Episode 20: Robyn Bennis

An hour-long conversation with Robyn Bennis, author of the Signal Airship series, which begins with The Guns Above and continues with By Fire Above, published by Tor Books and edited by Diana M. Pho.

Website:
www.robynbennis.com

Twitter:
@According2Robyn

Facebook:
@robynbenniswriteringpun

Robyn Bennis’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Robyn Bennis

Robyn Bennis has done research and development involving human gene expression, neural connectomics, cancer diagnostics, rapid flu testing, gene synthesis, genome sequencing, being so preoccupied with whether she could that she never stopped to think if she should, and systems integration.

She wrote most of The Guns Above within sight of Hangar One at Moffett Airfield, which was once the West Coast home to one of America’s largest airships, the USS Macon.

She currently resides in Madison, WI, where she has one cat, two careers, and an apartment full of dreams.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

So, Robyn, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you for having me.

Now, I always like to start off these things by trying to figure out my connections to the author, but I think in this case it’s that I met your editor Diane Pho at WorldCon in San Jose and she suggested that you would be somebody to talk to and I’m very glad that she did because I really enjoyed the book.

I loved Diana. She’s fantastic. She is a great coach have on your team.

And I think I just said Diane but I meant Diana. It was interesting, because she was up for the Hugo Award this year, but so my editor at DAW, Sheila Gilbert, and I couldn’t really wish her the best of luck when I met her. And Sheila won. So, yay! But Diana has put me in touch with two or three authors that I’ve been talking to for the podcast.

She has an amazing roster.

Yeah, she sure does. Well, we’re going to talk about your book The Guns Above and a little bit about the sequel By Fire Above, but first I want to take you back into history, perhaps not quite back to the ages of airships but back to when you started becoming interested in writing and in writing, particularly, this kind of stuff. Did you start with an interest in sort of the science-fiction/fantastical/ and then the writing came later, or how did that work for you?

Well, if we’re talking about steampunk and airships in general, it started on an airship, strangely enough, in the age of airships, which not many people know extended into the mid-aughts. There was an airship–people in the San Francisco Bay Area might remember the airship Eureka, which used to fly overhead and flew out of Moffett Field–and through a company, the biotech company that I was working at at the time, I had the chance to go up in it, and it was an amazing experience. Airships, as–you know, we might talk a bit later about how impractical they are, but once you actually manage to get them working and you manage to get them in the air safely they are just a magical experience. You are floating above the world and it’s relatively quiet. It is a nice stable platform to see around in. And it is just…there is a certain sort of calm wonderment that overcomes just about everyone who steps into an airship.

Very few people have that opportunity, though. There aren’t very many of them around.

No, they’re incredibly impractical to run. In fact, I was…we were ticketed to fly on the airship Eureka about a month and a half before we actually managed to get onto it. Its daily run was scrubbed due to weather twice before we actually managed to get up in the air on it.

But going back a little further than that, when did you first become interested in science-fiction/fantasy and in particular in writing. First of all, I guess, where did you grow up and all that sort of stuff?

Well, those answers are related to each other, because I got interested in SF/F…probably second or third grade is when I started reading fantasy novels and getting into that. And this would have been in Dunedin, Florida, where I grew up, not perhaps the most inspiring town in the country.

I grew up in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, so, you know…

So, yeah, there you go. We both come from a little podunk towns, I guess. But, you know, perhaps I wanted to escape it, and fantasy books and science fiction books, which I got into a little bit later, really provided a doorway into an entirely different world that I could just step into. And almost as soon as I started reading them I wanted to start writing them. I think I wrote my first short story in, maybe, fourth grade? It was obviously godawful, but I never really stopped after that, just kind of kept writing. I was always writing something. I was usually writing just for myself and, you know, as is the case for most people who start writing, it’s terrible at first, but after you know 20, 25 years I think it started to get a little better.

Do you remember any of the books that first got you interested? I always like to ask that, I get some interesting responses. Was there anything that really stuck out for you in your early life?

I remember…I can remember a few images. I do not remember any titles. They were mostly pulp kind of books that even if you showed me the title I might not remember it. They were not from the big names. I was reading out of the school library and I’m not sure the library was the most supported department in that school. It mostly had just kind of paperback novels that, you know, didn’t have legs but were probably available cheap at some estate sale.

I grew up I read a lot of Ace doubles and things like that and I remember reading a book once, we were in the car with my parents, and I was maybe ten or nine or eight or something, and they wanted to know…I got really excited. and I read them this section where some guy with a laser beam cut the head off of somebody and it rolled across the floor and there wasn’t any blood because the thing was an android, there was just this glistening gray mass at the top of the neck, and there was a sort of dead silence after I read that out loud, and then my mom said, “What are you reading?”.

Yes!

I would really like to find out what that book was because I remember that scene so distinctly because of my parents’ reaction, but I don’t remember the book.

That doesn’t ring a bell for me, either.

So, you continued writing then as you were in high school and getting a little older. Did you ever start sharing your writing with your classmates or anything like that?

Woo, boy, I was always way too embarrassed. It was, you know…and I have occasionally–and by occasionally, I mean every five years or so–gone back to look at some of that early stuff that I wrote in high school and in college and in my early 20s, and at the time I was too embarrassed to show it to anyone. And in hindsight I believe I was 100 percent right about that. It was the correct choice to not show that to anyone. I did join a writing group briefly and, you know, from the comfort of anonymity showed some of my my short works to the crowd. I will never admit which one. So that you can never track those stories down. And I think that was kind of critical in making some improvements that just are sometimes not possible on your own. You can’t always find your own flaws, and also, just critiquing other people’s work is an excellent tool set for finding flaws in your own work and working on the areas where you’re weakest.

Hence, I always recommend when I teach writing that people find some way to share their work with somebody, because you don’t really know if you’re doing something that readers will connect with until you actually have a reader.

Yeah. You know, there’s a certain amount that you can do, you know, you can recognize on your own when something is just godawful, which you probably will be when you start out, that’s just, that’s how it goes, none of us are good at things right away except by unlikely statistical chance, but yeah, there comes a point where you just can’t objectively evaluate your own work, you have to turn to someone else to see if there’s something worth keeping there. And, you know, even if there isn’t anything worth keeping there they can show you and help you find the areas where you can improve. And, you know, you just try to improve your work in that area. And if you do that enough times, if you go through enough iterations of that, you will eventually become a really good writer.

Now, after high school, you went to university, and you did not study writing at university.

I sure didn’t.

Where did you go and what was your degree in?

I went to the Ivy League school, Florida State University–we have a proud tradition of burning ivy. So, I studied biology there and went into biotech afterwards, because I had the mistaken impression that by going into biotech I would be able to revolutionize the world, I would find a cure for cancer and, you know, make dogs fly, and just do all kinds of amazing things and, you know, not everybody can do that.

But you stayed in the field for a long time. Are you still working in the field as well as writing?

I do occasional consulting, but I would say I’m semi-retired from biotech now.

Your book deals with the first female airship captain in the world that you’ve created, and I’m married to an engineer…

Oh. I see where this is going…

Yes. So, did you did you experience in a still, I would assume, somewhat male-dominated field–although that does seem to be changing, I know a lot of women who are going into biology–did that inform your story when it came time to write it?

Not yes, but hell yes! My experience, in biotech was…I would not say it was positive overall. There were definitely some bright spots, often when I had a female boss. Hello! I think if any of them are listening they probably know who they are. Hi! You’re awesome! But most of the time it was such a slog to even get people to believe your math. You would think that that would be one thing that would be objective, right? Like, you know, “Hello mister male surface chemist, you have a calculator you can you can demonstrate this on your own, you don’t have to trust me.” But, no, it’s kind of amazing the degree to which women just get shut down in data meetings and experimental planning. You just…you wouldn’t think that that would still be happening today, but it happens in subtle little ways that you definitely notice it when you’re on the receiving end.

Were you writing during all this time?

I was. Yes. I wrote a terrible young adult novel, which if I ever have a Patreon it will be on the $10,000-a-month tier. You’ll be able to see that, because it is…it’s not good. But I would say that that was kind of my final hurdle to becoming a pretty darn good writer, if I say so myself. That was kind of my senior year of writing class that taught me what I was missing. And, you know, the end of it’s definitely better than the beginning, I can certainly say that. It took me three years to finish it, so you can kind of almost see it as an archeological record of my improvement as a writer. And once I was done with that, I was ready to do it for real. You know, I stepped out of that and thought, “Hey, let’s do this for real. Let’s write something that’s marketable.”

Where did the writing group fall into that timeline? Was that still while you were in university or…?

That stretched out…that was a bit after. That was probably when I was in biotech. I definitely remember that being connected to San Diego, where I worked for a year at a small company. So, kind of right in the middle, in between those initial forays into writing and actually getting serious about it. But I took the lessons that I learned from that and I’m still using them even today. Just be…the things I learned critiquing other people and having myself critiqued are still…you know, there are definitely elements of that that I’m still looking for when I go through my own work to edit it today and to evaluate it.

Well, that brings us to By Fire Above. Before we delve into the process of writing that maybe give a synopsis.

Do you want me to talk about By Fire Above or The Guns Above?

Oh sorry. Yeah. The Guns Above and whatever you want to say about By Fire Above that won’t spoil The Guns Above.

All right. So, The Guns Above follows the exploits of Josette Dupre, who has unfortunately been promoted into an airship where she is going to be the first female commander in the nation of Garnia. Her chief enemies are her superior officers, her own crew, and then the actual military enemies of her nation, in that order. She is being countermanded and undermined at every step. But, you know, no spoilers, it’s just possible that she might win some of these folks on her side by the end of the book.

One would hope so.

Not to give anything away.

Yeah. No, that’s why I always ask the author to do the synopsis so I don’t accidentally give away something that shouldn’t be given away.

Yeah.

So, what was the genesis for this. How did this all begin?

Well I so I have always enjoyed Aubrey-Maturin series, which is an early 19th-century setting, which follows the captain of first, the captain of a brig, a rather small ship in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and later the captain of a frigate. And if you’ve seen the movie Master and Commander, that was based on this series of books. I’ve always loved them. I’ve always enjoyed the technical aspects of them as well as the interpersonal relationships between the characters, and when I stepped aboard the Eureka at Moffett Field I thought maybe I could bring that, bring airships into that world and tell the same sort of story. You know, obviously, theft is better than creativity when you’re trying to sell something. Kind of bring airships into that world, tell the same kind of story with the same kind of characters and an attention towards technical detail, and see what happens. And, you know, I believe it turned out pretty well.

I would agree with that. I enjoyed it very much. So, with that idea in mind, how did you go about further developing it into an actual novel?

Oh, boy. So, that started with about three months of research and brainstorming. About the moment I stepped off the Eureka I went to Amazon and started ordering books about airships, non-fiction books, some of them written by the war department during the brief flirtation with airships during the ’20s and ’30s,  some of them just, you know, historical pieces from secondary sources, and I kind of learned everything I could about airships, not only about the people who flew them and what they were intended to be used for but also the, you know, the technical aspects of putting them together. It’s kind of funny, you know, you don’t really think of it today when you look at these ships, the grand airships of the ’20s and ’30s, but at the beginning of that period nobody really knew how to make them work optimally, and there are some interesting books that are almost arguments with other engineers about the best ways to build airships. I got an interesting kind of background that is reflected in the first act of the book, where my captain is lamenting the fact that she is being put in an airship that is a “revolutionary new design,” which is otherwise known as a death trap. Of course, at the time I had no idea how I was going to use that. It was just, you know, I just kind of built up this knowledge base in my head for later use without considering how it might be useful. I just picked up as many facts as I could along the way and brainstormed as many little elements to the world. I was kind of building the setting, or at least the building blocks from which I would later build the setting at this time. And after that, I spent a while outlining it. I didn’t actually start writing until five or six months after I actually began the project.

I’m going to ask you about your outline and what it looks like in a minute, but I want to go back to the airship. First of all, how closely does your airship design model anything that we had in the real world?

It doesn’t model any particular airship. It does take elements from various ships, however. There was never, to my knowledge, a successful design that used a steam turbine, for example–that was outdated technology by the time we were actually building large airships in earnest. The one element that I know people may be least credulous about is, however one that is rooted in the history, and that’s the fact that for a little while we made airships out of wood. The…I’m probably blowing this pronunciation, it’s German…the Schütte-Lanz Company actually built airships out of wood for about a 10-year period, and in many ways they were superior in performance to the contemporary aluminum, or duralumin designs being produced by the Zeppelin Company at the same time. The downside was that the airships fell to pieces in a few years because wood doesn’t stand up well to moisture, of course.

Which you comment on with the steam power and its effect on wood.

That’s the way I cheat about that. I say, “Well, you know, we’re always scraping off the laminates and repainting it.” That’s my little nod to realism there. There’s a few of those little moments where I say, “Well, you know, yeah, this might not be very practical, but we work hard at it.”

I went through a period when I was fascinated with First World War aviation and I still remember as a kid being startled to find out that the airplanes were made out of wood with doped fabric stretched across them and I read a story years later about the Mosquito bombers in the Second World War, which were also made out of wood.

You know, it has its qualities. It’s not practical overall but there are definite definitely niche applications. I was recently, in fact, at the Boeing Museum in Seattle, and they have an example of one of the very first fighter aircraft up, and the damn thing looks like it’s going to fall apart on the ground. When you look at it, you look at this thing and you think, “This is made from string and papier mâché, probably.” It’s just an absolute mess, and you wonder about the bravery/madness of the people who went up in these things.

You touch on that, too. But we’ll talk about that in a minute when we get to characters. We never in our world had airship-to-airship combat, did we?

I don’t believe we did. Unless there’s some obscure historical incident that I don’t know about. Mostly it was airships versus fixed-wing aircraft. And it was a race, you know, essentially it was a race into the air. The most famous examples, of course, being zeppelins flying over Great Britain. And they would, you know, start out at a fairly high altitude, which they could achieve with relatively little effort. The aircraft that were scrambled to shoot them down had to first climb up to that altitude and then had to catch the airships. The speed difference at that time between an airship and a fixed-wing aircraft was not huge. So, it took quite a bit of work, actually, on the part of the fixed-wing pilots to actually get those Jerries.

Were they still using hydrogen in the First World War? Weren’t they?

They were, in fact. Yes. Which, you know, not a super great idea, nut I believe Germany was simply limited by the resources. This is another thing that I just kind of dance around in The Guns Above, where the hell they get their luftgas, which is this world’s version of helium. In the real world it requires natural gas deposits or oil deposits, where the helium tends to collect in domes above those deposits. And it also requires extremely low-temperature separation technologies. So, I just kind of decided to not mention it. That’s my way around that particular problem.

So, when it came to the airship combat, which is lovingly detailed, that must have taken a considerable amount of thought on your part. I realize that some of it does bear resemblance to sailing ships trying to maneuver to, you know, rake them from the stern, that sort of thing. It comes across as very believable.

Well, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how it might actually work. This is something that never happened in the real world, so, you know, that is both a problem and an opportunity. It’s a problem because I have to come up with a convincing way to get these folks shooting at each other. Of course, it’s an opportunity in that I could be completely wrong, and no one will ever know because hopefully this will never happen. But I really did make an attempt, including to the point of doing, you know, calculating angles and determining the apparent size of vessels at varying distances to try to get an idea of what this would be like. I think I spent several days just trying to get in the heads of my tacticians and, you know, what would you want to do. If I was trying to blow up an airship from another airship which, you know, is not hard to think about, because that’s one of the coolest things you can imagine except for all the death and chaos. Once you sanitize that, though, it’s pretty awesome. What would I be trying to do? What would I be trying to hit? How would I try to avoid taking damage? What would the situation be on deck? What would be going through the minds of the people involved in this in, you know, in this terrifying chaos? I just spent several days trying to get inside their heads and, you know, I think the results speak for themselves.

Now we go back to the outline. What did that look like? What does your outline look like? You’ve done two and I presume there’s a third one coming? I hope?

Well, we’ll see. I’m not currently contracted for a third one. So, if you like the first two, tell your friends, get those sales numbers up so we can get a third book. But my initial outline actually looks surprisingly like the finished product. There are a couple of chapters that are in the outline that did not show up in the final book because I was running out of space. You know, some of your listeners may know this and some may not, but when you’re writing a debut novel in this sort of SF/F genre, you kind of want to keep the links under 100,000 words. Anything above that has a tendency–this isn’t a rule, but there is a tendency to scare off potential publishers if your book is too long, and so, I had to kind of cut out a couple of chapters in my outline. But other than that, it is largely what I originally wrote.

How detailed was it?

Not super detailed, which…you may have gotten to the heart of the reason it didn’t change very much. I tend to write in broad strokes in my outline. I think it might have been two or three pages long, and then I write slightly more detailed smaller outlines for individual chapters as I’m going through the book.

You started with…obviously the airship was the big idea…but then you had to have characters. So, how did you come up with the characters that you needed? There are two main characters, I guess. How did you decide what characters you wanted to tell the story and then how did you make them come alive?

Well, initially, I stole them, which, you know, I’m not ashamed to admit that. I stole from the best. though. I stole from the Aubrey-Maturin series, and I think astute readers who have read that series and my own books will notice elements of Captain Jack Aubrey in Josette, and they will notice elements of Dr. Maturin in Bernie, but, you know, from there, obviously, you’ve got to file the serial numbers off. So, I did much the same thing that I do when I’m approaching technical problems. I tried to spend a few days in their heads. Times when I was not writing or outlining or researching, I just kind of spent my free time during the day, you know, during boring biotech meetings, just trying to imagine how these characters think. I think this gets to what some authors describe as letting the characters speak for themselves. And I’m not sure if I buy into that, but it’s certainly true that when you start thinking about how a person, how a fictional person thinks, it doesn’t take you very long to develop their moods, their quirks, their driving goals, you know, you just kind of have to find those moments to think about this and to put yourselves in their head, and it just kind of seems to emerge.

You mentioned, you know, sort of approaching it like you’ve got a technical problem and you’ve talked about how your experience and biotech influences Josette’s experiences, and you just mentioned that sitting in boring meetings gave you time to think about this, so, are there any other ways in which your experiences in the sciences helped you with the writing of the book, or influenced it in some way?

Certainly, you know, I think you might have just gotten to the heart of Josette’s problems right there. You know, I’m sitting in a data meeting where people are ignoring me, and I’m like, “Well, how would she feel about this? I think she’d want to shoot somebody. Hmm. Interesting character trait.” I do think that just having a background in science or technology in general does certainly teach you, one, to do your homework, and two, to really think things through before you commit to them. Anyone who has worked in biotech for very long knows that the best ideas don’t pan out. Nine times out of ten you can have the best most succinct and most elegant idea for, you know, a particular chemical process to deposit the chemistry that you need on your device, and then you run it in the lab and it’s a complete disaster. You get used to that kind of stuff, and I think it teaches you to…I always hate these succinct one-sentence bits of advice, but I think this is essentially the equivalent of the “kill your darlings advice,” which, you know, if you could expand on it is, “Don’t get too attached to any given concept, to any given plot point, to any given scene that you want to put in your book. Be willing to adapt to the needs of the story and the needs of the character. Let the character takes you where they want to. Don’t railroad them into a particular path.” Be willing to let go of your brilliant ideas. You can always use them later in a different book.

Now, of course, this is a war novel, which meant setting up a geopolitical situation that would support the war, and then it’s also…I mentioned that I have the interest in First World War aviation, and also recently I edited the memoirs of my grandfather-in-law, who was in the Canadian military to start with in the First World War, first as a truck driver in France and then he decided that wasn’t exciting enough, so he joined the Royal Air Force.

Oh, good Lord!

As a navigator on a Handley-Page Bomber.

Wow.

Peter Jackson’s WWI documentary They Shall Not Grow Old

Which typically, you got about six missions and then you crashed, or were shot down, and he indeed was shot down, but he survived. And reading your book…and also, recently, you may be aware of Peter Jackson’s movie They Shall Not Grow Old.

Yeah, I saw that, that was excellent.

And all of that related to this a little bit, because the people in your book are fighting this war. They’re really just doing a job, but they’re kind of trapped in this war that doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

No. I mean. I’m sure it makes sense to the higher-ups. Of course, they’re not the ones who have to do the dying. As someone points out in the second book, they’ve got people to do their dying for them. And, of course, all of their little desires for land and influence and power make perfect sense to them, even as the war devolves into a pointless morass, which is evident to anyone who opens their eyes to it. And I did very much draw from the, just the pure pointlessness of the First World War, to capture that, you know, that sense of, you know, patriotism/just complete incomprehensibility of what the hell we’re fighting for.

And yet, you know, essentially the characters are fighting for their comrades and for each other, which does seem to be very true to the way things work in real-life wars as well.

Yeah. Once, you know…and that’s the trick, right? That is what allows a guy in a funny hat to tell you to go die on that hill is, you know, you would tell him to get lost if it was just you and him. But, you know, you’re there with everyone else and everyone’s going there. So, you know you can’t abandon your friends.

Now with the book written…did you write the book and then sell it?

I did. Which is usually the case with debuts with rare exceptions. I had the entire thing written and then did, you know, essentially cold emailing to catch the attention of agents. Out of, I believe, thirty-two agents that I submitted a query to, one was interested in the book straight through. A couple asked for, you know, twenty pages, and a few asked for the complete manuscript, but only one saw the, you know, the full potential of this book when he read through it, and that was Paul Lucas who is a rock star. And then he went about, you know, shopping it around.

I should back up just one step. Once you had the draft written, what did your rewriting process look like, your revision process?

Ooh, it was a lot of trimming. I went through and tried to trim out every extraneous technical detail on my first edit pass–and there sure were a lot of them. My ultimate goal, which, you know, I was semi-successful at, was to not have any information dumps, to not have anything that feels like it’s just information for information sake.

“As you know, Bernie, this and this and this and this…” In this case he didn’t know, but…

Oh, yeah. That really gets my goat. So, I tried to cut…there was a bit of that, certainly, and there was a lot of people wandering around thinking about the technical aspects of the things around them, which is another thing that kind of gets me. So, I took that out wherever it was not absolutely necessary for a reader to understand the environment that, you know, that I’ve put them in. So that was my first draft, or rather my second draft, and then I just kind of went through it over and over and over again, paying particular attention to the beginning and the end and the most critical plot critical points in the story, just trying to make it a little bit better with every draft. I think I ended up with something like 16 or 17 drafts by the end of that.

Did you share it with anybody to read along that way, or were you doing it yourself?

At that point I did. I shared it with a combat veteran that was working with me at the time, and I shared it with a couple of writing pals, and, you know, I think they really did help make it better. They saw things that I missed.

How long was this entire process before you were ready to submit?

I think that might’ve taken about three to four months. I really took my time on this one.

Now, you did sell it to Tor, and your editor was Diana Pho, Hugo-nominated editor. What was her…what’s her editorial process? What did she come back to you with?

So, she came back with a lot of questions about the world and just an amazing depth of understanding. I mean, I think she connected with this book immediately and she wanted to make it better in the same way, you know, a parent wants to make their child better. She had a real passion for it and she really pushed me to flesh out the world, to make it feel lived in, to make it feel as if it had depth. That was three or four more edit passes, just kind of going through and getting her feel each time and, you know, making adjustments as necessary. She was wonderful.

So, then it was time to think about the sequel. Did you have more than one book in mind when you wrote the first one, or was this one where you had to discover a way to carry on the story?

I did have more than one book in mind, mostly because I had heard that you always want series potential when you’re shopping your first book. And so, I kept that in mind from the outline process onwards. I wanted to tell a complete story, but I also wanted to leave room open, and people who read carefully will notice that there are a few little nuggets, little nuclei, seeded throughout the first book that will come back in the second book. And if we get a third book, there are more in the first and second books that will come back in the third book.

Would it be a trilogy, or would it be an ongoing series?

I would love for it to be an ongoing series.

It’s always an “if,” I know.

I will milk this for as long as it’s a cash cow. I mean, I love writing and I wish to continue…I have always been the kind of writer who thinks out the potential. And so, yeah, I, just in my idle moments without even trying, I’m coming up with ideas for more and more sequels. I could keep writing this indefinitely, essentially, because I come up with thoughts on two additional books for every one I write so far.

What was the response from readers when the book came out? How did how did you feel about the response that you had?

I was, you know, ready for the worst. I had braced myself for, you know, all these these…”Not everybody is going to like your book, Robin,” is what they told me. “You’ve got to be ready for those horrible reviews.” But everybody seemed to love it. So, I don’t mean to pat my own back here, but I really had no trouble with the feedback that readers and reviewers gave me, because it was almost all glowing. I’m awesome, it turns out.

Have you done the convention thing, where you meet your readers in person sometimes?

I have. I’ve been going around to conventions and I’ve been to, you know, ReaderCon and WisCon, hung out at some of the Bay Area cons while I was still living there. I’ve since moved to Wisconsin. And I love to meet readers. I just love talking to them about anything but my book, which usually I managed to get them off of after a few minutes.

Well, it is something that I think readers sometimes don’t realize, that by the time a book comes out you’ve seen it a lot.

Yes.

And you might perhaps like to discuss something other than the thing that you have spent so much time reading and thinking about.

Yeah. You would never think that you would get tired, you know, talking with someone who loved your work, but just…you know, I have been over and over this book so many times that, you know…”Hey, let’s talk about that new CERN super-collider that they want to make. Let’s talk about SpaceX. Let’s talk about the Mars probe. Let’s talk about anything but my book.

Now, brings me to the more philosophical questions. You started writing because you started reading, as many of us do. Why are you still doing it? Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write?

Boy. Well, you know, I see human beings as natural storytellers. That seems to be a fundamental part of our psychology, rooted so deep inside of us that you could never shake it out. People that you meet on the street, you know, telling you about their brother-in-law or something will tell stories in a three-act structure about their own life. It just comes so naturally to people to want to tell a compelling story that interests somebody. There is a thrill, you know, a little hit of some kind of addictive substance that is released into the human brain every time you look across the table at somebody and see them captivated by the story that you’re telling them, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. And, you know, it’s an addiction. Once you get into that you are never getting out. You’re just going to want more and more hits of that, and you are going to keep on writing.

If somebody could turn it into a…you know. somebody in the biotech industry…could turn it into a drug, they’d make a killing.

Liquid writing!

You wouldn’t have to read anymore. You just, you know, inject something and you feel like you’ve read a great book.

I would not be able to get anything else done. Yeah, I would be terrified to do that. That might be the end of the human race right there.

And have you ever thought of writing something outside of the science fiction and fantasy field? Are there other kinds of stories that would appeal to you as a writer?

Hoo boy. There certainly are. I don’t have anything in particular in mind, apart from the notebook full of random ideas, rather the eight notebooks full of random ideas that I’ve kept over the years. I kind of love the freedom, though, that fantasy and science fiction give you. You’re not restricted by the real world. You can, you know, you can think of something cool and have it happen, whereas with boring old reality you have to make it actually make 100 percent sense, not only makes sense on a theoretical level but, you know, make sense on an empirical level, because people know how stuff works in the real world. So, yeah, I think I’m probably gonna stick to SF/F for now, but, you never know.

Are there people writing in the field right now that you are particularly enjoying their work? That you would like to mention?

Oh. my God. Becky Chambers keeps putting out such wonderful stuff. She has…and, you know, she is one of the people who in fact read The Guns Above before anyone else did and gave me very valuable feedback on it and, she just…the things that come out of her mind. I am in awe of. Justina Ireland, too, is just writing these amazing books. I did not think zombies could be cool again. I was extremely skeptical when I heard about Dread Nation, but holy crap, she has such amazing skills as a writer. Everybody who hasn’t read that just needs to pick it up immediately.

Do you find that as a writer you read differently than you did when you were just a reader…or was there ever a time when you were just a reader?

Unfortunately, yes. This is, you know, being a writer kind of ruins some books for you. You start to notice tropes that you’ve used. And in particular you notice ideas that writers fifty years ago somehow managed to steal from you. You know, like, somehow Terry Pratchett went forward in time, stole one of my notebooks and took some of my ideas, and I really resent that. You know, when I’ve built my own time machine I’m going to go back and have a talk with him.

I find that…one thing I find. I do quite a bit of copyediting, too, and one thing that certainly leaps out at me from anything I read now is whenever there’s a repeated word or, you know, some sort of infelicity in that way. It really jumps out at me now. Usually it doesn’t ruin the story for me, but I’m suddenly aware of the…you know, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain?” I’m suddenly aware of what’s going on behind curtain. So, you don’t have a third book contracted yet. Are you working on it anyway, or what are you working on right now?

Right now, I am working on a urban fantasy which will hopefully be out sometime this year, and tentatively entitled The Devil’s Guide to Managing Difficult People. It is about a woman who speaks to the Devil and gets unwanted life advice from her. It is semi-autobiographical and it’s a bit more of a fun kind of romp. It’s a little less serious, but hopefully also stabs the reader in the heart at least a couple of times. I just can’t avoid doing that, obviously.

There’s not a firm publication date on that?

No, not yet. At the advice of my agent, we’re going to try self-publishing this, which is, you know…I want to see how that world works It’s becoming more and more popular and it is becoming more and more practical for a writer to do self-publishing. So, you know, I’d like to dip my toe into that.

Well, it does have the advantage, too, that you don’t have…one thing I’ve found–I’ve dabbled in it myself, I have a publishing company called Shadowpaw Press that I put up the those First World War memoirs through, and also a collection of my short fiction–and one of the things is you don’t have that enormous “hurry up and wait” thing that happens in traditional publishing, where you write the book and then you wait, and then you revise the book, and then you have to wait for publication. So I think you’ll find the speed at least is something…and you don’t do it until you’re ready, of course.

Yes, of course. And that is that is one of the nice things, you know. This book has to be perfect before I will put it out. That is kind of part of my psychology. And I have found that, you know, this is somewhat…you know, publishing a book is never a calm process but, you know, this is a bit less of that stressful “we have just come up with these changes we want you to make, you have a week” kind of kind of situation that occurs to you after your book has been sitting in a line somewhere for three months. Which is, you know, that’s just a natural part of publishing with a big publishing house, they’ve got a lot of other authors, so that “hurry up and wait” is going to be part of your life.

I think, too,  perhaps…I’m guessing…that in your time in biotech that you have quite a bit of project-management experience which should also be a valuable skill in self-publishing.

It certainly is. It’s certainly helpful to juggling all of the different tasks that your publisher will usually take care of for you, such as the cover and the copyediting and the marketing and all of that stuff. Being able to do all of that and work on other projects is an incredibly valuable life skill for an author. So I definitely suggest that any author who wants to succeed spend 25 years in biotech.

Well, as I mentioned, my wife is an engineer, with a lot of project management, and I really should get her to give me a few tips because I’m not very good at it myself.

It’s definitely helpful. It will cut down on your stress level. I can just about guarantee that to you.

So just wrapping up here, where can people find you online?

They can find me at www.robynbennis.com. They can also find me on Twitter, if they if they like that particular format, at @According2Robyn, and if they want to see me in person they can go to Geneva Steam Con in Delevan, Wisconsin, which starts the 8th of March. They can also go to the International Steampunk Symposium in Cincinnati, Ohio, which runs from March 29 to 31, and I will be the Guest of honor there. Coming up in the world. Oh, let me give you one more: I will also be at the New Hampshire Writers Retreat from the 26th to the 28th. So check out the links to that through my Facebook page.

The 26th to 28th of…?

Of April. Yeah.

Well this should go live sometime, probably towards the end of February, I think, so this will time out well for that. And if by any chance you’re listening to this after that, because of course it doesn’t go anywhere once it’s up, I’m sure if you go to Robyn’s website you’ll be able to find out where she’s going to be next.

Yes, correct. And this is 2009 for you folks in the future. It was an interesting year, at least, starting in January I feel like we’ve lived about five or six years since January 1st.

Actually it’s 2019.

Oh!

Or else we’re already in the future. I guess we are in a way.

Yeah. Yeah, ’cause that future sneaks up on you, doesn’t it?

It sure does. Well, thanks so much for doing this, Robyn. I really enjoyed the chat.

Thank you very much. This was fantastic.

Episode 16: Thoraiya Dyer

An hour-long conversation with Thoraiya Dyer, Aurealis and Ditmar Award-winning Australian science fiction and fantasy writer and veterinarian, author of the Titan’s Forest fantasy trilogy, published by Tor Books: Crossroads of Canopy, Echoes of Understorey, and Tides of the Titans.

Website
thoraiyadyer.com

Twitter
@thoraiyadyer.com

Thoraiya Dyer’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Photo from Blue Mountain Gazette, April 18, 2018: National science fiction award for author and vet Thoraiya Dyer

Thoraiya Dyer is a four-time Aurealis Award-winning, three-time Ditmar Award-winning, Australian science fiction writer and veterinarian.  A graduate of Sydney University and resident of the beautiful Blue Mountains, her work has appeared in Clarkesworld, Apex, Cosmos, Analog and various US and Australian anthologies, including Bridging Infinity, edited by Jonathan Strahan and published by Solaris. Four of her original short stories are collected in Asymmetry, available from Twelfth Planet Press. 

Dyer is represented by the Ethan Ellenberg Literary Agency. She is a member of SFWA. Her Titan’s Forest big fat fantasy trilogy, comprising Crossroads of Canopy, Echoes of Understorey, and Tides of the Titans, set in a massive, magical rainforest, is published by Tor.  You can listen to a short story set in the same world, “The Chimney-Borer and the Tanner,” at Podcastle.org. In addition to books, her other great loves are the environment, bushwalking, archery, and travel.

The Lightly Edited Transcript

Thoraiya, welcome to The Worldshapers.

Thank you so much.

I always like to figure out the connections that I have with authors. There always seems to be something. A lot of them I met at a science fiction convention in Calgary, but not you. Our only connection I could find is that we share an agency, the Ethan Ellenberg Agency. But we’ve never met.

No, but we have the Canadian connection as well. My grandparents, Australian grandparents, set off on a trip around the world to teach in as many countries as they could, and they sort of got stuck in Canada for twenty-five years. So, my mother spent her formative years in Canada and my uncle is on Vancouver Island. Hi, Uncle Wayne! So, I feel like we have that as well.

Oh, yes, I guess we do. Now, we’re going to talk about your Titan’s Forestbooks in the course of this, but whenever I get started I always like to take my guests back into the mists of time. How did you become interested, first of all in science fiction/fantasy, and then in writing. Did that happen at the same time, were they separate things? How did that all happen for you?

Totally did, totally did at the same time. I think all kids love getting lost in worlds of the imagination, so the more pertinent question is, why do some of them stop reading science fiction or stop enjoying those sorts of stories? I was very lucky that my mom was a science fiction and fantasy fan. She had so many paperbacks from the ’50s onwards, but also sort of child-friendly ones like Asimov’s robot stories and The Flight to the Mushroom Planet. Don’t know if you remember that one.

I remember the title. I don’t think I ever read it.

So good. It’s about a couple of kids who answer this ad in the newspaper for someone wanted to volunteer to fly the spaceship. And it’s, you know, it’s so good. And then, you know, fantasy-wise, Enid Blyton, and The Jungle Bookand The Neverending Story were all there. Yeah, I loved those right off the bat.

Enid Blyton is a name that I don’t think anybody else has mentioned yet, but I actually know her work because when I was in university I lived with a family in Edinburgh for a little while and they had all these Enid Blyton books, The Famous Fivebooks, and I read my way through those even though I was, like, eighteen, because there was nothing else in the house to read.

Well, did you read The Magic Faraway Tree?

No, no, I didn’t read that one.

Because that was the same sort of adventurous group of kids as you had with the Famous Five, but they discovered this magical tree where sort of fairies and things would live in the branches and the world at the top of the tree would change each time you climbed up there so, you know, you could be in the world of dreams or the world of giants or the world of music. And every time you climbed up there was an adventure so that’s probably predictive of…

Yeah, I was going to say…

Great books.

So, when did you start trying to write?

Well, I guess you could say that the first science fiction story I wrote was a year in third grade. I wrote what could be called Star Warsfan fiction. We had this task where we were supposed to be writing about a haunted house and completely subliminally I ended up writing about the hero escaping by throwing a skull at the door mechanism, not unlike Luke escaping the rancor pit. And, yeah, that went on, too. I had to read that in front of the class because I got great marks for it and then all the little boys are piping up with, “Hey, doesn’t that happen in Star Wars?” and I was like, “Sh! Sh! No, it totally doesn’t.” But, yeah, I always loved writing, and then after I finished Year 12 but before I started vet school I was writing and submitting short stories to Australian markets, but I didn’t get any acceptances, so off to vet school I went and then I didn’t try again seriously until I was pregnant with my daughter and I had to leave the veterinary workplace because of the X-rays and the anesthetics and the hormones and things and I didn’t want my daughter to end up with two heads. So I found myself at home and thought, “It’s time to give this a serious go.” And that’s when I did get my first short stories published and was embraced by the Australian science fiction community and I discovered conventions and the rest is history.

All those years when you weren’t publishing, did you take classes or workshops or did you have a writing group that you belonged to any of that stuff, or were you kind of forging your own path all by yourself?

I didn’t belong to a writing group. Australia is large and I wasn’t on social media. But I did go to various writers’ festivals, which they sort of have in the capital cities. The Brisbane one in particular, like the Sydney Writers Festival, is very literary. I don’t know what it’s like in Saskatchewan, but you know they love poetry and things in Newcastle, where I was living, so there wasn’t much of a genre focus. But Brisbane, which is like 1,200 kilometres away from where I was living, had invited Jim Frenkel from Tor to teach one of their workshops. That was just right after my daughter was born and I got good value from that, but that was the exception rather than the rule.

Well, actually, Saskatchewan is similar—and, by the way, kudos for pronouncing Saskatchewan correctly.

No worries.

The funniest one I ever heard was, we were traveling and some kid looked at our license plate said “Sask-at-CHEW-an? Where’s that?” So, that was very impressive. But, yeah, it’s much the same, I mean, it’s a big empty space. We have a very strong Writers’ Guild here in the province, but not a lot of genre focus, especially not when I was growing up. Actually, I’m the guy that writes the science fiction/fantasy column for their newsletter, so there’s so a bit more of it now than there was when I was a kid.

Found yourself a niche?

Yeah. So, what was your first published fiction?

My first published short story was in an Australian magazine called Andromeda Spaceways In-Flight Magazine. I’m trying to think what was the title of the story…oh, I should have done some research on my own website before coming on this podcast.

Well, you’ve had a lot of stories published.

Yeah. So, it’s a really good format when you submit to them. They have this process so it’s a rotating roster of editors so that nobody gets too tired and burnt out, and they give really good personalized feedback, and that’s all I was after at the time, but the story was published, and then it was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award, which is the Australian juried speculative fiction award, which I had heard of by seeing the stickers on the cover of Sean Williams’s novels—I don’t know if you’re familiar with Sean Williams?

Mm-hm.

But, by going to that presentation ceremony I met some of the movers and shakers of Australian small press. Pretty amazing, because when I was doing all that submitting before it was printing out manuscripts and pasting them to the United States and footing these massive sums of postage bills, which luckily, thanks to the wonder of e-submissions, don’t exist anymore. But it was costing me a hundred dollars each time I submitted!

Oh, boy.

Yeah. So, after that I wrote a lot of short stories. I had the goal to take sort of baby steps upward. I wanted to get, like, the semi-pro sale and then my pro sale. I had my Locus Magazineand Duotropeto give me the list of all the markets and I knew what I loved reading and I was submitting to those. I was so excited to be accepted byClarkesworldand Analog. Still haven’t cracked Asimov’sbut I’m gonna to keep trying. So that was all good practice in not taking it too hard when you get rejected, which stood me in good stead for novel submissions.

One thing I found interesting is that you write both science fiction and fantasy, and some authors I talk to do that, but others specialize in one or the other. Do you find it easy to move back and forth between the genres?

I do, and I love…there’s a different focus with each one. I feel like with the science fiction there’s that moment of understanding where you realise that something is possible that you never thought was possible before, or you see some kind of scientific concept which was just numbers and letters on a page, suddenly the meaning it all unfolds, and I love that moment of discovery. Whereas, I think with fantasy, with magic, it’s less about understanding how things work and more about just feeling really intense feelings. Probably that children get to feel more when they don’t know the limitations of possibilities. I guess, I’m thinking about, you know, it’s Christmas time and I’ve just had the chat with my daughter that, you know, she’s just working at that’s Santa’s not real and I always thought to myself, you know, I’m never going to tell her straight out that there’s no Santa unless she comes to me with a question and then I’ll answer it honestly. So, she’s come with me to me with a question and I’ve said, “Look, no, there isn’t a Santa,” and there’s just the sadness of that being taken away. I think fantasy lets you live in the realm of infinite possibilities and that’s just so wonderful. And, you know, my hobbies of archery and loving to be in nature, they all go towards what I write on the fantasy side, whereas the veterinary science and reading the journals and staying on top of sort of current discoveries, that all goes into the science fiction side.

What drew you into veterinary medicine?

I love animals. I wanted to be a zoo vet. Always was interested in saving endangered animals from extinction, and then worked so hard to get into it, it’s a very competitive course here, and then on the first day of my very first lectures we had a zoo vet come in and address the class, and he was like, “Well, here’s how it is. You know, we’ve got five zoos and there’s like three zoo vets in the whole country and if you want to get one of these coveted positions, the best thing you can do is, you know, maybe work with cattle for ten or fifteen years. You know, they’re large animals and they’re the most similar to your giraffes and your rhinos, and I just thought, “Oh, I can’t work with cows for 10 or 15 years, I can’t do it!” So, I gave up on the zoo vet plan and I’m a small-animal veterinarian but I do as much wildlife and bird work as I can. I really love that.

I was gonna say when I was in high school I was drawn to veterinary medicine for a time, but what kind of cured me was I did a spend-a-day with the provincial veterinarian. I found out that his work consisted of chasing cows around farm yards in the middle of the winter and then, you know, vaccinating them or doing blood tests or whatever. And then I was reading the James Herriot books, of course, and I was thinking, “You have to put your arm where?”

Yeah, not what you want to be chatting about at parties with cocktail in hand. Yeah, I mean it’s really physically demanding, and again, I imagine it would be same there, it’s a large area, there’s large distances to drive between farms, and being on call weighs you down. I mean, I was on call as a younger vet but I’m not now because I can’t do the thing where you work all day and then you stay up all night with, you know, a whelping dog or a snake bite or a tick paralysis case, and then you’ve still got enough brain power left to still be there at work and work your next day. I couldn’t do it these days.

You mentioned one of your hobbies, archery, and you also have quite a bit of karate training. Have you used that in your in your fiction, your kind of insight into martial arts and archery?

Absolutely. I always try and work out how things would actually work. I mean, it’s been a long time since I did karate. To get those marks, to get into vet, something had to give, so I gave up martial arts at that stage. But, more for Echoes of Understory. In Crossroads of Canopy, the main character is using magic, whereas the protagonist of the second book is a physical fighter. So, I was more using my karate and the archery knowledge in the second book than in the first.

Have you felt, reading fantasy over the years, that archery is often badly done?

I have had that thought. But then, when I mention it, seeing how little it matters to most people makes me wonder if I’ve been overthinking it and sort of over-researching. You know, it goes in with the theme of finding out cool stuff and then filling your stories with so much cool stuff that you haven’t got room left for your character to breathe and develop. It can be a bit of a bad habit. So, maybe I need to just throw all my practical knowledge to the winds and have all kinds of crazy stunts like the ones in the recent Robin Hood movie, which gave me a giggle of enjoyment, but was not any kind of historical accuracy.

Well, as far as I can tell, fighting would be a lot easier if you could do it in slow motion. That’s what I get out of most of those.

Yes, absolutely.

A little more time to think. I went to a convention in Vancouver where they had some…what’s it called…I can’t remember the name of it, but there’s a company out there that does medieval sword fighting and people do it as a fitness class, in fact. And they had a panel on fighting and for some reason I was on it and I said I’m not an expert by any means. So, my philosophy is if I can’t be accurate just be vague, you know, “he blocked that blow….”

Goes for quantum physics, as well.

Yeah, exactly. Well, you mentioned Crossroads of Canopy, and the second book, which I have here in front of me somewhere, the second book, which is called—I bet you know—

Echoes of Understory.

That’s right. So, let’s talk a little bit about that. What was the seed for that setting? What made you think, you know, “I’d like to write a book set in a giant forest world–oh, actually, sorry, before we do that, maybe you should explain what the story is about.

Well, so, this story is about a giant rainforest, so massive and…should I be saying this in kilometers or miles? Let’s say miles high…and stratified, so that the divisions between countries are vertical, not horizontal. Our characters are in the uppermost level of this massive, massive rainforest, they’re in this city up there that’s got its pantheon of gods that are reincarnated into human bodies, and our main character, Unar, she’s up there. Nobody up there knows what’s going on in the lower levels of the forest. It’s all dark down there, you can’t see what’s there, and nobody can come up from beneath because we’ve got this magical barrier, which is maintained by the gods, that’s separating them, so that no demons can come up from underneath. And then, of course, Unar’s sister falls down through this barrier, and that is the kickoff for her adventures to sort of find out what’s happening down there.

So, what was the seed, so to speak, that sprouted this giant forest world?

Well, it was wanting to have countries that were stacked on top of each other instead of side by side. And then, yes, because I spend so much time in nature then looking at this and realizing that in a real diverse and wild rainforest there are species that will stay, you know, between this high and this high off the ground, and that’s where they live, so wanting to have a fantasy map divided up like that, which I hadn’t really seen before, got me really excited about doing that. And then, the characters. You know, I’d just gotten my old book of Greek myths out to read to my daughter and there’s Atalanta, whose story is that she was raised by a bear, and then these three hunters who are brothers kill the bear and take over the raising of her so she has all these mad hunting skills. That was the story I was reading, and she is the basis for the character of Imeris, who is the protagonist of Echoes of Understory. But as I was working out the world and what kind of society it would be for a character like this to be born into, and going further back in time, that’s where the character of Unar came in. And then, the third seed, I guess, for the character of Unar was just reading so many fantasy books where the flawed hero is allowed to find redemption, whereas you don’t get to have a flawed heroine who is redeemed in the same way, she is either the villain or, you know, she’s condemned. And maybe I underestimated how much unlikability the reader would tolerate in a female character, because I’ve had quite a bit of pushback against her. But she is that way deliberately. It’s not an accident. And I like her, and how her story turned out.

What’s your process for developing something? You have these ideas, do you do a detailed synopsis, do you work more with a more general idea and then you discover it as you write it? What’s the process for developing a story?

I used to be a total pantser. But agents, as you know, prefer to have outlines, and so my process was to just write things on sticky notes. If you look back, you’ll just find, you know, one of them says, “Atalanta!” and another one says, “Countries on top of each other!”, all arranged in this hodge-podgy diagram in an exercise book. And then, after the idea collection, yeah, I did have to write an outline, and I wrote an outline for just the one book. And then when my agent suggested that Unar was not very likable, instead of changing her to be likeable I said, “Look, I’ll do a sequel with a more heroic kind of hero. And that was okay, and that’s how it got extended out into a trilogy.

The three books…as you said, you have a different focus in the second one…so would you call them a series, or are they more like individual books, but they’re all related within the same world?

I feel like you could read the second and third ones as stand-alones. But definitely, if you’re not a seasoned fantasy reader, things are more simplified and better explained in the first one, so you might want to start there. It’s three different protagonists and I hope I’ve done a good enough job explaining the backstory so that, yeah, you don’t need to read them together and I don’t think that they…I mean, in one sense there is a big plot arc that starts in the beginning and finishes in the third book but not as strong to be a true fantasy series, I think.

So, when you were forced to write a synopsis, how long a synopsis was it? Was it extremely detailed or still fairly general?

It was fairly general. It was about eight pages for each book, of single-spaced, twelve-point font, and I probably stuck to about two-thirds of what I had written. I don’t know. How closely do you follow your…do you stay pretty close to what you’ve written, or do you change it up?

Well, I’m asking the questions here, but…

I’m curious to know.

Well, it is a question I ask most people I talk to and, you know, it varies from author to author. For me, it’s probably sort of like that. I have a fairly detailed synopsis and I’m selling the books on the basis of the synopsis, but when I actually start writing it I start to wander, and occasionally…I know with one book I got close to the end and I realized there was no way I could get to the ending that I had put into the synopsis, so I had to replot everything from there to the end. So yeah, I’m right in there with you.

Yeah, I feel like as long as it’s better than what you had before it’s okay.

And, what happens is that as you’re writing, you know, the brain starts working on a different level than when you were synopsizing and thinking…well, I should ask you. What do you find is different about the writing as opposed to the synopsizing? You tell me.

Well, I think if you start with characters and then you feel out the world second after you’ve done the synopsis then you discover things about the world that fit better or that you could use more neatly to solve a problem. Whereas, if you start with the plot, then go the other way, then you might find that what you’ve written is not actually consistent with that character and then it’s the characters who make you go in a different direction because you didn’t think about them properly before when you were deciding what they were going to do.

What do your character notes look like? Do you do a detailed character sketch ahead of time or…?

Oh, yeah. I mean, I try not to change the color of their eyes mid-book and I might just put in a few pertinent facts from their history. You know, a bit about their childhood, because that’s so formative for everybody. And then, you know, you always want to know what they love and what they’re afraid of, and if they’ve got any irrational fears or goals in the other direction, but not more than a couple of pages.

How do you decide what characters you need?

How do you decide what characters you need? Well, you need the viewpoint…again, if you started with a character-based story then you know which character you need, but if you started with a plot-based idea, then who is going to give you a good perspective on that, and how many do you need? Like, what is the minimum number? Yes, it can be like reducing a mathematical equation. Well, this character is going to be here for this, but I really want to see inside this character when this happens, but you don’t want to have too many points of view and make everybody crazy, so…

And a lot of this, of course, happens on the fly. You don’t necessarily figure it out ahead of time. Some characters pop up while you’re writing.

Yes. Only once have I completely changed points of view, and it wasn’t even a novel, it was a novella. I don’t know if I’m hardworking enough to go, “Okay, this novel needs to be changed,” or if I’d just be like, “That’s the same amount of work as writing a completely new novel. Let’s do that instead!”

What does your actual writing process look like? Do you write longhand, do you write that a regular time, how does it work for you?

So, yeah, if I’m on the school drop off and I see something or hear something and I’m like, “That’s got to be in my story!”, I’ve got a notebook that I carry around with me for jotting. And then, when I get home I have got a separate, very old computer that’s not connected to the Internet, in a separate place far away from all Internet-connected devices. And I sit at it and I have to stay there until I’ve done my thousand words for the day.

That’s very disciplined.

Sometimes that goes quick and sometimes it literally takes all day to produce this pathetic amount of words.

There’s another word for that. It’s called a typewriter.

Well, I then, you know, I like to be able to back it up, so here, because it’s not connected to anything, I’m carrying my little drives back and forth to my Internet computer. But yeah, I joined Twitter shortly after my first short story was published, and it was fantastic for networking with other writers and especially sharing links to all the amazing short fiction that’s published free in online magazines. But, you know, the whole day would go by without any words being written if I didn’t lock myself away.

Yes. Yes, I’m right with you on that one too. You mentioned the Australian science fiction writer community. Very supportive? Do you have, you know people that you network with there that you either use as beta readers or just, you can talk about writing with?

I did find a lot of beta readers. When I joined it was in the lead up to AussieCon, I want to say Four? Australia was having WorldCon in Melbourne and everyone, all the small presses, were really excited about having the guests we were going to have and the opportunity to showcase excellent and often creepy work to the world. So, a lot of them were taking submissions and a lot of books were coming out and, so, just for opportunities to submit places and also just to, yeah, just to talk about what you loved. It was great. And still, you know, I feel like catching up with people once a year at the Australian National Convention is the bare minimum of what I would want to do to stay in touch with people that I met back then. And I venture down to Sydney once every couple of months, probably, to write. I find I work best if I’m not critiquing other people’s work. I think I’m at a place now where I just want to submit things and find…like, I know when it’s good and when it’s not good and I’ll just send it out until there’s an editor who agrees with me, so I’m not doing a lot of the whole workshopping thing. So, when I go to a writing group we’re not reading each other’s stuff and giving feedback, but we’re just doing sort of a similar thing to what I’m doing at home locked in my writing room, but we’re doing it in solidarity and just churning the words together in the same room.

Something that Canadian science fiction writers sometimes get asked is, is there something that makes Canadian science fiction different from British science fiction or American science fiction or Australian science fiction. Do you think there’s something noticeably Australian about the work that comes out of Australia?

It’s funny you ask, because I noticed growing up, like I said, my grandparents were in Canada and they, you know, always wanting to support local artists, they would send me Charles de Lint and Guy Kay books. I always found them to have more…not Australianess, I don’t know, I just really enjoyed something about the writing itself—not the storylines, because they were the same, but just the actual writing styles seemed more Australian to me. Maybe it was that if you write, if you’re a Canadian writer, you feel like you need to explain your cultural references, because otherwise Americans won’t get them. And that definitely has to happen. If you’re setting a story in Australia and wanting to sell it overseas, you’ve got to explain things properly. Which adds a whole new level to your worldbuilding, because not only are you trying to not info dump too hard with the actual advanced science or fantasy magical thing that you’re trying to explain but then you’ve just got to also, on top of that, explain all things that are normal to you that might not be known to that reader. I don’t think there is much of a difference. Often people asked those sorts of questions on panels will say, “Oh, you know, we’re isolated in this big wide land and it lends itself to horror,” and Australians certainly write amazing horror with a sense of isolation, but I personally don’t feel that sense of isolation and I love the Australian wilderness and hopefully no one reading my descriptions of a forest are going to feel that it’s coming from a place of being threatened by the wild and the woods, ‘cause that’s beautiful to me, not threatening.

That’s actually something that’s been said about Canadian fiction, that it’s man against nature and the vast unfeeling cold, and all that sort of thing.

It’s so such a white person thing, isn’t it? It’s like, we’re here and there’s nothing and it’s empty, and like, no, it’s really not empty, it’s full of indigenous people and, yeah. I guess I haven’t read a lot of indigenous Canadian authors but that is my favorite Australian writing that’s coming at the moment, it’s indigenous writers coming into science fiction and fantasy and bringing their absolute connection, and that sense of wonder and. power that it has. It’s good stuff.

Now when you’ve got your completed draft, what does your rewriting process look like? Do you tend to have a really clean manuscript, you don’t have to do much, or do you have a complete rewrite, or how does it work for you?

I shouldn’t have so many. I mean, it’s pretty tidy. I don’t have many spelling mistakes, but I have to draw back and try and look at the big plot elements and make sure that they’re working. So, I’ll usually run off the whole manuscript, go and write short stories for a month, come back to it and write onto the printed manuscript anything that strikes me as I’m reading through it again. After that it’s good to go.

So, you find it’s easier to spot stuff off of a printout as opposed to working just off the screen?

Yeah, I don’t know if it’s the screen or again just being away from the Internet. I can take it to a quiet place.

I’m sensing a theme here.

Yeah. Yeah absolutely. And I’m not a person that works with music. I don’t know if you listen to music as you write…

No, I don’t.

I’m a silence person, so…

I should say, I do a lot of writing in coffee shops. And I can do it with just conversation going on around me. But if somebody sits too close and I can hear every word that they say, then I’ll put on headphones, because I don’t want to know about…whatever. And I’ve learned a lot about people sitting at coffee shops that I really don’t care about, so… But I’m not somebody that sets a playlist and, you know, you have mood music for writing battle seasons and you have different music for writing love scenes. I’ve talked to people like that but it’s not the way I work.

That is strange and mysterious to me. It’s good that we’re all different.

What’s the editorial process like? Have you had the same editor on all of the books at Tor?

Yes. So, with the first book my agent gave me some editorial notes for it first, and then after it was sold I’ve had Diane Pho doing the, sort of structural edit, and then it has the copyedit, and then, you know, your final read-through of the galleys and things…

Do you get a lot of editorial notes from Diana? What’s her style?

Yes. What I am not very good at, which she’s very good it, because she also edits YA, is really digging in the talons at the emotional high and low points and giving all the feels. Maybe this is an Australian thing, too, that we like it to be a little bit understated rather than spelling things out. And then, the other major fail is that I am not interested enough in fashion to describe people’s clothes properly. So, you know, there’s a lot of, “What are they wearing?” going on. So, yeah, sometimes…but she’s right. Yes. She’s right. It’s easy to do it it’s when you know that they’re right.

I met Diana at Worldcon in San Jose, and she’s the one that put me in touch with you, because I’d asked her, well, actually, after I met her, she sent me an e-mail and followed up with me and then I said, “Well, you know, I’m looking for guests for the podcast,’ and so you were one of the people that she recommended to me, so I’m very happy that she did that.

She’s awesome. And I’m jealous. One day I will meet all of the people. The New York people, I shall meet them. Agents, editors. Some day.

I’ve met a few, but you know, living in Saskatchewan I don’t make connections with them very often either. So, you had the first book and how did it turn into a trilogy? You said, that the second one you wanted a more traditionally heroic character. How did you know that you had more story to tell, I guess is what I’m asking.

Well, because I still had this other character hanging around, so I had my magician in book one and I had my warrior in book two, and then I had this third character and he’s a bit of a poet, a bit of a spy bit of a…he didn’t really fit in anywhere. And then I thought, “Oh, he’s my Odysseus character.” And that just totally fit with everything that had come before, so ghe had to have his own book as well. He had to o on his voyage of discovery and then I had my three parts of a rainforest, my canopy, my understory, and my forest floor.

That worked out nicely.

Yes.

You’ve written some short fiction set in this world, too, haven’t you?

Yes. So, one of the comments that even my agent made on the first draft of the first manuscript was that my antagonist didn’t seem to have enough reasons behind her evilness. My baddie didn’t have enough behind her. He wasn’t feeling it. So, I wrote her backstory, which then turned into a story in its own right. And it was a very kindly picked up by Podcastle, and they just did a fantastic reading of it. I’m trying to think of the voice actress’s name. Again, lack of research on my part, but no, I was really pleased with how that came out.

Have the books been done as audiobooks?

Yes. And I think I can remember that it’s Christine Marshall that’s the voice of the audio versions of the novels. Though it’s very strange hearing your thoughts come out in American accent, it’s very good also.

I have a five-book YA fantasy series that’s actually set in Saskatchewan (so there was one where I didn’t have to explain any cultural references because it’s published by a Saskatchewan publisher and it’s set in Saskatchewan) but it recently came out in audiobook. I find it an interesting experience hearing my words read to me by somebody else. Do you find yourself listening to that and thinking, “You know, I kind of wish I had changed that…”?

With short stories I will sometimes read the whole story out loud to myself because it really does let you find where you’ve repeated yourself or you’ve got unnecessary distancing or it’s just extra words that don’t really need to be there. But I confess to not doing that with the novels, so, yeah, it does make you think, oh, I could have tightened that up a little bit. But, you know, you can only strive for perfection.

Well, with the ones that I had set in Saskatchewan I had to do a little pronunciation guide for places like Moose Jaw, and like, Wascana Lake, which is where the action takes place, and things like that. And Saskatchewan. I think I had to make it clear how Saskatchewan was pronounced.

Yeah, well, people often want to know how to pronounce my name, but I think everything else, you know, say it how you want. It’s like how Jo Rowling pronounces Voldemort. All of us in the mainstream, saying how we’ve seen it on the movies, pronouncing the hard T, whereas she says it “Voldemore” because in her head it’s from the French and that’s how it should be said.

I didn’t know that.

I think it’s totally fine for authors and readers to be saying things a different way.

I like to ask big philosophical questions here. You’ve written quite a lot at this point. Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write, and specifically, why do you think we write this kind of stuff? Or why do you write this kind of stuff?

I think we write this stuff, I think we write this genre, because we have ideas for the future. We can see a way of things that’s different to how it is. I went to a book launch of a well-known Australian politician who had put out a book of his writing life. It was just a list of all these big important books, you know, “I’ve read War and Peace, and I’ve read this about the Holocaust and I’ve read that about this war, and it was all very heavy and realist. And if he had read any fiction, that was very literary and very, you know, stuff that was being taught in universities, and he hadn’t read a single science fiction or fantasy book, according to this tome, his whole life. And it just made me sad, because if our politicians aren’t thinking about, you know, “We don’t have to do things the same way we’ve always done,” how can we break out of these tragic cycles that have haunted Western civilization forever? The first step on making things better is being able to imagine, and I just think science fiction is able to contain all these ideas and help us extrapolate, and fantasy is giving us that sense of control, too. This is the way that this thing happened, but what if it didn’t? What if it happened that way instead? And that’s also so imaginative and so important. So, I personally am putting things in my books that I want to read and can’t find. The Australian content, I probably was a bit ignorant when I started and not looking close enough to find stuff like the indigenous content that I mentioned. Authors like Alexis Wright, who is a genius and writes Australian content better than I ever could, have now swum into my ken and these days I find it’s Lebanese content that I can’t find, my father being from Lebanon, and there’s a lot of short fiction out there, really excellent short fiction, Sofia Samatar and Sara Saab, incorporating Arab mythology into their stories. The one really great recent novel, which is the one by Saladin Ahmed, was gonna be the first of a trilogy, but he’s gone off into comics now. So that sort of less literary, Arabic-y fantasy is what I would like to do next.

Well, that leads nicely to one of the upcoming questions, which will be, “What are you doing next?”. But I’m not there yet. The name of this podcast is The Worldshapersand, you’ve kind of said this a little bit in what you just said, but, when you are writing you’re shaping a fictional world, but are you hoping in some way that you’re shaping the real world or at least changing your readers in some way?

I think that might have been true before online became the main way we had of sharing culture. I think a book can’t have the influence now that it maybe could have had back when Kim Stanley Robinson was writing Red Mars. I’m glad he’s still doing it. But I think maybe films are more where it’s at as far as changing public opinion.

It’s interesting, thinking of the impact of art forms, that there was a time when people would riot over paintings or, you know, poems or pieces of classical music. Those things are still being presented and they’re still vital art forms but somehow they are no longer the central art form that impacts people’s thinking. And I think you’re right. I think it’s gone to movies, or actually, probably even more television series these yeah.

Yes, I would agree.

Which is too bad, as a writer.

I mean, I say that…I just re-watched Arrivallast night because it’s come on Netflix and that came from a short story.

Well, that’s true, and an awful lot of science fiction stories now, a lot more than ever before, are being turned into film and television series. Not mine yet, mind you. If anybody is listening…

Good luck.

You don’t even have to produce it, just give me a lot of money and I’ll be fine. I think that may be the best of all possible worlds. So, now we get around to, “What are you doing next? What are you working on now?”

So, what I’m working on now is…so my favorite film ever isThe Seven Samurai. I don’t know if you’ve seen it, the original Japanese…

I have, yep.

I love it so much and I am working on an all-female version of it in a fantasy Arabia setting and it’s so much fun. I’m having the time in my life. Yes. My dad used to tell me, instead of your standard Western fairy tales, I’d get a bit of the creepy story about you go into the woods and the unicorn is there. And whereas you might think, “Oh, isn’t that wonderful,” you know, he’s this lovely white magical being with a magical horn, in the Arabic stories that he would tell they were always trying to kill you by stabbing you through the heart with their horn. And you had to, like, dodge behind a tree and trap them when their horn went through the trunk of the tree and then you would cut off their head and take it back to you, and I’m like, “Okay…”. So, yes, the unicorns that you will find in this book are a bit more like those angry ones than, you know, the unicorn that you might find in a French fairy tale.

Is there any expected publication date for that, or is it still too early to say?

No. I would say, Tor get first dibs, but I haven’t heard anything back as yet. So, I’m just on my merry way writing it. We’ll see what happens.

Looking in the future, would you like to write fulltime or would you always want to keep the veterinary side of things. You know, if everything went really well and you were able to support yourself writing full time, would that be your choice or do you’d like to…?

I had a break from veterinary work. I’ve only gone back in the last little while because, so, I was doing the writing and the stay-at-home mom thing, and then one day I went to walk my daughter to the bus stop and she was like, “You don’t need to come, Mom.” And I was like, “Well, okay, looks like I can go back to my day job, then.” But being back in that space, I did really miss the animals. And also, it forces you to interact. I’m also new to this town, I’ve only been here for twelve months, and I think if I had just been writing alone in my non-Internet connected room I wouldn’t have met the people and sort of become more integrated in the community. So, I think I will probably keep doing it, as fun as it is too the live-at-home-in-your-pajamas life writing magical stories.

Meeting actual people is good, too.

It’s good. Yeah. Talking to humans.

Well, I think that’s bringing us so close to the time here, so where can people find you online when you’re not offline writing?

I can find my tragically behind and not recently updated Web site at thoraiyadyer.com, and I’m @ThoraiyaDyer on Twitter.

And the three novels of Titan’s Forestare…?

They are Crossroads of CanopyEchoes of Understory, andTides of the Titans, which is coming out at the end of January.

Which should be just after this airs, so good timing there.

Hooray! Thank you.

And thank you very much for being a guest on The Worldshapers. I really enjoyed talking to you.

It has been a great chat that has gone flying by.

Thank you.

And make sure you come to New Zealand WorldCon, which will be close to me and not too far away from you.

I should. I actually…yeah, it’s a little ways…I actually set a scene, a large portion of one of my books, the aforementioned YA fantasy series,The Shards of Excaliburseries, I actually set a section in the mountains of New Zealand, there’s a book called Lake in the Cloudsand the lake in question is actually in New Zealand.

It’s so beautiful. You must go there.

It would have been nice to go there before I wrote about it, probably, but…

You don’t want to know if you made any mistake.

Exactly. All right, well, thank you very much for being on The Worldshapers!

Thank you so much for having me!

Episode 13: Lee Modesitt Jr.

 

An hour-long conversation with Lee Modesitt Jr., bestselling author of more than seventy novels of fantasy and science fiction, including the Recluce Saga, the Spellsong Cycle, the Imager Portfolio, and more, about his creative process, with a special focus on his science fiction novel Haze.

Website:
lemodesittjr.com

L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s Amazon Page

The Introduction

Lee Modesitt Jr. is the bestselling author of more than 70 novels, encompassing two science fiction series and four fantasy series, as well as several other science fiction novels. He has been a delivery boy, a lifeguard, an unpaid radio disc jockey, a U.S. Navy pilot, a market research analyst, a real estate agent, a director of research for a political campaign, a legislative assistant and staff director for U.S. congressmen, director of legislation and congressional relations for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, consultant on environmental regulatory and communications issues, and a college lecturer and writer-in-residence. In addition to his novels Lee has published technical studies and articles columns poetry and a number of science fiction short stories. His first story was published in 1973 we’ll find out about that in the course of the interview. He lives in Cedar City, Utah.

The (Lightly Edited) Transcript

We’re going to focus on Haze, but first: how did you start writing fiction and how did your interest in science fiction and fantasy develop. Was this a childhood thing or did it come along later?

I always was interested in science fiction and fantasy. I started reading it at a very young age and actually my mother was the one who introduced me to it. My father was an attorney and he didn’t have much interest in that sort of sky-blue stuff that just wasn’t hard and fast, whereas my mother was much more of a speculative mindset. And we lived in what was then the countryside, so to speak, and we weren’t close to libraries and we weren’t close to stores. But she did have this great painted bookcase in the front of her bedroom, and it was filled with paperback science fiction novels. And seeing as there was nothing else much interesting to read—I wasn’t going to read my father’s law books—I started reading science fiction But I never really thought I was going to write it. As a matter of fact I, was going to be the next William Butler Yeats, because my interest initially was in poetry. I read poetry, wrote it, did projects on it, essentially had a minor in it in college, although it wasn’t called that because they didn’t offer that minor, but I actually spent two years studying under William Jay Smith who later became the poet for the congressional reference service in Washington D.C., and that position then became the poet laureate of the United States. And I wrote poetry for some 15 years before I even thought of writing science fiction.

As matter of fact that I was turned down with form rejections from the Yale Younger Poets contest every year until I was too old to be a younger poet. Then I was in my late 20s, and my first ex-wife basically suggested that maybe I should try something besides poetry and she suggested science fiction, since I read it.

So, I thought I could try that, and I wrote a short story and I sent it off to Ben Bova who has just taken over as the editor of Analog, and he sent back a rejection. The rejection letter said this isn’t half bad but you made a terrible mess out of page 13. It’s good enough that if you can fix it I’ll look at it again.

I did, and he bought it. (The title was) “The Great American Economy.” I  was an economist by training and it seemed like a good place to go. It took me something like somewhere in the neighborhood of another 26 stories before I could sell the second one. And it was maybe 17 or 18 before I sold the third one. And this went on for maybe, I guess, five or six years, and then Ben sent me another rejection letter, and it began with the words, ‘Don’t send me any more stories–I won’t buy them.’ And after I got over the shock of those, I looked at the next paragraph, which said, ‘it’s clear that you are a novelist trying to cram novels into short stories. Go write a novel. After that we’ll talk about stories.’ Now, I hadn’t wanted to write a novel. At the time I was working as, at that particular point, legislative director for a U.S. Congressmen in Washington. Long hours, and I didn’t want to write a half million words to sell ninety thousand. But Ben didn’t give me any choice. So, I wrote a novel, and it sold, and that’s another story, but it did sell and every novel I’ve ever written since then has sold, so Ben was absolutely right about the fact that I was probably a better novelist than a short story writer.

How old were you when you started writing poetry?

I started getting published when I was about 15, only in small literary magazines.

There’s not a lot of other markets for poetry except small literary magazines anymore, is there?

Well, there is, I mean, you can theoretically publish it in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and a few other places like that, but that’s about it.

Did your poetry have any elements of the fantastical?

Oh, I think I one or two maybe had a few hints of the fantastical in it. I did write one poem, as I recall, about Atlantis, so I guess that had a certain fantastical element to it, but most of them weren’t.

Do you still write poetry?

Oh, yes. And I’ve incorporated into a lot of my novels. I mean, there are two novels in the Recluce series that are literally linked together by a book of poetry and the resolution of the second novel is partly shaped by that poetry and the existence of that poetry.

What part of the country did you grow up in?

I grew up in the suburbs south of Denver, Colorado. When I was very young my father decided he wanted to practice law in Hawaii. So, we moved to Honolulu and we lived there for a year and a half. He decided it wasn’t the best place to practice law or raise children, so we moved back to Denver, and we lived there until I went away to college.

Where did you go to university?

I went to Williams College in Massachusetts. I studied Economics and Political Science, a double major.

That sounds like the sort of thing that would help you with the creation of societies in science fiction and fantasy. Is that true?

Oh, I think it helped a great deal. Plus, 20 years, or 18 years, in the national political arena certainly didn’t hurt any. And I had a couple of years, actually a year, as n industrial market researcher, which was basically economic, and it was probably the most boring job one can possibly imagine, because my job was to forecast the sales patterns of compressed air filters, regulators, lubricators, and valves.

It sounds utterly fascinating. Have you ever gotten a story out of that?

I never could make a story out of that one. I’ve made stories out of a few other jobs I had but not that one.

You were also in the U.S. Navy for a few years and were a pilot. What kind of aircraft did you fly?

Actually, I started out as an amphibious officer, and I hated small boats so much that in the middle of the Vietnam War I volunteered for flight training, and the Navy decided I was a decent pilot but not a great pilot. So, I ended up flying helicopters and was a search and rescue pilot.

In Haze, the character is a military man of sorts. Does your military experience play into your writing, as well?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, I’m not certainly extensively a writer of military science fiction, but the military does fit into an awful lot of my books in one way or another. Maybe 40 percent. That’s just a guess, but yeah, it’ been a big factor.

I seem to remember that at ConVersion, the Calgary convention where we first met, you talked about economic systems in fantasy and science fiction and how there are a lot of unworkable ideas of how societies might work. Is that something you like to bring into your fiction, trying to create a more realistic society?

That’s exactly how I got into writing fantasy. I wrote strictly science fiction for almost the first 20 years I was writing. I got into writing fantasy because I got really tired of all of these fantasies where people go off on quests with no visible means of support, or where there are 10,000 armed knights on a side. One of the things that it dawned on me in terms of writing fantasy is, almost never, especially in the fantasy that was being published when I first started writing, did anybody have a real job. And one of the things that I’ve done in all my fantasies and which is still very rare is, all of my characters and fantasies have real jobs. They have to make a living. And the magic system has to be monetized. This is still very rare. A lot of people basically have a character, “Oh, he’s got a real job, but he’s on vacation or the job gets lost. And they just go off with the fantasy stuff.” When I’m writing fantasy, the economics and the magic are all integral. Maybe it’s because I was trained as an economist, maybe because I’ve been in politics, but I realized something about, call it technology, and that is, we don’t hang on to technology. We don’t use it unless it’s good for one of two things. It’s either a tool that will make somebody money or it will entertain somebody.

Well, magic would be the same way. If magic were real, nobody would bother with it unless they could do something with it, make money out of it or if they could entertain people, because we as a species are tool users. We are pretty much pragmatic but we like to be entertained. So, if magic can’t do one of those two things, it’s not really gonna be terribly useful in a society. And that’s probably too much of a soapbox. But anyway, that’s where I’m coming from.

It seems like there’s a preponderance of people are like thieves, bards, or mercenaries. That seems to be the three going job opportunities in a lot of fantasy worlds.

I think part of that is because people don’t think through what fantasy and magic can be used for. I do think that in my fantasies I come up with, shall we say, both practical and ingenious ways of using magic because people would.

Well, I’ve been accused of writing fantasy with rivets, so I’m not sure I agree with that one, but my feeling is, it’s simply the ground rules. In science fiction, the ground rules are, shall we say, the standard model of physics, if you will, and in fantasy, it’s whatever set of, call it a universal operating system, the author wants to put together. In the Recluce books my operating system is the balance between order and chaos

I basically use a different operating system for each fantasy universe, but I make a great effort to be rigidly consistent with the operating system, whether it’s science fiction or whether it’s fantasy. But beyond that I don’t treat them any differently. The characters just have to work within the operating system.

Let’s talk more specifically about your novelHaze. I’ll let you synopsize it so you don’t give away anything that you don’t want to give away.

Well, it’s set roughly 5,000 years in the future. You’ve got a Chinese Federation ruling the world. What used to be the United States is a client state, if you will, of China, and the main character is an American-born intelligence agents agent working for this Chinese Federation. In essence there are, if you will, two and a half storylines, although both of the storylines concern the main character. One’s in the present and one’s a flashback through the past. He’s basically tasked with investigating a planet, which is called Haze, because none of the Chinese federation’s surveillance gear will penetrate the, shall we say, the armada of A.I. spy devices that circle this planet. And he is one of several teams plunked onto this planet to try and discover what’s behind it all. That’s the setup.

What was the genesis of the novel? What was the seed that led to development of the novel?

I honestly can’t tell you, except part of it was the idea of what would happen if China continued on its present course, and American politics continue on their present course. The Chinese have always tended toward imperial states of one sort or another, and they tended to be both ruthless and bureaucratic simultaneously and that I guess was the background that I created and they pretty much co-opted every culture with its tried to co-opt them.

That was the background. And, of course, somebody is going to want to get out from underneath this. And that’s the genesis of the people on ??? or Haze.

Often when you’re talking about science fiction, there are the two big questions that start a story off, “What if?” and “If this goes on.”

I’m a big believer in the what if.

That’s a very long time in the future, five thousand years.Did you feel that you captured the changes that you’d have in technology and all that sort of thing over that amount of time?

I think a lot of people would say, “Why isn’t it more fantastic?” Well, people forget how fantastic things are right now. For example, we now communicate as fast as it is possible to communicate on a planet. We have essentially pretty much instantaneous communication—if we have the technology. but the ability is there—anywhere on the planet. We can get to any place on the planet in a matter of hours. There’s not that much difference in terms of the culture and the society between, even if we had matter transporters, between instantly and a few hours. There is a huge difference between a few hours and weeks or months, as was once the historical case. You can analogize all of these things to, there’s only so much further ahead you can go with technology. You can’t talk any faster than instantaneously, and it takes a certain amount of energy, no matter what you want to do to create things.

Theoretically, we could, I suppose, put together food replicators that could create anything from constituent elements, but the technology and the energy required…well, with that, it’s a heck a lot cheaper to simply go to Natural Foods. I don’t think you’re going to see changes in those things. So, basically, yes the society I postulated is much further ahead. I did suspect that the Chinese, and I did this in 2010 before this became well known, that the Chinese would find a way to, shall we say co-opt the Internet, and pretty much move into a world spy state. And I also postulated that certain parts of the world would not be at that point inhabitable for various reasons.

I also wondered if part of what you were going for was that it is a very static society. The federation is very static and doesn’t seem likely to evolve very quickly if at all, which I suppose is also a feature of Chinese Imperial States over the centuries.

Well, it’s not only Chinese Imperial States, but I mean, if you go back to ancient Egypt, which was in essence a water empire, that actually is the longest period of maintaining a similar government structure in human history that we know of. It’s actually outlasted the Chinese. I mean, yes, there are pharaohs, and you have the first dynasty and the second, all of these various dynasties, but basically, governmental structure in Egypt stayed pretty much the same from like 4,500 B.C. through the time of when the Romans finally conquered it, and even into Tomake ? Egypt it was somewhat similar.

How do stories tend to come to you?

Sometimes it’s just thinking about thing but probably a lot of it comes from the fact that I still study a huge amount of both history and technology. My wife laughs. She says that every time the mailman comes to our house he heaves a sigh of relief, because of the amount of periodicals we take. I admit that I like print periodicals because I can browse them at odd places at odd times. I think I take three archeology magazines, a couple of history magazines, and a lot of technology magazines, economic magazines. Of course, my wife takes all sorts of music periodicals and I read them all. I’m not sure I could say, oh, gee, this story came from this particular point.

I think the best resource that an author can have is a well-educated subconscious. We don’t remember all of it consciously. You can maybe call it up, but you don’t remember everything that you read. But I’m convinced that your subconscious, or your latent memory, if you will, remembers most of it, and the more stuff you pile in there the more likely you are, at least I believe so, to come up with good ideas.

Do you read a lot of other fiction or do you mostly read non-fiction?

At one point, even before I started writing, I was probably reading four to six hundred science fiction books a year. Right now, it’s more like 40 to 50. Most of my reading is non-fiction. Now I’m fortunate. I can I can read very quickly and I can retain most of what I read. which I find is a tremendous advantage.

With that initial idea in mind for any book, how do you go about shaping the world? Do you set out a plot and the characters develop, or how does the process work for you?

Well, it varies a little bit from book to book, but in general I tend to start with the world, the structure of the society, the religion, the environment, those factors, because they shape an awful lot of what you can do with the book. Resources are a factor. How do you get them? Where are they? Who controls them? Geography and obviously religious or belief structures, those shape people and people shape government. And I come up with those sorts of governments.

I mean, it’s not monolithic. When you look at the Recluse series, which is my biggest series, it set across over 2.000 years. And in the course of the 20-plus volumes, there are ,stories set on five different continents and more than 20 countries and the government systems that I have in those countries vary tremendously.There are military matriarchies, trading councils, hereditary monarchies, various other structures, an imperial structure in one particular case, based a lot on their past history and also the cultures and the geographies there.

Do you write all of this down before you start? Do you take copious notes and outline and do a detailed synopsis?

I don’t do synopses. I do have a set of notes when I’m doing a fantasy. I have a rather large-scale, rather large and rather messy, scale map of the countries and the world that I’m working in. I’m very big on scale maps because when I was younger, I got really irritated at writers who over the course of a book had the same journey take quite varying times without any changes in the climate or the cargo or what have you. So I try and be fairly accurate about that. I try and set up a structure that fits and then work within it.

Do you set out the plot in detail before you begin, or does a lot of that happen as you write?

I know pretty much the beginning and the ending. How I get there is something that I have to work out as I go along because you got to work. I mean, there are times when I have gotten to a point in the book and I’ve thought, well I thought this character was gonna do that, but the way I’ve written this character, he or she is not going to act that way. And so, I’ll have to figure out another way for that character to get to that, given their character.

Well, speaking of characters, how do they arrive on the scene to you? How do you decide what characters you need, and then how do you go about bringing them to life?

A lot of that depends. I mean, it’s the chicken and the egg thing. A lot of that depends on the structure and what you’re trying to do. In the first book of the Recluce Saga, I was thinking about Lerris in terms of a very bright but almost Asperger’s-like clueless young man, who was goodhearted. The reason why it was written in the first person, past tense, rather than the third person is, if I’d written in the third person, Lerris would have come off as the most obnoxious self-centered young man you could possibly imagine. He wasn’t. He was good hearted, essentially clueless and dense about a lot of things, but yoou wouldn’t be able to see that from the outside. So that’s one of the ways where the character defines the structure. In other cases, I mean, if you go to Adiamante, which is one of my science fiction novels, it was actually taken from life in a way. An acquaintance of ours in his, shall we say, late middle age, suddenly lost his wife to a fast-moving form of cancer and I started thinking about what would that be like. And then I put it in a science fiction setting, and so it’s really a science fiction novel about a man in either late middle age or early old age who’s had a certain amount of power in the past and is called on to deal with a very difficult situation, because of that expertise, And how he deals with it is intertwined with, call it his grief, and his understanding of where he’s been.

So that’s another way of bringing a character into a story. Soprano Sorceress from the Spellsong Cycle is a music fantasy set in what I would call a Germanic misogynistic society, and I came up with that particular idea because I was thinking about how well today singers are trained (because my wife is a singer and trains them) and what would happen if you had a society governed by song magic, and a lot of things fell into place there because one of the things I realized was even if you had song magic you’re not going to have very many sorcerers or sorceresses. And the reason for this is a confluence of two events that everybody overlooks. First, to really train somebody well as a singer, you really have to train them young. I mean, basically, after puberty and before 30. Second, that’s the most self-centred time in human existence. And if you are going to give somebody the power that could kill you…you’re going to be very careful about who you train. Then you add to this an outside sorceress from our world who’s got all those abilities in a misogynistic society. Well I thought it would make for an interesting conflict and it did.

So, it sounds like a lot of your stories actually arise because of the interplay of the character with the world that you’ve created.

Exactly. But I mean, that’s life. Everything we do is created by the interplay of the character with society and what goes on.

Do you do a detailed character sketch, or does it arise more organically as you write?

I think more I have a feel for the character to begin with. Call it a sense of who he or she is. Then I fill in some of the details and then we start filling in the society and the conflicts. And it goes from there.

A lot of writers—it’s happened to me—will put in a character simply because, for example, there needs to be view of something the readers need to know about and the main character is elsewhere, and that character then turns into a more major character than anticipated. Does that sort of thing happen to you?

I can’t say that it happens in that fashion, although there have been some characters who were minor characters in one book that I thought, “I really want to find out more about this character,” and so I wrote a book about them.

And usually if you want to find out more about the character the reader wants to find out about the character, too, so that works out.

What does your actual writing process look like? Do you write by hand? Do you write on a computer, do you write on a typewriter?  Do you write in an office or in a coffee shop? How does that work for you?

Okay. One, I do not write long hand, I’m left handed. I probably wasn’t trained properly in penmanship. And I get writer’s cramp after 200 words writing longhand. I started writing on a typewriter when I was 15 years old, just for school and what have you. I moved to computers as soon as computers had enough memory to accommodate my style of writing. I write on a computer. In terms of schedule, my wife laughs when people ask, do I have time for writing. She just says, “He writes anytime he can, which is pretty much all the time.” But to be fair about this, I don’t neglect her, because when I proposed to her, I said, “Well, you know, I need time to write. And her reaction was really simple. She just started laughing, and when she finished laughing, she said, “You are going to have more time to write than you have have ever had in your life. And she was right, because basically, she is a classically trained lyric soprano who’s done some work in opera, but she basically runs the university opera program and the voice program, and her schedule is 9 to 10 in the morning until 7 to 11 at night, depending on the time of year. She was right. I have plenty of time to write.

And you’re quite prolific. You’ve done as many as two or three books a year haven’t you?

I’ve averaged two and a half books a year for the last 20-plus years.

That makes me wonder what your revision process looks like. Do you have a very clean manuscript when it’s finished? Do you have to go back and do a lot of rewriting? Do you use beta readers?  How does that work for you?

Actually, according to my editors, I turn to a very clean manuscript. I revise continuously as I am writing and then I generally revise again after I’ve finished with the first draft of the manuscript, which is a little misleading, because there are probably some parts of that manuscript that written a dozen times before I finally finish it.

Revisions for me are both fun and by far the easiest part of the process.

As far as editorial revisions, I’ve had the same process with both of my editors, and I’ve only had two editors in the entire time I’ve been in the field. One was David Hartwell, who was my editor from my first book until his death a couple of years ago, and the second is my current editor Jen Gunnels, who was David’s assistant, and I’ve been working for her for about a year and a half before David died and she and I worked together well so I just stayed with her. But in terms of dealing with the editors, I’ve always had a very simple formula. Find anything you can that’s wrong with the manuscript. Tell me what it is. Don’t tell me how to fix it. Just tell me what the problem is. If I can’t fix it, then we’ll talk. In 40 years I’ve never had to have the second conversation.

You’re at 70-some books at this point aren’t you?

Seventy-three published, three more that will be published in the next year and a half.

Do you do a lot of research along the way?

Yes and no. I do a lot of research, but a lot of the research I’ve done in advance, just simply by all the things that I read. Every once in a while, I’ll have to look up something to make sure that I’ve remembered it or I’ve gotten the details correct.

It’s been said that all men are collectors. I don’t know if this is true, but an awful lot of men I know collect things. I don’t. What I collect is information. I love information. I love learning about things and I think I probably always will. And as an author, it serves me very well.

One of the things about Hazethat this struck me was, you know, we talk about science fiction as a literature of ideas, and it seemed to me that one of the things you were doing in Hazewas offering different views of how society might work, and bouncing these off of each other, through things like freedom and individual responsibility and empire and what happens when societies of different technological abilities clash. Is that kind of a feature of your work?

I’m not sure my work would exist without that. I’m always bouncing various ideas of how people respond to duty. responsibility. political structures. beliefs. I guess in a lot of ways that’s really what I do.

Well, certainly in Haze it comes through quite a lot with the difference between the Federation and the society on the planet.

One thing I would say is that the conflict that you that you’re talking about is a little stronger in my science fiction. It’s a little more subterranean, a little deeper and a little quieter in the fantasy, but it’s there.

How does it break down for you between science fiction and fantasy right now, in numbers of books?

We’re talking, with the ones I’ve turned in 29 science fiction novels, and 45 fantasy novels. In recent years it’s been more than two to one fantasy to science fiction.

Do you find an overlap in your readership between the two? Or do you find you have a science fiction readership and a fantasy readership?

Actually, I’d say I have three readerships. I have a science fiction readership, a fantasy readership, and a readership that does both.

There are definitely more fantasy readers. Sometimes the science fiction readers get a little irritated and say why don’t you write more science fiction stuff instead of that fantasy stuff.

I was on a panel recently at CanCon in Ottawa, talking about the challenges of writing series. Do you find that continuity and keeping everything straight becomes difficult as a series expands?

It’s difficult, but I’m not sure it becomes more difficult the way I do it. I think it would be very difficult done the way the Wheel of Time was done, but most of my series are not exactly series in what one would consider the traditional thing What I mean by that is, the Recluce series is now something like 22 books, but with one exception, there are no more than two books and sometimes only one book about one character. In a lot of ways, the continuing factor in Recluce is the world and the cultures, not the characters. Same thing is true of the Imager Portfolio. There is, in essence, a trilogy, followed by a five-book series about a different character, and then two two-book series. Spellsong Cycle, three about one character, two about another character. The Corean Chronicles was three, three, and two. So I have to keep the world consistent, but I don’t have quite as much to do with keeping the characters consistent over a long arc.

Do you have to go back and reread books when you go back into a series after you’ve written something else?

A little bit, but not a huge amount. Once I get it get back into a series it seems like most of the main threads and the pieces come back to me. I mean, I often have to check up on little details, particularly if I’ve got minor character that carries through the books. Usually with the major characters I can remember, and I have notes on them.

The name of this podcast is The Worldshapers. One of the things I’d like to ask all the guests is, do you hope that your fictional worlds will help shape the real world in some fashion? What impact, if any, would you like your fiction to have on the real world, or at least on your readers within the real world?

That’s one of the reasons why I write, because we tend to get bogged down in the real world, and I speak from almost 20 years in national U.S. politics. When you bring up a problem in the context of the real world, people get hung up with their tribe, they get hung up with everything around them. When you take that same problem and you put it in a fictional world or a fantasy world or a future world, people can look at the problem far more objectively and think, oh, there might be another way to deal with this.

I had a rather hard lesson with this very earlier in my career. With Bruce Levinson, we wrote a book called The Green Progression, and it actually got a review from the Washington Times that said it was one of the best views of contemporary politics ever written. It’s also one of the worst -selling books that Tor ever published. And to me that just proves the point. People really don’t want to look hard and fast at the current political structure, at their beliefs and how they affect the current political structure. They’re locked into it by their neighbors, their culture, their friends. You take the same problem and you put it in a fictional world, they’re much more open minded about it, and I hope somehow that some of what I do in that sense will help people look at these problems in a different light.

Have you had any feedback from readers to that effect?

I have. I’ve had more than a few people say that they wish I had either stayed in politics or got back gotten back into it. But no.

The other big question that I like to ask is very basic, and that is simply, why do you write? Why do you think any of us write? In particular, what do you think is the appeal of writing within the science fiction and fantasy genres, for you, and for anyone?

I don’t know that I can speak to anybody else. I write because I have to write. I wouldn’t be complete without writing. And that’s very selfish, but I try and leaven that with hopefully entertaining people and making them think. One of the things I try and leave all readers with in any of my books is at least a shred of hope, if not more.

There’s certainly a lot of fiction out there that seems to go the other way.

Yeah, and some of it’s very well written, but that’s just not my cup of tea. I think that, especially now, there’s way too much gloom, doom, and despair, and a lot of it is justified, but in the fictional world, I’d just like to give people shreds of hope, and sometimes more.

You’ve talked about in at least one interview I read about how important telling a good story is. Why did what do you think the appeal is of story to people? Why are we so interested in stories?

Because human beings are anecdotal. We have trouble with statistics. We’re innately number hampered. And we don’t really like facts. Stories are what we think about. Stories are what influence us. I can’t tell you why, but I know it’s so. Stories are what motivates us, and I’d like to be one of those doing some of the motivating.

What are you working on now?

I just turned in a very far-future hard science-fiction…actually, it’s a hard science-fantasy novel…entitled Quantum Shadows. The subtitle is Forty-Five Ways of Looking at a Raven.  That’s because every one of the 45 chapters is prefaced by a couplet to the Raven. who is one of the main characters. So that’s what  just happened.

Forty-Five Ways of Looking at a Raven sounds like a poetry book title.

Well, that’s why the subtitle. That’s why Quantum Shadows is the novel title. But there are only 45 couplets and I have 93,000 words. I think readers can deal with 45 couplets.

Currently I’m writing another Recluce book. It’s about a new character that nobody’s seen, so I don’t want to say much about it because I’ve only written about 65,000 words and I means I have another 120,000 words to go.

What will be the very next thing that’s published?

The next thing that will be published is the last book in the Imager Porfolio. That’s End Games and it’ll be out February 5 of next year (2019). After that, next August (2019) will be the Mage Fire War, which is the third book about Beltur in the Recluce Saga. And then after that’ll be Quantum Shadows.

And all published by Tor.

Right. As a matter of fact, my first two books were published by other publishers, but all my books are now under Tor and have been for 30 some years.

You said you’ve only ever worked with two editors. It sounds like you’ve had good experience with your editors.

I can’t tell you how fortunate I am that Jen and I get along and she pretty much followed in a lot of ways the example set by David, but I also realized something rather amusing about the whole thing. Most people don’t know that David, although he’s been a fixture in science fiction for years, most people outside of the inside don’t realize that he also had a PhD in comparative medieval literature, and what’s interesting here is that Jen has a PhD in theater history. So, I may be one of the few novelists who’s been edited by academic PhDs who are also very strong on science fiction and fantasy.

I think it has made it a lot easier for me dealing with them, because I tend to…let’s put it this way: there is a lot of subterranean depth in what I write, and it’s helpful to have editors who can recognize it.

 

Episode 3: John Scalzi

An hour-long talk with bestselling, award-winning science fiction author John Scalzi about how and why he writes, focusing on his latest novel, The Collapsing Empire.

The Introduction:

John Scalzi was born in California in 1969 and currently lives in Bradford, OH. He studied philosophy at the University of Chicago, which is where he began his freelance writing career. He wrote film reviews and was a newspaper columnist for a few years, and in 1996 was hired by AOL as its in-house writer and editor. He wrote his first novel, Agent to the Stars, in 1997 and published it free on his website in 1999. His first published novel, Old Man’s War, also appeared first on his blog (serialized a chapter a day) in 2002. Tor Books purchased it, publishing it commercially in 2005, and it went on to win the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer. Since then, John has won numerous awards, including the Hugo, the Locus, the Audie, the Seiun and the Kurd Lasswitz, plus the 2016 Governor’s Award for the Arts in Ohio. His work regularly appears on the New York Times bestseller list for fiction.

He also remains involved in the film and gaming worlds: he’s the creative consultant for the Stargate Universe television series, the writer for the video game Midnight Star, by Industrial Toys, and executive producer for Old Man’s War and The Collapsing Empire, both currently in development for television. He served as president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America from 2010 to 2013. He’s married and has a daughter and “several pets.”

Website: scalzi.com

Twitter: @scalzi

John Scalzi’s Amazon page

The Show:

First, we establish that your genial host was literally the first person John met in science fiction and fantasy besides his editor, Patrick Nielsen Hayden: we were on a panel together at the 2003 Toronto WorldCon on the topic (if we remember right) of other ways to make money writing besides writing fiction.

John traces his interest in science fiction back to childhood reading, specifically mentioning Robert A. Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky as one of the first SF books he remembers.

He notes that when, in his twenties, he decided to write a novel, “just to find out if I could,” he had to decide between two genres he was equally comfortable with, science fiction and mystery, and literally flipped a coin: heads SF, tails mystery. “It’s a weird sort of inflection point.” If it had come up tails, he wonders how different his life would have been, because “so many of the people that I know and like are in science fiction.”

He adds that SF is capacious enough you can write whatever you want, and he’s gone on to write a couple of what are essentially science-fiction mystery novels, Lock In and Head On.

John says he first realized he could do interesting things with words when, in sixth grade, a teacher asked him to write a letter to the news department of a local station because he wanted to get publicity for something he was doing and thought a letter from a student would get more attention than he would. He told John, “I want you to do this because you are good with words.”

In his ninth-grade English composition class, tasked to write a short story on the theme of gifts, he trashed what he’d first attempted and ended up, late on the last night, typing up a lightly fictionalized true-life story about his friends getting together: the gift they gave was their love for each other. (“Awww…”)

When that story, which he had slammed together at the last moment, was the only one in three sections of the class to get an A, he realized writing was something he could do well and relatively easily, whereas everything else–math, history, whatever–was difficult. And so, at the age of fourteen, he decided, “That’s it, I’m going to be a writer,” largely driven by the principle of least effort for maximum return. “The disappointing thing for me later was to find writing isn’t in fact easy, that you do in fact have to work at it, by then it was too late.”

He adds, “I have no other skills. The only other thing I would be good at would be Wal-Mart greeter.”

He kind of fell into his philosophy degree (he was undecided, but discovered he’d taken enough philosophy courses to graduate sooner than if he’d gone for, say an English degree), and agrees it doesn’t have a lot of real-world utility, but feels it has had value in his work. He says philosophy teaches you how to learn, and how to think more deeply about things, useful in writing science fiction.

He adds, “We like to call science fiction the literature of ideas, but I think really what it is is the literature of consequences. It’s not so much about the aliens arriving or robots coming, but the consequence of those arrivals that we write about in science fiction.”

Fun fact: Saul Bellow was briefly John’s thesis advisor.

John says coming up with ideas for novels aren’t the hard part; the hard part is distinguishing the good from the terrible. If he has an idea, he doesn’t write it down. If he remembers it the next day he thinks about it some more. If he remembers it in a month, even more. “It’s a vicious process because I’m absent-minded and forget a lot of things. For something to stay in my brain, it has to interest me.”

What interested him and led to The Collapsing Empire was the importance of ocean currents and the jets stream to European colonialism between 1400-1800. If those currents had altered, making it far more difficult or important for Europeans to sail to other continents, he wondered, “What would have happened to European colonialism, and consequently the rest of thew world?”

He gives a synopsis of The Collapsing Empire, which is about an interdependent network of worlds that rely on a natural phenomenon called the Flow, which permits interstellar travel. The Interdependency (as it’s called) finds itself in serious trouble as the Flow begins to collapse, cutting worlds off from the rest of humanity.  “When humans are confronted with natural things that actually don’t care about human’s plans one way or the other, how do they dal with that?” He notes that has parallels in both the past and the present.

John begins building characters from archetypes. He knew he needed someone at the very top (the emperox, Cardenia), someone at eye-level (the scientist, Marce, a.k.a. “exposition guy”), and a “wild card” (Kiva). Once he knew he needed those types of characters, then he began to develop their personalities.

“I’m a huge fan of all the characters, which is nice because I had to write them.”

He notes writing Kiva in particular was “a heck of a lot of fun,” although you have to be careful or characters like that can take over the book. “Characters like Kiva are the spice, rather than necessarily the main dish.”

I noted that his approach to developing characters seemed filmic–starting with archetypes, working down–and asked if his long interest in and observation of film ties into the way he plots and writes.

John said, “Absolutely.” He notes Old Man’s War very clearly has a three-act cinematic structure, because that was a storytelling grammar he was used to not only from watching films but from analyzing them during more than a decade of writing film criticism. “In many ways my storytelling school was not really novels, it was film.” He also notes that his novels are “dialogue-heavy,” something else that comes from film.

He doesn’t anticipate writing any of the scripts for the Old Man’s War and The Collapsing Empire TV adaptations, since he doesn’t have any concrete experience in the field. However, he notes his experience as a reviewer, and hence familiarity with other screen adaptations, has made it easier for him to talk to producer–unlike some authors, he understands that the filmic version of a story and the novel version are very different, and changes have to be made to make the former work as well as the latter.

Adaptations shouldn’t be slavish, he says, but should be “intelligent,” leveraging “the strengths of the film medium to tell the story in a way that lives in that particular medium.”

He has written a screenplay adaptation of his novella The Dispatcher as an exercise and has received positive feedback on it, and does hope o write a script or screenplay in the future.

There is a brief aside about the alien lifeforms making mewing noises in the background.

Asked if he rewrites, John says, no, not in the sense of finishing a draft and then rewriting it from the beginning: he does “rolling rewrites,” so when he gets to the end, he’s done.

Two reasons:  as a former journalist, “where you have write a couple of thousand words every few days and it’s all due at 3 p.m. and you have to write clean copy,” he learned to organize his thoughts as he wrote.

As well, he says, he thinks the revision process is dictated by the instruments people use. Those who write, or first wrote, by hand or typewriter,  tend to do drafts. He’s only ever written on a computer, hence the rolling (or “fractal”) drafts. “By the time I get to the end, so much of what would have been first drafts or second drafts has already been subsumed in the writing process.”

He does a lot of research, but the Internet makes that “super easy.” He adds, however, that, “You have to be intelligent about it.”

Asked to comment on the concept of “worldshaping,” versus “worldbuilding,” he says that when writers create worlds what they are really doing is taking what they already know, introducing new highly speculative (and hopefully interesting elements), and then mashing them together to find out what comes out the other end. , mashing them together, finding out what comes out the other end.

” I would say I think both terms are equally applicable. I think the issue here might be degree than kind.”

He notes that, not only is it very difficult to create a completely new world, it would be a very hard book to sell, because there would be no hook there for the reader…and that’s important, because science fiction and fantasy writers are working “more or less in service to a commercial genre.” Writers have to think not only about what they want, but what editors and readers want.

“There’a reason why McDonald’s is hugely popular and molecular gastronomy is basically a niche project,” he says. “The number of people who want a hamburger is larger than those who want to question the nature of the food on their plate, and whether it is food or not.”

He points out that Old Man’s War is “Starship Troopers with old people,” a Heinlein juvenile with senior citizens. That was intentional, he says. He wanted to write a book that would sell, so he looked at what was popular at the time, which was military science fiction. So he decided, “I’m going to write a military science fiction book on my terms. I’m going to give people what they want, and then I’m going to give myself what I want, and then we’re going to see what works out.

Asked why he writes–or anyone writes–he says that self-expression is obviously the desire for all writers, but after that “things get varied very quickly.”

” I never once wrote in a journal,” John says, even though people gave him journals as he was growing up, thinking he was the kind of kid who would keep one. But, he says,  “I already knew what I was thinking. I didn’t need to write it down.”

Instead, he says, he only started writing when he had an audience. “For me, writing has always been an extroverted act, not just for myself, but primarily for other people to read.” The gratification it provides comes from the ability to make people feel things through the power of words: to persuade, and argue.

John says a lot of people start writing because they love the act itself, but for him, that’s a small component. He notes that he plays guitar just because he enjoys it, and takes photos for the same reason. But, he says, “Writing for me has always been about making a connection with other people, and not just making a connection…but influencing them in a particular way, making them laugh, making them cry, making them get angry when I feel angry.”

He says his writing has had an impact on the real world. Some things in his stories–like the enhanced artificial blood in Old Man’s War–has piqued the interest of real-life scientists. SF offers something few other genres do, he notes, in that people sometimes read about something in SF and think, “This is cool, I want this in the universe,”–and then they go out and build it.

His biggest impact has been through a couple of non-fiction pieces, he says. His essay “Being Poor,” written in response to people wondering why those affected by Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans didn’t just pack up and leave, “went everywhere.” It appeared in newspapers, it’s been put in textbooks, and it’s taught in classes. “That’s an example fo something I’ve seen go far and wide and have influence on the discussion.”

Another was an essay comparing life to a videogame, and arguing that in that metaphorical videogame, straight white men play at the “lowest difficulty setting.” It doesn’t mean they can’t still lose, it doesn’t mean the game is hard, but it isn’t as hard for them as for some others. He says that piece was an attempt “to explain privilege to people who hate the world privilege.”

He says that piece has also gone everywhere, and he hears people using that metaphor whom he’s quite certain have no idea that it originated with him. “it’s come into the common parlance when discussing privilege and intersectionality.”

John says it’s harder to say if anything he’s doing in SF will have any significant influence. “I don’t think you get to figure it out until you’ve been doing it for twenty or thirty years.” And, he adds, “If you’re sitting there saying, what abut my legacy, you won’t be focusing on what you’re doing now, which is writing stuff that is interesting and entertaining and makes people think today…you sit there and write the best work you can. If it gets remembered, that’s great, if it doesn’t, that’s fine, because right in the moment you are doing what you’re supposed to do, which is make people laugh, or cry, or think, or be entertained, and that in and of itself is a laudable goal.”