Episode 68: James Morrow

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

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The Introduction

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

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

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

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Jim, welcome to The Worldshapers.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not bad!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Yeah, that’s for sure.

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

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

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

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

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

I think I read his autobiography, yeah.

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

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

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

Yeah, it’s the same joke.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He comes off very, very well. Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think both are acceptable.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like Disneyland.

Exactly.

And what else are you working on?

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

Any indication of when that will be out?

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

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

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

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

I enjoyed it very much. You’re welcome.

Episode 34: John Kessel

An hour-long conversation with John Kessel, author of Pride and Prometheus, The Moon and the Other (both from Saga Press) and other novels, and, as a short-fiction writer, winner of two Nebula Awards, the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Locus Award, the James Tiptree Jr. Award, and the Shirley Jackson Award.

Website
johnjosephkessel.wixsite.com/kessel-website

Facebook
www.facebook.com/john.kessel3

John Kessel’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

John Kessel

John Kessel‘s most recent book is the 2018 novel Pride and Prometheus, published by Saga Press. He’s the author of the earlier novels The Moon and the Other, Good News from Outer Space, and Corrupting Dr. Nice, and, in collaboration with James Patrick Kelly, Freedom Beach. His short-story collections are Meeting in Infinity, a New York Times notable book, The Pure Product, and The Baum Plan for Financial Independence and Other Stories

His stories have twice received the Nebula Award, given by the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, in addition to the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award, the Locus Award, and the James Tiptree Jr. Award. His play Faust Feathers won the Paul Green Playwrights Prize, and his story “A Clean Escape” was adapted as an episode of the ABC TV series Masters of Science Fiction. In 2009, his story Pride and Prometheus, on which the novel was based, received both the Nebula Award and the Shirley Jackson Award. With James Patrick Kelly, he has edited five anthologies of stories revisiting contemporary short SF, most recently Digital Rapture: The Singularity Anthology.

Born in Buffalo, New York, Kessel holds a B.A. in Physics and English and a Ph.D. in American Literature. He helped found and served as the first director of the MFA program in creative writing at North Carolina State University, where he has taught since 1982. He and his wife, the novelist Therese Anne Fowler, live and work in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, welcome to The Worldshapers, John.

Thank you. Glad to be here.

Now, we’ve never met in person, but the way you ended up on this show…I’ve been aware of your name for a long time, obviously, with your record, and being in the field, but I’d never run across you at a convention or anything like that. But Christopher Ruocchio, who was a guest on the program a little while ago, was one of your students, and he mentioned your name. And I thought, “You know, I should have him on.”

Well, I’m glad you had him on. You know, Christopher seems to be well-launched now with his first novel. I guess the second novel in that series is coming out, is that right?

Yeah. Just came out. And he’s a fellow DAW Books author, so I’d met him at a DAW dinner at WorldCon last year. That’s how we made that connection. In this field, you know, you sort of, you know somebody, then they know somebody…everybody’s connected

Even though it’s much bigger than it was when I started, it’s still a fairly small pond, and you will run into people, and everyone eventually knows everyone else in some connection.

Yep.. Well, we’ll start the way I always start, which is by taking you back into the mists of time to find out how you became interested in science fiction and fantasy and specifically in writing it. Most of us, it starts with reading as kids. Is that how it worked out for you?

Pretty much, yes. I was reading science fiction and fantasy…really from, it seems like, from the beginning. I cannot remember the first book I ever read that was science fiction. There were children’s books–and I was born a long time ago, I was born in 1950, so we’re talking, you know, late ’50s, early ’60s, I was definitely already hooked on science fiction and fantasy. I liked fairy tales an awful lot, and then I somehow, you know, I went to the library and got books from the science fiction section of the library.

And back then, they had…a number of publishers had fairly serious attempts to write, publish, YA science fiction, and Robert Heinlein wrote a series of juvenile novels that I really snapped up. And also André Norton, who was Alice Mary Norton, wrote a whole series of YA science fiction novels that I loved. It was quite a shock to me when I discovered that Andre Norton was a woman. It was years later. And then around…I think it was 1963 exactly…I pretty much know exactly when it was…I was at my grandfather’s house on a Sunday, and I had had my library book there and I finished it and I had nothing else to read, and I was bored, and I asked if I could go down the block–this was in Buffalo, New York–to see if I could buy some comic books. And they said, “okay,” and so I walked down to this delicatessen, Cosentino’s Delicatessen, and they had some comic books, but they also had science fiction magazines, which I had never seen. I knew they existed, but I had never seen one. And immediately I bought my first science fiction magazines, and then I was well and truly hooked, pretty much. I had subscriptions to Galaxy and Fantasy & Science Fiction and Analog starting in the early ’60s, so I was really much a pretty much a science fiction nerd from day one.

Well, it’s interesting, because—I’m a little bit younger than you, I was born in ’59–but that’s exactly my list of books that got me interested in it, Heinlein  and Andre Norton. Somehow I knew Andre Norton was a woman. I don’t know remember ever being surprised to find it out. So I must have read a bio or something of her early on.

I think it became much more public knowledge by the late ’60s, but up until the mid-’60s, I think, you know, she basically kept her identity close to the best.

There was James Tiptree, Jr. I was surprised to find…

Yes. Right. Me too, really. Yeah.

Well, by the time I was reading it would’ve been the late ’60s, so that’s probably why I knew it from the beginning. But that’s sort of the same list of things that I became interested in as well. So, when did you start trying your hand at writing?

Well, you know, I often tell students, my writing students, that one of the seven warning signs that you might become a writer is that you are writing fiction which is not on command by your English teacher before the age of ten, and indeed, I was writing stories and I actually made a little magazine, I would compel my friends to write them and I would illustrate stories myself, probably…maybe I was eleven or twelve. And so, I was trying to do that, and I remember there was a contest in Fantasy & Science Fiction in the mid-’60s that asked for submissions, and I submitted an entry there and I got my first rejection slip and I still have it. And so, I was at it pretty early.

I was, you know, in my early teens when I submitted my first story. I didn’t ever submit another story until I was in college. But, you know, I really…I knew that there was the possibility of an ordinary person writing stories and sending them off. And it was really quite…I was felt empowered by the fact that they had sent me a rejection slip. The idea that I, you know, John Kessel, a kid from Buffalo, New York, could write a story and send it into the magazine and they would read it and say “No,”  but they would send me a slip, just as if I were, you know, a published writer. And so, that was cool.

Yeah, I remember that that same feeling. My first published story, though, was actually…at about that age…I actually got a story published in something called Young Authors’ Open in Cat Fancy Magazine.

Wow, good for you.

It was a terrible, terrible pun about Santa Claus looking for a replacement, and he searched the world over, and he found this guy he thought was perfect, but the guy wouldn’t weed his garden and he knew he couldn’t be Santa Claus because he wouldn’t hoe-hoe-hoe. That was the…

Well, you know, it’s funny because my first submission to F&SF was what was called a Feghoot and it involved a pun.

Oh, I remember those.

Yeah.

So, were you focused on short fiction entirely? Did you try your hand at longer stuff during those years, or…?

Pretty much short fiction. I really loved short stories–still do! And so, that was my thing, was short fiction. Although I read a lot of novels, I’d never tried to write one till I was in my twenties, late twenties, and really had to learn…I mean, novels are different from short stories. And I don’t think the short story is a less important form, although, you know, in terms of making a living, certainly it’s hard to do writing short fiction. But I think artistically the short story is a beautiful form. And it’s not a practice for the novel, it’s not a less worthy or less important form, but it is different.

Somewhere on my bookshelf right behind me, I was just turning around to look, is a collection of science fiction short stories , one of those anthologies from the late ’50s, early ’60s. And, yeah, short fiction was sort of my introduction to it, and that’s sort of the way I started writing it as well. But it turns out I more of a novelist, I think, than a short story writer. Did you show your stories? You said you had this little magazine. Were you letting people read your stories?

You know, in a way, my friends were not as interested in this as I was. So, you know, it was just my thing, at that stage anyway, when I’m talking about junior high school or middle school. So, no, I didn’t. I didn’t really advertise them to people.

I usually ask that because when I’m teaching writing, and I know you’re much more of a writing teacher than I am, but I often recommend to people that they do let other people read their work because it’s a way to find out if you can tell stories that people are interested in.

Well, I think ultimately you do have to submit the story to an audience, either an audience of, you know, a teacher or mentor, or other writers. And so, I’ve actually been very active in workshopping. I like workshopping, and not just as a teacher in the university, but…I went, I was invited to, one of the last Milford workshops, run by Ed Bryant, in 1980 and then again in ’81. That was a real revelatory experience for me in 1980 because I met these other writers, many, many of them up-and-coming writers, but also they were, most of them, unknown. I mean, among the writers who were at this first workshop I went to were Ed Bryant, who was well-established at that point and was sort of a writing hero of mine, although people don’t remember him anymore.

I remember the name.

But then, Connie Willis was there, she had only published a few stories. Cynthia Felice. One of the other people that who had not published a single story at that point, who was one of the workshop members, was Dan Simmons. And George R.R. Martin was one of the writers there. So, I got to know these people really early, and it was really heartening that they would read my stories and give me critiques, so that was good.

Well, when you went to university…where did you go to university?

I went as an undergraduate to the University of Rochester in Rochester, New York. It’s a small private school. And I studied astrophysics, I wanted to be an astronomer. And then I double majored. By the time I graduated, it was a degree in physics and English.

What drew you out of astrophysics to add the English?

Probably you could say that tensor calculus had something to do with it. I could do the math pretty well through the first couple of years, but by the time I got to the really higher math, and the higher physics, too, it’s tremendously mathematical. It especially was at that time, where I think the slogan was, you know, “Shut up and calculate” in physics. And so, I could…I had to struggle to do that, the really advanced math. And I could see other physics majors around me, and they were very…it was a small group of physics majors, maybe there were…I think there were twenty in my graduating class…some of them could do it much better and with more facility, more naturally, than I could. So…and I also saw that my GPA in English classes, which I was taking for fun, was like a grade-point higher than my math class. Great. So, I thought, “Well, and I’m enjoying English classes. I’ll double major.” I didn’t know what exactly I was gonna do at that point, but I know I loved reading and I at that point was starting to write stories again.

And so, I took my first creative writing class in my second semester, senior year at Rochester, and wrote a science fiction story for my final project there. And so, I was getting more serious about that. And then I went to graduate school at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, Kansas. And the main reason I went there was that there was a science fiction writer on the faculty there, James Gunn, who’s, you know, still alive, ninety-six years old, I believe, and was…he’s a Grand Master of SFWA. And, so, he was my mentor there. I was in his classes and he directed my master’s thesis, which was in fiction writing. And then, on my Ph.D. dissertation, I persuaded the university to let me write a collection of stories, rather than a scholarly work, for my Ph.D. in American Lit, and so I wrote a bunch of stories and he was also on my committee at that point.

Were those science fiction and fantasy stories?

They all were. And one of them in my dissertation was “Another Orphan,” which won the Nebula Award in 1982. So, I guess I, you know, I was glad I was able to do that. I mean, I was writing anyway. I would have written the stories anyway. But it was…I probably wouldn’t have finished my dissertation if I had had to write a scholarly dissertation, because I knew at that point, although I’m very interested in, you know, literary study, and I’ve taught American Lit for thirty, almost forty, years, I really wasn’t interested in writing books about, you know, canonical writers and being a scholar, I wanted to write fiction, so most of my energy went there.

Well, this is…it’s interesting to me that…I ask most authors about their, you know, if they had any formal creative writing training, and you get a really mixed bag with science fiction and fantasy authors. There are some who did it and it was not a particularly good experience for them because they met so much pushback against writing science fiction and fantasy. Fortunately, you found James Gunn.

Right.

Was he the only one teaching at that level at that time?

Well, there were very few. I think the only one I can think of…this is 1972, when I went to grad school…is Jack Williamson, who was teaching, I think, at the University of New Mexico.

Right.

 I don’t know if he was a regular faculty member or not, and I didn’t even know he was teaching there. So, the only one I knew about was Gunn, and that’s why I went there. So, I guess you could say that that was instrumental there, that he did not turn up his nose at my writing science fiction. I’m very aware of what you say, that many creative writing teachers, at least in the past, have been very skeptical of anyone who wants to write genre fiction in a, you know, a literary workshop.

Do you think that’s changing?

I think it’s changing to a degree. It depends on what kind of genre fiction you write now. If you write a story with aliens and spaceships and, you know, basically a space opera or that kind of background, in a MFA program, you’ll probably have a hard time unless you go to one of the specialized programs like the Stone Coast Non-Resident MFA, which has people like James Patrick Kelly and Liz Hand and others as teachers. But, I do think there is, you know, there’s a lot more fiction being published now by, we’ll call them mainstream writers, that has fantastic elements in it. I mean, it’s everywhere in our culture now. So…and there, you know, bestselling novels that are written that have time travel in it say or, you know, an apocalyptic plague like Station Eleven, that kills off pretty much everybody. Things that would have been in science fiction novels in 1960 now are published and they’re not really called science fiction, but they have the material of science fiction. They generally treat it a little different than a science fiction writer would, as well. But if you’re going to do spaceships and aliens, then you’re still, I think, going to be put in a different pen.

It’s interesting for me because I’m…I was asked this year to mentor an MFA student from the University of Saskatchewan, the first time I’ve done that, and he’s writing a young adult fantasy novel. So it was…I was pleased, in fact, that the University Saskatchewan didn’t seem to have a problem with people writing in those kinds of genres. And it’s been interesting for me, too.

Well, there are many more professors and teachers in these programs who have genre credentials. So, I think that it is a lot better now than it was in 1972.

So, in between graduating university and starting teaching at North Carolina State University, what were you doing in that interim there?

Well, I finished my coursework for the Ph.D….must have been by ’78 or something like that…and I was supposedly writing a dissertation. Not very fast. I was writing stories. And I took a crack at being a full-time writer and didn’t have much success at it, just writing short stories. So, I got a job at a wire service as an editor. Fortunate to get that. It was a very good job. For three years, I was a copyeditor and then a news editor for a wire service called Commodity News Services out of Kansas City, which was owned by… half-owned by Knight-Ridder newspapers and also by UPI, the United Press International wire service…and I learned an awful lot from that. That was very interesting work. So, that was what I was doing while I was on the side trying to finish my dissertation.

And thenm when I finished it and got my degree in ’81, I looked for a teaching job. Because I found that, as a wire-service editor, it was very high-pressure work, I was editing text all day, and I didn’t feel like writing when I got home. So, I thought, “Well, if I get a teaching job, I can have the summers off at the very least, and my schedule during the week, I won’t have to be sitting in an office from eight to five every day doing high-pressure work. And I was fortunate enough to get the job at N.C. State and I came here in fall of ’82.

And been there ever since.

And been there ever since, yeah. Yeah.

Were your first sales, then, along in their somewhere? Short fiction sales?

So my first fiction sale was in 1975 to an anthology called Black Holes that…they paid me for the story, but it never came out, ’cause the publisher went under. It was…as with so many young writers, often you’re selling to marginal markets. You can’t get into the top paying markets, so you’re just trying to get in somewhere. And that actually happened to my first three stories. I sold them to markets that folded before the stories came out.

It starts to make you a little paranoid.

Yeah, I began to feel pretty discouraged. But then, it was in the late…I think it was in the ’70s, ’77, I sold a story to Galileo, and then I also sold one to Fantasy & Science Fiction, a month apart. And what happened was, a bunch of stories I had written already sold, then, one after another. And so…if I said ’80s earlier, I mean the late ’70s was when I really started to break in. So ’77, ’78, ’79, I started to see stories come out.

And then, of course, you mentioned you won the Nebula in ’82.

Cover of September 1982 issue of F&SF, containing John Kessel’s Nebula Award-winning novella “Another Oprhan.”

Right, which was a huge shock. It was the first time I was nominated, and I was a complete unknown, and I think it was quite shocking to people that I won. And of course, the story was…it showed my background. because it’s a story about…your listeners may not know…it’s about a commodities broker who wakes up on page one and he’s on a sailing ship and he doesn’t know how he got there. And it turns out it’s the Pequod, and he’s in the middle of Moby Dick. And he read it… had to read it in college…and he knows that at the end everybody dies except Ishmael, and he’s not Ishmael. So, that that was my premise, and it used my literary study, ’cause I’m a huge Herman Melville fan, but also it had this sort of fantasy element, and it also used my commodities-editing knowledge, so it really came out of a lot of things that were going on in my life. I wrote it in 1979 and ’80, and it came out in fall of ’82, and won the award in ’83.

You mentioned the commodities feeding into that story? Has your astrophysics background played into any of your science fiction writing over the years?

Certainly I know a lot of astronomy and I try to get the science accurate. I know physics, and I’m not any kind of genius at it, but I know basic physics. And so, when I’m doing science fiction stories, I do try to make it as plausible as I can, but I’m not afraid to violate fundamental laws of nature in order to write a story. And I’m not considered really a techie writer, I think I’m more considered a literary science fiction writer. And then I write stories that I think of as fantasies…and when I say that, everyone thinks, “Oh, it’s like Game of Thrones, castles, dragons, you know, lords and ladies. No. I don’t…I’ve never written a story of that sort in my entire career. What I mean by fantasy is a story that violates reality, has some element of the fantastic in it, could be set in the present, the past, but it’s not explained by an appeal to science.

Well, we’re gonna talk about your creative process using Pride and Prometheus as a sort of a template for how you work. But I also wanted to ask you before we did that about…I noted that you had written a play, Faust Feathers. Have you done other playwriting? I’ve done some playwriting and I’m a professional actor, so I’m always curious about that sort of thing. So, have you done a lot of playwriting?

I have done some playwriting. I wrote a one-act back in the late ’80s called “A Clean Escape,” based on a short story I wrote, that was performed here in Raleigh, and I was very pleased to see that happen. And later on I adapted it for a thing called Seeing Ear Theater, which is an audio play thing run by the Sci-Fi Channel. And then I wrote Faust Feathers, which won the Paul Green Prize, and it got produced somewhere in Nebraska but I never got to see it. And “A Clean Escape” actually eventually got adapted for that show Masters of Science Fiction. So, I have written some plays and I did take an acting class, although…I actually am in a couple movies. I’m in a very low-budget movie called The Delicate Art of the Rifle. I play…it’s kind of typecasting, I play an obnoxious college professor who gets murdered. So, I’ve done a little bit of that stuff. But, you know, mostly I have stuff stuck to prose fiction.

I’m always interested in the crossover between fiction and plays because they are very different kinds of writing. In the play world, of course, it’s very much dialogue driven.

Right. It’s very much that’s the case. But there’s also…when you’re writing, you have to cast yourself into the mind of a character who may not be like you in order to write a book. And it seems to me that’s what actors do. You know, the idea that you’re portraying someone who’s not you, but you have to make their behavior rational and to act in a way that they would act but somehow make it your own. And that, to me is a kind of mental trick that writers do as well as actors.

Yeah, I often make that point when I’m talking to people about the two things. All right, well, let’s move on to Pride and Prometheus. And before we get into talking about how it all came about, and your creative writing process, maybe a synopsis and what the book is. I’ve not quite finished it, but I’ve read most of it.

Well, it’s a kind of a crossbreed. I’ve written a number of stories over the course of my career where I’ll use characters or situations created by other authors. “Another Orphan,” which won the Nebula, puts my character into Moby Dick. In this story I’m basically crossing Frankenstein with Jane Austen’s character, from Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. And this kind of story really appeals to me in that, in a way…it’s a way of sort of thinking about the story and the characters, the way maybe a literary critic might do it, but instead of doing it in terms of literary analysis, I just want to see, you know, what sorts of situations would happen. Because…

I got the idea for the story from a workshop where we were reading a story by a writer named Benjamin Rosenbaum, a wonderful writer, who had a story that was a parody of Jane Austen. And it occurred to me, as I was talking about this story there at the workshop, that Jane Austen and Mary Shelley were contemporaries. They were…if you went to a bookstore in 1818 in London, you could find Jane Austen’s novels, Pride and Prejudice, on the shelf next to Frankenstein. And yet they’re very, very different books. And I never, as an English professor, very seldom ever heard anyone talk about Mary Shelley and Jane Austen in the same context. Now, I think they do a lot more, but not back then. And so I thought, “Well, they’re so different.” I mean, you know, putting a Jane Austen character in Frankenstein, that doesn’t work. I mean, that kind of character, what would they do in Frankenstein? And then putting one of, you know, Victor Frankenstein or the monster into a Jane Austen setting, you know, they don’t belong in a ballroom, OK? But that, to me, intrigued me, and so I got carried…and I wrote originally a novelette version of this, I took the character of Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice and imagined her a decade or more after the end of that book, and had her meet Victor Frankenstein and eventually meet his monster.

Yeah, and I guess it’s hard to synopses it without sort of…

Oh, well, yeah, it’s…you know, Mary is the…she’s the old-maid character, the middle sister in Pride and Prejudice, who’s really not very attractive. She’s kind of bookish and moralistic, she’s always preaching at people. In Pride and Prejudice, she’s hardly even in the book, and when she’s there, she’s sort of the butt of the joke. She’s the only one of the Bennet sisters who’s not pretty. If you know Jane Austen’s books, they’re almost all about finding the right mate and marrying. And I imagine that Mary is going to have a hard time of that. So, I imagine her as, you know, thirty-two years old and on the brink of old-maid-dom, and she gets dragged to a ball by her mother and her younger sister, Kitty, who’s still trying to get married. And there she meets Victor Frankenstein, who is in England–she doesn’t know this, but–in Frankenstein, Victor goes to England, after he’s created the monster. The monster gets abandoned by him and has a terrible time of it and becomes very alienated, and eventually finds out that Victor created him, and goes to Victor’s home and strangles his younger brother, and then threatens Victor with killing everyone in his family if Victor does not create a mate for him. Since no human being will have anything to do with him, he needs to have someone to give him solace, and so he forces Victor to agree to make a female creature. And so Victor travels to England with his friend Henry–this is all in Frankenstein–and travels around and eventually goes up to Scotland, on an island, to create the female, the bride of the monster.

And so, my story begins where Mary’s at this ball in London and Victor is there with his friend Henry, Henry drags him to the ball, and they dance together and strike up a conversation, and it turns out they like each other. And so, that’s the beginning of it. And the rest of it, it sort of follows Mary’s encounters with Victor. Victor is being tormented by the fact the monster’s following him, and then the monster is desperate to have Victor follow through on his promise. And the story alternates between the points of view of these three characters. It’s mostly Mary’s point of view, but it’s also in Victor’s point of view and also in the monster’s point of view, which, in Frankenstein, that’s true, too, if you’ve read it, both Victor and the creature, his creature get to have their own points of view.

Yes, one reason it was interesting…I mean, I’ve read a little Jane Austen, but I’ve read Frankenstein twice, and I think I read it for the first time–and you mentioned this in an interview somewhere, that it was Brian W. Aldiss who perhaps first suggested that Frankenstein was the first science fiction novel–and it was after reading his history of the field that I thought I should read Frankenstein, as opposed to just relying on what we all kind of know from the miasma of Frankenstein stuff that’s around.

That’s right. And, frankly, the image we get of Frankenstein from movies is very much not the creature that was…well, one thing is that people call the monster Frankenstein, and it’s Victor who is Frankenstein. The creature has no name in the book. And so, yes, I wanted to present the monster, the creature–I prefer to call him the creature–as he is in the novel. He’s incredibly intelligent, he’s agile, he’s strong. He’s becomes a kind of…he educates himself remarkably. He’s incredibly articulate. He speaks very well, which is so weird because we’re not used to that from the movies. And so, one of the things that Viktor warns people against when he tells them about these creatures, is, “Don’t listen to him because he’s so persuasive.” That’s really interesting. And he’s sort of a social critic of human behavior. So I wanted to get into that. In a way…

You know, Aldiss did say that this was the first science fiction book, and I had not read it until I read Aldiss, back in the ’70s. and it seemed to me that if Mary Shelley wrote the first true science fiction novel in English, and Jane Austen was sort of the ancestor of the novel of manners…so these are the two great streams in literature, it seems to me, since the early 1800s to the present. We have the novel of the fantastic, the science fiction novel, and then we have the realistic novel like, you know, Henry James and Virginia Woolf, following In the footsteps of Jane Austen. And so, in a way, cramming these two things together in the same book is really sort of unnatural, but also, to me, fascinating.

I read it again…I read it out loud to my wife for the 150th anniversary of the novel, because we have…I read out loud while she’s cooking because our kitchen’s too small for us to cook side by side. And so, it was very interesting to read it out loud, too, and to say that  sort of early 19th century prose, but also the fact that, you know, Mary Shelley was a teenager when she wrote it, nineteen.

Really, eighteen, nineteen years old. And I think it was published when she just turned twenty, right, so…

And I have a daughter who’s eighteen.

Okay. Actually, it was 200 years ago, 200 years ago in 1818.

Right, 200. Yeah, yeah. I just lost half a century there somewhere. So, you’ve talked about how the inspiration for this came about. Just pulling back from it a little bit, is that fairly typical of the way that your story ideas come to you, things sort of colliding and sparks coming off of it?

Often the collision of two things that don’t fit together is a good way to get a story started, it seems to me. And I’ve written a number of works, as I say, that take off from other literary works, but that’s not all the stuff I write, and so…like, my last novel, in 2017, before this one, was The Moon and the Other, which is a science fiction novel set on the moon in the twenty-second century. Very complex future background, lots of technology, I tried to make it as accurate as I could, showing how people might live on the moon, so that one really comes from a different place. And that’s sort of how it works, really.

But yes, the collision of things…to me, it’s always interesting to have things that don’t seem like they ought to go together put together. Or, another way of putting that is, I really like paradoxes. I like when things don’t easily settle themselves out. You know, where all of the…for instance, all of the morality, or the rightness and wrongness, doesn’t all land on one side. I don’t really like stories where there’s the hero and the villain and  there’s just no…it’s easy to choose between them and there’s no confusion or complication of that way of seeing things.

Once you have the idea, for this novel or other novels, what does your planning process look like? Do you do a detailed outline? And how does it differ from your short fiction writing?

Well, again, it depends a little bit on the project. With novels, I do quite a bit of outlining and sketches and notes. I will try to figure out what the inciting incident is, the beginning incident, and then have some sense of where it’s going in the end. Although, when I was younger, I always had to know the ending before I could start a story, but now I’m more willing to get started without a firm idea of how it’s going to end. Well, one thing with Pride and Prometheus is I had many things given to me from Frankenstein. I knew I was going to follow Frankenstein’s plot. And so, I know eventually that Victor ends up in the Orkney Islands, there trying to create the female. So, that to me was a place I was going to get to. I knew I was gonna get up in the Orkney Islands when he’s trying to create the bride for the monster. How he gets there and how Mary gets involved in it, that was not all worked out.

But then, those things are also given to you. For instance, one of the things that happened was…I think I mentioned that in Jane Austen novels, the spring for many of the plots, or maybe all the plots, is finding the right mate. You have these young women heroines who are maybe attracted to one man, who…or someone is being courted by one man…but it turns out there’s someone else who is really the person they should be with. And finding the right mate is the crucial decision of a young woman’s life in Jane Austen’s period, of her social class, anyway. And so, what hit me was that in Frankenstein, Frankenstein is about a lonely guy, the creature, who can’t find a mate. And so, he has to find a female who will love him. And then Victor’s part in this is, he has to create this female. And in order to do that, he’s going to have to come up with a female body. So I thought, “Well, gosh, you know, that’s sort of scary. He’s going to meet my character, Mary, who’s a lonely old maid, and, you know, what sort of things could happen?” And so this sort of offers certain possibilities of scenes that I could imagine. And if you have certain scenes you want to write in a narrative, you can connect them, connect the dots really, like beads on a string. You know, I know I’m driving from here to San Francisco, and I know I’m going to stop in Memphis and Kansas City and Denver and Salt Lake City, but I don’t know where I’m going in between. And so, you sort of try to arrange those, and you drive your characters, you know your characters, you know your characters, you know what they want, what they don’t want, the circumstances around them. The circumstances will change, depending on what happens in the story, and then, you know, given who they are, the kind of people they are, how would they react to that and what would they do to respond to it? And so, that can help you plot a story out. That seems to me a pretty natural way to create a story.

One of the interesting things about Pride and Prometheus is you’ve got this Jane Austen…and it’s also, it’s three viewpoints. I guess there’s third person for Mary, and then you’ve got two first persons, you’ve got the creature and you’ve got Frankenstein and all of them…the prose is…it seems to me that it reminds you of the prose of Austen and Shelley without being…trying to really get into that very convoluted early-nineteenth-century style where you can have one sentence that goes on for like a full page, almost.

Right. Well, thank you. I actually spent a lot of time thinking about that. And so…I tried not to completely imitate Jane Austen’s or Mary Shelley styles, which are quite different. And it’s right, you know, Frankenstein is written in first person from the point of view of these characters, and Jane Austen’s novels are all in third person. But I wanted to allude to them, so that someone who is familiar with those books would feel that this was reminiscent of that, without being so convoluted that it would be difficult to read. So that was my take on it. I hope I did that well enough. I’m pretty proud of how I did it, actually.

It’s…you know, in a lot of ways, the writing of a book is a process of discovery and you have to–I’ve said this to my students, that when you write any fiction, that it’s a collaboration between your conscious mind and your unconscious mind. And if you have everything planned out like a, you know, an architect, it seems to me you can stifle your imagination, because you have everything all worked out and there’s no discovery involved. So, I think that you have to depend on…at least, the life of a narrative can come from you allowing your mind to ruminate over something that you don’t really know the answer to. And that…Jim Kelly, my friend James Patrick Kelly, says that if the writer writing a story is never surprised by anything that happens, then no reader will ever be surprised. And it seems to me that, you know, to a greater or lesser degree, that there have to be things that you didn’t plan that turn up on the page.

I don’t know what your experiences is, but haven’t you ever had the experience where something just sort of comes to you as you’re writing that is exactly the thing you needed, and you did not know it, but there it is, and it proves to be much smarter than anything you could have thought up in advance?

Oh, yeah, that happens. Happens all the time.

Yeah. It’s funny how that works. It seems to me that our minds are more complex than we can easily understand.

The book I’m writing now, which is the third book in a series of mine, much to my surprise, there’s this long discussion on God’s relationship to time that pops up in one scene, which I had no intention of the two characters talking about at that time. But that just seemed to make sense. So there it is, so far, anyway. So, yeah. It’s interesting. It’s very interesting the way the writing mind works.

What’s your actual physical process of writing? Did you write this in longhand in a notebook like they might have, Austen and Shelley, or do you write on the computer? How do you work?

I’m a computer writer, a keyboard writer. I’ve been writing on keyboards since, you know, 1970 with typewriters. I never…I used to…I’ve done some longhand writing, but very little. Very little. And I know some writers who say that they can’t think unless they’re writing longhand, but I work with a keyboard. I work with a laptop right now, although I have it connected to a big screen at my desk.

I tend to work at my desk in my home office. Although there have been times when I will, when I’m having trouble, I will say, OK, I’m going to go to Panera Bread or Starbucks and sit there in the corner and try to write, and that’s worked, too. So, whatever it takes to get the work done, I think, is what I need.

And when I’m teaching, I have a lot of other responsibilities, so I can’t always write every day. And I’m not one of those…actually, I think one of the things that’s told to young writers that can be very intimidating to them is that you can’t be a writer unless you write every day. And it seems to me that…it’s certainly good to encourage the habit of writing regularly, okay? I think that that’s absolutely true. If you want to write anything of any length or…you need to be…you have your head in the game regularly, all the time. But I don’t write every day and I never have. There’ve been periods where I’ve written every day for, you know, a couple of months, when I’ve had the time to do that or when I’ve been hot on a project and I want to finish it, but there are other times when I, you know, I’ll write three days a week, okay, or I’ll, between projects, be sitting around reading and playing the guitar and watching bad movies and thinking. So my process…I mean, I do have habits that work for me. I try to be regular in them. But, you know, other people say, “Oh, we have to write, you write the same time of day every day.” Well, I generally will try to work in the morning, but it doesn’t always work that way. So whenever it comes to me to work, then I will work. And sometimes I do have to kick myself in the pants and say, “OK, you need to sit down there. You need to close the door. You need to stare at the screen. You can’t look at your e-mail. You cannot go to Facebook. You are a writer.”

Yeah, that’s…I know that feeling. Deadlines help sometimes, too, to motivate you.

I like deadlines. I know George R.R. Martin, I think, is a writer who hates deadlines and sort of fights against them. I am one who,  a deadline focuses my attention, and I like deadlines because it tells me exactly what I have to do. I have to have this done by September 1st, it’ll be done by September 1st. In my entire undergraduate career and graduate career, I don’t think I ever turned in a paper late, because something about it, the idea of being late on it would be worse. I mean, I would just…not so much that I’d get a bad grade, but rather that psychologically I might never get it done if I don’t make it by the date that I’m supposed to turn it in.

What does your…once you have a draft. What does your revision process look like?

Well, I will certainly go over it and make sure it reads smoothly and revise and edit to a degree until I’ve got a fairly polished version of it. But then I will show it to other people who are writers who I trust to give me feedback. And one of them is my wife, Therese Anne Fowler, who is extremely successful. I mean, she’s much more successful than I am. She wrote a novel called Z, a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, which was a bestseller and made into a TV show on Amazon. And so, she’s a very experienced novelist, and so she gives me feedback. I often talk to her about it over supper. We’ll be working, we’re both writers, and so we’re working and then we have meals together. “How’s your day, dear?” “Oh, you know…” And she doesn’t talk as much about her work as I do, but I often talk about what I’m doing and what the problems are and what’s going on. But then when I get a draft done, I show it to her.

I always ask James Patrick Kelly to read it, and he’s been my faithful critique and critic for, you know, forty years now, really. A very wonderful guy, wonderful writer, so knowledgeable. And other writers who I have regularly…and get feedback…are my friend Richard Butner, who lives here in Raleigh, and Lewis Shiner, a well-known science fiction writer. He lives in Raleigh and we’ve been friends for more than thirty years. Karen Joy Fowler has helped me a lot with my female characters and Gregory Frost…and often actually for a couple of my things, Bruce Sterling, a writer who many people…I mean, back in the ’80s when he was the head cyberpunk and I was labeled as a humanist writer, people thought we would, you know, we hated each other, but that wasn’t the case, even though we disagreed about an awful lot of stuff. But he’s give me some very good readings over the years.

Are there sort of consistent things you find that your readers come back with that you need to…per up?

I usually find, when I have some women readers, that my women characters need attention, OK? And so…I’m trying to do my best. But, you know, I think it’s good to have someone put their eyes on it who has experienced the things that a woman experiences. And so, that to me is a consistent thing that I have had to pay attention to. The editing of…editing things down. I tend to be, in my early drafts, a lot more wordy than I do in the later. As I’ve gotten older, I’m less and less that way, I think. And Jim Kelly has been very helpful with that. He’s a much more efficient writer than I am, and I have to sort of work to get to that point.

What other things? You know, there are sometimes story-logic issues, but generally, my stories, when I get a draft done…I’ve done a lot of time thinking. I don’t write really fast, so it generally has had a lot of thought put into it, and it’s very seldom that I get told something that causes me to drastically change what I’ve written, like the structure or something.

You teach writing. Do you ever find people telling you to do things that you tell your students to do but you overlook in your own writing?

Gosh, probably. One of my colleagues at NC State is a novelist named Wilton Barnhardt, also a wonderful novelist who has given me much, much good advice. He’s not afraid to tell me, you know, but I think as far as the things that I tell my students, it’s not usually so much that, you know.

Well I ask because, you know, I mentor writers. And then when I’m editing my own stuff, I’ll say, nope, there it is, that’s exactly what I told them not to do, and I did it in my first draft.

Well, it’s certainly true that I will make grammar or usage errors that I would complain about to them. I generally…I know the difference between lie and lay, okay, but it’s possible for me to make a mistake there. Or I will sometimes put an apostrophe in its, a possessive its, when it doesn’t belong there.

Yeah, that’s a pernicious one. That just happens sometimes.

Right. It’s, you know, it’s a matter of you writing fast and not thinking.

So once the book goes to the publisher, what does the editing…we should say Pride and Prometheus is from Saga, is that right?

Saga. That’s right? And my previous book, The Moon and the Other, was also from Saga. And that was…my editor there is Joe Monti, who’s is good. I had never worked with them before The Moon and the Other. And actually, I said that I very seldom change structure, but with The Moon and the Other, I sold on the book, and I…he had the whole manuscript. It was finished, you know, before…I thought it was done. And he read it, and we met in New York City, and he said, “You know, it’s a slow start on this book.” It’s a big book. It’s like, 600 pages long, and it’s got four main characters and it alternates point of view between these four characters.

And I said, “Yeah, I know, it starts really slow because I have to do all four characters and they’re in different places, they don’t know each other, it’s complicated.” And so, he said, “Do you know how long it takes before all four characters are introduced?”, and I said, “Jeez, I don’t know. Maybe eighty pages? Seventy pages?” He says, “108 pages.” “Wow. Okay.” And he said, “Is there something you can do?” I mean, he said…also, the first chapter originally was taking place ten years before the body of the book. It was sort of like a prologue. And he said, “Do you have to have that chapter? Can you take it out?” And I said, “I absolutely cannot take out the chapter because it mirrors the last chapter of the book, and there are all these reasons why I just could not do it. There are too many things introduced there that are vital to the storyline.” And then I went home, and I said, “OK, so…” He didn’t say I had to do it, but he said, “Is there anything you do speed up this this book?”

And so I went home, and I thought, “All right, is it possible to take out that first chapter? What happens if I take out the first chapter? There’s things in that chapter I absolutely need. Is there someplace else I could put them?” So, I took the first chapter out, and one thing that immediately became evident is that I would have to rearrange the order of the next six or seven chapters. And so, I did that. And then I had to rearrange what was in those chapters, because the chapters depended on what happened in previous chapters. And then, I had to get the first chapter stuff in there somewhere else. And anyway, it ended up changing the first seven chapters of the book, and considerable revision. And it got much better. I mean, it started much better. And I’m so glad he…he didn’t tell me to do it, he didn’t say, “You have to do this,” but he made me think about it. And it really was vitally important to the book, I think, to do it, to get that chapter moved. And it really made it better.

And I think, you know, new writers sometimes are concerned about the editing process, you know, they’re going to change my deathless prose and all that sort of thing.

Right. Right.

And certainly my experience has been with my editors, Sheila E Gilbert at DAW Books, Hugo Award winning editor, and my experience has been, editors make things better for the most part.

I think they want the book to be as good as it can be. And, you know, you may have some differences of opinion, but it doesn’t help you to be stiff-necked and defensive about things. You know, actually, Christopher, who was in my undergraduate class, was writing the novel…I can’t remember the title of the first novel in the series…but he had it in my, parts of it in my class, and I remember we met in my office one time, and it had a prologue on it, and I felt the prologue was slow to start, and then the first chapter was a completely different situation than the first, than the prologue. And I said, “OK, so you’re opening this story with a frame here. When do you close the frame? Do you close the frame at the end of the book?” Because I hadn’t seen the whole book. He said, “No, I close the frame at the end of the trilogy.” And I said, “That’s not going to work. You need to…if you’re going to have a frame in front of a book, you need to close it by the end of the book. Or at least that’s my strong prejudice. Think about that, okay.” And so, what he did was, he ended up throwing it out. And I don’t know what he did with the material, if it shows up elsewhere, but he changed that. And to me, I thought that was a, you know, I mean, I didn’t make him do it, but that just was my advice for a better opening. And it’s funny, it’s similar to what Joe Monti told me, although it happened before that. So, you know, I guess it helps to be able to listen to things, even if you don’t, in the end, do what the editor says.

Empire of Silence. That’s the first book.

That’s it. Empire of Silence.

Howling Dark is the one that just came out. Well, now we’re getting close to the end, so I want to move to the big philosophical questions. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? And why do you and I and others write science fiction and fantasy?

Wow, those are tough questions. I don’t know if I can speak for everyone else, but…

For yourself, then.

Yeah. Frederick Pohl, science fiction writer Frederick Pohl, said science fiction is a way of thinking about things, and I like that definition a lot. It seems to me that you can think about things in terms of, in science-fictional terms, the same kinds of things you can think about in a realistic story, but you do it differently. So if you think about, say, marriage, okay, or death or love or parenthood or something like that, in science fiction you can twist things in a way that sort of exposes the workings or…I think of it sometimes as like a lever that you can shove into the machine and pry it open and see the workings in a different way than a realistic novelist or story writer can, so that one of the appeals of science fiction, is that you can…

The very. the fantastic element. to me. should be essential to the story. And in fact, that’s one of my principles, is that. if I could tell this story without the science fiction or the fantasy element, then I should tell it without it, okay? That it has to be vital to the story, has to be essential to make the point I’m trying to make that is in there. So, you know, in other words, I could…

You know, The Moon and the Other started from me watching my daughter at the daycare center when she was a toddler. And I was watching the kids in the playground, the little kids, two, three years old, playing out back. And it seemed to me that the boys’ way of playing was different from the girls’ way of playing. And I started thinking about, “Well, is that inherent or is this culturally determined, okay? When did they start behaving differently?” And so that got me thinking about the difference between men and women–not that I hadn’t thought about it before, but… and I ended up writing this big novel set on the moon in the twenty-second century about gender issues. And yet, another person would have written a story about a father at a daycare center with his daughter and the other kids, you see? But that’s not what I wrote. I wrote a science fiction novel. So, there’s something about that tropism for the strange, or the fantastic, that I’ve always had, and I think I always will.

I think that, you know…why does anyone write? It’s a very good question. I think it’s something about…trying to figure out the world, it seems to me. Or maybe just to entertain yourself or entertain somebody. There’s an element also of sort of showing off, isn’t there? Where you want everyone to admire you. And so…I remember there was a TV production company that did sitcoms and stuff, and at the end of every show, they’d have this little logo and they’d have a kid’s voice that would say, “I made this!” And I always liked that, because a kid makes things just to make them and to be proud, you know, to sort of say, “I made this myself. No one else made this.” And I still have that kid feeling, you know, “No one else wrote these books. No one else could write these books exactly the way I wrote them. Maybe for better, for worse, someone might have written them better, but I made this book myself,” and I like that, you now?

That is one of the rewarding things about it, for sure.

It’s bad when they reject your story and say, “Oh, my God, that stinks.”.

Yeah, there’s that, too.

Yeah.

Well, that’s kind of the end of our time. So, what are you working on now?

I have a novella that I just told you about that is on submission right now that is a weird kind of thing. It’s about the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901 at a World’s Fair in Buffalo, New York, and it’s also about a trip to the moon in 1901. And it sort of alternates between the realistic historical story and this fantastic scientific romance about the inhabited moon full of Selenites.

I miss that moon.

Yeah. It’s based on a ride that was there at the at the fair, called A Trip to the Moon. It was the first dark ride, if you know what a dark ride is, like at Universal City or Disney World, where they have these rides, you’re in a vehicle and they show you things. So that one’s going out. It’s a kind of political story. I’ve got a ghost story. I wrote my first ghost story and that is on submission right now. And I don’t know, we’ll see what happens with that. You’d think I would have written a ghost story before now, but I didn’t. And who knows? I like to write different kinds of stories. So, you know, if there’s a kind of story I haven’t written yet, I’m thinking, well, what kind of what kind of monster story would I write?

And where can people find you online?

Oh, I have a Web site…and also, there’s a…I have a pretty active Facebook page, which is open to the public and has lots of things on there. You can find things about me. And I’m in the bookstores. Look for Saga books.

OK, well, I think that’s the end of our time, so, thanks so much for being a guest on The World shapers. That was a fun conversation.

Well, thank you very much. I certainly didn’t lack for things to say. I hope I didn’t get too far off the bat.

No, no, it was great. So, thanks a lot, and bye for now.

Take care.