, it’s yeah, we’re very compelled to communicate these ideas through stories. You know, it’s funny because, you know, I’m an engineer, I’ll, you know, I don’t always use metaphorical language. I’ll tell you very succinctly exactly what I’m thinking and what I want to get done. But stories, I think they allow you to tackle much more complex subjects, things you can’t just write out and have, you know, a simple answer to explain. You have to follow characters. You have to see stories. You have to see how they react and just kind of develop an understanding, even if you can’t verbalize all of it.

You’ve done some work with virtual reality and, in a way, fiction is a form of virtual reality. If it’s done well, you feel immersed into a world that’s not real, and yet it feels real to you. So, it’s sort of the same impulse, I think, to experience other lives and other ways of seeing things and have experiences, virtual experiences, that aren’t real experiences that you probably wouldn’t want to have. You wouldn’t actually want to experience what Rico goes through. But it’s exciting to experience it virtually.

Yeah. I mean, that’s a good analogy. You’re trying to draw people into . . . I mean, if you can do it well, people really immerse, you forget about things for a while. And, you know, that’s my main goal of a story, is to entertain and give people, you know, a little bit of a vacation from things. It’s funny; things are so crazy, even as bad as things get, like, you know, in Superego: Fathom you have this entity trying to take over the universe, and no one knows about it, and it’s a crazy world, but in a way, it’s a nice little . . . jumping in there is still a vacation from how crazy things have gotten in the real world. So, I think people could appreciate that. And I like, you know, I write a lot in satire and politics and things like that. But it’s I like, I mainly like to stay away from that in my fiction. I think I want to tackle bigger subjects than, like, you know, temporary issues, and give people a break from all those real-world things.

And is that why science fiction/fantasy? Because it’s a way that you can talk about bigger issues, but sort of disconnected from the here and now?

Yeah, in a way, I think of myself as a fantasy writer, even when doing science fiction, because it allows you, you know, you have less of a box you’re stuck in. You can do a lot more things. You can do whatever you want. And some of it’s laziness, too, because I don’t have to research as much. I can just make things up. And that’s part of why I write, like, political satire and things like that. I don’t have to do all this research for these well-thought-out opinions, I just make things up.

Well, and you sort of mentioned that you’re working on the third book, but is there anything else that you have in the works that are coming up soon?

Yeah, well, I’m working on the third book . . .

And when will that third book be?

I don’t . . . I’m hoping, sometime early next year. We’ll see how that works out. You know, there’s a number of things to get, you know, you get it done, you get it edited, you get a cover. But then I think I’m going to take a little break to do a sequel to HellbenderSuperego’s a bit dark. Hellbender is straight comedy, and I think I’d like a little break into that for a little while before I write the fourth and final . . . probably final . . . And then I, you know, my other writing right now has been doing lots of stuff with the Babylon Bee, and I’m hoping to do more animation projects with them too.

We should probably mention just a little bit more about Hellbender. You’ve mentioned it a couple of times but haven’t really said what it is. So, here’s your opportunity.

Okay, that is a science fiction comedy about . . . like, you know, it’s sort of a post-apocalyptic world, but for orphans who are . . . it’s kind of them against the world, and it’s always been a hard one to describe, plot-wise. But that’s one where . . . I think that was the most me novel, where I’m just having fun and having lots of jokes in it. But I still felt the need to have a solid plot that draws you in, and you don’t know where it’s going to go. And then, I also have one other novel, Sidequest, which to me is a stand-alone, and a lot of people . . .that also got a very big reaction. It’s probably my most Christian novel, even though God isn’t mentioned in it at all. It’s sort of a metaphorical one, but that’s, I’d say, between a straight comedy and Superego, and I really enjoyed that one, though I don’t know if I’ll go back to it. A lot of people . . . I got mixed things on the ending. I thought I stuck the landing on the ending, and a lot of people didn’t like it.

You can’t please everyone. You may have noticed that. And where can people find you online?

Well, I’m very active on Twitter, quite a following there. Just look for Frank J. Fleming on Twitter. My handle is based on my blog name, it’s @IMAO_, because IMAO was already taken. And then, you can catch my writing on the Babylon Bee, go to BabylonBee.com. And also, you know, I have a website where you can see some short stories and also just shows all my novels, and that’s FrankJFleming.com.

All right. Well, I guess this brings us to the end, so thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.

Thanks. Yeah, it was great.

Episode 73: K. Eason

An hour-long interview with K. Eason, author of the On the Bones of Gods fantasy trilogy and the Thorne Chronicles, the second book of which, How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge, has just come out from DAW Books.

Website
www.mythistoria.com

Twitter
@svartjager

K. Eason’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

K. Eason started telling stories (to pets, stuffed animals, and anyone who might listen) in her early childhood. She ended up with two degrees in English literature before she decided that she needed to stop writing about everyone else’s stories and get back to telling her own. 

She lives with her husband and a trio of disreputable cats in Southern California, where she teaches first-year college students about zombies, Beowulf, and food (though not all at once). Her short fiction has appeared in Cabinet-des-FéesPostcards from Hell: The First ThirteenJabberwocky 4Crossed Genres, and Kaleidotrope. She is the author of the On the Bones of Gods trilogy and The Thorne Chronicles, the second book of which, How the Multiverse Got Its Revenge, came out from DAW Books in October. When she’s not writing or commenting on essays, she’s probably playing D&D.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, K., welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Fellow DAW author. We’ve never met, but we are both published by DAW, though we actually have different editors. Mine is Sheila (Gilbert). Who’s your editor as DAW?

Katie.

Katie (Hoffman). OK. One of the young’ns.

Yes.

So, yeah, we do share that little thing in common. It’s quite a big thing, actually. So, let’s go back, as I like to say, into the mists of time and find out . . . that’s a cliche on here at this point. I’m going to put reverb on it, MISTS OF TIME . . . find out how you got interested in . . .you talked about telling stories from a very young age. How did you get interested in writing them down? And were you always interested in science fiction, or how did that all come together for you? And where did you grow up? Basic biography.

OK. Where I grew up is . . . my dad is Air Force, so, everywhere. We spent no longer than three years in any given place. So, I sort of just hopped around, mostly the United States, but we did spend a couple of years in the Philippines when I was very small. So, I grew up all over. But how did I get into . . . my mother got me started with books when I was very . . . she used to just sort of, I guess, prop me up and just show me pictures of books. So, books were always this cool thing to me. And I decided when I was barely old enough to read—and I don’t remember learning to read, I just apparently, one day . . . I just only remember knowing how to read—I decided I should write my own books. And so, I tried to write my own books with whatever it is small children try and tell stories about. I know there were probably dogs involved and crayons and crayon-drawn dogs, and there were probably . . . I don’t know, but I know there was a dog in my first book because I remember trying to draw the dog and doing a terrible job of it and realizing with, like, a three-year-old or four-year-old’s brain that this is not really a dog, but it will do, so . . . 

Science fiction was also my mother’s fault, and it was really fantasy that started it. She brought me The Prydain Chronicles, Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles, when I was, I think, in fifth grade. I don’t know what possessed her to bring those home to me, but she did. And then we were off and running. And she got me off of the horses, all of the horse and animal books. I think she was maybe just tired of those? And then it became everything having to do with fantasy. And then I found reruns of Star Trek, and I was like, “This is cool, too.” And then it was just . . . it was all over.

Were the Black Stallion books among your first books?

Oh, God, all of them.

Well, see, there’s science fiction in the Black Stallion books. The Island Stallion books are actually science fiction. I don’t know if you remember that or not.

Yeah, OK. It’s been a long time. It’s been a really long time since those books.

Yeah, it’s been a while for me too. But I remember that because it was, like, “I’m reading a horse book, and now it’s got aliens in it. This is cool. Now I’ve got two things that I like in one book.

There you go.

Actually, his last–completely off the topic, but his last book that he wrote, that Walter Farley himself wrote, I think, is very strange. It’s got Alex and The Black off in the desert somewhere, and there’s like an apocalyptic meteor strike or something happening. And civilization is being destroyed. And it really comes out of left field.

That actually would probably be right up my alley now. Yeah. We can go back to this and the magic horse and the . . . you know, pretty much it was a magic horse. We all knew that.

And I remember Prydain . . . The Prydain Chronicles were favorites of mine, too. So yeah. Names that I remember.

The Mabinogion, right? It was the children’s version of a very not children’s story.

Yeah. That’s for sure.

But so great.

When did you start writing stories down, and did you share them with other people? I always ask that question because many people, when they start out writing young, they keep it to themselves, but some of us share it with our friends. So, which were you?

I wrote a story in my elementary school, I think, for an English class that . . . I remember it won. It was about a horse because of course it was. But they wanted me to read it out loud to the auditorium or whatever, and I freaked out. I would not. I fled. So after that, I stopped showing people my writing for a long time because I was afraid they would make me read it out loud. And I could think of very few things worse than having to read my own writing out loud.

But you kept writing?

But I did keep writing. I did. I did keep writing on and off. It was how I got through high school. They thought I was taking notes back in the day when we took notes with, you know, pencils and paper, and no, no, no, I was back there writing. Probably super-derivative stuff because it was whatever I was reading, and then sometimes those books just needed to have a female character in them, or a talking horse, or who knew what. And I would be, you know, writing stuff.

Did you have any teachers or anybody in school that encouraged your writing?

Um, not really, because I didn’t show it to them.

That would do it!

I just kept it hidden. My mother knew I was writing, and she was super-supportive of it. I think she probably read the terribly derivative fan-fiction Pern Chronicles, sort of, because who didn’t want a dragon? You graduate from horses to dragons. Of course, you do. And I wrote some terrible thing. And I remember she read it. She’s a tough one, my mom. She sat there, and she read those handwritten spiral notebooks and did not say, “Please never do this to me again. And, no, you’re going to get an engineering degree.” No, she didn’t say that. She should have, but she didn’t.

My mom actually typed up my first short story, which was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot.” So, I subjected her to some of that, too.

Nice. See, mothers are tough. They do a lot.

So, at some point, you decided, you know, you weren’t getting an engineering degree, you were getting English literature degrees.

Oh yeah.

What took you in that direction?

Getting the English Lit degree, truthfully?

You can lie if you want to, but preferably truthfully.

I was going to be a genetic engineer of some sort because I’d read C.J Cherry’s Cyteen in high school and decided I’m going to do that. Not even thinking about the ethical-moral problems, like, “No, we don’t really need to make. . . that’s, no, OK, but no.” So, I was going to be a genetic engineer, and I hit microbiology and realized I hated labs. I hated biology labs. Chemistry labs were fine, but biology was just not fun for me, and calculus was awful. I hated calculus, and I thought, “You know what, you need to stop right . . . you just need to go do something else.” And I was good at reading, and I liked reading. And I thought, “Why not just get a degree reading stuff and then writing about it?” Because I was good at the nonfiction writing for sure. That was not a problem. So, I went off and did that because it seemed easier. And yeah, that was . . . it seemed easier. That’s exactly why we want to tell people why we do a major. But it was true.

Did you take formal writing courses at some point during that process?

I took one creative writing class. My undergraduate institution had a split between creative writing and literature. It wasn’t a combined degree; you had to choose a track. And I chose the literature track because there was, at least in that particular creative writing department, there was quite a bias against, quote-unquote, “genre fiction.” And I knew what I wanted to write, and I knew what I didn’t want to write. And I just decided that was not a fight I felt like having for years, so I just went and I did the literature degree. I did write, in my one creative writing class, I did write a cyberpunk story, and I got an A, and I got a side-eye from the instructor, like, “You’re writing cyberpunk?” Like, “I just read William Gibson. Of course, I’m writing cyberpunk.”

I always ask that about because I get . . . it surprises me that there is still that level of animosity towards tales of the fantastic from some creative -writing teachers, and yet I still hear that from so many authors I talk to, that they took a, you know, they took a formal writing class and maybe it was helpful, but they didn’t dare write what they really wanted to write and things like that. So . . .

Yeah.

Yeah. So, when did you actually start writing for publication?

I started trying to get published . . .. once I got my graduate degree, I couldn’t write fiction at all anymore. It died, and it probably took about four or five years before I could even start to turn off the editor brain long enough to start writing. And then, I guess it was probably right around 2000, I started trying to write for publication, short stories, when I realized that I’m a lousy short story writer because I just write bigger than that, I just, I have a hard time writing short stories, I’m much better at writing long-form. But I discovered that the hard way by trying to write short stories. So, right around the year 2000, I think my first pub was 2004 or 2006, I’d have to look. But right around there.

Do you think that some people are just naturally short fiction writers and some people are just naturally long fiction writers because it does seem to be that people are better at one than the other? With some exceptions.

I don’t know if it’s. . . I tend to . . . part of my knee jerk response is, “Well, yeah, I think some people are just better at telling the shorter, tighter story, and some people are much more into telling the long developmental stories.” And it’s not . . . there’s no value judgment either way. It’s just . . . I think some of us are just . . . the way our stories and the way our thoughts are structured might work better in different forms. But I certainly think it’s possible to write both pretty well. There’s people who do that, too. And I’m like, “Yeah, you go.”

Well, I just interviewed . . . actually, today, in fact, I interviewed, because I’m doing two today, which is unusual . . . I just interviewed F. Paul Wilson, who has this enormous list of publications, both short and long. So, there are certainly people who can write both short and long, equally. When did you then tackle a novel?

After we’d moved to California, so it was right, it was probably after I’d gotten my first couple of short stories out there and then decided I was going to try and write a novel. And I did . . . the first one is a trunk novel, we won’t talk about it. I wrote one with somebody. We won’t talk about that one, either, just because we were both learning to write, and also, it’s really hard to do collaborative work. Really hard. So, yeah, I wrote a couple that will never see the light of day. Ever. But it was enough to teach me that, “Oh, I can sustain a long narrative, I can do the character building. I can . . .” Basically, at that point, I was putting into practice what I had learned DMing. You know, we’re all playing games for a decade and saying, “You know what? You can tell long stories. You’ve done it. Now, do it without your players helping you.”

Yeah, I was interested in the D&D connection. I often say that although I have a degree in journalism and I officially minored in art, the truth is that I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and minored in everything else, based on the number of hours that I put into it.

I feel that. I feel seen. Yeah. Yeah. Seriously. I gamed a lot in college.

I always liked DMing far more than I like to play. And part of that was that I did want to tell a story through the game. I wanted to create this world that the characters . . . and I would . . . I was perhaps . . . I was always trying to push them in the direction of the quest I wanted them to take, as opposed to all the side things that would pop up. And one reason I stopped . . . well, one reason I stopped being a DM and playing was because I had no nobody to play with anymore because there was anybody in my town when I moved back to Canada from university,  where I went . . . and the other one was that I discovered . . . that I felt that my story-writing impulse should be better put into my writing my fiction than in my DMing. But I still kind of wish I’d kept doing it because I miss it. But now I haven’t done it, like . . . we won’t say how long. And I’m sure the rules are so far different from what I was playing that I wouldn’t even recognize the game. But have you found that DMing has fed . . . you mentioned one way that it did . . . overall, do you think it’s actually benefited your writing?

Oh, yeah. I joke that D&D is, like, the life skill that makes me a better teacher and it makes me a better writer because it makes me . . . it taught me how to write, how to do the long-form story creation and sort of thinking out branches. Well, what could happen here? Well, what could happen here? And there’s nothing like having—and I’m sure you know this—players who find the hole in your plot immediately.

Um-hm.

And you’re just like, “Oh, crap, I didn’t think of that.” And so now I have an internal voice that tries to think of those things. When I’m plotting, I’ll be like, “Well, I need them to do this. Yes, but why would they do that? How am I going to coerce a reluctant player or character into doing that? Oh, well, I have to give them a motive. Oh, well . . .” So, yeah, D&D has definitely helped me think about, not just good and evil, but all the different layers and the politics and the different valences and all of the different pressures that can drive people to do what they do, because . . . sorry, go ahead.

I was just going to say that the whole concept of characters taking on a life of their own is a literal thing when you’re playing D&D because the characters are being run by other people is.

And that’s where I started, you know, as a player. And I loved it. I thought it was great, but I was always the one who had to . . . if there was a new game, I was the one who would agree to DM it. So, whether it was a D&D module or cyberpunk, Tellurian cyberpunk or, you know, White Wolf’s Vampire or Werewolf or whatever new game was coming out, it was like, “OK, Cat will run it.”

So, what was your first published novel?

My first published novel was Enemy, which is the first of the On the Bones of God trilogy. Um, that was in 2014, I think? 2015? I should know that, but I don’t. It was so long ago. So that was my first, and it was fantasy. Dark, grim fantasy. But not grimdark.

Well, and that brings us to the Thorne Chronicles, so this is where we’ll talk about your creative process, from start to finish. So, we’ll start with the . . . well, first of all, the first thing we’ll do is, give us a synopsis of the Thorne Chronicles. There are two books so far. So, whatever you could say without giving away something to somebody who hasn’t read any of it. It’s up to you.

OK, I should . . . if I had known that, I would have pulled one up already. The Thorne Chronicles are . . . well, the first one, How Rory Thorne Destroyed the Multiverse, is the story of princess, basically, who at her naming is given 13 gifts from a bunch of alien fairies, one of which is that she will . . . well, the curse, the 13th fairy gives her the curse, that is, “You will always know when someone’s lying to you.” And the 12th fairy, who had been circumvented, stepped in and said, “Yes, but you’ll always also have the courage to do something about that.” And, so, Rory ends up . . .she’s supposed to be the queen, but then her little brother is born, and because of stupid old rules, she’s shunted off to a neighboring kingdom’s space station, it’s a conglomerate of worlds, to marry the prince. Only when she gets there, she discovers that there is a political coup underway and that the prince is missing and in trouble, and she needs to fix things and make sure that she sets the world to right, which doesn’t perhaps go quite as well as  she might have hoped.

And what was the impetus for this sort of . . where did the genesis of all of this come from?

Truthfully, it probably heat exhaustion on the 405 when we were stuck in traffic at Long Beach. And I was . . . I don’t remember what it was, but I was complaining about fairy tales and feminism, and I was like, “You know what, I’m going to write this book. I’m going to write a story, and it’s going to, like, ‘Sleeping Beauty’ except the fairies are going to be, like, the 13th will be a punk. She won’t be an evil witch. She’s going to be a punk.” My husband’s like, “OK, all right, you do that. And that’s where the idea came from. The genesis came from. And then it kept bugging me. The idea just kept bugging me, and I kept thinking about what I would do. I could set in space. Could I set it in space? I could set it in space. What would I do if I set it in space? And so, there was no great plan. It was just sort of . . .  it wouldn’t stop bugging me until I said, “OK, how can I tell this?” And so, I went and wrote the first chapter and thought, “OK, there was a short story. Hey, I wrote a short story. This doesn’t suck. I’m going to try and get this published. This is chapter one. Oh, crap. Oh, no. This is going to be . . . OK. I guess I’m writing this book.”

It sounds like your idea process is, you know, you have a germ, and then you self-interrogate, you ask questions and try to build out from that idea. You know, “What if what if, what if?” Is that a fair statement? Is that the way it usually works for you?

Yeah, I think so, because I’m trying to think . . . the Rory Thorne Chronicles are very different than On the Bones of God, stylistically, flavor, all of it. And I’m thinking, what is my similarity in process? It’s, yeah, there’s a lot of, “What if? What if? What if?” I usually start with an idea or a character or a couple of characters or a situation or a moment, a scene just happens, and I see it, and I say, “OK, what led to that? And where’s it going?” So yeah, it starts tiny, and then I have to feel my way through the dark.

So, asking questions presumably leads you into the planning/outlining process. What how much of that do you do? How much of an outliner/planner are you?

Terrible at it. The first . . . the trilogy, there was no outlining, and I learned . . . I mean, I threw away 30,000 words, where the story would start going the wrong direction, and I realized it had gone the wrong direction. And it wasn’t 30,000 all at once. It would be, like, ten here or a chapter here. And I’d have to yank it back, like, “No, no, no, no, no, come back here. What did I do to set you off? OK, let me fix that.”

It was a little more structured with The Thorne Chronicles, at least the first one, because I was pulling off of the idea of a fairy tale, and I very much had the idea in my mind that I wanted to be in the same ballpark as, like, The Princess Bride, that sort of I’m-telling-you-a-story feeling, so I was like, “OK, I’ve got a narrator. They have a voice. They have . . . they interject, it’s a chronicler. How am I going to do this? And how does a fairy tale work? And what happens with a fairy tale? Obviously, I’m not going to do ‘Sleeping Beauty’ the whole way through. So, what other pieces am I going to pick? What other parts of fairy tales are necessary? What can I subvert? What can I flip?” You know, and that was a lot more structured, just because I knew I was playing with that particular genre and breaking it and messing with it.

So, what did you actually have written down when you began?

Oh, nothing.

So this mostly happens in your head?

Yeah, this mostly happens in my head. If I, you know, if I die in a car crash tomorrow, the books are gone. There’s no . . . there’s almost nothing. I had to come up with, like, projections for material. You know, when you’re trying to get your publisher to buy more books, you come up with these little projections. And I’m, like, “Oh, I think this is what would happen in this book. I think?” knowing full well that I’m going to get like ten steps into it and it’s probably going to go pear-shaped and sideways, but . . . yeah, I don’t do a lot of outlining, I would like to learn how to do that because I think that would probably save me a lot of heartache and aggravation, but I haven’t quite figured it out yet. I’m working on it. I’m trying to do it, but it’s not working.

Well, it’s another one of those things, doing the podcast and talking to so many authors is how different everybody is about that. So, it’s ranged from people who do none to . . . I think it was Peter v. Brett who writes 150-page detailed outlines and then just kind of fills that in. I tend to do a synopsis of a few pages because, again, that’s what I’m selling the book from, right? And then I sometimes don’t look at it again until I’m finished, so . . .

Yeah, I mean, that’s kind of where . . . I go for a feeling or a thought or, “Here’s how I’d like it to end up.” But I’m very much . . . I like to explore, and if I already know where it’s going to go, I’m afraid I’m going to get good and bored. And I don’t want to get bored. I want to still be discovering as my characters are discovering, “What the hell are we doing?”

Well, and speaking of your characters, I guess you’re not one of those people that does extensive character sheets, like you would for a D&D character. You’re discovering them as you go along, too? I mean, you have some idea from what you’ve been thinking about that’s in your head, but do you discover them very much as you go along as well?

Um, it depends how long the character’s been living in my head. With Rory, I was figuring her out as I went along. With the narrator, I had a pretty good idea before, you know, I could have put him on a character sheet. I had . . . I knew who he was. I just knew who he was. But, yeah, I don’t do a lot of background development because I’ve been gaming for so many years, I could make up a character pretty fast and pretty in-depth pretty quickly, and I just . . . that’s how I think my way through. “OK, you know, who are we going to meet? We’re going to meet a so-and-so. All right. Well, what kind of person is this likely to be? Who do I need them to be? How might they be this way? What?” You know, just sketch it out super fast, and there we go. Does that kind of answer the question?

Mm-hmm.

OK.

I’m curious, too, as you’re doing, as you’re writing, because you are a holder of literature degrees and you do some instructing as well, does what you have learned in your study of literature feed into the writing of your own material?

Oh, yeah, definitely. Because I have read things that I would never have chosen to read in the course of getting the degrees. Like, you get asked to read stuff you would never pick up off the shelf on purpose, and you learn, even if you don’t like it—and there was a lot I did not like—I learned to appreciate different ways to tell stories, different ways to . . . different techniques, different things in the box, different structures like, you know, “Oh, I’ve now read medieval romances. I see. This is . . . OK, this is how this works. OK.” So, I learned a lot of different techniques for ways that stories can be told. And then they just sort of . . . I put them all in my little bag of tricks and then yank them out as necessary. So, definitely, that has helped me as a writer, I think, just knowing the breadth of what’s out there.

Have you ever done a formal study of fairy tales since you’re working in a version of that?

No, I actually haven’t. I did not do it. I’ve never done a formal version of fairy tales. I was in the Tolkien phase when I was in grad school. So, I was doing a lot of writing about Tolkien at the time and not so much the fairy tales. Those came later. My fascination with them actually came after grad school. And so, that’s been self-educated.

What fascinated you about them?

Just the ways that I . . . like, my very first short story that I published was a ‘Little Red Riding Hood’ where Little Red Riding Hood is a werewolf, and it’s also cyberpunk. It’s a future with, you know, semi-mechanical rats and things. And it was just that . . well, how many different ways . . . what about a fairy tale is timeless? What about a fairy tale can be . . . what is essential to a fairy tale, that you can move through time and space—and you always see the recastings in the resettings. And I’d read . . . there was a series of books . . . I want to say it was Terri Windling who did them, but I can picture the covers in my head, and they were all these retellings of fairy tales, and I always really liked that. But I’d never had the opportunity to take a class in it because that was just not cool enough when I was going through grad school. We did not talk about fairy tales in my department, particularly. We talked about literary theory. So, you know, Focault, not fairy tales.

What does your actual writing process look like, then? Are you a fast writer, a slow writer? Do you write, you know, longhand or . . .?

No, never. I can’t read my own handwriting.

Do you write at the same time every day? What’s it like for you?

You know, I try to do the same time, more or less the same time. Every day I try to say, “OK, you have a word count. Go, go. Hit your 1,000, 1,500, 2,000, whatever it is.” And it’s just sit there . . . and some days it is super. When it’s working, it’s fast. And when it’s not working, oh, dear God, it’s pulling teeth until I finally just give up and like, “OK, you need to stop, you need to stop, or you’re just going to throw the computer across the room.” But I try and keep it regular when I’m actually writing and try to, “OK, now is a writing time.” Even if it’s not every day, it might be . . . if I’m teaching, especially, it’ll be “Tuesdays are writing days” because I will move heaven and earth to make sure I don’t have anything to comment on that particular day. Like, maybe I’ll get two or three days of a week where I can lay out a couple of hours that I know will be just for the fiction. And then I just sit there, and I write, and sometimes it’s crap, and I know it’s crap as I’m doing it. And I’m going to have to go back and clean it up. It just needs to be written. I mean, I always tell my students, and I believe this for myself, like, “You have to write the bad words to get to the good ones sometimes.”,

Well, it’s funny. I mentioned that I just interviewed F. Paul Wilson, and he used a term which was actually used by Robert J. Sawyer, who was my very first guest on the podcast, and he got it from somebody else, but they referred to that first draft as the “vomit draft” because you just have to get it out and it’s a big mess, and then you have to clean it up. But you feel so much better.

Yeah, exactly. Like, OK, what is even happening? And sometimes it’s really clean, and sometimes it’s just like slogging, and I know there’s going to be a problem, and I’m going to have to come back to it, but I can’t obsess over it. Here is a thing that I learned. I trashed a 92,000-word not-completed manuscript a couple of years ago because I got into the rut of, “Oh, I’m writing it. Oh, I’m changing my mind about what I’m doing. Oh, I really don’t like this. Let me go back and keep revising the hell out of it.” And I just destroyed it. Like, by the end I couldn’t. . . there was nothing to resurrect from this. It was a pile of bones. It was just . . . “There’s ideas, there’s moments, that are really awesome. And you have no clue what you’ve done because you’ve revised it to death. So never do that again.” That is what I learned. Never do that again. Just write it, even if it’s crappy.

And then, when you do get to the end of it, what does your revision process look like? And do you use beta readers or alpha readers or anything like that? How does that work for you?

I do have a beta reader, my bestie, my best friend forever, my BFF from high school, my first DM, too, the first person to get me into D&D. And she reads . . . poor thing, she reads almost the raw stuff. She will read pretty much anything I send her, bless her heart, and sometimes it’s chapter by chapter, sometimes it’s an entire manuscript. But even I won’t send her the very raw, almost raw stuff. I’ll just . . . once I’ve done the vomit draft and then I go through and make sure that there are complete sentences that I remember what the heck is going on, that there’s, you know, there’s a little bit of a voice happening . . . mostly at that point, I’m looking for plot holes. Character is never my problem, or rarely my problem, but there can occasionally be plot inconsistencies. And since she’s one of my players in D&D who will also punch holes in my plots on a regular basis, she’s good at finding those for me. So, she’s my first reader. And then I go through and clean it up again. And then . . . I’ll probably at that point, I’ll send it to my agent. You know, once I’ve gone through it a few times and decided it doesn’t suck, then I’ll send it to her, and then she gives me notes. Which have been getting shorter as the years have been going on, so that’s good. I guess I’m getting better at turning in good drafts.

What kind of notes do you get?

Sometimes it’s structural. There was the memorable, “OK, yes, but I think you need another 15,000 words because you dropped this arc in the middle.” “Oh, damn, you noticed. OK, yeah, I need to pick that up.” Sometimes it’s, you know, the big structural things where you need to come back to this or you need to play this part up, or this scene seems really flat because I don’t know what’s happening with the voice, but this character seems really distant. So those sorts of comments are what I get from her. And she’ levels it up. She always levels up the manuscript big time.

And then it goes to Katie at DAW.

And then it goes to Katie. And then it goes to Katie, and she always finds new things, too. So then, you know . . .

I haven’t worked with Katie. So, what is her process? Does she do a written editor’s letter or phone call? With Sheila, it’s a phone call. Nothing in writing.

Oh, no. That would give me the vapors. Yeah. She writes me a letter, and she does some commentary inside the manuscript. She’ll do some in-line, periodically . . . not like copyediting, but just you know, “You’ve said the same thing, these two places. Or maybe you could combine it this way.” But she’s. . . I mean, she’s good. She tells me . . . she finds the good places that need help or the places where she has questions, and she marks them for me. And then I can think about, “Well, how do I solve that? How can I solve that problem?” Because she’s very good at finding, “Here’s a problem. Here’s the problem.” Or, “Here’s a place where you sent us in one direction. Did you mean to do that?” And I know I probably didn’t or, “Oh, yeah, I totally did, and I haven’t followed up three pages later.” But she gives us, she gives me, a lot of room to figure out how to fix it. She trusts me to fix it if there’s a problem. Which is good.

There’s a lot of, you know, beginning writers or wannabe writers who are sometimes worried about the editorial process. And I’ve always found that editors are extremely helpful things to have on your side.

Oh, God, yes. Editors are fantastic.

I mean, I suppose there is such a thing as a bad editor, but I haven’t really run into one myself.

No, I haven’t either. And granted, I don’t have a huge number of books behind me, but I have not run into a bad editor yet. Now that I’ve said that . . . but no, as long as I stay with Katie, I’ll be fine.

It’s one of those things that I learned from D&D is that there needs to be a healthy level of willingness to collaborate and a willingness to listen as a writer to what other people say, but at the same time, keep that balancing act and know what you . . . be able to, at some point, as I always tell my students, trust yourself. Trust yourself. It’s, you know, this is opinion, this is a suggestion, but it’s not holy writ, and it’s not . . . you know, it’s not to get a grade, it’s. . . you have to be happy with the thing that you are writing, and you have to fight for the thing that you are writing, but at the same time be willing to say, “OK, but what am I trying to do? And what is the editor or the feedback telling me that I am perhaps not doing that I mean to do?

Are you teaching any creative writing or . . . you’re teaching literature, and so you are talking about essays when you’re doing . . .?

I’m teaching the worst of the worst. I’m teaching writing composition, first-year writing to non-majors. And I say the worst of the worst, but they’re my favorite. My absolute favorite. But they’re the ones who are hostile to writing to begin with, and they hate to read. And so, they’re a hostile audience, and they’re just awesome when you can get them to realize what they can do with writing, that it doesn’t need to be their enemy, but it can be their ally, and it can be their tool or their weapon. Some of them discover, “This is a weapon.” Yes. Yes, it can be. Go, go with God. Small one. Do that.

Do you find that teaching other people writing has benefited your own writing? Does it make you look at your own stuff more critically sometimes?

Um, my nonfiction, for sure. I definitely have internalized my, “What would I tell my students about this?  What would . . . you know, what is the editor going to say about this?” But for fiction . . . I mean, yeah, I guess if nothing else, teaching writing all the time makes me think about, you know, the word choices and the sentence structures, and very much more aware of audience at all times than I might be if I were just, you know, 15 again and writing for myself.

Do you ever get the feeling because you are working with words all the time . . . there’s a song in My Fair Lady (sings) “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words.” You ever get that feeling?

Yeah. Yeah, sometimes. Sometimes. 

Because I’ve done some . . . I was just writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library for nine months, and I’ve done it at another library, and I’ve taught some writing classes and stuff, and sometimes . . . and a newspaper reporter and editor before that. And there are times occasionally when I think, “You know, maybe not working with words wouldn’t be such a bad thing.” And yet, I’m still doing it.

Yeah, I mean, that’s the thing. It’s like, “Well, sure, it would be fun to do something else.” Like, “One, I’m a little old and cranky to be switching gears now. I’ve got ‘expertise,’ quote-quote, in a field. And also, what else, really, at this point, what I do . . . like what else, what else would I do? This is what I’m good at. This is what I’m trained to do, and this is what makes me happy. Even though sometimes I’m pulling my hair out and, you know, lamenting my existence and swearing that I’d be better off being a mechanic or a mathematician or anything else than this, but I don’t mean it. I never mean it.

What kind of feedback from readers have you had on the, well, on the Rory Thorne books and particularly in your books in general? And how . . . have you been pleased by the way that people have reacted to your work?

I truly don’t read reviews. I just . . . that’s a sanity saver. I don’t read them. I’ve had, you know, readers who e-mail me or DM on Twitter or whatever.

I was thinking more about than reviews.

Yeah. So then, yeah, I’ve gotten, you know, people seem to like this or, you know, they react strongly to particular characters, or they tell me, “Oh, this, you know, made me laugh or this made me smile, or I really loved it.” So that’s. . . those are always nice to hear, like, “Good, hooray, I have brought . . .” Especially with The Thorne Chronicles, with Rory, it was like, there needs to be something happy and bright. The first three are not happy and bright. They’re not meant to be, but Rory was meant to be. So, it’s nice that she’s getting the emotional reaction that I was hoping she would get.

And they have very striking covers.

Oh, God, those are so pretty. They’re so gorgeous. I just, every time I see them, I just sort of, you know, squeal and do a small-child dance and clap my hands.

They’re certainly beautiful.

Yeah. They’re very, very attractive.

And they make you think, this is going to be fun. This is going to be something that I’m going to enjoy.

Yeah, they are like . . . I never thought a lot about book covers before, but then I thought, “You know what? No, really, they can . . . you don’t judge a book by its cover, but you do buy one sometimes because of its cover and it’s its own communication.” So, I really love the covers.

Well, now let’s get to some of the big questions I wonder about.

Uh-oh.

And they’re really just one . . . well, a three-part question, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do we write these kinds of crazy stories about things that aren’t real and never could be?

I write because I have something to say. And I may be just arrogant enough to think that it’s something that needs to be read or heard. Like, I have something important to say or something interesting to say, or something worthwhile to say. And because I like creating stories. The second part . . . remind me of the second part because the third part is why do I write science fiction and fantasy.

The second part is why, in the bigger picture, do you think any of us write. Why do human beings tell stories? 

Yeah.

I think stories are one of the ways that we make sense of the world. I think we . . .  obviously we told stories long before we ever wrote them down. But I think stories and narratives are one of the ways that we make sense of things. We just, we understand stories, stories click with us in ways that just raw data or reports don’t necessarily. We do like . . . we like to be able to see ourselves. We like to empathize—at least, I think we do. We want to have feelings. Stories that let us have feelings, even if they also seriously can make us think.

And your study of literature would seem to indicate that there are . . . what’s the Rudyard Kipling . . . there’s one and a thousand ways of constructing tribal lays or something. There’s a lot of ways to tell stories, aren’t there?

Yeah, I mean, there’s. . . culturally, historically all over the place. And it’s just, it’s fascinating to me what they all have in common at the same time as looking at all of the differences, just all the different ways, you know, from structure to content. Because I loved the medieval stuff, because that to me was fantasy, that was, you know, we still had magic, we still had that mythic world of you, the natural philosophy before the Age of Enlightenment. And so, understanding the world and making sense of things that don’t make sense, that’s part of why I think people write stories so much, is we’re trying to make sense of things that may or may not make sense. And stories are imposing a structure.

So why then tell stories of the fantastic?

Hmm. One, the real world is very boring. No, it’s not, but I always wanted magic to be a thing. Or . . . I don’t think science fiction and fantasy aren’t about the real world; I think they are a frame that we can use to imagine a world that looks different or imagine a world that is dealing with the same problems we’re dealing with in a slightly different setting, that gives us a different perspective. You know, we can talk about all these issues, we can talk about what makes us people and what is personhood and, you know, how do we deal with difference, how do we deal with the other, how do we deal with race? How do we deal with gender? We can look at those through different lenses and think about, with the different frames from science fiction or fantasy or whatever hybrid genre you come up with. And so, a lot of the themes can still be there, but they’re there in a different format. And so, we look at them, and we might see them in a different way. We might see something different about them. But I don’t think they’re completely fanciful, you know, they come from somewhere. Maybe if they . . . I’m sorry, go ahead?

No, finish what you’re saying.

I’m feeling my way through it. This is much how I write, this is also how I talk, I think my way through things, and it can get pretty wild. But I think there’s a level of imagination, too, like, even if you’re not writing a dystopia, but you’re trying to imagine a world in which, you know, gender doesn’t matter. OK, well, what would that look like? How would that change things? How would that . . . ? And then you get into that cool world-building aspect, which is, “Why do I write science fiction and fantasy? Because I get to make up a whole world. Everything. It’s all . . .I get to make it up. And that’s awesome.

Well, the podcast is, of course, called The Worldshapers. And I actually picked Shapers deliberately as opposed to builders because . . . also, it happens to be the name of my current series, but anyway . . . but also, I like the idea that we’re not . . . we don’t really create worlds out of nothing, ex nihilo, we’re shaping the real world in some fashion, imagining it to be different in some way. But we’re still starting with the raw material of human beings and human nature and all that kind of stuff, and then shaping it like a potter might shape clay. So that’s kind of the way I’ve always thought of it. Do you hope that your stories are in some way . . . maybe shaping the world’s a bit grand; very, very little fiction has actually changed the world significantly. Some, maybe. But do you at least hope that you are having an effect on readers in some fashion, shaping them a little bit, perhaps?

Sure. I mean, even if it’s even . . . if it’s as little as, “Oh, this made me laugh today when I desperately needed to,” or, you know, “This took me away from the world for a couple of hours.” Even if it’s just escapism . . . I say “just,” I don’t mean to make that, minimalize that, because that’s a huge thing to be transported elsewhere for any period of time. That’s pretty, pretty damn powerful. But yeah, of course, I hope something sticks, something remains. There’s some echo.

And what are you working on now?

I am working on two things. One is the second book in a series that the first book hasn’t come out yet, but there you go. You know how those work. So, I’m working on the second book in that. And it’s. . it’s up the timeline from Rory, it’s the same world, the same arithmancy, you know, all of the lost paradigms of science, all of that. But it’s way up the timeline. It’s the things that Rory has done that have changed the multiverse or changed the world in that. So I’m working on the second book of that, and I’m trying, messing, vaguely stabbing at the idea . . . one of my friends said to me, “At some point, you should write a book about Grit. I would totally read a book about Grit.” And I thought, “What if I wrote a book about Grit?” So I’m poking at that from, you know, Grit from Rory, because she turned out to be a favorite character with a couple of folks that are near and dear to me. So. I want to see if I can write a story with her, a book with her. I don’t know. We’ll see if I can. So, that’s what I’m working on.

And where can people find you online?

I have a blog that is updated occasionally, but mostly with pictures of cats, at mythistoria.com. And I’m on Twitter @svartjager, from the first trilogy, the favorite character. Yeah, that’s where I generally . . . I am on Facebook, but shh!, no. That’s only for family. That’s only for family and people I know in meatspace.

Yeah, it’s nice to have a place like that sometimes.

Yeah, like these are my gaming groups. These are the people I hang with.

Yeah. Well, thanks so much for taking time to be on The Worldshapers. I enjoyed the conversation. I hope you did too.

I did. Thank you so much for having me. This has been a lot of fun.

Episode 72: Cory Doctorow

An hour-long chat with Cory Doctorow, science-fiction author, activist, and journalist, about his creative process.

Website
www.craphound,com

Blog
www.pluralistic.net

Twitter
@Doctorow

Cory Doctorow’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Cory Doctorow is a science fiction author, activist, and journalist. His latest book is Attack Surface, a standalone adult sequel to Little Brother. He is also the author How to Destroy Surveillance Capitalism, nonfiction about conspiracies and monopolies; and of Radicalized and Walkaway, science fiction for adults, a YA graphic novel called In Real Life; and young adult novels like Homeland, Pirate Cinema, and Little Brother. His first picture book was Poesy the Monster Slayer (August 2020).

He maintains a daily blog at Pluralistic.net. He works for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate, is a Visiting Professor of Computer Science at Open University, a Visiting Professor of Practice at the University of North Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science, and co-founded the UK Open Rights Group. Born in Toronto, Canada, he now lives in Los Angeles.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Corey, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you. Thank you for having me on. It’s nice to talk to you.

Yeah. We met a long time ago, with the Canadian connection . . . I think it might have been in Edmonton, at ConSpec, about 2000 or something? Were you there?

Maybe Saskatchewan, I wasn’t at that, but I think . . . or Winnipeg, at the WorldCon.

Oh, yeah. Yeah. And I think I said hi to you at a WorldCon somewhere else at some point or another.

That also sounds possible.

So, thanks so much for doing this. We’re going to talk about the Little Brother series in particular as an example of your creative process. But before we get to that, I always take my guests back into the mists of time. And so, I’d like to take you back into the mists of time and find out, you know, all that biographical stuff. Where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in writing and, in particular, science fiction and fantasy? Well, science fiction. I don’t think you wr9te a lot of fantasy, perhaps.

I’ve written some. I’ve got one fantasy novel, although it’s a fantasy novel about WiFi, Someone Comes to Town, Someone Leaves Town, and  I’ve written some fantasy stories, so, yeah, a little bit. So, my dad was a comics and fantasy fan, Conan fan, and when I was little, he used to tell me modified Conan stories. He was a Trotskyists, so he was telling me modified Conan stories in which Conan was replaced by a trio called Harry, Larry, and Mary, and in which their end game was after, you know, felling the grand vizier, was not to install themselves on the throne, but rather to create, like, a socialist cooperative.

Judith Merrill

And when my mom was in grad school, my dad used to turn on the TV, and we would watch Judith Merrill introduce Doctor Who on TV Ontario. And I was very excited to watch Doctor Who. My dad knew Judy through radical political circles, and when I was about nine or ten years old, my school went on a trip to the Spaced-Out Library, which is the science-fiction reference library that she founded in Toronto, where she was the writer in residence. And she came out and said, “You know, kids, if you write a story, you can bring it to me, and I’ll critique it for you,” which is, you know, really a remarkable thing. I mean, the closest Canadian analogy I came up with is it’s like Wayne Gretzky coming out and going like, “Look, kids, if you’re ever having a pickup game and you want some tips, just give me a call and I’ll come by and help you out with it.” So, you know—except Judy wasn’t a Tory, and Gretzky is. But that was, like, very inspiring. And I knew Judy from TV and recognized her, and so it was, like, doubly exciting to have her invite us down to the library to give her manuscripts.

Tanya Huff

And then, you know, within a year or two, we also went down to Bakka Science Fiction Bookstore, the oldest science-fiction bookstore in the world. And I get on a school trip, and the woman behind the counter was a writer who was just about to sell her first story, named Tanya Huff. And I was, you know, maybe ten or maybe 11, and I had a dollar, and Tanya asked me what kind of books I liked to read. And I told her, and she took me back to the U.S., and she found me a copy of Little Fuzzy that was a dollar, by H. Beam Piper, and was the first book I ever spent my own money on.

And I started bringing manuscripts to Judy and to Tonya. I had started writing a few years before. The first thing I remember writing was after seeing Star Wars at the University Theater on Bloor Street and, you know, having a really exciting time, not because it’s, like, the greatest movie ever written, but because kids’ audiovisual material was so poor. You know, it was like David and Goliath and a few other terrible shows. And then, just having a complex narrative was very exciting for me, really chimed with me. And I went home, and I just started writing out the Star Wars story over and over again like a kid practicing scales on the piano. And so, I started writing stories and start ed bringing them to Judy and to Tanya, who, you know, bless her socks, would actually, like, while working in the bookstore, allow, you know, a callow fourteen-year-old to bring her stories and would critique them for me and give me writing advice. And Judy, what she would do is use these workshops, or these one-on-one sessions, as a way to start workshops. So, she would find writers who were writing about the same level and get them to start meeting together, you know, the library had a spare room and so on.

So that’s how I started workshopping eventually with the Cecil Street Irregulars, which, you know, it’s Karl Schroeder and David Nickel and Peter Watts from time to time and Madeline Ashby and Hugh Spencer and many other writers over the years, a really exciting group of people. And I also started writing, going to a writing workshop at my high school, this kind of groovy alternative school in downtown Toronto. And it was run exactly like all these other workshops I’d been to, and I couldn’t figure it out until I learned that Judy had actually started that workshop, too, as part of a writer-in-the-schools program. And so, and then, you know, when I started selling stories, I sold my first story to OnSpec when I was seventeen to their youth issue. And when I started selling stories, I joined SF Canada, and I started going to the Hydra meetings. And these were again a thing that Judy started. They were potluck dinners that would be a moveable feast from one house to another every six or eight weeks. And that’s how I met the Prisoners of Gravity people and got involved with TV Ontario and helped out on the show. And so, you know, really, like, there are a lot of people in the story, but the one name that comes up over and over again is Judy Merrill. And while Judy was, like, hugely important to my life, I mean, she liked me just fine, but it wasn’t like I was her protege, right? She did this for so many people. She basically created a formal science fiction writers’ apprenticeship in Toronto that I lucked into.

You know, there were other factors, too, like, it was the early days of online writerdom and fandom, and for a time, there was a dial-up service called GEnie that General Electric ran. It was very expensive to use during the day. They used it to absorb their excess capacity at night, so it was a flat rate to use it from six p.m. to eight a.m., and then it was like twenty dollars an hour during the day. But they gave free, unlimited access to Science Fiction Writers of America members, and every SFWA member who had a modem was on Genie. So every famous writer in the world was on GEnie, and it’s like, as a seventeen-year-old, I joined this BBS and was, like, trading quips with, you know, Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin and, you know, hanging out with Damon Knight. And that’s how I ended up going to Clarion, that’s how I met my editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden, you know, people, they all pitched in, like, fifteen bucks each to send me to Clarion, all the writers there. And so, it was really, it was a remarkable time. I don’t think there’s ever been a time quite like it for becoming a writer. I mean, there are other things that are that writers today have going for them, like Archive of our Own and Wattpad and other ways of forming communities and so on. But that was a fabulous moment.

Unfortunately, I lived in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where I didn’t have any of that stuff. I never got on GEnie.

You needed to do what Karl did, which is move from Saskatchewan to Toronto.

Tanya was actually my second or third guest on here, so I had her on . . . 

Oh, fabulous.

And Rob Sawyer. So, you know, I had the Canadian connection, Julie Czerneda, I had that Canadian thing going on very early on here on the podcast.

Well, Tanya likes to embarrass me by telling a story about when we were at the London WorldCon and chatting, and someone came up to her after and said, “Do you know Cory Doctorow?” And she was like, “Yeah, I know him. I’ve known him since ye was, you know, wetting his pants.”

Well, just looking at your bio, you said you attended four universities without obtaining a degree.

Yeah.

So, how did your career evolve from all of that?

Well, you know, I kept writing and selling, and I went to Clarion and then had a drought after that. I sold some stories beforehand, but it took me a long time to integrate the really excellent stuff that I learned there and then, you know, eventually figured it out. And university was not really for me. I had gone to an amazing alternative school where, you know, really we’d been in charge of designing our own curriculum. And I’d spent seven years in this four-year program, you know, taking a year out to write and taking a year to organize street demonstrations against the invasion of Iraq under the first George Bush, and doing just all kinds of stuff that was highly educational but not formally recognized, until I finally got a diploma and went to university. And the university was far more regimented and really felt like a giant step backwards. And so, I got a job in the burgeoning tech industry doing hypertext for Voyager, which was the best CD-ROM publisher the world had ever seen, really an amazing, you know, dream-come-true job. And from there, I got into the Web and sort of never looked back. But I kept on writing and kept on selling stories and then eventually books and novels.

What was your first novel?

It was Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. So, it was a short novel, and it was in part inspired by Bob Wilson. So, I went to his signing for Spin at Bakka, and Spin is a great book, but the first thing I noticed about it was that it was only 200 pages long. And I was like, you know, “Bob, this book is 200 pages long. Is it even a novel?” And he said, “Oh, yeah, 50,000 words is a novel,” and I was like, “Rally?” And he’s like, “Yeah, totally, 50,000 words is novel.” And I was like, “Well, finally I figured out how I’m going to finish a book. I’m only going to write one that’s 50,000 words long,” and Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom is a 50,000-word novel. And you know, I was writing on it, and I went to New York, we took the Amtrak to New York for Christmas and stayed with my cousin in Midtown and had lunch with the Neilson Haydens who were at Tor, and now Patrick Nielsen Hayden is vice president there, but he was the senior editor there. And I had gone and read slush at Tor before and hung out with Patrick and, you know, knew him from GEnie. And, you know, over lunch, he said, like, “When are you going to write me a novel?” And I said, “Well, I have a book that I’m working on now.” And he said, “Well, how’s it coming?” And I said, “Well, I’ve got you, know, I’ve gotten quite a ways into it.” And he said, “Have you got three chapters and an outline?” And I said, “Yes.” And he said, “Well, then, you better send it to me. And that was December. And he bought it in June.”

And that was what year?

That was . . . I want to say it was, like, 2000, but it didn’t come out till 2003. That was my second book. I had written a book with Karl Schroeder beforehand. Someone I knew from The Well, which was another online service started by the people who did The Whole Earth Catalog, had seen that I was selling a lot of short stories. And she said, “Do you want to write a book on how to publish science fiction?” And I said, “Yes, but I’ve never published a novel. I need to a novelist.” And she said, “Oh, go find a novelist.” So, I asked Karl if he would write the novel chapters, and I would write the short-story chapters. And we wrote this, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Science Fiction, together.

I have a copy of it somewhere. I was just looking at my bookshelf here to see if I could spot it. I remember getting it when it came out.

Yeah, that was very . . . it was a good first-book project because it’s super structured. They had a real verse, verse, chorus formula, you know, like down to, like, each chapter has so many sections, each section has so many paragraphs, here is what, you know, makes a complete section and so on. If you could tick all the boxes, you would have a functional book at the end.

I never did a Complete Idiot’s. I did write Genetics Demystified, which is pretty funny considering I had to teach myself genetics to write. I always worry about that just a little bit.

I have a friend who writes very good books about genomics, Adam Rutherford, whose latest book is a brilliant genomics book called How to Argue With a Racist, which is a terrific title.

Yeah, it is. You moved from short stories to novels. What do you find the difference between the two is for you? Do you think you’re more of a short story writer by temperament or a novelist, or do you think there’s a difference?

I mean, there’s definitely a difference. I mean, at this point, in terms of, like, how much work I put into one versus the other, I’m definitely a novelist. I have probably written more words of novel than of short story, although I’ve written a lot more short stories than novels. But in terms of overall volume. And I’ve won prizes for both. And I think the major difference is how much ornamentation you get. You know, I liken it to packing for a trip, which is a thing we used to do before the plague. And, you know, there’ll be some trips where you just take a carry-on bag, and that’s a short story, and you’ve got to be pretty ruthless with what goes in that bag. And then somewhere you take, like, a suitcase, and that’s like a novella. And you can, you know, you can carry some comfort items maybe, like, you know, when I go on tour, I always bring a big suitcase, and it’s got an air press and a collapsible kettle and some coffee and a nice flask of whiskey in it. You can add some comfort items. You can have some ornamentation. You can have a nice jacket to wear if you’re, in case you go to a good dinner. And then, with a novel, it’s like getting a shipping container, and you get to put everything in it.

We’ve written a lot of nonfiction as well, with all of your interest in electronic rights and freedom of information and all that stuff. Do you find that the nonfiction writing feeds into your fiction writing both on the skill side and on . . . I mean, obviously, you tend to have the same kind of overall philosophy, I guess, going through your nonfiction and your fiction. Is that safe to say?

Yeah, for the most part. I mean, it really depends on what you mean by the nonfiction. I wouldn’t divide it so rigorously into fiction and nonfiction or short- and long-form pieces. I would divide it into what’s sometimes called stalk and flow. So, stalk is the longer synthetic pieces that are really significant and that kind of stand on their own, and flow is the stuff that you do from moment to moment. And so, for me, flow is blogging. And blogging is a thing that I have done for now almost twenty years, in fact, more than twenty years if you count a bunch of things that I did that were indistinguishable from blogging, except the word blogging hadn’t been invented yet. And for me, blogging is the process of taking the thing that a writer might jot in a commonplace book to remind themselves of it later, and instead publishing it along with enough context that a notional stranger can understand why you’re taking notes on it, what it is that snagged your attention about it.

And that process of writing that material for strangers is powerfully mnemonic. It makes you think through why this is important to you, why this has caught your interest, and it makes you be rigorous, and you can’t cheat the way that you do with your own notes, where you make these notes that you think are very clear, and then you go back, and they’re very cryptic, and they don’t make any sense to you. And that creates a kind of supersaturated solution, fragmentary story ideas or fragmentary ideas overall, that can be synthesized into fiction and nonfiction and so on. And what happens is over time, this solution has these little fragments in it, and they bump together, and they kind of nucleate and they crystallize into a speech or a story or a novel or an essay or a book-length work of nonfiction or what have you. And, you know, that stock represents a synthesis. It represents a kind of dialectic where two things that are in dialogue with one another, maybe in opposition to each other, get together and kind of duke it out in your imagination and in your critical analysis. And what comes out is something that is recognizably descended from both, but not obviously latent in either.

Well, I think this is tying into talking about your process for creating novels, which always starts with where do you get your ideas, which you kind of just explained in a way.

Yeah.

We’re going to talk about Attack Surface, which is the new one in the Little Brother series, but maybe give a quick overview of Little BrotherHomeland, and Attack Surface, for those who have not, unimaginably, read any of them.

Hmm. Well, so Little Brother and Homeland are YA novels, and they’re books about kids who use technology to resist technology, right? Kids who find themselves in circumstances of dire personal and social peril because of technology that is being wielded against them and who fashion their own counterattacks out of the technology that they figure out how to master and wield on their own behalf. And Little Brother is a book about the war on terror. So, it opens with this young man, Marcus Gallo, and his friends being caught in a terrorist attack on San Francisco, which is traumatic enough. But what’s far more traumatic is the immediate transformation of the city into an armed police state with mass surveillance checkpoints and so on. And they are so appalled by this that they build a resistance movement. They used hacked Xboxes with cryptographically secured wireless communications to communicate with one another and build a network that the NSA can’t wiretap. And they conspire together to kick the Department of Homeland Security out of the city and restore their constitutional rights.

In Homeland, the sequel, the reputation they have ends up with them inheriting a collection of really sensitive government leaks that reveal a lot of government wrongdoing. And they set about trying to release these leaks in a way that will hold the powerful to account. And they do this in a way where they try to be as careful as they can, and they’re doing it in the midst of an election campaign that they’re running, but they’re beset on the one hand by mercenaries from private military contractors who want to suppress these leaks, who’ve been paid to suppress the leaks, and on the other hand by hacktivists who want the leaks released as soon as possible with no redactions and no selectivity. And they’re in the middle of this pincer.

And the third book, the one that’s just come out, is Attack Surface, and it’s not exactly a sequel. It’s the third Little Brother book, but it’s a standalone book, and it’s intended for adults, not because it has sex in it—speaking as a fifty-year-old, I’m here to tell you that being an adult doesn’t mean that you have more sex than a teenager—rather because it is about confronting your life’s work and having a moral reckoning with what you have done, which I think is a thing that mostly adults do. And it involves this young woman, Masha, who appears in the other two books. She’s something of the antagonist of the other two books. In the first book, she works for the Department of Homeland Security, trying to catch the heroes, and in the second book, she moves to Iraq, where she is a military contractor, hunting insurgents, using technology, and in the third book, in this new book, she has moved on to the private sector and is supplying cyber weapons to post-Soviet dictators in Eastern Europe who want to crush pro-democracy movements by hacking people’s phones and figuring out who to arrest and torture. Basically, sort of the Belarus situation that we’re living through as we record this now. And she has, through her whole career, compartmentalized. She’s found ways to rationalize what she’s doing and to not think too hard about the negative consequences of it. And she’s finally reached a point where she can’t rationalize it anymore, where the tactics that she engages in to convince herself that she’s one of the good guys have reached a breaking point.

So, you know, by the time we meet her, her day job is installing surveillance equipment in the National Telco’s Main Data Center, and her hobby is teaching the activists she’s supposed to be catching with it how to evade it. And her bosses, who are not exactly the forgiving type, figure out what she’s doing, and she has to flee the country. And when she gets back to San Francisco, she realizes to her horror that her childhood best friend, who she’s been relishing the prospect of being reacquainted with, is now a Black Lives Matter activist who’s being targeted by the same cyber weapons that she herself spent her whole career building. And that’s when she has to have this reckoning.

And the Little Brother books are interesting as artifacts in the world because of the impact that they had. There are a lot of technologists and cyber lawyers and cryptographers and human rights workers and activists who started off by reading Little Brother and Homeland. And it convinced them, on the one hand, that technology could be abused in terrible ways and, on the other hand, that the liberatory power of technology is real. If you watch the documentary about Edward Snowden, Citizen Four, you can see that as he’s fleeing Hong Kong, he grabs a copy of Homeland off his bedside table and sticks it in his go-bag. And that is, you know, really one of my proudest accomplishments, right? That you have these people who have acquired these rare and important technical skills for the express purpose of using them to help people and not hurt people and to defend people from corporate power and state power. And this third one is addressed to a different cohort, a cohort who got in for other reasons, you know, just because of their passion for the field and because it looked like a good job, but who’ve grown increasingly discontented with the compromises that they had to make along the way. You know, the 20,000 Googlers who walked out last year, or the workers at Amazon and at Facebook and at Microsoft and at Salesforce and at Apple who have voiced their concerns or quit their jobs or walked off the job over surveillance, over censorship, over manipulation, and over sexual harassment and impunity in their workplaces. And, you know, that group of people really is waiting to be radicalized. And this is a book, in some ways, for them. It’s a book to show them what redemption looks like when you’ve spent your career rationalizing your way into doing things that you know in your heart you shouldn’t be doing.

Was there a specific impetus for this, a specific group of ideas that came together to inspire you to write this third book? Because you talked about how ideas will bounce around, synthesize.

Yeah, no, no one instigating incident, really more like there was a critical mass of fragments, right? You know, one of the things that I’ve spent a lot of time campaigning on is transparency, modifiability, interoperability, and user control over smart devices, that as computers infiltrate our cars and our medical implants and our tractors and our homes, rather than these computers being designed to be responsive to the people who own them and who trust their lives to them, these computers have been increasingly designed to extract revenue from those people by subjugating them and by surveilling them and by putting their interests behind the interests of the shareholders, the companies that made them. And not only does this expose us to risk from the companies themselves, but a device that’s designed to be treacherous, to hide its workings from you, to prevent you from reconfiguring it to work how you need it to work, is a device that, if it’s never compromised by a bad guy, whether that’s the state or whether that’s a criminal or a rival company or what have you, that device by design is not going to let you reconfigure it so that it listens to you. It’s designed to hide its workings from you. And so, I really wanted to illustrate the way in which a world of devices designed to control their users presents a kind of endless playground for the worst impulses in our species and to show what that would mean for human rights in a digital era.

What did your planning/outlining process look like? And what does it look like generally when you set out to write a novel? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you do a sketchy outline, and then it evolves as you write? How does that work for you?

It’s really a different book by book. Mostly, what I have done is written a sort of treatment that explains what kind of thing will go on in the book and then written the book. I use a kind of heuristic where at every turn, I ask myself, “What problem is the character trying to solve? How are they going to fail through no fault of their own? How will things get worse and raise the stakes? And what will that new problem look like, and how will they try to solve that?” And if you do that enough times, you reach a climax because eventually, things can’t get any worse, and then that’s the climax. I ran into trouble with this one because it went really long. I had a really hard time bringing it in for a landing, and it came in at over 170,000 words. And I knew that I wanted a book of about 130,000 to 140,000 words.

So, I actually hired an external editor for this book, a woman named Juliette Ollman, and Juliette was a Random House editor who now works for the New York Transit Authority. And she gave me some really good suggestions for tightening up the book. We eliminated the love interest and replaced him with the sidekick, basically. And that was a pretty major piece of surgery on the book, and it was somewhat traumatic to undergo, but it made the book much better. It also got the book down to about 134,000 words, which is perfect. And it convinced me that I needed to be more outline oriented for the next book, that whatever I would lose in the spontaneity I would gain in the lack of a need for that kind of dramatic rewrite. And so, the book that I’m working on now, I wrote a very detailed outline, and I’m keeping it updated as I go because obviously, the first casualty of every battle is the plan of attack. So, I’m changing the outline as I go so that I have a kind of as-built drawing when I’m done. And I found it to be quite relieving. Like, I mean, every book in my experience feels like you’re cheating, right? It feels like . . . because there’s no way you can hold all the pieces of a book in your head. And so, at a certain point, there’s a lot of kind of unconscious work being done to keep the book consistent. And it always comes, there always comes a time writing a book where you feel like Wile E. Coyote having run off the cliff, and knowing that if you look down that there’s just empty air below you. And a lot of finishing a book is down to not looking down. It’s trusting that you’ll get to the other side if you just keep running. And this feels like cheating, too, but in a different way, in that I’m following this recipe I wrote, and the part of my brain that writes the recipe is not the part of my brain that does the writing. And it kind of feels like, almost hacky, like I got an outline from someone, and now I’m just following their instructions, except that someone is me.

What does your actual writing process look like? I mean, you have a lot of things that you do. Do you write . . . when you’re working on fiction, do you work a certain time every day, or how does that work for you?

No, I long ago lost the luxury of being able to set aside a certain time every day. I really just squeeze it in. And what I do is, I have a word count I hit every day. And the book that I’m working on right now, it’s a 500-word-a day word count. It’s two pages generally, takes about 15 or 20 minutes. It’s a little easier with the outline, I have to say. And I just sit down, and I write it. And the thing that freed me up to do that kind of daily work was the realization that although there were days when I felt like my writing was very good and days when I felt like my writing was terrible, and although there were days, or there were parts of the work that were very good and parts that needed revision, that they were unconnected, right? That the quality of the work was completely unrelated to how I felt about the quality of the work. Some of the stuff I felt great about was garbage, and some of the stuff I felt was garbage was great. And that the thing that the feeling related to was not the objective quality of the work, but rather to, like, my blood sugar and my anxiety and stress levels and how much sleep I’d gotten. And once I realized that the quality of words was unrelated to my feeling in the words, then I could just write whatever words there were, even if they were stupid-sounding words. And later on, I could go back and fix them if it turned out that the way I felt about them was true. And, you know, that was liberating. But it’s also somewhat depressing over time because it is anhedonic, right? That the joy that you feel when you feel like you’re writing really, really well kind of gets leached out of the thing once you acknowledge that how you feel about the work is not connected to the objective quality of the work. And you start to realize, oh, I feel great about this, maybe it’s crap.

Well, maybe the operative word is work because it is, of course, work sometimes. Sometimes it feels like play, but a lot of the time, it feels like work. I at least I find.

Mm-hmmm.

Much as I, you know, I enjoy having written, but yeah. So, do you write sequentially? Like, you start at the beginning, you write to the end?

That’s exactly it. Yep.

You’re not one of these people that strings scenes together along the way.

Nothing of the sort, I do write, like, TK, for to come, which is a journalistic convention, if there’s a thing that I need to go look up later, like, you know, the name of a minor character that I didn’t bother to make a note of it. And I do write FCK for a fact check if there’s a thing that I think I might have gotten wrong. That’s mostly to stop, like, getting into a Wikipedia click trance. And I just write with a plain old text editor, you know, like, not even a word processor.

Do you find that you have to do a lot of research on these books? I mean, you’re dealing with, you know, cutting-edge technology and that sort of thing. And I know you’ve got to kind of deal with that all the time, but do you find things that you have to research as you’re writing?

It’s really the other way around. I mean, there are sometimes a detail or two that will come up like that, but mostly what’s going on is this process of taking everything that seems significant and turning it into a blog post gives you a wealth of material that you have already researched. So, you’re doing research for a book you don’t know you’re writing. And the book you write comes out of the research you do instead of the other way around. I did write a book that was set in China and India and spent some time there. In Homeland, there’s a sequence where they propose an alternative way of running an insurgent election campaign. And I canvassed a bunch of people I knew who worked in netroots politics and a young man named Aaron Swartz, who was one of the Reddit founders, who very tragically killed himself the year the book came out, gave me a really, really good sequence for it. And, you know, that was just like, there was just a TK, like, I will figure out what goes in the scene later. And then, when the book was done, I wrote to Aaron for advice, and he just sent me a couple of paragraphs I dropped in.

Once you have your completed draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you use beta readers or people like that? Or how does that work for you?

I use my editor and my agent, and in the case of the last book, I used this outside editor, but I don’t tend to use a lot of beta readers. I did have some sensitivity readers for Walkaway, particularly for the sequences in which there’s a trans character. And I did have a sensitivity reader for Radicalized, where it’s a story about African-American relations with the US police, but for the most part, it’s editor, agent, and sometimes outside editor.

And what does your actual revision process look like personally? Do you go through it line by line, are you making big changes, or more just cleaning up the language? Or what sort of things do you find yourself working on?

Well, it’s strongly varied by book. Obviously, with Attack Surface there was this major surgery. With Walkaway, I decided that I wanted that book to be shorter as well, and I went through it line by line. I just basically took 5,000 words out of the book every morning and put them in a new file, and just tinkered with it until I was 4,000 words. And what I found was that in doing this, I started to identify tics of bad habits of my own, where I would be needlessly verbose. And it got really fast. I got really good at doing it. And both fortunately and unfortunately, the practice of doing that with the whole book meant that by the time I wrote my next one, I wasn’t making those mistakes anymore. So, when I wanted to cut down in Attack Surface, I didn’t have twenty percent fat at the sentence level that I could just trim out because I taught myself a better habit. And, you know, often what I’ll do is read the book aloud. I find that that’s a really powerful way to revise. I know Bruce Sterling told me once that when he did a residency out here in L.A. at Art Center in Pasadena, he drove a trailer of stuff from Texas to L.A. for his residency. And he had a new book out, I think it was The Caryatids, and he strapped his laptop into the passenger seat and had it do text to speech for the entire book while he drove cross-country. And he would just pull over whenever he heard a line that sounded wrong and fix it.

There’d be a lot of pulling over if I were doing that. Yeah, reading out loud is a great way . . . well, it forces you to read every line, of course, every word. You don’t skip over anything in your head. And if you don’t find the mistakes while you’re reading it out loud, doing revision, you will totally find them when you’re doing a public reading later on when it’s too late to change.

Yeah, you certainly do. Very true. Or f you’re producing an audiobook when the reader gets to them.

Yeah, I actually have a copy of the first edition of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi. And of course, he lives in Saskatchewan, he lives in Saskatoon. And he was at the Saskatchewan Book Awards a few years ago as the speaker, and he opened it up and went to one particular place and made a correction that had made it all the way through into publication. So now we have this hand-corrected copy, autographed copy, of Life of Pi. And I put it in a plastic bag and put it away somewhere.

Yeah, Damon Knight used to do this. . . there was a book that I think John Campbell had retitled The Rithian Terror that originally had a title like, you know, A Happy Story About Space or something. And every time someone would bring in a copy of the book, he would open it to the title page and cross out Campbell’s title and write in his own.

Well, you talked about, in this particular case, having an editor before it went to the editor. Once it gets to the publication level, with the publisher’s editor, what kind of feedback do you typically get?

So, my editor, Patrick, whom I’ve known since I was seventeen, he tends to be pretty macro. He usually will have one or two things where he’s like, “This thing really needs a fix,” but mostly he, you know, the way that he approaches I think is that science fiction is a story in which you have a kind of a micro and a macrocosm. And the microcosm is the character, and the macrocosm is the world. And they need to be parallel to one another. They need to have they need to be sort of an as-above-so-below, powers-of-ten kind of relationship to one another. And, you know, the character is like a little cogwheel that spins around and around interfacing with this very big wheel that is the world, and the character spins and spins and spins until the world makes a full revolution and you see it in the round. And a lot of the times when the books falter, it’s because the teeth aren’t meshing, because there’s some way in which the world and the character are not matched for each other. So, a lot of the time, his suggestions will be sort of thematic. He’ll be like, “If you do this with a character and or this with the world, you’ll get a much better mesh.”

Does he work with, like, an editorial letter that you get, or is it a conversation or . . .?

Yeah, oftentimes it’s a conversation, but we notionally . . . well, I mean, what actually usually happens is he says, “I will get you an editorial letter,” and then time will go by, and he’ll go like, “Actually, let’s just talk on the phone.”

Well, that’s what I’m used to. Sheila Gilbert at DAW is my editor. And it’s always phone conversations. So, when people talk about getting these massive editorial letters, I’ve never actually had one of those. So, I always wonder what they’re like.

Well, and Juliet gave me a proper editorial letter, but, you know, that was a separate process.

Now, I also wanted to mention you’re doing something interesting with a Kickstarter for the audiobook version of this. So, that has funded, it’ll be over, so, you can’t, you know, people hearing this can’t contribute. But tell me about that and how that came about and why you did it.

Yeah, sure. So, I will not make my work available under DRM, and there’s a lot of reasons for that. But, you know, from an author’s perspective, the most important one is that under the revisions to the Canadian Copyright Act in 2011 and under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, we as creators, as the owners of those copyrights, cannot authorize our readers to remove the DRM. And so, if we sell work that’s locked to Amazon with Amazon’s DRM and then Amazon and we have a dispute, and we walk away from Amazon and find another publisher for our work or another retailer for our work, those books are locked into Amazon’s silo. It’s like, if every time you sold a book at Wal-Mart, they got to decide which light bulbs and bookcases and chairs you could read them in. And yes, if you wanted to, you could get another chair and another light bulb and another bookcase for, you know, the Indigo books that you’re going to go buy now, but you could see that that switching cost would really lock in the suppliers, that is, us, to this monopoly platform. And so, Amazon will thankfully allow you to sell e-books without DRM, but not audiobooks. And they completely dominate the audiobook market. They have more than 90 percent of it through their Audible division, which, when they bought it in 2008, they promised they would remove the DRM from and then reneged. And I won’t allow my books to be sold, which means that I’m cutting myself off from more than 90 percent of the market. And understandably, MacMillan is not all that interested in acquiring the rights to a book that they can’t sell in the place where 90 percent of the shoppers are. And I don’t blame them. And so, I retain those rights.

And I live in Southern California, which means that I’m a fifty-minute drive from one of the powerhouse audiobook studios, Skyboat Media, and I’m only a few minutes away from my friend Amber Benson’s house. She’s a writer, a DAW writer, but she’s also an actor, she played Tara on Buffy, and she’s a wonderful, wonderful voice actor and audiobook reader. And so, I had Amber read the book, paid her SAG actor rates and paid the director Cassandra De Cuir, and paid my editor, John Taylor Williams, who’s been editing my podcast for more than a decade. And we produced a really kickass audiobook, and I’ve done this before with other books, but this time I really wanted to make a statement, in part because there’s finally this pro-competitive anti-monopoly energy in the world. And I decided I would pre-sell the audiobook on Kickstarter along with the e-books. I’m my publisher’s e-book retailer so that you can buy my e-books at all the major retail platforms, you know, Kobo and B.N. and Indigo and Amazon and so on, but you can also just buy them from me, and I get the 30 percent that would otherwise be taken by one of those companies when you buy for me, and I take the 70 percent that remains, and I send it to my publisher, and they take the 25 percent that would be my royalty and send it back to me. So, it comes out to like 47 1/2 percent. So, I’m selling the e-book, pre-selling the audiobook, I’m selling the backlist titles, the first two books all on Kickstarter, and I’ve discounted the audiobook. It’s going to sell for twenty-five bucks, but I’m selling it for fifteen. And, as I speak, the Kickstarter is sitting at $238,883, and that’s a really good sum of money.

What was your goal?

Well, seven thousand bucks was the goal, but that’s just like the amount of money that it would sort of cost me to do the listing and the fulfillment and whatever. It’s just an opportunity cost. I wasn’t really . . . I wanted about this much. This was kind of where I was shooting. In fact, I’m hoping to get significantly more because the last four or five days of the campaign are when you get a whole lot of pledges. What I really want is to sell 10,000 audiobooks. And I think that if I sell 10,000 audiobooks to 10,000 customers, that it will tempt McMillan into buying the audio rights to my next book and into helping me produce it and market it this way with another crowdfunder. And that if we can do that, we can probably tempt other bestselling writers into eschewing Amazon Audible, and we can start creating a new kind of Audible exclusive, the book that’s exclusive of Audible, that’s available in all the places. You know, it’s first life is as a discount title on Kickstarter for pre-order and then all the major retailers except Amazon. And I think that will bring Amazon to the table. I think that gets Amazon where it hurts. That is what they care about. And not being able to sell your bestsellers, the best sellers in the field, is a big deal for them. And then maybe we can get a more equitable proposition, one where we get to decide as the copyright owners whether we want their so-called protection.

Well, a lot of your activity is as an activist as well as a writer. And that does probably kind of tie into my big philosophical questions that I always ask at the end, which is, why do you write? Why do you write, and do you consider the writing or the other things that you do . . . are they all one piece or they are two separate things? Are you an activist and a writer? Are you an activist first and then a writer? How do you put all those pieces together? But at the core of that, why do you write, and why do you write science fiction and fantasy particularly?

Yeah, well, so I think that in terms of rhetoric and politics, writing is a way to carry on the argument. It puts a lot of blood and sinew on what could otherwise be a very dry academic kind of argument about tech policy questions. But, you know, more importantly, or just as importantly, I write for the reason anyone who makes art makes art, right? Because we have this like important, difficult-to-stop need to make art. You know, one of the reasons that artistic markets are so dysfunctional is because people make art even when they don’t have a reasonable expectation of a return, right? When people are traumatized by, you know, war and torture and so on, we give them art therapy, you know, like, art’s important, and I make art because I’m an artist and artists make art and all humans make art, and it’s really important to the human condition. In terms of, like, what happens when you write, there’s . . . it is a weird question, right? You know, the more I think about writing, the weirder writing gets. Because when you read fiction, you have a limbic involuntary emotional response to the plight of imaginary people who you know to be inconsequential, like, by definition, like, things that happen to imaginary people have no consequences. Right? Like, the yogurt you ate with your breakfast this morning had a more tragic death than Romeo and Juliet because they were never alive. And so, they didn’t die, whereas that yogurt was once alive and then you killed it, right?

And I think what’s going on is that we have an automatic and voluntary process by which we learn to model other people in order to empathize with them, that, you know, from the models you build up of people you’ve never met, you know, whether that’s someone, you know, on the Internet or someone that you hear about second hand, like a celebrity or like the new kid at school, you haven’t met yet, but the other kids are talking about them. And it gives you . . .  you create a kind of picture of who they are and what they would do under certain circumstances. And that’s how you predict what they’ll do and how you empathize with them. And this process, it’s very naive and automatic. There’s no conscious intervention needed to do it. And it can be tricked into spending time building and maintaining models of people that you can’t encounter, like imaginary people, like strangers and like dead people. Like, you can probably imagine what your grandma would say if she could see you now. And that’s drawing on that model. And I think when you read, you experience the empathic cognitive version of an optical illusion where the writer tricks your model maker into modeling the imaginary person that is the subject of the story, and then you experience empathy for them.

And I think that when you write a similar thing happens. That when we start writing it can feel masturbatory, right, like you’re putting on a puppet show for yourself, because you know you’re making it up and you’re like, you know, “Hey, let’s all go on a quest!” “Sure, that sounds great to me!”, right? But over time, that same part of your brain that readers use to experience empathy and have the aesthetic experience of reading a novel builds up the model of your characters, and they start to tell you what they want to do. You’re kind of inhaling your own farts, basically, right? You’ve got the exhaust of your very regimented planning, of your specific imaginative process, in which you say, “What imaginary thing can my characters do?”, becomes the source of a bunch of intuition about what these imaginary people would do that arrives in exactly the same way that your intuition about what real people would do arrives. And that’s a pretty cool thing. And then, as to why science fiction, well, you know, it’s kind of in my DNA. It’s, you know, between Judy and living in the 21st century and being so engaged with technological subjects, science fiction really is the natural genre for me.

Well, and I think you’ve kind of answered the next question, too, which is, do you hope that your fiction has some impact on the real world? I think very clearly, you do.

Yeah, I really do. I mean, I would do it, you know, even if I didn’t have that. But, you know, one of the things that keeps me going when, you know, things are low, and I don’t feel like working, and it’s not very satisfying and everything’s terrible, is the thought that I’m making a difference in the world, that this thing has meaning in the world and will make the world a better place.

And you’ve mentioned that you’re working on something, what are you working on now?

I’m writing a utopian post-Green NewDeal novel called The Lost Cause that is in many ways indistinguishable from a dystopian environmental novel in that it is full of floods and fires, zoonotic plagues, refugees, and so on. But the difference is that the people in the book have met the crisis head-on, and they have begun a multi-century-long process of addressing it. So, there’re like . . . a bunch of them are working on relocating all the coastal cities in the world twenty kilometres inland. You know, they have high-density living plans to accommodate refugees as ever-larger parts of the world become uninhabitable. They are replacing major aviation routes with high-speed rail links. They’re just, they’re doing the work. And they call themselves the first generation in two hundred years not to fear the future. And they start with something called the Canadian miracle that starts after a hung Parliament triggers, or a no-confidence vote triggers, a snap election in Canada. And election surprises mire the Tory and Liberal candidates in scandal, and (a) Metis woman becomes the PM, and she ushers in what they call the Canadian miracle, the first Green New Deal, the first Leap Manifesto, implementation after Calgary is basically washed away. And she, they relocate all of the parts of Calgary that are in the flood plain and create a new way of thinking about climate work and care work. And after the Canadian miracle is well underway, there’s this practice of what they call the blue helmets, who are exchange workers, who go all around the world to learn methods and to teach methods from their home countries. And this large circulating population of blue helmets are really at the center of this story. And so the story, I should mention, turns on truth and reconciliation with the white nationalist militias who think that they’re not living in a utopia, but rather a dystopia going on there.

A lot going on there.

Yeah.

Well, glad to hear there’s still some Canadian content.

Oh, yes, very much so.

And when will that come out?

Oh, I haven’t sold it. I never sell my books before I write them. I always sell them after they’re done. So, it doesn’t have a publication date. But my editor is really excited about it. I sent it to him.

I suspect it will find a home.

Yeah. Oh, yeah.

And where can people find you online? You are online, I presume?

Oh yes. So you can find all my work at pluralistic.net.

Pluralistic is available, If you go there, you’ll find out how to get it as a Twitter feed. So, I post several essays a day as Twitter threads, or you can read them on the web or full-text RSS. I podcast a lot of them. They’re also available as a daily email newsletter, and they’re also available on Mastadon and Tumblr. Everything except Tumblr and Twitter is is surveillance-free. There’s no analytics, no tracking, no cookies set. It’s licensed Creative Commons attribution only.

Okay, well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I really appreciate it. I enjoyed the chat. Hope you did, too.

Okay, great.

And best of luck with Attack Surface.

Thank you very much. Thanks for the chat. It’s been really nice.

Episode 68: James Morrow

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

Website
www.jamesmorrow.net

Facebook
@james.morrow.754570

Twitter
@jimmorrow11

James Morrow’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Jim, welcome to The Worldshapers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not bad!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that’s for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

I think I read his autobiography, yeah.

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

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

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

Yeah, it’s the same joke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He comes off very, very well. Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think both are acceptable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like Disneyland.

Exactly.

And what else are you working on?

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

Any indication of when that will be out?

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

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

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

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

I enjoyed it very much. You’re welcome.

Episode 66: Kacey Ezell

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

Website
www.kaceyezell.net

Facebook
@KaceyEzell

Instagram
@KaceyEzell

Kacey Ezell’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kacey, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much for having me.

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

The future is now, friends. It really is.

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

I do vaguely. Sort of northish.

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

Yeah, right.

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

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

That would do it.

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

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

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

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

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

And did you . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

Absolutely.

When did you start to try to write professionally?

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

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

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

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

Oh, that’s awesome, dude.

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

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

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

Oh, that’s cool.

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

Dungeons and Dragons should be a major at school.

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

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

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

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

I’ve been once.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Where did you get that?

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

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

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

Right. Right.

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

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

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

They were more fun.

They’re more fun?

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

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

A USAF UH-1N Huey.

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

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

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

There’s a ton of them.

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

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

Oh, yeah, I remember that. Yeah.

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

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

Sure.

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

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

As one does.

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

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

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

Oh, poor girl, yeah.

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

Right.

’Cause that’s the target, right?

Yeah, absolutely.

So, that was interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No, I use my laptop.

Well, being a poet, you ever know.

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

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

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

Do you write sequentially.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What kind of editorial feedback do you get back typically?

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, it sounds quite fascinating.

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

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

Dum dum dum.

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

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

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

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

Why stories of the fantastic?

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

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

It made sense to me.

OK, good. I’m glad.

What are you working on now?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Episode 65: Cat Rambo

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

Website
www.catrambo.com

Twitter
@catrambo

Facebook
@catrambo

Cat Rambo’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you.

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

Oh, nice.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did you study writing formally at some point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, God.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three very different writers.

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

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

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

And that’s coming up in September, right?

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

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

Yeah.

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

 Mm-hmm.

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

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

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

It is a legitimate question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, awesome.

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

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

Yeah, that was it. Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, yeah.

We all have tics that…

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

Oh, yeah.

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

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

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

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

Yeah. What was that like?

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

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

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

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

Oh…no.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, yeah. Yeah, definitely.

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

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

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

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

But clearly, you got the bug.

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

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

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

And then you rose up through the ranks…

Rose up…

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what’s it called?

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

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

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

And anything else that’s in the offing?

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

And where can people find you online?

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

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

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

Episode 63: Kathrin Hutson

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

Website
kathrinhutsonfiction.com

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The Introduction

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Kathrin, welcome to The Worldshapers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patricia McKillip.

Thank you so much! It always slips my mind.

I read it too!

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

Philip Pullman.

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

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

Very nice!

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

Yes, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I did.

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

That’s interesting.

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

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

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

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

Yeah, right. As long as they make sense.

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

Yeah, that’s good. I would hope so.

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

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

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

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

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

No, I can’t.

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

Yeah.

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

Right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ever since you were ten, apparently.

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

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

Yes.

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

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

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

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

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

Well, that’s what they want you think.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Excellent!

…people look at you funny when you’re…

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

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

Yes.

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

Yeah, that would do it.

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

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

The short story, yeah.

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that’s very easy to do.

Yeah, right. Yeah.

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

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

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

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

That’s always nice to hear.

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

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

Yes, I am.

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

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

One would think you’d like that.

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

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

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

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

Oh, of course!

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

Whoops! Yeah.

But it is very helpful, I find.

Yes, absolutely.

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

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

So, it’s an addiction.

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

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

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

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

Why do human beings do this?

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

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

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

And anything else to mention?

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

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

Of course, my website is kathrinhutsonfiction.com.

You should probably spell your name because it’s…

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

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

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

Episode 62: Kate Elliott

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

Websites
www.kateelliott.com
imakeupworlds.com

Twitter
@KateElliottSFF

Kate Elliott’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo by April Quintanilla

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

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

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

So, Kate, welcome to The Worldshapers.

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

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

Yes, yeah.

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

She’s a fantastic editor.

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

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

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

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

I know, right?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which is called?

Slavers of Thok.

Oh, wow.

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

So, what am I saying?

You’re saying OreGON.

Oh, sorry.

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

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

Saskatchewan. Saskatchewan.

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

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

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

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

That was my next question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And that figures into your worldbuilding and everything?

Oh, absolutely.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wow.

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

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

That’s pretty much a perfect elevator pitch.

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

That’s a fast pace.

Yeah.

For a big space-opera type story.

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

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

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

How many books do you envision eventually?

A trilogy.

Trilogy.

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, exactly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

No.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me, either. So, I always ask.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, yeah, yeah,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, me too.

I mean, do we ever get this fully right?

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That’s great. Yeah.

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

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

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

That’s right. That’s right, Ed.

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

Yeah. Yeah, I am.

Does it have a title?

Yes. Book two is called Furious Heaven.

And anything else in the works?

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

OK. And where can people find you online?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you.

Episode 61: Jeremy Szal

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

Website
www.jeremyszal.com

Twitter
@JeremySzal

Facebook
@ Jeremy.J.Szal

Jeremy Szal’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

Welcome to The Worldshapers, Jeremy.

Thank you very much, Edward. Lovely to be here

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

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

Fourteen hours.

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That is a novel before Stormblood.

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

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

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

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

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

All right. Stormblood, yeah?

Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I get a lot of different answers.

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

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

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

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

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

I should try that.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How did you find your beta readers?

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

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

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

Not great.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And where can people find you online?

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

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

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

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

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

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

All right. Thank you very much.

Bye for now. 

Bye for now. Thank you.

Episode 60: Helen Dale

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

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@_HelenDale

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@HelenDale

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Helen Dale’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Helen, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Hello, Edward, how are you?

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

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

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

Worshipping at the shrine at the Great God Cafe.

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

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

Oh, horrors.

Oh, dear, horrors. Yes.

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

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

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

I’m sure that was a huge relief.

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

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

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

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

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

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

So then, how did that first novel come about?

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

What was it about? What was your good idea?

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

Big Ukrainian population here in Saskatchewan.

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

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

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

And you’re still in university at the time?

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

There’s a lot of that going around.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And changed countries in there, too.

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

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

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

You’d been writing, just not fiction.

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

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

Yes, I did have a good idea.

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

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

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

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

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

Yes.

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

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

Who’s been on the program.

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

Yes.

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

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

That helps.

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

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

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

Archimedes. I said Archimedes.

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

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

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

That never happens.

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

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

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

Yeah.

And we saw that happen.

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

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

Oo, me, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, there are, yes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes, I am officially old.

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

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

You were doing other things.

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, yes, I’ve heard of that.

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

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

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

We all have our weaknesses and strengths.

Yes, yes. So that’s the thing.

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

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

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

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

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

That could get expensive if you hit your TV.

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

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

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

I don’t use them myself.

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

And what kind of feedback could you get back?

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

Just getting technical details straightened out.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh, dear.

So I had to move them south on the coast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 But why you?

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

I follow him on Twitter, too.

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

Are you working on any more fiction at the moment?

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

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

Any timeline on that?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yes. Thank you very much..

Bye for now.

Catch you later. Bye.