Brian Trent’s work regularly appears in The Magazine ofFantasy & Science Fiction, Analog Science Fiction and Fact, the New York Times-bestselling Black Tide Rising anthologies, The Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF, Terraform, Flash Fiction Online, Daily Science Fiction, Apex, Pseudopod, Escape Pod, Galaxy’sEdge, Nature, and numerous year’s-best anthologies.
The author of the science fiction novels Redspace Rising and Ten Thousand Thunders, Trent is a winner of the 2019 Year’s Best Military and Adventure SF Readers’ Choice Award from Baen Books and a Writers of the Future winner. He is also a contributor to the Baen anthologies Weird World War III, Weird World War IV, Weird World War China, and the newly released Worlds Long Lost. Trent lives in New England.
James Van Pelt is a former high school English teacher who is now a full-time science fiction, fantasy and horror writer (among other things). His short stories have appeared in numerous magazines and anthologies, including Asimov’s, Analog, Talebones, Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and others. He has eight books out, including six short story collections, Strangers and Beggars, The Last of the O-Forms and Other Stories, The Radio Magician and Other Stories, Flying in the Heart of the Lafayette Escadrille, The Experience Arcade, and The Best of James Van Pelt. His two novels are Summer of the Apocalypse and Pandora’s Gun.
He has been a Nebula finalist and a John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer finalist and has been nominated for Pushcart prizes. His first collection was named a Best Book for Young Adults by the American Library Association, and his last collection won the Colorado Book Award. Many of his short stories have appeared in various Year’s Best collections.
Richard Paolinelli began his writing journey as a freelance writer in 1984 and gained his first fiction credit serving as the lead writer for the first two issues of the Elite Comics sci-fi/fantasy series Seadragon.
After nearly a quarter of a century in the newspaper field, in 2010, Richard retired as a sportswriter and returned to his fiction-writing roots. Since then he has written several award-winning novels, two non-fiction sports books, and has appeared in over 20 anthologies including eight of the 11-book Tuscany Bay Books’ Planetary Anthology Series and five Sherlock Holmes collections. He also blogs and writes some fan fiction on his websiteand is co-owner of Tuscany Bay Books.
He runs weekly features on his website, including an occasional podcast, and serves as a regular co-host on LA Talk Radio’s The Writer’s Block. He sometimes leads the show whenever Jim Christina’s horse runs off and leaves him stranded in the middle of the desert.
Cat Rambo’s more than 200 published short stories have appeared in Asimov’s, Weird Tales, Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, and many others, and consistently garner mentions and appearances in year’s-best-of anthologies. Cat’s collection, Eyes 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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…
…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?
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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 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.
Now, I say I feel like I’m kind of an honorary member of the IFWA, because we’ve known each other for a long time through conventions in Calgary, and so, although I’ve never, you know, really been a member of the organization, I’ve been part of the Writers at the Improv that that group does every year, for many, many years now.
That is so much fun, Writers at the Improv.
I’ve done it a couple of times as a program. In fact, I did it when I was writer-in-residence at the Regina Public Library, and I did it again this year at the Saskatoon Public Library. Except I didn’t really have anybody show…it was just before everything closed down and I think people were a little iffy. All I had was an English As a Second Language class, and none of them wanted to compete. So what I did was, I just took words from them…because for those…I guess I should explain…Writers at the Improv is like any improv, you get words in the audience and you write a story using those words. I wrote a story on the words that they gave me. So that was kind of fun for me. It wasn’t quite the usual kind of a process, though. But anyway, enough about me. You’re actually here to talk about you. So, we have known each other a long time and you’ve been a writer all that time that I’ve known you. So, let’s take you back into the mists of time, as I like to say. How did you get interested…well, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy…and in writing? Which came first, or how did those two things come together for you?
Well, I can…of course, that’s why my phone rings…I have definitely been a reader and a fan of science fiction and fantasy since before I could even read. According to my mom, I demanded to be taught how to read before kindergarten because I was tired of waiting for people to have time to read to me. So, I’ve always been a reader. I read The Lord of the Rings at age eight for the first time. And I reread it several times, and launched me into reading Heinlein and stuff that I just hadn’t even thought I was old enough for yet. But always, always been a very avid reader. And then, somewhere along the way, when I realized I had to have a job in the big wide world, I realized that that writing the books that I loved so much could be a thing.
Well, you studied…well, first of all, you grew up in Calgary, I presume, or is that correct?
Northern Alberta. So when you went to…when you were in school, did you start writing stories and sharing them with your friends and that sort of thing?
Yeah, and I was attempting to write novels at that point. I was still uncertain about short fiction, but I was always a book lover and I was attempting to write at that time. But being a sensible girl raised by sensible parents, I thought that I should go to journalism school and get a job that I could write for a living and maybe get a paycheque.
Yes, and that’s exactly what I did, because in high school I wrote novels and short stories and I knew I wanted to be a writer. And then I looked at it and I said, “Well, you can’t make a living as a writer,” and I went into journalism for that very reason, so I’d be doing something where I would be I would be writing. And, you know, it wasn’t what I wanted to write necessarily, but I thought it’d be useful. So, did you find that useful, your journalism training, and then the work you did there? Did that help with the fiction writing later on?
I got told several times, both in photojournalism and in the writing classes, that I was on the wrong side of the tracks. So, anyone from Calgary knows that SATE is on one side of the C-train tracks and the art school, ACAD, is on the other side of the tracks. And so, I actually had a couple of instructors tell me, “You’re on the wrong side of the tracks. You should be in art school.” And, of course, I fought that and graduated with honors and worked as a freelancer. I’ve been published in several magazines and newspapers, especially around Alberta. But it didn’t take me very many years before I realized that there might possibly be more truth in the fiction I wrote than in the journalism, and I decided that it was time to step away from that and focus more on the fiction, which is where my heart was.
I still find…and, yeah, I was kind of there, I mean, I, I did journalism and I, you know, for eight years I worked for a newspaper as a reporter and then as editor of the newspaper, and then I was a communications officer for the Saskatchewan Science Centre. All that time I was writing fiction, but I did find that the mere act of having to put words on paper is helpful, no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, that the discipline of writing helps you write. Did you find that, as well, that there was some benefit in all that nonfiction when you got around to focusing on fiction?
Sure. Definitely. And just even, as you say, words on the paper, but even the act of it, the physical act of putting words on the paper, the more you do it, the easier it gets to get started. And that seems to always be the hang-up for everyone, is getting started.
Well, I often say that as a newspaper reporter, you don’t have the luxury of not writing because the newspaper is going to come out and there have to be words in it to go around the advertising. So, you have to provide those words. So, I did find it a very useful side of writing. But all that time I was writing fiction. Were you writing fiction even while you were working mostly as a non-fiction freelancer?
I was, sporadically. I also spent several years chasing wildlife photography and sold a bunch of pictures to magazines and postcards and calendar companies and all kinds of neat things, back in the day where you still had to mail the slides physically to the company. And so, I was writing and always reading, but it was a little sporadic. I chased a lot of other interesting things. And I think that just lends itself to good fiction, too.
Well, you have to have something in the tank that you turn into words about other things, I think. And that’s another thing that I found writing nonfiction is that, you know, it broadens your horizons a little bit from focusing just on the stuff that you make up. It exposes you to other things. So when did…
Kind of like reading outside your genre will sometimes open your mind up to things you wouldn’t have thought of otherwise.
Yeah. Well, you did mention the imaginative Fiction Writers Association. When did you become involved with that excellent writing group?
Oh, I became a member…I believe it was ’96, or ’97. And my very first ever short story critique was performed by Randy and someone else who I don’t remember anymore.
That very first one? I mean, I was just in my mid-20s, it was the first time I attempted short fiction, I hadn’t even really read anything. The story was atrocious, and Randy did his best to tell me so in the kindest way. But it was quite an experience. And it was…it brought me back actually to the journalism-school days when, you know, you would have to write and write and write your assignments and then have them trashed. But it was very eye-opening and I learned a lot. And IFWA has, through the years, brought me so much, just…it’s hard to even express my gratitude because it’s so big.
Well, it’s good to hear because, you know, I’ve talked to a lot of authors and I always ask about their formal training, and that was, in your case, the journalism, but also if you can find a good writers group. And some of us have never had a handy writers’ group. And then there’s people who’ve been in writer’s groups, but they were not helpful. So it’s nice to know that there’s one out there that really works.
And IFWA has had its ups and downs, I mean, we became so big that the only way to be helpful and manage the numbers was to have splinter groups. And I was involved in one of those–well, a few of those splinter groups–but one in particular that went on for several years. And that kind of small focus can…that’s where you really get your value, is if you can find just a…usually between six or 10 people seems to be ideal…and you share work amongst you and you focus on one person’s work at a time. And, oh, my goodness, you can make leaps and bounds of progress that you just simply wouldn’t have been able to without them.
So when did you start selling short fiction?
That would be after attending the Odyssey Writing Workshop out in New Hampshire. Odyssey, we used to jokingly say, is a lot like Survivor because it is six weeks long. But we used to joke that it’s like Survivor, but you can’t vote anyone out. And it’s 16 students that critique each other and take courses and classes and workshops and do assignments for six weeks. It’s an MFA-equivalent course that’s crammed into a very short amount of time and it’s very intense. Because of that, the requirements for that course, I had to really get into short fiction a lot more than I ever had before. Even though I was a member of IFWA coming up to that time, Odyssey was what really got me looking at short fiction, reading it, writing it, really exploring it. And it was just shortly after that. So, my roommate got her first short story sale while we’re there. And then I got my first one shortly after, and it was written while I was at Odyssey.
When was that first one and what was it?
So let’s see. That was 2006. Oh, my goodness, I can remember the story, ‘course the title runs right out of my head. And it was published in a little online journal. It was a Christian journal, I believe. Just a small thing. But, of course, being the first one, I was really excited.
Yes, it’s…I was in…where was I? I was in Zurich, of all places, on a choir tour with my university choir, which I had gone back to as an alumnus just a few years after I graduated and I got a, you know, a mailgram, because we didn’t have email in those days, an aerogram from my mother telling me that I had sold a short story. So I still remember that very clearly. It wasn’t science fiction, either, that first one. But it was my first short story. So, yeah, you always remember the first one, that’s for sure.
Now though, you have…your first novel has come out. When did you start focusing or thinking about novels, or were there some unpublished ones in there before you published one? How did that work out for you?
There are several unpublished novels in my history. I, like I said earlier, love, love book-length fiction. I love the ability to just really immerse yourself in that world and those characters. And personally, short stories just aren’t long enough to really have the same impact on you. So, yeah, there’re a few novels sitting there that still need to find a home. The interesting thing is, Jumpship Hope began, as well, at Odyssey. We had an assignment to write up a flash piece, which I’d never heard of before. So here I was, already struggling with writing short stories because I wasn’t used to being so brief, and now I had an assignment to write flash fiction, a thousand words or less. And it was to be read out loud in public at a bookstore. It had to be five minutes or less. So that scene was actually inspired by my roommate, she said, “Just take one impactful moment and turn it into a story.” Just one. She said if you try and put too many moments in, then you won’t have flash fiction. So I took an impactful moment and turned it into, you know, threw it onto a spaceship. And, of course, immediately saw everything that led up to that moment and everything that came after it, and I had to write a book.
Well, this seems like a good place to give a synopsis of said book. So…without giving away anything you don’t want to give away...
Jumpship Hope is about first contact. And, of course, you know, that wonderful space-opera thing of being able to jump or fold space. And it’s an adventure about, you know, learning what we stand for. And it deals with humanity in a time where Earth has become pretty unlivable, and they’re trying to survive in orbit, on the moon, and on Mars. And things aren’t going so great, of course, because that makes good fiction.
And, you talked a little bit about how it came about, coming out of this this flash fiction. What was the impactful scene that you wrote that then triggered the rest of it? Or will that give something away?
Well, the impactful scene is very much that mirror moment in the middle where our hero, Janlin Kavanaugh, stops being chased and starts chasing. It’s where she puts her foot down and she says, “I’ve had enough and I’m going to make some changes.”
Well, how did you go about planning out the novel? Are you a detailed outliner…are you a pantser or a plotter, is the usual way to say that…?
Right. I’m a bit of a pantser, but I’m a bit of an organized pantser. I like to sail in the first 20, 30 thousand words, just feeling my way around. And then I will start plotting more and making sure that the pieces that I want are in place and in order. And then that gives me more confidence to move forward without running, you know, too many detours. Yeah. That would be it.
So what do you end up with in actual pre-writing, like a 400-page synopsis or a paragraph scribbled on the back of an envelope? What did it look like?
I usually end up with, when I’m still getting that first thirty thousand, then I usually end up with a lot of random scenes from all over the place in a scribbled notebook. And then, that’s when, at that point, I need to step back and say, “What’s important? Where am I going with this?” And that’s when I’ll start planning and I’ll start doing a proper outline. Having learned so much about story structure and fiction elements and plotting, I understand the importance of backing up in that moment and taking a look and making sure that I’m focusing on what I really want to say and not just one thing after another.
Well, other than that impactful scene, what was the impetus for telling this particular story? Where did the, you know, where do you get your ideas? That’s the other cliché we ask. And how does that, you know, this is for Jumpship Hope, but, you know, you’ve written short stories as well. What is your general sort of idea-generating process?
Mm hmm. Usually, there is an endpoint. That’s pretty clear. And it’s all about finding out what happened to end up at that point. Without an endpoint…and I actually read an interesting article not long ago about a triangle setup where, if you understand the inciting incident and you understand your mirror moment in the middle, and you understand the transformation at the end, once you have those three pieces, you can just go ahead and fill in what’s needed to get there to those points. So…I’m sorry, I lost track of the question.
Well, when you’re coming up with the story, how does it start for you? Does it start with like an image or a character or a plot idea or what’s typical for you?
It’s often a scene with the people and the dialogues coming to me. I can hear the characters, I can see the scene, I understand the tone and the emotion that’s taking place. And those scenes are what become this notebook full of scribbled bits and pieces that I then have to string together and bridge with more prose to make it a readable novel.
What’s your actual writing process? Do you write, you know, in long bursts or short bursts or in your office or off in a coffee shop or on a piece of parchment under a tree with a quill pen? How do you write?
Do you know, I really miss coffee shops. I used to write in coffee shops all the time when my kid was little. It was my way of being able to step away from the house, being an at-home mom and a freelancer working from home, right? But these days, I’m usually on the couch with the laptop or the notebook on my knees. I tend to write in spurts, so I’ll do an hour, take a break, another hour, take a break…but I also tend to take a whole day and just focus on the novel and not try to look at other jobs, like the editing jobs that I may be on that day, or that at that time. So I try to just let the book fill my head for that day and then I can maybe set it aside and take a few days to do all the other life-stuff. So it’s kind of…I work in spurts and then I take breaks.
Are you a fast writer or a slow writer?
I’m pretty darn fast. While I was in between the journalism years and getting the novel published and becoming a freelance editor, I ran my own freelance copywriting business. So you learn, just like with the journalism, you learn to write fast. You learn to get words down on the page and you learn to meet deadlines, which, I’m very sad to say, I missed the deadline with the sequel to Jumpship Hope.
Well, deadlines. I always remember, I think it was Douglas Adams who said that, “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they go by.”
Yes, that’s an awesome quote!
So, once you have a first draft, what’s your revision process look like? Or do you do, like, a rolling revision and it’s all polished when you get to the end of that draft? Or do you go back to the beginning and do it all from the beginning? How does that work for you and what sorts of things do you find yourself working on in the revision passes?
Well, with that messy, rough first draft, I tried to just keep plowing forward, though sometimes it is important to step back and look at what you’re doing. But I try to keep pushing forward until I get to the end. But especially since I’ve become an editor over the past five years, I find it very difficult to take the editor hat off and just write. So it’s…some of the biggest discipline I’ve ever had to have is now to be able to just say, “Stop worrying about the editing, stop trying to make it perfect right now, it’s just a first draft. Get to the end.” And then, once that first draft is done, as you come back to the beginning, then I get to put my editor hat on, and I feel much more confident and equipped, better equipped, to do a good job.
Well, I was going to ask you about the editing. Have you found that editing…t sounds like you’ve found that editing other people’s work helps you to look at your own critically. I certainly find that.
It definitely does. And I really enjoy it. It can be incredibly monotonous, and of course, anyone can edit for themselves to a certain degree, but I know for myself, even as an editor, I need other people’s eyes on the work. When it’s your muddle and your head’s just too far in it, you often can’t see it from the same perspective as someone else can for you.
So, what to do when you get to that point? Do you have beta readers or do you bring in an external editor or how do you like to do that? Or critiquers?
Yeah, yeah. I’ve got a couple of wonderful beta readers and some author friends who are always happy to exchange manuscripts. So then, I can help them without them feeling like they should be paying me because that’s my job as well. And they get to help me and we just get to do it as friends, which is wonderful, and very talented people that I call friends. I’m incredibly blessed in that way. And then, of course, with the particular work in progress, my publisher is waiting for that, and they will do a wonderful editing job for me there.
What sorts of things do you find yourself having to work on, both in revision, and then when somebody else looks at it, are there sort of consistent things that you find you have to spruce up?
Mm hmm. Consistent, yeah…on all levels of editing, there are things that every author has, like tics, I guess? Bad habits. One of mine is the word “very.” So, I will actually go and do a seek-and-destroy that one. There’s a few others on my list that are pretty bad, but that one is always number.
I actually thought for a minute you said the word-fairy, like the word-fairy, like this fairy that flies around and gives you words or something, not the word “very.”
Oh, a word-fairy!
A word-fairy would be a very good thing. Put your manuscript under your pillow and the word fairy comes and fixes it all up.
Ed, that’s a great idea.
I’m going to have to write that story!
Yeah. We need some word-fairies! Yeah, no, it’s a word “very.”
V-E-R-Y. That one gets me. Apparently it’s my way of trying to…often I mark them and I’ll go through. A lot of times you can just take them right out and it’s fine. But sometimes it’s because I simply have not taken the time to do good word-choice thinking, right? To really think it through and get the right word instead of ones that need the word bury in front of it.
Yeah. And that’s something as writer-in-residence, that’s actually–which I just finished at the Saskatoon Public Library–I found myself pointing out to other people, You know, don’t use a weak verb with a modifier if you can find a strong verb, that sort of thing.
Or a weak noun with a modifier.
The other one that I’m often catching and other people’s work, which I now catch as I’m writing, is instead of saying what something is not, say what it is. So instead of saying, “That’s not bad,” say, “It’s good.” And if those words don’t seem to cut it, then you’re not choosing the right words.
And the other one that I catch myself and I do this–it’s not a search to replace, but I often do a search for passive voice like was and had and things like that, and see if there’s some way to turn that one around as well. And that’s another one I often point out to people.
It just makes the writing so much more powerful. We don’t realize…I guess it’s kind of like that quote that good, easy reading is really hard writing?
So, when you got to your editor, your publisher, which is Tyche Books, what was the editing process like at that side of things for you? How do they approach editing?
I was pleased to see that they approach their editing very much the same way I do. Lots of comments and suggestions and track changes, so that I could go through and approve, accept, or reject, because like I tell my clients, it’s your story and you should always have the final say. So, I was really happy to see that I got a chance to look through the suggested changes and give my own feedback on that and make the changes I wanted or, you know, deny the changes that I didn’t think were appropriate. So, that pretty important. I know there’s been other Canadian authors that have had to fight things like Canadian spelling and things like that.
Yeah, that’s always a tough one for me, because my publisher’s in the U.S., but I have my own little publishing company where I adhere to Canadian spelling, and I’m constantly having to do a check on spelling to make sure I’ve either not used it for the American publisher or I’m using it in the stuff I’m doing myself or the Canadian publishers I work for. So, half the time, I’m not sure. And then I was just editing somebody else’s manuscript and they wanted UK spelling, which is not quite the same again. But there’s some software tools to help you with stuff like that. And I did want to ask you about editing, since we’re talking about it. How did you get into freelance editing?
Being a journalist and a freelance journalist for many years and then a freelance copywriter for many years, I was always really interested into getting into editing as well for fiction, because that’s my first love. And for a long time, I simply didn’t feel qualified. I wanted to make sure that I really did know my stuff. I actually took some courses and brushed up on my editing and grammar and a whole bunch of other things before I hung my shingle out. I really wanted to be sure that if I was asking people to pay me for my time, that they were going to get a good return on investment. So when I did go ahead and start doing that, my first couple of jobs were with IFWA members, actually, and that really helped me gain in my confidence and get started. It sounds like a really easy job, and I love to say, “Pinch me, I get paid to read for a living.” But like I said earlier, it can be incredibly tedious and monotonous and almost meditative at times. And it’s certainly not easy.
No, it’s not. And I do it, too.
It’s hard work.
Yeah, it is. And it does…well, and of course, basically, as the writer in residence I was editing, I was taking up to 3,000 words at a time, and I would go over that with a fine-tooth comb and then I would meet with people for an hour. And I met with some 70 individuals over the course of my time there. And there’s a song from My Fair Lady that kept running through my head, which is, “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words. I get words all day through, first from him, then from you. Is that all you blighters can do?” It’s just the perfect editing…not ht it means in the context of the musical, but it’s the perfect editor’s song!
It’s the perfect editor’s song. It really is. And unfortunately, in these past years that I’ve been working as an editor, I actually stepped away from writing for a little while. And I don’t read as much as I like to. My to-be-read pile has gone completely nuts because I keep buying books. And when you read all day at the end of the day, you want to do almost anything else.
Yeah. It’s an occupational hazard, I think.
I think so.
The other thing about editor–you may have heard this, having worked in journalism, but my publisher at the Wayburn Review once put it one of his columns as a joke: “Editor is actually an acronym, it stands for Expensive Dummy in the Other Room.”
I think he meant it as a joke.
Oh, here’s hoping.
He didn’t fire me, so it could have been too bad. So, how has the reception been to Jumpship Hope? Have you…you know, are people enjoying it?
Yeah, it’s been really great. And I’ve had some surprising feedback. In fact, just last night I got the message from my auntie and she said, “Adrià, I don’t usually read science fiction, but you had me right till the end and I can’t wait for the next one.” So, it’s lovely to hear things like that, especially when you’re, you know, neck-deep in the sequel and you’re doubting everything.
Yeah, well, that’s sort of the middle part of the book when you’re just, you’re not sure. I had something like that from my father once. One of my first…I guess my first novel. And he actually, he did read this kind of stuff some, and he read it and he actually said to me, “When did you learn so much about human nature?”
Oh, well, that’s nice. That’s actually a really good compliment.
Yeah. I thought it was, too.
So you mentioned that you are working on the sequel…?
Jumpship Dissonance. And the final book, which is also getting little bits of scribbles, just as I try to sort everything, is Jumpship Freedom, and that will create the trilogy.
Is there a set release date for these, or is it a little amorphous yet?
Jumpship Dissonance was initially set to launch at When Words Collide in 2020, but 2020 isn’t going so well, and I missed my deadline anyway, so we’re shooting for 2021.
I was hoping to launch a book at When Words Collide, as well. So, yeah.
Yeah, it it’s going to be a fun one. Online.
I wanted to ask you as well about the woodworking because it’s interesting that creative people are often creative in more than one way. You mentioned the photography, which you focused on–ha ha!–focused on it for a while. So where did the woodworking side of things come in?
Now, that’s a fun one because, yes, creative people do often have a lot of things that they want to try, at least. And a lot of creatives will have many talents. But I struggled for a long time wanting to learn how to carve and just feeling like I should just get my butt in the chair and keep writing because that was the focus, that was my hobby. You know, I had work and parenting and yada-yada. But a few years ago, actually, when I backed off from the writing and the reading and I was doing more and more editing, I needed something else that took me away from the screen and the words and allowed me to work with my hands. So, I took a class at Lee Valley and then another one a few years later at Black Forest Wood Company. And I just absolutely fell in love. Woodcarving has a certain soul to it, like nothing else I’ve ever met. And I’ve always been a big nature girl, I love being in the trees. So it doesn’t surprise me that I like to carve wood. And I just kind of gave myself permission to go ahead and play and have some fun. And it’s really taken off for me. To me, it’s part of my soul-survival kit, if that makes any sense.
What sorts of things do you carve?
I’ve tried all kinds of neat things. I carve a lot of what’s known as cottonwood bark, which is the thick bark that grows on balsam poplar trees. And it’s very soft and forgiving. It’s really easy for beginners to play with and it has a beautiful grain. It’s known for those little fairy houses, you know, carved out of the bark? That is usually cottonwood bark. And it’s carved, you know, the faces, like the old man with fear and the mustache, wood spirits. One of my favorites is a whale tale that I carved, that I wear as a pendant. And one of my favorite, favorite subjects to carve is Celtic knots and weaves.
So it’s all a form of creating something from…not exactly nothing, but shaping materials into something else, which I think is a, as you might guess from the fact this podcast is called The Worldshapers, is actually a metaphor that I like, that we don’t really create things from nothing, but we take the material that we have inside us and we we shape it into stories and into new creations. So, woodcarving is very much a good metaphor for that.
It’s funny that you would put it that way, Ed, because I actually noticed one day that as an editor and a woodcarver, it’s all about taking things away.
That’s true. I guess that’s true.
I actually am a little jealous of sculptors because they add the clay until it’s right. Whereas a woodcarver, or a stone carver, has to remove material until it’s right.
Well, that’s Michelangelo’s famous thing, it’s attributed to him, that, “How do you carve David? Well, you get a piece of marble and you cut away everything that’s not David.”
Not David. It’s that simple. Very simple. Just like writing. You just put some words on the page. It’s that simple.
You could say that we’re starting with the entire English language and we just take away the parts of it that we don’t need for the specific book. So, it’s all in how you look at it.
Well, then, on the big philosophical side, why do you do this? Why do you tell stories? Or why do you think any of us tell stories? And why, in particular science fiction and fantasy stories?
Oh, we desperately need them. Science fiction and fantasy has given an outlet to talk about things, in all of our history, has given us an outlet to talk about things that weren’t supposed to be talked about. And we could hide underneath the the the wizards and the spaceships, but we could still tell a story about people. And for me, life’s not worth living if there’s no story. So how philosophical is that for you, Ed?
Where do you think that impulse comes from, for human beings to tell stories? Because we’ve been doing it our whole existence.
Well, it’s so important for us to work out what happened and to help us to think it through and decide how we really feel about it after initial reaction, which is, you know, usually either fear or celebration. But I think stories also help us to share information with those that maybe weren’t able to be on the scene for that moment. Right now, in our world as it is, which is a pretty scary one, we’re seeing a huge uprising like, possibly like none before, and I’m really hoping it is, it will be like none before. And that, of course, is around the Black Lives Matter. And, it’s… I’ve spent a lot of time on Facebook and other media sites reading and reading and reading people’s accounts and their firsthand stories of being black and living in America and what it looks like every day and what it feels like every day. And without those stories, how can someone like me in privilege and safety understand why they need to get so upset right now? So we need story. Without story, there’s no understanding.
Well, and I mentioned that this is called The Worldshapers. It’s probably too grand to save that any one story shapes the world in any significant fashion. But do you hope you’re at least shaping your readers in some fashion through your stories?
Oh, that’d be great. Do you know what would be great? Star Trek. A lot of the great ideas that they came up with have now come to pass. Like, the little communication devices seem an awful lot like flip-phones. It would be really great if someday we really can get in a jumpship and fold space and visit other solar systems. And if I inspire the little brain that’s capable of figuring that out, then that would be really something. But I’m not sure that I have that kind of power, I just like to tell a good story.
So you mentioned what you’re working on. Do you have any short fiction in the works or anything on that side of things?
No, I don’t. I haven’t spent a lot of time with short fiction recently, although I am reading Rhonda Parrish’s Earth anthology, the one with the golems and giants? It’s really god.
I think most of are either novelists or short story writers, and although we might do both, there’s one we tend to gravitate to. And certainly, in my case, it’s always been the longer stuff. I don’t write…I finally put out a collection of my short stories and I had to go from my first short story sale in the ’80s up until last year in order to have enough to make a collection. Not a huge short story writer for sure.
Well, how many stories did it come to that?
Twenty-two, I think. But there were at least three of them that hadn’t been published before. So they were one that I included that way. So actually published short stories? I wouldn’t think I’m more than about 20 in my entire career.
Well, I know that book exists and it’s on my wish list but I don’t own it yet.
Yes, please, please do buy it. Everybody listening now, please. Paths to the Stars. Shadowpaw Press. Twenty-two short stories by Edward Willett
It looks amazing and I can’t wait to read it.
So, where can people who would like to know more about you find you online?
AdriaLaycraft.com Is a quick way to find me. And I do have a Facebook account that I’m pretty regular on. Other than that, I try not to spend too much time online. Oh, but you can definitely go to the Tyche Books website. Not only do they have amazing authors and amazing books, you can get your favorite Tyche Book on a travel mug and they’re really nice travel mugs, a sweater, a hoodie, a sticker, a poster, a wall hanging. They’ve got it all.
And the YouTube channels you mentioned in the bio?
Oh, yes. You know, it would be really great to have a YouTube channel about writing, but it’s kind of a boring thing to film.
That’s why no, you know, writing competition TV shows. This week, the contestants will type!
Exactly. But Carving the Cottonwood is the first YouTube channel I started, and it was my way of giving back…so many YouTube channels about carving are just people learning and showing what they’re doing. And I was able to learn from them as I was, you know, figuring out how to do this, so filming myself is now my way of giving back to those people and to inspire those who would just like to give it a try. Now, the Girl Gone Vagabond channel, it did get renamed. It’s called Girl Gone to Ground. And it’s going to be now a focus on me finding a little piece of land out here on the West Coast and building a little cabin and a garden and a woodshop. And it should be a lot of fun to see how it works out.
People can find those just with a search on YouTube, I presume.
Yes. You bet.
All right. Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, Adria. I enjoyed that. I hope you did?
Oh, I did. Thank you so much for inviting me, Ed. It’s such an honor.
And hopefully we’ll see each other in Calgary again one of these days, if nowhere else.
Maybe not this summer, but I’ve really got my hopes set on next summer.
An hour-long conversation with Bryan Thomas Schmidt, national bestselling author and Hugo-nominated editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction whose debut novel, The Worker Prince, received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases and whose short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies and online.
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is a national bestselling author and Hugo-nominated editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction whose debut novel, The Worker Prince, received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases, and whose short stories have appeared in magazines and anthologies and online and include canon entries in The X-Files, Predator, Joe Ledger, Monster Hunter International, and Decipher’s WARS, amongst others.
As a book editor, he was the first editor on Andy Weir’s bestseller The Martian and has edited books by such luminaries as Alan Dean Foster, Tracy Hickman, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Todd McCaffrey, Jean Rabe, and more. His anthologies as editor include Infinite Stars and Predator: If It Bleeds for Titan Books, Shattered Shields with co-editor Jennifer Brozek, Mission: Tomorrow, Galactic Games, Little Green Men–Attack! with Robin Wayne Bailey, and The Monster Hunter Tales with Larry Correia, all for Baen; Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6, Beyond The Sun, and Raygun Chronicles: Space Opera For a New Age for various small presses, and Joe Ledger: Unstoppable with Jonathan Maberry for St. Martin’s Press. He lives in Kansas City.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Brian, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thanks for having me. Good to be here.
We’ve met a couple of times at conventions here and there, I think. And of course, you live not too far from Kansas City. So, I was down there for the Kansas City Worldcon, and I think I probably said hi to you sometime during that weekend.
You did. I think…weren’t your daughter or your wife with you, or both?
Yeah, they were both…I was just telling you before we started that I have family not too far from there. My mom was born in Butler, Missouri, about, I don’t know, 50 miles from Kansas City, a small town, and Adrian, Missouri, is right down there, too. And that’s where she grew up and went to school. And that’s the birthplace of Robert A. Heinlein. So, while I was there, I actually went down to Butler, and they have a library there, Virginia Heinlein’s name is on it, and they have a collection of Heinlein books. And so, I actually donated some of my books to them and signed them while I was down there. So, that’s kind of cool.
But anyway, enough about me. So, we’re going to start with, as I always say to the guests, taking you back in time. How did you first get interested in…well, first of all, in science fiction, and then in writing it? It’s not necessarily the same thing at the same time.
Well, my interest in writing came first, because…my mom likes to say I never played with a toy the same way twice, because I could always imagine new scenarios for the toys. And so I was creating storytelling even as I played. And so I kind of had a natural inclination towards storytelling. So, I started writing basically fanfic of some of my favorite children’s books, you know, when I was in kindergarten and, you know, doodling around before that, but by third grade, I was writing with a partner doing like little books in some of my favorite series.
What were those favorite series?
Well, like, for example–I’m trying to remember, I forget the author these days, but—it’s The Littles. They were books about little people that lived in the walls. They had tails and they had, you know, they would fly paper airplanes, and little, you know, contraptions they made out of things, and they lived in the walls. And there was a whole popular series of Littles books. That’s the one I remember that we were writing stuff for. There were other things, but I don’t remember off the top of my head what they were. But that was kind of my first thing. And then, when I got into sci-fi was when I saw Star Wars, and that’s what really…Star Wars: A New Hope really made me look at things differently. I was always into space. All of the NASA launches and the different missions. In fact, my grandma kept a scrapbook, which I now have, of all the news clippings from all the history of NASA until she died. And so, we have, up through the middle of the space shuttles, we have clippings from all that period, all the way back to the very first, you know, Mercury astronaut program and everything. It’s really cool stuff. And so, I’ve always been a fan of all of that, but Star Wars took it to a whole new level and made me think about it in a whole different way. And then I got into Star Trek, the original series, which was rerunning every night and was in competition with dinner, much to my mother’s chagrin, and Space: 1999 and so on and so forth. And that’s what really started it. But, of course, naturally, I combined my desire to tell stories with my science fiction, and it kind of went from there.
So, when did…when you were writing all this stuff, were you sharing it with other people? I always ask that question because I found for myself that when I started sharing my stories when I was writing them in high school and so forth, and I found out from that that people actually liked my stories, and that was one thing that eventually pointed me toward the, you know, doing writing professionally. Did you share?
Well, yeah. I don’t remember who all besides my family I shared them with, but I know I shared ‘em. Some of them, eventually, I entered into a writing contest, creative writing, in school. And I won some awards. And so, that was an encouragement because, like, I can really do this, you know, they’re judging me the best in the contest. I may have something here. So, yeah, I did share. Back then, I was also doing music a lot, and I shared my music a lot more publicly than I think I did my writing, though occasionally, different things would happen with writing. But the music I definitely performed in public, so…
You’re a singer or instrumentalist or both?
Singer, piano player, songwriter. I played banjo, I played guitar a little bit, and eventually took up hand percussion, but I mainly was known for piano and vocals and songwriting.
I always ask that question, because I’m a singer and did that kind of stuff, too.
Yeah. Yeah. I have several albums out.
Well, I can’t say that.
I toured, I had stuff on the radio, and I toured and did all that stuff, too. So, it was a whole other life before I settled down to writing books.
Now, when you got to university, you didn’t actually study creative writing, did you?
No, I studied…at first, I was a music major, because music had been the area where I’d had the greatest success up to that point. And they wanted me to learn classical and they wanted me to write classical, and I got really frustrated, so I ended up switching to the English department and pursuing writing. And I still have mixed emotions about that. I mean, they didn’t really…you know, “you’re not a composer because you don’t write classical music.” Well, lady, people are asking me to sing my songs everywhere I go, and you told me your own husband doesn’t like your compositions, so I think you call him me “not a composer” is kind of a little ironic. That was kind of my response, which didn’t go over well. But anyway, I went into the English department and then ended up deciding I wanted to pursue screenwriting and transferred and finished my college in California doing screenwriting and then went into TV and film. And so, writing kind of took over. But at the time, of course, it was scriptwriting, which is a different animal than prose writing.
I’m always interested in that, as well. So, the scriptwriting that you did…when you did start writing more prose, did you find benefit from having been a scriptwriter?
Well, my dialogue was really strong. I’ve always been really good with dialogue because scripts rely so much on dialogue. When it came to writing all the visceral stuff and the descriptions, that’s where I had to struggle, because I really had to figure out how to describe stuff in the amount of detail I’d never had to deal with before. And that was part of the struggle. But I was writing scripts in high school, really. I created my own TV show when I was, like, in eighth grade and wrote, like, fourteen episodes. And I was writing scripts for my favorite shows and all that kind of stuff. So, you know, I was always doing scriptwriting alongside whatever prose I did.
I want to go back to the studying writing at university, I’ve asked many writers about that, some who have done it, some who haven’t done it. And I get a very mixed bag as to how helpful it was. What was your reaction to the actual creative writing part that you studied at university?
Well, I didn’t have any particularly bad experiences, but I think that what I was trying to do definitely was pushing the envelope as far as creativity with what they were expecting me to do. I always put a twist on everything. There was always some kind of weird…it didn’t have to be science fiction necessarily, but it definitely was a twist. I had to…even with screenwriting, I had to write a newscast for a class. And so, I wrote humorous news stories, but delivered, like, straight. You know, at the time, this will totally date you, but I remember one of the reports was about, you know, heavy winds at the Wichita airport, and you see pictures, video of the planes flipping over and all. You know, so underemphasizing things, you know. “The entire session of Congress had to be cleared today because Vice President Quayle passed gas in session.” You know, that kind of thing was the kind of stories that I would come up with, and they were delivered deadpan, you know? And so, I think some of my teachers were like, “I’m not sure you’re taking this seriously or not.” I was like, “I am, it’s just like, I like to have fun with it while I’m doing it.” So, you know, the humor that people now see in things like Simon Says, I’ve always been doing that. I mean, that’s just kind of where I came out. You know, shows like Hill Street Blues that mixed humor with drama were always my favorite types of shows, anyway, so those were kind of the things that I modeled myself after.
So, you were writing scripts, but you did several things along in there before you really started focusing on the prose side, didn’t you?
Yeah. I mean, I did the…I was doing the music thing, and then I ended up going back and getting a master’s degree in seminary and doing…starting a nonprofit that taught leadership development in the arts, and went over to Africa and Brazil and Mexico and various places, and helped train leaders. In fact, in one denomination in Ghana, West Africa, I would say seventy percent of their music leaders today are people I trained. So…I mean, Ghana is the size of Oregon, so, you know, take it for what it is, but…you know, it’s one denomination out of, you know, hundreds. But still, you know, it’s kind of an accomplishment to have had that kind of impact on a particular group of people. You know, we’re talking about forty, fifty people who are kind of my progeny over there, they’re doing their thing, that I was able to train and have gone on to success. And so, a lot of those experiences that I got out of that have, of course, informed my writing.
One of the reasons I went and did all that is, when I was doing screenwriting at first in Hollywood, you know, I kept getting, “Your stories just a little too plain, a little too cliché, a little too, ‘we’ve seen them before.’ You need to get more life experience to write from.” So, I ended up going up and doing a concert tour, when I did my first album and left Hollywood behind. Quit my job—I was working for a company that did documentaries for History Channel and A&E and a bunch of different stuff, doing all these different shows, Biography was one of them. And I left and went on tour as a musician, moved back to live in Kansas City with my sister, and ended up doing the music thing, going to seminary and then going off and doing ministry for a while and doing these leadership-development training things, and then found my way back to prose, you know, after a decade of that. So, it was kind of a roundabout way that I came back and started writing novels as opposed to, you know, screenplays and songs and other things. But I started my first novel in about 2007, 2008.
And is that the one that was The Worker Prince which was published in 2011?
No. That was 2009. The first novel’s unpublished. And may never be published.
I have a few like that.
Yeah, it’s…yeah, I mean, I like the story and the concept, but, man, I was not up to pulling it off. Worker Prince is interesting because Worker Prince went through more rewrites than any book I’ve ever done to get where it was, and then, of course, we did a second version of it when it was picked up by a new publisher after the first publisher kind of went belly-up in the middle of releasing the books. So, I got a chance a few years later to put them out again and release the third book in the series. And I rewrote the first two and fixed a lot of things because my prose had advanced back far enough I felt like, you know, this was a chance to really write some wrongs, so to speak, and put it out there. So, there’s two versions of the story out there, too. So, yeah, Worker Prince was my first published novel. And that trilogy, actually, the Saga Of Davi Rhii, is actually gonna be re-released this summer, God willing, from my Boralis Books imprint and be out in hardback for the first time.
So, that’s your own imprint, Boralis?
Yeah, I’ve got my own imprint now that I do a lot of these novels and stuff with. I’ve also sold a novel to another publishing company, as well, and I still do anthologies with some of the other publishers and, you know, my novels are out there, but it’s just, you know, there’s so many advantages to doing it yourself these days, but I’m kind of becoming more hybrid.
Yeah, me too. I’m published by DAW, but I have my own little press, too, Shadowpaw Press, which I’m putting stuff out through for sort of the same reason, one of which was a story that came out and I went back and rewrote it. It was kind of nice to go back and fix some things in that old book.
Yeah, I mean, sometimes you realize…I mean, there’s a point where I say, you know, people ask me, “Oh, you’re going to put out Worker Prince again? Are you going to do yet another version of that?” No, I’ve done that. And I can look at it and probably nitpick it to death right now, based on where I am as a writer right now, because I feel like the John Simon books, which is my current series, is way advanced ahead of where I was with the Worker Prince series, but at a certain point, you’ve got to let your writing stand. And I think, you know, I got a chance to do the books I wanted to do, and that was the only reason that I did the rewrite the first time on that series, because I’d had a publisher pressured me to go one direction with it and various things, and it was new, and the next publisher was just like, you know, “Give me the best books you can,” and I was able to just go back and make it what I wanted it to be rather than what somebody else was telling me it needed to be. And so, that’s why I did it. And, you know, I think there are…it is certainly fun to go back and explore your writing. Sometimes it’s painful to go back and explore your writing.
I’m actually…I have a copy of the first novel I wrote in high school, The Golden Sword, which was later rewritten as The Silver Sword when teenage me realized you probably could even pick up a sword that was made out of gold. And I’m going through it because it’s interesting. And I’m tempted to throw it up under a pseudonym on Amazon just to see what happens. The scary thing is, what if it sold better than my current stuff? That would be so horrifying.
Well, you know, the one thing…there’s good and bad about the whole self-publishing movement. The bad is that people can throw up any crap they want. And I don’t say that as an indictment of what you’re talking about here with yourself, but I’m just saying, unfortunately, there’s a lot of crap out there being published, and some of it is actually successful. And so you never know. Your book might come out and it might, you know, be a hit. You can’t look at it as an indictment of quality anymore. I mean, you want to put out the book that you’re proud of that best represents you under your name, and you absolutely can be proud of that. But, you can’t look at anybody else’s success as a measure of your own because there’s just, you know, they might be a marketing genius who writes like crap, you know?
Yeah, I think there’s definitely some of those out there.
You’ve done quite a bit of editing. How did that get started?
Well, the editing came about because I found that I had a really good ability to communicate with writers. I’ve always been a communicator. I like teaching, and I like helping people. And I got an opportunity to do one of those gratis anthologies called Space Battles, where everybody basically was donating a story, and that was my first chance to see what it was like. And at the time, I was being mentored by Mike Resnick, who was a big anthologist. And Mike was encouraging me with anthologies, and I was really starting to say, this could be a fun way to get to work with some of my writing heroes, and give new writers a chance to work with their heroes, and it’d be kind of a big collaborative thing. So, I started doing that, and then in the process started doing some freelance editing and ended up doing novels and other things, as well. And eventually, you know, my fourth anthology or something like that was Shattered Shields, which I did with Jennifer Brozak. Well, Jennifer grew up with Andy Weir, and Andy Weir wrote The Martian. And I was sent The Martian because Jennifer didn’t want to edit her childhood buddy. She felt it wasn’t wise to work together.
So, I got Andy Weir’s The Martian, and I was the first editor on it, before it ever went out, and worked with him on it. And later he did…you know, I’m always proud of this, and I always remind him of this, and he freely admits it, but the stuff that he refused to do for me when he was paying me, Crown made me do. So, you know, I edited it, and I told him he needed to, you know, “You need to describe NASA. You have all these scenes with NASA. You need to describe the sets.” “Well, everybody knows what NASA looks like. I don’t need to describe mission control.” “Like, yes, you do.” “No, I don’t.” So, he didn’t describe mission control. You go back and read the final book, and yes, he did, because Crown told him to do it. So, there were a lot of things like that, that…but when, you know, when you’re a freelance editor, you work for the client. If the client’s the author, they can basically overrule you. And, you know, that’s why I started…I have a rule where it’s in my editing contract that, you know, you can only put my name on your book as editor if you really want to put my name on it, if you have my permission, because there are certain books that I’m just like, “Yeah, I edited that. But they didn’t listen to me, and I don’t want my name on it.”
That sounds like a good plan. I’m doing some freelance editing, although it’s anonymously at the moment, but yeah, that’s a good idea. I’ll remember that.
Well, I mean, it’s…the thing is that, especially as I became more and more known as an editor rather than as an author, which is ironic because I always think of myself as an author, but because of the success I had as an editor between Andy’s book and then a bunch of anthologies and different things, and I reached, you know, national bestseller status and a lot of things before…with, you know, editing than I did as an author, you know, I started to really worry more about my reputation as an editor and the value of that. And people started to come to me, want me, because they wanted the editor of The Martian to work on their book. So, it started to become the kind of thing, well, I need to protect this and make sure the integrity is there, integrity has always been important to me, and make sure that it actually has maintained some value. And so, that’s when I started thinking about the fact that, you know, I had people trying to slap my name on the book and then when they put their book out, and they got bad reviews on Amazon, they would comment on the reviews and say, “Oh, that’s the editor’s fault.” And I would have to go in and send them a cease-and-desist letter or risk having to come in on Amazon and say, “No, we told you to do it. And I can print…I’ll put a blog post up and show everybody where we told you to do that.” And I didn’t want to get in those kinds of battles, so it ended up just being easier to just, you know, make it a policy and just let people know in advance than to try to have to deal with that.
Do you find editing…I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, working with a lot of writers…and I do find that working on other people’s manuscripts helps me see flaws in my own. Do you find that to be the case as an editor?
Yeah, I mean, I think it’s…I always am finding stuff that people do that I think, “Oh, that’s a great description. I need to memorize that turn of phrase, because I could use that. I’ve never seen that before. That’s something that I can incorporate into my own dialogue, internal monologue, that would be something I could use.” Or, you know, some way that they’re doing things that is unique. And, yeah, I’m always finding things. You know, I always tell people the reason that I did so many drafts on The Worker Prince is, I was learning craft.
And I literally did a sartorial draft. People said to me, “None of these people are wearing any clothes. You never mention clothes, the entire book. Where the hell…what, are they naked? What’s the deal?” So I did a whole draft where I did nothing but address what people were wearing. Because I literally hadn’t…because I don’t think about clothes, because I’m not fashion-conscious. Anybody who’s ever seen me in public knows that. I don’t…so, I didn’t even think about it, you know? So, I had to go back and actually write what I call my sartorial draft, where I did nothing but put people in clothes throughout the entire book, you know? And I would do drafts on, you know, a particular character’s dialogue or a particular subplot or, you know, “You didn’t do enough description. So you need to do a descriptive draft,” you know? Now, a lot of that stuff, I can do it two or three drafts, and it’s all part of the process. But at the time, I had to focus on specific aspects of craft and go back and do a draft because I was learning it.
And I think that’s where… people talk about the writer’s journey. People get, you know, some people get annoyed by that. You know, it sounds cliché, but the reality of it is, you’re building your toolbox, and eventually, you can use more than one tool at a time. But when you start out, you can’t use a saw and a hammer at the same time. Well, most of the time you can’t really use a saw and a hammer at the same time that I can think of, anyway, but you get my point. My point is, you know, you’re gonna have to…you learn how to use the tools one at a time, and then you can put them all together. And you get to that point where you can…I’m sure you’ve experienced something similar, where you can eventually, you know, you’re thinking about all the different things at the same time, theme and, you know, all those kind of things. But at first, I literally had to think, stop and think about them individually in some cases.
Well, you’ve mentioned process, and that’s what we’re going to talk about now. So, talking about your creative process, but first, we’re going to use these Simon…John Simon thrillers, right?
We’re gonna use those as the example. So, maybe we should start with a synopsis of at least the first book, or both, whatever you can do without giving away too much.
Well, the John Simon thrillers are a near-future, 2029 Kansas City noir detective series. They’re about a top Kansas City Police Department veteran detective, an eighteen-year veteran, who, when his partner is kidnapped, has to team with the only witness. The problem is, that witness is a humanoid android, and he hates technology. So, this is the only guy that can maybe help him find his partner, and so he reluctantly teams with him. And thus a beautiful friendship and partnership is born. And basically, that’s the whole premise of the series. Now, what happens in Simon Says is, they’re investigating some people who are using art to transport secret documents, and I won’t say how, but it’s very, you know, there’s a whole technical aspect to it. It’s very, very sci-fi, and so on and so forth, and all that’s going on.
So, that’s book one. Book two, they’re dealing with terrorists who want to blow up some major tourist site in Kansas City. Book three, which I’m finishing right now, there’s an outbreak, somebody sabotaged a bunch of androids, and they’re behaving against programming. And so, that threatens the status of Lucas George, which is John Simons’s partner, the android, you know, threatens his status on KCPD, and so it becomes this whole personal crisis for him. So there’s…that’s kind of…I don’t know if you wanted more in-depth of a synopsis, but that’s kind of the gist.
Well, hopefully that piques people’s interest. So, what was the seed that…you know, I hate the cliché, “Where do you get your ideas?”, but it’s still a legitimate question. What was the seed from which these stories grew? How’s that?
Well, it’s funny because, actually, Simon Says started out as a screenplay, and it’s something I wrote in the ‘90s. And it’s interesting, because I wrote it and it wasn’t…it really wasn’t strong enough, but it was my buddy cop story, and it was written and set in Miami because I was a big Miami Vice fan. So, for whatever reason, I decided to set it in Miami. I also had just made a trip to Miami, and I could do research to write it off of. And it was about this tough, macho LA cop who has to team with an HIV-positive snitch to solve his partner’s kidnapping. Well, he, of course, is a little bit homophobic, a little bit weirded out by the HIV thing, which was very common back in the ’90s when HIV was new. And so, I wrote the storyline, and there was an art-dealer storyline, but it was very, you know, everything ended up being about drugs, and it was very…what I got from people was, “We’ve seen it before. It’s too cliche.” So, I liked it because I had come up with all these really cool scenes and action and the humor and the banter I really liked, but, you know, nothing ever happened with the screenplay.
So, when I decided I wanted to do something different after the Worker Prince series, the Davi Rhii series, I was looking at things, and I said, “You know, I really love cop stories.” I started pulling out Simon Says out of a box, and re-read it, and I said, “You know, I bet you I could do something with this, but I really need to rework it.” And so, I took it, and I said, “Well, you can’t do the HIV storyline now because people would hate this guy because they’d think of him as homophobic,” and it’s a whole different environment for it, so what could I do? I could make him technophobic and put him with a robot and turn it into sci-fi. Perfect. So that’s the genesis of it, really.
Okay, then. So, on a more general term, where do ideas for stories generally come to you from? That was pretty specific on that one.
Well, it kind of was, yeah. I’m sorry if you were looking for general, but generally speaking, I just, I don’t know, a news story? You know? I got one the other day that…there was a news story on, and I got this idea for this thing, and I wrote it down, said, “This is something I could do something with.” And, you know, I mean, that kind of thing happens all the time. Or I’ll…even a line in the song, or somebody’ll make some comment, or something will happen, I’ll get all these things. I mean, with this John Simon series, the plots for the future books come from the police blotter or from stories that I hear from the cops when I’m doing my research, a lot of times, where I’ll take it and put some kind of a sci-fi twist on it or some kind of a different twist on it. I’m always trying to do something. I mean, these guys are not homicide cops, they’re property detectives, which ironically, they end up investigating homicides and other things in the process of investigating property crimes, which kind of stretches the reality a little bit, but that’s what they end up doing. And that’s because I wanted to show other areas of policing besides just the usual homicide cop, you know, the murder detectives. So, I actually get to show them doing other kinds of investigating besides just murder. So it’s kind of, you know, the rebel in me wanted to do something different?
Well, you mentioned research. How much research do you do on these, do you have to do on these?
Well, I mean, I all-night ride-alongs with the Kansas City PD, you know, two or three times a year, where I literally go out all night long in the roughest neighborhoods of Kansas City and do ride-along. ’Course, none of that’s going on right now because of the fact that we’ve got the Covid crisis going on. I normally would be doing one right about now, because I’m getting ready to start book four and I always do ride-along in between books. So, I do both. I also have several friends now on the department.
I go to actual locations because I’m writing in Kansas City. I actually go and take pictures of locations. I listen and make notes, “What do I hear? What do I smell? What do I see?” so I could describe them well. And I will talk to people about the history of Kansas City and do various things. I did a whole tour of Kansas City and recorded it one time for three hours with this guy who was an expert on the history of Kansas City, so I could get a whole sense of the city. I am constantly talking to police about various, you know, things that are going on. “What’s the latest?” You know, my nephew’s a cop, too, but in a different department, so I hear from him. And, you know, “What kind of cases have you had? What kind of interesting things? What’s going on with your department”, those kinds of things.
So, I mean, you know, I’m doing that kind of research, and I’m also doing research on tech, you know, to keep up with my android storyline and whatever tech I can come up with for police tech. What’s the future of policing going to look like, and what kind of tech can I come up with that I can build stories around.
When it comes to building the stories, what does your planning/outlining process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? Do we wing it a bit? How does it work for you?
You know, I’m traditionally a panther. The first book, I wrote 110,000 words in six weeks, which was incredibly fast for me, but I cheated because I had a screenplay. I had 50,000 words already written. And I basically, I didn’t use all of them, but I had a hell of a lot that I could use and rewrite. And so, I kept a lot of sections of dialogue, but I reworked a lot of things. So I was able to, you know, cheat and write that book faster because I already had a basic structure, an idea. I just was, you know, building around it and making it better and stronger. The second book, you know, took me a lot longer. So, generally, what I do is, especially if I’m building a sequel is, I’ll map out what I call the TV Guide pitch line for each plot, the main plot and the subplots. And then I do a synopsis, which is just a short one-page thing, four or five paragraphs max, where I lay out, “This is what the gist of the story is.” And that’s what I work from.
And as I go…I work in Scrivener, I have a template for these books that’s already broken down into a chapter with three scenes per chapter. There’s chapters that have more than that, but I just have a base template with three scenes already laid out, empty scenes that I can do. So, I will make notes in there or in a research document inside Scrivener, I’ll make notes about ideas I have for later scenes or characters or whatever and where I think they’re going to go and where they’re going to fit in the story, and I’ll start putting things in that as I write, as they occur to me, but I basically kind of work that way. I don’t really do a lot of detailed outlining.
What does your actual writing process look like to you? I mean, right now everybody’s stuck at home. Do you normally write at home? Do you go out somewhere? Where do you like to work?
You know, I’m one of those lucky guys that can work anywhere, but I generally work at home. But, I have an office in my home, I’ve got, literally, I’ve got a copy machine and printers and file cabinets. And it’s, like, if you walk in there, it looks a lot like an office in some office building. And it’s, you know, right across from my bedroom. So literally, I could walk over there in my underwear. But it’s going to work. And I usually try to keep set hours when I write and set hours when I edit. And I fit my social media marketing around all that. And then, you know, I sit down, and I write, and I try to, I have to get, you know, 2,500, 3,000 words a day, depending on what day, what project I’m doing. You know, sometimes I only do 1,800 words a day, sometimes I do twice that. It varies, but I have to at least get significant progress done. And that’s pretty much my process. I work, like I said, I work in Scrivener and my first draft with, you know, various other support documents where I need them. I always have the Internet open so that I can do research because I’m always doing Wikipedia stuff or Googling or, you know, checking the department charts for the KCPD, or, you know, checking my photos from my locations.
I’ve done, you know, I literally do location scouts. I use the Kansas City film…what is it called?…the Kansas City Film Office has their own online database of locations in Kansas City. I use that all the time to find locations that I haven’t thought of that would be perfect for my stories. Because I’m really…I mean, the thing about Kansas City is, you know, I really want to capture unique features of Kansas City when I’m writing. And also, I want the most interesting and appropriate setting for each particular scene. You know how, as a writer, know how important it is to pick the right setting, to get the mood and the, you know, the level of tension and whatever you want and give your characters the right busyness around them to create the right ambiance for a particular scene to work most effectively. And so, I’m always looking at that while I’m writing. So, all of those kind of things.
And then, I just write. I also keep a bunch of screens of movie quotes and TV quotes open because Lucas George, one of his things is him trying to become more human. You know, John Simon’s precocious fourteen-year-old daughter convinced him that he needed to start quoting cop movies. So, he quotes cop movies, and he quotes them comically because he doesn’t quite understand the context yet. So he’s misquoting…well, he’s quoting them correctly, but in the wrong place at the wrong time. And so, I always have to have those open so that I can find new quotes to throw in for them. And he’s getting a little bit better at it as he goes, of course, as he figures out better comic timing and what’s appropriate, but I milk a lot of comedy out of the series because, you know, it’s very gritty, it’s very noir, it’s very gritty. It’s, you know, there’s a lot of cursing, it’s very realistic. It’s very much written and modeled after my experience riding along with cops, what I heard, what I saw. So, you know, there’s violence, there’s shootouts. There’s all…
I mean, the first night I did a ride-along I saw, I went back to the same location twice for two different shootings. I rode to the hospital with a gunshot victim. We stayed in the ER with him. We watched a woman chasing her brother down the street with a knife. I mean, I saw all this violence and stuff in front of me. So it’s not like…I mean, I’ve seen it. You know, I’ve seen meth addicts recovering in the ER, you know, and see what they’re like. And I mean, it’s just. I try to capture that in it because I’m trying to pay tribute to the difficulty of what it is to be a cop and the challenges they face at the same time as I’m telling my stories. So, I have all of that mixed in with the humor because, you know, humor breaks it up, and just when it gets so tense and so dark that you just, like, it’s unbearable, you can break it up with humor and give people a chance to breathe.
Once you have your completed first draft, what does your revision process look like? Do you do multiple drafts, or how do you work?
Generally, my revision process at this point is that I send it to an editor and a proofer. My first proofer. And the editor gives me extensive notes, the proofer just goes through and does prepare. That way, they both catch different stuff. And then, when I get that back, I do a rewrite and I will…which is what I’m doing right now on book three. He’s like, “Oh, this didn’t quite work. You mentioned this, you described this earlier, you don’t need this description here, but you need description here, here and here. You need to go figure this…this logic flow doesn’t work,” that kind of stuff. So I’m working through all that stuff, and I’m doing a rewrite and polish.
And I remember stuff that I didn’t do. For example, in book one, there’s a lot of song references throughout the book of futuristic songs that they’re listening to. Well, I forgot about that for much of book two, so in book three, I’ve tried to put those back in. So, I’m doing a pass where I literally go through and make sure I’ve done that. You know, different worldbuilding things that maybe I forgot about because they weren’t caught in the story, I have to go in and build them in because they’re part of the world and I have to make sure I touch on those kind of things.
And then it goes to another set of proofers and then the formatting guy, and he does the widows and orphans and the formatting, slides it on the template, and then we publish it. So that’s pretty much the process. All of that together takes about three months from the time I finish the first draft.
You don’t use, you don’t have any beta readers like some people like to send their work to ahead of time?
I don’t really use beta readers. The main reason is because I never really found good ones that I could trade with. And I spend so much time running my story…if I have story problems, I’m on Facebook Messenger talking to one of my writing friends about it. Like, I have…like, I mean, with this third book, Martin Shoemaker has been a great help to me. And he’s taken…we broke down the whole story and talked through different aspects of it, and he’s suggested stuff. And just by him suggesting stuff, it’s triggered me, and I’ve made my decisions and gone off and written my story. And he’s reminded me of stuff that I needed to cover that I ended up, you know, making it…so, I kind of beta it that way instead of beta-ing it by sending it out, you know, to beta readers and waiting months and months. But that’s just kind of my process.
I was just gonna say I’ve never used beta readers, mainly because I’ve never lived anywhere where there is anybody but me who is writing. So, yeah, like, my editor is the first person that sees it.
I was also going to ask, since you have talked about doing the ride along with the police and everything, I want to know what the overall reaction to the books has been generally, but I’m particularly interested in if the cops like them.
Well, I mean, they’re still friends with me. And they’re very supportive and cheering me on. To be honest with you, the response I’ve gotten from the cops has been really supportive. They’re really, they’re kind of proud of the books because they really feel like I represented the department well. I mean, I put them…I don’t make all cops out to be bad guys, and I don’t…I mean, it’s a real different environment nowadays for…everybody jumps on the cops all the time on the Internet and all over the place. Whenever there’s anything, any incident, you know, cop-involved, there’s people out there going, “Oh, the cops are abusing their power again, and they don’t even know all the facts.” And that’s why I always say, “Well, let’s wait and get the whole story before we decide whether the cop behaved badly,” because there are cops that do cross the line, and there are cops that behave badly. But there are also boundaries the department sets that don’t always look like they’re legit to the public, but they’re going to hold up in any court of law, whether you like how it looks or not. So, all of these things are kind of…it’s…and I know. A lot of people will hate that, but that’s the way it is.
And the reality is, you know, the cops have been happy with the fact that I have not…I dealt with the fact that they have to deal with those perceptions at the same time. I also, I mean, I’ve had corrupt cop characters in my stories, it’s just that I show all sides of it. So, they’ve been happy with it is basically the answer to your question. And I’ve been, I’m proud of that, because I’ve had a lot of people who know about policing read it and say that I got, you know, I obviously did my research and got it mostly right. So…I mean, I push the boundaries so that there’s things that I for storytelling, I just take a leap. Plus, I’m setting it in the future, so I can kind of, you know, play with some things when I want to.
Yeah, we don’t actually have android cops yet. So there is that.
Well, yeah, it’s not just the android cop thing. I have my cop living outside the jurisdiction, which totally is not allowed right now, but I know a tricky way I came up for him to do it, and they’re like, “Oh, that would never fly.” And I’m like, well…and then literally, literally recently they’ve been talking about changing that rule. So here I came up with it now, now it’s like it could actually be a possibility.
There’s another example. I came up with the idea of…it was a joke that one of the cops told me where he said, you know, he would sometimes take a fingerprint, take a suspect, and put his finger on a cellphone and say, “I’ve taken your fingerprint, and I’m running it through a database,” to scare a particularly dumb criminal that he was dealing with right? And I put that technology in my books, and now they actually have it. It is the latest tech. They literally have fingerprint scanners they can use in the field and instantly run your fingerprints. So, it’s, you know, there’s a lot of tech like that.
I also have a thing with media drones where, you know, there aren’t reporters on the scene near as often as there are drones, you know, that are literally media drones with cameras that are like, flying past the police tape and getting in the face of the cops, asking questions, you know, and the cops are annoyed by them. I think that’s where we’re going with the media, I really do. I think we’re going to see that, you know, in the next ten years. So, it’s…there’s lots of things like that that you do have to stretch the boundaries, but some of them end up coming true, which is kind of fun.
I’m also interested that it’s set in Kansas City. It’s not a place that I have read a lot of near-future science fiction set. It’s usually going to be New York or Los Angeles or somewhere like that. Did you just want to show off your hometown more or less?
Well, you know, like I said, the original story was set in Miami, and then there was this LAPD thing. And I, you know, what I originally decided was I needed to do it somewhere where I could actually do the field research. If I was going to write near-future, I had to make it real, which means I had to be able to go to places and, you know, actually, you know, I mean, I use Google Maps when I’m writing them, and then I literally go drive the route And I literally go…say, I set a scene here, and I did this, I want to go drive that route. And I’m going to see what I see, and I’m going to go back and fix it, so that somebody reading this book who actually drives that route will say, “Yeah, he got the landmarks right.” I mean, that’s the kind of detail I care about. So, I try to do that as much as I can. I don’t do it all the time, and there’ll be some people who catch me on it, and I know they will, now that I’ve said that. But, you know, I try to do it as much as I can because…and so, that’s why I did Kansas City, because that’s where I am. If I’d been in St. Louis, I’d probably have set it there.
And also, you know, LA and New York, that’s where everything’s set. Everything’s set there, and there’s reasons for that, and so on and so forth. LA, New York, and Chicago are the main ones. But I kind of just felt like Kansas City was a unique area where I could explore things. And it actually has a pretty interesting backdrop. I mean, there’s ties…I don’t know if people know that, you know, the mobsters in Godfather and the mobsters in Casino all had…you know, those kind of people, the real-Life models for them all had ties to the Kansas City mob, for example.
Apparently, my great uncles on my father’s side were mobsters in Kansas City or had some connection to it, because he had memories of them and their female hangers-on coming out and hiding out at the farm where he was growing up in their big black cars. He had memories of that.
There you go. Well, you see. So I mean, yeah, there’s actually really interesting history, and there’s some really cool stuff that, you know, besides crime that went on in Kansas City, too. I mean, we have the World War One museum, which is fantastic, we have, you know, some really world-class art museums. And there’s lots of different…steamboat museum and lots of different areas and things that have…and there’s also a whole series of caverns underground from where they were doing sandstone mining and limestone mining. And so, like book two, one of the major settings is this underground cavern that goes under Worlds of Fun and Oceans of Fun, which is a big amusement park here. And those are real. And I actually went to them. I went inside them. You know, I mean, they’re actually, it’s real. There’s one that’s, like, five miles long that’s real, that is so big that semi-trucks can drive inside it anyway.
Well, it’s …I have to say, I use Kansas City and one of my books, but only as a place with, I believe, the actual city had been wiped out, and this one had been built on top of the ruins, if I remember how it worked. Anyway…that was the book where I killed the population, most of the population of the world in a plague. So, I’m hoping that one doesn’t come true.
Well, yeah. Thanks for that little deja vu there, Ed.
So, we’re getting close to the end here. So, I want to move on to the big philosophical question, which is basically, why do you do this? Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do you like to write this kind of stuff in particular?
You know, I like to write stories that would make me entertained, first of all. My mind is always coming up with crazy stuff, from the silly song-lyric twist that I sing to my dogs, to just the craziest wisecrack ideas that come out of my mouth or my head when I’m walking around town. And so, I need an outlet for that, number one. Number two, I’m a good storyteller, and people respond well to my stories. So, that’s been going on since I was a kid. So, I enjoy the response of others to my work.
On another level, I also, you know, am a deep thinker in a lot of ways and there are a lot of things that I care about, and I find ways to talk about the human condition and some of the issues we’re dealing with in the context of a story without doing it in a preachy way. I think one of my biggest beefs with a lot of sci-fi these days is so much of it is so in your face with its politics and its philosophy, to a point where I lose the enjoyment of the story. I try not to write that way, and hopefully, I don’t. I kind of let the characters…I try to represent multiple views and let people just decide for themselves where they’re going to go with it, because that’s what I enjoy reading more. So, there’s…to the degree that there’s any message, it gets worked out..
For example, in The Sideman, book two of John Simon, I dealt with his ex-wife having bipolar. Well, that’s a real-life experience, right? I had…my ex-wife had bipolar, and I basically was writing verbatim scenes out of my experience with her, with him and his ex-wife. And that was a way to show people mental illness in its reality. How does it affect people? What’s it look like? And make people more aware of it without preaching to them about good or bad, but just educating them.
On a larger scale, where do you think the impulse for human beings to tell stories comes from? Why do any of us tell stories? I’m sorry, one second.
Why do any of us tell stories? I think there is…well, I don’t want to get religious on you, but I do believe there’s something larger than ourselves, and I think that we see that in the way that the universe is, because there are things that we can’t explain, which is the whole process of scientific discovery, trying to understand and explain them. And I think that our desire to understand that and sometimes to control it is not filling in all the gaps as fast as we’d like, so sometimes there’s room to tell stories around it. I think part of the reason we tell stories is because we have something to say. I think also because there is something entertaining and fun about vicariously living through other people.
You know, one of the things you asked about, what the cops think about my stories, one of the things they say is, “Thank God none of my shifts are that action-packed and wild.” You know, what these guys go through is an extreme of what most cops go through. But if I wrote what it’s like to have a real shift, you know, too closely., people would be bored stiff, because literally, I think we…for example, there was one night, and I’m talking like, you know, twelve hours in the police car doing a ride-along, or ten hours or something, anyway. We’re riding along, and we didn’t have any calls from eight, nine p.m. up until one in the morning or two in the morning. And then we had two, three hours of nonstop calls, and then we were off-shift. And it literally was racing, lights and siren, across town from one call to the next call to the next call.
It sounds like the old definition of military life, long periods of boredom punctuated by moments of terror, brief moments of terror.
Yeah, pretty much.
So what are you working on now?
Well, like I said, I’m working on Common Source, which is book three of the John Simon thrillers. I’m about to do rewrites on a book called Shortcut, which is a book that’s sold to Hollywood as a near-future hard science fiction, my first hard science fiction novel. I actually wrote it with the help of two scientists who did real science for me and then extrapolated from that fictional science to make the story work. So there’s actual scientific papers written that I have that are like part of my arsenal of data for the book. And I’m going to be doing a rewrite on that, and then I am putting together an anthology to fundraise stuff for the coronavirus effort, and that will be coming out, that’s a rush effort, going to put that out as soon as possible, and then working on a couple of other anthology projects as well and getting ready to put the Davi Rhii books out in new versions, as well. So, I’ve got a few things on the plate.
It sounds like you will be busy enough.
Now, if somebody wants to keep up with you online, where do they find you?
Well, @BryanThomasS, Facebook.com, @BryanThomasS, twitter.com. And then you can look at BryanThomasSchmidt.net on the Internet as well. Or @BryanThomasSchmidt on Instagram. So, those are all the places where you can find me, generally. And then, you know, whenever we open up the world again, I’ll be at a few conventions. I usually do Comic-Con in San Diego at least every other year. That’s my big one. And then, I’m at various regional conventions around the country whenever I can, as well.
Yes. Well, I hope we all get to go back to those. I had some I was planning to go to I guess I’m not going to or places I was going to sell books I guess I’m not selling books, and all that kind of fun stuff.
Yeah, we all had that, unfortunately.
Yeah, exactly. So, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. I really enjoyed the chat. I hope you did too.
An hour-long interview with Nancy Kress, bestselling Nebula, Hugo, Sturgeon, and Campbell Award-winning author of thirty science fiction and fantasy novels and novellas and five short-story collections, including Beggars in Spain, Probability Space, and Steal Across the Sky, as well as three non-fiction books for Writer’s Digest on the fundamentals of writing.
Nancy Kress is the bestselling author of thirty science fiction and fantasy novels and novellas and five short-story collections. Among her books are Beggars in Spain, Probability Space, and Steal Across the Sky. She’s also published three non-fiction books for Writer’s Digest on the fundamentals of writing.Nancy is a six-time Nebula Award winner, including two consecutive awards for her novellas “After the Fall,” “Before the Fall,” “During the Fall,” and “Yesterday’s Kin.” She’s also the recipient of the Sturgeon and Campbell Awards, as well as two Hugo Awards. Her fiction has been translated into nearly two dozen languages, including Klingon. She teaches writing at workshops, including Clarion West and Taos Toolbox, as well as at the University of Leipzig in Germany as a guest professor. She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband, the author Jack Skillingstead.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Nancy.
Thank you, Ed.
I don’t believe we’ve ever met in person. I’m sure we must have been at the same conventions at the same time, but I don’t think we’ve ever actually spoken in person.
Since I’ve been going to conventions for 40 years, I’m sure we were there some time together.
So, I’m very happy to have you. We’re going to talk about a couple of things, a new novella called “Sea Change” and upcoming novel, The Eleventh Gate. But before we get to that, let’s do the background information. So where did you grow up and how did you get interested in writing? Most of us started as kids, or at least we started reading as kids. And that’s what turned us on to science fiction and fantasy. Was that how it was for you?
No, not exactly. I grew up in the 1950s in a small town, and we lived way out in the country. And my mother did not drive and my father had the car away at work, so I didn’t get into town very often. The books that were available to me, other than the ones at home, were in the school library. And remember, this was the ‘50s. When I was a child, the library was divided into a boys’ section and a girls’ section, and all of the science fiction, with little rocketships on the spines, was shelved in the boys’ section, and all of the fantasy in the girls’ section. So I read Andrew Lang’s Red Fairy Book, and Green Fairy Book, and Plaid Fairy Book and Polka-Dot Fairy Book and all the rest of them, and some fantasy, but no science fiction.
I didn’t see any science fiction until I was fourteen. I had my first boyfriend, who lived down the road and was studying to be a concert pianist. And every day after school, I would go over to his house and hang over the piano adoringly while he practiced. And the problem with that is that I’m tone-deaf and I can only hang adoringly for about ten minutes. And after that, I started inching towards the bookshelves in his parents’ house and pulling out books at random. And one of the books that I pulled out was Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End. And in five minutes, I was in love, and not with the pianist. I’d never seen anything this…wide…with such a large canvas, so grand. And I immediately got very interested in it.
But I didn’t think of myself as a writer. Again, my mother was Italian-American. She raised me in the way she’d been raised, and she sat me down when I was twelve and said, “Do you want to be a teacher, a nurse or a secretary?” Those were all the things she could imagine. And I said, “A teacher, I want to teach kids.” She said, “OK, you’ll have to go to college for that.” And that’s what I did. I taught the fourth grade for four years after I graduated from college, and I didn’t start writing until I was almost 30. It didn’t occur to me that this was even possible. As a child, a young child like eight or nine, I didn’t know that anybody was a writer. I thought all writers were dead. The writers I was reading were like Louisa May Alcott and Zane Grey and the Nancy Drew books, and I assumed it was a finite resource like oil, and we were going to run out of it eventually.
Peak author. So, you did go into writing, but you did start writing fiction, right away. You were writing…you went into the sort of corporate copy and that sort of side of writing to begin with, didn’t you?
That actually was later.
Oh, was it?
That was later. I started writing when I was pregnant with my second child. I was home, again, living out in the country, with a toddler and a difficult pregnancy and alone a lot of the day with the kids. And when they were napping, I started writing to have something to do that didn’t involve Sesame Street and had words of more than two syllables. And I didn’t take it seriously for a long time. I was a mother, and that was what I was doing, and I was taking my graduate work in elementary education because I assumed I’d go back to that, which I actually never did. And I would send stories out and they would come back and I’d send them out and they would come back. And then after a year, one of them sold. And then, after another year, another one sold, and slowly it began to dawn on me that I really like doing that better than teaching the fourth grade.
I see from the bio that you have on your website your first story was what you termed the “eminently forgettable” “The Earth Dwellers,” which appeared in Galaxy in 1976. I remember Galaxy; I had a subscription to Galaxy for a while. I probably read it.
But what I did not know, Ed, was that Galaxy, at the time they brought my story, was trembling on the verge of bankruptcy, and everybody who knew anything, which did not include me, had stopped sending them material. So, I think they bought my story partly out of desperation. And then they promptly went out of business right after that and declared bankruptcy. And it took me three years to get my $105. I kept writing to Saul Cohan over and over again, saying, “This is my first story, and I really, really want the payment.” And finally, they sent me a cheque. Whining has its uses.
Your first novel came out about five years after that, right?
Yes. And it was a fantasy. The first three novels were fantasies. And then I switched to science fiction. And I really don’t know why, because nothing about my career has been planned. I didn’t plan on being a writer. I didn’t plan on writing fantasy novels. I didn’t plan on switching to science fiction novels. I have never done what many people say you’re supposed to do, which is build a brand. And as a result, the whole thing has a certain haphazard luck to it.
Well, I think one of the things I find doing this podcast is that every writer comes to it from a different direction and in a different path. And, you know, people ask, “How do you become a writer?” And it’s, well, there’s a different story for everybody that becomes one, it seems to me.
Yes, that’s absolutely right.
You did get a master’s in English. Did you take any actual creative writing courses at any point? I ask that because I get widely varying opinions from authors as to whether those did them any good or not, the ones who took them.
I took one, and I was fortunate because the instructor liked and understood science fiction. He didn’t write it himself, but he liked it and he understood it. Other people I’ve talked to, writers, have had very bad experiences because their instructors…I know one writer whose instructor told him, “I don’t know why reality isn’t enough for you.” But this was useful to me. I had just started to write, and it was useful because it explained things like what a point of view is and why it’s nice to have one and other basic things that, even though I had always been a reader, ever since I was a little kid, I would read absolutely anything, if there was nothing else available. The back of a cereal box would do, but I’d never thought about the mechanics of it. And so, yes, it was useful. And because it was a critique class, it was also useful to get the feedback from other students in the class who were at least readers, or they wouldn’t have been there.
Yes, I often ask people who started writing as a kid, as some did, like I did. And I would share my…I sort of did the critique thing. I would share my stories with my classmates. And I found out that they actually liked my stories and that at least gave me some income, an indication that, you know, I could tell a story that maybe somebody would be interested in reading. You actually…I got ahead of myself previously, but you did work writing corporate copy and advertising copy and that sort of thing for a while.
Yeah, that came a little later. After I got my master’s degree in English and my kids were old enough to go back to school, to start school, I realized I didn’t want to teach the fourth grade, and I know I probably wouldn’t have been able to even if I had wanted to, because it was the baby bust, and they were laying off elementary teachers, not hiring them. So I took work as an adjunct at the university. And then for a couple of years, I filled in full time, not tenure track, but when somebody was going on sabbatical, I would fill in and take over for them in the English department. So I taught college for a couple of years. And then, because that’s a sort of hit-and-miss thing, I needed a real job because I was getting divorced. And that’s when I went to work for an ad agency and wrote corporate copy, internal copy, mostly for Xerox.
Did you find that type of writing has helped you in any way in your fiction writing? I always say writing is writing, and you can get some benefit out of just about any kind of writing you do.
I found it interesting and useful, not so much from a writing standpoint, but from the viewpoint…because I already published a couple of novels by then and a whole bunch of short stories…I found it useful in understanding how the world works and especially how power works. I had been in academe my whole life as a student, as a fourth-grade teacher, as a college teacher. The corporate world is much different. And it was an education for me to see how…because I was writing for executives, mostly. I would be writing scripted slideshows, speeches, things like that, starting with newsletters and then working my way up. And it was very interesting to see that the corporate world runs on entirely different principles. And it was useful in that respect. As far as the actual writing, less so, because corporations want things phrased in ways that are almost antithetical to good English. I had spent a lot of years learning to write clear sentences, but clear sentences tend not to disguise responsibility so much as the use of passive verbs. You don’t say “so-and-so decided,” you say, “it was decided that.” And large words…a Lot of terrible words were coming into use at that time. “Incentivize,” “negative profits,” things like that, that they wanted included in the copy. So, the writing was not…it didn’t help the writing in that sense, but it did help my education, which had been pretty sheltered, about how the world works.
And then, when did you start writing about writing? You said you’d already been teaching writing some. And you wrote a column for many years for Writer’s Digest. When did that all come along?
Yes. The column came first. The college where I was teaching, State University in New York at Brockport, on a hit-and-miss basis, ran a bunch of summer workshops called the Writer’s Forum, and they had a section for…where they brought in, paired one faculty member with one visiting writer. They had a section for poetry, a section for fiction, a section for journalism, all kinds of them. And somebody decided that a section for science fiction would be good. And this was very useful to me because I got to bring in, every summer for a week, another science fiction writer, who stayed at my house and we talked together. And this forged a lot of alliances and friendships that were very valuable to me. My first year, I taught with Frederick Pohl, the second with Gene Wolfe, the third with Connie Willis, and it went on and on like that. And I really, really enjoyed those.
But one of the other sections was magazine writing, which was being taught by a visiting person who was one of the editors on Writers Digest. And he said to me, “You know, you should you should write a column for us.” First, he said, “You should write some articles for us.” So, I wrote three articles, which they published, and then their regular fiction columnist, Lawrence Block, was ready to leave. He was getting tired of the whole thing. So, he left, and they hired me to do that, and I wrote the Writer’s Digest column for sixteen years. It really was just an extension of my teaching, because by that time I was teaching a lot of writing. And then out of that grew the three books on writing.
I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, my nine-month term is just wrapping up, and I’ve done that on another occasion, and I’ve taught short courses here and there along the way, and I’ve always found that trying to tell other people how to write is very beneficial to me in figuring out how I can do what I do better. Do you find that you learn from being a teacher?
Yes, very much. Every summer, Walter Jon Williams and I teach a two-week intensive workshop called Taos Toolbox in Taos, New Mexico. And our guest visiting writer is George R.R. Martin every year. And we…in fact, I’m reading manuscripts right now to choose our 18 students. And I find that going over these manuscripts…because it’s really, we work them very hard. In addition to being in class to do critiquing of each other’s work, we also assign exercises, and we do analysis of fiction, successful fiction, all kinds of things. And I get an awful lot out of that every year. The students bring different manuscripts every year, of course, and a wide variety of them. Some fantasy, some science fiction, some space opera, some military fiction. And I find it useful to me to try to figure out why a story isn’t working. It’s easy with the manuscripts that need a lot of attention, but very often at this level, you get manuscripts where they’re not quite working, but you’re not quite sure why. And sitting down, trying to pinpoint exactly why this isn’t working, and what might make it work, has a lot of carryover into my own work.
Well, let’s talk about your own work. Two pieces I wanted to talk about, and maybe we’ll start with “Sea Change,” which is the novella that’s out from Tachyon. First of all, maybe give us a synopsis of it without giving away anything you don’t want to give away.
OK. “Sea Change” concerns three things. It’s a story about the genetic engineering of crops, GMOs are a very controversial subject, obviously, and I wanted to present both sides of this, although it’s clear which side I’m going to be coming down on, I think from the beginning. That’s one strand that went into the story. Another strand that went into the story is ocean blobs that we are increasing the getting off the West Coast. Seattle is my adopted city. I love it. I came here ten years ago to marry my husband, and I just love Seattle. It’s gorgeous. Every once in a while, off the coast, beaches are closed because we get blobs, ocean blobs. And they’re usually not harmful. They’re caused by runoffs from rivers and creeks with a lot of fertilizer in them, which causes the ocean algae to just go crazy and bloom, Everything under them, because the algae bloom is so dense, dies. That wouldn’t be a problem in itself, because they do break up eventually in the fall, except that every once in a while, certain bacteria combine with the blooms and they produce a toxin called domoic acid that poisons fish, that poisons sea lions, that poisons the small fish, then the larger fish eat them, and then the sea lions eat those, and you get a perfect disaster. And then the beaches are closed because it can also poison people.
The third strand that went into the novella was a love story. In fact, if I had it to do over again, I would probably call it “Sea Change: A Love Story.” But by the time this occurred to me, the novella had already been printed, and I didn’t think that Tachyon was going to want to go changing the title at that point. But it is very much a love story.
Now, one thing I wanted to ask you about was the difference between planning for a novella and planning for a novel. So, maybe we’ll also just flip over and you can give a brief synopsis of the novel as well. And then we’ll sort of talk about everything at once. So, the novel that’s coming out is called The Eleventh Gate, and it’s quite different. It’s a far-future space opera.
Yes, it is. I’ve always wanted to write a space opera because that was the kind of thing I was reading when I first discovered science fiction. I was reading Asimov’s Foundation series, I was reading that sort of thing, and I wanted to write a space opera. But I haven’t ever actually done it.
So, that one takes place in a pretty far future after Earth has been environmentally trashed and hardly anybody lives there anymore. There’s a couple of holdouts, but not very many. Gates have been discovered orbiting the moon. They’re hard to see, but. And we’re not up there very much. But once they get there, they find them and they lead to eight other planets. So, all of these get settled by various different groups from Earth, the eight worlds, and they are connected with these space gates that you can go through. There are ten space gates connecting the various planets because some have two, going from one planet to another. And then, someone discovers an eleventh gate. And what’s behind the eleventh gate changes everything, including the very precarious truce, balance of economic and political power among the eight worlds. And that’s what I wanted to write about, the balance of political and economic power. And I wanted to do it through certain characters, many of them women, but not all, who are very varied in belief, in temperament. None of them is somebody…well, maybe one…but other than that, nobody is someone you can say, “Oh, this is clearly the heroine. This is the good person. This is the one I want to identify with.” I was trying to make them all having the flaws of their particular backgrounds. And a few of them are just batshit crazy.
So, these are two very different stories. This is a cliched question, but it’s still a valid question, which is, I hate to say, “Where do you get your ideas?” But let’s say what inspired you to write each of these…you mentioned a little bit, I think, on “Sea Change”…and is this typical of the way that story ideas come to you?
Well, more and more, I have been writing hard SF, which “Sea Change” is. The science in it is all completely accurate. That wasn’t true when I started writing. I was writing soft science fiction, in which it didn’t really matter if the science hung together. And that transitioned into, I guess, high-viscosity science fiction, if not actually hard. And now, I write hard SF. So, although I can’t usually pinpoint where a specific idea came from, and with “Sea Change” it would also be difficult. It came off the general area of genetic engineering, which I read about a lot, and which I am obsessively interested in. I’m not trained as a scientist. I wish I were, but it’s a little late for that. But I read about it, I learn about it, because this is the future. This is where we’re going. And “Sea Change” is a direct outgrowth of that interest.
The specific idea started, as all of my stories start, with a character. And this time it was the character of an old man, a patriarch, still very powerful, who runs a world and who is brought a business proposition he can’t refuse. And from there, once I had this, I wrote, as I always do, I wrote the first scene sort of in a white-hot heat. And then I sat down and said, “OK, what have I got here? Who is this person? Who is this other person? Where is this going? What are the implications of the situation I’ve set up?” And the same thing is true of (The Eleventh Gate). The first couple of scenes came to me, and then I write them, and then I sit down and I start thinking about first the characters and the situation, and then secondly, the things I’ve learned painfully about structure. Structure came harder to me than characterization, which is one reason why my short stories for a very long time were more successful than my novels.
So it sounds like you….basically it’s a process of self-interrogation, where you have the initial thought, and then you ask yourself a lot of questions. Is that a fair way to describe that?
That’s half of it. That’s the questioning part that is intellectual. Because there are two questions that guide the construction of all fiction, basically. One is, “What do these people want?” If your characters don’t want anything, you really don’t have a piece of fiction. Sometimes maybe all they really want in a short story is to be left alone. But it’s better…and the longer the work, the more things they have to want and the more they have to want them intensely. So you ask, “What do these people want?” And the other question is, “What can go wrong?” Because that’s where the conflict comes from. If your character wants something and then they go out and get it, you really don’t have a story there, either.
So intellectually, those two questions guide me. But on the other side, it’s a little more mystical. It’s like the Stanislavski method of acting, where you become the character. I try to become this person from the inside out. When I write “Sea Change,” I am Renata. And if…when this goes well—and it doesn’t every day, but some days it does—my life disappears. I disappear. The room around me disappears. I am Renata, and I’m in this space, and what Renata would do next comes to me naturally because I’m in her mind, I’m in her heart, or she’s in mine. And that’s the other part of how I proceed. I know this sounds like a mishmash of intellectual combined with mystical. But that’s kind of how it is.
Have you done any theater?
Have I done what?
Theater. Any acting?
No. No. I don’t think…my sister is an actress. She’s a very good actress. But I don’t think I could do it. I’m…like many writers, not all, but many. I’m very much an introvert. And the idea that I have to get out there and interact with people every night for eight shows a week. It wouldn’t work. Also, I’m a morning person.
Well, that really doesn’t work.
No, it really doesn’t work. They wouldn’t let me go home at nine o’clock at night. So, no.
So, I asked that partly because I am an actor and have done, both professional…
Oh! What kind of acting do you do?
Mostly stage acting. I’ve done a lot of musicals.
That’s what my sister does. Well, she doesn’t do musicals too much anymore. She started with it. Because her voice isn’t trained, and as she’s gotten older, it’s gotten a little rusty. But she’s…she had marvelous stage presence. She still does. She does a lot of Shakespeare.
The reason I asked was what you’re describing is, of course, the acting process, you know, however you approach it, you pretend to be somebody else, you try to inhabit that person and bring them to life on stage. And the authors I’ve spoken to who have done stage acting find that it’s, the two processes are very similar. So, yeah. Absolutely. And now, what does your actual planning…
I didn’t come to it that way, though. I came to it as a reader. Even as a girl, what I would read something, the whole world would go away. My mother would get quite irritated because she’d have to say my name three or four times before I’d even hear her. I became those people in those books. And that kind of identification for me grew out of reading, not acting.
Yeah, I had both.
So, what does your actual planning/outlining process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? Do you do just kind of a sketch, or what does your planning look like? And how is it different for the shorter work as opposed to the longer work?
The shorter work doesn’t really have any planning. The shorter work I kind of write, and about halfway through it all comes together in my mind. By shorter, I’m saying something under 10,000 words. And when you grow things organically that way, a certain number of them die. And that has happened. I have a whole file full of unfinished short stories that will never be finished because it just dried up on me.
That doesn’t work for longer work. For novellas or novels, you have to have some sort of structure. And structure has been harder for me to learn than characterization or language. What I do now is…I don’t know everything that’s going to happen, but I have a general idea where I’m going, and what I will do, as I did this morning, is I will sit down and I’ll think, “OK, this is the next scene, and this is the one after that, and the one after that might be this.” And I’ll make notes of those three scenes, and as they get a little clearer in my mind, I’ll sit down—going with the general direction that I know I’m moving—and I’ll write…I’ll begin work on one of those scenes. And by the time I finished it, I’m hoping that a couple more will have become clear to get where I need to go.
There are certain things I will check for, too, as I’m going along. You need to have the stakes rising throughout the story, as they do in “Sea Change.” You need to have the conflict escalating. You need to move towards some sort of climax. And you need to make sure that there isn’t too much after the climax or it will be…anticlimactic! So, there is a certain structure that I have in my head, and it’s built around, again, those two questions, “What do these people want?” and “What can go wrong?”
And what they want might change. In fact, for the length of an entire novel, it has to. When I’m teaching, I point out to my students…I can’t count that they all have read the same stuff, although I give them some short stories and we talk about those. But I can usually count on some movies they’ve seen, one of which is Star Wars. So, we talk about that in terms of what Luke wants at the beginning, which is to get the hell off Tatooine, and what he wants after that, which is to find Obi-Wan Kenobi, and on through his changing desire to become a Jedi knight, too, and right up to where his desire is to destroy the Death Star. What he wants changes and builds, and it also raises the stakes each time. So, those things kind of guide me as I fumble my way through the manuscript.
How much of this do you write down ahead of time?
Not a lot. I make a lot of notes on the science because, again, I’m not trained on that. And I will do a lot of research and a lot of notes on the science and how I can use it. Science itself suggests a lot of plot points. The more I found out about domoic acid, the more plot points came through for “Sea Change.” So, the science itself will guide it. What the characters are like will guide it. Other characters’ reactions to my protagonist will guide it. The process…I know it sounds messy, but that’s because it is messy. I can’t…I don’t outline. I’m kind of in awe of writers who do outline in detail because I can’t do that.
I think my…the example I keep giving from the people I’ve talked to on the podcast is Peter V. Brett, author of The Demon Cycle. And he writes 150-page outlines before he starts writing. And that’s the most detailed outliner I’ve encountered yet in the podcast.
That’s amazing. I would feel like I’d written the whole book. I would need to write it, then.
Yeah, I don’t think I would work for me either. What is your actual writing process look like? Do you, you know, get a quill pen and sit under a tree, or…?
No. I write mornings. If it doesn’t get written by noon, it doesn’t get written. In the afternoon, I will do research and publicity and student manuscripts and stuff like that. But in the morning, I get up very early, like five o’clock. And that hasn’t always been the case, but it’s been…well, it’s been the case for much of my adult life. First, I needed to get up and write before my children got up, and then by that time, it was already ingrained. It was too late to change. But I get up, and for the first hour, I drink the first cup of coffee, I putter around the kitchen, I look at the e-mail, but don’t answer it, I check CNN to make sure nothing has blown up overnight, things like that. And then, around six, I settle in and I write…I work for several hours.
And do you do a…getting to the revision process, do you just barrel through to the end and then go back and revise, or do you revise along the way or how does that work for you?
Both. The plotting of scenes and the thinking about them is all done on a clipboard with yellow legal pads. The actual writing of words that will go into the story is done on a computer. And usually, I write the whole thing straight through. But if I feel that I’m in trouble, then I will stop and go back and rethink it, with my little clipboard and my yellow pages, and sometimes dump large sections of what I’ve written and then go back to the computer and write new sections. But I try not to do that too much. I try to have some sense of what I’m doing. The first half is always messier than the second half, because by the second half I really know what I’m doing.
That’s a first draft. The second draft, I will revise major things, characterization problems, scenes that are missing that I think I need now. I keep sort of running list of these as I’m working. And that’s the big stuff. The third draft, I go through and I clean up. I also, on the second draft, will pick up things where…I don’t want to stop writing, so I write in triple parentheses, “Find this out later,” and then keep going. These are details that I just don’t want to stop and research at the time.
And I have to say the computer and the Internet make this so much easier. I remember when I first started to write, this was in the ’80s, and the Internet didn’t exist, and I needed to know for some story long forgotten how high a regulation basketball hoop was from the gym floor. This required a trip over to the university library, trying to find it myself, failing, bothering the reference librarian, and she and I riffled through things till we finally find it, then I had to trudge all the way home. There’s a couple of hours involved for this stupid little detail.
I remember those days, yeah.
Oh, yeah. Now, it’s so easy. It’s so nice to be able to do it on the Internet and find out instantly how high that basketball hoop is supposed to be.
As long as you’re disciplined enough not to then end up finding yourself reading a history of the National Basketball Association or something like that along the way.
Well, with sports, that’s not really a temptation for me. The only sports I’m really interested in are the Seattle Seahawks.
Do you have anybody that reads…like, beta readers that some authors like to use, or is it just you…
Oh, well, yeah. I was going to ask you about being married to a writer. So there you go.
Yes. Before Jack, I was married to Charles Sheffield, who died of a brain tumor in 2002. So, it’s been two writers. And in each case, we looked at each other’s manuscripts and made suggestions. And yes, that’s very, very helpful.
I married an engineer, who is not much help to me as a writer, but has been a great help to me on the family income side.
Yes, I can imagine.
Good career move on my part. She hates that joke, but it’s true. So, once you have your final draft, then it goes to the editor, what kind of editorial feedback to you typically get on your work?
Oh, it varies so much by editor. There are editors who do absolutely no editorial work. Obviously, they send it to a copy editor, who will go over it and look for factual errors and inconsistencies, and why does she have blue eyes in Chapter 3 and green eyes in Chapter 18, that kind of thing. But I’ve had editors that have made extremely useful, substantive suggestions, and I’ve had editors that I’m not absolutely positive read the manuscript.
You’ve worked with a lot of different publishers over the years, haven’t you?
Yes, yes. For a while, they kind of kept going…amalgamating or going bankrupt or whatever. I followed David Hartwell around for a while from different posts, and that was kind of nice. And then eventually, I was working with Jim Minz, his assistant, and then Jim left, and I went to a different publisher. And now I’m back with Jim Minz at Baen, that’s publishing The Eleventh Gate, which I’m very pleased to be back working with him. And in the meantime, the novella is a standalone…
Well, the novella is my favorite form. Science fiction, for reasons that defy understanding, defines a novella as between 17,500 and 40,000 words, and my novellas are usually pushing up at the 40,000-word mark. It’s my favorite form because a novella is short enough to need a single plotline to go barreling through, long enough to create an alternate world or a believable future. In a novel, on the other hand, you need not only a main plot but braided plots on top of that, and I find that more challenging. I really like novellas. Almost all of my awards are for novellas.
Is the editing process different for those than for novels?
Not really. Some editors give me useful feedback, things that they think need to be strengthened. That happened with “Sea Change.” I got some very useful information from Jacob (Weisman) about the ending on that. And I rewrote the ending to strengthen it. But some do and some don’t. It depends on both the editor and the work.
I have been with…DAW is my major publisher, and so I’ve worked with Sheila Gilbert. I’ve only had the one editor for my major books. And so, it’s always interesting to me to talk to people about working with a variety of editors. I have worked with other editors of smaller publishers, but Sheila is so good, I don’t know what it’d be like to work with a different editor.
I’ve never had the pleasure of working with Sheila.
Well, we’re getting close-ish to the end, so I want to move on to the big philosophical questions. You’ve done a lot of thinking about writing and a lot of teaching of writing, so this should be easy for you. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write, first of all, and why science fiction and fantasy specifically?
There are days when I think I have no idea why anybody writes. But, you know, actually, that’s a difficult question, Ed. I’ve done this for so long, for forty years now, that it’s so deeply ingrained in me to think in terms of stories that I can’t imagine…oh, I can’t say I can’t imagine doing anything else, because I’ve done other things. I’ve taught the fourth grade, I wrote corporate copy. If you go back far enough in my college days, I waitressed in the summers. I mean, I have done other things. And of course, I was a full-time mother for a number of years, so I can imagine doing other things. But I have always told myself stories. Long before I knew I was going to be a writer, I told myself stories as I fell asleep, in which I was always the heroine. Since the 1950s Saturday morning consisted of cartoons and westerns, these were westerns. We weren’t allowed to watch television except on Saturday morning. So, I would invent gangs of my Western heroes, Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry and the Lone Ranger and all the rest of it. And I’d be a member of this gang, too, and I’d invent all these stories and tell myself a different chapter every night. Stories were ingrained, and I think that the human brain is built to understand the world in terms of stories.
Og, sitting around the campfire, tells a story about the great hunt he did that day, and then everybody else wants to go where Og went and kill a bison where he killed one. We’re meant to understand the world in terms of stories. And I think that’s why even people who don’t read usually watch television, with its versions of stories, and movies.
And Og embellished his story, too, the more often he told it,
Oh, Og was a terrible liar. Can’t believe a word the man says.
So, why do you think we, those of us who do, why do you think we write within the science fiction and fantasy genres specifically?
So, that’s a little harder to understand. I think, though, that it’s a large enough canvas, it’s especially suited—and this really is a cliché—to exploring ideas: political ideas, scientific ideas. It’s a rehearsal for different ways that we might live, or rather an exploration of different ways that we might live. My favorite SF writer of all time is Ursula LeGuin. And I have read The Dispossessed until my copy fell apart and I had to buy a new one. I’ve also taught it on two continents. She’s taken there the idea of anarchy, and she’s saying, “Would this be a viable way for us to live? And if so, what might it look like?” And I think that’s what science fiction does.
With “Sea Change,” I’m saying, “OK, what if we really were serious about the genetic engineering of crops, what might drive us to do that and what might it look like if we did?” And I think you can do that with most fiction, and with science fiction and fantasy you can especially do it because you can alter whatever you want to alter and put it under a kind of a microscope and say, “OK, if this were different, how would it affect us as humans?” And then you can write about it and look at it.
Well, this podcast is called The Worldshapers, and of course, the idea is of the writers shaping the worlds that they’re writing about, but do you think or hope that your fiction might have shaped the real world in some way, or if that’s too grand, at least shaped readers in some way to think differently?
I have readers who write me and who tell me that Beggars in Spain changed them, yes. That’s my most famous novel. It’s about people genetically engineered to not need to sleep.
I remember it well.
Well, that’s not really what it’s about. It’s about other things, as well. But I don’t know. I think there are very few books in history that have had that kind of impact—I don’t mean the kind of impact of Beggars in Spain, I mean a genuinely large impact—and even fewer that have shaped politics, economics, even science. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring would be one. Uncle Tom’s Cabin would be one in terms of giving a huge impetus to the abolition movement before the civil war.
Maybe some of Dickens?
Some of Dickens, yes, for child labor. But I don’t think there’s a lot of them. I don’t think that they shape a specific thing, so much a specific event or a specific situation, as they do shape the way that readers of science fiction, good science fiction, at least, have a certain flexibility of mind. They can look and entertain at least the possibility that things could be different than they are now.
And not everybody can do that. I have relatives who never read fiction. They say, “Why would I want to read it if it didn’t happen?” And this is completely alien to me. They also have very practical minds. They look at the world as it is and try to say, “OK, why do I want to do with what’s here?” But they never look at the world the way it is and say, “How could this be different?” And for me, that’s the most interesting part about fiction. How could this be different? How could I be different? How could what I do be different? How could what’s around me be different? And science fiction, I think, is particularly well suited to that.
And of course, there’s the fact that it’s fun.
It is fun.
Both to read and write. I think, anyway. So what are you working on now?
Well, I don’t like to talk about work in progress very much, but I am working on a novel that is about the nature of human consciousness. Nothing like taking on a large subject, is there?
So it’s a short story, then.
It’s already, it’s not done and it’s already longer than it’s supposed to be.
And coming up, we have The Eleventh Gate, I think will be out just before this goes live. So that will be the freshest thing, I think, when the podcast goes live. Where can people find you online, or learn more about you?
I have a website, nancykress.com. I have a Facebook feed, but I’m not on it, I’m afraid, very much, or at all, anymore. So, that’s probably not good. But anybody who wants to contact me can do it through the website. And the publication date for “Sea Change” has been pushed back due to the coronavirus. Jacob pointed out that there are actually no bookstores to ship this book to. So, we’re hoping that by the end of May, when is a new pub date, that there will be.
Is that for “Sea Change” or The Eleventh Gate?
Yes, both of them.
Both of them. Yes, and I was going to say, well, and people can find you at conventions, but not for a while, it looks like.
Not for a bit. And of course, both books will be available on Amazon. Along with everything else in the world.
All right. Well, I think that about wraps it up, so thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. It’s been a great conversation. I hope you enjoyed it as much as I did.
I really did. Thank you for having me, Ed. I guess I didn’t equal Scott Card’s two hours’ worth of talking, but…
Yes. Well, Scott said that he went on because I would let him talk and didn’t interrupt. And so, his default is, if the interviewer is not saying anything, I should fill the space. And so, I got two hours out of him.
Anyway, thanks so much for being on and hope to actually meet you in person sometime in the future.
Well, I’m supposed to be Guest of Honor at WorldCon in D.C. in 2021, if it happens.
Yeah, and I’d like to be there. So hopefully, I’ll see you there if not before.
Candas Jane Dorsey is the internationally known, award-winning author of novels Black Wine (originally Tor 1997, 1998, re-released Five Rivers 2013) and Paradigm of Earth (2001, 2002, Tor); upcoming mystery series The Adventures of Isabel, What’s the Matter with Mary Jane? and The Man Who Wasn’t There (2020-2022 ECW); upcoming YA novel The Story of My Life, Ongoing, by C.J.Cobb; short story collections Machine Sex and Other Stories (1988), Dark Earth Dreams (1994), Vanilla and Other Stories (2000) and ICE & Other Stories (2018); four poetry books; several anthologies edited/co-edited, and numerous published stories, poems, reviews, and critical essays.
Candas was editor/publisher for fourteen years of the literary press The Books Collective, including River Books and Tesseract Books. She teaches writing to adults and youth, professional communications at MacEwan University, and speaks widely on SF and other topics. She was founding president of SF Canada, and has been president of the Writers Guild of Alberta.
She has received a variety of awards and honours for her books and short fiction. In 2005 she was awarded the Province of Alberta Centennial Gold Medal for her artistic achievement and community work, and in 2017 the WGA Golden Pen Award for Lifetime Achievement in the Literary Arts. She was inducted into the City of Edmonton Arts and Cultural Hall of Fame in 2019.
Other awards include the Canadian Science Fiction and Fantasy Hall of Fame (2018), YWCA Woman of the Year Arts and Culture (1988), and an Edmonton Arts Achievement Award (1988). She is also a community activist, advocate, and leader who has won two human rights awards and served on many community boards and committees for working for neighbourhoods, heritage, social planning, and human rights advocacy.
Welcome to The Worldshapers.
We have known each other for…I always start these podcasts by trying to make a connection, but in our case, we’ve known each other for quite a long time at this point, haven’t we?
I believe so. I believe we could measure that in numbers of decades.
Yeah, it’s getting there, for sure. And. of course, I’ve also been plugging When Words Collide, which is where I asked you to be on the podcast this year, because it’s a great writing convention that I’ve found several of my guests on over the last couple of years…or at…and I do like to tell people about it because I think it is really always a fun weekend for me, anyway. And I hope for you.
Well, it’s always nice to go somewhere where you’re recognized for doing the thing you think of as primary. You know, we do so many things to make a living, but they’re not all things that we want to be remembered for the annals of history, you might say. Whereas, when you go to When Words Collide, it’s about writers and being writers and it’s like your primary environment. You get to submerge yourself in talking to people about books. I think it’s marvelous.
And I should mention for anyone who is interested that whenwordscollide.org is the Web site if you want to check it out. Not “when worlds collide,” whenwordscollide.org.
So, we’re gonna talk about your collection of short stories, Ice & Other Stories, which came out last November, and that’s a little different ’cause we normally talk about novels on here, but that’s good because short fiction is, you know, it’s own thing, which I think maybe I should talk about more on The Worldshapers. But before we do that, I would like to take you back, back into the mists of time, which is becoming a cliche on here, because I say that to everyone, to find out how you became interested in writing in general, but also how you became interested in writing stories of the fantastic, and a little bit about where you grew up and all that sort of thing.
OK, well, I’m one of those rare people who was born and grew up in the place that I still live, which is Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. And I’ve never really left for any period of time, although I’ve traveled a lot. I was the youngest in a family of three children, and it was a reading-and-doing-things family. My father had a day job, but he was…what he really was as a musician. My mother was a kind of self-taught historian who turned that into an entire career after I was in high school and was also very much a secret visual artist—you know, she never did much with it, but she loved it. And in her later years, she decided that she was just going to do it. So, it was kind of an interesting group of individuals. My brother is a professional musician and is also a visual artist. And my sister was a kind of a philosopher, really. But she had a day job editing for Hansard and she also did, you know, she sang in the choir, she made things with primitive Japanese woodworking tools just to see if she could, and that sort of thing. So…and, of course, we were all great readers.
So, one of the problems I had as a kid when I came along, I was nine years after my sister and eight years after my brother, they had taken up a number of the art forms, and I was acutely conscious of the competition factor. And so, I think without really…I mean, I already loved reading and I was reading and writing above my grade level, so it was fun to show off, to write things. But I really began to realize that I loved it, and it was also a field where I could just go to town without worrying about an older sibling competing. So I kind of dug into that in my school years, but by high school, I really was kind of committed to it and started to really take it quite seriously. And I have a sideline in visual art, which I did then and then kind of stopped doing for a number of years, and just in the last ten or twelve years, I’ve started doing visual art again and selling paintings. So, that’s more of what my students these days call a “side hustle,” and the writing is always the thing.
So, I’ve been a writer and an editor. I’ve also run a book-publishing company with a group of other people that included for a while Tesseract Books, the Canadian science fiction and fantasy press, which we bought from Beach Holme Publishing, and we later sold to Edge Publishing, and we ran that for about nine years. And I’ve also run an arts newspaper and I teach writing, to various continuing education…like the University of Alberta, and the local school board has something called Metro Continuing Education…and I also teach in communication studies at MacEwan University for the last few years.
And somewhere in there I also got an MFA. I thought it might be a good credential to have. And by then it was kind of interesting because I had more books published than about half of my professors, and of that, half of those minded and half of them didn’t. So, it was kind of a fun experience to dip my toe into academe and discover the politics thereof, but I enjoyed it for the most part. And that’s where I wrote for young adults for the first time, took a children’s and young adults’ writing course from Glen Huser, and realized that I actually had a voice in my head for that. So, that book, if I actually sign my contract and send it back and work out a few technical issues, that book should be coming out next year or the year after.
Well, we’ll certainly talk about that a little later on, too. When you were starting out writing as a young person, did you share your writing with…you know, you said you liked to show off a little bit…were you sharing your writing with classmates and that sort of thing? I always ask that because I think it’s important to get that audience feedback when you’re starting out and realize that you can tell stories that people might like. That’s certainly what I did and kind of what made me think, you know, maybe I really can do this.
.Well, mostly I shared them with the teachers. I had…I had only a very few classmates that I had good friendships with, and high school got a little better, but I was one of those kids who was alone by circumstance rather than by choice in school. I was sick a lot. I was away a lot. And when I was there, I was often ridiculed and called the teacher’s pet because I actually read the books and did the assignments and so on. But I did…it’s kind of interesting. I have been teaching this course for Metro Continuing Education called Introduction to Creative Writing, and a couple of years ago, they moved the classroom that they used, because they use school classrooms at night, right? They moved it to the place where I went to high school, and I realized when I went in there that that had been fifty years ago. This was quite a shock to my system because I don’t really tend to think of myself as old enough to have had, you know, a span of fifty years of sort of higher consciousness, you know, as opposed to, you know, vague memories from long ago. But indeed, I am.
And so, there I was in the school, which, although it had been renovated in terms of paint job and new doors and new lockers, visually is very much the same, and it’s the school where..well, OK, to start that sentence in a different place, I started school when I was four. I think my mother was sort of glad to get me out of the house because I was a very talkative, questioning kid, and probably quite tiring. But anyway…and she also recognized I could already read and was interested in stuff…and so she talked the school into taking me a little bit early because I was supposed to be five. So, when I got to high school, I was a little younger and a little..and a lot…less cool than the popular kids. But high school is a place that had things like the newspaper club and the debating club and the Reach for the Top team and places where my particular kind of weirdness was actually valued for a change. So that was quite nice. But also, I had a Grade 10 English teacher who was awesome, just awesome. She was herself an artist. I found later she was a talented violinist. She’d had her first recital when she was very young and it was, you know, a big sensation around town.
And I think this is in part because, sadly, I just last week attended her funeral service. She was 91 when she died. And…so she was 40 when she was teaching me, and she just had…she had a warmth and an interest in her students that meant that she actually recognized me as having potential or having something to do, and she showed an unfailing interest in my writing, and then she took a little bundle of my writing and she sent it off to Mel Hurtig, who at that point was running his bookstore in Edmonton. He later, of course, became a publisher and published a bunch of Canadian, amazing Canadian classics, like, so many of the works of Inuit writers in the 1970s. He published Mini Aodla Freeman’s Life Among the Qallunaat, and he published People from Our Side…and he published a number of books of the artists up there and their memoirs. He also published The Canadian Encyclopedia. But in those days, he still ran his bookstore. And if you’ve ever been to Audreys in Edmonton, he sold his bookstore to two women named Audrey, who worked for him, and that’s why Audreys, which is Edmonton’s only general independent bookstore at the moment, that’s why they have no apostrophe in their name, because it means the two Audreys. But that was later.
So, there I went…and she sent me downtown to talk to him in his bookstore. He had this big bookstore and then there was a little raised, like, three-steps-up section at the back where his office was. And there I went. Grade 10 self, so I’m like, fourteen, fifteen years old, and I’m shy and nervous. And this just wonderfully kind and intelligent man greets me and talks to me a little bit about writing and books, and then he sent me over to the university to a professor of children’s literature named Alison White, who welcomed me and gave me some books and read my poems and talked to me about them. And I…by then it was summer, and I got the excitement of going sort of all by myself on the bus, which was kind of a big deal for me because I didn’t go out much in that way, over to the university and into one of the historic buildings there where her office was and have this, you know, exciting moment of recognition.
And I have to say that it changed and possibly even saved my life and my sense of self to actually be seen at that point. And I don’t know about you, but those years of sort of thirteen to seventeen are not my favorite years in memory. They really aren’t. They were the time of maximum…well, not to be euphemistic, maximum misery. So, you know, she certainly changed my life and she may have saved it in a kind of metaphysical way because she really gave me to understand that at some point down the road, life would be different and interesting and I might have something to say to the world. So it was…I was thinking about all this week because, of course, it was a bit of a shock to realize that that was fifty years ago and that she had just died and I had met her since then and been able to express my appreciation, thank goodness. But then I went to this service and there was her daughter, who was her only child, and who looked very much like she looked when I knew her first. And so it was kind of an interesting conversation. And I think I was the only person there who was from her teaching life. And, I just, you know, I saw it in the paper. But so I was…I sort of brought all this up from memory and talked to them about her, her sister, and her daughter and her nephew were there, and they invited me to sit at their table. It was a Ukrainian funeral, so there was this absolutely delicious meal, lunch, sit-down lunch afterwards of the Alberta Ukrainian fare, which is, you know, cabbage rolls and meat and chicken and so on. And so it was this hearty and wonderful lunch. And then, just being able to tell her family something about what she was like for us, for her students. So, that was cool.
A lot of writers have somebody like that in their past, I think, that one person that maybe made them realize that maybe this was, you know, there was some value there and what they were doing and maybe they had some talent in that area.
Yes. And I’ve come to think…and I teach a lot of introductory writing courses, and I generally teach pretty much the same thing each time, but that’s because I think there are a few basics that people need to know and then they just need to get out there and write. But I sort of…iI think about what is the nature of a writer in general. And I think that writers are a peculiar combination of nervousness and ego. I was in theater when I was in school, I took drama classes, I went to…the local flagship theater is called The Citadel, I went to drama classes there…I crewed shows. I was gonna be in technical theater. When I realized I couldn’t act very well, I went into technical theater. And there were some opportunities that now I kick myself. I mean, I could have been a stage designer by now and had a completely different life, because Phil Silver, the stage designer at the time, who later went on to Stratford and other heights, invited me to be his model maker, which is a bit like saying you can apprentice with me. And I was young and kind of stupid and I decided I was going to, you know, go back to university and save the world. I don’t know what I decided. That was a long time ago, too. But I didn’t do it.
So, I was in theater and I began to realize that the talents that…I loved improv, but I was not good at preparing a role and losing myself in the role. And I realized that the thing that was wrong with that was the losing myself. And I had this conversation with a guy called Edward Atienza, who was a tenor…he came to Edmonton to do the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado when my partner was the…sidekick…you know, I can never remember their names…Ko-Ko and Poo-Bah.
Ko-Ko is the main character. He’s the Lord High Executioner. And there’s Poo-Bah and there’s Pish-Tush, I played Pish-Tush, that’s how I know.
Yeah. OK. Well, you guys could get together, have a little reunion, and, you know, put your arms over each other’s shoulders and sway back and forth and sing Mikado songs. But, anyway, so there was Edward Atienza, and we were at the sort of first-night party, and I happened to get seated next to him. And I don’t know how we started trading biographies, you know, that, you know, try to find common ground. But, for some reason, I made this mention of having been involved in theater, but realizing it wasn’t…performing was not…I wasn’t temperamentally suited to any other performing except improv. And he said. “That’s really interesting,” because when he was in university, he had wanted to be a writer. Like, in all his teenage years. And he’d gone…and he was British…so he’d gone to university to prepare for this and realized what he was there, that he couldn’t stand the kind of vulnerability that you have as a writer. He couldn’t put himself out there. Even in fiction, you have a kind of vulnerability when you write it. And that just didn’t suit him. And so he moved over into performing, because he could take his creative impulses and clothe them in inhabiting a role.
And so, there were these two people who had basically gone opposite directions, had kind of crisscrossed over in order to find the thing that suited their temperament. Because even when I was a kid, even when I was a very unhappy little kid, I was not…I was quite confident that I would grow up and I would have a life and it would be an interesting life and it would be full of writing. And I find that kind of interesting, that I never really doubted that part. I doubted my ability to write well, I had all the usual angst and worry that young writers have. But I also had some peculiar kind of confidence or ego that kind of saw me through that early part.
Well, I think a lot of the challenge of writing is, like you said, you have to have some sort of ego there that makes you keep doing it and doing it and doing it and thinking that, you know, somebody eventually is going to recognize what you’re doing.
Yeah, and that you’re writing a thing that’s important to be written. You’re not wasting your time and so on. Right? So, yeah, so it kind of interests me, you know, and I try to…I had some really encouraging writing teachers and I had some that basically believed that the way you went about it was extreme tough love and that you would just…and that they would just…well, there was in particular, he would discourage anyone, you know, “You’re wasting your time, don’t do this,” kind of thing. And what I discovered is that the encouraging kind of teacher is not going to bring people into the field who or bad at it because the field will just cull them out. What they will do is bring people into the field who need encouragement—and the word courage is in that word encouragement—who need the courage of their own conviction to get into their career. So, the kind of tough-love writing teacher only is only good for the egoist or the stubborn people or the people whose kind of social fight-or-flight response is to fight back. But there are a lot of writers who are quiet and who don’t want to have a public fight, but they want to write. And so I think, when I’m teaching, I try to indicate to people that, you know, the world of writing and of readers and of publishing is going to narrow you down into the people who are going to get accepted, and so, you know, obviously for them a part of their career is to just get better at doing that thing until they get good enough to pass the bar. But I don’t sort of sit them down and say, “You should really open a 7-Eleven,” because you can’t decide for other people how they’re going to carry out that drive and whether they’re going to…whether they’re going to fix all other technical errors because they are so driven, like some writers that I have known, that I have taught, who you would have thought would be, would never get anywhere because they had so many technical errors, but they fixed them all because they loved, loved writing.
Well, and I’ve done quite a bit of writing teaching as well, and do try to be on the encouraging side myself. I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library, so it’s very much people coming in at all different levels of ability. And sometimes I see stuff and I think, “There’s just no way.” But I tell them what I think could make it better and try to be encouraging because, you know, you never know.
Oh, you know, I don’t hold back. You know, if I see somebody with a lot of technical errors, I will say to them, “You must fix these. Because otherwise you will have a miserable time being rejected.” But, you know, once they know they have to fix them, there’s no reason why they can’t. You know? I mean, I know it sounds kind of like, I don’t know what it sounds like, but basically I have seen people coming up into my writing classes for the past few years who have been taught by the whole-language or process-learning approach, and they really don’t know their own written language and they’re terribly disadvantaged, but they have the same desire to do the work and to tell the stories as the other writers have had. And so, I’ve often had to say, “Hey, it’s not your fault. It’s how you were taught. But you will have to learn this,” and many of them do, because they understand that it’s a tool, it’s their technology, the language is their technology, and they need to use it to do what they want to do.
And you know, I find that pretty, pretty…encouraging, I guess, because I knew all this stuff very early and I was also taught…I was schooled at a time where you were drilled in all the rules of grammar. So, when I sit down to write, I am extraordinarily lucky that my sentences come out as proper sentences, right? So, I can start kind of down the road. If I didn’t have that, though, I still would probably have the impulse to write, I would just have to do more work. So, you know, even people who come to the task with technical skills that need improving, I have seen them…I mean, it’s not just sort of a greeting card here, I have seen them improve and become published writers, and I’ve seen others who had great skills, but they didn’t have kind of the fire. They didn’t want to do the extra work to do a second draft. And their extremely promising stories didn’t even go as far as the other ones. So, this at this point, after having taught since 1983 different writing classes and started, and sent…many of my classes, I send them off to be writing groups…I’ve decided you can’t predict which horse is going to finish the race. You just can’t. So, you give everyone the same skills and encouragement and then tell them it’s a tough business. And so you have…
Sorry. Just give me a second…okay, let’s try that sentence again. I tell them it’s a tough business and that they have to meet a quality standard, but…and that they’re going to have to learn a lot of that on their own…and I think it’s a much better way to prepare them for the writing world than to try and be mean to them.
You may hear my little dog in the background.
He won’t be the first animal noises in the background. John Scalzi had cats going on in the background and somebody else did, too. So it’s not uncommon. And Peter V. Brett had somebody doing construction work outside his window, so…so, you studied English and drama in university and also social work. Were you…when did you start writing for publication, or attempting to be published? When did you break in?
I started writing seriously in high school and in the first couple of years of university, and my mother actually talked me into staying at university after the first year rather than going walkabout, as so many students did in the ’70s, because W. O. Mitchell was coming to teach writing at the university. And so, I did stay in my second year and took classes from Doug Barbour, who you know through his work in the science fiction field, and that’s who introduced me to Ursula K. Le Guin and Samuel Delany…in a big way. I mean, my father had been a big science fiction reader and I think I’d read Le Guin before, but some of the others I hadn’t…Alfred Bester, Joanna Russ, all these amazing writers…he had done his thesis on. And this is 1971, so, you know, people listening to your podcast will realize how long ago, how ancient I am. I’m not that old, but I feel it sometimes.
In any case, so I went back. I studied with Mitchell, who was a wonderful teacher. He was nurturing but demanding in a really wonderful way. And he never forgot anything or anyone. So, I would meet him years later and he would say, “Kid, you didn’t quit. You didn’t quit.” And that was his big thing. “Never quit. Just keep writing. Keep doing it.” And I remember one time I asked for a letter of reference for a grant I was applying for and I remember him saying, “I don’t know, my letter might be the kiss of death, kid, because, you know, I’m just not, you know, they don’t…I don’t think they’d like me that much.” And I’m saying, “I don’t know, you know. Big name.” In any case, I think I got the grant. So I think he wasn’t the kiss of death, but he was a lovely guy, and so…
Doug Barbour was editing White Pelican in those days and he’d gotten Samuel Delaney, for instance, to write for White Pelican. I think I still have that somewhere, that issue. And he and some other people got together and started NeWest Press. George Melnyk had started the NeWest Review and the NeWest Institute, which were to study Western Canadian culture. And I went to the first NeWest Forum on the Arts. It was out at Rudy Wiebe’s Strawberry Creek Lodge when the lodge wasn’t…it was just barely completed, it didn’t have carpets, or, you know, all the amenities, but there was. And we looked at, you know, questions…I mean, this was is in the 1970s and we’re talking about indigeneity. And somebody had made a film about spring burning for ecological reasons in First Nations before settlement and just all sorts of very cool stuff.
So, they decided to start a press. So they got a little board together and they started NeWest Press, which is of course, still in existence. And the very first book they did was called Getting Here…Getting There?…no, Getting Here. And it was a book of Edmonton writers, all of whom were women, as I recall. It’s way up too high on the shelf to reach to verify this for sure. But I know that…yeah. I’m pretty sure it was all women writers and that was part of the point. And Doug edited or co-edited it. And that was…I had had some other things published in things like the university newspaper, and so on, but that was sort of the first time a story was anthologized. And it was a science fiction story of sorts, a kind of slipstream science fiction story, which was called, “You’ll Remember Mercury.” Which was a line from someone’s poem, who had written a kind of very creepy, almost horror-like poem, where the astronauts come to Mercury and they get changed and transformed in ways that they perhaps didn’t intend, and the last line was, “Oh, yes, you’ll remember Mercury.” So I’d written this story, which was, quite, I guess, a little surreal, but it took all the science-fiction tropes and it had them in there. You know, the faster-than-light travel, the spaceship captain, the et cetera, et cetera. And eventually…what it was was, in essence, was a space ship full of sort of outcasts, including First Nations people and so on, who were making a gesture against what we today call colonialism, I guess. And who have the spaceship and who ceremonially dive into the heart of the sun. And, you know, I mean, I was twenty, right? And so that was my first kind of breakout.
And I had a lot of stories published in literary magazines. All of them were science fiction and fantasy, really. Or slipstream or kind of surrealism or whatever they were. There wasn’t much in the way of realism, but I just thought of myself as a writer, you know, not particularly as a genre writer. I didn’t have any trouble with those markets, either. Like, you know, there’s a certain kind of town and gown kind of thing, of, you know, the literary world looks down on us, but I have been…I had no hesitation in submitting to those markets, and getting published, places like A Room of One’s Own and Prairie Fire and various magazines that no longer exist, Blue Buffalo, and so on.
And I also had no hesitation in applying for literary grants. I just thought, “Well, I’m a writer. That’s what they’re here for.” And I would apply and by and large, I would get them. I think, you know, the odds of getting a literary grant is somewhere between one and six and one in ten and probably more by now. But I figured that was pretty good odds for spending an afternoon on an application. And so, I would say that I probably got over half of those that I applied for, and was fairly philosophical about the ones I didn’t. I definitely urge, you know, if listeners are Canadian writers, almost all the provinces and the Canada Council have these grant programs and many cities do, as well. I live in Edmonton, and the Edmonton Arts Council has grant programs, and I would really urge people to apply and not be weird and reverse-snobby about how those are for literary writers and they will discriminate. They’re all decided by juries. The juries differ from time to time. So one jury may love your work. The other jury may put you a little bit below the red line. You have to think of it as buying a lottery ticket, in essence. You apply, and then you forget about it. And if a nice letter comes in the mail down the road, yay, you won the lottery. If it doesn’t, then, OK, you hadn’t counted on it anyway.
And, you know, I don’t think artists have a right to…I mean, I think we’re very lucky to have a grant system, but I have to recognize that historically, the state, as it were, and private patrons who had a lot of money were the reasons why the arts even got made. You think about the Renaissance and all those huge paintings of Saint Sebastian taking on the arrows that are now in the Louvre, they were all in private castles and artists went from castle to castle, making their daily bread by painting or they wrote a long poem and they dedicated it to the guy who was going to pay for it, right? And I don’t think…I think government is the best patronage system there is, because it’s objective. So, I really strongly feel that developing writers should look at all the options, and they shouldn’t think of themselves as being…especially developing speculative writers or developing genre writers, they shouldn’t think of themselves as being the little match girl outside the outside the house while the party goes on inside. We’re all part of the same thing.
Well, let’s move on to your current collection of short stories. Your first book was a collection of short stories, Machine Sex and Other Stories, and now you have Ice & Other Stories, which also starts with “Machine Sex.” So…I know you can’t really synopsize a collection of short stories, but tell us about the book.
Well, the book started as all the stories that had been in something, but not in a book. So there were thirteen or 14 stories. And every couple of years I’d get a story published. I’m a very slow writer. And sometimes that was because of life and reasons and sometimes it’s just because it takes me a while to develop a story. So I had these stories and I went through a period where my mother was aging and she was in a nursing home and I had some health issues, and it wasn’t the best time for getting things out into the world. But I had this collection. So, every now and then I would think about, “Where should I send it?” And it’s hard to get short-story collections published. It’s not easy to sell them, so only certain publishers want to do them.
So, I did…Ursula Plug did a book of short stories with PS Publishing in England, Pete and Mickey Crowther run it, and they do these beautiful hardcovers and they do a limited, a signed, limited edition, and so on. And she asked me to write the forward for it. So then I was in touch with these people and they seemed…and then I went to the London WorldCon and there were all their books, and they were just beautiful. They were beautiful. There wasn’t a small-literary-press-deathwish cover among them. They were all just beautiful and beautifully produced and a lot of hardcovers. And they were really sincere people. And I still can’t figure out their business model, because they do these beautiful books in small editions. They bind them beautifully. The signed editions are still well within a collector’s or regular collector’s budget. And they ship their author’s copies to me without charging for shipping, so I’m kind of amazed at their business model. But…so I got in touch with them and I sent them a manuscript, and…Nick Gevers is the short-fiction editor that works with them, and he lives in South Africa. And nothing really happened to this book for a while. And so finally, when I was in a little better state, I sort of sent a reminder saying, “Oh, yeah, I sent you guys a book,” and he sent me back a message and, interestingly, my mother had just died, which is why…and I was sort of getting back into having more time in my life. And so, he sent back a letter, and his mother had also been in care and dying at a similar elderly age, in their nineties. And so he said, “I haven’t read your manuscript yet, but I will,” and within a week I had a publication offer.
So, that started out one of the new years very well. And then we worked on what stories from previous books might be known to people that we should put into a retrospective, because this is 30 years of stories. They wanted a new story, and that took me a while, I must say. But so, then what would be kind of the first one? So we decided to put “Machine Sex”—”(Learning About) Machine Sex” is its real name—put that into it as the first story, because that’s the story of mine that has been most anthologized. And we’ve put in “Sleeping in a Box,” which won what was then the Casper Award and is now the Aurora Award, and there were a couple of others that I felt kind of still had…still should be seen there, and we ended up with, I think it’s twenty-one stories now, if I’m not mistaken. For a while, it was seventeen, and then it increased again.
And, basically, they cover thirty years, and so when I was writing the notes for it, I started writing the notes with a little bit of an eye toward the history. So, if you read the notes, you get a little bit of the secret history of Canadian SF. I talk in there about the SF Canada workshop in 1986 in Peterborough. And Michael Skeet was there. I was there, John Park…trying to remember if Karl Schroeder…anyway, I have all the names in the book. And there were eight people there and their various spouses. Ursula Pflug was there, Wendy Pearson was there, who’s now mainly an academic, but she was writing fiction in those days. She’s at Western, University of Western Ontario, I think it is. And her partner, Susan Knabe, who is also an academic in the field now. Ursula was there with her baby and her husband, who’s a filmmaker, and Michael was there, and Lorna Toolis, of course, the librarian at the Merrill Collection for all those years was there when she could be, she had to work. And Judy Merrill ran it.
So, that was then. And things have changed considerably over the time, and so each…we decided to arrange the stories in chronological order by publication and just talk, I would talk about what was going on at the time in the notes. So, it’s been actually, I think, an interesting exercise. Like, if people really want to start thinking about how the network fit together, who was helping whom, who was talking to whom, in the field, they will find some good information in the back pages there. And also, they’ll find all these, thirty years of short fiction. And the last story is actually a brand-new story. Probably, it has some…I mean, I know that some of my stories were more intense than others, and there’s some that I particularly love.
The one that I wrote for Ursula Plug’s anthology, and Colleen Anderson’s anthology, Playground of Lost Toys, is one that I’m particularly proud of. It’s really an example of me as a slow writer, though, because I started writing that story when Nalo Hopkinson put out a call for her anthology called Mojo Conjure Stories, which were stories about, in essence, everyday magic, and people doing folkloric magic. And it always bugs me that writers in the fantasy field will swipe the folklore of other people and turn it into their plot devices and they won’t look necessarily to their own heritage, because, you know, Wendigo is cool, so I’m gonna write a story about Wendigo, kind of thing. And some of those stories you need to be given. And if you’re given them, if you do the work, if you go to the people who own them and you ask, then that’s a different matter. But just to say, oh, I think it’s really interesting that, you know, Voudon says this or, you know, Candomblé is based on this and I’ll just use it in my story. You have…you’re walking a fine line between colonialism or, you know, imperialism of some kind, and true homage.
And so, I just thought I would look at what’s the kind of magic that my people would do. You know, I’m a third- or fourth-generation settler on the prairies from a sort of Scots-English background, almost completely that. I have a few random…I have a probably a random Mennonite several, a couple of hundred years ago, and so on. But it’s mostly Scots and English. So, I’m thinking, “What’s the heritage I have?” And so I started thinking about my relatives and the kinds of things that prairie people do, like make flapper pie and eat Kraft dinners and put together jigsaw puzzles and wear L’eggs pantyhose and work at the dollar store, and so on. And I crafted those into a story about, what would the everyday magic be for those people? So, it’s around putting together jigsaw puzzles makes magic. And it ended up being a lovely story, but it was also, like, many years after Mojo Conjure Stories was gone and published and so on. And it just never made it, So, when Playground of Lost Toys came along. I figured, “Jigsaw puzzles equal toys. Hey!” And I finished the last little bits of it and sent it in, and I’m very pleased with it. It’s the kind of story that I can only read it and it makes me sniff with a little bit of emotion, and so, I like that.
Well, a lot about what I talk about on the podcast is, you know, the process of creating stories. And one of the great things about the story notes at the end of the book is that you do tell where these stories came from. But I don’t know that I see a particular theme as to how ideas come to you. It looks, like many of us, all sorts of things can spark a story idea in you. Is that fair to say?
Yes. And stories sort of start at different points, too. Like, I have had stories, and one of my novels, that started from a dream I had. And the novel became a novel because it took that long to make the elements of the dream into a story that made sense in anything other than an emotional arc, right? So…one of the things you need to know about me is I started writing short and started writing longer and longer pieces. So, it’s like that Eastern European proverb about, “How do you lift an ox? You start the day it’s born and you lift it every day.”
So, I wasn’t a natural novel writer. And, in general, my process is to start with a thing…and maybe you could think of it as, I don’t know if you save wrapping paper, but sometimes in my family we did, and there’d be this big tangle of ribbon and you’d pull the end of the ribbon and you’d just keep pulling it out and untangling it from all the stuff that isn’t that piece of ribbon. And so, I would assemble little pieces and move them around and it’s only later in my career have I written this…and I did it on purpose to see if I could…written a book where I started with, sort of the beginning, the first scene, and went in order to the end. And that’s the first mystery… I’ve just sold this series of three mysteries to ECW Press. Two of them are written, and I’m supposed to be writing the third one, probably right this minute, when you think about it.
But the first one came from, sort of an assignment I gave myself to just start at the beginning and write to the end. And I probably also did that when I was working with Nora Abercrombie on the three-day novel that we won. But I had, at least I had someone there to help me. Yeah, that was Hardwired Angel. And I think I’ve actually empowered certain of my students by saying, you know, you don’t have to write an order and you don’t have to write fast. It’s true that the industry demands a book a year from some kinds of writers and you can get into that rhythm once, you know, once you have the experience, but everybody is their own kind of writer, and you just have to learn what kind you are. Which is not like…I say to them, it’s not an excuse to be lazy, it’s not an excuse to say, “Well, I’m not going to do that because it’s too much work and I’m not that kind of writer anyway,” you know? No, that’s not what I’m saying. But if you’re like me and you hate to know the ending…like, I truly find that if I have an entire outline planned out before I start, my impetus to write goes down to ten percent of what it was, if that, because I just, I write to find out what happens.
And other people love the outlining, and they put up their little index cards and stuff, and then they write for a while, and of course then the characters take over and create chaos within the story. And so, you know, there’s a moment when I have to get organized, but it’s usually when I’ve got quite a bit of stuff written and I have to think about what comes next in a more organized way. But quite often my instinct for story will drive me down a certain road when I’m not even sure I should be including that in the book, and it’ll turn out to be the right thing.
What is your actual…like, do you write in a keyboard, Do you write longhand? How do you like to work?
Well, that depends on what I’m writing. I pretty much always write poems longhand. And I do have a notebook beside my bed that I will occasionally write a scene down in. But, over the years…I was an early adopter of computers. I was actually an early adopter of typewriters, because my godfather gave me his 1922 Underwood when he got a modern typewriter in the 1960s, and I learned to type quite early. And I understood that if I typed it right, I would never have to type it again, and that was kind of powerful. When computers came out, I was freelance writing and I pretended that it was all about my business, and that it was a business decision. But what it really was, was, “Oh, my gosh, I get to do this where if I do it right, I will never have to retype another manuscript, and I can do this cutting and pasting stuff and I can do this alteration stuff,” it was tremendously exciting. And so, my first computer was this twenty-six-pound KayPro, which was considered portable in those days, made by an oscilloscope company…
I remember those!
Yeah. Ten-inch screen, and the first one had 63K of memory, and then you put a floppy disk in it to save your files, and the floppy disks were 5 1/4 inch. And then, they got a hard drive. It was ten whole megabytes. I thought I would never need another storage device in my life. It was so exciting. Anyway, so I was an early adopter. So, I got trained pretty early to type stuff. So, for the prose, I generally tend to type, but if something strikes me, if I have a good idea while I’m just about to go to sleep, I will grab the notebook and write it and then transcribe it later. But I know people who still write, like, their first draft in fountain pen, and…in one of the courses I teach, I have to talk about this, but, there is actually science to say that writing on a keyboard, if you’re taking notes, gives you less retention than writing.
Yeah, I saw that.
But I don’t know what that means if you’re generating it. I do know that if I were a better typist, there are all sorts of cool techniques that people that I know have done to make their first drafts were better. And one of them is a woman I knew who turned off her monitor for the first draft. But she was a good enough typist that what was there made sense when she turned them back on. Whereas I’m a terrible typist and I’m always correcting. And I look at, you know, I look at the screen and the keyboard all the time, I never learned any of the typing techniques. The attitude to typing that they had then was that it led to a stenographic career, so girls didn’t take typing. And I was very careful not to cross that line, but I kind of regretted it, because I wanted to write. But my sister taught me, who had taken typing, taught me to type on my Underwood when I was just a little kid. But I had such weak…like, I had tiny hands. And you have to lift the carriage return, or the capital key, the Shift key, was a literal shift, and you had to push it down, and it was very heavy. So as a result, I never learned to type with the right fingers.
But it doesn’t really matter. I think that the computer has been so helpful for so many because it’s a lot like writing by hand. You can write things that aren’t in order. You can go back and forth. You can cut and paste. You can add things. You can move lots of texts. You can copy things. You can keep…I mean, people who write with Scrivener can keep files on all their characters and all their settings and all their research in the same place. I mean, it’s just…it’s quite marvelous. And I think it actually helps the creative process have that kind of freedom from linearity.
What does your revision process look like? Is it all kind of a unit, where you just work away at it and it takes shape and then it’s done? Or do you ever go back and start at the beginning and do a complete rewrite, or how does that work for you?
I am not a complete-rewrite person. I hate to talk about this because I don’t think it’s common. But the thing that I write down, by the time I write it down, is very close to the end thing. So my revision consists of fiddling around a little bit. Like, I hardly ever…I have hardly ever in my whole career taken a scene and just axed it and written a whole new scene. But I might put something aside. That doesn’t seem to fit. More often than not…like, I have very little of that had-to-try-this detritus lying around in my hard drive. It’s…to talk about my own process, I actually want to talk about my partner, Timothy Anderson’s, process, because he can be quite infuriating to sit across the room from while he’s writing and I’m writing, because he has everything in his head and he types it out. Like, he doesn’t…and it’s not conscious, he’s not walking around saying, “Oh, this character needs to do this,” but somehow there’s this story build-up that goes on in his head that’s way more conscious than it is in mine. And when he has some time, he sits down from across…and he can type fast, so he can write four to twelve thousand words in a day, if that’s all he’s doing, because he just types. It’s absolutely infuriating. It’s just so infuriating. Because I go type, type, type. Silence, silence, silence. Type, type. Silence. Type a bit. Silence. But when I put the thing on paper, it’s as if part of my mind is doing the same as his. It’s putting the story together, but it’s not doing it in my conscious sight.
So, when I type, what I’ve had to learn is to just trust, to type what’s there, what’s coming out, and see where it fits later. And especially with novels. I remember…your listeners might or might not know that the novel I’m best known for is called Black Wine, and it’s a rather complicated fantasy novel in which a number of braided stories turn out to all be related in the end. And when I first started writing it, it was…I thought it was gonna be a longish short story that was sort of a quest: young woman goes off looking for her mother who went away when she was a child, all in a fantasy landscape. And it was Marie Jakober, when I was telling her about it, who said, “Oh, Candas, this sounds like a novel.” And I was thinking, “Oh, no, oh, please, no.” But yeah, it was a novel. So I started typing.
And one day, I had gone to my friend’s, David Greer’s, house on Pender Island for a writing retreat, he had a lovely little cabin there, and I’m typing on my KayPro, and all of a sudden, the sentence I type, like, the first sentence I typed that day is, “There is a madwoman in a cage in the courtyard.” Now, this just came out of nowhere, nowhere, and luckily. I was smart enough not to say to myself, “Oh, this has nothing to do with what you’re writing. Don’t type any further.” And so, I just kept typing, and suddenly there was this young woman with amnesia who was sort of like a waif figure, and she was bringing this woman food, and they were talking in this language that the waif hadn’t realized she knew until she heard the woman speaking it…because amnesia, right? And I’m thinking, “What is this?” But something in me said, “This is part of your story.” And that ended up being the first scene in the book.
Once I had written all these pieces of book, I then arranged them in a bunch of orders, and some of the orders worked and some of the orders didn’t, and that ended up the first scene. And how I got smart enough to just keep typing, I have no idea. But I’ve always been really grateful for it, because many years later that novel emerged and that was the beginning of it. And then we discover later how it all fits with quest-girl and her mother and all the other people in the book, and it all kind of fits together, but you don’t really find out till about page 100, and even then, speaking of the revision process, David Hartwell bought that novel for Tor Books. That was funny, too, because he was buying a story of mine and one of the forwards to the Tesseracts Anthologies for his book Northern Stars, which was a Canadian science fiction anthology he co-edited with Glenn Grant and…I think it was Northern Stars, which was the first one…anyway…when my voice gets fades away, there’s because I’m looking up at my shelf of books to see if I can see the spine of it…but in any case, so he has me on the phone and I said, “Oh, David, you know, I’ve had this novel sitting on my desk for like a year now and I don’t know who to send it to. Could you give me some some some hints, some suggestions about who you think might want it?” And there’s this silence at the other end of the phone. And then this exasperated voice says, “Well, send it to me.” And I thought, “Oh, yeah, right, you’re the, you know, one of the most influential editors at the most influential publishing house, but I never thought of that.” And, indeed, he bought it. And what he…the only real change he made was, he said, “People have to wait till about page 150 or 175 to find out what’s going on for sure. They’re not going to wait that long. You have to move one of these scenes up a little earlier in the book.” So I moved it up to about page 100 and then he said, “That’s good.” And so, really his editing consisted of, “Move these things around a little.”
He was more active with the second book, because he would say things like, “These scenes are too long, you’ve got to fix them.” And I then figured out why and fixed them. But the first book, there was almost, almost nothing was changed. It was just moved a bit. And on the level of the sentences, some sentences were sanded until they had smoother edges. Including that very first sentence.
We’ve done an hour here, so I want to wrap things up. But I have to wrap it up with the big philosophical question that I ask everyone. And you spend a lot of time thinking about writing and you teach writing. And so the big question is simply, why? Why do you write and why do you think any of us write. And, specifically, why do we write stories of the fantastic? Why do we tell stories?
Well, when I’m being flippant, I say I write because there’s only two things I do well, and the other one is illegal to sell. But, no, I think…well, I know that it’s a human imperative to tell stories and to make sense of our environment through storytelling and through arranging things into a story. There’s even research…this woman whose name I forget at the moment, who pioneered a lot of research into nursing practice using narrative inquiry, which in itself is storytelling, right? It’s “ask the nurses to tell the stories of their practice.” And she actually did a study where she particularly interviewed bad nurses and asked them the same thing she asked the nurses in her general studies. And the main finding she had was that bad nurses could not make narrative out of their experience. They could not tell the story of their nursing practice.
And this, of course, makes me think of, in my social-work years and child-care work years, makes me think of the dysfunctional families, who would have secrets and lies but they don’t have stories that they pass on. They don’t have, they don’t know when the kids were born or when they moved here from Ontario or when so-and-so started school or whether they won an award or whatever. Whereas, certainly in my family, those memories were dearly, dearly kept and re-told as story. So, I think all humans try to make sense of their situation. And you think about someone who was raised in a dysfunctional family and they go to therapy. What’s the first thing they tell them to do? They tell him to tell his story. They tell them to, the first thing they do is to tell them to tell the story of their own lives. So they try and put together a coherent narrative out of their memories and what happened to them and their lives. That’s a kind of storytelling, too, right? It’s a kind of making order out of the universe. And I think those of us who…well, I don’t know if I can generalize, but certainly, when I look at the body of my work, it’s all about justice and injustice. It’s about hope and transformation because of things…
Particularly, when I was twenty years old, I got a job as a child-care worker for four years with teenage girls. And at that point, I was still complaining about my family of origin and how mean they were or whatever. Well, no, they weren’t. They were brilliant. I mean, there may have been some dysfunction in our family, as there is in every family. But I saw things that were horrifying and tragic and just left me with enough anger to basically fuel all the stories for life, and to some degree, I’m still telling those stories. And I thought about John Gardner’s book On Moral Fiction and how he talks about moral fiction is a fiction that kind of seeks justice. And fantasy novels are considered one of the kinds. The quest novel or the good-versus-evil novel, mystery novels, and romance. So he talks very specifically about the genres, and the reason that they’re so popular is because they restore order in the universe and in that way they are not religiously moral, but they are moral in the sense of a universal order, an ethical way of living, whatever.
So, I think we tell stories to create order and restore order and give people hope that there are solutions and answers and that there are people like them and that there are things they can do in the world. They don’t have to be inert. They can be agents of their own change and other people’s change. And I think, at the base level, that’s why I tell stories. The challenge is not to tell lectures, because I could give, as I am doing now, a little rant on why that’s important, or I could tell a story. But if I try to tell a story and all it is is a rant, it’s not a successful story. So, you have to put real people in a situation where their lives and love and emotional well-being and physical well-being depend on the resolution of these issues, and that then becomes an allegory for other people who read it to say, “I can submerge myself in this and I can see parallels to my own life and I can learn new things.
I do urge people…the last thing I’ll say is, I urge people to have a look, in our field, to have a look at John Clute and his fellow editors..it was John Klute and John Grant for one, and John Clute and Peter Nichols for another…the Encyclopedia of Fantasy and the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction. And there is a definition of fantasy in there that has something that I say to all my writing classes. It talks about the progression of a story from an initial wrongness through a state of thinning, where the world or the person’s reality is kind of thinned and hollowed out. And then comes a moment…and this is a beautiful sentence that I love, and I might as well finish with this, “A moment where the protagonist gazes upon the shriveled heart of the thinned world and knows what to do.” And that revelation is followed by a metamorphosis or a set of actions that lead to what Klute calls the eucatastrophe, like, the good, the resolution of the story, basically. And that leads to a return, a healing, a return of just governance, all the things that we recognize in fantasy.
But in my mind, you can put any type of fiction on that loom and look at that journey, and I often say to my students that modern literary fiction, especially what is sometimes called the MFA short story, is trapped in thinning every bit as much as a horror story is, right? So, literary fiction is still on it, too, and it fits in with his taxonomy. So if people want to know more about that, they just should look at the encyclopedia. It’s online. They can just look for the definition of fantasy and read the whole thing.
But I think that’s why people tell stories. Certainly why I do. And for a while, I was thinking it was also the only thing I knew really how to do and how to earn money doing. And that was when I started doing the visual art, because it was wordless and I could paint things and just feel the sense of creating for the sake of creating. And that created for me…that gave me a return to the way I had felt when I was first writing, and then I was able to kind of renew my own writing. So that’s that’s where I’m at now. And I’m actually quite happily writing away on this new book and I have another book waiting and another editor. So, if things work out, I’ll have this little cluster of about five books coming. Well, counting Ice, that’ll be six, coming out within a few years after a very long period of not publishing much.
And that was actually my next question. You mentioned the young adult book as one thing that was potentially coming up. And what are the other things that you’re working on right now?
Well, there’s a series of three mystery novels that are kind of nameless, slightly hard-bitten detective. But what she is, is a bisexual, downsized social worker with a cat who’s called Bunnywit, that he’s only called Bunnywit because she used to call him Fuckwit, but then when her cousin, the born-again Christian, came to visit, she was insulted by the cat having an obscenity in its name, so she had to learn to call it Bunnywit. And she’s been unemployed for a year, and things are getting to…she’s gotten down to her last box of fish sticks when someone offers her a job that’s related to a crime has been committed, and she sort of becomes an unwilling, unwillingly involved in the crime. And it goes on from there. So. the first one is called The Adventures of Isabel, and all the chapter headings were taken from the Ogden Nash poem. The second one is called What’s The Matter With Mary Jane? and all the headings are taken from the AA Milne poem. And the third one is called, that I’m working on right now, not sure if it’s called, The Man Who Wasn’t There, or He Wasn’t There Again Today. But it’s that little poem about, “As I was going up the stair, I met a man who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. Oh, how I wish he’d go away.” And so, they’re a bit of a series. Things happen as do happen in mystery series. And they’re also a little bit stylistically different with each one, which is part of the fun.
And then, so there’s the YA, which is called The Story of My Life Ongoing, and it’s narrated, sort of…it’s epistolary, and it has an intersex teen who is going through some stuff. But it’s not about being intersex, it’s about the stuff, and another teen that they meet that’s also going through stuff. So, we’ll see how that goes. And I wrote it quite a long time ago, so my struggle is I have to update it for the modern, much more aware era, thirteen years later. So there’s the three mystery novels, there’s that, then there’s the great looming serious novel that I worked on for years, which is now sitting with an editor who, as usual, is taking some time. I probably should send him a message saying, “Er, um, excuse me?”
I should mention, too, that Wayne Arthurson, the Edmonton nystery writer, decided that he’d like to try being an agent, and he took on my mystery novels and he was the one that placed it. So it was his first deal as an agent and my first deal with an agent. So it was a tremendously exciting moment. And I also joke that I never thought I would actually get to say the words “three-book deal” about my own books, because I’m not usually that kind of a writer. I’m usually a slow one-at-a-time writer. But this was a bit different, and then…I never mention the advances because I read all these stories in the American media, but about six-figure advances. And I say, “Well, I got a six-figure advance, but it had a decimal point in it.”
Yeah, I’ve gotten those.
And I’m actually happy with that because, frankly, you want to earn your advance out. You don’t want to be paid a huge amount of money. And then what if the book doesn’t sell enough to earn out? Then you have a bad reputation in the industry, whether it’s fair or not. And I don’t think it’s fair. So I’d rather have a small advance and then a success.
For readers who want to keep up with what you’re doing, can they find you online and where can they find you?
Oh, that’s something that’s a work in progress because I’ve actually…I had a Web site and I was just about to populate it when WordPress updated and broke it and I never got back to it. So my project for the winter, in order to avoid writing, is I thought I would try to get my website back in order and start a bit of a blog and I don’t know if what I will do is blog about things of interest, little rants, or whether I would make it specific to the process of writing and try and accumulate enough of that material for a book or what? And we’ll see. So you can find me in a search, but it’s not going to give you an up-to-date Web site. It’s going to give you a site that the Writers Union put up years ago and a Wikipedia entry that’s out of date and a little bit wrong, not a lot wrong, but just a teeny bit. They don’t allow you to edit your own.
And so I’m sort of there. I’m visible. But you can find out how to order my book, though, because it, most of the orders that PS Publishing does are mail orders. And so, just look up PS Publishing and Ice & Other Stories. And it is really a pretty book. So you will like…I say this to all your listeners…you will like it. I know you will.
Well, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, Candace. It’s been a great chat.
OK. Well, thank you for letting me go on and on. I really enjoyed it. And I’m looking forward to hearing it and the others that you’re talking about, because you told me you have some great people coming up, and so, it’s always good to follow.
James Alan Gardner got his bachelor’s and master’s in math with a thesis on black holes, then immediately began writing science fiction instead. He has published ten novels and numerous short stories, including finalists for the Nebula and Hugo and winners for the Aurora, the Asimov’s Readers’ Choice Award and the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award. His most recent novels are All Those Explosions Were Someone Else’s Fault, first book in the Dark vs. Spark series, and They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, the second book, both from Tor. In his spare time, he plays a lot of tabletop roleplaying games and has recently begun writing material for Onyx Path’s Scion line. In his other spare time, he teaches kung fu to six-year-olds.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, James.
Thanks, Edward. Glad to be here.
I guess we’ve kind of known each other for a long time, but we don’t encounter each other very often. But we did see each other at When Worlds Collide, which is something…When Words Collide. It always comes out as When Worlds Collide.
Yeah, yeah. It’s a great idea and a great title. And it was a great con this year.
Was that the first time you’d been?
It’s close to me, so I’m there most years. It gets plugged a lot on The Worldshapers, ’cause I’ve asked a number of writers to be on after I saw them at When Words Collide.
Well, if I can make it next year, I certainly will. I had a great time there.
And I guess this is a good place to mention to those interested that the website for that is WhenWordsCollide.org. It does fill up every year, so if you’re interested in going, it wouldn’t hurt to to sign up for next year, right now. But enough about that, let’s talk about you! I always start by taking guests back into the mists of time, and for you and me, it’s roughly the same amount of mists, to find out, first of all, when you became interested in writing, and when you became interested in writing science fiction. I’ve seen from other interviews that you started writing pretty early.
Yes. I still have some of the things that I wrote when I was, like, five. They are hiding in my parents’ house and I hope they will never see the light of day. The first thing…I can remember writing what would be called fanfic these days, which was in my time based on The Man from U.N.C.L.E.—which tells how old I was—and me and my friends were spies: the standard thing that one writes when one is…I guess I was twele at the time…and I kept writing some of that for a while.
I wrote several plays when I was in high school, but I really got serious in my first year of university. I was in co-op at the University of Waterloo, and there the co-op program is sort of four months in school, then four months in work placement, and I was working for IBM in Toronto, where I knew no one, and didn’t have a whole lot of money. But writing was cheap. So, for four months on my work term in Toronto, I amused myself by writing science fiction. And none of that was saleable, but bit by bit, I got better.
Well, I think it’s come up a few times on here with different authors, the famous saying…I always attribute it to Stephen King, that you had to write half a million words of unpublishable stuff before you wrote anything publishable, but then somebody recently who’d met Ray Bradbury said that he used to say 800,000 words.
Yeah, yeah. A whole bunch of junk before you get down to the good stuff underneath.
Yeah, that’s what it boils down to. So, you got your bachelor’s and master’s in math, but you never actually used that? You went straight into writing? Or what happened after you graduated?
I went…for two years after I got my master’s, I tried to write something significant. I was working on a novel…and I still like the idea for the novel, I might…every now and then, I think, “Is it time to write that? Maybe. Probably not yet.” But for two years I tried to make a living writing while tutoring calculus. That was my income. And at the same time, I was also writing for a musical comedy review at the university, and someone who was associated with that show put me in contact with a group in the computer science department who wanted someone to write computer manuals for them. So, I got a job half-time writing computer manuals, and that kept me in money for long enough for me to start selling stories and things.
Well, it’s interesting, because when I decided to be a full-time writer, one of the things that got me going was there was a market for, you know, general computer books at the time. So, people ask me what my first book is, and I always say, well, my first book was actually Using Microsoft publisher for Windows 95. And my second book was the sequel, Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 97.
Ah! I have a few Unix books out there that I, you know, they’re on the shelf, but I’m not proud of them.
Well, I was never that technical, but at the time there was actually a market at the level of, “To open a file, click FILE>OPEN.” That’s the kind of level I was writing at. And I was interested, too, that you wrote plays and this musical comedy revue…
…because that’s another side of what I do. I’m an actor and singer and performer, and I’ve done…I’ve written plays, as well. And I like to ask the writers who have done that sort of thing, if you find your theater background helps in the writing of fiction. For me, it feels that it does. But I’m always interested to see if others have the same experience.
Oh, yes, immensely. So, I did…first of all, this onstage musical comedy thing, and then a group of us who helped write for that started writing straight-up plays and radio dramas. And sometime in there, I got into improv and took a number of improv classes. And all those things go together into…theater gives you immediate feedback on whether your writing works or not, by the amount you cringe when you hear your lines being said. You learn a bit on fool-proofing dialogue. And certainly, improv gives you some good practice in structuring scenes and figuring out how actions go together to make plot.
I often feel that, having directed plays and stuff like that, I feel like I have a very solid image in my head at all times of where characters are in relationship to each other in the space in which the scene is happening, and when I tutor younger or beginning writers—and I’m writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library right now—I’ve done quite a bit of that—and one thing I often find is, it’s like a gray fog in which everything is happening.
And I’m not entirely certain where everybody is in relationship to each other. You get an image of them in one place and the next thing you know, they’re looking out the window, but they never left the fireplace in your head.
I think theater helps with that.
Yeah. Certainly, just plain old scene choreography helps. Theatre contributes to that a lot. As you say, who’s where and what’s actually there. The idea of what is in the room besides the characters is hugely useful when you’re trying to figure out what the characters do in response to some problem. There’s almost always something in the room that they can use, if you’ve envisioned the room well enough to actually have stuff there.
And if you plant it in the right place and in the story so it doesn’t materialize out of thin air.
Yes. Well, you know, whenever you write a story, every scene has to take place someplace. Every time someone goes into a room, you pretty much have to describe the room and you want to describe interesting things in the room, and just that description, first of all, trying to come up with something that is interesting and not the same old, same old, will give you material to use later on in the scene.
What you said about fool-proofing dialogue is actually something that Orson Scott Card said when I interviewed him for The Worldshapers, and he’s done a lot of theatre, and he actually had a role in your breaking in, didn’t he? Because he was at Clarion West when you were there?
Yes. He was the first teacher in my year at Clarion West. He gave me really good feedback on a story that he liked a great deal, and that was actually my first published story. He put in a good word for me with the editor of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and so when I sent that story to the editor, it sold, and that was my first pro SF sale.
Before you went to Clarion, had you taken any other formal writing training?
Yeah. Between…the summer of when I got my bachelor’s, I went to Banff, the Banff Centre for Fine Arts, and took a writing course there. W.O. Mitchell was the grandfather of it all, but it was…Alice Munro was there, so, you know, hanging out with some pretty impressive people, and got a lot of good feedback on my writing and how to set about writing stories.
So, I ask science fiction fantasy writers about their formal training…now clearly, at Clarion, science fiction and fantasy is what people are writing, but usually in other writing programs it is not, and there’s sometimes a…
Sometimes it’s not a comfortable fit with what the program is about. Did you find that, or did it or did you find it helpful that it wasn’t science-fiction focused?
Yeah, I don’t think I wrote a great deal of science-fiction content while I was at Banff. It was mostly…the method, what W.O. Mitchell called “Mitchell’s messy method,” was just sitting down and seeing what spontaneously arose as you were at the typewriter. And at that point, I was writing a lot of memoir-type things, as opposed to actual fiction, and finding what inside of me wanted to be written was very useful for that. The real trick after that is figuring out how to shape that material into actual stories. And once I got started with that, kind of marrying my own memories with science fiction was kind of fun and useful.
Was Mitchell there when you were there?
The reason I ask is because W.O. Mitchell is famously from Weyburn, Saskatchewan, which is where I grew up, and I got to meet him once when he came doing a reading for his book, Roses Are Difficult Here, I think is what it was, when I was at the newspaper down there. He was an interesting guy.
Yeah, he’s a fun guy, and, of course, a great raconteur, or was, so he was great to have in classes. And we all had, I think, a fifteen-minute session with all of the writers in residence. It was, you know, in some sense similar to Clarion, in that the writers were brought in for, I think, four or five days, and each of the students had a chance to show the writers their stuff and get some feedback on it.
The other thing I like to mention about Mitchell is that, when I did see him in Weyburn, there was a woman there named Sadie Bowerman, who was the first white baby to be born in Weyburn, she was still alive then. And she’d been his schoolteacher, and she got after him—she must have been in her eighties by then—she got after him for using bad language. So, writers can relate. You never know who’s going to pop up out of your past.
That’s right. I have a few English teachers who have caught up with me over the years and, you know, kind of patted me on the back. And again, some of them have chided me for using bad language.
The other thing I want to mention about Weyburn, Saskatchewan, is that Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, so Weyburn is a very important place in the tapestry of…well, much more for him than me, I wasn’t born there, but I grew up there.
A hotbed of literature.
Yeah, exactly. Well, you started with short fiction. Did you write that exclusively for a while, or did you immediately try to write novels, or how did that work for you?
Well, I think I wrote a novel…back when I was in high school, I got pneumonia the year after…sorry, the summer after…I graduated, and was basically locked in the house for the entire summer and spent some time writing a novel-like thing. I wouldn’t call it a novel, but it was a long piece of fiction. So…gee, I forget about doing that. I always think that my writing started when I was in university co-op, but no, that summer where I had nothing else to do. But that was kind of an amusement more than a, “Yes, I’m going to be a writer.”
Still, part of your half a million words that you had to…
That’s right. Yeah. Never gonna rewrite that one. That was self-indulgent, as only high-school students can be.
Yeah. So, when did your first novel come along?
My…so, I wrote it…I wrote several novels before I actually published something. So, I was in Clarion in ’89 and was writing short stories and started a novel sometime after that. And I think there were two novels that didn’t go anywhere—and thank heavens they never saw the light of day—before I wrote Expendable, which was published in ’97.
And so now we’re up to how many novels?
Ten, eleven. I guess it’s eleven now.
Are you still writing a lot of short fiction?
Off and on. I can write novels for two or three hours a day, at least the first early drafts of novels, and that gives…so I write in the morning, and in the afternoon, I want to write something different. So, I sometimes write short fiction. Sometimes I write the gaming material that you mentioned in my biography. Sometimes I do freelance editing jobs for various people. So, afternoons I have several hours when I do something besides the novel in progress, and short stories are one of the things I do then.
Okay, well, that’s kind of getting us into the process part of this of the podcast, which is what I’m going to focus on next. So, let’s move on to that. So, we’re gonna focus on All Those Explosions were Someone Else’s Fault, just as an example of your creative process, and see how that ties in with the way you write everything, but before we do that…I have not finished the book; very much enjoying it, it’s a lot of fun…
So, perhaps you can give a synopsis for those who have not read it, without giving away anything that I haven’t read yet.
Ok. Well, the setup is that in the early 1980s, vampires, werewolves, demons, et cetera, come out of the closet and basically say, “Why have we been keeping ourselves secret? We have a saleable asset here. You want to be one of us, pay us $10 million and we’ll make you a vampire or a werewolf or a demon.” And within twenty years, all the movers and shakers, or the wealthy, influential people, are basically darklings. So…and then in the year 2000, suddenly superheroes start appearing. And so you’ve got this world where the rich one percent are essentially monsters and the ninety-nine percent are protected by the people who were stupid enough to touch the glowing meteor or fall in the vat of weird chemicals, or were just, you know, born as mutants. And so, the background setup is the dark one percent versus the super ninety-nine percent, or the supers who represent the ninety-nine percent, who protect them.
And then the story follows four science students at the University of Waterloo who get into a weird lab accident and gain superpowers and become involved in the shenanigans that were responsible for the lab accident. And a supervillain is part of it all, and a cabal of darklings who are up to no good, and the whole thing takes place in something like nine hours on the night of the winter solstice.
And it’s a humorous novel.
Yes, it is. It’s done for laughs. It could…the setup could get very dire with horrible people running the world, but I like playing it for laughs, and the four characters who get superpowers are all funny in their various ways. The first book is about Kim, who is a geology student who…queer—non-binary, anyway…who has a wry view of the world. The second centers on Jules, who is a wonderful, incautious, brash person, and the plan is for four novels, one on each of the superheroes, having them go through their big life change. I think that a novel should be about a huge moment in a character’s life, and each of the four heroes…I mean, “Hey, you’ve just become super. What does that do to you?” And for each of them, it kind of brings to the fore something that they haven’t dealt with, baggage that they haven’t dealt with. And they’re each going to be forced to confront this stuff that they’ve been ignoring for much of their life and deal with their issues one way or another.
So, what was the seed for this and how does that tie into the way that stories appear for you, in general? I’m trying to avoid saying “Where do you get your ideas?”, but that’s basically the question.
You know, I don’t…the seed was the idea of the superheroes-versus-darkling type things, and the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent, which was relevant at the time I started writing this. You know, it was…the Occupy movement had been taking place. I mean, that’s where I get the one percent versus the ninety-nine percent. And it was a time when the politics of the whole thing was kind of in your face.
And I had also done a lot of roleplaying in various contexts. So, if people are familiar with the White Wolf games, which later became Onyx Path, or were…Onyx Path started writing for the same game lines…you could be a vampire or a werewolf or some other type of creature of the night. And that was one set of roleplaying that I had done, but I’d also done a lot of superhero roleplaying.
And putting them together, as far as I know, had never been done before, but was a really cool idea. As soon as I had the idea, I Googled like mad to see if there was anything like this out there, and there wasn’t. Urban fantasy was big at that point. Superhero fiction was just starting to become more prevalent. One of the things that interests me is that superhero comics have been around for eighty years, but superheroes in prose fiction really hadn’t been done a lot before, say, fifteen years ago? There were a few novelizations of superhero movies, but until…fan fiction for sure and the Marvel superhero movies came out…there hadn’t been a lot of superheroes in prose fiction, but that kind of opened up and now there’s a whole ton of it.
Well, it is an interesting juxtaposition. Certainly, I’ve never encountered the two things put together like that, so it’s very interesting.
Yeah, I hadn’t seen it before. I still haven’t seen it. So, it’s kind of fun to be able to play with that without too much competition.
Now, that’s how this came about. Is that fairly typical of your story generation. Is it basically just ideas bubble up and bounce into each other?
I think I go back to what I said about stories being about some huge pivotal moment in a character’s life. So, whatever the seed for a story is, the next thing I want to know is what character is going to experience the setup and what sort of transition are they going to go through. So, often I think of some dramatic situation, some sort of ticking bomb that is going to cause trouble in some setting. But then immediately I say, “OK, well, what character is going to face this problem and what is it going to put them in?” When I was…you told me ahead of time that we were going to be talking about All Those Explosions, and I went back through my notes, and…on the book as I was developing it…and it’s constantly, “What problem is this going to cause for the characters and what sort of transitions are they going to go through because of it?”
Well, and that’s the very next question. What does your planning process look like once you had this idea? It sounds like the characters come perhaps even before you have the plot worked out?
Absolutely. So, it’s useful to have some sort of background problem that is going to force the characters to act—a ticking bomb, so that even if the characters are, you know, lost, or I’m lost because I don’t know what happens next, there’s going to be some pressure to deal with the situation. But I think a novel is about an overt exterior situation, but it also has to be about a character facing some sort of crisis in their life, so constantly, when I develop things, I’m thinking, “OK, what is this going to put the character through? What is the next thing? How are the screws going to tighten on the character?” Not just in terms of the urgency of the external situation, but the development of the internal situation, too.
So, how do you find those characters? How do you decide what your characters are going to be? I mean, Kim is, in her own words, I believe, a “short, queer Asian kid.”
Which, you know, is not you. So…
How did you decide?
Really…so, the first time I…the first draft…Kim was Asian, but not queer. And, she…the situation…so, for people who haven’t read the book, one of the first things she does is, she comes across an old flame of hers, someone she knew in high school. Really, her first serious boyfriend, who has become a darkling, who was always a rich kid who knew he was going to be a darkling as soon as he was old enough to be transformed. And that relationship went bad, and basically, the…Kim was a bland character who didn’t have a whole lot of personality. And one thing I often do when I’m trying to get a handle on characters, especially when trying to get a handle on personality, is sit down and improv stuff in their tone of voice—just sit at the typewriter…or the computer, of course, these days…and write a diatribe from them as fast as I can and see what just pops out. So, this is Mitchell’s messy method again, just sitting down and blast it out and see what pops out. And Kim’s queerness came from that. I was blasting away, basically a monologue, and it just completely took me by surprise when she started talking about, “No, I’m not as binary as you think,” sort of thing.
And there were several days there when I thought, “Oh, shit. Am I going to actually write a non-binary character?”, you know, a straight middle-aged white guy writing a queer young university-age Asian. Did I have the nerve to do that, and how much homework would I have to do in order to not be that guy writing someone who I had no right to write? But that’s what was…that was the voice that came to me, and eventually I said, “Yeah, OK, I’ve got to go with this.”
Well, she is a very interesting voice.
Yeah. Yeah. And once I had that handle on the character, a whole lot of things came out and the character came alive, and some of the situations that were dead on the page in the first draft took on a whole different character and really much more interesting resonance than they had been in the first draft.
Did you do something similar with your other main characters?
Yeah. So, Nicholas had the same process. I did, you know, a soliloquy from his point of view, and not so much with the other three superheroes, because I knew their books were going to be coming along later. When I did the Jules book, which is They Promised Me the Gun Wasn’t Loaded, the sequel to All Those Explosions, I did do soliloquies from her point of view. And for the future books, I will be doing the same thing. It’s just a really useful way to unlock what inhibitions have been keeping…holding me back from doing, going as far as I need to for a character.
Once you’ve developed the character, you have an idea for the setup, how much of an outline or planning do you do? Is it a very detailed? Are you a pantser or a plotter?
I’m mostly a pantser, but especially because I’m writing superhero things, I want there to be some great set pieces. So, I plan for interesting places where big superhero action can take place. So, in All Those Explosions, there are several big superhero-vs.-monster action things, and I figured out where they were going to take place and sort of some context for why they were happening, and an overarching plot for them.
So, in All Those Explosions…well, Waterloo has a number of tourist attractions and I want, over the course of the series, to destroy them all. So, in the first book, I trash the Waterloo market, which is the St. Jacob’s Market, which is a big farmer’s market. In the second one, I trash a popular club, the Transylvania Club, which is just, you know, a name like that is asking to be associated with monsters. And the third one, Waterloo has a clay and glass gallery, the National Clay and Glass Gallery.
I mean, I got to have a fight there. And Clay and Glass is right next to the Perimeter Institute, which is an institute of theoretical physics, a kind of a world-class physics research center. So, trashing both the Clay and Glass and Perimeter is kind of a gimme. And I don’t know what I’m going to trash for the final book, but we’ll see.
There is some fun to that. The last book in my young adult series, The Shards of Excalibur, the final big climactic battle takes place at a provincial park called Cannington Manor. I do a pretty good job on it, too.
Yeah, I mean, if you’re going to take a place…if you’re going to have your story take place in a real location, then let’s make use of the location. And especially with, you know, if you’re going to have superheroes, there is going to be a large set of smoking rubble.
And I still remember the Jim Butcher, I don’t remember which book it was, in the Dresden Files, where Sue the Tyrannosaurus comes to life.
Yeah, a super thing. I just loved that episode. Yeah, I don’t remember which book it was, but…
So, you talked a little bit about your actual writing process, you know, three hours in the morning and work on other things in the afternoon. Do you just work at home, are you a go-out-to-a-coffee-shop guy? I gather you type and don’t do it longhand or anything like that…
Oh, I do some things in longhand. If a particular scene is not working out well, I go longhand and I write it out. I’m working right now on a haunted-house novel, and this morning I spent writing really the first scene of a particular character, because I really wanted to slow down and cover the bases and really get the character’s voice down on the page. So, when I want to…writing fast is useful, but writing slow is also useful.
Well, then, speaking of that, are you a fast writer or a slow writer when you average the two things together?
I’m not superfast. I can I usually do about a thousand words a day. So, you know, some people do a lot more than that, several thousand words a day, and I’ve done that, but usually, a thousand is good. And that’s for my morning stuff. In the afternoon. I would do maybe the same amount again, depending on whether I’m writing new stuff or revising old stuff.
When you get to the end, you have a draft, have you done sort of rolling revisions, so it’s pretty clean at that point, or do you go back and do a complete rewrite, or how does that work for you?
I do some rolling revisions, but usually I have to go back and do several more drafts. So, as I say, I’m mostly a pantser for the first draft, which means that there’s rough-around-the-edges stuff. So, the haunted-house novel, which is the one I’m thinking of, the rough draft ending was really, “Yeah, OK, I’m gonna keep writing it, but I doubt that I’m going to keep any of it.” The second draft is pretty good. I like the action of the ending, except that the precipitating incident…so, there’s something that makes all hell break loose, and I like the hell that breaks loose, but I’m not so crazy about what actually kicks things off. So, I’m going to at least have to rewrite that again, which will probably necessitate a few other changes. So, I’m refining things as I go along and I hope it’s no more than three drafts, but…that’s about typical for what I’m doing.
You’ve been published by various publishers, which means you’ve worked with a lot of different editors. What typically comes back to you from editors to work on? If anything.
I don’t get a whole lot of structural stuff. It’s mostly cosmetic or, you know, “I didn’t understand this,” or, “This chapter is slow,” or something like that. So, I don’t get…once or twice. I’ve had people, an editor, say, “No, this ending just doesn’t work.” But mostly it’s, “I didn’t understand their motivation for doing this,” or, you know, “Polish up this section again.” So, I’m pretty lucky, in that I want a story to be as clean as possible before I send it to my agent. And she makes a few comments, but not many, and then she sends it off. So, I like things being pretty good to go before I send them out, which means I have to spend a fair length of time…I don’t send out anything that I don’t think is pretty good already.
Now, you do some editing for other people. Do you find that working on other people’s manuscripts helps you when it comes time to look at your own?
Oh, sure. It’s much easier to see problems when other people have them, but I know I have the same thing, so…and, you know, we all have words that we overuse—“really,” “quite,” “very,” all that. And as I’m reading somebody else’s stuff…I have a list of these words that I overuse, and reading somebody else’s stuff, I, you know. “Oh, yeah. There’s one of mine that I should pay attention to, too.”
Speaking of which, brilliant little thing from Brandon Sanderson that I recently heard about in their Writing Excuses podcast is to, you know, you have your list of words that you overuse or, you know…”suddenly,” there’s another one that is real easy to use too much of…just do a global replace on the word with brackets around it, square brackets, and that makes it stand out. So, when you’re reading the book, reading the manuscript, you see these things and you could say, “Do I really need that?” It really draws your attention to the words that you overuse and gets you…makes you think about them again. I really love that technique and I use it now.
Oh, yeah. That’s a good one. I think I’ll have to adopt that, too.
Yeah. Yeah. It just draws your attention to something. Sometimes “very” is a perfectly good word to use, and a lot of times the prose is stronger by crossing it out, by deleting it.
I find that my characters tend to use animal noises too much in dialogue, they growl things and snarl things and…
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. That’s a good point.
I do avoid hissed dialogue because it always bothers me when somebody hisses something that has no sibilance in it.
Generally speaking, I only let myself use “said,” “told,” “replied,” “shouted,” “whispered,” maybe a “muttered” or two…oh, and “asked.” But I do try to avoid the animal noises and so on.
Yeah, I’m aware of it, but that doesn’t mean I catch it all the time. The other thing is…you’ve probably had this experience, too…the best way to find things that you overlooked is to read your work out loud in front of an audience after it’s been published.
Yeah. Yeah. Zadie Smith has a quote, something to the effect of, “The best time to rewrite your stuff is two years after it’s been published and ten minutes before you read it at a literary festival.”
That’s about right. Well, we’ve got about ten minutes left, so I want to get to the big philosophical questions.
It’s really one question with multiple parts. Why do you write? Why do you write this stuff? And why do you think any of us do? That’s really three questions. But it’s kind of one.
Oh, well, just like almost every other writer I write because I can’t not write. These days I get up in the morning and write, and I write to understand what’s in my head and to…because I like writing stories.
Why do I write something in particular? Because something about the idea has got its claws in me, and the only way to get free of it is to write it and write it well. So, this…again, the haunted-house story that I’m thinking of was an idea I had probably two and a half years ago. And I had no idea why I wanted to write a haunted-house story, and it’s taken me two years to crystallize what I want to say in the book and why I’m writing it.
I think…writers, as you know, sit alone for hours at a time. And what we write today will not be seen in the world for a long, long time. It’s, you know…it takes me at least a year to write a novel, often more, and after it’s written, it’ll take at least another year before it gets out for anyone to…before it gets published…and so you really have to be obsessed and in the moment to write. There has to be some sort of reward or compulsion to write, because you don’t get the fame and fortune, if ever…
I’m still waiting for that.
Yeah. Yeah. Well, in some sense, we all write to impress someone. Paul Simon said, when someone asked him why he wrote songs, “I write songs to impress girls.” And, you know, there is that aspect…
I went into theater to kiss girls.
Yeah. Yeah. And I certainly started writing to, you know, let’s impress women. But it’s a long time before that happens. I mean, a long time between sitting down to write the sentences today and before anyone is impressed by it. And I am not, you know, making a gazillion dollars or having a gazillion readers. I’d love to. So, you just kind of get the rewards, and every now and then you have a character suddenly come to life, like Kim revealing that she’s queer, and the idea that you…every once in a while, you feel as if you are telling a truth that is out there, as opposed to stuff that you’re just pulling out of your head. And it’s really cool when that happens.
The podcast is called The Worldshapers. Probably a bit grand to talk about shaping the world through fiction, but what do you hope your writing does for the readers who read it? Because you can certainly influence individuals as they read your stories.
Yeah. Well, for All Those Explosions, I wanted to make people laugh, and…
Works for me!
Good, thank you! And to have the fun that I find in superheroes. I started reading superhero comics when I was just a kid. I talked about this at When Words Collide, that my great uncle would buy me one comic book a week when I was seven years old and I bought comic books and I bought superhero comic books. And I do not know anymore any of the people that I knew when I was seven, other than my immediate family, and I still know Batman, I still know Spider-Man, I still know all of those characters that I knew back then. I keep up with them. I don’t know the people anymore, but I know the characters. And so, to be able to write superheroes…not, alas, Marvel and DC superheroes, although, if anybody from Marvel or DC are listening, I’m there, hire me!…but to be able to write superheroes and just have fun with them…I hoped that I could pass on the delight that I get from superheroes to other people, too, and to share in the joy.
And for other books, it’s almost always the same, that I get delight from various types of stories. And so, I want to be part of that conversation, be part of the fun or the delight or the concern or the thrills or the horrors or whatever. It’s such a delight to be a writer and to be part of the conversation.
That’s actually what I always say, that I started writing because I loved the stories that I was experiencing so much, I wanted to be able to create stories that other people would enjoy as much as I enjoyed the ones I’ve been reading. So, that’s probably a very common thing with writers.
Look at fanfic! I think many people get their starts in fanfic, if not actual…these days, you can actually put it in front of the public, but even if you don’t, you write your little stories and show it to your friends and so on. And that’s because whatever you’re doing fanfic of touched something in you and you want to be in that world, you want to have a piece of it, too.
You mentioned what you’re working on, the haunted-house novel, anything else that you’re working on right now?
I’m doing a re-imagining of Sleeping Beauty where nobody is stupid. It’s kind of fun to write a fairy tale with sensible people. There’s a lot of re-imagined fairy tales these days. Naomi Novik immediately comes to mind, but other people have been doing it, too. And it’s fun to write fairy tales which have that feel of depth, mythological depth, folkloric depth, but bring a modern sensibility to them that…there are just some strange things that happen in very tales that are hard to believe, and trying to justify them—or not!—Is fun.
And where can people find you online?
I am…most of my stuff is on Twitter @jamesagard. I do Twitter every day. I also have jamesalangardner.com, which I blog at occasionally. Those are the best places. I do have a Facebook page, which I almost never do anything with, so…
Well, I think that’s about the end of our time. Thanks so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers!
It was great talking to you, Edward. Thanks for having me.