Episode 36: Tim Pratt

An hour-long conversation with Tim Pratt, author of more than twenty novels (most recently the Axiom space-opera series, Philip K. Dick Award finalist The Wrong Stars, The Dreaming Stars, and The Forbidden Stars), a Hugo Award winner for short fiction and a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards.

Website:
timpratt.org

Twitter:
@TimPratt

Tim Pratt’s Patreon page

Tim Pratt’s Amazon page

The Introduction

Tim Pratt

Tim Pratt is the author of more than twenty novels: most recently, the Axiom space-opera series, including Philip K. Dick Award finalist The Wrong Stars, The Dreaming Stars, and the forthcoming third volume, The Forbidden Stars, out this month (October 8, two days after this episode released. – Ed.). He’s a Hugo Award winner for short fiction and has been a finalist for the Nebula, World Fantasy, Sturgeon, Mythopoeic, Stoker, and other awards. His collection, Miracles and Marvels, is also coming in November…or, coming in November. Not also, because The Forbidden Stars is out in October, it’s coming after that. He tweets incessantly (he says) as @TimPratt and publishes a new story every month for patrons at patreon.com/timpratt.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, Tim.

Hi, Ed, thanks so much for having me.

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.

Really, no.

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.

That’s close.

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…

Sure!

…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.

Yeah, right?

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?

The first book in Tim Pratt’s Marla Mason series.

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?”

Nice.

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.

That’s right.

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,

I hope.

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!

That’s great!

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.

Yes, it was fun. Thanks for having me.

Episode 29: Christopher Ruocchio

An hour-long conversation with Christopher Ruocchio, author of the The Sun Eater, a space-opera fantasy series from DAW books (published by Gollancz in the UK), which began with Empire of Silence in 2018 and continues with Howling Dark in 2019, and 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.

Website
www.sollanempire.com

Twitter
@TheRuocchio

Facebook
@TheRuocchio

Christopher Ruocchio’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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…

Me, too.

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.

Yes.

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.

I know.

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.

Mm-hmm.

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.

I hope so, too.

Okay, bye for now.

Bye. Thank you.

Episode 25: Derek Künsken

An hour-long conversation with Canadian science fiction author Derek Künsken, author of The Quantum Magician (Solaris) and its upcoming sequel, The Quantum Garden (due out in October 2019), as well as the webcomic (with artist Wendy Muldon) Briarworld, and numerous short stories, which have appeared in places like Asimov’s, AnalogClarkesworld, and Beneath Ceaseless Skies, a number of year’s-best anthologies, and podcasts.

Website
www.derekkunsken.com

Twitter
@DerekKunsken

Derek’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

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, AnalogClarkesworld, 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.

Oh, wow.

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.

Yeah, yeah.

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.

Yeah.

But then, you didn’t stick with that.

No.

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.

Oh, since.

Yeah. Sorry, since, yeah.

I was waiting for a year there.

Oh, no.

And I thought, “Oh, you still there?”

Since, period.

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.

Okay.

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.

Spaaaace…

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…

For me?

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…

Ok.

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,.

Yeah.

Well, I’m gonna ask you the big philosophical questions.

Oh, goodness.

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.

Oh, congratulations.

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?

I hope so, I hope so.

All right. Well thanks a lot.

All right. See you, Ed.

’Bye for now.

Episode 12: David Weber

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

Website:
davidweber.net

David Weber’s Amazon Page

The Introduction:

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

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

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

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

The Show:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Episode 3: John Scalzi

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.

The Introduction:

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.”

Website: scalzi.com

Twitter: @scalzi

John Scalzi’s Amazon page

The Show:

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.”