Edward M. Lerner worked in high tech and aerospace for thirty years, as everything from engineer to senior vice president, for much of that time writing science fiction as his hobby. Since 2004 he has written full-time.
His novels range from near-future techno-thrillers, like Small Miracles and Energized, to traditional SF, like Dark Secret and his InterstellarNet series, to (collaborating with Larry Niven) the space-opera epic Fleet of Worlds series. Lerner’s 2015 novel, InterstellarNet: Enigma, won the inaugural Canopus Award “honoring excellence in interstellar writing.” His fiction has also been nominated for Locus, Prometheus, and Hugo awards. His most recent novel is the SF adventure Déjà Doomed.
Lerner’s short fiction has appeared in anthologies, collections, and many of the usual SF magazines and websites. He also writes about science and technology, notably including Trope‑ing the Light Fantastic: The Science Behind the Fiction.
An hour-long interview with Brendan Wilson, former Army ranger and paratrooper and NATO defense planner and diplomat, master martial artist, and author of The Achilles Battle Fleet, Book 1 in the Mei Ling Lee Trilogy.
Following 25 years of military service as a US Army ranger and paratrooper, Brendan Wilson retired as a lieutenant colonel and then joined NATO where he served as a defense planner and diplomat for the next 15 years. During the course of his 40 years of work as a soldier and diplomat, he saw service in war-torn Libya, Ukraine, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Iraq. A former coach and team captain for a military martial arts competition team, he holds master ranking (8th Dan) in three different martial arts, and won the silver medal in the 2009 US Open for Taekwondo.
In retirement Wilson turned his efforts to filmmaking. He wrote and produced two award-winning short films (Doug’s Christmas, A Child Lies Here) and served as executive producer for ten episodes of the award-winning web series, Greetings! From Prisonstarring SNL’s Chris Redd. Moved by seeing human lives upended in war-torn areas, Wilson is earning his law degree and, once qualified as an attorney, plans to volunteer to help refugees. A former assistant professor who taught military history and the Univerity of Colorado, Wilson holds a Ph.D. in international relations and has about a dozen publications on defense-related topics. He is the father of two adult children.
Wilson lives a quiet life in Sycamore, Illinois. He spends his days writing, hiking, studying law and practicing his martial arts. The Achilles Battle Fleet, the first book in the Mei-Ling Lee Trilogy, is his first novel.
The First Novel of the Mei-Ling Lee Trilogy
Naval Academy martial arts champion Lieutenant Mei-Ling Lee serves in a backwater assignment as an aide to the inspector general of a rag-tag group of starships thrown together as a convoy evacuating civilians from a contested area of the galaxy. When the convoy is attacked, she finds herself thrust into the center of a galactic struggle as the chief of staff for the newly formed Achilles Battle Fleet. As the conflict continues, Lee is forced to draw upon her martial arts skill and her inner strength as she fights alongside the Fleet’s marine commando unit. Struggling with budding romance, new friendships and startling betrayals, Lee becomes the warrior she was meant to be.
Award-winning filmmaker Elaine Mongeon wrote and directed the short films Good Morning for Warner Bros. Pictures and Swiped to Death for Hulu and the Sundance Institute. She also served as an associate producer on Magic Mike XXL. Elaine has a love for the outdoors and has been known to spend her time traversing glaciers in Canada and precision motorcycle riding. Originally from New England, she currently resides in Los Angeles.
Glen Zipper is producer of the Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated, and the popular Netflix series Dogs, which was greenlit for a second season, as developed and co-produced the recent Netflix hit docuseries Challenger: The Final Flight. He is also known for producing the HBO film Showbiz Kids directed by Alex Winter of the hit franchise Bill and Ted and is producer of the Emmy Award-nominated and Critics Choice Awards-winning HBO series What’s My Name | Muhammad Ali. Born in New York City and raised in Fort Lee, NJ, Glen currently resides in Los Angeles, where he enjoys motorcycle riding and stopping to pet every dog he sees.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Glenn, Elaine, welcome to The World Shapers.
Thanks so much for having us.
And now this will be an interesting one. I have not done two co-authors at once. I have done co-authors, but I did them as separate episodes. So, we’ll see how this goes.
We’ll still follow the same procedure, I should say, first, usually I say, oh, we met at some convention or something. But no, we’ve never met in person. So, this is all new territory for me. We’ll start as I always start, which is taking you back into the mists of time and find out how each of you—and we’ll have to trade this back and forth a bit—how each of you, where you grew up and that sort of thing, basic biographical information, but how you got interested in storytelling. You’re both filmmakers now. You’ve written a novel. Was there writing and books involved in your early interest in science fiction fantasy, or where did that all come from? So why don’t we start with Elaine?
E: OK, well, so from a very early age, my mom would encourage my siblings and me to tell stories. Basically, from the time we could talk, we’d tell the stories, and she’d write them down and draw the pictures. And then, once we could write and draw, she encouraged us to write and illustrate our own storybooks. She is a writer herself and an English teacher, and, you know, she just really encouraged us to explore our imaginations. And then, my older brother and sister, who were eight and ten years older than me, they really introduced me to sci-fi and fantasy. I was reading things like The Neverending Story and The Lord of the Rings and then progressed to things like The Stand, when I was much too young to be reading stuff like that. But movies really played a big part, movies and series in introducing me to sci-fi and growing my love of it, just, you know, Star Wars, the original Superman movies, Mad Max, the Alien movies, Blade Runner, all of these movies that I probably shouldn’t have been watching. So, that’s kind of how it all started.
And, you know, I would write privately because my mom never stopped encouraging us to write. And then, in high school, my English teacher was sort of the first person other than my mom to encourage me to keep writing creatively. And then I went on to college, originally as a bio/pre-med major, because I never actually thought that I could, you know, develop my writing into something that I would do professionally. It was always just sort of something that I did for fun in my spare time. But I quickly realized that science wasn’t really the track that I wanted to be on. My mom actually…I called my mom in tears when I was in Chemistry 101, freshman year of college, and she said, “Get out of the class.” And I was like, “What do you mean?” And, you know, “This is my dream of becoming a doctor?” And she was like, “It’s OK,” you know, like, “You’re miserable. Do you really want to be this miserable for the next at least eight years of your life?” And so, she was very, very smart in, you know, supporting me and making the change. And I kind of floundered for a semester, and then she called and said, “B.U. has a film program. You love writing, you love movies. Your brother loved film school. Why not consider going to film school?” And again, you know, she just had this insight into, you know, kind of what I was not realizing for myself, which is that I’ve always been a storyteller, and I just never really thought of it as a practical whole. And so, I did the film school, and I got in, and I absolutely loved it. And that set me on the right course that eventually led me to L.A.
And, Glen, what’s your story?
G: You know, I’ve been answering this question a lot in the last few weeks since the book got released. And I’m realizing that I’m getting free therapy as I answer the question, and some sort of working it out. And my answer is evolving as I’m coming closer and closer to the truth of where it all began, I think? For me, I had a relatively difficult childhood, like many other people, child of divorce, and there was a lot of stress going on in the family. And we had one of the first VCRs, top-loading VCR, and we had four we had four tapes. We had Star Wars, we had Superman, we had The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and we had a film called Where’s Papa? with George Segal and Ruth Gordon. And those, the confluence of those four films, I think, might have warped my mind a little bit. Star Wars and Superman, you know, a child’s brain could process. Then you go to Rocky Horror Picture Show, and I don’t know what that did to me, but it definitely did something. Where’s Papa? I didn’t totally understand. But when you’re that age, you look at TV, it’s not a TV, it’s a window. You think that what’s on the other side of it is real or some version of real. And when all the other chaos was going on in my life, that world, looking through that window, is what brought me comfort. And as you mature, as you get older and you start to come to terms with the fact that it’s not real and that the comfort of that imaginary world starts to go away because it’s it is imaginary, I think I just had this impulse to start creating my own world because if they lived inside my own head, they were somehow real, or more real. And as time went on, and I lived with these stories in my head, there’s yet another impulse that starts to take root, which is, “I want to share these stories.” They’re not going to be fully realized or fully real unless I bring them out into the world, unless other people can see them and touch them and be affected by them.
And for me, that started in film. But as a producer, you’re really just executing, helping other artists execute on their visions. I have a joke that I make, which is, “What does a producer do? A producer takes a director’s dream and makes it their nightmare.” And there is a lot of truth to that statement. Not that it’s an unpleasant thing to do, it’s a wonderful thing to do, but you . . . again, you are problem-solving for someone else. And it’s very . . . there’s not all that much direct creative energy that you’re able to put into something. So, between the process of, throughout my life, of coming up with these own stories and building these imaginary world in my head and at the same time being frustrated at not being able to tell my own stories as a producer, I think it was just a natural progression and evolution to wanting to write my own stories.
Now, writing scripts is different from writing prose. Had you done a lot of prose writing, either one of you, or had you been very much focused on scriptwriting?
G: Scriptwriting. But there’’s a funny story there, which is, Devastation Class initially was conceived as a television show because that’s what we knew how to do. And we wrote a pilot and wrote a few episodes, we wrote a bible, and we showed it to our TV and film connections and friends and colleagues. And the response was overwhelmingly positive, but as often happens in this business, overwhelmingly positive response does not necessarily lead to anything productive. “This is great,” but no one wanted to lift a finger to help us get this thing set up anywhere. And we languished with it for a minute, and then Elaine sent it to a friend who is an artist who does cover art for writing novels, and we wanted him just to read it as sort of a fanboy read to tell us if it passed his sniff test, and he read it, and he loved it, and he asked if he could show it to his, to a couple of editors at where he worked. And he showed it to them, and a couple of months later, they reached out to us very excited, and they asked us if we could write it as a novel, if we could write prose. And that’s when Elaine and I both decided that we needed to just lie a lot. “Yeah, 100 percent, we write prose all the time.” It’s not that, we do it for ourselves, and we never let anyone read it, but, you know, I had stacks and stacks of things I’ve written that I’ll never let the world see. But maybe this is the first thing that will write that we’ll let the world see. And so that sort of “fake it till you make it” moment is where the transition from TV to novel began.
Well, how did you two meet, and how did the collaboration begin?
E: We met on an online dating site . . . it’s actually sort of a lifestyle website called nerve.com that had a personal section. And, you know, we met, we had a first date, the first day quickly turned into an overnight binge-watch of Battlestar Galactica, the Ron Moore version. Because we quickly discovered in hanging out that we had a lot of similar interests and mutual love of all things genre, specifically sci-fi. So, you know, we did this binge, and we were together probably for about a year or so when we decided that it would be really cool to collaborate on something together, and the original core idea that we came up with was “teenagers in space,” sort of aboard a starship, a sort of Lord of the Flies in the stars. And then the idea kind of grew from there. And we were actually inspired by this movie called Taps.
Yes. I saw I saw that. And I very much remember I’m old. I saw Taps when it first came out in the movie theater, I was probably . . it came out in what, ’81 or something like that.
So, I would have been about the same age as the characters—a little older, I was 22 in 1981, I guess, and had just started working as a newspaper reporter and editor. I have a very clear memory of Taps and how much I enjoyed it. And so, it was interesting to see that, and I can see the connection in the book. So, how did you come to Taps, though? I mean, it’s an old movie.
G. Yeah, it was, you know . . . I’m a bit younger than you, I was relatively young when it came out, I think I would have been about 10 or 11 years old. In the early days of HBO, they didn’t have very many movies. And so, what they would do was, they would take whatever movies they had, and they would just loop them, just one after the other after the other, and Taps was in that rotation. And so, even though I was probably too young to truly understand the sort of the implications of the movie and the themes of the movie, I became invested in that film after watching it so many times. And although we didn’t know who those actors were at the time because they weren’t quite that famous yet, we did have Tom Cruise and Sean Penn and Timothy Hutton, and it did have Giancarlo Esposito. And these are some remarkably powerful actors. So, even though they weren’t famous, their performances were remarkably effective. And I think that also left an impression on me. And it’s also a very jarring film. For those who haven’t seen it yet, I don’t want to give any spoilers away, but when you leave that film, it’s just one of those films that sticks with you for a while and feels like, a bit like a gut punch to the stomach. And so, I’m sure that that was part of the reason the film lingered with both of us for so long.
The divergence between Taps and Devastation Class is, in Taps, you had these military cadets who were students at a military academy, and they had a loyalty to the ideal behind the academy. And when the academy was threatened with being demolished to make way for some new condominiums, these cadets, they just couldn’t bear the thought of it, and they essentially mutiny and take control of the academy and try to prevent the construction crews from coming in and tearing down the academy. But that is a story about sort of an abstraction, a loyalty to an ideal. And you could look at that film and say, “Well, with these cadets did, really, their actions can’t be justified. The means don’t justify the ends here.” You know, the academy goes away, there’s some new condominiums that go up. Yeah. And so what? And to us, we said, “What if we took that to another level? What if the stakes were life and death? What if we had a group of cadets where if they didn’t take action, even though they weren’t permitted to, even though it would require a mutiny, if they didn’t take action, if they really believe that will need to their deaths and lead to the demise of perhaps even human civilization, what do you do now? And how do you handle the unforeseen consequences that come as a result of that decision?”
This might be a good point for a brief synopsis of the book for those who have not yet read it. Without giving anything away.
G. Sure. The story takes place in the very distant future after the conclusion of a devastating nine-year war with an alien race called the Kastazi. And in the aftermath of the war, humanity is having a bit of a renaissance, and instead of taking their battleships into space to fight aliens, they’re going on missions of science and learning. It’s peacetime. And because these battleships no longer have a war to fight and don’t need to be packed to the gills with soldiers, they’ve even taken students and young military cadets aboard these ships as they go on their missions of science and learning. And on one particular mission, on the flagship of humanity’s fleet, the alien race, the Kastazi, they return. A reinvasion force returns. And when the ship comes under attack, most of the adult officers are off the ship on a space station. And the few adult officers that are remaining on the ship are really not competent enough to save the lives of everyone that’s remaining on the ship. So, our cadets make the impossible decision to mutiny, to take over the ship, and to try and save themselves and everyone else. But after that happens, chaos is unleashed, and consequences that our characters never saw coming do manifest, and a mystery eons in the making starts to slowly become unraveled, which will ultimately lead to some pretty shocking surprises across the trilogy of books.
So, once you had the inspiration and once you decided that this was going to be a novel, what did your planning process look like? There’s two of you. You obviously would have had a lot of bouncing of ideas off of each other. Did you end up with a very detailed outline, or did you have a general idea and then just start writing? And how did that work for you?
E. Well, we were tasked, when we spoke with those editors who expressed interest in the story, they suggested that we write a book proposal.
You already had a serious proposal, right, like a series bible?
We did. Yeah, we had three episodes of the series written in script form. And then we had a bible for the rest of season one. So, we already had, you know, we had already structured out a lot of the story. Now, when we decided to make it into a novel, a lot of the original concept changed structurally, and characters changed, but for the most part, the bones stayed the same. So, we wrote about a hundred pages of prose, and then the rest of it was an outline, basically a synopsis of what the rest of the book was going to be. And because we lived together for a large portion of our relationship, we were constantly, or we were spending so much time together, we were constantly, in our free time—because we were both working our other jobs while we were doing this—we were really spending a lot of our free time just talking things through before pen ever went to paper and exploring other ideas and spending our weekend brunches, like, over eggs and pancakes, just talking a lot about where the story was going to take us and where these characters were going to go.
Did you have any major disagreements during that process about how it should proceed?
G. We did. We had a big one in the beginning, which was . . . we had initially started writing the book in the third person because there’s so much action that takes place parallel to other action in the story. And if you’re in the head of, or in the perspective of, one character, how do you see that? How do we get that across to the reader? How do we portray in an efficient way all these multiple storylines that are happening at the same time? And we gave it a crack, and we were probably a third of the way through the book, and I think we both instinctively knew that something wasn’t working. And I was more stubborn and wanted to stay in the third person, and Elaine was very dogged about wanting to give the first-person perspective a shot. And at some point, I got frustrated enough with her that I said, “Fine, just go do it, you go do it, and then you send it to me, and it’s going to be terrible, and then I’ll tell you it’s terrible, and then we’ll go back to the third person.” And so, she went away, she did that, she sent it to me, I opened it up, started reading it very angrily, like, “This is going to be terrible. I think this is . . . oh, this is actually excellent. Golly.” And then I had to admit that I was wrong, which I hate doing, and I’ve done maybe three or four times in my life, not any more than that. And we went back, and we changed the perspective, and it was all first-person, and it became a multiple-character book. So, we tell the story through the perspectives of various characters. And that was our way of being able to touch on the various storylines that are happening parallel to each one other at the same time.
Yeah, choosing the voices is always challenging. My current one is mostly first-person, but I did . . . it’s first-person with third person, is what I did, which was interesting.
E. Whoa. Wow.
And I did one years ago, before I was getting published, but when I was still feeling my way, I wrote an entire book in third person, and then I wrote it again from first person. And first-person, I think . . . I mean, your book, having only seen it in first person, it’s hard to imagine it in third person because the first person seems, you know, it’s very immediate, and you’re right in these kids’ heads. So, yeah, I think I think Elaine was right, Glen.
G. She was. It’s quite frustrating. And I’m just going to have to live with it. I’m in therapy, and I’m working through it. I’m getting a little bit better every day.
Well, once you had your outline, what did your actual writing process look like? You’re collaborating, are you writing, each person writing a chapter, then switching them back and forth? Or how did that work for you? And I’m presuming because you’re collaborating, that it was all done on computer. You’re not literally putting pen to paper, which is the expression Elaine used, but maybe. I don’t know.
E. No, no. Everything is definitely on the computer. You know, we have this joke that, like, people often envision is writing together, sitting at, like, a kitchen table with our laptops back to back as if we’re playing a game of Battleship. But that’s definitely not how we do it. Yeah, one of us will go off and write a handful of chapters and then send it off to the other person, and that person will take a stab at it, and we just kind of go back and forth until we’re both happy with how they’ve landed. And, you know, sometimes we have heated discussions about things that we disagree on, but I would say that along the way, a large percentage of the time, we are very much in agreement about, you know, what it should be.
So, one of the interesting things here, you’ve got a fairly complex world with various alien races. I love the fact that the Greys are an actual alien race, I thought that was very funny, and you’ve got, you know, spaceships, you’ve got to have to figure out how you’re going to, you know, how do they get around the galaxy? You have this Blink reactor, which is something else. You’ve got space stations. So, what kind of research and sort of that level of planning would you have to do? It’s kind of like, you know, in film terms, it’s like set design and set decoration and stuff like that. Did you have a lot of that kind of material worked out ahead of time, especially when you’re writing separately? You know, you want to make sure that one person’s version of the spaceship is the same length as the other one and has the same arrangement of rooms and things like that.
E. We actually, you know, for the actual ship of the California, we actually sat down one day and, like, talked it through and made a diagram of where things would be just . . . you know, I mean, neither one of us are our artists in that way, but a super crude drawing of where, of how to lay it out, just so that we could . . . you know, it’s much easier to envision where things are happening if you actually have it plotted out. So, I kind of remember looking at some maps of the galaxy online and then quickly abandoning the idea of being accurate because it’s so complex, you know . . .
And you’re in three dimensions, too, it’s not a two-dimensional world.
E. Exactly, so . . .
G. There’s also, you know . . . I think some of the influences are obvious in the book, and one of the primary ones would be Star Trek. And I remember at some point watching, it was a YouTube video of someone who worked on Star Trek and designed the technology and wrote the technobabble, and someone in the audience raised their hand, and they asked the question, they said, “Well, how does the transporter work?” And the Star Trek production person looked at that person and said, “Very well, thank you.” And I sort of took it the heart, you know, and we also, as we were writing the book, we were thinking about, you know, what if someone like Neil deGrasse Tyson read the book and tweeted out, like, “Well, that’s not how something would operate in space.” But our answer to that would be, “Are you really sure this book is happening in space?”
Well, and there’s a lot more freedom with a far-future tale than there is, if you’re trying to do, you know, Gravity or something like that, which looked good, but apparently was really quite wrong in many ways.
But when you’re dealing with the far future, of course, you could say, “Well, yeah, we have artificial gravity, and why do we have artificial gravity? Well, because it’s really hard to tell a story where everybody floats around all the time.”
E. Yeah, exactly. Yes.
And that’s a long history in science fiction with space drives, right, hyperspace and folding space and time, because otherwise you just can’t tell the story you want to tell.
What about characters? How did you find the characters you wanted, and how did how do you build up and design your characters?
G. I think there is an inevitable impulse to imbue yourself into these characters somewhat. We all like to see ourselves as the protagonist. Even when we’re watching a film that we love, we see. . . you’re watching Star Wars, you sort of see yourself in Luke Skywalker, and you see yourself in Princess Leia, even though that is ridiculous, you just inevitably do that. At some point, we realized that we were probably doing that a bit too much because we have arguments, like, Elaine would say, “Well, JD would never do that.” And I would say, “What do you mean you wouldn’t do that? I am him. And that’s exactly what I would do.” And then she would look at me and say, “You’re not him. “And she was right because he’s far more talented, far more proficient in everything he does than anything I do. Probably the more accurate component or portrayal of ourselves in these characters are in their flaws and their insecurities and their doubts. So, in that sense, a part of us lives in all these characters.
Another interesting influence for us, if you noticed, the book is dedicated in part to our dog, who sadly left us last December after being with me for 17 years. But his loyalty, his love, his tenaciousness, his fierceness. You know, he was sitting at our feet the whole time we were writing this book, and he was an omnipresent reminder about the best qualities that we could hope for any of these characters to have. And so, there’s a part of him that that lives in each of these characters.
And then also, we both have an affinity for all things 1980s, particularly 1980s films like John Hughes films. And if you look at those films, many of them were ensembles with teenage characters from every walk of life. And, you know, if you watch those films, you always pick a character that you identify with more than some of the others. And we wanted this book to have some of that as well, which is also why we were very careful to not be too particular in the way that we describe the physical appearance of these characters because we didn’t want there to be a bar to entry in that identification. We wanted someone reading the book who identified with JD or Viv or Anatoly or Safieh or Ohno to say, “Oh yeah, that’s me. That’s my character in this book. So, I think, if you take all those factors and put them into a bag, that’s really the origin story from where these characters came from.
You started with teenagers right off the bat, when you first started this idea, what drew you to a teen story where the characters are young?
G. Because it helped with the stakes, because they’re not yet equipped to solve even the most basic problem sometimes. We would submit drafts to our editor, and a note that we got back often and that we found frustrating was, like, “Why did they make this decision? It’s stupid.” And we’d be like, “You remember when you were a kid and all the stupid decisions that you made?” And, you know, we were making stupid decisions as kids, sort of like, maybe, we drove the car too fast, or maybe we broke the lamp, and we lied about it. We didn’t have life and death stakes. We didn’t have the fate of the universe on our shoulders. And, so imagine how difficult it is for someone in the position of these characters who are 17, 18 years old, to have to navigate the stakes of the universe imploding upon them.And to us, that was much more interesting than 40-year-olds, 30-year-olds, who have some life experience, have navigated some serious landmines in their time, it’s just that juxtaposition of, those who are not ready who have to take on something that, if they were to just stand down, would probably result in their demise. That’s why the tag line of the book is “Fate Doesn’t Wait for the Ready.”
Yeah, I think that’s what draws many people to YA, both as authors and as readers. And, I mean, even adults read a lot of YA. I’ve written quite a bit of who I am. I have a trilogy called The Masks of Aygrima with a fifteen-year-old protagonist. And I would see reviews that say, “She keeps doing stupid things.” And I said, “She’s a 15-year-old girl. Of course, she does stupid things!”
E. It’s so frustrating, so frustrating. We feel your pain.
Now, you are scriptwriters first, and then you’ve come to prose. So, what differences did you find in writing prose as opposed to writing scripts? Obviously, there’s more description and maybe less dialogue, but other than that . .
E. Well, you know, with prose, you’re not limited by the sort of parameters that you have to follow within film and television. You know, we didn’t have to conform to a certain page length, for instance. We didn’t have worry about a budget.
There’s a famous story there that you may have heard. Star Trek’s episode. City on the Edge of Forever, Harlan Ellison’s original script had, like, this huge valley with giant statues looming over it, stretching off into the distance. And at the end, it was a, you know, a plaster rock with a hole in the middle of it showing old newsreel footage.
G. The ability to, going back to the first-person perspective, there is the ability to be in somebody’s head. Whereas, if you were going to do that in a film or TV show, really the only way to do that is through narration, which is really hard to do well without it being boring, without it feeling like it’s a crutch. We’re like, “Oh, we couldn’t, we’re afraid the audience doesn’t understand this. So, we’re going to have, we’re going to have a narrator sort of connect the dots for us. You know, famously, the Harrison Ford, the version of Blade Runnerwhere Harrison Ford is narrating everything you’re seeing, which isn’t very good, at least in my opinion.
G. And so, but when you’re writing prose, it does make sense. It doesn’t feel like a crutch. It doesn’t feel like you’re connecting dots for the audience that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to connect themselves. Instead, it feels like you’re offering the audience an intimacy with these characters that they wouldn’t otherwise have. And when you have that level of intimacy with characters, it’s much easier to invest yourselves in them. And that’s the formula for storytelling in our minds: characters you’re invested in, who go on a journey with stakes that are somehow paid off in the end.
On the other side, what . . . I mean, that’s a change. What advantages do you think being a scriptwriter first brought to your prose writing?
G. Efficiency, because in the end, you write a script, anything longer than 90 pages is hard for people to get through. I mean, like, the people who read scripts, you know, they usually go home over the weekend with seven or eight scripts that they need to read. And it basically destroys your entire weekend. It’s like, you can’t read that many scripts over a weekend and have a sort of personal or social life. And so, I remember, back in the day when I had to read scripts, when I would open up a script, and it was 120 pages, I would be like, “Come on, man, there’s no reason . . . like, why? You can tell this story in 90 pages. Why are you expecting me to read these extra 30? And so, we had to constrain ourselves to the same limitations when we would write in screenplay format. And so, you develop the tools and the skills to have an efficiency in storytelling, to be able to tell your story more clearly and with less runway. And also, without the crutch of being in someone’s head, you have to learn how to connect the dots through action, to have things make sense without your characters literally talking to you and telling you why they’re doing what they’re doing. And I think if you take those skills and you apply them to the prose, it allows for the same sort of efficiency. And then, you have to remind yourself to take the governor off and to allow yourself to go a little bit deeper, to let go of some of those efficiencies.
Do you think that there’s a better grasp of pacing, perhaps, than you see in some prose?
I mean, I don’t know how to answer that question without sounding like patting ourselves on the back, but I think so. But I think that could also be a criticism of the book, where someone will say, you know, “Why didn’t we get more time to sort of live inside these characters’ heads, get to know them, be more in tune with their inner dialogue? Why does it have to be sweaty action from chapter to chapter to chapter?” And we just made the choice early on that’s the sort of storytelling we wanted to engage in, where we wanted this book to feel like. Like, an action movie in a book. We never had the ambition for it to literally be Lord of the Flies or anything of that ambition. We just wanted people to read this book and have a tremendous amount of fun with it. And then when they were finished, kind of feel exhausted in the best possible way.
I think there are . . .whenever you writing a book, you’re writing for different readers, some readers will like the choice you made and some won’t. You can’t satisfy everybody—unlike in film where, you know, everybody loves every film. So, Elaine, you’ve done directing, and maybe Glenn, you have, too. I’m a stage actor myself, and I’ve directed and written plays. And I’ve . . . when I talk to people who have some theatrical or filmmaking experience, one of the things that it seems to me is that . . . I feel like I have a really good grasp in my head of where people are in relationship to each other. When I’m doing action scenes like, I know where they are in the room and where they have to go to to make something happen. Do you feel that perhaps your directing background helped with some of this on-the-page action as opposed to on-the-screen action?
E. Yeah, I would say so. I mean, you know, just having the ability to visualize people within a certain space. And, you know, I think that both Glen and I, because of our, even just, love of movies, really brought that eye toward a cinematic representation of, you know, when we’re describing what people are doing and describing the action, we really wanted it to feel cinematic overall. And I only directed for the very first time in a real way three years ago. And by that point, were already well into, you know, heavily into the book. So, I think, you know, the book helped the directing in many ways, and the directing helped the writing of the book. It kind of goes hand in hand, I think.
How long did it take you to write the version that you considered completed?
G. We’ve struggled with answering that question because we’ve done so many iterations, we don’t really know when it started, you know, because we had that first version of it that was a television pilot and then three episodes, and we did the book proposal, and then we made the revision from third person to first person. And so, where we settled is that writing the book proper was probably about four years or so. And a lot of that also . . . and this is a trilogy, so there were elements to the story that we pulled out that we are saving for subsequent installments of the book. And so, we weren’t just writing one book, we were writing three books, so that four-year time frame is a bit non-representative as it relates to one book, because we weren’t just writing one book.
Plus, you were doing other things at the same time.
E. A lot of other things. Yeah, a lot of other things. And I can add that we . . . there was a practical element to sort of the timeline, just because we had changes in editors at one point, so, you know, you kind of bring somebody else into the fold to have those creative conversations and things shift a bit. So . . .
That kind of leads to the next question, which is the revision and an editorial process. Did you write a complete draft, and then you were showing it to the editor or did . . . it sounded like maybe you had input along the way? Since they had come to you and asked for this.
G. Yeah, I mean, there was some back and forth. We did definitely show them components of the book before it was completed . . .
E. We also didn’t end up selling it to the original people that were interested.
E. Yeah, which is really interesting. They kind of wanted . . .it turned out they wanted more of a heavily romantic element, and we weren’t interested in, like, in diving into that. Yeah, so we ended up at a different place, actually.
Did you show it to other people along the way? I mean, many authors use what are often called beta readers, sometimes alpha readers, people who read it before it’s finished and give feedback. Did you have anybody like that, like friends or colleagues that you shared it with along the way?
E. No, we really didn’t. We shared it with our agent, Charlie Olson at Inkwell, who’s been with us from the very beginning, and I think Glen and I both felt like, because we had each other to bounce things off of, we didn’t really . . .you know, it can get a little murky and sometimes messy when you have too many people kind of weighing in. So, we kind of just wanted to keep it limited, you know, with the exception of that very early decision to share it as the TV version just to kind of get like that, “Yeah, this is good,” reaction. We really kept it to a small, small circle.
It’s interesting because I read acknowledgments in many books, and there are so many people that are, like, “And thank you to all these edits,” and it’s like ten people that pre-read and gave feedback. And I was like, “Wow, you know, like we didn’t do that at all.”
Yeah, it’s interesting. Well, one of the things about this podcast is,
I talk to authors, bestsellers, and everybody does it differently. And many people have beta readers, but others don’t. I never have, partly from growing up in a small town. There just wasn’t . . . the writers’ group in my town, in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, was elderly women who wrote stories about the Depression, so . . .
And I was writing science fiction and fantasy, and it just wasn’t a good match.
So, I just never got used to that. My stuff, I write it, and I send it to my editor, and that’s, she’s the first person that sees it, so . . .
G. It’s really interesting, because we do a lot of this in film, too, where we test stuff before we . . . if we’re making something from Netflix, we’ll have a friends-and-family screening, and you’ll get feedback from people. I’m always sort of on the fence about if it’s a good idea at all because when you ask people for criticism, you know, they’re
loathe to just say, “Yeah, it’s great, don’t change a thing.” They feel like they’re required to give you some sort of criticism. And there’s also . . . ego comes into it. So, like, if they don’t make suggestions for how to make it better, they haven’t left their imprint on your work. And so, it’s really hard to cut through it all and decide which notes to take and which notes to dispense. And really, the only way, in my experience, to figure out which notes are truly legitimate from other notes that are just someone imposing their own creative, you know, feelings on something, telling you the story that they would write if they were writing it, is to get a tremendous amount of feedback, because then you could say, “What are the notes that that keep coming up again and again and again, by different people consistently?” because that’s probably an issue that needs to be addressed. The thing is, a book is so personal that I wouldn’t feel comfortable showing an unfinished draft to 40 people. So, it’s a bit of a Catch-22.
That is one of the freeing things about writing a book as opposed to working . . . and again, my experience is more in theatre. Everything is very collaborative, maybe not, probably not, as much in theatre as it is in film and television. Whereas with a book, it’s really just, you ultimately get the final say—maybe the editor, yeah, but you don’t have to necessarily take anybody’s advice if you don’t want to while you’re writing it. Was that freeing?
E. It was freeing, for sure. I mean, you know, I love the collaborative nature of filmmaking. It’s one of my favorite parts of the process, is you bringing together all of these tremendously talented people to contribute toward this one goal. But it was definitely nice to just kind of have it be us, you know, figuring it out and working through it and exploring our imaginations. Just us.
Once you did submit it to the publisher, what kind of editorial feedback came back? Were there specific things you needed to work on that you had perhaps not worked on until the editor said, “Hm . . .”?
E. I think one thing that came up early on in the editorial process that we at first were, I think, a little reluctant to . . . and then ultimately decided it was a very good idea . . .was adding the perspective of one of the students, which we hadn’t done. We had only had the cadets’ perspective. And that was a really important contribution from our editor that we think, you know, we feel really improved the storytelling because we were really able to present both sides. And, you know, that was key. Glen, can you think of anything else that may have . . .?
G. I think that’s probably the big one.
E. You want to talk about Bossa a little bit?
G. Well, yeah, well, I mean, it actually might be something that I think was an editorial feedback that we got that we, if we can do it all over again, we would have rejected, which was . . . there is another character in the book, named Bossa, who is an outsider, a bit of a space pirate, who comes into the story and sort of unsettles things. And we had his perspective in the book. And our first editor just didn’t didn’t think it was appropriate to have his perspective in the book. And he was a bit of a, certainly a lighter character in terms of his perspective. Certainly not a light character, but he definitely had an irascible spirit about him, or does have an irascible spirit about him, and was just really fun to write. And we ultimately took that note, and we did remove his perspective from book one. But, oh, he’s going to be all over book two, his perspective, from beginning to end.
E. Yeah, we’re really excited about that.
So, you did envision this as a trilogy from the very beginning?
That’s helpful because then you can, as you said, you can pull things out and say, “We’ll use this in the next book.” It’s when you write one, and then they say, hey, let’s make it a trilogy, and you didn’t really plan for that that you sometimes . . .
G. And it gave us the opportunity to plant a lot of fun Easter eggs in the book. And they’re not easy to find, but once people read book, too, it’ll pay off, and they’ll say, “Wow, I didn’t notice that those elements were living in book one all along. How did I miss them?
Well, the book is out now, as we are doing this conversation, and it will have been out for quite a while by the time this goes live. Have you been pleased by the response you’re getting?
G. Yeah, I think we’re, like, we have five stars or . . .
E. We have.
G. . . . or close to five stars on Amazon, and we’re doing pretty well on Goodreads, which I find absolutely terrifying. People don’t hold back, the people who don’t like you on Goodreads, you sort of just want to go, “Hey, here’s my address, come to my house and repeat that to my face.”
Yeah, I’ve had one like that. More than one like that. Yeah.
E. Yeah, brutal.
So, do you read your reviews?
G. The good ones.
E. Yeah. Yeah.
G. You know, look. I have a series out right now on Netflix called Challenger: The Final Flight, about the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy. It’s doing very well, you know, at something like 90 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, and it was the number two show on Netflix in the US last week. And so, it’s a big success. But you go on Twitter and there’s, like, some of the people are, like, “It’s too long,” and then there’s other people, “It’s too short.” You’re like, can you guys maybe get together and come back to us with the consensus? As you were saying earlier, you just can’t please everybody, and everyone does . . . the most frustrating thing I find about criticism is people don’t criticize you on your terms. Like, here’s a criticism of the book you wrote. The criticism is, “Here’s the story I wish you would have told.” Well, then you write that story. Tell me how you feel about the story that we wrote.
Well, and that brings us nicely to my big philosophical questions, here at the end, which is, “Why tell stories? Why are we, why are people in general driven to tell stories? Why are you particularly driven to tell stories and . . .and there was a third part to that, but I guess that will cover it. Yeah . . .oh, why stories of the fantastic in particular? Why go to science fiction and fantasy for storytelling? So those kind of three questions.
G. Well, I think that for science fiction, why science fiction, It’s because of the possibilities. There’s no limit other than the limit of your imagination. And also, when you are telling stories that have a component that are a bit like eating vegetables, you’re trying to get across important themes, you can sort of hide the chocolate in the popcorn when you’re telling stories in science fiction where people don’t really see those vegetables until they’ve finished the meal and then it resonates with them afterwards. In terms of why tell stories to begin with, I think as storytellers, we just enjoy that feeling of affecting people. By being able to create something and see the emotional response, you know, it’s sort of a call-and-response, where we create something that has some sort of endorphin response in them, which then, in turn, gives us a satisfying endorphin response of our own. And that back and forth in storytelling and telling stories is why I do it.
Yeah, and, you know, I feel . . . I agree with all of that and feel the same way, and I also think that there’s just a certain element of magic to storytelling overall. You know, I think that it’s this process of word by word expressing yourself onto a page, like literally grabbing something out of your brain and making a complete thought of it, and then being able to share that with other people and have them react and respond and entertained by it. And, you know, that process, while it can be grueling, it can be a very grueling process, it can be . . . it’s also tremendously satisfying. And, you know, the joy of being able to complete a project, you know. It was interesting for Glen and me to deliver this book amidst the pandemic. We handed in, we finally handed in the final version of it, and it was like, “This feels like we should be, like, jumping up and down and, like, having celebratory drinks.” And instead, we’re both in our individual houses, like, you know, just like, “Congratulations, we did it!” You know, it’s like this, you know, you’re confined to your own space during this strange time that we’re living in. But, yeah, I just go back to the magic and, you know, Glenn says there are just so many possibilities with sci-fi, you know, and I say there are no rules, you know. And I think that that also translates to, the magic of it all translates to filmmaking, as well. You know, when I finally had the experience of directing for the first time a few years ago, I went into it thinking, “I’ve been wanting to do this for such a large portion of my life. Oh, my God, what happens if I hate it?” And then on day one of production, the first time I gave the actors some feedback, and they adjusted their performance, and it was perfection, I literally yelled, “This is like magic!” after the take. And I think that that can be applied to novel writing as well, where you’re talking to people, and they are totally getting what you were trying to do. We, like, they . . . some people are noticing . . . I think the first time we had an interview where somebody noticed some of the Easter eggs and were like, “Wait, is that going to come into play in book two? We were like, oh, cool!” Like, this is such a cool thing to have other people, you know, recognize these things that we’ve been trying so hard to achieve for so long.
So, is it easier to get a perfect performance out of an actor or out of a character that you’re writing in a novel?
E. Oh, my gosh. Are you kidding? Way easier. Way easier in the novel.
So, we’re just about out of time here. What are you working on now that you want to mention? I think I saw in a interview, Elaine, that you sometimes don’t like to talk about what you’re working on, but . . .
E. Yeah, I’m a little I’m a little superstitious. I can say that I’m working on a couple of scripted movie ideas that I’m excited about, but it’s so early on in the process that it’s kind of not worth talking about them in any detail. And, you know, we’re both working on book two, which is obviously very important. And Glen, what are you working on?
G. Uh, I’m working on my tan. Well, of course, you have book two, and we’re just about finishing up season two of Dogs on Netflix. Challenger: The Final Flight was released last week, and that was a collaboration between my company and Bad Robot. And we have this second Bad Robot collaboration that’s in production now that I can’t talk about. But we’re hoping that will premiere sometime in early 2021.
You know, there’s a publisher called Angry Robot. I always get them mixed up with Bad Robot. But they are two different things.
E. Oh, I didn’t know that.
I think I think they’re British. They’re called Angry Robot. They have a pretty funny Twitter presence. They’re always making robot jokes. Oh, and where can people find you online.
E. Well, we have a wonderful website, DevastationClass.com, and then I’m @ElaineMongeon on Instagram and @E_Mongeon on Twitter.
G. And I am @Zipper on Twitter and @GlenZipper on Instagram, with one N. And if you go to my Instagram, you’ll notice there’s not much there other than me posting at least one funny animal video a day. So, if you like funny animal videos, head on over to my Instagram account.
E. Oh, and we have we do have an Instagram account for the book as well, it’s @DevastationClassNovel.
Great. Well, I think that will just about do it. So, thanks to both of you so much for being on å. I enjoyed that. I hope you did too.
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.
Could’ve sworn it said November for The Forbidden Stars. Anyway…
I probably told you the wrong date. Like most authors, I have only the vaguest idea of when anything is coming out. I think last year it came out…the second book came out in September, the first one might have come out in November. That’s probably what happened.
Close enough, anyway. Yeah, and I just finished reading the first two, so I’m looking forward to talking to you about them. Usually at this point in the podcast, I will talk about how we met at some convention or other, but I’m not sure we’ve ever met at a convention. I might have seen you at a WorldCon or World Fantasy, but I can’t say for sure that we’ve ever actually spoken. So, this is a new one.
Yeah. Nice to meet you. I used to go to a lot of conventions, and then I had a child about twelve years ago and have only in the last couple of years kind of gotten back into getting back into the convention scene. But there was a long stretch there where I only went if it was, you know, twenty minutes from my house.
Which most of them aren’t.
Well, you know, I’m in the Bay Area, so it’s not absolutely none, but yeah, it’s not that many.
Well, we’re gonna talk about the Axiom series in particular as an example of your creative process, but before we do that, let’s go back, as I like to say, into the mists of time, which you’re getting further back for some of us than others. I say that having just had a 60th birthday not that long ago…
Oh, happy birthday.
…and find out how you first became interested in, first of all, in science fiction fantasy, and how you became interested in writing the same.
Oh, absolutely. Really, my parents were just really big readers. I grew up fairly poor, travelled around a lot with my mom. She was a single mom for the first six years of my life and we lived all over the south and kind of had no fixed address. We stayed with relatives or we spent some time in West Virginia, Texas, wherever. But she was always a science fiction fan, so those books were around. When I was about six, she married my stepdad and we settled down in North Carolina. And, you know, my dad’s a welder and my mom for a long time was, you know, just worked the cash register in a store, although later she became a paramedic when I was in high school. And so, not sort of the classic literary upbringing. There was no beautiful library full of volumes, but what they would do is whenever they were at the thrift store they would pick up all the cheap paperbacks, right, and they would bring them home. So, there are always millions of books in my house, and the majority of them were science fiction, fantasy, and horror. So that was just early exposure. You know, by the time I was eight years old, I was reading Stephen King novels, not entirely understanding everything that was happening in them, but I was reading them.
And then, in summers, I would stay with my great-grandmother, Annie, who would watch me while my parents were working. And she was a huge science fiction novel fan. And she was like, she didn’t mess around with fantasy, she didn’t mess around with horror. She was a Clarke, Heinlein, Asimov science-fiction fan, and her guestroom was just full of shelves and just full of hundreds of books. And so in the summer, you know, I would like to eat ice cream and watch TV, but she would be like, “No, you can’t watch TV all day. Go weed the garden and, you know, and you can read.” And so I’d read her books. And that, I mean, honestly, that was my education and my grounding in science fiction.
Not a bad one.
So when did you become interested in writing it, or writing in general?
The oldest story that my mom still has in the shoebox is from when I was in second grade, so before I remember not being into writing, right, I don’t have a memory of not being interested in it. You know, kids play around with all the arts, right? I wanted to be a visual artist. I wanted to be a musician. I wanted to be a chef. All these things. Honestly, I think writing stuck because writing had the lowest barrier to entry. You know, if I wanted to play music, well, I had to get a guitar from somewhere, right? If I wanted to be an artist. I needed to get art supplies. If I wanted to write. I just needed a spiral-bound notebook and a pencil. I had that anyway to go to school. So that’s sort of the artistic endeavor that I just started and kept at. My learning curve was incredibly slow because I didn’t sell any fiction until I was in my twenties, but I was working at it.
So, did you write, as you went through school, were you writing a lot of stories? And were you sharing them with friends to see what they thought or anything like that?
I did. Yeah, I was collaborating with a friend in fourth grade. I actually just recently was digging through some old files and found something. I was like, “Oh, yeah, we wrote this thing together.” When I was in high school, once I was in typing class–not keyboarding class, we had, they were electric, but we had typewriters–I started making just a little satirical like joke-filled newspaper thing for my friends that I would just type there and it would end up getting sort of circulated around–I mean, one copy at a time, but it would get passed around the school. I was always writing and in high school I was sort of, I was known as the writer. I have no idea why, I’d published on a couple of like, you know, school literary magazines or whatever. But somehow, like, my senior year, I was voted “most talented.” I’m like, “How? Why? Like, it should go to someone who’s like playing in a band or like doing art that’s hanging in the halls, at least. Like, how does anybody know I do anything?” But I guess I never shut up about it. so people knew that I was doing it.
Did you write make longer stuff, like novels, or you sort of on the shorter side during all of that time?
Most of that time I was writing short stories. I really love short stories. I did take a couple of stabs at longer things and probably in high school produced some novella-length stuff that wasn’t very good. It was college before I really settled down and thought, “You know, I’d like to sort of figure out how to do novels now.” And I wrote a few of those through college and I went to Clarion right after college and after Clarion…so, at Clarion they warn you, “You know, you’ve been here, you’ve been so intense, you’ve been so focused, a lot of people, they come out declaring they’re just blocked. They’re, like, too hypercritical of their work, they can’t produce anything just because they freeze up about everything they’re doing wrong.”
It sounds like telling people that would be a good way to make that happen.
Right. Yeah, let’s plant the seed of fear. But, so I sort of thought, well, I’m not gonna let that happen. So I came back from Clarion and I did a novel there, which was…there were a bunch of people online who would do, like, dare each other to write a novel in thirty days. So, sort of NaNoWriMo-ish, except usually longer, like an eighty-, ninety-, hundred-thousand-word novel that you would try to write in thirty days, and sort of just boost each other up online. And so, I did one of those, like, immediately after clearing. And that book was also terrible, but the book I wrote after that, I sold.
Well, it’s that old thing, and it’s attributed to various people–somebody told me Ray Bradbury said you had write 800,000 words and Stephen King said you only had to write 500,000. So it’s getting better, you know, as you go along.
That’s right. Yeah.
You’re talking about writing a novella-length…I had thought I had written novels in high school because they were typed up and they made a substantial stack of paper. But recently, I scanned the first one I wrote, when I was fourteen, which I typed up as soon as I had my–and it was on a typewriter–my typing classes. And, you know, I thought it was long, but when I scanned it and did a word count, it’s like 38,000 words.
Pretty close, but it wasn’t really a novel. But still, it looks like one. So… I’m thinking about putting it out online under my…I was known as Eddie Willett when I was a kid…putting it out under my Eddie Willett byline on Amazon. My worry is it might sell better than my other stuff.
You know, it’s a fear. I took the first novel that I finished, that I wrote when I was probably a sophomore in college…and it’s not very good, it’s sort of contemporary fantasy thing…and I do a Patreon where I read a new story every month, I’ve been doing it for years, and I do bonus material sometime, and usually it’s like trunk stories or fragments or audio, just, like, weird stuff. But I was like, “You know, I have this novel. I’m just going to resist the urge to clean it up. Really. I’ll go through it and make sure there’s not anything too, like, horrific because it was written by a twenty-year-old white guy,” and I posted it to my Patreon as a bonus novel. So, there are at least a couple of hundred people who’ve potentially been able to read my juvenilia. I don’t think I’d put it on Amazon.
Back at the Denver WorldCon, I think it was, I suggested a panel of writers reading their juvenilia, because I had this, and we had Connie Willis on it…
Oh, that’s great.
…Josh Palmatier, Sarah Hoyt and me, and we all read. Connie didn’t really have juvenilia, but she read some of her early romance short stories that she had written.
Oh, yeah. She used to write for the magazines.
Yes, she did. And I read from my novel, and I don’t know what the others read. It actually went over really, really well. It’s sometimes hard to find authors who are willing to do it, though.
Well, I think it’s fun. And sometimes you get, like, “It Came from the Slush Pile,” reading terrible things that, you know, were submitted. That always makes me a little bit twitchy because God knows I’ve submitted some terrible things and I would be embarrassed. But if you’re an author and you’re embracing your own terribleness, you know, you can get the same laughs, I think.
The fear of going to “It Came from a Slush Pile” would be, you’d be sitting there prepared to laugh at this stuff, and then they read something you submitted.
Exactly. A frisson of terror.
So, you mentioned Clarion. You were an actual English major, were you not, at university?
I was. I took the very laziest path. In retrospect, I got more out of my history classes, and I probably should have majored in that. I almost double majored, but I needed to take one more class, and instead I went to Clarion, so I said, “Fine, I’ll do a history minor.” But yeah, it was just, you know, “I like to write. I like to read…” I thought I was going to…I went into college intending to become an English teacher. I thought that was, you know, the safe path, like, a plausible thing to do.
And then when I was a freshman, I ended up taking a workshop, a ten-day workshop that Orson Scott Card ran, because he had an association with my university. And they…like, the university…had this apartment, or I guess it was like a little townhouse, in Washington, D.C., and Scott would go up there and run these ten-day workshops for, you know, eight or ten college kids. And I went in there and I took some stories and Scott kind of took me aside and said, “I think you have it in you to do this professionally.” And that was only encouragement I needed. I then immediately threw away all my plans to have any kind of reasonable backup, you know, professional safety net and said, “Okay, I’m just going to be a writer. I’m going to do it.”
Well, I was going to ask about your experience as an English major, because when I’ve talked to some writers who have done that and they’ve taken creative writing, they say that they had a…they would run into pushback because of what they wanted to write. And obviously, you at least had some classes with Orson Scott Card, a previous guest on here, so I’m guessing there wasn’t a particular problem with the genre you were writing.
Well, it’s funny, because I took…it actually didn’t have to be genre fiction to get into that workshop, and I submitted literary stories because I had sort of been beaten about the head and told, “Oh, we don’t really want to cover the science fiction and fantasy stuff,” right? And so, I was writing…you know, they were still weird and they had elements of crime and stuff like that, but I was writing stories without supernatural or science fictional elements. So, once I got to the workshop, I freed myself. I was like, “This is a sympathetic audience. I’ll do this.” I did end up doing my honors thesis in poetry instead of fiction, because the woman who ran the fiction department, though she was lovely, just did not get science fiction and fantasy, she just didn’t really understand it. I found the poets in the department much more sympathetic, so I came out with a degree with a concentration in creative writing, but my thesis was poetry.
So, what happened after university? How did you break in?
Yeah, so I went to Clarion, I took a couple of stories, I met a bunch of great people who I’m still close friends with, Tobias Buckell, Jenn Reese are both still writing a lot. Lots of other people, honestly. I learned so much from my instructors. It was really huge for me. And like I said, then I came back and I wrote a novel to make sure that I hadn’t broken my brain by being at Clarion and came to California pretty much on a whim. I was living in the mountains of North Carolina. I was working in advertising, so I was making money, but I really did not enjoy my job. I kind of didn’t like the face I saw in the mirror every morning. I mean, it’s fine. You can do advertising and do it ethically. I worked for a company whose explicit approach was to go into small towns and put the locally owned businesses out of business. Like, they had specific strategies to do this so that they could dominate the local markets, and I just felt kind of twitchy about it. So, I had a friend who is studying astronomy in grad school in Santa Cruz, and he said, “Santa Cruz is beautiful, you should move out here. I need a housemate in the fall anyway. I’m going to have to move.” So I said, “Sure.” And I loaded up the car and drove for four days across the country.
Loaded up the car, and you moved to…
I did. I moved to…
Not quite Beverly…
Not quite. A little bit farther north. But, you know, the whole time I was still writing, and I had…around ’99, 2000, started to occasionally sell stories to, like, very tiny small-press magazines and stuff like that. So I was getting some encouragement. I got up here and I lived in Santa Cruz for a while and I moved up to Oakland after I met Heather Shaw, whom I eventually married, also a writer and editor. We started dating, and dating up and down the coast from Santa Cruz to Oakland proved to be a little bit tiring, so I moved up to Oakland, and I got a job at Locus. I applied at Locus Magazine, and was fortunate in that one of my Clarion instructors was Michaela Roessner, who was very good friends with Charles Brown, who was still alive and running Locus. So, I came up for the interview and he said, “Oh, I asked Mikey about you and, you know, you got the job if you want it. Here’s what the job is.” So that helped a lot.
For those who don’t know, you should maybe explain what Locus is.
Oh, sure. Locus is a trade publishing magazine for science fiction and fantasy. So, we run book reviews, we run interviews, we run obituaries–I write those–we run listings of science fiction books, we do all sorts of features, we cover the conventions, we do quarterly forthcoming books listing where we painstakingly gather information from publishers big and small about all the science fiction and fantasy books that are coming out in the next nine months. And that’s a really helpful issue. Booksellers and librarians really love that issue because they can go through and see what’s coming down the road that they’re interested in.
Lots of little tiny print.
You know, we’ve revamped a little bit. Our reviews are a bigger type size than they used to be. But yeah, the listings of books…there’s just so many books now, right? With all the small-press stuff, the barrier to entry to self-publish is so low that, you know, we used to get on the order of, you know, hundreds of books in a month, and now sometimes we’ll see, you know, several hundred bucks a month, right, instead of like a couple hundred. And, you know, it’s got squeezed in there somewhere.
I was just gonna say, you know, I’ve been reading books for a long time. And there’s this thing among authors known as Locus Envy, where you’re looking in the news and you see that, you know, somebody you never heard of just landed a twelve-book deal for $14 million and the mini-series is coming out next week…yeah, so.
It’s an issue, but I write the People in Publishing column, which has all of those deals in it, and it used to drive me nuts, especially when I was, like, desperate to sell a novel, because I had been at Locus for a few years before I sold the book. I’d been at Locus for a couple of years before I sold the story professionally. But I’ve actually come around to say, “You know, what this tells me is that there are still publishers out there that will value science fiction and fantasy to that degree, right? They’re willing to invest in it.” And the thing to remember is that, like, somebody else’s hugely successful book is the thing that subsidizes your potentially less successful book, right? I had the same editor as George R.R. Martin for a little while. And you know what? My books didn’t do like George’s did, but George’s made enough money that they could take chances on books like mine.
In my case, I’m at DAW, and Patrick Rothfuss has helped a lot in that regard.
Oh, absolutely right. Rising tides, they lift all boats.
So, we should probably talk about your books…
…and how you write them, because that’s what this is all about. So, looking at the Axiom series, maybe you can give a synopsis so I don’t give it away. I have read the first two books and enjoyed them very much. I just came back from St. John’s, Newfoundland, because my wife is an engineer and she was on a committee of Engineers Canada and she had to go up there for a meeting, so I tagged along, since I’d never been out there. But it’s a three-hour flight to Toronto and another three hours to St. John’s. I think I finished the first book in that first trip to St. John’s and I read the other while I was there. So I got them both read before I talked to. So, I enjoyed it very much, but maybe you can explain what the premise is.
Yeah, I always try to do an elevator pitch and I always say I need a very slow freight elevator and a very tall building. Essentially, they’re set about 600 years in the future. Humankind has made contact with a species of aliens, which we call Liars because we don’t know what they’re really called, because they lie about everything, which leads to some funny first-contact shenanigans that I sort of exposit, talk about a little bit, but it’s all deep pre-history to my characters. Right? They’ve known about these aliens for centuries. But the liars just confabulate. They make up stories about their own origins, about the nature of the universe. You can’t really rely on them to tell the truth about anything. But eventually, once humans figure out what they’re dealing with, they manage to work out some trade, right? If you make sure that the thing that they’re giving you is the thing that, you know, you think it is, sometimes the trade works out okay. And one of the things that the liars give us is the location of these wormhole gates. There’s one out near Jupiter, and we don’t know it’s there because until it’s bombarded with exactly the right kind of radiation, it’s nothing. It’s empty space. But when it’s bombarded with the right combination of radiation, it opens up into this portal that leads, potentially, to various other places. So, there are about thirty known wormhole gates scattered throughout the galaxy, and what they enable humans to do is go out and colonize, right? They can spread. So, a lot of these systems have habitable planets or planets that can be terraformed, which the Liars also have great technology for.
So, the first book starts with a bunch of, sort of ragtag post-humans, a crew, because I like a nice misfit crew, and they’re working salvage and security for a space station, the stuff out in the outer fringes of our solar system, out beyond the orbit of Neptune, and they find this wrecked ship. And when they open up the wrecked ship, they find a bunch of destroyed cryopods and one cryopod that still has a human being in it. And this is pretty weird because they realize promptly that this ship was what they call a Goldilocks ship. So, back before we met the Liars, back before we got some technological remediation, the planet was not doing very well, and in a sort of desperate last-ditch effort to save humanity, we sent out a bunch of ships, just slow, sublight speed, with people cryogenically frozen. They’re seed ships, right, so they have lots of embryos and lots of seed stock and they just send them out to various stars that look like they have planets in the Goldilocks zones, right, so planets that might conceivably be habitable. Probably most of them aren’t. Probably ninety-nine percent of them aren’t. But things were so desperate and there were enough people who were willing to volunteer to take this shot that they sent these colony ships out. The funny thing is then, you know, while they were all still taking their slow journeys, then we met aliens, and the aliens helped us, and they helped us fix Earth. And so, most of those colony ships were sort of forgotten. And, in fact, some of them would arrive to find the planet that they were going to try to colonize already having a thriving colony, right, if it happened to be one that had a wormhole gate in that system.
So, they find this Goldilocks ship, and it’s baffling because it should not be in our solar system. It should be really, really far away by now, right? It left 500 years ago. And so, they wake up the one person who’s in the ship, who’s a biologist named Elena, and ask her what happens. She says, “Oh, our ship, it was incredible, it was amazing. We met aliens.” And they all say, “Oh, yeah, we know. We know about the aliens. That’s kind of old news. I’m sorry.” And she says, “No, no, no, not those aliens. These are different aliens.” As far as humans know, Liars are the only other intelligence pieces of aliens in the universe. We’ve never met any other ones. And it turns out there’s a reason for that. So the aliens Elena met are much more terrifying, much more uninterested in working with humans and more interested in scouring humans from life. And eventually, I mean, this is a little bit of a spoiler, but it’s the name of the trilogy, they discover that there’s this ancient alien race called the Axiom, and one hates to make generalizations about entire species, but as a culture, the Axiom were not nice. They were about domination and control and exterminating anything that might be a threat to them. The Liars they kept around because the Liars could be useful to them. They were essentially, you know, a servitor species, which is not fun for them. The Axiom, thousands of years ago, mostly went dormant as they wait for various long-term projects that they have set to go into fruition.
So, essentially what my ragtag crew discovers is that the galaxy is littered with these space stations and these facilities and these things that look like planets–but they’re not actually planets–that the Axiom have built that are doing stuff we don’t even understand, that have technology way beyond anything we can imagine. And so, there’s extremely dangerous toys lying around. The problem is, if the Axiom happened to wake up and notice us like, say, if we start messing with their toys, they’d probably exterminate all humanity. So now my crew has this terrible secret that they want to tell anybody about, because humans, being humans, will go try to pillage these treasure boxes to see what they can find, and as a consequence, they might kill everybody. So my crew is trying to sort of, with the help of a Liar named Lantern, who’s from a sect that knows about the Axiom, this crew, they’re trying to figure it out. They’re trying to deal with it. So the books are about them, basically, like running into Axiom stuff and attempting to deal with. And then, over the course of the trilogy, trying to sort of figure out a larger strategy to deal with this huge existential threat that no people know about. And there’s all kinds of deeper stuff in it, like why the Liars tell lies is one of the big reveals in the first book, you know, the cultural reason for why they make up all these stories. And the second book is about a giant virtual reality engine, because I like VR stuff. That was really fun. And then the third book, The Forbidden Stars, the one that’s coming out, which you have not read…
No, I have not.
So I sort of mentioned, what I like to do in series, I’ve done a few series, I like to sort of, you know, put some Chekhov’s guns, not even on the mantelpiece, but like way out in the front yard, you know? So, in book one, I’ll mention something and I’ll come back to it three books later. And that’s essentially what this book is about. I mentioned that, of the wormhole gates, there’s one gate that people just stopped coming back through. Right? Like, colonists went in, for a while there was communication, and then it just shut down. And various, you know, ships have been sent in to try to figure out what happened on the other side, what happened to the system. They never come back, either. Right? So it becomes known as the forbidden system, the interdicted system. Nobody’s allowed, you know, the militaries, or the polities, that control the wormhole gates don’t let anybody go there because it seems to be a one-way ticket. You seem to not come back. The assumption is that something horrible happened there. Well, in the course of the series, my ragtag crew of post-humans, they get hold of technology that nobody else has, Axiom technology. They can open wormholes anywhere they want to in the galaxy, so they can go places that no one else can go. And they decide, for various reasons, that they should go see what’s happening in the Vanir System, that’s the system that’s interdicted.
I’m going to predict the Axiom has something to do with it.
You know, it’s possible that mean, bad aliens could be involved. So, that’s what The Forbidden Stars is about. They’re able to go. And it’s the Vanir system is the most remote of all the colonized systems. It’s so far out in the galaxy that conventionally, you know, it would take thousands of years for a ship to get there. So ,it really is a complete mystery. And the crew pops in and they find out all sorts of interesting things that are happening. And the third book, because it’s the last one in the trilogy, I also reveal like some big fundamental stuff about the axiom. You know, it ends up having sort of…it’s a book with two climaxes, because they have to sort of deal with the local problem, and then I want to like address the sort of global, bigger problem, which is that, like, six people are trying to save the galaxy, which is a great story, but practically maybe, maybe the scale is a little bit beyond what they can deal with. So…
In your dialogue, which is very witty and fun, because it is, like, this ragtag bunch trying to save the galaxy, it did have for me certain Guardians of the Galaxy vibes.
A completely different crew, but it was still that kind of joking, and the banter was…it’s really a lot of fun to read.
Well, you know, I love that sense of, sort of a found family that the bumbling around in space, you know, the Firefly feel, right, I mean, The Killjoys feel, like there’s a lot of things that kind of have that vibe. And I think it’s fun. And you either have…if you’re trapped on a ship with a bunch of people, either you poisonously hate each other–and that’s, you know, one way you can go in space opera to have drama–or you sort of figure out how to, like, tolerate and enjoy one another’s weird qualities and foibles.
Now, how did this all come about? What was the seed for this trilogy? And is the way that it came about fairly typical of the way that you find your stories to tell?
So, this one’s a little bit odd in that I am historically a fantasy writer. The thing I was probably best known for before this was an urban fantasy series about a character named Marla Mason that I did ten books and a prequel, a short novel, and a collection right? And so I had spent a decade of my working life doing urban fantasy. And other things, too, but mostly always contemporary fantasy. A little bit of sword and sorcery and stuff. So I thought, well, one thing I really love that I’ve never written much, except the occasional short story, I love space opera. And I always felt this resistance because I have a great respect for science and a great respect for math. And I’m not very good, especially at the math. I have friends who are astronomers who can help me out with stuff, but when it comes to, like, calculating orbital mechanics and stuff, I am hopeless. The Internet has been a great help because there are all sorts of calculators where you can plug in values and sort of figure out things, but it’s just not the way my mind works. And I always thought, you know, if I write it, I’m going to screw it up, I’m not going to be able to do it well enough. Just in the back of my head, I thought, “I’m not qualified to write space opera.” And then I stopped myself and I thought, “But really, space opera is a big tent, right? Like, you can have, you know, The Expanse is pretty crunchy, right, like it’s pretty much…they try to stay within the realm of feasibility for the most part. But at the other end, you know, you have stuff like Firefly, right, you have stuff like Farscape. So, somewhere in there is a range where I can exist happily, right? So, sort of the small-scale local solar system stuff, I thought, “Okay, I will try and learn enough that I can do this halfway plausibly, like see what it’s actually, you know, how the spaceships would actually work, actually pay attention to it, and then as quickly as I can, I will get magical alien technology, right? The stuff the Axiom has, like, they can violate laws of physics, right? Like they can do all sorts of things. Once I was got that, I was like, oh…
Very much Clarke’s Law stuff there.
I can have artificial gravity at that point, okay, right? Like, there’s all these things I can do. I can have, you know, wormhole travel so that it doesn’t take, you know, thousands or millions of years to get from point A to point B. And once I sort of told myself, “It’s OK, I can find a place that is reasonable to use my level of science and math knowledge. It’ll be okay. A space opera has a lot of flexibility, right? It’s not like it’s hard science fiction anyway. It’s supposed to be sort of adventure stories in space,” I decided I could do that. So I sat down with a notebook and I wrote down everything that I like in space opera. And you know, I love Iain Banks, you know, I like Lois McMaster Bujold, I like M. John Harrison’s Kefahuchi Tract stuff, like, my taste in space opera is super broad. So, I just wrote down all the stuff I like, post-human weirdos, like Peter Watts’s Blindside I love, it’s a great book. It’s super depressing, but it’s about a spaceship full of post-human weirdos and they all have a weird thing about them, right? You know, there’s the person who has a bifurcated brain, and there’s a technologically plausible vampire, and there’s, you know, somebody who has multiple personalities. There’s…and I really like that sort of assemblage of bizarre characters. So that was one of the things. I like weird, menacing alien technology. I like wormholes. I like really huge-scale space stations floating around, right, where there are entire sort of hothouse cultures that develop on space stations. So I made a list of all the things I love.
Then, I made a somewhat shorter list of things I hate. Like, alien cultures that are monocultures, right? I used to see this lot more in old science fiction. People have gotten better about it. But you know, sort of the Star Trek thing, where this is a planet of, they’re all worriers, they all have bumpy foreheads, and they all follow the Bushido code, right? Like, I always thought that was kind of boring because just in my neighborhood in South Berkeley, there are probably 400 overlapping cultures and subcultures, right? And so I thought, if I’m going to have aliens, they need to have that level of complexity.
Now, there’s a reason that most science fiction writers don’t do that, and that’s because it impossible. You can’t have anything approaching the granularity of actual culture and subculture in an alien species. That’s why you have the shorthand that says, oh, they’re all warriors. And then maybe you point out, “Well, there’s some pacifists over here and there’s some guys who just really like writing bicycles over here.” But sort of the way that I approach that was by having the Liars, who create their own version of their culture, their own history. So every group of them you meet, whether it’s a giant ship or if it’s, you know, a small, you know, half a dozen of them living together on a hollowed-out asteroid. They all have their own made-up story about where they come from and what they are and their purpose in the universe. You know, they have religions and it’s unclear for much of the series whether they believe the things that they tell you or whether they’re just messing with outsiders, or what. And eventually it does, as I said, get revealed in book one, why they are the way they are. But that was my approach to dealing with that thing that, you know, that I don’t like so much in science fiction.
So, I took my big list of things I loved and things I didn’t love, and I bashed together, you know, sixty pages of prose and an outline, and I started sending it around. And I remember my agent had sent it out to a bunch of places, and I had reached out to some (publishers) that I knew personally, and, you know, it was like any novel submission, we were getting some rejections and some “close, but not quite”s, and all that.
So I was walking around Lake Merritt, the beautiful jewel of Oakland, out with my friend Sarah, walking around, enjoying the weather and just talking about stuff, and I got an email from Mark Gascoigne, who was then at Angry Robot, the science fiction publisher that he founded. And I had known Mark a little bit from back in the day. He’d worked on some anthologies that I had had stories in and stuff like that. We had a friendly relationship. So I’d said, “Hey, Mark, I have this space opera, maybe you’ll take a look.” And he wrote me back and he said he loved it and he wanted to buy it. So that was that was a happy thing. And, you know, I jumped around and said, “Hooray!” And then we talked about sort of the nitty-gritty. And the cool thing was, I sold them one book, and Mark liked what I had so much that he came back to me and said, “Actually, how would you like to do a couple more books?” And so, pretty soon I had, not just not just one book, but I had a trilogy deal, which was awesome because I like to be gainfully employed for years.
It’s funny when publishers say things like that, no author ever says, “No, no, I think I’d just like to do the one.”
“I’ll just do the one.” There are circumstances under which I would decline, like, if the money was really terrible…
It is possible to write a book that just…sequels make no sense to, of course.
Oh, absolutely. And you know, if it was a publisher, I wasn’t sure about, maybe, right? But I had, you know, I had a good feeling about Mark. He’d done me some good turns that he did not have to do earlier in my career. So, I was absolutely thrilled. And, you know, I had friends who’d published with Angry Robot and I’d done all my due diligence, so I was pretty happy. And they’ve done great with the books. They got Paul Scott Canavan, did these wonderful covers.
Yeah, they’re very nice.
Yeah, right? Like, I got a book with a spaceship on the cover. I thought I’d never have that my career. You know, I write about weird magicians who live in cities and stuff.
I had a book called Falcon’s Egg, which was the second book in a duology I did for a small Canadian press called Bundoran Press. And it has an exploding spaceship on the cover…
Oh, that’s great.
…and that been a dream of mine since I was like eleven, so.
Oh, yeah, that’s beautiful.
It’s also a bit of a spoiler because it’s about two-thirds of the way through the book with that particular spaceship explodes, and it’s also on the cover of the first book. So you know which spaceship it is. There’s only one spaceship, really, one big spaceship. But still, it’s an exploding spaceship, so I like it.
Well, it creates suspense. People are reading, waiting to see when the spaceship is going to explode.
I suppose that’s true. So, just to back away from the trilogy for a minute, when you’re writing your short stories and things like that, what’s a typical way for you to get an idea for something like that or for some of your other work?
You know, I just…my brain is always looking for stuff. You know, I read a lot of popular science, I read a lot of history and mythology, I read a whole lot of fiction. And what a lot of writers do, I’m sure you know, is, you’ll read something and be like, “Oh, that’s great idea. I could have done that better.” Or, “Oh, I would have taken that in a different direction, right?” And so, sometimes you do that. You go, you just take it in a different direction.
It is a field that we often say is in conversation with itself. And that’s part of it, all these ideas are floating around and people deal with them differently. And you think, “Well, I don’t like the way you dealt with it. I’m going to write it this way,” or, “Well, she did a good job on that. But I would have taken it over here.” So we all are always feeding off of this stuff.
Yeah. And I love that. You know, I love the sense that we’re working within this huge sort of shared universe of tropes and ideas and possibilities that we can ring all these changes on. And we can interrogate and we can critique things, right, that other people have done or that have just been common in the field. So, I think about that stuff a lot. And, you know, I’m a character-driven writer, honestly, so I come up with a neat idea or cool situation and then I try to come up with a character who would be the most fun to torture in that situation, right? And then I just attempt to sort of build them up psychologically into my mind and model what they would be likely to do.
Is that how you came up with the characters for the Axiom trilogy?
Absolutely. I wanted to have somebody, you know, I wanted to have sort of an acerbic space captain, right, who’s a little bit abrasive, but is ultimately good, good-hearted. I wanted to have a weird cyborg. There’s a character named Ashok who a lot of people love…
I like him.
Ashok is great.
I know a lot of engineers. So he kind of…
Exactly. Yeah. Ashok is a classic engineer, right? He doesn’t care as much about why as about how he’s going to know fix it or exploit it. He’s an early adopter. You know, I have friends who are always…you know, I live in the Bay Area. I’m surrounded by tech people. So I know people, whenever the new thing is out there, they’re the first one in line or, you know, the first one to order it online. And so I thought, you know, you take that far enough in the future where there’s better prosthetics and stuff, then maybe you would have people who would say, “You know, my human arm is fine, but it wouldn’t be so terrible if I was in a horrible salvage accident and lost it, because then I could get this amazing new prosthetic that has the in-built microsurgery tools or whatever.” Right? So that’s Ashok. He just, he wants to improve what nature gave him. And I wanted to have sort of a morose ship’s doctor to kind of ground the crew and be sort of a voice of reason. So I put him in there. And, you know, I have a ship’s AI, who is in love with the captain for complicated reasons.
And so I sort of put together…I wanted to have a crew that had lots of strong personalities that would sort of act in conflict with each other. You know, they’re a family. They love each other. But that doesn’t mean they always get along, they always agree. I’m also a hopeless romantic, like a lot of my stuff is love stories. And there is a love story that’s central to the trilogy. And throughout the trilogy, I resisted making a plot point…it’s the captain and the woman who they thaw out of the cryopod, so it’s a time-slip romance, sort of…I resisted the urge to make a source of conflict them getting into a fight, because I really wanted to demonstrate them as a partnership. Right. Even when they disagree, they support one another. They have each other’s back. So that was important to me in that book.
When you were outlining and synopsizing, what do those look like for you? You said you did like sixty pages. That’s a fairly lengthy synopsis.
That was text. That was sample chapters. I wrote sixty pages of actual book, and then then about a page of what I thought the rest of the book was going to be, which was sort of semi-accurate. And then for the other two, they said, “We just need something written on a piece of paper so that we can justify writing you checks, right?”
So essentially…well, you know, I’ve done a lot of books and Mark was familiar with my work and knew that I would…you know, I’ve done work for hire, like I if I’m known for anything in this business, it’s for being reliable and turning in decent copy on time. And so, for those I just was able to write a couple paragraphs, kind of about what I thought they were about. So those were cool. But I will tell you my trick for writing outlines and synopses if you want.
I’m sure people will be interested.
So, I had, I struggled like hell with it for the longest time. I would sit down and I would write, you know, what was going to happen in the book, and it would be the driest, most boring recitation. It would be like a third-grade book report of a book you didn’t like that much. And it drove me nuts. And then one day, I was at a party and I’d had a couple of drinks, and a friend of mine who was a writer asked me what I was working on. I started telling them how excited I was about this book, that I was going to work on. And I was telling them all the coolest things about it, and like all the things I was most excited about and how amazing it was, and something clicked in my head. And I said, “This is the way I need to write synopses. I need to write my synopsis like I’m slightly drunk at a party telling an editor how awesome my book is going to be.” And so that’s what I did. You know, I still hit the highlights, I talk about what happens in the book, I talk about the plot and the characters, but I do it with the energy and the enthusiasm. And, you know, I’m not plodding and sequential, I talk about it in a way that conveys my excitement about it. And since I have done that, every proposal I have tried to write like that has sold. I mean, maybe it’s taken a few times, but they’ve all sold.
I’m actually…I’m currently writer-in-residence at the Saskatoon Public Library. So I’m working with anybody that wants to come in and say hi and ask me questions or give me something to critique. And actually, I had a fellow in yesterday who was asking that specific question, about how to create a successful synopsis. So I’ll be sure to point him to your answer.
Yeah. You don’t have to be drunk. You know, this is…that’ just me. But something…whatever helps you convey that enthusiasm in an uninhibited way.
What’s your actual writing process look like? I presume you work directly on the keyboard. You’re not writing in longhand under a tree somewhere in a parchment notebook.
I used to, and when I write poetry, I do tend to write longhand. I feel like I get a little bit closer to the language somehow when I write longhand. But for novels and for stories, I pretty much compose straight into the keyboard. Back in the old days, I would sometimes draft longhand and then my first round of revision would be when I typed it in.
Yeah, I used to do that.
In practice, I eventually hit a point where I had to hustle, like, a lot. I was writing two and a half, three books a year for a while, just because, you know, I had a kid and I work for a non-profit, and so I had to make some money. Things have eased off since then. But just for time reasons, I stopped writing longhand and I started typing directly because it was just faster. And I’ve kept it up. I compose pretty comfortably on my little laptop.
Do you work at home or do you work out somewhere? Where do you like to work?
I was sort of your classic coffee-shop writer for a long time. This was especially when I lived in places where I had housemates. It could be hard to find a place that was quiet. And so I would go out and, you know, find the corner of a coffee shop and write. As I said, I had a kid about twelve years ago and that stopped me going out quite so much. So now mostly I tend to write at home. I’ll write wherever with my laptop in my lap. if it’s only an hour or two, if I am on deadline and I’m having to work for hours and hours at a stretch, I acknowledge my forty-something-year-old body and set up a little more ergonomically at a desk, plug the laptop into the monitor and the keyboard.
Are you a fast writer?
I am a slow thinker and a fast writer. Yeah. So I tend to think about stuff a lot, and by the time I sit down to type, it comes out pretty quickly.The Axiom books in particular…I’ve always been kind of a binge driver by preference, like, I’ll not write at all week, and then on a day I’ll spend seven or eight hours writing. And I had to adjust that after I had a kid, especially when he was little, because I didn’t have long stretches of uninterrupted time anymore. So, I had to retrain my brain to be able to write in sort of ten-minute snatches or half-Hour snatches. And so, as a result, I’m a much more flexible writer now than I used to be. But my preference is still long stretches of time and to draft things very quickly. The Dreaming Stars was written…like, actual days spent typing, probably in less than a month, and half of it I wrote in a week at a writing retreat where I went. You know, I have a kid, I have a day job, like, so if I take the time away to go write, I have to maximize that time. I have to really use it. So I was writing 10 or 12,000 words a day at that retreat.
I got a chance to do that with a book called Magebane, which is…it’s written under a pseudonym, Lee Arthur Chane, but it’s me, as I keep telling people when I’m trying to sell it to. “No, really, it’s me. I’ll sign it Lee Arthur Chane. But really, it’s me”. But there’s…the Banff Center has a self-directed retreat you can go on, where you stay in…they’re basically dorms, hotels, a cheap way to stay in Banff…and then you just write, and I did 50,000 words in a week. I don’t do that usually. And I have a kid, too. She’s gone to university as of this year, but still.
Oh, yeah. Well, in my house I can’t produce to that level. But if I’m in a place where my only job is to write a lot? And for The Forbidden Stars, I went…I had some friends who have a place up in Marin that’s in the country, and they kindly let me stay up there for a few days, and I pounded out, not quite half, but a big chunk of The Forbidden Stars I wrote up there, going slowly stir-crazy all alone in the forest.
What does your revision process look like once you have that draft? You do produce polished prose? Do you have to go back and do a lot of fixing and rewriting? Do you show it to beta readers? How does it work for you?
Yeah, it’s not super polished. It tends to be pretty schematic because I’m writing very quickly. So, I get down the situation that’s happening, I usually get down some good lines of dialogue. My next pass I go through and I flesh out the world. You know, I remember, “Oh, sometimes things have odours, right? Sometimes people have physical reactions to things that, you know, they say to each other.” So I go through and I do an extra layer. So my stuff always gets longer. So my first drafts will be maybe 70,000 words. And then. I’ll go back through and flesh them out and, like, I’ll foreshadow and I’ll touch up my subplots and all that, and they’ll grow by ten or fifteen or 20,000 words in the course of revision. I’m a putter-inner rather than taker-outer…
Yeah, me too.
…as a reviser. Yeah, I mean, I feel like it’s more efficient that way. You’re not throwing away words you could get paid for. That’s my feeling.
How long are the books? I read them in e-book, so I have no idea.
Yeah. They’re like eighty-five, ninety, around that range. That’s a pretty comfortable range. Like, most of my novels are about that long.
That’s kind of what I felt, because it wasn’t like I felt like I was slogging through Game of Thrones, which, you know I enjoyed, but they’re very long. But because they were in e-book—and I read both of them in e-book, but certainly I got through yours fashion than I did his. So I knew they were shorter.
Yeah. You know, I love a big immersive fantasy. It’s just not what I write. You know, I tend to, you know, lean and mean…I think the longest book I’ve written is maybe a 110, 120,000 words long.
Does it go straight to your editor once you’re happy with it, or do you have other people who look at it first?
Well, when I was newer, when I was first starting out, I had a lot of beta readers. And, you know, I have a lot of friends who are writers. If there’s something that I feel like isn’t working, I will reach out to some trusted friends, whose biases I know and understand, and I will ask them about things. In practice, like, in terms of deadlines, I don’t have a lot of time to send out stuff for the most part. And at this point, I’ve done, you know, thirty-some novels or something like that. I can usually tell if it’s kind of working, you know, so I’ll do my round of vision to clean it up, and then I’ll sort of read…put it aside if I can for a little while, read the whole thing, and sort of minimally mark it up as I read through it, because what I’m looking for in that read is like horrible failures of pacing, or horrible, you know, changes in tone, things that just…you know, I try to get a sense of the gestalt of the whole thing to see if it’s working. And if it’s not, then I sort of fine tune that. And then I do…I love to line edit I will line edit things all day, I do a line-edit pass or two, and then I send it off to my editor and deal with whatever they want dealt with. But for the most part, I tend to clean it…by the time I turn it into my editor, it’s usually pretty clean.
My agent is good, especially about character issues, so sometimes I’ll run a book past her. I’ve…you know, I went to Charlie Finlay’s Blue Heaven writing workshop once back in the day. So, I have done more of a critique process, but for the most part…Tim Powers said once that he never shows his books to anyone who’s not in a position to write him a check for them, which is not…he’s a little bit stretching the truth. He does show it to them. I know his wife helps him out stuff, but I sort of thought, “Oh, that’s a nice ethos. I can get behind that.”
Well, I’ve just always lived someplace where there wasn’t anybody around to help. So I’ve always…pretty much it just go straight to my editor. And what does your editor come back with typically? What are the sorts of things…I know you’ve worked with more than one editor…what sorts of things do they typically come back with you to maybe tweak a little more?
You know, I probably block all these things out. Revision is very traumatic. I remember on The Forbidden Stories, it was kind of cool, I had Simon Spanton, the venerable British editor, is now…who’s worked with all sorts of, you know, big science fiction, space opera, people…he edited the third book, which was cool. And he came back with a lot of really interesting stuff about me maybe not fully thinking through the implications of some of the technologies that I was introducing, right.? Because I had all this, “Oh, here’s all this cool stuff.” And Simon said, “Well, that’s cool, but you have to think if you have this in your universe, that implies this and implies this. And why don’t they just do this?” Right? So he had me sort of scale back some of my more godlike technology and make stuff a little bit more grounded and plausible. And it is also, like, if your character can wave a magic wand and defeat, you know, a battalion of enemies, that’s not quite as exciting, right, as having them have to struggle a little more. So Simon was great. You know, it’s stuff like, “Maybe beef up this character a little more or, you know, I thought this thing came out of nowhere. Could you maybe set it up and prepare it a little better?” But yeah, I mean, honestly, turning in pretty clean drafts is just one of the things, it’s one of the things that came in the box for me. It’s one of things I’m pretty good at.
My editor at DAW, of course, is Sheila Gilbert, and she’s great about picking up on things that maybe don’t quite make sense. My current fantasy series, we worked a lot on it because she was making sure that I had thought through things like that, so I didn’t get in trouble further down the road. Has that ever happened to you where you’ve put something into a book in a series, you had a long series, and you got bitten by it later down the road because you put it in as a sort of a throwaway moment, then you want to do something later and you can’t do it because you’ve established in your world that that’s not possible. Anything like that ever happened to you?
It is a difficulty. Yeah.
Continuity, I guess.
Yeah, it has happened. In my urban fantasy series, I could usually find ways to route around that damage, because it’s magic. I can come up with magic or a new kind of magic or a more powerful magic or whatever. So, usually I could work on it. I did think of another editorial feedback thing that was helpful. So, in The Dreaming Stars, they go to the Jovian system, they spend some time there and they spend some time on Ganymede. And I did a lot of research about Ganymede, and Ganymede is fascinating. And so, I just filled the book with all these wonderful Ganymede facts. And my editor came back and said, “You know, this book is really enjoyable. I love the banter and the interplay with the characters. Nothing happens for the first quarter of this book. They just talk about Ganymede. Maybe we could scale back on the Ganymede facts and increase the tension here and there.” And so I said, “Fine.” I did I did a reading where I was like, “So here, I’m going to read to you the Ganymede facts I had to cut from my novel.
Well, at least you had have a use for them.
Well, we’re getting within the last ten minutes or so here, so I’m going to move to the big philosophical questions. I’d like to change my voice for that: Big Philosophical Questions. It’s really just one question, with multiple parts, I guess. Why do you write? Why do you write science fiction fantasy? And why do you think anybody writes science fiction fantasy? Why do we do this?
This is actually something I’ve been thinking about a lot. I’m going to be principal speaker at PhilCon in November and I have to write a speech, and so I was thinking about things I could talk about. And it dovetails pretty neatly into this question. So, for me, I grew up in rural North Carolina, lived in a trailer park, right? The people that I knew were factory workers or they were farm workers, right? Like the fancy people had retail jobs or like office jobs, right? There was no sense that there was like a literary or creative life, right, that you could be more, that you could pursue a life in the arts, that you could, you know, move more than ten miles away from where your family had grown up. And there’s some good things to be said about that. You know, my dad’s side of the family, especially, is very close-knit, and there’s a real sense of community there. But for me, I always kind of had my head in the clouds and my eyes on the stars. And so, the fact that I had access to all these books that were in my parents’ house and that were in my grandmother’s house, what they did was show me the possibility of other worlds, right? That there could be something more than living in, you know, among the swamps and the soybean fields in eastern North Carolina, that if that didn’t feel like the right world for me, that there might be another world that did feel right. And it just opened my eyes.
When I was a kid, it was everything. You know, it’s the reason that I had the courage to go off to college, you know, I was the first person in my family to go to college. It was the reason that I was able to move out to California, which was just not…you know, my mom traveled around, but even she mostly stayed in the South. And that was all down the books, it was all down to showing me there’s all these other kinds of people and all these other worlds. And, you know, like, I’m a weird liberal bisexual person, like all sorts of things that didn’t really fit in super well where I grew up. And books showed me that it was okay, and there were places where it was OK. And I think a lot of why I wrote was because I loved the feeling that I had when I read books and I thought if I wrote, I could have that same feeling in worlds that I’d created, and that always worked, right? I write the books that I want to read. But as I got older and thought about it more and started to have a career and thought about, “What am I doing?”, sort of bigger-level, like, “What kind of books do I want to write?” I want to write books that do for other people what books did for me, right? I want to show them that there are other ways of being and there are places where you can be accepted for who you are and that it’s worth taking chances, and sometimes you’re gonna get a smacked down, sometimes it will hurt, but it’s still worth it to take the chance, and that you should live your life open-hearted. All these things that I learned from books that I certainly wasn’t getting from where I grew up, right? You know, we were pretty poor, and it was…you know, my parents always made sure we were fed. We had a roof over our heads. But, you know, it could be a little rough sometimes…that there was a world beyond that. And so, that’s what I tried to do in my books, you know? I want a kid who picks up one of my books to feel like there’s magic in the world, right? To feel that they’re gonna find their tribe, right, or at least that it’s possible that they can find their tribe. And, you know, let them go out there.
As for, “Why science fiction and fantasy?” Honestly, I think it was just early exposure. You know, I could have written other kinds of books–perhaps not crime novels, since they have a somewhat darker world view than what I’m talking about. I love reading them., but part of why I love reading them is because I don’t write them, so I can enjoy them purely as a reader and not analyze them. But, you know, it’s just, that’s what I grew up with. That’s what my parents loved.
You know, the first books that I remember reading were, you know, Stephen King, and I had an aunt who gave me some Clive Barker, you know, my grandmother gave me Heinlein and Asimov, right? And it was just, that was just the kind of story…I read comic books, you know, I watched The Twilight Zone. For whatever reason, all that stuff really appealed to me. And when I think about it intellectually, I love the ability to make metaphors literal. I love thinking about how people react to extreme circumstances, and science fiction and fantasy allow you to create really extreme circumstances, like, way more extreme than most people are going to plausibly encounter in their day to day life,
Yeah, right. And, you know, I think the…like my favorite short story writer, dead short story writer, I suppose…is Theodore Sturgeon, and I just loved that when he wrote about technology, he wrote about how technology impacted people, how it affected humans. So, when I do science fiction, that’s always my interest, too, right? It’s like, how this changes what it means to be human, how this changes how we relate to each other as humans. I mean, that’s the stuff that I like. So, I think that’s why science fiction and fantasy.
It sounds like a good reason to do what you do. Well, that’s kind of the end of our time, I think, so thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers. Oh, but before we go, what are you working on now?
So, I have another novel that it looks like is going to get bought. The contract is not signed yet, so I have to be a little bit skimpy with the details. But it is a multiverse book. I’ve wanted to write a multiverse book for ages. I love, and in my short stories I write a lot about, alternate dimensions, parallel dimensions, mirror universes, all that stuff. And I get to write a book that’s a multiverse book. So, that’s the next thing.
That’s actually…my current series is the characters moving from world to world, Shaped worlds that have been created by people that live in them. And so…the first one was kind of a version of our world, only with differences, but the second one that’s out right now is a Jules Verne-inspired world.
Oh, that’s cool.
And the one after that is…it doesn’t have a real title, but the working titled is Werewolves and Vampires and Peasants, Oh, My!
So, I’m having a lot of fun with that. And where can people find you online?
I am at timpratt.org, which is my sporadically updated website where I put sort of officially things.
You’re an organization.
Well, yeah, unfortunately, the dot coms and all of the various other dots were taken, so I became an org. And I’m on Twitter a lot. That’s sort of my social media presence. TimPratt on Twitter. And yeah, and I’ve been doing for four or five years, for years going into my fifth year, a story a month on Patreon, because I love writing short stories and that’s a great excuse to do it every month.
Great. Well, again, thanks so much for being on The Worldshapers, I had a great time talking with you. I hope you enjoyed it.
Christopher Ruocchio is the author of The Sun Eater, a space-opera fantasy series from DAW books, as well as the assistant editor at Baen Books, where he co-edited the military SF anthology Star Destroyers, as well as Space Pioneers, a collection of Golden Age reprints showcasing tales of human exploration. He’s a graduate of North Carolina State University where, in his words, “a penchant for self-destructive decision-making” caused him to pursue a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric, with a minor in Classics.
An avid student of history, philosophy, and religion, Christopher has been writing since he was eight years old, and sold his first book, Empire of Silence at twenty-two. The Sun Eater series is available from Golancz in the UK and has been translated into French and German.
Christopher lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, where he spends most of his time hunched over a keyboard writing. When not writing, he splits his time between his family, procrastinating with video games, and his friend’s boxing gym.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Christopher.
Well, thanks for having me. I’m excited to be here.
We met…we’re both DAW authors, a you know, conflict of interest and all that, get that right there, and we actually met at San Jose last year at WorldCon at the DAW dinner. I think was when I first met you.
I think so.
And then you very kindly showed me around the…well, Dealer’s Room doesn’t quite cover it at DragonCon…
A shopping mall.
Yeah…when I was down there last year, so I appreciated that as well. So it’s great to have you on. And I have to confess I have not finished Empire of Silence, but I…
Neither has my fiancée, so I can’t throw stones at anybody.
But I’m well into it, so when I get you to do a synopsis in a little bit, and I say, “no spoilers,” that will be for me as much as for the listeners.
I’ll do my best.
So, I always like to start these things off by going into… I always say either the mists of time or the depths of time…into the past, to find out how you got interested, first of all, in science fiction and fantasy, and how you started writing it, You started early, apparently, at eight years old.
Oh yeah. Yeah. I think it was my dad’s fault mostly, because when I was really small we were a Disney family, and most Disney movies are…I don’t want to say are for girls, but they’re about princesses, and when you’re a three-year-old boy it’s harder to get into those necessarily, although I was I was very fond of, especially, Sleeping Beauty because there was a dragon and a sword fight…
But then I think I watched Star Wars for the first time when I was four or five, and then immediately after we got through watching the first three movies, you know, a week later and then two weeks later, because they’d spaced it out, I think I watched the original trilogy on loop. Because I wasn’t allowed to watch very much. I was allowed TV Land, the Batman cartoon from the ‘90s, with Kevin Conroy and Mark Hamill, and then the Star Wars trilogy. And so, I watched those original movies obsessively, and I read a bunch of the books, and of course The Phantom Menace came out, and I was just young enough to think The Phantom Menace was awesome. And it’s, you know, actually, it’s fine. It’s Attack Of The Clones that’s bad.
But I went from that through to reading a bunch of Star Wars books. I think the first book I ever bought was the first Tim Zahn Thrawn novel. But then I found Tolkien, and Harry Potter, of course, came in. I hit…actually before Harry Potter was popular. I read it when I was like five, because I read very early, maybe even younger than that. I’d have to check with my mother. And so, all this was happening at once, and then I hit Lord Of The Rings right when the movies were starting to come out, around 2000. I tried watching the Bakshi version, and it terrified me, and I gave up. And I tried reading the books instead but struggled with those a bit more than the Star Wars books and Harry Potter.
And so, I started writing because my friends, you know, would play make believe on the playground, right? And they were playing Dragon Ball Z, which I of course had no idea what that was, because I was not allowed to watch it. And so, when I was asked,” Hey do you want to play Dragon Ball Z?” I said, “Yes! But can I be Batman? And after two weeks of careful deliberation, the other five-year-olds agreed that, yes. And so, over the years going through grade school up to about third grade, we would play make-believe, right, on the playground, and we spun out and made our own characters. So, Batman eventually got a lightsaber, and…you know all these other…he went to wizard school, I think, and became…he was very accomplished.
I think that would improve Batman.
You know, I like Batman a lot, so I hesitate to say that, but I would definitely read that.
At least with a lightsaber.
The light saber, yes…he needs one. Everyone needs one, really. But I…so I started writing down these adventures we had on the playground, and then as my friends grew up and discovered football and social skills, I sat on the edge of the parking lot with a notebook and would keep making stuff up. And, of course, once I made it to fourth grade, third-grade me didn’t know what he was talking about, and I would throw everything out and start again and again and again and again and again, until I finished a novel, I think in eighth grade, of which one copy remains printed and it is in someone’s lockbox somewhere, I don’t remember. And it is terrible, and I…I kept doing this through high school and college, mostly because, you know, Christopher Paolini got lot of flak, you know. But he wrote that book at fifteen, and he was another Christopher, and an Italian one, at that, and I was…you know, “By God, if he can do it, I can do it, too,” and…I actually got to meet him at DragonCon, when I met you, and thank him for that, because I…you know, it’s one of those things I always thought that you needed to be like forty to do when I was little and he sort of proved that wrong. And so, I kept doing this until I eventually had something worth reading.
Did you share that early writing with your friends and see how…you know, that you could tell stories that they enjoyed?
Oh, sure. That…I had…I have a few friends, actually…before we started the talk officially I mentioned my two roommates. My two roommates…I’m just moving out now, actually, into my first house, but my roommates are two friends I’ve been friends with…since third grade, I think…and them and a couple others I would…we would always pass things back and forth. We used to play, you know, like, not exactly Dungeons and Dragons but some like off-brand RPGs and stuff together, a lot of, like, Internet forum RPGs? So we would do a lot of co-writing and stuff. And I was always working on this side thing, and when I would finish, it’d be like, “Guys, look at this!”, and then hand it out. A couple of them have stuck with me and keep giving me feedback. I think one of them has that one copy that I referred to, ’cause he was always fond of this stupid story I’d written in middle school, so I gave him the last print copy I had, because God only knows what happened to the Word documents.
I always ask that because a lot of us started writing young. I wrote novels in high school and started well before that, and I talked to some writers who, you know, there’s no way they were gonna show that stuff to their friends, and yet, I always did. So I always ask people that. And I think it helps, because you get that sort of, “Oh, I could tell stories that people really enjoy,” so, you know, it’s a kind of a positive-feedback thing.
I still do…I have a couple of them. I have a little Facebook group discussion and I send them updated files of…I’m working on the third book in The Sun Eater now and so every four or five chapters I will send them another update and then wait until one of them tells me how it is. Because you don’t know, right? You don’t know if what you’re doing is really good until you get someone else’s eyes on it. It’s sort of like Schrödinger’s Cat. And it helps to have either some validation or some course correction.
Well, somewhere along the way I lost all that. So now nobody sees it until it goes to Sheila at DAW. That’s another thing I ask, and we’ll talk about that a little bit later on with your writing process, you know, whether you have people that help you out at that initial stage or not, giving you feedback. But we’ll talk about that a little bit…so, from, you grew up, then, in North Carolina, I presume, where you still live.
Oh yeah. Born and raised. I am the proverbial medieval peasant. I haven’t moved more than ten miles from where I was born.
And so, this was interesting, that you decided to get a Bachelor’s in English Rhetoric with a minor in Classics. I didn’t even know there was a degree called English Rhetoric. What does that involve?
So NC State was weird, right? It’s sort of…North Carolina, Raleigh in particular, has got a bunch of colleges right around. We’ve got the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill, which is a pretty famous liberal-arts school, oldest public university in the US, and we’ve got Duke, which has sort of like a semi-Ivy League reputation, but NC state was founded as an agricultural school just after the Civil War. So it’s got more of a…it has a reputation for being kind of the, like, farm school, right? But now it’s one of the best engineering universities in the state, and, I think, even in the world. But I went for an English degree because they had this internship program for English students that had a 100-percent job-placement rate and I am, if nothing else, a practical man. So, I thought that would be better than a slightly more reputable name on my diploma. And it was a great program at any rate, just a less-famous one.
So, I went, and they do this thing where they split their English degrees into what they called focuses, so I could take a focus in literature or rhetoric or film, and the rhetoric one was the technical-writing one, really. So, there was a lot of tech-writing classes, that sort of thing, but also just journalism classes, you know, just making sure you could write, you know, nonfiction articles, that sort of thing. Make sure your grammar is correct.
Hilariously, I had this very bad graduate-level rhetoric class right at the end that taught no rhetoric, I think because the professor felt left out that when the scientists got particle accelerators and lasers the English department didn’t get any toys. So, we spent a lot of time talking about the “rhetoric of physical spaces” and how…and that’s not rhetoric. And I got in a lot of trouble for repeatedly informing her that this was not rhetoric, because I had the classics background, too, which I backed into because I didn’t want to take a world-literature course because I’m less interested in them, shall we say, than in the things that I grew up with., because that’s just who I am as a person. And I didn’t want to take a language class where I had to stand and do oral conversation components to my exams because I am bad at learning languages.
Unlike your character.
Yeah. So people who say that he’s just a self-insert are wrong. I can’t do it. And so I was taking three years of high-school Japanese and by the end it was, you know, (something in Japanese), and I’d be like, “Um…um…good morning.” I’m not that bad, but I was just embarrassed, and so I took Latin. And between the taking Latin and…I took for my world literature course. I did ancient literature, so we did a bunch of Greek and Roman stuff, but we also did some middle-Eastern stuff. The Enûma Eliš and the Epic of Gilgamesh, these things, and some early Far East stuff as well, which is also fascinating, so when I say, “world literature,” I mean contemporary stuff, because I just don’t think a lot of contemporary lit-fic is very good. I know that…it just doesn’t interest me, so…the old stuff, yes, by all means. And so, I backed into it because of my interest in ancient history and the classical period in the Near East and whatnot, and through the Latin.
The rhetoric major still interests me. It doesn’t sound like it was what anybody would consider a creative writing class. It’s more like just technically creating clear sentences and paragraphs and organizing your thoughts and all that kind of thing.
Yes. So, I had a bunch of classes that actually were your sort of traditional…the sort of rhetoric classes that Shakespeare was forced to do, right, where it’s like, “OK, give us, you know, write ten examples of tricolon, as like a, you know, overnight assignment,” right, things like that. And so I actually have…I won’t say something like an ancient education where you would be drilled constantly on how to speak and how to hold your hands to present a statement before the Roman Senate, right, because there were hand positions in these things, but I at least had something sort of winking in that direction, where it was, you know, “Be aware that if you phrase things in this way, if you employ devices like hendiadys or stichomythia, you know, these things that sound like Greek incantations, that you can have an effect on an audience in a certain way.” And I did a lot of Elizabethan theater classes, as well, and a lot of that was still used by people like Shakespeare and Marlowe, and the rest, in writing those plays, because they’re very…the play is a very oral medium, right, it’s meant to be heard, it’s meant to be spoken, and I think the best prose should be the same way. And so, the rhetoric stuff ended up being really useful, I think, from a creative-writing standpoint, because I’m a big audiobook person, and so I’ve been very much affected by the sound of the language. And so, those classes were all great except for that last one, which was like, “We’re going to talk about rhetoric in paintings,” to which I said, “Shouldn’t be a design class, three buildings down?”.
How to win friends and influence professors, maybe not.
No. It was my last semester and I was grumpy, let’s say.
So, with Empire of Silenceselling when you were twenty-two, clearly you were working on this while you were at university. Is that when this began?
Yeah. The book that became this one…people ask when I started writing. I’ve always been writing, air-quotes, “the same book,” but when I started writing it at seven, eight years old, you know, it was about Batman, and it’s not about Batman at all anymore, really, although Hadrian does wear a lot of black still, that hasn’t changed. But so do I, and I don’t know if that’s a chicken or egg thing.
And so, I started this one in my freshman, sophomore year of college, really, and it was quite different still. Hadrian wasn’t quite human in the original draft. There were some near-human aliens because I also played a lot of Japanese RPG games and there are a lot of aliens that are almost human…anyway, it changed dramatically. And as I got into my final year, I had the great fortune of having John Kessel for a professor. He’s a Nebula Award-winning short-story writer, he’s got a couple of novels out from Saga, and he is an all-around just great guy, and he gave me some advice on querying, and of course I’d started my internship at Baen, so I actually had access to a SFWA directory, which has all the agencies in the back, so, I photocopied that and started going through, querying people, with John’s advice on the letter writing. There was this awful frame narrative that was in the book at the time that he convinced me to cut out. And lo and behold the minute I did that, I started getting answers to my queries that weren’t, “Go away.” And I sold…rather, I got an agent a month before I graduated and then…so that was November because I graduated a semester off schedule, I had an extra, I was late, which is part of why I was so cross with my rhetoric professor, I just really wanted to be out. And so, I had about a month over the holidays because, you know, people aren’t working in December really, and then come January I got my job at Baen on Monday, and then that Thursday I got a call from Sarah Guan, who used to work at DAW, she’s with Orbit now, she loved the book and wanted to buy it. And so, I had about the best week of my life up until I proposed to my fiancée. So that was a good time.
Well, you said this book kind of grew out of all the stories that you’d been writing all along, but was there some initial seed or image? How does that work for you when it comes to a story? How do stories come to you, or begin?
I can’t remember where this one really came from. There’s no, you know, Robert Howard talking about Conan just appearing or J.K. Rowling having the same sort of conversation about Harry Potter just sort of appearing to her on the train, because it’s been so long. Hadrian and I…although Hadrian’s had like thirteen, fourteen different names, he’s been with me in some form or other since I was a kid so, I don’t…a couple of people have noted similarities between our personalities. You know, just…this is a common thing with authors, right? Like, I’ve seen people say the same thing about Pat Rothfuss and Kvothe, that they have some similar personality traits, things like that…but I don’t know which one’s me, which one’s him, because I’ve been writing this character in some form since I was a small kid. So, like, I was talking about the black clothes. Like, I wear black pretty much all the time and so does Haddrian, it’s his family color, and I don’t know if I’m wearing black because I’m sort of low-key cosplaying my own work or if my work is borrowing from my own fashion choices.
I thought I was a Johnny Cash influence.
You know, my dad makes that joke and I’m happy to accept it because Johnny Cash is the man.
I wrote a biography of him, a children’s biography of him. So…it was kind of cool.
Did you really? I’ll have to go track that one down. I’m a big fan. I’m not usually a country guy but Cash is excellent.
So, I don’t really know. There are some other stories that I will, that I’m working on that I have some ideas for. They’re just coming to me randomly. I don’t try to go looking for them. I’m not a very stringent researcher. If it’s something completely new, if it’s something I want to be devoting a lot of time to, they’ll just sort of pop up eventually, usually because I’ll be reading or watching something and I’ll like it, I’m like, “This is cool! But…” And then something will sort of spin out of an objection or a critique of something else. And I’ll want to do something from that. I’m a very argumentative person, to my detriment, as my educational history made brief reference to.
Well, if we’re going to talk about the Sun Eaterseries, perhaps you could give a spoiler-free synopsis of the first book for those who either have not read it or, like me, have not yet finished reading it.
All right. Well, what I usually do, because I go to a lot of conventions and I do a lot of floor selling with my friend Alexi Vandenberg of Bard’s Tower, is, I tell people that my main character, Hadrian, is sort of an Anakin Skywalker, but less whiney, if becoming Darth Vader were the right thing for him to do. The story is set about 20,000 years in our future in this big galactic empire. Hadrian is a nobleman, the son of a fairly minor but high-status house, that runs away from home, and he finds himself stuck in the middle of this war between humanity and the Cielcins, this alien menace, who are the first species of technologically advanced aliens in all that 20,000-year history who have ever stood up to humankind, who have ever rivaled us for control of the galaxy. Hadrian tells you on page one that he is the man who ended that war and killed all of the Cielcin, and the story is a memoir of why and how.
Yeah, talk about a spoiler on the first page.
Yeah, I…yeah. I don’t…I’ve always taken umbrage with spoiler culture. I think that if your story has to hang together on surprise, then maybe it’s not the best story. People have started to realize this about, say, M. Night Shyamalan, after The Sixth Sense. You know, his other movies have all hung on some twists that more or less haven’t delivered and I, you know, I don’t go out of my way to ruin things, but I think that if we can take the what-if, or what might happen, off the table, and instead talk about why and how, and the details, obviously, ‘case I’m not giving away the whole ending on page one, that we can ask some more interesting questions and have a different kind of story.
I suppose there’s no particular reason…I don’t think it even works very well to try to do an entire novel version of an O. Henry short story where everything depends on a sudden twist on the last page. I don’t think readers would actually like that.
No, no. And I’m not saying that every, you know, plot twist is like that, either. I just…I think…like, I’ve gotten a lot of people who complained that these memoir-style books take a lot of the tension out of the plot, and maybe that’s true for them. But I am one of those people who always looks at Wikipedia summaries of things because I like to know. I’m more interested in the journey than the destination and seeing how things get carried off and why, and what’s layered in there. And for those people who think that this story is something that I’ve given away completely at the beginning, that presupposes that all there is to this story is this one action that I tell you about on page one, which I think would be a mistake.
Well, I was gonna say that when it comes to memoirs it’s not like, if we were reading a memoir of a famous person…we know what he did, or she did, and yet we are still interested to find out how that all came about from the internal perspective of the person who did that thing. So, that should apply just as well. If I were…we’re currently reading, of all things, I’m reading out loud Boswell’s Life of Johnsonto my wife. We still have forty-four hours to go according to the Kindle.
Oh, my gosh.
And yet, you know, it’s still interesting even though, you know, well, he did the dictionary and he did all this, and then he died, you know. And yet it’s still interesting, even though you know how it ends. And it’s not like, you know, Romeo and Julietis any less powerful because you know when you go into it how it’s going to end. In some way it’s going along the journey along the way that makes it interesting.
Right. And there’d be no point to read classical literature anyway, right? Like, take The Count of Monte Cristo, right? Like, everybody knows it’s about a guy who goes to prison unjustly and gets revenge. And now, that he gets revenge, which is usually how the book sold to anybody when you’re trying to get them to read it, presupposes his success. But the details, right, you know, and how and why and the catharsis of those moments, right? That’s why you read the thing, you don’t read it to figure out what happens.
Did I interrupt you in the synopsis of the book?
Oh no. No, no, no. That was pretty much all I wanted to say, because I don’t want to say the things in the middle, right? There are, you know, without putting anything together, there are gladiator fights and there is court intrigue and there are aliens and friendships lost and found and all of these things.
Well, that brings me around to the next question, which is, so far you’ve mostly talked about your character, but there’s an awful lot of worldbuilding going on in here and a detailed and complicated plot. What does your planning process look like? Do you outline in great detail, do you wing it, and then…how does it work for you?
So, I winged the first book because I didn’t have a deadline. I had years and years to figure it out. And so, most of it ended up gelling in my head over time as I was rewriting things and changing things. You know, “What if I did this instead?” I had to rewrite this one very quickly because my first editor, when she bought it, it was about half as long. She said, “I love it. It’s great. I read it in one shot overnight, but I have these two problems,” and I looked at the problems and they were, without getting into too much detail, they were really fundamental worldbuilding problems, and it was the sort of thing that the only way I could fix them and be sure I fixed them and it wasn’t sloppy was to rewrite the whole thing. And so, I locked myself in my room, basically, for three months. I think it took me 108 days, because I kept a spreadsheet of my progress because this encourages me. Or discourages me, at least, when I fail to write enough on one day and my spreadsheet looks bad. And I would go to work, and then I would come home, and I worked…I think I slept only, like, four hours a night for most of that period. It was not good. But I shot through the whole thing all at once, and because I had just written it, right, it was all still very crystal.
But for the second book…I’ve become pretty friendly with David Drake, working at Baen, and Dave writes these enormous outlines, you know, you can…they’re basically like fifty or sixty pages for everything he does. And Dave ticks through and writes them…he writes his books…we, you know, we can almost plan our schedule around Dave. He’s like clockwork. It’s amazing. And so, he’ll turn in a book, we’ll know how long it is, we’ll know when we’re getting it, we know how early we’re getting it, we know how clean it will be. He’s so consistent. He’s just a real pro. And he does it because of these, I think because of these, amazing outlines, and so when I wrote book two, Howling Dark, I thought, “I’m going to be like Dave Drake.” Bold, bold statement, I know, but we have the Rome thing in common, so I thought I was I was off to a good start.
So, I started this big outline, and I wrote it and then, having written it, I realized that I knew basically everything that was in it. So when I would start a chapter I would look again at the page or so I’d written for the chapter, refresh myself with it, and then not look at it again. And for book three I did kind of the same thing. Because this story starts with at least intimations of its ending. I had kind of both ends of this plot string nailed to the table and I’ve been trying to untie the knot ever since. Which is kind of hard to do. So, I’ve been clipping at it and moving things around, so when I start outlining, I will put a bunch of scenes I know need to be in the book down on sticky notes. I had this big door on my closet that was just flat, right, so I used it kind of like a like a chalkboard, and I would stick these things to it and this sort of cloud of notes would turn steadily into a column marching straight up and down the middle of the door as I knew which scene/chapter was gonna be where and what would happen. And I turned that big string of post-it notes into a sixty-page David Drake outline. And I’ve done that for the last two books. And in doing that, I haven’t taken, you know, fifteen years to write it. I did book two in about nine months and book three is going to take about six all told. So I’m getting this down to a science, I think. I hope, rather.
What length are they? I’m reading it in Kindle, I don’t know how thick it is.
Oh gosh. Empire was 238,000 words. Howling Dark was 260, and I think this one’s going to be a little bit longer than that, the third one.
They are substantial.
Yeah, I try to write about 2,000 a day, when I am not moving house (I’m moving right now, I think I said), I can do two to three pretty reliably. At least, now that I have a due date and the fear of God is in me.
Sixty pages is pretty impressive from my point of view—my synopses are more like twenty, twelve to twenty, fifteen to twenty, more or less. But you don’t win the medal for people I’ve talked to on The Worldshapers. Peter V. Brett does a 150-page outline.
Yeah, I have no ambitions of trying to take that title from him.
He’s certainly…and there’s also, you know…I guess it was Kendare Blake I talked to, whose episode just came out before this interview with you, and she basically wings everything. So it’s always interesting to hear the different approaches that people take.
You mentioned Rome, and clearly that’s a lot of influence in there, in the book. So, going back to the worldbuilding side of things, it seems like you were drawing very much on your interest and study of history and philosophy and religion, all that seems to really find its way into the story.
Yes. So I thought, when I was writing it, that it was mostly Greek and Byzantine. I was wrong, but that was what I had in my head. And I think…I had thought that a lot of the Roman influence was because I post a lot of very stupid jokes just, you know, meme images, that are about the Roman Empire and Roman history generally, because I think they’re funny and I think maybe two people I’m friends with get them all, but I share them anyway. And so, I think this impression that I had been primarily a Roman scholar sort of emerged from my stupid Facebook use, and I’ve sort of steered into the skid a little bit, because most of what I’d read was, of course, Greek, because there’s more of it, at least, dramatic literature, right, and most of it the Romans appropriated in one form or other, sometimes improved, depending on who you ask.
And because, also, I was raised and am Roman Catholic, I went to a Catholic school up through high school, up to the beginning of high school. And so, I grew up with a lot of classical history because it’s so integral to the genesis of the religion. So we talk about Egypt and Israel and the Near East generally, and then moving through to the Greeks and…the Seleucids, the Macedonians, you know, and Rome later, and the Byzantines afterwards. And, of course, much of early medieval history, which is steeped in a lot of classical philosophy. Aristotle’s influence cannot be overstated. And my best friend is an Aristotelian scholar at, he’s finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton. So, I have him check a lot of my work and give me ideas, things I wouldn’t have read because I was mostly interested in the myth and the drama, and he had the philosophy. So he helps me out a lot.
And so, a lot of it really comes from, I think, that religious background, just because, you know, you can’t escape Rome’s shadow as a Catholic, certainly. Both the Empire and the city and the church after. And a lot of that left its stamp, but I think as far as my reputation for it goes, it’s probably mostly just those stupid jokes.
You never know what you put on line is going to follow you down…
No, and you never know what thing is going to be the useful detail in your world building, right? You know, I might have only read I think a few pages of philosophers like Epictetus, right, like I…of course. your readers will think you’ve read all of it. Don’t tell anyone. But you know, you might find a line or two and that’s all you need. You know, the fiction writer’s world-building game, I think, ought to be consequensive of a pretty light touch. You know, I talked to Lois Bujold, because I did a brief stint doing the other side of the interview thing here when I did the Baen podcast for a couple of months, and I asked Lois Bujold about worldbuilding, and she told me she won’t make up anything until she needs it. And once I heard her say that, I was like, “All right, I’m not going to spend hours filling notebooks with information anymore. I will make up details as I need it and then try to stick to the rules that I have established.”
Well, I’m a stage actor and playwright and director and a lot of this bears in common with doing something on stage: you only put on there what you need to suggest the reality and the viewer, in that case, the audience member, fills in everything from that. You know, that one flat with a view over the Roman hills in the background or whatever. It’s really just a light little touch, a little detail, and yet it suggests a depth and richness that in many ways the audience actually provides.
It’s amazing how little the audience really needs in order to generate a picture, right? Like, Shakespeare…Elizabethan theatre didn’t use set design at all, right? They might, they had the balcony above the stage, but there were no tables and chairs. It was all done by costume. You had your props and what not. You know, I think it’s Measure for Measure when they say, “Exit pursued by a bear.” There was a bear-baiting pit across the street from the Globe, so I’m sure there was a real bear, but they weren’t building, you know, castle displays and these things. That’s why, at the beginning of Henry V, the chorus comes out and says, you know, “Imagine that this dome, you know, contains the varsity fields of France,” and so, you know, just a light suggestion, just an off phrase is going to generate crazy ideas in people. I remember as a kid looking at maps of Middle Earth and looking at places Tolkien doesn’t even talk about, right, like a ruin barely comes up, and thinking, “Well, I want to I want to go there,” right? That’s all it takes is literally just one name on a map and the audience is running with. And they think that you have it all planned out, and you don’t have to.
We have talked about a little bit about your actual writing process: 2,000 words a day on a good day, 2,000 to 3,000 words. You are very…it sounds that you’re very organized, like, “I sit down, and I work when it’s time for me to work.” Is that pretty much the way you work?
Yeah. Well, especially now. They give me a deadline, and it was a month sooner than I had anticipated for book three. So what I do, I wake up at about 6 a.m., I eat breakfast, and then I will write until I have to go to work just before 9, and then I will go to the office and work 9 to 5, like a good soldier, and then I will come home, make dinner, and then I will work until I hit that word count. And I try to hit, at the very least, a thousand words in a day. These days, I’m trying to bottom out at 1,500, just because I want to get it to Katie on time, and if I can do it early, because they know the deadline surprised me and wrong-footed me, then I will look really cool. And I am trying to look as cool as possible so…fortunately I had that deadline.
You’ve mentioned, also, you know, that you have these friends that you still get some feedback from. Especially when you’re working to a deadline like this, do you actually even have time to show this to anybody before you’re gonna have it done and then hand it in?
They might not…their feedback at the very end might not be that useful, but I try to get it to them in stages, you know, so they might read three chapters at a time and just sort of follow behind me. I very briefly had a stint in the noughts as a middle schooler writing fan fiction and reading it. I sort of fell out on it because I realized that I would do better writing my own stuff. I know I could make money doing that, I can’t make money writing Legend of Zelda stories. But, you know, they would update a chapter at a time every couple of weeks, right? And it was exciting. Same with comic books, right? You know, I’m a big fan of Berserk, the Japanese series, and that might get a chapter every, like, three months or something, and waiting for that little update’s really exciting. And so, my friends who came out of the same space as me no objections to getting these things in dribs and drabs and getting back to me. I have a couple who were faster than others, and some people might not answer, but that’s the virtue of having about five or six. I’ve got a couple who will read pretty reliably.
My friend the philosophy guy usually spot checks things for me. I’ll have specific questions for him or a couple of other people. My…I mentioned my friend’s boxing gym in my bio. My friend Wes runs a gym here in Raleigh. He trains boxers to actually fight, because most boxing gyms are actually aerobics studios. Not to put that down, but they’ll just stand in lines and they’ll just do drills, and their technique is not actually competitive at all. So, Wes trains people to fight, and he also does fencing and HEMA (Historic European Martial Arts) and he used to teach summer camps where he would teach kids like medieval military tactics and have them in lines with spears and stuff, it was very cool. And so I’ll have him check a lot of my action scenes, things like that.
I was gonna ask, what specific kind of feedback are you getting from people? I guess that’s one of them. Action scenes, and specific questions you have for your philosophy friend…philosophical friend?
Yeah, yeah. Marcus. He’s actually, he is who Gibson—if you’ve read the book, Gibson is Hadrian’s tutor.
Sort of the scientist monk. And they all take names, in much the same way that when you’re confirmed Catholic you take a saint’s name, these monks will take old scholar names, and he has borrowed my friend’s name, as a nod to my friend for his long years of service.
So what does your revision process look like when you get to the end? Do you revise as you go? Do you do a big revision at the end and then submit it? How does that work for you?
I do…when I have time, and I won’t this time with book three, I let it sit for a week, ideally, and then start reading it over again, and I’ll make notes about what needs to be changed and things as I go. I’ll fix, you know, bad-sounding sentences. Because I try to read aloud. The most important bit of writing advice I ever got, and I think the most important bit of writing advice I can ever give, is “read your work out loud,” because if you wrote a bad sentence it will sound stupid and you can fix it, but you can’t fix it if you can’t hear it. And so, I try to read everything aloud and catch those as I’m going and then catch things. I also find my memory is much better with things I’ve heard, so I’ll remember details better and catch things like someone’s eye color changing, which…even proofreaders are going to miss that sort of thing.
Yes, those things do crop up, and if you don’t read it out loud to yourself while you’re doing that, you will certainly find those errors when you’re doing a public reading sometime.
Oh, yeah. Every time. There’s a word missing in the first line of dialogue in Empire of Silence, I think. It’s something like “the mother of wisdom in” and it should be “is in” and that missing “is” haunts me to this day. I fixed it in the mass market, but it just…it’s in the audiobook, and every time it just…it’s too late.
It must be in the electronic ARC I’m reading, so I’ll have to look that up.
Yeah, it’s…it’s just embarrassing. But I try to do that, and I’ll do spot fixes. I try to go and find words like “very” and see if it’s an instance of the word “very” that needs to go. Words like “seems.” I have a whole list somewhere, I forget other words…
Quite a few authors have told me that. Let’s see, it was Kevin Hearne, I think, who said he suddenly became sensitive to the phrase “I couldn’t help but,” and he said, “Well, of course you could.” And so he goes through and tries to get rid of all of those. For me…I…well, of course, there’s the, you know, the basic, if you do a search for “wases” and “weres” and stuff you can see if you’re using passive tense sometimes you shouldn’t. But, I often find that my characters make animal noises too much. They’re always growling dialogue or snarling something. I try to catch some of those.
So, when it gets to DAW, and Katie, your editor there, what kind of editorial feedback do you get? I haven’t worked with her, so I don’t know how she works.
Katie is great. Katie catches a lot of things. My favorite thing about working with Katie is that Katie and I have more-or-less diametrically opposed worldviews and philosophies and backgrounds. I come from a deeply Catholic conservative background. Katie is very much a progressive. I think she was, I think she was an activist, like, a professional activist before she was an editor. And we live in very divisive times, let us say, and without getting into anyone’s opinions on anything, because I really don’t, especially publicly, don’t want to be a political person in any way whatsoever, I really appreciate that we can work together with these very different…because there are just things that you’re blind to, right? When you have opposing…when you have a different way of seeing things, there are just some parts of the world you don’t see because you’ve never seen them, these sorts of things? And Katie is conscious of things.
’Cause I’m not trying to hurt anybody with writing, so just, you know, stupid, you know, thoughtless things that might creep into your writing because it doesn’t…you don’t encounter it, right? It’s not exactly…I’m not describing, like, sensitivity reading issues, because my response is usually not…it’s not changing anything that’s in…I don’t change any of my…things that are in the text. It’s not that kind of thing. It’s…she will catch where I haven’t presented myself very clearly or I’ve sort of taken half-measures in order to express an idea or to negotiate a plot point, these sorts of things. The way I like to think about it is, in Dostoyevsky and Brothers Karamazov, right, he’s got Ivan and Alyosha, and Alyosha is kind of dim, but he’s a really decent human being. Ivan is viciously brilliant, right? And Ivan wins every single argument that he has against Alyosha, but Alyosha wins in the long run because he is a decent human being. He ends up at the end of his life better off, right? And Dostoyevsky has more in common worldview-wise with Alyosha than he does Ivan, but he makes Ivan as strong a foil as he possibly can. You know, Nietzsche used to say that he did philosophy with a hammer, well ,Dostoyevsky did literature with a hammer, right? He built the strongest possible…you know, I don’t want to say arguments, because fiction isn’t necessarily an argument…but the strongest possible avatar of things he didn’t believe in, right? He made his villains, his antagonists, as strong as he could. And Katie helps me to pull out places where I have been a weak writer because of our differences of opinion and vision and clarity of vision. And, you know, I find that absolutely wonderful and indispensable. And so, in addition to that, obviously there’s the usual stuff about, you know, just usual editing, you know, this might not work here, move this scene, that kind of thing, but that, I think, is the most useful, the most indispensable, bit of editorial help that I get.
So, Empire of Silence came out last year, right? 2018?
Yes. Yeah. July 10.
Trying to remember what year it is.
And the second one, which is called Howling Dark, is coming up very shortly. We’re recording this in early June and the book comes out in July.
I should know because there’s this guy on Twitter that’s running a daily countdown of how many days it is.
Yeah. I thought that would be fun. It’s been a lot of work.
I was looking at that, thinking, “I could do that for Master of the World,” which is my next book from DAW, but I thought, “Boy, that looks like a lot of work,” so I don’t know if I will do that or not.
Yeah, I did that all in advance, thank heavens. I don’t do it every day. I did a countdown for book one like that, where I did the one quote from each chapter per day for each number of chapters. But I had eighty chapters in this book, and doing one for three months, is…
So, what has the response been to the first book?
Overwhelmingly positive. I think I’ve got about 1,200, 1,300 reviews on Goodreads. Fifty percent of them are five stars, which is just absolutely mind-boggling, because to me this is still a bunch of goofy nonsense that I made up because, really, you know, for all this talk of, you know, differences of opinion and stuff, my only aspiration is to entertain people. It truly, truly is. People can read the book if they agree with me, if they disagree with any of this. And I hope that they have a good time, because that’s what this is about. I am ultimately no different than a medieval harlequin juggling in the streets, and that’s all I want to be, only more serious.
Well, that actually is my next question. This is the point in the podcast where I ask the big questions, and the first one is, “Why do you do this? Why do you write?” And, on a broader scope, why do why do you think any of us write, one, and two, why do you and I and other people write this kind of made-up stuff, science fiction and fantasy?
Well, I have two answers, because of course I have artistic pretensions, right? And any artist does. And I do really think that literature in particular, that the thing that separates human beings from the animals isn’t, you know, tool-building, obviously crows do that sort of thing, it’s not language even, really: it’s storytelling. The reason…we tell stories so that our narrative persona, our narrative avatars, right, our characters, can suffer and die so that we don’t have to.
Stories are instructional. The most basic story is, “I went out into the wilderness. There was a tiger. It killed the other cavemen. Bring a stick next time.” You know, that’s why fables have morals. And all stories do this. And what we’ve been trying to do with our stories…and the oldest stories, in addition to being, you know, daily news, like the tiger one, are religious, right? Religion, literature—these things overlap pretty significantly in the way that they try to define an ethic of, like, how we’re supposed to act in the world, what the right way to behave is. That’s what the hero’s journey is, right, the hero’s journey is like the Dao in Daoism, right, it’s like the eightfold path in Buddhism, it’s like the imitation of Christ in Christianity, it’s the right way to act in the world, you know, being heroic, right? Now, we can argue about the details of what that is, and that’s part of the experiment, right?
You know, I started writing this because I read Iain Banks’s Culture series, where he’s like, “Well, the minute we get into space, government’s finished,” like, you know, no one will ever control anybody. And as much as I love those books, I was like, “That’s not right. Like, well, it’s really hard to get off planets, Mr. Banks. Like, they just won’t let you.” And so, I made an empire that doesn’t let people get off planets. So, you know, it’s all part of this argument about society and how people function.
But beneath all that, and at the same time, you know, I think it was Edgar Rice Burroughs said, you know, “You have to entertain first.” Right? Maybe it was someone else, or maybe he said it, too. And all I really want to do…the reason why most of what I post online are links to obscure metal songs and stupid jokes about the Roman Empire is because I am not here to change anyone’s heart or mind. I am not. I don’t think I have the wisdom or the clarity of mind to do that, and I would be very suspicious of anybody whose job is to write stories about wizards and spaceships who tries to tell you how to live your life. All I want to do is tell you a story about wizards and spaceships.
And as for why we write stories about wizards and spaceships, you know, I think…there are a lot of people, a lot of my creative-writing professors, John Kessel aside, because the man is a rarity…hated that I was writing science fiction in my creative-writing classes. They in fact tried to stop me, and I had to negotiate with them pretty early in the class, like, “Look, this is what I want to do, like, professionally, I would really appreciate your feedback, can you please work with me?” And they very often would. A couple of them were like, “No, you must write literary, you know, lit-fic minimalist hyper-realist pieces.” Maybe magical realism, because that gets a pass for some reason. But all the old stories are fantastic, right? Literally the oldest story we have is the Enûma Eliš, or the creation myth from the Sumerians. And it is a dragon-slaying story. It is about Marduk, the God of Attention, right, he’s got eyes all around his head, right, and his ability to speak magic words, and to take the Dragon of Chaos, Tiamot, apart. He cuts her to pieces and builds the world out of the dragon’s corpse, right? So this is a dragon, and magic words, and, you know, he’s got superpowers, he can see everything, right?
It sounds like a Marvel movie.
Yeah, exactly. And that’s what it all is. Science fiction is modern mythology, because a lot of modern people have a hard time with other forms of mythology, because they go out into the world and they’re like, “Well, I don’t see anyone turning water into wine. So these stories aren’t true,” and I’m like, “Well, but what does the story mean?”, right? The story represents something. Whether or not that something is metaphysically true is irrelevant—those stories have meaning. And it’s the same…and I think it’s more digestible if we know those stories are fake to begin with, right? Like, I’m amazed by the number of people who dislike religion on principle who are Tolkien fans, right? It’s just absolutely mind-boggling to me, because it’s the same story, you know? King Arthur is literally the same story, right?
And so, I think we’re doing this because writing… because we don’t live in a society where popular culture is hagiography anymore, where we’re not writing the lives of the saints. So, instead of talking about St. George killing a dragon—because that’s the same story, too. You know, talking about St. Barlaam, who is actually just the Buddha, you know, that story traveled across Asia and arrived in Europe in a different form. You know, instead of telling all these stories as popular entertainments, instead of talking about the quest for the Holy Grail, right, which is of course a very religiously centered story, we tell stories about different dragonslayers, right? You know, Euron Greyjoy just killed a dragon in Game of Thrones, right? Now, that’s a terrible person, but it’s still the same motif, it’s the same kind of story, and it’s scratching a similar itch. Even if the ending of Game of Thrones…that’s an issue, you know, we can get into another time. But it’s still…it’s still hitting that same spot for people.
I think that fandoms are…I don’t want to say cults, but, like, cults in the Roman sense, where they’re these little tiny micro-religions, right, without the pejorative content at all, I think. People come to these things looking for meaning, and they find them in these other places.
And, you know, I think some other people just like dragons, right? They like knights, you know, because in their real life they’re pizza-delivery guys or, you know, they drive trucks, or they work in an office, or they teach school, and, you know, they…it helps. You know, Tolkien talks about writing escapist literature, because, you know, in its truest sense, because you need to be let out of prison, right, because you don’t want to go to the office every day. I work at a science-fiction publisher and I don’t want to go to the office every day, it’s an office. You know, and I love my job, but sometimes it’s Tuesday and you don’t want to go.
I don’t know if it’s Tolkien or Lewis who said that people who…who’s against escapism? Well, jailers. So, people who say, “You shouldn’t read that escapist stuff” are the jailers.
Yeah, that was my problem with those professors.
It’s interesting. I’ve talked to a lot of authors, some of whom had creative writing, and that is…that, unfortunately, it’s still there, those creative-writing types who have this deep-seated prejudice against the fantastic, which…not always. there have been some exceptions in the people I’ve talked to, but it is something that comes up quite a bit.
I will say this though, against those professors. That’s what every student in those classes wanted to write. Almost to a man and woman, every single person who was in those classes with me wanted to write science fiction or fantasy. Maybe they wanted to write, like, a thriller, right, you know, some sort of military story, spy story, but they weren’t writing, you know, literary minimalism, you know, about some person in their ordinary life having ordinary experiences. Everyone was in there with dragons or robots. So they’re losing. And I think people like Dr. Kessel will be more the mainstay in the profession here in another generation or so.
Well, we’re just about to the end of the hour. We’ve talked about the new book and you have mentioned that what you’re working on is the third book. Anything else that you’re working on at the moment?
No, none at the exact moment because I have to power through book three here and finish it before Howling Darkcomes out July 16. And so, I owe them book three August 1. I’d wanted to turn it in before this one was even out, because I turned in book two before book one was out, because it would be nice, you know, to do that. But I have some other ideas. Most of them are fantasy. I want to…there’s a famous story about the Emperor Caligula, who’s famously mad, although I think personally that he’s been defamed by oligarchs throughout history, but it’s his famous story about him ordering his soldiers to attack the ocean. And, you know, that happened up in the Netherlands, so he sounded crazy to everybody in Italy, but I’m a big Tim Powers fan and, you know, Tim Powers’s thing is, he tries to find fantastic explanations for these sort of coincidences in history and, you know, what if Caligula were actually attacking something that came from the sea, you know? That, I think, is something I want to work on after I finish this, but after I finish book three it’ll be time for book four. And then book five. So I have to do that first.
Because it’s not a trilogy, then. It’s more than that.
Oh, no, no. I’m allergic to trilogies, because everyone…it seems every time there’s a trilogy out I find people who are like, “Oh, book two is bad, oh, don’t read the second one, really dropped it in the middle,” or, “You get through the second one, the third one fixes it.” And I thought, “Well, instead of having one awkward middle book, I’ll have three. That’ll fix the problem.”
Well, I did a five-book series, so I’m right there with you. Although they were much shorter. I mean, I think the entire five books would have fit into one and a quarter of yours, but…
I just talk too much, as you can tell.
And where can people find you online?
I am on Facebook and Twitter @TheRuocchio. Someone had already taken my last name, it’s like a third cousin of mine in Pennsylvania, so I put the “The” in front, which makes me sound famous, even though I’m not.
Oddly enough, that’s why this is called “The Worldshapers” instead of just “Worldshapers,” because worldshapers.com was taken. And they offered to sell it to me for, I don’t know, $5,000 or something. I said. “You know, I think I’ll just put a ‘the’ in front of it and I’ll be fine.”
Yeah, that’s the easy solution. I wasn’t gonna try and shake down this cousin I’d never met, so…
So, Twitter and Facebook, both the same thing?
Yes. And my website is sollanempire.com. I figured that’d be easier to spell than my name.
Well, thanks so much for being a guest. I really enjoyed the chat. I hope you did, too.
I did. Thank you for having me. I’ve been really looking forward to this. I really enjoyed the episode you did with Dave Butler, who is a really good friend of mine, and a couple of the others, and been real excited.
Well, thank you. I think it’ll be…I’m sure that listeners will enjoy it as much as we both did. I hope, anyway.
Derek Künsken left molecular biology to work with street kids in Honduras and upon his return to Canada found his way into the Canadian Foreign Service. After working in embassies in Colombia and Cuba he settled and Gatineau, Quebec, where he writes science fiction and fantasy and raises his son. Derek’s short fiction has appeared in places like Asimov’s, Analog, Clarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and a number of year’s-best anthologies, as well as in foreign magazines in translation, and many have been reprinted in podcasts, available for free. His first novel, The Quantum Magician, came out in 2018 from Solaris. Its sequel, The Quantum Garden, will be in stores everywhere in October 2019. He also writes a fun “jetpack planetary-romance webcomic” with Argentinean artist Wendy Muldon, called Briarworld, which updates every Tuesday on Webtoons.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Derek.
Thanks so much.
We’ve kind of known each other, mainly because of Can-Con in Ottawa, which I’ve been to the last three years or something like that, so that’s usually when I see you.
Yeah. You make quite a trek across the country to get here.
Well, I got invited to be Guest of Honour that one year, and then I liked it so much I’ve been going back ever since. So, we’re going to talk primarily about The Quantum Magician, and how that all came about, which…I have to confess I haven’t quite finished it but I’m well into it and enjoying it very much.
The butler did it.
So, when I give you a chance to synopsize it later, I always say don’t give any spoilers, and this time it’s for me, too. But first, let’s go back into the mists of time and find out, how did you first become interested in science fiction and fantasy and…reading it, presumably, we all start as readers, and then from there, how did you begin writing it?
So, I didn’t start as a reader. My sort of creative primordial soup was Saturday-morning cartoons. I watched the Super Friends, Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Spiderman, Batman, Space Ghost, and stuff like that. And I was a kid when Star Wars came out and my parents brought me to see it in the drive-in, and there was Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rogers, and I think all of that together I had in in my brain right when I was ten years old and my mother gave me my first comic books and I became a voracious reader of comic books. And then you know how in comics they always have those little asterisks where, like, they’ll refer to a story and say, you know, “Go back to this issue.” In one, John Carter, Warlord of Mars, they had an asterisk and it wasn’t a comic book they were referring to but The Princess of Mars, and I’m like, “What on earth is this?” So, I went to a second-hand store and found my first novel that I bought on purpose, and was reading Edgar Rice Burroughs, and from then on, you know, picking up a wider and wider selection of stuff. So, I didn’t come to sci-fi by reading right away but I knew I wanted to be a writer as soon as I could write, although I don’t know why.
Well, what were some of the other books that you gravitated to after you started with Edgar Rice Burroughs?
So, I was a really…I’m not a well-read writer. I would pick one writer and read most of their stuff until I couldn’t stand it. And so, I read a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs, which is terrible training for a writer because it was pulp. I read a lot of comic books until end of university. Katherine Kurtz was really good. I liked her Deryni series, and I found that because of a class they’d made in Dragon Magazine back when I was playing D&D as a teen. I discovered Asimov in high school and also Tolkien, and then when I got to university, there was a second-hand bookstore nearby, and I discovered Robert Holdstock and a few other writers. I started to try and really broaden my reading, though, in my early thirties, after I’d failed so often to write anything that anybody would want to buy. And I started picking…I just went through all the Hugo and Nebula lists and just tried to see what I could find in second-hand shops and, you know, I just started reading a lot more.
I never read Edgar Rice Burroughs, I admit. But Katherine Kurtz was one that I did pick up as well. I’m obviously older than you because you saw Star Wars as a child, and I saw it as a college student so there’s roughly that gap in there. But I also played a lot of Dungeons and Dragons in university. I often say that I supposedly majored in journalism but really I majored in Dungeons and Dragons and minored in journalism, based on the amount of hours I put into it. And I do hear that a lot from authors. A lot of authors have played D&D.
Yes. Yes. Because, you know, it’s either that or have friends, right, back in the ’80s?
Now, I admit that when I did it I actually preferred to be the dungeonmaster and I realized one reason I quit playing it very much was I ran out of people to play with, because I moved away from university, but also I realized that a lot of the muscles I was using and creating my Dungeons and Dragons world were the ones I could be using in creating fictional worlds.
That’s really cool. Yeah, I can’t say I had the same experience, in part just because the D&D community I was with split up, you know, when I was still in high school, so…yeah.
Well, my roommate was the one that introduced me to it, and he’d started playing when D&D came in three paperback, badly printed pamphlets, basically.
For $10 each. I still have those original books somewhere, at least two of them.
Oh, my goodness.
They’re probably worth, like, $30. So, anyway, enough about Dungeons and Dragons. So, did you just begin to start trying to write in college or along that timeframe?
Oh, no. I wrote my first book in Grade 4. I just, I don’t know why. My father had a typewriter and there was something pretty…so, I had written…so, I went to French Immersion, because I am in Ontario, and that means you didn’t learn any English until about Grade 2 and even then it was only an hour. So, by the time I was in Grade 3 I could put together…I could write English sentences, and pretty early I started already trying to write stories–I remember doing it at that age–and then when I was in Grade 4, my dad’s typewriter was there, and there was something really, really magical about it not being in my awful handwriting, and being on the page and looking so official, and that typewriter really motivated me, and then my dad got me a better electric one in Grade 7 and I wrote a, you know, many more things then, but just piddling-around sort of stuff. And then in Grade 8 I wrote another book. But, I mean, these are all childish attempts, right? But they point at some of the urges and the needs that are in us that we know how to express now but we didn’t know how to express then. By the time I was fifteen, though, I was pretty sure I didn’t want to be associated with kid stuff anymore and the novel I started at fifteen was very much intended to be a novel that would be sold to adults, that would be put out by a publisher and everything else.
Did you finish it?
Oh, yeah. It took me…by the time I got to eighteen years old I realized that the roots of the book were, like, the beginning of it, were not strong enough to sustain it and so I just kind of restarted. Which is not a bad thing to do. And so, from eighteen to twenty-five I got two university degrees and then also finished the novel and sent it off while I was still in grad school. And that got rejection from Tor, but I was pretty motivated that…you know, there were lines in the margins and little notes like, “Oh, this sounds cool,” sort of thing from whichever reader had gotten it. And so it was cool to have had my turn at bat but by the time I got the rejection back after a year, I looked at it and I saw, “Well, you know, I can do way better now and I can see all sorts of flaws and so I put it aside.”
Did you share your writing with anybody during all that time?
I took one creative writing course in university but as you can imagine in university it’s more lit-focused and I was writing sci-fi. I had friends I could share stuff with, and they were good friends that, you know, they would read through a 100,000-word novel, but they weren’t writers. And so…I really think there’s something you need in a critiquing group, like it has to be writers, it has to be somebody who can say, “You know, I see the technique you’re using here. This technique is not the appropriate one because I’ve tried it and, you know, this is another technique you may want to try to get this effect.” So, yeah, I didn’t have a writers’ community if that’s what you’re asking. In fact, I didn’t have a writers’ community until I was about thirty-five, thirty-six.
Well, it was that but also…like, I wrote, I started writing fairly lengthy stuff about Grade 8, 9, and wrote three novels in high school and all that. And I did share them with my classmates, and the reason I ask it is because it’s often…you find out at least that you’re telling stories that people enjoy even if maybe the techniques not really there, but you you’re kind of getting those stories out there. I was wondering if that was your experience.
Yeah, no. Well,. the thing is I didn’t share I think…I don’t know why. But why did you start writing? Like, did you consciously, like were you self-aware that I am a writer therefore I am writing? Or did you just start to do it the way a beaver builds a dam, which is a bit the way I feel I started?
I was a huge reader and I decided that I wanted to tell a story, too, and most of them didn’t go anywhere to begin with but then I wrote a complete short story when I was eleven years old with a friend, something to do on a rainy day. And my junior-high English teacher, Tony Tunbridge…it was science fiction, it was called “Kastra Glazz: Hypership Test Pilot”…and he took it seriously. and that kind of spurred me on to try to write more and more and write better things and somewhere along in there I realized that that was what I really wanted to do. So, I always ask writers about that. And you also mentioned the creative writing class…you’re my twenty-fifth author. I’ve interviewed on the podcast. And a few of them have taken formal creative writing and most of them say that their formal creative writing wasn’t much help to them as a science fiction and fantasy writer. It sounds like you fall into that ballpark, too.
Actually, to be fair, I think I took…it was a second-year course at the University of Guelph. It made me read things I wouldn’t have normally read. It made me critique things that I wouldn’t have normally critiqued. And it exposed me to Strunk and White, for example, and all of his rules of writing, and then even some of the ways the prof talked about what you’re trying to do with fiction was useful, and so I think there are a lot of things that translated over, most especially the techniques, but even just the, you know, trying to read CanLit. It wasn’t for me, it wasn’t my cup of tea, but I could appreciate some of what they were doing and it’s, you know…I think I read Dune in university and then, you know, I tried to reread it ten or fifteen years later and I found there was a huge difference in what I could appreciate out of it, in part because some of the technique and the way he wrote, and I attribute that to just that sort of Launchpad of what I got from that course. Not all bad.
I was going to say, I suppose nothing is entirely wasted, even if you’re in a course that doesn’t really fit right into what you’re doing. You always pick up something from it if you’re if you’re open to it.
Now what you were studying was science, was it? You said you got two degrees.
Yeah, I did a degree in biology at Guelph and then I did a master’s in biology at McMaster, and so…Guelph was a plant-genetics sort of school, and so I did genetics and molecular biology, and I really loved it, and that still provides a lot of the sort of foundational stuff for when I’m making aliens and things. And then, for my master’s degree I worked in a cancer lab building genetically engineered viruses to see, you know, if these would be good vectors to carry immunotherapy into tumours. So, that was also a really interesting experience, which exposed me a lot to, you know, the viral world as well, which is really cool genetically.
And genetics certainly plays an important role in your novel, too, which we’ll talk about shortly.
But then, you didn’t stick with that.
How did you end up working with street kids in Honduras?
I think the reason I got into genetics…it’s not a crapshoot. I actually loved biology and molecular biology but the only reason I knew about it was from The Uncanny X-Men comic books, because Moira McTaggart and Professor X were both geneticists and it just sounded like a cool thing and so, when I got into high school I, you know, I twigged right away when we were learning genetics in high school, and so, I’ve…the only job I knew you could do with genetics was to be a prof. And so, I decided to head for grad school and, you know, be on the researcher sort of career path.
But as soon as I got into grad school I saw, you know, the kind of quality of life that professors have and the sort of uncertainty they have and how much, you know, almost independent of how smart you are is your success, which is based on luck of, did you pick the right field, did you pick the right time, did you pick the right set of experiments, did you pick the right gene? And I thought, “Wow, it’s just so unstable.”
And the other thing is, it’s…I worked in a big lab so there are always people around. but in the end you’re all working on your own experiments and it felt a bit lonely in the work part. Like, it wasn’t like I was working with others. And I found that there were sort of emotional muscles that weren’t being flexed in that work. And so, about midway through my master’s I decided I didn’t want to be a professor anymore and I did want to do something a little more people-focused.
And, yeah, after grad school I wanted to work with street kids, and I had a cousin who was already working with children who worked in the street in Honduras. And so, she set me up with an NGO in a different city who gave me room and board and I worked with, you know, kids who were, you know, drug-addicted, living in the streets, being abused, some here in prostitution. And it was a sort of first-contact job where, you know, you had to make some kind of emotional contact, some trust contact, quite quickly to try and see if, after a while, they might take themselves out of the situation of vulnerability and at least come to the centre, where they could get food and clothing, medical attention, where they wouldn’t be preyed upon by, you know, people, and, you know, eventually, if it’s possible, see if they could be reunited with their families, and in some cases they were, you know, the families were the reasons they were on the street, but in other cases it was just, you know, seduced out by different factors and stuff. So, I did that for about ten or twelve months. And, yeah, it was a life-changing experience.
Does that still inform your writing, those experiences?
I don’t know what it does. I subscribe a bit to this sort of Tolkeining thing, which is, you know, you absorb a lot of stuff and you don’t exactly follow any individual leaf that’s falling down in your brain. It’s just…there’s a mulch at the bottom and out of that mulch grows stuff. I’ve tried to write stories about street kids and I’ve had a couple that worked, but far more often I feel pretty strong imposter syndrome, even to be somebody trying to write about that topic and so, you know, like, I just don’t feel I know enough or understand enough of their lives to do it authentically, and so I kind of shy away from it.
But then after that you ended up in the Canadian Foreign Service.
Yes. Because in the late ’90s the only people who were hiring was the Foreign Service. And if you had a master’s degree and foreign experience and bilingual, you know, you could apply. And so, I did, and managed to score high enough that I got picked, and about a year later they shipped me off to Colombia for three years, where I worked on their special refugee program that they had there, which was really cool. And then, you know, after three years I was cross-posted to Havana, where I was working basically in what you could call anti-people smuggling, where, you know, I would work with airlines and the Ministry of the Interior of Cuba to, you know, just pass around information to try and stop people from using false passports and fake visas and imposters, how do you detect them, and stuff like that. And, you know, both of those places were very, very interesting but it was…it’s hard on a marriage, because your wife can’t necessarily work in a country like that, where the income and the language are so different. But also, I knew that artistically I was far away from other writers and I needed to be closer to other writers who were writing in English, whom…I needed to be able to interact with them. So, we decided to come back to Canada, and I’ve been in Gatineau now since.
Yeah. Sorry, since, yeah.
I was waiting for a year there.
And I thought, “Oh, you still there?”
Since, period. Okay. You need that…have you ever seen the visual punctuation thing that Victor Borge used to do? If you don’t, you should look it up.
There’s little sound effects like comma is a “gzzzzk!”, and there’s all these…sometimes I think I’d be useful in radio and podcast things like.
Oh, that’s funny.
So, you were writing through all that time? You were still…
Yes. Yeah, I was, and…
When did you shell sell your first short story?
I sold my first short story in 2006. It was in 2006…one of the issues of 2006’s On Spec, and…so. I would’ve been thirty-five at that time, and so that would’ve been just when I had gotten back to Canada.
And a lot of short stories since.
Yes. Yes. Well, in part…my second short story sale was to Asimov’s, which is, you know, one of the top markets and I thought, “Well, I made it now. Oh, now I can go back to my novels,” of which I had two failed ones, and so I decided to write a third novel because now that I’d made it, you know, in terms of competence, of course my novel would sell, and so I wrote a third novel and then, you know, that didn’t work. But so, basically I had a period of…the last ten years has been write a bunch of short stories, write a novel, write a bunch of short stories, write a novel, and the short stories mostly got sold, everything after 2011 is pretty much sold, but the novels…I ended up having five in the end that were, you know, just not there, and so I think I was learning skills on the short story side maybe faster than on the novel side or…I don’t know. It’s hard to pick apart your own failures, but it’s…yeah.
One question I have because I read it in the bio and then I thought that sounds a little odd. They’ve been “reprinted in podcasts?” What does that mean. Are they audio, then?
Yeah, yeah. So, for example, Escape Pod, Pod Castle, and Pseudo Pod are three big markets and I have three stories in there that have all been published elsewhere. And, yeah, I kind of consider podcast to be reprint markets because I always go for the print first.
The other thing I wanted to ask, because you are bilingual, have you…do you write in French at all, or do you just write in English?
Yeah. I didn’t do a lot of homework on French grammar when I was a kid except when my mother made me. So, no. I…my reading is good. My writing is fine, but fine is not what you need for fiction, you need something, you know, much more expansive.
Do you do quite a bit of reading in French?
No, no almost none. I’m impatient. So, what happens is, I find that reading in French is slow enough that I get bored of it. And then I stop. It’s only if I have to, or if I think I should a little bit, like eating vegetables, I’ll read in French to make sure I’m staying current, because with the government I do have an obligation to keep my French at a certain level and luckily my oral French is quite good and I enjoy speaking French quite a bit, and I treat reading and writing in French as, you know, “I should eat my vegetables,” sort of thing, and also go to the gym.
So, you’re still with the Foreign Service or some other government…?
So, I left the foreign service and became a policy guy for about nine years and then I took a leave from work because we were driving with my son somewhere once and, you know, those conversations where, you know, “I’ll tell you when you’re eighteen” sort of thing.
And he was quiet after that for a little while and then, you know, a minute after I’d said that, he said, “That’s in eight years,” and I nearly had a heart attack because then I realized, “Wait a second, he’s ten,” and, you know, I go to work and I only see him a couple of hours a day because of the work hours and everything else. And in three years he’s not going to want to be with me anymore because he’s gonna be a teenager and he’s gonna be, you know, chasing after girls and stuff. So, I took a leave from work to be with my son more. And that’s been absolutely fantastic. We spent four summers so far together, I think. And, I pick him up from school at three, I drop him off at school at eight, and it’s fantastic. And then, when he’s at school, that’s when I write. And so, it’s been a very nice balance. But I eventually have to head back to work, ’cause my leave…it’s an unpaid leave. You can only live for so long on unpaid leave.
Yeah, well let’s move on and talk about your first novel which has now been published, The Quantum Magician. First, before we talk about how it came about, synopsize it without spoiling anything.
Well, I got to my agent by saying, “It’s Ocean’s Eleven meets Guardians of the Galaxy.” And then she sold it to the publisher by saying it was Ocean’s Eleven in space.
Spaaace, yeah. No, it’s…there is…like, it’s a space-opera book. There are a set of…one of the tropes of space opera that I really enjoy is that. you know. there are lost civilizations that have gone extinct and what they’ve left is behind this technology that we know nothing about. And so, there’s this wormhole network left behind by these forerunners and the nations in space that control those are these big patron nations, and they have client nations who are allowed access to them but, you know, under conditions and for service and stuff. So, there is one of these client nations that comes to a con man called Belisarius and they say, “You know, we have some stuff we want to move across this wormhole but they’re not going to let us through. We’d like you, as a con man, to help us move our stuff across this wormhole.” And that’s the beginning of the story. And the fun stuff with a con plot structure is, you know, you’ve got certain things that are really, really fun for the audience, like finding the allies and, you know, going through the training and then figuring out where things are gonna go wrong and how they have to improvise and stuff like that. So, it was a very fun book to write.
Well I’m glad you expressed it as Ocean’s Eleven because I was going to say it seems a lot like an Ocean’s Eleven or that kind of caper story. So obviously that was a deliberate thing.
Yeah. Well, also the sting. I enjoy heist movies a lot. And to be honest, as well, I wanted to go with a plot structure that I understood pretty well, whose beats I understood pretty well, because I had five failed novels. I sort of was lacking the confidence to embark on a sixth unless I had a bit of a boost, so to speak. It’s not training wheels, it’s a boost. And so, I went with a plot structure that I think I understood. And I think it also worked because some of the worldbuilding is weird enough that for the audience, as well, having a structure they’re more familiar with allows me to put a lot of stuff on it that is unfamiliar and a little weird.
So, did you choose the structure and then thought about a way to make a space-opera version of that, or was the impetus something different. How did…where did you get your idea? What was the seed for this?
So, I did…so, one of the…I subscribe to the theory of John Truby, who is this Hollywood script doctor. And he says, when you’re writing a screenplay, write down all of the things you’ve seen in other screenplays that you think are fascinating, ideas you’d love to play with, and then just see which ones could go together and what you get. And so, one of the ideas I had was a con structure like The Sting or Ocean’s Eleven. I also wanted to use some of the aliens I’d created in some of my other stories, like the Homo eridanus, the mongrels in the story. I wanted to create a few others. I knew I wanted to make a quantum man because I had read a story by Stephen Baxter where he had somebody who could perceive things in the quantum world, but the way he did it is not the way I would do it, and that’s often the way I get inspired, I look at what other people have done and I said, “Is that the way I would do it?”, and then as soon as I say “No,” you know, that sends me off on a tangent of my own creativity. It’s just looking at what questions other writers have asked. And I think I wanted to do something about…do I really think that access to space is going to be as equitable as we think. Because there’s all this talk about. you know. well there’s so many resources in space and so on. But. you know. we haven’t gotten there yet and I’m sure there’s gonna be choke points. And so, for me, the wormholes were the stand and choke points for everything else, and that’s why there are only four big patron nations and everybody else who is in space, you know, is under the thumb of one of those patron nations.
So, once you had your sort of general idea, what does your…and this applies to all your writing…what does your outlining and planning process look like? Are you a staunch outliner?
Yeah. Yeah. Because I’ve had a lot of failed stories where I think the ending didn’t land. And so, for me, I have to know the ending, because at least, when I outline the ending, what I can do then is I can start interrogating it and say, well, is this ending surprising? Is this ending satisfying? If it isn’t surprising, are there ways that I can come up with a different ending or are there ways that I can misdirect it so that it is surprising and stuff like that. So, I do outline, and my creative process also involves a fair bit of worldbuilding, because for me the setting is really important because I am a sense-of-wonder junkie, and so, a lot of what I get really excited about is the, you know, “We’re on asteroids,” or, “Oh, look, they, you know, engineered these people and look at how weird they are,” and stuff like that. And so, those are all the elements I put in. But also understanding, in this one novel, that I was using a particular structure that had audience expectations with it that I could play with as well was part of that, too, was part of my calculus.
Well, with all that worldbuilding…and there was, you know, little asides on the history of playing cards and things like that…what does your research process look like?
So, on this one…I did a science fact article for Analog Magazine on this book, because it also got serialized in Analog.
Right, I was going to ask you about that. Yeah.
And I found…they wanted me to do the science in The Quantum Magician, and I found that, you know, maybe one quarter of the science was physics or chemistry and then three quarters was biology, and I hadn’t realized that when I was writing it, it just…that’s the way it came out. And I think because I was trying to look at the different ways that genetic engineering of our children can go wrong, that really means you’re going to spend a lot of time on the biology and the unintended consequences. And so, for me, because I did two degrees in biology there’s a lot less stuff I really need to look up.
And I think in science fiction, as well, you often have two questions. One is, “Is it possible?” and the other is, “How would you do it?” And in…as far as engineering. you know. of genes and stuff goes. it’s all possible. I mean, you know, everything from a goldfish to a human to a whale to whatever you can imagine, all sorts of things that could be alive. And really it’s just a different combination of genes and so, anything you want to make, you don’t really have to worry too much and explain too much. So, the research was a lot lighter on that side. I had to research more on the physics, I think. And the cards, in fact.
There were a few other things like that, you know, little historical notes and some of the naming and things like that. It seems you’d done a little digging around. Do you ever get lost in your in your research where you go down a rabbit path just because it’s so interesting?
I think…I don’t know if I do it as much as other writers do because. you know. I’m friends with a lot of writers and we’ll be talking on Twitter and then somebody will come back up and say. “I just spent two hours down a rabbit hole,” and I’m like, “Whoa I’m so glad I don’t, you know, do that.” I generally go for what I want and then pick it up because I’m always conscious of time that could be writing or I could be doing something else, and so when I’m writing I try and stay on writing as much as possible. That being said, I’m also human, and so, when I find something interesting or when it just isn’t working for me that day, yeah, I’ll end up researching a little more than maybe I plan to.
So, in addition to the researching you did ahead of time before you started writing, you do find things along the way that you have to do a bit of research on as well I presume?
Yeah, it’s…I outline to the point that the metaphor where they say it’s like taking a drive. you know that if you’re driving from Ottawa to Toronto you know you’re going to pass Kingston and Brockville and Belleville and Trenton and Coburg.
Well, I wouldn’t know that, but those who live in Ontario would know that…and Quebec.
So, you’re going to pass all those places and you know those are landmarks. But in between, you know, it’s almost…the discovery is the in-between stuff for me, and the imagining…like, when I get to a new city like Belleville or something then I say, “OK, what does it look like in Belleville,” or, like, I know where I’m going to go there. But, so, I outline lightly enough that research happens, you know, on the spot as well as ahead of time.
How long would your outline be?
Probably fifteen to twenty pages single-spaced. I just do it in bullet form, and so a scene could take one sentence, which means that when I get to actually writing it, you know, I’m going to have to do some thinking, or it could be I’ve got snippets of conversation and other stuff and little details that I’ve already got in mind and that will all be one bullet that maybe lasts a whole half page or something. So, when I get to that it will be far easier to write and just that mishmash of different things, roughly put in order, is how I write, even though I don’t necessarily always write in order.
Do you find yourself departing from your outline as you write?
Uh, yeah. Yeah.
Have you ever had to replot to the end? I’ve had to do that. That’s what I ask.
Yeah. No, I…once I’ve got the end and I’ve done my interrogation of the end, I tend to stick to that because having the end and knowing the denouement, the sort of emotional feel of the denouement, is what gives me the confidence to proceed. And I’m self-aware enough as a writer, that if I don’t have that confidence I won’t be able to write, that I know that I have to preserve that confidence. I do spend a lot of time trying to figure out what makes me tick as a writer, what motivates me. As you’ve probably seen on Twitter, having challenges with other people, like, “Hey, let’s do forty-five minutes right now,” that keeps me relatively honest and productive, and also counting the words helps, but also knowing my ending is a big thing for me too.
Now the other aspect, obviously, of the story is, you’ve got your world and you’ve got your plot, but there have to be characters in there. So, how do you find the characters you need and how do you flesh them out?
A lot of stealing. So, you know, the Belisarius character is, you know, every character is a stand in for you. But in the end…
Yes. Every character is Ed Willett! No, the Belisarius character, I think, is the sort of straight man of the whole thing, right? He’s got his own thing to go through, but essentially he’s the everyman of the future that we’re gonna follow through, even though obviously he’s very special. The Iekanjika character, the major, is a military person, and I wanted her to have a chip on his shoulder and I wanted her to have her own grudges she wants to solve and so, that comes through. The puppet, Gates-15, he was really interesting to do because I had to think, “Okay, if you’ve got somebody who’s chemically addicted to the smell of somebody else and that is hardwired to the centre that produces religious awe in your brain, what kind of culture would you have around that?”, and so, the puppet characters in the story were very, very informed by their biology and the history of captivity and then the history of being captors now in the story. The Marie character was a mix of, you know, somebody I know mixed with that Muppet who likes to blow things up, and then Stills is another character with a different kind of chip on his shoulder and a different way of taking the sort of not being the first-class citizen, and what does he do with it and what do his people do with it, and, you know, what kind of cultural baggage do they take on to make…to sort of defend themselves against the world where power. of course. is important.
Well, it certainly is a fascinating cast of characters. And for anybody who hasn’t read it yet, just hearing your description of the puppets, for example, will make you think, “Wow, there’s some interesting stuff going on in that book.” So, what does your actual writing process look like? Do you sit and work in your office same time every day, you said you write in your sons at school, so…?
Yeah. So, The Quantum Magician I actually wrote on my last year while I was still at work, and basically what I did there was I would show up at a coffee shop every day at 7:00, I would write from 7:00 till 8:00, and hopefully get somewhere between 500 and 600 words, and then I would be at work by 8 a.m. and that would often be the only writing I would be able to get for the day. And if I had a weekend where I was free, then I would obviously try and add more, but really it’s about regularity for me. Now, I, while I’m not at work, I can obviously spend more time, you know, if I have a three-hour session I can get, you know, a good 1,500 words done, sometimes 2,000, and, yeah. There’s enough other stuff, as you know as a writer, there’s promotion, there’s other projects you’re working on, there’s, you know, a bit of writer hustle you have to do, so… I sometimes let those things slide and I don’t, I’m not happy about that, so I try and keep myself to a word limit per day and then after that I just do all those other projects.
And you work directly on the computer or do you…are you one of these amazing people that writes longhand?
I tried that once for my fourth novel. Because I didn’t have enough writing time, what I would do is, I would write on the bus longhand, in both directions if I had a seat, and I think on the way to work and on the way back I would be able to get about 350 words a day. But then I found that the time it took to type it in was about as much as it would take to write it in the first place. So, I’m not sure I save myself time, but, I don’t know, it’s sort of a piece of reclaiming time that would otherwise have just been wasted in the bus.
I cannot write longhand anymore. I can barely do anything anymore.
My writing is deteriorating, the penmanship is.
Yeah, and mine was never good to begin with, so…
All right, so you have a completed draft. How long did that take you in the case of The Quantum Magician, to have your first draft done?
I think I started it in September and I probably finished it in June, and near the end I was hurrying a bit because just in the May of that year I had been at the Nebulas conference of 2015, where I met the person who was going to be my agent, and I had said to her, “Well, I can send you The Quantum Magician at the end of September,” and I was saying this in May and then being very optimistic about what I could get done. So, I had a bit of fire under me to try and get it done on time.
Deadlines can be very useful that way.
Yes, they sharpen the mind!
So, do you…did you do a complete draft. do you do a rolling revision as you go, do you revise it all when you get to the end, how does that work for you?
So, in 2005, it was the first time I did NaNoWriMo–successfully–and I got the book by Baty, the guy who invented NaNoWriMo, and he said…you know. it’s basically a field manual for. like. how to write a lot in a short period of time. And one of the keys he said is, “Don’t look back, ever.” Like, draft with one mind, edit with another? And I find that that’s true for me, it works for the way my personality works, because again it’s a confidence thing. If I look back and see bad writing there, I think it’ll sap my confidence for writing the rest of what’s going on. And the other thing is, if I spend…like, looking back over what I’ve got can be a procrastination tool for me just to just not draft. So, for me it’s better to just write the whole thing and then just do a whole ugly first read when I’ve got it done, and boy, can that be a painful process!
Well, Rob Sawyer, who was the first person I interviewed on the podcast, calls his first draft “the vomit draft” that’s, you just get it out then you feel better and then you go back and clean it up.
I wouldn’t disagree.
That’s kind of the way I work, too. I get it down, and then I go back and do the revision. So, what do you find you’re having to work on when you go back to revise and polish?
I don’t think I’m a natural storyteller, which means that I’ve had to learn story structure over time and that, like I said, is one of the reasons why I leaned a little more on to the heist structure for this novel, because I didn’t want my story structure to be the thing that holds me back. And so, yeah, structure and pacing are things that I still feel I have a lot of work to do on, characterization…I mean, it’s almost everything. There’s nothing you can’t name that isn’t bad in a first draft, except the worldbuilding in my case, I think the world building’s good, and I’m happy with that usually and don’t change much. But, yeah, the structure and pacing is often the thing that kicks me, and luckily I have a critique group and an agent who can then say, “Well, you know, this person sort of vanished at this point,” or, “I don’t understand why this person did this,” or…you know, those are all helpful things that point out your flaws. But I think everybody has the same flaws and nobody ever really outgrows them.
You mentioned the critique group before, and you just mentioned it again. How many people is that that sees your work in progress and make suggestions?
So, I’m a member of the East Block Irregulars–it’s an Ottawa sci-fi critique group that was formed by Matt Moore and I in late 2007–and they have been instrumental in my development as a writer And, I think…so. what we do is. you know. everybody commits to reading all short fiction that is sent; novels are on the basis of negotiation. And so, I think five people, maybe, or six in the group had read The Quantum Magician and gave me comments, and then I had a couple of other people from outside the group who also gave me comments. And then, in the end, then I went through four more drafts with my agent.
And then she sold it!
And then she sold it, to not one but two editors. It was great.
And that’s at Solaris?
Yeah, yeah, Solaris in the UK. They’re under Rebellion. They’re a nice mid-sized publisher and…I had never heard of them when I got the offer, and so I looked them up and they said they’re a mid-list publisher, and I thought, “Wow, I thought those sort of had gone the way of the dinosaur!” But, no, it’s wonderful, because the expectations are you’ll perform as a mid-list writer, which are far more manageable to meet. And if you go beyond that then, you know, everyone is happy.
And so, there would have been another editorial pass once you got to an editor at the publishing house.
Well, yes. The edits were relatively light at Solaris, but then, when we sold it to Analog, Trevor Quachri, the editor there, said, “Could we see a little more of the big bad?” And so, I said to the editor at Solaris, you know, “This is the comment. Do you agree with it?” And he said, “Sure, go for it.” And so, I ended up writing an extra 6,000 words of, you know, the sort of cop figure who is after the whole group. And I’m really, really happy that we got that comment, and so, going through Analog meant that it had two sets of proofs, two sets of structural edits, and it helped to polish it a lot more.
So, the serialization comes out before the book is released? I’ve never had anything serialized so I don’t really know how it works.
Yeah. I think the deal is the last instalment of the serialization has to come out six months before the first book drops. So, the timing is important. But I’m very happy that it got serialized because it got to a bunch of readers who would not have otherwise seen it.
Well, and the Analog readers are the true sort of hard-science-fiction space-opera types generally.
Yeah. They do love their science.
So, how did how did they respond. Because you would have had response from the Analog readers before it ever appeared as a book, presumably.
So, I’ve seen some reviews by Analog readers on Goodreads and those seem very positive and I think there were a couple of people who wrote in, like, fan comments and stuff and I would have others that came on Twitter. It was all very positive. I feel that it’s a hard-SF space opera, and when it’s read by people who are looking for hard-SF space opera, it does well. You know for people a little outside that Venn Diagram circle, you know, their mileage may vary, but…
But you’ve had some good response to the book as well and some really good attention within the field, haven’t you?
Yeah, yeah. It got onto the Locus recommended reading list, Barnes and Noble picked it as one of their 2018 books to watch, their favourites. I think it got long-listed at the BSFA, as well, the British Science Fiction Award. But, I mean, where I’ve been happiest is the foreign sales, because China really liked it and they’ve been helping promote it there and they’ve been very, very supportive, and it’s coming out in French in 2020. And then, there are two other deals that are pending right now. These things take a long time to negotiate. So, I don’t know when I’ll be able to announce, but I’m pretty happy with the way things are going in that sense, that there’s enough editors around that are interested in this.
Well, and there’s a sequel coming.
There is, there is.
Is that what you’re working on now?
No, no, I wrote that one basically as soon as my agent had this other one going. I started the second one right away because I had heard from experience, from, you know common friends of ours, that, you know, if you get a two-book deal or something, sometimes they may want the second book in a hurry. And I didn’t want to be in a position where being rushed would lead to blocking, and so I started to get ahead of that process a bit. And I think I had finished much of the second already by the time we inked the deal on the first.
So, was it a two-book deal?
Yeah, yeah, it was right away.
If, if, you know, it does well, would there be possibilities of more books in the series, or a trilogy, or what?
So, with Solaris I gave them two books. They liked them both. I then offered them a third, which is a novel set 250 years before the events in The Quantum Magician, and set in the same universe, and they bought that as well. And now I’ve got the sequel to The Quantum Garden, which I am in the process of writing right now and hopefully they’ll be interested in that. But so far the sales on The Quantum Magician seem to be good. Which is, which is heartening.
Yeah. That’s always heartening.
Yeah, yeah it is. Yeah, I wasn’t sure how the first royalty statement was gonna go, but I got it for, just covering the first two months of the book, and it was very promising.
Well, that’s good,.
Well, I’m gonna ask you the big philosophical questions.
Why do you write and why do you think any of us write? And particularly, why do you. and why do you think any of us, write this kind of stuff? Science fiction and fantasy.
Yeah. So, you want good answers?
Whatever answer you feel that you would like to give me.
So, when we had first discussed doing this podcast and we had talked a bit about what might come up, I was thinking on this question. I was like. “All I have is facetious answers.” I mean, do we write because we’re broken? Are we writing because one of our dials is turned too high? Is it that we’re all people that just have the transmit function on and we’re just hoping that somebody is receiving somewhere? I think the third one might be the right one for me, in that, it’s not that I have a particular message I’m trying to send. It’s not that I want to influence anybody in any way. It’s just a need. My thumb is on the transmit button and I’m just hoping that somebody is out there listening.
And, it’s interesting, because when people, you know, podcasts come up and interviews come up and people start to say things about, you know, “I really like these themes in your Quantum Magician of, you know, decolonization and, you know, a lot of what you did with the unintended consequences of genetic engineering and what that means to us now,” and all that, and people are getting messages that I’m not necessarily consciously aware of putting in, but now that I look back I realize, “Well, yeah, I mean, those things are in there and they are there on purpose,” but I was putting them in there because I thought it would be the right thing for the story not, again, because I was sending a message, but I…
Why do we write? I’m not sure. And like Harlan Ellison said, I think, if you could, if you can persuade somebody to stop writing you really should, because it’s not like we’re making a whole lot of money or that, you know, people are throwing sports cars at us or stuff like that, it’s, you know, we do this because we want to and if we can afford to make a living at it, you know, we’re already, that’s one of the highest things we can get out of it.
Because, you know, the idea about the message and things not being in there, that’s an opportunity for me to tell a story I like to tell. I’ve probably told it before in the podcast, but you mentioned discovering Asimov, and it was in one of his autobiographical books, probably Opus 100, his 100th book where he was attending a class in a New York university, some university in New York, and the professor was teaching his classic short story “Nightfall,” and he sat at the back and he listened, and when it was over he went up to the professor and he said, “Well, you know that was a very interesting class, but I’m Isaac Asimov and I wrote that story and I didn’t put any of that stuff in there.” And the professor said, “Well, I’m very happy to meet you, but just because you wrote it, what makes you think you know what’s in there?”
That’s a good point. And I think that…over the last few years I’ve come to subscribe to the idea, too, that in the end, all you do is you write a story, and it is a transmission, and the act of interpretation by the reader is the final story. And that means there’s many, many final stories. And, yeah. Because once you put it out it’s got a life of its own.
Well, I like that too. It’s something I often say, that although writing is a solitary act, reading is a collaborative act, I guess. Or the creation of stories is a collaborative act because the writer creates something, but the ultimate story is different for every person who reads it because of their own background. And I’m also a playwright, in fact I just had a play that was up this last week here in Regina.
It’s…that’s much, much more collaborative. But there, you actually see actors taking your words and interpreting them and bringing these characters to life that maybe, you know, they’re completely different from the little actors in my head who are moving around on the set in my head when I was writing the story. And it’s also the same thing that happens with writing anything, writing science fiction and fantasy, that readers are like the actors in the play and they’re bringing the characters to life and they’re bringing the story to life in a way that you may not have imagined when you put it into words.
And not only that, I mean, there’s so many people who will interpret things with different backgrounds that you couldn’t have imagined, and their interpretations come out to be, you know, more complex, more interesting, just because they’re seeing dimensions that, you know, I didn’t. And it’s fascinating.
So, you’ve already said what you’re working on next. I guess we will just sort of bring this to a close by telling people how they can find you online should they so desire.
Yeah, I’m a Twitter user, so I’m just @DerekKunsken, that’s just my name, on Twitter, and I have a website, too, which is just my name, as well, dot com, and I blog every couple of weeks at BlackGate.com, and otherwise you know my stuff is in bookstores everywhere, and I’d be happy to hear from any listeners who want to reach out.
We should also mention the webcomic.
Oh, yeah, yeah.
Just tell me a little bit about that and where people can find that.
So, WebToons is this gigantic, gigantic South Korean company platform where people who make a comic can post the equivalent of two to three comic book pages per week, and you get readers or, you know, if people like your stuff, and…there’s monetization in in different ways and that’s not necessarily what myself and the artist are going for first and foremost, but, no I’ve been experimenting with doing a comic book in this format so people can read it, and it’s a female jetpack planetary-romance adventure, a bit pulpy, but at the same time I wanted to do something fun and romantic and cute at the same time. And, yeah, it’s up that WebToons and it’s free to read, and if you just look for Briarworld at WebToons you can find it there, and Briarworld has its own Twitter, which is just @BriarWorld and it’s fun. It’s…a mercenary has to go rescue a prince in a weird Mungoesque planet.
Well, I’ll have to go check it out. Well, thanks very much for being on The Worldshapers, Derek.
This has been wonderful!
And I suspect I’ll be seeing you at Can-Con this year in Ottawa?
An hour-long (and then some) conversation with David Weber, author of the Honor Harrington science-fiction series, which this episode focuses on, and many others, including fantasy (Oath of Swords, The War God’s Own) other space opera (Path of the Fury, The Armageddon Inheritance) and alternate history (1632 series with Eric Flint).
David Weber was born in Cleveland, Ohio, but moved to Greenville, South Carolina with his family by the time he was two. Some of Weber’s first jobs within the writing/advertising world began after high school, when he worked as copywriter, typesetter, proofreader, and paste-up artist. He holds a Master of Arts in history from Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina.
Weber’s first published novels grew out of his work as a wargame designer for the Task Force game Starfire. He wrote the Starfire novel Insurrection (1990) with Stephen White. This book was the first in a tetralogy that continued through their last collaboration, The Shiva Option (2002), which made The New York Times Best Seller List.
His most famous series is the Honor Harrington series, but he’s also written epic fantasy (Oath of Swords, The War God’s Own) other space opera (Path of the Fury, The Armageddon Inheritance) and alternate history (1632 series with Eric Flint), and much more: he estimates some forty-seven published or in-the-works novels.
Weber and his wife, Sharon, live in Greenville, South Carolina. They have three children.
David Weber likes to quote Robert Aspirin: “Professional writers are like rats, if we don’t wear our fingers down on the keyboard every day, our fangs grow through our brains and kill us.”
He started writing in fifth grade and has supported himself through writing-related activities of one sort or another since he was seventeen. He wrote his first novel-length work in Grade 10, and says, “I can’t imagine not writing for my own pleasure if not for anything else.”
His first published novel, Insurrection, was the consequence of some wargame design he’d done with his friend Steve White. They started exchanging short stories set in that world, and eventually realized they had a novel—which ran some 283,000 words in the first draft. That had to be pared down, but Baen bought it in 1989.
David says he “met science fiction” when he was ten years old. Mobility-restricted because of a broken arm, he read his father’s Fantasy Press hardcover of Jack Williamson’s The Legion of Space and followed that up with Genus Homo by L. Sprague de Camp and P. Schuyler Miller. He was an eclectic reader, he says, because his parents’ position was their kids could read anything they wanted to, figuring, “If we were old enough to handle it we could handle it, and if we weren’t it would sail right past us.”
Other books he mentions are (to Ed’s delight) the Swallows and Amazonsseries by Arthur Ransome. On the science fiction side, he mentions Heinlein’s juveniles, Andre Norton, H.Beam Piper, Mack Reynolds, Gordon R. Dickson, and Anne McCaffrey.
Although Insurrection was his first published novel, his first submitted novel (rejected) was fantasy. That was Sword of the South, published just a year and a half ago or so. (The manuscript had been lost for years, but one of the floppy discs—one of the really big ones, using CPM and not DOS—turned up and then another, and an IT shop was able to recover the files “for a mere $800.” David rewrote it but says it’s still very close to the original novel. Most of the rewrite was to bring it in line with other novels set in the same universe.
In university, David studied military and diplomatic history. “Forever and ever,” he says, he thought he would teach college history and write on the side, but as he was finishing up his Master’s degree he came across a study revealing that half or more all tenured positions were currently held by people forty or younger. He decide he should alter his priorities, and instead took over his mother’s small advertising agency—she’d retired to look after her own mother, then in her eighties. David sold Insurrection about a year and a half after that, and was fortunate enough to be able to support himself writing fulltime with eighteen months or so of making that first sale.
Having been both a copywriter and a production journalist has taught him not to block, he notes: “Blocking is not an option.” There are times he can edit but not write fiction, because he’s thinking through a story problem, but he says he has “never had a time when I couldn’t sit down and put words on paper that made sense.”
“Writing is the medium through which I tell the story,” he says. “It’s the story that matters.” He believes it is the writer’s voice that wins or loses a readership: two different writers can tell the exact same story, and one will succeed and one fail with a given readership because of the manner in which they tell the story. “A weak story that is strongly told will succeed where a strong story that is weakly told will fail.”
While he has written passages and entire books he’s particularly proud of, for him, if the writing style becomes so important it begins drawing the reader’s attention away from the story, then the style has failed.
“Writing is something that is sort of a physical skill,” he says. “You learn it by doing it.”
David gives a synopsis of the Honor Harrington books, beginning with, “Honor Harrington is a six-foot-two-inch Eurasian martial-artist starship camera.” He notes the book both are an aren’t about Honor: she’s the focal point for most of the stories, but they’re actually about the series of wars she’s involved in. The first few books are very tightly focused on her, but as the war begins to spread, the stories take place on a broader canvas. There are a lot of secondary characters, “named characters,” David points out.
“I hate passages where you have somebody called the lieutenant seventeen times. I try to make the character a person.”
David has been writing Honor Harrington books for twenty-five years. He originally projected the entire series to be eight books: there are currently seventeen novels and six anthologies, counting the collaborations.
David said Jim Baen, publisher of Baen books, had noted that everything David wrote spawned sequels, so he suggested they try planning a series from the beginning. David sent ten ideas, one of which was the Honor Harrington series, one of which became his Safehold series (published by Tor), one the Multiverse series that began with Hell’s Gate, and one whose first book, The Golden Protocol, written with Jacob Holo, comes out in May.
What David didn’t know was that Baen had been looking for someone to write a version of “Horatio Hornblower in space” for twenty-five things. He leaped at the Honor Harrington proposal and offered David a four-book contract. The first two books were released a month apart, which David says is “brilliant marketing.”
In fact, David says, he doesn’t think anyone else in the publishing industry has ever understood how to grow a new author’s readership so brilliantly.
Another thing Baen created was the Baen Free Library, where free ebooks of some Baen titles were made available—which is where Ed discovered Honor Harrington. “I believe it did nothing but increase readership,” David says. Baen also used to bind CDs containing earlier books and a series and other titles into the back of new hardcover releases in series.
“Spider Robinson once said Jim Baen was the only science fiction publisher who actually wanted to live in the twenty-first century, which makes it even sadder he got to see so little of the 21st century,” David says. (Baen died in 2006 at the age of sixty-three.)
Technology plays a major role in the Honor Harrington books. David said some of that comes from his background designing wargames, and some from the fact he’s been studying military and diplomatic history since he was ten or eleven years old. Before he wrote the first word of the first Honor Harrington novel (On Basilisk Station), he wrote an 80,000-plus word essay covering everything in the Harrington universe, from colonization to life sciences to technological history to politics.
The technology was in part shaped by the story David wanted to tell. It was important, he said, that there be tactical constraints. “In a lot of ways, the story is about what you character can’t do, not what about what your character can do,” he says. “It’s about the limitations they have to work around.
He decided technology would evolve over the course of the novels, and that technology would what would equalize the fight between societies where one was hugely outnumbered by the another.
He also wanted technology that made tactics important, because he’s always been interested in tactics as well as the operational and strategic levels of military campaigning. “I needed a system that would give scope to a tactician who was smart, and one which would create limitations on how you could approach a combat situation.” Readers had to be able to understand the tactical situation, as well, in order to understand why characters did what they did.
He notes that he wrote the first two books before the World Wide Web appeared, so some of his starting assumptions might be different if he was starting it today.
Ed noted that descriptions of technology often appear within action scenes, creating an odd sense of suspense by delaying the combat climax. David says he thinks this goes back to the writer’s voice.
“This is the natural way for me to tell the story. I can use that as a means to accelerate or decelerate the action tt the same time as it’s serving the function of telling the reader this is why the folks involved are really sweating what just happened or is about to happen…I’m not sure it’s a technique that would work for other writers.”
He thinks he got the balance of hardware descriptions, descriptions of societies and political systems, and development of planets and cultures write because some people tell him they don’t like some of those but like others. Almost everyone says they love the characters. “The characters are the common factor,” he says.
Some restrictions baked into the Honorverse are the impossibility of creating a self-aware AI (something David had dealt with in other novels and didn’t want to repeat), and the impossibility of faster-than-light communication—which means information can only move aboard courier starships.
“That had very interesting and significant implications for military operations. You spend a lot of time going from point A to point B. It also means a huge amount devolves onto the initiative of the station commanders, the task force commanders.” This puts the situation back to about where Earth was in the 18th or 19th century, when nobody could micromanage their forces from Washington or London or Moscow. They didn’t even now there’d been a battle until a courier came back with news, which might be that an invasion force was close behind!
That restriction, David says, is “a big part of the flavor or the books.” It allows him to “cut Honor Harrington loose from the apron strings.”
“She’s constantly aware she represents her Queen and star system, and that informs a lot of her decisions.” That means it’s her job to face overwhelming odds even with little or no chance of success…and that’s one of the things that makes her beloved by those who have followed the books.
Honor, in other words, is part of her character as well as her name (which David knew going). Her second name, Harrington, was a nod to C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels, so that she would have the same initials.
There are parallels between the Star Kingdom of Manticore and England, and apparent parallels between its rival, Haven, and the French Republic—but David says that latter paralle is a red herring, that Haven became what it becomes in the books not from a version of the French Republic but from a version of the United States, “if you look at their constitution.” David deliberately used his knowledge to create something that looked like the French Revolution within Haven—but really wasn’t. “I don’t know why people call me sneaky,” he adds.
David says he uses history as a source of building blocks rather thanb an operating model. Although Honor is set in a space-going version of the Napoleonic era, his original thought was that it would more closely follow the Punic Wars, only with Carthage winning. That changed when he realized his version of space combat meant controlling space around a planet meant controlling the planet, and planetary combat would be vanishingly rare.
“But I never intended the model I had built to be anything more than the starting point for cultures that had gone in different directions,” he says, so that readers would say to themselves, “iI know what he’s going to do here,” and then would be surprised when he did something else.
That initial lengthy monograph David wrote for himself about the Honorverse spelled out what would happen in the war through what became Honor Among Enemies. Originally, he planned to kill Honor in what became At all Costs. However, Eric Flint, writing in the Honorverse, wanted something both a Havenite and a Manticoran secret agent could hate enough to collaborate, and David gave him the genetic slave trade. By so doing, he moved a plot strand twenty years forward without really being aware of it, which meant he couldn’t kill off Honor and have her children become central characters as he’d intended.
“I think the readers would have forgiven me because of the way she would have died, the culmination and perfection of what she had lied her entire life to be and to do,” he says. “I won’t pretend I was broken-hearted when I realized I couldn’t kill her off, and not just because the character had become so successful, but because I had come to care so deeply about the character…I’ve killed characters it hurt as the author to write the death scene. This would definitely have been one of them.”
But, he notes, he’s writing military fiction. “Most people’s experience with violence is vicarious,” he says. “We form our views of it through what we see on the news in our entertainment.”
He thinks it’s important for someone writing military science fiction to make it clear that war is an ugly, ugly thing. “It can be a very noble calling to, as Heinlein said, place yourself between your home and war’s desolation, and I think the profession of arms is worthy of deep respect, but…not just bad guys die. If you’re going to be fair with the story and the weight of the story, you have to be willing to kill characters you know your readers love. It’s hard on you and them, but that’s part of what a combat situation is about…war, however exciting it may be, it is a voracious devourer of human life.”
David says the only character he did a detailed sketch of before he began was Honor—and even that wasn’t all that detailed in terms of where she finally wound up. He says he normally starts with a physical description and some aspect of their personality. As the character interacts with other characters and situations he goes back and adds notes.
When he’s writing solo, he adds, he tends not to outline (although he’s done more in the last four or five Honorverse novels just to keep things straight, by creating a detailed timeline). When he does a collaboration, there tends to be a much more detailed synopsis of where the story is going, so there’s no confusion between the two writers.
On his own, he says, “I do tend to have a very clear idea of where a series is going to begin and end, and a feel for what’s going to happen out in the middle, but I’m very much improvising on the theme as I go along in terms of getting from A to B.”
Wever says he can write 5,000 to 7,500 words a day when he’s in the groove. (The most he’s ever done was 34,000 words in a day, and then, he says, he slept for a couple of days.)
Each day, before he begins, he goes back and rereads and revises and tweaks the previous two day’s work, so every portion of th book had been revised and tweaked at least three times by the time he gets to the end. “This gives me an opportunity to strengthen and clean up as I go along, also builds storytelling momentum for the day’s work.”
David shattered his wrist in a fall about twenty years ago, which means today he can only type for about forty-five minutes at best. Since then, he’s been using Dragon Naturally Speaking to dictate his books. One thing he’s noted is that Dragon prefers complete sentences, and so he now has a tendency to think more in complete sentences than when I was writing with a keyboard. “It’s interesting: the way in which you get those photons corralled on the display affects the way in which you write.”
Now the big philosophical question: why does he write this stuff?
“We are storytellers. That’s what we love to do. We love to create and craft stories. We communicate, we share those stories, by writing them down…I am fascinated by history, I am fascinated by the way that people’s personalities work, and how that motivates them to be who and what they are in real life. Telling stories lets me get inside that process…I honestly believe almost anyone could learn to love history if you could just get them to understand it is the greatest, most complex novel ever written. You have all of these characters, all of whom have their own motivations, their own responsibilities. How do they meet them? This is part of what makes us human beings, and defines the difference between responsible conscientious human beings and the predators. I think that I tell stories in part because that’s what I want to look at.
“Obviously, I want to entertain my readership, and don’t want to be in the position of lecturing. But any writer, the moment he or she begins to write, steps up onto a soapbox. If I present a character who would be unsympathetic to you under normal circumstances, but I get you inside that character…the character’s views might not be those you would espouse on your own, but you discover that you like this character…then I have made those contrarian views more accessible to you, and I think that’s something we are, especially these days, in sad need of.
“That’s why I play fair with the bad guys in the books. They are decent human beings, even if they come from a different value system…
“To me, that’s what being a human being is all about me. To me, good storytelling is about the human condition. Science fiction is a technological age’s fairy tale. It’s inspiration, its cautionary, it’s explicative, it’s all of those things…instead of using demigods and demons and what not, we’ve got scientists and cyborgs and computers, but we’re looking at the same issues, the same questions: what makes us human, and what is involved in living up to your responsibilities as a human.
“You can see that in Heinlein, in all really good science fiction.” He recalls Heinlein writing that, “Greater love hath no man than a mother cat dying to defend her kittens.”
“It’s a very profound statement that cuts to the heart of what it means to e human. And I think that’s what I write about.”
Weber concludes, “It’s been a heck of a ride the last thirty years. I’ve been very fortunate in how well the books have done, and I’ve been very fortunate to be allowed to do something I love to do, and actually get paid for it.”
An hour-long talk with bestselling, award-winning science fiction author John Scalzi about how and why he writes, focusing on his latest novel, The Collapsing Empire.
John Scalzi was born in California in 1969 and currently lives in Bradford, OH. He studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, which is where he began his freelance writing career. He wrote film reviews and was a newspaper columnist for a few years, and in 1996 was hired by AOL as its in-house writer and editor. He wrote his first novel, Agent to the Stars, in 1997 and published it free on his website in 1999. His first published novel, Old Man’s War, also appeared first on his blog (serialized a chapter a day) in 2002. Tor Books purchased it, publishing it commercially in 2005, and it went on to win the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Since then, John has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, the Locus, the Audie, the Seiun and the Kurd Lasswitz, plus the 2016 Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio. His work regularly appears on the New York Times bestseller list for fiction.
He also remains involved in the film and gaming worlds: he’s the creative consultant for the Stargate Universe television series, the writer for the video game Midnight Star, by Industrial Toys, and executive producer for Old Man’s War and The Collapsing Empire, both currently in development for television. He served as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America from 2010 to 2013. He’s married and has a daughter and “several pets.”
First, we establish that your genial host was literally the first person John met in science fiction and fantasy besides his editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden: we were on a panel together at the 2003 Toronto WorldCon on the topic (if we remember right) of other ways to make money writing besides writing fiction.
John traces his interest in science fiction back to childhood reading, specifically mentioning Robert A. Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky as one of the first SF books he remembers.
He notes that when, in his twenties, he decided to write a novel, “just to find out if I could,” he had to decide between two genres he was equally comfortable with, science fiction and mystery, and literally flipped a coin: heads SF, tails mystery. “It’s a weird sort of inflection point.” If it had come up tails, he wonders how different his life would have been, because “so many of the people that I know and like are in science fiction.”
He adds that SF is capacious enough you can write whatever you want, and he’s gone on to write a couple of what are essentially science-fiction mystery novels, Lock In and Head On.
John says he first realized he could do interesting things with words when, in sixth grade, a teacher asked him to write a letter to the news department of a local station because he wanted to get publicity for something he was doing and thought a letter from a student would get more attention than he would. He told John, “I want you to do this because you are good with words.”
In his ninth-grade English composition class, tasked to write a short story on the theme of gifts, he trashed what he’d first attempted and ended up, late on the last night, typing up a lightly fictionalized true-life story about his friends getting together: the gift they gave was their love for each other. (“Awww…”)
When that story, which he had slammed together at the last moment, was the only one in three sections of the class to get an A, he realized writing was something he could do well and relatively easily, whereas everything else–math, history, whatever–was difficult. And so, at the age of fourteen, he decided, “That’s it, I’m going to be a writer,” largely driven by the principle of least effort for maximum return. “The disappointing thing for me later was to find writing isn’t in fact easy, that you do in fact have to work at it, by then it was too late.”
He adds, “I have no other skills. The only other thing I would be good at would be Wal-Mart greeter.”
He kind of fell into his philosophy degree (he was undecided, but discovered he’d taken enough philosophy courses to graduate sooner than if he’d gone for, say an English degree), and agrees it doesn’t have a lot of real-world utility, but feels it has had value in his work. He says philosophy teaches you how to learn, and how to think more deeply about things, useful in writing science fiction.
He adds, “We like to call science fiction the literature of ideas, but I think really what it is is the literature of consequences. It’s not so much about the aliens arriving or robots coming, but the consequence of those arrivals that we write about in science fiction.”
Fun fact: Saul Bellow was briefly John’s thesis advisor.
John says coming up with ideas for novels aren’t the hard part; the hard part is distinguishing the good from the terrible. If he has an idea, he doesn’t write it down. If he remembers it the next day he thinks about it some more. If he remembers it in a month, even more. “It’s a vicious process because I’m absent-minded and forget a lot of things. For something to stay in my brain, it has to interest me.”
What interested him and led to The Collapsing Empire was the importance of ocean currents and the jets stream to European colonialism between 1400-1800. If those currents had altered, making it far more difficult or important for Europeans to sail to other continents, he wondered, “What would have happened to European colonialism, and consequently the rest of thew world?”
He gives a synopsis of The Collapsing Empire, which is about an interdependent network of worlds that rely on a natural phenomenon called the Flow, which permits interstellar travel. The Interdependency (as it’s called) finds itself in serious trouble as the Flow begins to collapse, cutting worlds off from the rest of humanity. “When humans are confronted with natural things that actually don’t care about human’s plans one way or the other, how do they dal with that?” He notes that has parallels in both the past and the present.
John begins building characters from archetypes. He knew he needed someone at the very top (the emperox, Cardenia), someone at eye-level (the scientist, Marce, a.k.a. “exposition guy”), and a “wild card” (Kiva). Once he knew he needed those types of characters, then he began to develop their personalities.
“I’m a huge fan of all the characters, which is nice because I had to write them.”
He notes writing Kiva in particular was “a heck of a lot of fun,” although you have to be careful or characters like that can take over the book. “Characters like Kiva are the spice, rather than necessarily the main dish.”
I noted that his approach to developing characters seemed filmic–starting with archetypes, working down–and asked if his long interest in and observation of film ties into the way he plots and writes.
John said, “Absolutely.” He notes Old Man’s War very clearly has a three-act cinematic structure, because that was a storytelling grammar he was used to not only from watching films but from analyzing them during more than a decade of writing film criticism. “In many ways my storytelling school was not really novels, it was film.” He also notes that his novels are “dialogue-heavy,” something else that comes from film.
He doesn’t anticipate writing any of the scripts for the Old Man’s War and The Collapsing Empire TV adaptations, since he doesn’t have any concrete experience in the field. However, he notes his experience as a reviewer, and hence familiarity with other screen adaptations, has made it easier for him to talk to producer–unlike some authors, he understands that the filmic version of a story and the novel version are very different, and changes have to be made to make the former work as well as the latter.
Adaptations shouldn’t be slavish, he says, but should be “intelligent,” leveraging “the strengths of the film medium to tell the story in a way that lives in that particular medium.”
He has written a screenplay adaptation of his novella The Dispatcher as an exercise and has received positive feedback on it, and does hope o write a script or screenplay in the future.
There is a brief aside about the alien lifeforms making mewing noises in the background.
Asked if he rewrites, John says, no, not in the sense of finishing a draft and then rewriting it from the beginning: he does “rolling rewrites,” so when he gets to the end, he’s done.
Two reasons: as a former journalist, “where you have write a couple of thousand words every few days and it’s all due at 3 p.m. and you have to write clean copy,” he learned to organize his thoughts as he wrote.
As well, he says, he thinks the revision process is dictated by the instruments people use. Those who write, or first wrote, by hand or typewriter, tend to do drafts. He’s only ever written on a computer, hence the rolling (or “fractal”) drafts. “By the time I get to the end, so much of what would have been first drafts or second drafts has already been subsumed in the writing process.”
He does a lot of research, but the Internet makes that “super easy.” He adds, however, that, “You have to be intelligent about it.”
Asked to comment on the concept of “worldshaping,” versus “worldbuilding,” he says that when writers create worlds what they are really doing is taking what they already know, introducing new highly speculative (and hopefully interesting elements), and then mashing them together to find out what comes out the other end. , mashing them together, finding out what comes out the other end.
” I would say I think both terms are equally applicable. I think the issue here might be degree than kind.”
He notes that, not only is it very difficult to create a completely new world, it would be a very hard book to sell, because there would be no hook there for the reader…and that’s important, because science fiction and fantasy writers are working “more or less in service to a commercial genre.” Writers have to think not only about what they want, but what editors and readers want.
“There’a reason why McDonald’s is hugely popular and molecular gastronomy is basically a niche project,” he says. “The number of people who want a hamburger is larger than those who want to question the nature of the food on their plate, and whether it is food or not.”
He points out that Old Man’s War is “Starship Troopers with old people,” a Heinlein juvenile with senior citizens. That was intentional, he says. He wanted to write a book that would sell, so he looked at what was popular at the time, which was military science fiction. So he decided, “I’m going to write a military science fiction book on my terms. I’m going to give people what they want, and then I’m going to give myself what I want, and then we’re going to see what works out.
Asked why he writes–or anyone writes–he says that self-expression is obviously the desire for all writers, but after that “things get varied very quickly.”
” I never once wrote in a journal,” John says, even though people gave him journals as he was growing up, thinking he was the kind of kid who would keep one. But, he says, “I already knew what I was thinking. I didn’t need to write it down.”
Instead, he says, he only started writing when he had an audience. “For me, writing has always been an extroverted act, not just for myself, but primarily for other people to read.” The gratification it provides comes from the ability to make people feel things through the power of words: to persuade, and argue.
John says a lot of people start writing because they love the act itself, but for him, that’s a small component. He notes that he plays guitar just because he enjoys it, and takes photos for the same reason. But, he says, “Writing for me has always been about making a connection with other people, and not just making a connection…but influencing them in a particular way, making them laugh, making them cry, making them get angry when I feel angry.”
He says his writing has had an impact on the real world. Some things in his stories–like the enhanced artificial blood in Old Man’s War–has piqued the interest of real-life scientists. SF offers something few other genres do, he notes, in that people sometimes read about something in SF and think, “This is cool, I want this in the universe,”–and then they go out and build it.
His biggest impact has been through a couple of non-fiction pieces, he says. His essay “Being Poor,” written in response to people wondering why those affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans didn’t just pack up and leave, “went everywhere.” It appeared in newspapers, it’s been put in textbooks, and it’s taught in classes. “That’s an example fo something I’ve seen go far and wide and have influence on the discussion.”
Another was an essay comparing life to a videogame, and arguing that in that metaphorical videogame, straight white men play at the “lowest difficulty setting.” It doesn’t mean they can’t still lose, it doesn’t mean the game is hard, but it isn’t as hard for them as for some others. He says that piece was an attempt “to explain privilege to people who hate the world privilege.”
He says that piece has also gone everywhere, and he hears people using that metaphor whom he’s quite certain have no idea that it originated with him. “it’s come into the common parlance when discussing privilege and intersectionality.”
John says it’s harder to say if anything he’s doing in SF will have any significant influence. “I don’t think you get to figure it out until you’ve been doing it for twenty or thirty years.” And, he adds, “If you’re sitting there saying, what abut my legacy, you won’t be focusing on what you’re doing now, which is writing stuff that is interesting and entertaining and makes people think today…you sit there and write the best work you can. If it gets remembered, that’s great, if it doesn’t, that’s fine, because right in the moment you are doing what you’re supposed to do, which is make people laugh, or cry, or think, or be entertained, and that in and of itself is a laudable goal.”